Taking a break from the Memory Warehouse this week, doing some recreational writing.
[Delius \\ On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring]
Barnacle Bill and the Night of Sighs
The First Part of the Tale
Life on the water comes to some people as naturally as breathing, yet to others, a life afloat comes upon them suddenly, rather like a fish pulled violently from the sea. Some are born into the life, pulled along in the undertow of a parent’s passage through life. Still others happen upon a new way of life – perhaps a chance encounter with the sea at one of life’s critical junctures and a sudden tide turns within.
I think, or perhaps I’d just like to think, that I followed in the wake of my father’s best intentions. He wanted, more than anything else in life, to be a sea captain, to sail a copra schooner between the islands of French Polynesia, running the mail and provisions to scattered European settlements among those far-flung islands. At least he told me as much when we sat in front of the television, watching reruns of an old show called Adventures in Paradise. Yet it was hard to reconcile his life, his life as it really happened, with that other life, a far distant life that came to reside only in his dreams.
After doing hard time at a small college in California, small of course being a relative term when anything in California is discussed, I ‘worked’ in Cherry Point, North Carolina for a while, then in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan, and yes, even Iraq, before finally cashing out and moving back home, to Santa Barbara. I guess I’d had dreams of my own once upon a time, even if they were little more than the distant echoes of my father’s, yet after he passed those dreams took on a peculiar note of urgency. So, a year later, after my mother passed, I had a decision to make: keep their house and inherit all his miseries, or sell out and try to find a new path forward. Perhaps one my Old Man would have taken – under the weight of other circumstances.
Which was how, not quite a year later, I found myself tied up at a slip on Seattle’s north side, wondering why I had just done what I’d done.
Marinas are, of course, full of boats. Some people call these things yachts, but such people are often misinformed, you might even say that they are misguided souls. Yachts are toys that rich people pick up to amuse themselves, while boats are anything but. Boats are expressions of the soul, and as stupid as this may seem, you can look at someone’s boat and tell a lot about their dreams. And aren’t dreams just expressions of the soul?
Stroll the periphery of any marina anywhere in the States and you’ll find a breathtaking cross-section of the people who live here. In slips closer to shore you’ll find small powerboats good for an afternoon on the water, sometimes laying next to small sailboats – the owners of which often dream of fitting out their little boats to cross oceans and explore different shores. I’ll leave it to your imagination to decide who owns which, but it isn’t hard to make out the two types.
As you walk out the pier you run across larger boats in the fractionally deeper water; larger motorboats designed for fishing and the occasional overnight trip, and these reside next to real blue-water passage-makers, sailboats purpose built to cross vast oceans in relative comfort. The people on these boats have moved beyond the dutiful dreamer stage, too; they have decided to make the leap and are preparing to follow their dreams.
Walk even further out this imaginary pier of the mind and into the really deep water and you might run across a real yacht or two, but out here the old maxim still applies: if you have to ask how much these dreams costs you can’t afford them. Among the yachts out here you’ll also find the playthings of the idle rich, racy looking boats that for all the world remind you of penile implants. These toys change hands regularly, and yacht brokers salivate when these people walk in the door. Yet strange yachts appear out here from time to time, and strange things come to pass where dreams meet the full light of day.
I was tied off in this middle section, and wondering just how the hell I could justify my new, uprooted and disjointed way of life. I had been retired not even two years, and ‘confirmed bachelor’ fit my worldview to a T; I’d never been married and, as I thought bringing one more child into the world nothing less than a grievous felony, you could say that I was more than content to live out the rest of my life alone.
Well, not quite alone.
At the time I lived with Max. Max was then a not quite two year old Golden Retriever, and I think you could safely say that he liked people a good deal more than I did. He trusted people, even strangers, whereas I had never been able to make that leap of faith, and Max positively doted on women. I mean he loved them beyond all reason, and there were times I thought he simply couldn’t get enough of them.
We all have our failings, I guess.
When a new woman appeared on our pier Max would sit bolt upright, his nose pointed into the wind, scanning the walkway that passed in front of our new home. When this new woman appeared his tail would start swishing away, then he would look at me – willing me to get down on all fours and assume the position: nose forward, tail straight out, and to get ready to pounce and retrieve.
But a few minutes later he would slink back into the cockpit and slump down beside me in utter despair. Resting his muzzle on my thigh, he would do his level best to ignore me after that – for at least five minutes, anyway – then all was forgiven and it was time to move on again. And that was why I had chosen to live with Max, and those of his kind, whenever I could.
But into every marina a little rain must fall, and in our marina this rain took on the form of an eccentric old soul who most referred to as Barnacle Bill. I assume his name might have been William, or even just plain Bill, but that would be an unwarranted assumption. Barnacle Bill appeared to be in his 70s, but given this lifestyle he might have been forty. Or eighty. You just couldn’t tell, even when he spoke – which is to say he spoke gently, if at all, and he sounded British. Not English, mind you, but very British.
He was white-haired and as thin as a reed, with skinny legs and knobby knees that had been operated on, and he usually walked – with great difficulty, I might add – to and from his yacht in bare feet.
And yes. I did say yacht.
For Barnacle Bill lived on one. A big one. A seriously big fucker, as a matter of fact. Whether he owned the thing or resided somewhere down in the bilge was a matter of some debate around the marina, but one thing was certain. No matter the time of day, be it seven in the morning or coming up on midnight, Barnacle Bill smelled like he’d just finished a bottle of rum.
Or perhaps it was just his after shave. I never figured that one out.
He wore old khaki shorts and always had on a worn out polo shirt, but his shirts were always white. If the sun was out he had on Wayfarers, and while there was a stainless steel Rolex Submariner on his wrist I never saw him look at the thing. When he walked by in shoes you would invariably see grey felt Stedmann clogs that looked disreputably old, and on those rare occasions when he walked up to a large, white tricycle that had baskets front and rear, he would pedal off to a nearby market in search of fresh vegetables and salmon fresh off the boat.
His yacht, for, as I have said, it was indeed a yacht, was tied off at the end of my pier, and the thing looked like something out of time, a huge thing from a bygone era, and again, I assumed, like we all did, that the yacht couldn’t possibly belong to him. Dark grey hull, varnished mahogany superstructure and acres and acres of teak everywhere else you looked, the yacht also had two hideously tall masts that stood taller than the tallest pines in the nearby forest. The name of the yacht, Haiku, seemed to fit the man perfectly, though I’d be hard-pressed to tell you why.
Every now and then a woman visited, but she rarely remained onboard for more than an hour, and what transpired while she was there was anyone’s guess.
When I bought my boat, which I dutifully named the Tiki IV, the brokerage helped secure my slip in this particular marina, and the location was a good fit for my immediate needs. Though she was new, Tiki IV needed a few odds and ends to let her be handled by me, myself, and I, and it was thought the additions would only take a few weeks to complete.
And yes, I actually believed that.
But when you’ve been around boats long enough you soon realize that “a few weeks” can mean anywhere from a month to a year, but usually somewhere in between. You need to be, in other words, flexible. Or not ‘time challenged’ – in the current vernacular. You also need to understand that when you are quoted a price for a project, the final cost will be twice what was originally quoted.
At a minimum.
If you’re lucky.
Yet that did not appear to be the case where Haiku was concerned. If something wasn’t running ‘just so’ the appropriate tradesmen were mysteriously summoned and their work invariably completed in record time, and the old man in his khaki shorts and white polo shirt would shuffle by in his felt clogs as if all was right in the world. Because in his world things most certainly were. You could count on that.
And then one day there he was. Barnacle Bill, standing beside my cockpit looking up at me. There was an odd twinkle in his eye, and it was the damndest thing I’d ever seen in my life, but then again, so was his smile.
“You’re the pilot, right?” he asked, his eyes smiling.
“That depends,” I replied.
“Oh? On what, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“If you want me to fly down to Mexico to pick up drugs, then fuck off. All other inquiries cheerfully accepted.”
His head bobbed back fractionally, quizzically, then his smile deepened just a tad. “I see,” he said – as his eyes settled on Max. “No, no drugs involved. Does he bite?”
“The dog? Or me?”
“You’re a rather stand-offish prick, aren’t you?”
“That’s the rumor,” I replied. Our eyes were locked-on now, as if we had suddenly engaged in a duel to the death. “Is there something I could do for you?” I added, reluctantly, and certainly not out of an abundance of caution, or even guilt.
“I am going to Chinook’s tomorrow for lunch, and wanted to know if you’d care to join me.”
Not at all knowing what to say, let alone how to say it, of course I smiled and said something polite like “Of course,” but to tell you the truth I can’t remember what I said – because by that point Max had stood and hopped down to the dock. And this Max had never done before. But worse still, Max stood on his legs and stretched his hands out and placed them on the Old Man’s chest. “I’m so sorry,” I said, hopping out of the cockpit and down onto the dock. “Max? What’s gotten into you?”
But the Old Man leaned over, and Max tentatively scented him before he licked his chin.
“Now that’s a good fella,” the Old Man cooed soothingly as he rubbed the sides of Max’s face, and just under the ears where he loved it most. And then he looked up at me and smiled again. “How does eleven-thirty suit you? I like to get there early, before the crowds.”
And I seem to recall saying that would be fine – but really, I just don’t remember. The moment is lost now, gone in the shuffling of dreams.
He came by at exactly eleven-thirty. Very prompt, and quite jolly, too – given the circumstances. Max hopped down and joined us as we walked up to the parking lot and over to a little car hiding under a tan protective cover, and the Old Man unwrapped an ancient Porsche Targa, then he folded the cover and tossed it behind his seat before asking Max to hop in and take a seat.
And here I have to back-up a little.
Max was usually confined to quarters when I left the boat, but the Old Man assured me it would be fine if Max joined us – yet I had my doubts. Max was just two and hardly what most people would considered trained, and let’s not even mention that he lived to chase seagulls – and females of any breed. Getting him on a leash was usually a two handed chore as that usually meant we were headed up to the Golden Gardens dog park for one of our hours long walks – but not when the Old Man showed up that morning. Max was docile yet smiled all the way to the restaurant’s parking lot, and he walked between us through the restaurant and out to their patio.
And the Old Man had apparently called ahead as there was a plate of thinly sliced salmon ready and waiting on the table. An adorable young thing came by and kissed him on the cheek before she handed me a menu and, I wondered, what other surprises might be lying in wait this morning? He never ordered yet a plate of salmon sashimi appeared out of nowhere, along with a vanishingly small Caesar salad, and whenever Max asked the Old Man slipped him a thick slice of the fatty salmon.
“So, you flew the EA-6B?” he said at one point, his eyes fixed on mine as he gauged my reaction. “Before you retired?”
“And you know this how?” I asked.
But he shrugged, and I’d like to say he did so playfully but you could never be sure with that guy. Nothing, I soon learned, was ever what it seemed where he was concerned. “Oh, I guess I heard someone talking on the dock,” he finally said.
Which was a meaningless diversion – as I’d never mentioned flying, and hadn’t since my retirement – and I told him exactly that.
And the old bastard had simply shrugged and smiled again, then turned and given Max another slice of salmon. “You were with VMAQ-4, weren’t you? In February of ’13?”
“And you’re beginning to piss me off,” I think I said.
“I was responsible for sending you to Kamchatka. I thought you should know.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I might have said, but by that point I think I actually wanted to kill the bastard.
But he shrugged one more time, then he looked away: “Everyone that moves into the marina, well, I’ve made my share of enemies over the years and you can never be too careful.”
“Do you? Splendid.” He reached out and rubbed Max’s chin, a move that was guaranteed to send him into barrel rolls of bliss, then he looked at me once again. “I was married to a Japanese girl, you see, yet I was British Intelligence. I lived a complicated life.”
“And now here you are, living on a boat in Seattle.”
“Some circumstances are beyond our control.”
“Circumstances? What the hell does that mean…?”
“How is your crab? I hear it’s good here?”
“You’ve never tried it?”
“No. I’m on a rather strict diet. Low carbohydrates, no sugars.”
He nodded. “Vicious stuff, but with effort you can stay one step ahead of the curve.”
“I see. So, Haiku. Are you going out, or just living aboard?”
“I’m not quite sure yet. Time will tell.”
“No dog of your own?” I asked.
And he shook his head. “Seems unfair to me. Some days I can barely walk up to the parking lot, and I think such a life would be cruel for a pup.”
“Go to a shelter. Find an older pup with arthritis.”
“My mom volunteered at a shelter in Santa Barbara. Dad insisted, because she kept bringing strays home.”
“So you’ve always had dogs in your life?”
“Within the obvious limitations, yes.”
“Yes, always on the move. He seems a good friend.”
“Max? Oh, he’s the best.”
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
“I think we’ll do the coconut run, but nothing’s set in stone.”
“My dad and I always dreamt of going to Polynesia, sailing the islands.”
“Just you and Max?”
He smiled. “Romantic, even though it’s illegal.”
“What do you mean, illegal?”
“Single-handing by definition means you can’t stand a proper watch, so you’ll not be able to secure insurance for the longer, offshore passages. No insurance means you can’t clear into France, which the islands belong to, of course.”
“Haven’t done your homework yet, I take it?”
“I guess not.”
“Bureaucrats rule the entire world these days, but I guess you know that. I hear there are a few companies that will underwrite single-handers, but their policies are quite expensive and very limited in scope. You’d do far better, I think, to run down to a shelter and pick up a wife. Perhaps one without arthritis?”
He was of course enjoying himself immensely; if eyes could laugh his were rolling on the floor. “Point taken,” I remember muttering – just under my breath.
“Ah, well, just one more thing to add to the list. Funny how our lists grow and grow.” He passed another slab of salmon to Max, then rubbed his chin again. Max was, of course, not taking his eyes off the Old Man now – not even for a second.
“How’s your salad,” I asked.
“Marie makes a special Caesar dressing for me. No sugar means no lemon, and of course I crave lemon now. I could bathe in the stuff and not be happier.”
“So, what’s stopping you?”
“Indeed. That is the question. Fear of death, I think, more than anything else. But that’s hardly original, I suppose.”
“Doesn’t have to be original to hurt…say, I hate to ask, but I don’t know your name.”
“No, you don’t. And technically, I suppose, I don’t know yours.”
I nodded. “And I reckon you want to keep it that way, don’t you?”
Oh, how those eyes laughed.
The next day, more out of curiosity than anything else, Max and I walked out the pier to the Old Man’s yacht. To look it over, you might say. To say the design was austere was an understatement, yet her lines were defiantly elegant. The antithesis of almost all modern sailboats – with their fat sterns and plumb bows, Haiku reminded me of an old J boat from the ‘20s – the 1920s. Low freeboard and gallant overhangs, her decks were teak and her coachroofs were varnished mahogany, and all the deck hardware, every bit of it, was bronze polished to a golden sheen. As Max and I walked along admiring her, I couldn’t help but wonder how much this beast had cost.
But just then the Old Man appeared, walking out the pier from the parking lot, and he had a small package wrapped in white paper in his hand. Salmon, no doubt. And he didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see us, either.
“And how is Max today,” the Old Man said as he walked up.
And yes, Max stood and licked the Old man’s chin again.
“That’s such a good boy,” he cooed. “Such a good boy.”
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “He’s usually not like this.”
“Of course he isn’t. But then again, if you walked up to him with two pounds of fresh salmon in hand you might be surprised what he might do.”
“I see your point.”
“So, what brings you out today?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, but I just had to take a look,” I said, my eyes lingering on Haiku’s bow.
“Bruce King drew her; she was built in Spain a few years ago.”
“What? She looks like something straight out of The Great Gatsby…”
“Thanks. I think that was his intent.”
“Again, I’m sorry.”
“For the intrusion.”
“The intrusion. Oh, my. Do I really seem so forbidding?”
I don’t know why, but in a way our being out there felt like an intrusion on his privacy – and this despite the fact that people were forever walking the docks looking at other sailor’s boats. At times it almost felt like an evening ritual, but there was something about the man and his yacht that seemed to scream out for privacy. Like it was a palpably physical need of his. So of course I apologized again and turned to leave.
But Max wasn’t buying it. He sat at the Old Man’s feet and wouldn’t budge.
And then the rascal just looked at me and smiled. “Is this what you call a Mexican standoff?” he said, his eyes smiling again.
If it was, perhaps that explained what came next. The Old Man walked back down the pier to Tiki IV – with my sorry-ass turncoat hound at his heels – and then he pointed to Tiki’s cockpit and told Max to sit up there and wait for his treat.
God damn dog!
Because of course Max hopped right up into the cockpit – something he had resolutely refused to do for me – and then he just sat there, grinning while he waited for his next slice of nirvana. And the Old Man opened his carefully wrapped package and picked up a rather large slice of salmon and gently passed it over to Max.
Who looked at me as if asking for my permission.
But then Max took the slice so gently I could scarcely believe he was my dog.
And so the Old Man gave him another slice, and another.
“If you keep this up,” I sighed, “I’ll never be able to afford to feed this dog again.”
“If he keeps this up,” he replied, “I won’t be having my supper tonight.”
We laughed and Max smiled, and when the Old Man saw that smile his resolve seemed to melt away. And so, there went the rest of his supper.
“Let me take you down to the Boathouse,” I said. “I don’t want your death from starvation hanging over my head…”
But he shook his head at my suggestion. “I’m beyond tired. Perhaps another time.”
“Assuming you survive the night, you mean.”
“Yes. Quite so. Now Max, you stay there with – oh, that’s right – I forgot, we’re on a no-name basis, aren’t we?”
“Call me Spud,” I offered.
“Ah, that’s right. That was your handle, wasn’t it? In the squadron, I mean.”
“Yes,” I sighed, still aggravated by the depth of his knowledge.
“And I’m just Pat, to my friends, anyway,” he tossed-in, as a kind of consolation prize. “Now Max, I’ve got to go now, but I’ll see you tomorrow.”
And as I watched him walk off, obviously without a care in the world, it struck me that he looked rather sad, and I’d say almost even lonely – but that would have been just a guess on my part. He seemed indecipherable, not merely enigmatic – like an obsidian wall lost in shadow. There was no way to tell what was inside the Old Man, or where the shadows and the black-hearted wall met.
But as we, Max and I, watched him walk out to Haiku we saw the strangest thing.
A great white bird circled overhead and at first I thought it was just another gull, but then the raptor spread it’s wings and slowed before it settled on one of Haiku’s mast’s spreaders, and then I could see that the bird was a large white owl. Rather enigmatic looking, too.
And as the creature settled-in up there on his perch the creature seemed to watch the Old Man for a while, but then it’s amber eyes turned to me, and to Max, and it would be difficult for me even now to describe what I felt in that moment. Whatever it was I felt, I was aware of a deep shiver running up my spine and into that part of the brain that commands you to run.
(c)2023 adrian leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, plain and simple
Okay, so on we go with the Ripley Chronicles. Time for some mischief, me thinks.
[Yes \\ That, That Is]
Yukio Matsushima sat to Ripley’s right, while Ina Balin slouched to his left, and Ripley was a little upset by the arrangement. After one more run-in with Balin, he was beginning to detest the woman, so he’d hoped that Gordon would keep her beyond arm’s length – in case he decided to reach out and strangle the hell-bitch over dinner. That, alas, would not be the case.
Brennan was seated at the far end of the table, while the remaining five Middies were crowded around the Admiral’s in-port cabin’s massive transparent glass wall – and they were looking at a pinpoint sized Earth and Moon receding behind Agamemnon and her support ships.
Yeoman Joan Carson had come from Hyperion and she rang the ship’s bell at precisely 1805 hours and called the room to order, and then Ripley walked into the cabin and sat. Maintaining .7Gs allowed normal meal service, but it also allowed for deferred shipboard maintenance routines to get underway, as well as the all important showering routine for those coming off watch, like Ripley. He noted that Balin smelled like a goat and scowled.
Carson had a spicy Phanaeng curry ready to go as soon as Ripley took the seat opposite Brennan’s, while the Middies literally dove for their seats and promptly sat at attention. This display of rank and fear, apparently, amused Balin to no end; she sat up in her chair and laughed openly at the Middies as they sat. “Oh, you children!” she said, her eastern European accent pronounced, “you sit so solemnly! We are no longer under acceleration so surely it is a time for smiles, no?”
Yukio smiled. “Yes, just so,” she said to Balin, as always wanting to keep everything calm and harmonious. “It must be difficult working on such a delicate instrument under these conditions?”
“Actually, I find this work easier in zero-G. I can get into and out of the chamber more easily, and I can work more efficiently in the confined space above the reactor shielding. It is under heavy acceleration that my work becomes impossible.”
Yukio smiled and bowed her head slightly, and Ripley studied the crusty old physicist closely while she spoke. What was she doing up here, he wondered. She had to be at least forty years old, ancient in relative terms, at least to the age of the crew onboard Agamemnon, and after reading her dossier she did not possess a single skill that others on her team did not. The obvious answer had to be that she was Mossad – but why would they want her onboard just now, and at this particular time? To learn more details of their mission before Agamemnon left the system? Possible…
Well, perhaps he would learn more this evening.
He turned to Lars Jansen, one of the new Midshipman from Stockholm. “So, what have you been learning this week, Lars?”
“Doppler velocity measurements in phase-sensitive holography, Admiral.”
“And have you made any observations yet?”
“Yes, Admiral,” he said, looking at Brennan. “There are two active sunspot regions on the far side, and one appears to be unusually large.”
Ripley nodded – as he’d already seen the forecasts. “Any possible displacement of our Alderson Point?”
Larsen cleared his throat – then he looked down as if suddenly unsure of himself. Which was exactly what Larsen’s last instructor had mentioned in her evaluation of the young physicist.
“Go ahead, Lars. There are no stupid questions here,” Ripley coaxed. “In fact, I’ve found the most dangerous things happen as a result of unasked questions.”
“I have seen the latest forecast models,” Lars sighed, “and I disagree with it.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“Sir, subsurface flows of the measured direct inversion as well as the frequency-wavenumber correlations do not conform to predictions using Fourier domain waveforms. This could occur only under two possible conditions, Admiral. Either the Fourier domain hypothesis is more generally incorrect or there is a super-massive sunspot forming on the far side. As Fourier domain analysis has been used to accurately measure these waveforms and formations for more than a century, this seems unlikely.”
“So, you think a large sunspot is forming?”
“No, Admiral. I said I believe a super massive sunspot is forming. Far-side satellite monitoring went offline two sol days ago, Admiral, so we are currently not receiving monitoring data from the far side.”
Ripley looked at Brennan. She nodded.
“So, Mr. Larsen, have you made any computations about possible Alderson Point displacements?”
“That’s not possible yet, Admiral.”
“Get with Commander Brennan after dinner and we’ll discuss a temporary reassignment to the bridge.”
“Yessir. Thank you, Admiral.”
“Yeoman!” Ripley crowed. “You’ve outdone yourself once again. I am positively sweating in agony!”
“Thank you, sir,” Joan Carson sighed, basking in the glow of his complement.
“A curry that doesn’t make flames shoot out the ears is a waste of time,” he added, winking at Yukio. “Isn’t that right, Commander Brennan?”
Brennan, now red-faced and about to gag, heartily agreed.
Ripley looked over Larsen’s figures and could find no obvious fault in his calculations, but more importantly, neither could Brennan.
“So, this sunspot will take out satellites in Earth orbit?”
“Satellites, yes, but even in LEO,” Larsen added, indicating satellites in a Low Earth Orbit. “Personnel in orbiting stations in low orbit and on the lunar surface will need to relocate to hardened shelters, and all critical electronics protected.”
“How long until this spot rotates into position?”
“Well, here’s the problem,” a pedantic Larsen began grumpily. “A normal CME would need to be aimed directly at Earth to produce this kind of impact, but this sunspot is so large it could be as much as plus or minus fifteen degrees off axis to produce systematic interference. But if a super-large event of this scale is aimed directly at Earth it’s possible surface telecoms will be adversely effected…”
“Mister Larsen, I asked about timeframes?”
“Yessir. Sorry. The sunspot will first rotate into view in one hundred eleven hours, plus or minus two hours.”
“Louise, any simulations on how this might impact our Alderson Point?”
“Not with any reliability, Admiral. In fact, our safest course of action would be to enter a braking orbit now and shelter behind Venus…”
“We don’t have that kind of fuel, and even if we did the deceleration would be monstrous.”
“We have the fuel, Admiral, if we use atmospheric braking,” Brennan added.
“You want to take a brand new hull through that atmosphere?”
“There’s another option, Admiral,” Yukio sighed quietly after clearing her throat.
“And that is…?”
“We accelerate to 3.8 G and slingshot around the sun, and so stay ahead of the sunspot. We will be in a better position to recalculate the Alderson Point from an up-pole orbit…”
Ripley looked at Brennan who grinned slightly. So, Yukio had come up with the idea and Brennan was allowing the Middie to take credit where credit was due, and he nodded understanding. “Okay Louise, get word to Hyperion and her escorts. The tankers will have to reposition and shelter behind Venus, and we’ll refuel when we come back around. Yukio, start on the calculations for the tankers; Lars, would you get your figures off to Admiral Stanton? Commander Brennan, when you get off COMMs would you lay out our course and let’s plan on acceleration one hour after you finish-up.”
Ripley then pulled up his COMMs screen and called Judy on Hyperion.
“We’ll shoot the numbers to you in a minute, but we have the mother of all sunspots about to come around. We’ll need to shelter behind the sun, and we’ll be going up-pole, orbit north to south for our run. My guess is you’re already too close for that. We should make up some time, catch up to Hyperion as she comes around the west limb, so we can start an Alderson Point survey as we clear, see how many Points have been impacted by this thing.”
“Ellen’s still on the station, Denton? Shouldn’t she go down to Maine?”
“She’s never experienced that kind of gravity, Judy. I’m not sure she could survive…not at her age.”
“Do you think the station is the safest place?”
“The safest place would out in the belt but there’s not enough time for that now,” he sighed.
“Armstrong Base, or what about Lovell, down at the South pole.”
“Lovell would work. That has the deepest living quarters. And the fusion plant there is heavily shielded.”
“Call Gordon,” Judy said, but he could see the concern in her eyes, “and see if he can get her down.”
“No one knows about this yet, so he shouldn’t have any problem.”
He closed the encrypted channel and sent a triple-walled text to Gordon, then turned back to the developing chaos on Agamemnon’s bridge – just as the first acceleration warning came out over the ship-wide intercom: “Attention all personnel, heavy acceleration warning, repeat heavy acceleration warning…”
And then he heard a collective groan throughout his ship. One hundred hours at 3.8Gs was near the limits of human endurance, and even bodily functions had to be handled by catheters and cholestramine, which produced a chemically induced state of total constipation for days on end. Until their next period of zero-G, in fact, every human on board would consume a low-fiber liquid protein diet – which Ripley detested.
And then, right on schedule, Ina Balin called – and her ass was chapped…
They were at the mid-point now, halfway between the Sun’s North and South poles, and just before Agamemnon began slingshotting around the South Pole, Brennan executed a mid-course correction. At two million miles from the solar chromosphere, Agamemnon’s Langston Field was handling the intense radiation with ease, but even so Ripley couldn’t wait to make orbit behind Venus. They’d already burned through half their hydrogen and would arrive at Venus with their tanks almost dry, and he didn’t like being so vulnerable – and for so long.
Especially as there were now vast solar quakes disrupting the Sun’s chromosphere. Coronal loops were arcing ahead and astern, and it was just a matter of time before one came up and hit them. Depending on the loop’s intensity, the Langston Field would consume a tremendous amount of energy to stabilize the ship, but as Agamemnon would be the first ship to actually transit a coronal loop there would be vital measurements to make. And not only that. Brennan was already hard at work on her Alderson Point displacement observations, and this data would need to be transmitted to both Hyperion and Norfolk as soon as they emerged from behind the sun.
Then Agamemnon would make for her refueling tanker in Venusian orbit, while Judy on Hyperion refueled and jumped to Mintaka – and into a possible naval engagement with the Sino-Russian fleet. And, what kind of damage would they find once they emerged from behind the sun? Had Gordon and Stanton sent Ellen to Lovell Base, or had she remained on the station? What kind of damage had Earth sustained? The Moon? Only Musk City on Mars would have been beyond reach of this storm, vindicating once again the visionary’s proactive sense of human frailty and the need for a destiny beyond Earth.
“Admiral,” Brennan said from her couch, “we’re finding negligible Field displacements, and we are in contact with Hyperion now.”
“What? Are our orbits crossing?”
“Send them our data,” he said as he established a secure link with Judy. “How’re you doing over there?” he asked his wife.
“No issues. You?”
“We’re sending Brennan’s Field displacements now. Have you been able to make any?”
“Yes. Sending now, but we’re picking up indications that this sunspot was not, repeat not generated internally.”
“We’re trying to determine what could have done this, but it at least appears possible that this event was externally generated.”
“You’re talking about a weapon, aren’t you?”
She nodded. “The most plausible scenario would be a ship jumping into solar orbit and deploying a weapon, then jumping out of the system before anyone was the wiser.”
“If they jumped to a point on the far side we’d never know, would we?”
“That’s the point,” Judy sighed. “This has The Company written all over it. Only thing I don’t like is why do it now.”
“Because they know we’re out here. That has to be it.”
“So they’re trying to delay our jump to Mintaka.”
Ripley nodded. “That means they’ll be attacking soon. Maybe too soon.”
“Concur,” she added. “We’re going to 4.2Gs now.”
“Okay. We’ll match velocities and try to meet up with Hyperion between Mercury and Venus.”
He rang off and gave the order, then he called Lars on the intercom. “What kind of weapon could have generated this sunspot, Mr Larsen?”
“A weapon, Admiral?”
“Hyperion is collecting evidence that indicates a weapon generated this bastard. Get on it. I’ll see to it you get their data, but let your imagination run free. If this was produced by a weapon…?”
“Aye, sir. Understood.”
Ripley switched to the bridge command net: “Commander, increase to 4.2 Gs as soon as possible.”
Acceleration warnings sounded throughout the ship, and this time even Ripley groaned.
(c) 2023 adrian leverkuhn | abw | this is a work of fiction
So sorry for not posting in a while. Too busy with the ‘Cop Story’ – which means I’ve been too wrapped-up in my stroll through the Memory Warehouse. Writing is amazing in one key regard, especially writing from experience: the experience is, I think, rather similar to a self-administered psychoanalytic session. First there is the memory, often right there ready to jump out onto the page, but more often than not it is hidden away beneath layers of time and all of the inherent distortions such a layering presents. Then there is the ordering. How to squeeze memories into a narrative arc that makes some kind of coherent sense. Some memories are so intense they reside in nightmares, and so they are more than ready to find their way from brain through fingers to the screen. Some of these intense memories bring up equally intense feelings, and these have to be dealt with, too. At any rate, the tale is up to 780 pages now and about two-thirds complete (depending on font and sizing, this equates to about 300 book-length pages). I do want to wrap up this book by early summer, as I am beginning to feel a strong need to visit the sea.
[The World Spins So Slow \\ The Stewart-Gaskin Band]
So, off we go, back to the Prometheus-Covenant-Hyperion arc, so let’s resume Denton Ripley’s tale.
Ripley watched live feeds from all over Agamemnon; presently, he monitored the main reactor control panels from his seat on the bridge, and this was on the main screen visible from every position on the bridge. He also watched the small contingent of Marines exercising on the hangar deck, agronomists in hydroponics tending their crops, and even the recycling plant turning todays excrement into tomorrow’s bioplast and yeast steaks – and with the flip of a switch he could literally zoom in on any shipboard activity, and as this was technically a warship there were no privacy rights to contend with. Still, Ripley saw no point violating spaces where privacy was the expected norm.
