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Monday, September 25, 2017

007 The New Aleph - Chapter Six

Soma finally gets answers, Nathan begins his own search for answers, and Aramis settles into a new life chapter she hadn't planned for.

NewAlephChapterSix

( Also, check out Justin Thomas, this chapter's plug, on most of the things @jtvibraphone and find his music at: http://smarturl.it/jtvibraphone?IQid=instagram  !)




CHAPTER SIX



Aramis walked into the tiny apartment that smelled of bleach and let go of her tool cart’s handle. It slammed to the softwood floor with a clank and rattle of all the tools she was able to recover. There were a few screwdriver bits and punches she couldn’t find even with Paul’s help.

Remembering him, Aramis took her duffle bag full of clothes off her shoulder and threw it against the wall. “Damn it.”

It hit the wall and bounced off, landed on the bed, and rolled off onto the floor right in front of her.

She turned around, shut the door behind her slowly even though she wanted to slam it, and sat on the bed in the dark. She could hear the chirps and buzzes of bugs outside, because the door and the walls were thin. She made a mental note to stuff a towel in the gap between the bottom of the door and the floor, so multi-legged visitors wouldn’t come by while she was sleeping. The fact that there was a mosquito net folded up on the tiny nightstand on the corner opposite the bed was evidence that it would be a good idea.

She sat on the bed and caught her breath, her body calming down even though she didn’t want to calm down. The light from the gap under the door was blindingly bright.

She was supposed to be at Cedric’s right now, working, probably helping close up for the day. But she’d come here a day late and a beautiful boy had arrived before her who was more qualified and had snatched the job away from her.

She was supposed to get an apartment near Kettle Square. She would have got one of the traffic reduction apartments, only needing proof she had a job in the area. Then, after she got her first pay, she could get a nicer place. That had been the plan.

This was supposed to be the beginning of moving forward with her life. But now she was in one of the Social Services Guild compound apartments, five kilometers outside the city center. Past the ancient wall on the eastern edge of the downtown triangle, past the industrial parks, past the low-income housing, etcetera and etcetera.

This compound was one of the tiny ones, set up to encourage people to get jobs as quickly as possible. The apartments were barely larger than prison cells. They only provided a meal of rice and beans, once for breakfast and again for dinner. She’d have to go to the SSG’s headquarters building in the middle of downtown to get lunch, which was usually a much better meal, sometimes donated by a restaurant down there. It was all part of the program to get people out busy looking for work. If they offered lunch here at the compound, some people might never leave. Some probably still didn’t.

She’d had nothing to eat but rice and beans before. Thinking about it made her sick.

But, despite how angry she was, her nerves continued to calm. She reached over and opened one of the side pockets on her clothing bag and pulled out a small bag of trail mix. The lingering fear of rice and beans faded as she chewed on peanuts and dried cranberries.

There was always a risk she wouldn’t have gotten the job anyway. It was never for sure. And, even though that guy had stolen her job, he had saved her from the embarrassment of beating up those guys. And from the risk of getting arrested for it. And from the possibility of losing all her tools. And he had been gorgeous. That was why she was so angry now. She hadn’t been able to get angry around him before because she was too distracted.

And he’d been really nice: “We can talk to Cedric. I don’t need a full-time job yet. I’m sure he could work something out so that he hires both of us and we split the hours until one of us finds something else.”

It had been a cute sentiment, and he’d been desperate to try and make it right with her, as if he owed her something. But he didn’t owe her anything, so she’d politely told him she’d look somewhere else and then stormed off straight here. So she could mope in peace.

The light from under her door was beginning to fade. She could almost see the blue in it. She decided to go for a walk.

