chapter 6

start at the beginning
read chapter 5

*******************

Kurt called a meeting. Nathan realized it when Anomia came charging around the corner heading for his lunch counter, her hair flying and her heels clacking. He almost never saw her.

But today she had seized the excuse to flee from the snarling managers and their hellish project. She said she was going to the bathroom, but punched the elevator button instead, leaving a pack of barely-civil minions swarming around her desk.

Freedom washed over her as the elevator opened on the lobby. There was nobody there; all the office droids were back at work and the foodcourt was dead, with only the slams and rattles of vendors closing up shop. She sailed thru the corridors as if she were on an empty ocean.

She got something from Nathan’s salad bar and settled down to eat, staring off into space and slipping back into her vision. It was something she did whenever she felt stressed. Their Antarctica, surrounded by a deep silence, and cut off from all the daily nonsense.

She was floating a couple of thousand feet above her favorite island, the last of the Transantarctic chain, with an intricate little harbor on the leeside. She daydreamed the view from her wide porch, sitting in her rocking chair looking across a vivid green lawn down to the boats bobbing at anchor. The sea sparkled. The mountains swept on beyond the curve of the earth. She felt the warmth of the sun and the wind blowing thru her hair. A bird called – what kind was it?

***

Nathan precleaned the surfaces of the B’stro D L’te, wiping down things he might or might not have to clean again – counters, drink machine, display case.

Caroline walked up and leaned against one of those spots, sticking her hand way down the back of her shirt to scratch between her shoulder blades, grunting with every scritch. “So,” she said, lowering her arm and peering under her fingernails, “I got assigned to work Dragoncon, did I tell you?” She gazed over the top of his head at the cookie case, feeling peckish. “Unfortunately it’s floor work again. I’ll tell you something, they’re going to have to pay me extra this time.”

Nathan nodded. “You deserve it,” he said. He scrubbed something gooey off the door. “I’ll be at Dragoncon, too. It’ll be my first year – I’ve already bought my ticket.” He dipped his rag into the tub of bleach water and squeezed it out. The sharp smell of bleach made his nose sting. He knelt down and started wiping the back of the case, wondering if he should discuss his costume ideas with her.

Yeah, no.” She laughed, “Sorry, kid, everybody works Dragoncon. You’ll probably have to work all four days. Maybe you’ll get Monday off.” She shook her finger at him in warning, then reached over to the cookie case and pried the door open, leaving grubby prints all over it.

Nathan jumped up and dropped his rag into the tub. He grabbed the tongs and got Caroline a cookie. “I guess I’d better talk to my boss. I got Mom a ticket, too.” He wrung out his rag and recleaned the cookie case.

I’ll have a word,” she assured him, leering at him as she took a large bite.

Um,” he tried to decline, “I’ll be okay.” He’d be fired on the spot.

***

Down at the other end of the foodcourt, Fairy came flouncing down the aisle, swinging her arms and hips, making sure everybody who wanted to could enjoy her catlike grace and captivating beauty.

Caroline watched her dawdle past a display rack. “Here’s someone I want to meet,” she said, grabbing her crotch and squeezing. “I sure hope she tries to steal something so I can apprehend her.”

Nathan rolled his eyes. :roll:

Fairy came up to the counter and leaned against the glass, accentuating her ample cleavage. “Hi,” she smiled at Nathan, who blushed. She nodded to Caroline, then scanned the salads in the display case. “Can I have the chicken penne pesto, please?”

Sure thing.” Nathan loaded a box.

Caroline sniggered and elbowed Fairy. “Penne. That’s mexican for cock. Didja know that? Don’t they look like little dicks?”

Fairy looked her up and down and turned back to Nathan. “Can I have a diet smartwater, too? Thanks.”

Caroline caught Nathan’s eye and mimicked doing Fairy from behind. She smiled at his discomfort and would have kept on, but she spotted two suspicious guys entering the far end of the hall, and headed off to surveil them. “I’ll be back for dessert,” she called, pumping her fist suggestively.

***

Anomia was in a pine-scented clearing on the crest of the hill, tending her garden and enjoying the sun. She could hear seals barking in the harbor. She pulled the weeds and ate the ripe berries, listening to the bees buzzing, scrabbling in the soft dirt with her bare toes. She was happy.

Suddenly a cup of coffee plunked down on the table next to her, like a firecracker going off in her face. She started violently.

Sorry. You must have been really far away,” Fairy said, sitting next to her and piling her things on the table.

Anomia shook herself, and started to rub her legs, which had fallen asleep. “I can’t come of out of it sometimes. Hours go by and I’m still in there piddling around. And I never remember what I was doing.”

***

The boys came into the foodcourt together, ignoring the girls and heading for the coffee stand. Snake whipped out a flask and spiked their coffee at the condiment counter, winking at Caroline as she passed by with a scowl on her face.

Let’s go off to the smoking balcony and burn one,” Snake suggested.

Nah,” Josh said, resigned. “They’ve seen us.”

Snake looked around. “Yeah? Well, where’s the star of our show? Come on.”

And they ducked out into the open air with their coffees. It was hot and humid as only Atlanta air can be, and noisy from the traffic below, and smelly from the exhaust, so they powered thru the joint and got back into the air conditioning. They joined the girls, and spent a few minutes watching them eat, then went and got their own stbx food from the chinese express in the corner.

***

They sat together at a table near the center aisle, waiting for Kurt. Anomia kept checking the time and wondering if they missed her upstairs yet.

Fairy noticed. “Got a date?”

“A deadline, of course,” she smiled grimly. “A vitally important deadline. And I’m risking my job to be here.”

“Poor you,” Fairy sympathized, checking her phone for messages. “I’m waiting on a date.”

The boys were playing football with the garnish from their coffees, flicking roasted beans across the table thru goalpost fingers, their open food containers lining the field like stands.

“What’s all this bullshit, anyway?” Snake grumbled, missing his shot. “Don’t we all have better things to do?”

“He must have finished the game engine, or he’d have never called us,” Anomia reasoned as she ate one last bite of salad and closed the container.

Snake laughed as Josh’s shot went wide. “I was not at all impressed with the quantum speck he showed us last time.”

“I must say I’m looking forward to the next phase,” Fairy confessed, eyeing Snake’s goopy chicken. She leaned over and used her extra long fingernails to spear a big piece. “While we’re at it,” she complained, “nobody’s filling out their progress sheets. You have no idea how hard you’re making it for me.” She licked the sauce off her fingers and reached for another.

“Do it yourself if you want them filled out,” Snake snapped, moving the box out of her reach.

Fairy sulked. Anomia checked the time. Snake made smacking noises as he ate.

***

“I wonder what’s keeping him,” Josh said, breaking an extended silence.

“He’s being very secretive,” Fairy observed. “He hasn’t answered any of my emails.”

“I wouldn’t either,” Snake said. “I mean, it’s not like you ever get to the point.” He made a face at Josh. “If I wanted missives I’d read a blog.” Josh grinned.

“Wow, that’s really insensitive, Snake,” Anomia protested.

