Violet pauses at the stairs. The cries of alarm ring down the hall behind her. She turns and grabs a fleeing nurse.
“The climbers! They’ve smashed into the front lobby,” the woman shouts.
“Grab anybody who can handle a gun, make a stand at the main entrance,” Violet orders. “I’ll see about hunting up more people. We’ve got to act quickly.”
The obese woman nods dumbly. As she hurries away, Violet tightens her grip on her rifle. She looks up the stairs, her mind visualizing the big glass enclosure in front of the hospital. She turns and makes for the main entrance instead.
A half dozen nurses struggle at the double doors, pushing up makeshift barricade of gurneys and batting at glassy eyed men and women with axes. A couple of men fire blindly into the mindless horde with rusty pistols.
“Follow me!” Violet cries opening fire on the mass of infected.
Together the gang pushes back the sleepwalkers. The attackers scatter, melting into the chaos of the main lobby. Under the starlit glass, dozens of the infected swarm the area, pulling down nurses and patients alike and tearing them apart. Men, women, and children bite and claw like feral beasts. Outside Lily fires again and again as she and her dog Exit race for her motorcycle.
Violet turns and fires on a half naked man climbing the exterior wall. Krin directs the other nurses forward to take the lobby.
As they push deeper into the atrium, the climber victims begin to falter, peeling away in ones and twos. Violet knocks a broken faced woman aside in mid lunge. Meanwhile Krin puts two rounds into a little girl with blood stained lips.
“Why?” he cries. He reloads with tears in his eyes. He fires again. “Why!?”
A man in green T-shirt stops his mindless attack. He blinks his eyes. “What where am I?”
A big man, one of the defenders named Crazy Joe, sinks an axe into his head. He grabs a woman with a shattered arm and thrusts her through a plate glass window. Stepping back, he rubs his bald surgically scarred head with a bloody hand. He turns and gives Violet a smile.
Then five twitching attackers pounce on him, dragging him to the ground in an orgy of blood and brutality.
Violet glances around her. Orderlies and nurses from inside reinforce her dwindling band, doubling their numbers. The climbers, beaten and broken, continue to come at them but with each encounter the defenders push them back another few feet. The front entrance is in sight.
Through the glass, Violet spots Lily. Standing atop her motorcycle, Exit at her feet, she desperately fends off a half dozen of the infected.
Violet pulls her eyes away from her friend. “We must protect the Autodoc
Gator looks at the crowds below from the darkened tower. Cheers and laughter drift up from the market, an island of light in the dark night. Carefully conserved moonshine sloshes freely.
Jarhead continues, “So how about these detonator collars? There’s a lot of people down there you still can’t trust. I could rig it so a simple flick of a switch takes them out if they try anything. All I need is some spare ammo and time. Or we could do shock collars.”
”No shock collars,” Gator says. “No explosives either.”
“I thought you were going to be a fun ruler. I thought we understood each other.”
Morgana speaks up, pulling Gator’s attention to the other side of the small room. “We’ve got to do something about those people, the ones White used as his insurance policy. The climber victims. We’ve rounded them up and put in a shack on the south end. Should we shoot them?”
Gator looks north. “We should negotiate something with the Autodoc
The rugged woman nods. “OK I’ll try to radio them.”
November miggles with the crowds, soaking in their cheer and smiles. A helpful threesome point her to Shell’s.
Only an elderly oriental woman seems to be browsing this stall. The proprietor, a well dressed man with a cape, smiles and asks what she desires.
“I wants something strong. Something that will knock me out for a while.” She glances around. “Any Second Life?”
Shell’s smile falters. “Well I had some before all this trouble came up. But not in quite awhile. I got this.” He holds out a vial of red liquid. “Not quite the same. It’s made from blood ferns but the distillation isn’t very good. It will knock you out but has some side effects.”
November considers the vial for a moment before handing over some jingle. She hangs the vial around neck. As she vanishes into the crowd, she grasps her new talisman.
Violet and the others reach the front entrance. Blood, mostly not theirs, covers their hands, arms and weapons. As the final remnants of the hospital’s defenders arrive, they clear the lobby.
As the nurses move to seal the broken windows and secure the doorway, Violet rushes outside.
The few remaining climbers swarm Lily’s bike. A large man throws her to the ground. He looms over her, asleep to the dog chewing at his leg. His head explodes.