This was all because she’d been woken up in the middle of the night. Standing up, stuffing the trail mix in the pocket of her long coat, she thought about the other bag she had stuffed away. One filled with gold salt, which she’d spent a lot of money to buy two years ago. Two years ago, when she was first being annoyed by Ignacio’s midnight caller visions. He’d told her how to build a Merlin’s Music Box, which if she wore around her neck, would keep her from being touched at all by his clients. Or any sort of mental intrusions caused by any other kind of mazai machines or potions. She’d bought the gold salt right away, spending a week studying mazai machines, but then had become preoccupied with building her machinist tool cart.

She opened the door and stepped from her apartment into a little courtyard. It was just large enough for about twelve of the small apartments, plus the bathroom off in the corner, to from a perimeter around it. The floor was gravel compacted into hard dirt, but with grass growing around the couple trees rising up from the center. Simple wooden furniture was set up.

No one was here at the moment. She was alone in her kingdom of the poor. Here because, instead of spending a fortune on a device that would have made living in the commune more bearable, she’d spent a fortune getting tools so she could get the hell out of there.

Thinking of that, she turned around, reached deep into a pocket, and pulled out her pocket watch. She set it against the side of the door over the gear-lock contact and twisted, hearing the lock snap.

She walked out of the courtyard, passing outside the walls that were just stretched canvas, onto a narrow, gravel street with overgrown trees on either side. Past those trees were cheap, small houses that had, probably, also been built by the Social Services Guild. The tiny yards out in front of each were interesting assortments of dirt, rocks, and weeds.

A pedicab, driven by a lanky guy wearing a tall, narrow-brimmed hat, rolled by Aramis with its signature tick-tick-tick and then stopped. The guy smiled and waved at her. “Going downtown? I can offer a discount if you’re headed to the Moldy Knuckles.”

Aramis shook her head.

“I also provide a laundry service. Good prices.” The guy handed Aramis a card and continued on down the road, his bike tick-ticking to advertise his business.

If Aramis had built that Merlin’s Music Box, she wouldn’t be here, but she wouldn’t have been able to buy her tools, so she wouldn’t even be in the city. So, she had been doomed either way.

She could have expanded from the music box to building mazai machines, but then it would have taken much longer to have a complete journeyman toolkit. She’d need all the tools she had right now, plus multiple mazai-specific chisels and drill bits. All in all, she’d made the right decision. There wasn’t much point in hanging her head, dragging her feet and feeling bad for herself.

But she did it anyway.

The road opened up to a roundabout with an island in the center that had a pocket park complete with benches and a bulletin board. Curious and bored and grumpy, Aramis went over to check out the bulletin board.

There were a few people hanging out in the circular park. An old, wrinkled man smoked a pipe, staring off at nothing. A couple middle-aged people were sitting together and reading one of those mainstream news zines. An older woman stood out on the curb, watching down the street, probably waiting for someone.

Aramis moved past them and felt a wonderful sense of invisibility at not having anyone stare at her. Not that people had stared at her while she was downtown, but after the experience with the creep, she’d felt eyes on her.

