Below the jump I've posted an early draft of a science fiction story called "Machines". It's in the same setting as the novel I just finished. The scope and locale is vastly different, giving us a snapshot of the men who keep the world clean after the end.
This is one of eleven (11) stories I plan to collect someday in my first short story collection. Enjoy, and if you want, let me know what you think!
by Charles Ll. Hoehnen
Malcolm studied the chart carefully. To say "carefully", in Malcolm's world, was to say with indefatigable care, absolute precision of thought, missing no nuance or minutiae, no credible interpretation. Everything fell beneath his cold calculation. He might have been a machine, if it had made a difference. He was a man. This difference was not significant to his cause: studying the chart. Not just this chart, or charts of data of some - or any - kind, but books: language, inflection, movement, light, the graduation of light into darkness, movement through light. Faces of people were completely open to him. No intention or motive escaped his inquiry. He asked questions, but these were usually unnecessary, he read his subjects; men and women, children and the elderly, with equal ease and understanding. Like a chart.
Like this chart.
"This doesn't make any sense," he said after just a few moments. He pushed the paper back towards Ambrose, who sat on the other side of his desk in the felt cushioned chair. Ambrose was like him.
"That's why I brought it over. Nothing in our database corresponds to this graph. The level of radiation. The isotopes are behaving very strangely."
"Strangely? This isn't possible in nature."
Ambrose didn't react outwardly, having come to this conclusion himself, but Malcolm detected the clenching jaw, the tightening muscles of his rectum, the inward steel calm reflected in the black trapezoidal shades. His partner was five-ten, two-hundred fourteen pounds, and he sat with a slump in his right shoulder from a gunshot wound when he worked for the Oakland Police Department. Malcolm imagined the dark blue veins riding out from the maggot-white scar in the shape of a cross.
"Take it to Jones?" Ambrose's lips peeled back from his teeth and spat this out bluntly, a command, but Malcolm heard the lingering doubt, the question mark of uncertainty he had not meant to reveal. Malcolm ticked his eyes back to the read-out. One set of numbers had confused him. Five digit numbers, three on top of each other in the Ciordo-Alabram grid, arrayed in an impossible equation. Malcolm flipped the chart and flattened it face down on his desk. Information drew him like a bee to pollen, his sole concern to feed the hive. But he knew enough, now, about this particular incident, this rupture. They had to act.
"Jones will just call in a survey team to get more readings. It'll be too late by the time we collate that data," he said, tugging on the papery skin under his chin. "Better to log outgoing with Dotty on our way to the helipad."
Ambrose's shaded eyes fluttered to the upturned chart. He was worried about the readings. As he should be.
"No. We'll contact sequestration if necessary." There would be nothing left to survey if it came to that, Malcolm knew, but it was better than word spreading, rumor like a virus was their most dangerous enemy. Thought without fact. Fear driving panic. This is what he was trained for: to make these types of decisions when no-one else could – literally; only him and those like him could make the calculations.
"The anomaly is in Charlie Sector 23. The 'Soup' Can out of Chi-town could be there in five minutes if we give the word." Malcolm drew an invisible circle on the back of the paper. He'd already visualized the landscape, rural, formerly exurban, forested, plex-aluminum residential structures reflecting the ripe, burnt rind of the sun. The Sequestration and Extermination Unit Protocols would leave it all behind as a smoking hole, like nothing had ever been there but ruin. Malcolm winced. Ambrose stood up and straightened his microfiber coat over his belly, the fabric shimmering in the cool light of the office. He'd taken Malcolm's twitch as a smile, an invitation to excuse himself.
"It's a plan," he said. He looked over his shoulder through the glass wall, across the hallway and a dozen replicas of this exact space to the empty one that was his. "I need to make a call before we go."
"Wheels up in ten, Agent."
Ambrose touched his forehead in an approximation of a salute, and left.
Malcolm flipped over the chart again. He let the data wash over him, seep into his understanding, swimming through it, breathing it like water through gills. A woman flashed him a smile from the hallway as he leaned back in his chair. He knew her – in fact he'd encountered her only twice before, but he knew her very well for those brief intersections – her name was Elison, and she was an analyst like him. Strange for her to acknowledge him so openly. This isn't possible in nature.
She was gone in a blink; she hadn't slowed her pace, or turned her eyes away from her notes in front of her for more than a split second. But that one blip made him want Selendra desperately. He had to talk to her right away.
