The Grange: Part Two.
by Paul Hughes.
see also:
The Grange: Part One.
The Grange: Part Three.

forum: night.blind: The Grange
a collaborative fiction.

......... ....... .....  

night.blind: 02.1.1: 12 February 2005: Paul Hughes.
          Karsten Nacht liked the cold.

          He contemplated that enjoyment from the safety of his exposure suit as his men pulled the last layer of thermal underwear from the pale, hairless waste of a man that was Nils Lehrer.  Lehrer--


          --was shivering, his chest blooming goosed ridges over ribs in places Nacht had never seen goosebumps.  The shivering started quietly enough, progressed into great sobbing heaves of breath as Lehrer started to freeze.  His jaw clamped shut and inhalations whistled through his ice-clotted nostrils when he realized speaking made his saliva ice.

          "Please!"  This repetition was choked out through clenched teeth, three distinct syllables voiced more with the wracking reactions of impending hypothermia than any vocal cord.

          The wind picked up.  Lehrer rubbed his hands across his chest, crossed his arms, danced in place, a pathetic reminder of just how fragile the human body is, and just how much we aren't meant to be certain places on this planet.

          "Hold him."

          Nacht's men each grabbed an arm, pulled them apart and away from Nils Lehrer.  He shook his head.  "I promise--  Karsten, I promise--"

          Karsten Nacht slashed, the throat, the chest, the belly, flaps of flesh splaying forth long enough to freeze in place.  The flash-frozen glut of blood and viscera spattered to the ice in various stages of solidity.  It was music: tinkle, tinkle.  He watched the hacked neck spout a scarlet hailstorm as Lehrer flailed backward, released from his captors' hold.  He flopped onto his back, his head a meaty crack on the ice, his body one last jitterbugged spasm.

          The only sound was the wind, and the day lasted six months.

          Karsten Nacht liked Antarctica.

* * *

          Night Primary was as close to hell as you could get.

          Bored into eight thousand four hundred feet of ice, Primary hived through the three-kilometer drop of the Bentley Subglacial Trench in Lincoln Ellsworth's Land in lesser Antarctica.  The outpost rested at the lowest elevation not underwater on the planet.  The citizens of Primary, when they were in a jovial mood, liked to joke that if the elevator cable snapped on the way down, they'd be unwitting participants in a one-way supercollider ride, their atoms smashed against the bedrock and spiraling off into higher energy states long before the sonic boom.  Such humor is generally wasted outside of CERN, from where many of the Primaries had been stolen.

          Did I say "citizens"?  Not exactly.  Night Primary existed well outside of any claimed territory, although once it had hovered dangerously close to the Chilean claim.  Antarctica had once been the most popular pie at the picnic, the general area Primary inhabited blueberried between such glorious grabs as Ellsworth's Land and Marie Byrd Land, quadrangulated between Byrd and Russkaya, Siple and Druzhnaya, but no one drew maps anymore.  Chile had given up their claim (along with seven million Chileans), and the superpowers no longer had the resources to care much about the irradiated iceberg at the bottom of the world.

          In the previous century, people with long hair who actually enjoyed tofu had bitched a lot about the "ozone hole" over Antarctica.  "Hole," at that point, had been a misnomer, a Chicken Little attempt to get Republicans to stop driving sports utility vehicles and hug more trees.  It had been only a seventy-percent depletion in the ozone level above the continent.  Still plenty of ozone to do whatever ozone does, and honestly, no one really gave a shit until that remaining thirty percent dissipated and friendly scientists began growing cancers in their eyeballs and earlobes after taking an afternoon stroll with their hats off.

          Karsten Nacht liked Antarctica, and he liked the cold, and he liked his job, but what he didn't like very much was the fact that Lehrer had gotten a signal out before they caught up to him.  He would have much rather have been back at the bottom of the slit, checking the morning's playlist, drinking Pepsi Cola, perhaps doing horrible things to a young woman, than trudging across the ice, the item now secured in a heating pack alice-clamped to his ruck.  His exposure suit provided him with enough warmth to keep him alive, but it did nothing to substantially reduce the glare, even with the triple-polarized shields down on his goggles.  No exposed flesh-- he didn't cherish the thought of the doktor blading a writhing, blood-vesseled mass from his forehead or cheeks.

          Across the plain, their vehicle appeared as a blocky interruption to the white.

          "Finally," young Thule Nast sighed.  "I hate the outdoors."

          "That's what you get."  Nacht let the non-accusation hang, and Thule shut it.  He wasn't a bad kid, but Nacht knew weakness, and he knew someday he'd be taking Thule out one last time.

          Thoughts of home: meat, liquor, smoke.  Snatch.  Life in the slit was good, and there was some good slit to be had at Primary.  Nacht ran a different playlist in his mind, tried to choose a half-mate for the night.  The possibilities were as endless as a buried city of five thousand could allow.

          He knew them all; it was his job to know them all.

          "Warm her up."

          "Ja."  Sepp Bahlow's conversational skills were as limited as his physical form was plentiful, a great hulking beast of a man, apparently constructed of hair and gristle and steel.  He remoted the cat, which ratcheted to life, the ramjet screeing across the ice, quieting into idle, that auditory interruption just one more reason that Nacht would make someone pay for his inconvenience that night.  Clamps.  Electricity.  Needles.  There were still twenty-seven female virgins left in Primary, twenty-six tomorrow.  Maybe twenty-five.

         It was a good kill, he thought to himself as he took one last look back at the rigid red outcrop that had been Nils Lehrer.  He just wished that Lehrer hadn't gotten so close to the pole.

night.blind: 02.1.2: 17 February 2005: Paul Hughes.
          Cold preserves.

          The B1 and B2 buildings from naughty-five were still there.  The cracked dome, all three crashed planes pushed well to the side of the runway, Max Conrad's from 1970, Dave Crouse's 917 from 1973, that miserable failure of the mini-X33 from seventeen, still rent into burnt slabs of aerial silicate-aluminum many handfuls of years later.

          Cold preserves, and that was the driving force behind Harris Stanhope's dragging.

          Aloha Jones lay strapped to a makeshift sledge, lilting forward a few feet with each exertion Stanhope slumped forward.  He'd tried to make small talk early in the run, a mixture of shock and personality, using humor to alleviate despair.

          Stanhope had removed the black rain slicker from the compartment on his 7000ci duffel and covered Aloha's swollen face.  A caul, a shroud: it hadn't shut his companion up.

          "There yet?"

          "Al," Stanhope stopped tugging.  "I can't keep talking.  Can't walk and talk."  He hefted forward.

          "Getting close though, right?"

          Stop.  "I see her."  Start.

          "Good.  That's good, right?"

          Stop.  "Want to spend another night out here?"  Start.

          The ensuing silence might have been another slip into dreams.  Stanhope set aside all concern for his companion's condition for the moment.  Silence was more productive than answering rhetorical questions.

          He navigated the sledge through the debris field on the camp's perimeter, continued on underneath the raised dormitories, blackened and gutted as they were.  He surveyed the damage; great segments of the dome had collapsed.  There were still bodies.  Cold.  Preserves.

          He'd scavenge the bodies later.

          For now, his main goal was to locate the secondary ingress.  Biomed arch.  Too many quonset huts to--

          And then he found it.  He thought he heard a moan from Jones, but it might have been the wind.  Probably the wind; Aloha wouldn't have wasted breath on a verbalization that wasn't bullshit.

          The primary ingress had been in Vault 4, but he knew from the digested data that Vault 4 had been taken out in the first strike.  From its appearance, the biomed arch had only sustained peripheral damage.

          "Wait here."

          "Fuck you."

          So he was awake.  That was a plus.  Stanhope knew that Aloha was strong, but that exposure...

          "I'm checking the secondary.  Bee are bee."

          He ducked under the folded steel walls.  Enough daylight filtered through the cracks and separatations to illuminate the interior: shattered equipment, frozen doctors, the legendary Seabees plaque half-torched on the floor.  Looked for-- a closet.  Found it, but had to pry loose a very dead nurse from the floor before the door could open enough to allow him entry.

          They hadn't done a good job hiding the port, but the inhabitants of Amundsen-Scott hadn't exactly done a good job of hiding anything.  He tore down a plywood shelving system, knocking boxes of gauze and cleaning solution and bandages and broom handles to the closet floor.  He used one of the handles to pry loose the false wall behind the shelf, et voila: secondary ingress port.

          He smiled in pride as he ripped the velcro closure of his bib pocket open to withdraw his linkup, but God hates proud men, and the linkup's display was as black as frozen plasma could be.  Frantic, he checked his exposure suit's heating unit.  That was fine; he hadn't expected a malfunction, since he was not yet frozen to death.  Patting himself down, he pulled out his hydration unit.  It had sprung a pinpoint leak and frozen solid.  He should have put the link in a different pocket; those drops of water must have gotten into the device and wreaked havoc as liquid transformed to solid.