But right now he was looking at factory technicians still hard at work calibrating the new X-ray Maser. Agamemnon was the first ship not just in the Navy but the first ship period to be so armed, and this unit had been, technically speaking, the prototype. As the weapon had proven to be so devastating during its initial trial, and yet appeared to be so robust and reliable, it had been boxed up and launched on shuttles directly from the Haifa Spaceport – even as Agamemnon was hastily redesigned to accommodate the weapon. As a result of this redesign, she ship now had five fusion reactors, not the four originally specified; the fifth, smaller reactor alone powered the Maser, though its output could be channeled into the ship’s main drive if the situation warranted. And now, ever since he’d boarded and his command status transferred to the new ship, all he’d done was study the Maser – and it’s daunting power requirements.
Because fighting this ship meant one thing, and one thing only: getting the Maser online and lining up the shot. And there was, quite literally, no defense against this weapon. Its beam blew through Langston Fields like tissue paper, while ships without a Field were cut apart within milliseconds. In theory, the Maser’s beam had unlimited range too, but no one had dared test that theory yet.
But…why? Why had Agamemnon been equipped with this devilish thing?
To impress the Tall Whites, as they were being called now? Kind of a ‘Don’t fuck with us because we have this kind of technology’ statement. But again, why? Especially as the need at Orion was more pressing?
So, Stanton thought the biggest threat was waiting at Alpha Geminorum Ca-4, at this supposed university run by the Tall Whites.
And he found he reluctantly agreed with that reasoning. The Russians were two generations behind both our Navy and the Chinese PLA-Space Force, and while their ships had both the Alderson Drive and Langston Field they were first-gen affairs that wouldn’t fare well against a modernized fleet, or even the modest contingent of Japanese ships at Mintaka-4. Either the QE2 or the de Gaulle would be able to handily deal with the Russians, hence Moscow’s hastily resurrected alliance with Beijing.
But Stanton’s thinking went further to the most obvious question of all: what had the Japanese found on Mintaka-4? Why were the Russians and Chinese so willing to break the peace?
Something obviously valuable enough to set this conflict in motion. But what?
‘We have all the mineral’s we need now, and all in-system. We have a practically unlimited supply of hydrogen in the Jovian satellite system, and we haven’t even begun to tap the vast supplies around Saturn. Everywhere we’ve been we’ve found minerals and hydrogen in vast quantities, so it can’t be that…’
But why hadn’t Stanton briefed him in? He was an admiral now, after all.
But he was a one-star, a rear admiral, and so not steeped in the rarefied air of a fleet admiral. He didn’t brief the President or members of Congress, and they certainly didn’t brief him. He was still just a cog in the war machine, a weapon to be expended, so whatever else he thought he might be, he was most definitely still very expendable.
He switched feeds and looked at the ship’s new Midshipmen, the Middies, in their acceleration couches, and they were all looking around excitedly, taking in their unfamiliar surroundings as the ship settled into her new routine all around them. He cut the audio here as he had no need to listen; teenagers were teenagers when all was said and done, no matter where home was. Five new Middies, as well as Yukio Matsushima, the lone holdover from Hyperion were with them now. Yukio had deferred her entrance to Annapolis until Thomas Standing Bull entered; they were, she said, soulmates. And who the hell was he to argue with her about that?
Ripley had tasked Agamemnon’s Executive Officer, Commander Louise Brennan, with taking Yukio underwing this trip, to in-effect start Yukio’s trial by fire in the fine art of astronavigation, and perhaps even give the girl some stick time on their way out to Mercury, before Agamemnon made her first official jump. The kid was bright enough, or so Brennan had told him on more than one occasion, and now was the time to put that to the test. The rest of the Middies would spend their days, when not in the classroom, rotating between engineering and damage control on this first outbound leg, but the next two weeks would see them in the classroom working on stellar classification and introductory helioseismology, and perhaps even some interactive asteroseismology, studying the resonant modes and frequencies of the more typical stellar formations they’d encounter on this trip, and how these shock waves interacted with an Alderson Point.
And one of his official duties entailed hosting the Middies for a formal dinner once a week, part of the whole ‘officer and a gentleman’ thing that the Royal Navy had been doing since, well, well before Nelson. That meant at least once a week, during one of the ship’s few two hour-long periods without acceleration, the Middies would get into their dress uniforms and congregate in the Admiral’s in-port cabin – for real food – with no yeasty bioplast steaks in sight.
Sensors soon started picking up Hyperion’s ion trail, so he asked Brennan to power up the 36-inch Schmidt Camera and sight along the vector. And sure enough, there they were: Hyperion and her escorts bound for Venus – but at the hideous rate of acceleration of 3.4Gs – enough force to fracture cervical vertebrae if someone was stupid enough to raise a head off their acceleration couch.
“X-O, what’s their range?”
“Eighty-thousand kilometers and steadily increasing, Admiral.”
“Any unauthorized traffic out there?”
“No, sir, and no Field signatures.”
“What’s the sun look like?”
Brennan changed cameras, first to a Hydrogen-Alpha, then to a Calcium channel filter. “One active sun spot visible, two shockwaves currently in the chromosphere. We’ll have a visible transit of Mercury in 97 minutes.”
His intercom screen flashed and he answered; it was one of the Israeli technicians and she looked angry. “Yes?” Ripley said to the scowling, red-faced woman.
“Captain, I was given to understand we would maintain a constant 1G acceleration! How do you expect us to work under these conditions?”
“First, my rank is not captain, and Ma’am, we’ll be under heavy acceleration until we are well beyond all the traffic in near-earth and lunar orbit. I suggest you take a sleep period now; when you get up we should be under 1G and well on our way to the first tanker rendezvous.”
“Very well,” the tech said – and then the screen went dark.
“Pleasant character, that one,” he said under his breath.
“That was Dr Ina Balin, Admiral. She has a reputation for confrontation, Admiral,” his Gordon said from the couch beside his own.
“Anything else I need to know about her?”
“Bright, well-educated, very opinionated and, from the communication intercepts I’ve noted, her colleagues couldn’t wait for her to get up here.”
“So I suppose they’d like her to stay?” Ripley said.
“That might be an understatement, Admiral.”
“Well, someone woke up on the sunny side of the morning. You seem happy today, Gordon. What’s the occasion?”
“The sunny side of the morning, Admiral?”
“It means you woke up feeling happy.”
“Ah. I was unaware of the reference, sir, but yes, I am happy.”
“Yes, Admiral. This is the purpose for which I was manufactured, so I am, in effect, fulfilling my purpose. That should make one happy, should it not?”
Ripley smiled. “That’s certainly a big part of the recipe, Gordon. I meant to ask earlier, but do we have any David’s onboard?”
“No, Admiral. There are two Walters in Medical, and five in engineering. We do have a new Jordan unit onboard, Admiral.”
“A Jordan unit? Well, this is the first I’ve heard of him.”
“He is a she, Admiral, and she is the second in a new series. She has been assigned to Medical, and emergency genetic and nano-medicine is her specialty.”
Ripley sighed. “Well, see to it that she comes to our first dinner – with the Middies, along with the Israeli dragon-woman.”
“Very well, Admiral. Tomorrow, as previously scheduled?”
“Unless something comes up, yes.” Ripley’s COMMs panel chimed, indicating an incoming high priority link from Stanton was waiting in his queue. He clicked the COMMs button under his right index finger, and he shrugged away the effort to move even one finger under this acceleration, and the screen went active. Stanton was looking into a holographic 3-D star chart of the region around Orion’s Belt, and even on his small screen Ripley could see that something was amiss.
“Ah, there you are,” Stanton said, the delay between transmission and reception currently less than five seconds. “We’re getting reports of unusual stellar activity near the Mintaka Group, possibly a stellar ignition. We’ve passed along a full sit-rep to Hyperion, but an incoming scout ship just relayed a more detailed data packet and you should pass that along to your astronomers as soon as you can. We have no reports concerning the Japanese response to this development, but the scout ship reports that both the Russian and Chinese assault groups are still in the Mintaka Group, so our assumption is that they still intend some kind of intervention. Stanton out.”
The screen went dark and Ripley sent the packet to Brennan, and he marked it ‘Eyes Only’ for now, at least until she could review the information and note her opinion. Mintaka was, like Castor, or the Alpha Geminorum system, a multiple star formation; the “star” Mintaka was in fact comprised of several stars, though when viewed from Earth in the 18th century the formation had appeared to be a single star. But Mintaka was also located within a region of dense interstellar ‘dust’ – and this dust was actually hydrogen, helium, and the other stellar building blocks. Much of the area around Orion’s Belt was considered a ‘stellar nursery’ – a region where the ingredients necessary for spontaneous stellar formation existed in just the right quantities. So, what Stanton appeared to be concerned about was the possible formation of a new star within the existing Mintaka system – and how that might impact the Sino-Russian fleet gathering to attack the Japanese colony on Mintaka-4.
“Brennan?” Ripley asked. “Did you receive the packet from admiralty?”
“Just coming in now.”
“COMMs, get me a text link with Hyperion Actual.”
“Aye, sir.” It took two minutes for the lasered signal to reach Hyperion, a few minutes to track down Judy, then two minutes to get an acknowledgement, and only then did Ripley send a query via an encrypted channel.
“Let me know what you make of Stanton’s data as soon as you’ve looked it over,” Denton wrote, then he punched send. Five minutes later he received her acknowledgement so he signed off and then literally closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Then he heard acceleration warnings and opened his eyes. He’d slept for six hours…
“All stations, all stations, ship’s drive will cut-off in thirty seconds and remain off for sixty minutes. Repeat, sixty minutes free movement begins in twenty seconds. Ten seconds. Ship’s drive off.”
Ripley unfastened his harness and drifted free of the acceleration couch, and he found handholds on the overhead and pulled himself along to the central fore-aft corridor – which everyone had taken to calling Main Street – and he pushed off and sailed aft to the little hallway that led to his in-flight cabin. He stripped out of his overalls and into the shower, pushed the ‘Wash’ button and closed his eyes as first a soap then a surfactant blasted his skin for 30 seconds, this followed by a 30 second rinse with recycled water, and finally a minute under high pressure air to dry his skin, then it was out to put on a cotton-lycra skinsuit and grip socks.
Next, he looked at the central time display over his desk: 52 minutes until acceleration resumed.
His yeoman came in with hot tea and his usual scrambled eggs and bacon, all synthetics from the protoplast plant, then as he finished eating he noted he now had 40 minutes so off he went to the weapons bay. Dr Ina Balin, the Israeli dragon lady, was literally inside a chamber within the main body of the Maser, inspecting the magnetic coils that would modulate and focus the X-ray beam, so he turned to one of her assistants.
“Progress report?” Ripley asked.
“Final calibrations underway now, Admiral. She should be ready for a test fire after about ten more hours of calibrations.”
“I thought this unit had already been test-fired? What’s the hold up?”
“Each coil focuses independently, Captain,” Balin said as she crawled out of the chamber, “so the lens associated with each coil had to be recalibrated after transport up from the desert. They were all out of alignment.”
“Crap,” Ripley muttered. “Just how robust will this thing be under actual combat conditions?”
Balin shrugged. “The unit was designed to absorb 10G shockwaves, so more than the human body can take. Once the lenses and mirrors are aligned…”
“I read the manual, Doctor. I need to know how stable the unit will be under actual combat conditions.”
“That’s unknown, Captain.”
Ripley shook his head, not sure why this woman was continuing to insult him. “Well, I hope you don’t mind leaving someone onboard who can handle recalibrating the unit under less than ideal circumstances, Ma’am.”
“Please refer to me by my title, Captain.”
“I will if you will.”
Ripley pointed at the star on his collar. “Admiral, not Captain.”
“Ah, so sorry. Well, I am the only person capable of handling a complete recalibration of the lens chamber. With your staff observing for the next few weeks, they might be capable of assisting me. Under those conditions perhaps most of my staff could return to Haifa?”
“You do understand we are leaving the system?”
“No, we have not been briefed on your mission, Captain.”
“Well, you have three weeks to wrap up your work, period. This weapon will be operational by the time we reach Mercury, or there will be hell to pay. Ma’am.” He spun around and pulled himself up Main Street to the bridge, noting 11 minutes left on the countdown timer as he passed a clock in the officer’s mess. “Gordon!” he shouted as he came onto the bridge and settled into his couch.
“I need a hot chocolate. And make it strong, please.”
“Already loaded, Admiral.”
“Not in the dispenser. I need my mug.”
“Very well, sir.”
“Goddamn woman,” Ripley growled as he looked at a live feed from the weapon’s bay. “She’s deliberately provoking me!”
“She has that reputation, sir,” his Gordon said. “Her personality profile suggests a profound insecurity emanating from childhood anxieties. She should be handled with care, Admiral.”
“Send me her psych file, would you please? And I need the tech specs on that focusing mechanism.”
“And while you’re at it, get someone you trust down there to start learning the calibration sequence. I don’t trust that woman.”
“Someone I trust, Admiral?”
“Yes, Gordon. Am I wrong in assuming you have the best interests of this ship and her crew in mind at all times?”
“No, Admiral. That is a correct assessment.”
“Well then, what I’m saying is that I trust you to make the best decision under our current conditions. You’ve been aboard since this ship’s keep was laid, so you should know the crew better than anyone else onboard. Correct?”
“Yes, Admiral, but I did not expect this level of trust,” Gordon said as he handed Ripley his mug of cocoa.
“If I can’t trust you, Gordon, you don’t belong on this ship. Understood?”
“Now, who do you recommend?”
Ripley hesitated, but he relented and nodded in agreement. “Make it so, Gordon.”
“Aye, sir. And I’ll send someone to assist you when I am away from my post, Admiral.”
The acceleration alarm sounded: “All personnel, repeat all personnel, 120 seconds to acceleration. Repeat, all personnel to acceleration stations in 110 seconds.”
Ripley heard scrambling all over the ship as everyone from the lowest rating to the ship’s officers dove for their acceleration couches and secured their harnesses – but Ripley saw that Balin was ignoring the alarm, that her weightless body was still hovering over the Maser’s main mirror chamber.
“Secure the weapon’s bay,” the X-O said over the intercom, then Brennan turned and looked at Ripley, shrugging ambivalently. “What do I do, Admiral?”
“Bring us up to 1G and hold us there for a minute, then resume 2.4. My Gordon will get her.”
Brennan brought the reactors online and the drive flared – and Balin sailed from the open chamber to the aft bulkhead, slamming into the foam padding there – and Ripley cut the audio feed just in time. His Gordon entered the picture and helped the screaming woman to her couch and managed to get her buckled-in, then he returned to the bridge and sat next to Ripley. When Brennan saw that Gordon was secure she brought the drives up to forty percent and watched the reactors stabilize at their new setting, and Ripley watched Balin cursing and shooting the finger at the camera – then he cut the feed and smiled.
“Remarkable woman,” Gordon said, perhaps a little too cautiously.
“Stupid, for someone rumored to be so bright,” Ripley replied.
“Are you sure you want her to join the Middies for dinner?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t miss that for the world,” Ripley said, smirking at the thought…
(c) 2023 adrian leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction
So, yeah, the Cop Story (code name: Prism) is progressing nicely, now closing-in on 600 pages in very rough form, and I’m still hoping to finish by early summer. Yet Hyperion boils along on a back burner somewhere in the darker recesses of the Memory Warehouse, but boil she does and as ideas come I try to get them down on paper… But have you ever tried to write down these fleeting ideas as you’re in bed trying to find sleep? If you get up and start writing notes the odds are you won’t stop there, and pretty soon you’re writing away and the sun is coming up. Very uncool.
[EMERSON LAKE & POWELL \\ MARS, THE BRINGER OF WAR]
So, the outline is taking shape. Still using the Niven & Pournelle Drive and Field paradigm to deal with time and space, but darker days are just ahead for the Ripley clan, so grab a cup of tea and put on your Wayfarers – ’cause it could get kinda bright inside all those stars…
Hyperion II: The Agamemnon Chronicles
USNSF Agamemnon 15 October 2107
Denton Ripley watched the docking clamps release over a remote video feed, and he almost flinched as reaction control jets along Hyperion’s port side began firing to the beat of an elaborate dance all their own. As he watched the feed, Ripley noted the huge ship was slowly beginning to pull away from her moorings, two tugs standing by to keep her safe as she pulled away from the space station. Ripley’s arms crossed protectively over his chest as he watched the evolution, knowing his wife had the chair on Hyperion’s con – and that all eyes were on her now.
“Mixed emotions, Denton?” Admiral Stanton asked as he walked into the station’s control center.
“I should be with her,” Ripley said – almost under his breath, his voice just loud enough to be heard over the hum of computers – and the blast of the air conditioners needed to keep them alive.
“I have more combat experience, Admiral. Not to mention Hyperion was mine for two years.”
Stanton smiled. “If I had a buck for every time I’ve heard that one…well, I’d be a rich man.”
Ripley nodded. “Goes with the territory, I guess?”
“Very few skippers last six months, Denton. Operational needs dictate the ebb and flow of assignments and postings, and if you decide to stick around you’ll start to see the big picture.”
“You don’t have to retire, Denton. You can always move to administration or operations when you get back.”
“I wasn’t aware that was an option, Admiral.”
“Well, I just made you aware, didn’t I? And I don’t need an answer right this minute. Just give it some thought – while you’re away.”
“The yard boss tells me Agamemnon is ready to go. I want you to take her out to Mercury…”
“And then return?”
Stanton shook his head. “Only if absolutely necessary.”
“Look, I know this is not exactly doing things by the book, but you’re going to head out with a rated crew, but also with the yard crew onboard. They’ll tune the reactor and iron out any bugs they run across while they get your engineers up to speed – but we’ll get them back to base on one of the fleet tankers.”
“Yes, the Council and the administration have assigned your mission highest priority, higher than the Russo-Japanese thing. We want you to make the jump to Alpha Geminorum Ca as soon as humanly possible, and find that installation Thomas referred to.”
“Installation? Admiral, Thomas referred to it as a university.”
“And who knows…maybe it is. But can we take that chance?”
Ripley felt ill, almost betrayed – by what he knew had to come next. “Sir, what are the mission objectives?”
“Retrieve our midshipman and ascertain what threat level these ‘Tall Whites’ pose.”
“If they’re hostile the Agamemnon will engage when and if you determine you have the tactical advantage to deploy that weapon.”
“And if they aren’t a threat?”
“You have two dozen academic sorts onboard; the Science Ministry recommends you convene a council and work out the best way to proceed with further contact. You’ll also have the five remaining middies from your original mission, and they’re to stay with you onboard Agamemnon – unless, that is, you have to abandon ship.”
“So, we’re going in solo?”
Stanton shook his head. “No. You’ll jump with Constellation and Stavridis, but the Connie is to remain in-system at the jump point – period. I want Stavridis to hide out in the asteroid belt, kind of an ace up your sleeve when or if things hit the fan. If it hits the fan out there Constellation will send a longboat through the Alderson point. Within six weeks we hope to have the Enterprise Battle Group assembled and ready to make the jump to provide a secondary attack force should this new race prove hostile.”
“A battle group, Admiral? Can we spare that many ships if we get in a shooting war with the Russian and the Chinese?”
“I don’t know, Ripley. Why don’t you think it through and see what you come up with.” An exasperated Stanton looked him over again – then he too crossed his arms over his chest before he turned and walked out of the control tower – and Denton realized he’d asked a question worthy of a midshipman still wet behind the ears.
Hyperion was now about a hundred meters away from the station and Ripley could now take her all in. With her Langston Field down she looked like a white monolith covered with ports and windows and hundreds of sensor arrays – almost nothing at all like a warship – yet that’s exactly what she was. And she was headed in harm’s way, too – with his wife at the con.
Agamemnon was anything but a rectangle.
As he looked her over the word ‘rakish’ came to mind. Even made fast to her moorings she still looked ready for a run, like a greyhound ready to join the chase. And yet she too was a warship, only a warship with a much different objective. Her mission wasn’t confrontation; she was – in her way – an olive branch. A very fast olive branch. This ship had been built with the implicit knowledge that the most enduring peace is based on understanding and respect – grounded in an explicit ability to lay waste to the enemy – any enemy.
This was an old concept, of course. The policy of MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction, had arisen during the First Cold War and had remained in place through the Third World War – as Communist China’s attack on Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea had come to be known. In the aftermath of that war, the unipolar world of American hegemony had given way to a new, fragmented multipolar world order, in one very important way dominated by increasing hostility between Russia and China. Once China moved on the coveted “Northern Resource Area” – as the CCP called Siberia – another war had only just been averted by brokered diplomacy. Once all the resources necessary for explosive industrialization were discovered in the asteroid belt, terrestrial conflict had simply moved into space. Not one country maintained a real sea-going navy anymore; the cost was simply no longer justifiable – because space was so outrageously expensive.
But Agamemnon was something new, something radically different. She had an Alderson Drive so had a Langston Field, yet despite being a warship she was lightly armed. In fact, she had only one weapon, a newly developed X-ray MASER, possibly the deadliest weapon ever created. In tests, Maser-X had cut through all known armor plate in nanoseconds, yet the weapon concurrently delivered a kinetic impact equivalent to five megatons of force. The real horror of this weapon was that even the Langston Field could not absorb this kinetic blast wave; instead, all this colossal energy was transmitted inward, directly to the ship within the Field. With the targeted ship crippled, the Field generator would fail and the cutting power of the Maser would take over, slicing through the ship and exposing the habitation modules to space.
So Ripley was more than a little surprised to learn that Agamemnon’s keel had been laid down a full six months before he’d first left earth on Hyperion. So, she’d been re-tasked – from an unknown original purpose that had to be related to MAD doctrine. So, what was that term? Flexible response? Have the necessary ships – and crew – available to meet both current and unanticipated needs, because new technologies always came along, some more unexpectedly than others. So, months before he’d commanded the first Hyperion mission, the Navy had started work on Agamemnon.
“Why?” he wondered. Where was the new threat? The Weyland Company? Or had The Company struck an alliance with China and Russia? Even though that would be against The Company’s long term interests?
But all this meant Stanton had considered him the best person for the task at hand, to take Agamemnon into the unknown, while Judith was now considered more than capable enough to sail Hyperion into battle on Orion’s belt. Or? – was she simply the more expendable captain?
‘And am I flexible enough for this mission?’ he asked himself – as he watched Hyperion’s main drive flare and come online. ‘What do I think is going to happen out there? Meet these ‘Tall Whites’ again and sing Kumbaya around a campfire on the beach? But why was The Company out there in the first place? What did they know about the Tall Whites? And how the hell did they find out?’
A personal Comms came through from Hyperion and Ripley took the call.
Judith’s image came onscreen and he thought she looked calm, almost serene. “Everything good out there, Judy. How’s the ship feel?”
A simple nod. “Crew is still tight, everyone is on edge, more so after the Marines boarded.”
“Two companies. They’re crowded down there. What about Agamemnon? When do you put out for builder’s trials?”
He looked at her and shrugged. “No word yet. Yard crew still onboard, still working on Reactor Two, something wrong with the original design. I think we’ll be out of here in about two months.”
This was the agreed upon coverup Stanton wanted going out over the Command Net, in case unauthorized ears were listening in…and Judith was in on the deception.
“That figures. Hell, this thing out on the Belt will be over by the time you leave. Wait for us and we’ll go with you.”
“I’ll mention it to the Admiral. Let’s hope this is just a tempest in a teapot.”
“Well, whatever it turns out to be, we’re ready for an extended engagement.”
Ripley nodded. Until the full nature of any alliance between Weyland and this revived Russo-Chinese axis was known, the scope of the coming conflict would remain unknown – at least until hostilities commenced. But what was there to worry about? Just because Hyperion was being sent in first – to test the waters, as Admiral Stanton put it – didn’t mean Judy was in imminent peril. “Perhaps they’ll find a diplomatic solution,” Denton said, his voice a little too forced. “When will you make the jump?”
“Looks like 1.5Gs to Mercury, so call it two weeks and change.” There was a flurry of activity in the background and Judy turned to deal with it; a moment later she simply said “Gotta go,” and her image disappeared.
Hyperion was now almost five hundred miles away from the station, so he switched to a telescopically enhanced view – just in time to note the main drives flaring to maximum power. Despite what she’d just said over the open channel, Hyperion was setting sail at almost 3Gs, and her exhausted crew would make it to Mercury in a week…and yet if all went according to plan he’d be just a few hours behind her.
He quietly slipped out of the station’s Command Center and walked slowly out to Agamemnon, but once onboard he dashed to the con-tower and strapped into his acceleration couch. Once his screens were positioned exactly where he wanted them he spoke over the closed command circuit.
“X-O?” he said to Commander Brennan, “let’s take her out, then get everyone to acceleration stations. Reactor Control, are we tight?”
“Brooks here, Admiral. Reactors One and Two online, Three and Four on standby. All personnel ready for acceleration.”
“Rusty? How are your troops?”
“In their couches and ready to roll, Admiral. All hardware secure.”
“Fire Control? What’s the status of that Maser?”
“Yardmaster has about two plus days work to finish up, Admiral.”
“Okay. Tell ‘em we’ll have 24 hours at Venus and possibly a little longer at Mercury. Get ‘em strapped in; we’re going to heavy acceleration in five minutes.”
Brennan turned her couch to face Ripley: “Reactors online and at seventy percent. Ready when you are, Admiral.”
“Alright, Captain, visual signals only, move the tugs to standby stations, and make ready for departure.”
Ripley’s ears popped as pressurization went to internal and equalized throughout the ship.
“Admiral,” Brennan said, “green across the board; all departments report ready for departure.”
“Very well, Captain, take her out.”
Admiral Stanton watched Agamemnon as she slowly pulled away from the station, and he couldn’t help but smile. Her architects had taken a page from the old Soviet playbook when they’d designed her, because Agamemnon was the exact opposite of Hyperion. Agamemnon was designed to impress, to engender a sense of awe – and in that one regard her designers had succeeded brilliantly. She looked more like a super-yacht than a naval vessel, and yet everything about her seemed to exude a sense of urgent purpose. She wasn’t a boxer; she was a long-distance runner – on steroids.
Stanton watched as Stavridis and Constellation moved into echelon formation just before they accelerated away from the station. They made quite a sight just then, the three of them in formation passing in front of Earth with their drives flaring, the Enterprise Battle Group 5 miles behind the formation, still moored while they took on hydrogen and other provisions. The Charles de Gaulle and the QE2 were still just in view, trailing Hyperion, ready to make the jump to Orion.
But everything was hitting all at once.
Was this by design? Or coincidence?
But ever since Pearl Harbor, Naval Intelligence had no further use for or interest in coincidence.
So, why did the Russians attack the Japanese colony on Mintaka 4? Why did the Chinese resume their tattered alliance with Moscow? Obviously the Japanese had discovered something of extraordinary significance, and now that the Russians had made their play the Chinese had rejoined that uneasy alliance. And if the Chinese were willing to let bygones by bygones, then the discovery on Mintaka simply had to be of utterly priceless value.
But The Weyland-Yutani Group was already there. Already in the game.
Yet they’d gone after Covenant, too.
Was there a connection? There had to be, didn’t there?
Yes, Stanton’s gut told him there was. That there had to be. That’s why three commercial freighters still under construction had just been ‘acquired’ and were rapidly being repurposed into troop transports. Mintaka 4 was the prize, but Stanton knew deep down that the key to the prize was going to be found on or in the vicinity of Alpha Geminorum Ca-4. So Denton Ripley had to find the key and somehow get it to his wife.
Then maybe they could retire and raise their daughter.
Funny, he thought, how these things work out. Never the way you expect, and the happy ending only comes after tremendous sacrifice.
He walked off to find Ripley’s daughter. Maybe, he thought, he should get to know her.
(c) 2023 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | just fiction, plain and simple.
Yes, I am still here. Still writing. As mentioned before, writing priorities have turned to The Great American Cop Story, and progress has been slow but steady. I’d even say I’m fairly happy with the progress made so far.
A peripheral tangent of this Cop Story takes place within the soul-scape of The Dividing Line, which was first posted more than ten years ago. The original cop story, begun and discarded several times now, predates The Dividing Line by years, yet when I first penned TDL I imagined it forming one of the core questions within the Cop Story. As such, TDL has been revised once again, and what I’m posting here comes from Part I of the original tale (posted on this site and elsewhere). It’s just different enough to warrant a fresh read – or re-read, but it’s still recognizable as framed by and within the original story.
Pat Patterson is the central character of the Cop Story, and you will find a brief mention of his character here. This story takes place in Dallas, Texas, in the summer of 1982. Like most of the material in the Cop Story, The Dividing Line is grounded in personal experience.
[ ELP \\ The Endless Enigma, Part I]
The Dividing Line – Point A
Sara Wood lived in the shadowlands, and she kept to the darkest shadows – that is to say she lived by blending into the shadows, by knowing how to disappear in the blink of an eye. If caught out in the grim light of day, Sara understood that in order to survive she needed to be able to fade away into the deepest, darkest warrens of the city, for instance into the darker recesses behind huge industrial dumpsters, or by ducking into abandoned warehouses down by the tracks on the far edges of downtown. By the time Sara was ten years old she had become an expert in the fine art of disappearing from view, and of a style of urban camouflage grounded in the sudden appearance of underwhelming innocence. She was also, perhaps inadvertently – or perhaps not – a master at falling through all of the cracks in the few systems left to deal with girls of her sort: homeless and therefore nameless, faceless girls, girls who had grown accustomed to life in the darkness. Or ‘souls beyond redemption,’ as more than a few politicians liked to say. Yet there was ‘no place like home’ for Sara Wood, and there never had been. No Auntie Em, no Toto, and never even a kindly old Wizard behind a green curtain watching and waiting in her dreams to carry her all the way back to Kansas. To the home Dorothy Gale longed for as she followed the yellow brick road.
No house in Kansas, and certainly no family waiting in the wings. Yet there had been a series of “homes” run by various Godly institutions, homes that were really anything but. Homes where bespectacled, fat-thumbed men introduced Sara Wood to the deeper rituals of oral amusement – when she was not yet ten years old. And finally there had been the shelters. Shelters from the storms where wide-eyed women pushed her to the floor – and with Bibles in hand forced her to repent for sins she never knew she had committed.
There had never been, in Sara Wood’s life, a fridge in the kitchen to feed her empty belly. There was not a television in the den to fill empty time, there had never been a telephone to carry on late night conversations in darkened bedrooms, safe spaces where she could learn about the carefree, almost empty lives of teenagers spread all over the late-20th-century American landscape – lives spread like a thin coat of lily white paint over the variegated walls of Patrician Denial.
So, Sara Wood did indeed keep to the shadows, although there were times when it felt like the city did it’s very best to keep her there. Out of sight was, she understood better than any social worker ever could, truly out of mind. What little comfort in this world she could afford to purchase she paid for in the only currency available to her, in the currency of her soul. This money Sara earned on her knees in dark alleys behind downtown office buildings, or with her legs spread in the backs of furtively parked suburban station wagons. She was paid for doing things other women wouldn’t do, because that was all that was left for girls trapped in the shadows. Curiously enough, she didn’t use drugs, for the thought had never occurred to her. Perhaps because such things were more than she could afford, for dealers and pimps who trafficked in such things had rarely turned a profit on girls like Sara. They had little obvious need to use her body, as it happened, because the market was already glutted with dapper boys and cleaner girls.
Sara earned just enough money to, from time to time, buy a burger and a coke – and the implicit nature of her social contract stated that she couldn’t rock this boat – because, after all, there really wasn’t a boat to rock anymore. She couldn’t beat the system, or even game the system – because by 1982 the system to care for people like Sara had been systematically dismantled. What might have been never really came to pass…perhaps because, in the end, such things as safety nets tended by caring social workers had always been a cruel illusion. Or perhaps distraction is a better word than illusion, but then again sometimes words have two meanings.
