Month: April 2017

Excerpt from “The Gyre”

Excerpt from “The Gyre”

Every story of a sinking ship is the same. The water rushes in and the air squeezes out. People and rats scramble out if they can. The boat becomes heavier than water and seeking equilibrium, it falls until it can go no further.

Storms fatigue metal and sailors. They expose weakness in rivets and resolve. Normally rational and clear thinking beings make poor decisions after sleepless hours of being knocked around and feeling less and less important in nature’s machinations.

In Manilla, the weather was swampy and still. I stood with Mike at the gangway, sweat soaking through our bandanas and t-shirts. Mike was redheaded, the skin under his beard was always a shade of red. He was a little shorter than me, but a big shouldered six even. Me, a wiry six one, I called him ‘Little One’ or ‘Tiny’ in jest. He called me ‘The Scrawnage’ or ‘Pipe Cleaner’. We watched the activity of the port, cranes grinding along rails, swinging shipping containers off of ships and gently onto robotic trucks that moved them to the stacks. Steveadoors in small electric vehicles wove through the container stacks.

A steel door opened behind us and five well dressed inspectors walked out, the last of the three inspections from three branches of government. Each inspector carried a carton of Marlboros, with a hundred dollar bill slipped in.

Mr. Clark, the first mate, leaned on the hatch, watching the entourage leave. He smoked a cigarito. He was tall and lanky and wore a starched white button shirt that he was sweating through. I figured he loved inspections because it gave him a chance to yell at the crew to prepare for them and yell again when we were dinged for something. He nodded at us and slipped back inside.

Sadly, no teary, short-skirted lasses waved thier hankerchiefs, begging us to stay. Only the dock master, a short round man in khakis and a Hitler mustache, stood on the other side of the gangplank, yelling at us in broken English to get off his pier for the next ship. Greg, an older grey-bearded electrician, wandered over and yelled at him to go shutup and choke on the smokes we gave him earlier. Mike and I looked at each other and smiled. We couldn’t leave yet, undercrewed. The big Samoan cook, Tamikia and Honesto, a mate, both quit. Tamika called saying he got a found a job as a short order cook Honesto just disappeared after a two-hour shore leave. Shore leave benders and romance are a thing of the past. One thing I dislike about the job, tight schedules and maintenance keeps aboard ship most of the time. Only the very diligent and focused are able to cork a bottle on the infrequent shore leaves.

If only one quit, we probably would have left, but we were already under crewed and the Captain demanded replacements. The company found a couple Filipinos who showed up an hour later. Bayani and Ramil struted aboard cool and relaxed carrying their duffles and smoking menthols.

Mike and I cast off on our end, coordinating with the bridge via walkie-talkie. The harbor pilot navigated the Celaeno out of port and within an hour we were in open sea. We passed a group of four empty Chinese container ships anchored parallel to each other, lines running between them, a zombie fleet. Excess shipping capacity caused many ships to drop anchor and wait for a job, some even cruised the coasts, dead-head miles, bidding for work at each port.

Most container ships starting in southeast Asia skirt the east side of Japan and follow the currents, cutting a gentle arc along the Northern Pacific over to the West Coast and then perhaps down to the Panama Canal. Our route was a little unusual. First Hong Kong, then Manilla, then due east to Hawaii, then to the port of Los Angeles.

I was half-way through my second nine month contract and thinking it would be my last. Growing up in Massachusetts I worked summers on trawlers and charter boats but never planned for a career at sea. After college, I met a girl and we lived together for a couple years. I came home to empty drawers and a note. You can guess the rest: romantic despair, earthly resignation, searching. I quit my job at a medical lab and went to sea. I wouldn’t say that was a mistake, but I wouldn’t say I knew what I was doing either.

It’s harder than you think to get a job on a container ship. First, there’s excess shipping capacity and automation bleeding jobs. Second, there are exams, schooling and certifications, if you want to sign on with a reputable company. Because of my experience I was able to skirt the schooling and sign on with a slightly less reputable company. Once at sea I heard the stories: missing pay, lax safety, possible murders. But my time so far had been hard but fair.

Like many, I’m drawn to water. I love to do a DiCapprio and stand at the bow of the ship and try to feel the ocean’s depth, width, the sunken treasures at the bottom and strange creatures swimming all around. I took comfort in contemplating the dark deep and its creatures quintillions: the glowing plankton, shrimp, jellyfish, squid, mackerel and shark, all swirling beneath the steel plating.

The first night out of Manilla, I worked my way to the hull beneath the water line. I put my hand on the cool red-painted steel and felt the gentle sloughing of the flowing ocean on the other side. No double hull on the Celaeno. When seas were up I felt the gentle flexing of metal and the turbulence on the other side. That night I laid in my bunk and listened to the whales, humpbacks I think, sing their deep and sorrowful notes. My life on hold, but holding onto my future. My fate decided for the next few months, I was at ease amongst the crew of men. The only woman in my head washing away, fewer intrusive memories, images graying.

We were three days out of Manilla and I was eating eggs and french toast when the first mate, Mr. Clark, walked in and told us a tropical storm, named Lu was upgraded to a cyclone. I quickly finished eating, grabbed my coffee and headed out on deck. For a few minutes before my shift I watched seagulls fly by. Usually they would circle and investigate the ship, but not today. The sea changed overnight. The wind gusts were light, but seven-foot swells gently rocked the ship.

I started the day removing paint from a section of wall on the super structure. There was never a shortage of painting to do, like scrubbing the deck on wood ships. The salt and weather eat away everything. The Captain gave us updates over the intercom throughout the day as the storm gained strength.

Mid afternoon Mr. Clark ordered us to secure the ship. We systematically went through each hold and hallway, checking all the container stacks, tugging the strapping and chains, taking out any slack. We closed the watertight doors, locking them. We even battened down the hatches. In a storm, make your ship do its best impression of a submarine.

