The Saturday Morning Post #61: The Rêves Part 39

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece 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. We’re close to the end, with only two chapters after this one.

Septennials

Many media outlets had dubbed the incident The Day of the Dead, although there were also a lot of objections to this phrase, which was essentially cultural appropriation. Other media outlets preferred to use The Resurrection, while social media had a number of references: Heaven’s Last Call, Tomb Evaders, Coco Oh-no! and the probably inevitable Forest Lawn of the Dead.

In the first year after the incident, things changed a lot, some good and some bad. From the beginning, a lot of religious groups took it as the literal Resurrection of the dead that heralded the End Times, but for a lot of them it made no sense, because certain events had to happen first, and they hadn’t.

Three schools of thought on it emerged. One was based on the idea that no one could know the hour of Jesus’ return and that he’d come like a thief in the night, so it didn’t matter whether this Resurrection fit in with all of their hypotheses and prophecies. That wasn’t for humans to decide, so it was absolutely the real deal.

A second group took exactly the opposite tack: This did not fit their theology at all, so something was wrong. Their pastors and scholars had studied the Bible deeply, and had mapped out exactly what would happen when. Since this incident didn’t occur when it was supposed to in the grand scheme of things, it must have been the work of Satan, and all of the resurrected were actually demons. This group sought to have them all hunted down and eliminated.

The third group also believed that it was the Resurrection proper, but went off the rails to the extreme. While there were not as many members of this category, there were still enough that there was a substantial jump in mass suicides among families and small congregations who figured that there was no point in waiting around anymore, since they had already seen others brought back in the flesh.

Meanwhile, after about six months, scientists had a pretty good idea of what had happened, especially after a stunned government allowed a select team access to all of Ausmann’s files, as well as to Joshua and Simon, who had been intimately involved.

Of course, none of the cameras in the complex had been on at the time, so their story was that Ausmann had gone a little crazy — backed up by evidence from both the Simi Valley PD and the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Office — and while giving some insane rant from that top platform about using the machine to take over the world had slipped and fallen.

Since he’d been keeping Joshua and Simon at bay at the bottom with a gun at the time, they weren’t able to save him. Presumably, the gun had been vaporized along with the hand and arm that had been holding it when Ausmann fell through the plasma stream.

The end result was a 900-page report detailing all of the science, and which nobody in the government could even begin to understand outside of the science wonks, but Congress Peoples’ eyes would just glaze over whenever those wonks spoke, so the real content of the report only got through to a few.

Joshua, Simon, and the authors knew the whole story. Outside of that circle, it was heavily redacted, particularly to eliminate any mention of a machine designed to send messages back in time. That was a highly classified secret.

What was allowed out was an explanation that the machine had generated exotic matter in an effort to figure out what dark matter and dark energy were, how they interacted with regular matter, and what effect gravity had on them.

It was a completely bullshit explanation of purposes that a lot of physicists both astro- and quantum had picked up on immediately, but they also understood that the real reasons probably couldn’t be unveiled, and so kept their silence, at least publicly.

When it finally dripped down to the popular science media before becoming completely distorted in the laymen’s press, the story was that this exotic matter experiment had set up resonating wave fronts that, in effect, made people hallucinate projections of their own memories, which was why there were a combination of dead celebrities and people with living friends.

As for the physical resurrection of people, that happened when the machine was damaged, and this was the only point where they invoked time travel, but not as an intentional effect. Rather, when the generator broke down, the exotic matter briefly converted into something that in turn caused a “local temporal anomaly,” which is what de-aged the living LEOs up at JPL, and physically brought back the corpses in all the cemeteries within certain areas.

When it hit trash rags like the NY Post and The Daily Mail, the headlines were things like, “Science Smash the Dead to Life,” or “Atom-Smasher Accident Brings Back Your Gran.”

Naturally, all kinds of conspiracy theories popped up in the aftermath, including a group calling themselves the 9/2 Truthers (or 9tooTru, as their logo and T-shirts read), clearly taking inspiration from another totally discredited group from over twenty years before — although, to be fair, they did manage to dance around the hole in the donut, mainly the lack of references to working and intentional time-travel in the final report, mainly because they didn’t have access to that.

Where they went totally wrong, though, was insisting that the whole thing had been an intentional government plot to create a “resurrection beam” as well as fountain of youth, and what had happened was supposed to be a small, controlled test that got out of hand.

At least that final report had assuaged the fears of those who were not religious and had no idea what to make of it all. But it still left the problem of dealing with all the extra new people. Even if they didn’t need to eat or take up resources like that, they still needed shelter and a way to pay for it.

The County had greenlit and set up Brenda’s new Department of Post After-Care Entry Services almost immediately — and yes, the acronym was PACE, as in Requiescat in Pace, or Rest in Peace. They set up her offices in Culver City in a 32,000 square foot warehouse that had formerly hosted the county’s Internal Services Department. On the one hand, she wasn’t all that happy about it being a huge, windowless place. On the other, it was directly adjacent to Holy Cross Cemetery, which was ridiculously appropriate.

