leaf written fall 2009 by dave dehetre

Road

"Feeling okay?" Pete asked. "Absolutely not." Doug looked down at the dashboard, looked again, placed a hand over one eye and looked again. "We gotta get gas." "Sure?" Pete thought for a minute. "You sure? I don't have to pee. I swear we stopped like, less than half hour ago." "Use a lotta gas going this fast." "How fast?" Doug pointed at the speedometer. "Dunno." He rolled the windows down and a moist rush of dark air rushed in, whipping up antique cigarette ash and straw wrappers. "Wow, a french fry." Pete held it out in evidence. "Don't eat it." He saw something and veered hard onto an off ramp. Toward the end, he played a game with the pedals that made the car lurch in all directions. "Yeah!" He started drumming on the wheel and the dash. Apparently it's all part of the kit, Pete thought. He pulled the recline lever and pushed back into the back seat and closed his eyes. Doug started singing. "Yeah! I'm. Uh. Yeah! You. Do. Do. Yeah!" He slid the car into a driveway and rolled out, leaving the door open behind him. Pete looked out from under his hat and murmured, "What's up?" Doug answered, gripping the passenger door frame for support. "Party." "Who's?" "Who cares?" "How do you know it's a party?" "Lights on."

6 "And that's a party." "Sure." "I thought you said we needed gas." "We do." "So... you didn't change your mind?" "What the fuck? It's a party." "So?" "Dude. We need provisions. It's gonna be a long trip." "How long?" "Who knows." ***

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Something in Doug's neurological system clicked, and he became contagious.

Party Pete had known Doug for a long time, and he was used to the chaotic and shallowly mysterious behavior. He'd learned that it was almost always a good idea to just follow along. Trying to get any sense or an explanation was useless, and Doug seemed to have a nose for fun or excitement. And Pete had developed a theory that Doug was charmed. If you stayed with him, you were okay no matter how crazy his path seemed, but if you hesitated and fell behind, you might fall prey to the consequences of normal life. The kind Doug seemed to be immune to. Doug had vanished by the time Pete got out of the car, but this didn't worry Pete too much. The house was the obvious target. As he walked up the path, he took the time to ponder some things, knowing that since Doug was apparently already inside, that his own invitation was secured. Most likely, nobody would notice him, they'd all be fixated on Doug. Doug drew attention. He pondered what exactly Doug was hoping to provision at a party. Some obvious things leapt to mind, but it was the less obvious that drew his attention. He wouldn't be at all surprised if Doug was hoping to steal some curtains to black out the back of the car. For example. He had a little laugh and told himself that it was most likely just drugs. Doug liked drugs, always had. By the time he got inside, Doug was nowhere. There was a party of sorts going on. There were two pasty women lolling on a canted couch, and a grubby looking guy in a samurai costume carrying a shamisen and circling the couch, or maybe it's a koto, Pete thought. The samurai wore a complacent, almost smug look on his face, but he didn't seem to be all there. He was smug about something else. And he wasn't playing the shamisen. That bothered Pete. He was holding it like he obviously didn't know how to play it. Probably thought it was a weapon of some kind. Or his girlfriend. "'sup?" pasty lady A asked. "Came with my friend. But he's not here, I guess." Pete looked around, party style, to see if there were any attractive people to talk to. There wasn't anyone else. There wasn't even a TV. He gave up and talked to the pasty ladies. "Whadda do?" he asked. "Whatever," pasty lady B said, taking her turn.

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There was a thumping rhythm coming from the floor, and Pete assumed this was a sign of activity from the basement. "How do I get downstairs," he asked. "Don't. Wait," pasty lady B said. "Why?" "Cuz, it's private." Pete was used to this sort of interaction. "So, is it like a cult?" "What?" "Yeah." Two can play at that game, fuckwads, he thought. Or three in this case. Purely for entertainment, he wedged himself in-between the two ladies. "Hey Sugi, play us some Elvis or something." The samurai didn't acknowledge him, but he did start playing the instrument. Badly. Really badly. "Rock on." Pete said, wagging his fingers in a mock salute. He grabbed each of the women with an arm and pulled them together. He was trying to see if he could get them to make out, and as soon as he got them pressed together against no resistance, he decided he was bored with the idea and let them go. They stayed in place, leaving him trapped in a cage of his own construction. He decided to make the best of it and nodded off. *** "Dude?! You fuck 'em?" Pete awoke to find a pipe in his face. "No. And I don't smoke. Bad for the lungs. He dug a pill bottle out of his pocket and swallowed a pill. "I'll perk up." "Suit yourself." Doug said. He took a big hit off the pipe. "Beer!" Nobody replied, so he pushed the pipe into Pete's hand and vectored toward the kitchen. "Warm!" came barking in from the dark room, followed by a pair of cans thwunking on the ground in front of the couch. Pete picked one up and popped it open, hoping he was quick enough that it would foam over, but it was anticlimactic. Doug took it from him and poured it towards his mouth, catching most of it and swallowing. "I love beer." "I know," Pete said. "Gimme." He picked up the other can and drank it in one upturning. "Burp," he said, lacking a real actual burp to prove his point. Unceremoniously, they both grew bored, looked at each other in a way that was so familiar between them that it was code, stood up, and left. On the way to the car, Pete felt a craving. "Get any blow?"

leaf "Yep." Doug tossed him a knurled aluminum thingy.

9

"Gross. Who's used this?" He twirled the lid and inhaled, ignoring any sanitary issues. "Much better. Don't know why I didn't think of that sooner." He threw the gadget back. "Gotta get one of those myself." "Got 'em at the truckstop. We'll go to one now. Cuz, you know, they have gas too." "Really? Not just that special truck gas?" "They got both." "And coke?" "Both kinds, sure." Doug paused, trying to find his way out of the driveway. "I like truck stops." "Why?" "Why not? They got everything. But mostly, they cater to people who got things to do, and want to stay awake." "Good point." Pete listened to the music and watched the streetlights go by outside. There was only one disc, and it was stuck in the player, and it seemed to contain only variations on one theme. Or maybe it was only one song. Pete wasn't sure, but he didn't care, the song was a good backdrop for riding in the junky big two door. Maybe it was the fumes. "Hey, why does your car use so much gas? Ever think it might be leaking?" "Maybe. But you know my motto. If it don't break, don't fix it." "Huh?" Doug didn't seem to think an answer was in order. Pete was used to this. Doug said what he wanted to say. He was a force of nature. With Doug, you took what you got. *** At the truck stop, Pete had a time of it talking Doug out of filling the car with the special truck gas. Doug was intent on proving some point, but was thwarted by the cashier who wouldn't turn on the high speed diesel pumps. Pete finally got him to relent by tricking him. "See, over there, it's the credit card pumps for the truck gas." He pointed to the front of the forecourt. "You fill up, I'm gonna look around." Pete stuck his card in the pump, pulled it out, and walked away. He had his doubts about Doug, but couldn't think of anything too drastic that could happen. Just at the moment. He wandered inside, looked up and down a few aisles, leaned up against a wall for a moment, and then headed for the trucker rest area. He went to the desk and bought a shower pass, went into a stall, turned on the shower, full

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hot, and sat on the bench. He stared at the water, waves of vertigo washing over him. They'd been in the car for an indeterminate time, long enough to have whatever the car version of sea legs was. When the steam got warm enough, he stripped off his clothes, one item at a time, until he was at last totally nude. This told him that the water and the room were the right temperature, and he got in. He washed quickly, and then stood under the jet, breathing the steam. It was all a form of treatment for him. He wasn't sure what for, but for sure, Doug was tiring. So Maybe it was just anti-Doug. He sat on the floor and fell asleep. *** Doug woke him up by pounding on the door. "Dude! Shake it already." "Yeah, coming. He reached up and turned off the water and then waited a little while for the water to drain off of him. Resisted the urge to yell 'five more minutes', crawled over to the towel, wrapped himself and then pulled the lever. "Come on in. I'm draggin'." "'s cool. Here." he dropped a baggie on Pete's pile of clothes. "Meth." "Good. Need it. Seem to be very sleepy lately." He pointed at the meth. "You get that at that party?" "That, I got from a guy while I was waiting for you. He was a trucker, so it's good." "Ahh." He took a chunk out and bit into it. "Tastes good!" And he threw the rest down his throat. "Mmmm. Man, I'm tired." "It is middle of the night." "Yeah, but it's more existential than that." "Fuck you." Doug fished out a rock for himself, tested it and decided he'd better swallow it. "You air drying? Cuz they got dryers out there." He pointed with his thumb. "Nah, just draggin." "You said that." "Well it's still true." "Tell the truth, I'm a bit weary myself. That's why we're here." Pete was torn between two confusing items, one, Doug's use of the word weary, the other that Doug was expressing some sort of reasoned thought process. "A truckstop in the middle of the night?" "Yep. I been 'draggin' for a few weeks now. Needed to do something about it."

leaf "Hang out in truckstops?" "Yep." "Why?"

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"Cuz that's where the experts are. And, people who travel. People who travel, and stay awake. Even when they don't feel like it. Like I don't." "So you feel drawn to like minded sufferers." "Your education's showing. Yeah. I figure I need to spread whatever I got, and this is the way to do it." "Why? Why do you want to spread it." Pete was used to humoring Doug. "Just because. Because it feels right. I guess." "So, you got a plan? Other than hang out in truckstops, engaging in contagious behaviors?" "That's about it for now. Seems sound to me." "Yeah, hard to find fault really. What about money?" "That's what you're for." "Fair enough. Here." He handed over a bill. "Get me some beef jerky and lots of pop. I'll get dressed. But I don't think I've got enough saved up to keep us going for very long." Doug took the money. "Don't worry, I've got plans. Other plans." "Yeah, I'm worried." "Don't be." "I am. Hey, get a thermometer too. So I can see if I've caught it. Your thing. And when did you learn the word 'weary'?" Doug laughed, but otherwise ignored him and left. *** Once back on the road, they settled back in to a semi-hypnotic rhythm. "You know, there's a huge difference between meat sticks and beef jerky." "No." "Yes there is. Meat sticks are... I don't know. Beef jerky's just meat, dried out. It's good for you." "Meat sticks are good for you." "Nope." "Yes." "Fine, you eat it. So tell me, what's it about? Why do you feel this desire to travel around?"

12 "I told you, to spread the thing." "You didn't tell me that." "I didn't? Thought I did." "No." "Well, okay. It's complicated..."

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Pete pointed out the windshield, towards a vanishing point in the road. "What's your hurry?" "Good point. Okay. Well, I guess it isn't anyway, it's just vague." "Go ahead." "Well, you know, I've been feeling tired and sick for like, weeks now." "Okay." "Well, thing is, I feel better somehow too." "Good." "No, I mean, I feel like the sick is making me better. I still feel sick, but that it's for some reason." Pete stared for a moment. "Doug, you aren't supposed to think. You know, like in sentences and everything." "I know. That's what I'm sayin' it's making me better. I have theories." "Yeah?" "Yeah, gimme a while, I'll get back to you." They drove for a while in relative silence, watching the side effects of the sunrise. The pink tint ghost of things that previously hadn't been there, and then the things themselves appearing and inserting themselves into a world view that had previously consisted of reflective road markings, signs of various sorts, and dashboard features. Pete thought about all the inputs and events that had led to his current situation, trying to find some reason to be scared, to hesitate, but he didn't find anything. He felt very complacent barreling cross country on a nonsensical journey. And that acceptance had him worried. He'd left on a whim. Doug had walked into his parent's basement where he'd been staying and said 'come on.', and he had. No idea what was going on, and he felt fine with it. "So, are we going to sleep at some point? I mean, tiredness can be caused by not sleeping enough." "Yeah, I know that. Yeah. Let's find somewhere fun." "What's that mean?"

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"Dunno. That place look fun?" Doug pointed to a roadside pre-fab motel with the room rate in four foot lit numerals. "Not really." "Then not there." "Yeah, but." Pete gave up. The desire left him. Doug would find something. It was good to know that the concept of stopping and resting was in the plan, and for the meanwhile, that was enough. He climbed over the seat and into the back. He wadded up an old jacket that he found on the floor, fashioning a pillow out of it, and snuggled in. "Slacker!" Doug yelled. "Yep." "Damn, we need to stop for gas again." "Yeah, figures." *** After the gas stop, they got onto the subject of fuel economy. Pete broached something he'd been thinking about off and on. "You know, it really seems like you get crappy gas milage, maybe we should have somebody look at it?" "I know cars. It's fine." "Yeah, but my recollections of other car trips is that you don't have to stop this often. I usually have to pee a lot. And have to wait. You know." "Maybe you're dehydrated." "Maybe, but that's not the point. We're stopping like every hour." "Well, it's sort of the idea to go to lots of places." "So, we don't really need gas?" "We do." "So there's something wrong with the car?" "Probably not." "Probably?" "Look, we're going fast, it uses a lot of gas that way." "How fast?" "Fast as it goes." "Maybe we should try going slower, save gas." "But then it would take longer to get there." "Where?"

14 "The next truckstop. You see the beauty of it?" "Yeah, I guess I do. It's a bit frenetic though." "What's that mean?" "Crazy busy." "Yeah, suppose so. I like it." "Maybe I do too."

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Carry The car was oldish, older than Doug should've owned, and it was ordinary. It had come from the factory ordinary, very middle of the road. But at some point before he'd gotten it, somebody had loved it. Somebody had put a big engine in it. So it rode low in the front. It had a big back seat, and the entirety of the interior was made of vinyl or chrome. It was navy blue, appearing black for its age and its dirtiness. It had a full sized spare tire. Doug drove this car, and never felt the need to get another. For a reason. Doug couldn't stand newer cars. Something about them made him uneasy in an irrational way. But he didn't know this, as such. He just never felt the need to have any other way of getting around. He was happy with his car and the way it was. Once it got up to speed, it gave off feelings of unstoppability. It smelled unstoppable. It also gave of the feeling that it was always going to go where it wanted to go, and if the driver had other feelings, well...

Breakfast They ended up eating at the truckstop after the one that came after the sunrise. Doug sat them at a booth with a couple of girls in uniforms. Doug launched right in, and as so often happened, in Pete's observation, nobody knew how to deal, and so they went along with him. "Kinda weird, two ladies having breakfast together." "We work together," one of them said. "Here?" "No." "But you're roommates" "Yeah." "So, your apartment's going to be empty all day?" "Yeah, so?" Doug looked over at Pete. "See, that sounds fun, right?" Pete nodded. Five minutes later, Doug had a key, and an address, and a promise to bring home a minor feast. *** "They love me," Doug said as they pulled into the apartment complex. It was depressingly close to the truckstop. "Who?" "The waitresses." "These waitresses? Or waitresses in general." "Both." "Guess so." Pete got out and waited by the trunk to get his backpack. "How do you do that?" "What?" "Have random girls hand you their house keys?" "Dunno. I ask." "Yeah, I was there. I just don't understand how it works." "It just does." "I know. Don't you care why?" "Not really. I'm tired." "So you keep saying."

Frolic Pete woke to the sounds of Doug and somebody in the other bedroom. They'd each taken a room, and Pete had gone right out. It was still light out, but other than that, he had no concept of time. His first thought, and it was disorienting to him to wonder why, was that he should get up before he got caught. At what, he had no idea. He walked out into the living room to a tiny applause. One of the waitresses was sitting on the couch wrapped in a towel. "Don't put it on. You look alright." He stopped dressing and stood facing her in his boxer shorts. "Hi. Good day at work honey?" "Alright." "Where's your friend?" "Can't you hear?" "Yeah." "So?" She sat, tapping her knees together. Grinning. "I'm up for it." "Good." Pete turned around and went back to bed. He fell asleep before she caught up with him, but she woke him back up. *** He got up later, while the sun was going down, and went for a swim. He left his things in the car, and as expected, Doug found him and wanted to leave. "Gotta go." "Why, you get her pregnant or something?" "No, but it's late, I'm bored. And you know, been here long enough." "So what's the plan?" "First, more speed. Gotta keep driving. Gotta get wired." "How about some coffee?" "Hmm... Interesting idea. I've never had it before. What's it like?" "Kind like meth, but it tastes good." "Meth tastes good." Pete agreed, but, fearing a dinner of meth crystals, he didn't continue the point. "Let's try some. It's cheap."

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Doug bounced the car over a speed bump, barking the brakes to enhance the lurch. "Sounds good to me." "So, Doug..." "Yes Peter?" "Are you serious about all this stuff? About you being sick and everything?" "Yeah, why?" "Because I do feel a little under the weather. And your idea's starting to make sense." "Yeah, see? You got it. It gets better too, you'll see." "I can see what you mean. Hmm... Well, I'm gonna take a nap. It's not actually a requirement that I stay awake? Is it?" "No. Just can't sleep all the time. Like you'll want to." "Oh, I do want to. Already." "Sweet dreams." He patted Pete on the head, and then lurched over a curb and laughed at his own joke with himself.

Marmot! "Time to get up," Doug said, "You aren't very good company today." He was leaning through the back window, batting at Pete's legs. "So?" "So, I might have to find somebody else. I mean, if you're going to sleep all the time..." "What was it, like an hour?" "Forty five minutes, at least." "Yeah, okay, sorry about that." Pete rubbed his face with his palms. "It's okay. I found something cool, and it's right next to a truckstop, go figure." Doug stood back from the window and pointed to a giant fiberglass rodent. "What's that?" "Marmot!" "Marmot." "Marmot!" "Marmot?" "Marmot!" "Marmot!?" "Right. Cool, isn't it?" "Yeah, guess so." "They had signs for it on the highway. So I had to stop." "Obviously." "Take my picture with it." Doug handed him a camera and went over and tried to climb up the frontside of the statue, slipping several times in the attempt. He managed to bruise his forehead and scrape one knee and one palm before he summited and reclined, after a fashion, in the marmot's arms. After a few shots, he jumped out and grabbed the camera from Pete. "It would be cool if we had a gun and we could bag him. That'd make a cool picture, wouldn't it?" "Sure." "Oh well. Wanna climb up and I'll take your picture?" "Nah. I don't feel so good." "Suit yourself. Ride up front with me for a while." "Do we need gas yet?"

20 "You know it."

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They got in, and sat in silence while Doug found his way back to the highway. Pete thought about bringing up the idea of not taking the highway, in favor of the side roads, but quickly talked himself out of the idea. Not enough traffic for Doug. "You own a gun?" Pete asked. "Sure. Wanna see it? It's in the trunk. I'll show you next truckstop." "I haven't seen it in there." "Hidden. Duh." "I like guns though. You know that?" "Who doesn't?" "Lots of people." "So what guns do you have?" "None." "Why not?" "Afraid I'll hurt myself." "Yeah, you probably would." Pete contemplated a gun that he'd own, for a little while. But then his mind wandered. "Hey, you ever think about cars, like, what you really want from a car?" "This one's pretty good." "Yeah, sure, but... if you were going to start from scratch, and make your own car, in the garage or whatever." "Yeah? No. Never thought of that. Sounds fun. I thought about making my own missiles once." "Why?" "Cuz it's cool! Seriously, I saw this whole set of plans on how you can make it. From parts. Like from a scrapyard." "What would you do with a missile?" "Blow shit up." "Like what?" "Whatever. I don't' have a target in mind, but you know, an abandoned building maybe." "Yeah. That'd be cool. Yeah." "Well I think I'd want one that had three wheels, for a start."

leaf "A missile?" Doug asked, turning and staring at Pete. "No, a car." "Why?"

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"Because then you don't have to get it certified and crash tested and such." "How do you know that?" "Research." Doug looked at him. "Yeah, basically, if it has less than four wheels, it's not considered a car, so you can get away with any crazy thing you want to." "I think I like this one." "What if it had a bed in the back?" "That'd be cool, but stupid too." "What if it was faster?" "That'd be good." "So, what about a turbo?" "Maybe." "I want to take the whole back end off a superbike, so that'd be the rear wheel, one of those roundy ones. That'd look cool. And then the front wheels from a little economy car." "Lame." "No, they're really light." "So." "Lighter equals faster." "Huh." Pete grabbed a pen and started drawing tiny pictures around the margins of a map he found in the glove box. He stopped for a moment to comment. "You printed directions to a quick shop?" "I was hungry." "But there's quick shops all over the place." "I was high." "Oh, okay." Pete doodled for a minute longer. "But you figured out how to print out the directions?" "Nah, my girlfriend did that." "Did you find..."

22 "Nope. Woke up in a park. On the slide." "Ah. But you kept the directions?"

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"Never know when you might need 'em. Look at you. You're putting 'em to good use right now." Pete looked at the doodles. "Yeah, so, see? Like this." He pointed. "See how cool that looks?" "Sure. Where're the doors?" "I haven't figured that out yet. Gimme a while." "Dunno Pete, I got a pretty busy schedule. Speed?" "Sure, thanks." They both snorted some crushed up meth off a credit card. Pete was pretty sure it was cut with coke. "Where do you get this shit? You have some sort of idiot savant gift for it." "Wha?" "'s good shit." "Oh, yeah. No shit." They became uncontrollable Laughing and sputtering for no good reason other than the drug kick and the catalyst of the other's laughter. After a few swerves, Pete got enough breath to suggest stopping. "Look! Truckstop!" "We're there!" Doug agreed and veered more enthusiastically than necessary, throwing Pete into him. "Back off, queer." "You did it." "Shut up." "Shut up." "Hey, look." Doug pointed with one hand, the other rolling down his window. "We have a choice. Left or right?" "Left. Looks like they have a better gift shop." "Cool. Good thinking." *** "See, this is beef jerky." "Uh huh. Meat." "Exactly." "Just like meat sticks." "No. Bad Doug." Pete thwacked him on the top of the head with a strip of beef jerky. "We need a selection of fine energy drinks to wash this down."

leaf "Agreed." "I think yellow, and orange." "Blue sounds good," Doug added. "And of course, green. Hav'ta get the classic." "Hav'ta." "Sandwiches look good, don't you think?" "Yeah, but they don't keep." "Why would they have to keep." "Dunno. Okay. I want donuts too." "Sounds good. Chips?" "Yes." "I think we got enough now." "Why?" "I can't carry any more." "Cool."

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They sat on the sidewalk in front of the convenience store area, somewhat in the way, greeting all new arrivals and departures. Eating and drinking without method until they got bored. At exactly the same time. Back in the car, Pete had one of his moments of doubt. "So, is there a plan to all this?" "Yeah, sure." "Gonna tell me about it?" "Sure." "Now?" "No, not yet." "Why not?" "Dunno. I have a plan, but maybe it's not all in words yet." "So you don't have a plan." "I got an idea. For sure. Okay, it's not a plan yet, but it's a goal, how's that?" "What's the goal?" "Not telling." "Why not?" "Because."

24 "You don't have a goal."

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"Yes I do. I'm just not ready to commit yet. I don't want you holding me to it." "Heard that before." "Yeah, I don't do extra work if I don't have to. Copied that from two girlfriends ago." "I get something like that with every girlfriend." "What about the waitresses?" "You mean... This... Morning? I think?" "Yeah." "Obviously no." "I did." Doug pointed at himself. "No shit?" "No shit." "So that's why we got out of there so fast?" "Nah, I was just bored." "Gotcha. Wouldn't mind finding something with a pool here soon. Again," Pete said, remembering the cleansing swim he'd had. "Stimulants make me feel dirty." "Get over it." "No, like, physically, not metaphorically." "Either way, get over it, brainiac." *** "You ever see 'em paint the stripes on the road?" Pete asked, after a long silence. He'd been trying to stay awake, all the while thinking that he might as well be asleep, but for some reason afraid of sleeping. He was beginning to understand some of Doug's positions on behavior. He was starting to feel the urge to fight the urge to sleep. "Sure. Why?" "Dunno. Wondering if they rip along at full speed like we are, and jet the paint down. That'd take some kind of crazy paint sprayer." "No, they do it really slow. They lay it down and then a guy walks behind with a blow torch wand thing and cooks it, or melts it or something. But they go about walking speed. Takes a lot of guys too. Like ten." "Really?"

leaf "Yep." "Well, I'm glad I stayed up for that." "What?" "Nothing, just thinking." "Good. Me too."

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"Yeah, I noticed that Doug. It kind of unnerves me how you seem to be thinking. I've known you for a long time." "Over ten years." "Yeah. And I don't remember you talking much, and I suspected that you weren't thinking much. So it's kind of a shock to think what you might have been thinking all these years and not talking about." "Nah, I wasn't thinking. Not much anyway. Not in the way you're talking about." "But now you are?" "Yep, I guess so. Not that I have much to compare to. You know." "I guess. So what did you think of Joan Ridgeway?" "Huh?" Doug asked. "Why?" "I dated her. Once. And then she went out with you. You remember?" "Yeah, I guess so. She was a dyke." "Really?" "Yeah, pretty sure about that." "Oh. Good." "Yeah, not you. It was her." "That's what she said." "Exactly." They laughed, and then entered another laughing feedback fit that led to Doug having to pull over again. This time there was no truckstop, so they settled for a regular convenience store. When Pete emerged from the bathroom, after washing his face and hair as best he could in the sink, and then blow-drying himself using the hand dryer, Doug had left. He saw the lumbering black car bounce out of the parking lot. In normal circumstances, this might have caused alarm, but Pete knew Doug well, and wandering off was something Doug did. He usually came back. Usually fairly quickly, Pete thought to himself. Usually. But there had been times he'd had to walk home too. So...

26 He walked over to the counter. "Did he pay?"

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"Who?" the girl behind the counter asked. She had plain brown hair, just long enough to get into a pony tail. Most of it. The pony tail rode high on her head. It reminded Pete of a real pony's tail. And he laughed. "Big guy. Looks like a football player." Pete weighed whether to use the next line. Decided Doug still looked the same. "Kinda dumb, black car..." "Yeah, yeah, he paid. Why?" "Sometimes he forgets." "He forget you?" "Probably not." Pete tapped a honey bear that was sitting on top of the register. "What's that for?" "Huh?" She saw him pointing. "Oh, some guy. He used to come around and sell it." "So it's not for coffee or something?" "No. You could have some, I guess, if you want." "No, just curious. It seems like an odd thing to have. I wondered if maybe it got rid of gas smell on your hands or something." "No. I don't know. Maybe it does." She picked up the honey bear and looked at it lovingly. "He had good lip balm that he made. That's mainly what we sold. I miss that. I wonder why he doesn't come around anymore." She looked at Pete like he had the answer. "I dunno." "Are you serious about your friend?" "What do you mean, serious?" "Did he leave you here?" "Yeah, but he does that." "What?" "He'll come back. Soon as he figures out he lost me." "Is he that stupid?" "I don't know. That's a good question. I used to think so, but now I'm not sure." "So..." The girl sat down with a little clatter on a metal stool behind the register. "You're stuck with me then." "Guess so. Do you mind?" "No. Nope. Nothing else to do."

leaf "Thanks." "I'm Tisha." "Pete." Pete stuck his hand out and they shook. "Well, Pete. Tell me about yourself." "Eh. Nothing interesting. Regular." "Me too." "Community college?" Pete tested his theory. "Nope." "Me neither." "Yeah. So, what about your friend? What are you guys up to?" "I don't really know." "Uh huh?"

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"Yeah, he came and got me out of bed a few days ago. I think. Maybe it was yesterday. And we've just been driving ever since." "Cool!" "Really? Seems pretty boring to me. Sort of." "Yeah, sure. I mean, where are you going?" "I have no idea. I don't even know where I am now. I mean, I guess, within a state or two... But no, I really don't know." He held a hand up to stop Tisha from talking. "No. Don't tell me. I like not knowing." "Don't you see signs or anything? You could look." "Yeah. No. Haven't been doing much reading. Kinda weird really. Whole time, Doug's been kinda weird, talking about weird stuff, like he always does, but the more we drive, the more he's starting to make sense." "About what?" "I dunno. I mean, if I try to tell you, you'll just think I'm crazy." "Try me." "Maybe. But I have a feeling it's one of those things you kind of have to be along for the ride. You know, before it'll... I dunno. It's complicated." "And crazy, apparently," Tisha said. "Yeah, and crazy. Apparently." They talked on and on about nothing, until Tisha's shift was over. And then they sat on a bench out front, waiting. Tisha kept insisting on waiting, until it became too late to pretend that she just wanted to keep him company,

28

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and they agreed that he could come with her. Not a normal turn of events for either of them, but, as Tisha said, they'd gotten to know each other pretty well in the half dozen or so hours, and she couldn't really leave him sitting outside. They left a note pinned to the door. For the morning clerk, and/or Doug. Whoever got there first.

Uh... "Seriously. Doug. Are you just looking for ways to annoy me? And wake me up?" Pete pulled a pillow over his head. The sentence hadn't come out nearly how he'd wanted it to, and now he'd confused himself. Aggravating his aggravation. "Aaaagh," he said. "Yeah, sure. How are you? Want breakfast? McBreakfast." Doug held out a greasy bag that was venting steam out the top. "Thanks." "I brought some for everybody. And: more fun stuff!" He held out a baggy. "What's that?" "Dunno exactly, but it's fun. Got it from this really punk chick who was... Nevermind. Anyway, trust me, it's fun. Have some." He looked around. "Girl want some?" "Tisha. I don't know, why don't you ask?" "Yeah, good idea. She's in the shower." Doug looked around again, checking. "Did you...?" "Uh... No, not really." "Not really." Doug punched him lightly. "No, I had to think. No. You know. No. A little. She's kinda young." Doug raised his eyebrows. "Not that young." "Good. She's coming with, and you know, state lines and all. Don't want to go there." "How do you know she'll want to come?" "She told me. I asked her." "How long have you been here?" Pete thought of the steam from his breakfast." "A while." "And?" "What?" "I dunno. Gimme a while. Gimme some of the fun stuff. And energy drink please." "I'll see what I can do."

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Pete followed him into the kitchen and watched him burrow through the refrigerator, and the cupboards, and the pantry. "No monsters." "Anything to drink?" "Diet." "Cool." Pete caught the expected soda missile He'd known Doug a long time. "Good catch." "Thanks. So, Tisha's coming." "Seems like it." "Still think your car's perfect?" "Sure, why not?" "I dunno. We'll see." He dropped the empty can into the sink. "Where're we going?" "Around." "What?" "Around." "No, I heard you. I mean, around what?" "No what. I don't know. Sorry. Just around." "Well, as stimulating as it all is, pun intended, something interesting better start happening soon, besides you leaving me behind randomly. And yeah, where'd you go last night?" "Didn't you hear? Fun stuff, punk chick..." "Oh yeah. Nevermind. So, any idea where we're going right now?" "Sure." "Truckstop?" "Yep." "Let me ask you something." "?" "Do you know what state we're in?" "Uh. Inebriation?" "Good one." "No. Don't know. Why?" "No reason. I don't either."

leaf "It's really not important."

31

"No? Why don't we go somewhere interesting? I mean, we might as well." "I have a feeling we'll get somewhere interesting anyway, and I'm following my gut. Don't want to impose on that." "Well what's your gut say about which direction we go." "That way." He pointed. "Well good. At least we're not lost." Tisha came into the kitchen wearing a towel. "Hey guys. What sort of clothes do you think I should pack?" Pete looked at Doug. Told you so, he thought.

Perfect They talked Tisha out of most of her wardrobe, but even still, the trunk was full by the time the rolled out. Pete insisted on the back seat, where he promptly fell asleep. When the car stopped, he woke up and immediately said: "Truckstop!" "Truckstop!" Tisha and Doug said back. "Marmot?" "No marmot," Doug said. "Gyp." "You'll live. Because... They have a dinosaur petting zoo." "With real live dinosaurs?" "Of course." "How many?" Pete looked back and forth from Tisha to Doug. "Several," Tisha said. "I hope they have triceratops That's my favorite." "They do," Tisha said. "So," Pete asked, "what've you guys been talking about?" "Global economics." Doug said. "Really?" "Yep. And how best to leverage our opportunities therein." "Doug?" "Yes." "You feeling okay? Maybe I should drive for a while?" "Perhaps." "Doug?" "Yes." "Okay." Though the seemed to be moving, if he squinted, Pete was fairly sure that the dinosaurs were in fact made out of fiberglass. Though, as he admired them, he decided that the visible weave of the glass fiber matte added an artistic luster to the statues. Made them somehow real, rather than the commodity production item that they would otherwise have been. This made him happy. In concert with the tablets that Tisha had sourced in the women's lounge, which, to hear her tell, was miles nicer than the men's lounges of his experience.

leaf

33

She'd told tales of carpeting and upholstered furniture. Of amenities in vending machines, and a complete lack of a cruising vibe to the room. And she'd bought some pretty good happy pills. Pete thought for a while about the health consequences of the bender they were on, but he had trouble marshaling any coherent thoughts on the matter. As though he had a block, or rather, it felt to him more like every time he tried to consider the issue, that someone distracted him. Distracted him by yelling: 'dinosaur!' in his ear. "Marmot!" he yelled back. "Marmot!" Tisha yelled behind him. "Oh, hi Tisha" "Hi." "You think they're kind of being hypocritical about things, having dinosaurs in front of a gas station?" "Why?" "Because isn't that where the gas comes from? From dinosaurs?" "Oh, yeah, of course. No." "No?" "No, it'd be like having a big cow in front of a steak restaurant" "Huh?" "Which they do." "Yeah, they do. All the time." Pete smacked his forehead. "How're you liking the trip so far?" "All hour of it? Not bad. Doug's funny." "You do realize we've taken you away from your daily toil in a, well basically a truckstop? Did you realize we were on a tour of truckstops?" "No. But that's not what you're really doing, right?" "Yeah, I don't think so either, but Doug keeps insisting. It's more complicated than that. At least behind the scenes. But that's all I can get him to really commit to. And I guess it doesn't make any difference what the reason is, really, because the result is that we're going to a lot of truckstops. Fast." "Yeah, I noticed that." Tisha smoothed her hair down. They walked back to the car and found Doug slumped forward with his head resting on the steering wheel. When they got close enough to see that he was still breathing, he jerked up. "Hey! Hi! You guys ready to go?" Doug said, facing straight ahead. "Yeah, sure," Pete said. "Listen Doug, I had an idea."

34 "Shoot."

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"Know how a lot of people go on vacation, and they go see historical sites or whatever." "Sure. But we aren't going sightseeing." "No, of course not." Pete looked over at Tisha and gave her a little nod. "But I had this idea. You know, I saw a couple of campgrounds along the way, and I was thinking: there's a lot of people there, all grouped together, and all heading their own ways the next day. You know, all out in the open, cooking together, swimming, sharing food, getting drinks out of the cooler. All that sort of thing..." "I like the way you think Pete. Good job! Tonight, we should find a campground." "Yeah, hey, that's a good idea." Pete said. He winked at Tisha. "Maybe we should look for a tent and some sleeping bags, and stuff like that. So we don't look out of place." "Again, good idea. Good thinking there Pete. We'll do that. Then, tonight, if you see one, we can stop and camp for a while." Doug paused and looked at the headliner, poked at it where it was loose and hanging down. He mouthed a few somethings and then snapped out of whatever he'd been in. "Yeah. Sounds good. Let's get going. Where do you buy camping stuff anyway?" "Dunno," Pete said, "camping store?" "Department store," Tisha said, "or sporting goods. I'll find us one. You guys kind of seem like you came from a different planet." "What're you talking about?" Doug asked. "Well, for example, where'd you get your clothes? Do you know?" "What's wrong with my clothes?" "Nothing at all, I just wonder if you know where to buy clothes." "Well sure. You know, at the store." "Which one?" "I don't know. That one with that girl. In the mall." "Ah, so you've heard of a mall." "Duh." Doug jerked the car onto the on ramp, throwing Tisha into Pete and Pete into the door. And then Tisha into Pete again. Once the topped out on the highway, he turned back to them. "I want candy. Malls make me think of candy."

leaf "We can do that," Pete said.

35

"Navigate me." Doug took both hands off the wheel and covered his eyes with them. Tisha squealed and grabbed the wheel. "Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh. Oh. Doug? Doug. Please drive." "I am driving," Doug said, "I'm just not navigating. It's cool." "Okay." Tisha said. "Uhm. Doug? Slow down here a little." "Why?" Tisha set her face. "Doug, I'm navigating. And I decide how fast we go. At any given time. That's how it works." "Cool," Doug said. He lifted off the gas and the car slowed emphatically. "Good. There's good," Tisha said. Pete watched her with admiration.

Packing They hadn't figured on now much room they'd need for all the camping gear. Pete, for one, figured that it was camping gear, and should therefore be tiny, so as to be easily carried. But, with Tisha's clothes filling the trunk, there wasn't much room for the tents and other paraphernalia Pete, as the most likely to succeed, was volunteered to go back into the store to procure some method of attaching the camping gear to the car. He returned with an armload of bungie cords and two rolls of tape. And an ice cream cone. "What's that for?" Doug asked. "To hold the stuff on the car?" "No, the ice cream?" "To eat. For me. Because I'm special" "I'm special," Tisha said. "Not like me." "Gimme." She took the ice cream and made a point of enjoying it. Pete threw a roll of tape and a single bungie cord to Doug and started piling stuff onto the top of the car. "Wanna re-think that perfect car idea?" "Nope. You wouldn't be able to do this with your perfect car." "True. But at least mine would be groovy cool." "Well so's mine." "Yeah. Also a good point. Still. A station wagon, or a van, definitely has some appeal right now." "If we had a van, we wouldn't need the tent. We could just sleep in it." "That'd be fun," Tisha added, "not." She handed the empty cone back to Pete. He looked at it, then ate it. After Doug had his go at securing things, Pete started in with the rest of the dozen or so bungie cords. Then he did what he thought was a neat and tidy job of applying tape. His thought was that he needed tape in certain locations to prevent the bungie cords from flapping or abandoning their places altogether. And he wanted it to look cool. To an internal aesthetic that had come to him out of nowhere. One thing he was sure about. Things were the way they were supposed to be.

leaf

37

Back on the road, he watched Doug's head nod and bob, wondered for a while about the sensibility of their trip, but like with the camping gear, he couldn't overcome a feeling that things were the way they were supposed to be. And then sleep snuck up behind him. Punched the punk chick fun pills in the stomach, stood behind Pete and waited for a gust of wind from the ninety mile per hour open window to knock him unconscious. He dreamt. For the first time since Doug had picked him up, he dreamt. Of shopping malls from the future. He felt transgressive. All the stores seemed much too tall for him. And there seemed to be a method of commerce that was so alien to him that he couldn't see it. Could only see that everyone else there knew he didn't know. And shunned him. It was eternally sunset coming through the entry doors and the skylights, with tornado clouds green overhead. Casting a gloom over the half empty stores and laconic patrons. He was accompanied by someone that stayed out of sight, just behind and to the left of him. Pushing him along. They had to get somewhere, and the someone knew where it was, but they kept his information from him. They looked at leather clothing, and and abandoned electronics boutique. The food court was crowded but there was no food. Only drinks. And fountains. Through the occasional door, all locked, he could see empty parking lots with all their lights on. There were security vehicles racing in all directions. Silently. He tried to evade his accompaniment, and did. But then he was lost. Stuck halfway up a stair case that was broken. So he went to sleep. And woke up in a boarding house, notable for its intense sunlit aspect. Dust hung heavy in the air, circulated by the foot traffic across the splintery floorboards. He felt high. There was a taste of pot smoke in the air. And a kiddie pool in the middle of the parlor. He sat down in it and swam through the wall, outside. Through a canal that was well lit with marine green lights. There were flowers sequenced along the edges of the canal, keeping guard that he didn't try to get out. The current carried him along in the twists and dips. He flowed through a tunnel, and into a large tiled building, here the canal was lined with strangers that he knew to be his classmates to come. And then he splashed. And drank. And he woke up. Drenched.