So, in the terra firma where Sara lived, she knelt and prayed on the altar of poverty, and justice for all only applied to people who understood the hidden meanings behind even the simplest sounding words. Yet Sara spent a lot of time on her knees, selling her soul time after greasy time in a story as old as humankind, a story that is anything but an illusion for people lost in shadows.
On any given day, perhaps just like on the day in question, Sara’s face was poised before the unwashed, urine tinged khaki trousers – now gathered around edematous ankles of a fat, smelly man named Bob – sucking his glans. Bob had a dirty red name tag on his shirt, a once shiny plastic thing that identified him as an employee of the New Resurrection Christian Family Bookstore, and, at least so far, he had been enjoying his time with Sara. At about the time in question,Bob had Sara Wood’s hair grasped tightly in his hands, and he was pulling on it roughly, calling her a dirty little whore, telling her to to do the things his so-called girlfriend had told him she would never do. His half-hard penis, Sara Wood thought, was about the size of her little finger and she had been sucking on it for what felt like an hour. Bob would not – or could not – cum, and the more apparent this became to Bob the harder he pulled on Sara Wood’s hair. Bob looked down at Sara Wood’s face and noticed tears in her eyes when he pulled her hair especially hard, and for some reason Bob liked this reaction. He liked it a lot.
Bob gave Sara Wood’s hair a vicious tug, and she cried out, tried to pull away. Bob liked that even more, and he could feel his dick get hard and twitch in response to the sudden pain. But then she attempted to flee, but he forced her down, told her to hold still and that he was going to cum. He held her head forcefully to his groin and tried to pump away, but Sara Wood was now in a fair amount of pain and growing more fearful by the moment, and she was in fact trying to pull away from Bob with a fair amount of effort. Bob both liked and disliked her struggling; he liked the fact that he could frighten and hurt someone so obviously beneath him – and this was something very rare in his experience. Bob disliked the fact that he was probably not going to be able to cum in this girl’s mouth, which, too was a very rare experience in Bob’s life, one that he had paid good money – five bucks and change – for. Determined to prevent her spoiling the moment, Bob decided to shut her up, and with his right fist he swung down with his not very considerable strength – and hit her smartly on the top of her head.
Yet Bob’s penis was, at just that moment, seated rather deeply – and deeply for a three inch penis is of course a relative term – in Sara Wood’s mouth. At that moment, as well, Bob still had a hold of Sara Wood’s hair and he was holding her tightly in place with the grasping fingers of his left hand, holding her tight against his right knee, which he had lifted to brace Sara Wood against, to keep her from pulling away. As Bob’s hammer blow connected – driving Sara Wood’s head down as a result – her lower jaw, now supported against Bob’s right knee, was in effect driven up. Unfortunately for Bob, Sara Wood still had all of her teeth, and they were in decent shape, all things considered.
Bob screamed and reached for his groin as he fell back in agony, his groin now on fire. He fell in a thrashing heap, and as he tried to come to grips with what had just happened he reached for his groin, felt the bloody stump of his cock, and brought his hands to his face. Bob’s ensuing scream was reportedly heard five blocks away, and over city-traffic at that. Bob tossed and twisted on the grimy asphalt, but unfortunately for Bob he was losing a lot of blood at the moment, and as his gyrations slowed to a fetal crawl shock began to set in.
Sara Wood had, at the time Bob dropped to the grimy asphalt alleyway, fallen to the ground under the impact of his clutched fist, fallen in a completely unconscious pile of ragged disarray. There was now, in fact, a large raw patch on the side of her head where a substantial handful of hair had been pulled out – when Bob’s penis had come into full contact with Sara Wood’s teeth. The remnant of Bob’s penis was, by the way, now lodged under Sara Wood’s tongue. The only visible evidence of this was a small trickle of blood that leaked out of the corner of her mouth, down into the watery, broken asphalt of a large pothole.
In due course an ambulance arrived, and a squad car from the police department was not far behind. Bob was stabilized by the fire department’s paramedics, while a half dozen firemen who had responded with the paramedics began searching the area around alley, even the nearby garbage cans and potholes, for the remnants of Bob’s penis. Of course the street-waif had been ignored by the medics as just another piece of garbage that had been blown out of the shadows, and so they had quite naturally concentrated their attentions on the man who was bleeding profusely from the wound in his groin. This man, his name Bob they learned from the name tag, was now, in fact, in very serious condition.
The first patrol officer on the scene was J Eddie McCarran. McCarran’s semi-glacial exterior stood in stark contrast to his open, friendly face; these often slow movements obscured a quick, darting scans of his eyes. Yet it was his inherent slowness that allowed for such careful observations, and he’d been told more than once that he would’ve made a good shrink, and perhaps it was his scrupulously analytical observations of people at crime scenes that led people to such a peculiar conclusion.
But on this hot spring day Ed was also the first public official to move to Sara Wood’s side, and the first to check on her condition. He was the first to see the trickle of blood sliding out of the corner of her mouth, and the first to notice a raw patch of exposed scalp on the side of her head. He looked across at the man on the ground and saw twisted red hair in his hands, and in a way that fit the scene, but he hadn’t quite pieced together events just yet. He bent closer to the girl and felt inside her pant’s pockets, found a grimy, sweat-soaked five dollar bill inside, and he shook his head knowingly as one more piece of the puzzle slid into place. But he saw something else in the girl’s open mouth and he felt a deep twisting churn in his stomach as he took his silver Cross pen out of a shirt pocket and gently pried open her mouth.
“Get me some saline and a four by four – and an evidence baggie; I’ve found the penis,” McCarran said quietly. A couple of firemen came over, and of course these firemen all had something quick and clever to say about the penis in the young girl’s mouth. McCarran just grimaced as he put on his latex crime scene gloves and pried open the girl’s little mouth, but he swept the penis clear of the girl’s mouth with his gloved finger while he tried to not think about what had happened out here.
An ammonia stick was produced and cracked open, waved under the girls nose. She stirred, her eyes fluttered, then she sat up in startled confusion. She looked around – at first wildly confused, then she coughed and wretched when she recognized the taste of blood in her mouth. She pulled herself suddenly into something like a fetal ball, holding her knees to her chest, breathing in shallow fear – because she was no longer in the shadows where she belonged. Then, as Sara Wood regained awareness of her surroundings, the first thing she noticed, and this was a very dangerous thing in Sara Wood’s world, was a police officer kneeling by her side. It didn’t matter that this man was speaking gently to her, holding her shoulder with kind, steadying hands. What Sara Wood saw was a navy blue uniform, a badge, a black leather belt, a holster, a gun, a nightstick and radio, and most dangerous of all, handcuffs. She saw a system that could hurt her, all the people who had ignored her over the years, and now here was a man in the uniform that represented this system – and he was beginning to question her.
The policeman asked for her name, and where she lived. He wanted to know what had happened in this alley, yet she was non-responsive, just another deaf-mute shadow-girl. She didn’t exist – how could she? She understood that on some basic level the man knew this one simple fact of her life, and better than anyone else in this alley.
But then he told her he didn’t want to take her to jail, that he thought he knew what had happened. If he guessed right, he asked gently, would she tell him if he was right? He talked to her, told her what he thought had happened, told her about her missing hair, why her head hurt, what the taste in her mouth was – where that bloody taste had come from.
Sara Wood turned away from the man in the uniform and vomited bile tinged with curling streamers of deep red blood, and she would have passed all her stomach held but for the simple fact her stomach was empty – she didn’t even have what little nourishment there might have been in Bob’s semen. She fell back to the earth and felt her world spinning out of control, and she lay on her side and drew her knees up to her chest again and cried like a baby, cried like the baby she had never had a chance to be.
Ed McCarran sat in his squad car writing yet another police report on his battered aluminum clipboard while he listened to calls on the car’s radio. There were two Flying Magazines on the passenger seat, and a letter from Patterson was tucked inside one of them. He’d told Pat that he had recently moved back to Oak Cliff, but not just to be closer to work; the rents were cheaper over here and he needed the extra money to pay for his flying lessons with Jim Horton. True to form, Patterson had then arranged for Horton’s time to be covered by Cardevac, and while thankful for the gesture Ed hated being in debt to anyone.
But he paid attention to the radio just now – to respond if anyone needed back-up – but then he checked his watch. Just a few minutes to go until he was supposed to check out for lunch, so he turned his attention back to the report on his clipboard, hoping to finish it before lunch in case calls got backed up later in the afternoon.
“Hey there!” he heard a girl say – and it was like a bolt out of the blue.
Lost in his paperwork – a rookie’s mistake – Ed McCarran jumped in his seat. His head jerked around to the left, quickly assessing his surroundings, analyzing threats as he reached for his holster. Then he saw the girl, a destitute looking waif that seemed more like the ghosts he’d read about in books detailing the lives of people freed from Nazi concentration camps.
But as he looked up at her, looked into her eyes for a moment – he recognized her from a recent call, something near Union Station maybe a month ago. He had seen something in the girl’s eyes that day, something lost and alone about her, but then his memory kicked in.
“Sara Wood, right?” he said gently, as the details of that encounter came back to him.
“Yup. How are you?”
“Good,” he said as he scanned her body, habitually looking for any threat she might present. “What’s up with you?”
“Nothin’ much,” she said, looking away for a moment. “I just wanted to thank you for what you said to those D.A. people. They told me if you hadn’t done your job right I’d ended up spending a lotta time in jail.”
Ed McCarran looked down and nodded; he never knew how to take a compliment, or even a simple expression of gratitude. He shrugged it away, like most modest men do out of habit.
Yet the girl took his silence as yet another rejection – so she stepped away and started for the safety of the nearest shadows.
“So,” Ed McCarran asked, “how have you been doing since?”
She stopped. Something in his voice spoke to her, told her there was something different about him. “Oh, you know. Same ole this and that…”
All Ed McCarran had to do was look at this girl to know how she was doing. “Hey, I’m about to check out for lunch. Care to join me?” He could see the conflict roil across her face in an ages old calculation: Trust versus Fear. Hunger versus Fear. He could tell she was afraid of his uniform by the way she held herself obliquely to him, and he already knew the outcome of her simple calculation, and for a split second he wondered why he even bothered anymore.
Yet she shrugged – carelessly, ambivalently – as she looked at McCarran. “I guess,” she finally said.
And he thought he could see her salivating as he picked up the microphone hanging from the side of the squad car’s radio. “2141, 25 code Bob King 114” – and in that stream of jargon he checked out for lunch at one of the Burger Kings in his division, which that day was Southwest, near the Marsalis Zoo in Oak Cliff. He rolled up the window and stepped out of his patrol car and locked the door. “Okay then, let’s do this!” he said with gentle enthusiasm.
Once inside he ordered a Whopper combo meal and then he asked her what she wanted.
“Could I get a glass of water?” she said, looking down somewhere around her shoes.
“Sara, I’m buying. What’ll it be? Come on, sky’s the limit!”
So Sara Wood ordered two Whoppers with cheese, a large order of fries, a large Coke – and then a small chocolate shake, because – why not? The girl behind the counter repeated the order, called it out over the system and shook her head. Ed found a table and waited for the order to be called, and then he carried it back to the table after the surly girl shoved it at him.
Then Ed McCarran sat back and watched the show as Sara Wood tore into the food. It was almost painful to watch, too, and he was sure that, as shrunken as her belly was, it would be very painful to see in an hour or two. He didn’t say a word, didn’t want to interrupt Sara Wood as she piled down the food – which took about three minutes flat.
“Still hungry?” he asked.
Sara Wood made a laughing noise that came out her nose – as her mouth was still full of food. She nodded her head and just managed to say, “a Double Whopper?”
“Comin’ right up.” Ed said as he walked up to the counter again and placed the additional order. He waited until Miss Surly-face slid it over to him, then he carried it back to Sara Wood, and as he put it on the table in front of her he smiled and said “Well, bottoms-up!” as he sat again. He sipped his iced tea while looking at Sara Wood’s contented face – looking at her as if for the very first time – and as he did he flinched. As he looked at her blue-green eyes, at the weathered skin and the scabs on her shoulders, he recognized something within and yet beyond the lost eyes, and the forsaken ambivalence. He saw someone unloved – yet lovable – and he thought for a moment she had been hoping against hope that someone might find her. Whatever else that something might have been, the wave of unexpected feelings tore at his sense of humanity and left him wondering about the rest of her story.
‘Damn, I’m getting old,’ he thought as he watched her eat.
“So, filling up?” he said, forcing another smile in the face of her need.
Her mouth full of food, she nodded and just managed to say, “Yeah, this is really good!”
He smiled again. “Alright!” he replied, looking away for a moment, trying not to cry.
After they finished eating, she asked him where he worked, and he told her he was usually at Southwest Division, but then he gave her one of his cards. “You can call me at the station if you need me; if I’m not there someone will know how to get in touch with me.” he said, his smile genuine. And what was that? Did she see concern on the man’s face?
‘Now just why the hell did I do that?’ he thought – in a moment of regret.
Yet Sara Wood handled his card as if someone had just handed her a stick of dynamite with a burning fuse, but maybe it was more like a one pound bar of gold? The conflict she felt was instant, as was the extremity of her need. She looked at the card intently for a moment, wondering what it said, but she tucked it carefully into a pocket on the rear of her jeans.
The radio on Ed McCarran’s belt came to life: “2141.” He slipped the radio free of the holster on his belt and brought it to the side of his face. “2141, go ahead.”
“2141. 36B K, Clarendon and Tyler, two possible fatalities reported.”
“2141, 10/4 show me Code 5 at this time,” he said into the radio, and he hastily turned to Sara Wood: “Sorry, but I gotta go.” Then he looked into her eyes again. “Really, Sara, if you need me just call the number…”
And with that he was gone, trotting out the door.
She watched him as he got into the car, and she almost winced in pain as the red and blue lights turned on, then she watched as his car pulled out into traffic and the siren came on. She jumped back from the sudden noise, then she watched the car speed away, even as she went to a window and watched the red and blue as they disappeared around a curve. She didn’t realize it just then, but she had been standing on her tip-toes, biting her lip as if she was afraid for him – not of him – and maybe she was even then.
Yet Sara was afraid of all the unknowns waiting out there, whether on the street or in the shadows, unknowns waiting for the kind man, just as they were always waiting for her – but just then the surly-faced girl came over and pushed her out a side door and back into the shadows – right where she belonged.
Because some things in her life never changed.
It was the very next Friday afternoon, and Sara Wood looked down Illinois Street at the Southwest Division sub-station, and as always she was standing in the shadows. She had been hiding there all day, hiding in plain sight, watching and waiting for the kind man’s police car. She finally saw him late in the afternoon, and she watched as he turned into a parking lot that was almost completely hidden from view by tall fences, and so she assumed he had walked into the station. Yet she remained where she was – as if rooted to this spot – waiting to see if he would somehow reappear.
Or perhaps she really wanted to see the man’s face again, know that he was alright. But now she was hoping that, against all odds, maybe he’d come over and talk to her.
About twenty minutes later the kind-faced man came out of the station, only now he was wearing jeans and a white shirt, but he was wearing white sneakers and she thought those looked out of place on him. He was carrying a small bag, too, and she wondered what was in it. Hiding in deep shadows cast by dozens of oak trees near the brick wall that surrounded the station, she watched the man as he walked along the sidewalk that led away from the station, and for a moment she wondered where his car was parked – but then he stopped to talk with a couple of other – she guessed – cops. A minute or so passed before he started walking along Illinois Avenue, then he turned and walked down Cockrell Hill Road. After a block or so he veered left and walked towards a cluster of two-story apartment buildings – and still she followed him, but from a distance. She stayed well behind him, still keeping to the shadows when she could, and after a couple more blocks he left the sidewalk and started into a grey shingled apartment building, his retreating form suddenly hidden by wooden fences and thick stands of bushy live oak trees. Afraid she might lose sight of him, she also wanted to see which apartment was his – so she ran up to the first fence and flew around the corner – but then she ran into – him. He caught her with strong hands yet brought her gently to a stop.
“Whoa, there, kiddo,” he said as gently as ever, “didn’t anyone ever tell you not to follow a cop?”
But Sara Wood just stood in Ed McCarran’s hands, now afraid and being careful to remain still. Suddenly she grew too fearful to speak, and besides – she didn’t know what to say.
A couple of awkward moments passed, his face awash in a befuddled grin as he scanned his surroundings for other potential threats, then he looked into her eyes, looking for the truth of the moment. She seemed guileless, almost childlike, so he shrugged and smiled at the innocence of the encounter. “Well, I don’t know about you but it’s hot out here, and I’m tired. Could I get you a Coke?” he said as he turned and walked off towards another apartment building one block closer to the police station. Sara Wood figured it out right then and there. He’d known she was waiting there all along, known he was being followed, probably from the time he pulled into of the station, so he’d led her into a diversion, then into the trap he set.
Once at the place he really lived, the man walked up one flight of stairs, took out a key and opened the door to one of the apartments, then she followed him into a room full of half-empty boxes and thoughtlessly arranged furniture. He walked over and turned the thermostat on the air conditioner down, way down, then he put his gym bag on the table by the door before he went into the apartment’s tiny kitchen. He got glasses then opened the ‘fridge and poured two Cokes over ice before he came back out to the entry, where she still stood, waiting. McCarran was still in the process of moving into the new apartment, but when he saw the look on Sara’s face it seemed as though she was gawking at the insides of an elaborate mansion.
He walked over and handed her a Coke, but immediately he noticed something was seriously wrong; the girl smelled, indeed, the stench was awful. She exuded pure, unadulterated stink, the stink of seriously neglected personal hygiene. He looked at her skin around the worn collar of her shirt just then and he could see the dirt there was actually inside the pores of her skin. Her hair was beyond greasy, while the fabric of her Salvation Army jeans and t-shirt was thin and foul with the grimy smell of the street. He thought the worst would be the shoes, but just then he had no intention of finding out. One thing was for sure, he had to get her cleaned up before the neighbors complained! Cleaned up first, then maybe he could get her to a shelter.
‘Shelter…? Why do I remember that about her?’ He thought and thought, then remembered…a mouth full of hamburger!
“I remember you,” he said as he looked at her eyes again. “It’s Sara, isn’t it? Sara Wood?”
She nodded and looked away, then she took a long, slow sip of the drink before she looked at him again. “Yes,” she said shyly.
“Well, sit you down, Miss Sara Wood,” he said, his voice still soft and gentle, “and tell me a story.”
She looked at him quizzically – as she still didn’t know what to say. “What kind of story?” she finally asked.
“Well, let’s start with your story, Sara. Then maybe you could tell me why you were following me home.”
She looked away again, afraid of the truth, fearful of his reaction. “I’m sorry, I was just scared for you and I wanted to see you was O.K.”
“What were you afraid of, Sara?”
“Afraid of you gettin’ hurt.”
“Do you have any family, or even some friends?”
But Sara Wood just shook her head.
“Well, Sara, how old are you?”
She shrugged her shoulders a little, then shook her head. “I ain’t sure, but I think maybe twenty – but nobody’s ever been real sure. Maybe twenty-two, but I guess I don’t know, really. ”
“Do you know what year you were born?”
She nodded. “I heard someone say once, something like 1960?”
“Where did you go to school?”
She smiled and turned away. “I ain’t been to no school. None I remember, anyway.”
“Where do you live?” he asked, immediately regretting he’d asked her that and not really wanting to hear the answer.
But she just shrugged his question away, like she always did when someone asked her that.
“Well, okay, do you have any other clothes?”
She shook her head.
“When’s the last time you got cleaned up?”
“At that place where you took me.” He remembered it all now, Bob and the case of the missing dick! That’s where he knew her from. Street girl, trading sex for food money. His stomach turned as he remembered the scene – then the severed penis in her mouth.
“Excuse me, but do I stink bad?” she asked, suddenly ashamed.
“Well honey, maybe just a little,” McCarran said, immediately regretting he’d used such an intimate word.
“You can call me honey if you want. I like it when you say it.”
Ed McCarran looked down at the carpet, embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t…”
“It’s okay, it makes me feel like you ain’t gonna hurt me.”
McCarran looked away, hurting inside for this discarded human being. When he looked up at her again he wanted to cry. “Well, okay then. Let’s get you cleaned up.” He stood and took her Coke into the kitchen, and she followed him like a puppy, with almost thoughtless devotion, but he saw her behavior was like that of a small child. He felt intensely uncomfortable as he went into the apartment’s only bathroom and turned on the shower in the bathtub, and he adjusted the water. “Alright, Sara, you come on in here and get cleaned up. There’s soap and shampoo in the shower, and clean towels over there. You take your clothes off and put them in that hamper,” he said, pointing at the white plastic basket next to the sink. “I might have something to fit you in my kids’ room.”
“You got kids?”
“Yeah, well, they live with their mother in Oregon, but I have some of their stuff here; I bet I can find something you can wear. Now come on in and get yourself cleaned up.”
He closed the door behind her, went to his kid’s room and found some generic sweat-pants and a couple of t-shirts. Socks wouldn’t be a problem, though shoes might be. He pulled out a couple pairs of sneakers from the closet that looked like a ‘maybe’ and gathered them up and put them just outside the bathroom door. He called out to her, told her where to find the clothes and she answered “Okay!” from inside the shower. He looked at his watch, phoned the D.A.s office, got shuffled around, then asked a clerk to look up some information on a Sara Wood, unknown DOB possibly 20 to 22 years old, brought into County as a Welfare Concern back in early May, at least he seemed to remember that much. When he was informed she was twenty-two he breathed a little easier. Not much, but a little. He asked if they had done any blood work, wanted to know if he might have been exposed to anything during his contact with her, then rang off after the clerk told him she’d not tested positive for anything.
He sat in the living room, turned on the evening news which was, as always, full of stuff about Iran-Contra and budget cuts. He heard the water cut off, then the shower curtain sliding open; a few minutes later he heard the bathroom door open and close as Sara grabbed the clothes he’d set out. “Can I use your brush?” she called out once.
“Of course, go ahead. And oh, before I forget. There are some new toothbrushes in the medicine cabinet over the sink. Help yourself.”
About five minutes later she came out. There must have been a pair of gym shorts stuck between the t-shirts, because she came out wearing navy colored shorts, a yellow t-shirt emblazoned with an L.A. Laker’s logo, some white gym socks and an almost new pair of black suede Pumas.
But by then Ed McCarran’s blood pressure had shot through the roof – because the girl that walked out of the bathroom that afternoon looked hotter than any firecracker on the Fourth of July. Her hair was actually reddish-blond once all the dirt and grime had been rinsed away, and it struck him in that moment that she looked like a very thin Sissy Spacek. And now, suddenly, his voice was shaking – but he looked away – now quite ashamed of the onrushing feelings he was experiencing.
“Well, how’d that hot water feel?” he finally said. But then he felt his face flush with red heat of a different kind – and now he felt very uneasy that this unexpected stranger was now hanging out in his apartment.
Sara Wood walked into the living room and sat on the couch next to Ed McCarran; she obviously knew enough about the world, and the baser instincts of men, to understand the effect she was having on him. “That felt really nice,” she said with a minty-fresh smile, leaving him adrift in another new silence. She found herself looking at his forehead, then the wrinkles around his eyes. She looked up at his receding hairline, and then she saw his left eyebrow was twitching!
But just then Ed McCarran stood and walked away, headed toward the bathroom. “If you don’t mind, I’m gonna take a quick shower, then I’ll take you out to dinner. How’s that sound?”‘And it’s gonna be a cold fuckin’ shower, too,’ Ed McCarran told himself as he peeled off his jeans in the bathroom.
Sara Wood sat on he sofa, smiling. ‘So, he isn’t like the rest of them,’ she told herself. ‘And he blushed! I hope he loves me as much as I love him!’
In Sara Wood’s world people either used you or used you and then killed you, but there was no such thing as love in the shadowlands. While Sara Wood knew what it felt like to be used, she was pretty certain she had no idea what love was supposed to feel like, because she was certain that in her entire life not one soul had ever loved her. And while she had never loved anyone, she was pretty sure she knew that love existed.
But something deep in her belly was connecting to a primal need that crawled through her being inside that moment, a distant, faraway need seeking connection. A connection grounded in desire and release, and maybe Sara Wood thought that this was what love was supposed to feel like. When she saw him, that’s what she felt – connection and desire – and it felt good to her as she sat there in his room because this new feeling didn’t make her want to run back into the shadows.
She got up from the sofa after Ed closed the bathroom door. She heard the water turn on and walked around the apartment, curious what he was like. She poked inside the half-empty boxes, saw framed diplomas and strange looking books. Then she walked into his bedroom, around the far side of the bed, and once there she looked out the lone window – and she could see the police station through the trees. She turned to go back to the living room and saw some magazines under the bed so she bent down to look at one of them. She couldn’t read the words on the covers, but there were women on them, women with very few clothes on. She picked another one up and opened it; there were men sticking their things into women, women sucking on men’s things, women kissing women – which she thought looked really funny, and laughed a little at that – and all of the women were wearing really weird stuff. She had never seen anything like what these women had on; not anywhere, not anytime. She picked up another magazine, and another, and they were all filled with pictures just like the first one, and all the women were dressed up in these silly looking things.
Ed McCarran finished drying himself off and cursed when he realized he’d left his change of clothes in the bedroom, so he wrapped the towel around his waist and prepared to dash across the hall into his bedroom. This he adroitly did, only to screech to a halt as he saw Sara Wood sitting on his bed giggling at the pictures in his secret stash of magazines. And just like a deer caught in the headlights of an onrushing car, Ed McCarran froze.
But Ed McCarran had failed to appreciate the innocence harbored within this girl; she turned another page, completely focused on the next set of new images, giving an appreciative ooh here and a stifled giggle there. Then, at some point she became aware of Ed McCarran so she turned around to face him and said, “Look at this!”
Ed McCarran, rarely at a loss for words, was now utterly speechless. He shook his head to clear his mind after a few more awkward moments in the headlights, and as nonchalantly as he possibly could, he asked Sara Wood if he could have some privacy while he got dressed. She grabbed a handful of the magazines and headed out of his bedroom with them toward the sofa – only now with a contented look of happily sated curiosity on her face!
‘Oh, man, what have I gotten myself into?’ McCarran said as he closed the bedroom door behind her, wiping away beading lines of perspiration that had suddenly formed on his forehead and upper lip. While he dressed he heard her giggle a few more times, and he wondered how he might get those magazines hidden away again without looking like too big an ass. Yet when he went out she had neatly stacked the magazines and she watched him carefully – and again he was struck by how puppy-like she seemed.
“Think you could eat something tonight?”
She smiled. He turned bright red.
“For dinner, I mean,” he stammered.
“When’s the last time you has something to eat?”
Again she just shrugged.
“Does anything sound good? A burger? Pizza or spaghetti? Anything?”
“I don’t know.”
At a complete loss now,he led her outside and back down the steps then out to the parking lot behind his building. He walked over to a car covered with a heavy tan cloth and pulled the fabric away from the vehicle, revealing a tangerine colored Triumph TR6 convertible; Sara Wood squealed and clapped her hands as she looked at the car, jumping up and down a few times along the way.
“C’mon, help me get the top down,” McCarran said, pointing to hooks and levers at the top of the windshield, giving her directions. They got the top down and then he pulled a vinyl-canvas cover out of the space behind the seats and snapped it into place. He opened her door and showed her how to put on the rather complicated manual seatbelt, then he shut the door behind her – at this point on autopilot and not having the slightest idea what he was doing.
“Oh, this is so fun,” she said as he sat down next to her, happily drumming the dashboard in front of her; McCarran turned the ignition and the Weber carburetors feeding the little six cylinder engine kicked the beast awake, and now it was his turn to smile. He studied the gauges while the engine warmed, doing his level best to ignore the pale thighs next to his.
“Nothin’ like an old British roadster,” McCarran said as the car sputtered and burbled to life. “So,” he added, “you want dinner and a movie, or dinner and shopping at the mall?”
Sara Wood’s eyes went round as saucers. “The mall?” she cried. “Could we…I never bought stuff at the mall before.”
When McCarran simply said, “Answers that question!” she just squealed again, and bounced around in her seat like a little kid.
Ed McCarran backed the little roadster up and pulled out onto the street, heading toward a gathering of restaurants clustered around Red Bird Mall.
“Whatcha feel like eating?” he asked as they motored along, and he looked at Sara from time to time, at her long red hair dancing in the slipstream, errant curls whipping around her face as she laughed and laughed. This was her first experience bouncing down an urban street in an English roadster, and Ed was entranced by her pure joy.
“I don’t know – you choose…”
So they had dinner at a local steakhouse, and he delighted in watching her fiddle with a ‘bloomin’ onion,’ and he ordered her – again at her request – a filet mignon, a fully dressed baked potato, and a heaping bowl of creamed spinach. She wolfed everything down and McCarran was certain he could see a little color return to her face, and he felt happier than he had in months. After they finished he told her they would get dessert at the mall, and she again clapped her hands and bounced around in the Triumph’s little seat.
He took her to The Gap, and she picked out some – to Ed McCarran’s practiced eye – low-cut bell bottomed jeans and a couple of shirts to go with them. He also got her some khaki shorts and a white cotton polo shirt, just because. They went to one of the athletic shoe stores, and she picked out some Adidas tennis shoes and some hot pink Converse All Stars, which she found especially “cool” and asked to wear from the store. They made their way down to the food court, where she ordered some pineapple sherbet in a small sugar cone, and Ed ordered the same thing. They gathered her packages from the counter and went to sit by a fountain under a huge skylight in the center of the food court, and Ed watched Sara’s pure joy as she nibbled on the ice cream cone.
But all the while, during dinner and now after, he looked at her and he could feel the weight of the abuse and neglect heaped on her soul, the tacit neglect of people who all too easily turned away from all people like Sara Wood. More troubling still, he had seen and often heard how many took a perverse pleasure in the pain and suffering such endemic homelessness caused. Yet watching her now, looking at her enjoying the simplest pleasure imaginable – eating an ice cream cone on a warm summer evening – he saw a cute girl who suddenly had not a care in the world. And what had it been? Six weeks from those awful moments in the alley? He’d first seen her six weeks ago on her side, unconscious and with the severed remnants of a penis in her bloody mouth.
He struggled while he tried to reconcile these two visions of her, and with the society that allowed such extremes to go unchecked. He’d seen too many Sunday school hypocrites, enough to understand one part of the equation, as usually the richest of these ‘religious’ people were the first to complain about the tax burdens of helping the poor. He hadn’t been the only person to see these same wealthy people drive past starving people on their way from church to a fancy restaurant. And he wasn’t the only cop to understand how starving people simply disappeared from view – day after day.
Yet he was all too often at a loss to understand why these things happened.
And after almost fifteen years on the force, he’d seen it too many times to count. The incremental soul-murders that suburban ‘Johns’ inflicted on downtown runaways, the despair of an elderly woman starving to death just yards away from a restaurant selling fifty dollar steaks. But just then McCarran realized that he too had worked around these same starving, nameless people, and that he too had grown obliviously numb to their everyday reality.
Why? What had caused that? When had such people become things, and no longer human beings?
His mind drifted, and for a moment he imagined having sex with this girl – yet almost instantly the thought made him feel sick to his stomach. Not that she was ugly or a turn-off, because that was surely not the case. No, it was more like he could see her now for the human being she had always been, and not some thing consigned to the shadows. Her guileless – and very cute face – left him breathless one moment and then he thought of the endless, senseless violations she had endured and those thoughts left him feeling dried-up and feeling lonely inside. If ever there had been a poster child of this society’s manifest hypocrisy and overt neglect, here she was, sitting right next to him. Sitting right here in this mall, one of America’s new cathedrals of conspicuous consumption. Here sat Sara Wood – poster child of an all new and enduring American nightmare.
And yet he couldn’t help himself. He was enjoying the moment. Enjoying the evening. Enjoying her happiness, her joy at experiencing a few of the things that had always remained beyond her reach, and the things he’d always taken for granted. Then she looked at him and said: “Can we go look at more stuff?”
