The manuscript for my novel Kryos, over two years in the making, is nearly finished. I’m consequently ending serialization of it on the site, as I don’t want to spoil the ending. Chapters of the story will be published as I finish them exclusively on patreon (here) so you can still read them before the paperback is released if you’ve enjoyed it thus far. The novel is a sequel to my previous work of fiction, Tatter (available here), will be a little over 400 pages, and should be out no later than next month.
THE LAST SECOND AND TIME’S ANNIHILATION
Under callous moon, Blaes sank beneath the lake. A small hole through his chest, spilling red unto frigid liquid that spurred failing limbs to violence and mind to thought. He had heard drowning was the worst way to die, but waxed sceptical of the claim. “What do most people know of death? The closest they come to it is a missive from a relative they scarcely contemplate. How many have stood the precipice and felt the warm wind of the abyss rake their souls? As I do now. I shall have intimate details as to the nature of the phenomenon. Then, if there is a then, I may speak of death with supreme authority.” Were he able to breathe, he would have laughed. Were he unsubmerged, he would have cried. As thoughts continued to roil from the depths of the man’s consciousness, the irons his would-be murderers had afixed to his legs dragged him to the black. Blood afire, he struggled against the supremacy of the void. All contestation rendered vain by the weights on his lower limbs, lesser than the weight of the water, which intensified by impossible degrees, as if in the course of the descent, he were closing upon, not an aquatic chasm, but another planet, much larger than his own. Then, light, pure white and jarring enveloped all. Blaes opened his eyes and found himself falling, slowly, through air of gelatin constancy. Behind him where sky should have been hung a vast curtain of water, the very lake into which he had been thrown. The surface of the water-ceiling-of-the-world rippled, remanants of his passing. His shock subsided to fear as he beheld a great onyx tower that lanced the barren, scarp-strewn land below. Like a gale-borne leaf before an ancient oak, he drifted to an alien desert and slipped his bonds by cracking the lock which affixed the bulky chains with a sharp striated stone plucked from surrounding detritus. Kneeling, he laid hand to chest where the bullet had passed and felt only smooth skin through unruptured cloth. Pulling down his shirt at the collar he found no wound. He flexed his left hand, which had been previously paralyzed by what he assumed was nerve damage, yet now he could move the limb with nimble precision. His brows furrowed as he rose and his face assumed the purportions of bafflement before a thin smile twisted his visage. “I must be hallucinating. I’m really just laying on that lake bed. Somewhere between consciousness and hypoxia. Between the last second and time’s annihilation.” He grimaced amidst a flood of recollection as to the events which lead to his current state, which ferried the searing venom of betrayal. From the left pocket of his black pants he removed a crumpled photo of a woman and his grimace assumed a ghastly dimension before he crushed the momento in his fist and let it fall to the ground.
The surrounding plain was composed of ashen sediment that lay flat before the distant tower and more uneven toward the horizon. Around the man, jagged mineral formations loomed and waved impossibly in capricious winds, simultaneously hot and cold. Behind him, in the direction opposite the tower, a wall of impenetrable mist extended and did not shift with the wind, but coiled, rose and slunk as if of its own accord. Blaes turned and advanced toward the colossal construct, curious as to its inhabitants. For hours he trudged the wastes, yet he drew no nearer to the grand edifice that crowned the horizon. When he stopped, the mist was close behind him and strange forms skittered within. Blaes spun and hurried forward, stopping with a gasp as he found the base of the tower only paces distant when it had been miles away mere seconds past. He spared no thought to the impossibility of the monolith’s appearance and ran to the high, double-doored gate and pushed with all his might as the swirling shroud continued to gather behind him, monstrous shapes following, as if desirious of his consumption. Terrible snapping sounds issued from the pall and the man’s heart leapt in his chest. “Open, damn you.” Moments before the fog settled upon him chains snaked toward the door, burrowing into the obsidian facade and pulled them wide with such violence the mist was blown away. Once Blaes recovered from shock, he dashed through the portal and found himself in a wide white room furnished with large armatures that reached toward a ceiling he could not discern and all about the constructs, indistinct figures, like smoke in water, stood and turned what appeared as heads toward him and the intruder felt as if they spoke, though no sound issued within the chamber. An apprehension greater than that borne of the malevolent mist writhed in Blaes’ chest and his casual gait morphed to a harried jog. But the faster he moved, the more animated the watchers grew. Gradually, the apparitions drew toward him, gliding effortlessly over the immaculate floor and opened what seemed to be mouths and from within black and twisted appendages emerged. Blaes cursed and broke into a panic. It was only then he noticed what he had thought were soaring stacks of metal fiber was bone. Beyond osseous pillars, an elevator jutted from the wall, dark and adamantine as the chain-pierced door. Into the lift the man dashed and struck the lever. Rattle of machinery preceeded the device’s ascent. A hideous chill filled the air. Blaes whirled and beheld one of the shades from the lower floor starring at him and it opened its mouth and from it, a large segmented form slithered, clicking dozens of legs. Blaes pressed himself flat against the door and as the insectal monstrosity came within inches of his face felt the mechanized grating give way and tumbled free of the lift and fell some interminable distance before landing heavily on his side in a vast atramental cavity, bisected by a walkway of black stone that wound at the center to a spiral stair of comperable material. Across the flinty bridge he crept and scaled the voluted spire. As he neared the peak he realized the air was rhythmically perturbed, as if the whole recess were breathing. Athwart the top of the stairway he froze, discerning the cavernous walls to be the chitinous carapace of an enormous coiling entity that resembled a centipede, the head of which emerged from the darkness and loomed over the man. The gargantuan horror clicked its great mandibles and whipped the cloying air with its feelers and spoke and its voice were as a choir of millions.
“Flotsam beached by dagger’s twist.
N’ venom leeched by dainty wrist.
Cowers, mewling, in the dark.
Cursing, vain, the naive arc.
Wreatchedness, now, to consume,
as closing hour of thy doom.”
Blaes fell to his knees before the entity, quaking with terror.
“W-what are you?”
“I am the wind beneath the lake.
I am the storm that endless breaks.
I am the iron, in the ore.
I am the key, and you, the door.”
Blaes grunted as a marrow-deep pain seized his body, emenating from his chest. He clawed at his shirt and shuddered, for where his wound had been, a black substance, like the carapace of the horror, had spread. He opened his mouth to scream but a flurry of insectal legs erupted from his throat and all was darkness and silence.
Lightning raked caelum as billowing thunderheads dipped soilward like prodigious worms of galaxial dispensation. All motley seething rabble congealed before the KSRU bastion scattered in the spreading storm’s wake, pulling hoods and hats against fretful increase. Minutes later, an albumen host spilled from the barbican of the skyslick fort and forded vacated ground on armored transports. A regimented thrumming dampened by howling wind cascaded over rows of ravaged tenements, whose shattered windows exhuded a depthless blackness in smoke and shadow, overcast by flashes of blue radiance. Fearful eyes peered from the stygian reach and hateful hands plied vain fire to the machines. Ryard stood the back of the windowless mag-ray that led the mechanized company, decked in Syzr’s refitted plate panoply, and watched numerous optic feeds displaying the exterior on reticulated screens that ran small ceiling bound gantries with frictive skittering. A bottle stuffed with a lit rag collided with the top of his vehicle in a whirl of flame that quickly died to the wind and rain. Beside him, indifferent to the assault, steadying themselves on overhead handrails, were members of the ADC combine, Corporals Whalen, Kopf, Grieg, Sarker, Captain Raimer and, at front, Colonel Vorstahl.
None barred the mechanized regiment’s way and those that did not slink from the elements turned in gibbering terror from the sychitin clad cavalcade and scuttled to buildings ruined by sloth and want long before the riots began.
“It was sharp thinking,” Ryard commended to Vorstahl as the vehicle jittered across broken ground. “To use the cloud planters over the fort.”
“Only way I could figure of repelling the mob without bloodshed.”
Despite the deluge, the convoy made steady progress through the wasted district until they lolled on a pedestrian thoroughfare before the aerospace complex.
An inhuman growl tore across the sky. A sodden tiger padded from an alley, paused and surveyed the placid, imposing machines on the road before it exposed its fangs and slunk to the rubble of a collapsed and steaming factory.
“What’s a tiger doing here?” Raimer sputtered.
“Someone loosed the local zoo,” Vorstahl concluded, helm under his right arm, eyes to the nearest exterior monitor. “Be prepared for more than just human hostiles.” Raimer and Vancing nodded and the convoy continued along the ash swathed pavement until they reached the opened front gate of the high walled KASC. No light emanated from within the imposing structure and no motion played between the cold, knife edged buildings that peaked above it. The moment the legion passed the unsealed conduit, the portcullis fell, blocking all backward egress. The caravan stopped before two towers that straddled the road before them, then split off in three columns, the first moving east, the second breaking to the west, and the lead vehicle staying put.
All ears strained, apprehending rhythm among the din. Music, a waltz, featuring a single bassy drum and jagged strings, discordant and unnerving.
“I’ve heard that piece before, in Rehdon’s theater,” Ryard interjected, left hand white knuckling about the transport’s overhead handrail.
Kopf made for the door but Ryard threw his right arm out in warning. “Wait,” Vorstahl called sternly. Kopf looked to his superior with frustration. “Not yet,” Ryard replied. “Doesn’t matter which tower we head to first, they’ll have clean shots from the other. Don’t count on the rain. We need hail, which will start falling,” he looked to the clock on his suit’s affin module. Time distended. Then an enthused, “Now.” The retinue looked to the display screens and beheld a sudden shower of ice pellets pepper the entire facility, extinguishing the macabre tune.
The men begin psyching themselves up. Kopf shifted his weight like a boxer prepping for a match, rolling the tension out of his joints, Grieg beat his chestplate, Whalen smacked his helm, breathing heavy, Sarker stomped his left foot, as if to check the security of his boot. Raimer stood with his arms folded, unconcerned with ritual.
Vorstahl leaned toward his men. “Raimer, Sarker,” he shifted through the corridor that led to the driver’s cabin, “Stalls, you’re with me. Kopf, Grieg, Whalen, you’re with Vancing.” He gestured to the door. “Move out.” Vorstahl’s team departed the hold and leapt into the maelstrom.
Kopf rammed his fist to Ryard’s chestplate, “You ready?” No, he thought with sudden terror. I’m terrified. I don’t want to be here. I’m not cut out for this. I want to drink tea with Lind and hear her complain about her work. I want to help customers in crowded terminals, even when they exhasperate me. I want to tinker with discarded machines and watch the light play off the aerostats and mag-rays in the sky garden.
Images of burning buildings, maddened crowds, and the faces of Fawnell, Salis and Syzr flashed through his mind, the residue, a seething rage, directed as much at himself for his cowardice as the obscured architect of the city’s destruction.
“Sir?” Kopf prompted with a tinge of concern.
Ryard emerged from reverie and released the overhead railing. “As I’ll ever be.”
The men decanted the transport and bolted in tight formation to the leftward tower door. No shots rang from above. Ryard gave the signal whereafter Kopf and Whalen laid a series of charges on the door as Grieg brought up the rear. Another hand signal from the Major sent the team against facade, faceplates turned from the portal. “Now,” Ryard commanded before bending beside Grieg and bracing for impact. Kopf tensed with anticipation as Whalen placed an arm over his head and hit the touch screen of his affin module, activating the charges. A sunderous boom and the door was blasted inward, clear off its hinges. The men stormed in, cutters ready, Kopf and Whalen first, clearing corners, then Ryard and Grieg at the back.
The ground floor chamber was conical, gray and featured, near the party and to the left, a recently vacated work station composed of a wide, heavy box desk with display panels, and a deactivated labor drone, to the right, storage crates, mounted to the wall, above which yawned the interstice of a lift, and a spiral stairwell opposite the door.
Ryard went stiff as he spied a shape upon the furthest crate. A human shape, with panic in its eyes and death in its hands.
“Get down,” Ryard shouted.
Kopf and Whalen leapt behind the workstation just as a crackling sounded, followed by an intense surge of heat and the scent of ozone. The source of the disturbance, a blinding blue bolt from a military cutter, that seared the front of the heavy desk and left the material hissing. Ryard grabbed the drone and flung himself behind the nearest crate, pried open the machine’s back paneling as another shot resounded, aimed at Grieg, who retreated to the entrance and obscured himself from the line of fire just as the leftward middle portion of the doorway exploded. Kopf and Whalen angled their cutters upward and returned fire, scorching the exposed surfaces of the crate, but found their target elusive. The container borne assailent bent low, scuttling back as men garbed in Security Commission uniforms emerged on the base of the stairwell, firing madly.
“We’re pinned down, Major,” Whalen declared into his helm lain comlink.
“We’re gonna get fried.”
“Hold position,” Ryard repeated more emphatically as he finished activating the mastiff-sized service drone, which unfurled four multi-jointed legs and rattled out, “CASTLE MODE INITIATED.” The machine skittered from behind the crate with eye blurring speed and fired a volley of darts at the nearest stairwell nested SecCom officer. The man jerked as the needles impacted his exposed neck, then spasmed and slumped to the ground. Guard aloft the crate aimed for the machine, exposing himself to Kopf, who loosed a blast from his cutter and sent the pugilist tumbling from his perch in a shower of sparks. Before he could resume cover, Kopf was hurtled off his feet in sapphire coruscation, left shoulder candent. The last stairwell waylayer aimed at the drone but flew backward with a horrid yell before pulling the trigger, chest scored away by Grieg’s armament.
The pungent stench of scorched polymer and flesh drifted heavy in the air, the only audible sound the tinking of the service drone inspecting bodies and making its way up the stairs. Ryard bolted to Kopf in panic. “You alright?” Kopf rose on one knee and flexed his left arm and rolled the limb in its socket, then nodded. The white matte outer layering of the man’s pauldron was burnt away, revealing a spongier inner lining. “This isn’t chintzy SecCom scrap,” Kopf replied, gesturing to the body of the man he shot from the crate. Ryard turned and studied the corpse. The man wore a standard issue SecCom cuirass, through which a small, charred cavity where a heart once beat had been bored. The dead man’s youthful face was frozen in an expression of supreme horror. With veiled sorrow, Ryard bent to the fallen soldier and retrieved the weapon from a lifeless grasp and a small black controller from the belt. Kopf and Grieg helped themselves to the weapons of the other men as Whalen bound the unconscious survivor with scandium restraints and thereafter turned for the serpentine stairwell.
“No,” Ryard called. “We’ll be disadvantaged taking the stair.”
“What else can we take?” Grieg asked, incredulous.
Ryard shook the newly retrieved controller. “The lift.”
Three apprehended the fourth’s design and thereafter swarmed up the container. Ryard toggled the controller and the floor issued a faint sibilation, thereafter mechanical arms of the interstice bore the load through the cool darkness of the shaft above, which fell unevenly and bisected the containers into swathes of blue and black. Ryard gestured to the shadowed portion of their makeshift elevator and the men concealed themselves within the tenebrous haze. Every passenger bent nervously due the momentum of the upthrust crate as floors blurred by in steady succession. The second, third, fourth and fifth, clear, the sixth, occupied by four men, two of whom crouched tight to the walls by the stairwell, the others stood close by the slideway up which the crates moved, using consoles as cover, and whirled upon the disturbance in the aperture. All were armed and armored and members of the Consortium guard.
