The Saturday Morning Post #47: The Rêves Part 25

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles. And brace yourselves for next week’s installment. As some of the characters might say, it’s a doozy.

Laughing boy

When Joshua and Simon saw the afternoon news about the famous Rêves showing up in Hollywood, they headed over as quickly as they could. Fortunately, the Metro was running again, although large sections of the platforms were still closed off for cleaning, and parts of the tunnel walls were still visibly muddy.

A lot of stores were still boarded up on the Boulevard, although many of them had “Come in we’re open” painted on the boards in neon colors.

It didn’t take them long after they’d come up onto the sidewalk to spot their first celebrity ghost. It was W.C. Fields, as he appeared in the film Poppy, with the long black frock coat over pinstriped trousers, and a tall, white top hat. He wore an ascot and carried a walking stick.

He probably kept showing up in this outfit because it was everyone’s most well-known image of him, and the one most frequently slapped up on murals around town. Like a lot of the older Rêves, his image was a ghostly grayscale, shadow of the black and white films he appeared in.

He noticed Joshua and Simon staring at him and wandered over, appearing to be completely drunk because that was his screen persona. (It was also his real-life persona, but that was a different story.)

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he began in his familiar-side-mouthed banter. “I see that you clearly recognize me, and the memorialization of me with my aficionados via photography seems to be very popular nowadays. So, I will accommodate you and, for the mere price of the visage of Mercury, a mere bit of silver, one thin dime, I will pose for you both.”

They fished in their pockets, and Simon actually came up with a dime, handing it to W.C., who squinted at it askance. “Since when do they put a sitting president on money?”

“They did that right before you d — ” Joshua started to say, but Simon elbowed him, then the three of them moved together and Simon held up the “camera.”

“Oh,” he said. Forgot to take off the lens cap.” He removed the cover, and Fields whooshed into the trap, which Simon closed.

“What did you do that for?” Joshua demanded.

“I have my reasons,” Simon said. “Give our gay uncles a call, and ask Drew whether he knew W.C. Fields.”

“How would he possibly — ”

“He’s ancient,” Simon reminded him.

“Right,” Joshua said, dialing. After putting up with a bit of small-talk, he finally asked, “Look, did you actually know W.C. Fields?”

“Knew of him,” Drew replied. “Gigantic lush, so they said, but I never actually met him.”

“Oh,” Joshua replied, face falling. Simon gestured to him and took the phone.

“Drew, hi, it’s Simon! Yeah, fine, we’re doing great, wedding still on schedule… aw, thank you. Anyway, I don’t suppose you’ve seen the news about what’s… no, I guess there hasn’t been anything good on the news in over a decade now. But… let’s put it this way. Which famous Hollywood celebrities did you know pretty well and personally?”

“Well… Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, Jack Nich — ”

“No, Uncle Drew… I mean dead ones?”

“Oh. God, I couldn’t possibly tell you all. Do you have any specific ones in mind?”

Simon looked around the crowd, seeing lots of Rêves, but not recognizing all of them, so he finally just turned on the camera and started transmitting live to Drew.

“Holler if you see one,” Simon said.

He scanned past a bunch of them with Drew offering his quiet “No’s,” until he finally said, “Wait, stop, go back.”

Simon panned the camera back to his left and stopped on Drew’s word on a rather striking-looking Hispanic man with a very intense gaze and a pencil moustache. Like Fields, he appeared as a grayscale phantasm.

“Him,” Drew said. “That one. I knew him rather well.”

“Who is he?” Simon asked.

“I knew him as Ramon Samaniego. The world knew him as the famous film star and Latin Lover slash Ladies’ Man Ramon Novarro. Gigantic fag who liked the younger boys, and that is how and why I knew him.”

That well?” Joshua chimed in.

“You have no idea,” Drew laughed.

“Thanks!” Simon said, hanging up, gesturing to Joshua. “Photo time.”

“And then what?”

“Trust me.”

“Of course.”

They headed over to Ramon, who didn’t seem to be getting much notice from the crowd, so Simon went into his best fanboy routine. “Oh my god,” he said. “Aren’t you Ramon Navarro?”

“Why, yes, I am, young man,” he replied in Hollywood’s version of the way an Hispanic person spoke circa the 1930s.

“Can we take a picture with you? Please?” Simon asked.

“Of course,” Ramon said, and they posed next to him. Simon popped up another trap, removed the “lens cap,” and captured Ramon, capping it and slipping it into his pocket.

“Now what?” Joshua asked.

“I’ll make the sacrifice and head up to visit Brent and Drew,” Simon said.

“You know you secretly love hanging out up there,” Joshua teased him.

“I know that I’d love Drew giving us a way to stop this war a lot more,” Simon replied.

“Oh. What about W.C. Lush?” Joshua reminded him.

“Right,” Simon said, taking out the first trap and removing the lid. Fields shot out, resolving from a puff of black smoke to wind up sitting on the street, looking very confused.

“Godfrey Daniels!” he called out to no one in particular. “Must have gotten hold of a bad batch of the old moonshine. I hereby reject the Demon Rum! Angel Whisky will have to suffice henceforth.”

Joshua and Simon took the Metro back home, then hopped into the Tesla and drove up to the top of the mountain to visit Brent and Drew. Drew had already laid out an enormous buffet lunch for them all — of course — and Drew was urging them to go swimming, but Joshua gestured to Simon.

“We have a present for you,” he explained and Simon took out the trap.

“Make-up?” Drew asked, confused.

“No. Old acquaintance. Maybe you can remind him about those days of yore.”

Simon opened the trap and Ramon appeared much the way W.C. Fields had — a wisp of black smoke that coalesced into human form leaving him standing on the poolside terrazzo, looking confused. He appeared to be in about his mid-30s, although Simon had read up on him on the drive over, and knew that he had died at 69 in 1968, murdered by a couple of hustler brothers who’d talked their way up to his Laurel Canyon home, promising sex but really hoping to steal the vast stash of cash they’d heard was hidden in the house.

Spoiler alert: There was no cash. Novarro’s career had slowed down considerably after he left MGM in 1935.

“Ramon…” Drew said quietly when he recognized the Rêve. At this moment, Ramon’s specter took on a pale wash of living color, but his appearance didn’t change as he turned to look at Drew.

“¿Nos conocimos, señor?” he asked. Noting Drew’s confused look, he continued, “Have we met?”

“Oh, you bet we have,” Drew replied. “You remember your house, on Laurel Canyon, about two miles up from Ventura?

Ramon shook his head blankly. “I don’t remember any such place,” he said.

“Where did you live?”

“I am Judah Ben-Hur,” he announced, suddenly appearing in the costume from that 1925 silent epic.

Joshua and Simon looked at each other, confused, but then realized that Brent had wandered outside, munching on a broccoli floret and staring.

“My god, is that — ”

“Sssh!” Joshua hissed at him, then whispered. “Yes, but stop thinking of him like that.”

“But — ”

“Drew knew him, and that’s what we’re counting on. Didn’t you know him?”

“Bitch, please. I was like… seven when he died? And I certainly didn’t learn about it until I read Hollywood Babylon.”

“This is a very delicate operation that could avert a war,” Simon explained calmly. “So… please?”

Brent rolled his eyes, but then retreated inside with a “whatever” shrug.

Meanwhile, Drew had approached Ramon. “That’s exactly what you said to me the first time we were alone together. Remember?”

“Who are you?” Ramon demanded.

“You said, ‘I am Judah Ben-Hur,’ and I said, ‘Who the hell is that?’ And the look on your face was so stunned that I just started laughing my ass off. And you smiled and said, ‘Well, at least you know that movie of mine.’ Of course, I didn’t.”

“So I’m not Judah Ben-Hur?”

“Well, yes and no. I mean, actors can be many different people.”

“I’m an actor?”

“Honey, what the hell did you think you were?” Drew laughed. “And, hate to tell you, but the way they’d put it on Wikipedia is ‘was an actor.’ Past tense.”

“So who are you?” Ramon practically spat the words at him.

“Oh… a little fling you had right after we met at your 42nd birthday party, which happened to be right after I turned fifteen, and we had our fun for a few months anyway. I probably never would have done it if I’d known you were famous. I mean, thrown myself at you like I did.”

Ramon just stared at Drew in silence.

“Do you remember what you called me?” he asked. Ramon said nothing. “That’s okay, it was a long time ago,” he continued. “After the first time, you called me ‘Little Dandy Andy.’ Ring any bells?”

The image of Ramon collapsed to the terrazzo in a tumble of black smoke. Drew tried to move toward it, but Joshua and Simon held him back.

“Trust us,” Joshua said. “I think you’re on the right track.”

After a moment, Ramon solidified out of the black smoke, lying on his side, facing away from Drew. At the same time, gray smoke drifted toward Drew and then coalesced into another manifestation of Ramon, this one a bit older, and not dressed in a fanciful costume.

Real Ramon materialized, staring at Drew. “Andy!” he finally said, rushing to embrace him. Famous Ramon stood and also stared, not sure what to think or do.

What none of them except Real Ramon knew was that he was seeing Drew has he’d been on that night in mid-winter of 1941, when they’d first met.

Simon looked about over the moon, smiling at Joshua, but Joshua didn’t seem so sure.

“What?” Joshua said when he noticed Simon staring at him.

“I think we’ve found the key to preventing the war!” he said.

“You really think so?” Joshua replied. Simon gave him a “duh” look, but then Joshua gestured back to the others. “Think again,” he sighed.

Simon looked. The two Ramons were facing off, insulting each other left and right in Spanish before starting to physically grapple, finally blasting off into the sky in two different directions.

Joshua gave Simon a smug look, to which Simon replied, “Hey, Danny and Preston did that, and they seem to get along now.”

“How the hell would you know that? We haven’t seen them since they flew off.”

“We haven’t…?” Simon searched his mind, and then realized that Joshua was right. And yet he had a vivid memory of Preston and Danny returning, both of them working together. This was followed by a weird moment of vertigo and he had to find a chair to sit on immediately.

“You okay?” Joshua asked as he hurried over.

“Yeah,” Simon answered. “Fine. Just a little head rush.”

“Hm. Lose one word from that sentence, and you may have found the cure.”

“Stahp!” Simon fake-demurred.

“Let’s get you home anyway,” Joshua said, helping Simon up, only to see Brent standing in the doorway.

“You all are taking some of this home,” he said.

“We really don’t — ” Simon started, but Joshua pinched him.

“Of course, Brent. Not too much, because we’ve got limited freezer space, but definitely the good stuff.”

Sure, it was a lie. They had enough freezer space to store ten dead elk. Not that either of them would condone killing elk, of course. They wound up leaving the place laden down with half a dozen grocery bags full of disposable plastic containers stuffed to the gills anyway.

Good thing that Teslas had trunk space front and back, since it didn’t have a traditional engine. They wound up stopping at the 170 and Tujunga underpass on the way home and dropping off most of the food for the homeless camp there.

Waste not, want not.

And, more importantly, how were they actually going to prevent this damn war?

* * *
Image source Ramon Novarro in Mata Hari by kndynt2099, (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

The Saturday Morning Post #46: The Rêves Part 24

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Shot in the Dark

Danny and Preston had realized that they liked being up here in a forest on top of a mountain, and during the early mornings when everything was shrouded in mist and fog, they would go for long walks, not bothered by cold or fatigue or any of that human shit.

By their second day there, they had also gotten quite adept at being able to walk right up to random deer and other wildlife without freaking them out and sending them running.

“Goddamn,” Danny had pointed out at one point. “If we were still alive and could TikTok this shit, we’d be viral billionaires.”

“Tell me about it,” Preston replied. “Or we could just film some fucking in the forest.”

“Hm. The world’s first combo twincest/necrophilia OnlyFans. I’m sure that would make us billionaires, except… oh, right. How do we hook back into meatspace?”

“Heh heh. You said ‘meatspace,” Preston replied.

“Heh heh, you’re a dick,” Danny said.

“Right here, ready and waiting!” Preston told him, slapping both his thighs and helicoptering.

“Can you like maybe just try to imagine pants or panties or… something?” Daniel replied.

“Can you like maybe just give me one good reason I should?” Preston snapped back, and Daniel realized that he had nothing. “’Cause it’s your dick, too, and I know you don’t mind looking at it at all, or playing with it. A lot.”

They had hiked a good ways up a trail into the wilderness when both of them began to sense something unsettling, and then sickening, and then they both stopped abruptly.

“What is that?” Daniel asked.

“Hell if I know,” Preston replied. “I’m kind of new here.”

“Duh…”

They grabbed each other, grateful at least for the fact that they could touch each other, and both felt a ridiculous sense of vertigo, both of them spinning to their left and trying to hang on, and then before they almost fell over feeling two strong hands grabbing their right and left shoulders, respectively, and pulling them back onto their feet.

They turned and looked to see the figure of a kind-looking older man with silver hair, glasses, and a moustache. There was a weird kind of red mark on his forehead and a jagged line below it, but otherwise he seemed normal, albeit transparent.

“Sorry,” the man announced. “Sorry, sorry, just saw you, you seemed friendly. Hi! Who are you?”

“I’m Danny,” Danny said.

“I’m Preston,” Preston added, “Although it’s kind of he is me and I am him and… what was that Beatles song, anyway?”

“Goo-goo-g’joob,” the spectre replied. “Come Together. I’m not really sure who I am actually. Do you know who you are?”

“Like we said,” Preston chimed in. “I’m Preston.”

“I’m Danny, but we’re kind of the same person, really.”

“Oh, how good for you,” this entity replied. “See, I still have no idea who I am. I was hoping you might know.”

“Well, it depends,” Preston replies. “How did you get here?”

“Last thing I remember is a bunch of stars. And, no, there’s a sense of betrayal. But I think that my body is right around here…”

He led them to a patch of ground that was obviously a recently filled in pit, possibly a grave.

“Well, you remembered this,” Preston said. “Why can’t you remember who you are?”

“Maybe because no one knows he’s dead yet, you silly cunt?” Danny suddenly piped up, making Preston shoot him a dirty look.

But the old man seemed to take heart in this. “Of course!” he said. “No one knows I’m dead… is that kind of a requirement for… you know?”

“Who told you that?” Preston demanded.

“I… no one… it just… came into my head.”

“Interesting,” Danny said.

“But, if it’s true… give me a minute…”

Preston looked impatient, but Danny shot him a look and restrained his arm. After a long moment, the old man stopped staring and looked at the two of them.

“Oh,” he said. “My name is Jerry, I was coerced up here by someone pretending to be my friend, but then was betrayed and killed, and I’m buried over there.”

Needless to say, Preston and Danny greeted this with a bit of silence, and then a long look at each other before either of them spoke.

“Do you know who killed you?” Preston finally asked.

“Oh. Oh, yeah, it was… he used to be my boss… tip of my tongue. Dr. Schliemann.”

“That doesn’t ring any bells,” Danny said.

“You wouldn’t know him. He’s from down in the city,” Jerry explained. “Scientist at JPL, mostly works in his secret lab.”

Danny and Preston just stared at each other, jaws dropping, then they hurried right up to Jerry.

“This is the most important question we’re going to ask you — ”

“Two questions,” Danny interrupted.

“All right two. Mine is, do you remember this Dr. Schliemann’s full name?”

“Um, sure. Yeah. Give me a minute. Getting shot in the head can fuck with your memory, you know?” He laughed and then blurted out, “Ausmann. Dr. Ausmann Schliemann.”

If either Danny or Preston had actually been breathing, they would have held their breaths as Danny asked the other question. “Do you know where he is right now?”

“Well, my car is still parked over there, so I’m guessing that he’s in his cabin.”

“His cabin?”

“Yeah, right there.” Jerry pointed. “But it’s all kinds of crazy fortified. No one’s getting in.”

“Not even if they can walk through walls?” Preston asked.

“We can do that?” Jerry asked.

“We’re dead,” Danny said. “We can do a lot.”

“Thank you very much for your help,” Preston said, taking Danny’s arm to lead him away, but Danny stopped and turned back.

“Do you know why he killed you?” he asked.

“Sure, I remember now. He told me he’d killed his wife and knew I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Which is probably true.”

“Thanks,” Danny replied as Preston pulled him away. “What’s the rush?” he asked him.

“You recognize the name.”

“Sure. But?”

“Dude, we’ve got him and he doesn’t know it. We could win the war right now, right here, before it even begins.”

“I thought it had started, with that storm.”

“That? I’m guessing that was nothing,” Preston told him, then he stopped and raised his arms above his head. “Pearl. Pearl. Pearl!” he called.

She appeared immediately. “That’s our name, don’t wear it out, and what can we do ya for?”

“We… we’ve found Ausmann,” Preston said.

“No shit?” Pearl replied.

“No shit,” Danny told them.

“Where is he?”

Preston turned and pointed at the cabin.

“You’re sure?” they asked.

“Well, we haven’t actually seen him,” Danny demurred, “But the guy he murdered told us that he has to be there because that car is.”

“Interesting,” Pearl muttered, closing their eyes for a moment, then opening them and smiling. “You’ve done very well, boys,” they said, gesturing briefly, sending waves of peaceful thoughts and a feeling of being appreciated up and down their bodies. “Now what shall we do?”

The wind started to pick up, and it was immediately chaotic, though still light. The leaves on the trees would flutter one way and then the other and then calm down, only to start up again. And then, smoky wisps flew out of the forest and coalesced into various Rêves. Preston recognized some of them whom he’d met in passing, and more than a few who were definitely Class II, although he had heard the rumor that the Class II’s were on Ausmann’s side.

Well, apparently not all of them.

The Hadas were also there, but as more of a presence that was sustaining the wind, and then Anabel appeared out of a dark blue wisp, to stand next to Pearl. Pearl didn’t have to make an announcement because they all already knew the news.

“What are we waiting for?” Anabel asked.

“Well, now, it’s a tricky thing,” Pearl explained. “We can’t exactly kill him, because that’s just letting him loose with our powers.”

“What says he’s going to show up as a Rêve?” Anabel demanded.

“These boys saw a brand-new Rêve just now,” Pearl said, indicating Danny and Preston. “And if it can happen up here right after he’s murdered… Well, let’s just say we don’t want to hand our enemy that kind of power.”

“Then what do we want?” Anabel asked her, then shouted it to the crowd. “What do we all want?”

Pearl smirked at her. “Dear, don’t try to play that rally the crowd shit on me. The Hadas could take out you and any kind of army you could muster in a snap.”

“All right,” Anabel replied, suppressing her fury. “What do ‘we’ want?”

“We’re going to drive him back down to L.A. and see where he goes next. With any luck, that will give away his strategy. Agreed?”

After a long moment, Anabel finally relented, reluctantly saying, “Agreed.”