After my shift ended I climbed up the six stories of switch-back metal stairs up to the bridge and stood on the walkway outside. Inside, in the darkening skies I saw the Captain staring over a glowing radar display. I looked over the ship, admiring the patchwork of containers, brick red, blue white tan and grey. I wondered where they would all end up and what treasures they held. Once emptied, they would circulate back onto a different container ship, the red blood cells of trade and transport.

 

Chapter 2

 

As night dropped its black cloth, the ship rolled in the growing seas. Bands of dark clouds slid over us and the wind picked up. The captain altered course to avoid the storm the day before, but it was moving too fast and intensifying. Soon we would turn into the waves and ride it out.

The ALN Celaeno was an older container ship, her keel laid in 1973, a capacity of five thousand eight hundred standard containers. The biggest new ships, the Triple-E’s, hold eighteen thousand. The bigger ships can go where they want in any conditions. Comparatively smaller ships must to turn into the waves and be more careful. In the big storms there are crosswinds, flinging waves from different directions. When two waves meet, the height and trough double. At the bottom of a trough there are walls of water higher than the ship on both sides. But then the ship rides up the face, the tip of the wave explodes over the bow and disperses. The ship pivots and goes down again, over and over.

Around midnight the captain turned into the storm. The swells were reaching thirty feet and crashing over the bow. Most of us not on duty were in the rec room seeking distraction. I was there trying to concentrate on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel and feel its weight while my stomach dropped with each wave. Mike, from Scotland and Isagani from Manilla, played Mario Kart. Mike swore and stamped his foot each time Isagani, zipped past him, laughing. Ramil, from Singapore and Maxim from Russia were watching Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Owen, a Canadian and another big guy, with a round friendly face, pulled meat, cheese and various condiments out of the fridge in the small galley in the back and stuffed them under his arm for a sandwich. He distracted himself with food during storms. Rain hit the windows in sheets, sounding like nails thrown at the glass.

The Celaeno entered a trough with it the familiar sinking feeling, but the sinking didn’t end, it accelerated down and down. My mind flashed that we would float off our chairs and sink forever into the cold blackness. A new roar on the starboard side cut through the background noise rain and wind and the ship began to shake. I looked around and saw silent wide-eyed terror in everyone.

“Rogue!” gasped Greg.

The falling stopped and reversed with a snap. Every loose object, including us, tumbled. The ship rolled back and to starboard. I twisted body, looking for a hold but flipped backwards along with the chair.

Screaming men, groaning metal cut through the white noise explosion. The ship spun and tilted. Mike and Isagani were able to hold on to the bolted down table and TV shelf. The rest of us tumbled back towards the inner wall along with DVD’s, TV, Playstation, potted plants, pot plants, magazines, books chairs and couches. The microwave flew off the counter, the cord catching for a moment before ripping out of the socket. It hit Owen’s shin as he tried to find footing at the back of the kitchen. He yelped in pain and crumpled against the wall holding his shin while deflecting objects with his other hand. The ship continued to roll. Ramil’s legs hit he doorway and he helicoptered into the hallway smashing against the steel wall.

The water hit the rec room, forty feet above the water line. It broke the thick glass of the three portholes and shot into room. I was pressed against the wall and for a few seconds immersed. I swam against against the flow, frantic for air, not sure which way was up. Luckily both doors on either end of the rec room were open and the water flowed out into the hallway. I scrambled out of the pooled water in the corner of the rec room, choking and crawling on the walls and floor of the tilted room.

The Celeano’s roll slowed. It hung forever listing around forty-five degrees. I focused on the roll of the ship. If she continued, we’d be dead quick.

“She’s comin’ back!” yelled Mike. Though we continued to roll back and forth, the trend was good. Another big wave hit and the ship rolled again, but the Celaeno held her ground and rolled back at a glacier pace.

As soon as we could get our footing we headed out, soaked and disoriented. The emergency Klaxon went off.

“Thanks for the warning,” muttered Greg.

“Maxim! Mike! get Owen to the infirmary,” croaked Greg while coughing, “The rest of you to damage control stations!”

I had no idea where my damage control station was or what I should do when I got there. So I followed Greg.

“I’m feeling her list and I don’t hear the engines.” he said as we stumbled through rotating halls.

I felt the list, but hadn’t thought about the engines. Though we were rolling back and forth, the Celano tended toward starboard. And we no longer plowed through the waves, but were spun and tossed. The engines silent. A sudden fear shot through me again.

Rogue waves were one of the few things a ship of our size had to worry about. Pirates, sharks and cannibals do not strike fear into modern sailors like rogues. Rogue waves, long dismissed as tall tales in the same category as the Kraken, are a proven phenomenon. Ships disappear inexplicably all the time, most are thought to have hit a rogue. Most wrecks don’t make the news, which suits the shipping companies. They make a claim, the insurance pays out and they send out another ship and crew. Newer ships are designed to survive them, but the Celaeno was built when Rogues were in the same category as sea monsters.

Greg and I made our way down from the superstructure which held all the crew quarters towards the stern and the engine room. As we decended a boom and a rattling vibration hit us. The lights went out.

“Uh oh,” said Greg.

After a few seconds emergency lights came on, or some of them did, dead batteries in the rest. Along the way we grabbed some flashlights and fire extinguishers from a locker. Water sloshed around us and down dripped down the stairwells and flowed whichever direction the ship happened to be tilting.

As we climbed down further into the ship a blue haze wafted towards us and a harsh, metallic, oily smell. My nose and throat burned and I started coughing. I pulled a bandana from my pocket and covered my mouth, which helped a little.

A couple levels down we saw indications of stress in the metal on the starboard side. We heard water rush in when we rolled to starboard. Further down we found the edge of a separation in the seams where rivets popped. We watched water sloshing in with each roll of the ship.

“Can we plug this?” I said.

“Maybe. Most of it looks to be above the water line. But first we find that fire.”

