Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part III, Chapter 4
While Hasta negotiates a tense stand-off with an eerily transformed foe, Lamm pays an involuntary visit to White Castle and expresses his frustration with A.A.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Ivan had vanished, but the tip of Hasta’s finger seemed to skitter around like it was pressed to the blade of an electric fan. This definitely did not feel like a perfect shot.
Nauseated and wrung out, Hasta ducked behind the car again. She peeked out at the building through the gently falling snow, wondering how she could determine whether or not Ivan was okay in there.
This part of the rescue plan left a lot to be desired.
For a couple of minutes, the only sounds were distant the honks and rumbles of traffic. Hasta kept looking over her shoulder, half-expecting Army soldiers or ugly blue monsters to flood into the yard. Then she heard a creak from the building and peered over the top of the car. The metal door was swinging open. She ducked again.
“Hasta Veeramachaneni!” called a voice she didn’t recognize. It was a quavery tenor—an old man’s voice. “I know you must be out there!”
Hasta didn’t move a muscle.
A footstep squelched in the muck, then another. “Your friend Juan isn’t here, if that’s why you’re skulking around.”
She heard another step, followed by a sloppy thud and a grunt.
“We have your friend Ivan, though,” said the voice, sounding strained. “Now, do you want to come out from where you’re hiding and discuss what you’re willing to do about it?”
Oh, no. Breath hitching, Hasta risked a peek around the car. She saw a thin, very old Black man trying to pick himself up from the snow. His face and glasses looked familiar, but Hasta couldn’t place him.
Old man or not, Hasta took one sideways step into the open, finger extended, and pushed.
Nothing. The old man was still trying to get up. Hasta ducked back out of sight. She was out of juice, a sitting duck.
“Looks like neither of us is operating at full capacity,” said the old man, “so let me break this down for you. My name’s Cory White. You might remember me from Amundsen last night. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.”
Hasta’s chest constricted. The thin, quiet kid with Bobby and Mr. Sunshine?
She peeked out again. The old man was mostly upright now, hunched with one hand on his thigh, the other raised to beg a moment’s patience. She could see it now. It was the same guy, sixty years older but still dressed in the same clothes.
“I guess you could call me lucky,” he said. “When Brand Banks tangled with Kray and Lamm, they erased his brain. Adele MacLeod too, though she resisted hard enough that it killed her. Oh, right—you probably heard they overdosed on drift. But the thing is, you can’t overdose on drift. You can definitely get messed up on it, but it can’t kill you.”
He hobbled toward her. Hasta started backing away under cover of the car.
“But my point,” Cory said. “is that Lamm did this to me, and I kinda halfway know what I’m doing. You, on the other hand, can’t have been doing it more than, what, a day? You might get the drop on him and his partner temporarily, but in the end they’ll get you. Assuming the boss doesn’t get you first.”
Hasta was backing in a crouch toward the big cooling unit where she’d seen the rats. She stepped with care but tried to move quickly, wanting to get there while she could still keep the car between her and the crazy old man.
“But then again, Hasta, I don’t know,” Cory went on, raising his voice. “There’s something about you. I know what it is, too. You remind me of Adele. She was the anchor of this chain, you know, before the boss himself took over. I kinda wish I hadn’t bet against her back then, but it is what it is. Anyway, there’s a chance you might actually come out on top. God knows the boss wouldn’t be trying so hard to stop you if he thought there wasn’t.” His voice was growing hoarse. “So if you want to hold on a sec, I have a proposal for you.”
She reached the cooling unit and scooted behind it, straining to hear him.
“If you make it to the bus, Hasta—” Cory coughed several times. “—I want you to bring me on board.”
What bus was he talking about? “Give me Ivan and Juan,” she shouted, “and you got a deal.”
She heard the rats scampering deeper into the cooling unit as Cory’s laughter turned to hacking coughs. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“The boss would know, and that wouldn’t go well for me. Not to mention my bargaining chips would be gone.”
Hasta huffed a cloudy breath. “I need them,” she said. “I literally can’t do this alone.”
“You’ll have to,” Cory said. “But don’t worry—if you make it, you’ll get them back. You can bring us all onto the bus.”
“Give me just Ivan,” Hasta said, again feeling like a traitor to Juan. “I get some help, you keep a bargaining chip.”
“Forget it,” said Cory. “I’m not negotiating.”
“God. How do I know you even have him? Show him to me.”