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"Doug! Close the window," he shouted, trying to sort out where the water had come from. Near as he could tell, it was an even mix of sweat, and rain. The rain coming in the window was fine mist, but the speed gave it a sting and the wind gave it a chill. He was still battling with the hangover of the dream, having trouble assigning sequence to reality and dream. Doug and Tisha looked back at him in a way that made him frightened. He quickly realized that this was not so much fear of them, but fear of them not watching the road. "I'm fine," he said. To forestall and give him time to recompose and reenter reality. Doug looked forward, relieving Pete's tension, but Tisha did not. She didn't do anything else either, just looked at him with a pleasant smile. He picked up his sweatshirt off the floor and used it as a towel. Tisha watched, and when he'd given up, she handed him hers. "Thanks," he said, doing a reasonable job of grooming himself out. He hung both shirts over the back of the seat, hoping that the sparkly sunlight coming through the rain might do some drying. A t least the wind'll do something, he thought. He turned back and she was still smiling at him. "Thanks." "No problem. I can't wait for my turn." "At what?" "Dreaming." "Yeah. Recommended" "I could tell. You looked like you'd be happy never waking up." She dabbed the corner of her mouth with her sleeve cuff. "I don't know about that. It was pretty intense." He rubbed his face with his palms and then fluffed his hair out, doing a bit more drying. "I do feel good now though." "Yeah." "Yeah." He looked at his hands, and then other parts of him. "You know, and I say this to mean it, but I've never felt better." "Really?" "Yeah, I feel good. Not high, or... you know, it's not pleasure or anything. But I just plain feel good. Wholesome." "How... Something, of you." Tisha said. Then she laughed. "I think maybe we need to get Doug some of that." "Yeah, we will."

leaf

39

They both stared at Doug. He didn't seem to be engaged at all. Pete tapped his shoulder. Nothing. "Yeah," Pete said, knowing that Doug wouldn't hear or mind anyway, "that's what the camping's for. At some point he'll conk out. There's just not much to do at a campground. He'll get bored. Hopefully. Or at least pass out." "Yeah," Tisha said, "if not, we can knock him out." "How?" "Maybe a big stick? Bonk him on the head should do it." "Good thinking. But I have my doubts. He might like it." "Well, that would be good of a different kind, I guess."

Tried Doug drove them hard, and fast, but the rest of Doug seemed to wane. By dinner time, Tisha and Pete were long past wondering how Doug was doing, and were well into playing with him to amuse themselves. "Beep," Pete said. "Beep," Doug replied. "Penguin noodles," Trisha said. "You. Are a penguin noodle," Doug said. "I will tell you. There is no way that there isn't a. Truckstop! Here. There has to be, because there are penguins. I know that. You told me that. So I know. So it has to be here. And a snorkel. I mean, come on. How much more obvious can it be?" "Beep," Pete said, then laughed. As the sun was setting, and he wanted some reasonable chance of finding a decent place to camp, Pete took over from Doug at the wheel. He accomplished this coup through the cunning of telling Doug that the truckstop was hiding somewhere in the back seat, and that Doug needed to wait in ambush for it. This worked surprisingly well, for a while. When they did pull into a campground, right off the interstate, with a population of half campers and half tents, which Pete assessed as being actually quite lucky, thinking as he had, that most likely they'd run into nothing but campers, and thus not achieve Doug's goal of lots of personal interaction, Doug bustled out of the back seat at the first opportunity, and accosted the first person he found. In this case two persons, twin sisters who were walking back from the showers, hair in bundles and carrying buckets with soaps and grooming implements. "Penguins!" he yelled. Both the girls laughed, a little, and looked at each other. They tried to continue on, but Doug outflanked them. But not for long. The girls' father was within range and came to their aid. Doug turned to his new target. "You. Are certainly the penguin I. Will throw myself clear through you. Watch. I will." Doug performed a maneuver that looked like a cross between a four year old girl punching a heavy bag, and a pirouette. "This isn't going as well as I thought it would," Pete said. "No," Trisha agreed.

leaf

41

The father, showing admirable restraint, watched Doug on the ground for a moment, watched his daughters recede out of range, and then bent down to inquire as to Doug's state of affairs. "Penguin!" Doug lashed out, but his hands were clasped in front of his belly, and his belly was draped across a parking curb, so the lashing attempted achieved more of an enthusiastic twitch. Or maybe a spasm, Pete thought. The man continued showing stout samaritan character, repeating his inquiry. This time Doug showed resolve and tenacity, rolling over and grabbing the man by the shirt. The man, having become bored, and somewhat irritable, took this as his cue. He gave Doug a token punch on the nose, eliciting an immediate and delicate trickle of blood. Stood up, clapped his hands to clear the dust, and walked after his daughters. "Hmm," Tisha commented, "hard to figure. Good, or bad?" "Yeah, know what you mean," Pete said. "I'm gonna pencil it in as good. I'll revisit that once we get the tent set up." "Okay." "Kinda depends on whether he's still here by then." "Yep. Yep," Tisha agreed. "Know how to set up a tent?" "Uh... Is it hard?" Pete asked. "There's a lot of parts, I know that. I watched my brothers do it once. But that was during the day. So this is bound to be easier. By flashlight." "You have a flashlight?" Pete asked, "that's such a good idea." "You didn't get a flashlight?" "Nope." He looked at the stack of stuff on top of the car. Took a few breaths. "You know. It wasn't dark. In the store. I mean. It was a mistake. Okay. My fault." "Yes," Tisha said. "But on the good side, you did get ice cream. That was good." Pete smiled and remembered "Yeah. That was. Wonder if there's any more around here somewhere." "Not for us. Not tonight. I'm not getting back in that car until Doug becomes a person again." She looked up through the trees. At the clouds. "Hey. I wonder if it's a full moon. You know, he's a... well he's not a werewolf. What else happens at the full moon?" "High tide?" Pete guessed.

42 "No, not that. Something else." Tisha scratched her chin.

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Murk After sort of getting the tent erected, with the help of a few well meaning but trashed neighbors, and a tree, and healthy dollops of tape, Tisha and Pete both agreed, on pragmatic grounds, that Doug would be best off in the back seat of the car. They arranged it as best they could, and bedded him in with care, and a pillow and a sleeping bag, and a bottle of water and a couple of candy bars. Just in case. Then they retired to the tent. They told a few stories, and listened to owls and crickets and logs crackling and drunks discussing and late night urinators tripping over beer bottles. And traffic. After a longish pause, during which, customarily one party or the other, or both, nod off, Tisha leaned over and kissed Pete. Out of politeness, and protocol. "Good night Pete. I'm having fun." "Yeah. Me too. Sweet dreams." He realized that there was no pretense between them. It struck him odd, since he'd known her for only a short, albeit intense time span. It struck him odd, in the same way that it struck her odd, for the portion of a beat before he fell sound asleep. He'd dreamed out. Earlier in the car. So he didn't bother. Only slept.

Cake Next morning, taking down the tent was easy. Pete took the tape off. "Voila!" Tisha clapped, along with a few hung over neighbors. subdued tinkling of beer bottles. There was a

They rolled up the tent as it lay, and plopped it on top of the car. Then they considered Doug. He was sprawled. With candy bar visible over much of his exposed skin. "I hope that is candy bar." Pete commented. "Agreed," Tisha agreed. "I'm sure it is." "Think we should let him sleep?" "Yeah, I think so. But then... What's he going to be like when he's rested up." "Scary to think about." "Still, yeah. He should sleep. Let's roll the windows down, you know, so he doesn't..." "Start panting?" "There's that." "I'll let you take care of that. I'm going to the showers." She paused for a moment. "You should get that tent strapped down. When he wakes up, he might not want to wait around." "Good point." He struggled with the tent for a while, becoming enough of a minor spectacle to attract help from the more seasoned campers. They demanded that he strip it down properly, rather than applying more tape. And he had to agree, once done, that it did pack up nicely, and that that was the better option. He also picked up some tips about setting it up properly the next time. And, one elderly lady handed him the directions. "They fell out. Must've. They were stuck under that brick over there. Lucky thing. You should read 'em." "Thanks. Ma'am." She glowered at him. Then smiled. Tisha returned, dry, dressed, and perky. "Can I drive now?" She asked. "Fine by me. Who knows about Doug."

leaf "He'll let me. I think I'm figuring him out."

45

"Hey," Pete asked, "do you feel tired? I think I caught this bug from Doug, and I'm tired all the time. I'm ready to go back to sleep already." "Could've fooled me. You guys seem hyperkinetic." "Nice word. Yeah, no, that's just because he keeps shoveling speed down our throats." "Ooh, well, that's good to know. I'll keep you posted. No. Wait. No, I do feel a bit drowsy Perhaps you should put me on the roster for medicating." "Huh?" "Speed please." "Oh, sure. Doug's in charge of that. I'm sure you won't have any problems at all on that front. He's a demon in all ways about the drugs. He loves 'em." "I'm a fan." "Yeah, I don't mind either. But Doug. He's really a demon. I'm not kidding. You'll see." "Oh, I can see plenty already. I like it." "Yeah, I guess I do too. Welp. Good night. No, wait. Yeah. Let's go!"

Neglect With Pete driving, there was much less need for gas stops, but he made a point of stopping anyway, every time he thought about it. They loitered around rest stops and tourist attractions and points of interest. Pretty much anywhere where people congregated. They told Doug that these were all truckstops. To keep him pacified. "You know," Pete said, looking at his funnel cake with admiration, "Seems like Doug's been ahead of the curve on all this. In the progression of his disease, if you will." Tisha eyed his funnel cake. "You gonna finish that?" "You can have it." He handed it to her. "Where's yours?" "Mmm. Ate it." After she finished his, she licked her fingers. "Oh, yeah, I see what you mean about Doug. You thinking that in a few days we'll be drooling messes like he is?" "Yeah, but for some reason I'm not worried." "Me neither." "But it would make me feel a lot better, for my curiosity, to see what happens next. To him. Is he going to get better." Tisha stole a look at Doug in the back seat. There was drool on his face and he had one foot over the back of the seat, the other jammed under the driver's seat and he was holding his pillow like a teddy bear. She looked back at Pete. "You know, I'm sure he will get better. And I do notice that you're progressing. Can you feel it? You seem to be where Doug was when I met him. If that makes sense." "Sure, yeah, it does. Yeah, I can feel it. Whatever 'it' is. Kinda hard to pin down." "I've got it too," Tisha said. "Oh yeah you do." "What do you figure? You're a couple of days behind Doug, and I'm a couple of days behind that?" "Sounds about right." "Hmm..." Pete looked at her while she was thinking. He had a thought. "Do you know how to drive?" "Oh. Sure." "Stick shift?"

leaf "Yeah, kinda."

47

"Well don't worry, I'll give you a little lesson before I become a zombie. Before I become zombieified." "Thanks. Hey Pete?" She shifted in her seat. "Yeah?" "Can we go see the marmot?" "Ha. Where'd that come from?" "Doug talks about it a lot." "Does he?" He looked over at Doug. "Yeah, I guess he does. Sure. I don't see why not. Except that I don't know where it is. No idea. I don't even know where we are now." "Me neither. I have a strong strong feeling of not knowing, and not wanting to know." "Me too." "So?" "I'm sure we can find it. Might take a little research. But why not. It's a goal." "That it is. I'm excited." "Marmot ho!" Pete gestured boldly. "So, Pete? Maybe we can stop at a real store somewhere and get some healthy food? Maybe that would make things better." "No. I feel it, and Doug was pretty strong on it too. I think eating total crap is important. Don't you feel... well yeah, Miss 'eat my funnel cake for me', of course you do. No, that's one thing more that I think Doug had right. That may be why he's fixated on truckstops, because of the food." "Yeah." "And," he continued, "who's to say what's better?" "Wanna debate that?" Tisha asked. "Sure, why not?" And so they did. To no conclusive conclusion. But they expended hours and energy. They became so engrossed that they ran out of gas for not paying attention.

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Through sheer luck, it happened near the top of a hill, with an off ramp at the bottom, so, even though Pete pulled over, after some brief discussion, they tried their luck at coasting in. The start was comical, with both of them kicking their feet on the pavement, looking like futile rowers, picking up speed ever so gradually But inexorably. When they reached about one mile per hour, they shut the doors, and continued their debate for the minutes it took to get to the offramp. The ramp drained most of their inertia, but not all. At the top, Pete blew the stop sign and took the corner screeching a little. The managed to coast almost to the entrance of a gas station, and then Pete got out and pushed. The attendant came out and helped. perfect timing there. You're pretty lucky." Commenting: "that's just about

"Yeah," Pete agreed. Seems to be happening a lot lately. We seem to be living by luck." The attendant looked at him funny, just slightly, and then went back into the store. They filled up, and went inside. They picked out a bounty of crap food and when they got to the counter, the attendant appeared to not know them. Pete did his best polite, and they left. "Hey," Pete said, "take a look at the counter guy. Is he watching us?" She looked. "Me. Yeah. But that's normal. Don't worry about it." Pete looked. The attendant was staring, blank faced. "You know," he said, "I'm starting to get deep I think. Nothing seems quite normal." "Yeah, well, that's to be expected." "No, this is more active. Paranoia even." "Well, there's nothing all that peculiar. Nobody that I can see is coming after you. I think you can let it go." She was patting his arm, but she stopped. "Now that I find myself saying it out loud. It does seem a bit odd... Well, look at you." "What?" "You're carrying all you can carry," she started tapping on bags, "pork rinds, chips, dip, candy, no chocolate, by the way, which is a sin, caffeine all over the place, beef jerky..." "Not meat sticks," he added. "Right. So. Hey, wait a minute..." "What?"

leaf "Just wait a minute, I'll be right back." She ran back into the store.

49

Pete watched her as she went straight to the counter and leaned over to talk to the attendant. He had to squint to see, and even then, he couldn't see much, so he got bored. He put the food in the back seat of the car. Doug was moving, so he yelled, "Hey Doug. Food. Wake up a little and eat. Or for sure drink something. You look not so good." Doug cranked one eye open. He appeared to be trying, but the eye didn't seem to want to point at anything. "Wha?" "Hey. Drink something. Here." Pete handed him an energy drink. A green one. "It's classic. Drink it. As much as you can." Doug did his best. After expending himself, he held the bottle out, and Pete took it, and put the cap back on. Doug tried the eye again, and had some luck. "punk chick?" "Sure, here." Pete rummaged in his pocket and found one of the pills. He pushed it into Doug's hand and then unscrewed the cap off the energy drink and handed that back too. He started laughing watching Doug's repeated attempts at swallowing the pill. Many attempts, and then success. "Go Doug!" "Go Doug!" Tisha added. "How's it going Mister Doug?" "Happy," Doug said. "That's good," Tisha said, "How do you feel about going to see the marmot again?" "Marmot!" Doug yelled. "Good. Good to have you back." When they got back in the car, Pete leaned over and spoke close to Tisha's ear. "I assume you got a lead on the marmot?" "Yep." "Good. Cuz otherwise that might cause problems with Doug. You know." "Yeah. Don't worry. Seems pretty solid. Guy's been there. It's not very far either. We could get there today. Wanna try?" "Sure, why not?" *** Doug still seemed down. Subdued. But he was definitely not getting worse. And that changed the ambient mood in the car drastically for the better. They didn't talk about it, but everybody was relieved. They'd gotten fixated on the progression of the disease, and Doug now represented the other side. That what came next was a long nap, not a decline.

50 When Doug was coherent, he was very much so.

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Pete could tell he was starting his own decline, and made a point of detouring to a side road, and giving Tisha a few lessons in how to drive Doug's car. He also handed over his wallet, with stern instructions to not ever give it to Doug. "He's a menace with money at the best of times. He'll need cash, of course, we don't want him stealing the drugs. But don't let him have the card, or the wallet. Okay?" "No problem. Got it chief." Pete felt very much like a parent. In a not unpleasant way, he reflected. "Okay, so, Tisha, I think you've got it. Enough. I'm going to try to drive as long as I can, but I want you to tell me when it's time for me to give it up. And don't hesitate to steal the keys from me, or whatever. I'll try to be cooperative. It's just hard to tell what part was the disease, and what was just Doug being himself." "So, he's like this normally?" "Kinda, yeah. Until it started happening to me too, I didn't think that it was anything other than one of his moods." "He must be a fun guy." "Oh, he is. For sure. Very taxing, but never dull." "Do you like him?" "Oh yeah. Very much. He's hard to get along with, I guess. Hard to figure out too. But he's a good guy. At the core. You know. I'd trust him." "Do you?" "Yeah, I do, but I meant that I'd recommend that you trust him too." "Okay. That means something." She grabbed him around the neck and kissed him again. "Don't think that means something. I'm holding my judgement until I come to my senses. And don't think you can take advantage of me later, and think you can blame it on your condition. That won't work with me." "Hi." Pete said. "Good." Tisha said. "I'm gonna take a nap now, I think I may need it, and I'm tired too. Gimme one of those punk chick fun pills." "That sounds funny when you say it." He opened the glove box and pointed at the bag. "You think it doesn't sound funny when you say it?" "I hadn't thought about it. But it doesn't sound funny at all when Doug says it."

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"You know. You're right. It sounds very natural. I guess that's a little insight into Doug. I look forward to further investigation." She laughed. "I don't even know why that's funny." "But it is," Pete said. "But it is. Yes." They looked at each other with a moment of startle. Then started laughing again.

Rain Pete assumed that they were going the right way. He assumed that Tisha knew the way, and that she'd tell him if he was off track. They talked about rain, as it rained. And it rained. Pete got off the highway because he felt blind at speed. The meandered across farm roads and rural highways. They kept to the leading edge of the rain, so that to either side of them, the drops fell on dust, kicking up tiny impact craters and throwing a sheen of blonde dust over the landscape. "Hear that?" Tisha said. "Yeah." "Sounds like... I don't know. But it's loud. Maybe cicadas?" "Yeah." Pete pulled the car over and turned it off. Doug murmured, "Marmot?" "No," Pete said, "I think it's the corn. The rain hitting the corn. All around us. God that's loud." Some dust rolled in through the window. It tasted dry. "Weird," Tisha said. "Weird," Pete said. "So Pete. You want me to wait until you start 'boop booping' like Doug did, or do you want me to take over now?" He started to protest, but had trouble moving his mouth. Finally he smiled, shrugged, and said, "Boop?" "Okay, slide over." Tisha got out and walked around to the driver's side. When she got back in, Pete was fishing out the pills from the glove box. "Better gimme those," she said. She took the bag, and took three tablets out. Handed one to Doug and one to Pete, and took one herself. "We gotta get you up and working soon Doug. We're running low on pills." "Marmot," Doug said. "Marmot," Pete concurred. "Is that where the pills came from?" Pete nodded. "Sleep?" "Sure, go ahead." She turned and looked into the back seat. "Hey, before you conk out, could you reach me a drink?" Pete did.

Good morning He woke up not at all sure where he was. Or who he was. And he went back to sleep. A light was disturbing him. He opened one eye, and saw a beam of light. Heaven-like. Forcefully imposing on a felt blackness. The source was a rectangle of light straight ahead of him as he viewed it, but, he figured, actually above him, because he was mostly lying down. Y eah, mostly, he thought. He felt around. Wood? Dried grass. A wool blanket. It smelled fertile. He opened his mouth, and was bombarded with sensations resulting from the action. Very dry. Chapped. Cracking. "Pete," Pete Pete Pete Pete. I t echoed in his head. It was still dark, he couldn't see anything. Couldn't discern anything other than a voice. Couldn't even discern that. It was just there. He breathed out hard, his best attempt at answering. It seemed to do the trick. "Pete. You're back." Doug. Good. He breathed again. "Here, have some water." Water poured over his face, wetting the dried skin. He let it dribble out, not able to flex his swallowing muscles He let things hydrate for a count, and then breathed again. More water. This time he let a little trickle into his throat, concentrating to not cough or gag. It worked. He breathed again and drank. A sip. But it was a start. He knew. He was functioning again. He slept. He woke, and Doug waved at him. Handed him a pill, and then a bottle, and he took them, and then went back to sleep. He looked at the beam of light as he dozed off, wondered why it was always there. S houldn't it move around with the sun? He slept. "I been thinking about what you said," Doug said, "about the cars. Because what the fuck else am I going to do, right? Both of you crapped out on me, lying on the floor in and old farm... well, hell, this isn't a barn. Call it a shed. So anyway, … what?" He stopped to listen to Pete as he struggled to eke out whole words. "Sentences," Pete said. "Yep, amazing, isn't it?" Pete attempted a nod.

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"Don't bother, Pete old buddy, I know what you're going through. Did it myself, you know. And you do know, right?" "Quit." Pete said. "Yeah, I know. I'm just doing it to bug you. I haven't really turned into Chumly McScienceBrain. But it's fun." "Quit." "Okay, for you, I will." He reached down and pulled Pete's head up and slid something pillow-like under his head. "You seem to be coming around enough. I'll go ahead and fill you in. Don't worry if you nod off. I'll go over it again, if you like." Doug started in. "So, I guess I was fully up and about, well, well first of all, I'd say, I was about where you are now when you gave me the green energy drink. I remember that. Anyway, I guess I was up and fairly back to normal, 'bout..." Pete went back to sleep. He woke again because somebody was tapping his arm. "Hey Pete, Doug again. Here, drink something. You should be coming around. If you're going through what I did. I think it's some kind of flu." "Yeah. Seems like it," Pete said. "Seriously. Doug, it's freaking me out to hear you talking that way." "Sorry. Partly it's to bug you, but partly... remember talking any other way." "You don't?" "Well, I remember doing it. I don't remember why." "Oh." Pete drank more. "How's Tisha?" "Wouldn't call it good. But you know. Expected." "How long?" "She went down pretty quick. I've been on my own for a while." "You were a couple of days." "That's what she said." He paused to laugh. "But she really did. She was up long enough to get me the story." "Did you find the marmot?" "I did. But she was out by then. 'fact, that's why we're here. Because she really wanted to see it. So I didn't want to wander off." "We're still at the marmot?" "Close." I dunno. I don't really

leaf "punk chick fun pills?" "Yes, as a matter of fact, I did track those down. Want one?" "Sure, why not?"

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"They don't seem to do as much as they did before. But it's still fun. I figure it's because they fought off the flu or whatever. Seemed much more potent." "Or you could have just got crap this time." "No. Pretty sure not. Same girl. They look the same. The pills. Can't see how or why she'd bother." "She nice?" "Yeah, pretty nice. And not really fat. Don't know where that came from. She set us up here." "Her farm?" "No, but yes. It's not her farm, but she did know about it." "Nice." "Lucky. And nice." "Yeah, I do feel like I've been living on luck." "Tisha told me about that. Interesting theory." "Not exactly a theory." "It is now. I've had lots of free time." "Well, so do I, I guess." "Well, what is luck?" "Doug, I'm not really up for a rhetorical scenario thingy here, why don't you just tell me?" "Right. Okay. I figure... luck is something that's a combination of things. There's a part of luck that's really probability. The math of things. How often something happens. But that's just how things are. That's no part of luck." He paused, waiting for a challenge that Pete wasn't up to providing. "I don't know what all else might actually be luck, but I've been thinking a lot, and I have figured out one thing. Or, I guess it's a set of things..." Pete wondered if he was dreaming again. "… First one I came up with is chemical. You know how it is when you get laid? Course you do. Well, you know how afterwards you'll kinda do things, be nice?" "Pussywhipped?"

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"Exactly! Right. So, it's like that. I think there's something chemical. That, if you have it. The luck. That you give off some sort of chemical. Something that makes people like you. Do things for you. For no reason. Well, not a reason I've figured out yet. And that's what I think is going on with us. I think I've always had it. Thinking back, it seems that way. A lot of things go my way." "I did notice that," Pete said. "Well, I think it's something I've had. Like a disease. You know, for a long time. And now, maybe it got contagious. Seems like you caught it. Oh, and while I'm thinking, don't you feel good?" "Yeah, yeah, I do. I mean, it's like before, but more." Pete sat up a little. "Way more. Obviously I feel like I've been digested. But yeah, I do feel great. Like christmas morning or something." "Yep. That's it. Moving on. The marmot. I've been there a few times. Kind of gotten attached to it. It seems very Buddha-like." "Are you having a religious epiphany around the world's largest marmot." Pete was feeling his strength coming back. "Yes." Pete stared at him. "Kidding?" "No." "Doug? Are you in there?" "Yeah, it's me still. And I know what it seems like. Not like you'd care, I guess. But I've always been in here like this. Something lifted though." "You think it'll happen to me?" "No idea. I can't imagine it's exactly like this. You weren't exactly like me to begin with." "No. True. Not close at all." Pete looked around, starting to see shapes. "Hey, where's Tisha?" "Right over there, She's out out. But don't worry. I got an IV in her, and a few other medical things best not discussed. Point being, she's fine. I'm taking care of her. And you and I made it through without. So no worry." "Seriously. Doug. Doug?" "You want me to tell you some secrets? Something only 'the real Doug' could know? Make you feel better?" "Yeah. Might." So he did. Pete listened and remembered, and felt good. And then he nodded off again to the sound of Doug's voice.

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Paying Respects Doug had done shopping, and when Tisha came to, and had recovered sufficiently, they all dressed in new clothes that he'd picked out. And prepared to make their pilgrimage to the marmot. Pete had trouble not thinking of it as 'Marmot' proper noun. "These fit perfectly. How did you know?" "Yeah," Tisha added. They both looked at Doug with fleeting suspicion "Measuring tape. Plus, I got some little scissors and threads and things and did a bit of tailoring." "Fuck me," Pete said. "No, no, I didn't do that. Promise. Both. Either. None of that. But I did have lots of time, as I keep saying. So, yeah, so what if I know how to sew. Sue me. I was a cub scout."

Blowout Steve had been special forces, at one point, and in his mind's eye, he still was, just more advanced. But that didn't seem to make one bit of difference when you got a flat tire. He'd been unlucky and it had overheated from a slow leak and had shredded at over a hundred miles an hour. The flailing carcass had lodged bits of itself into the steering mechanism, jamming it up, and bending some of the critical parts. T hough what parts of the steering aren't critical, he thought to himself. He was waiting out the night in the roadside enclave where the tow truck lived. There would be a mechanic in the morning, and certainly he'd have to order parts. Steve didn't mind. He was comfortable anywhere. And as anybody knew, truckstops had the best food. He sat at a booth drinking milk and water in alternate sips, letting his patty melt digest. He stared out the window at the cars and trucks going about their business, listening to the other conversations in the diner. An unwashed, unshaven, ill proportioned but consummately comfortable looking man at the counter took off his green cap and placed it next to his plate. Steve read 'ADM' on the front in grubbied up white letters. Steve wasn't sure who the man was talking to, but he was talking loud, so it could've been anybody. ...what I'm sayin, and believe me, I haul these fuckers around all the time. I mean it, all. The. Time. And I look at 'em a lot. Cuz I'm a good guy. I like to make sure they're doin' alright. Even though it's not part of my job. Don't get paid a dime for that part. 'fact, I lose money doin' it. Cause I gotta stop, ya know? Anyway, they're not dumb, them cows. They seem dumb. Cause they don't do much. But believe you me, they're jus' waitn' ... They're waitn' for us to nuke each other out of existence. ... Nah, think about it. It's like biological imperative. Ya know? See, it's Darwin... ... Yeah. They have this survival mechanism. They're really good to eat. ... Sure they are, ton of meat, slow moving, tasty. You ever see that bumper sticker?

60 ... 'If got hadn't wanted us to eat meat, why'd he make cows so tasty?' ... Yeah, me too. Anyway, I figure it's true. ...

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Well, that's not all. See, the trick is, their trick is, that they're so yummy, that we breed a lot of them. We support them. We make sure there's zillions of cows. I bet there's more cows that people. ... No? Well, there's zillions anyway. ... My point is, that, well, hell, think about it. You got your red blooded, meat eatin', manly men, right? That's not a coincidence. See, I figure... ... No, I figure, they got something in 'em that makes people inclined to fight. ... No, wouldn't go that far, but maybe. Sure, why not? Cows are the cause of all wars. Yeah, that's the general idea anyway. ... Right, so, by being so tasty, they've tricked us. We support them while they stand around all day making cow babies. And all the while, they're slow poisoning us. As a race. ... Well maybe not. But I figure, it's all part of their plan. ... Sure. We wouldn't have nukes if it weren't for war. Why bother? ... Sure. Anyway, yeah, they're all set. They just wait around a bit longer, somebody pushes the red button, and poof, no more people. And the cows take over the world. ... No, you'll see. Trust me, I can see it in their eyes. ... Oh, I'm sure they're radiation proof. Probably why they're so big. Radioactivity can't get through or sumpin'.

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Steve got up to see if there was a lounge area where he might get some sleep. Otherwise it was going to have to be the back seat.

Wax The second trip to the marmot was more meaningful than the first. Aiding the portent was a dramatic sky, roiling with clouds and an early onset sunset. The marmot stood in strong relief. It seemed bold and vengeful It looked pissed off. Doug had found an appropriate gun. An oversized military squad weapon of obscured type. The butt stock had been cut down, and most of the metal work had been painted over with matte paint. He was wearing matching clothing, and right away when they got there, he set about posing. He handed Pete the camera, and pointed out the suggested vantage points from which he was supposed to take the shot. He struck a few different poses, shouting 'Now!', 'Now!', 'Now!', then he stopped and walked back to Pete. "Hey, let's do the same, but this time, crouch down, make me look taller. I'm not sure how I measure up to the groundhog." "Marmot." Pete corrected. "Right, marmot." "You have a plan, don't you?" Pete asked. Doug winked at him and went back to posing. Pete got a vibe of revolutionary propaganda off of what he was seeing through the viewfinder, and he knew this was intentional. "Hey Doug, you planning to take over something?" he asked while shifting positions. "Something like that. Maybe." "At some point, think you'll explain why it involves the giant marmot?" "I couldn't explain. But I think you understand." Pete had a feeling running through him, a tip of the tongue feeling, that told him Doug was right. He decided that Doug had enough shots of Doug, and propped the camera on the hood of the car, and set its self timer so they could get some shots of all of them. For posterity. Tisha was hesitant, but went along after only a small amount of flattery and rationale.

Chain A vice president of an oil conglomerate got the call. He was well used to the posting, and carried a built in predetermination that if someone was presenting him with something, then it was important. He was never condescending. He had people for that. So he didn't blink, or even wonder to himself why he was being told that they had a shortage of counter employees for a whole corridor of stores. He was told that covering four states, almost every one of the hourly workers had either quit, or called in sick. A lesser man than he might have delayed matters and not heard this whole story, but he was good at his job. And in total, the implication was obvious. It wasn't a human resources issue. Damage control was needed. A sudden change, such as this, he informed the caller as he typed a message to his assistant, most likely was symptomatic of a real illness of some sort, and that at all costs, whatever the illness was, it couldn't be allowed to be associated with the name, or the perception of the conglomerate Of course, the caller said, he knew this, and this was why he had called the vice president. The vice president was out the door, heading to his helicopter and a fact finding mission to the stores within the hour. *** He was used to the helicopter bringing out a crowd, but by the third truckstop, he'd stopped expecting that. Most times there was one driver, startled out of his filling up, who'd come around the corner, shading his eyes and craning his neck, but then that solitary receptionist would wander away without fanfare. At the first stop, the store had been locked, no one in evidence. And at the second, only the shift manager was there. Running the pumps, but little else. Here at the third stop, there were two managers, freeing up one of them to talk to the vice president. "Thanks for hanging in there, Mitch," he said to the manager, "how're you holding up?" He extended his hand and shook the manager's, cupping it with his other hand. "We're getting by, pretty well, considering." "Any idea, any word, about what's going on?" "Sure. A few people have called in, nothing specific. Just can't make it in. And of course most of them just don't show up." "How're you doing? Yourself. How do you feel?"

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dehetre "Just fine. A bit tired at this point, but that's to be expected. I'll be fine." "Well you take care of yourself. We need all the help we can get." "We're doing our best."

"Good. Okay, if you don't mind. The doctor's going to take a few tests. And Gary over there with the toolbox is a chemist. He's going to check things out. Make sure there's no gas leak or any other plant problems that need to be seen to. I hope you don't mind." "No, not at all. Of course not. Hi Gary, nice to meet you." He shook Gary's hand as the man passed by.

Whirled James Mereczk was flying a converted Boeing 707 out of Robbins Air Force Base. The 707 was a storm tracking (or submarine tracking, if it ever came to that) plane, and his crew had been in the air for over eighty hours circling hurricane Forrest. Partly they were on the extended mission because it was always difficult to maintain continuity on the data if you had to switch planes, or worse, land and re-man the same plane. But also because the peripheries of hurricane Forrest were interfering with operations at Robbins. They could still land, if they had to, but in the interests of keeping the runway available for more urgent needs, nobody at control was pushing too hard for them to cut the flight short. And this was why the plane was stocked with supplies, food, water, coffee, changes of clothes, and a large box of stimulants. These last were single small doses, individually shrink wrapped, travel sized, as Mereczk thought of them. Each airman was assigned a dosing number by the doctors, and this easy to remember number told them how many shrink wraps they were supposed to take. Mereczk's number was five. He'd long since forgotten how often he was supposed to take five, so he took five whenever it occurred to him. He'd been at the controls, barring bathroom breaks, for the whole flight when he went full delirious and drove the plane straight down into the eye of the storm. Bullseye, he thought. His crew was well trained in how to prevent such an event. In fact, it could be argued, and was, often, that this was their only real purpose on the plane. However, they'd all already gone delirious due to their more conscientious attention to the medical officers regarding stimulants use.

Hello? With gentle persuasion, and subtle nudges, Tisha and Pete had steered Doug away from his obsession with truckstops for the meanwhile. Primary amongst the arguments was the suggestion that access to research materials was really the only way they were going to be able to find all the roadside giant fiberglass rodents, mammals, mascots, and other oddities. Doug had been oblivious until this caught his attention. And from there, they were implanted in a university neighborhood surrounded by urban metropolis. This vastly improved the quality of the coffee, among other things. Immediately they'd found suitable accommodations (a hostel/dorm room rented for Pete, but shared across all of them, Doug had installed himself in the library. This left Tisha and Pete free to wander about and wonder what was going on. They compared notes about what they'd gone through, from meeting Doug up to the present. Of note was the general trend of Tisha catching up to Pete, in terms of schedule, and the shared intuition between them that they'd never catch up to Doug. That he'd always be ahead in the progression, whatever that meant. Doug seemed different. Different than them, and different than he'd been. Definitely different than he'd been. Even a couple of days prior. He talked less, and yet more eloquently. He seemed to be losing weight. "Have you noticed that Doug seems pale?" Tisha asked. "Maybe," Pete said. "I think it's not sick, but he seems like he's been bleached out by the sun. Think that's possible?" "Lately, I think anything's possible." "I hear ya'." She raised her coffee cup in salute. "We should get something to eat. And not forget to feed Doug." "Good idea. Do you know where he is?" "Library. But I guess that's a pretty big thing at a school, isn't it?" "Yeah, could be miles." "Of library?" "Yes." *** Doug was in one of the miles of library. Mile four. Being pestered by a skinny undergrad with a smart phone. Doug had a stack of used printer paper and a pencil, and was busy looking up roadside attractions, and giant animal

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statues, and anything else he could think of. He'd made the mistake of explaining what he was doing to the undergrad, and was being subjected to an unasked tutorial on the blissful benefits of the latest smartphone. "So, say for example," the undergrad said, "you don't want to come to the library, but just want to find the giant squirrel as you go, with this, just swipe here. Uh swipe. Here. Here. Here. Hold on. Swipe, then tap. Tap. Uh. Hold on. And you can do it while you're driving." "That's fascinating," Doug said, trying to be polite. "Do you know where I can buy some meth, or something like that?" He placed a neat stack of new bills on the table and scooted them over. "Go see what you can do." Thus dispatched, Doug got back to his stack of paper and his pencil. The undergrad came back several hours later, and looked disappointed that Doug was still there. But he had a pill bottle, without a label. Doug didn't acknowledge him at all. So the undergrad left the bottle sitting on the table. Doug kept his eye on it, but otherwise didn't deal with it at all until he was ready to leave. Which was when the librarian asked him to be ready to leave.

Cinder disco Evenings were awkward. Nights were okay, because they all slept, but evenings, now that they weren't all tired all the time, were awkward. Because they had no frame of reference, and so, no desire to be elsewhere, they sat in the dorm room, looking at each other. Talking in waves. Playing with random items left by previous tenants Snacking. Theorizing. But overall, an awkwardness. That they didn't belong, perhaps, in the basement room, with competing sound systems all around them, and the smell of pot, and opium wafting and permeating. And incense. The highlight, for all, of these awkward evenings, was shower time. Tisha, not a boy, still needed to bathe, she insisted, and so, even though the dorm was all male, she had to be accommodated Without arousing suspicion And it was this subterfuge, rather than the obvious titillation, that made shower time such fun time. The simple expedient of her pretending to be a boy was abandoned after the first day as being too boring. Too predictably successful. And so, on this second night, Doug and Pete had borrowed a mop bucket, and a radioactive waste sticker, and a drifting piece of crime scene tape, and had barricaded the door to the bathroom with the concept that it was unsafe to enter. Tisha, as the dynamic young scientist with the measurement gear, was the only one qualified and prepared to enter. And shower. And brush her teeth. And use the hand dryer. She got back in character before walking out, wearing her sweatsuit/pajamas, a painting respirator, and a pair of dishwashing gloves. "Thanks guys!" She mumbled through the respirator. She thought about feigning radiation sickness, but nobody else in the hall was paying her much attention. Doug pulled the tape off the doorway and dropped it in the mop bucket. "I'll take this stuff back. We have to think of something else for tomorrow. " "I'll go with you," Pete said. "Nah. I got some things I want to look into." "You sure?" "Yeah, besides, there's some business between you and Tisha" "Huh?" "You guys need some quality time together." "Uh. Huh. Okay. I've never thought about that. But you might be right." "You like her. And she's hot. And she's puppies over you." "How can you tell."

leaf "It's obvious."

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"But how can you tell that it's not just some artifact of the disease? The bug?" "Bug. I like that. Very generic." Doug hoisted the bucket up the short flight of stairs that led to the exit. "How do I know? I just do. And I'm good at that. And, remember. Luckiness." "Yeah. Okay. See ya. Don't put yourself out though. You need sleep, you come back." "No, not putting myself out. I really do have things to do, and I don't need so much sleep." He stopped and pulled the pill bottle out. "Reminds me. Here." He poured about half the bottle into his hand, and then into his pocket, and then capped and handed the bottle over to Pete. "Decent stuff. Annoying dealer." "Cool. Thanks."

Alone Pete let himself into the room. It was dark. And warm. And it smelled good. "Smells good in here," he said. "You like it? I found it in the back of one of the dresser drawers." "Yeah, it's nice." "So did you talk to Doug?" She spoke softly. "Yeah, so I guess you did too." "Yeah. Kinda awkward, I guess." "It's okay. In the scheme of things." "Are you...?" "Yeah, oh, yeah. Yes. Sure. I mean, it's all so..." Pete was flushing, and his thoughts weren't going in any particular direction. He waited. "Yeah. Things are very chaotic. So. Yeah. Why not?" "Why not?" She reached out and felt for his hand. He took it with both of his and then held it still with one while he traced patterns with the other. He did this while they talked. About what had happened so far. About where they were going. About how they felt about each other. She started breathing noticeably and he began to trace up her arm, pushing her sleeve up as he went. Still clasping her hand, immobilizing her. He could feel through the mattress the motions her body was starting to make. Slow, big sweeps, in time with his hand tracing her forearm, and then the inside of her upper arm. She had strong arms, but that was underneath. There was a surface of soft and cool and smooth skin that hid the strength underneath. Even as he touched her, he lost his perception of her strength whenever his touch lightened and all he could feel was the skin. Her end of the conversation got shallow, and then distracted, and then fragmentary. His was more flowing, but he had something to concentrate on. And his coherence was only relative. He found himself waxing long form about details of what he thought Doug might be up to in the library. He felt the need to change the subject away from another guy, but found that there was no other topic presenting itself, so he gave up and joined Tisha in speaking fragmentarily.