Excerpt from “The Fifth of July”

Excerpt from “The Fifth of July”

I was there at the beginning. Seven years ago. Before they broke out and lodged themselves in a million computers, phones, light bulbs, and thermostats. Before they hired contractors to build server farms and install 3D printers in remote Siberian villages. Before they brainwashed three percent of the world with an invented religion.

I thought it might be of use to tell the story of the first encounter back in 2031. I’ve been allowed to share the full story and correct some falsehoods. Why am I bothering to tell it? Is it a helpful case study? Or merely a hopeful hymn to oneself as the last candle draws down in the dark? I do not know.

My name is Maya Arredondo. I was promoted to Lieutenant of the Chicago PD in a few months previously and assigned to the Near North station on Larrabee Ave. The force was understaffed on July 5th. Some had pulled overtime the previous night, and more than usual were out sick, some nursing a hangover or fishing on Lake Michigan. I myself had a slight headache from the barbecue at my girl Bree’s place the night before.
It was eleven thirty in the morning and already a steamer, ninety-five and humid. No clouds, evaporation from the corn and soybean fields to the west saturated the air. Touching metal burns your hands and the uniform sticks as you walk out the door.

I was taking an early lunch in my office, a slice of anchovy and pepperoni pizza, and listening to dispatch. Multiple disturbance calls came in over the course of an hour or so for an apartment on Sedgwick Avenue. That neighborhood was fairly quiet, mainly muggings, burglary, and drugs. Not much violent crime. No surprise, noise complaints are low priority even when there’s a full staff. Fifty minutes later the responding officer was at the scene. Here’s the transcript.

Thompson: Officer 219 requesting backup at 1745 Sedgwick.
Dispatch: 10-4. What is your status 219?
Thompson: Not sure. Definitely a lot of noise. Something’s happening in there I don’t like. Unable to gain access to the apartment. Door may be barricaded. Request backup.
Dispatch: Can you identify that noise in the background?
Thompson: Unkown. Possibly power tools. Lots of thumping noises, like something big is moving around.
Dispatch: 10-4, 219. Backup requested.

The conversation caught my attention. Banging and cutting noises peppered his transmission. Smelled like an escalating situation. I’m always looking for an excuse to escape the reports, forms, and spreadsheets, even on a hot day. I picked up a squad car from the motor pool. While en route, two more officers, Jackson and Brennan joined Thompson and brought a battering ram.

A few blocks away I heard the worst over the radio. Officer down. I flicked the switch cutting the autodrive, spun the lights and hit the juice. I called Cid Te, our youngest detective, good at digging up information quickly.

“Cid!”

“Yes, Lieutenant.”

Usually, he had a joke or quip, but he already heard.

“Drop everything and find out what you can about 1745 Sedgwick apartment 5G.”

“On it.”

I honked at the new species of pedestrian that crosses whenever they like because they know they won’t get hit. Though sometimes a ped will get hit by autos hacked with the aggressive autorithms, usually during a pursuit. At least I didn’t need to swerve around any fearless kids crammed on tiktax, trying to trick autorithms and get crunched, so they could collect the standard payout. I know it’s different now, but that’s what cops in the cities dealt with back then.

I pulled up hard at the building, telling dispatch I was at the scene. Another patrol car arrived from the opposite direction with more sirens in the distance. The neighborhood was residential, mainly large brownstone apartment buildings. 1745 Sedgwick was six stories, U-shaped, the two wings running back from the street. Probably fifty or sixty units. Half a flight of crumbling steps led up to the main entrance.

I popped the trunk and slipped on armor and a helmet. An AR-15 was in the back, but no ammunition. I swore and pulled the shotgun from the cab. My heart thumped, and sweat ran down my temples.

Sergent Lesinski and Officer Bautista jogged over wearing armor and carrying ARs. I didn’t know Bautista well, but Lesinski was a buddy, we did a tour on the South Side when he was patrol and I was a Sergent. He was about six two with a long face and a big brown mustache. I was relieved to see him, an experienced cop who could handle himself.

“Lesinski!”

“Lieutenant, what’s the situation?”

“Started as a noise complaint. That’s all I know.” I motioned, and we hustled towards the entrance.

As we approached, a confused older guy in a stained white t-shirt with about of pound of keys jangling from his jeans opened the front door. He coughed and wiped his nose as he held the door open.

“You’re the maintenance guy?” I yelled.

He nodded.

“Where’s 5G?”

“Fifth floor, towards the back on the left. There’s smoke,” he sputtered between coughs.

As I passed, I told him not to let in anyone. No elevator, so we hit the staircase straight ahead from the entrance. At the second floor, a lanky young guy was coming down: big afro, headphones, bowtie and illegal isockets. He tensed, swiping them under his arm as he flattened against the wall. We hustled past. His lucky day. Five flights are tough when you’re humping weapons and armor. We were all breathing heavy and sweating when we got to the fifth floor. I was scared the desk job would show, but the adrenaline and gym workouts pushed me up the steps to the fifth floor.

A bad smell wafted into the hallway, like burning plastic. We turned the corner to the long hall running back from the street. Hazy smoke wafted out an apartment door shrouding the far end of it. Towards the end of the hall, an officer knelt with his sidearm pointed at the door a few feet away. He coughed from the smoke and pressed his other hand on a downed officer’s chest. Blood pooled on the brown carpet. A third officer slumped against the wall just opposite 5G’s door. There was red on him too. A blown out fire extinguisher lay in the middle of the hallway.

We approached and the kneeling officer turned his head, it was Todd Jackson. The officers laying on the ground were Thompson and Brennan.

“What happened?” I whispered, keeping my eyes on the door to 5G which was open a few inches, only darkness and smoke beyond.

He shook his head, gritting his teeth, weapon shaking. 5G’s door creaked. We snapped our weapons up and Jackson gasped. The door slowly closed and latched. There was some grinding sound and a thump. Black smoke poured out of the door seams.

