Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Small Man Complex

"Randy Schafer, we know you're on this bus, put your hands on your head and...." The cop looked around, his expression unreadable behind the smooth black mask of his helmet but puzzlement sounding clear through a mumbled, "What the fuck...." He scanned the bus, hand hovering over his pistol. A dozen sickly-looking people stared ahead, blank and terrified, simply glad it wasn't their name that had been called.

"I, ah, don't see him," me mumbled.

"Didn't copy that, McKellar, say again?"

"The suspect's not on the bus," he repeated. "At least, I don't see him anywhere...."

"Watcher says his cell phone's right there, should be around the middle...."

The officer walked forward, but there was no one sitting there. As he approached, however, he saw a cell phone sitting in an otherwise empty seat. He picked it up, said, "What kind of cell phone was that again?"

There was a brief pause, then, "Motorola Titanium p1040."

"That's it all right." He pocketed the phone as evidence, and said, "Suspect has abandoned his cell phone. He could be anywhere along the route, within an appropriate distance. Set up a Watch around all previous stops." He strode back towards the door, deliberately oblivious to the relief - and silent applause - that accompanied his wordless departure.

Near the back of the bus, crouched down on his knees between the seats, sat Randy Schafer. As the bus had been pulled over to the side of the highway, he'd had to think fast: he'd dropped his cell-phone out of his pocket, slid from his seat, and scuttled to the back of the bus, all the while meeting the eyes of anyone who looked and offering them a silent, implied thank you for their presumed silence. He darted in to one of the back seats, assumed a meditation pose with his shins flat on the ground and his forearms on his thighs, and had gone deep inside himself, reached a point of stillness just as he'd practiced so many times before. Necessity had seemed to clear the way for him, the state he was looking for clicking into place with an almost mechanical ease that he'd never experienced before. The momentary froth of consciousness fuzzed out into a total blankness of mind, and then recrystallized with absolute coherence around a single thought: that he was very, very small, indeed invisible. He'd seemed to disappear within himself, and when the cop had entered the bus he'd been aware of his presence only dimly, as though he were a dream.

When he finally moved, he had no idea what time it was. It had been a while since he'd worn a watch and his only source of timekeeping had been his cell phone, which was gone now and had taken with it significantly more than just a clock. That was something to worry about later, however. For now, he concentrated on easing himself up, slowly stretching out muscles that weren't used to holding such a pose for such a length of time. What had it been, an hour? Hour and a half? Something like that, judging by the Sun, he thought as he settled back into the chair.

At any rate he was well out of the city, by now. Evergreens and open meadows were flying past outside the window, with human habitation thinly scattered. The population density would increase significantly by the time the bus stopped, though, and he knew Watcher would be looking for him there, for having failed to find him in New York, they'd be expecting him in Rochester. He mulled this over while he looked out the window, but not for too long, because in truth conclusions regarding the only possibly course of action
had long ago been arrived at, deep within his subconscious mind, waiting only for the right moment to be acted upon by his conscious mind.

Standing, he walked down the aisle, towards the bus driver. There were a couple of surprised exclamations, quickly hushed; so deep had his invisibility become that even some of those who had seen him crawl back had gradually forgotten his presence. To these he gave voice to a few mumbled thank-yous, spreading some gratitude around him for their help.

He squatted down beside the driver, and said, "Hi there." He was a heavyset man, or had been: flaps hung from his face, flapping with the bus' motion, like the skin of a deflated balloon, and what had once been an imposingly bristling beard wobbled greasily from his multiple jowls.

Thedriver glanced over his shoulder. "Randy Something, right? That your real name?"

"It was," said Randy. "You saw me, then?"

"Yeah, caught it in the mirror," the driver murmured, staring ahead.

"Thanks for not saying anything."

"Seemed like the thing to do," shrugged the driver.

"Could I ask one more favor of you?"

"What's that?" The driver asked.

"Maybe pull over, right around here? I don't really want to be in a built up area right now, you know?"

The driver chuckled, shaking his head. He tapped the screen of his GPS navigator. "I pull over here, kid, they'll know for sure something's up. Then they pull me over, you're not here, and it's my ass. Sorry, kid, I got a family to feed."

Randy had already thought of that, of course, and addressed the man's concern automatically. "You could tell them I threatened you. They know I'm armed, they'd believe it."

The driver glanced back at him, eyes narrowing with a tinge of suspicion. "Threaten me? What with?"