Pearl raised their right arm and gestured, and then the weather started to intensify. Meanwhile, the Rêves strolled over and surrounded Ausmann’s cabin.

The sky darkened as deep gray clouds started to form above the treetops, growing grayer and then finally fully black as they shut off the sky. Lightning without thunder flashed through them, illuminating large chunks of their undersides in surreal blue-white bursts.

The first bolt to come down struck the satellite antenna on the roof of the cabin, shattering the dish into bits in a hail of blue sparks and sending up a black plume of smoke as the PVC mounts below burst into flames. The thunder came with it immediately.

Inside the cabin, even in the underground shelter, Ausmann had sensed the heat of the strike and definitely felt the rumble of the ensuing thunder, hearing a slight bit of it. That was also when his TV screen burst into static.

“What the fuck?” he said to himself as he switched over to display all of the outside cams on the main screen Zoom style, nine by six, showing his property from every angle — and what he was seeing he didn’t like.

First off, it looked like he was surrounded by those goddamn ghost things, no famous faces among them, and they were just standing there, about fifty feet from the cabin, doing nothing.

Second, it had started to hail, but only in one very specific spot that was about three meters on a side, and directly over the septic tank cover, since no sewer lines had ever been brought up here.

Third, one of those infernal ghosts stepped from the crowd, walked up to his front door and pointed, and he recognized that face. It was Anabel.

“Yeah,” he thought to himself. “None of this is good.”

He went to one of the smart panels in the wall and tapped the screen to activate the speaker in the front doorbell, surprised that it seemed to be working. “What do you want?” he demanded.

“We want you to leave these sacred lands,” Anabel explained.

“Sacred to whom?” he scoffed. “A bunch of low-life ghosts?”

“Sacred to something you’ll never understand,” Anabel replied.

“Like what?”

As if to answer, lightning smacked into the ground ten feet in front of the door, and the lights downstairs, which weren’t even connected to any outside power source, still flickered.

“We can put the next one wherever we want to.”

“Well, good for you, Zeus,” Ausmann sneered.

Anabel restrained her annoyance, but turned back toward Pearl. She didn’t have to say it because Pearl could read her thoughts anyway, but all she could think was, “How goddamn arrogant can this mortal asshole be?”

Appeal to his ego,” Anabel heard Pearl’s voices in her mind, wondering how she was going to do that when she remembered the car waiting nearby.

“How about a challenge?” Anabel announced.

“Like what?” Ausmann replied.

“Like… you manage to make it to the bottom of the mountain before we can catch you, then we let you go along your way.”

“Catch me with what?” he asked.

“With whatever we’ve got,” Anabel said. “And we’ll even give you a fifteen minute head-start? Twenty?”

“Make it ten, bitch,” Ausmann replied.

“So you accept?” Anabel asked him.

“As long as I get to bring along whatever I need.”

“Knock yourself out,” she said.

Over the next half hour, after Anabel and the Rêves had retreated beyond the property line so as to not present an immediate threat, Ausmann dragged an impressive arsenal out to the car, not all of it recognizable as conventional weapons. He also brought out two satchels that Pearl recognized as “Go Bags,” or as friends of theirs way back in the day had described them, “Hippie Helpers.”

After he’d loaded the car, he turned to address the air in general, because he, himself, could not see the Rêves standing there. “Fifteen minutes, then?” he announced.

Anabel chose to not call him out on his change of terms, but forced herself visible and said, “All right. And your time starts… now.”

Ausmann dove into Jerry’s car, started it up, backed around and drove down the dirt road to the highway, and almost immediately cursed the fact that he was stuck with the typical Old Man’s car — a Toyota that they’d bought new the last time they had money (in their late 50s), but which was now so old that it ran on hopes and dreams.

California version of the rule: “Never trust a car with a license plate that starts with less than 4.”

So Ausmann went chugging down the hill, while also discovering that the brakes and steering were pretty much shit, and one of the rear shocks was bouncing its tire like a basketball.

His one consolation was that just before he’d left his cabin he’d pulled the “Kill Switch,” setting the timer so it would go off around dawn. At that point, the underground propane tanks would have been opened long enough to allow all of the gas to seep through the lowest level, although the power down there would also have been shut off.

The real fireworks happened when all of the C-4 hidden around the place was set off. Combined with the propane, that should destroy the place and give the ghosts a good jolt. Ausmann had never worked the physics of it out all the way, so he wasn’t sure whether there’d just be an underground thwump that would create a sinkhole that swallowed the cabin, or if there’d be a glorious explosion that would send a fireball into the air and give a whole new meaning to the phrase “Cabin in the Sky.”

Not that this would hurt the ghosts, either, but if it started a major fire in the forest, it might keep them busy trying to stop it. They seemed like the type.

Half an hour down the mountain and with the storm and lightning clearly a couple of miles behind him, Ausmann began to despair. Were these assholes letting him win?

And the farther he went and the slower, he really had to wonder even more — were they just being lazy and hoping that Jerry’s shit-ass car would kill him first, or was it just some ruse?

Once he’d actually hit the bottom of the mountain by any definition, he found the nearest auto shop and parked. He had enough supplies in the car to wait out until they opened in the morning, he’d fulfilled the ghosts’ deal, and he’d brought a briefcase stuffed with cash, so whatever he needed repaired on this junker, he could do.

Then again, there was a used car lot across the way, so that was another option.

While he waited in the dark in the car, he worked on his own Plan B. He needed his ghost hunters, needed to find them, and also figured out the perfect incentive for them.

But the finding was the hard part, and as dawn was breaking, he still had no idea where those steampunk assholes were.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #44: The Rêves, Part 22

Escape to which mountain

Ausmann had been mulling over the document in the Operation Ghost Toast for most of the three days he’d been down here. He didn’t have access to the unredacted version, but the order had been put out after they were all aware of these abominable ghosts.

This probably meant that turning the machine off would do something even worse, like make them permanent. Or more powerful.

He also knew that there wasn’t a simple “Off” switch on the thing, and that it was hooked up to so many redundant power supplies that it would take an apocalypse worse than anything actually turning it off could do in order to shut it down.

But the machine had to be the key to sending these things back to where they came from, permanently, and erasing them from the human world. His hunters, Joshua and Simon, had shown that they were subject to the laws of physics, after all. Well, some of them.

During the brief time he had interviewed Anabel, she had hinted that the Rêves did have rules, and possibly vulnerabilities, although she had refused to reveal any. Maybe they knew what could destroy them, and what turning off the machine would do.

But how to get the information? He wondered whether it was common knowledge among them, then decided that it must be. That’s what communities of beings did — educated new members on what was safe and what wasn’t. The trick was finding someone who would spill their guts and who’d been dead long enough to have learned everything.

He thought about this for a long time before he realized that famous Rêves always appeared in character, and he wondered if they were stuck in them somehow. If that were the case, then he just had to pick a dead celebrity famous for playing cowardly, sell-out characters, get them in the lab and scare the hell out of them.

He was laughing to himself at his brilliance when there was a ding and he looked up at the monitors showing the security cameras outside.

There seemed to be a police presence, although he knew it couldn’t be the Simi Valley PD, since JPL was not only in a different county, but even a city beyond — it was outside of the jurisdictions of both Ventura County and the LAPD in the city of Los Angeles.

Of course, technically, it was outside of the jurisdiction of the Pasadena PD as well, but that’s who these two officers seemed to be, so he relaxed, knowing that there was no way they had been able to get any kind of warrant that would break down these doors.

Then he felt a sudden weird wave of vertigo and started seeing double for a moment. He rubbed his eyes and sat back down until he didn’t feel dizzy, then looked at the monitor again to see that the uniforms poking around outside the guard station were all Federal Marshals.

There were six of them, very armed, accompanied by a pair of nervous-looking campus police. He couldn’t hear the conversation. He could only see that they tried the door before peering through the windows into the empty and semi-darkened guard station.

They stood around outside talking and taking notes, occasionally speaking into their radios. It couldn’t be about his wife, he told himself. At least not about her murder. They must have been looking for him to tell him she’d died, in which case they’d have bought his alibi, meaning he had no reason to worry.

But… why send out this kind of force just to tell him, “We regret to inform you…” No. This had “pending arrest” written all over it. The only things saving him at the moment were the lack of authorized guards up top and the level of security clearance required to enter — something he doubted that any of these feds had.

Still… they’d found his den, and that was not good.

Ausmann had a habit of always listening to the most paranoid part of his mind, which had always served him well. He had to assume the worst. Those assholes on the Simi PD had decided that he’d murdered his wife and had put the word out…

And all they could muster were the two Pasadena PD, most likely rookie and first year officer who would write up a lengthy report summarizing nothing. But he kept going over the back and forth: Informing him of her death, or accusing him?

They had to think that if he weren’t at home, this was where’d he’d be, and since his home was rather a more valuable pile of rubble than it had been before the storm, where else could he be? But those fucking Marshals up there would get down here eventually. Hell, they might do it in the next five minutes. All it would take were a couple of phone calls to the right people in D.C.

So Ausmann made his phone call first, dialing Jerry. The conversation was short and sweet.

“I need your help right now,” he said. “A ride from the lab up to Big Bear.”

“Right now?” Jerry balked.

“Yes, right now,” Ausmann barked at him. “Meet me on the side road, at the emergency exit.”

“I really can’t do that right — ”

“You sure as hell can, and you will,” Ausmann replied, calmly. “Remember. I’ve kept you on as a consultant. It would be a shame if you had to lose that insurance.”

“Are you threatening my wife?” Jerry asked, mouth going dry.

“No,” Ausmann continued. “I’m actually threatening you. I know all about those little deals you made on the side. Fortunately, only with friendly countries. Still, if word got out about that, well, there’s no statute of limitation for espionage, I don’t think…”

He let it trail off and there was a long silence. Finally, Jerry spoke weakly on the other end. “I can be there in forty minutes.”

“Make it thirty,” Ausmann said. “I’m in a bit of a rush.”

He hung up the phone and turned back to the monitors. The guards seemed to have moved away from the windows of the booth. Of course, what he had missed was one of the Pasadena PD looking through the window, noticing a red button on the phone suddenly going out, and then ignoring it completely.

What he looked up to see was a Federal Marshal looking through the window and clearly noticing that one of the buttons on the phone on the desk was solid red before it went out.

He turned excitedly to the others and started asking the campus police about it. They confirmed that it meant that somebody was down there.

Unfortunately, these campus police didn’t have clearance to enter the lab either, so the Marshals spent the next twenty minutes trying to figure out who could grant them clearance to go in, and then another fifteen trying to get ahold of that person.

When they finally did and tried to explain the circumstances, it didn’t help their case. They only knew the reasons they were sent, but not a lot more behind that, so this particular Deputy Director was inclined to scoff. “So you’re saying he might have committed a crime?” she asked.

“Might, yes,” the head Marshal on site replied. “That is what we were told.”

“That’s really shaky probable cause,” she told her. “Is there anything more to go on?”

“The information came from your department,” the Marshal insisted.

“Really?” the Deputy Director spoke, sounding like her eyebrows shot past her hairline. “And what the hell would we in Arlington have to do with a crime he might have committed in Pasadena?”

“Not might have committed,” the Marshal insisted. “Might commit.”

“Oh, now you’re not making a lick of sense.”

“I can only report what we were told to check on.”

There was a heavy sigh from the Deputy Director’s end, then she spoke deliberately. “Goddammit. I’m going to have to take this one up the food chain. Do you know how much I hate to do that?”

“I can imagine, ma’am. So… we are not to proceed?”

“You are to stand down until further notice. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the Marshal replied, dejected. As she hung up, she looked at her fellow officers, disappointed. “Stand down,” she said quietly. Noting their disappointment, she added, “Don’t worry. We still have time.”

Ausmann’s confusion suddenly cleared and he gave the monitors another glance to see the Pasadena PD officers both leaning on the roof of their cruiser, writing out copious notes, looking like they hated life.

He headed down the hallway and out the same door in the mountain that had saved Joshua and Simon’s bacon not long before, then waited five minutes before Jerry finally pulled up.

“What took you so fucking long?” he demanded.

“I had to get gas,” he explained.

“Right. Drive. Asshole.”

Although Jerry tried to make small-talk, Ausmann was having none of it, and for most of the ninety minutes, they rode in verbal silence, awkwardness buried in Jerry’s playlist of old 70s classics.

Of course, these weren’t coming from his phone via Bluetooth or even playing on the radio. Nope. He had a ton of home-burnt CDs clipped in holders to the sun visors. Ausmann almost wanted to applaud him for not having an 8-track player in this hunk of junk.

Ausmann himself was not a fan of “classic” rock at all. To him, it sounded like demented teen boys screaming while drugged-up chimps abused washboards with barbed wire far too close to bullhorns feeding back into their own speakers.

And the music wasn’t helping the fact that Ausmann felt completely out of place during the whole trip, like he was seeing things out of eyes that were pointed in opposite directions, or like something was trying to rip him in half.

If he’d bothered to mention it to Jerry and confess to killing his wife, he would have gotten a solid hour-long lecture on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and maybe a hint of the much more economical and readable version of the story, Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.

But Ausmann didn’t mention it, and just kept on feeling the terrible malaise all the way through San Bernardino and then up the foothills and into the mountains leading to Big Bear, although Ausmann had Jerry pull off long before they reached the summit, up a long and dark dirt road, finally reaching a hidden and isolated cabin that Ausmann had owned for years.

He’d always thought of it as his apocalypse retreat, a place to go to if the world below went to hell, and even his wife had never known about it. He would visit about twice a year to make sure that the stockpiles were up to date. The huge basement, which doubled as a bomb and fallout shelter and panic room, held enough supplies to sustain one adult human for a year, and enough guns and ammo to fight off a few hundred.

The part above ground looked like a simple, rustic cabin, although what appeared to be wooden walls were actually four-inch steel with wood veneers and bullet-proof windows. The woods around the place were dotted with sensors and night-vision cameras, as well as booby-traps.

When he and Jerry arrived, the entire place was in pitch darkness, but Ausmann lit it up by tapping a fob he always carried with him.

“Wow,” Jerry said. “This your place?”

“Yep,” Ausmann explained. “I bought it right about the time we fired up our little experiment at JPL. Since I know you know what it does, I probably don’t have to explain why.”

“Of course not. Great retirement home for you and Coraline, though, right?”

“Oh, she never knew about it,” Ausmann explained. “Drink?”

“If I’m driving back, then nothing adult, but sure, thanks.”

Ausmann nodded and turned to the bar, which had its own secret compartments, wondering what Jerry’s choice would be if he knew he weren’t driving back.

Ausmann revealed a hidden ice bucket, fully loaded, and a bar fountain, then filled a glass with ice, fired a spritz of club soda into it, then added a shot of grenadine. He topped it with a maraschino cherry, grabbed something from one of the compartments and pocketed it, then turned to hand the drink to Jerry.

“Shirley Temple,” Ausmann announced, “So you know it’s a virgin.”

They both laughed and Jerry took a sip. “But Coraline doesn’t know about this?” he asked. “You sly dog.”

“It’s really only designed to support one person,” he said. “Besides, she’s never going to know.”

“Yeah, but women have a way of finding things out,” Jerry said. “I mean, Esther never should have figured out about my little… side piece in Reno, but — ”

“Dolores?” Ausmann announced, laughing. “Jerry, even the guys on the gardening crew knew about her.”

“What? How?”

“You’re just naturally bad at keeping secrets. Hey… when was the last time you saw real stars at night?”

“It’s been ages,” Jerry said.

“It has, old friend. Come on.”

Ausmann led him outside and they walked a good distance away from the cabin, farther into the woods, until they came to a clearing and looked up. The sky truly was stunning. Unlike down in L.A., it was full of stars, from one end to the other, shimmering in quite visible shades of yellow, red, and blue. They could even see the shape of the rim of the Milky Way itself from here.

“Wow,” Jerry said.

“Indeed,” Ausmann replied. “See, there are advantages to being so far away from everything else. We are as invisible here as those stars are back down in the city. We might as well be a million miles away from everything, which is why I asked you to bring me up here.”

“Um… why did I bring you up here?” Jerry asked.

“Remember, I told you that Coraline is never going to know about this place?”

“Right, but why wouldn’t you tell her?”

“Well,” Ausmann said matter-of-factly, “By now, I can’t, because I killed her.”

Jerry gasped and turned toward Ausmann. Although it was dark, his eyes had adjusted enough to realize that he was starting down the barrel of a gun.

“Which is why I asked you to bring me up here. Because you can’t keep a secret for shit. You should have asked for the adult beverage. Sorry!”

Jerry never heard the bang and didn’t even see the flash, but Ausmann heard one and saw the other, as well as the violent red mess briefly illuminated as the top of Jerry’s head flew off.

Fortunately, for Ausmann, he had always planned for this contingency no matter who had to take the bullet, and had managed to have Jerry be standing with his back to a ten-foot-deep, coffin-sized hole that he had dug out years ago. He always kept enough lumber, a small gas-powered cement mixer, and various bits of copper piping and tin barrels nearby to make it plausibly seem to be a legit and ongoing construction project.

It wasn’t, and once he’d made sure the body was in it, he shoved all of the dirt back into the hole, smacked it flat with a shovel, and then made a note to come back and finish concealing it tomorrow.

The property had been bought in the name of a completely fictitious company that could never be connected to him, and cell service up here was practically non-existent, although he had installed a satellite system that provided TV, phone, and internet.

He returned to the cabin, descended to the basement and noted that he was a bit blood-splattered himself, so took off the clothes he’d been wearing, tossed them into the incinerator, and took a long, hot shower.

Afterwards, he picked out a pair of silk pajamas from the well-stocked bedroom closet, then fell into the California King-size bed, turned on the local news, and watched, satisfied to see that he wasn’t being mentioned. After the timer shut off everything, he drifted off to sleep, contented, only one thought on his mind.

Which one of these fucking celebrity ghosts should he capture in order to get the dirt that would destroy them all?

In the morning, he woke up and automatically turned on the TV to one of the channels that only showed old movies, pre-1980. He went about preparing breakfast, the film broadcasting to the screens in the bedroom, kitchen/living room and bathroom.

It was an old classic, Casablanca, and right about the time Ausmann was sitting down to his Eggs Benedict, he heard a familiar line being screamed on screen: “Rick, hide me. You must do something. You must help me, Rick!”

He stared at the screen and realized that he’d found his target. Of course. Peter Lorre — well-known for playing villains or cowards, but quite often the character who gave it all up when his life was on the line.

Ausmann did a quick search and determined that Lorre was buried right where most of them were, in one of the hot spots for Rêve activity. Now all he needed to do was trap that asshole, and he was sure he could learn all of the secrets that would destroy them all.

