Using the invitation found in Rain’s puzzlebox the group travelled to the Graveyard of the Machine God and the collection of Ni’Challan. Here the group learnt a number of truths, Bruce’s father’s fate in the Fero Navy of Railsea and Rain’s tragic past. They left the facility with more than just information as Algernon, unknown to even him, has taken something back to Earth.
Translating into Peggy’s lab the four companions broke away with nothing to say to each other, all cocooned in their own thoughts. Rain was the first to stumble upstairs and away to who knew where. Bruce went straight to the firing range for a few hours where he set up three targets and shot them all in quick succession. Algernon was at a loose end. He had surveillance equipment and thought to set it up to watch Keaton, his supervisor, then thought better of it. He thought back to his studies into human psychology and brain chemistry in an attempt to solve the problem of his memory loss and blackouts. The more he studied, the more he realised that the information was only for human minds and didn’t equate to his experience. He knew if he really wanted to do something about it, he’d have to go home. But, that was the last place he wanted to be.
In the end, no wiser, he made his way to the mess for an evening meal. Bruce, having finished his gun practice and was also sitting down to a meal and waved Algernon over.
“Bruce, you use to work in construction, did you ever knock things down?” Algernon asked as he brought his meal over to Bruce’s table.
“Oh yeah, it was good fun. You don’t have to be so careful, and if you can find the right spot you can bring down a wall in a blow, very satisfying.”
“So there’s a science to it?”
“Absolutely, and an art. The quality of the construction and materials, the formation of the load-bearing structures…all play their part”
“Could you knock a building down in one hit?”
“No, I imagine you could take out a load-bearer, but that won’t make the building fall down, just sag a little.” Bruce put down his cutlery now paying more attention to his young friend’s line of questioning, “Why? What is this all about?”
“Just curious,” Algernon tried to deflect Bruce’s interest.
“Come on, what’s on your mind?”
“Well, for example, it could have been useful to have the warehouse collapse as we escaped Celaphais.”
“Couldn’t have done it, not in the time we had.”
They ate in silence for a moment or two as Algernon digested his thoughts and meal.
“Kid, how’s your head?” Bruce asked and Algernon responded by making sure it was still in place, “I mean, you learnt some difficult stuff.”
“Someone’s been messing with your mind.” Bruce gave up on his meal and focused on Algernon squirming under the attention, “You know we’re here for you, you’re safe with us.”
“Well, we’ll keep Peggy from more of her extreme experimentation.”
A look came over Algernon’s features, a resolve, “It’s pretty obvious who it is…” He said before passing out again. When he came to it was to Bruce crouched beside his chair, concern turning to relief as Algernon sat back up, wiping the remains of his meal off his face.
“I didn’t know you could do that to yourself,” Bruce said once he was sure his young friend was fine and sat back down.
“You fainted again.”
“Oh,” Algernon said, now making sense of the mess, “Do we need to fix it, Mr Bruce?”
“Don’t you want this out of your head?”
“Not if it results in blowing my head off.”
“I don’t think that will happen.”
A steely look flashed through Algernon’s expression, “I think you’re naive then.”
“I think, if it was to happen, it would have happened already.”
Peggy had spent the evening thinking over the cyborg augmentations she had acquired in the Graveyard of the Machine God. She found it pleasant thinking about how she should incorporate such augmentations into her current form as she freshened up from the trip and grabbed some food before heading back to her lab. However, passed her passcode, over the electrified floor and around motion sensors that were a staple of her lab, she found Rain, curled up in a corner drinking straight from her once hidden bottle of Burbon. Without a word, she moved aside a chair at a large office desk revealing an alcove. The space was lined with an old mattress and blankets. Detailed technical drawings of engines from Railsea with breakdowns of the engine and gearing from The Limness were tacked to the wood all around. It was where Peggy had taken to sleeping most nights and the place she went to when she needed to think. Rain crawled into the offered ‘safe space’ taking the bottle with him.
Inside, a flash of metal caught his eye. Stuck to the underside of the table with a wad of chewing gum was a disk, no larger than two dimes stacked. Shaking fingers peeled the device away from the table to reveal a tiny blue LED that had been hidden against the edge of the draw. As Peggy busied herself around the lab, Rain silently pulled out his puzzlebox and dropped the disc in a compartment, before asking a question.
“Peggy, do you remember when you lost your parents?”
The question stopped Peggy in her tracks.
