Harrowhane (a novelette)

First six chapters below, full book here.


CHAPTER ONE

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.

“Need help?”

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.

CHAPTER TWO

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.

Bluebird.

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.

CHAPTER THREE

“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.

“What?”

“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.”

“Who?”

“Harmon.”

Wes tensed, jaw set, brow creasing. “The guy you were gonna marry?”

“Yeah.”

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.

CHAPTER FOUR

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.

“What the…”

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.”

CHAPTER FIVE

“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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“He abusive?”

“I dunno.”

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.”

CHAPTER SIX

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.

“What’s this?”

“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.

Kryos: Chapter 49

Previous chapter

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.

“Sorry.”

“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.

“What’s that?”

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.”

“Gild?”

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.”

“What?”

“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.

“Right.”

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?”

“Feasible.”

“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?”

“Yes, sir.”

His smile faltered when he noticed Sonderon’s visage, turned upon Vorstahl, spiced with malice, black and smoldering.

Kryos: Chapter 48

Previous chapter

Scandium trussed and three 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.

“Forgive me.”

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.

“Rehdon’s handiwork.”

“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.

“Not anymore.”

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 47

Previous chapter

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?”

“Seven days.”

“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.”

“Show me.”

“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.

“But, madam-”

“Do it.”

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.”

Kryos: Chapter 46

Previous chapter

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?”

“Soup.”

“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?”

“Our duty.”

“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 yonder 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, both young men, one blond, the other vermilion haired. “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. “Some two-bit mechanic the bitch dragged in off the streets.”

“Its ironic,” Ryard replied, ignoring the insult.

“What?”

“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.”

Next chapter

The Dark Side of Destiny

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?” 

“Nathan Black.”

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. 

Who didn’t? 

“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.

Kryos: Chapter 45

Previous chapter

Fabrdyn’s drone embowered aircraft swayed with the manufactured maelstrom. Vortexed beneath barreling black clouds. Subsumed in rancorous cerulean fulmination. The avionic acropolis loosed its ballast and descended, fleeing the flashing fusillade. As the mountainous craft quaked and plummeted, Astrid Sodabrucke ran to the control room in a whirl of multicolored cloth, voice shrill, movements unsteady with the lilting of the titanic vessel.

“What’s happening?”

Devik Amberleece cut in from where he leaned over a series of telecommunication panels in the center of the chamber, the exterior plating of his vibrant yellow suit shimmered like the chitin of some enormous insect. To Sodabruck, the man looked some combination of a phantasmal knight and a flame headed mantis.

“Kryos’ cloud planters are charging the atmosphere. We have to land.”

“Insurgents are swarming over Central. They’ll tear us apart.”

“We’re being torn apart already, stupid girl,” mayoral convention whip Caltriss snapped between ragged coughs, her owlish gray eyes bulging beneath disheveled silver strands. The Chancellor winced, lower lip quivering, hands curled to delicate ivory clumps.

“I will not be spoken to this way. I am the chancellor.”

“One who takes a lead needn’t exclaim it. Perhaps if you took initiative instead of powdering your nose-“

“Leathery bitch.”

Devik ignored the women and spun to the flight controllers, voice waning hoarse through the cacophony. “Take us down to Central Memorial Park.”

“The park?”

“Its the only place spacious, flat and close enough to land safely.”

“You’ll kill us all,” Sodabrucke screamed, pushing past the crone.

“Someone get her out of here,” Devik barked to his four airship attendants, slamming the console with such violence the paneling buckled. Sodabrucke shrunk away and began to weep. Illander Rehdon strode forth and removed Sodabrucke to the right corner of the bridge and stared out the translucent rain streaked pane that encompassed the crammed driving compartment. The Chancellor followed his gaze and beheld the monstrous mounting storm wall that trapped them as blue lightning arced across the smoldering skyline and another mighty gust rattled the airship like a can in the sea. She clutched the railing tight. “My god.” Rehdon displayed a lopsided grin, his eyes gleaming by the broiling thunderheads beyond. “No cause for worry my dear. If they stick the landing, we’ll all be fine. If they don’t, our deaths will be instantaneous. You won’t feel a thing.” Sodabrucke opened her mouth to speak but managed only a shuddering gasp.

“Sir,” one of the flight controllers shouted. “Wind’s taking us off course.”

“Initiate emergency boosters, brace for impact,” Devik ordered as he lowered himself into the captain’s chair and fastened the security straps across his waist and upper chest.

All occupants held firm as the airship crashed into the autumnal heart of Memorial Park with a deafening rumble, milling immaculately trimmed trees and empty pavilions beneath its monumental bulk. Caltriss, Sodabrucke and several of the flight controllers were thrown off their feet with the force of the impact and screaming were strewn across the tilting floor. Among the standing, Rehdon alone maintained his balance by clinging to the banister that separated the outer walkway from the piloting hub. The skycity skidded to a halt. The curved window of the control car covered in moiled leaves and earth. Slowly the passengers’ relaxed, unfurled themselves, set their sights to the monitors hung about the operational nexus and beheld dark shapes streaming from the surrounding parkland wood. The legion was armed and armored white and moved from the darkened reach with steel of purpose, dozens, then hundreds, and arrayed themselves in a wide circle about the downed airship. All swathed in welkin’s tears.

“Deep colonists. That fool Vogel was supposed to stop them at the docks,” Caltriss spat, waving a withered hand violently.

“I told you it was unwise to split up the security forces,” Devik chided.

“What difference does it make now, save to your ego? Clearly, SecCom is useless.”

“If you know so much better than Vogel, why not put on a uniform, pick up a cutter and join the fray.”

The old woman turned her nose up in contempt.

“Sir,” one of the young flight operators interposed. “Local transmission inbound.”

Devik swiveled from the dirigible’s bridles. “Put it through.”

A voice resounded over the bassy audio system. “To whom am I speaking?”

Devik furrowed his brow. He was expecting Kryos, Straker, or Vogel, but the voice belonged to none, it male, husky, blunt and tinged with nervousness.

“This is Devik Amberleece, Chair of Fabrdyn. I’m speaking on behalf of Chancellor Sodabrucke. And you are?”

“Ryard Vancing. Interim Major of Communications for the KSRU.”

Devik glared at the transceiver. “One of the lackeys. Why am I not talking to your gaffer?”

“Because he’s gone.”

Stillness. Perplexity overtook the occupants. Rehdon’s eyes lit up as he leaned forward over the brass railing behind which he stood. Face betraying disappointment.

“Gone?” Sodabrucke prompted.

“Is that the Chancellor?”

“I am. What did you mean?”

“Every CAV-keep takes a vow to protect the city from threats without or within. I do not break my vows.”

Sodabrucke’s mouth parted, her visage assumed the proportions of abhorrence, slowly she moved from the telecommunication panels and lowered herself to a chair.

Devik cleared his throat and spoke officiously. “This is unexpected. What is it you want, Mr. Vancing?”

“Just a seat at the table.”

Devik worked his thickset jaw and looked between Rehdon and Caltriss. Rehdon nodded. Hesitantly the wizened dame followed suit, mouthing, “Alone.” Devik bent back to the receiver.

“We are willing to talk if you are willing to come alone.”

“Check your forward monitors.”

The gathered looked to the forecastle screens, there images from the ship’s exterior sensors played without sound. A solitary figure with a monochrome jacket and windswept hair stood before the colonist combine at the prow of the downed behemoth. He moved from the dire host with somber confidence. The strider’s coat tails fluttered with the ferocious gale, eyes fixed to the sumptuous airliner’s shuttered inlet. When directly below the control car, the loner ponderously raised his hands and just as calmly lowered them.

