Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part III, Chapter 2
While Ivan pursues a troubling deal with Frida to learn the location of the Bunker, Lamm is already there and losing more control over his emotions.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
“Come on, geek, hurry up,” Frida said, hugging the green blanket close around her. She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. The light from the flashlight she held awkwardly through the blanket jiggled crazily. “I could’ve opened that thing ten times already.”
Ivan sat back on his heels. “Then be my guest!”
Frida sniffed and turned away. “Well, I can’t right now.”
“Right,” said Ivan, bending back to the floor safe. “Because you’re a pathetic drifthead loser.”
She whacked him on the shoulder. “I can quit any time I want. I just . . . don’t want to yet.”
Ivan rubbed his shoulder. “Why do girls always do that?”
Frida whacked him again. “Just open it, geek!”
“All right, all right! Jeez, hold the flashlight still.”
The safe sat on a low platform behind a cramped desk in a tiny, paper-littered office opposite the bar. Frida’s ten groggy companions were huddled together between tables in the main room, shivering under the few mostly dry blankets they’d managed to scavenge from the basement. Wet items of clothing draped the bar. Frida herself had no shoes, socks, or pants on. Her bare feet and ankles were a constant distraction as Ivan knelt in front of the platform and tried to open the little safe. He hadn’t felt very comfortable making all those half-comatose kids strip off their wet things, but it was that or hypothermia.
Ivan jiggled the handle of the safe and spun the dial at the same time. The safe felt like it almost wanted to open but wasn’t quite there yet. He hadn’t had any trouble opening the door to the office, but this was something else again.
Outside, dawn was breaking.
“This stuff is so good you’re willing to freeze to death for it?” he asked.
Frida snorted. “It is to them,” she said, nodding toward the open door. “It’s entirely different for people like you and me.”
“Yeah, it’s really unpleasant for you, I can tell.”
“Unpleasant not to use it.” She kicked at some papers on the floor. “Just wait, geek,” she muttered.
Ivan closed his eyes. He concentrated on the feel of the handle, the complex balance of components shifting and grinding inside the mechanism, squirming to resist the insistence of his touch. When the handle wouldn’t turn any further, he tried forcing it. His arm quivered, but the lock wouldn’t give.
He gasped as his arm muscles gave out. “I can’t do it,” he said. “Hasta and Juan, they’re the ones we need.”
Frida stamped her foot. “I thought you were, like, good at stuff.”
“Not at everything,” Ivan said. “But why can’t you do it? Does the drift cancel out your abilities or something?”
“Something like that,” she said bitterly. She wiped her eyes with a corner of the blanket. “It does when you’re totally high, anyway. When you’re on your way up or down, it just makes it harder. And if you try anyway, if you fight through it . . .”
Frida bent over, facing away. Ivan waited for her to continue. It wasn’t until the flashlight beam started vibrating that he realized her shoulders were shaking.
“All right, let me try something else,” he said with a sigh. He wiped his face. He felt a hollow, sick exhaustion behind his eyes. “Hey, will you go see if there’s any coffee behind the bar? I don’t care if it’s stale or cold.”
Frida sniffled and nodded her head. She left the flashlight on the desk. When she was gone, Ivan crooked his finger at the safe, looking for some clue, some weakness, some vulnerability. The window that popped up listed all the safe’s specifications—manufacturer, model, weight, dimensions, composition, interior capacity, fire-resistance rating . . . And there, toward the bottom of the list, the combination.
“You’re kidding me,” Ivan said, slapping his forehead. He shone the flashlight on it as he twisted the dial back and forth. He turned the handle. The door popped open.
Inside the safe lay at least five pounds of brown powder. It was packed into two dozen small zip-lock bags, which were in turn stuffed into two clear half-gallon freezer bags.
“I couldn’t find any coffee,” Frida said from the doorway, “but if you like Red Bull there’s—”
She fell silent, and Ivan moved out of the way as she rushed over and fell to her knees in front of the safe. She yanked out one of the freezer bags, weighed it in her hands. “Holy crap,” she said. “You did it, geek, you totally did it!”
“I think that means you owe me something now,” said Ivan. He shone the flashlight in her face. “The location of the bunker.”
Frida batted the flashlight aside. “You don’t have to get all third-degree on me. I’ll tell you, but are you sure you really want to go there? Like, every entrance is booby-trapped. A.A. doesn’t like unwanted visitors.”