He took the container out of his pocket. Made of wood and intricately engraved in the shape of a ram's head with the horns conforming to the circular lid, the box was painted with hypersensitive nanotex in a dark cream color. Set in the ram's eyes were two topaz connector nodes. He pressed his thumb into these nodes and heard a soft click. He felt his skin tightening around his flesh. A point of warmth grew from the box, out from the pressure of his thumb, racing up his arm to his heart.
"Close blinds." Unseen rotors whirred above the ceiling and a tinted screen fell over the glass walls surrounding him. The agents in dark suits to his left and right disappeared from his periphery behind the shades. He leaned further back in his chair and his spine crackled in relief. His senses were dulling – this was the hardest part, cut off from his greatest faculties for perception and analysis – held at a distance to ease the link. She was a thousand miles away, waiting for him in their country home in California, responding at that moment to the beacon above the fireplace in the family console. An image began to form in Malcolm's mind's eye. A white fog cleared from the center and a woman's face appeared.
"My love," said Malcolm, blinking away blissful tears. He hadn't seen her in so long. How many years had it been? He grit his teeth until his jaw hurt, preferring this to the pain of ignorance. "I don't have much time."
She moved closer to the screen, an oval topaz mask like the miniature ones set in the box, but her face did not become clearer, in fact she became more indistinct, a mosaic of human-like features surrounded by a dark halo where there should be morning light. It would be morning there.
"-breaking up . . ." He pressed his thumb hard into the ram's head. The warmth grew upwards and dominated him, carrying him on a cloud, his limbs weightless and crisp and numb. The white fog calcified and he saw a long white paneled room with a mahogany dining table behind her, but she was just as distorted and wispy.
"I need you," he whispered, lips sticking together, "I love you so much."
Panic already welled in his breast. His heart a constant flutter of warning, re-emerging as the warmth receded. He gasped. He loved his wife, but Malcolm's world was information. Control. He lifted his thumb from the container, severing the connection. For an instant her face organized into something recognizable, an open heart-shape, pale with dark eyebrows and white hair at the temples. Finally, gone. He put the container in his pocket. He flexed his hands, cracking his knuckles.
"Blinds up." Light and understanding and sensation flooded back into him. He picked up the trapezoidal shades from his desk as he stood. He caught his reflection in the glass wall. His suit had accumulated over forty distinct wrinkles at his waist. He smoothed them out with rigid palms. It was time to go to work.
Ambrose waited at the top of the shaft, cleaning his fingernails with a tiny blade. The light from the hangar door blasted in a pure white rectangle through the shaft towards the elevator, banishing the sterile cold of the pod that had shot him straight up from the bottom of the lake to the platform in the water's surface. Ambrose tucked his blade away in his palm on sight of Malcolm. They fell in side-by-side and approached a chrome tube just inside the hangar bay doors, the wind blowing the fragrant open lake air around them, laced with the sweet scent of motor oil from the platform. The tube had an oval cut-out the size of a small child revealing a display screen. The screen lit blue as the agents breached its proximity sensors.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen." A woman's face appeared in the screen after a quick scan of their faces.
"Hello Dotty," Malcolm returned, "Requisition order C, H, 2, 4. We need a bird."
The androgynous, soft feminine voice changed inflection almost imperceptibly as it encountered a conflict in its subroutines. A lilt of disappointment. "A T-9 release form is required for that requisition order, Agent Malcolm. T-9 forms can be authorized by any of the following signatories: Jones, Devlin, ASAC. Bollinger, Bale, Deputy Director of Internal Audit. Greg, For-"
"That's enough. Override requisition protocols using anomalous interference vector Mary Mary Quite." A line of static ran across Dotty's screen, and the light shifted from blue to a dull aching yellow.
"Approved. Be careful, gentlemen."
A mighty crash signaled the opening of the platform surface doors. Ambrose's eyebrow had arched for an instant before he regained his composure.
"What?" Malcolm shouted into the wind as the bird rose from the bowels of the platform, its blades already accelerating. He smiled coldly, savoring the corruptibility of his partner's composure.
"Jones will be notified about the protocol breach," he said as the agent adjusted his bulk into the cramped seat of the helicopter. Malcolm glanced at the machine's dash to ascertain the thing would fly properly, avoiding Ambrose's scold. "I wouldn't be surprised if he's waiting for us with a snare-ring when we get back."
"That's preposterous," Malcolm said, sneering. "He wouldn't dare. Not after we see what we're going to see."
