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28. The Glistening City

Searching for a way of freeing Algernon from whatever has control of his mind and memories the group have arrived at the city of  Harmonious.  As the skyline and urban spaces of the city dissolved into focus around them, each of the party members needed to decide how this recursion would shape them. 


The first few moments of any new recursion were always the most disconcerting, you never knew what you would be made into.  Ruk with its reliance on highly biomechanical technology was no exception.  Still, the seasoned hoppers of Bruce, Rain, and Peggy had no idea what Ruk would make of them until their conscious’ became aware.  Bruce was clad in a thick military-grade armour made of a synthetic that was lighter than his laminated kevlar but seemed just as tough. He took a breath and listened to his own thoughts for a moment, pleased to find that they were indeed his and not modified somehow by the recursion.  

Looking around he found the group had landed on the edge of a city busy plaza, hundreds of people busily going about their lives, surrounded by clean lines made of steel, glass and other artificial materials.  Flanking the plaza, escalators led up to a monorail track that carried even more people around to other parts of the city in carriages that looked almost biological or at least part grown for their task. Above it all, a fractal night sky swirled menacingly, like the tentacles of a boundless elder god. 

His keen eye first picked up the sudden movement of Rain, currently wearing a cross between a pinstripe suit and iridescent partywear, stumbling into Algernon also decked out in a long black coat, slicked hair, and dark glasses.  Rain’s left hand reached out and grabbed Algernon’s.  Before Bruce even realised there was a knife in Rain’s hand, both palms were cut open, Rain pressing them together, their mingled blood seeping through their fingers.

“Remember…brothers… not just in name… but in blood…Remember.” Rain was saying low and with effort as if each word was a fight to say. 

“Yes,” Algernon agreed, concern and surprise mingling on his face before everything dropped away.  Both he and Rain fell into a trance as the Allsong took them.

Bruce was about to ask Peggy, what she thought was going on when he turned to where Peggy should be and she was nowhere to be seen.  In her place, hovering at about head height was an ever-evolving box of silicone metal.  As it spun, taking in its surroundings, parts of it opened, revealed bright energy within and closing again. The whole process reminded Bruce of Rain’s puzzlebox as he flicked it open and closed.  From a small speaker on one side Peggy’s voice was distant and tinny,

“Don’t look at me.”

A talking box on his left, his other two companions bleeding and comatose to his right, Bruce shook his head slowly in dismay, “Ah, shit!”

Algernon’s eyes flickered open a short while later once his consciousness had reestablished a connection to the world-wide data link called the Allsong.

“Mr Bruce, do you have a bandage?” He asked, and Bruce pulled out his first aid kit, which now included a spray-on wound sealant.  As he applied the spray to Algernon’s bloodied hand, he thought to ask Algernon a few questions.

“What now?  In the middle of the concourse?” Algernon glanced around at the crowds of brightly dressed and well-heeled individuals. This was Harmonious, the bright and shining jewel of Ruk and here was the centre of the entertainment district where the well to do amused themselves.  This was not the place to discuss the type of underhanded activities he associated with his life in Ruk.

“Where do you suggest?” Bruce asked as he finished strapping up Algernon and continued onto the still insensible Rain.

“Ah..over at the Allsong communal.” Algernon pointed to one of the lounges.  Taking Rain by the arm they guided him to a set of comfortable beanbag like seats and tried to blend in. Peggy’s reshaping box followed along, a silent drone waiting on its masters’ orders.

“So, this person controlling you, is it Peggy?” Bruce asked by way of a test question.

“No, “Algernon replied adamantly, almost insulted.

“Scientists?  Ones that made…cloned you?”

“Probably,” He admitted furtively, carefully watching the crowd and the Allsong for eavesdroppers. 

“Back…home, you said it was obvious who was controlling you?”

“Yes..”  The questioning was getting closer and closer to topics Algernon did not want to contemplate and he started deflecting the discussion, “Last time I was here I had to use an umbilical to contact the Allsong and now I don’t.”

As he said this, something on the Allsong noticed his presence.  He didn’t know what it was, but it signalled the start of a counter on their time here in Ruk. 

“That’s a good thing,” Bruce encouraged Algernon, pulling his thoughts out of the Allsong and back to the material world, “So, you know where you’re going to find your Doctor Strangelove?”

This time Bruce did not miss the sudden twitch Algernon gave at saying his old mistresses name.

“You know, what I’m gonna miss is the bacon.” Replied the black-clad fugitive.

“Where is Strangelove’s laboratory?”
“I don’t know.”

“ In the city?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you been to other places in Ruk?”

“Yes, I’ve been around.”  At this question Algernon gave a start as he suddenly remembered something, “There’s someplace we should go.”


“To see if something is still there.”

A movement from Rain caught both of the men’s attention.  Almost straight away it was clear that something was not normal with the smaller man.  Still and speechless, Rain stared blindly out at the bustling city around him without interest.  

“Er…Rain?” Bruce said holding a hand out to touch Rain.  His hand hovered inches from Rain’s arm unsure if to wake what looked like a sleeping walker.

Rain turned, his violet eyes focused on Bruces, but there was no expression, none of the life usually present, “Yes, Bruce?”
“You spaced out there for a while, are you okay?”

“This one is beside you, “ Rain replied in a monotone voice that held no intonation, no life at all, “This one is currently working within expected parameters.”

“Ah, he’s uploaded at least part of his consciousness to the Allsong,” Algernon explained as he too linked wirelessly, looking for Rain.

“Right…” Sighing, Bruce covered his face with his gloved hand, “Did you at least hear the conversation we just had?”

Rain stood for a moment, his head cocked to one side as if listening to something that no one else could hear, “This one was unaware of a recent information exchange.”

Standing, Bruce bent down so his face was on a level with Rain’s he growled, “We are going to have words when we get back.”  He stared at the unresponsive face of his friend with a looked that showed he really wanted to knock a little sense into the fool.

“Can this one be of service, Bruce?” Rain asked, again in the empty monotone voice.

Bruce turned to Algernon, “Yes, we will be leaving as soon as possible.”

At the same time, Algernon was scanning through the Allsong.  He hadn’t been in Ruk for more than twelve months and scanned for information about recent developments.  He never got a chance to go out much, usually just dawdling back from one mission or another, but he was surprised that so little had changed  Or maybe it was he had changed so much. 

So as not to leave a trace he carefully searched for the movements of one Doctor Strangelove.  From all reports, it seemed that the Doctor was off-world having left in a hurry.  He breathed a little easier knowing that she would be out of range of the Allsong and dropped the search.  Next, he found Rain and made contact creating a virtual private network between the two of them. 

Bloodbrother, He called accepting the ritual that Rain had started as they translated.  

Rain responded immediately.  

Ah, password, And the word was added to the security of the VPN.  Algernon nodded, pleased to think that Rain understood.

Out in the physical world, Bruce was taking in the ever-shifting shape of Peggy’s new form.  

“And how are you going?” He asked, feeling like an idiot for talking to a floating box.  Peggy’s tinny voice replied,
“All good, considering I’m a silicon construct.”

“Bruce, you do not look happy,” Algernon commented after completing his tasks online.

“Yeah,” Bruce flicked a look at his friend, “We need Rain’s people skills and he’s switched half his brain off,” Bruce confessed, “Rain, could you at least look up Doctor Strangelove?”