          He ran through upcoming priorities: Get Aloha out of the cold.  Hotwire ingress port.  Enter.  Acquire fire.  Melt water.  Drink water.  Burn things.  Get warm.  Make sure Aloha doesn't die from the second-degree burns on his face and the cancer probably fucking growing on him already and try to make contact with the network and Jesus fuck, what am I going to do?

          Harris Stanhope was at the bottom of the world.

night.blind: 02.1.3: 18 February 2005: Paul Hughes.
          Karsten Nacht was shaking.

          It wasn't the guilt or the cold; he hadn't the ability to feel guilt, and his quarters were kept at a luxurious 294 degrees Kelvin.  He stubbed the filterless Rote Zigaretten still smoking into the agape mouth of Virgin One, and traced the infinitesimal line of hair between Virgin Two's navel and pubis.  There was more blood in the room than the two-for-one defloration had caused.

          He rose to one elbow and reached to retrieve his cigarette case on the nightstand beside Virgin Two's corpse.  Two conquests?  Two cigarettes.  Both maidens and cigarettes were in short supply, but he felt a certain victory after tracking and locating Lehrer that day.  Click, flick, click, inhale.  Looking off at the blank viewer, he ashed between Ms. One's breasts.

          He shook from the adrenaline spindown.  Intensely aware of his body's internal functions, he rolled his head, splayed his toes, began flexing every major muscle group from his feet to his face.  An onlooker would have suspected a stroke; he simply wanted to allay the onset of post-coital cramping.  He'd given the girls workouts, but they wouldn't have to suffer the effects.

          Lost in playlists and recollection, he allowed the cigarette to burn down to his fingers.  Most would have dropped it, cried out in pain or surprise.  He'd long ago learned to live an offset life, and was able to choose a actionable directive microseconds before the burning was relayed to his brain.  He shut off the reflex and placed the butt in Ms. Two's mouth.

          Clambering from between the two forms, one too young to know any better, the other too ugly to care, he pulled his pants up over feet and knees and deflated, cum- and blood-slicked penis, clicking the fastener home.  Testing the floor, he found it acceptable in terms of warmth, unacceptable in terms of soil.  He socked brain matter from his feet and left the room.

          A reader from a previous century might find the concept of a shirtless man wandering the hallways of an Antarctic base unbelievable, but those dark days had not yet seen the development of efficient renewable energy sources.  Nacht's room was frigid compared to the balmy heat in the remainder of the complex, heat provided by that old reliable engine of twenty-first century Antarctic industry: the sun.  Five thousand people required a lot of sun, and that tumored and baked continent had a lot of sun to give.

          People here, people there.  As he walked down the mazework, they'd stop in turn, salute, hurry past at his dismissal, their faces suddenly studying the floors, their steps a little faster.  Not all of that fear could be blamed on the dried blood and tissue on his unwashed face.

          As he cut through the torrent of subordinates, he had to make a conscious effort to tune them out.  He knew each by name, by intimate detail, knew every thought and dream and hope and kink.  Night Primary was the largest private army in the world, each participant in the experiment at the world's end selected by Nacht, hand-picked from those the governments had not yet brought into their own viewing programs.  That was about to change.  Everything was about to change, as Nils Lehrer and Aloha Jones had proven in the past days.

          He got into the bridge elevator.  He'd a penchant for nautical terminology.

          The elevator door opened, and he debarked into the center of a vast circular chamber, the edges of which were honeycombed with two hundred remote viewing null-stimulation pods, one hundred seventy-five of which were occupied at all times.  Five nobody analysts saw him enter and immediately walked to meet him.  He waved them off, chose instead to address the hidden assembly.

          "My children," a whisper that echoed.  He wiped crusted blood from his cheek, an errant hair from his lip.  "Tell me about the cold."

night.blind: 02.1.4: 19 February 2005: Paul Hughes.
          "Took you long enough."

          "Don't start."  Stanhope was popping the bindings that held Jones to the makeshift journey-gurney.

          "Listen, I'm--" Jones started to sit up, the brisking wind whipping the black slicker around his slicker black face.  "I know I'm the comedy relief, I'm just--"

          "--not funny.  I need you to open the door."

          "Can't you--"

          "Not anymore.  You know that.  And the link's dead.  No hotwiring.  Arms up."

          Jones reached up, and Stanhope lifted him from the knees, draped him over his shoulder like a duffel.  "I'll try not to hit your head.  The building's caved."

          "Thanks, chief."

          Into the warren of corpses and snow, Stanhope carried Jones back to the closet, helped him down to slump against the wall.  It was eating him-- His legs weren't working anymore.

          "Door's probably ringed with--"

          "Don't set it off, then.  Be gentle."

          Jones took the veil from his face, not that he really needed to, and Stanhope would have in fact preferred he hadn't, but he didn't stop him.  The nose was mashed flat under eyes swollen to slits, beyond, burst.  Each nostril was plugged solid with caked black blood and ice, making every word an exercise any primary school resource room deprogrammer would have been proud to tackle.

          Lids and brows plump with swelling reoriented themselves in what Stanhope assumed was concentration.  "No power.  Can't trick it.  It's ringed, too.  Ka-boom if you'd hotwired--"

          "Take it down."

          "I'm not feeling--"

          "You can rest once we're inside, Al.  Please.  Just take it down."

          Jones snuffled through the somewhat-thawing clots in his nose.  "Yeah."

          If Stanhope hadn't found him, he would have been blind out on the ice, wandering, lost, probably worse.  Probably dead, as he sensed  Lehrer now was, somewhere out there.  They'd split up to double their chances of escape, and now, those odds were in no one's favor.  At least he was alive.

          He remembered first seeing Antarctica from the viewport of the coldjet-33, making a snarky remark to his traveling companions, just another nigger with an attitude ban-i-shed to the bottom of the world when the man realized he was too smart for his own good and too dangerous for his own country.  In certain contexts, of course.  Danger can be malleable, and his particular danger had been extruded into razor-sharp remote ability.

          The Amundsen-Scott station, like all the rest of the Antarctic outposts, had been abandoned when the ozone popped and people started dying horrible, bleeding deaths.  Lost in thought, analyzing the molecular composition and the fuzz between of the secondary ingress, one hand rose absently to touch his face.  He could feel that contact more through his exposure gloves than from the bare, bruised, dying flesh.

          A-S had been dormant for a good three or four days until superblack ops began populating it with viewers.

          You must understand that there are levels to government, and some of those levels run at their best when they are completely unknown to the highest public levels, when anyone who knows about them is locked into a lifetime commitment to them, thereby forfeiting what most human beings would consider a normal existence.  Aloha Jones was too smart for his own good, and his life didn't mean much of anything to anyone at all, at least until he was given a one-way ticket to the South Pole and became a new animal named Rubyshoe-179.  The Rubyshoes had essentially been in charge of overseeing every United States remote viewing outpost on the planet, and they'd done a fine job of it until Karsten Nacht and his army had murdered most of them.

          That's where Harris Stanhope came in.

          "Got it."

          The door opened with an audible pop and hiss, the massive swing mechanism racheting open on protesting servos.  A burst of chill escaped.  The air was dead inside.

          "Okay.  Arms up."

night.blind: 02.1.5: 23 February 2005: Paul Hughes.
          Pod doors retracted, and almost two hundred sludge-slicked viewers peeked out.  A chorus of non-voices swelled and receded at Nacht's raised finger, the subtle tilt of his head as he closed his eyes.  He'd call on them.

          "Report, Viewer Forty-One."

          "Day's playlist: Munich.  Subject--"

          "Enough.  Viewer Nine?"

          "Target acquired in Scotland.  Tracked on--"

          "Continue tracking.  Viewer One-hundred Sixty?"  Nacht walked to his empty command chair, slumped into it, the cooled leatherette surface clamping his sweated back.

          "Hitch, Nebraska, Direktor."

          He sat up from the slump.  "Go on."

          "Issued directive to outpost at 0937CST.  Success."

          "The farmer?"

          "He is safe, Direktor."

          "Excellent.  Excellent.  Dolpha!"  He snapped his fingers twice, gave a short whistle.  His shepherd's ears picked up, and the bitch ran to his side, sat at attention, her muzzle lowered, her front paws planted.  Dolpha's tail didn't wag.  Nacht leaned down, grabbed the sides of her face, mussed her hair, stroked the too-long nose to its wet tip.

          Sepp Bahlow grunted from his point of onlooking, leaned against a bulkhead next to Thule Nast.  Karsten Nacht showed no affection to anything in the world other than that savage old dog.  Dummer Hund.