She didn’t feel that here. She walked up to the bulletin board and looked over the postings. Some fliers were hand-written, some were printed, others had that dot-dash appearance of having been auto-written with a pen reader. Aramis took her time examining them…
  • “LOST! Our Buddie. Brown shiatsu. Reward” (this one had a dot-dash pointillist picture of a dog auto-written above the large letters)
  • “Piano, guitar, and mandolin lessons. 654-Lanning-132. Sat & Sun 11-2” (this one had little anthropomorphized cleft notes dancing around the info, hand-drawn) 
  • “Discussion Dinner, here! Friday at 7:30. Addresses ends in 1-3: bring a meat, addresses ends in 4-6: bring a drink, address ends in 7-0: bring a side. Topic: Justice of the Alephs: do the existence of preyvedes display their mercy, or their corruption?” (this one was printed in rounded, friendly letters)
  • “Improv class. South Dist Library multipurpose room. Wed. 9pm. ₽20 per person.” (this one was printed also, with silhouettes of two people having an animated conversation)
  • “Live music. The Gaff: Coffee and Tea House. Every Tuesday at 7 p.m.” 
  • “Want out of SSG housing? Good money/traffic reduction apt/flexible hours. Send watch address to BETTERWORLD99” (This one was written with a fat, felt-tip marker)
  • “Topical reading group. Location TBD. Time TBD. June topic: Bigotry toward preyvedes. July topic: Rumors of work camps for the poor actually death camps. August topic: Censorship of gray market items and secret arrests of excessive offenders.” (this one was printed on very rough security paper, the multi-colored fabrics and random strands of blue thread pressed into the material almost making it difficult to read. And it had no contact information).
There were more notices about missing cats, lost dogs, and pet vaccinations. More about music, voice, and stage acting lessons. There were a lot of older, faded ones talking about yard sales that were half, or more, covered up by newer postings. There were pins stuck to orphaned scraps of paper. There was a flier about a book club meeting at a bookstore, “Ayakashi Stories,” with really complicated instructions for how to get from the front door back to the meeting room. They were going to discuss a book called The Dispossessed and “how both world governments critique Pan’s leadership.”

There were a few more of the scam “miracle job” notices. Aramis was enjoying looking at the different drawings and artwork and what colors she could make out when she noticed a small, glossy business card, stuck to the lower corner.

She knelt down to look at it. The artwork on the little business card was nice, with—as far as she could tell—a green vine against a black background.

“R3: The Remnant Reading the Remnants. Come celebrate Seven with us!”

And it had good font choices for the design. She studied it a few more minutes, figured it couldn’t hurt to check it out, and fished through her coat pockets for her pen reader. She had been hoping Cedric would let her know about a meeting like this, so this was a lucky find.

She found her pen reader and used it to take a picture of the card. The next meeting would be tomorrow night, meeting in the back room of a bakery/restaurant called Jack and Ben’s. She put her pen reader back in her pocket and continued on her walk, holding her head a little higher.

She had something interesting to look forward too.


***


“You look terrible.”

Soma leaned forward and loomed over the baby-faced receptionist at the desk. “I’m done calling and listening to excuses for why she can’t meet with me. Tell her that I will see her now.”

The kid frowned, the wrinkles from the action somehow not even quite looking like normal-person wrinkles. It annoyed Soma deeply, especially now that she knew it was all fake. He was just a doll fabricated for the pleasure of an Aleph. Or an upgraded regular person for the same purpose…if all that Ignacio had said in her dream was true…in the dream conjured by a magic potion where she’d had a conversation with a supernatural being from the land of the tragic dead.

The intolerable perfection of the receptionist’s face was almost evidence enough that all this insanity was really happening. Impatient with his silence, Soma leaned in even closer. “I know what Viki is. I’m here to make a deal.”

The kid held her gaze for a moment before answering. “Ma’am, I’m going to call the police if you don’t leave.”

Soma lowered her voice even more. “I’m here to make a soul deal with the Aleph.”

The boy’s eyes flashed wide, but only an instant. He leaned back and cleared his throat. “I’ll…see if she can spare you a moment.”


***


“Can’t sell you a ticket to there because there isn’t a train that goes there. It’s way in the Annuaki Valley wildlife refuge. It’s illegal. Some sort of rare moths that people were poaching as aphrodisiacs or something.”

Nathan cursed under his breath. If that was the case, he’d need a dirt-bike, but his pen wasn’t able to create one. It could make a few other different types of motorcycles, but those wouldn’t work. And he could make a Land Rover, apparently, but that would stand out here on Prometheus. Those few people here who had personal vehicles either had weird tricycles or trucks. It was kind of depressing. He was actually hoping for more hover vehicles, it being the distant future, after all. And maglev trains and taxi shuttles didn’t count. Not in his book. “What kind of vehicles can a person buy with shekels?”

The guy at the train station’s customer service desk, probably in his early twenties, shrugged. “A bike, I guess?”

