Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part IV, Chapter 4
A sickly Ivan spars again with the outsider while the rest of the crew gathers supplies. Elsewhere, Lamm clashes with Kray as they pick up A.A.’s chaotic trail.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Ivan had almost reached the small brown building when he heard the metallic thud. He pressed himself against the brick wall beside the glass front doors. He didn’t shout out to the group because he didn’t want to alert the person inside.
Cautiously he peered through the glass, shading his eyes. He could see a drinking fountain, a couple of vending machines, a bulletin board in a glass case, and the sign for a ladies’ room. He saw no movement.
He’d been planning to use the restroom, possibly to throw up again, but now he had to alert Hasta to possible danger. He turned and nearly bumped into LaVell.
“Something interesting?” the weird boy asked.
Ivan narrowed his eyes, trying to use his height to look imposing. “Go inside and see,” he said, shouldering past.
LaVell grabbed Ivan’s arm. His expression was puzzled. “I don’t get you,” he said. “Why are you doing this the hard way? If you want to go somewhere, why not just edit your geocoordinates?”
Ivan jerked his arm free, trying not to let the surprise show on his face. “Too easy,” he said. “I like a challenge.”
“Now I know you’re Suzette.”
“Oh, yeah? How can you be so sure?”
LaVell wagged a finger. “I can stay in as close to the end as you can. Closer, even.”
Ivan felt a giddy, disconnected sensation inside. This was turning into the biggest bluff of his hacking life. “Care to wager on it?” he said.
“Sure,” said LaVell. “What do you want to bet?”
“You tell me.”
LaVell gave him a crafty look. “You tell me.”
“Let me think about it,” Ivan said, not sure how far he could push the charade before blowing it. He started past LaVell again, then stopped and pointed at the boy’s feet. “Oh, and when we have a minute, let me see if I can turn those socks into nice pair of shoes for you.”
Ivan headed back toward the car, only to have Hasta meet him halfway. “More intrigue?” she asked quietly.
“That’s not the urgent thing,” Ivan said. “I think there is someone inside that building.”
Hasta grimaced. “I’d like to ignore them, whoever it is, and just keep moving. But there’s stuff in there we could use, right?”
“Water,” Ivan said. “Snacks.”
“Okay, let’s search the place,” Hasta said with a sigh.
She left Ivan and Kylie to guard the car while she took Juan, Frida and Bobby into the building. LaVell followed them inside, which Ivan didn’t like very much. He loitered nervously near the car, watching the building and trying to convince himself that Moses’s nonchalant sniffing and peeing meant there was nothing dangerous around.
Ivan distracted himself by trying to bring up a stats window on himself, but he couldn’t make it work. When Kylie asked what he was doing, he showed her the windowing gestures he’d figured out. Together they puzzled through the process of turning Bobby’s crappy blue Honda Civic sedan into a crappy blue Honda Odyssey minivan.
That done, Ivan searched through Kylie’s stats window for any location information that might be editable. He didn’t find any. It might have been something only a superuser could access and update, not a lowly operator. But he did find the process of combing through her personal stats strangely intimate and arousing. Why, oh, why had he not picked up on the vibes she was giving off that time she mentioned her parents going out of town?
He dismissed her window before things got too embarrassing.
Hasta’s crew returned from the building safe and sound, arms laden with junk food. “What happened to the car?” Hasta asked.
“We upgraded,” said Kylie, sounding proud of herself.
“Find anything?” Ivan asked.
“We looked everywhere,” said Juan. “There’s nobody inside.”
“I know I heard something.”
“Whoever it was is gone,” said Hasta, “and we should follow suit. Batteries recharged, Ivan?”
Ivan swallowed against the churning in his belly. “Only one way to find out.”
“Then let’s jump.”
Frida, who said that she and Gillian used to use them instead of their cell phones, created a new comm window and gave half to Hasta. “Remember,” Frida said, “be careful not to touch the little X in the corner. If this vanishes on us, I’ll be stranded.”
This time when they flipped her, Frida reported in safely from Trail’s Travel Center, a deserted roadside oasis near Albert Lea, Minnesota. Ivan and Hasta held the window open while Juan drove the minivan through with everyone else inside. Ivan grew dizzy as it passed.
With the minivan safe, Hasta swung through the window. Ivan was barely able to follow before he blinked hard and staggered. His stomach lurched as he released the window. Black spots swelled in his vision, and asphalt rushed toward his face.
Lamm ground his teeth as Kray steered their sedan on a careful course between the snowplow on one side and the passenger cars pulling over to make room for them on the other. The Lawrence Avenue traffic had done its unconscious best to accommodate them, but, with all the congestion, the closer they got to the interstate the harder that became.
About half a mile from the on-ramp they slowed to a crawl. Kray honked his horn twice at the SUV ahead of them—the first time Lamm could ever remember him using it—but there was nowhere for the vehicle to go. Cars were trying to creep past them to the left in the other direction, and farther ahead they could see others attempting U-turns in the impossible crush.
“C-c-c-come on!” Lamm growled, slapping the dashboard. “They must be halfway to the Bus by now.”
His hand shook, as it had intermittently ever since he’d awakened from the blast of whatever weapon had hit them. Kray had called it a logic bomb—a forced injection of code that tasked their central processors with a high-priority, brute-force computation problem on the order of prime-factoring a million-digit composite integer. Kray had recovered after an hour or so with no ill effects, but Lamm was still suffering from random spasms, stuttering, and painful visual lightshows.
—Patience, Kray signed. —We cannot run faster than we can run.
Lamm gritted his teeth at the blossom of orange-green light that stabbed through his right eye. The hallucination occluded his view of what looked like a military roadblock ahead. “But we can d-d-darn sure run faster than we can crawl,” he said.
