Rub’ al Khali, 1996
Smoke and sand and blood. Handhold over handhold, I scrambled into a cleft. The echo of my father’s voice had succumbed to a wash of indistinguishable terror—worse than the two tomcats I’d locked in the garage. Worse than the sobs at my mother’s wake. Worse, God. Just simply worse.
I froze, clinging to the rock, midway up the face. I couldn’t look back. The gentle ticking of claws on rock gave way to heavy breathing from lungs thick with blood as black as oil. My pulse ripped through my extremities. Dropping onto the tiny ledge, I drew my pocket knife and flicked it open in a single movement.
Screaming, I lunged at the twitcher, determined to silence the nightmare looping through my brain. His ruddy skin stretched across his face like dried leather split by two rows of jagged, yellow teeth. His eyes were closed or gone, stitched shut against the blinding desert sun.
Well-oiled blade clutched in trembling hand, I dove for the beast’s neck—the spot my father had shown me. Right here, Buck. Cut the carotid and not even a twitcher will get up. He didn’t make the slightest effort to move. I closed my eyes, expecting the impact, expecting a burst of blood, expecting the slash of his claws across my face.
Instead there was nothing. I had died without even feeling it.
With effort I swallowed the lump in my throat. I opened my eyes, shocked to find the twitcher still there, the tip of my blade lightly dimpling the weather-worn flesh of his neck. Then the right half his body slumped and fell away from the rock face, followed shortly by the rest of him. In the twitcher’s place stood a man—a man so wrinkled his flesh looked cut and stacked, layer upon layer, and finally stitched together with catgut or fishing twine. He held the largest scimitar I’d ever seen. From tip to hilt, it was longer than I was tall.
The man grinned, a gesture I would’ve found terrifying hours earlier. With an upturned palm, he gestured toward the ledge upon which we stood. I looked down. As my body gently lowered, I realized I’d been levitating. He closed his hand, and my body became my own again.
“In time, Little Buck. In time.”
University of Texicas, Present Day
Seventeen confirmed dead. The newscast had been relevant enough to bypass the stringent filters I kept in place on my augmented reality glasses. With my eyes, I swept the report of the latest attack by the Truth in History Society from the top left of the lens view and filed it in the stop-freaking-bothering-me folder. As per habit, I ensured my background mind remained safely engaged with my student pass/fail routine.
More than a few of my students’ fingers had wandered upward toward the temple buttons of their ubiquitous augmented reality glasses. Obviously the news had completely interrupting my lecture on lateral transmission by an archaic viral particle. I switched my own glasses to sleep mode, but the damage had been done. The incessant ARGs and repugnant THS had combined to necessitate a departure from my syllabus. What the hell, the semester was all but over.
I kicked the flimsy metal podium from the dais. The crash resounded off the two-foot-thick stone walls of the main building. The 150-year-old structure at the center of the University of Texicas campus predated Texas’s secession in 1922 by almost fifty years. Attempts to increase the security of the building, including affixing all the windows, had resulted in an intolerable sweat box assigned to the professors with the lowest class enrollment. Since my arrival two years earlier, that title had belonged to me—Jim “Buck” Buckner, son of Doc “Snipe Hunt” Buckner.
During the collective gasp, I formed a mental image of my fifteen-year-old daughter, Evie. She shook her head disapprovingly. As I opened my mouth to speak, her reprimand rattled in my head. You don’t always have to be right, Daddy. No, I didn’t have to be right. I simply was.
“Change of topic. We’ll call it applied genetics.” I wiped sweat from my forehead, and ran my fingers through my hair. “What does the Truth in History Society want you to believe?”
After several seconds, one of my back-row, gifted underachievers spoke up. “That we’re all gonna die.”
“Cogent and pithy as usual. Now can someone help Mr. Carson elaborate?” Total silence followed. The class had been conditioned to skirt the controversial issue I now confronted them with directly. “Rodger, care to get the ball rolling?” I turned toward my least-annoying teaching assistant.
Rodger cleared his throat. “Uh, the THS’s central message is that the twitch constitutes the largest threat humanity has ever faced.”
“Very good. I see you’ve been paying attention to the recruitment rhetoric.” I turned toward the class. “But what do they want us to believe?”
Samantha, one of my brighter students, raised her hand part way before hesitating. She was an attractive girl not unlike how my daughter could look in another few years.
“They want us to believe that agents within the Texicas government designed the twitch as a biological weapon, that these agents have deployed it across the world to kill hundreds of thousands, and that even research from our own campus has contributed.”
“Exactly right. Now let me tell you exactly why the THS are wrong.” It embarrassed me that science majors could know so little about a retrovirus that had ravaged the breadbasket of their own continent a hundred years ago. Teaching them this one thing could be worth the entire semester.
“Whether you believe them to be activists or terrorists, in reality the THS are fear mongers perpetuating ignorance.” I unclenched my fists and softened my tone before continuing. “A profound and dangerous ignorance of which I do not wish my students to be victim.”