The only problem was that he couldn’t do it alone. He needed his hunters, but he wasn’t exactly sure what his status was with them anymore. He hadn’t seen them since well before the storm —

And then he had a rare moment of Duh. “Of course not,” he thought. “You’ve been too busy killing your wife and escaping that, and why the hell would they come back to JPL any…”

“Fuck!” he suddenly shouted, tossing his dirty breakfast dish into the tile above the kitchen sink, where it shattered to bits and cracked the tile, spraying bits of food everywhere.

“That was them!” he grunted out to no one in particular, remembering his last arrival at the lab, before the cops showed up, when it seemed like someone had been there, but maybe not — and now he cursed the fact that he could not return because of… because… He couldn’t even remember at the moment which group of law enforcement it had been.

And he couldn’t even guess at what his hunters had stolen… It had been something. But what? They had taken information. And whose side were they on?”

He spent the next hour pacing around the room, planning and counter-planning, guessing and second-guessing. Either Joshua and Simon were allies or they weren’t. If they were, then they would capture Peter Lorre for him. If they weren’t, then they would refuse.

Hell, if they refused such a simple request that would make them a lot of money, then they were probably working for the other side.

His way out of this mess suddenly became clear. He had to find Joshua and Simon and make them an offer. He laughed as he realized that both of them were probably too young to get it, but it was going to be an offer they could not refuse.

The real jokes, though, were that A) Of course they knew the reference, it was only one of the most meme’d to millennials movies ever, and B) When it came to playing high tech hide and seek, Ausmann was an amateur, while Joshua and Simon were pros.

Of course, Joshua and Simon didn’t know they were playing hide, but Ausmann was sure as hell going to be playing seek. Not that he’d found anything after the first day, but he was pretty determined.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #43: The Rêves, Part 21

After a brief hiatus for my Christmas Countdown, your Saturday fiction feature is back, and I broke at a good point because this next one is an omnibus chapter that weaves together all of the characters that we’ve been following so far, and it brings a big revelation about The Rêves, Las hadas selvajes, where they came from, and what they want.

This is the turning point leading into the final beats of Act II of the book. You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or the previous chapter here.

Slingback

Pearl was walking with Preston and Danny through the woods, following no particular trail, occasionally coming across a deer that would regard them, but react with disinterest rather than fear.

“We were the first,” she said. Well, Janis was the first of us, in the autumn of 1970. That’s where we got the name Pearl from, although we didn’t really start to pick up numbers until a little later in the 70s, and it always seemed to be gay men who had died away from their families — and abandoned by them — without any close friends here to notice their loss.

“A lot of Them were new in town, wound up homeless and addicted. Maybe that’s why we somehow found Janis. Then things really took off in the 1980s when our numbers swelled.

“That’s also when we started thinking of ourselves as Las hadas selvajes,” Pearl explained. “That was partly because of an activist group called the Radical Faeries, but also because we had a sudden Hispanic and Latino and Latina influx. Oh, I know they use “Latinx” nowadays, Pearl said, “But no one has explained to me how to pronounce it.”

“LatEEN-ex,” Preston replied.

“Ah,” Pearl said. “Thank you. Anyway, we pretty much kept to ourselves and stayed in unpopulated, undeveloped area — which were shrinking rapidly. We weren’t visible to humans, although some of them could sense us, and we liked it like that.”

“But something made you decide to cause that storm?” Preston asked. Danny shot him a look, but Pearl was clearly not upset by the question at all.

“Yes,” They explained. “You see, it was just shy of twenty years before things suddenly changed.”

“What happened?” Danny asked.

At the same time and just under 85 miles almost perfectly due west, Joshua and Simon had started digging through the data they had skimmed from Ausmann’s network, and decided to start with the oldest documents they could find.

Although none of the files on the network were that old, they did find a folder called “Archives,” and it was structured as a top layer of subfolders per year, each one with its own set of folders by month. The earliest one was for 1985, and the earliest month was April, with a PDF physically dated April 15, 1985, although the computer file was dated October 2012.

It was a memo, from someone at DARPA (name redacted) describing a project called “Operation Slingback.”

“Drag queens?” Joshua joked playfully.

“No, silly!” Simon replied, slapping his shoulder as he scanned the document, finally just looking away from the screen and muttering. “Oh. My. God.”

“What?” Joshua asked, knowing that anything that would get Simon to say that must have been extraordinary.

“Faster than light communications,” he said. “That’s what this project was. It was some Cold War bullshit. If spies could send messages faster than light, they could essentially send them back in time, meaning that they could literally get intelligence to our side even before the Soviets knew they’d created it.”

“Freaky,” Joshua replied. “Does it say how it was supposed to work, since you can’t send anything with mass at or above lightspeed?”

“Sure,” Simon explained. “Tachyons.”

“Theoretical!” Joshua reminded him.

“I know,” Simon continued. “But they seemed to think not.”

The two of them poured through the documents on their own laptops, Joshua taking even months and Simon taking odd — purely based on whether their birth month was odd or even — and then Joshua finally found an “A-ha!” moment dated October 28, 1987.

“Look at this,” he told Simon, and they huddled together peering at the screen. The document was heavily redacted, so while it was clear what they had done, everything about how they did it was censored. That really didn’t matter though. What did were a few brief lines.

27101987 16:34:17 [JUL 87300] OP SLINGBACK TXF RECD SUCCESS…

ORIGIN 29101987 13:15:06 [JUL 87302] CONTENT STAND ON ZANZIBAR

29101987 13:16:32 [JUL 87302] OP SLINGBACK TXF SENT

DEST UNK TIME FACTOR UNK CONTENT STAND ON ZANZIBAR

“Okay,” Joshua said. “So if the people in the past received and documented the message the people in the future sent, how is that any kind of time travel at all? I mean, dudes on the 27th get some random text, write it down, and now dudes on the 29th know what to send.”

“Look at the methodology,” Simon replied. “They were two separate teams. Senders were at Livermore, receivers were here. The received message was sealed until after the point that the senders confirmed they had done their thing, and the two messages were compared by an independent team at Berkeley.”

“Wow,” Joshua replied. “So they managed to send a message back, what… forty-five hours or so?”

“Give or take eighteen minutes,” Simon added.

They continued reading until Simon hit March 22, 1991, when Operation Slingback was folded into Operation Wayback, and a permanent tachyon transmission line was set up between JPL in Pasadena and the Pentagon.

Again, a lot of the theory was redacted, but one intriguing bit was left in. Simon read as Joshua listened.

“Choice of baseline approximately seven times longer than JPL to Livermore by moving end points from JPL to the Pentagon improved time distance transmission by the inverse cube of the distance, from 45 hours to approximately 160 hours. Setting base points slightly longer, from Livermore to the Pentagon, would have yielded lead times of about 240 hours, but this preferred route was vetoed by Code Name Rainbow.”

“Who the fuck is ‘Rainbow?’” Joshua asked. Simon did a quick Google, then laughed.

“Shit,” he said. “That was Nancy Reagan’s Secret Service code name.”

“Really?” Joshua replied.

“Really,” Simon said. “So… then what?”

They kept searching the records and, while Pearl didn’t have access to them, she had lived through the results.

“May 23, 1989,” They said. “That was the day the Earth shook and the ground buzzed, and we could feel that something weird was going on. And that was the day that the other classes suddenly popped up.”

“We haven’t always been here?” Preston asked, sounding nervous as Danny took his hand.

“No, dear,” Pearl said. “It’s been barely 34 years. “Now Class I and Class III knew how to behave and stay hidden, for the most part. If they did wind up appearing around a human, they would be sure to make it brief and ambiguous, always leaving doubt whether anything had been there at all.”

“Is that why I can appear like an animal around humans?” Preston asked.

“I’m getting to that. And I should tell you that we do have another word for them besides humans, since we are also humans. Mostly. We call them vivants. And we started having big problems with them because — no offense, Preston — Class II’s just couldn’t keep themselves from showing off to vivants, and things started to get really, really weird, especially in all the tourist spots — which happened to coincide with the new L.A. Metro system they were creating.”

“Shit,” Joshua exclaimed as he found a document with a bunch of stories with a ‘Haunted Hollywood’ theme, all of them starting in the late spring of 1989 and continuing for a few years. Somebody on the project had felt it necessary to compile them, even though most of them seemed to come from trashy rags.

At one point, a psychologist even posited a term for the condition: “Cinema psychosis,” hallucinations and delusions caused by an obsession with films and old movie stars. W.C. Fields was often seen wandering drunkenly along side streets off of Hollywood Boulevard, while the Marx Brothers were fond of hanging around the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, along with Marilyn Monroe and Errol Flynn.

Rudolph Valentino would regularly pop up near Hollywood High School, while Clara Bow seemed very fond of USC. The stories went on and on in the tabloids, but there was not a single clipping of a story from a mainstream outlet save one, a brief blurb in a TIME magazine from 1992 that talked about alleged hauntings at the Roosevelt, although in the most skeptical of terms.

It concluded by saying that such reports had suddenly increased in the last few years — odd for celebrities that had been dead for much longer — and wondered whether it wasn’t some publicity stunt by the city in order to increase tourism even as the new Metro Rail system was working its way from downtown to Hollywood and points north.

That particular part of the story was highlighted with a cryptic note scrawled in the margin: “If only!”

“So… they fired up this machine to send messages into the past,” Simon recapped, “And it somehow brought back all of these… not ghosts, exactly, but ‘echoes,’ was it? Echoes of people who had died, and while the unknown ones seemed to keep to themselves, the famous ones started popping up everywhere?”

“As crazy as it sounds,” Joshua started.

“Dude, we have been dealing with some pretty crazy shit for the last five years now. I mean, in a weird way, it’s kind of nice to know that there is a scientific explanation for it.”

“Don’t forget that other part, what Anabel told us.”

“Right,” Simon continued. “Ausmann wants to ‘Commit genocide and destroy my kind,’ she said. So we know what that kind is. We just have to figure out how he intends to destroy it.”

“The obvious guess would be to just turn off the machine,” Joshua offered.

“I know,” Simon said. “But the fact that they haven’t done that implies that it’s not the answer at all. Let’s do a little digging closer to the present.”

Earlier that day out in Simi Valley, the police finally did some digging in what was left of Ausmann’s house. It had been an obvious target for their attention for two reasons. One, there were no signs of life. Two, it was the only place in the entire neighborhood — indeed, the entire city — that had been razed by the storm.

When Detective Davis saw the homeowner’s insurance records that his staff had pulled on the place, he was immediately suspicious.

“Insured for twice market value, and that benefit is locked in,” he explained to one of his Lieutenants. “It’s written so that force majeure events are covered with triple indemnity.”

Force majeure?” his Lieutenant asked.

“Also known as ‘act of god.’ This guy have any other insurance?”

Twenty minutes later, the Lieutenant came back with the benefit details on the life insurance policies Ausmann had on himself and his wife, and Davis nearly shit his pants, thinking “Thank god HIPAA confidentiality only covers health insurance.

He sent his forensics team in to carefully explore the ruins, and they found Coraline’s body in about twenty minutes, face down in the hallway outside of what was clearly a panic room, the ceiling dumped on top of her.

Davis sighed. This was going to be one of those cases, he thought. A shit-ton of circumstantial evidence that pointed to a really guilty spouse taking advantage of this sudden act of god and murdering his wife, or one really unlucky son of a bitch who happened to lose his wife to an act of god that only served to make him look guilty as hell.

Davis was still looking over the records when Chief Lewis arrived and popped up next to him. “So,” she asked, “What do you think? Natural disaster, or homicide?”

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “I really don’t. It all depends on whether we find her husband, whether we find him alive, and whether we can figure out where he was when this storm hit.”

Lewis looked at the insurance documents and let out a low whistle. “Well,” she said, “I can give you my professional opinion.”

“I think I know it already,” Davis replied.

“Damn straight, skippy. Guilty as hell unless he’s got an iron-clad alibi.”

Inside, Davis’ heart sank. Pursuing a guilty verdict against someone who was clearly richer than god was any LEO’s worst nightmare. Those assholes could afford to fight back, and make his life hell for the next decade.

“Okay, people,” he called out to his staff, “New assignment. Find her husband. All of his deets have been BT’d to you.”

Ausmann wasn’t stupid, and this exact scenario had been playing in his head from the second he decided to slam that board into his wife’s skull. He’d taken an Uber under an assumed name, using a burner phone with its GPS permanently disabled, and an untraceable pre-paid debit card. This got him from Simi out to Warner Center, where he hopped on the F Line, again using an untraceable TAP card paid for by that same debit card, then eventually made his way up to JPL via a last mile Uber that he ditched at the entrance.

His first lucky break came when he walked in to see all four of the guards staring intently at one monitor, and then he saw what was on it — porn. In fact, porn that had clearly been recorded in the parking lot Ausmann had just walked through where no sex was actually happening.

He cleared his throat loudly and they all looked at him. “I know that’s not one of our cams live,” he said. “Know how I know? Follow me.”

He led them outside to show them that the spot in the video had neither the car depicted nor the fucking couple, then he led them back in, telling the supervisor, Jerry, to shut off the monitor. He paced for a bit, then finally looked at them all and said, “Sorry. This is a severe violation of so many rules and regulations that I have no choice.”

“We thought it was a live — ” Pedro, the youngest of the guards started to say, but Jerry shot him a look that shut him up.

“You’re all fired,” Ausmann told them. “Watching porn at work, and where any visitors could see it? Really? Really? You’ve got one hour to clear out your things and go. Meanwhile, I’m confiscating the physical log books for the week, and I want you all to write down your network log-ins and passwords.”

There was a lot of grumbling, but Jerry wisely rode watch on them, which Ausmann appreciated. Of course, he would let Jerry’s medical benefits continue by keeping him on payroll as a “consultant,” but mainly because he knew that the man was not a boat-rocker.

How could he be? His wife was on chemo, and it was only through the gold-plated insurance that this Federal job gave them that he could afford to keep her alive.

The rest of them? Yeah, they were young and healthy, Ausmann thought. He couldn’t have been more wrong, of course.

Ausmann headed down the elevator, cut off from the sudden grumbling upstairs. Meanwhile, Pedro, Juan, and Cobre let the anger loose, and Jerry let them vent for a while.

“What a motherfucker,” Cobre declared. “Can we cut the oxygen off down there?”

“We should,” Juan agreed.

“That’s… a bit extreme, boys,” Jerry cut in.

“Ass-kisser,” Cobre muttered.

“What about the water?” Pedro offered.

“What about it?” Jerry asked.

“I mean… he doesn’t have to know that it’s not off because of the flood, right?”

Juan and Cobre agreed. “What’s the worst that can happen? He can’t flush a toilet or wash his hands?” Juan asked.

Jerry pondered for a long moment, finally agreeing. “Okay,” he said. “You can turn the water off. But, trust me, I’ve known him for a long time, and he is hiding something. Your best defense is to pretend that you know nothing.”

“Didn’t you already tell us something?” Cobre replied.

“Fuck,” Jerry said. “Okay. This. Get the hell out of here, forget you ever worked here, and I will do what I can to make sure that you wind up with better jobs somewhere else.”

“As long as it doesn’t involve sucking cock,” Pedro shot back.

“Oh, you fucking tease,” Juan sighed.

“No,” Jerry explained. “You forget that Ausmann wasn’t here before the storm, you don’t talk to anyone about it, and as far as you know, he came down as soon as it started raining.”

Juan, Pedro, and Cobre stared at Jerry for a long moment, until Cobre let out a quiet but dismayed, “What?”

“I think it’s called ‘selling out,’ Pedro said.”

“Ah,” Juan replied. “Right. So… Jerry… how much is that really, really worth to you?”

Twenty minutes later, each of the three guards had a net worth increased by half a million, and none of them would ever say a word about Ausmann. Or Jerry who, by this point, was just as guilty.

After all, the only reason he could afford to transfer them each that kind of money in cryptocurrency was because he had long ago sold the secret of what they colloquially called the Retro Telegraph to several foreign nations for far more than that — not so much to help them as to cause them the same kinds of problems it had caused here.

He wasn’t supposed to know about the machine, of course, but one of the secrets of the security industry was that the guards always knew everything. They kind of had to, although the “kids” in his charge generally didn’t. But Jerry had been given the same clearances as Ausmann when he had taken on the job as head of security.

Then his wife got sick, and he saw his opportunity. England, France, Switzerland, Mexico, and Holland all got a lot more “haunted” after that.

When he’d finished packing his things, he turned the water back on downstairs, then left for the last time, his ID, keys, and all that other rigmarole left on the counter inside the guard station. Naturally, he had a duplicate set at home.

He made sure the door was locked from inside behind him as he left, then hopped into the 2003 Toyota Corolla that he always drove to work. He was smart enough to know that most spies got caught by being too flashy with their purchases.

Ausmann arrived downstairs after the elevator stopped briefly. He figured that it must have been a couple of the guards fucking with him, but fortunately he had the override codes. He just had to find them, which took him a bit.

He had intentionally left his cell phone at home in the bedroom rubble, although he had also made sure to smash it after deleting any information older than the morning of the day the storm hit. Since he never used it to make calls and he had physically disabled the GPS in it, there wouldn’t be anything there to prove that he had been at home or hadn’t been at JPL for the last few days.

“I never take my phone to work with me because I have one built into the car, and I can’t take it down to work with me anyway, officers,” he had rehearsed in his head a million times, along with, “I asked my wife to give me a ride to work that morning because I knew we were going to be there for a few days on a critical mission, so I wanted her to have both cars, just in case.

“What’s that? No, I’m sorry, it’s highly classified work for the Federal government, so I can’t tell you that. Just that it involves monitoring of… scientific data, and we were expecting a lot to come in once forecasts of the nature of the storm started to arrive.”

He had been doing a lot of rehearsing in his head today, and once he found the tiny cryptic card with his most important passwords written on it, but encoded in a way that only he could understand, he punched in the override and the elevator moved again.

When the doors opened, he thought he heard noises coming from around the corner, followed by an echoing boom, so he ran to the pull-switch in the wall and activated lockdown. The sirens started doing their annoying as hell three second whoop, silence, repeat, and red lights with spinning reflectors lit along all of the hallways as the main lights dimmed.

Ausmann grabbed a flashlight, put on night vision goggles, and strapped a motion detector to his wrist. Well, one that would detect motion happening more than ten but less than fifty feet away from him, then he made a full circuit of the floor, finding nothing and no one.

“Must have been one of those fucking ghosts,” he grumbled. “He repeated this procedure for the other levels of the complex until he was satisfied that he was alone, then went to his office and shut off the lockdown protocol.

