Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part IV, Chapter 2
Six fists and a paw unite in a tower of friendship and unity, while several minds attack the puzzle of how best to speed themselves along to their destination.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
When Ivan caught up to the rest of the group, Hasta motioned him ahead with her. The dog trotted along too.
“What was that all about?” she asked him impatiently. She was carrying her winter coat but kept shifting it from arm to arm because she couldn’t find a comfortable way to hold it.
She was on the verge of losing it. She knew walking was a waste of time, but as much as she racked her brain she kept coming up blank on better ways to cover the distance to Mount Rushmore. With every step she took, she felt like she was putting her friends and the world itself in greater peril. She didn’t know if her father was dead or alive, she’d almost gone Dirty Harry on LaVell—again—and now she had caught Ivan conferencing with the skeevy dirtbag. When Hasta looked at LaVell, she had a hard time remembering anything but that scrawny puppet body pressing her against the bookcase in the coach’s office.
“Gathering intel,” Ivan said, breathing hard as they walked. “According to his stats window, his name’s Hanuman Six Nine. Well, that’s his username, anyway.”
“Hanuman?” Hasta repeated. “That’s a Hindu monkey god.”
Ivan snorted. “I made him admit he hacked in from outside, but that’s all I could weasel out of him. He still says there’s no way to keep the world from ending.”
Hasta choked down a rising sob. “He’s wrong,” she insisted.
“At least we know he’s an intruder and not an administrator,” Ivan said. “That means there’s every chance he is wrong, ace.”
Hasta’s eyes stung. She looked up at Ivan as they walked side by side on the smooth concrete, and her heart swelled. Juan had been trying his best to cheer her up, without success, but somehow Ivan had done it in just a few sentences. His nimbus of red hair glowed in the nonspecific light, but there was such an edge of pain in his smile that Hasta looked down again. Ivan was walking, she noticed, exactly on the dashed white line between two lanes of traffic.
“Ivan, are you okay?” she asked.
He looked down the road toward the ever-receding wall of mist that obscured their way. He wiped sweat from his forehead. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “I’m just, you know, really tired,” he said. “I wish I had an iced coffee.”
“I hear you, boss,” Hasta said.
“‘Boss’?” Ivan said. “Where did that come from?”
Hasta wrinkled her brow. “Um, I’m not quite sure. But I am sure I have just the pick-me-up for you.”
She stopped and turned, strangely comforted that the dog did the same thing. Its bleeding seemed to have stopped.
“Gather ’round, everyone,” she said, feeling a weird sense of gratitude as her ragtag assemblage of companions formed a semi-circle. They really were an odd bunch, this disheveled crew dressed half in winter clothes and half in T-shirts. Not to mention LaVell—or Hanuman—in his stupid pajamas. “For better or worse we’re stuck with one another, so I guess it’s time we started thinking of ourselves as one big crew. Juan and Ivan and I have this thing we do, but I’d like it to include all of us. Mea culpa for not doing it sooner.” She held out her clenched right hand. “Tower of fists.”
Juan put his fist out on top of hers, then Ivan. Frida shrugged, looking pleased, and Kylie looked dubious, but they both added their fists to the tower.
“Now, repeat after me,” Hasta said.
“Wait,” said Ivan. “You too, Hanuman.” He shrugged at Hasta. “LaVell, at least, is part of the chain.”
With a startled look, LaVell tottered forward on his ruined feet added his fist to the tower.
“Now, like the Three Musketeers times two,” she said. “All for one—” The others joined her in a ragged chorus. “—and one for all!”
As Hasta pumped her fist, the dog sat up on its haunches and touched its paw to the bottom of her hand. A jolt of electricity buzzed her, ten times as strong as what she’d felt with Ivan and Juan alone. She jerked her arm back, shaking it, and so did all the others, but they had big, dumb grins on their faces. Just like she did.
“That was freaky,” Frida said.
“No kidding!” said Kylie. “I feel like I could hit super C on my trumpet.”
“Good Moses,” Ivan said, squatting down to ruffle the fur of the dog’s face with both hands. Its huge tongue applied a sloppy string of drool to Ivan’s cheek.
LaVell looked around the circle almost shyly. He didn’t say anything, but he looked like he was trying to hide his grin.
As they set off again, Hasta felt happier and more energized than she had all day. Her legs felt like they could chew up the expressway and spit it out, and even Ivan and Kylie with their long strides had to work hard to keep up with her. She didn’t delude herself that everyone in the group was her friend, but she imagined this was how it would feel if they were.
“What was it you called the dog back there? Moses?” Hasta asked Ivan teasingly, raising an eyebrow at him. “I didn’t realize he had a name.”
“Officially he doesn’t,” Ivan said. “At least not that I can access. But his window does call him a ‘Level B guardian,’ whatever that means.”
Moses barked and wagged his entire hindquarters.
“Hopefully that’s a good thing,” Hasta said.
Kylie nudged Ivan and cleared her throat. “So, anyway,” Ivan said, “Kylie had an idea I thought we should talk about.”
“Oh, really,” Hasta said, turning to Kylie. She tried to keep her voice friendly, but she felt her hackles rising. Funny how fast her friendly feelings fled seeing the two of them so chummy again.
Kylie looked down. “Um, yeah,” she said. “As far as we’ve walked, I’ve been wondering why we haven’t seen any exit signs. I mean, I’m only thinking about this because I love looking at maps, especially maps of Chicago, but the expressways around here have off-ramps everywhere, at least every mile or more. We haven’t seen any.”
Hasta felt resentment that she hadn’t picked up on this herself. “Maybe we missed a sign in the fog,” she said.
“Maybe. But what about those overhead signs that span the whole road? We couldn’t have missed one of those.”
