AN EMPTY PLACE, Chapter Eight - "The Thunder With Limbs"

Hello all you patient people who are still reading this book! Hope you merry'd. I'm going to try to get all these posted before the baby comes, so expect the last four chapters in the next few weeks.

Chapter Eight - The Thunder With Limbs

Poor Street was dark and teeming with distracted people shoulder to shoulder but totally alone. From a distance, the spires over Poor Street would look as pristine as the Corporate Ward or the Pattern Center, but nestled at their base grew hundreds of shacks and carts, where the forgotten humans of the Accelerated Cities collect to scrounge their meager living. Darling came here often. It was easy to become lost in the grainy lights of the brands - stacked as they were on top of each other, projected carelessly at odd intervals, blaring and bright - and the SS Bots or EIS drones that fluttered and spun everywhere had a hard time picking out any one soul.

The paper she took from Holm's mem-stick bulged under her coat. The constant hefting and repositioning of the document had crumpled several pages. She lowered her head as she knocked into random passersby, ever cautious despite her mask, until she came to the stall.

She stopped at a wide metal semi-circular table where a merchant with dark glasses and a wide brimmed hat stood anonymous and silent under a red canopy tarp. She absently rummaged through the merchant's wares; a silver beetle whose wings flap open to reveal an ashtray, a platinum necklace with six independent rectangular chips connected by hoops, other strange and useless things. Darling touched them, paused as if considering their character or quality, and then swept them aside. She removed the pages from her jacket and set them down where she'd cleared space. The merchant said nothing but picked up a clear glass box with an animal skull suspended inside. He turned it over in his hands. The skull floated and bounced off the side of the box. Finally his shadowed face looked up from his examination of the box, and he said, "I take it you need something?" His voice was low and conspiratorial and he shifted on his feet.

"I've got to get to the greenhouse," she said to the merchant, whose name she had never learned, nor had she ever asked, "Someone who can keep to the dark spots. There may be dangerous . . . elements tracking my movements."

The merchant nodded. His face twitched towards the bustle of the street, "A runner then? I know the boy for you." He did not change expression or give any hint of curiosity. That she asked was all it ever took.

"And I need to read this," she said pointing to the stack of papers, "So no lunatics on this ride, if you can help it." The merchant laughed once with a quick, false smile. Spinning the skull block once more before setting it down on the table he let out a sharp whistle. The sound was indistinct from the other sounds of the street except for how near it was to her own ears, but Darling found herself shirking away, hoping the noise didn't draw the attention of the bots.

Settle down, Darling, she told herself, breathing deeply to calm her nerves, Stay cool.

"It will take him awhile to maneuver his rickshaw through the crowd," the merchant said, perhaps recognizing her anxiety. They waited in silence. Darling put her hand on the document as a buzzing motorbike passed close to the edge of the stall at a reckless speed, dodging and weaving through the maze of pedestrians, a choking black smoke trailing behind it. The cloud stung her eyes. It was like the breath of the demon in the elevator, and she had to watch the rider disappear down the street to stay her fear.

The contract has been broken, she remembered. What could Hundun possibly have to do with that monster? She watched the merchant, standing arms crossed and unmoving, and she realized how quick she has been to trust her regular contacts. If someone had turned on them spies could be anywhere.

Stay cool. 

A sweaty palm print remained when she had released the pages. She forced herself to read from the top of the first page: DRJ - HELESMC, UNDERSEC-6 TO ADMINISTRATOR YOUNG, DIG MANAGER AND TRUEPOINT EXTRACTION COORDINATOR.
A shrill voice interrupted her:

"Hey boss, you want me to give this lady a ride?" It was a stout, young Thai man glistening with a purple tinged sweat from the light filtering down through the tarp, his bare brown chest heaving. 