“They’re trying to distract us,” a gray haired man furthest from the chute warned, casting a glance frantically over his shoulder. “Keep your eyes on the stairs. I’ve lost contact with low team. The intruders will be here soon.”
“We should have left when we had the chance,” the largest of them declared, his voice quaking with dread.
“Just do it,” the gray hair shouted.
The Consortium guardsmen hesitantly obeyed and reassumed their positions in tense silence.
“What’s our play, Major?” Whalen prompted softly.
“Wait until the drone makes it up. When they engage it, we move in.”
Kopf sighed in frustration and meticulously checked his weapon.
“Patience,” Grieg urged quietly.
“I have a perfect shot.”
“Not until I say,” Ryard ordered as he placed his hand upon the distant end of Kopf’s custom thermal scoped cutter.
The gendarmes at the stair perked to attention as the shadow of the drone slide into view. “Take it out,” shouted the gray haired guard. As the machine finished rounding the bend in the stairwell it was greeted by a volley of cutter fire. Kopf reraised his weapon. Grieg followed suit as Ryard and Whalen prepared to exit the chute. Consortium cutter blasts resounded in the ocular ambit and swiftly the man beside the gray hair keeled over, tranquilizer darts jutting from his neck. The chief watchman cursed, retailiated and blew the front leg off the assailing machine. Yet still the drone advanced, like an injured harvestman. The large officer in the middle of the room, exchanged a glance with his slender counterpart, who nodded, and made for the landing. “Now,” Ryard commanded. Kopf loosed his shot and downed the big man as he broke from cover, in the same instant, as his comrade looked about with confusion, Ryard leapt from the container, flying free of the chute borne crate, and fell seven meters upon the slender Consortium militant, driving the butt of his cutter to the hapless man’s skull. The thin man went slack and crumpled. Ryard bounded up, looking to the gray haired shooter, who loosed a shot which struck true. The CAV-keep staggered and inhaled sharply, shaken by the impact and the sight of his near obliterated front breastplate. Yet he felt no heat and knew the blast had not breached his suit. Then the voice of the gray haired sentry reverberated from behind a shelf of assorted hardware, “How does it feel, to be party to an insurrection? To betray your own kind?”
“We aren’t responsible for what happened to the council. Your new master is,” Ryard replied firmly, moving out into the open, hand-signaling for his men to flank the target.
“You think I’m stupid?”
Kopf advanced to the right of the shelf as Grieg took the left.
“I think you’re surrounded.”
“You have no conception of what he will do to me should I surrender.”
“You’re right, but I’d prefer it all the same. There’s no point running. Or fighting. Throw your weapon over the shelf, come out with your hands up and you’ve my word you won’t be harmed.”
A lengthy quiet, then a cutter cleared the top of the server stack and clattered across the floor. Ryard retrieved the weapon, and as he did, the gray haired guardsman emerged from the right side of the stack, palms level with his head. As the man drew closer, Ryard surveyed him. He was well on in age, yet well kept and vigerous in expression and movement and bore a jagged scar across the right side of his face that appeared to have been forged of flame. Despite the imposing facets of his general appearance, the man’s countenance was wracked with terror.
“You can put your hands down. What is your name, soldier?”
The gray haired officer looked numbly at the silver-gilt inquisitor as he slowly lowered his limbs. “Oh, you’re one of the sick ones, like to keep names from a slaughter?”
“I told you before, you won’t be harmed. You are under grave misapprehensions as to the nature of the situation.”
“Connor. Connor Saltheath. And that was Adams,” the man gestured to the big man, who lay two meters distant, a hideous cavity torn in the center of his back, deep enough to render visible a charred spinal column. “What was it all for?”
“You said something about what he will do to you. You meant Rehdon, didn’t you?”
The man leaned against the server stack, all fight gone out of him, and inclined his head twice. “There’s something… wrong with him. I didn’t want to admit it. Even to myself. I thought, I just,” the man was babbling now, his eyes fixed upon the corpse of his friend. “I thought we were doing our duty, honoring Sodabrucke by serving her successor. But the way he’s changed them… gods.” The man slide down to a sitting position and stared at the ceiling as tears streamed from his eyes.
“Where is he?”
“He spoke to Gale, and half an hour later, Gale threw Tolbit from the spire observation deck. I don’t know why he did it. Its like Rehdon’s hypnotized them. Except for the outsider and the other.”
“I don’t know their names. They’re not Consortium, whoever they are. Rehdon’s never without them. One had a revolver. Large. Always jeering. The other, the one with the hat, rarely speaks, but he… he laughed when Tolbit fell. Laughed. But what could I do? What could I do!”
“Is that where he is,” Ryard knelt before the man and softened his tone. “The spire?”
Saltheath looked to Vancing and trembled. “Last I knew. But pray you never find him.”
My scifi novella Tatter (previously released as an ebook) is now available in paperback (5×8, matte finish), with a sample preview of the first six pages.
First six chapters below, full book here.
Between sticks and suburbs, a forgotten town, cradled in stone, veiled in mist. Timber sign on a hammered post at the outskrits read: Harrowhane. Before it, a stoop-shouldered wayfarer with a heavy satchel slung over right shoulder. The traveler halted, shielded his eyes against the newborn sun and surveyed the settlement. The buildings were saltbox or vernacular style, old and sunken, without discernable symmetricality of placement, as if the constructs arrived by maelstrom. Gardens peaked through peeling pickets and decaying ivy twined unlit double hung windows. Everywhere, the scent of leaves, dead and dying. A few early risers strode the maze of masonry in work stained clothes and did not speak. The distance was dominated by a massive pillar, an intricate wind faceted stone, vortical, jagged and eumycetic. The itinerant watched the effulgent sphere move toward the monolith, as if drawn to it, and shifted to the nearest house, a small red two story affair. A middle aged brunette with coffee eyes in front of it, heading inside. Beautiful and awkward as a desert fowl on a glacial fjord. Name in the paper protruding from the mailbox: Lyla Summers. She carried a shopping bag and a large, flat rectangular object wrapped in rough brown paper and struggled to keep her balance on creaking wooden steps.
Summers looked to the disheveled man before her porch. “No. Thanks though.” A shy voice, soft and high. Too young for her face. “You new here too?”
The man nodded, curtly, definitively and gestured to the battered pack he carried. “Huntin’.”
Summers forced a smile, disgusted, as much by his appearence as his trade.
“Well,” the man continued with a mock salute. “I’ll see ya.”
“I hope not,” Summers muttered as she watched the hunter decant and returned to her labor.
The door opened. Wes, a fresh faced man, stood at the threshold, eyes to the departed, then the struggling woman.
“Who was that?”
“A hunter, appearently.”
“What’s he hunting?”
“I didn’t ask. I’d rather not know.” She pivoted to fit the unwieldy parcel in the narrow doorway, which thudded against the jam, as the bag smacked against her lap and split nearly open. “Damn it.”
“Its not gonna fit. Gotta angle it up. Lemme-“
“I’m fine.” She raised her bundle, turning it clockwise, but dropped the grocery bag and stumbled, driving the rectangular parcel into the doorjam. A snapping sound. The package bent to a V.
Wes and Summers looked on in despair. “No, no, no,” she groaned, crouched, and set the torn parcel aside, contents revealed, a painting. When the groceries had been retrieved she rose and slumped into one of two abraded wicker armchairs on the sun bleached patio, head in hands, holding back tears.
“Hey, its alright,” Wes assured softly.
She jerked, vexed by his pity. “Its not. Its ruined.”
“Should have let me help.”
She glared. Wes sighed and gingerly picked the odd angled illustration off the ground. “Only the frame is broke. Look.” Reluctantly, she swung her head round and stared at the fractured frame.
He was right, the painting was undamaged. Relief flooded her face and together they retreated from a rising, bitter gale to the shade of the house. She set to peeling tableaux from canvas as Wes returned to his previous station in the kitchen where he had been awaiting eggs to prepare an omlette. The pleasing aroma of the meal filled the abode, and by subtle degrees, Summers’ anxiety dissipated as steam from the stove.
“So when is it?” She heard him call from the kitchen. “The art thingy?”
“Art thingy” she muttered, amused, shaking her head. “Its a gala. End of the week. This Sunday.”
Muffled footsteps. “I poured you some coffee. With that disgusting pumpkin cream you like. You’re gonna turn orange if you keep drinking that stuff.”
A chuckle, then, “I’ve gotta get a new frame.”
“What?” He met her by the door as she donned a purple stocking cap and flannel coat. “Now? But I just-”
She closed the door in his face.
“-made breakfast,” he stated to the wood paneling.
Summers paused on the porch. A speck of color to the right drew her attention. On a weathered fissure of the porch railing, where the wood had cracked, a blue feather protruded. Held like a dollar bill in a clip. Wavering in the wind. She hadn’t noticed it before. It wasn’t there yesterday. She pondered, plucked the avian remnant from its receptacle and spun it between small smooth fingers. Beautiful. It seemed improbable that it could have blown into such a precise position. But what was the alternative, that someone put it there? If someone did it wasn’t Wes. Summers jolted up.
Memories frothed from decadal fissures, summoned by the cerulean tuft like grains of iron to a vast magnet. A pensive stillness gripped her, followed by fear. She did not want to think of him. The page had turned on that chapter of her life. She was determined not to reread it. What was the point? She already knew the ending.
Summers put the quill in her pocket and forded the dirt footpath from the porch, which cut sharp left from the house, followed it past Casey’s Antiques, with its suit of armor and cutlass visible through the smokey panes, the Wyatts’ crumbling house, stone in back, wood in front, Carruthers’ Clothing, the perpetually lantern lit Junebug Cafe, and came before the austere contours of Bligh’s hardware store.
She paused in the middle of the road. On the far northern stone spire, a figure stood, backlit by sun, sex lost to distance. The silohouetted percher appeared to be looking at the town. At her. A chill wind swept in from the ancient geomorphic edifice and coiled about the buildings, like a great and phantasmal centipede. Summers pulled collar taunt to gird against the elemental onslaught and noticed a portly uniformed man with a seven pointed star at his breast, coming down the road. He met her before the storefront and tipped his wide brimmed hat, plucking a half smoked cigarette from between metal speckled teeth. “Mornin miss.”
“Morning, Mr. Scarp.” She never called him sheriff and he did not seem to mind.
“Heard ya gonna be at Barnes’ shindig this Sunday,” the old lawman continued with what appeared to be genuine interest.
“Yeah,” she replied absently, glancing to him then back to the stark incline. He followed her gaze to the grim obelisk. The high observer was gone, as if carried off by the wind.
“What is it?”
“Someone, standing on the stone.”
He put a hand on his belt and pursed his lips. “On that old thing? Nah. Was probably a bird. Them turkey vultures get big enough to carry a dog, nearly snatched one a mine couple months back.”
“That’s awful. Was your dog alright?”
“Was after I shot the sum bitch.”
“Well, it wasn’t a bird. On the stone.”
“Might a been one a Barnes’ kids. He’s got so many I’ve lost track. His eldest likes to clamber.”
“Jeffery? Yeah. Could be.”
“Well, I’ll see ya Sunday.”
With a smile and another tip of his brim, he was off down the road.
“You sure it wasn’t a trick of the light, Ly?”
Summers nodded from where she sat on the couch hunched over the coffee table, on it, a newly reframed canvas. Wes sat down beside her, keeping his steaming coco far from the artwork, which displayed an idyllic woodland scape, an empty treeborne birdnest with a single shattered egg in the foreground, and at the base of the tree, a small, dark centipede scurried over a root.
“Someone was up there. Maybe it was the hunter.”
“The spire is over two miles away and around seventy feet high. You telling me he ran all the way from our house, through the whole of town, and climbed it in the ten or so minutes you spent inside before you went to the store, just so he could stare at you? It takes me twenty minutes to run two miles.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Scarp said it was probably one of Barnes’ kids. Jeffery, maybe.”
“That makes more sense. They live closest to it.” He stared at her intently and his visage bore folds of concern.
“Are you feeling alright?”
“I found a feather.”
“Ok.” Wes arched his brow, waiting for further explaination.
“From a bluebird.” Summers slipped the colorful quill from her coat pocket and held it before the man. His face betrayed disinterest but he took it and feigned fascination.
“Bluebird is what he used to call me.”
Wes tensed, jaw set, brow creasing. “The guy you were gonna marry?”
She had mentioned him only once before when he had sorted through her things in preparation for the move to Harrowhane and noticed a stack of fantastical drawings signed “HK.” She had told him to throw them in the trash.
He relaxed and smiled. “Well. Its not a very fitting nickname.” She wasn’t amused and seemed hurt by this declaration but said nothing and stared at some indeterminable spot on the heelworn carpet.
“Come here,” he pulled her close and pressed lips to delicate neck. She didn’t respond and untangled herself from his embrace, looking uncomfortable, annoyed. Wes leaned back against the cushion, one hand picking at the fraying armrest. “You think about him often?”
“I don’t like dwelling on the past.”
“You’ve been acting strange lately. Thought it might be why. You never tell me when something is bothering you.”
“My paintings haven’t been selling.”
He was surprised to hear this, of late she had not appeared in want of cash. “Well, its not about the money right?” She didn’t answer.
Wes awoke at dawn to a strangled cry. A bad dream hanging over him like a precarious anvil. Into fresh clothes, then to the porch, door clattering wide.
Lyla stood on the aged patio timbers in nothing but an oversized t-shirt, clutching the jam, staring at the floor, shaking.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
He came behind her and halted, mouth falling open.
Before the door, on the welcome mat, lay the corpse of a bird, naught but sinew and marrow, save a single blue feather ensconced where a heart once beat.
Wes moved from the threshold around the artifact with the caution of one side stepping a rattlesnake. He dashed down the steps and surveyed the yard. Nothing but mist rolling down from the crenellated northern mount as froth from a gargantuan maw. When he returned to the porch Lyla was still staring at the gruesome totem. There were tears in her eyes as she whispered, “It was him.”
“That is mighty unusual,” the Sheriff stated with a quiver of amusement after Wes finished his story.
“Its not funny,” Wes snapped.
The old man’s demeanor soured and he leaned over the table with a scowl. “I look like I’m laughing, boy?”
“Cuz I ain’t.”
Wes held his tongue as the Junebug Cafe server moved to their table and set their drinks then scurried off.
“I don’t mean to be testy. I’m just,” Wes ran hands across flush face and blond locks before continuing. “Out of sorts.”
The old man leaned back, chair croaking. Kindly. Patient.
