After the initial excitement at discovering an organisation a big as the Estate involved in interplanetary travel, days of debriefs and training had become a solid wall of sound. I was very aware that outside the chain link and barbed wire of the Estate Campus, New Orleans awaited. I was looking forward to becoming acquainted with my new town. It was why I had sat on a series of buses from New York all the way down the country to Louisiana. I wanted to hear the creole slang, taste the bourbon and feel the beat as life danced around me.
When it was clear my path was to be the deep south I did more than a little research. I’d made a mental map of all the sight I was going to call my own. Jackson Square where I would hopefully find a patch to do a little street magic, earn a few coins and hangout talking to the artists. I wanted a seat on a hard wooden pew at St Augustines for the Jazz Mass on a Sunday, waving my fan. I wanted to hunt out the best street music. I wanted to come across the French Quarter and spend the day at a cafe watching the world go by and the night at Bourbon House watching the whiskeys do the same thing. I wanted to eat shrimp by the dock and charm the chef into free seconds. I wanted breakfast of beignet and coffee and supper of the best jazz. And most of all I wanted to see the magic at Lucky Pierre’s, preferably from backstage.
I wanted anywhere not air conditioned, fluorescent lit and furnished with chipboard furniture. New Orleans seemed more beyond my reach than when I was in New York. Until our clearance came through, we were virtual prisoners on campus, allowed free reign only within its highly secure walls.
I could hear the air-conditioning tick over again and a not quite cool gust of stale air made me shiver. Taking advantage of a comfort break I broke out of my training into the subterranean passages that lead all over the campus. It was through these passages that the real training happened in underground dojos, gyms and gun ranges. Bruce had given up on ‘handing me over the the police’ as the Estate security were now my official jailors. When not in his own training he spent much of his time down here, toning oversized muscles thinking his oversized thoughts. It was where I now found him and silently watched from the doorway.
A gun fired nearby making me jump (I hate guns). Bruce noticed the movement and stopped his current circuit of the gym.
“What are you doing skulking about?” he asked without malice, just habit.
“As you say, skulking.” I replied without energy.
“You need to keep yourself busy, idle hands and all that.”
“Idol hands, you mean.” and made a shiny silver coin flipped between my fingers faster than eyes could follow, though I had the impression his could. I did a false flip and the coin disappeared, wishing I could too.
“I need to get out of here, Professor. It’s driving me crazy.”
“You need to shift some of that nervous energy of yours. Go out for a run…”
“Exactly, you and me out on the town. I’ll cause the distraction with the guards…”
“I meant, go running.” he grumbled and went back to his weights machine, “You know, around the campus.”
“I’d rather go for a run down Bourbon Street.” I grumbled back. He silently did his repetitions without comment.
“What do you think they want from us?” I asked without too much hope of an answer. It had been one of many questions that bothered me. It was one of the reasons I wanted a little escape, see if the perspective from the bottom of a whisky glass offered some insight.
“You’ve been to the trainings. We are to be operatives for the Estate.” he grunted out the last few words as the repetitions became more difficult, “They’ll let us know when they need us.”
“And you’re happy to just follow orders? Don’t you want to understand what’s going on?”
Bruce finally gave up his current machine and grab a hand towel. Wiping the sweat from his face looked at me,
“Look, they’ve been at this a lot longer than you. They’ll let us know when the time is right.”
The absolute trust in the authority of The Estate was too much for me and I backed up, probably in horror.
“Hey, where are you going now?” He asked, a look of concern passing over his face.
“To find someone who can talk sense.” I replied and continued down the corridor to the Gatehouse.
The Gatehouse was, unoriginally, the building where gates to other Recursions were housed. Here, people came and went on trips seemingly at all times of day and night and where we ourselves had first returned from the wastelands. People with packs and decent all-weather gear stepped through the automatic glass doors to a passage marked Departures. Even more were moving out through a custom-style gate where Estate agents checked paperwork and items they were returning with. It was like a tiny international airport complete with its own border control. Also here were the Estate Security, hired directly out of the armed forces from various nations and all armed. Two flanked the doors to the outside. Without a distraction there was no way to pass them into the real world.
I felt them look in my direction and used a group of new arrivals as cover. The party of operatives looked like they were going mountain climbing and as we moved through the lobby together I took off my coat and rolled it into a small swag. Under my arm it looks a little like their packs and my white shirt and vest looked more like the mountain climbers own clothing. I could almost feel the guard’s gaze scanning the crowd, but there are advantages to being slightly below average height.
The group were exploring a recursion they believed to be a fictional leakage of Journey to the centre of the Earth. I was a little envious as they checked in through the customs agents and I waved them off.
No. I have a whole city to explore, full of people and life, why am I jealous of a dangerous cave expedition into the unknown? I was still thinking these things as I stood in front of the customs agent, his name tag read Eoghan. I’d seen the gaelic spelling for ‘Owen’ before and felt pretty confident in making a good impression.