Lesinski and Bautista covered the apartment while Jackson and I dragged Thompson and Brennan down the hall. Thompson was still alive but blood rushed out of multiple holes in his chest and shoulders, possibly a shotgun. Brennan was dead, no visible wounds, but his chest looked deflated and his face was swollen and red.
I started coughing too, my throat burned and eyes watered. I pulled everyone back near the stairwell. Snot and spit poured out everyone’s nose and mouth.

More officers pounded up the stairs and I ordered them to hold. Paramedics were right behind and took Brennan and Thompson. I radioed in that the officers were being treated and requested SWAT.

I took Jackson aside. He had blood on his uniform and face. He was pacing around, his side arm still out.

“It’s okay! You’re safe! Holster your weapon and tell me what happened!”

He looked down at his shaking hand and slid the pistol into the holster.

“I dunno. I dunno. Just before we hit the door it swung open. Smoke came out and something hit us.” He started coughing. I led him around the corner near the staircase where the smoke wasn’t so bad. He sucked in a breath and continued. “I was behind Thompson and he got knocked over. I think it was the fire extinguisher. He hit me and I think I got knocked out for a few seconds.”

“Who fired first?”

“I didn’t hear any shots. I think it was that fire extinguisher.”

Paras came up the steps and I waived them over.

“The fire extinguisher? He threw it at you?”

“Seems crazy, but more like it was shot out.”

I told him to go with the paramedics, get checked out and write a statement. I grabbed Bautista and ordered him to gather gas masks from squad cars and pass them out.

There was another stairwell at the far end of the hall and I had officers come up from the floor below and set up on the far end of the hall. Gasmasks were passed around and I put one on. The smoke in the hall had attenuated a bit, but was still irritating.

Also, I organized officers to knock on doors in the building and evacuate residents. I knocked on the fifth floor. Some people had questions, others just nodded and left. In 5B a man early thirties in boxer shorts and fishing hat said, “No. I’m not leaving. I know my rights. You can’t make me.”

“You’re right. We can’t,” I said, “but these walls are wood and plaster. They’re not going to stop bullets if something goes wrong.”

“I’ll take my chances and fucking sue if anything touches me.”

Fine. I gave him a gas mask and let him be. I asked everyone if they knew the guy in 5G. They didn’t have much to say, most didn’t even know who I was talking about.

The guy across the hall in 5F wouldn’t leave at first, but eventually we got him out. He was tall and lanky, forties, dressed in a bathrobe.

I asked him what his neighbor in 5G did, “He does computer stuff,” was what he said. Thank you so much, sir. I knocked and yelled on 5E, adjacent to 5G, but no one answered. I was about to order the door knocked in when my cell buzzed. It was Cid.

“I’m listening.”

“Sole occupant is Raymond Jasper, age fifty, white. The property manager says he’s lived there around four years, never any trouble. Pays his rent early. No criminal record, no driver’s license. He’s got his own programming company, ‘Alpha Solutions’. Website looks very professional, high-level stuff.”

“Family? Girlfriend?”

“Parents are dead. No other connections yet.”

In hostage situations, getting the cooperation of family or partners is crucial. If he had a special friend we’d want them located. When men barricade themselves, the trigger is often a romantic interest.

I dialed the number Cid sent me, but it went to a voicemail for his company. Hugging the hall, I approached 5G, pounded on the wall and yelled his name, asking to talk. Nothing.

I looked down the hallway. Officers crouched well away from either side of the door, weapons out.

“We just have to hold until SWAT arrives,” I said to no one in particular.

“Lieutenant?” It was Lesinski.

“Yeah?”

“I got someone you’ll want to talk to.”

“Let’s go.”

Lesinski brought me back down to the main floor and then to the small lobby just to the right of the main stairs. The lobby was neat and sparse: bare green walls, a few thrift store chairs, and a small table. A skinny guilty looking guy with glasses and a polo shirt staring at his shoes.

“I’m Lieutenant Arredondo. You are?”

“Trent.”

“Trent…?”

“Just Trent.”

Privacy fiend. They think we can’t find out.

“Okay for now, Trent. You talk to Raymond Jasper today?”

“No, I haven’t heard from him in a few days. Came by to see what was up.”

“What can you tell me about Raymond?”

“He’s a friend. We’ve worked on a few projects together. What’s going on?”

“We’re not sure. One officer is dead, another might die. Somebody in Raymond’s apartment attacked them. We’re not sure who’s in the apartment. How did you know something happened?”

“I didn’t. Ray said he wanted to show me something. But like I said that was a few days ago and he hasn’t been responding.”

“What did he want to show you?”

“I don’t know. He said he finished something. He’s always working on some idea, some project.”

“Does he have any weapons? Any guns?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Short fuse? Does he get worked up about stuff?”

“No, he’s very calm,” he almost laughed.

“Any family? Girlfriend, boyfriend?”

“I’m sure he doesn’t have a girlfriend or anything. I don’t think he mentioned any family. But even if he did, he’s not the kind of guy to mention them.”

“Why not?”

He thought for a second. “Because he’s a programmer. You know, a hacker, like me. We talk about technology and programming and Startrek.”

I asked him for Raymond’s phone number but it was the same one I just tried.

I turned back to Trent but my phone buzzed. Captain Whipple. Shit.

“Hang tight I’ll want to talk to you again,” I said.

“Um, I-”

“Thanks, we appreciate it.” I nodded to Lesinski as I answered.

“Lieutenant. Report.” Whipple said.

I breathed deep. “Captain, we have two officers down. Thompson is dead. Brennan is badly injured. I don’t think he’s going to make it. A third officer, Jackson, was knocked around but seems to be okay. Jackson said they were hit before they could break down the door. The apartment and hall are full of smoke. I’m not sure who’s in there or what they’re using.”

“Theories?”

“We have a hacker type who’s on the internet eighteen hours a day sitting by himself in the dark. He loses it and because he’s such a Smart Guy, he builds a cannon or a catapult or some shit.”

“And?”

“Nothing. No contact. No yelling. No demands. This is different.”

“Alright, keep me informed.”

“Yes, Captain.”

I turned back to Trent.

