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Monday, November 27, 2017

013 The New Aleph - Chapter Ten

Nathan finds out why Irse is angry, Aramis tries to figure out a plan to get Paul back to Prometheus, and Soma decides to get to work.

NewAlephChapterTen




CHAPTER TEN



Soma’s plan to take a few weeks to gather her bearings had turned into half a year. Now it was getting close to the dead of winter and she was currently living in a canvas tent with a fallen demigod. She had been the one to initiate the relationship with him. At first, she was sure she was doing it just to get more information, taking advantage of obvious attraction toward her out of some new callousness she’d gained. But as the months had passed, she’d realized it was more than that. There was something very comforting about being with someone who, well, wanted her.

There was also the distinct possibility that it was because he was the absolute polar opposite of her husband. He was never sarcastic. Never rude. Never lied. He was paranoid and didn’t know how to talk to people and walked around with a slouch, but spending time with him had made her comfortable and calm. It had given her time to be lazy and to think. But the deep, wet cold of Pan’s winter was helping break her from this laziness.

She hadn’t exactly been idle all this time. She’d been asking Ignacio questions, asking the commune leaders questions, asking the Aleph proxy questions, and asking questions of anybody else patient enough to put up with her. But today, with it sunny but still very cold, it felt like a good time to get to work.

Wrapped in a heavy wool coat that reached almost to the ground, she walked out of the tent onto the half mud, half gravel path leading to Ignacio’s work tent. She went through the wooden door build into the side of the canvas and found him spinning something on a lathe. Knowing better than to interrupt him, she waited, standing close enough to the heat box glowing in the corner to warm up but not close enough to block its heat from reaching Ignacio.

It was oddly comforting to watch him like this, listening to the whistling and whining of metal cutting metal. His piercing eyes above gaunt cheeks looking intently to his work. Glancing over his shoulder, it looked like he was working on building the core of a blue coal regulator. They helped control mazai machines, and one could buy such regulators mass-produced, but they didn’t work as well as a hand-made one.

Learning about mazai arts had been one of the most fascinating parts of living in Pan. Apparently, most of the materials required to build the unique gadgets and potions existed in Prometheus as well, but the art had been either lost or pushed both into obscurity and the black market. Being in the homicide department, she’d never encountered any of them—because murderers in Prom preferred regular guns—but she’d heard lots of odd rumors from other departments. She’d never taken them seriously before, grouping them alongside stories of psychics and ghosts.

She refused to call it magic, because they were clearly just machines that required unusual materials. She now knew how Viki’s telescope worked, and why she had asked for so much money to get it working. Viki had been honest; she hadn’t been trying to rip Soma off at all. Which was apparently unusual for an Aleph. From what little Soma had found out from Ignacio’s occasional remarks about the Alephs, she had been extremely lucky in stumbling upon Viki. Or, more importantly, Travis was a very good judge of character. He may have been a treacherous bastard for cheating with her husband, but sending Soma to Viki may have saved her life.

In addition to learning about things like the telescope, she also knew how the Midnight Caller potion worked and that Ignacio had made the very potion she’d used. He made a good deal of money having vials of it regularly smuggled into Prometheus by some of his old friends. So he could give advice to people in a world without unusual crafts on how to deal with unusual situations.

But as far as those “old friends” went, Ignacio didn’t talk about them much. He told her anything she wanted to know about Pan and mazai arts, but he didn’t talk about why he was an Aleph in exile. Or how it was even possible for an Aleph to become a preyvede. Soma had decided to be patient about it, because she felt the answers she wanted likely lay in these secrets. They were worth waiting for.

But not forever.

“Ha. Done.” Ignacio cleared his throat loudly and dropped a cutting tool with a sharp Clack! into a pile of other tools. He turned around and jumped at seeing Soma standing behind him. “Oh hey.”

She nodded. “I’m ready now.”

He frowned. “Ready for what?”