“Sorry,” he sneered.

Nathan was sweeping the front of his store, just a few yards from their table. “Kurt talks to me,” he said.

They turned to him in surprise.

“So how’s he doing, then?” Snake asked, one side of his mouth curling up.

“Fine.” Nathan continued sweeping.

“With the project, I mean.” Snake made hurry-up motions with his hand.

“Well, he’s about finished with the game engine.”

“I knew it,” Josh said.

Snake looked incredulous.

“And he’s updating the interface…”

“Do you know why we’re sitting here right now?” Snake interrupted him.

“Uh, no?” Nathan was round eyed.

“You do know what we’re working on, don’t you?” Snake demanded, his voice rising. The boy nodded. “Isn’t this some sort of security breech?” he asked the others, outraged.

“Snake,” cautioned Anomia.

But Nathan wanted to show off. “You’re making a videogame based on that vision you had that gave you special powers,” he said. Josh and Anomia nodded. Snake was still. “And Kurt made a quantum computer, and now he’s making a bunch of game development apps for it. That’s about it, right? Oh yeah, and he’s working on an immersion rig, too.”

Snake made a fist and pounded the table. “He’s telling everybody. I thought he had some discretion. Way too many people would be interested in our little project. And he’s blabbing to fucking kids.”

Nathan put his head down and moved away to sweep somewhere else.

“Chill out, dude,” Josh said. “I just hope he’s not expecting us to work on that weak-ass phone he showed us last time. My eyes’ll go bad laying down static mesh.”

“Phones would be hard to work on,” Anomia agreed. “We use Wacom tablets and 22-inch monitors upstairs.”

“Hush up,” Fairy said. “Here he comes.”

They turned, but it wasn’t Kurt. It was some IT manager on his way to a meeting. He was built like Kurt, but didn’t shamble. His glasses were unbroken, his hair was neatly pulled back.

“It’s not him,” Josh said. “Kurt never trims his beard.”

“He’s wearing corporate casual,” Anomia laughed at their mistake. “Those are pressed slacks.”

“And new shoes,” Fairy said. “Hey, I want a messenger bag like that.”

Snake asked, “Is that a phone velcroed to his wrist?”

The closer he got, the more confused they were. He never looked like Kurt, but he walked like him, and finally he veered right at them and slowed to a stop in front of their table, glancing at each of them in turn.

***

After weeks of work, Kurt emerged from his magic Airstream with a quantum operating system that ran on ordinary computers. He was very pleased with himself. Whatever else happened during those weeks (which he would never remember), he returned from his shamanic idyll clutching a full-featured quantum tablet.

He was horrifying to look at after weeks in his van. He was sticky, his eyes were glopped closed at the corners, his clothes were on wrong. Shards of ramen dusted his hair. Several incomplete tattoos peeked from the edges of his shirt. They puzzled him. And they itched.

Kurt drove to the factory outlet mall, bought new glasses and a bunch of new clothes, showered at a truckstop, medicated his tattoos, washed his van, and gorged himself at a buffet restaurant. Then he came back to town, got his split ends trimmed, and went for a mani-pedi. He felt that good about himself. He indulged in fantasies of saving the world with his quantum kernel and being crowned chief genius.

He gave himself a fright seeing his reflection on the way back to his van. Jesus, I look like a narc, he thought, noticing a tag dangling from his collar. He yanked it off, ripping the seam. Oh well. He stopped for a cup of coffee on the way to the meeting, suddenly nervous about handing his precious kernel over to the philistines. He started to regret getting so pimped out, but felt better once he spilled coffee on his pants.

***

Snake was the first to recover as Kurt stood there looking from one to the other. “Ah, that’s why he’s late – he was taking a bath.”

Kurt frowned and thumped his carrier bag onto the table, flipping the lid over to rummage thru it. Fairy fingered the leather admiringly.

“Hey Kurt,” Snake said, pointing at Nathan. “Who’s the knowitall kid?”

Kurt straightened up. “That’s my apprentice.” He saw them exchanging looks. “What, you think I talk about this with everybody? I never talk to anybody.” He reached back into the bag. “I brought stuff,” he said, passing out four tablet computers.

“Not iPads?” Snake asked sadly.

Kurt shrugged. “They’re ten-inch android tablets with some useful freeware I installed, a custom game engine I wrote, stickon solar batteries I printed, and this cool reactive touchscreen I hacked. Everything you need.” He handed out diy stylus pens, and closed his bag.

“Did you buy them?” Snake asked. “They’re refurbished,” he replied vaguely.

Snake turned his over, suspicious. “Tell me, was it new before you started ripping it apart? Because, I mean – duct tape? It didn’t break when it fell off the truck, did it?” “Everything runs a bit differently with the kernel,” Kurt continued, ignoring Snake. They sat staring at their tablets. Nobody had a question. “I’ve read your emails,” he continued.

Fairy shot a victorious look at Snake – my emails.

“You’re complaining about having to do a lot of subplots and miniquests,” Kurt indicated Josh, “and how repetitive the design process is,” he nodded at Fairy. “So I put a lot of autocomplete into it. The kernel kind of lends itself to that.”

“Don’t tell us it looks like a paper clip, or talks,” Snake muttered.

Kurt shrugged. “I haven’t tackled any of the complicated stuff, so the game engine is pretty basic at this point, but I’m happy with it.” The truth was that he’d been sleep programming, and when he awoke with his face in a bowl of coffee ramen, the game engine was written.

The girls made awed and grateful noises. “Amateurs,” Snake muttered, lifting his tablet by its duct tape tail and letting it thump back onto the table. “I’m curious,” he said. “Where’s the kernel? Is there only one?”

“It’s a meaningless question.” Kurt replied shortly, and then reconsidered. “Okay, yes and no. There’s kind of only one, because I only made one, and it’s a physical thing. I showed it to you.”

Snake shook his head. “We failed to see it, but that’s okay. Go on.”

“Well, inside the kernel there are millions of seeds, I guess you’d call them. Plus, it’s been uploaded to your tablets, so now there are copies of the software portion.”

“I guess that’s a ‘no it’s not the only one’,” Snake said impatiently. “Except for the actual chip, which is still taped to your wristphone, right?”

Kurt frowned. “No, that wasn’t a good idea. The tape came unstuck and I had a hard time telling which speck of dust it was, so I just put the whole thing somewhere safe. The tablets use wifi, or strictly speaking, entanglement.”

“I mean, you’ll have a working prototype to show investors, right?” Snake reminded him. “And when you patent it.”

Kurt chuckled dryly. “Yeah, like I could document any of it,” he said. “Anyway, I’d release it open source.”

Snake winced. Open source meant free. He tossed his tablet on the table with a thunk. “I don’t know, you’re a genius and all, Kurt, and quantum is really earthshaking, but we’re just making a videogame. Why can’t we just use something that’s had all the bugs worked out, something with a label on it, and 24/7 customer support?”

Because we don’t have a budget?” Anomia said. “You’d think that would be clear enough. The cheapest, barest version of Maya is four thousand dollars a seat. And training is just as expensive.”

