Recently (here) I posted the FIRST draft of my first novel. This is now the second full draft, new working title. I also published the first scene on Wattpad (here), we'll see how that goes.
New Title: Distortion
I made this change because I was starting to think about branding. If I'm going to have a series calls White Noise, then I could start to incorporate the "Audio" theme throughout the series.
I then downloaded the first draft previously posted here into Microsoft Word. I downloaded the Grammarly Extension for Word and used it to edit my draft. Aside from the mistakes (using the wrong word entirely during the writing phase), there were several recurring themes.
Grammarly found the following COMMON mistakes in my writing (most of the 396 items it found fell into these three categories).
“Maybe? Let’s not jump to any conclusions yet. What do you do next?" Ash sat back in his chair.
“You can’t know that. Street gangs are not known for their quick wit and logic. Not in any country.”
Here are few of the changes I went through on this draft:
TitleOld Title: The Tower
New Title: Distortion
I made this change because I was starting to think about branding. If I'm going to have a series calls White Noise, then I could start to incorporate the "Audio" theme throughout the series.
- I chose working titles with Audio themes
- I chose cover design based on Audio themes
- I chose some (but not all) of the Scene/Chapter headings to be Audio themed.
This should allow for a more consistent feel throughout the branding and marketing process.
Grammar | GrammarlyBIG thank you for Grammarly! I wrote my final rough draft in Scrivener. I'm an Edit-As-You-Go writer, so there were already multiple edits throughout the process before I got to the official "First Draft".
I then downloaded the first draft previously posted here into Microsoft Word. I downloaded the Grammarly Extension for Word and used it to edit my draft. Aside from the mistakes (using the wrong word entirely during the writing phase), there were several recurring themes.
Grammarly found the following COMMON mistakes in my writing (most of the 396 items it found fell into these three categories).
- Incorrect use of coma. I was using a coma before a conjuction
- Incorrect: This, and that.
- Correct: This and that.
- Missing coma. I was missing the coma before an intro phrase or before addressing a name. Or ending a sentence inside the dialoguge, but continuing my summary.
- Correct: Eventually, xxxxx
- Correct: This way, Dr. Brair.
- Correct: "Sure thing," Jazmin said.
- Incorrect: "Sure thing." Jazming said.
- Not combining words (leaving them as seperate words) like:
- low class vs low-class
- half real vs half-real
- other worldly vs otherworldly
- foot falls vs footfalls
- stair well vs stairwell
- 11th floor vs 11th-floor
- rag doll vs ragdoll
- side arm vs sidearm
- in to vs into
Without further ado... my Second Draft:
White Noise - Episode 1
White Noise: a steady, unvarying, unobtrusive sound, as an electronically produced drone or the sound of rain, used to mask or obliterate unwanted sounds.
Harmonic Distortion: Harmonics artificially added by an electrical circuit or speaker, and are generally undesirable.
Paranormal audio experiments rip open the veil between our world and other realities... what happens next?
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 D.G. Wolfe (Darrell Wolfe)
All rights reserved.
Cover design by D. G. Wolfe
Editing by D. G. Wolfe & Grammarly
Scene Divider: ClipArt.Org (Unlimited Commercial Use)
For more check out: Darrell Wolfe.com
To Jesus, who asked me to tell him a story.
To Flavia, who supported me despite myself.
To others, who kept pushing me to be more of who I was created to be.
Out of the corner of his eye, through the window of The Grounded Cafe, Ash saw two men dressed in black combat gear duck behind a car.
Coolness rushed down his spine, and his muscles tensed.
He reached for his sidearm.
He shook his head, and looked again, they were gone.
Ash relaxed and sank back into the leather bound chair; alone, in the corner of his favorite coffee shop.
Always keep your back to the wall, be near the most exits, but never too visible. It was like breathing, it never stopped... even in civilian life. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. That was the diagnosis they’d assigned him.
As Dean of Military Science, Ash's job primarily lay in administrative work and policy these days, plus a few sessions counseling the younger cadets, and would-be trouble makers. He was quite overqualified for the position, but he ran a tight unit.
He stared at the faces of the pedestrians as they passed by the window. Hurried. Busy. Buried in their smartphones. So oblivious to the world around them, or the little clouds that float around their shoulders.
The leaves had begun to fall, most had turned shades of orange and yellow, matching perfectly the Pumpkins that had been dotting porches and windows through the city the past few weeks.
Some commotion outside broke his train of thought... Everyone was stopping, turning, and staring in the same direction, a few moving toward the distraction.
Ash stepped outside to see what was happening, turned a corner, and nearly ran into a bystander. A brisk evening breeze broke past his collar.
A man in a tattered and dirty suit with a graying beard was standing on top of a pickup truck screaming at nobody in particular.
"You always did love Mother best... I know... That's why... You couldn't keep your mouth shut..." On he went, incoherently.
Just as Ash took a step closer, the man turned to stare him directly in the eye.
In a deeper, gravelly voice: "You... What do you want with us?"
Ash took a step back.
Then the man turned back to his one-sided conversation.
Ash could see a large creature behind the man. The bottom half was more mist than form, as though it were made of smoke. The top half was like a man, with the head of a bull. It was charcoal, and streaks of white painted across the chest.
Ash could feel his palms turn cold, and he felt as though he couldn't move his legs.
A smaller creature was on the homeless man's shoulders, screaming into his ears. He couldn't hear the conversation, but Ash could tell that the homeless man was responding and that he had only been hearing one-half of the conversation. Ash looked around and nobody else seemed too surprised, as usual.
The large creature stared directly at Ash, cocked his head to one side and disappeared along with the smaller one. The homeless man was by himself again, then his eyes narrowed. He leapt off the truck and ran at Ash.
It took all his training to keep from being pinned down. The old man was wiry but stronger than he looked.
Ash let out a cry, "Jesus!"
The wiry man stepped back, his eyes darted around, as though he looked confused.
That was all Ash needed. In 30 seconds he had the man hog-tied with his own belt.
The police were just arriving. "Charlie's at it again... Let's take him in."
Three big men in uniform put cuffs and a muzzle on the old man, and threw him, rather harshly, into the back of the squad car.
Ash heard someone behind him, "Those were some moves, Marine."
"Airman. Uh... Thanks. No harm done." Ash noticed his cup crushed beneath him, the ice, coffee, and cream covered the sidewalk, and his jeans. "Well... Almost no harm anyway."
"Why don't you let me get you another… on me."
Ash looked up to see a balding man in blue slacks, yellow polo, and a pile of papers in his arms. A logo with two E’s overlapping bore prominently on his chest.
"The least I could do for a man who'd be willing to step into a situation like that, protect all these people. What's your name son?"
"Ash. I need to get some new clothes. I don't think I need any more caffeine right now. But thanks for the offer." With a wave, he set off toward home.
Ash headed down the sidewalk, past the shops and restaurants. There is a girl crying, typing away on the phone. A little red frog on her shoulder was yelling into her ear. Ash could only imagine what it must be saying.
A little old lady is sitting inside a window at the nursing home. She is knitting something, probably a blanket. A large man in all white, stands behind her, smiling. He looks up at Ash, his smile fades slightly, and then returns. He looks down to her again.
Ash could not see the figure accompanying each person, only certain ones, here and there. Most were just clouds or mist.
"Don't worry so much." His doctor told him, "These may be after effects of the war. We’re just beginning to understand PTSD. The mind is a marvelous adapter to stress. As long as these phantoms do not interrupt your daily work, or cause you to want to harm yourself or others, you should be fine. Consider yourself lucky. Just think of them as a construct of your active imagination, an amusing distraction from the mundane realities of life."
He turned off the street into an alley between two old buildings, and up a well-worn path into the woods, his refuge from the masses.
Ash opened the door of his cabin.
It wasn't a mansion by any means, but it was more than sufficient for him. 900 sq. ft., one large open room, a loft, and a balcony.
Yes sir, he had a fine cabin in the woods. All to himself. How he'd managed to live here eight years and still not have a single friend invited over was a mystery, even to himself. Then again, you'd have to have a friend to invite one.
He liked things just so. He liked the solitude.
At least that's what he told himself.
Ash took a seat on his balcony, overlooking the hills and lake. He stared at the expansive forests, lost in time. The clock read: 6:00pm, he laid down in his hammock, bundled in the overpriced winter resistant sleeping bag, and watched the stars from the balcony until he drifted off.
As sleep overtook him, he thought to himself "Yes sir, this is one fine cabin."
An explosion knocks him against a wall. He barely sees, through the smoke, troops running about, hauling rubble off of bodies, checking pulses. Some are screaming in pain. Others shouting to one another. Half the mess hall is completely gone, all that is left is fire and rubble.
Ash can feel the beat of his heart in his neck, his forehead rushed with sweat. He sees them all running around, but all he hears is intense ringing.
As the numbness subsides from his brain, shock waves hit his chest as more buildings are getting hit nearby.
Ash uses the wall to steady himself and works to stand on his feet.
Others will tend to the wounded. This band of Jihadist miscreants found upgraded weapons; Russian no doubt.
Ash shoots out the building, down the road to the artillery unit. He grabs his rifle and heads for the highest structure, a radio tower toward the side of the camp.
He can see the launch area where the rockets are being fired from. He takes a few quick breaths, hyperventilating floods the lungs with oxygen, one last deep breath in and hold, steadies his body.
Through the scope, he can see about 10 of them.
They only have two missile launchers. They have very little cover, firing from open desert, mostly hiding behind their Jeep and a few large outcroppings of fallen mountainside.
He fires two rounds back to back, taking out both missile launchers, one exploding in the handlers face. Ash then begins firing one round after another as the attackers fall like Coke cans on a fence post. The rounds hit their targets with extreme prejudice.
Three remain, cowering behind the Jeep. Jeeps are great vehicles for driving through tough terrain quickly, but they are built light, not armored. He sees one peek through the glass, gone.
The other two attempt to climb in the vehicle keeping their heads down and drive away. The problem with that is that both seats are occupied. He doesn't need to see them. Two. One.
The Jeep speeds up as it drives erratically, then crashes into a mound of rocks.
Ash woke up... another nightmare, if you can call a memory a nightmare.
He rubbed his eyes and glanced at his wrist.
Red numbers flooded his vision, 3:00 am.
He rolled over and went back to sleep.
Brightness greeted Eta when she aroused from a drug induced stupor. At least, that's what she assumed as she was coming to, based on the physical effects she was feeling... she must have relapsed again, blacked out...
"I wonder what bedroom I've wondered into this time..." she thought to herself.
Eta's muscles were sore and she felt the hard surface underneath, it felt cool on her back. It must have been a kitchen floor, maybe tile, or hardwood?
As she squinted, she saw simply bright white... "It must have been one of 'those' parties…” she mumbled to herself as she grimaced past sore muscles to get to her feet.
As the fog cleared she found the resolve to sit up, find her bearings, and look around.
Something didn't set right.
Her mind rebooted; Eta became keenly aware that nothing was right. This was no frat house, and she wasn't in college anymore. That girl has been dead for years and forgotten. At least she tried to forget.
Drawing her groggy attention back to the situation at hand, she began to assess.
There were a large series of L.E.D. lights above, too bright to look directly at. The ceiling was high, too high to reach. The room wasn't very big, square, maybe twenty feet. She realized that her clothes had been changed and she was wearing something akin to a white leotard or bicycle suit, with black trim.
She kind of hoped to keep it when she was out of here. It was a nice contrast to her bright red hair and permanently tanned skin; one of the benefits of having such a mixed family heritage.
Eta scanned the room, no doors, windows, no escape. Only flat walls, she now realized were metal, as far as she could tell. In the center of the room was a white table and one box.
She approached carefully and opened the box, assuming this must be the next step in whatever weird situation she'd found herself.
"They said training would involve untried methods. Maybe this is a training center and my next assignment. 'Escape the box with no escape”
Well… maybe she wasn't as good at catchy mission names as she was with two Glocks at her side.
When Eta opened the box all she found was a plastic bag, with an iPhone. She turned it on.
It booted silently...
She woke suddenly, but silently. As though she'd been awake for hours.
Dawn crept through the blinds and brushed the edges of the wall in hues of pink and orange.
Laying there, she picked a spot on the ceiling and let her mind defog.
The only thing weirder than waking from a weird dream is waking inside of a weird dream, only to then wake from that dream… But that was who Eta was after all… weird was her middle name.
Well, OK, maybe not. But it sounded cooler than "Technical Sergeant Nadine Etaine Romanakov", or "Lieutenant" as she was now known by the Colorado Police Department.
“‘Eta’... It's pronounced "Eh'---tuh", she'd had to be deliberate in her pronunciation with a probie the other day. He was probably just trying to get to her because of her odd accent or because she was a chick. Either way, it worked but he probably wished it hadn't when she was done with him. You don't get to be one of the first females in the USAF to enter combat, or afterward onto the SWAT team, as a female, without being a bit feisty. She didn’t mean to make him cower, but she just enjoyed a good argument so much.
Eta glanced at the bare walls of her studio apartment. Eight years out of the service. Except for an inspirational quote by the front door, she still hadn't bought a single painting or decoration for the room. This was not home, there is no home. This was a safe house… an eight-year safe house.
“Find your happy place girl…” She closed her eyes to meditate.
A butterfly lands on the window sill. A feeling of warmth flooded over her for just a moment.
Her attention was broken by three short buzzes.
The phone. "Coffee?"
Janice was the one human odd enough to actually want Eta's company outside of work. She went to all the obligatory bar nights with the crew, and a few parties now and then, and she was the center of attention when she showed up, but generally she avoided one-on-ones. She wanted the connection but didn’t trust it. So few would push back at her intellectually. They were usually so taken by either her figure (if male) or her brawn (if female) that few would engage her mind. She kept up the persona at work, but never really let anyone in. Either her brains or brawn or both would be her defense.
Janice asked for three years before she finally said yes, but now… it was a nice distraction. Janice was an engaged mind and was always willing to call Eta out on a factual error. It was like hanging out with a walking encyclopedia. Maybe, she'd be willing to call Janice a friend?
She typed back, "Sure, be there in 10." She strapped on her dual Glocks, rib holstered, and a jacket to cover.
You never can be too careful.
Out the door into the wild white winter madness that is Colorado Springs.
Over at the cafe, Janice is still chattering away about the latest episode of Blacklist, which Eta is normally very into. Today she just feels less normal.
That dream, it had gone away since she'd been doing her herbal teas, but now it was back. Was this a relapse?
Suddenly, Eta's world disappeared.
In her mind's eye, she saw a waiter walk by and trip on her purse, dropping the bottle of Perrier he was carrying, shattering all over the floor, contents pouring over her shoes and spraying up onto Janice’s lap.
She turned to Janice who had stopped talking and was now staring at Eta. “You feeling' OK Hun?”
"I'm fine Janice, sorry… these darn headaches, what were you saying?” Eta denied.
"You need something? I always carry the standards, generic of course… same thing, less money…"
"Janice, I'm fine, really." Just then a waiter walked by with a bottle of Perrier. He tripped on Janice’s purse, and Eta reached out and caught the bottle before it hit the ground.
