Wednesday, October 17, 2018


Fishers of Hope

June Day sprinted with urgency through the halls of the Armistice. Whenever she passed a window looking out into space, if it wasn’t already covered, she didn’t bother looking out, but not because of her hurry; no one did anymore. She was young, but the stars disappearing was an old story. It was a wonder that people felt the need to pass it down; she had certainly been curious why her parents had bothered telling her. That in days generations-gone, the blackness of space had been filled with endless lights of prismatic color, that humanity couldn’t count all of the things called stars and couldn’t help but reach for them. She supposed that times like those could come again was the sort of thing that stoked the fires of the candlers. And made divers like her necessary for the future. She supposed that’s why people got out of her way as she hustled along.
When she thought about the trajectory of her life, June was warmed by the nostalgia. The first time she had ever seen a diver, the man had been on his way to die, but no one knew that at the time. The man had departed behind the applause and adoration of the assembled mass, the group a minority of some several thousand making the old freighter their home. And when he hadn’t come back alive, everyone seemed to think it was the most natural thing in the universe. June had been perplexed by that, too, until she had grown up, and started diving herself.
Finally, she reached the hangar and caught sight of her crew’s ship, the Pandora. Better yet, she caught sight of Revel.
“Slow down, child, what could be so big a hurry?” he asked as she rushed up. Revelry Dawn was just old enough to make it ambivalent as to whether his white hair was caused by his age or his profession. He had strong hands though, quick and steady. At his feet were spools of rope and climbing gear.
“Em’s in trouble,” June replied, taking a moment to slow her breathing.
Revel sighed.  “I suppose the captain should be informed. Is it drugs or gambling?” The crew had rules, those set forth as agreeable and sensible which most divers followed, and then ones that applied to their crew specifically, as mandated by the captain. Most had to do with safety and timeliness, but one applied to their pilot specifically.
“We need to hurry,” June said, entering the ship. With the engines off, the tight corridors were dark. However, so long as they were clear, another of their crew’s specific mandates, June was fine. Through practice, she had developed a good sense for running through darkness safely. Hayes stepping out of her room was an unforeseen hazard, though.
“Watch it, pup,” the woman barked. Hayes was around Revel’s age, and was turning away from the irascibility of her youth into the cantankerousness of middle age. June thought for a moment to tell the woman what was going on, but a lecture would’ve denied what might have been precious minutes.
As usual, the doorway marked Tomorrow was closed. As the rule demanded, June knocked, albeit urgently.
“What?” the captain asked from inside.
“Cap, Em’s in trouble,” she said, keeping her ear close to the door.
“Specify the trouble, June,” the captain said.
“Five point seven, Captain,” she said. Before her sentence was finished the door was opened. Morrow Israel, Revel claimed, was the spitting image of his father: tall with broad shoulders and strong features. But his eyes were his mother’s: light gray discs with specs of brown. The captain’s eyebrows were stern. Emergencies didn’t come up often on the Armistice, and everyone knew how the captain felt about practical jokes.
“Where is he?” he asked.
“Chroma,” she said.
Morrow shot past her a moment later. “Dammit. Why didn’t you just call?”
“He took my com,” she yelled at his back, hurrying to catch up. The pilot had cleverly affected the theft before the trouble started. She might have called the authorities, but they took care of their own. That was a rule most followed.
Upon exit, Revel was waiting. That left either Hayes or her to watch the ship. June glanced over at the other woman and looked right into her stare.
“Hayes,” Morrow started.
“Got it, go save your stick jockey,” she replied. And then they were running again. June glanced back at Hayes once before they left the hangar. The woman didn’t approve of someone with Emerson’s history to be their pilot. Though, she didn’t approve of much of anything. She and Revel made a strange pair. He was a candler, and not like a pretender, the kind of people who claimed to be, who took comfort in the illusion of belief. Revel honestly believed that a brighter time was coming. June had an ulterior motive in studying with him that she’d yet to admit. It was hard work, though. To say that night was darkest before the dawn was one thing, like her mother was fond of doing. Revel believed. And in that way, strangely, Hayes was a nihilist. June had surmised that the lack of conflict had a lot to do with Morrow. She hadn’t figured out yet what he was.
“Idle hands,” Revel quoted as they went.
“I thought you didn’t believe in the devil,” Morrow said.
“I don’t. But I do believe in temptation.”
Color bars like Chroma were one of the Armistice’s many distractions. It used to be a pleasure cruise ship, but had been recommitted, and renamed. However with depression and dementia being so widespread, many of the attractions had found new purpose. Secretly, even June had tried the hallucinogen once, and it’d be a lie to say that it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Looking at the paintings, playing with the colored sands, watching the light shows, it was good not to have to focus on hoping all the time.
When they arrived, the line of people usually present was absent. Morrow slowed to the entrance and stopped. Revel and June also surveyed the situation before entering.
At first glance, the only occupant was their pilot, sitting in a chair near the back of the room, facing the door. On closer inspection, the men Emerson had been gambling with could be seen lying on the floor, unconscious. June had been wrong. Emerson wasn’t in trouble; Emerson was trouble. Morrow stepped into the room finally.
“Dammit, Em,” the captain said. He walked over, and Revel and June followed. A gash above the pilot’s right eye was visible, along with some bruises. The men on the floor were much worse off.
“The end of the human race is that it will eventually die of civilization,” Emerson wrote in the air as he talked.
“Rev,” the captain said. The older man nodded, bending over to help their pilot out of his chair. As he rose, the pilot looked down on one of the gamblers.
“No change of circumstance can affect a defect of character.” When last she had seen the pilot, he had been surrounded by larger men armed with clubs and other blunt weapons. She was afraid he’d lose even more than his freedom. Time was the only thing any of them had, and Em gambled with his. Everyone thought they were crazy, but Em was the only one of them who truly was. When they turned around, they could see that the doorway had been filled with the Armistice’s guards.
The constables were the only people on the ship with guns, because they carried out the law. According to Revel, crime hadn’t decreased so much as it had become less creative. The last things people had were more than enough to kill for. There wasn’t enough time, or enough space to go around.
“Captain,” the man in front said, stepping forward and looking around.
“Commander,” Morrow replied.
“Grisly scene,” the commander said, then he didn’t speak for a long moment. “I want you to know, as citizens of the Armistice, we’re going to do our due diligence to get to the bottom of the perpetrators of this madness,” he said.
“I appreciate that,” Morrow said. Being a diver did have certain privileges but this was something June had never heard of. But, she had come to the Armistice for a reason. Even other diver had heard of Morrow Israel and the Pandora. The constables parted for them, and they were almost through the door before the commander spoke suddenly.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” He tapped the front of his head forgetfully. “I have a message from the governor. He wants to see you. Now.” Morrow didn’t turn around, though.
“On my way,” the captain said.
“What do you think he wants?” Revel asked when they were outside.
“How long has it been?” the captain asked.
“Almost three months.”
“Well what do you think he wants?” Morrow asked.
“I’ll take him back. Go see the governor. And take June,” he said. Things were happening above her head.
