He tipped his hat at the boy. “I should not think I have been here for much longer than you, for you seem well learned in the world of nature.”
“Well how long is that?” asked Alexander.
“I have watched the rains come and go, and seen the little rabbits learn how to behave as their long-eared uncles, and walked with the trees as they marched from valley to field.”
Alexander stared curiously at the dinosaur. “Walked with the trees? But forests take years to grow that far!”
“They are much slower than the rabbits, but they have little need to run from anyone. The hawk pays them little mind, and even I have no use for sticks.”
“So what is it you do?” Alexander did not intend to be nosy or rude, he meant only to spark more conversation, for it is not every day one meets up with a dinosaur, to say nothing of a nattily dressed talking dinosaur with a hat.
He regarded Alexander closely for a moment. “I wander to and fro, seeing and living and learning and hearing advice. And that advice which suits me, I repeat to others, so they may hear it also.
Barnes finished the remaining piece of his pastry, adjusted his glasses, and began to read the list of objects and names. One caught his eye: F.R. Morries.
“You’re hoping to pull him into this project? Are you mad? Anything the man touches turns to manure, and because that alone isn’t enough to doom an operation to the abyss, he finds a way–by some sheer concentration of malicious will, it would seem–to obliterate it beyond all hope of salvage.”
Rayleigh and Catroy shared the same open-mouthed expression of disgust. Rayleigh was the first to speak. “I know he’s not the most coordinated sort, but you’re exaggerating to the point of absurdity.”
Barnes was not.
Morries was so well-known for his inability to succeed that if the act of failing were made into an Olympic sport he would enter and somehow lose, were the competition rigged in his favor and every competitor given a medal. However, given his previous endeavors, it would undoubtedly occur in spectacular fashion.
“How can they do this?” Hess was slowly losing his composure. “It’s defamation by any means. A busload of addicts wouldn’t attempt something that brainless.”
Barrett set his cup on the stand by his chair. “This isn’t about what you know you’re capable of, or any rational limits set by otherwise reasonable people. You’re a new figure, a threat to their order, and as far as they’re concerned your background is a blank slate.”
“I’m still not one of them!” Hess’ voice rose for a moment. “I don’t do those sorts of things, and the membership should…”
“Don’t you understand?” Barrett interjected. “Nobody notices what a man fails to do. You could spend all your conscious minutes failing to do or be your choice of targets and the world wouldn’t know or care. Every moment of every life is a demonstration of inaction in countless ways, even for someone as active as yourself. But inaction is nearly universal; for every action there are countless unrealized parallels. It isn’t possible to accomplish everything, but anyone can come close to doing nothing. You judge a man by what he doesn’t accomplish, and you’re condemning the masses to an inescapable void of equality through shared failures.”
He paused for a moment and leaned inward. “However… Misguided actions are another beast. Slip up for just one moment and give them reason to think that you’re just like everyone else, and that one moment is going to destroy everything you’ve worked so hard to protect.”
Hess swept the paper aside. “Backstabbing ingrates. I was involved in this for their good. If they would forget the petty games and let me work, they might notice an improvement.”
“You’re letting opportunities slip away because you’re too intent on being amicable with the membership in its entirety. It doesn’t matter if everyone here is your friend while you’re still a member. What matters is that when you move on, they regret leaving you on any other terms.”
The finely manicured lawns of Prairie Estates Boulevard were an impressive facade. Few properly understood the perils of living on the edge, the limits- as close as you could come to living outside the city without actually living outside the city.
Larry Hammer stood defiantly on the patio of his house. He understood the perils. He had chosen to establish his permanent base here, knowing full well what it could cost him. That American Dream was already in his mind, and this constant battle had helped him realize a part of it already. He would not rest before that mortgage was paid off, and until that day, he would be known only as Larry Hammer: Suburban Commando.
In the distance a mailbox exploded. Another day was beginning, and this was war.