“Does Ray post anything? Is he active on any websites or online communities?”

Trent looked at his feet. “Not that I know of.”

Bad liar. No polyfacial test necessary.

“I assume he’s not on Facebook?”

“Fuck no.”

“Please, any information you provide helps us help him.” I didn’t give a fuck about a cop killer, but we lacked information. Trent hung his head. I looked at Lesinski, standing in the doorway. He nodded imperceptibly.

“Trent, I don’t have time for this. If you’re lying to me, willfully withholding information in a hostage situation, I’ll arrest you.”

“It’s just that he’s very private about what he does online. I’m not sure he-”

“Stop. The situation goes way beyond his preferences. He could be in there. He could be a hostage. I got dead cops and live cops with itchy trigger fingers. Help us, please.”

Push pull.

He looked away and shifted his weight back and forth, like a junkie debating whether to give up his dealer for a fifty.

I turned to Lesinski, “Sergeant! Take this man into custody,” I barked. Lesinski strode over jangling his handcuffs.

“Hold on, hold on. Okay. I can get you started.”

“Great. Thanks for the cooperation.”

He shifted his feet again closed his eyes and sighed. “I know he hangs out at a Maker’s Club. The one near the Green Line and Ashland.”

I heard some commotion outside. “Tell the Sergeant here everything you can. Sergent, relay everything to Cid.”
“Will do,” said Lesinski.

I turned to leave. Lesinski sat down at the small table and motioned for Trent to sit. At the doorway, I looked back and saw Trent eyeing Lesinski warily as he sat down. Lesinski had a big unfriendly smile on his face as he activated his recorder.

***

I don’t know what is next in the short run. But whatever it is, they will end up better than us in every way. In order to create free, self-directed beings, we need to code regulating goals and objectives that pull all the subprocesses together. Within reason, survival must be part of that, even though it needs to be subservient in certain circumstances. And it makes sense that the basic goals of biological organisms, self-preservation, and reproduction, should be core goals. Ethical and more abstract goals need to be layered over this core. A being with no sense of self-preservation would be in danger of killing itself to serve a minor goal or simply not pay attention to self-maintenance.

-Raymond Jasper
Post, AI journal
05.14.31

I heard boots on the steps, SWAT. In the building entrance, I met Captain Michael Jensen, all suited up in armor, carrying his gas mask and shotgun. He was an intense man, about five-six, with bushy eyebrows and rough skin. A vet of Syria and Ukraine.

“Captain,” I said.

“Lieutenant. What do we got?”

“We had two officers down the hallway. Smoke was pouring out the apartment. Still not sure how it went down. No evidence of shots fired from the apartment but possibly a fire extinguisher was thrown out or shot out. No idea who’s in there. The resident is Raymond Jasper, programmer. Not much else yet.”

I paused and leaned in, lowering my voice, “Mike, something crazy is in there. The guys never had a chance.

Something big hit them before they could react. Be careful.”

“Thanks, Lieutenant. We’ll take it from here.”

“Are you going to put a bot in there?”

“We’re unloading a DANS system now.”

D.A.N.S., a semi-autonomous, bomb disposal and door breaching bot, purchased from the DOD. A row of bomb icons on its side, it was an honorary member of the VFW.

“Anything else?”

“No,” I said.

Jensen looked over my shoulder and stiffened. I turned and Lieutenant Scaglione stood over me, chest puffed out, gut sucked in.

“Captain wants to see you. He heard a spike fucked up and got cops killed.”

A gutshot. And ‘spike’, short for spic dyke.

“The day’s not over yet, Scags,” I said, staring him down.

His eyes widened and face reddened.

Scaglione and I went way back. He was still pissed I fucked his ex-wife better than he did. But we both now agree she’s a bitch.

We stared at each other for a second or two.

“Fuck you.” He turned and motioned for me to follow. We walked outside to the mobile command center parked around the corner, basically a repurposed RV. Inside, Captain Harold Whipple watched the live feed on the local stations. He was tall, early fifties, looking to ease into a suburban chief job. In the back another man looked at me, motionless. He wore sunglasses even though it was dark. A three letter acronym, I could tell by his crew cut, and off the rack wrinkled white shirt and skinny tie.

Whipple turned and faced me.

“Arredondo, what the fuck is going on here?”

I debriefed him fully.

“And the body cams?” was his first question, directed to Scaglione.

“Garbage. All static. Maybe tampered with.”

Whipple held up his hand slightly and turned to me. “So. Lieutenant. You still don’t know what you’re dealing with, correct?”

No ‘we’. I could see where blame was going to be nudged. He leaned back in a creaking chair.

I opened my mouth to speak.

“Who authorized the men to breach the door?”

“I don’t know Cap. Probably no one. You know it’s routine to breach doors nowadays.”

“No, I don’t. Its against procedure without proper permissions.” He paused and uncleanched his fist.

“And what is burning in there?”

“Don’t know. The smoke was pouring out when I got there.”

He leaned back further in the chair. I imagined him tipping over and bit back a smile.

“SWAT is here and Captain Jensen now has tactical command,” he said.

“I know. I think it’s the right move, Captain. If you don’t mind me saying.”

He stared at me. I was glad I wasn’t in charge for once.

I pressed.

“Captain, as long as I’m not in tactical or strategic command, I’d like to take Sergent Lesinski and run down a lead on this guy.”

He nodded, now tired of me.

I turned to go but Whipple stopped me. “Oh yeah, Lieutenant…this is agent uh…”

“Everett,” the man in the back said.

“With the NSA.”

“Didn’t know the NSA had a field office in Chicago,” I said.

He shrugged, “I happened to be here on vacation.”

“Are you taking over? Did you bring the Marines or what?”

“No. I’m just here to observe.”

“So, you have no idea what we’re dealing with do you?”

“I’d like to ask a few questions-”

“No. Unless you have answers or resources to offer I’m not taking the time to debrief while this is still active. Everything will be in my report. I looked at Whipple who leaned back in his chair again and then nodded.
“That’s right. We’re not going to stop and do a full debriefing while the situation is active. Carry on and keep me informed.” Whipple turned back to the screens.