          "One Six One," Nacht whispered more to the dog than the viewer, before he looked in the general direction of pod 161, "You've done well.  Continue tracking subject and advise when necessary."

          That was about as sensitive or personable as Nacht could be to another human being.

          "Children," he rose, as did Dolpha, her tail not between her legs, but held straight out, as if her decades-old form could leap to action in an instant, ravaging a throat, an Achilles tendon, ripping through a septum into the heartmeat of a man, which it could and had, "we've made great progress today, and I know we will continue.  We have the farmer in our grip, and soon, we'll have the last of the polers hunted down."  He turned and looked at Thule Nast over his shoulder.  Nast tried to hide in Bahlow's shadow, but the room was bright with halogen and thoughts.  "No matter what setbacks we might have experienced these last weeks, no matter how deep the betrayal cut into our ranks, we're only just beginning."

         God, his eyes are blue, Nast thought, and was it-- a trace of a smile?  Across Nacht's face?  Nast pushed the thought of God and eyes down deeper than any Judas betrayal.

          "You've done well, children.  Rotate out, and--

* * *

          --"fucking watch it!"

          The clang of Aloha's head against the metal seal of the door still echoed in the airlock.  They'd traversed the ingress path, and Stanhope was relieved to find the interior was a simple twist-arm bulk.  Although it was larger than the ingress, he still managed to smack Aloha against the side on his way through.


          He'd cracked his final glowstick, which would last another eight hours, but after that...  He'd have to get the systems back online if they had any chance of remaining liquid in the hole.

          "Okay, you're going down."  At a harrumph from Jones, he tilted forward and guided the mangled form to the floor, leaned against the wall.  He wondered if it was a bad sign that his breath was no longer visible, as if he no longer had the lung capacity to emit steam.

          Jones touched his face, testing his senses.  Maybe it was better that he couldn't feel a thing.

          "First off, first aid.  Generators.  Water.  You know the layout better than I do.  Where do I start looking?"

          "We need a fire, man.  Should be able to find some paper on this level, magazines, books.  Anything.  Just burn it."

          The Amundsen-Scott outpost had been constructed to much the same specifications as the Grange, although at a larger scale.  The Rubyshoes had required considerably more space than the two-dozen Majestics and their support staff.  The secondary egress was located in one of the top dormitories, a hive of interlaced hallways feeding out into the cubicles where the exiled viewers had lived and slept and fucked and brushed their teeth until Nacht had found them.

          Stanhope tried the first door.  It was open, as he suspected all of them would be.  The Germans would have gone door-to-door hunting, and in confirmation, he noted the scoring of a ram on the steel jamb.  The green of his glowstick offered more confirmation: what appeared to have been a young female Rubyshoe, half of her head missing, frozen to the floor beside her bunk in the utilitarian chamber.

          It was too cold to stink, but the ice blood across the floor made his walk slippery.

          He tried the sink first.  Nothing.  Any residual pressure had probably been released in cheap burst government contractor plumbing, if it weren't frozen solid.  Either way, they were fucked without water, unless he could find some--  and he did.  If there were one thing viewers had in common with one another, it was a propensity toward self-destruction.  He ran back into the hallway to Jones.

          "First aid?"




          "First aid enough.  Stoli?"

          "Jenkins.  Plastic bottle.  Don't complain.  Not frozen."  He popped the pour spout, took a liberal mouthful for himself, and coughed through it as he tilted Aloha's mouth up.  "Brace for it."

          After a coughing fit, spilling residuals from his split lips and cheeks, Jones started laughing.  "Battery acid don't freeze, does it?"

          "Here, take the bottle."  Stanhope placed both of Jones's hands around the half-full, half-empty, either-way,-we're-fucked liquor.  "I'll be back-- Have to get the heat on."


          Harris Stanhope left Jones in the dark, his path down the steel tube illuminated weakly in ghostlight.

night.blind: 02.1.6: 28 February 2005: Paul Hughes.
          It would be an understatement to say that Sepp Bahlow was a big man, and a tragic understatement to underestimate him based on his frame.  He was big in a Tor Johnson way, a grade-z horror movie way, the perfect hench to the man who would unseat Hitch and all the delicious little viewers from existence.  His was a deceptive girth.  The pushing-four-hundred pounds of him weren't fat, as any observant dietician would have assumed.  He would have pulled the arms from any observant dietician Wookiee-style without the slightest difficulty.  He was good for hauling meat.

          The tropical steam of Night Primary graced Bahlow with a sheen unbecoming on his barrel chest, the too-tight spousal abuser he wore stretched wet and tight over man tits that were more conical pectorals than too many hamburg sandwiches.  There were legs draped over his chest now, four of them, and from the crease between each set, a sour waft of blood and cum marked the target of Nacht's earlier transgressions.  He carried the two corpses as a Navy man of past centuries would wield his duffels up a gangplank.  People didn't look at him or the fucked-to-death as he passed them in the tubes on his way to the disposal shaft.


          But they would, apparently, talk to him.

          "Sepp--" Thule Nast fastwalked to his side, matched his stride, two steps for every one.  "Are these the-- Oh fuck.  Smokes in their eyes."

          Bahlow stopped walking, and one of the butts fell from Virgin Two's socket, a viscous strand of something unmentionable and probably optic fluid dangling it for a second before gravity grasped it down to the floor.

          "What do you want?"  American doesn't nearly as neatly construct sentences that are succinct, menacing, and utterly Sepp Bahlow as the original German.

          Nast was lost for a moment in the flesh presented before him, the bodies slung over Bahlow's shoulders, the sudden appearance of two clefts as he turned to face Nast.  The first cunts he'd been allowed visual access in far too long, and both were far too dead.  His tongue traced his bottom lip before Bahlow grunted, laughed at the sight of the youngster lusting over meat.

          "What is it?"

          "Oh," recovery, eyes tore from secret places, "Is--  Do you think he's mad at me?"

          Bahlow chuckled, turned.  Started to walk again.  Nast followed.

          "No, really.  I know I fucked up, but--"

          "You more than fucked up, kid.  You almost cost us the entire project."

          "I know.  I'm just wondering...  Do you think I'm--"

          "Next?  Yes.  Fuck up again, you're next to go.  No question.  Get the door."

          "Oh."  Nast went around Bahlow's burdened form and wratcheted the waste shaft door open.

          "Listen, kid."  Bahlow heaved Virgin One into the open shaft.  Somewhere far below, a miniature clean fusion device would disappear her from the world.  "Just don't fuck up again."

          "I didn't mean to."

          Bahlow threw Virgin Two to the floor, her head a sickly crack and spill across the steel.  He grabbed Nast by the neck and swung him into the waste shaft, eliciting a response of a scream not unlike a girl's from the terrified boy.  He held him over the pitfall just long enough, then swung him back around and tossed him to the ground, where he skidded and rolled to a stop ten feet away.  With unexpected speed and agility, Bahlow ran to Nast's crumpled form and cracked two ribs with his boot.

          If he broke a sweat, the jungle environment hid it under the rest of the day's slick.

          "Nobody means to.  Just keep your thoughts to yourself next time."

          Nast, grasping his right side, maneuvered to a kneeling position.  He looked up, met Bahlow's black gaze.  "Yes, sir."

          Bahlow nodded, offered his hand.  After Nast was standing, favoring his right, Bahlow thumbed a look back at the nude corpse.

          "You can have her if you want her, kid.  Just throw her down the chute when you're done."

          Nast smiled, teeth red.  "Thank you, sir."

          With no more use for words, Sepp Bahlow clapped Nast on the back, a solid crack that hurt as much as it reassured, and ambled off down the hall to torture some prisoners and eat supper.

night.blind: 02.1.7: 03 March 2005: Paul Hughes.
          "All of this could have been yours, enkel."  Karsten Nacht the Elder sipped a glass of iced schnapps.  The San Juan heat was made less oppressive by the air coming in over the water.  Karsten Nacht the Grandson sipped a Coca Cola.

          "Puerto Rico, Grandfather?"

          "No, boy."  His eyes narrowed over cataracts that wouldn't complete their clouding before he died three years later.  They only brought a haze.  Young Karsten wondered what the world looked like to a man so old, through those translucent disks, through a life filtered by half a century on the run.  "The world.  It could have been yours."

          "Why can't it be?"

          The old man laughed, used his napkin to pat beads of sweat from his upper lip and forehead.  "Keep thinking that, son."

          The beachside expanse wasn't quiet, stippled with waves and tourists and the tinkle of music from the line of restaurants and bars.  Young Karsten felt quiet, though, sitting there watching his grandfather waiting to die, dreaming of a world he'd had within grasp, a world without the money-changers, without the Communists, a world where deviants were eliminated upon offense and the damaged were eliminated upon birth.

          "Why do you live here?"

          The boy was precocious.  He was already piecing together the fragments of his family history from snippets read in schoolbooks and on web pages devoted to things good American boys aren't supposed to think about.

