Caleb’s hand reached for the rope one more time to hoist himself up onto another ledge. The icy winds howled around him as he hit the heat-release button on the ice-pick to pull it back easily from the sheer face he’d just managed to climb. A breath-taking view of the blue sky melding with the pure white peak of the mountain had him stunned. All his instruments read correctly. The air content here at the peak was clean, and although the temperature was far below habitable levels he could fix that with a Kelvin-Stabilizer, no problem. Everything was ripe to study an untouched environment. Perhaps he could save the desecrated lands below.
He breathed deeply now, taking in the formulated oxygen from the bio-lung which was strapped to his back with suitable tubing which twisted around to mold over his face. The soft flesh of his eyes was protected by the three-spectrum detection goggles latched around his thick skull. It was good that he brought with himself only the essentials.
As he pulled the equipment form the vac-pack, the tripod unfolded by itself with a tiny mechanical whizzing and his gloved hands pulled the Kelvin-Stabilizer from the self-warming sack. The device was no larger than an apple and it was comprised of billions of little circuits meant to regulate a climate to slowly make it into a habitable place.
The mountaineer had placed the device down and went to retrieve suitable solar cells for its month-long endeavor when the low rumble and the loud crunch made his spine go stiff. He spun his head around, hoping that he would at least be able to see the landslide before it became his doom.
Instead, he found himself in strange company. Standing almost a half-click tall on four taloned feet, a magnificent, enormous dragon of the greatest azure that Caleb had ever witnessed grasped at the peak and shook a coating of snow from its scaly form. The word dragon was lost in the annals of legends, far beyond the myths of telepathic implants and body-powered communications devices. So, the experienced pioneer, in all of his humility, focused on the grand impossibility before him.
The creature spoke in a voice that rocked the very air around them, shaking it against Calebâ€™s well-protected form. â€œI believe I stepped upon thine trinket, sire.â€
â€œIâ€¦Iâ€¦ uhhhhâ€¦..â€ Caleb sputtered.
Pulling up its foot, the dragon revealed the device smashed and beyond repair in a now awe-inspiring print upon the surface of the peak. â€œYes. It seems thy magical artifact is indeed a casualty of my movement, sire.â€
â€œWhâ€¦ what are you?â€ Calebâ€™s words could only form out of primal fear and a mind overcome with awe.
â€œMe? Why I am Azureghoste, sky dragon of the northern bounds, terror to all those who wake the mountain! Though, I was once known by the name Majestic. You may call me such.â€ The bellowing hurt Calebâ€™s ears, but he replied with a rush of curiosity.
â€œIâ€¦ what are you doingâ€¦. I meanâ€¦ uhhhâ€¦ why are you-â€œ
â€œPardon me, sire, but your items are far too simple to have defeated me. Many knights have already come with swords and fire and then soon after with sticks that fired rocks. Some sticks were bigger than others. Already they begin to make false dragons to fly overhead and frighten me, but I shall not be moved. You have come with none of these things, sire. You come with small baubles which my foot hath crushed so readily. You smell of a strange metal that bends and melts under heat, but there is but one of you, sire.â€ Its head shifted and blue eyes larger than Caleb himself stared at him in absolute confusion.
Caleb raised a brow. His head rang with the deep thundering sound of the dragonâ€™s voice. â€œI didnâ€™tâ€¦ I mean Iâ€™m notâ€¦â€
â€œGo now, young mortal. Tell the others that they must come back with better magical items if they hope to defeat me. I shall sit here and anticipate their return to see if they can challenge the great Majestic.â€ The being lay back down, its head slumped around the rocky peak of the mountaintop itself. It stared lazily at its newest mortal visitor, waiting for him to depart. Bewildered and dumbstruck, the pioneer turned back as the Majestic one contemplated its next meeting with humankind.