Randy opened his jacket and drew a long, razor sharp hunting knife a little out of it's sheath, just enough to show what he had, and then calmly replaced it. Seeing fear glint in the man's tired eyes, he hastened to add, "I'm not threatening you, man. Just giving you a plausible story."

This seemed to put him at ease. The driver chewed his lip. "Awright. Grab your bag. I know a place just up the highway."

A minute later, the bus pulled over to the side of the road along a long, curving stretch where the forest came up almost to the shoulder. The door opened and Randy bolted from it, back-pack bouncing with every stride as he ran off into the forest. He had no idea where he was, and he knew the contents of his pack were more suited to a weekend staying at a friend's house in the city than they were to camping alone. That was assuming he knew much about camping....

But, the last place he wanted to be was anywhere he was expected. So even if he wouldn't last two days with what he had on him, well, that was two days to find someone to help him. Two days in which to find grace. Two days before he was taken by the elements, by starvation, by wild animals, by.... He re-directed his thoughts away from such unpleasantness. No good would come of worry, not now, here in the place where hope came to an end and he had no choice but to throw himself on the mercy of the world, trusting that his time had not yet come.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Broken Man

When they finally came for him, he had no idea what time it was. It was maybe days, maybe weeks, maybe even months since he'd seen light spill through a window, most of it spent locked alone in the small, cramped cell, the fluorescent light above coming on and off in unmeasurable intervals.

They'd come a lot for him in the beginning, taking him into a room with masked interrogators who beat him, held him under water, forced him into stress positions for hours on end while they paced about him sneering epithets at his family, his nation, his religion, and especially and always himself. They knew everything about him, oh yes, all of his faults and failings and vices and vile deeds, and they picked every single one of them apart simply for the joy of humiliating him. Then they'd toss him back into the cell, traumatized and shaking, and keep him from sleeping by playing loud music endlessly over the speakers. Always the sort of music they knew he hated, of course, for they knew that aspect of him with perfection as well and they went at him with everything they could.

He'd told them everything they wanted to know, right from the beginning, of course. He had nothing to hide, and didn't believe in lies anyway. He had no use for them. In fact you might say that's why they ultimately ended up taking him.

Well, that and he'd participated in a raid on a work camp out in the forest. Such acts were prone to draw their attention.

At any rate they'd gotten what information he was good for out 0f him early. It didn't matter, whatever he knew availed them nought. He was but a cell in the body of the Revolution, an insignificant part of a gathering swell whose very nature made it's triumph inevitable, for it's strengths were based upon the buckling weak points of the prison planet's control system. So they didn't keep him for information, nor was that why they tortured him. They tortured him because they wanted him to break clear through to the very core of his being, break his very soul to their will, and they did that only because getting that control made them hard and doing it rough made them harder. In this they were the embodiment of the wheezing hierarchical machine that had dominated the planet this past age.

Deep, deep down, he thanked them. So long and with such passion had he thanked them that gratitude for what they were subjecting him to suffused his psyche, for though they knew it not, by attempting to 'break clear through to core of his being', they were opening that same path for him more quickly and surely than he might ever have accomplished on his own. It was wrenching and traumatic, yes, of that they was no doubt: but it was immensely cathartic, as well. The gratitude he felt for this opportunity balanced itself against agony every moment, doing an internal dance within his soul that had long since ignited a fire, as it were, one that burned away at the atoms of his consciousness. The end result of the process - and he knew this well - was to be the crystallization of his etheric body into something that could never die.

His captors did not believe in things like souls and etheric bodies. Save, that was, for a small number who knew very well of such things. He had learned long ago that in a place like this that sort were the very worst. But then that was true anywhere, for those who believed in the soul and concealed that knowledge to use against others were the most dangerous creatures in creation. This place, however, had more than its share of that type. As for the rest of them, though, they didn't acknowledge, nor were capable of perceiving the existence of anything save dumb matter, and that was why they dumbly thought that they could exert their will over anything in any meaningful way, and reacted with such a petulantly predictable escalation of violence whenever their expectations ran up against the incontrovertible evidence that every particle of creation possessed in at least some respect free will.

It had been a long time since they'd last come for him when he at last heard steps pause outside his door. They'd left him there, locked alone in that cell, for what might have been months.

He knew, somehow, after the last beating, that for him there were only two ways out. He might, perhaps, be freed, should the Revolution reach him in time. Ah, but that would be a slow-burning affair, the last embers of which would not be extinguished for some years, and his captors would hang on, he knew, until the bitter end. So if not that, the other - much more likely - route out was his eventual execution.