Ambrose wanted to ask him what he knew, but clearly he feared revealing his ignorance. The lake rolled beneath them, waves like chipped scales on a huge serpent. A single white-cap cut in that skin followed them towards land, spilling over itself in a silent chase. Malcolm pressed his forehead against the window and watched. Soon the desolate landscape of the Uplands appeared, wild forest land carpeting the horizon. Clusters of civilization appeared as distant dark blots dotted with the whitish square scabs of ancient decrepit structures. Sometimes, when the light came through the high gray clouds just right, Malcolm saw a glimmer in the air near the ground in the middle distance, signs of the sutures men like him had sewed to keep the world whole. Those arcs of light - refractions as the sun found the inconsistent atmosphere of the Mu pockets - hid other anomalies like the one they had to find now . . . before someone else did and blew up the whole operation.
They arrived at the airport before nightfall, six-twelve post-meridian. The place had been abandoned, the tiny rural landing strip long grown over with prairie grass and box elder trees, except for the caretaker paid to live in the terminal for just this type of eventuality. Ambrose found him sleeping under a stack of busted plastic chair-rows piled into a kind of fortress against larger animals who might find their way inside.
"What is it?" The man, named Ireland, blinked terror from his eyes, his teeth bared in shock as Ambrose's flashlight beam slapped his face.
"Get the jeep," Malcolm said, crouching to block the glare in the caretaker's eyes. "We don't have time for questions."
Ireland was small, five-five at best, with a balding head like a sore about to pop. His face shriveled into a determined vortex when he got the jeep running, satisfied that he'd fulfilled his purpose, his tiny life briefly significant. Ambrose took the backseat, his ass smacking the deflated cushion with every divot in the broken road. Malcolm tried to hear the forest through the choked rattle of the engine, but it was useless. The birds and rats and worms, the biting flies and cicadas were invisible to him, to all of them. Ireland trumpeted information about C-23 out the side of his mouth, attempting to endear himself to the agents.
"They got quite a little community out there," he said, hanging on the metal wheel like a monkey, spinning it seemingly at random to navigate the root chewed concrete. "Organized. People are coming, I heard. People from all over who have skills. I'm sure IM would get interested in them before too long. Competition."
"Invisible Motors doesn't compete," Malcolm explained. "Eventually Chicago will swallow them up, like everything else in the Uplands. It's too dangerous to wander too far from the shell." Malcolm saw Ambrose adjust his glasses in the rear-view. Don't say too much, the movement said, He doesn't have the clearance. Ireland seemed to understand this and changed the subject.
"You know, I haven't gotten a shipment in three months. That's supposed to be bi-monthly. Can't live on infested toilet paper and rotten cans of tomato."
Malcolm cast his arm out toward the vast wood.
"Oh, I can eat," the caretaker said.
"He means for the container," Ambrose said next to Malcolm's ear. Malcolm instinctively moved his hand to his pocket, where he kept his box – his portal to Selendra. He wondered what kind of girl Ireland could have back home. Some natty old tramp, probably.
"I'm out of juice. I've got to communicate with her."
Malcolm slapped his shoulder in fraternity, but only to hide the pitying smirk crawling across his face. He had an unlimited supply. He could talk to her whenever he wanted.
"Will hook you up, Joe."
"The name's Ireland."
Sector 23 was marked by a signpost. A stop sign blinking red, yellow, and orange lights.
"Stop the car!" Malcolm barked. The sign was just a relic from the last century, but the device attached to the front with a long wire cord running down the post and probably across the road hidden by refuse and soil and dirt, that was likely very dangerous.
"Look at that," Ireland said, coughing up dust that the wheels had churned into a cloud. "Whew! Told ya they had something going on up here."
"The forest is turning into prairie," Ambrose said as he carefully approached the sign. "I'm sure we'll see further evidence of settlement if we go a few hundred meters. Do you have the coordinates?"
"Of course." Malcolm had memorized them. He was more interested at the moment in the device. He stood about two steps away, leaning forward as much as he dared with his hands behind his back to examine it. Where had they gotten the hardware? Salvage, probably, but he couldn't rule out theft. Technology of this level fell under IM property right. Malcolm took a few moments to analyze the bomb's design. He found a loose panel on the front. He pushed two fingers inside and pulled a single wire away from its node. The lights went dark. "Okay. We're clear to pass."