She smiled. “To bring the Alephs to justice.”


***


Nathan hummed the tune to “Gold Dust Woman” while pulling his and Valerie’s laundry from the small closet washer. Behind him, on the other side of the living room, his dog Silver snorted in his sleep and shook one of his three legs. Valerie’s dog, Schrodinger, walked over to sniff Silver’s leg, then jumped up onto a chair to also snooze. Nathan wasn’t exactly proud of it, but he had indeed succeeded in hooking up with the woman he’d ogled his first week back in Prometheus. By making a three-legged border collie with his Aleph pen. He’d taken Silver to the same dog park Valerie frequented, struck up a conversation after getting comments about Silver, and one thing had led to another. Now he was sorting his darks from hers.

He frowned as he pulled out Valerie’s jeans and tossed them into her basket. “Hey Val? You sure you want the machine drying your jeans? Dryers are vicious on denim.”

“What are you talking about?” she yelled back from another room in the apartment. Another perk: Valerie had more than one room where she lived.

“I know this thing washes and dries, which is really cool, but you could still stop it after the wash and take out the jeans to hang-dry.”

Valerie walked into the room in pajamas, frowning. “Why would the dry cycle ruin jeans? I have never heard anyone say that before. This isn’t another one of your weird ascetic preferences, is it? You know, it is okay to let machines do the menial work.”

A wrinkle formed on Nathan’s forehead as he turned away from her. He had expected people to consider him odd and awkward because he was eight centuries behind culture. Valerie kept accusing him of being some sort Luddite. Or Mennonite. Or some other “ite”. Just because he knew a lot of random life-hacks that weren’t relevant anymore. He’d tried once to explain to her that just having old tricks for doing things, when he didn’t know there were already better alternatives, didn’t mean he’d made some conscious decision to only ever use old tricks. But she had already made up her mind what kind of person he was.

And for some reason, even though he knew that, he kept getting into arguments like this. “I’m serious. The heat and tumbling or whatever thins the fabric, making your knees get holes faster.”

She shrugged and walked over to fall on the couch. “It doesn’t use heat. It has some sort of dehumidifier in there.”

Nathan frowned at the cubical box sitting on a counter in the closet that still had a dozen or so shirts and pants in it. He stared at one of his pairs of slacks hanging out of its circular door. He was still convinced he was right, but he didn’t know how this thing worked, so there was a chance he was wrong. He shrugged and resumed sorting.

When done, he picked the two baskets up and went to the bedroom to put the clothes away. Six months of her awkward criticisms. He was worried the only reason he hadn’t broken up with her yet was because he didn’t want to go back to the HNM center. Well, that was a lie. There was the fact that she was incredibly beautiful and hot and the sex was usually really good.

Still, about twenty percent of his time spent with her was pure frustration.

He folded clothing and put them in their appropriate drawers. “Rock on ancient queen, follow those who pale in your shadow. Wait, ‘follow those?’ Is that right?”

The awkward pattering of three legs signaled Silver entering the room. Nathan lost motivation to fold laundry and sat on the floor to scratch the scruffy fella behind his ears. He felt guilty looking at the dog after reflecting on his relationship with Val. He’d used his key to create the dog, hoping that having a three-legged dog would make women think he was a kind-hearted soul. And it had worked immediately on Val.

Silver seemed to sense that Nathan wasn’t really focused on the task of showing him affection and trotted off. Nathan sighed and pulled out the pen reader Carini had given him and opened the next file he had to read. He hadn’t just been sitting around, playing house for half a year. The hundreds of thousands of pages of records he’d downloaded from Babel were torture to dig through, and after all these months he was now barely starting to get a vague idea of what was going on in Mebar. None of the biggest questions on the list he’d been making for Irse had been answered, but a lot of smaller and related ones had.

