Re: Reverse-Engineering the Device
Now that we’ve seen its innards, it’s clear we will not be able to copy it. So, we need to procure more. The nanotech is incredible. The thing looks like ordinary body-piercing jewelry, yet there’s so much crammed into it.
We managed to figure out a few things. The device doesn’t need a battery because it’s powered by the wearer’s bioelectrical field. The wearer’s body also acts as an antenna, which is how such a small device can send and receive over such great distances.
Side note of interest: PierceX, the company covertly distributing the jewelry, is a front for Shaw Ministries, and is willfully ignoring the concept of informed consent in regards to both the piercers and the end-user.
internal TEF e-mail, 08-02-2000
Friday, Sept 22, 2000
Fin Tanner searched the dank alley for the tattoo parlor Booth mentioned yesterday. Specifically, his friend said, “Go to Talisman,” and, “The piercer there is a hot babe.”
Of course Fin didn’t have an umbrella and the rain had started again, dampening both his soviet surplus trench coat and his mood, and lending a soggy ripeness to the stench seeping out of the dumpster cave. The trucks making afternoon beer deliveries to the service entrances of the bars and night clubs splashed through oily puddles, turning the narrow sidewalk into a test of skill his sleep-deprived body had trouble passing.
A rank splatter of puke confronted Fin and he cursed the amateur revelers who overran Webster. It was a college town, not a real city, and as such had an anemic bar scene. Not that the bars weren’t plentiful, they were just garishly lit, mock-edgy and pathetic. Buckminster students hit their 21st birthdays and flocked to these pretentious kiddie-rides, quickly achieving alcohol poisoning. On any given morning, a few of them turned up scattered around town on lawns or even rooftops, sometimes not in their own clothes. Referring to a night of excessive partying as ‘getting abducted by aliens’ was the new hip jargon, especially when you couldn’t even remember you’d been drinking.
The fall semester had just begun, filling Webster once again with a fresh crop of students desperate to prove how grown up they were by behaving like spoiled children. The only good thing about the situation was that when Fin’s band Nicotine played a gig, they got a cut of the cover charge. But, even splitting the rent six ways, he had to moonlight in order to maintain the poverty-line lifestyle to which he’d become accustomed.
“Already late for work,” Fin mumbled. He was about to admit defeat and grab a cup of coffee at Magic Beans. He would sorely need it if he expected to make the layout for The 100th Anniversary of Homecoming “fresh and snazzy.” Sycamore’s dutiful alumni readership wouldn’t fork over hefty contributions for anything less.
A Molson truck came barreling toward him. Fin dodged behind one of the massive utility poles prevalent in the alley and almost fell down the flight of stairs hiding behind it.
“Shit!” He checked his black cargo pants for splashes and found none. When he looked up, a slow smile crossed his face. Booth neglected to mention the place was subterranean, and the neon sign was on the fritz. Instead of TALISMAN TATTOO! it read IS TOO!
Fin ground his cigarette out under his boot and started down the steep, concrete steps. The scarred wooden door at the bottom was propped open to emit the smell of coffee, and some extra-crunchy noise rock.
My kind of place, Fin thought, trying to smooth his unruly hair with both hands as he slipped through the opening into the dim interior. The only light came from a work lamp on the counter to Fin’s right as he entered. To his left the cramped room was filled with a huge green velour sofa and a battered coffee table spilling over with photo albums and copies of Tattoo Biker. The cement floor was partially covered with a blood red carpet. A wall-mounted TV played The Road Warrior with the sound off.
Fin looked back to the counter. He recognized the big, well-muscled guy sketching shirtless there, but didn’t know his name. The sheer abundance of aboriginal and Native American tattoos was hard to forget, as was the tribal look of his piercings which included his ears, septum, the bridge of his nose and, as Fin now noticed, his nipples.
This better not be Booth’s idea of a hot babe, Fin thought blackly.
The artist looked up and brushed a long strand of black hair out of his dark eyes. “With you in a minute,” he said, and added a few more strokes to the tattoo he was designing.
Fin amused himself by making up dialog in his head for The Road Warrior until the music got quieter and the overhead lights came on. Both men blinked for a few seconds.
“I’m Marcus Savage. What can I do for you?” He gestured toward the design samples covering the walls.
“Hi. Fin Tanner,” said Fin as he failed to spot the babe body piercer. “I’m not looking for a tattoo today. I wanna get my eyebrow pierced I think.”
“Not my department,” Marcus said, then bellowed, “Rook!”
Fin looked around, startled and confused.
“ROOK!” Louder and impatient.
Movement in the shadowy depths of the sofa became a girl sitting up. “What?” she complained.
“Customer,” Marcus said serenely, and went back to work at the counter.
Rook, apparently, yawned and stood up. After pulling her houndstooth miniskirt down to cover the tops of her bare thighs, she stretched and ruffled her hair.
Catching a glimpse of her black panties did wonders for Fin’s mood and he felt a smile threatening. Her shaggy, shoulder length hair was mostly blue-black, except for her chin-length, cherry red bangs. He couldn’t hold the smile back when she finally got all that damn hair out of the way and he could see her face. Light freckles dusted her nose, but otherwise her skin shone flawlessly pale, accentuating full lips tinted a red so deep it was almost black. Cinnamon colored brows drew together in puzzlement above the most striking eyes Fin had seen since the last time he fell in love with a stranger, a luminous snow-shadow blue. Fin realized with a start they were burrowing right into his brain. He dropped his gaze to her chest and admired how the clingy gray henley showed off her proportions. Impressive, but not so large as to be off-putting. Not that that was really possible. He knew he was grinning like an idiot and thinking nonsense. I really need that coffee.
“Hi. Should I come back when you’re done napping?” He tried for sarcastic nonchalance.
Sliding her feet into a pair of goofy Cookie Monster slippers, she said, “You’d be waiting a while.” Her voice was slightly husky, like dark beer. Fin shivered.
This is ridiculous, he thought. I gotta get some coffee.
Rook brushed past Fin and walked to the counter, hopped up, scooted across it on her bottom, and dropped down on the other side. Fin took the opportunity to check out her ass. After glancing at Marcus’s drawing, she reached under the counter and pulled out a coffee pot. She filled a mug, crossed back over the counter and sat down on the sofa, cradling the mug in both hands.
“Well?” She patted the spot beside her. Around her right ankle a flock of tattooed black birds soared above the blue muppet pelt of her slipper.