“Standby.” Devik turned to one of the technicians and motioned for him to open the walkway to the passenger compartment which hung beneath the bulk of the anterior portion of the ship’s gas envelope. Within minutes Ryard Vancing stood in the packed control car, all eyes upon him.

Rehdon threw wide his arms. “Ryard, its good to see you safe. I would like to be the first to say that hideous as it must seem, you have done the city a great service. We teeter at the precipice. Kryos would have pushed us clear.” Ryard acknowledged the yellow green greeter with a nod and a mournful smile. “If I am owed thanks for as much, so are you.”

“Oh?”

“You convinced me to take action.”

“Enough prattle,” Devik broke in, swiveling uncomfortably in the high backed skipper chair. “You have your seat. I would have your frankness.”

“So you shall.” Ryard produced a file drive and threw it to Devik, who caught the item reflexively.

“What is this?”

“Clarity.”

The lights flickered. All looked about with worry save for Vancing. “Is it from the crash?” Rehdon inquired. “I don’t know,” Devik replied with mounting concern. The ship’s lights went out completely. Darkness descended. The only luminescence, the dusty glow that filtered through the high rounded pane. When power resumed, the occupants froze in shock, for in Ryard Vancing’s stead stood Eidos Kryos, a half diadem of thin material wrapped about one side of his brow that glowed murky orange, then red. Kryos withdrew the device methodically. “Out of energy.” The last remnants of Aecer’s central government staggered back as Devik’s men drew waist bound charge emitters on the intruder, their faces displaying hallmarks of uncertainty and fear. Only Rehdon remained unmoved and a cruel smile of amusement played up the side of his face. “How wonderfully dramatic.”

Devik leaned over the railing. “Your nerve never fails to astound me, Eidos.”

Eidos took a step forward, prompting the men surrounding to tense, one shouting, “Hold it!” Devik raised a hand, as if holding back some invisible force. “Any sudden moves and my men will fill you with current enough to drop an elephant.”

Kryos stood still as an automaton and ponderously shifted his gaze to Devik. “My intentions do not warrant such discourtesy.”

“I heard your speech. We all did. That is warrant enough for me.”

“I only want what was taken,” Kryos replied with sober displeasure as he looked pointedly to Rehdon. “What he took from me.”

Devik’s face contorted with utter incredulity. “All of this was for your ship?”

“Not merely mine, nor a ship, but a bridge. From this world to the next. That astral span is the future of civilization. And the future of civilization is the future of life itself.” Heliodoric eyes swept over the faces of the interim government. “Your vanity would deny that continuance.”

Devik shook his head. “Have you any idea how insane you sound?”

“Aecer is a brand, errantly composed. Many handles, one blade. I have forged another. Many fuller’d and singular of grip. Possessing the latter, we have no need of the former.”

“You cast the city as a triviality, yet declare us vain. Ironic,” Rehdon gibed from behind the guards and the Chancellor, like a scolded child resentful of familial reproach. “As for the ship, I trust you’re not too bent up about it.” When Kryos did not answer, Rehdon spoke again, more emphatically. “My dear Devik, was it not you who said there had been enough prattle. I need hardly remark upon the advantage of the moment.” Devik opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by the interloper.

“My men are under orders to dismiss all communiques, save for mine. There is no use in ascending the highest mount if one cannot weather the cold.”

“You are in no position to lecture us, Eidos. From the first, you were an agent of division, chaos. There are not words enough in the lexicon to scribe the damage you have wrought,” Caltriss hissed, a bony hand thrashing the air.

“Cognizance of distinction is itself disunity. By which vitiation is allayed. As for chaos, this one,” he pointed to Rehdon. “Is more worthy of the title.”

“What do you mean?” Sodabrucke asked, stepping toward the pitch garbed trespasser.

“Play the file. You will see.”

“Don’t listen to him.” Rehdon urged with uncharacteristic stress, voice wavering unsteadily. “Its doubtless subterfuge.”

Devik turned to the console and fit the passed device into the drive slot. Rehdon’s voice obtained a manic edge. “You know how keen he is with machinery. You can’t trust anything he presents.” Devik wavered.

“Evidently I have a higher opinion of your intelligence than Mr. Rehdon,” Kryos said with a wry hint of challenge.

Devik scoffed, “He might be able to trick you, Illander. But not me.” The control car monitors flashed to life.

The crimson haired man trailed off as all beheld a horrid scene on the monitor screens. An aerial view of a simian faced man hung by a drone above a bonfire. The air clogged with smoke and screams. “I killed them. Alright? I did it,” the man on the recording squealed. “It was Rehdon’s idea… Its him you should blame. Him, not me!”

All present turned upon Rehdon, who looked around with a dazed expression, his mouth momentarily agape, then pressed to a quivering line. He shook his pale blond mane. “Its a trick. A frame up. Obviously Eidos would want to shift blame.” Rehdon grinned, assuming a flippant tone, “You don’t mind if I call you Eidos, do you?”

“Eel you may be. But you can’t slither your way out of culpability. You will, I presume, recall Ms. Sia Kandor.”

“I don’t. I speak with many people in my line of work.”

“Well she remembers you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“After your,” Kryos gestured to the monitors where scenes of charnel catastrophe continued to play. “Creature failed to kill her, I had the displeasure of making her acquaintance. By now her testimony has been recorded. I can send it to you, if you like.”

For a brief moment a ghastly contortion overtook Rehdon’s fair features and passed just as swiftly.

“The bombing. It was you.”

“Sterling induction, Devik. Truly, we’d all be lost without your cavernous intellect.”

“We’ll see how keen you are to gibe from a cell. Seize him,” Devik ordered. With trepidation, four flight operators corralled their former companion and bound his hands behind his back with scandium restraints without resistance. Rehdon smiled broadly. “Why is it you think residing in a subsidized cube is some manner of punishment? It is how most within this cesspool chose to live their wretched lives. I already got what I wanted.”

“And what was that?” Devik demanded.

“Butchers don’t explain the slaughterhouse to pigs. Even could the dumb animals understand their fate, they are powerless to change it.”

A slap from the Chancellor brought the shackled man to silence. His face registered surprise, but no discomfort. Slowly, he smiled, his eyes sliding toward the irate female.

Kryos’ brows knit. Rehdon’s previous words rang through the technologist’s mind. Xanthous eyes grew wide.

“A facsimile. Move,” Kryos warned, turning for the exit.

Sodabrucke and the rest of the interim government had time only to don expressions of confusion before the entire room was decompressed by a raucous explosion. 

Beyond the ship the deep colonists watched lazy orange red lights and lilting plumes slither from the base of the wreck. Straker screamed. Then only the crackling of flame and the serpentine sibilation of the wind and rain.

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 44

Previous chapter

Carmine coils of smoke and pungent fumes choked the air of Aecer’s market district. Fearful citizens ran in reptilian haze. Some missing eyes, others, limbs. Consortium distress flares speckled the perimeter of the commercial nexus and in the middle of it a government transport had been overturned, smashed, surrounded by wild howling reavers hefting pipes and knives and other lethal oddments. The armed mass corralled a number of Consortium petty officers and heaped detritus upon a great bonfire that blazed beside the upset vehicle, upon which one man stood triumphant and led those surrounding in chant. His face was contorted with ferocity which taken with his prominent brow, flat nose and wide mouth lent a hideous simian aspect. The red light of the flares made the ghastly face appear all the more alien and dreadful. His voice, as that of his hollering comrades, was lost to the bedlam of the blaze, the hiss of the wind and the liquid rumble of government klaxons.