Wes inhaled deep and cast his gaze about the crowded, quiet establishment, distentangling yarn of thought. Mr. and Mrs. Casey at the middle table, as usual, talking with one of the young female waitresses and her giving a patient smile, the errant boy Jeffery Barnes showing something on his phone to a tittering floral skirted redhead his age, and in the far back corner, a man with a ballcap and sleek white puffer jacket, dipping biscotti in vin santo and scribbling notes in a battered tome.
“Lyla came from a small country town, not dissimilar to this one. Moved to the city with me after she finished school. All the time we lived there she was unhappy, though we wanted for nothing. I had a good job, but she couldn’t find success from painting. After a couple years I suggested we move out to the country. Get away from the bustle for quiet and mountain air. Big fish in a small pond. She agreed, and for a while it seemed she liked it. Sure you noticed how much brighter we were when we arrived.” The sheriff nodded. “But the more time passed, the more despondant she became. Even after her paintings started getting traction in town. Didn’t make sense. She never said much about what was on her mind, but now she rarely even talks to me. Runs around town at odd hours. Always worried. Has constant nightmares. Wound like a wire over this gala coming up. Then these gifts started appearing. I’m afraid she’s going to have a panic attack. I gave nearly everything for this. My job, my house, friends, family. I don’t know what to do. I just want to make her happy.”
“I understand.” The sheriff fiddled with his wedding band. “Any idea who might be behind these gifts yall been gettin?”
“I’ve no idea. Lyla thinks its her ex.”
“And who’s that?”
“Man named Harmon Kessel.”
“Don’t sound like you buy her theory.”
“I never met him, but I know from what she told me he grew up in the same town as her, that’s halfway across the country. So, what, he drops his work and drives half across the continent to leave some bits of bird on my doorstep just to freak her out?”
“Might not live in that town any more.”
Wes worked his jaw, annoyed he’d not thought of such an obvious the possibility. “Maybe. But we’re still about as out in the middle of nowhere as its possible to be. Wherever he lives its gonna be a long drive. People just don’t do that sorta thing.”
The sheriff bobbed his head and assumed a pained expression. “How’d they part, her and this other fella?”
“I dunno. She’s never talked about it.”
“Surely she said why she thought he’d do something like this?”
“Only said, he wasn’t the kind of man to let anything go.”
Scarp cleared his throat and lowered his voice. “Was she seeing someone before they split?”
“The hell kinda question is that?”
“One I gotta ask.”
“You know her. She’s not that kind of girl.”
“You know to a certainty?”
Wes glared at the old man, offended, struggling not to say something he’d regret. “I know to a certainty because I know her.”
The old man held up a hand. “Aight. You know what he looked like?”
Wes shook his head. “I can ask her.”
At that moment, the scraggly haired hunter with weighty pack and ragged coat appeared through the mist beyond the wide windows of the cafe, headed toward Wes’ house. His large body bent as if from some dire accident and carried by a strident, uneven gait, suggestive of impatient purpose. It was only then Wes understood Lyla’s trepidation at the outsider’s presence, for he appeared, in the cloying pall, as some wild apparation, bestial as the wildlife he hunted.
“What do you know about him?” Wes gestured to the window. The sheriff glanced over his shoulder.
“He’s a trapper. Eli Halloway. Somethings been attacking Barnes’ cattle, so he brought in help. More n that I don’t know.”
“This weirdness began after he arrived.”
“You let me worry about that.”
For a moment they sat in silence, sipping their coffee and listening to the soft music playing over hidden speakers. The longer Wes sat the more nervous he became, and the more nervous he became the more his head cluttered with unanswered questions. Why was Eli headed to his house? Was he the one who left the feather and the carcass, if so, to what end? Had Eli met Lyla before, had she merely forgotten about him? Was there something she wasn’t telling him? Did the trapper have some dark designs upon them? Shouldn’t someone follow him? Why was the sheriff so damn blasé about the whole affair?
Wes bolted from his chair, nearly knocking it to the floor, slapped two dollar bills on the table and took off out the door as Scarp called out with a tremor of irritation, “I told ya I’d pay.”
Outside the cafe the air was cold and the early morning mist had condensed to an impenetrable fog over the old stone streets. Wes jogged toward his house, sticking tight to the middle of the road to avoid colliding with the townsfolk coming and going from buildings. The hunter was waiting on the front porch of the red house, a booksized parcel in his hands.
“You Wesley Reece?”
“I am. Can I help you?”
The hunter turned to the form emerging from the omnipresent shroud.
“Tried knocking. No one home. So I decided to wait.”
Odd, he thought, Lyla would have answered if she were in. Perhaps she went back to bed. Or maybe she went off to Serena’s or Barnes’ place. “So I observe. Its Eli, right?”
“That’s right, sir.” He clattered down the porch steps and proffered the parcel. Reluctantly, Wes took it. It was heavier than it looked. A book by the feel of it.
“Caint say.” The man walked off. “Was to deliver it to you.”
“Who sent it?”
“Caint say.” The hunter vanished into the fog.
“Wait. Hey. What do you mean you can’t say? Hey!” Wes looked around self consciously and cursed. He turned round and sat the leftward wicker chair and glanced for the first time to the package. No postage. He unwrapped it to reveal a thin white box inside of which lay an illustration on a thick sheet of paper. The artwork was done in graphite and depicted two women whose faces were the faces of birds in lascivious, cannibalistic embrace, above whom stood a man with four hands extended over them and his eyes were not in his head, but his palms. The image, like the packaging it came in, was unsigned. He flipped the picture over and went stiff as he read the words composed of newspaper clippings immaculately glued to the back.
Bluebirds can’t be trusted.
Ryard sighed neath the geodesic shower dome, full of bustling bodies in various states of undress. Vaporous space communal and unfiltered to better ration the tower’s water. Some of the bathers cleaned their armor beneath multifaceted jets, others relaxed in the curving alcoves and massaged their aching muscles. Some conversed, most remained silent. Ryard stood still and let the water overtake his senses, relishing in the soothing steam. A women entered the room. Sirin. The men paid no mind, save for Ryard. She halted at the sight of him, an expression of surprise and sorrow passing across her pallid scarred face. She washed hurriedly, wrapped a towel about bare midsection and left the dome. Ryard followed after her, snatching two towels as he went, securing one about his waist and plying the other to his sopping mane, then casting it about his shoulder. The space narrowed to a wide white corridor filled with benches of darker coloration and black lockers in low alcoves, beside each of which was a door that led to a changing room. “Sirin, wait.” But before he could catch her she passed into one of the changing rooms and latched the door. Ryard muttered a curse under his breath. He put his hands on his waist and swept his hair back, embarrassed and annoyed. Then a voice.
“You’re dripping on the floor.”
Ryard turned to see Colonel Vorstahl sitting on an adjacent bench, newly dressed, strapping a pair of smoky running shoes. The veteran’s uncombed ashen locks shaded thick, sharp brows and narrow boleite eyes that slowly swiveled to meet the CAV-keep’s own.
“Nevermind that, or the girl.” Vorstahl withdrew a comb, and passed it in mechanical swipes through his hair and dried it on a towel about his neck. “Get dressed. We’ve a meeting to attend.” Vorstahl threw a bundled change of clothing to the half naked man and raised a small foiled morsel to this mouth.
Vorstahl paused and turned the incongruous orb in the light. His nostrils flared and his thin lips twitched simultaneously with amusement and disdain. “A truffle. That funny man from the board gave it to me.”
Vorstahl nodded. “I dislike candy, but waste wearies me more.” He popped the confection into his mouth, tilted his head up and swallowed as if downing a shot of whiskey. “Errant want, the guiding hand of vice. Take her for example,” he gestured to Sirin’s changing room. “She refused to discipline defectors for fear of sullying a pleasing camaraderie. Despite my orders. She shirked her duty and disgraced her station.”
“Is she to be reprimanded?” Ryard asked with trepidation as he finished changing into the fresh clothes.
“I’ve suspended her from duty until further notice.”
“Though it wasn’t my domain, I kept abreast of KSRU reports. She’s proven unreliable. She’d have been killed in that alley if it weren’t for your intervention. Then she nearly got her team killed at the docks. Lastly, this recent disobedience.” Vorstahl crushed the empty tin candy wrapping in his right hand and rose from the bench. “Pleasure is a prison. Shackling one chained by it is a liberation.”
Ryard frowned. “We need everyone we have.”
“Should I arm the clerks? Perhaps the children?”
Ryard crossed his arms and brandished a reproachful look.
“I appreciate your acumen, Mr. Vancing, and all you’ve done for us, but this is my operation. Its your choice to gainsay my orders, as it is mine whether you keep your post thereafter.” His voice was casual, but his eyes betrayed steely assurance. Ryard tapped a foot, ran his tongue across his lower lip and relented. Bathers filed in from the shower dome and the air was cloistered in conversation.
“We convene in fifteen minutes at cartography hall, one level down,” the colonel declared before heading to the lift at the end of the corridor.
Ryard cocked his ear, filtering the surrounding hodgepodge of noise. Spray of water, patter of unshod feet, creak and slam of lockers. Through the near changing room door, stifled sobs. He knew it was not merely the reprimand which had prompted her grief, but the cumulative weight of recent events. The destruction of her home district, the dissolution of the government, the death of Syzr. Such travesties could not be allayed by words. What, he wondered, could be said? What comfort could he provide?
He wavered for a beat, hand at the handle, then retracted, as if scalded and left the locker room. It wasn’t his place, he concluded. She wasn’t a friend. He wondered if he would have had the same compunction to comfort one of the male officers if they were similarly distressed. Probably not.
The mundane character of it all put Ryard in a good mood. It was assuring to have something close and commonplace as interpersonal drama to fret about, something he, alone, could intercede on or abstain from without wider repercussion. Normality is not what it used to be, he thought. Nor would it be again. But what was it ever, other than dissent from adaptation?
He descended to the next floor and paced neath a wide chamber with a fluted ceiling, fording a press of technicians and medical officers. At concavity’s center, a pale table, on it, a map of the city and several cups of coffee and cubes of kelp and two ashtrays, one smoldering. Colonel Vorstahl leaned over the shimmering, detailed cartograph, Sonderon at his elbow. Arrayed around the table were captains and corporals and several faces he didn’t recognize. He wondered at Straker’s absence.
“Alright, lets keep it brief. Our task, secure the KASC via deliverance of the engine to the Mracan Arkhos. And, if possible, capture or kill Illander Rehdon. We’re going to need a way to clear our gates of the mobs,” he moved his hand around the map, to a representation of the fort in which they convened, flush beyond the barbican with minuscule dots that represented bodies. “And after that, the KASC observation towers just beyond the walls.” He dragged a finger across the illustration to the aerospace complex and circled it.
Sonderon bent to the map and drew a line with his finger at the front gate. “Just send over a volley of canisters, smoke them out.”
“In this wind?” Raimer shook his head.
Vorstahl cut in. “All they would do is move back until it cleared. Which it would do swiftly, for the reason Raimer raised. Besides, such a course leaves a chance of fatalities among young and elderly.”
“Lot of those young and elderly want us dead,” Sonderon snapped.
“That changes my opinion no more than if they wanted us to live long as our telomeres allow.”
“We can just shoot the bastards.”
“That’s your proposal, massacre civilians?”
“I’m sick of your haughty attitude.”
“We’re not doing that.”
“I’ll do what needs doing.”
“No. You won’t.”
“I don’t take orders from you.” Sonderon gestured broadly to his men. “We don’t take orders from you.”
Without warning Vorstahl seized the politician by the back of his collar and slammed him to the tabletop. Sonderon groaned and held his hands out in entreaty, eyes bugging in fright. The hands of the surrounding colonial guard flew to waistbound cutters as Sonderon’s men tensed and squared up to their makeshift compatriots. Ryard shifted to one of the Sonderites he recalled as Closton and sternly, pleadingly gestured. A half shake of the head. Closton relented and held back his compatriots.
“Syzr went off alone, you want to join him?”
“Get him off me!”
Vorstahl pressed the squirming man harder to the calcimine work surface. Smearing red. “From now on, you will not speak until spoken to. You will not act without my assent. Is it understood?”
When Sonderon did not respond the colonel asked again, his voice rising with terrible potency. “Is it understood?”
“Yes.” The single word tumbled feebly from trembling lips.
Vorstahl glanced over his shoulder to the assembled Sonderites whose faces displayed a mixture of fear and outrage. “The same goes for all of you.”
For a moment only Sonderon’s labored breath resounded. In one swift movement, Vorstahl pulled the man off the table and flung him to his comrades. Closton caught his leader and looked to Ryard apologetically. Sonderon wiped faint trickles of blood from lip and brow and cast his eyes to the ground like a wounded dog.
“Now, as to our plan of action,” Vorstahl continued without perturbation, straightening, hands on his belt. “We’ll deploy cloud planters over the base and spaceport. Charge the atmosphere. Make it hail.”
“Why send them over the spaceport?” Corporal Grieg queried, rubbing his chin contemplatively.
Vorstahl returned to his precise gesticulations. “Unless he’s a fool, Rehdon will have men stationed on the observation towers. SecCom remnants, probably. But those towers weren’t designed for sniping, so they’ll be open to the elements. So we wait for the storm to build and take an armored convoy up the main gate, clear the towers, and head to the spire. From there, we’ll descend to the control room in the underworks and install the engine.”
“We’re not clearing the entire base first?” Whalen inquired, spreading his hands.
“No. Underworks are sealed and only open to properly tuned Telesoma. There is a single module stored in the tower, static passcode 5682134, but it is improbable that Rehdon is aware of it.”
“And if he is?” Whalen pressed.
“Then he’s probably catatonic. Its dangerous to engage Telesoma, for every module is linked to every other. The strain of it is too much for most to bear. But even if he finds and is sufficiently constituted to interface with the system, that changes nothing concerning our strategy.”
“How are we getting in the spire? With or without Telesoma, Rehdon’ll have the place sealed.” Lanning prompted.
Ryard smiled slyly and stepped to the map, opposite the colonel. “I have an idea.” All present shifted to the speaker, who until this moment had been entirely silent. “The windows on the spire, they factory standard?”
“Yes. Why?” Vorstahl replied, arching a brow.
“The cloud racer I borrowed from Lind is designed for repair and replacement of paneling on highrises and aerostats.” Ryard modulated the map so it displayed the aerospace control spire as a cutaway. “If I take the racer to the communication room here,” he slide a dactyl to the top of the penultimate portion of the massive blade-like column. “Then I could use the racer to remove one of the windows, fly inside, get to the instrument panel and open the ground floor doors.”
Sarker bobbed his head. “Sounds like a plan.”
“A risky one,” Kopf added.
“Why go all the way to the top? Why not enter through the second story and run down to the lobby?” Whalen asked with a dumbfounded expression. “Surely that would be quicker.”
“The spire is similar to this base,” Ryard magnified the diagram and pointed. “Every floor is bifurcated with a passcode waypoint, the regular change of which is automated, randomized, and relayed to pertinent personnel as necessary. Probably the only people who know the codes now are Rehdon and his men. However-”
“The codes can be manually input from the spire control room.” Vorstahl finished mechanically.
