It takes seconds from a tingling feeling to discharge and the seconds seem to last forever.
There is a scent of coffee mixed with ozone in the gale, half-and-half with Demerara brown sugar.
Coffee never tasted as good as the cup I had at 8:42. Just a single cup and some nicotine gum would normally be enough but today I really ate for two. I kept stuffing my face with tiny triangular sandwiches as the C came in.
"I got a job for you", he said with his black velvet voice, "a chopper is fuelled up for you on the roof. Go."
The rain bends over me and drools down my neck as I crawl on. My knees are sore and my hands are all over the place from the electric charge in the air.The target arrived at the marina ten minutes to nine with a tom-skimmer. The sailing vessel grazed the water in 27 minutes and was at the horizon in ten more. Several homing satellites tracked it automatically, but C wanted a techie on the probable destination, one that wouldn't be careless.
Where the hell is that detector line?The old Rooivalk was slow and loud, but a perfect match for the official lie. "Research expedition to investigate the populations of mammal sea-life", typically populated by middle-aged wannabe scientists with cheap funding. Who else would use an old attack helicopter? I bet this one belonged to one of C's rich South-African "friends". I was certainly middle-aged enough for the assignment, but it wouldn't get any older in the good hangar at the old coast guard station on the island. It was a real shame that nobody saw how smoothly the old bird landed.
Warm tears cool on their way down my cheeks and rain again from my chin. I have the cable, but it's a crossroad, going left and right. An inner voice says:The Japanese built the base in the good old days. I had to read the instructions to find where to unlock the amado, or storm-doors. Once inside, the kamoi, or lintels, were surprisingly high above the floor planks. Even with the tatami floor mats in place I would be able to walk tall.
My nails are blue and I can't release the cable. The sand grains do the electric boogie among the weed, inches from my face. My hair stands on its tiptoes and the rain smells like blood.The secret of placing seven detectors around a house without being seen in broad daylight is letting a machine do it. So while the tiny cable-bot kept its end of the bargain, I kept mine. Hooking the cable to the core computer took half a minute or so but there was already one detector answering. With four in place the picture would come up and I would be able to detect the house and everything about it. I put another stick into the stove and took my jacket. I was outside only seconds after the picture appeared.
No. No. No. This is the broken one, stupid. Just slightly bent, but in the right place. I should have gone left.The target and the old man of the island rapidly dismantled the tom-skimmer. The increasing winds gave them a bit of trouble, but both seemed familiar with the strange grips of the strange vessel, and they managed to get the parts into the boathouse before the first drops of rain. It would take them a while to get to the house and I wanted them all there to get the sound and infrared calibrated just right.
The rain paints concentric rings on my back now, but my hand tries to soothe my soul by signing a stiff "it's perfect" to me as I slither like the worm I am along the line.I took the temperature of the sea and checked the wind-speed meter, while making sure they saw me from the house. I even put a new strip into the hygrometer before walking the steep path up to them.
The house looked like a highland stone house from a distance, but as I got closer it revealed shoji screens behind amado storm doors. A path of flat stones led me in a wide bend over a small stone footbridge to the entrance.
Crawling left where I went right, I pass a crossroad that isn't there anymore. Half a finger points straight up at the hunter above, broken by a rock, I think. I can't feel it. I hardly even see it.The members of the household looked like family, even though they couldn't be. They all had simple grey clothing with brightly coloured birds-feet embroided on their sleeves and shoulders, the same minute plait hanging in front of the right ear or just behind it and the same black hair. The target took my jacket and hung it up with a muffled cough.
"Please, get in from the cold", he said, "Aunt Eline is expecting you."
He slid the shoji open and followed me inside. The brass handle-groove, the hikite, was circular and had a pentagram at the bottom of it.
The old man bid me with a small gesture to join him for dinner. When all were seated he put his hands down in his lap and lowered his head. The small and square table was only polished, not lacquered, so the cloud-like shapes in the wood were easy to see. In fact, they imprisoned my eyes while the old man was praying.
"Welcome to our home, Master Scientist. Welcome to Root ", he said silently. "I am Peter Carpenter. My wife has been waiting for you, but first we must eat."
He handed me a bowl of soup and then another to the target, who silently started fishing vegetables from the soup with eating-sticks.
"Little one", the old woman said looking at him.
"Benjamin isn't well" Peter said to me and pointed with his spoon.
"Just a bug going around" the young man replied with a tired laugh.
Death has me in his abacus. Lightning fingers push me around, counting breaths. I have one less, and another."Ancient times, long before the flood," said the little old woman, "there was those who could see and understand. Then blind killers were born to come and take them away. All but a very few. My great mother hid through bad years on her knees in the Kirk, but saw sisters among flames for not bending their necks."
I'm a bird on a wire in a bright electrical forest. Will someone hear me fall? I feel the tingling red dot placed on me and throw myself down flat on the ground. Pixies dance around me with silver bands and I wet the ground through my pants as I twitch, trying to stay down.Peter rose and fetched a chest from another room. From it he took a thick, grey wool sweater with the same strange embroidery, this time in blue and purple, and gave it to me. It had the scent of old Java and sugar-canes."
Eline looked at me with her green eyes.
"Yes Alex, it has been in the chest for some time, but it's yours. It always is. Now go home to your bed. Your night, and Ben's, is short and grim."
Peter packed the sweater in a plain brown paper box.