“We could use unlicensed copies.”

“You mean pirated ones.”

Snake shrugged.

“We can’t afford it,” she stated. “We’ll do the job with what we’ve got. There’s no shame in that.”

“There is so,” Snake protested. “I’m ashamed, personally and professionally. And I blame the person with the tight purse strings and no foresight.”

She shook her head firmly. “We’re not going into debt. We’re not selling control. We’re going to use the tools we have, and just make a simple game, like the angel said.”

“I can’t tell you how tired I am of hearing about that angel,” Snake whined. “We are not in it for your vision.” The others looked at him. “Okay, whatever. I thought you were more sophisticated than that. All’s I’m saying is, it’s shameful how much time you’re wasting doing it the hardest possible way, when you could be having a blast developing this game.”

He threw up his hands and looked around at them. “You’re just not serious, or you’d patent the kernel and trademark the engine, and get investors and buy proper tools. Pay yourselves a salary. Eat decent food.” He gestured at their surroundings. “We could be in a conference room over at the Marriott having this little presentation, but no, we have to do our business in front of all the homeless people in Atlanta.” He pointed contemptuously at Caroline sloughing across the atrium. “What does she possibly have to invest?”

“There’s no need for investors,” Kurt said. “Everything’s ready to go, you just have to make your videogame.”

Snake gagged himself.

The tablet makes my fingers tingle,” Anomia said, flexing her hands.

I don’t notice anything,” Fairy said. “And I’ve got lots of experience with low voltage electric fields.”

Snake rolled his eyes. “I’ll bet. Therapeutic, right?”

As well as,” Fairy said, looking him up and down.

“It makes my palms itch,” Josh said.

Snake made a rude gesture.

“The kernel does biofeedback,” Kurt explained, his right hand twitching. “It’ll make superpower training a snap.”

Snake turned to Kurt. “When you want to manifest something, the kernel reads your, what? Your intentions, your thoughts?”

Kurt fiddled with his wristphone. “Whatever you want, wherever there’s a sensor. Tiny movements, like nerve impulses or muscle tension. Brainwaves. It’ll know when you’re lying, it’ll know what you’re feeling, it’ll know when you’re dehydrated or running a fever. Hell, it’ll finish your sentences after you’ve had it on awhile.”

He showed off his experimental haptic glove. They hadn’t noticed it yet (Fairy thought he had palsy), but Kurt’s right hand was covered with tiny wires, clipped to his fingertips and held to his wrist with a rubber band. “I haven’t quite decided on the design specifics yet.” It would depend entirely on what he could find lying around the magic Airstream. “You’ll be able to make them yourself, tho.”

“Yay,” Snake said without enthusiasm.

“Well, that problem’s solved,” Fairy said. “The kernel picks up the right vibe, your character develops superpowers.”

“But how does it know what you’re thinking?” Snake repeated. “I mean, whether you’re trying to manifest a beer or a blow job? Does it see the picture in your mind?”

“That’d have to be pretty sophisticated,” Josh agreed.

Kurt shrugged. “Maybe it picks up subvocalizations.”

Fairy felt her throat.

Okay, maybe it can pick up your thoughts somehow,” Snake said, “which I have trouble believing. But how do we tell it how to respond?”

“Well, obviously, it knows the intent of the game,” Kurt extemporized, “and knows that you want to facilitate it whenever possible, so it probably goes out of its way to enhance what you’re looking for.”

“I’m not sure that was an answer. How do you get the kernel to materialize something?”

Kurt just looked at him. “I don’t know,” he said honestly.

But Snake didn’t believe him. “How can they do it?” He pointed at Josh and Anomia.

“Anomia answered. “Because the angel gave us powers that you obviously don’t believe in. So we can talk to each other in our heads. And we can make stuff out of nothing. And we can fly.”

“Oh, right, that,” he said bleakly. “How come you’re not manifesting cups of coffee then? I’m thirsty.”

Anomia and Josh looked at each other.

“It doesn’t feel right,” she finally said.

“It doesn’t work very well,” Josh said at the same time.

***

Once the quantum kernel came online, they practically sprayed their gameworld from a firehose. It took all their work, all the thousands of files and the contents of spreadsheets, their search results, even their chat messages and browser history, and transformed it all into the gameworld, just like that. The kernel optimized everything, so Fairy’s (Radhu’s) characters were completely lifelike, and Snake’s awkward animations were smooth and graceful.

They could walk thru any area of the gameworld and alter its properties with a wave of their hand. But the kernel’s quantumagical powers were no match for the dysfunction. The team changed goals and mileposts arbitrarily, colonized overlapping areas of responsibility, and discouraged feedback. Communication sucked. Fairy put pink gingerbread trim on all the buildings on the carnival level, and Snake came along after her and aged everything until the color bleached out and the trim broke off. There was a flurry of rapidly changing game sets until Anomia put her foot down.

“I don’t know,” Anomia said in a chat meeting a week or so later. “What we’ve got works great as a carnival, really. It’s just that it’s so slick, so commercial. It looks like…I don’t know, a theme park. I half expect to see parking lots when I look out to sea.” She looked a little sheepish. “I’ve been thinking,” she started.

And thus began a downward spiral toward chaos, as the team prepared to totally rearrange their world on a whim. Once again.

This time the idea was to turn it into a winter wonderland. “After all, Antarctica is cold, right?” she argued. “And the kernel does biofeedback, so we could feel the cold. And if you eliminate friction, the rest of classical physics is emphasized. Wait a minute, maybe we should set this level in space, where there’s no gravity.”

They voted down the space idea right away, but toyed with the frozen wasteland theme, going as far as testing the carnival level in the snow. But icicles and frost made it look abandoned and spooky. And they had to drag themselves thru snowdrifts.

They found themselves dressed in pink snowsuits, with thick steam billowing from their lungs as they shuffled toward the entrance of the hub. Their eyebrows formed icicles. Cold wind blasted them and snow whited out their vision. Their noses dripped and the snot froze on their faces.

Can we kill the blizzard?” Snake asked, coughing. “I just hate this.”

Fairy tried to argue that wind resistance would help build up their psychic muscles, but the rest agreed that subzero temperatures weren’t very much fun.

The sun came out and the snow melted.

Snake was disgusted, and left for a meeting.

***

Twenty minutes later, Josh got a text. “Snake lost his tablet,” he reported to the group.

Anomia was alarmed. “He what? When?”

“Just now, on the train,” he said, tho the message clearly read ‘bar’. “It just disappeared. He says the guy next to him stole it.”

“Hmph,” she said.

He looked at Kurt. “He asking if you’ll make him another one.” Kurt shrugged and gazed off into space, his fingers twitching.

Fairy saw Kurt’s passivity and frowned. “And why can’t he face Kurt and ask him himself?”

Oh, come on, he’s embarrassed,” Anomia said. “I wouldn’t want to ask for another one if mine got stolen.”

Fairy softened. “I’m sorry I’m so hard on him,” she confessed. “He’s just so lazy and negligent. I mean, he hasn’t done much work at all on this project, but he criticizes every little thing.”