"Whoa! Did you see what you just did?” Janice pushed up her glasses. “You have amazing reflexes." She was always expressing how impressed she was with Eta. She worked in Dispatch but told Eta that she always dreamed of being on SWAT, like her.
"Thank you." the waiter said, and he moved on looking embarrassed.
"Wow girl," Janice said. "You really are good.” Janice went back to recanting the television show.
Eta tried her best to appear interested, she actually really enjoyed the show. But these daydreams, or whatever they are, were getting out of control. It wasn't so bad at first. A few harmless daydreams, followed by coincidences. But after eight years, they were getting hard to manage.
Janice glanced over at the TV, a commercial about laundry soap. At the end, a butterfly floats out of the towel and across the room, landing on the window sill.
"Hmm..." Eta said under her breath.
Then, Janice disappeared again.
Eta was somewhere else, far away. City Street. Cars driving by. People walking along, minding their own business, most looking down at screens as if they were walking by GPS.
Now there're people running, the streets roped off, and she can see people in jogging suits, numbers on their back.
Then her attention is drawn to a young man placing a backpack in the trash can.
She knows this place, but she's never been here.
A blinding flash of light. Glass splattering all over her.
The percussion hits her chest and…
It's over... This one is not new. It's the same daydream she's been having for weeks now. Two in a matter of minutes? It’s getting worse.
Janice didn’t seem to notice this time. She was going on about Liz’s baby being raised without her.
"Oh my!" she hears from just behind her, she turns to see a couple staring at the bar. Several others are slowly turning to see the television as well.
"An explosion went off at the Boston Marathon just moments ago…" the reporter covered the information they had so far.
"…wait, did they say Boston?" A sick feeling comes over her... is that even possible?
Glancing at the TV, she sees the young man with the backpack, from her daydream, running away from the scene in the news with all the other people.
Eta ran her hands through her hair and stared at the T.V.
"What is happening?" Eta whispers. "Excuse me, Janice, I have to make a call. I have friends in that area. I'll see you later OK?"
Without waiting for an answer, she hurries out the door, then walks to a nearby pay-phone, which is getting harder to come by these days, keeping her face from a clear line of sight to any cameras she sees.
She calls the F.B.I. hotline with an anonymous tip regarding the bomber, and the news channel that had the photo.
Then she heads home… to process.
Bright blinding white permeated the room. A white cardboard box sat on a thin snow white metallic table in a small space covered in white painted titanium walls.
"How did I get here?” Ash said.
Looking down he noticed the white form-fitting uniform he was wearing. His pale southern sunburn looked worse in this light. Despite years in hot arid climates, he could never hold a tan.
A soft hiss was coming from the ceiling, but he couldn’t look up because the ceiling was lit from end to end with bright LED’s, air conditioner maybe. He could barely see around him without squinting. Disorientation started to settle down after the first few moments awake, and he found his bearings.
Thoughts move to business, take stock. Name/Rank: "Captain Therun Ashland, USAF”, he said out loud. No response. Taking inventory of his body, every part was accounted for, legs, arms, toes, fingers, the scar on his neck under his right ear. No pains, other than the usual.
Ash tried to recall his last memory before finding himself in this room void of any obvious doors, windows, or openings of any kind, not even a seam was apparent as he circled the room with his eyes and fingers. The thoughts came like rapid fire. He didn’t bother with escape plans, not yet anyway, obviously he'd been handled before arriving here and must be under surveillance this very moment. No way to defend against attack without knowing where the openings are, but there would be no use because if he were going to be killed he would be in some dank prison cell not this whitewashed room in some overly tailored biking suit. Still, better to be defensive and keep himself against a wall ready to react.
“Bring it in Ash, bring yourself together… What is the last thing you recall? I was on X-Island doing survival training in the South Pacific. I had just dropped in from 15,000 feet. Working through the forest to the hacienda I had retaken the residence and recovered the “stolen” technology, sent it back up on a UAV. Routine training mission. I swam off island to a nearby island and was waiting for my evac. There was a flash of light..."
…that’s it, there was no other memory. He woke up here.
The box on the table was the only thing in the room with him, besides the table itself, which seems to be built into the floor. He approached the table cautiously. Eyes had adjusted some to the light, but there was still not much to see. The legs and table appeared to be built of high strength metal, not breakable by hand. The package seemed like any other white shipping box, sealed in white duct tape end to end.
The table was cool to the touch, not cold, but cool, like everything else in this room, floor, walls, etc. Ash peeled at the tape slowly, ready to react to its contents. This box was obviously here for him, it was the only thing in the room, and no-one had reacted to his being awake. Laying the tape aside he opened the lid and found an iPhone, neatly wrapped in plastic. He opened the bag and turned on the phone.
It booted silently…
Ash woke up in a sweat… it was that stupid dream again! The same dream… for 8 years. PTSD came in all shapes and sizes… for Theron Ashland, it came in the form of recurring dreams, nightmares really, and hallucinations of cloud beings on certain people. That was an odd symptom too.
Some doctors told him it was suppressed memory and the visions due to neurological damage.
Others told him that it was his mind trying to make sense of the missing time, and adjusting to life in the "normal world" where people aren't trying to kill you. Many vets are paranoid of attacks at any moment.
He wasn't sure himself.
Regaining sleep was unlikely. The clock read 4:47 am. Ash had a few hours before he had to head to the school to start his day full of students’ excuses for misbehaving, and professors’ excuses for their students test results. Things were so much simpler when you could just shoot your enemy. How he ever agreed to accept a position involving people, he'd never understand.
Still, a steady paycheck in post military retirement was more than many Vet's hoped for. Maybe some extra calisthenics would help erase the bizarre and bring him back to reality… again.
By 6:00 am, Ash was heading to the school for another day, and he stopped off at the Grounded Cafe for a do-over from last night.
As he walked in, Mike, the usual morning Barista nodded "I'll have it right up for you Ash. It's on the house today, thanks for keeping us safe last night man. I heard all about it…"
Ash nodded back, "Thanks, Mike! I'm a little out of practice though… that little old man is stronger than he looks." They both laughed.
Ash took a seat in his favorite leather chair, in his corner. He was skimming through the local paper when he noticed another man come and sit in the chair beside him. He tried to ignore him, but he could see from his peripheral that the man was just staring straight at him. He couldn't focus to read a single headline, and so he put the paper down on his lap and smiled at the man.
Small stature, balding in the front, large square glasses. "How can I help you mister…?"
"Briar. Dr. Briar. I was most impressed with your show of heroism last night Airman. I apologize for calling you Marine, I know how you boys like to keep yourselves distinguished from each other. The thing is, I've never seen a member of the Air Force fight like that. Pardon me for saying, but I've always thought of you Airman as more brains than brawn, if you know what I mean." Dr. Briar smiled, warmly.
"No offense taken, I've just had more than my fair share of run-ins, and I've picked a few fights with those Marines too."
"And what might your name be?"
"Ash, just call me Ash."
"Thank you. Tell me, Ash, I couldn't help but notice that you were looking at the man rather odd, just before he jumped on you. It was not the face of strange curiosity that most of the bystanders had. There was something… unique... about the way you looked at him? What was that about?"
Images of the dark cloud, the figure, the small frantic creature danced in his head for a moment. Ash passed it off, "Dr. Briar… is it? I suppose I was just gearing up for the fight. Those of us with training tend to view conflict a bit different from other folks."
"Ash!" Mike the Barista was calling.
Turning to Dr. Briar, "Coffee's ready… I have to go to work now."
"I see… well, thank you for satisfying my curiosity." Dr. Briar stood, and put out his hand. Ash stood, and took it with a firm shake.
"So long Dr. Briar, nice to meet you." Ash grabbed his coffee and headed out the door.
Eta woke up at 9:09 am that morning, as usual. Her day started out normal enough. Then during a raid on a local drug den, she was almost knocked over by some punk kid who couldn't have been more than 22 years old.
He got away!
How could she have been so careless? A vision of the kid passing her, just moments before he passed her, had her so distracted that she let him slip right by.
As the inconvenient daydream predicted.
It was as though she couldn’t move. Like she was frozen.
She felt so stupid.
Boss Man said that it could happen to anyone, but she knew she wasn't OK. Something felt very wrong about it. She let her team down, and a suspect got away. Of course, she didn't tell him about the daydream or temporary paralysis, so for all he knew she just missed him. She needed to take the time to clear her head before someone got hurt.
They'd been begging her to use her time off anyway, she'd accrued the stuff for two years straight without using any. So she took a paid leave for six weeks.
That ought to be enough time for this to pass over...
Or drive her nuts.
One way or the other, this will be settled.
Eta placed her keys on one of the hooks by the door and her purse on the other. If you can call a Kevlar fanny pack a purse.
She locked the dead bolt, three times. Set the alarm code, 3. 3. 3.
Eta glanced to the inspirational photo of a waterfall, framed on the wall, a constant reminder.
She read the inscription many times, "Nine represents achievement and completion, when all has been put right, and in order. Order is control. Control is power. Power is defense. Master Xua Chi".
Order is Control is Power is Defense.
Defense against the world, people, but mostly, herself. Self cannot be trusted. Above all else, self must be controlled.
Eta glanced the place over, everything is where she left it. Windows and doors secure. Sounds correct. Smells check.
She let out a sigh, shoulders relaxed.
Glocks were placed on the bed, under the pillow, still in their holsters. Eta walked to the kitchen, poured hot water into a teacup, then parked herself at the desk by the window.
The desk was close enough for light and fresh air, but just out of the line of sight from other tall buildings and potential sniper nests.
She rotated the blinds so that no one could see in.
The screen came to life, the cursor blinking in the long rectangular box.
Eta tried searching for anything to make sense of her situation. Besides, research and facts always calmed her nerves.
Every search brought with it a rabbit trail of charlatan websites looking to make money off of the unsuspecting fools who dared to believe their trickery.
No real science.
Nothing to explain her situation.
"What is happening to me?" Eta sighed. The sights and sounds of the bombing were fresh in her mind. The news channels didn't do it justice.
She'd been there... somehow. She could smell the explosive materials, she could see the bombers face when he put the backpack in the trash can. He was frightened, not bold. He looked at the people around him so sadly. Then he walked away, head down, crying.
They caught him this morning, thanks in part to her tip-off, she hoped. He looked surprised on the T.V. Like he didn't know how he'd been caught.
This does not bode well for the order she'd crafted for her life. There had to be logical rational answers for this phenomena. Or was this just the past catching up with her. Something finally snapped inside, and she'd gone nuts after all?
What if I'm in a padded cell right now, and my dreams are attempts to wake me up to that reality?
“Ha!" She forced a laugh.
After hours of nothing concrete coming up in the searches, Eta closed the laptop lid and sat back in the chair. She rubbed her neck and eyes.
They burned, she must have forgotten to blink again. Eta laid down on the bed and stared at the ceiling until sleep overtook her.
She's late for an appointment. What appointment? She doesn't know. She's just sitting here in the food court, with her laptop, waiting for... someone?
The sign on the wall says Sky Mall.
She's been here a while, she's not sure how long. Time ticks on, clicking away on the keyboard, search after search brings no relief.
She looks down and there are lockers. A man walks up, black jeans, black jacket with a Carhart logo, gray beany. He opens the locker and pulls some things out.
Just as he is about to turn around, there is a flash of bright light, and he is gone. No bomb, this time, he's just gone.
She needs to meet him.
Eta sat up. Had she been asleep?
Another dream to become real in the future?
Yes. Definitely Yes.
“I'm so tired..." She mumbled as she worked her way to her feet.
She'd pulled $3,000.00 from savings, on the way home last night. She'd planned to drop by the airport and take the first one-way flight to anywhere but here.
"Hey Cortana", she said. "Show me Sky Mall"
The laptop buzzed to life. A computer voice spoke back to her; "Here is a list of relevant searches for Sky Mall. The most relevant is Sky Mall in Los Angeles, CA."
A few taps on the keys revealed pictures of the mall on Bing Images, which showed lockers that matched the ones from her dream, and a cafeteria which also bore an eerie resemblance to her dream.
Ten minutes from Union Station, and L.A.X.
Perfect, she could walk from the airport.
"I guess L.A. counts as 'anywhere but here'..." Eta said.
After a quick phone call, Janice was more than willing to drop her off at the airport on one condition.
"Take pictures, and bring me back an amazing story of your adventures! And if it's boring... Just make something up for me!"
She looked out the plane window, it wasn't as impressive without the thrill of a parachute strapped to your back.
Eta closed her eyes, and sleep came, eventually.
Dr. Briar watched Ash leave, as he sat back down to his tablet at the table in the back of the Cafe. He stared down at his screen, which showed vital signs playing alongside a recording of the event as it had unfolded the night before. Dr. Briar pulled up the private Instant Message and began typing.
-Subject A reacted to the ELF’s, even 10 years after the end of his experiment. Elevated vital signs and increased erratic behavior were nearly instant.
-Subject B showed signs of elevated vitals, but he was attacked, which could be the reason. Subjectively, I feel he saw something; however, even after my interview with him this morning, the data was inconclusive.
-Subject A: Terminate.
-Subject B: Observe.
Dr. Briar pressed send and took a sip of his Carmel Macchiato.
For a few minutes, the cursor remained empty, blinking on the screen as he watched the sea of humanity. If they only knew. Is this what it was like for the dinosaurs? Just roaming about their territory, eating and pursuing each other until one day an explosion changed everything?
One of his experiments, the Problem Child, had managed to elude them, despite their precautions. They thought they knew who he was. Until they realized that the person they thought they had, didn't exist. By then it was too late.
He'd shown great promise during the experiments. His brain scans were clean and showed remarkable openness to the experiment. Textbook case study, all they'd hoped.
Maybe that was why they didn't look deeper, spend more time digging into the layers of his background. Not that it was entirely their fault. The boy had laid down an ironclad identity, bearing scrutiny at multiple levels. He probably could have passed most background checks with it.
The only problem was that he didn't exist. When they went to find him for a check-in, he was missing, and as they began to dig deeper into his past, the alias turned out to be empty.
Ryan Wrecking never existed.
They couldn't find him, but they could put a stop to the madness before it got any further out of hand. Already they'd eliminated 25 of the most extreme cases, the ones gone wrong, the liabilities. They must put a lid on this mess before there was any more exposure to the program.
A message popped up.
-Subject A: Terminate.
-Subject B: Terminate.
Dr. Briar may have been many things, but he was assuming that taking the life of a man who was not showing signs of being a danger to himself or others was just beyond his moral line. He responded.
-Subject B: Terminate Not Needed.
The reply came immediately.
-Subject B: Terminate!
He didn't need to be reminded, again, who was really in control. With sadness, he resigned himself to the inevitable.
He sent a text to the associates he had brought to town.
-Subject A - Terminate.
-Subject B - Terminate.
A few moments later came a reply.
Dr. Briar suddenly felt ill.