Pulling up her still smoking rifle, Violet runs forward and leaps over the remaining attackers. She pulls Lily free of the crowd and dashes for the entrance. The climber stumble after them. Letting the other woman run ahead, Violet turns and fires at a parked pickup. The bullet strikes the gas tank solidly. A second later a subdued explosion covers their right flank, distracting their pursuers for a moment.
A minute later both women breath heavily within the glass confines of the lobby. Outside the attackers withdraw, beaten and broken for now.
Violet straightens up. “Get that window barricaded,” she shouts to nurses.
Teams of patients and orderlies wheel gurneys into the lobby and turn broken chairs and tables into makeshift walls. As the nurses begin to help the wounded, Violet steps in to deal with the more pressing cases.
She tightens the tourniquet and looks around. Scavenged boards and duct tape seal off the damaged windows and a half dozen armed men watch the front doors. Satisfied for the moment, she looks for the head nurse.
She finds Millions inside.
“Thank you for saving us," the porcelain skinned nurse says. "If they had gotten past that doorway it would be over for us. And if we had lost the atrium, all of our food would be gone. If there is anything that you need let me know.”
“I can’t think anything right now,” Violet tells the androgynous figure.
Millions smiles. "Our doors will always be open to take care of any harm that you have suffered.”
Violet gives her a quick rundown on her recommendations for improving defenses. Then she excuses herself.
In the lobby she finds Lily. After checking for any climbers nearby, they grab Lily’s bike and ride south to the liberated ship.
“Now that these troubles are past." The savage warrior holds his breath for a moment as he shuffles his feet. "You’re the Messenger.”
“The what?” November says arching an eyebrow.
“ Jarhead had said you were the Messenger. You’re the one we’ve been searching for.”
“Cool,” she says calmly.
Shadow presses on. “The gods granted me a vision, they said you were the one who would lead my people to salvation.”
“Cool,” she says, her eyes searching around. “I don’t know much about your religion, sorry. What salvation were you thinking of?”
“You need to lead my people away from the devastated land they live in," he explains.
“That sounds like a good idea but I don’t know any place better. You’ve got a nice set up.”
He throws his arms wide. "There’s no food there, my people are starving.”
“I see,” she says.
November stretches out her thoughts. The image of a ruin hotel floats to the surface. The site of Dustwich’s death. Between the mangroves and the rising seas. The clear waters teem with life. But in the depths something stirs with a hunger of its own.
“I think I know a good place," she says after a pause. "How do you like seafood?”
Shadow shrugs. “I see food, I eat it.”
”We should see if there is anybody who would like to join us." She grabs Shadow’s shoulder. "And don’t call me the Messenger to them, they wouldn’t understand.”
“Incident?” Gator asks.
Morgana leans on the table between them. “Yeah they got attacked by a whole gang of climbers.”
“So that’s where all those people went.”
She nods. “They managed to drive them off. They said something about Violet helping out.”
“That’s good, as long as they are okay over there. How have the negotiations gone?”
“I’ve talked to them about taking the climber cases but they are kind of in disarray. But I think we should be able to ferry them up.”
“Let’s get on that then.”
Morgana smiles. “I’ll arrange a boat.”
Gator and Jarhead patrol the deck of the Big Ship early the next morning. Only the mutant gulls and a few groaning drunks disturb the hulk’s silence. The pair of men look over the rusty 50 caliber machine guns.
“We need to patch up this place’s defenses,” Gator says.
Jarhead rubs his goatee. “We can do this, we can make them fire at full speed, like they’re almost out of the shop but we will need to buy some parts.”
“Okay how much.”
“It will cost four barter to get it all said and done. I can guarantee it will spit bullets like nothing around.” Jarhead turns to Gator. “I know you are good for these things. So I’ll do it for three now and you can pay the rest when it’s finished.”
Gator considers three people lying in a drunken heap. “Four is a bit much.”
“Okay,” Jarhead’s smiles fades away.”Then you don’t get your gun.”
“Make sure you are working on that god puncher thing,’ Gator says.
“I prefer god smiter.”
Gator turns back to the rusty hulks. “The machine guns work enough for now.”
Jarhead hurries back down below. As he returns to work on the weapon, he smiles at Allison’s progress on the shock collars. She should have some done soon.
Jarhead connects another cable with a yawn. He looks around. Allison and the others have yet to return to the workshop. He lets his eyes close for a moment. He blinks and yawns. Jarhead grabs another cable and plugs it in. He tries shrug off the accumulated lethargy of two sleepless nights. He wanders over to his augury. After polishing it up he rests his head again.
His feet sit in ankle deep water. A low mist fills the gaps between the trees that surround him.