“Can’t do that, Hasta. He’s in a tiny locked room, and he’s going to stay there.” He hawked noisily and spat. “But as a show of good faith, I’ll tell you how he got there. The whole interior of this building is hung with bead curtains, literally thousands of them. You can’t stand anywhere without two or three of them touching you. You can walk through, no problem, but when someone gets jumped inside, there’s nowhere for them to materialize. All the space is occupied. Instead they keep getting shunted inward until they land in the one space big enough to hold them. Which happens to be that tiny locked room. That’s where you just sent your little friend.”
Hasta clenched her eyes shut, gripping her head between her hands. She needed to scream, but she had to keep it together. She didn’t see any choice but to play along. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out from behind the cooling unit.
“Okay, you win,” she said, hands up. “So how am I supposed to bring you onto this bus when I get there?”
“Come here,” Cory said, coughing. “And hurry. I’d hate to die of pneumonia before you even get started.”
As Hasta edged closer, Cory put the tips of both thumbs and forefingers together. He pulled the pairs apart, creating a small black square out of nothing. Taking it by its edges, he prized it apart like an Oreo.
“Take this,” he said, holding one half out to Hasta. “Go on, it won’t bite you.”
Cory’s crooked teeth were stained a deep yellow, his skin seamed like leather. Hasta swallowed bile. The agent had really done a number on him. She reached out and took the black square. It felt a lot like holding a knife blade by the edges.
“What do I do with this?” she asked.
“Just twirl your finger in front of it when you’re ready to get in touch,” Cory said. “It’ll vibrate on my end. Then we can expand it into a portal to bring me to wherever you are.”
“And Ivan and Juan,” said Hasta, not concealing her hostility.
She felt like she was handling a live grenade as she put the wispy thing away in her coat pocket. She hadn’t forgotten what had happened to Ivan in the school office. “Why don’t you come with me and help?” she said. “You’d obviously be useful.”
Cory’s face twisted with rage. “Have you looked at me? I’m like a hundred years old! I can barely walk!”
He doubled over, coughing. Hasta took a step toward him. He backed up a few feet, one hand up.
“Don’t even think it,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of a gnarled hand. “If you hurt me, you’ll never get your friend out of that room. Do you understand?”
“I wasn’t going to do anything!” said Hasta. “And I’ve changed my mind, anyway. I wouldn’t want a coward like you on my team no matter what age you were.”
Cory straightened up as best he could, nostrils flaring. “We’re done, girl. I think it’s time you went home.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, I think—”
Hasta saw the gesture coming just a moment too late. She grabbed air, trying to seize him with her fist, but Cory was already thrusting his right forearm into the air and slapping his other hand down on his biceps.
Hasta was thrown backward. An “Italian salute,” she’d heard the gesture called.
Before the thought finished crossing her mind, she landed on the sofa in her own living room.
An interior. Tiled, white, somewhat grimy, fluorescent-bright. Medium-loud with murmurs of conversation, the jingle of coins, the hiss and pop of frying food.
Those were Lamm’s impressions as he stumbled back against someone’s soft gut. The person fell down with a grunt, and Lamm crashed down on top of him, eliciting a louder grunt. Fluorescent tubes shone down in his face.
A circle of brown, Black, and white faces looked down in shock as Lamm began struggling to his feet. “What happened?” people were asking, and “Buddy, you okay?” and “Where did he come from?”
Someone extended a hand, but Lamm slapped it away. He stood up, glaring around the circle. The seven people, mostly middle-aged, mostly fat, stepped back. His hat was lying on the linoleum floor, near a spilled sack of several greasy-looking sandwiches of fried egg, bacon, and less determinate varieties of meat.
Savages, Lamm thought, snatching up his hat, but the primary emotion gnawing at him was humiliation. The children had once again made a chump of him, and now these ridiculous, overfed humans were laughing at him from behind their bland faces.
A few people were helping the fat man he’d slammed into climb woozily to his feet. Lamm pushed his way between two bystanders and spotted a brand name and logo stenciled in reverse on the glass entrance door. This was a White Castle, part of a rapid-service eatery chain.
A hand clamped his shoulder. “Hey, pal, I think you owe that man an apology,” said a tall, pale man in grease-speckled clothes and a paper hat. An enormous belly strained his white apron, and the rosacea on his cheeks looked like rot.
“I think you need to mind your own business,” Lamm snapped.
“Now listen, friend, I—”
With three quick gestures, Lamm shut off the man’s voice, froze him in place, and switched the properties of his work uniform from White Castle to Wendy’s. Startled gasps followed Lamm as he exited the eatery.