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Still they both kept it up, saying words to be saying something. All their attentions focused on his hand tracing patterns that gradually changed and moved and extended. He grabbed her shoulder with a cupped hand when it found itself there. He gripped, feeling and measuring her strength. Strong. Very strong. She wasn't reacting at all, but the latent, restrained power was impressive. Especially so from a tiny girl. That he'd been in close proximity to for days. He'd not seen any sign of this repressed force in her. He had paused in his talking, and his face was near hers. He looked into her eyes. She growled at him. "Oh," he said. Something switched off in his head. It was a little thing, and it obviously had something to do with the disease, and the changes it had caused, but he noticed it, and knew that there would be more. That it was only the first of a sequence of things that were about to switch off. "Ah," Tisha said. Her body relaxed under his touch and he followed it down, shoving her over onto her side facing the wall. He sat there, holding her hand behind her while the other held her down by the shoulder. He looked at her, in a kind of limbo. A conflict between many forces. Not least was the second thing switching off. He released her, but she didn't move. Even her arm behind her in its awkward position. She was breathing even more noticeably now. Her torso heaving with the effort. He relaxed somewhat, and felt hot. He stood up and took off his shirt and then bent down and pulled hers off. He felt a strong urge to not think about her clothes again, suspected that he might not give it any further thought, and so he wrangled her around and stripped her bare, then stood up and did the same to himself. She still seemed inert. In the same unnatural position he'd left her, breathing. He worried for a moment. "Tisha?" "Yeah?" "You okay?" "Oh yes." He sat down next to her and then cupped himself around her. The sudden large area of skin contact set off so many sensations, and so many subsequent neuron pulses that he went into seizure. He didn't wonder if he was alright,

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or if he should be doing something else. He couldn't move if he wanted to, and he didn't want to. He was so overwhelmed with sensation that there was no room for thought, much less analysis. As the overload subsided, his first self aware thought was that he knew why Tisha had reacted the way she had. That she'd been going through the same thing he was. Some short while later, he thought to let her know what was happening. "Oh." "Yes," she said back. They lay there, and eventually Pete got enough of himself back to have a higher thought, and he thought that he'd better do something, anything, or Tisha was bound to form some sort of aversion to him. He knew she was in the same state as he was, but training and propriety won out. He did his best to override the sensation blast that hit him at every movement and managed to lift himself away from her. He knelt at the foot of the bed and caught his breath. He could see her in the dark, a faint ghost glowing in the near total dark of their basement room. He looked at her, and mapped out in his head what needed doing so that could answer his primitive drive without being overcome by the sensations first. He thought. He knew that he was going to have to be brutal and quick, contrary to his personal habit, or almost certainly fall into a cycle of approach and fail and frustrate. He reached out and over to her front, shoved his hand between her knees and grabbed hard onto the back of the upper one. He dragged her onto her back, and then continued on, spreading her leg out until it bent over the edge of the bed, leaving her foot on the floor. Her breathing intensified He sat for a while longer, then felt his cock, to see what it was doing. It was throbbing violently. And due to circumstances and proximity, it seemed to be her body that he held in his hand. Her drastic breaths synchronized with the pulsing he felt in his hand. "Yes," she said. He leaned forward and caught a wave of her smell. Rich honey and hay. He almost gave out, but gravity was on his side. He held himself up with a hand jammed into the bed next to her armpit, and guided himself into her with his other. Fighting panic, he shoved into her, making sure they were well situated. He looked down into her eyes, and then further down to her breast, pumping in time to her breathing, and his cock. He thought to try to say something, but couldn't.

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The following time was so overwhelming for him that for moments he felt like an observer of his own body, amazed that it could still function on its own. He felt a voyeur of himself. And then aside from those moments, he wasn't there at all. His body had taken over all functions of his mind, leaving no room for him to think. All the sensations from Tisha, the contact, the sexual, the sounds, the looks, the movement, the faint glowing presence of her, all overloaded. Different things won out in turn, and he jumbled through them like tumbling through a storm. All building to what he knew was a climax, but that engulfed him. He got one brief thought right as he came, and it was that he hoped Tisha was having the same experience. *** He woke up because there was a gripping pain in his hip. He felt around with the hand that wasn't trapped underneath him and determined the approximate layout of their two bodies. He was keeled over, half off of her, but bearing most of his weight on his hip. It was resting on the inside of her thigh. Their faces were near each other, but the rest of their limbs didn't seem to have followed along. Strewn all available directions. He did the only thing he could figure would work and rolled with gravity and off the bed onto the floor. Tisha woke when he did this. "Pete?" "Yeah. Okay. You?" "Okay." "Good. Gimme a minute to get situated." He rubbed his leg, and felt it start to wake up. "Me too. Good." They lay there for some minutes before another word was mustered. "Are you cold?" She asked. "Yeah, I'll live. Gimme a little bit longer." "That's what she said," Tisha laughed. Once. Then she said, "Oh." …. more...

Brisk Doug wandered. He soaked in everything around him as he walked. He didn't know where he wanted to go, in particular, but he felt drawn nonetheless. He walked along an industrial block, straddling the line between the formed concrete gutter and the softer paved asphalt He could smell the dusty concrete and the oily asphalt on either side, as clearly as he could see them. He paid attention, and he could feel them with his alternate feet as well. It became a song in its construction, the ganged sensations forming a driving rhythm in his nervous system. The occasional car drove by, and more often than not, it would stop, and the occupants ask if he needed help. He didn't, and said so. He circled and turned and meandered until his legs started to get sore, and then he headed out of the sodium lit block of streets he'd been confining himself to and headed towards a strip lit by more subdued, more color neutral, and more inviting lights. It took a long while to get there, but the lights had kept their promise. This was people. There were bars, and coffee shops, and other businesses catering to insomniac students. He walked in and out of many of these, and, for a weekend night, they seemed sparse. Some activity, but the ambiance was lethargic. Due to his recent encounters with students, he was observant of how many of them were communicating via electronic devices. One way or another very few people were open and conversing with the room, and also not, by extension, with Doug. He didn't register annoyance. He was in a mood to drift and soak in what was there. He settled in finally at a coffee and smoking bar that was nearly full. Many of the people were playing games at substantial little gaming tables. They seemed to have been purpose built for some particular game, but they were being used for all manner of games. Chess, dominos, cards, dice games, and things involving paper that Doug didn't know about. He sat at the bar, and bought a coffee and accepted a cigarette and relaxed into his slump. The murmur of communal voices soothed him, and he registered that it was what he'd been looking for all evening. Anonymity from his own thoughts and perceptions. He stayed until dawn, chatting with whoever landed next to him. Learned a few games. Told a few stories. Bought another bag of pills, even though he hadn't had the need for the ones he already had. Which didn't trouble him because he didn't consider it.

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Even though he'd become able to function outside of the cloud that had surrounded him his whole life, he saw no reason to develop any higher concepts of behavior or analysis, and so, he stuck to his general life long developed method of living in the moment. He enjoyed it immensely, but he could tell certain side effects of it bothered other people. He couldn't place what those things were just yet, but he knew they were there, and that they bothered other people. But he didn't have that habit of ongoing analysis that would let him track and catalog things in a way that would lead him to any greater insight. He hoped that possibly Pete or Tisha would fill him in, but he knew he'd never remember to ask, and they weren't likely to volunteer up any explanation for such a thing. He sighed, and lit another cigarette. They were fun. He wondered why he'd never smoked before. He struck himself as exactly the sort of person that would smoke. Probably too lazy to buy them, he decided.

Air "Whoa! Doug! You reek," Tisha said when he came into the room. "Yah. You too," he said back. He threw a bystanding pillow at her. "Where's Pete? I absolutely thought I'd be here too early. Wake you up." "Nope. He already got us breakfast. There's leftovers if you want." "Sure." He opened a cardboard box and looked at the carnage. "Mmm..." He scooped it up with his fingers and tasted pastry and eggs and grease from bacon. He took one of his new pills, and poured out half the bag onto the desk. "For you and Pete." "Pete's taking a shower." "Ah." "You asked. Before." "Yah." "Where'd you go?" she asked as she picked up a pair of the pills. "Around." "Pfft." "No, I did. I walked around in circles mainly. Looking at things, getting a feel for things." "What things?" "And then I went to a coffee bar and developed a new habit" "Coffee?" "Smoking." "You're joking!" "No, it's cool. You ever done it?" "Sure. I smoke..." She stared at him then at the wall, then at him again. "I do. But I haven't even thought about it since I met you guys. Is that weird?" "Compared to what?" "Good point. Gimme one." She held out two fingers that looked lonely without their cigarette. "Don't have any." "Why not?" "Dunno. They had 'em at the bar." "But you didn't buy any to take home." "Nope. Didn't think of it."

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"Tease," she said, then crossed her arms. "You should take a shower. And we need to air out those clothes. Strip, then go. And wash good." "Yes mom." "Pfft." *** He passed Pete in the hall. "You reek buddy," Pete said. "Had that conversation. Showering. Talk to Tisha." *** Doug was good to his word, his implied word, and showered long beyond any need, and then beyond where he lost track of time. He finally deduced that it'd been long enough by the pruning on his fingers. Something normally only observed in a bathtub or swimming pool. In Doug's experience. When he opened the door, Tisha turned to him. She was unpacking a shopping bag that was sitting in the middle of the bed. "We got you some fresh clothes. And a few things for me too. Because I'm a girl." "I didn't say anything." "Just saving you the time, darling." She dropped the jeans she'd been unfolding and grabbed him in a hug. "You really are a darling, Doug. I love you." "Whoa. I'm still a guy. Be careful with that kinda talk." He scratched himself. "Thanks for the clothes." "You're welcome." "Could I...?" "Oh, sure. I won't look." Pete came back in presenting a pack of cigarettes. "Isn't that going to start the problem de jour all over again?" Doug asked. "No, because you don't have to cram yourself in a confined space with a ton of other smokers. I'll show you later. Plus, I'm a girl." She dropped the pack into her bag and smiled calmly. Doug got the tags off and himself into his clothes. "Nice," he said, petting his pants. "So, now what kids?" "Good question," Pete said. "You know, I don't actually have infinite money." "Yeah, suppose not," Doug said.

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"So, we should probably think about some way to deal with that, if nothing else. We need some way to get by, even if we just plan to drift." "Yeah, that's very sensible. Let's do that." "What?" "Something." "Such as? Are you high?" "Nope. But something will come up." "So... You want to just ignore it?" "No, not at all. We should think about it. That's part of how things come up." "Weirdo," Tisha said. "Yep," Doug said. Pete snuck onto the bed and drew a pillow up over his eyes. Tisha reclined against him and surreptitiously extracted the cigarettes from her bag and then fondled them, and smelled them. Doug stood. For a while. "Yeah, this place blows. We can't hang out here all day." "We have," Tisha said, "While you were at the library." "Yeah, but three's company, etc..." "Are you done with the library?" "I think so. This one anyway." "What'd you learn," Pete chimed in from under his pillow. "Lot of little things. I wrote it all down. So it'll be there when I need it." "For what?" Tisha asked. "If I knew that, I wouldn't need to know it, now would I?" "Uh... No?" "Right." "So..." Tisha said, "Did we...?" "Yes. I think we should do something fun. And I'll keep my brain churning over on the not becoming poor and starving thing. But hey, Pete? You up?" "Yeah." "You know, I mean, before we starve, I can call my mom, right. You know that." "I hadn't thought about it, no. Would she?"

leaf "She'd help us out. Sure. So don't worry."

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"Yeah, I can't say that I was going to worry. I kinda don't remember what worrying's like." "Me neither," Tisha said. "I never did," Doug added. "Yeah, I know," Pete said.

Park Doug had come down decisively on the issue of what to do. His proposal was 'something fun'. Essentially this was the room opinion anyway, but he'd taken it on with a fierce conviction and drive, and was stridently in search of this goal. And the manner and activity were contagious. The trio were stomping across campus, winding through any avenue or direction that looked interesting. Along the way, Doug had taken to asking anybody in proximity to give him money as he trailed behind the other two. When they stopped to read a poster, Pete noticed that Doug was involved in an exchange. "Doug. I don't think dealing's a good idea. Not here. Not in daylight etc..." "Not dealing dummy. I just asked for money." "How much? Now wait. Begging isn't a... No. That's stupid. You can't just ask people for money." "Why not?" Doug dug in his pocket and produced a stack of bills over an inch thick. They were small bills, as a rule, but not all of them. "It seems to work okay. Nobody got mad or anything." "Yeah, but... Well... I... I mean, I hate beggars. They're so annoying." "I'm not a beggar." "Well, yes you are." "No. I'm just asking for money." "That's the same thing." "No it's not." "Yes it is!" "Pete. If I asked you to give me a dollar, what would you think?" "That you wanted to buy something in a vending machine." "Not that I was begging?" "Well no." "Same thing." Pete had strong lingering feelings that he hadn't held up his side of the argument, but he knew that at the best of times, arguing with Doug was futile. And even though he'd improved drastically in many ways, his knack for blithe bullheaded ignorance of certain things seemed to have remained unchanged. Except, Pete thought, that now that Doug was improving, he was actually better at the non-winning of arguments.

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He stared at the stack of randomly arranged bills that Doug had left in his hand. A quick tally told him that at their average rate, it was enough to keep them going for a couple of days. Including gas. "It'll do for now Doug. Keep it up, but don't get aggressive. Don't want to get in trouble." "Why would I get aggressive? You always give me the dollar. problem." No

"Yes. But." Pete checked himself again. Took a breath. And forgot the whole thing. He compartmentalized that Doug was gathering money, and that was the problem solved. In his little imagination loop of the concept, Doug was frolicking through hilly meadows, picking dandelions Money dandelions The image puzzled him for a moment, but he let that go too. He went back to paying attention to Tisha. She was much more rational. Predictable. Nonconfusing. "Hi Tisha." "Hi Pete. Nice to see you. That's a lot of money. Can I have a dollar?" She laughed and dodged the wadded up bill that Pete tossed at her. Doug yelled from an adjoining sidewalk, obscured by the posters. "But Pete! Didn't I tell you the money thing would take care of itself?" "Yes. I remember that. Amazing." "Things always work out buddy. That's my motto." Pete tried to recall how many times Doug had said that something was his motto. But it flittered away from him. That was old Doug anyway. New Doug, this was the first time. He was sure of that. He also was pretty sure that it was Doug's way of kidding around. "Funny Doug!" "Thank you very much." Doug said, from right behind them. "Snuck up on you, didn't I?" "Yes," Tisha said, "but why?" "Fun." And as if on cue. And Pete considered that Doug had done so on cue, on the word 'fun', they walked around the posters, and caught their first glimpse of a crowd of people in the near distance. "Huh," Tisha said, "what's that?" "I think there's a football game today. So that'll be the ancillary events." Pete stopped and fixed a look on Doug. "Doug? Did you say 'ancillary'?" "Think so." Doug picked his teeth with a stick he'd picked up off the ground. "So weird."

82 "Ancillary?" "No, you saying it. It's just not right. Quit it." "Don't think I can. It's all just in there."

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Fun There was no hope, it seemed to be the common opinion, of getting into the game itself. But there was a full carnival going on around the stadium. And this provided more than enough to keep them occupied. Doug gathered money. In shifts, he had to off-load it on to Pete, and mainly Tisha, with her bag. Pete and Tisha got matching tattoos that they both agreed were a bad idea in so many ways. Many of the attractions were souvenirs, and, since they already felt cramped in the car, none of these held much attraction. Good for a walk by though. The food was good. Pete found Doug discussing matters with a turkey leg vendor. He held back and eavesdropped, hoping to get an insight into new Doug. From what he could hear, it was nothing illuminating on the topic of Doug, but he did get interested in the topic of conversation itself. The vendor was waving his arms and describing in some detail all the wonders of fiberglass animals and roadside attractions in his experience. Doug had a folded piece of paper and a ball point pen and was taking steady notes. Nodding as appropriate. Pete intuited that it was best to leave them to it. He decided he had too much cash in his pockets for his comfort. The pull on his pockets was distorting the lay of his pants, and the weight was pulling them down. He felt like a cowpoke. Or something. It'd been some part of an hour, and the crowd was thinning as those with tickets filed into the stadium proper. They'd all been wandering their own paths, and he'd seen Tisha especially well over a dozen times. But now that he wanted her, so that he could offload his monetary burden, she was elusive. He did deduce, by process of relative elimination, that he was bored with the carnival. The pain of the tattoo was a welcome distraction, but that would travel with him. He was formulating a theory based on Tisha also becoming bored, and wandering off the reservation, but was stopped mid conjecture by a squeal "Look Pete! A doggy!" Oh, Pete thought. "Where'd that little guy come from? Is he lost?" he asked, knowing the real answer. It was all over her posture. He could imagine the transaction. Undoubtedly it involved dreadlocks, a van, patchouli oil, and, somewhere in there, an irresponsible dog owner. The little guy was cute though. "Jim!" Doug said, coming up at a brisk pace. "Who?" Pete asked. "The doggy. Jim."

84 Tisha held the puppy out to Doug. "I was thinking Cocoa." "Well, that would be odd. His name's Jim." "How do you know that?"

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"Can't you hear him? He introduced himself the moment I walked up." Pete and Tisha both looked at him. Wary. Neither broke though. So Jim it was. Jim was a smooth coated, coffee with lots of cream brindle. His proportions were of intersecting spheres. He looked very much like a toy version of himself, Pete thought. "Uh," Pete said, "hi Jim. So. What do you need?" Jim said nothing, only pushed his strong points. Wagging. Tongue. Bright eyes. Pete had to admit that the dog was a keeper. But he'd had a dog, and he knew, at least vaguely that you needed to care for dogs. And he wondered if they were up to it. Then realized that there probably wasn't any choice in the matter and resolved to do his best. "Alright! So, we've got a new plan now. Good thing. I was getting bored." "Me too." "Yeah, me too," Doug said. "What's the new plan?" "We've got to get a few things for Jim here." "He didn't say anything about things," Doug said. "I know, I heard him not saying it too. But it's basic stuff. Food, a leash, uh... litter box?" Tisha laughed. "Dogs don't use litter boxes." "So, where do they go?" Doug asked. Pete said it gravely, and Tisha said it mockingly: "On the ground." "And then what?" Doug asked. Tisha was silent, so Pete filled him in. "Gross," Doug said. Possibly, Pete thought, seeing a look on Doug's face, he was reconsidering how cute Jim was. But the look, and the thought, faded. Grander plans went away, but they did get food, and shoehorn it into the car. And a leash, because Pete was fairly sure that not having a leash might cause a serious problem at some point. Jim did force the point, in that, while they had fun sneaking a girl around in the dorm/hostel, they didn't bother to even discuss the possibility of maintaining a puppy there. Besides, they were all bored, and Doug had gotten

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what he needed. So the loaded up the car, and then overloaded it. And then mashed aside a few things to make room for Jim, who requested a disproportionate share of the back seat, and then drove out of town following the sun. First moment he got bored, Pete did a casual accounting of the moneylions that Doug had collected. "Hmm... You're good at this Doug." "Thank you." . . . "At what?" "Absorbing money." "Yeah, people do like to give money away." "Not in general. You do know that, don't you?" "Nope. Seems pretty clear to me that they do. Makes me wonder why I never thought of it before." "You were born on Earth, weren't you Doug?" "Far as I know. Yes. So how much is there?" "At least a month's worth. If we're stupid with it." "Oh, good. So we can do something else then?" "Sure, what've you got in mind?" "Something's formulating. Give me a while. I'll get back to you." Tisha was sound asleep, and intertwined with Jim.

Soothing Doug drove. Not as manic, or as fast as he had before. On the contrary, he had acquired a delicate touch. So that, where before, the motion of the car had assisted in keeping them awake, now it lulled them to sleep. Except for Doug. Doug wasn't sleeping much at all. He made a show of settling down every so often, so they others didn't worry. And he did sleep. But only briefly. He didn't feel the need. And he wasn't taking pills anymore either, except, as with the sleeping, when it was in commune with the others. To fit in and make them feel at ease. Cigarettes were a new art form for him. He was giddy in love with them. The packaging, the smell, the ritual, the flavor, the buzz, the accoutrements He felt like he'd found himself. He was alive with a cigarette in a new and delightfully different way. He knew that a large part of this was his transference of the effects of the disease, but he didn't care. It was as good a system as any other. And besides, he loved cigarettes. They were his friends. And he was driving with care now. Because nobody needed keeping up, and the new pace seemed dictated by the smoking. Aside from all other considerations of style and propriety, it was simply difficult to light, and keep lit, a cigarette at full highway speeds. Plus, now he had his map. He knew what he was doing, and where he was going, and he had time. He wasn't lost anymore, and he wasn't in a hurry anymore. Jim was rolling around in his sleep, squeaking and barking in a cute muffled way. Tisha rolled over so she could brace him and keep him from rolling onto the floor. Pete was trying to think of something fun to do with their new found wealth, and nodded off in the process. Doug already had plans for the money.

Logistics They'd pulled over at a scenic overlook because Doug insisted on getting a picture. "But trust me," he said, "from back there it'll make sense. He guided Pete to a spot back up the road, just out of earshot, and ran back to the sign. "Go ahead and take a few!" he yelled. He did several poses, with Tisha and the dog, and alone. Pete knew the drill, when Doug wanted his picture taken, so he kept at it until Doug called him back. "Okay," Doug said, "now let's have a look." He took the camera and scrolled through the pictures looking for a particular one. "There. See?" Pete studied it for a while, and then nodded. "Yeah. Funny. That's good." Doug turned and showed it to Tisha. "Hee hee!" she said. "Funny." "I thought so," Doug said. Pete took the camera back. "So, this is for...?" "Not for anything. Cool in it's own right." Pete thought about that for a moment, but was more struck by a realization that Doug's manner of speaking was changing again. He'd lost the stilted formal-ness that he'd acquired of late, without losing his eloquence. He made point of checking, and he figured that Doug's posture was the same, and to his memory, Doug's posture had followed a similar evolution to his speech patterns. What it meant, he had no idea. He made a note to himself to bring it up with Doug at some point. And also to see if he could find anything else. He looked at the camera again, and scrolled through the pictures, trying to see if there was any pattern in evidence. They only thing he could detect was that for some reason, Doug seemed to take worse and worse pictures as time went on. These most recent had him out of focus on nearly every shot. The camera always seemed to focus in on something else. Tisha, or Jim, or a bench, or a tree. "Want me to drive for a while?" Pete asked. "Sure. Easy directions." "Yeah?" Pete caught the keys. "Yep, back to the marmot." "You're kidding?" "Nope." "That's getting kinda dull. I mean, it's a nice marmot and everything..." "Gotta figure out how to move it."

88 "As in, steal it?" "Well, that's kind of a value judgement, isn't it?" "Uh, no. Pretty sure that's stealing. Simple." "We're gonna have to move it anyway."

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"Alright." Pete did some mental calculations. "I think your car's showing its weaknesses again." "Nope. Got a trailer hitch." "Hmm. Fair point." "Thank you. Remember how to get there?" "Not a clue." Doug handed him one of the sheets of paper. "Ah. Thanks." *** Doug did sleep a considerable portion of the trip to the marmot, and woke up when they were within a few minutes of arriving. Pete was expecting this, without conscious awareness Tisha was teaching Jim the basics. When she felt the car divert to the off ramp, she popped over the seat. "Can we get a frisbee? Maybe some tennis balls? I think Jim's bored." "I'm sure he's bored," Doug said, "Who wouldn't be? Dog wise?" "Think there's any place around here that would have anything?" "Probably. And if not, we'll drive 'til we find something. We have an obligation to Jim." "Thanks Doug. That's sweet." "Just the situation." *** Doug surveyed the marmot in some detail. Testing it, heaving against it, probing the ground around it, measuring it with his arms, taking photos. "We'll need a trailer, obviously." "Obviously," Tisha said, partly paying attention to Doug, and mostly to Jim, and his stick. "And a cutting torch. Have to get gas. The electric kind would be a pain. And goggles. And a winch." "And a big tarp," Pete said. "Oh, he won't mind being out in the open." "I was thinking more of hiding him. So we don't get arrested."

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"That shouldn't be a problem. But if it makes you feel better, I don't see any reason why not." "How would you know if it's going to be a problem?" Doug tapped his temple. "What's that supposed to mean?" "Pete, uh." He made a few facial expressions of ambiguous meaning. "I can see what's happening. I know what we're going to do. What I'm going to do." "That sounds mystical." "Yeah, it is. Kinda. But it's not. It's very clear and obvious to me." "So? Gonna share?" "It's not clear that way. I just mean I know that we won't have any trouble with the marmot. I've got the whole thing in my head. All the details. It'll work out fine." "So where are we taking it?" "Not exactly sure. But desert somewhere. West." "Why don't you know exactly?" "Depends on the weather. There's lots of options. Something flat. Dry lake bed. But the problem is, which ones are dry?" "How do you tell?" "You go and look. So that's why I don't know yet." "Oh. Okay." Pete accepted the stick from Jim and, after a nod from Tisha, threw it, into a gully. Jim vibrated and tumbled across the park grass and vanished into the gully, popping into existence some distance apart from where he'd left, carrying the stick and heading full speed back at them. "That little guy really is a bundle of cute, isn't he." "Glad you think so," Tisha said. *** Pete watched the man with the mini construction tractor artfully scoot the marmot onto the kneeled over trailer. Very much un-Doug-like, Doug had indeed thought ahead. Pete's vision of this moment had involved darkness, bloody knuckles, somebody catching on fire, and all manner of other misfortunes. But Doug had surprised him a lot lately, and this was the same. The trip into town, a town, with a tool rental place, that Doug knew where it was, and what its hours were, had gone like clockwork. Pete felt as though maybe he was entering Doug's reality. That this was how Doug's life had always worked, and that what was happening was that he and Tisha were being

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drawn into it. He failed to see any way that this wasn't the case, but there was the major part of him that still knew it wasn't true. There was definitely something changing about Doug. Pete was changing too, but it was definitely Doug, he told himself.

Cradled Pete figured they were heading to Nevada, or Utah, or one of those states. Doug hadn't ever bothered to fill them in on exactly where the candidates were. The potential flat dried lake candidates. And nobody'd ever bothered to quiz him about it. It didn't matter. Doug knew, and Doug was driving. Pete was taking his turn in the back seat. It was warm, in the world, and the car windows were all down. He was lying on a mat of towels, and sweating through to the vinyl seats underneath. The heat reflecting back through. Jim was curved around his head, pretending, but failing, to be a pillow, breathing. Pete had his feet up on the passenger side windowsill, staring up out the back window at the occasional lit feature going by. They were somewhere where it got cold in the winter, he thought, becoming aware of the rhythmic thrumming of the tires as they skipped over the tarred expansion joints in the pavement. He'd been drifting in and out of a light slumber ever since their last stop at a roadside convenience and gas station. He thought over that stop as he drifted. It had had a small dinosaur on the forecourt, and this had piqued Doug's interest, but in the end, not enough to try to bring it with them. Still, it had been a fun time for Jim, and they'd all gotten out and run around in the small grass island where the dinosaur lived. They'd gotten back on the road after watching the sunset in the company of the dinosaur and a couple of local kids on bicycles who had come to the store to buy soda and sugary candy. He was enjoying dreaming, while not really being asleep. The dream interwoven into reality. The air was cooling fractionally, and it was just what he needed. Tisha rummaged in a small cooler and then she was draped over the seat looking at him. "Hey, Pete. Have a pear." She held it in his mouth. It was cold wet from the cooler and he chewed. She waited out a few more bites then disappeared. She came back some time later, chewing on something herself. "Hey, here. Drink." It was tonic water. Again: cold wet. It was exactly the right thing. He drifted back into a phase dream combining distant lights on the mountainside, and Jim's fur. The dreams were fixing him somehow. That was the overriding feeling of the dreams. That they were therapeutic like a massage, or a sauna. *** There were murmurings in the front seat, and then deacceleration some time later. He rode it out until they full stopped, and then he levered himself up to scout what was happening.

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They were parked in a lit oasis in the dark. To his right was a wood paneled, velvet furnitured, brochure stocked front desk and lobby, and to his left, there was a street. Straight ahead was a blue glow in the sky. Tisha looked over at him. "They have a pool." "Oh, really nice idea." "Yeah." *** Doug came back and drove them around to their room, several feet away, and they all trundled in straight from the car. The room was plain to a fault, and it smelled like a swimming pool, or a pool locker room, Pete thought. They all stretched out on the beds, Doug and Tisha, Pete and Jim. After some little while, Pete rolled off and went to the end of the building and got ice and grape soda out of the machines, and brought this little bounty back to the room. He unwrapped the sanitary wrapped glassware and crammed each glass full of ice, then portioned out the soda. "Here Jim, you first," he said, placing a glass on the bathroom area floor. Jim licked away at it. "Wonder if that's good for him?" Pete asked as he handed out a glass to the other two. Doug sipped, and said, "If he likes it, it'll be good for him. Don't worry. With dogs, it's just that they don't have too much of anything. They won't eat something that's bad for them, as a rule, but they'll eat way too much of a good thing if you don't stop them." "How do you know?" Pete asked. Doug tapped his temple. "I don't. I made it up. But it's probably right." "Yeah, probably so." They didn't have swimsuits proper, so they stripped down to their underwear, gathered up all the towels, ran Jim through the shower, in deference to other patrons, completely ignored the posted pool rules and bee-lined across the empty parking lot and into the pool. Pausing only briefly to shed the towels. The water was body temperature, close to the air temperature. And they floated. And talked of nothing. And threw a ball for Jim to hunt down, as he wasn't very good at static floating like the rest of them. "I wonder if Jim's going to get the bug from us?" Tisha ventured. "I wonder if we're still contagious," Pete said.

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"We are still contagious," Doug said, "I'm pretty sure of that. Jim? Who knows. Maybe he'll tell us. That'd be weird. Or, I guess if we see him sleep for three days straight, that might be a sign." "Yeah," Tisha said, "But would it be dog days? Like dog years?" "How would you know anyway," Pete said, "He seems to sleep kind of all the time now." "Well, maybe he does have it then," Doug said. They floated, and Pete felt much the same as he had in the car. The humidity and chemical hanging in the air felt cleansing, and the water swishing around his skin carried away all the grit and built up weariness away. "Let's get sushi," Pete said. "Don't think there's a sushi place in range," Doug said, "'fact, I don't think there's an any kind of place in range. Not at this time of night. Probably the next possibility is a college town about eighty miles further on." "So tomorrow." "Sure." Pete imagined he was eating sushi anyway. Jim decided that he was done swimming, and climbed up on Doug's belly and flopped over asleep. Apparently. After all activity had died down, and Pete wondered if the others might be drowning, he made the call to get out. They all wobbled back across the parking lot, and Pete had to go back to get the forgotten towels. They all beached again on the beds, and Pete made the rounds again with the grape soda. They took turns at having a warm shower, and put on clean clothes and got back in the car. The desk clerk was absent, so Doug left a small stack of bills tucked under the bell with their key and they drove off towards sushi.

Converging Some time well after dawn, but before they got to sushi, they started seeing signs for the world's largest prairie dog. This was an irresistible lure to Doug, who exited and headed on a new course, the necessary detour to visit the giant rodent. "It's a good thing anyway, we'd probably end up sitting in a parking lot somewhere waiting for the sushi store to open. It's a college town. Nothing opens before noon on Sunday." "Is it Sunday?" Pete asked. Doug seemed a little startled, like he'd forgotten he was talking out loud. To someone else. "Yep. It is. Why?" "Dunno. I guess I just forgot. Or missed a day or something." "It doesn't matter." "No. You're right. Kinda cool too." *** They pulled up to the last sign. A quite big sign, actually, that pointed to: nothing. There was a circle of slightly cleaner tarmac a short distance off from the sign, and then beyond that there was a slab foundation that could have held a single wide trailer. About a dozen parking places. Some rusty chain link fence, and a tattered garden shed. Beyond all this was a tree lined creek. This was the whole world of the world's largest prairie dog. "No wonder he left," Pete said. He'd broken the silence with exactly the right thing. They'd all been thinking the same way, and so nobody said anything back. Mild laughter. Jim peed on a fence post. "Maybe somebody else came and picked him up." Tisha said. "Why would th..." Pete stopped himself and pointed to the trailer. "Why would we, for that matter." Tisha looked where he was pointing. "Ooh, you think somebody else is doing the same thing we are? How could they? We don't even know what we're doing." Doug sat down next to Jim and scratched his ears. "Maybe they don't know what they're doing either." He held up a hand. "Or maybe I do know what we're doing." "You haven't said," Tisha said. "Yeah, but..." "But what?" "No, I know. Just can't explain. Don't want to too. It kinda makes my brain hurt when I try."

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"I think I'd be inclined to bat you upside the head, except I have some personal experience with what you're going through." She winked at him. "So maybe I won't." "Appreciate it, but you know... I do know something. I do..." Doug said. Pete cleared his throat. Well, that was a gyp. Now we'll never know the world's largest prairie dog. And that kinda screws our chances of ever seeing anything of the sort." "What?" Tisha asked. "Well, you'd hardly go to all this trouble for the world's second largest prairie dog." "True." Tisha agreed. "What is a prairie dog anyway?" "No idea," Pete said. "It's like a squirrel," Doug said, "except skinnier. And they live in the ground, not in trees." "Oh," Tisha said, "that sounds nice. How big do they get?" "Like squirrels, usually." "Wait, are they like meerkats? I saw those on TV once." "Maybe. I dunno." Pete cleared his throat again. "Anyway. Since there's actually nothing here, can we get going? I'm bored." "Sure," Tisha said. "I think Jim's taken care of business." She cupped her hands around her mouth. "Jim! Come back Jim!" The dog popped his head up from inside the back seat of the car, hung his tongue out and stared at them with his head tilted to the side. *** Back on the main highway, Pete broke the silence. "You know, it's probably a good thing it was gone." "Yeah," Doug said. "Yeah, cuz if it had been there, we'd probably be trying to figure out how to take it with us." "Yep. Possibly." "Maybe somebody else did take it. Maybe they are heading for the same place we are. Even though we don't know where that is yet." "Possibly. It really is a possibility. And if they are, then they'll get to the right place the same way we do." "Uh, good point. I think?"

96 "I think so. It feels right. Instinctual." ***

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They took Jim to a bespoke dog park. It was all fenced in and had sturdy grass, and sand, and a pond, and all sorts of things that dogs like. Jim liked it. There were a lot of students there with their dogs. And were it not for all the company, Pete would have romped with Jim. The whole place called to him. He wanted to climb across the pond on the log that traversed it. He wanted to splash in the pond. He wanted to run, and dart about and catch a frisbee. He said this to himself, and decided that some of those things were probably acceptable. So he chased after Jim. They played tug of war with the frisbee, and they played catch. And he ran and darted and felt good. He came back to Tisha and Doug who were leaning against a fence and talking to several other dog owners. "You guys should get some exercise in. It feels great. It's weird, but I guess after so many days in a car, or whatever, something shut down. And now it's awake again. Seriously, give it a try. Run. Play with Jim." He handed Doug the frisbee, and Doug obliged, tearing off and almost immediately getting covered in mud wrestling with Jim. "I'm starting to admire that about Doug," Tisha said. "When he does something, he does it." "That's a very true point you make. Yes." Pete had a flurry of events pop into his head, all of them Doug really doing something. "I'm not doing that." Tisha sniffed. "I'm not getting muddy." "Still, try jogging around or something. Really, it feels good. Real good." "Okay. See ya." She ran along the fence, leaving Pete alone. All the other dog owners had reengaged with other conversations, or they were on their phones. Pete hopped up and sat on the fence. Angled his face to catch the sun, and dozed. *** They found a car wash to hose everybody down after the dog park. Then they hosed down the towels that they'd used to try to contain the muddiness. Jim loved the whole thing, bouncing around trying to stay in the water jet at all times. Biting it when he could. *** They did have to wait for the sushi restaurant to open. As Doug had said, noon. Before that they were sitting in a ghost town. About a quarter 'til, the streets started filling, and by straight up, it was busy. They left the ordering

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to Tisha, and she came out burdened with white plastic bags. Inside were a dozen styrofoam boxes, several paper bags, several soup cups, and a litter of utensils and condiments. "You know," she said, unloading into the back seat, "If we are heading into desert places, we should probably stock up on supplies of some sort. You know, there's probably not a lot of grocery stores out there." "Yep," Doug said. "We should." So they did. They crammed the car full. Every volumetric space available was filled with either food, or liquid, or grooming supply, or treat.

Peak Immediately out of town the road turned up. Steep enough that for a long span Pete and Jim were halfway on the seat, halfway on the seat-back. The air got noticeably thinner, and the mood in the car turned bleh. Lethargy ruled. The sun set as they were cresting the mountain range and they stopped at a posted scenic overlook. "They really do a good job of these," Pete said, "Whoever decides what's going to be a scenic overlook." "Yep," Doug said. As the sun set, the temperature dropped in a lurch of cold air. They coaxed Jim back into the car and set off again, driving down into blackness below. It seemed alien to be driving into true black. After so many days, and before that years of experience of civilization, the sudden and abrupt absence of it slapped them in the face. "Wow," Tisha said. "Creepy," Pete said. "Yep." Jim flipped over onto his back and made a squarf sound. "Well," Pete said. I'm not tired at all now. This is weird. You still know where you're going?" "Yep. No problem." "What about the trailer?" "It's fine." Pete stared out the windshield along with the others. He started to trace out the artifacts blotching his eyes. There was nothing else to see. Despite his statement, he soon flopped over asleep. *** Doug woke them up, and there was a hint of piercing light edging its way into being. They were parked next to a small art deco streamlined building in the middle of nowhere. As his eyes came into focus, Pete made out that it was a train station. Doug looked from Tisha to Pete and back again. "Good. Hey, good morning. I thought you should both be up now, so you can find your way back. This is the train station. Passenger trains go by once a day in each direction The east bound in the early morning, and the west bound some time after dark. A little after dark."

leaf "Okay," Tisha said, over a yawn, "why train station?" "Because you might want to take a train somewhere." "Are you trying to tell us something?"

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"No, no solid idea. But, maybe. Okay, I don't know why. It's like this. Where I don't know things for sure, but yeah. You'll need to take a train. I see that." "But you aren't going to ditch us, or whatever?" "I don't know. I don't see all of it. Maybe it's nothing, but still, better safe than sorry." "Right." Tisha looked back at Pete with a questioning look. Pete only shrugged.

Lifeguard Pete and Tisha were all but yelling 'are we there yet?' by the time they got to the lake bed. It was the first one they'd found, as far as Pete knew. Doug wasn't talking much. "Wow," Pete said. There was a partial moon rising just over the ridge line opposite where the had parked the car, and it lit the scene from behind, throwing features into high relief. Even so, there weren't many. The mountains underneath the moon could have been any distance away. They were only silhouette The lake bed itself was flat, with a texture imposed by the moon. Nothing else. "Now what?" Tisha asked. "I think," Doug said, "somewhere in the middle." "Middle of what?" "Good question. I guess we'll just drive." As he started the engine, Jim complained. "Oh, sorry buddy, forgot." Doug switched off the car and hopped out. Jim bounced out after him. Tisha and Pete lagged behind, missing the brief excitement. Jim was staring at the ground, squeaking. "What is it?" Pete asked. Doug turned his head, "dunno exactly, but he chased something. Probably a snake, or maybe a prairie dog." "That'd be a funny thing." Very quickly, Jim's interest in whatever was in the hole was overcome by his original need to pee, so he snuffled contemptuously and wandered off a discreet distance. Pete sat down on the salt crust ground and leaned back and crossed his legs. He watched all the movement in front of him, trying to absorb into his subconscious what the construction and relationships involved were. Who these people were to him now. Even Doug, who he'd known most of his life seemed to be a new person to him, somebody that he wasn't sure where he fit in. He had a long moment of isolation and doubt. The sky seemed to mirror his mood. As he watched, a long striated cloud formed directly overhead. Literally out of thin air, he thought. In a span of minutes, it went from clear, to a shard crossing from horizon to horizon, to an epic dinner roll bridging the entire valley.