The settlement appeared to be abandoned. Ireland drove slowly passed dark tee-pees and squat clay constructions among dead trees, their stunted trunks blackened from a fire. The coordinates led to a brick building approximately two-hundred years old. It had once been surrounded by a wall, now destroyed, and there was a vegetable garden in the back that had until recently been kept. That's where they found the anomaly.
The garden bed stretched from one end of the crumbling wall where the forest collected the soil into shadow, to the other at the doorstep of a stable, it's gate swinging open in the slightest of breeze. If there had been horses or cattle, they were long gone. In the center of the garden where huge watermelons had grown on thick white haired vines, a man-sized purple cyst protruded from the ground, into the sky. Malcolm barred Ambrose as the agent stepped reflexively towards it. He had not seen the bones.
"Stay back," Malcolm whispered. "Observe."
The purple cyst became more distinct as the clear half moon broke from the high black clouds. It was not just purple in color, but also a translucent violet-blue around the edges, like a shedding snake skin but smooth and mottled with dark spots. The shape of it was amorphous, and it moved with grasping protrusions, like a second form was trying to hatch from within. These protrusions split at their most extended point into a wheezing valve, polyps that collapsed back into the breathing thing, bladders exhausting a sweet fecal gas. As they watched a light grew from inside of it, a red pulse. The pulse grew. The light touched their skin.
"Look at the pattern around its . . . base. The bones appear to have been regurgitated by the thing," Malcolm said, lips numb with excitement. The bones, mostly shattered but some recognizable as human remains, glowed pinkish under the pulsing light in a circle about eight feet in diameter around it. Ambrose scratched the back of his palms with his fingernails, backing away from the garden.
"That light-" he began to say, but a voice cried out from behind them.
"Get away!" A man stood in the door of the house. He wore a gray suit with its left sleeve torn off. His entire left side in fact was coated in dried blood. He'd attempted to wash his face but left a smeared pink mask on his long cheeks, encrusting his bushy eyebrows. "The light begins the process. I've seen too many die!" He smashed his fist into the door to impress his point.
Ambrose was on the steps with his hand in his breast pocket. Malcolm already had his Exotic-Energy-Pen in his hand and casually pointed at the interloper.
"Identify yourself!" he demanded.
"On whose authority?" The man crossed his arms and tilted his bearded chin towards them.
"Invisible Motors Upland Network Enforcement. We're special agents with IMUNE."
"And?" The man snorted and relaxed his arms. "It doesn't matter. You must have caught my signal."
"We detected an anomalous event. It's our job to investigate."
The man stepped past Ambrose to the edge of the garden. He held his hands out in front of him towards the cyst, like he was testing the atmosphere in front of him to ensure it was safe to pass through.
"My name is Loyd Whitevane, and I was a councilman for C-23 sector's burgeoning Republic. Not so much left of it now."
"Where did everyone go?"
"Well," he said, grimacing, "If that thing didn't eat them, then they fled. I think I'm the only one who stayed behind. Watching the sonibular monitor for a sign that someone would come and rescue us. Too late now."
Malcolm tucked his EEP back in his pocket. He wouldn't need it. The man was broken and waiting to die.
"Tell us what . . . what happened. What does it do?"
"It's happening now, in fact. This light, it's a type of digestive function. That burning on your skin? It's slowly dissolving our organic matter. If we were to get too close, it would detect us with its digestive gases – don't know how – and the light would intensify, burning us to near death on the spot. Then it would crawl slowly over you with its filthy little protuberances. It's a slow, painful thing. The screams might drive someone crazy."
"Fascinating," Malcolm said. He did feel the burning, a slight sting on his sensitive spots, his ears, his lips, the soft tissue under his eyes.
Whitevane hung his head, shaking it with a bubbling internal frustration. "And now you've come. Come to cover for your mistakes."
"Excuse me?" Malcolm reached for his EEP again. Calm yourself, Malcolm thought. He knows nothing.
"Your tests. That's what's created this . . . this monster. Your tests are what has torn the world apart. Yes. You've destroyed the world and kept its people apart. We were trying to build something different. Something that gave us a chance . . . at least a prayer of a chance to do something together!" He ended screaming with his fists balled at his side, a red light in his eye from the glowing cyst.
The agents said nothing. Ambrose took Whitevane by the arm and began to pull him back up the steps, back into the house where they could use his sonibular machine to boost their radio's up-link power. Malcolm retrieved Ireland and the radio from the jeep, and returned around back.