Rain’s head tilted as if he were again listening to something unheard by everyone else, “Apologies, this one is unable to find that information at this time.” Came back the response.

“Ready to go?” Algernon asked as he too rose ready to get moving.

“Go where?” Bruce asked, “You haven’t said.”

“The scar, come on.” Algernon ushered them along sure that any moment black-clad figures would descend and take them all.  People very much like he once used to be.

“Why?” Bruce started again with the twenty questions.

“I left something there.”


“I’m not sure what it is.” He responded truthfully, he really couldn’t remember.

“Will it help us find Doctor Strangelove?” Bruce asked and Algernon physically winced at the sound of the name.

“Possibly,” He didn’t know,  and he really wished Bruce would stop saying the name out loud.

As they walked, the mind of Rain was busy surfing through the bewildering tangle of information that was the Allsong.  He followed links and hints until he found a contact with the Quiet Cabal, a group that was known to be on friendly relations with the Earth and worked with The Estate.  The headquarters of the Quiet Cabal in Harmonious was in the opposite direction to the way they were going.  He made a mental note of the address and sent a message via the Allsong. 

Members of The Estate enquire about speaking in person.  Is this appropriate, please advise.

Off to the side, Bruce asked Peggy if she could do a search for Doctor Strangelove as the other two seemed unable or unwilling.  Though her identity had been saved to a floating metal cube, she did not link to the Allsong like the Algernon and Rain and had no access to its information.  She still had her link to the Strange so, as they walked along the city street,  she focused her thoughts on the swirling mass of stars and clouds only just above her head.

Where is Doctor Strangelove, She asked and was frustrated once more by its cryptic reply.

Off chasing something interesting, It said in her voice, making her swear in computer code, a jarring mess of machine language that blurted out her tinny speaker.

As the group walked through the streets of Harmonious they passed several groups of heavily armoured guards watching the citizenry, checking IDs of individuals and making the presence felt.  These were the Myriand, a highly trained and equipped form of police and Algernon took careful note of each and every checkpoint that the group moved through.

“So what is this Allsong, what is it like?” Bruce asked after they’d been walking a while.  He knew that Algernon and Rain were constantly linked to it, but had been frustrated with having to find information second hand through the unreliable or the possible untrustworthy.

“You can link to it at an Allsong Communal, “Algernon pointed one out, “You’ll need to use an umbilical, but many on Ruk do just that.”

Stopping at another cafe lounge-style establishment, this time Bruce and Peggy both attached to leads that either plugged into ports (as in Peggy’s case) or encased the head as with Bruce.  

“So, do I know Kung Fu?” Bruce quipped as the umbilical engaged and opened his conscience to the Allsong. He was oblivious to the stares he received as his mind fell into the Allsong.  The sardonic smile soon left his face as he found himself drowning in sensation, not just visual and auditory, but scents, touch and even taste.  He could smell a song being played by a virtuoso across the Allsong, taste the colours of an advertisement for the Zal Corporation, hear the flavours of a variety of products brought from the Grey Forests.  With a force of will, he pushed through his request for information on Doctor Strangelove and was rewarded with a number of locations, the rumour of a secret lab, registrations of various vehicles owned by the doctor and information about the doctor’s membership to the Karum, a faction opposed to Earth dominance and focused on its destruction as a way of advancing Ruk. He tucked that information away and disengaged from the Allsong.

“Why did you have such a tough time finding that information,” He asked the unresponsive Rain, “I found it very easy to find her address.”

Rain made a very human shrug, “This one is still navigating the Allsong, Bruce.” 

Now with the information, Bruce felt that now they had a course of action apart from the vague and dubious directions given by Algernon.

“We can now go and visit Doctor Strangelove.” He said, watching as Algernon twitched.

“Great,” Algernon replied, and once more started directing them towards The Scar.

Turning to Rain, Bruce gained his attention, “If needed, can you get access to all of Rain’s skills?”
Immediately Rain responded, “This one is fully functional.”

“No, you’re not and if you were you’d know why I want them.” 

Rain remained silent, awaiting input.

“I want,” Bruce finally relented, describing his plan, “to negotiate with Strangelove for Algernon’s contract.”

A pause from Rain as the all familiar head tilt as Rain listened to the Allsong.

“This…is one possible solution to Algernon Balthazar Theobald’s problem.” Came the response that was as far as the limited personality of Rain could express doubt.

In the private connection, a message as fast as thought moved from Rain to Algernon, 

The plan that Bruce has outlined, is this an appropriate process?
I’m currently trying to work out how to block Bruce’s future links to the Allsong, Came Algernon’s irritated response.

The Scar was recognisable as a feature in the city long before they got to the entrance.  Great random pieces of city, scaffolding, blocking, twisted glass.  All the elements that made up a city seemingly growing at random as if the construction coding, the city’s DNA had been lost or jumbled up for this section.  The Scar was a deep cut through the centre of the city and went all the way down, to the Undercity, a place where those who could not afford to live on the surface, existed.  The entrance to The Scar was a twisted metal wall looking like a giant’s broken set of piled up pick-up-sticks.  Here, loitering around, the group noticed three Myriand troopers.  As they came close, however, the three troopers moved on as if on business of their own.  

Algernon watched the troopers with interest as Peggy’s attention was drawn to the metal wall.  Deep within the structure, she saw the telltale shimmer of the Strange, and with a little careful movement of her new silicone form, she edged through the random construction of the wall and picked up three cyphers.  While Peggy fought her way back through the tangle, Bruce continued his questioning of Algernon.

‘What is this thing we’re getting?

“Something that may have come into my possession by…unusual means.”

“Is it stolen?”

“Well, they didn’t give it to me if that’s what you’re asking?”

“Is it safe?” Bruce asked, an echo to Algernon’s well-asked question, they both smirked.

“There’s safe and there’s safe, “ Algernon replied and looked to Rain who he knew would have appreciated the response…at any other time, “Safe enough.”

“Could we use it to negotiate your release?  What do you think it would go for?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think it’s even possible?” Bruce said almost to himself when he remembered that the Doctor was a member of the Karum.  She will not want Algernon’s memory released so he can help save Earth.  But, if the deal was sweet enough, would her greed override her principles?  

He looked at Rain, beside him.  His usually lively lavender eyes were dull and lifeless only taking in the world passively instead of absorbing the wonders and sights all around.  He had to admit he was feeling very lost without the little man’s insights into human nature, his easy way of seeing an opportunity or his intuitive leaps in reasoning.  Even though they stood side by side, Bruce felt was alone.  

Right now I can’t yell at you, it would mean nothing. But just wait until we get back, Mr Bigby.

Peggy, her treasures stowed within her silicone shell, the group continued down the metal gangplanks into the random artificial jungle that was The Scar.  Indeed, now having found the cyphers ‘growing’ in the tangle, she felt emboldened joined in the conversation.

“Algernon, what does the Doctor find interesting?” She asked through her tiny speaker.

“Her experiments,” Algernon suggested, not really sure what made such creatures as the Doctor, tick.

“What does she experiment on?”

“Particle physics, portals, Strange matter…” He remembered that training well, he had often assisted her in her experiments in those fields.

“And what sort of experiments on you?”