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He looked back to the ground. Nobody seemed to have noticed the change, and why would they, he thought. They looked so busy, and excited. Which struck Pete odd, given that they were strongly into the middle of nowhere, and there was nothing. A baseball thumped to the ground right next to his hand. Accompanying the arrival was a sound that reminded him of the rain on the corn field, but in a deeper, more serious way. It took a while before he saw the next one land, about half way between where he sat and the others. "Hey! Doug, I think this might be a good time for your car. Big steel car. Time to get inside." By the time he'd finished the sentence, everybody else was aware already. Except for Jim. Who had noticed the hailstones, but not the associated storm. Running after them in a frenzy of too many options. He'd snarf one up and run with it until he ran across another one, reflexively causing him to drop the one he had. He went through a sequence of a dozen or more before he heard Tisha calling to him over the hailstones and now rain as well. Pete, watching, figured it was the rain getting him wet that finally brought his attention back. For all of it, Jim still beat Pete back to the car. And Pete paid the price, getting bonked on the chest by a comparatively puny golf ball sized hailstone. On his way in the door, he stooped and grabbed a particularly fine example hailstone and tossed it to Jim. "You deserve at least one." Inside, the noise was all consuming. Several times somebody tried to say something, probably a comment about the noise, only to break out laughing because they couldn't even hear themselves talking, and the immediate realization that nobody else could either. This didn't stop each of them, including Jim, from repeated attempts. There was nothing else to do. For Pete, it meant an extension to what would otherwise have been a brief contemplation. He kept flashing to something that Doug must have said at some point recently about it hurting to think about. Every time he thought about the current tableau, something in his head hurt. Not a headache, but a spot, a particular place deep inside his skull hurt. And right after, he'd feel antsy. The outcome was that his thoughts bounced between the overwhelming din of the hail, to his friends, to what they'd been through, to the pain, and then antsy-ness driving him back to thinking about the hail. Soon, he noticed the pattern, and rather than get annoyed about it, he decided to count how many times he went through the cycle, something that he'd learned from his mother to combat insomnia. Of course, this added one more thing to the cycle, the counting, but that was okay. He kept track on his fingers, and

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when the hail finally let up, he looked down. Seven times. Plus however many had happened before he took up the count. Call it twelve. Well. That was a possibly never useful piece of information he had. Jim was happy. He was intent on licking and gnawing his way through the hailstone and Pete noticed, in a moment, that he could hear the scrabbling slurping from the activity. This was the indicator that the hail had abated. Officially. "Well," Doug said, "That sort of sets our plans, doesn't it?" "What?" Pete asked. "Well, we can't really drive. And no comments about my car. Making a car designed to drive on giant hail would be stupid." "Yeah. But, so, what does it set things to?" "We gotta stay here. Might as well set up the tent." "Then what?" "Then we wait until something else happens, I guess."

Drug When Pete and Tisha woke up in their tent, it was to a percussive clatter that shook the ground. The sun tinged with the yellow nylon of the tent tarp made the day seem hyper-real already, and being startled awake, with it's subsequent adrenaline rush put the both solidly into the day. Pete stuck his head out the door, and got licked. Jim nuzzled past him and sat next to Tisha. "Morning Jim," Pete said. He stuck his head back out, and then came back in again. "Doug disconnected the trailer." "Oh." Tisha was busy soothing Jim. "I'll go talk to him." "Okay. I'm staying cozy." He crawled out, and stood up, looking for his shoes. Jim had probably hidden them, he hoped. He gave up on finding them right away and walked to the car. Doug was on the ground fiddling with something around the trailer. "Whatcha doing?" "Making sure it's all disconnected. No brake connectors or anything dragging on the ground." "Made big bang noise." "Yeah, sorry about that. That was an accident. I forgot to balance the trailer before I unhitched it. Then when I couldn't get it to disconnect, then I did balance it. And then it sort of disconnected itself. Then it tipped, and the ballast weight fell off, and so did I. And then 'boom'". "Ah. Why?" "Well, there's not really a reason why. Mostly an accident." "Why were you disconnecting the trailer?" "Oh, yeah. Because, I can walk it from here." "Where?" "Not precisely sure yet. That's why I figured I'd walk it. So I don't waste everybody's time." "What else are we going to do?" Doug grinned a little and rubbed his beard. "Yeah. I've got some ideas. Not good ones. But partial ones. Anyway, you and Tisha have to take care of some things." "Like what?"

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"Well, I don't know yet. But. You do need to get back east. When I figure things out, I don't think there'll be time for you to travel. Or maybe there will be, but... Well there's some other reason. It'll come to me." "So, you want us to pick up and drive all the way back to..." "Train. I think you should take the train. Oh, that reminds me." He paused and dug in his pockets, handing over a tight packed stack of bills. "That's all of it. You'll need it for the train and hotels and so on." "What about you?" "I won't need it. And if I do, I can always rustle up more." "That's true." Pete did a mental count of the money. It was a lot. "And you're going to do what? Walk this thing to some unspecified place." "Yeah, you know, it's totally flat. The lake bed. You know, because of gravity." "Okay." "So I'll be able to pull it." "Yeah, I hadn't gotten to worrying about that detail yet." "Well don't." "I won't. But there's other things. Such as, you're going be out here by yourself..." "With Jim." "Okay, with Jim, doing what? There's nothing here. You'll starve, or dehydrate, or get eaten by scorpions? Is that the plan?" "No. Probably not. There's enough food and beverages to tide us over." "Until what? You're sending us away for some undetermined task at some undetermined time..." "They aren't undetermined, I'm just not precise on the details yet." Pete gave up on that line of argument. "Okay, but, there's nothing. You won't have any way of getting in touch." "No, I will." "How?" "Don't know yet. But it'll be okay." "Uh huh..." "Hey, listen, this makes sense. You guys have to go, because I have to stay here. And there's only enough food for me. Plus, like I said, there's things that need doing in Washington."

leaf "Washington? D.C.? You didn't say that before. How do you know?" "Same way I know everything lately. I just do." "Yeah, okay."

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"Hey, also, make sure you fill up the tank at the slope side filling station." "Where's that?" "It's the only one between here and the train station. And if you don't, there won't be enough gas to get back. Maybe not even there." "Okay. I really wish there was some way we could be more sure about this before we... I mean that you could be more sure about it before we leave you. It's a pretty strong no turning back kinda thing. And what are you doing out here anyway? We're not leaving you to die or something, are we?" "No. If that was the plan, I wouldn't keep Jim with me." "Okay, it's very half baked, but I think... Well, if it comes to it, we can call the coast guard or whatever. Tell you what, I'd say you've got... Ten days worth of food. Give or take. If nothing happens by day ten, we'll call a search party." "You won't have to. People will have come by then." "Well, I'd almost look forward to telling them to look for a giant stuffed marmot in the desert." "It's not stuffed." "That's what I'd say anyway though, because it's funny." "Yeah, it is." "And what are these people coming for anyway?" "Some sort of party, I guess. That's very vague still. But it's happening. I think we may even have seen some of them already." "Where?" Pete looked around. "No, not here, but along the way. Nevermind. It may be my imagination." "So, couldn't all this be?" "Possibly. But I don't think so. And really, what else are we going to do? At this point?" Pete mulled this over for a bit, and the logic was sound, in a Doug way. In a way he knew from experience, both old and recent, was futile to try to work against. Besides, they were so far along this, possibly arbitrary and random path, that they might as well see it through, if only to see what happened. To do otherwise would create maddening fits of 'what-if?'. Pete paused for a moment and wondered how much of his decision making was being done by

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the sickness, then decided that he'd have no way of knowing if the sickness was blinding him, and then got into a tail-eating loop of logic. He shook his head to break out of the dilemma and decided to ignore the issue for the moment. Pete went back to the tent and explained, as best he could, to Tisha, and then they packed up, leaving everything they could behind. Then there were hugs all around, and they drove away. When they got to the road, Pete stopped the car. "Which way?" "Which way did we turn when we got here?" "I think left." "I think so too." "So we turn right?" "Right."

Triangulation Jim watched the car drive away, sniffed the air in its wake, then turned and immediately jumped onto the trailer and sat next to the marmot, facing away from the road. "No you don't, Jim, you gotta walk, just like me. Be glad I don't make you pull with me." Doug tried lifting the trailer, and found he had no problem elevating it, but not to anywhere that would make pulling comfortable or sustainable. So, with Jim watching, still sitting on the trailer, he spent a good part of the morning figuring out a harness system that would allow sustained travel. Just before he got underway, he realized he was already getting sunburned, and had to spend further time fashioning shade. His first inclination was to simply tie clothing around his person in stra tegic ways, but before he got very far along this path, he was uncomfortably hot. He sat down and surveyed what he had to work with, and then got back up and fashioned an awning over the harness position using the tent poles and tarp, and a few miscellaneous items of clothing. It looked ridiculous, but in a fun way. Jim approved, and sat towards the front of the trailer, in the newly created shade. "Good, are you helping to balance?" Doug asked. "I guess that's okay." He picked up the shoulder straps, took a good look around him, took a couple of snapshots with the camera, and started pulling. Even though he'd calculated out that it was possible, he was pleasantly surprised at how easy the going was. The burden of the trailer was hardly noticeable once they got up to speed. Every half hour, by his watch, he stopped, took a couple more snapshots, and drank a measured amount of water. Sometimes he ate something. He always shared with Jim. He didn't have a solid idea how he would use the pictures, if it came to him needing them, but he took them anyway, assuming that if he really needed to, he'd figure it out. They trudged on, he and Jim, half hour by half hour, until the sun was low enough in the sky that it crept in the sides of the awning. Doug didn't figure this would cause much problem from the sun, but he was tired, so rather than rigging up extensions to the awning, he spent the rest of the available light figuring out how they were going to sleep. What he came up with resembled a hammock, and he hoped it would work. It took advantage of the fact that the tent was already 'up' in the sense that it was now the awning, and as long as it worked, it would mean he didn't have to reconfigure anything. He'd only have to tie back the hammock to keep it out of his way during the day.

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Once sorted. He parceled out dinner for Jim, and then himself. And then they played a few games until it grew dark, and they both gave in to exhaustion. Doug had assumed that Jim would make his own sleeping arrangement, and in a way he did, joining Doug in the hammock, curling around his feet. The only complication came a few hours after he'd fallen asleep, when the temperature dropped enough to wake him up. He had to climb out and find a sleeping bag and get it, and himself, situated back in the hammock. And then he had to get back out, to re-engineer the tarp, because he couldn't see the stars.

Travels Pete and Tisha knew from the outset that they had already missed the train east, and so they took their time. With essentially a whole day, and nothing except the gas station between them and their target, they stopped at every opportunity At some point late morning, hunger motivated them to speed up to get to the gas station for food. But otherwise, it was a day of stopping every time anything interesting at all happened. Sometimes even without any interesting reason at all. They were at their first roadside pause after the gas station, hanging their legs over a cliff and drinking orange soda. Not talking about anything. "You get a thing?" Pete asked, "when you try to think about what's going on?" "Yep. Kinda nauseous?" "Does it happen whenever you think, or...?" "No, just when I try to think about Doug, or what it is we're doing." "Yeah, to me, it seems like there's some sort of control device. Like those collars they put on dogs that shock them when they bark, or run out of the yard or whatever." "Yeah, that makes sense. But, nobody put anything in our brains, did they?" "Nope. Pretty sure not. But it could be some side effect of the bug." "Yeah, getting a little queasy now. But what is that bug? You ever had anything like it?" "No. Not at all." "Here's a weird thing," Tisha said, shifting slightly, "I just started thinking about jumping off the cliff, you know, not in a suicidal way, but just how you do when you're looking down like this. And I got the same feeling." Pete tried it. "I see what you mean. Very specific, that feeling." "It's creeping me out." "Uh huh. Wonder what else there is to it?" "Ironically, I don't want to think about it. And I don't know if I'd be able to anyway." "Here's a question for you. Do you feel like things are still changing? Like it's progressing, or maybe it's over."

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"Good question. I don't know. I mean, if you asked me to give you an example, I don't think I could. No reason I can think of, but yeah, I think things are still happening." "Good. Me too." "So weird." Tisha got up and backed away from the edge a few steps before she turned to walk to the car. "Let's go." "Yeah." Pete got up and imitated her path.

Symbiotic The oil company executives sat around a conference table at the east coast headquarters. They were listening as the Vice president and the staff doctor relayed their findings. Even though, at core, they'd not found anything concrete, the collection of executives were still a rapt audience. The follow on effects of the chronic and drastic understaffing had been highly disruptive when it had involved the front line employees, but now the syndrome seemed to be crawling up the corporate ladder, and this had the effect of blinding the executives. They were cut off from the pulse of the organization, and all the factors combined meant that they were desperate, in an executive fashion. So they listened to an hour and a half of over convoluted, well documented, 'we don't know' from the vice president, about his junket. They had run exhaustive tests, spending big money to bring in a variety of specialists with specialist equipment. And the assembled minds seemed appreciative. Which was good. The vice president felt bullet dodgery. And he also felt the first twinge onset symptoms of the bug. Though he didn't know that yet. So did the doctor, and as he sat behind the vice president, listening to the spiel he'd helped develop, he came to a realization about what was happening. At the first decorous opportunity, he caught the vice president's attention, and whispered in his ear. The vice president had then called the meeting short, 'to attend to possible new incoming information'. The meeting was postponed indefinitely. The doctor and the vice president had done enough interviews, seen enough people under the effects, to know what was in store. The doctor had, in fact, anticipated that it would come to this, and had scheduled time for the fact finding crew at a spa and rehabilitation center. One of the best and most exclusive available. Outside Baltimore. It was a favorite of high visibility politicians and the like. The doctor pulled out a sheet of paper that he'd outlined the plan on and handed it to the vice president. "The instructions are pretty clear. Why don't you get to work on making the calls. I'll take care of rounding up the crew, and taking care of a few last minute details." The vice president searched his desk drawers for his reading glasses, and, upon finding them, and cursing the outdated prescription, scanned the sheet. Then, realizing it wasn't the kind of thing that had any meaning skimmed, read it through. "Okay. Good thinking Eric. Thanks. How long do you think before we should leave?"

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"I think as soon as possible would be the most prudent. But a more concrete answer is that, I think we have a window of about twelve hours. We should be under care before midnight. To be safe." The doctor had been creeping towards the door, but now he paused. "Oh, and make sure we schedule the helicopter pilot to stay with us. Wouldn't want him flying really." The vice president blanched at the thought that the pilot would be flying. He'd be flying them, into D.C. In the dark. "Will do," he said. As he watched the doctor leave, he had sparring thoughts. Alternately, he was worried about the rapidity of the spread of this thing, and the near total incapacitation it cause. On the other end, he knew that it wasn't perilous, in the end. They thought. And he started having trouble thinking about the matter. It made him feel antsy, he thought.

Overlook Traces of the disease were starting to register on a broader scale, but not necessarily in the places that were supposed to notice these things. One of the first were the telecoms. There was a fairly sudden shift in bandwidth usage, from long known and familiar daily patterns. Circadian following patterns of human nature, acted out in phone and network utilization. What the engineers saw, and were perplexed by, was a leveling out of the usage. Combined with a gradual, but steady, climb in overall usage. People were making more connections, and spending longer on them. Unemployment boards saw strange noisy behavior in their statistics for new applications. Not following any trend or impetus that they were aware of. Like the oil company, other large conglomerate and nationwide businesses started noticing unusually problematic staffing issues. The military, who was expected, in the normal course of events, to notice and track and manage outbreaks, did notice. And, albeit slowly, they did start to react. Within days they'd logged data sufficient to work up a dossier and start that dossier on a path to civilian notification. A lieutenant colonel in the air force looked over a geographic plot included in the dossier. He'd received a copy for vetting as part of the procedure. And while the several other similarly placed officers who'd received the dossier were studying it with varying degrees of alarm or curiosity. This officer was staring at the geographic plot. What he saw formed by all the red dots on the map was a big arrow pointing towards Fort Robbins. Where his most recent headaches had come from. A rash of unexplained downed planes. Including the weather study equipped 707 piloted by senior veteran pilot Mereczk. For a moment, he felt like he'd had his problems solved. This was clearly the answer to the puzzle he'd been tasked with solving. But the next beat brought the realization that it didn't solve anything. Just made it a bigger problem. He looked to the last page of the dossier, and then he dug the manila envelope out of his trash can to search for the tracking routing information. Working in logistics had its advantages, and within minutes, he'd gotten the phone number he wanted from the database. He called the office that had composed the dossier, and asked to speak to the officer in charge, who's name he knew from the database. And he also knew the man was in.

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"Ted," he said, as soon as the other end picked up. "This report you've got me vetting?" … "Yeah, number three five oh five three eff eff oh three seven nine oh five eff eee eff eeff dee." … "Right. We have to talk. This isn't something that's going to withstand normal channels." … "No, it's been around for a while already. And it's spreading really fast." … "No. Thing is, I'm almost certain that this is what's been causing all the unexplained crashes. In fact, I think it's probably a good idea to push real hard to get this real fast up to the top." … "I mean like right now. Now. Not after dinner, but right now." … "Mainly because, I think we need to consider grounding air travel." … "No, I know that. Hell, it may come to closing the roads too." … "No sir. I don't think it's out of line at all." … "No sir. I don't mind at all. Thank you sir." He hung up the phone, staring at a list of authorization codes that the other officer had read off to him. He'd been given them as the keys to the machine, and told to run with the thing himself. He didn't have much of a clue what he needed to do, or what, really, was going on. But he did know things were urgent, and he had to agree with the assessment that there wasn't likely anybody else in a better positions. So he got to work. He reopened a port into the database, and also to the highest classification data store, using his new key, and left the ports open. Then he started making calls. First of which was to get a bank of phones brought in, and what seemed like an absurdly highly ranked set of operators to man the phones.

Contemplate "You know, Jim, I owe you an apology." Doug sat and held the dog's head in his lap. "I always thought dogs were kind of just there. Part of the furniture. I don't know what I was thinking. You know, I put a poodle in a dryer once." He looked into Jim's eyes. "To be fair, it was a very wet poodle. And it did get him dry, with no permanent damage. But still. I apologize to you as a dog. For all the disrespect over the years, to all the dogs." Jim seemed totally nonplussed. "Yeah, I know. But I gotta say it. Besides, what else is there to do out here?" Doug started to think about the poodle in the dryer. It seemed to be something that somebody else had done. He could tell he was changing, that there were layers of fog and gauze coming off his mind. But even though it was happening rapidly in a bigger, more global sense, the actual moment to moment changes were still too gradual to notice, and so, there'd been a few time, like now, where he'd been caught off guard. He felt now, very compassionate, talking to Jim. He felt that he understood and carried an understanding of so many things. That dogs had personalities seemed clear and obvious now, and so, the need for compassion and tenderness and care when dealing with them also seemed clear. But it hadn't. He knew this was a new thing, but he couldn't place when it had happened to him. He thought back to his upbringing. His parents had hated each other, and had spent most of their time avoiding each other, and as a result, he was home by himself a lot of the time. Even his little sister tended to stay away much of the time. Though he did recall, in his own defense, that he cooked dinner for her most of the time. So it wasn't like he'd been all bad. He had memories of them all being together as a family, when he was very young. Traveling to see relatives, going to see Santa, sleeping on his grandmother's couch. Hunting lodges. Skiing. But around the time he started school, things had turned sour. He searched his memory for some catalyst, some reason or motivation for why things had changed, but he couldn't come up with anything. It was like the changes he was experiencing now, it'd just happened. There was no moment, no event. Memories were either of good times, or later, not good times.

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The school years, up until high school, or puberty really, were ones of despair. He'd muddled along, getting by without really knowing why. He'd gone largely unnoticed by the world. Left alone. But puberty, with its drives and motivations had hit him hard. And with it, he'd grown, and matured. He'd turned into something very attractive, and he put this to work for him. He joined teams, with their instant pre-packaged social lives. He was an early developer, so he had the advantage over most of his classmates. Both on the field, and off. He had an easy time making first string in three different sports, and it never crossed his mind that he, or any of the cheerleaders were too young to be so sexually active. He got in the habit of having one of a rotation of girls at his house every day. When the hormones got especially strong, he'd have one of them pick him up in the morning before school. As he sat there petting Jim, he recalled, for the first time, these years. It was a good time. He smiled. He'd been nineteen before he'd masturbated. He'd never bothered to figure it out. There'd always been a girl there for him. At the time, this had just been what he did, he hadn't looked around to see what was normal, he'd just done what he wanted, and because of his looks, and his physique and his innate good luck, he'd been able to do it. He thought deeper now, and he thought about the trail of distraught and confused people he'd left in his wake. And he felt a little bad, and said a little apology and penance for that. But he didn't feel too bad. He'd never done anything too far over the line. He tried to remember any of their names, the girls who'd come home with him, or picked him up in the morning. He couldn't. Not one. "What's up with that, Jim?" he asked. "Shouldn't this thing in my head pop their names back up for me? Wonder if I ever even knew?" He petted Jim some more, making amends all around.

Notch For all their dawdling, they got to the station before sundown, leaving them with something like twelve hours to kill. Pete figured. There was a set of instructions on how to signal the train to stop. There was a provision for requesting east bound versus west bound trains, but Pete decided to wait until the west bound train had passed before signaling There was no reason for this other than that he felt best and most comfortable elim inating and many variables as possible. Pete lifted his arm to dust off a plaque on the side of the station wall. It was a commemorative to a war veteran who had also been an engineer for the line at some point. "Sucks to have this desolate thing named after you." "Better than nothing," Tisha said. She was sitting on the hood of the car, eating stragglers from a snack size bag of chips. She licked her fingers. "But I guess that's sort of not the point of a memorial. Is it?" "I dunno. Maybe it's exactly the point. Something you have to work for." He took another stab at dusting off the plaque. "Wow. I smell," he said, the motion having fanned his clothes out. "I'm sure we'll both present a lovely attraction when we get on the train. They usually have showers or something though. A bathroom anyway." "Yeah. I don't really care though. Doesn't bother me. It was just an observation." "Me neither." The sunset was abrupt. The station was in a tight valley, snuggled close to the western slope. In a matter of a few minutes, it went from fairly daylight to dark, with an illuminated sky above. "Weird," Pete said, "it looks like a picture of a sunset." "In 3D," Tisha added. "I guess it would be, wouldn't it. Since it's real life." "Strange distinction. This reality looks so realistic." She laughed. "Hey, is the station open? That might be more comfortable than sitting on the car. They've got couches in there." "I guess it would be." He started walking. "Funny, but some part of me just figures that since no one's here, that it must be locked up. But there's probably never anyone here." He tested the door, and after reading a small sign and twisting a deadbolt latch, the door swung open. It left arcs in the dust on the floor, and the motion of the door pumped a cloud of dust up.

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There was a light switch on a pillar as he entered, and he flipped that on and then waited for Tisha to come in. "I guess we should lock up the car somehow. No telling how long it'll be there." "Okay." "But that can wait, obviously." "No, we should do it now, before it's totally dark. Besides, how hard can it be? Do you have the keys?" "Yep. I guess there's... Well I don't know. I think Doug kept some things hidden in his car. I don't know if he took them out." "Like what?" Pete thought it over for a moment and decided better to let sleeping dogs lie. "Oh, I guess nothing that can't stay in the car. Nothing critical." "But like what?" "Tools and things." A gun's a tool, right?, he thought to himself. "Well, don't forget the snacks." She walked into the station, and around a partition. "Hey, there's a sink!" "Oh." Pete couldn't see what the excitement was about. "And a little space heater dealie." "Ah. Well that's good. Cuz we don't have much to keep us warm otherwise." "We've got each other." "Yeah, but that might be too much of an adventure right now." "Maybe not. Maybe it's calmed down." "Yeah, you're right. I hadn't thought about that, we've been so busy being stuck in a car." "Let's hope so." "Okay, I'll get on that. Hoping." They tried to make up games, and told stories, and eventually even set about cleaning up the station. Pete had found a broom in a small closet accessible from the outside. They'd completely exhausted all their entertainment options well before the westbound train rolled through. It slowed somewhat, but it still carried enough speed to be impressive when it went by. "Wow," Pete said, standing up and dusting himself off. For a moment, he felt as though the train had knocked him down, even though he'd already been sitting. "I'll go set that signal now. So I don't forget." "I don't see how they'd see the signal in time."

leaf "Who knows. It probably turns on a light somewhere up the line." "I hope the bulb's not burned out."

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"Don't worry so much. If worse comes to worse, we'll just drive out. We do have a car." "Oh yeah. Duh." Once he'd set the signal, Pete found that he was much more at ease. He felt tired. Sleepy. Very suddenly. He came back into the station and was met with a yawning Tisha. She finished her yawn, and twinkled at him. "I'm so tired. Will you keep me warm while I hunker down?" "I'm tired too. I'll lock the door." Once he switched off the lights, they saw, for the first time, the near total darkness they were in. Inside, the moon not yet up, in a valley, away from civilization. It was very dark. Too dark. Pete got right back up and turned the light back on. "Sorry, I'm a baby." "No. I'm with you. That dark took away my sleepiness." "Sorry." "No, it's okay. It's back now. Come on, join me." He sat down and then lay down, making a pillow for her with his arm. "Isn't the night sky beautiful?" "No." "Yeah, I don't think so either. Not here anyway."

Carnival Doug woke up with strong sun on his face. But that wasn't what had woken him. As he thought it over, it wasn't even Jim barking up a storm, but the cacophonous scraping noise that had roused him. He burst out laughing. Even though he'd said as much, and hinted and insinuated and thought to himself that it was a good possibility, the sight of a giant fiberglass rooster scooting along behind an old van across the sand caught him off guard in a delightful way. He dropped out of the hammock and strolled out on an intersecting path to greet the newcomers. He recognized one of them from one of the truckstops they'd gone to near the beginning of the journey. He had no idea who he was other than that, but he greeted him as a friend. "Well. Looks like something very peculiar is going on. Hard to chalk this up to a coincidence." "You!" the man said, drawing the attention of his friends, some of whom were still inside the van. Doug figured on half a dozen people. With two riding along with the rooster, doing their best to keep it upright. As he looked towards the rooster, he saw the source of the scraping noise. One of the wheels on the trailer was flat, and the tire was completely shredded, and further, the rim had been squared off and was no longer rolling. Only dragging. And scraping. "Me!" Doug said. "How long's that wheel been gone?" "Somewhere in the mountains. Not sure." "Lucky." "Yep. Lot of that going around." "Me too." Doug and his new friend Tony talked gibberish while everybody piled out and stretched their legs. Doug casually handed out instructions about where they should move and locate the roster. "What made you pick this exact spot," Tony asked, pointing at the marmot. "Well, this is where I got to yesterday. Nothing special about it then. But now, it feels right. The sun seems like it should be where it is. And the view's nice. And you guys showed up. So, here it is." "You're here first," Tony said, "I guess that makes you in charge?" "Yeah. I got here first because I'm in charge. Sort of."

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"Gotcha." Tony seemed to take and understand this cursory answer like he'd been expecting it. All Tony's friends seemed complacent enough. And they were much better prepared than Doug had been. They had barrels of water, and a crude water recovery system made out of a kiddie pool and shower curtains. They had crates of food, and a generator, and solar panels, and laptops with satellite access. "Geez," Doug said. What got into you guys? Why so prepared?" "No idea. I guess it's just the dorky nature of my friends. Engineers mostly." "No shit?" "Mostly. Yeah. Actually, most of this stuff was just what we had with us. With some obvious exceptions." "The kiddie pool," Doug suggested. "No, actually we had that. We had to get the shower curtains." "Wait, if you guys are all so techie and engineers, how come nobody changed the tire?" "I don't know. You know. Speaking for myself, it didn't really seem all that important. I mean, we got here alright. So..." "Yeah, I get that. That's the way a lot of things go." "Hear ya." Tony paused a moment. "So you're really the guy." "Yeah, pretty sure." "Cuz we've all been assuming that there's a guy." "That's me." "How do you know?" "I just do. Dunno." "So, what's going on?" "Not really sure." "But you're the guy?" "Yeah. I don't think that's necessarily all that important." Tony turned and yelled to one of his friends, who promptly came over and took a few pictures of Doug. "I got some more if you want 'em. From the trip out."

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"Sure, why not? Sebastian's got a web site set up. We'll upload 'em. Think we should use your name? Or just call you 'the guy'?" "Doesn't matter to me."

Theft Dixie watched from one of the booths. She was done with her shift and counting tips. Such as they were. She knew it was the chain atmosphere of the place, and that the tips were never going to be good. That she had to move on with her life, do something, change something. But still, every day she counted her tips twice. It never seemed enough. It was a small blessing that she didn't have to tip out. The kitchen staff got paid with an under standing that the wait staff didn't tip out. And the kitchen staff all felt bad for the wait staff, dealing with drunks and fugitives and weirdos. Dixie worked the night shifts. Always had. She didn't even know if the day shifts were different. Maybe they were, maybe it was a decent job during the day, but she'd never find out. She was too burnt already by the place, it was just a matter of time. She knew it. Her boss knew it. It was a problem of figuring out what, and when. So, second count done, she sat with thirty two dollars in bills and seventeen dollars in loose change in front of her, watching. There were half a dozen or so guy darting about in the parking lot. Playing a game maybe, but they had tools, and they seemed to be all trying to direct a truck with a trailer. The driver seemed unfamiliar with the process of backing up, and they went through many attempts. After each one, they gave up and had the truck pull forward into one of the dedicated semi parking spots. Then they'd get together and discuss for a while, and then start over. She wadded up her apron and threw it in the hamper by the employee bathrooms. She pulled on a hoodie over her work dress, picked up her backpack and kicked open the kitchen door, lighting a cigarette as she went. "I'm outta here Frank, see you next time." She flipped the backpack around, adjusting it onto both shoulders, and smoked. She stood in back of the strip mall for a few minutes, looking at a grease trap on one side and a privacy fence on the other. Once she'd gotten enough fresh air and nicotine in her, she ventured out. She had to walk around the length of the mall, as employees weren't allowed to exit through the restaurant, even though she'd been inches from the front exit. Even though it took her the better part of fifteen minutes and three cigarettes to get around to the front, they were still trying to get the trailer backed up properly when she got to them. She knocked on the window of the truck and then opened the door and handed the driver her cigarette. "Here, hold this, I'll do it for you. Where do you want it?"

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The driver stared at her, and a voice behind her somewhere said, "We need it straight in line with the chef statue guy there, but also with the truck pointing straight that way." She turned to see what 'that way' was. The pointer was pointing towards the front exit. "Gotcha." She got in and whirled the wheel around, looking back and forth between the two side mirrors. Pushing on the brake and accelerator in varying amounts. She'd learned the art of trailering from summer vacations with her parents. Alternately they had a boat, or a pop-up camper, depending on the destination. In either case, there was usually a cooler or coolers of beer, and most times it had fallen to her to deal with the launching or retrieving of one of these items. When she'd first gotten the lessons, it had seemed exciting, something adult for an eleven year old. But by the time she'd gotten her own driver's license, she was annoyed and fed up by it. This mood struck her now, even though she was doing a favor for these people. She was annoyed by them. And then she noticed that she recognized some of the faces of some of their group. There were more that she hadn't noticed before, sitting on a curb and spectating. And some of these she recognized as being one of her tables. And they'd been nice. High maintenance, and only decent tippers, but nice. All in all a rare and noteworthy thing at this job. So her mood changed. She got the trailer backed up to the statue, bumping it right up over the curb and onto the gravel that surrounded the statue. The wheels of the trailer straddling one spotlight and in-between the two surrounding it. "Nice." Somebody said from the audience. "Thanks. I assume you'll be stealing the statue?" Nobody answered. "It happens all the time. I'll show you how to do it without breaking it, or leaving a mess." She shot a glance into the restaurant, on the off chance that somebody was paying attention. They weren't. She pointed out the bolts, and luckily they had tools, so they weren't total drunks, she thought. Once she felt like they had a good concept of how it should be done, she backed away and joined the more sensible types sitting on the curb. She found the driver who apologized for throwing out her cigarette after it had burned down. "Don't matter," she said, and sat down to fish a new one out of her bag.

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She watched with some admiration as they gracefully followed her instructions, gliding the statue upright onto the trailer. A couple of them even went so far as to bolt the statue through its own mounting holes onto the floor of the trailer. She had her doubts about its roadworthiness, but it seemed more stable than she would've figured. "I'm Dixie," she said, holding her now lit cigarette in her lips and holding a hand out in either direction. She got a handshake from both sides and two names she couldn't make out, coming from both sides at the same time. The guy on the left seemed stoned, and the girl on the right seemed nervous. But just a little. Generally Dixie got a nice vibe. "Where're you guys going with the statue? Frat house or something?" The girl answered. "We don't know exactly. To the mountains, I think. I don't know. I'm tagging along. I'm not sure anybody knows." "Who's driving?" "We take turns." "So, like, are you following a band or something?" "Yeah, maybe." "And are you all in that truck? Don't tell me you're riding around in the bed of that thing." "Oh, no." She pointed to an import delivery van that had been converted to a camper. "Most of us ride in that." "Oh." Dixie thought the camper seemed marginally better. At best. "You can ride along if you want." "What are you? Some kind of cult?" "No, I don't think so." Dixie watched the guys put the finishing touches on the chef statue. She had a twinge of something, something telling her to throw caution to the wind. "Who's idea was it to steal the chef?" "Uhm. That was sort of a community thing. We were all talking about it, and finally we all kind of thought it would be a good idea." "For what?" "What do you mean?" "I mean, what was it a good idea for? What are you going to do with a chef statue?" "Oh, I see. Yeah... Don't know. I guess it seemed fun. I don't know why."

126 Dixie had another little twinge. "I don't have any money." "Oh, I think that's okay, I think we have enough." "For what?" "Gas, I guess. And food."

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Dixie opened her phone and sent her mom a text. Explaining that she was going on a short trip with a few friends. "Okay, yeah, I'll tag along, if you don't mind." "No, not at all. There's still room." "I might not be able to stay with you for long." "Okay." "Can you wait while I go home and get some regular clothes?" "Sure. Or, why don't we go to your house? Give you a ride?" "Okay, thanks." Home was close by, and Dixie usually walked, so the drive over, with Cindy, her new friend, only took a few minutes. The others were waiting at the restaurant, chef well battened down. Her parents weren't home, so she fed the cats, let the dog out in the yard, stuffed her backpack full of necessities and then a gym bag with non-essentials. And a pillow. "K. I'm ready." "Cool." Cindy was playing with the cats. Challenging them to jumping games with a toy mouse. When they got back to the strip mall, Cindy and Dixie vacated the front seats and scrambled for the far back, sitting on what was purported to be the master bed, but which was barely big enough for the two of them and one other. A mid twenties girl named Beth. Beth seemed on the brink of total lethargy, managing only a mumbled apology before zonking out, using Dixie's thigh as a pillow. Dixie laughed and pointed, and then got used to it and ignored it. The rest of the day was spent driving into the sun, chatting with Cindy, and later some other people in the van. None of them seemed to be connected, and they all seemed to have come to be on the van in much the same way she had. For no reason she could identify, Dixie was having great fun. Giddy fun. For no reason she could identify, she felt that she'd solved her problems from earlier in the day. And every time she thought to get worried and think through some of these things, the twinge came back and told her to forget about it, and to go along for the ride.

Control The lieutenant colonel took his first breath, it seemed, since he'd been given the authorization keys. He sat in his newly provided executive chair and surveyed his crew. He had eight dedicated phone operators, and a promise of another shift when this one dropped. He also had five electronic ops operatives, each with a pair of laptops, all huddled in a corner by themselves. Also, unannounced, there were support staff in and out. Bringing laundry and food and probably whatever else he wanted. Everybody seemed busy at something, and that soothed his mind. He'd stopped because he realized he'd completely lost the thread. A sudden blast of vertigo had accompanied this lost feeling. And he doubted that he be able to hold together the tenuous web of connections that he'd been forming up. Some things were obvious. There was some sort of transmission vector among all the data points they knew of, and already, the causality of the aircraft incidents was old news. Now, less than a day later, and they were solid on the offensive. Tracking and correlating, predicting and his latest push had been trying to enlist field operatives to get ahead of the thing. To scout ahead of the perimeter and see if they could track down what it was. What was causing it. He had a hunch they would get on top of it. But it was early days still. Several minutes after sitting himself, he pulled his hand away from his face and saw a uniform, and a static salute. Reflexively he returned the salute. "At ease. And no more of that." "Yes sir." "How are you?" "Good sir." The military formalities were squashed within a few more rounds of exchange, and the lieutenant colonel was soon relaying all his theories and hunches and hard data to his relief. A man of similar rank, sent from Washington on a jump jet. A strange craft for an air force officer to be certified on. Something he commented on. His relief man winked at him. "Don't worry sir. deceiving, I'll admit. But I'm a good guy. Never fear." Uniforms can be

"Seems to me there's a joke in there somewhere, but I can't find it. Like everything else, I seem to be losing my grasp."

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"Sir, if you'll allow me to suggest it, I think you should get some shut eye. That is why I'm here after all, and going days without is bound to lead to diminished capacity. I've read the literature on the matter." "No doubt while piloting the harrier down here." "Not quite. But almost. I'll wake you if anything of high interest develops. And don't worry sir, I'm very capable." "I'm sure you are." The lieutenant colonel believed him too. But then, that's how it was with these spook types. They were mostly about being believable. Still, he was tired. Very tired.

White The oil company execs all disembarked and strutted to the reception entrance to the 'spa'. Once congregated, they put on a display of feigned ease and strutting in place. Even though they arrived with a common purpose, with full knowledge, the all, to a man and woman, had lived their lives on perceptions, and fear of perceptions, and the latent reluctance to be seen in a weak or compromising stature overwhelmed any sense of reality. They were all subconsciously or consciously terrified of being seen by their compatriots right in front of them. The helicopter pilot walked in, scanned the room, laughed boisterously, and then crossed the room, opened the inner door and shouted for somebody to come check them in. The lack of a greeting party wasn't down to shoddiness, but rather to a combination of low staffing and the last minute rush to segregate out some of the other inmates of the spa. Other persons with a similar fear of perceptions, many of whom had good reason to have this fear. People who lived election to election. The spa was full past capacity, a recent and sudden development, so, even though they were shown to their rooms, all grouped annoyingly close together, they had to further mill around in the common hallway while their rooms were taken out of mothballs and fresh linens installed. The vice president and the doctor were both suffering the onset symptoms of the bug, and unpolitically barged into the first room available. A behavior both noted for its brusqueness, but also its unusuallness. Both were men that previously would have hemmed and variated for as long as possible before sharing a room with another man. But now, in this circumstance, they were brothers in arms. And they were very tired. The vice president went face first into his pillow with all his street clothes on. Shoes included. It was some hours before an staffer came and untied them and placed them delicately at the foot of the bed. Then gently extracted his neck tie, folding it and placing it on the dresser. The doctor had managed to get these to rudiments taken care of before he'd dropped. On top of the bedspread, sound asleep. Both men snored vigorously without disturbing the other.