"Yes. Miss Holiday, meet Keng Lomnoi. Miss Holiday is a very busy lady, Keng, so give her the straightest path," said the merchant and he turned away without another word, rearranging the wares on his cluttered table. He did nod to Darling as she collected the papers. Lomnoi wiped his hand on his khaki pants and held it out to her, prompting Darling to cradle the pages in one arm. It was worth the trouble: his grip was warm and earnest and she felt that she could trust him.

"Where to, Miss Holiday?" asked Lomnoi. He cracked his knuckles and lifted the long wooden handles of the rickshaw after she climbed inside. The cushions were red, plush, and she draped a wool blanket over her knees as she answered him. 

"Forward. I'll tell you where to turn."

Keng was fast and sure with the cab. It was rare when she was reminded of the road so much to look up from her study.

She opened the document. The entries were dated and titled. A journal. The content seemed innocuous enough at first, but as she read, pages dampening under her palms, her terror grew. Several threads were collecting into one neat bundle. It all led back to the Lid and its abettors. Not that the journal's author could guess at the significance of his observations. At a certain point she began crumpling and igniting the pages as she read them; a tight squeeze in her hand and a transfer of will and heat, "seeing the fire" Trainer had called it, and then tossing them into the street where they crumbled to ash. 

She read about Holm. She was sure that was who the agent was that UNDERSEC-6 had met with on 021665. She wondered if she hadn't made a huge mistake by leaving him.

Keng could not move fast enough.


012565; Strip Day

Excellent news out of Truepoint. The geologist had correctly identified the softest entry node into the Res-1 cache and drill 4 broke through at 19:00 hours. The stuff spilled out over the drill bit in a cascade. I was shocked by how quickly it flowed, Res-1 being just slightly heavier than air, and the thick ribbons caught two of the miners before they could recover from their awe. I don't believe they were aware of their imminent deaths. Unlike fire or radioactive materials, when Res-1 comes into contact with organic materials it does not burn: it erases the point of contact. 

Evacuation and sealing of Truepoint extraction corridors V13, V14, and RR2 followed the initial breath through. The total exigencies are as follows:

HELESMC salaried units; 4, weighted at 1
PATERNAC GEOTEAM; 2, weighted at 2
UNWAGED DPSBLS; 6, weighted at .1

Total Loss; 12.6

Administrator Zacharius had a Res-1 decon crew standing by, and they reacted swiftly to reconnoiter the structural damage to the Truepoint facility, and advance on the entry node.

I had the maintenance crew clean up the mess after they capped the well.

I estimate approximately twenty (20) days to map the interior of the well walls, and another one-hundred (100) days to implement piping to the main generators. It is doubtful that we will go without interrupted service in AC-1 through 3 sectors, though we have plenty in reserve for 4 through 7 and can maintain full operational status until the project is complete. Stripping of the clastic barriers can proceed at intervals between activation of the piping relays.

Overall, I can report a near perfect success.

012765; Administrative Meeting

We have encountered what might be a fatal obstacle. My mood is poor and I fear that I have over-stoked the hopes of Administrator Young. He called me to conference on my findings this morning. I found him with Zacharius and the remaining UNDERSEC staff. There was at least one Asset I did not recognize, but I suspect she was there for report oversight and verification. Admin Young was already furious about the work stoppage.

I had to report the Talus wall, which we had mapped at about 32,000 feet, was dead or near it and the Res-1 outflow we captured was not infused. An anomaly located on the Talus surface may be the cause but further tests are required before we can say for certain, and those tests might delay our project for months - if it is to even go forward. This caused quite a stir in the assembled. Though I was barraged with questions as to the nature of such a degradation of the Talus, I had to postpone any further inquiries until I had time to assemble a dive team. 

Returning to my office after the meeting, I fell ill. I became very dizzy and could not focus my vision. It seemed that the lights were too bright. I had John dim them. Afterwards I swear I saw Res-1 in a cloud around me, permeating everything, and I became frightened. John asked "What's wrong?" but I had to berate him for taking a personal interest. 