Voices whisper to him from all directions. Some he recognizes. Tom who died while Jarhead was out of town. Crazy Jane who popped while he worked on a carburetor. Tram, Skinhead, and Headlight. All dead. All victims of the climbers.
“This is not good, this is not good.” He mutters as figures move in the mist. “This is not good.”
Jarhead creeps away from the voices. His back hits a tree. Nervously his hand sneaks around and finds a knob. Quickly he pulls the door open and steps inside.
A dark field spreads in front of him. He looks up and back. A towering factory looms over him. Broken windows and gray crumbling wood. Illuminated by a dying moon.
“Psst, over here.”
Jarhead looks past a withered old tree, bleached at the roots. A child lurks in its shadow.
“I can help you, they are coming for you,” the boy tells him, “I can protect you, but you need to do something for me.”
Jarhead glances behind him. Several massive step pyramids rear into the sky. Blood drips down their staircases.
“That’s not intimidating at all,” he mutters. “Okay, who are you?”
“You know who I am.” The child steps out from behind the tree. The scars still remains, years after the savaging the crocodile dealt him.
“ White Jarhead states. “Right. Not the first person I expected to find in this place. Then again I don’t know why I should be surprised. So what do you want? Besides not being dead. I don’t think I can help with that, your head is all leaky.”
“I need a new body.”
Jarhead shakes his head. “I was afraid you would say that.”
Jarhead scratches his chin. “If I make you a new body, you keep them off my back?”
“Yes, I’ll protect you from the gods Thunder rumbles around White.
”You know what I’m trying to do,” Jarhead says.
White steps in front of him. “Yes.”
“Can you wait until I finish before I bring you back among us?”
“I’d like a sign of good faith,” White says, the moonlight illuminating his teeth through his ravaged cheek. “The gods know what you are up to, you told their emissary. They will come from you.”
Jarhead opens his mouth and then closes it. “In the end I guess it doesn’t matter who said what. But I wonder if you can wait? Look, I assume you are the maelstrom.”
“I’m always in the maelstrom.”
“So if I ever want to go back in, you’ll be there.”
“They are all here,” White says looking past him.
“Screw them, I mean you.” As White nods, Jarhead continues, “so if I attempt to renege on our deal here, I can never go back to the one place I need to explore. I’m not going to cut myself off.”
The boy remains impassive. The tinkerer sighs. “How about I set one of my assistants on it once I get back. I suppose the assurance that you are doing your part is that my soul stays in my body.”
White nods. “I will protect you on this end. Your friends will have to protect your body.”
“You know I’m only the one who can build this device. You want this as much as we do.” White stands stone-like before him. “Can I get up now?”
Jarhead wakes with a jerk. He spots Waters and Memo enjoying some breakfast. “You two! I’ve got a job for you. I need you to build a metal skeleton. Nothing fancy. No super strength. And we need to put a big kill switch on back. Red and well-labeled.”
The sun turns the eastern waters into a golden sparkle. November looks over her ‘congregation’. The giant, Lafferty, nurses a shattered arm. The Kite family huddles around their packs and gear. Off on her own, Sunset hums a tune while she scrubs the stains out her robe. No one looks comfortable amid the Big Ship’s field of tin shacks.
Shadow comes up beside her. “We should head back to my holding. They’ve been waiting for me for almost a month.”
November nods. “We’ll need some transportation and supplies. Let me see what I can find.”
“What is it?”
She points to the south end of the holding. “Wire went to check on the climber victims. We don’t have to worry about them anymore. But we do have to worry about It.”
Gator’s scars twist down. “So it ran its course.”
A fireball erupts at the south end moments before the boom of the explosion arrives. Morgana’s voice sinks. “I told them not to use grenades.”
“Let’s cordon off that section,” Gator orders. “Seal off the vents.”
He talks into a speaking tube. “Pheonix, you there?”
“I’ve got a job for you.”
The women and the dog Exit look for another way across. Minutes later their answer comes in the form of a second boat slowly rowed across the bay. An unfamiliar woman in a long coat stands at the bow.
“You’re Violet right?” the woman asks, jumping down to the sands. “I’m here to greet you. Name is Phoenix.”
“Alright,” Violet says, eyeing the woman. Phoenix’s long coat hangs heavy over her short skirt. “We need to get to the ship.”
She gestures behind her. “Right, get aboard, Gator sent me over to welcome you onto the Big Ship. We’ve got business up and running again.”
“Great,” she says climbing aboard with her companions.