“Yeah, you know—the boss?”
Frida snorted a laugh. “You call him that once, you won’t do it again.”
“Why A.A.? I thought his name was Ken.”
“I guess ’cause he’s an alkie? I don’t know. I don’t care. I mean, it doesn’t matter. Are you sure your friend’s even there? If you’re not, I wouldn’t go anywhere near that place.”
“I won’t be sure until I get there, will I?”
“But you are in the chain now,” Frida said, “so maybe . . .”
There was that word again, chain. “Yeah?” Ivan prompted.
“Hasta must have brought you in, right?” Her face crumpled a little, but she mastered herself. “And you brought in your friend Juan. That’s crazy fast, by the way. I mean, it took me like three weeks to bring in Gillian.”
Ivan nodded uncertainly. “Yeah . . . crazy.”
“Anyway,” Frida said, “you’re linked to them both. It’s stronger to your prev than your next, but sometimes if you concentrate you can actually kinda tell where they are.”
Prev and next—those sounded like computer terms. “Hang on,” he said. He put down the flashlight and crooked his finger at Frida. A window popped up:
NAME: FRIDA JULIAN SANDSTROM CLASS: HUMAN SUBCLASS: OPERATOR BIRTH: 1997/12/29 07:28:47 AGE: 15.7864476 PARENTS: GREGOR FABIAN SANDSTROM, COLLEEN FIONA SIOFRA O’DONNELL SANDSTROM NICKNAMES: FREEBIE, FRITO, RED
A mass of other details followed. It was a little hard to tell against the black background, but it looked like there was a matte-black scrollbar at the right edge of the window. Ivan touched it hesitantly and felt a faint pressure on his fingertip. He flicked down and the page scrolled.
“Um, what are you doing?” Frida asked.
“It doesn’t look like nothing, geek.”
Way down at the bottom of the list, he read:
PREV: ERIN MCKENNA GERAGHTY
GILLIAN ANNE SMART
Ivan shuddered. This was way too freaky. But since Erin Geraghty’s name was underlined like a hyperlink, he touched it. A smaller window popped up. It contained class and age details about Erin but nothing more. Apparently she too was an “operator.” Ivan wondered what he was.
“So how do you do it?” he asked Frida. “How do you sense where your, uh, links are?”
She rubbed her eyes. “I don’t know, I just think about them, picture them. Sometimes something comes through. Sometimes I don’t even have to try. Like, I’m pretty sure Erin’s in a hospital right now. I’m getting those walls, the sounds, maybe the smell. I don’t think she’s hurt bad, though.” Her face started to crumple again.
Ivan looked down. The windows had vanished. “What about Gillian?” he asked.
“Sometimes I even find myself, you know, just drawn to wherever Erin is. Like subconsciously I knew she needed—”
“Frida, what about Gillian?”
Her hand covered her face. “I don’t know. Nothing. I can’t feel Gillian at—at—”
Ivan reached out and lifted her chin with his fist. “Okay, okay,” he said. He wanted to know more, but it was probably time to get moving. “The bunker. I need the address.”
Frida visibly pulled herself together. “I don’t know the address,” she said, pushing his fist away. Her eyes looked hollow. “I’ve never actually been inside, but it’s close—five or six blocks north and one block over, this side of the tracks. Big brick wall all the way around, big parking lot. It takes up like half the block.”
“Are you sure?” Ivan asked. He’d pored over those maps and satellite photos earlier but didn’t remember seeing anything like what she described in that location.
“Of course I’m sure, geek.”
“Fair enough.” Ivan stood up.
“Wait a second,” said Frida. She fished in the freezer bag and brought out a fat packet of drift. She stood up and slapped it into his hand. “You’re going to need this.”
Ivan pushed it away like it was a scorpion. “No way. That’s the last thing I need.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Frida said. “You look like you haven’t slept tonight, right? You want my advice—don’t.” She curled his fingers around the baggie and sandwiched his hand between both of hers. “But when you do, you’ll be glad you’ve got this.”
Ivan hated touching the stuff, even through plastic, but he slipped it into an inside pocket of his coat. “Okay.” He’d ditch it as soon as he was away from the Cradle. “Listen, Frida, thank you. You’ve helped me a lot.”