It's hard to imagine that just a few short years ago, he'd been a respected scientist. Sure, he worked on the fringe of science. But how had he come to this? Reduced to putting down his own test subjects?
This was the price he'd paid to touch the edges of the known universe and rip them open. This was the price he'd paid to have his funding needs met by an "interested party". Only too late did he realize, too interested.
Dr. Briar put his tablet and paperwork away and stood up to leave. He put the cell phone in a metallic lined bag, separate from the battery. He tossed them in separate trash cans a block down the road. He dug his heel into the SIM card.
He took out another phone from his pocket, turned it on. He scrolled through the list of contacts. He sent one final text.
Maybe one good deed could start to make up for the horrible actions he’d taken thus far.
He destroyed that phone another block down the road, then headed up to his hotel for a well-earned nap.
The iPhone had one short recording.
"You are in no danger. We are conducting an experiment in sound waves and sound deprivation. After a cleansing period to be determined, you will be ushered into another room. You are to sit in the chair for another period of time, also to be determined. That is all. Within a few weeks, you will leave no worse for the wear, unless this works. In which case, you will be better for the ware."
That was all it said. The one and only track ended.
It was always bright. The lights never turned off.
It mayhave been 10-15 days? He was trying to keep marking the days on the white box, but he could not tell when one day started, and another ended. With no natural light as a reference, his circadian rhythms were off.
Ash wakes to the sound of his food being delivered for breakfast. Food, his only measuring stick. He eats in silence. He doesn't even hear the static from above anymore. When he is done he places his tray on the shelf and it disappears into the wall again.
*Click* The hissing in the overhead turns off.
"Well… that's new." Ash said the first words he'd spoken out loud in days.
The air pressure changes.
A slight crack in the wall snaps open.
The crack opens wider as the panel disappears into the wall.
*Whoosh*, the crack becomes a doorway, which opens into a long hall.
Since this is the first change he's had since he woke up in the loony bin, he decided it was better to investigate the new, than stay in the old. Ash makes his way down the long hall, lit with blue LED's this time. They are flashing forward, like a runway.
He makes his way into a room, approximately 15 by 15.
The door shuts behind him.
The floor is built from a hatchwork of solid wire. Very sturdy; however, unnerving as you can see several feet beneath the floor which is covered in deep triangular foam, of various sizes and depths. The walls, ceiling, all made of the same substance. One chair bolted to a frame on the floor. It looks comfortable enough. Like a dentist chair.
Seeing no other option, he takes a seat.
The lights turn off.
The only thing Ash could see was the flashes of white dots dancing around his eyes from having been in the light moments earlier.
The silence is deafening.
Ash clapped his hand once, and noticed that the clap was hollow, as though the walls took the sound and sucked it out away from him, then wouldn't give it back. If it were possible for sound to be less than nothing, this was it. All he could hear was his own breathing.
After about ten minutes, his ears began ringing. It started subtly but grew worse.
When the ringing finally subsided, he could hear the beating of his own heart, and the sloshing of bodily fluids throughout his own body.
Alone with his thoughts. He could almost hear them. That same familiar voice that’s always there but barely noticed.
'watch out for that...'
'don't say that...'
'oh man, what did you do that for?'
It was as though the inner voice became almost audible. As though he could hear himself think. Or rather as though his thoughts could speak to him audibly. It was an odd sensation, but occupying his mind was the only thing he could do. He'd never admit it to a captor, but solitary confinement had been his favorite part of being a prisoner of war. He was only caught once, and only for a few months. But in a way, he enjoyed the self-time, the silence.
Nowthough, alone in the dark, with no external sound of any kind. He sits, eyes closed, listening to nothing. Literally, the closest to nothing anyone's ever listened to. Even alone back on the island, you actually heard... Something. Birds, wind, waves. He was now listening to NOTHING.
He did not know how long he'd been asleep, or if he'd been asleep, but his concentration suddenly snapped into focus with the feeling that he was not alone in this pitch black room.
He'd known before he entered the room that cameras were on him, and he was being observed... but that wasn't it.
He felt the air in the room change, as though someone had entered the room with him.
He could hear breathing in the room.
He wasn't tied to the chair, he could get up, but where to? He couldn't see, he'd memorized the layout though. He knew the entrance he came from, and he didn't see any other known entryways before the door shut out the light.
Ash slowed his breathing and observed with his four remaining senses for any clue as to the whereabouts, and intention, of the new participant.
"Ash...” a voice whispered from all around him.
"Ash...” He sat up straighter.
"Theron... I know about you... I know who you are... Fraud! Hero? You’re no hero! Killer!" The voice was filled with pain and anger.
Ash shakes his head... the voice vanishes.
For the first time since entering this crazy place, Ash felt the cold ice of fear creep into his spine.
The voice… almost sounded like… her?
Images flashed through his mind of the wars he'd fought, the people he'd killed for God and country.
Was it for God? Who's god? The god of good oil prices? What country?
The one that left him to rot in an Iranian prison, because we could not admit we had been there to begin with? Disavowed they called it. Escape required cruel and unusual punishment of his captors, even for him.
Images of his sister floated through his mind. He went into the military because of her. She died so young. He'd protect and serve others because he couldn't defend her. What would she think of him now?
Killer or Protector?
Proud, Disappointed, Horrified?
A single tear crawled out of his eye, rolling down his cheek.
Through the silence a buzzing grew steadily... startling him
Ash woke up. Still in his hammock. He pulled his phone from the pocket of his jacket next to him. 3:17 am, 1 new message from an unknown number.
-"ATTACK IS IMMINENT!!!!”
Ash felt his senses come alive, 25 years of drills and real life base attacks had drilled that message into his DNA. His focus came alive, and his hearing and sight became acute. Ash steadied his breath. He didn't move, not yet, he wanted to know what direction?
What attack? In Oregon? Really? He started to assume that this was a prank being pulled by one of the new cadets. He got out of the hammock and walked to the kitchen to get some water. He still didn't feel right though. Something was off. He placed the glass on the counter and…
Ash heard the front door open and then close softly. It could be a prank, and if so, he didn't want to accidentally shoot one of his students. At the same time, that is not a message to be sent lightly.
He quietly pulled a sidearm from the drawer, but holstered it in the back of his sweat pants.
He also grabbed his favorite Shun Chef Knife from the butcher block on the counter.
Ducking down behind the island, he used the glass reflection to watch the hallway. Two men entered the living room, geared up in all black, using professional hand signals. They moved silently, and they were built for battle. These were no students. Ash watched as they made their way to the porch, where his hammock still looked like it was being slept in. Intended to fool students pulling a prank, but just as handy when being attacked for real.
He started to rise so that he could work his way to a better defensive position, then a bright light made him pull back. He couldn't see anything for a few moments. When the light cleared, he could see the men on the porch as they approached the hammock, and then opened fire on it.
Ash pulled his sidearm out of his waistband. He took several shallow breaths, followed by one deep breath, and steadied his focus.
He could see the hammock, and its contents falling apart. He stood, worked quickly to get behind the couch, which he had specially made for just such an occasion. Steel and Kevlar make a great barrier to hide behind.
You never can be too paranoid... or is that prepared? He could never tell the difference.
He crouched behind, on one knee, and set the knife on the floor. With both hands to steady his aim, he fired several shots into the nearest target. The assailant flailed forward into his counterpart and then went over the balcony.
Stunned by the commotion, the other remaining member turned to see where the shots came from, too late.
Ash emptied the remaining rounds and number two fell back, half over the railing himself. The weapon fell to the floor.
Ash re-loaded the second clip and approached with caution. He kicked the assailants’ weapon aside and checked for life. DOA. A glance over the edge revealed no change of survival there either.
Ash grabbed the man's rifle, slung it over his shoulder, and swept the house for more.
This was an AN-94, advanced Russian assault rifle, way too expensive for general issue to the Russian military or police.
This was a special breed that had the brass to enter the house of Theron Ashland.
Who sent them? What in the world did they want with a professor? Surely it can't be a grudge from his Special Forces days? That was over eight years ago, then again, people like Ash never really retire. They just go dormant, to be pulled back at a moment's notice.
Which is why he still had a Commanding Office to report to quarterly.
When he knew the coast was clear, he called his C.O. to report the incident. No reason for the civilians of this sleepy town to know that there had been a Russian attack on US Soil, they'll send a sanitation team to make it look like it never happened.
"General Akbar… Sir this can't be an isolated incident. I need to go dark and find out what's going on."
"Understood. Check back in two weeks, and we'll see what we can find on our end. We'll let the school know we called you into active duty on short-term notice. They won't ask any questions. And Ash… be careful. I don’t like the smell of this."
"I’m with you on that. I'll check back in two weeks."
Ash threw together his hiking pack and necessities. He pulled his cash from the stowaway hidden in the back of the couch. He took one last glance at his cabin, now a little less beautiful than before… sighed, and walked out the door. The sanitation team would be here before light. And he needed to be gone by then too. Ash pulled the bike out from the garage.
He didn't ride the Vulcan often, but he really enjoyed it.
"I really do need to get out more, even if it takes people looking to assassinate me to get me out of town." At the sound of his voice, a small bird flew away from a nearby tree.
He glanced both directions. There were redundancies in Washington and California, which only he knew about. He didn’t even report these to his C.O.
"Heck, let's make like the birds and head south for the winter".
Ash pointed the nose down the road and took off. Making sure to keep to back roads, but only those with multiple exit paths and trails he could take the bike on if needed.
"Russians…" he pondered, "what do the Russians want?"
Morning came too early.
Dr. Briar checked for messages from his team. Then he realized the mistake he’d made by sending that final text.
He was too late to do anything about his people. The military authorities were already covering Ash's house. They weren't really his people anyway, they were the Benefactor's. They were not loyal to him. They were growing too comfortable.
But what would the Benefactor say?
It was always assumed that something could go wrong during a termination; therefore, he had always taken every precaution. Including paying his assistants in cash only, no paycheck to tie them back to him. Texting apps with self-deleting timetables of 15 minutes.
When he sent the text, he thought Ash would see them coming and escape, not stay and take them out. But it's fair game, and these two were not nice men. It might be nice to start over.
Dr. Briar pulled up the private Instant Message and began typing.
-Subject A: Terminated
-Subject B: Termination Failed, Escaped, On the run. Cannot find him. Lost two assistants.
There was a long silence. Butterflies flew around in his belly, and his hands grew cold. The Benefactor, as he was called, did not take kindly to failure; however, he was also a cold calculator. He was hard, but not rash. As long as Dr. Briar was still valuable he would not receive his direct wrath.
A wave of relief washed over him. He was still valuable, for now.
He picked up his normal phone and pressed speed dial.
"Welcome to Esion, this is Clara speaking, how may I help you?"
"Clara, this is Dr. Briar. Get my plane ready, I'm leaving in one hour... Oh, and hire two more assistants, I seem to have lost mine."
"Yes Sir Dr. Briar, right away." He pressed the big red button and re-holstered the phone. Clara, even she was brought in by the Benefactor. Dr. Briar was not the owner of his company anymore, just a cog in its wheel. She would process his termination with the same pleasant disposition she used to order his coffee.
He wondered if she would be out here herself if Dr. Briar's unique medical expertise were no longer deemed necessary.
He sat in the cafe for a few moments, pondering his next moves. He would not be allowed to fail again.
The Los Angeles Sky Mall was bustling with humanity, roaming about like so many ants building a colony without knowing why.
Eta sat in the food court just outside the Chick-fil-A, overlooking the railing down to the first floor, in perfect view of the lockers. She fiddled with a strand of recently purple hair. She figured vacations were opportunities to try something new. She couldn't get the latest vision out of her head. After that incident last week with the Boston Marathon, she was officially freaking out.
Then this new vision started up.
She's sitting in this exact spot, and some guy in black jeans, a black jacket with a Carhart logo, and a gray beany, steps up to a locker, he turns around ... Vision Over.
"I'm not sure who this guy is," she said out loud "... all I know is, if he has any clues, about why I'm seeing stuff before it happens, it's worth a shot to come find out."
Eta shook her head, "You're talking to yourself again girl, get a grip…"
So she waits… and waits. She's been here all day, every day, with her laptop surfing the Wi-Fi... waiting. She's had only this vision, every night, for a week since the Boston Bombing. So here she sits, waiting.
Day 8… hotels and fast food.
Bouncing from site to site, Google providing no solid answers, she's attempting to use the other search engines, hoping for different results. She's hit up Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo... she's moved on to other searches. Checked out the Library of Congress, National Security Archive, Virtual Library, Infomine... grasping for answers.
There were a few articles about paranormal studies and research.
Did she hear voices?
See things she can't explain?
Did she have the feeling she was being watched by a departed loved one?
She laughed so abruptly a few people turned around to look at her for a moment.
There were articles about people coming back from war with strange mental reactions, and being diagnosed with PTSD.
Paranormal research was hard to wade through, for every non-biased scientific evaluation, she found 1,000's of kooks and quacks that ranged from television psychics to religious evangelists. All of them wanting to provide you with answers, for the low cost of... or a love gift of...
Eta was on her fourth cup of Venti Soy Chai Tea Latte for the day when she saw him. Out of the corner of her eye, there was a man with dark blue jeans, nearly black. A black jacket with a Carhart label on the shoulder, and a gray beany... he was headed in the direction of the lockers.
She took a deep breath and held it. Pulse quickened. Muscles tensed.
Eta tried to look casual, in case he turned her direction.
If Special Forces training had taught her anything it was how to observe without being seen. He was headed straight for the locker... and then passed it, and headed out of sight down the halls to the bathrooms.
She wouldn't have the time to get down there and follow, and the vision was about this locker. She decided against her inner desire to pursue and kept up with her searches. If that was the guy, he'd be back. If it wasn't, she'd miss the real person she was here to see.
More searches turning interesting tidbits of useless data. It's a decent distraction, but she's no closer to the answer. Eta stares into the crowds below as they meander through the mall. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the man again, walking away from the lockers. He disappears underneath her, toward the exit. She debated, "Should I go follow, or stay and wait?" She decides that the vision has her in this seat, and him at that locker.
Eta is startled by a young man holding a heart shaped box. "Yes?"
"This is for you, have a great day", the young man starts to take off.
"Wait, sir… this can't be for me." He turns back to face her. "I don't know anyone here. You got the wrong person."
"No Ma'am. You are the one. He pointed to you, black leather jacket, laptop, purple hair. He said to give this to you." he turned and walked away.
Eta looked around, she felt the icy tingle run through her spine. She could feel her breathing quicken, and her skin tighten. Glancing through the crowd, she could not locate any immediate danger. Eta put her ear to the box to listen for mechanical devices. It was light, too light to be a bomb.
She opened it, and there was a note inside.
"Why did you open this box? Haven't I taught you anything? Gotcha! Over Please." She recognized the handwriting instantly. "Hey there slugger! Almost didn't notice you there. What are you doing here?"
It may have been eight years, but they were partners for longer than that. She stood up, glancing around. She didn't see him. She looked toward the locker, there he was. The man in the black jacket pulled a backpack from the locker and turned around.