It was unnerving. He had no recollection of the previous few hours and slowly regained his sense of memory and consciousness in the almost total darkness of a vast open room. It had two sections, one in front and one to the right; both led off beyond his vision. From above him came a steady vitreous din, as though a thousand revelers were ceaselessly toasting an unknown accomplishment.
A figure brushed past; he was certainly not alone. Amidst a row of pillars in front of him was a small knot of whispering shapes, and as he turned to examine the far corner of the room he caught movement to his right as well. There were probably close to two hundred people with him, most pointing at the source of the noise. Victor looked up.
The ceiling was at least fifty feet from his head, but the clattering was closer. Resting on the row of pillars was a system of tracks carrying countless cylindrical glass objects from where he stood by the point of a wall to the unseen reaches of the room and back.
One of the shapes nearby spoke. “Hourglasses. Thousands of them. The entire track stretches from one end of this place to the other, and they seem to follow an endless L-shaped circuit, with a hundred branches and zigzags in between. We aren’t sure what keeps them in motion, but that isn’t the problem.” She gestured toward the lone distinguishable source of light in the room. “It lit up about five hours ago. Nobody’d bothered to read it before then.”
In the corner of the room, just below the central bent section of rails, there was a small, dimly-lit plaque with a glowing inscription. Victor began to read.
Break the Glass to gain your freedom, one chosen from the myriad, destroyed.
To tarry brings your own destruction, inaction is a lethal crime.
Though leaders are, some yet mislead them, who seek an end of life devoid.
In shadow speaking misdirection, their goal as well is killing time.
“We’re trapped in here, and somebody wants us to find one of those pieces and smash it to get out? I don’t understand.”
“That’s what we’ve decided it means,” she said. “You coming to that same conclusion only furthers that idea.”
What bothered him was the long row of doors along the wall to his left. He noticed that of the nearly two hundred other people in total, all were avoiding the areas near those black panels. If they were all truly enclosed in this room, why had none ventured to try the most obvious route out?
She was following his gaze, even in the relative obscurity. “They aren’t doors. At least not ones that lead out. We tried to open them at one point.”
“What do you mean?”
She gestured to a small knot of people by the far wall. “As soon as he touched the handle, the shadows seemed to expand, if you can believe that. The poor chap started slurring his speech and stumbled away for a few feet before collapsing, and he was carried over there by the few who were willing to look after him. He hasn’t spoken or moved since.”
Victor shifted his gaze and looked back at the plaque. “What’s this about misleading?”
“Near as we can tell, whoever is behind all this has a couple of friends milling about with the rest of the crowd. They aren’t exactly on our side. Not too long ago a gangly chap with a wide-brimmed hat started telling everyone within earshot exactly which glass it was. After twenty minutes of verbal interference he pulled one off and tried to swallow it. A group of the others held him down and took it, and he ran off. When they finally smashed it, nothing happened; we looked back, and he was gone. We were no closer to finding the real one and he’d wasted our time.”
At this momentary pause in her speech, Victor noticed her looking once more toward the doors.
She turned back.
“Those hourglasses aren’t ordinary either. In the struggle to wrestle the fake away the piece landed on the floor; no matter which way it was tipped the sand kept flowing from the first chamber into the second. My best guess is that we’ve been in here for about six hours, and half of the sand has passed already. This place was uncomfortable enough before we saw the plaque, and if that isn’t the most unpleasant rhyme I’ve ever read, it’s earned an honorable mention.”
Victor reread the inscription. They had ways of reaching the hourglasses, but from this distance each one was indistinguishable from the others. Taking any of those statements at face value meant they had at most six hours before the situation got much worse.
She spoke more quietly now. “The hinges on those doors open inward, all of them. Not that it matters to us at the moment, nobody wants to go near them. In all honesty, it looks as if they were made only to let things in, not out.”
Victor’s eyes shot back up at the swiftly moving timepieces. They would never have enough time to find a single unique one before the sand in each ran out, unless…
He leveled his gaze.
“Break them all.”
Barnes quietly slipped out of the circle and ambled past the refreshments, glancing at the now-depleted assortment of pastries; they were a silent reminder that there still existed upright citizens in this country who supported a proper bakery.
