I link to this article and urge folks who have been either disquieted by the American press, or outright furious (as I have in many cases) to go read his tale.
Oh, and in so doing: Fuck you, CNN. You need us more than we need you - be it as viewers, philosophical supporters, or even (in some of our cases) as writers with no reason to savage you.
September 15, 2015 I began to smear. Not with a bang, nor even a whimper; with a splash. Walking down the hallway from the elevator to my front door, the drab tan carpet began to vibrate before my eyes for lack of a better word. Vision doubled. I shook my head, irritated; I remember removing my glasses and wiping them on my shirt before replacing them, but it didn't help. There were two versions of the carpet in my sight. Indeed, there were two slightly offset versions of the hallway. I touched my temples experimentally; no pain. I hadn't hit my head that I was aware. I hadn't been drinking (had I?) and I wasn't any more overworked than usual.
I continued on to the nondescript door of my rental apartment, unlocked the triple deadbolts, and let myelf in quietly. The apartment itself shimmered slightly, strange aura in my sight not lessening. I relocked the door and tossed the keys onto the hall table and moved into the kitchen to get myself a drink of water.
It didn't help. Aspirin didn't help. Meditation didn't help for the hour I devoted to emptying my brain of thought, despite the fast approaching finals week. I couldn't read, though; text swam before my misfiring eyes. No hope for it. I decided that at the very least, I might as well sleep; if sleep didn't help, I would visit the university health service in the morning.
Sleep came as easily as it always did to a postdoc.
The next morning brought a change, but not the one I was hoping for. The doubling of my vision was now more pronounced; there was a more noticeable separation between versions of what I was seeing.
While realizing that I would have to take a bus to the health center, since I certainly couldn't drive, I made a somewhat disturbing discovery.
Closing one eye didn't cure the double vision.
That was...unexpected, to say the least. I had been assuming that my problem arose from an inability to properly focus; that had happened to me before, usually as a result of exhaustion or eye fatigue from reading in the dark. Not this time, though. No matter which eye I looked out of, the doubled world looked back.
This was starting to severely worry me. I did what I always do in such cases and called Kris. She was awake as she always was. In five years of research collaboration, I've never caught the woman asleep. I don't think she does sleep. I think she merely parks herself in front of a workstation or book and leans over slightly, body on powerdown, and keeps thinking, just without moving for an hour or two. Given her normal hyperkinetic habits, that would be more than enough to refuel. But as I said, I've never caught her at it.
"Kris? It's Mladic."
"Morning, Deech. What's up?"
"I'm having a problem."
"Is it the crystal phase emitters? I told you –"
"No. It's with me. I'm having trouble seeing."
"Um. Trouble like how?"
"I'm seeing double. And I can't make it go away."
"This isn't so good, Deech."
"I'm aware of that, hotness." I filled the kettle, phone held to my ear.
"I presume then, logically, you need a ride to health services."
"That would be nice, yeah."
"Okay. I'll be down in ten."
"Thanks." I put the water on for tea.
"No problem. See you." She rang off. I turned on the gas, shut off the phone, and bleakly watched the two blue crowns of flame waver gaily in my vision beneath the stained metal.
Kris arrived with her usual perfect timing, pulling me to the door just as the kettle sang. I danced over to it to let her in, running back to yank it off the flame and turn off the stove. She shut the door behind her and moved towards the kitchen door as I was pouring water into the two chipped mugs on the counter. "Deech, I –" She stopped, both vocally and literally, coming to a halt in the doorway. I looked up, kettle still held in my hands. Although slightly hashed by her doubled appearance, I could tell she had gone paper white and had moved to clutch the doorframe.
"Kris? What the hell's wrong?"
"Yeah?" I put the kettle carefully back on the stove.
"Deech, you said you were seeing double?"
"Yeah, that's right. Miracle I haven't fucking burnt myself."
Her voice was faint. "Have...have you looked in a mirror?"
"No. Why?" I looked at her again. Her expression caused ice water to drizzle down my spine, and I turned and sprinted for the bathroom. She was right behind me.
The flourescent tubes in the bathroom took forever to illuminate as always. I stared over the sink at the cheap mirror, seeing a blurrily doubled reflection of myself. Something was wrong, though. Everything in the mirror was doubled, true enough, but my reflection...
My reflection was quadrupled. And it wasn't perfectly doubled. There were two pairs of me, slightly offset. I waved an arm; all four waved their arm, but the pairs waved their arms at just slightly different times.
Kris had come up behind me and was standing in the door. I pivoted to face her. "What the fuck is going on? Do you see four of me? Or two?"
"Two." Her voice was still weak, but getting stronger. She was sweating. So was I, now. "Two. Just barely. You look like a double exposure."
I waved my arm again. She choked off a scream. "Jesus Christ, Deech, you're not moving...you're not...not in synch! This is..."
I just sat down on the closed toilet and looked at her helplessly.
"...this is impossible," she finished lamely.
We stared at each other.
* * *
Picture a stream. Picture it frozen in winter. At the spring end is a geyser, arising from nothing, flash-frozen in an impossible origami state. Water made geometry and topographic madness. Here the stream came to be, is always coming to be. There is no before this point, as far as the stream is concerned. At the other end? Let's posit a cliff where the waters fall over, so far down they turn to mist in the air. Eventually, some reach an unseen sea; some evaporate into the air itself, and a precious few motes will return along the stream, settling back into the water.
It's winter. The stream is frozen solid. The air is dry. Nothing moves.
You're looking at time, and right now, it has ceased to pass.
* * *
We skipped the health service, suspecting they wouldn't be able to help me. Instead, we headed straight for campus and for work - for the Harmon Ajanti Advanced Physics Building, where both of us worked on our postdoc projects in the same laboratory. Due to the early hour, we managed to get from the parking lot through the halls to the lab without anyone seeing us, and Kris locked the door behind us as I sank gratefully into a desk chair. Things were not only doubled further apart now, there was an uneasy suggestion of two additional 'copies' of the world, faintly visible surrounding the two I could see clearly. "Kris, am I doubling?"
"What? Are you..." she turned. "Yeah, I think so. There's a faint glow around you that could be another set of...well, of you."
Against my will, I was fascinated. "Are those sets sitting in the chair?"
"Mostly. One just finished sitting down. Their upper bodies don't seem to be as well coordinated, but their hips are all pretty well matched to you."
"Uh. Are we going to even bother with the math, or go straight for the sci-fi?"
"I vote sci-fi."
"Me too. I think those are probability ghosts."
"Okay. Question. Why isn't your voice echoing?"
"Uh. Good one. Maybe they're not substantial enough to vibrate air. Can you touch them?"
She approached me, looking frightened, and moved a hand towards my face. A few centimeters from me, she snatched it back with a horrified look. "There's something there! I don't...whatever, I mean, there's something. It isn't stopping me, but I can feel it."
"Okay." I started scribbling on the chalkboard, watching as my now-four-selves did the same. "I can see four mes writing on four chalkboards. You can sort of see four mes but not the three other chalkboards, right?"
"I could feel your hand when you touched my face."
"But I didn't touch your face."
"Yes you did. One of them. I think I'm the sum total sensoria of these four."
"Holy shit. That explains the double – er, quad? – vision."
"Right." I scribbled that fact down. "Soon to be eight. I can see more coming in, but they're still in between the four that exist, so it's just going to blur stuff, I think."
"Deech, do you think this...this has something to do with the Project?"
I swung to look at her. "It has to. Do you know anyone else working on temporal infodisplacement?"