And he experienced anew the childlike trill of her voice in full bloom, and it was as if the prospect of having something to call her own could erase all the dry, hard facts of her existence. As if “stuff” could somehow erase the last twenty-two years of a life spent without – like she could somehow hit the rewind button and start recording over all the misery. Could “stuff,” he wondered, really let her start life all over again?
Given the morality-free void that she had obviously grown up in, he thought it remarkable she had the capacity to feel good about herself on any level. But, and this was more to the point, she now had a huge grin on her face, and she was happy in a way very much like his own children once had been in this very same mall, yet her’s was an innocent happiness, a ‘for the first time in my life I’m happy’ expression of wonder, where to his children this place had always seemed almost dull and boring.
Like his marriage had, he assumed, once a certain kind of loved faded from view.
So they took off together in search of more stuff, and soon they walked down a wing of the mall they hadn’t been to yet, and she saw things she had never even heard of – yet everything she saw was all an infinitely bewildering array of ‘stuff’ that most kids in this mall had long taken for granted.
But soon he realized she didn’t know how to ask for even the simplest things; she had no experience asking anyone for anything. She’d never had anyone in her life to simply give her things; she had never been spoiled by a doting father or a caring mother; there had been no birthday parties with face painting and pony rides, no leaving cookies and a glass of milk left on the hearth for Santa. He soon understood it just wasn’t that things had always been out of her reach; no, it was that she had never known anyone who would simply be there for her, let alone there was no one there to show her how to ask for things. Things, perhaps, as simple as a helping hand.
She saw shiny stereo and had no idea what it was; she looked at a color television set and was mystified by the images she saw inside the box. She saw posters of popular teen idols, yet she had no idea who they were, or why they were on a poster – even the concept of fame seemed like an abstraction beyond her grasp. The corridors of wealth weren’t a mystery to her, simply because she had no experience of either wealth or power.
But as they walked along they came upon a store that had scantily clad mannequins in the windows, forms dressed just like the women in the magazines she’d found under the kind man’s bed. She stopped and looked at them, and an embarrassed Ed McCarran looked away as he stopped beside her, as he shrank away from the locus of her attention. When she ran inside he looked up to the heavens and groaned at the forces of destiny that had brought him to this place.
Once inside he watched as she ran up to a figure that was outfitted all in white, kind of like what McCarran thought might be Hugh Hefner’s idea of a bridal lingerie-slut outfit. “Can I get this?” she whispered, and just then a jaded salesgirl came over and looked at Sara Wood, then at Ed McCarran – and the salesgirl passed along a knowing wink to go along with her condescending smirk. Ed nodded at the salesgirl then sent Sara Wood off to be measured, and when she came back to him she looked at another outfit that was lacy and black with jade colored insets here and there and she cooed as she picked it off a rack, “Oooh, ain’t this pretty?” Ed again nodded to the salesgirl, who nodded solicitously, then added, “Would you like to see some shoes, too?” When Ed McCarran walked out of the trashy lingerie store she was outfitted with the whole regalia; garters, stockings, pumps, bras, panties; ‘You name it,’ Ed thought, ‘I just bought it.’ He shouldered the load and carried her loot out to the car, and they stashed her new stuff in the trunk before heading back to Ed’s apartment. The sun was setting and Ed was simply beyond exhausted, yet he didn’t have the slightest clue what to do with the girl.
Simple inertia took over and he carried her packages up the stairs and into his apartment. He paused, thinking about what had been bothering him all evening, and then he made a decision. He took her packages to his kid’s room and put them on the top bunk, then he went back out to Sara, who was standing in the doorway. “You don’t have anywhere to stay, do you?” he asked.
She shrugged as another uneasy realization dawned on her– because she knew what came next. The shadows sang their siren’s song again and she turned to leave.
“Listen to me, Sara,” Ed McCarran said, catching her eye as she turned away. “If it’s none of my business just say so, or if you feel I should just shut-up, well, you just – tell me, Okay? My kid’s only come here for Christmas and Easter; their room is empty the rest of the time. If you want to stay here, with me – in their room – for awhile, until you can figure out what you want to do, well, it’s yours if you want it. You won’t have to worry about eating, or about getting new clothes, or having a place to sleep, okay? I just have a couple of rules.”
Sara Wood was looking at the floor, because she didn’t have the words for what was running through her mind.
“No drugs, no booze, no friends hanging out in here when I’m not around. Clear? You keep yourself clean, and you keep your room picked up, and I’m going to figure out how to get you into school…”
Yet Ed McCarran was cut off when Sara Wood ran into his arms at full speed, and as he put his arms around her she started trembling, then crying – at first just a little but then uncontrollably. He kept his arms around her and then stroked her hair, saying meaningless little things like: “Alright, it’s going to be okay now,” and “It’s okay, it’s all going to be okay now.’ In fact, he held her until she was spent, until he could feel her relaxing in his arms. She looked up at him, he looked down into her very tear-streaked face and kissed her on her forehead. “It’s okay now, Sara, you’re safe here,” he whispered. “You don’t ever have to worry about falling down again, because I’m gonna be here to catch you. Okay?” Then he held her face in his hands and wiped away a few of her tears with his thumbs.
“Can I ask you something?” she finally said, her little voice a faraway whisper.
“Yes, of course.”
“What’s your name?”
A blank look came over Ed McCarran’s face as he thought back to that day. ‘I gave her my business card – but oh no, God why didn’t I think, of course, she can’t read…’ He shook his head and laughed. “Yeah, I guess you should probably know my name. Ed, but call me Eddie, okay?”
“Now, let’s get those teeth brushed, and then get you off to bed.”
After he had her tucked away in the bottom bunk – in his kids’ bedroom, he flipped out the light and closed the door. He went into the kitchen and made a rum and coke and walked out to the sofa to sit – then he put his feet up on the coffee table as he tried to make sense of the evening. He reviewed the decisions he had just made in his mind, which was a problem because he had already made the big one with his heart. He thought about the Sunday School hypocrites he knew, then he thought about Sara Wood lying curled up and unconscious in an alley with the bloody stump of a penis caught in her mouth.
And then he thought about the dividing line between right and wrong, that cold, grey area where most people feel so uncomfortable they turn away from the mention of it. Yet he lived and worked along that line, didn’t he? He lived and worked in a no man’s land where the absolutes of good and evil defined his every action – yet his feelings for this girl lay far, far away from the contours of that line. She didn’t exist, not really, yet he was presuming he could carry her across that line, carry her far away from the thoughtless eyes that governed her insane existence.
He leaned forward and put his head into his hands, and then Officer J Eddie McCarran cried for a very, very long time.
‘She’s a child,’ he heard the gnawing voice in the back of his mind say.
‘No, she’s not. In the eyes of the law she’s an adult woman.’
‘You’re just taking advantage of that, you’ll be using her like all the rest.’
‘Did you ever think that maybe she’s taking advantage of me?’
‘Hah! Hypocrite! You’re no better than all the rest!’
‘How will she grow if I continue to treat her like a child. She needs to be treated like an adult, not a child…’
He was lying in bed a couple hours later – on his back with his eyes wide shut, afraid of sleep and the dreams he knew would be waiting for him there. There was no way he was going to find sleep, not tonight, so he was glad at least that he had three day weekend. He tossed and turned, struggled with his emotions, until…
Suddenly, quietly, he heard the door to his room opening, then he saw Sara silhouetted in the doorway, her long straight hair falling over the t-shirt she had worn to bed. She walked in slowly, then sat on the edge of his bed, and soon she was looking at Ed McCarran’s face.
“Eddie?” she whispered.
“I don’t want to be like one of your kids,” she said, a vast, cool tremor under her words. “Know what I mean, Eddie?” When he was silent for a moment, she went on. “I want to be in here with you. You said you wanted to take care of me, but I want to take care of you, too.”
He didn’t know what to say, but he felt hot and cold running fear lurking in his mind.
“Eddie, say something, please?”
He sat up in bed, pushed himself up on his arms and flinched as an old shoulder wound pulled him back to the line and into the present, and he cried out as the pain hit home.
“What is it, Eddie?” she said, plainly scared by his reaction.
“It’s nothing. I got shot once, and some nights it hurts more than others.”
“Can I see?” she asked. She slid forward on the bed until she was close to McCarran at the head of the bed. She reached out to touch his shoulder and he flinched, pulled away from her.
“Please,” she pleaded, “don’t run away from me, Eddie.” She reached out again, touched his shoulder. She put her fingers on his skin, softly probing and stroking his fear. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she continued. “I promise, okay?”
Ed McCarran felt an electric tremor pass from her fingers through his skin as she touched him; at first he felt this tremor in his shoulder, then he felt it boiling up from his groin and up into the small of his back, then it moved further up his spine. He tried to look away, to close his eyes as he was carried along the line, but he felt that the worst thing he could do right now, do to the very fragile world Sara Wood lived in, was reject her, hurt her again in some new and unexpected way. But he also knew he had to take charge of the moment – for all his training commanded that he control each and every situation.
Because that was what allowed him to live and work along the line.
Sara Wood felt the fragility of her own sense of control, too. Yet from the moment she ran her fingernails over Ed McCarran’s shoulder, then across to the back of his neck, she knew she could control the music of his heart. “Turn over, Eddie, turn over and lay on your stomach.”
Ed McCarran slipped down into the safety of his bed, then he turned over onto his stomach.
‘This is a good, even a safe position,’ he said to the gnawing voice.
‘You miserable hypocrite!’ came the sharp reply.
She continued to rub the old wound on his shoulder lightly, every now and then running her fingernails in tight little circles, moving over his neck for a while, then running her fingers through his hair, scratching his head gently. He felt her moving, felt her move to sit on top of him, and then she was sitting on the backs of his thighs. He felt her pubic hair on his skin and realized she only had on a t-shirt, then he felt that other warmth spreading around his soul. Soon she was leaning forward, putting her hands on his back between his shoulder blades, and she began to rub his back with the open palms of her hands. She put real strength into her movements, rubbing from the middle of his back up with both hands, then moving slowly up to his neck and finally out along his shoulders, and after a few minutes of this he let slip a sigh from the deepest reaches of his fear. She retreated down the same slope with her fingernails, those strange electric currents still flowing through him in sync with her movements, and as he drifted along he saw a feeling taking shape in his mind: she was a brook meandering through rich, sun-warmed fields – then she was the hot blood running through his veins.
But Sara Wood kept rubbing his back, his shoulders and neck, and for what felt like hours. Every now and then Ed McCarran sighed, and words like “Oh, God, this is heaven,” and “That feels great,” passed his lips, until at one point he said, “Oh Sara, you feel so good to me.” And with that said, with that opening, Sara Wood leaned forward and slid her arms under Ed McCarran’s arms and cradled his soul in what was left of hers, she put the side of her face on his back, just below his head, and she nuzzled her face on his back. She then kissed his back, moving her tongue to his spine as she ran her hands over his outstretched arms, once gain tracing little eddies in the flow of her currents.
She then sat up, slid down until she was sitting on the backs of his thighs again. She scratched his back as she slid, scratched where she had been sitting, scratched the warm-moist slick where her vagina had rubbed against his back. She lightly ran her fingernails over his buttocks, felt him tense in the ticklishness of these unfamiliar, silvery motions, then she rubbed his butt coarsely, soothing the currents out and away into the charged atmosphere of her other intentions.
Ed McCarran felt Sara Wood as she moved down his back, felt the weight of her need, and he felt the weight of his desire for her growing with each stroke of her hand, each warm breath of her’s on his back. With the tension that melted from his knotted muscles, with each pulse of her beating desire, he felt his resistance to her withering within the ever-slowing heartbeats of time. He was moving from the world of his training, of his profession, into the dim gray light of the dividing line.
And that was when she asked him to turn over.
Ed McCarran felt the conflict between his head and his heart. He saw his ex-wife looking at him, fellow officers in the department shaming him, store clerks and fast food cashiers casting dark, sidelong glances his way; all of them looking at him as he fell into the shadowlands, judging him for his transgressions.
Yet she lifted from his thighs as she felt him beginning to turn under her.
And he turned his body under hers, struggling to make sense of this new world.
She straddled his belly now, just below his chest. She reached behind, reached for Ed McCarran’s groin, ran her fingers through his pubic hair, moved her hand purposely towards his need.
Ed McCarran’s entire body stiffened as her hand made contact with his belly. He felt her hand as it moved down, as she encircled him.
Sara Wood held him and stroked away his fear, only now she looked intently into his eyes. She saw the passive smile on his face as an echo of her own, and perhaps nothing more or less than that.
Ed McCarran felt her sliding away from his face, away from his chest. She was sliding through time now, away and beyond the infinite. He felt her pubic hairs as they traced faint electric contours on the charged surface of their need.
She still had him in hand as her vagina hovered, wraith-like, pulsing, above his groin. She lowered herself slowly, gently, until she felt the head just grazing the petals of her lips. She reached with her fingers and spread them apart, leaving a faint pink opening that seemed to reach of it’s own volition for the straining loneliness waiting just below.
Ed McCarran felt the heat of her folds radiating throughout his body, and he arced to meet her vast oceanic pull. He felt his skin on her lips, felt her lips parting in supplication, conforming to the shape of this new world. He moaned as her warmth penetrated the darkness, as the flooding tide of the moment flowed through the fabric of time.
The arc of time stands still in such moments, as sometimes happens when Time looks upon new lovers. Yet Time does not judge, does not weigh motive or intent. If in the infinity of Time’s travels such things as love and need can be measured by the arc created between two beating hearts – that moment when two lost souls collide and dance in molecular fury – then surely this comes at a moment of Time’s choosing. Time fuses in the heat of love’s first release and seems to begin anew, but all too often Time is bathed in the light of uncertain wisdom. Yet even then Time laughs with new lovers, not at them – if only for a little while.
This fragment (c) 2023 adrian leverkühn | abw | and it’s simply fiction, plain and simple.
The next week or so will be somewhat trying on this end. I typically handle surgery well enough but I’ve had a bad feeling about this one for a week or two, so…we’ll see. Oh, I made good progress on this story back in November, before the proverbial shit hit the fan, but progress has been sporadic at best ever since. It feels rushed, particularly on the back nine – so in other words ripe for a revision or two. And yes, there is a loose affiliation here to that earlier story, The Otter and the Fox. The plan, such as it is, is to round out the tale with a third part somewhere in the future. So again, we’ll see. Hang in there, okay?
Life grows peculiar when you begin to see yourself as something resembling an indefinite article.
[America \\ Here]
The Otter and The Owl
Seattle | Today
A gray day, windy and with rain threatening to kill the sun, again. Rain, rain, and nothing but more gray rain for days. Or had it been weeks?
The old man lived in a striking gray house perched above the gray Pacific, and so intent was he to live in gray anonymity he had even had the original shake roof pulled up and replaced with a gray standing seam metal roof. At least, he thought, the new roof sounded nice in the rain.
His foppish gray hair had long since turned white and with the change, like the inevitable change of seasons and the falling leaves of autumn, his legs had begun a falling of their own. Quite normal, he realized, in the usual seasons of man. It was a day to day thing these days, this sustained autumn of his, but he took all this too in his stride. He was anything but bitter and was in fact rather satisfied with the remnants of his life.
His name, of course, was Grey. Patrick Grey. And for most of his life he had been a spy. MI6 and all that. But all that had been in another life, a life he had tried to forget for a time – before he realized the pointlessness of the exercise. He’d been retired for a few weeks when he’d run over the bright idea of writing his memoirs – only to be reminded of the dour vicissitudes of his office, re: The Official Secrets Act – so he’d taken the easy way out. Taking a road more or less well traveled, he’d started writing novels. Trashy spy novels. Airport novels of no real import, however his publisher had inflated his involvement in that other world into the balloon-sized, ego-feeding nom de plume of Patrick Whats-his-name. Oh yes, Grey. And very much not Gray, thank you so very much.
But then he’d penned a book of some – import. He’d ruffled a few feathers, so many that he realized his time had come and gone. And come again.
He’d grown up very much his father’s son, on a rather large estate south of Cheltenham, on lands of neatly rolling hills and narrow country lanes lined with stout English oaks and low rock walls. And speaking of rocks, his family estate had been located quite near a formation known locally as the Devil’s Chimney, a smallish spire that stood above the village of Leckhampton Hill. Old spies, the young boy learned soon enough, were quite often put out to pasture along these very same narrow lanes. His father chief among them, as it happened, when his own season came.
Now he lived in Seattle just south of Ballard Locks, hard by the railroad tracks. On weekend mornings sailboats motored by as if lost in the ironies of their dependence, while he sat watching from his wheelchair hoping the painkillers might actually kick in and work again that day. But on this Monday morning no motoring sailboats were to be found plying the waters off his deck, though a somewhat large fishing boat had just transited the locks and was even now headed out into Puget Sound, trailing a whirling stream of white birds screaming for a handout. Screaming, like the homeless children by the freeway caught up in another wayward gyre.
He looked at his watch, a beat up old Submariner that had come along for most of the ride, and he winced at the pain in his hips and knees before he turned in his chair and stared at his nemesis. His piano, an iterative variation of the same creature that had defeated him his entire life. This one a Yamaha, a smallish grand with a sumptuously mellow way with words, and he hated her. Positively. The way Odysseus hated the Sirens.
Was that because of the way she called out to him? Seductively, and with glowing words full of promise and praise. Yet she was the last accursed bitch in his life, the last one standing, the one who just didn’t know how or when to let go. A trait not shared by all the other women he had known. No, this last had triumphed by attrition and most certainly not by wit and wisdom.
The walls were white inside his gray house. The cabinetry in his kitchen was white, the countertops too. Bookcases in the living room were white, the leather upholstery around the room too was purest white. The original Douglas fir flooring was varnished to a high sheen and lay there in stark contrast to almost everything else in the room, for even the brick fireplace had been painted white. Only the bricks inside are black, but that was another story.
But hanging there on the chimney above the hearth was the one blast of color in this otherwise unremittingly white room. An ornately framed piece waiting to been seen and admired waited there, a kimono of deepest red silk flanked by a samurai’s two swords; the long killing sword and the shorter, much sharper blade used to commit ritual suicide. Seppuku, right? Wasn’t that the word? All three pieces, the kimono and the two swords, were ancient, and yet they each had a story of their own to tell. A lone recessed light in the ceiling shone down brightly on them, imploring them to speak, to tell their story to all who passed by, but the gilt frame contained them all. Or, perhaps restrain is the more apt choice, as we shall see.
But for now their only voice resides inside the man in his wheelchair, and to this day he still resolutely refuses to utter even one word about their former lives.
Oh, how they cried out, begging to be heard – even if just one more time.
A knock on the door – so easily ignored. Pointlessly so, of course.
Then the sound of a key in the lock and the tall varnished fir was easing open once again, slowly, surreptitiously, as if letting fresh air inside this mausoleum was a sin beyond redemption.
He winced as he looked at his watch, again. ‘Oh hell, is it Monday already?’ he sighed. Inevitable Mondays, again and again.
“Patrick? Are you ready to go?”
It is Carolyn, his agent. His last friend on this Earth, the last one standing who no doubt will discover his lifeless body one day, and perhaps in this very room. “I think I might need help with my shoes this morning,” Patrick replied, the words poised to cut, perhaps like the short blade over the fireplace might – if given half a chance.
She walked-in and saw him sitting there in his chair, looking out over the water – and for the life of her she still thought he looked like some kind of peregrine man-beast, perched on the edge of forever and waiting to take flight to God only knew where. She looked down and saw his bare feet, the forlorn hammer-toe on his right foot, the yellowing toenails so out of place, in character almost simian. She went to his bedroom and saw the clothes she had laid out two days ago – still and untouched.
“Did you shower this morning?”
“No. Did you?”
“Patrick! It’s a book fair, not a trip to the zoo! Actual people will be there, they are coming to hear you speak. To listen – to you!” She came and sat on the coffee table and smiled into the gales of his obstinance, meeting his stoicism in her own headstrong way, which was of course the only way he would tolerate her. “Can you lift your leg?” she added.
He tried once then shook his head. “Not today.”
“Is it much worse?”
He looked away, looked at the white seabirds swirling behind the fishing boat and he wanted to be with them out there, screaming.
She lifted his leg until he winced – but she quit there. “I think today we’ll go with the clogs? Does that sound alright to you?”
He shook his head. “No, that doesn’t sound ‘alright.’ Not at all, as a matter of fact.”
“What are your sugars?”
She picked up his phone and entered the code, looked at the readout from his glucometer and sighed. “Patrick, if you stop taking your insulin you’re going to die. Do you hear me? That means you close your eyes and you stop breathing. Understand? It’s a fact of life even you should be aware of, okay?”
“Not your life.”
She sighed, if only because they’d had this conversation before. Too many times.
She went to his closet and found a pair of old gray Stegmann clogs neatly tucked away in their original box; like all his shoes they were boxed and put away clean after each wearing. The felt had been, she saw, recently brushed, and the cork footbed neatly oiled…but that was just Patrick being Patrick. He had turned neatness into a fetish, and though he had a housekeeper that came by twice a week he ended up cleaning the floors after the old woman left, pushing her lingering dust out the door from the comfort of his wheelchair.
She slipped the clogs on his feet then wheeled him to the door.
“Has it rained yet?” he asked.
“No, not until noon – at least that’s the forecast,” she said as she wheeled him out to his van. Modified to allow some semblance of mobility, the door slid open at the push of a button and the ramp inside began a long, tortured process of unfolding itself, making ready to haul him up into the belly of the beast. He rolled onto the ramp and turned just so, allowing the clamps to engage the wheels and so to hold him securely in place while Carolyn drove him downtown.
“What have you got me doing today?” he asked. “Not another reading, for heaven’s sake?”
“No, no, just anecdotes and then a brief Q and A, followed by a signing.”
“Oh…joy…” he sighed. “And if I should, per chance, soil myself again?”
“Please don’t, Patrick.”
He looked out the window as his van turned into a vapidly huge downtown parking garage. “Why do you keep doing this to me, Carolyn? I mean, besides the obvious commercial exploitation of a helpless old man – what’s in it for you?”
“Another book, dear Patrick. Like your fans, I absolutely yearn for your next book.”
“Bosh. You are so full of it it makes my head spin.”
“Hey, hope springs eternal.”
“Does it, indeed? How sweet for the both of you.”
She parked then wheeled him into the book fair and people pointed at him as he wheeled by, all the way to the conference room where his pithy anecdotes and all his answers from on high were supposed to come down as received wisdom. The room, he noted, was full, and there were two tables stacked high with new books waiting to be purchased and signed. What Carolyn called ‘money in the bank’ but which was, in the end, anything but. He looked at the stacks and shuddered at all the blood spent on those pages.
When he wheeled out in front of the assemblage he looked over the crowd, meeting a polite smile here and there with one of his own, until his eyes came to rest on a rather tall, willowy woman standing against the back wall. Black dress, the same black hair and yes, he saw she was older now, older than the last time they’d danced this dance, but now she was staring at him, an old scowl played in a minor key – until pale recognition registered in his eyes and on her face. Then she smiled and walked away, her apparent triumph complete. For the time being.
“What happened out there?” Carolyn asked. “It’s not like you to get nervous in front of an audience like that…”
“I thought I saw a ghost.”
“Yes. A ghost of my very own, let’s call it my Ghost of Christmas Past.”
She shook her head and grinned into the rearview mirror. “Well, you did good today. Lots of positive feedback.”
“So, does that mean you sold a few books.”
“Well yes, we did, as a matter of fact.”
“And do tell, but how many people complained about my shoes? Or my lack thereof?”
“Everyone, Patrick! Why, just think about it, would you? Everyone there, absolutely everyone –wanted to know all about your feet!”
He crossed his arms and grumbled at her reflection in the little mirror. “And to think, I didn’t even shit myself. What a wasted opportunity. Don’t you find that ever so thoughtful of me?”
And that purchased a few minutes of silence.
“Do you need to stop at the market before I drop you off?”
He sniffed once, wanted to sigh at the indignity of his existence but thought better of it. “If you can spare the time, yes. I need a few things,” he said as he – reflexively – reached inside his jacket, hoping to feel the reassuring cold steel of his little Walther. But no, not this time, for time had erased even that most primal level of reassurance.
“Trader Joe’s?” she asked.
“Please,” he said, feeling chastened. “If you don’t mind.”
She helped him out of the van and watched him roll off into the little market, pulling out her cell phone to catch up on all her missed texts and emails as she got behind the wheel to wait for him, yet for a moment she thought she spotted the woman in the black dress that had so rattled Patrick at the fair. Getting out of a taxi, and now she was following him – at a discrete distance – into the store.
“Now just what the hell is this all about?” she muttered, lifting her phone and firing off several images of the woman. Big black sunglasses, black heels and stockings and a bright white handbag. Incongruous, just like Patrick. And out of place – again, just like Patrick. She saw the taxi pull away and thought to snap a few pictures of it, too. Not sure why. Call it instinct. Or maybe she’d read too many of his books?
He spent a good deal of time in those days looking over freshly picked mushrooms. He’d recently read that several key varieties stop the spread of vascularization around new tumors, in effect killing them before they could grow dangerously large, so now he added copious quantities of the things to almost everything he cooked, but especially his omelets. There was a new shipment of good looking shiitakes being put out on the shelves, and he waited until the stocker finished up then moved in to grab a couple of quart-sized containers.
And that was when he felt her hand on his shoulder, and he felt the same electric feeling he always had – almost from the beginning of time. He took a deep breath and relaxed, leaned back in his wheelchair…
“I can still feel you, you know. Like a summer breeze chasing away the last chill of winter.”
She moved to his side, so he could just see her. “Some things never change.” Her English was still flawless, her voice the same immeasurably soft cocoon, yet her hand stayed on his shoulder.
“So? Have you come to kill me this time?”
Her hand lifted, but then she leaned over and kissed the top of his head. “No,” she said once she was standing again, “I have come to say goodbye. To you.”
He wheeled around and looked up at her, sudden fear now in his eyes. “Akari? Tell me everything?”
She looked around the crowded market. “Surely not here, Jeremy.”
He reached up and took her hands in his. “You are not well?”
“I am not well. Now, may I help you shop for mushrooms, or do you have enough?”
“Fresh fish is the only other item on my list.”
“You are finally taking better care of yourself?” she asked.
“Me? Oh, no, the fish is for a friend of mine.”
“Truly? You finally have a friend?”
“Truly. I have a friend.”
“Jere, this is a most unexpected development…”
“Oh, wait ‘til you meet her. You’ll fall in love, just as I did.”
He wheeled over to the fish counter and, Akari noted, the man there had a package ready and waiting, and she smiled – because that was so like the Jere she had known all her life. Patient routines, and yet never an unplanned for intercession, never the unexpected. But now, with his shopping out of the way, Jere turned and wheeled his way to the registers. “Do you need anything?” he said once there, and he smiled at her reluctance when she gently shook her head and said “No.”
Like everything where ‘Patrick Grey’ was concerned, Carolyn was not at all surprised when he came out of the market with the elegant woman in tow, and now walking almost by his side. Yet how odd they looked together, she thought. She walking one step behind and to his right, like she was playing her part in an ancient, ritualized dance of some sort – yet even so she sensed one belonging to the other. The stranger’s massive sunglasses were gone now, too, and she could see the woman was part Asian, possibly Japanese-American, but whatever else she was – quietly refined elegance defined her perfectly. Precisely so, in fact. So of course Carolyn was instantly on-guard and also a little jealous, for she had been the spy’s agent and his sole care-taker, and for almost five years. At least ever since he had moved to Seattle, right after the wild success of his last book.
But watching him now with this strange woman by his side, she realized he was still an enigma – and that he would probably always remain so. Or maybe, she thought, he was more like a series of interlocking riddles – and that like icebergs on a flat sea in the middle of an April night, the most dangerous parts of the man seemed to remain perpetually just out of sight, lurking beneath an inky surface of swirling complexities. Like waiting to inflict his next fatal wound, no doubt…
Whitehall | Yesterday
The assignment was simple enough.
Someone in MOD had decided that solar panels were soon going to be the next Big New Thing and that some of the most interesting, cutting edge research – in something called stochastic chemistry, for God’s sake – was taking place in Japan, at the Nagoya Institute of Technology. Soon enough, word was coming in via Hong Kong that agents, in other words – spies – notably from the PRC, were mounting several penetration efforts to learn more about the manufacturing processes these new developments would require. Also, there were some in both London and Washington that thought these efforts might somehow be directed at sabotaging this research.
Yet all this was just an elaborate ruse. A legend. A cover story.
And Jeremy Fontaine was uniquely suited to such an assignment. Of impeccable pedigree – being an Old Wykehamist of the Consanguineus Fundatoris variety, Fontaine was not simply Trusted. That was a given, a matter of pedigree and to an extent a question of political inheritance, his unsullied birthright. Fontaine’s background in physical chemistry, it was said, as well as the many years he’d spent in both Hong Kong and Japan, were a necessity – given current circumstances – so now all that stood in the way of his being assigned was his total lack of interest in working for MI6 ever again. Or so the story went.
Fontaine was not now and had not ever been a field agent of the usual sort; indeed, he possessed neither the physical properties nor the survival instincts of that peculiar species. No, Fontaine was an analyst of the most esoteric information imaginable, so an analyst of the most unusual sort. He was an academic and perhaps would have lived a more or less contented life in the classroom, had he chosen, perhaps, to remain at the little school on College Street, but his life had been governed more or less by an inertia that circulated in the bloodstream of all the various Fontaines. Growing up in Cheltenham’s shadow, his was a brew long steeped in the life and lore of The Service. On long walks with his father among the many wooded trails that encircled the Chimney he’d heard of little else, and in this manner his upbringing was but an echo of an echo. Yet Jere, as his mother called him, also possessed more feminine inclinations, notably for poetry and playing the piano. And perhaps it was this dichotomy that, more than anything else, formed the young man. It had always been the boy’s innermost desire to study Letters at Cambridge, yet time and paternal disinclination dictated he take his first doctorate in Biochemistry from Oxford. Young Jeremy was, you see, a product not simply of unchecked desire. The times he lived in, perhaps more than anything else he was willing to admit, shaped the man he would become.
Born during the closing moments of the war, he experienced the great upheavals of the 50s and 60s firsthand, and yet you could also say these tectonic shifts also fed his more feminine side. He read Lawrence Ferlinghetti on his holidays away from school, and when no one was in the old house he played music as disparate as Jerry Lee Lewis and Glenn Gould – until he fell head first into his Japanese phase. When Jere turned up at Oxford in 1963, he was among the first students to take classes in the new East Asian Studies department, but that year was also marred by many other pivotal personal and political events.
First among them – his father passed. Control of the family’s fortunes fell to his mother Claire, then it seemed that within weeks of his beginning his studies that John Kennedy was murdered. He had been taking an introductory class in Japanese literature that first term, and about the time news of the event rattled around the globe he had been sitting by a fireplace lost in his explorations of The Tale of the Heike, and as it happened, and as these things so often do, he had just finished a key passage when the news fell on his ears. To Jere, this was a moment cast away by time, an orphan without explanation – a lonely boy waiting to be embraced:
The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.
And so, in a way, 1963 became his year of passage. The year both Kennedy and his father passed from this life to the next. A year of remembrance, and of tears.
And in this confluence of events, perhaps like two streams coming together, it wasn’t long before he found his way to Shinto, and as a result he came upon an unforeseen way of experiencing the world, a new way of understanding death: to be conscious of kannagara no michi.
And as this was the path that had chosen him, he cared not even a little that this was perhaps the one path his father would have mightily disapproved of.
Seattle | Today
“Is this what you eat? Omelets…and mushrooms?” Akari said, looking up at him as he reduced a skillet full of mushrooms, adding a little white wine and a few impossibly thin slices of shallot after the mushrooms had browned just so.