Two hundred feet off, in the middle of the eastern thoroughfare that ran from harbor to bazaar, Eidos Kryos watched the primal display through the shifting pall of the vain distress signals and lifted a hand, as if tossing away the wind, his gilded black scaled vestments fluttering like the fins of a great channel pike. His vast regiment arrayed behind him, awaiting orders. The riotous canting band within the far market square took no notice and continued fueling the crackling bonfire, taunting their captives, pushing them closer to the inferno.

Smoke cleared and a pile of corpses was rendered visible before Kryos’ host. Five men were sprawled upon the left side of the thoroughfare, their bodies mangled, the head of one so brutally crushed, brains painted pavement. In the center of the grisly ring lay a large man decked in vermeil plate. He was sprawled on his side as one who had dropped from sheer exhaustion. The deep colonists recognized the gear as distinguishing a colonel of their number. The front of the man’s helm and breastplate was scorched and fractured and blood pooled thick on the ground beneath him.

Straker’s hand flew to her mouth and tears formed in her eyes. “Syzr,” she gasped, the name flying like a phantom to the cacophonous gloom.

Sirin rested her hands on her belt and bowed her head. Stifled sobbing resonated from beneath her helm. Raimer cursed and turned away, unable to weather the sight. Ryard looked on in shock, Sonderon, in confusion. Kryos’ soldiers murmured among themselves, their vocalizations lost to the district’s mounting aural acidity.

Kryos alone retained his nerve and walked to the silent figure, knelt and placed a hand upon the man’s immobile chest. Kryos sighed and closed his eyes. When he opened them he stared for a long moment at the distant cavorting figures arrayed about the bonfire and recognized the man atop the vehicle. “Its him,” Ryard declared bitterly, eyes to the simian faced man. “Kleiner.” Kryos turned and spied a faint trail of bloody footprints leading south from just beyond the corpse pile to an alley strewn with unallocated scrap unsuitable for reprocessing. He returned his heliodoric gaze to the prone armored figure and softly spoke. A slight tremor to his words.

“Valor was your want. Valorous was your end. It shall not be forgotten.”

Kryos rose and followed the sanguine prints into the alley. The passage ended in a blind. The prints vanished in a heap of discarded machine parts. He drew a line through the red material with his right heel. Uncongealed. Fresh. Whoever passed did so recently. He stilled and listened. Labored breath sounded from behind the twisted pile of metal. He turned full toward the junk mound and spoke cordially.

“Danger wanes but you are not yet safe. I can make you so.”

Several seconds passed. Sibilation of metal on metal issued from the jumbled edifice. A large panel shifted, from behind it a woman emerged. Her leg was cut deep at the thigh and wrapped with a piece of cloth soaked ruby-brown. The source of the trail. She was dark haired, plain faced and sported a long jacket with the collar half-upturned. Kryos judged the woman’s wares expensive and unfashionable. Behind her crouched five children. The youngest of them, a blonde with a thick beige skirt, held her skinny left knee and rocked unsteadily, red faced, weeping, neck veins bulging. “Mama,” the girl cried. “Mama.” The dark haired woman limped cautiously to Kryos as if to shield the youth, unable to muster words.

“The children are not yours. You work for a near orphanage,” Kryos stated without diverting his gaze from the dark haired woman. The children looked on with wide, fearful eyes. The woman raised a brow, surprised by the man’s knowledge.

“I know of you, Ms. Kandor. And your works. Do you know me?”

“Yes.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper, for well she recalled the man’s airborne message that had blanketed the whole of the city.

Kryos walked to the woman, placed his hands upon her collar and folded down the upturned end.

“One of my best lies dead due your defense. I would like to know why.”

“Rehdon wanted me wormside. He sent one of his creatures, Kleiner, to put me thus, he’s the one who led the rabble. Syzr held them off, we ran. There were many. Too many.”

“Do the little ones know the cause of their distress? The nature of your trade?”

“Please don’t.” The woman’s lip quivered. “Please don’t tell them.”

“You will testify against Rehdon after I’ve dealt with this situation.”

Kandor wished to protest, but the terrible wrath which lurked behind the man’s forbearing visage stayed her tongue.

“Until then, you and the children will be kept safe.” He looked into her eyes. Through them.

“Mama,” the inconsolable girl continued to cry. Over and over.

“Is he going to hurt us?” One of the boys asked trepidatiously.

“No, honey,” Sia replied, her voice trembling. “No, he’s here to help.”

“Quite so. Observe.”

SIKARDs drifted down from the sky, and with their pointed composite limbs, widened the entrance to the children’s flotsam hostel. The youths gasped with excitement as the precarious roof of the slag heap was carried to the air like cream spooned from coffee. The spectacle tore even the tearful blonde from her reverie.

“What are those?” One of the boys asked with wonder as the SIKARDs began gingerly depositing the rubble only a few feet away.

“My friends,” Kryos responded, removing a band from his coat of similar color and texture to the machines which floated through the air.

The woman swallowed hard and turned back to Kryos. “Your offer is… acceptable.” She lowered her voice. “I only ask for one thing in return.”

“And that is?”

Kandor’s expression darkened. “Kleiner’s head.”

Kryos walked several paces away from the woman, his face dipped in consideration of the request. At length he replied.

“If as much remains when I’m finished with him.”

Kandor’s mouth parted as nearby SIKARDs swirled.

Kryos departed, leaving orphans and caretaker to one of his corps and returned to the thoroughfare. Syzr’s body had been removed to a transport. Faces were grim. Kryos explained the situation to Straker, then turned from all and raised his voice.

“I will return shortly.”

Kryos made for the bonfire prompting a query from Sonderon.

“What are you doing? There must be at least two hundred insurgents down there.”

Kryos tilted his head skyward. “Two hundred and thirty three, discounting the Consortium officers they’ve imprisoned.”

Sonderon grimaced in puzzlement. “My men alone could subdue them.”

“I do not doubt it. But your men have risked much.” He turned to the transport where Syzr’s body had been laid. “I’ve no desire to put them in harms way without cause.”

“Without cause?”

Ryard broke from consolation of Sirin and made to join Kryos, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. He turned to see Straker shake her head and watched as Kryos vanished into the ruddy pall.

Within the stinging veil, Kryos raised the slender half diadem device he carried and affixed it to his brow. Left and right seam of his collar began to glow and carried the light down his shoulders, thereafter the dull lines of light splintered and ran across arms to the thin indentations on the back of his gauntlets and down his chest, back and legs to the soles of his boots. A subtle hum reverberated, signaling synchronicity between anatomical signs and the temple bound telesoma interface. A SIKARD dipped from a nearby rooftop clutching a black sphere, and released it. The orb struck the ground like an oil spill and recongealed to the form of a man. Soon it walked toward the site of commotion, to the red palled plaza, the high bonfire and the chaotic throng.

Kryos was now close enough that Kleiner’s voice was audible. “Chests aren’t so puffed when you’re on the receiving end of a raid. Are they?” Some of the crowd laughed, others nodded, all looked to the Consortium officers huddled near the high central fire with scorn and fell anticipation.

“Mercy,” a female Consortium officer whimpered as the mob pressed closer. “I beg you.”

“Please, I have children,” another woman wailed.

“These tyrants want mercy. Have we any to spare?”

“No,” some of the crowd replied discordantly.

“That’s right. No more than they had to lavish on us.”