When I had done so, shaking my head harshly, the vision seemed to clear and it was far too dark to work. I had John reactivate the lights.

013165; An Offer

I am writing this report to articulate my reservations about new developments, and the directives of Admin's Young and Zacharius about how to proceed with the Truepoint site. I am not well-versed in the intricacies of industrial espionage or terrorism, so I have to trust the Admin's and their Paternach Assets: we have been a target of just such crimes. I must insure that my own loyalty and patriotism is well established. These documents are further proof of fact. 

I was called to another meeting. Upon entering Admin Young's dark and windowless offices I became confused. The long conference table was nearly empty save for Young himself in his dark blue suit at the head of the table and Zacharius standing near the door on the opposite corner of the long rectangular room. He was speaking to someone out of sight.

When Zacharius joined us the two Administrators told me that they had been informed of infiltration and sabotage of the Talus at Truepoint. Terror seized me. I was certain that my own team was free of corruption. But how certain? They were unconcerned about my surety, only demanding the most absolute and concrete of facts. I had discovered - and I tried to report to them but I fear my speech was halting and inarticulate - that the Talus was being drained by a trans-organic creature of some kind, not wholly different in material make-up from the Talus itself. The Administrators did not seem surprised.

They said they had a plan, already mobilized, to re-infuse the Talus at Truepoint. By this time I had been shaken too often and with too much force, and I sat in dumb silence as they explained. A visitor, I assumed some Paternach Asset, had determined that the terrorist group Hundun had access to a valuable resource that could ignite the Talus at Truepoint. Even to the strength of the first Talus which had dwindled to nothingness. 

My disagreement with Admin’s Young and Zacharius is about Hundun Company. Of any illicit organization at all I have to believe that they would be the most dangerous to cross. Even if they could be duped and we are able to consolidate their resources, we do not know what actual value such resources would hold. Indeed, and I will repeat here the same plea I made to my superiors, is it not likely that Hundun Company was involved in the Talus leeching in the first place? How many times has the Cord been violated in this way? I was sure, as I was leaving the office, that Hundun itself had somehow planted the organism on the Talus.
But before I left they introduced me to Armando. He was no Patern, and he certainly was not with Heles. I must describe him here, because I live in mortal fear that Administrators Young and Zacharius are acting without HELESMC board approval or the authorization of the Paterns. 

He was at least six and a half feet tall and pale to the extent that veins were clearly visible on his temples. His head held a thin gauzy strip of hair from ear to ear but was otherwise bald. He wore a black mustache, dark sunglasses, and had a thick red scarf wrapped five or six times around his neck. When he introduced himself he said his name very reluctantly and I would not be surprised if it was an alias. He sat directly across from me. His face was impassive, unreadable. I was used to this posture in my superiors, but the discipline with which he held his composure made me think he was on some sort of pacifying drug. The glasses seemed to me to be his actual eyes - black holes to devour light rather than see. I shivered as he put his hands on the table, limp wooden flesh that did no more to assuage my deepening chill. The bend of his fingers resembled the rigor of a corpse. 

"I have a simple offer," he said - I remember what he said only because of the cavernous and all-consuming quality of his voice, filling the whole room like a priest in an enclosure church.

"What?" I had unconsciously leaned away from him, but then I forced myself to scoot closer to the table. Zacharius and Young looked at each other and smiled, clearly already convinced and needing only to gauge the suppleness of my will. I continued very quietly as if the space for the sound of my voice had been whittled down to near nothing by the scraping chisel of Armando's words. I cleared my throat to make sure I could still speak. "What is it?" I said, "I can't fathom what it could be."

"A rogue agent from Hundun. He will take what we need."

"I've never heard of such a thing," I scoffed. And I hadn't. I don't suppose I should have heard if such a thing, such a man, existed.