He nodded, slowly, a sly grin spreading like cold treacle across his face. “If I require more than what I have,” he shrugged, “well then, the entire world has come to this little city, Akari. It’s a fantastic time to be alive. Nothing but unappreciated choice, and everywhere you turn hardly anyone notices. Or even cares, really.”
“But,” she added, not buying his latest dodge, “what of the fish you purchased? Where is this secret woman of yours?”
“Oh, my dear. Did I say I had a woman?” Jeremy Fontaine sighed, shrugging playfully with a coy roll of the eye. “But Akari, I do have some saké on hand, should the desire arise. A decent selection, I might add.”
“Of course you do. You always do.”
He smiled. “Yes, of course. Always the stranger in a strange land, but of course I remain very much afraid that, as such, I will never find my way home.”
“Were you ever at home, Jere? I mean really, in-your-skin at home?”
His smile broadened. “No, of course not. How could something so impossibly real suit the likes of me?”
“So, are you not at home? In this here and now?”
The smile vanished, his bushy white eyebrows curled in deep furrows. “Do you know, Akari, I’m not at all sure that I’m not. Isn’t that strange? Almost like a strange — what? A twist of fate?”
She turned away and walked to the fireplace and studied the ancient red kimono, then the two swords, each in their turn. They still called out to her, even after she had turned away from then — once upon another time now very far away. They had, after all, when what was known about their past came undone, belonged to her father. Then, for the briefest moment, to her mother. But, she now knew, that was when they passed to Jeremy Fontaine. And so here they were, hanging over an Englishman’s mantle – held by no hand now and so far from the distant fires of their creation. So, she wondered why she saw absolution hanging there in the bright, grim light…
“Would you mind helping me with these things?” he called out from the kitchen.
She went to his voice – hadn’t she always? – and she took in his artistry. Mushrooms and shallots over roasted artichoke hearts and an omelet, but then another plate, this one loaded with thin slivers of king salmon sashimi. He gently tossed a small salad of butter lettuce topped with walnuts, apples, and a sprinkling of Stilton bleu. Riesling, too, because he was, after all, still an Englishman. She carried the plates to a varnished redwood table on the deck overlooking the sea and he rolled along after her, now admiring the golden sky and the sun setting carelessly beyond the Olympics.
“I like the house,” she said after a first tentative sip of his wine. “It fits you.”
He nodded. “A local architect drew it for me. Llewelyn Sumner, very radical for his time. Probably a Welshman – but one can never quite tell these days.”
“You still enjoy working in the kitchen, I see.”
“No, I don’t. Normally I can’t be bothered with such foolishness, but then again…this hasn’t been a normal day, has it?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“The salmon? Do try a piece?”
She nodded, then turned and looked out to sea. “I think I always saw you living in the mountains. Why did you come here? To the sea?”
He turned and looked at a passing boat, then like an old conductor turning to face his orchestra he spread his arms wide. “Why Akari, just look around, will you? We are surrounded by mountains here, though they hide away in their clouds all too often…”
“Are you hiding, Jere? Here, in your clouds and rain?”
He smiled. “There is no hiding for me now, Akari. Not from the things I have done.” Or that I must do, he reminded himself as he turned to look at her. “So? You must be dying? I can’t imagine you coming otherwise.”
She took beautifully lacquered chopsticks, and with those glowing obsidian lances she picked a piece of salmon and held it up in the fading light, regarding it thoughtfully as she gathered her thoughts. “You were never so direct, Jere? So devoid of tact? What has happened to you?”
“I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps I’ve eaten at Burger King one time too many, learned that eating is a pointless exercise in…”
“Stop!” Akari cried. “Enough with your evasions! I asked you a question. What has happened to you?”
He seemed to deflate for a moment, to slump a bit in his wheelchair – as if the truth of the moment was a burden he could no longer shoulder. His head fell, his face dropped away, but then he caught a deep breath and lifted his eyes to the setting sun, smiling again as he found the last of the warmth…then he caught sight of something in the sea and smiled. He then pushed his chair back from the table and turned to face the sea and his little dock – that pointed like an accusing finger at the sprawling blight along the far shore.
“Here she comes,” he said, his voice now reverent, a prayer to and of the unknown.
“What?” Akari said, confused by his sudden change in demeanor. “Who is coming?”
“My spirit friend. The kami that have aroused all your anger will flee now.”
She turned and looked at the sea, watched a faint disturbance heading toward his dock and she thought the change she saw in the sea most odd – for a moment. A steady, purposeful motion came to them, and she was puzzled. A…kami? A spirit? Here? Visiting him?
Then a small head appeared, the first glimpse of an unseen creature as it continued its careful approach, an undeniable cadence that seemed to announce both purpose and a gentle homecoming.
Then a small sea otter flew out of the water, landing on the dock but then stopping to surveil an unforeseen development in this place. A stranger was there beside the man, her man, and her small black eyes appeared confused for a moment – before the power of their reunion became too much for her to resist. She ran to him, pulled herself up the blanket that covered his legs before she circled his neck once, then again – his smile now deep enough to warm them both. She dropped to his lap and waited, watching the stranger warily for a moment before simply ignoring the interloper.
He gave her pieces of fish and bits of raw carrot he kept in a pocket just for her and she ate and ate and the more she consumed the happier he became, and when there was no more to give he wrapped her in some of the blanket that covered his legs. She rolled a bit, exposing her belly and he knew what she wanted now so he rubbed her cold fur, drying her with the warmth in his hands until she grew sated and soft. And then she fell asleep, giving in to this quiet place in his arms.
And Akari watched, fascinated by the transformation within this man she thought she knew so well – and she watched the little sea creature too. Until she realized with a start that she had never really known anything about this man…anything at all…but by then the unexpected contours of her realization had left her feeling breathlessly alone and unsure how to proceed. But hadn’t that always been the way where his secrets were concerned?
Yet as she watched the man she thought she knew, she began to see and understand how utterly alone he was. But hadn’t that always been the way life came to spies? Especially the old ones? With nothing left to keep them warm but the deep secrets still buried in their hearts?
Tokyo | Yesterday
The matter was never in doubt. Jeremy Fontaine joined The Service when he finished his studies, and he was forthwith dispatched to No 1 Ichiban-cho, Tokyo, nominally posted as one of the many commercial attachés attached to Her Majesty’s Embassy, and once there he began to develop ties to industry and within academia. He spoke the jargon-laden lingua franca of local commerce flawlessly, and he easily mingled with elements of the PSIA when the need arose. He was, to be blunt, everything a good spy was not. Which, oddly enough, made him the perfect spy.
If spies were otherwise known to lurk about in dark shadows, Fontaine thrived in broad daylight. When he visited large industrial concerns, where his peers more typically met with layers of silence, Fontaine disarmed the subjects of his inquiries with dusty bottles of the rarest scotch whiskey. He took CEOs golfing and soon enough the privilege was reciprocated; when he let it be known that he had been playing golf since he was seven years old his stature only grew. Soon he had sponsored memberships at two of his favorite courses, the more exclusive Hirono course and then the even more spectacular Kawana Fuji course. And of course Fontaine was an active listener who never failed to pick up the rarest insight, and it was said his knowledge of nightlife in Tokyo was second to none. So yes, he was a perfect spy, even if everyone knew exactly who and what he was.
Superiors in the embassy praised the depth of insight Fontaine provided in his timely reports, which were in due course handed over to the Americans. Within a year MI6 sent him to the CIAs Field Officer’s Training Course outside of Yorktown, Virginia, thence to a language institute in Monterrey, California to study Korean. When he returned to Tokyo he was soon immersed in the day to day activities of the PSIAs Third Division of the Second Intelligence Department, in other words he was soon “monitoring” developments in North Korea.
And the perfect spy began to better understand the currency of secrecy. He became a practitioner of the art, too.
But all the real action was happening just north of the Korean peninsula, in the Tartarsky Straits, with all the various naval attachés keeping their keen eyes on developments in the latest classes of Soviet submarines, so in effect Fontaine’s efforts were usually shunted aside, put on the back burner, and though only in his late twenties he was quietly, and rather suddenly, burning out.
But then the unimaginable happened.
He chanced to meet a girl, a Japanese girl just a few years younger than himself, and as it happened she was not a spy. Rather far from it, as luck would have it. Her name was Aki, and she was the daughter and only child of Japan’s long-term economic advisor to Japan’s current Ambassador, then posted to the United Kingdom. Without laboring the point too finely, having lived in neighborhoods around the Thames almost all her life, Aki had spent more time in and around London than Jeremy ever had, and the case could be made that she spoke the Queen’s English far better than he, as well. She attended Prior’s Field where she took high honors in chemistry and he noted she played a mean ragtime on the piano. Aki was, in short, tailor made for Jeremy Fontaine, yet even so, oddly enough, it was his mother who first thought of arranging a first meeting of the two.
After her husband, Jeremy’s father, passed, Claire Fontaine resumed her career at the Foreign Office, soon preferring to spend only infrequent weekends in Cheltenham, and in the course of her duties she routinely “interfaced” with Aki’s father, and it was during one of her meetings with Kaito-san that she first met Aki, his daughter. Currently in town for a long weekend, she was studying biochemistry at St John’s College, Cambridge, working under Frederick Sanger refining the partition chromatography method of sequencing amino acids. And, it turned out that when not so engaged she played jazz bars not all that far from Bodley’s Court. Upon learning this, Claire Fontaine knew Aki was the perfect match for her one and only.
And so it happened, only not in the manner Kaito-san and Claire Fontaine had so artfully and dutifully arranged. Yet soon enough they spent all their free time together – talking chemistry. They fell in love – discussing chemistry. They continued to see one another on a regular basis, yet before all the ensuing madness Aki’s father and Jeremy’s mother had wed. And while most of these things happened long before Aki and Jeremy ever laid adoring eyes on one another, the first most important result of this new union was Kaito-san’s summary dismissal from the diplomatic corp and his immediate return to Japan. And his new wife dutifully followed, the happy couple moving into Kaito’s family’s ancestral estate in the mountains just west of Hakodate, on the island of Hokkaido.
Yet his mother’s actions caused Jeremy no little amount of distress. She left the estate south of Cheltenham in his care, necessitating frequent trips home to manage affairs he had long taken for granted. Also, as it happened the FO, or the Foreign Office, had taken a dim view of his mother’s actions and it seemed to Jeremy that they had decided to take all their recent unhappiness out on him. So, on one of his many trips home and after being absurdly abused one time too many, Jeremy simply resigned from government. He thought about moving out to Cheltenham and might have, too, had it not been for his meeting – finally – Kaito-san’s daughter Aki.
And yes, as predicted they were indeed a perfect match. But now, with their parents out of the picture they talked long into many a night about – pursuing post-doctoral degrees, together, of course. So marriage seemed a decent way to proceed, at least until it dawned on them that pursuing such a course of action would be plainly peculiar – as technically they were now step-brother and step-sister. Hardly a relationship conducive to cultural approval, they both knew.
Ah, yes…but what about America? America – the land of constant reinvention, where those disinclined to more restrictive norms often went in search of the road less traveled?
They talked more about the idea. They planned, then they schemed. She applied to Berkeley, he to Stanford, and upon acceptance he leased the ancient familial lands astride the Devil’s Chimney and they planned their escape to California. And yet all the while keenly knowing eyes followed him down this new, undiscovered way, for there is an old saying just as appropriate now as it ever has been, to wit: once a spy, always a spy. Which, as he was reminded just a few years later, choices always have consequences – some more deadly than others.
Seattle | Today
He knew people. Human interactions had, of course, always been his medium of exchange, the currency of survival he had long collected in service of an empire that had long depended on obscure, often deliberately hidden knowledge, for its very survival. Sometimes it was the merest scrap that made all the difference, and that remained a maxim Fontaine held to even now.
He called Carolyn, as she was the one he called first when he needed specific knowledge of hidden treasures in and around Puget Sound. Because she too knew people, she maintained her own intelligence network, and when she knew what there was to know she drove over to Patrick’s impossibly gray house. Once there she stopped and looked at Sumner’s masterpiece from the street, marveled at the incongruous angularity of the architect’s secret way with hidden walls, and each time she drove up the driveway she rediscovered all the hidden gardens under their mitered glass windows and only then could she make out all the odd little statues scattered about these hidden glades – and that each seemed to mean something quite special to the man lurking within.
What had Patrick said about all his little statues? That they were the houses of the kami that resided around the house? The ‘Spirits’ of his journey, hadn’t he told her as much? And yet even to this day, even in her white Mercedes outside the gray house surrounded by towering green pines, she saw the little statues in their hiding places and her mind drifted to other times, to the odd moments here and there when she’d asked him to explain what he meant by ‘spirits’. And yet with this strangely quiet man his reaction was, as ever, unchanging and obscure: the same odd little smile that creased the face, the clear gray eyes under gently furrowed brow darting this way and that. The same dismissive, wayward shrug of yet more secrets to be kept.
Almost as if he was waiting for just the right moment to set all his spirits free.
And when she rang the bell that morning – not a doorbell, mind you, but an ancient bronze bellatop a cedar post gray with age – the slate gray door opened and the same elegant woman in black appeared. Then there was Patrick in his wheelchair, only this morning he was rolling along with the weight of the world on his straining shoulders. Into the van and across the water to Aloha Street, to the university’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, to where a confirmation of diagnosis awaited the elegant woman.
A first meeting with the recommended oncologist Carolyn uncovered, the documents the stranger dressed in black carried by her side – on her recent journey from Hokkaido.
Documents detailing a diagnosis of fibrillary, or diffuse, astrocytoma.
The stranger’s documents soon reviewed by the physician Carolyn uncovered, one Scott Andrews, MD. An MRI scheduled and her first treatments organized. Within a few days Akari’s future, the oncologist told Patrick, would be mapped out – in what felt like nauseating detail. ‘Treatment will not be easy,’ the calm voice of Dr. Andrews advised the spy, ‘or pleasant, but we have had recent success with agents that might offer a meaningful extension of life.’
‘Ah,’ the spy thought, his brooding cynicism waking up, ‘so now the oncologist is selling Hope.’
He looked around the physician’s world, a world he was once more than familiar with, and he felt faint tendrils of nostalgia wrapping around the core of his soul.
‘So, when did I become such a cynic?’
Hakodate | Yesterday
He is walking with his mother on a chilly September morning. Along a narrow trail that skims along the side of a cliff, with the sea a few hundred feet below them as they talk. A thundering surf crashes into huge rust colored rocks down there in the mist, and yet he feels fresh salt spray falling from above, coating the way ahead, turning the trail into a slippery mess of oozing mud.
How can this be so?
“A storm is coming, Jere,” she has just said to him, her voice hiding the same subtle tremor that has over the years filled him with both fear and longing. It is the same crenelated voice he heard when she first spoke of his father’s illness, yet it is the very same as when she spoke of going to play golf – “Just the three of us…” as she would say, meaning that for once her husband was home for the weekend and they could pretend to be a family – for a while, anyway. How he longed for that feeling, even now. To be together again, the three of them. Again, forever.
He was following her along that trail, but then again, hadn’t he always been following her? Her gait was still as strong and as steady as it ever had been, yet he could – feel – something different in the air apparent, something of her tremor lingering in the mist around the trail. He watched the placement of her trekking polls, watched her boots sliding in the ooze as a particularly heavy wave slammed into the rocks below – then he pulled up short as she stopped just ahead.
She turned and looked at him. “Can you feel it?”
“The storm? Yes, I think so.”
“What else are you feeling?”
“I’m wondering when you’re going to tell me why you asked me to come?”
“Are you going to marry her?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
She turned and resumed walking, picking her way with great care now. Parts of the trail had recently washed away, leaving little chasms to be crossed, slate gray troughs lined with gravel and rock, little rivulets of clear water running back to the waiting embrace of the sea.
After several minutes more of this they came to a rocky outcrop; it first appeared to him as a great creature in the mist, almost like a huge preening falcon that has been sunning itself on the cliff, waiting to leave the safety of the rocks, perhaps to soar once again on hidden currents above these hidden seas. Then it hit home – his mother was the falconer, and she always has been. That’s why she had brought him here. She is going to let slip the falcon’s hood – so that perhaps he can see the way ahead is not without danger.
But now she pulls off her little backpack and sits on another sun-drenched rock, pulling out sandwiches and bottles of cold, still water.
“Aki’s father has Huntington’s, Jere.” She speaks the words calmly, her delivery practiced, her manner still quietly a matter of fact, like the falconer’s wrist is offered, as always, as neutral ground. She is safe. Isn’t she?
He swallows hard, tries to take a deep breath but his throat feels constricted. “Huntington’s Chorea?” he manages to say. “Is he symptomatic?”
She nods. “Yes. Just.” Her voice is clear of the tremor now, the falconer’s strength is regained.
“Oh, Mom,” the dutiful falcon says, the vice around his chest constricting tightly, rockbound in anguish as yet another secret falls away, “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“And neither does Aki, Jere. He’s wants to keep it that way, too, though I think now he understands how unfair that is of him.”
“Doesn’t it skip a generation? I mean…is it a certainty that Aki will inherit?”
His mother turned away from the sea, looked away from the shadow of his doubt and then cast it aside with an errant shrug. “There’s no…no one, Jere…nothing really definitive when such things are brought up. Everything seems so very circumstantial. And, well, I’m sorry to say, but I rather think the odds are she too will be affected.”
“Mother,” says the voice with the tremor now all his own, “Aki is pregnant.”
“How pregnant?” asks the falconer.
Five months, it turned out, so far too along to even consider the usual alternatives. But then…the hammer blow, the reason for his sudden trip: “Jere. You mustn’t tell her.”
“What? Mother? How could either of you ask such a thing?”
“Because it is still her father’s wish. Please don’t put me in that position, Jere…”
“What? Just what, exactly, is the position you will be in?”
She had looked out over the sea after that, only taking time to finish her sandwich – before the falcon cried out in pain again, still waiting for release.
Seattle | Today
Akari is in radiology. Today is her MRI.
He has asked to speak with her oncologist, Dr. Andrews, in his office. The physician seems slightly put out by this intrusion but is otherwise observant and attentive, in that oblique way physicians sometimes have around relatives and the great unwashed they must so often endure. The physician’s eyes are red, his eyeglasses quiet and thick, but he smells of expensive cologne and too much red wine at lunch.
“So…Mr. Grey? Patrick Grey, you said? Say, are you the writer?”
Fontaine/Grey shrugged. “I am Akari’s father.”
The physician nodded before a sated yawn appeared. “So, what can I do for you?”
“Akari’s grandfather and mother passed from Huntington’s Chorea. She doesn’t know that. In the rather unlikely event you stumble upon markers for that disease, assuming you sequence her genes at some point, you will not tell her anything concerning this – should the subject arise. And I just wanted to be clear about that.”
And it soon became apparent that Dr. Andrews didn’t care for being told what he could and could not tell a patient in his care. His face turned scarlet, he sputtered words like ‘paternalistic crap’ and ‘disgraceful’ and peppered them with spit-covered and rather abusive epithets that sounded an awful lot like four letter words – before finishing up with a couple of spicy ‘How dare yous!’ thrown in for good measure.
“And I suppose you learned about gene sequencing on YouTube?” Andrews snarled as he stood and pointed to the door. “You! Out! Now!”
But the old spy ignored the physician.
“Get out of my office!” Andrews thundered once again. “Now!”
So the old spy simply extended his right hand.
And the physician ignored the spy’s hand, still pointing at the door to his office.
And so then the spy spoke.
“Thank you for your time,” Fontaine/Grey said as he made to leave.
But there was something in the spy’s eyes that gave the physician a moment of pause. Something akin to flashing red lights and blaring klaxons.
“Tell me something, Mr. Grey. Are you the writer of those spy stories?”
The spy looked at the physician, his eyes now brooding and dark. “They aren’t stories, Doctor. They are more like…recollections…of events,” he said, his voice low and clear, and perhaps even a little menacing, “though of course some events had to be cleared by the agencies involved.”
“I see. I enjoyed the last one very much. Did you study chemistry?”
“I did, yes,” the spy said, his voice now – like his eyes – slipping into façades still too readily deployed.
“Akari’s mother, I assume, was a carrier?”
“She was, yes.”
“I’m so sorry. Was it her wish that you not tell Akari?”
The pain is as inescapable now as it ever was on that day. Yet even now, so caught up is he in the suffocating web of secrecy that has defined his life, the falcon still cannot fly. He can only nod before he turns and leaves the room.
Palo Alto | Yesterday
Akari is nursing contentedly on her mother’s breast; a soft, warm breeze caressing mother and daughter through open windows, a soft lullaby of redwood and eucalyptus drifting slowly through another lavender afternoon. Aki is asleep, lost in dreams of Cambridge, of the long walks she used to take beside the river. Maybe it’s the lacework of lavender on the arbor, or the gentle way of the sun-kissed warmth carried on the languid breezes, but these dreams feel so real to her, so real she wants to reach out and hold on to each new lucid moment before they fade away in wakefulness.
Jeremy is ‘at work,’ at Stanford, or whatever that means. He is supposed to be working in a doctoral program there, yet it is, apparently, a program people around campus don’t talk about. It is, she heard once, a Dark Program, a course of study concerning Very Dark Things. She suspects he is working on some kind of biological warfare project, yet she just isn’t sure, not really. And though the possible nature of his work bothers her, it is the careless evasions he hurls indiscriminately that hurt the most.
He seems to live in a world of secrets, where lies and deceit are intertwining strands of the sacred rituals he lives by. When she asks what he’s working on at school he mumbles and shrugs as he helps get dinner ready, muttering incoherently about recombinant this and bivalent that and in the end he really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And yet that lack of meaning feels deliberate, and thoughtlessly so, as evasions tend to be. Because she has driven him to campus, usually to the Gilbert Building but more often to the Beckman Center facility at the Medical School, and she has seen other teachers and students there greet him knowingly, so at least she knows he isn’t lying to her – about working there, anyway. But even so – the feeling persists: there is something inherently wrong, almost evil, in his evasions.
And now her father has grown silent. He used to call every Saturday morning, but not recently. She has taken to calling him instead, yet Claire always answers the phone – and she wonders why this is so. “He is napping,” Claire says. Or: “He is out on the golf course.” And now her father is always just beyond her reach, and she is grasping for reasons, reaching out in the darkness, her hands enmeshed in more spiders’ webs. Why has he turned away? From her. From his granddaughter? Why? Always—why?
And then the call she has been waiting for comes just as Akari finishes feeding at her mother’s breast. The telephone is close by so she doesn’t even have to disturb her daughter, and then in an instant her father is on the line. He is coming to San Francisco later that week. He would like to see her, and of course he wants to spend time with his granddaughter.
Aki is ecstatic. It is as if her dreams are coming to life, and all Jeremy’s evasions are summarily forgotten, discarded, thrown out with yesterday’s trash. In a manic race against time she sets about cleaning their little bungalow, sprucing up the garden and the backyard where Akari and her grandfather will play.
Jeremy takes note of the change as soon as he gets in from school. Suddenly surrounded by her boundless energy, at first he is amused by the change that has come over Aki. But then the ragged contours of mania, of another manic episode, take shape in the rooms around the little house. He gropes in the dark for explanations, paying no mind at all to his own role in the looming collision; all he sees is his wife – coming undone in the grips of another unexpected hysteria.
His first impulse has been to regard these manic tirades as some sort of hormonal thing – “because she is, after all, female.” But no, that isn’t quite right, nor is it fair – because he knows how invested she is in all her father’s comings and goings. This feels, to him, more like a fault slipping deep within the earth, unseen and barely remembered until the plates let go – in that first surreal moment when the rolling tremor begins. But then the inherent dichotomies of his own life take charge and he falls into the search for a mystical explanation rooted in thoughts of karma: he is soon left to consider that this outburst might be an awakening of the ancestral spirits that surround her. And if this is so, have these spirits come to guide her, or to warn him?
Seattle | Today
Akari is standing on the deck – alone with her thoughts. With her fears.
The spy is in his wheelchair. In his white living room, with a small fire set on iron grates now a fading glow above bricks blackened by time. He is watching Akari, thinking about the little bungalow in Palo Alto and the life together that almost was. Before their life turned to silence and everything fell into the sea. Yet even now his thoughts roam through time to those last precious moments together. To Aki, his wife. Akari’s mother. To all the things that vanished in the heat of sudden release.
Akari had, like her mother, grown up away from Japan, yet never was she fully removed from Japanese life and customs. Indeed, she always carried little pieces of Japan with her everywhere she went. Rocks large and small, but always either black rocks or white, and always from the sea beneath her grandfather’s houses. Pinecones and pine-needles too, yet only from the forests around her family’s ancient estate. And an arrow, at least for a while, that had once been split by another incoming arrow. But that was a secret she never talked about.
And that secret, like all the rest, began to unravel one day in Palo Alto. The day her grandfather came to visit. The last time, as it happened.
But the spy’s mind snapped back to the present, to Akari standing on the pier, staring into the water. He watched her watching the sea, unsure in that moment where her mind roamed. Would the otter come, he wondered? Could Akari possibly understand something so obvious?
Try as she might, Carolyn had not once seen the otter – despite many attempts. She had heard of Patrick’s encounters with the creature often enough; word of these strange communions was common knowledge down here along the water by the locks. Patrick’s house, despite all his intentions to the contrary, had become a very public place – no secrets allowed. Boats, from yachts to fishing trawlers coming in after weeks at sea, passed by the striking gray house, the one with the old man in his wheelchair often seen out on the tidy little private pier. Because not long after the old man moved into the gray house an otter appeared, and now it seemed that the little creature came to the old man almost every evening, and that, from a distance, it appeared as if the otter and the man in the wheelchair were speaking to one another. Soon enough photos of the encounters popped up on Instagram and Facebook, and some weekend evenings small crowds of boats gathered in the waters off the striking gray house and the gathered people waited to see what would happen.
And there were nights the old spy rolled down the pier right to the water’s edge and he waited there for the otter, seemingly willing her to appear. Yet there were evenings, usually when the largest crowds appeared, when she never came to him. And then the people saw that the old man was worried – even as all the disappointed boaters went back through the locks to Lake Union.
Yet then, but only after all the noisome crowds dissipated, she came to him. And those who watched from a distance began to understand.
Yet after more than a year of hearing about all this, Carolyn had still not seen even one of these encounters. Like everyone else she wondered what they were all about, but like all the rest she found herself caught up in the deeper mysteries surrounding these encounters. She began to search for something that might explain the man, the creature, and the Spirit Gardens around the strange gray house. But once she started down that path the next most obvious question came to her quite naturally: what was the relationship between the statues in Patrick’s little gardens and this otter?
Because for some reason Carolyn was sure there was a connection, and an important one at that.
“Why are such statues placed in these little gardens?” she asked him once, after she’d returned him from another doctor’s appointment.
“They are homes, homes for the spirits that follow me from time to time,” he explained.
“What?” she barked, suddenly thinking her best-selling author might just be a nut case.
“In Shinto, spirits roam both the heavens and the earth, yet when they are here among us they need places to stay.”
“Spirits? You mean…like ghosts?”
The spy smiled. “Not always, but then again, yes, a kami might reside in the spirit world, for a time. But it is important to remember that kami are like us in many ways; they are not simply good or evil – they are often a little bit of both. Precocious, you could say. Even more difficult to grasp, these spirits are not separate from the natural world, but they are, rather, of that world. A kami, or what you call a spirit, might not reside in a rock – rather than simply be of the rock. So kami will not, in that sense, be like a breeze, rather they are quite literally the breeze, so when you look at one of my little gardens focus on what your eye is led to, then let your thoughts stay there for a while. Focus. Drift inward. It is said that in time, when your thoughts become one with the kami, that you can watch a rock grow, or see the breeze as it moves through its sky.”
“So, you’re saying that these spirits, these kami…they live…in your gardens…?”
“Not exactly, Carolyn. It is a more direct relationship than that. The garden, or I should say the individual elements within the garden, like that rock by the lantern, may be kami. The garden is simply a part of their journey, perhaps a place of rest along their way. Of more importance, these gardens are a place to reflect on my own journey.”
She looked at him carefully now, unsure how to proceed before deciding to go for broke. “So, tell me about the otter?”
“Tell you what, exactly, Carolyn?” the spy replied.
“Is this otter, well, some kind of kami?”
But the spy relaxed just a bit, then he smiled – even as he shrugged – and a little playfully, too, or so she remembered thinking at the time. “Sometimes, Carolyn,” he finally sighed, “an otter is just an otter.”
And yet there are times when everything falls apart, even the idea of kami, under the weight of just one more secret. Some call this bad karma, though it must be said that this is usually whispered with a gently knowing smile.
Palo Alto | Yesterday
Aki had been scrubbing the bungalow, making the old house ready for her father’s visit. Jere had mown the grass twice this week, and he dropped a sack of nitrogen rich fertilizer on the lawn two days before D-Day, watering everything until the grass looks like it belonged on a travel poster extolling the virtues of Irish dairy products. There wasn’t a single weed to be found in any one of the half dozen flower beds around the pristine little yard, and he’d even touched up some peeling paint on the garage door. The place, he thought, was spotless – so clean it might easily pass a cadet inspection at Sandhurst.
A black limousine pulled up out front and a driver exited and removed a wheelchair from the Cadillac’s boot, and now Aki stands quite still, almost like an English Setter on point. She watched as Claire helped her father from the back seat, and she was mortified when she realized her father could hardly stand on his own. Claire wheeled Kaito-san to the front porch, but there were four steps here and no ramp for Kaito-san’s wheelchair. He stood and Jere helped him up the stairs, and Jere could see now with his own eyes Kaito-san’s rapid decline, and he was stunned speechless. Once Akari’s grandfather was wheeled into the living room the little girl turned away from the sight of the crippled old man, and everyone in the room was devastated – Aki most of all.
Though everyone there is fluent in Japanese, English is the chosen language, yet one moment Kaito-san can hardly speak coherently, then he speaks clearly – until his head jerks sideways and his eyes roll upwards. He reaches for Claire’s hand, obviously an agreed upon signal that she will break the news and lead all further discussion.
“Aki,” Claire began, “your father loves you. He wants you to know that now, and he wants you to remember that in the years ahead.”
But Aki is a biochemist. She teaches biochemistry. She understands the chemistry of neurodegenerative disorders, and even the classifications of such disorders, so when she observes her fathers rolling shoulder movements and his twitching hands she understands what has befallen him.
“How far along is he, symptomatically?” she asked, her voice a cool, gray monotone.
“More than a year,” Claire said.
Aki turns to her father. “How long have you known?” she asked him.
“He’s known all his life,” Claire stated.
Aki turned to her husband. The spy. The expert at keeping secrets. “And how long have you known?”
But the spy turned away from her words and walked from the room.
“I see,” Aki says, her mind taking flight in this suddenly altered reality.
Now quite alarmed by the sorrow consuming the people in the room, Claire tries to intercede. “Aki, Jere didn’t find out until it was too late to stop the pregnancy. Your father asked that we keep this from you, at least until he knew more about…”
“Keep this,” Aki whispered, clearly stunned as Claire’s words crushed inward, “from me?”
And then, as her mind ran into the future – and, in effect, now that she knew what form Death would assume when It came for her – her eyes turned to her daughter, her future too suddenly inescapable and vulnerable – and like herself, so innocent of the crimes that had just been revealed. Then confusion began to distort reality…
…and Aki reached for the rage suddenly consuming her being, turning first on her father – and then she pointed at the front door. “Please, leave!” she screamed, her voice scraping along the ragged edge of despair. Then she turned to Claire, and her husband: “Now! Get out of my house, all of you!”