Morrow sighed. “Let’s go,” he said, and began moving off down the concourse.             June followed.
Morrow said nothing as they walked, and from experience, neither did June. In the beginning, she had taken offense at his reticence, until Revel had pointed out that such was just his way. The candler had maintained that Morrow was in a unique situation, that even though he was grown into a man, he was still sorting some childhood things out. Revel never said, but she knew Morrow’s parents had both been divers, and they had both died doing it. Sort of like that nameless man in her memory that flew off one day and never came back. But the couple in question, Gospel and Felicity, they had left behind a son. He was a legacy, which was completely unique among those of the profession, so far as Revel or Hayes had heard. And they had been around.
“The plan,” Revel had explained, “was for them to retire, pay even for Morrow’s life. I was there for the dive Gospel and Felicity made after they found out she was pregnant. They went to the governor of the cruiser, and they asked for nine whole months.” The candler had recounted the tale, and freely admitted his terror. A fourth member, Thelonius, had sacrificed himself to save the rest of them. That was where Morrow had gotten his name. Then a decade later, on a mission half as long, and a third as dangerous, they had lost their lives. Hayes, Revel, and another crewman named Hap had been the only survivors. Morrow had been old enough to understand that his parents had died, and how, but not why. June had solemnly absorbed the details, but later she had cried like she was a child again. Yet that was the bargain. Dive work was the only work in the universe a person could retire from.
Under normal circumstances, it was difficult to see the governor. The man in charge was responsible for everything on the Armistice, including resource distribution and trade schedules and flight plans. But five minutes after setting foot on the concourse leading to his offices, Morrow and June were standing in front of the man’s desk. He had a huge window in his office, and he hadn’t bothered to cover it with a painting or even a simple curtain.
“Israel,” the governor said, stepping forward hastily. He shook hands like he was in a hurry, too. He was short, shorter even than June, and he was bald with no plan to hide it.
“Some of your men found me, told me you wanted to have words,” the captain said. Morrow made no move to sit.
“Yes, yes, well, you might have noticed that I haven’t called on you in quite some time.”
“Sure,” the captain replied.
“And I want you to know, it isn’t because I’ve been looking at a new crew. Not at all. You do good work, and not just for us here on the Armistice. It’s important for you to know that.” Morrow glanced down at June. “But I had to be sure. And now I,” and the governor paused. He pulled an item from his pocket. Beams of light from corners of the room projected and focused, bringing an image into view, hanging in the air. The image was of a world, spinning lazily. “Now, we’re out of time.”
“What am I looking at?” Morrow asked.
“Attalanta,” the governor replied. He walked through the projection, making the world twist and constrict. He showed Morrow the remote and pointed to a symbol at the bottom. June leaned in to see. “That stands for Atlantis. It’s the corporation that designed this projection system, and the ship around it, and so many other things. A hundred years ago, they were pioneering communications. I’ll spare you the details, but this was the home world for their headquarters. It would have all the archived data from their entire company’s innovations.” A hundred years previous, or thereabouts, was when everything went dark. Dark and cold. Ships like the Armistice were designed to tour the space between worlds, but planet-side systems used sunlight as part of their climate conditioning methods. The cold snapped across unsuspecting worlds in minutes, and most of the population died in hours. The lights had gone out in every respect.
“Stored how?” Morrow asked. “And stored where?”
“Within a data bank,” the governor said.
“Where?” the captain asked again.
“In a sub-basement,” came the quiet reply. Morrow turned and began walking towards the door. June followed him. Any place still intact was only just so; when whatever happened that made the stars go out, it also threw everything around, like someone shaking a bag full of rocks. Things smacked into each other, causing catastrophic structural damage, which made crawling beneath the surface of any world the quickest way to get dead there was.
“Please, just hear me out.”
“Not interested.”
“You don’t understand. They had a demonstration on their centennial.”
“Don’t care.”
“They beamed Xenabytes of information from Earth, hundreds of them. All of that information, thought lost.”
“You have a good day, governor.”
“I offer eternity!” The door to the office swished open but Morrow did not step through. June, stopped a hair short, could hear the captain breathing; she could hear him thinking. “Liberty for you and your crew, for the rest of your lives. That’s my offer, Israel.” The door swished shut in the captain’s face, but neither did he turn. June suspected she knew what the others would say. At least, she knew what her opinion was. They endangered themselves with every dive. So one dive for the rest of their lives made sense. Perfect, crazy sense. Slowly, the captain turned.
“For some data,” Morrow said.
“For the data,” and the governor pressed another button. “This building here,” and a little yellow dot glowed brightly on the surface of the planet. “Is where you’ll need to go. The files are stored in a sub-basement beneath it.” The image zoomed in on the blinking dot, which turned out to be a titanic structure. It looked like a space station, but set into the ground. June had seen their like before, but never upright. Like everyone else she knew or had ever heard of, she was born on a ship hurtling through black space.  The governor used his hands to form the corners of a rectangular shape. “They used data plates, fed into the computer. They shouldn’t be too heavy. Simply remove them and bring them back.”
“For data,” Morrow repeated.
“For knowledge, captain,” the governor corrected. “With all the lost data, we can make things we trade for now, repair ships thought derelict, or even build new ones. We can stop guessing at why all this happened. Wouldn’t you want to know, if you could?” It was an urgent enough appeal.
Morrow Israel said nothing, nor did he move an inch. “And you’re telling me now because,” he said.
“The window is closing.” Another gesture from the governor caused the image to zoom out again. “A moon is coming.” The projection shrank until the moon striking the planet looked more like two stones smashing together. Neither was round afterwards. “We’ve got less than two days,” the governor said. Casually, the captain turned around again, and this time when the door opened, he did step through. “Didn’t you hear me? Two days!” the governor said with June rushing after Morrow.
“Then you’ll have my answer before tomorrow won’t you?” the captain replied. He never turned back around.
Later, the captain put it on the table for the crew to decide, and he laid it out just like the governor said: half a day to decide to commit to the dive to end all dives.
“I say yes,” Revel spoke up first.
“I’m in, too.” June was right behind.
Hayes made a dismissive noise with her mouth. “Why the hell not,” she said a moment later.
“It is not length of life, but depth of life,” Emerson agreed. All eyes turned to Morrow.
“It’s underground,” he mentioned again.
“Which will mean rope and climbing gear,” Revel said.
“And cave-ins,” Hayes added.
“Into a high-security facility,” the captain repeated himself.
“It’s been over a century with no power,” Revel countered.
“And we can’t map it before hand, either,” Hayes said. June had to be told about the building metrics of some facilities that repelled the tech of their mapping tools, which let them scan through certain materials.
“For a chance to make better the lives of not only ourselves, but everyone else who is, and might be,” Revel said.
June kept her face straight, but she was in awe, in a way that she never was whenever her mother spoke of belief.
“If you could know why all this happened, would you want to?” Morrow asked Revel the governor’s question.
The older man smiled. “You forget that I already do,” was his reply.
Hayes farted. But she had nothing else to say. And that decided it.
June Day smiled widely.