"He doesn't exist yet. We must manipulate the actors to our advantage." He said "manipulate" like some horrible profanity. Even Admin Young winced and shook his leg nervously.

Armando turned his head very slowly to my superior, without the slightest twitch in his shoulders, in such a way that I though his head would roll off onto the floor. Instead he simply enunciated with unanswerable force:


My superior complied immediately - leg as still as death.

013165-2; Further notes on Armando

Administrator Young tasked me with setting Armando up in an inner office not far from my own. It was a blank affair. And not only the room, bare metal walls dull and yawning under the fluorescent lights, but my new companion said nothing and made no human noise save for the clack of his steel toed boots on the floor.
When I opened the door to his office he stripped the key from the knob and entered without one look at me.

"Can I get you anything?" I said to him after he had settled himself at his desk, little more than a brown rectangular block of wood, and set his hands on the surface. They interlocked one finger at a time from the pinkie to the thumb in a gelatinous movement as if he had no knuckles. I thought it must be some kind of trick of the light. 

"No thank you, Undersecretary. Please sit down." The strange man gave no indication of where to sit but I spotted a metal filing cabinet and, dragging it with a screech to a place opposite Armando, perched awkwardly on top of it. I resisted outward signs of anxiety. 

"You will bring the Hundun agent here."

"Here? Are you insane?" I blurted, standing up as quickly as I had sat down. I spun away from Armando when I saw his lips had parted and the wet red line of his gums quivered. He was angry. 

"Sit. Down." The words rang and I was compelled. I trembled, I couldn't hide it. He said, "Listen and do as I say, Undersecretary, and we will enjoy a productive working relationship. Think about your mapping program. What has it been, 24 months since a viable extraction point has been found? Should it all go to waste?" The stony professional tone was like a fog obscuring a deep and deadly pit.

"I . . ." I didn't know what to say. These things made sense. But the agent?

"The agent will come here and he will be . . ." Armando hesitated, the tip of an impossibly white tongue, almost gray with bloodlessness, touched the corner of his red mouth as he considered the words, "Motivated?" Armando sucked his tongue back in his mouth wetly, and I believe I saw a very sharp canine tooth before his mouth slapped shut. He swallowed with a loud gurgle, though an attempt at intoning that swallow must have been made because it almost sounded like a "Hm." It was horrific.

"How?" My ankles had grown cold. I realized for the first time that there was no heat exchange in the office. Why had the Administrators chosen this space? I shuddered to think of it, but I recalled the rumors that surrounded the claiming of the first Talus, stories about strange accidents, dark shapes below the earth, things that did not mesh with my understanding of the world. People from another place.

"Our friend has a . . . personal problem. We may be able to convince him we that we can solve this problem."

"This is my job?" I was sure blackmail or extortion was part of it, though this at least was not outside HELESMC standard operating procedure, and I was not uncomfortable with it. I just wanted to get out of that room.

"Do you think he would trust me?" he said. I was confused by this comment until I noticed Armando's shoulders shaking like a motor - though his face still belied no emotion - and deduced he must be trying to be sarcastic.

"Ah, no," I confessed.

He dismissed me with the understanding that I would be called back later to execute his plan. In the hall the recycled air warmed my body. I then returned to my office to complete this report. Note that the conversation is from memory, but I believe it is accurate to its essence, and I hope it will be useful for review purposes.

I request advisement from Asset Management on how to proceed. In lieu of a response expect the aforementioned plans to be pursued.

021665; The Agent

Thank you for the immediate and direct response to my last inquiry. I appreciate and accept your endorsement of action. What follows is a full report on CM-HELESMC5-00101, under E.O. protocol.

Late on the 14th, Armando summoned me to his office. He produced an attaché case, and on examining it I found a voice-strip, a data pad, as well as a scrap of paper with the address of the meeting place. Armando also pulled a manila envelope from inside his coat. As he pulled the coat to the side I saw evidence of a highly abnormal abdominal and chest structure. Though he wore a bleached white shirt the body appeared shriveled and scarified even to my untrained eye - like a child's body burned in a fire. His neck was covered by a thick scarf, but I was surprised the impish form could hold up his head. He must have caught my gaze because he rapidly buttoned his overcoat after giving me the envelope.