“There’s a storm coming,” Leaphorn said, and moved to close the shutters. Zhang removed his ear-buds and glanced up from his monitor, looking out the window. Beijing looked as clear as ever. He dismissed Leaphorn’s prediction with a wave of his hand, rose, and proceeded to make tea. Zhang had to navigate around the thrift-store cast-offs that Leaphorn called furniture in order to get to the hot-plate, which only made his mood worse.
Trouble was, Leaphorn hadn’t been wrong about the storms since he moved in four months ago. It was one of the many things about Leaphorn that quietly pecked at Zhang. His causal ease with Zhang’s native tongue was another. When he had first responded to Zhang’s “roommate wanted” ad, Leaphorn had spoken like those Indians in the old movies, with his Mandarin in harsh, broken sentences. That was part of the reason Zhang wanted him to move in. Now he spoke like he’d lived in Beijing all his life, and his ramshackle chairs were clashing with Zhang’s modernist decor.
“Keep the glass in,” Zhang said over his shoulder.
“You’re insane,” Leaphorn said. “The storm’ll tear up the glass.”
“The glass will be fine,” Zhang said. “Because there is no storm!”
Leaphorn didn’t press. He folded his arms and stood silent. So silent that Zhang could hear the wind picking up.
It started as a low whistle, and a fine yellow tint fell over the cityscape outside the window. Small specks of quartz smacked staccato against the glass pane. The wind’s howl split into two, and then three, whipping up and down the scale with dissonant savagery. The buildings outside were getting lost in the blanket of airborne sand.
Leaphorn raised his eyebrows and motioned to the shutters. Zhang shook his head. He was going to say something, but the machine-gun fire of pebbles on the window drowned him out.
The buildings across the street were now completely obscured. Instead, only ever-shifting patterns of gold and ochre could been seen. Despite his years in Beijing, Zhang had never actually seen a ruin storm before, only heard them from behind ceramic shutters. He has witnessed the damage afterwards, the steel and concrete shredded and worn by the repeated rage of sand and wind. But he had never seen one.
Zhang moved closer the window, shrugging off the hand Leaphorn placed on his shoulder. The chips of quartz had severely scarred the window, making it difficult to see the outside. But Zhang could see the shadows through the amber morass. Things that could be stray newspapers or bicycles or cars or uprooted trees. The window had started cracking, but Zhang didn’t notice. He was transfixed by a particularly bizarre shape tumbling through the sand. One that seemed to be growing bigger.
Zhang was so mesmerized by the chaotic choreography that he didn’t even notice that Leaphorn had tackled him until he was on the floor. The window exploded above them. Sand and glass and quartz spilled into the room like shouted curses. It took the two of them to close fast the ceramic shutters and keep the storm outside.
Zhang coughed and surveyed the devastation . Everything, the walls, the furniture, everything in the apartment was covered with a veneer of fine yellow sand. Everything seemed to be made of sand, all part of one homogenous sculpture. Everything was the same.
Except one thing. Half-submerged in his teapot, almost casually, rested a human hand. Scraped and leaking into the pot, its small, feminine fingers were clenched in a fist, save one. The middle finger remained stiff and erect, even at the cock-eyed angle its position in the teapot afforded it.
Leaphorn was the first to start giggling. It didn’t take long for Zhang to join in. Together, they drowned out the tempest.
â€œWhatâ€™s your business?â€ yelled Marie from the gate tower, pointing her rifle at the small caravan below. A man emerged from the covered wagon holding a wool hat in his hand. He was gaunt, his bones pulling hard against his leather skin.
â€œMaâ€™m we were hoping we might have a word with someone who would be able to speak for your people.â€ Marie pointed her rife at his chest.