I glanced at the reduced readout of my ARGs. Only a few minutes of class remained, yet the students were erect, attentive, desperate even. I knew at least one of them was providing the administration with a direct link, so they could monitor my every word. I also knew even Evie would support my next move.
“It has been well-documented among the scientific community that the twitch is an aggressive retrovirus. It’s dangerous. The Truth in History Society has gotten that much right. But the twitch is not a modern bioweapon. It’s an echo of an ancient human broadcast—Darwin’s radio, if you will.”
I gazed across a sea of glazed eyes, victims of my scientific fustigation. I doubled back in effort to explain myself. “Look, twenty years ago we considered over 80% of human DNA to be what we irreverently labeled ‘junk.’ Even after realizing our overstep, we were forced to fumble about with a tremendous amount of noncoding DNA.”
I flicked a quick doodle on the imaging board without turning my back to the class. “If this strand of human DNA were a mile long, this much,” I circled and jabbed at the board behind and above me, “a section the length of this building, would contain the total amount currently expressing itself as human. What about the rest?” I demurred in the direction of my TA. “Rodger? Any ideas?”
He shrugged. “Dead ends. Replication errors that were bound to happen after trillions and trillions of—”
I waved my hand to cut him off. “We’ve forgotten ourselves.” I started the pass/fail loop in my background brain again so as not to spoil my focus. “But not completely. These dormant or non-expressive genes cluttering up our DNA aren’t all dead. They aren’t junk, or mistakes. They are files storing away a record of human evolution.”
Momentarily, I wished I still had my podium to pound. Instead I held my curled fingers upward as if grasping an ethereal truth. “In case…” I swallowed. Evie’s anxious look played across my mind, the one that indicated my adolescent daughter worried about me as much as I did her. “In case we need to go back.”
“No es posible. Why would we need to go back?” Mr. Carson, upset at being stuck with a professor ridiculed by mainstream science, croaked from the top row of the lecture hall.
I paused. More than a few of the students were fidgeting with their ARGs. Maybe I still wasn’t getting through to them. Or maybe…
“Uh, excuse me, Professor Buckner—” Rodger hailed me.
“What is it now?” I templed my ARGs back to life. Instantly, a staff-level message flashed in the lens view. Campus-wide security threat level has been raised to orange. Requesting all students be kept in class until threat level reduced to yellow. “All right, all right. Assuming half of you have already hacked the threat-level warning, I’ll go ahead and inform the other half that class will be going long today.”
Muttering erupted across the room.
“Freedom to speak freely is granted.”
Mr. Carson burst out immediately. “It’s a bunch of mierda. The administration just doesn’t want a protest on their hands.”
“Protesting what? The development of a bioweapon or the killing of seventeen innocent people this morning?” Silence ensued. I nodded. “Before you decide, you should have all the facts. As I was saying, the twitch is a retrovirus, but unlike human immunodeficiency virus or other commonly known retroviruses, the twitch carries with it a key to unlocking a portion of our genetic history. The symptoms you recognize as twitch infection are reactivated pseudogenes which, for God knows how long, have been noncoding. For all we know the virus could be nature’s way of saving us.”
I clutched my fist in the air as if wrapping my fingers around an invisible dagger. “Or, indeed, killing us. Why is this important?” Silence floated upon the humidity. “As long as we continue to vilify geopolitical entities, as the THS would have us do, we fail to recognize and respond to the true threat.”
“Which is?” Mr. Carson had leaned forward, betraying his interest.
We were heading for choppy waters, ones that could compromise me. But we were stuck together until the all-clear, and I wanted them to think at least one independent thought this term. Even if it scared the hell out of them, and me. “De novo syndrome.”
Several students sat straight in their chairs. Even those playing with their ARGs returned their attention. Samantha offered, “Isn’t that just another name for the twitch?”
I flinched, clenching my eyes shut as the pass/fail routine self-corrected based on this new bit of ignorance and my considerable disappointment. “No, Samantha, it is most certainly not.”
“But the THS—”
I cut her off. “The THS does not differentiate where you should.”
Mr. Carson interjected. “I thought de novo was an invention of the conservatives to convince us to keep our wangs in our pants.”
“While I’m sure everyone in this room would appreciate any and all efforts to keep your wang out of the public arena, Mr. Carson—”
He smiled broadly.
“—de novo is a much more serious threat to humanity’s survival than the twitch. Who can tell me the meaning of the Latin words de novo?”
The now dejected Samantha offered the answer directly, “Fresh start, or to begin anew.”
I nodded, wondering whether my rebuke of her earlier had been too brash. “The syndrome of continually starting over.” I swallowed a swelling tide of ever-fresh grief. “It’s as if someone jammed the accelerator of a vactrain and supercharged the electromagnetic field without extending the track.” Gritting my teeth, I slammed my fist into my palm. “The ride comes to an end pretty damn fast.”
“That’s horrible.” Samantha mumbled the words out loud unintentionally before staring at the floor.