"Of all the crazy… ", she said. Her muscles relaxed. Eta folded her arms, feigning annoyance, and nodded her head calling him over.
She sat down. She took a deep breath, and sighed.
She watched him ride the escalator.
He's getting older, more gray on the sides.
Therun “Ash” Ashland walked up to her, smiling. He'd aged well. "Time has been hard on you, huh tough guy?"
"It's done wonders for you, slugger. Look at you. Purple huh?"
“Well… I was going for blue, but since my hair is bright red, it came out more purple.”
“It looks good on you.” Ash sat down and recanted his ordeal in Oregon, and his trip down here to pull his backup safety stash of cash (can't be hacked or tracked), weapons, and passports. The part about odd sightings was unusual but made her feel better about her condition.
She recanted her precognitions (she learned a new word while she was waiting) and experiences in Colorado.
When they had both finished explaining their individual reason for being there, she sat back and blew a strand of purple from her face.
"Psychic precognition… huh? Weird."
"I'd have taken your Russians and over my complete psychotic breakdown the other day, more predictable. The cloud pets don't sound so annoying."
"I guess. If you say so.”
“If are having issues too… could this be related to…”
“Maybe? Let’s not jump to any conclusions yet. What do you do next?" Ash sat back in his chair.
"I don't know. I've been searching for answers, Google has been most helpful. Did you know I could have latent Psychic Tendencies?" She smiled.
"Really?" Ash put on his best serious face. "Well… let's get you your own program!"
They both chuckled.
"So Chief, what's the plan now for you?"
"I don't know, but I do know I'll need someplace to crash tonight. Then I get a game plan together."
"You mean we, right?"
"I don't want to drag you into my mess, I've got people after me."
"My precognition let me straight to you. You'll need a partner watching your back. Looks like you're stuck with me, old timer."
"You have any visions of a 5-star hotel in our future? We can't use credit cards, got to stay off the grid."
"No. The last vision was of you standing there at that locker, of course, I didn’t know it was you at the time. Fresh out of visions for the moment... Wait… it's coming in now…"
Ash sat up a little straighter, after his fight with the homeless man he was open to strange possibilities.
"I see you, and me… sleeping in a cardboard box!" She laughed.
Ash slouched a little and shook his head. "Well, we can't stay here. But I think I can afford someplace better than a cardboard box."
They went to Denny's for a bite to eat. You can always count on Denny's when you are operating on a budget. And when you don't know how long you'll need to stay off the grid, any amount of cash needed to be budgeted.
Before they could make it into the front door, Ash heard something, and motioned for Eta to follow, making their way to the alley. As they rounded the corner they heard voices, and they didn't sound pleasant.
Curiosity got the better of Ash who peeked into the alley to assess the situation.
Eta made a grumpy face but followed. "Ash" she whispered, "we're trying to stay off the grid. Let's not get in the middle of something we'll need to explain to the police."
He motioned to keep her voice down and glanced around the corner. Three… no four, Latino men, armed with handguns. All dressed in sagging jean shorts, white ribbed undershirts, and button down plaid, with only the top button together. Blue bandanas wrapped around their arms.
"Chester, Chester… it's been a long time since we've seen you around. You ain't buying no more, or what?" The smallest guy was doing the talking. Shaved head, snake tattoo on his neck running up and over his skull. "You still owe us that program you promised boy. The one that would get us into people's accounts. Where'd you disappear to essay?!"
Turning to the chunky guy on his left, "Gordo, what's it been, two… three years since we've seen this punk? Since he promised us a program in exchange for our merchandise? I think it's time to pay up Sancha!"
Ash could see the shadowy figures rising up and around the four guys. Never quite solid, but so often present.
Then a light caught his eye. He noticed the gleam first, and then the whole scene exploded into bright light.
Ash backed away, temporarily blinded.
After a few blinks, he could see a very large man, brown hair, dressed in all white, with a gold belt and long sword. He was standing behind the victim, but looking straight at Ash.
Another large man, similar to the first, stood beside him. He smiled, motioned to the four assailants, nodded approval, then… both large men disappeared.
Ash motioned to Eta. Four assailants. Armed. One victim. Cover me, from over there. I'm going in.
Eta pulled her sidearm, and sighed. "Really?" she whispered, "I took vacation time to come to LA and shoot gangsters?"
Eta silently made her way to just behind the parked car. She stayed in the shadows between a parked car and the wall but kept her sidearm pointed at the group.
Ash adjusted his chest holster within easy reach of his slightly open jacket and walked down the alley.
He walked right up next to the largest of the bunch and stood there for a while. They were so busy being idiots they didn't even notice him.
Tired of being ignored; "Fellas, what's with the party!?" he screamed out with his best impression of a loud drunk.
Snakehead whipped around, followed by everyone else. Tiny looked the most surprised, considering Ash was standing right next to him and he didn't notice. Snakehead put on his best bravado stance.
"You lost Boracho? I think you need to move along… "
"Why? I was just leaving the bar and my friend disappeared. I was looking all over for you buddy, where did you go?" Motioning at the victim.
Snakehead didn't give him time to respond. "You have 60 seconds to leave before you become a part of this party amigo… and trust me, you don't want to be a part of this party."
“Party! “Ash yelled. “I like parties.” Ash straightened up a little, still putting on a drunk show. "I'll tell you what amigo…." He swallowed, dramatically for show. "I'll give you and your friends 10 seconds to leave this alley before I ruin your party and take my friend with me."
Snakehead had enough; "Tiny… get rid of this guy, huh?" Tiny pointed his gun at Ash's head…
…the world slowed down.
Ash moved into Tiny's space, pushed the gun hand away from his body, stepped on the arch of his foot, and then pulled his knee into the opposite inner thigh.
He maneuvered the pistol from Tiny’s hand, then hit him in the nose with the butt of the gun.
With one big shove, he knocked Tiny into the guy behind him and they both went down.
Ash whipped around, in two quick strides and hit the third guy in the throat so hard that he dropped his gun and went down to the ground with both hands on his neck trying to breathe.
Finally, he sidestepped to Snake Head, and with one hand took Snake Head’s gun hand and held it pointed to the ground, and with the other hand holding the gun he'd just taken from tiny, pointed it right between his eyes.
By this point two of the assailants were still nursing wounds while the third had recovered and was starting to point his weapon at Ash.
Just then the gun flew out of the third guy's hand, and a faint swoosh could be heard from down the alley. He grabbed his hand in immense pain as it was now bleeding profusely.
Ash, no longer pretending to be a drunk, looked Snake Head directly in the eye.
"So here's how this goes. A) You and your friends leave your weapons in the alley and take your friend to the hospital to have his hand looked at. B) You all leave here in body bags as my friend back there picks you off like ducks at a carnival shooting gallery."
Snake Head hesitated for a few moments, then dropped his gun. The four of them ran out of the alley, right past Eta who stayed hidden so they wouldn't see where she'd fired from.
Ash picked up the weapons and put on the safeties before loading two into his belt. He threw the others to Eta who had come down the alley after she was sure that the four had left for good.
"You're getting rusty old man." Eta half smiled.
“And you’re still trigger happy. That guy wasn’t going to shoot me when I’ve got a gun to his leader’s temple.”
“You can’t know that. Street gangs are not known for their quick wit and logic. Not in any country.”
“Besides… I didn’t come out here to lose you, I still need answers.”
Ash returned a smirk and then turned to their new friend. "You have a name kid?"
"Chester…" he managed, a bit shaken from the encounter. “Kid. That's funny." Smiling, but still looking a bit dazed.
"Well Chester, we'll need to get moving before they gather the courage to return with the rest of their gang, or police come after someone reports the commotion. Anyplace you know that we can go and be safe for a bit?" Ash said.
"And maybe some food?" Eta shrugged, "This kind of interrupted our dinner plans."
"Yeah… sure… this way…" Chester motioned to the street and the three of them left the alley.
They followed Chester on the bike and made their way to the Union Gospel Mission.
Chester waived to the night guard, "Albert. These two are with me."
"OK, sounds good. Just sign them in Mr. Chester." The guard was older, he looked like he could hold his own, but he wasn't going on any marathons any time soon either.
"Who were those guys?" Eta asked as they ate a free meal.
"It's a long story. Suffice it to say that they were part of a life I no longer live. By the way, not that I'm not grateful… but where did you two learn to do that CIA, Kung Fu, Ninja stuff back there?"
Eta and Ash glanced at each other and smiled.
"It's a long story…" Ash smiled.
Chester smiled back. "I see what you did there."
Eta kept her eyes on the doors and windows.
Chester followed her glance, "Well hey, seriously, if you want to avoid prying eyes, the mission might not be the best place for you two to stay tonight. Most of the residents are long-term bums and are still discussing the conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination, or Roswell. But we do get a few Savvys in now and then. If your faces are on the news or anything, they might know. They'd take the opportunity for a tip line reward."
Chester glanced at the wall for a moment and turned back to them. "If you don’t already have other plans, why don't you stay at my place tonight? It's big enough."
"Are you sure it's a good idea to invite total strangers to your house, Chester?" Ash put up his hands, "Not that I mind."
"Listen. Strange you are. Weird…. Maybe even a little scary. But two people who would walk into an alley to save a guy they don't know with super cool Ninja moves, and then let the crooks live? If you meant me harm, we wouldn't be here right now. Besides… there's something about you… I can't put my finger on it, but I like you. I always trust my gut. It’s always done me right. Besides, it's the least I can do after you risked your lives to save me. Win-Win in my book."
"Good enough for me. It's a viable option. What do you say Eta?"
"Fewer cameras to avoid at his place than the hotels" she shrugged,” Better plan than any".
They wrapped up their dinner, Chester waived to Albert on the way out, and the three headed to his place.
Chester gave them the grand tour. “Kitchen is to the left. There is a Keurig there if you drink coffee. There's also a latte wand if you are the frills type.”
Ash is following just behind her, she can feel his warmth after coming in from the cold.
“Nope, not going there. Get a grip girl.” She said under her breath.
Chester pointed to a big room just off the landing, “The movie theater is set up with a touch screen display menu, just scroll to the movie you want to see, and tap.”
“Wait…” Eta said, “Did you say Movie Theater?”
“Yes, I did.” Chester shrugged. A grin barely escaped the corner of his mouth, “If you close the doors you can turn the volume up as loud as you want it. It's totally sound proof from the rest of the house." He smiled big about that one.
“Some house you got here Chester.” Ash threw a glance at her, eyebrows raised.
“Thanks. Follow me.”
Heading up the stairs, then down the hall to the right, they passed several doors. Pointing to Ash, "You can take the first door, and Eta, you can take the next one. Just so you know, my working hours are just starting, so I'll most likely be asleep when you two wake up.
"Mi casa es Su' casa. I’m usually up about mid-morning to noon. If you need a computer there is a guest computer in the living room, and one in each bedroom. I'll let you get settled, I'll be in my office on the third floor if anyone needs me."
Chester nodded and headed up the second flight of stairs.
"Who is this guy?" Eta said.
"I don't know… but I think we signed up for the wrong career." Ash said. "I'll see you in the morning".
Eta watched him head into his room, and then opened the door to her own.
Room? A suite was more like it.
It had its own bathtub with jets, and empty walk-in closet. She put her bag on the chaise, then laid across the bed. "Wow, this is a really nice mattress too."
As she laid on the bed, she had the sensation of floating... Like she was on a raft in the middle of the sea.
Suddenly, she was not in the room anymore. She was floating above the house. The wind was whipping through her, not around, but through.
She wanted to see closer to the ground and found herself floating to wherever she willed.
At ground level, the light was still on in the house. Chester was working on something.
She thought of Ash and found herself floating through the windows, doors, walls, and into his room.
Ash was sitting on a chair, by the window. His hand under his chin, as he stared outside. He seemed to be lost in thought.
An image filled her mind.
Then she was whisked away from the house and went flying through the air. She was passing over houses at sonic speeds. She was tempted to put her arms out like superwoman, but she was just along for the ride.
As her flight slowed, she came upon a gated compound. There was a manicured lawn at the entrance and private security.
Multiple buildings on the property, but the most interesting was a large tower, 13 stories tall.
At the top of the tower, a light was on through a corner window.
Eta floated to the top of the building, and saw a man with white hair, writing something in a notebook on his desk. He turned and looked in her direction, but he didn't see her. He just stared outside while he spoke into his Bluetooth headset.
Floating down, and then backward, she was hurled through the night, back into her room.
Finally, she was laying in her bed again, staring at the ceiling.
She sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
It's getting worse... these pre-whatever's... she needs answers.
Eta glanced at the clock, it's 11:02 am. She overslept.
Overslept is an overstatement when you have no plans, but she felt like it was oversleeping.
She dressed in a hurry and worked her way down the hall. The smell of food carried her down the stairs and around the corner. Ash was flipping pancakes and stirring sausage.
Chester was sitting at the counter talking… then he turned around to see Eta walk in.
"Hey. I'm not normally awake quite this early, but Ash discovered cookware, and I followed the scent downstairs. I didn't even remember that stuff was in there!"
"I'm glad he found it, I'm starving." Eta gave a nod to Chester and sat down at one of the bar stools.
Ash turned to her, "You OK Slugger? I heard you tossing and turning a bit last night."
"Yeah, I'm alright. But…"
Ash turned back to her. "What is it?"
"I had another one."
"Really? What about this time?"
Eta glanced at Chester and hesitated.
"It's OK…I trust him. I had a buddy run a background on our friend here. No offense Chester." Chester smiled and waved it off, mouth full of coffee, "And it turns out that Chester's security clearance is almost as high as ours"
Eta gave Chester a glance. "OK, what do you do? Exactly, I mean?"
"A little of this, a little of that." Chester laughed. "Here's the thing." Chester pulls out his business card and hands it to Eta. "Internet Data and Program Security Analyst - Chester Jandihar IDAPSA Consultant".
"Wow", she said, rolling the title in her mouth silently.
"Yeah, it's a mouthful. But CEO's get all freaked out when you call yourself a Hacker, so the business title makes them feel better. Basically, I design programs of various kinds for businesses, non-profits, even the government. I also test systems for vulnerabilities and report my findings. Then in my free time, I just build random stuff, programs mostly." Chester shrugged, "So as I said, a little of this, and little of that."
Ash smiled, "He's a regular consultant for the N.S.A."
Eta raised an eyebrow in disbelief. "If you say so…" Eta began to recant the visions she'd been having to catch Chester up to speed. Then the most recent vision, detail for detail, as best as she could remember it.
"You must think we're both nuts… huh?" Eta asked.
"Actually." Chester mused, "I find this fascinating. We've been studying this kind of phenomenon for years."
"You have?" Eta turned to give her full attention.
"Well… We as in those in the science and technology field. Not me personally." Chester pulled up his tablet and starting scrolling through files. "I've worked on a lot of wicked crazy projects, for a lot of organizations. I can say that some of them have researched the kinds of experiences Ash was telling me about, yours too."