â€œYou stay behind that yellow line there, you can speak your peace.â€
The man shifted on his feet and rubbed his neck. â€œMaâ€™m, I just wanted to say how I think mighty highly of your ancestors for planning this place and anticipating the Fall like they did.â€
Marie nodded. â€œYou honor us for saying so.â€
â€œAnd I wanted to say how you all look like fine folk, real fine.â€
â€œKind of you.â€
â€œAnd Iâ€™m sure, if not for the Fall, you wouldnâ€™t have that rifle pointed at my head and we might be good friends.â€
â€œNo point dwelling on what might have been, my pa used to say.â€
He nodded. â€œRight you are, Maâ€™m, right you are. I was just hopinâ€™ being that you folk seem to be doing well, that you might be able to open your house to weary travelers.â€ He motioned toward the caravan where Marie could see children poking their heads out from the tarp covered wagon. They were all different ages and colors. Strays this man must have picked up for labor or sex or maybe even out of some kind of sympathy. Might be some of them were even his own children. â€œWeâ€™ve been going a long while Maâ€™m and it ainâ€™t been easy.â€
â€œHard times.â€ said Marie.
â€œWe willing to trade whatever weâ€™ve got. It ainâ€™t much, we were hit hard by some bandits and they took some of us and our valuables, but weâ€™ll trade what weâ€™ve got. He motioned to a woman, who crawled out of the wagon, smoothing out her hair. Her footsteps squished in the mud and Marie saw she had bags wrapped around her feet with rope. The man smiled and motioned her.
â€œThis here is my sister, we can do whatever labor you needs doinâ€™ and the children can work too, they do anything for the food. Helen here is friendly and clean and sheâ€™d be willing to give company if any of your folk are lonely.â€
Maries voice changed. â€œThat ainâ€™t your sister and Iâ€™m insulted you tried to trick me to thinking so. Thatâ€™s your wife or I donâ€™t know a breath from my face. We donâ€™t know those we ainâ€™t married to here.â€
The man turned his hat in his hands, clenching at the fabric. â€œIâ€™m sorry Maâ€™m. I didnâ€™t mean to offend.â€
Marie motioned with the rife. â€œI think you better move along. Unless you got trade like weapons or seeds or gasoline, you need to get yourselves off our land. We canâ€™t take another mouth to feed and weâ€™ve got all we need. You should go north. I hear it told that there is some work for a big compound up there.â€
â€œMiss, weâ€™ve been up North. We just came from there. There is a camp of folk like us outside the compound just waiting for work that doesnâ€™t come. What goes on there is terrible, the people sometimes, when someone dies. . . They are just so hungry.â€œ
â€œI donâ€™t need to be hearing your tale of woe Mister. I got troubles of my own. I was raised a Christian woman and I feel for you, if I had enough food I would give you what I got, but I donâ€™t and I canâ€™t. I got my own people to think of.â€
â€œI donâ€™t fault you for that.â€
â€œSure that you do, as I would in your position.â€ She cocked the rife. â€œYou better start moving.â€
â€œAlright Maâ€™m, I hear you.â€ He began to walk away from the line and then turned suddenly and forced his words. â€œUh, Maâ€™m, please donâ€™t shoot me for stopping for a minute, but we do have something you might find useful. Iâ€™m not sure that you might be interested in such things, being that you are people of the cross, but a couple months back we passed through a factory and picked up a bunch of, uh, preventatives, and we hid them under the wagon. They was the only thing the bandits didnâ€™t take. If you want to trade those, we got about three hundred of them.â€
â€œPreventives, eh?â€ Marie nodded to someone behind the wall and a basket was lowered down with a rope.
â€œThereâ€™s a tomato in that basket, you put one of your preventatives in there and if we like it, we might talk.â€ The man approached the basket and tentatively put a little package inside. He took out the tomato and took a large bite, and then another. He handed it over to Helen, who let the children take one bite each, made them chew slow.
Marie picked the little square out of the basket and looked it over, finally ripping it open with her teeth. Inside was a wet rubber ring. She slipped it back in the package and into her pocket. She held the rife across her chest. The man saw her perfect white teeth as she smiled.