"Of course not, but...oh, hell. What have we done?"
"Maybe it's 'what will we do?'"
"We need Doctor Ingram and Doctor Rendleman."
"Yeah. Call them."
She moved to her desk and dug up our advisors' home phone numbers. I heard her murmuring at her phone, then talking cajolingly at it while I stared at the blackboard, trying to make sense of it through increasingly multiplexed eyes.
* * *
Ice is a fluid, just like water or glass. It does flow. Extend the metaphor. Imagine that you, me, all of us are particles embedded in the stream, moving along in time. Our 'present' is a slice of the stream itself. When we travel in space, we move up and down, side to side in the stream while it carries us along. We can communicate by sending ripples in those same directions - but whenever we do that, those ripples (or ourselves as we travel) are carried inexorably downstream as it flows. This is true whether the stream is ice or water.
But suppose you wanted to leave a message for those behind you in the stream?
Suppose there was a way to set up a standing wave, a ripple in the stream, that produced constant interference patterns in the fluid of time as it rolled by?
* * *
"Mladic, what the hell is going on?" Professor Stuart Rendleman wasn't happy. No professor who has been 'summoned' by a student, even a post-doc, ever is, and he was no exception. He stormed into the lab, wearing a trenchcoat belted over what were apparently a T-shirt and jeans, and glared around until he found me at the blackboard, at which point he stopped, blanched, and dropped his lower jaw. Kris moved to meet him with a cup of coffee.
"Kris? What...what the hell..."
"We don't know."
"Is that Deech?"
"Yes. It's Deech."
I turned around. "Hi, Professor Rendleman."
"For God's sake, Deech, it's Stuart...what the hell's happened?"
"We don't know, but it looks like at some point we sort of succeed."
He wasn't stupid. His jaw dropped further before he remembered his coffee and drained the cup. "Oh, my God."
Kris brought him up to speed. I was up to thirty-two parallels now, and things were actually getting easier to see as they moved 'apart' from each other in time as well as space, leaving images clearer. The problem was that I was now seeing thing from thirty-two simultaneous slightly different points of view, and it was breaking my head. I sat down to avoid having to walk.
"What's happening?" Elfant Ingram had arrived. Stuart Rendleman grabbed him and started talking to him in low tones, trying to get him brought up to date. I was sitting in an armchair, the desk chair's rotating seat having proved too much freedom for me at this point. I was conscious of tears running down my cheeks. I could see most every part of the lab from some viewpoint as the myriad versions of me walked about, wrote on blackboards, sat in chairs, cried. One disturbing flickering darkness I took to mean I was asleep. Kris sat with the two faculty members, and there was a lot of gesticulating and pointing at figures on paper; once in a while, Ingram or Rendleman would point at the wall which our smaller lab shared with their experimental one.
Kris came over. "Deech?"
"Yeah. (yeah.) (yes?) (Hi, Kris.) (I love you, Kris.) (I know, Kris.) (Uh-huh?)"
"They think it's some experiment they have on the books for next week. Something they're working on next door for the government."
"What?" (Government?) (Next door?) (They're what?) (What?)"
I noticed that in seven of the many Krises I could see, tears were coming down her cheeks as well. In one laboratory, the chair was empty. In one faint view, I sat in an empty parking lot. "They've been working on some form of temporal signaling. I don't know."
"I do. I've been doing the math for it, I think. I didn't know it was experimental. (-t was at that phase.) (-t they had hardware.) (-the government was backing that.)"
In most of my eyesight, Ingram and Rendleman came over, figures flowing through the overlain scenery. "Deech? We have a hypothesis."
"I'd love to hear this. (-ear it.) (-eally?) (-fucking better!) (-hear this.)"
Ingram spoke for them in most of the versions. "Next week, we were scheduled to expend a fairly huge quantity of energy trying to cause a ripple in the timestream in the form of a standing wave. We were going to use a synthetic diamond core, compressed in a grav stream."
"And? (And?) (So?) (...?)"
They looked at each other, seconds apart, across all the various worlds. "It seems clear, now, that something went wrong. I mean, will go wrong. Or that we'll change our minds. Or..." Rendleman waved his hands helplessly. "The hope was that in the days prior to the experiment the instrumentation next door would detect ripples from the experiment, moving backwards in time. Apparently, though, rather than the diamond core, the experiment happens - but to you."
I looked at them. "You mean your machine hits me with whatever the hell you're doing over there?" The words were a cacophony in my multiple outrages, but the feelings were the same.
"We don't know! We certainly don't intend it! But one minute." Ingram jumped up, ran out the door in most of the variants. In two or three, Rendleman did. In one I could see, neither did, but continued to stare at me. After a few moments, they began to filter back in. Ingram held out something to me; I took it. It was heavy and crystalline. "That's the diamond core we're to use. It appears completely unaffected. It's not multiplexed. You are. Ergo, something happens, and you're the focus."
"Why am I seeing multiples?"
Kris spoke up unexpectedly. "Harmonics."
I turned to her, waved at her to go on.
"There's some form of energy in you, that exists outside the time stream. It's manifesting in waves. You're vibrating for lack of a better word. The other versions you're seeing are harmonics of the four-dimensional you that normally exists - the you1 for lack of a better term. As you approach the critical point in the timestream where the disruption happens - where the energy is injected - the vibration is getting stronger. You're seeing more divergence in the harmonics, and additional 'frequencies' are becoming visible."
It made an uncomfortable amount of sense. "But what the hell do I do?"
Rendleman broke in, mostly. "There's a possibility. If we can modify the monitoring gear next door, we can try to discover the...well, the frequency, I suppose, that you're resonating at. If we can do that, we can try to charge you with a similar but inverse amount of energy. That isn't what I'd recommend, though; I'd recommend trying to produce another object, say, the core, which is resonating at the same frequency but out of phase with you, and then you would carry it on your person, although physical separation wouldn't matter much. If we injected it correctly, your resonant frequencies would cancel, mostly. As you (and the core) get farther, temporally, from your respective points of injection, the effect should fade, much as it came on."
I looked at him. "Do you really think this will work?"
His face fell, slightly. "I really don't know. But I honestly can't think of anything else to try, and I don't know how long you can stay sane living like that."
"I can't argue that. What do we do?"
The two faculty stood. "We move next door, for starters. Kris, get some food into him."
* * *
Take a piton. Form it out of diamond. Perfect diamond. Place it in the middle of a perfectly straight section of stream, where the water has frozen into an infinitely long cylindrical jewel. Touch the tip of it magically to the middle of the cylinder, never mind how. In your other hand, take a glass hammer of painful simplicity. Put an infinitely thin paper covering over the business end. Lay the face against the piton's end once to get your feel for its lie; then draw back, cord your muscles, and in one mighty swing, bring it crashing down.
In the milliseconds before the hammer shatters into microfine dust, it will transmit force through the paper, into the piton's head, down the haft, and into the point. That force will ring into the structure of the timestream with the fury and glory of an infinite number of crowning notes at the end of an infinite number of Chorales; triumph and math and love and loss in the belling laugh of destruction as the fabric of existence sings of it.
Imagine the exact center of your skull is resting underneath the piton's tip.