“On me?” Algernon thought this was a topic that had come up before, at least now he had to admit to himself that something wasn’t right, “Nothing I can remember.”  

He glanced at Rain and found his friend staring at him, the Spiral dust tinted eyes looking through him in a blank stare that was unnerving.  Through their link he could…feel that Rain was collecting data on his body language, tone of voice, language use and expression, but for what purpose Algernon couldn’t tell.  The eyes blinked, the blank expression didn’t change and eventually, the eyes returned to looking forward once more.  Had a decision been made?  Just as he was about to ask, Algernon’s sense went blank.

For a moment he wasn’t sure what was going on.  He was sure he was still standing on the sloping catwalk of The Scar, but he couldn’t feel the slope, see the path, hear his companions or taste the rusty metallic tang of the air.  Slowing, like a computer booting up first one application, then another, his senses returned and he saw Rain collapsed and sliding down the ramp in front of him.  

“We’ve lost connection with the Allsong,” Algernon said looking up and realised that they were now covered by the interlacing network of metal. Like the branches of ancient trees in old-growth woods, the girder and twisted metal blocked out light.  No signal could penetrate that amount of metal and though his identity was fully within his own mind, the breaking of the link was a significant loss.

As Bruce reached the unconscious Rain, his eyelids flew open and he sat up with a jerk.

“Connection to the Allsong lost, offline protocol now established.”

Bruce’s teeth ground audibly, but he said nothing, instead helped Rain to his feet.

Not long after, the metal grating they were walking on levelled out and over the side of the walkway, a huge chamber opened up below.  Ahead, a nexus of paths provided an open space where vines of metal and other artificial materials hung down from the girders and scaffolding twisted above.  

From somewhere back in the recesses of his mind Algernon recognised the vines as a nutritional source, a food supply of sorts.  Bruce’s head jerked to the left as his keen senses heard something that the others failed to pick up.

“I can hear something…kid, do you know what that is?” He asked and Algernon focused on the sounds around them.  A faint cry an odd squeak, maybe the movement of rusty parts of The Scar?  Again from the dark recesses of his mind, he dredged out a name.

“Vat rejects,” He said,  rejected clone set loose in The Scar by unscrupulous creators.  No one knew their real origins, but as the Zal corporation made most of the clones, it was assumed that the Vat rejects were something to do with them. “Extremely violent and dangerous.”

“Is it a Wil Robertson?” Asked Rain.

“Yes, Run!”

They ran or hovered as fast as they could down the opposite passage as the creatures emerged into the dim light of the crossroad. No two were alike, and none of them humanoid.  Armoured in a chitinous carapace, the vat rejects were covered in spikes and protrusions that they used to skewer and smash into each other. 

Looking back, the group could see that the vat rejects weren’t interested in them at all, instead, all their attention was on the vines.  Tearing at the strands, the creatures lapped up a thick milky sap that dripped out.  When one grabbed a juicy piece of vine and snapped it off, the group attacked them on mass lashing out to be the one to possess the treat.  The feeding frenzy continued until a brightly lit blaster bolt sliced through the group of vat rejects hitting one.  The shot had come from up the path, back into the city and the vat rejects turned, ignoring their feast to attack the new intruder.  The group didn’t stick around to watch anymore and continued on their way.

It was unfair to think that Rain was not aware of what was around him. In fact, his mind was as active as always. Now his mind wondered and theorised without the external processing of information, the others were used to. It certainly didn’t come without the emotional baggage he’d been inflicted since confirming his story, which was the whole point

  As they continued into the depths of The Scar, his thoughts turned to uses that the Scar was put to by the citizen of Ruk.  For all its randomness, it seemed a place of great opportunities, cypers waiting for the picking, direct and unobserved ways around the city. Though there were the occasional surveys sent down to understand The Scar, maybe the odd salvage team, it was mostly a forgotten place to hide mistakes, like the vat rejects or as in Algernon’s case, a good place to hide a secret.

It was Peggy who noticed the vibrations first.  As she floated above the metal walkway by magnetic repulsion, she was keenly aware of a deep buzzing throughout the structure before the others noticed.

“Algernon…?” She queried as if he had something to do with it.  Suddenly, the whole section of walkway she hovered above shot four metres into the air.  Quick reflexes and the control of her magnetic body ensured she didn’t fall off, but the others were now trapped, blocked off from the path that now continued where she hovered. 

“I think we need to go this way, “ She said from above, and without a word, Bruce and Rain started climbing the metal structure and Algernon levitated up to join her.  They continued on the new path opened up by The Scar.

Algernon knew they were getting close to where he hid the item, he stopped to look around him as Bruce came up and placed a meaty hand on his shoulder.

“We can do this, together,” Bruce suggested, but Algernon sensed another message in the gesture.

“Mr Bruce, I’m not going to run away.”

“I know you won’t.”

“I think I’m close, I just need to look around,” He stepped off the path and started climbing through the latticework of twisted metal.

“Use all your senses to see, “ Came the cryptic advice of Rain, accompanied by the frisson of his encouragement.  Algernon scanned the space around them and picked up a movement, behind them just off the path. The individual was big, as big as Bruce in his heavy armour and moved more subtly that the vat rejects.  It was a member of the Myriand, a veteran to judge by his skill.  If it hadn’t been for him searching for the item, he’d have never spotted the watching eyes behind.  He passed the information back through the connection with Rain who quietly informed the others.

“A cop? What’s so interesting about this thing?” Bruce asked, purposefully not turning to see where the Myriand was.

“That is information, this one would be interested in as well,” Rain replied as he tried to look around Bruce to where the officer of the law hid.

“Look, I don’t have to get it,” Algernon said as he climbed back through the metalwork, “We’ll just walk away.”

“This thing is important, it was the first thing you thought of when we got here.” Bruce protested as he moved to walk away, exposing the all too curious look of Rain.

“It’s like…that documentary, the Monty Python and the Holy Grail, they have to get it, but they don’t know why?” 

“They were on a mission from God, “ Bruce corrected as the group started moving away, oblivious to what was going on behind, “Do you think you’re on a mission from God?”

“I guess I missed that bit.”

Rain’s less than subtle scanning of the path behind had drawn the Myriand’s attention.  Knowing now he had been discovered, the veteran left his hiding spot and walked purposefully down the path towards the group.

“Why is the Myriand guy walking towards us?” Peggy asked and everyone stopped to allow the officer to catch up.

“Now we don’t need any trouble, “Obviously the officer was expecting trouble from Algernon as he looked straight at him, only taking a cursory glance Bruce and Rain, “Just hand over the device.”

“What device?” Algernon asked in his standard innocent schoolboy manner, “I’m just a kid.”  Dressed as something from the Matrix it didn’t wash with the Myriand. It never really had.

“The one you stole.  Hand it over,” The officer was now taking in the other two, calculating his chances.  

Algernon stepped behind the group, and focused his thoughts on the Myriand and tried to find the undoing, his weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Sensing the movement in the Strange and the nature of Algernon’s power, Rain stepped in front of the officer.

“What is the nature of your information?  We believe it to be faulty.” He said, drawing attention away from Algernon and onto himself.

“Oh, yeah?  And what do you say you’re doing down here in The Scar?”  He asked, more than capable of keeping his attention on two suspects at a time.