"Shit, look at that!" the caretaker said, scratching his bald head. He looked up inquisitively at Malcolm.
"What do you think boss? What is it?"
"I'm not sure . . ." This things don't exist in nature, he mused, considering the thing coldly. It almost seemed to be a disembodied heart, a central engine for a larger, unknown creature. A spark of inspiration lit in Malcolm's brain. He needed data to form a hypothesis, he needed an experiment to accumulate data. "We haven't taken a sample yet. Do you mind? Malcolm's sample kit was in the case that held the radio, and he removed a simple test tube and scalpel from their black sleeves.
His wide eyes watered slightly from his refusal to blink, nodding his head once, like if he showed more enthusiasm Malcolm might take the opportunity away. This was how you got juice – power, just a tiny pill for the box – for the containers. This was how you made a name for yourself with IM. This was how you stayed connected, whatever the fool Whitevane thought. He had some big ideas about things that didn't matter anymore. The data mattered, that's all. "Go on," he said, laying the tools in Ireland's open hands, resting his hands on them like in a blessing. "Just a sliver should do."
"You got it, boss." His small, frog-like face formed lines of determination below his lip and in his forehead. Malcolm took a precautionary step back towards the jeep as Ireland made for the anomaly. He was nearly there, his feet sinking into the soft rotted soil among the watermelons, when Whitevane burst out of the house again.
"Stay back! What the hell do you think you're doing?"
But Ireland ignored him. He had a way to please his masters, and he would operate with that singular goal. He poked at his forehead as the light began to smoke on his skin, but he ignored this too. He raised the scalpel. A flash of red light blinded Malcolm for an instant. He smelled cooking meat.
The flash subsided and Malcolm saw Ireland's collapsed figure, the back of his dome shaped head resting on a gutted watermelon. His entire front exposed to the light had been charred. Smoke rose in white puffs, curls that coalesced with the gases emitted by the anomaly. The hissing expulsions intensified.
Whitevane shook with rage at the foot of the steps. He turned away, knowing what came next. The cyst – and this was an appropriate descriptor, as the thing had grown from the garden itself, or perhaps from far deeper in the earth, like a cancer that had eaten all the original cells, replaced them, and was hungry for more – lunged for the body. A globular, glowing mass of purple tissue folded out from its form like a tongue. The appendage grabbed Ireland's cratered torso and slowly began to pull itself over his body, dragging itself and its meat through he soil. The cyst darkened.
"It'll go on like this," Whitevane said, returning up the stairs, "It'll go on for hours. At least this one died before it started to feed. He was too close to survive the flash."
Malcolm did not respond. He watched, analyzing the process of feeding. This too would be understood, he thought. It must be. They notified the 'Soup Can' out of Chicago. They would arrive in twelve minutes, forty four seconds, and they would need to be long gone. The agents loaded the jeep with the radio, the sonibular machine, and the Councilman Loyd Whitevane himself.
"You'll have to answer for this," Malcolm said, knocking on the sonibular transmitter, powered by an unregistered nano-cell engine. Ambrose squeezed next to Whitevane in the rear to make sure he couldn't jump ship and run for it.
"Maybe," Whitevane said, sneering, but unable to look his captor in the eye, preferring to stare at the anomaly like it was some distant beacon on a vast undifferentiated ocean. "But I'm sure whatever I say will not be enough."
Ambrose laughed and sniffed something from a ring on his finger, a tiny silver box opening on a tiny silver ring. Malcolm impulsively clutched at the pocket over his heart. His own compartment. She was still just a prick away.
"No, Mister Whitevane," Malcolm said, starting the jeep's engine. "It won't be enough - not to avoid indefinite detention, that's for sure, not with this kind of contraband. But it will be something. Every piece of information has its place. Even what we've learned . . . what we've witness of this anomaly will be used to reset the bounds of possibility, the frame of the experiment. No matter what you might think about what created this . . . instance, only through our efforts can we make the world whole again. Only through our minds, operating at their peak, can we make what's wrong, right."
Whitevane said nothing. He folded his bloody hands in his lap and remained silent as they returned to the airport. The sequestration team flew over head, sonic booms shaking the earth. If Malcolm had turned, or glanced in the rear view, he would see the familiar shimmering arc as the Mu pocket devoured the place from which they came, imprisoning the cyst forever. He didn't need to, though. He had seen it before. It was another incremental piece in the process of understanding. Another bit, another exigency, another demonstration of the righteousness of the machine.