* * *
It wasn't quite as easy as they promised. For one thing, the math raised a difficulty almost immediately. Kris walked them through it, my own brain being far too busy trying to remember what a single life and point of view had been like to perform calculations, and her having helped me with most of my math since diffy-qs she was the only one who could read my notes anyhow. "Look. No, look! the core just won't work, I'm telling you. You need something that's not only closer to his mass, but closer to his chemical makeup. Otherwise, you'll never be able to get the same resonant frequency out of it. Not with the gear we have here; not without rebuilding the injectors entirely. I understand it's better if you have a transmissive referent for the entanglement phasing, but – No, of course we can compensate, that's what I'm telling you, but if the subject is too far off in terms of density, resonant frequency, or even Mohs number, you're going to have to put in so much compensatory equivalent pseudomass that –"
God bless Kris.
That's how I came to a brief moment of clarity a day later and watched them strap her into a chair inside a machine that looked almost, but not quite, entirely like every sci-fi goth freak's worst S&M nightmare. Oiled cables led to sharp pointy electrodes, restraint devices prevented her from moving so that her mass was oriented precisely where the math said it should be, and the table held her chair with her cranium directly below the final accelerator segment of the phased soliton cascade.
"Kris? What are you doing?" My voice was weak. I was croaking, probably because I hadn't been able to keep down liquids in the past few hours.
"Shut up Deech. Everything's going to be all right." She was lying, in every single reality. Her tears gave her away. Ingram and Rendleman were crying, too, but grimly. Kris had managed a smile, for me. I tried to stand, found that I had been tied into the chair at the side of the laboratory.
"I can't move."
"I know. You'd only hurt yourself. You haven't been walking very well, Deech, there's so many of you. S'funny, I only needed one, all this time..."
"Kris, you're babbling." I tried to get up to hear her better through the noise of the motor generators spooling up, but couldn't move.
"Ssshhhh, Deech. Be there in a second."
Ingram and Rendleman had retreated behind a glasteel shield. Ingram was carrying a standard lab trigger box. They looked at each other. Rendleman looked up. "Kris...?"
"FUCKING WELL DO IT!"
Rendleman nodded to Ingram. (Ingram nodded to Rendleman.) (Ingram nodded to me.) (Rendleman nodded to Ingram.)
Ingram pressed the button. The generators screamed.
Eternity rang with the shattering of a glass hammer.
Everything went dark as the lights went out. There was a flickering moan, and then they slowly started to come up again. I heard a KA-CHUNK as the chair restraints released. I stood, staggered slightly, moved towards the table. My dizziness vanished as I reached it.
I tore the restraint web aside. She was lying in the chair, a smile half on her face, eyes closed. I squeezed my eyes together, forcing tears out between then, reached out, picked up her limp body and pressed her head into my shoulder. "Oh, God, Kris..."
She moved against me. I jerked back to look into her eyes.
There was only one of her.
Her eyes opened. She smiled weakly. "Hi Deech."
I sobbed and hugged her. She hugged me back. "Hey. Hey, man, it's okay. I'm okay."
I let her go long enough for both of us to get to our feet. We looked at each other. She cocked her head. "From the fact that I'm not seeing double, I'd guess either nothing happened, or, if you're no longer seeing double, I'd say it worked."
I looked around. "Holy shit, I think you're right. Wait, so you mean, you were-"
"Yeah, I worked it out. You needed a person, not a rock."
"Hey, where's Rendleman and Ingram?"
"They're over-" They weren't. The Glasteel shield was there, but no-one stood behind it. The lights were on, but they were still dim. "What the hell?"
Kris looked around. "Something's wrong."
"Uh-" I did too. "Yeah." The lab looked the same, save the dim light. But something was different. I went over to the door, opened it, jerked back. Ingram and Rendleman were standing outside, sort of. Both were frozen in mid-run, apparently, heading away from the laboratory. I walked over to them. "What's with them?"
Kris came over, looked at them carefully. "They're not moving."
She looked at me. "Wait, that's wrong. We're not moving."
"I don't get it."
"Come here." She walked back into the lab, looked around. "Aha." She pointed at the motor generators. They were stopped, and at the main breaker panel, a glob of intolerable brightness was resting around one of the fuse blocks. "Look at that."
"What is that?"
"I think it's exploding."
"But it's..." I ran down. "You mean, it's exploding, but not at the moment."
"Right. Time's not moving. For us."
I looked around again. "I don't see our bodies anywhere. So we're actually here and moving."
"I think we screwed up. I think we didn't destructively cancel the resonant frequency. I think we constructively amplified it. I think it threw us right out of the timestream."
We looked at each other. Then, slowly, I began to grin. She looked at me in slight disbelief. "What?"
"If we're not in the timestream, that means we should theoretically be able to move along it before re-entry."
Her face lit up. "Omigod."
"Yeah. When do you want to have dinner?"
Don't give them your tourist dollars.
There is no shortage of science fiction that explores the Interstellar Empire. There are, in fact, whole series of collections whose short stories are nought but that. One of the most popular words in sci-fi politics, 'empire' is approached in popularity only by various forms of 'federation.' There are even explicit explorations of the Roman Empire extended interstellar, both explicitly and via political theory.
The Clockwork Empire
The Dragon Never Sleeps is another book about Empire, set in science fiction. It, however, takes a slightly unusal approach. The component of empire that is important (and, in fact, the only one that exists, really) is that of the Pax Imperia. Picture an empire where all that remains is the military, running on autopilot; a military whose job it is to enforce the simple dictum of there will be no war (or you'll regret it).
In the distant future, humanity has spread to the stars and conquered. Enough time and events have passed that humans no longer even remember where they came from. Interstellar travel is possible due to a deus ex machina artifact called the Web, which is a network of pathways of unknown size linking star systems. Ships can 'ride' the strands of the web from place to place, so long as the web goes there; the structure of the Web determines commerce, exploration, and conflict.
Humanity set up and comprises the Canon, an interstellar government in most administrative and bureaucratic sense. The Canon, however, has a strange relationship with its military. Rather than being an arm of the Canon itself, the Pax is maintained by the Guardships.
Thousands of years old, almost a civilization unto themselves, the Guardships are the classic force majeure. The 'Dragon' of the title, enormous war machines of technology higher than almost anyone else out there, they travel the Web from their home port of Starbase Tulsa, roving where and when they will and keeping the peace. The penalty for war: Guardship intervention, ranging from simple interdiction to the sterilization of those worlds involved in the conflict. The connection to the Roman Empire's Pax Romana is explicit - the Guardships themselves are named for Roman legions.
Crewed by both replicated humans (clones created to replace aged or killed crew) or by 'Deified' personnel - people uploaded into the Guardships' computer systems - the Guardships differ from each other in makeup and temperament. Some are aggressive, some are patient; some are crewed mostly by the living, some entirely by the Deified. As Guardships age, their near-omniscient Core systems can develop egos, or senses of self; this is almost always a sign that the Guardship is beginning to move towards the insanity of awareness.
Artifacts (construct life forms) and aliens are distinctly second-class citizens in Humanity's Canon space - but Humanity is senescing, with populations dropping and exploration waning. The more vigorous and growing non-human population is starting to take on more and more of the day-to-day tasks of running everything, and it's debatable whether the crews of the Guardships are even still human.
Into this world we are dropped, following the plotting and machinations of several individuals and groups. A human commercial House (essentially licensed governors of various planetary properties) plots to expand its influence; the ruling members of that house display varying levels of sanity and ambition. We are introduced to several stranded aliens and artifacts, trying to make their way in the DownTown slums of a human world. And as we join the universe, the Guardship VII Gemina sets out on the trail of a member of an ancient enemy, travelling on commercial House spacecraft through the Canon. That chase will take us through and into the various plotlines of the book, into deceit, war, and legend.
