Trumble stacked the pages of Gertrude’s dossier, then slammed the folder back onto his desk.
After a moment, Stamford confirmed.
“Yes sir. A drug den, run by— ”
“Yes, I know. How long before you intercept?”
“30 minutes, depending on resistance.”
“Well yes, sir. There’s no police downtown, and we’ll be cut off from our sup—”
“It’s a bunch of skinnies with pop guns!”
“Uh, yes… sir.”
“We can’t lose them again.”
Trumble waited as Stamford considered his next question.
“What about… um, Hammersmith… sir?”
“What about him? He betrayed us.”
“Yes… sir. But how do we… um, know that for certain?”
Trumble started counting on his fingers.
“He didn’t report his location. He lied to you, and went off grid. What more do we need?”
Another pause from Stamford.
“Of course, sir. I understand.”
“Do you, Stamford? Do you understand everything that is at stake?”
“Yes sir. Of course, sir. It’s just…”
Stamford was an instinctive agent. Too instinctive.
“Speak your mind.”
“Um… Sir, what don’t I know?”
Trumble huffed, then leaned back. He stared towards the horizon, chair creaking as he rocked back and forth.
He needed results. Now.
“Your most important task is to retrieve Michols… alive. Do that, and your questions will be answered in time.”
Trumble muted the line after his secretary knocked on the open door.
“Uh, sir. They’re here…”
The secretary pointed towards his arm.
Trumble held up a single finger, then waved him back out of the room. Once clear, the old man unmuted.
“Very well. You have your orders.”
“What if Hammersmith gets in the way?”
Trumble again rubbed the spot on his arm.
“Who’s Thad Michols?”
Gertrude didn’t hear Thad’s question at first. She was still attempting to process what Hammersmith said. Kinsley kept her pistol trained on the cloaked man.
“He’s lying, Trudy. Let’s dump his body and get out of here… before his friends show up.”
Todd’s stare remained fixed on Gertrude.
“You know what I’m saying is true. I—”
She pleaded with Gertrude.
“… we really need to go.”
Thad’s anxiety was about to boil over.
“Will someone tell me what the hell is going on?”
Everything started to spin for Gertrude. She held her fingers against her temples and bent over. Breathe in, breathe out. Memories of the questionnaire and those desperate first years outside of the compound flooded in. If she could just get a moment to piece everything together…
Realization struck. She walked over to Thad, and rolled up the sleeve on his right arm. The fabric was soft. It wasn’t synthetic like the other’s. Thad wasn’t a flyer, he was…
Gertrude looked back towards Todd, who gave her a knowing smile.
“You are telling the truth.”
He nodded. She looked back towards Thad.
“… He is Thad Michols?… If you’re lying… well, Kinsley isn’t. She’ll shoot you the moment your story doesn’t add up… and I won’t stop her.”
Thad reached his breaking point.
“WHO IS THAD MICHOLS?!”
Everything froze for a moment, as Thad’s words lingered in the air. Gertrude still faced Hammersmith. She closed her eyes, then whispered back to Kinsley.
“I’ll take this one.”
Kinsley swore under her breath. She doesn’t believe Todd. Instead of further protest, she lowered her pistol and nudged Todd towards the compound.
“Fine. I’ve got some more questions for the deacon here.”
Hammersmith didn’t resist.
He knows this is gonna be awkward.
After Todd and Kinsley disappeared into the compound, Gertrude flipped open her communicator, and found a familiar photo. She showed it to Thad, who looked dumbfounded.
“What is this?”
Gertrude chose her next words carefully, still not sure what to believe. She pointed at a small child in the photo, who was seated on the lap of an older man.
“The young girl—that’s my mother… It’s the only photo she had with her father. He was really sick when this was taken, and died shortly after.”
“… his name was Thad Michols.”
“I don’t understand. He looks kind of like my older brother, but… I don’t have an older brother.”
Gertrude took a deep breath.
“It isn’t your brother—it’s you.”
“How’d he take it?”
Gertrude found Kinsley and Todd together in the main gathering room. Todd was tied to a chair, of course. At least Kinsley’s pistol was holstered.
“About as well as he could. Had to give him a sedative…”
Todd spoke up.
“He needs medical attention. The fever means the gestation period has started. He—”
Kinsley whacked him in the head.
“Who said you could talk right now?”
“Kins, let him speak.”
Gertrude nodded towards Todd. She needed some answers.
“He knows what kills Thad… don’t you?”
“Tycho-Mattheson. About to enter Stage 2, if my hunch is correct.”
Kinsley looked incredulous, but Todd continued anyway.
“I saw him die. Analyzed a blood sample to confirm the cause.”
“You saw him die? How does that work?!”
Gertrude put a hand on Kinsley.
“It makes sense, if you think about it. Thad’s not the man in our photos… well, not yet.”
Todd looked towards Kinsley and threw his eyes back towards his bound hands. Her expression replied not a chance, so Gertrude walked over and released him from the chair.
Kinsley didn’t look happy about it, but she didn’t stop her.
“That’s a nifty trick, time travel… how do you do it?”
Todd rubbed the spot on his wrists where they were restrained.
“It’s called the Nero Engine. That’s what lets us travel through the time streams.”
“So you travel through…”
Kinsley bent her fingers in a mocking gesture.
“…time streams …and bring people forward in time?”
“We can send people backwards, too. Like your grandfather…”
Gertrude winced when Todd said “grandfather”.
“… we could send him back to his time stream when we grabbed him, as though he never left.”
She started to think back to her questionnaire.
“You work for NeroCorp?”
Todd nodded, reluctantly. Gertrude narrowed her gaze.
Did Todd know who she was when he rode in her taxi?
“That’s how you knew Thad was sick? That he would die?”
“Yes. We knew what you told us… in your questionaire.”
Kinsley eyes went wide, then darted towards Gertrude.
“Wait… You told them? Why?”
Gertrude turned her back toward both of them. She couldn’t hide her embarrassment. About her desperation, and the questionnaire she thought would save her. It was her fault Thad was in danger.
She fought to hold back tears.
“I didn’t think anything came of it. I saved money for years. I wanted to change my life, make it mean something… not end up like trash on the ground.”
She spun around on Todd.
“… but after I submitted that stupid questionnaire, nothing changed. All that money… it was a scam. But now Thad’s here… because of me. He’s sick… because of me!”
Gertrude ran from the room.
Kinsley caught up with her in the hallway and pulled her big sister into a huge embrace.
Gertrude sobbed, and Kinsley held her even closer. Those horrible years on the ground, the isolation. Gertrude let it all out.
When she had nothing left, and the tears slowed down, Kinsley whispered in defiant tone.
“You changed everything. Yes, Thad is here because of you.”
Kinsley gestured back towards the room.
“… but this asshole says we can send him back. Maybe we can cure him first. Do you know that that means?”
Kinsley put her hands on each of Gertrude’s shoulders and looked right into her eyes.
“…we can save him.”
Gertrude accepted her sister’s warmth. She was right. Thad still needs our help. She dried her eyes with her sleeve and took a deep breath. As she did, a happy thought brought her back into the present.
I’m not alone.
Gertrude hadn’t realized how much she missed her sister.
“Thanks Kins. I’m sorry I brought you into this. You were always the strong one.”
“Nonsense. You’re stronger than you realize, Trudy. You remind me of Mom… with that big heart of yours.”
Kinsley poked her in the chest. Gertrude smiled and squeezed her sister’s finger. The two sisters looked at each other, determined.
They knew what they had to do.
“So… how are we gonna get Thad home?”
Todd cleared his throat.
He was standing on the other side of Kinsley, apparently eaves-dropping on their conversation.
“That isn’t going to be easy.”
Trumble emerged from his personal lap pool and grabbed the towel from his attendant. He shook his head to loosen water from his ears, then pulled the towel over his face to dry it.
When he lowered the towel, his personal secretary was waiting with a communicator and cigarette case on a metal platter.
“Sir. Another report.”
Trumble lit a cigarette and sharply inhaled.
“No, sir. It’s um… Hammersmith.”
Trumble draped the towel around his neck, while gesturing for his attendant to step away.
He activated the communicator.
“Sir. Made contact with Michols, and I’m bringing him in.”
Trumble looked back towards his secretary, who took the hint and walked from the room.
“That’s good work. Any problems?”
“Minimal, sir. Weathers and her party fled the scene… after I got the drop on them.”
“Do you require clean-up?”
“A few casualties. Little consequence… Weathers appeared unharmed as she escaped.”
“Very good. I’ll send Stamford along with the cleaners.”
“Understood, sir. What about Weathers?”
“What about her?”
Trumble extinguished the cigarette in a nearby tray. He stared back towards the direction where his secretary fled.
“Should I pursue and bring her in too?”
“Does she suspects us?”
There was a moment of hesitation in Hammersmith’s response. That was the sign.
Trumble should’ve never shared that dossier with him.
“Good. This is outstanding work, Agent Hammersmith. Bring Michols straight to me.”
“Straight to you, sir? Shouldn’t we have medical take a look?”
“I’ll alert medical. They’ll be in my office when you arrive.”
After the line went dead, he fingered his communicator, and put it back to his ear.
“Get me Stamford.”
Moments later, the agent responded.
“Hammersmith is on the move… Michols is with him.”
“I see his beacon moving east.”
“He cannot make it back here. You have to intercept him... secure Michols by any means.”
The line went dead.
A clip of static played over the communicator, then the line re-activated.
“I don’t understand, sir. You want us to terminate them?”
“No, Stamford. Michols must be alive. Understood?”
The reply was not automatic.
“I… uh… Yes, sir.”
“I know this is difficult, son. Agent Hammersmith has betrayed our faith. You must deal with him accordingly… Remember your duty.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll do what my faith requires.”
“Dis plan, e wan’ work.”
When Gertrude volunteered to steal calibration files for the Nero Engine, she didn’t realize it meant pushing Franklin into the main entrance of the NeroCorp building.
“Sshh. You’re supposed to be Thad. If any of these guards hear you open your mouth, our rouse is up.”
“No re-ward is wort ‘dis.”
“If we don’t calibrate the engine for Thad’s DNA, we can’t send him back.”
Franklin might appear your average vagrant to a random person on the street, but Gertrude knew better. He was an expert at cracking sophisticated encryption.
Never underestimate a junkie in need of a fix.
The entrance to the central floors were just as Todd described. Gertrude supplied his access code, and no one asked questions. The security docent smiled as they escorted Franklin and Gertrude through the gate.
“Thank you, Agent Hammersmith. You may escort Mr. Michols to Lab 27. Lift is down the hall, to the left. 634th floor.”
Franklin squirmed when they said “634th floor”. Once they were out of earshot, he whispered.
“Wha day caw you?”
“Sshh. Todd said the agents were rarely seen on lower floors. Their work is pretty hush-hush, so they don’t include photos in their security files.”
“We gonna die.”
“Not if you keep your mouth shut… and do what I brought you to do.”
As they waited for the lift, Gertrude smirked at the sight of Franklin. She wasn’t used to seeing—or smelling—him this clean.
“You smell nice.”
“Flirtin’ wit me wan ‘elp. I gonna get shot in deez fan-cy treads.”
Once on floor 634, Gertrude searched for a nearby terminal.
“Todd said to look for heavy conduit. Those are the terminals directly connected into the mainline.”
“‘ou told me five times a’ready. I know. O’er dare.”
Franklin spotted what they needed, but it was at the end of a large corridor. There were dozens of wheeled beds lined-up along the walls.
This wasn’t a lab, it was a hospital.
“How many kidnapped people can they keep in here?”
Franklin pinched her and gestured towards the terminal. Gertrude needed to focus, but she was dazzled by the scale of NeoCorp’s operation.
A stern voice brought her back.
“What are you doing on this floor? It’s restricted.”
The voice belonged to a spectacled individual, with sharp creases on their brow, and closely cropped hair. Exactly how Gertrude imagined a proper doctor would dress.
No time to consider if this person knew Todd.
“I’m Agent Hammersmith. Escorting Mr. Michols here back to his bed.”
Franklin lowered his head into his right hand. Gertrude watched nervously as the doctor thumbed their tablet.
“Mr. Michols… ah, here we are. Patient TZZ-34663?”
Gertrude smiled in false recognition.
“That’s the one.”
But the doctor didn’t leave. They continued thumbing their pad and nodding.
“Oh, gosh… I’ve heard about this case, but didn’t know he was on our floor.”
Gertrude saw her opening.
“Nor would you… doctor?”
The lab coat stiffened at the challenge.
“Ah, Sanders. Doctor. Sanders. Sorry… forgot about protocol for these cases.”
Their face flushed with color, and they quickly walked away. After the doctor turned the corner, Gertrude continued to wheel Franklin towards the terminal.
When they arrived, Franklin pulled out his toolkit, and went to work.
It only took a few minutes.
“Okay. Look for the calibration files, and send them to my communicator.”
She read out the prefix code Todd had her memorize. After several minutes of searching, Franklin flinched.
“Problem. Dey too many files.”
Gertrude’s mouth opened as she saw pages of file names race across the terminal. Millions.
All of them could be a story like Thad’s. Her face hardened, and she pursed her lips.
“All of them. Get what we need, then purge everything from the system. And the backups too. I want them really gone.”
Franklin swallowed hard.
“Ya, ‘kay… bu day know. Day fine out.”
“We’re not gonna leave anything behind for them to find.”
Gertrude opened her bag, and showed Franklin what was inside. His eyes grew wide.
“We gonna die.”
“He’s on the move. We can catch him after he clears the neighborhood.”
Stamford pointed at the readout on the tablet in front of his driver. This was their best chance to get the drop on Hammersmith. Stamford wondered if his old friend knew they were coming.
He raised his communicator.
“Willis, Talmund. Split up and take opposite approaches down the approaching corridor. We’ll force him into the alley.”
The agent looked in his mirrors to confirm the trailing hover cars peeled off in different directions.
“Victoria, bring us in close.”
The driver paused, and looked towards Stamford.
“Are we really doing this? To one of our own?”
“The old man’s instructions were clear.”
Victoria looked away.
She was an excellent agent. Trained by Hammersmith, like most of the others in Stamford’s detail. Even if Todd didn’t put up a fight, this wasn’t going to be easy.
“I understand. Todd is my friend, too.”
Victoria frowned at the sound of his name. Stamford placed his hand on her shoulder.
“Help me get his car on the ground, and focus on your team. When the time comes, I’ll handle Hammersmith myself.”
Victoria quietly nodded, then pushed the throttle. Stamford watched the vehicle grow larger in the front window, when the agent in the backseat shrieked.
Stamford’s eyes darted just in time to see a small trail of smoke racing towards them. The explosion flipped the car end-over-end.
The sudden change in acceleration lifted them from their seats. Stamford grabbed the door handle so he could glance down the corridor behind them.
“Did you see the shooter?”
The rear agent had already leveled their weapon out the window. They replied to Stamford by emptying an entire clip towards the source.
Victoria managed to counteract the spin, but now they were in a stall. Stamford barked.
“Keep us off the ground.”
Victoria understood before he finished. Everyone recognized the tactical danger: The ground is a killing field.
She redirected their remaining momentum from the fall towards a nearby building. Glass shattered as they sliced into a wrecked mid-level floor. An exposed steel beam slammed the front-right of the car, whipping the vehicle into a lateral spin. The remains of their hovercar shed debris as it slowed to a stop.
Stamford was on his communicator.
“Willis. Talmund. We’re down. Report in.”
Nothing but static.
Two rounds whistled over Stamford’s head. A third hit the hull of the car. The backseat agent returned fire, giving Victoria cover to kick her door open, and leap behind a desk that was turned over. Stamford made his way towards the door, when several reports ran through the vehicle.
Victoria yelled back at him, as she returned fire.
Three shots cut through the rear window killing the other agent. When Victoria finished her magazine, she grabbed Stamford with both arms and pulled him from the wreck.
A bullet pierced his lower abdomen right as she threw him to the ground. His vision blurred, and the proximity to Victoria’s return fire muffled his hearing.
The rest played out as a distant tragedy in slow motion. Victoria took one in the neck. The force of the shot spun her body right on top of Stamford.
He felt her pulse fade, then his vision sparkled black.
Stamford woke as his body struggled for air.
The weight of Victoria’s body had crushed his chest. The agent wiggled onto his side, providing enough relief to refill his lungs. A blurred vision of Hammersmith’s familiar cloak approached.
Stamford tried to speak. He wanted spit venom at his former mentor and friend in his final moments. As he struggled, the vision came into focus.
It wasn’t Todd.
The vision was female. Slender, with an emaciated face.
“Expecting your buddy?”
She pulled Victoria’s corpse from Stamford, then propped him against the remains of their vehicle.
Sitting up made it easier to speak.
“Who are you?”
“Kinsley Weathers. You’ve been chasing my sister... you Stamford?”
Stamford felt a sharp pain as he tried to respond. His lung must be punctured. And the wound in his abdomen was not in a good spot. He looked down and the color of the blood oozing from it confirmed his fear.
Kinsley noticed too.
“Oof, that’s bad. Todd hoped you’d survive our little ambush.”
She sighed, then surveyed the carnage around them.
“… he wanted to keep everyone alive. Shit. I have to hand it to you church boys. You put up a helluva fight.”
Stamford gritted through the pain.
Kinsley shook her head. Her eyes were kind.
The sting of his team’s death hit Stamford hard. They were led here. Lambs to the slaughter house. He didn’t know this woman, or understand why they were chasing her sister.
Rage overwhelmed him. What was the point of their loss? How had their faith earned this sacrifice?
Would their deaths matter?
Stamford should’ve trusted his friend. Todd figured it out. This rotten mission. Sent to kill those he should have defended.
That mistake cost Stamford his life.
He closed his eyes, and smiled as much as his broken body would let him.
“If you see Todd again, would you tell him something for me?”
Kinsley cradled his broken face and listened.
Todd read Gertrude’s message, then pocketed his communicator. He turned to Thad, his former prey, who was standing next to him.
Thad looked queasy. The sick man’s eyes darted around the forbidding skyline created by the all-glass elevator.
Todd leaned in.
“You get used to it… eventually. Focus on the horizon.”
“So if this works… I’m cured, and y’all get me home… what happens to Gertrude and Kinsley? Are they going to be okay?”
Todd hesitated. And couldn’t look Thad in the eyes.
“… you don’t know—do you?”
Thad grabbed him by the shoulder, so they were facing one another. Todd could only shake his head.
“We have no other choice.”
Thad hardened. He looked back towards the horizon. There weren’t many buildings poking above the clouds on the 978th floor.
“When you were building all of this… did you ever stop to ask yourselves… why?”
“I used to think I knew. NeoCorp wasn’t always like this. Our founder…”
“… my mentor wanted to give strength to those who needed help. He believed in the power of an individual.”
“I thought we were helping her… and well—you. It’s…”
“Our founder died, and his son took over. I didn’t want to believe things would change. But…”
“But you suspected better? You knew the son?”
“He was a teacher at the school as well. Used to single us out in class. Was intolerant of mistakes. Both men were devious, but I wanted to believe in the father.”
“Believe in what?”
“That he made me a better person.”
They both stared out towards the sun as it fell into a pillow of storm clouds. The slow moving elevator added to the majesty.
“So why didn’t you just… leave?”
“Couldn’t? Or didn’t want to?”
“They saved me… or so I thought…”
“Saved you? Like they saved me?”
Todd hesitated. Touché.
“You wouldn’t understand, I was really young when they took me. NeoCorp is all I’ve known.”
“Sounds like nothing has changed.”
It was always in front of Todd. He just never wanted to see it. His faith was nothing more than manufactured loyalty.
Todd thought back to the day Cornelius visited him in the basement. The day before he was to be executed.
The day I chose to become a killer.
Thad was right. Nothing has changed. Todd still had faith, but it was the faith he always had. Not in NeoCorp, but in individuals. Like Gertrude and Thad. In his fellow agents like Stamford, and Victoria.
His stomach knotted at the thought of their fate. NeoCorp would answer for their abuse. He would make sure of it.
Todd opened the restraints that bound Thad’s hands.
“Don’t need these anymore.”
He handed Thad a pistol, and showed him where to stash it under his shirt.
“I don’t remember this part of the plan.”
“The younger Trumble will need some persuasion. Once the door opens, I’ll lead you in as though you’re still bound. Get behind me when the shooting starts.”
Thad looked alarmed, but Todd put up a reassuring hand.
“We’re getting you home. Safe… and inoculated.”
Thad went to say something else, but thought better of it.
“Thanks for your help, Todd.”
“Call me Simon.”
The former agent extended his hand.
“… that was my name, before NeoCorp changed it.”
The two shook hands, then turned as the elevator approached its floor.
The chime sounded, and the door opened. Barnebus Trumble, along with two armed agents were there to welcome them.
“Welcome back, Mr. Michols. I trust Agent Hammersmith has shown you around our humble facility?”
Trumble wore a devilish grin.
He nodded towards the agents flanking him. They patted down Simon and Thad, removing their weapons and communicators. Then the two meatheads thrust them into lounge chairs opposite Trumble.
“There. Now we can have a polite conversation. I find others are more honest when they have guns pointed at them.”
Trumble nodded again to his agents.
“That will be all. Seal the lobby on the lower floor. No one gets in the elevator up… no interruptions.”
Once confident the elevator was away, Trumble shot Simon in the arm. Pain coursed through the former agent.
The old man tossed him a cloth.
“Cover that wound. I don’t want you to bleed out before your little plan go up in flames.”
“You’re a monster.”
“Am I? Did I not save you from a slow and painful death? Or did my agent not tell you anything about Tycho-Mattheson? It’s quite gruesome… how your organs slowly disintegrate until you can’t digest food… or remove toxins from your blood.”
Thad made to leap at Trumble from his chair, but the bearded man trained his weapon on him first.
“You can’t die yet.”
Trumble pulled back Thad’s shirt sleeve, and pricked Thad in the arm with a blood sensor.
“…you still have a part to play.”
The old man’s desk flashed to life and displayed a blinking red box with the word “positive” inside of it.
“And I see you’ve contracted T-M, just as we expected. Very good, Mr. Michols. If you hadn’t tried to escape, then Ms. Weathers would’ve never treated you with her cheap medcuff. And you never would’ve gotten sick.”
“Oh yes. I know all about your grand-daughter. Pitiful really. That gutter rat’s destitution was your undoing… and my salvation.”
“I’m that much of a threat to you?”
“A threat? You?”
Trumble’s laughter filled his entire office.
“Mr. Michols… if only you knew what you were talking about. I’d try to explain the details, but it’s a little technical for a simple farm boy.”
Trumble fiddled with an extraction tube. Simon’s face darkened as the old man approached Thad.
“What are you doing?”
Trumble slammed the extractor into Thad’s arm.
“Fulfilling Mr. Michol’s purpose.”
That was it! The piece that Simon was missing. All of the missions, all of the sob stories about sick relatives suffering…
From the same symptoms.
“You have Stage 3.”
“And you thought I gave a damn about helping Weathers. Pathetic. She was born a nobody, and will die a nobody.”
The old man removed the extractor, then moved back towards his desk. He rolled up his own sleeve, and placed the tube of Thad’s blood into a syringe.
Thad stared at the needle.
“I don’t understand.”
Simon filled in the details.
“There is a vaccine that treats Tycho-Mattheson in Stage 1. Everyone is inoculated as kids. But for some the vaccine isn’t effective and it oftens advances to Stage 3 before it’s caught. T-M is untreatable once it reaches Stage 3.”
Trumble raised his finger.
“Correction, Agent Hammersmith. There is a treatment.”
Simon clenched his teeth as Trumble continued.
“… you can cure Stage 3 with antibodies from someone in Stage 2. Like our friend here. As you can imagine, Mr. Michols, there aren’t many today with Stage 2 given our available vaccine. It took a lot of time to find you.”
The former agent seethed.
“Your father would be ashamed.”
Trumble spun around, face full of disdain.
“… was a fool. And you defend him, even after everything he did to you. Hmph. He wasted my grandfather’s fortune. Chasing dreams and trinkets. Only to invent an engine that gave him immense power.”