Mesmerized The metallic polished whining hissing squeal of the train braking into the station woke them up. Pete and Tisha both scrambled awake in a panic that lasted for almost a minute before they realized all they had to do was walk out the door and onto the train. They'd both been conditioned for more grandiose public transport with its lines and check-in delays and pre-boarding passes. Additionally, the porter came and opened the door for them, and asked after their luggage, showing only token surprise at their lack. The purchase of passage for cash was also handled smoothly and gracefully in a manner that later registered on Pete's mind as being perhaps part of a small graft on the part of the porter. Then he knew it had to be. And then he figured that's how it should be. M ake a little on the side. Nobody gets hurt, went through his mind, and then the thought left forever as unimportant to further consideration. Before they even broached the topic of getting a sleeper car, with perhaps a shower, the porter was showing them to just such a thing, perhaps to get them out of sight, Pete thought. It was a luxurious cabin, on the top of the car, with a wrap over skylight spanning. There was a shower, and a small refrigerator and microwave. Stocked with, at least edible, food. The porter bowed out with promises of a return with magazines and a menu from the dining car. There was a TV, but it didn't have programming, only an attached player, and a radio of similar constraint. There were two bunks, one atop the other, and the bottom was just big enough for two. They both rested here awaiting the return of the porter. This took longer than they both expected, but not too long. He left them the menus, as promised, and a set of keys to their cabin, and also to the adjoining doors between cars. "Be in Chicago in about fifteen hours," the porter said, "if we're on schedule, you'll have a wait for the east coast train about six hours or more. Should be able to get some shopping in, for clothes and so on. You should also buy a ticket proper at the station there." Pete and Tisha nodded through this, said thank you, then Pete got up and extracted a tip for the porter, and then closed the door after him, thanking him again. Then glanced at Tisha and the both of them together eyed the bed. The likes of which had seemed very scarce lately. Lying down was a treat, and rushing to sleep, lulled by the motion of the train was a delicacy. Occasionally they would wake up, one or the other, and stare at the other until they dozed off again. No hurry at all.

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AAA Two valleys over, which constituted hundreds of miles, there was a small troupe of groupies who had given up on following their band to pursue hauling a seven foot tall pudgy mascot chef from their last show on the top of their van. Normally they traveled four or five to a van, to allow room for sleeping and playing. But now they were twelve in a van, because everyone wanted to be with the mascot. They'd left one van one state into their journey, and another two states later. Like Doug's new friends, they had satellite internet, and they sat alone on their lake bed surfing for news, or friends. There was a contingent of three who continually lobbied for packing up and heading to Burning Man, as they had been there before, but one of the saner in the party kept pointing out that Burning Man had already come and gone for the year. But they all kept forgetting. As a group, and as individuals, they were disorganized, and it took them a matter of days to postulate that they might be at the wrong lake, and another couple of days to connect to the other camps who had already found Doug. Then it took them another whole day, and the beginnings of food shortages before they set about in earnest getting ready to change camps. And it took the arrival of another restaurant mascot, a nine foot running chicken, and its associate group of travelers, to kibbutz with, before they finally reached critical mass of ambition and got everybody in the van all at once. Minus one girl who had decided she liked the chicken people better.

Lattice They were wide awake before the dawn, and spent the run into Chicago with their noses pressed against the window, occasionally metaphorically, but more often actually. The wraparound skylight offered a good view, but they could only see forward if they got very close. From a distance, the city was only an orange glow, and as the sun came up, it gave the illusion that the city glow was growing until it filled the sky. And then the sun itself came up, causing annoyance of sightseeing for the fifteen minutes or so before the city proper blocked the low angles. They rode all the way into the station shoulder to shoulder, noses to glass, until the world outside went black from the tunnel wall. Only then did the rouse and begin to pack up. Which took only moments anyway. On the way out to the platform, Pete gave the porter another bill, both because he wasn't sure of the protocol, but also because he got a vibe off the man, he liked him. And also because it represented another opportunity to touch a fellow human being. Something that, even though he didn't notice anymore, was still part of his behavior. To touch and get close to people whenever possible. After saying goodby to the porter, they stood on the platform, facing each other, waiting for their sea legs to stabilize, smelling the diesel and the tarred timber and the crushed rock and the soot. Listening to the traffic rumble by outside, and the slumbering noises from the trains. It took several minutes before they felt like leaving, a time they filled with trivial conversation. Animated because they felt giddy, but without substance. They already knew their plans, and had already talked out recent events. Tisha commented on the architecture and Pete on fashions, wit the trend being obviously new fall items, worn ahead of any real need. It was mild even at the early hour and bound to get warmer. But it did inform their shopping. It put them in mind to get some items for the season ahead. Close by the train station was a shopping district from an earlier time, obviously designed for horses and trolleys rather than cars and buses. They walked more or less a straight path, and were within sight of the Lake when the window displays of a department store lured them in. Not only were the clothes appealing and appropriate to their sensibilities, but the window display of note also included luggage. Something they'd need.

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Pete did a quick audit of their remaining funds, surprised by how much was still there. Enough that he saw no reason to recount more carefully They had plenty. Judgment was unnecessary, they didn't have time to put a meaningful dent in the total. "Let's get one of everything," he said. "Well," Tisha said, "I think we should keep in mind where we're going. Meaning, we're heading to Washington, so we need some pretty spiff outfits, but we're also going to be going back to the desert at some point." "And we also need luggage to match that itinerary Also, we need to pack light." "Easy, right?" Even though they were under deadline pressure, it was a long deadline. They forced themselves to go deliberately, not splitting up. So they could discuss, and enjoy the shopping. Pete got a plain dark gray suit, jeans, shirts, underwear, socks, and shoes, formal and rugged. Tisha then made a point of matching him item for item, in a manner that irritated Pete. "No fair," he said, "if I'd known, I would have made you go first." "Too late. Tell you what, I'll go first on the luggage." "Somehow, I don't think that'll balance out quite right." "Too bad." "Hey," he said, looking where his watch should be, if he'd owned one, "Maybe we should split up for a bit and get some toys. I need a watch for starters, and I was thinking of getting one of those all in one electronic things, with network and navigation and so on." Tisha looked at him, glazing as he talked. "Wait, why would you want those things? You've never had anything like that. You seem very rustic to me." "Right, but we're going to D.C. And who knows. Plus, you can play sudoku on them." "Well, why didn't you say so?" "Shall I look into getting you one?" "No. I'll just use yours." "Do you have something you wanted to go look at? I didn't want to shoo you away." "I'm sure I'll find something. minutes?" "Eleven thirty?" I'll meet you back here in forty five

leaf "Sure." She looked around. "Guess I should get a watch too."

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Plots Doug watched with bemused ambivalence as, over time, first the occasional, and then the regular dust plume formed on the horizon and soon thereafter resolved into an object of some sort. Occasionally with a mascot or statue of some substance in attendance, but more often not. These arrivals landed and set up shop at random at first. Sometimes Doug would redirect them, other times he'd like them where they'd stopped. After the first few dozen, a self directing pattern of arrangement developed and after the first few hundred arrivals, Doug could discern a pleasing symmetry and layout to the neighborhoods of vehicles and camps that was forming. He took to scaling the marmot to get a good view, turning slowly in circles and admiring all the goings on. He made a point, because he felt obligated abstractly, of walking out and trying to meet everybody who showed up. They all seemed to know him, greeting him as a cross between an old friend and a celebrity. A favorite sibling. He knew he had no hope of meeting everyone, and that it wasn't important in any functional way. But he wanted to, and the people he greeted seemed to want to meet him. So he kept it up. Going through an increasingly polished greeting routine that was honed to provide maximum information at the same time it also provided maximum friend-y-ness, as he thought of it. He noticed that almost all of the new arrivals had some sort of connected device, by pattern, he started thinking of these as devices, as a category, each camp had a device. He noticed because a common thread was that this was how they'd come to be here. Unlike his own path, most people had felt guided by the device itself, even though, Doug suspected, in most cases this was because the disease made them feel that way, and in fact, they were simply getting driving directions via various layers of networks. Either contact with friends or fellow travelers, or via more intentional navigational functions like GPS or maps. He liked the commonality of it though, and nurtured an interest in the totem of the device. Asking about it with each new group or individual that he greeted. This in turn fed back to the arrivals that there was significance to the device, and these started being revered. Treated with respect and deference. Given places out of the weather and tended to. Charged up and cleaned. Formatted and backed up, as each to its need. During the day, he had to seek out people. No one came to him. He was left alone, whatever he did. But at night, in contrast, campers new and familiar flocked to him. He held court at the marmot, accepting supplies and company, and doling out wisdom and stories. He continually surprised

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himself with remembering the stories. And where they were a surprise, the wisdom was a complete mystery. He had answers to all manner of questions, and some of the answers didn't make sense to him, even as he said them. In some form or another, the campers were always giving him news updates. Of what, he had no idea. He didn't pay attention, and even if he had, his mind set was one that wouldn't have absorbed the news anyway. All he needed to know, he could see with his own eyes. One thing did pop into his head one morning. Something still undone. But something prepared for. He waited until he ran across a camper with the right feel, and the right attributes and the right equipment, and he sat the woman down and drilled instructions into her. The intent and effect of these instructions was to get a message to Pete and Tisha. Impressing upon them the need to extend an invitation to a very ambitious guest list of dignitaries. One name caught the attention of the camper as she transcribed Doug's instructions. It was the president of France. A name familiar because it had been in the news in heavy rotation that summer due to a scandal. She digested and realized what the significance of the name was just in time to process the next name. One that she'd have known even not paying attention. President of the United States. And then she recognized the vice president. And then there was another list following that made her feel that she was lacking somehow for not recognizing Because she knew that they must be important people to be on the list.

Breeze Some of the names on Doug's list were recuperating from a particularly strenuous session of Congress, and subsequent binging, at that very moment, at the spa where the oil company execs had sought refuge. As was inevitable with people of this nature and stature, they didn't shrink to their rooms. Not all the time anyway. And the nature of their relationships, pre-existing, led to a ready camaraderie between the politicians and the executives. If Doug had known about this event, he might not have sent the instructions to Pete and Tisha. But he didn't, so he had. The dialog between groups was deep, and intense at times, but never did touch on the reasons for either party being there. There was an implied, assumed, and rigidly observed mutual agreement that it was a fine place for a retreat, as the other party had so sensibly also discovered. In a suite hotel several miles from the spa, a group of congressional aides assigned to the representatives was beginning to field a rushing influx of constituent messages. Generally these were variations on a theme of 'what the hell is going on, why don't you do something about it, why don't you tell us what you're doing about it'. The aides were at a loss for what to do. They knew enough about what was going on at the spa to know that they shouldn't interrupt without a really good reason, but even though this unusual change in incoming traffic perplexed them and was certainly a good reason to interrupt, they weren't sure if it qualified as a really good reason. And so they sat on it. By common agreement.

Breeze Through all his political obligations to the ever growing camp, and despite their long spans apart, Doug made a point of staying close to Jim. Every time he woke up, he'd feed Jim, and then they'd play catch. Sometimes Jim would join him on his walk arounds, sometimes he'd take a nap and leave Doug to walk alone. Whenever Doug was near the marmot, however, Jim was attached Not quite behaving like a guard dog, but at least in the territorial aspect, he was vigilant. He maintained a radius around the marmot, and as a result, there was no organic or informal infringement. In other areas of the camp, various structures and vehicles would crowd up against each other, and the mascots and statues. In some places the pathways between became constricted and deviated. But there was the clear and symmetrical radius around the marmot, and a straight and wide path from the marmot to the road at the edge of the lake. Doug sat at the base of the marmot with his feet up on a milk crate. He pondered what would happen if they got a strong rain. What would happen to the camp, and to the people. He had no idea how deep of a lake this became, when it wasn't dry. For himself, he figured he'd just climb up on top of the marmot. He was certain though, in that part of him that took care of such things, that there wasn't going to be a rain. Of any description. And so, there wasn't going to be any problem with flooding. Still, it was fun to think about. He also thought about the grand scheme. He had no internal revelation. No externally provided version either, for that matter. No burning bush. No bush at all. But he had time, and faculties, to dissect what had happened. He saw a clear arc into the past, with events and drives and preferences and choices, all leading up to the present. But what after that. The way ahead was becoming fixed. There were only so many paths that events could take. Of the ones he could see, all of them began to worry him. Because they all ended. And at the end, they all either didn't make sense, or were something that he found unappealing. But Doug was nothing if not totally well equipped to deal with acting in the face of the unknown. Jim was aggressively rolling around on his back while Doug rubbed his belly. He did it with such vim that Doug, as thoughts of the future got crowded out of his mind, had a fleeting notice and consideration that Jim might be in on the whole thing somehow. Then he quickly decided that it

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didn't matter, made no difference, and who cared. "How 'bout some fetch Jimmy buddy?" He threw a nylon bone that somebody had left as a gift. Jim tore after it, and thus ensued a vigorous and lengthy session.

Schedule Pete found Tisha sitting on a bench between two oversized potted tropical plants. She was leaning back against a railing fashioned from a sheet of glass, tinted amber, and topped with a chromed metal pipe. Behind it, and through it, Pete saw empty space, and when he leaned in closer, vertigo overtook him as he saw the mezzanine nine floors down. He wobbled and sat down fast. "You okay?" Tisha asked. "Yeah, just a headrush." "You get everything?" "Well not everything. In the whole world. No. But I got a cool little pocket gizmo. And a watch. Here." He bent to find them in his bags to show her, but gave up quickly. "Ah, never mind. I'll have to dig 'em out later. On the train. We'll have plenty of time. Anyway, I got some comic books too. And some snacks." "You really get comic books?" "It's a figure of speech." "Ah." She looked at her own new watch. "Hey, remember what the porter said. We need to book in our tickets at the office this time." "Oh yeah." He looked at his wrist, and wondered why he hadn't put on his watch at the store like Tisha had. "Hey, did I mention that my watch sets itself?" "No." "Well it does. Off the atomic clock. By satellite. I think." "That's nifty. So you can know how late you are to the nanosecond." "Absolutely." *** They detoured by a gourmet shop on the way back to the train station, and then detoured again, because the lake was so close by, how could you not? They took off their shoes and waded into the water. Very cold. Then they meandered back to station, with only hundreds of minutes to spare. The check-in was more convoluted than their first one, but still only took several minutes. They still didn't really have any luggage to check, one big carry on each. "I feel a little let down," Tisha said. "It seems like there should be more hullabaloo going on. And more steam. This seems more like a garage than a train station."

142 "I don't think they really designed it around ambiance." "Well they should."

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"Who knows, maybe they will. Why don't you see if you can find a suggestion box?" "Funny." *** The train rolled out several hours late, and during the interim, nothing worked. The power was off, and the staff was missing, and generally there was an atmosphere of being in prison. In limbo. Pete and Tisha whiled away the time comparing purchases, and exchanging the small gifts that they'd gotten for each other. When the train did finally come to life, they'd been acclimated for so long, and were dripping with sweat, and disrobed to a degree, that the sudden influx from the ventilation system put them both into minor cold shock. "Ooh, look," Tisha said, pointing at Pete's arm. "Goose bumps!" "You too." He rubbed her arm up and down, perhaps to warm it up. They bundled into some of their new clothes, modeling them as they went along. Pete looked at a sweater and thought about putting it on. "Geez, it's kinda starting to feel like winter in here, doesn't it? Not just cool, but there's that tinge of winter somehow." "Yeah, I see what you mean. Maybe it's the train exhaust that they're pumping in?" "Could be. Adds that trainyness to the journey." "You're trying too hard." *** Even though this train was indistinguishable from the first one, they both felt much different. Why this was was a topic of conversation, in the long tedious daytime hours of the trip. It was settled that this was partly due to the change in perspective from familiarity, and not feeling like they didn't quite belong, as they had on the first leg. Also, now they had clothes and luggage and toys. Also, the new train definitely smelled more strongly than the first. It had a distinguished trainy smell, they decided. *** Two days, and three delays in stations, and after two train changes, they were met in Washington, on the platform, by a stout and vibrant woman of middling age who introduced herself as Merriam. She had energetic hair, and

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big glasses that did double duty keeping the hair from getting too far out of line. She saw them soon after they'd stepped off the train, and closed on them while making her introductions, and when she got alongside them offered in gesture to take their luggage. They declined, looking at her with a mixture of confusion and suspicion. Merriam checked up and reset. "I'm sorry. I got ahead of myself. I should explain, because of course how would you know." She adjusted her glasses and pushed a button on her phone. "Here, see?" She displayed a picture of Doug, holding Jim. "My brother? Benjamin? He's a camper. Loves to roam the countryside... Anyway, he's out at this thing? And there's this guy Doug. You know Doug. I know that." "Yes we do," Pete said, feeling patient. "Of course, you knew that. Well. Benjamin. Well, out at this campout, they were looking for someone who had some free time, and was near Washington, and Benjamin thought of me. So here I am." "Why?" Tisha asked. "Oh yeah." Merriam fluffed her hair and then fiddled with her phone again. "Here. I printed it out, but I left it in my car. Sorry." Pete took the phone and read for a little while. "Okay, thanks. I think I'll wait for the printout to really study it, but I got the gist." He gestured okay to Tisha. "Lead on Merriam. And thanks." "Oh it's no problem. I'm glad to help out. Benjamin is my favorite. It'll be fun to have something to talk about. My little adventure." She led them out to a faded car that was listing hard to one side. She ushered them in and there were distinct clearings sized for them. The entirety of the rest of the interior was filled with an amorphous solid that appeared, to the naked eye, to be comprised of copy paper, periodicals, food wrappers, and clothing. Pete attempted a minor act of chivalry by claiming the back seat. Merriam drove carefully and smoothly through traffic patterns that made Pete and Tisha nervous. Explaining her understanding of the plan as she understood it. Pete thought this was a good thing, because the print out she'd handed him was in very fine type, and as smooth as the ride was, it was still seasick inducing.

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As Pete listened, there was an aura of inevitability about Doug's plan. Something that once heard, seemed obvious. Like a stocking stuffer puzzle or a riddle. The general outline was to convey an invitation to a list of available dignitaries. To come for a visit. Doug seemed to have developed something more of a sense for what the thing was. The disease, and the outcomes. One new bit of news was the arrival of the other campers. That was some thing quite stunning. In the several days they'd been traveling, an astounding number of people, and mascots, had arrived. To hear Doug's telling. Pete leaned forward and whispered in Tisha's ear. "And we don't know when he sent that." "Yeah, kinda freaky," Tisha said. Merriam redirected her monolog to incorporate their comments. "Isn't it though? Benjamin says it's all mystical and otherworldly. He said to make sure I stayed close to you guys, so it would rub off." "What else did Benjamin tell you?" Tisha asked. "Oh, there's time for all that later. Now we need to make hay. It's not the easiest thing to get an appointment with any sort of politician around here. And these aren't just any old. Plus, there's a lot of them." "Any thoughts?" Pete asked. "Well, yes. And I've gotten a stream of suggestions from Benjamin and other people he's relaying for out there. Little helpful things that work in our favor. I'll try to spell them all out, but really, well, I've got them printed out somewhere at home." *** Despite her admonishment that they had things to do, Merriam insisted on taking them to her house, some considerable distance out of town, to have dinner, and a rest. She'd made a compelling argument for the diversion. "No sense getting you bustled into somebody's office right now, not with you looking like the cat drug you... Also, I have a secret to confess. I've got an appointment set up already. Not strictly somebody on the list, but an associate of mine. She's coming over soon." She listed the woman's credentials, not registering anything at all upon Pete and Tisha. The best they could glean was that she was some sort of activist and or looniest Merriam's house was a total shock to Pete and Tisha. After her car, the'd been dreading and figuring out how to plug their noses without appearing impolite,

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each on their own trying to rehearse their polite begging off, that they'd really be better off not bothering her and instead getting a room. But her house turned out to be delightful. A narrow two and a half story with a pair of cats and shutters on the windows, and lace curtains on the windows, and fresh baked bread cooling on the kitchen table, and a décor out of a prop designer's most cuddly imagining of the a cozy little home. It made them think of their grandma's, respectively They had a slice of bread while they acclimated, and then they were each shown to their own room in the attic. Each had its own bathroom, one with a shower and one with a tub. "Probably a bed and breakfast. At least at some point," Pete said. They bathed and dressed, and came down to find Merriam, with her friend, Latty, both folding laundry. "Hey," Tisha said, "how'd you get our clothes? And how'd you get them washed so fast?" "Honey," Merriam said, "I'm an old pro at some things, and I don't give up my secrets easily. You'll have to work at it, and also maybe bribe me too. And even then, no guarantees" She touched her nose and winked at them. Latty laughed. "She doesn't know any secrets. She's just plain sneaky. And as to the how fast, how long do you think you were up there?" Tisha looked at her funny for a second. "Were we up there a long time? Only seemed like... fifteen minutes?" "Oh it's alright," Merriam said, "You're probably just worn out from the trip." "But how long?" "Not sure exactly. But... at least an hour and a half." "No. Way." "It's okay. We're having a lovely time catching up. No trouble." "Still, it's weird." *** Latty steadfastly resisted revealing who she was, other than to let on that she could probably get them in to see enough of the right people to help them get their message out. "Now, I make no promises whatsoever about the outcome, or response to that message will be, but, assuming you make a good impression on the first few people, I see no reason not to keep working in your interests."

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Pete had his own doubts and ambiguities about Doug's plan, and said so. Merriam seemed to know more about, and have more faith in, what was going on out in the desert. Pete found himself in the baffling situation of having someone else convince him of his own point of view. "Merriam, I don't know you much at all. But I really feel lucky we found you." As he said the word 'lucky', it struck him anew how many times that concept and that word had come into their lives in a major way since he and Tisha had met. He thought about how to express this to his new acquaintances, but before he could, they'd rushed the conversation on to whole new topics. Things of a more worldly nature that he didn't know much about, so he adopted a polite silence and listened, hoping to gain a sense of what was going on.

Scientific method The lieutenant colonel, woke up and walked to the door where someone had hung a clean uniform for him. He dressed by habit and touch in the dim light, and emerged from the office into the common area where his burgeoning staff worked. There was a calm furtiveness to the room, and he had no doubt that they were all working at full capacity. This was not a situation that anyone sent a substandard operative into. And even if they had, the situation, and the ambiance would have inspired any malingerers. He took some time to address each station. The operators were having a predictable time. With their security clearance codes, they could get straight through to anyone on their list. Mainly these were notifications, and so the calls went through at a predictable pace, and things were nicely on schedule. To date, they hadn't had any return calls of any significance. But that was to be expected. The pace of things was expected. The electronic ops desks showed nothing. But that was also to be expected as well. Even if they had something, they might not show it, and theirs was a more nebulous task, they were looking for ghosts, wisps, shadows. These things took time because you could only see them out of the corners of your eyes. He lowered into a newly arrived executive office chair, obviously placed and left empty for him. His relief officer watched in silence all this while, waiting until the lieutenant colonel acknowledged him. Once this occurred, he closed the two paces between his station and comfortable conversing distance. "Good morning sir." He saluted. This at three in the afternoon, the lieutenant colonel noted. G uy's good. "Good afternoon sir. How are things?" As you've seen, about what you'd expect." "Yes..." The lieutenant colonel could tell there was something off book on the man's mind. "There was one interesting development during the night. And I've acted on it, as it seemed prudent." he gestured towards the door and then opened it, waiting for the lieutenant colonel to enter the hall. "Sorry sir, don't want to offend any sensibilities in there." "Okay..."

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"Sir, I was informed by one of the clerical staff, coffee lady actually, that she'd been reading on one of her gossip boards about... well basically the short version is that she knew more about the spread vector of this thing that we have any hope of doing. Just by matching home towns on this gossip board she was at. And all the people who were talking about having it." "I suppose that's something that our guys will be on top of." "Perhaps, and that's why I brought you out here, but to cover all the bases, I had her get on it, collating." "Which gossip board is this?" "I don't recall sir, but it doesn't matter. Her first report was that there are plenty of options. Social networking, school closings, any thing you can think of really. She brought me this after the first hour." He picked up a folder off a delivery cart and handed it over to the lieutenant colonel. "So give me the skinny." "Looks like it's a delay onset. Who knows how long dormant. My guess is weeks, if not longer. And it travels. That seems to be one of the primary characteristics. Lot of these people, first thing they did, first symptom, was go get out of town and go somewhere else." "Really." The lieutenant colonel studied the object in his hands, not reading it, but weighing it. "Yes sir. I think any thought of containment is futile, if it ever was a viable option. I think we need to thing strongly about switching to prevention, or moderation." "Sounds like you're right. Let me make a few calls." "If you don't mind sir, I'll make a few of my own. Help you out." "Of course."

Doug "Hi Jim, how's it going?" Doug curled up on the ground around the dog and pulled him in tight. He was feeling out of sorts, in and of itself, something unusual. The warmth and softness and aliveness of Jim pushed aside all his worry and stress feelings, and the still warm ground against the cooling night air eased his physical tiredness and soreness. He was inside the radius where people tended to leave him alone unless invited in, and they were, but he could see several figures in the distance hovering. He didn't want them to worry, so he got up and walked over. "Hey, how's it going? Just playing with the dog. He's a weird one." That banality seemed to be enough, and the still indistinct figures shrugged and wandered off. He went back to where Jim was waiting for him and curled up again. It took a few moments for him to ease into a trance, and then something deeper. Everything was formless but substantial. Everything had a monolithic color and texture and the whole of the world was made up of large swaths of these, flowing and mingling. He was still holding Jim, and together they bobbed around weightless. And slowly, without any perception of crossing back over, he was staring at the moon. A warm humid breeze had blown in, and it had salutatory effects on his lungs and chapped lips. He sat up and then stood up to venture out into the camp to beg sustenance As soon as he'd got upright, a contingent of campers came to attention, hailing him from beyond the radius. He avoided these people politely. There was nothing wrong with them, but he liked to get out and explore, not socialize with people he already knew. He liked to survey, and keep track of the arrivals of new mascots. There were well over a thousand of them now, ranging in size from merely large toys, all the way up to an imitation statue of liberty that looked to be four or five stories tall. One thing he'd picked up from talking to all the new arrivals was that they all did have similar experiences with the sickness. It took a variety of courses, but they were all clearly of the same pattern. The common name for it was the wisdom flu. Doug liked the name, but it made him think of his wisdom teeth, and that made him cringe. So the association wasn't totally smooth going.

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He organized another message to be sent to Pete and Tisha, with news of all sorts, and pictures of the camp. But the main purpose of it was to share the name 'wisdom flu' with them. He felt a twinge of pride about it. He wandered until he found a fun looking campsite with a fire and about twenty people gathered around it. He eased into the group, doing his best not to draw attention. "Hey," he asked a girl with dirty blonde hair. She was wearing a white men's shirt that was eight sizes too big for her. She had the sleeves rolled way up and the tails came down below her knees. She didn't seem to have anything else on. "Hey," she said back. She looked at him and then pulled her hair back from her eyes and fussed with it, trying to get it into a pony tail. "How long you been here?" He gestured to the group. The girl took a few paces back from the fire. "It's hot, isn't it. But it's so fun. I stay until I get too hot. I feel like I'm cooking on my front side." She bent forward and made a final strong gesture towards getting her hair under control, failed, and shrugged. "Uhm. I don't know how long they've been here. I got here yesterday. I think. They were here." "Who'd you come with?" "Some other people. They were nice. They're over there somewhere. How about you?" "I'm staying more towards the middle." "There's a middle?" "Sure, hey, follow me, I'll show you. It's pretty cool." "Alright." She bounced. "I'm Doug." He held out his hand. "Dixie. Pleased to meet you Doug." He took her on a mostly straight path back to the marmot, pointing out a few particularly interesting or impressive mascots along the way. "Did you have any sort of urge to steal one of these?" "No, not really. There are a lot of them. Whadda you think it means?" "Not everybody does. I did. And I couldn't explain. I don't hardly remember why now. In fact, I have no idea. I barely remember doing it." "How long have you been here?" She asked. "A week or two." "Wow. How many people were here when you got here?"

leaf "None. I was the first." "No shit?" "No. How about you? Why're you here?"

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"It just kinda happened. This and that. I never really decided or anything. I just hooked up with somebody, and then another somebody. And pretty soon I was here. I mean, it seemed kind of obvious." "Why?" "It's just what's going on. Everybody seems to be drifting this way." "Everybody?" "Seems like it. 'Course not everybody does. But everybody wants too. Well, except for people who haven't gotten over wisdom flu yet." "What about people who haven't gotten it yet?" "I don't know. It doesn't seem like there are any of those." "Huh. What about your family? Are you worried about them?" "No, of course not. Why?" "Why aren't you?" "Well, they're fine, why would I worry about them?" "Homesick?" "No, now that you mention it. Not at all. Besides. There's so many people here. And you know, that might be it. This feels like my family. This feels exciting." "Really?" Doug asked. "Yeah, of course." "Thanks." He stared at her. Blinking hard.

Diagonal The lieutenant colonel, who turned out to be named Avery, and his relief from D.C., who turned out to be named Steve, sat in a roadside diner. Coincidently missing its mascot. They were discussing recent findings and mapping out their best course of action. They'd spent the better part of a day poring over the intel, both from their official resources, and also, and more substantially, the data gathered by the friends and relatives of the the clerical staff. They'd given up on, and abandoned the control center model, leaving some of the operatives there, to serve as a communications hub, and dispersing teams out into the field. These two men had kept themselves together for no reason that either of them knew. They'd never discussed it. And now here they were, half way across the country, trying to soak in what was happing with the wisdom flu. The name was one of the things they'd picked up. They'd also picked up a neat stack of medical reports data, from their team, and via their team from several independent sources, including the oil company physician's data. "How come the CDC hasn't come through yet," the lieutenant colonel, Avery, said. "My best guess is that they don't have anything. And they really should. There's no way they didn't drop the ball on this one." "Mmm... This is interesting though." "What?" "Oh, all of it. There's something here." "Are you going to share it with me?" "Oh, I don't know what it is. But I can see that there's something here. Just like the feeling I had before I saw the first plot map. It'll come to me. Let's keep looking." They did. Studying the various hard copies, and fielding ongoing incoming information. They got their own coffee after the only waitress went home. "You know," Avery said, "One thing that's obvious, but needs to be said." "What's that?" Steve asked. "Nobody dies. Nobody really gets hurt." "That's a very good point. As you say, obvious, but not considered before." "As far as we know. There must be somebody somewhere."

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"People die all the time. If nobody was dying, that'd be. Well that would have to be the end all most important thing about this." Avery looked into the distance momentarily. "Uhh..." He took out his phone and hurriedly issued instructions to have somebody get him obituaries and police reports. He hung up and held the phone, composing his thoughts. "Yeah, that would be a big deal." "Well, until the data comes back, what else do we have?" "Steve? How do you feel?" "Fine, why?" "Well, let's assume that we're both military men, with some discipline and so on, you probably more so than me." "Fair enough." "See how much coffee we're getting through?" He pointed to the junkyard of creamer cups pushed up against the window at the edge of their table. "Oh. Well. I don't suppose there's much point worrying about it. Keep moving forward." "At some point, given the trend of these reports. We're obviously going to have to hunker down for a while." "When we come to it." Steve dismissed the topic with a wave of his hand. Then he swept the creamer cups off the table. "Let's look at geography again." "Okay." "First thing I'd comment on is that it seems like there are some people getting over it already." "Agreed." "Well where are they? They don't seem to be coming back to work, or out in public." "Well maybe they're not up to it yet." "Some would. And there's none." "Okay." "Look at the spread vectors." "Yeah, it spread. Fast." "Perhaps they're going somewhere." "Fleeing?" "Or seeking something. Warmer climate?"

154 "Rural locations. Get away from people." "Or heading towards people. Homesick maybe." "Let's go. I'm getting stagnant." "Where?" They looked at each other. "I have a hunch." "Me too." "What the hell, let's go."

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Sunshine Listening to Latty and Merriam banter, seemingly without pause. And the variety of comfort foods, in good proportions. Led to Pete and Tisha feeling like they were already asleep there on the sofa in Merriam's living room. They'd retired to there after dinner, but Merriam had not seen that as an excuse to stop serving food. So they kept eating. In nibbles and sips. While Latty and Merriam talked. It wasn't that they rambled, and in fact, it was all relevant information for Pete and Tisha. The two ladies were taking the burden off of them to discourse, presenting the information about various politicians and meeting times as a two part monologue. Interspersed with helpful, yet still interesting and even salacious tidbits about the party, usually a politician, in question. At some indistinguishable point, Merriam stood up and shooed them off the couch. "Enough of this, we'll wear you two plain out. Then you won't be any use tomorrow. Get to bed." She showed them up the stairs, even though they'd already made themselves at home in their rooms. She came in with them and tucked them each into their own bed, winking at each of them as she did so. Both Pete and Tisha were too far gone to read anything into all this. In any case, as soon as Merriam creaking on the stairs had subsided, Tisha slipped out of her bed, tip toed across the divided attic and glided into bed alongside Pete. "Hey, to be on the safe side. You better not touch me. I don't know if I could take that right now. And who knows what it might do to Merriam or Latty. Is she still here?" "I bet she is. Traffic around here. She probably wouldn't have time to sleep before she'd have to come back. And what would do what to them? What do you mean?" "I don't know. I guess it probably involves a lot of noise. remember. Seems like it did." "Yeah, probably." They sat and looked at the ceiling sloping in over them. Eyes wide open. "Hey," Pete asked. See those stars?" "Yeah, I do, I wondered if they were really there." "I think they're stickers. I got some like that at a museum when I was a kid." "Fun." She rolled over to face him. "Pete, I can see you too." He looked back. "Yeah, I can see you too." I don't

156 "But, I can't see anything else." Pete paused. "Yeah. That's weird." "What do you think?" "I think it's making my brain hurt to think about it." "Yeah, me too. I was hoping you'd have some sort of answer."

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"I'm sure it's nothing to worry about. I'm going to ignore everything and think of riding a motorcycle and get to sleep." "Why riding a motorcycle?" "No idea. I always have. And it works great. Much better than counting sheep." "But it doesn't rhyme." "What?" "Sheep rhymes with sleep." "Ah. Now you're just pushing it. You have severe sleepoveritis. That's my diagnosis. I'm ignoring you now." "Sweet dreams." "Sweet dreams." "I love you." "No fair, how can I ignore you?" "You can't." "Well I love you too. And I know you need sleep, so I'm ignoring you for your own good, no matter what happens." "Even if I get sick and ask for help?" Pete ignored her. "You would, I know you would." She scootched in close and nodded off. Pete was imagining a wide empty road. Deep black with vibrant highway markings. Mostly yellow. Right around the time he nodded off, two of Merriam's cats crept into bed with them and made themselves at home.

Fitting Doug and Dixie spent a pleasant time together. Much of it spent in the shadow of the marmot, some small distance apart, with Jim trotting back in forth between them. They had many things to talk about, and they talked through them until they were hoarse. The sun came up, and they sought shade, and went through the motions of daily life, all the while keeping one eye on each other in mild bewilderment. Fast friends in a storm. Her presence kept the usual tide of hesitant approaches at bay, but by noon there was a backpressure to the crowd gathering that grew too distracting to ignore. Doug explained some of the details that they hadn't gotten to yet about what he was tasked with, and then he left Dixie with Jim and went to put in his appearance. There was a tall man that he remembered and he waved him over. "Hey. What the temperature? How are things?" "Things are good. Everybody's happy. I think all this. This is just people excited." "About what?" "Well, nobody knows. That's why they're here. Because they figure you know what's going to happen. Or you're in charge." "They do?" "Of course." "Huh." "Because you do, right?" Doug thought it over. "Yeah, I guess I do. Didn't give it much thought." "Maybe we could organize some sort of dissemination of, oh, just anything. Just so people don't hang around here waiting for... well, whatever it is." "You want me to give a speech, or..." Doug laughed. "Or a sermon?" The tall man looked at him. A bit startled. "Uh, yeah. I wouldn't call it a sermon. That might cause more crowding and excitement that it fixes. You don't even have to do the talking. I was just thinking about getting the word out." Doug refrained from drawing any more analogies for fear of upsetting the man. "Good idea. Why don't you gather up a few people and bring them out to talk?" "Here? There?" The man pointed at the marmot.

158 "Sure." "Who?" "Anybody you want. Anybody who wants to." ***

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The tall man came back about an hour later with a smallish group of men and women in tow. Doug noticed that as a rule these were tall people, and after thinking about it, decided that this was probably a good thing considering the circumstances. Tall people could see and be seen by more of a crowd. They came with their own stage, so to speak. He got them into a huddle around him, and took a deep breath and filled them in as quickly as he could about what was happening, as far as he knew. The extent of the endeavor so far, and his own tiredness, and their overeager looking faces all conspired to tempt him to wax into hyperbole, but he resisted, maintaining a matter of fact tone and pace. Whenever he felt himself slipping towards the grandiose, he thought of Pete. He imagined he was explaining everything to Pete. And this helped. He felt that he was showing his tiredness, his weariness, and he felt that this didn't honor the sacrifices that all these people had made to come here, for no reason that he knew of. But he also felt that to do otherwise would be dishonest. Which was worse. Then, when he'd explained everything that he felt he could share, mainly historical things, he sensed, or imagined, that they wanted and needed more. So, on the fly, and in collaboration with the tall man, he spun out a nebulous sort of plan to the tall people. General stuff about how people should interact in the camp, be nice to each other. Simple, straightforward things. Because they seemed to want to hear something like that. Something more than he had in him for sure. He hoped it would suffice. The tall people hung around for a while, mingling, the left in ones and twos over a period of time, eventually leaving just him and Dixie and the tall man. He had a last few words with the tall man, and then the tall man left and it was just Dixie. And Jim came trotting back from somewhere. Doug bent down and scooped him up on the fly. "Where you been, buddy? Tall people make you nervous?"

Cataloging Pete woke up covered in cats. He hesitated to move. Tisha came out of the shower bathroom drying off. "Hey Pete. Good morning." "Morning." "How come you're just lying there?" "Cats. Seem happy. Also, I was pondering how long it's been since I went to sleep, in the evening, slept some normal amount of time, and then woke up in the morning." "I don't know about you, but I hardly ever sleep like that." She shook water out of her ear. "Yeah, me neither. Come to think of it. It's nice." "It is." *** Pete took a shower too, and when he came out, his suit was laid out for him. It looked sharp, but it seemed to have had the new starchiness removed from it. It looked tailored and familiar where before it had looked alien. "What did she do to this," he asked. Tisha shrugged. "Dunno. She said she'd spruced it up. Whatever that means." "Seems nice. She do anything for you?" "Yep. Can't you tell?" "No, not really." "Hpff." *** Merriam had a light breakfast waiting for them. "Latty went to tend to the car. Her car, you'll be relieved to find out." "Oh... Yes." Pete said, laughing. "What's on the agenda?" Well, most of the morning is filled with office visits to a few friends of Latty's. Mostly lobbyists. The afternoon is. Well, it's penciled in with potential appointments with congressional staffers, but these appointments are notoriously tenuous, and there's been a flu going around. Anyway, there's a good chance we don't do anything in the afternoon." "Oh..." Pete said. Merriam continued. "Then, for dinner, we've got a dinner meet with the social attache for the president of Nigeria."

160 "Why..." Pete tried to ask.

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"Hold on," Merriam held up her hand, "I'm on a roll. Then, after dinner, we've got drinks with a college friend of mine who's a translator, and then after that, a different kind of drinks with a man Latty knows who knows people in the Russian power structure." "So..." "So to answer all your questions, these are all the people I know, or Latty knows, that we could get fit into a schedule for today, who know, or might know somebody who knows somebody that's somebody like the people on the list. And I gotta tell you, I'm viewing this list as a prototype, a suggestion, because there's no way we can just order up the list of people that your friend Doug asked for. I don't think the President of the United States himself could raise this guest list." "I'm pretty sure you're right, I think he probably just wanted somebody in authority. If I know Doug." Pete scratched his head and then fiddled with his tie. "And I do." Latty came bustling through the door before they'd finished their first piece of toast, and seemed disinclined to stop. She teetered at the edge of the kitchen jingling her car keys until Merriam acknowledged her. "Alright, let's get going." The morning meetings all went about the same, practiced non-committalness on the part of the lobbyists, or their assistants in some cases. Pete developed an intuition over the course of the half dozen repetitions of the meeting that, were it not for the fact that many of these lobbyists were well connected, and knew something of the spread of the wisdom flu, and saw potential value in their involvement, that they wouldn't have even seen them. Even after hearing what they had to say, most of the lobbyists were baldly non-committal Pete didn't think this was out of line, as all they were really saying was that there was this guy out in the desert who wanted to see whatever dignitaries they could rustle up. The fact that these same dignitaries, who were privy to intelligence gathering dossiers, knew of the camp growing around Doug's marmot, and were, many of them, hoping to get something very like Doug's invitation. But that was all forming in real time, and not much had been solidified in terms of ideas or plans or desires. And even less had been propagated out to the kinds of people who met with Latty and Merriam. But something had. And that something was what Pete was picking up on. They weren't getting laughed out of these meetings. Note was being taken and relayed to somebody.