"This one…" Chester handed the tablet to Eta who scrolled through the site. "… for example. The Esion Eti'hw Institute & Research Facility. They pronounce that second word like ET-Heeu. I built some seriously intense stuff for them. They're just the kind of people who dabble in your experiences. I wouldn't use them, though, they give me the heebeegeebees. Especially that main guy… what's his name. Thaddeus. I finally turned the project over to some eager MIT brats. I couldn't work with them anymore."
"What kinds of projects? What's the research--" Eta took a quick breath. "The tower."
"Yeah," Chester pointed to the picture, "that's their pride and joy there. Esion Tower."
"No, you don't understand, my vision, I was at that tower last night." She recounted her vision to them.
"The white haired man had to be this guy" Chester took the tablet, navigated to the about page, and handed it back. "Thaddeus J. B. Rotcudnoc, say that ten times fast." he laughed. "I think he said it's Slavic."
Eta could feel the hair raise up on the back of her neck. “That’s him!”
“I knew it…” Chester said, “… heebeegeebees. You two better watch yourselves if he’s involved in this. Here, read the about page.”
Eta read opening out-loud:
"Have you ever wondered what is just beyond this world? Have you thought there had to be more? Religion and Spiritualists have let you down? Turn to science. Our work in quantum mechanics and extra-dimensional evolution is providing solid scientific answers to many of life's oldest questions. The Esion Eti'hw Institute was founded on the groundbreaking principals outlined in the thesis 'Unlocking the Extra-Normal Mind. A study of the human mind’s unlocked potential', By Dr. Richard T. Briar."
"Sounds freaky." She said, "Just like the rest of the kooks I've been reading about the last few weeks.”
"Wait… did you say, Dr. Briar? Let me see that." Ash grabbed the tablet out her hand. He scrolled to the bottom and stopped. His brow furrowed, and lips pursed.
"What's the problem? You look like you just drank bad milk." Eta observed.
"The night before the attack, this guy sat across from me at the coffee shop. He was asking a bunch of weird questions about my fight with the homeless guy. It was almost as if he knew I had seen something. I just passed it off at the time. I had forgotten about him until just now."
"So, you have a strange encounter where you see something that wasn't there… theoretically…" Chester interjected, "… then this guy shows up asking questions. Later that night you are attacked by the 'League of Assassins'. Then last night, Eta has a Vision of Thaddeus at the tower. Yep, I knew that place gave me the creeps, and you two are in it deep."
Eta could feel her skin tighten, and heat rising up in her throat. "So what does this mean?"
Ash put his plate in the sink, "I have no idea, but I need to get some answers. I'm going to do some field reconnaissance. You two be alright for a few hours?"
"Sure," Eta said. "I'll clean my guns. I have a feeling I'll be needing them."
"Cool! You can set all of that up here on the counter. I'll start checking too, see what they've been up to since I stopped working with them. See?” Chester grinned, “I knew I was here for a reason."
He's cute, a little young for her taste. Well... He's not that young. Shake it off girl...
Ash rode the Vulcan to a military surplus store and restocked a few items he thought he would need. He also picked up two uniforms to match the security in the website photos. He threw them into the saddle bag and hopped on. The purr of the motor and vibration running through his body was calming, as all bike rides were. He turned west onto the I-10, then headed north on PCH up to Malibu.
Ash could not get the image of the alley, and the large man behind Chester, out of his mind. The things he often saw on people, the medication he'd been taking for hallucinations. Now it turns out he might not be crazy after all? Or maybe he still was. Nothing has been right since he left.
After a few turns on less populated roads, he arrived at the Esion Eti'hw Institute & Research Facility, Malibu, CA. The property was large, with several buildings in the center, and a long drive from the front gate. One large tower dominating the rest. They weren't just going to just let him in, so he drove past the front gate, and parked down the road, behind a city welcome sign.
He worked his way through brush and sand hills and plopped down on a hill near some of the buildings. He saw hundreds of people coming and going throughout the facility.
Then he sensed he too was being watched.
Ash put down his binoculars and turned his head to the left. A large man, one of the two from the alley where they met Chester, was laying next to him. He was dressed in all white, with a goofy grin on his face.
He nodded and stood up, then motioned for Ash to follow. They walked right up to the edge of the gate, and the man stepped through the fence as though it were not solid. He motioned for Ash to follow.
Ash tentatively put his hand out and pushed right through the fence.
The man walked right up to a guard that was walking by, and purposefully stood in his way. The look on his face was that of a child playing a game.
The man walked through him and put his hand out to Ash. He couldn't hear him, and he didn't open his mouth, but he felt the man say "After you".
They walked together, inspected labs, took a trip into the elevator, up to the CEO's office on the top floor. The two continued to walk side by side, people moving right through them. The large man was always at ease but never spoke. They approached the large double doors to the office and stopped.
A plaque was hung prominently on the red oak, "Thaddeus J. B. Rotcudnoc, Chief Executive Officer.”
Ash looked to his guide for direction, and with a wave of his hand, he understood "After you.” Ash tried to open the door knob, but his hand went through the door, so he half-stepped half-fell through the doorway.
After regaining his balance, he shot a glance back to his silent companion, who was belly laughing, bent over, and pointing at him.
"Funny..." He shot back. "Michael? Gabriel?"
The Guide stood a little straighter, big smile, but shook his head no.
"Fine. I shall call you..." Ash searched for a fitting name. "Bob. That way I can say 'Bob did it' and actually be talking about someone."
The Guide cocked his head to one side, and somewhat to Ash's surprise, he gave an enthusiastic nod to the affirmative and smiled again.
"OK Bob, what are we doing here?" Ash followed his gaze.
The office was large, bigger than most homes. Bookshelves lined the walls on both sides, a conference area was set up front. In the back, behind a half wall, was a desk.
"That desk may as well have been a dining room table in its former life," Ash said.
The two of them walked through to the back of the office, where a tall thin man, in a tailored suit, was talking into the window.
His tuft of white hair nearly glowed in the reflection. A blue tooth perched perfectly upon his ear complimented his square jaw. He was an older man but fit.
He was not just accompanied by a single creature, as with so many others, he was nearly covered in them. They moved in and out of him. A mist covered his ankles, and two creatures, larger than the others, stood by each side. Thaddeus may not have noticed Ash's presence, but the two creatures were not pleased.
Each was nearly 9-foot tall, with the head of a bull, and white paint swiped across their chest. They snorted at Bob, who returned with a smile and wave, not in the least concerned.
Ash backed a little closer to Bob, but followed him to the desk, and stood by the window on the opposite side of the room.
Thaddeus wrapped up his conversation and sat at the desk. He put his hand on the far edge, feeling the grooves in the design.
He paused. Turned back to the window. Stared at Ash…
Ash felt a cold tingle run through his spine. Could Thaddeus see him?
He sniffed the air… tilted his head… Shook his head and sighed.
No. He was staring through Ash.
Turning back, Thaddeus inserted his pen into a small depression just to the edge of the desk. A door revealed itself in the side panel, and inside was a notebook. Thaddeus's snow white hair fell out of place as he bent down to pull it out. He stopped a moment to fix it in a mirror that was stationed prominently on his desktop.
Then, Bob walked out of the window, took ten steps on thin air, turned, and motioned for Ash to follow.
Despite the oddity of the experience thus far, Ash felt his legs and arms cramp up at the thought of walking out of the 13th-floor window.
Tentatively, he pushed his hand through the glass. As with the door, and gate, it went straight through.
Bob waited, arms folded.
Was that a smirk on his face?
Ash took a half step through the glass and found the air to be just as solid as the carpet in the office.
Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes, and put his full weight on the foot, then took three more steps with eyes closed. When he opened his eyes, they were standing on nothing.
Bob took Ash's hand, and then they floated, slowly down to the ground, stopping just shy of it. Floating ten feet above the crowds head, they walked back to the motorcycle. The last steps were like stairs, back to the ground floor.
Bob smiled again, and with a bow, a bright light flashed, blinding Ash for a moment. When his eyes adjusted, Bob was gone.
Somehow, Ash felt that he wasn't really gone.
He turned to continue the same direction he'd ridden on the way in, so as not to pass the guard gate twice.
Turning off of Las Virgenes Rd, he hooked back to LA on the 101.
Eta and Chester were never going to believe this, Ash wasn't sure if he believed.
"I have an appointment to make, and this program will take a few hours to run." Chester took his last sip of Mountain Dew and threw the bottle in the recycle bin. "You are welcome to stay here and get some rest. Or, you can come along if you'd like."
Eta glanced at the code running in the background. "Sure" With a nod, she left a note for Ash, and they grabbed their coats and headed out the door.
In the car, Chester rambled on and on about The Orphanage. "Ms. Wu is one of the most inspiring people I've ever met. She was raised in mainland China. She was a third child and a female, but her parents refused to abort her like the Chinese Government required, so she lived without honor or privilege. Eventually, when she was 15, her parents sent her to the USA hoping for a better life. She was mistreated by her ‘tour guides’, but eventually broke free. Now she runs The Orphanage here in L.A."
Chester nodded to the building. It was a nice place, more like a private university campus. "She takes the ones that no one else will take. Many of her kids will spend the rest of their childhoods here, some the rest of their lives."
They parked, and walked in. The entrance was beautiful, laid with quality white tile, and a marble receptionist’s desk.
"Hey Elaine", Chester waved to the young lady, who couldn't have been more than 17.
She nodded, and smiled, but then turned back to her telephone. "Yes, sir, and what is the address?"
Chester led her to the common room. A library ran the length of one wall, with seating areas to read. There were cubicle-style desks with computers for homework and study, and a separate room to the side for games.
"Hey Chester" A young black girl waived from the computer area. "Whaz up?"
"Jazmin my young protégé," Chester walked over to her "Are you giving Ms. Wu a hard time?"
"Me? Never," she said with obvious sarcasm. "I swear, the computer crashes are not my fault this time. I even tried to fix it, but it's a nasty virus. Worse than any I've seen yet."
She was an older kid, 16 or 17 maybe. Bright blue strands were weaved into her jet black braids. One hundred ribbons waving in the wind when she moved her head. She was a fit young lady, although it was hard to tell for sure under loose jeans and a t-shirt. Eta hardly noticed at first, but her right arm was skinnier than her left. Same length, but half the diameter.
"Who's the chick?" Jazmin asked Chester, and when she looked up Eta was taken back by piercing gray eyes, almost silver.
"She's a friend, Eta".
"Hm. She safe?"
"She's safer than you know or need. Why? What kind of trouble are you into now?"
"Nothing big, but this guy has me worried a bit."
Chester and Eta looked down at her screen. Black boxes, with green letters. "People still use these? I haven't seen a chat room since 1997."
"It's the hackers preferred method of communication. Anonymity is a top priority." Chester said to Eta, turning to Jazmin, "Hey, is that an ARK room?"
"I thought I told you to stay out away from ARK, they can be very dangerous."
"I'm sorry, ARK?" Eta interrupted.
"Anonymous Response Kings," Chester said. "They are a Hacktivist group."
"Is that special branch of Anonymous?"
"They are similar, but not the same group. These guys are more prone to serious, often life-threatening, attacks. Not just the benign pranks often pulled by Anonymous."
"Where did you get this girl?" Jazmin asked.
"She's not a hacker, but she's safe. Trust me."
"I don't trust anyone, that's how I stay alive. Besides," Jazmin pointed at the screen, "I'm not hacking for them, just watching for activity. Surfing for entertainment."
Eta looked down as Jazmin's fingers ran the keyboard. "bds33s@ll" was next to the words flying across her screen.
"So what's your problem and with who?" Chester asked.
"This guy." Jazmin pointed to the screen, where the name appeared as "D@rkM@tt3r".
"DarkMatter", Chester said. "That's cute."
"Well, he's not cute. He's on the Jihad sections trying to stir up trouble makers. I've been trying to hack his firewalls, but he's got a lot of security in place."
"Just stay clear of trouble. Make sure to report anything real bad to the FBI, and stay out of it."
"Yes, Father." Jazmin rolled her eyes.
A woman walked in from an adjacent office, "Peter." she said to a young man with a hoodie. "Did you complete your homework before turning on the game?"
"Yes, Ms. Wu."
"Um..." the kid fidgeted, "I'll go get that started right now Ms. Wu."
Chester pointed to the boy as he left, "That kid has been through 14 foster homes, and he's 16. There is almost no chance he could be adopted anywhere now. But Ms. Wu keeps him in line, and he's been showing great improvement, he just needed to have someone show him love and discipline."
"How did you find this place?" Eta asked.
"Well..." Chester smiled sheepishly, "I was given a list of places I could use to fulfill community service, and I threw darts at the wall. The first one stuck on this place. What I didn't know, was how much Ms. Wu would mean to me. She treated me like one of her troubled kids, and she was just as tough on me as them."
Ms. Wu walked slowly passed a few other kid and checked out their studies, then made her way to Chester and Eta.
"Ms. Wu, good to see you," Chester said as the woman approached.
She was small, maybe 4'9"? It was hard to say, but she looked like she was in her late 60's.
After some introductions, Ms. Wu turned to Eta, "Dear, I need this young man for a few minutes to fix my computers. These kids keep downloading things. Would you be willing to wait here?"
Eta nodded in the affirmative.
Eta walked over to the bookshelves and glanced at the titles. They seemed to have everything from Honors World History to Sesame Street.
She grabbed a book on US History and sat down in a nearby chair. She put her feet up on the ottoman and leafed through the historical photos.
After a few minutes, a young girl walked by the bookshelf and sat down next to her.
"Your pretty," she said, not looking up from her book.
Her speech was odd. Not Down Syndrome, but maybe Autism, Eta thought. "Thank you" Eta replied.
"You have dreams..." The kid said.
A little taken back, "Yes, most people do. Do you have dreams?" trying to make conversation.
"Yes..." not looking up from her book, "... but not like yours. Yours come true."
Eta was not sure how to respond, she just stared at the girl for what felt like an eternity.
"You need to stop him. That Tower Man is scary.” The girl stood up and walked away with her book.
Chester walked up behind her, “She's another one that cannot be adopted, but such a brave heart when you get to know her.
"She certainly was interesting to speak with" Eta felt a shudder run through her spine.
"She spoke to you?"
"Something like that."
"You should feel privileged. She doesn't normally speak with anyone until she's known them for a few weeks at least." He bumped his shoulder into hers, encouragingly. "I'm done here, let's get back to my place and check on the program.”
Dr. Briar paced his office. He'd lost Col. Ashland in Oregon. Wild-Card, as his Benefactor now called him. But more importantly, he'd lost the Problem Child again.
At every turn, he was sure he'd found him, only to come up empty. His benefactor was losing his patience, and Dr. Briar was losing his usefulness. He needed something, anything, any kind of lead.
The black screen became to fill with green words.
Dr. Briar held his breath.
“Any news on the Wild Card?”
He typed back, “All quiet. But I still feel he may be getting results we need to monitor. This could be the breakthrough we were looking for. Imagine the science-”
“No.” The reply came abruptly, “Problem Child?”