“Cruller, sir?” asked the attendant.
Barnes smirked. “Travel this far and neglect to sample the local fare? I’d never forgive myself.”
Were it not already 7:30, there might have been room for two on his plate, but this was a catered event and they would bring the main course out in due time.
There was a seat waiting at a table out on the veranda overlooking the street. It was the perfect evening for entertaining, and the atmosphere at The Portico was no less relaxing. The vines covering the pillars outside caught a slight breeze off the bay, and he caught the flickering of a lamp at a table in the corner where Catroy was animatedly discussing something with a brunette in her 30s. He recognized her from the newsletter; she was one of the inductees from last quarter’s meeting. Oddly enough, aside from Catroy, she was the only other person he recognized. Such were the perils of six years spent abroad.
The crullers were still moderately warm; somebody had either taken care to monitor the food all evening, or Barnes had benefited from good timing. He took a bite and strolled toward the corner table.
“You’re the poor Yank who was tricked into spending the evening with Isaac? My condolences; it appears we share the same terrible fate!”
“I was responsible for seating us here tonight.” There was an underlying urgency to her tone that belied the smile she was giving him. “Sit down.” She gestured toward the chair, if only because he hesitated a moment. My name is Cassandra Rayleigh, and while I can only give you an apology, I owe you much more. You’re here because we can’t leave. And until we sort this out, neither can you.”
Anya looked up; the fleeting yellow glow was gently being nudged from the sky by deep reds, and in the violets of the opposite horizon she could see a single planet blinking into existence.
It was finished. Undone.
McEllis was spent; he sat unmoving against a small eroded embankment where the sand met the grasses. Katelyn rested against a rock nearby, staring somewhere into the purple-hued distance where the coast met the sea; Kansas lay unmoving at her feet.
Anya knew their tranquility belied the turmoil each one had fought to contain over the past few hours; she had struggled against more than any of them. Fighting, struggling, and breaking. Who could possibly contain the torrent of questions now gathering in her mind?
And who could contain just the one?
He thought back to his youth, dredging up old memories like the hard-working boats of his hometown once hauled up sludge from the riverbed before depositing the material in fetid piles downwind of most of the population.
This brought him to a realization; his memories contained little more than memory itself, namely the card game where one tries to match like sets. He had virtually no recollection of his childhood beyond those accursed hours spent recalling the location of eights, fours, or aces. Three rows down, one column in. He was a matching savant. And now, as the boats of yesteryear, he wished no more than to deposit these memories in a heap on the fringes of his mind.
Fairbault sneered in disgust as the pitiful attempt to exploit public insecurities faded from his television screen, for he knew he was as close to perfect as he needed to be; no enhancements could improve on his perfect physique, save possibly for laser heat-ray vision.
Not many of the members of that hallowed club showered often enough to find love, but those of us who were truly brave would steal away on starless summer nights to the top of the hill where the MacNeely mansion stood, slink in through the side door, stand at the foot of the mighty Victorian staircase, and loudly call out MacNeely’s name exactly eleven times in the hopes that Old Casanova MacNeely would grant your wish, if he didn’t beat the everliving snot out of you as he threatened to do to all the other “misbehavin’ punks” that repeatedly broke into his house.
The Colonel opened and began to read the letter immediately after entering the room, the arrival of the tattered paper defying probability and comprehension as the crew had somehow managed to slip past the British blockade after traveling for months on the Atlantic Ocean through tempest and heat, though I could only discern the smallest of portions: “Dear Sir, I represent the estate of Roland Montserrat, Crown Prince of the Matangi, who recently passed away with no living heirs…”
In the doorway stood the hulking silhouette of Resfarl, one of the few who had managed the transition from Brush to Graevon. If there was one common thread among lunatics it was that they always seemed to prefer keeping the Atlas-types around.
Saunders slowed and took hold of a length of metal conduit near one of the terminals. “I’ll handle Resfarl; you guys go on ahead.”
Anya gave him an incredulous stare. “Have you lost your mind?”