I didn't check the date on this book until after I'd read a good way through it, and I was surprised at how old the book is. It reads a great deal like a prototypical Iain Banks book; star-spanning civilizations, machine intelligences immensely greater than man, tying things together, and world-hopping plotlines. It appeals greatly to my sense of sci-fi as something that can aspire to a play and a stage so much larger than contemporary fiction.
It does not, however, pull off the game with as much slickness as the Banks books, such as the novels of The Culture. Part of that is due to the writing, where names are used with little explanation and, indeed, little background. For example, I couldn't help think that the author had drawn up at least a rudimentary map of the Web and its systems, at least those systems which figured in the plot; however, he neglected to share that diagram with us despite referring on several occasions to star systems by name and assuming that we understand their astrographic importance.
The technology is handled well. That is, it is handled in appropriately space-opera fashion - we are only given details when those details impinge directly on plot points. It doesn't matter how ships move on the Web - what matters is what happens when two of them meet in the process, and what must happen then.
Although a great deal of the book is setup, there is enough action and intrigue during that phase to keep things interesting. The problem really arises in the endgame, when several plot turns are occurring simultaneously as the various subplots converge. Then the complexity of the story begins to overwhelm the narrative - not in that the narrative itself suffers, but that it cannot support the level of plot it is trying to forward. On several occasions in the latter third of the book I found myself going back two pages and trying to puzzle out what, precisely, had just happened - that is, how what had happened related to the storyline. I knew it had, and I knew exactly what (in terms of moment-to-moment events) had transpired - but the relationship between those events and the larger story was sometimes either too subtle or simply obfuscated. I found myself skimming backwards looking for occurrences of a name that I knew was important but couldn't remember why.
There are several themes that the book clings to relentlessly. One, the most visible, is the question of the Pax. What happens to a system when all that remains of it are rules? Conversely, what happens to the soldiers of a system when the rules have become stagnant? Are the Guardships in fact an Empire, or just a remnant of one? How do the Guardships relate to the rest of humanity (other than across gunsights)?
Probably the second most explored theme is that of individuality. In a world where people can be recreated, either during their life or after, what does it mean to state that you are person X? Do you have their memories? If so, what does it matter? If there are three duplicate copies of you, with all your memories and knowledge, can they be told apart? What happens if artificial distinctions are made for legal reasons? And so on.
A minor but recurring question is one of humanity. What is human? Is a constructed being human? Are aliens human, if they are subsumed into the system? Who is a Roman?
I don't know how to rate this book. I do know that it held me gripped tightly while reading. Looking back, it doesn't seem to slot in next to what I consider to be the 'big' books of sci-fi, but then I recall that it was written ten to twenty years before many of my genre favorites, and I have to award it lots of points.
If you like Iain Banks Culture novels, Neal Asher's Polity books, or Alastair Reynolds' work such as Revelation Space, then I strongly recommend this book. As you're reading it, remind yourself that it predates some of those books by decades. You'll put it down feeling like you've read an entertaining precursor to those modern space operas; one with depths that some of the modern intricate sagas fail to plumb.
The Dragon Never Sleeps
Written by Glen Cook
Night Shade Books; Reprint edition February 1, 2008
I left Hapy with Msamaki, the latter excitedly asking questions and drawing in ever-replenishing spillage on the polished surface of the bar in his curiosity. I don’t think the man saw me leave. The other - I have no idea.
New York was waking fully up. It was Saturday, meaning it took me only twice as long as it should have to get back downtown to my apartment. I took off my hastily-donned clothes and redressed in my day-to-day outfit - a soft gray turtleneck underneath the bandolier, a set of gray slacks, crepe-soled dress shoes. The Burberry went back on atop it all, and various weapons about my person. Then I headed downtown.
I do have a day job, contrary to what it probably looks like. My day job involves managing my own and other peoples’ money, which I do using a variety of dirty tricks. The primary one is to have good employees. The second and infrequently utilized set involves talisman magic, but even so, it’s better to have subordinates who know what they’re doing. Wibert and Sharansky is a small money management firm, with offices in the World Financial Center - nine people, including staff. I carded myself in.
One of the reasons I’m free to wander around the City on mysterious errands of my own is my desk. Kharan Sharansky, my partner and the actual brains behind most of the money moving that happens at our firm, had come in the day I’d had it delivered, then shaken his head twice with finality. “Michel, you must be joking.”
“Why?” I was busily opening and closing the myriad small drawers and compartments in the thing. I’d spent a month and a half finding it, two months fighting importers to get hold of it, and two interminable weeks locked in combat with the World Financial Center administrative staff over a freight elevator slot to get it moved in. The thing was massive.
“Where the hell did you get that thing?”
I looked up, holding a small drawer which I’d pulled out entirely. There was a secret compartment behind the end cap of the drawer and a completely separate one underneath the bottom plate, and this was only one of - I counted - sixteen drawers in the desk. “I got it in Saint Petersburg. It was in the back room of a bookstore on Nekrasova, around the corner from 4 Liteiny Prospekt.”
Sharansky had glared at me. “Don’t fuck with me, Wibert. I know what that address is.”
“That’s why I told you. The bookstore owner claimed his grandfather had been building staff at number 4. This was supposedly the Chief of Station NKVD’s desk.”
Kharan crossed his arms. “That wasn’t my point. My point is that it’s huge and I can’t see you behind it.”
“So clients won’t be able to either. They’re not going to be comfortable.”
I laughed. “This wasn’t a desk intended to make people comfortable, Kharan. Quite the reverse.”
I held up a hand. “No, you’re right. I understand. But, seriously, so what? Clients don’t need to see me unless they want to do so, specifically. In that case, I have that side table over there by the window.” I pointed. “With a coffee service. That’s what it’s for. This desk is for me.”
Kharan had thrown up his hands and gone away. After that, I had been pleased to note that seeing clients in person wasn’t really part of my job description anymore. Since sixty-eight percent of the assets under management were mine, that made little difference in terms of my actual position in the firm, and meant that nobody expected me to be in the office to Deal With Things.
I like my desk.
Sitting there, I looked out North towards the hazy shape of the George Washington Bridge, lost in the distance some ten miles upstream. There was a McAllister tugboat on the river, shepherding a concrete barge up the middle channel, and three or four private sail yachts visible, their sails angling to catch sunlight up the Manhattan side near the marinas.
The river looked back at me, placidly. I scowled at it.
Reaching into my bandolier, I pulled out the spearhead and spun it on the desktop in front of me. Then I pulled a sterile lancet out of another bandolier pocket, unwrapped it and pricked my finger to squeeze the resulting drop of blood onto the spearhead. It stopped spinning instantly, a crackling sensation reaching up off the desk and up my arm, electric cold and acoustic fire crawling into my torso. I opened my hand, palm spread downwards, over the spearhead.
“Who sent Hapy here?”
The bit of stone spun indecisively, then coasted to a stop. I poked it, and it spun with no resistance. Damn it.
“All right.” I thought. “Who called Hapy here?”
The stone spun up of its own accord, but wobbled around a few times. Closer, but not quite.
“What called Hapy here? Where is it?”
This time the spearhead swiveled to stop, rock-solid, pointing just west of north. Uptown.
I dropped it back into the bandolier with a tight smile, opened one of the desk drawers and pulled out a mapping GPS receiver, dropped it in my pocket and swung back out of the office.