The old man took a sample of his own blood for analysis. He smiled in satisfaction once the result flashed.
“Instead of using that power, he quoted scripture. Walked around like a prophet. Talked about saving the masses.”
He turned back towards Simon.
“But for all his charity, he understood that to accomplish great things you must not shy away from getting your hands dirty. And that is why he amassed his… faithful flock.”
Trumble had a twinkle in his eye. He raised the pistol towards Simon, and went to finger it when Thad interrupted.
“You’re the one who’s really pathetic. Your father wasn’t a saint… he used people, but for a higher purpose. You treat them like they’re expendable.”
“Oh, but they are… as you’ll soon find out. You think me shallow and worthless, but I will endure long after you.”
A notification bell sounded on Simon’s communicator.
Trumble grabbed it from his desk and read the message out loud.
“Ready for pickup.”
He flashed the communicator towards Simon.
“Poor fool. Turns out all of my loose ends are coming right to me. I have to hand it to you, Agent Hammersmith. This was the worst rescue plan.”
Simon laughed out loud.
Trumble scowled, then smacked Simon across the face with his pistol. The impact opened a gash across Todd’s cheek.
“Something amuses you?”
“You amuse me… always the last to catch on.”
Trumble smacked him again, but Simon remained defiant.
“Still have to explain to you the difference between necessary and sufficient causes?”
Trumble face turned to stone.
“What did you say?”
“This wasn’t a rescue plan, you old fool. It was a diversion.”
Before Trumble could respond, a massive explosion rocked the upper floors of the NeoCorp building.
Trumble’s shot ricocheted off the concrete floor next to Simon.
The old man struggled to maintain his balance after a second wave of explosions.
Simon saw his window.
He bull-rushed Trumble and slammed him onto the floor.
The former agent’s left hook met Trumble’s jaw, and the bearded man was out. Simon looked back towards Thad, and pointed towards windows on the far side of the office.
“Shoot through the glass. I’ll look for the controls to Trumble’s engine.”
Thad rushed towards the back windows.
A cool breeze blew into the room as shards of glass flew from the building. Moments later, a hover taxi pulled alongside the opening.
Gertrude stepped into the office, alongside Kinsley.
“I’ve got the antidote.”
The floors below them shook again, as explosions engulfed more floors. Simon grabbed a syringe from Trumble’s desk and tossed it to Gertrude.
“Use that. Inject it into his left arm.”
Gertrude started to roll-up Thad’s sleeve, when he put his hand over hers.
“We can’t. It isn’t safe here…”
“I can’t take the antidote.”
Kinsley was helping Simon flip switches and warm up the Nero Engine. She stopped and walked towards Thad.
“But you’ll die…”
Thad appraised his two granddaughters with a warm smile, then looked towards Simon.
“We don’t know what will happen to you if I take this antidote.”
Gertrude also looked to Simon.
“What’s he talking about?”
The former agent returned a resigned glance. Thad pulled Gertrude’s chin back towards his own.
“You’ve done so much to save me. To protect me and keep me safe. I have to do the same for you.”
Tears filled Gertrude’s eyes.
“I don’t understand. How are we going to be together if you don’t take the antidote.”
“Look at the two of you. All that we have been through this past week. We are together.”
Gertrude shook her head.
“It’s not fair. Your life was taken from you. You never had a choice.”
Thad pulled her close and tight. Gertrude squeezed back and didn’t want to let go. When she finally did, Thad took a deep breath and looked at his family.
“You always have a choice.”
Thad glanced toward Simon.
Simon nodded, and triggered a switch on the desk.
“The engine is calibrated. It’s time.”
Thad extended his hand towards Simon, who shook it with a polite nod.
“Thank you for restoring my faith.”
Before Thad stepped on the pad, he looked back towards his granddaughters one last time.
“You should be a family again. Save each other… like you saved me.”
Gertrude and Kinsley stood side-by-side, wiping tears from their eyes when Simon started the countdown.
“3… 2… 1.”
Kinsley put an arm around her sister and squeezed until Thad disappeared.
When he was gone, Simon let out a deep sigh.
“It is done.”
Then he collapsed.
“C’mon, wake-up. We gotta get out of here!”
Kinsley slapped Simon hard on the face, and the former agent opened his eyes.
He raised his hand to the still open wound on his cheek.
“… did you really slap me?”
“No time for questions, pretty boy. We need to scoot. Trudy, I’ll get him to the taxi while you set the last charge.”
“One more engine to blow.”
Kinsley set her gun on the desk, then threw Simon’s arm over her shoulder. She slowly lifted him to his feet.
Gertrude watched them approach the opening where the taxi hovered. That’s when she heard the click of a pistol safety.
“Stop where you are, Miss Weathers. Both of you.”
Trumble had his weapon pointed directly at Gertrude.
“Drop my agent… or watch your sister die.”
Kinsley glanced towards her pistol on the desk, just out of reach. Her face hardened.
“Your agent? Make a habit of shooting your agents, mister whats-your-name… I’m just gonna call you crap-face. Mister. Crap-face.”
“Charming, Miss Weathers. As much as I’d enjoy getting lectured on morality by a drug dealer, your fireworks display on the lower level has left me short on time.”
Trumble tapped a communicator on his desk.
“So much destruction. And all for not. You see, I have enough money to rebuild it.”
He gestured towards the pad where Thad disappeared earlier.
“… and the means to start over again. I don’t expect your feeble minds to under—”
Gertrude put three shots directly into Trumble’s chest, dropping him to the ground in a heap.
Kinsley rolled her eyes.
“Geez Trudy, it took you long enough. That old geezer was gonna put me to sleep with his monologue.”
“I was trying to be sneaky.”
The building shook again. The sound of twisting metal gave renewed urgency to their situation. Simon groaned as Gertrude wrapped his other arm around her shoulder.
The two sisters gently slid him into the back of the taxi, then Gertrude jumped into the driver’s seat.
An impatient Franklin was seated next to her.
“Still think we’re gonna die?”
Franklin just shook his head.
Once at a safe distance, Gertrude pulled a communicator from her pocket. It was the one Trumble held when she shot him. She passed it back to Simon, who was starting to come around.
“Thought you might want this.”
Simon held it for a moment in his hand.
“Enough good people have died because of this information.”
He threw it out the window, then looked towards Kinsley.
“My agents back near the compound, did they…”
Kinsley shook her head and Simon swallowed.
“… so many good people.”
“Your friend Stamford wanted me to tell you something. Told me told me right before died.”
Simon looked out the window toward the horizon, as Kinsley continued.
“… the friends you meet along the journey—”
“—are the ones you trust once you reach your destination.”
“Yeah… pretty deep for someone bleeding out.”
“They would tell us that during training. Those agents… they were my closest friends… my family.”
Kinsley put her hand on his leg, and nodded around the taxi.
“Here’s to new journeys.”
“Not sure you’ll like me as a friend. I don’t have anything, with NeroCorp gone and all.”
Gertrude looked up from the steering wheel.
“You’re in good company… and I blew Franklin’s wad getting this bucket put back together.”
Franklin cleared his throat.
Gertrude shook her head.
“Oh no, what did you do?”
“I… myyy have stolen maw dan caly-brasions from dat termnal.”
Simon looked to Kinsley then Gertrude, confused.
“What’s he talking about?”
Gertrude pursed her lips, giving Franklin the side-eye.
Franklin leaned back in his seat, and put his hands behind his head. A sly grin across his face.
“Oh, none much. Billion or two… day wan miss it.”
Kinsley laughed out loud.
“I love this team.”
Distant on the horizon behind them, the once mighty tower of NeroCorp was a smoldering ruin.
The crown jewel of the flyers. The constant reminder of their manufactured importance crumbled from its own weight.
It fell from the sky, hurdling back to the ground.
Simon Kent will never forget his 9th birthday party.
The memory starts with anger. His mom had invited the biggest prick in the third grade, Benji Phillips, and ruined everything.
“This party sucks.”
Simon could still hear his stupid voice. Benji’s stupid mother just had to play bridge with Simon’s mom at that stupid country club.
Why did she invite him?
Simon remembers, with regret, how he yelled at his mom when she told him. He was seething. One of the last memories of his mother, and it was stained by childish anger.
Simon’s Dad knew he was mad, too. He remembers the plan they came up with to save the party. Simon hosted a sleepover in the backyard near the woods. He was allowed to use the family camping tent and it was awesome.
Sleeping bags, ghost stories, and no parents.
And to top it off, Dad gave him a book of matches and some candles so they could make s’mores after dinner. Simon remembers his father’s embrace and the warmth in his voice as he handed him the matchbook.
“It’s going to be okay… even Benji will be impressed.”
Of course, Dad was right.
Simon remembers the laughter of his friends. Shadows from the candlelight dancing about the inside of the tent. Most of all, Simon’s innocent belief that his father could solve any problem.
This was Simon’s favorite part of the memory.
When times get hard, Simon remembers what he felt that night—falling asleep in his sleeping bag surrounded by his best friends in the entire world. He remembers the smell of burnt marshmallow, and sticky hands from the melted chocolate.
If only the memory ended here.
Simon can’t remember how long he was asleep, but he vividly remembers the bright light that woke him up. It lasted for just a moment, then the tent returned to darkness.
The boy thought it was a dream at first, then everyone else started to stir. Gordo Pearson was the one who unzipped the door to the tent. Benji was the second one out the door—probably because he didn’t want to look like a wuss.
A pit formed in his stomach every time Simon thought about his fate. He even felt bad for Benji. It would’ve been so easy to stop them from leaving the tent.
“Hey guys, maybe I should go get my parents first?”
If only he had said that. Or something else. Anything, except grab his flashlight and follow them out into the dark.
It didn’t take long for Benji to chicken out. The distant light, Simon remembers—that’s what spooked him. It wasn’t bright like the flash of light that lured them outside of their tent. Simon and Gordo had to walk a bit further into the woods before they realized it was someone holding a flashlight.
The light flickered in the distance and once they were close enough, Simon remembers the second person. The flicker was the second stranger walking in front of the flashlight, held by the first.
Two strangers, deep in the woods.
That should’ve been enough. The two boys were still far enough away to escape. They could’ve made a run for it. But Gordo wanted to get a closer look, and both of them wanted to prove they had more guts than Benji.
Simon remembers how quickly their bravery evaporated once they saw each stranger was carrying a body.
That’s when Gordo freaked out and ran back towards the house. Simon had never seen him run so fast.
But Gordo made too much noise as he bolted. The strangers switched off their flashlight, and Simon did the first thing that came into his mind: he dropped to the ground and didn’t make a move.
Scared stiff, he didn’t budge a muscle until a few tense moments later. Then the strangers turned on their flashlight and returned to dragging the bodies further into the woods.
In hindsight, this was the point where Simon should’ve run. Like his friends. Unfortunately he was committed, and did the opposite. Slowly and as quietly as possible, Simon crawled towards the strangers.
He got close enough to hear the faint sounds of their whispers. Simon can’t remember exactly what they said, just broken phrases.
“…I’ll stow the second one… see you back at base…”
Simon remembers the last phrase because he heard it right before the second flash of light. This second flash was just as bright as the first.
The flash left two images seared into his brain. First, he swears one of the strangers disappeared. Vanished, without a trace. But this wasn’t half as disturbing as the second.
Simon was close enough to get a good look at the faces of the two bodies during the second flash. He recoiled in horror at the recognition of the two corpses.
It was Gordo Pearson and Benji Phillips.
Simon remembers the shock like it happened yesterday.
This is a nightmare!
After seeing their lifeless bodies, he couldn’t think straight. He remembers running as hard and fast as he could. Running until he was out of breath. The stitch in his side hurt so bad, he didn’t feel the leg that swept his out from under him.
By the time he realized what had happened, it was too late.
Simon remembers the terror that coursed through him as he tumbled towards the ground. He remembers the huge pair of arms wrap his mid-section and break his fall. The squeeze around his body was overwhelming, and unbreakable.
The boy tried to struggle, but it was hopeless. He remembers feeling the needle pierce the skin of his arm. His vision blurred, then slowly faded to black.
Simon never saw home again.
“Why have I asked you here?”
A stern looking man with a square jaw was seated opposite Simon. After he asked his question, the man spooned soup from a large bowl into his mouth.
Simon looked down at an identical bowl in front of him. The older man gestured towards it as he swallowed.
“… it’s Potato soup. My mother’s recipe.”
Simon tasted the soup. It was delicious.
“My mother used to make it, too… but hers wasn’t this good.”
The man across from Simon smiled.
“A rare treat.”
He folded his hands in front of him, then repeated his question.
“… now, why have I asked you here?”
“I got into a fight in the courtyard.”
The boy sighed.
“You broke a young man’s arm—a fourteen year old, if I’m not mistaken…”
The older man crossed his legs, then gave the slightest hint of a smile.
“… punching above our weight, aren’t we?”
“He called me a name I didn’t like.”
“Hardly an arm-breaking offense, don’t you think?”
Simon expected to be admonished when he was called into the headmaster’s office. Other classmates had shared their horror stories. But the old man’s demeanor was unexpected.
Simon wasn’t sure how to react.
“I asked him to stop. But when he didn’t… and... well, the teachers…”
“They tell us sometimes you have to set an example. If you never push back—”
“—you’ll always be pushed. Yes, I’m aware of what we teach at my school.”
“He’ll never call me those names again.”
The headmaster nodded, then wiped his mouth neatly with a folded napkin.
“Nor will any of his friends who witnessed your brutality. However…”
The headmaster set down his napkin, then raised a finger.
“… knowing how much retribution to distribute is important. Equal to knowing when to strike.”
Simon didn’t understand. He set an example, and he didn’t want to keep setting an example. The boy forgot that he was talking to the headmaster.
The smile left the old man’s face.
“There is an important distinction between respect… and fear. Stand up to your peers, so they’ll understand you cannot be bullied. But take care not to become the bully.”
Simon went flush. And he started to recall the horror stories he’d heard about this office. He wanted to change the subject.
“Thank you for the soup, sir.”
The headmaster nodded, then slid his empty bowl to the side. This wasn’t the end of the conversation.
“Tell me, Mr. Kent. Do you know why you were enrolled in this school?”
Simon’s face went red, as his shame converted into anger. He raised his voice, again forgetting that he was talking to the headmaster.
“Enrolled?… I wasn’t given a choice.”
The headmaster ignored Simon’s anger, keeping his reply absent of emotion.
“No... You were not.”
His response was icy. Simon couldn’t contain his outburst.
“I was taken from my home! …and brought here to this… prison.”
The word prison provoked a wry smile from the old man. He rocked back in his chair, mocking contemplation.
“Prisons are for criminals… are you a criminal?”
The headmaster locked eyes with Simon as he finished his question. Simon hesitated.
“Aren’t you? Have you forgotten what happened in the woods that night?”
The headmaster stood-up and turned toward the large window overlooking the grounds. Behind him Simon’s face twisted, and pulsed with rage, unable to speak.
The old man flipped a switch and the window slowly dimmed until the glare of the courtyard vanished.
With his back still toward Simon, the headmaster continued his questioning.
“Why else would your parents send you away?”
The old man had pushed too far. Simon screamed.
“I was kidnapped! …they didn’t send me away… I was kidnapped!”
Tears ran down his cheeks, which quickly turned into sobs.
“… I was taken… from my parents… taken to this horrible place.”
Simon tried to steady his emotions. All of the anger and sadness from that night flooded back, overwhelming the boy.
And why? I didn’t do anything wrong.
The headmaster turned around, and removed a newspaper clipping from an opened folder on his desk. Simon recognized the name of the paper from his hometown.
The headline read: “Young Boy Murders Friends During Backyard Birthday Party.”
Next to it was Simon’s school photo. The headmaster looked up from the newspaper towards Simon. The boy’s voice stumbled.
“But… but… I didn’t…”
Simons lips trembled and he couldn’t continue. He laid his head down on the desk and let everything go. His body shook with each sob.
It was several minutes before Simon looked up.
The headmaster handed him a handkerchief to wipe the tears from his face. After Simon had collected himself, the headmaster continued.
His voice was gentler and removed of accusation.
“The Nero school is a place for lost children. This place, Mr. Kent, is for those who can’t move on from the past… and live in their future.”
The man looked over his reading glasses towards Simon.
“… children like yourself.”
Simon matched his stare.
“I want to see my parents.”
“That’s not possible. You must find your path on your own.”
The headmaster returned to the folder on his desk and flipped through more of the enclosed papers. One appeared to grab his attention and he continued, still staring at the page.
“We are your family now. Isolation from the past is our source of strength. Together we are guided by our shared conviction.”
“Guided towards what?”
The old man stopped, then pointed to a plaque hanging on the wall behind Simon.
Simon spun around to see a series of small brass plates with names engraved on each. He wrinkled his nose.
“Who are they?”
“Graduates of the Agent Program. Our finest.”
The headmaster continued flipping through the folder.
“It says here that you’re a talented student. The kind of potential that could land your name on that plaque one day.”
“I don’t understand... according to that news story, I’m a criminal.”
“So were many of the names on that plaque when they came to this school. I’m offering to help you.”
The headmaster wasn’t cold or mean as the other students described him. He was stern, but in a way that reminded Simon of his father.
The boy hadn’t trusted anyone since he was taken, and he wasn’t sure he could trust the headmaster just yet. But Simon wanted a chance to prove himself. Prove to his parents that he wasn’t the criminal described in that newspaper clipping.
It might be his only chance of seeing them again.
“What is the Agent Program?”
“A chance for reconciliation. If you can bury your lies in the past, and commit to a new path, we can achieve great things together.”
Simon looked back at the plaque. If no one else didn’t believe in him, then perhaps the Agent Program was his chance to prove them wrong.
I’m not a criminal.
He looked back toward the headmaster and steeled his nerve.
“How can you help me?”
“That depends on you, Mr. Kent... and your answer to my original question: Why are you here?”
Simon could only blink back at the headmaster. The old man lowered his head, then explained.
“Either you’re here because of your continued brutality and face the consequences for those actions... or you’re looking to reconcile your past and start anew.”
The headmaster raised his eyebrows back at the boy. There was only one option for Simon to consider.
“I’m here to reconcile… and choose a better path for myself.”
“Excellent. I’m so glad we’ve come to an understanding of one another.”
The man pulled a piece of stationary from a drawer inside of his desk. He scribbled a few lines on it, then handed it to Simon.
“Report to my office every weekday afternoon at 3pm. This note will permit you to break curfew after classes have ended.”
Simon glanced at the name atop the note.
The headmaster nodded and extended his hand.
“From now on you may call me Mr. Trumble.”
This made Simon curious and he glanced back at the plaque.
“Sir... are you related to the Trumble on that plaque?”
The older Trumble smiled, then nodded.
“He’s my son. Our first graduate of the Agent Program.”
Simon gave the old man a half smile.
“One day you’ll see ‘Kent’ on that plaque.”
The headmaster shook his head.
“Each candidate assumes a new identity when they begin the Program. It’s the first step along your chosen path.”
“A new name?”
“Yes. From now on, you’ll be known as Todd… Todd Hammersmith. That is the name I expect to see on that plaque one day.”
Simon reached for the headmaster’s outstretched hand.
“Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down.”
“Welcome to Agent training… Mr. Hammersmith.”
“Can someone explain the difference between necessary and sufficient causes?”
Agent training wasn’t what Simon expected. The professors treated candidates differently. They took classes, ate lunch, and studied on a separate schedule from the rest of the school. There was little time to think on your own.
Professors didn’t hesitate to single out students when their questions went unanswered.
“Anyone? Perhaps… Mr. Hammersmith?”
Simon was just about to pass a note when Professor Barnebus singled him out. Since accepting the Headmaster’s offer, he had discovered little new about the Nero school. What he did learn came through notes passed amongst other agent candidates during class.
He tucked the note under his bag before answering.
“Yes sir. A necessary cause is implied by the presence of its effect, while a sufficient cause implies its effect.”
“Very good, Mr. Hammersmith.”
It had taken several years, but Simon had forced himself to embrace his new identity.
The professor looked from Todd to the rest of the class.
“If I tip over a glass filled with water, the carpet will be wet. However, a wet carpet does not mean I tipped over a glass of water. Any questions from yesterday’s reading?”
The Philosophy of Causality. The final theory class before graduation.
It was Aristotle and Hume. Reason against experience, and the search for truth. Barnebus taught most of their theory classes: Quantum Mechanics, Metaphysics, and Advanced Microbiology. His classes were tough, but he favored Todd.
Which made it the perfect class for Todd to gather information from his classmates.
No one knew why they were at the school, or any new details about the Agent program. Every one had a story similar to Todd’s. They were taken against their will, and hadn’t seen their parents since. Most were too young to remember their life before they were taken. Some of them were from places Todd didn’t know, some of them from different countries.
None of the boys liked to talk about what they did to end up at the school, and that suited Todd. He imagined his friendly conversations would end once others knew he was accused of murder.
Still, his classmates were starting to get curious why he was so quiet about his past. Many had a similar experience to Todd, where they were accused of something they don’t remember doing. They had discussed a meeting for weeks, so they could go over details they couldn’t risk in a note.
The thought of opening up made Todd nervous, but they were close to graduation. Most of them assumed they wouldn’t see each other after they left the school.
The teenager took a deep breath and opened the note under his bag. After reading, he scribbled a response and carefully refolded it. He waited until the professor turned his back, then shuffled the note to its next recipient.
“Tomorrow’s lesson will focus on the limited efficacy of causality and it’s relationship to the speed of light. Please read the highlighted selections from Einstein’s 1910 lecture on Special Relativity and be prepared to discuss by Friday.”
Todd normally enjoyed his philosophy classes, especially the assigned reading. But he wasn’t thinking about the Einstein lecture, as he rolled his bag onto his shoulder.
The boy was fixated on the last line of the note.
7pm. Classroom 12.
Todd arrived at Classroom 12 later that evening at the appointed time. The room was empty, save for a single person.
They were seated behind the teacher’s desk.
“Headmaster Trumble. I wasn’t expecting to see you.”
The old man gestured for Todd to sit down opposite him.
“Good evening, Mr. Hammersmith. My son Barnebus tells me you’ve been passing notes during class.”
His son. How many had he seen? What could he know?
“Sir. Just jokes amongst classmates, nothing—”
“You’re curious about our school, are you? Snooping around with your classmates? Meeting against school rules?”
The old man had clearly read the notes.
Probably all of them.
“…your curiosity is understandable. The circumstances of your—arrival—to our school seem unfair. Our methods appear—harsh—to you. There are ways to satisfy your curiosity. You could’ve asked me anything… but to go behind my back. To spread your lies to your fellow classmates.”
The headmaster squared around on Todd, and stared at him with a startling intensity. Accusation dripped from his words.
“Have you not considered what would’ve happened to you if we didn’t rescue you that night? Your friends were dead in the woods… and you were the only one to emerge unharmed. You were supposed to be executed.”
The old man sighed.
“… and now that you’re the legal age, I’m afraid that’s our only remaining option. You have failed out of the Agent Program, and there’s nothing more I can do to protect you.”
Todd had never felt more scared in his life. His response was barely a whimper.
“But sir, I wasn’t alone in the woods. The—”
“Oh yes, yes. The two men. I remember your version of the story. I warned you to give up the lies of your past. It seems you cannot escape them, and they have become your undoing.”
The headmaster blinked at a pair of guards behind Todd. They bound his hands in restraints, ready to escort him from the room.
Todd screamed in panic.
“No! I’m innocent.”
Trumble raised his hand for the guards to pause.
“Have you ever considered that we helped you that evening? That I—er—we saved you?”
Tears pooled in Todd’s eyes.
“Sir... please. I’m innocent.”
Trumble could only shake his head, as the guards lead the condemned teenager out of the room.
A week after the confrontation in Classroom 12, Todd was still locked up in a basement holding cell. A single lamp provided only meager light.
There were no windows. No view of the green courtyards outside of the school.
The guards rotated three times a day, and they were Todd’s only source of conversation. Despite holding him until the determined time of his execution, the three guards were pleasant. They made sure he had plenty of food, and did their best to make him comfortable.
No one else had visited him.
The admonishment of his headmaster still swirled in Todd’s head as he awaited his demise.