“We are on a survey to understand The Scar, “ Rain gestured to Peggy, the folding and unfolding metal cube that the officer, until that moment,  had disregarded,  “Peggy herself has found unique items that the Scar seems to be creating.”

With a whistler and shudder, Peggy’s drone formed a light-emitting crystal and a hologram of Peggy herself was projected amongst the party.  Wearing her usual lab coat, she looked very much like the mad scientist that dominated society here in Ruk.

“Urgh, that’s weird.” She said, looking down at her shimmering body of light.

“Ah, are you associated with this one?” The Myriand asked pointing at Algernon.

“Sometimes, though he dislikes being associated with me, shame.” She replied in her usual matter of fact style, “We do know that Algernon has gaps in his memory, it is entirely reasonable that he may have stolen something, but unfortunately he may have no recollection of the item or where to find it.”

In the meantime, Algernon had his information and was sharing it silently with Rain over their private link.  Myriand were modified human’s, with specialised senses to detect lies and dissemblement.  They were also linked to a hive mind, via the Allsong. What one knew they all knew.  

He won’t have fallen for your story, Rain.

Irrelevant, it was a distraction for your process.  Rain emotionless thoughts returned via the link, He can not talk to his collective as he too is unable to link to the Allsong at this time.  If you wished to destroy this Myriand, now would be the ideal time.

It was unsure what Algernon thought of the suggestion of murder from Rain as Peggy’s conversation had returned the attention of the officer back to him.

“Do you recall stealing the prototype?” He said and there was an internal sigh of relief as Algernon could truthfully reply. 

“I definitely do not remember taking it?”

“And concealing?”

Here Algernon was on dangerous ground.  His lie would be detected before he could even say the words.  At that moment, he felt the frisson of the Strange as Rain spoke.

“You can do this, remember well.” The words said, but the Strange energy was Rain’s familiar encouragement.  Bolstered , Algernon confidently turned to the officer, “I do not remember.”

The Myriand blinked, surprised by the ring of truth in the words.  Now it was Peggy and Bruce’s turn to go on the attack.

“We understand he worked for some individuals, would you happen to know any of his previous associates?”  Peggy asked innocently enough, probing for information that the officer was not willing to hand over.

“Some,” The officer hedged.  This was his interrogation, when did he need to answer questions?

“Is it possible that these other individuals have the item in question?”

“Possible, “  He hedged again, looking more and more likely that his information was not complete.

“This is an appropriate line of questioning, “ Rain said to the officer, but this time Peggy felt the sizzle of The Strange.

“Also, I was wondering if mind control was a legally sanctioned practice here in Harmonious?” Bruce asked.  He’d been quiet up until that point, ready to attack if needed, but it was a point he wanted to make.  The officer looked uncomfortable.

Peggy’s official look and the party’s all-round relaxed demeanour, plus the fact that the suspect in question could not be found to have lied finally convinced the officer, at least for the time being.

“I will need to keep in contact with you, where do you live?”

“No abode at this moment,“ Rain added, “This one is sure you can keep in contact via the Allsong until accommodation arrangements have been made.”

Having noted the names of each of the party members, the officer left, walking back the way he had come.  The party stayed where they were until they were sure he was well out of sight.

“Peggy, that was amazing, I didn’t think anyone could stare down a Myriand,” Algernon congratulated her and even her hologram flushed from the unaccustomed thanks.

“Well, ah…your welcome,” She replied shyly, and smiled, making her look younger than her 25 years.

After the scare with the Myriand, Algernon was taking no chances.  Pulling a cypher from his backpack, he set it off.  Nothing seemed to happen, but Algernon relaxed.

“It’s a blackout, no one will be able to listen in on what we’re doing, “ He explained before heading back into the tangle of metal that was The Scar.

He hadn’t been far wrong in his estimations and soon returned with a metal suitcase, a metre long and half a metre wide.  On a metal label on one side were the words, Project Nephilim. Prototype 1. The Zal Corporation logo was prominently stamped on the case.

“Nephilim, …when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. Genesis 6:1-4, “ Rain quoted,  to the group like a talking dictionary.

“Should we open it?” Algernon asked the group, looking around for an appropriate place.

“Better than walking out of here with that case, I’m thinking,” Bruce replied and Algernon moved a little ahead to where an uneven doorway seemed to give way to a small living space.  Once the home to some destitute, Algernon carried the case towards it perceived safety.

Before Algernon knew what was happening, he felt a hand push him down into the hovel, as Rain stepped in above him, dagger drawn.  In one smooth movement, the dagger was thrown, not at Algernon but above the door where a giant metal spider perched, ready to ambush the unwary.  The knife did no damage, but it pinned one of the creature’s legs between the wall and the flat of the knife blade.  As it struggled to free itself, 

Bruce swung his metal pinch bar up he struck the spider, cracking its metal carapace.  A milky substance ooze out the breech.  Having been granted time to act by his friends, Algernon swung around his huge crossbow, here equipt with robotic limbs that pre-tensioned the line, ready to fire. He did, the bolt slipped inside the crack made by Bruce and pinned the creature to the wall for good.

“Metal spiders, that’s a new one, “Bruce commented taking a close look as the body dripped white ooze.

“Chaos spider, like the vat rejects, “ Algernon explained returning to the case and finding the latches, “Leftovers from other’s failed experiments.”

The latches clicked under Algernon’s fingers and he slowly lifted the lid.

Inside, folded one on top of the other were a pair of mechanical wings and harness designed to fit an average human.  Algernon lifted them out of their case and examined them closely before handing them to Bruce.

“Query,” Rain asked pulling his knife off the spider and slipping it away unseen, “Why would this be so desirable?  By whom?”

No one answered.  It was a marvellous machine but was just that.  Even Earth had similar tech, though nothing so advanced.  In the end, Peggy, using the materials around her in The Scar, fashioned a new case, a vaguely machine looking piece of metal with a cavity for the wings to hide.  Strapping the whole thing to his back, Bruce carried it back out of The Scar, Algernon careful to go another way.  

When the two boys hit daylight once more the Allsong reconnected and Rain received a message from the Quiet Cabal.

We have heard about your team. Yes, we should meet.

“Algernon, could you take us to the following address. The Quiet Cabal has heard of us and wishes to speak,” He informed the group of his previous message, before entering The Scar.

“Yes, this is a good idea, “ Bruce said, making a connection from the information he’d gathered about Doctor Strangelove. “The Doctor is a member of the opposing faction.  They may be willing to help.”

“In-deed,” Rain said, turning his blank eyes on Bruce.  If Bruce didn’t know better he would have sworn that those two syllables were computer Rain’s attempt at sarcasm.

“Yes, very much, indeed.”

To be continued….

27: But, I don’t want to

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.

“Do what?”

“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?

Peggy’s lab.


Something’s up.

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.

“No. “

“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.

“London then?”

“Also not a mission, they have nothing to do with the spiral dust.”

“Crows Hollow?”

“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.”
“Hasn’t it?”

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?”

“Floating around.”

“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?”

“Sort of.” 

“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,”

“Any people?”

“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.” 

“I know…I…know…” 

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.

