Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part II, Chapter 5
Hasta receives an invitation to a trap and faces an impossible choice, while Lamm and Kray defend their actions to a superior being.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
“Crap, crap, crap,” Hasta said as she pushed herself to her feet. Her head hurt but not as badly as the empty gulf inside her. She’d lost both her friends now to the bad guys. Her only two friends.
She hurried out of the office. Shouts echoed from some other part of the school. She couldn’t make out the words, so she closed her eyes, cupped both hands to her ears, and tried not to breathe.
It was Ivan yelling. She heard him clearly now. “Second floor, center hallway! Second floor, cent—”
His words abruptly cut off.
Hasta gritted her teeth and sprinted to the nearest staircase. Her fault, every bit of this. Why hadn’t she just ditched Juan and Ivan before the danger became so great? Kept them out of all this?
She shook her head as she raced up the stairs. She couldn’t let herself think that way. Her only option now was to save her friends. It was as simple as that.
Hasta had no real plan when she reached the second floor. She scoped the hallway both directions, but not a soul was in sight. She scurried to the end of the hall, but when she reached the T intersection there was still no one to be seen.
Which made sense, she realized as she checked a couple of the nearby classrooms. After Ivan had shouted out their location, why would Sunshine and crew stick around to be found? In fact, they might be watching her on closed circuit right—
A P.A. speaker crackled overhead. Several velvety taps followed. “Is this thing on?” came Mr. Sunshine’s voice.
A squall of harsh feedback followed. Hasta winced, already heading back toward the stairs.
“Ouch, um, sorry about that, youngsters. Unless you’re a professional, don’t try this at home. Anyhow, we have some announcements for you tonight, the importance of which we leave as an exercise for you the listener. First, we have a very exciting end of the world coming up we want to invite you to. Bring your friends and family. Everyone is welcome! And oh, yes, attendance is mandatory, so don’t assume you’re going to be able to get out of it. Resistance is not only futile, it’s pointless too, for those of you not exactly pulling A’s in your vocabulary units. And second, Miss Hasta Verisimilitude or whatever, your immediate presence is requested in the auditorium. If you ever want to see your compatriots again, that is.”
The P.A. went dead with a resonant click.
There it was for real—the end of the world. As much as she’d been thinking that, it couldn’t really be true, could it? How could a whole world just end? She wasn’t even out of stupid high school yet.
Hasta picked her way as stealthily as she could from the stairs toward the main office, scoping the way. Though she thought she heard footsteps at one point, she didn’t see anyone moving.
The office was, as far as she knew, the only place where you could access the public-address system, but it was empty when she got there. She clamped both hands to the top of her head, trying not to scream in frustration.
To the auditorium, then. She knew it was a trap, but she couldn’t see any other option.
The auditorium occupied much of the far south end of the school. Hasta walked there with her chin high. If she was going down, she wouldn’t be a baby about it. She pulled open one of the heavy double doors, took a deep breath, and entered.
She was about to scope the massive room, but groups of stage lights began switching on with deep chunk-ing sounds. Hasta squinted. She had entered near the front row of seats. Up on the stage, Mr. Sunshine was making that twisting gesture at the overhead lights.
Hasta didn’t hesitate. She jabbed her middle finger at him with all the strength she could muster. It was like slamming her finger into a brick wall. Mr. Sunshine turned calmly from what he was doing and smiled down at her.
“Translate me once, good for you,” he said. “Translate me twice—never gonna happen, silly girl. Please, please, front and center. You’ll want to see this.”
Rows and rows of raked theater seats swept back into the darkness. Not wanting to turn her back to the stage, Hasta edged slowly along the front row, then backed a few yards up the center aisle. She shook her aching hand, focusing on the pain to keep from falling into despair.
At center stage, Sunshine bowed left and right with a grand flourish. From stage left emerged Juan, hands still bound, being walked by the boy with the glasses. Juan looked dazed, his eyes blinking in the glare and his head nodding slowly.
Bobby Kimball pushed Ivan into the light from stage right. Ivan stumbled but didn’t fall. His hands too were bound, with those huge silver oven mitts over them. He spotted Hasta right off and starting yelling to her, but no sound came from his mouth.
Hasta fought back tears of anger. “What did you do to him?” she demanded.
In answer, Mr. Sunshine turned toward Ivan and made a lip-zipping gesture. Ivan’s words immediately became audible.
“—this jerkwad, H.!” he shouted. Juan’s gaze lolled toward him. “Don’t worry about us! Whatever it takes, you have to—”
“That’s about enough of that,” said Mr. Sunshine, making the same gesture again. Ivan’s voice cut out again. “It doesn’t vary much from that theme, so you’ve got the gist of it.”