“Of course,” She said in her most matter of fact voice she could muster.
“What was it like?”
Where the first question had rocked her, the second had stung. No longer able to keep up a facade of detachment she turned to Rain curled up under her desk.
“It was awful, what do you think? They didn’t die or even go anywhere, they just ceased to be. “
She took her seat beside the table and reached for the bourbon just as it was offered up, “There’s CCTV footage of them going into a tunnel in their car, but they never came out the other side. People looked, I’ve looked but there’s nothing to show what happened to them.” She tilted the bottle to her lips and in a practised action drank down two quick mouthfuls.
“I use to tell myself fairytales. My family would be safe, I could find them if I just…I thought…knowing would make a difference, that I could put the ghosts to rest.” Rain said taking back the bottle as it was past down, “But it doesn’t, it just….why does it hurt?”
“Because they’re gone and they’re probably not coming back,” Peggy replied to Rain’s question from her own fractured childhood, “Mind you,” She sniffed, surprising herself with the tears now running freely down her face, “After Noel, I don’t know what to think.” She brushed the tears away as Rain once more pulled out his puzzlebox and withdrew the metal disk.
Holding a finger to his lips he handed her the disc and pointed to where he’d found it, before leaning back onto the mattress and falling into a drunken sleep.
Without a word, she examined the disc. It had no timpani or other device for converting sound waves to electrical impulses so she assumed it was not an audio bug. Under a microscope, she could see the surface that looked metallic was actually bone, grown and not machine-made. The density of the material showed it had been formed from mammalian bone, but without DNA testing she could not narrow down her search.
Slowly she pulled the item apart found that its components identified it as a beacon, one that used and broadcast across the Strange to another recursion. A beacon on a stationary item? Lifting her head from her work she yelled out,
“Hertzfeld, you have some ‘splaining to do!”
Hertzfeld, now use to this sort of communication from his protege, soon sauntered down the stairs to Peggy’s lab.
“What’s this about?”
“I can understand listening devices in my lab, but a beacon?” She gestured to the disk now pulled apart into components on a tray beside her.
“Why do you have a beacon?” He asked dumbfounded as he too realised what the disc was.
“Good question,” Peggy quipped back eagerly, as the excitement for the hunt replaced all maudlin feelings, “Come and help me answer it.”
Hertzfeld and Peggy worked side by side teasing the details out of the device. He was fascinated to discover how it used the Dark Network to power and signal and was able to find a way of switching it off.
“I believe if we can find a way of tapping into the signal we would probably find others just like it.” He said as Peggy eagerly stepped up to the task. The night wore on and they kept at their allotted task oblivious to the rising sun the next day.
Algernon and Bruce were keeping themselves busy in the absence of the rest of the party. Algernon took to the library and sat researching demolition techniques through his VR headset oblivious to the bustling Hertzfeld as he too looked for information pertaining to the signals through the Strange. Bruce warmed up with a set in the gym, then put on his new armour and redid the workout again.
Peggy had not left her lab. She was close to a breakthrough on the beacon, she could feel it but it eluded her every search parameter. Stepping back from the counter she rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands and allowed herself to feel the exhaustion she had been keeping at bay all night. Her eyes alighted to her bed where Rain still lay, the bourbon bottle now empty beside him.
Subtle. It was how Bruce had described Rain’s abilities when they were first discovering they were quickened. It was a good word, it described the beacons too. How they subtly used the chaotic patterns of the Strange to project their signal.
And then she saw it. She could see it in her mind, how the beacons worked and how to follow the signal not just to other beacons but back to their source. Putting her inspiration into action she traced the signal through the Strange to five other beacons. With all six beacons locations, she sent a signal through the network. The beacons all pointed to Ruk, the technology recursion, as their point of origin.
With a whoop and a victorious scream, Peggy leapt from the counter. The sudden noise woke Rain with a start who cracked his head on the underside of the table making the desk jump.
“Arrrrrh..” Was the inarticulate groan from the hidey-hole as Rain once more curled up adding the physical pain and hangover to his other woes.
Peggy had no thought for his pains. In quick succession, she identified the other five beacon locations.
One on Earth, disturbingly outside New Orleans at her old home in the swamp.
One in Halloween, at the home of Hazel Jenkins
One in the Graveyard of the Machine Gods
One in a Zombie Apocalypse and the last in a Space Opera style recursion that the group had not been to.