Kleiner’s simian face twisted with mirth as he overturned a bottle of spirits into the bonfire, causing the flames to leap and spurt near the woman. She screamed and fell to the ground. The woman’s tormentor guzzled down the remains of the vessel and shattered it at the officer’s feet. Then he looked up from the spectacle around the fire, for something was moving in the smoke. In the air. A burble went through the crowd. All stilled.

“What’s that?”

“What?”

“I don’t see anything.”

“You hear that?”

“Huh?”

“There, there!”

A magnified voice rang from all directions. “Danzig Kleiner. You’ve learned well your master’s art.”

Kleiner looked around, but could not discern the source of the voice, for it echoed from sky and earth alike and enveloped the whole of the smoldering plaza. “Master? I have no master.”

“Vices would remain without Rehdon. So too would thralldom.”

“I know that voice. This about the colonel?”

“The act was not your sole construction. All gathered are guilty of Syzr’s blood. So all gathered shall indemnify their own.” The congregants spun, vainly searching for the sequestered elocutionist.

“Is that so?” Kleiner bent defensively and withdrew a sychitin blade, holding it in a tight reverse grip. “Was foolish to come alone.”

Eidos Kryos’ voice resounded in Kleiner’s ear, no longer magnified. “I am never alone.” Kleiner whirled and spied the speaker standing three feet before him, backlit by the blaze. Expunged cinders danced around the man’s streamlined form and glinted in his helidoric irises.

“There, the invader,” one among the mob shouted, pointing to the smoke wreathed entrant upon the auto.

“Get him!”

The crowd surged. Kryos did not move. Challenging in his stillness. His pyre bright eyes fixed on Kleiner.

Kleiner held out his free hand to the assembly. “Here stands the killer of the Consortium. The man who murdered our Chancellor. Who seeks to shackle us, as they once did.”

“We both know that is not true,” Kryos replied, a crease forming at his brow.

“I’ll deal with him myself.” He resecured his grip on the knife, bent to the ember clad intruder and lowered his voice. “Just as I dealt with Syzr.”

Kleiner’s blade arced through the air and bite into Kryos’ right eye. The industrialist’s head pivoted with the force of the blow. Despite the savagery of the assault, Kryos did not fall, but tilted his head slowly back toward his waylayer as ashes danced in the wind. Kleiner looked on with unapprehending alarm, cursed and took another swing, this wilder than the last, and cleaved through Kryos’ body, which dissipated as the vapor surrounding, and as it did Kleiner’s momentum brought him free of the vehicle, to the flames he had raised. Before he made contact with the inferno, one of the drifting chilopodic machines secured the folds of his ratty coat and bore him above the blaze. There, limply, he hung.

“Oh god,” Kleiner shrieked as the flames lapped at his legs. “God. Somebody help me!”

“Flap if you must. Fancy affords no flight.”

Kleiner screamed and flailed precariously beneath the drone. His coat tore against the SIKARD’s limbs, his lower body falling into the tip of the bonfire. Boots treading flame. He howled louder. Half the crowd broke from their stupor and fled, the rest continued to watch in awestruck horror.

“You can no more escape me than your sin. For you fumble amidst gelid clockwork, whose sequestered gears wend lucid and warm beneath the ministrations of an unintended host. Those who’ve not the lay of the mechanism are incapable of its navigation, and so are ground between its teeth.”

Tears streamed from Kleiner’s eyes.

“Move me up! Please!”

From the effervescing haze, the voice came again. Harsher than before.

“Confess.”

“I killed them. Alright? I did it.” His eyes bulged and his tenor ran to a quivering mewl as sweat beaded on his forehead and his soles began to melt. “I jumped Fawnell. With those worthless southers. I blamed it on Syzr. I killed the board. I put a bomb in the aero complex and lit them up. It was Rehdon’s idea.” He looked with panic left and right into the shifting curtains of smoke. “Its him you should blame. Him, not me!” Steadily the drone retracted the man from the serpentine effulgence. Soles scorched, craggy skin thick with perspiration. Chattering arose among the mob the moment Kleiner stopped speaking. He looked around expectantly.

“You’ll let me go now, right?”

For the last time, Kryos’ voice roiled from the putrid smog. “One need sow no vituperation in the barbarous heart’s estate. For its harvest is as enduring as its field is fallow. What castigation to levy on those who’d scorch a seeded plain? One need raise no hostile hand, to treat with worms, their own shall suffice.”

The drone bore Kleiner to the ground, released him and flew off, vanishing within the dense sooted curtain that obstructed the sky. The Consortium officers the mob had detained stood beside the bleeding man. The woman whose face had been burnt by Kleiner’s previous antics held a jagged fragment of glass from the bottle of spirits and drew it across his cheek. Kleiner sucked air in pain and staggered backward. With a grunt of rage he kicked the woman in the gut and brought her low. He retreated from the circling Consortium officers and turned to the crowd, seething. “Get that bitch!” The crowd met his command with diffidence. “Kill her! Kill them all!” Whispers of dissension and disdain went up throughout the multitude. He spun from the mob to the officers and back. “What are you doing?” There came a shout. A metal bar was swung and connected with the side of Kleiner’s skull. As he fell, the crowd descended upon him and hewed his head from his body and held it up toward the callous vault of heaven.

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 43

Previous chapter

Ryard’s company crossed the mechanized gangplank that extended from the seawall, past the jibless flotilla of black monohulls whose sharp prows loomed over the harbor like daggers of volcanic glass, to the hydraulic lime shore thick with regimented soldiers of the deep colonies. A storm gathered in the smoldering distance. A tight black spiral, unnaturally uniform, preceded cold rain and a rustling gale. Upon alighting the seashorn pier, Ryard’s group was spied by the nearest of the troops and after a short exchange were brought to a wide automated packing plant between the docks and shipping yard. The building was a high spire composed of polymer composites with a hard white resin surface that bore scorch marks courtesy of the easterner’s revolt and was surrounded by a circular expanse of anti-icing silicone stretching from the base of the building to the cargo loading yard fifty feet hence. Large metal intermodal containers stood outside. Kryos’ men sifted through the contents of each metallic cube before resealing and moving them onto the backs of heavy transport mag-rays that thrummed into the distance.

Ryard’s troupe was led through the ground floor lobby to the central chamber which was filled with rows of cans and other parcel sized oddments fitted to movable alcoves pressed together in a scale-like pattern. Each scale, a basket set into a conveyor which could be moved seamlessly up or down any floor. Long reticulated mechanical arms like queer bony growths ran the length of the room and cast elongated shadows across the dusty, spacious interior. Though unpowered, the dactyl devices creaked due a weak but steady airflow.

Sonderon and Raimer took in the contours of the peaked chamber as Straker, who refused to allow aid, leaned against the doorway in a bid to relieve her wounded leg and regain a medication faded balance.

Ryard walked to a neatly arranged stack of glass jars secured with thin metal seals and removed one of the containers. Fermented fish. He tilted the vessel in the hazy light. The seal held but the lid bulged upwards and the contents were thick and stringy.

The lights flickered. From above, the calm voice of Eidos Kryos echoed. “Do you know why the lid protrudes?”

The travelers cast their eyes to the undulating shaft which ascended from the ground floor to the seventh story. A dark commanding figure stood above on the third story at a gap in the railing, backlit by steady white light. On the factory rigging about the spectre crawled countless machines, some drifting idly in the air, others investigating the wiring and ventilation systems with a ginger curiosity that belied their fearsome frames. SIKARDs.

Ryard returned his attention to the can. “Interior chemical reactions. Gas production. Bacteria?”