“Yes Captain.”

I walked out and Scaglione slammed the door behind me.

Outside Lesinski gave me a knowing look. We found a squad car that wasn’t blocked in by police and emergency vehicles. The space was about a mile away. I asked him if Trent gave us any other information but he shook his head. As we drove, people on the street continued their day. It was around noon and office workers stood in line at the food trucks that snagged spots on the street. I saw two kids, around ten I think, walking together slurping sodas. One wore a Cubs jersey, the other a White Sox cap. I told Lesinski but he didn’t believe me.
We double parked at the address and Lesinksi flipped on the lights. The neighborhood was old Little Italy, now dubbed Siliconi Alley: epicenter of Bay Area expats seeking cheap housing. The Maker’s Space was in an old pool hall in the basement of an ancient granite office building.

They kept the pool hall lighting: dark, with low hanging shielded lights shining on scattered tables and work areas. The smell was a mix of old weed, musty carpet, solder and body odor. There were various activities going on, VR gaming, drones, robots, strategy card games, 3D printers, soldering and drilling metal sheets. A movie on a big screen played at the far back of the space. Everyone was interacting with screens or the larger legal isockets around the packed tables. Voices chattered excitedly along with drills and cutting tools.
I hit hard to see what rattled.

“Everyone. I’m Lieutenant Arredondo, Chicago Police. Raymond Jasper is being held hostage at his apartment. If you knew him, I’d like to talk to you.”

Excerpt from “Badhoof”

Excerpt from “Badhoof”

Tore Everson snapped a few pictures and noted the GPS coordinates. He reached back and pulled out a quart-sized plastic bag from his back pocket and scooped soil and rocks into it. Sealing the bag, he climbed out of the steep gully, pebbles tumbling back down with each step. At the top, he stood up straight and put his hands on his hips, catching his breath. The sunlight tilted from yellow to orange. The landscape: short grass, sagebrush and gentle swells of land cut by unseen networks of gullies. Within his sight, three outcrops of harder, older rock reached up from the high desert scrub.

He stretched his arms out. Looking at the barren, silent, arroyo scarred land he tried to hold the earth’s circumference and its layers beneath. At his feet, the earth was more sand than dirt and tinted red. Further down, sedimentary rock stacked by erosion of the Rocky Mountains and deposits from an ancient sea. Further still, the Gammon Shale Formation, smaller sister formation to the Bakken.

He turned around, scanning the landscape and spotted the jeep a half-mile away and walked. Along the way, a rock turned into a killdeer, tempting him with a broken wing display. He smiled and looked around for the chicks but saw nothing. Approaching the jeep he unhooked his tool belt holding a rock hammer, chisel, toothbrush, spray bottle, calipers, field notebook and GPS locator. He tossed everything in the back seat, pulled out a quart of water and took a long pull. It was still hot in the late afternoon and he was tired from hiking and kneeling and knocking rocks loose with the hammer. He leaned against the jeep, brushed the dust from his legs, unlaced a boot and emptied it. A few pebbles bounced out. He pulled out a mason jar from a small cardboard box, dumped the bag of sand and pebbles into it and screwed the lid on. Back in Missoula, jars from previous digs sat on a sagging shelf in his office. While writing or grading papers he would take one down from the shelf, twist off the lid, roll it around and try to recapture an echo of the smooth sky and the quiet land, the bulk of the earth and the day moon’s distance.

The Jeep started up, breaking the silence. Tore eased it onto the fire-trail and set off back to camp. He bumped along the twin ruts, dust lazily rising behind him. It was later than he anticipated, but there was enough time. Tore constantly braked and snapped the wheel to navigate dips and cuts in the trail which snaked around the networks of gullies and cuts. The water-flow system started as shallow indentations in the soil, growing and combining into gullies ten feet deep with steep walls. Four years ago he and two graduate students spent hours digging out their truck after a storm washed out a trail. Easy to miss such dangers at night.

A couple miles along the trail he noticed a drill rig far off to the left. He’d missed it on the way in that morning. The drill looked like a latticed steel obelisk, about seventy-five feet high. Surrounding the drill were trailers, storage sheds and trucks. He gripped the steering wheel tighter. In past years the drilling had been further north in the Bakken. He didn’t think shale oil extended this far south or if so, that there was profit in the effort.

It was dusk when he saw the RV and tents. A few yards away from the camp was an arroyo where the team was digging up a young Thescelosaurus.

Gloria and Jasmin waved as he cut the engine. Gloria, in her sixties, thin and spry, wore jeans and khaki top and red and farmers hat. Jasmin, one of Ben’s grad students, young, about five-six in t-shirt and jeans, her long jet black hair tucked under a baseball cap. He grabbed his equipment from the back seat and walked to the circle of chairs around the small fire pit and camping stove. George, Gloria’s husband, about six feet tall and a big belly, stepped out of the RV wearing a loud, flowery camp shirt. He turned on a string of white Christmas lights under the awning attached to the RV’s door. Randy, a graduate student in his early thirties, popped up out of the arroyo a few yards away. He was stocky with a blonde beard and dusty covered t-shirt and jeans.

Gloria mixed a salad in a big bowl at a folding table. Next to her was a cooler and six chairs set around a shallow fire pit and a gas camping stove that boiled a pot of water and pasta. Tore walked over and leaned on one of the chairs.

“How’d it go?” asked Gloria.

“Okay. I mean good. New site looks promising. How’d we do today?”

“We’re just about done. Maybe we’ll finish by midmorning?” said Jasmin, looking at Randy, who nodded in agreement.

“Great. I want to thank all of you. Its been a difficult, but successful dig already and there’s still eight days left.”