Phoenix jumps back on the boat. “Okay boys get us back over.”
The men at the oars begin to row back across the still waters.
Phoenix turns back to Violet. “So Gator didn’t give me a lot of information, but you are friends right?”
“Associates,” she corrects her.
“He mentioned some business you had to talk about. Some deal you had.”
“There’s a little something I owe him. I’ll make sure we’re square.”
“Good, good,” the young woman says, shaking her auburn clad head. ”Don’t want to make the new boss unhappy.”
“New boss?” Violet asks.
“ White’s dead. Out with the old and in with the new.” She hastily adds, “with more sanity.”
“This doesn’t seem like what we wanted,” Lily says sharply.
“We have to take into account what the people on the ship want,” Violet patiently says.
“Well if they are like her, it looks like they are happy.” Lily raises her hands. “Crap, we struggled for a whole month on this! People died!”
“I’m not happy with it either,” Violet says. “But if that’s the way it is then maybe we need to find somewhere else.“
Lily glares at her passionless leader. “After all of this, you are just going to give up?”
“That’s what the people want.” Violet lapses in a lecture. “I’ve told you before, it just as much of idea that the people have to be onboard with.”
“Damn it, Violet!”
Lily’s outcry rebounds off the Big Ship’s rusty hull just as they dock.
Phoenix bounds off the rowboat and gestures to an elevator. “Well we can go this way.”
“You go that way!” Lily shouts. “After all of this they put another dictator in charge. Wonderful. Great.”
“I’m not happy about it either,” Violet says.
“You could fool me!”
Lily storms off into the bowels of the ship.
Phoenix leads Violet to the top deck and then up the tower. As they climb the stairs, she says to Violet, “she seemed a little upset.”
“Well, yeah. Some of people had been hoping to start a republic.”
Phoenix looks up the stairwell. “Sounds great and all, but there something to be said about going with what works.”
They continue up the metal steps. The damp rusted stairs moan briefly at the fourth floor.
“Anyway I don’t care either way,” she says turning to Violet. “You look pretty bad off. With your friend gone…let’s just say if you leave on your own, talk to me first. I can set you up with something to protect yourself.”
“Don’t worry. I can take care of myself,” Violet smiles as she points to her face. “Plus I’ve got a friend here who can patch up this shiner.”
Phoenix throws open the door to the command room. Gator and a few men look up from a metal wheel covered in bits of paper. Violet scrutinizes it for a minute before Phoenix announces, “Gator! I brought her.”
Gator stands up obscuring her view of several words: amputation, death, Gator’s choice.
“Oh Violet, glad that nasty of business at the Autodoc didn’t take you out,” he says. “Sounded pretty bad.”
“Well if my face didn’t show it already, I’m kind of hard to kill.”
Gator grins, his scar twisting horribly. “I guess we have that in common. You heard that White was killed.”
Violet moves into the room, getting a closer look at Gator’s wheel of punishments. “I have to admit that I’m a little surprised that you set yourself up here.”
“Well the way I see it, these people need some stability. The only place in this god forsaken land that at one point had a purpose is here.”
Violet walks up to the imposing ex-mercenary. “So I guess my ideas of the Republic didn’t mean anything.”
“That’s not why I was with you,” he says frowning softly. “I thought I made that pretty clear.”
“Yes,” she says. “But think of what could be. This country was great once and it could be again.” She begins to lecture on what the United States was and how they could build a new nation here. Gator listens and tries to get a word in without success. Finally she concludes, “think about it, a world without tyrants, with guaranteed rights and freedoms.”
Gator sighs. “That sounds good in theory but there are way too many batshit crazy assholes out there. That’s not going to work right now. What these people need is stability. Vote someone in, then that person leaves and the next guy has to start from scratch.”
“But eventually it begins to build up and take root.”
“But how do you do that?” he asks.
“Have a good solid foundation to build on.”
“A moral one,” she argues.
“That’s what I’m doing.” He points at the wheel. “This right here. It’s the wheel. Break a deal, face the wheel.”
“More than that I think,” she mutters.
“It’s a start, more than most places have.”
Violet looks at Gator and his men. “Well I tried. Now we do have a little business to conduct. I believe I owe you something.”
She digs into her bulging pack and hands Gator some barter. As Gator takes it, she asks, “where’s Jarhead
Gator hesitates. “He’s working on something very important.”
“OK can you tell me where to find him? I have some important business with him too.”
“He’s got a workshop below,” he says. “Phoenix show her down.”