Taking careful note, she stood back and let the information sink in. It still didn’t tell them who had planted the beacons in the first place. She looked to the heap of misery under her table as Hertzfeld returned and she let him in on her discovery and voiced her concerns.
“This is a high-security facility, my lab is pin coded, covered by CCTV and equipt with an electrified floor. I can’t imagine anyone but one of my group who could have brought it in.”
“The other lab graduates make it a point of honour to put bugs in your lab.”
Peggy waved away the suggestion, pointing to a box of broken bugs of various kinds, “I find those.”
“But, your own team?” Hertzfeld said, also glancing at Rain thinking about the security risk of having him in the lab.
“It has to be. Bruce could have been blackmailed to put it there, he has a family to protect,” She said, but shook her head just as quickly. Bruce was far too honourable and practical to allow himself to be blackmailed, wasn’t he? “Algernon had blackouts. Something is influencing him but…” She had to admit she found this thought very unsettling and she had considered Algernon a future collaborator and someone to whom she could trust.
“And…” Hertzfeld inclined his head to Rain who seemed to be snoring once more, but who could tell.
Peggy had to shrug her doubts over Rain. He had found the beacon, but he could have just as easily placed it. What did they really know about his convoluted past?
“There will have to be an investigation.”
“I can’t run it,” Peggy confessed, “I don’t want to bring up the whole trust issues with them again. You’ll have to run it and it has to be done now.”
Hertzfeld nodded and started with the first and most conveniently placed of the party.
A rap on the top of the table solicited a response of sorts.
“The number you have called is unattended, please leave a message after the beep.” Came a muffled voice, but no beep.
“Rain, I need to ask you a few questions,” Hertzfeld said in his best managerial voice. As chief of the Estate, he’d had practice and Rain turned to face Hertzfeld.
“How often do you come to Peggy’s lab?”
Rain’s brow started to wrinkle in thought, and then his eyes drifted out of focus. He made an effort to answer and eventually gave up shrugging. “I came in a few days ago with the invitation… and then last night…was it last night?” He looked at Peggy.
“He’s often here, they all are.” She agreed and Hertzfeld changed his question.
“Why were you here last night?”
At this Rain became decidedly shifty and looked back to Peggy, “Can you tell him it’s not relevant?”
“I don’t know what’s relevant and what’s not,” Peggy replied genuinely and Rain moaned.
“I couldn’t break into Keaton’s office for his stash,” He gestured to the now empty bottle of bourbon. Keaton silently took that information on board and continued.
“Have you seen this before?” He showed the disc and Rain spent a moment trying to get his eyes to focus.
“Yeah, I found it up there,” He pointed to the blob of chewing gum still in place.
Peggy reached for a Petrie dish and scalpel realising that this too could be analysed for clues. As she started her testing, Hertzfeld asked one last question.
“Have you seen anything like it before?”
“No.” Rain shook his head, discovered too late his mistake and sunk back down to the mattress, his eyes squeezed shut.
Hertzfeld set to work looking for the rest of the party. He found Bruce first just finishing his training and asked for a private word.
“I need you to answer my questions as truthfully as possible.,” He said showing Bruce the disc, “Have you seen this before?”
Bruce picked it up and examined the disc before replying, “No, new to me.” He said adamantly.
“Tell me about your group’s usual movement patterns in the lab?”
Bruce’s eyebrow raised in question, but he kept it to himself and gave Hertzfeld a rundown on their usual routines.
“Outside of the mess it’s the place we meet most often. We always leave from there whenever we translate and if we’re looking for Peggy it’s the most obvious place to look.”
“So you would say you and the rest of the party freely move through the space, gain access when you please?”
“Yes, is that a problem, sir?”
“Not before now, no.” Hertzfeld considered his next question, “ Do you know where I could find Algernon?”
At that moment, Algernon was looking for Rain. He sent an SMS.
Where are you?
Should I go there? He replied and started heading in that direction.
Hertzfeld will find you.
Should I hide? He stopped and found a convenient dark space to wait for Rain’s reply.
There was a pause, longer than he expected, Probably in your best interests to talk to him.
Feeling the heat of the interrogation lamp already upon him, Algernon did what came naturally, he hid. Slowly he made his way to Peggy’s lab, skirting around the CCTV as he and Rain usually did he looked through the partially open door. Inside Peggy was busy working on something, oblivious to the slight movement of her door. Across the way, Algernon could see Rain, for some reason, hiding under a desk but nothing more.