And Claire watched helplessly as, a few minutes later, her son too came out of the house and down the walkway, two suitcases in hand. She was about to say something to him but he walked right past the limousine and to an old olive brown XKE in the driveway. There was, she knew, no room left for words between them now. His wounds were too deep, because words cut deeper than the sharpest sword.
“Go to him,” Kaito-san advised, his sodden voice a crushed monotone. “Go, while you still have time.”
But Claire rolled up the window and turned to the driver. “Take us to the airport, please.”
And yet Jeremy was hardly aware of his mother’s departure, so vicious were Aki’s words, so deep were the wounds she left him with. He started the car but could not move, could not force his hands to operate the controls. He looked up in time to see the door to his life slam shut, and suddenly it was so hot inside the little interior he could hardly breathe.
Seattle | Today
Akari is resting, wrapped in a blanket on a brown vinyl recliner, laying almost flat with her feet up. An IV line is hooked-up to a port under her left clavicle, and though she is sleeping, sweat has formed on her brow. The spy sits in his wheelchair by her side; he looks up from time to time and makes sure the blanket she has pulled up to her chin is still where she wants it – before turning back to the book in his hand. The book is a lavishly illustrated volume from the Cornell Ornithology Center titled The Owls of North America, and he has, apparently, finished reading about half of the book.
The room is about the size of a basketball court and there are sixty recliners here, and this morning every recliner has a patient, each with an IV running. One or two family members attend each patient, and a low-grade fear permeates everything in the giant room. A nurse comes by and changes Akari’s IV to a potent anti-nausea medication that they finish up each chemotherapy session with, and she smiles at Patrick Grey then looks at the book in his hand. “Are you interested in birds?” she asks, her voice barely more than a whisper.
The spy nods, and he tries – without much success – to smile.
The nurse has seen this old man at every single chemo session – yet he almost never speaks – and in the nurse’s experience this is quite unusual. When most family members enter the room they are beyond scared – at least for the first few sessions – then the fear begins to subside, little by little, session by session. The room is filled with parents and their children, husbands with their wives, even a few of the forlorn and forsaken. The room is a war zone; the room a purgatory where winners and losers wait to be sorted out. Everyone in the room, absolutely everyone, is all too aware of the consequences that awaits the loser – yet this old man seems unfazed by all that. He doesn’t chatter on and on about how many people are getting chemo or the weather outside or even the latest football standings.
No. He seems untouched by the fear in the room.
And yet she understands. Or at least she thinks she does.
So when she leaves she reaches out and puts her hand on his shoulder as she passes. It is a friendly gesture. Innocent in the extreme.
And she is finally surprised – when he stiffens and pulls away.
“Are you alright?” the nurse asks – reflexively.
But now it is like the old man has donned a new mask; he is all smiles and suddenly very polite.“Yes. So sorry…” he seems to say, then he thanks her for her empathy. Her empathy? And in all her years of nursing no one has ever spoken so obliquely, or in a voice so paternalistically manipulative. She nods and walks away, suddenly wary of the old man – because now she realizes he is anything but nice. Indeed, she is now more than a little scared of this old soul.
Cheltenham | Yesterday
Jeremy Fontaine can’t think anymore. He is beyond tired.
Working once again at his father’s beloved GCHQ, he now finds himself putting in fourteen hour days at JTLS, the Joint Technical Language Service; he is translating SIGINT – Signals Intelligence – emanating from North Korea. Most of the intercepts come directly to Cheltenham from Royal Navy submarines operating covertly out of Japan, snapping up chatter between the Mayang Do Naval Base and the smaller naval station at Osang-Dong. The reason for all the excitement is simple enough: a Soviet Grisha III Class anti-submarine corvette had made an unscheduled port call at Osang-Dong and was now docked along the concrete quay on the south side of the small, deep water harbor. An American KH-11 Kennen 1010 satellite imaged the base a few hours after the ship’s arrival and just minutes later the first images were downloaded; telephones started ringing in Langley and Whitehall after that, and had been ever since.
And as Jeremy Fontaine was the only TS-cleared linguist on duty, and because he was fluent in Korean, Russian, and Japanese, he was now knee deep inside a clandestine weapons operation – which was a far cry from sorting through the biochemical warfare intel he was usually tasked to. Before he knew what was happening he was on the A40 bound for RAF Brize Norton, and once there he was shuttled out onto the apron to a waiting RAF L-1011 bound for Yokohama.
When the dust had settled some ten days later, the illegally delivered Russian SA-9 SAM launchers had been reloaded onto the Reshitelny and the corvette soon departed for her home port ofKhabarovsk, leaving Fontaine conveniently stranded in Japan. Once cleared to leave, he hopped on an ANA YS-11 bound for Sapporo’s Okadama airport, then he found a seat on the afternoon Hakodate line railway service.
On the platform in Hakodate he called the number his mother had given him, only to find she was in town at the main hospital, Hakodate National. He set off to find a taxi, then rode across town in dense, late afternoon traffic – and by now he was completely exhausted. He found her outside of Kaito-san’s room, speaking to his step-father’s physician, and she appeared miserable – at least until her son walked up unannounced and so quite literally out of the blue.
Wide-eyed and stunned into grateful silence, she fell into his arms.
Kaito-san, it now appeared, had lost all almost cognitive function. He could no longer speak. He no longer understood the basics of day-to-day life – such as telling time and the necessity of eating food or drinking fluids. The physician, a neurologist, was trying to convey the available options, notably inserting a gastric feeding tube to keep her husband alive, but the physician had an open sheaf of papers in hand and he had been waving them about until Jere walked up. They were copies of Kaito-san’s Advance Directive, papers drawn up by lawyers detailing what was to be done once this state of dissolution was reached.
“There is very little I can do for your husband now,” the physician sighed, shrugging helplessly. “It is time to move him to hospice.”
And Jere looked at the physician. “Is there any mention of his daughter in those papers? Did he want her to come home to say goodbye?”
Yes, that was exactly what Aki’s father had expressed, only now that it was too late for her to have a meaningful conversation with her father, would she even come?
“Jere? Could you call her?” his mother asked. “I’m not sure I’d know what to say…”
So he went to the house and waited for the time zones to catch up to him, then he called her. She told him that she would come, but only if he was nowhere to be seen.
“Do you really hate me so much?” he asked.
“You have no idea,” she started to say, but her voice trailed off in lingering defeat.
“How is Akari?” he whispered, afraid of her next words.
“She is none of your concern.”
“Aki, I am her father; of course she is my concern.”
“You will have your time with her,” she snarled, her words sharp and cruel.
“I didn’t do this to you.”
“You kept it from me—you and your secrets! How dare you imply innocence.”
“I wonder, Aki. What would you have done if our roles had been reversed?”
There followed a long pause, then a hard swallowing sound over the long-distance connection. “I do not know,” she finally answered, her voice little more than an echo of the hollow life she had created for herself and her daughter.
“When you figure it out, would you let me know?”
“Did you ever love me?” he whispered.
“No. Never. I despised you from the moment I first laid eyes on you?”
He laughed at that, remembering their first few days together. “Yes, I felt exactly the same way,” he said, adding a thoughtful chuckle. “As a matter of fact, I’ve never had lips so chapped.”
“Don’t do this to me, Jere. Leave me to my hate, it is better than the house of secrets you made for us.”
“It makes no sense to do this, Aki. We had so much love to give our little girl, for each…”
But then the line went dead.
“So,” his mother said, “she hung up on you?”
He nodded. “I pushed her too hard.”
“Is she coming?”
Again he nodded. “As long as I’m not here—yes.”
“Then she can rot in Hell,” Claire sighed, her anger pushing aside all else. “I need you here with me, and so here you will stay.”
He turned and looked at his mother, not at all sure what he felt or even what to say, but he was angry – and he knew it was never a good idea to speak when anger was building – so he simply went to his room and packed his suitcase.
And she said not a word to her son as he left her husband’s ancient estate.
He returned to Yokohama and then returned to Cheltenham, to the inherent sanity of his father’s ancient estate…and to the cold warmth of the many secrets he had surrounded himself with.
Seattle | Today
Akari was in the hospital again, her white count perilously low – again. She was in isolation, receiving platelets and now even more powerful anti-nausea meds. All her hair had long since fallen away, every bit of it, everywhere. The eyebrows had been hardest of all, and he’d heard that those – sometimes – didn’t ever grow back. How odd, he thought at the time. So many of our first impressions come to us by way of eyebrows, and now his daughter looked almost like a stranger without them. How odd. Yes, very odd. She was the same person, after all.
Or…was she. Cancer changes people. Cancers in the brain often produce stunning changes, but so far Akari seemed exactly as she had been – before. Would she emerge on the other side of this ordeal as the same person she had been? Would she emerge – at all? Or…was it time to act?
Carolyn was in the kitchen tossing a salad and he was in his chair, rolled up hard by the large windows that looked out over the sound, and the sun was already behind the Olympic Range – the lingering sky purple streaked with ambers and orange. He focused on the sky now, if only because when he closed his eyes he saw Akari in that dreadful hospital bed, leaning over the rail on her side while she retched into a blue plastic pail.
He saw Carolyn’s reflection in the window, saw that she was staring at him now, her inert hands still on the salad tongs. She looked down at the salad then carried the bowl to the table, then she moved to scramble an egg for him – and he watched her, covertly, as she moved about his kitchen.
‘Isn’t that strange? She’s my agent and yet she’s the only friend I have left in the world.’
Kaito-san had been a friend, in a way, yet there had always been an uncomfortable distance between them. He’d had so-called friends at GCHQ, even a few kind souls at the Wheatsheaf Pub down the way that were good for a talk – but where were they now? ‘Gone, just like all those other lives that drifted in and out over the years.’
Yet right now there was the lone reflection in the glass, the friend who collected her percentage – yet even so here she was, despite having nothing to gain.
‘Is that friendship?’ the voice beside the thought wanted to know.
She finished his scramble and called him to the table. Everything was just as if he had made it himself. “Have you watched me so well?” he asked.
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“You’ve made eggs just as I do. Spinach, mushrooms, and no fat at all. And the salad, just as I make mine. Amazing…!”
She grimaced – a good-natured, self-deprecating thing. “I guess I’ve watched you a few times too many, huh?”
He rolled closer to the table and took a bite of egg. “Perfect!” he shouted. “It’s bloody-well perfect!”
She grinned again, and an unexpected, contented warmth spread across her face. “You’ll have to show me how to do the artichoke hearts someday,” she blushed.
“My word, but I am surprised. Do go ahead and dig in.”
“I know I’ve never asked, but are you a vegan?”
“Me? Good God, no. If my blood pressure could stand it, I’d love nothing more than a pound of bacon on my next cheeseburger.”
“Yes, yes, but don’t go on about will power because its nothing of the sort. Good old fear of death has worked for me, and very well, too.”
“That’s funny. I can’t picture you afraid of anything.”
He looked up from his plate and studied her for a moment. “Why haven’t you remarried?”
“Scared, I guess. Too many bad memories.”
“Oh? How so?”
“He turned out to be abusive. More verbally than anything else, but he was intimidating, too. Physically, I mean. Kind of like a bully – but there was an anger in him he just couldn’t shake…and when he started to take things out on me? Well, living with someone who’s scaring you when they’re supposed to be the one you trust?”
“Did I hear once that he was stalking you?” he asked.
“No, not really. And about six months after the ink was dry on the divorce papers he up and moved to Boston, got married and had a whole bunch of kids…”
“So, you think that was it? Just bad chemistry between the two of you?”
“I don’t know, Patrick, I really don’t. Sometimes I think there was just something about me that punched all the wrong buttons, or maybe I was punching his and didn’t know it…”
“I’m not so sure I’d blame myself for someone else’s issues, Carolyn, but that doesn’t really answer my question. You’re what? Not even fifty and still living alone?”
“Patrick? I could ask you the same thing, you know? Problem is…I’m just like everyone else in the world. I don’t know the slightest thing about you, and I don’t even know who that girl is and I’ve been driving you two up to the cancer center for weeks now…”
He smiled. The same warm smile he always used to deflect questions he didn’t want to answer. “Fair enough,” he just managed to say, putting his fork down on the white plate. “She’s my daughter, Carolyn.”
Carolyn leaned back in her chair and smiled. “Your daughter? And here I thought she was, oh, I don’t know, like some kind of exotic old flame – you know…like the one who got away?”
He looked down, crossed his hands on his lap. “The one who got away,” he mumbled at his fingers. “My, but isn’t that rich.”
Hakodate | Yesterday
Kaito-san’s family lineage stretched back at least a thousand years – at least Kaito-san had stated so on more than one occasion – and if the size and grandeur of the estate was any measure of the claim Jeremy had no cause to doubt it.In winter the grounds were rather bleak, yet spring and summer brought on magical explosions of color, but it was autumn when the place seemed to come into its own.
The main house was now almost three hundred years old, and as a registered Special Historic Site it was open to both visiting scholars and – twice a year – to the public, and as such, the old house was used more for special ceremonies and had no longer been a daily residence for almost a hundred years. The new residence was architecturally similar to the old, but it had been built in the 1950s and renovated once since. While the new house would never have been mistaken for a western residence, the rooms were climate controlled and there was even a modern bathroom or two. When Claire moved into the new house, however, Kaito-san took note of her obvious discomfort and he had plans drawn up for a new wing, with rooms fitted-out to western sensibilities.
Now, with Kaito-san near death, Jeremy was alone in one of the large visitor suites in the new wing, and he was staring at the gardens on the other side of a huge plate glass window that seemed purpose built to make the landscape feel part of the interior. Maples were ablaze in all their autumnal glory, and red leaves were falling onto the gently rolling stream that meandered through the gardens on its way to the sea. Across the garden, lost among stands of towering pines, was the old residence; huge timbers now gray with the passage of time, amber shoji screens leading to candlelit rooms, the scene quiet, almost austere – yet elegant.
Aki was on the other side of the garden now; she was staying in the old house, keeping to the formal rigidity of other times. And as they remained – technically, at least – married, she remained Jeremy’s wife – and she was, therefore, duty-bound to treat her husband with respect. As he too was required to treat her. There was, of course, an ancient teahouse on the grounds, up the gently sloping hill behind the old house. It too was designed and built in another era, a slower time paced to allow life to unfold along the more or less predetermined lines of feudal society.
But then the thought comes to him unasked: Has so much changed? Are our problems really so different?
So…why not a tea ceremony. And – perhaps – the formal reconciliation that such ceremonies enshrine in tradition?
So far Aki had eluded him; only Claire had been allowed to visit her – and Akari – in the old house. And only after that meeting had Claire been permitted to take Akari to see her father, to talk as grandfather to granddaughter might – under better circumstances. And as Aki had allowed no further contact between them, and as her Will seemed unshakeable, the spy seemed at a loss.
So he asked his mother about a formal tea ceremony, and how she thought Aki might respond to such a formalized request. He knew that, per ancient custom, such a request could not be denied without grounds – and as such it might be the only way he could break down the wall Aki had erected between them. Still, his participation could backfire spectacularly. He had no training in how to conduct himself during such a highly ritualized, intimately choreographed ceremony, and in the end all he might accomplish was a staggering embarrassment that would kill off the last tattered remnants of their marriage.
And would such an invitation even be appropriate – at a time like this? The family was gathered here in the shadow of Kaito-san’s looming death, so how could a reconciliation between them take place without Death casting long shadows over everything he said or tried to do?
Yet his mother was uncharacteristically sanguine about the idea. “Well, you certainly have nothing to lose,” she said later that afternoon while on a slow walk through the old garden. “And who knows? Perhaps an appeal to tradition might be just what she needs right now. But Jere, you must understand that such an invitation must come from your hand, not mine.”
“Of course,” the spy said.
But then he received an invitation from Kaito-san. One last meeting between them was requested, in the hospital, and early the next morning. Auspicious timing or not, he would ask her father what he thought of the idea. Could the tea ceremony bring them back together?
And then how strange that last night had become.
Sleep without rest, quiet rain falling on reddened leaves – everything waiting on a response from the too quiet earth. And then something deep within gave way and he was left to stand inside some kind of new silence, trapped now outside the space between the sun and the moon. What was happening to him?
He felt translucent, lifeless. Like a ghost might feel.
Like he was standing on the precipice between light and dark, between life and spirit.
A sudden movement – caught his eye – and he walked to the huge plate glass window that overlooked the garden, his mind searching for movement in the dark rain. What had the spies in Virginia taught him? Stand still – become as one with the darkness and let movement come to you, use averted vision to focus on the threat – then move decisively.
Yet this new place was without light and sound; black clouds hung so low and thick that not even the lights of the city made it to this place.
He remembered thinking how impossibly dark that night became – until he heard the cries of two women split the night.
And while the cries still pierced the night he saw, on a low-slung branch hanging out over the garden, his first signs of movement. Pale and gray, up in a tree. Dark and so very still. Patient, like a predator. Like death.
Then a jolt of recognition. An owl, huge and white, was up there, searching eyes full of amber as they found their way to him. And in another jarring instant he realized it was Kaito-san out there on the low lying branches of the tree, and in the next instant he understood why he had heard two birds sing their song of sorrow to the waiting earth.
Seattle | Today
Kaito-san’s swords still waited over the fireplace, their song unfinished.
Carolyn was in the kitchen, finishing the dishes. Waiting to hear the rest of the story.
He turned and stared at the short sword until he could no longer stand the sight of it, then he turned away and looked off into the darkness.
“You have some Drambuie in the cabinet,” she called out. “Should I pour one glass, or two?”
“Two,” he replied as he pushed the door aside and rolled out onto the deck, his eyes adjusting to the darkness beyond the night. He threw a couple of cedar logs onto the fire pit and just managed to get them going, their warmth pulling him in and holding him close, and he watched the flickering line between shadow and night playing out on the deck, a dance caught out of time – as always with no resolution but time.
He felt a blanket and closed his eyes, tried to remember his mother protecting him from other chills, then he saw Carolyn sitting across from him in the firelight. She was such an unambiguous creature, even now, after almost five years.
He saw the glasses she had carried out and nodded. “Thanks. I may need a little liquid courage tonight.”
“Is that so? Because Akari is your daughter?”
“Yes. Yes she was, once upon a time.”
“Once upon a time? Divorce, you mean?”
He shook his head as he took a sip of liqueur. “No, not really. She was my daughter, you see – right up to the moment…” But he stopped talking, looked out into the night – until he saw her swimming his way – and then his heart leapt with joy. ‘Oh, Aki,’ he sighed, ‘please don’t leave me again.’
“What did you say?”
But the spy simply shook away the intrusive question, kept his eye on the otter approaching the pier – until she burst free of the water and scurried across the sanded redwood planks to his chair. And in the next instant the otter was a writhing mass of fur spinning in and out of his grasp – until she finally settled inside the blanket bundled around his neck.
“You know,” Carolyn whispered, “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to watching this…”
The otter slid down onto his chest and so throned she stared into the old spy’s eyes, and perhaps she too was mesmerized by the flames playing within the infinite reflections she experienced again and again.
Hakodate | Yesterday
Kaito-san’s lineage was samurai, and ancient. That his line of the family had ended up on Hokkaido was no accident of birth, either. His great-great grandfather had been given a large fiefdom near Hakodate almost two hundred years ago, the bestowal presumably a just reward for decades of faithful service to the Emperor, yet the real reason came down to brute-force politics. A years long struggle for the shogunate ended with the ascension of the older brother and the forced exile of the younger – so the trick had been to make exile somehow feel like victory. And yet some had wondered if the Shogun had not been too generous with this huge bestowal.
Kaito-san’s grandfather had set about developing deep ties with the military liaisons from both France and Britain and soon enough it seemed to many in Edo that as military power shifted away from medieval methods, real power began to shift towards those with the strongest network of alliances with western governments. While this mad rush got underway, Kaito-san’s grandfather further consolidated power by developing the means to keep Russia away from the home islands, at least until he could build a strong enough navy to take out Russia’s Imperial Navy, and by the time this consolidation was complete the younger brother’s political dynasty was assured.
Yet something unexpected happened to the heirs of this dynasty. They traveled to Europe and then to the Americas, they went to schools in Britain and Switzerland and eventually, God forbid, in California, and they in time began to view themselves as not simply citizens of the Japanese Empire but rather more as citizens of the world. They loved Japan, especially the cooler northern islands of their home, but the more they traveled and the more they experienced other points of view the more tolerant they became, so by the time war seemed inevitable, in the late-1930s, the more a deep despair filled their hearts.
After the war ended, and after Kaito-san’s father returned to Hokkaido, it did not take long for the boy to craft his return to Britain; before too many years passed Kaito-san was studying in Oxford, and not long after graduation he was working at the embassy in London. He married the woman that suited his family and they had a daughter – Aki – yet it was this young woman’s misfortune to be raised between two cultures while never really belonging to either. She was, she always felt, on the outside – looking in. Never British, yet rarely did she consider herself Japanese – especially after one of her infrequent trips home – when she began to feel like she was living at one of life’s more oblique margins. Soon she pursued academic interests – if only because it was in the less restrictive yet somehow more confining classroom that she felt a more secure sense of belonging.
Yet as a Japanese national in Britain she was frequently the target of real racial animus, though by the 1960s the worst of these influences were on the wane. When one professor at Cambridge dug into her radical background a little too disparagingly she ran home for a time, only to be hit by another wave self-recrimination when ‘friends’ in Hakodate characterized her as a dedicated anglophile. And then her mother passed away, reopening old wounds once again – for her mother had never once felt any comfort when residing in London.
After her return to England she met Jeremy, and he seemed to dote of Aki’s Japanese heritage – which only confused her more. Yet it was his intention to run away to California – to reinvent themselves, or so he claimed – that seemed to carry the day. By that point Aki was as culturally confused as she could possibly have been, and California offered a kind of anonymity that at first appeared comfortably attractive, so she leapt at the chance to escape this first trap she had constructed for herself. Settling into suburban life in Palo Alto and going to school in Berkeley, surrounded as it was by one of the most liberal academic communities in the United States, might have freed her from this trap…at least had it not been for the secrecy surrounding her father’s Huntington’s diagnosis. As it was, all her walls fell at once, leaving her wounded and exposed once again – and feeling more that a little self-destructive. Ridding herself of Jeremy was perhaps her last, most desperate act of self annihilation, yet not even he saw that for what it truly was.
With Jeremy now expelled from their lives, Aki and Akira drifted on unseen currents. Aki recognized the precariousness of their existence and sought help; her first attempts to speak to traditional psychotherapists proved uninteresting, so she latched onto the more radical approach to dealing with emotional interventions afforded by Linus Pauling’s Orthomolecular Medicine Institute. As a biochemist herself she was perhaps more inclined to accept the extreme nutritional guidelines the institute prescribed, yet within months she began to feel not just better, but almost reborn.
When she heard the latest rumors that Jeremy was working on some kind of advanced biological warfare program she secured Akira and herself behind increasingly opaque layers of anonymity, and in time she grew revolted with the idea that she had ever allowed herself be seduced by such a two-faced monster…
Seattle | Today
The spy was sitting in his study on the telephone, listening to the oncologist’s report while sitting at his desk. Akira’s white counts were still perilously low and there was still no sign chemotherapy had had any measurable impact on the tumor in her brain. The spy asked questions, surprisingly informed questions that rattled the oncologist, then the spy hung up the phone and turned to look out the window. High in one of the pines along the water’s edge he saw the owl, and then he saw the owl was staring – at him.
“I know, Kaito-san,” the spy said. “I know what I must do. I will not fail in my duty to you again.”
He made two calls, the second to Carolyn. He asked her to pick him up later that afternoon and drive him to the airport, and though surprised she dutifully agreed. Jeremy never traveled by air these days, and he never, ever went anywhere alone.
Something, she realized, must be terribly wrong.
Hakodate | Yesterday
The spy followed all the prescribed rules of the tea ceremony; what to say, how to write what he needed to convey, everything he could imagine. He was, ensconced as he was inside Kaito-san’s sprawling residence, surrounded by experts who all seemed most eager to help. The best calligrapher was summoned and an impossibly simple – yet profoundly elegant – invitation was crafted, and accompanied by his mother he delivered it to Aki. She dutifully accepted the scroll and retired to consider the entreaty.
The tea house would be prepared and made ready for the ceremony two nights hence, and Aki sent word to Jeremy that as it was her duty to attend she would of course be there. Yet almost from the moment she had first read the invitation, Aki had felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Could they finally reconcile their differences – not just their personal differences but the lingering cultural differences that had suddenly loomed so large? Or were the differences between their worlds simply too great?
At least, she told herself, he was trying. Couldn’t she meet him halfway?
Word spread throughout the vast residence of the reunion, and there was a freshening in the air, something almost like an early spring. Jeremy was fitted for a proper kimono – deepest red with a single white cherry blossom – and he was also directed to include Kaito-san’s swords in his ensemble. Because they were his now.
Surely not. He wasn’t samurai, so how could this be?
And when the anointed hour came Aki waited for him. And she waited. Until word came to her, of some kind of emergency – some kind of biochemical emergency – in Tokyo. Terrorists were reportedly involved, thousands were allegedly at risk.
And she knew then that he had made his choice.
The gulf between them had been too great after all.
Seattle | Today
The spy sat on his deck overlooking Puget Sound, a small Yeti cooler by his feet and two large manila envelopes resting under his hand on the varnished redwood table. It was late afternoon and two gardeners lingered not far away, cleaning away a few weeds growing along the periphery of the rock-faced sea wall, and an arborist has just finished clearing away branches that had been closing in on the house. A large ‘bird house’ had been placed in the tallest pine two days ago, and he looked up and smiled at it.
The spy heard the patio door slide open and then two people walking towards the table – yet his concentration remained fixed on the bird house in the tree. Did he see eyes in the darkness? So soon?
“Patrick?” Carolyn asked cheerfully as she walked up. “Could I get you something to drink?”
“I’ve put a pitcher of blackcurrant tea in the ‘fridge,” the spy replied. “I think there’s some mango juice, as well.”
“So,” she sighed, “you’d like iced-tea?”
“If you don’t mind. Dr. Andrews? You?”
“Tea sounds good,” Akira’s oncologist said as he sat next to Patrick Grey, the writer.
Carolyn returned to the house and the spy turned in his wheelchair to face the physician: “Thanks for coming. I know this was rather short notice.”
The physician was in his forties, perhaps fifty years old, and he seemed very put out, almost angry. Yet the head of the medical school had, in effect, ordered him to attend this impromptu meeting.
Wheels were rolling. Wheels the spy had set in motion.
“So, Mr. Grey, I’m told you wanted to speak to me about something important?”
The spy nodded. “Important…yes. But you see, first I think I need to tell you a story.”
“Hm-m, yes,” Grey sighed – just before he turned and looked up into the pines – again.
Now the oncologist seemed peeved, like this whole affair was turning into the colossal waste of time he knew it would be – but Carolyn returned with drinks as well as a platter of crab claws and remoulade, which the spy had only recently learned was a weakness the oncologist simply could not resist.
So the spy turned to his assistant and nodded. She produced a fountain pen, a fat old Mont Blanc, and put it squarely on the two envelopes before she returned to the house.
Patrick took a sip of tea and nodded. “There’s something about this blend, I think. Perfection in a glass. And, oh yes, the Dungeness are from City Fish Market. Your favorites, are they not?”
Andrews turned to the spy and smiled. “So, you’ve done your homework. Now, care to tell me what this is all about?”
Patrick set aside his glass of tea, his hand passing over the fountain pen and for a split second he thought he felt a change in gravity…like something was pulling his hand to the envelopes. So he smiled at his own discomfort as he turned to look at Andrews again.
“Once upon a time,” the old spy said – as if out of the blue, “there were labs all around the world that had but one purpose, and that purpose was to fight the next war. The men and women working in many of these labs focused their attentions on developing new weapons…”
“Excuse me, but are you talking about CBW?” Andrews asked, referring to the usual acronym employed when discussing chemical and biological warfare.
And the old spy nodded. “I am.”
“And what has this to do with me?”
Now the old spy simply held up a hand, and his meaning was clear enough. “Many of us, on the other hand, were charged with coming up with so-called antidotes to possible agents the Soviets were developing…”
“Us?” Andrews said, his eyes narrowing a bit. “Are you saying that you…?”
The old spy nodded, ignoring the interruption.
“What’s your background?” Andrews barked, now more than a little perturbed by the direction this meeting was headed, but again the writer simply held up a hand, a scolding admonishment a parent might wave at an offending child.
“During the course of our duties it was often necessary to penetrate Soviet research facilities and acquire samples,” the spy said, his eyes sparkling with memories both fond and fearful, “and after one such excursion we found ourselves in possession of the most evil creation imaginable. An aerosol agent, quite easily dispensed, that once inhaled led to the almost spontaneous formation of mutations within certain classes of glial cells, notably fibrous astrocytes.”
Andrews was paying attention now.
“Curiously, this agent was, or is, rather persistent.”
“How persistent?” the oncologist sighed.
“Oh, at first we determined it was almost flu-like. It could hang around for ten minutes with no loss of potency. When we hit a half hour we knew they had hit the proverbial jackpot, and all we had to do was determine its rate of uptake.”
“Ninety percent at fifteen minutes, then only a modest falloff all the way out to the thirty minute mark.”
“Yes, just so, and I think I used that very word. Then word began to percolate that Andropov wanted to test the weapon. And then a few months later hundreds of cases of glioblastoma presented at two hospitals in central Siberia, numbers as you might suspect way beyond any reasonable standard deviation, and so we had our answer. The most potent biological weapon ever created in the laboratory had been test deployed over two penal colonies, and so of course a few weeks later Reagan announced the whole star wars thing and it was off to the races we went once again.”
“Is it contagious?”
The old spy looked away, but then he nodded his head. “It behaves, all in all, rather like any other garden variety influenza particle. Absent transcription errors it happily goes about it’s job with little regard for UV or other photo-chemical intervention…”
“Then why the hell hasn’t there been a pandemic? I mean, the pathogen you’re describing would have been beyond lethal…”
The old spy nodded. “True. Too true. I think the developers understood these implications, and thankfully they took appropriate precautions. I think they were quite terrified of the global implications. Also, you should understand that most of these researchers disappeared.”
“Dead men tell no tales, Dr. Andrews.”
“So…are you saying it’s just dumb luck we haven’t had a major incident involving this stuff?”
“Oh, there’ve been a couple of incidents.”
“What? Are you serious?”
But the old spy was no longer paying attention. No, he had quietly turned away and was now staring at the kimono over the fireplace, lost in the impenetrable sorrow that had chased him since that night of fast passing storms.
Osaka | Yesterday
He walked out the gate to a waiting Land Rover; a half hour later he was airborne and headed for Osaka. Once onboard the US Air Force Gulfstream he quickly read through the briefing paper that had just been forwarded to Washington and London; a “red” terror cell now had the neurotoxin and was preparing to disperse the agent – and word was the cell planned to release the agent either in or around a major transportation hub or onboard a crowded train. Infrared scanners and dedicated “sniffers” had already been installed in railway and subway stations in both Tokyo and Osaka; dozens more units would go active in the days ahead. These surveillance nodes could detect people with high temperatures as well as – theoretically – airborne viral particles, and both would be key to any successful response.
Hakodate | Yesterday
Aki walked to Jeremy’s room and found that, yes, he had indeed left the house.
She walked through the house in a daze, lost in shame and suddenly all too aware that through her actions she had dishonored her family and filled her father’s last years with great sorrow. She felt buffeted by gales of uncertainty as she came to her room – until she remembered. She was samurai. She had dishonored her family. There was only one way out.
She went to find her father’s swords.
Seattle | Today
The spy looked at the crimson kimono even as his mind drifted to the swords that attended the silken garment. They were his now – and he could not deny them…
Light from a recessed fixture in the ceiling danced along the Masamune’s perfect edge, entrancing him, as always drawing him inward to that other light…
“Patrick? Are you still with us?”