The door slammed open, light spilling into the room. He sat in the center, in full lotus, hands that had been repeatedly broken and clumsily re-set holding a simple mudra, just as he had been sitting for hours. His eyes opened as the door did, directly on to those of a guard, the rest of his face obscured behind a ski mask. Before the guard could grab him and haul him to his feet, he stood up freely, fluidly, his limbs unknotting themselves with a grace that had been painstakingly regained through a faithful and deliberate yoga practice he'd kept up while in the cell. It was amazing the injuries one could recover from, if you but knew your body well enough, and had the patience and the will to coax it along.

Pre-empted, the guard hovered in the doorway, uncertain. The skin around the guard's eyes was a youth's, smooth. The eyes themselves were a little bloodshot and jittery; he was wired on something, energy drinks or meth or maybe even coke, something his superiors no doubt allowed or maybe even encouraged because it kept him frosty and a little more psychotic and brutal than might otherwise have been the case. But beneath the mask and the drugs and the errors of belief, he wasn't a fundamentally bad type, the prisoner judged. Not born that way, not like some were. He smiled. "There's hope for you yet, you know. Help is there if you choose to accept it."

This seemed to startle the young torturer into remembering his roll. "Come with me." He put his hand on the tazer holstered at his belt, for emphasis.

"Of course," said the man, as though assenting to a reasonable request.

The guard stepped out of the doorway, jerking his head down the corridor.

Together they proceeded to the end of the corridor, took an elevator, walked to the end of another hallway, another elevator, and into a wide, empty garage with stripes painted on the floor that were too narrow for cars but just right for lines of people. It was hard to tell in the dim flickering light of the ceiling's single fluorescent bulb, but the concrete at the head of the line seemed to be stained by something conspicuously dark and permanent.

A single man stood just outside the bulb's halo of thin light. The prisoner couldn't really tell, but in the shadows, if he looked around the man with his peripheral vision, he thought he saw a vaguely reptilian shape clutching the man's head.

The guard led him towards the illuminated patch. Or, rather, walked behind as the prisoner strode towards it, as fast as his weakened legs might carry him. "So this is it, then?" he asked, as he approached the man. If man he was.

"Shut him up," the man said, and stars exploded inside his head as the guard's fist came smashing into the back of his neck. "Speak when you're fucking spoken to. Shit, haven't you learned that much, yet?"

The prisoner rolled himself into a kneeling position on the ground, shins flat on the floor and forearms flat on his shins. Mouth closed, he looked up, regarding the man.

They stared in silence at one another for a few moments. The prisoner used the time to study the thing he could see pulsing, or perhaps scuttling was the better word, around the man's head. It seemed agitated, as though hungry and anticipating a meal. A mocking chuckle broke the silence. "You people. You all think you can't be broken. Everyone does, at first, but you guys...." he shook his head, pausing, and for a moment the kneeling prisoner saw the man's face illuminated in the flick of a lighter. It was the face of a vampire, drawn taut by its own evil. The thing above the man's head disappeared in the light; another might have taken it to mean it had been an illusion, but the prisoner took it as evidence for it's reality. "You guys," the man exhaled, "You're a real challenge."

The prisoner merely sat, awaiting whatever might come next.

"So I read your file, yeah?" The executioner said, "And apparently we caught you after you raided a work camp outside Chicago. Something like, what, a dozen of the ugly skanks got out, right? And among them was this pretty slut," he threw an 8 1/2 x 11 on the ground for his charge to look at. The woman who had during the heady days of the Revolution's beginning become his lover, not just of his body but of his soul, stared back at him, open eyes above a vacant mouth, slumped against a broken concrete wall with a bullet in her chest. "Got 'er!" The man said, with undisguised glee.

"Maria." It escaped his lips as a choking sob, the pain of it stabbing through his chest, piercing clean through to that core they'd been trying to reach so long. It was like white fire in his mind, the loss, not so much the thought that he would never see her alive again but that her own time on the planet had come to an end in such a brutal fashion. All the things that could have been but now never would spread out before him, and he let the grief choke him, swallow his being like a nuclear bomb at the back of his brain. For just an instant, deep inside, he ceased to be.

The instant faded. He came back to himself. Tears welled in his eyes, then spilled freely down his cheeks. He wept silently, letting himself free the pain, thinking all the while of his every moment with her, the joyful and the terrifying, the triumphant and the abject, the passionate and the tender. Their life together flashed before his eyes, and pain at the perceived theft was redirected into gratitude for every moment they'd had together. "Thank you," he whispered aloud, a short prayer to her departed soul accompanied by a blossom of love from the deepest part of his heart, and smiled even as tears streamed beside his lips.