Orange bulbs light the damp steel corridor as Phoenix and Violet head deeper into the ship. They turn a corner and come up behind the same gang of savages Violet spied on the beach. An axe wielding woman leads the gang forward. Up ahead a heavy steel door blocks the entrance to Jarhead’s workshop.
Phoenix calls out, “uh, hello? Who are you?”
The woman, Mercy, turns and says, “we’re here to see the miracle worker.”
A spiky haired teen in the back adds, “yeah, we’re here see to Jarhead. We heard he makes the craziest stuff.”
“I heard he drilled a hole in his head,” says a tall man with circuitry tattooed along his arm.
“The crazy thing is I was actually there,” Violet whispers to Phoenix.
“He really drilled a hole in his own head?” she says with wide eyes.
The crowd reaches the door and knocks.
“Go away busy!” they hear Jarhead shout.
“We want to see you Jarhead,” the savages cry.
“We’re your biggest fans,” Mercy says.
Jarhead cracks open the door. “I have fans?”
He spies Violet in the back. “Are these guys with you?”
Violet shakes her head. “No, we kind of crossed paths on the way here. I’m as confused by them as you are.”
Jarhead tilts his head to the woman in a circuit board bikini. “What’s going on?”
“We want to help,” Mercy says.
“With what?” Violet calls out. “Pray tell.”
The big man explains, “we heard you got banged up a bunch at the Music Bowl. We figure we can crack some heads, keep you safe.”
“Wow, rewind,” Jarhead says. “You want to keep me safe.”
“Yeah so you can make stuff,” Mercy says, hefting her axe.
“Everybody wants me to make stuff.” He mutters, “Granted it’s what I’m really good at.”
“Is that a robotic skeleton over there?” the spiky haired woman says, worming her way forward.
Jarhead turns to the workbench. “Uh, yeah actually.”
Jarhead smiles and says, “isn’t it?”
Jarhead moves to the table, allowing the crowd to move into the workshop.
As he avidly chats about the device, Violet interrupts. “What’s it for?”
“A deal I made with someone,” he says. “Don’t worry about it. But it has this hydraulic thing…”
As he shows off the arm, gasps and cries of “cool” circulate through the crowd. The spikey haired girl introduces herself as Rox and presses up close to Jarhead for a better look.
“Where’s all of this circuitry going to lead to?” she asks, tracing the wires with her long fingers to the top of the body.
“We’re working on that,” he says. “We still need five circuit boards, ten yards of wire, some screws, and some sheet metal.”
As Jarhead basks in the attention, Violet patiently waits. Phoenix excuses herself and heads back to the surface.
Eventually the inventor says, ”Okay I’ve got stuff to do.”
“What doors do you need protecting?” Mercy asks. “How can we help?”
Jarhead tells them to get some supplies. The crowd disperses except for a couple of large men who watch the entrance of the workshop for trouble.
Jarhead sidles up to Allison as she puts together a shock collar. “This is amazing.”
“I guess,” she says.
His smile drops for a moment. “That’s great. But that whole ‘I guess’? You think too much about the consequences.”
Allison looks over to the corner. “I think Violet is waiting to talk to you about something.”
“She’s still here?” He turns to the survivalist. “I mean hi. What’s going on?”
Violet walks closer. “Now that things have quieted down, I was thinking with how things are at the Autodoc you might be better able to deal with this right here than them.” She points to her damaged face.
“So what do you want from me?” Slowly he asks, “Do you want me to fix you? Do you want me to enhance you?”
“Just fix me,” she orders.
“Okay I guess I could do that for three barter,” he says. “It will take a few hours and then you’ll need to rest for a week.”
November steps out of her tent. Despite her lackluster efforts, supplies and gear pile up near where her people are camped. Once they secure enough vehicles they will need to be on their way. She turns to find Gator moving through the collection of tents towards her.
“Hi Gator,” she says.
“Hi,” the big man says. “I hear you are moving on.”
“Well yeah, I’ve got a group of people asking to move out. Not that I don’t love what you’ve done with this place but I never really stay around too long.”
He nods. “I feel that. I don’t normally stick around myself.”
“You’ve got to try new things every once in a while right?” she says unsmiling.
“Yes and this place needs someone.”
“Besides Shadow is asking me to lead his people.” Her eyes seek his as she raises an eyebrow.
Gator studies her. The beautiful woman plays with a vial of red liquid around her neck with one hand while the other traces a pattern on a map on the table in front of her. An x marks the spot where they killed Dustwich. He glances around the camp. He sees lots of packed bags but none in her tent.
