Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part II, Chapter 10
Ivan visits a notorious drug den in search of Juan, A.A. confronts a less-than-cooperative captive, and Lamm contends with overwhelming new emotions.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
The Cradle hardly resembled the notorious drug den it was rumored to be. It occupied a small building like a rustic cabin that faced the railroad embankment. Residences flanked it to either side.
Ivan huddled in his winter coat with the hood up against the hail—the wind had long since shredded his umbrella—while he peered in one of the front windows. He had never been inside the Cradle, but he’d heard about the crazy parties that went on here most nights. Now, though, it was completely dark inside, like everything else in the neighborhood. Scoping, he could make out several tables with chairs turned upside-down on top of them, and beyond them a neatly stocked bar with about half a dozen stools lined up in front of it.
Shifting his backpack, he tried the front door. It was locked, of course, but after some rattling he was able to coax the mechanism open. The door creaked as Ivan slipped inside. It was stuffy in the bar, though the dryness and relative warmth more than made up for it. He thought for a moment he caught the musty odors of stale beer and vomit, but when he sniffed again he couldn’t smell a thing.
Dripping onto a woven mat, Ivan took off his Teen Titans backpack and stretched his shoulders. The backpack was supposed to be waterproof, but like every piece of clothing he had on it appeared to have reached the limit of its resistance. He hoped the laptop inside was okay—not that it was doing him much good, with the electricity out everywhere. He still had plenty of battery power, but that wasn’t very helpful when all the wi-fi networks were down.
Ivan left his backpack by the door and went behind the bar to start searching. His rubber boots squeaked on the plank flooring. What he was searching for, he didn’t quite know. Bobby had talked about heading to some bunker for his car, and back at the school Cory had mentioned his stash at the Cradle. There was no parking lot at the bar, so Ivan didn’t think the Cradle and the bunker were the same thing. Still, if this was one of A.A.’s establishments, then maybe Ivan could find a clue here as to the location of the bunker. And if he found that, maybe he’d find Juan too.
Since his apartment was obviously no longer a safe place, he had spent much of these early morning hours parked in a booth at the Golden Corral, a diner on Lawrence near where he’d made his way down from the Metra embankment. He’d gritted his teeth and paid $2.50 of his own money for a bottomless cup of coffee, justifying it as rent for the privilege of sitting somewhere safe and out of the rain.
He had email back from Hasta begging him to find Juan, so he piggybacked off the wi-fi at a little insurance office next door while he scrutinized Google Maps and whatever other online resources he could hack into—city property records and the like. He was looking for any building or complex of buildings north of the spot where he and Bobby had landed, and within reasonable walking distance of it, that might make a suitable lair for a demented supervillain and his drug operation. Try as he might, every lead he pursued turned into a dead end.
Then the power went out, and the all-night diner that never closed gave its loyal customers the old heave-ho. Out of the cozy and into the storm, which was worsening by the minute. And thus had Ivan made his miserable way nearly a mile north to the Cradle.
As he pawed through various stacks of papers and receipts behind the bar, he heard a cough. Every hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
He ducked down, scoping this way and that over the top of the bar as he strained his ears. The hail on the roof made the room sound like the inside of a snare drum, but Ivan was sure he’d heard that cough. Muffled, but unmistakable nonetheless.
Cough cough cough!
There it was again. Ivan swung toward his left.
At the end of the bar was a wooden door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. Ivan tiptoed over and put an ear against it. The coughing sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a well.
He cupped a hand around his ear. The sound jumped into focus. It sounded like someone was hacking up a lung right on the other side of the door.
Ivan took a deep breath to quiet his pounding heart. “This is all an illusion,” he softly reminded himself. He pictured his body lying somewhere else altogether, someplace antiseptic and white, his brain plugged into some massive supercomputer while he dreamed safe and secure.