Under other circumstances, he might have said more. This, however, was not the place; speech would indeed have been wasteful. There was no one to hear fine words who might appreciate them, and so language was best bypassed and thoughts composed of pure feeling offered in its stead, a prayer that emanated out of his heart into the ether, broadcast with all the force that could be drawn from the wound.

"'Thank you'", the executioner said, shaking his head. "You've gotta be fucking shitting me. Hey! Your girlfriend just died. We fucking shot her. Now she's dead. And you're fucking thanking us?" He walked over, sucking hard on the cigarette to get it good and hot and then jabbing it into the prisoner's ear with one deft twist of his hand.

He collapsed sideways, away from the raging burn inside his ear, allowing himself an animal scream that eased into a long, indrawn gasp. The cruelty seemed to calm the executioner down, and he squatted beside him, addressing him in a conversational tone, "You know, I wasn't just being idly offensive when I called her a slut. It's tragic, bro, really it is. You risk your neck for her, let yourself get captured by us, for Christ's sake, just to bust her ass out of some piddly little work camp. And do you know how long she waited before jumping another man's bones?" He leaned closer, and hissed. "Three weeks. Faithful of her, eh? So what do you got to say to that?"

Three weeks could be a lifetime when you lived as they did, thought the prisoner. She would have grieved in full within that period, with an intensity that gave the experience it's full due, and then she would have moved on, healed. There was no hope of his ever being busted out the way she had: it was one thing to raid a low-security work camp whose location was open knowledge, quite another to track down a man who'd taken so many flights to so many secret prisons even he had no idea what country he was in. She would have reconciled herself to the knowledge that he could not be saved, and done so as quickly as possible. He would have done the same, and he'd long since reconciled himself to the likliehood of her meeting and continuing through life with another man.

His gasping turned into a chuckle. "You know you've got a lizard sitting in your head with his tail wrapped around your soul-line, right?" The prisoner asked.

"A lizard?" the executioner said with convincing incredulous. ".... the fuck!? You are fucking crazy, man, you know that? Hey, sergeant, isn't this guy a nutjob?" He emphasized the final word, and an instant later the guard's steeltoe boot rammed into the prisoner's testicles, ending forever any chance of the man having children.

He doubled up, giving himself up again to the pain. Mastering it was easy by now; after what had just happened inside his head, staring at the corpse of the woman he'd given himself up to save, mere physical pain was like a house fly landing on his arm. He lay on his side, quickly letting the grunting subside into short breaths, and went on, "Of course, you wouldn't know that yourself. That part of you's hidden. It has to be, to stay in charge. You? The old you, the you on the outside that everyone sees? You're just a robot being run by a goddamn ugly reptile."

That earned him a kicking that cracked some ribs and bloodied his face, following which the guard grabbed him by his neck and hauled him to his knees again. The executioner was shaking his head, smirking. "Still think you can't be broken." There was an emptiness in the smirk, as though it were a parody of genuine emotion. No doubt the lizard pulling his strings was not amused.

"But you have broken me," the prisoner said. "You've broken me all the way through. Congratulations. The beatings are really quite unnecessary now." He paused, considering. "Of course you can continue if you want to. I can't stop you, after all."

"Enough of this shit." The executioner stepped in front of him, took a pistol from inside his jacket and cocked it. The prisoner could feel the dark presence flowing down the man's arm as though gathering to pounce from the end of the pistol. It paused there, hovering at the edge of visibility. So great was it's hunger, and it's desperation to inspire fear, that it was willing to expend a great deal more energy than it's skulking nature was usually willing to part with.

The prisoner watched it writhing on the end of a gun, like a flickering black cyst in reality, a hole sideways through space into a being whose stomach was the first gate of hell.

All the reptile needed to drag him into its awful mouth was to inspire a moment of real, over-powering fear. It was a predator of souls, with claws made of terror.

Few people were granted such a sight, not while still alive. The prisoner reflected upon this, the great privilege of it, and felt a warm throb of gratitude swell out from his heart as the muzzle was placed against his sweaty head. The being flowed over the barrel and slithered about his head, searching for purchase on his soul-line, and for one brief glorious instant his awareness expanded around him to encompass the entirety of the moment.

As the executioner's finger tightened on the trigger, the prisoner's eyes went up to meet his, the beginning's of a smile touching the edge of his lips. The fear seemed to rebound off that smile, echoing instead within the executioner's eyes. Which was absurd, of course, that he should feel the cold touch of his own proferred terror.