“How’s everything going around here?” she asks. “Any trouble getting stuff up and running?”
“Surprisingly no, White was so much of an asshole that they are happy to do anything. Jarhead is busy working on his own things. I’m looking at upgrading guns but he’s got a lot on his plate. He’s talking about shock collars. I don’t really agree with that.”
She interrupts him. “Have you seen Violet lately?”
“She stopped in, paid for services rendered. I don’t know where she got off to. She went to see Jarhead.“
“I wonder if she’s still upset with me,” November says. “We haven’t resolved anything between us yet.”
“She didn’t say anything about you,” Gator tells her. “She made some points on the whole Republic thing. I think her democracy thing could work in a perfect world but this world isn’t perfect.”
“It could have worked better if she read people better,” she comments.
A touch of bitterness drips into her voice. “I think she trusted the people she shouldn’t and shot the ones she should.”
”That could be a character weakness of hers,” the hardholder says. “What’s done is done. I think she’s going to be moving on too.”
“But you’d tell me if she was coming after me right?” she asks.
“Yes,” he says.
A woman with a peg leg runs up. Lala, the eldest daughter of the Kites, excitedly tells November, “we lucked out, we got us a bus.”
“Great, where is it now?” the dancer asks.
“We’re talking to the owner, they’re parked three blocks inland.”
“OK, we’ll have to take a look, make sure it’s in good shape. It’s a dangerous trip.”
“Going to need gas too,” Gator comments. “Buses sucks down a lot of gas.”
November focuses on Lala. “I think I’ll ask my friend Jarhead to take a look at it. See if it is roadworthy. Have you already paid for it?”
“It’s a trade,” the dark haired woman explains. “They need a little protection themselves.”
“They want come with us?”
“Yes they are travelers, they need to head north.”
“I guess that makes it a little easier if the gas on them. What’s their leader’s name?”
“Mill,” Lala says scratching her phantom limb absently.
Mill. The name hangs in November’s mind. She doesn’t recognize it but she feels like she knows someone who does. Someone she knows well.
She turns to Gator. “Thanks for checking in on me.”
The weathered warrior nods. His eyes drawn equally back to the tower and to the market itself. “You’re seeing Jarhead? I’ll tag along I guess.”
He thinks back to what Violet told him.
“This halted the climbers while you wore it?” he asked her.
“That’s what Memo said.”
But when he asked Memo about it, she just replied, “What?”
“This thing that you made and then gave to Violet.”
“Yes so you would come and be safe,” the little girl told him.
“Safe, whatever. How did you make this?”
Memo scrunched her eyes as she recalled what she did. “Out of wires, a radio, and a car battery that Violet found.”
“What holds the charge?” he queried her.
“I don’t know.”
“Where’d you get the idea for this?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Okay,” he said slowly. “Did you hear a voice?”
“You just got a feeling to put these things this way?”
“Yeah, like that.”
Jarhead shakes his head, returning to the present. “This is mildly concerning,” he mutters.
He tinkers with it a bit more. Hours pass before he realizes he is no closer to how it works. I need a test subject. Or some other way to understand it. His eyes come to rest on the Tesla sphere.
Jarhead turns to his new ‘assistants’. “Are any of you tech savvy? Can you solder?”
Rox pipes up. “I can solder.”
“Here, attach the remaining wires to that.” thrusting a soldering iron into her hands and pointing her to the massive device taking up the back third of the room.
Jarhead grabs the sphere and tunes it to the Maelstrom’s frequency. Let’s see what it knows.
November reaches out for Gator’s arm. She tastes ocean spray, hears violin music, and catches the image of a little girl looking out the window of a plane.
“You feel that?” she asks as the sensations fade.
“Uh, yeah,” Gator says.
Jarhead dives into an ocean of knowledge. His mind tries to encompass it but fails. Infinities condense, fold and flatten. He finds himself standing within a vast library. Each book bound in leather. Black, white and every shade between. They squirm, these books of human flesh. He finds himself racing down the rows to a particular book. A pale book dotted in freckles.
He holds it in his hands.
Unfamiliar memories flood his mind. This book was a person, this person went to university, he emigrated to the United States, the scientist worked at a lab. The thoughts come even faster. The disease had spread to 90% of the population. Something had to be done. The device would interfere with the fungus’s spore production and development. It was too late. He could already feel itchiness and fever. The device stopped the fungus from…
Jarhead feels a sickening rip as the fungus burst through the man’s head. Then the book’s thoughts and memories continue forward. The scientist confused, awash in a sea of minds. Lost in a maelstrom of thoughts and ripped from physical world. Everyone who suffered the plague surrounds him.