The door wasn’t even locked. It creaked loudly, revealing only more darkness. Dank, fetid air wafted out, chilly on his face. The coughing came from somewhere below, down a rickety old staircase. He heard weak splashing as well.
“Cory?” croaked a girl’s reedy voice. “Cory, it’s all wet down here.”
She didn’t sound like she cared much.
Scoping every step, Ivan picked his way down the stairs. In grainy grayscale, he could see a few inches of water lapping against the bottom of the staircase. He caught the faint impression, gone before the smell could gag him, of a locker room with a clogged toilet.
He swept his view around the room from the last step, one hand on the rough wood of the banister. The open basement was larger than the room above. The water looked to be ankle-deep, and from the gurgling, rushing sounds there was more flooding in by the minute. Metal beer kegs were stacked three high all around the space, forming seven or eight little half-walled cubicles. Each cubicle had one or two cots in it, or a waterlogged mattress on the floor—something to lie down on, at any rate. He couldn’t see into all of them, but most appeared occupied. High school kids, asleep or zonked out of their minds.
Driftheads. If his real body was lying somewhere unconscious, he hoped it wasn’t a place like this.
Ivan could look right down into the nearest cubicle, and what he saw was Frida Sandstrom staring blindly back. A futon frame kept her ragged, flat mattress barely above water. She was sitting up, back against the kegs, her pupils so dilated in the dark that they’d practically disappeared. She had on a dirty white T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. Her red hair, all in disarray, looked bloody in black and white, and her thick eye makeup was smeared down her face. Her curled hands were raised chest-high. She was shivering so hard Ivan could hear her teeth chattering.
“I tried to get up to pee,” she rasped. She hacked a long, wet series of coughs, then spat something onto a corner of the mattress. “I think someone left the water running.”
Enraged at the sight of her, Ivan splashed down from the last step, hoping his boots would hold out. He entered Frida’s keg cubicle and grabbed her cold, clammy hand, keeping his other hand to his eye.
“Juan Riefkohl,” he said. “Frida, he’s not here, is he?”
Frida’s face wrinkled as she pulled her hand away. She crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re not Cory,” she said. She rolled over onto her side, a half-hearted fetus. “Go get Cory.”
Ivan seized her wrists in one hand and hauled her back into a sitting position. He didn’t exactly want to hurt her, but she’d also driven the car that tried to kidnap Hasta—not to mention tormented him and her all the way through elementary school. He wasn’t going to be gentle with her now.
“I don’t think Cory’s here,” he snarled. “I think he’s at the bunker, Frida. Do you know where the bunker is?”
She tried to wriggle her wrists free, but feebly. Ivan held tight. Her lips pursed in petulance. “Top double secret,” she said. Her head rolled around a little, one eyelid drooping.
“I’ll find Cory for you,” he said, trying hard to keep from shaking her, “but you have to tell me where the bunker is. I’ll—” His lip curled and his gorge rose a little. “I’ll bring you more drift, Frida. Just tell me where to go.”
Frida curled one of her hands into an O and dipped her head to try to look through it with her open eye.
“Ivan Babich?” she said, jerking her head back in surprise. It listed again to one side. “How do you know about the Bunker? You’re not in the chain. Geek.”
Ivan ground his teeth. “Well, I am now, okay? But no one told me where the bunker is, and we need Cory.”
Her head lolled all the way back. Only Ivan’s grip kept her from bashing her head against a keg. “Ivan, Ivan, Ivan,” she said, as if testing the name on her tongue. “Gillian was s’posed to bring in Hasta Very-Much-A-Ninny, so I guess that makes sense.”
Ivan used both hands, blind, to drag Frida to her feet. “Upstairs. Come on, let’s go.”
“Yee-ouch!” Frida cried as her sneakers sloshed down in the frigid water. “That’s cold!”
“I could splash some on your face, if that would help.”