Finally, he was ready for his real mission with all of the distractions gone and himself sequestered in a safe place where not even the cops could get to him. He turned his computer on, logged into the network, and navigated to one particular folder.

“But what’s going on right now,” Pearl warned the boys after explaining all of the history of the Rêves and Las hadas up to that point, “Is that one vivant wants to commit genocide and destroy our kind.”

“Is that why those dudes have been hunting us?” Preston asked.

“They were unintentional pawns in the game,” Pearl said, “But we’ve looked into their hearts, and they feel so guilty about being used that they are now on our side. Even as we speak, they are working against the real enemy, a man named Ausmann.”

“Never heard of him,” Preston said.

“Lucky for you. He’s the entire reason that we unleashed that storm on the city the other night.”

You did that?” Danny asked in amazement.

“Of course,” Pearl said. “That’s our domain. Nature. We try to avoid human war because it’s full of things like hate and vengeance. And, as I said, this Ausmann person — I shouldn’t really even dignify him with the title vivant — wants to commit genocide and destroy our kind.”

“How do you destroy the dead?” Preston asked.

“My god, that motherfucker has no imagination,” Joshua said as he pointed to a folder that had been updated four days ago, the most recent one in the stack. It was titled Operation Ghost Toast.

“That’s the problem,” Pearl replied to Preston. “It’s not easy. But those idiot Class II’s — again, no offense — have mostly decided to join forces with Ausmann in favor of the humans.”

“Why?” Danny asked.

“Because without them we would be nothing!” Bette exhorted the troops rallied around her in the Westwood Cemetery. “They created us. They sustain us. So we will march with them!” She had taken on her persona from her appearance in the WW II era film Hollywood Canteen, and had turned this whole thing into a rally the troops moment with all of her other Class II’s who’d been there.

“But don’t take my word for it,” she announced. “Here’s a real treat for you all! Miss Betty Grable!”

Betty came dancing on in all of her full pin-up glory, and she proceeded to give a rousing speech urging all of the Class II’s to join their fight to defend Ausmann from the evil, greedy, and unknown Class I’s and the pretentious Class III’s. There was also a good dose of shaming of the Class II’s who had fled to Anabel’s side.

There was also a rousing speech from Valentino, finally, once one of the Rêves realized that he’d actually heard the man’s voice when he worked as a PA in the early days of Hollywood, before he’d gone on to minor fame as a character actor, and the Sheikh spoke in a strong accent that was heavily influenced by living his first eighteen years in Italy.

But the content of the speech was unmistakable as he excoriated Anabel, and he felt uniquely qualified to do so because they had been contemporaries. In fact, she had died exactly six months and twenty days before he did, although she had been older.

Still… he had stories about how she had screwed over Italian immigrants in San Francisco after the Great Earthquake, hadn’t been the nicest person ever, and how she now had a deep and bitter hatred for humans because giving birth to one had killed her.

He managed to fire the crowd up, partly because he was handsome and charismatic, but also because no one had ever heard Valentino speak before.

“A toast!” a voice cried out, and it was John Wayne, sitting on a ghost horse. “That dago tells the truth,” he announced. “Never trust a woman who goes into business,” he said. “Always trust the white man, because he will never do you wrong.”

“We never should have trusted Ausmann,” Simon said as they looked at the folder. “Operation Ghost Toast my ass.”

The first file in the folder was titled “READ ME.PDF,” so Simon, Joshua, and Ausmann all clicked.

The ensuing document was heavily redacted, and despite Joshua trying the copy and paste to text trick immediately, it didn’t matter. This document was truly redacted. It had the DARPA logo at the top, a time and date stamp, and then the From, To, and Subject fields were all blacked out, as was the greeting before the message, which itself read:

NOTICE REGARDGING TERMINATION OF OPERATION SLINGBACK: UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES MAY THE EQUIPMENT BE POWERED DOWN IMMEDIATELY DUE TO UNEXPECTED AND DANGEROUS AFTEREFFECTS POSSIBLY INVOLVING ████████████████████████████. PROPER TERMINATION PROCEDURE IS DOCUMENTED IN PUBLICATION SCP-██████ CLASSIFICATION LEVEL SUPRA EYES ONLY PER DIRECTIVE ██████████████████████, 27112004 ISSUED BY █████████████. INSTANT POWER DOWN IS ONLY AUTHORIZED IN CASES OF NATIONAL EMERGENCY PUBLICLY ANNOUNCED BY POTUS.

“Well, fuck.” Joshua and Simon exclaimed together.

“There’s no way to shut this thing down?” Ausmann had wondered.

“So… if we break it, we can really fuck shit up?” Joshua asked, and Simon just shrugged.

“I love it when you’re non-committal, honey.” Joshua announced, but then both of their phones and the downstairs buzzer rang.

“What the fuck?” Joshua asked as Simon looked at, then answered, his phone. When he finally hung up, he looked at Joshua and his WTF face.

“What, dude?” he said. “That was Brenda, she found us and wants to come up to talk, so I gave her the entry code.”

“Talk about what?” Joshua replied.

“Dude, chill, she’s not a narc,” Simon said.

“But what does she want?” Joshua demanded, right before the elevator doors opened and Brenda entered.

“Hey, boys,” she said. I’ve been trying to get ahold of you all for a long time. So, tell me. Earth is getting weird. Anything you want to say about it?”

Joshua and Simon just looked at each other, then at Brenda before giving weak smiles and sinking into their sofa in the living room, directing Brenda to the most comfortable seat.

They quickly caught her up on what they learned, leaving out the last bit about shutting down the machine, at the end of which she jumped up and said, “Oh my god. Then you absolutely have to call my boss, Rita.”

“What for?” Joshua asked.

“Apparently, they’re creating a department at the state level to basically do what you do, there are hints that they want me to run it, and my boss is strongly urging me to bring you along as our specialists.”

Joshua and Simon just started at each other a long moment, then turned back to Brenda.

“No,” they said in unison.

“We don’t want anything to do with this business anymore,” Joshua said.

“We’ve learned too much.”

Brenda took a deep breath. “All right. All right. I can understand. But, for me, can you please at least Zoom my boss and tell her no yourselves? She promised me a big promotion if you did that…”

Joshua and Simon exchanged another look between them that clearly spoke unstated volumes. Simon nodded, and Joshua replied.

“All right, fine. We’ll Zoom her, but can we at least tell her to go fuck herself and take her job offer and shove it?”

“Do you have any idea how much this position would pay?” Brenda countered.

“See this condo?” Joshua said.

“We… we own it,” Simon muttered , bashfully.

“This one, and the other one on this floor. Outright, free and clear, paid cash. You’ve seen our car. Anything your boss could offer us would be pocket change.”

“Sorry,” Simon said.

“So, do we have your permission to tell her to go — ”

“Oh, hell yeah,” Brenda said. “Just don’t tell her that I said you could.” She scrolled and tapped her phone and Joshua’s and Simon’s chimed. “I just sent you the Zoom link. It’s a standing meeting that’s she’s got open, so any time you check in, she’ll notice.”

“Cool,” Simon said.

Brenda stood and headed for the door. “Thanks. And I do understand why you’re pretty tired of this shit. I just wish we could work together to end it.”

“Oh, we can,” Simon said. “We will.”

“There is something in the works. It just takes a few more steps. But we will definitely be in touch when we need you,” Joshua added.

“Thanks, guys!” Brenda said, and then she left. Simon and Joshua looked at each other.

“So,” Joshua said, “Now we just have to figure out how to save all of these innocent Rêves who did nothing while also saving a guilty human or two, and averting some sort of apocalyptic supernatural war.”

“Sounds to me like the most direct approach is to just turn off the machine,” Simon said.

“Yeah, but how are we going to get to it?” Joshua asked. “Even if Ausmann isn’t a factor, it sounds like that shit is probably under a fuckton of security codes and is probably harder to shut down than it is to launch a nuclear missile.”

“True,” Simon said. “But the real trick is figuring out the million dollar question.”

“Which is?”

“What does Ausmann want to do? Because whatever that is, we need to do the opposite.”

“Oh. Right,” Joshua replied, but then he had a sudden weird moment of vertigo in which he literally saw double when he looked at Simon. Of course, his eyes were watering, so the ghostly double-image he saw was probably a result of that. He took a moment, wiped his eyes, then carried on when things went back to normal. No reason to alarm Simon.

“So how do we figure out what he wants?” he asked.

“Good question,” Simon replied. “Meanwhile… good time to tell a bureaucrat to go fuck themselves?”

“Isn’t it always?” Joshua laughed.

Simon grinned and sent the Zoom address to their widescreen. Might as well get the full effect.

“Record it,” Joshua reminded him.

“Done,” Simon said, right before Rita let them into the room.

“Boys!” she greeted them. “Hello!”

That opening made the impending “go fuck yourself” all the sweeter.

* * *
Image source: CERN, (CC) BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Saturday Morning Post #42: The Rêves, Part 20

Race against time

Brenda had come back home from her conversation with Mom pissed as hell for a lot of reasons, so she did the two things she knew she could do to get absolute privacy. First, she asked the kids if they wanted to play board games with Esme, and none of them could be happier, so they all retreated to the living room.

Next, she ducked her head into Jonah’s office. “If you want to binge some Oprah episodes with me, come on into my office.”

He just grunted, but she knew that this was, to him, the best way to tell him, “Stay the fuck out of my office” without putting it in those words — reverse psychology at its finest.

She did go into her office to binge, but it wasn’t Oprah. Instead, it was CCTV footage from Metro Stations but, more specifically, since she had figured out Joshua and Simon’s working order and timing of things, she started with the first station they’d been spotted at, then worked her way backwards.

Her goal was to find some way to contact them, and she was hoping for some moment when one of them would expose something on cam, like a phone, that would give a full name, or number, or something. She also quickly figured out that their preferred nights to work were Tuesday or Wednesday for the most part, and they never came down over the weekend, probably because the stations were too crowded.

Their outfits also changed, and she watched a sort of backwards evolution as later accessories — hunting tools? — disappeared on the reverse path. Still, nothing that would give them away.

When she’d followed them farther up the A Line into Pasadena, she had a sudden moment of kicking herself, realizing she’d been watching the wrong thing.

They had to get into the stations, and they had to do it with their TAP Cards, so she went back and pulled the time stamps from each station at every moment they had used TAP to enter. Next, she pulled up the TAP usage database, used a query to create a spreadsheet, then used INDEX and MATCH in Excel to pull up matches to the info she’d compiled.

She was practically over the moon when it revealed that all of the check-ins had been done on the same two TAP cards, revealing their numbers and card nicknames: ECTO-J and ECTO-S.

“I’ve got you now, you motherfuckers!” she muttered as she copied the TAP card numbers, then pulled the specific information on to whom they were registered.

“Shit!” she replied at the results, because Joshua and Simon had managed to register the cards with completely fake information, and use anonymous, pre-paid debit cards to fund them. She could tell on sight, because nobody lived at “1234 Main Street, This Town, USA, 90000,” and certainly nobody had the email address goodfucking@luck.com.

And while they had used the first names Joshua and Simon, she really doubted that they both had the last names “McBiteme.”

“Fucking kids,” she muttered, not realizing that both of them were actually on the older end of being millennials, and pushing forty.

She went back to the videos from Pasadena, and then traced them to the Arcadia station where, on a whim, she followed them back out only to see that they had come there from Santa Anita Race Track, and it was one of the few times they’d come down on a Saturday and had arrived at the station so early.

She marked the date and time on a hunch, but then wondered — who did she know at Santa Anita who could give her the info? This would be a major way in for one big reason: While TAP cards weren’t really that regulated, race tracks and gambling were heavily regulated, and no way either of them could get away with fake names or pre-paid debit cards if they wanted to gamble and actually win.

She wondered who she knew who had a connection inside Santa Anita, but then the irony of the answer made her laugh.

Rita’s husband was head of security at the place. Brenda hit the intercom on her home office phone.

“Yeah?” Rita answered.

“Want me to find those boys and get them to call you?” Brenda asked.

“Which part of ‘I already asked you that’ did you all miss?” Rita replied.

“None,” Brenda said. “So, your hubby still works at Santa Anita?”

“Yes,” Rita said. “Why?”

“I’m going to email you some dates and times. I need all of the surveillance cam footage from inside for those, plus any kind of pay out info he can provide — Tax ID, winnings, whatever.”

“Are you fucking shitting me?” Rita asked.

“Nope,” Brenda replied.

“Okay. I can probably get him to give you the video footage,” she explained, “But tax records and IDs?” She let out a belly laugh. “No fucking way. You know that. He’d lose his job, and so would I.”

“Okay, okay, got it,” Brenda said. “But if I can maybe point you to two specific people at a specific time and place, and he can use that info to give us the names and phone numbers…?”

“Dubious,” Rita said, “But I’ll ask. How soon you need this shit?”

“How soon did you want them to call you, again?” Brenda replied

“On it,” Rita answered, then she hung up.

Brenda typed out her email with the info, and ten minutes later a response came back, which Rita had forwarded from her husband. It contained a link to the CCTV videos from Santa Anita for the day she had requested.

“Finally,” she said, poking around until she found the point when Joshua and Simon had left the park to walk to the station and backtracking from there.

She jumped through the footage, tracing backwards from end of race to post time, and at no point did either of them approach the cashier window in order to collect. She was beginning to think that they were bad at this whole thing until very early in the day, when she caught them celebrating at the end of a race.

That’s when she followed them forward via the cameras. Maybe she had just missed the one that showed them collecting. But then, after they’d come downstairs she saw them looking around and then approaching a young black woman who was just sitting in the corner with her son, looking distraught.

There was no audio on this footage, but Joshua and Simon engaged her in conversation until, finally, Simon held out a ticket and handed it to her. She looked at the ticket, then up at them in disbelief, covering her mouth and crying.

Joshua and Simon shrugged and smiled, and then the woman jumped up and hugged them both before heading toward the cashier. Joshua and Simon smiled at each other before heading off to video Brenda had already watched.

She hit pause angrily on her computer. “Oh you goddamn generous motherfucking privileged little white boys!” she grumbled. “Who the hell are you?”

She had almost despaired running back through all of the footage until she hit a point when the two had arrived. Joshua headed toward the restroom while Simon waited, but then Simon pulled out his phone and scrolled — and it was in that moment, one single frame, that Brenda found the holy grail.

It showed Joshua’s full name, as well as a phone number. She screen-capped it, wrote it down, and refrained from screaming in joy.

“Suck it, bitch,” she muttered to herself with Rita in mind as she picked up her own phone and dialed, but after about a ring and a half, it went right to voice mail.”

“Assholes,” she thought, but after the tone, she left a very long and detailed voice mail, hoping that they would actually listen and respond.

But, assuming they wouldn’t, she decided on Plan B: As soon as the streets were passable, she was going to pay them a visit, come hell or high water. Well, so to speak. Also, note to self: See who she knew who could link Joshua’s number back to the one that had texted it at that specific moment…

* * *

Image source: (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Saturday Morning Post #41: The Rêves, Part 19

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Southern California.

To sleep, perchance…

Rêves actually did “sleep” — not in the same way that humans did, but they could sort of “power down,” at which point they would lose all physical visibility and substance. A Class I Rêve might be able to detect their presence, while Class II and III probably wouldn’t. Pearl, of course, was always aware of where every single one of them was at any moment, regardless of class or waking state.

But Preston didn’t know that yet.

All he knew was that he had curled up with Danny, who may or may not have been him but who was hella handsome nevertheless, and as they sheltered against the storm they both wound up falling asleep in each other’s arms.

It was a cold and foggy morning when Preston woke up. Okay, to be fair, it was visibly foggy, so he just assumed it was cold, which was something he couldn’t feel, although he and Danny could feel each other. He sat up and listened, and all he could hear was the distant crow of a rooster, and then drops of moisture falling from one level of leaves on the trees to another.

He nudged Danny to wake him — Preston could still see him for some reason.

“What?” Danny asked as he woke up and opened his eyes.

“Storm is over,” Preston said.

“So we lived?” Danny asked.

“No, dumbshit,” Preston replied, smacking his arm. “We’re still dead, but we’re still here.”

“Oh. Right,” Danny said. “So… now what?”

Before Preston could answer, there was a shout — “

¡Quédense. Manos arriba!

“What did he say?” Preston asked.

“Fuck if I know,” Danny replied.

Preston stood slowly, raising his arms.

“Y ¿por qué está desnudo en mi jardín, pervertido?” the voice called out again.

“Oh, wait, I think I knew one word, it’s about me, and it’s not happy,” Preston said, getting a good look at the angry father with the shotgun standing just outside the patio door.

“Tengo tres hijas jóvenes,” the man said, shotgun aimed right at Preston’s chest. “Qué ellas no vean sus cuerpos ni sus partes masculinos y forman ideas pecaminosas, si ustedes no se quitan del mi jardín en tres segundos, les voy a disparar y puedan decir hasta la vista a las nueces.”

On that last part, he lowered the shotgun to aim at Preston’s crotch.

“What did he say?” Danny asked.

“I have no idea on the specifics,” Preston replied, “But I think that the general idea is ‘Run like fuck.’”

“Oh, right,” Danny replied. “But wait,” he added. “Why are we running?”

“Because I get the idea he’s going to shoot us?” Preston answered.

“Right, and…?” Danny answered, refusing to move even as Preston got more antsy.

“I… dude, come on. Let’s not waste time. Let’s go!”

“You’re forgetting one thing,” Danny replied.

“What?” Preston barked back.

Danny just smiled at Preston, then turned to the clearly the angry dad, and gave him the finger.

“Are you fucking nuts?” Preston demanded. Danny just grinned and shook his head — and then dad unleashed the shotgun.

And… nothing. Well, nothing happened to them, but a flowerpot behind them exploded.

Preston looked at Danny, confused.

“Dude, we’re already fucking dead,” he replied. “How is he going to do anything to us?”

“Really?” Preston finally asked.

“Really,” Danny replied.

Preston laughed, then turned and marched right up into Dad with Shotgun’s face.

“Look, dude,” he said, “I didn’t want to be here, and I have no desire at all to wave my dick at you, okay?”

Dad with rifle seemed more scared than anything, but Preston pressed on. “On the other hand, I seriously wouldn’t mind slapping my dick on your chin, or you slapping yours upside my ass-cheeks. My name is Preston. What’s yours?”

Preston waited patiently as the dude reloaded two shells with shaky fingers, then fired right at Preston’s chest point blank, this time managing to blow apart a hanging potted plant behind him, at which point he retreated into the house.

There was a long silence, and then Danny just laughed.

“What?” Preston demanded.

“You scared him off, dude. “So… where do we need to be now?”

“I have no idea,” Preston said. “Maybe with my mother?”