Did he say he rescued me?
The boy had never considered Trumble’s perspective from that night. How did he know what would happen in the woods?
Was it coincidence?
The more Todd thought about the headmaster’s perspective, the more questions popped into his head. The way Trumble said he was to be executed. He phrased it like it had happened before.
He knew what was going to happen that night, but how?
Suddenly a piece of the puzzle fell into place. His classmates had never seen their parents. All of them were kidnapped before doing something terrible. It seems Trumble always knew the right place and… the right time.
They were all taken, but not from another place. From another—
A grin formed on Todd’s face as realization struck. He grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote a question on it.
“Guard. Can you get a message to the headmaster?”
The guard at the end of the holding room smiled, and walked over towards the cell. Todd folded the note and handed it to them.
“Only Mr. Trumble, please.”
The next day Todd received a visit from the headmaster. The old man opened the folded paper and answered Todd’s question written inside of it.
“Yes, I was there that night. In the woods.”
“Then you saw everything? The two men… and the bright flashes? You know that I didn’t do anything to those boys. You know I didn’t kill them.”
“Why do you ask questions when you already know the answers?”
Todd’s life was over. Everything he cared about was gone. And now he would die in disgrace. There was only one person who could save him from his fate.
“Please, sir. I’m desperate.”
The old man straightened.
“I’ll tell you what I saw that night. I saw your life get destroyed because of a petulant rage—a lapse in judgement that caused a terrible accident. I saw it so many times, and each time it ended the same. Three boys go into the woods, one emerges alive. Causality.
“It is too simple of a conclusion to refute.”
Todd’s eyes grew wide.
So I am a criminal.
“You removed me from the woods that night… so I wouldn’t get caught?”
Trumble shook his head.
“So you couldn’t murder anyone, accidentally or intentionally. Remove a criminal from the circumstance that leads to their crime and they cease to be a criminal. I offered you the chance for a different path.”
“If I didn’t murder them, then why did they still die?”
“That was their path. It could not be avoided.”
It could not be avoided.
Todd took it all in. Something about the way Trumble referred to their path unnerved him. But now he finally understood.
“You knew I would be in the woods that night because you had seen it before?”
Trumble replied with a villainous smile.
“You would’ve made a fine Agent. A shame, really.”
Todd’s insides went hollow. He would die a criminal unless he could convince Trumble to help him again.
“Sir, please. I can still be the Agent you thought I could. I understand my mistakes now... now that I understand the truth.”
Trumble’s eyebrows raised.
“About the two men in the woods that night…”
“The two men were there to save me. To offer me another path. I betrayed them once already, but please believe me when I say this… I’ll never betray them again.”
Trumble considered his words.
After a few moments, he nodded and gave a quick glance around the room. Then he returned the folded paper to Todd through the cell.
As Todd collected it, he felt a lump in the middle. He glanced from the paper back to his headmaster.
The old man spoke in a soft voice and glanced towards the paper.
“Should help you out of your restraints... if you wish to rejoin the Agent Program, be at that address exactly at 9am tomorrow.”
“What about the guards?”
Trumble looked back towards Todd, annoyed.
“It’s either your life or theirs.”
“Good morning, and welcome the case review of reference TZZ-34663.”
Todd Hammersmith placed his communicator on a receiver inside of the lectern. The audience in the small theater vanished as the lights dimmed, and a large screen behind him lit up with supporting materials.
“Mission subject is a private citizen named ‘Thad Michols’.”
Todd stepped away from the lectern and paced.
“The operation began with a standard three-point observation. First observation began at time index 8057. The objective was to confirm Mr. Michols’ terminal illness as described in the member questionnaire.”
Todd pulled up the lab chart.
“During this observation, I conducted a field test of Michols’ labs, and jumped back with a sample for our clinicians to verify. Both my tests and theirs confirmed the same diagnosis.”
He zoomed into a graph of the cellular breakdown.
“Michols had contracted Tycho-Mattheson disorder.”
Todd heard a buzz stir over the audience. After a few minutes, the voice of a middle-aged doctor spoke from the darkened audience. Todd imagined the horn-rimmed glasses worn by the voice’s owner.
“Tycho-Mattheson? This has to be the earliest reported case of the disease by five decades.”
“That’s correct, Dr. Childers. I jumped ahead to time index 8072 for my second observation to confirm Michols’ death. My field autopsy was consistent with T-M, based on time of death and presented symptoms.”
Dr. Childers raised an eyebrow in curiosity.
“This is extraordinary. The subject should be extracted and brought here for further testing.”
Hammersmith smiled, then advanced to his next chart.
“My third observation was a jump to time index 7602. Analysis of his cellular decay from earlier observations indicated he should have contracted the disorder by this index, but still within a window where the disorder could be treated.”
Another doctor further back in the audience picked up on Todd’s hedge.
“Should have? Did he present symptoms during the third observation?”
Hammersmith let out a breathe, then shook his head.
“That’s the mystery presented to this panel. Michols was successfully extracted during my third observation and tested here. Every test for T-M has come back negative.”
Dr. Childers was perplexed.
“How can that be? T-M gestation is well documented. Six months, give or take a day. If his time-of-death is accurate, he has to have it when you extracted him.”
Todd didn’t recognize the voice of the physicist in the first row who asked the next question.
“Which time stream did you use?”
Anticipating this question, Todd advanced to the appropriate chart.
“Alpha bravo twenty-seven delta.”
The physicist frowned.
“Isn’t twenty-seven-delta known to be unreliable for jumps this far back?”
A technician from Todd’s team cleared their throat.
“The jump was well within engine operating parameters for twenty-seven-delta. The integrity of Agent Hammersmith’s jumps is not under scrutiny.”
Dr. Childers stood-up and approached the stage.
“With all due respect to the rest of this panel. I’m the foremost medical expert on Tycho-Mattheson. If your subject didn’t present symptoms six months before death, then your subject cannot have T-M.”
Todd shifted his weight towards Childers.
“What are you saying doctor?”
“It’s possible this an early mutation that has not fully developed into what we understand as T-M. That’s the most likely hypothesis given there is no record of another case of T-M for fifty years. It’s also possible this is an unknown disease and we’ve uncovered a hornet’s nest.”
“What do you suggest we do next?”
“Assuming my colleagues here agree your jumps and calculations were accurate, we need further medical study of Mr. Michols.”
“How long should that take?”
“I can give you a week to run your tests. Michols must be returned to his stream by then, or we risk exposure.”
The afternoon storms were about to start, and Todd stared out of his office window into the brewing darkness. He twirled the book of matches from his childhood sleepover.
A friendly voice pulled him from his reverie.
“Brutal case review this morning.”
Agent Stamford had peeked in through the office door. Todd rubbed the cover of the matchbook, then set it back into his open desk drawer.
“Yeah. Think I finally stumped the experts.”
“Yeah… and their nerve. Question you about your jumps? Hell, you practically invented the three point observation.”
Stamford settled into the couch opposite Todd’s desk. Hammersmith eyed him as he slid his desk drawer closed, then returned his gaze out the window.
“Eh, it’s not gonna matter much. I don’t think there’s enough time to run any meaningful tests.”
“We could always go back in and extract him at a later time index.”
Todd gently shook his head.
“Risky. Pretty sure I attracted local police attention when I grabbed him the first time. Too conspicuous for the same person to go missing twice…”
“Suppose you’re right.”
Todd nodded and looked over at a picture of Cornelius Trumble from his graduation.
“Same reason we can’t hold him any longer. Time is conserved.”
Stamford chuckled at his friend, then glanced at the photo.
“God, you sound like the old man. Time waits for no one.”
Todd laughed back, then sighed.
“I wish he were here right now. He’d know what to—”
Panicked sounds of klaxons shouted across the building. Both of their communicators flashed red.
Stamford got to his first, and his face matched the alarm. Todd glared at his friend.
The scene techs from NeoCorp trashed the apartment. They had pried open every loose floor board, searched every crevasse.
Agent Stamford stepped over a pile of kitchen utensils as he approached Hammersmith.
“There’s no sign of Michols or Weathers.”
“The apartment occupant.”
Stamford glanced down at the notes on his phone.
“Gertrude Weathers. Driver, Human Taxi Program.”
The taxi driver. How does she fit into this?
“Did Michols steal her vehicle?”
“Unsure. We’ve been tracking Weathers’ taxi for a week and didn’t notice anything unusual… until yesterday.”
Todd wrinkled his nose.
“A team is on its way to intercept?”
“You’ll be the first to know if we find them.”
“And we think they’re together?
“Possibly. Earlier canvassing reported a mysterious voice from the apartment this past week. They’re consistent with reports of a body falling in the nearby alley.”
Hammersmith looked out the kitchen window. The neighboring buildings stretched high above the clouds.
“How on Earth did he survive that fall?”
Stamford pointed to a medcuff sitting on a nearby recliner. Todd walked over and picked it up.
He glanced back towards Stamford.
“The cuff’s dosage history was consistent with someone recovering from mass bone trauma. Michols was also given a heavy sedative. He couldn’t have escaped on his own.”
Hammersmith tapped his phone on the medcuff, which initiated a download of the cuff’s history.
“Curious. Is it possible Weathers is taking Michols along, while she runs her fares?”
Stamford shook his head.
“Neighbors haven’t seen Weathers or her mystery guest for a few days. They’re in the wind.”
Todd focused on the cuff’s download progress instead of the other man’s scowl.
“We should have grabbed them at the apartment last week… before Michols recovered.”
There was an edge to Stamford’s voice. The younger agent did solid investigative work on the ground. The Old Man wasted it with his caution.
Todd shrugged towards his friend.
“Boss wanted full contamination protocol. We couldn’t risk exposure.”
Before Stamford could complain further, Todd’s phone chimed. The cuff download was complete. He stared at the data and swiped through several panels showing vitals, when one panel jumped out.
Elevated resting heart rate. Too high for someone on a heavy sedative. And his antibody count was off. Nothing that should cause alarm, unless his immune system was being attacked…
Hammersmith started to pace.
He thought back to his conversation in Trumble’s office. The Old Man had warned him about this specific scenario.
Our members mean everything to us… if we cannot protect one member, then none of them will trust us.
Stamford pulled him from his thoughts.
“Todd, what is it?”
Todd looked toward the medcuff, then back to Stamford. Pieces starting coming together in his mind.
“You believe Weathers helped him escape?”
“Could she know?”
The younger agent looked confused.
Todd gave him a knowing look. It took a few moments, then he saw Stamford’s face light up.
“We’re in deep shit, if she does.”
Hammersmith had a bad feeling. He was about to tell Stamford what Trumble told him, when the phone buzzed. He glanced at it, then immediately back to Stamford.
Todd held up his finger.
“Hold that thought. I need to take this.”
Gertrude hated driving in the rain.
The neon lights of the industrial zone. The headlamps of oncoming traffic. They all blurred through a windshield streaked with water. She flipped the wipers into auto mode.
Shit. We picked the wrong taxi to steal.
“Did we lose them?”
Gertrude glanced over at her passenger, then adjusted her rear mirror and shook her head.
“We have a tail. Right now we need to look like ordinary traffic, so we don’t tip them off.”
“Tip them off to what?”
“That we know they’re following us.”
Thad eyes raised in surprise.
“Why do I get the feeling this isn’t your first time being chased?”
“I didn’t always drive a taxi.”
She gently eased the vehicle over into a passing lane. Just a simple cab, passing a slow driver.
She heard Thad swallow.
“So how many are following us?”
“Just two, as far as I can tell. They’re being cautious, keeping a few cars back. There were more, but they peeled away after we left the neighborhood.”
She squeezed Thad’s hand to reassure him.
“… I think they followed every taxi out of the garage. Whoever is chasing you knows what they’re doing. We need to throw them off our scent.”
The horn of a hover limo blared. It was racing straight towards them. Or so Gertrude wanted their pursuers to believe. She had nudged their vehicle into oncoming traffic.
Thad covered his eyes.
“Holy shit! What are you doing?”
Gertrude pulled the taxi back onto their side of the air lane, just in time to avoid a crash. As a result, the hover limo slammed into several vehicles behind them.
Including the two which were following them.
“I’m shaking our tail.”
She watched the collision unfold in her rear mirror, then slammed on the accelerator. Thad took several deep breathes.
“Please warn me next time. This is my first high speed chase.”
Gertrude grinned out of the side of her mouth.
“Well, you’re doing great.”
She twisted the switch to activate the livery computer, and scanned the list of calls.
“… Now that they’re gone, we should look like a working taxi. We need to take a few.”
“In a stolen taxi?”
“Central Dispatch tracks every taxi in the program... and it doesn’t know this one is stolen. If we look like we’re running fares, we won’t raise suspicion.”
Thad squirmed on the front bench. He found an empty bottle from in between two of the seat cushions. He tossed it into the back, where it clanked against several other empty bottles.
“We might want to clean this dumpster before we take any passengers.”
“That’s why I picked this one. Ol’ man Fickle is known for his wild benders. It’ll be a few days before he realizes his taxi is missing.”
“What happens when he reports it?”
“Won’t take long for your friends to figure out how we got out of the apartment.”
Thad shook his head.
This was some escape.
Gertrude’s mind was pre-occupied with immediate danger since they left the apartment. Now they had some breathing room, so she thought back to the garage and talking to Franklin. She remembered the look on his face—he was spooked.
And now they were looking for me, too.
She glanced down at her driving console. It had been a while since she had driven this fast. Leaving behind everything she had built since running away from her past.
Now she was back on the run.
No telling what would’ve happened to her or Thad if they were caught. She didn’t know him very well, but he deserved more than being a test subject in some flyer lab.
Can’t think about that now.
She cleared her mind, and focused on the open calls. They needed fares that would keep them going in circles. Away from her apartment, but not obviously away.
She kept them in the middle industrial zone. Plenty of cheap fares that other drivers wouldn’t want, and no questions asked.
Their first two pickups were factory workers looking to spend their last paycheck. The next few were delivery workers, who lost their operator’s license for one reason or another. They ran fares for most of the day, and never picked-up another tail.
Satisfied they had avoided suspicion, Gertrude considered their next move. Thad slept through most of it. He still wasn’t at full strength. She needed to find a place to lay low until while he recovered.
Gertrude reached into her pocket for a stim. Instead, her hand fingered the roll of credits from Franklin. Money that could buy Thad a ride home, and procure her a new identity.
As the row of hovercars turned toward the inner-city, she got an idea.
I didn’t always drive a taxi.
She guided the vehicle out of their lane, and turned towards Downtown. Towards the one place she never thought she’d return...
The taxi was sluggish to turn. When Gertrude forced the control, the rear exploded. The taxi rocked violently to the right, which stirred Thad awake.
“What was that?!”
Gertrude adjusted her grip on the car’s steering. After the explosion, the taxi pulled hard to the left. Dots of light became smears in the windows. She eased back on the throttle and steering became more responsive.
Thad jerked his head around, screaming as he stared out the back windshield.
“They found us... and they’re shooting!”
Gertrude shook her head, as she struggled to keep a steady grip on the controls.
“It’s the left engine. I think it misfired and blew.”
She twisted her rear mirror and saw a faint trail of smoke pouring out the left bumper. Her suspicion confirmed, she used their remaining momentum to gently aim the taxi towards the ground.
Thad was in full panic.
“What are you doing?!”
“Easy partner. We don’t have much of a choice. If we get to ground in one piece, the auto-mechanic can patch us up.”
Gertrude’s response did little to calm Thad.
“So we’re gonna crash?”
“Well. When you say like that…”
“The vehicle was smashed pretty bad when we arrived.”
Stamford’s team had caught up with Weathers’ taxi. He listened to his lead describe the scene.
“… clipped a building with a good amount of force. Pieces of the front-end are spread across two blocks.”
Stamford shook his head.
“Any sign of Michols or Weathers?”
“No, sir. Whoever was in the vehicle appeared to survive… and they didn’t stick around.”
“What about witnesses? Anyone actually see the crash?”
“A few grounders. Most of them too loaded to offer anything helpful.”
“Send me their ID scans.”
Stamford glanced at his phone, and highlighted one of the photos.
“You know him?”
Stamford sighed, “Unfortunately.”
He stared at the photo of Franklin for another moment. That could explain how they masked their escape.
“Should I bring him in?”
Stamford thought back to his earlier encounters with Franklin. He was paranoid, and obviously more clever than Stamford first realized.
“No. Offer him a ride home, then post an agent on his alley. If Michols and Weathers are on foot, he might lead us back to them.”
Stamford pocketed his phone, then approached Hammersmith who was still on his call.
“Of course… Sit tight. I can be there in an hour.”
Hammersmith looked suddenly self-conscious as Stamford approached. He terminated his call with a snap.
“What is it Stamford?”
Stamford raised his eyebrows at his friend’s tone.
“I hope your call went better than mine.”
Todd’s expression became grave.
“Wrecked on the far-end of town. No sign of Michols or Weathers.”
“Whoever they are, they fled the scene. No idea where they could be. Victoria identified a few witnesses. One was…”
He hesitated, which caused Hammersmith to raise his eyebrows.
“What is it?”
“Probably nothing. Just a familiar face from my canvassing.”
“The grounder who tipped you off about the building?”
Stamford appraised his friend. He was always amazed at Todd’s intuition. He flipped to the photo of Franklin and handed his phone to Hammersmith.
“The same… although I don’t think he meant to tip me off.”
Todd read the name below the photo.
“Franklin. You think he’s helping Michols?”
“I can’t say. But he was across town near the wreck. That’s an odd coincidence.”
Hammersmith handed the phone back. As he did, Stamford noticed him glance toward the pocket where he put his own phone. It was an unconscious tick. He was distracted by something.
“… like I said, it’s probably nothing. These gutter rats are known to move around.”
To Stamford’s surprise, this satisfied Todd’s curiosity.
The two continued their walkthrough of the apartment. As they finished, Stamford couldn’t shake the feeling his friend was anxious to leave. It wasn’t like him to ignore obvious leads. Hammersmith was too instinctive of an investigator.
Without a word, Hammersmith turned towards the door. Stamford placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Is everything alright?
Hammersmith froze, then spun around. Definitely distracted.
“I’m alright, just… “
Todd’s eyes wandered around the apartment, as though suddenly reminded of something he forgot to do. He put his hand on his head.
“—your team took pictures before trashing the place?”
“Good. Get this place put back together. The cleaners will be here soon.”
Stamford’s face twisted.
“The cleaners? A bit heavy-handed, don’t you think? Michols is already in the wind.”
Todd held up his phone.
“Orders from The Boss. He wants this one by the book. No loose ends.”
Hammersmith grabbed his cloak from a nearby counter, when Stamford cleared his throat.
Hammersmith tried to look nonchalant.
“… got a lead Downtown. Boss wants me to investigate and report back. Just another errand.”
Hammersmith smiled, then shook his head.
“I’ll call if I get myself into a pickle. In the meantime, hold down the fort.”
Todd gestured around the apartment, where techs were still sorting and cataloguing Gertrude’s meager possessions.
“… by the state of this place, Weathers doesn’t have much money. She isn’t gonna have a place to hide either. Sit tight, and keep eyes on the entire block.”
“Standing by is what I do.”
Todd placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Maybe another canvass will turn up details about how they slipped our perimeter.”
Stamford called out, as Todd walked through the door.
“And if we find anything?”
Todd turned his head back.
“Don’t wait for me. If you get another chance, make the grab.”
“What about the old man’s protocols?”
Hammersmith smiled, then winked.
“He’s stalled us long enough, don’t you think?”
“Auto-mechanic should be here in a couple of minutes.”
Gertrude and Thad were standing away from the car, tucked out of sight. Apparently not far enough for Thad’s comfort.
“Aren’t you worried this thing will recognize us and report back?”
Gertrude patted his shoulder.
“It’s a robot. Repairs things… doesn’t much care about who or why.”
Thad shook his head, looking back towards the car.
“I don’t understand why we didn’t take your taxi, instead of this junker.”
“Told you already. Cabs are tracked by a central system. Kind of hard to run away in a marked vehicle.”
“Isn’t this one tracked?”
“Yes, but nobody is looking for it. My friend Franklin took mine for a joy ride. Left at the same time we did. That’s probably why we shook our tail so easily.”
Thad pointed back towards the line of hover cars passing above them.
“... that whole thing was easy?”
“We’ll be fine once we’re patched up. The auto-mechanics make short work of repairs.”
“How long before the folks chasing us figure out we’re not in your taxi?”
“A few hours, maybe. Franklin won’t get far without an operator credential.”
Gertrude tried to avoid thoughts of her taxi. It was painful to think about. That taxi represented everything. All of her hard work, when she had nothing. How was she going to get back on her feet after this?
Her concern about the future was replaced by a familiar smell. She glanced around the block, looking for the source.
“… knowing him, it’s probably in the side of a building.”
Gertrude found what she was looking for on the corner of the cross street. She looked back towards Thad, looking for a place to sit. She pointed towards a nearby bench.
“Stay here... I’m gonna get us something to eat.”
A few minutes later, she returned with a pair of foil-wrapped packages. Thad eagerly tore into his, before he realized it was more of the protein crap. Gertrude watched him swallow what was in his mouth, then set down the rest on the bench beside him.
“After the auto-whatever is done, where are we headed?”
She eyed his half-eaten meal, with a swallow of her own.
“Downtown. I know some people who can help. We’ll start that way after the cab is fixed. Hopefully we get there before dark.”
Thad wiped his mouth, then rubbed the excess food on his pants.
“That sounds… ominous.”
Gertrude smiled and shook her head.
“Eh, it’s not so bad. Mostly halfway houses and a few drug dens. Not many people there anymore. Just a few grounders who couldn’t get out after the Collapse.”
She eyed Thad’s half-eaten sandwich with a raised brow. Thad shook his head, and she gladly picked it up.
“… not everyone wanted to escape.”
Thad watched her eagerly dig into his remaining food.
“Is that what you did? Escape?”
Gertrude chewed a few extra times, then swallowed.
“Yeah… I escaped.”
“But you still have some friends there?”
She cocked her head to the side.
“A few. They should be able to remove the tracker from the taxi, and give us a place to crash for a little bit.”
Gertrude eyes moved across the street, towards an abandoned alley. There was a group of small kids playing. Poor kids, who would grow up poor and live hard lives just like hers. She gave a half-hearted smile. They were playing a game she remembered from her childhood.
Thad followed her gaze towards the children.
“You grew up downtown… so why escape?”
“I drove for one of the cartels. It was dangerous work, and Mom was worried I’d get killed. She made me promise I’d get out. So I ran away... not long after she died.”
Thad pointed back towards the cars overhead.
“That explains all of the fancy flying. But if you escaped a cartel, aren’t you worried about going back?”
“Probably should be. But I have a family connection.”
Gertrude shook her head, “He died before I was born. Drug deal gone bad.”
Thad looked nervous.
“Please tell me your plan isn’t getting help from drug dealers.”
Gertrude rolled the foil into a tight ball. She thought about what to say next, then threw the foil into the abandoned building behind the bench. She let out a breath.
“Yeah. My plan is to get help from drug dealers.”
Thad shook his head.
“I knew you were gonna say that.”
“Calm down, partner. My half-sister runs one of the big cartels downtown. She’s well stocked, and these fools tracking us will think twice before storming her compound.”
“So wait... you quit the family business?”
Gertrude let out another breath, and looked down.
“Not exactly. The cartel wasn’t always run by my family.”
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t like this plan at all. I’m better off by myself, than with a bunch of drug dealers.”
Thad turned and started to walk away down the alley. Gertrude screamed back at him.
“Oh, so that’s it, then? I take you in... patch you up, but now that I used to run drugs, you’re better off without me?”
Thad stopped, but didn’t turn around when he spoke.
“You should’ve left me to die.”
“Maybe I should have.”
Gertrude stomped after Thad, and spun him around.
“Maybe. But I didn’t. You might think you’re better than me, now that you know my past. But my past is why I pulled you off the street that night.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My Mom sold herself to one of the drug lords.”
Thad opened his mouth, in surprise. Gertrude kept going.
“... yeah. After my Dad died. She did it to get us off the street and keep me safe. One of them took a liking to her... and Kinsley was born a year later.”