“You know he’s busy with other stuff,” Josh defended him. “He’d like to put in the hours, but he’s got a life.”

Anomia stiffened. “I work overtime at my job,” she pointed out, “and here I am, working full time on the game too.”

“Where does he get off,” Fairy muttered.

“Cut him some slack, you two. He’s really valuable, you’ll see.”

“Hmph.”

***

Kurt hoisted his messenger bag and left before they started asking questions, but paused to say hey to Nathan, who was hauling trash to the service elevator.

“So, what are you going to do now that you’ve got a working game engine?” he asked, swinging the trashbag thru the open door.

Kurt shook his head. “I’m not finished, even tho it’s pretty awesome just as it is.” He paused, leaning forward. “The important thing isn’t this silly game software I wrote in my sleep one night, or this next generation haptic gear that will totally change the industry. The important thing is the quantum kernel and the operating system, the features of which I’m only just discovering, to be honest.” He scratched his head. “It’s so intricately wrapped around a tiny quantum instance, it’s the largest computer in the universe. It’s…” he almost said ‘alive’. He shrugged. “It’s pretty damned intuitive, but I’m not sure exactly how it works.”

“The fairies made it while you were sleeping, huh?”

“What do you mean?” he asked sharply, thinking of Tesla and Reich.

“No, it’s just a saying Mom uses,” Nathan said, flustered. “It means you probably spaced out and don’t remember doing whatever it is.”

“Right, that’s the point. I don’t remember writing it. It was all finished and locked down when I woke up.”

“Locked?”

“Yeah, and I don’t know the password. And because the encryption is way fucking quantum, I’ll never break it.”

“Oh.” He pressed a button inside the elevator and came back out. The trash went to the basement.

Kurt scratched the same spot. Wisps of hair came loose from his ponytail and floated around his temple. “There’s so much to learn, I’ll never be able to document it. Plus,” he leaned closer, looking worried, “I’m not sure it isn’t changing.” He grimaced. “Getting smarter.”

Nathan wiped his hands on his apron. You mean, like Hal?”

Kurt waved the idea away. “Nah, I don’t mean to scare you.”

Joshua in War Games?”

“No, stop. Not like that. More benevolent, like the Oversoul in the Homecoming Saga. Maybe. Tho how I can possibly know at this point…” He trailed off. “And anyway it’s locked, and there’s only one of them, so what harm can come?”

***

Fairy got the message she was waiting for, and left with a swing in her step, blowing a kiss at Nathan who was studying at his table.

He watched Josh and Anomia sit and stare at their tablets for a long time, looking like public art. They were breathing, and their eyes were open, and they were holding onto their tablets, but they might as well have been asleep. He walked around them, cleaning off a small pile of drink cups and food boxes, and peered at their tablets, which were running screensavers.

He pointed them out to Caroline when she came skulking thru on her rounds.

“What are they doing?” she asked, sitting down opposite him and prying her shoes off for a quick footrub.

“They’re videogame developers,” he said with pride. “I’m going to do that someday.”

“I don’t know,” Caroline said, wincing with pain as she jabbed her thumbs into her feet. “Sounds like a hobby. Weren’t they all sitting there playing videogames?”

“No, they were trying out new software. I wish I could have seen what they were doing.” Nathan gazed at Anomia with concern. “I think she gets lost in there. She was supposed to go back to work.”

Caroline gawked hungrily. “Spooky. They must be really fucked up, ya think?” She rubbed her hands together, staring at Anomia’s frozen back.

Nathan looked at his homework. “She says strange things have been happening since…this all started,” he fudged, not wanting to gossip.

“Since their so-called vision, you mean?” She knew all about it. “Brain damage from drug abuse, that’s how I see it. We should go do something to them while they’re like that,” she smirked at Nathan.

“Those tablets are completely experimental,” he said, sighing. “They have no idea how advanced they are. I want one so bad.”

“Story of my life,” Caroline said, and levered herself upright to continue her rounds.

***

Kurt made his way back to his van, dosed up, and stretched out with his seat reclined all the way back. He hated sleeping. Not exactly that; he hated having to relearn the same lessons every day, one twitching synapse at a time. Oh yeah, lighters are bad for mustaches. Duh, ignition turns clockwise. Whoa, is that me, how’d I get so old? He endured the physical pain of being conscious only with tremendous willpower, and hours of grumpy moping over coffee and cigarettes.

Rather than living with the torture, Kurt decided to eliminate sleep, and replace it with perpetual insomnia. It would take something to keep him up and functioning for long periods of time (provigil). He could use OTC aids in a pinch (caffeine and decongestants), and when that didn’t work anymore, go for a controlled crash, with steroids and opiates to suppress slow wave sleep, and parasomniaids like ambien and propranolol so he could sleep-program (a productive use of otherwise wasted downtime).

If he got it wrong, he could end up like a meth addict. If he tweaked it right, he should be able to stay up for a month at a time, only nodding off for short, precisely orchestrated baths of sleep, with a good amnesiac to blank out the howling nightmares.

A few days passed.

Except that time was different for Kurt. With an enthusiast’s history of drug use and his growing mental connection to the quantum kernel, time passed every which way, like corn in a popper, the chain of events all jumbled together in his memory. Sometimes time ran backwards. Sometimes shit sprang into existence, did its thing, and then disappeared, and he was the only one who noticed.

At the moment, there was a red light blinking in the upper left corner of his glasses, which may have been going on for a long time. It was the incoming mail signal on his prototype headset, a message from Fairy. He got nervous whenever she tried to contact him. He could never tell if she was going to be annoyingly businesslike, or send him a nude photo of herself. This time it was a request for an updated list of game assets. He ignored it. That was something the kernel kept up with.

***

Fairy emailed everybody as she pulled into the parking lot of her ancient apartment building in Little Five Points. She got out of the car, avoided the needles and used rubbers on the path, and jiggled and kicked the front door open. The hall was painted dirty cream and smudged at waist level all along its length. Worn hardwood floors shot splinters into bare feet (Fairy was wearing stilettos). A fluorescent bulb stuttered and hummed. She grabbed her mail and went thru it briefly as she walked the twisting hall to her door, noted the shutoff notices and tax bills, then dumped it all in the trash and fished around for her keys, not sure if she’d put them in her bag or her pocket, or if maybe she was clutching them in her other hand. The key turned on the third try, and she entered her dark and cozy apartment, a shrine to the 1930s, a study in reds and blacks, with thrift store furniture, ancient appliances, painted-shut windows, old wiring, and noisy pipes. The warm fragrance of the cat box surrounded her like incense.

Fairy fed her cats, checking for signs of human food, then changed into something more comfortable (her satin Marilyn Monroe bathrobe) and checked her Facebook page. Not her personal page, but her BDSM page, where her screename was Nightmare. She discovered a client waiting, a guy she actually enjoyed picking on. Which would pay one of those bills nicely.

She’d been planning to work on the videogame – the pesky asset inventory nobody wanted to complete. With fresh meat waiting to be scourged, all she had time for was a followup message while she changed into her work gear and ran back out to the car.