Supporting her with an arm around her, Ivan could feel Frida’s shivering. “I could punch you in the nuts, too, geek,” she slurred. But she put both arms around him instead and pressed her head just below the middle of his chest.
There were creaks and a muttering of voices as other driftheads began to stir. Frida tottered along with him to the bottom of the stairs, and Ivan was startled at how nice it felt even to have the arms of a girl he didn’t like around him.
But then came a splash and a shout from somewhere behind them. Frida shook her head and pushed away from Ivan.
“Oh, God, I think I’m awake now,” she said, an edge of pain in her voice. “I don’t want to be awake. What’s all this water? And why are the lights off?”
Impatient, Ivan scoped the room again, where a couple of groggy people were emerging from their cubes. This time he noticed the floodlamps covered with color gels that were rigged to the floor joists above with spring clamps. A mess of extension cords snaked down the walls to overloaded outlets near the water line.
“Power’s out,” he said. “Probably a good thing, too, or you all might have gotten electrocuted.”
Someone was struggling up from the water and falling down again.
“Would’ve been a blessing,” Frida murmured. She sounded on the verge of panic. “Crap, we gotta get everyone upstairs. People could drown in this state.”
“I’m in a pretty big hurry here,” Ivan said.
Frida snapped her head around, glaring through her handscope with a look of misery and contempt. “You think I want to be awake, geek? This is almost as bad as being asleep.” Dirty black tears trailed down her cheeks. She wiped them brusquely away, leaving horizontal streaks. “God only knows why you’d want to go to the Bunker, but—”
“Frida, my friend’s in trouble.” Ivan was disconcerted to hear the quaver in his own voice.
“We’re all in trouble, okay, geek? So if you want my help you’re gonna have to help me here.” She jabbed him in the chest. “And then you’re gonna find us a nice big bag of drift.”
A.A. shook the water from the plastic tarp, annoyed. When he had sold his cloaking method to Kray and Lamm, he should have tried to get their rainproofing method in exchange. Instead, all he’d gotten was a little method for remote messaging that he’d thought would turn out to be more useful than it was. What good was being able to change the text on traffic signs all over town when drivers paid more attention to the color and shape than they did to the words? Making stop signs say LOVE and FRET and KILL had not been quite the bonanza of chaos he’d hoped for.
He cast the tarp aside, scattering rats, and trotted up the stairs. That was okay, though. The kids had proven to be better chaos generators than he ever could have imagined. As a teacher, he should have known that would be the case from the start.
Some of them were too good at it, as a matter of fact.
But that was fine. Soon it would be dawn and the sun would rise on the last day this flawed and broken world would ever know. And the day after, a new world would begin, one a little bit or perhaps a lot closer to the paradise he knew it could be. Maybe that one he could settle down in, call home and make peace with. Live happily ever after.
A perfect world of perfect enjoyment, with nothing but books and LP records and good scotch. With no family to love and to lose, and with no one in any event who’d want to take them away if he had them.
Fifteen paces from the top of the stairs brought him to the sealed room. He lit a votive candle with matches that had stayed miraculously dry in the inside breast pocket of his jacket and set it on the floor. Little danger that the fat, stubby candle would catch the place on fire, but he’d have to keep an eye on it nonetheless. Today would be a very frustrating day on which to burn to death.
A thick combination lock secured the door to the sealed room. He held the body of the lock in one hand and spun the dial with the other. This was a mechanism he’d reprogrammed himself, incorporating some open-source deep encryption routines he’d adapted for the purpose. He could open it with the right sequence of sixty-three numbers, and Cory could open it with a different sequence of numbers, but neither of them could open it with the other’s sequence. In fact, no one else could open it with either sequence, which made it the one type of lock that was secure even if you printed the combination right on the back. Not even those meddling delinquents with their OS hacks run amok could break this one open.
