Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part IV, Chapter 3
Hasta, Ivan and Juan flip Frida far along the highway on a dangerous scouting mission. But they don’t realize another traveler is lurking at her destination.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Frida stood up straight, squaring her shoulders. Her hair was a splash of bright color, but otherwise she looked impossibly frail against the backdrop of fog.
Hasta took a deep breath to calm herself. She and Ivan and Juan stood three abreast, facing Frida like a firing squad from ten paces away. Though it wasn’t overly warm out, Hasta wiped a bead of sweat from her eye. “Ready?” she said.
“Ready,” said Ivan to her left.
“I don’t know,” said Juan to her right. “I don’t feel like I’m very good at this.”
“You’ll be fine, chief,” Hasta said, giving his arm a squeeze. “Be strong for me.”
Ivan snorted. “Help me, Obi-Juan,” he said in a nasal falsetto. “You’re my only hope.”
“You’ll hope for mercy if you don’t put a—”
“Guys!” Hasta said, grabbing them both by the arms. “Stop being babies and focus, all right? We can do this. Now get ready.”
She licked her lips, squinting toward Frida. They’d prepared for this with as much care and caution as they could manage under the circumstances. They had tried flipping a few small items from the car into the mist and discovered that it acted like an obstacle. If you sent something directly toward the mist, it moved only as far the edge of the roadway. But if you flipped it toward the mist at an angle, it reappeared farther along the shoulder. The three of them had practiced synchronizing their thrusts on heavier objects, like a wrench and a tire jack, and Hasta had even sent Kylie on one short hop straight up the center of the road. The obstructing mist a quarter-mile ahead had swirled grandly and whooshed away to either side to reveal Kylie standing in a newly clear stretch of road, arms raised like a gymnast who had just stuck her landing.
“Be gentle with me,” Frida said, mustering a wry smile. “It’s my first time.”
Hasta barked a laugh. She had tried to insist on being the one to go, but Ivan and Juan had overruled her on the grounds that she was their best flipper. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I hear the first time’s usually over in about five seconds.”
“You’re pretty funny,” said Frida.
“Tell me that in five seconds.” She raised her middle finger, and Ivan and Juan did the same. “On three. One . . .”
Frida squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head.
“. . . two . . . three!”
They jabbed in perfect synchrony. Hasta felt the same satisfying pool-cue smack she’d felt flipping the daemon at the Bunker. Frida vanished.
Ivan immediately groaned and fell to his knees. He retched, spattering the pavement with a brownish mix of oatmeal and bile.
Hasta squatted beside him. “Ivan! Are you okay?”
Ivan sat up and wiped his mouth. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.”
Kylie rushed over and squatted on the other side of him, while Moses trotted up and sniffed the vomit. Hasta studied Ivan’s face. He was sweaty, more pale than usual, and had bags under his eyes. But which of them didn’t?
“I don’t know, boss, maybe you’re pushing yourself too hard,” she said.
“Do we have the luxury of not pushing ourselves?” asked Ivan, staggering a little as Kylie helped him stand. Moses sat back on his haunches and watched Ivan with his head cocked. “Anyway, Frida’s the one we need to worry about right now.”
He was right, and Hasta’s pocket buzzed to underscore the point. “Hey, everyone!” she said, pulling out the comm window. Frida carried its twin. “She made it somewhere.”
Bobby rushed over. “She’s okay?” he asked breathlessly.
“We’ll see.” Hasta twirled her finger in front of the window and put it to her ear. “Give me some good news, please.”
“I don’t think that was even five seconds,” said Frida, sounding dazed and out of breath. Her voice came through as clearly as if she were standing there. “But I’ve popped my wormhole cherry and I’m still alive.”
Hasta noticed LaVell studying the spot where the girl had vanished, frowning at the concrete. “Where are you?” she asked Frida. They had tried to aim their shot a little north of west, to follow the general trend of I-90, which the Kennedy turned into, toward Mount Rushmore. “Can you tell?”
“I’m next to some highway at a rest stop, it looks like. Maybe this little building has a map on display.”
“Is anyone else there? Is it foggy out?”
“Majorly foggy,” said Frida. Hasta could hear the crunch of her footsteps on gravel. “There’s a wall of fog all around, but it’s clear where I am. No one else in sight. I’m going inside.”
“Be careful,” Hasta said, heart pounding. “In fact, maybe we should join you before you do.”
Bobby was nodding his head vigorously.
“Negatrons,” said Frida. “Let me get a location before we go to that effort. Anyway, these doors are glass. I don’t see anyone lurking inside.” Hasta heard a metallic creak. “Creepy, really, how deserted it is.” Frida’s voice echoed now.
Hasta was hunched over, holding her breath. “Keep talking, please.”
“Roger. I do see a road map in here, pinned to the wall in a glass case. It shows Wisconsin. Hey, I’m in Wisconsin!”
“Excellent!” Hasta pumped her fist in triumph. “What part?”
“Here’s a red pushpin. ‘You Are Here.’ Okay, I’m on I-90 near some city called Mauston. Ah, and here’s a little travel chart that says it’s two hundred and five miles to Chicago.”
“Not bad!” said Hasta. “Not as far along as we’d hoped, but better than a kick in the—”
“Shh!” hissed Frida, lowering her voice. “I thought I heard . . .”
Hasta held her breath, raising a hand for silence.
“I think it’s okay,” Frida said. She sounded spooked. “I thought I heard a squeak, maybe, but I don’t hear it now.”
Another few seconds passed. “I’m sure.”