“peeps, VITAL i gt yr updatd list of assets by FRI. includz UUID. Peace, ^F^”

***

Josh made a bothered noise. Anomia glanced over as she cruised the parking lot for a space. “It’s Fairy again, bugging us about the asset database.” He walked around theghetto Kroger, filling in the spreadsheet with a bunch of made up assets. Then he sent it back with a savage grin on his face. Anomia thought to chide him, but let it go. She tried to remember what she’d completed recently, but it was all a blur.

“Did Snake get another tablet?” She asked Josh at the checkout.

Josh laughed and grabbed the magazine with a half-naked girl on the cover. “Get this, Kurt gave him an iPhone with the kernel installed on it.”

She shrugged, loading the groceries onto the belt. “He wanted one, didn’t he? Does it work?”

He paged thru the magazine absently. “The back was scratched, but otherwise it’s fine. He says Kurt’s going out of his way to dis him.” Snake had gone on at length about what a mistake it was to insult the team’s marketing genius.

She fished her wallet out and hoped the total wasn’t too high, shifting the nonessentials to the end in case she ran out of money. “Yeah, well, I guess the lesson is don’t lose your custom equipment, eh?”

***

Snake drove to tony Buckhead after a meeting. He was always very careful not to be followed. He stayed in an anonymous townhouse in a gated community where nobody knew anyone else, and he could drive unseen into his one-car garage and be safe from prying eyes behind privacy blinds and never-opened windows.

There was a well-worn path from the garage door to the stairs thru an empty kitchen and an unlit hall and a vacant livingroom. Upstairs, he used one bedroom as his office, the bookshelves stuffed with computer manuals but also showing an interest in the occult, manipulating friends and influencing people, making millions in real estate, illuminati conspiracies, body language and psychology. A second bedroom was always locked with a padlock. Snake didn’t go in, didn’t even think about it as he went past.

The master suite was decorated in jungle predator, with an emphasis on leopard prints and spears. No books, but an inhome theater with all the trimmings, and cameras all over the house and grounds. He had everything he needed to make his own porn, but he never had visitors. Snake didn’t want anyone getting to know him. He was too dangerous and important for that. He wanted a series of conquests and pleasant memories with zero calories and no aftertaste.

He ate something random from the freezer, and then worked silently, lit only by the screen of his iPhone. He was supposed to be animating characters for the game, but he spent his evening looking at what the others were doing, heaping scorn on their work with an enthusiasm he usually tried to hide.

Finally he opened Fairy’s message. Asset counts. Her tone offended him, so he deleted it and blocked her address. He’d already hacked her account; why be tormented?

***

A few days later, Snake met Josh at the pub. Snake was late, of course; he was out being a playa. Josh was deep into his work on the gameworld when he arrived. Snake sat down beside him and noticed that his beer was flat. “Hey, man, you going to drink that? It looks like it’s been sitting there all day.”

Josh made no response. He was staring into the display, moving his stylus up and down slowly, adjusting a minute detail at high magnification. Then another. Finally satisfied, he saved his work, put the stylus down, and reached for his beer. Only then did he notice Snake sitting next to him, studying his face.

“Tell me, do you have these spells a lot?”

“What are you talking about?” He drank the rest of his beer in one pull. “Wow, I’ve got to pee.”

“I’m talking about you sitting there for almost an hour, with your hands twitching and your eyes blank. I tried to get your attention forever. Even the barman was worried.”

Josh looked around. The pub was full of office types drowning their corporate sorrows. It was dark outside. He checked the time. “No wonder I’ve got to pee,” he said, and got up.

“What were you doing?” Snake asked him.

“Editing the level, of course,” Josh said, and disappeared into the crowd, feeling light, as if he were on stilts.

Snake tried to pull up Josh’s work, but the screensaver rained code until Josh returned and brushed his fingers over the surface. Snake picked up the tablet, which instantly returned to the screensaver. He turned it over and examined the sides, then ran his thumbnail under the edge of the screen and showed Josh something sticky. “Look, it’s leaking. See this gunk? It’s that gel stuff that expands to make the keyboard. It’s oozing out. It’s probably radioactive, and you’ve got it all over your hands.”

He looked sideways at Josh, who was sniffing his fingers. Then he sighed and dropped the tablet back on the table. “As defective as they are, I’ve got to have a proper tablet. I can’t do my work on that tiny little screen he forced on me.” He worked himself up slightly. “It’s getting ridiculous. It’s all Kurt’s fault.”

“What is?” Josh was puzzled.

“If he supplied me with adequate tools, everything would be fine.”

“What, you lost your iPhone already?” he guessed. “It broke?”

“It was knocked out of my hand.” Snake delivered an involved tale about the weather, a bus stop, hostile passengers, and a blind bus driver. “A thousand bits of plastic lay scattered on the ground,” he finished sadly, spreading his hands. “I need another one. Tell him a real one this time, okay?”

***

A few days later, Anomia came home ‘early’, evading pressure to stay until 10 (midnight) on a vital project they’d left until the last minute. There were dishes piled up in the sink, an overfull trashcan, half a container of milk on the counter. And the dog had peed on the floor.

Because Josh didn’t technically live there, she was always somehow not supposed to ask him to do any of the work that obviously needed to be done. Normally she just went ahead and did it herself, hoping he’d notice, feel guilty, and pitch in. It was easier to do it all than to get into repeated discussions about why he should give a fuck.

They’d been together long enough for the shine to wear off. She loved him deeply from the moment he backed into her at the video store and slung an arm around her so she wouldn’t fall. He was warm and protective, and in the early days wouldn’t let her lift a finger, as if she might shatter under pressure. After a couple of years, he turned out to be not quite as bright as a lightbulb, and she wasn’t as helpless as he thought. At times his attention was cloying and restrictive, and she was a real bitch. But he still traded on how much he loved her and all the things he did for her, even tho he didn’t actually do anything these days. Now that he was hanging around Snake, he’d gotten kind of insulting and swaggering, as if it were his apartment and she was the freeloader.

He all but moved in when they started on the project, six months ago, eight months ago. And she paid all the bills and bought his beer and probably cigarettes, now that she thought about it. The ones he’d been sneaking, after telling her he’d quit. She could sense it, even tho he denied it. She could feel him edging away emotionally, hiding like a little kid. But she kept giving him the benefit of the doubt because she could very well be wrong, a possibility which was stressed heavily during every one of their discussions about why he didn’t give a fuck.

***

Anomia trudged up the stairs to where Josh was lying on the bed playing World of Warcraft on the largest cheap flatscreen TV she could afford. “I called for chinese,” he announced, blasting the hell out of an opposing position. “General Chao for you. No MSG.”

He looked like he wanted praise for his thoughtfulness, but Anomia counted up the bill in her head, plus tip, and decided she’d have to put it on the credit card, which was getting close to its limit. She’d suggest a home cooked meal, but they both knew she wasn’t serious. She’d be serious when she brought home the groceries and cooked the food, and then cleaned up after it. Until then it was a choice between going out, delivery, and frozen.