“Very good, Ryard. Clostridium botulinum. An anaerobe partial to marine sediment and the viscera of fish. The bacteria produces a potent neurotoxin. A few micrograms of the substance is sufficient to precipitate severe illness in our species. Without respiratory support and antitoxin, death is swift. Oxygen is fatal to the microbes, as it is to the quality of the food in which it grows. Once infested, one must discard the vessel, or boil its contents.”

Two soldiers, armed and armored, entered from a side door, dragging between them the scarlet clad form of a Bright Horizon operative. He was a thin man, with bags under narrow almond eyes. The eastener’s hands were bound in scandium and a tracing collar had been affixed around his long throat. Frantic, he searched his surroundings, discerning, with mounting dread, the faces of Ryard’s party. Behind the trio walked former Oversecretary Ermin Gild, whose Consortium garb had been exchanged for the albescent armor of the deep colonies, his attention focused on unwrapping a chocolate truffle in his hand.

“Good to see you well, Director, Mr. Sonderon,” said Gild as he took in the faces of the visitors, stopping at Vancing, Raimer and Sirin. “Others.” Sonderon gave a curt dip of his head. Ryard tilted his head up in recognition. Raimer crossed his arms and issued a grunt of displeasure.

The silvery machines loosed themselves from the wire coated wall and floated in declining formation to fashion a makeshift stair. Kryos strode down from the third story upon the backs of his aerial attendants, his hands held before him, nearly to his chest, left against the right, fingers moving with enigmatic rhythm, his eyes locked upon the prisoner who had been moved to the center of the packed storage chamber. The easterner ceased struggling against the two guardsmen that held him and shock came into his expression as his eyes took in the man descending from the overhead hollow.

“This one’s name is Fang, yes?” Kryos inquired, the rightward guard nodded.

“This is a violation of the Markov agreement. I have rights.” When this elicited no response he raised his voice. “God given rights.”

Gild rolled his eyes, popped a truffle into his mouth and delicately folded the wrapper into the form of a little man. Kryos stopped nine feet before the easterner. The lilting cyclic movements of his hands ceased and a hardness came into his expression.

“Such fanciful notions did nothing to gird the dock workers your people slaughtered, or my director, whom you shot.” Kryos dismissed the guards and walked clockwise about the detainee, every footstep ringing throughout the cavernous recess. “The future is an island in an ocean of blood. Bone white with harmonic ideals. You shall find no harborage in empty shells. Tell me why your kin seized the harbor and ivory shores you may yet see.”

Fang straightened defiantly. “I’ve nothing to say to you.”

“Silence affords no seclusion from the thrumming of a guilty heart. Fifteen others of your kind await in the adjoining room.” Kryos paused, now but five feet from Fang. “Of that number, a woman, Aadila Shen, was greatly disturbed by your departure. So great was her distress that tears filled her eyes. Shall I question her next?”

The defiance that had previously characterized Fang’s visage evaporated to regret and apprehension.

“No. That won’t be necessary.” Fang looked about, expectant of intercession, but the eyes of the onlookers were cold. “We received an order. Secure the seawall. Obstruct the deep colonists. Obstruct you. But we couldn’t breach it. So we tried to hold the docks until we figured a way to do so.”

“Who gave this order?”

“The Bureau.”

“They contacted you directly?”

“No. Affin com-lines are unsecure, as you probably know. We received word from one of Zhu’s associates. Here, in the city.”

“Which associate?”

“A man named Illander Rehdon. He’s-“

“I know who he is. Did your people contact the Bureau thereafter?”

“No. That would have risked discovery of our plan.”

“Riskier still to trust a man like Rehdon. The plan was his, not yours.”

The prisoner assumed a baffled expression.

“What do you mean?”

“Rehdon lied. The Bureau would not intercede here, now, when I and the new Consortium yet stand, they would wait until one of us fell. To do otherwise would be foolhardy.”

“Mere speculation.”

“More than that. The Bureau tried to contact me for several hours prior to my arrival. Message after message. Urging peace. They suppose that Sodabrucke will be easier to negotiate with. Clearly, Rehdon’s desires differ. You were a tool to realize them. A traitor, betrayed.” Kryos folded his hands behind his back and took two steps away from the man, staring up at the immobile conveyor system. “How many families will not have food on their plates because of you and your kin?” The drones began to hum and circle tighter around the prisoner. Fang shrieked, “Keep those things away from me!” Yet closer still they came. The captive turned to the onlookers. “Help me!”

Kryos observed Fang’s vain flailing with faint disgust. “Your guilt is obscene. Your body ought be likewise.” The humming grew louder and one of the drones raked the prisoner’s face with a metal limb. Fang screamed as another of the intelligent machines severed his left leg just above the knee. He fell, clutching a bloody stump. Mouth wide. Eyes owlish in disbelief. A hideous wail repeated from his maw and painted the production plant in raw notes of anguish.

Kryos spoke to his men without turning to them or the wounded man. “See that he lives and replace the limb with a new unit. A brand of his betrayal.” The soldiers dragged the barely conscious man through the portal to the adjacent room as Kryos advanced toward his visitors. “Director. This is a pleasing sight.” Kryos raised his black gloved hand and gently caressed the pale contours of the woman’s face. Straker smiled and bowed her head. For a moment, silence, then Kryos spoke, amusement clear in his curt, measured tones. “Tatter told me you came with ill intent, Mr. Vancing. She was concerned.”

“She told you of my conversation with Rehdon?”

“In detail.”

“I see.” Ryard cast his eyes to the floor and sighed. “I’m sorry about it, I had to put on a good performance. If I could convince her, I knew I could convince him.”

“You have done well. Our wolf thinks a jackal shall claim the lion. But when he comes for the carrion, he shall find us both waiting.”

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 42

Previous chapter

The occupants of Wall Town’s nineth story balcony watched in silence as an enormous form rose from the turbulent waters of the bay like a prodigious coelacanth. Frothing foam spilled from the emergent shape’s contours as gannet and albatross fled over the seawall in shrill terror. The breach disgorged a wave to the marine fortification of a height to shroud the lofty onlookers in brackish mist. When the saliferous haze cleared, the observers discerned the character of the thing from the depths. A seacraft, over a mile in diameter, composed of layered metal the color of bituminous coal, with long spine-like protrusions draped flush on its smooth surface about all visible length. The metal barbs unfurled to forty-five-degree angles and jettisoned thick shafts of steam. Thereafter, hundreds of nimble argent forms debarked the spines and flew cloudward until they were swallowed in albescent radiance.

On the seawall, one of Sonderon’s men rushed through the door of Alder’s quarters, huffing and pointing excitedly behind him as if to some trailing spectre.

“They’re here. The Consortium.”

Scarcely had the words left the man’s mouth than a voice boomed through the panel display upon Alder’s desk. A man’s voice, business-like but roughened by agitation.

“Port Authority, this is Commissioner Vogel. Do you copy?” A pause. Alder remained still. Vogel resumed, anger bruising his tone. “Hostiles inbound. Do not open the sea gate. I repeat. Hostiles inbound. Do not open the sea gate.”

Eidos Kryos’ voice emanated from Alder’s desk-bound panel display.

“Open the gate.”

Alder hung in a pendulum of indecision.

“Go on,” Straker encouraged.

He bent to the control panel. A rumbling sounded.