Pulling out his surveillance gear, he carefully placed a camera just inside the door and then stepped away to a storage cupboard across the way and locked himself inside. From his phone, he watched as Peggy extracted white strands of DNA from a pink piece of some pliable plastic. He had just settled down to watch as his phone rang, the Mission Impossible theme tune loud in the small space. He answered it quickly.
“Algernon, Hertzfeld here. I’d like to…” Algernon could clearly hear Hertzfeld just outside the door to the storage room talking on his phone. There was a pause, “…are you in the storage cupboard?”
“Well done sir, you win.” Algernon bluffed, wishing Rain wasn’t there to help.
“Right,” Hertzfeld usually intimidated Algernon just because of his position as the Chief of Science. Now his voice held a more serious tone that Algernon had ever heard.
“Would you like to come in?” He offered and the door handle turned, the door opened. Hertzfeld, seeing Algernon crouched on the ground, took a cleaner’s bucket, turned it upside down and sat on it. He closed the door behind him.
“Have you seen one of these before?” Hertzfeld showed Algernon the disc.
Algernon’s heart sank into his chest. He knew what the disc was. Schooling his expression he replied, “No sir. What is it?”
“Some sort of beacon. Do you know where we found it?”
“Peggy’s lab, “He slowly showed Hertzfeld the feed from the camera, “Under a desk, I assume.” He pointed to Rain now making the connection.
Hertzfeld blinked and watched the feed as Peggy moved back to the desk scalpel in hand to try and take a second sample of the gum.
“Why do you have that?”
“I didn’t want to be blind-sided,” Algernon confessed, there was really no point in lies now.
“Who told you I was looking for you?”
Or maybe there was, “A big avian told me.” He thought that was how the saying went.
“Did you plant this?” Hertzfeld returned to the subject at hand and gestured once more to the disk.
“And the CCTV?”
“I just put it there.”
“Five minutes ago.”
“I hoped to see you interviewing Bruce.”
“So I knew what I was in for?”
Hertzfeld paused, looking down on the young man, his knees up to his chest in the corner.
“You know how this looks.” It wasn’t a question.
“How does it look, sir?”
“Very suspicious indeed.”
“You think I did it?”
“As soon as you found out I was asking questions, you put up a camera in Peggy’s lab and hid in a storeroom. I also know about your blackouts, that you are being affected by something outside of yourself.”
“But I’m just a kid!” Algernon wailed. Hertzfeld signed, ignored the theatrics and continued with his questions.
“Do you have any idea how something like this would have got there?”
“Do you know, sir?” Algernon deflected.
“No that’s why I’m conducting this investigation.”
“How was it affixed?” Algernon asked.
“With chewing gum.”
“Someone who chews gum.”
“ Who do you think that could be?”
“I don’t know, I’m just a boy.” Algernon tried again, but it was gaining no traction and he knew it, “Am I the prime suspect?”
“Well, yes,” Hertzfeld said simply as he ticked off mentally motive, access and capability.
Algernon put away his phone and held up his hands for handcuffs, “Best take me in, sir.”
Hertzfeld blinked again, “I… don’t have handcuffs.”
“I do, “ Algernon offered, retrieving his own set he’d requisitions when capturing The Cowboy. He helpfully handed the out to Hertzfeld.
Hertzfeld looked at the handcuffs with distaste, “Come with me, I trust I don’t need handcuffs.”
Hertzfeld led Algernon across to security where they took one of the interrogation rooms. For several hours Hertzfeld questioned Algernon about his movements and about the beacon. Over and over they went through the same questions, all the time Hertzfeld was trying to find the lies in his statement. He was getting nowhere.
For Algernon’s part, he was finding the whole process thrilling. It was like being part of one of his documentaries and he had to refrain from offering suggestions on how best to question the witness.
“It might be time to use the phone book, sir.” Algernon said enthusiastically.
Hertzfeld’s eyes bulged behind his glasses, “We don’t do that here,” He replied hesitantly, “Do we?”
With a screech of his chair, Hertzfeld stood and excused himself from the interview. Outside, Bruce and Rain were sitting on chairs in the hallway. Bruce stood when he saw Hertzfeld appear.
“Bruce, what can you tell me about these blackouts? What is their source? Do they have a trigger?”
Bruce shared what the group knew which wasn’t much, “We were just deciding what to do about it.”
“I’d suggest you may need to go back to the source, have you thought about going back to his home world?” Hertzfeld suggested.