“No new leads.”
“Do I need to seek a replacement?”
Dr. Briar felt a chill run up his spine. “No. I will figure something out. “
“Let's hope you do.”
Butterfly's in the stomach, was becoming an all too common occurrence.
Dr. Briar knew that he would have to take risks for a scientific breakthrough, but putting his test subjects down, and now becoming a well-paid, well-equipped bounty hunter, was not in his original plan. He wasn't fit for this work, but his expertise on the subject was needed...
…for the time being.
Back at the house, Chester was working on one side of the counter, and Eta sat on the other side.
"You know the problem with these MIT brats?" Chester smirked. "They are way too sure of themselves. They are so convinced that they're the smartest kid in the room, and everyone has to answer to them. They've never had to make it on their own or do their own work. They get sloppy in their life and sloppy in their code... and… that's how I just got in." He slapped the desk next to the keyboard, quite self-satisfied.
"Chester… if you don't mind me asking…" Eta kept her head down clearing the barrel of her Beretta 9mm. "How does someone with your obvious talent end up teaching computers for dummies at a homeless shelter, and hanging out with orphans?
"Well, it's a long story, but not I'm not sure it's a terribly interesting one... I was one of the youngest graduates of Caltech to date, I was working with a major IT firm all bright eyed, ready to change the world. Then I started to realize that all I was doing was making really ugly people a lot of money. So I started drinking, then came the drugs.
Soon I couldn't code anymore so I lost my job. My parents couldn't bare the fact their son turned into an addict, so they stopped returning my telephone calls. I ended up doing things I'd rather forget. You met the gang…"
Chester paused for a sip of coffee, "One day, standing in front of a judge I was told I could take jail or A.A plus community service. So, I chose A.A. and service. I had nowhere to go, but a guy at one of the meetings told me about the Union Gospel Mission. So I stayed there… every night for months.”
“After a while, I started to notice how badly the place needed new computers, but they couldn't budget them in. I made a few calls to an old professor I knew at Caltech, and he sent me all the parts I needed to build new computers, custom made for the shelter. They had never seen so many computers in one place, and so high end. They were afraid they'd get stolen. I showed them how to lock them down, and use them.“
“Eventually, I migrated from resident to volunteer, and then honorary staff." I create code and do odd projects for money, and I make enough in my spare time to live better than most people, so I spend most of my time helping people down at the mission.”
“Consulting for the N.S.A. gave me a big break back into the world of coding professionally. I work for them, my record disappears (and so do any news articles about it). It's not the life my parents had in mind… but it's more satisfying than making rich people a lot of money so that they can spend it on their mistresses and toys--"
Chester paused and cocked his head, "What the?"
The code was re-writing itself on his screen at lightning speed. The code kept re-writing, but a chat box appeared.
-bds33s@ll: “You were taking too long. Hope you don't mind."
"Jazmin," Chester said.
He typed back.
-r@0stedch35tnts: “What are you doing in my hack?"
"B.D. What?" Eta asked.
"Baby Doe Sees All. She was found crying in a dumpster after a botched late term abortion. The tag on her feet when Ms. Wu went to get her said "Baby Doe". Jazmin was the name Ms. Wu gave her, but the Baby Doe became something she latched on to."
"That's so sad."
"Sad, but too common. Planned Parenthood is nothing the media makes them out to be. They were founded by hard-core racists as a form of population control. Their stated goal was to kill black babies, so they don't grow up to be black adults. That's why you see more Planned Parenthood clinics in minority neighborhoods than anywhere else. Something else people don't know is how many mothers either die or are permanently injured at those clinics. If a few black mothers get hurt in the genocide, who's going to notice? That's their plan anyway."
"How is that possible? Everyone talks about how much good they do. How can people not know this?"
"Politicians and Media are paid well to keep it out of the press. It's a low-class slaughter house, pretending to be a 'women's health clinic'. Jazmin's arm was hurt when the doctor who barely made it through grad school botched the abortion. He did not even get a charge pressed against him. They are worse than Al Capone ever was. A few of us Hacktivists have started attacking their websites, shutting them down, publishing secret records, etc. We're starting to turn the tide, but only just barely."
-bds33s@ll: “I've been in your hack for hours, but you were boring me with the long hand. So I thought I'd help. But I want half the prize money this time."
-r@0stedch35tnts: “There is no prize money. This is a serious hack.”
-bds33s@ll: “If you say so. I guess I’ll still help, but prize money would be better.”
-r@0stedch35tnts: “I suppose it could be done faster this way. Only this once."
Pardon me a moment, this part will take some concentration working with two." Chester's' fingers were flying again.
It's amazing how fast the kid’s fingers could type. The girls were faster. The two of them ebbed and flowed through the code like a dance.
This kid could type in his coding language, faster than Eta could think in English. Chester was something else. She called him “kid”, but he wasn’t that much younger than her. Not bad on the eyes either.
As he was distracted with code, she wandered the room studying his life. You can never turn off the soldier, or the spy.
Besides, even pointless analysis of the contents of his bookshelf was better than the thoughts of what might be happening to her own mind.
Insanity was creeping just outside the door. She could feel its cold presence. No. She's not allowing herself to think that way. She must stay focused.
Even if that means distracting herself with "Quantum Mechanics for Mathematicians by Leon A. Takhtajan". Really? Who is this guy?! Eta looked out the window and watched some birds pecking in the yard…
"Hey, this is interesting." Chester waived her over.
Hopefully, the Intel Chester gave them was still current. Combined with his half-real visit the other day, Ash was feeling confident at least.
Chester can only hack computers, not notebooks. So if Ash's "trip" was accurate they needed that notebook. Eta had seen him writing in it the night before, so that was two confirmations.
Ash told Eta and Chester that he had the surreal walk through, and about the notebook, but he left out the part about his having a companion or guide. Visions of these creatures were one thing… Interactions with otherworldly beings? That just seemed… too weird to talk about just yet.
They left Ash's Vulcan at Chester's place. Just in case someone spotted them, they could not risk having it tied back to Ash through registration tags. An Uber dropped them off in a tourist town nearby, they selected a store as a regroup point if things went sideways.
They worked their way through the sand and brush under cover of night to get to the Esion Eti'hw Institute.
They rested and watched for a few minutes. Ash was half expecting another visit, but when nothing happened, he decided to press forward.
The compound didn't seem heavily guarded at the time, Ash knew that missing personnel would just trigger the alarm. He snuck in through a side window after the guards had passed. He could see men in lab coats running tests and reading outputs.
There was the slight scent of rubbing alcohol, lemon scented.
Ash opened the door of an unused room, and got out of the hallway, out of sight.
Eta followed closely behind a few moments later.
She looked tired. She’s not sleeping well, he thought to himself.
Moving their way across the room to another doorway on the opposite side of the large room, a slight opening allowed enough sight-line to assess the situation on the other side. They would need to be quick.
Ash and Eta moved silently and swiftly down the hall toward the office towers.
They were dark, so odds were that they were under light guard and they could be in and out without being seen.
The elevator would be easier, but that would alert someone to its use.
The stairs would be longer, but they would have a greater chance of avoiding their being spotted. Hopefully, the cameras were already looped, they'd have to rely on Chester to complete that part of the mission.
They didn't want to risk breaking radio silence to confirm. If he saw them heading into a trap, he'd break silence to alert them.
As they entered the main floor of the office suite they checked infrared and found no motion detectors in the immediate area.
Eta made quick work of the office doors, and they were both inside. It was just as he remembered in his... visit?
They made their way to the back of the room, and Eta walked up to the windows. "So... You just stepped out. Huh?"
"I'm not sure I'd do that again, under normal circumstances, but yep. Just walked right out."
"That had to be a vision or dream right? It didn't really happen?" She pressed her gloved hand against the glass and pressed a little.
Ash felt along the edge for the depression the CEO had used earlier. "I don't know. It felt real, I wasn't sleeping before or after. What is a vision anyway? I'm no theologian or philosopher, but I felt like I was really here."
"Still, real or not, stepping out of a perfectly safe building... Feels scary from where I'm standing right now."
"It was. Not gonna lie." Ash pressed the area, and the side popped out with a hiss." Found it... Shoot!"
"Well, that sucks... Waste of a perfectly good trip."
"We still have to get out. He probably takes it with him when he leaves, I wish I'd thought of it."
They made their way out of the office, down the hall, and started back down the stairs; but footsteps and chatter below in the stairwell gave them pause. Ten levels down. The guards were making their rounds, chatting about the latest football game. Ash looked up and didn't see anyone that direction. It would be a tight race, but it was the plan B they had discussed. They kept the footfalls as silent as possible as they made their way back up the stairs, trying to keep an ear on the guards below, and not alert them to their presence.
A few floors up, and they heard the sound of radio chatter below.
They stopped to listen.
The control room couldn't see the guards in the stairwell.
The loop had been discovered, they were compromised, but no-one knew they were here yet, they heard the guards coming up the stairs faster now.
They couldn't risk breaking radio silence to discuss it with Chester, in fear that the guards below would hear.
Ash and Eta kept to the walls and made their way quickly. If they stepped lightly enough the guards wouldn't hear them over their incessant chatter and yelling "Clear".
Ash was so focused on the guards below, that he failed to watch the doorways as they passed them. The 11th-floor door opened just as they passed it, and lights flashed from the rifle.
Or was that a rifle?
It was a bright blue light... not the yellow red muzzle flash it should have been.
Ash knew it as he was going down...
...I hate Tasers...
In a one on one fight, Ash could have come back fighting but a then second Taser hit him. The guards from below had caught up.
Three, no four men were on him, holding him down. The needle pinching his arm would mean powerful sleep.
Maybe these were professionals after all. Now he knew what it felt like to be the victim of a smash and grab. Such a rookie mistake too, letting his guard down. He’s out of practice.
They should have come in slower, or divided their attention.
As he felt himself going under the power of sedation, he forced his eyes slightly open, he could see a figure coming toward him dressed in a black suit.
Before he closed his eyes, Ash heard a sigh.
It sounded like disappointment.
Was that himself sighing?
Darkness came over him...
... The room always started out so bright. The white room. White walls, cold metal, hissing from overhead... the familiar dream, the dream he'd had every night for eight years now... The dark room would be next. He hated the dark room. But the white room wasn't so bad, except for that incessant hissing.
Eta ran for all her legs would carry her, three guards were behind her.
She was losing them, she could outrun these mall cops any day. Up ahead she saw the 12th-floor door open, and one came toward her.
Running time was over for the moment. She'd have to stand her ground against this one, and the three behind.
She saw the Taser flash, she side swiped and it made no contact.
She used the momentum to grab the Taser and pull it toward her, while she swung her elbow into his chin.
Whipping around she tossed him like a ragdoll at the other three coming up the stairs.
In another life, she could have just shot them all and been done with it, but these were innocent guards. She broke into their facility.
These were not enemy combatants, and she couldn’t just blow them all away.
Still, getting caught isn’t an option either.
For split fractions of a second time slowed down. Should she stand against these four or had she thrown them off enough to regain her lead?
Nope. One had gotten passed the others without losing momentum.
He came at her with the Taser too.
What is it with these guys and Tasers?
She allowed the wires to fly passed as she used the stairwell handle for grip and plucked herself up into the air, and landed a kick right to the face.
He hurled back into the other three who were just getting untangled.
That was the break in momentum she needed.
Eta flew up the stairs faster now, highest speed. She couldn't worry about Ash right now. He could handle himself. If he'd been caught, she couldn't help him if she were caught too.
Up the stairs, out the access door to the roof. She pulled her sidearm and fired three rounds into the padlock and landed a good jump kick into the door, which flew open before her.
She tore a piece of her jacket and let it hang on a bolt near the top of the emergency exit ladder. She then threw the jacket down the side of the building. It caught the wind and landed out toward the edge of the field. They would hunt her down in the fields, while she went another way.
Meanwhile, she found an access panel and hid inside the ducting.
She waited for a half hour to ensure that they were all on the hunt for her elsewhere, and then Eta slowly exited the access panel.
She worked her way down the fire escape on the dark side of the building.
She could see they'd taken the ruse. Whole rounds of guards with flashlights were working their way through the field, others in vehicles were driving the field looking for further signs of escape. There were even two helicopters searching the fields further out.
Helicopters? Man, security is tighter here than we thought.
Eta noticed that two of the guards on break had left their uniform jackets hanging on the stairwell when they ran out to join the chase.
"Fortuitous.", she whispered.
She donned the jacket, and now matched the other guards perfectly, the pants were so similar they'd never have been inspected, even close up.
She took the tie back from her hair and let it down with a shake. She walked in a hurried manner but purposed to look like someone on a mission for the boss (not someone running for her life) toward the gate.
She slipped out the back gate right toward all the fuss and took a Hummer with her.
Why do they always leave the keys in these things?
She picked up a guard along the way, and ordered him to watch from the passenger side and she looked out from the driver’s side. As they whirred along, he tried to talk once, and she reprimanded him for not paying attention.
"We have a fugitive on the loose and you want to make small talk soldier?"
"No Ma'am!” came his reply. He didn't so much as look her direction for the rest of the journey.
She stopped along the road.
"Hey, let's split up. We can cover more ground. You check over that hill. If you see anything call it in. I'll head down the other way, and we'll meet back here in a half hour." She barked.
He gave a nod, avoiding her stare directly, and ran off over the hill.
She took off down the road and toward the town.
Eta pulled in behind a truck stop, lost the flak jacket, and twisted the belly of her undershirt into a knot.
Nothing would attract attention away from her face faster than this getup.
Eta could not wait for an Uber at this time of night. She found an older Ford Escort parked on the darker side of the building, late 1990's model. She pulled out her Leatherman and worked on hot-wiring the ignition. In two minutes she was driving up the on-ramp toward the I-10.
She needs to break radio silence, but not yet, not until she was sufficiently out of range. After she checks in with Chester, she can reroute to the rendezvous point.
Dr. Briar put his face his hands and sighed. Ash was in his custody, but Eta was missing.
Why are they together, hadn’t he given strict orders to keep them separate?
How did they manage to find him so quickly? Normally, when a patient finds the site, they contact him directly. Maybe the attack in Oregon was backfiring on them. If they do not find her, there could be hell to pay.
A blinking caught his attention. His monitor whirred to life, and the cursor was blinking on the screen.
-bds33s@ll: “You said if I ever had any information for you, I should contact you. How much is that worth?”
He recognized the handle. One of the orphanage kids that he found when their former IT man was working for him. She used to come and assist from time to time, some kind of mentorship program. Unlike the IT man, this kid was willing to hack anything for a price.
-Dr. Briar: “It depends on the Intel. What do you have?”
-bds33s@ll: “My former mentor is using my code to hack your system as we speak. I can lock him out. What’s that worth to you?”
-Dr. Briar: “$50,000 would be enough?”
-bds33s@ll: “Make it $100,000.”
-Dr. Briar: “How about $75,000, it’s not worth anymore.”