As quick as he was about it, it still took A.A. almost two minutes to open the lock. He swung the wooden door open to reveal a second door of fine metal mesh. He opened that and stepped into a Faraday cage barely tall enough to let him stand upright. With the door closed behind him candlelight still flickered through the mesh, but radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation could not penetrate. It did little or nothing to protect against reality hacks, but at least a prisoner couldn’t use a cell phone from inside. And anyway, having a Faraday cage was just badass.
The Latino kid with the stupid mustache sat hunched in the far corner, ten feet away, gloved hands still bound behind him. He writhed in the feeble light. “No, please,” he moaned. “Stop hurting her, I can’t, can’t, my axe . . .”
“Enjoying the Gameplain, are we?” A.A. said.
The kid’s eyes widened. He stiffened, then relaxed, then stiffened again. “Bad dream,” he said. He sounding surly, but hung over too. “Where am I? What do you want with me?”
“Ah, yes!” A.A. chirped, grinning broadly. Encounters like this always brought out his natural exuberance. “I’d forgotten that you weren’t exactly in control of all your faculties during the lecture I gave your compatriots.” He rubbed his hands together, warming them up. “Don’t worry, it’s not so important where you are as who you are.”
The kid glared up at him, twisting as he wrenched at his manacled hands. “My name’s Screw You, old man. And when I get loose you’re gonna be sorry you ever messed with me and my friends.”
“Oh, yes, your friends,” said A.A., nodding sympathetically. “Friends like that girl-child Hasta Variability, who could have saved you in that high school auditorium but saved her other little friend instead?”
The kid visibly bit back an angry retort. Pain filled his scowling eyes as he paused in his struggles. “Hasta loves me,” he said, and started fighting his bonds again with renewed fervor. “I’ll bet you’ve never even heard the word.”
A.A. squatted down on his heels. “I’ve heard a lot of four-letter words in my teaching career,” he said, “and believe me, from the mouth of a teenager, that’s the ugliest one them of all. You think that girl loves you, amigo? Let me ask you something. Do you recognize this gesture?”
He casually raised his middle finger. The kid flinched.
“Yes, I see that you do,” said A.A., dropping his hand. “If your little girlfriend taught you that gesture, then she’s no friend of yours. Do you remember any details from that—” He made air quotes. “—‘bad dream’ you were just having?”
The kid drew back a little. The corner of his mouth turned up as if from nausea.
“Well, that’s the world she invited you into, my friend. A world of vicious, brutal, unending warfare, a world of unimaginable pain and suffering. That’s what she gave you—her gift. Now that your mind’s been opened to it, you can never go back to the way things were. You can never escape.”
The kid was thinking now, A.A. could tell. His eye narrowed, a measuring gaze. A.A. patted his breast pocket.
“Never, that is, without my help.”
He drew a small wax-paper packet from his pocket. The kid focused on it immediately, his tongue darting out to touch his upper lip.
“I’ll tell you something true right now,” A.A. said, swinging the packet like a hypnotist’s watch. “This world of ours, this reality? It’s just an illusion. The Gameplain—that charming battleground you just experienced? Illusion too, but maybe one closer to the true nature of things. But if you’d managed to get hold of any of that drift you tried to steal from Frida’s locker, you never would have had to experience that world for yourself.”
He waggled the packet again.
“Drift, my friend. It blocks that out, it keeps you safe. It’s my own concoction. I’m the only source. Which pretty much makes me your best friend in this world or that one, and makes the ones you thought were your friends . . . well, let’s just ask ourselves what kind of friends would drag you into a place as gut-wrenchingly horrible as the Gameplain, hmm?”
The kid pressed his lips together in a grim line and looked deliberately away from the packet. Sweat sheened his face. A.A. shrugged and put it away again.
“Oh, if you want to go there again next time you pass out, that’s your choice. As your friend, I wouldn’t recommend it, but I can’t stop you. That’s what freedom of choice is all about, right? Knowing what you’re getting into and choosing it of your own free will.”
A.A. saw the kid wince at that. Not much, but enough that he could tell.