The colonel looked into Ryard’s eyes. “None of my men are competent with HOCL machinery. You are certain you can operate the cloud racer with that degree of precision?”
“Its not much different from manually steering a CAV-way transport. Besides, what are our other options? Blast through the doors, level by level?”
“But too slow,” Tyser Lanning added. “There’s no cover at the front entrance of the spire. We could use amtracs for cover but we’d still be open from above. Our aerial surveys haven’t show any Consortium drone movement, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any. I think we should let the Major try it.”
“You should have seen him at the docks, Colonel. He can do it,” Kopf declared as he stepped beside the CAV-keep and slapped him on the back. “Ain’t that right?” Grieg, Sarker and Whalen nodded and their faces were full of genial lines. Ryard smiled, moved by the sudden flurry of support.
Vorstahl, unmoved by the display, leaned forward, hands across the map and gazed searchingly from face to face. “Very well.” The next instant he pointed with stern focus. “But I don’t want any heroics. You get in, you make a straight line to the controls, you get out. Understood?”
His smile faltered when he noticed Sonderon’s visage, turned upon Vorstahl, spiced with malice, black and smoldering.
an ambient motif
Scandium trussed and four in number, the defectors knelt on a wide white dais at center of the rain slick court. Below blood red sun and burning smog, spectators infected air with subtle curiosity and apprehension was in the eyes of all appraised of the coming judgment.
Ryard, Sirin and Raimer stood the unfurnished alabaster plat, and the latter raised a hard plated hand before his voice and the regiment stilled. “Who forsakes a vow is himself forsaken.” “And by their destitution, sorrowfully marked,” the albumen armored colonists replied. Raimer gestured to the corporal, who carried a simmering brand. She moved before the redheaded captive, who looked on the timorous adjudicator with tearful eyes. Shaking. Sniveling. Face wet with tears and rain. “Elyse. Please.” She halted and looked to Raimer. Her accouterments that of a warrior proud, her aspect that of a frightful waif. A fleeting gesture of indecision, unnoticed by most. As Raimer’s features bent with derision, she passed the brand to Ryard and returned to the host, her eyes downcast, posture maladroit.
The CAV-keep stood a moment in shock before surveying the master of the ceremony. Raimer inclined his head and with the gesture Ryard stepped forth, taunt and rueful.
“I’m sorry, for what I said,” the redhead croaked, his body convulsing with panic. “Forgive me.”
Ryard inhaled deeply and raised the brand.
Without utterance, Ryard plied the iron to the visage of the condemned. The gaoled cawed for mercy but met with wordless resolve and hung his head, scantly conscious due the pain. After marking the redhead, he moved to the next mutineer, and the next, each pleading, then howling in turn.
When the grim work was done, Ryard stood unsteadily, pivoted from the prisoners and looked to the sea of faces surrounding. The followers of Sonderon were much affected by the trial, but the legionaries of the deep showed only stern approval, for the scoring was law, and law was absolute.
The drizzle waxed to a deluge and the judged were removed from the courtyard and ferried to the bowels of the fortress. Jean and Ryard followed behind the diminished procession, composed now only of colonists, and, side by side, gazed upon the passing faces of the inmates who leered from translucent penitentiary cells. There were southers, whose swarthy pockmarked faces were masked by coal black beards and handmade hats, and federants, whose jaundiced skin crinkled with proud disdain, and pallid aecerites whose ragged habiliments were composed of knitted refuse. None spoke and footfalls filled the hall.
To the left, near the cell at the end of the dungeon corridor sat the tattooed rogue who Ryard had apprehended with Sirin’s assistance. The knave raised a thumb and drew it across his throat, his face held in a paroxysm of primal savagery. When Ryard previously beheld the inked reaver he had felt a mixture of anger, sadness and pity, now he felt only cold derision. When the inked reaver beheld the branded his posture slackened, his eyes went wide and he instinctively pressed himself against the wall, as if fearful of being next to be scourged.
“Come,” Ryard prompted. “We’re wasting time.”
As the colonists secured the traitors, Raimer and Ryard ascended a windowed lift and watched the city unveil itself beyond the high walls. Darkness descended. One by one the near districts went black and the men exchanged looks of concern.
“Why would he shutter the reactors? To force us into the open?”
Ryard shook his head and leaned against the translucent pane of the elevator. “He’s been here.”
“Oh that’s right, with the-”
“He’d have known the fort has its own generator.”
“Then what’s the point?”
“Desperation, degradation. What he’s doing isn’t just about us. Its about the entire city.”
“I don’t understand what he stands to gain.”
“Maybe he doesn’t either. Maybe that isn’t what motivates him.”
“And what motivates you?”
“To do this?”
“To do anything.”
“I like putting things back together. Keeping things running. That’s why I became a CAV-keep. Growing up I wasn’t good at much. Not handsome enough to be an actor, or patient enough to be a novelist or dishonest enough for sales work. But I knew machines. And that’s how I saw the CAV-ways throughout the city, as one marvelous machine. One great river of steel. The blood vessels of a metal heart. But it was in decay. And I wanted to keep it running. Like a horologer at work on an ancient orrery. Then, I wanted to improve it. Turn the river into an ocean. That all seems quaint now.”
Raimer gazed out the window. Only the furthest reaches of the city remained illumined. Sheets of rain sloshed against thick boleite casing and the sky flashed with brutal fulmination, intermittently revealing the forms of space shuttles that jutted from the far aerospace complex like great javelins. The captain shifted and returned his gaze to his companion and his voice assumed a somber edge.
“They told me what he said. The first you branded. Hamlin. About being an interloper. I confess, I was of a similar opinion. You’re only here because of Kryos’ favor. Thought he’d prejudiced himself. Thought you didn’t have sufficient nerve. But it was our own was lacking.”
Ryard turned slowly from the window, grip tightening on the ritual brand he yet held, an adamant countenance there reflected.
The fisherman bolted, across the bay,
where lay a blasted shore.
And spied, from windswept distance,
a shape from Neptune’s floor.
A beast some hundred feet in length,
azure-black upon the sand.
Relief, for it was spent of strength.
But none to call to hand.
Aghast, the man returned to town,
spreading word far and wide:
“Upon the beach, beneath the gulls,
a sea monster has died.”
Quick were tongues to relay the tale,
and upon a tractor they relied.
to tow the carcass, which they discovered,
was nought but timber, tarped and tied.
Eidos drifted within a teardrop shaped calyx, the pristine artifact suspended amid a vast calcimine complex flush with azure light from highbound tubes, body shrouded in black casing of chitinous, flexile composition, save the face, it fitted with an opaque respirator, muffling labored breath. Slowly, the patient opened his eyes, icteric stark in lazuline murk. Orbs nettled by viscous liquid. Astringent and cloying. He inhaled raggedly and shivered. No feeling afforded his body but a dull, heavy warmth. The only sounds, the regular sluicing of medicinal gel, the subtle whir of reticulated mechanical arms tending to the patient and an omnipresent ringing of the inner ears. He tried to move his limbs, but could not feel them. With considerable exertion he cast his gaze beyond translucent paneling. To the left of the rind, another pellucid canister of identical manufacture, and in it, the still form of Devik Amberleece, distinguished from distance and disfigurement by the ruddy stain of hair, little of which remained. The Fabrdyn magnate’s face was unevenly pitted with cracked black gashes. From coral mesh of right jowl, a peeking sliver of bone. Pyrotechnic residuum. A monitor beside the sanguine maned invalid showed faint permutations, vital signs. Right of the calyx, two figures stood in discussion. Man and woman. The former, stocky, unshaven, volcanic. Sonderon. The other, smaller, more reserved, yet further indistinct to Kryos’ recuperating perceptions.
“Your man Vancing has gone too far.”
“They were going to open the gates.”
“I don’t object to his interference on that point. Its the treatment after.”
“You expect their release that they might try the trick again?”
“They are my men.”
“They are deserters. Your name does not afford exemption from discipline.”
“I will discipline them.”
“I weary of your carping.”
The man drew up to the woman’s face. “Don’t think you can dress me down like some fledgling fusilier.”
The woman turned to her chastiser and gestured with her chin to the door. “See yourself to the exit. Or it shall be shown to you.”
Kryos’ eyes widened as he apprehended the female voice, clear, officious, tinged with the weight of uncertainty. Light of skin as dark of hair. Austere countenance marred by a quivering at the corners of her almond eyes and wide, ruby mouth.
“Vera.” Words astringed by a ravaged throat.
The rancor desisted. Straker turned and her eyes shined with amazement. Joy. Her lips quivered.
“Eidos.” She smiled, creases laced with tears and leaned over the desk toward the raised gossamer receptacle. “We thought we’d lost you, Sir.”
Eidos coughed, inhaled deeply, and spoke again with travail. His tone warped beyond human tenor as scraping of alloy on kindred matter. “How long have I been thus?”
“A baleful eel, Time. Dactyls slip upon the jaw. Obdurance unforged, to lay mandibles on the mantle.”
The woman nodded and waxed curious. “Do you remember what happened?”
“I was aboard the airship. I noticed Rehdon’s lack of discomfort after being struck. Intuited a trap. Ran. To the hall. Then thunder. Ringing. Darkness.” His piercing, luminous eyes slid to Devik’s capsule. “Did the other passengers survive?”
“No. It is not certain yet that Amberleece shall. His condition is stable but we don’t know when or if he’ll ever wake up. Besides you, he was furthest from the blast, nominally shielded by the control array. We talk too much. You should rest. You cannot feel much from the anesthetic, you do not perceive the extent of your injuries.”
“That isn’t necessary.”
“Show me.” His voice rang, stolid as folded steel and the weight of his expression were as falling stone. Straker wrung her hands together and nodded to the adjacent medic.
Nervously, the physician bent to the control panel and tapped the keypad, whereafter the black casing within the medical calyx slid from Kryos’ body. Sonderon cursed and turned away. Straker lowered her eyes to the table before her as Kryos’ breathing grew rapid. No arms or legs remained. Only pulpy char flecked stumps. Organs held from within a soft, complex mesh, round and through a lacerated abdomen.
After the patient recovered from the shock of his mangled soma, he focused upon Sonderon. Gaze narrow and severe.
“Wherefore your ardor? Does the fruit of revolution not sate you?”
“I did not want this.”
“Your past litanies suggest otherwise.”
“I spoke of a revolution of the people.”
“The anarchy of ghosts.”
“Are my people so phantasmal? Or these gluttonous foreign hordes? They’re real as those wounds.”
“The present, pregnant with nostalgia, the future, stillborn. Cerebral ejecta, layered as sediment. Age after age. A brittle mound mistaken for a stair. The desultor leaps to find his horse a tiger.”
“Mounds? This land is our birthright. This city was our garden, now its more like a tomb.”
“Every garden is a tomb. Every plant, a carnivore. In time, the bane of stone. What sanction divine parcels tender for their slithering disruption? The acres of blood to slake their thirst? The miles of marrow on which they sprawl?”
Sonderon wavered, as much due emotion as perplexity. Before the politico could respond, Kryos was overtaken with another coughing fit.
“He requires convalescence. You should go,” Straker urged in hushed tones.
The partisan met the woman’s reproachful gaze. His own, deformed by a complex amalgam of hesitation, ire and grief. At length he gave a curt nod, cast a backwards glance to the ruined man in the calyx and departed. Straker gestured to the medic and shortly he too left off and the air was solemn and still thereafter.
“Devotion is precious as a dream.” Kryos stated pensively, his eyes following the female as she moved from the desk to stand before him. She placed a hand upon the surface of the tank. “One ever fruitless without the other.”
As she stared at his charred flesh her stoicism fell to rage. “I promise you, I will bury him.”
“You disappoint me, director. A flint struck temper is beneath your grace. The dead do not suffer. The canopy closes upon our ascent. No time remains for indulgent pursuits.”
“Rehdon’s taken the aerospace complex. He has fortified it with the remnants of the security commission and fringe militants from Sodabrucke’s base.”
“What a vexing man.”
“We cannot elide a conflict.”
“Yes. But it is not his throat I’d have you grasp.”
“What then, Sir?”
“A body, worthy of the colony.”
Feral multitudes marshaled before the ramparts of KSRU’s Southern Base. Some petitioned aid. Others howled for retribution. All demanded entry. Brawls erupted with regularity and the ground was maculate with teeth and blood. Adult and child, man and woman. Milky mangled limbs, artifacts of impulse. Despite the frenzied cries that permeated the orgiastic miasma, no movement, nor word issued from the fortress impregnable. The feverish, fatigued throng, greeted only by the stern, imposing facade, grew weary of the broil, and at length, succumbed to a tomblike stillness.
On torpid wind, the scent of char. In the eastern distance, febrile ruins. Devik’s palatial dirigible, ringed by gutted storm damp timber and broken armatures of pulverized gazebos, appearing liken to the rent ribcage of some beached, timeworn fiend of fathomless depth and gargantuan proportion.
Vancing regarded the desolate vista with solemnity from the fortress valgang as wind tousled his dark, formerly mannered hair and chilled his weary frame. He adjusted his collar, sat and leaned against the wall, closing bleary eyes, soaking in stillness. Idleness had eluded him since the adventure at the docks and so basked in tranquility’s balm, feeling the cool rigidity of the porous concrete at his back, wondering of its origin. After some moments of contemplation the man’s attention returned to the object held. A heavy beige pack that clattered dully. From the satchel he withdrew the armor of Acelin Syzr. Piece by piece, he set the interlocking plates at his left, hefted the helm and drew a worn rag over the abraded veneer in tight circles, cleansing caked gore. With a gentle motion he shifted the vermeil covering so hollows stared at him. Percolations of emotion played across the mechanic’s face.
“Thought I’d find you up here.”
Ryard, prompted by the intrusive voice, looked up and beheld Tyser Lanning. The lanky man’s aspect had changed markedly since last the CAV-keep had beheld him, for his long hair had been clipped short, parted in the middle, his distinctive orange overcoat exchanged for a standard issue suit of monochrome sychitin, and holstered at his waist, a colony fabricated cutter.
Lanning gestured to the face covering. “Feels strange. Knowing he’s gone. Was talking to him a week ago. He was standing right where you’re sitting. Its as if-”
“One were dreaming.”
Lanning nodded, moved to the chalky merlons and removed a small parcel from his utility belt. From the packet he withdrew a number of thin sliced tomatoes and laid them in rows upon the toothed protrusions of the wall such that no piece touched the other.
“I once told him, somewhat condescendingly, if he recognized how quickly we forget the dead, he’d not be so hasty to join them.”
Ryard stopped burnishing the headpiece and looked to his colleague. “What’d he say?”
“’I would prefer to die rightly and forgotten, than live in fame and error.’” Sorrowfully, Lanning shook his head. “I couldn’t fathom the sentiment. Had a new family. I was contracted. Not yet a formal member of the colony. What good was honor to me? It couldn’t feed my kid. I thought it was naive idealism. But its only by the blood of men like him that I had the luxury of such vulgar pontifications.” He paused, removed his knife and methodically separated the seeds from the meat of the diced fruits. “That was twelve years ago.”