“He’s terrified of the thought,” Bruce replied but had to agree that this was an obvious way to get to the root of the problem.
“Do we know where he comes from?”
Bruce shook his head, “He keeps that stuff pretty close to his chest.”
Hertzfeld sat down in an empty chair looking every inch as tired as he was. For a moment he just sat there, his head in his hands and the other two could do nothing but look on.
“Well, right now he’s a security risk. Unless you can take him home and sort out these blackouts, I have no choice but to bar him from future work for the Estate. Your team have done good work, I’d hate to see that happen.”
Bruce nodded sagely as Rain twitched agitated beside him.
“He deserves better from us than to be cast aside.”
At that Rain reacted, jumping to his feet in what he saw as defence of his friend. To the others, he was a dishevelled mess of a creature that was barely in control of himself.
“You do that and we’re gone, you hear me. I’ll take him and we’re off through the millions of recursions that make up this universe and you’ll never find us.”
“Rain, don’t be melodramatic,” Bruce replied pulling Rain back into his seat, “They don’t treat people like that.”
“No?” Rain would not be put off, “How about Kamn Sharn? All she’d wanted was to work on cars. And Leroy Caine? Where did he go? What does the Estate do with its little embarrassments?” Taking Bruce’s hand off his arm, Rain walked out, his coattails flying.
Hertzfeld excused himself once more and let himself back into the interview room.
“If you plan on exterminating me I will not go without a fight.” Algernon said as Hertzfeld reappeared. Obviously he had heard the outburst in the hall.
“The Estate does not exterminate,” He sat back down his hands clasped in front of him, “Especially not good agents who are in need of help. You are in need of help, even if you don’t realise it. I’m referring to your memory loss issue, of course.”
“I have a problem with my memory?”
“You do.” Hertzfeld said with a finality that seemed to make the problem more real and present, “The best course is for your team to take you home and find out what is causing it.”
During the hours they had been talking, Hertzfeld had seen Algernon lie, obfuscate, plea his youth and deflect his questions. Never had he seen Algernon pale until that moment.
“I’m sure we should be finding Bruce’s father.” He suggested. Another deflection, another distraction.
“It has something to do with your memory loss?” Hertzfeld asked wondering where this thought would lead.
“There are strange occurrences, Noel’s appearance, Bruce’s Dad’s journal. All clues to side missions. I‘m sure in those I can find something….” Clutching at the straws of an idea, he vainly tried to persuade Hertzfeld.
“You’re afraid of your home recursion?”
“Aren’t you?” Algernon replied automatically, “No, I guess not.”
“Was something done to you?”
“I don’t dwell on it. It’s not my home.”
“But you see, it has left its mark.”
Peggy had been working now for twenty-four non-stop. The DNA results were tantalising, but inconclusive. She’d clearly found DNA, but the telomeres or terminals of each strand of DNA were shorter than expected. This person was either very old so that their DNA was starting to break down, or they were a clone, or both.
Unfortunately, exhaustion was getting the best of her and an unattended beaker overflowed starting a fire. It destroying much of her equipment and all of the sample she’d been able to gather. She was in the process of bashing her head on her lab desk when Hertzfeld walked in directly from his Interview with Algernon.
“Not good news?” He asked, trying to make sense of the chaos that was Peggy’s normally organised workspace.
“The DNA was so frustratingly interesting for a moment, and then I had a fire and I lost the lot.” Peggy lamented, she looked to her desk and to the now-empty hidey-hole.
“When did you last sleep?”
“Sleep?! I have to clean up here, get replacement equipment, possibly run a DNA test on the bone of the beacon itself…” Peggy listed off her task.
“No, you sleep. I’ll clean up here.” Hertzfeld said gently and pushed her towards her bed under the table.
“There another thing, what does short telomere mean to you?”
“Short telomere? We have a very old spy or someone genetically altered? A clone, perhaps.”
Peggy nodded, swaying on her feet, “ You’ll clean up my mess?”
“It’s my job, go.” He ordered, and this time Peggy did not argue but collapsed onto the mattress and was soon fast asleep.
When Rain had left security he had gone straight back to the lab and found the two recursion keys from Railsea. It hadn’t been hard, Peggy had been distracted and he knew where they were kept. For a while, he’d walked around the campus common, trying to clear his mind.