Fin shrugged off his coat and sat down, a little closer to her than would generally be considered polite. He was as drawn to the heavenly fumes rising from the mug as he was to Rook herself, hoping that being so close to the coffee he would get some second-hand caffeine and straighten out his head.
The coffee smelled great but, instead of helping, it made his need more palpable. Rook took a sip and sighed happily. Fin was about to do something rash when she placed a green vinyl photo album in his lap.
Relieved to finally know what to do, Fin opened the album. The first page held an elaborate certificate from The Society of Professional Piercers, dated nearly two years ago and made out in the unlikely name Rook Brandymoon.
Rook ran a finger under a black silk cord encircling her neck and pulled a pendant from her cleavage where it had been hiding. Fin swallowed a mouthful of lust.
“That’s familiar for some reason.” Fin was still trying to get his brain in gear.
She twirled the pendant, a glossy, dark green castle tower, between her slender fingers, disturbing the steam from her coffee and mesmerizing Fin. “I write for Conspiracy Theory Press. As Brandy Moon.”
“That’s it,” Fin agreed. “Rook. Brandymoon. Is it your real name?”
Emboldened, Fin reached out his left hand and held the pendant steady to get a better look at it. It radiated her warmth. “Are you named after the bird or the chess piece?” He indicated the rook he still held.
“Are you named after Huckleberry or a fish’s ass?”
“Touché.” Fin dropped the rook and turned to the next page in the album and saw a female nipple with a barbell through it. “Hey, how’d you know my name?”
“You sound paranoid.” Rook sipped her coffee and let him wonder for a moment. “I’ve seen Nicotine play a couple times.”
“You like our music much?”
She considered while savoring another swallow of coffee. “You should knock off the whole Nine Inch Nails homage and play more originals.”
“You think?” Fin let the criticism slide because he was compelled to stare into her uncanny eyes, and was both unnerved and aroused when he found her staring back.
“Yeah. But I’m not a music critic anymore. I gave it up for the lucrative and exciting life of a Professional Body Piercer. Nothing can compare to the thrill of sticking needles into the genitals of complete strangers and having them pay you for the privilege,” she said. “So are you gonna look at the pictures and make a decision, or do you want me to pick a spot at random and go for it?”
Fin could tell she was fully awake now. The caffeine was doing its job and he wished he had some so they would be on equal mental footing. He forced himself to look down at the photo album.
The next five or six pages showed various ear ornamentations including cartilage piercings of all sorts. After these were several pages of nose and septum piercings.
Between sips of coffee, Rook offered helpful comments. “When you get your nose pierced you need to be careful about what color stone you choose. Red and onyx look like zits. Green and yellow look like snot. So do opals.” Fin noticed hers was a small sapphire that matched her eyes. It didn’t look like any sort of unfortunate body product.
Next were eyebrows, anti-eyebrows, cheeks, lips and tongues.
“Did you do Marcus?” Fin asked.
“Yes. And my own nose, nipple and navel.” She finished the coffee and set the mug down on the floor when she couldn’t find room on the table.
“Your own? Ow.”
Fin flipped past the vulvas, penises, clitorises and labia. He lingered for a moment over more nipples and finally got to the last page.
“Decided?” she asked.
“Yes. I want a hoop in my right eyebrow. A black hoop.”
“Step into my office.” She indicated a door opposite the sofa. Trailing behind her, Fin entered the piercing room.
His eyes watered as he looked at the hallucination-inducing pattern painted in black and white on the concrete floor.
“Sit on the bed-thing,” Rook said, motioning toward a lozenge-shaped table cushioned in forest green leather, with several foot pedals underneath. “Is this your first piercing?”
“Except for my ear.”
Fin sat on the edge and found to his chagrin that his feet dangled an inch or so off the floor. He caught himself swinging them while watching Rook open an accordion door in the back corner and disappear.
She came back carrying a small white box with PierceX emblazoned on the top in gold lettering. She slit the shrink-wrapping with her thumbnail and pulled out a plastic insert cradling a dozen black metal hoops.
“You’re the first with a black one,” she said. “They’re new. You like?”
Fin dragged his eyes away from her smile long enough to confirm what she held was, indeed, the piece of metal he would like embedded in his face.
At the counter along the wall she pushed up her sleeves, washed her hands and put on rubber gloves. Fin glimpsed bold black tattoos on her inner wrists, but couldn’t make out what they depicted. She opened a fresh needle and gathered the rest of her supplies on a small cart that reminded Fin he hadn’t been to the dentist in quite a while. Rook sat on a stool in front of him and reached for her tool tray, giving Fin a partial view of more black ink on her collarbone, then used the foot pedals to adjust the height of the table. Fin gazed up into her auroral eyes, his caffeine-starved brain struggling to come up with an excuse for kissing her, when she suddenly poked his eyebrow with a marker and handed him a mirror.
“I think I know when someone pierces my eyebrow,” said Fin. “Don’t tell me. You’ve always wanted to be a lumberjack.”
Rook laughed. It was a deep, musical thing. Like raw honey.
“Just check and see if that’s where you want it, jerk,” she said.
When Fin concluded it was a good spot, Rook swabbed him with an alcohol prep and placed a clamp on his eyebrow. She moved in close, and Fin could smell her, and she smelled wonderful, like cloves and something darker, and she brushed against his arm and her nipples were standing up, and he could tell it was her left one she had pierced and…
“Fuck! That hurts!” Then he smiled.
“I love my job.” She unclamped his brow.
To tune out the needle still impaling him, glinting, right there in front of his fucking eye, Fin kept his gaze on Rook’s face. He felt a tug as she threaded the hoop through, evicting the needle. She lingered over popping the captive bead in place, then smiled. “It looks good.”
Inspiration struck. Fin placed a hand on the back of her head and kissed her. She nipped him, but relaxed and kissed back, her tongue sliding over his. She tasted like Kahlua, and she made a throaty little sound. After a few fleeting seconds of this heaven, she pulled away and looked at him like he was crazy, but in a good way.
“I wanted to see if your tongue was pierced too,” Fin said with an impish grin.
“You could have just asked.” She sounded like she felt she ought to be mad but wasn’t.
“Where’s the fun in that?”
Rook rolled her eyes and started swabbing his eyebrow with iodine.
“Shit that hurts!”