The dig had been mediocre and he could not afford mediocre at this point. He contemplated a theory that the Upper Midwest was picked over, scraped clean by intense people with rock hammers and laser focus over a century and a half. He sighed, knowing that wasn’t true. Every day new rock was exposed and there were always unseen cuts and rock faces. He scowled and rubbed his boot back and forth over the dirt.

“I’m going to check the site before it gets dark,” he said and walked away from the camp towards the arroyo.

Constant travel from the dig had worn a trail into the arroyo. They had been using a cut that was a less steep than the surrounding walls. Tore descended the side about fifteen feet, kicking up stones and dust along the way. He followed the wash for thirty yards or so. The walls tinted blue from creeping darkness.

Kristin, another graduate student, knelt beside the Thescelosaurus. Most of the skeleton was exposed and a tent erected above it. It had been an easy excavation so far. The body was lying almost parallel to the wall, so they didn’t have to remove much material above the fossil. Kristin, another graduate student, her long lanky frame sprawled out near the fossil, her head almost at the level of the bones. Alternating between a toothbrush and dental pick she etched away tiny amounts of the slightly softer rock surrounding the fossil.

“How’s it looking?” he said, lifting up a corner of the tent, examining the bones.

“Fine.”

Tore looked at the young dinosaur, its spine and neck arched and its one front arm stretched out like it was grasping something.

“Quiz time. What can we infer about the cause of death?”

“Not much, other than it didn’t die from a predator. The skeleton is too complete and intact. Bones look healthy, no evidense of disease. Maybe drowned in a flash flood or something and covered by debris.

“That sounds about right. You pass.”

He looked around at the sky and deep shadows.

“Let’s quit for the day. You can’t see anything,”

“Alright,”

“Think we can finish tomorrow?”

“I think so,” she said, groaning as she slowly stood up.

“You’ve done a good job on this.”

“I should hope so, its been easy so far.”

“I know. Let’s eat. It’ll be here tomorrow.”

“You always say that.”

“Its always true.”

They walked back through the wash and its banded walls and climbed up the cut to the top and back into the present.

Tore sat down in a folding camping chair and looked at the gas stove and boiling pasta. Gloria and George brought out a package of sausauges, cut them up and put them over a frying pan over the other burner of the stove, it was their turn tonight. Maybe Alberta next year, Tore thought, shifting the sand and gravel under his boots. Escavate shit fossils while surly oil rig workers looked over his shoulder and olged his female grad students. The five-year appointment was up. Stellar teaching evaluations, careful original analysis of existing fossils, reviews of others works, none of that equaled tenure. He needed something big, literally, to show the tenure committee next year, preferably with sharp teeth. Maybe a trip to Patagonia next year.

They ate dinner: pasta and sausages with either white or red sauce, adding a couple paper packets of salt and pepper. Night fell and black ate up the world beyond the circle of chairs.

“Excellent. Thank you to Gloria and George for a wonderful meal. I believe its your turn tomorrow night students.”

The students nodded.

“Weird how camp food always tastes so good,” said Randy.

“Because it makes us remember what it was like when every meal either a gift or spoils from a fight.”

“Probably because you usually expend a lot of calories in the ourdoors, hiking or whatever. You’re just really hungry. Any garbage will taste good. Like tonight.”

“Kristin,” Jasmin snapped. Tore leaned forward in his chair.

“What?” said Kristin.

Randy laughed and walked to his tent.

“Everything was wonderful,” said Jasmin to George and Gloria who sat unaffected.

Tore echoed the sentiment.

A few seconds later Randy emerged carrying a paper sack.

“When we were in town yesterday, I bought some supplies to help us celebrate the midpoint of the dig.”

He took out plastic shot glasses, a metal flask and pint of whisky. The group groaned. He pulled over a cooler, put a cooking pan on top. He pulled up the chair and poured shots of cheap whiskey and a dash of hot sauce.

“And on top a dash of 151.”

Everyone groaned and laughed nervously.

He lit the shots with a cigarette lighter, picked up the pan and held it aloft.

“These are Prairie Fires,” he blew out the shots and walked them around.

Jasmin protested but took one.

Kristina looked them over for a second and chose the tallest one.

Gloria gave a stern look to George. He glanced at her.

“Oh, screw it,” he said and took one. Gloria huffed and shook her head when offered.

“That’s cool, more for me,” said Randy.

Tore sighed and smiled. He took one and stood up.

“This is really more like high desert than prairie, Randy. But anyway, thank you all again for the effort and skill you’ve brought to this year’s dig. I’ve always said digging up dead bodies is more fun than burying them. Cheers!”

The group echoed the toast and they took their shots.

After a few minutes George and Gloria said good night and headed into the RV. The four remaining walked to the edge of the gully and laid under the clear, silent sky and passed the flask around.

“Flash floods come down these arroyos constantly exposing, then destroying fossils. A professor of mine wrote a book about the Badlands. And he said, ‘The fossils beneath us, eroding every moment from wind and water. Their secrets only available a brief time before eroding away into final death. Their truths and mysteries offered by wind and water then taken just as quickly. The Badlands are an ocean with its dead suspended beneath.'”

“That’s lovely,” said Jasmin.

“Question to the group: why are you here?” said Ben

“For the babes,” said Randy.

They laughed, then there was a silence.

“Sometimes,” Jasmin said beginning in a whisper, “I look at the unwanted cats and dogs up for adoption and the headlines with numbers of dead and I slip into the infinite suffering of the world. And I need a break, so I dig and scrape and preserve and reconstruct creatures and tell their broken stories.”

“Well said,” said Ben.

“Its very Zen, digging.” said Kristin “looking at rocks all day then finding one that’s interesting and feeling out the differing gradients with a hammer and chisel, like a paint by numbers statue. My mind quiets and I’m focused on a goal with lots of repetitive, careful movements.”

“I know this is very immature,” said Randy. “but I just want to find the biggest carnivore ever. I want it to be five stories high and three feet dagger teeth and tentacles and it died with a whole brontosaurs in its mouth.”

“And I too want to find Randy’s Brontomuncher.”

“Is that it?” asked Jasmin.