Under the green light of a large maple, he stood and listened to the wind through the boughs, the distant conversations of Estate agents and the even more distant sound of cars thudding across the nearby bridge. Each time his thoughts would swirl back in and chase around his head, clashing and interrupting each other until there was only a cacophony of thought. The alcohol had made him sleep, but it had not been restful. All night he had dreamt and it had been exhausting. And now, in summer light the spinning of his thoughts was a physical thing that he couldn’t ignore.
He just wanted to scoop out his thoughts and put them aside for a while. Put them in a jar and look at them from the outside. He just needed to get out of his head, but he no longer seemed able. Since the final opening of the puzzlebox, it no longer seemed to help calm his thoughts. Not Pandora’s box, but Tobias’ box was open and all the woes of the world were loose inside his mind.
In the end, he took off his coat and hung it carefully from one of the lower branches of the tree. Then he started running. A circuit didn’t take him long, so he went around again, and again, and again. He didn’t count, just paid attention to the strides, the breaths in and out his racing heart. Each time a thought intruded into the simple mechanics of running he would go faster. He kept running until what was left in his stomach wouldn’t let him and he was sick behind the maple. When there was nothing left, he tidies himself at the garden tap, replaced his coat, now far too hot, and slowly made his way to security.
Bruce was talking with Algernon in the interview room when Rain stalked back. Without interrupting he watched the two of them from the hallway.
“Bruce, I didn’t think I’d see you again,” Algernon said, all puppy-dog sweetness. You couldn’t help but fall for the guy.
“I know, me too.” Bruce replied matter of factly, “You know we really need to fix this.”
“We really need to find your dad,” Algernon replied in the same practical tone.
“It will be in your head forever.”
“It’s the safest course”
“I really don’t think you’re taking this seriously, kid. They’re talking about you like you’re a security risk.”
“Well, “ Algernon stiffened a little, his voice became just that little more steely, “The way I see this play out, Bruce, is that we all go and I’m the only one that comes back.”
“Why? We’re a pretty good team, we’ve got each other’s backs. Can you tell me why this place would be any worse than where we’ve been already?”
“What if you were forced to fight me as well?”
Bruce paused at this for a moment, it was not a contingency he’d wanted to contemplate.
“Well then, I guess I’d knock you out.”
‘You see Bruce, I’m good.” Algernon replied not taking his eyes off Bruce’s.
Bruce’s grinned, “Yeah, but I’m better. Want to take this to the gym?”
“I’m all good,” Algernon spoke and it no longer sounded like the puppy, but something knowing and formidable.
Bruce leaned back on the plastic chair making it creak. The small room echoed with the noise.
“The idea of me losing all of you doesn’t feel…nice,” Algernon spoke, breaking the silence.
“Because we’re family, it’s the same for us, “ Bruce grasped at the truth at the heart of both their arguments, “We don’t want to lose you, and we’ll do whatever we have to, to keep you. You’ve got to admit it would have to be something pretty extraordinary that you’d come back and the rest of us wouldn’t.”
Algernon leaned forward across the table between them, thinking through each word carefully, “It is not a place that is gentle on people.”
Bruce was starting to get tired of the cryptic answers, “Look someone is in your head that needs taking out.”
“Maybe my head needs taking off.”
“Quit it! I’m not willing to go there.”
“Can I suggest, sir. I am only a danger to the Estate, in the Estate.”
“You’re a danger to yourself, Algernon. Someone can ask you a question and you’ll blackouts. Who is it that’s controlling you?”
Algernon leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment.
He’s trying to tell us. Rain thought, but could not have said what Algernon was trying to say.
Eventually, Algernon shook his head and seemed to make a decision, “This seems like a distraction sir, let’s get moving.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“I want to meet your dad.”
“He’s not important. He’s not part of the mission.”
“It’s a clue.”
It’s a clue. Rain thought and he wanted it to be true. Dad, Father, maker, creator? His head spun with all the information and he was finding it hard to stand up.
“My dad disappeared years ago, he is not the task at hand.” Bruce continued oblivious to the chaos in the hallway.
“Also not a mission, they have nothing to do with the spiral dust.”
“Goddammit, Algernon.” Bruce swore and only just held back from thumping the metal table, “Someone is influencing you, that has to be fixed before it endangers the mission.”
“It hasn’t affected the mission yet.”
There it is. Rain winced. They had been skirting around the issue the whole day, but only Hertzfeld called it for what it was. A problem with security. A problem of trust. He didn’t know if he wanted to hear any more and started to move away just as he heard his name spoken by Algernon.