“Cool. Then get back outside. Let’s do this.”
Hasta gave the group a thumbs-up. Ivan come over to where she was standing, while Juan ran back to the car and climbed into the driver’s seat. Everyone else moved out of the way.
When Frida said she was ready, Hasta hooked her fingers through the comm window and pried it open to about ten inches square. Ivan reached in with both hands and gripped one edge from the inside. Then the two of them backed away from each other, stretching the window until it was fifteen or sixteen feet wide and about three feet high. They set the bottom edge down on the ground. Hasta kept hold of her edge with both hands, while Ivan put a foot through to hold the bottom corner down. He grabbed the top edge and lifted as far as his chest, then reversed his hand and pushed up, raising his arm as high as it would go. The black expanse stretched to more than seven feet high.
Hasta was also holding her corner down with her foot. She jerked her head toward Juan in the car. “You’re up!” she shouted. “Quick!”
Juan pulled the car forward slowly. Bobby wasn’t able to keep the engine running reliably, but Juan seemed to have no trouble doing so. As the front bumper approached the window Hasta and Ivan braced themselves, but there was no impact. The car passed smoothly through, while Juan looked thrilled and terrified, until it vanished completely into the black.
“Everyone else, hurry!” Hasta said, her arms growing tired. Ivan’s raised arm looked like it was trembling.
Kylie approached the window somewhat tentatively and stepped through. Looking bemused, LaVell followed. He trod gingerly in the white tube socks Hasta had insisted Juan lend him, and vanished.
Bobby stopped short. “Does it hurt?” he asked.
Hasta had no patience left. “It hurts like the devil. But it’ll hurt worse when we leave you behind.”
Her big worry, remembering her father touching the one at the Bunker, was that the window wouldn’t let Bobby pass. But he scooted right through like someone had goosed him, and was gone.
“Moses!” Hasta called. The dog, who’d been sitting patiently, bounded over and sprang through the window.
She and Ivan were the only ones left. “Me, then you, okay?” she said.
Ivan nodded tightly, the strain showing in his face. Keeping hold of her edge, Hasta minced through the window in a careful little arc, making sure to keep at least one foot on the bottom edge all the time. The air changed as she emerged on the far side—a little cooler, a little more humid, with a bite of pine that seemed to elude her as she tried to inhale it. Gravel crunched beneath her feet.
Juan turned off the car and got out just as Ivan twisted himself through the window, keeping one arm stretched high. On the count of three, Hasta and Ivan both let go and jumped back. The window snapped shut with a faint pop and was gone.
Frida waved from the group gathered by the car. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “That totally worked!”
Ivan was stooped with his hands on his thighs, gasping for air, but Hasta couldn’t help turning in a circle. They were standing in the parking lot of a highway rest area where pine trees and grass surrounded a small brown building. She could see a little stretch of road beyond a few trees across from the building, but other than that everything was obscured by mist.
A large white sign stood at the edge of the grass, sheet metal bolted to two corrugated poles. Above a list of littering fines, the top line stood out with chilling clarity:
ATTENTION! THE TIME IS SHORT
A.A. knew he should jump through the window and stay on the move. Any other action was foolish, and, as he always liked to say, a fool and his life are soon parted. It had taken him so long to find this stupid window—and the one before at the McDonald’s—that if he had to hunt around like this at every node it would take him more time than he had left to get to the Bus. And there was nothing more important than getting to the Bus.
But someone else was here. Someone who was talking to someone else. Someone who sounded a lot like Frida Sandstrom.
Was she following him? Was she working with the daemons now? With Hasta Vivisectionist? He had to know.
He felt for the door handle in the dark and turned it cautiously. Rats chittered and scampered to the deepest recesses of the supply closet. He squinted as he stepped into the sun-bright men’s room. Its fixtures loomed fuzzy and indistinct. He shuffled along in what he hoped was the direction of the door, hands out to feel his way.
A.A. had long ago set up this network of hidden windows running from one roadside stop to the next all the way to Mount Rushmore. But it had three big problems. First, he couldn’t go much more than two hundred miles in one hop. Second, he couldn’t set up his output and input windows within twenty feet of each other or they tended to drift slowly together, merge, and self-destruct. And third, having lost his glasses, he couldn’t read his own careful notes. This meant that he’d just wasted the hour since arriving in the little tractor shed out back trying to find his way to that supply closet.
A rat scurried between his feet and nearly tripped him. Okay, that was the fourth thing. The windows tended to generate more and more rats—the system’s representation of destructive viruses—the longer they sat around unused.
He whacked his knuckles on an automatic hand dryer before finding the door and exiting the men’s room. Two big blobs of light confronted him in the relative dimness of the building, one to either side. This was the lobby, home of maps and candy machines, and those were the two exits. A.A. turned left, which he thought was the way to the parking area. He trailed his left hand along the brick wall.
Then he heard a car, and a multitude of excited voices.
Pulse racing, A.A. detoured around a couple of vending machines and crept closer to the exit. He stopped and listened. He couldn’t make out any words, even when he cupped a hand to his ear, but he didn’t need a voice-print analysis to pick the imperious tones of Hasta Vulcanologist out of that mix.
That was all he had to hear. He started back they way he had come and smacked face-first into the side of a vending machine.
Smarting, he skirted the pair of machines and hustled back to the men’s room. How the girl and her friends had hooked up with Frida and followed him, he didn’t know, and at this point he didn’t care. His only priority now was beating them to the Bus.
And if he could spare the time and see well enough, maybe he’d lay a trap or two along the way. √
To be continued…