“So sorry darling. Just want to be sure you don’t get an infection.” She finished up and slapped on a bandage. “Should I kiss it and make it better?”
Fin was in love. “Yes.”
She kissed it lightly.
“Maybe I should get my nipple pierced too.”
“Don’t push your luck.”
Rook opened the door and they walked out to the counter while she explained the daily cleaning regimen. After hopping over the counter again she punched a few buttons on the cash register.
“That comes to 55 dollars.”
Fin took out his wallet. “If you’re not working too late, maybe we could get together. Get a drink? Play some chess? Read some Twain?”
Marcus looked up from his sketch predatorily. Fin suddenly didn’t feel good about this at all, especially after he noticed the shotgun under the counter near Marcus’s knees. He and Marcus both looked at Rook.
“Marcus and I have plans tonight,” she said, putting an arm around Marcus’s bare shoulder. “Maybe you could bring a chess board here sometime. He won’t play with me.”
Fin felt trampled. He was about to leave when Rook handed him his change along with a business card.
“The cleaning instructions are on there. Be sure to read them carefully when you get home.” She smoothed Marcus’s hair and started braiding it.
Fin pulled on his trench coat and left the shop with Marcus eyeing him darkly. On the steps he could hear sharp words, but couldn’t follow what was said. The rain had picked up again and another truck rumbled past. Now he was really late for work and someone important might notice.
Fin was utterly depressed by the time he got to Magic Beans, and ended up having an Irish coffee and a black cherry tart because the color of the fruit reminded him of Rook’s lips. His tongue ached where she’d bitten him. When he drank his coffee too fast, the heat and the alcohol burned exquisitely and took his mind off his broken heart. After two more Irish coffees, he saw Dan and Elise on their break and remembered he had to go to work, so he ordered one more and another tart to go.
At the magazine office, he stashed the tart in his desk drawer and sipped the coffee while taking out the instruction card she gave him. After reading the front, he turned it over and couldn’t suppress a whoop of delight. Right after ROTATE THE RING TO WORK THE OINTMENT INTO THE PIERCING there was a handwritten note:
M Beans 4:00 Wed
*** *** ***
Reverend Brian Shaw watched the monitor as the technician, Gregory, explained what it displayed.
“There, that’s a new subject coming online. Serial number puts it at Talisman Tattoo over in Webster. This number is the signal ID, and beside it is the frequency. Being brand-new, it has listening priority set to High.”
“Why is that?” Shaw asked. Gregory quailed. Shaw smiled at him. “I’m not criticizing, I’m interested. Why does being new cause it to get higher priority?”
Gregory turned back toward the screens and said, “The number of devices in the field is currently 178% of our available bandwidth. That means we get 1.78 times more signal than we can take in at one time. So, there’s a schedule, and priorities. Until we gather some data about a new subject, we don’t know how to fit them into the schedule. They start off as High priority so we can get data quickly.”
“Well, that seems very sensible.”
“What we really need,” Gregory said, handing a set of earphones to Shaw, “is more equipment. Then we wouldn’t need to have the signals in a rotation, because we could just listen to all of them all the time.”
“I’ll see what can be done,” the reverend replied, still smiling. “They don’t exactly sell these things at Walmart.”
He put on the earphones, and heard, “I wanted to see if your tongue was pierced, too.” He handed the headset back.
Listening in was of only secondary importance to Shaw’s plans, but it did vex him that a glaring logistical gap like the equipment shortage wasn’t mentioned earlier. He might never have known about it if he hadn’t insisted on being briefed about the nuts and bolts. The irony that he gained this valuable insight from a traitor amused him.
In his youth Shaw let it trouble him that God made him so strong, yet not strong enough to do it all by himself. Such foolish pride had long ago been replaced by pragmatism. Just as a carpenter needs a hammer, Shaw came to realize that he needed tools as well. First television, transmitting his words to millions. And soon, with these marvelous devices, he would transmit divine grace itself.
“Thank you for the demonstration, Gregory. I’m quite impressed.” Shaw gestured and said, “Could one of the others take over for you for a few minutes? I’d like to speak with you up in my office.”
Gregory said, “Wow, I don’t know about that. I mean, without a little advance notice it might be awkward…”
Shaw waved over one of the other technicians while Gregory tried to stall, and ten seconds later they were in the elevator together.
“It’s a long ride up,” Shaw remarked, and Gregory nodded nervously. The reverend mused aloud on the subject of the expansive Shaw Ministries compound, notably the large portion located below ground. So many tunnels twisting and turning through the darkness, interconnecting most of the above-ground structures. As Shaw spoke, Gregory grew drowsy. Shaw let himself ramble about the cthonic maze, and the parallels between its physical nature and its convoluted and hidden purpose.
The words weren’t important. The reverend’s voice carried the hypnotic power.
Shaw reached into Gregory’s mind with his own and overrode his volition, paralyzing him.
“I know about the little notes you’ve been passing to your friends,” Shaw said. “You’re quite clever, Gregory, but you’re in way over your head here. I don’t know what made you think you could pull this off, except you obviously don’t know enough about me. Well, now you do know. But it’s too late.”
The elevator doors opened, and Shaw glanced out to make sure the anteroom was empty. He could feel a bleak and tremulous kind of feedback from Gregory, who wanted to panic but no longer knew how.
“You deserve to understand my interest in the jewelry.” Shaw flashed his on-air smile. “What I’m doing to you now, it only works in person. And it’s devilishly tricky to apply to more than one target at a time. The marvelous technology hidden in those baubles is my key to widening my reach. I like you, but you’re a threat to my great works, Gregory. I wish it weren’t so.” As he shut off Gregory’s heartbeat, the reverend said, “I hope you understand that I never kill without an excellent reason.”
09/22/2000 Subsection B (New Subjects)
 Total ( Talisman Tattoo  InkWell)
Piercing location (if known):
Ear:1 Face:1 Tongue:1 Nipple:3 (1 pair, 1 single) Navel:3 Genital:1
Notes: Subject T358~ft~18C, male w/facial piercing from Talisman Tattoo, is our first example of type ^Ω^, and therefore tracking protocol 2 will be in effect until such time as the lab techs have completed the diagnostics and signal mapping, and new surveillance protocols can be developed, if necessary.
from TEF listening post daily report
The party had already reached cruising altitude when Fin got home from work at 10:30, still giddy from the prospect of his upcoming date with Rook.