“She’s not our moth — ”

“Fake mother, shut up, asshole,” Preston said.

“Okay, okay,” Danny replied. “So which way is that?”

“Follow me,” Preston explained, grabbing Danny’s wrist and Peter-Panning his ass all the way to the cemetery in Glendale… only to find the place empty. Well, not empty. It was full of corpses. They just didn’t see any Rêves around, of any class.

“Notice anything strange?” Danny asked.

“No,” Preston said. “Beyond the lack of visitors.

“Ground’s dry. Everything is.”

“So?” Preston asked.

“You saw the mess the storm left out there. Mud all over the place, some streets still flooded, everything still a little wet.”

“I’m still a little wet,” Preston said, unable to resist.

“Shut up,” Danny replied. “You remember that big flood back home in the summer of ‘10?”

“No,” Preston explained sadly.

“Great, whatever. My point is, during that flood, the cemetery out on Highway 52 was covered with water, and a lot of the graves got washed out. They were finding coffins all over the place for months.”

“Oh. Now I remember,” Preston said.

Danny gestured. “And yet, here…?”

Nothing was out of place, and the ground was still solid, all tombstones intact.

“Weird,” Preston said. “Maybe the flood didn’t get up this far.”

“You didn’t notice the road outside, did you?”

“Oh, right…”

“So what do you think happened?” Preston asked, warily.

“We both already know,” Danny explained to him. “We saw the storm, and what was causing it. There was nothing natural about it. I think it was an act of self-defense.”

“Self-defense, or war?” Preston pondered.

“I guess that definition will depend on who ultimately wins,” Danny said. “Who’s fighting, anyway?”

“Well, we know that the main enemy is some crazy mad scientist from Pasadena,” Preston explained. “What we don’t know is how the classes of Rêve are going to split up.”

“Wait… classes of what?” Danny asked, and Preston sighed.

“Oh, shit, right. I guess no one had a chance to explain this to you. Sit down. This is going to take a bit.”

Danny sat on the marble cenotaph that guarded the buried corpse that he and Preston shared, and then Preston launched into an explanation of what the Rêves were, and how they broke into classes.

The what, as far as they knew, was that they were not ghosts, but rather psychic “echoes” made manifest by human memories. But how close those echoes resembled the originals depended on two factors.

The first: How well did the living beings doing the remembering actually know them in life?

The second: How many living beings remembered them in any capacity, whether they knew them or not?

And so, the three classes.

“What it basically breaks down to is this,” Preston explained. “If you died with a lot of friends and family who knew you, and if they made it a point to commemorate your memory or pass on your stories in any way, then you wind up Class I — an echo of your true self who pretty much remembers your actual life. That’s why recent arrivals are Class I, after all!”

“So I’m not Class I,” Danny pouted, “Since my whole family wants to forget me.”

“Fuck ‘em,” Presteon said. “Now, Class II are the ones remembered by a lot of people who never met them and who died long enough ago that people only know them through cultural artifacts… movies, books, songs, whatever. Or, in other words, celebrities. They come back the farthest from themselves because they can only come back from what people who never knew them experienced of them.”

“But what about a celebrity who died last week?” Danny asked.

“I’m getting to that,” Preston said. “Hey, you met the Marx Brothers, right?”

“Oh, yeah, right. Not helpful at all.”

“Of course. They would have been in real life, but the echoes you met all came from their films. And you didn’t meet Gummo or Zeppo, did you?”

“Nah. Just the big three — ”

“The Groucho, the Chico, and the Holy Harpo,” Preston said.

“Wow. But, yeah.”

“The last of them died almost fifty years ago, so there aren’t a lot of humans left who knew any of them. So, there you go. Class II. But every Class II started as a Class III for one simple reason.”

“Social climbing?” Danny offered.

Preston laughed. “No, silly. Because even famous people tend to die while they still have a lot of friends and family left behind. So when people die with a lot of people who knew them really well in person and a lot of people who didn’t know them well by proxy, they wind up as Class III.”

“That sounds like a demotion.”

“Apparently there were a lot of politics behind creating the designations. Don’t ask… Fake Mom told me. Anyway, These Rêves are in a weird unique position, because they can remember both their private lives and their public ones, and switch back and forth. Ironically, even though they’re Class III, they are probably most in control of their echoes.”

“So, you’re Class III, then?” Danny asked.

“Actually, no. I am Class II, since most of the people who remembered me never met me, but only knew my porn persona. Why the fuck do you think I keep showing up nude, dude? The same reason you probably saw the Marx Brothers in full costume. This was my costume.”

“Okay, but… what if nobody remembers someone? What happens to them?”

“That one, I have no idea,” Preston said. “I’ve never heard of a Class IV. Although if you’re here because I remember you, I guess that technically you’d be Class I.”

“But if I remember you…” Danny started.

“How can you?” Preston countered. “You didn’t live through my porn career —”

“The hell I didn’t,” Danny cut in. “Who the fuck do you think was there the whole fucking time? And yes that pun was intended.”

“I…” Preston hesitated, then looked into Danny’s eyes, and suddenly everything came crashing back as far as he could remember, and he could remember back to staring at the mobile of pink and yellow stars spinning above his crib and hearing screaming and slapping.

Meanwhile, Danny flashed forward from the moment he’d submitted his proof of age documents — a moment that his old mind had kind of put down the shutters to indicate “You died here,” and suddenly rocketed through Preston’s entire porn career and up until his death.

And damn if he didn’t love every second of the ride.

And Preston got to re-experience everything he had lived from the ignition of consciousness until he signed that contract, and damn if he didn’t love every second of the ride.

When they both snapped out of it, they just looked at each other with new admiration and a stronger sense of security that told them, “You are two separate entities.”

“So… what class are we now?” Danny asked just before Preston did.

“Fuck if I know,” Preston replied.

Then, there was a sudden blast of white light from the Chanler mausoleum, and Anabel strode out, lighting flashing around her hair, and she looked pissed as fuck as she strode right to… she didn’t even know what to think of them as any more. Surely not her sons.

“What did you do?” she demanded.

Danny and Preston stared at her, looked to each other, then back to her and laughed.

“What do you mean, mommy?” Danny asked in a fake-innocent voice.

“I mean that you are upending the order of things at the wrong time!” Anabel shrieked back.

“But wasn’t that your thing, mommy?” Preston replied sarcastically.

“I’m not your mother, you little shits!” Anabel screamed. “And you both know it!” Danny and Preston turned to each other, smiled, and fist-bumped.

“Yeah. We know,” they said in unison.

“So… which side do you want us on?” Danny asked.

“Mine!” she replied.

“Sure,” Preston said, “But you’ll have to win us over. And keep one other thing in mind.”

“What’s that?” Anabel spat back.

“Well, it’s a real riddle,” Preston explained. “What class are we in?”

“That hardly matters,” Anabel said. “Two of you cannot outnumber the rest.”

“No?” Preston asked. “Here’s another way to put it. What if one or the both of us no longer fits into any of your three Classes?”

“That is impossible!” Anabel replied.

“Is it?” Preston asked. “For one thing, I’ve now moved up to Class I, thanks to Danny.”

“Who the hell is this ‘Danny,’ anyway?” Anabel demanded.

“Me. Only he died out here unremembered. And he managed to pick up one little detail from, oddly enough, a Class II, that meant nothing to him until, well, we remembered each other, and it’s this one… and it’s a nice puzzle, really.”

“Spare me your puzzles and choose a side!” Anabel demanded.

“Cool your panties, ‘Mom’,” Preston ordered her. So, we all know how the three Classes of Rêve work, right? Remembered personally, only remembered from fame, or combo. But there’s that awkward other one… not remembered by anyone, and generally commended to nature. Yeah, I think that happens to be right in the middle of Pearl’s territory.”

“What are you trying to say?” Anabel spat.

“Um… I just combined the actual person I used to be with the force you fear the most, thereby proving that there is another Class beyond the three, although calling Pearl’s domain Class IV would be really, really bad form.”

“Stop saying — ” Anabel commanded.

“What?” Preston replied pointedly. “Pearl?”

“How dare you!” Anabel shrieked, but Preston just smiled and laughed.

“Sorry, Mommy,” he said. “What did you expect? I think the game we’re playing here is like chess and gay life. It takes one Queen to defeat another.”

“Stop calling me Mommy, you son of a bitch!” Anabel hissed at him.

That was when they all noticed that the wind had kicked up, creating a slight whistle. Preston suddenly sensed a presence, as if hundreds of warm arms embraced him and he felt he a flow of positive thoughts, as if an endless line of people were marching by to greet him, saying, “You’re going to be okay.”

Then he heard the voice in the rustle of the grass, “Preston, Preston” it seemed to say.

“Yes?” he and Danny both said out loud, and both of them sensed a hint of confusion in the presence around them.

A woman appeared before them, and Preston assumed that this had to be Pearl, or some physical manifestation of the thing Anabel had described as a vast collective. She actually reminded them both a little bit of their real mother back in Idaho, little knowing that the original Pearl was from Southeast Texas, but was in fact a second cousin, once removed, of their mother’s.

She studied the two of them, raising a warning arm to Anabel before she could say a word, then Pearl circled them, completely intrigued.

“This is certainly new,” she said. “Not unexpected, it’s just that we’ve never seen it happen.” She pointed at Danny. “You should be one of us,” she said, before pointing at Preston. “And you should be part of that shallow celebrity class that has decided to turn against us.”

She seemed to be almost beaming as she turned things over in her mind. “But each of you is something completely different,” she explained.

She looked at Danny and told him, “You combine a Class I Rêve with one of us, Las Hadas Silvestres, or Pearl, if you will.” She turned to Preston, “And you managed to somehow go from Class II via Class III to pure Class I but strictly on his memories of you. You’re no longer a celebrity echo.”

“I’m Danny, by the way,” Danny explained.

“And Preston,” Preston added.

“Pearl,” Pearl replied. “But this is about to become a war zone, so we’d best do what they did in London before the blitz.”

“Oh, don’t you — ” Anabel started, but Pearl, not even looking at her, knocked her twenty feet back to land on her ass with a gesture.

“We need to evacuate to the countryside, and you two need to meet your real family. Ready?”

They both nodded and Pearl took their hands. The next thing they knew, they were standing in a clearing somewhere in the woods. Preston recognized it as Big Bear. He’d made a couple of films up here back in the day — Lumber Jack-offs, Bears in the Woods, and one of his favorites, Night on Bone Mountain, which actually managed to be artsy. Come to think of it, those were about half of all the actual films he had made. Winston had been right — nobody really wanted full-length story porn anymore.

He wondered briefly whether Anabel had seen any of them, although he was pretty sure she hadn’t.

All that Anabel had seen as she sat up, royally pissed, was Pearl taking the boys’ hands and then the three of them vanishing in a black wisp, like a puff of smoke blown up a chimney to quickly dissipate in the sky.

Her scream sent every bird within three miles scattering frantically into the air, and set dogs to barking as far away as China Town.

Image: Daniel Lobo, (CC) BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #40: The Rêves, Part 18

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Southern California.

Plan B

From the very beginning, Joshua and Simon had taken their precautions regarding the job with Ausmann, especially because it seemed to have a government connection, and so had created their own insurance policy in case things should ever come to a weird junction like this.

While they had to leave their cellphones and any other technology in lockers on the surface whenever they descended, that only included things that looked like technology — but it was amazing what could be hidden inside of what appeared to be a regular number 2 pencil.

Simon had taken to wearing a pair of fake glasses whenever they went. He didn’t need them at all, but they were crammed with their own tech, which also served as an invisible to others heads-up display on what the other devices were collecting.

One of Joshua’s favorites for the sheer irony of it was a cross he’d wear on a chain around his neck whenever they went in. He wasn’t religious at all. In fact, he was a total atheist, but inside of the cross was more of the technology they used in order to harvest information that would be useful later. Like now. As they headed to JPL.

One of the things their devices had done was to remotely key-log everything Ausmann had typed while they were in or near his office, so they had managed to capture a few of his passwords as he entered them. They also had a remote man-in-the-middle device, and that took care of the transmission of encrypted information that had been auto-filled by the computer, where they couldn’t see it — user names, website URLs, and the like.

They were also able to log in remotely to Ausmann’s own computer, although not the network drive — but today they considered managing that part necessary.

They had come up with two plans for JPL. The first was ostensibly to check in with Ausmann, if he was there. If he wasn’t there, even better. They planned to go down to the lab alone and then… “borrow” every last bit of data they could get their hands on.

That would be a lot, too. They had managed to conceal a 5Tb thumb drive in what looked like an ordinary modern car key, but the USB connection could only be slid out after a series of very specific manipulations of the base of the key.

They had long since determined that the guards normally didn’t make people put keys in the safe except under a few conditions, all of which they had tested over time. If there were any kind of fancy keychains or extra fobs, like a rabbit’s foot or dice or even a small framed dog’s photo, it would be locked up.

But if it was just a few keys on a simple ring, they were good to go.

Of course, under normal circumstances, a regular USB drive would be pretty useless for dealing with terabytes of data. At maximum speed, it would take a USB 3.0 device about 56 hours to download just one terabyte, but Simon had estimated that they were looking at between three and four.

However, they had figured out that the computers in Ausmann’s lab transferred data much faster. An ordinary USB drive put it through at 5 megabytes per second. Ausmann’s did it at 5 gigabytes. This meant that four terabytes of data would take about fourteen minutes to copy.

Still a lot slower than in the movies, but quite doable provided they had the time — and they had already reverse-engineered the technology in order to match the throughput speed.

This time, Simon drove them to JPL as Joshua remotely logged into Ausmann’s computer one more time, to check the logs again. “Nope,” he confirmed. “He hasn’t logged on in person or remotely since the afternoon before the storm. Shit, I wish we could get to their network from here and look at the physical check-ins.”

“It looks like Plan B, then,” Simon said, and Joshua nodded.

“Plan B it is,” Joshua said, and then he started typing and tapping like a madman. Plan B was basically to forge their way in.

In Ausmann’s files, they had discovered an emergency protocol that would allow access by certain personnel in the event that Ausmann became incapacitated or otherwise compromised. Of course, the trick was that Ausmann had to trigger it remotely prior to that incapacitation.

“I don’t think he really thought that one all the way through,” Simon said when Joshua had explained it to him. “What? Dude drops dead, but triggers it first?”

“Good point,” Joshua replied.

But this was to their advantage, because it wasn’t until Ausmann triggered it that he also specified which personnel were to be admitted. Ergo, Joshua now gave access to himself and Simon under Ausmann’s emergency orders, tweaking timestamps so that it would have appeared to have been issued the evening of the storm, with the corresponding alert texts to Simon and Joshua being similarly backdated and showing at the appropriate place in their inboxes.

The extra security in that was that the messages seemed to come from “The Pasadena Social Club,” and the texts themselves read, “Bonus Birthday Brunch, just show this QR code.”

They both knew what that meant, though.

When they had first set up this plan long ago, Simon did think it through as he was wont to do, and one of the questions he asked was this: “What if we get there, think that Ausmann isn’t there, but it turns out he is?”

Joshua thought about it a bit, then had one of his brilliant flashes. “Of course,” he said. “If we got the emergency message, then we’d think that something is wrong, so we’d show up worried, asking, ‘Is Ausmann here?’ Only two answers for that, at least to us. Yes, or no.”

“Makes sense,” Simon said.

“So, if they say no, we go full on emergency protocol plan, we’re in, pan comido. But if they say yes, we turn on a dime, act all relieved, and report in as normal.”

“But with the emergency protocol stuff all hanging out there for Ausmann to see.”

“But that’s the point,” Joshua replied. “I think I can rig it so that once it’s sent, Ausmann is blocked from access to seeing any of the texts or documents or whatever. It only goes to the guards and us. That’s part one.”

“And part two?” Simon asked.

“Instant kill-switch,” Joshua replied. “I can also rig it so that if I text a certain code back, then everything gets erased instantly, like it never happened. So… kill-switch program on my screen as we arrive, you have the text on yours. If they say no, he’s not there, then I just pop up my message, too. If they say yes, I hit the button and we start acting.”

And so it was set, they received their codes, and pulled onto the grounds of JPL and headed to the entrance of Ausmann’s underground lair with no idea what was waiting in it for them.

As it turned out, he wasn’t there, and the boys made a big show of being concerned and upset as they flashed the QR codes for the guards to scan. They didn’t have any tech to turn in because they’d left it all in the car, but agreed to a pat-down search.

Of course, they kept the key, Simon’s glasses, and Joshua’s cross, then headed downstairs.

Joshua had pulled a few other tricks on their way over. For example, from about five minutes before they drove onto the grounds, all of the cameras in the complex stopped recording. They continued to display live shots with the timecode, but at the same time only sent a single frame from each camera while incrementing the timecode.

This meant that while the guards could see them, there would be no record for Ausmann to review later, except for the two cameras at the guard station, but they’d planned ahead for that one, as well.

The outside camera would see and record them, no problem, as would the inside camera, for about a minute. But Joshua had programmed the DVR to reboot when its facial recognition software spotted either of them.

This would put it out of commission for enough time for them to enter the complex, and then the camera would come back online and continue recording. Meanwhile, about two minutes into that reboot, the DVR connected to the outside camera would be fed a short bit of footage to override the actual recording — Joshua and Simon leaving the complex, with the “correct” timecode on it.

They had managed to capture the footage on a previous visit, and even dressed identically to it today so that they would match. But the end result would be that anyone reviewing the actual recorded footage would see them arrive, start to talk to the guards, and then leave shortly thereafter.

The electronic log of their check-in they could erase just as easily remotely. Meanwhile, as for the physical sign-in, which was done on paper, Simon had conjured up one of the oldest tricks in the book: disappearing ink.

In the post-plague days, no one batted an eye at someone insisting on using their own pen rather than a communal instrument, so Simon and Joshua both carefully signed and dated their check-in with the trick pen, knowing that all of the information would be gone in fifteen minutes.

They just had to take it on faith that no one else would be checking in before that, given the circumstances, so that there wouldn’t be two tell-tale blank lines where their names had been. Fortunately, none of the guards signed in on the public sheet, and Ausmann didn’t have to sign in at all.

Once they got downstairs, they went to work quickly and efficiently, knowing that the guards wouldn’t consider anything they did out of the ordinary. But just to be safe, they had hacked one of the exterior cameras that showed part of the parking lot to add a little something to it.

Not sure of the sexual leanings of the guards but wanting to be inclusive, it superimposed footage of a young and very attractive straight couple starting to get frisky inside of a Smart Car, and then next to it.