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The afternoon was not like Merriam had predicted. They got into most of the meetings they'd scheduled. With some portion of the missed appointments being their fault, because they'd run long in some. These meetings, one step closer to the people that mattered, and some big part of the day further on, with co-inciding updates on going's on, found them a slightly more receptive audience. These assistants and staffers had been informed to look for information, or constituent contact regarding the outbreak, and the migration towards the camp. Nobody in these meetings, Pete and Tisha included, had any idea that the immediate camp surrounding the marmot now numbered over two million people, with more in the surrounding environs, finding their way in. The camp was becoming a worry to all sorts of people, and there were several battalions of the army corp of engineers already on the scene to keep the camp fed and watered. The engineers were surprised by how well prepared the campers were, but they, and all the people up the chain above them, were nervous. Domestic intel, based on satellite surveys, estimated that the lake bed, at capacity, could hold between ten and twelve million people. There was doubt about such things as sewage and even breathable air capacities of the environ ment, and top priority rush studies were commissioned to figure out something they couldn't do anything about. What really worried the high level observers was what would happen if everybody decided to leave all at once. There was only one viable route out of the lakebed. The rest was hemmed in by mountains. And beyond that, there was only the one highway out of the mountains. And calling it a highway was a bit of a stretch. And there was only the one gas station. Two million so far, at an orderly and gradual arrival pace, over many days. But soon, the influx was due to overwhelm the infrastructure, the planners estimated. One thing nobody in the higher echelons of those in the know ever bothered to discuss was whether or not the twelve million would show up. It was a given. Because they could see all the people gravitating in from all over the country. They could see one way traffic densities, and track credit card usage, and on visual satellite, there was a noticeable tell tale of human population density for a hundred miles or more around the campsite. Some of them even paused to wonder why it was happening And these people made calls. And the queries propagated out. Eventually to the people that Merriam and Latty had set them up with. Which was why they got a warm-ish reception.

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By dinner time, they were exhausted. The clothes had held up well though, forming a disguise or barrier. And after all the repetitions, Latty and Merriam knew all the nuances, and so, dinner with the Nigerian contingent was, for Pete and Tisha, simply dinner. The Nigerian social attache had been joined by the Nigerian ambassador, but still, the conversation at the other end of the table from Pete and Tisha was a rowdy gathering of old friends. Voiced in rich and varied and elegant accents. It fed the mood, and Pete and Tisha spent most of the time staring at each other, or, when they felt they were being awkward, at the rest of the party. In it all, the message of invitation did get through to an eager ambassador, and later that night, news spread to a few key people higher up in a few governments. Latty and Merriam didn't pay close attention to the wine bottle, and ended up a bit over the limit by the time the meal wrapped up. They left the car and took a cab to their next meeting. This was arranged to take place at an upscale night club, the kind where nobody expects anybody to dance, and there's always a few young women looking out of place on the token dance floor. They all sat to wait for the Russian to show up, thankful that he was late and not waiting for them. They ordered cocktails in variations and sipped them, scoping out the other patrons. The Russian, when he arrived, was obvious. He looked Russian. Bold, with stringy hair and a look that said he took himself seriously. He had a woman on each arm. Woman indistinguishable, from each other, or the background. They expressed nothing. In any way. When he let go of them to make his greetings, they gained some spark of life, managing to look uncomfortable and awkward, for just a flash. One of them waved a tiny wave behind the Russian. The Russian himself fairly yanked Merriam up out of the couch and hugged her like he might be trying to hurt her. Then, when reintroduced to Latty, performed a similar, but slightly lower scaled greeting. Without even sitting back down, Merriam made introductions all around, Surprising Pete by knowing the names of the girls the Russian had brought along. And then, without breaking for breath, she made her apologies for her and Latty, and they left. Waving on the way out. There was a moment where Pete and Tisha both felt out of place. Abandoned by their escorts. Uncomfortable But then the Russian sent one girl to get drinks, sat the other next to Pete, sat himself next to Tisha, and then, he started talking.

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Leave Avery and Steve drove west at a leisurely pace. They'd stopped at a mall alongside the highway to buy clothes to replace their military issue. Not as a symbol of rebellion, or even because they found the uniforms uncomfortable, both men lived in uniform like a second skin. But they had decided that in the interests of fact finding, it would be best to dress civilian. This is what they told themselves, and each other. They kitted out sparsely, one set of regular clothing, and one set of camping clothing. They also got a pair of small tents, and a minimum of other camping gear. They did get a rather high specification GPS unit, one that provided for creating its own maps off of sensed data. They were still receiving a constant stream of intel, but it had become so constant that it was hard to keep up. And, as they were both now aware, they were experiencing the first symptoms of the wisdom flu. They didn't speak of it overtly, but when it came up in the course of conversations, any discussion was replaced with a look, and they'd move on. They both knew it, and it was awkward, but they could, at least, not waste time talking about it. Once it had happened, then they'd have something meaningful to talk about. They knew, vaguely, about the camp. And they were heading, generally, towards it. But they both knew that they would be held up by the disease before they'd get there, so there was no sense of urgency. At the same time, there was no point in giving up. So the pushed on. Casually. Making steady miles every day, and stopping anywhere that seemed appealing. Usually the first attractive resort or lodge or hotel they came to in a given day. They settled into a routine of driving for the first part of the day, stopping for a first and second meal. This is when they did most of their official busi ness, resources spread on a booth table, coffee replenished regularly. Then they'd find their resting place for the day, and usually, work on their tans. Poolside. With a beverage. One. Usually. Usually a margarita. But sometimes other local variations. Anything with an umbrella and ice was fair game. But only one. Per day. They enforced this on each other, for no reason that either understood, but both knew without discussion. On the day they finally decided that they should hunker down, and not drive on, they were within sight of the mountains. Still some days from the lakebed at their pace, but the sight of the mountains had psychological importance. They felt in the neighborhood. It felt good in a tangible way. And it was enough of a lift of the compulsion that they'd managed not to consciously feel, that they could allow themselves to stop, they'd come far enough. For now.

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Where they stopped was a high dollar resort, situated nearby to a trauma center that catered to ski lodge victims. In season, it was filled with the not quite convalesced, and or the relatives of same, or those still in the hospital. It was high dollar, and provided every luxury of the nicest ski lodge, minus the hills, but with a variety of attractions to compensate. In the off season, it was decadent, and came with an aura of otherworldlyness. Everything seemed not to belong. To be waiting for something. There was a one to one staff to guest ratio. And yet, despite the discounted rates, and the universal availability of rooms, Avery and Steve chose to share a suite. On the ground floor. With a walkout to the spa and pool. Both fed, in sequence, from a hot spring. Steaming even in summertime. Steve out of his Air Force uniform, which wasn't really his anyway, felt more his old self. His work tended to this kind of setting from time to time. Avery, who'd been Air force for eighteen years, felt only slightly more out of place. Steve came out from a spell in the room carrying periodicals and ice water. He had on a swimsuit, but was further clothed in spa issue robe and slippers. Neither very securely worn. Not for style, but because he was feeling the effects of the wisdom flu. He was a man inclined to maintain appearances under duress, and to keep functioning. He could sleep, proverbially, standing up. So he wasn't knocked out. But he wasn't all there. Avery was in a similar state, with slightly less compensatory fortitude. He was beached on a chaise lounge. The hotel staff had provided, and maintained and adjusted, umbrellas, to ward off sunburn. The staff were well equipped and accustomed to looking after guests in weakened and recovering states of being. The two military men hardly registered on their radar. Steve kept scanning the incoming on his laptop. On a conscious level, he was barely able to track the words with his eyes, but at another level, the wisdom flu was taking it all in. Mulling it over, and waiting for later, when it might become interesting. Avery was having a more unconscious experience, similar to what Pete had gone through. He resisted less, and the wisdom flu knew how to work with this as well. This was the default behavior, an incapacitated patient. What was currently scrolling across Steve's field of vision was a long form research report, written slap dash to get it out, covering something of immediate relevance to Steve. The report covered initial findings about mortality

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rates for the wisdom flu. And as others had noted informally, there were in fact no reported fatalities, of any kind amongst wisdom flu victims. Not even car wrecks. None. The study postulated, but didn't provide data for, possible reasons for this, ranging from a slacking off of the data reporting infrastructure due to lack of staffing, to undetected fatalities going unnoticed due to some characteristic of the disease, to the incapacitating aspects of the disease preventing people from encountering other forms of peril. The author of the report summarized in a way that made clear that he was excited about one thing in particular. That he felt that the disease did actually provide some immunity to harm. In general. Though he had no capability to do any data analysis at this point. The next item that somebody had flagged for Steve, but which he did not register as he had fully nodded off, one hand on a piña colada, was a statistical breakdown from military hospitals. One item of interest was that there was a near one hundred percent incidence of wisdom flu, or similar appearing syndromes in the veterans administration and military hospitals. Everybody had it. Staff included, a margin note mentioned. One other key point that the sender had highlighted was that somebody had stuck a Geiger counter on a statistically significant portion of these patients, and they showed a consistent and slightly elevated emmisiveness. It was not enough to cause alarm, in any one patient, and especially when confronted with a more immediate and drastic health concern, but since it had presented as a commonality, it was considered important. Steve would eventually get this information. Once the disease had run its course with him. And since, unlike Avery, he was fighting it, as Doug had fought it, running its course was going to take quite a bit longer. As it had with Doug.

Community Zack Neawhal showed up at the lake bed alone. If weaving through a traffic jam forty miles long counted as alone. His scooter had run out of gas several miles from the turn off, but he'd coasted the rest of the way. Well, most of the way. He parked it politely, as far off the road as he could get it, and walked away leaving the keys in the ignition. He didn't give it enough thought to bother whether he'd be back for it, but he did know that it would be impolite to leave it as a potential obstruction. It was required that he leave the keys. That was obvious. He'd come light. With only a school backpack containing his daily stuff. Phone, laptop, a few toys of various description, his medications. On top of this, he'd crammed in few spare items of clothing, and two bottles of water and some trail mix. He had a blanket rolled up and held to the back of the pack with a bungie net. Everything else he had, he was wearing. He stood looking into the campsite from the high ground of the road, getting the lay of the land before descending into it. In the distance, he could see a circle, roughly in the middle of the camp, where the marmot was. He decided to go there. He knew, because he'd been short his whole life, that once he was in the camp, on the lakebed, that he'd be unable to see the center, and have trouble keeping his bearings. But, having been short his whole life, he'd developed compensatory means of navigation, not least of which was a keen inner ear, manifesting in a sense of balance that had a memory. He had a minor super power in the form of inboard biological inertial navigation. Of a sort. In any case, he wasn't worried, consciously, or subliminally, about finding his way to the center. He knew he'd find it, and he also knew that many others. Most, in fact. Would not find their way to the center. Even though that was their goal. It was everyone's goal But these others that made up the 'most' didn't have his super power, and that's why he knew he was special, and would be at the center. He'd been short all his life.

The party The first little while that they spent with the Russian seemed very typical for people meeting in a night club. The Russian talked a lot, explaining all about himself. He was an importer, "Which of course means drugs, but I think bigger things," he said, patting Pete on the knee. "Believe it or not, I plan to move into furs, and precious gems. Old school, no?" Pete laughed. He couldn't hear the Russian too well over the background noise in the club, and he was partially preoccupied with figuring out where the two women the Russian had brought fit into things. Did they live with him? Was there a relationship? Were they employees? Had they all met just outside the front door? It was hard to tell. He didn't know why he even cared, but it was preoccupying him. So much so that he didn't notice when the Russian laid out lines of coke on the table. "Like scarface, no?" the Russian said. It seemed jarring to Pete. He'd never been one to shy away from recreationals, but now, looking at the coke, he was caught off guard. He felt as though he weren't that sort of person. And he ruminated on that change of attitude for a few moments before realizing that, new preferences aside, this was an introduced friend of some power, who was offering a gesture of friendship and trust, and even though he didn't strictly feel like doing coke, he did know how, and it wasn't against his moral code. He laughed, to cover his momentary confusion, then further covered. "Whoa, I feel a sneeze coming on. That would be bad." He picked up a napkin and did a good big fake sneeze, then wadded up the napkin and pocketed it. "Alright, now I'm ready." Tisha had done a line while he was going through his motions, and she handed him a straw, nodding and grinning. "Nice." She turned to the Russian. "Nice! Thank you very much. Oooh, it's very nice." She reached out and squeezed the Russian's thigh, looking to the women as she did it. She winked at the one closest to her, and got no real response. "It is good. Why would I have the bad?" He took the straw from Pete and did a line himself, then handed it to one of the women who had gotten off her seat and was kneeling next to the table. Something about her posture there, kneeling, subservient, struck a chord with Pete. He found it very erotic, and arousing. He wasn't sure why, and he didn't have time to think it through because the drinks waitress appeared, flipped her eyes down at the table top, smirked, and asked for their orders. The Russian dropped several large bills on her tray, "Same again please. Also, champagne. Veuve Clicquot." Pete looked to Tisha for an opinion. He didn't know champagne.

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The Russian watched this exchange, nodding his head while he listened When they finished, he leaned forward. "Pete, you are thinking, 'When do we get to business? When do we tell our story?' I tell you Pete. And Tisha. I know your story already. And I answer you yes already. So now, we are off the clock. We have fun. I am under orders to be nice to you, so why not?" He pulled out a roll of bills and showed it too them briefly. "Expense account. This is how Washington works." Pete took a deep breath, symbolically letting go of the sense of mission and turmoil that had been driving him for so long. He saw no use for it at the moment, and knew it would come back. He knew it was important, or at least the easiest thing to do, to go along, have a good time. They didn't have anything else on their schedule for the day, and he wasn't the slightest bit tired, thanks to the coke. Tisha saw him sigh, saw the look on his face, understood his thought process, and followed his lead. The Russian watched this ritual, then leaned in again. "Good. I will tell you that your invitation is being accepted as we speak. I do ask that you give me a direct invitation for whichever persons are able to accept. They will want to be in the V.I.P. If you know what I mean." "I do," Pete said. "Yes, that shouldn't be a problem. That's what the invitation is. That's why we're here. That's why there's invitations." Pete was talking above his understanding of the situation. Hoping to provide what the Russian wanted, and also fueled by the coke, and a tinge of fear. He wanted the Russian to be happy. And it seemed to work. The Russian slapped the table with both palms, sending up a puff cloud of coke just as the waitress arrived with a tray. "Good! Done. Now, let's do some fun." *** They stayed at the same club until they'd exhausted the coke on the table. Going through three bottles of champagne and other cocktails in the process Pete was sure the Russian had more coke, and probably other drugs with him. He'd seem the container when he'd first dispensed onto the table. He figured this was the Russian's way of keeping time. That when the coke was used up, it was time to move on. And he was right. One of his accompanying women, the one kneeling on the floor, started mopping the glass tabletop with a finger, and alternately sucking the residue off. The Russian

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watched this, as Pete was noticing as a pattern, the Russian watching things that he was waiting for. He noticed the pleasant but somehow unnerving expression. The Russian waited out the cleanup, then waited until drinks were down. Then, he stood up. "Good! I think introductions are in order now." Even though they'd already been introduced, and at a first impression, seemed a bit unprofessional of the Russian, this came as a relief to Pete. Because he'd forgotten everybody's name. Except Tisha's, obviously. The Russian was named Spartak, and the women were named Luybov and Liliya. Pete figured he'd probably need reintroducing again. A few times. Before he'd keep them straight. Spartak, now appropriately familiar, wrapped a big arm around Tisha and looked at Pete. Pete didn't know how to react, but saw a look from Tisha that he was to see several times over the course of the evening. It was a look that shrugged, even though it was contained in her face. It was a shrug that said, 'when in rome'. *** In the cab on the way to Spartak's condo – there had been no discussion about this – there was steady and heavy contact all around. Pete wasn't comfortable with this, but only in a general sense. The wisdom flu had left him hypersensitive, and very much in turmoil. From his vantage point, Tisha seemed to be in a similar state, but more able to go along with the flow of things. Her legs were intertwined with Luybov's and Spartak was cradling the both of them while maintaining an innocuous monologue about how he'd come to own his condo. When they got there, it was wildly out of proportion to the way he'd described it. The building was four or five floors tall, and, though they entered through the garage, forming the basement, his condo was the topmost floor. Smaller than the other floors because the living space was ringed with a walkway designed to look like a ship's deck. When they all emerged from the elevator, they could see a cityscape view of the capitol building and its surroundings. The view continued around to one other side, and most of the interior was lit from this view. There were no lights on inside until Spartak had taken off his coat and wandered into the living room and back. "Oh. Sorry," he said, flipping the lights on. "Just checking around." He walked to the far end of the living room, through what might be a dining room. If it'd had any furniture. He slid open the wall opening out onto an

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oval swimming pool, half under cover and half outdoors. He flipped another switch, and the pool began glowing. It started red, and patterned through various shades and intensities at random. Pete was mesmerized by the light show, stepping aside to let Spartak back into the living room. After failing to detect a pattern in the lights, he came back to the moment. He turned to join the others, and found them all sitting or kneeling around a large oval coffee table, mimicking the swimming pool in shape. Spartak was laying out more lines. Once there was a satisfactory spread, to his eye, Spartak dropped a few pills on the table, grabbed a glass ashtray with both hands and rocked it back and forth on the pills, crushing them. He took a business card out of his shirt pocket and mixed the crushed pills into the coke and brushed the mixture into lines again. "It's good. Good times!" He took a straw from Liliya and bent at the waist, inhaling two lines, one into each nostril in one breath. He stood up and blinked his eyes. "No sneezing. You cursed me Pete." He blinked a few more times, tears running down his cheeks, before getting the urge under control. Then he handed the straw to Pete "Your turn, friend." Pete took the straw and did his best to imitate He had a view of Spartak being much bigger than him, so he didn't inhale as much, and he took two goes, once per side. All of the women were opposite him so that as he was doing his line, he had a strong sense that he had an audience paying close attention to his effort. He put the straw down, and all attention followed it. They were waiting their turn. He stood up and Spartak wrapped an arm around him. "Let me show you around while the ladies are..." He seemed to have trouble thinking of the right word, and solved that problem by ushering Pete out onto the walkway. They walked around, Spartak's arm over Pete's shoulder the whole time. Spartak kept up another meaningless monologue describing the various sights in the distance, and alternatively, looking inward, each room or area of the condo seemed to come with its own story. When they finished the tour, all the women were splayed back on the couch, laughing. They had the TV on, watching an entertainment industry digest, and pointing and laughing each time a new celebrity came on screen. "Fucked him," Tisha shouted and giggled. "I fucked him," Luybov said. "Fucked her," Liliya said, pointing at the new face on the screen. "We both did," Luybov said.

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"Pete," Spartak drew his attention back. "Let me show you the dossiers." He walked back through the entrance hall and into a door way. Pete followed him, straggling behind, staring at the paintings and sculptures that formed most of the decoration. He suspected they were real, and that Spartak didn't care much, other than that they were real. He caught up as Spartak was pulling out a chair for him. He fanned out a stack of manilla folders on the desk. "Here, sit. I'll get you a drink. Take your time, but I can not let you take them with you. For obvious reasons." Pete had no idea what the obvious reasons were, and had no interest in looking at the dossiers, or even why he might want to, but he wanted to keep Spartak happy, so he started shuffling through the documents. Spartak stood there, resting a hand on the chair back for a while. "I'll go get you that drink," he said, and left the room. As soon as he left, Pete shuffled through the rest of the folders, to make a show, and then leaned back and enjoyed the sensations of the drugs mixing into his system. He still felt raw from the flu, but with the drugs, that only meant they had a heightened intensity. It felt good to be in his body. He got bored after a while and started playing with the toys and decorations that were in reach, not wanting to get up from the desk, but eventually he decided that Spartak must have forgotten about him. An easy thing to do under the circumstances, Pete thought. He walked into the hall and saw across the way that there was a glass out on the kitchen counter. He went to get it, and, picking it up, decided that he wanted ice in it, since it had been sitting out. When he turned away from the refrigerator, Luybov and Liliya were standing across from him, wearing bathing suits. "Whew! Scared me. Didn't hear you." He put his glass down. "We're not scary." Luybov said. "No, I just meant..." Luybov pushed a finger to his lips. "We know what you mean." She pulled the finger back. "It's time to swim. Come on, let us get you a swim suit." Pete was flustered to the point of being overloaded. He forgot his champagne and let the two woman guide him along through the hallway and into yet another door. This appeared to be a guest room, or maybe it was an expansive walk in closet. Pete couldn't decide. "Strip." Liliya said. She had her back turned, looking through a drawer, so he couldn't mount much of a protest, if he'd been inclined to anyway.

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He did, with Luybov watching, arms crossed The suit that Merriam had done whatever she'd done to it came off easy, and he laid each component down on a chair, considering each like an old friend. He placed his socks in one of the jacket pockets and stood up, bare. Both the women stood, surveying him. They looked at each other and mumbled shorthand back and forth a few times. Then they both nodded and Liliya turned and drew out a pair of trunks. They were brown and light blue stripes, and looked small to Pete. But he slipped them on anyway. "Good." Luybov said. Both women had drawn closer, and he could smell each of their breaths, and their perfumes, and their own smells. They were too close in to even see him anymore, but they still had a look on their face as though they were sizing him up. Luybov ran a hand from his chin, down his neck, across his chest and then down the side of the suit, feeling the lay of the cloth. "Go try it," she said. She twitched her head towards the door. Pete backed a step away, so he wouldn't collide in an impolite way with either of the women, and walked back out, heading for the pool. The women stayed behind, both talking softly to the other. On his way through the living room, he noticed that there were still lines laid out on the table, with the straw lain across them. He was forming a thought to wonder where Tisha and Spartak were, when he heard Tisha whimper. He started, and had a flush of adrenaline, and then he saw her. She was sitting at the edge of the pool, nearest him, facing outside. She had her hands behind her, holding her weight as she leaned back. Her hair was dripping and stuck to her back, the dark matte of it in severe contrast to her white skin. He heard a rustle behind him and turned back to the table. The women were there, preparing to do another line. Liliya held the straw up. "You first sir." He didn't pause, seeing Tisha had fixed in his mind what the evening was about. When in rome, he thought. He bent over at the waist, as Spartak had done, and took in full lungfulls as he took his turn. He handed the straw to Luybov, and walked out onto the deck. He skirted around Tisha and Spartak, voicing a greeting as he did, and then he dove into the pool. He swam to the far end, going under the partitioning wall and surfaced outside. He paddled around, breathing the cold air and acclimating to the sensations before swimming back inside. The women were following him in, having done their own lines. They were carrying champagne flutes, two to a

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hand. They bend over in time with each other, placing all the glasses at pool's edge, stepped twice to their left, and the lowered into the pool, side by side, in time. Pete watched this, glancing occasionally at Spartak and Tisha. They were in the act of turning to watch the new arrivals, both of them glowing. As soon as the women entered the pool, everyone gravitated towards the champagne, Pete included. He downed his, and then wrapped an arm around each woman, gathering them in. He stood there enjoying the close pressed human contact. The breathing was synchronized. Spartak cleared his throat. He swatted Pete on the behind. "Ahh... Exercise is good for everything, isn't it?" Pete coughed out a syllable, his mouth full of somebody else's hair. "Come on, Pete. We should swim. Purify the soul and cleanse the body, inside and out." Pete moved limbs, solving a puzzle to free himself. "Sounds good. If I can get out of this." Spartak leaned in and pulled at the tangle of women, shoving them to either side. "There." He grabbed Pete by the forearm and lifted him to his feet. "Okay." Pete couldn't think of anything to say, and Spartak seemed to be waiting, so he led the way to the pool. "I did promise your hosts that I'd have you home before midnight," Spartak said from behind him. "It's past that by far already. But I will make sure you get back to them soon. Just so you know I'm not putting you out of my own desires." "Oh, that's okay. Thank you." "I prefer to wake up with my friends." He clapped Pete on the back, then shoved him into the pool, diving in right after. They swam to the outside, and pulled up on the deck, bracing in the cold air. "Thanks," Pete said. "Again. This was quite the night." "Fine evening. Yes it was. We'll do it again." Pete rolled his eyes. "I don't know if I could do it again." "Yes." Spartak leaned forward and stared him in the eye. "But in the meanwhile, you owe me. Make sure my people get treated right. They should be on the same helicopter as the president. Okay?" "Of course." Pete said, still only seeing a glimmer of what was going on.

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"Good." He grabbed the back of Pete's head and scratched like he would a dog. Flinging water from Pete's hair. "Look, the ladies are up. Let's join them. Maybe they will make us breakfast early." Pete swam after him. He hadn't seen anything through the glass, but when he surfaced inside, Tisha was a few feet in front of him, splashing water on herself. "I guess we have to go," Pete said. "Yeah, they told me. They just called a cab. It should be here in twenty minutes or so." "So I guess we should get ready." "I guess so. It's the last thing in the world I want to do right now though." "I know." He pulled her in and hugged her. This garnered approving noises from the others. "Okay you two. Time to get you home where you belong." Spartak climbed out and went and busied himself in the kitchen. When Pete and Tisha came back out from the dressing room, wearing sweatsuits and carrying their formal clothes, Spartak handed Pete a small cigarette case. "For the road. I put contact information in too. Stay in touch." He waved Pete towards the door, unceremoniously, and then grabbed Tisha's butt. "Hey!" she yelped, then laughed. The cab was waiting inside the garage for them. When they got in, the driver started off without instruction. Pete looked up and noticed that the security partition was closed. Leaving him alone with Tisha for the first time in a while. They looked at each other and smiled dreamy smiles, but neither had the energy, or the words, to start any conversation.

Introductions Late that evening found Doug and Dixie alone. They returned from visiting about, late and tired. Some kind soul had left a camp set up next to the marmot. A tent, and two chairs, and a fire going. Food in a box next to the fire, and a free standing nylon shower stall. It had a bladder on top that let the sun warm the water. Doug walked up and felt it. "Oooh, still toasty warm." Dixie started unbuttoning her shirt, and after the first few, stepped out of it as it dropped. She stripped off the rest of her clothes, leaving a small pile of white cotton on the lakebed. "Let me wash you." She said. She demurred, bending her knees and bowing to the ground. She stared up at him, waiting for his reply. "Uh. That's weird," he said. He stared at her body, displayed in front of him. He hadn't thought much about her, as a person. He'd been so busy, and she had formed part of his own awareness. Now he was confronted with her physical presence, and it caught him off guard. She had the body of a runner, trim but muscular. She held herself without wavering. Demure, but not cowering. Her posture said she wanted to serve him because she wanted to. He kept looking at her, waiting for her to elaborate, or respond, but she stayed still, waiting. Finally he thought through the scenario and got comfortable with it. "What the hell." He started to take off his clothes, and she stood up straight and helped him. "You deserve to have someone take care of you," she said, placing the last of his clothes on top of hers. She walked into the square little tent that formed the shower and held the flap open for him. The shower walls blocked the faint light from the campfires and lanterns, leaving them to see only the faint outline of each other. She reached up and opened the spigot, to get them wet. Then rolled the soap in her hands. She started with his hair, running her fingers through it and scratching his scalp. Then she reached around to his front and soaped his chest with both hands. As the soap ran down his torso, following gravity, she followed with her hands, soaping his belly, and then his crotch, and then on down. She knelt and soaped first one leg, top to bottom, and then the other. She stood again, finishing by soaping his backside. She leaned forward as she finished up. "Did I miss anywhere?" "My face, I guess." "Oh. Well." She soaped up her hands and reached around. "Guess who?" "Uh. I don't know."

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"Whoever you want," She whispered. She reached up and turned on the spigot again, turning him with a gentle touch and making sure he got rinsed by feel. "Okay. Wait a minute while I get myself." She lathered up briskly and then rinsed more carefully. "Okay." He was still facing away from her, lost in thought, waiting. She placed a hand either side of his neck, stood up on her toes. "Let me relieve you. Please?" Doug took a moment to process through what this meant. "Oh. Yeah. Okay." She dropped her hands and reached through his arms. She ran the soap around his crotch, working it into the hair, and around all sides of his anatomy. "I thought I felt something that needed taking care of up here before. Why didn't you say so when I asked?" Doug had enough sense not to answer. She pushed herself into his back, gaining leverage, and kept up a washing motion, running one hand up and down his length while the other roamed. She slid her torso up and down against his, to add to the sensations, and to pacify herself somewhat. Doug stayed still through this, not fully sure what he was supposed to do. His body did what it did though, and he had a spasming orgasm, leaving his knees buckled, and almost dropping both of them through the wall of the shower. Dixie held him as best she could, and stopped them short. Once he'd regained his footing she rinsed both of them off again and then she drew the towel in and dried him head to foot, wrapped the towel around him and patted him on the butt. "Go get in the tent. I'll join you in a minute." Doug followed orders, trying to figure out in his head who this girl was. He knew her so well, but he seemed not to remember her. She ducked into the tent and unwrapped her own towel. She lay face down on his back, rested for a while, and then slowly gave him a kneading massage, up and down his whole length until he was fast asleep. Then she burrowed in alongside him and drifted off feeling content, and as in the dark about what was happening as Doug was.

Complementary Duncan Marle was working the overnight shift tending to rows of culturing tests. His job was to walk up and down the aisles, carrying a portable stereo microscope and checking each culture dish without disturbing them. If he found anything, anything at all, he was supposed to take images of it and record the dish number and image numbers and a short description in a log book. Georgetown was very particular about record keeping in its labs, and Duncan had been written up once before for problems with his documentation, so he was inclined to be cautious. But it was tedious work. He was suffering the onset symptoms of the wisdom flu, and this gave him inspiration to try harder, while at the same time blunting his faculties. So when he saw the patterned spread in culture dish 741, at first he just stared at it. Some part of his mind knew there was something there, but it wasn't registering. Still, he didn't move on. Two or three times he tried to move to the next dish, but a blank forgetful feeling would overcome him, and he'd find he was still staring at dish 741. He summoned what energy reserves he could and had a good stare. Then he rolled the focusing knob back and forth, hoping that it would fix the image. It didn't. But the repeated futile actions got him perturbed. He resolved not to be thwarted. Even though it was against protocol, he took the dish to the bench and put it on the high powered scanning microscope. This wasn't necessary for its resolution, but he knew he could process the image, and at the least, he'd be able to examine the slide on the screen, rather than live through a scope. And, he thought, as he mounted the dish, if he was tremoring, he'd take that variable out of the equation as well. He sat down and waited for the machine to autocalibrate and reached for his coffee cup. It was paper, so he didn't notice how cold it was until he got a mouthful. It tasted like cigarettes. He was getting up to go to the machine for a fresh cup, when the image on the screen resolved. He stopped half way out of his chair. The culture had obviously grown, but the big, even more obvious feature in the middle of the stain was what was holding his attention. It looked like a colorblindness test, all blobs mashed together, but unmistakeably in the middle of the stain it said 'Hi Duncan'. He sat down and stared, hoping something would come to him. After almost going to get his coffee again, he had another bout of staring, and then had enough coherent thought to use the capture button on the scope to save out an image, in case the stain decayed, or who knew what. Then he stared

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again. Then, his dilemma was solved because the primary investigator called in on the lab phone. He was anxious for results, as his expression of his own time with the wisdom flu. A brief and nonsensical conversation ensued, ending with the PI getting dressed and making the trip from his office on the seventh floor to the lab on the fourth. The two of them spent the rest of the dark hours writing up and documenting the occurrence, proving out that it was in fact the wisdom flu culture and not some sort of prank, neither willing to trust themselves, and further worried that even if they weren't imagining anything, that nobody would believe them. At start of business eastern time, the agreed that it was an acceptable report, given the circumstances, and they posted a copy in the mail, and then also sent several digital versions to a growing list of recipients.

Bright Steve tried for the fourth time. He summoned all his motivation to throw his hand over to the phone. Things got easier after that. He held the receiver to his ear and waited. Then he thought through the options and decided that it would be best to open an eye rather than try to feel for the right key. He punched the button for the front desk and gave them an order for coffee. When they argued that he needed to call for room service, he surprised himself with a rush of energy to bark down the line at the clerk that she had better get the order in or things would start exploding. He dropped the phone and the cord pulled it onto the floor. *** He yelled for the room service to use their own key because he'd only got as far as getting his feet on the floor. He was looking at the phone and thinking that he should hang it up, and trying to map out how he'd get it done. He took heart in the observable and continual improvements, and resolved to be patient. He watched the room service cart in, and then muttered and dug a bill out of his pants to give to the waiter. This earned him a strange conflicted look. "Avery. You up?" He looked across to the other bed where Avery was going through a similar trial. Flat out with the strain of opening one eye. "Up." Avery said. "Good. I'm ordering a second round of coffee now. I think I'm back among the living." "Living." "Good." *** All told, it was three pots of coffee, and Avery breaking out the field issue stimulants before they were both conversant in sentence form. Avery took a practice run by reading the comics page of the newspaper that came with pot two. "Yeah, I think I can read too. Okay. But. I don't want to get in the car yet. You?" "No," Steve said, "Besides, we need to clear this backlog of intel." He spun his laptop around, symbolically demonstrating how full it was. "Mmm. Send me half and we'll share the workload?" "Yes sir, good idea." Avery flipped him off in a half hearted way.

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He waited for the files to transfer, toying with the crossword, then slid open the patio door and scraped a pool chair around so that it was within earshot of the room and sat down to scan through his part of the incoming briefing reports. Steve stayed on his bed. As he skimmed all the briefs and supporting documents, he got a vibe. He had some innate understanding already, and certain of the new intel resonated, while others rang false. He flagged the ones that gave him the strongest positive feeling, and went back over them. He read them each in full, then skimmed them again. "Hey Steve? I think there's something concrete in some of these." "Yeah? I've got a few interesting ones too. What's your take?" Avery gestured at Steve to come out and sit at the table with him. The arranged so they could look at both laptops, and he tapped on the screen. "See, all these three different labs. You can tell they're going fast. And you can tell that they're reluctant to put down anything that might blemish their reputation. But there's two broad effects. Behind the obvious symptoms. The obvious fever and dehydration and mucus flow rates. See here? This guy makes mention of high amplitudes in EEG traces. And then here, this guy, who verified the radiation readings. Weird thing here is, he shows his geiger counter results, but he's got more sophisticated sensors, and he won't commit to where the radiation's coming from, and more interestingly, he says he can't identify the type of radiation. It's not radiation, in the sense we know it, I guess, but it still trips the geiger counter. So that's odd. There's another brief here where the intel officer hints that he wonders if there's a heavy isotope tracer on the virus." "Meaning he thinks it might be man made," Steve said. "Yeah, and more sinister than that, I gather." "Well, maybe mine will fit in. I have a gut feeling." "That's the gist of mine," Avery said, "you go ahead. I'm winded anyway." "Yeah, well first, there are a few separated briefing notes, from different operatives, noting that, generally, patients are inordinately attached to their phones, or their laptops." He paused and shot a meaningful look at their two laptops. "Or their PDAs or whatever." "That's not saying much really, is it?" "These are pros. If they put in here that it was inordinate, I think we can assume that it's not just wanting to be able to talk to mom." "Understood. You're right about that, of course. I'm still not one hundred percent."

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"No, of course. And again, this came up across several independent operatives. Anyway, the other thing... Where was it...? Here. This is a unique case. Technician at Walter Reed made a point of shoving this up the chain. He's got pics, or scans, or whatever, from a patient that he was monitoring beforehand, head trauma of some kind." He scrolled down and found the before and after scans, scrolling up and down between them. "I don't see much myself, but the tech said, and it's been verified by the operative through independent sources, that there are drastic changes in neural activity. That would tie in with your EEG anomalies But this tech also suggests that he might see physical changes in the brain tissue. They're running more detailed tests." "Hmm... Wow." Avery scratched his head. "So, what do you think?" "Well, I think the big obvious thing is all the people heading to the high desert or whatever. Did you see that satellite image?" "No." Steve pulled up the file and showed it to him. "Wow." "Four million in that picture, they figure. Estimated capacity is twelve million, and they're talking about where the overflow's going to go." "So that's what we're heading into." "I don't think there's much point of trying to get in there. Unless we catch a chopper flight." "Huh?" "There's going to be a few of those at least, because there's a guy, or guys, in the middle, and they've sent out invitations to higher ups. VIPs. And the impression I get is that they're going to attend." "Hey, what, did you give me the older half of all this stuff?" "Yes. I guess I did." "On purpose?" "Not with malice. But sure." "Okay, no problem. But fill me in. What else is on the current updates?" "Beyond what I already told you, not much." "So what do we do now? Stay here I guess?" "They do have a helipad over at the hospital." "Good point. In fact, this might make a good refueling stop." "That it might. I'll send out a communique."

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"Hell, why don't we get some of the crew out here? This place is empty anyway." "I'll mention that." "Hey, also, why don't we try to get that tech from Walter Reed out here? I'm sure they've got MRI gear at the trauma center." "Any reason you want him?" Avery thought for a moment. "Yes. First of all, he's obviously on the ball. He's the guy who noticed it, and so who better? Why bother trying to train up or brief somebody else. But also because maybe he's got some special insight." "Could be. I wouldn't be surprised by anything at this point." "Steve? Think about this. I'm looking at all this tertiary evidence, and... I don't know. I feel... Well, I've seen some of the effects, and they're strange. For sure. And there's no doubt that you and I have it, right?" "No... I'm positive we have it. What're you getting at?" "Well, it's hard to separate out, but I think I feel better. Not better from being sick, but..." "I do know what you mean. Yes. I feel that too." "Okay good. We need to think on that one." "Agreed." "We'll talk about it soon?" "When we have more data, yes." Avery went and got his swim trunks and went out to the pool for a soak, Steve stayed put, typing out requests and instructions and orders to all the appropriate receipts Somewhere along the way, one of the poolside waiters placed a tall glass of ice and two cans of energy drink in front of him and then walked away without disturbing him. When he finally did look up, he poured one can and began sipping without registering where they'd come from.

Consolidate Merriam brought them breakfast in bed. Grapefruit and orange juice and muffins and coffee. "Hey you two..." She winked at them. "Spartak's quite something, isn't he?" Pete ventured an arm out and picked up a slice of the grapefruit. "Uhm... Uh... Yes." "Did he wear you two out?" "I think... I think I lost my virginity last night." "Ooh, that good?" "I, uh... I don't know. I think I was possessed" Tisha peeked one eye out. "That's a good way to put it. I'd say I was drugged, but..." "But what?" Merriam asked. "Well, it's not the same if you take the drugs yourself." "That depends on the jurisdiction." She patted the sheet, catching Tisha on the thigh. "But I kid. Those are some spectacular people, not doubt about it. Good natured at heart, but very intense. Did you hit it off?" "Yeah," Pete said, "Spartak mentioned that things were good. Whatever that means." "It means they're good. Moving on, and you should, we've got today in front of us." "Yeah, what's up? I don't even remember anything being on the agenda. Yesterday was so busy." "Well, the plan was to get something going yesterday, and follow up today. And I'd say that worked pretty well. We've got two meetings called for. They called us, mind, and asked when we could make a time." "Who're they?" Tisha asked. "One was the secretary general's office, from the U.N., and the other was from the White House." "The president?" "No. They were very deliberate about that. The president is quarantined Or, we are, but same difference. Anyway, they didn't say who, but we are going to the White House proper for the meeting. If you're up for it." "Sure," Pete said, "would we have something better to do?" "No, but you might need recovery time. Spartak's draining." Tisha giggled from under the sheet.

leaf Pete glanced at her and laughed a little too. "No, we'll suck it up." Tisha giggled again.