"Do not open it. You wouldn't understand it anyway. It's for the adept," he said. I didn't dare disobey him.
Later I stood shivering at 56897 Salazar Street across from the old federal building shuttered by Bank Two in '55. In case the reviewers are not familiar with it, the six-story Soviet-style structure is largely an itinerant domicile, though I understand from a sign outside its doors that there was a small animal hospital on the third floor. 

Armando had insisted I take the shuttle. I had under-dressed for the operation. My hands went numb as darkness set in. The whole of the street and the blank windowed buildings seemed totally deserted. Eight or nine cats mewed and roamed in the alley by the old federal building. I was bouncing and rubbing my arms dreaming up a new drill schematic in my mind when I heard someone call to me.

I turned around but saw nothing except the face of a brick building, an old garage called "Mike's Auto". I scanned up and down the street for any sign of the adept. The meeting time was near ten minutes past when I saw a red light from the third floor of the federal building illuminating the windows like fiery eyes. In front of this I saw the outline of a man. 

I figured it was a lantern, because the center of light swung from side to side, and I wondered if the adept was alone. I rushed to the doors which were open a crack and bounded up the dusty stairs. 

The hospital was clearly abandoned though there was a handful of cats and the smell of urine. The lantern light seeped under the door from the stairwell and dimmed as I arrived on the floor. There were empty metal cages, some covered with rugs or curtains, and rope discarded but swept to the side of the room. A table in the middle held the lantern flickering in the breeze from a pair of open windows. A man with smartly combed hair and dressed in an expensive suit sat opposite me at the table. 

So this was the traitor. I hated him at once. His face was alert and his eyes were gleaming red from the lantern light. I had the impression he would pounce and kill me with his bare hands as soon as open his mouth to speak. 

"You are Telebast?" I called him by the name Armando had given me. He grunted in affirmation.

"We were to meet outside."

"I changed my mind," he growled, standing and shoving his hands into his pockets, "How are you going to save my boy?" He refused to meet my gaze and instead stared into the lantern light.

"That's not my job. The Paternach is taking care of that end. I'm just here to give you your job." I set the briefcase on the table and opened it. The voice strip taped inside the case glowed green, so I knew that it had begun recording.

"Fine," he said taking the envelope I held out to him. He dropped it on the table without a look. 

"Aren't you going to read it?"

"I think I know what it is going to say."

"Just the same, I would be derelict in my duty if I did not watch you read it. My superiors need to know that you will fulfill your end of the bargain."

"Bargain!" he snorted, but he did open the envelope and remove its contents. Inside was a map and another piece of paper. It did not take him long to look it over.

"All right."

"You are certain-"

"I said okay, Goddammit!" As he spoke he clapped his hands together and a sharp sting pierced my ears like the ringing of a bell. The light from the lantern extinguished with a hiss. I was left in absolute darkness.

"Telebast?" I called out, frightened for a minute. He was gone. The only response was a chorus of mewls from the cats.

021865; Efficiencies

Unfortunate developments. The adept known as Telebast has found me. He refuses to participate in the program. Recommend contingency plans to detain and submit the adept for Reclamation. Armando insists further insurances have been taken.

Please advise.


Darling called for Keng to stop the rickshaw at the corner of two empty streets where a warehouse loomed. One wall was dark maroon under neon lamps that lined the rooftop, the other an unlit cream-colored facade of ancient aluminum.

She'd had to stop reading the journal. There was no time and the threads were coming together fast. The picture was becoming clear enough to act.

And she had arrived at the greenhouse.

"Okay, Keng. Wait here for a few minutes," she said.