Although they couldn’t see the results, their gesture had the intended results. Within two minutes, one of the guards had spotted the couple — on the opposite bank from the one showing what was going on downstairs — and that screen became the center of their attention, especially when that couple started tearing each other’s clothes off.

It had the intended effect, though. Four bored and horny men, three in their 20s, one much older, two straight, one bi, and one gay, all focused intently on the screen and ignoring everything else.

The video distraction would run for thirty minutes. Joshua and Simon planned to be out in twenty.

Joshua logged onto the network via Ausmann’s computer, then popped in the USB drive and selected and copied everything that wasn’t part of the operating system. As the process began, the countdown timer indicated approximately fourteen minutes to go.

“God, I hope their IT motherfuckers defrag regularly,” Joshua muttered to himself.

Meanwhile, Simon was casually investigating the various physical binders in the bookcase behind Ausmann’s desk, checking them for any information on the particular Rêves they’d brought in. When he found applicable pages, all he had to do was turn them successively. His glasses did the rest of the job of imaging all of them.

They also kept the feed from the outside camera going to his left eye, in case there were any unexpected visitors.

After ten minutes, he’d made great progress, and worked his way back from Anabel almost all the way to their first catch. Meanwhile, the countdown timer was accurate for once, with just under four minutes left and “29% remaining.”

Right at the three minute mark, somebody came to the front entrance.

“Shit!” Simon snapped.

“What?” Jason asked.

“Visitor,” Simon said.

“Who?” Jason asked.

“Who?” Simon repeated, using a gesture of his eyes to activate facial recognition, then switch to the inside camera. The answer came back in a few seconds as text: “Schliemann, Ausmann Gustav.”

“Fuck!” Simon gasped. “It’s Ausmann. Doesn’t look like him, though.”

“But you’re sure?”

“The computer is. Dude is shaved bald and lost the beard,” Simon explained.

“Shit. Wish I could see that,” Joshua said.

“No you don’t,” Simon replied. “It’s not pretty. How long have we got?”

“Two minutes, forty-five,” Joshua replied. “Are they going to even recognize him?”

“They don’t need to,” Simon said. “Biometrics. Wait, hang on. They didn’t notice him come in because of the video.”

“Hallelujah, that ought to slow things down,” Joshua said.

“Shit, I don’t think so,” Simon replied.

“How do you mean?” Joshua asked.

“Ausmann just walked past where that couple is ostensibly fucking.”

“Oh. Shit!” Joshua exclaimed.

Simon watched as Ausmann stalked outside, the guards following. “Okay, they went outside,” Simon said.

“Good or bad?” Joshua asked.

“It is buying us time. Okay, you remember the emergency exit they showed us when we started here?”

“No.”

“Good, because I do,” Simon said. “Time?”

“Minute fifty.”

Ausamann and the guards stormed back in, Ausmann gesturing wildly, then stepping offscreen.

“He’s in the fucking elevator,” Simon said. “He’ll be here in a minute.”

“Almost done,” Joshua said.

“We’re going to have to rip and run,” Simon warned him.

“Can you slow him down?”

“I… I… oh. Wait…” Simon checked and quickly accessed the elevator controls, then stopped the car.”

“Whew. There,” he said. “Tiger in a box. Let me know when you’re ready.”

“Thirty seconds,” Joshua said.

“Great,” Simon replied.

After what seemed like half a minute, Joshua announced, “Twenty seconds. God, suspense like this just makes me horny as hell.”

“Everything makes you horny as hell,” Simon replied.

“Wrong,” Joshua shot back. “Anything with you involved makes me horny as hell.”

“Thank you and no, we are not doing it at work.”

“Fifteen seconds.”

“How can you even think of sex at a time like this?” Simon demanded

“How can you not? If Ausmann finds us here stealing his shit, we are fucked. And not in the good way.”

“Well then hurr — aw, fuck!”

“What?” Joshua asked.

“Guards turned the elevator back on.”

“Five, four, three, two, one…” Joshua counted, then hooted as he pulled out the drive and hit shutdown on the computer. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said.

“Follow me!” Simon told him, and they headed out the door and around the corner, running flat out as they heard the elevator ding in the distance. They came to the door that led to the emergency exit, Simon slamming through it and Joshua right behind.

Right as that door started to close behind them, they heard the sirens blaring that indicated lockdown. If they hadn’t made it through there before that, they never would have. Fortunately, as Simon knew, nothing past that point was wired up to seal.

That door led to a long corridor that came out on a hillside some distance from the campus, next to a winding and little-traveled road.

“Now what?” Simon asked.

“Time to test that ‘Come get me’ feature our car dealer was so big on selling us, I suppose,” Joshua replied.”

“Oh, right,” Simon replied. Even though they didn’t have their phones, he could still access the app on his glasses, and in a couple of moments, ECTO-42 confirmed that it was on its way to pick them up.

That was a good thing all around. For one, neither of them were sure how far or which way the entrance to JPL was from here. For another, the last thing they would have wanted to do was show up in the parking lot to ask nicely, “Please, can we get our car.”

There was a reason that they’d left all of their actual tech in there in the first place, and that was the Plan C which was the escape route whether they used A or B, or what Simon called “Plan Crap!” As in what would they do if everything went to shit, like it just had.

Joshua drove them home in his usual maniacal way, but en route one question kept bugging him, and he finally asked Simon.

“So… you said that Ausmann had shaved his head and his beard?”

“Yeah. It was freaky, man.”

“Why do you think that was?” Joshua asked.

“I don’t know,” Simon mused. “He doesn’t seem like one to make fashion statements.”

“Or one to catch head lice,” Joshua replied. “Wait… what was the most distinctive thing about him?”

“Oh…” Simon gasped, giving Joshua a look of sudden realization.

“His hair and his beard,” they both said in unison.

“Jinx,” Simon said.

“He is fucking hiding from someone or something,” Joshua said. “But what?”

“Well, I think we’ve got about four terabytes of data that might answer that question,” Simon smiled.

“Oh yeah. Oh, shit. Does Ausmann know where we live?”

“Dude, he doesn’t even know our real names,” Simon assured him. “The employment docs we submitted to him were fake as hell, since the whole job offer wasn’t exactly legit on his part either.”

“Really?” Joshua said.

“Really,” Simon replied. “Our checks from them have never gone to us in the first place, not like we’d notice. If he looks closely, he’ll see that he actually hired a 501(c)(3) that supports Peruvian widows.”

Joshua laughed loudly. “You are a goddamn beautiful fucking genius, Simon.”

“Well, I don’t know about beautiful — ”

“Shut up and take the compliment,” Joshua insisted. “When we get home, let’s dig in this dirt and take this bastard down.”

“I love it when you talk dirt,” Simon said.

They’d made it most of the way home when a call came in on Simon’s phone and the display in the Tesla showed “MASON BRENDA” and a number.

“What does she want?” Simon wondered, but Joshua gestured to stop him from answering.

“More importantly,” Joshua said, “How did she get your number?”

They drove the rest of the way in silence with the unasked question hovering between them. If some county employee could get their number, then couldn’t Ausmann? And, by extension… their address?

“We really need to find out what he’s hiding,” Simon said as they pulled into the garage, and Joshua just nodded in agreement.

* * *

Image: Adam Foster, (CC) BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Saturday Morning Post #38: The Rêves, Part 16

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Another garden

It obviously wasn’t a work or school day for anyone after the storm, although the internet was still up at the house, so Brenda and Jonah retired to their respective home offices to check in and see what was going on.

Meanwhile, Esme took Samuel and Malia on a tour of the front and back yards respectively to figure out what had been lost and damaged.

Brenda got the news almost immediately via a county bulletin: All Metro lines were closed, buses and at-grade trains due to extensive flooding, and the entire subway system due to even worse flooding. Drivers, station workers, and the like were put on furlough with full emergency pay until further notice.

Meanwhile, people like Brenda were only expected to keep tabs of their email, and consider themselves on-call.

That wonderful delusion ended ten minutes after she logged on that afternoon, when she got a text from Rita.

“URGENT!” it said. “Call me ASAP, away from earshot.”

“Damn,” Brenda said as she grabbed her cell and headed outside and down the street. At least they hadn’t gotten any flooding up here on top of the hill.

After she’d walked a block, she dialed Rita, who picked up immediately. “Hit me,” she said.

“Remember that project I mentioned? The one we wanted you to run?”

“Yeah, don’t remind me,” Brenda said. “What?”

“Well, somebody seems to think they got it on good authority that this little, um… weather anomaly is a direct result of the entities that they wanted to task you all with hunting down.”

“Oh, hell no,” Brenda said, but Rita continued.

“Plus, missy, it’s been booted up to state level. Direct report to the Governor hisself, and they are considering creating a state cabinet position for it right now.”

“Look, I have no idea what caused that storm, okay?” Brenda said. “You’re asking the wrong person.”

“Right. You still haven’t come through with your two little steam-punk boys — ”

“Rita, they are grown-ass men. Don’t talk about them like that.”

“Are you sassing me?”

“If that’s some kind of boss to employee threat, you really shouldn’t make it in the same breath that you’re offering me a job that will bounce me five hundred steps above your ass, should you?” Brenda replied. There was a long pause.

“Lordie,” Rita finally said, “You damn well better take this one, girl. It could see you as governor in four years.”

“I don’t want to be the governor,” Brenda snapped back. “I don’t want to save the world. I just want to enjoy the career I’ve got, be the best mother I can to my kids, and keep my family together and happy. Understand?”

“Understood. But last I heard, when weird supernatural forces were out to destroy the world with apocalyptic storms, the best way to keep a family together and happy was to go out and defeat that shit. And you and your team — and yes, I mean those gay boys — are the ones to do it. Do you understand?”

“I don’t even know where to — ”

“Stop,” Rita said. “I just emailed you their address. And, tell you what. I’ll forget your sass and all that if you don’t take the position, but I would very much appreciate it if you could get both of them on a Zoom call with me within, oh, say… forty-eight hours.”

“What?” Brenda shot back. “You don’t have their email or number?”

“Oddly enough,” Rita replied, “No.”

“And the city is flooded and shut down,” Brenda reminded her, “So how the hell am I supposed to get to them?”

“If you figure that one out,” Rita replied, “I’ll knock you up three paygrades.”

She hung up and Brenda restrained herself from tossing her phone into the street, but not from shouting, “Bitch!”

“Bren?”

That’s when she turned to see that Esme and the kids were in the front yard, probably not close enough to have heard the conversation, but close enough to have heard the aftermath.

“Oh, hi, Mom!” she said. “Didn’t see you there. How are you doing?”

“Fine,” Esme replied. “And you? Don’t answer. Kids, go inside and write down all the stuff we found wrecked. Your parents will need to know.”

Samuel and Malia nodded and ran inside. Esme walked out into the street to Brenda.

“Spill that tea?” she said.

“Oh, Mom,” Brenda replied, “How can an offer come along that is just so unbelievably incredible and yet totally fucked up at the same time?”

Esme just laughed. “Dear, that is the kind of thing that happens all the time. Let’s take a little walk, see what’s up with the neighborhood, and discuss it, okay?”

Brenda just nodded. Esme held her daughter’s arm as they started a long, slow stroll through the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Jonah had found out that it was going to be business as usual, albeit remotely until streets were cleared. He was suddenly strangely grateful for everything they had learned during the plague, which hadn’t stopped any of his company’s construction projects at all while sending all of the designers and draftspeople off to work from home, which had actually become mostly the norm since then.

He pulled up a current design for low-income housing his firm was working on to be built on the west side. Nothing fancy, just a wood-frame block of flats, designed to accommodate a lot of families and rent cheap, something the developers were only willing to do with a heavy government handout, of course.

Every time Jonah heard one of these fat cats privately bitch about being forced to “put up welfare queens and their broods,” as they would say when they thought he wasn’t in ear-shot, the more he just wanted to punch them out, but he restrained his anger.

The biggest welfare queens were these same rich bitches who lobbied to get their property taxes cut to practically nothing, get gigantic subsidies on utilities, publicly complained about “illegals” while using nothing but undocumented immigrants on their construction crews — paying them way below what union workers would have gotten — and quite often grabbed up choice pieces of land via eminent domain, never mind that it was already covered with apartments with people who couldn’t afford to move anywhere else in the city when they got evicted.

“Motherfuckers,” Jonah often muttered under his breath. His firm had tried to do it different, but it was so difficult being in a profession that had to deal with the City Council and County Board of Supervisors, who were all some of the most corrupt people Jonah had ever met.

He had often considered running for office, but then wondered if the mere process of campaigning and getting elected turned out to be a deal with the devil, so he decided to do what he could from the inside, and last night’s storm suddenly threw a red flag in front of his face as he looked at the plans for the Sepulveda Arms Apartments.

On paper — at least in words — they looked amazing. It was a series of eight six-story buildings, arranged on three acres, with three buildings fronting their long sides on the north-south streets, and three fronting their short sides along the east-west side streets, a city block in front and a half block on the sides. The building sized gap in the middle was intended to create urban park land, with a swimming pool, community areas, and so on.

But… translate those words on paper to plans on a blueprint that an architect could read, and Jonah suddenly saw how this would not do at all.

First off, it violated the two golden rules of L.A. construction that had been learned through many earthquakes: “Thou shalt not build between four and eight stories, for such heights doth shake most mightily.”

The other rule: “Thou shalt not build the car stables beneath such housings, lest they fall into the ground even more mightily.”

In other words, four to eight story buildings with underground parking were the absolute worst things you could possibly build in L.A., especially for residential property.

But there was more, and again the storm had armed Jonah perfectly for it. If the flooding and winds and everything else were a harbinger of things to come because of climate change, a place like Sepulveda Arms would blow over in a New York minute.

They were designed for a temperate climate with little rain or wind and no thunderstorms, and he noticed that the bid used the cheapest of materials for the walls, windows, and doors. Anything resembling a mere tropical storm would take the façade off of the place in a second, not to mention flood the garages beneath.

He marked up all of his issues on the digital blueprints, wrote out his concerns, then sent it back to the design committee.

Meanwhile, Esme and Brenda had walked for a while in silence before Esme finally said, “My rose garden is gone.”

“Oh, Mom,” Brenda replied. “I’m so sorry.”

“So are the children’s herb and vegetable garden.”

“Oh no. Are they okay?”

“Yes,” Esme said. “I talked to them, and we all agreed. Flowers and vegetables and herbs will grow wherever you plant them, and if they get torn up in one place, you can always take them to another.”

“I don’t want to move my garden,” Brenda replied. “My roots are here. My family.”

“Why would you have to move?” Esme asked.

“Rita is hinting that they’re going to offer me a state job. One with a much higher profile.”

“And a lot more money, I hope,” Esme added.

“It’s not always about money, Mom,” she said. “Although Rita did hint at that. But I don’t want to move to Sacramento. Sure, it’s the state capital, but it’s a provincial little shithole.”

“Well, they can’t move the capital to L.A. But why would you have to move, anyway?”

“I’d expect that my office would be there.”

“You know offices don’t mean a thing anymore,” Esme explained. “You just need a place to be on those rare occasions when you have to go up there in person. Make your deal right, and those could be as rare as you wanted.”

“I suppose,” Brenda answered. “And maybe I’m just over-reacting. I mean, Rita did say ‘considering,’ not ‘offering.’”

“Your boss with Metro?”

“Right.”

“So why is she offering you a state job when she’s county?”

“She’s not, Mom. She’s just the messenger.”

“I didn’t even know the state had anything like the Metro. Oh — is it high-speed rail?” Esme asked.

“No. Actually, it’s about what caused the storm.”

Esme stopped walking and looked at Brenda with an expression of happy shock. She covered her mouth and stared for a beat. Then, “Oh my lord, dear. You mean figuring out what caused it?”

“We know what caused it. This has to do with keeping it from happening again.

“That is amazing news, actually,” Esme gushed. “Moving from working the subways to saving the environment? How can you say no?”

“It’s not exactly saving the — ”

“Brenda, if you don’t take a job like that where you can directly save the planet, then I will kick your ass. Understand?”

Brenda just sighed. This hadn’t turned out very helpful. “Let’s go home, Mom,” she said. “The kids are probably starving.”

“Lord knows, I am,” Esme answered with a laugh, but Brenda suddenly wasn’t in the mood.

* * *

Anabel v Jezebel

The usual collection of Class II old school stars had gathered again — this time quite openly at Hollywood Forever, and they brought a few more folk along with them. Naturally, Bette held court as Bette was wont to do, but for some reason decided to go full-on Baby Jane Hudson mode today.

“So now you see what those goddamn faeries want to do to us,” she bellowed in fine form.

“You shouldn’t call them that,” Marilyn intoned, in her more demure character from Bus Stop.

“It’s what they call themselves, you stupid slut,” Bette shot back. “Las hadas. That is literally ‘the faeries’ in Spanish. And their full name for themselves is the savage faeries — ”

“More like just the wild faeries,” someone called out. It was Ritchie Valens, who technically hadn’t been invited, but unfortunately was technically qualified, since he was Class III.

“Who the hell let that beaner in?” a voice called out, and everyone turned to see that it was Harold Lloyd, then turned as another voice boomed out.

“Unfucking cool, asshole,” a voice called out and while most of the old school crew didn’t recognize him, they still recognized that he was one of them.

“And who might you be?” Lloyd asked.

“A musician, like Ritchie here,” he replied. “He’s never heard of me either, but he certainly had an influence on me and my band. My name is Johnny Ramone,” he said. “I’m buried right over there, and I will not tolerate any second class racist fuckheads spouting that shit off, no matter who they thought they were when they were alive. ¿Comprende?”

“Don’t you know who I am?” the pasty-faced spirit demanded.

“Yeah,” Johnny replied. “Same as me. You are fucking dead and, honestly, the number of living people who remember you is going to shrink really rapidly really fast, so don’t get cocky.”

“I don’t appreciate your language, young man,” Lloyd spat back.

“And I don’t appreciate you being a hateful cunt trapped in your generation.”

Lloyd just stared at the young apparition with the woman’s hair and leather jacket, then sank back down. Meanwhile, Bette felt total admiration and Rudolph felt total lust.

“You were saying?” Johnny turned to Bette and she suddenly morphed into her character from Jezebel, red dress and all.

“What I was saying,” she continued, “Is that there is a plot against us, and it’s led by those people who still have direct connections to the living world. You know the ones. Class I. Hah! Little people, never famous, only remembered by their families. And they have put themselves in league with the… what did you call them, Mr. Valens?”

“Las hadas selvajes,” Ritchie replied.

“Right, that. The ones who died without even anyone remembering them, and who were scattered to the four winds and… look what they managed to do. This storm? This scourge that swept the city? That was them, and it was fully backed by the Class I Rêves… traitors… like Anabel.”