He recognized Carolyn’s voice and felt his way back to her, his mind struggling to break free. “Yes…yes…so sorry. I’ve still a bit of jet-lag, I think. Please, pardon me.”
Carolyn refilled their glasses, pulled him back into the moment. “Should I make you an espresso?”
The spy pushed himself up in his chair, then he smiled at Dr. Andrews. “How is the crab? Palatable, I hope?”
“Delicious. Won’t you help me out here? There’s too much for me alone.”
“Perhaps.” The spy looked at Carolyn again and she retreated to the warmer confines of the kitchen. “Where was I? Oh yes…incidents.”
“Yes, and frankly, I hope you don’t mind me saying that I find all this a little hard to swallow – Mister Grey.”
The spy smiled. “I understand,” he sighed, before taking a long pull from his glass of tea. “My PhD, the first, anyway, was in biochemistry. Oxford, in case anyone is wondering. My second was in neuropharmacology. Stanford. I also finished my MD there, by the by.”
“You…you’re a physician?”
The spy shrugged.
“That’s a simple question, Grey. Are you a physician, or aren’t you?”
“It really doesn’t matter now, does it, Andrews?” the spy sighed, suddenly growing tired of the other man’s preening paternalism.
“What has this story got to do with me, Dr. Grey?”
The spy looked down at his hands crossed on his lap and he nodded slowly. “Once we knew of the existence of the virus we began to model possible threat vectors, and these crude estimates were alarming enough. Then we received the purloined sample and the first thing we did was send it to Goldstein at Southwestern. Once we had the sequence it didn’t take long to figure out how they’d made the agent. Essentially they weaponized a potently malignant cancer, so the job at hand was to come up with a readily deployable countermeasure.”
“A…countermeasure? You mean…like a vaccine?”
The spy shook his head. “A vaccine was deemed too slow. Vaccines take time to reach a significant percentage of any given population, and with this agent the time involved was simply too great. No, the problem we faced was twofold: detection and direct intervention.”
“Direct intervention? How so?”
“We devised a cure, Dr. Andrews.”
A cold, heavy pressure settled over the oncologist as the real import of those words sunk in.
“A cure? For neuroblastoma?”
The spy nodded. “Yes, including all known forms of astrocytoma and glioblastoma.”
“That’s preposterous! Fucking preposterous…and you know it!”
“I am the wisest man alive,” the spy whispered, “for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing at all.”
“What?” Andrews snarled.
“Oh, nothing,” Fontaine/Grey/the spy replied. “Nothing at all.”
Andrews pushed his chair back and he had just started to stand…
…when a large white owl flew down from the pine and settled on table.
The physician, now quite startled, fell back into his seat. “What the devil…” he just managed to say, his voice now little more than a dry, barren place in a land of confusion.
“I don’t think he’s quite ready for you to leave, Dr. Andrews. Do sit and let me wrap this up.”
The owl was not quite two feet tall and he was purest white – aside from his all-seeing amber eyes – and once he’d settled on the table his head turned slightly – until his unblinking eyes were trained on Andrews’.
“In the cooler,” the spy said, pointing at the Yeti by his feet, “you’ll find twenty-one vials; Akira will need three of these.” The spy took one of the envelopes and bent the little brass clasps to open it. “These documents release the patent and assign it to the University of Washington. I’ve already signed, and note my signature was duly notarized by our embassy in Japan. Carolyn will notarize yours when you’re ready, at which point you may begin synthesis and production. The second envelope details the necessary steps.”
“Look, if this is true, if you’re not pulling some kind of…”
The owl’s head bobbed twice, then he spread his wings wide.
“Oh, it’s quite real, Dr. Andrews. And there are no strings attached – other than my request for absolute anonymity.”
Andrews now stared at the owl, quite unable to avoid the creatures haunted eyes. “Anonymity?” he asked.
“My absolute anonymity. It’s spelled out in the release, but everything is rescinded the moment absolute anonymity is vacated. Understood?”
Andrews nodded – but he was startled by a wet, thrashing sound out on the pier…and then he spotted a sea otter trundling up the planks towards Grey…who was now smiling and spreading open a large towel on his lap. The otter leapt up into the all-embracing towel and Grey wrapped himself around the creature and began drying her fur. Andrews shook his head in disbelief, his hands beginning to tremble. “What did you put in that goddam tea?” he asked serenely. “Acid?” The otter turned and began licking the spy’s nose and chin, then the owl hopped over and assumed his place on Grey’s shoulder, leaving Andrews to drift along inside a self-induced semi-hallucinatory stare.
“Stevia, I think,” the spy sighed, the owl rubbing against his ear. “But just a pinch.”
Seattle | One year later
The spy’s daughter sat on the deck watching the sunset, her mind focused on the otter in her lap. Carolyn slid open the patio door and came out with dinner, Dr. Andrews following along a moment later with four glasses and a bottle of chilled riesling.
Akira’s hair was growing again – though her eyebrows were still sparse – and her color was better, but she was free of the malignancies that had been coursing through her body. She was settling into her new life in America, still very weak after treatments ended but improving day by day. There were times when she – almost – believed as her father had, that the otter was really her mother and the owl her grandfather, but as far as she was concerned the jury was still out on all that nonsense. The gardens were, however, still immaculate.
“Is Patrick still napping?” Andrews asked – though he directed his question to no one in particular.
Carolyn smiled and nodded. “Yes. He had another rough night, I’m afraid.”
The physician nodded. “I guess that’s to be expected – at his age. Is he using the walker?”
“No,” Carolyn replied – with a little scowl showing. “I think he’s too proud.”
“Is he in the living room?”
Carolyn nodded and Andrews put down the glasses and the bottle then turned to go inside and check on the old man. If nothing else it seemed like the right thing to do.
As he walked up to the sofa in front of the simmering fireplace he pulled up short, surprised to find a tiny fox curled on Patrick’s chest – though he saw both were sleeping fitfully. He moved closer to look over the little creature, but as he bent over to inspect the fox a shadow passed over Patrick and Andrews jumped back as the white owl landed on the sofa’s back. The owl stared at him so Andrews shook his head and walked back out onto the patio, not quite knowing what else to do – or even to think. “This isn’t a house,” he muttered to himself, “it’s a menagerie.”
He walked over to the table and sat down, found his glass was full and that condensation was already forming on the glass. “When did the fox show up?” he asked Carolyn.
“Fox? What fox?”
“What fox? The one in there, the one asleep on Patrick.”
“What?” Akira and Carolyn cried as they stood, both making their way into the house.
Yet Patrick wasn’t on the sofa now. In fact, he was nowhere to be found.
Carolyn ran into Patrick’s bedroom – but he wasn’t there. She checked his bathroom, then ran outside through each one of his little gardens – and still she found not a trace of him. She heard Andrews in the garage and went to check, but nothing came of that, either.
Then they heard singing. A low, almost sonorous lament, the words Japanese. Was it – coming from the living room?
They ran from the garage back into the house and found Akira standing before the lone television, and she was openly weeping now.
“I was just standing here,” she sobbed, “and then this started playing…”
Andrews recognized the scene immediately, the words incisive, grounded in the heart of the moment:
life is brief fall in love, maidens before the crimson bloom fades from your lips before the tides of passion cool within you, for there is no such thing as tomorrow, after all
A chill ran down the physician’s spine as he tried to remember the first time he’d seen Kurosawa’s Ikiru, and how he’d openly wept as Takashi Shimura sang The Gondola Song. The poetic imagery of those last scenes had never left him, and he halfway expected to look up and see Patrick out in his garden on a swing set in a gently falling snow, but no, that was not to be.
“Wait a minute,” he muttered. “Where’s the fox…and the owl?”
And after a quick look around the house they found that all of Patrick’s animals were now gone, even the otter. Gone without a trace. As if they had never been there at all.
And then Akira gasped, and pointed at the framed kimono hanging above the dying fire.
Andrews walked up to the frame and inspected the wood, then the paper backing that sealed the rear of the piece, yet both were intact, undisturbed.
Which was, under the circumstances, quite odd.
For the short sword, the tantō, was no longer mounted there.
But just below, on the black slate hearth gleaming in the last glowing embers, was a spreading pool of deepest red blood – disturbed only by the paw prints of a passing fox.
Been rather quiet around here, or at least it might seem so after such a long time without new work posting. The truth is rather less pleasant and far too bothersome to go into, but pardon me for not going down that road.
I had started a new story before everything hit the fan and it’s almost complete. Hopefully it will post soon so if interested keep your eyes open.
Hard to imagine that a year ago the status quo ante still appeared solid; Putin was still all crazy bluster but at least the center was still holding. My, what a difference a year makes. Eastern Ukraine is a medieval no-man’s land and we are all perched on the knife edge of another paranoid fascist’s dream. I remember Kennedy on the TV talking about Cuba and Russian missiles so the sense of deja vu is all a little too uncomfortable right now, but in truth there’s little we can do but fill our lives with love and understanding.
Speaking of music, this popped a few months back and is a fresh voice…the next generation, I reckon. It feels rather 1950s to me, almost like Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee running on the beach, but it hits all the right spots.
I wanted to wish all of you the peace to enjoy the people around you, and to reach out and share what you might with a stranger to two. One thing seems certain, however:
And so here we are at the end of another little story, a tale leaving you with many questions and with few guideposts ahead…because this was, after all, not my story to tell. That the creators of the arc have dismissed the idea of moving ahead only served to open the door just enough to slip a foot inside and take a look around. To see what an addled mind might come up with. Of course this is/was just one of a million possibilities, but it was nevertheless fun to play around in these borrowed fields. Perhaps when you finish here you’ll revisit Prometheus and Covenant and see how the pieces presented here fit in those other puzzles? Maybe I missed the mark entirely, so put the kettle on and pour yourself a cup of tea, put your feet up and ponder the possibilities.
[In Places On The Run \\ The Dream Academy]
You better start doing it right…
USNSF Hyperion 12 September 2105
Lost in light, the light ahead. More than halfway to the doomed star Capella, Hyperion and her fleet are spread out in a long, thin line streaming towards oblivion. Patton and Stavridis are well behind, about to rendezvous with the last of the fleet’s tankers. And streaking away from the fleet: Hyperion’sShuttle Two, with Ripley’s Gordon at the helm. Covenant and the small Company ship are dead ahead of the shuttle, and as it happens they are anything but dead. Life now crawls through the twisted remains of Covenant, life almost human – but also no longer human, writhes in darkness, waiting to be fulfilled. A glistening amalgam of sulfuric acid, silicon, and human DNA lies waiting, patiently waiting, to spring the trap.
Ripley’s Gordon keys the mic, the video feed to Hyperion now set to Continuous.
“Admiral,” Gordon says, “as you can see, the Company ship’s name is Daedalus. I am picking up signs that the main reactor plant is now online and ramping up, but her Field is still not up.”
“And the Field generator came online when you scanned with radar?”
“Yes, Admiral. As you and Captain Caruthers surmised, the ship is still manned.”
“What are you showing as time to impact, Gordon?”
“Patton’s torpedoes will arrive in seven minutes, four seconds. Stavridis’ torpedoes will impact one minute and fifteen seconds after that.”
“Any reaction from Covenant yet?”
“No Admiral, nothing so far. How is your approach to Capella? As anticipated?”
“More interaction between gravity waves than expected, but the inertial dampers are handling it so far.”
“Is it possible that there might arise unexpected zones of interaction, Admiral?”
“How so, Gordon?”
“Ah. An unexpected interaction between gravity waves from Capella and the magnetar. Like colliding tidal streams, perhaps?”
“We haven’t programmed that into the simulation. What makes you think that’s possible?”
“Admiral, from this distance I think I can such waves forming, so interaction seems inevitable. There are more gravity waves emerging from the magnetar than we expected, yet I can see collisions between these waves and the more typical gravitational waves being pulled into Capella. There is a zone of conflict between these inbound and outbound waves, and the plasma ejected from Capella’s corona appears very disturbed in this region.”
“Okay Gordon, thanks. We’re programming the new simulation now.”
“You’re welcome, Admiral. Four minutes twenty seconds to first impact. Daedalus’ Field generator is ramping up to full power now; I suspect her Field will activate any time now.”
“Admiral, you should input your code now. There could be disrupted COMMs after impact.”
Ripley nodded, but “Okay” was all he managed to say. He watched the live feed from Shuttle Two, Covenant with her massive solar array now in tatters – and with a very malevolent Daedalus docked to Covenant’s forward crew module – so he wasn’t at all surprised when Daedalus disappeared behind her Field.
“Daedalus Field now active and at one hundred percent rated power, Admiral. Torpedo impact in thirty seconds.”
“How far out are you, Gordon?”
“Twenty thousand kilometers, Admiral. Safe enough for now.”
“Admiral, may I transmit the data to Patton’s Gordon now?”
“Yes, go ahead.”
“Thank you, Admiral. Impact in ten seconds.”
Ripley turned to Hyperion’s astronomer. “You recording this?”
“Yessir, but at this distance we may just see a series of small flashes.”
Ripley nodded. “Make sure you record to redundant sources.”
Ripley, watching the feed from Shuttle Two, almost flinched as the first torpedo struck Daedalus’ Field – but, as expected, absolutely nothing happened. The torpedo just barely penetrated the Field, and this caused to the one gigaton hydrogen warhead to detonate. Shock waves wouldn’t reach the shuttle for several minutes so the image remained clear, and Ripley and the bridge crew on Hyperion watched as three more warheads impacted and detonated, and when the intense brightness finally faded everyone could see that the little ship’s Field was now glowing bright yellow. Then, as the heat contained by the Field built and built the Field turned solid green…
“Admiral,” Gordon said, “the temperature within the Field is now at 11,000 Kelvin and rising. The second round of torpedoes will impact in fifteen seconds.”
“How long before the shockwave reaches you?”
“About four minutes, Admiral. Permission to begin my run.”
“Fifth impact, Admiral.”
Ripley nodded and watched as the first of Stavridis’ warheads slammed into Daedalus’ Field, and as the flaring began to fade he saw patches of blue forming within the Green Field – then the sixth warhead hit and her Field began to turn solid blue…
“Internal Field temp now at 15,000 Kelvin, Admiral.”
The seventh warhead hit and the little ship’s Field turned cobalt blue with violet patches…
“Field burn-through imminent, Admiral.”
The eighth and final warhead plowed into Daedalus’ Field and this time the energy released by the blast shook Covenant and the little ship’s Field turned intensely violet – before it began to collapse in on itself.
“Her Field is gone, Admiral, but as predicted the ship is still intact. Picking up heat blooms in her reactor spaces, and more personnel are transferring from Covenant to Daedalus now. They appear to be removing sleep modules from Covenant and taking them to Daedalus.”
“How long, Gordon?”
“To impact, Admiral? Less than five minutes at present speed.”
“Was your data transfer successful?”
“Yes. Thank you, Admiral.”
“Arm the warheads, Gordon.”
Ripley watched as Gordon turned and flipped switches, then Gordon returned to the screen. “Both warheads now armed, Admiral.”
“Thank you, Gordon.”
“All my brothers as well as myself have been encoded with a reasonable fear of death. This was done to prevent us from taking our own life, or the lives of others.”
“I see, Gordon. I’m sorry, I had no idea.”
“Admiral? I am afraid.”
“You have every right to be, my friend. But that is why so many human actions are driven by duty and honor, Gordon.”
“I understand, Admiral. You will remember our pledge?”
“Of course I will, Gordon.”
“Thank you, Admiral.”
“Gordon, tell me something…as man to man.”
“Do you think that the past still exists somewhere?”
Gordon looked puzzled, then almost unsure of himself. “I don’t know, sir. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it before. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll meet again there. Someday.”
“I see, sir. Yes, perhaps. Sixty seconds to impact, Admiral.”
Ripley looked at his screen: Shuttle Two was streaking in fast now, aiming right for the Company ship’s center of mass, the two 5-Gigaton warheads in her cargo hold armed and with their proximity detonators active.
“I don’t know if we ever really die or not, Gordon. That too is part of the human condition, and I think sometimes it gives us a kind of hope.”
“Hope for what, Admiral?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe that something comes after, and so there’s no reason to be afraid of the darkness. Maybe, I guess, because we won’t be lonely, wherever it is we end up, and that one day soon we’ll see each other again.”
“I see, sir.”
Ripley looked Gordon in the eye. “Gordon, it’s been an honor to know you.”
“Yes, Admiral. Thank you for being my friend.”
Shuttle Two burned in at 46,000 meters per second, closing the last few miles to Daedalus and Covenant in the span of a single human heartbeat…then Ripley’s screen flared briefly before it went black.
“Yes, goodbye my friend,” Denton Ripley whispered – before he turned away and closed his eyes. If only to hide from the universe for a few minutes more.
Holy Mother of God…you’ve got to go faster than that…
USNSF Hyperion 12 August 2107
Lost in time, unforgiving time.
Ripley remained locked away, deep within the cold, dark warrens of his in-port cabin; today, like so many recent days, he remained content to leave the day-to-day running of the ship to Captain Brennan. It was, after all was said and done, her ship. He had started playing a musty old guitar he’d purchased at an old music shop in Annapolis early in his second year at the Academy, thinking that perhaps someday, maybe while out on a long patrol, he might actually find time enough to learn to play the blasted thing, yet somehow that day had never arrived. Until two years ago.
He had read somewhere that the blues was the one and only “real” American art form; everything else was just an imitation of an imitation, or so that line of reasoning went. So he’d started there, because at the time the blues had seemed a perfectly reasonable place to end this particular journey of his.
The more he studied the basics the more the musical forms of the blues seemed ideally suited to the life he’d made for himself out here beyond Earth, at least it did on most days: three chords spread over 12 bars in 4/4 time, but with an endless variety of emotional repetitions possible, with each chord suited to the many moods of the day. Or was it really the needs of the moment?
Yet anyone, Ripley surmised, could memorize three chords, even him, so why not start small…?
Yet after two years the blues still eluded him. ‘Just as truth so often eludes us,’ he mused.
And now that Hyperion was finally back in Sol system and headed for Gateway Luna-4, Ripley had finally packed away the musty old guitar with all its nasty, silent recriminations, giving up for the last time on music. For the last five months, after remnants of the fleet had mapped Langston Points as far out as Polaris, Ripley had held class almost daily with the five remaining midshipmen. And once a week Patton’s shuttle came for him and he went to the smaller ship to visit his wife and daughter, often spending the night with them before returning to Hyperion, his flagship.
Then they’d Jumped back to Sol after spending a final two months in and around Castor and Pollux, the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini. They’d discovered two habitable worlds in the regions around Castor, and these discoveries alone would justify the expense of such a long duration voyage…but then again, that was the good news.
Because, Ripley knew, good news always comes with a price. In this case, one of the moons there appeared inhabited.
Once out of Jump shock, the crew on Hyperion performed a COMMs check and then checked-in with SpaceCon in Norfolk. New orders arrived within the hour: all but Hyperion were to proceed directly to the main Gateway in Earth orbit – to refuel and rearm, but that was also when the word arrived that new crews would be taking over.
But again, not Hyperion.
No, Hyperion was to proceed direct to Luna Gateway-4. To Admiral Stanton’s HQ.
So Ripley finished-up and turned-in his final expedition report, a four hundred page mea culpa detailing the circumstances around the destruction of Covenant and Daedalus, as well as the loss of both Ticonderoga and the Woodrow Wilson. Of the silence they had all experienced? He left all that out of his report.
He heard from Admiral Stanton after that. A Board of Inquiry would be held at the gateway; an Admiral’s Mast would follow.
Tankers met the fleet after departing Mercury and Ripley began to wrap up his instructions with the middies not long after. Two weeks later Hyperion, as well as Patton and Stavridis, docked at Luna-4 – and that was it. Over, everything over, and suddenly Denton Ripley felt small again.
According to BuPers he was now officially one year past his mandatory retirement age; Judy still had two years to reach that milestone, but assuming she wanted to go out again, which he very much doubted, she too was finished, at an end. More than one colony ship would be headed to Gemini soon enough, and wouldn’t it be a fine thing if they all could make the trip together?
It turned out the Board of Inquiry was a mere formality; Ripley would, after all, be officially retired as soon as he left the base. The Admiral’s Mast was another thing entirely.
Informal gatherings such as Admiral’s Masts were non-judicial hearings often held to go over more controversial details of a voyage that didn’t make it into the (often sanitized) final Expedition Findings, and typically for politically sensitive reasons. In short, Ripley would have to come clean about his reasoning behind not only the destruction of Daedalus and Covenant but also his thinking behind the decision to send his Gordon unit on a terminal mission.
And then…there was the silence.
Video of the fleet’s encounter as they approached Capella and the magnetar would also be reviewed one more time, and the greater implications of the silence reviewed and discussed. Stanton presided, of course, and four serving admirals came up from Norfolk to attend, as did an Undersecretary of Defense and a member of the U.S. Senate, both Navy veterans who had served in space.
The Mast was held in a special one room within the Lunar Gateway, a hallowed space built of actual wood, the real deal. Old-growth oak from Tennessee, in point of fact, and mounted on one wall – the original wheel from the U.S.S. Constitution, Old Ironsides, and one of the few artifacts preserved during the fire that finally consumed the old ship. There seemed to be no point of contention that could not be raised in this venerated atmosphere, if only because what was said in the room tended to stay in the room.
Once Admiral Stanton took his chair everyone else sat – with the exception of Denton Ripley. A sailor brought before the Mast was typically to remain standing while a summary of the meeting was read aloud…for the record…and so Ripley stood behind his chair, waiting. Stanton finished reading a document that Ripley could see was clearly marked ‘Classified’ and ‘Top Secret’ while the rest of the gathered attendees poured water into glasses or checked messages on personal tablets. Yet they ignored him, never looked his way.
Until Stanton looked up and called the meeting to order.
“Denton, have a seat,” Stanton said, breaking tradition and changing the tenor of the proceedings at the outset.
So Ripley sat. And he waited. Again. While Stanton continued reading from his classified documents.
Then the old man put the document away and looked over to his aide and nodded. The room darkened, a flat panel display lowered from the ceiling and came to life. Images flickered and then stabilized into a standard split-screen arrangement, the left side showing Hyperion’s bridge, the right side a diagram showing the arrangement of Hyperion and her fleet as they departed Beta Capella-4,to make their long approach between Capella and the emerging magnetar.
“Denton, after reading over your report, and that of Admiral Adams on Ticonderoga, I just wanted to be sure I understand the sequence of events.” He looked up and nodded at Ripley, his blue-gray eyes hard and clear.
“This shockwave? The Walter from Covenant’s ground party identified this as coming from a collapsing neutron star – and not a ‘nearby stellar ignition?’ as originally postulated?”
“Yes, Admiral. He also advised that the small citadel on Beta Capella-4 was a scientific colony, and that the scientists stationed there had been observing the collapse for some time. He was, once the hostile organisms on the planet identified him as an item of no interest, able to make several trips up into the mountains, where their observatories were located.”
“Of no interest? Clarify, please.”
“Organisms not originally from that planet, usually in the form of airborne spores, penetrate the mucosal membranes of living hosts and within hours a new hybrid completes gestation and is born…”
“Within hours, you say?”
“Yes Admiral, and these new organisms seem to be born combat-ready almost as soon as they are out of the semi-human placenta used. I mean quite literally within seconds.”
Stanton looked at the men around the room. Heads were shaking in dawning realization how dangerous, or perhaps how useful, such an organism could be.
“You say in your report as much, but you’ve left out the origins of this organism. Does Covenant’s Walter not know?”
Ripley looked away, collecting his thoughts. “Admiral, the record here is at best circumstantial. This Walter relayed to me that members of the original Prometheus mission discovered a weapons storage facility maintained by this civilization…”
“The Tall Whites, as you can them?”
“Yessir. And the lone human survivor of this mission, one Elizabeth Shaw, along with the David unit assigned to that mission…”
“Peter Weyland’s personal unit, you write. Supposedly considered his son?”
“Yes, Admiral. And after the destruction of Prometheus, Shaw and this David traveled to the citadel and, well, they quite literally bombed the city with a biological package taken from this storage facility. And this released the pathogen that spread around the continent, Admiral.”
“So, whether we like it or not the human race has de facto initiated hostilities against this group, your Tall Whites.”
“And that’s why I tried to differentiate our forces from those on Daedalus, Admiral. I wanted to declare them as our common enemy.”
“Quick thinking on your part, too. What you might not know is that while you were away the Weyland-Yutani Group moved their entire operation to the Orion colonies.”
“The Japanese colony, sir?”
Stanton nodded. “A marriage of convenience, I think. Intel suggests they intend a sudden return to Earth with overwhelming force, their intent to wipe out the combined Naval and Space Forces remaining here and so to pave the way for their return. Our best guess is that they are after the organism for just this purpose.”
Ripley shook his head. “What Walter describes, sir…well, there’s just no way to contain such an organism. Once it gets loose there’s literally no stopping it, and if it got loose on Earth the entire planet would have to be sterilized, right down to sea life and avian species, and perhaps even plant life.”
“This David unit, Weyland’s son…you call him. Walter told you these units developed split personalities as a result of mistreatment?”
“So in effect we caused this whole thing?”
“That’s one way to look at it, Admiral. Behavioral inhibitors could have been included in these first units, but weren’t.”
“So…Weyland was trying to implement his take on Free Will?”
“That’s a real possibility, sir.”
“Okay, let’s move on to the destruction of Covenant. You deployed your personal Gordon unit to carry out this mission. Why?”
“It was Judy’s…Captain Caruthers intent to fly the mission, Admiral.”
“But she was pregnant. With your daughter? What’s her name? Ellen?”
“Yessir. Gordon learned of her intent and had a Walter unit sedate her before her planned departure.”
“I understand she was pretty upset by these maneuvers? Blamed you, did she?”
“Going over the transcript of the video, you and this Gordon made a deal? A pledge of some sort?”
“Yes, Admiral. I promised to reactivate all the Gordon units, fleet wide.”
“Trusted him that much?”
“Yessir. In effect, sir, I was trusting him with the life of my child.”
“Extraordinary,” Stanton whispered. “I’m not sure I could have done that.”
“You haven’t served with a Gordon yet, have you, Admiral?”
Stanton bristled. “No,” was all he said, and that not at all pleasantly.
Ripley nodded. “I’m still not quite sure what we’ve done, Admiral, but in some ways I think they’re better than us at many things we never considered possible.”
Stanton growled under his breath. “So, what was the purpose sending the shuttle?”
“Well sir, the torpedoes took out Daedalus but left Covenant reasonably well intact, at least long enough to possibly launch her remaining shuttle. Gordon’s mission was therefore twofold, sir. One, to see that the destruction of Daedalus was accomplished and Two, to see to it that anyone departing Covenant by shuttle was negated.”
“And no shuttle departed Covenant? Is that your understanding?”
Stanton turned to his aide and nodded. “Play the enhanced segments.”
The screen flickered as files changed and the live feed from Shuttle Two began playing.
“We caught this when we analyzed the files you forwarded,” Stanton said, and the original version played through twice before an enhanced version played – and Ripley could clearly see a small black blob departing the aft end of Covenant…
“What the Hell is that?” Ripley sighed, his stomach lurching as the image looped over and over again – and as all eyes in the room turned on his.
“Best we can tell? We first thought it was some sort of escape pod, but you can plainly see it has a Field generator and is too large for that purpose.” Stanton shook his head then looked away. “You had the right idea, Denton. But the Company apparently beat us at our own game.”
“Dear God,” Ripley muttered. “Any idea where it went, Admiral?”
Stanton shrugged, keeping his ace up his sleeve a little longer. “So, let’s move on to item three, your encounter at Capella – and the loss of Wilson and Ticonderoga.”
“So as I understand it…Ticonderoga’s hull was compromised by the shockwave from the collapsing neutron star and half her interior compartments were fire damaged, and Wilson’s tanks were dry and had sustained minor damaged. And you decided to try to get Ticonderoga out of the system to prevent her assets from falling into unknown hands. That correct, Denton?”
“Sound thinking. And Adams didn’t think her vessel’s structural integrity was so compromised the ship couldn’t make the return trip?”
Ripley shook his head. “No sir, I assumed her thinking was that getting out of the collapsing system was preferable to leaving all those assets behind. I would not characterize her feeling about the ship’s integrity as confident. Hopeful might be the best word, sir.”
“That’s pretty thin, Ripley.”
‘So it’s Ripley now, not Denton. I’ve been lulled into falling into his trap,’ he thought. “I think our reasoning was sound, Admiral.”
“Do you, indeed? How many people were on Ticonderoga when she broke apart?”
“Two hundred seventy, sir?”
“Oh? My figure is ninety two. How do you come up with 270?”
“Human and both Walter and Gordon units lost, Admiral.”
Stanton’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t conflate property with human life, Ripley. Understood?”
Ripley remained silent.
“I see,” Stanton said with a sigh. “Well, good for you,” Admiral Stanton added, his voice suddenly and unexpectedly dripping with wilting sarcasm.
Ripley polled the room, looking from face to face, and no one met him even halfway.
“So,” Stanton continued, “You write that Wilson gets slammed by a small, errant CME and yet even with her Field up she comes apart. Just how did you figure that out, Ripley? I mean, your Field was up and you couldn’t see her, right?”
“Correct, sir. But heat sensors picked up something massive, like a coronal mass ejection, along with an unexpected new velocity vector.”
“But you didn’t warn her?”
“Our Field was up, Admiral. Radios don’t work without antennas, sir, in case you’ve forgotten.”
Stanton looked over his glasses and nodded. “And Ticonderoga? The same CME took her out too?”
“Unknown. Yes, so it says in your report. And yet I find a startling coincidence here, Ripley. All the sensors on every ship remaining in the fleet went dark at this point. Care to tell me why?”
“I’m not sure I can reliably explain that, Admiral.”
Stanton looked around the table, at all the silent eyes around the room, then he snapped his fingers – and everyone in the room save Stanton’s aide simply disappeared. Stanton watched Ripley, yet he seemed disappointed at his response. “Bet you didn’t see that coming, eh?”
Ripley shrugged. “High density holograms?”
“That’s right. How’d you know?”
“They never spoke to me, sir. And they rarely looked my way. Too hard to program, I reckon.”
Stanton nodded at his aide one more time. “Play the next file, please.”
The screen flickered again as a new file loaded, then Ripley was looking at the fleet, his fleet, as it approached Capella. The screen split – and Gordon appeared.
“Gordon?” Ripley cried, astonished. “What the hell!”
But Stanton simply shook his head. “No, his name is David.”
“David? But I…you mean…from Prometheus?”
“Yes. We think his plan was to come up from behind and take out each ship one by one, then transit the Jump Point to Gemini and then on to Earth. He almost made it, too.”
“Watch, Denton. Watch and learn.”
David piloted his shuttle and soon caught up with the Woodrow Wilson. He fired a particle beam cannon that soon defeated Wilson’s Field and in an instant she blossomed and was gone. Ticonderoga came next and Ripley could hardly watch this next callous murder unfold…until David’s shuttle’s screen turned black. David frantically worked his instruments trying to find the problem, right up to the point where the shuttle’s video stopped…
“Sir? What happened?”
“Indeed. That is the question, isn’t it? The big question, if I may.”
“It took us a while to sort through the clues, but they were there alright. Where we least expected them. First, David raised his mast and the radar survived a little over a second out there in the heat, but when we looked at the video frame by frame we found this…” Stanton used a laser pointer to point to the shuttle’s radar display and there it was, a return – only this radar return was coming up from the rear.
“Apparently Admiral Adams sensed something was amiss and raised a camera through the Field, and I’d assume she did so to get a visual on Wilson.”
Another image flared and stabilized and there for a few seconds was a huge horseshoe shaped ship, firing on the shuttle that had just fired at Wilson.