-bds33s@ll: “Deal. You’ll have your system up and running in 45 minutes or I’ll give you a $10,000 discount if it takes longer.”
-Dr. Briar: “Agreed.”
“Now,” Dr. Briar spoke to himself, “that’s interesting.”
Ash was on an island in the South Pacific. He'd just sent a UAV with "stolen" technology back to base. Routine training mission.
There was a flash of light... the light was gone and it was from a pen light.
A man in a white coat stood before him, he couldn't make out his face... The scene went black again.
The silence was deafening. Except for that constant hiss from above.
The light was still too bright to open his eyes. But the sound was familiar.
I know this place...
That stupid dream again.
He could feel cold steel against his wrists.
This was new. He didn't recall being locked to a chair in his dream.
Then he heard... click. click. click.
Ash forced his eyes open, squinting at first, to see a room very similar to one from his dream.
As his eyes focused, he could see that this one was longer, the table was at one end. And there was a single clock on the wall. This room had a pronounced and obvious door, with a glass window.
"Oh good... you are awake. I'll be with you in just a little while."
That voice. I know that voice.
Ash took in his surroundings. Nothing much to see. Nothing but white walls, white chair, white table, white clock. Silver Handcuffs on his wrists.
No silly outfit, he was simply wearing his black gear from the night before, minus the weapons. Blood had dried on his sleeve where the guard got a good kick with his boot. It looked like they patched him up, maybe a few stitches in the shoulder.
Ash noticed four cameras, one in each corner.
The door opened, and in walked a small bald man in a lab coat.
"Good morning Captain Ashland. It's nice to have you back among us. You took a pretty nasty fall last night, and put three of my guards in the hospital."
"Glad I could help." Ash Smiled.
Always make sure your captor knows you are in charge.
Dr. Briar returned the smile. "It seems you and I have some unfinished business. As soon as we track down your friend, we'll have questions for her too. My best head hunters are looking for her now.”
He placed a file on the desk. “Tell me, Captain, how much do you remember about me?"
"Call me Ash. You are Dr. Briar, we met outside the cafe in Oregon, and you smell like peppermint candy."
"Yes, all true. But how about before that time at the coffee shop, is there anything else you remember about me?"
"No. Just what I’ve read about you online. Should there be?"
"We shall see." Dr. Briar pulled out some wires and pads. "While you were out, you were injected with a serum of my own design. It will help you be more forthcoming. I'm simply going to attach these to you for monitoring. I promise it won't hurt. We tried putting them on while you were out, but you kept sweating them off...." He placed the pads on Ash's temples, neck, chest, and forearms.
"Tell me, how long have you been having these nightmares?"
"Are you my psychologist now?
"Let's just say that I am an interested party."
"I get bad dreams, left over from the war. Not that it's any of your business."
Dr. Briar continued to press with question after pointless question.
Ash found it to be the oddest interrogation he has ever been aware of. Not once did Dr. Briar ask him why he broke in, or what he hoped to accomplish, or what he had done while in the facility.
He just kept pressing him with questions about his life, habits, and preferences in food. If he was trying to bore him into slipping up and giving an important detail, it just might work.
It was the kind of small talk Ash always tried to avoid in normal life, and yet he was tied to a chair. So he could either answer these pointless questions or say nothing.
He was pretty sure that nothing was a bad option because they'd probably put him back away for a while. He would use this opportunity to counter-interrogate. So he kept Dr. Briar talking while he answered the Life Survey.
After what felt like hours of incessant questioning, but the clock assured him it was only 45 minutes, Dr. Briar placed is pen on top of his notebook, and leaned back into the chair. His eyebrows furrowed, and the skin around his fat nose wrinkled.
Ash, sat back in his chair and let the urge to break his own thumbs to escape the handcuffs pass for a moment.
The door was still locked, and he didn't want to risk killing the good Doctor. He was most definitely someone who could not be trusted, but he wasn't yet sure he needed to die.
Not yet anyway.
A bright flash, Ash closed his eyes.
When his vision cleared, the Doctor was still sitting, staring at his notebook.
Bob was now standing behind him, smiling again. He walked over to the desk, and leaned down, staring up at Dr. Briar. His smile faded slightly, and he shook his head. Bob stood again and nodded to Ash.
Without any audible words, Ash felt him say "Play along".
Bob put his finger on the notebook that held the good doctor's attention and pulled it ever so slightly across the desk toward Ash.
Dr. Briar sat back abruptly, eyes wide, and gasped.
Bob again pulled the notebook closer to Ash.
"What are you reading there Doc?" He decided to play along.
"How-?" Dr. Briar cut himself off. "How are you doing this?"
"I'm not doing anything." Ash didn't want to lie, per say.
"What were you thinking just now, while I was reading?"
"I was just bored of the silence, and wondering what you were reading... Hence my question."
"But how did you move the notebook?"
"Move the notebook?" Ash raised his voice in feigned shock at the suggestion. "I did no such thing. I'm sitting over here. Are you feeling alright?"
The good doctor stood up and stood next to Ash. "I want you to think about that notebook, just like you were a moment ago. Think with all your mind how you want to read it."
"OK, whatever you say doc." Ash squinted at the notebook, fighting back a grin.
Bob nudged the book half way across the desk.
"My goodness... keep going".
Ash kept squinting, Bob picked the notebook off the desk, floated it into the air, the slowly carried it over to Ash. Inch by inch, he brought it over.
Ash felt this was the stupidest parlor trick he'd ever seen, but then if he could not see Bob, it would be quite a different show.
Dr. Briar took a step back, behind Ash, holding his breath.
Bob placed the notebook gently on Ash's lap.
"Astonishing-" Dr. Briar let out. "I must get the readings. I have to go... Uh... Don't go anywhere."
"I'm handcuffed to a chair?"
"Yes. Right." Dr. Briar grabbed the notebook and half walked, half tripped over his own feet as he ran out of the door, leaving Ash alone in the rectangular white room.
Bob looked very pleased with himself.
Ash let out a little laugh.
Dr. Briar sits at the monitor, reviewing the footage, watching as they place Ash in the chair, and cuff him in place. Similar setting to when he first met him.
Thaddeus, we cannot push him any further, he's already been in the room longer than most others, and his vitals are dangerously out of control. We must put an end to this test… or give him a rest and start again.
"You Dr. Briar, like these experiments, are temporary and expendable… you would do well to remember that."
A chill crept over his spine, from his tailbone, up his neck, and into his head... His skin became cold as the realization dawned on him… He was never the one in control.
When he'd brought Thaddeus on, he'd been so hungry for the financial backing and the seeming eagerness that he showed in the project, he'd never stopped to consider that Thaddeus would take over.
"…I'll be in the observation lounge that I paid so much money to build. The Air Force needs results. If we lose him, I will handle it. Proceed." Thaddeus stepped out of the room and walked down the hall.
Dr. Briar slumped into his chair with the realization… he'd sold his science, his soul, to this partnership. Without this financial backing, he'd have to pull out and stop everything. Shameful though it may be, the scientist in him was curious to see what would happen if he pushed the patient over the edge.
So he turned back to the monitor, and kept one eye on the vitals, then turned pushed the slider one notch higher. "It's beginning... the biometrics just spiked."
"Good." The answer was curt.
The previous test subjects had nowhere near the discipline that Ash did. This should be an interesting observation. He'd been incredible so far. Getting a trained military man, accustomed to being alone for days and weeks, a survival expert. He had already outlasted every scientist, street volunteer, and audio geek they had run through the tests. Many of them didn't make it through the prep room, but they never had anyone last this long, he'd been in there for three days and now he's starting to show signs of a dimensional tear.
"You are a genius!” Dr. Briar spoke into the observation lounge speaker.
"Yes, Dr. Briar I am! That is why you brought me here."
Thaddeus replied. "To fix this reject project and bring something valuable out of it. Keep me appraised of any changes, I'm leaving for now."
Dr. Briar could see through the window as the black suited man turned and left the room. His tuft of white hair bouncing along as he walked away.
That was 8 years ago, the beginning of the end of his life.
Now he was still here, cleaning up the mess his Benefactor had left him with. Dr. Briar watched the vital signs on the monitor, much more advanced than the ones they used on Ash's first visits.
They now used a bio-implant chip. It could be placed as a sub-dermal, nothing more than an insect bite to the unaware patient.
Thanks to the fight last night, they were able to put one in Ash's arm, disguised in the patch up they did of the existing cut.
Hopefully, he'd never know it was there.
He slowly pushed up the fader labeled, "White Noise".
It was a bit of a misnomer, as white noise is an even amount of each frequency, and this was adjusted to their purposes, but it came through as a hissing sound nevertheless.
Ash was stirring, he'd be awake soon. He would go and complete the mission. His stomach turned at the thought.
The phone chirped, and he picked it up. "Dr. Briar speaking."
"It's Thaddeus. Are you positive you cannot find the Problem Child without him?"
"Yes, I'm sure. We've tried everything, he's evaded us at every turn. We need EH's to find an EH. Col. Ashland has shown exceptional promise, the most impressive we've seen."
"Very well, he may still be of some use to us. He will need..." Thaddeus paused. "... Motivation."
Dr. Briar's stomach tightened.
Two hours passed since she had left the Tower.
Eta was feeling the intense pressure to get back to Chester and make a game plan. Her training told her to make sure she wouldn't be followed first. She'd borrowed a car from Denny's parking lot. She'd driven in the wrong directions for several miles, making frequent turns, watching for familiar faces or vehicles... after an hour she was sure she wasn't followed, or found.
She parked the car at a different Denny's, placed the keys into an envelope with some cash (enough to buy a better car), and put it on the floor board by the pedals. She called an anonymous tip from a pay phone.
With luck, the Police would have the car before the owner knew it was missing. She'd wiped it down for prints and evidence.
Five minutes later, the Metro Bus took her to the Metro Rail.
That was four hours ago when she arrived at Union Station. She'd walked from there. The car they had rented was in a safe place, it was rented under an assumed name, so the Institute shouldn't be able to find it. They'd have to go back for it when it was safe unless Ash could get to it without being seen.
When she walked up to Chester’s place and stepped in, she could hear him typing away.
He turned around in relief. "Oh man! I'm so glad you are safe!"
"I am, but I think they have Ash. I came back here to regroup and re-gear, then I'm headed back up there."
"Actually, Ash wasn't the one I was worried about. You were the one I was worried about..."
He paused. His eyes were not on her face. “Um. Nice outfit.”
Eta felt the skepticism rise up, she could always feel it in her left eyebrow. Heat run up her neck.
“How did you get here?”
"Good choice.” Chester had turned back to the computer. “It worked. I've tapped into every system they have, and they don't know I'm inside. They have him in a room controlled by electronic locks. These people obviously never considered a real cyber threat after I left. All my back doors are still in place."
The monitor showed Ash strapped to an expensive looking chair, in the middle of a white room. His arms restrained with metal cuffs.
"That room feels familiar." She said, mostly to herself.
"Now, I can work miracles with systems, but there is nothing I can do about those cuffs." Chester threw up his hands. "That is all up to--"
“What is it?”
“Someone is re-writing my code.”
“Is that possible?”
“Anything is possible, but how did they find me in the system so quickly?”
The screen went black. A single message “bds33s@ll: Your session has been terminated.”
“No… she thinks this is a game. She has no idea what’s she just did!” Chester put his hands up in the air, stood and started pacing.
His face and neck became red, he picks up his laptop and tossed it against the wall. Shattering it into little pieces.
“She put a virus into my system while I wasn’t looking. That PC is dead. I have to go upstairs to Big Bertha.”
“Big Bertha?” Eta said, “Really?”
Chester smiled again, slightly, and shrugged. “It’s a monster machine. I need to hurry. I have no idea what’s going on in there right now.”
"You monitor from here. I'll stand by in case he needs a ride."
"Where will you get another ride?" Chester glanced back. “You took the last bus to get here, no more lines running tonight.”
"I'll improvise." Eta held up the new burner phones Chester had prepared just in case and waved it at him. Then turned around and headed out the door.
The Doctor ran out of the room, very excited. That was an hour ago.
The clock beat away on the wall.
Bob sat on the desk, swinging his legs back and forth, looking very pleased with himself.
Ash still wasn't sure what to think of this. The Tower checked out almost as expected, minus the missing journal. But, why lead him here, just to get caught with no journal? So this wasn't a hallucination, right? If this wasn't, what do you call it?
The door opened, the doctor came back in, but this time, he was accompanied by the same white haired man
Ash had seen in the office.
The white tuft of bouncing hair walked over and sat on the edge of the desk, staring at Ash.
"Show me" Thaddeus opened his hand, and there was a pen laying on his palm.
"I'm not sure it works like that." Ash said "But I'll try.
He gave his best look of stern concentration. He tried to pretend it was a Cheeseburger. This was not because he believed that he was actually doing anything, but it helped his performance. He was really hungry, and a Cheeseburger sounded great right now... Or Thai. Yes. Thai...
Bob walked over to the outstretched hand and pick up the pen, gently at first. He floated the pen around the space between them. Up. Down. Making figure signs in the air. Then with a grin, Bob tossed it up in the air, and it stuck into a sound proof ceiling panel, like an arrow in the center of its bullseye.
"Sorry about," Ash said, fighting back a smile. "I think I lost control for a moment there."
"Interesting," Thaddeus said, turning to the doctor. "You are sure about this?"
The doctor shrugged but said nothing.
"Very well." Thaddeus pulled a chair around and sat face to face with Ash. "I have just decided, against my better judgment, to trust you, Col Ashland."
"OK. Thank you... I think. Trust me how?"
Offer trust to the captive, good technique. Ash used it himself in Afghanistan.
"Your friends have attempted a hack of our security system which means that the system is now resetting. You should know that the reset process has also given us the ability to backtrace them. I'm not sure how you managed to hire our former IT man, but this should prove quite useful for us. And dangerous for you."
Ash decided to go along with whatever this was for the time being. "You have my attention."
"I had determined to have you killed today when I got everything I needed from you." He leaned back a little.
"Just like I was supposed to have you killed in Oregon. Apparently, I needed to hire better men."
"You hired Russians..." Ash snorted. "I could have heard them from a mile away. Next time hire an American or at least Australian."
"I will take note of that, thank you." He did not smile. "Chester Jandihar is our former hire. We have all his records, including his home address. I'm assuming this is where I can pick up Eta too. I could have the three of you removed from the playing field. Quietly. Then I could move on to other, more pressing projects."
Ash felt his eyebrows crunch. He could break his own thumbs to get out of the cuffs, but then he'd be inhibited from a real fight. And this guy looked like he could handle himself.
"Instead..." Thaddeus continued, "I will offer you an olive branch, of sorts."
"I want to put my hit for the three of you on hold."
"The three of us?" Ash sat a little straighter.
"You brought poor Chester into this, he must be accounted for in the equation." Thaddeus took a deep breath. "As much as I do not like loose ends, I have a problem that is worse than you. We call him The Problem Child. I need you to find him and bring him to me. Alive. If you can do that, I will cancel my hit on all three of you. If you fail, the hit will proceed. Do you understand?"