“Bicycle or motorcycle?”

The guy frowned. “I don’t know.”

Nathan threw up his hands. “So either one of them doesn’t exist anymore, or you came up with some stupid, sci-fi word for one of them, and now I have to figure out what the hell it is! Do people drive two-wheeled, motorized devices? Hovercrafts? Do they drive—”

“Sir, I know what those things are. I know what a bicycle and a motorcycle is. I just don’t know if you can get either with shekels. Maybe used, I don’t know.”

Nathan felt himself calming. He nodded. “Sorry. I’m having a really weird week.”

Nathan remembered working crappy service jobs like that before, so he knew that just apologizing would set him apart from most of the irate customers. He still felt a little bad for losing his temper. “What’s the closest you can get me to the valley?”

The kid turned around to look at the map of what he, and everyone else, called the Domoy Continent. Nathan couldn’t remember if they had a name for it yet before he was put under, but it was as good a name as any. It probably meant “continent” in some random language.

The kid turned back around. “The closest I could get you there is Wide Valley Station in Jicheng. Trip is about six hundred kilometers. Have to go south up Hundred Mile Pass, then double-back to get to Jicheng. There’s one transfer to another train at Khoikhoi, so the entire trip will take about six hours. Once you get to Jicheng, you can probably find someone there selling some sort of off-road vehicle. Maybe. Just don’t tell anyone where you’re going.”

Nathan’s face fell the zig-zagging route was explained. “How come there aren’t any commercial airplanes?”

The kid looked at him like he was joking. “I mean, there are private airplanes. Those rides cost a fortune. And our trains are pretty fast. And, technically they are flying. Just...only a meter or so off the ground.”

Nathan couldn’t resist: “You know, I…read in a book that on Earth, they had commercial flights down to such a science that it would cost the same to fly across a continent as to take a train for the same trip.”

The pimpled face scrunched up with wrinkles. “That sounds like one of those dumb fairy tales.”

Nathan shook his head. “Economy of scales, man.”

“There’s no way they could make it that cheap.”

Nathan studied the kid’s face, fascinated by the earnest bafflement. It reminded him of when one of his professors in college had talked about Alexander the Great, about when he was the young son of a gruff Macedonian general. How he had looked on the ruins and remnants of civilizations that had disappeared hundreds or thousands of years before he had been born. How he had reflected on the loss of technology and art, which he would eventually rediscover and reinvigorate after he had conquered the world.

But Nathan was not reflecting on a loss of technology or art. Prometheus had nearly all the scientific principles and engineering knowledge that had existed when he was on Earth. They had a few additional advances at their disposal, though fewer than what eight centuries should have yielded. He was instead musing a lost logistical prowess. That was what fascinated him: A society could be held back, not by seeing the technology as impossible, but by seeing the administration as impossible.

At least Prometheus had healthcare, housing, and nutrition supplies for everyone. Though, that was only because the TAW build cheats into the world. Nathan sighed and figured he should write some notes about this problem of lost logistics during the train ride. “Alright. I’ll take a ticket to Jicheng.”


***


“This is my fault.” Viki paced behind her desk. Soma stood across from her, leaning against a bookshelf. Viki stopped, looked at her, and folded her arms. “I was trying to test your resourcefulness, but I forgot that you’re a mother in distress. Your priorities are very different from the average person.”

“My priorities are for my children. Does being an immortal demi-god make you that disconnected from humanity?”

“I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but I’m not a demi-god. Definitely not immortal. Really, all I do is keep an eye on the school here. Try to spot candidates. Make sure people don’t figure out things…in the wrong order.”

“I don’t care.” Soma was lying. She was curious to know what she was talking about, but she didn’t want to let Viki get off track. “I know what you are. If you’re really an…Aleph. From fairy tales, then you can help me without me having to spend a fortune on ingredients for your magic telescope.”