This got the crowd grumbling even as it kept growing, and some of the newest members who were Class III — famous but remembered by loved ones as well — started to pop up.

It was starting to feel like an Oscar “In Memoriam” reel, actually, but maybe that was encouraging.

“So what do we do?” Bette called out. “How do we stop it?” she demanded, but the crowd just looked back at her blankly.

Finally, Marilyn piped up, doing her shtick from All About Eve, in which she was a mere bit player in a Bette Davis tour de force. “We have to ally with the ones who keep us here,” she intoned breathily.

“Exactly!” Bette agreed.

“The living humans,” Marilyn continued.

“Amen!” Bette shouted, and the crowd assented.

They really didn’t need to take an official vote, but it was decided. Anabel and any of her allies — all of the Hadas, all Class I, and any traitorous Class III’s — were now considered enemies. This put the Class III’s who were present in the awkward situation of throwing their lot in with the Class II’s right now, or fleeing without being attacked.

But before any of them could make a decision, a stream of black mist came flying into the meeting and manifested itself as a woman. Well, at least the top half of one, everything below her waist hovering above the ground on a column of black smoke.

“Trust humans?” she scoffed loudly. “Really? This is what they did to me when I was alive. But that’s nothing compared to what they tried to do to me afterwards.”

“W-w-who are you?” Jimmy asked, back as George Bailey.

“She’s The Black Dahlia,” Johnny explained. “Infamous murder case in the 1940s… but aren’t you buried in the Bay Area?”

“Only my body,” she replied. “But the memories — ”

The crowd erupted in sudden jeers and Johnny approached her. “Yeah, don’t bring that up with this bunch, okay?” He explained. “They don’t like being reminded of… things.”

“Aren’t you one of them?” she asked.

“Yes and no,” he replied. “I’ve barely been here twenty years, so I’m Class III. Why should we not trust the humans?”

“Because they want to enslave us, trap us, and maybe even destroy us.”

A lot of the gathered Class IIIs let out a unanimous horse-laugh on that comment, Ritchie and Johnny notable among the exceptions. Bette stepped forward.

“Oh, really now, child? You think that? No, I think you’re confusing your sad fate at human hands with reality. None of us would still be around if humans did not remember us. Hell, you wouldn’t even be able to manifest so far from your grave without human memory. See how that works?”

This brought a murmur of confusion from a lot of the group.

“What?” Bette replied. “You never paid attention to the rules? We’re here because humans remember us. Those jealous Class I bitches who were never famous want to destroy us. How hard is that to understand?”

“I saw the creation of your kind in this city,” a voice boomed out. “And I realized that it would bring the downfall of humanity, because a lot of undeserving people would become really rich and way too fast.”

There was a murmur among the crowd and then a split as a bunch of them parted like the Red Sea before Moses, looking terrified. Anabel marched through the clearing and to the center, standing to face Bette, who glared back, defiant.

“Now… what were you saying, you bitch?” Anabel continued.

“I worked for my fame,” Bette hissed at her. “Oh, that’s right. I had fame.”

“I had fortune,” Anabel replied. “And I worked for that. A lot harder than you did. Well, because I didn’t do most of my work on my back.”

Bette rushed for her, but Anabel easily held her back without even touching her. “I don’t think you see the problem, Miss Davis. Yes, you’re here because the humans remember you. That is the only reason you are here. And yet, they are the ones who decided to try to wipe us all out. So how can you be on their side?”

“Why are you lying and saying they want to wipe us out?” Bette demanded.

“Because they tried to do it to me, and a few others. Haven’t you noticed any of your Class gone missing in the last couple of months?”

“We don’t exactly take roll here,” Bette replied haughtily.

“Maybe you should,” Anabel spat back before turning to the crowd. “It’s war all right,” she announced. “But I am not the enemy, and neither are the Hadas. The enemy are the humans who don’t want us to be remembered, who don’t want us around, and want all of us, but especially Class II, to vanish forever.”

There was a huge murmur from the crowd as Anabel continued.

“The storm?” she said. “That was definitely the Hadas. But it was not aimed at any of us. It was aimed at the humans, as a warning. Maybe they’ll heed it, but I doubt that they will. But if you want to save our kind, then don’t listen to people who are only famous for being famous. Listen to those of us actually in the struggle.”

A double rainbow suddenly appeared in the sky in the distance, with Anabel perfectly centered beneath it and the crowd gasped.

“I’m leaving now and gathering more members for my army. If you want to join me, rest assured that you can follow me out of here with the full protection of the Hadas, and not a single Class II can touch you. Of course, if you’re Class II, you’re also welcome to join. It’s time to fight or die… again.”

Anabel turned and marched out, all eyes watching her, then turning back to Bette, then to each other. There was a moment of confusion and chatter, and then large clumps of the Class III crowd turned and followed Anabel.

Bette bristled. “You’re making a huge mistake!” she shouted out, but she could sense she’d lost a lot of them. Then, some Class II’s started to leave. She was livid, and took on the guise of one of her least known roles, Madame Sin, a direct-to-TV thriller in which she played a possibly Chinese super-villain who actually won.

“You can run but you can’t escape!” she warned them. They didn’t listen.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #37: The Rêves, Part 15

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Rescue

In the afternoon, the fog hadn’t burned off and it was still raining, although the hail and thunderstorms had stopped. Joshua’s cell rang, which was really unusual — no one called anyone anymore — but he looked at the display and saw that it was Brent, so he answered.

“Uncle Brent,” he said, “How are you and Drew doing? Survive the storm okay?”

“We did,” Brent replied, “We’re fine, although we lost a lemon tree. And you boys?”

“Holding up on the top floor,” Joshua said. “I don’t think we’re going anywhere.”

“Oh, too bad,” Brent said. “We’re downstairs, wondered if you wanted a ride.”

“You’re what? How?” Joshua asked.

“You’ll have to come down to see,” Brent teased.

“So, the flood waters are gone?”

“Oh, no, they’re not. But the fog only comes down to about fifteen feet. So do up your faces, dress warm, put on your hip-waders and get your asses down here.”

“Okay,” Joshua replied. “See you in a few minutes.” He hung up and turned to Simon, who looked completely confused.

“You’re not going to believe this,” Joshua said.

The funniest part was that they actually did own hip-waders, although they had to look around to find them. At one point, Simon had gone through a big fishing phase and Joshua had gone along with it. It wasn’t that he liked fishing. He didn’t. He despised it. But if Simon was there, he didn’t care.

So they dressed warmly, put on the hip-waders, took the stairs down to the lobby and found that it was still flooded up to almost their armpits. Outside, they found Brent and Drew, sitting in the front seat of a goddamn hovercraft.

Oh, it wasn’t one of those full-on military versions, or the kind that ferried passengers commercially. It was about the size of a wide minivan, with an open cockpit and seating for four. Brent was in the driver’s seat, Drew next to him in his usual sun hat.

“Climb aboard,” Brent announced.

“Well fuck me,” Joshua muttered.

“Sssh!” Simon  hissed at him.

Joshua went up the ladder first, then helped pull Simon up, and they took their seats in the back.

“Why do you even have this?” Simon asked.

“Oh, past life,” Brent explained. “Doing biological and environmental impact surveys in the wetlands around here. Also fun for vacations. And this is one of the few electric models.”

“You know how bad the mileage is on the gas ones?” Drew chimed in. “You’re lucky to get eighty miles on a full tank, and that’s a regular car-sized tank.”

“Do you have anywhere in particular you need to go?” Brent continued.

Joshua and Simon looked at each other, not sure.

“Ausmann?” Simon said quietly.

“We should probably avoid him,” Joshua said. “What about Danny and Preston?”

“How are we going to find them?” Simon wondered.

“I’d start with where he’s buried,” Joshua whispered.

“Okay,” Simon agreed.

“This is going to sound weird,” Joshua said, “But can you get us to Forest Lawn Glendale?”

“We can sure give it a try,” Brent replied, and he fired the thing up and started it moving.

Since they were basically sitting on top of an inverted air hockey table with a fan in the back, the thing was a little loud, and the sudden ballooning of the skirt as the craft noticeably lifted was an unexpected noise, a sudden “fwoomp.”

The acceleration was also kind of slow, so they weren’t going all that fast as Brent took them east on South Chandler toward Lankershim. That didn’t really matter, though, because there was no traffic at all. The streets were empty and silent, the sky above about three stories up was solid white, and everything between there and the filthy water in the streets was full of falling mist.

Surprisingly, the traffic lights were still working, although all of the buildings they passed were dark, many of them with busted-out windows.

“Didn’t the news say they shut all the roads?” Simon asked.

“They did,” Brent explained. “Fortunately, I have an exemption.”

He pointed to an official state permit that was laminated in a frame on the dash: California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“I’m still deputized, even if I’m retired,” Brent explained. “So we have permission to be wherever we need to be.”

“Sweet,” Joshua grinned. Of course, he still hadn’t decided whether their single-craft armada was the coolest or most ridiculous thing ever. On the one hand, Drew was huddled in the front wrapped in what looked like a Snuggie, huge floppy sunhat hiding most of his head and face, and Brent was actually wearing a boat captain’s cap with all-white shirt and pants and a pea coat.

Joshua and Simon couldn’t have looked much better, what with their black rubber hip waders covering their lower halves, only to reveal flannel shirts under cable knit sweaters, both of them also wearing elaborately patterned toques.

Then again, there was no one to see them, so Joshua supposed they looked as cool as they wanted to.

Brent turned left on Magnolia, which seemed to be flooded a bit deeper, and then gunned it, and suddenly they were actually moving at decent car speed down the street. It was absolutely the most surreal moment that Joshua and Simon had ever experienced. The worst flooding they had ever seen before in the Valley was when the water backed up to barely cover the sidewalks, with flumes shooting out of overloaded storm drains.

This was something else entirely, and they could only imagine what it was like in the center of the Valley, which was its low point, with a huge public park designed to do double duty as a flood control basin.

But Brent continued eastward down Magnolia, and Joshua and Simon lamented all of the storefronts and businesses that were inundated. This stretch happened to hold a lot of places that had supplied them with their costume bits over the years, as well as a couple that had provided their tech. A lot of them had even managed to survive the plague years, but neither of them knew how they would survive this.

Their favorite costume shop of them all, where they had gotten a lot of custom work done, was inundated right up to the bottom of the marquee sign above its single story.

“Fuck,” Simon muttered as they passed it. Joshua just grabbed his hand and held it tight.

Eventually, they neared the bridge on Magnolia that leapt over the freeway and train tracks — although it was just a raging river down there now — but Brent turned right before they crossed it and headed south on Victory.

This took them past Griffith Park, which was a strangely unaffected island rising above the chaos below, and finally to a point where they crossed over the freeway on a sudden dry stretch and came back down outside of the cemetery gates.

This was the first moment when all of them just kind of did a collective “What?”

The water in the streets here was still about three feet deep, and Forest Lawn didn’t really have any kind of substantial walls around it, just some low brick work and very open wrought iron. And yet… not a drop of the floodwater on the outside spilled over onto the property.

“Oh fuck me sideways,” Simon blurted out. “How the hell is this even possible?”

“Honey, how is anything we’ve seen recently possible?” Joshua replied.

“Bitchin’ Hollywood special effects?” Brent offered.

“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Drew explained. “Shall we go in?”

Brent didn’t even wait for an answer. He powered ahead into the cemetery.

“So which dead body are you all looking for?” he asked.

“Who do you think?” Joshua asked.

“I know,” Drew said, and he led Brent right to the red marble cenotaph for the LeCard family, where they parked.

Preston’s marker was there, even though the body under was not him — or at least not the Preston they knew, although they also had no idea whether it was Danny. In either case, neither of them were there.

But someone else was, and she was walking toward them.

“Oh shit,” Simon muttered under his breath, turning to Brent. “You might want to move back a way,” he advised.

“Don’t ask twice,” Brent replied, turning the hovercraft around and moving far down the road.

Meanwhile, Joshua stepped forward boldly, hands raised at the elbows, palms out.

“We come in peace,” he said.

“I think your boss might be dead,” Anabel said.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Joshua replied, and she actually raised an eyebrow.

“Anyway, if he’s dead, wouldn’t he be playing for your team now?” Simon asked.

“Phrasing…” Joshua whispered.

“He only plays for his own team,” she replied. “I… urged him last night to stop doing what he’s doing, but he refused.”

“Isn’t he doing what we’re doing?” Simon asked.

“What do you think he is doing?” Anabel asked.

“Well, I mean, like us, it’s basically catch and release, right? For research?”

“You really think that?”

“It’s what we’ve been led to believe,” Joshua explained.

“He told you that he lets us go when he’s done?” she asked.

“Well, funny thing about Ausmann,” Simon said. “He never really says anything in any straight forward way, but we asked him flat out. ‘Do you make sure that they’re let go unharmed when you’re done with them?’ And he said ‘Yes.’”

Simon hesitated a beat, then sighed. “Aw, fuck.”

“He’s never done with them, is he?” Joshua asked.

“Nope,” Anabel replied.

“So, wait,” Joshua said. “You asked him to stop and he refused, so you killed him — ”

“Not me, but he might be dead — ”

“Right. But if he is dead, doesn’t that pretty much stop him?”

She huffed, put her hands on her hips and gave him a jaundiced look.

“Oh, yeah. I guess not. So… what are you suggesting?”

“I get the impression that you only work for him because you had the necessary skills, but no idea what he was really doing. Correct?”

“Absolutely,” Simon replied.

“So how did you get those skills?” she asked.

Simon and Joshua looked at each other, and then shrugged. “Just a couple of coding nerds who got way too curious after they saw something weird in a subway station,” Simon finally offered.

“When was that?” she asked.

“Early in 2017?” Joshua said, hesitantly. “Something like that.”

“And you saw…?”

“Harold Lloyd,” Simon said. “It was really late at night, and he just wandered down the platform, but there were two things wrong.”

“First, we could kind of see through him,” Joshua said.

“Second,” Simon added, “He had all of his fingers.”

“The real Lloyd didn’t,” Joshua explained.

“We were never the kinds to believe in ghosts or any of that shit,” Simon continued.

“But there we were, looking at a ghost,” Joshua said. “But… if he was a ghost, then why did he have all of his fingers?”

“Which Lloyd, in real life, didn’t.”

“So you decided to start hunting us?” Anabel asked.

“I don’t like the word ‘hunting,’” Simon replied.

“Studying,” Joshua offered. “And since we were both basically retired — well, had been a couple of years — we figured, what the hell, why not use our skills to figure out what was going on?”

“Retired?” Anabel asked, incredulous. “From what?”

Simon and Joshua looked around, both of them making sure that Brent and Drew were far out of earshot.

“Okay. Coding and apps, basically,” Simon said.

“Spies?” Anabel asked.

“No, not spies,” Joshua said. “Making apps for people.”

“Oh, applications?” she replied.

“Yeah,” Simon said. “Those.”

“For… what? Insurance? Mortgages? Jobs…?”

“Oh…” Joshua and Simon said in unison, looking at each other, Simon finally continuing, “When did you… um… you know…”

He gestured vaguely.

“Die?” she asked. “It’s okay, you can use that word. It was in 1926. I am caught up on a lot of things, thank you, but not everything.”

“Ah…” Joshua and Simon said in unison again.

“A hundred years of linguistic evolution — my god, this is a primer for time travel, isn’t it?” Joshua asked Simon, laughing.

“We basically became filthy rich and made a lot of money making…” He paused, bouncing one hand palm up in the other, trying to come up with some way to explain it, looking to Joshua, who was more of a history buff.

“Um… yeah, it’s like… Oh… oh, dammit, no, 1920s, too early.”

“Telegraph?” Simon asked.

“No… home appliances. Crap!” Joshua sighed. “Wait, wait, okay. Kind of got it here, maybe. Phonograph?” he asked, looking to Anabel.

“Yes.”

“Okay… so imagine that phonograph records aren’t just for music, but they can also be used for information and learning. Like, you play a record, and it’s a dictionary or a cookbook or something.”

“Uh… they don’t really do that, but — ”

“We’re getting metaphorical here, okay? Go with me, because here comes the next stretch,” Joshua continued. “Imagine now that you have like a typewriter connected to the phonograph, and you can control what part of the record plays by typing words.”

“All right,” Anabel said. “So then what does it do?”

“So it’s… um a cookbook, and you want to know how to make… beef stroganoff. You type that on the typewriter, the needle searches, and boom. It plays back the one recipe you want. And if you want to get really fancy, we can also make that work over a telephone, too.”

“Dude… that was the single most steampunk thing you’ve ever done,” Simon said.

“Love you too,” Joshua replied.

“So… you make records?” Anabel asked.

“We make… tools!” Joshua finally gushed when he landed on the right word. “And while the tools of our time may be things that you can’t possibly understand, men in your time were doing the same thing and making the same kind of money and so, yeah, we both retired right around thirty.”

“Anyway, that’s why we had the ability to create all the stuff we use to identify and track and… study your kind.” Simon offered. “We were already working with portable super computers, so why not take it up another notch?”

“I underestimated you,” Anabel said. “Here, I thought you were just a couple of Ausmann’s underlings, willing to do his bidding. But if I understand correctly, you don’t need him or this job at all.”

“That would be one hundred percent,” Joshua replied.

“Well, then,” she said, “Maybe we can make a deal, and you can help us stop him — ”

“If he’s not dead,” Simon offered.

“Right. Let me rephrase that, then,” Anabel went on. “Stop what he started, but which is apparently stuck in motion. We need to put on the brakes.”

“On what?” Joshua asked.

“On his entire project,” she replied.

“We would still have clearance, wouldn’t we?” Simon offered.

“And it would be a glorious ‘fuck you,’ wouldn’t it?” Joshua added.

“And, honestly, we’ve probably got better firepower, at least on the tech side,” Simon added.

“Okay, so… I guess the only question is whether he’s dead or not,” Joshua replied, “But either way, I think we still have an in, so… yeah. Let’s stop whatever he was trying to do.”

“Thank you,” Anabel replied. “You won’t regret it.”

“What was he trying to do?” Simon asked.

“Commit genocide and destroy my kind,” Anabel explained before suddenly vanishing in a puff of black smoke.

“Yeah, way to hide the reveal,” Simon muttered.

“What?” Joshua replied. “Isn’t stopping genocide , like, the best thing ever?”

“I know,” Simon said. “But we didn’t get to thank her for the opportunity.”

Joshua laughed and kissed Simon, then gestured for Brent to come on back. He swung the hovercraft around and they climbed in the back.

“Was that a fucking ghost?” Brent demanded.

“What else would you expect in a cemetery?” Joshua replied. “Now… home, James.”

Brent gunned it, and the rest of the trip back to NoHo happened in silence.