“Yes,” I nodded. “Yes, it is. De novo syndrome is an autosomal dominant genetic disorder passed on to the progeny of an unexpressive carrier of the twitch.” I paused to steady my voice. “Essentially, every other child of someone carrying the twitch virus will contract de novo syndrome, meaning by the year 2030, in less than a decade, upwards of 40% of the human population will have a 50/50 chance of surviving their twenties.”
“Professor Buckner,” Rodger, my ever-annoying TA, found his voice again. “Would you mind explaining how exactly someone who has spent most of his career chasing down the tree of life knows so much about the twitch?”
There it was, the ace of trump. “Cleverly played, Rodger. In a single question you have managed to simultaneously insult, disparage and accuse.”
He narrowed his eyes, unwilling to feel remorse.
While impressed with his gonads, I had no intention of jeopardizing my continued research or university funding to satisfy a quibble with a bunch of jóvenes sin pelo. My pilfering of ancient DNA to rediscover the lost gene for encoding immortal chromosome replication would not only save my Evie, it would change the game forever. Stepping back from the edge of the dais, I blotted the sweat from my brow and gathered myself emotionally.
“All right then, since you asked and we’ve nowhere else to go, I’ll address each of the three in order. First, the insult means nothing coming from you seeing how you know less than nothing about the work I’ve dedicated my career to. Second, I could share with you the importance of my work, but then someone would most likely kill both of us.”
A few snickers bubbled around the room.
“And as for the accusation, I can assure everyone in the class, my work has absolutely nothing to do with the twitch. None of my colleagues’ work pertains to the twitch.” I took a deep breath. “There is absolutely no truth behind the accusations of the THS.”
My last statement had been interrupted by a staff-level bulletin flashing in the corner of my lens view. Before I could announce the threat level being lifted to yellow, the bell rang, causing several students to jump. By the time the bell’s echo leached into the porous stone, the class had risen from their chairs en masse. They were happy to be exiting the least secure building on campus during a time of fear and uncertainty.
“Think for yourself.” While eye-clicking my ARGs to bring up the filtered briefing of the morning attack, I moved toward the door to preside over the students’ departure.
Seventeen confirmed dead, possibly several dozen casualties, in a medium-sized skirmish across the border from Texarkana. Both military and civilian targets, soft and hard. THS has claimed responsibility, restating their intent to strike a campus of higher education next in order to “gain the full attention of the next generation.”
Ignoring the trickle of sweat running down the curve of my spine, I continued to nod and smile as the students filed out the door. Despite what the newscast had said, I found it hard to believe the THS would risk alienating the very audience most sympathetic to their cause.
“Your work,” Samantha bumped into me amidst the flood of students, “to find the tree of life…” her eyes fluttered before locking mine in a gaze somewhere between rage and urgency, maybe passion, “…to lengthen the track indefinitely. I don’t think it’s a joke.”
I frowned. Had she made the connection between my quest for ancient plant DNA and de novo? My breathing hitched. Did she know about Evie?
Before the crush swept her past me, she grasped my wrist. “Just be careful.”
Moments later, the sweltering lecture hall had emptied of all but me and the humidity. Even my students were taking a guardian role in my life—wasted sentiment, all of it. My confidence in my theory remained unwavering. Somewhere in the past, whether 50,000 years ago or 250,000—I didn’t know how far back I’d have to travel—at some point in human history the lost gene had not only been a part of the human genome, but interwoven within the fabric of creation. I only needed one preserved sample.
But I needed it soon.
With a sigh, I palmed my tablet and flung my book bag over my shoulder. Fleeing the oppressive swell of humidity and stink of human sweat, I hoofed it for my office at the other end of the building. I intended to make the most of my short break before being required in the lab.
On the way down the hall, my standard background routine of counting floor tiles and searching for new cracks in the plaster ceiling succumbed to worries about Evie. My regimented world of mental discipline fractured, sparking off my first unintentional cascade in months.
Nearly running, I slammed into my office door too hard and lost my books and tablet in the process. After rebounding off the corridor wall, I gripped my wrist in an effort to steady my hand for the palm scan beside the door.
Images, algorithms, potential outcomes and scenarios tumbled through my mind, bursting from the background subconscious like propellant in search of a spark. I stumbled toward the palm scan. My eyes twitched and blurred, sending confused signals to the ARGs I had neglected to hibernate.
Missing the scan, my spasming hand pounded against the wall as my ARGs brought up recent voice messages. Unwillingly, my gaze fell on one name: Evelyn Buckner. Evie’s message from a week earlier began vibrating in my head.
Your selfishness never ceases to amaze me, Dad. That you could even consider a field trip to one of your dusty digs an appropriate celebration of your daughter’s fifteenth birthday! For the love of Leone! I only came because I thought you were going to surprise me. Surprise. You put your work ahead of your daughter, again. Congratulations. I fell for it.
The message ended, then repeated, but only as a hum in the back of my mind. Both subconscious and conscious were already revisiting the scene from a week earlier—I sat with Evie in a dingy, small-town diner near my latest dig.
The waitress left with our order—cheeseburger and fries for Evie, chicken-fried steak for me. As a recent Texicas transplant, the dish held a degree of novelty for me. I bounced playfully on the worn-out springs of the brown, naugahyde booth.
“Pretty.” Evie raised a brow as if expecting me to finish her thought.
“Thank you. I do my best.” I ran my hand across my bristled cheek.
I hadn’t failed to notice how the waitress’s seductive southern drawl and graceful swagger matched the plunge of her neckline for their lack of subtlety. “Today I’m thinking only of you.”
Evie feigned a smile. “Mmm, I never get tired of the smell of grease.”
“No, this place is good. You’ll like it.” I reached for her hand.
She used it to take a drink of water before continuing. “Oh, not the restaurant. I was referring to you.” She put the drink down in order to pinch her nose.
“Funny.” I removed my Indiana Jones-style hat to run my hand through my hair. “Hmm, you have a point.”
She rolled her eyes. “I always have a point, Dad. The question is, do you?” She glanced around indicating the entirety of the situation. “Please say you do.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but she wasn’t finished.
“A good one.”
I waited a second longer.
Moments earlier I had felt confident about spending my daughter’s fifteenth birthday in the field—a chance to get out of the city, get some fresh air, just the two of us. I thought that had been the point. In a blink I interrupted my background routine on calculating the daily caloric intake of an average Texicas citizen and reassigned the process to analyzing the quality and quantity of time spent with Evie throughout the two-day trip.
“The point is to spend quality time with my favorite daughter.”
She deflated instantly.
“¿Todo existe, nada más? What you see is what you get?”
“It’s an adventure.”
“It’s a working lunch, Dad. My friends are getting quinceañeras, and I’m getting written off as an expense.”
“Honey,” I shook my head, “that’s not fair. We’re not even—”
“It’s not the quinceañera, not the formal celebration anyway. It’s us. It’s this…” she motioned her hand back and forth between us, “…this act.”
“It’s never been an act. Not with you.”
“Dad, I’m dying and you can’t even spend my birthday without working on the cure. How is that not an act?”
My lungs seized as if I’d inhaled a hornets’ nest. “I’m not. This isn’t—”
She gave me her look—her characteristic mixture of pity and sadness. “I’m sure by now your calculations have clarified you’ve spent the majority of the last two days interacting directly with me. And you have.” She reached across the table and took my hand—a gesture I should have initiated.
“I love you, Dad, but you have to understand that it’s not the same. Saving me, and being with me—you can’t do both at the same time.”
“But all of this—”
“No.” She slapped the table, her curly, long hair bouncing with sudden anger. “I don’t want it. Don’t you get it?”
I objected. “It’s important.”
“You’re damn right it’s important.”
Her swearing surprised me further. She had so much passion, despite her usual efforts to keep it beneath the surface of her swimming, brown eyes.
“It’s too important for just me. Your work should be for everyone. It’s for the human race, Dad. I don’t want it or need it.”
I swallowed hard, turning briefly toward the counter where the waitress stared back with a pained expression on her face. We locked eyes, neither of us making an effort to disguise the moment. Normally I would have winked and made a note to give her my number later. Instead she nodded slowly and resumed a rhythmic wiping of the counter.
Meanwhile, I’d forgotten Evie. The digression shocked me. I checked my background routine, surprisingly still on task. Without thinking further, I assigned it to a general five-sense recon of the diner before forcing my wet eyes toward Evie. I had no response.
Exasperated, she exhaled all her tiresome efforts to reform me in a single breath. “I just want you.”
Nothing, no mental or emotional challenge during my entire life, had made any less sense. I was trying my hardest, and failing. “I’m giving you everything I have.”
“No. No, you’re not.” She rose from the booth, her emotional shield back in place. On cue the waitress appeared with our lunches. Oddly, Evie’s was in a paper bag. She took it without hesitation. “I’m eating my lunch outside. I suggest you finish yours here while using your overactive mind to figure out the difference between dedicating your work and your heart.”
I stared at the plate of smoldering hot beef—tenderized, battered and fried. Behind me the diner door tinkled as the bells above it indicated Evie had exited. I stabbed my fork into the meat and angrily sawed it with my wooden-handled steak knife. My work and my heart were one in the same. I had to make Evie understand that. Failure was not an option.
Evie’s voice swirled in the current of my thoughts, rising to the surface amid smells of greasy diner and snatches of fear.
The flashback had focused the unbridled cascade of thoughts on a sensory experience multilayered enough to lure my subconscious mind into its proper place. Something more solid had set the hook.
“Daddy, it’s me.”
“Evie.” Blinking, I surfaced to Evie’s concerned face inches from my own. “Help me up.”
She tugged me to my feet, and propped me against the wall of the corridor. To steady my transition, I left the memory scenario of the diner running in the background. From experience I knew I’d been incapacitated for less than a minute, possibly as little as a dozen seconds.
The cascades were like seizures without the residual effect on my mental processes. Quite the opposite, they often brought a new clarity to my conscious thought via a sort of mental branding. But the experiences were equally terrifying and humbling. I struggled to focus my eyes down the length of the hall.
“No one else saw, but some students are coming.” Evie held my wrist.
With her help I palmed the lock to my office. If a colleague witnessed a full-fledged cascade it could mean my job and my research. My Evie. For years I’d held my mind together with discipline and duct tape. “You were right.”
The door clicked open. Together we stepped into my office. “About what?”
“At the diner, you were right about a lot of things.”
“I was angry.” She caught the door with her foot. “Here’s your desk.” She waited for me to place my hands on its surface. “You got it?”
She whisked into the hall to gather my bag and tablet.
I slumped into my chair and rested my elbows on the desk. Reality had forced me to grow accustomed to being weak and vulnerable in front of Evie. It hurt that she took the brunt of my condition, but I’d ceased fighting what I could do nothing about. “Most of my life is an act. The whole professor bit. The turned-down collar and lab coat. Even the ladies’ man. You were right about that.”
“Dad.” Shaking her head, she set my things on the desk in between us.
“One thing will always betray the reality.” I held my hand in front of my face and stated what should have been obvious to everyone. “I have dirt under my nails.” Dirt and duct tape, and Evie. Those were the only honest things about me.
“You’re not making any sense.”
I rested my hands on the desk, palms up. I shifted my gaze to the tablet. Instead of the display, I focused on the face reflecting back at me in the blackened screen. The skin revealed nothing of the inner mileage. Outside, my confident symmetry and muscled ruggedness hinted at the variety of experiences I’d tackled and mastered in life.
Evie tried to understand, but I alone bore the tiredness from straining at the reins of a mind that could not rest. The way I figured it, and I’d spent 8,962 hours figuring it, my grey matter would be turning 1,000 years old by summer.
I continued, “Not you. Never my relationship with you. Since the first day, you and I,” I slid my hand across the desk, “that’s been real.”
She pulled up a chair, sat across from me, and took my hand in hers. “I know, Daddy.”
My vision returned to normal, save a halo shimmering around the idyllic image of my teenage daughter sitting across from me—rambunctious hair and Jewish nose like her mother’s. Honestly, I couldn’t be happier she’d picked up almost nothing from me. Almost nothing. Unfortunately, in that moment I saw again my tiredness, my melancholy. She must have seen the same things staring back at her.
“I’m sorry. I wish I hadn’t said those things.”
“No, you meant them and had full right to speak your mind.” I squeezed her hand, doing my best to smile. “And how is it you are always the first to apologize? I’m the one who is sorry. A crusty old dig was a horrible way to spend your fifteenth birthday. I want to make it up to you.”
“With a movie night featuring two of my all-time favorite Spaghetti Westerns, 100 Rifles and Duck, You Sucker?”
“How did you—”
She cleared her throat and nodded toward the contents of my bag, now scattered across the surface of my desk. “You sort of dropped your things.” She smiled, the tip of her nose dipping slightly and her eyes twinkling.
“You’re the most beautiful daughter a father could have.”
“Da-ad.” After drawing the word into two syllables, she punctuated the reprimand by punching me in the shoulder.
“Okay, okay.” I held up my hands. “Not that I’m ungrateful for the save, but why aren’t you in school?”
“Friday?” She lowered a brow. “Early release? Did you hit your head in the hallway?”
I slapped my forehead. “Sorry, of course. I knew that.”
“I just thought I’d help my old man unlock his office before I marched home to dutifully start my homework.”
“But it’s a Friday.”
“Uh,” she interrupted me. “The more important question is, why are you carrying this around in your book bag, today of all days?” She held up an old book without its cover and handed it to me.
I quickly ascertained it was an old dime serial published as a single novel—exactly the sort of thing Evie and I collected together. “It’s not mine.”
She stared at me without changing expression.
“I get it. So you’re getting me gifts on your birthday now.”
“Nice try. I’m not buying it. Come on, Dad. It’s not like it’s pornography or something.”
I resisted the urge to shift awkwardly in my chair.
“You don’t have to hide it.”
“Hide?” I genuinely didn’t understand what she was getting at.
She rolled her eyes before thumping the back of the book.
I turned it over in my hands, finally noticing a stamp on the back of the last page—two round columns, one on either side of the letters, T H and S. “Good God.” I flipped to the second page, “The Austin Job, a Western by David Mark Brown.” I dropped the book, foolishly, as if reading the title could conjure a deathly hex.
“Really. Really?” My daughter was all business. “So we aren’t going to discuss this like adults?”
Shaking my head, I took the book up again. One of the rarer lost DMB files, and the first one I’d ever physically seen, the slight paperback represented one of over three dozen stories the Truth in History Society claimed to preserve the secret truth about the origins of the twitch and the people behind it.
The people behind it. As if a secret society of ancient scientists intentionally designed the retrovirus almost a hundred years before modern medicine managed to come to grips with it. “Honey, I know they’re just stories. But the Truth in History Society isn’t fiction. They’re dangerous. You of all people should know that.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“Okay, strike that.” I placed the book down in front of me. “I know you’re curious. That’s a good thing. I’ll read it.” I tried to regain the playfulness from a moment earlier. “It’ll be fun. We can read it together.”
“Gee, that’d be swell, Dad.” She feigned excitement. “That still doesn’t explain where you got it.”
“Come on, Evie. I know you got it for me. Really, I like it. I’m sorry I overreacted.”
For the first time she seemed genuinely perplexed. “No, I didn’t. I promise.”
“Wait. If you didn’t—” a thought flashed. Yanking open the bottom drawer of my desk, I removed an accordion folder and fetched the first letter I came across. Already in the heap atop my desk was a paper-clipped pile of midterms. Twice a term I still demanded the students put actual pen to paper.
I removed the midterm I wanted and placed it immediately next to the letter, I huffed. The handwriting was different. Samantha had not been the one sending me solicitous letters, claiming to be a member of the THS in dire need of my expertise. Still, the attack, the threat level, her bumping into me, and finding this book in my bag could not all be coincidence. Exhausted of sending letters, the radical conspiracist organization had felt it necessary to prove they could touch me directly at the place of my work.
“Dad, you’re freaking me out.”
I templed my ARGs. Several minutes remained until I was expected at the lab, and no calls had come through. “Sorry, honey. It’s just that, after the attack today, and,” I slid her the folder of letters, “I’ve been getting letters from someone within the THS for months now.”
“What?” She snatched up a letter and scanned it. “That’s so cool!”
“Evelyn Buckner.” I scowled.
She fumbled over her enthusiasm. “Not what they did today, that was horrible. Killing civilians?” Genuine sorrow transformed her to a much older person. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s not their style.”
“Not their style? So you’ve been doing research, have you?”
She rolled her eyes, all teenager again. “But this, you have to admit, it’s totally cloak and dagger.”
I struggled to remember being her age, able to embrace adventure with innocent fervor. The memory wasn’t so far removed as I might have thought. “Yeah. I suppose you’re right.”
“Darn right I’m right.” She snatched the book. “That means this book contains a hidden message.”
I tried to take it back, but she fended me off.
“Wait.” She paced. “Let’s just see what we’ve got here.” She thumbed a few pages into the story and began reading out loud:
The heat and stench licked Oleg’s skin, beads of sweat forming on his forehead, dripping down the ridge of his nose. He split the herd. Stepping over bodies spent of fuel, crushing brittle skulls with his heel, retarding tongues of flame through sheer discipline—he imposed an angry contrast from the corrupt chattel of government and the slaves to wealth surrounding him. Their own predictable indulgence forfeited them to the flames. Tonight he freed them from the illusion of a happiness found in others’ misery.
“Sheesh, a bit on the melodramatic side even for pulp.”
“Not bad for a beginning.” I joined her. “Here, my turn.” She relented, and I skimmed several chapters until a handwritten note in red ink caught my attention. “Hello.”
“What is it?”
I lowered the book so we could both see it. Then I read the simple note out loud. “You are here.” The three words had been underlined and connected to a section of circled text. I read the text:
Tired as he was, he knew this to be the game. Moves and countermoves. He had thrown the gambit, and one of his knights had fallen. He hoped to get her back. Taking another drink of purified water, he closed his eyes. His memories the only intoxicant he allowed himself, he stumbled briefly into the past. But with a twitch his lip curled as the memory turned unpleasant. He opened his eyes, shaking the image from his mind.
Placing the flask back in the desk, he shuffled to the bookcase where he studied the narrow spine of a nondescript book reading, “What is to be Done?” Tipping the top corner, he opened the hidden passageway from his office to his lab. This sour time will soon pass.
“Creepy.” Evie resumed her pacing. “What do you think it means? You are here?”
Quickly I scanned the rest of the text for similar notes. Finding none, I returned to the puzzling passage. “I’m not sure.” Someone within the THS had gone through considerable effort to send me the message, and I wasn’t even sure if it was meant to threaten or comfort.
You are here. I considered memorizing the passage so I could run a background routine on it later, but decided the mystery wasn’t worth the effort. I glanced at the time in my lens view. “I hate to be a party pooper, but if we’re gonna have that movie night I need to get over to the lab.
Evie slumped, emphasizing her disappointment with a long sigh.
“Here, you can take the book with you.” I handed it over. “I’ve got an afternoon meeting, a few things to tidy up, and I’ll be home before dinner.”
“Wait!” Evie jumped. “What if it means physically, you are here?” She tossed the book at me while scampering toward the nearest book shelf. “Have you even looked at these musty old things?”
I shrugged. “Most of them were here when I assumed the office. Academic volumes—history, science, a bit of everything.”
“How about a ditty called, What is to be Done?” She blinked at me while making Bambi eyes.
“An early Marxist pamphlet by Lenin, if I recall.”
“If you recall? Oh, Dad. Your false modesty can be so cute.” She stared at me. “Well?”
I stared back, shifted my gaze to the bookshelf, then to my daughter. “You win.” Without thinking further about the ramifications of the current trajectory of my actions, I proceeded to run my finger along the several hundred book spines crowding my office. Most of them were dusty volumes as dry on the inside as out. Or so I had assumed.
Evie watched for almost a fruitless minute before chiding me. “You’re doing it again.”
“The old man way. Here,” she gently tapped the temple of my ARGs, “repeat after me.”
“So this is what being lectured feels like.”
“It’s for your own good.”
Maybe my daughter was more like me than I thought. “I’m ready.”
She spoke slowly, relishing the reversal. “ISBN scan, What is to be Done? by Vladimir Lenin.”
I repeated the words verbatim.
“Now stand back and scan the entire length of the shelf.”
In less than ten seconds I had followed Evie’s instructions. Sorry, there were no results matching your query. The words flashed three times and then disappeared. “It says there are no matching results.”
“Sorry.” What had she expected? A secret passageway? As I turned toward my desk something on the shelf caught my eye—Russian script. “Hmmm.”
“You see something?”
I tapped my ARGs again. “Translate into English.” Stopping less than a foot from the binding of the book, the lens view flashed, What is to be Done, Nikolay Chernyshevsky. “Of course.”
“Stop holding out on me.” Evie stamped.
“Lenin based his pamphlet on a novel by the same name.” I laughed, less about the discovery than to cover the awkwardness of what I was about to do. A secret passage leading to a clandestine lab revealed by tipping a book on a bookshelf. I had enacted the same exact scenario as a boy dozens of times, but without actually expecting the wall to open.
Evie clutched my arm, bouncing up and down. “Oh my God, I see it. Just like in The Austin Job.”
I smirked. Of course I didn’t expect it to open this time either. Still, as I reached for the unassuming cloth binding, I couldn’t deny my accelerated heart rate.
With a single finger, I tugged down on the top of the binding. It held fast. Evie clung to me tighter. I licked my lips. “These books probably haven’t been disturbed for over a decade. The greases from my finger have already decreased the value of the antiquity by a few bucks.”
“Have I ever told you scientists can be a drag?”
“I believe so, yes.” Damn, she was right. I wasn’t thinking like a man with dirt under my nails. “Stand back.”
Evie backed away reluctantly.
Prepared to either tear the binding clean off or open a portal to hell, I squared my feet and yanked downward.
The book tipped forty-five degrees and stuck solid. A loud click reverberated from behind the wall or above the ceiling. The book shelf jolted in place as a creak gave way to a snap. For a few seconds I heard nothing except Evie’s gasp and the pounding of my heart.
In the pause, I unintentionally severed the background memory loop of my fight with Evie. Staving off another cascade, I assigned the mental static with the task of sorting every observation I’d ever made about my office while taking into consideration the new discovery.
A violent reverberation shook the floor. It felt like a collision from a great distance, like a wrecking ball slamming into the outer wall. Or… a heavy ballast slamming into a floor several stories below.
Mierda. I had broken it. Wait. I’d broken a secret passageway leading to a clandestine lab opening off of my own Sergio Leone office. Wide eyed, I gripped Evie by the shoulders. Simultaneously, we burst into an awkward jig.
“What just happened?” Evie asked.
Before we could finish dancing, my subconscious interrupted with a myriad of red flags. “I don’t know.” Why was my office the only room in the main building with an upgraded palm scanner? Why had I been given this office, and who else knew what I had just discovered? Those were among the first red flags I deemed important.
As much as the moment felt like a childhood adventure come to life, I forced myself to recognize the potential for real danger. “I don’t know, but we have to remember where this book came from. Seventeen lives were taken just this morning.”
“Hopeless. Really. Now give me a hand.” Evie ran her fingers along the edge of the bookshelf.
“I’m serious. For all we know, the THS wants me opening up a forgotten access route to the heart of campus just in time for a surprise attack.”
“Listen to yourself, professor. You can’t possibly believe that.” She put her ear to the spine of a large volume on theoretical physics.
I swallowed and ran my hands through my hair. “I think this is the part that shifted the most.” I joined her in the search for cracks around the perimeter of the shelf while reassuring myself the THS couldn’t possibly benefit from attacking the campus. Still…
I templed my ARGs. “List all devices streaming or capable of streaming data from this location, five meter radius.”
“Oooh, good idea.” Evie paused her search.
In less than a second the lens view scrolled a short list: my ARGs, my tablet, my console…and an unknown source coming from behind the bookshelf, archaic.
“What does it say?” Evie tugged a section of shelf, rocking it back and forth.
I drew a deep breath, “devices currently streaming.” The response appeared immediately. None.
She stopped. “You found something!”
“No, nothing. False alarm.” Keeping my fingers moving around the edges of the shelf, I tried to shake off my paranoia. But for weeks I’d been stirring it into my morning coffee.
The administration had no doubt been keeping an eye on their loose cannon of a professor since they hired me. For the past month the main firewall at the lab had been routinely compromised. Nothing more than low level routines and mundane assays. As a measure of counter intelligence, I never bothered raising the alarm—If people were intent on keeping an eye on me, I wanted them to think I didn’t know.
Evie resumed the search. “You’re a terrible liar.”
“Only with you.”
“Oh thanks, I guess.”
“Here.” The middle section of the bookshelf had shifted outward a fraction of an inch before the ballast snapped free. I scavenged a metal straightedge from the top drawer of my desk and jammed it into the crack. After prying the entire middle section of the shelves outward a few inches, we discovered little resistance. The weight which had held the charade in place had broken free. What had been a bookshelf became a door unhinged.
Lost in the thrill, we savored the moment. Finally, she gripped the shelf low, and I gripped it high. Together, we threw it open.
No rush of damp air. No bats. No kerosene torches flickering to life. Other than that, the scene was exactly how I had envisioned it as a boy. Behind the secret door, a narrow, stone stairway spiraled down out of view.
“There,” Evie pointed.
Tucked into the top corner was a first-gen video recording device, apparently motion sensitive. I waved my hand in front of it.
“Doesn’t look like it’s worked in a while.”
I shrugged. It had either already done its job or it wasn’t going to. Team Buckner, on the other hand, had just started. I tapped my ARGs. “Video on. Illumination on.” A tiny red indicator flashed as the LED rims illuminated my peripheral vision.
“Having both functions on at once will halo the footage.” Evie nudged past me to look down the stairs.
“You have a flashlight?”
She shook her head.
“Then it’ll have to do. Besides,” I squeezed her tight, barely containing my own giddiness, “you can filter it out later.”
“Yes. Yes, I can.”
One foot in front of the other, we wrapped our way down the spiraling stair. Mercifully, the temperature fell without a rise in humidity. The relative chill, combined with my sweat-soaked shirt, rose goose bumps on my flesh. I assigned my background brain to a general five-sense recon. With my senses on overload already, it seemed the safest means of ensuring the river of my mental processes stay within its bounds.
Evie whispered into my ear. “How many steps so far?”
I responded without thinking. “Thirty-nine.”
“I love that you know that.” She enjoyed testing my background routines, trying to get a fuller picture of how my brain worked, with or without my permission.
“We’ve got to be nearing the water table by now.” The campus had been built on a slight hill, not more than sixty feet above the level of the Little Colorado River that snaked around three sides of greater downtown.
The air grew acrid, like touching the tip of your tongue to a nine-volt battery. I supposed all sorts of heavy minerals could have leached through the rock…or gasses. Great. I hadn’t installed any kind of atmospheric sampling app on my ARGs, if such a thing was even available.
In my mind, I could see Evie rolling her eyes at me. Dad, your augmented reality glasses are only as good as the apps you install on them, she reminded me at least once a week. For now I hoped I wasn’t leading her on a toxic freak-out. I made a mental note to listen to her more in the future.
Finally the bottom appeared. Another step, just like all the rest, and we stood at the edge of a yawning underground chasm. The overwhelmed LEDs of my ARGs struggled to stretch twenty feet into the inky blackness. My ears strained to fill the void left by my eyes.
Evie crowded into me. “What is this place?”
We were exposed. The dark lapped against us like surf on the beach. “A top secret lab, old school.” The realization hit me, this moment hadn’t happened of my own volition. The THS willed it. Possibly others. I felt manipulated, stranded, alone, over fifty feet below the floor of my office… my office? The only thing that made it mine was the fact someone within the administration willed it. “Close your eyes.”
“Illumination off.” As soon as I spoke the words, I wished I hadn’t. The LEDs blanked, and we disappeared completely. The world vanished, save our echoing voices. Rationally, I knew the light did me no good. On or off, I couldn’t see where I was. I had to feel it. Yet, a part of me screamed for the comfort of those tiny suns.
I brought my background brain to the surface as much as I dared. At the time, I had known the offer too good to be true. All of it. When everyone else laughed, when no one would fund my research, University of Texicas offered me everything on a silver platter. They paid to move me and Evie. They bought us a home, put me in charge of the world’s most advanced paleobotany lab, and wrote me a blank check.
I landed on the lynchpin question as concretely as I felt Evie’s nails digging into my arm. Why me? What did this place have to do with my work?
A scurrying echoed out of the darkness, impossible to tell its distance. I froze. Fear temporarily focused both brains on survival, unifying my stream of awareness.
The sound multiplied and grew. Finally, there was no mistaking that it surrounded us. “Illumination on.”
Evie squeaked as dozens of reflective gems blinked out and dispersed in every direction.
“Rats.” My minds diverged. The background mind began counting the number of vermin, cataloguing their species, food and water requirements, etc. With my conscious mind, I pondered where the rats had come from and where they were going.
“Fun’s fun,” Evie shivered, “but maybe we should come back with a couple of lanterns.”
I turned quickly, intending to pursue the rodents, but my LED caught a glimpse of a head projecting from the wall. Gasping, I nearly struck my arm against it.
“Holy frosting, that scared me.” Evie swallowed. “What is it?”
Both of us backed away. “A metallic bull’s head—Texas Longhorn.” Before I could investigate further, a flashing in my lens view stopped me dead. A split second later a whistle blared from my office above.
Core security breach at the lab. Potential: catastrophic.
END of Episode 1
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