          "I've lived many places, boy.  This just seems to be where I ended up."

          "I didn't think my dad would let me come."  He carried a grin of mischief, of intrigue.

          "Karsten probably had to pull a few strings with the State Department, yes.  But the question is, why did you want to see me?  Aren't photographs enough?"

          The boy considered.

          The waiter approached.  "Otra bebida, senor?  Amo?"

          "Si."  The old German pushed his glass to the table's edge.  "Schädlinge," under his breath.  The waiter looked confused for a moment, shrugged his shoulders.  Took the glasses and left.

          "Why'd you call him that?"

          "Because he is."  The old man adjusted himself in the chair, tilted the brim of his Panama hat forward.  "Vermin."

          "But why?"

          An emotion stirred behind the Elder's eyes.  "Because of this."  He tousled his grandon's hair.  "And this."  He cradled the boy's face in one hand and pointed at his startling blue eyes.  "And this."  One swift, brutal movement, and the boy's hand was on the table, a steak knife tracing a shallow line across its palm.  The boy cried out.

          "Watch it."

          Tears started to hover on the edge of falling.

          "Watch it!"

          The boy's eyes snapped to his palm, where a thin line of blood was emerging.  The initial fire and shock of the act was supplanted by realization.  Karsten Nacht released III's face and wrist, slumped back in his chair, wiping the knife on his cloth napkin.  Blood and sweat and schnapps and gravy merged.

          "Remember this, boy.  Our blood is all we are.  And those without this blood-- vermin."

          A mile beneath the Antarctic ice shield, Karsten Nacht III turned over in his sleep, settled back into the fresh comforters, and for a moment had the face of that boy, before all of this had begun, before the wars and the plans and the beginnings.

night.blind: 02.1.8: 07 March 2005: Paul Hughes.
          Harris Stanhope paused to wipe sweat from his forehead.

          Sweat-- Unimaginable.  Sweat, here.  But it was.  He got back to work.

          Work was wratcheting.  He thought of cars a century before, the movies that showed men turning a handle at the front of the engine to get the car started, the horror stories of the handle kicking back and shattering arms, wrists.  Somehow he thought that this handle wouldn't kick back, but the radiation might kill him.

          Thrust forward, levered the handle around.  The pencil-sized control rod to the clean-core reactor finally slipped home.  There wasn't much air down at the outpost's bottom, and Stanhope, winded, let himself slide to the floor.  He swept a few spent rods over from the surrounding floor and put the pencils in the leadish case.  Not enough to kill-- yet.

          Sweating, dehydrated, even more so because of the belts of vodka he'd tossed back before coming down.  There'd be water soon enough, and heat.  He grasped for motivation, stood up, a little dizzy, a few cramps, half-stumbled to the reactor controls.  The flatglass should have an emergency backup power-- there.  He plugged the black box into its socket under the display, which flickered from black to an underlit sheet of iced blood that concealed most of the control zones.  He tore part of the dead technician's shirt off and used it to scrub the red ice from the glass.  It was in inactive mode; his scrubbing could have been fatal if he'd accidentally fingered one of the hidden kill areas.

          The blood mostly removed from the flat surface, he removed his gloves, his hands and fingers protesting the brittle cold, and referred to the activation codes split-burst into his long-term memory before the mission had begun.  The glass chirped, and he knew he was in.  Trained his consciousness down another deep-memory path, recalling the startup routines, the best way to conserve the pencil energy, shutting down tertiary systems, shunting heat from abandoned dormitories (the bodies would only thaw and rot, not that he really wanted to be around long enough to smell that, but he knew the chances), and most importantly, locking all egress ports.

          To transmit home, he'd have to find the main array.  This basement panel couldn't reach that far.

          Karsten Nacht.  Karsten Fucking Nacht.  What a mess.

          Satisfied that the initiation routines were running smoothly and that he'd allocated essential utilities conservatively, Stanhope ran his thumb up the side of the glass, boosting the output levels.  Overhead lights grew bright with the pressure of his thumb.  A few flickered, died at the sudden influx of electricity.  The replacement of the glowstick's green with reassuring white made the place feel warmer already, and-- The ducts started sputtering air.  Warm air.

          He knew somewhere out there, the Germans would read the power signature.  Aside from an atomic drop, they'd have a bastard of a time getting in, though.  Locking the egress ports wasn't just a question of securing deadbolts and employing maglocks.  Somewhere far above him the four entries to the outpost would have slammed shut, their interior airlocks following, and several thousand tons of space-grown industrial-grade epoxy were solidifying into gargantuan bricks of blockade within microseconds.

          The fortress above him was little comfort.  He'd seen what Aloha Jones could do to the door, and he was just one viewer, dying, at that.  Nacht had dozens, if not hundreds of viewers, supertalent psychics of all persuasions.  Stanhope knew that they wouldn't be safe for long, not with the kind of manpower the Germans had.  Their only hope was to alert home of the situation.  It wasn't a great only hope; he knew Nacht had infiltrated many layers, hard and fast.  Chances were good that no one would believe him, even if he could get through.  Harris Stanhope was a pragmatist in a time where hope had less worth than polyester.

          His hands burned, the kind of burning you can only experience after the numbness of deep cold.  It was enough to bring tears to his eyes, but he grit his teeth and left the reactor, hoping that the elevators were now working.  He had to get back to Aloha.  A large percentage of his brain hoped that the man had died, even though he knew that Jones would have a lot to tell home.  Again, the question rose to the surface, a corpse at a summer camp: Would anyone believe them?

          Only one way to find out.

* * *


          "Gehen Sie weg."  Mumbled.  Nacht turned over in bed.


          "Come in, Sepp."

          The giant entered, the lights adjusting slowly as the door opened and closed.  "Sorry, boss.  Thought you should know-- We have a signal."

          Nacht sat up, his sheet dropping just enough to reveal his sex.  "Where are they?"


night.blind: 02.1.9: 08 March 2005: Paul Hughes.
          A sound more a feline hiss than any other.  "I knew it.  The children?"

          "I've tasked overseers to allocate resources."

          "Well done."  A deft swirl of fabric, and Nacht was on his feet, wrapping his fluids-stained sheet around his waist.  He clapped Bahlow on the shoulder as the door opened.  "Well done."

          "Are we going after them?"  The ogre jogged, a lumbering, clodded gait, to keep pace with Nacht.

          "Of course."  Nacht smiled.  "After we do a little digging."

* * *

          His fingertips traced over the blackened black skin, peeled a sheaf loose, added it to the pile on the floor.  He could see, but he couldn't.  The vodka was gone, as were his eyes.

          The grind of metal plates, something slamming home, and a warm breeze filled the hallway.  Aloha Jones smiled; Stanhope had apparently been successful in restoring power.

          The next minutes were another torture, the feeling returning to blackened black extremities.  He thought he felt fingertips swell and split, but he couldn't be sure.  Maybe the lights were on.  Maybe the outpost was on fire.  He knew he hadn't long.

          A humming, a resonance, and another sound, this time of metal parting, lubricated on crusted oils.  Ding.  Elevator.


          "I'm here.  You blind?"

          Seventy-eight steps of composite on steel, and Harris Stanhope bent to his side.  "How you feeling, bud?"

          "Peachy.  Power on?"

          "Minimal, but it's running.  Where's the comm system?"

          Jones thought, his inner eyes reconstructing the outpost layout.  "Down seven, over three.  Center thrust.  You'll need this."  He grappled fingers over velcro closures, ripped, took out an identification tag: Rubyshoe-179.  A tiny alligator clip snarled at the card's top.

          "You're kidding."

          "We kept it old school while we could."

          "Hold on to it.  You're coming with me."

          "I don't--"

          "Can't do it alone, bud."

          "Fine."  Jones lifted his arms, and Stanhope hefted him once again over his shoulder.  He'd become a marginally-warmer bag of ice and blood.

* * *

          "Empty the grid."  Nacht sat in his command chair, Dolpha at his side.  "Fresh, all around."

          It was a sight to behold, one hundred seventy-five pod lids popping open, the same number of used viewers clambering out, awash in nil-stim slurry.  It was a wet sound, frantic, the slapping of three hundred fifty bare feet on steel, forming ranks and marching to the side.  It sounded like sex, rumbling a desire into Karsten Nacht's midsection.  If the night was good-- He noted three young women and two men from the outgoing group who would share his bed.  None would live the night.

          Klaxons roared with the broadcast orders: Aufmerksamkeit!  Löschen Sie das Rasterfeld!  Achtung!  Zweite Gruppe bereit!