26. Many Simple Truths

Back at the Estate, after the revelation of an invitation in the final compartment of Rain’s puzzle box, the party tried to decide where to go, Crow’s Hollow or take the invitation. When Bruce suggested leaving the decision to God guiding their destiny with a coin toss, Rain took up the challenge.  *********************************************************************

“Sure,” Was all Rain said as he flipped a gold crow high into the air, the gold claw motif once more catching the light as it spun and flipped.

“May God guide your hand,” Bruce said low and fervently watching the heavy coin fall.

All eyes watched its rise and descent, all eyes except Rain’s who never left Bruce’s face. He turned his practised hand ready to receive the coin. With a movement so small and subtle, instinctively judge the coin’s fall, he caught the heavy coin vertically between index and middle fingers of his left hand.

Bruce’s face fell in deep disappointment and a twinge of guilt spiked through Rain. But the guilt could find no purchase and was quickly replaced by irritation.

“I have another idea.  Instead of leaving things to chance why don’t we use our god-given brains.”  He said giving Bruce the coin.

“It wasn’t leaving the decision to chance, it was letting the powers decide,” Bruce grumbled at Rain.  He ignored it and turned back to the group.

“Due to all the excitement over the puzzle box, I may have overlooked another piece of information that we discovered at the library.” Rain gestured to Algernon giving him one last chance to speak openly and honestly about the facts he’d been hiding from the group, “Would you like to tell the others about the documents we found  before the puzzle box fell?”

Algernon looked surprised at Rain, puzzled by his request and unsure what to say.  He turned to the group, his hands open and visible in front of him shaking his head in confusion.

“We didn’t find anything new.” He said and Rain’s irritation was fanned.

“Really?” He said now facing the young man square on, “Now, I suggest you tell us all about planetvores.”  The phrase left Rain laced with the force of the Strange.  Rain’s indignance and frustration over Algernon’s and Bruce’s behaviour pushing the influence of the words.

Algernon straightened, his gaze locked on nothing, “Alright, the thing about planetvores…” He started saying before his eyes rolled up, his eyelids fluttered closed and he slumped bonelessly to the floor of the lab, unconscious.

Bruce was the first to react, immediately at Algernon’s side, checking breathing and heartbeat before placing him on his side in a comfortable position.

“He’s breathing and heartbeat seems normal.  He’s just fainted. “Bruce turned his attention to Rain, his expression thunderous, “What did you do?”

Rain just stood back frozen, his face locked into an expression of unutterable horror.

“No…I didn’t…” He said but nothing he could say was the truth.  He had done this, he had turned The Strange on to his friend and pushed.  In the end, he just stood there shaking his head and Bruce turned away in disgust back to his patient.  

No more than a minute later, Algernon’s eyelids flicked open and he sat up looking curiously at the others circling him.

“What just happened?” He asked as he stood with Bruce’s help, on wobbly legs.  Rain, on equally wobbly legs, sank onto a lab stool and silently thanked the powers.

“Well, we don’t know, Rain asked you a question and did something that he’ll never do again, “With another thunderous look from Bruce, Rain could do nothing but look away, “Isn’t that right, Rain?”

“Yes, yes…I’m sorry.” He agreed hastily, relieved, dismayed and curious at the same time, “Algernon, do you suffer from blackouts?  I mean, moments that you can reconcile, when you don’t remember how you got where you are or what you are doing?”

Algernon stared at Rain with as bemused smile flicked across his face, “Well, doesn’t everyone?”

The room was silent.  The three companions looked at each other with worried expressions.

“No Algernon,” Bruce informed his patient soberly in a quiet voice, “That is not normal.”  He looked at Rain whose eyes darted back and forth as his mind made sense of the new revelation. 

“How did you know?” 

“I get it now,” Rain replied, “I’m…sorry I didn’t understand before.”

“What?” Bruce asked anger once more bubbling up, only just cooly restrained, “What did you just understand?”

“I get people, that’s what I do.” Rain stood, taking the floor.  He turned to Peggy behind her lab table, “ I get Peggy, no offence you’re easy,”

Peggy shrugged, not sure if to be annoyed or pleased.

“And I now get Bruce, “ He turned to Bruce wanting to say more and thinking better of it, “But Algernon was so….contradictory.  You are so smart, so sharp and…couldn’t remember whole conversations…you’d seem afraid of confronting anything then throw yourself into a fight, like the one in the warehouse…or…throwing yourself at a moving car in the wastelands…do you remember that?” He spun on the spot and faced Algernon was slowly shaking his head. 

“I just thought that was how he manifested his fight or flight.”  Bruce said, “He is naturally tentative, but when the shit hits the fan…”

“People are more…nuanced than that.” Rain shook his head now facing Bruce, “The written conversation in the cave… the words he uses sometimes…the way he sometimes seems…different…” As he said it he remembered where Algernon’s body language was more determined, less tentative, “…just lots of little things…”

“Can we fix it?” Algernon voice, small and unsure echoed across the lab.  There he stood, his arms wrapped around his chest looking scared and very alone.

“There’s nothing to fix.” 

“Something for me to study?”

“Bring the two together, the determined and the smart Algernon?”

All three said together, stopped and stared around.

“Just..go slow, “Bruce turned to Rain and Peggy, “Remember what you said Rain when we thought we were going to lose Peggy?”

“What did you say?” Peggy arched an eyebrow.

Raising a hand asking for her patience, Rain stepped forward and faced Algernon.

“Do you think you want to be fixed?”

“It’s not safe.” Algernon replied, but this time, in the context it seemed odd, nonsensical, “I have to go.”

“No, please!”

“You’re not leaving my sight.”

“Just a few tests?” The others said together and Algernon stopped, a mouse frozen to the stop, surrounded by waiting cats.

“Please, Algernon why isn’t it safe, can you tell me?” Rain asked but all he got back was the terrified stare of a prey animal facing its predator.

“I don’t understand why I fainted, “ He finally said, “What happened?”

“I asked you a question about…about the scary thing…I made you answer…”  Rain looked to Bruce, “You were right…I did do something, I…pushed him to tell me, I wanted to know how he could know and not know at the same time.” Rain faced Algernon again now tears of not frustration but remorse welling in his eyes, “When you tried to answer…you fainted.  I’m so very sorry?”

Instead of more fear or even anger, Algernon seemed to calm and grow curious.

“You did something? What?”

“Ah…you remember when we fell into that couple’s apartment in Celephais?”  Rain said stepping one step closer to Algernon, “Do you remember that I suggested to them that it was all military exercises?”

Algernon nodded, even smirked a little at the memory.  Rain stepped closer.

“That was the first time I’d pushed someone into thinking what I wanted them to think.”

“Oh,” Algernon replied now interested in this new ability.  All thought of running had gone and he stood thinking a moment with Rain only an arm’s length away, “Can you use it again, if I asked?” 

A collective held breath was released.  

“Yes,” Rain nodded earnestly, “If you want, but only if you want.”

“Yes, Rain, only with the patient’s permission.” Peggy scolded from behind her lab bench, “Do you need a lecture on patient rights as well?”

Suddenly the tension that had been building in the room since Rain had posed the question was released.  They all chuckled at Rain’s discomfort at the thought of a lecture from Peggy and Bruce now stepped up and drew Algernon and Rain back into the fold.

“It seems to me, maybe we need to go on vacation somewhere.  Things have been crazy of late, we could do with a break.”