Valerie had always been subtly worried about this odd “job” Nathan did every day. Things between them had happened fast, so a lot of the gradual lying about…everything that Nathan had expected had never really happened. Nathan could tell she was sort of back-peddling when she’d ask casual, awkward questions about all this stuff he was reading and why he seemed to have unlimited shekels but no fractions. He’d said he was doing research for the MOA, which was sort of true, considering he was technically still one of the bosses of what the MOA really was. That explanation had seemed to satisfy her at first, but she wasn’t stupid.

He shook these frustrations off as he finished scrolling past the fifteen-page table of contents of the document he had open and then zipped down to the meeting minutes. The document was a record of a meeting that had taken place a year after the end of the so-called Silencing event that Rossa had mentioned. There were a lot of official records where some of the TAW and some higher-ranking Alephs had decided to cook up two fake histories. Both dealt with two different styles of something they’d titled “Hidden Knowledge.”

One of the histories was the one he’d seen explained in the museums here in Helison. It dealt with generational ships traveling to a star system call Mebar. The Hidden Knowledge here was the lost technology used to terraform one of the planets. Apparently, Prometheus had adopted this story, and believed they now lived on that terraformed planet.

Nathan looked up at a shelf in the corner of the bedroom, where Valerie had a little shrine to one of his colleagues, Sharon Okamura. It had a steel-engraving print of her face, sitting to one side of a little oil lamp and a framed drawing of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man on the other side. He’d asked her about this once, and she’d said Okamura was the patron TAW of nursing, so she got the “memorial,” as she’d called it, as good luck during her residency to get her RN license. She claimed it was just for looks now.

Apparently, offering prayers to the TAW was a thing even here on the more “scientific” world of Prometheus. Nathan had looked this up and discovered that he was the patron TAW of diplomacy, which was incredibly boring. It seemed like that sort of superstitious stuff would fit better on Pan, where they’d adopted the more fantastic of the two false histories.

That one talked about the TAW being godlike sorcerers. The Hidden Knowledge instead consisted of arcane arts used for reshaping reality. An entirely new universe had been crafted according to the will of the TAW and then named Mebar.

Weirdly, that one was closer to how Mebar had actually be built. Well, at least the Mebar Nathan had helped build. Not this creepy, upgraded version he was now in.

The TAW and Alephs had also decided to tell both worlds that it was the improper delving into Hidden Knowledge that had led to the Silencing and all its side effects. The changes to Mebar, however, were attributed to someone named Onweume making some alterations and then naming the master manager of the universe after herself. But Nathan was missing the main document with the details on that particular story.

The new Assembly that had put all this nonsense together had decided that they would lock away most artwork and media. The stuff from Earth was labeled gray-media and the stuff made during the pre-Silencing centuries was labeled black-media. Their argument was it had all been lost in the disaster.

But, in reality, nothing had been lost, except for the records the Alephs had destroyed in Babel. And most Alephs found their favorite gray-listed media and just leaked it. They’d been doing that gradually for the last three and a half centuries, creating the market for “found-items.”

Valerie had ten or twenty gum-pack-sized gadgets of various colors, stacked on the shelf right below the TAW shrine. They were all basically MP3 players holding her collection of gray market music. She had almost two thousand songs, most of them from the 1960’s and 70’s.

Below the stacks of music was a third shelf. There, Val had a locked wooden box. Inside that box were rows and rows of glass vials with red-tinted liquid in them. Aljinn potions. That was the upgrade to TV and movies he had expected. Well, not aljinn potions specifically, but the potions themselves. Val wouldn’t talk about what was in the box, and curiosity had driven Nathan to pick the lock and look inside and do his own digging on what they were. They were consciousness transfer devices, meant to transport a person’s mind into another universe, sometimes for entertainment. Aljinn potions, specifically, were this world’s go-to version of porn.

People in Prometheus did not talk about such things. Nathan had a feeling these were considered “forbidden knowledge” items, so they kept them secret. Talking about aljinn potions seemed to be nearly as awkward as talking about Pan. It had taken quite a while for him to figure all this out, but for very specific personal reasons he refused to use them himself.