Ryard cocked his head inquisitively. “What are those?”
“Tomatoes. Gets hot on the parapets, so they dry out pretty quick.”
“What are they for?”
“Those dubious noodles?”
“Didn’t like them?”
“Didn’t try them.”
“Well, I brewed two pots. Thought you might be hungry.”
“I appreciate it. I haven’t eaten anything today.”
Thereafter the two men continued their work without conversation until a cry from below diverted their attentions. In the courtyard of the keep near the gate, two men stood, face to face, each gesticulating violently, shouting, their words rendered indecipherable by emotion and distance. Who occupied the ground nearest the barbican was a colonist. The other, a member of Sonderon’s troupe.
Ryard sighed, rose, and wiped his hands on his pants. “Tend to your vittles. I’ll see to it.” Thereafter, Ryard debarked the palisades. Below, the fracas teetered at the edge of violence and heated voices rang throughout the court.
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“When Kryos wakes,” the colonist began, ire ascendant, cut off before he could finish.
“Wakes? Its been a week. We both saw what happened. There’s scarcely anything left of him. I know you lot don’t want to hear it, but he’s not waking up.” Some of the colonists surrounding muttered among themselves with incredulity or concern.
“One set back, you turn tail? Is that how Sonderon operates?”
“We’re surrounded. Rehdon has the whole city in the palm of his hand. What can we do?”
“I didn’t sign up to lay down in a grave.”
“The words of a coward.”
With a snarl, the Sonderite sprung forth and struck the colonist in the jaw. The abused staggered back, as much from the shock at the affront as the pain of the blow. Retaliation was swiftly meted and the two locked arms amid the baying of their peers, who began to howler like monkeys of some carnage stained jungle.
“Enough,” Ryard shouted coldly as he pushed his way through the rallying crowd and split the combatants with a forceful shove. The belligerents turned upon the fresh offender and for a moment it appeared as if the melee would resume. “This dissension is profitless.”
“He calls me coward.”
“And so you are,” the colonist, who Ryard recognized as Amon Alric, barked defiantly, wiping blood from his lip and glaring above a weather beaten brow.
“Because I’ll not throw my life away for your master’s fancy? For some cursed vessel.”
“That ship is worth more than the whole of Aecer.”
“What’s this about?” Ryard demanded impatiently.
“Desertion, sir. He and that lot sought to make a break of it,” Alric responded, gesturing to a small group of Sonderon’s men and two colonists by the gate. “So I intervened. If he should go, that’s his business, but he’s subverted us, sir, and convinced some of the rookies to abscond.”
Ryard looked to the neophytes, neither wore helms, one a vermilion haired man, the other a raven haired woman, both young and terrified. “To your stations,” the CAV-keep commanded. The would be deserters did not move, but looked each to the other with dire apprehension. Ryard took a step forward. “I would prefer not to repeat myself.”
“Who are you to be giving orders?” The red headed defector hissed, surpressed ire overtaking terror. “Some two-bit mechanic the bitch dragged in off the streets.”
“Its ironic,” Ryard replied, ignoring the insult.
“That mob outside want in because they believe men like you will protect them.” The deserter’s face fell. Ryard motioned to the dastards and spoke to the soldiers surrounding. “Detain them all.”
by Dustin Grinnell
After several years of writing the obituary column for The Boston Globe, I longed for more interesting topics and significant stories. I wanted to mingle with sources, gain their trust, and write exposés that revealed injustices for the public good, like the investigative journalists I admired. I pitched many article ideas to my editor, but it wasn’t until a chance encounter at a dinner party that I got the break I desired.
At the get-together, I sat next to a newly married man, who confessed his wife had tried many interventions to rid herself of a troubling problem. In times of stress, she would pick the skin around her fingertips until they were raw, leaving them damaged and hardened, sometimes bleeding. The issue seemed rather insignificant, but his wife had been disturbed that she couldn’t control the behavior. She knew she shouldn’t do it, yet she had found the habit irresistible.
Her primary care physician had referred her to cognitive behavioral therapy. There, she had focused on identifying the underlying thoughts and feelings fueling the problem. Regrettably, it had done nothing to change her behavior.
She had then gone to a psychoanalyst to understand the cause of her dermatillomania, also known as chronic skin-picking. Despite ten therapy sessions, nothing was ever found, and the habit had persisted.
“Hypnosis cured her,” her husband claimed. “In fact, after one session, she was free of the burden.”
His wife had been delighted to have put the quirk to rest. That is, until a few months later, when she developed a condition known as Raynaud’s disease, which reduced blood flow to the fingers in cold temperatures.
“How does that affect your family?” I asked.
“She can’t spend long periods in the cold,” he admitted. “She spends most of our ski vacations in the lodge, huddled next to a warm fire with a book.”
The cause of her Raynaud’s disease was unknown, but he speculated that the hypnosis had caused his wife’s new malady, having “crossed some wires” in her brain, perhaps. Regardless, they believed Raynaud’s disease was a small price to pay to avoid the alarming sight of bloody fingertips.
The tale stuck with me for several days. Hypnosis had alleviated the intended problem but might have replaced it with another. Having undergone some psychoanalysis myself, I wondered if the woman’s neurosis might have been the result of some underlying anxiety. Had hypnosis simply bypassed the unconscious forces at play, causing them to manifest elsewhere in her body?
Given the stigma against medical conditions being “all in one’s head,” I didn’t dare suggest to the man that his wife might have been suffering from psychosomatic symptoms. However, I did wonder if exploring the dark recesses of her mind might have helped relieve her physical symptoms. Had she expressed some deep-seated anger or sadness, would she have been free of both health issues?
A quote by the English psychiatrist Henry Maudsley came to mind: “The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep.”
I felt darkly stimulated by the encounter one Saturday morning. Over coffee, I grabbed my phone and wrote a pitch for my editor about the “dark side” of medical interventions, in particular alternative therapies like hypnosis. During our one-on-one meeting on Monday, I voiced the idea, but it was met with lukewarm enthusiasm. Undeterred, I followed up with a more formal proposal via email.
“The idea has promise,” her responding email said the next day. “You can begin research for one article.”
I finished the three obituaries I had to do for the day in record time and began looking for centers in Greater Boston that offered alternative or integrative therapies.
My first call was to the Eureka Center in Williamstown. I told the naturopath I spoke with that I was a reporter looking for stories of individuals who might’ve resolved one health problem only to find themselves dealing with another.
When I mentioned the woman with Raynaud’s, the naturopath said she knew of several similar cases. One had undergone hypnotherapy to quit smoking but then developed a chronic respiratory condition known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Another had undergone acupuncture to get a handle on his migraines, but while the migraines were diminished, he developed severe acid reflux that inflamed his throat, causing it to constrict while he slept.
When I spoke with the man, he said a neurologist thought one of the acupuncture needles might’ve gone too deep and struck a bundle of nerve fibers in his neck or scalp. This may have caused the nerves in the esophagus to become hypersensitive and thus overreact with swelling when acid regurgitated from the stomach.
With this information, I wrote the story enthusiastically. It was published in the bottom right-hand corner of the front page. There was my name, Winston Solomon, beside my very own column, The Dark Side, with the catchy subtitle “What are the costs of our healing therapies?”
The one-thousand-word piece generated hundreds of letters from all over the state from people with similar experiences. Elated, I dove headlong into my work, writing obituaries during the day and the column at night.
For my next story, I interviewed a man who had undergone a year of existential psychotherapy, or philosophical counseling, to cure nihilism—a sense that life was insignificant. He thought life had no intrinsic meaning, so why should he go on living? The existential therapist, trained in dealing with such hopelessness, argued that the innate meaninglessness of life shouldn’t stop people from living. Why couldn’t life’s shortness itself inspire them to wisely choose how they spent their time?
After some time, the man finally found his antidote: the realization that the onus to manufacture a purpose in life was on him. He no longer searched for a meaning of life; rather, he understood that meaning was found in living.
What was the “dark side” of the story? The man discovered he’d spent his whole life working at a desk, enriching other people, and never learning his individuality. Realizing he hadn’t lived his life, he quit his job, sold his belongings, and literally walked the earth.
The story was a sensation. Encouraged by the public’s delighted response to my column, my editor urged me to continue exploring and writing. Deciding to pivot, I began to seek stories of unintended consequences in conventional medicine.
I spoke with an oncologist at a major hospital in Boston who specialized in managing the cardiovascular side effects of cancer therapies. Many of the doctor’s patients had beaten cancer but now lived with life-threatening heart rhythm disturbances. I told her about my grandmother, who had succumbed to lung cancer years earlier after chemotherapy wreaked havoc on her body, scarring her heart and shredding her gastrointestinal system.
“Should we have taken her home when she was reasonably healthy,” I asked, “so she could check a few items off her bucket list before her inevitable death? She had always wanted to visit Nantucket, yet she spent her last few days suffering in a hospital. Wouldn’t beach walks have been their own form of medicine?”
“As a doctor, I have an obligation to do everything I can to save patients like your grandmother,” the doctor replied. “But deep down, in my heart of hearts, I would agree with you. I wish more families would do just what you described.”
As I dove deeper into conventional medicine, my column became unpopular among clinicians and researchers around Boston. No one liked having their livelihoods publicly criticized; many professionals saw my articles as blatant attacks on their fields. Hundreds of emails poured into my inbox, including a response to my exploration of the side effects of cancer therapies in which a physician insisted the drugs they used saved hundreds of lives every year.
“If you knew anything about medicine or pharmacology, you would know every drug has side effects.”
I hesitated to reply that he had just proven the point of my column.
Though it certainly wasn’t my intent, some of my stories put companies out of business. One story explored the effects of a nutritional supplement reported to extend people’s life spans by “optimizing metabolic circuits.” While some customers who had taken the supplement for years had more energy and sharper focus, many had suffered unusual symptoms, from malaise to nausea. One individual had developed a severe autoimmune disorder known as Still’s disease and took a handful of pills each morning to control the chronic illness. A few folks had heart attacks. One even died from a massive stroke.
The story made the nightly news, and 60 Minutes even began investigating it. The company that produced the supplement closed its doors a few months after the publication of my story.
Weeks later, in a meeting with my editor, I mentioned my desire to take my column in a new direction. I thought it would be interesting to explore the potential dark side of basic scientific research. I had grown up reading dystopian novels like 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, cautionary tales that explored the consequences of man’s inventions. I also read science fiction, which explored future possibilities within fictional scenarios. In the film Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm criticized the scientists who resurrected dinosaurs to create an amusement park for tourists.
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
This staggering line had never left me. It both haunted me and darkly inspired me to consider not whether we could but whether we should. I’d always felt there were certain types of people who would try anything, no matter how dangerous or morally complex, as long as it would get them the immediate results they desired. Maybe this was humanity’s innate curiosity—our explorer spirit. Maybe it was rebellion: if certain people were told they couldn’t do something, they wanted to do it even more.
Or maybe it was just that humans had trouble feeling the threat of something if the potential consequences wouldn’t appear until far in the future. At best, this might be caused by wishful thinking: “That won’t happen to me” or “Even if it does, we’ll figure something out.” At worst, it was caused by complete disregard for possible long-term consequences: “So what? I won’t have to deal with the fallout.”
I reached out to a biomedical research institute in Cambridge. According to its website, the institute comprised about two dozen labs dedicated to improving human health through curiosity-driven research to understand the biological mechanisms that drove intractable diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Most of the principal investigators were world renowned in their scientific fields. Many had received the National Medal of Science and were members of the National Academy of Sciences, and two had a Nobel Prize each in physiology or medicine.
After researching the institute, I was most interested in speaking with a Dr. Oscar Black. I was intrigued by the mission of his laboratory. All the lab’s inventions and medical devices—he claimed to have seventy inventions to his name—were inspired by nature.
For instance, research into the use of echolocation by bats had led to a potential cure for blindness, which was currently in phase II clinical trials. Another fascinating project, funded by the US Department of Defense, studied the mind-boggling speed with which hummingbirds flapped their wings. Though it seemed ridiculous, no doubt the military aimed to give soldiers the power of flight.
At the front desk, it was apparent the institute was a highly creative and intellectually vibrant environment. While I checked in, a woman with red hair and thick glasses passed by discussing an upcoming meeting with venture capitalists. Scientists walked by engaged in intense discussions that may as well have been in other languages. In the elevator, a pair of researchers discussed what sounded like a scientific experiment. They used strange terms, like sestrin2, leucine sensor, and mTORC1.
Once I’d entered Dr. Black’s suite, the secretary confirmed the schedule and knocked on his door. A raspy voice shouted, “Come in!”
When the secretary eased open the door, Dr. Black was hunched over his desk, his fingers strumming over his keyboard. He didn’t make eye contact. Instead, he took a bite of a sandwich and squinted at the computer screen through white-rimmed glasses. Unlike other investigators, who wore sports jackets or suits in their online pictures, Dr. Black wore jeans and a dark-red flannel shirt. His office was cozy, and the walls were covered in photos of him at barbecues and beach parties. On the windowsill sat a picture of the cabin he’d built in New Hampshire (he mentioned it in his memoir, Nature Is My Guide).
“What do you want?” Dr. Black asked.
“I’m the reporter who called about the Dark Side column.”
He scoffed. “So you’re the one assassinating doctors and scientists around town.”
“I assure you, that isn’t my intention. In fact, my column protects people from the unintended consequences of the therapies they seek.” As an example, I told him about a reader who had canceled her appointment to get breast implants after one of my articles profiled a patient who had experienced horrific side effects.
That seemed to disarm Dr. Black, who moved his sandwich to the side. “I’m well aware of the harm modern medicine can do, despite its lifesaving accomplishments,” he offered. “My wife passed away a few years ago.”
With some probing, I learned his wife had developed a brain tumor that had enveloped the major artery in her neck. It had been an impossible case, and most surgeons wouldn’t touch her for fear of her dying on the table, no matter how skilled they were.
The only neurosurgeon brave enough to take on the case managed to extract the tumor, but Mrs. Black suffered a massive stroke during the ten minutes the artery had to be blocked. She was cancer-free, but the stroke impaired the function of her right arm and leg and left her with a speech impediment. Unable to form sentences well, she could no longer enjoy conservations with her husband as she had before. To make matters worse, the cancer returned five years later, and Dr. Black was left with the vague notion that the benefits of the risky operation may not have outweighed the costs.
“I have to finish this grant proposal before the end of the day,” Dr. Black said, shaking off the memory. “Let’s make this quick, Mr. Solomon.”
“Do you mind if I record our conversation?”
Dr. Black agreed but asked me not to write about his lab. Disappointed, I set my tape recorder down on the table, promising never to write a word without the source’s permission.
“Can you explain your work, Dr. Black?”
He nodded and pushed his chair back away from the desk. “As you’re no doubt aware, my research is inspired by Mother Nature and all her magnificent creations.” He pointed to a glass container on a nearby table. Inside, mounds of sand teamed with ants. “Among our many projects, we are currently studying the organizational complexity of ants. An ant colony is a perfect society.”