Ivan let out a silent snarl of frustration. Seeing him like that made Hasta want to hurt people. She looked from Ivan to Juan, stomach churning, trying to figure out what to do. If she couldn’t flip Mr. Sunshine, could she at least get her friends out of harm’s way? Or did the unsuccessful flipping mean she was out of juice?
Mr. Sunshine wagged a patronizing finger at her. “I can tell what you’re thinking, and I wouldn’t advise it. You might manage to translate one of your friends out of my custody, but you could be dropping him handcuffed into the middle of a busy street, or a swimming pool, or a steel foundry. You won’t get both of them before I flick you like a flea to those two hungry creatures outside.”
Hasta folded her arms across her chest. “What do you want from me? I know it can’t be the same thing they want.”
Sunshine cocked his head. “Oh? What makes you so sure?”
Hasta tried not to let her voice shake. “You’d have flipped me to them already if it were.”
The bearded man smiled. “You are a clever monkey, aren’t you? I had plans for you even before you put poor Bobby on his ass in that alley.”
“Boss, it wasn’t like that exactly,” Bobby said, shaking Ivan by the manacles.
Mr. Sunshine raised a hand. “Quiet, Master Kimball, or you won’t exactly find yourself with a voice.”
Bobby looked daggers at Hasta.
Mr. Sunshine’s scowl morphed back into a pained smile. “Now, as I was saying, those two fine fellows outside would like nothing better than to suck your brains out with a straw—to speak metaphorically, of course. They won’t actually damage any tissue. They’ll simply wipe your gray matter clean. No more Hasta Valedictorian, just a giant lump of baby flesh good for nothing but soiling itself and converting oxygen to carbon dioxide.”
“As if you’re any less of a monster,” Hasta said, nodding toward Juan and Ivan both in turn.
“Au contraire, my dear girl. Those two agents skulking about so mirthlessly are anything but monsters. They’re defenders of the world, proof against monsters like you and I, and as such they operate under the strictest code imaginable. I, on the other hand, labor under no such bothersome constraints.”
“So that means you’re free to kill me outright?”
Sunshine laughed. “Kill you? I assure you, that’s the furthest thing from my mind. I want to help you. I’ve wanted to help you since before you even knew you needed help. You see, these new abilities of yours pose a threat to the very fabric of reality. Using them so freely—without proper training or oversight, that is—unravels our world thread by thread.” He spread his hands. “My dear Hasta, what I’m offering you is a way to keep your powers constrained within safe bounds.”
“And how is that?” Hasta asked, though she had a guess.
The old man bowed. “Why, through the power of drift!”
“Of course,” said Hasta, smacking her forehead. “Doing drugs to save the world. Why didn’t I think of that myself?”
“Oh, there’s a grand tradition of that, not just in American counterculture but going back through centuries of time.”
Hasta held up a hand. “Spare me the history lecture. I know if I don’t take your stupid drug, you’ll just force it on me anyway.”
The old man looked affronted. “Why, never! Partaking is strictly voluntary.”
“Oh, so it was voluntary when Dennis Clegg shoved a big pile of it in my face?”
“When what?” said Mr. Sunshine, his face darkening. He glowered at Bobby then the other boy. “We never force our product on anyone. Ever. Isn’t that right?”
His two associates murmured assent. He took a calming breath, staring down at his incongruous white sneakers.
“As a token of our good faith,” he said with a forced smile, “I’m sure one of you has a sample we can offer the young lady. Bobby?”
Bobby shot Mr. Sunshine a look of confusion. “Boss, I don’t carry except when necessary.”
Mr. Sunshine’s hard smile dug even deeper into his face. “Cory?”
The other boy shrugged. “It’s all at the Cradle.”
“What kind of drug dealers are you two?” Sunshine demanded.
“The careful kind,” Bobby muttered.
Mr. Sunshine spun toward him and made the zipping gesture. Bobby’s eyes bugged out as he tried to speak.
“What about the stash that was apparently in Frida’s locker?” Sunshine asked tightly.
“Um,” said Cory, licking his lips, “it was, well, vaporized when this kid broke in.” He gave Juan a little shove. “The standard booby trap.”
Juan glared over his shoulder.
“All right, here’s the situation, little girl!” Mr. Sunshine shouted. “I’ll be taking these interchangeable friends of yours back to my office now.”
Ivan was nodding desperately at Hasta, his eyes wide. He backed up against Bobby.