“Ah, did someone not get a chance to read the full prospectus before investing?”
“None of us did!” the kid spat. “You think you’re so smart. Where were you when it really mattered?”
A.A. shrugged. “I can’t be everywhere. I can only help you now, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
“Right, by keeping me locked up in the dark?”
“A mere precaution, so you don’t do any further harm to yourself or to others.” A.A. tapped his pocket. “Of course, if you’re willing to help me find your friends so you can help me help them too . . .”
The kid was fast, A.A. had to give him that. He launched himself from the far wall, head down, almost before A.A. saw him shifting his feet around. A.A. whipped his hand up palm forward in the halt gesture. The kid froze in mid-air, the top of his head less than a foot from A.A.’s hand.
“You’re slowing down, old man,” A.A. told himself with a cackle. “But you’ve still got it when it counts.”
He whistled to himself as he exited the room, closed the reinforced mesh door behind him, and turned the latch. In truth, he hadn’t been certain that was going to work. “Halt” was a method that didn’t work on other operators, only on users, robots and drones, and then only at close range. The kid obviously had a taste for drift, though, so it seemed reasonable that he hadn’t yet been able to access his full operator potential. Unlike the girl.
Outside the mesh door, A.A. held his hand out, palm up, and flapped his four fingers twice in unison—the gesture for “continue.” The kid jolted back into motion and crashed against the door. A.A. grinned as the kid rolled onto his side, snapping his gaze every which way. He struggled to his feet as his arms strained at his handcuffs.
“Sorry, you’ll have to do better than that,” A.A. said, waggling his eyebrows. “Now, about you and your so-called friends, who I dearly hoped would have shown up to attempt to free you by now. I have a few queries to put to you.”
The kid swayed on his feet, but his demeanor was as hard and unyielding as diamond. “I’m not saying one word.”
“Oh, I’m not asking you to,” A.A. said. “Words are entirely beside the point.”
He raised his hand toward the kid, who hunched and turned his face away.
“Oh, relax,” said A.A. “You won’t even feel this.”
He focused on the kid through the mesh, then crooked his finger in the gesture that initiated a command named, amusingly enough, “finger.” On Unix systems, the command could bring up personal information about another user logged into the network. On this Worlds system, its function was similar.
A glowing terminal window sprang to life just within the comfortable reach of A.A.’s hands. The kid’s name was Juan Castro Riefkohl. He was sixteen, born in Chicago, lived on Spaulding Avenue, operator level, blah blah blah . . . ah, but here was what was interesting. His chain linkage.
A.A. had already guessed the kid was part of the chain—a linked list of objects where each member contained a pointer to the previous and next elements of the list. But A.A. had never seen a chain entry quite like Juan’s. The kid’s prevlink pointed, unexpectedly, to Hasta Veeramachaneni, which was unusual enough. But odder still, he was showing something called a “cross” link to Ivan Babich.
What was this, some kind of equivalence relationship? That Ivan had a place in the chain, A.A. had already guessed, but not in this form. He wondered if Ivan, too, would prevlink back to Hasta, which would make the two boys almost like spiritual twins.
And if so, did Hasta mark a point where the chain forked into two divergent paths? Or did the split heal again with the next element?
“Fascinating,” A.A. said.
Juan banged his fists on the mesh door. Metal rattled. “What is?” he demanded. “What are you looking at?”
A.A. looked up from the window. “Hmm? Oh. Just doing some informative reading on a complicated topic.”
He found his place in the window again and scanned across to the kid’s nextlink entry. This was the gold, the data that told him each time out who his newest recruit should hit up next for initiation into the gang. Taking their time, of course, and getting them good and hooked on drift first.
The cage rattled again. “But you’re not reading anything.”
“Oh, yes, I am,” said A.A. brightly, “and it’s something of mystery story. Maybe you can help me clear part of it up. What can you tell me about a girl named Kylie Von Davis?”