Frida looked down. “Gillian wanted me to,” she said. “Wanted me to help Hasta, not you, but I messed that up.” She wiped her face, then squatted to scoop up both freezer bags. “You know, Ivan,” she continued more quietly, “something bad’s coming. If you want to, you can stay here. With—with us.” She stepped up onto the safe’s platform and leaned in close to him, so close that Ivan could feel her breath tickle his mouth. “Wait it out. I plan to not be conscious much of the rest of the day. You might want to consider that too.”
“I . . .” Ivan gestured vaguely, embarrassed. If you ignored the blue makeup, the haggard appearance, the dripping contempt, and drift problem, she wasn’t unattractive. But Hasta loomed in his mind. He looked away from her. “I can’t.”
“Suit yourself,” Frida said brusquely. She stepped down from the platform and shouldered past him, head down, arms laden with drift.
Ivan stared at the door. Then, feeling a little stupid, he sat down at the desk and tried to clear his mind. He tried to picture Juan in his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut tight and willed himself to see Juan. Nothing.
“What a load of crap,” he muttered.
But then he thought of Hasta and tried to picture her in his mind. It was like on the bus with Juan last night, when he seemed to feel Hasta’s danger, except that now he suddenly felt cold. Very, very cold. He was stumbling and falling, with white-capped tombstones all around him, and the snow in which he landed was like a lovely white quilt . . .
Ivan eyes sprang open. “Oh, no, H.,” he said, running for the door. “Stay awake, stay awake, stay awake!”
Lamm had just reached street entrance to the Bunker when something hot and massive crashed into the left side of his skull. That’s what it felt like, anyway. He staggered sideways and nearly fell into the hip-deep snow.
He stood there gasping, hands clenching his head, until the throbs subsided enough that he could think. He turned his head to the west. He was standing on the south side of the building. A screaming wind blew hazy streamers of snow down the street he’d just crossed. The cold somehow made it easier to bear the pressure and the pain.
The anomaly was 0.8 kilometers due west, approximately 55.3 kilograms in mass, and animate. It had to be a human.
Had the Veeramachaneni girl translated another victim? Had someone else done it to her? Was she now on the loose? Or was this something else entirely?
In despair, Lamm looked at the Bunker’s unmarked door, behind which he suspected he’d find at least one of the girl’s two male associates captive. Could he afford to ignore this anomaly? Along the street to the east he could see several families in winter clothes shoving suitcases into hastily shoveled-out cars. To the west, the intersecting street was jammed with snowplows, Army transports, and civilian vehicles. Reality was off the rails, and just walking the mile to this building had turned into an arduous arctic trek. Human gazes no longer slid away from him without registering his presence. After one squad of soldiers had tried to shanghai him right off the sidewalk, he’d decided to stick to the alleyways, but those mostly hadn’t been plowed. He had transmuted his trench coat and hat into thick fur garments, his scuffed wingtips into heavy boots, but a sob still rose in his throat at the thought of tackling another agonizing journey for no good reason.
Lamm took out his comm window and dialed it open. Kray came on within seconds. “Lamm!” he rasped. “Where on earth are you? I could very much make use of your assistance here.”
“I’m at the Bunker, following up on a lead,” Lamm said, though stretching the truth to his partner made him sicker than he already was. “Did you feel that anomaly?”
“I did,” Kray said. Shouts and barked orders were audible in the background. “Is there any chance you’re following up on it?”
Lamm grimaced. “I’d rather not if I don’t have to. Is there any chance it was the Veeramachaneni girl exiting the school?”
Kray let out a grunt that conveyed mild annoyance. “I just spoke with that principal, Armisted, who said I was wasting my time guarding the school, that the girl wasn’t going anywhere. But I suspect Armisted wanted me to stay here and not chase after her.”
“The girl’s out, I’m sure of it,” Lamm said. A surge of rage-induced tears fractured his vision. He kicked a mound of snow. “Go after her, Kray. You can chase this anomaly.”
Kray rumbled deep in his throat. The shouting voices on his end sounded much closer now. “Lamm, the Army’s all over this place. I’m fighting a ridiculous jurisdictional dispute, and let’s not forget that even if the girl did get out, whoever translated her must still be in the school. That would mean another rogue child on the loose.”
“Why don’t you ever listen to me?” Lamm whined. He wanted to break down and cry, and if Kray had been standing in front of him he probably would have started pummeling the taller daemon.