Although it doesn’t look like it when you walk it, Manhattan isn’t flat. There are ridges and hills, not all of which have been smashed flat by urban development into names on a map. Murray Hill, Turtle Bay - even in the older parts of the City, if you look up the cross blocks carefully you’ll notice you see sky or earth, not horizon, and a lot closer than you might think. Central Park retains some few preserved ripples.
The west side rail yards and the west side rail tunnel is a hidden piece of that topography. It’s nearly always a surprise for non-natives to approach the upper west side’s Hudson River shoreline and suddenly realize that they are more than a hundred feet above sea level, but it’s true; by Ninety-Sixth and Riverside, the Parkway is thirty feet up and it isn’t even atop the rail tunnel. Riverside Park is, and it’s squatting quietly on top of a massive space that has housed entire sub-cities of inhabitants, sharing their volume intermittently with the blasting thunder of Diesel locomotives when the line was running.
Today there was no sound of anyone present. I broke through stagnant construction barriers in the rail yards above Fifty-Seventh, passing beneath the eye of the enormous Trump development that loomed just east of the flat space, and followed the spearhead underground to the north.
It wasn’t dark in here, there being numerous gratings facing the river, but it wasn’t bright. I walked uptown at a regular pace, noting the unchanging direction of the Spearhead’s pointer. Some thirty blocks later, the empty gravel expanse of the tunnels was interrupted by a mass of plywood and debris on the eastern side, formed into what looked like a maze of cubicles. The outer ones had windows cut into them, looking out onto the tracks - a squatter’s paradise. There were no people visible, though, and no sounds other than the ever-present noises of the city’s belly. I stopped for a moment and listened; nothing. Pulling out the Desert Eagle, I held it and my focused palm ready and felt for the pointer. It was angling right, pulling me into the maze.
I took a moment and pulled energy out of the pocket watch, enfolding myself in muffling waves. I couldn’t make myself invisible, and there wasn’t enough traffic here to truly take eyes away from me, but I could certainly blend into the surroundings well enough in my tan and gray outfit. The pistol, matte gray finish already swallowing light, had its own permanent link to the watch, making it incredibly difficult to see unless one knew it was there. I held it out in front of me, invisibility waved before me as a shield, and stepped into the maze.
Ten minutes later I was lost. The tunnels were some hundred yards behind me, and I was moving inside an ancient and formidably large storm drain somewhere underneath what must have been West End Avenue by that point. There were still intermittent structures breaking up the lines of sight, all abandoned; the rail lines had re-opened some two years before, and the squatters of the tunnels had all been evicted. Some had left everything they owned, apparently - arcane and bizarre collections of the City’s detritus stretched out in all directions. One cube was stacked from floor to ceiling with obsolete but beautiful soda water dispensers, the old refillable kind in bright green and blue glass with metal siphons; stacked in wooden carriers, there must have been a thousand of them. Hammer Beverages, read most of the wooden boxes. All were empty.
A pile of typewriters greeted me around the next corner, Underwoods and Smith-Coronas, IBMs and the odd late-model electronic Panasonic or Canon. The manuals were in all conditions, those on the top of the pile in relatively good shape with those further down rusted into undifferentiated masses. I threaded my way through the museum of obsessive collecting, flowers of years on New York streets, and continued.
The spearhead gave me only a few moments’ warning, twisting slightly in its compartment as I turned to follow a passageway. I froze, immediately, at the sound of voices in the next corridor Westward - then moved again, around the corner towards a slight pale flicker of bright white light and the hissing of a Coleman lantern. Mutterings were coming from the room ahead, shadows moving across the lamp. I listened again, then reached out with more than ears; twistings were coming from there, too, the telltale feeling of work on higher planes reaching out to touch my tools. I stepped through the final doorway into a pool of gaslight.
There were two figures seated there, staring intently at their cards, laid out on a ruined wooden tabletop. The cards were from the standard Western deck, but there was more than one deck in play, judging from the duplicates, and the pattern was unknown to me. I moved closer to the lamp, gun trained on the two of them. They ignored me. Both were dressed in rags, appropriate to the surroundings; both were men, older, in a condition that would surprise you not at all if you met them sleeping in a subway station.
But they were not demented. Nor were they drugged. They were silently moving the cards around on the table, in a pattern which I realized looked something roughly like Manhattan. There must have been a couple of hundred cards. One of them turned and looked directly at me, then snorted and turned back, moving a six of Clubs three inches to the right - or Westwards, if the map held true. I just stared.
“It’s the boy.” The other spoke without looking at me, voice as rough as his skin and clothes.
“Mmmm.” The first tapped another card, this one face down, then withdrew his hand and looked over the arrangement.
The second looked up, also directly into my eye, through shields and gloom and past the brilliance of the lamp. I saw the rheum and milky color of his blindness, then, and lowered the gun but not my flash hand. “Hello, fathers.”
“Polite, he is, at least.”
I moved closer, into the light. “May I sit?”
The one who’d first looked at me turned again. I noted that he was wearing a New York Mets cap, incongruously clean; his compatriot was bareheaded. “Sit.”
I looked about, located a chair from a pile of several, and pulled it up to the table, then sat. I watched them quietly for a few minutes as they slowly and carefully shuffled cards around the table; from the closer distance I could see a rough chalk outline drawn around the cards that, indeed, resembled Manhattan’s shoreline. In the center of the island was a rectangle of leaves and grass, where the park would be. I couldn’t determine any other pattern in what they were doing; the cards moved, some slightly and some rapidly, either inches or yards. Some were face up, and some face down.
There was power on the table, but I was unable to determine its purpose.
The Mets fan placed a final card on the map, somewhere in East Harlem, and turned to me. “Ask.”
I frowned. “Are you moving cards to determine change? Or are you tracing change with them?”
“Is there a difference?”
“There is to me, father.”
The bareheaded wizard nodded. “You’re a tool user, boy. The flow is there. Can you feel the flow?”
I reached a palm out over the table. The Mets fan hissed once, but didn’t interfere. I spread my hands, reaching for the tendrils of energy that moved and built around my tools when I used them, but there was nothing. Still, I could tell the space above the table was far from empty. “No.”
I turned to him, surprised. “Why good?”
The Mets fan answered me, his voice gone harsh. “Because you may leave this place, then, boy.”
I looked from one to the other. “You can't leave? Either of you?” Both shook their heads. “Why not?”
The Mets fan spoke. “My name is Brian. I’ve been here eighteen years. Since the power came. It brought me here, back when the tunnels were bad, son, real bad. It’s been good, and bad, and now there’s no-one, but we stay. The power keeps us here. If we move, the balance breaks. We’re all that keeps it in check.” He reached out and flipped a card, apparently at random. The nine of diamonds, near Times Square.
I looked carefully across the table. “What is the balance?”
“The balance is what you see. All the Gifted, all the Others, they’re all here. They come, and go, but within Manhattan Island, we watch and balance. That’s our task.”
“All of us? We’re all there?”
Brian reached out and flipped a card just East of Times Square. The Queen of Spades. “Do you know her?”
“Who?” I looked at the card. It was a Bicycle, the plastic worn.
I placed my finger on the card, face up on the table, and there it was-
The drink was too strong for him, far too strong, but he’d been sneering at her for an hour or more and there was nothing for it. Three swallows and he’d fall, if he was lucky; if he persisted, tried to prove his strength and took the fourth, then the growths would start in his throat and lungs, and he would waste and wrinkle as his life poured itself into the twisted seeds that took his blood. The Water of Death into the martini glass, just a drop, placed on the bar, and watch for his sneering smile. The smile of the human who thinks he’s found the answer, just like all the rest.