“I said don’t worry about him! Find Graevon and stop him before he commits another act of genocide.” He made eye contact long enough to convey his inability to accept anything other than compliance.
Not that it made a difference.
“Skabs to that! What do you take me for?” She broke his gaze and gestured indignantly toward the other man. “Is this supposed to be some sort of idiotic macho act?”
He stepped back momentarily. “No,” he began, slightly more uncertain than before. “But this will give you time to–”
“Fine.” She fired two shots, one into each of Micco Resfarl’s knees. His legs almost independently gave way, no longer supporting his weight as he buckled over, clearly out of commission. “Have it your way. While you’re busy being irrational and clubbing him up with your new toy, the rest of us will actually solve problems.”
“We have to prevent this place from ever being discovered. That way none of this could ever happen: Portland, Borius, the Denarians…” Michelle trailed off.
“What about the Denarians?” Vic asked, taking a moment to study the immeasurable details in the spinning vortex of stars.
“If we prevent the Eddingholt’s discovery of the Orrery, the Astrocracy is still going to be obliterated by that comet.” Michelle answered with a hint of hesitation. “Granted, Borius goes with them, but the thought should at least give us pause.”
Stasko, still favoring his right leg, stepped in momentarily. “Is there even a debate? You’re talking about a difference of three orders of magnitude here; push the button or grab the lever or whatever it is you do to make this thing work and fix it!”
Wisric nodded in agreement. “I have to agree with him. The math just seems better that way.”
“Who are we to make this kind of a decision?” Kate pounded a fist on the display. “We’re talking about the ransom of forty thousand people to eternity just to allay our guilt! Forty thousand people with lives and stories and families of their own; how can we even presume this isn’t how it was supposed to be?”
“Who are we?” Anya couldn’t hold her tongue any longer. “We aren’t anyone. We’re no more important than any one of the nameless forty million lives that maniac ended on his idiotic campaign.” She stepped over to the Orrery and pulled out Pyria, making a sweeping gesture with her hand to bring the charred remains into view of the rest of the group. “In the overarching scheme of everything, we were all created equal.” She gestured toward what left of the once verdant world. “But it’s not about our guilt; it’s not about us. It’s about repairing what he did.
At this moment we have a choice, and that’s the only thing that makes us different from everyone else out there. We were given the opportunity to undo what Borius wreaked upon humanity.” She looked at Kate. “Don’t try to recuse yourself from making a decision by dismissing the here and now as some ordained state, out of your hands. If it were unalterable we wouldn’t be standing here.”
“But you’re treating the decision as if it were about statistics! Imagine everyone you would ever meet was wiped from existence! That’s what they’re facing; forty thousand gone, just like that.” Kate pointed toward the door and stepped slowly toward the spinning ball representing Pyria. “Could you walk outside right now, look any of them in the eye, and sincerely explain they must lose everything –again- to make way for someone else? Could you live with that knowledge?”
“We wouldn’t have that option.” Anya said quietly. “If we do this, our present will never be. Nothing we’ve done or known in the last few months will happen either.” She pulled the ribbon from Gregg out of her hair and set it on the platform by the glowing chart. “We’ve been given the opportunity to save every one of those planets. We would be just as guilty of…” She paused, unable to think of an adequate description. “whatever you want to call this situation we’ve been forced into- with respect to those forty million that we can’t look in the eye.
We’re in an entirely unique position regarding mortality. From where we’re sitting, both of those situations remain equally possible, but the only difference is that if we don’t act, we still feel the effects of Borius’ rage. If we let this warped reality stand, not only do we consign a thousandfold more people to nothingness, but force all of society to eke out broken lives through it.
That there is no perfect solution is probably the only consolation we have in a true dilemma; we know that there was nothing to do but choose.”
“I’m not buying it. You’re interpreting some sort of morality based on nothing more than math. We weren’t meant to legislate the length of a life, our logic is invariably fallible.” Valenda touched the Orrery and a star on the fringe of one of the great spiral arms winked out of existence. “At what point would you decide to swing the other way? If Borius had only offed 39,000? 39,000 and a planet?” From the corner Wisric gave her an uncertain look. “It still feels like murder, but arbitrarily so.”
