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Root: Part IV, Chapter 1
With Hasta and crew hemmed in by fog without transportation on a barren stretch of interstate, Ivan pumps the outsider for more information about their plight.
Today, at the outset of Part IV, we’re pleased to offer the following free chapter to all our readers. For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Part IV: The Bus
Northwest on the empty Kennedy Expressway they walked. The sky directly above was the brilliant blue of a robin’s egg, but the fog hemmed them in on all sides. Dense and opaque, it rose in walls from both shoulders of the road while blocking the way a quarter-mile ahead and behind. It was like walking in the eye of a rectangular hurricane, one that progressed with them. Ivan had tried walking into the fog to either side of the road, but after a few steps he always emerged again where he’d entered.
It should have been early afternoon by now, but it was hard to tell. The temperature was comfortable, neither too hot nor too cold, but the tension in the group made it feel like a storm was brewing. When Hasta had emerged from the fog, preceded by the big black dog but not accompanied by her father, all she would say was that he couldn’t come with them. And then she started walking.
Now Hasta led the way, with Juan at her side and the dog trotting at her heel. Ivan trailed her by ten yards or more, Kylie sticking close to him on one side and Frida not straying far on the other. All of them but Hasta had tied their heavy coats around their waists. Behind them hobbled LaVell on his ruined feet, a sinister half-smile on his face. Ivan assumed that the plan was to watch for an off-ramp and then try to scrounge up a new vehicle or two for the journey, but after what seemed like fifteen or twenty minutes he hadn’t spotted so much as an exit sign.
He jogged forward to fall in with Hasta and Juan and the dog. The animal’s left haunch, he noticed, was slicked with blood, and it favored that leg.
“Hey, um, ace?” he said, wondering self-consciously when and why he’d started calling her that instead of “H.” He kept his voice low. “Do we have a plan here? I mean, we can’t walk all the way to Mount Rushmore.”
“I don’t know, okay?” Hasta said. She didn’t look at him, just kept marching grimly forward as the sweat ran down her face. “I’m working on it. I can’t do everything, you know.”
“No one’s asking you to,” Ivan said. “I just—maybe we should all stop and talk about it.”
Hasta huffed and stopped in her tracks, head down. “You want to talk about what to do?” Her hands clenched and unclenched. She looked behind her, then turned and marched past the other girls toward a startled LaVell. “This douchebag acts like he has all the answers. Why don’t we ask him?”
Everyone had stopped. Ivan hurried to catch up with Hasta as she shoved LaVell in the chest with both hands.
“Yeah,” she said, “why don’t we ask him what he knows about this world? Ask him who made it, and what for?”
LaVell stumbled backward a few steps. He raised his hands like a holdup victim, a hesitant but sly smile playing across his mouth. Hasta kept right up with him and shoved him again.
“Why don’t we ask him why it’s shutting down? Why don’t we ask him how to stop it?”
LaVell fell backward and sat down hard on the concrete.
Looming over him, Hasta shouted, “And why my father can’t come with us!”
Ivan’s stomach hurt, and not just because of the withdrawal. He took Hasta by the arm. “Come on,” he said gently, “you’re only hurting LaVell’s body, not the person inside it.”
The dog appeared by Hasta’s side and bared its teeth at LaVell. “I know!” she said, shrugging free of Ivan and shaking a fist over the boy on the ground. “Because this guy doesn’t care about anything. He just sits there with that stupid smile and acts like this is all a big game. Huh, is that it? Is this all just a game to you? Wars, blizzards, people scared half to death? Screwing around with people’s lives—is that how you get your kicks?”
LaVell was backing away from them in a crabwalk. He pushed himself calmly to his discolored feet and hitched up his pajama bottoms. He said nothing, and his infuriating smile never wavered. Ivan could well understand the temptation to kick the kid’s teeth down his throat.
“Who are you?” Hasta demanded, shaking. “Do you know Vishnu? He’s not someone like you, is he?”
LaVell cocked his head. “I’m no one,” he said. “Pretend I’m not even here.”
“Push me far enough and I won’t have to pretend,” said Hasta.
“Okay, okay,” said Ivan, swinging around between her and LaVell. He held her by the upper arms and lowered his voice. “Let’s not push him, okay? We don’t know what he’s capable of.”
Her gaze was fierce, but after a moment Hasta looked down and let out a long breath. “You’re right, I know,” she said. “And if he won’t help, we need to keep moving.”
As she turned away, not meeting anyone’s eyes, everyone seemed to release a collective breath. Hasta resumed her grim trek with the dog limping at her side. Juan shrugged at Ivan almost apologetically and hurried to catch up with her.
Ivan grimaced, the talons of drift withdrawal tearing through his guts. He looked at Frida, then at Kylie, both of whom were watching him with concern. “Onward, I guess,” he said, and started walking.