“My mom had nothing. Lived on the streets after her father died. They lost their farm and she had nothing. Then she meets my Dad, who turns out to be a worthless fool addicted to drugs.
“When he died, no one else took her in. No one helped her. They just left her... to die on the streets. So if you want to try and survive on your own, go right ahead. But someone did offer you help, and that’s more than my mother ever got.”
Thad hung his head.
“I had no idea. I’m sorry for judging you based on your past.”
He took a few moments, then walked back towards Gertrude.
“... your sister can help us?”
“Okay... you’ve done nothing but help me since we met. I’ll trust you.”
Gertrude let out a sigh of relief.
“Kinsley is her name? ... nice name.”
“Mom always liked the old fashioned ones.”
The two of them started walking back to where they left the auto-mechanic. Thad recapped the plan.
“So we’re gonna crash in a drug den. With your half-sister, the drug lord, who you haven’t seen for…?”
“Well I don’t know... it’s been a while. We didn’t exactly leave on the best of terms.”
“You’re really selling this plan.”
They both chuckled, then Gertrude put her arm around Thad.
“It’s the only plan we have.”
The auto-mechanic chirped, then flew off. Their stolen taxi was repaired.
It was time to move.
“There you are!”
The booming voice of Elijah Booker echoed through the lobby. Trumble resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
“… and looking as pale as ever. My god man, you work too much. Join us for a drink.”
Booker is a giant pain in the ass, but the dough-faced playboy is also one of the wealthiest in the city. His grandparents made their fortune as whiskey distillers. After the Collapse, water was scarce, and most of the stills went out of business. The Booker distillery appeared to foresee the downturn, and they stockpiled millions of barrels.
This allowed Booker’s father to maintain a healthy bootleg operation after manufacturing spirits was outlawed. Elijah’s father held lavish fundraisers for NeoCorps, after he converted in college.
Elijah was a boisterous man but a necessary evil. Both he and Trumble were sons of iconic businessmen who helped each other. While Trumble found Elijah’s events loathsome, he was happy the Booker fundraisers continued. His father founded an empire on the backs of them.
The old man took a sip from his glass. It was two hundred years old, some of the last to survive the Collapse.
That pig never missed an opportunity to show off.
Trumble removed a metal case from his pocket. He offered a cigarette to his host, before lighting his own. Though he lacked a rare whiskey collection, his club was one of the few places in the city where smoking was still permitted.
One of the advantages to living above the clouds.
Booker puffed on his cigarette, then leaned in close to Trumble.
“There’s buzz amongst the board. Some kind of large research project. Burning through a lot of cashflow.”
Elijah replaced his father as chairman of the NeoCorp board when the elder Booker past away. Trumble preferred the father’s approach, who was much more hands off.
“Nothing that should concern the board. My father had plenty of large capital projects, too.”
“Your father always delivered...”
Booker put his arm around Trumble.
“… help me calm the board’s nerves a little.”
Smug son-of-a-bitch. Who does he think owns this company?
Trumble smiled politely, then ducked out of Booker’s head lock.
“Patience, my friend.”
The smile left his face, replaced with something more severe. Trumble lowered his voice.
“… and the Board should remember their place.”
Booker smiled, and motioned around the room. Then the fat slob matched Trumble’s volume, the perfume of ancient whiskey on his breath.
“Why don’t you remember that I can turn this off with a snap of my finger.”
Booker straightened, then pulled his jacket taut.
Trumble remembered his own drink. Before he could change the subject, he was interrupted by his aide.
“Sorry to interrupt sir. You have an urgent call.”
Trumble took the phone, careful to cover the receiver as he turned back towards Booker.
Trumble walked to a nearby lounge chair, out of earshot. Satisfied that Booker couldn’t hear his conversation, he raised the phone. Smoke billowed from his mouth as he responded.
“It’s Stamford, sir.”
The old man glanced from side to side, confirming there was no one who could eavesdrop. He tapped a sequence onto the phone, then returned it to his ear.
“Okay, we’re secure.”
“As you anticipated, the apartment was empty.”
“No sign of Michols?”
“None. We believe the woman leasing the apartment aided his escape. The name is Ger—”
“I’m aware of the name.”
Trumble cursed under his breath. This operation has been compromised from the start. The mistakes were piling up.
“How did they get out?”
“We believe a taxi.”
“Uncertain. We found it smashed across town. No sign of Weathers or Michols.”
“So… they could be anywhere?”
He couldn’t contain his disgust. It caused Stamford to hesitate.
Trumble rubbed a sore spot on his shoulder where he received a daily injection. He winced from the discomfort. The old man couldn’t afford any more delays.
“Is Hammersmith with you?”
“No, sir. He just left.”
“I briefed him about the apartment and the crash. He got a call, then said he needed to follow-up on another lead.”
“Yes, sir... from you.”
Trumble paused to take a drag from the cigarette. He felt the heat on his finger as he neared the end of the cigarette. The old man looked up towards the ornate ceiling and slowly released the smoke. He watched as the cloud broke against the mosaics.
He moved too fast with Hammersmith. The agent wasn’t ready for the truth. He took too much of a risk when he let him in.
“Should I be concerned?”
More silence. Eventually, “No.”
Trumble smashed his cigarette into a nearby ashtray. He pulled another from his case, then continued.
“Do you have his location?”
“Yes sir. He disabled his phone’s beacon, but I planted a tracker on him before he left.”
A moment later, the display on Trumble’s phone flashed with a map location. He stared at it for a moment, racking his brain.
Where is he going?
Trumble motioned for his aide. He snapped his fingers and pointed to the attache under the aide’s arm. Inside the case was a dossier, which the aide opened for him. After scanning several pages, he clapped the folder shut.
Across the lobby, well-dressed social elite were still mingling. Booker’s voice could be heard clearly over the hum of small talk. Trumble watched the spectacle as his brain processed the information.
He returned the phone to his ear.
It was time to act.
“Gather a team, then wait for word from me. Only agents you can trust, understand?”
“Understood. But why wait?”
“Let’s see where this goes. Hammersmith might know what he’s doing... and need backup.”
“... or he might have gone rogue.”
“Only agents you can trust.”
Stamford hesitated, then acknowledged.
“Report back when your team is ready to move.”
The old man went to hand the phone back to his aide, when Stamford voiced a final question.
“Sir. What if he’s gone rogue?”
“I will kill him myself.”
Thad listened as Gertrude narrated their descent into hell.
“After the acid rains started, the inner city collapsed into chaos. Flyers moved out as society broke down. The factory jobs moved away with them, and riots destroyed most of the local businesses. If you couldn’t get out, gangs and cartels were your only options. They offered steady work and security.”
He looked out the window. The sleek towers of the city were replaced by rot and decay. All that remained of their splendor was twisted metal super-structures and broken glass.
There was something familiar about how the new buildings ringed the ruins of the old. It triggered an early memory.
“This reminds me of redwoods.”
He saw Gertrude’s eyes widen.
“Redwoods? You mean... like the ancient trees?”
“Yeah. I have this memory. It’s fuzzy, and I’m not sure how old… I remember walking through a forest. There’s someone ahead talking—maybe a guide. Talking about coastal redwoods and their communities.”
Gertrude’s face was blank as he continued.
“... new growth would crop up around the decay of a dying tree. The new trees would feed off the dead, until all that was left was a ring around the carcass.”
He was overwhelmed by the memory. It felt so… real. Gertrude, however, looked at him like he was abducted by aliens.
“You’re full of surprises.”
“You talk about trees, and farms. None of this is familiar to you. The city. Downtown... not even flyers and grounders.”
Thad shook his head. It was true. He’d known for a few days, and it scared him. What if his memory doesn’t come back?
“No. I don’t remember any of it.”
“What if your memory isn’t the problem?”
“What if you’re not from around here? That could explain why you don’t recognize anything.”
A pit formed in his stomach. Every direction he looked there were either buildings or ruins of buildings. If he wasn’t from around here, then where was he from?
The thought upset him.
“Most of my memories are of fields. Plants, vegetation… life. Not the metal and glass we see out there.”
Gertrude nodded, as though what he was saying made sense.
“You said you were kidnapped? And when you woke up, you didn’t know where you were?”
Thad concentrated, switching his focus between the slums in front of him, and the orange of the horizon.
“I …think so. It’s still a bit of a blur.”
“And before that, everything is green?”
“Yes… but those memories feel far away. Distant in a way I can’t describe.”
Thad saw Gertrude nod, then return her focus to the road. She knows something.
“What is it?”
“Nothing. Just a hunch.”
“I have an idea... about where you’re from.”
“Care to share with the group?”
“Not yet. If I’m right... well, you’ve long trip ahead of you.”
The thought of getting far away from here was a nice distraction. It settled his uneasiness, although not completely.
He still felt off. If he was honest with himself, he didn’t feel well at all. The pain killers made his heart race.
But it was more than the painkillers. He felt feverish, and there was an uncomfortable knot on his arm where the medcuff had been. He had risked a few glances when Gertrude was distracted by the road. It was swollen, and tender if he applied too much pressure.
Eventually I need to show her.
Fortunately the rest of the trip downtown was quiet. Thad tried to calm himself down, so he could close his eyes and rest.
Eventually he fell asleep. When he opened his eyes again, it was nearly dark. Gertrude had settled into the entrance of a compound. She set the parking brake, then leaned in towards him.
“Do you trust me?”
Thad rubbed the last of his nap from his eyes.
“I... think so?”
“Good. We’re going to be safe.”
The pit in his stomach came back.
“You’re scaring me.”
“Don’t be scared. Just follow my lead and do whatever I do. Everything...”
Gertrude sounded like was trying to convince herself. Didn’t sound like it was working.
“… everything will be fine. I promise.”
Four masked people ripped open the doors of the taxi. They yanked Gertrude and Thad from the vehicle, and fastened restraints around their wrists.
The last thing Thad saw was a blindfold pulled over his eyes.
Gertrude squinted as her eyes adjusted to the sudden change in light. Her captors had bound her hands behind a chair, where she was seated. On her right she found Thad, who was still blindfolded.
In front of her stood a tall woman, her bony face leaned in close towards Gertrude.
“Trudy. Never thought I’d see you again.”
Malnutrition and narcotics abuse had taken their toll. The woman paced in front of Gertrude, looking annoyed at her sister.
“… at least not here.”
Gertrude scanned the rest of the room.
“I’ve missed you too.”
Kinsley was surrounded by a collection of thugs. They stood along the opposite wall, heavily armed with a variety of implements: baseball bats, knives... and assault rifles.
“Missed me? Last time we spoke you were high and mighty, talking about ‘getting the hell outta here’. What made you come back? Out of money? Need a fix?”
Several of her goons smiled. A few of them laughed. Gertrude stayed focused on Kinsley.
“I was hoping we could speak in private. A business negotiation... amongst family.”
Kinsley shifted her weight.
“Business, eh? Fine... I’ll bite. But first you’re gonna tell me about this one. Who is he?”
She walked over and rubbed Thad on his head. Gertrude heard him struggle and test his restraints.
“He’s what I want to discuss. Alone.”
Gertrude raised her eyebrows at her sister, who returned the expression. Kinsley turned her head, like she was addressing the entire room.
“Okay. We’ll go in the other room and chat. But your friend stays here.”
Kinsley opened her arms wide.
“… with my friends.”
Several in the crowd behind Kinsley wet their lips and bared their teeth. They eyed Thad like a piece of meat. Gertrude didn’t want to leave him alone, but she nodded.
One of the thugs approached Gertrude and cut her restraints. Once free, she followed Kinsley into the next room.
When the door closed, Kinsley shoved her older sister.
“What the fuck are you doing here?!”
“I can explain—”
“Made a promise to Mom, Trudy! Told her I would get you out. You should’ve stayed away.”
Kinsley grabbed Gertrude by the shoulders and pulled her into a tight squeeze.
“I love you too, Kins.”
After a long embrace, Kinsley let go.
“So tell me about your boy out there. He’s fucked up, did you know he’s using?”
“Actually, that’s my fault. I doped him so he could recover. Was hoping you had some withdrawal meds…”
“Withdrawal meds? This ain’t no pharmacy.”
“I know you can get them from the local government center, no questions asked. If I do it, they be traced back to me.”
Kinsley shot a concerned look toward her sister.
“What kind of trouble are you in?”
Gertrude shook her head. The events of the past week came pouring out.
“I don’t know, yet. He... er, Thad, is being chased. Don’t know who.”
“So why are you helping him?”
“He landed on my cab. Took a swan dive off an upper floor. When he didn’t die...”
Gertrude’s voice trailed off.
“... well, I couldn’t just leave him there. Wouldn’t have been proper.”
Kinsley gave her sister an incredulous stare.
“Proper? Jeez, you sound like Mom.”
Gertrude rolled her eyes.
“He still can’t remember much. And the way he describes the people chasing him, they sound like flyers.”
Kinsley silently mouthed a “Wow”, then continued.
“So how can I help… besides withdrawal meds?”
“We need to get him home...”
“… and I need new ID papers. Whoever is chasing him surrounded my place. We barely got out before they ransacked the place.”
Kinsley’s eyes went wide for a moment.
“Okay. I can set you up. Especially if it’ll piss off a few flyers. But first things first, where is Mystery Man from?”
“Not entirely sure. He can’t remember, but from what he’s told me so far, I think he might be from the Outer Plains.”
Kinsley stepped back, looking shocked.
Gertrude thought it sounded crazy too, now that she said it out loud.
“Look, whatever. I just need to know he’s on his way home, then we can all move on.”
“You sure this isn’t something else?”
Kinsley glanced down her nose, and pursed her lips, making an obnoxious kissy face. Gertrude rolled her eyes.
“Shut up. I want a clean conscious, not a boyfriend... and I’m not sure he’s crazy. It’s like he doesn’t recognize anything. And earlier...”
Gertrude trailed off, but Kinsley’s interest was piqued.
“What happened earlier?”
“Earlier he was talking about... walking in a forest... of trees!”
“Trees?! No one has seen a tree around here in fifty years.”
“Right... maybe he is crazy. Just... can you help him out?”
Kinsley exhaled, and lowered her hands.
“Let’s hope he starts to remember things soon... but let’s say he is from the Outer Plains. How does he get out there?”
Gertrude raised her finger, as she remembered the money Franklin gave her.
“Ah... I’ve got enough to get him fuel cells for the journey out.”
Gertrude produced the roll of credits. Kinsley’s eyes went wide.
“Holy shit. Paper credits? Where did you get these?”
Kinsley unfolded the wad and started counting.
“... this is flyer money.”
“Should be enough for fuel cells and the new identity I need?”
“And then some. But what’s he gonna fly out there? That junker we pulled you from?”
“The only ride we brought.”
“Taxis are tracked…”
Gertrude smiled and nodded towards the credits. Kinsley kept counting through the stack, then nodded her acceptance.
“… and I think we can find someone to help take care of that problem as well.”
Gertrude opened her arms to embrace Kinsley. Her younger sister pocketed the cash, then leaned over to accept the hug.
“It’s gonna take me a few days.”
Gertrude nodded, and nosed towards the other room.
“Mind if we both crash here, while we wait? Give him some time to recover.”
Kinsley gave her a friendly squeeze, then came out of the hug to appraise her sister. Gertrude felt her judgement.
“I know, I know. This whole thing is out of control. Not quite sure how I got mixed up in this.”
Her sister smiled.
“You might be the better person after all... better than me, at least. Mom would be proud you’re helping this guy.”
Gertrude smiled back.
“Never thought I’d see this place again.”
Gertrude and Thad followed Kinsley down a narrow corridor. They passed several open rooms as they moved deeper into the compound. Most of the rooms were filled with bodies laid out, many too stoned to notice them as they passed.
At the end of the hallway was a larger room. The concrete walls were cracked, and blackened with mold. The floor looked even worse. Thankfully, unlike most of the other rooms, there was a cot and a pair of thermal blankets.
It reminded Gertrude of growing up. Kinsley slapped her on the back, then turned to Thad.
“Doesn’t look like much, but this is the most comfortable room in the compound. Trudy already knows this, but we run watch ‘round the clock. So sleep easy, you’re safe here.”
Thad took in the room, then gave a concerned look to Gertrude. She shot a glance back at him.
Beggars can’t be choosers, partner.
Thad got the message.
“Thanks Kinsley. This is great.”
Kinsley tossed Gertrude a rattling bottle.
“A few of the boys had these from their last attempt at sober. We’ll have more tomorrow.”
Gertrude thanked Kinsley, who closed the door on her way out. Gertrude look back to Thad, who was unfolding the blankets on the cot. She handed him a few pills from the bottle.
“Go ahead and take the cot. These will ease you off the pain meds.”
Thad started to protest, but she cut him off.
“Don’t give me the ‘aw shucks’ gentleman crap, you need the rest. Besides... I’ve slept in worse. The sooner you recover, the sooner we get you on your way.”
“And the sooner your life returns to normal.”
Gertrude gave a half smile, then rubbed the side of Thad’s right shoulder.
Observing his reaction, she rolled back his sleeve. There was large red bruise, raised above the skin. It felt warm when she touched it.
“Oh, it’s nothing... just a scratch.”
“A scratch? This is an infection. How long has it looked like this?”
Thad raised his arms to brush Gertrude’s hands from them.
“Just a day or two. I noticed it after you took off the medcuff.”
Gertrude narrowed her eyes at him. He threw up his hands.
“... right before we left the apartment.”
She pursed her lips.
This complicates things.
“We need to find you some antibiotics. Your body can’t fight an infection in your condition.”
“Where are you going?”
Gertrude squeezed Thad’s hand, then stood up.
“I need to find you something for your fever.”
It had been a few days, and Thad’s condition was worse. The fever started on the second day, then intensified each day that followed. Gertrude knew he needed something stronger than what Kinsley could offer.
Thad pulled back his blanket.
“Then I’ll go with you.”
She pulled the blanket back over him.
“Sshhh. You need to rest and stay put. The places I’m going take advantage of others’ desperation. It’ll be easier to negotiate if they don’t know you’re in bad shape.”
Gertrude finished pulling on her shoes, when Kinsley walked through the door. She glanced towards Thad, then lowered her voice towards Gertrude.
“Still getting worse?”
She handed Gertrude a steaming mug, who took a few sips before responding.
“Mm-hmm. I know a few people. Gonna see if they have something that will cut down this fever.”
Kinsley showed her teeth. The way she did when there was a problem. Gertrude sighed.
“Bad news on your taxi. My mechanic couldn’t remove the tracker. At least not without dismantling the whole vehicle. And that hunk-of-junk is so old, there’s no guarantee we could put it back together.”
Gertrude gnashed her teeth.
“Well. I guess he’s gonna need another ride.”
“And credits to pay for it...”
“But I gave you—”
“Enough to pay for the fuel cells and remove a tracker. Another vehicle isn’t in your budget.”
Gertrude sat down on the cot next to Thad.
They needed help. Someone wealthy.
Who could spare a vehicle, and have access to better medication? Gertrude pulled out her phone and searched past fares. Random faces rolled across the screen.
Someone wealthy… who wants to help people… wants to—
A polished face popped into her mind.
“… I know someone.”
Gertrude opened her contacts and zipped to the number. She felt a pang of guilt, as she went to start the call. This would bring yet another person into this mess.
Someone else to owe a favor.
She glanced at Thad. He was pale, and there were beads of sweat across his brow.
I don’t have a choice.
Kinsley glanced over Gertrude’s shoulder.
“Who’s... Todd Hammersmith?”
Todd’s trip into Downtown took just over an hour.
He didn’t see any updates from Stamford or the other agents. With luck, he’d get to Gertrude before anyone from NeoCorp started to suspect.
He reached the location she sent him, then scanned the compound. Only one vehicle entrance. It was well protected by adjacent towers, and spotters on the roof overlooking the courtyard. While the lines of fire were obvious, the gun placements were well concealed.
These aren’t amateurs.
Todd ditched his car a few blocks away, and searched on foot for a way inside. He walked the perimeter twice, observing the sentries and their positions.
Satisfied he found a hole in their search pattern, Todd slipped into the compound.
Once inside in the courtyard, he couldn’t avoid being exposed. Two thugs predictably jumped him from opposing sides. Todd grabbed the guard to his left, and used them to tackle the guard that approached from the right. He reached for his weapon, when a pistol was thrust into his back.
Hammersmith missed the third guard.
He let go of the two minions, and raised his hands in surrender. The pistol-bearing guard patted down his left side.
“Trudy didn’t tell me you could take care of yourself.”
A woman’s voice. Her search stopped after finding his holster, and she removed his sidearm.
“… this piece a standard issue for altar boys?”
Todd chuffed, then turned to face his captor.
“Trudy, eh? Is that what family calls her?”
“You’ve got a smart mouth, flyer. Might get you shot.”
“I’m not looking for trouble… Kinsley am I right?”
The woman nodded.
“Who are you?”
“I’m a friend, and Gertrude called me. So, can you take me to her?”
“Not a chance you’re getting into my compound. She’ll be along shortly, once I’m certain there’s no threat.”
Todd didn’t show any change in expression. He kept his voice even, and calm.
“Like I said, I’m not looking for trouble. I’m here to help.”
Kinsley raised her phone, but kept her weapon pointed at Todd.
“Send them out.”
After several minutes, two figures appeared from the opposite end of the courtyard. Todd recognized both.
Gertrude flashed a smile.
“Todd, I’m so glad you came. We really need—“
“No! No! Gertrude, stop!”
Kinsley’s eyes darted from Thad and Gertrude back to Todd. Thad was apoplectic.
“It’s him! It’s him!”
Kinsley looked toward Gertrude.
“What’s he on about, Trudy?”
Thad answered, and Gertrude’s eyes went wide.
“He’s the one I told you about... he’s the one who’s chasing me!”
Kinsley yanked Todd’s arms behind him, as another minion put him in restraints. Hammersmith didn’t resist. Instead he focused on Thad.
He’s running a fever.
There was a ring of sweat around Thad’s neck. When he grabbed Gertrude’s arm to protect her, he used his left hand—not his right.
That must be where the cuff had been…
Todd grimaced as realization struck him. Everything finally made sense. The detail he was missing, the one that Trumble hid from him. That son-of-a-bitch was pulling strings the entire time. Kept everyone in the dark as they cleaned up his mess.
And I’ve been his errand boy.
In that moment, Todd lost his faith.
Kinsley raised her eyebrows towards Todd.
“What’s so funny?”
Todd was shaking his head. He didn’t realize he laughed out loud.
“I’ve been such a fool. About everything…”
Kinsley pressed the barrel of her gun into his chest.
“Care to let us in on… everything?”
Todd tried to collect himself. He took a deep breath, then looked towards Kinsley and Gertrude.
“Thad’s right. I have been chasing him.”
He felt Kinsley’s grip tighten on her pistol. He glanced at the gun in his sternum, then back to the woman holding it.
“… I’m happy to tell you whatever you want. I really do want to help. But you’re gonna need to point that thing somewhere else.”
“Not used to having discussions with firearms?”
Hammersmith smirked back.
“I’m usually the one holding them.”
The two sisters were curious. After giving each other a knowing look, Kinsley holstered her pistol and gave Todd some space. But she didn’t remove the restraints.
Gertrude, Kinsley, and Thad all focused on him. The intensity of their gaze made his throat go dry. He decided to focus on Gertrude, who gestured towards him.
“Okay, Mr. Hammersmith. Talk.”
Just as he was about to start, Gertrude pulled a buzzing phone from her pocket. Todd didn’t know what it said. Once Kinsley saw it, her voice startled everyone.
“It’s a trap.”
Gertrude stared at the message from Franklin. It’s meaning was clear. She showed the message to Kinsley, whose crew were ready to shoot.
“He’s stalling to give his agents time. Let’s pop this bastard and get out of here.”
“WAIT! Please. I swear to you Gertrude, I came alone. Look…”
He waved his phone towards her, then offered it for her inspection.
“… I disabled the location beacon. They don’t know where I am, and have no way to track me.”
Gertrude glanced at Kinsley, who wasn’t convinced. Gertrude’s instincts agreed, but the look in Todd’s eyes told her a different story.