          A full complement of two hundred replacement viewers double-timed in ranks, split in geographic precision as they feathered out, climbing into their assigned pods.  The extraction and replacement routine took fewer than three minutes.  Karsten Nacht's children (some were, you know) had drilled relentlessly.  Two hundred faces, four hundred eyes locked with his two.  He stood, his sheet billowing out, Dolpha at his side, her tail unwagging.

          "Focus: Amundsen-Scott."

          The tug of two hundred minds.

          "Targets: Two American males.  One African.  One Jew.  Each aged between thirty and forty years.  The African is a wounded Rubyshoe.  The Jew is-- something else.  Sensitivity focus on the Rubyshoe.  Exert secondary threads on the Jew.  Locate and incapacitate.  Do not allow them to communicate with the outside.  Do not kill them.  Is that understood?"

          A wordless assent.

          "Good, children.  Get to work."

* * *

night.blind: 02.1.10: 09 March 2005: Paul Hughes.
          Rubyshoe-179's identification card still worked, even at minimal power, and Stanhope was relieved.  He was weak, and the blinded bundle of dying over his shoulder was getting heavy.

          There were three empty chairs before panels in the communications room.  Nobody had been at the communicative wheel when the attack came, or they'd been killed trying to get there.  The room was the first he'd been in without the slick of blood.  He put Jones in one chair and sat next to him, adjusting the sluggish pneumatics to a more appropriate height for his legs.

          Channeled down another flash-memorized command line, his fingers reflexively tracing over hot zones on the glass.  It sputtered twice, then flared to life.  One corner of the display was black from a hairline fracture down to the panel's edge.  Maybe there'd been violence in the room after all.

          "Who you calling?"

          "Can't tell you.  Don't really know, myself."

          "How'd you get roped into a job like this, man?"

          "I'm a freelancer."


          "Outsourced.  Can't tell you much more than that."

          "Give the dying man a secret, Harris.  Not like I'll make it out of here."

          "Don't say that." His eyes marked places his fingers activated in sequence.  "Still a good chance the Germans know we're here.  Especially now that we're sending a power signature."

          "Fuck those skinheads."  Jones grabbed Stanhope's sleeve.  "Tell me who you work for."

          "We're dialing.  Far-orbit sats are still up--  That's good."  He unclamped Jones' fingers from his right arm.  "I need this."

          The display, sitting on top of an in-house backdoor subnet, split into layers.  One layer showed a cartoon outline of a human hand.  Stanhope placed his right hand over the diagram, let it scan the crimson-stained surface.  Maybe he should have washed--

          The outline glowed green.  He was in.  Words: WAIT FOR CONNECT.

          Jones guffawed when the wall speakers gushed forth an old-fashioned dial tone.


          2001.  The year the world had hit the fan.

          The dial tone jolted with static, making both men jump.  A voice filled the room, probably a long-dead voiceover artist doing freelance herself: "Please hold while we connect you to your Global Transcommunications account.  Thank you for your patience!"  Cheery.

          "Well," Jones muttered, "that scared the rest of the shit out of me."

          Another shift in the tonal harmonics: "Please enter the telephone number to which you would like to connect!"

          "Activate voice dial."

          "Voice dialing activated!"

          "Plus six seven two plus zero one plus zero one one plus one plus seven zero three plus four eight two plus zero six two three."

          Pulsed bursts of voice data being translated into an archaic telephone number.

          "Please hold (and the voice changed to a decidedly androgynous menace), MISTER STANHOPE (back to Miss Cheery Voice), while we connect you to the CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY of THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA."

          Music followed.  In a century, elevator music hadn't changed.

          "Hey--," even without eyes, Jones looked confused, "I thought you said you weren't Government?"

          "There's more than one, Al."

          And then it happened.

night.blind: 02.1.11: 23 March 2005: Paul Hughes.
          Jones screamed, engaged in an action that could only be described as beating, yes, beating his blackened black hands against the side of his head.

          Stanhope's eyes felt the way ears feel in airplanes before they pop, but it was nothing to scream about.

          Somewhere down the ravine of his sensation, he realized that the elevator music had stopped, and a tin voice was saying something, but everything was dulled, and then his ears did pop.  His eyes didn't, but they blurred an acid trail, every motion of his head jarring echoes of vision into his mind.  Living in offset--  He watched blood spurt from Aloha's nose and ears.  Yes, spurt was the word, at least initially, until tapering off into trickle, but it was all so-- delayed.  And.  He found his fingers wiping blood from Aloha's cheeks, didn't remember commanding them to do so, and the voice still-- and the voice still

          "Repeat, connection locked.  Mr. Stanhope?  Over."

          Human indecision is often bundled into moments of turning, and he turned from Jones to look at the black glass, a wave line trailing off from the last transmission, blurring, echoed, disjointed and unseated, his reality a dozen minds, a hundred, two?  A great reaching and grabbing, as with wet fingers, unable to find complete purchase, but growing nails with which to dig.


          Echo, echo.  Jones had stopped screaming.

          "Mr. Stanhope?  Report.  Over."

          He summoned the forefront of his consciousness into action, bit down hard on his tongue, snapping him into a semblance of lucidity, shearing off shreds of flesh on each side.  Blood filled his mouth, and he realized that Jones was probably dead now.

          "Stanhope, if you are unable to--"

          "Amundsem.  Amudsen--"  He fought it.  "Amundsen."

          "We read.  Report.  Over."

          "Germans--  I've found the...  Nacht.  Under attack."  He added, attempting a modicum of procedure, "Over."

          "We read you at A-S outpost, Stanhope.  Report position of enemy base."

          He spit, felt a wretch impending.  To his side, Jones was indeed as still as he could be, probably dead, and now whatever psychic barrage had taken Jones out seemed to be focusing on him.

          "A-S base is dead.  Rubyshoes offline."

          "We know.  Report Nacht's position.  Over."

          All the implications of the first two words of that exchange found a place to fester at the bottom of his stomach and began to breed.


* * *

night.blind: 02.1.12: 25 March 2005: Paul Hughes.
          "Do you have him?"

          Two hundred voices whispered in affirmation.

          "Excellent, children.  Reach for the other one.  The Jew."

* * *

          His grandfather's linen guayabera shirt had soaked through with sweat, but in that climate, no one seemed to notice or care.  Karsten Nacht's cane tapped over the cobbled streets of Old San Juan as Karsten Nacht III followed him on the way to the San Cristobal Fort.  The distracted boy stopped in front of the open entrance of Hooters and ogled the buxom servers.


          He ran to his grandfather's side and kept pace.

          It took longer than it should have to reach the fort, given the elder's knees, and that stumbled trip down inclined streets gave Karsten plenty of time to think.  He was a boy given to thinking, some would say too much, and that day, between thinking about his grandfather's bitter treatment of the waiter on the beach and the girls in white and orange, what hid beneath that white and orange, he allowed himself to devote some thinking to his lineage, a taboo subject in his family, especially when his mother was present, and never in polite company.  His father had offered only tidbits of the past, but Karsten wasn't a boy likely to forget a tidbit.

          He knew his father's side came from Germany.  That was a starting point laden heavily with implication.

          He'd torn voraciously through any reading material related to the Second World War that he could find, but it had never seemed enough, and such reading, when found out, had been discouraged in his family's household.  The past was distant and hidden, something to be improved upon, not analyzed.  He had a hard time creating a focal point for improvement when he knew so little about from where to start.

          He thought perhaps he shouldn't think too much about the Second World War.  It made his hand throb again.  His heart seemed to beat in time to the call of the coquis hidden in alleys.

          He was a bright boy.  He could guess what had happened to his family during the dark times of the previous century.

          They were at San Cristobal finally.  Admission, entrance, the walk up dozens, hundreds of stairs, finally out onto the open stone plain that looked out over the ocean.  They settled down on the edge before the drop, Karsten I afraid of Karsten III toppling over and breaking on the rocks below, which he would, in fact, three years later, not by accident, but by choice.

          "There it is, son."

          There are moments in childhood when children have a hard time discerning between concepts that require inquisition and those that do not.  Karsten filed through every answer to the unasked question he could before settling on trying his luck.

          "What, Grandfather?"

          The old man looked into the boy's bright eyes for a moment, looked back out across the water, almost a whisper: 

          "Amerika.  Die Feinde."

night.blind: 02.1.13: 01 April 2005: Paul Hughes.
          His school had scrapped its foreign language requirement in favor of a larger percentage of the federal impact aid going toward replacement football equipment.  The German he hadn't bothered to try to pick up from his father's hushed telephone calls to his exiled grandfather wouldn't have added much more to the equation of understanding that statement; he relied on extrapolating homonyms.

          Karsten I's arthritic hand settled on his chest, feigned scratching for a moment, but just settled, exhausted, over his heart.  From what Karsten III understood of the enmity between the exiles and his own native land, he wondered if any heart at all beat in the old man's chest.  There was a part of him that struggled to bury that sentiment under filial piety, but there was a more surfaced part that just wanted to run to the nearest phone booth (were there any left, really?) and beg his father to let him come home.