“Hi Eoghan, I’m…Eric Leomund. I’m sure I saw you earlier when I came through with Elmer McCain.” Name dropping never hurts, and neither does using an assumed one. I stretched out my hand for him to take. I hadn’t seen him. I’d been exhausted by our near death experience, shocked by our Valkyries change and still a little disoriented from the translation. But, if he had been there he may well remember us. He did. He beamed at the correct pronunciation of his name and seemed to preen a little at being remembered, shaking my hand in return.
“Hey yeah, your group came in on Five . You all made quite a procession with McCain and Drs Manners and Hetzfeld. All the big-wigs and your lot tromping straight through customs leaving a blank in the gate. Uh…but don’t worry about that.” Eoghan laughed nervously as if he’d said something embarrassing. The people in the line moved around me as best they could while I still hid from the guards.
“I’m a newly minted operative hoping to learn the ropes. Do you think I could slip across…” I made a gesture to move to his side of the counter, out of sight of the main lobby. Eoghan offered readily and I slid over the divide to stand with him as he did his job. I shrugged my coat back on and felt more myself. Without the pressure of eyes watching I felt more relaxed and ready for a chat.
“It’s amazing isn’t it, all this. World upon worlds to visit and hardly anyone knowing about them.” I scanned the crowd as Eoghan filled me in on his awareness of The Strange and transfer to Headquarters.
“Of course, Ireland has a long history of connection to the recursions. Dublin has one of the longest running connections with The Strange in the world. We thought they were fairyland. Even the translations sickness was suppose to be the longing the fairies place on those who try to leave.” Eoghan prattled on good naturedly as he waved through another group of adventurers who were dressed in cold weather gear.
“Eoghan. I’m sure you’re a man who enjoys a good time. Where do you go in town for craic? I’m looking for a place full of local colour.”
“I don’t know about local colour, but I usually go to a Irish Pub.” he replied conversationally. I was disappointed that my current best friend seemed so lacking in general good taste. Why, when in New Orleans, would you spend your social hours at an Irish pub? I almost wept.
There was a crash as something heavy hit one of the roller doors to a gate room. With a look at each other, Eoghan and I dashed up the corridor of gates to a door painted with a big black ‘8’. Already a number of Estate agents were struggling to lift a bulging roller door. With a collective groan the door swung up and a grey and white creature of aquatic nature slipped and slithered out into the corridor.
It was almost three metres in length, with a female humanoid upper body and a very fishy dorsal fin and tail. As a human, it would have been beautiful except there was no life in this body and they never really had been. Like the wild woman who had climbed a rock to murder Peggy and Bruce, this was a well made, highly detailed model of a creature. The appearance of the body caused even more disturbance among the people at the other gates and over its grey mottled skin, I could see Estate security moving towards the action. I hunker down.
“Look she said she knew where I could find a seed if I told her something new. I said I could take her to a place where she could swim in the lake of a golden city of lights. I’m telll’ you, she wanted to come.” man climbed out of the gate wearing sturdy travelling clothes talking to Estate officials.
“Sir, she is clearly a Lady of the Lake construct, she’s programmed to want knowledge for a request.” an Estate agent was arguing over a clipboard, “You visited a known literary recursion. You knew that the majority of creatures there are without spark…”
“But a seed! How could see have known…”
“Regardless sir, you will need to pay…”
“Pay! I made no money on this translation…”
The argument between the agent and the recursion miner was drawing a crowd, one of the guards was quickly moving to the front. I wasn’t sure I could just walk away, but maybe with help? I turned to my new friend
“Say Eoghan, what did you guys do with the woman my group brought through?”
“Huh?” like everyone, he was paying attention to the fight, ‘Oh, we took it to the morgue until the boffins release it. Why?”
“ I was thinking you’d want to clear this space so services can continue as normal.” I prompted hoping Eoghan was quick enough to pick up the suggestion, “I’d be happy to help.”
“Um…sure. Thanks Eric!” he cheered up considerably and called over a few other agents. Each picked up a corner of the mythical creature and dragged it back towards the doors to the lobby.
“Hey, hey where are they going with the Lady. She still has a sword on her…” the recursion miner leaped forward and grasped something held loosely in the blanks nerveless hand. He stood back up with a sharp highly polished sword. Suddenly, officials stepped back holding their hands in front of them.
“Now, no need to pull a weapon, sir.’ Security guard stepped in giving me a chance to get under the body of the creature and start walking away with the agents. Under the damp body we moved as one towards another set of double doors and into the Recursion Labs buildings.
This area was more utilitarian. A white vinyl floored and green walled corridor dog-legged around to the right. Ahead, a door was labelled, Morgue. As one we lifted the blank through the door and onto two trolleys. I stood and looked at it for a moment and remembered our own woman.