Parties happened frequently in the run-down house where Fin and five other guys rented rooms. A lot more frequently than, say, mowing the lawn. This smelled like a good one, the blend favoring pot and beer over sweat and vomit. The green bulbs in all the lamps labeled this as one of Booth’s parties, and made the whole thing feel like it was happening inside an aquarium. Techno-flavored music thudded out of the speakers in a blatant attempt to get girls dancing.
Fin filled a plastic cup at the keg, handed the tap to the next person in line, and turned toward the kitchen to scrounge for food. The song cut out abruptly, a dozen gyrating bodies freezing in mid-dance. As their collective “Aww!” rang out, Fin put on his best dancer-face and spun around twice, bobbing his head like a pigeon and not spilling a drop of beer. Someone over by the stereo called out, “Sorry!”
Fin shimmied his shoulders, and moved with a zigzagging swagger through the forest of sweaty mannequins, keeping perfect time to the nonexistent beat. His efforts drew little reaction.
The music returned midsong, and everyone simultaneously resumed pumping and swaying, like they hung from the same set of strings. Fin stopped as abruptly as the music had, waiting for traffic to clear so he could cross the remaining distance to the kitchen. He finished his beer in three quick gulps before that happened, so he got back in the keg line behind his heavily tattooed black housemate, Booth. They exchanged nods.
“You went to Talisman!” Booth said, pointing at Fin’s bandaged eyebrow.
“Thanks for the tip. You were right about the piercer.” Fin grinned.
The line for the keg crept.
A man in a sleeveless black t-shirt with a ring in his nose sat at the foot of the stairs, talking to a hipster goof in a puke green cardigan. They were preoccupied with dreams, trying to describe a dreary one they’d both had. They called it “the green spaceship dream.” Fin rolled his eyes for Booth’s benefit and spotted Kyle coming in the front door. He had three of his muscle-headed cronies behind him, and as they filed into the house the party shrank back like a kicked dog.
That’s when the heavy self-medication started. Fin needed something stronger than beer, so he absconded with a half-empty bottle of tequila and went to the kitchen for lemons. Or limes. Or anything citrus. An orange maybe. He found none, but encountered a motley assortment of revelers seated around the formica table, sharing a joint.
Booth tagged along, steering Fin into a private conversation. “You okay, man? You don’t seem like yourself.”
Fin was almost offended. “Who do I seem like?”
Booth laughed. “Fin. Mostly. Maybe it’s just me.”
“I seem like you?”
Booth smirked. “No, man. It’s not that bad yet.”
“Well, you can’t be yourself without someone else.”
Booth blinked, and shook his head again. “What?”
“How else are you going to know if you’re doing it right?” Turning his back on his friend, Fin snagged the joint and took a deep drag.
Something hideous was trying to climb in through Fin’s ears and let the air out of his brain.
He sat up and looked around. He wasn’t really at the party anymore, inasmuch as he was alone in the third floor bathroom. Lint, grit, and a bad-smelling tacky residue clung to his shoulder and cheek where he’d been in contact with the floor. He pawed at them disinterestedly and ran his hand back over his lawless hair.
Fin’s only sensory input that didn’t keep dropping below the threshold of perception was his hearing. The irony was not lost on him as the melodic lobotomy twittered through the floorboards. If he nodded a bit, which he couldn’t prevent, his eyes went below the surface of a rainbow Kool-Aid swimming pool and everything had dripping edges for a minute after he snapped his head back up. He couldn’t tell if both his eyes were open.
His shirt lay in the sink, wet from the ever-dripping faucet. Fin pulled it back on. It smelled like beer and cigarettes. Comforting. He didn’t bother to button it. Water trickled down his flesh, tiny cold snails heading for the waistband of his dilapidated black cargo pants. The phosphorescent slime trails helped him focus.
He had been having a good time until Kyle and his friends showed up. That would be Kyle’s music doing violence to his brain, then. Kyle always slipped into wedding DJ mode when he got trashed, and Fin always slipped into misery mode when Kyle started having fun. No amount of drugs could dim the glare of Kyle’s personality.
In this house, Fin had seniority. He wasn’t going to leave his fucking home just because some entitlement prick moved in. Soon enough Kyle would realize he wasn’t welcome.
Fin began the process of standing up and achieved it by stages, leaning on the toilet and the radiator. Slouching against the wall, he started to move along the short hallway to his room before he was entirely upright.
How did he get upstairs? Maybe it was a new drinking game, and the loser had to carry him to the bathroom. He chuckled, which made him dizzier.
By the time he unlocked his room, he couldn’t retrace his mental steps to account for his silly grin. Kyle’s so-called music was still present and accounted for, so the smile melted and formed a shimmering puddle on the floor. In the reddish glow from the lava lamp, the smile took a linty hairball hostage and scuttled behind the TV. Fin blinked and switched on the overhead light. Dingy off-white walls, avocado shag carpet, black garbage bag covering the only window — no feral facial expressions in evidence.
If only stupidity were painful, Fin thought, as Kyle’s sonic assault renewed itself. He flipped the power switch on his amp and hefted his bass. He could taste a bit of throb coming through the amplifier.
With all the knobs all the way to the right on the bass and the amp, he dropped the instrument on the floor in front of the speaker.
When Fin got downstairs to the living room he was the only one smiling. The squeal of feedback shook the tired old house, making bottle caps and shot glasses skitter around on the coffee table down here. It didn’t cover the awful music, but guaranteed nobody could really listen to it. Kyle’s customary smirk had vanished. He was trying to be goth in a black turtleneck, so the scowl fit pretty well. Booth banged his head maniacally, dreadlocks flying.
Bishop stopped the stereo. Kyle’s friends stood around like sheep with drinks. Kyle was no longer in sight, so Fin congratulated himself on his victory.
The feedback stopped. Premature congratulations.
On the way back upstairs, Fin startled Kyle on the second landing. Fin glared and grasped the bannister to steady himself.
“Nobody goes into my room,” said Fin.
Kyle tried several faces, and settled on wounded pride for unintelligible reasons. He met and held Fin’s gaze with his algae-colored eyes, but took too long preparing a retort.
“You went into my room,” Fin continued.
Kyle squared his shoulders, wanting the full effect of the half-inch height advantage his combat boots afforded him.
“That makes you Nobody,” Fin concluded.