So it was with inner laughter that a sweeping and precise appreciation of the scene coalesced in his mind; the moment dilated, and for the first time he did not glimpse but saw the infinite within an infinitesimal span of time, and he....

His clothes fluttered to the ground, as a bullet ricocheted off the pavement behind where he'd just been and bounced around the garage. By some freak, it hit the solitary light bulb, which quickly flickered off as toxic fumes exhaled out of it and darkness engulfed the room.

The New Weed

Snow whipped through the air in great blinding sheets, illuminated now and again in conic sections under the intermittently working street lamps. The roads were all but deserted at this late hour, save for the occasional taxi that forged its way through the growing drifts, as yet un-cleared by the city’s plows. On the sidewalk – or where the sidewalk might be, were it not covered over by several inches of compacted ice and slush – a solitary figure trudged forward, identity and even gender hidden under several layers of dark winter clothing.

The casual passerby might have no idea whom the figure was, but she wasn’t so foolish at to imagine that her identity was hidden from anyone who actually mattered. The cameras were everywhere, encased in black globes that hung from the lamp posts and hydro poles like engorged tumors, and even if they couldn’t make her out the AI would most certainly have noticed when she left her apartment, and tracked her progress since. Not because she was doing anything suspicious; everyone was watched.

Up ahead, on the street corner, light spilled from the windows of an all-night 7-11. Her pace hurried as she neared it, eager to get out of the cold. Inside she was confronted by several aisles of gaudy magazines and brightly packaged junk food. The door to the bathroom opened, and a careworn older woman stepped out. For a second their eyes met, mutual recognition of their common humanity flashed between them, then the old lady dropped her gaze as though the contact had burned her and she hurried out the store.

She grabbed a bowl of instant ramen that purported to have real vegetables. She didn’t take that claim too seriously, but the hungry will eat anything, even if they know it to be poison. And getting real vegetables was almost impossible, these days, anyhow … at least, if by ‘real’, you meant ‘unadulterated’.

There was a tall, middle-aged man behind the counter, of Indian or Pakistani origin, with eyes that had seen much and a lined face that betrayed nothing. She approached him, placing the bowl on the counter. “Will that be all?” He asked tonelessly, waving the package over an RFID scanner.

“Um….” She started, and finding her voice missing, coughed to clear her throat. “‘Compassion is the Light that binds all Virtue,’” she murmured.

“I’m sorry?” the man said, the question polite but giving no hint that he might know.

She licked her lips, feeling her stomach twist as the man’s calm gaze regarded her like a bug, giving no clue one way or the other whether the phrase meant anything to him. Young and attractive, she wasn’t used to being looked at in such a fashion, and she had to dig into her emotional reserves to find the courage to repeat, “Compassion is the….”

“Yes, I heard you the first time. That’s very poetic,” the man said.

She laughed, nervously, suddenly certain that she must have the wrong place, that this whole expedition had been an exercise in futility. Had Shankar given her the wrong place? Or had she misunderstood the directions? She hadn’t dared look them up online: no one googled a convenience store. Doing so would have set off red flags. Way too much of a heatscore.

“Do you mind if I use the bathroom?” She asked, though she had no need of the bathroom.

“Yes, go ahead,” the man said. “Would you like me to heat this up for you?”

“Yes, please,” she murmured, and hurried off towards the door.

The stall was large and modern, made to accommodate a wheel-chair, with a folding changing table on the wall. The tiles were cracked, with graffiti carved into them. The smell of spilt urine filled her nostrils. She scanned around, looking for some clue to the hidden doorway that Shankar had said was to be found here, and seeing no sign of it felt again the sense of failure and despair rising within her like a black tide.

There was a soft click. A crack appeared as a small hatch opened, it’s edges cunningly disguised by the tiles. Biting her lip, she pushed at it, and it swung open silently on well oiled hinges. Rough wooden steps descended into the darkness.

Relief flooded through her. She’d found the right place after all. Steeling herself, she crouched down to get through the hatch and made her way down, stairs creaking under her feet. “Hello?” she whispered. There was no response, until she got to the bottom of the staircase and sensed more than heard a quick motion behind her. Before she could turn around to look, she felt cold metal pressed up against her temple. She froze.

“Easy, now,” said a quiet, gravelly smoker’s voice, the gun’s owner.

A pair of hands came out of nowhere, frisking her and waving a wand over her body. “She’s clean,” said a second voice, so deep she felt it in her bones.