Something didn’t add up.
“How did you know Thad would be here... with me?”
Todd didn’t flinch.
“I had a hunch. We searched your apartment, after we suspected you were helping him.”
“You searched my apartment? Right. So why should we trust anything you say?”
Todd hesitated. No, Gertrude sensed he was struggling with something. There was more to this than he was saying.
“You shouldn’t. I’ve given you no reason. You’ll have to take it—”
Gertrude rolled her eyes. She couldn’t say why, but she wanted to believe his intentions were good.
He’s a true believer.
“I don’t take things on faith. I trust people.
“Then trust me when I say this... I want to help Thad.”
Gertrude looked at Kinsley (unconvinced), then back towards Thad who was still in shock. It was Gertrude’s fault that Todd found him.
Kinsley could take care of Todd. Make him disappear. Then she could help them escape... again. But Gertrude couldn’t shake the suspicion that Todd knew more than he was telling.
We need to know what he knows.
“Okay. Give me a reason to trust you... help me get Thad back home.”
Todd lowered his head, taking a moment to respond.
“That’s going to be a little difficult.”
“Why? You kidnapped Thad, you know where he needs to return.”
“I do. But it won’t be easy… it’s…”
Todd’s internal struggle increased. Gertrude sensed they were getting close to answers. He sighed.
“…you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Kinsley was tired of waiting for Todd’s crisis of conscious. She motioned towards her two guards.
“You two, take Thad and Trudy back inside. I’ll dump his body when I’m done.”
Gertrude raised her hand towards Kinsley. They were too close to turn back now.
“Hold on. We deserve some answers first.”
Kinsley gritted her teeth, but reluctantly nodded. Gertrude looked back towards Todd.
“Alright, last chance. Why are you chasing Thad?”
Todd stared at the ground, and shook his head. When he stopped, he looked back at Gertrude determined.
The struggle was gone.
“Because you asked us.”
She raised her eyebrows and pointed towards herself.
“… I’ve never met Thad before. He just fell onto my taxi. Why would I ask you to find—how did I ask you to find him?”
“I said you wouldn’t believe me. You and Thad meeting is a strange coincidence, indeed. It set into motion a series of events that impact you more than you realize.”
“A coincidence? Look, I called you because—”
“—Thad was sick.”
Everyone opened their eyes wide at his interruption. Todd continued.
“... he has a raised knot on his right arm, yes? And an elevated fever? Probably had that for... a few days, I’d guess.”
Gertrude’s face darkened. An uneasy feeling formed in her stomach. She was stumped.
“How did you know that?”
Todd motioned for his phone, still in Gertrude’s hand.
“I matched Thad’s readings from your medcuff to symptoms you described six months ago...”
The pit in Gertrude’s stomach tightened and work it’s way into her throat as Todd finished.
“... in your NeoCorps questionnaire.”
Tears formed as Gertrude remembered her desperation. All of the attempts to end her suffering, and the hope that someone would help. Her head throbbed as the responses from her questionnaire flooded through her brain.
She cleared her throat and projected the remaining dignity she could muster.
“What does… that... have to do with Thad’s symptoms?”
Gertrude couldn’t look back at Kinsley. Todd gathered a deep breath before he answered.
Realization struck her the moment he started.
“In it you told us we had to save—”
She clapped her hands to her cheeks. She glanced back towards Thad, then Todd, who lowered his head.
The past few months of writing have been the most intense since I focused on fiction. The journey has taken me from the summits of success into the valleys of despair. Which is a fancy way of saying “I’ve been busy”... and also quiet on here.
A few months ago I spoke of “serious edits” and how The Traveler series really wanted to be a novel. At the time, I felt I was starting to climb out of the slump.
Silly me, I had further to go.
Before I get into that, this story has a happy ending. The Addict will be published tomorrow. And as you find out below, there’s a lot of story. I hope you find it worth the wait.
When drafting The Addict, I started with two scenes I cut from the end of The Banker. I decided those scenes deserved their own story, and after I removed them, The Banker could stand alone as the end of the first act. The story I planned to follow was supposed to be the conclusion.
In other words, I had a beginning to the story and an end, but no middle. Oops.
Had I realized in the beginning that The Addict would become the middle act of the story, I might have written things differently. Instead, it became my hard-earned lesson in planning and character development.
That might sound like an interesting behind-the-scenes story, but it’s not the one I want to tell today. The Addict is over 8500 words, organized into nine scenes that have been re-written at least four times, over six different drafts. I struggled with this story.
Even after six drafts, I’m not satisfied I have the best version of the story, but I’m publishing it anyway. In the middle of the fifth draft, I nearly lost my taste for completing the series. I was done.
Today I want to tell you how I came back from walking away.
Do you ever take a photo and afterwards think: “This will look great after some edits?” Something’s off and you think you can fix it in post. The colors don’t pop, or maybe it’s underexposed. This happens to me a lot.
The result is always the same. I fool with it, yanking on sliders in my photo editor and trying every trick in the book to magically transform it into a great shot. I’m never happy with it. I try and I try, only to realize it just wasn’t a good photo after all.
No amount of editing can hide that fact.
This the point I reached during the fifth draft of The Addict. I kept trying until eventually I had to be honest with myself.
“The story isn’t very good.”
It took five drafts to admit it. The notion snuck up on me, after repeated attempts to fix problematic areas in the narrative. It wasn’t a good feeling.
The bottom fell out during a long weekend of vacation. I had marked that date as the time when I would “finish” the story, and get it ready to publish. I was down to a single scene where I wasn’t happy. The dialogue felt wooden, and the words wouldn’t come. But if I leaned into it—dammit—I could be done.
I couldn’t. And I became so frustrated I couldn’t stand to read any of it. I hated it. The entire story.
Two weeks before that vacation, another manager on my team setup a remote conference with a guest speaker. She was there to talk about storytelling. It was a great talk, and afterwards I felt energized to finish. This was exactly what I needed.
Among her talking points was an overview of an older episode of Scriptnotes—a fantastic podcast on writing by John August and Craig Mazin. The episode went deep into Mazin’s concept of the Central Dramatic Argument.
That evening after the talk, I grabbed my notebook and scratched out the phrase “You help yourself by helping others”. That is Gertrude’s theme, and also Hammersmith’s theme. It was my dramatic argument for The Traveler series. From there I concentrated on conflict and resolution to develop my two central characters.
It didn’t take long to realize my second act was hollow.
This is the momentum I carried into the long weekend of vacation. But by the time I sat down to focus, I was too frustrated to write anything. I was stuck, and convinced myself the story was going nowhere.
Disheartened, I was ready to quit.
Fortunately, I didn’t quit. I decided to take a break the next week and consult some fellow writers for advice. A good friend quickly diagnosed my issue: my writing had become too precious.
In engineering projects it’s often said that “perfect is the enemy of done”. So it goes with writing fiction. My pursuit of the perfect narrative brought me too close and I lost perspective. Worse even, I had paralyzed my progress so I wouldn’t publish something terrible. If I did, I feared that would invalidate me as a real writer.
It sounds dramatic. You have to put yourself out there to write fiction. That kind of exposure creates a sense of vulnerability.
I had to look past that feeling and take a chance. In the end, I told myself that I write for me. To learn, and to get better. But most important, I write because I have stories to tell.
Finishing The Addict has taught me several lessons. The perspective I’ve gained will influence my storytelling from here on out. I have a better understanding for how to write character driven stories.
Thanks for reading this update—and your patience—as I’ve quietly worked through The Addict. It’s a large story, which brings the characters to the brink. I hope you enjoy it.
This letter is not what I originally set out to write. This is my third try. No idea where this will go or turn out, but I need to write.
First, the obvious. Last Wednesday was a horror show, broadcast live to the world. The people’s house—our house—was at the center of a terrible tragedy. Despicable. Outrageous.
I’m heartbroken for my country. Gone is our innocence.
And yet, I spent the waning hours of that horrible Wednesday watching, along with my family, the power-center of our government perform its solemn duties.
“Dad, why do they keep repeating the same words over and over?”
Amidst a dark chapter in the history of our democracy, we learned the legal process for how our Congress certifies our elections. The pageant of the parliamentarians was riveting.
A moment of defiance against the violent forces of insurrection. An affirmation that our form of government can and will endure attacks—both foreign and domestic.
I will never forget that evening, or the phrase “… both regular in form, and authentic.”
The words are starting to come back. I’ve started working on a problematic plot in my Traveler series. I worried it would become major surgery, but it’s proven a fun bit of troubleshooting.
Times like these are when writing reminds me of programming. The story just needed a refactor.
My solution will likely require updates to earlier stories. I’ve not come out and said this you, but the final version of this series may be different from what you’ve read so far. Not terribly different, but hopefully improved.
I’m still on track to release The Addict soon. This updated arc reinforces the story and flow.
Once I’ve finished the series, I look forward to going into more specifics about the plot issues, and why I decided to change them. Since it’s central to core mysteries, I’m avoiding details that would spoil the story before it’s finished.
I’ve contemplated word changes to this site as well. The weekly letter has been an enjoyable addition to my week, but the Sunday part of the title is misleading. While I typically start the letters on Sunday, I’ve only finished and published a few on the same day.
Over the coming months, I plan to remove Sunday from the title and simply refer to them as “Letters”. Their titles will be replaced with their date of publication, while other essays maintain the traditional, descriptive title.
This change might accompany a design refresh. I dunno, something about isolation and idle hands.
The first story I ever thought to write down was about a young women, Mara, who attended a special high school. Her school was created after a terrorist attack targets a large conference of primary and secondary school teachers.
Teachers become a scarce resource. In a panic, society turned to every means possible to fill the void. Given the year we’ve just experienced, you might think this is a contemporary story, not one that has been tickling my brain for 20 years.
One day I hope to return to this story and find something worth publication. In the meantime, this year reminded me of a particular character from that world: Mr. Nelson. He was inspired from my childhood by a real person with same family name.
Everyone I’ve met who was worth meeting has a story about a teacher who had a meaningful impact on their life. I have several. Mr. Watts inspired me to study Computer Science, Dr. Allison made algorithms cooler than cool, Mrs. Mayall introduced me to Euclid and the beautiful art of mathematical proofs, and Mrs. Flannigan taught me there was no shame in being the smartest kid in the room.
And that list doesn’t include three of my high school English teachers, whose impact I still feel today. Mrs. Braaton made the classics of Shakespeare and Dickens come alive. Mrs. Hines showed me how to study and write critically about art.
But most of all Mr. Nelson infected me with love for the written word. My experience in his classroom informed Mara’s experience. The fictional Mr. Nelson and his class are set-pieces for an exploration into the importance of creative thinking.
In Mara’s story, I contrast creativity against rote knowledge—facts, recitation, and observation. My postulate is that modern education places an emphasis on the latter, at the expense of the former.
Mara’s school uses an experimental technique to encode information directly into a student’s brain. This frees a student’s time and energy to focus on what to do with that knowledge.
Mr. Nelson’s class is the penultimate lesson in creativity, which prepares his students for their final test.
Creativity has been on my mind a lot this year. We have all indulged in streaming media to help pass the time. Music, movies, podcasts. The fruits of other’s creativity have kept us from feeling isolated.
To help them fight boredom, the Architect and I have encouraged our kids to dive into creative projects. Now is the time… or so the thinking goes.
And that’s why I share these tidbits of a 20-year-old story with you. The theme of that story—the importance of creativity—is more relevant than ever. We need each everyone’s creativity to get through this trying period.
If you have a project or idea that tugs at you, now is the time.
There have been 17 Sundays since I wrote my first Sunday Letter. This post is the 12th, which comes out to an average of three a month. Two-thirds is a passable on-base percentage I suppose, but leaves plenty of room for improvement.
To everyone who has read my writing this year, thank you. I’ve appreciated your feedback and encouragement. Wherever you are, I hope you enjoy a happy and healthy new year.
Trying to write this story down is what prompted me to try and write an app for writing fiction. Which prompted me to build an app for prototyping apps, which in turn spawned the second half of my career. A fun story for another day. ↩︎
“Who do you think you are, Robert Rhyne?” Every time I walked into his class late. I never knew his first name, just that he was “H.W. Watts”. Whenever I would ask what the “H” stood for, he would smile and say “Hunk”. ↩︎
On our mid-term, he gave us the following question: “How do you sort 7 numbers in 5 operations? Extra credit if you can demonstrate how to do it in 4.” That extra credit haunts me to this day. ↩︎
She once told our class she gave extra credit to any student with the same name as her daughter. When I asked her if she had a son named Robert, she answered: “No, but I have a dog named Flower.” She called me Flower for the rest of high school. ↩︎
“The Flan” as she was affectionately known to all of my friends in AP Government. ↩︎
Anyone who believes that only modern writers use sex to sell their stories should have to study Romeo & Juliet with Mrs. Braaton. ↩︎
This knowledge came in handy later in life as I attempted to match wits with a young student of Architecture, who is as brilliant as she is beautiful. ↩︎
I read and studied two of my favorite books of all time in his class: Frankenstein and A Brave New World. He encouraged us to write fiction, and discover our own voice. I didn’t realize it until much later, but he was the spark. ↩︎
The colloquial name for the student’s final knowledge injection procedure. It is known to be brutal. Mara’s older brother committed suicide after undergoing the procedure. ↩︎
“This is a really good reveal, but I don’t think you’ve earned it yet.” That was the beginning of a very good phone call.
Right as I set aside The Traveler series to rest, I sent a copy of the completed draft to a close friend for review. I was worried about my finish, and wanted a second opinion before diving into a detailed edit.
The series is changing before our eyes.
I’m not talking about a change to the story or characters—just the format. Originally, I chose to publish each story following The Traveler in a serial format. If you remember, that story was as a one-off writing experiment for the site launch. Then I was encouraged by your feedback and the idea grew.
As I moved deeper into the narrative, I could feel the pull of change. Each successive story has ballooned the number of scenes and amount of story I want to tell. The upcoming story, The Addict, follows three plot lines. None of them resolve in that story.
The Addict moves the narrative forward, but doesn’t stand on its own like the first three. You require the context of the earlier stories to make sense of it.
When I spotted the divergence in an early draft, I faced two choices: embrace the pull of change, or re-think the story so it respected the periodical format and stood on its own.
I’ve decided to embrace change.
The result for you, my earliest readers, is a chance to watch the whole thing evolve from a series of periodicals into a more traditional chapter-based fiction.
What does that mean?
In the short term, nothing. I’ll publish the conclusion in three chunks as originally planned. After the entire story is out, I’ll compile each scene from the six stories into a single volume, and edit them into chapters. Then… who knows.
I’m leaning towards self-publishing an ePub.
It fascinates me how this experimental story has evolved from a single short into a series, and now chapter-based fiction. When this site launched in April, I talked about working on “my first novel”.
This isn’t what I had in mind earlier in the year, but I can’t say I’m disappointed. Instead of a place where I could curate my best writing, this website has become a running dialogue with myself (and you) about how I’m writing.
I hope it’s a interesting read.
Serious edits for The Addict begin at the end of this week. I can’t wait to see how it forms up, and for you to read it. This week, as I contemplated my own story’s payoff, I got to enjoy another story’s payoff.
Without revealing any spoilers from an excellent season finale, I want to talk about The Mandalorian.
I love Star Wars. I’ve absorbed everything I can: movies, cartoons, and novels. The Disney acquisition had me suspicious about the future of the franchise. But they’ve found success wherever they have expanded the universe.
Dave Filoni has been at the heart of that expansion. Two of his animated series—The Clone Wars and Rebels—are wonderful. He dared to create his own unique characters in the universe, most notably a padawan learner (Ahsoka Tano) and clone captain (Captain Rex) for Anakin Skywalker.
Earlier in the year Filoni treated us to his devastating and emotional conclusion of The Clone Wars. His final season for Rebels was equally charged with emotion. His characters were at the center of both endings.
Partnered with John Favreau, Filoni added to that extraordinary cast of expansion characters in The Mandalorian. And true to form, characters were again the heart of the show’s payoff.
Over two seasons we’ve witnessed the principal—Din Djarin—grow from a ruthless bounty hunter who follows a strict code, into a selfless warrior charged with a quest. The writers use repetition over a collection of side-quests along the journey to reinforce Djarin’s rules.
The show takes its time.
Without spoiling details, Djarin starts to bend, then ultimately break his code. The how and why drive the main story. The result is a wonderful character drama that transcends Star Wars storytelling, yet maintains the charm of a story set in universe.
The payoff is emotional. If you write a character defined by rules, they’re most interesting when they break them. You have to be careful with the details, and ensure they’re true to their character. Favreau and Filoni use basic emotions—love, fear, and anger—to establish Djarin’s break from the code they painstakingly built.
It’s classic narrative misdirection. Build a character slowly. Allow your audience time to understand and think like them. Then use common emotions we all feel and understand to change the character. Now your audience shares the characters emotion, conflict, and triumph.
The Mandalorian is a simple story executed extremely well. There are other characters, each with their own arcs. But the series pays off because you follow the Hero’s arc, and experience their emotional journey alongside them.
I’ve learned a lot about storytelling from the series. Even if you’re not a fan of Star Wars, it’s an easy one to enjoy.
Speaking of emotion, my intended post for last week was a eulogy. As I wrote, it became too personal to publish.
I said goodbye to my grandmother last week. It was a rough experience, made harder by the distance imposed by the current pandemic. Thank goodness for modern technology, which made live-streaming accessible to my grieving family back east. It wasn’t the same, but it was a small comfort to see and hear my family as they grieved.
Flank steak is challenging to prepare. It’s a lean cut of beef, which made it perfect for the Architect’s birthday dinner. Like many of us during the pandemic, she’s paying attention to what she eats and how many calories.
The boys and I wanted her meal to be special, which meant stress-free, which meant it should be low calorie. I took cues from my sister-in-law, who provided recipes that she’s enjoyed (and prepared) herself.
Her advice on the flank steak was straightforward:
“Grill on high heat for 3-5 minutes per side. And be sure to let it rest, before you slice it.”
This was my first time cooking flank steak, but it turned out well enough… according to the birthday girl.
Flank steak requires 10-15 minutes rest after being cooked. If you slice it too soon, the meat will dry out and you’ll ruin an otherwise nice piece of meat. To rest, place it in a dish and cover with foil right after you take it off the grill. Then leave it alone.
In On Writing Stephen King talks about his writing process, and the importance of leaving a story alone after you first draft it. King moves directly to another story, placing the one he just finished in a drawer for several weeks.
He recommends a writer give themselves time to forget a story, so they can return to it with a fresh perspective. Just like flank steak, a new story needs time to rest.
On Writing helped me develop my own process for writing and editing. A lot of books on writing techniques focus on getting started, and maintaining rhythm. In contrast, King’s book focused on maturing a story through iteration.
The cadence I used to write the The Traveler series kept his advice in mind. I could draft a story, then return to edit the prior one. It was a good plan, in theory.
I hit a snag once I finished the draft for the fourth story. My plan for the fifth story veered away from the main narrative. That meant the story that followed the fourth chronologically was the sixth story. I would need continuity between them. However, the fifth story would also inform the sixth story.
The result was a dependency between all three. I would have to draft them together, before I could refine any of the stories further.
Now that I’ve finished drafts of all three—over 12,000 words—I need to give the story a rest. I’ll start to edit the fourth in a few weeks, with hopes to publish it by the start of the new year.
In the meantime, I plan to work more on Nebula Squad and finish the behind-the-scenes for The Banker.
I’ve also started to doodle.
A lot of what I read online is about how to “use the time”, or project ideas for those who find themselves bored. Remote learning, and a house full of people ready to strangle each other is hardly boring, but I appreciate the ideas for creative outlets.
The Surface lets me use a stylus to draw directly into Aseprite. The app itself is straightforward. I enjoy using it because its only for pixel art. Pixelmator, Sketch, and Photoshop all do a lot more, but fall short where Aseprite shines.
Right now I’m focused on learning the basics: shapes, shading, and dithering. Eventually I want to put some of this into a game. I have an idea for a story (of course), built on classic arcade titles like Missile Command, Defender, and Asteroids.
It’s fun, and it keeps my mind sharp. I can pick it up whenever I have a few spare minutes.
It was a hard week. A lot came crashing down on me at once. Not anything specific that happened this week, but everything about this week. Thanksgiving week.
This was not the first Thanksgiving I spent away from family. We moved to California in 2016, so this was actually the fifth. Before the recent rise in cases, we had plans to drive cross country. Spend several weeks back east with family and old friends.
Words that seem foreign after this awful, unpredictable year. Then moments after we canceled our trip, I was reminded why I should be thankful.
Both of my boys have “their playlist” where they collect favorite tunes. This makes car trips easier. They also fill our home, as the boys discover how many devices in the house can play their music.
I’m proud that both of them have an eclectic taste that spans genres and generations. Music matters to them. It motivates them, and inspires their creativity.
It was my youngest son and his ferocious appetite for new music that gifted this story.
Like many his age, he lives on his iPad. He plays games and watches his fair share of YouTube, but iPad is also his canvas. And his jukebox.
I watched with envy as he searched music and related artists on Apple Music. Impressed with how quickly he figured out he could add anything to his playlist with a long-press.
Sidebar, so I can talk a little about how cool I am. My boy was transfixed by the full-screen player in Apple Music. “It looks so cool, Dad. I like how it takes over the whole screen.”
At the beginning of the year, the Music team needed some help getting their iPad update ready in time for WWDC. Our software releases were massive this year. All hands on deck kind of effort. So when Music needed help, our program office was desperate enough to let a manager take a few weeks sabbatical to help.
People ask what it’s like to work at Apple. Nine months after I split myself in half, I watched my son discover music using software I helped to write.
As great as it made me feel, that isn’t why I’m telling you the story. The moment I want to tell you about happened as we were talking about Coldplay.
Yes, Coldplay. Some people like them, some don’t. I love them… and so does my youngest son. I know their catalog by heart. I couldn’t help but sing along as he cued track after track. He wanted to sing too, so he tapped the Lyrics button.
We sang. We danced. It was the kind of moment every parent dreams they’ll share with their children. Music matters to us. It motivates us, and inspires our creativity.
Then one of my favorites came on:
“And I could write a book. The one they’ll say that shook. The world and then it took. It took it back from me.”
Swallowed in the Sea isn’t the kind of song he’d pick by the sound of it. It was the lyrics that grabbed his attention.
I watched and smiled as the world opened up before his eyes, and made just a little more sense to him.
This week was harder on me than it has been over the past five years. There were also moments of joy. Memories, like this story, which remind me things are going to be okay.
Fortunate for you, my dear readers, I was creatively productive during the week. On Saturday, I finished drafting the final story in The Traveler series. It’s a bit of a beast, north of 6,000 words. We’ll see how much survives in edit.
The Architect always complains that I prattle and don’t get to the point fast enough. So here it is: earlier this week I bought an M1-powered MacBook Air with my own money. I’ve had the rare luxury of debating this decision for months.
All told, it wasn’t a hard one.
I’m responsible for a team that ships software for the Mac. As a Software Engineering Manager at Apple, I’m also responsible for reporting software issues and ensuring they get fixed.
This makes it particularly difficult to leave work behind. If I discover a bug while writing this letter, I need to stop and file it.
The Mac is work.
My father once told me that he could never work at a bakery. He had a roommate who was a baker. Every day after work that roommate would bring a box of fresh donuts home with him.
I thought it’d be awesome to work at a bakery. But my father explained why he didn’t. His roommate hated donuts. He saw them every day. Baked them, sold them, smelled like them, and got them on his clothes.
My Dad’s message was that too much of a good thing isn’t great. You lose your taste for something when it’s no longer rare. Over the years, that lesson evolved.
Anything fun can feel like work, if it’s your job.
Some people don’t understand why I want to spend more time at a computer after spending my entire day in front of one. It is strange, I’ll admit. Many people enjoy watching television, or solving Sudoku puzzles in the evenings to unwind.
I enjoy writing and programming.
Since doing those on a Mac carries the chance I get drawn into work, I get an urge to try something new every so often. A desire for a computer that has nothing to do with work.