“Yeah, not Crow’s Hollow for a while.” Rain brushed a shaking hand across his still bruised face dismissing the welling tears and sighed, “I still have my recursion.”

“I was wondering about another trip out to Railsea,” Bruce suggested and there were nods from Peggy and Rain.

“What about the invitation,  the Found Gentlemen?” Algernon reminded the party and Rain remembered his puzzle box still clutched in his right hand.

“Found Gentlemen, odd name.  How were they lost to have to be found?”  Peggy asked, now employing the more relaxed feel of the group to go through a few basic coherency tests with Algernon.

“A picturesque phrase for a certain sort,”  Bruce replied dismissively as if they were not the sort of people you would want to associate with.

“Rain is one, he got an invitation.” Algernon retorted.

This comment seemed to disturb Bruce, “He’s not…at the moment.  He has an invitation, doesn’t mean he is one.”

“Why not?” Rain now looked aggrieved that Bruce, “I felt very lost over the year, it would have been nice to be found. Besides, it leads to your past as well.”

“Do you think it would be seen as aggressive if we all come along?” Algernon mused and grin bloomed on Rain’s blotchy face.

“I wouldn’t go without you.”

“Algernon, “ Peggy completed her tests and found Algernon perfectly conscious and aware, “Can I mind-link with you?”

“Hell no!” Algernon replied, but he didn’t jump back or shy away, only laughed at Peggy’s disappointment.

“Well, where else have you suffered blackouts?” She would not be deterred from asking simple questioning at least.

“Mostly in the library.” He confessed and it was Peggy’s turn to chuckle, “I know that feeling, just before big exams.”

Peggy tried one more way to get information without the evasive testing that she knew would send Algernon running.  Closing her eyes and linking to that feeling of the swirling clouds of the Strange she asked a question.

What influence is causing Algernon to have mental blanks?

Returning to her in her own voice was a cryptic reply, He carries his past with him, but he doesn’t know it.

Peggy repeated the reply, “What sort of fortune cookie bullshit is that?” She spat in disgust.

“It certainly sounds very familiar for this group, “ Rain replied, “So I guess that mean’s he belongs, congratulations, you’re as loony as the rest of us.”

Somehow without any particular agreement, the group decided to use the invitation and travel to see the Found Gentlemen.  They broke up to prepare themselves for the next day in whichever way they thought best.

Bruce went down to the gym and firing range, getting in touch with the instructor, readjusting his routine and mentally re-tunning with exhaustive physical exercise.  After, he returned to Katherine’s office topick up his amour and report their next excursion claiming it was a micro recursion of Rain’s finding but not sharing information about the Found Gentlemen. 

Rain went out into the city for a few hours, coming back with a new set of lockpicks purchased and not given to him by the Estate.  When the cordite had cleared from the firing range he tried out the new arm sheaths and soon became as proficient moving blades from them as he had from his back sheaths.  The speed of Lightfeather may be beyond him, but accuracy was his aim.  He spent a few hours until his arms ached and he remembered to check in on Algernon.

Algernon tried designing explosive bolts for his crossbow.  At this Peggy was a font of inspiration and even offered a plan for a prototype that would use cyphers to create a tiny rip in space wherever it hit.  Materials for such an endeavour were rare though, so that led Algernon finally to Lawrence Keaton’s door, his direct supervisor.

The creaking and slamming noise of doors hastily being closed in response to his knock told him that Mr Keaton was in his office and making ready to receive visitors.

“Ah Algernon, I did not expect to be seeing you, what can I do for you?”

“I am in need of special equipment, something that Doctor Peggy believes can be made with the right parts.  I understand she calls it an Arrowhead of total destruction.”

Keaton balked at the name of the weapons and automatically shook his head, “You’re doing some great work at the moment, you don’t want to spoil your glowing reputations with unnecessary death and destruction.”

“Don’t you trust me yet, sir?  Haven’t I proved my worth?” Algernon replied aggrieved.

“Not with explosives, no.”

“These are more implosive as I understand, sir.”  Gesturing with his hands Algernon simulated the difference with a sharp clap. 

“You’re really not convincing me here, kid.” Keaton grimaced, “You’ve succeeded so far without wreaking total destruction, keep up the good job I say.”

“But sir, think what could be achieved with better equipment.”

“Precisely.  The answer is no.  Anything else?”
“I’d like to requisition more surveillance equipment.”

“See, a sensible suggestion, “ Keaton pulled out a requisition slip and started filling it in.

Peggy filled Hertzfeld in on the Implausible Geographic Society, mostly to complain about their crude laboratory set up, but also to vent about Noel and his abandonment to the “other side”.  Hertzfeld had problems of his own with his phasing suit and was pleased for a moment’s reprieve to go over Peggy’s plans for the arrowhead.  Though theoretically possible, he had to agree the components were not available for such a project.  Her attempts at trying on her own failed and she had to shelve the project for the time being.

That evening, Algernon was sequestered in the library surrounded by research material when Rain finally found him. Without disturbing his friend, Rain noted the subject of the research, information on psychology and brain chemistry.  Seeing that Algernon was dealing with the problem as best he could, Rain let him be and, since reminded of the joys of literature from his Daydream library, found the fiction shelving and burrowed into the collection getting reacquainted with old friends.

The next day, feeling much improved after resting in beds in the safety of the Estate, the group met once more in Peggy’s lab.  Rain dumped the invitation out of his puzzle box onto the lab table and Peggy led the translation.

A room, luxurious in its appointments, swam into focus.  On three side, richly inlaid wood-panelled walls decorate the space.  In the centre two large wingbacked chairs in deep red leather sat either side of a small side table that held a cut glass tumbler, ice defracting the light through a clear brown liquid.  The fourth wall was a thick glass or perspex window looking out onto natural space and the decrepit remains of a broken space station.  Sparking in the starshine, a halo of broken components, metal and glass gave the station a misty, magical appearance.

Besides their location, some of the group had also changed. Bruce and Algernon looked like their Earth-based selves. Rain was covered in integrated LEDs that flicked through an array of colours before settling into a cheery yellow.   Peggy was most changed.  Her skin was deathly pale with a slick sheen of moisture.   Her hair instead of the soft messy curls, was a black wiry array sprouted from her head.  Three-quarters of her face was replaced with a metal mask from which both eyes glowed dimly red.  From her right arm, a weapons of sorts protruded out from behind her at the elbow.  Her legs were bent backwards like that of birds.

Rain reached out and touched her skin, it was cold and clammy and made him shiver.

“Are you feeling okay, Peggy?”

“I…feel…good…different.” Her voice came out synthesised and neutral, as dead as her skin.

Taking a deep breath, Rain looked at the two chairs, the ice in the glass chinked as they slipped against each other.  Picking up the glass, he breathed in the scent of the peat and wood tones of single malt whisky.  It made him smile nervously.

“I guess I get to sit down.” He said almost as a question.  Bruce nodded agreement.  

The glass in one shaking hand, Rain grasped Bruce’s in his other before carefully taking his seat in the nearest chair. A moment of nothing and then an image flickered into existence in the opposite chair.

It looked like an elderly man, with close-cropped hair and beard with clear pale blue eyes.  The man’s image was familiar but did nothing to allay Rain’s nerves.  Leaning back, he nodded to acknowledge the hologram and waited for the being to speak.