“Are you hungry?” Algernon asked in his usual conversational tone.
“I guess it is that time.” Bruce agreed with a heavy sound to his voice.
“I want some coffee. Where’s Rain?”
“They took my phone, do you think I can have it back?”
“Not yet, you can use mine.”
“Not the same,” Algernon said but a few moments later a message silently came through from Bruce’s phone asking him to join them in the mess.
Just as silently, Rain left security, walked the campus one more time before joining them both at the mess.
When he arrived the mood of the two friends had changed. There was a quality of reminiscence to Algernon’s conversation.
“There are some things I miss.” He said as Rain got his own cup of coffee and joined them at the table.
“Like what?” Bruce asked. The party had very little details about the world that Algernon came from, every scrap was noted and discussed between the other three. Maybe it was his own mood, but Algernon’s calm acceptance felt like that of a prisoner on death row facing their imminent death.
“The information. None of this,” Algernon mimed typing on a keyboard and swiping screens.
“What, it just comes to you?”
“Like your own memories?”
“No, more deliberate.”
“What else is really good about home?”
This took Algernon a while to think.
“They don’t have bacon like we do,”
“No,” He shook his head emphatically, his face scrunched up in disgust.
“We’ll get you sorted out and then we’ll get my dad.”
“Peggy knows where the beacons are coming from.” Rain dropped on to the group as the conversation lulled, “We’re going, it’s a done thing.” Now if Algernon was facing his death, it felt like he’d released the blade on the guillotine.
“I don’t want to lose any more family.” Rain reached across the table trying to bridge whatever gap existed between them.
“Same here, “ Bruce agreed with a gusto that jarred with Rain’s mental state.
“I feel the same,” Algernon added, looking Rain back with his steady gaze.
“I have a way of getting out, “Rain confessed, “If things go wrong. There’s a whole universe of recursion to explore.”
“That sounds good, let’s do that.”
“But we can’t unless we know what we’re running from.”
“I can tell you.”
“But you can’t, can you. You haven’t been able to.”
“When we come upon it, I can.”
“But…” But what? Rain couldn’t get his thoughts straight.
“Rain, you’re not making a lot of sense.”
That evening the boys collected in the dormitory as usual. What was not usual was Hertzfeld and a contingent of security to lock them in for the night. Algernon was given back his phone and once he was behind the locked door he quickly sent a message to Peggy.
Say the beacons come from Railsea
But they aren’t from Railsea, She replied just as quickly, They’re transmitting to Ruk.
But we really don’t want to go there.
But that’s where it is.
The next morning Rain was awoken by Bruce’s new daily routine. For a moment he sat watching, taking note that the exercises were tailored for speed and agility instead of his usual strength routine. Eventually, the brain kicked in and drove him to the showers as the door was unlocked and Algernon left for breakfast.
Peggy was already eating and lifted her head from her usual notes to spot Algernon piling his plate with Bacon.
“So, why don’t you want to go to Ruk?” She asked washing her last mouthful down with black coffee.
“Because of the….” He started to explain before falling away in a dead faint. Peggy picked a glass of water off the table and threw it in his face. Algernon spluttered awake now wet and covered in bacon fat.
“They’re monitoring my spaces and I want to know why.” She said as he went back and piled another plate high with crispy strips.
When Bruce and eventually Rain joined the table she explained the beacons and how they were all reporting back to the major recursion of Ruk. As she talked she took out three vials and one by one took a hair from Algernon and Bruce.
“You’re not taking my hair, I don’t know if there’s male pattern baldness in my family, “ Rain protested, holding his hand out for the vial. Peggy gave him the vial and he spent a moment or two filling it with spit.
“How are we getting there?” Algernon asked, sensing a change in the course of the party’s plans.
“You could take us there,” Bruce suggested and a gleam came into Algernon’s eye.
“Sure,” He said, just as he’d heard Rain say many times before.
“I’ve requisitioned a key, “ Peggy tapped several forms in front of her, “My lab is ruined, I needed new equipment so I asked for the key at the same time.”
After breakfast, a small random piece of Ruk tech in her hand, Peggy initiated the translation. Connecting to the Strange was, as usual, the pull of the swirl fractals drawing their consciousness out of Earth influence. Peggy had trouble focusing through the key and the path through the recursions would not open to her at first. With a force of will, she pushed through the obstruction and set the course to Ruk.