The enormous iron gate that secured the harbour parted and as it did the front of the vast vessel before it opened and expelled a smaller seacraft that cut across the azure expanse like an obsidian arrowhead. Swiftly it forded the watery reach and passed the vaulted arch of the gateway and moved to the barren quay where stood an armed Consortium detachment with Vogel at its head. The uniformed men raised their weapons and prepared to fire, but Vogel threw his hand out. “Hold. Let them disembark.” The men obeyed and the huge obsidian freighter grew still in the waters before the uncluttered concrete landing. The front of the vessel opened and loosed a heavy, pitch colored gangway, fifty three yards wide and one hundred yards long. Despite its considerable bulk, it touched down with the lightness of a feather.

Footfalls resounded from the opened dark.

Vogel’s men tensed.

From the shadow of the ship, Eidos Kryos emerged, garbed in lamellar sable vestments trimmed with gold. His gait unhurried. His black-gloved hands gingerly held before him, one against the other above his waist, fingers moving rhythmically, as if weaving invisible thread, his auric eyes fixed upon Devik’s skyborne fortress above the distant towers of the city-proper. To the army assembled before him, he spared no attention.

Vogel trudged to meet the man before the base of the mechanized plank.

“Turn around. You have no authority here.”

Kryos scanned the decimated shipping yard and the flames consuming the distance. Only then did he bring his gaze to Vogel.

“Neither, it seems, do you.”

Vogel stepped forward, hands primed to draw the cutter at his waist. “I’ve authority enough to have you and all your men arrested, here and now.”

As if to mirror his opponent, Kryos walked forward until he stood only four feet before the new Commissioner.

“And this would profit you?”

“I have my orders.”

“But not your reason.”

Vogel frowned. “I’ve no desire to do you an injury.”

“Nor do I.” Kryos spread his hands. “So have your men step aside.”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“Disappointing. I was under the impression our aims aligned.”

“A false impression.”

“Much like that which I have given you.”

“What?”

There sounded an inorganic humming from above. Silvery forms descended from the glaring sky with meteoric speed and brought low the Consortium troupe. Vogel drew his cutter and leveled it at Kryos. The small panel above the grip of the weapon read “Invalid target.”

“You wax forgetful of the manufacturer of your weapons.”

Vogel cursed and swung wildly at Kryos’ impassive face with a hard right hook. The black-garbed man back-stepped and the blow went wide.

“Come on!” Vogel bellowed and threw a left hook, but before the blow connected one of the silvery aerial machines swept upon the assailant and affixed itself to his arm with its centipedal legs, then went still. The momentum and weight of the mechanical addition brought Vogel’s blow short and straight to the ground, before his right knee. He groaned and attempted to rise but the machine proved too heavy. His armor made him tetter unsteadily and he struggled to keep from toppling to the concrete quay.

Kryos strode forth, gently placed a palm upon the Commissioner’s armored shoulder and, with minimal application of pressure, pushed the fettered man face-first to the ground. Before Vogel could rebound, three more argent ersatz insects descended from the sky and secured his free arm and both legs.

“You approached us head on so the sun would be in our eyes. So we wouldn’t see them above us.”

“Yes.”

Progenitor soldiers emerged by the hundreds from the yawning cavity of the obsidian freighter as Kryos’ shadow fell over the Commissioner.

“Due your valor, I shall grant you the honor of observing the reconfiguration of this ugly chimera you and your masters failed to secure.” He turned toward a soldier in vermeil plate. “Colonel Vorstahl.”

“Sir?”

Kryos looked to the massive ship floating above the city. “Release the cloud planters.”

“How many?”

“All of them.”

Vorstahl bowed his head in acquiescence. Kryos’ dactyl gesticulations grew more rapid.

“You can’t,” Vogel pleaded. “The Chancellor and the Convention are in Devik’s ship. If you start a storm it’ll be torn from the sky.”

“Only if they choose not to land,” Kryos replied diffidently.

Far from the chaotic quay, a new set of the Progenitor’s previously unraised spines disgorged thousands of machines the color and texture of smokeless ovoids, that whirred westward to the burning heart of the city and the airship that crowned it.

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 41

Previous chapter

Hungry gulls squawked over the bloody port. Dark clouds parted and a blazing sun peeked through the parting pall with ceaseless increase. The grim, sooty remnants of distant, burnt buildings littered the shambolic nautical freightway and mingled with the nascent twilight to cast the whole vista in a sickly amber hue. Two groups of soldiers, white-plated, and gray-and-black, picked through the scarlet bodies of the dead like hyena’s in the wake of a lion’s kill.

Amidst that scene, Ryard knelt beside Straker as one of her medics administered a potent sedative and tended to the harpoon-borne leg-wound. The Director’s armor had been set aside, the left leg of her suit bunched to a pallid, gashed thigh. Her normally pristine and frigid countenance was drawn, haggard and wracked with emotion. “A single feather,” she muttered and reached out unsteadily and took the man’s hand in a feeble grip.

“If not for you we’d be dead.”

He squeezed her hand gently and returned her warm gaze. “You once did a similar favor for me. It is only right I repaid it.”

The woman inclined her head solemnly. “Debts ought to be repaid. Whether one is held to them or not.” Straker groaned, retracted her hand in a paroxysm of pain, closed her eyes and leaned wearily against the cargo crate where she had sustained her injuries. The medic grasped her comfortingly, but she shook her head. “I’m alright. Go. Tend to the others.” When she had recovered and the medic had departed, she looked toward Ryard with a curious sentimentalism. “That business with Haldeck and Vangr seems a lifetime ago.”

Ryard took a seat beside the woman as she fished out a pack of cigarettes from her jacket. She put the aromatic cylinder between her lips, closed the pack and made to return it, then paused and proffered it toward the CAV-keep. He took one with a smile and for several minutes they sat smoking in silence and watched the colors play across the bay, visible beneath the vast shadow of the seawall. For that brief moment it seemed as if all trouble had been abstracted from the world. Ryard’s eyes wandered from the distant, sun-lit water and the ships and cranes which obscured it, to the face of the woman into whose employ he had rendered himself, thick coils of smoke visible behind her fragile visage to the north. His senses revolted at the discordant scene and his mouth parted to expel the dark matter that weighted upon his mind.

“Meris was at the scene when Sonderon was shot. He saw the man who did it. When he described the shooter, I didn’t believe it, so I had Lanning run a search of aerial drones in the region. There aren’t many left, but he found one that was over the area when the shot was fired.” Ryard tilted the panel display of his wrist-bound transceiver to the woman, on it was a picture of a unfinished skyscraper on which perched a large, muscular man in antiquated military garb with eyes the color of rusted-blood. A ghastly smile was visible on his incongruous slab-like face. “Its him, Vera.”

The woman’s mouth quivered. “Vangr. But why would he resurface now?”

“I have a theory, but I couldn’t say conclusively. The only thing that’s definitive is the make of his weapon. Was an aircraft tethering rod-dispenser.”

“I’m not familiar.”

“They’re used by sky-technicians on the larger HOCL platforms. To keep them from drifting apart.”

“Why do you always know such arcane things?”

“Lind keeps me current.”

“So what’s the significance of the tether?”

“There has been a large influx of southers into that line of work.”

“So he was trying to frame the southers?”

“Yeah.”

“You told me his name before, Mr. Vancing, but nothing of the man himself,” Sonderon said as he strode before the pair. His stern countenance relaxed momentarily. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear. Your man here was convincing, but scant on details. I feel owed some further explanation.”