"Sure," he said, "But where are you going?" Keng looked up at the warehouse. No door was evident: just rust and shadows and empty alleys beyond the building that mirrored those they had passed.

"Just around the corner," Darling said as she covered the journal with the blanket in the rickshaw. "You just stay out of sight, okay?"

"Whatever you say."

Keng had seen no door. There was no door. Doors can be identified, cataloged, mapped by the satellites. In the dark of the alley was a single tree, an ash, in a pit of dirt no larger than a fresh grave. The door to the greenhouse could only be accessed from the shales. Here the patch of earth was shallow, the roots of the tree bunched and twisting in with each other. But in the world beyond the world a ladder descended . . . Darling's feet sank into the loose soil. She closed her eyes and saw the dark doorway outlined by light in her mind, a silver slice in black night; spinning . . .

She reaches for the tree and the light from the door. But it is the tree she touches, a golden bark against the radiant sun burst sky, and it burns her hand before she can pull it away again. She is dizzy and knows she needs rest, but she can not rest.

Too soon, she thinks, Too quick.

The soil parts under her like flower petals blooming, the ladder rises to her feet like the stamen reaching to feed her.

And she descends. 

The soil slides off of her like vinegar from a wad of fat. Like droplets of oil shimmering in a puddle on the floor of the room . . .

She opened her eyes but a flash knocked her back and the residue of the shalestep flowed from her ears painful and heavy. It coursed through her fingers as she pressed down, as if she could force the stuff back inside. It finally slowed, but she was so weak. She hoped she could climb back out after she saved the root.

The greenhouse was just a room, two and a half stories tall encompassing the underground portion, with a monitoring hub glassed in at the opposite corner from the ladder, and the remainder of the vast space taken up by the root's bed.

It lay in a pool maybe 20 feet in diameter partially submerged in a nutrient bath and protected by banishing rites. The root pulsed with a cool red glow. The energy of the Talus seeped into the bath, every moment oozing pink milk. It was even weaker than the last time she had visited. Tad and the Agrat council might have hoped it could help with the sickness. Darling wasn't sure it was strong enough. 

She stood slowly, carefully, so she wouldn't go faint, and steadied herself at the rim of the pool. The root itself was massively dense at its healthiest, the porous holes barely visible in its tuber-like form. But as the milk drained out the flesh withered, the spongy surface became hard and brittle. Its body was like the drooping bicep on an old man who used to be strong, or a spider web broken by the flapping wing of a bird, and its breathing was almost audible through the water.

She saw the wound. The root was splintered and a piece missing near the edge like a bear had torn through bone.

He must have been in a hurry, she thought, resting her fingers gently on the oozing open portions. She looked up at the monitoring cameras arrayed around the pool. They were blown into black shards of metal. This confirmed to her why the HIS terminal back at the office did not inform her of the intrusion. 

Where did he take it if not to Heles? Her mind raced with the possible motives, dreading most answers. 

He must know, deep inside, why he betrayed us. She leaned over the pool, and she felt her hand warm and wet in the bath before she was shocked out of her reverie. She was falling asleep. It was on her like a snake wrapping a mouse in its jaws. Sniffing back this wave, she made a decision, or maybe she was compelled, but she almost did not know what she was doing before the procedure was performed. 

Her athame was in her hand large and brutal, growing as her intention shaped its form, the sharpness glimmering red from the point to the handle. She struck and shouted the power word SEKMET. The limb of the root splashed down in the water. 

I can't believe . . ., she thought, What have I done? She pulled it out of the bath and felt it beat and writhe furiously in her hand like a helpless cat. Her vision dimmed. The snake's jaws opened around her mind again, I made my choice. I need to call them . . .

She thought of her companions, Maybe it can help, maybe it can't. She looked down at the calming root, going cold in her hand. 

Need to call . . . She fell to her knees as the fangs of darkness snapped her eyes closed. She slept.


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