He got bored pretending to read the minutes of that document and returned to sorting clothes. But then he finished them. And wasn’t in the mood to go into the other room to talk to Val. So he picked the pen reader up and opened a new document and stared at a new table of contents, and quickly went cross-eyed.

He yawned again as he finally saw something of interest: a transcription of a meeting where they discussed the changes to Irse, post-Silencing. How she was behaving more and more human in their interactions with her. Tears leaking at the edges of his eyes from the long yawn, he frowned as he saw something he hadn’t seen before.

“Immortals?”

Nathan got off the floor and sat on the bed. He read more slowly. There was a vague discussion of an experiment involving trying to clone the Managers. But he noticed an underline under the name given to the project: Immortals. He touched it with the pen.

A new file came up. Nathan read the table of contents, his eyes widening and his jaw dropping as he went over the titles of the different sections. Then he read everything. He sat on the bed and read, not moving at all as his back ached as the sky outside darkened.

“Babe, are you okay?”

Nathan looked up to see Valery leaning against the doorframe, frowning at him with concern. Nathan didn’t respond.

Val gestured at Nathan’s pen reader. “I figured you were working, so I ran some errands, but…you haven’t moved at all since I left like, four hours ago.”

Nathan stared up at her, at the young woman he’d manipulated, using multiple supernatural powers, into sleeping with him and welcoming into her home. Because he’d liked her long, slender legs. And because he’d wanted to be comfortable while plotting how to strip away the supernatural powers of the world’s corrupt leadership.

And during the last four hours he had discovered where the slippery slope of their power had led them. He looked down at Val’s multicolored socks, which he found adorable.

“I have to go.”


***


“Maybe I’m just being idealistic. Or, optimistic, I mean,” said Aramis, trying to speak in a way that was confident but not arrogant. “I don’t know. But maybe I need to be idealistic, because most Seven followers fixate on how we’re all supposed to be suffering or whatever.”

Kamel frowned and nodded, scratching the back of his head. Aramis wasn’t sure how she’d been sucked into this discussion again. The Remnant study group was currently meeting up at his nice house in the northern hills overlooking the city. They were having a dinner party for Avraham’s Day, so they should all be relaxing and eating barbeque out on Kamel’s deck under the stars and freezing half to death in the early December air, not debating theology. Maybe debating Advent traditions, worst case scenario.

Kamel finally cleared his throat and responded, “Yeah, I get what you’re saying. It’s fair. I mean, a lot of people do insert the Name into preyvede resurrection beliefs and live the same sort of silly ascetics.”

“Which is crazy,” Aramis said, “because that doesn’t even work. The Alephs will not resurrect someone who they know was intentionally torturing themselves to get resurrected. In fact, that’s the only time when Irse will share information about a person’s private life. They called it ‘baiting the Alephs.’ If you can’t fool them, why do you think you can fool the Name?”

Kamel squinted his eyes and pointed at Aramis. “Yeah. But we’re not talking about the same thing. You have to remember—”

“Hey, Aramis.”

A thrill shot through Aramis at hearing Paul’s voice. Before she turned around, colors came. She’d discovered the horrible reality that when Paul made her feel happy, her Curse Blindness would fade. It was an extra incentive to fight back the warm fuzzies that being around him gave her. Because it was all fake. A false cure to the curse. The curse would always return when the true reality of the situation asserted itself.

But sometimes it was too strong to fight off. She turned away from the dark hazel of Kamel’s eyes framed by his olive face and looked at Paul. His coffee-brown face frowned as he stuffed his hands into his pockets. His dark eyes were like gems. Her heart leaped as she looked into them, losing herself for a short, stupid moment. Regaining control of herself, she nodded to him, her face blank, oddly calmed by the return of gray all around her. “Hey.”