          The hidden patriarch studied the fort's stones.  "He was a good man.  A good man.  And that--" as if he could no longer bear to look out over the blue, he pointed, knuckles a twisted, snarling accusation, "could have been ours."

          "Who was he?"

* * *

          "Clarify, over."

          The other end was silence.  Dropped connection.

          Secretaries know when to run.  Her running was prefaced by a download and broadcast of the entire transmission to tactical, skyshield, and everyone up the hyperblack chain.  She knew as her office door slid open that the combined resources of a skyscraper of computers were struggling to maintain the lock, a battery of trustlobes were running matrices on Bentley, knew as she clumsily circumnavigated the fellow travelers down the hallways of Floor 27 that they'd have a lock and orders would be directed at shield forces for intercept, knew as the boss's door slid open and she stumbled in that a dozen pilots would be opening a dozen throttles.

          The boss was already on the glass, his stylus arcing destination paths from the strike teams based on the puzzle piece the agent had relayed: Bentley.  She wasn't as fit as some mock secretaries, and the minute of hard running had taken the breath from Josie Seh.  Her breasts ached from the jostling.  Most secretaries don't need to wear sports bras, but she reconsidered.

          "Sir, it--"

          "Bentley Subglacial Trench, Ellsworth's Land, Lesser Antarctica.  Explains the no-read.  It's deep.  We're tracking to confirm, attempting a sideby."  Mick turned, steel eyes shifting visibly from business to concern.  "You shouldn't have run, Josie.  We have electronical computing machines for that now.  Sit."

          She sat, flipped the plate she'd not realized she'd been carrying open for action.

          Grant McCarthy was a good boss, a caring boss, given the jobs he was assigned on a daily basis.  He cared about his underlings almost as much as he loved his country-- almost.  He'd kill for either, which was good, given the swiftly interchangable nature of targets and enemies in century twenty-one.

          "Play it back, volume seven."

          She fingered the plate to action, and as he listened to the telephone conversation, he crouched at her side, nodding his head where appropriate, shaking it likewise.  She'd heard it before, so her thoughts were more focused on trying to guess what lines of decision were scoring themselves into Mick's mind.  He was beautiful; she wasn't ugly.  She appreciated the fact that he'd asked her to play the call back, even though she knew it had already been downloaded into his own glass.  It was nice to feel like he still needed a secretary at all.

          They'd had more and more of these Josie-sitting, Mick-crouching, both (okay, one) listening moments lately.  Ever since Garfield had fallen off the map, things had gotten a little hairy in the office.  Add Project Embryo.  Add the Rubyshoes.  Mick was a good boss, and it was that good nature that made her regret that he was the man who was in charge of saving the world, time and time again, at least in some part.  War hero, even after the officially-sanctioned wars were over.

          He stood up, walked silently to the glass, thumbed it wide to global, zoomed again to continent seven, the big useless lump of ice at the bottom of the world.  Redirected traffic around weather.  Tapped his stylus on the trench.

          "All this time, Jose."  He knew she loved it when he truncated her name, would never admit to that knowing.  "We've been blind."

* * *

night.blind: 02.1.14: 04 April 2005: Paul Hughes.
          drink, motherfucker, drink, motherfucker, drink, cocksucker, think, cocksucker, think...  think.  just think.

         Seven years before, Harris Stanhope had developed a tumor.  The motherfucker/cocksucker had wrapped itself securely around the pineal gland in his brain.  Surgical removal had been deemed far too dangerous to attempt, given the fact that the invader had chosen to bury itself so deeply in the gray folds imbued with everything Harris Stanhope, so he had opted for vacation, effectively ending his career with Majestic-24.  He'd lost the sight.

         You might ask yourself why a superblack program such as M-24 would allow a dying agent to leave, when the powers would much rather disappear former family.  They hadn't allow him to leave.  His diagnosis and departure had coincided conveniently with one Garfield incident, and it had been in those awful, torn days after the attack that Stanhope had jumped ship, or bus, to be exact, during the evacuation to Offut AFB.  Twelve Majestics had gotten out of Burwell.  Eleven had arrived at Offut.

         For quite some time, he'd blamed himself for the attack.  Maybe if his brain had been fully-functional, Nacht would't have been able to get a lock on the target and take it out.  Maybe, but probably not.  Definitely not.  From what he later learned of Nacht's army, there was nothing the Majestics could have done to prevent either the attack or forest fires.

         He'd wandered until he'd gotten tired of tipping over.

         The headaches had been the worst part of the ordeal, those blinding, throbbing headaches coupled with a omnipresent ringing, the nausea, the unexpected waves of vertigo that convinced him to fall to his right at the most inconvenient moments.  When it had gotten too bad, he had called in some old favors and had finally gone to a midnight sawbones.

         The doctor had tinkered, but hadn't really solved anything.  Stanhope still had the stub end of a stainless shunt sticking from the back of his head, and any time the pressure got too much to bear, one twist, one sickly pshhh, and he felt kilometers better.  He ate aspirin like Tic-Tacs.  He hadn't been to the dentist in fourteen years.

         They'd tried encapsulating the tumor with radio crumbs, and hey bingo, the non-gov doc declared a miracle: it wasn't a malignant tumor after all, just an inconvenience, just a marble gnawed into his pineal.

          think, motherfucker.  think.

         He thought he could feel his germinoma growing under the bombardment of the Bentley viewers.

         He flopped out of his chair, away from the split glass and the open phone line, just like old times, like a kitten he'd had as a child that had had an ear infection that had festered, dug in.  They'd been too poor to take it to the vet, and the thing just got worse, the most adorable kitten that would roll over, not on command, just roll over, always to the right, because there was rot in its brain, from the ear deeper, fucking its coordination, and he felt that way, flopped out of the chair, the voices ringing, screaming in his mind, cracking his skull against warming, utilitarian concrete.  The Rubyshoes had never invested in carpeting.

         The impact was a flare of lucidity, and he reached back, spun the flange, that hiss, the stink of pressure, his eyes returning almost immediately to normal.  Centuries past, he'd be dead a thousand times over.  Nobody had found a cure for cancer, but they'd certainly found ways to make the afflicted live with it.

         It was better than shitting or coming, and he left the shunt open.  A smile, a laugh, tears draping his cheeks from the agony, he passed out.

* * *

         "Report!"  Nacht sensed the change.

         Sixteen and two-thirds dozen repeating voices: "Primary and secondary targets flat.  Contact lost.  Primary presumed dead.  Secondary--"

         "A presumption?"

         "Secondary achieved contact.  Unable to maintain lock.  Tasted physical abnormality of internal broadcast structures."

         "He's alive."


         Nacht spun, accidentally stepping on Dolpha's tail before she could leap from his path.  She didn't yelp.  "Seb!  Ready for assault."


         "We're going to Amundsen."

night.blind: 02.1.15: 07 May 2005: Paul Hughes.

          "Amundsen-Scott.  Antarctica."


          The most troublesome aspect of human evolution was perhaps the tandem inflation of the parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes, which gave the hairy monkey men delightful abilities to think and remember and not scratch their balls in public, with the overgrowth of the frontal lobe, which, when it boils down to it, simply made mankind the only animal species that can recognize the fact that someday we will all die, and death is something we generally do alone.  We traded in smushed-in foreheads for lifetimes of waiting to die.  What a bargain.

          Nils Lehrer knew that he wouldn't be coming back from Antarctica.  His frontal lobe worked well.

          He was constructed more for accounting than for secret agenting, and that was why he was such a successful secret agent: no one suspected.  If this is a book of lineage and war, know then that Nils Lehrer's maternal grandfather had given up a burgeoning import business in Chicago to fly to Paris and resist Nazis.  He had been almost immediately killed in a completely unrelated train crash outside Calais.  The Chicago Lehrers still regarded him as a war hero, because he had done the right thing.  He'd honeymooned the Paris streets in 1938.  He'd shaken an upraised fist at the hundreds of thousands of upraised hands the newsreels depicted from the Nuremberg rallies.  His fist had been one of the few recognizable pieces of him not smeared on the train tracks.  One his most popular imports?  Leather gloves.

          Two generations down the line, Nils Lehrer decided to do the right thing and aid the governments in the war on terror.  When we think of terror, given this time and place, most of us think hummus and shitty left hands.  Terror is a term laden with meaning.  To Lehrer, terror was defined by an abstract collection of memories and images, as it was for most people in that future, quite specific abstracts, the terror of the African Blockade, in which a white planet sat patiently while a continent consumed itself, the terror of the Charismatic Christian assault on Salt Lake City, which effectively exterminated the Mormon menace from American shores, the Garfield incident, where, well, you know.