He pinched the bridge of his nose until his vision cleared, then called up a control window for the car.
—What are you doing? Kray signed, his hand protruding into Lamm’s side of the car. More and more, Kray was choosing to communicate manually in situations where voice would have been more practical. His speech was also growing more terse.
“Navigating,” Lamm said as he scrolled through the car’s attributes.
—We don’t need navigation, said Kray.
Their coordinates as displayed in the window were barely changing as they inched through the throng of complacent vehicles. Lamm closed one eye and squinted at the roadblock, estimating its distance. He added a bit more to the estimate for good measure, corrected a little to the right to account for the on-ramp, then ran some simple trigonometry to generate a new set of x/y-coordinates based off their slightly-north-of-west orientation. He also increased the z-coordinate by a couple of meters to compensate for the rise in the road surface as it approached the expressway entrance.
With the new numbers set, Lamm clicked APPLY.
The scene outside their windows shifted from snarled traffic to fog and reflective road markers. They dropped half a meter with a lurch and a crash, the old sedan bouncing like mad on its creaky suspension. Lamm’s teeth rattled, and he felt the jolt in his kidneys. He hadn’t even been aware he had kidneys.
The car swerved right on the road surface and squealed as Kray, bellowing wordlessly, fought to keep it from skidding off the left side of the ramp. The fog roiled away from them, and a huge clearing opened. Kray jerked the wheel back to the left and stomped on the brake. The car slid several meters before jouncing to a stop. Kray slammed it into park.
Lamm looked back up the ramp to where several soldiers were standing. Their weapons were half-raised toward the sedan as they engaged in spirited discussion amongst themselves.
“Go, go!” shouted Lamm, slapping the dashboard again. “Come on!”
His head snapped violently to the right as Kray’s fist smashed into his jaw. Tears exploded from his eyes, turning the world watery. Dazed, Lamm tried to shake off the red flare of pain, but his head and shoulder started twitching uncontrollably. He tried to speak but could only make sounds pitched somewhere between human moans and dog barks.
Calmly, Kray put the car back in gear and drove down the ramp to the expressway.
It was several minutes before Lamm could speak again. “Wh-wh-what was that for?” he sputtered. He nearly poked himself in the eyes wiping away the streams of saline.
“It’s a theory I’ve developed,” Kray said, kindly speaking aloud given that Lamm was unable to see well at the moment. “I’m operating under the assumption that you no longer understand any language but violence.”
Lamm thrashed in his seat, slamming his back against the upholstery, crying out in inarticulate rage and anguish. How could this daemon he’d been partnered with for so long treat him so cruelly?
“I’m not sure whether or not to take that as confirmation,” said Kray. “But let me assure you, the next time you perpetrate a disallowed act, I will place you under arrest. I outrank you, Lamm. I won’t hesitate.”
Lamm breathed deeply and clenched his hands on his knees. His upper lip trembled as he fought for self-control. He stared straight ahead. They were driving fast on an entirely snow-free expressway, in a clear, bright pocket that moved with them through an otherwise fog-shrouded landscape. The world only rendered this extraurban territory on an as-needed basis, but even so it was never this stingy about it.
“Our t-t-t-t-time is short,” Lamm said huskily, clipping each word. “If we don’t cut c-c-corners, we. Will. Fail.”
Kray shook his head. “What will we have won if we only help hasten a bad end? Our own damnation, that’s what.”
Lamm felt in his very bones that his partner was wrong. His need to scream swelled his chest like an expanding balloon.
But he did not, because a moment later the leading wall of their clear pocket dissolved and blew away. The car swept into a spacious clearing in the fog. A covered pedestrian overpass spanned the expressway here, within which, according to signs, could be found Starbucks, Orange Julius, Auntie Anne’s, and an ATM. To the right of the roadbed an off-ramp led upslope to a Mobil station and a McDonald’s.
Kray slowed the car. “This oasis was rendered prior to our arrival. Someone spent time here.”
Lamm’s heart beat fast. “Or still is here,” he said, a peculiar metallic taste infusing the back of his mouth.
Kray drove up the ramp and into the empty McDonald’s parking lot. They got out and looked around. Lamm felt a mild itch in the front of his brain when he looked toward the doors of the rapid-service eatery.
—Do you sense that? he signed to Kray with trembling hands.
—Something inside is wrong, Kray replied.
Strange as it was to enter a human-obesity factory for the second time that day, Lamm led the way into the McDonald’s. Fluorescent lights buzzed in their recesses on the ceiling, shedding harsh whiteness on the plastic chairs and tables of the empty dining area. In the kitchen the ovens and griddles were all turned off, except for one deep fryer where a basket of white potato fragments bubbled in hot brown oil.
—Not getting cooked, Kray signed. —Continuity error?
—Maybe, said Lamm with a shiver. —But that’s not the problem I’m sensing.
The itch in his brain was growing stronger. It took all his willpower not to charge ahead into the walk-in freezer that stood open in the back corner of the kitchen. A dozen frozen rats littered the floor outside it.
Lamm found the comm window inside. It was tucked away behind a stack of beef patties in white cardboard boxes, leaning against the freezer wall like a black painting in storage. “Here,” he called to Kray.
—That must have been open for a very long time if we both could sense it, Kray signed when he saw the window.
—Open and sowing c-c-corruption, Lamm replied, kicking one of the stiff rats. It didn’t move because it was stuck to the metal floor. He only ended up hurting his toe. —But it must have been recently used. That’s what we felt.
—Can you query it and find out where it leads?
Lamm shuddered from head to toe. He found it a struggle to form words. —I can do b-b-b-better than that. I’m betting it leads to A.A. on the far side. Goodbye for now, partner.
He took a step toward the window.
“Lamm, wait!” cried Kray.
But before his partner could stop him, Lamm dived through. √
To be continued…