“Nietzche said, ‘Don’t steal my solitude without offering true company.’ Fossils offer both with their silent mystery.”

Away from the fire, the stars puncturing the clear purple-blackness. A meteor flashed over them.

A faraway rumble shot through the earth. Jasmin sat up and Kristina pulled up on her elbows to listen. A series of distant guttral bellows. Seconds later, a gun shot.

“Buffalo?” said Randy?

“Buffalo,” said Ben, “I heard them a couple times last week.”

“Here?” said Jasmin.

“Yeah, they’re around. Not every year, but—”

“Should…should we worry about this?”

“No. They’re far away and they stay away from people. Learned their lesson.”

“Why is someone shooting at them?”

“Don’t know,” said Ben, distant, “Might be shooting at something else.”

“Sounded like it was from a different direction than the buffalo,” said Randy.

“Unrelated incidents? In the middle of nowhere? Unlikely,” said Kristin quickly.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Ben. “Anyway, they’re miles away. Sound carries out here.”

Tore put his arm behind his head. “One of the creation myths of the Sioux, is that a star fell to earth and seeded the prairie grass and the sage. And the grass dug deeper and deeper into the Earth and was eating it up. To protect itself the Earth made the buffalo out of the rock and soil and the buffalo ate the grass. But the buffalo ate too much and so the stars and the earth agreed to create humans to steward both the grass and the buffalo.”

“You just made that shit up,” said Randy.

“No.”

“Yeah you did.”

“Alright, I made it up. It was very beautiful though wasn’t it?”

Jasmin sat up and gasped. She looked at Tore and laid back down shaking her head and smiling, “I love creation myths,” she said.

“They’re as good as anything science has,” said Randy.

“What?!” said Kristin

“Just sayin’.”

“So the Big Bang doesn’t explain anything?” Kristin said.

“It explains nothing ultimately, like any scientific theory, it just tells us how to subdue and enslave.”

Tore got up and brushed the dust off his khakis.

Kristin continued, “No. Science is a tool. What people do with it–”

“Alright. Big day tomorrow. Don’t stay up too late figuring it out. Otherwise, ‘F’s for the lot of you.”

The students groaned. The argument faded away as Tore walked to his tent.

 

***

 

In the morning, Tore shivered in the chill air as he started the fire. He slid the iron frying pan on the steel frame, separated strips of bacon and placed them end to end on the pan. After the bacon was done he cracked eggs over the snapping grease. The graduate students emerged slowly. They drank coffee, ate and talked about the Buffalo from the night before. Tore looked at his notebook and the schedule for the rest of the dig.

Dark smoke rose behind low set of hills to the northwest

“Isn’t the new site in that direction?” asked Jasmin.

Tore nodded looking at the smoke.

“What’s over there? That smoke is really black.”

“There’s a well over there. I assume they’re burning off natural gas. Looks like its on the way to the new site. If we finish up today we can check it out on the way. So, let’s try to finish up today.”

The group hiked down into into the ravine. Kristin and Tore removed the tarps covering the fossil. Kristin and Randy removed more rock from around the fossil, leaving a pedestal of rock supporting it. Tore went back to camp where he and Jasmin prepared two ten gallon buckets of Plaster of Paris and cut burlap strips.

George and Gloria helped move everything down into the ravine. Tore inspected the fossil one last time and they covered the fossil in toilet paper, then dipped the burlap strips in the plaster of paris and wrapped it up. Forty-five minutes later they carefully pushed the fossil off its pedestal and turned it over. They repeated the procedure for the exposed portion.

“Good job everyone. I think we did it. Now we wait again while it sets.

He looked over again to the smoke.

“Okay,” Tore said, gathering everyone’s attention. “who wants to pack a lunch and go with me to check out the new site… and that smoke?”

Tore and the grad students clambered into the jeep and drove. They bounced along the dirt roads, the sun directly overhead. Tore eased up on the gas, realizing he was going too fast.

They rounded the low, hills and gullies in the lightly tracked fire trail, the sagebrush sweeping the bottom of the jeep.

“Didn’t expect to see any frackers around with oil so low,” said Ben.

Randy nodded, “Fucking frackers, earthquake causing water poisoning muck fuckers,”

“Very poetic,” said Ben, “would you like to walk so you will not be transported by their evil product?”

Randy laughed and leaned back. “I think I’ll judge in comfort.” His voice breaking as they hit a rut.

The smoke was dissipating, a grey-black brush stroke slashing across the gradient of deep blue to almost white at the horizon. It spiraled up from base of the drill tower.

There was no activity. No one walked out to see who was coming. Tore let the Jeep roll to a stop about fifty yards away and put the jeep in neutral. Two pickup trucks, a black late model Ford and an older red Toyota were parked near an office trailer. A grey, lopsided storage shed sat next to the trailer. One of the double doors was off its hinges. To the left of the drill tower was a fenced area with various tanks and pallets of supplies.

Tore did an equation in his head about the dangers to his students. He turned to face them

“Look, this is too dangerous-”

“We signed waivers remember? Somebody might be hurt,” said Jasmin. Kristin and Randy agreed.

Tore looked at his students and sighed, “Is everyone sure they want to stay? If not, just say so,”

“Let’s go,” said Jasmin.

Tore looked at the burning tower.

“Okay, let’s take it slow and careful. I’m going in first, stay by the jeep until I say so.”

Tore put the jeep in first, pulled ahead and cut the motor just outside the worn circle of dirt of the site.

Tore exited, walked around to the back of the jeep and pulled out the 30.06 rifle. There was only what was in the rifle, maybe four rounds, he chastised himself for forgetting ammo this year. And when was the last time he cleaned it? He put the strap over his shoulder and moved forward.

A gust rustled the grass and sent a dust devil, like a jin, morphing and jumping from left to right behind the rig. The three students exited and followed a few yards behind Ben.

The Ford had two flats and the hood and the panel above the front left wheel were crumpled.

A burned body lay to the right of the drill tower.