Kyle pushed Fin’s shoulder, trying to send him down the stairs, but Fin let go and melted to the side. Off-balance, Kyle stumbled down the next few steps. He stomped down to the first landing where his toadies could see him and yelled, “Asshole!”
Fin climbed the rest of the stairs and made the walk down the hall to his room with more grace than the last time. The only evidence of an interloper’s presence was the unplugged amplifier. Fin placed his bass back on its stand and reset the dials on the amp so it would be less likely to detonate upon being powered up again, then sprawled on his threadbare recliner with a cigarette. Ordinarily, bringing about the untimely end of a party’s life would be cause for shame and reproach, but in this case Fin regarded it as a mercy killing.
Vesuvius sounded somewhat concerned. Or he could be seriously ticked off. Fin couldn’t tell by the tone of voice, a quavery monotone he found soothing, usually.
Vesuvius continued, “I have a question, Fin.”
“Yeah?” Fin lolled back on his chair and shifted his gaze to the nearby lava lamp. “And what might your question be?”
The lamp was quiet for a few moments. “Why are there express checkout lanes at the supermarket, but the deli is all one speed?”
Fin laughed until he choked and sat up, causing his skull to fill with marching band collisions. He curled up and tumbled onto the floor croaking, “Fuck!”
At length the environment inside Fin’s skull returned to something approximating its normal grime and clutter and he slowly sat up, chuckling. “That was not nearly that funny,” he observed.
“You were,” retorted the lamp.
Fin stood. He said, “Want to discuss the game?” Vesuvius occupied a privileged place in Fin’s pantheon and a prime spot in his room, right beside the chess board on the tall cafe table. He occasionally coached Fin during a game. Chess was evidently not his calling, but it was fun to ‘cheat’ anyway.
“I said you should attack with the knight. You still should.”
“That’s it?” It was unlike Vesuvius to show disinterest in the game, even when it had been discussed to death already.
Guilt swept Fin. The feedback. Poor Vesuvius had been trapped in the room with it.
“Hey, ‘Suvius, I’m sorry.” He stooped and checked the glass capsule for cracks. Languid crimson clouds rose and fell in the self-contained amber sky.
“I moved about an inch toward the edge,” the lamp stated.
“Shit, I didn’t even think.” Fin ran his left hand down the warm surface.
Everything seemed okay, but Fin felt stupid for being so cavalier with such a good friend, and moved him back toward the center of the table.
“Come on, let’s figure out what Bishop’s up to.”
“You’re about to find out.”
Fin didn’t understand, until he looked toward the doorway. Tom Bishop towered there, about four inches taller than necessary. His perpetually friendly face was rimmed with dark hair, and he sported a mane that reached his waist even in a braid. How long had he been standing in the hallway, smiling and infuriatingly patient?
*** *** ***
Bishop was relieved when Fin finally spotted him in the doorway and stopped mumbling and fussing with his lava lamp. Fin blinked his bottle green eyes a few times. Because his eyelids were not behaving in a coordinated manner, the effect was that he winked rapidly and spastically several times with both eyes. He told Bishop, “I know. And of course you’re right, so go the fuck away.”
“Up for some chess?” When Fin got really far gone, like tonight, Bishop knew to ease into conversation, and give him some extra personal space. Fin was not likely to harm anyone, not intentionally, but at times his threat displays could be a little emphatic. Bishop’s accumulated expertise in dealing with Fin in this state was put to the test more often these days.
Bishop settled onto one of the cafe stools and waited.
It was always Fin’s move, whenever the game resumed. Fin managed it that way, always playing black and always stopping on his turn and taking about a week to decide his next move. Bishop suspected he always had the move figured out right away but insisted on taking a week to decide if he liked it.
Fin climbed onto his seat across from Bishop. The blank stare he gave the board was deceiving, as he invariably found and used the absolute sneakiest tactic available. His was the game that undermined traditional games. Blind to anything more than two moves ahead, he never had to think about his opponent’s third move, being always about to perpetrate something illogical, foolhardy, and exasperating that would foul the most elegant deployment and force his adversary to retrench in desperation.
Fin toyed with his knight, giving Bishop covert glances to see if he could get a rise out of him with the implied threat against his bishop. Bishop kept his face pleasantly calm. Everyone he played chess with learned quickly that his favorite weapon on the board was the piece that bore his name. Adept at deploying the two of them as a team, he preferred them over even the queen as offensive tools.
Fin always hunted down the bishops, quite cheerfully burning off half his own armada to get them. The move with the knight would not be a bluff. Still, he tried for a reaction before going ahead with it. Bishop glanced at the board to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything and shifted his bishop back two spaces to keep it out of the knight’s path for a while.
Bishop said, “Party ended a little suddenly. Not too subtle, you know.”
Fin replied in a mocking singsong, “Wasn’t it miraculous?” and reached for his cigarettes.
Bishop declined the offered pack. “You might want to perform some miracles that are less easily mistaken for sheer gleeful obnoxiousness. Most folks can’t make the distinction.”
“Well, if I only attracted disciples who are smart enough to learn, I’d be the most effective messiah so far.” His Zippo sparked.
“No, you just wouldn’t have any disciples.” Bishop sat back and watched Fin exhale smoke through his nostrils.
“You know what? I’m sick of talking about it.” Fin made a show of searching for an ashtray.
“Look Fin, I’m not trying to say you need to take responsibility for the way people interpret your actions. I am saying you could capitalize on it, instead of shooting yourself in the foot. Which, by the way, brings up my real concern.”
“You don’t remember what you did.” It wasn’t a question.
Fin’s expression went blank.
“Look at your right arm.”
On his forearm Fin discovered a crude bandage, held in place by adhesion to whatever was underneath more than by the tape wrapped around it. He quirked one eyebrow as he tugged experimentally on the gauze, pulling more boldly until he’d peeled the whole messy pad from his skin.
Congealed blood partially obscured the design, a solid black circle surrounded by undulating shaded bands. An eclipse. All blackwork.
“What the?” Fin’s eyebrows moved in opposite directions as he held his arm up and twisted it for a different view. “Who did this?”
Fin pondered. “It looks good.”
“Certainly does, considering. I thought you’d rather have a finished tattoo in any case, so I didn’t interrupt you. You wouldn’t let me clean it up, though. You have Bacitracin?”
Fin nodded. “Got some today for the eyebrow.” He examined the new ink for another few seconds, and cocked his head to look at the game. He pulled the knight away from its pursuit of the bishop, then resumed admiring his tattoo.