Within the hour, the governor had the answer he wanted, and the rest of his information concerning the facility was downloaded to the Pandora’s computers. The governor had been scrounging up information for years, and from everywhere he could find. It turned out that the Armistice had been heading in the last known location of Attalanta for decades. The man was thorough, which made him easier to work for. He had a brief recording of a man in a long white jacket talking proudly about the company’s achievement, gesturing at a tall bank of storage cubes with blinking lights on the front. They watched the recording several times and committed the size and shape of the thing to memory.
As Emerson began ramping up the systems, June and Revel did a walk-around of the ship, checking for any malfunctioning or damaged parts. She caught sight of a small boy watching from the mouth of the hangar. The child waved. June waved back. She and Revel tested their coms: they informed the pilot that there was nothing wrong that they could see, and he in turn told them all systems were level. They embarked.
In the front glass, their view of the hangar was pushed sideways by an all-consuming blackness. As they left the Armistice, space looked like a mouth swallowing the ship whole.
“You sure he isn’t on anything?” Hayes asked, sitting in her seat with her legs crossed.
“He’s fine,” Morrow said.
“I can hear you,” the pilot replied, but didn’t turn his head.
“Good, then fly the damn ship,” the captain said.
Emerson didn’t take his hands off the wheel, nor did he rebut.
Out in the black, what the ship saw was very different than what they could spy with naked eyes. Attalanta was a smaller world, only slightly larger than a moon. At the behest of its pilot, the Pandora began her approach. Once, Emerson had described to June how re-entry worked. She was new and he wanted it known how difficult his job was. Diver pilots had a stigma for being glorified getaway drivers.
“In skating over thin ice, our safety is our speed,” the pilot had said.
They approached the facility from the opposite side of the planet, skimming along almost parallel to the planet’s surface. They traveled a thousand miles laterally to sink a few thousand feet vertically.
They glided over the facility, spotlights and three-dimensional optics revealing the dimensions and textures of the terrain below. Morrow sat forward in his chair, instructing. They’d survey the situation, and if it looked impassable, they’d ditch. The Pandora’s lights illuminated the caved-in facility, a far cry from the upstanding structure June had seen in the governor’s office. The very top was sticking up at an angle, like it had fallen over, but the lower levels looked impacts like they had collapsed under some immense weight.
“So how many tons of rock would you say that is?” Hayes asked.
“Spiral out,” Morrow ordered, and slowly, they made an expanding, circular route until they found huge chunks of rock sticking up out of the ground, creating sloped pits in the terrain. Anticipating the next order, Emerson tipped the Pandora’s nose down, trying to adjust the angle from which the instruments could read.
But the pilot shook his head. It was the next to the last moment when ditching was a likelihood. Morrow thought carefully and quietly. Then he gave the order to suit up.
One room of the ship was dedicated to the storage and protection of the most valuable equipment in the crew’s arsenal. There were breech keys and explosives and geo-mappers and pry-kits, but more valuable than them all were the suits that made diving possible at all. A long time ago, someone had had the idea to go harvesting through the darkness for supplies. Suits had already been made to for space walks, but they were bulky, and not nearly durable enough. So, people contrived better ones. Before syncing, they all looked like they were wearing a larger person’s clothes, but with the twist of an actuator, the suits became snug. After gathering the rest of the basic equipment, everyone had their own personal additions. Morrow’s was his father’s multi-tool, a handheld device that had a variety of uses that the captain used for everything from opening locks to propping open doors. Hayes liked to carry extra rope. June had drawing chalk from when she was a child, a gift from her father; it was a keepsake that turned out to be useful. Revel’s was a cylindrical canister that bent fingers could just narrowly encircle. She’d never seen one used, but he called it starlight. The candler carried it close to his heart, in a pocket attachment magnetized to his suit.
With a last word from Emerson, who had picked his landing spot, they exited through an airlock. For speed, they all went out at the same time, bunched tightly. Predictably, Revel put his arms around all of them.
“I love you all,” he said.
“Permission to leave him here,” Hayes said.
Morrow said nothing. When the other side of the lock opened, slicing cold reached out and coated their suits in ice. The suits needed to be made more durable because a rip or a tear would mean instant death. Morrow lead them over to the hole in the ground, following the nether end of his helmet light. He knelt, and everyone looked over his shoulder, down into the pit. He pointed a wrist, and a metric on his arm told him how far it was down. He stood and looked towards the facility.
“I’ll wager the lower levels are wider than the upper ones,” he said.
“Hayes, anchor,” Morrow said. Quickly, she began un-spooling her rope while Revel secured climbing screws into the ground. In minutes, Morrow was walking down the wall, his secondary light source pointed down. He went alone. And when he reached the bottom, he knelt again, pointing with his wrist.
            “Good news?” Hayes asked.
            “Three hundred meters,” the captain said.
His voice was clear and sharp through the coms. June sidestepped so she had a clear view of the complex and pointed her geo-mapper.
            “Call it three-fifty,” she said.
            “Good. It’s clear. Going to have to crawl, though.”
            “Oh, joy.” Hayes stayed as anchor and June and Revel went down second, and then third. The older woman descended last, confidently but not quickly. At the bottom, they all saw what Morrow meant. Without complaint, Hayes dropped to her stomach and scurried through the narrow space right after the captain, followed by June and then Revel. The crawling was extremely slow going, requiring them to occasionally push themselves up and walk-crawl forward, or drop completely flat and drag themselves forward with their arms. The path had to be cleared of anything that could potentially tear at their suits, and the ceiling had to be carefully observed lest some foreign snag hook them in place. June concentrated on her breathing and the bottoms of Hayes’ boots. She’d heard stories of people who discovered their dislike of confined spaces in the middle of a dive.
            Three hundred meters later, with everyone’s breathing crowding the coms, they stopped, having reached their destination.
            “I don’t suppose there’s a welcome mat,” Hayes said.
            “Just a wall,” the captain replied, pausing. “And it’s confirmed: the mapper isn’t breaking through.”
            Hayes’ feet shuffled about in June’s vision, annoyed. It was something to focus on, but not moving gave everything a desperate finality. June’s elbow scraped against the ceiling. Revel’s hand on her boot calmed her.
            “Blast it is. Breecher should do,” Morrow said.
Revel moved first, slowly and carefully, but stayed close enough to help guide June and she in turn to help guide Hayes as they all moved backwards for safety. Up ahead, Morrow was removing the long cylinder each of them carried on their backs. The breech key had a pump action slider, which primed a violent pulse that, at close ranges, could blow through stone and metal. Supposedly, it could be used safely up to five primings, but none of them had ever gone past three.
            “We’re set,” Hayes reported, after which Morrow began counting down. After the captain got to one, there was an explosion up ahead followed by dust and debris sweeping over all of them. June couldn’t see but reached out hurriedly for Hayes’ boot in case something happened. With her other hand, she pushed against the floor of the tight space to make sure she wasn’t moving. “Captain?” Hayes asked. “Iz,” she said after a moment with greater urgency.
            “Clear,” the captain said finally. “This building is messing with my com. Em?”