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Merriam beamed, and then coughed. "I'll take this back downstairs, you can have the rest once you get dressed. Oh, yes. I've got your clothes spruced up again. On the hangers here." She touched the suit coat that was topmost.

Weathered The oil executives got notice from their subsidiary offices in the middle east. The eastern seaboard was closed, as far as their business was concerned. The notice came in person, in the form of a mid ranked official from the Abu Dhabi explorations office. The briefcase he carried contained a small subset of the information that the military analysts had compiled, and part of what was there was noisy. But the same general story was there. Many of the oil execs were back on their feet, staying only because they lacked any idea where else they should go. The contingent of politicians was somewhat behind in their progression with the wisdom flu, but they received their messenger within an hour of the arrival of the oil company man. He had an even more sparse brief in his case, but the response was the same. Everybody got packed up, in whatever state they were. Things needed to be done. Nobody knew what, and that was why they were being called away from the spa, because they were, all of them, the people who made the decisions about what needed to be done about things. The oil company people split into two groups, the larger half taking the helicopter back to the corporate offices, and the smaller group tagging along with some of the politicians to Andrews Air Force base where somebody had arranged passage for them on a small high speed transport plane to Las Vegas, or somewhere thereabouts Here too, they were tagging along with a group of unidentified, but obviously military types. Neither group questioned the agenda of the other. The oil company vice president and the doctor he'd been working so closely with for the past weeks, spent the flight exchanging looks of disbelief and wonder, interspersed with long bouts of contemplation and analysis. Despite being fast, and carrying an impressive number of people, the transport plane was not an airliner, the cabin was too loud to allow normal conversation, and there were no in-flight entertainments. Or pillows. At Las Vegas, the oil company crew was met by an Air Force shuttle helicopter that took them on a four hop trip, over the lake bed, and on to the trauma center where they'd been summoned. They landed on the hospital roof, and as soon as the doors opened, they were bodily shoved out the doors onto the pad, their minimal luggage flying out after them. The rotors never spun down at all. The doctor got clobbered by his own carry-on. The helicopter was airborne before any of them got to their feet, and when they did get to their feet, they had military police dragging them off the pad towards the entry doors.

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Immediately inside, one of the MPs saluted and addressed them. "Sorry sirs, we have two incoming flights, both medevacs. We found out just as you were landing, so we had to react. I apologize for the abruptness." The vice president heard the thumping of the incoming helicopter and turned in time to see it touch down and a small swarm of hospital staff swarm over it. The two patients inside were dealt with almost as quickly as the oil company crew had been, and then the medevac helicopter dusted off, making way for the next flight. He tried to watch the next landing, but their MP escort, and all the other company people were in an elevator, holding it open and waiting for him. On the ground floor, Avery was waiting to greet them, mostly the doctor. "Hi, sorry about all the rush rush, you know, military." He took the doctor by the arm and noticed most of the people in the room staring at his bermuda shorts and hawaiian shirt. "I'm Avery. I'm the one who called for you. I read your data." He waved down the questions that several of the oil company crew were starting to voice. "Extraordinary circumstances. You must understand. We can get at everything. Your data was among the first we saw going over channels, and very thorough. And substantially ahead of ours. We're gathering anybody we can find who's got an edge on this thing. I hope we can get some sort of a handle on it. I think we've got a lot to tell each other."

Dignitaries The meeting at the U.N. went smoothly. "I'm bored," Pete said. He was walking down the steps to the parking garage, more or less talking to himself. The others were trailing behind him, chatting. After the way things had gone since they'd come to Washington, on an upward arc, the businesslike and perfunctory meeting with the U.N. administration had held little attraction. The UN planning secretaries had obviously been briefed by a third party already, and had even seemed bored and impatient themselves. Going through the motions. "Maybe they don't want to tip us off to something," Pete said. This being the first thing that any of the others had heard, they were indifferent. But Tisha pursued, as she'd been thinking similar thoughts. "Do you think we ought to do something?" "Hard to imagine what though." "Hardly going to skip a meeting at the White House anyway, are we?" "That's where it'll happen." "Yep." They looked at each other as they walked along, both thinking of possibilities. *** Getting to the White house seemed too easy. They drove up to the security cordon, and after a simple identity check, and brisk scan of the car by a dog and a couple of agents with probes, they were waved in to drive the last blocks to the residence itself. They drove up and parked in a forecourt Pete got out and backed away from the car a few paces onto the lawn. "You know, I think I've seen pictures of Elvis and Nixon right here, in front of Elvis's Cadillac We're famous." Latty huffed her way out of the driver's seat. "I don't think it really makes you famous. Important, possibly. And Elvis probably wasn't important." "Still, it's cool." "That it is, driving yourself takes some of the glamour out of it though." "Sorry about that. Thanks." Tisha joined him. "Yeah, thanks for everything Latty."

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They were met by a page wearing an earplug and they followed him around the side of the building to a service entrance. Just inside there were several other pages, looking functionally identical to the first. One of them stepped forward, holding a clipboard and read out Pete's name. "That's me." "Follow me please." Pete looked at Tisha and saw that she was shrugging, just like she had the night before at Spartak's before the night turned raucous He shrugged back and trailed after the page. As soon as the lobby door closed behind him, he started feeling a physical unease. It wasn't severe, but it had a very strong tangible feeling. He felt naked, cool. It caused him to look at himself, to check if there was anything out of order. Nothing he could see. The page led him to a plain door halfway down a plain hallway. The page stepped to the side, and the door opened. Pete went in, and turned to the page and saw that he was shaking his head and reaching to shut the door, leaving Pete inside. It was a very small room, with a bench build into one corner. Except for the full length door, and lack of mirrors, it reminded Pete of a dressing room. There were even clothes hooks mounted on the wall. He stood for a while, then looked around at the features of the room, something that took all of ten seconds. Then he sat down and tried the bench. It was a bench. Several moments after he sat down, there was a knock, and the door opened. A woman wearing a lab coat leaned in. "Hi. If you don't mind, we'd like you to strip down. You can hang your clothes up on those hooks there please." She tucked some stray hairs behind her ears. Her hair was braided into a loose braid that seemed in the process of entropying into a chaos of frizziness. "What then?" Pete asked. "Oh, sorry. Then wait a few seconds. Then you can get dressed again. We're running a scan. You understand." "Not really." "Well, that's a poor choice of words. I hope you don't mind." "Uh..." "Good. Just take a second. No biggie." She ducked out, closing the door again.

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Pete followed her instructions, expecting the naked chill feeling to intensify, but it didn't. He hung his clothes in neat order on the available hooks, and once completely bare, he stood in the middle of the room, hands to his sides. Then he spun in a gentle circle, for good measure. Then he lifted his arms over his head. He stopped himself short of bending over and spreading, as the police usually asked for. He figured if they wanted that, they could ask explicitly. He stood for a bit longer, not quite sure what duration they really needed, and wanting to be helpful. Then he got dressed again, slowly, noticing the the feeling was abating somewhat, but was still there in undeniable presence The woman with the braid opened the door again. "Thanks! Come with me please." "Okay." As the walked, she handed him a water bottle. "Of course we have a list of standard questions we ask. Do you think you'll want something else? Soda, coffee, juice?" "No, I think this'll be okay." "To be truthful, Peter, there are some non-standard questions here too. I hope you don't mind." She sounded like she really meant it. The got to a conference room, and she had him sit, asked him again if he wanted anything to drink, and excused herself. "I'll be right back." As he sat there, the naked feeling subsided some, and then came back. He spun the clipboard that she'd left on the table and looked it over. It was a dreary list of questions about citizenship, and residency, and political views, and hospitalization and criminal past. B asically, a background check, Pete thought. He'd failed a few of these. Passed a few too. A minute or so later, the woman came back, bringing, apparently, one of the pages. She sat this man at the table in front of the clipboard and tapped him on the shoulder. Pete imagined that the page was some sort of windup toy. But rather than jerk his arms and head around like Pete was imagining, he looked pissed off that he clipboard was facing the wrong way. He picked it up and righted it in his hands and then placed it squarely in front of him. Then he reached into his jacket and pulled out a pen and a voice recorder. He placed both these to the right of the clipboard and stared at Pete. Pete laughed. "Hi. I'm Pete." The page seemed more annoyed. "Hello, Pete." "Hello."

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The page launched into the list of questions. Pete gave quick answers and they were done in half an hour. Then the page stood up, leaving the clipboard, taking the pen and recorder, he turned and left without saying another word. Pete's naked feeling cycled again. He checked his clothes again. All the buttons and zips. Not because he expected to find anything, but as a way to entertain himself. He wondered it it was being caused by something they were doing. Some kind of test or scan. He started to see glimmers of scenes in front of him. He was staring at a blank wall, and his mind was filling in a jumble of scenes unrelated. Some he recognized, from his recent and distant past. Some were from dreams he'd had lately. Others were unknown. People. Places. All static. All collaged in three dimensions in front of him. He felt a little baffled by this. Wondered if he might be succumbing to something. Having a stroke perhaps. But mostly he felt glad for the entertainment. It was better than fidgeting with his clothes. He concentrated on a few of them, especially the ones he didn't recognize. Not sure why, but these seemed like the ones that had something to offer. He was analyzing one of two men standing around a table, their ties draping onto a map spread out between them, when one of the scenes from the background pushed itself forward and grabbed his attention. It showed a small office, with a table and chairs. Tisha was seated facing the door, looking bored. Looking like he felt. The scene faded back to the background, and then all the scenes dimmed down. He could see the room again. He hadn't realized that it had consumed his field of view so completely until it subsided. T hat would be bad while driving, he thought. There was a knock and the door opened. Tisha walked in, followed by the woman with the braid. The braid was holding up a pair of reading glasses, and the woman seemed to be sweating, just a touch. "Need a cigarette?" Pete asked. The woman looked at him, still for a moment. "Yes. I think I do." She stuck a hand in the front of her shirt, and felt along her arm. "Damn patch fell off. I should take care of this. I'll be back in a minute." She pulled out a small film of plastic and tried to stick it on the back of her hand. It fell off and she had to squat to retrieve it. She dropped it in a trash can. "I don't suppose either of you smoke?" "No, sorry. You might ask the ladies we came with." Tisha said.

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Once the lady left, Pete told Tisha about his experience, up to and including the scenes on the blank wall. He achieved this in low tones and sparse language, imagining that they were being listened to. "Yeah," Tisha said, "about the same with me. I wouldn't say I had any visions like you did." She pinched his arm. "Weirdo. But everything else, yeah. Come to think of it though, I don't feel cold anymore." "Hey, yeah, me neither. Hmm..." The woman came back in, looking a bit too content. Suspiciously content. "Hello you two. Thanks for waiting." She placed two clipboards on the table and took her time seating herself. She took several passes at it, moving the chair in small increments, and lowering herself tentatively into position. "Can I get you something?" Pete asked. Half mocking, half concerned. "No." She winked. "Thanks. I'm good. Smartass." "That's me." "Okay kids, preliminaries over. You'll be happy to know that you're in fine shape, cholesterol's a bit high for you." She pointed at Pete. Pete opened his mouth. "That's a joke. But you did check out. Nothing too scary, though I've got to say there are a few anomalies we can't explain." "Like what?" "Well, given the situation, we were expecting you to have health considerations. And you were never going to be exposing yourselves to the executive branch, but that's not what I'm talking about." "What are you talking about. Remember, we haven't been involved in whatever conversation you're in the middle of." "Yeah, sorry. I knew that. Forgot. Look, thing is, we're getting traces of radioactivity off of you." "That's bad." "Eh. Not so much. It's not that high. You know. Yeah, normally, it'd be a big deal, but in context..." "What context?" She looked at him like he was being a bad doggy. "Look, the thing is though, it's coming and going. Pulsing might be a better word for it. Ever heard of a quasar?" "Heard of them," Pete said. "Yeah, like that."

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"Hey," Tisha said, "heard of doesn't mean we know all about it. What are you talking about?" "You two are blinking. Radioactivity." She looked at the clipboards. "Just a little." Pete deadpanned her. "But that's not so bad." "In context, no." "Because?" "Oh, that's what we need to talk about. Because the whole world is going batshit. And you two seem to be stumbling around in the eye of the storm." "What?" "Know your friend Doug, who you're walking around delivering invites for?" "Of course. Why?" "Remember where you left him?" "Generally. I could find it." "Yeah, so could anybody else. In the world." She pulled a sheet from some ways down on one of the clipboards. "See this?" Pete looked at the satellite photo of the lake bed. It was covered in a stippled coloring. The coloring spread through the valleys adjoining, and up the foothills surrounding the lake itself. "See those people?" "Uh... Which ones?" "All of them. That's all you can see. We had intel that the place would hold twelve million. Computer analysis says that there's over seventeen million in that picture." "People?" "People." "Why?" "We were hoping you could tell us that." "Where's Doug?" She reached over and pointed with a pen. "See that circle there?" "Okay." "Far as we know, he's in the middle of that circle." "What're they doing?"

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"Like I said, we were hoping you'd know. You are extending an invitation after all. Near as we can tell, everybody's just milling around. Partying maybe." "Huh. Uh. We left him there alone. Well, with a dog. Jim." Tisha leaned forward. "We were worried he might not have enough food." "Yeah," the woman leafed through the paperwork, "that's a big issue. It seems okay. Seems like people came prepared. And we're doing what we can to get supplies in." Pete and Tisha looked at each other. Tisha did her shrug again, this time for comic effect. The woman clicked her pen, "So, what we're hoping is that you can give us some insight, either through what you know, which doesn't seem to be much, but I'll take it down anyway." "Or?" Pete asked. "Oh, or, well, the medical tests and such. Maybe we'll get something from that." "I wouldn't mind doing more if you want. Blood sample or something." "Yeah, sure." Tisha said. "If there's time." They did their best to recreate all the details of their trip, and their experiences. Pete noticed that the woman was increasingly only going through the motions. "Pretty dull, isn't it?" "Well..." "Written down like that." "Yes, it does seem that way, but this isn't about interesting, it's about fact finding." "Yeah, so tell us. It seems like the fun started after we left." "I don't really know. There are other people in the building who can probably fill you in. But before we do that, tell me a few more things about Doug." "Like what? I think we covered it all already." "Oh, anything. What do you think he's like. Capable of. What he's up to." Pete stared her down for a moment. "I think, even if I knew. I wouldn't tell you that." "Why not?"

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"Well. No. I don't have anything real to tell you. If I did, I'd just be guessing. And that's worse than nothing. I think." Tisha nodded along while he said this. "Okay." The woman stood up. "That's fine. We will expect you to travel with the President, of course. And for security reasons, we'll not be able to let you leave. We can have someone sent to get your things though, if you want. And anything you might need. Toothpaste?" "Why do you say that?" Tisha asked. "No reason, just a suggestion." After they'd spec'd out a few errands for the White House pages, presumably, to take care of, the woman left the room. Tisha and Pete, ignoring potential eavesdroppers, talked for the first time, to each other, in a while. "Think we've got a choice in any of this?" Tisha asked. "I don't know. I don't think it matters really." "I get that feeling too. But it feels kind of like the kind of thing my mom always told me about." "You mean like we're dealing with a guy with a van." "With candy. Exactly." She smiled to herself for a moment. "Hey Pete?" "Yeah?" "When you saw those visions things, did you see the marmot?" "I don't think so, why?" "I think I just saw one." "A marmot?" "No, well, yes. I saw a vision, I think. Of a marmot. The marmot. The statue." "Tell me," Pete made a silly voice, "what do you think it means?" "I think it means we may be going a bit loony." "Might be fun. Who knows?" "Hey, why do you think they want us to fly with the President, when they won't even let us meet him?" "Probably they figure we're insurance. That if they have us, nothing bad will happen to him." "Yeah, right. Like we could do anything. I feel like we're living in a big bag or something."

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Content "I'm pretty sure they're bullseye fixated." The tall man said. Doug pondered this statement for a few moments. "Makes sense." The tall man figured that Doug wasn't following his meaning. "See, instead of dropping the crates in some sort of pattern, or even random, they all seem to bank in and then aim for the marmot. I mean, from the air, with the ring of empty space around it, and hell, all the patterns of people spreading out from it, it must look like a big target, and they're all military, so they want to hit the bullseye." "Yeah, could be, but it could also be that they don't want to risk having them drift into the mountains. So they drop them all in the middle, hoping the wind will blow them around on their way down." "Good point. They do seem to float around a lot." "Well, since they're dropping them on people's heads, I'm sure they've got them really light. Every time I've seen an aid drop on TV or whatever, it's always man sized crates smashing into the ground on a drogue chute. This is more like an airborne easter egg hunt. In fact, I'd bet these little parachutes come from a toy." "You'd hope so. The mind shudders to think what legitimate use the military would have for these." "Now that you say it," Doug said, examining one of the chutes, about as wide as one arm length, "they're probably for cluster bombing." "Oh. Well, let's hope there aren't any mixups on that front." Dixie was sitting behind Doug, touching him. They didn't talk much, but like everyone else around them, they were comfortable touching other people. Doug looked around, thinking about this, and took in all the different ways that people were pushed up agains each other. Sometimes, when enough of the aid bundles piled up in one area, usually the person nearest would find out some way to transport some of them to another location. Using a wagon, or rarely a car or a van. The tall man had assured Doug that this was taking place all across the campsite, and that over time the food and water was distributing itself to where it was needed. "Is it daytime?" Doug asked. Dixie craned her neck around to get a look at his face. "No. Not at all." "It's kinda bright, don't you think?" "No. It's not dark, but come on, daytime we'd be hiding under something. Sun, remember? Are you okay?"

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"I feel okay. Yeah. It just seems bright. Did they install streetlights maybe?" "No. Nothing like that." She felt his forehead. Then she went back to touching him. After a while, she got up and skipped around the marmot for a while, then came back and sat in front of him. "Look at me." She leaned back on the salty tamped ground. She looked at him, posed for him. Moved around. Stretched. She made faces. "See me?" she asked. "Sure." "Are you happy?" "Yeah. I feel good." "Just something wrong with your eyes then?" "They seem okay." The tall man was leaning against the marmot, humming and examining the sky. It was a clear night, and warm still. He was in the habit of coordinating information from the cadre of tall people in the early evenings, and he was in a state of expectation waiting for them to show up. During the day, they roamed the lakebed, gathering whatever was there. The day before, the most curious update had come out of freeform conversation after they'd finished reporting in. It turned out that the campsite was much warmer in the middle than it was out at the edges. Only informally, but the consensus was that the difference was about fifteen degrees. Effectively this shifted them back a couple of months in the year, to summer, in terms of comfort, and even more so in the night. Doug had recalled his first night getting chilly, but now it stayed mild all through the night. All from combined body heat of all the campers, and the odd campfire, though there weren't many of these. There wasn't much to burn. Dixie was rolling back and forth on the ground, enjoying the sensations, when one of the tall wanders showed up. He had a piece of paper that he handed straight to Doug. "It's a message I was asked to relay to you directly." Doug took it and examined it. "I guess it's not all that bright after all. Anybody got a flashlight handy?" The tall man keyed something into his phone and the display lit up. He handed it to Doug who used it to illuminate the paper. Doug, We've got the invitations out. I have to imagine that things went about as well as they could, given how vague and chaotic everything is. We are all, as

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a group, headed your way. The security is a bit paranoid, but we don't blame them, and there doesn't seem to be any reason we can see to rock the boat. I gather that we're going to be flying out, with a side trip to gather up some people. They also want to run tests on us, and I don't see any reason why we shouldn't do that too. I don't think it'll take too long, and if it does, we'll start making a stink. Anyway, we should be there in 36 to 48 hours. I'd guess. Latty (for Pete and Tisha, who are too busy to deal with this sort of business)(but we're all coming out together, so I look forward to meeting you.) Doug sat, holding the paper for a while, until the tall man asked if he could have his phone back. To conserve the battery. "Sure," Doug said, "sorry. I was just drifting." He sketched out what the note said. "So what's that mean?" Dixie asked. "I don't know exactly when they wrote it, so I guess we don't really know." "That's cool." "Yeah, it is. Whenever they get here."

Crack P.F.C. Brown, and P.F.C. Yates of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers 249th Engineer Battalion were eating lunch on the back of a flat bed. They knew they'd have to unload it, but they hadn't received orders yet, and, having both served multiple tours, they knew enough to eat lunch before volunteering for anything. You never knew how long it would be before you'd get a break again. "Whadda figure they'll do with the blades?" P.F.C. Brown asked. "Any reason we shouldn't install 'em?" "I can think of a few. Most important, no wind." He licked a finger and held it to the air. "So, we'll probably just dump the windmill part over the side?" "Probably." "Seems like a waste. Couldn't we put the cell tower gear on top of the windmill part?" "We probably could, but there's no wind. So what's the point? Besides, it would take time. Have to figure that they didn't have much time, otherwise they'd've waited for a real cell tower instead of hijacking a windmill." "They're all windmills." P.F.C. Yates pointed along the row of trucks in front of and behind their own. "Well, I've installed windmills before, and they do tend to come in big bunches like this." "No shit. That's weird." "Not really. You need a crapload of 'em to make power. Like, a thousand of 'em." "How much power?" "How the fuck do I know? As much as they need. I don't know." "Thousand huh?" "About. I didn't count. Fuckers took almost a year to get put up." "Fuck." "Tell the truth, I kinda look forward to bashing these ones around." "You figure they called you on this one because you got so much experi ence?" "Nope. I think I got called same reason you did. Because I was in the neighborhood. Where were you at anyway?" "Vegas baby!" Yates did a very very weak Elvis impersonation.

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"Forget it. You gonna finish those?" Yates reached for P.F.C. Brown's potato chips. "Have 'em." Yates talked around his chips. "So, what, there's two guys to a truck, and what? Thirty trucks?" "'bout that." "So sixty guys. How long you figure it'll take to put these fuckers up?" "Well," Brown kicked off his boots and lay back, putting the windmill pole between himself and the sun. "I guarantee they aren't going to pour foundations. So, we'll probably shoot them giant tap bolts right into rock. Maybe that's what we're waiting for. Fuckers with the giant hammer drills." "Could be." "Yeah, so, I guess those guys can do sixteen bores in a few hours. They'll probably get, maybe four of those today." "How you figure that?" "Fuck do I know? I made it up. That's how they work. I seen. Anyway, that's twelve a day, six today, so three days, including today." "Think thirty's enough?" Yates shaded his eyes and looked out over the endless people that covered the lakebed. "Fuck, you think I know everything?" "Just talkin'." "Yeah, I got fuck-all idea how many phones go into a tower." "Yeah, me neither." "Somebody must know. Maybe it's enough." "Or maybe there's more coming." "Fuck that. I'm losing overtime every minute I'm here." "What you do?" "Oil rig." "Doin' what?" "Rigging. Drills." "No shit." "No shit."

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A semi tractor trailer came bouncing up the side road where they were parked and pulled along side. The driver reached over and opened the passenger door. "Hey, I got battery chargers here." P.F.C. Brown took a toothpick from his side pocket and stuck it in his mouth. "Yeah. So?" "I got orders to bring 'em here." "So?" "Well, I was delivering them to Nebraska somewhere, and they re-routed me to here. I don't even know if I've got fuel to get back out." "Dude. So?" "So what am I supposed to do with 'em?" "Okay, fine. Since I obviously look like I know what I'm doing, I'm going to put myself in charge until somebody who thinks they know better shows up. Anybody got a problem with that?" He looked around for objections. "Fine." "So?" The driver asked. "How much fuel you got?" "Forty gallons maybe." "And you have batteries?" "Battery chargers. Little things, solar cells. For cell phones." "Yeah, okay. See down there?" He pointed out into the lakebed. "Yeah. What?" "See way out there, there's a circle. Sort of a pattern?" "Okay." "Those are more or less roads. Why don't you drive around and hand out the batteries. Kinda spread 'em around. And when you clear your load, come back here and we'll top up your tanks. Okay?" "Sure. Why not?" "No dumping 'em all at one spot. We'll be watching you from up here. And if you come back before tomorrow, we'll make you wait, so you might as well do it right." "Why wouldn't I?" "Dunno. You need any food or anything?" "Yeah, I guess I do."

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Brown handed over several meal boxes and a crate of water and then helped the driver navigate back to the entrance. When he got back, Yates was finishing off a water bottle, crushing the empty for idle fun. "Who was that guy?" "I dunno. You were here too. You know?" "No. Was he Army?" "Don't think so." "Huh." "Hey, run get a few of those parachute packets. Let's see if they have any better food than we do."

Marker Avery and Steve were feeling well, and spent most of their time obsessing over data, trying to tie together all the promising threads of research and researchers they'd discovered. As some of the researchers started showing up on site, they joined the effort, and they had taken over a dance hall at the resort, pulling in more and more tables as the population grew. The resort staff worked agreeably trying to source office equipment, white boards, computers, whatever they were asked for. Many of them remarking to each other how odd it was that they didn't seem to mind. Of course it was the off season, but there was mainly an esprit de corp that they were part of. They had no idea what the scientists and such were doing, but they all got a vibe and they all felt motivated. Avery and Steve and their growing crew felt similarly, that the resort staff were part of the team. Amongst themselves, they also commented on the phenomenon, noting how well cared for they felt, and how cooperative everybody was, both on the research, and on the clerical and support sides. Avery had been looking at the scan images from Georgetown ever since he'd gotten in that morning. As people trickled in, they gathered around and each in turn asked for an explanation. For the seventh time, Avery launched into his now well rehearsed explanation. "Well, couple of these guys are on a flight out here now, so they'll be able to give us the better info, but from what I've read, and figured, this is a culture of the wisdom flu virus." . . . "No, it does say 'Hi Duncan'." . . . "No, no idea. Well, the guy who took the picture's named Duncan." . . . "No, the point is that it isn't an accident." . . . "No, they didn't make it, they just cultured off live virus. If they'd created it, I hardly think they'd be shooting this out on the wires." And then all gathered 'round and stared at the image of the petri dish with the colorblindness test pattern. Avery rubbed his hairline. "What the fuck?!" Twenty or so researchers and staff looked at him. None were sure what kind of answer he was looking for. "Does anybody else feel like this crept up on us? I mean... Come on, it's a talking virus." "Writing, not talking," somebody from the back volunteered. Avery scowled. "Whatever. Anyway, my point was, we're here trying to do god knows what. But I don't think there's anybody in this room that has the first thing that might really be applicable. Do we? I mean, anybody cover

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talking viruses? Talking bacteria? Talking environmental factors?" He looked around, daring anyone to reply. "Yeah. We might as well get a fortune teller in here. Hell, the cook's probably got a better shot." Steve cleared his throat. "I think Avery's got a point, in a way." He looked to Avery, smiled. "We don't have much to go on, and there's merit in bringing in some outside perspective. I think a fortune teller might be a good idea. But the fact remains, as little as we know, we do know more than probably anybody else, so we should keep working at it. Hell, who knows, maybe when this guy gets here, he can fire up a few more petri dishes and we can ask the virus." The room laughed mildly, and on a common decision, the crowd around Avery's computer dispersed back to their own work areas. "Hey, new guy." Avery couldn't believe it worked, but it did. The new guy was the MRI technician they'd commandeered, and Avery couldn't remember his name. "What's your name again?" "Ted. What's up?" "I was looking over the MRI reports you brought, and obviously it's not the same as working the machine." "No." "Well, I have a thought, I'm wondering what things look like in me." "Why you?" "Because I feel better. So I want to see what my insides look like now." "Yeah, okay. Where?" "Over at the hospital. Let's you and me head over there." "Okay." As they walked, Ted gave avery a quick update on his patient data. "...Of course, it's hard to say for sure. Because of his injured state..." "What was it?" "Head trauma. Explosion of some kind. Hit his head real hard on the ceiling of something. Probably a truck. But yeah, that makes it hard to make too much of the scans. I mean, there's definitely physical changes, not to mention neural activity changes. I guess, until we can ask him what's going on, it's hard to make much of it." "Well, we can scan me. I know we don't have a before, but it'll be a valuable educational experience for me. I'm sure." "What do you think'll be there?"

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"No idea. That's why we're doing the experiment Oh, but we got a report of a lab in D.C. that was culturing the virus, and got some really weird results." "Yeah, the messages." "You heard about that, I guess?" "Yeah, soon as I got here." "I guess that would be big news." "You bet." "Anyway, yes, maybe there'll be something of that nature that we can look into." "Like alphabet soup bubbling through your veins?" "Well, I hadn't thought about it like that, but sure. Who knows." They got to the emergency room entrance and stopped to look up at an incoming helicopter. "Hey, kid. Ted. I should go meet these people. Why don't you go to the lab and get the MRI warmed up, or get yourself checked in or whatever it is. I'll come down after and meet you." "Okay." Avery walked up to the door guard, and showed his ID. "Hey, get this kid an all access pass, no expiration. And see that he's given the reins to whatever he asks for. You know, give him the keys, whatever." He put his ID away and turned back to Ted. "You heard, right?" Ted nodded. "Good. See you in an hour or so."

Tape The elevator doors opened onto the receiving area. Avery had hoped he'd beat them, but the secret service men were already in place, seemingly already done with their scans. The president and his contingent were walking across the roof towards him. Good enough, he thought. He took his badge and his ID out and clipped them both to his shirt. To make all the security men more comfortable. He walked slowly to the entrance doors and waited out the seconds until the new arrivals came in. "Welcome, sir." He saluted, and got the generic president's salute in return. "We have quarters all set up for you, if you'd like to take a while to get comfortable. There is work in progress at the moment, including myself. I should be able to give you a full briefing in about four hours, say?" He waited for the rest of the passengers to come in, something that didn't start until the President had exited the elevator on the ground floor. These were the people he'd been waiting for. "Pete. Tisha. Glad you could make it." They both looked at him, politely trying to figure out if they should know him. "No," Avery said, "I know you by reputation. If that's the right word. I've been tracking the epidemic for the armed forces, so when you showed up on the radar, well, I'm the radar." "Is that why we stopped here?" Tisha asked. "Partly, I guess. Although, in all likelihood, the President would have stopped here anyway. Yes, I think so. Still, it's a great opportunity to meet you, and I'd be dishonest if I didn't mention that I'm chomping at the bit to run some tests on you two." "What sort of tests?" "Oh, nothing to worry about. Nothing really out of the ordinary. We don't want to dissect you or anything. Nothing I haven't had done to me already." He made a signaling gesture. "That ties in well, too. I was heading here when you arrived to have an MRI scan done by a gentleman who's done some vanguard research into the wisdom flu. He got in yesterday I believe. There's some fascinating discoveries he's made. Anyway, we can get you scanned as well. I hope you don't mind." "Do we have a choice?" Pete asked. "Oh absolutely. We're not inquisitors. Curious to the point of inappropriate, probably, but not cruel or insensitive. I hope. I think." "I guess we might as well," Tisha said. "What's MRI stand for?"

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Avery stopped walking. "I don't know." He stood for a moment longer, then turned and smiled at Tisha and then continued on down the hall to the gurney elevators. "I think it's on the fourth floor, but I'm hoping it'll say here on the floors guide. Yes. Fourth." *** "Ted," Avery said, from the scanner table, "I swear, if this doesn't get you excited, what does? Did I misread you altogether?" "How do you mean, sir?" "You, an artiste of the MRI, with a keen inquisitive mind, hot on the trail of the medical discovery of our time, and I bring you the patient zero, practically. Introduce you even. And you just get on with doing your job. I can't believe you let them go unpack." "Well sir, first of all, you didn't misread me. Thanks for having me here, it really is a big deal. I guess when I'm working, I do focus. But believe me, I'm thinking of my paper I'm gonna write already." "Good man. Army let you keep that publishing?" "I believe so. I've never tried before." Ted pushed a button and the table began to tilt and fold into a chair shape, letting Avery stand to the floor. "You can get up sir. Oh, also, I would have had to send those two out anyway. The virus does definitely do something to the nervous system. In particular, and I haven't isolated it out, somebody else is working on that I hope, but anyway, it does something to circuitry. It's doing something to the neurons that makes them radiate. And that screws with the scanner in all sorts of ways." "Wait, like, radioactive?" "Yes sir. In all senses of that word. Broad spectrum." "So, how do we know what we're seeing on the scans here? And how do we know we aren't going to get radiation poisoning?" "I don't think we do know what's showing on the scans. I'm not sure it matters. I mean, what we get is the data. What it shows is up to us to inter pret." "Try that again." "I believe that the most interesting thing, at this point, regarding the wisdom flu, that an MRI has to show us, is in how the virus, or whatever side effect, is affecting the MRI." "What about the radiation poisoning?"

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"That is a concern, and something I'm always paranoid about." He flipped his telltale tag on his lapel. "But so far, there's not sign of anything detrimental. If there are any gamma or beta rads hitting us, well, first, we'd never know, because the virus screws with the detectors, but second, I haven't seen anything empirical to make me worry." "No nausea?" "I believe that's usually from chemotherapy sir." "You know what I mean." Avery finished buttoning up his shirt, and looked around for his tie. It was a clip-on, so it didn't present the noticeable aspect that a tie usually did "Yes sir. And no, nothing of that sort in evidence." "Well good. Who should I send over next?" "Who got the virus first?" "I'll check. And that's who I'll send." "Thank you sir." He saluted Avery. Avery saluted back. "And lay off that business. nervous." "Yes sir." "And we've got a lot to talk about. How about after dinner?" "I'd like that sir." "Good." You'll make people

Diagnosis Steve knocked before coming around the corner. It was an open cafe, in the resort, but the sparse population, and his knowledge of who he was meeting caused him to impose some tacit privacy. "Hey guys? Okay if I come in?" "Sure Steve," Avery said. "Of course. What took you so long?" "I was swimming. Didn't get your message 'til." "Steve, this is Ted. From Walter Reed. He's the MRI guy." "Oh, yeah. Ted. Good to meet you. I gather you've been busy today." Ted put his napkin down. "Yes sir, it's been very busy. But it's the kind of busy you dream about." "Kid in a candy store?" "That sounds about right sir. Uh... Yeah." Ted picked up the napkin again and checked to make sure he didn't have anything stuck in the corners of his mouth. "Wanted to make sure there wasn't anything unintended about that. Yes sir, that is how it feels. Yes." "So, whadda we got?" Steve rubbed his hands together prior to pulling out his chair to the dining table, his gesture and question being lent a double meaning. Avery took the simple question. "Of course they have anything you want, technically. But we have an agreement with the kitchen. Everybody eats the same. Tonight," he circled his place setting with a demonstrative finger, "we have meatloaf... sort of thing. I'm sure it's more refined than that. And green beans. And mashed potatoes. Deserts, fruits, snacks, etcetera, are available in the large refrigerator outside the kitchen. Help yourself." "Sounds pretty good actually," Steve said. "But you know I mean what is there to tell me about the patient zeros? Is that the right way to say it?" "Sure," Ted said. "There's a lot to tell, and that's a good way to put it, I think. Patient zeros." Avery reached for his water glass, pausing the conversation. "Well, and that's the first bit of discovery. Apparently they aren't really patient zero... s. That was their big story. Their friend, who started the thing in the mountains. He's their friend. And he's the real patient zero. Near as anybody knows anyway." "So what's his deal? The real zero?"

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Avery pondered how to answer. "Apparently, not much. We explored that for quite a bit, and he seems very... Well, he's unremarkable. Kinda no reason at all. Guy's basically a fuckup. Though, that may be telling." "He's getting smart?" Steve grinned. "Yep. That grin mean you know something I don't?" "It does." He adjusted his seat and started eating off Ted's plate. "First of all, no animal tests. It's strictly homo sapiens." "You tried other primates?" Avery asked. "Who did?" "Several different labs. No trace among the populations, and it doesn't live in-vivo. Somebody in California tried a massive I.V. infusion. And all the virus just fizzles. I think that was a chimpanzee, but I could be wrong. I've read a lot of reports today." "But it grows in culture..." "Yes it does. Quite happily. And of course, it's unstoppable in humans. I heard that there's a ninety nine percent infected rate. World-wide. That's what CDC is saying anyway. And I think that one percent is about half hermits, and the other half is the CDC covering their ass. Basically everybody has it." A waiter set a plate in front of him, and he put back the green bean he'd just taken off of Ted's plate, and instead grabbed one off his own plate. "Oh, and it doesn't go away." He waved the green bean around for emphasis. "Blood levels stay high. We haven't found any cases where there's any immune reaction at all." "So, why are we better?" "Well," Steve chewed, "If you plot the counts against the symptoms, there's a fairly steady rise in count from the beginning until the end of symptoms. And that's where it levels out. What it's looking like is that it takes over. Symbiotically, or parasitically. So the symptoms are the result of the process, and once it's in place, things go back to normal." Avery looked at the remains of his food. "Sounds icky." Ted laughed, "Is that the official description?" "No." Steve laughed, "That's brief of you." "Yeah, I changed my mind. It's not icky."

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"Well, here's the thing I was leading up to. The virus, what it does, well, mainly it seems confined to the neurological system. Brain, and nerves. Mostly brain. Every way we've got to look at it, it's all over the brain. I'm sure Ted here has filled you in already on the problems it's causing, in terms of diagnostics." Avery and Ted nodded. "Seems like we can't get a good look at it directly. But. Well, it's obvious that it's all over the brain, and the glimmer that I get from most of the research is that it maps to the neurons." "Maps?" Avery asked. "Yeah, it's not living in the brain, as such. It's living in the neurons. Modifying neurons. Working at the neuron level. Rather than the brain." "That's sort of splitting hairs, isn't it? I mean, most of the neurons are in the brain. So it's sort of the same thing." "Sure." Steve paused to deal with a large bite of meatloaf. "Now. There are all sorts of interesting tracers. Brain chemistry, situational function, IQ tests, reaction times. Even things like wound healing rates. Everything shows improvement. Concurrent with virus counts. In fact, there is a leveling off of virus count, but not of symptoms. The longer the patient has been infected, the greater the improvements. So it's not down to the virus itself, but whatever it is that it's doing in the neurons. An obvious inference is that it's tweaking up the neuron functioning. How, nobody's even guessing. Yet." "Yet?" "Far as I know. I haven't seen any guesswork on that matter in the reports." "But?" "Well, all these researchers have the virus, remember. So, I'm figuring that they'll be on an upward curve themselves. The virus should be improving their skill, and their powers of observation, and insight. Who knows what all else."

Elegant "Do you feel like a lab rat?" Pete stood, still wet from a shower, picking bits of leftover glue off his chest. "Do you still have these EEG glue gobs all over your chest?" "Yes." "That's two showers for me, and still.." "I think you just have to peel it off with your fingernails." "What? The glue, or my skin." "Little of both." "Do you want to get room service, or should we go down to the restaurant?" "Let's go. I like breakfast buffet. Bacon mostly. And it's nice to be able to pick up as much as I want. Without having to say it out loud." "Say what?" "Say how many pieces I want." "Ahh. There's sound logic." *** They walked down to the semi-formal dining area that overlooked the pool wearing resort issue sweat-suits. "Is this where we had dinner last night?" Tisha asked. "Yep." "It looks so different in the daytime. Look, the pool's right there." "You didn't see that last night?" "No." "It was all lit up." "I didn't see it." "Huh. Do you see that?" Pete pointed out the window. Above the pool, in the distance, the president's helicopter was flying towards them. "Where're they going?" "No idea." The helicopter flew right over the top of them, the thumping from the rotors shaking the room. Lacking any other plan of action, they walked through the buffet line and sat at a table to eat. They both ordered coffee from the roaming waitress and proceeded to do some wondering.