The knight move stunned Bishop. Such a change in Fin’s tactics was unprecedented. While Fin picked at the dried blood on his arm, Bishop analyzed the new direction of the game. Shortly he concluded he was toast. The game was Fin’s to lose.
But Bishop had known Fin to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory before. His feud with Kyle being the prime example. In the short time since he’d moved in, the rest of the house learned to ignore Kyle. That seemed simple enough. Of course, none of them had known that Fin and Kyle had a history. This obsession, in Bishop’s view, caused the entirety of Fin’s misery. He squandered his resources, and when he did capture a piece, such as the pawn tonight’s disrupted party represented, it came at too high a cost. Kyle was an unworthy opponent, so all the better to play with skill and have done with it.
Bishop moved his queen, a desperation maneuver but his best choice. Then he remembered that the game had been intended as a pretext to get Fin talking. Fin seemed hypnotized by his new tattoo.
“What do you think it means?” Bishop asked.
“Probably something like, ‘I’m really cool ’cause I did this.’ What do you think it means?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think. You should be asking better questions.”
Fin rolled his eyes.
Bishop sighed. “A month ago you were a grimy hedonist. Now you’re thoroughly squalid. The fun is gone.”
“Squalid, and no fun. Ouch. At least I have a cool tattoo and an eyebrow ring.”
“I’m dead serious. The change is alarming. You need to spend some time with Fin, Fin.” He saw Fin’s distaste at the idea. “You’ve been avoiding him, when you’re not sticking needles in him.”
“So, a good heart-to-heart will fix me right up?” Fin sounded amused.
“No, it’s just a start. There are some things a person needs another person for. Even you.”
Fin made eye contact properly for the first time in days, and smiled. “Relax, Mom. I have a date on Wednesday. With a girl.” Fin moved his rook. “Checkmate.”
The universe has a purpose, which gradually technology allows us to see. Creation lies not in the past but in the future. The universe is unstable because it isn’t finished. It is a means, not an end. Most importantly, there is no God — yet.The patterns of chaos have a purpose. You have a purpose. These are not the final days — this is only the beginning! Technology leads God ever closer.
from TEF recruitment pamphlet
The silence is heavy, salty, and cold.
The bleak, colorless terrain is dunes, undulating, pocked with craters of all sizes. Occasional crags of black rock protrude from the sand. The grayness above darkens into impenetrable night, filled with fear and secrets.
Alarming and tingling, like lightning on the skin, comes the low vibration. Felt but not heard, like a signal using silence as a carrier wave. Sand dances to this tune in Byzantine patterns. Ripples stay behind, like crop circles, like writing.
Somewhere under all that sand is an important item, lost. Something small. It might be a charm of protection from darker mysteries. It might be a key.
Now, as the not-noise grows in strength, an enigma of ghostly pale green lights appears high overhead in circle formation. Descending. The disturbance becomes a maelstrom of sand as the illuminated visitor moves lower still, leaving its home darkness and entering the faint gray. The sand churns and swirls until only the ring of green lights can now be seen. The droning power of this invader numbs, overwhelms.
All becomes still. The sand settles slowly, softly. The massive invader hangs above the sand by a slender line, tethering it to the blackness. The verdigris metallic hull could be an enormous bulb of phosphorescent garlic, but for the limbs. Several delicate multi-jointed legs are affixed at its crown, and reach almost to the ground. Its sheer presence feels heavy. Its size is terrifying
One leg stirs about in the sand for a moment and finds a glinting prize. It offers this trinket, extending that menacing leg.
Fin rose early in the afternoon, which gave him ample time to stroll before the start of his shift. Before he was expected, at any rate. But he couldn’t enjoy playing hooky under the bland gray sky. It unnerved him, which in turn annoyed him.
At the store next to his workplace, he stopped short. He regarded the window display with a blank face and smoldering mind.
Marilyn Monroe languidly licked a lollipop made from a stop sign, except that it said POST. Armadillos of steadily diminishing size were frozen in asynchronous wobble as they passed by her, striving to reach the antique telephone and Victrola to the right. These relics were captioned ‘Modern’ in carved old-fashioned lettering. The background was something crude but not quite indecent entitled ‘Sistine Men’s Room Wall,’ consisting of a section of institutional-white ceramic tiles covered with faux Renaissance graffiti and a stick-figure parody of the famous God’s Index Finger portion of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.
The Michelangelo rip was witty, in the way that works pretty well as a notion to describe indulgently at a party, but not as something you would actually carry out. The art lay in the threat of such tastelessness. Something so crass collapses under its own weight. Still, the artist’s audacity might have gotten a smirk out of Fin except that he himself described the piece in great detail about a month ago. Indulgently. At a party. Right down to which finger Adam was displaying to god, and the phone number for Gabriel to blow your horn.
He pissed on the mental coals to cool them and entered the store. Olaf’s was the best-stocked art supply shop for fifty miles. Sure, the prices were high, but in addition to being a supply store the place housed a veritable museum of objets d’absurd. Also, it was next door to Sycamore’s offices and open late most nights.
Fin’s interest in the merchandise at Olaf’s was itself a little absurd, since he did all of his artwork on the Mac. He had no use for a Rapidograph or X-Acto, or Pantone markers, or rulers with inches on one side and picas on the other. But he loved them, touched them, occasionally shoplifted them.
A quick recon told Fin there was nothing new among those treasures, so he wandered into the other half of the store. Olaf’s stocked arguably the most useless selection of greeting cards and postcards in town, but by far the most entertaining and educational.
While Fin was reading the caption on a postcard to find out what the hell the picture was, Dan walked in the front door. Could it be break time already, or had Dan been sent on a Fin-hunt? That chore traditionally fell to the newest employee. Dan was a good kid, but so painfully naive. He would mix better with the morning shift, whose personalities were free of rough edges. In fact, they were free of any edges whatsoever, and Fin couldn’t understand how they remembered all their own names.
Dan was no zombie, just earnest and non-combative and unable to fathom the night shift’s tribal bent. Fin had to evade him. Dan would gather that Fin was loafing, and he’d try to understand.
Fin melted through the framing area at the rear of the store, while Dan asked the clerk the standard polite questions. The back room and workshop were accessible via a closed door only a few feet away. Fin froze, watching as the clerk gestured. Yes, tell him I looked at the sketch pads and textured paper, and you saw me over by the greeting cards. Dan looked around as if listening to Fin’s thoughts.