          Lehrer had seen them all.

          "What's in Antarctica?"  He held a pencil.  An actual pencil.  And a notebook.  It was charming.  He made to take notes of his assignment.

          "Karsten Nacht."

          The pencil snapped.  Lehrer took his time looking up.  Somewhere beyond the barrier of the door to Grant McCarthy's office, another Floor 27 employee was laughing.  It was a meaty, hearty laugh.  Probably another animation of the president fucking poultry.

          "I know."  McCarthy slid a glass across the desktop.  "Use this instead."


          "It's our best lead.  The following falls under superblack confidence.  I assume you know about Project Rubyshoe?"

          "I've heard rumblings."

          "They're probably true.  We've a listening post at the pole.  We've tortured enough of his eyes to know the other six continents are too hot for him.  Figuratively.  The bottom's the only place left for him, as improbable as it sounds."

          "He's rich and crazy enough to make it work."

          "And that's why the Shoes are searching there.  Since Garfield, we've criss-crossed every forsaken inch of this country looking for him.  Working with other agencies in the major zones, no dice."

          "So he's hiding where he thinks no one will look."

          "Stroke of genius, but strokes only last so long."

          "Any idea on numbers?"

          "Garfield-- that was big.  Our Grays estimate hundreds, maybe thousands of viewers."

          "And we haven't found a facility big enough to handle them yet?  No warehouse out on the ice?"

          "That's the thing.  We should have found him by now.  The infrastructure alone...  But nothing.  Which--"

          "--leads you to believe that the Shoes have been infiltrated?"

          McCarthy didn't say anything.  He didn't have to.

          Lehrer wished his pencil had a tip.  He had the sudden urge to doodle.  Something.  Anything.  Yeah, he knew he wasn't coming home this time.

          "When do I leave?"

night.blind: 02.1.16: 25 May 2005: Paul Hughes.
          The answer had been immediately, and the journey had been painfully and painstakingly long, shunting him through a vast network of contact with individuals and nations each of whom thought they knew the truth of his mission.  America had abandoned the notion of "allies" almost a half-century before, but the dollar still carried enough weight to secure safe passage through the wars.

          Floor 27 had done a majority of the footwork already, working closely with Floor 47 to ensure there'd be a bed for Lehrer once he got to Amundsen.  A few fingerprints on glass later and he was Rubyshoe-61, Todd Koppel, an in-transfer to replace a Shoe who had recently suffered a pulmonary embolism.  The real Todd Koppel had been a rated Viewer with superblack clearance at the Boise Factory, at least until the lax security of that facility had allowed him to run screaming into a local bar, superblack information spilling as easily from his lips as the Miller Lite had flown in.  He'd been an easy vacation.  His identity had been maintained in the declass list of Viewers, at least as declass as Viewing was in the governments.  A few messages to Amundsen, and Nils Lehrer, today playing the part of Todd Koppel, had been on his way.

          The only real problem Lehrer could see with convincing the Shoes that he was a Viewer was the fact that he was about as precognitive as algae.  He faked his logs as best he could.  If there weren't a mole within the Rubyshoes, Floor 27 could have just sent play nice orders and allowed him to conduct his ferreting in peace.  Because the Shoes had to believe that this pasty Chicago Jew was a brainer, 27 trained him in the most basic of mind reader skills, the kind of crash course in carnival trickery that generations of trailer park psychics had passed on to their cheesecurl-covered progeny.

          He was good enough to pass in the cafeteria, good enough to write fake reports, but he always got the impression that he was being watched internally by the Shoes, and he couldn't look back.  The rumor was that indiscrete Shoes made a hobby of digging into minds they shouldn't, people far from the target lists, their own co-workers.

          The first few months were the worst.  Lehrer wasn't exactly a social butterfly, but suddenly being transported to the bottom of the world with little better to do on Friday nights than jerk off to canned porn and the occasional game of checkers wore him down.  He thought he passed as a Viewer well enough, one time hitting a bullseye by "seeing" the fact that his colleague Aloha Jones had grown up in Hawaii.  Jones had been amazed.  It had been blind luck for Lehrer.  Jones wasn't the smartest apple in the sauce.

          Their friendship had developed over the aforementioned games of checkers and canned porn, and it wasn't long after meeting him that Lehrer noticed a change in Jones, nothing as dramatic as a personality shift, just a recurring headache that flared after the day's playlists had been completed.  Lehrer often found Jones in the mess, poised over a steel tray of baked beans and meat paste, rubbing his temples, at times, the pain so intense that there were tears in the man's eyes.  Lehrer began to realize that it was a gesture he'd seen reflected in the rubbed temples of dozens of the Amundsen staff.  None of them seemed to put the pieces together, or maybe they just wrote it off as work product, but Lehrer saw.  Someone in that facility was digging into heads after hours.

          "Headache again?"  Lehrer tinked his tray to the tabletop as quietly as he could.

          "Mmmph."  Jones cracked a half-assed grin.  "Long day at work, I guess."

          "Looks like a lot of long days.  You always have that ache."

          "Shit, never used to be this way.  Might be the assignments.  We're all being pushed, man.  You get Munich today?  Shit."

          "Yeah, Munich," Lehrer lied.  During the eight hours he'd been assigned to in-pod duty, he'd napped, sung as much of the Nirvana discography as he could remember, and thought of things to fake on his playlist reports.  "Have you seen anyone about those headaches?"

          "Naw.  Wouldn't do no good.  I hear the aspirin shipment fell into the Atlantic."

         The conversation continued along surface lines, Lehrer steering the discourse back to the headaches as often as he could, but Jones seemed unreceptive to the line of inquiry.  He was more interested in who was going to win the World Cup.

          They were joined at times during the meal by various Viewers, old and young, male and female, female and holy shit, she's a Viewer living out the rest of her life in fucking Antarctica? female.  Lehrer observed them all, taking mental pencil notes on mental paper at the interaction of the staff.  There were many rubbed temples.  He thought later that he'd rub one out while thinking about the temples of Ms. Fucking Hot Viewer, but that thought was interrupted when another colleague joined them, a wiry young man who'd apparently joined the staff a year before.  He sat down at the place Lehrer offered him between himself and Jones.

          "Well, shit!"  Jones' smile was all teeth.  "My headache just disappeared.  Just like that!"

          "You had a headache?" Thule Nast asked between forkfuls of beans.  "That's too bad."

night.blind: 02.1.17: 12 June 2005: Paul Hughes.
          "'Bad' might be the understatement of the year, bro.  Tool-- don't you get headaches?"

          Nast shrugged.  "Not really.  My mom used to get migraines, though."

          "Shit," a forkful for Jones, chomping, "lucky motherfucker.  You my good luck charm, boy.  You sit here whenever you want to.  Least when I have a headache.  Went right away, I swear."

          The conversation veered off into the usual directions for conversations generated by rats in a maze, playlists and pussy, beer and bud.  Nils "Todd Koppel" Lehrer did a lot of half-assed listening and head nodding while his mental pencil made mental notes in his mental mind.  Nast seemed innocent enough, but the fact that Jones' headache had disappeared with Nast's arrival had to mean something.  Nast wasn't an imposing figure, just a scrawny, pasty kid with a generic European accent.  Lehrer didn't know anything about the kid.  That would have to change.  Generic people like Lehrer knew that they were dangerous because no one ever suspected them.  That's how his cover had lasted.  Had Nacht installed Nast at Amundsen in a similar stroke of desperation?

          Lehrer also began creating an elaborate mental back-story for his Todd Koppel character.  He borrowed heavily from the actual Koppel, but added a few hefty doses of painkiller addiction and baseball fever.  He figured the painkiller addiction storyline would be enough to cover any suspicion as to why he didn't suffer from the horrible headaches, but still, he began to insert some references to headaches of his own into dinnertime conversation.  If his brain could broadcast a convincing enough veneer to any sniffing Viewers, i.e. Nast, they wouldn't dig deeper, and his cover wouldn't be blown.  And he wouldn't be killed.

          Things were simple when you really boiled it down: Karsten Nacht was a rich, powerful, psychic-adept psychotic German motherfucker, and Thule Nast was Lehrer's in.  If he could ingratiate himself with the suspected mole, maybe he could ferret the location of Nacht's base.  If it turned out that Nast was a dead end, well, people die all the time, and no one would miss him.  They'd conduct an investigation, sure, but Lehrer would be on the first transport out, and 27 would cover his departure.

          He made his move.


          "Yeah.  Shitty day."  Lehrer/Koppel rubbed his temples as convincingly as he could, then slowed.  "But-- Al's right!  You're the magic man, Tool."

          "What can I say?"  Thule Nast continued his sit-down descent and studied the almost-food on his tray.  "Maybe I'm a healer."