A chill ran down Hasta’s back. “Are you saying there might not be a way off this road?”
Kylie looked back and forth between Hasta and Ivan. Her eyes looked haunted. “I’m saying we’re probably not going to find another car or truck. If that’s what you were hoping for.”
Hasta stopped walking and took a deep breath. Good leadership was about admitting when you needed help, right? And about listening to other people’s ideas. She bit her lip. “Well, I’m open to suggestions if you have any.”
Ivan nodded encouragingly to Kylie. “Well,” she said, “don’t you think there ought to be a way we could use your flipping trick to move ourselves along faster?”
“I’ve been trying to work that out,” said Hasta. She started walking again, Moses at her flank. “The problem is, I could flip you, then Ivan could flip me, and Juan could flip Ivan, and so on like that. But what about the last person in the chain? They’d be stuck back at the end of line, no one to flip them.”
“Yes, but, but maybe that doesn’t matter so much. Maybe only one of us needs to get all the way to Mount Rushmore, and the job of the rest of us is to make that happen.”
That notion struck Hasta as awful. “Even so, that doesn’t get us far,” she said. “If I flip you half a mile, then someone flips me half a mile, and so on, we’ve all only moved half a mile. Plus, we’ve left behind one of the people who helped get us that far. The point person would only jump two or three miles down the road before there was no one left to flip her further. Everyone else would be strung out behind her.”
Ivan came up on the other side of her. “But,” he said, “do you remember what the daemon dude said at the Bunker? He was all bent out of shape because you and I flipped him twenty-seven miles, Hasta. Together. See what we’re getting at?”
Hasta threw up her hands. “Okay, I admit it. We hit him at the same time.”
“And that gave our shot a boost. Like, times fifty.”
“Okay, I give you that,” said Hasta. “But if it takes two people to make a shot that long, then again we could only make two hops before there was no one left to flip the point person. And the group would be strung out along a fifty-mile path. We’re still not where we need to be.”
“You’re right,” said Kylie. “But what if the booster effect is exponential?”
“Logarithmic,” Ivan said.
Kylie gave him an annoyed look. “Orders of magnitude. Three people together might give us another fifty times the distance.”
Hasta stopped again. “Hang on, hang on,” she said, turning around to face them both. “First of all, do you know how tricky it is for one person to flip something with any precision? Two people calibrating a shot together sounds complicated enough, but can you imagine doing it with three? Trying to make an exact shot of nearly a thousand miles when we can’t even point with any precision what direction we need to go? And if we miss, whoever we send would be stranded, maybe lost forever in this fog.” She shook her head. “No, if it’s at all possible, we have to find a way that’s gets us all to where we’re going as a group.”
Hasta was remembering what Cory had said about the bus, that you had to be there to get on it. If she failed to save the world, then maybe at least she could save her friends.
Ivan shrugged sympathetically at Kylie. “Back to the drawing board,” he said.
Hasta put a hand on Kylie’s arm. “That’s not to say you’re not on the right track,” she said. “We’re just—we’re missing something, something that’ll break this puzzle open. Keep thinking, keep talking it out.”
Kylie nodded. “Okay.”
Hasta started walking again. The mist up ahead retreated to match her progress, as usual, then suddenly melted away to reveal a clear pocket near the side of the road. Parked there was a powder-blue compact car.
“Holy crap, do you see that?” Hasta shouted over her shoulder as she broke into a run. Maybe this was the solution to their problem!
It was a quarter-mile to the car, but Hasta developed a wicked stitch in her side before she’d covered even half that distance. Ivan sprinted past her, then Juan and the girls. Hasta slowed to a trot, her lungs on fire, stretching her arms around as she tried to gulp more air. LaVell sauntered past her.
“Don’t dawdle, your highness,” he said in a simpering tone. “Your chariot awaits.”
Hasta sped up, trailing after the others. Ivan had already reached the car and was peering in through the windows. He started pounding on the glass, shouting something.
“Careful, Ivan!” Hasta called out.
The back door of the car burst open, and Hasta’s heart leaped into her throat as Bobby Kimball jumped out and grabbed Ivan. She was about to shout again, but then realized Bobby was hugging Ivan. “I can’t believe it’s you, beanpole!” he was saying.
Hasta sidled up next to Ivan as Bobby hugged Frida and Juan in turn. From the gestures Ivan was making, Hasta could tell he was accessing Bobby’s stats. “Is he an operator too?” she asked.
“It’s really bizarre,” Ivan said, frowning. “He keeps going from robot to operator and back again, and I have no idea what that means.”
Hasta folded her arms and looked Bobby up and down. He was a bedraggled, mud-caked mess, but no more so than any of the rest of them. He noticed her then and looked abashed. “Oh. Hi.”
“Yeah, hello,” she said, not without some hostility. “How’d you get here?”
Bobby shrugged. “I drove,” he said, “I don’t know. Everything was getting so weird, I just wanted to trek out of town. I grabbed this car here from the parking lot at the Bunker and hit the road. It got all foggy by the time I reached the Kennedy. It was weird. Mine was the only car on the road, and after a few miles it started acting up. I goosed it along a little bit more, but finally it up and quit. I tried climbing up the shoulder there in the fog, but I couldn’t find my way out.” He shuddered. “Somehow I just kept circling back to the car. Piece-of-crap rice rocket.” He kicked the rear tire. “Cory might be smart, but he knows jack about auto maintenance.”
“Oh, my God,” Hasta said, feeling puzzle pieces click into place in her head. She punched Ivan in the arm. “I totally forgot about Cory!”
As Ivan rubbed his arm, Hasta fumbled in the pockets of the coat draped over her arm. She came out with the two comm windows Cory had created, and she held them up like lottery tickets.
“Ivan, Kylie—I know how to solve our problem!” √
To be continued…