He continued to play his videogame while she put away her things and changed her clothes, patting the bed next to him and inching over, still firing at enemies. She powered up her tablet and selected a carnival asset. She was working in the arcade, doing an art pass on the Break-a-Plate game. Picking the pattern for the china, to be precise. Her only fun these days was in disregarding the presets and specifying everything herself.

The kernel indexed 5 million images of china, displaying an array of Anomia’s likely choices. Which she couldn’t argue with. She sighed and picked an absolutely wonderful pattern. Specifying the size of the plate, its fragility, and its condition, she assigned it a unique identifying number, saved it, and closed the file. She signed again and picked the next asset – a throwing hammer.

“What’s happening with Snake’s replacement iPhone replacement tablet?” she asked to distract herself.

Josh laughed, pausing between battles. “Kurt gave him a gameboy this time.”

She looked at him. “You’re kidding. Does it work?”

Josh shrugged. “Amazingly, yes. It’s slow, of course.” He killed another boss and gore exploded all over the screen.

“Do you think Kurt’s punishing him for losing them?”

Snake’s convinced, anyway” Josh answered, changing weapons for the next battle. “He says he’s too humiliated to pull it out of his pocket.”

She sighed and frowned at her work. “Well, it doesn’t much matter, because he’s not doing any work on the game.”

“He is too,” Josh protested. “He’s been animating characters like crazy.”

“Yeah, and they all move just like him.” Anomia sighed again. “He’s overdone the ragdoll animation. I’ve tried to tell him he needs to make them move from their core so players can practice generating chi, but I don’t think he understands.”

Josh avoided her eyes. Snake understood what she wanted, but thought the whole concept was nonsense and refused to go along with it. The big boss appeared. Josh blasted him with everything he had.

The food came, and Anomia jumped at the sound of the bell. Josh put his game aside to eat, but she worked right thru dinner, fiddling with the shorelines.

***

In the glaring light of their subbasement security office, Larry (or Curly) returned from each drop wondering what he was bringing back to the lab to analyze. The reports made it seem so powerful, and they studied each version six ways from Sunday, but were never less than perplexed and frustrated by Kurt’s innovations.

“They’re just cheap devices with plain vanilla warez on them, plus some custom code we’re not sure about,” Larry reported to his boss, Moe. He and Curly were standing almost at attention in front of Moe’s desk.

“Might be an app,” Curly added.

Moe snarled, “Of course it’s an app, what does it do?”

Larry ducked his head. “Like I said, sir, we’re not certain. We’ve tried numerous times to copy it, but the code is corrupted during the transfer. There’s also a firewall we haven’t been able to get thru, and we’re not sure what’s behind that.” It was sheer hell getting thru the screensaver.

Curly summed it up hopefully. “Might be gibberish, sir. Or a joke.”

Moe snapped, “Or part of a goddamn terrorist operation, which we will assume is the case until we get evidence to the contrary.”

Larry ventured, “I don’t know, sir, a lot of these computer geeks are completely clueless about national security and terrorism. They just want to see what they can make a computer do, is all.” He saw Moe’s face squinch up. “Sir.” he added, just to be safe.

***

Fairy sat in the Star Bar in Little Five and nursed a drink, waiting for her date to show up. A pitiful worm who needed as much correction as he was willing to pay for. She spent the time doing her bit as a forum moderator, delightedly punishing spammers who dared to come on her forum and pollute the pure communication of like-minded people on serious topics. She actually saved up her frustrations to take out on these online miscreants, furiously cutting off users, writing curses and insults in the ban notices and righteously purging them from the system.

The spammers were the volume posters, and they didn’t bother to hide it. Usernames like asdfasd6789 and topics such as qwerpoiu uipreq. Email addresses like fsdf@dc.best-carpetcleaningreviews.com. Posts filled with random snippets of English, embedded with links to shoe outlets and viagra suppliers. She perused the flagrant user data with boiling hatred, then in rapid succession, banned the username, the email address, the IP address, deactivated the account, and deleted all the posts. Are you sure? the dialog box asked her. “Yes I am,” she thundered.

She drummed her ultralong fingernails on her tablet, waiting for the server to update so she could ban another poor working stiff. She adjusted her stocking seams impatiently as 6743 posts and 4970 threads went up in virtual smoke. She might have felt sorry for the users, they were probably getting paid forty cents per thousand posts, and it was probably the only work they could get in their poor backward country. She should admire their persistence. She snorted. Better luck next life, she thought viciously, and deleted another account.

***

Halfway around the world, Radhu used his family’s ancient desktop computer to lighten Fairy’s work on the game. These days, during his few hours away from his job, he was compiling sound effects and composing incidental music online.

He got an email from Fairy asking for an asset update, but it was redundant, because he sent her an update every day.

He was considering a second job as an internet marketing tech. There was big money to be made; his cousin insisted on that. It was a great job for an intelligent man who could find creative ways to get past the censors and communicate their clients’ messages. If he did really well and became a star poster, perhaps he could make enough to move into his own flat. He could see himself firing off a steady stream of link-rich forum posts between his normal dayjob and his nightly devotion to the game. If he was diligent, he could afford to buy a ticket to this year’s Dragoncon, because he was almost positive he was going to Atlanta again as the number one customer service agent (India) at his employer’s annual meeting.

***

Fairy drummed her fingernails, this time with impatience. Where was her date? She read Radhu’s flowery reply to her email. She smiled to herself, then indulged her bile at the others, because she knew before she sent it that they wouldn’t respond.

Fairy was becoming dependent on Radhu. It was like having an extra set of arms. He was always asking for more to do, never wanted anything but her thanks, and always did professional work she was not ashamed to call her own. He was willing to be used, and she was ready to appreciate him for it.

She’d sleep with him if they were in the same country. Theoretically.

***

Meanwhile, across town…

Nathan came home to a crisis. Sis had been expelled from her private school for smoking cigarettes. Two weeks ago. The school had just now sent a letter home. Mom also had the latest credit card bill, which explained some of what Sis did during her impromptu vacation.

Sis was sobbing pitifully on the couch, vibrating with anxiety and fear. “Dad’s going to kill me,” she wailed, one eye on Mom for her reaction. Mom instinctively agreed to shield Dad from the real reason – getting caught with her pants down in front of five very excited schoolboys. “It’s not my fault. They all hate me.” Maybe she could guilt Mom into keeping quiet about the credit card, too.

Mom sat rubbing her temples with one hand over her eyes, peering out between her fingers at her daughter overacting on the couch. “You have to return all the things you bought,” she began. Sis wailed. She waved the bill. “Like this iPad, We just can’t afford things like that, sweetie.”

Sis immediately put on a pouty face. “It got stolen,” she mumbled, looking away.

Mom gasped, but kept going thru the list of expensive items. Hundreds of dollars to stores in the mall, more hundreds online, too many cash advances to count, and a slew of payments to sketchy-sounding entities.

Mom persisted, despite a sudden headache, but for everything she suggested returning, Sis had an excuse – lost, stolen, missing, damaged, used up.