He explained that they were organized into groups, almost like castes, and that each ant had a unique role within the hierarchy of power. The queen produced the eggs, while the workers performed various duties to maintain order. Some worker ants monitored the eggs, while others left the nest to find food.
“Every ant has a job to do,” he mused. “Each is suited for a role in their colony, and each does it well. It’s a happy republic—a utopia, in fact.”
Dr. Black’s explanation reminded me of my time playing football in high school, where a player’s position was determined mostly by their physical characteristics. The linemen, who protected the quarterback, were almost always muscular and above average in size, often overweight but still athletic. On the other hand, wide receivers, who had to sprint for passes and evade defenders, were usually slender and fast runners. Having been stocky but quick on my feet and able to withstand collisions with powerful linemen, I had been put in the running back position.
Intrigued, I asked Dr. Black how studying ants had translated into useful knowledge for humanity. It was somewhat surprising to hear him suggest that Homo sapiens could learn a great deal from ants. He believed we could use the knowledge to perhaps organize a perfect, harmonious society.
“Look at the misery most people suffer because they are ill-suited for their roles. For example, a litigator who prefers legal research and writing briefs to performing in courtrooms or securing clients for the firm through constant networking. What about teachers who have no aptitude for working with kids? Or a senator—a public servant—who has no intention of serving the public, only themselves?”
Dr. Black explained that most people were mismatched. “Square pegs in round holes,” he called them. “They fulfill roles in society inappropriate for their skills, temperament, intelligence, and personality.”
“How would you solve the problem?”
“I have created a machine that can match an individual with a role best suited to them based on seventy-five unique factors.”
Dr. Black pulled a book out of a drawer. “In The Republic, the Greek philosopher Plato imagines a perfect society in which each citizen satisfies the role they were born to fulfill. For example, large and strong men would be society’s warriors and protect the public in the military. The pensive and philosophical would write society’s laws. And the sensitive and empathetic would be healers in their communities.
“We are all born to do one thing,” Dr. Black insisted. “How many individuals are unsatisfied because they don’t like their place in the world? My machine, which I call Element—as in ‘finding one’s element’—solves that.”
Dr. Black’s grandiosity was startling. “Surely a person is more than their size, shape, intelligence, and temperament?”
“My technology accounts for all the unique components of a person.”
I nodded slowly. “So, how did this idea develop?”
Dr. Black smiled wryly. “To be honest, Element never would’ve come about if not for my son’s struggle to find his own place in the world.” He pointed to a picture of a handsome man in a black gown holding a medical school diploma.
“Nathan spent many unhappy years as a primary care physician,” Dr. Black explained. “He thought his patients complained too much, and most didn’t get better. Worse, he felt he couldn’t help them because many of their problems were stress related—usually psychological or emotional, not physiological.”
Nathan had a vivid imagination and exceptional linguistic skills. For years, Dr. Black had told him he had enough talent to be like the great physicians who also wrote fiction. Nathan admired Michael Crichton, who had also attended Harvard Medical School, and had grown up on novels like The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man. To expand his palate, Dr. Black had introduced him to the greats: Anton Chekhov, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mikhail Bulgakov.
When the idea hadn’t taken, Dr. Black built the prototype of Element for Nathan. “Testing showed that my son scored off the charts on verbal and written intelligence. He was also way above average on the creativity scale. This suggested that perhaps he was well suited for life as a writer.”
To Dr. Black’s delight, Nathan had accepted the results and began writing short stories about his clinical encounters, with the permission of those involved. As Dr. Black had expected, they were often derivatives of Crichton: thrilling, science-based tales, the first of which was about an infectious disease outbreak and was clearly modeled after The Andromeda Strain.
To Nathan’s amazement, most of his stories were published in science fiction journals. While he didn’t leave his clinical practice, Nathan was expressing his inborn talents, which made Dr. Black proud. That said, Nathan did admit to feeling guilty; as a doctor, he should focus on his patients’ health rather than thinking about one day fictionalizing his experiences with them. Nevertheless, he continued writing and improving his craft.
I knew such details would add color to my story if Dr. Black agreed to go on the record, but now wasn’t the time to pressure him. Instead, I asked more about how Element worked. It sounded a lot like a personality test, like the Myers-Briggs or other such services that companies subjected their employees to during company retreats.
“The Myers-Briggs is nowhere near as sophisticated as my machine.” Dr. Black bit his lip. “Perhaps it would be best if you saw it.”
We walked out of his office, through the suite, and down a hallway. He opened a door to the lab space, and we walked through a lobby with white walls and lab rooms on either side. He used a key card to open another door, revealing a cramped, dimly lit space. In the center of the room was the unmistakable donut shape of an MRI machine. The bulky cylinder had a hole in the middle, into which the bed slid.
We circled the machine as Dr. Black articulated that it was, indeed, a wide-bore 3 Tesla MRI scanner that could evaluate brain anatomy, neurochemistry, and a host of other physiological factors. It measured brain activity while a person responded to a proprietary list of behaviors, questionnaires, and cognitive tests. The prompts, questions, puzzles, word association tests, and brain games helped assess the patient’s intellectual abilities, creative capacity, emotional intelligence, and what were known as the five broad personality traits: extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.
“We can also do a full genetic analysis,” he added, “including ancestry.”
“How does that matter in the context of helping a person find their place in the world?”
“Well, for example,” Dr. Black replied, “some individuals with the ‘warrior gene’ are more likely to show aggressive behavior and thus might do better as soldiers or athletes. We also account for the nature of work in the twenty-first century. We can use the data obtained by Element to predict a domain or area in which the subject could flourish.”
With a kind of reverence, he ran his hand along the machine. “Astrologers and mystics have been trying to predict people’s futures for centuries. Science has made that a reality at last.”
Dr. Black walked me into an adjacent room, from which we could see Element through the window. “I believe every person knows, even if only subconsciously, what their talents are and what they should be doing with their life. It can take a long time to figure out what you’re good at. It can take even longer to figure out how to translate those faculties into a practical role in society.
“Element quickly identifies inborn talents and matches them with a vocation. It’s as simple and uncomplicated as that.”
I frowned. “But how does the machine account for someone’s values? I mean, say you’re good with numbers. Should you become an accountant or a mathematician? If you work in finance, should you work for a nonprofit or on Wall Street? For a small firm or large? Or perhaps you would be better suited for self-employment. Would you rather work on the sales side, with people, or the analytical side, with data?”
“We’re still working on that aspect, but we’re almost there,” Dr. Black shot back. “Indeed, values are nothing more than what arises from the combination of a person’s biology and psychology and the culture they live in, perhaps in combination with other factors, like socioeconomic background, race, gender, and others.”
Dr. Black appeared certain that if he knew these aspects of someone’s personhood, he would know what that person stood for. I remained skeptical until he probed into why I had chosen a career in journalism.
“My knack for words, I guess. I’ve always loved to read, and writing came naturally.”
Dr. Black nodded. “And why not choose advertising? You could’ve expressed such natural talent in that field.” He scoffed. “If we can even refer to advertising as a field.”
He had a point. It was, indeed, a question of values. To me, journalists held an essential role in society by keeping those in power accountable. “The job of the newspaper,” as the saying went, “Is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
“It is something of a thrill to write the first drafts of history,” I admitted. “And I hope to write a first draft of your work, if you’ll let me.”
Upon returning to the newsroom, I told my editor about Dr. Black and his work. Intrigued, she pushed me to get the scientist’s consent to write about his work, but she also urged me to write about the science through the lens of my column: to find Element’s unintended cost.
At first, none came to mind. In fact, the technology seemed to provide a good deal of benefit. I had read somewhere that only 15 percent of people were engaged at work. Who wouldn’t want to identify their place in the world with such speed and efficiency?
My editor didn’t care about the perceived benefits, though. “Go dark on Element. And for God’s sake, get the man’s consent to write about him.”
That night, I went home and sat on the back porch with a beer. I pressed play on my recorder and listened to my conversation with Dr. Black. I started typing and had a thousand words within half an hour.
Dr. Black’s main philosophy appeared to be that most people’s talents were squandered, their gifts untapped, leading to untold misery. Element, it seemed, could be a boon to humanity. Nevertheless, I had to “go dark” on the machine, which centered on whether the technology did indeed do what Dr. Black said it did.
Of course, I was putting the cart before the horse by writing a story without Dr. Black’s consent. With a first draft almost finished, I called him that night, buzzed from three beers.
“The American public needs to know about Element,” I told him. “I promise, I’ll write a balanced article about your work.”
“I’ll think about it,” he replied, before hanging up. I was sure my story would never see the light of day.
The next morning, though, Dr. Black called me and said I could publish. “The world would be a better place if more people learned about my work and took it seriously.”
“Mind if I spend some time in your lab to learn more about Element and your philosophy?”
I spent a week doing just that. Dr. Black even had me undergo the testing, which was quite enjoyable. Reclined, with my head and neck covered by the machine, I performed a series of word games and memory tests and free-associated while looking at beautiful and grotesque photographs. When the testing was over, Dr. Black handed me a twenty-page document of results.
Unsurprisingly, it noted I was well suited for my chosen career. It detailed my linguistic aptitude versus mathematical skills. The results suggested: “Subject shall thrive in the field of communications, particularly as a producer of content versus more administrative roles.” Another page said: “High idealism suggests a strong match for the betterment of the public, i.e., journalism.”
Element had shown I was well matched for my career, an outlier in Dr. Black’s mind. “Most people are lost,” he reminded me. “You are not, Winston.”
The story turned out to be my longest yet, so my editor published it as a three-part series. The article went viral, and it didn’t take long before everyone in Boston was discussing Dr. Black’s invention.
Two days after publication, I traded emails with Dr. Black. The institute’s technology transfer office had arranged meetings with biotech companies that had agreed to commercialize Element. Dr. Black said he didn’t care for this level of attention—“fame and tranquility are not good bedfellows”—but he eventually agreed to conduct a clinical trial on a dozen undergraduate students at Harvard University. I pleaded with my editor to let me follow his clinical research. She agreed but reminded me the newspaper was paying me to write obituaries and maintain the Dark Side column.
The Harvard students were eager to participate in the trial, claiming such technology was a godsend. Who wouldn’t want a machine to reveal their best traits? With all the pressure they were under to find their “thing”—and fast—Element could cut down the uncertainty.
In a Harvard Crimson article, one student said she was “insanely envious” of individuals who’d realized their passions at a young age. Another student agreed, joking that he wished he would experience a natural disaster or illness, as it would probably give his life laser focus.
“In a world where Element exists,” one parent was quoted to have said, “I won’t have to watch my child flit from job to job in his twenties.”
The study revealed that nearly all twelve students were headed for careers that didn’t align with their skills, temperaments, or intelligence. Most changed majors after breaking down the results with their parents and friends.
Cassie, a biology major, discovered she had little to no aptitude for science or mathematics. Instead, she became a dance major, having scored off the charts in kinesthetic abilities. Incidentally, she had always loved to dance. In a follow-up Crimson article about the study, she claimed, “It feels like I have to move to think.”
Beatrice, a culinary arts major, had been inspired by the movie Burnt to become a pastry chef. She thought being a chef was badass, but she had little passion for food (“my friends ate tapas in Spain; I found the closest Subway”). Beatrice also had inferior taste buds and low creativity scores. She scored high on mathematical abilities, however, saying in the Crimson that numbers had always come easy to her. When she was a little girl, she had played with equations while her friends played with dolls. So she became a math major.
Another student, Wells, opposed Dr. Black and his machine, publicly rejecting his results. He believed all the machine did was make him feel bad about being different. “I will follow my intuition,” he proclaimed. “If I take some wrong turns, so be it. That’s part of life.”
Every student except Wells aligned their futures in accordance with Element’s predictions.
After the clinical trial, my editor and I decided I had to move on from Dr. Black. I continued the Dark Side column for a few years and wrote many feature stories, one of which earned me a Pulitzer for Feature Writing. Not long after, I was tapped by a major newspaper to be a senior reporter. A couple of years later, I became the managing editor of Boston Magazine.
Dr. Black made bold career moves too. Several years after the Harvard study, he founded his own company, The Black Center for Human Advancement, which sold his machines to the public.
By then, Element had made its way into schools across the country. Parents anxious about their children’s futures had them tested by the thousands. Guidance counselors had little to do in the age of Element; they simply sent students to the nearest machine for testing.
To reduce turnover and absenteeism, many employers throughout the United States began requesting applicants’ Element results. Others would sponsor testing for attractive candidates, and entire departments paid for the testing as part of annual retreats.
Commercials ran on TV with slick lines like “Do you love your place in the world?” or “Do you feel lost in your career, unengaged at work, or unhappy in life?” Dr. Black was on the cover of countless magazines, including The New Yorker, which featured a cartoon of a silhouetted figure falling backward off a building, at the bottom of which stood the doctor holding a safety net.
A decade after meeting Dr. Black, I had mostly forgotten about him. I was in the middle of a pitch meeting when one of my reporters talked about a retired physician who had attempted suicide. He pitched a piece on burnout among healthcare providers in the age of industrialized medicine, which I thought was a good idea.
“What’s the doctor’s name?”
I paused, not expecting the name to be familiar. “As in the son of Oscar Black?”
The reporter nodded.
“Pursue the story. I’ll interview Nathan Black to get his side.”
Wasting no time, I visited the hospital where Nathan Black had been admitted, and a social worker led me to his room. When I entered, Nathan sat on the edge of the bed with his knees against his chest. He was pale, and his eyes were wild with fear. I introduced myself, saying I knew his father.
“I know who you are,” Nathan assured me. “You made my father famous. Made him obsessed.” He shivered. “I haven’t spoken with him in over a year because all he ever talks about is Element and the impact it’s having on society.”
His voice dropped to a whisper. “But Element is cursed.”
“Can you elaborate on that?”
“Leaving medicine to start writing was a terrible idea. Sure, my patients weren’t always easy to deal with, but at least the hours were steady and I was a respected member of society. People looked up to me, admired me.”
But his father’s machine had “infected” him with the notion that his destiny was to become a writer. And while Nathan might have had a natural facility with words, Element hadn’t accounted for certain intangibles Nathan would need to tolerate the rigors of a creative life.
“It’s shameful to admit, but I don’t have the guts for writing. It’s like driving down a winding road at night with just one working headlight—or even no headlights and with the car in need of an oil change too. But I’m someone who needs two headlights. Hell, I’d much rather drive during the day, anyway.”
It took a certain level of courage to sit down every day and “feel one’s way” through a narrative and then prune it to give the reader the impression the story could only have turned out the way the author designed it.
As a journalist, I could relate. One of the hardest things to accomplish as a writer was to build a piece that was clear and hung together. I considered my favorite authors who discussed how they had managed the uncertainty that accompanied the early stages of a writing project. Though I hadn’t written fiction, I knew fictional stories often began with almost infinite possibilities, yet they ended in what appeared to be the only way fathomable.