“You okay, Eric?” asked Eoghan with real concern. It was sweet. I can use sweet.
“Oh, I was just thinking how beautiful she must have looked in her natural environment before that idiot killed her.” I sighed, reaching out to hold the cold inhuman hand of the blank. I tried to suppress a shudder and failed, but Eoghan accepted it as a shudder of grief and not of revulsion.
“Oh man. Oh man I get it. They seem so real.” he looked nervous. He’s an average guy, not used to sharing feelings.
“But she was real Eoghan. She breathed and acted in her world.” I let tears well in my eyes, they’re never too far away. “I’m sorry Eoghan, you’ve been a great mentor. I didn’t get to say goodbye to the one we brought through, but do you think I could have a moment with this one?”
“Sure man, “ It was Eoghan’s turn to sigh in relief, “Take your time, I’ll see you around.”
I waved him out of the morgue with a faint smile and turned back to the creature.
When the door closed I quickly let go of the still damp hand and turned to the other trolleys in the room. She wasn’t far, she’d only come in a few nights before. Like a dead person there were no signs of life. No flush to the skin, no rise and fall of the chest, no pulse at the neck. Unlike a dead person she looked like a copy of the person she had been in her recursion. It was like the recursion itself was the living thing, only giving the semblance of life to its creations while it can control them.
Still, I shuddered and brought a knife out from behind my back.
First things first. I held my breath and cut away the bandage that Bruce had applied to the woman’s leg wound. I let the breath out in a happy gust as I realised there was no blood. The wound was there, but it just looked like cuts and tears in foam latex. I tried to make sense of the wound, but not knowing what Bruce had done to remove the spear I couldn’t see if it had been…tampered with. Frustrated, I moved to the blanks side and pulled out here left hand.
I hadn’t known I’d wanted the hand until I’d been reminded of her existence. I didn’t know I needed it until the knife was in my hand.
I needed this, I told myself, sometimes you need a reminder. And I cut through the wrist severing the hand from the body. Even though the knife cut cleanly through to the trolley, even though there was no blood or any internal parts, I had to take a few good breaths before finally picking up my trophy and slipping into a sleeve pocket of my coat.
It had been harder than I thought to cut off the hand and I I stood a moment there contemplating what I’d done. I actually don’t know how long I stood there when I heard someone speaking.
“Rain…Rain? What are you doing in here? Where is here?” It was Peggy, standing in the doorway to the morgue looking around her as if for the first time.
“Hmm? Sorry Peggy. I was just thinking what this thing we call life is.” I could have been, I have no idea.
“You were a long way away. I had to call and call your name, but you didn’t answer.” she juggled a pile of paper files, an iPad and books, “Do you know the way back to the dorm?”
I looked at her with genuine affection. As self-centred and self absorbed as she seemed, she was a fragile and currently lost creature. I nodded and took some of her load from her.
“What’s all this?” I asked with interest. Her world more than most of us had been turned upside down by recent events. She’d worked her whole life on a vision that was only a step away from the truth. The knowing she’d almost been right was …a bitter epiphany. She had a lot of catching up to do.
“I need to study The Strange, the recursions and…I need to understand it all in relation to the Rockweilers. I understand now that I’ve been looking at things all wrong and I….I need to realign everything I know to this new paradigm.”
I led her back out into the lobby through covered walkway to the dormitories, nodding as she moved into techno-babble that meant nothing to me. She eventually took a breath at the door to the women’s dorm.
“I can’t pretend to understand most of what you just said but I know one thing. You are an intelligent and passionate woman on a mission and if anyone could find Rockweilers, you’ll be that person.” I handed back her notes as she looked at me suspiciously.
“What do you want, Rain?”
I sighed. Whoever had betrayed this innocent had done their job well. Better the truth in these occasions.
“I’ve been thinking about something, and I think you’re probably the only one who can understand.” I said appealing to her ego and to her nature for a puzzle, “If this gift we have, the quickening is so rare, don’t you think it weird that all four of us should be together on that night at your house, ready to be scooped up? I did the math. It’s stupid numbers!”
“One, maths isn’t stupid…but I know what you meant. Two, I’ll think about it.” she replied, with a confused smile on her face, “I have to go.” and she closed the door in my face.
It was then I saw Algenon about to eat laundry detergent.
At least that’s what it looked like.
At the end of the corridor, a small walled off part of the dining room, the laundry was clearly denoted by a line of industrial washing machines and clothes dryers. Here Algenon was testing the machinery, learning how it worked and seemed about to test the laundry detergent with his mouth.
“I don’t think you want to do that.” I said walking up and looking in, “It’s for cleaning clothes.”
“Oh! He looked at the white and blue powder in this hand and let it fall back into its box, “I knew that.”