Hasta choked down a sob. She hoped Sunshine was wrong and she could save them both, but she wasn’t sure it was possible. Even if she could get two shots off quickly enough, she wasn’t sure she’d have enough juice to make the second one succeed.
Which boiled down to a choice of which one to save.
“Call on me there for a little toot,” Mr. Sunshine was saying, “or expect—”
Like hurling a thunderbolt, Hasta flipped Ivan. Both he and Bobby vanished.
She was already trying to flip Juan as Mr. Sunshine whirled toward the empty space where Ivan had been. It didn’t work. Juan stayed right where he was.
Her charge was depleted.
Mr. Sunshine screeched, whipping his finger toward Juan and Cory. Juan’s eyes blazed with hurt as he and his captor disappeared.
They were alone now, she and Mr. Sunshine. Hasta snatched at the air, trying to seize him with her fist. Sunshine met the gesture with one of his own. An invisible force rocked Hasta, but she braced herself and kept her footing. Her arm trembled as she tried to force it to move, but it was like being locked in an arm-wrestling match. In moments she was sweating from every pore and gasping for breath.
“And this could have been such a pleasant meeting,” Mr. Sunshine said through gritted teeth.
“Not while you were holding my friends hostage,” said Hasta. She felt herself pulled a step forward. Fighting hard, she managed two steps back and jerked Mr. Sunshine toward the edge of the stage.
But he dug in and held his ground. Hasta grabbed her own wrist with her other hand and hauled as hard as she could, but she couldn’t budge him another inch.
“You realize, don’t you,” Mr. Sunshine gasped, wrenching his fist from side to side, “that you’re holding the world hostage, to your own selfishness. How are you sleeping, by the way? Any interesting dreams?”
The invisible force rocked Hasta to and fro. She was running out of stamina. Summoning every last ounce of strength, she spun herself in a circle and opened her fist.
Mr. Sunshine went flying off the stage and crashed into the front row of seats.
Hasta staggered, catching herself on the back of a theater seat. She was trying to get her legs under her as Mr. Sunshine hauled himself woozily to his feet.
“If you want your friend back,” he sneered, swaying, “you’ll come have a civil visit with me at my office.”
He swept an arm over his head and down the front of his body. He vanished from sight, erased in a vertical wipe.
“I don’t even know where that is!” Hasta said. “And I can’t leave the school!”
Mr. Sunshine’s disembodied voice, retreating toward the side doors, said, “That is a problem, isn’t it? But that shouldn’t stymie an advanced student like you. And don’t forget to show your work!”
The door swung open, then closed again.
“Teachers,” said Hasta, exhausted, to the empty room. “Always with the unfair homework assignments.”
She started to laugh. As she sank to the floor, shaking silently, she covered her face with her hands and realized she was sobbing.
Something was wrong inside the high school, very wrong. And Lamm had no idea what to do about it.
Neither he nor Kray had expected the girl to wield a power that rivaled A.A.’s. Lamm had sensed a few small anomalies pop up here and there inside the school—grains of maddening sand that peppered his brain—but that hadn’t prepared him for the trauma of A.A.’s translation to a point one block east. That one felt a cannonball shattering his skull. His head still throbbed from it.
While Kray maintained surveillance of the building both on foot and through his cordon of reflection windows, Lamm had rushed to the landing spot. A.A.’s report was brusque and sketchy at best, and he broke it off when he spotted his associate Robert Kimball trying to sneak away from the school. Friction between the two obviously ran high. All A.A. added before dragging the boy back inside the school was that the situation was under control.
Now Lamm had two more animate anomalies screaming for attention, neither one anywhere near the school. Kray was trying to raise A.A. on the comm, but without success. If they could just verify with A.A. that he was responsible for one or both translations, they could exercise some discretion in the matter of in-person investigations. But it wasn’t looking good.
Lamm stood on the school’s front walk as close to the boundary as he could, the rain bending its path around him. The boundary was like a luminescent membrane—faintly visible, unambiguous, but easy to see through. He’d seen lights go on and off inside the school at one time or another, heard the strident alarm bells, but now the faint glow that came through the windows was steady and unchanging, the building quiet. The minor handful of anomalies inside had long since faded, and now he could detect zero activity of any sort.
Schools were mostly black boxes to Lamm and his kind. He had no way of knowing what went on inside except by deduction from the few slim output vectors daemons could access. He had long disregarded schools as worthy of concern. If he couldn’t go inside, it must be that way for a reason, and the reason was no concern of his. But now he wasn’t so sure. The school zone, impacting his ability to police his district, was beginning to strike him as actively evil.