You’re a smart guy, Dan, you’ll head right for the cards, Fin guessed correctly. As a large tier of t-shirts and portfolios came between their positions Fin put his hand on the knob of the workshop door and discovered it locked. He still held the semi-obscene postcard, and slid it between the door and the frame. The door opened with only a slight noise, masked by Jane’s Addiction playing over the store’s sound system, and Fin slipped through and pulled it shut behind him.
It felt like being backstage at a play about museums. Canvases and enlarged photos and frames occupied over a third of the room’s floor space, set up on sawbucks and tables and hanging on the walls, mostly festooned with c-clamps and straps. He wasn’t sure which was a worse firetrap, this workshop or the basement studio he worked in next door.
There were people back here going about their jobs and so far not noticing Fin. Moving steadily so as not to attract their attention, he looked for the back exit. He spotted an open door with stairs going down.
Downstairs turned out to be the storeroom, and unoccupied. Turning back now would mean trouble well beyond talking to Dan, and while Fin and trouble had a more than passing acquaintance, they didn’t really get along. Fin scanned the room for his next move. Behind a huge overstock of metallic markers a vestigial window lurked near the ceiling. Fin stood on a box and tried to look through the glass. All he could see was a little bit of masonry.
The corroded metal window frame opened with a squawk. With the smudgy glass panes out of the way, Fin could see a coarse steel mesh grille mounted outside. It was bolted on, but the crumbly cement did not hold the bolts well. He had no more trouble with it than with the window. He contorted himself to pass through feet-first.
This nefarious, undignified shimmy would lead him into Dogstar, a used book and CD store specializing in blues collectibles and golden age sci-fi. No doubt there would be a treasure trove of a storage room somewhere, but the dampness indicated it wouldn’t be down here.
Lowering himself an inch at a time, Fin was eventually able to stand on the other side, but with one foot up higher than the other. Stairs. He could reach up to the ledge of the window, but doubted it would be possible to lever himself back through from this side.
The staircase ran down between the two buildings, and had been roofed over at some point. The floor joists above his head were full of spider webs. As he got used to the darkness, Fin saw the railing and the door at the bottom. He hesitated to try the knob. As long as he didn’t try to open the door, it could be considered an option. Fin felt a lot like Schrödinger’s poor cat, neither alive nor dead, or both. The finer ethical aspects of Schrödinger’s treatment of animals had never been clear before this.
In any event, he need not panic. Someone would hear him sooner or later if he started yelling. He could even be optimistic about the door being open, since it was not exposed in the alley. If it were it would definitely be locked. This way it was just probably locked.
His logic, sound or not, was vindicated. The knob turned. He opened the door and found an office set up on the other side. Four metal desks, a few cabinets, cheap carpeting, fluorescent lights. A map of the state on the far wall, bristling with pushpins of various colors. No steps going up to Dogstar. Three men looking like they walked out of a fifties hygiene film, but wearing headset phones. One of the men winced and yanked his off. Fin heard faint feedback. When did Mormons start telemarketing?
“Hey,” Fin began casually, “did Dogstar move their bathroom?”
They slipped each other sidelong looks. One of them was older than the others, mid-thirties. He spoke. “How did you get in there?”
Fin rapidly needed to decide between telling the truth and making something up. The truth had one major thing going for it. It was ready to be told, whereas a fabricated story would require fabrication. Also, the truth was he hadn’t been sneaking around in this office, which it occurred to him was one possible explanation the men might themselves happen upon, if left to make guesses.
Unfortunately, the truth had gotten Fin into trouble before. Also, the truth was he had been sneaking around, albeit in a different office. Showing them the damaged window wouldn’t prove anything, except that he’d been breaking stuff.
“There’s a window out here. I came in through it because I was looking for a leak.” The illogical sentence began to grow stale the second it left his mouth. “Dogstar never pulled the ancient pipes and conduits when they remodeled and now something is giving them a problem.” The men remained impassive. Fin continued, “So I’m looking for the old vent traps, which are not anywhere in the finished space upstairs. I thought this area was unfinished space and I’m pretty sure the traps are in the ceiling down here.” All eyes flicked upwards for a second. A good sign. “And since I don’t see any water-damaged tiles, the traps are probably not the problem.” Doubtful, semi-credulous looks. Less openly suspicious. Time to put the cherry on top. “Do you ever notice any odd smells, like coolant or perhaps a sharp musty odor?”
The men looked at one another. The eldest drew a breath and spoke without looking directly at Fin, his brows pinching together. “No, no odd smells. There is no problem down here.” He stood, revealing himself to be even taller than Bishop, and motioned with his left hand, indicating the main entrance. On the back of the door hung a poster entitled ‘Public Appearance — Respect the Organization.’ It displayed two photos of Junior G-Mormons: one labeled Summer Attire, in shirtsleeves — the other, Inclement Weather, in a puke green Mr Rogers cardigan, holding a large fur hat in one outstretched hand, an oversized yellow umbrella in the other. Beside the door was a row of four pegs, three of them neatly holding hideous green cardigans.
Fin forced his eyebrows down and glanced back at the spokesman who finally made eye contact and said, “I ask you to leave now.”
Fin tried not to grin like a maniac, tried to maintain some semblance of nonchalance. He had just persuaded these three grown-ups he was an HVAC serviceman despite his ratty Hawaiian shirt, soviet army trench and the bawdy stolen postcard in his right hand.
Crossing the room, Fin noticed something that shocked all the sugar out of his buzz. A deflated basketball, with the skeleton of an umbrella stuffed inside, hung by a string over the desk of the missing fourth man. The umbrella ribs protruded at the top and drooped around the saggy ball. The whole thing had been sprayed with something to give it the sickly gray-green look of a glow-in-the-dark toy.
Fin lifted his feet and placed them back on the carpet mechanically until he got outside. The model dangling above the unoccupied desk made him incredibly uneasy. A moment later he remembered the spaceship from his dream the night before.
Who the hell were these people?
The door slammed.
No identifying sign, not even a street number. From the outside, the door was easy to miss. It didn’t face the alley and the only way to get to it was to sidle between the building and an eight-foot cyclone fence.
Fin glanced nervously at the flat, leaden sky and shuddered. Even the glowing retrospective of past homecoming parades awaiting his attention at Sycamore held more appeal than this incipient dread.