It was also a really short commute from home, although she could work remotely quite a lot. Within a month of everything being opened and the space allocated, she went to work getting it converted.

It would be a combination of intake/interview center, resource warehouse providing mostly clothing to their clients (accommodating any era-based, cultural, or religious preferences they had), as well as a temporary shelter. This was also where their social media and marketing offices were located, with a final corner of the old warehouse serving as a transit bay for the various shuttles that would take their clients to their new housing and jobs as assistants to the various historians, librarians, and archivists working all over the city.

They also kept their eyes out for certain very necessary lost skills in the modern age. For example, anyone who happened to know the programming language COBOL was immediately referred to high-end government work at various levels, since so many government computers were so old that they still ran it.

Oh, that wasn’t a function of government being out-of-touch, though. Quite the opposite. Part of it was because the scale of government would make updating hardware and software on the same schedule that people replaced iPhones ridiculously expensive and time-consuming.

Add on top of that continuity gaps in service and retraining people in new software and hardware, it was an undertaking to only be carried out every few decades and, even then, only one department at a time, very carefully.

The other big reason for not modernizing was that if no one knew how to code in the language, then no one knew how to hack it.

The drawback, of course, was that untangling the code, simplifying it, and making internal updates could only be done by the people who knew it.

There were some other “ancient” talents that were the new hot jobs to have, at least for the Rêves — who now called themselves Revivants — and Brenda’s people were tasked with keeping their eyes out for those.

One that nobody had to spot came directly to Brenda. It was Anabel, who expressed her true admiration for what Brenda had done. This surprised her, because what few interactions she had had with Anabel made her think that she disdained humans.

But Anabel had a plan and a request. She was very happy that Brenda was helping her kind back into society, but Anabel also felt that she had something to offer, and she described her vast and successful business experience, which blew Brenda away.

For one thing, she knew how young Anabel was when she had originally died. But she also knew that women were still fighting for the right to vote, and didn’t even get it until not long before Anabel did die. So she just assumed that a woman of the era wouldn’t have had any experience in business, beyond maybe typing letters and sending telegrams for some Wizard of Wall Street.

Experience shared, Anabel went on with her plan. She wanted to help the female Revivants who had only ever been trapped in domestic roles to break out of them by teaching them business skills, considering that the field was a lot more open to women now.

She reasoned that the basic psychology of business and marketing that she had intuited hadn’t changed because people hadn’t. Where she needed Brenda’s help, beyond making the connections, was in borrowing people to train these women in the modern tools they would need to use Anabel’s universal techniques for success.

Anabel could speak the language of the formerly dead women of the past, and translate the jargon of the social media and computer kiddies to them as well. If anything, it would become a sort of trade school intensive that would help re-integrate these women back into society, and at a higher level than they could have ever dreamed of the first time around.

Brenda didn’t even have to think twice. “Done!” she said. “I’ll just have to find a property where you can set up shop, and then assign you some of my social media and marketing people. Oh, hang on…”

She picked up her phone and dialed. “Stacey, who do we have in our vocational training department who’s really good at developing curriculum…? Uh-huh, yeah. She’d be amazing. Is she here today…? Great. Can you send her to my office? Thanks!”

She hung up. “Step number one. Design your course.”

Brenda’s door was open, so the woman in question strolled right in, all positive energy. “Howdy,” she announced, “What can I do you for?”

She was an older woman with a cascade of curly gray and black hair that tumbled down her head and well past her shoulders, with a friendly face and metal-rimmed glasses with circular lenses. Anabel liked her instantly. Of course, she had that effect on a lot of people.

“Anabel, this is Simone. Simone, Anabel is a Revivant I met before the incident. She has an amazing idea for a course to train women in business and marketing, and I want you to help her plan the curriculum. I’ve assigned her to the USC satellite office.”

“Fantastic,” Simone gushed. “I really look forward to working with you, Anabel,” she said. “When do we start?” she asked Brenda.

“You already have,” Brenda replied, grabbing a page that came out of her printer and handing it over. “Here’s the office info. Pick up the keys in operations. If you need it, I’ll have a driver take you both, and thank you so much for doing this.”

“Don’t mention it!” Simone said.

Anabel’s program turned out to be one of the most successful, and it was amazing how well the women she trained took to what she taught them. More than a few of them at some point would have the “A-ha!” moment. “This was exactly how I manipulated my husband into doing what I wanted while making him think it was his idea…”

“And that, ladies, is marketing!” Anabel would announce whenever the thought came up. “Or to put it in more modern terms: Sex sells. Well, the promise of sex, anyway.” There would always be nervous but knowing laughter after this.

Within a year, Brenda’s department had made a huge dent in re-integrating everyone, and she had been written up in countless publications, both internal government and business pubs, and in the mainstream media.

“The Woman Giving New Life to the Dead” was a common theme.

Despite her initial reluctance, Jonah and Esme urged her to get out more into the public eye and become the face of the department, and pretty soon she was the go-to expert anytime a reporter was writing a story about the Revivants, and then anytime any major media outlet was doing a piece on the same.