“Greetings Tobias… and friends?” The hologram looked around the room at the rest of the party watching on.

“I suppose you’re wondering why you here.”

Rain raised the glass and breathed in the whisky, attentively listening, saying nothing.

“I like to collect things, I look for people who can find interesting things for my collection.  You seemed like someone that I would like to work with.”

With that Rain shot the whisky and focused on the burn before speaking.

“I apologise, “ He finally said when he felt more in control of himself, “I think you found me twelve months too late.”

The hologram of the old man wrinkled his face in consternation, “Oh? How so?”

Without a word, Rain looked to his companions arrayed around.

“Ah.  You’ve found your place.” The hologram nodded understanding.

Rain, in the moment, was flummoxed.  He felt this moment was important, but didn’t know why. He didn’t think he wanted anything from the image, and it was certain there was nothing he could give. In the end, he settled on the second reason for their visit.

“But sir, we are not here just for me, “ He said, and stood, clearing the chair for Bruce.  Bruce sat down.

“What do you want from Rain?” Bruce asked and Rain clutched the back of the chair in anticipation.

The figure in the chair took a moment to think then looked back to Bruce in the chair, “He has a darker past than he knows. I slipped him my card hoping he’d find me when he was ready.”  

He knows. Rain thought and for a time he heard and saw nothing as the equivalent of mental white noise dominated all his senses. When he returned to himself the discussion had moved onto the other topic and tears were running down his face.

“Look,I’m here searching for a man from Railsea, he used to work for the Manihiki Fero Navy.  I have information that tells me he works for you.” Bruce was telling the figure in the opposite chair.

“Why is he of interest?”

“I believe he knew my Pa, Jimmy Johnson.”

Rain giggled at the mention of ‘Jimmy’, having to stifle it when Peggy stared at him with her red eyes.  The coincidence of Bruce’s father’s name and his own first true alias had driven out a bubble of nervous energy in the form of a giggle.  He didn’t see anything funny in it, but the thought sparked something for Rain and he tried to focus once more on the image in front of him.

“The gentleman in question is out on an errand at the moment.” 

“Could you tell me where he went?  Maybe we can find him.”

“He’s out acquiring an item for my collection.  He will be back in a day or two, “ 

“Collection?”  Peggy interrupted in her mechanical voice, “Could we see it?”

The hologram turned to look at Peggy and slowly nodded its head, “Yes, why not.”  

The image stood and led the group through the door at the back of the room and into a dark space highlighted by pools of light.  The lights were forcefields surrounding some of the most well-known items of history and fiction.  A sword pertaining to be Excalibur was set beside a piece of the hull of the Titanic where the iceberg had ripped through like tinfoil.  Part of the Berlin wall with a graffitied image of two middle-aged men french kissing sat alongside a small plain gold ring in a very thick forcefield.  

Pop cultural references and item from major moments in Earth’s history side by side.  It was not surprising when Algernon gasped and raced through the exhibits to stand in front of a low bodied motorcycle, decaled in branded sponsorships and painted a bright crimson red.  Try as he might, he could not get past the forcefield to sit in the Shotari Kaneda’s Akira bike.

Rain had been following along behind the group, blind to the stuff displayed around him.  His eyes were only for the figure, moving through the lights, sometimes commenting on one piece or another, discussing in general terms the properties of the forcefields that protected them.  The hair was different, but that was nothing, the way this figure walked without stiffness or infirmary was also different and harder to reconcile, and it had been 25 years and a whole lifetime of experience watching people ago.  But the more Rain watched, the more he was sure that the hologram was of the man he knew as Mr Joseph.

“Excuse me, sir,” He interrupted the tour with a crack in his voice, “May I ask your name?  I assume that Mr Joseph is no longer appropriate?”

The figure stopped and smiled, happy that he’d finally been found out, “You may call me Ni’Challan.” He said and turned back to his collection.

“You collect people and things, “ Peggy could be heard from behind a working shuttle from the NC-1701 Enterprise, “Do you have John and Athena Martin in your collection?”


“Or Lededje Y’breq?” Algernon asked seemingly in the same vein.  Though Peggy’s answer had been monosyllabic, the image that was Ni’Challan thought about his answer for a moment.

“Interesting.  I don’t, but maybe I should look into this individual.”  

The tour moved through a group of specimen jars with various biological examples.  Peggy clearly identified a face-hugger from the Alien franchise and determined that it seemed dead.

“What is this place called?” Algernon asked as they passed another thick window of perspex that looked over the debris field that was the space station.

“Originally it was called the Graveyard of the Machine god.” NiChallan joined Algernon at the window, “Or I should say at the end of the space that was the Graveyard and The Strange.”

“Ah, we knew a girl who visited the Graveyard of the machine god, made an android mother.  She might be worth you collecting.”

“What about her?” Peggy interjected, “She’s on a traineeship, she’s doing well where she is.”

“Well, it would get her out of the Estate.”

“Why would she want to leave the Estate?  It’s the best place I’ve ever work?”

As Peggy and Algernon bickered, Bruce sidled up beside Rain who was hanging back lost in his thoughts.

“Are you going to ask him about your history?” He whispered low so only Rain could hear, “Sounds like this might be your chance to find out.”

An electrical shock part excitement, part horror travelled Rain’s nervous system making his shiver.  This was the moment he’d been wishing and dreading in equal measure for 25 years. To let it slip by now would be a tragedy.  Again, he felt himself forget to breathe so he nodded and took a shuddering breath in.

“Ni’Challan,” He said, not recognising his own voice as it came out strained and stiff, “You mentioned something about my past.  Just for interest sake, you couldn’t tell us my story, could you?”

Ni’Challan, who had grown bored of the argument, had wandered through the collection. He stopped and once more turned his penetrating gaze on Rain.

“When I was told about a possible candidate for collection, such a rare and tragic case, I had to see for myself.  What I found was a creative, problem solving individual that had a great deal of potential.”

When Rain did not reply, barely moved, he continued, “You don’t remember do you?”

“No sir, “ a stilted reply.

“Do you know your real name?”

Rain was sure his heart had stopped at that moment and a shaking hand enclosed the pendant, the white flower with a green centre, “I have only the name Tobias Cudo.”

“Amir.” The short gentle sound left Ni’Challan’s lips and struck Rain like a battering ram. Instantly another name sounded in his mind, Ademovic.

“Mean anything?” Bruce asked quietly at his side.  The shock and rareness of the memory, the truth of it was too much and Rain could do nothing but shake his head.  Ni’Challan didn’t seem to notice and continued on with his story.

“…a mostly pleasant childhood I understand…”

“Parents?” Rain whispered.

“Yes, they were taken from you, tragic.” 

“Who took your family and who and why?” Bruce asked Rain who was now, head bowed silently weeping.

“Sir, do you not know your history?” Ni’Challan turned his pale gaze on Bruce, “The Bosnian War?”

Bruce had to shake his head in ignorance of the conflict.

“On the 11th July 1995, Serbian troops overran UN peacekeepers and took the city of Srebrenica.  In the following week, more than 8000 Muslim men and boys were rounded up and killed.  It was a massacre.”