It’s no secret I enjoy using an iPad full-time. I’ve used one exclusively for months on end, including last year when I programmed multiple playgrounds for a WWDC20 challenge.
The iPad Pro is a versatile computer, which promotes focus and clarity. The iPad easily goes wherever you do, from the office to your living room and couch. However, when I was using the iPad to write or program, I preferred to use it at a desk where the flexibility and small screen become a liability.
And the iPad Pro carries all of the work concerns of the Mac. If I find a bug, I need to file it. Work email, texts, and Slack are all there, too.
The biggest draw of the iPad is that I could rely on the same software to think, mainly Ulysses and Things.
My curiosity got the better of me after reading reviews of the Surface Duo. I’m intrigued by folding computers, and everything I read about the Duo said it was well made.
Well made computers are why I’ve relied Macs and iPhones for so long. And while I believe Apple makes the best hardware, I’m not enough of a zealot to presume they’re the only company that can make good hardware. I own multiple Kindles and a Nintendo Switch, after all.
That said, the quality of the Surface Duo defies belief. It is so good, I started looking at other Microsoft Surface products. When Microsoft announced the affordably-priced, but unfortunately named, Surface Laptop Go I took a chance.
Again, the quality of the Microsoft hardware exceeded my expectations. Its dimensions were comparable to the 12” MacBook, paired with a good keyboard and better-than-expected trackpad. As a bonus, Windows comes with a Linux sub-system that’s easy to install. Also Windows Terminal, which is a dream to configure and use.
Using the Terminal application, I built and installed the Swift toolchain. After dusting off some of my Unix skills, I had a familiar programming environment in VIM and a fast capable browser in Microsoft Edge.
Sure, I missed key applications like Things and Ulysses which are only available on the Mac, but I was able to find decent alternatives. I wrote a few articles on the Surface Laptop Go. Even started building my own writing tools in Swift.
It felt like going on a vacation each time I powered it.
The Microsoft Surface experiment made me curious to try other computers. The next one started as I was reading an article about Android development. It turns out you can develop for Android on ChromeOS.
My first (and only) experience with ChromeOS was the original Pixelbook that I got as a freebie for attending Google I/O in 2014. At the time, ChromeOS was limited only to browser tabs. No local file access, no offline apps, and no Linux.
I had heard from others that ChromeOS could dual-boot into Linux, but after reading more I discovered a modern Chromebook could open Linux terminals alongside browser tabs. Intrigued, I looked more into them.
Like most people, I assumed Chromebooks were all cheap machines. Then I read this guide from the Verge. In that article Dieter Bohn links to his full review of the (also unfortunately named) Google Pixelbook Go.
I mentioned in our first look at the Go that I needed to make sure I didn’t get too excited about the keyboard without further testing. Now that I have, I can just say that I love it. It is my favorite thing to type on by a long shot.
Woah. (emphasis added)
I have two vices: bags and keyboards. After reading that review, I had to try it out.
If the Surface Laptop Go surprised me, I was astonished by the Pixelbook Go. The keyboard lived up to the hype. Battery life is insane. With average evening use around 2-3 hours, I only needed to charge the Pixelbook Go once a week.
Like the Surface Laptop Go, I used a Linux terminal to run the Swift compiler and familiar VIM editor. I even dusted off my tmux chops to get a proper multi-window environment.
While Chrome can be a pig on a Mac, it sings on the Chromebook as you would expect. Paired with the linux environment, I had a very fast, fluid laptop with everything I needed for my evening adventures. I even used the Android version of iA Writer for writing.
As with the Surface Laptop, I splurged for the $850 mid-tier model. Cheaper than the MacBook Air, but not by much.
Experimenting with both has felt like a vacation, during a year where it was impossible to take a real one. Both machines are excellent hardware with good battery life, very good keyboards, and great screens. Apple isn’t the only company that can make good hardware.
But I missed the software.
Some of what I missed were great apps critical to my thought process like Ulysses and Things. While on my writing vacation, I took the Surface Laptop Go. When it came time to write I used my iPad instead, so I could do it in Ulysses.
I also missed smaller details, like typography. Microsoft’s ClearType anti-aliasing makes a mess of most typefaces on anything short of 4K resolution. Google doesn’t license professional typefaces, preferring those with a liberal use license. I missed SF Mono.
Most of all, I missed key-mappings. Cut/Copy/Paste are thumb-x, thumb-c, and thumb-v respectively. If I want to advance the cursor to the beginning or end of the line, that’s thumb-<left> or thumb-<right>.
Re-mapping keys on Windows is do-it-at-your-own-risk, and involves editing the registry. Gross. Google offers a preference in settings, and I was able to remap the search key to something close to the command-modifier on macOS.
Keyboard muscle memory makes for a frustrating sometimes experience, though.
I have a co-worker who likes to experiment as well. We have a standing meeting every few weeks and spend time talking about our flirtations with “the other side”.
He’s the one who likened them to a vacation. I really liked that notion, so I stole it. The same friend had another phrase, which I came to appreciate after a few months using other computers.
The Mac is home.
Microsoft and Google impressed me with their computers. Both were better than expected, and that gives me hope. Yes, really. Hope.
Competition is good for everyone. Both computers I tested are comparable to the MacBook Air.
… or I should say they were until last week.
I’m very excited for the M1, and the computer I will call home in the evenings. I’m proud of my colleagues who worked so hard to bring these new Macs to life.
Sorry Dad, you were wrong. Working at the bakery is awesome, and I still love donuts.
Swift Playgrounds with a Magic Keyboard is quite an experience. ↩︎
A brief sidebar on the Surface Duo. It is an excellent device for reading. Better than a Kindle level of excellent. While I would never recommend a $1200 device just for reading, if you bought it for other reasons, you have the best e-reader money can buy. ↩︎
There was an urge to write an EPUB previewer that would take advantage of the Surface Duo’s dual screen configuration. I eventually discovered Google Books as a plausible alternative, after getting past a few bugs. Like the fact that Google Books wouldn’t open EPUBs exported from Ulysses if I forgot to set an author in the metadata. ↩︎
The week was a productive one for writing. I now understand how The Traveler stories will end, even though I still have a few touches left to make on the final installment.
As I closed out the story, I asked myself: How has the story changed since I started writing it?
In most ways, the series has turned out as expected. But as I read the drafts of the last two stories, I became concerned that different character might emerge, unexpectedly, as the hero.
Consider the Star Wars trilogy. Everyone thinks of Luke, Princess Leia, Hans Solo, and Chewbacca are the heroes. However, as the story wound towards the penultimate battle between good and evil, it’s the story’s villain—Darth Vader—who makes the sacrifice that saves the day.
Who is the real hero of that story?
I faced a similar dilemma as I wrote my final pages. From my earliest notes, I knew who I wanted to be the hero. But would that character be in the right place during the climatic scenes? And what would that character do to elevate themselves in the eyes of the reader?
Throughout writing The Traveler series, I’ve gone where the characters and their actions led me. Like any author, I favor certain characters. Often it’s the characters I associate with get more prominence in the story. It’s easier to write them.
This unconscious bias is part of who I am. And as a result, it’s part of what I write. I knew who I wanted to be the hero, but it wasn’t always how I wrote the story.
“Write what you know” is common advice I’ve heard from friends who write. I try to be mindful of this whenever I consider a new story. I’m also cautious with it.
The world has enough protagonists who look like me, talk like me, and have a similar background. As a writer, I want to challenge myself. Write about those who are unlike me. Use my writing to explore the world around me, and seek to experience it from different perspectives. Unconscious bias can be a roadblock for in this pursuit.
For the final installment, I want a satisfying conclusion to the story. The first two of the three as-yet-to-be-released stories have plenty of reveals, character development, and world building.
For the final story, I’ve set out to write an action movie. Fast paced, with small twists, and enough suspense to leave you hanging on each word.
I only hope the right hero emerges.
Writing has been cathartic. It’s given me an outlet to express my frustration and focus my concern about what happens around me.
Our bias is everywhere, and we can spot it if we’re honest with ourselves. On the eve of this tumultuous election, it’s too easy to label those who disagree with us as “others”.
My country, and the world at large, has become more polarized. It’s easy to blame a single person or even a group of people, but the real issue is within each of us. We all have the opportunity to be a positive, unifying force in our community and country.
We all have the opportunity to be heroes of this story—not just the two guys running for President.
Foremost, if you’re in the U.S. and haven’t already, I hope you vote. Then as you settle in this evening to watch the results, think about how you can be a unifier.
As I alluded in last week’s letter, I took the week off. Not because I had a trip planned or family was visiting from out-of-town. Nope, this was nothing more than much needed time away from work.
During the week, my family was generous enough to let me take some time away from them to focus on writing. It might sound like work, but I treat writing as structured relaxation.
Writing fiction gives me a place to channel frustration and allow the left side of my brain to switch off.
This isn’t the first writing vacation I’ve taken. Last year, about the same time, I took a three-day trip south to Salinas. It was during that trip where I wrote a page in my writing journal that would become The Traveler. Seemed only fitting to devote this year’s writing vacation to completing the series.
And I came close to finishing. Two of the three remaining planned stories were written this past week.
I’m really happy with how they’ve come together. The plot in these last three represent several of the core ideas of the series, and appeared in the very first outlines. I would share my first journal entry with the concept, but it would ruin the story.
It also feels good to complete a story that I’ve started. When I began writing fiction a few years ago, my first (and foremost) goal was to finish.
I’m not done yet—and don’t want to jinx myself—but this most recent writing vacation gave me the momentum I needed to get there.
So things are back on track after my break last month. I’m focused this week on the final story, and—if I can—finish the behind-the-scenes post for The Banker.
That’s a lot of writing (for me), but I’m on a roll.
Folks who know me, are aware how much I enjoy the West Wing. Josiah Barlett has one of my favorite character introductions, which occurs towards the end of the pilot episode.
During that intro he has a line, which starts “Breaks are good—I know how hard each of you work…”
The line sticks with me, and no matter how many times I’ll watch the episode, it never fails to trigger emotion.
I’ve had sort of a break from writing on this site and this letter. Not that I stopped writing altogether—far from it. I just finished review season at work, and I’m still making steady progress on The Traveler series.
There is a rhythm to writing. As long as I’ve tried to write more seriously, I’ve been mindful of its impact. When you’re in rhythm, the words seem to flow with ease and it can be too easy to forget how you struggled in the beginning.
That is, until you fall out of rhythm. Instead of slowing to a trickle, it feels like the bottom falls out and you hit a wall.
I’ve battled falling in and out of rhythm for as long as I’ve written. Most of what I’ve read online stresses the importance of developing “a writing habit”. The advice reduces to something along the lines of “do it over and over”. Apparently writing is easy once you develop a habit.
I’ve tried. Give myself deadlines. Talk about writing goals with others for accountability. I even tried the common tricks. 50,000 words in November or write everyday for a month. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get clear of the inevitable.
Eventually, I would fall out of rhythm.
Let’s have a sidebar about distractions. Writing is something I enjoy, but it isn’t the only thing I enjoy. And like any hobbyist, I struggle to find time for all of the things I find interesting.
“Focus, Rob”. It’s okay, I know you were thinking it even if you didn’t just say it out loud. To be fair, it is certainly part of the problem.
Not because I lack focus, but because of when I lack focus. Helping others focus is a regular part of my day job. When I get to my final hours of the day—the two or three which I can devote to my hobbies—I struggle to find the discipline to focus.
Worse even, the part of my brain that tells me to focus turns an enjoyable task like writing into something I have to do. Which makes writing as enjoyable as the last mile of a marathon.
I’m never happy with what I write in those moments.
Building a habit by rote repetition doesn’t yield the result I’m after, which is to write better. That requires motivation and a brain which isn’t addled by exhaustion.
So when the pressure from work ramped, I took a break. It wasn’t intentional, and it went for longer than I anticipated.
My secret to maintaining motivation? Breaks are good.
Breaks aren’t a problem. For me, they’re a fact of my ongoing attempt to write more seriously. And to keep going, I had to allow myself to be okay with taking breaks.
To go on sidebars. Be tired. Be motivated. To take a cheat day. All of these are okay…
… as long as I start-up again. Pick myself up and keep writing.
After acknowledging his staff’s need to take a break, President Bartlett rallies them together with a simple phrase.
Speaking of breaks, I’m taking one from work all this week. No promises, but I’m planning to make a big push on The Traveler series, including a behind-the-scenes post for The Banker.
Some weeks work against you, and this past week worked me over. It’s an excuse and I’m offering it as one. Fact is, I didn’t make it four weeks before I missed one of these letters. No excuses.
After I missed writing over the weekend, I planned to take the week off. I said “I’ll do it next week”, and gave myself permission to take a cheat week.
… and then I decided against it. I have something to say to my fellow middle-aged, white nerds.
A friend shared a hilarious TikTok video, which they found on Twitter. Go watch it, if you haven’t already. I laughed out loud. Actually laughed. Out loud.
Then I shared it with friends and family. And because it’s Twitter, someone else shared the inevitable reply. There’s always a reply.
And it was, of course, from a middle-aged, white nerd.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been—once again—reminded that I talk too much. I talk, when I should be listening. And when I do listen, I talk before I’ve heard what was said.
I hate this about myself. I want to stop. I try to stop. But I don’t.
This video has been around for years. I’ve watched it over and over. I’ve read think pieces that attempt to explain, so I have an idea of what I should understand from it. But if I’m truthful, I don’t understand it. And that bothers me, I want to understand.
All too often I’ll respond to someone by attempting to figure out or fix their problem. I want to help people, even feel compelled to do it. But not everyone talking about their problems is asking for help. Nor are they necessarily looking for me to solve their issue.
I see the problem before the person.
In principle, I understand how to be a better listener. And yet, I still suck at it.
When I watch this reply to the funny TikTok video, I see myself. It reduces a funny, lighthearted video to another person with a problem to solve.
Fellow middle-aged, white dudes—for fuck’s sake—take a breath, don’t rush to explain.
Always a great feeling when I get to publish a new story. I hope everyone enjoyed The Banker. I’m already working on the behind-the-scenes post where I discuss characters, and how I use technology. Look for that later this week.
Like the prior two stories, I found new characters during my first draft. I’m starting to get used to their sudden appearance. A strange feeling, but it encourages me to continue writing. How else am I gonna know how the story ends?
When I told this to a friend, they remarked “You’re watching a movie that you’re making.” It made me think.
Working from home, combined with remote learning has left my family feeling cramped in our quaint California home. If you’ve ever met me in person, you know that I’m loud. And as a manager, I spend the majority of my day in meetings. Talking. Loudly.
A noisy train station would be a less distracting learning environment for my boys.
To make it easier for everyone, the Architect built-out a new space for me to work. She started with an existing detached shed in our backyard. There’s two things you should know about her: (a) she is quite good at what she does, and (b) this is the second time she’s built an office for me. Her final result is a space made for thinking.
I love it.
After months of working on cramped laptop and iPad screens, I finally had room for my 34” cinema-wide display. It’s mounted to a spacious sit/stand worktop, which lets me spread out. Driving the display is a desktop Mac I received just before quarantine.
I love the iPad and work full time from it on many days. But every time I use a Mac connected to a huge-ass display, I feel as though I’ve been thinking in pants two sizes too small.
The majority of my day job still involves the iPad. But since moving to the shed, I’ve done most of my writing on the Mac. This runs counter to the growing opinion that the iPad is the ideal writing machine because it removes distraction.
This conceit assumes the iPad’s single-tasking model leads to more focus. And focus is good for writing. You need to immerse yourself in thought in order to write. Or so goes the reasoning.
So why have I preferred the Mac?
As you can imagine, I’ve given this question much consideration. My working theory is this: Deep thinking requires more than focus, it demands space.
This is a screenshot of my Mac while I was editing The Banker. The center black window is my Ulysses editor for the story—the manuscript window, if you will. To the right is the preview window from Ulysses with a custom theme that matches this site’s design.
Having the preview render differently than my editor is an important part of my writing workflow. Especially when editing. A spelling mistake or word choice that gets lost in a text editor can become apparent when previewed.
To the left are my outline windows. The first is another Ulysses window with a numbered list of plot items. The bottom-most window is Things where I collect all of my thoughts (more on that in a bit).
I replicate this layout for each open writing project. Above you see spaces for this post, the aforementioned behind-the-scenes post, and the next story I’m writing. A three-finger swipe on my Magic Trackpad takes me from one project to the next.
From these previews, I can also see which projects needs work. The yellow bands in the editor window are notes for each section or scene in that project. When there is a lot of yellow bunched together, it tells me where the manuscript is incomplete.
Every story starts with a quick two or three sentence synopsis that I capture in Things. Below was the initial synopsis for The Banker.
This is my initial capture of the idea. For stories, I expand this synopsis on paper and eventually in a Ulysses sheet that sits in that window on the left. Here I convert the synopsis into events that set the plot. Thinking about plot moments at a high level lets me hone the characters’ movement within the story.
I want to ensure the actions of my characters drive the plot—not the reverse. Once settled, this list gets converted into notes which I embed into my manuscript using %% tags in Ulysses.
As you can see, the Mac fills my peripheral vision with a complete picture of the project. From outline to final proof, I can visualize the story at a glance. And I can layer information on top of this as needed.
Safari windows for research. Photos. Even the text editor I needed to update my site’s CSS, so I could properly handle the images in this post. I did all of it in a single space.
This entire workflow is dedicated to a single task: writing. But this task requires multiple windows from multiple apps.
All of this (and more) is why I prefer the Mac for writing. But this is not an indictment of the iPad, nor is it a slight against it. Given that my 34” display is not portable, I have to consider an amended workflow when I travel away from my desk.
If I consider advantages, the Mac loses its edge when compared to an iPad in a portable setting. Even on the largest MacBooks, there’s too much overlap between windows to use my desired three-up Ulysses layout. And once I pare down to a two-window setup, I’m well within the sweet spot of the iPad.
Hard pressed, I can make do with an iPad and a paper notebook because every app mentioned exists on both iPad and Mac. They also work well on both platforms.
But when I really need room to think, there’s no better place than my desktop Mac connected to a huge-ass display.
People often ask why I call her the Architect. She is, in fact, an architect by training and profession. But also by affliction. Her mind is constantly working. ↩︎
My team recently released our product on the Mac. ↩︎
Someone will ask: “Why not a laptop connected to the huge-ass display?” In theory they work the same. Except when you consider I’m dumping the current state of my brain into these spaces. The window shuffle and resizing that happens when disconnecting from an external display is devastating. This simply doesn’t occur on a desktop that never leaves its primary display. ↩︎
A muffled scream cried out from Gertrude’s apartment. She shifted a basket in her arms, and thumbed the door open.
“I can’t see!”
The man she recovered from the alley was on the floor, writhing in pain. It was the fourth day he awoke panicked since she brought him into her home.
Gonna need a heavier sedative.
Gertrude fiddled with the controls on his med-cuff, then strapped him back into a chair.
“Sshhh. Easy. Give your brain a moment to catch-up.”
“Who are you? Where have you taken me?”
“You’re at my apartment, remember? I rescued you from the alley.”
“The alley? What are you talking about? Why can’t I move?”
The frightened man struggled under the restraints as Gertrude tightened them. His face twitched a few times before the sedative kicked in.
Now that he wasn’t going anywhere, Gertrude looked back to the door where she dropped her clothes basket. The contents were strewn about the entry.
Gertrude glanced back at the barely conscious man spread across her lounge chair.
“First time I’ve done laundry in two months. I sure hope you appreciate this.”
The stranger mumbled something back, just before he fell asleep.
“Have to get away…”
Gertrude grabbed a towel from the pile on the floor. She rinsed it with cold water, and dabbed his brow.
“Easy, partner. You’re safe here.”
“Where did the body land?”
A patrol hover-car was parked at one end of Franklin’s alley. The taller of the two officers asked the questions.
“Land? ’ell, I didn’t see no fall. Heard it, you get me? I look o’er dare and see’em. Layin’ on da street and not’a movin’.”
“If the body wasn’t moving, why isn’t it there anymore?”
Franklin appeared distracted by the cloaked man behind them, standing by the car.
“Huh? Oh, yah. I donna know, suit. He wa’ dare, then he ain’t.”
“Did you approach the body?”
“Did I... Ah ’course I did. He fell ou’ da sky.”
The two officers went silent. They stared at each other, then back down at Franklin.
“Da sky. Y’know, he a flyer. Rich bossa’s live up dare—”
Franklin paused to point towards the sky.
After a moment, he sighed.
“He ’ave cred, if he a flyer. I check for cred. But no cred on ’dis bossa. No. Fan-cy plush thread, but no cred in he pockets. No I–D neither.”
“So a man fell from the sky. Crashed into the street over there. You picked his pockets, no credits, and no ID... and then you left?”
“Welcome to the ground, suit. Grounders no interested ’less we see cred.”
Again the officers looked at each other. This time the shorter officer spoke.
“Okay, thank you for your time... mister?”
“Franklin, suit. Ma friends, day caw me Franklin.”
“And you live nearby here if we need to find you?”
“Man suit, I donna live anywhere, but right here. Here where you fine me.”
The officers stepped away and the shorter one called in the incident on their communicator. Neither appeared concerned about the fall, or the disappearance of the body.
Nor should they. Franklin had witnessed hundreds of similar suicides. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to jump. But usually they had enough credits to make it worthwhile.
Before the officers made it back to their vehicle, the man in a dark cloak approached Franklin.
“You said the body hit the ground over there?”
He pointed in the vicinity that Franklin identified earlier.
“Ya, suit. Dat’s what I said.”
The man reached into his cloak.
“Oh, right. Pardon me for not introducing myself. I’m not a police officer.”
The man waved his communicator over Franklin’s wrist.
“I’m Agent Stamford… from NeroCorp.”
“I donna talk to altar boys.”
“Please, Franklin. I can make it worth your while.”
Stamford produced a roll of paper credits. Enough to finance several fine evenings for Franklin and his cohort.
Franklin stared at the wad, then reluctantly grabbed it from the Agent’s hand.
“Ya man, dat’s where the body fell.”
“Curious. I don’t see any markings on the road… or indentation where the road broke his fall.”
The street crunched underneath Stamford’s shoes as he walked toward the spot.
Franklin watched the man, but didn’t wheel his chair over to follow him.
“Dat’s ’cause it hit a few tings on da way down.”
“I thought you said you didn’t see the body fall?”
Franklin was looking back towards the garage of Gertrude’s building. He snapped.
“I told you I ’eard it. Didn’t make a smashin’ bang when he hit. ’was softer, like a bump. I ’ear allot. Bodies fall all a’time. Sad ting.”
Franklin was still looking at the garage as the Agent walked back towards him.
The Agent followed Franklin’s stare.
“’Ere, take dis back. I don wanna your cred.”
The Agent smiled, then pushed Franklin’s hands—and the money—back into his lap.
“Keep it, Franklin. You’ve been very helpful.”
The man from the alley didn’t wake up again for a few days. When he finally came around, his eyesight had returned.
“What is that?”
The stranger look confused as he stared down at his right arm.
“Oh, that’s my med-cuff. Probably used to something a little fancier. It’s all I can afford.”
Gertrude was in her kitchen, attempting to cook.
The man tried to sit up, so his left arm could grab the cuff. Instead he groaned.
Gertrude set down the spatula next to a pan of crackling grease, then looked back towards her guest.
“Take it slow, mister. You had a nasty fall. Should’ve killed you, I reckon…”
“Fall? Is that why I can’t move?”
“Probably. It crushed most of your bones. Do you remember anything about it?”
The man shook his head.
“I’m having trouble remembering anything.”
“That could be the neuron in inhibitor I mixed with your sedative.”
Alarm shot across the man’s face.
“You… drugged me?!”
The man started to struggle more, reaching towards the cuff. His alarm turned to anger.
“TAKE THIS THING OFF OF ME!”
Gertrude took a step back and reached for a nearby kitchen knife.
“Listen, stranger. That thing is regrowing your bones. You wouldn’t get very far if I took it off.”
The stranger let out a gasp of breath. But he stopped struggling.
“... I drugged you to ease the pain. You’ve had a rough couple of days.”
The man unclenched his fist.