Straker surveyed the politician studiously before she answered. “Vangr was the former head of security for Kryos’ flagship, Progenitor. Hot-headed, sarcastic, but came highly recommended. Proved competent. So, to my discredit, I vouched for him. Five years ago, with the aid of one of our researchers, a woman named Haldeck, he absconded with a item of considerable value and vanished to the east, lying low somewhere in the Federation. We learned, only later, that his daughter was a prisoner of The Bureau at the time and lay under the shadow of execution. She had apparently violated one of their esoteric state mandates, and was accused of upsetting the social order. Whatever deal Vangr made with the easterners, likely a trade, our material for his daughter, fell through.” She paused to take a puff off her cigarette.

“What happened?”

“His daughter was executed. Since that time we’ve heard nothing of him.” She gestured to the man’s bandaged arm. “Until this recent incident.”

“Why should he come after me instead of the Federation?”

“Don’t take it personally. Its not your life he wants.” Ryard replied. “But the chaos your death would bring. Same with Kryos. Same with The Board, only in that instance, they were successful.”

“They?”

Before Ryard could answer, Sirin and Kopf walked up with an old man bearing a sun-beaten face, who threw his thick, calloused hands out and exclaimed, “Bless you, by the gods, bless you. We thought we were food for the fishes.” A few yards behind the trio, a group of common folk massed. Warehouse laborers and fishermen. Some bore injuries and looks of fear, but all eased by varying degrees to contours of relief.

Sirin saluted and spoke with her usual clipped incision. “We found him and the others hiding in a shipping container, Director. He wanted to see you. Says he knows you.”

“He does,” She replied weakly, a little smile breaking out. “That’s Mr. Alder, the local portmaster.”

“Oh, what have those savages done to you, Ms. Straker?”

“Made me a hobble, it seems. But unless I’m party to some sudden illness over it, I’ll recover.”

“Fortune smiles on you twice. Well, you must come with us to Wall Town.” He pointed to the far, towering aquatic barrier.

“That’s precisely where we were headed.”

Alder bobbed his patchy, crinkled head. “Good. Good. One of the only safe places left in this cursed city.”

“Why’s that?” One of Sonderon’s men inquired.

“Because there’s only one way in or out by land. If those Bureau partisans, or some others, come after it, there’s a straight shot to sea. And from there, to the colonies.”

Ryard cast his eyes out to the dead bodies that littered the shipping yard. “Before we leave, we ought to move them.”

Raimer shook his head. “Won’t do to linger. There’s no telling when they might be back.”

“I agree with Major Vancing.” Sirin stated pensively. “We can’t leave them to the birds.”

“Best not to chance it.”

“It strikes me as unlikely the federants would return without reinforcements, Captain. Even if they do, they stand no chance now that Sonderon is with us.”

“Your lass is right,” Sonderon replied with a hint of pride. “Those animals won’t be back anytime soon.”

Raimer glanced to the Director, who nodded. “Very well,” he said with discontent. “But be quick about it.”

Sirin saluted. “Yes, Sir.”

For the next half hour the soldiers worked tirelessly, dragging the corpses of their comrades and those of the federant enemy into an empty industrial transportation freezer to secure the bodies from the prying beaks of gulls and the deformations of the heat. After the icy internment was complete, the combine debarked the shipping yard and traveled by foot, with a persistent wariness, to a habitation-zone within the forty kilometer-long fortification known as Wall Town. Over two hundred feet the modular seawall rose, bisecting the docks and fisheries and the artificial outer quay. The place had previously served as a resort for those traveling to and from the city and the deep colonies, and now took on the character of a council of war. Sonderon’s men alongside some braver members of Alder’s workforce and a few of the uninjured KSRU elite, took positions along the spindled, inner-wall balconies, all of which afforded clear views of the route through the expansive shipping yard to the massive, plated doors of the structure.

Alder led Ryard, Sonderon, Raimer and a crutch-bound Straker to his private study on the ninth story. The chamber was small, with a low-ceiling, bamboo-paneled floor garnished in coconut matting, padded stucco walls, two cream-colored divans, to either side of the thin entrance, and a couch in the center, beyond which was a hardwood desk and a scuffed and well-worn armchair. On the desk, an affin module displayed a picture of Alder with a buoyant woman and two bright-eyed girls with seashells beside a fishing boat. Above the desk, an array of nautical paraphernalia. As Ryard helped Straker settle into the left backless sofa, the desk-set module glimmered and blared. Overtop the maritime family picture, the words ‘Call incoming’ appeared.

“I’ve got to take this. Make yourselves comfortable. I’ll be right back. There’s coffee in the cupboard.” With that, Mr. Alder removed the module from its reticulated stalk and retired to a side room. Ryard sauntered to the small cupboard which folded out from the wall above the portmaster’s desk and there removed a tray containing four thick white sealed self-warming cups. He twisted the tops of the vessels which hissed, warmed and went silent and handed them to his companions.

“Feeling better, ma’am?” Sonderon inquired.

Straker nodded. Her eyelids were heavy, movements slow, all trace of agony, gone. “Much better. I’ve yet to thank you for your assistance.”

“Ports are cornerstones of prosperity. Leverage in negotiations with whatever government will eventually be formed.”

“That’s why you decided to aid us?” Raimer prompted with a hint of disgust.

“It was a factor. But there were many factors. I’ve long supported the efforts of the KSRU. I respect your work as much as I resent your founder.”

Straker blew on her steaming coffee to mask a rising vexation. “What do you hold against Mr. Kryos?”

Sonderon, hands clasped together on the cup in his lap, tilted his head to one side, looking to the woman as a principal who sought to upbraid a precocious pupil. “He cut his roots. If he ever had any.”

“He’s not a plant.”

“Neither is he aecerite, though our blood runs through his veins.”

“You object to his residence in the colonies?”

“I should think every man would object to living under the sea. Crazy a thing as ever I heard. What can a technologist removed from us know of the city or his own stock who built it? He’s a gadget churner who has no appreciation for the spiritual.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You take harpoon and offense on his account. What compelled you to give yourself so completely to this man?”

For a moment Straker said nothing, then she set her coffee aside and reached for the zipper at the collar of her bodysuit.

“I shall show you.”

Straker unzipped the suit to her navel.

“What are you doing?” The words froze upon his lips, for the pale sliver of skin beneath the vestments bore jagged scars that spiderwebbed between her small bosom and stretched from clavicle down below her stomach. Sonderon straightened in his seat, his visage assuming the proportions of shock. Ryard’s eyes went wide. Raimer looked to his boots, discomfort in every gesture.

“I started my work for Kryos Industries in a three month tutelage to their director of research and development. A man named Callahan. I was to make memos, give my thoughts on his team’s designs and fetch packages of model parts and schematics which were often brought in for him. One day, a packet came, heavy, wrapped in brown paper and twine. I thought it odd. No one I’d ever met used twine, or such coarse paper. But scans showed nothing unusual, so I brought it to Mr. Callahan. He gave me a smile, took the package and said he’d made up his mind to keep me on permanently, if that was still what I wanted. Naturally, I said yes. The next moment someone called for me from the adjoining room, I jogged to the door and as I turned the corner there was an explosion. I remember a hot blast of air and being flung to a wall. Then nothing. Darkness, that seemed to last for days. The next thing I remember was Kryos’ face staring down at me in a strange room. The packet had contained a bomb, he told me. Sent by the anarchists of Aestival. My insides were torn up. Many organs had to be replaced. Skin, grafted. Childbearing, no longer a possibility.” She ran a finger down neck to sternum. “He saved me. Rebuilt me. Entrusted me with Callahan’s mantle. And who was I to him? I was nothing. No one. A mangled, barren clerk.” With a touch of anger she retracted the zipper and re-sealed her suit. “You asked why my loyalty lies thus, Mr. Sonderon. That is why.”