By the time they’d gotten back home, the floodwaters had receded here. Joshua and Simon bid their adieus to Brent and Drew, then headed into the lobby.

“You want to check the damage now, get it over with?” Simon asked.

“Sure,” Joshua replied.

They took the stairs down to the parking garage, coming out on the floor where there car was parked, expecting to find it a soaked, muddy, and useless mess. Instead, the floors and everything else were as dry as usual, and the lights were even on. All of the cars here were completely untouched.

“What the hell?” Joshua muttered happily as Simon just stared.

Nearby, a maintenance man was walking back to his electric cart. He laughed.

“HOA didn’t want them flood doors until they got talked into. ‘L.A. never floods,’ they said.” He laughed. “Rich old bastards just saved themselves a fortune in lawsuits on that one. Have a great day.”

He hopped onto his cart and rode off as Joshua and Simon just stared at each other.

“Shit,” Simon finally said. “Wasn’t that our idea?”

“I seem to remember paying for it, too. That was the only way they’d do it.” Joshua said.

“Son of a bitch,” Simon muttered, laughing. “Son of a bitch.”

They threw their arms around each other’s shoulders and headed back up, checking to see if the elevator was working. It was, although it smelled a bit… moist.

* * *

Image source: digicla,  licensed under (CC BY 2.0)

The Saturday Morning Post #36: The Rêves, Part 14

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles. NOTE: Due to a scheduling error, this post did not go up at the usual time of 7 a.m. PDT.

 

Gemelos

The two of them had fled into the sky long before the storm, snaking around buildings, one alternately in pursuit of the other, neither one of them able to even touch or harm the other, but still they tangled like a pair of fighting dogs, two wisps of black smoke in the sky that most people below wouldn’t have noticed or, if they had, would have just put off to exhaust from some business or another.

One of them led off by diving down into the NoHo Metro station, then following the tunnel to Universal City Station. On the platform, they tangled and twisted until the one who seemed to be losing shot back up the seven mile tunnel to come out at Hollywood and Highland.

The chase continued down the tunnel past a bunch of stops until one of them shot above ground at the 7th Street Metro station, and then  skidded just above the sidewalk about two miles to the Los Angeles Greyhound Bus Station, where it hovered, the other wisp hesitating nearby.

The first wisp vanished inside and the second followed until they both wound up in the bus station men’s room, at which point they manifested to each other — Danny, the first wisp, clothed and angry looking; Preston, the second wisp, nude and looking alarmed.

“Who are you?” Danny demanded.

“I’m Preston,” Preston replied.

“Then who am I?” Danny asked.

“I have no idea,” Preston said. “Except I think that maybe you are me. Were me?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Danny spat.

“Well, I mean, we do look alike, right?”

“You look like a whore,” Danny said.

“What?” Preston replied. “Work clothes. And you? What are you supposed to be?”

“If I knew, I’d tell you,” Danny said.

“Okay,” Preston replied calmly. “So… what’s your name?”

“Fuck if I know,” Danny shouted. “And yours?”

“Preston LeCard,” he said. “Pleased to meet you?”

“Wait, stop, don’t tell me. I’m Tom Canty, and you’re Prince Edward.”

“Who?” Preston asked.

“Never mind. Unless you tell me that you’re rich or something.”

“Um, actually…” Preston started, then hesitated until Danny’s look made him continue on, “I’m kind of fucking loaded, really.”

“So who stole what from whom?” Danny demanded.

“I don’t know!” Preston said. “Look, this is just as confusing for me as it is for you, honestly. All I know is that I had this great career as a porn star, I made —”

“Sorry, what?” Danny asked.

“You heard me. Porn star. You know? I fucked for a living. And I made mad bank at it, and I loved doing it and, ironically, I was finally taken out by a plague that had nothing to do with the plague that used to take out gay men. Except that I kind of … stuck around? And the last thing I remember was a couple of sexy human dudes kind of … shit. If it had been a porn scene, it would have been really hot, but they basically tried to tell me I’m not who I am, and then bang, there you are. And if the idea of… what? Instant twin brother? Sudden clone? Whatever, isn’t the absolute hottest porn scene idea, then I don’t know what is.”

Danny and Preston stared at each other for a long time. Finally, Danny said, “Okay, great. You remember all kinds of shit. You know what I remember?”

“Um, no?” Preston replied.

“Okay, cool. It’s this. Not so very long ago, I woke up locked in a box with some dude who looks like me. I have no memories at all of anything before this, we both seem to be freaking out, and then we escape. And I have no idea who’s the friend, or who’s the enemy. Or who I am.”

“Well,” Preston said gently, “Apparently you’re me, except before I became the me you don’t know. And that’s the trick, really.”

“Nah,” Danny said. “The real trick is figuring out how I became the you that you seem to be, because you are not me. I’m no whore.”

“That’s kind of what I just said,” Preston replied.

“So you really believe that I was… no… that you were me once?”

“And I believe that I still am you, Danny. Shit… it’s starting to come back to me now. That’s weird. Idaho?”

“Yeah. I grew up — “

“In Emmett?” Preston continued before He could finish, Danny nodding. “I just remember that. And… oh wow… DWsub13M,” Preston said, very surprised. “I remember that handle.”

“Yeah, I did chats with that, so? Anyone on the board could have seen it.”

“Right but your password… Finn23Zack69. Right?”

There was a long silence before Danny said, “How do you know that? Are you a hacker?”

“No,” Preston said. Goddamn, those daddies were right. You are me before I became… well, me. The problem is that everyone remembers me and no one remembers you, but if you just help me remember you — ”

“Then what?” Danny replied, shying away into the corner.

“If you let me remember you so that you can remember me, well… shit. How powerful would you like to be, anyway?”

“I’d rather be alive again,” Danny said.

“Yeah, well, I’d like a unicorn,” Preston replied.

“Shit, you sound just like my sister,” Danny muttered, and suddenly Preston found himself sucked out of the present world and down a dark vortex. At the end of it, he woke up staring at a crappy bus station ceiling, realizing that for the first time since he’d died, he could smell. Unfortunately, what he could smell was the heavy stench of urine, cum, and the over-arching mint of urinal cakes — and then Danny was kneeling above him, looking down and smiling.

“I don’t know where you went, dude,” Danny said. “But I took a little walk around when you vanished, and I ran into some people. Well, I ran into the Marx Brothers and I tried to ask them what was going on, but you can imagine how useful their information was.”

“I’ve met them,” Preston said. “I know. But you can’t blame them, because they’re trapped in their characters.”

“Kind of a reminder of how annoying movie characters would be in real life, right?”

“Except porn stars,” Preston quipped.

“Anyway, next I ran into that dude from the Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, and he was actually helpful. He explained a lot to me.”

“Yeah, really,” Danny replied. “Hey, I don’t know where you went when you blinked out, duded. But I’m glad you came back. Now, I think I understand, and there’s kind of two options.”

“Really?” Preston said.

“Number one, we just moosh together and forget all this shit and become one person again.”

“Not a bad idea, right?” Preston asked.

“You’d think, but… no. The other option is stay apart, each of us becomes who we really were, because we’re going to need to double up to take on the forces of evil.”

“And who would they be?” Preston asked.

“Oddly enough, it’s a two-front war,” Danny said. “On the human side, it’s some genocidal human asshole in Pasadena. On the Rêve side, it’s the woman who pretends to be your mother.”

And what do we lose if we moosh?” Preston asked.

“Bascially,” Danny replied, “Everything. Oh, right. I forgot to mention the other part.”

“There’s another part?” Preston asked.

“Sure,” Danny replied, “Or didn’t you see the sky where you were?”

Preston shook his head and Danny took him outside where they looked west and saw the lightning. Then he looked at Danny, who just grabbed him.

“So… self-preservation over any stupid argument. Agreed?”

Preston hesitated for a second, then nodded. Just as he did, the storm front swept over them and the rain and hail came down, although it couldn’t touch them. For some reason, it went around them, creating silhouettes in the falling drops that would point them out to any humans there to see them had there been any humans on the streets at all.

But Danny and Preston could see what no human could, and that was that this was no normal storm. They could see the wraith-like presence that was actually controlling it, a darkly luminescent shimmering blue haze that both permeated the cloud and led it.

“What is it?” Preston asked.

“My god, that movie dude was right. He said that the real danger would be if somebody warned… what did he call them? Silvester…? Or sometimes Pearl? Anyway… yeah, that. This is what he warned about.”

“So what does that mean?” Preston demanded.

“We’re all fucked,” Danny replied as he grabbed Preston, held him tight, and the two of them dropped through the ground until they hit the Metro tunnel, then shot up it to Union Station and, from there, into the local highlands above downtown on what were called The Avenues.

The Rêves had their own warning network, although the message was basically to avoid certain areas. Although Las hadas silvestres were not mentioned at all, the idea that the Rêves were in no danger from what was happening was. The main points were to stay out of the Metro, away from Cemeteries, and to avoid Pasadena entirely.

The Avenues actually weren’t that far from Pasadena, at least street-wise, but they were sufficiently above it.

By the time that Preston and Danny had taken refuge in an overgrown backyard behind a very old house in Mt. Washington, they decided that they were going to remain apart for now. As Danny pointed out, “Strength in numbers.”

“Also,” Preston said, “I’ve always wanted to fuck my identical twin.”

“Stop it you,” Danny said, more playful than annoyed. “Okay, we’ll fuck if we get out of this alive…”

“That’s kind of impossible, isn’t it?” Preston said. Danny just smirked back.

Then they did all that they could do, which was just to wait out the passing storm — that is, if it ever did pass.

* * *

Parlay

In a lot of ways, Anabel really appreciated the ironic symmetry in the storm that Pearl unleashed because, just as none of the Rêves ever received any demands or ransom notes from the humans, they and Las hadas could not send their own demands back, at least not in any way that the humans would understand.

All they could do was kidnap the weather and ravish the landscape. And that’s when Anabel realized the irony of Pearl’s words, that they would warn the humans. A sudden but unprecedented storm would not come across as a supernatural warning, at least not to any sane or rationale humans.

The only way that Anabel could warn them was to get herself caught again, and she wasn’t about to waltz into Ausmann’s arms, especially not after she had tipped him off to size being a factor in how effective their traps were.

But, she realized, if she could get Pearl to bring him above ground, away from his laboratory and technology, and place them on equal footing outside, then maybe she could deliver the message.

As soon as she thought it, she heard Pearl’s voice in her head. “Then take us where he’s at, man, and we’ll show him where it’s at, dig?”

Anabel wasn’t sure whether it was her imagination or not, but what did she have to lose? It wasn’t that hard a trip — just under seven miles in a straight line just about exactly north east, and only passing under one isolated mountain on the way.

So she headed from Glendale to Pasadena, even though the storm hadn’t gotten this far east yet, then hovered around where she had come up above Ausmann’s lab. But something seemed wrong. The place was eerily dark, with none of the buildings illuminated, and only the streetlights along the internal roads and parking lots providing any light at all.

She decided to take a chance and go underground, finding that she hadn’t missed Ausmann’s hidden complex by that much, but then venturing in while not manifesting to find it apparently abandoned. As she wandered its halls and through offices and labs, all she saw were empty work stations, all the equipment turned off, and everything bathed in a deep red light that came from LED strips set in the baseboards.

“Well, this is weird,” she thought.

She wandered around until she found a lobby with what were clearly elevator doors, keeping her distance from those, and went to the security station nearby, which had several large metal detectors in a row with double doors on each side and that’s when she saw the sign taped to the first door of the first detector.

“MANDATORY EVAC ORDER,” it read. The rest of it was typical gov-speak gibberish that took way too many words to passively state what could have been simply put: “The weather is fucked, so get the hell out of here. We are shutting everything down.”

And it wasn’t just Ausmann’s little project. It was all of JPL. It was so serious, in fact, that the notice ended with the scare words “SERIOUS FEDERAL CRIME” above some official-looking seal with an eagle on it.

“Ooh,” Anabel thought. “What are you going to do? Arrest me?”

Her other thought was, “I died in the 1920s, and the Federal Government still hasn’t upped their art game at all?”

But if no one was here, then where was Ausmann? How was she going to find him?

Reluctantly — because if anyone would defy the threat of being charged with a federal crime it would be him — she found her way down to his office.

Now the real trick was to figure out where he lived from what was available. The catch was that none of the electronic devices would turn on. Not that Anabel even knew how they worked, but she’d tried to turn on a lamp only to realize that all power had been cut.

That was when Anabel proceeded to do what any good 1920s detective would do, and she started going through drawers. Yes, they were difficult to move, but Rêves did have some ability to manipulate objects.

Most of them were full of random office supplies, way too many Post-It pads, boxes of staples, and promotional pens. Further down, she found file folders of documents that were at least a decade old.

And then, she found a birthday card, in an envelope. The card itself read “Happy Birthday Grandpa!” and her mind boggled at the idea that Ausmann was human enough to have reproduced at least once. But then she looked at the postmark to see that it was only a year old.

Then she looked at the address. Motherfucker lived in some place called the Simi Valley, which she’d never even heard of. But at least she had an address, and that was enough. She couldn’t take the envelope with her, but she could imprint the information on her hand and make it stick, so then she flew back up to emerge from underground, feeling triumphant.

“I found that son of a bitch, Pearl,” Anabel muttered to herself, and it was like a sudden warm and loving wind embraced her.

“Simi Valley?” Anabel heard Pearl’s voice in her head. “Yeah, that fucking figures. Let’s go.”

“Where?” Anabel asked.

“Thirty-five miles west. Where the white people went when the brown and black people scared them. Don’t ask.”

Suddenly, Anabel was flying over a mountain, across the Valley, across more mountains, and then down into a normal-looking suburban area that was already being heavily lashed by the storm. She landed on the front lawn of a perfectly tacky 60s-era ranch house, then heard Pearl’s voice in her ear.

“Go get him,” they said.

“But how?” Anabel asked.

That one didn’t get any answer. She decided on the obvious method, even if it was totally stereotypical, and just walked through the wall and into the living room, where Ausmann and a woman, presumably his wife, sat in silence, the room only lit by the glow of the large screen TV on the far wall, tuned in to the weather report.

Ausmann’s wife looked as dour and unpleasant as he did. “We need to evacuate?” she muttered.

“Ridiculous,” Ausmann replied. “Typical media sensationalism.”

“We’re not that far from Malibu as the crow flies,” his wife said.

“The storm is moving west from Malibu, not north. It’ll never get here.”

The house rattled with a sudden thunderbolt from the south and Anabel decided to make her presence known. She popped over in front of the TV and manifested, being sure to glow for visibility.

“The storm is already here,” she said. As if on cue, lighting began to flash outside, the thunder coming sooner and louder with each moment.

“Get out of my house!” Ausmann demanded.

“We’ve come to deliver a message,” Anabel said.

“We?” Ausmann replied.

“Don’t you hear them?” she answered, gesturing. Now, the lighting was close enough that they could actually hear the electricity scorching the air and almost feel its heat. The thunder came within a split second of the lightning.

Outside at the foot of the driveway, a tree suddenly shattered under a direct hit, scattering bits of bark and splinters of wood all over the place, leaving a split and smoldering trunk and dropping several limbs to the street.

Their conversation turned into a shouting match because it was the only way to be heard, especially after the hail arrived moments later and began pelting everything.

“What’s the message?” Ausmann demanded. “Thor is pissed off?”

“The message is: Leave us alone,” she said. “Whatever you’re doing, stop it.”

“I’d love to be able to,” Ausmann said, “But there are reasons I can’t.”

“Like?”

“Like reasons I can’t tell you. Classified.”

“I don’t care,” Anabel said. “Neither do they. Stop what you’re doing.”

“And are all of you going to stop what you’re doing?”

“All we’re doing is existing,” she replied.

“No, you’ve been leaking into our world despite the agreement you made with us thirty years ago.”

“You’ve been pulling us into it against our will!” she insisted.

“I’m not the one you have to negotiate with,” he explained.

“We’re not negotiating,” she replied.

“Which ‘we?’ The Rêves?”

“We brought someone to negotiate with us.”

“Really?” he scoffed. “Who?”

“Who do you think is causing this storm?”

“I already guessed Thor,” he replied. “Should I have said Zeus instead?”

“Stop what you’re doing to us now!” Anabel shrieked over the non-stop thunder.

“No!” Ausmann shot back, stepping toward her, and then she caught a glimpse of what he had snuck into his right hand — one of those small traps, open and ready to spring.

She shot up through the ceiling and crawl-space under the roof and out into the night sky and the crashing hail.

“Tear it down,” she called out to Pearl. “He’s refusing.”

As she headed back to Glendale, the storm intensified, and lightning started to strike the house, blowing off shingles. Ausmann turned and ran for the hidden staircase, seeing that his wife was nowhere in sight.

He headed down to the basement and their hidden panic room, because of course they had one — practically everyone with money in Simi did — and he entered his code in the door panel.

It slid open and he stepped inside, to find that his wife was already there. As the door slid shut and locked again, everything shook and there was a resounding boom. Outside, the power went off, the various monitors showing everything inside the house going dark.

At least the power supply down here was still working, and they had at leasat six weeks’ worth between the batteries, capacitors, and propane powered generators, which they would go through in that order, unless at least two of the solar panels on the roof held and stayed connected, in which case they’d go through none of it.

“Was that a ghost?” Coraline finally asked him.

“Yes and no,” he said.

“Is it gone?”

“Yes,” he replied, staring at the monitors and watching as the cameras went out one by one.

Up top, half of the house was in flames and a sudden gust of wind tore the roof off of the garage and sent it sailing down the street. Lightning continued to pummel what was left standing, and hail the size of baseballs started to drop into the now exposed garage, pounding both of the cars in there until their roofs were practically touching tops of the window wells in the doors.

A couple of bolts of lightning turned a third of the water in the pool into steam, cracking the concrete walls and letting the rest ooze its way out into the ground. Another lucky strike breached the propane canister on the gas grill and sent it rocketing into the air on a jet of escaping fuel. It came back down right into the windshield of Coraline’s SUV.

The escape room held because it was supposed to — it had been designed and built by the same crew that had constructed Ausmann’s laboratory under JPL after all. But it wasn’t too long before all connections to the outside had gone dark with the exception of the underground cable that tied into the internet.

Ausmann streamed the news and watched the “Special Bulletin — Breaking” announcement about the sudden freak offshoot of the storm that was pummeling Simi Valley.

Although, in the morning, there would be only one house in his neighborhood that looked like a tornado had swept it away.

* * *
 
Image source: Gemelli by Jacopo Montano from Atlas Coelestis, John Flamsteed (1729), used under licence via (CC BY-SA 3.0)