            “Present,” the pilot said.
            “We might go silent here in a few minutes. How’s the window?”
            “Eighteen hours until impact,” Emerson replied.
            “Alright, give me a mark for nine,” Morrow said. They all put hands to wrists. “Mark,” and the timer was set. June crawled after Hayes who began moving again.
            Sure enough, when they went through the hole, there was static from Emerson’s part of communications. Everyone checked their gear, then rechecked. Looking around, they seemed to have burst through into a long-stretching corridor. Their helmet lights flashed off into the darkness. Morrow gestured with a wrist, as did they all. They counted out measurements and distances.
            “Thoughts, Rev?” the captain asked.
The older man flashed his light one way, and then the other. “This way,” he said confidently, and began walking off.
Morrow followed without question, with June and Hayes directly behind. They moved with knees bent, one hand out touching the wall they had entered through. The crunch of ice was different than masonry crumbling, and they all listened close.
            At the sound of the first, enormous groan, they all froze in place. It was above their heads, a deep dirge passing through the complex. They turned their lights to follow it, and occasionally a bit of dust interrupted the light rays.
            “Braces are failing,” Hayes whispered to no one.
            “It must have been much warmer in here before,” Revel said.
            “Yeah, let’s move it along,” the captain nudged Revel in the shoulder gently. At each room, they inspected the space quickly, marking it for damage and potential hazards. At every turn, they put markers on their mappers, and June left a symbol in chalk. They worked cautiously, always with one eye on the timer. Eventually, after hours of such, they had a feel for the place, how the designers intended for it to be used. Their ancestors had built expansively and grandly. It wasn’t wasteful for a hallway to stretch on seemingly forever, or for a room to only contain one thing, resulting with a glut of extra volume. They followed routes such as these if they were looking for general supplies. But they were looking for something specific this time, so they’d have to seek out the central section, the place the sub basement was constructed for. They ran their suits cold to conserve energy, but June was feeling sweat on her forehead.
            Staring down an elevator shaft, the second groan came crashing down on them from above, augmented by the hollow backbone of the complex.
            “Well, if we’re on three,” the captain said, looking at the large number painted onto the wall, then glancing at the display on his wrist, “and it’s ten meters down, seems like we need to go down,” he reasoned. Revel agreed, and Hayes had no objections. Without enough rope, they had to use the dangling cables in the middle of the shaft. Hayes went first, reaching out and inspecting the coiled material in her gloved hands. She swung out into the middle of the shaft and hung there for a moment, waiting for disaster. When it didn’t come, she slid down.
            “Clear,” she said through the com.
            “Age before beauty,” Morrow said to Revel.
            “Too kind,” the older man said, swinging onto the cable and down. When he was about halfway, something snapped high above their heads. Morrow instantly focused his helmet light up.
            “Move Rev!” he yelled. Curious, June looked up, too, and it was only the captain snatching her backwards that prevented the lift from decapitating her. Standing a meter from the open doorway, she and Morrow watched cracks begin to develop in the floor and walls following the crashing impact. “Rev,” Morrow said.
            “We’re fine,” Hayes said through the com. “But he used up the rest of his extra lives for that one.” She sounded a little worried, and Revel was grunting and breathing heavily.
            “Okay, we’ll be down in,” Morrow began.
            “No,” Revel interrupted him. “We’re already down here,” and he paused to inhale sharply. “We’ll get the data, my boy. Just,” and again, “just check the exit.” The captain’s face was emotionless.
            “Check,” he said after a moment, and began walking back the way they had come. June put an arm up, but didn’t impede him with it, then followed. Hayes reminded them of a room that they had seen previously, where the floor was tilted downward, forming a ramp on the one beneath it, but Morrow was already there, inspecting it again. As a secondary exit, it served their purposes. “Your go,” he said to June.
She went flat against the floor and inched backwards off the ledge, then let herself hang by the arms, then dangle by the fingers. She inspected the landing beneath her then let go. Looking around, the room seemed to be identical in size and purpose, except with all the contents of the one above it lying about in chaotic piles.
            “Clear,” June said.
Morrow landed evenly and inspected the closed door to the room. The captain waited while June removed her breecher and primed it. After the blast, Morrow stepped past her and examined the hallway beyond, then moved forward. Together, they traced a path that Hayes and Revel were taking directly below them. It was slow, and there was no sound except for Revel’s haggard breathing. At each turn, Morrow marked on his mapper and June used her chalk. They blasted through double doors into a room with a metal floor sectioned off with deliberate squares.
            “We’re here,” Hayes said.
The captain stomped with his foot. “Can you reach the ceiling?” he asked.
            “Maybe, why?”
            “I don’t know if we can blast through just from our side.”
            “The floor is reinforced,” June offered.
Revel inhaled sharply again.
            “Okay. I’ll rig something up. Stand by.” Hayes said.
Morrow went to work on the floor with his father’s multi-tool. June helped map out the dimensions of the shape charge they would use. It need only be about as big around as a person, to maximize the efficacy of the explosives. Almost as rare as Revel’s starlight, the stuff was highly functional in sub zero environments, which meant it was decently useful in the conditions they worked in. They guesstimated at the general placement. Hayes announced that she was drawing a box with an X in the center.
            “Same here,” Morrow lied. What he drew, Revel’s breathing in their ears, was a circle with the symbol of the candlers in the middle: it could be mistaken for a lower case I, but was actually a candle with a diamond-shaped flame. “Done,” he said.
            “Done,” Hayes called.
            “You call it,” Morrow said, standing next to June around the corner from their doorway.
            “Alright, I got the data plates,” Hayes said.
            “Plural?” Morrow asked. “How many?”
Hayes began the countdown rather than answer. The hole was smaller than they would’ve liked, but it did blow clear through. The silence that followed was quickly filled by the third moan. Something above their floors rumbled and crashed. Morrow slid to the hole and stared down.
            “Time to go,” he said. And stopped. Revel was sitting against the doorway of the room below, with his legs extended. One boot was mangled, like it had been crushed and twisted. June looked over Morrow’s shoulder, down at the fallen candler. Hayes was standing near the man over a pile of data plates at her feet. They looked heavy and in the double digits. And the sounds above their heads weren’t stopping.
            “I can rig up a way to,” Hayes began, but Morrow interrupted her.
He pitched himself forward, rolling into the hole and down. He landed easily, inspecting the situation. “You go up first,” he said, snatching at the rigging the woman already had set up.
            “Move. Now,” the captain ordered. The older woman said nothing else, but moved with dispatch, first arranging a bundle for the plates. June waited for the bundle while she eavesdropped.
            “Is this the part where you save me, Iz?” Revel asked. The captain was crouched over the older man, inspecting his leg. Morrow didn’t say anything for a moment. June took hold of a voluminous stack of data plates bound with rope.
            “No, you lazy bastard. I’m just here to help you up, now rise,” he said, putting a hand out. Revel grabbed onto it and lifted himself onto his good leg.