The pistol dropped away, someone flicked a light-switch and she found herself in a narrow basement, cracked concrete floor and cinderblock walls unadorned save for row upon row of steel shelving, densely packed with a profusion of dried greenery wrapped in plastic baggies. There were three people around her, two of them obvious gangsters wearing black leisure suits, one a wiry man pocketing the pistol, the other a massive body-builder. The third was a short woman, middle-aged, with lines of grey in her hair and laugh lines around her eyes. The woman regarded her visitor with a look equal parts sympathy and suspicion, and asked, “How did you find us, dear?”

“Through a friend,” she said. “Um, he said to tell you his name was Steven.” Which wasn’t Shankar’s real name, of course, but then he’d been very clear that under no circumstances was anyone at this establishment interested in knowing any of their customers’ real names, just as they were especially uninterested in their customers knowing who they were. ‘Steven’ was another code word, just like the pass-phrase she’d used to get in.

The name seemed to work. The woman relaxed a bit, nodded and said, “What brings you to us, then, dear?”

“Cancer,” she blurted, and as she said it the word rolled through her with all its terrible force. “I, ah, I’ve been diagnosed with an inoperable tumor,” she lifted her hand, touched a spot behind above her ear, “Right here. There are no symptoms yet, but they want to start chemo sometime next month, and….”

“And you don’t want to let them poison you,” the woman nodded, as though she’d heard it all before. Which, her visitor reflected, she doubtless had.

The woman cocked her head. “From the placement of the tumor, I’m guessing it’s from your cell phone. Do you have one?”

She nodded. “Yes, and I….”

The woman held up her hand. “Spare me. Those things are deadly. I’d say get rid of it but then how would you survive? Do you have a silk scarf? No? Get one. Keep it wrapped about your head and neck at all times, like a hijab. Ever notice how few Muslim women get brain cancer? No? I sure have.” She sighed. “Well, then. Enough with the free advice. You didn’t come here to chat, and if you stick around too long the Watchers might wonder what’s taking you so long in the bathroom.” She stood up, walked towards the wall, her hand moving along a shelf until it found what she was looking for, a plastic baggie about the size of her fist, containing a mixture of crushed, dried plants. “Here,” she held the baggie up, “This is a preparation of aloe vera, echinacea, lantana, violet, pau d’arco, and blood root. Mix in about a teaspoon a day, three times a day until it’s all gone, which should be about three weeks.”

“And that will kill the tumor?”

The woman shrugged. “It’s more likely to work than whatever they’ll do to you in the hospital. With the added bonus that it won’t, itself, make you sick.”

“And … how much should I….” she reached for her wallet.

The woman shook her head, pressing the package into her customer’s hand. “We don’t take money here. Too easy to trace, these days.” She smiled, seeing the surprised look on her visitor’s face. “Oh, don’t worry. We’ll collect, one way or another. If you live, that is. If it doesn’t work, well,” she shrugged, “It wouldn’t be right to ask payment. But if you do, you owe us. We will find you, someday – we have our ways – maybe in a month, maybe in a year. But we will be in touch, and we will expect a favor.”

“A favor?”

“Yes. A favor, a service, call it what you will. Was this not explained to you?” Annoyance flashed over her face, clearing away like a summer storm. “I can’t say what it will be, exactly, there’s no way of knowing in advance. It will likely be something illegal, if not immoral.” The woman sighed, again, and for a moment her visitor saw through the hard exterior life had forced her to develop, saw the deep well of compassion that motivated her, at war with her frustration at the stupidity and malevolence of a world that had made medicinal herbs that had been used for thousands of years illegal, forcing healers like herself into the company of thugs and criminals. It was not so long ago that those men would have made their living growing and dealing weed; now, with the list of illegal plants greatly expanded, they grew and dealt weeds.

“Thank you,” she said, cupping the bag of precious herbal tea in her hand like an offering. Tears brimmed in her eyes. “Thank you….”

“Save it,” the woman said, the shell snapping closed like the wings of a beetle. "One more thing. If you meet someone who wants our services, tell them to say to the counterman, 'The light of heaven shines from logos'. Repeat that, please. Thank you. Don't forget it, that's the next person's pass-phrase. If they say it the guy at the counter will let them use the restroom, otherwise it's employee's only. And tell them ... Maria sent you."


"That's right. You’ve been down here long enough, Maria. Get away before you the AI catches a bad case of the suspicions.”

Maria hurried back up the stairs.