Four swallows, little sheep, just four-
Four swallows, little sheep, just four-
I pulled my finger off the card instinctively. I was sweating, suddenly, my flash hand curled into a tight fist at my side and the pistol lying on its side on the table where I’d placed it instinctively when I touched the card. Baba Yaga’s thoughts were not just cold and hard, not just earthen and rotten, not just warm and lush, but completely and utterly wrong; they felt of crystalline age and swam with memories a thousandfold too complex for my brain.
“Where-” My voice cracked. I swallowed (one swallow) and tried again, forcing spittle into my mouth. “Where is my card?”
Brian looked at me, then reached out and plucked a pasteboard Hoyle from the table and held it out, the back to me. I looked at the pattern, then at him. “Can I-”
“You can, but will you?”
I reached out and took the card.
The screams woke me before my alarm clock did. I was out of bed before I really knew what was happening, the Desert Eagle in both hands, muzzle questing around my bedroom, but there was nobody there. I blinked five or six times, then realized how damn cold it was and how stupid I looked in my jockeys holding the enormous pistol, then decided I didn’t care when the scream ripped through the apartment again. The gun twitched towards the bedroom door of its own accord, and I ghosted over next to the entryway. After a breath or two, I opened it with my left hand, softly, then swung out into my small hallway.
A quick but tense check of my entire apartment showing nobody there except me, now sweating despite the chill in the two glimpses I’d gotten in the mirrors in my bathroom and in my living room. I returned to my bedroom, pulled on clothes and hardware hurriedly, and then returned to the kitchen with the pistol holstered under my Burberry. Another scream rent the air around me, making me wince; it sounded like the screamer was in the same damn room as I was.
I live in a small apartment below the meatpacking district, in the west end of Greenwich Village, in a building that was built sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. Whatever else I and the other residents have to say about its upkeep (and we have lots, mostly during co-op meetings) the walls of the building are solid and thick - one of the reasons that repairs cost so much to do properly. There was no way someone screaming from another apartment, or even the hallway outside, could have sounded that clear.
I closed my eyes and did what I could to stop my talent, shutting down my senses. I stopped Listening and waited.
Nothing happened for several minutes. I grimaced and Listened again. Ten seconds later, another scream assaulted my head but, I now knew, not my ears. Someone, or something, was in serious agony, and they weren’t screaming where normal people could hear.
I got my keys, made sure my bandolier was tight around my chest, and headed down onto the street.
Seven blocks later, I knew I was in trouble. I’d convinced Bobbi-Bobbi’s spearhead to Hunt for the source of the screams, and the piece of stone had led me seven blocks, to where I stood just off Hudson street and looked hard at a building that dripped 1960s from every inch of its utilitarian earth-tone faux-brick facade.
The police and I get along just fine, with one major caveat. I do everything in my power to make sure that they have no idea I exist. Oh, sure, Michel Wibert exists; I have a driver’s license, passport, all the various pieces of policeman tranquilizing paper that society has manifested over the years. One thing he doesn’t have, though, is a gun permit. Have you ever even looked at the requirements for getting a carry permit in Manhattan? Unless you’re a police officer or some Federal equivalent thereof, trust me, it’s a much easier proposition to march down to Washington D.C. and ask for an end-user certificate for this nice two-kilogram lump of plutonium-239 you have in your bedstand and want to sell overseas.
There’s no place at all to apply for permits to carry magic talismans. You just have to hope nobody sees you use them; at least, nobody who will report it and be believed.
As I stood there looking indecisively at the front of the police station, there was another scream. I winced, shook my head, and went inside. The entry hall was only moderately crowded, reflecting early morning in the Village. I ignored the familiar pulse of heat from my pocket watch as I passed through the metal detector posts just inside the door, heading for the corridor out of the lobby. There was another, stronger wave of warmth as the desk sergeant glanced my way and the Djinn’s shadow flexed from inside the watch to cover all of me rather than just the weapons under my coat.
I’d never been in this station before, but New York’s Finest weren’t all that imaginative and neither were their architects. Just off the lobby I found the wire-caged staircase up and took it two flights, past the community services floor to the realm of the actual police and pushed through a grimy double door whose windows bore a large NYPD shield. The bullpen was almost empty, most of the detectives on duty obviously out on the street, but the doors to the interrogation room corridor were closed.
I sighed, turned up my collar and hunched through the doors. Nobody even looked my way. The first room was closed, and I looked through the one-way mirror in the door before entering.
People assume that humans can’t hurt gods, or demons, or mythforms. They’re wrong. We can. It’s not easy, and it’s not always true - most of the othersiders walking New York aren’t bothered by whatever us smaller folks might do. But not all gods are created equal, and where one person can’t do much directed harm, people can cause all manner of pain.
There were two people in the room behind the mirror. They were sitting on the side of the table near the door, facing the solitary figure in the chair on the other side. He was slumped to one side in the straight-backed wooden seat, and despite the poor angle I could see numerous wire leads snaking out from beneath his open shirt collar, connecting to a cart which sat next to him. I winced involuntarily. He was small, with features that would have been recognizable to anyone in the Cradle of Civilization and in our modern world served only to mark him.
As I watched through the window, he shuddered and the piercing shriek echoed in my skull again. The two cops in the room beyond showed no sign of having heard, although one was shaking his head wearily. I felt my face hardening. Schooling it to relax, I pushed open the door and walked in.
There were four interrogators in the room, not just the two I’d seen. Two were leaning against the wall to either side of the door, doing their best to look threatening. I managed not to sneer at the overkill, but it was difficult. Everybody turned to look at me as I came in; the Djinn’s shadow couldn’t do anything about doors moving.
“Who the hell are you?” That had to be the ranking cop. He was in his mid forties, which probably meant Detective Lieutenant. The other man at the table with him, I realized, wasn’t a cop at all. His suit pegged him as Federal, matching one of the two door lurkers. Ah, the joys of interagency cooperation. I ignored the question and looked at their subject. He was slumping further in the grip of the leads. Yep. Lie detector. Technological disbelief, in its most concentrated form.
“I said who the hell are you?” The cop stood up. The Feds merely looked interested, no doubt happy to have the cop look discomfited on his turf.
“I’m a neighbor. Get that thing off him.”
“What?” The demand was so flat the cop wasn’t even angered, just confused, for the moment.
“Get that thing off him.” I waved at the lie detector.
The Fed sitting at the table cocked his head interestedly. “Excuse me, but did you say who the hell you were?”
“No. I’m a neighbor.”
“A neighbor. How did you get in here?”
I grinned nastily at him. Damn, I was angrier than I had thought. “Bad call. See, asking how I got in here in front of the suspect admits that I shouldn’t be here and that I made it in here anyway.”
The Fed and the cop near the door, in a striking display of cooperation, had glanced at each other and begun drifting in behind me. I stepped forward to the other side of the table, putting it between myself and the four officials, and moved to the side of the figure in the chair. He looked up at me, his eyes almost blank. He was drooling slightly.
“Don’t touch him!” The cop, who hadn’t blocked my movement deeper into the room, reached across the table, but he was too late. I ripped the electrical pads from the slight figure’s chest and ribcage, eliciting a slight moan, and tossed them over the cart. At that , the cop who had been near the door came around the table and made a grab for my arm, there was a flash of golden light, and it all went pear-shaped.
When the dust had cleared, I was still standing. The four official types were slumped against one wall, out cold, and the Egyptian in the chair (for he was Egyptian, I knew) was watching me through hooded eyes, curious but weak. “Who are you?”