            “I’m sorry I had to be the one to tell you they had been lost,” the man said. “We drew straws, you know, Hayes, me, and Happy. I was fine to do it, but we had to draw straws. It was the righteous thing, Hap said.” June sent the rope back down, then she heard the ceiling crack above her.
            “Guys,” she said, unsurprised that her voice was uneven.
Morrow snatched the rope from Hayes’ hands and threw it to Revel.
            “Harness yourself with that,” he said, and put his hands flat against his thigh, gesturing at the older woman. “Come on, granny.”
Hayes snarled, running at him, and shoved herself off of his pushing hands. June bent down and grabbed the woman’s forearms and yanked. Revel was tying and knotting as Hayes lifted herself out of the hole. June pitched backwards, onto her back, watching the cracks above their heads pour thick streams of dust into their light. Morrow grunted into the com, and June sat up, looking down into the hole. He had knocked over one of the servers. Their captain stood on top of the machine with bent knees, then exploded upward, just narrowly catching the lip with one hand. Angrily, he pulled himself up, and then rolled out of the way.
            “Last chance to leave me,” Revel said, limping into view. Hayes reached a hand out to receive the thrown rope.
            “You don’t get out that easy,” she said. June grabbed some of the rope too, as did Morrow. They all tugged. Somewhere in the midst of the frenzy and pulling, the ceiling caved in. June was on her back, a weight on top of her. She feared it might be something else until it rolled itself off. 
            “June here,” she started the chain.
            “Hayes,” the older woman said as she helped the young woman to her feet. Dust obscured everything.
            “Morrow,” the captain said, walking out of the cloud, with a body thrown over his shoulder.
            “Revel” the older man said, tired.
             “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Hayes suggested.
Morrow, silent and exhausted, spun slowly, kicking things out of his way. A stone rolled sideways to reveal a data plate. The cave in had created a bowl out of the facility, the braces bearing the most weight failing first. Carefully, Hayes and June extracted what they could.
Getting out proved to be just as slow and arduous as getting in. They had to stop at points and retrace their steps or let Morrow and Revel rest. Eventually, they made it top side again, and by the time they got back into the airlock, they had transgressed their nine-hour time limit by another three. Emerson hit the jets and they skimmed out of Attalanta’s atmosphere.
            “Full crew with cargo on board,” Emerson announced to the bridge as they approached the opening hangar doors. The pilot closed the channel, and turned in his chair, this time removing his hands from the controls as he looked into their tired faces.
“Peace has its victories, too, but it takes brave men and women to win them,” he said.             Revel used the last of his strength to lift a data plate more fully into his lap, then he wiped gently at the filth and grime. He smiled at whatever he saw underneath.
            “It is better to light a candle then to curse the darkness,” he agreed.
They disembarked, bruised and weary. Revel was on crutches, bound for the infirmary. Morrow had a case for the data plates they recovered to prevent any more damage coming to them. There were four in all, almost half the ones Hayes had pulled from the computer. He walked slowly beside his friend. From the door of the Pandora, June could see some people that had gathered. June made sure that the little boy from before saw that she had come back.
            As the story went, the plates were good enough, satisfying the governor’s wildest dreams. Some of the data was spotty because of the damage, but it would still take more time then anyone had to even muddle through everything that was on them. Anyone but the crew of the Pandora. They had forever.
            And long before that, the tiny ship was shooting through space again. June had been ambivalent at first, until she figured out the answer to the riddle of what Morrow Israel was, if not a candler, and not a pretender, and not a nihilist.
The man named Tomorrow was a diver.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Parts, too

Hybrid Man

            The month I met Griffin Burns was the worst of my professional life. It wasn’t a series of unfortunate events, one mistake which followed an unlucky break which followed a bad situation; nothing had really gone wrong. Nothing had gone anywhere, as a point of fact. I was looking out of my office window, down at one of the campus greens, at all the students reclining in the grass or sitting at benches, all of them staring at screens. Some were in lectures, others not. There was just enough reflection in the window for me to see them, and my own face, simultaneously. A young girl helped me focus a bit more on my own features. She was at that formless age, draped awkwardly in the times’ fashions, while her ears and eyes and nose struggled to adjust to one another. I knew that when she looked at pictures of herself, years from then, she would wonder at the alien facsimile. I was long past the age where my features had settled, even begun to melt slightly with the weight of time. I was what I was, is what I thought then. It was a sobering realization, and only the first of the day.
            A bit earlier in the morning, I had been denied tenure.
The room was wood, real wood, which meant it was old, and there were similar signifiers characterizing all my officious colleagues sitting behind the long table, judging me. It was the 22nd century. Everything had moved forward, leaped, except for academia. They massaged their words and chose their phrases carefully. It took an hour for me to finally be rejected on record, or, ‘invited to pursue more suitable opportunities in more engaged environments.’ It would take until the end of the semester before I would move all of my things out of the office, and it would be another year until my body forgot the route from home to the university.
            Until summer, I still had all the diaphanous trappings. My name would still be on the faculty listing, though the name was no longer linked. It was just there, like an item that served no purpose in a room that forgot its existence.
            It was in the midst of this transition that the knock came to my office door. I suppose we’ll call it chance, because I had no office hours, no reason to be there waiting behind that door. Being phased out was like being slowly erased, a shade of hue at a time. His knock brought me back from the window, the one where I had decided to spend another purposeless afternoon.
            “Come in,” I said, and in he walked. I might have expected a student. Griffin Burns had a shiftlessness that was seated in his manner. He walked like his legs moved at different speeds and stooped his head to shave off a few inches of his already miniscule height. The man was dressed well enough, but the clothes hung off him strangely, as if he had a hangar for shoulders.
            “You Dr. Hammond?” he asked. He looked up at the name on the door, still with a grip on the handle, then at me. The door was a place where I still existed, if only for the laziness of the facilities staff.
            “I am,” I said, but I had something else in mind to say, something snappy and aggressive.      He nodded and spun in place, closing the door. He couldn’t switch hands because he was holding an enormous computer. It looked like a data tablet, except fifty years old, not quite large enough to warrant its own bag but far too large to juggle with other items and tasks.
            “Okay, good. I’m in the right place,” he said while his back was turned. When he came around to face me again, he lunged into a grin and handshake. “Hello there, I’m Griffin Burns, how are you today?” and gone was the slinking posture, but still present was the strange way of shuffle-walking he had. He was still looking up, too, because of his height. I had to lean forward to shake his hand because I hadn’t bothered to step around my desk.
            “I’m fine, Mr. Burns, how can I help you?” I lied and asked, and again, there was an instant where I thought to say something a person might when upsetting the other party dropped in importance.
            “Well, Doc, I came by here with a bit of a consulting opportunity, was hoping you’d hear me out.” What I heard were my colleagues, my soon-to-be-former colleagues.
            “You’re a salesman,” and I wouldn’t call it blurting. I was suddenly happy that I hadn’t sat down.
Griffin jerked his head back without moving the rest of his body, like only his skull and neck had absorbed the impact.
            “Isn’t everyone?” He looked down at his computer briefly and used his free hand to manipulate some of the data on the screen then flipped it around so I could read it. “Isn’t this just advertisement?”