“Kurt Vonnegut,” I told Nathan, “wrote numerous versions of his novel Slaughterhouse-Five before he finished, even abandoning it countless times.”
Nathan smiled. “After writing the first two parts of Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse realized he had no way to conclude the book’s third section, and it took him years of soul-searching to return to it.”
He shook his head. “What patience! It drives me crazy just not knowing where a short story is going. Too much uncertainty, and I implode.”
Had Element missed an important aspect of Nathan’s personality? And what part of him were we talking about? Was courage, grit, or guts assessed by his father’s machine? Was it temperament? What about one’s nature or essence?
Element predicted a path that suited cognitive strengths, but it seemed it might be incompatible with various indefinable aspects of character. And despite being a talented writer—his short story about a rheumatologist who cured his own autoimmune disorder with laughter by prescribing himself funny movies was fantastic—Nathan was unhappy. Clinically depressed, even.
“Have you given up medicine?”
“I cut my clinic hours a few years ago to commit myself to writing fiction full-time, even though I’d only published a few short stories and my unpublished novel had been declined by dozens of agents. I bought a small office space in Concord, not far from Walden Pond, and would go there to write all morning.”
After receiving mostly rejections, Nathan had realized it would probably take him another decade to excel at fiction writing, and he had had no intention of making that level of commitment.
“I’m good at writing, but it takes a hell of a lot more than talent to have a career.”
Indeed, I had seen many people with similar problems: one might have an aptitude for something yet still not make money from it or be recognized for it.
Nathan supposed those Harvard kids had wanted his father’s machine to guarantee them successful futures. They might want to be rich and famous, but for the most part, they just wanted security.
“I was thinking about all this—going too deep into my thoughts—when my mood started to dip. The antidepressants helped for a year before they lost their effect.”
All the alone time and introspection needed for writing well had messed up his neurochemistry. His father had him admitted to a psychiatric institution when Nathan confessed he’d been fantasizing about not being around anymore.
“That was the appeal of suicide,” Nathan said. “The second the lights went out, all my worries, all my problems, all my silly ambitions just went away. I would be able to ‘rest in peace,’ as the saying goes.”
As I drove home from the hospital, I grew increasingly disturbed by my meeting with Nathan Black. It was a shame to see such a bright young man fall so hard. Plenty of people never climbed out of such a hole, and I wondered if he would ever recover. Should he have stayed in medicine? He hadn’t been as passionate about medicine as he had about writing, but at least he hadn’t been suicidal.
My mind drifted back to my old Dark Side column, which had launched my journalism career. Was this the “dark side” of Dr. Black’s machine?
Thousands of individuals now designed their lives in accordance with Element’s predictions. And everyone seemed to be thriving. Some even claimed their lives consisted of two parts: life before Element and life after Element. They didn’t have to experiment with various jobs or careers. They didn’t have to hire career coaches or read business books to navigate the complexities of building a brilliant career.
What misery it must have been to drift from job to job, to get a graduate degree to secure a career in a field that was only of slight interest, only to never find one’s calling and toil in a job that made one unhappy. That was a life of floundering.
With Element, people had a purposeful existence.
Yet were there others like Nathan?
That night, I searched online through articles about the first batch of Harvard students who had undergone testing. First, I looked up Cassie, who had begun Harvard as a biology major but switched to dance. It turned out she owned a dance company in Marlborough, about forty-five minutes from my apartment in Brighton.
The next morning, I drove to the address listed for her business. I walked through the main entrance and saw maybe a dozen young girls twirling on the hardwood floor. In front of a large mirror, a woman I guessed to be Cassie was barking orders. I was surprised, though. She appeared much older than her photos online. She was trim, but she was no longer the vivacious dancer I’d seen in my research. She looked haggard, and gray streaked her brunette hair.
I introduced myself and asked if we could talk someplace quiet. As she led me down a hallway to her office, we passed large posters that showed her in starring roles in Broadway productions. She walked with a slight hobble, favoring her right leg. An injury, I guessed.
Once in the office, Cassie closed the door, grabbed a glass, and began making herself a drink. “Do you want one?” The clock on the wall read half past eleven in the morning. I shook my head, and she poured herself a whiskey. “So, what do you want to know?”
“I’m trying to track down subjects from Dr. Black’s original study of Harvard students to see how their lives have unfolded since then.”
Cassie scoffed. “Look, without that machine, I’d probably be teaching high school biology somewhere, and I’m grateful for the life Element has given me. But I might not have taken the test knowing what it would lead to.”
When I tilted my head questioningly, she took a sip of her drink and pointed to a poster of her performing a pirouette. “Look, I was the hottest dancer on Broadway, highly sought after by the best producers and choreographers in the business. For a while, it was lifestyles of the rich and famous.”
“So why do you seem conflicted?”
“Because I was successful, but fame and money were all I had. I got everything I ever wanted, but I would’ve liked to share it with someone, to have a witness.”
“Did you never get married?”
“I got close a few times, but my relationships couldn’t bear the weight of my responsibilities. Just like this knee.” She stuck out her right leg and shook her head in disappointment.
“What do you really want to do with your life?”
She took a swig, finishing her drink. “I’d trade all the money and fame just to be able to bring a child into this world. Element gave me a great career, but all I really wanted was a baby. Maybe I’m not beyond my fertile years, but I feel like that ship has sailed.”
I had to get back to the office to run the magazine, but I was compelled to track down the other subjects of Dr. Black’s first study.
The next was Beatrice, the undergraduate who’d wanted to be a chef but switched her major to math. After exchanging several emails with me, Beatrice agreed to meet me in Boston Common. After we exchanged greetings, she walked to a bench and eased herself onto it, gingerly holding her swollen belly. I sat down beside her and pulled out a notepad, while she kept an eye on her two children.
Never one to beat around the bush, I dove right in. “So, I’m wondering what you’ve been doing since you graduated.”
“I’ve become a real baby factory.” She was currently on maternity leave, pregnant with her third child. With her husband on a business trip, she was delighted to be talking to an adult for the first time in a few days.
She’d gotten married in her mid-twenties, and her husband, who had just received an MBA from Harvard, helped her get a job at his father’s accounting firm. “The math comes easily, but I mostly just move little symbols around on the computer screen all day.”
“Do you wish you were doing something else?”
“I’d rather be doing something purer, like teaching math or doing research at a university. Not using my math skills to help rich people get richer.”
Beatrice yelled at her son to stop running after pigeons and then turned back to me with a shrug. “To be honest, I’m bored as hell on the job. My boss doesn’t give me enough assignments, so I spend a lot of time shopping online. My friends complain about burnout, but no one ever talks about ‘bored out.’”
Beatrice insisted that ‘bored-out syndrome’ was common among white-collar office workers and believed it was more soul deadening than being overworked. She hated office life too: the politics, the colleagues jockeying for power, the gossip, the backstabbing.
“What do you think of Element?”
She chuckled. “I’m happy to have a job I’m good at, so I shouldn’t complain. But I wish that machine could’ve warned me about my inability to tolerate the modern workplace.”
As I returned home, I couldn’t help but think of the one student from Dr. Black’s study who hadn’t followed Element’s results. It didn’t take long to find Wells online. His website said he was a motorcycle mechanic in Northampton. His profile picture showed a handsome man with a warm, easy smile.
It was a lovely Saturday afternoon, so instead of calling Wells, I decided to drive an hour and a half to the address listed on his website. Reaching my destination, I found a charming cabin nestled in the forest. To reach the front door, I passed over a shoulder-wide bridge that crossed a brook. When I rang the doorbell, no one came to the door, and I peeked through a window to find no one inside.
Stepping off the porch, I walked around the cabin toward a small shop, perhaps two hundred square feet in size. As I got closer, I heard metal clanking against metal. The door was up, and I saw a man lying with his head and shoulders underneath an old motorcycle.
“Hello,” I began, trying not to scare him.
The man pushed himself out from under the motorcycle, stood up, and said hello. It was Wells. He was lean and tall, with brown hair swirled with gray. He invited me inside his shop, using a rag to wipe the grime from his hands. After we shook hands, Wells went to the refrigerator, grabbed two bottles of beer, popped off their caps, and handed me one. I accepted it happily, and he struck mine with the top of his before taking a sip.
“So, what brings a city slicker like yourself out to the sticks?”
I cleared my throat. “I’m following up with students from the original Element study.”
Wells laughed. “Dr. Black’s ‘destiny machine.’ If only a person could find their purpose so easily. Forty-five minutes in a big donut and presto: all your existential questions are answered.”
I pulled a tape recorder from my pocket. “Do you mind if I record our conversation?”
“No problem.” Once I had the tape recorder set up, Wells continued. “The trouble is people can’t stand not knowing their fate. Element absolves them from the agonizing work of finding one’s vocation.” He was a Harvard grad, a philosophy major, yet he tinkered on old British motorcycles for a living. “You won’t see a profile piece about me in Forbes, but I couldn’t be happier with the way my life has turned out.”
“Oh? And what does happiness mean to you?”
He chuckled. “Happiness? What does that word even mean? I’m not interested in happiness. Well-being or fulfillment is more important than happiness.”
“Then what would you say happiness isn’t?”
“I’ll tell you: Happiness isn’t sitting in a tightly packed, temperature-controlled office with twenty other primates, staring at a screen for eight hours a day.” He leaned against the motorcycle and took a sip of beer. “Happiness isn’t opening and closing Word documents all day. It isn’t flooding the internet with an organization’s digital products. And it’s definitely not going home every day wondering why I’m exhausted when I barely moved my body.
“To me, happiness is working with my hands. It’s diagnosing a problem on an old motorcycle.” He patted the surface of the machine beside him. “It’s rebuilding the engine of this old Nighthawk.
“Happiness is the manipulation of things versus ideas. It’s having the time and space to think, to read, to write—to do nothing, if I please. It’s unstructured time to play. It’s solitude.
“Happiness is agency. It’s being who I am in a world that tries to make us into anything but ourselves.”
“Does it feel weird being a graduate of one of the best universities in the world and not being, well, more . . .”
“Successful? My classmates have such a narrow definition of success. They all want to be the next Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. I mean, don’t get me wrong; I wanted that too, and I played the game early on. I got a high-status job at Fidelity after graduating, and my boss said I’d be a vice president in five years if I kept my head down, worked hard, and paid my dues.
“But I’d rather have a hole in my head than float in the shark-infested waters of corporate America. In my opinion, most of my white-collar friends wear golden handcuffs. They’re soulless careerists climbing ladders that lean against the wrong buildings.”
“Do you earn enough money to survive?”
Wells laughed. “Okay, maybe I feel a twinge of jealousy when I see what they make in a year, but whenever I do, I just lie down for a bit and the feeling goes away fast. A couple of friends mock me for doing manual labor, but fixing these vintage bikes is just as demanding as developing a marketing strategy or writing a legal brief.”
To Wells, discovering the cause of a mechanical issue was exhilarating. “It took me four hours yesterday to learn why this bike wasn’t idling. When I finally figured it out, it felt like I’d discovered King Solomon’s mine.”
“How did you find your way?” I asked, referring to both his job and his life.
“I experimented, took risks, and listened to my gut. I took a job, didn’t like it, and took another. I lived in a few different states. I dated and found someone whose company I enjoyed. Eventually, I decided to come back and call Massachusetts home; I’m originally from Beverly. It wasn’t easy, though. I quit a job, was fired from another—well, another two.” He laughed. “The smart phone app I tried to develop never got off the ground, and my law school application essay is still sitting on my hard drive.”
“You followed your intuition,” I offered.
Wells took a sip of beer and nodded. “The media calls Dr. Black’s machine ‘elegant in its simplicity,’ like one of Einstein’s equations or something. Personally, I think you should be deeply skeptical of someone who claims to be able to simplify a problem as complex as deciding what to do with your life.”
On my way home, I contemplated Wells’s criticism of Dr. Black’s machine. How many people did I know who were quite talented in their professions and made obscene amounts of money yet were miserable? Or perhaps the right word was unfulfilled.
I thought of a friend who taught kindergarten. She wasn’t always joyful teaching five-year-olds, but she was nonetheless fulfilled. Over beers, she would often lament she was too intelligent to be a caretaker of young children, that it somehow wasted her intelligence. Yet she was gifted in interpreting the emotional lives of children, and her facility with children made her the best teacher in the school, praised by parents. When she quoted funny things the kids said and shared how she’d brought joy to a young mind, it was obvious that teaching was her calling.
Once home, I went to my bookshelves and found Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Lifting it off the shelf, I began flipping through. An author and psychotherapist, Frankl had a lot to say about what made humans happy and gave their lives meaning. He knew humans weren’t just machines, not just packets of chemicals; each individual was a unique animal with a mind, body, and spirit—or whatever one might call the immaterial aspect of the human being we cannot deny exists.
As a Holocaust survivor himself, Frankl observed that the survivors of concentration camps had one thing in common: they had something to live for. For some, it was the thought of loved ones that gave their lives meaning or hope. The survivors of that nightmare were those who chose a positive attitude, even when they had every reason to despair.
Such observations formed the foundation of Frankl’s conception of what drove humans. People needed meaning in their lives. They needed a purpose to get out of bed in the morning. It gave them a way to orient themselves, a place to channel their energy each day.
Could Dr. Black’s machine know what gave a person’s life meaning? Did it assess one’s values? I began to wonder if Element overlooked these harder-to-define aspects of humanhood.
I walked out onto my deck, sat in my favorite chair, and kicked my legs up on a stool. It also wasn’t clear how Dr. Black’s machine accounted for the changes that occurred in people’s personalities over time. Indeed, sometimes it felt like my own personality fluctuated every month, maybe even every day. The student who had taken a Myers-Briggs personality test in high school was not the same individual of today.
For instance, I was much more aware of my emotions now than I was in my twenties, likely a result of years of the self-examination I’d done in therapy. As I’d gotten older, my taste in entertainment had shifted too. I now preferred classical music over rock, comedies over dramas, and philosophy over self-help. In fact, looking at pictures from my twenties was almost like looking at an entirely different person.
Yet Element’s predictions were supposed to last a lifetime?
One friend of mine had been a newspaper man for a decade until he “just grew out of it.” Over the years, he had become disenchanted with the media’s penchant for sensationalism. After a vacation in Maine, he gave his two weeks’ notice and told our editor he would write fiction from then on. He was now a New York Times best-selling author of horror novels.
My gut instinct was that Element wouldn’t have been able to account for the sea of change in my friend’s heart. Obviously, I had questions, and there was only one man who could answer them.
The next morning, I called The Black Center for Human Advancement to arrange a meeting with Dr. Black. Years prior, I had been able to simply walk in the front door of the institute he worked at and take the elevator to his office. Now, Dr. Black’s calendar was full for two weeks.
While waiting for the appointment, I read everything I could find on the man the media had deemed an eccentric genius. Dr. Black permitted interviews only to perform demonstrations of Element. He was quite the showman; he would walk journalists, investors, and politicians through his labs and dazzle them with laboratories full of hardworking scientists and high-tech equipment.