He pointedly did not look at LaVell, though the back of his neck crawled.
Kylie and Frida caught up with him after a moment. “Weird it’s so sunny, right?” said Kylie. Her voice quavered.
Ivan cleared his throat. His mouth was dry. “Well, it is bright,” he said, looking at the high walls of white mist. “I don’t see the sun, though, and I don’t really see any shadows. Maybe the system can’t spare resources from the city to fully render anything else.”
“Or maybe we’re off the grid,” Frida murmured.
“You know what this is like?” Kylie said. “That movie The Ten Commandments. You know, where the Red Sea parts and the Israelites walk through like this big trench in the water?”
“In that case,” Ivan said, “I’m naming the dog Moses, and I’m going to hope we’re not the Egyptians.”
Frida looked up at the mist and inched about as close to Ivan as she could without actually touching him. Kylie inched closer too, and actually slipped her arm through his. She was tall enough that a stray curlicue of her hair grazed his ear lobe as she leaned toward him.
“So I was thinking,” she said. “Why can’t we do that birdie thing to move ourselves along?”
“What birdie thing?” Frida asked with more than a trace of hostility.
“You know,” Kylie said. “Flip each other off and send ourselves ahead down the road.”
“What are you talking about?” Frida said.
Ivan swallowed. He wasn’t sure now how much of the churning in his stomach was from withdrawal and how much from Kylie’s touch. “Clearly we need to start teaching each other all the gestures we know,” he said. “But first I need to check something.”
He extracted his arm from Kylie’s grip, dropped back a few steps, and crooked his finger at her as she turned and planted her hands on her hips.
“What are you doing?” she asked. Frida was watching too.
“Just examining your attributes,” Ivan said.
“I think maybe I should slap you for that,” Kylie said with a slight smirk.
Ivan had been afraid that the gesture might not work here, so it was with relief that he scrolled through the window that popped up. Kylie was listed as an operator, and her two chain links were Juan Castro Riefkohl and LaVell McKay Rigby.
Ivan looked back in surprise at LaVell, who had been shadowing them but now too was stopped with a curious look on his face. Hasta and Juan were still walking, but the dog had paused to watch them all. Ivan tapped LaVell’s name in the window.
“Ivan, what are you doing?” Frida asked.
A second window popped up in front of the first, containing three interesting pieces of data. First, LaVell was an operator. Second, he had only one link, which pointed back to Kylie. Third was a property Ivan had never seen listed for anyone else:
A chill ran up Ivan’s spine.
“Yeah, what are you doing?” LaVell asked. He had silently approached and was now peering around Ivan’s elbow.
Ivan tapped the underlined name. A smaller window opened. Beneath its header it contained only one piece of data:
Ivan turned to stare into the boy’s blue eyes. “So, Hanuman,” he said. “Are you supposed to have root on this system?”
LaVell blinked and drew back a little, tilting his head like bird before his smile reasserted itself. “I don’t understand the question.”
“I don’t understand it either,” said Frida.
“Having root on a big computer system means you’re authorized to do pretty much whatever you want,” Ivan said. He was answering Frida, but he didn’t look away from LaVell. He presented what he hoped was his most conspiratorial smile. “So come on. Are you supposed to have root, or did you hack in?”
LaVell’s eyes were not smiling along with his mouth. He grabbed Ivan’s arm and pulled him several yards away.
“Who in the world are you?” LaVell hissed, his voice low. “I know you’re not Donald ’cause Sendhil saw him passed out drunk at Jane’s. Are you Carlos? Ryuchi? Who?”
Ivan shook his head at Frida and Kylie to keep them back. He tried to play things cool, like a suave spy would. “Does it really matter who I am? The important thing is, I know who you are.”
“Wait, wait, don’t tell me you’re Suzette.” LaVell’s eyes darted. “That would just be too much.”
Ivan shrugged. “Like I said.”
“Okay, okay,” said LaVell, rubbing his temples. “You’ve obviously found a better way in, with deeper access. Feel like sharing?”
“Not really,” said Ivan.
“The Indian girl, then. Who’s she? Come on, what’s your angle?”
Ivan folded his arms and arched his eyebrow.
LaVell sighed. “Okay, I get it. You busted me. What’s it gonna take for you guys to keep quiet?”
Ivan tried to maintain his calm smile, but his mouth went dry with startling anger. He clenched his trembling hands to his biceps. “I just want to know why you’ve been screwing with this world. I want to know how. And I want you to fix it.”
“I told you, the damage is done,” said LaVell, practically whining. “I’m just here to watch. Blackmail me all you want, but I’m sorry. This world’s going down in flames, and there’s not a thing anyone can do about it.”
He glared up at Ivan, then shook his head and walked back toward the others.
Breathing hard, every cell crying out for drift, Ivan could think of nothing else to do but follow. √
To be continued…
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