I was looking at my curriculum vitae. The man had a point, but instead of acknowledge that, I chose to try to observe myself as if I wasn’t myself. What had I done wrong? It wasn’t completely true that academia had remained unchanged over the years; times had come to require a person do five times the work and have three times the degrees to be accepted. But I had all that.
“Three doctorates in biochemistry, biophysics, and biomedical engineering,” Griffin said what was on my mind, and then the tablet disappeared from my view as he turned it back to his own eyes, “two from this university, too. They must have one of those commissioned paintings of you in a hallway somewhere, right?”
            “What do you want, Mr. Burns?” I asked, tiredly.
The little man grinned, and then he sat. He had an infectious confidence which made me want to sit, too. I didn’t though, at least not at first, but then after he was sitting down and crossing his legs, I just felt ridiculous.
            “What do you know about Crash Ball?” he asked.
I frowned, recalling the posters and the popularity, but I knew little to nothing about the actual game. Sport. Now I was hearing a chorus of first dates that hadn’t led to seconds.
            “Not a lot,”
            “Not a fan?”
            “Uh,” is what I had said before I could think of something to say. It felt like saying anything negative would be like giving the wrong answer at a conference.
Griffin dissipated my awkwardness with a gesture and began explaining.
            “It all started with NASCAR, really. Motor sports. I mean, that’s if you ask me,” and he dropped his tablet against his stomach and leaned back in his chair, his hands gripped to an invisible steering wheel. “You’re going 400 kilometers an hour, literally strapped into a death rocket and you’re speeding along, trying to stay ahead of the other racers. Not too fast or you’ll kill yourself, but not too slow or they’ll blow past you,” and as he spoke, he started to have an imaginary race, right there in my office. It was the strangest thing, watching him pretend like he was driving, trying to beat out a host of other manic speedsters.
I opened my mouth to interrupt several times, but as the phantom race went on, the contest just got more frenzied and more desperate. Suddenly it was gone, the illusion dismissed and he was back in my office again.
“People wanted faster, faster. Watching a guy run half a second quicker or jump half a foot higher every four years wasn’t fast enough. And all the NFL injuries, well, deaths,” he paused to clarify, “it just got to be too much of a hassle.” He leaned forward in his chair then, in the same manner that he had shot into the handshake from earlier. The computer flopped into one of his hands and he grabbed the edge of my desk in the other. His eyes were crazed. “But then someone like you stepped in Doc, someone just like you, and revolutionized everything.” I frowned, but not in confusion. I was wrestling with my memory, because I had seen the article. I had been published in the same journal not-enough times, but this other scientist’s work had gone secular. The logical ancestors of protective sportswear married to a hydraulic chassis had resulted in a suit of armor that would let two human beings collide with each other at speeds comparable to the street speed of smart-cars. And walk away unscathed. I imagined that sort of thing must be necessary for a sport called Crash Ball.
            “I know of whom you speak,” I said, though I still didn’t know what Griffin was talking about. I supposed we were still in the expository portion of the lecture. It was the first time I remembered my initial reservations of the short man being in my office, and it had already been half an hour.
Griffin nodded. “Right, changed everything, and Crash was the result,” and he sat back again, dancing into another of his strange conniptions. “You take the ballet of basketball,” and then he clapped his hands together, with no regard for how much noise he was making, “and the collisions of football. But no injuries,” and he seemed to think that point was important enough to take time to stress to me. “At least, not any major ones, not until recently.” I found myself looking at the walls of my office, and the door.
            “I see,” I said, trying to move things along. “Well, that’s all very interesting, but I fail to see what any of this has to do with me.”
Griffin nodded, then, and smiled. “Right, right, yeah that makes sense,” he said and stood up.
I stood up, too, though I’m not sure why. I guessed he was leaving so it only made sense to walk him to the door. No one had a large office, not even the Dean; there wasn’t even a ten-foot gap between the back of Griffin’s chair and the door.
“But I can show you, say, tonight, around seven?”
I paused, stunned. I had seen movies where a line like that was said. The woman ended up on her back in both scenarios, but in one instance she was dead in an alley and in another she was still alive but wanted to die.
            “Uh, I’m sorry, but,”
            “I have tickets to see the Titans,” Griffin said, and he revealed the virtual items with a spin of his tablet. They floated there behind the plastic shell, like magical artifacts.
            “The Titans,” I repeated.
            “Local Crash team,” but he didn’t look exasperated at all by my slowness. “Won the Vegas Cup two years running. They have a game tonight,” and he turned at the waist, to and fro as if he was casting another spell.
            “And you want me to go with you,”
            “I mean, if you want to know why I was here. Come on, Doc, what’ve you got to lose?” he asked, but then he put his hands up and stepped backwards. The tickets vanished with the screen. “Actually, you look like you need some time to decide, so I’ll call later, you give me your answer then.” He turned around, which hid him from the odd gesture I made, reaching out as if I’d spin him around by the shoulder. Thankfully, I had dropped the hand before he got to the door. He glanced back at me, flashed a grin, and then was gone. I was at the door moment later, as if it wouldn’t stay closed unless I put my hand against it.
            From that vigilant position, I looked around at my office, shelves on one side, degrees on the other, a single chair for visitors, a respectably sized desk, and its matching counterpart where I sat. All of it slowly vanishing as I removed things in stages.
            I went home that day, forgetting Griffin Burns and how he would call me without my identity address. I did remember my childhood though. Going back to the beginning when things had gone wrong was a scientific approach to problem solving: retrace your steps to figure out where it was you first started to get lost.
            They named me Charlotte because that’s where I was born, my mother drugged out of her mind, and young, my father nowhere to be seen, never to be heard from. My grandparents thought that if it was a fine enough name for a city, then it was a fine enough name for a mewling little girl. I had grown up around old people who had old ways and liked old things. Through their eyes, I had an idea of what the 21st had been like, and of what good education was. It had all started to come apart when I was still a teenager, I always realized. I wasn’t smarter than both of my grandparents put together, but I thought I was, and after my mouth caught up with my brain is when their ages caught up with their bodies. Joint replacements, wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and respirators, they could do little to restrain me physically to curb my mental rebellion. But I did want to help them.  I just didn’t have enough time. The conclusion I always came to was to embrace the chaos of the lack of design, that sometimes things worked out, and sometimes they didn’t, and that any amount of schema could be introduced after the fact, but the reality of it was that we were all just atoms smashing together at random.
            My home life during that awful month largely consisted of adjusting to the imminent changes. I moved a few paintings and rearranged some drawers in the kitchen. A few items in the garage transposed with one another. I thought about selling some things but decided on recycling instead. That particular evening, I stared at my vitae over a glass of wine and toyed with the font and spacing.
            At about half past six my network alerted. Instead of a name, the man had changed his ID into a thumb-sized glyph of his namesake. I defaulted to only connecting with the audio portion of the signal.
            “Mr. Burns?” I asked to the air. The speakers in my den spoke back to me in his excited voice.
            “You got it, Doc, how you been?” he sounded out of breath.
            “How did you get my contact information?”