Nathan went to Sis’s room and rounded up the iPad, a bag full of shoes in their boxes, and a pile of clothes with the tags still on them, and brought them out to the living room. Sis screamed at him as he dumped them on the coffee table, and lunged for the phone, but he sidestepped and handed it to Mom.

Sis got up, leaned over Mom, and shouted into her face. “You’re evil!” She shoved Nathan into the coffee table, and stamped off to her room, slamming the door and rocking the pictures on the wall.

Nathan and Mom looked at each other. “I guess it would be too much to ask her to return them herself,” Mom remarked.

“I’ll put them in the car,” Nathan said. “They’ll be safe there until we can take them back.” He went for a plastic bag. Mom matched the price tags to the credit card bill. Sis found the purchases Nathan missed and cut them into little pieces.

Dad got home a few minutes later. The air was still thick with hostility. Fortunately, he was preoccupied with the rumor of more layoffs at work. The whisper of industry changes. The specter of outsourcing. Haunted by his future, he didn’t notice his family walking around on tiptoe, fetching his beers (Nathan) and rubbing his shoulders (Sis). He sank into the cocoon of his comfortable home and forgot about his problems, finding refuge in the little things – his favorite ads, the heft of a full can of beer, the stupidity of others.

Like the latest news on TV. A lot of panicking for NFR – no fucking reason. He settled in; this was going to be good. The graphic said “Whoops,” and the perky anchor smoothed out the smirk on her face as she read the copy. “Everything was upside down in the world of science and commerce today,” she said, and looked concerned. “Clocks ran backwards and measuring instruments went off the scale all over the world.” The screen showed footage of people standing around the trading floor on Wall Street, looking bewildered, giant blue screens of death shining down at them.

She continued, her voice serious and soothing. “Communications were interrupted for a few seconds, causing many systems to automatically reboot, but the Internet was ‘reassuringly resilient’, according to a top security spokesman.” She looked at the camera with a bright smile. “Experts are calling it a ‘transient measurement problem’.” The anchor reminded Dad of his fourth grade teacher. He’d had a crush on her.

“It lasted for less than a minute,” she continued, wrapping up, “and no one knows what caused it. Possible explanations include solar activity, or a surge in the earth’s magnetic field. The damage is still being assessed.”

Her serious look brightened as she ended on a chirpy note. “Up next, are garden gnomes evil?”

They broke for an ad and Dad got up to pee. “Some idiot probably pulled the wrong switch,” he chuckled. He would never do that.

***

The news segment was somewhat misleading. Instruments all over the world didn’t just go off the scale, the qualities these instruments were measuring went off the scale. Seismic monitors, electronic sensors, radio receivers, satellites.

The temperature suddenly soared in Antarctica. A hundred degrees Fahrenheit. For a moment, palm trees appeared. The icecaps turned to slush.

And then it dropped back to fucking freezing again, and the ice recrystallized, just like that. Emergency workers pulled people out of suddenly half-sunken buildings. Research teams camping out on the ice shelves vanished with all their gear.

Behind the scenes, they were calling it the Minithaw, and scratching their heads, but not a single editor considered it newsworthy, and only rumors made it to the crank feeds.

However, they traced a concurrent energy fluctuation to Atlanta, and down in the dark subbasement Moe rushed around, certain that Curly and Larry were somehow responsible. They shrugged their shoulders. “You’re telling me it was nothing?” Moe screamed, but they pointed to the lack of news reports, and encouraged him to accept the fact that a surge like that was impossible. Inconceivable. Couldn’t happen.

***

After dinner, Nathan did the dishes by hand. He complained at first: he was already too busy with his job and all his advanced placement classes – why couldn’t Sis help? But she’d had a word with Dad, who’d brought home a huge sack of plastic plates from Walmart and insisted on throwing them out after one use. Nathan couldn’t bear to think about the waste, and did the dishes silently from then on.

Mom sat at the kitchen table with the bills. They heard laughter from the living room as Dad and Sis enjoyed their together time watching a sitcom.

“I’m really looking forward to Dragoncon,” he said, as he rinsed a glass. “They should be sending us our tickets pretty soon.”

“Yes, that’ll be fun,” Mom responded, trying to reconcile the checkbook with the bank statement.

Nathan was worried about having to work Memorial Day weekend, and missing Dragoncon. He wanted Mom’s advice, because he’d asked his boss, who said maybe he could have the time off. And this worried him because in his family, maybe meant no.

But Mom wasn’t really listening, so he told her the latest about Kurt and the videogame. How he’d finally worked up the courage, and they said they’d let him be a tester when the game was ready. Mom made vague sounds of approval, and Nathan resolved to tell her again when she was less busy.

Mom was freaking out. Not just about the shocking difference between recorded and actual bank balances. Not just about her daughter’s insane spending spree. Dad still hadn’t learned of Sis’s expulsion, and would throw a fit when he found out. And not at Sis, either. How do you break it to a doting father that his princess has fucked up? You may as well not bother. Since he’s the boss, if he doesn’t see it, it’s not there. His assessment is correct, and Mom would be disrespecting his authority if she challenged it.

If she were willing to take the coward’s way out, she would simply keep the news from him indefinitely, and use the tuition money to pay off a good chunk of the debt every month. But when the truth came out, he’d be dangerous, and she knew better than to let it go that far.

Dad came in for a beer. “Okay, time to sign some checks,” he said, “my show starts in a couple minutes. Whatcha got?” He looked at Nathan. “Scram, Nuthin, I’m doing grownup things with your Mom, here.” He sat down and grabbed a pen.

This time it was the utilities and the minimum on a couple of credit cards, plus the mortgage. Everything else had to wait. Mom waved at the bills. “I’ve been looking at our spending,” she said. “The mortgage and insurance are almost half of what we bring home. And the car payments, and the credit cards…” She was thinking how many credit cards they could pay off with the tuition money. “We’re about $1500 short every month.”

She tried to make her voice smooth and persuasive. “We should really think about putting the house on the market and finding a cheaper place.” She looked for a bright side. “If we rented, we wouldn’t have to pay interest, or insurance.”

He loomed over her. “Never,” he said. His voice had an edge to it. “We’ve been thru this before. This is my house. I own it, and I’m going to live here forever.” He crushed the empty beer and threw it at the trashcan.

“Really, dear,” she said mildly, carefully. “We’re not even paying the principal because we keep refinancing. We don’t really own anything.”

“It’s my house,” he shouted. He got another beer out of the fridge and popped the top. After a long drink, which gave him a chance to calm down, he tried to talk some sense into her. “Renting is just going backwards,” he said. “Because you’re at the mercy of your landlord, and you never have any equity. It’s fine when you’re young and stupid, like Nuthin, but it’s a mark of failure for a real man.” He finished his beer and went for another. “I’m staying right here.” He popped the top, taking a deep draft.

His TV show came on. He and Sis enjoyed the hell out of it. Mom and Nathan sat in the kitchen speaking in whispers.