“Sure you did. Tell me, what else do you know?” I joked, but as usual he was unaware of the subtle social undertones.
“Me? I don’t know anything.” and then he thought for a moment, looked out the door past me and stepped closer. “I do know one thing.” he whispered and motioned to the door in the far wall. “If you need a quick way out…” He walked to the door, ushering me to follow, “…this could be a good way.”
He opened the door onto a dock where a few workers were moving pallets of plastic wrapped boxes. A line of dumpsters sat waiting to be filled or emptied by one side of the concrete dock or the other. More pallets sat in racks labeled and carefully boxed. A loading zone and warehouse of some sort? I closed the door and gave a respectful look to Algenon.
“Good to know. I am in the need of an exit at this time,” I admitted, but then shook my head at the thought of sneaking out through the back door. “ Call it ego, but this time, this one time I want to walk out of here like the free man I am instead of some….”
“Stinking, lying criminal.” Algenon filled for me.
“Exactly. I’m going to get out of this polite prison for a few hours and see what the city has to offer.” Again, my desire to be out in the warm fresh air and be amongst people having a good time stirred my blood.
It was then, I noticed the absence of my laptop. Algenon had been glued to it since he asked for information on Earth in our first debrief. Only a few hours later he returned complaining it was broken. In fact he was running it at 100% capacity with scholarly posts, reddit boards, facebook profiles, shopping sites and a myriad of video including the ones you’re probably thinking of. Yes, cat videos. They were all running at the same time, tiled across the laptops screen. We’d had a brief chat about limiting windows and cleaning up the computer occasionally to improve performance. He’d seemed to take the message to heart and had continued with his studies.
“Where’s the computer? I’d figured you’d be glued to it until they give us something to do.” I asked curious.
“Oh, I took your advice and thought I’d give it a clean out.” he said innocently, a sure sign something was up.
I looked around the room again and this time caught a flash of high resolution, HD screen through the glass of one of the washing machine’s door. I stepped up to the machine and saw my laptop ready for the wash on top of a pile of other ordinary laundry. I stood and looked at it for a moment then turned back to the room. Algenon’s expression had not changed, but there was something about the eyes, a wicked knowing that made me continue my search. I spotted the straight line he made with himself, the laundry doorway and the corridor al the way to the double doors at the far end. How far was the washing detergent he was looking at from the store of identical boxes across the room? I ground my teeth. There are only two sides to a con, and I had just realised what side I stood.
“Very funny.” I finally conceded with a bow, “Tell me, how long have you been waiting here for me to come in and find you ‘about’ to eat laundry detergent?”
He walked over to the laptop and consulted the time on the screen.
“One hour and 13 minutes.”
“And if I hadn’t come in?”
“Then I might have found out what laundry detergent tastes like.”
“Really?” I made a face as the very real taste of caustic soap suddenly manifested from memories of group home living. He rolled his eyes at me.
“Okay! Okay! You win. You are the master prankster, you got me.” I finally laughed out loud and for the first time I think I saw a smile of satisfaction appear of Algenon’s face. I killed most of the sites he had up on the laptop and found a video of the old Candid Camera show, leaving him to the business of serious prank study.
Still shaking my head at the lengths someone would go for a joke, I travelled back along the covered walkway to the lobby. Things had quietened down considerably as I saw my destination in sight, the sunlight streaming through the glass doors that lead outside. I did not see the security guard talking to Eoghan until he yelled across the intervening space and caught my attention.
“Excuse me, sir!” I believe he said, but to me it was the rage filled roar of frustrated beast. Denied too long, now his quarry sighted, the beast bellows and galloped across the foyer. There was nothing left for me to do but run for my life and sanity for I was sure I couldn’t spend another moment trapped inside. I bolted for the doors. Having the jump on me, the guard made it to the doors just as I put my right hand out to open it.
“No, I have to go out. Don’t try and stop me!” I yelled with passion hoping that someone, Eoghan?, anyone would come to my aid. The guard grabbed my left arm in his firm grasp and tried to pull me back.
“I’m sorry, you are not cleared to leave the campus at this time.” he replied and tugged. I screamed as there was a loud ripping sound and what looked like my hand tore out of the sleeve pocket, making both of us stumble. Him backwards into the lobby, and me, gloriously forwards out the front doors into the light of….
…a chilly and overcast afternoon. The air was more than chilly, it was like the winds from the fifth ring of hell itself was blowing across the steel grey waters of a wide lake before me. I crossed the road and entered the park full of industrial iron workings, a sign proclaimed it to be that of an old coal gasworks. My vision finally focused on the skyline of a city that was not the one I expected. Where were the docks full of passenger liners? Where was the subtle sound of jazz and smell magnolia on the breeze? Instead, to the right of the skyline a thin tower dominated by a white disk stood out as a symbol of technology and science.