            “Well, it’s not like you went to any trouble to hide it,” which wasn’t an answer. “So you want to come to the game with me?”
            “No, I do not,” I said, vexed.
            “Well, will you anyway?”
I made a questioning face at a couch cushion. “Uh, No, Mr. Griffin,” I thought I was being clear.
            “Okay, look Doc, I’ll level with you. I’ve happened upon the chance of a lifetime,” the room said to me. “And I know how that sounds, so I was going to take certain steps to show you what I meant, so you could believe me. I looked you up, obviously. I know that those designs you made really did some good, to help people walk again and what not.” I wasn’t sure why we were still talking, but I was flattered a bit that he would say that my work was useful. It was in contrary to most of the feedback I received. “I want you to help me, Doc. I got a dream.” I cannot say why I did not terminate the connection.
            “You just want me to see the game?” I asked.
            “Right, so,”
            “Then I’ll simply view it on the cipher,” I said, interrupting. That felt good. “Then we’ll meet tomorrow, and you can elaborate on your dream.” It was an odd term, an old word people rarely used anymore. The mind was the last frontier to explore, and since beginning that process, scientific jargon had been developed to replace the archaic catch-all.
            “Will do, Doc, will do,” and it was Griffin who cancelled the signal then, as if he wasn’t being rejected at all.
I frowned, again unsure as to what had just happened.
            I watched the Titans game as if on accident. It took some getting used to, knowing that there were people inside the seven-foot suits of metal and plastic, knowing the forces that were involved in some of the collisions, the rank commercialism, the overt sexualism. Once though, I saw one of the players clear the chaos occurring near the line of skirmish and skip and hop and spin their way to the goal area. To reach the golden hoop, the runner had to jump, and after leaving the ground, for a moment, the ball carrier looked like they were flying, hung in the air like meteorologists did clouds. Then the ball was slammed home, and the player hung from the rim for a while, mocking the other team. It got my blood pumping, all the visceral terror, and when I went to bed, I did ruminate on the soaring moment after I entered my REM cycle.
            The next morning, I stepped across a familiar street to begin my weekend rituals with coffee and found Griffin Burns already there with a cup waiting for me.
            “I take you for the type that drinks it black,” he said when I blinked at him, “to enjoy the full flavor of the beans, as Science intended.” I walked over to the little stand where the cream and sugar was and there, grabbing ingredients at random, I composed myself. I sat down with the man only to avoid making a scene. I added some cream and some sugar to the cup to make him wrong. It tasted strange.
            “Why are you here?” I asked.
            “You said we’d meet so you could hear about my dream.”
            “I said that I would contact you,” didn’t I?
            “I mean, you might have, but instead of dredging it up why don’t we just get on with it? Since we’re both here.”
            “This is inappropriate,” I said, trying to restrain my voice.
            “And what’s appropriate done for you, exactly?” he retorted.
I would’ve had a leg to stand on had I secured tenure, is what I thought.
“So, the dream, yeah?” he asked.
I sighed, glancing down forlornly at my ruined coffee. “Go on.”
            Apparently, the major injury he had spoken of the previous day had happened to one of the Titans players. A grisly incident, caused by a malfunctioning suit which had been unsuccessfully repurposed, had resulted in a player losing the use of a limb. The man’s name was Baldric Freeman.
            “Lucky number seven,” Griffin said, pausing to sip his coffee, “did you see him last night?”
I concentrated a moment, and then remembered the flying man. “What limb did he injure?” I asked.
Griffin smiled. “A leg, Doc,” he said, with some satisfaction, “kid lost a leg.”
I wanted to frown, but my eyebrows wouldn’t lower. Actually, I think they went up. Griffin’s ridiculous computer appeared again, and he had a bunch of files for me to see, which apparently explained how all of what had happened was possible.
“I talked to a different specialist about it, and he said it was all legit, if risky.”
I accepted the tablet and began flicking through the pages. It did not surprise me that some of my own work had been cited in the research done. Baldric had elected to become an amputee and had been fitted with a prosthetic that would not only act like a replacement limb but would also interface with equipment legalized for Crash Ball play.
            When I shifted in my seat from the discomfort in my lower back, I realized how long I had been sitting there across from Griffin. His cup was gone and my own had stopped steaming. The patronage around us had completely changed, too. I put the pad down deliberately.
            “So, your idea? And what do you need from me?” which made it seem like I was more interested than I was, I realized a moment later.
            “Who do you think understands strength better, Doc, a weak person or a strong one?” The answer seemed obvious enough, the way it was phrased, but asking at all meant that Griffin thought there was something there to be examined. He stood up from the table. “Take a walk with me?” I rose because I was happy to get out of the chair but saying yes seemed part of the gesture of standing up. I threw the coffee away under the guise that it was ruined from the lack of heat.
            He didn’t say anything for an entire block. At a corner that wasn’t busy with pedestrians and idling vehicles, he looked around, then up at me. When he saw that I was paying attention, he looked around again, then hiked up his right pant legs to reveal a titanium ankle sunk down into his loafer.
            “Goes up to my hip,” he said to my obvious question, and then he crossed the street. His strange gait made sense then. In actuality, I realized that for the size of the prosthetic, Griffin actually walked mostly normal. He must have learned to compensate. “Anyway,” he said, a few moments later, “after the thing with Baldric, it occurred to me that there was an avenue for incomplete folks to be whole, better than whole. Paid.”
            “I see.”
            “No, with all due respect, Doc, I don’t think you do,” he said, with a little bitter in his voice, “what I need from you, though, is the legitimacy angle. When people ask, they need someone to give them answers, someone who actually knows the science of it, you know?”
I thought about that for a moment. “You are a salesman.”
He didn’t smile this time. “Never denied it, Doc.” He kept walking, and the distance between us stretched. It occurred to me then that for all my belief in the chaos of things, I was always looking for some order. Some instruction. I even looked around as if for a sign. Overhead, a train flew by, whisper quiet.
            A year after one of the worst months of my life, the day I had met Griffin Burns, I had one of the best, and Griffin was there for that, too.
            He had done his research, on the medical advancements, the prosthetic techniques, even potential subjects. He gave me until the end of the semester to prepare to commit to the opportunity he spoke of, and during that I finished all the paperwork required to leave the university. I still went to the meetings and smiled at the other faculty; I lied about what I planned on doing with all the free time I had now that I had decided to leave.
            Then, Griffin and I went on a road trip, and I say road trip because we actually used the road. We took a car across the United States in the middle of summer like friends of my grandparents talked about sometimes. I saw America, the only surface between me and the scenery whizzing past was the polymer of my window, sometimes driver’s side, sometimes passenger’s. As we went, Griffin told me a bit about himself, though he never came out and said any of it. Everything about him was like his leg, tucked away deliberately and masked with adept muscle control; every now and then he would let a little of it show and I’d learn something new. He believed that the world had grown small enough that connections happened every day, naturally like a vine growing up around a fence post, but that there was a marketable skill in making better connections than the ones that occurred randomly.  He had never denied being a salesman, but he had also never come out and said it.