â€œMister, if you got a few hundred of those then I believe we can do business.â€
Sammy, donâ€™t stray too far now.â€ Alice had a firm grip on her six year olds hand as they walked through the courtyard of the Faire. A woman stood near the front gates and handed out what was supposed to be paper. For only a thousand credit entry fee, however, Alice knew it was imitation. She smiled to the woman as they passed and looked at the map drawn across the plasti-sheet.
â€œHmm… okay, Sammy, where do you want to go?â€ She bent down and shared the map with her son, who was all wide-eyed at the sights and sounds. Staring back at the map and brochures, the boy’s eyes sparkled as he pointed at a section. â€œOhhh! That one, mommy! I want to see the Stock Market Reenactment!â€
Alice Gardnerâ€™s husband came up from behind after having some issue with the credit transfer on the fingerprint console. His face was wrinkled with frustration and an obvious lack of understanding as to the purpose of their visit. â€œCan you believe they make people walk around here? I mean câ€™monâ€¦ walking?â€
â€œOh, dearâ€¦ now whereâ€™s your 20th century spirit? Not everyone had trans-spatial ports in their homes back then,â€ she reminded. The husband muttered and his wife pinched his cheek before they led little Sammy along. Alice loved the 20th century, and Douglas was just going to have to deal with it for today.
A few moments later they were face to face with a man in obviously fake glasses standing behind a counter with a reproduction pocket protector, his torso padded with polymer foam to make him look fat. Even his hair was awkwardly and anachronistically short. â€œHey there folks!â€ he called to the family. â€œEver been to a computer store? We have only the finest in Desktops, Laptops and the amazingâ€¦. Gaspâ€¦ Palm Pilot! Care to take a look at myâ€¦ cool selection?â€
â€œYour what selection?â€ Douglas blurted out after Alice had already politely declined. Sammy wanted to see the Stock Market go wild with people tossing paper in the air as if paper were worth nothing to them. After the man had explained what cool and awesome meant, Douglas moved along with his wife.
â€œI guess I just donâ€™t get it, Alice. Why should we go somewhere to be in the past? Isnâ€™t what the present provides for us much better thanâ€¦ heyâ€¦ are thoseâ€¦?â€
Sure enough, Douglas had found something that struck his fancy. Alice rolled her eyes as the grown man walked over to the shop owner who was wearing only the finest Basketball Jersey. Like the computer merchant, this man also wore period glasses, although his were tinted and darker. â€œExcuse me, sir?â€ Douglas whispered. Hecouldnâ€™t lift his eyes from the product to make eye contact with the merchant.
â€œYo, yo.. I see youâ€™re looking at the finest in footwear made by machines. Actual machines, too. Now these have a lifetime guarantee and we can make sure you get the suede replaced with real suede if you get it damaged or something, homey.â€
Douglas didnâ€™t understand a damn word the man said. He picked up the Michael Jordan tennis shoes and looked back to Alice with the same pleading eyes as their child. â€œSweetie, itâ€™s a Michael Jordan tennis shoe! Itâ€™s made of real suede! Feel it! I have to have thisâ€¦ how muchâ€¦?â€
The man with the dark glasses smiled and did an air-hoop shot. â€œI see you like the quality footwear. Well, our going price is five million credits.â€
Debating over the purchasing of the shoe would to take time, and Sammy was getting hungry. Alice kissed her husband on the cheek and looked back over to the merchant, â€œHeâ€™ll buy them; he just needs time to pick out the laces and the design. Can you tell us where the food dispensers might be?â€
â€œHells yeah! The Food Court is down the ways and to the left. You canâ€™t miss it; they got excellent pizza this time of year.â€
Sammyâ€™s eyes lit up as he tugged on his mothersâ€™ hand, leaving Douglas to decide over the type of shoe he wanted. The Faire was going to be a long day coming and it would leave their credit accounts thinned out, but in the end, Alice will have enjoyed her walk through simpler times.