After sobbing for what seemed like an hour into Kray’s sleeve (but was only four minutes and thirty-eight seconds—he had replayed and timed it in his head), Lamm ran off into the storm. One look into his partner’s puzzled and faintly discomfited face filled Lamm with enough shame, embarrassment, and chagrin to last a lifetime.
Mortified, he realized as he fled up Damen. That was the word for how he felt. Utterly mortified.
He loved the hail and the snow and the darkness. He loved them because they hid the degradation and debasement that still flowed down his cheeks in fat, humiliating streams. It didn’t matter that there was no one else on the street to see them. He wanted to gather up the night like a blanket and wrap himself in it.
No. What he wanted to do was die.
Did humans feel like this every day of their blissfully short lives? He didn’t know, but he suddenly wanted to hug every one them. His hands curled in front of him. He wanted to hug every last one of them like a bear, until they gasped and choked and the precious heaving life sputtered out of them. He wanted to put them all out of their collective misery. Maybe that would put him out of his.
He stopped, shoulders heaving, trying to get control of his breath. He knew Kray wouldn’t follow him. Someone had to stay at the school and guard against the Veeramachaneni girl. What had happened to him in there? Was this why entry into schools was forbidden? Because of—of—of this?
Lamm thrust his hands down to his sides and stalked up a sidewalk littered with crunchy hailstones. He couldn’t keep his thoughts moving in a straight line, nor his feelings. Feelings! What once had bubbled along quietly at a nice simmer now seethed and raged like a boiling kettle. He was so stupid, stupid! Why hadn’t he listened to the ancient advice? Why had he thought he could defy it?
“Why?” he gasped, and it didn’t even feel wrong to say it with his mouth instead of with his hands. “Why?”
Hail pounded the exposed flesh of his neck beneath the brim of his hat, sending cold streamers rolling and trickling down his back. He couldn’t resist a grin at the ticklish sensation. He even giggled a little, at which point he knew he was going crazy. Corrupted, that’s what he was. Entering the school had corrupted him, broken him, and now he was going crazy.
He laughed again, slapping at his sides as the freezing water tickled him, but that only made his clothes stick to his skin. An unpleasant sensation, to say the least. He pounded himself in the forehead, thinking to bash the sickness right out of his skull. All the endless eons he’d lived through, and this was how it was going to end? He sank to his knees at the unfairness of it all, sobbing again into the hands he pressed miserably to his face.
But the hail on his back only reminded him how exposed he was here on the street. His head twitched this way and that as he checked over each shoulder. He couldn’t have said why, but he seemed to sense something colossal bearing down on him from out of the west, something with claws sharpened and poised to rip out his spinal cord.
Ever and Flay. If he and Kray did not neutralize the girl and her companions by noon, Ever and Flay would be here. And that’s when the real unpleasantness would begin.
Lamm broke from his crouch into a blind, panicked run, stumbling and nearly falling on the treacherous pavement. He ran across a street and into the headlights of a huge city truck with a plow on the front. It honked, and Lamm barely got out of the way before the truck growled past.
“No!” he shouted at the truck’s dwindling taillights, but letting himself be injured would have been no solution. It would only hamper him from doing what needed to be done. And what needed to be done was to capture the two boys. To neutralize them.
To wipe them.
Even if the man had neither of them in his custody, A.A. would be sure to know something of their whereabouts. That’s where Lamm would start, shattering their sham alliance and maybe a few bones if necessary, and he’d work his way along from there. All he needed was one child and the rest would soon follow.
Another large vehicle came rumbling south down the street, headlights blazing. Lamm crouched beside a parked car and watched as the Army Reserve truck rolled past.
Not a good sign. The situation was progressing. Time was short.
Alternately laughing, weeping, and cursing his fate, Lamm continued north and east, heading for the Bunker.
Around him, the hail gradually turned to snow. √