          "You're something, man."  Jones spooned through Jell-O.  It was another in a long line of headache dinners.

          Lehrer cleared his throat and looked around the mess, motioned Nast and Jones in closer.  "You guys want to have some fun tonight?"

          The conspirators smiled the kind of smile someone only issues when they're not sure what's coming next.

          "You got some mainland pussy, Toddy-boy?"  Jones licked his lips-- whether or not unconsciously is up to interpretation.

          "Even better.  But I need assurances before we go on that this stays between us.  Got it?"

          "Better than pussy, you can count me in."  Jones stuck out his hand in a mock display of propriety.

          "Thule, you?"

          The little man nodded once, looked around the room, trying to find an onlooker.  He found none.  The left side of his mouth turned up, matching his right eyebrow.  "I'm in.  What is it?"

          "Come with me, boys.  Leave this shit they call supper for the dogs."  Lehrer winked as he rose.  "You won't need food tonight."

night.blind: 02.1.18: 12 June 2005: Paul Hughes.
          Baseball, apple pie, grandma, hemorrhoids, calculus, Smurfs, linoleum flooring--

          Lehrer filled his mind with nothing as they entered his pod.  He motioned for Nast and Jones to have seats, and they did.  He took a lockbox from beneath his bed, placed it on the coffee table in front of his fellow Viewers.

          "You can still opt out, you know.  Our little secret."

          "We're in, Negro.  Just show us what's better than pussy."  Jones sat forward on the couch.


          "Show us."

          Lehrer thumbprinted the lock, and the top of the box opened with a pop and a depressurized hiss.  The economy was not in the lockbox.  There was a gun.

          "Hey, what--"

          Lehrer grabbed the pistol and swung its butt up to connect solidly with Nast's jaw.  He oofed and slumped back, but rebounded almost to his feet before he saw that there were in fact two guns out of the case now, one in each of Lehrer's hands.

          Lehrer looked at Jones, whose jaw was working over his confusion.  "Al, I'm gonna need your help."

          Jones looked up but didn't respond.

          "Al!"  Lehrer held the gun from his left hand to Jones, handle out.  "Listen to me carefully.  I need your help.  This man is a suspected mole, and I need you to keep him out of my head.  Those headaches-- I think it's his fault.  I need to confirm that.  Can you help me?"

          "Yeah..."  Jones took the gun.  "I think."

          "Good.  Keep it pointed at him."

          Lehrer took a look at Nast as he rummaged through his lockbox.  Nast was sprawled on the couch, arms out, trying to crawl into the fabric if he could have.  He looked scared, which was good.  Lehrer had a moment of doubt; would Nacht have sent such a miserable excuse for a mole into Amundsen?  Maybe.  Probably.  No one would have suspected Nast.

          Finally, Nast summoned words: "You're--"

          "Shut it."  Lehrer pulled two plastic handcuff strips from the box and cinched them around Nast's hands.

          "What are you going to--"

          He pulled a syringe pistol from the box.

          "Dude."  That was Jones.  "I hate needles."

          "You're not the one getting it."  Lehrer sat down beside Nast on the couch, one leg incapacitating Nast's bound hands, one arm pushing Nast back against the couch, one arm placing the syringe against Nast's neck and pulling the trigger.  The little man yelped with pain.  Lehrer stood and waited, his arms crossed.

          "What did you give him?"  Jones had let his gun lower an inch.  At Lehrer's look, it went back up into place, Nast's chest visible over the end of the barrel.

          "It's a thiopental sodium mod."

          "Truth serum?"

          "Almost.  It'll lower his inhibitions, and if he doesn't communicate what I need, the solution's been altered to act as a poison.  This," he held out a silver capsule, "is the cure."

          "Fuck, man."

          Nast's head was lolling, and he blinked more often than normal.  Finally the spell passed, and he sat upright on the couch.  "I'll tell you nothing."

          Lehrer considered the capsule in his palm.  "I think you will."

night.blind: 02.1.19: 12 June 2005: Paul Hughes.


          "No, it's clear."

          They ran around the corner and down the short hallway, two men with guns and one man dragged between.  They hadn't had time to put on exposure suits-- Lehrer was gambling that they'd find suits in the cat.

          One thing Nast had told them stuck out in his mind: I'm not the only one.

          That meant that they had to get out of Amundsen as soon as possible.  Lehrer was reasonably certain that he could trust Jones, but that didn't mean that he wasn't ready and able to head tap him at the slightest provocation.

          He ran down the new information in his head as he carded the garage door open and ran to the nearest cat.  It was after-hours, and the garage was empty.  Lucky, lucky.  He had to get out of Amundsen and broadcast out to 27.

          Because he knew the location of Nacht's army.

          Because he knew that Nacht had five thousand people in his underground city.

          Because he knew that Nacht was planning another attack, and soon.

          He had to relay that information to 27, and Amundsen was no longer safe.  If Nast weren't the only mole...


          Lehrer had been about to open the cat's door when he heard the shout.  He turned slowly.

          "Nothing to see here, dude.  We're just going outside for a while."  Jones had his patent-leather grin on.  The man who had shouted was Jerry Schultz, Rubyshoe-89.

          Lehrer had seen Schultz with Nast on many occasions.  He'd often seen them eating meals together, when Nast hadn't joined him and Jones at their table.  Jerry Schultz was German.  Jerry Schultz was holding a gun.

          Lehrer fired, and Schultz crumped to the floor.  He threw the cat's door open and started pushing Nast into the passenger's side.  "Start it up!" he shouted to Jones, who ran to the other side and clambered in.

          Metal echoes, and Lehrer could hear running footsteps approaching from the hallway that ended at the garage.  The footsteps cut off as the cat rumbled to diesel life.  Jones wheeled the vehicle around and headed up the garage ramp.  Already, the wind buffetted the cabin.  Lehrer didn't want to think how cold it would be outside.

          The roar of the engine didn't quite blanket the ratcheting sound of gunfire from behind them.  Nast must have squeaked out a distress call to his fellow moles, even under the heavy sedation.

          Lehrer forced Nast into the back seat and punched him twice, savagely, in the face.  The man passed out.  He wouldn't be delivering any distress calls for a while.

          "Which way we heading?"  Jones' hands were clamped to the wheel.

          "Just drive.  I need to make a call."

night.blind: 02.1.20: 12 June 2005: Paul Hughes.


          "What is it, Sepp?"

          The giant ducked under the doorframe and entered Nacht's quarters.  "There's been a signal."


          Bahlow wasn't sure if Nacht was asking for the point of origin or the point of telling him that there had been a signal, but he chose the former.  "Amundsen."

          Nacht jumped from bed.  A signal from Amundsen could only mean that something had gone wrong-- their agents had strict orders not to broadcast until it was time for Strike 17.  He started to reorder the schedule before he even knew the details.


          "Agents report that cover has been compromised.  One of the--"

          "Let me guess, Thule?"


          "Is he being questioned?"

          "He's been taken."


          "Agents report that Nast was in a cat last seen heading out of the station.  Someone took him."

          Nacht slammed his hand against the wall.  "Get a transport.  We're going out to get him.  We can't let anyone take him."


          "Oh," Karsten turned back to Bahlow.  "Report back to our agents at Amundsen.  Tell them to start."


          A look of disdain.  "Tell them to start clearing out the station.  Leave no one alive."

          A look of realization.  "Ja."

* * *

          "That should do it."  Lehrer flipped his glass shut.  "They're tracking us and sending help."

          "Which way do I point this thing?"  Jones hadn't yet released his grip from the wheel.  Nast snuffled through a broken nose in his sleep in the back seat.

          "Up.  Only direction to go, here."

          Jones shook his head.  "I don't get it-- Tool was working for who?"

          "Karsten Nacht."

          "Never heard of him."

          "It was our job to make sure no one did."

          The cat drove into the white.

* * *


          Harris Stanhope groped for the phone and sleeptalked something wholly not English into it.


          "Mmmph.  Yeah.  What."

          "Sorry to wake you, but we have a job for you.  Urgent."


          "This is Grant McCarthy.  Come into the office as soon as you can, okay?"

          Stanhope placed the phone back on the nightstand and wiped sleep from his eyes.  He tightened the shunt at the back of his neck and ran fingers through bedhead.  He could feel the beginning of a headache developing.

          It would be a long, cold day.

          Harris Stanhope liked the cold.

continue to The Grange, Part Three.


copyright 2004-2005 Paul Evan Hughes.
Paul Hughes is the editor of and the founder of Silverthought Press. He lives in Philadelphia, NY. His previous works include enemy, the winner of the 2002 Booksurge Editor's Choice award, and An End, the 2003 Independent Publishers Book Award winner for Science Fiction.  Besides the collaborative night.blind project on, Hughes is also finishing the third piece of the silverthought trilogy, broken.  For more information, please visit: