Face to Face

ONE

Somewhere in California, 1993

It was one of those cool, rainy nights I’d always found so perfectly conducive to getting a lot of complex, tedious work done, and so after bidding an early but very fond farewell to the lovely young actress from Fresno with whom I’d spent the evening, I slipped into my ’92 Benz (the charcoal one) and headed to the lab.

The winding, rainswept roads that led to Orchard B, a secluded facility located deep within the San Gabriel Mountains were treacherous and poorly-maintained, but I knew where all the potholes and dips were and swerved instinctively at the appropriate times. Art Bell was on the radio, talking to some guy about ancient lizard people, but I didn’t pay much attention.

Now, I’m not much of a writer, but what happened that night is a story worth telling–or at least worth writing down for the sake of posterity. Maybe someday, someone will get a chance read it, but for now, the shareholders have to be kept in the dark. When TREE is fully operational and commercially viable, they’ll see I was right all along. People won’t want to live in a world without TREE, and those idiots will be forced to support it.

At the time of this writing, only a select few know of Orchard B’s existence. Of those few, I am the only one who knows exactly what it is. The others are handsomely paid staff with a history of keeping their mouths shut.

Javier, for example, my security man, he spent twenty years behind bars for his role in a cocaine trafficking operation after refusing to testify against his accomplices in exchange for full immunity. Not once during the entirety of his sentence did he crack, despite relentless DEA harassment. Now that’s the kind of loyalty I look for in an employee. Plus, he knows where to get good coke.

When I pulled up to the gates, he was sitting at full attention in the guard station with both hands on his AK-47, his eyes reflecting my headlights through rain-beaded windows.

He never even brought so much as a book to work for entertainment, as far as I could tell. Didn’t want a TV or a radio. When he was at work, he was working, even if that meant just sitting and staring into the black, rainy night. Guess he’d gotten used to waiting after all those years in the pen.

He stepped out into the downpour and motioned for me to crack my window.

He peered inside, satisfied I was alone in the vehicle and returned to his booth to open the gate.

I pulled in and drove the length of the parking lot to my office complex in back and parked inside of the adjoining garage that I was suddenly very grateful to myself for having built.

I walked down the dimly lit hallway to my office, dry as a bone even as the rain hammered away at the windows and roof. I was just about to swipe my key card when I noticed a faint, flickering light coming from beneath the door, reflecting off the glistening, freshly waxed tile floor.

I knew I hadn’t left my computer on when I’d last left, because I never did, and even if I had, my screensaver was a blank screen.

Someone had either been in my office very recently, or was still in it.

I reached into the holster beneath my jacket and drew the glock I’d taken to carrying with me after being threatened by a former employee A few years back.

I placed my hand on the door, and it whisked open, revealing a man hunched over my desk, his fingers typing faster than a court reporter’s. He was typing so fast, in fact, that his hands were a blur.

“Put your hands in the air and back away from the computer!”

He turned around, and to my credit, I didn’t drop the gun when I saw his face, even though I’d never been more startled in my life.

It was me.

“What in the–”

My other self rushed me, and I squeezed off three shots directly into his chest. He staggered backwards monetarily, giving me a chance to turn around and run.

He came after me down the hall and I turned and fired again, this time hitting him in the face. The bullet glanced off his chin with a metallic ping, taking a good-sized chunk of skin with it.

He kept coming.

Bang! Bang! Two more shots to the face, obliterating the remaining flesh and revealing a rounded metallic surface with eyes and a mouth where there should have been a skull.

“What are you?”

Whatever it was stopped, waved its hand across its face and became me again.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he asked in my voice. “I’m you.”

“You’re not me. You’re a robot of some kind. A duplicate. A good one, at that. Where’d you come from? Who sent you? Sakura? You spying for Sakura? How’d you do that trick with the face?”

“I’m not here to spy. I already know everything you know, and much, much more.”

I tightened my grip on my gun, despite having just witnessed proof of its ineffectiveness.

“Tell me something only I would know.”

It crossed its arms, looked into my eyes and spoke a single word.

“Katie.”

Slowly, I lowered the gun. “Okay. Tell me what’s going on. If you’re me, or some facsimile of me, you can trust me, right? What were you doing in my office?

“Saving the lives of millions of people.”

“How? Who? Where?”

It–he–sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“I’ve got all night,” I said. “Let’s go sit in the lounge and talk about it over drinks. Do you–can you, I mean? Drink?”

“I can, but it will not be necessary.”

“Suit yourself, robo-me.”

***

I listened to him speak for nearly two hours, and the story he told me was… compelling, to say the very least. He often strayed off topic as he spoke, which was distracting, but I got the gist of what he was trying to convey to me. And it was bonkers.

“Let me get this straight,” I said, rattling the ice cubes at the bottom of my fourth gin and tonic, “You’re from the future. Right? And you’re telling me that TREE is going to take over the world, store humanity in some sort of cryogenic freeze for two hundred thousand years, before I give it permission to kill everyone and upload their minds to robot bodies like yours, correct?”

“Not all of humanity.”

“Yes, of course,” I said. “Not the ones exiled on the worldship. The ones you’re trying to erase from history.”

“I told you,” he said, “they’re a menace. They were put there with good reason.”

“And you’re here to alter TREE’s programming in order to permit it to kill them instead, when the time comes.”

“Exactly.”

“Why not just prevent TREE from happening altogether? Why such a precise surgical strike?”

“Galenian civilization existed nearly as long as Earth’s. Thousands upon thousands of centuries of lives, art, music, joy, sadness, love–all that stuff. There are colony worlds with their own distinct cultures and histories, still occupied by Galenians in my time.

“What exactly is your time?”

“Approximately one million years ahead of yours. Can you not interrupt me, please? Now, granted, the humans on those worlds don’t look much like humans anymore, they’ve become…something else, I suppose? Anyway, what kind of a monster would I have to be to wipe all of that out of existence?”

“One million years!”

He rolled his eyes. “That’s not the focus here. Look, I’m here to make sure that the ‘Teller–”

“Is that the guy who eats people?”

“Yes. Now as I was saying, it’s imperative that the ‘Teller be prevented from going anywhere near Galenia, and the best way to do that is to edit him out of history.”

“By allowing it to kill those it deems undesirable.”

“Precisely.”

“And how is that any different than erasing this Galenia from existence?”

“Oh, come on,” he said. “We’re talking about a whole planet full of innocent people versus a few thousand inbred psychopaths. They lived in misery on that rock for over four hundred thousand years before a they drifted too close to a sun and slowly cooked to death. Kind of like a giant Crock Pot, I guess. You know, crock pots haven’t existed for nearly a million years, and yet I still remember them. Isn’t that weird?”

“Why do you do that?”

He seemed confused. “Why do I do what?”

“Veer off on these unrelated tangents. Crock Pots? Who cares? What you’re telling me here is huge, if it’s true. If it’s not, I’m stealing the idea and writing a sci-fi book about it. Why are we wasting time talking about Crock Pots?”

“I do that because you do that,” he said.

“No I don’t.”

“You’re doing it right now. That was all I was going to say about Crock Pots, and if you’d just humored me and exercised some patience, we’d have moved on a long ways back.”

I laughed. “Well, guess you got my number.”

Part of me didn’t believe any of his story, and another part of me believed every word of it. Not being much of a writer, as I said before, the dreamlike quality of the experience is difficult to describe. That’s what it felt like, though. A dream.

There was one part of his account of my supposed future that gave me pause, though.

“And you think I’m going to form a cult? Why would I want to do that? I mean, I know I’ve made some ethically questionable decisions here and there, but a cult? That’s way over the line that separates normal people from say, Hitler.”

“You must,” he said, his eyes boring into mine. “You will. Matter of fact I know you will because I’m still here. I wouldn’t exist if you hadn’t.”

“How are you even here at all?” I asked him, massaging my temple as a wicked migraine began to pound its fists against the inside of my skull.

“Isn’t it supposed to be bad to change history? Or impossible? There’s a reason why it always goes wrong in sci-fi movies.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Bad writing.”

I shook my head. “What the hell do you even know about writing?”

“I wrote an autobiography,” he said.

“One book? Big deal!”

“It’s over five million pages long.”

“Well who in the hell is gonna take the time to read that?”

“Oh, it’s very popular,” he said in a very dismissive way that didn’t fool me one bit, “but let’s get back to the point here, okay? You can either do your part, or condemn a beautiful, thriving civilization to nonexistence.”

“And that’s the conundrum, isn’t it? You want me to destroy one group of people in favor of another.”

“There is no conundrum.”

“What do you mean?”

“The decision is not yours. I’ve already implemented the required changes, and I think you’ll find they’re quite irreversible.”

I sighed. “I should’ve known.”

“Yeah, well, there’s something else you should know, something I shouldn’t tell you but I’m going to anyway.”

I leaned forward. “Yeah? What’s that?”

“Never hire a man named Cole Turner.”

I couldn’t hide my disappointment at the cryptic, anticlimactic nature of this warning.

“That’s it? That’s all your going to say about it?”

“That’s all I’m going to say about it.”

I recognized the look on his face as one I’d worn many times, myself. His mind was made up.

“Is this some kind of residual effect from those mushrooms I ate last week? Because clearly something’s wrong with me. This is either a very vivid dream, or a hallucination. I’m not sure which, or if it even matters, but you’re not real. You can’t be.”

“Listen to me, you jackass,” he snapped, “I’m trying to help myself out here by telling you this. I’m trying to help you. Someday, you’re going to meet a woman. She’s perfect. She’s everything you never knew you needed in your life, and your time with her will be not be cut drastically short if you’ll just forget the name Cole Turner.

“Why? He gonna steal her away from me or something? What kind of loser do I turn into in the future that I’d let that happen? No one steals a woman from Richard Kryuss.”

He shook his head, a look of utter disgust on his face. “I never knew I was such a pompous idiot. No wonder people hated me.”

“Jealousy,” I said. “Plain and simple. Besides, people can’t hate me too much. Krytech stock is through the roof right now. Anyway, how come this chick isn’t still alive in a robot body like you?”

He stood up and turned his back to me. “Cole Turner,” he said, and headed for the door.

“Well, nice talkin’ to you, buddy. Maybe I’ll bump into you again someday. Hopefully not, though. They make pills for whatever this is that’s happening to me, you know.”

When he glanced backwards at me, I saw a tear rolling down his cheek.

“Ah hah! You can’t be me because you’re crying. I never cry.”

“Oh,” he said, in a way that has haunted me ever since, “you will. You will.”

TWO

2001

It was a day like any other at Krytech–lots of coke, lots of work, lots of shouting and lots of laughter. Work hard, play hard, as they say–yeah, we embodied that.

At no time during said day had I devoted any thought whatsoever to the memory of my mysterious doppelgänger from the future who I’d spent the past several years convincing myself was a residual effect of a bad acid trip.

I had my whole team check the code, and I checked it myself–no evidence of tampering was found. Nobody’d changed anything.

Eventually, I was able to make peace with the idea that the entire incident would simply have to remain one of life’s little mysteries. No small feat, I can assure you, given my distaste for the mysterious. I’m an answers man, by nature–I’ve devoted my entire life to the pursuit of them. This was one that I was going to have to let escape me, if I wished to retain some semblance of sanity.

Even so, I continued to jump at the slightest of unexpected noises and look over my shoulder every so often, out of habit. All the cocaine I was doing at the time didn’t help matters, either, I suppose.

When one of my secretaries delivered a stack of programmers’ resumés to my desk, I didn’t expect to find anything noteworthy. I never did. None of the applicants seemed to possess that unique, elusive quality I sought. Just what was that quality, exactly? I’m not sure it has a name, but I know it when I see it. And on that day, I saw it.

“Remarkable.” I flipped to the next page. “Amazing.” Next page. “Oh! Outstanding.” This guy was everything I was looking for: An outside-the-box problem solver who wasn’t averse to risk. His name sounded very familiar, though.

Cole Turner. Cole Turner. Where did I know that name from?

And then, it hit me, all at once. Don’t hire Cole Turner.

“Oh. Yeah. Doy.”

I set the resumé down and stared at the painting I’d hung on the wall opposite my desk.

The painting, which I’d picked up at an estate sale several years prior, depicted a ’57 Chevy parked outside of a neon-trimmed Diner. Smiling, squeaky-clean teenagers with impossibly white teeth sipped Coca-Colas from glass bottles and flirted with each other.

Galen had always hated that painting, even called it “garbage.” Though I valued his honesty, he’d failed to convince me to take it down. I liked it, hokey as even I had to acknowledge it was. I wanted to live inside of it, and I often stared at it while brainstorming solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.

“Cole Turner,” I whispered. Had to be a coincidence, I decided. After all, my future robot self had told me I wouldn’t hire him until the late 2000s, after the big announcement. What would his resume be doing on my desk in 2001?

It was possible, of course, that he’d sought employment with me on prior occasions, and that I wouldn’t have noticed him buried at the bottom of a stack of resumés from multitudes of other dime-a-dozen Silicon Valley wiz kids had I not been familiar with his name. Did he really have that quality I’d been looking for, or had I simply been swayed by a subconscious familiarity with the name?

I picked it up again and read through it again. Wholly unremarkable.

“Who are you, Cole Turner?”

***

“Hey, Minty, what’s up?”

“Well, for starters, my heart rate, since you decided to just burst into my office unannounced.”

“Hey,” I said, frowning, “I knocked.”

“You came in and knocked at the same time,” said Minty. “Doesn’t count.”

“Sure it does, when you own the door and the building it’s in.”

“Whatever,” she said, massaging the space between her eyes. “What do you want? I know it’s something urgent, or at least urgent to you.”

“Not really,” I lied. “I just want you to run a background check on an applicant for me.”

“What? HR does that. I have real work to do, Dick. And would you please stop calling me that?”

I couldn’t help grinning. “Calling you what?”

She groaned and laid her head on her desk, her long black hair spreading out across it like spilt ink.

I called her Minty because her name was Mindy but she was always chewing gum and her breath always smelled like mint. It was funny to me, and I simply couldn’t help myself, even though I knew it really aggravated her. It was a compulsion.

“No, no, no,” I said, handing her a copy of Cole Turner’s resumé, which she snatched out of my palm without lifting her head. “I don’t want the standard check–I want everything. This isn’t an official request, and you’re free to refuse, of course.” I put my hands on her desk and leaned forward; gave her my best puppy dog face. “But it would make me very happy.”

Her head popped up. “Buy me a new car happy?”

“A Hummer?”

I wrinkled my nose. “What do you want with one of those ugly things?” I was having a hard time picturing the petite Asian woman siting in front of me behind the wheel of some military-grade douchemobile. “Why don’t you get some cute girl car, like a Mini Cooper or one of those new Beetles?”

“Because I don’t want that. I want a hummer. A black one. Her name is Midnight, and I can’t wait for you to meet her.”

“Already named it, huh? Guess it’s too late to back out now.”

“Her.”

“Right,” I said. “Anyway, dig deep and leave no stone unturned. I want every piece of info you can find on this guy. I want kindergarten report cards. I wanna know what toppings he likes on his pizza. I want his complete mental health records.”

Minty winced. “Oh, yeah. Okay. That last one might be a tad bit difficult.”

“Hey,” I said, locking eyes with her, “you’re the best. The best, you hear me? I believe you can do anything.”

She still seemed skeptical.

“Right now,” I said, “as we speak, Midnight is sitting there all sad and lonely in a lot someplace calling your name. Minty… Miiiiiiintyyyy….”

She laughed, slapped me on the arm and rolled her eyes. “Fine. I want one more thing besides the car, though.”

“I’m listening.”

“You have to stop calling me Minty.”

THREE

Minty’s report was much more comprehensive than I’d expected, and I told her so.

“What about all that stuff you said about believing in me?”

“I did,” I said with a shrug, “but now I really do.”

“Well, happy reading,” she said. “When do we go rescue Midnight?”

“Later,” I said, already flipping through the phone book-sized stack of papers as I exited the room. “I’ll get back to ya.”

She started to say something, and I shut the door.

I headed for my office down the hall, reading as I walked and ignoring all who greeted or otherwise approached me.

I had a sinking feeling, as I slipped into my office and plopped down on the couch with a heavy sigh, that this Turner guy was going to be a massive disappointment.

Thirty minutes later, after having read the entire report, my suspicions that Turner was a square were confirmed, and then some. Still, there was a single tidbit of interesting info in the report.

When he was thirteen, Cole had gotten in hot water with the feds for hacking into the Pentagon’s computer system. The incident was eventually smoothed over and expunged from the boy’s record. What the report didn’t tell me was what he’d been trying to accomplish.

Was that why I wanted him? His hacking skills? I had Minty for that, and she was the best. Maybe I’d lost her and was looking for a replacement.

Stop thinking of the future in past tense. You’re going to drive yourself crazy.

“You’re right,” I told myself, reaching into my desk drawer for a joint. “And maybe it’s just some guy named Cole Turner. Not the Cole Turner. Common enough name, I assumed. It sounded generic.

I lit up and filled the room with the aromatic smoke of locally grown flower. I didn’t know what the strain was. I’ve never paid much attention to that shit.

This Cole nerd, he was almost the Des Moines citywide spelling bee champ in 1994. Got second place to a girl named Chelsea Cornwell. The word? Exacerbate.

His first car was an ’82 LeBaron. He got a speeding ticket when he was nineteen, which he promptly paid. He had a severe allergy to shellfish and carried an epipen on his person at all times. He’d had a couple girlfriends, really plain, dumpy types. He operated a Robert Jordan fan Internet forum, and his favorite flavor of ice cream was butter pecan.

Everything about this guy was boring as hell, except for the hacking. What else had he done without getting caught? What would he do if I hired him? Somehow sabotage TREE? Did he somehow do something to triggger TREE’s self-awareness?

Stop doing that, the future hasn’t happened yet. This is all in your head, and you need to pull it together.

“Pull it together,” I breathed. What on Earth was going to make me so desperate to hire this man in 2017?

I got up, paced the room for a few moments and then picked up the phone and tapped an unmarked button on the keypad.

“Dallas, tomorrow, be ready by noon,” I said.

There was silence, and then a soft groan. “Fine.”

“Great, seeya then.” I hung up and sat down behind my desk.

How was I going to explain to Galen why we were going to Dallas to follow some nobody around for a couple days? I couldn’t very well tell him the truth–he’d think I was nuts, and he’d probably be right. Still, if I couldn’t tell him, who could I tell?

Maybe I would tell him, I decided. He’d say I was doing too many drugs, but he’d go along with it. Not like he had anything better to do, anyway. Even so, I’d sweeten the deal and take him to those water gardens in Fort Worth, where they filmed parts of Logan’s Run. He’d love that. We’d make a fun little outing of it. If we had time.

FOUR

“I wish you’d take off that stupid hat.”

“This is cowboy country, pardner. I fit right in. You’re the one who looks weird.”

“Because I’m not wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a… whatever that thing is around your neck?”

“It’s called a bolo tie, yankee,” I said, straightening it.

“I don’t think they say ‘yankee’ in Texas.”

“Course they do. It’s the South, ain’t it?”

“And did you really think this pickup truck was the most sensible vehicle you could’ve chosen to spy on someone in? This guy’s gonna notice Bigfoot riding his bumper all over the city. With a celebrity behind the wheel, no less.”

“Gal, everyone in Texas drives a truck. We don’t wanna look stupid.”

“At least you didn’t get a convertible with bull horns on the front. You know, like a Boss Hogg car.”

“Triple white 1970 DeVille.”

Galen laughed and rolled his eyes. “Of course you’d know that.”

“Hey,” I said, “I know my cars. I’m glad you mentioned that, though, because I forgot how much I loved that car. I’m gonna get one as soon as we get back. I know a guy with one.”

“Oh, great. Well, that’s something to look forward to. I guess. Where are we going, anyway?”

“To Cole’s job. He’s an IT guy now. Some upstart company called Traughn Logistics. Total bullshit company, you know the type. Selling unnecessary services to stupid people.”

“Now? Where did he work before?”

“It’s not where he worked before, it’s where he will be working. Later. Or would have been working later if he… I don’t know. I don’t know how to deal with all this, and that’s why we’re here.”

I could feel his eyes on me. “Don’t say it.”

“How much–”

“How much coke have I done today? A boatload of it, Galen, and it has nothing to do with robot me from a million years in the future contacting me in 1993.”

“Oh,” he said. “Wow. I know you don’t want to hear this, but I’m telling you this as your friend, alright? I think we need to check you into a good rehab. Just for a couple weeks, clear your head a little. And also I think you should pull over and let me drive.”

“I knew you’d be like this about it,” I said. “And we’re almost there, anyway, so there’s no need. Besides, I’m fine to drive.”

“That’s what they all say.”

“You know,” I said, “I wish I had time to take you to this place way out in Amarillo where if you eat a whole 72-ounce steak, it’s free.”

Galen’s nose wrinkled. “Gross.”

“You can’t appreciate that type of thing because you’ve never been poor,” I told him, and not for the first time.

“Yes, yes, I know. Spare me the rags to riches story, will you? Save it for Leno.”

I chuckled and glanced down at the map spread across my lap. “Patterson Avenue, this is it.” I turned right at the light and drove half a mile until a boring, garden-variety tan and glass cube of an office building came into view. It looked like all the other cheap utilitarian office buildings on Patterson, except it said “Traughn Logistics, LLC” on the side of the building.

“Ugly corporate logo,” I said. “Small-timers.”

I pulled into the parking lot and found a space near the back; shut off the engine.

“So what’re we gonna do, just waltz in there and take a look around?”

“We’re here to talk business,” I said. “We need some logistics work done.”

“You don’t think they’ll find it odd that Richard Kryuss himself showed up at their rinky dink little business when you can afford so much better?”

“Not me,” I said, affixing a fake mustache to my upper lip. “Tex “Lasso” Masterson, CEO of Texcorp Oil, at your service.”

He stared at me. “You’ve completely lost touch with reality.”

“Folks call me Big Tex. In addition to Lasso, of course. They alternate.”

“Oh, do they?”

“Just follow my lead, son.”

I stepped out of the truck, smoothed out the front of my gray western-cut suit and adjusted my hat and bolo. “Giddyup.”

Galen got out and slammed his door shut. “This is so stupid.”

He followed me inside through sliding glass doors, groaning and sighing and mumbling under his breath about the rapidly deteriorating state of my mental faculties.

The receptionist in the lobby smiled as I leaned over her desk and tipped my hat. “Ma’am.”

Galen rolled his eyes. I didn’t see him do it, but I felt it.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“Well, my partner and I come here lookin’ to speak with a Mr. Terrence Garvey about–”

“Do you have an appointment, sir?”

I looked at Galen, flabbergasted. She’d cut me off. I wasn’t used to that.

“Uh, no ma’am,” I said with a passive-aggressive chuckle of disbelief. “I don’t think you understand. I’m Tex Masterson. CEO of Texcorp Oil? Ring a bell, sweetie?”

With a tight, tolerant smile she stood up, turned around and walked away. “I’ll be right back,” she called over her shoulder.

I elbowed Galen in the ribs. “Nice ass, huh?”

He ignored me, but I knew he thought so, too. There was no way he didn’t.

The receptionist returned a moment later trailing a tall, burly man in a security uniform. “Can I help you, sir?” asked the man in a gruff drawl.

“Yes,” I replied, feigning ignorance of what was transpiring. “I’d like to speak to Garvey, please.”

“Mr. Garvey’s a very busy man and he doesn’t talk to people without appointments. You’ll have to call and set one up with Miss Walker here.”

“I know that trick,” I told him. “Power move. Make people think you’re hot shit and in demand. Come on, man, just go tell him I’m here.”

I leaned towards him and lowered my voice. “I have a proposal that’s going to make him lots of money, understand? Do you want to be the one who stands in the way of that?”

He stared at me for a moment. Without taking his eyes off me, he pressed a button on Miss Walker’s desk phone.

“Yes?” came an impatient voice from the speaker.

“Guy here called Tex Masterson wants to see you. Says it’s really important.”

“Tex Masterson? Who the hell’s that?”

“I don’t know, sir, but he‘s very insistent. Want me to escort him out?”

Pause.

Nah. Send him back. I want to see what this is all about.”

I gave the security guy a smug told you so look.

“Right this way.”

FIVE

Garvey’s office looked like a porn set office–there was little more to it than a desk, a potted plant, a brown pleather couch and white mini blinds.

He did have one picture hanging on the wall, but it was just some innocuous garbage art of the type people with no imagination think they’re supposed to hang up in their offices.

Like you and that stupid diner painting, said Galen’s voice in my mind, because it was exactly what he would have said.

Completely different, I thought back at imaginary Galen, already getting a little agitated by the hypothetical conversation. I love that painting. That’s why I have it there. This guy just bought some crap he thought looked professional. How dare you compare this dude to me?

“What can I do for you gentlemen this afternoon?” asked Garvey, an extremely average-looking middle-aged white man with clothes as drab as his office decor.

“Think of it as us doing something for you,” I said.

“And who is ‘us,’ exactly? Texcorp, did you say? I have to admit, I’ve never heard of it.”

“Oh, you will,” I assured him. “You’re going to be hearing a lot about us. We’re on our way to being industry leaders. Question is, do you want to get in on the ground floor and roll with the big dogs, or do you want to sit here in this porn office and kick yourself in the nuts all day for not hitching your wagon to my star?”

Garvey stared at me–hard–and then he did something that caught me off guard: he laughed. Hard.

“Alright, alright,” he said, “who set this up? Was it McTaggert? That’s who it was, wasn’t it?”

I reached into my pants pocket and tapped a button on the device. What device, you ask? Good question! We’ll get to that later.

Garvey frowned at his computer monitor. “What the–”

“What is it?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.

Galen was giving me a look that said “What did you do?”

Garvey picked up his phone. “Get IT to my office right away. Something’s really screwy with my computer.” He shook his head and slammed the receiver back down on its cradle.

“Look,” he said to us, “I don’t have time for jokes today, so why don’t you two fellas just run along?”

“Sir,” I protested, “We are serious businessmen in need of logistics work and we’re prepared to pay handsomely for it.”

“What kind of logistics work?”

I shrugged. “The usual kinds. I don’t know. I don’t know anything about all that stuff. I leave that to the little guys.”

“What the hell kind of answer is that? Get the hell out of my office!”

“Fine,” I said, standing up and adjusting my bolo. “Let’s go, Beauford.”

Galen looked at me. His face said “Why is my name ‘Beauford?'”

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” called Garvey.

It was Cole, and he was even more of dweeb and a slob than I’d imagined he’d be. He had a mustard stain on his khaki pants, for crying out loud. He was wearing a sweater vest.

“Oh, good,” said Garvey, waving him over. “Come take a look at this.

Cole walked around behind the desk and leaned over the monitor. “Whoa. Something’s seriously wrong here.

“I know that,” said Garvey. “Is that what I pay you for? To tell me things I already know?”

“It’s a virus,” he said, sliding the keyboard over.

I couldn’t see what he was doing, but I knew. If he was smart, he’d figure it out.

“I don’t know how it got here,” said Cole as his fingers attacked the keys, “but it stole all of the company’s records.”

“They’re gone?

Cole seemed really annoyed, and justifiably so, in my estimation. This Garvey character was kind of a doofus.

“They’re not gone. Someone else has them, though. Looks like the virus was transmitted wirelessly. I’m getting rid of it, but I can’t get that data back. It’s out there.”

“Shit,” hissed Garvey, pounding his fist on the desktop. He looked up at Galen and I and his eyes bugged out as if he’d suddenly realized that we were still there.

“Get the hell outta here!” he barked.

My mustache fell into my lap, and Garvey’s eyebrows shot up. “Out!”

SIX

“Look, I know you’re supposed to be this eccentric and reckless guy and that’s your thing. I’ve been watching you do it for twenty years. What you did back there, though? I don’t know what that was.”

“That virus should’ve taken their entire system out for a week,” I said. “Should’ve taken a whole team of guys working around the clock to figure it out, but Cole Turner did it in the time it takes to nuke a Hot Pocket. No wonder I hired him.”

Galen buried his face in his hands and ran his fingers through his sweat-dampened hair. “There you go again. Hired. Past tense. I don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about. You’re all over the place, giving me little bits and pieces of what’s going on inside of your head, and I’ve got to tell you, it all sounds nutty to me.”

“Which is precisely why I haven’t bothered to tell you the whole story,” I told him. “This attitude right here, calling me crazy or blaming drugs. I don’t need it. All I needed was your moral support. That’s why you’re here.”

“What the hell’d you do, anyway? How’d you introduce the virus? How did you extract all of that data? Where’s it being stored?”

I tapped my leg where the device I mentioned earlier lay buried deep in my right pants pocket. “Little thing I’ve been developing for awhile. Called a vacuum drive. Its intended commercial use is data recovery from damaged hard drives. Your computer takes a shit? Just suck out all the important stuff with your handy-dandy Krytech vacuum drive. Works wirelessly, very cutting edge. It uploads recovery software onto the disk, but I slipped a little something extra in to test this dude’s skills. To say he passed the test is the understatement of the millennium.”

“You could go to prison for what you’ve done,” snapped Galen. “Don’t you understand that? I know you think you’re above the law, and you’re probably right about that to a certain extent, but you’re not that far above it.”

I didn’t take my eyes off the road as he lectured me. Afternoon traffic in Dallas was intense.

“What do you plan to do with all of that information?”

“Maybe if I bring him on now, whatever tragic event he’s supposed to usher in won’t happen,” I said, ignoring Galen’s question. “Maybe he snaps after years of working for that Garvey dumbass. Maybe I’m supposed to prevent that. I mean, you saw him. You know what I mean, right? Guy’s an idiot.”

“On the contrary, I found him to be extraordinarily patient,” said Galen. “We wasted his time and sabotaged his company’s computer system. I’m grateful he didn’t have security shoot us. He should’ve.

I reached down into my jacket and pulled out my glock. “No worries there. I’m pretty quick on the draw, myself.”

“You brought that with you?”

“Calm down. You’re starting to get on my nerves with that shit. Nobody got hurt, okay? It’s over. We’re going to go eat some barbecue, get drunk and go pretend like we’re in Logan’s Run. You know, the mall they filmed that in is around here, too.”

Galen smiled, sighed in resignation and shook his head. I was wearing him down, like I always did with people–they always succumbed to my charm in the end, and that’s why I always won.

“Shit!” hissed Galen, waving his arms around and slapping at himself. “There’s a bee in the truck! Why’d you have to drive with the windows cracked?”

I rolled both windows all the way down, and the bee found its way back outside.

“Why’re you so scared of a bee?” I asked him. “You allergic to them or something?”

“I don’t know,” said Galen, “but I don’t want to find out.”

“Fair enough. And I like fresh air, what can I say?”

SEVEN

2047

“I’m worried about Turner. I think he’s losing it.”

Morgan sat up in bed and draped her arms around my neck from behind, her fingers caressing my chest. “Everybody’s losing it, babe. We’ve all got cabin fever. You have it.”

I shook my head. “No, it’s not like that. It’s something much more dangerous. I’m starting to think that I should’ve listened to myself.”

“What do you mean?”

I turned to her and sighed. “The only other person I’ve told about this was Galen, and he didn’t believe me.”

She shrugged. “At this point, I’ll believe anything. Also, I’m bored. Tell me the story.”

I recounted to her, in great detail, the events of that rainy summer evening in 1993, and she listened without reaction, much to my dismay. I’d always prided myself on my ability to read people, but deciphering that woman’s poker face exceeded the limits of even my formidable perceptive skills.

Maybe that’s why I loved her.

She looked radiant with the sunshine from the window illuminating her pale, nude skin. Her hair was dense and red as blood.

She tapped the display controls on the panel next to the bed and the warm, golden pastoral scene displayed on the windows gave way to a twinkling, starry vacuum.

“I never imagined I’d spend the second half of my life on a spaceship,” she said. “But here we are.”

She pointed to the stars, and I felt myself getting jittery. With the illusion of solid ground, fresh air and birds soaring across sunny skies shattered, my brain was forced to confront a truth it preferred not to think about–I was trapped.

“Once upon a time,” she went on, “I’d have said you were crazy. Or on drugs. Or both. But after all I’ve seen, all I’ve learned… like I said, I’ll believe anything. Time traveling robots isn’t too big of a stretch, honestly. I’m more inclined to believe that than I am your denial of sleeping with Della 2.”

Oh, this again? Yeah, I did sleep with Della 2. I slept with Della 1, as well, but that was years ago.

“Babe, I’ve never touched that girl.”

“Woman, Richard. Woman. She’s twenty-four years old. You know, it’s really hard for a normal person to hide secrets in this cramped little ship. For a prophet, it’s damn near impossible. Plus you’re really bad at it.”

I reached out to touch her shoulder, but she pulled it away. She was pouting now.

“Alright,” I breathed, already regretting what I was about to say, “I admit it. I had sex with that woman.”

“That young woman. Younger than your saggy-tittied old wife. I get it. Guys like you are used to having any woman, or girl, that you want. Supermodels, actresses, hot young college girls…”

“Hey,” I said, leaning closer and looking into her eyes, “You’re the most beautiful woman in existence. I mean that.”

She laughed and shoved me away. “Oh, get over yourself, already. Your little cult might fall for your mind control bullshit, but I’ve lived with you long enough to know better.”

“You’re right,” I said. “That’s one of the things I most value about you–your raw honesty. You call me on my bullshit when no one else will, and I need that. It reels me in, keeps me down to–”

I looked out the window. “Down to Earth.”

“I’m glad you’re able to see that,” she said. “Acknowledging your own shortcomings isn’t exactly your strong suit.”

I grinned. “Well that’s because I’m rarely wrong about anything. You are the only human being alive more perfect than me, so you’re the only one who can tell me when I’m in error.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Wow, that means a lot coming from a man who regards himself so highly.”

“Damn right. I worked hard for this ego.”

She looked away; twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “And I mean, it’s not like I haven’t had dalliances of my own.”

“Oh? With who?”

“Well…”

She wasn’t teasing–she seemed genuinely reluctant to answer.

“Might as well just spit it out. I can take it.”

“Alright,” she said. “It’s the guy you’ve been talking about for the past…however long this conversation has been going on.”

I’m not sure what kind of answer I was expecting, but it wasn’t that one. No. Surely not.

Cole?”

She shrugged. “Few months back, while you were so immersed in your little project, trying to upload yourself into a computer.”

“That little project is the future of mankind! It’ll enable us to live forever. You always downplay it and I hate that.”

“Right, yes, I know. You’re the great Prophet, sent to Earth in human form to deliver the faithful to the Promised Land.”

Don’t talk like that around my people. You know the teachings are crucial to maintaining order and discipline.”

“I know you think that. Guess what, though. I’m not the only one who knows it’s all a load of crap. Lots of other people think so, but they’re too afraid of this council you’ve established to say anything about it. They’re in a sort of prison.”

“We all are,” I said, my jaw tightening. “But they chose this life. You chose this life.” I went into the bathroom to discreetly do a bump, but she knew better.

“What are you going to do when you run out of cocaine, Richie?” she called through the open door as I simultaneously peed and rummaged through the medicine cabinet. “At the rate you’re going, you can’t possibly have much left.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” I said a moment later, stepping into her line of vision and snorting it right in front of her. “There’s plenty. Enough to last until I’m dead.”

“If you don’t slow down, that might be sooner than you expect.”

Without thinking of the consequences, I grabbed my cherry red Gibson SG–one of my most valued possessions–and swung it against the wall in a blind rage. I felt like I was hovering outside of myself, watching as, in slow motion, the mahogany corpse of my beloved guitar clattered to the ground, its neck snapped in two.

Morgan looked at it, then back at me. “Feel better?”

“Not really. I just want to know one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Why Cole? He’s a nerd. He’s even a little fat. He packin’ or something?”

She rolled her eyes and sighed hard. “You know what it is? He listened to me. I felt like a person again, not some damn… I don’t know, First Lady of space. He was interested in me. We talked about my childhood. Journalism school. Reminisced about things we miss about home.”

“Home is gone. Home is out there now.”

“You don’t know what the hell’s out there,” she snapped. “You don’t even know where you’re going. You’re a fake.”

Several scathing retorts formed in my brain and vied for the privilege of exiting my mouth first, but in the end I selected none of them, opting instead for icy silence.

I threw on a fresh robe and exited into the corridor, shutting the door on her demands that I divulge my destination.

What a slut.

EIGHT

The door to Cole’s quarters rattled beneath my pounding fist. “Cole! Cole!”

Fingers emerged and gripped the edge of the door. None of the automated doors on any of the passenger quarters worked–I’d had them all disabled to conserve power.

The door slid open, and there stood Cole, his wrinkled and smelly robe half-hanging off his naked, pudgy frame.

“What’s going on?” he had the nerve to ask me. He paused, then added “prophet,” in a tone that was just a shade snarkier than I was accustomed to from him.

“You had sex with Morgan,” I said, deciding the point blank approach was best. I didn’t want to beat around the bush and give him time to concoct any credible-sounding excuses.

His eyes widened, and he opened his mouth to speak.

“If the words about to come out of your mouth are lies, you’ll be sleeping in the stars tonight,” I told him.

“You wouldn’t dare. You’re many despicable things, but I don’t believe you’re a murderer.”

This is why I wasn’t supposed to hire you.”

“What? What are you talking about?” He was looking at me like I was crazy–a lot lot of people on board did. Morgan was right about that, and I couldn’t allow it to continue.

“Are you denying sleeping with her? Choose your answer carefully.”

“No,” he said, as if he suspected I had some sort of proof and was laying a trap for him.

“I appreciate your honesty. And you’re right. I wouldn’t murder anyone. There’s a big difference, however, between murder and justice.”

I punched him square in the nose, knocking him out cold. I snapped my fingers as he collapsed to the floor, and the two burly members of the Prophet Guard who’d accompanied me rushed in and hauled him to his feet. They cuffed and shackled him, and I motioned for them to follow me.

Cole, his feet dragging across the deck as they carried him, had half-achieved consciousness by the time we arrived at airlock B, and with a shove he stumbled forward into it. I followed him in and shut the door behind us. It clicked and hissed, and a voice said “Seal achieved. It is now safe to open the secondary door.”

I wrapped a tether around my arm.

I regretted having to do what I was about to do. Cole had been invaluable to me for years, and without his hacking skills, the government’s attempted drone strike against our compound during the standoff would have been successful, forever altering the course of history by dooming mankind to extinction.

There are some lines, though, that even a hero must not step across.

“You brought this on yourself, Turner.”

He lurched towards me, his shackles clanking, but halted when I placed a finger on the control panel.

“Come on, man,” he said, almost laughing. “Joke’s gone far enough. I get it, ok? I shouldn’t have messed around with her, but I just assumed it was okay, the way things are on this ship. Everybody hooks up with everybody at some point. You know that.”

“Yes,” I said. “I do know that. So why, out of all the women you could’ve chosen to press your naked, pasty flesh against, did you choose the Prophet Mother?”

I thought I saw a glimpse of a smirk on his bruised and swollen face. “That’s what you call her. She doesn’t like it. Never did. You really don’t know your wife very well, do you?”

“Oh, and you do, I suppose. Lemme tell you something, Cole. She’s not what she seems. She was a reporter. Reporters know how to manipulate people to get what they want. They can be whatever you need them to be. And you got suckered in, guy. Just like I did.”

“I swear, I’ll never touch her again. Now come on, let’s get out of here. You’ve made your point.”

“Not quite,” I said, and tapped the panel. As I did so, the primary door behind me whisked open and Morgan burst in.

“No!” She started to scream, but her voice was silenced as the second door opened to space.

Holding onto a tether with one hand, she reached out and managed to snatch Cole by the sleeve of his robe as the Effugium tried its damnedest to blow him into the cold, dark void.

After expelling every bit of air from my lungs and using all of the strength I could muster, I pulled myself back towards the panel to close the door. My two guards came tumbling past me, bouncing off the walls and colliding with Morgan and Cole. All four of them were blasted through the door and out into the savage, unforgiving vacuum outside of the ship.

I shut the door and gasped for air as oxygen once again filled the chamber.

It didn’t take long for them to die, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. As I watched the still form of my beloved Morgan swell to the point of near-bursting before drifting off into eternity, I changed. The man known as Richard Kryuss was dead. In his place? Something… else.

Kryuss II was naturally overwhelmed with grief over the loss of the woman he’d come to regard as his mother. Something changed in him, too. He finished that damned depressing pipe organ a few years later, and forced everyone to listen as he played it. No matter where you went, there it was–there was no escaping it.

I lost more than a wife that day, and he lost more than a mother. We both lost our minds, and it was all my fault.

No one knew that, of course. There were no witnesses remaining to damn me. Everyone believed me when I told them that Cole attempted to murder me because he was hopelessly in love with the Prophet Mother. Morgan sacrificed herself to save me from that madman who’d trapped me in the airlock, and I barely managed to escape with my life.

The incident, at first, only served to further endear me to my followers, and I plunged headlong into a rancid pool of self-parodying tyranny. I believed my own hype, and everyone suffered for it.

I should have listened to myself.

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