"And these will be in there too", he said and put a parcel into the box. "Sandwiches, so that you have something to chew on at the computer tonight. You scientists don't think well unless your mouths are full."
I left the house laughing.
The core recorded it all. I studied myself to see if I had blown my cover and viewed the dinner from different angles to see if I had missed something. I watched the old couple do the dishes and then go to bed. The detectors and the core software even picked up the red texture of the futons and the long white scars on her back. But after my departure the core only picked up one spoken sentence:
"I'll get back to the server."
The elderly couple just nodded in unison and the target - Ben - went to his room. It was a six tatami room next to the shrine and in a recess there was a grey tower the size of a shoebox. My guess was that it was a domestic server of some kind, but it was smaller than I was used to and it looked old. I moved around and viewed closer while he worked. I didn't need the core to tell me what he did. An old techie respected people doing upgrades as well as heart surgery.
I decided to watch him do the rest tomorrow and went to bed. I fell asleep like a double agent in a gas chamber, but I had the strangest dream.
A beetle walks on a canvas. Suddenly it throws himself down on its belly, but rolls over because of a huge erection. It puts a lot of effort into it, but it can't get back on its feet. The erection gets longer and harder all the time and finally stops. The point of view shifts and a photo flash goes off.
There's a bug on its back in a collectors glass box.
There's a bug on its back in a collectors glass box.
My watch showed sixteen to four in the morning. The core UPS switched on and off like crazy because of an electric storm somewhere close. I ignored the ticking relay and reached for the headset.
One of the detectors was dead. The core showed me that Ben had stepped on it while walking around in the rain about an hour earlier. It must have been faulty to begin with, because it usually took a 16 ton bus on tarmac to break them. I simply confirmed the malfunction and went on to check what I missed during my few hours of sleep.
Ben removed the hard disk and replaced it with a solid state memory. He booted it from the optic cards, but something seemed to be wrong. He downed the daemons, switched off the server, opened the case, put the old hard disk back in and rebooted. He shook his head, looked at it and shook his head again.
I reach for the detector with my widower hand. Rebecca, I'm coming.Ben worked the server for another hour while his body temp slowly increased. The core estimated him to have a viral infection, but he typed the commands at a tremendously high and constant speed, shook his head, tried yet another technique and other commands until he finally fainted next to the server with a rattling sound.
No, the sound came from somewhere else. Someone shook the rattle at my entrance.
"Just a second", I shouted with my pants halfway up.
Peter stood in the outer hall, soaked and worried.
"Ben is in a bad way. Do you have something to bring down his fever?"
We fetched the kit from the Rooivalk and struggled through the wind and rain back to their house. Eline sat on the floor next to Ben's futon. He was pale and breathed heavily.
"I sang him to sleep", she said, "thank you for coming quickly."
Ben got a high dose of antipyretics, and within minutes he started to sweat. His body responded well to the medicine, and I relaxed.
Peter walked into the room with a tray filled with cookies and a pot of tea. A green and gold snake embraced his right arm and bit its own tail.
"Eat and think, scientist" he said with a faint smile.
Eline started singing again, words that I couldn't understand from an old book, while Peter and I had an early breakfast. We spoke quietly of food and fishing, of flying and computers, and I felt a sting of guilt for spying on this nice old couple when Peter nudged my arm and pointed at his wife.
The words were strange but the melody so familiar. I listened to her and suddenly understood why. My wife always hummed that same song. She hummed it in my ear as I kissed her at the altar and when she walked to the car one week later. The silence after the accident almost killed me too.
Eline gave me the book and hugged me.
"We know, Alex, but turn the page."
Turning the page revealed a woodprint of a Japanese house with a dragon sitting on the roof roasting a child with its breath. Clouds danced with swords around the house and pissed on it. And around it all was a snake, biting its own tail in a pool of blood with six corners.
Eline pointed at the child and whispered:
The electric force lifts me off the ground and bends me like strychnine. I hang like a dead twig on a thread as the clouds watch me, judge me.The clouds play a little more before they understand that they have been tricked. Then the dragon roars on the roof and chases them away, blaming them for his hunger. The flapping of its great wings beat in my head as it leaves. Keeps on beating.
"This rib must break, this, this, and this."
Finally I am just a hand to them, holding a secret.
"Let me see", says a cloud.
I hold on to the detector like a lame cowboy on a rodeo stallion and shake my head.
"I'll take it anyway. Watch me."
I drop like a rag-doll five feet to the ground, back onto the wet grass, as the cloud takes aim and strikes. I stand up but my body doesn't follow, so I see myself get hit. The cloud punches a hole in my hand to get the detector, just as I want it to. The heat melts my wedding ring into the flesh and boils my blood to black smoke.
I bleed into a pool of blood with six corners, but the snake doesn't bite itself anymore. The spell is broken just as I am.
Suddenly Peter and Eline stand next to the ghost of me, singing. Their hands glow as they each take one of my arms, lift me up as they kneel down and push me into myself. Then life returns with a thin ray of sunlight welding my senses to my pain.
The old couple carry me into the house and put me on a futon.
"Drink this", Eline says and gives me a bowl of tea, "it'll help you heal".
She watches me while I drink and then kisses me on the forehead. She turns around and looks at me from the fusuma.
I lie awake in the early morning, watching a spider on the ceiling while thinking how strangely connected things are when a voice from the other futon says:
"I'll get back to the server."
- n - o - t - e -
The short story above is published under the CC-BY-SA license.