"Do you accept my offer?"
“How do I know you won’t carry out your hit when we’re done?”
Ash studied his face, he was serious. "How much time do we have to find this Problem Child?"
Thaddeus glanced at his wrist, looking at a very expensive analog watch. "3 weeks. If you haven't found him by then, you are of no use to me."
"Agreed." Ash sighed. What have I myself got into now?
"The doctor here will fill you in. Long stories bother me." Thaddeus stood, and brushed his pant legs, and tugged at his jacket. Then left the room.
The doctor looked distraught, sitting behind his desk like a broken puppy. "That's my benefactor... Nice guy huh?"
"So Doctor," Ash said. "Looks like I have a mission assignment. Care to fill me in on what I need to know?"
"Tell me-" Dr. Briar stood and began pacing back and forth behind the desk. “Are you familiar with Psychotropic Warfare?"
"Sure" Ash replied. "We used various forms in the field, for crowd disbursement."
"Well, you only experienced the tip of the iceberg. Those were the weapons that were tested and released. Many thousands of others are being researched by DARPA, and those funded by people like them."
"Allow me to indulge in a little background, this is my life's work I'm about to share with you." The doctor slowed his pacing. "I am only authorized to tell you what you need to know for this mission, but you will need context so bear with me.”
“At the turn of the century one of the most brilliant men of his time, Nicola Tesla, performed experiments with electricity. Some mathematicians and scientists believe that Tesla's work would provide the basis for understanding seemingly paranormal phenomena like telepathy."
The doctor stopped pacing and motioned to Ash. "Have you heard of Extremely Low Frequency or ELF?"
"You got me there," Ash sat back again, "No idea".
"When researchers started applying Tesla's equations in electrical waves to sound waves, they found interesting applications. The human ear can generally hear between 20 Hertz to 20,000 Hertz. Exceptions outside that range are possible but rare. ELF started as experiments using "sound" frequencies below the level of human hearing. Think of a dog hearing a dog whistle, but you can't. Same idea, but the dog whistle is higher than normal human hearing, and the ELF's are lower. When ELF's are produced at high-pressure levels, think volume, they have been found to cause interesting physiological results."
"Dr. Briar, your enthusiasm is hard to miss, but I'm missing the point I think."
"Yes, yes, bear with me and I will get to the point, I promise. Research has shown that external ELF magnetic fields induce electric fields and currents in the body which, at very high field strengths, cause nerve and muscle stimulation and changes in nerve cell excitability in the central nervous system…”
Dr. Briar turned, Ash thought he had the look of a giddy school child showing off his new toy.
“…but they can do more than just irritate the body and mind. Prolonged exposure to ELF's from normal electronic appliances, like TV's and Smart Phones, have been shown to activate the ATM-Chk2-p21 pathway in HaCaT cells, inhibiting cell proliferation."
Ash raised an eyebrow, “Meaning?”
"Meaning, that they change the brain and cell structure itself!" The doctor's eyes almost glowed at the suggestion. "Several decades ago I was working as a Higher Research Scientist at the National Physical Laboratory in England. I was in charge of a project to study Optimum Biological Frequency Resonance or OBFR. The hypothesis was that our biological system is "tuned into" the background frequency of our planet, which is a steady pulse of 7.83 hertz. While testing several new acoustic chambers I stumbled across an interesting development in our Anechoic Chamber. The staff nicknamed it the Negative Sound Chamber--"
Ash interrupted, "I'm sorry, Negative Sound?"
"Yes, it does 'sound' odd, doesn't it?” the doctor chuckled at his own joke. “The room is located 100's of feet below ground level to avoid any level of ambient noise, and then covered in deep sound baffling wall to wall, floor to ceiling. The subject is asked to sit in a chair in the center of the room. Because any sound you make does not bounce back to you from the wall, as it would in any normal space we live in, the result can feel as though the sound were negative. This simply means that the subject is experiencing less sound than they have ever experienced, not that the sound is actually below zero, that is impossible of course."
Ash could feel his gut sink... "Are you telling me that room actually exists?"
The Doctor paused, "Yes, why?"
"It's from my nightmares, I see that room every night."
"Well, that is to be expected. You see, you were one of many volunteers who were subjected to our experiments during Operation White Noise."
"Excuse me? Volunteers? I do not recall Volunteering for anything."
"That is unfortunate. I will come to that, but please, allow me a moment to get to that."
The Doctor took a sip of water and sat down on the edge of the desk in front of Ash. "When we subjected our volunteers to the room, we noticed that some began to hallucinate. Most chalked that up to the vast capacity of the human mind to fill the void with something, anything, other than nothing.”
“However, I had already begun separate experiments into paranormal research and ELF effects. We found that we could place the subject in a clean room first, and bombard them with a combination of white noise, which sounds like static, and an aerosol version of a chemical compound called Dimethyltryptamine or DMT for short. Call it a chemical-acoustic palate cleanser before the main meal. Slowly, over a period of time determined by the subject’s readings, we would introduce specific ELF's to determine their effect. We would then move them to the Negative Sound room, and continue only the ELF's from there. They could not hear the ELF's, but they were there being played in “silence”. At that point, something amazing happened. The subjects were able to temporarily tear back the veil, and see into the beyond."
"The beyond?" Ash could feel his jaw tense, "What do you mean, beyond?"
"Subjects exposed to the 19 hertz would experience the 'haunted house' effect; skin crawling, feeling like someone passed them. At 6.8 hertz the subject would actually see dark creatures around them, and in some extreme cases hear them. Others were exposed to the 7.83-hertz range, and they would see light creatures.”
“Some, you for example,” pointing to Ash, “were exposed to all three stages several times. Curiously, the exposure was not the only factor. Some subjects responded differently than others."
"OK, I'm hearing you... But none of that explains why your 'benefactor' wants me dead, or what that has to do with your Problem Child."
"Well... The experiments went fine. The test subjects did not seem to have any long term effects and were not able to duplicate the experiences outside the chamber. The only lasting effect was that prolonged exposure seemed to have an effect on short-term memory. We believe this may have something to do with a symptom we have called the Eternity Effect."
"The subject loses all sense of time and place and has to be brought back down to reality before release. This often takes a few more weeks in the clean room. After that, they were released, and no worse for the wear, except they have little to no memory of the experiment. That turned out good for us.” The Doctor hesitated. “Until..."
"Until... What?" Ash prodded.
"We could not have known, never have expected..." The Doctor mumbled to himself.
"Doctor Briar. What? Until What?"
"Years later, as subjects came in contact with the naturally occurring ELF's, their symptoms reappeared outside the room, out in real life."
Ash felt his mind cramp as the impact of those words dawned on him.
"The old man, the crazy one you confronted, he was one of ours too. But he was a volunteer year before you were. The first time we realized this new result was when we were contacted by an emergency room. We were listed as the primary care physician in those days. The man had quit his job in the middle of the shift and walked out into oncoming traffic on the freeway. When he was asked why he was told the voices told him to. He was hurt, but they stabilized him. The next day he snuck out of his room, walked into traffic again, and died on impact. The resulting accident caused more fatalities."
"We thought he was just a bad egg, predisposed to craziness before we got to him. But then it started happening again, and again. Not all of them, mind you, but more than could be statistically explained by predisposition.”
“That sounds like a big problem, with legal and financial fallout sure to follow.”
Dr. Briar nodded. “We now believe it has to do with the increase of technology everywhere. There are more ELF's and they build in standing waves in people’s homes, jobs, cars, radio towers, cell towers, the list goes on. It was determined that we were responsible, and we needed to conduct damage control before anyone outside could become aware of us…had to prevent those problems you so aptly mentioned. But that was only part of the problem. We could not lose all the work we had done already, we were too invested.”
He stood again. “We had to monitor each subject. Anyone showing symptoms would be put down before they could harm others."
"You mean killed. I imagine that you know that is illegal?"
"Of course, but the tests themselves were cutting edge, and corners were cut."
“So the tests were illegal too.”
“In a manner of speaking. Off the books, certain agencies found the data useful, and looked the other way.” He sighed. “I only learned later that the funding for the project was not entirely above board. We could not tell the authorities about all the subjects. The lawsuits would cripple us. We decided that anyone showing symptoms would be locked away if we could arrange it, but that too risked exposure. Eventually, we started putting them down. I only agreed in the most extreme of cases at first, but then once I was in, I could not get out. I could both continue my work and get my hands dirty, or I would be put down too." The doctor turned white at the thought.
Ash let out a sigh and wiped his face on his shoulder.
"Which brings me to your task, Problem Child"
"We know very little about him. His name was Walter Elias Vanderbilt, but that turned out to be an alias. In fact, his entire history, education, family background, it was all fabricated. Everything I know about him is on this Thumb Drive." The Doctor placed it in Ash's pocket.
"Despite my best resources, I cannot find him. It's possible that you, with your Special Forces background, could think of something. Combined with your developing telekinetic abilities, and likely other abilities you haven’t manifested yet, you may be a match for him."
"Alright, let's just say that I'm buying your story for now. Something still doesn't add up. I was not released from some clean room. I went missing from a top-secret training facility, and weeks later I was found on a desert island with no memory. How does that fit into your volunteer story?"
"You were special, you and your friend. We needed subjects from specific backgrounds that were not as likely to volunteer. So, we arranged to have them delivered. I cannot tell you more, I wish I could. I was the Chief Scientist, but I did not handle the... Business End. You showed up and I put you into the clean room before you woke. Afterward, you were delivered back to your people. I cannot tell you who, or how...” Doctor Briar leaned closer, "But I can tell you that we could not have done it without help from your own government. You be careful who you trust. I know DARPA funds were siphoned more than once for our project."
Ash sat, silently. Staring Dr. Briar in the eye. He’s not lying.
The Doctor walked around to his desk and pulled open the drawer. He came back around, and dropped a second small white envelope into Ash's inside jacket pocket, then put his finger to his mouth.
"I don't believe there is anything else I can tell you at the moment."
He pressed a button on the wall behind him.
“Yes, Doctor Briar." A man answered.
"We are done in here." Dr. Briar walked to his desk and stood to the side.
Two guards entered the room, asked him to stand up. One had a bruise on his jaw, "Did I do that do you?"
The guard did not smile. He un-cuffed Ash and motioned to the door
Eta got the call from Chester. He managed to re-enter the hack and get camera feeds. Ash had been released and walked out of the back entrance. He left on foot, headed toward the beach.
Eta drove the newly borrowed Corvette down to the coast. She saw a bum sitting on the bench with what appeared to be a newly acquired military-grade jacket. She pulled up to him and asked where he got it. Then he pointed her toward the beach shop nearby.
"Thanks, buddy." Eta nodded and pulled up along the curb in front of the shop.
"Took you long enough." A voice spoke from behind her. She could feel her heart jump into her throat. How does he do that?
"You could get shot..." She said without turning around. "... for sneaking up on a girl like that."
"I could" Ash came up and leaned on the window of the convertible she’d ‘borrowed’, "but life is worth the risk sometimes."
"So..." Eta pulled her sunglasses down. He was wearing the same pants from the night before, but he had torn them into cut-off shorts and he managed to acquire a new a new tank top that said “Malibu Style”.
He had put on a few pounds since they worked together in Israel, but he didn't age badly. She cast the thought aside. No. Not him. "Now, what grandpa?"
"Now, we make sure I wasn't followed. Then I take these" Ash pulled two thumb drives out of a white envelope. "To Chester." He slipped them back into the envelope, then his pocket.
“We had visual, but no audio. What’s on it? And why did he give it to you?”
“The only thing in here was the thumb drive and a name on the outside. ‘Darkmatter.’ We’ll need Chester to debug it first."
“That’s an interesting turn of events,” Eta said. “Why, exactly, did he let you go?”
“It’s a long story, I’m not sure that I trust him… tell you on the way.” Ash jumped over the door into the passenger seat. “Uh… that is as soon as you tell me where you got a bright blue convertible 2016 Corvette Stingray.”
Eta could feel the grin crawl across her face. She couldn’t help it.
“A bit conspicuous… don’t you think?” Ash turned back to Eta. He had his superior officer face on, but she could see the smile he was fighting back.
“Willow is amazing for finding wealthy people selling their third homes in the recession. This guy still had his car collection in the garage in one of the photos, and his ‘sophisticated’ key box wasn’t that sophisticated.” She shrugged. “I had to do something with my time while I was waiting on Chester to tell me where to go.”
“Hey,” Ash interrupted her moment. Trade spots with me “I’m driving.”
“HA!” Eta snorted. “Go steal… er… borrow… your own sports car. I’m driving.” She looked him in the eye.
“Besides, we both know that I’m a better driver, and I’d like to return this in one piece so he never knows it was missing.”
Ash tilted his head and looked like he wanted to say something, then threw a glance at his shoulder stitches and put on his seat belt.
Her fingers fumbled for the phone in her Cowboy Holster bag. She paid UrbanTool $115.00 for this glorified fanny pack. But she hated purses, and this was just that cool. She handed a phone to Ash, “This one is yours, call Chester and let him know I found you.”
Then she pressed the start button and the engine roared to life.
Dr. Briar pulled up his monitor at his desk in the tower.
-Wild-card in play.
-Good. Keep watch and monitor results.
He pulled out up the footage of Chester's house. They had set up shop in the house across the street. One great thing about this recession, so many empty houses. The heat signatures showed three inside. Now they would lead him to the real prize.
He pulled out his phone and sent a text to his new assistants.
-Keep the ELF's playing at a constant 78 Dbl, aimed directly at the house. Report anything... Odd.
The Dr. Scrolls to the list. Sends a text to another assistant.
-Deliver the young orphan her prize.
Ash back in his room, pondered the next move.
Who is this Problem Child, and how do we even start to find him?
He laid back on the bed and closed his eyes.
He's back on the Island.
A man in a lab coat, a balding man. It's Dr. Briar.
He can see that now. "You should know, that these experiments have had wildly different results. You could be a Super Soldier or a Vegetable, or nothing may happen at all. Are you sure you're ready for this?"
"I am." Ash turned to a small changing room, where he dressed in a white bike suit.
As he turned to the glass before entering the small white room, he looked back. Standing next to Dr. Briar was a man… he couldn’t see him, but he had a uniform.
Ash sat up in the bed.
Sweat soaked his shirt.
“I did this to myself.”
My name is D. G. Wolfe (AKA Darrell G. Wolfe)
Story Teller | INFJ | Intellection | Learner | Ideation | Achiever | Input
I'm the child of an atheist preacher who showed me broken religion and the child of a nurse who showed me a broken medical field (science). I am #Libertarian at heart. I believe in Jesus, but I've always had a hard time with Religious Traditions.
I publish my creative writing practices, research, and novel drafts at It's Author Fun (authorfun.blogspot.com).
For more about me; see DarrellWolfe.Com.
Storyteller | Creative | INFJ | Intellection | Ideation | Input | Learner | Achiever | Multipotentialite
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