If the girl’s refuge there meant she could more effectively impede the orderly shutdown of the world . . .
Lamm spun abruptly on his heel, afraid of what he might do if he kept staring at those tantalizing front doors.
He held his hands up in front of him. They were shaking. He had seen human hands do this, heard their voices do the same, but never his own. Fascinating. Was this a physical manifestation of anger? Fear? Uncertainty? Madness? All of the above?
Shoving his hands deep in the pockets of his trench coat, Lamm walked between the raindrops to join Kray at the curb. The two anomalies were like sirens in his head. His partner was just putting the comm window away.
—I’ve tried everything, Kray said. —It’s not just that he isn’t answering. I’ve run remote diagnostics. I can’t detect the presence of his window at all. All I get from that address is “Device not found.”
—I never trusted him, Lamm said. —Why did we ever think working with him was a good idea? He’s had his own agenda from the start.
—This was never in doubt. But perhaps our assumption that allying ourselves with him offered the best method of containing the threat posed by his unruly children was a trifle optimistic.
—Perhaps? Lamm shook his head and winced. —Calling it optimistic is a little like calling Axil competent. It rather understates the case.
Kray peered closely at Lamm. —Partner, are you all right?
Lamm felt a sudden rush of affection for Kray, that fine, dependable daemon who had watched his back for longer than either of them could remember. He wanted to hug his partner, to thump him on the back the way he’d seen human males do, but managed to contain the urge.
—I’m fine, Lamm said, blinking hard. —I just—we need to sort through our options here. A.A.’s comm window has either been destroyed or deactivated. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for the success of his mission inside.
—No indeed, Kray said. —He’s been defeated by those children and/or he doesn’t wish to communicate with us. Either possibility fills me with disquiet.
Lamm rubbed his eyes. —We’ve had two separate translations occur within seconds of each other, with payloads that were animate and high in mass. It’s likely each comprised two individuals. We should entertain the possibility that A.A. or his associates removed the girl from the premises for their own purposes.
—Or vice versa, Kray said. —In fact, both sides might have taken hostages.
—One or both anomalies could have originated somewhere other than the school, Lamm said. —And we can’t discount the possibility that one or both of the girl’s friends have developed translation ability as well.
One of the anomalies now seemed to fracture in two. Lamm pressed his knuckles hard against the sides of his head. It really hurt.
—The point is, we’re blind, he continued, gritting his teeth. —Without being able to see inside that school, how can we know what to do?
Lamm turned and strode up the front walk. Kray darted after him so fast that Lamm actually heard his feet splash in a puddle.
—What are you doing? Kray signed, spinning his around. —You’re not thinking about going in there?
—Of course not, Lamm said. It was the first time he could remember speaking an untruth, but he couldn’t imagine telling his partner how close he’d come to crossing the boundary, or how relieved he was that Kray had stopped him. He wasn’t sure what would have happened to him, but most accounts agreed the results would not be good. —I just wanted another look at the windows.
Kray’s gaze narrowed. —Lamm, listen to me. I don’t like it either, but I need you on those anomalies. The girl may even now be slipping through our—
A pearlescent gray glow coalesced between them and the sidewalk. —Let me save you both some time, said Axil, her image solidifying. Her steely eyes raked them both. —The girl is inside the school, but she’s the only one still there. Your so-called ally has made fools of you both.
—The situation here is complicated, Axil, Kray said. —We’re doing our very best.
—Yes, that’s what I’m afraid of.
Axil turned her gaze on Lamm, who tried not to quail.
—And what say you, my friend? Your hands seem unnaturally still.
Lamm wrung the sweat from his palms before answering. —We’ll get the girl, Axil, he said. —And anyone else who transgresses the natural order of things.
Sighing, Axil removed her gray hat and ran a hand through the dull iron of her hair. —Daemons, I need Chicago cleaned up by noon today. I can ill afford to divert resources from our other battles, but I’ve nonetheless done so. Even now, Ever and Flay are en route from Denver. They’ll arrive at midday. If things are under control by then, you’ll need only contend with their anger at the precious time they’ve wasted.
She replaced her hat, tilting it to the left at a precise ten-degree angle.
—If things aren’t under control . . . well, the consequences will be far less pleasant. Possibly for all of us.
Axil abruptly turned away. The hem of her trench coat flared like a curved steel blade as she faded from sight.
—Right, said Lamm. —So much for infinite patience.
The words came out in a stutter. √
To be continued…