            For me, I wondered if this was the kind of situation that existed before the traditional wedding vows changed, before there were marriage terms to coincide with the higher life expectancy, before co-parenting was more typical than not. I had done the undergraduate years’ buffet of experimentation and had substituted my relationships of advancement for that much more curricular study. I had been looking forward to finding a similar mind to spend my middle years with, but I knew that along with that mind came certain expectations of professional excellence, and I didn’t even know what professional excellence was anymore. I was alone, and would be for a long time, evidence suggested. That thought during those months always prompted me to look over at Griffin. He always looked over and smiled when he felt my eyes.
            Things changed again for me, a few months after that, in a living room in west Texas. I was sitting next to Griffin on a couch, him leaned forward, excitedly, me leaning back, waiting. An amazing thing about those visits was that even after sitting down and hearing what sounded like a spiel, I had never once heard the same thing come out of Griffin’s mouth twice. It was like he had spent the first forty years of his life learning stories, was spending the next forty telling them. I had become convinced that he would spend the last forty having stories told about him.
            “You’ve heard of Baldric Freeman, right?”
The young man in the chair nodded his head excitedly, mostly because it was the only part of him that could move. Poster paper lined his room in his parents’ house, queued up to visualize all the popular posts and a few meant just for someone whose body was also broken.            “Freeman lost a leg, had this procedure done, and was right back on the field the next season, good as new. No, better.” Even though the words were different, the emotion in the room was the same. Griffin created a fire out of nothing, and then fanned it with a kind of gentle desperation.
I was the one that cooled everything off.
“I don’t think this is working,” I had told him once, over dinner at a diner. It was the kind of place that lived in the movies my Grandfather loved but had no place in the landscape of the modern 22nd century.
            “It’s fine,” he had said. “They need to hear the truth. Nothing like having the rug pulled out from under you after you’ve committed.”
            The first time it had happened, the young woman blanching at my description of the invasiveness of the procedures and the chance of success, I expected the partnership to be over. He hadn’t said anything, but nor did he seem angry. It happened over and over again, but not once had he turned into the people I was slowly forgetting back at the university. It was odd, in the beginning, to think of those rejections as being rejected myself.
            So, just like every other time, Griffin looked at me then, when he was done, and turned back to the young man who only had words to interact with his small world in west Texas.
            “This is Doctor Hammond,” Griffin said, “she’s going to explain what’s required to get from here to there. It won’t be easy, lemme tell you. So, you listen to what she has to say, and give me your answer when you’ve taken your time.”
I sat forward then to explain. As was my nature, I had refined my presentation for clarity. That meant that my portion got shorter and shorter each time.
            “I don’t care,” the young man said, “if it means getting up out of this chair, if it means walking, I’ll do it.”
I was stunned, firstly by the young man’s words, secondly that they had stunned me at all. I had to admit to myself that I hadn’t planned on succeeding at all. Griffin sat forward like he wasn’t surprised by this success, or by the other failures.
            “It means a lot more than that, young man.”
            The procedures took weeks, during which the resolve of that first subject was severely damaged. Watching pieces of yourself cut away, replaced, would affect anyone, I supposed. Griffin and I were there, though, for every step of the way. I was able to consult to the doctors, and they listened. I realized then that Griffin could’ve gotten any patient who assented this far, but he couldn’t go a step nearer his goal without someone like me. It felt good to get something in exchange for all those road-weary months, but it felt even better to actually be needed.
            Halfway through the process I even learned the young man’s name, not like I learned the names of students and then forgot them after a few semesters. I knew his name like I knew Griffin’s name wasn’t really Griffin.
            So the next time Griffin offered me tickets to see a game, I could not refuse. Truthfully, I might not have refused even if I didn’t have anything vested. I don’t know what class of ticket the previous ones were, but this time we were in a skybox. There was thick carpeting, a drink stand, and a private kitchen stocked with wait staff. Before the game started, men with expensive taste and the money to satisfy it showed up and shook our hands, even kissed mine. Old money gave them old ways, and Griffin spun his stories for them, too, though he did them the dishonor of rehearsing mostly old tales.  Their statements had reservations in them, conditions and clauses. Griffin only had nods and smiles for them; he even shielded me once or twice from the kind of posture that would chip me off into a private, corner confab. The one-legged man danced and worked magic with his hands full of confidence.
            When the game started, we were together at the foremost glass, standing.
            “You ever think about kids, Doc?” Griffin asked me.
            “I thought about adopting,” I replied honestly, which he had earned long months previous.
            “It’s the right thing, yeah, with all those orphans out there,” he said. Griffin was not a smart man, but he read a great deal, which at times made me revisit my doubting his intelligence. Just like my grandfather’s. Einstein said if you wanted your children to be intelligent, to read them fairy tales. I knew Griffin’s parents never read him any of those sorts of things, or anything at all, but somewhere along the way he had come to believe deeply in them. “All I was saying is that you were like the kid’s mom,” he said, gesturing to the field. “But I guess you had that experience coaching up students back at that school.”
            “I just told them what they needed to hear, what they deserved to hear, and helped them when they asked me to.”
            “Mm,” Griffin said, feigning a full mouth, which left me alone to ponder my mother and my grandmother and the years I had lost. I looked over at Griffin once or twice, too, for reasons left unexamined.
            The cheers were a pleasant distraction. The first patient’s, Harper’s, story had wormed through the cipher. The number 13 that he would make lucky. When they saw him, the crowds cheered even louder. Later, when he scored on his way to breaking every rookie record available, things actually grew so loud they became quiet, like there was some wisdom to gain in the deafening roar.
            Even later than that, Griffin handed me a very large check. It was interesting to see paper, but then, the way Griffin was, it didn’t much surprise me.
            “Your half of our agent’s fee for the contract Harper signed yesterday. Thanks again for all your help, Doc,” he said. “Doctor Charlotte Hammond. What we did is going to be good for a lot of folks,” he was looking at the field, but it was as if he was seeing something else, “and the royalties… the… residuals for the intellectual property will add up to much more than that.”
            I stared down at the little man, shaking my head. “I can’t tell who you did all this for.”
He did smile though, then turned, and walked away from me, in that unique way of his. It would be the last time I ever saw Griffin Burns, but he would appear in my mind whenever I wondered what he was out there selling right then, and whom to.
To say I ended back up in academia would be kind of the truth, and kind of not. I was teaching, to be sure, but my students were other engineers, workers at the companies making the parts and tools to make the procedures I had pioneered less experimental. And when my alma mater asked me to come back as if they had never forced me out in the first place, when I finally had the moment to grandstand, I did not. I declined. It was not polite, but it was professional. Maybe it was having gone back and putting flowers at my family’s graves. Maybe it was that my efforts had been validated in an edifying way that I didn’t need the comforts of vindication. Maybe it was Griffin Burns.
Something he’d said has always come back to me, about only being a part and becoming whole. I can’t imagine all that money did a thing for what he thought he was missing. Yet it is easy for me to imagine that the man may have been a figment himself. Just a dream, shuffling along, persistent, but fleeting.