“I’m sorry,” then he let go of the air in his chest.
“This is a lot to take in. You can put that down… I’m sorry I snapped.”
He looked towards his right arm, again confused.
“Did you say this is regrowing my bones? I… what?”
Gertrude returned a curious stare.
“You act like you’ve never seen a med-cuff before.”
“Never heard of one that could regrow bones.”
He must really be messed up.
Gertrude was about to ask another question, when the man’s face turned grim.
“What happened to me?”
Gertrude rinsed another towel and placed it on his brow. The man touched her arm softly.
He looked scared.
“I was kind of hoping you could fill in some of those details. But you’re still in shock, and the drugs aren’t gonna do much for your memory. What I do know is that you fell quite a ways. I figure close to a hundred stories.”
“A hundred… stories?”
“Yup. Much more and you would certainly be dead… instead it just crushed a lot of your body.”
The strangers’s eyes widened. He looked confused, like she told him he had fallen from the moon.
“How did you find me?”
“Well, you kind of found me when you hit the hood of my car. It broke your fall… and is part of the reason you survived, I figure.”
The man from the alley lowered his head.
“Thanks… I guess.”
He swallowed uncomfortably, like he had a bad taste in his mouth. Gertrude gestured towards the glass of water next his chair.
“The meds will dehydrate you.”
The stranger drank from the glass, still fixated on the med-cuff.
“This thing is regrowing my bones?”
“Well, it doesn’t eat them.”
He chuckled before he thought better of the sudden movement.
Gertrude smiled back as she dropped four semi-solid blocks into the grease.
“What is that? It smells good.”
“Protein supplement. My mom told us it almost takes like bacon, if you fry it just right.”
“Mmm. It’s been a while since I’ve had bacon.”
Gertrude gave the man a sideways glance. Something didn’t add up.
It’s been a while since anyone has had bacon.
Must be the meds messing with his mind.
Gertrude wheeled the man’s chair over to a small table where she had laid out two plates.
“I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten my manners. I…”
The man paused.
“… I guess I don’t remember my name either. I’m—”
“Your welcome, flyer. And my name is Gertrude. You’re welcome here for as long as you need to recover… As long as you behave yourself.”
The man smiled and nodded in return.
“Er, what did you call me? Flyer. Is that a joke about how we met?”
Gertrude huffed a laugh.
Well, at least he’s cute.
Hammersmith had never visited the 1215th floor.
It required exiting onto the 978th floor, then boarding an all-glass lift that ran along the outside of the building.
“Thank you, Agent Hammersmith. Mr. Trumble will be with you momentarily.”
The lobby outside of the office was also entirely glass. It gave an uneasy feeling one could walk right off the edge of the building into the abyss.
After a few moments, Mr. Trumble’s assistant granted Todd entry into a sparsely decorated office.
“Good morning, Mr. Trumble.”
“Please take a seat.”
Trumble was seated behind a simple desk, facing the windows with his back towards Hammersmith.
“It’s an honor to meet you, in person. Sir.”
The seated man didn’t move. He sat with his legs crossed, and made no effort to turn toward his visitor.
“Spare me, Agent Hammersmith. I’m aware of what my agents say about me behind my back.
“Crazy Trumble sits alone atop his glass tower. Never meets with anyone. Manages from afar. Nothing like his father, the visionary. The great pioneer of NeoCorp.”
“Sir, that’s not—”
Hammersmith cut himself off after he realized he was still standing.
The older man spun his chair halfway towards Todd.
“Please, Agent Hammersmith. Do take a seat. There’s no need to come to my defense. I know that it was my father who recruited you. He spoke very highly of your talent when I was a boy. Indeed, you’ve shown so much promise through the years.”
“Thank you, sir. That’s very flattering.”
“Yes, I imagine it is. But flattery is not why I summoned you.”
“Yes, sir. If I may… why did you call for me?”
Trumble response came after an uncomfortable pause.
“You’ve lost someone, Agent.”
Hammersmith waited to see what Trumble would say next. When he remained silent, Todd continued.
“Only moments ago I heard from Agent Stamford. He believes he’s narrowed down Mr. Michol’s location.”
“Indeed. Based on Agent Stamford’s report, I believe I can do a bit better. I know exactly where we’ll find Michols.”
Todd noticed a map display inside of Trumble’s desk. There was a building and floor with a location pin highlighted on it.
“That’s wonderful news, sir. If you could send me the location, I would be honored—”
“Did you know that my grandfather was an investment banker?”
Todd appeared confused at the sudden question.
“Yes. He managed several funds. Amassed quite a fortune for the time.”
Hammersmith thought it best not to interrupt him.
“My father, on the other hand.” Trumble smiled. “He took a different path.”
Trumble paused for effect, gazing out the window into the distance. His back once again to Todd.
“My father made his investments in people, Agent Hammersmith. And his accomplishment dwarfed my grandfather’s. There is nothing more valuable than a person’s potential, he used to say.”
Trumble paused, then wheeled around towards Todd.
“He was a charismatic man.”
The bearded man stood up and walked over to his desk. He pulled a record out of a stack, and slid it across towards Hammersmith.
“He used to quote scripture: Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. Helped others see the beauty of our mission: To help our members find a new path.”
Trumble motioned for Todd to open the record.
“Our members mean everything to us. Agent Hammersmith, they must trust us, so we can protect them.”
Todd opened the file, and his eyes grew wide. He stared again at the pinned location on the map, and matched it to the address in the file.
“If we cannot protect one member, then none of them will trust us.”
“I understand, Mr. Trumble.”
“In 52 years, this organization has never suffered a Code 57. Go to the address. Retrieve Mr. Michols at all costs, but most importantly, protect our members and their chosen path.”
“I will protect our members with my life, as I’ve sworn in my proclamation of faith.”
“Use caution, Agent. A Code 57 is not to be underestimated. Our work is very delicate. Prepare every contamination protocol, in case they’re needed.”
“Agent Hammersmith, my father always said you would become our very best agent. Don’t forget the second-chance he gave you.”
“Thank you, sir. I have not forgotten.”
“Do not disappoint his memory.”
“Okay, let’s start again from the top.”
Memories had started to come back. Gertrude was trying to piece together the fragments, but it didn’t make sense.
“I remember being chased.”
“Yeah. I don’t recall their faces. Dark coats. Skin had a weird shimmer to it. And they were fast.”
“Do you remember the room where you fell? Do you remember any buildings?”
The man from the alley frowned.
“This is gonna sound strange…”
Gertrude handed him another glass of water. He’d barely touched his breakfast. Now that he had his strength back, the food must be getting to him.
I said it might taste like bacon.
The man took a sip of the water as he choked down another bite of protein supplement.
“I was in a warehouse. And I was running toward a loading dock. Thought I could jump on one of the trucks leaving. And then…”
The man hesitated, looking frustrated.
“And then what?”
“Well, the floor sort of disappeared out from under me. And there wasn’t any road. I didn’t realize how high in the air I was until I started to fall.”
“Sounds like you were in a flyer facility.”
The man looked confused, again.
“I don’t understand.”
Gertrude eyed him for a moment, then attempted to explain.
“Well… the dark men in cloaks. You said their skin was shiny?”
“More or less. It wasn’t like yours or mine.”
“Well, flyers don’t get pockmarks in their skin like we do, because they live above the acid rain clouds. Also they’re rich, and many of them get their skin polished.”
“A visual reminder we’re not as well off.”
It looked like the man was hearing this for the first time.
What if he never remembers? Who will take care of him?
Gertrude waved off the thought.
“This will all come back to you in time. Your long term memories are still fuzzy. Probably why you still can’t remember your name.”
The man shrugged his shoulders
“Anyway, you were up high. The flyers live and work in the tallest floors of buildings. That’s why this loading dock was in the air.
“There are rumors, of course.”
“… of labs where flyers conduct human tests on grounders.”
Gertrude thought better of it. Might be too much for him to take.
“They’re only rumors.”
Gertrude’s communicator chimed. She forked the last bite from her plate, then glanced at the stranger’s.
“Take your time with that. I know it’s not very tasty, but it should help with your memory. I need to get to work.”
“Are you going to be long?”
“Until the afternoon, at least. I haven’t met my quota the past few days, and I’m gonna need the money now that I’m feeding two.”
The stranger blushed.
“Wait, that reminds me. Before you go…”
He attempted to stand-up. Gertrude rushed back towards the man, as he gingerly took a few steps towards the counter.
“How long have you been on your feet?”
“Just started. Figured now was as good a time as any.”
The man stumbled slightly, and grimaced.
Gertrude grabbed his arm, worried he would fall. The stranger wheeled around with a folded brown bag in his other hand.
“Just something for your ride.”
Gertrude started to protest, when the stranger insisted.
“You’ve been taking care of me for weeks. It was the least I could do.”
Gertrude ran her hand up the man’s arm, and smiled in thanks. She wasn’t used to others looking out for her.
“Thank you. Now, let’s get you back into your chair.”
As she pulled him in close, the man put his arms around Gertrude and squeezed. The unexpected warmth from the man caught her by surprise. As she set him back into the chair, their eyes met.
Certain the man was about to lean in and kiss her, Gertrude made an awkward sound in her throat.
The stranger gave an awkward smile and settled back into his chair. Gertrude took a moment to regain her composure.
“Don’t try any more of that walking until I’m back, okay? I don’t want to return to you screaming on the floor again.”
Gertrude grabbed her communicator off the table, and made towards the door.
His voice was soft.
“I think I just remembered my name.”
“My friends. They call me Thad.”
Gertrude’s smile loosened for a brief second, then curled back into place.
“Well alright, Thad. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
“I’ been looking for you.”
Franklin was waiting in the garage by Gertrude’s taxi—his face full of panic.
“He still dare?!”
“Is who still there?”
Franklin looked around, then lowered his voice. Gertrude leaned down towards him.
“You know who. Dat bossa who crashin’ to your taxi!”
“Oh. You mean Thad. That’s his name, he just—”
“Shh! Don’t go sayin’ he name.”
Gertrude had never seen Franklin this alarmed. His eyes kept shifting from side-to-side.
“Here. Take ’dis.”
Franklin handed her a giant roll of credits. Gertrude’s eyes went large. It was the most money she’d ever handled.
“You need to’go.”
“Go? Go where? Franklin where did you get all of this money?”
“Long story. I ’splain it to you ’nother time.”
“Franklin, you’re scaring me.”
“Gertrude, they are after a man. Da bossa you pulled from da street!”
“Who is after him?”
“Dark cloaks. Shiny, flyer bossa types. The workin’ wit da suits. Been swarming ’round here for weeks.”
A pit formed in Gertrude’s stomach as she glanced back in the direction of her apartment.
So Thad is being chased.
Gertrude was quiet as she tried to think. Where can we go?
She lifted her head, the beginning of a plan formed. She handed Franklin her communicator.
“Where you go?”
“If I said, you wouldn’t be safe. When the coast is clear, I’ll send you a message.”
She nodded toward the communicator.
“If they leave or things change, you let me know.”
“Any’ting for you, Gertrude.”
Gertrude eyed her taxi. They were gonna need a distraction, and her car can be tracked.
Since today is Labor Day in the US, I decided to take last Friday off from work. The four day weekend was much needed. It’s given me space to think, spend time with my family, and write. I worked on the polish edit of my third story in The Traveler series: The Banker, which should be out soon.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the transition between this story and the next one in the series. I’ve fleshed out the major plot events and Friday morning I began the first draft of a fourth story.
In both of these middle stories (née, second Act), I work to develop and shape the principal characters by introducing a pair of supporting characters. These two were on my mind as I watched the British series Sherlock with my oldest son this weekend.
Friday evening we started A Scandal in Belgravia, which is the first episode of the second season. As the episode started, I remarked to my son “This is my favorite episode of the entire series.” It contains the best character introduction of all time for one of the great supporting characters from the original stories.
Sherlock Holmes was a genius, matched in intellect by only two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters: Professor Moriarty and Irene Adler. These are the two characters whose intelligence and cunning Holmes respected as equal to his own.
According to them, the wily detective couldn’t have a love interest. It would violate his character. Instead Conan Doyle wrote Adler as someone that Holmes would admire.
Allow me a brief sidebar on pens, to illustrate the difference.
I’ve wasted a lot of time, and money, searching for the perfect pen. Expensive and cheap. Broad and fine widths. Fountain pens, loose ink, felt tips, and rollerballs. I can tell you about the different types of refills. Which flow better, which dry fast enough. I’m great at parties.
Let’s just say that I love pens. And saying that, you might be interested to know my favorite. My choice will disappoint you.
This is the pen I use the most because it is the one that writes the best for me. I know what you’re thinking: they’re made of cheap plastic, and disposable. Gross. Yeah, no one stops to admire this pen when I pull it out of my pocket.
Every “nice” pen I’ve purchased has been a gorgeous piece of art. I enjoy opening the box, feeling the weight and balance in my hands, and toying with the satisfying mechanisms. Then I would inevitably try to write with it.
I have a pet theory that fancy pens only exist so you feel awesome when you’re signing your name.
During any amount of long-form writing I’ve found the weight cumbersome. I’m sure I would get used to it over time. Reach a point where I don’t notice it as much. But then I would forget the pen on a trip or leave it on my desk at work. I’d have to fall back to my stock of trusty G2s and the whole damn process would reset.
Nope, the G2 is my pen. I admire nice pens as beautiful works of art. But I love writing with the Pilot G2.
Might seem silly to exhaust so many words on the difference between love and admiration. But it matters when talking about Irene Adler and how her character develops Sherlock Holmes.
A love interest is an obvious character to write. Love is a base emotion, complex and rich with tiny details that can add authenticity to your narrative. It’s an emotion you can expect your readers to have experienced. And it would be too easy to write Irene Adler as a sexual exploit—which is why nearly every adaptation does it. After all, what better way for your viewer to associate with a complicated character like Sherlock Holmes?
The only problem is that it wouldn’t ring true to Holmes’ actual character, as written by Conan Doyle. He wanted you to struggle with understanding Holmes. If Sherlock feels aloof and hard to predict, he is more believable as a tortured genius. Central to his character is the lack of emotion.
Irene Adler in the Sherlock series (as in the novels) is an object of desire for any man. Better still, Sherlock finds a match for his wit and intelligence. Sauce for the goose, as Mr. Spock would say.
Adler is the ultimate temptation. Conan Doyle doesn’t cheat either. Holmes sees her. Appreciates her as a beautiful piece of art, and desires her, just as the reader does. Holmes even refers to her as “the woman”. Not any woman—the woman.
Again, it would be easier for Sherlock to ignore her. It’s more powerful that he sees her like others, but doesn’t fall for her.
This is how Sherlock excels, when other adaptations fall short. Holmes desires Adler, but is not tempted by her. She articulates to viewers that nothing dissuades the detective from his addiction.
While neither of my supporting characters are as dramatic as Moriarty or Adler, I take inspiration from them and their adaptations. I can’t wait to share my characters with you and the backstory behind their creation.
Look for The Banker later this week.
Working title for the fourth story is The Addict. We’ll see if that sticks. ↩︎
I’m re-watching them, probably for the fourth or fifth time. This is my son’s first time. ↩︎
For the Sherlock nerds reading this, in the “The Five Orange Pips” Holmes says he has “been beaten four times—three times by men and once by a woman.” There is literary debate if Holmes meant Adler since A Scandal in Bohemia takes place after this story. ↩︎
Yes, 0.7mm. I know a lot who prefer an extra fine tip and spend gobs of money to import them from Japan. No thank you. I lightly glide my pen across the paper and hate nothing more than a broken stroke because the angle was too steep. I consider 0.7mm to be the minimum tolerable for a rollerball. ↩︎
Don’t ask how many bags that is, it’s embarrassing. ↩︎
My friend Daniel started writing a weekly newsletter back in March. The thought of a newsletter has never grabbed me, since I barely publish enough on this site as it is. However, I really enjoy Daniel’s process for writing his newsletter.
During the week Daniel thinks of a prompt (or theme) for the week. Then over the weekend, he sets a timer and writes for an hour. He’s often remarked how the result doesn’t always turn out how he thought when he started. It’s about where the writing takes him.
I like the discipline, but I’m still not crazy about the idea of a separate newsletter. Thus, The Sunday Letter is born.
Why Sunday you might ask? After all, I didn’t publish this until Monday. The reason is because Sunday is when I wrote it, and when I plan to write it in the future. And the point of this letter is to write it.
There’s no real format. I’ll write whatever comes to mind, and there may be a collection of links that I want to discuss. Who knows, this might be dumb.
I’ve been thinking recently about old technology that is still useful today. I wear mechanical wristwatches that are inaccurate by today’s standards, yet perfectly capable of telling me when it’s time for a meeting or to break for lunch.
A few weeks ago, I received a delightful gift from a friend. Earlier we had been discussing our favorite Apple hardware from years past, and the fifth generation iPod came up. It’s a personal favorite of mine. Sleek and compact. The best implementation of the iPod’s signature wheel control. It could play games, and movies & TV shows.
My friend had a fifth generation U2 model in mint condition and hoped I’d give it a new home. I happily obliged his generosity, along with a universal dock that included a 30-pin cable.
When I got home, I plugged the dock into my Mac and slotted the iPod into it. To my surprise, the Music app began to sync all of my non-Apple Music tracks which were already downloaded onto the Mac. While it was syncing, I opened my headphone drawer and pulled out one of my favorite pairs: the Bang & Olufsen H6 headphones.
The H6 headphones are wired, which became inconvenient about the same time wireless headphones developed satisfying enough audio quality. I even wrote a review about the Bose headphones which replaced the H6s as my daily drivers.
The experience of the iPod with the H6 headphones was a wonderful trip down memory lane.
When I navigated into the Music sub-menu, there was nothing but my music. The click wheel was fast and simple to browse my large library of music. And every selection was acknowledged by a satisfying hardware actuation.
Once a track started, I was greeted by a familiar low hiss. Treble was crisp. And the entire dynamic range filled my ears. Music sounded more alive than it had for years.
This was exactly the respite I needed after months of quarantine. My head buzzed and my heart swelled as five minutes turned into twenty. I became lost in music.
Since that evening, I went in search of the 2nd generation of the B&O H6 headphones which B&O no longer sells. I found them cheap from an Amazon affiliate merchant and they live up to the high praise reviewers gave them four years ago. I also found an iPod classic (160 GB) in mint condition on eBay for a pittance.
Listening to music on a decade old iPod through a wire may seem anachronistic in 2020, but it begs the question: Do I really need a general purpose computer to listen to music?
The iPod is purpose-built to play music. Its interface is designed for flipping through songs and albums. The display is no larger than it needs to be, and the battery doesn’t need to be recharged for a week. All this in a package that makes my iPhone 11 Pro feel like a brick by comparison.
An iPod just plays music—and I think it’s better at playing music than any other device I own. I’ve enjoyed using an iPod again the same way I enjoy setting the time on my mechanical watches each morning.
Airlink Bluetooth Adapter. I bought this dingus a few years ago. It works reasonably well to convert my H6s into bluetooth headphones. It affects the quality modestly, but I only notice it in direct comparisons. Also, I never clip this thing to my shirt like the photos show, I just slip it into my pocket.
The reMarkable 2. Speaking of dedicated devices, I pre-ordered the reMarkable 2 last week. I’ve always been fascinated by the potential of e-ink. Drawing tablets based on e-ink seem to becoming more mainstream and the reMarkable is the best of the lot. Mine doesn’t ship until November, but I’m excited to give it a try.
I joked that I wasn’t sure if I still had any thirty-pin connectors. The universal dock was also in mint condition. ↩︎
The merchant had replaced the chrome back panel and the screen. The iPod is practically brand new. ↩︎
While it can play movies, games, and sync contacts & calendars, the iPhone is much better suited for these tasks. ↩︎
When I published The Traveler, it was a one-off story. It was safe. To publish the next story, I would need to commit to the world I had created, and a broader narrative.
The Taxi Driver was a hard story to finish.
I was confronted with a host of writing challenges in The Taxi Driver, foremost the character of Gertrude. Recently, my writing has favored female protagonists. I’m not sure why.
Perhaps it’s the challenge.
As the protagonist, Gertrude needed to be a strong, well-defined character. As a male writer, I cannot rely on personal experience or my own instincts to understand how a woman thinks.
I prize characters who feel genuine, and I tend to model their behavior after actual people from my past. It takes more than that, however. To get into a character’s soul, you have to understand how they think. Only then will they become a real, breathing person readers can recognize.
As a character, Gertrude could have been written as a man or woman. Her strength defies her circumstance, one of the familiar traits of the hero archetype. Gertrude has little to live for, and nothing left to lose.
She is backed into a corner, metaphorically speaking—a construction of fight or flight. That is the source of her strength.
But it’s her fierce independence that reminded me of several influential women in my life, so I chose to write her as a female. She adopts many of their mannerisms and personality. She is the right mix of stubbornness and defiance—yet she’s still unsure of herself.
In the end, I hit my mark. Gertrude is looking for a reason to live—something, someone, maybe a cause. Then suddenly, purpose falls out of the sky right onto the hood of her taxi.
My original draft of The Taxi Driver started with dull exposition:
“The day she met him started like most others. Gertrude Weathers walked along the alleyway, side-stepping the usual detritus which littered her path to work.
When she reached her car, she pulled back the shabby cover that protected it from rain.”
As I developed the story, I needed more characters to help move along the narrative. The purpose of my original draft was to figure out Gertrude and describe her situation. But there wasn’t enough for a story. Her environment needed character.
I found Franklin in the second draft, while asking myself: what is the usual detritus that littered Gertrude’s path? Who put it there, and how did that person experience life?
Franklin is the balance to Gertrude’s poverty. She’s right on the edge, but still works hard to improve her circumstance in a rigged society. Franklin doesn’t have that luxury, for reasons implied—but not explained—in The Taxi Driver.
Franklin is confined to a chair, but I don’t say this anywhere in the text. As you read more of Franklin in later stories, you might notice how everyone glances down towards him. He struggles with a sense of direction, and has a habit of sneaking up on people.
I went back and forth on how and when to describe Franklin’s disability, but never found a place where it worked in Taxi Driver. After a few failed drafts, it occurred to me: Gertrude sees only Franklin, not his chair.
You may notice I don’t provide a lot of physical description of my characters. To be honest, I enjoy the efficiency. I prefer to leave those details to the reader’s imagination. Let you fill in the gaps from your own experience.
I still describe my characters, but their appearance is less interesting than how they behave or talk.
There is one insignificant physical detail for Gertrude that slipped in: The neon green bolt of hair. It’s not important to the story, but it does connect Gertrude to a woman from my past. Someone whose personality provided inspiration.
During my junior year of high school I briefly dated a senior. I’ll call her M to keep things anonymous. She was fierce. Independent, stubborn, and possessing a flair for the dramatic.
M had an old fashioned name, the kind most women receive as a middle name in honor of their mother’s favorite great-aunt. A name like Gertrude.
She bleached a streak of her brown hair platinum blonde, and her favorite pair of shoes were lime-green Chuck Taylors. For a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC in 1995, this was quite exotic. Especially for a sixteen year-old boy.
In real life M was a woman at a time when I was still a boy. She was mature for her years, with a severe outlook on life. Part of a military family, she moved across the country as a teenager, and didn’t like for people to get close.
She searched for purpose. For a reason that would make sense of it all.
We lost touch after she graduated and moved away. I like to think she’s figured things out and is off conquering the world. My memory of who she was lives on in Gertrude. And maybe that’s why she reads genuine to me.
I can only hope you enjoyed her story as well.
There’s a moment where Gertrude asks Franklin to “… help me move the body”. It’s a hat tip to Gertrude’s world view , but also a sleight of hand that may lead readers to draw certain conclusions about Franklin. Conclusions that could be useful in later stories. ↩︎
Near zero chance she is reading this. But a few of my high school pals who are reading need only two words to remember her: black roses. ↩︎
The day she met him started like most others, with her voice muffled by a pillow.
Gertrude Weathers was alone.
I could do it. Really do it this time.
She held her breath, and pulled tight.
A lump formed in her throat. It begged her to let go. To take that life-saving gulp of air.