***

He didn’t mention it, but Dad had an interview that morning. Testing the waters. It was a security firm with an aggressive new concept, public private security. They weren’t just going to respond to crimes after they were committed, they were going to eliminate the threat of crime. Dad didn’t have a law enforcement background, but the guy seemed pretty impressed when he told them some of the shit he’d caught people trying at work, employees and customers alike.

“It’s like mall security,” the guy explained. “Only we’re putting a network of guards on street corners, and in supermarket aisles, and places like libraries, schools, and churches. Just think of the difference we’ll make to parking enforcement and animal control. A great source of revenue for the city.”

And Dad’s job would be…?

Oh, you’re management material, definitely,” the guy said. “Given your track record. But, no offense, we start everybody off on patrol. How’re your arches?”

***

In the kitchen, Nathan argued for drastic action. “What if we just stopped listening to him? What if we stopped doing it his way?”

Mom looked frightened. “Don’t talk so loud. Your father gets angry when we don’t do it his way.”

Nathan snorted. “He loves to get angry, we’re like his big excuse to get violent.” He looked at his Mom pleadingly. “We can stop him by just not playing his game anymore.”

She looked at him for a long time. “Are you ready to walk out of the house and stay at a shelter, and never come back?”

He said yes, but he could picture it, and didn’t really want to leave his home. He wanted Dad to leave. He wanted Sis to leave. And that wasn’t going to happen, so he would just have to grow the hell up and move out.

Mom went to the bedroom for a moment, and Sis came into the kitchen for a beer for Dad. “He smells,” she complained, leaning against the sink. “I hate it here.”

Bitter enemies most of the time, they were both impatient to escape. Nathan couldn’t wait to go off to college to get away from Dad’s badgering. But Sis planned to live at home until Mom and Dad croaked and left her the house.

“But how could you stand it?” Nathan asked.

“Why should I leave? They’ll always take care of me, I won’t ever have to do anything. I’ll just spend time somewhere else when it gets too much.”

“I can’t wait until I can be responsible for myself,” Nathan said.

“Killing the golden goose,” Sis remarked, and flicked his neck painfully with her finger as she left.

He sat and calculated the number of days until he graduated from high school. How many days until forever? He went to his room, settled in, opened his physics book, and lost himself in the science.

***

Dad stopped by Nathan’s room on his way for a piss. “How’s it going with the soccer thing?” he asked.

Nathan thought fast. “Uh, Coach says we might win our next game,” he said feebly. He hated lying.

“Still losing to the girls, huh?” Dad laughed, and Nathan felt his ears turn red.

For a moment, he thought he heard Mom crying in the kitchen, but when he stuck his head around the corner, he discovered her laughing. It was a brittle laugh, a resigned laugh, a joke’s on me laugh.

She was looking at the bill listing Sis’s recent expenditures. She’d exceeded their credit limit by enough to make paying for anything else impossible. The card would be frozen, and it would be months before they could pay it down. It was their last card with room on it, only because it was the emergency card, the one they were saving for that car repair, that hole in the roof, that trip to the emergency room.

Maybe she could get a second job.

“You can catch up on the bills now that you don’t have to pay tuition anymore,” Nathan suggested, seeing tears forming in her eyes.

Dad came into the kitchen. “Hey, that’s none of your business,” he said, and whapped the back of Nathan’s head as he passed. “I handle the finances, and you do your homework.” He got a beer and stood over Mom. “What’s this about tuition? Did my baby get a scholarship or something?”

Mom’s only thought was how to get a safe response. “She’s not very happy there,” she began. “But she doesn’t want to upset you.”

Sis came bouncing in and hugged him. “I hate it there, Daddy. Please don’t make me go back.”

He wrapped his arms around her. “Sure, honey, if you really don’t like it.”

“I want to get a job and help you, Daddy,” she said earnestly, looking up at him.

He patted her back. “No, no, baby, you don’t have to lift a finger. We’ll get you into an even better school. Those bastards.”

“No, that’s okay, Daddy, I’m going to do homeschooling.”

Mom shook her head. “You’ll sleep all day and never do your homework,” she said. “You’ll have go to the local school, just like Nathan does.”

Sis looked panicky and clung to Dad, who wrapped his protective arms about her and told Mom not to be such a bitch. “Nobody has to go to public school,” he soothed Sis and glared at Mom. “It’s full of hoodlums. Just how much was tuition at that hellhole, anyway?”

“Nine hundred dollars a month.” Mom waited.

“Wow, that’s a lot of money,” he mused. Then his face brightened and he looked down at his daughter lovingly, “Looks like we can get you that car now, sweetie.” Mom stared at him with her mouth open. Sis looked like she didn’t believe her luck, then like she’d just won the lottery, jumping and screaming and loving on her daddy. Nathan went to his room, mortified.

Dad and Sis went out to buy a bigger TV set before the stores closed.

***

They were in a great mood when they returned, until they noticed Mom’s silent disapproval. Then they soured, started bickering about how to program it, and soon abandoned their new TV and went to bed, leaving Mom to clean up the packing material they’d spread all over the living room.

But it wasn’t over. Dad was still awake, fuming. He watched silently as she undressed and got into bed.

“I want to know where you get off even thinking about selling the house,” he said in a low, droning voice. “I’ve told you again and again this is my castle. And in case you don’t realize it, it’s my decision where the kids go to school.” He ran his hand thru his hair, clenching it in his fingers. “Why are you trying to undermine me? And you’ve been discussing our finances with Nuthin, too. He’s too young to be involved.” He folded his arms. “I forbid you to talk about it.”

“But dear…” She bit her tongue. She was just about to say, ‘but he’s learning about money – he’s got a job’. She shut her eyes and shuddered. He would go berserk if he found out Nathan was lying to him about soccer. Sweat broke out on her forehead.

“You obviously can’t be trusted with the checkbook,” he continued. “You don’t understand anything.” He looked aggrieved. “I’ll have to take care of the bills from now on. As if I didn’t have enough to do.” He grumbled a few beats to himself. She quaked beside him. “You know,” he said in a normal voice, “I was going to do something nice for you. This weekend. I had it all planned, just the two of us. It would have been great.” His tone grew harsh. “But you don’t deserve it, and I’m not going to waste my time. You cause more trouble than you’re worth.”

She wondered reflexively if she could do it over, if she could do better, and they could go back to the part about him doing something nice for her. It would be great. If only she were good enough. Her stomach clenched.

Mom should have dismissed his threat to take over doing the bills, but her stomach was knotted and acidic, and she couldn’t think fast enough to call him on his inconsistencies. Besides, that would just set him off. She was better off keeping her head down, apologizing, and waiting for the storm to blow over.

You’d think she’d see the pattern and act differently when he was ramping up to hit someone. But she was caught up in the moment, in the air of threat and danger, in the panic of not knowing when the blow would fall. Sure, she could stop the tyranny today if she just sat back and laugh at him, refused to get with the program, refused to react the same way she always did.

But if she was going to do something that out of character, then she might as well shoot him and be done with it.

**************

read chapter 7

About jeanne

artist, grandma, alien

Posted on May 7, 2013, in Chapter, fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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