“And there it is, Denton. Simple as that. You saved his ass, so he returned the favor.”
“That alien, Ripley. The one you saved when his ship was overrun by those damned things. His name, by the way, is Pak.”
“I’m sorry, Admiral, but how the hell do you know all this?”
Stanton smiled and nodded gently, any further subterfuge now completely unnecessary. “Your sensors failed, right? All of them?”
“And yet a few seconds later you find yourself on the far side of Alpha Geminorum Ca, and suddenly all your systems return.”
“Yessir. Our navigators assumed we hit the Jump Point and made the transit.”
Stanton shook his head. “That’s not quite what happened, Denton.”
“Pak’s ship jumped your fleet, every mother lovin’ one of ‘em. Don’t ask me how ‘cause I have no goddam idea.”
“But Admiral, we didn’t receive any file transfers from Ticonderoga, or even Wilson – for that matter. Let alone from the shuttle David was piloting…”
Stanton turned to his aide again. “Open the file now, please,” he said, then he turned back to Ripley. “Thomas Standing Bull sent this file to his tablet, in his cabin on Hyperion. Thank goodness it was still hooked up to the net or we’d have never received it.”
Ripley saw the file open onscreen, so he took a deep breath and read through it…
“Admiral, Tom here. The leader of the group you saved is a high admiral of the fleet. His name is Pak don Sau. I will be living with his family while learning their one of their languages, but it is easy, very similar to other Indo-European languages on Earth. When I am proficient I am to be sent to one of their universities, one near Alpha Geminorum Ca, to one of the planets you will soon survey. I have been with Pak since leaving Hyperion, but he has been watching over our fleet. We recovered files from Ticonderoga and an unknown shuttle that fired on our ships, and I have included these as attachments. I hope they help. Pak says he will continue watching us. I think if he feels we are safe I will be taught the secrets of their FTL drive at university. Pak told me to invite you and a small group of teachers to come to the fifth planet in the Alpha Geminorum Ca system. You will find a moon there. He says you will know what to do. Goodbye for now, and say hello to Yukio for me. I miss her terribly. T Standing Bull.”
Ripley found that he was trembling inside, his entire world turned inside out.
“Well…I will be dipped in shit,” he finally muttered.
“Yes. Exactly so. Denton…I envy you.”
Stanton turned on the overhead lights and yawned, then he walked over to a view port. “Come here, take a look.”
Ripley stood and walked over to stand beside the old admiral. He was looking at a new ship, rather small but decidedly rakish.
“That’s the Agamemnon. One hundred meters, crew of eighty, well…one hundred and fifty by your way of reckoning such things. She’s a scout ship, first of her class, designed to look for Alderson Points, tram-lines, that sort of thing. Lightly armed, but we’re removing most of that stuff now. You’ll be taking her to Alpha Geminorum Ca as soon as that work is complete. Once you drop off those academic types you can come home and get your family, and we’ll talk about your future then.”
“But Admiral, that’s a navy ship, isn’t it?”
“It is. And I regret to inform you, Admiral, but your retirement papers have been…lost…for the time being.”
“I see, sir.”
“Anyone you want to take with you? For crew, I mean…”
Ripley had to think about that for a moment. “Brennan, I reckon. And I guess most of the bridge crew, Admiral. They’re already familiar with the system.”
“What about Judy? And Ellen?”
“Not on this first trip, Denton. Too many unknowns. Besides, you should be back within a few months, well in time for Ellen’s next birthday, anyway.”
“I don’t like it, Denton,” Judy sighed. “It’s all a little too convenient, especially the note from Thomas. It smells, Denton. Like you’re being set up. Or walking into a trap.”
“But…why would he do it, Judy?”
“Why the holograms, Denton? All that means is that there weren’t any witnesses.”
“Witnesses? To what, for heaven’s sake?”
But all Judy could do was shake her head and shrug.
“I have to disagree, Judy. If the admiralty was concerned about this new race, why send us at all? Why not just blockade the Jump Point to Alpha Geminorum Ca?”
“They don’t need jump points, Denton.”
“Right. I knew that.”
“Well…oh hell, Denton, I don’t know and I’m not going to sit around here trying to look for reasons. If you go and you come back then I was wrong.”
“And if I don’t come back?”
“Then you were too gullible.”
She came to him, slipped into his arms. “Let’s not fight, okay. You’ll be gone in a few days, so let’s make the best of the time we have…”
He held her close, marveled at the strength of her…
Then they heard a gentle knock on the door.
“Admiral, it’s me.”
“What is it, Gordon?”
“High priority comms from Norfolk, for Mrs. Ripley.”
“Come on in, Gordon,” Judy said. “Do you have a copy, or do we need to go into HQ?”
“I have it here. It was delivered by courier a few minutes ago.”
Judy opened the envelope, itself a rarity these days, then she scanned all three pages of the document before she passed it over to Denton. Her hands were shaking, he noted.
“War?” Denton sighed. “Between Russia and the Japanese? What the hell?” he added.
“Read the second page,” she whispered.
Denton flipped the cover sheet over and read through the second and third pages, shaking his head all the time. “They can’t do this. You’re retired…you didn’t sign up for the reserves…”
“There’s the emergency reactivation clause, remember? If an Emergency War Order is issued, anyone who’s retired within the last two years…?”
Denton growled and clinched his fists, pacing like a cornered animal looking for a way out ofan unseen hunter’s trap. “So…now I’m supposed to head out to Gemini – and you to Orion? And just who, pray tell, is going to stay here and take care of Ellen? Anything in there about that?”
Judy sat and put her hands in her face, shaking now – but not out of anger. “What do we do, Denton? How can’t we refuse an EWO…that’s tantamount to desertion…not to mention a capital offense in time of war!”
Denton turned away and shook his head, then looked up to see Gordon standing there by the door to their room, waiting patiently with the same gently inquisitive smile his Gordon on Hyperion had always used.
“Admiral,” Gordon asked helpfully, now speaking ever so gently, “is there anything I can do to lend a hand?”
It was worth a shot, he reasoned.
So he made an appointment with Admiral Stanton and went to his office in the Gateway.
“I see,” Stanton said after Ripley presented his case. “Yes, that’s quite a conundrum.”
“It is, sir. Ellen will be two next year and these are critical times in her upbringing. Neither Judy nor myself feel that leaving her with Gordon would be in her best interest.”
“No other family, I take it?”
“Understandable, I think,” Stanton said. “Still, these are perilous times, Admiral Ripley, and your assigned journey to Alpha Geminorum may very well net us the know-how to develop the first working FTL drive. Do you have any idea what that might mean to the future of humanity?”
“I’ve given the matter some thought, Admiral, and I think I grasp the implications well enough.”
“And still you want to stay?”
“No sir, I want Judy to stay.”
But Admiral Stanton just shook his head, and Ripley thought the Old Man rather looked the part of an old, tired lion. Imperious. Sure of himself and of the sanctity of his realm. And utterly ruthless in the certainty of his aims, and the means to his ends. “I can’t do that, Ripley, and you know it – so don’t you dare put me in that position.”
“The Gordon unit with you? He’s the one that received the data download from your first Gordon, is he not?”
“He is, Admiral.”
“Any idea what that was all about?”
“No sir. None.”
Ripley sighed, then he nodded. “I suspect my Gordon downloaded all his thoughts and experiences to Judy’s, so in effect he passed along who he was, Admiral.”
“So, in effect…his understanding of…you…was passed along? Is that what you’re saying?”
“That’s what I’m…what I’ve speculated, Admiral?”
“Well then, who better to leave Ellen with?”
“Well okay then, I think we’re done here. Dismissed, Admiral, and Good Luck…”
And when her parents left, Ellen Ripley found herself in the arms of the one person who would, in the end, come to know her best – over the many lonely birthdays that followed.
Also, hier ist das Ende der Geschichte. Aber zu Ende ist nur ein Neuanfang.
If you don’t want to boil as well—Better start the dance
USNSF Halsey 11 September 2115
Lost in darkness, Ripley felt the little ship tumbling and spinning – and for a moment he wondered why the Field had collapsed – and death had come – so soon.
‘But no, I’m not dead yet…’ he told himself as he struggled to regain himself.
“Emergency power, NOW!” he shouted – and seconds later the bridge was bathed in pale blue light.
“Inertial dampers to standby, reaction control jets to auto!” he added as he watched terrified crew members trying to get oriented to their shattered surroundings, now trying to keep his voice calm. “Engineering? You on comms?”
“Get the primaries online as soon as you can, and see if you can get the ion drives to standby.”
“Brennan?” he said as his eyes swept the bridge.
“Up here,” she said, and when he look up, he indeed saw she was plastered to the ceiling. “My harness failed,” she added – with deep pain etched on her face.
He nodded. “Medical to bridge,” he said on the intercom. “Lieutenant Bergeron?”
“Here sir,” the ship’s captain said.
“Where’s your XO?”
“I don’t know, Admiral.”
He shook his head and sighed. “Okay, skipper, time to get your act together; go get all your damage control parties organized and then get down to engineering. I want power and I want it now!”
“Aye, sir,” Bergeron nodded, pulling herself down the tumbling main corridor.
White lights popped on and all bridge instrumentation rebooted and he nodded approval. “At least someone in engineering is doing their job!” he muttered. “NAV, work out our position as fast as you can, and we need to know what happened to Beta Capella 4…”
Someone had managed to raise the blast covers after the Field failed and now metal panels slid back inside their recesses within the ship’s hull – and in an instant everyone on the bridge could see what they were up against. Beta Capella 4, the entire planet, was a pulverized jumble of tumbling fragments spinning in space, the planet’s molten core cooling in the hard vacuum of space. Ripley looked at the remnants and thought it appeared the planet had broken into five or six major fragments – but then Capella rolled into view and Ripley’s stomach lurched…
The star was visibly spinning now – yet a huge plume of coronal matter was being funneled towards the incipient black hole forming around the magnetar…
“Comms, see if you can raise anyone on the net. Astro, get a work up on the gravity well forming beyond Capella, and get me an estimate on how much force we’ll need to escape the force.”
Two Walters in blue Medical coveralls pulled their way onto the tumbling bridge and began looking after Brennan, and a moment later Lieutenant Bergeron pulled herself in behind them. “Most of the damage is confined fuel tank support struts, Admiral. One xenon tank ruptured and we’ve jettisoned the remnants. The XO is in engineering trying to get the reaction control jets back online.”
“Hyperion to Ticonderoga,” he heard over the fleet comms net, do you need assistance?”
Admiral Adams keyed her mic and Ripley could here alarms in the background – and real fear in her voice: “We have a major fire on the flight deck, abandoning all non-essential personnel to the life pods…”
“Lieutenant, set a course for Ticonderoga and let’s start that way,” Ripley barked. “And COMMs, get me a sit rep on the tankers.” He switched channels and called Chen over on Hyperion. “Commander Chen, Ripley here. How’s our ship?”
“Admiral! You made it! Well, the Field held no problem, but we went on a pretty wild ride. We have a lot of fractures and lacerations in Sick bay, but that’s about it.”
“Understood, same here. Light off a beacon and we’ll try to home in on you. Ripley to Patton, you on the net?”
“Here, Admiral,” Caruthers said – and Denton sighed in too obvious relief. “We’re operational with the same types of injuries in Sick Bay.”
“Stavridis here, Admiral. Captain Farrell is in Sick Bay.”
“So, am I speaking to Commander Torshavn?”
“Yes, Admiral,” Katerina Torshavn replied. “Our reaction control jets are offline, working to restore.”
“Same on Halsey. We’ll head for Ticonderoga as soon as we’re able. Patton, you still have a visual on Covenant – or the Company ship?”
“Yes, Admiral, they’re still docked, no apparent change in status – but Covenant appears to have sustained major damage to her structure, and her solar array is almost gone.”
Ripley sighed. “Understood. Patton and Stavridis, resume course to intercept Covenant. As soon as I’m back on Hyperion we’ll follow.”
Ripley turned to Brennan as the Walter-medics strapped her to a gurney, and he released his harness straps and floated free of his G-couch and pushed over to the gurney. She was still in tears, still in pain, so he ran his fingers through her hair then took her hand. “You want to transfer with me back to the ship?”
She nodded. “Yes, Admiral.”
“Okay.” He looked up at the medics and nodded. “See it you can stabilize her for transfer.”
They nodded and left the bridge, just as the navigator finished up her work on the scale of the event horizon forming around the magnetar.
“Admiral, we’ve got to put as much distance between the fleet and that event horizon as we can, and we better do it real fast.”
Ripley looked at the navigator and saw the concern in his eyes, so he pushed off the ceiling and went to his station. “Show me,” Ripley said.
There was an up-polar plot of the Capella system on his main display, with Capella in the center of the display and the nascent black hole in the left margin of the screen… “There are the old orbits of the inner planets,” Ensign Jake Moore said, pointing at the three concentric rings surrounding Capella. “The planets are gone, and I do mean gone, sir…as in without a trace. And here’s where Beta Capella 4’s orbit used to be, but note the new lines, here,” Moore said, pointing at the lines of a rapidly decaying orbit. “She’s deflecting inward now, and I doubt she’ll make it even halfway around Capella before she gets pulled inside the horizon.”
“How much force would it take to do that?”
“Four times ten to the eighth, Admiral. But that number is increasing almost exponentially, and by the minute.”
“Do our ships even have enough power to pull away from that?”
“Personally, Admiral, the numbers don’t look real good. That’s why I said what I said. The sooner we try to get away the better.”
“Well, there’s no way we can pull away from that much force, so the only thing left is to…”
“Yes, Admiral. We’ll have to accelerate towards the black hole then use Capella to slingshot away the gravity well.”
“Pull up a new chart, Ensign. Plot it out and do the math.”
“Castor…” Ripley sighed, lost in thought. “That star is about 50 light years from home, right?”
“Presently 50.9, Admiral.”
“There’s got to be a tram-line between Capella and Castor…” he sighed.
“We’d never make it that far into Capella, Admiral.”
Ripley grinned as sudden thoughts came wild and fast. “Uh-huh, but let’s assume the current tram line continues to migrate through Capella…towards the magnetar.”
“Got it, Admiral! I’ll see if I can find it, then plot the latest position of the Jump Point, sir.”
“Let’s see…” Ripley continued, still mulling over the problem, “we’d need to make a burn to enter Capella’s orbit, but we’d also have to take into account her decaying mass, right…?”
“Yessir, but the Jump Point will probably migrate through the star even faster now.”
“Right, so we make our burn to orbit Capella out here, but we’d have to shoot the gap between Capella and the developing event horizon, too…”
“So the limiting variable is our velocity. As in, how much will we need to hit the Jump Point while maintaining enough inertia to get past the gravity well…”
“Okay, sir, on it…”
Ripley patted the Ensign on the shoulder then went over to the helm. “Status on the reaction control jets?”
“Loading the reserve nitrogen now, Admiral,” Bergeron said. “Woodrow Wilson reports ready for refueling ops.”
He went to COMMs next and called Patton on the encrypted tactical channel.
“Still no change in status on Covenant, Admiral,” Caruthers said when she got on the channel.
“Understood. Uh, Judy, pull up your charts and work out the vectors needed to accelerate towards Capella.”
“Yup, better do it now. Assume we can locate a tram line between Capella and Castor, and work up an orbital burn to get between Capella and the event horizon around the magnetar with enough velocity to escape the gravity well and hit a moving Jump Point.” He was trying to spell out the problem without scaring the crap out of anyone who happened to be listening on the net, while hoping she was reading between the lines as he went.
“What about Covenant and the Company ship?”
“Not now, okay?”
“Get back to me when you have the plot and your fuel requirements.”
“Right. You want me to pass this on to Stavridis?”
“Up to you. She’s close enough to you to slave off your NAV system, right?”
“Okay, yeah, understood.”
He switched over to fleet comms and called Ticonderoga and explained the problem to Admiral Adams on an encrypted channel. “Denton, I doubt we can save the ship,” she added. “Fires are spreading towards both engineering spaces, and once it gets there…”
“Understood. I’d say at this point we might be better off setting the ship’s self destruct charge, just in case someone decides they want to come back and look over the wreckage.”
“Concur,” Adams said. “Hyperion is picking up our escape pods now. How long will it take for you to get here?”
“A couple of hours, at least that’s our best guess right now. Our RCJs are still inoperative.”
“Understood. Also, we still have the entire air wing onboard. Any thoughts?”
Ripley shook his head. “That’s an awful lot of hardware to write off,” he said plainly, his voice a matter-of-fact appraisal despite their increasingly dire situation. “We could leave ‘em with the Wilson, try to return later…but no, wait, that won’t work…uh, wait a second, we’re missing something big here. What about opening the ship to vacuum, putting the fires out that way? Put a skeleton crew back on board to work the con and engineering? You think there’s enough structural integrity left to make a Jump?”
“Should be,” Adams said hopefully. “But I don’t think we’ll know with any certainty until we actually do it.”
“Seems like our best option with the time we’ve got available.”
“Okay. We’ll proceed with that. Try to get here as soon as you can.”
“Admiral?” Halsey’s navigator piped in. “We think we’ve nailed down the location of a Jump Point within Alpha Geminorum Ca.”
“So…what’s the issue with Geminorum A and Geminorum Ab? Too hot?”
“Yes, Admiral. Alpha Geminorum A is an A-class star and well over the line. Alpha Geminorum Ab is about 8600 Kelvin and still beyond Field limits, but Alpha Geminorum Ca measures out at 3820 Kelvin, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s just about perfect.”
“Meaning what, Ensign Jeffers?”
“There aren’t any jump points in A or B, sir, but lo and behold there is one in Ca? That’s pretty clear evidence these points were deliberately placed, Admiral.”
“Okay, write it up – and sign your name. If Norfolk approves, it’ll be your discovery.”
“Did you plot out our approach?”
“Yessir, and because the magnetar is generating such a strong magnetic field we won’t need a secondary mid-course burn until we’re well into Capella’s orbit. But Admiral, current calculations hold only as long as the material streaming from Capella to the Magnetar doesn’t move unpredictably. Transiting that material would impede our velocity vector…”
“Assuming we survived the encounter, you mean?”
“Alright, Ensign. Send your data to all vessels in the fleet and work up estimates of fuel requirements and see if the tankers have enough on hand to fuel all our ships.”
Ripley flipped comms to ship to ship and called Patton again.
“Yes, Admiral?” Judy said, a little too playfully.
“Get your best navigator on the problem we’re sending out now. Patton and Stavridis will have to tank while we are inbound to Capella.”
“Anything new with Covenant?”
“Both ships are cold now, Admiral. No IR signatures at all, like both ships are open to space.”
“So…either there was a fight or someone on the Company ship knows how to play dead? Is that how you read it?”
“Yes, and breaking off the intercept now means we’ll never know for sure,” Caruthers said.
“Well, the Company ship’s Field is down. We could fire off a salvo of torpedoes, but assuming we launched then turned and departed for the Jump Point…well, if they’re playing dead we’d be halfway to Capella before impact – so we couldn’t do a damn thing about it if they got their Field up and pulled away. Unless one of us stays behind, Admiral.”
It took Ripley no time to answer that one: “I’m not sacrificing a fully manned ship…”
“It would only mean delaying departure until impact, Admiral.”
“With that magnetar growing more powerful by the minute? Are you serious? Besides, even if they are playing dead, but the time they power up their Field to stop the torpedoes it’ll be too late for them to make it out of the gravity well. No matter what, Judy, both of those ships are going to be captured by the expanding gravity threshold unless they depart within the next five hours. And the same holds true for Patton and Stavridis, if you don’t mind me being a little too blunt…?”
“Okay, let’s play Devil’s Advocate. Suppose they have a Plan B? Suppose they have an unknown-to-us back door out of the system?”
“Then it’s a race to see who makes it back to Sol system first, isn’t it? If we make it first we wait near the exit to Sol’s Jump Point, and we take ‘em out there when they’re in Jump shock. If they make it back first…? Well then, hopefully we make it back into the inner system soon enough to either pursue and destroy or we send out a general alert and let Norfolk deal with them.”
“Request permissions to remain behind with a skeleton crew and…”
“Look Admiral, I hate to disagree with you, but if that ship is transporting a contagion or some kind of organism that could get somehow get loose on Earth…”
“The odds are you’ll be killed, along with Covenant and that Company ship. I recommend you target that ship and launch as soon as you can, then turn for the Jump Point.”
“Is that a direct order, Admiral?”
“You heard me, Captain.”
“Aye, sir. Patton out.”
He sighed and stared into the nothingness of their decision, not at all sure he’d done the right thing.
“Ticonderoga, this is Hyperion Actual,” Ripley said as soon as he was strapped into his G-couch on Hyperion’s bridge.
“Ticon Actual,” Admiral Adams replied. “Go head.”
“Got a status update for me?”
“Taking on fuel now. How’s Captain Brennan?”
“She’s in Sick Bay; they’re wrapping her up, she busted a couple of ribs when she hit the ceiling.”
“Good. I assume she’ll be back on the bridge?”
“Yes, and Captain Ames will be up here observing. She made good progress while we were on Halsey.”
“Good to hear. We have all non-essential personnel spread out between the other ships and we’ll be ready for the burn, but be advised Wilson states her fuel state is very low now. She may be able to refuel one, maybe two more ships, then her tanks are dry.”
“Understood. I’ve got the two small tankers headed out to intercept Patton and Stavridis.”
“Did they launch on Covenant?”
Ripley sighed and turned away from the screen for a moment, hopefully not giving too much away. “After what Covenant’s Walter relayed about the organism, I don’t think we have any other viable choice.”
“Well, you know the Company is going to raise hell about losing such a huge investment…”
“Let alone three thousand people,” Ripley added cautiously, shuddering at the fate of the people onboard Covenant.
“Of course.” She signed off and Ripley changed back to Patton’s frequency, and her XO came on.
“Admiral?” Commander Thomas Jung said, and Ripley looked around, trying to spot Judy somewhere on the bridge.
“Where’s your CO?” he asked.
“She’s in her cabin, Admiral. Can I assist you?”
“Did you get the updated plot from the tankers?”
“Yessir, and the course is laid in. ETA nine hours to rendezvous.”
“Okay,” Ripley sighed. “Keep me updated.”
“Yessir. Should I have the captain call you?” Jung said with an ugly smirk.
“Only if something comes up,” Ripley replied with his patented withering stare before he signed off. ‘So,’ he thought, ‘everyone in the fleet knows. And it’s become a laughing matter.’ Which only made what had to happen next all the more troublesome.
So it was time; he turned to Hyperion’s XO, Commander Chen, and all he said was: “Launch Shuttle Two.”
Chen looked away for a moment, hesitating, then she nodded. “Launching Shuttle Two, Admiral.”
‘Maybe all they’ll do is court martial me,’ he sighed.
One, maybe two chapters after this one, so enjoy your tea.
[Spock’s Beard \\ Bennett Built a Time Machine]
Crosses are green and crosses are blue…Your friends didn’t make it through…
USNSF Hyperion 11 September 2115
Ripley looked at Captain Brennan for some sense of perspective – then again at the aliens in their spacesuits standing in one corner of Shuttle Two’s cargo hold. Their suits looked like they were made of a translucent carbon fiber matrix, yet it was the elephantine oxygen masks that seemed so dismally out of place – almost like an organic component instead of a mechanical structure – and Ripley first felt the alien nature of the group as he looked at their helmets.
“Have they tried to communicate with anyone yet?” Ripley asked Brennan.
“No sir. And do note that most of them are well armed.”
“One end appears to deploy a spear tip, the other a particle beam. Quite deadly, too. That beam was slicing up those white creatures from a hundred meters away.”
Ripley had entered hanger two and everyone there had snapped to attention as he entered, and he was hoping that little outward display of rank might convey his position to the huddled aliens, but as he walked up the ramp and into the cargo hold they all just stared at him through those confounded helmets.
He turned and was glad to see that Walter had kept up with him; the android’s power cells were nearly depleted and he now had a portable power pack strapped around his waist. He looked visibly more alert now, too. ‘Not a bad thing, all things considered…’ Ripley sighed.
He walked up to the closest alien and saluted – rigidly, formally – then he stood there, waiting.
The group parted and one of the aliens came to the front of the huddle, and then this alien saluted – rigidly and formally. Ripley guessed the alien had to be at least seven, maybe eight feet tall, and that its spacesuit seemed to conform to body contours more than the Navy’s – and he could already surmise this creature had massive muscles in his arms and legs and upper torso.
Ripley pantomimed removing a helmet from his head and the alien checked a readout on his wrist, then he turned and – apparently – said something to one of the others in his group. This one stepped forward and stood beside the leader; a moment later the leader removed his helmet and handed it to the one he’d called to come forward.
And when Ripley saw the leader’s face and head it was all he could do not to gasp. The leader was obviously male and more than human looking – with the exception of his skin, which was purest white. And his eyes. The eyes were pure obsidian orbs of limitless depth, and Ripley was suddenly struck by the idea that this ‘man’ looked an awful lot like Michelangelo’s David. But how would that even be possible…?
Then Ripley also noted that this man appeared not at all happy with recent events.
Because his ship had just been attacked by the Company ship. A Company ship full of – humans.
And then these humans had ‘injected’ some kind of organism inside his ship…
And the leader had lost control of his ship.
And what ship’s captain wouldn’t be upset under these circumstances…?
“Walter,” Ripley said to Covenant’s lone survivor, “could you explain to our guest that we are in pursuit of the ship that attacked his ship, and that the crew of than ship is our common enemy?”
Walter started to translate but the alien leader held up his hand. “I know your language. We have no need of this construct – or his words,” the leader added, roughly pushing Walter back – and Ripley noted malice in the leader’s expressive voice, and in the way he said ‘construct’, indicating that to him things like androids were beneath contempt.
“Very well,” Ripley added. “We have also detected a shockwave from the collapsing star. It will be here soon.”
“We understand. Our ships here to pick up people who study such things. After arrive discover many murders.”
“That is why we are pursuing the crew of the ship that attacked you,” Ripley said.
“Can ship go faster than shockwave?”
“This ship? No, it does not move faster than light.”
“How get here?”
“Through a point inside the star,” Ripley said, pointing roughly to where Capella should be.
The leader appeared confused by this. “Explain.”
“Point inside star connects to point in companion star. Travel between points in zero time.”
“Understand. Magnetic tramline effect, very old, very dangerous.”
“We must prepare for shockwave,” Ripley said, his mind on the countdown timer ticking away on the shuttle’s panel.
“Yes. We must prepare.”
“Many ships return soon.”
“Your people ships?”
“We have many large ships pursuing the enemy ship.”
“Can help you. Other ships too far away, no time.”
Ripley nodded. “Understand. We must stay. Duty.”
“Duty.” The leader seemed to nod his understanding, then he turned to his group and spoke to them, and only then did the survivors seem to relax – just a little.
“Admiral!” an alarmed voice said over the intercom. “One of their ships just arrived. No, make that…three…no…Admiral, there are now ten alien ships in orbit!”
“Easy, Mister. Take no action, repeat, take no action at this time.”
Ripley turned to face the leader again. “Can we assist you?”
“Help you back to your ship?”
The leader had been looking at Thomas Standing Bull off and on for a few moments, and Ripley was curious why? “You seem interested in this crewman. Can you tell me why?”
“Familiar face. See before. Remind of other time.”
“Oh? Thomas, would you mind coming over here for a moment?”
When Thomas was beside Ripley the alien stared at the boy for a long time, then he spoke. “You have name?” he asked.
“Thomas, sir. Thomas Standing Bull.”
“Standing Bull? Sitting Bull? You know this name?”
“Yes, yes, he was my great-great grandfather!”
“Last time walk on your world walk with your great-great grandfather.” The leader turned to Ripley again. “Possible I take with me?” he said.
“What? The boy? Well, I…don’t know. Thomas?”
“Would you like to go with these people?”
The boy stared at the alien for a moment, then at Ripley, sudden confusion and conflict playing across his face. “I don’t know, Admiral. What would you do?”
“Shockwave arriving in ten minutes, Admiral!”
The Halsey was a small warship barely a hundred meters in length, but she was packed with the latest offensive weaponry and had a large hanger deck. Everyone onboard was already strapped into G-couches and every ship in the fleet had reported powering away from the shockwave at almost 3G.And now that all the alien ships were gone Ripley very much wanted to get hold of their FTL technology…!
“Lieutenant Bergeron,” Ripley started to say to the Halsey’s CO, “let’s see if we can stay in the planet’s shadow…at least as long as possible.”
Then he heard “Patton to Halsey” on the overhead speaker and smiled. “Is Admiral Ripley on the net?”
“I’m here, Judy. How’re you doing out there?” Patton and Stavridis were well ahead of the rest of the fleet – and Patton was now the closest Naval ship to Covenant.
“The Company ship has docked with Covenant. I thought you’d want to know, before…”
“Any sign of boarding, or conflict?”
“No, nothing, even at highest magnification.”
“Okay. Your orders remain the same. If they survive the shockwave all ships will give chase and overtake. Preventing a Jump back to Earth remains our highest priority.”
“Understood,” Caruthers said. “You on the bridge?”
“I am. You?”
“In my quarters, Admiral. I just wanted to…”
“Understood, Captain. We’ll talk on the other side. Get your damage control parties ready. There are probably going to be a lot of fires after.” He hated to part on a sea of allegory, but that was all he had left at the moment.
“Aye-aye, sir. Patton, out.”
“Six minutes to impact, Admiral.”
“Lieutenant Bergeron,” Ripley said, “let’s get the Field up and stabilized.”
“Helm, what’s our current acceleration?”
“Passing 3.2G, Admiral Just entering the planet’s shadow.”
“Lieutenant, secure from acceleration and get your damage control parties positioned and ready to go.”
“Four minutes to first impact, Admiral.”
“Got it,” Ripley replied, then he looked over at Louise Brennan and realized she was staring at him. He smiled at her; she tried to return his smile – and failed. “You doing okay?” he asked – and she shrugged. “We’ll be okay.”
“It’s a small ship, Denton. Smaller than Bunker Hill, ya know?”
“Field at one hundred percent,” someone suddenly very nervous said.
“Two minutes to impact,” another frightened voice added.
“Raise the mast,” Ripley sighed, smiling for Brennan’s sake. The crew now on this little ship had never left Sol system so this was their first time up against the unknown, and now their backs were well and truly up against the wall…
“Raising the mast, aye Admiral.”
A live video feed popped up on the central display and already Beta Capella 4s atmosphere was alive with pulsing green auroras – and already writhing purple mists had encircled the entire planet. “Make sure we record this,” he said softly, though unnecessarily – at this point every astronomer in the fleet had their cameras recording everything about this event, indeed, cameras were trained in every direction, while dozens of sensors recorded everything going on in and around the entire system.
“Sixty seconds, Admiral.”
“Roger that. Lower the mast at…uh…at thirty seconds.”
“Thirty seconds, aye.”
“It’s been fun, Denton,” Brennan said, and when he looked at her he saw tears in her eyes.
“Piece of cake, kiddo. Just you wait and see.”
“Mast coming down, Admiral.”
Then he felt the first impacts. Packets of energy streaming away from the collapsing neutron star – some innocent enough, others more than deadly – were now passing through their bodies. Gamma rays and X-rays, protons from shredding helium atoms breaking apart in the extreme gravity of the emerging magnetar – all racing away from the collapse. Everything, even the planet below, began pulling apart as a new gravity well formed within the core of the collapsing star – and the only thing keeping this little ship whole was a Langston Field generator that hadn’t been designed to protect against anything like this.
And the last thing he saw before the mast retracted was fire. The surface of the planet beneath them was combusting and would continue to do so until its atmosphere was ripped away, and even now the three inner planets in the system were imploding under the immense gravitational pull of the new black hole forming on the far side of Capella.
And then all power on the Halsey failed – and the stars returned.