He hurried out of the alley.
*** *** ***
Shaw stood gazing out his office window as his inner-circle functionaries dutifully filed in for the regular Monday afternoon meeting and took their seats at the large conference table. The weather was dreadful, giving the distant cathedral’s many facets only dark and drab tones to reflect. Shaw’s mood was much the same, but he marshaled an energizing grin before turning to face the group and take his seat at the head of the table.
“Reverend, would you begin please?” Shaw addressed Declan Spitz, seated to his right.
Spitz smiled, piggy face broadening. He closed his eyes and bowed his balding head. “Gracious Heavenly Father,” he exclaimed, each word expelled as if he were being kicked in the abdomen.
All other heads bowed around the table as Spitz recited a prayer, brief and glib, for wisdom in this important meeting of the board. Shaw’s was the last head to dip, and the last one to rise as Spitz pronounced, “Amen.”
“As per our usual Monday agenda,” Spitz steamed ahead, “I’d like to offer my congratulations to Reverend Shaw for another magnificent program yesterday.”
Shaw affected a bashful look as those assembled hastened to agree with that critique. He raised a hand as if to wave off the approbation, but with a subtle shift of his posture transformed it into a gentle command for silence.
“Let us fix our minds upon the future, friends. This week I will be in Webster to meet with the Buckminster University religious studies department about a new program, and to interview finalists for next year’s scholarship award. Declan shall keep the home fires burning in my absence.” A pause to nod warmly at Spitz. “He will now reveal to you what he has in store.”
Reverend Spitz addressed the group, leaving Shaw to contemplate the next few days. The Buckminster engagement was a nice publicity move, but mainly it served as a pretext for spending a block of time in the vicinity of Webster. The unpleasantness with Gregory forced the exodus of his entire covert staff and all the marvelous jewelry to a new, less civilized locale, and he’d taken the further step of expanding his security force. Now it was time to review the troops.
If only that operation was as easy to manage as this one. Spitz was telling Miss Chatham the quarterly financial summary would be needed by Wednesday afternoon for the meeting to compare allocations for operating expenses to donation requests. Everything Spitz mentioned so far was one form of monetary issue or another. Typical Monday.
Shaw inwardly rehearsed his planned motivational talk with the research technicians out at the secret workshop. He’d expected the program to be farther along by now and would use his unexpected appearance at the previously abandoned factory to give his mad scientists some incentive to accelerate their progress.
Deciding where to hide the operation had been far easier than Shaw would have dared to hope. A huge, untenanted, isolated building on the outskirts of a college town. Not too distant, yet far enough. Provident, truly, that one of those shirking technicians attended a rave there and divulged the location to Shaw.
Keeping other ravers away was now a bit of a concern.
More important was for Shaw to be vigilant during his travels to and from the facility. Gregory’s people, the TEF, would be watching him, would plan to tail him. Well, let them try. Gregory’s mission turned out to be a failure, in the end. For at the end he’d unwillingly divulged many valuable facts. Shaw now knew all of their faces, and he knew all their tricks. There was nothing to be worried about as long as he took sensible precautions.
Eventually Spitz reached the end of his list of chores and the assembly dispersed to their own offices, and Shaw stood and gazed out the window, planning.
*** *** ***
Fin stood at the bus stop in front of the library, wearing a Buck U ball cap and matching gray and green varsity jacket he’d borrowed from Kyle without asking. His trench was bundled up in his backpack, and when the next bus pulled up he would retreat into the library to remove the cap and switch coats. Thus re-attired, he would resume his stakeout.
He had been unable to stop wondering about the setup in that basement office. In particular, the fourth member. Having the same spaceship dream again last night cemented his resolve. Now he stood across the street watching the alley. Man number four had better “respect the organization,” because otherwise how would Fin know it was him?
Booth had agreed to ride the 11:45, get off at the library with a spare leather bomber jacket, and run over to Magic Beans for a cup of Ironsides. Fin recalled being less than specific that the coffee was to be for him. He looked up at the clock on the front of the library.
10:32, well before reveille for Fin and too damn long to wait for his next cuppa. Deciding the guy was unlikely to show up in the next five minutes, Fin resolved to go to Magic Beans before his withdrawal symptoms started to register on seismograms in Buckminster’s geology department.
He removed the ball cap in the coffee shop, releasing his dark unruly hair. The dampness gave it even more attitude than usual. Fin lit a cigarette, said a polite ‘Go to Hell’ to the six people who wrinkled their noses at him, and paid for his coffee. He didn’t try to act unhurried returning to the bus stop. People are always dashing to the bus stop.
The gray morning steadily became a drizzly gray morning over the next hour. The library offered an overhang for shelter, but it was set back too far to give him the best vantage on the alley across the street. He spent some of his time keeping dry and most of it getting wet when Kyle’s jacket displayed a startling lack of waterproofness.
Fin stifled a sneeze. Someone said, “Bless you,” anyway, and Fin grunted and snorked the mucous back to create a suitable projectile, which he lobbed into the middle of the street. This performance earned him a few more inches of space along the curb. Watching the alley, his eyes started to droop but his mind focused on the mystery of the spaceship.
He rehearsed his inquiry: “Why the hell am I dreaming about your spaceship?” The question would sound pathetic but it would inspire no violence. He hoped it wouldn’t, anyway.
At 11:36 on the library’s clock, his target appeared. The fourth man was a woman. Fin gave no thought to the possibility she could be anyone else. Yellow umbrella up, ridiculous hat in place, she approached from the other end of the block, giving Fin just enough time to intercept her near her doorway.
Fin slouched across the street, allowing cars to miss him by inches but not provoking any horn blasts from the jaded townie drivers. Straightening up a bit, he turned into the alley.
His quarry was not alone. A short, bearded man with long, graying hair and a black peacoat shared the umbrella, in animated conversation with the blandly pretty Miss Greensweater. Fin held his course, feigning apathy while straining to pick up some of what was said as he passed.
“…at the University. The reverend is coming to us this time,” Miss Greensweater said.
“Yes. Perhaps we can track him to the devices.”
Fin stepped around the corner at the far end of the alley and stopped. Although he’d been unable to ask his question, the mission wasn’t a total loss. He made a mental list of things that could be called ‘devices.’ Would ‘the reverend’ know about the spaceship, too?
The idea that going to church might be the only way to find out quelled much of his curiosity.