Every reporter asked to see the inner workings of Element—how it worked. Though he would discuss the machine’s panel of seventy-five personality factors, Dr. Black always replied that his technology was proprietary. When asked if he dated, he answered that he was like every other entrepreneur he’d ever met: married to his business. Legend had it, he slept four hours a night.
The Black Center was about fifteen minutes northwest of Boston. The perimeter was lined with high-voltage security fences. The Dr. Black I met that day was a different man than the one I’d met in a cramped, windowless office at his old institute. His new office was almost the size of a tennis court, with finished hardwood floors and a wall of massive windows behind his desk. He wore a turquoise suit tailored to fit his body. He smiled when his secretary opened the office door and shook my hand.
“Glad to see you, Winston. You look well. I was thrilled to see you’re running a magazine now. Well deserved.” He led me to the chair in front of his desk. “I hope you’re not here on assignment like last time,” he joked.
Why was I visiting? I was curious to know more about his machine, but maybe I just wanted to see how he was doing.
“How does it feel to have achieved worldwide acclaim, Dr. Black?”
“Please, Winston, we’re old friends.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Call me Oscar.”
“Okay, Oscar.” I smirked. “So, how’s it feel to be rich and famous?”
Dr. Black laughed. “I’m an accidental billionaire. I think I preferred the life of obscurity, when I could tinker quietly and worry about trivial matters, like whether my ants have been fed for the day. Now, there are television and radio interviews, commencement speeches, TED Talks, and on-camera interviews for documentaries. I can’t understand how celebrities deal with having cameras follow them around.”
I reminded him of the words he once shared with me: “Fame and tranquility are not good bedfellows.”
He nodded ponderously. “So true.”
After some more pleasantries, Dr. Black showed me a new ant colony that was three times the size of his original. Watching the ants scurry in and out of their nests, I mentioned my meetings with some of the subjects from the original Harvard study. Dr. Black seemed surprised, even concerned, which piqued my curiosity. When I promised not to write a thing, he seemed to calm down.
“That original Harvard study seems like a lifetime ago. How are all those students doing now? Running the world, I imagine.”
“Well, while many of them seem well matched for their current stations, they’re not as content as the press lets on.”
Dr. Black squinted. “Oh no, are you going back to that dull Dark Side column?” He lifted his hands and mimed framing words. “I can see the headline now: ‘Wildly Successful, Deeply Unhappy.’”
I laughed, thinking that was a decent headline, though I didn’t tell him I might prefer something like “Why Are Oscar Black’s Patients Miserable?”
Dr. Black pressed for an example of someone’s discontent. I brought up Cassie, the dancer who felt like she had missed her biological window to procreate (not to mention, she might’ve been an alcoholic). Then there was Beatrice, the math whiz who seemed to be dying of boredom as a knowledge worker.
“Then there’s Wells out in Western Mass. He turned his back on corporate life and seems content fixing motorcycles in his shop. I find it curious that he ignored Element’s data, yet he seems happier than anyone.”
“Element doesn’t guarantee happiness. Anyway, I bet if you dug a little deeper, you’d find this rebel isn’t as happy as he seems.”
With so much to do at the magazine, I had to return to my duties. But Wells remained in my thoughts for days. And I couldn’t shake the sense that something was off with Dr. Black, the Black Center, and Element. I had always had a nose for a good story, and I felt compelled to explore the matter further, but I didn’t know where to begin.
Throughout my career, whenever I felt stuck with a story, I would stop new reporting and reexamine old material, maybe even return to a subject to interview them again. As such, I called the hospital looking for Nathan, only to learn he’d been released.
When I knocked on the door of his house, a woman greeted me with a toddler in her arms. She introduced herself as Nathan’s wife and welcomed me in after I explained why I was visiting.
“So many folks have stopped by to visit Nathan since he left the hospital,” she said as she took me to his office. “It was great to see Oscar yesterday. He’s been so focused these past few years, we hardly ever see him.”
Before opening the door to Nathan’s office, she mentioned he didn’t like to be interrupted while working, but he’d probably make an exception for another writer.
When I entered, Nathan was slouched in a chair at his desk. He was holding a pen and staring at a pad of yellow paper that only had a few lines scribbled on the first page. He glanced over his shoulder, then spun around and shook my hand. He explained he’d been trying to write at least one thousand words a day, but for some reason, the words weren’t coming today. He invited me to sit on the couch.
“I visited your father yesterday.”
“So he said. You were poking around for a story again? Or ‘probing,’ as he put it?”
“I feel like he’s holding something back. Maybe you could provide some insight?”
Nathan shrugged. “My father came to apologize. He said my fall—my depression—was his fault.”
“Why do you think you’ve struggled with the career Element assigned you?”
He stared at the floor. “One of my favorite songs is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ The line at the end resonates with me—that nothing matters. I realized that even if I wrote fifty novels in my lifetime, what difference would it make when you consider my work and life from a cosmic perspective?
“That’s what Element never gave me or anyone else: significance. When I understood that anything I produced would ultimately mean nothing in the grand scheme of things, I tumbled into a deep depression, out of which I’m still trying to climb.”
That evening, as I edited a feature article, I explored the website of Dr. Black’s company. In the leadership section, I scanned the bios of the people on his illustrious board of directors. Two were Nobel Prize–winning biologists. They also had a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, a former national security advisor, and a retired four-star general. The most startling member, however, was Wells. In the displayed headshot, he wore a suit and tie and was cleanly shaven—a far cry from the bearded, grease-covered man in a flannel shirt I had met a few weeks ago.
The following weekend, I drove out to see Wells at his home. I found him revving the engine of an old motorcycle with Bruce Springsteen blaring on the radio. He smiled at me in greeting.
“This bike is a 1966 CB77 Super Hawk, the same kind ridden by Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The owner of this beautiful machine put about two quarts of oil too much into the engine, and now everything’s gummed up.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing you can’t fix.”
He laughed and nodded. “Too many riders are like this guy. He’ll never get his hands dirty with repairs. If something breaks, he wants nothing to do with it. He brings it to me and goes to a bookstore for a few hours, knowing it’ll work fine when he returns.”
“Listen, Wells, I noticed you are on the board of directors for The Black Center for Human Advancement. I’d like to talk more about that, if you don’t mind?” When he agreed, I asked how he’d gotten to know Dr. Black and come to serve on his company’s board.
“When I rejected the results of my test, Dr. Black reached out to me. He told me it took guts not to follow the herd. Said he admired my spirit. Felt I had what so few people had: gumption. He wanted to stay in touch, and we did. I was a rising star at Fidelity when he asked me to join his illustrious board.”
Wells chuckled dryly. “I was quite outspoken during board meetings, a thorn in everyone’s side. Eventually, Dr. Black rounded up the board and forced them to kick me off.” He shrugged. “I always suspected Dr. Black didn’t want a part-time motorcycle mechanic on his precious board. But that wasn’t the actual reason I was ousted.”
He invited me into his house for a steak dinner. Afterward, we sat out on the porch, overlooking a pond, and he finally whispered, “I’ll tell you what I think you want to hear.”
I was astonished by what he proceeded to tell me.
Two hours later, I sat in my car in the Black Center’s parking lot. I pressed record on my digital tape recorder and slid it into my jacket pocket. My heart racing, I checked in with the security guard in the main lobby. It was eleven at night when I walked into Dr. Black’s office. Despite his secretary’s efforts to stop me, I walked in to see Dr. Black typing at his computer in almost the same crouched position he had been in when I first met him.
“Winston,” he greeted in a guarded tone. “Back again so soon? Now, what’s so urgent that it couldn’t be taken care of over the phone?”
“Is there something you want to tell me, Oscar? Anything at all? About you, the Black Center, or perhaps your machine?”
Dr. Black’s face scrunched up in confusion. “What are you getting at? If you have a point, make it.”
I told him about my illuminating conversation with one of his former board members.
“That’s what this is about?” Dr. Black cackled. “Wells? That radical? He was removed from the board rather dramatically. Though I am sorry to hear it hasn’t yet been reflected on the center’s website.”
“It doesn’t work, Oscar.” When he didn’t seem to understand, I added, “Your destiny machine: Element. It’s fake. It doesn’t work, never did.”
Dr. Black balled his hands up into fists. “It’s obvious you’re on another smear campaign. I’d kindly ask you to leave my—”
“Why did you lie? Was this your way of proving to everyone you’re the hero scientist you imagine yourself to be after years of being marginalized and mocked?” I questioned if he had falsified Element’s data for the money, or perhaps the fame so his name would be remembered.
Glaring at me, he pressed something on the side of his desk, likely calling for security. “You have no idea how much good my machine has done—is doing!—in the world.” He pointed a finger at me. “Right now, thousands of Americans are pursuing careers that highlight their strengths, that allow them to reach their full potential, perhaps even reach a state of self-actualization.”
“Ah, yes,” I drawled sarcastically, “A perfect society. Like your organized ant colony or Plato’s perfect republic, hmm? This might have been a noble pursuit had Element been effective, but your machine’s no better than any other imperfect personality test. Did it ever work?”
He sat motionless, searching for words. He glanced at the door, perhaps hoping the guards would burst in and carry me off the premises.
“It didn’t, right?” I pressed. “Yet you packaged it up and rolled it out into the world.” I shook my head. “Did you fake the data from the Harvard study?”
Dr. Black exploded. “I’m sorry. Is that dancer—what’s her name? Cassie?—Is she or is she not world famous? The people who listen to Element are some of the highest performers in their fields. That wouldn’t have happened if their gifts hadn’t been identified. Element put them on the path to reaching their full potential.”
As Dr. Black screamed at me, his face red with rage, I thought of Cassie, who just wanted a baby, and Beatrice, who was restless in her job. Then Wells came to mind.
“Indeed, while many of your ‘loyal subjects’ were quite well matched for their vocations, that didn’t make them happy. Following Element’s predictions didn’t give their lives significance. And isn’t that what people really want: meaning?”
It was clear Dr. Black wasn’t going to confess to fabricating his data, so I tried a different tactic. “What about Nathan? Your first patient, your son. He’s miserable.”
Dr. Black became somber. “I built Element for my son. When Nathan was in junior high, he took a personality test; the results recommended he become a physician. That day, he came home from school and said he was going to be a doctor. He fixated on it through high school and college. For over a decade, every decision he made—studying for the MCATs, becoming an EMT—revolved around medicine. All because of a stupid personality test. And it turned out to be wrong! How could someone decide their entire future after answering ninety questions? He turned out to be a mediocre doctor who detested clinical practice. I gave him a new life.”
“That’s right,” I said. “You gave him a new place in the world, not your machine. Wells discovered your secret—that you meddled with patients’ data when you realized your machine didn’t work.”
“Element will work, I can assure you,” Dr. Black declared. “We just need more time for research.”
I had him in his lie now.
“So you’re admitting your machine doesn’t work, then? That you doctored thousands of people’s results. That it was you who chose those people’s futures?”
Dr. Black stood up, stomped around his desk, and pointed a finger in my face. “It’s the media’s fault. Your fault. The technology wasn’t ready, but the opportunity was there for a sensational story, hmm? Competitive journalists like you fell all over yourselves for the story of the decade, putting me at the top of the nightly news and on the cover of every magazine. My story made your career!”
He pointed to the bust of Plato on his desk. “This is why Plato banished writers from his ideal society. Their powerful lies can capture the public’s imagination and manipulate them to believe whatever they desire. You were part of the machine that built me into some mythical figure in a story of heroes and villains, and now you’re salivating at the opportunity to destroy me.”
I didn’t need Dr. Black’s lecture. Plato had banished writers because he thought they were propagandists. Indeed, a story of Dr. Black’s fall would make me a household name; I would be interviewed on talk shows, news segments, and documentaries. I’d be offered a book deal and perhaps even awarded another Pulitzer for my investigative journalism.
But it was no longer the pursuit of fame that drove me. In my interpretation of Plato’s Republic, the writer had a mandate to tell the truth, and in that regard, Element had matched my personality with the perfect career. In Dr. Black’s republic, I was fulfilling the role I was destined for—doing my duty—by exposing his invention and showing society that the emperor had no clothes.
I lifted the tape recorder from my pocket and pointed to the red light indicating it was recording. Knowing he was caught, Dr. Black uttered a growl of frustration. “Element would have been ready by the time it went to market, but we just didn’t have enough time. The vision for the machine was ahead of the existing technology.”
“You lied,” I said. “Wells has agreed to blow the whistle, and if my instincts are right, Nathan will go on the record too.”
Dr. Black hesitated, and tears filled his eyes. “Tell on his own father?”
“He thinks Element ruined his life.” I shook my head. “It won’t be tomorrow or even next week, but the public will know you’re a fraud, Oscar.”
“Don’t do this,” he pleaded. “We just need more time! Most people were adrift before they came to us. They only cared about wealth and fame before we gave them another vision for their future. The forecasts weren’t outright lies. They were educated guesses, and not everyone is unhappy with their results.”
Dr. Black held out his hands pleadingly. “Take you, Winston. I was right on the money with you.”
“Except I already knew my place in the world before Element. You didn’t get it right; I did. And for all those other folks who underwent testing, you didn’t give them direction. You didn’t help them decide their fate. You stole it.”
At that moment, two security guards stormed into the room, and I raised my hands in surrender. As they pushed me toward the door, Dr. Black dropped his face in his hands and wept.
As I stepped into my car, I pressed stop on the recorder. Then I pressed record and spoke an insight I’d just had.
“What was the biggest draw to Dr. Black’s machine? That it could show a person a path to their life’s meaning. Yet finding meaning in one’s life isn’t so simple, and it varies for each of us. Like Wells, like me, we must find our own way in life. We must find our own reasons for living, our own meaning, our own destiny.”
A couple of days later, I interviewed Nathan. I then spent three days vigorously writing an investigative article that would expose his father’s criminal behavior to the public. When the story was published, numerous media outlets piled on and took Dr. Black apart. The avalanche of reporting led to an FBI investigation, and all testing with Element was quickly stopped. The Black Center was dissolved, and Dr. Black was banned from ever doing science again. Eventually, the disgraced researcher went to prison.
Not long after the article was published, I left the magazine to work as an independent investigative journalist devoted to telling stories about the unintended consequences of people’s actions. By exploring the dark side of humanity, I believed we could sidestep the pitfalls before us and keep our civilization from destroying itself.
At the core, I was an idealist. I wished things weren’t broken and inefficient. I wished a technology like Dr. Black’s could solve all our problems and make our lives and society better, safer, more just. But it wasn’t that simple. Reality was more complicated than that. Making the world a better place took people who were willing to look at the worst to get to the better.
So I would continue peering into the darkness so we could reach the light.
Dustin Grinnell is an essayist and fiction writer based in Boston. His creative writing has appeared in many popular and literary publications, including The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, New Scientist, Salon, VICE, and Writer’s Digest, among others. He’s the author of The Genius Dilemma, Without Limits, and The Empathy Academy. He earned his MFA in fiction from the Solstice MFA Program, and his MS in physiology from Penn State.