“Eight-thousand-three-hundred-and-seventy-two.” Rain automatically corrected without looking up.  It was true, and now it had finally been said, it was real.  He hadn’t expected facts to hurt.

“But how did you know to look up those number, that massacre?” Bruce asked.

“It…was…mine…” Rain said, “My foster records…no details, just a lost kid without a name from Bosnia, but enough…not hard to look up.”

The room went silent as the only sound was Rain gasping for breath between tears and Bruce shuffling awkwardly beside him.

Peggy now took the opportunity to change the subject.  She had been staring and the objects in the collection with a question that she now able to articulate.

“Usually when you bring an artifact through to another recursion, they change to fit their new surroundings.” She said, gaining Ni’Challan’s attention.

“Hey yeah, “Algernon added, “When we watched the probe go through the inapposite gate in Celephais, the display changed as it entered a more technological recursion.”

Peggy nodded, “Exactly, so what’s stopping these artifacts from changing to just hunks of space junk?”

“Ah,” Now Ni’Challan seemed to see Peggy and responded accordingly, “The force fields, you have already noticed.  They were able to trap a piece of the reality of that recursion along with the artifact.  Of course, being on the edge of The Strange doesn’t hurt, this is the only place where this technology can exist.”

“I guess you’re not inclined to share this piece of research with others?” Peggy’s red eyes lit up adding  a rosy blush to her grey complexion, “Not even for good will.”

“I think I’ve shown you quite a lot of goodwill.” Ni’Challan moved away leaving Peggy to ponder the nature of the force field in front of her.  

She looked around, trying to make sense of it and noticed a series of optical sensors that lined the roof of the exhibition space.  She studied the force fields in as much detail as she could with her enhanced naked eye.  Ni’Challan did not try to stop her, but neither did he give her any clues.  She knew it was drawing power from the Dark Energy Network, but how and to do what, she had no idea. In the end, she had to file away what she had gathered and let it be.  Maybe the concepts would come in useful if not the direct practice.

“I suppose if you’re to wait for Rondat tu Vin to return I should show my hospitality.” Ni’Challan now said to the group, “I have rooms I keep aside for recruits.  Even if you aren’t joining me,” He looked at Rain who was unable at that time to respond.  “You are all welcome and look like you could do with the rest.”

Ni’Challan led the way to private rooms that the group took advantage of and rested and reflected on the day. 

Hours later and the group were invited to have breakfast with Ni’Challan.  In another room of massive proportions, a continental breakfast awaited. Ni’Challan also waited at the head of a long dining table.  Flanking the table, another window looked out onto space, this time a clear view of stars and nebulas, free of space station debris.  They mostly ate in silence, staring out the window or lost in their own thoughts until a movement at the window drew their attention. 

As they watched, a bright spot of energy grew, lengthening forming a tear in space.  Through it came a spaceship that Peggy and Rain instantly recognised as the one he had seen in Celephais.  Peggy moved over towards Rain on her springy mechanical legs and touched his hand to create the mind-link.  Instinctually, Rain’s hand seized hers in an desperate grasp at comfort and she was flooded with sensory information from the physical touch and the link. 

Unlike the usual order calm of a fractal starscape that Rain was careful to project to Peggy, Rain’s thoughts were a mess of emotions, sounds, smells, words in other languages all spiced with an adrenaline kick that seemed very familiar.  Maybe it was her partly computer brain at that moment, but she was able to remove herself from the human mess and focus on the coherent thought, the strongest being a name.

Amir Ademovic.

Same ship?

Yes.  A simple reply returned

She acknowledged the message, quietly letting the others know.

They waited, watching as the ship maneuvered towards a dock and locked in place. Engines on board the ship powered down and a passageway extended out to an airlock door on the ship. Through the door, a trolley covered by a tarp trundled up the ramp. Ni’Challan who had excused himself could be seen in the passageway, greeting a middle-aged man pushing the cart.  They exchanged a few words and then Rondat moved the tarp enough to let Ni’Challan see beneath. Satisfied with the delivery, Ni’Challan beckoned Rondat inside and to the group.

“Here is a man who thinks you can help him find his father.” Ni’Challan pointed out Bruce who stepped forward to speak to the newcomer.

“Very well, why do you think that?” Asked the man in a straight forward tone of voice.

“You sold this journal in Celephais, “ Bruce pulled out the journal to show to Rondat who glanced at the book before returning to his gaze Bruce. “That is my Pa’s journal from Railsea.”

“Yes, “ Replied Rondat simply, “He joined up with the Fero Navy, he said he didn’t need it anymore.”

Behind Bruce, the connected Peggy and Rain silently watch Rondat tu Vin.  Sharing the same thoughts they could clearly see that though he was hiding the truth of Bruce’s father “joining the navy”, the fact that “he no longer needed” the journal was an outright lie.

“By the last entry in the journal he’s been there ten years?” Bruce asked flicking through the few entries there were to the last written page.

“If you say so, I can’t say I kept in touch,” Rondat replied and Peggy and Rain nodded together, that was the truth.

“It says here something about navy recruiters sniffing about.”  Bruce pointed to a section, “When was the last time you saw him?”

“When he sailed out from Manuhiki.” 

“Any way of confirming that information?”

“I would assume Navy Admin.”

“Where’s that?”

“Manuhiki.”  He laughed nervously and looked around the group like that information should be self-evident.  All he got in response was silence.

“I’m sure the Navy will be quite happy to help…”

“Was he press-ganged?” Bruce interrupted.

“Never, no, our recruits are all volunteers.”

The two lie detectors stiffened at the outright lie.

Bruce changed the subject, “Found Gentlemen, what do you collect?”

Rondat looked to Ni’Challan who nodded for him to continue.

“A statue.”  He lifted the tarp to reveal a primitive carved statue.  Peggy recognised it from her anthropological studies as a statue of Nodens, and ancient Celtic god and also of the ghoul.

“You bought this from Lightfeather?”

“Yes, “Rondat stiffened defensively.

“Which was it before then? Was it bought or stolen from the ghouls who owned it?” Peggy spoke sharing her knowledge of the idol with the group, “Lightfeather is a thief.”

“I have a long-standing relationship with Lightfeather, “ Ni’Challen said without guilt, “He’s able to get things that others aren’t.”

“That relationship may well be over, last we saw him he wasn’t looking very well.” Bruce said to Ni’Challan without taking his eyes of Rondat, “A rival drug cartel got him.”

“He in drugs?” Ni’Challan said seemingly surprised by the revelation, “ I just buy objects for my collection.”

“It doesn’t matter, “Rain said tiredly to Ni’Challan, “We’ll not inconvenience you too much longer, sir.  Just one question.  We have recently become the interest of a planetvore, do you know anything about them or how to stop them?”

Ni’Challan gestured Rondat away who quickly took his cue and left the room.

“That is unfortunate.  I collect things not information, I don’t know much about them.”

Rain nodded.

“I really don’t think you were wrong about me.” He said quietly, “Just one year too late.  Is there a way I can keep in touch?”

“You have my card.” Ni’Challan replied and Rain nodded, a sad little smile flickering across his face, “If you want something you think I could find, let me know?”

As they walked back to the wood-panelled room, Algernon made a silent detour returning moments later.  Silently, without discussion, they translated back to the Estate, everyone happy to be leaving Ni’Challan and his collection, for now.