Paul waved at Kamel as he joined them in the cramped kitchen. “Hey Pastor Kamel.”

Kamel smiled, winked at Aramis, and walked away. It made Aramis furious and nauseated, seeing Kamel presume something was going on.

Paul stepped in close to her. She felt herself starting to sweat as colors flashed inconsistently, reds one moment, greens another, the deep brown of Paul’s eyes lingering the longest. She clenched a hand into a fist until the colors went away.

He didn’t seem aware of any of this. “I finally put together how much that Atlas Cocktail costs. There’s…no way I’m ever going to be able to afford it. Even if I just bought the ingredients and had you make it for me.”

“Yeah. The main parts come from a granite shark, and they die in captivity. They have to come from one caught in the wild. Which is really dangerous.” She paused. “It’s not impossible, though.”

Paul looked over at Maria and Ivan, who were now talking to Kamel, who kept laughing loudly at their jokes. Maria’s belly was getting huge. Paul spoke while still looking at them: “I don’t know how I’m ever going to get back. I’m starting to understand why you waited so long to tell me about the other option.”

“The bond.” After months of coming to this group and getting to know Paul better and better, being around him and having him want to talk to her all the time, never stopped making her both excited and miserable. But talking about the bond was worse.

Paul continued talking. “I’ve heard they’re not always done for romantic reasons. Sometimes people who are like siblings do it. That means you and I could do one.”

“Hey guys! Let’s get a game going on,” Kamel called out, gesturing for everyone to come over to the living room.

Aramis rolled her eyes. “I hate games. I don’t know how to tell Kamel that.”

Paul shrugged. “Well, just make sure to vote for a game that’s less annoying to you.”

“Yeah, but I’d rather vote for no game. At all.”

“Maybe…you should vote for a game you’re terrible at. Then you can lose really quickly and be done?”

Aramis’ eyes widened. “That’s not a bad idea.”

“What game are you absolutely the worst at?” Paul stepped forward, leading them toward the living room.

“Risk. I get belligerent. Makes me hate everyone around me and probably makes everyone hate me.”

Paul laughed. The rich sound made the hairs on the back of Aramis’ neck stand straight up. He turned to her and smiled. “I don’t think there’s anything you could do to make everyone hate you. Or even not like you.”

Aramis smiled back, even though the comment splashed vibrant color all over the room. The dark walnut coffee table. The cream fabric couch. The stained oak chairs. The scarlet area rug. The golden, ornamental lamps. They didn’t go away.

She joined the group and Paul loudly suggested Risk, smiling at Aramis as he did.

Aramis sat across from Paul and the gameboard for Risk was set up. She wasn’t aware of anyone else but him. He would smile and smirk at her after anyone would say anything funny, wanting to share the moment with her. And every time he did it, the colors around her brightened and sharpened. And her heart felt like it was encased in an ever-shrinking box.

She played the game, finding herself avoiding conflicts on the board with Paul as much as possible. This made her sloppier and more passive than normal, which lead her forces into a slow, depressing death.

As Aramis made a comment about this and Paul laughed richly at it, her insides twisted up as the mad desire inside her swelled and made her hands shake. She could never tell him that he was doing this to her. She could never hurt him by letting him know how much he was hurting her. She buried, buried, buried it all. And the colors around her finally faded, but there was no relief in the gray this time. She had to endure for now.

About half way through the game, everyone realized that Paul had been carefully setting them up.

“The hell?” Kamel said, making everyone laugh. Aramis didn’t look up as she laughed along with them, not wanting to make eye contact with Paul. Kamel back-peddled. “I mean…heck. What the…how did you do that?”

Paul moved what had seemed like overly-spread-out forces from the Americas into Eastern Asia and decimated Kamel’s control. The game then continued on with Paul gobbling up territory after territory. Aramis, mostly holed up in Australia, become nothing but a minor annoyance to the others as they all scrambled to avoid annihilation. To no avail.