â€œMom, itâ€™s pizza! I bet they make it by machine, too! Letâ€™s hurry!â€
“Dan, please, calm down.” Daniel had only been home for a few moments, but the slammed door and Daniel’s flashing eyes told Gabe that the results of the subpoena had been poor.
“How can you say that? How can you say ‘calm down’?”
Gabe pressed his lips together but didn’t protest when Daniel yanked off his jacket, dumping it in a heap on the floor. “What happened?”
“You know damn well what happened. You know what they do.”
“No, I don’t, Dan. When they brought me in for questioning, I cooperated. They asked me a few things and then let me go.”
Daniel scowled and threw himself down into the easy chair. Gabe winced a little as he heard it creak, but now was not the time to discuss the state of their apartment. He bit his lip. “Do you want some coffee or something?”
“That shit’ll just make me jumpy. If I’m gonna drink something right now, it’s gonna be something hard.”
Gabe’s eyes widened. “Danielâ€¦ you haven’t had a drink in six months.”
“Seven,” Daniel corrected. He slumped in the chair, the defensive gleam going out of his eyes. “Just get me something to drink, okay?”
Gabe swallowed and nodded. He didn’t feel right leaving Daniel alone, so he propped the kitchen door open just enough so that Dan could hear his movements and maybe catch a glimpse of his body. He poured a shot of whiskey into the wide bottom of a juice glass and brought it back out to Daniel, kneeling carefully beside the easy chair.
Daniel took the glass, but he didn’t raise it. He didn’t look at it, either; his eyes were dim and unfocused, staring at something beyond the off-white carpet that no one could see but him. “They used the new probe,” he said finally, the words drawn out slowly, like handkerchiefs from the mouth of a clown.
Gabe gasped. “Oh my Godâ€¦ Danâ€¦ I thought they only did that to the criminals, not witnesses.”
“Yeah, well, I guess they didn’t like my attitude. They didn’t like the fact that my address was the same as yours, either.” Daniel glanced at Gabe, then looked away again, squeezing his eyes shut. “It’s likeâ€¦ fuck, Gabe, it’s like nothing. I can’t even describe it. Like someone ripping through your brain, tossing shit around, tearing things up. It’s like cops without a warrant trashing your place because you live in the slums and can’t do shit about it. And then they wipe their dicks on your face afterwards.”
“Danâ€¦” Gabe reached out and took the drink from Daniel’s slack fingers, setting it carefully on the floor. Then he reached up and pulled Daniel into a hug, pressing the other man’s face into his chest and squeezing tight. He felt Daniel’s hands slowly raise and grasp the front of his shirt. “Are you going to have to go to court?”
“No. They got everything they needed. They’ll just pull it up on the screen for the jury. I don’t even have to testify.”
Gabe didn’t ask any more questions. He just stroked Daniel’s hair.
After a long time, Daniel spoke again. “I can’t find my memories,” he admitted in a small voice. “I know they’re there, and I know they can’t erase anything with the probeâ€¦ but everything’s all moved around. I can’t find it. Little things I remember, like how to get home or which shelf we keep the mayo on, but big things, important things, are just…” He buried his head in Gabe’s chest. “Iâ€”I’m so confused.”
Gabe swallowed. “Shh,” he told Daniel. “If you worry about it, it’s just going to make it worse. You’ll find it all eventually.”
There was another long silence before Daniel asked quietly, “Gabe?”
“I can’t remember how we first met.”
Gabe’s arms tightened around Daniel.
“Then I’ll tell you.”
By the time he was seven, Oman knew he wanted to be a pony. It wasn’t the pay. It wasn’t even the glory. He didn’t want to be a common pony either, the kind that tourists rent for a few weeks. No, Oman had a plan. He wanted to be a journalist. He wanted to change the world.
Oman underwent the conversion when he was twelve. His neural networks were recorded, analyzed, made available for foreign riders. He had this done in a small white room behind a weapons shop rather than a commercial ponyfarm so that he wouldn’t be included in the international database. That was important, of course. The cells could access the database. They’d know.