Quiet filled the room. Sonderon fiddled with his coffee cup and inclined his head. “That I understand. I’m sorry to have offended you. It wasn’t my intention.”

The door flew wide and a young man walked in and bowed curtly.

“Hope I’m not intruding.”

“What is it, Closton?” Sonderon barked impatiently.

“Just wanted to let you know every level has been secured.”

“Good. Here, have some coffee.” Closton took the cup and walked behind the desk and pressed a panel. The wall slid apart to reveal a balcony overlooking the bay.

“Didn’t notice that,” Ryard stated.

“Keeps out the water during high tides.”

At that moment Alder returned from the adjacent room.

“Security Commission is coming. Want a detatchment stationed here until the situation is resolved with the Association and the East.”

“What did you tell them?” Straker demanded.

“That I’d close the water-gate and turn back all inbound vessels.”

“Once Kryos arrives, we needn’t worry about the Security Commission.”

“And if the Security Commission arrives before him?” Sonderon prompted.

“We prepare for a siege.”

Ryard and Closton retired to the balcony as Sonderon and Straker’s discussion proceeded.

“Why, that’s incredible!” Closton declared, leaning over the railing and gesturing to the vast, dark shape in the water of the bay, with a breadth beyond the ambit of their gaze. “How’s it possible for an artificial island’s foundation to be laid so quickly? Must have come unmoored, looks like its… moving.”

“That’s not an island,” Ryard corrected with a glance to the designated depths.

The man turned to Ryard, his visage disclosing nervous perplexity. “What then?”

“Its a ship.”

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 40

Previous chapter

At the eastern docks, Straker and the hundred man detachment she had pulled from base, found themselves surrounded by a band of Bright Horizon constituents, at least double in number, and armed with whatever had been near to hand during their revolt. The waylayers’ affiliation was clear from their distinctive scarlet uniforms; from this, Straker surmised a recent, unplanned defection. A untrained detachment of ill-equipped attaches would normally have proven of little consequence to the vanguard of the KSRU, had their armaments not been depleted in the day’s preceding broil. The dire hosts twined amidst shipping containers as the smoke and flame surrounding; white and red; then yet redder still. The ground went thick with fish and ice and the blood of men and women and the air was choked with the screams of the injured and dying. If the matter proceeded without interruption, Vera was certain they would be overwhelmed. Neither Vancing nor the second detachment she had called up from headquarters, would arrive in time. Such thoughts coiled like venomous snakes as Straker retreated from the press of her red-clad foes and found her back to a massive, weather-worn cargo crate, which disclosed the possibility of rearward assault. The wroth contestations to either side of the woman prevented further egress. Thus positioned, her bodyguards fended off a disorderly wave of Bureau partisans.

After the first break in the onslaught, Vera looked some yards to the left, where Sirin, bereft of munitions, vainly struck out with her dead cutter at three wild eyed federants. Savagely, the men bore her down, one lashing out with a battered ice hook, the metallic beak finding little purchase against the woman’s stolid armor. The set-upon woman would have been slain the next instant, but her comrades rallied and overtook the assailants.

To the right of the crate, Raimer drove his sychitin blade into the gut of a howling federant and thereafter fell to his knees with grit teeth, clutching at a horrid gash to his thigh that painted his knee with his own colors.

A hideous cry and the sound of scraping metal broke over the field of carnage, sounding from within an off-white shipping container set far before Vera’s own. A body flew from the house-sized cargo-vessel and skidded to a stop mere paces from the Director’s plated boots.

Corporal Raffin. Dead. The face guard of his helm grotesquely fractured by some inhuman force.

Something large moved within the eggshell-colored shipping container.

“Heavy Frame. They have a Heavy Frame!” Vera shouted into her headset to any who could hear as the aforementioned assembly unit emerged from the shipping container with a sheering of steel. The machine stood nine feet tall and moved on two reticulated legs that shook the earth with every step and its four aluminiferous arms pealed like the pincers of a gigantic crab. The unconcealed device came bounding over the bloodstained field, seized a fleeing KSRU recruit and squeezed the man with force enough to collapse his breastplate. Within seconds, the soldier’s ribcage was utterly crushed and blood spooled from beneath his helm.

The revelation’s immediate effect was demoralization. KSRU troops scattered from the engine of death; all tactical formations abandoned. The federants rallied, sensing victory close at hand.

Sirin’s voice sounded in Straker’s headset. “Director, there’s a keel panel suspended above the Heavy Frame.”

Straker cast her eyes up and spied a multi-ton length of bilge keel side-plating hanging from one of the now-lifeless automated cranes arrayed about the dock yard. The crane tower from which the uninstalled component hung rose directly beside the shipping crate Vera had taken shelter behind.

“So I see. I’ll make for it. Raimer, have your division form a cordon and give me a hand.”

“Copy that.”

“Sirin, Whalen, Kopf, Grieg, Sarker, distract the target.”

“Understood,” the five entrusted corporals replied in unison and dashed into the fray.

Immediately, the Captain’s men formed a barricade around Vera’s shipping crate, shielding the Director from the bloody vicissitudes of the skirmish.

“I’m the better climber, I can go.” Raimer declared breathlessly as he limped up to the director and surveyed the looming construction crane.

She looked at the wound on her subordinate’s thigh and shook her head. “Not with that wound. Besides, I’m lighter. We need to get on top of the crate to climb the crane, bottom’s too sheer. The ladder auto-retracts to keep vandals off. Lift me up, if your leg is good enough.”

“Its good enough,” he responded briskly. With that, he hefted the slender woman to the top of the shipping crate, for among all the KSRU, none save Syzr exceeded Raimer in strength. Without delay, Vera dashed across the metal surface of the cargo container toward the retracted ladder of the crane. She judged that with a sprinting jump, she could just close the distance. Before she could leap from the edge of the container, a horrible pain gripped her and dropped her to a knee. She looked down and discovered a harpoon protruding from her leg. As she cast her gaze over her shoulder to spy the shooter, the bolt was retracted and carried her back across the full ambit of the container roof and from there to the ground. As she lay winded and wracked with pain, she could now discern the harpoon operator, a reedy federant with the look of an office gopher who had erected the makeshift weapon on the adjacent container from which the rampaging Heavy Frame had been released. The harpoonist gave a cry of adulation, but his satisfaction, as that of his fellows, quickly subsided as a glinting form cleaved through the air.

A cloud-racer. Flying machines that were the exclusive domain of the city’s sky-technicians.

A familiar voice joined the open channel in Vera’s helm. “Sirin, get everyone clear of the Heavy Frame.”

“Copy, Major.” Sirin replied with an unconcealed tinge of delight.

“Ryard!” Vera exclaimed with shock.

“Good to hear your voice, Director.”

Ryard steered the racer directly at the great chain which ran from the crane-tower arm and clipped it with one of the vehicle’s wings, severing the suspension and dropping the keel siding down upon the Heavy Frame as Sirin and her confederates dove for cover. There resounded an uproarious clatter and where once the multi-armed machine had reeled there was nothing but one third of the hind of a container ship, a faint cloud of particulates and a single motionless mechanical limb that had been severed by the dreadful impact.

Before the easterly partisans could absorb the upset, a hail of cutter fire sent them into retreat. The survivors fled toward an abandoned processing plant north of the shipping yard. In the midst of the egress, Vera turned to the direction of the fire and beheld an encroaching band of Sonderon’s aecerites in matching gray and black.

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