Viki looked at the spyglass sitting on the shelf. “That would have been much less costly.”

“I don’t care.” Soma kept to the script Ignacio had given to her. “I’ll give you ten percent.”

Viki sighed. She looked Soma in the eye, holding the look for a long moment. “You won’t be a good detective anymore. You’ll have to rely on other people to solve problems you’d normally take care of yourself. Even crossword puzzles, life-and-death problems in igo. You’ll start forgetting things. Leaving your watch at home. Forgetting to lock doors. Forgetting your home address. It’s hard to tell what you’ll lose, but you will lose something. And it will hurt.”

Soma was shaking now. “I have to find my girls.”

Viki kept looking at her, but finally nodded.

She opened a lower desk drawer, typed a beeping code into something within the drawer, and something clicked. She pulled out an old, thick piece of yellowing paper. She spent a moment writing something on it using a large black pen with gold cracks along the surface. Finally, she set it in front of Soma.

It was a contract, all hand-written except for the words “AC PAPER” burned, like with a branding stencil, into the top margin with a starburst logo next to it. She’d see that logo before, when some stuffy suits from the MOA had come through Helison PD to do some obscure inspections. The MOA was nothing more than an auditing agency that the city governments all basically ignored.

At least, that’s what she used to believe. Soma read through the document carefully, but it was straightforward. It said that a deal would be struck between an Aleph and a “Child of Mebar,” (hereafter referred to as “COM”) to provide “Soft Rule Violation Services.” If both parties were satisfied with the details, the COM would render payment of 10% of their soul space within the Essesin. There was some language at the bottom about, “If there is a dispute, after services are rendered, as to whether or not services were satisfactory, two other Alephs lacking personal relationship with the signing Aleph will review the case and render judgement as to whether or not the services adequately fall within the parameters of the agreement. If that still remains not satisfactory, any party may appeal to the Assembly, following regulation 87.”

The Assembly. Another fairy tale, but one that was also a favorite of conspiracy theorists. A shadow government. The mysterious, powerful oligarchy hiding behind the impotent fa├žade of the MOA. She set the piece of paper down on the desk, looked up at Viki, and nodded.

Viki handed her black pen to Soma. It was heavier than it looked.

Viki pointed on the paper. “Write in ‘10’ here, for the percentage. Under ‘services requested,’ write in ‘determine location and condition of husband and two daughters.’”

Soma wrote it all down. Then Viki pulled the paper to herself, asked for the pen, and signed it. She then slid the paper back to Soma, handed her the pen, and Soma signed.

“So, I’m a Child of Mebar?”

“We all are.” Viki set the document down on the center of her desk. She pressed a button on the side of the pen and a screen appeared above it. So, it was some sort of odd pen reader. But the menus and layout were all completely different from any Soma had ever seen. Viki navigated through it quickly. “Except for the TAW. If there really are any of them still around.”

“What are you doing?”

Viki didn’t look up. She just kept tapping through menus, occasionally typing something in with a miniature, glowing keyboard that appeared in the air. “I wanted to recruit you to become one of us. You have the intelligence and inquisitiveness that’s necessary. You would have never wanted for anything. Except your family of course. Which I realize is a hollow offer.”

Soma nodded. “Yes.”

“Oh no.” Viki’s face filled with wrinkles and she put her hand over her mouth. Her eyes were still fixed on the pen’s menu, which was fuzzy from Soma’s angle.

“What?”

Viki shut off the pen and looked up at Soma, her mouth open. “Oh, I—uh.”

Soma frowned. “What?”

Viki looked down at the contract. Her hands were shaking. She put her pen away. After a moment of hesitation, she grabbed and tore up the contract. “I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”

Soma took a step toward her. “What did you find out?”

Viki looked up at her, then absently crumped up the torn pieces of the contract. It formed a sort of non-cohesive ball of strips that she kept trying to press together into a single whole. She fell forward to prop herself up on her arms, her head hanging limp between them, the shreds sitting on the desk below. “Nothing. I found out that I can’t help you.”