“Well, I’m finally dead.” Aramis stood up and headed to the French doors along the back of the house, anxious to be alone and take a few breaths of cold air. She pulled her coat around herself and stepped out onto the narrow deck. From the balcony she could look down at Hempstock, its tungsten bulbs and light stone torches twinkling kilometers below in the valley. All of them would be glowing gold if Paul was out here, so her eyes fixated on the silver. She wondered what the point of color was in the first place.

She was cold. She went over to a chair on one side of a fire pit and began sorting out kindling to get a fire going. She absorbed herself in the task, stripping fibers from the staves. She only partly noticed when Paul sat down across from her.

“You’re ripping that wood apart like its celery.”

Aramis chuckled. “I can’t see the color yellow or red, but I can rip wood apart with my bare hands.”

She assembled the strips under an A-frame of kindling. Paul watched her as he sipped from his drink.

She pulled out a lighter and got the fire started. She spoke without looking up, instead staring at the silver flames. “You can to. Your fingers are just as strong. It may take a while to build the callouses.”

“So,” Paul said, clearing his throat. “About this bond. I know the Never-No version is super creepy. And I’d never…ask you to do that. But, I don’t know if I want to wait for a slow bond to form. It’s already driving me crazy that I’ve been away from Susie for so long already.”

“Well,” Aramis said, a color fantasy flashing through her mind. Of him finding out Susie had already moved on. Of him holding Aramis and pressing his forehead against hers. More heat shot through her, anger and jealousy making her feel a little drunk. She pushed the thoughts away. “We’ve probably already started the slow bond.”

“Really?”

Aramis nodded. “It normally takes a year or two for it to finish forming.”

It was happening in her faster than that. They had been growing close for half a year. She guessed that within a few months the slow bond may form and Paul would gain the boost in physical strength that came with it.

The sooner she got this stupid boy back in Prometheus and back with this stupid girl that he had stupid, wonderful memories about, the sooner she’d be free.

Paul frowned. “Are you okay? You look upset about something.”

“I’m fine.”

Paul shook his head. “You don’t look fine. I heard the bond make people able to feel hints of each other’s emotions.”

“There isn’t any actual evidence of that.” Aramis kept her eyes on the fire. The two of them sat silent for a moment.

“Have you been getting enough work lately? I can probably convince Cedric to send you more of the smaller contracts.”

“No, work is fine. I’m staying busy. Learning more about mazai machines in my spare time. Probably can start getting some contracts for that on the side.”

“I have to thank you,” Paul said as Aramis leaned forward to grab a piece of wood that was just outside of reach. He instead grabbed it and handed it to her. “I’d be a mess if I didn’t have hope I could get back home. It means a lot that you’re helping me.”

Aramis nodded, eyes on the fire, wondering how much longer she could put up with all this


***


Nathan pried himself off his bike as he reached the top of the hill. Helison didn’t have a lot of high hills and most of the ones in the city limits were covered in mansions, condos, and golf courses. He’d ridden over a hundred and twenty kilometers north, through sporadic rain, to find one with no people nearby.

It was early morning and he was alone at the edge of a grassy plateau encircled by evergreen and fruit trees. He’d heard this hill used to be a dairy farm and orchard. The air was completely silent and very, very cold.

Nathan stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets and looked up at the brightening, red sky. “Alright, Irse. We need to talk.”

He stood there and waited. He’d been sitting around reading records and waiting for Irse to come to him for over half a year. That was long enough. He had days’ worth of food and a tent and a sleeping bag in his saddlebags. He’d told Valery he had to be out of town for a while, but she’d seen right through it. She could tell he was leaving-leaving, and he’d been too ashamed to tell her he wasn’t sure why he wasn’t coming back. An argument ensued and now he was pretty sure she didn’t want him to come back. He leaned against his bike and folded his arms. “I know you can hear me. And I know what the Alephs did to you.”

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