“Like I told them. I’m a neighbor. Welcome to New York. Sorry about the reception committee.” I helped him to his feet, wincing as he shuddered in pain at stretching muscles wrung taut by spasms.
“A neighbor. Who do you serve?”
We moved out into the hall. “My bartender. One moment.” I swung open the next door, and sure enough there was an observation room looking through a mirror into the room we’d just left. We hobbled in and I made my companion lean against a wall while I found the operating VCR. I rested my left hand on it and felt the Djinn’s shadow flood out into the machine in a rush of power, then took up his weight again and guided him downstairs. We made our way past the lobby with no more than a brief misdirection on my part (the watch was warm in its bandolier pocket, now) and then out onto the street. I hailed a cab on Hudson and we climbed in. “The Brasserie.”
On the way uptown, I turned to my companion. He was breathing hard, but visibly recovering from his ordeal. “Are you well?”
“I shall be. What was that terrible device?”
“A polygraph. Give them grace, they didn’t intend you harm. It does no hurt to humans.”
“A lie detector.”
“Yes. It is a technology based on disbelief.”
He shuddered again and turned to look out the window as the grey buildings flowed by. We rode in silence until the cliffs of midtown drew to a halt outside the cab. I paid and ushered him out of the car into the restaurant. Although I expected at least a question, he seemed too weary to care; when we slid into two empty seats at the long bar which curved its way through the basement space of the Brasserie, he slumped forward. I waited, not disturbing him; eventually, one of the bartenders noticed us and nodded. I nodded back and waited.
When he arrived, he offered me an elegantly inclined eyebrow. “Bourbon. A.H. Hirsch if you have it,” I stated. “And if Msamaki is here, tell him France wants to see him.” I put a twenty down on the bar. “Run the tab.”
The tender nodded again, respectful of the tip. I took my hand off of it, and he performed the bartender magic of making it vanish without bringing his hands near it. “For your friend, sir?”
“He’ll order when we see you again.”
“Very good.” He slid off. I like The Brasserie for two reasons. One, it’s open twenty-four hours a day. Two, and as a consequence, the staff is actually fairly competent if you know how to find the right ones.
My companion’s shoulders shook. It looked as if he was weeping, but I didn’t ask or interfere. Two minutes and fifteen seconds later, my drink appeared, a walking dead bourbon from a time long past; I sipped it appreciatively and let it relax my shoulders.
“I don’t know why I am here.” His voice was unremarkable, even muffled by his forearms. In fact, most of him could have been described as unremarkable, sitting there. I sipped again and looked at the figure which had screamed its agony into New York’s nightmares.
“What is the last thing you recall?”
He lifted his face from his crosed arms and blinked at me. He had, indeed, been weeping. “I was standing on the banks. There was new growth. I remember birds.”
I was distracted by someone approaching behind the bar. I turned, but it was Msamaki, whom I had expected. His face opened as he recognized me. “France. It is good to see you.”
“And you, Maki. I need your help.”
“What can I do for you?” Msamaki looked good, standing before me in the Brasserie’s slightly overdone uniform. I had helped him past some overly aggressive minor Djinn when he arrived, immigrating from the town of Bani Suef. In the ten years since, I had consulted him a handful of times when I needed help with Egyptian lore, as I was fairly sure I did now. I nodded to my companion.
Msamaki looked over the other carefully, frowning slightly, and offered “Ahlan wa sahlan.”
My rescuee looked up briefly and shook his head. Msamaki tried again, his face more interested. “Em hotep nefer?”
The other’s eyes brightened slightly, and he nodded. Msamaki sucked in his breath and looked carefully at the figure, then reached under the bar and pulled out a glass. Without looking, he waved the bar wand over it and placed it in front of the other, who sat up and took it with a short bow of thanks.
As he picked it up, it slopped over the side. I stared at it, because Maki had only filled it halfway. On the way to his lips, it spilled several cups. After he placed it on the bar, water slowly and quietly began to well up over the rim and spread down the surface. I lifted my arms off the countertop. Maki swept the glass off the counter and clasped the other’s hands in both of his, pulled them to his mouth and kissed the man’s clenched fist.
Well, that answered one of my questions.
I let them talk urgently in what definitely wasn’t modern Arabic for several minutes. In fact, I let them talk until I’d finished my Hirsch, at which point my patience ran dry as well. I wiggled my glass at Maki, who noticed only after I poked him in the shoulder.
“I’m sorry, France.” He took my glass and dashed off back to the back wall where the bottles were, returning momentarily with a generous pour of bourbon.
“Maki, what’s going on?”
“Where did you find him?” The excitement was setting off warning bells in my head. I frowned at the bartender.
“Never mind that right now. Who is he?”
“This is Hapy.”
I mulled that over and tried to pull a reference out of the mess that is my head. “Hapy. Hapy. Wait. On the banks...” I turned to look at the nondescript man on the stool next to me. “God of the Nile?”
“Yes!” Msamaki hissed, blazingly excited but trying to keep his voice down. “God of the Nile! Fertility and produce, bringer of life to the valley.”
I looked at the slight figure, who bowed his head. Something was bothering me. Something old.
“Maki, the Nile was linked to fertility because...” I trailed off, looking at the little man and then the remaining puddle on the bar in horror. Msamaki finished for me, oblivious to my expression.
“Because it would overflow regularly and fertilize the valley, yes. Why?”
I sat there at the bar in Midtown Manhattan, snug between two rivers, and looked at him.
It took a few seconds for him to turn his gaze to me and notice, and then he blanched.
What's not acceptable is this. If I go to the Entourage Space, write a message and hit 'send' and then immediately (as I'm used to) jump to, say, my Safari space and continue working, I will get a 'bong' a few seconds later as Entourage pops up the dialog. I go back to the Entourage space...and it's not there. I search madly throughout every Space I can find. It turns out that it places the dialog *behind* the Safari window I was working on when it notified me - and bringing Entourage to the front, rather than popping that dialog, instead shifts me to the Entourage workspace, guaranteeing I won't find it. Of course, no Entourage window will respond to focus, since the application is modal and waiting on that (now hidden) dialog. The only way to get Entourage back is to locate the dialog by using Expose on the proper workspace, or by manually shoving around all my windows until I see it, and then dismissing it.
Things tend to peter out, and I find myself wandering in a gritty urban desert, dowsing for closure.
As I told bobbobbob, I'd be proud of it if it wasn't so fucking true.
Oh yeah: Happy fucking Valentine's Day. Now fuck you.
I nodded to the four or five kids sitting around on crates there as I went inside. One of them knew my face and nodded back. As I went in, he was muttering to his companions, something which I assumed and devoutly hoped was the patois equivalent of 'he's cool.'
The interior of the shop was just as it always was. Not so much cluttered as intricately packed in three dimensions with junk - at least, objects that I would label junk, but which were likely treasures to someone, somewhere. The entirety of the airspace that was left was redolent with what I was sure was incredibly high-grade weed, well-aerosolized by the enormous bong that reached from floor to ceiling at the back behind the counter.
There was an older man lounging there with a hookah tube hanging lazily from his mouth while he talked rapidly to a younger woman who was in front of the counter, apparently haggling over some small piece of merchandise. I blinked at him, both because of the smoke and because I'd never seen anybody who was stoned talk that fast. While I was trying to decide if that meant he wasn't stoned, or if it meant he was just an instinctive haggler to such a degree that the drug didn't touch his flow, he noticed me standing there in the half-light and waved me forward. Without stopping his patter, he lifted up the counter gate and passed me through. I stepped by with a nod of thanks, and he slapped my shoulder as I turned down the narrow staircase that was mostly hidden behind hangings on the back wall.