He stood in the parking lot amid the cars and falling snow and shook with anger. He wasn’t used to people looking at him.
He thought of the Wendy’s uniform and giggled.
A fat couple made a wide detour around him on their way to the door. Lamm pulled his fur coat tight and marched to the sidewalk, which hadn’t been shoveled. The snow came up to his hips and was mounded so high at the curbs that Lamm could barely see over them. The street beyond was choked with traffic.
He had to figure out where he was. He slogged his way to the corner as cold moisture seeped through his pant legs. He climbed a snowdrift and scanned the intersection. Fuel station, pharmaceutical dispensary, emergency loan provider on the other corners. Mostly Illinois and Indiana license plates on the passing cars. Signs above identifying Calumet Avenue and 165th Street.
This was Hammond, Indiana, then. The children had translated him 43.4 kilometers south-southeast.
Nearly twenty-seven miles.
Lamm lost his head for thirty seconds or so. When he regained control, panting like a dog, he saw that he had kicked clear a two-meter-wide crater in the snow. A fine white mist was settling out of the air. His hands were clenched so tightly it was hard to open them.
Calm down, he told himself. Think.
Obviously he couldn’t walk twenty-seven miles in these conditions. Public transportation from here could take him until noon, when Ever and Flay were due. Commandeering a vehicle was always possible, but if the roads were like this through the whole Chicagoland area, he’d never make it back in time. Swimming up the lakeshore would be faster.
But there was another way. He pulled out his comm window and pinged Kray.
“What’s the news?” Kray asked.
“Emergency transit!” Lamm barked. “Set me down.”
“Wait, Lamm! This isn’t permitted, it’s—”
Lamm hooked two fingers through opposite corners of the window and stretched it. Forcing his arms apart, he pulled it down around his head and shoulders. The borders resisted, trying to snap back to their original dimensions. He found himself wriggling sideways into a snowbank on the other side. He rolled onto his back and pushed the window down around his legs while bringing his knees to his chest. Snow caved in on his face. He shoved the window past his feet and released it. It snapped shut and vanished.
Kray, towering above him, pulled him to his feet. The taller daemon, wrapped in threadworn brown furs, stared down with a stern but maddeningly controlled frown.
—You’ve become as bad as they are, Kray said.
They were standing on a shoveled sidewalk in front a small coffee shop, across the street from Amundsen High School. Lamm stomped his foot. “I had no choice!” he shouted. “They sent me all the way to Indiana!”
Kray’s eyes narrowed a millimeter or two. —For Shiva’s sake, Lamm, keep your voice down. We can’t afford to let them see another piece of evidence that my authority here is slipping. I’ve had to cede enough ground as it is.
Lamm followed Kray’s gaze across the snow-packed street. Several army trucks were parked right on the front lawn of the school, one on top of what Lamm knew to be a student garden. Some soldiers stood as close to the front entrance of the school as they were allowed, engaged in earnest conversation with a few students who had braved the nasty weather. Others were standing in the street, attempting to flag down cars. One truck was just pulling back into traffic, having gathered up its full quota of recruits.
—They’ve cited preeminent domain, even on school grounds? Lamm said, awed.
—All the way to the boundary, yes. They know I require unhindered access to the student body coming and going, but their priority codes are higher.
Lamm mouth had gone dry. —This is the end.
—But hardly a tidy one, said Kray. —And stunts like yours only make things worse. How are we supposed to enforce protocol when you keep hacking through it at every turn? Not to mention all the damage you’re inflicting on the world.
Lamm shoved his hands deep in his pockets to still their trembling. “Yes, you’re right,” he said aloud. This was no orderly shutdown, written neatly in Brahman’s chronicles of time. This was an angry graffiti scrawl across the parchment of the world. “But the children must be stopped. You haven’t experienced their power, Kray. I have. This disorder starts and ends with them.”
—A.A. set the conditions for it to flourish, said Kray. —Which means it ultimately starts with us, the fools who believed him our ally against chaos. Lamm, we deserve whatever is coming.
Lamm seized two fistfuls of Kray’s fur coat. “But not yet,” he said. “Not while there’s still time to act!”
Kray brushed Lamm’s hands away. —What do you propose?
All paths led back to A.A. “Give me your comm window.”
Kray reached into his coat. —Don’t make things worse, he said before handing over the little black square.
A.A. answered the connection only moments after Lamm called. “What is it?” he snapped.
“Good to hear from you, too,” Lamm said. “We need some information.”