“Lamm, I don’t understand you anymore,” said Kray. “I don’t understand what has happened to you. It worries me.”
“Oh, because that’s a helpful thing to say,” snarled Lamm. He couldn’t continue this conversation. “You do what you want. I would appreciate it if you could find it in your heart to get to the cemetery and at least flush the girl in my direction, but if she’s as resourceful as we think she is she’s probably going to head this way anyway. So do what you want, partner. Goodbye.”
Away from the comm window, Kray shouted, “Federal agent on official business! One moment!” Then his voice returned, gravely urgent. “Lamm, don’t do this, I—”
But Lamm broke the connection. Mouth twitching, he put away the comm window and snorted back the snot dripping from his nose. The skin under his eyes burned from all the saline they’d leaked. He faced the door again.
“Let’s do this,” he said and drove his foot into the door, heel first.
The door didn’t open. He tried the handle. It was unlocked. Chagrined, he glanced around and then entered.
Lamm walked down a short hallway with exposed brick on one side and a couple of empty offices on the other. He reached a blank metal door and pulled it open. He stepped into a vast interior space filled almost entirely by a bedazzling thicket of bead curtains. A narrow open margin ran around the outside of the room.
“Freeze!” shouted a reedy voice. Cory White, one of A.A.’s assistants, emerged just six feet away from within curtains, a rainbow flickering at his back. His palm was upraised in the halt command.
Lamm grinned. “You think you can toy with me, child? You won’t ever have sufficient privileges.”
He grasped the air before him in a tight fist, and was gratified by the look of terror on Cory’s face. The boy fumbled for the cell phone at his belt as Lamm jerked his fist up. Cory flew toward the ten-foot ceiling, tucking his head at the last instant. His back and shoulders slammed against the poured concrete. The cell phone dropped from his fingers to shatter on the floor. Lamm opened his fist and the boy fell, landing spreadeagle with a thud.
As Lamm stepped toward him, Cory pushed himself to his knees. Holding one twisted arm to his chest, he scuttled through the wreckage of his phone into the thicket of curtains. The beads rattled with a sound like rain.
Lamm swept his palm in a window-washing motion to spin up a shield. “We don’t have to do this, young one,” he said, limbs quivering with excitement. His mind felt slightly dislocated from his body. “Just tell me where to find your boss and we’re done. Oh, and whether he has any captives. And, while we’re at it, what he hopes to achieve with this scheming of his.”
Lamm carefully parted the outermost bead curtain—revealing nothing but more curtains—and felt the stab of a translate command bounce off his shield. Strings of beads sluiced to the floor like hail, while more showered down from the ends of the severed lines above. The beads shot across the floor in every direction.
“You missed!” Lamm called out. The curtains swayed and rattled as the boy struggled deeper into the thicket. With the treacherous beads all over the floor, Lamm didn’t want to follow him if he didn’t have to. “Listen, I know you’re an intelligent boy. The chances of you getting the upper hand are slim, and neither of us can stop what’s already been started. I only want you to talk to me. What did A.A. promise you to make you so willing to protect him?”
Lamm waited. The curtains settled into a subdued sibilance. “I can stand here all morning,” he said.
From some distance away, a broken-sounding voice said, “A place in the world to follow. That’s what he told me.”
A host of emotions welled up in Lamm, not the least of them pious rage. A.A. dispensing promises of reincarnation? The appalling hubris of the man!
“You know that can only happen on the Bus, don’t you?” Lamm said. He waited for a reply, which didn’t come. “And you’re never going to make it there.” He waited some more. “A.A. did tell you about the Bus, right?”
When Cory still didn’t reply, Lamm pushed his way into the bead forest. He found the boy about a hundred feet in, slumped on his side, cradling his arm, and looking utterly defeated. Cory’s eyes regarded Lamm with bitter resignation.
“You don’t have to do anything else to me,” Cory said. “I’ll tell you everything I know.”
Lamm’s lip curled as he gazed down at this would-be usurper—this vile, weak pretender who could never in a thousand lifetimes prove himself worthy of a place on the Bus. This disgusting human, whose naked, messy emotions Lamm could now so readily identify and understand—and which turned his stomach.
“Yes, I know you will,” he said. “But I think there’s more I want to do to you anyway.” √
To be continued…