A deceptively long flight down, I came out into the small vestibule I remembered. The door was closed. I knocked once. A voice came through the solid metal surface. "What?"
"Here to see Alan."
A peephole slid open to reveal a pair of eyes which focused on my face beneath the single bulb, then crinkled in what was likely a grin. "Yah, mon. Stand back, now."
I stepped back up the stairs a pace while the door made chunking noises and then opened outwards, then stepped through. The enormous man guarding it clasped hands with me and pulled me into a hug which nearly broke my spine. "Michel, brah, 'tis you an' all."
"Ow. Damn, Demaine, you're too big to do that." I hugged him back before reclaiming my hand. "Your dad here?"
Demaine turned to secure the door behind me. "Yah mon. Him in back, go right t'rough."
I did that. The back room was much larger, the edges of it set in shadow, with a desk in the very center brightly illuminated by halogen desklamps at the corners of its ruthlessly empty surface. Behind it sat an older Jamaican man, his eyes bright behind cheap spectacles. As I came in, he rose, his face sliding into shadow as it rose above the lamps. "Ah, France. Is good t' see you uptown." We shook hands and he gestured me to a chair across the desk from him; we both sat.
"Hello, Alan. I hope you're well."
"As well as can be, now. You got needs?"
"I do. First, though, is Demaine all right?"
"Tis good of you t'ask. He is. Nobody come knockin' for him, not since you talk to de rider for us."
"I'm glad. If they haven't spoken to you by now, they likely won't."
"You credit always good here, France, for that work." Teeth flashed white in the darkness. "You one of mine, now, ever an' ever."
"Thanks, Alan. I don't need credit right now, though. I need your help, but it's cash on the desk."
Alan laughed, rubbed his hands together. "Cash always a friend too, France. Always. You tell Alan what you need."
I grinned at him. "First of all, your help." I reached into my bandolier. Alan watched interestedly as I pulled out the stone spearhead and placed it carefully in the middle of the desk. "I got this from a friend. I need to know if you can tell me anything about it."
Alan picked up the spearhead and turned it over in his hands. He touched it to the center of his forehead, then jerked it away with a hiss. "Oh, mon! This hot. Ver' ver' hot, brother. All manner power in here."
I sat back. "I know. I just don't know how to use it."
"Ahhhh." He reached out and stretched one of the lamps up higher, creating a larger pool of light. Holding the spearhead before his left eye, he rotated it carefully, his right eye closed to a slit and his left open as wide as it would go. I could almost see the loupe that he didn't need screwed into his eye socket as he looked at it. "This not from the loa."
"Nope." Alan was familiar with the Jamaican voodoo pantheon; too familiar. He'd been a reasonably successful dealer until he hit upon the notion of asking them for help with his business. Unfortunately for him, one of them had agreed - and the price had been his son. He'd tried everything, bringing all manner of bokkors from Jamaica to intercede for him, but none had managed the trick. I'd met him in the course of his desperate last attempt to trade himself for his son, at a makeshift altar in Central Park. I'd been following the loa he was calling, and it had led me to his crude summoning. When he'd offered the trade, the loa had laughed and said it had no reason to accept.
I'd given it one. It was a bargain I hadn't liked at the time, and still didn't - but it had agreed, and dropped its claim on Demaine. I lost one day a year, usually ending up with massive hangovers and enormous credit card bills, and Alan welcomed me where I would normally have been shunned. The loa made out well on the deal, as a single day of a willing and wealthy horse was apparently worth more than the month a year of a sullen and unwilling slave. So far, it had always been careful not to run me afoul of the law, presumably to avoid ruining its playground. It's a good thing I didn't care about my reputation, though. It had been five years since our bargain, and there were five more years to run.
"Michel, you have tried touch, yah?"
I nodded at him. "Doesn't respond."
"Yah. Thought not enough. Touch not enough. This a weapon, mon. It respond to only one thing."
I slapped myself on the forehead. "Oh, for- of course."
He grinned. "You brave enough, white man?"
I gave him a dirty look, and pulled my Swiss army knife out of my pocket. He put the spearhead back down on the desk. I extended the pen blade and pricked my left thumb, then squeezed a drop of blood onto the surface of the spearhead. There was a crackling WHOOM somewhere behind my forehead, and I felt the power force its way into me. The spearhead quivered on the desk and lifted slightly into the air to hover before my face, spinning slowly. Alan whistled softly. I looked at it. "Now what?"
"Think about something, Michel. Think about something that not here."
I frowned, and formed an image of Demaine. The spearhead shuddered and then spun to point at the door. "Ahhhhh." I reached out and plucked it from the air. Power crackled into my finger. "That's...nice."
"That a serious mojo."
Still holding it, I thought about Baba Yaga. It trembled in my hand, but I held it firmly. I shuddered at a wave of dizziness, and my eyes were drawn inexorably to the wall - the downtown wall. I forced my gaze back to Alan and let my arm rise and point; when I followed it, it was pointing at exactly the same spot. "South."
"Now you know, France."
"Thanks, Alan." I tucked the spearhead into the bandolier and tightened the pocket around it. I sat with my eyes closed for a few minutes, flexing not-muscles, until I could close down the conduit of power that reached from me to the spearhead, and think of objects without the overriding directional cue. Then I opened my eyes.
"You got what you need, France? That don' cost you nothin'."
I laughed. "Not yet, Alan. I need some hardware, too."
Alan laughed again, and reached under the desk. The lights came on around the room's edges, outlining racks along the walls. Weapons, enough to outfit at least a regiment of Marines, were neatly hung around the room. "It Red Tag day always, France, for you. You take what you need."
I dropped a bundle of hundred-dollar bills on the desk, stood up, and shook Alan's hand. He shook his head, but I pushed the bills across to him. "Cash on the desk, Alan. Someday I'll need that credit, maybe. But until I need it, cash on the desk."
He grinned again.
I left the head shop with a twin to my Desert Eagle, a silenced Beretta, ammunition and spare magazines for both, a hideaway Derringer in an ankle holster, an extendable baton, two pairs of handcuffs and a ring of handcuff keys and four stun grenades in a brown paper bag.
On the way out, I nodded to the boys still sitting outside. Three of them grinned at me, and I patted my coat and grinned back. All four laughed.
Then I walked to the Six train and rode it back down to the Village, trying not to clank as I went.
I deposit a decent chunk of money, via a check to me, into the account to open it. Several thousand dollars, which I need (fairly urgently) to cover current expenses, but expenses which really would like a local bank account. Again, fine. This is Tuesday.
Saturday I get a snailmail letter explaining that the deposit I've made is 'on hold' - but they will graciously allow me access to $100 of it. The reason? I quote:
the deposited check(s) is/are not consistent with the account's normal deposit activityUm. So, how, precisely, could any check be consistent with this account's normal deposit activity when this is the OPENING DEPOSIT?
Upon phoning, Chase informs me helpfully that it doesn't matter anyway because any check from a bank outside of New York's tri-state area is automatically hit with a 5 business day hold time.
I'm not saying I really object to the latter. But the first one? Stupid. I mean, if they'd said "All first deposited checks to new accounts are subject to hold for verification..." I'd really be probably okay with it. Except...
IT WOULD HAVE BEEN NICE TO HAVE BEEN TOLD EITHER OF THESE WHILE OPENING THE FUCKING ACCOUNT.