214 "Maybe they had to go pick somebody up?" "Like who? Somebody more important?" "Maybe."

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Pete recognized somebody from the president's staff at another table and went to talk to him. After a minute or so, he waved for Tisha to come over. "This is Hank." "Hi Hank." "Hank was relief pilot on our trip here." "Didn't fly though," Hank said. "Nice to know you're there though." "Nice to hear that, ma'am." "Hank told me that they left him behind." "To save weight, yes. They're going to try to make it in one trip. Assuming that they can refuel there, they should be able to make it." Tisha took a moment to process. "So, they went without us?" "Yes ma'am." "But, I thought they wanted us along for security or whatever." "I don't know anything about that end of things." "But," Pete said, "Hank has a good idea." "How long were you over here? Did you guys hatch a plan to take over the world too?" "Well, it was kind of obvious, because Hank's been diverted to the relief flights detail." "What?" "We fly deliveries, except, instead of rolling off a loading ramp, we just chuck everything out of the plane." "So...?" "So," Pete said, "And this is where it gets cool. Hank says that we can probably just get on one of those planes. His probably, I think." Hank nodded. "And then when they make the delivery, over the campsite, we can get out there." "Uhm..." "We parachute. Isn't that cool?" "Uhm..."

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After breakfast, they went back to their room, having planned out when and where to meet Hank for the trip to Buckley Air Force base. While Tisha packed their bags, Pete went to see Avery and Steve, to see if they could shed any light on what had happened. "How'd it go?" Tisha asked, when he came back. "Fine, I guess. They seemed surprised that we were still here." "So they thought we were going on with the President?" "Yeah, guess so." "But. Well, it's mean. They can't leave us here." "They did." "Yeah, but, what changed? I mean, weren't we supposed to be their security blanket?" "That's what I thought. But nobody seems to know anything about it. So details like that don't seem to be available." *** Hank was waiting for them in the lobby, standing with his hands in his pockets, much as they'd left him at breakfast. "Where's your stuff?" Pete asked. "This is it," Hand said, taking his hands out of his pockets. "Gotta travel light. Helicopters especially. They're very sensitive to weight." "Yeah, guess so," Tisha said. "I notice how easily the forgot about us. And you too." "Well, in my case, I think I'm more help flying relief flights. They're running a lot of them. Round the clock. The planes can take it, but they're always pushing the flight crews. Every able body helps. I'm glad to be off the president's detail." "Really?" "Well, not permanently. But for now, for this situation, sure. Flying emergency rations to citizens, or twiddling my thumbs in the jump seat for the president. I admit, it's a bit of a toss-up. But yeah, I'm happy for the change." He led them out to the parking lot, and opened the trunk of a beige government issue sedan. "Now I see what these are for." Hank said. "Oh yeah," Pete said, "You don't have luggage. Funny." "It's one of my pet jokes." "What are the others?"

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Hank drove them the half hour or so to the base, giving a running commentary on the surroundings. About the base, and the history of the area. "One weird thing, I always thought, is that there's a wing of the space division stationed here. Permanently." "So?" Pete asked. "Well, all the launches are from Florida. And there's a few secret ones from Texas, of course. But none here. Nowhere near. So why station them here?" "Don't know." "Well, of course not. But it is a weird thing. In a trivia fact kinda way." "Yes, it is." *** They didn't have to wait long to get assigned to a flight, but finding parachutes that they were authorized to use proved very difficult Hank explained: "Apparently, all the ones that are on the plane have to stay with the plane. You know, in case it crashes. And all the rigs here that are spare are H.A.L.O. kits, very expensive. I've got a line in on some that came in on one of the supply planes, but as it happens, that plane is making a run right now, so we've got an hour or so before they get back. Either of you ever jump before?" "Nope." "No." "Well, that's not really a problem, the chutes deploy on exit, and I'll show you a few tips. Fact is, you're going to be jumping into a huge crowd of people, so, really, when you get near the ground, shout a lot, and try not to hit anyone. Best bet would be to land on top of a car or an R.V. or something. That way there's no people, and the roof of the vehicle will cushion your fall. A little." "Fall?" Tisha asked. "Well, sure, you still hit the ground with a bit of oomph You know. Nothing serious, but you might get the wind knocked out of you, maybe get scraped up a little. Nothing that you wouldn't expect from a really good night on the town." Pete patted Hank on the shoulder. "Hank, I wanna party with you some time. And we owe you a few beverages."

leaf "I'll take you up on that." ***

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Tisha and Pete were perched on either side of the cockpit jump seat. 'Strictly not to regulations' Hank had informed them. After a series of shouted conversations, mainly centered around better ways that they could be accommodated, including being shoved into a storage locker, Tisha said: "Well, at least we don't have the middle seat. You ever wonder why airplanes have three seats across? Why not just have two?" "I'm sure there's some financial reason for it. That's how everything is with airlines." Hank turned around to talk to them, making both Pete and Tisha nervous as it obviously left the napping co-pilot, or navigator, whichever he was, they weren't sure, he'd been asleep since they got on the plane, as the only one at the controls. Hank didn't seem to notice any of this. "You know, I had somebody explain that to me once, if you want to hear?" "Sure, why don't you do that while you fly?" Tisha suggested. "Oh, okay, if it makes you more comfortable. I don't see why not." He sat back down and continued. "The simple thought experiment is: to get rid of the middle seat, you'd have to split the six chairs into three pairs, rather than two triplets. this would require that there be two aisles. Even disregarding the issue of crossover aisles, i.e. to get from one aisle to the other, and the loss to capacity, you still have to get that extra aisle from somewhere. so, either you steal one sixth of an aisle width from each seat, about 3.5 inches, or you make each aisle half the width of the current aisle. Really, none are good options. The only real option is to have the whole plane be first class, with two seats per side. However: this is expensive. Hence the price of first class tickets. Which are there for people who want that luxury. So, in a sense, they have provided middle seatless option for those who want it." "You always talk like this, Hank?" Tisha act. "Nah. Get a few beers in me and I loosen up real fast." "So... How many beers right now?" "Now? Oh, I get it. Funny." Hank stopped and reached into his pocket. "Hang on..." He fiddled with his phone, then read the message. "Hey, you guys know somebody named Sparta?" "Spartak," Tisha said. "Yeah, well, uh... How'd he get my number?" "Don't know."

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"Well, he said to tell you that you left some of your clothes at his house, and he'll keep them for you to pick up." Pete and Tisha looked at each other, then both said, "Do you remember leaving anything?" Hank looked at them. "Don't you guys have your own phone?" "Nope," Tisha said. "Weird." He paused to look at the instrument panel. "Hey, you guy's like this. See that dot there? That's the president's helicopter." "How can you tell?" Pete asked. "Well, I am a pilot. Pretty good one. But this one's easy. See the '1' next to the blip?" "Ah, Air Force One, right." "Yep." "So where is it?" "Oh, it's about... one sixty miles out. Coming in on cross vector. Assuming you don't take too long to float down, you should get there about half an hour ahead of them." "Ha ha, neener neener," Tisha said. "Okay," Hank said, touching his ear. "Got it." He pulled his microphone away from his face. "Guys, we're on approach now. You should go back into the hold and Gary will show you how to hook up to the deploy rail. Once you're back there, you're under his orders. And trust him. He's really good at throwing things out of planes. So when he says jump. Jump right then. Every second you take to take a deep breath is another hundred yards you'll have to walk once you get to the ground." "Got it," Tisha said. Then she saluted him. Hank saluted back, "Girl scouts?" "Yes sir," she said, then she leaned down and kissed him. "For good luck." They crawled back to the cargo bay, and waited for Gary. "Hey Pete?" "Yeah?" "Why're we doing this?" "I think it was the only way we could get back there." "Okay, but why are we so gung ho on getting back there?" "Uh. I don't know. Everybody else seems to want to get there. And Doug's there. He's our friend."

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"The President ditched us." Pete watched a stray mini-parachuted drift by as the cargo door started opening. "I'm a little pissed about that." "Yeah, me too. I guess there's reasons. I just don't feel like any of those are the reason." "Yeah, I hadn't thought about it at all until you asked. I just want to." "Me too." "And now we're going to jump out of a plane into the middle of the mountains. And we're going to try to land on somebody's car so we don't squish them." "So we can get to our friend who's guarding a giant marmot." "And there's a Russian mobster pestering you about your underwear." "HA! It's a real fairy tale, isn't it." "Well, you know, it does kind of feel like one." "Yeah." She kissed him. "For good luck." Gary emerged from a cubby hole somewhere and walked up to them. "Hank give you the drill?" They nodded. "I'll yell jump, like this. JUMP! And you jump as fast as you can. We'll stop dropping packages for a second, so you aren't cluttered on the way down. But if you do get one tangled, just ignore it. Anything you try to do will just make things worse." "That's reassuring." Tisha shouted. Gary shrugged. *** "JUMP!" Pete jumped, and he saw as he did that Gary was shoving Tisha in the back. To make sure they went close together. His chute popped, and a second later, he heard Tisha's do the same. He was facing away from her, and it took him a few seconds to figure out how to steer the guide lines. Why didn't anybody mention these, he wondered. With a few whoops, he got reoriented so that he could get a good look at Tisha. She was some distance above him, looking down at him. He waved. She waved back.

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The sun was low in the sky when he first took notice of it, and then he watched an accelerated sunset as they descended. He waved and pointed so Tisha would watch it as she came down after him. Once the sun went behind a mountain peak, he got his first good look at the ground. G ary's pretty good, he thought. He was coming down about half a mile from the clearing with the marmot in the middle of it. And he figured if he knew how to run a parachute better, he could probably zip over and land right next to it. But he didn't, so he didn't. Instead, he started scanning for a landing spot, while at the same time trying to familiarize himself with the steering, so he might have a chance of getting to any good spot he found. In the end, this all proved nothing more than something to entertain him on the way down. By the time he had an semblance of control, he was out of range of any of the cushy looking targets he'd identified, and the ground came up so fast he got surprised and really plopped down just like the aide pack ages. His luck dropped him into a campfire. Which was thrilling, but due to his momentum, not injurious. The chute itself came to rest canopied over the fire pit and promptly melted in a rush of black smoke and flaming droplets of nylon. Cool, he thought. He'd completely lost track of Tisha in the last moments, but luckily, there were quite a few people around. And they all noticed. The first thing he was aware of, after he got up and dusted himself off, was a bearded guy wearing a vest and a headband unbuckling the chute harness for him. "She's over there," he said. He pointed, and as Pete traced the path, he noticed that there were dozens of other people pointing. At some point in the distance, the people started pointing towards him. And at the end of this line of people there was a small clearing around Tisha. Somebody was helping her out of her chute. Hers had landed on top of her. Probably explains the clearing, Pete thought. He followed the pointing crowd watching as Tisha did the same. The met within a few feet of where the pointers changed direction. "Impressive," Pete said. "Yeah. Eerie impressive," Tisha said. He was trying to figure out how long it would take to get to the marmot when the crowd shifted. They turned towards a rustling, shuffling noise. What they saw was the crowd in the distance parting, and some of the people pointing. Somewhere just before a vanishing point in the parting, he saw Doug walking towards them. It took a few minutes to meet up with him, so they had a lot of lead time to watch each other. There were a few cycles of waving and shrugging before they got into earshot. Doug barely waited for them to get in contact with each other, pausing only to give them each a hug.

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"Okay," Pete said, somewhat confused. Doug looked different. Jim caught up with them just then and barked once, jumped, expecting to be caught, was caught, and licked Pete's face. "Nice to see you too, Jim." He put Jim down and watched as he did a bouncy dance around him and Doug.

Propriety Latty and Merriam were having dinner with Avery and Steve. Merriam had considered trying to get along to the lakebed, to catch up with her new friends and her brother, but the weight of reality prevented her. She wasn't up to leaving Latty behind and conjuring up a mad rush like Pete and Tisha had. But if it had just been that, she might have tried. What kept her was the steady influx of revelation that was happening at the resort. New researchers with new data were showing up all the time. "It's addictive," she said. The others nodded, eating and drinking. She continued on. "You know, it is a draw. It really feels like we're missing out on something. But yes. It's also addictive being here and finding out. It feels like slot machines." "Just one more quarter!" Latty said. "Plus. Hey, look around. This is nice digs. Spa. Food. Company." She put her hands on the table. "Yes. I think something nice is happening here too. We have our own version of what's happening up in the mountains." She opened her purse and dropped in several packets of honey she'd taken from the jar on the table. She snapped the clasp and looked back up without breaking stride. "I'll tell you something. For a fact, most of those people that got left behind by the president? They don't seem to care. Don't even seem to notice." "How do you mean?" Avery asked. "Well, there's all sorts of people just lollygagging around this place, but today, I was sitting by the pool, and I talked to this man for several hours, and several cocktails were enjoyed all around. Only to find out later that this fellow flew in with the president. Now, he said he was the vice president, but I know the vice president proper, so he must be vice president of something else. But still, he was flying with the president. So..." "He works for one of the larger oil conglomerates" "Oh. Well, nevertheless. My point is that he's been loitering around the pool drinking Mai Tais. And he's not alone. There's a lot of people here now, and as I understand it, they've been brought here because they're go getters, people who get results. And a big chunk of them act like they're on vacation." Avery listened intently while Latty was talking. Then, when she paused, he took a pen out of his breast pocket and started jotting notes on a small pad. "There's something to look into. I wonder what the cause and effect is?"

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Latty whistled softly. "I say." She fanned herself with her hand. "Do you think I'm on to something? Do you think I've discovered something about the virus? Can I get on the payroll?" "Sure," Avery said, almost absentmindedly, "sorry I haven't already. Of course you should be. We have open budget." He came out of his mental wanderings. "And you know, Latty? You really have been more help than most of the people we've got here, even though, as you noticed, that isn't really saying much." "Well thank you anyway young man." *** After the dinner broke up, Latty went straight to the front desk and made sure that the bill was transferred to Avery's budget and then ordered a massage and spa treatment for the next day, and a late night snack from room service selected by picking the most expensive thing available. This turned out to be crab legs.

Jim Jim started to wonder. It was only the first inklings, but it came to him that he remembered things. That he'd started to doubt. He'd been tagging along happily enough for his whole life, and now he felt a hunger. Even though he had a full belly. Where before he'd responded to the general wishes of those around him, now, whenever someone addressed him, it made him feel uneasy. As though they were displeased with him. As though they wanted more from him. And he felt homesick. And he felt pangs of puppy love. Inside he was roiling, but outside, he kept up with his friends. And they seemed normal to him. It was a feeling inside him that was different. He knew that. He was buoyed by the return of Pete and Tisha. Even though he'd met so many new friends, and many of them dogs too. But he felt something special for Pete and Tisha, and Doug. They all came together at their campsite, and Jim felt a sudden reprieve from his discordant feelings. But then Doug walked away, and the feelings came back. He felt a feeling of loss. He felt that he should hug Pete and Tisha, to comfort them. But he had no skills to express what he felt. He did his best, licking them and nuzzling them. They seemed happy, even though he still felt he wasn't living up to something. Then Doug came back. And he knelt down alongside, and he held a hand on Jim's neck, and he spoke. And Jim understood him. "Hey buddy. Don't worry. Come with me. Everything's going to be fine. We've done all we need to do." The frustrated feeling came back, because he couldn't answer, only bark. So he did that, and then he trailed along behind Doug on a new adventure.

Report "Huh," Avery said. "What?" Steve asked. "Look at this one." He handed over a sheaf of papers. "How are these people thinking to test this stuff." Steve looked up. "The radioactivity traces. That've been giving everybody fits. Screwing with all the lab gear." "Yeah?" "Turns out that it's ultra low band radio. Spread spectrum, if you can believe that." "Why?" "Oh, spread's usually high frequency. You end up sacrificing data rate for flexibility. So you need a lot of frequencies. Anyway, point is, it's fairly certain that it's the close proximity that's causing false readings. It seems to be setting up a sympathetic resonance on the circuit board, or more likely any sensor devices." "All the graphs here?" "Yeah, like I said, I don't know where they think this stuff up. So fast. But they do." "Infinite monkeys." "Basically. Yes." Steve gave Avery a knowing stare. "So. Are you thinking that the radio waves have something to do with it? Or are they just a side effect?" "Ooh, I hadn't thought of that yet. But yeah... There's something there. Yeah." "I'll get somebody working on it." "Yeah..." Avery came back out of the clouds. "Yeah. Know what? Have somebody look into the interference again. Look into maybe there's something about the equipment. Let's look at it, not just from a interference or side effect, but see if there's some pattern to the radio behavior." "You're thinking of the spelling thing." "Yeah, sort of. Hey, Steve, did you know they've got a whole army battalion installing cell phone towers out there at the lake bed?" "No, I don't think I heard that. Why?"

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"That's a good question. I mean, the obvious answer is so they can have phone service for all those people. But... Well, first of all, how'd it get done? Who authorized it, and how'd they get it done so fast?" "Good question." "Yeah, well, and the radio... See, I wonder if somehow the virus is responsible. Somehow uses the comms link for its own purposes." "That'd be pretty far out there." Avery looked at him, waiting to see if he was joking. "Really? In context?" "Yeah, I guess not." Steve picked up a pen. "I'll have somebody check that correlation." *** Later, they were having a late lunch by the pool, watching a few guests swimming in the pool, comparing notes on bikini styles, and wondering if the guests were real guests, or some part of their own detachment. Steve heard a tone and spun his laptop around. Read the incoming. "Wow. I think they're getting faster." "Mmm?" Avery asked, mouth full of monte cristo sandwich. "Somebody at University of North Dakota..." "There is such a thing?" "Apparently. Anyway, they've got the analysis of the radio waves." He looked up from the screen. "They had to have been working on this already, right?" "Probably. If it makes you feel better." "Anyway, they say there's definitely information encoded. It's not random, or just a repeating pattern. Definitely information. Irreducible Don't know what it is yet, but they're positive it's communications" "To who?" "They don't know. My guess would be either it's got something to do with the transmission of the virus. Weird that it's a radio transmission, isn't it? Or maybe the virus likes to stay in touch with other viruses." Avery thought about this. "Yes. I think either of those sound like good ideas. Could also be some sort of general signaling Maybe it tells the virus to stop replicating. Maybe that's why there's a plateau of symptoms?" Steve shuffled through a stack of folders. "Hey, you know, this one passed by unnoticed, but there might be something to this one..." He skimmed the report, flipping through the first few pages. "Yeah, I don't know. Still seems a

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bit unfounded, but it's a good idea. This guy, and from his publishing credits, he's been on this kick for years now, but, his theory is that there's a connection between the virus and machinery. He thinks that the virus is the way that computers are going to merge with people." "That's loony. We have hard data that contradicts that." "Still, there might be something to it. I like the idea that the radiation is somehow communicating. Think about it. All those people who up and went to that lakebed? We were on our way there. I still want to go. Why?" "Good point. So you think it's the radiation, somehow pulling people together?" "Maybe..." He looked through the folders in front of him, but didn't find what he was looking for. "The transmitted distance isn't far enough. How would people know to go somewhere halfway across the country?" "Okay, true." Avery held his hand up. "Hang on. You know they're installing cell towers out there." "Right, for all the people who suddenly showed up." "Right. Why?" "So they can make calls?" "Right, but why do they have to put up towers?" He grinned. "Sorry to be all Sherlock Holmes here, I'm feeling my way through." "Oh. Because there weren't any." "Right. Maybe it wasn't that they were gravitating towards the lakebed. Maybe it was that they were gravitating away from radio pollution." "So the virus could talk louder..." "Well, not get drowned out, yeah." Steve looked at the reports again. "Dang. I knew there was something here about the range of the virus. It's not far, I know that. I remember that it doesn't go much out of a room. Let's call it ten meters. For my sanity." "Makes sense to me." "Yeah, well, getting people bunched together might have some purpose." "On the lake bed?" "Yeah. No radio noise, not much anyway, and now, people, lots of people, all within range of each other. So to speak."

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"So," Avery sat down. "It's viciously virulent, but it doesn't seem to have any long term damage associated with it, in fact, may even improve the health. It seems to improve mental acuity, and again, possibly other functions. Anybody test for cardiovascular fitness?" "Not that I know of." "It seems to be communicating. And it's a fact that something like a tenth of the population left home to go stand together in the middle of nowhere. And more probably to come. And more still that would come if they could. Like us." Steve nodded. "So. What's that give us?" "I don't know..." Steve stared at the floor. "Yeah, I know what you mean. I have ideas." "Me too." "But they're..." "Fanciful." "Good way to put it..." Avery shook his head. "I guess the important question is, what do we need to do? Kind of lost track of that." "Yeah, me too. We've been so busy, I kind of forgot we were supposed to be... What?" "Anything we could to stop this thing from hurting people." "Which it isn't. Not really." "Few car wrecks. Plane wrecks." "Yeah, but..." "Hey, where do you think the statues fit into this?" "Dunno. Roadside statues? Are they machines?" "No, not usually. Maybe a few." "Yeah, now I'm getting even more fanciful ideas." Avery picked up a paper with a sample scan on it. "You know... See this?" "Brain activity." "Sure, but squint a little, or... Well look." He held up a satellite image of the lakebed. "See the similarities?" "I guess. I think that's a bit of a stretch. They both look like random collections of dots." "True. But maybe that's not a coincidence."

leaf "Huh. Still, what's that do for us?" "Not much I guess." "Let's get a beer."

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"Good an idea as any. And a sandwich. Let's get out of this place and go somewhere normal." "Very good idea."

Vacation The marmot got a tingle. How could you not with so much going on? So much potential? Sharing the overriding mood of the gathering, it felt calm, and expectant. It felt clear. With every passing moment, it was becoming more clear headed. At sun-up, it had been barely capable of feeling its own feelings, but even then, these had been pleasant. Comforting. Cradled. It had strong instinctive feelings of purpose. It knew it had something to do, though what that was hadn't resolved yet. But it would. The marmot could feel it. It was a communal animal, and it could feel the community all around, and it knew that things were going to be good. Things would clear up, become how they were supposed to be, and then everybody would be able to get back to what they were supposed to be doing. Things and events weren't quite ready, it suddenly realized, but that was okay. The marmot relaxed and began to enjoy itself, listening to all the preparations, the comings and goings. Sitting nestled in the wings of the crowd, unnoticed even though it was right there in the center of attention. It relaxed, and dreamed while waiting.

Teak Steve and Avery watched the TV behind the bar. It was showing a tape of a baseball game from several years before. During the seventh inning stretch, a vaguely familiar politician came out to dedicate something to somebody. "Hey," Avery finished off his second beer. "Why'd they send out invites to the politicians?" "Dunno, they just always do." "I don't mean the game, I mean those kids. The patient zeros." "Oh, that. Yeah. I kinda thought that was a precautionary measure." "Huh?" "To make sure that the... Those in power, if you will. Had the virus." "Hmm..." "To make sure there wasn't any division of things against people who had it." "But everybody's got it." "I bet the president doesn't. would've known." "The kids? No." Besides, that's not something that they

"You think they knew this? That they planned it?"

Reciprocate Dixie sat in the president's chair for the flight back. They had to stop at the perimeter of the lake bed to refuel from a marine corp tanker truck that was waiting there for exactly this purpose. Nobody in the president's entourage or security detail was comfortable with the arrangement, but Doug had insisted that Dixie be flown out immediately. And she would be, as soon as a relay chopper came in. The navigator came to tell her that she was free to sit in the president's chair until the other helicopter came in to take her. Dixie didn't mind this at all. Doug had told her they'd probably do this. In all, it was really only to make sure that the information and thoughts that she'd written down for him over the course of a few days would get a good hearing. That somebody would take the matter seriously. Lacking anything better to do, she opened up the stack of papers and skimmed the first of them. This was her attempt at summarizing what all the rest of the documents were getting at. Doug had a way of rambling around, and this first page was to make Dixie more comfortable, both with the subject matter, and that she'd transcribed it correctly. She felt that whoever else had to read it would probably be more like her than like Doug. The virus. Underlying everything is the drive for purpose and belonging. Any kind. There is a human need to belong to something. Any something is compelling versus nothing. There is purpose in spreading disease. All diseases are actually vectors to distribute things, such as improvements and upgrades to organisms Doug has been aware, sort of. And has been following a plan, sort of. This disease, and the 'good' feeling, is a cradling feeling. This disease, among other things, takes away the feelings of loss and non-belonging. The upgrade here is that people need to start cooperating. The disease payload is some sort of activation sequence for something that 's been brewing across human kind. It was waiting dormant for activation conditions. And this was provided by communal communications and shared experience

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provided by mass media. The tokenizations of society. Sympathetic, harmonized, synchronized patterns of thought signaled something. Won't be so many babies, because now there's enough people. Something about the time Doug was born. The flu is something that's always been waiting in human genetics, just waiting for the trigger person to be born. Doug was it. That somehow, the statues are part of the trigger, or of the beckoning system. This is why they're always used to attract people to places. Statues, balloons, and searchlights or campfires. One of the latest symptoms is that Doug no longer has trouble understanding infinity. This is something that was blocked intentionally in the human race until now. This is one of the primary upgrades. Doug attempted to find rational explanations for a whole list of diseases. What they were for, what they did in a positive way for the human race (or other animals). "Ready ma'am?" The navigator asked. "Sure." She stood up and stuffed the stack of papers into her bag. She'd gone back and forth between calling him Doug, and some sort of generic term. But she couldn't make it work without referring to him. So she'd left it. Now she could hear the incoming helicopter over the mechanical noises of the one she was on and the crowd noise from all the people in the distance. They sounded like an ocean. The helicopter that landed next to them was the same type as the president's. The rotor spun down and two men in battle fatigues dragged a heavy corrugated hose over to the rear of the fuselage The had some trouble getting the fuel line fitted, but once they did, the pumping engine on the tanker truck spun up to a frantic pulsing whine. Dixie watched the fuel pulsing through the line. Helicopters seemed very hungry. ***

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She slept for most of the flight, and was awoken by Avery. He liked to greet any incoming guests, but this one especially intrigued him. The crew had radioed ahead to explain what they were bringing and word had been brought to him. He stood alongside a wheelchair holding an iced bottle of water. Both just in case. "Who're you?" Dixie asked. "I'm Lieutenant Avery Michaels. I'm head of task force Exploratory 78B7. I'm in charge of... uh, doing whatever I can regarding this wisdom flu. Although there seems to be some doubt about whether there's anything to do." She looked at him. Shook his hand. "You seem okay." She took the water bottle and had a long drink from it. "I could use a shower. And then we can talk." "I've got a room for you. In the hotel over there. It's very nice." "Okay." She followed him, glancing back at the wheel chair. *** She resisted the urge to take the world's longest shower and then go to sleep on the huge bed with too many pillows and decadently soft linens. But even so, it took her the best part of an hour to get all the grime off her, and comb out her hair. She stood for a while looking at the patches of grime on her knees, thinking that they might be permanent. On the bed, when she came out of the bathroom, there was a set of battle fatigues, apparently in her size, a three pack of olive drab t-shirts, a three pack of small mens boxers, a three pack of socks, the top from a set of hospital scrubs, and also a sweatsuit and pair of slippers from the resort. She put on a set of the underwear and considered her options for a while. She teared up briefly at the thought of the middle aged Air Force officer scrambling to find her clothes to wear. She settled on the fatigues, even though that meant wearing them with the slippers. She thought it made a statement of some sort. Her bag was untouched, but she checked it again to make sure that the notes were still there, and still in order. She had one last thought about revising them again, but couldn't find any new reason that warranted taking the time. She opened the door to the hall, and before it swung open, she heard a throat clearing noise. "Hello lieutenant Micheals." "It's lieutenant colonel, but call me Avery. Everybody here does."

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"Maybe you don't feel like you're doing your job very well." Dixie felt surprise that she'd said it out loud. "Well, that's true." He scratched his chin. "Good thought. I'll look into it." "I bet you say that a lot." "Well, that's true too. But I do look into a lot of things. That's what I really do. And I'm good at it." "Okay." He walked her down to the pool, and they took a cabana and had the porter bring them a pitcher of iced tea and a snack platter. While they waited for it to arrive, Dixie riffed through several anecdotes about her time at the lake bed, how she'd come to meet Doug, how they'd gotten into the habit of him pontificating on his theories and her listening, prompting him occasionally. How she'd eventually gotten somewhat bored and decided to document everything to give her something to do, because she really did feel that what Doug was thinking about might be important, even if she didn't understand it or find it all that interesting. According to Doug, she said, it was only a matter of time before she progressed to the point where it would make sense. "But I gotta say, so far... not so much." She shifted on her cushion, eyeing the pool. The porter came back with a large tray and set it on the low table between them. After she'd taken a deliberate drink, Avery asked her about the notes. "Did I tell you about those?" She asked. "No, but you keep starting to reach for them. I can see them right there on top." He pointed. "Yeah. I forget, you're an expert." "No harm done." He examined a piece of cheese, then popped it in his mouth. "Cow cheese," he said. "What about it?" "I don't know. I was just wondering about cows. In the abstract. They're kinda neat." "I've been camping kind near a giant black and white cow. He plays the trumpet." "Oh?"

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"Well, I've heard. He has a trumpet in his mouth. But I guess it has to be wired up before he'll play it. He's from the Bull Run restaurant. Ever heard of it?" "No..." "Me neither. Apparently they're popular in Mississippi." "I've spent time in Mississippi. You'd have to define popular." laughed. "So tell me about these giant animals and things." "They're not real." "I know that. I've seen pictures." "I thought you wanted to look at the notes." "I do, I was just easing you into it. Since you haven't gotten them out yet." "Okay." "But I do want to know about the animals." "Like what? They're giant cheezy animals." "Why do you think they're out there?" "Well, people brought them... But I know what you're asking." She concentrated for a few moments. "I guess... Well. People do gather around them. You know, it's a 'place'. There was a lot of, 'you check over by the lumberjack and I'll take the baseball', you know, navigating." "Like street signs, or flags." "Yeah, but more obvious. More fun too. Now I think about it." She got up and took a parting swig of her tea before padding over to the pool. She sat down and took off her slippers, pushed her pants up to her knees and dangled them in the water. Avery followed and followed her example. "True," he said, once situated. "What?" "Statues are more fun. I have a thought. Wanna hear?" "Sure." "I think it's, as you said, a way of organizing, but that isn't abstract. It's not a sign, with a name or a number. It's a real thing. You know what it is without it even having a name." "What good's that do?" "I don't know. Makes it more fun, for starters." "Doug thinks they're alive." He

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"Not in a crazy way. He thinks that the virus is somehow channeling something. And the statues are like antennas." "What did Doug think about the cell phone towers and the radio antennas that they were putting up out there?" "I don't think he ever noticed. He never said anything about them. And he talked a lot." "All the time, or just to you?" "Mostly to me. Yeah. Actually, he was kinda quiet around most people. Now that you mention it." Dixie went quiet for a while, so Avery changed the subject. "So, how was your experience with the virus?" "How do you mean?" "Well, you've had it?" "Yeah, sure. Doug said I had it late. And that I was slow too." "It does affect people differently. different people too." "Kinda like we all get super powers." Avery laughed. "Could be." "Yeah, Doug and I talked about that one some." "And?" "He didn't have much. I don't think it's super powers. He didn't anyway." "So, Dixie, what do you plan to do now?" "Not much. The general feeling is that it doesn't matter too much." "Yeah, I've noticed that around here too. Why do you think that is?" "Well, as we talked about it... I think it's that everybody's had this thing. And I dunno. Everybody seems very un-stressed out about the whole thing. I think everybody's gonna chill for a while." "But what... I mean, where are you going to go? Do you have family? A job?" "Sure. But, you know." She got up and carried her slippers back to the cabana. "It's pretty nice here. I don't see why I should leave." "True. I don't either." He signaled the porter. It seems to do different things to

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"Here's those notes. I'll answer questions if you got 'em. I know all about the notes. Maybe not so much about what all of it means. Doug might be a little loony." "I doubt it." He took the stack of papers, folded them up and stuck them in a pocket, then turned to the porter. "Could we get a pitcher of margaritas please? I think the sun's going down soon." *** They drank, and nibbled, and swam a little, in their underwear. The combined effects of the tea and the drinks and all the other things made them very comfortable with each other by mid evening. "Avery. I think maybe I was wrong. I think people are going to do stuff. It's just going to be stuff that they like doing. I like doing this. And there must be some reason for it. I can feel it. This is a job that needs doing." "I feel that too. I was thinking the other day that we have so many machines now. Robots and things. That most of the jobs that people do are kind of made up. There are, or were, a lot of people doing jobs that don't mean anything, don't produce anything, and making themselves miserable, just to get a paycheck." "I hear ya'," Dixie said. She brandished her most recent, a vodka tonic. Avery clinked her glass with his own bourbon rocks. She took a sip and went on. "Yeah. Yeah. Like out there at the lakebed. Nobody cares about money. It never came up. There's food and so on, and everybody makes sure everybody gets what they need." "We should talk about that some time. Not now. But that sounds interesting." Avery concentrated on his words. "It sounds a little like communism." "Could be. So?" "Well, and there's a lot of people putting a lot of effort into getting that food out there for those people." "How many?" "Uh... several thousand. At least." "That's not a lot. Really. And are they enjoying themselves?" "I suppose they are. Yes. Probably." "I rest my case." Avery put down his drink. Noisily. "Wanna fool around?" "I wanna get fucked. Yeah. Let's go."

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Resolve Pete trailed along behind Doug, watching the people part around him. It almost didn't seem necessary. The translucency that he'd been perceiving over the past few days out of the corner of his eye, was becoming tangible. He seemed to shimmer. He was hard to pin down. Hard to see almost. Like he was covered in a dull glow dusting of radioactive sprinkles. Jim trailed only behind Doug, oblivious to anything. Tisha had fielded a call from Merriam and had wandered off, following directions. Doug hadn't seemed concerned, and neither had Tisha, so he'd flipped a coin, and biased by the marmot and the fact that Tisha would be able to find them using it as a target, he'd followed Doug. Beyond him there were people. Pete knew that there was infrastructure to shame a military effort, and that somewhere within the horizon there were dozens of oversized fiberglass mascot animals. He knew that Doug would end up somewhere proximate to the marmot. He still didn't know what the significance of that particular statue was. In fact, he was mostly certain that there was none, that it was a rallying totem, and nothing more. It had been there when Doug had seen a need, and it was as good as any. He thought of all the times in the past few days, or weeks, that he'd had opportunity to steer or stop Doug. Even though he didn't know what, exactly, Doug had planned, he knew, in the way he knew so many things lately, that he wouldn't interfere. Not because he knew or didn't know. Approved or didn't approve. But because he knew that Doug was good, and that anything Doug did was bound to be the right thing. No matter how it appeared to anyone else. Doug was farther along, if nothing else, and to interfere would probably be to destroy. That was how Pete felt anyway. He realized it'd been a while since he'd slept even a token amount, and longer still since he'd taken anything like a drug. He didn't even remember eating, though he knew he must have. All the mass of people, to see them, each had a glowing pocket device of some kind. They were all connected up. Pete felt that this was window dressing, that the devices and their connections were only representations of the true connectivity. But it worked, and there was no reason to bother trying to change it. The problem was that all manner of the random crowd tried to give him, and Doug for that matter, their phone or pocket computer. Finally, he saw a woman carrying two phones, offering him one, so he took that. To not deprive her. He gave this one to Doug, and soon after, a young girl shoved her phone into his pocket and ran away. So they both had a connec-

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tion, and all the people that lined their path could now breathe easy, and relax. Though Pete knew, at some level, that they were relaxed. That they were only a matter of days or weeks or hours behind them. He was reminded that Doug wasn't special. He was first. Which made him special historically, but it didn't mean anything different happened to him. It happened first. He was what they were all looking to, as Pete had become used to doing, to see what their futures held. The path, or parting, went right up to the marmot and formed an ad hoc ring around it. There were no people withing fifty feet of it, and the perimeter formed a smooth circle of humans. Calm, and expectant. Doug walked straight up to the marmot, reached up and made to shake its paw, laughed, and then turned and sat down and leaned against the marmot belly. He folded his arms and sighed. Pete trailed him, watching, and came even about the time Doug settled. He thought about, but didn't, also shaking the marmot's hand, instead, sitting next to Doug. He tried to think of the last time they'd spoken. But couldn't. Trisha came out of the wall of people, walked a few steps and waved, identifying herself. Then, when Doug waved back, she turned and walked back to the wall and pulled out a couple of men, pushed them aside, and pulled out a couple more. They were the dignitaries, last among them the president, the only one that Pete knew by sight. They'd obviously been coached to follow Tisha's lead, and they did. The president walking last. By design, or by preference, Pete couldn't tell. But he admired the man his composure either way. Doug waited until they were all in the metaphorical shadow of the marmot before standing. He hugged Tisha, and gestured the summoned officials to gather 'round him. As he did this, Pete saw the obvious and simple truth of Doug's plan. Not mysterious at all. Doug only wanted to make sure that this core of influence was on board, to ensure that there was no effort against. Doug held the men close by speaking softly, he leaned in, he hugged. Pete had no idea what he was talking to them about, but he knew for sure that it had no bearing. Only the contact mattered. The posture, the proximity. In Pete's estimation, the wisdom flu was virulent enough that no special efforts were needed, but he understood intrinsically Doug's desire to make sure it got done right. Besides, why begrudge him his opportunity to meet the president. Pete leaned over to Tisha. "I wonder if we can get their autographs?" As he said this, the president proffered his phone to Doug, who

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shook his head. In reply, Doug gave the president the device he'd gotten from the crowd. With this, Doug gave the president another close conference and a hug. And then he gestured them away. The men backed away out of earshot, but didn't rejoin the wall. The wall, and discernibly the whole crowd, as far as Pete could see, relaxed a notch. Sighed collectively The world being what it was, and people being what they were, the obvious tension about what would happen had just rounded a corner. There was no sinister plan, they thought they saw. As the step decompression completed its course, Doug turned to Pete and Tisha and smiled, and winked, and hugged himself. He didn't try to say anything, or approach them. And they knew, and didn't try either. He bent over and picked up Jim. Pete felt very complacent, but something deep inside him told him that he needed to ask Doug something. He walked over and grabbed each of Doug's shoulders, surrounding Jim in the process. "Hey Doug, you seem to know what's going on..." Doug smiled at him and nodded. "Sort of, yeah." "How?" "You think I'm crazy." "Yeah, somewhat." "Well. I hear it in my head. Something in my head talks to me. Ever since this thing started." "And?" Pete squeezed Doug, drawing his attention back. "Doug. You're ahead of us, aren't you? What's next?" "No. I'm not ahead. I'm different. I'm done." "What's that mean?" "I don't know. But it's okay. I did what I was supposed to. It's going to be good." "So the voice in your head says..." "Yep." "Okay... Well..." Pete swallowed. "We love you. You know that, right?" "Thanks Pete." Doug leaned in and hugged him, squishing Jim a little. Then he disengaged and smiled and turned.

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He walked up to the marmot, and, well practiced, he climbed up, into its arms and reclined. The shimmering wavering aspect of Doug grew stronger. Pete could distinctly see the textures of the marmot through Doug. It struck Pete odd that whatever it was that was making Doug translucent was also affecting his clothes, and Jim, he noticed. Doug started to shine. A blue green vibrant glow. He seemed to throb, and Pete had a flash of deep sea creatures, glowing in their own light in the murky cold water. For all the activity of Doug's body, Doug himself was still. Reclining, held by the marmot. Eyes closed, arms crossed. Relaxed. The shimmer spread to the marmot, and Doug lifted, and faded, in concert. So that it was hard to tell whether he wasn't there because he'd left, flown away, or merely disappeared. Only Pete, and Tisha, with their close vantage point, knew that it had been both. The shimmer and glow stayed with the marmot, giving it an appearance of vitality and life. The marmot smiled.

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