Katelyn set the transmitter aside and looked up. On the opposite bank of the river stood the
most imposing tree any of them had ever encountered. It wasn’t mere height that gave it such
presence, the tree’s great breadth and immense branches supported a seemingly impenetrable
forest of leaves that could well have hidden a small town. If one were to jump from the apex of that bewildering crown, she would have time enough during the descent to both regret that decision and hear lengthy high-pitched exclamations of reproval from any nearby spectators before being blasted into the water below.
Beneath the tree, protected by a seemingly ancient root system, sat a huge, dark expanse; a prisonlike cave sporting massive wooden bars. Between two of the vertical root pillars was a gap wide enough to comfortably accommodate the raft.
“You guys still wondering where to park for tonight?” asked Greg, somewhat offhandedly.
McEllis, who had been quietly debating the merits of convincing his wife to retire to their island home on Tessera where nobody would ever accuse him of turning espionage sites into debris, changed expression from one of intense soul-searching to one of incredulity upon noticing the vast arboreal maw.
“Provided that place doesn’t have any unpleasant occupants, we’re not even going to discuss it.” said Marie, prodding him in the ribs. “We’re stopping here.”
They passed between the pillars and entered a cavern large enough to theoretically hold their ship and others like it quite comfortably, were it in any shape to fly. Night was close now, and the light that did filter in after finding its way down the valley’s slopes and through its thick vegetation was stretched quite thin. The roof was already entirely obscured, though the far walls still shimmered slightly from the reflected rays.
Greg and Anya stepped into the shallow lake and brought the raft to a halt by a grass-covered embankment. The group stepped onto the shore with a feeling of relief after a day’s travel spent rocking in place. Kansas bolted for the plants and rolled contentedly on the relatively cool grass.
Anya tied up one corner of the raft and glanced over at the mass of fur frolicking by the water. She gasped. “Kate, your dog is glowing!”
Katelyn, in the process of picking up the transmitter at that moment, stumbled backward and nearly threw the device into the pool. Kansas was coated from whiskers to tail in fluorescent blue slivers. Katelyn lunged for the dog in an attempt to get her into the water to remove the offending flora, thinking they might contain some sort of poison, but Kansas would have none of it. She ran through the blades once more, in the process breaking off more pieces, coating her legs and throwing up a cloud of luminescent biota.
Greg bent down and examined the plants.
“Might as well give it up, Kate.” said McEllis, brushing his shoulder and smearing it with teal. “She’s chosen her own end, and doesn’t seem to mind it all that much.”
Marie lightly put her hand on Katelyn’s arm. “Look at it this way. No matter what, you’re going to have no trouble finding her from now on.”
Unamused, Kate began to relax somewhat as Greg, whose right hand was now coated in fluorescent sap, patted McEllis on the back, leaving a glowing blue print on his flight jacket. Nobody was complaining or whimpering yet from exposure; that wasn’t a bad sign.
They slept down the shore a short distance from the grass, as nobody wanted to fight any more light for sleep that evening than what they had already made unavoidable. Kansas, now a shining beacon of blue fur, slept in a makeshift box that was as much for their benefit as her shelter.
Anya awoke four hours later as she did many nights and began to crawl from the security of her sleeping bag when she caught sight of a massive glowing ball in the water. She started and suppressed a gasp.
It wasn’t in the water; it was above the water. And it wasn’t alone.
Overhead swirled a cascading ribbon of shimmering light, pulsing from and at the same time enveloping the hollow in the tree. Hazy arms in swirling concert emerged from the obscurity around the edges and streaked across her vision, carrying streams of glittering beads spiraling from the darkness toward a culmination of light in the center, the immense glowing heart of a tentacled enigma.
It was by all explanations a galaxy, but it had to be an illusion of some sort. Was it an inexplicable extension of the night sky? Was there an enormous telescope buried in the trunk?
She put off her pondering for a moment and shook the others awake.