After that, after he’d been hooked up to a complicated, beeping, western device, he started. He spent hours in internet cafes reading emails and tracing ips, then following the residents of the given addresses. He learned the names of the enemy, the names that slaughtered his aunts and uncles, the names that turned homes into pillars of incendiary waste. He practiced, memorized the sacred texts, inundated himself in dogma. He made friends. He gained their confidence. They gave him more names. He traced the spiral to its core.
This was important. No foreign journalist would ride someone who wasn’t well-connected. This wasn’t a tourist gig, no way. This was the real thing. Oman was going to show them what it was like, show them how it was. Once they saw it, they’d have to do something. You can’t see stuff like that and not do something. He didn’t want bombs or troops or anything like that, though. Oman wasn’t sure how they’d fix it, but he knew they couldn’t just let it go.
He chose his cell carefully. Worked his way up. They were careful, shrouded in secret, like everything after the occupation. Still, they had plans. He helped develop them. They weren’t real plans, though. They wouldn’t actually work. Once Oman blew this thing open, America would know everything.
He found his journalist, Jason Skeinlen. The man was impressed by his planning, his foresight. The man believed in his need to change the world.
The first time Oman was ridden, he didn’t like it. He had trouble keeping his thoughts hidden. Not the important thoughts, of course, but the meaningless things, stuff like what he wanted to do to the gorgeous woman he’d seen walking into McDonalds. After a couple trial runs, though, he perfected his ability to keep two internal monologues: one professional, about the workings of his cell, and one secret. He didn’t have to worry about language, of course. They communicated by thought, by meaning.
He brought Jason to meetings, showed Jason with his own eyes. He listened to plans, listened to battle stories whispered across deserts and in the bowels of caves. He could feel Jason moving inside of him, feel him recording, feel him rephrasing Oman’s thoughts into eloquent soundbites. The first article was small. He was not mentioned. He couldn’t be mentioned. They’d know.
Oman took Jason to the meeting where they planned the Embassy bombing. It proceeded anyways, but Oman knew that Jason was just biding his time, waiting to break the story like you’d wait for a fruit to grow ripe. Jason watched it from a distance, watched the white rental truck force itself outwards in a rush of yellow and smoke while the sound reported from the faces of a thousand buildings. He heard the explosion through Oman’s ears. But Oman knew he was planning, waiting. There was strategy to this. Buses were nothing. This thing would only get bigger.
The bombing got 45 seconds of coverage on Fox. Oman watched the clip in an internet shop by proxying into a Lebanese newsfeed. When he recognized a few frames that had been filmed through his eyes, he was so proud that he could barely breathe. The cogs were turning. This was going to work.
No one could have foreseen this tragedy, the Arabic subtitles read beneath the well-coiffed newscaster.
Oman knew something was wrong as soon as he got to the meeting, but he rejected his instinct. Journalists aren’t afraid. That’s right, Jason transmitted somewhere above his spinal cord. You’re a good kid. Together, we can change the world.
When he was addressed by his teacher, Oman nodded in polite deference. When he was called to step forward, he obeyed. When the gun was shown, Oman felt the sudden scrambling dizziness behind his eyes as the neural connection wavered, twisted, and broke from the other end.
Oman squinted at the handful of men before him, trying to see their faces through the nausea of unexpected dismount. Two of them frowned. One smiled. One remained blank, unreadable.
Maybe they were being ridden too, he thought. Maybe one of them is recording this, sending this to the outside. Once they see, they’ll have to do something. You can’t just let something like this happen. Jason knew. He’d disconnected. He was probably calling his government right now, telling them that people were dying, telling them to send help.
As the teacher raised the gun, Oman knew he was changing the world. They wouldn’t let this happen, not over and over again. They’d have to do something. He was changing the world.