Except a few, those few test subjects with the device. They remain isolated from the growing hive mind.
Jarhead pulls himself back to the real world. “So she used a radio to block the transmissions of the hive mind,” he mutters. “Well, well, well. It won’t keep them alive but it will keep them sane.”
The knock at his door jars his thoughts.
“I really need to get a sign up there. ‘Do not disturb’.”
A familiar voice calls to her from behind.
She turns, the pain forgotten from her face, and smiles at Marshal. “Hey. Long time, no see.”
“Feels like forever,” the handsome young man says. “You’re looking as great as ever.”
Her smile dips slightly as she remembers. “You wouldn’t know it from how I look in the real world right now.”
“That doesn’t matter here, does it?” he asks joining her at the fence. His smile quivers.
“Guess not. Missed you.” She leans into him.
“I missed you too,” he says his eyes searching hers. “But hey, I found the most amazing thing. Let me go show you.”
Violet doesn’t move as her long dead lover steps toward the swamp. Her smile disappears into her stiffening expression. Her eyes trace a route to Jackbird’s.
She gulps down a breath and calls to Marshal, “I’ll come back for you I promise.”
She turns and races for the nearest generator.
Behind her, Marshall shouts, “run!”
She looks behind her. Her boyfriend struggles with himself. He looks up more beast than man and bounds towards her. She doesn’t look back again.
Moments later she dashes through Jackbird’s store, ignoring his startled cry on her way to the back.
Marshall growls, ”no! Not there!”
But she’s already within the maze of corridors that make up Jackbird’s boat.
The darkened corridors weave through ship. As she presses on, the walls flicker and disappear. Tiny squares of perfect darkness appear in her vision. Sparks of sensation strike: light glares off a big silver ball, the smell of rotten meat, a brief glimpse of men and women in strange mouse ear hats feeding on long bones.
“What the hell?” she mutters, feeling her way forwards as the visions grow stronger and more intense. She stumbles through high tech underground tunnels, watches animatronic soldiers fending off mutant cannibals, and hears a jangling tune of ‘it’s a small world.’
She pushes past the flickering images and stumbles into the generator room. Wasting no time she grabs a live wire with her bare hand. Pain runs through her body.
Another knock comes through the steel door. Shazah looks to Jarhead, ‘111’ tattooed clearly on his bald head.
Jarhead calls out, “who is it?”
“It’s November and Gator,” November replies.
Jarhead nods and Shazah unlatches the door with a kachunk.
“Hey!” Jarhead says. He pauses for a moment. “Buddies.”
November and Gator look to each other and nod.
Stepping inside, November leads off the conversation. “Hi Jarhead. I have a small job for you but I know you’re busy. If you’ve got something really big going on I understand if you have to do it tomorrow or the next day.”
“How’s your project coming along?” Gator asks the confused inventor.
Jarhead snaps to the hardholder. “It’s going well. Slow though.”
He gestures to a woman on a gurney. Thick bandages encase her head. “Violet required a bit of work.”
”Oh my god!” November says. “Is she okay?”
“Yes. Just a little brain surgery. Nothing serious.”
“Alright,” Gator says very slowly.
“I’m better than the Autodoc he assures them.
“Why’d she need brain surgery?” November asks.
“Skull reconstruction,” he says moving around the patient. “Good stuff. But it’s working. I think. She’ll wake up eventually. A couple days I think.“
November relaxes. “I’ll definitely understand if you need a couple of days to help her.”
Jarhead waves a hand at the prone woman. “Well she’s just sleeping and that won’t take any of my time. But I am doing something for him.”
The tinkerer points to Gator and then sticks a thumb at a pedestal hooked up to large wires. A metal chair hangs off of it.
November looks away quickly. “I don’t need to know all the stuff you are doing!”
Averting her eyes, she continues. “Here’s the deal, I’ve got a bunch of people who want me to lead them back up north. There’s an old bus that would be a good transport. But I want someone with your skills to give it a once over. No repairs, I just want to know that I can trust it to get us across the swamp.”
“I suppose I can give it a looksee,” he says.
“Thanks, but like I said I understand if you need to take a couple days.”
“So this thing isn’t really big?” he asks confused. “It wouldn’t take long.”
“Yeah but I have a few other things to get ready too. I want to make sure everything is ready. Get snake bite kits and water. Understand?”