“Viki. What did you find out?”

Her eyes were red as she looked at Soma and then over at the wall. “I can’t help you.”

Soma felt her entire body shaking. “Tell me.”

“They’re,” Viki licked her lips. “They’re gone.”

Soma fell to her knees. Four days. Four days of horror. Four days of fear. Of working so hard. “What do you mean they’re gone?”

“Gone. Very gone.”

Soma was shivering. Staring at the thick carpet. Her voice was almost indiscernible as it shook and her breathing shuddered. “What do you mean?”

Viki fell into her chair with a wump of air escaping between the seams in the leather. She let out a loud sigh. “It was…an error. A maintenance error in the Essesin.”

Soma sucked in a breath. “A maintenance error?”

“I don’t know how—”

Soma got to her feet. “My kids were killed by a maintenance error?”

Viki turned her face up to her. “I’m so sorry.”

Soma leaned forward on the desk. She was empty. A complete shell held up by nothing. “Whose mistake?”

“Just…a glitch. In the Essesin. This never happens.”

Soma took in few breaths. Short and shallow. She gripped the edge of the desk, trying to rip the wood apart with her bare fingers. She clenched her teeth, her entire body tightening. Her fingers hurt, but she clenched down tighter. Then she screamed until there was no air left in her lungs.

The door to the office opened, the pretty doll-boy sticking his head in. “Ma’am, do I need—”

Viki waved him away. “Just, go away, Brett.”

He nodded at his boss and slowly re-shut the door.

Soma’s grip relaxed and she breathed, a mix of exhaustion and relief coming over her as she felt all her fingers and thumbs throbbing from bruises. She stepped backward and leaned against the wall, looking at the floor. She’d taken too long and now they were dead. No, they’d been dead right away. Still, maybe if she had been faster. If she had asked more question from more people. Or maybe if she hadn’t walked out of the kitchen. Maybe should could have grabbed onto them before they’d faded away.

“Somewhere, there’s a machine where you keep peoples’ souls. A machine that failed, and robbed my two girls of all the days they were supposed to get. Going to school. Getting jobs. Having…Somewhere, you keep a machine that can do this? Why?”

Viki frowned. “Why?”

“Why!”

Viki shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s just how it is.”

“Aren’t souls supposed to be just some…emergent phenomenon of a higher-order brain? Quantum dynamics in the synaptic…interactions?”

Viki opened and closed her hands, looking at the shreds of the contract piled up in the center of her desk. “I don’t know.”

A thought came to Soma. It made her laugh. “I want to go to Pan. Now. There’s someone there I need to meet. Maybe…maybe he has the answers I need.”

Viki frowned. “I…I do owe you something.”

Ignacio had told Soma to ask her for help, but he had probably meant for her to find another dream-meeting potion, but she wasn’t interested in that. “And make me a preyvede, whatever the hell that means.”

Viki considered this a moment, then nodded. “Okay. Just…”

“Just what?”

Viki squinted one eye. “I’m…not sure. I was going to say, ‘Please don’t tell anyone about this,’ but I’ve never heard of something like this happening before. I don’t…I don’t know.”

“I wouldn’t count on me following any of your commands, Viki.”

Viki shook her head. “No. I suppose you wouldn’t. Probably best I send you to Pan anyway. Can I ask, who are you’re going to see?”

Soma ignored the question. “Do I have to sign any more contracts for this?”

“No. Ironically, doing this is easy. If you ever want a good laugh over moronic law-making, compare MOA regulations Sixty-Two to Eighty-Seven. Just go to bed tonight, and when you wake up, you’ll be in Pan. And you’ll be a preyvede. I’ll make sure they don’t fog your memories either. I owe you that much.” Viki paused a moment. “Unless you want them to fog your memories.”

“No. I want to remember everything.”

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