“Information!” A.A. chortled. “Oh, that’s rich, given how it surrounds you, the very substrate of our world. You are not lacking in information, my vertically challenged friend!”
Lamm held the comm window away from his face, frowning at it. One-handed, he signed to Kray, —Block the soldiers’ view.
Kray discreetly moved between his partner and the school, putting his hands on his hips to widen the drape of his coat.
“Hello? Lamm?” A.A. said. “Are you there?”
In one smooth series of motions, Lamm stretched the comm window, held it open with his spread left hand, plunged his right hand through, and grabbed A.A. by the throat. He yanked. A.A.’s head popped through as Lamm pulled the boundary of the window down and around the dome of the man’s skull. A.A. gasped and sputtered as the window settled snugly around his neck.
“Now listen to me,” Lamm hissed, shaking A.A.’s disembodied head by the throat. “The rogue children. What can you tell us to help us capture them?”
A.A.’s eyes bugged. His face was going from red to purple. Fingertips appeared around the base of his neck, trying to loosen the window. Lamm shook harder. A.A.’s glasses fell off and landed in the snow.
“Lamm, easy,” whispered Kray.
A.A. gasped and wheezed and started to laugh. “Got one locked up,” he rasped. His breath steamed. “Juan Riefkohl. Been trying all night to lure or capture the other two. Think you can do better?”
Lamm pulled A.A.’s head close. “We know your game, Kenneth. Tell me something useful or I will not hesitate to deactivate this window.”
A.A.’s eyes widened. “You know it’s already too late to stop the shutdown.”
“Which means it doesn’t matter whether or not your head and body remain concatenated.”
“All right, okay. There’s another kid you might be able to get to, the next link in the chain. She probably doesn’t know a thing, but you could use her to get to Ivan Babich.”
A.A. giggled. “Highly Contagious,” he said.
When the accursed daemon freed his head from the portal, A.A. released his white-knuckle grip on the railing and sat down to catch his breath. He rubbed his throat, still chuckling, and tossed the inactive comm window away into the rubble of the floor below. He’d been descending these stairs in the Lair when the call came. Except for the few moments when he’d tried to pry the comm window from around his throat, he’d kept a tight hold on the railing, wary of tumbling and breaking his neck.
He barked with laughter at the thought of breaking his neck in two places—two geographical locations, that was. The last days truly were a time of miracles and wonders! The only thing funnier would have been if he could have fit the scrambler in his pocket through the comm window and shot that annoying little runt right in the face. That would have made losing his head almost worth it.
He wiped his eyes, shaking with mirth, and continued down the dim stairwell. After the interrogation, he had locked the Juan kid up again and tended to some last-minute trip prep. Shortly before Lamm’s call, he’d felt the ping from the Bunker that meant a fly was snared in that web. With a little luck the daemons would grab Kylie, which would leave only one last kid on the loose. Hasta or Ivan, it didn’t matter—all their energy would be focused on rescuing the rest of the chain while continuing to elude the daemons. And with everyone busy chasing everyone else’s tails, A.A. would be free to make his getaway. His dash to the Bus.
He paused on the final landing, hands on his knees, laughing and laughing in harmony with the hundreds of squealing rats crammed onto the ground floor. It couldn’t have been more perfect if he’d planned it this way.
“From chaos I emerge, with chaos my camouflage,” he cackled. He didn’t think any famous poet had ever said that, but one should have. Maybe in the world to come, he would be a famous poet and he would say that. But first he had to get to the Bus, and that was one long trip.
On the ground floor, A.A. squinted at the writhing, scurrying shapes. They seemed blurrier than they should, more than ever like the destructive viruses they were, but of course it was still early in the day, the cloudy light damp and gray.
“Goodbye, my pretties,” he cooed. “You’ve done your work well. All the guardian cats in the world couldn’t clean up after you, nor dogs, nor daemons. I wish I had a more fitting reward for you than complete oblivion, but perhaps that’s the most fitting reward possible.”
The rats parted around him as he picked his way across the debris-littered ground. He shoved the camouflaged plywood hatch aside on its squeaky hinges, plowing cubic feet of snow aside in the process, and emerged into the freezing cold Chicago morning. The alley was clogged with a thick frosting of undifferentiated whiteness.
There was so much snow, in fact, that it took him ten full minutes to realize that the reason he couldn’t find the garbage cans behind which the portal to the Bunker was hidden was that he couldn’t see clearly.
His glasses were missing. √
To be continued…