Jarhead nods. “Well if you don’t mind then can you wait a day or two or five?”
‘Sure. I just want to make sure everything is ready to go when I leave,” she says.
Waters approaches the gathering. “It came along a bit faster than I thought. I’m done with my bit.”
The boy gestures to a metallic endoskeleton. Hydraulics and circuitry cover the steel limbs.
”What is that?” Gator asks
”Wow,” November says.
“It’s a robotic skeleton,” Jarhead says, ignoring their shocked expressions. “It’s an ongoing experiment. Trust me, it’s relevant to the problems at hand.” He turns to the bored child. “Waters, I’ll have something for you to do very shortly.”
He returns to November. “If you let me deal with Waters, I’ll get back to you in a little bit.”
She shrugs. “Okay. I’m glad to know you are willing to take the case.”
November steps out of the room as Gator gets in Jarhead’s face. “What are you intending to do with that skeleton?”
Jarhead shuffles his feet. “I kind of promised a presence in the psychic maelstrom that skeleton in return for protection from things that don’t like me right now.” He glances to the machine in the corner. “Really really don’t like me.”
“That’s a terrible idea.”
Violet’s eyes snap open.
Jarhead steps over to her gurney as she stirs. “You! You should not be awake right now. Go back to sleep.”
Violet blinks and mumbles something. “What’s going on?”
“No seriously you should still be asleep,” he says as he flicks her forehead.
“That’s not usually how people go to sleep,” Gator advises.
“Well I usually go to sleep by collapsing,” Jarhead says, continuing to poke his patient’s head. He looks at Allison and Waters. “They go to sleep when I tell them to sleep and it happens. Right?”
Allison shakes her head slowly. ”Uh, no? And didn’t you take apart her forehead? Wouldn’t that jab bits of bone into her brain?”
“Not very likely,” he says.
Violet tries to pull herself upright. As her head sways, she says, “apparently you can enter the Maelstrom by dreaming.”
“You too huh.” As Violet nods, Jarhead turns to Gator, ”we are going to have a lot of problems on our hands if that happens to everyone.”
Gator scratches his head. “Weren’t you just making that happen? Cause it felt a little weird around here.”
Allison joins the conversation by Violet’s gurney. “It feels weird around here a lot.”
“Is it safe to be sleeping here?” Violet asks.
“Yes, go to sleep,” the inventor tells her.
“I actually have a bunk on deck,” Allison mumbles.
Jarhead continues to advise Violet. “You really shouldn’t be moving anyway so you are staying here.”
“I have to agree with Jarhead,” his assistant says. “Your head was in so many pieces. It was really scary to look at.”
“Ssh,” Jarhead says. “Don’t panic the patient.”
“Who says I’m panicking?’ Violet grumbles, sliding back onto her bed.
Gator interrupts this digression. “So Jarhead, November’s left, so where are we at?”
“I just have to hook the augury and then hook it up to her,” he nods to the door, “I’m a little fuzzy on those details and then-”
“Hook it up to who?”
He bites his lip. “Umm someone who is connected to the gods like November is. I can’t mention it to her so hooking her up will need to be something like ‘Hello. Zap’.”
“So you’re going to knock her out first.”
“It’s probably easiest,” he shrugs.
Gator looks at the strange device. “Does she has to be conscious to aim it?”
“Yes, but this way I can set her up easier. Then wake her up.”
Violet turns her head to see what they are looking at. As she regards the weird pedestal and metal chair, she asks, “couldn’t you use that doohickey Memo made?”
“What doohickey?” Gator asks.
“This doohickey,” Jarhead says pulling out the mass of wires and coils. “It blocks the climbers from their hive mind. It might work.”
“Sounds like it would work,” Gator says. “How does it work? Can we put it on November?”
“Yes!" Jarhead begins to pace around the ‘God Smiter.’ "The climbers is like a hive mind. Everyone is connected. This breaks the connection. So we can put this on her-”
“What is this?” Gator points at the large machine. “This isn’t a gun? I told you to make a gun.”
“It’s a figurative gun,” he explains. “You don’t need a gun to shoot gods. They’re not people.”
Gator stares at the smaller man. “That’s what I asked for, that is what I know how to use.”
“Yes well in the maelstrom, the gods I’ve seen are bleeding pyramids. Where’s the head to aim at?”
“I’d know where to fire.”
Jarhead shrugs. “Well next time you are in the maelstrom, you can take a look around yourself. If you want I can even put a trigger on it.”