She held her grip on the synthetic pillow case, and prepared herself for the end.
Her vision sparkled until it closed in and went black.
An hour later, a chime on Gertrude’s communicator startled her back to life. Her head pounded and pulsed.
Finally, her eyes focused on the communicator: she already had today’s first call.
“Time for work.”
She grabbed yesterday’s shirt off her bunk and pulled her pants on, careful to lace her feet through yesterday’s underwear.
Gertrude’s neighborhood was rough, like all of them on the ground. Walking out the door, she was careful to avoid the usual detritus.
Syringes, empty bottles, and puddles of piss.
“Still around the corner in the alleyway, just where you left it.”
“Jeez, Franklin. Did you have a big party last night?”
“Heh, you know me. Fella on Elm found a body with a bunch of un-used cred in their pocket. Looked like they was thrown from a few hundred floors, so we figured they didn’t need it anymore.”
“And you didn’t save any for me? I’m hurt.”
“That’ll be the day, Mizz Gertrude. You know where to find us, any night you want to join.”
“I don’t think your pals could handle me on a fix.”
Franklin looked up at her as she waved her communicator past his wrist. A soft ching! sounded.
“Always the quiet ones who surprise you.”
Gertrude’s late-20s model taxi was in the alleyway, just as Franklin had promised. Her car bore the familiar government seal on its doors. A sign to patrons the vehicle was part of the Human Taxi Program created after the Welfare Reform Act passed in 2043.
The program provided jobs for grounders who couldn’t get work because of automation.
“Elm and 27th. Six hundred and seventeenth floor?”
Gertrude raised her eyebrows when she glanced at her communicator. She pulled back on the yoke and climbed towards the cloud line.
Her taxi fell into the line behind a hoverlimo. Its polished metal sparkled in the harsh sunlight.
When she reached the platform at level 617, a man in a red waistcoat and wig directed her toward the waiting area.
“Good morning, mum. Please scan your license credential.”
Gertrude raised her communicator to the scanner. Then the doorman flipped through his manifest.
“Thank you, Miss Weathers. Your fare will be down momentarily.”
Gertrude nodded. There was a regal curl to his voice.
The flyers are always so formal.
Their palaces rose high above rest of the world. Few of them ever went below the clouds. Or rode in human taxis.
“Good morning, m’am. Can we make it to Ash, and 727th before 11am?”
An athletic man in fitted clothes and a dark cloak climbed into the back seat.
“Ash and 727th?”
This prince must be after loose women, and gambling.
“Can I recommend a good casino after your appointment? I know a guy, he’ll take real nice care of you.”
The man stared at Gertrude through the mirror, obviously startled by her suggestion. She wasn’t used to driving flyers, and had an unfortunate habit for saying the wrong thing.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She glanced down at her console. “Let me take a quick look at traffic.”
Flyers often booked human taxis when they needed to be inconspicuous. Every grounder knew flyers liked to drop-in for surprise inspections to ensure their businesses ran smoothly.
Must be his first time.
As she tapped her console, Gertrude risked an upward glance into the rear mirror. Her passenger’s skin wasn’t pockmarked from the harsh rains like those who lived under the cloud line.
It looked irresistibly smooth. Polished, with a shine that matched his bleached hair.
Gertrude was staring.
As she pushed her hair over her ears, a bolt of neon green fell back into her eyes. When she brushed it back, their eyes met.
His were a soft grey. And his smile revealed iridescent teeth. He’s smiling!
Gertrude suddenly looked away.
She cleared her throat and brought it back to business.
“Skyways four, and ten are blocked. We’ll have to go around, but yeah...”
She shrugged. “—we should be make it by 11am.”
He still had a smile on his face. Despite her best effort to conceal it, Gertrude was flush with embarassment.
She disengaged the air brake, and pressed heavy on the accelerator, in an attempt to deflect the awkward moment.
The taxi made a sharp dive for the cloud line and the handsome stranger’s smile was replaced by abject fear.
Once underneath the layer of thick clouds, Gertrude leveled off. The glare of the sun was replaced with the glow of signs and the mist of a light rain.
They were in the Heavy Industrial Zone, where millions of plant workers slaved for meager wages.
Animated billboards advertised everything from anti-fungal cream to enhancement surgeries.
One advertisement stood out amongst the crowd. Bright red and massive, with bold yellow letters.
Unhappy with your life?
Find meaning with NeroCorp,
and alter your path.
As they passed near it, the displays in Gertrude’s taxi lit-up with a simple invitation: “Submit your questionnaire today.”
“Have you ever thought about doing that?”
What was that handsome?
Gertrude almost forgot about her glossy-faced passenger. She tried to swallow the cotton in her throat.
“Sure. Hasn’t everyone? I know I’ve thought about it.”
Is he fucking with me?
“You don’t strike me as the type desperate enough...”
“Ouch. I’m not desperate...”
“...to fall into their trap?”
“...because I want to believe in something?”
“Suit yourself, flyer. I can’t afford a religion that costs that much.”
The man rubbed his left breast, just over his heart.
He was rubbing something in his coat pocket. Was he upset?
Oh God, he’s one of them. Probably trying to convert me.
“Hey mister, I’m sorry.”
The man smiled dimly, then glanced at a tablet he thought was concealed under his cloak.
“... I didn’t mean anything ugly by it.”
Her insides churned as she replayed his retort.
Gertrude submitted a questionnaire three months ago. It took her four years to save enough, including several nights with an empty stomach.
After all of that, she heard nothing.
Gertrude swallowed the knot in her throat. Then she turned the wheel, and her taxi slid off the skyway.
“Worst of the traffic is done. We’ll be there in about 10 minutes.”
The rest of the trip was quiet. No more sideways glances or small talk. When they arrived, the man thumbed the screen for his fare, and stepped out onto the platform.
He left a gigantic tip.
Gertrude hollered out to him as he walked away.
“Hey thanks a lot mister!”
The man turned back and leaned into her window. He glanced at her credential on the dash, then bowed his head.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Weathers.”
He waved his communicator towards her console. A chime rang as his number was added to the address book.
“If you ever change your mind, I would love to discuss it.”
As he pulled away, his finger touched the side of her cheek. Her skin heated and she blushed once again.
I really hate choir boys.
... but it was the first time she had smiled in a month.
The stranger’s unusual tip was the highlight of Gertrude’s work day.
“You know, I’ve always preferred human drivers to those computer driven monstrosities. Wouldn’t you agree, love?”
The rest of her fares were to the nearest liquor store, or plant workers looking for shops that offered payday loans. Except this obnoxious flyer couple on their way to the Opera.
“Actually, I’ve never ridden in an auto.”
“Silly me, love. Of course you haven’t. I imagine you drive yourself wherever you need to go. That’s why the Human Taxi Program is so brilliant. Gets you gutter rats off the street so you can provide a valuable service to society.”
Gertrude forced a smile towards the rear mirror.
Stop calling me love.
“Charles and I only take human taxis. It’s our civic duty…”
Civic duty. These assholes run their mouth about charity. Their opera tickets are worth more than Gertrude makes in three months.
At least they left a pleasant scent in her car.
Gertrude used the roads to get home, instead of a quicker trip in the air. Under the program, each driver receives a stipend for energy cells. She pockets a portion of the stipend by spending more time on the ground.
A protest erupted a few blocks from her apartment, so she took a different alley to her building.
Halfway down the alley, a body fell out of the sky onto the hood of Gertrude’s taxi.
A large thump sounded through the dash.
She forced the brakes, and the body slid onto the street.
This drunk asshole couldn’t have killed himself in another alley?
Gertrude pulled off to the side, then approached the body. As she went to pull it off the street, a voice startled her.
“Oh lookey here. 'Nother cold gift from the sky.”
“Dammit Franklin, don’t scare me like that.”
“Sorry, Mizz Gertrude. Are you alright?”
Gertrude looked back to her taxi.
“Left a nice dent on my hood, but I’m alright. She’s a tough ‘ole bird.”
She looked down at the corpse. It was a man’s frame. Moderate build, and skin that didn’t show signs of exposure.
“Can you help me move him off the street?”
When she grabbed his arms, they were warm. She checked his pulse.
“He’s still alive.”
“Well, I’ll be. This be one pissed of flyer, come mornin’. Either he jumped, or he’ll be after revenge for whosever pushed him.”
Franklin looked disappointed.
“No cred or chip card in his pockets. Or ID badge.”
“Maybe he can tell us more after he wakes up.”
“... and we can collectin’ our re-ward.”
“What makes you think he has money?”
“Look his clothes. Feelin’ softer than your panties, me-thinks.”
His clothes were not lavish, but felt softer than any synthetic Gertrude had ever touched.
“No grounder have anything this soft. Which mean he‘ave cred.”
Gertrude looked up and down the alley. It was empty, no doubt since it would be dark soon.
The body wouldn’t be safe outside.
“Guess you’re coming with me.”
The Lucky Odds casino was loud for an early afternoon. It filled the corner of Ash and 727th Street with the sound of electronic slot machines.
A man in a dark cloak, and polished features approached the covered entrance. He glanced back towards the departing cab.
She was cute, even for a grounder.
The man thumbed his communicator.
“This is Hammersmith, I've reached the coordinates. In pursuit.”
Just inside the covered entrance was a valet stand. The attendant was young, with an untidy clump of dark hair, and tiny pockmarks on his face.
Hammersmith produced a grainy photo of middle-aged man. The caption read “TZZ-34663”.
“Have you seen anyone like this? Did they go through those doors?”
The valet glanced down towards Hammersmith’s right thigh, where his unlatched cloak caught on his holster.
“Don’t talk to suits, boss man.”
Hammersmith considered him for a moment. Then he pulled on the underside of the valet’s chin, matching gazes with the boy.
“It’s important I find him. There’s a lot of money involved.”
Hammersmith raised his eyebrow. Then he tapped his communicator on the valet’s console. His identity lit up the display.
The boy swallowed before his response.
“Dont’a talk to church boys neither.”
With his left hand, Hammersmith grabbed the valet’s head and smashed it into the stand. The console cracked, which opened a wound on the side of the boys face.
“You’re going to answer my questions.”
“Hey you, bossa man. Get’n yer ‘ands off that’n boy!”
Two oversized gorillas, posed as security guards, ran towards the stand. Hammersmith drew his pistol with his right hand.
“I’ll drop both of you if you take another step.”
He still held the valet’s neck in a grip with his left hand.
“My friend here was just telling me where I can find that man.”
Hammersmith nodded to the photo on the stand.
“Take me to your video room, and no one gets any holes in them. Okay?”
The security guards took a step back, and nodded.
“J’okay bossa man. No trouble. Floor manager set’n ya’up inside.”
Hammersmith snapped the safety, and re-holstered his weapon. He loosened his grip on the valet, then tossed him a handkerchief.
“Here kid. Put that on your face and apply pressure. If you see this man, you’ll be sure to contact me directly.”
The boy nodded without making a sound. He glanced down at the identity on his cracked display:
Todd walked into Lucky Odds and made for the manager’s cage in the back.
I’m gonna come out and say it: acting is hard. In interviews actors talk about “the work”, and I’ve always found this characterization odd—is it really?
After my fourth take of the same three lines, two hours after we started filming, I felt it.
I feel like a jerk for ever thinking it wasn’t work. Like much of art, acting is easy to criticize, and incredibly difficult to master. Not everyone can do it, either.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. The entire experience was exhilarating. But as someone who cares about doing things well, I realize I’m not very good at acting.
I thought talking to a camera would be similar to a stage presentation in front of a live audience. Both are performances, right?
The difference is apparent by what the camera doesn’t show you—the dozens of people behind the camera.
Light and sound crews, camera operators, story producers taking notes, the person advancing your slide deck, and an “A.D.”—Assistant Director—barking at everyone to keep them on task.
My crew was just shy of 25 people. They all had more experience than I did, and they rarely made mistakes. And if they did, they apologized to me!
Which is insane, because of how many mistakes I made. Flubbing words, shifting my weight out of frame, bouncing out of their focus line, or sounding like a zombie.
There is a director, too. Their job is to help you get your best performance, and maintain continuity across a host of other performances.
The whole machine is setup for iteration. Even if you “nail it” on your first take, you do another. When you get a “good take”, you experiment with the next one. Try things that might fail, then try it another way.
As a developer and designer, I’m familiar with iteration. Only those iterations are private, not in front of 25 people executing their job perfectly take after take.
I felt relief every time the director said “check the gate”. That meant it was time to move on.
The script is very different from stage presentations. For the stage, I typically write key points I want to hit upon in my speaker notes. Something I would glance at, never something I would read.
If you read on stage, you break eye contact with your audience. You can’t see their reactions, nor can you make them laugh.
On stage it is just you. You advance your slides. You determine transitions. There is little coordination with others, so you can ad lib and you’re the only one who knows.
On camera, those 25 people need to do their jobs. And to do their jobs, they need to know what you are going to do. They need a script.
Fortunately for me, there was a fancy teleprompter that allowed me to look directly at the camera and read my script.
Problem solved, right?
About one times in three I flub the word “statistics” when I say it out loud. I avoid it in conversation. It isn’t the only word I struggle with either.
Truth be told, I’m extremely self-conscious about my speech.
That sounds weird coming from someone who likes to talk as much as I do, but there you go. Only real talk on this blog.
Back to the script. When I was writing I didn’t think about reading it. I thought of it like a presentation: I wouldn’t really say all of this, I’d come up with something that sounded more natural in the moment.
I focused on narrative. Story arcs, reveals, emphasis, and transitions. I built it like a story that one would experience by reading, not hearing. And I did not consider words I struggle to speak.
Writing fiction has taught me the importance of dialogue. People speak in incomplete sentences. They offer half thoughts, and are often prone to ramble.
If you write a character that speaks effortlessly in complex, multi-clause sentences without a breath—well, that character better be a robot.
It was hard not to become meta and critique my writing while trying to perform in front of the camera. I made it through the day by treating commas as periods. Phrases where I stumbled, like “an example implementation”, were simplified into “an example”.
The experience was wonderful, and I learned a lot about acting and writing for the screen.
I’m not sure if I will ever film like this again. Maybe if the project is right. But I will never again wince when I hear an actor talk about “the work” during an interview.
I’ll just nod and think to myself: “That’s why you get paid the big bucks.”
My AD was a real card. When I met them, they told me “I’m here to make sure we don’t have fun.” An upmost professional, and very good at their job. A liar, too. We had a ton of fun. ↩︎
Everything was perfectly safe, don't worry. Everyone was required to wear masks and maintained a minimum safe distance at all times. ↩︎
It’s not always true that you advance your slides. My first presentation for a Mac conference was a blitz talk for the 2009 C4 conference. The organizer wrote software that would auto-advance each slide every 15 seconds.
For that presentation I flipped through index cards with notes written in black sharpie. ↩︎
During my presentation at the 2015 Release Notes conference, Charles Perry and his wife were behind a computer recording the talk. They could see my speaker notes as I presented and they later remarked “You didn’t look down at your notes.”
My response was surprised “Was I saying what was written in them?” The point of this story, other than it makes me sound cool, is that I always ad lib my stage presentations.
My public speaking class in university taught me that the best public speaking is extemporaneous. ↩︎
Pro tip: when your Director says “Woah, that sentence is a mouthful”, your script has problems. ↩︎
The idea first came to me on August 9, 2019 while sitting at a traffic light. I tapped the Ulysses butterfly and wrote:
Military Space Novel
Main character is told to sit out upcoming mission
I let the story marinate for the rest of the drive. Worlds, characters, events. Friends, foes, and palace intrigue.
My favorite part of any science fiction story is the history. What is the connective tissue from now into the imagined future?
As I wrote the history for Nebula Squad, I thought a lot about the power to lead. Where does it comes from? Ancient kingdoms were ruled by leaders believed to be chosen by God. How does a reasoned society yield power to a leader?
Democratic republics were formed on the equal promise of prosperity. What happens if prosperity evaporates? What would fill the vacuum?
For my story, I created a destructive event that would push humanity from reason. Force them to question the most basic assumption of any free society: security.
The world of Nebula Squad is set far in the future. Humanity colonized deep space using generation ships that traveled for hundreds of years. When they arrived at a hospitable system, they built interstellar gates to travel back.
At the edge of known space they discovered a mysterious disease. It spread quickly through the interconnected systems, and soon no one would survive past the age of sixty.
Nebula Squad takes place generations after the blight first spread. Society is governed by a small ruling family, who form the Grand Tribunal. They are the offspring of a miracle—a woman born with an immunity to the disease. A genetic immunity that can be passed on to her children.
The Grand Tribunal, and its regional tribunals, divine power from this immunity. They are “God’s chosen”.
Most dystopian futures cheapen the value of life due to expected over-population. Because of the blight, I can write the opposite with my dystopian future.
The founding principle of the Grand Tribunal is that “murder cannot be tolerated”. Life is sacred. Anyone convicted of homocide commits their family to a lifetime of military service for the next seven generations.
Under the stress caused by the blight, intelligent people of reason consider this a rational response to the economic crisis. It’s not hard to imagine, considering the examples of humanity’s past.
Many today hold a certain contempt for people of faith because their beliefs can be distorted by the morally corrupt. History has shown us that reason and science can be equally misappropriated.
This is one of the themes I hope to explore in Nebula Squad.
When “military space novel” first appeared on the page back in August, I didn’t expect to write such a contemporary story.
As a friend once told me, “Life has a funny way of leaking into your writing”.
Indeed, John Locke established that private property was essential for liberty. “The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property.” ↩︎
The guillotine was once considered a humane means of public beheading by the same government so committed to reason they created a calendar based on the decimal system. ↩︎
Like many others during shelter-in-place, I’ve relied on my AirPods Pro to communicate with my team. Eight hours of calls is a lot to ask of your ears, regardless of your headphones.
To provide an alternative for my ear canal, I picked up the Bose 700s after reading enthusiastic reviews of their new microphone array. They’ve performed great in my first day of calls, and sound better to my ear than the QC35s.
I expect to split time between these and the AirPods Pro for video meetings.
With each new story published, I plan to follow with a behind-the-scenes look at how it came about. This allows me to put each story in context, and dive into some technical details, which you might find interesting.
The Traveler started life in my writing journal as a writing exercise.
This past November I was in Salinas for writing vacation. Over a long weekend I parked myself in a hotel to plan and draft the first part of my novel: Nebula Squad.
Each day I slept-in, wrote for 4 hours, took a break for food, then wrote for another 4-8 hours. It was four glorious days in The Zone™.
During one of those food breaks—after ordering the Prime Rib special, with a root beer—I tapped out a quick story on my iPhone:
A traveler from out of town sits down at a table.
He sits facing away from the door. Towards the TVs showing a regional sports favorite.
“I'll take the prime rib special with a house salad. Root beer to drink.”
Nothing more than a simple, boring description of what I was doing. From there I imagined a conversation between the stranger and another patron of the diner:
An older woman from an adjacent table speaks up.
“You're not from around here.”
“Do I stick out?”
“You blend in fine, I reckon. But you ordered the Prime Rib special. Lou in the back tries to sneak in horse meat on the weekends.”
At the time, I didn’t know the stranger’s name or that the older woman would become Eunice. They were pieces on a chess board, not characters.
As I cut into my delicious prime rib, I considered life as an out-of-town stranger. Imagined my lunch as a story.
Then I put it away and moved on with the weekend. It was a writer’s exercise and never meant to be anything more.
Months later, I needed material to publish for the site launch. None of my short stories were polished enough, so I thumbed through my writing journal.
I chose The Traveler as the first piece of fiction I would publish. Warm memories of that prime rib, and the sense of adventure in the midst of my writing trip drew me back into the story.
However, it needed work before it was fit to be my first impression. The story needed to grow past a poor documentary of my November lunch. That required defined characters, with obstacles in their path.
In addition to pages of story fragments in a writing journal, my Ulysses library is littered with pieces of three novels and several short story projects.
The backstory for one of those short stories centers around the abduction of Thad Michols. I found a place for my stranger and importunate diner patron, and a world where horse meat masquerades as beef. Most of all, I found conflict.
After a week-long edit, the published version of The Traveler became a prologue for a larger story.
The response to my first story has been a warm welcome back to the web. The site launched earlier this week without analytics. I wasn’t confident in that decision, until the tweets and text messages starting rolling in.
The enthusiasm has exceeded my expectation—and caught me a little off guard. Many of you have asked: “When do we get to read more of the story?”
At the beginning of this week there wasn’t an immediete plan to finish this untitled short story. But after your response to The Traveler, I’m making one.
The story is already plotted, and character biographies have been written. I even have a few pages of manuscript.
It occurred to me that I could publish the story as a serial. I’m not sure the schedule or frequency just yet. But I'm running with this idea.
Once I have more manuscript drafted, I'll let you know.
Thank you for reading!
At some point I need to tell you more than the title. ↩︎
In Ulysses, of course. Have I mentioned how much I love Ulysses? ↩︎
It was a Saturday in November, so the “regional sports favorite” was college football. My favorite sport, in my favorite time of year. ↩︎
Everything clicked during a conversation about a bathroom remodel. It was a typical evening with friends. Glasses of wine, a few cocktails, and conversations about our kids. Only there was nothing typical about it over FaceTime.
My moment of zen happened after someone asked Amanda about her remodeled shower:
“I really like the tile… except this one line of grout near the top of shower. It drives me crazy.”
Turns out most of the grout lines are the same width, except the one right at eye level. The grout line staring back at her every morning in the shower.
Will others notice it? Not likely. But that isn’t the point.
I built my last site so I would write more. The middle of 2016 is when I hit my stride. The words started to flow, even with a line of grout staring me in the face: There were too many steps to publish.
Statically generated sites are straightforward technical beasts. They are the simplest way to customize your site down to an individual HTML tag. However, publishing requires FTP and an SSH session.
The process wore me down. I never stopped writing, but I slowly stopped publishing.
Everything is written in Ulysses. And what I really wanted was to export from Ulysses directly to my site. Bonus points if I could schedule a post in the future.
In mid-2016, one could publish directly from Ulysses if that site was powered by Wordpress. I know what you’re going to say, but hear me out. This is my therapy session.
Ever heard the phrase: “The final 20% is where a project dies”? That’s where we’ll start with my adventure in Wordpress themes. It wasn’t PHP or performance concerns, rather the tiny, very significant-to-me typographic flourishes, which I struggled to replicate in Wordpress.
I found workarounds. Mostly.
For eight months I meticulously built a theme, and imported older posts by hand. I was down to a final bug: render the footnote return character on iOS without a godforsaken emoji. It proved to be the hill my Wordpress dreams died upon.
Eight months of work, and there were still irregular grout lines.
Cured of my delusions for using a framework out of my control, I decided to write my own publishing system. Sigh. I wrote a server in Swift. And built an iOS app to push posts to the server, and generate static HTML. It was a wonderful system I affectionately named Agatha.
It took me an entire year of nights and weekends to build. Now it was 2019 and two years since I had published anything. To add further insult, the introduction of SwiftUI was a sharp reminder that I would continue to waste precious writing time keeping the iOS app going.
Oh, and I still couldn’t publish directly from Ulysses. Shit.
Agatha taught me a lot about Swift, but its best gift was focus: I wanted a great way to share my fiction. The structure for this site started as the four different post types I created for the Agatha system.
Accordingly, each post falls into one of four buckets:
Short Stories: complete stories of fiction, written by me.
Selections: from my writing journal, fragments of fiction.
Annotated Links: short comments on things that grab my attention.
Blog Posts: non-fiction blurbs about writing and other things that interest me (like music or watches).
In addition to fiction I’ll publish here, I hope you’ll enjoy a behind-the-scenes peak at my in-progress novel, Nebula Squad. It’s my third attempt at writing one, and it’s already off to a good start. In February, I shared the first third of the story with other writers (i.e., friends), and their feedback was positive.
This was my watershed moment. I’m writing with purpose, and it’s time to publish again.
I’ll keep my old page going at rd2.io until I’ve migrated its content over to this domain, and setup proper redirection. Oh, and we should probably talk about my new pen name. All in good time.
There are still irregular grout lines, but will anyone else notice? That isn’t the point.