She started to get requests to appear on talk shows and balked until her mother sat her down and talked some sense into her.

“Do you not realize what a gigantic opportunity this is?” she said. “They are begging you to come on as the expert in your field. And when white people are begging a woman of color to do that, you do that. No ifs, ands, or buts. You elevate yourself, you elevate us all.”

Esme’s sincerity and intensity almost brought Brenda to tears, but then she replied, “The only reason I’m reluctant is because I don’t want my kids dragged into this.”

“Why would they be?” Esme asked.

“For one thing, Malia is kind of newsworthy. Especially since her doctors okayed starting hormone replacement therapy in about a month.”

“And if they bring her up?” Esme snapped back. “Simple. First, tell them that she’s got nothing to do with this. Second, tell them that if they’re trying to use her status in any way to paint you as a failed parent, they are wrong as hell, and turn it around. Ask them why they wouldn’t support their own child 100% in any of their decisions. That’ll put them on the ropes.”

“I can handle their bullshit, Mom,” Brenda said. “But what about Malia? If she sees herself being trashed in the media — ”

“Oh, child,” Esme replied. “I spend a lot of time with my granddaughter, and you want to know a secret? She is one of the strongest people I have ever met. She has long since learned the power of not caring what other people think about her, and if you don’t rip all them all new assholes for going after her, she will do it herself with a vengeance. That girl has got some salty in her.”

“Really?” Brenda just said, stunned.

“Well, why the hell not?” Esme replied. “She’s her mama’s daughter — and you are my daughter. We are one tough bunch of biddies, and you know it.”

“Well, okay then,” Brenda finally agreed. “If you believe in me, then I believe in me.”

“You better believe it,” Esme smiled at her.

Right after that, Brenda checked in with Rita, who hooked her up with a major Hollywood talent agency as well as the County Communications and Social Media Department, and then the bookings came fast and furious.

Over the next few years, she became a regular guest on talk shows left and right, as well as getting called on regularly to do stand-up news interviews after various events, both positive and negative, effecting the Revivant community.

A couple of years in, she tried to contact Joshua and Simon to see if they’d help out, but she could only get hold of Danny and Preston, who were kind of vague and only explained that the other two were off on some fact-finding mission and impossible to reach.

It would be years before she suddenly heard from the twins again out of the blue, but what they had to tell her was going to be very exciting news. She had asked the boys how they were doing, and while they didn’t provide specifics, they did mention that they were finding great success as entertainers.

Elsewhere, there were two performers for whom it hadn’t been so easy: Lewis and Davis. Or sometimes Davis and Lewis. They had gone through a year of improv classes with an excellent teacher and amazing classmates, but, for them, it just wasn’t clicking.

Each of them had their strengths and weaknesses, but they did not add up to a sum greater than the parts. When it came to anything with words, like rhyming and pun games, Davis would just freeze up and, for the life of her, not even be able to rhyme a word like “cat.”

The concept of puns eluded her completely, while Lewis could reel them off one after the other, effortlessly. He could also rhyme like a son-of-bitch on wheels.

But… when it came to scene games, which were all about building stories with characters, that was where Davis excelled, and Lewis just went flat. Davis could remember everything that was set up, while Lewis could remember nothing.

So Davis would walk into a scene in which “Jill” and “Susan” were established as sisters working on their glove farm in Oregon and glue herself to those names and concepts and build on them, but Lewis would go into a scene, even one where both characters had named each other at least three times, and immediately address “Bill” as “George” and “Ken” as “Keith,” and then also completely forget the relationship and insert a new one.

That could get awkward if, for example, Bill and George were father and son, but in Lewis’ mind, Ken and Keith were a couple. He was what improvisers quietly referred to among themselves as a “platform killer.”

After about six months, they both despaired of ever becoming the next Nichols and May, but then an off-hand comment during the warm-down huddle after a class changed everything.

One of their classmates, Ryan, mentioned that he’d started taking stand-up classes at a nearby theater, and another one, Tyler, chimed in to say that he was taking the same class and it was great.

Davis and Lewis made sure to catch up with the two of them as they all walked out the stage door, and asked them about the class. As it turned out, there was a new session starting in two weeks.

“So… for this, you write your shit out in advance?” Lewis asked.

“Of course,” Ryan explained. “It’s all about honing your story-telling and refining your jokes and your persona.”

“Hey, if they can make my sorry ass funny,” Tyler said, “They can do it for anyone.”

“Oh, honey,” Davis told him, “Your ass is far from sorry. I happened to think that you are totally hilarious.”

“Really?” he asked.

“Yes, duh,” she insisted.

She took down the information, and the next day she and her husband contacted the teacher and signed up. They were a little sad when they had to email their improv teacher to tell him that they wouldn’t be continuing, but Rick was an understanding guy, told them that he totally got it, and wished them luck.

Six months after their first stand-up class, they entered a beginner’s comedy competition at the club Flappers in Burbank — and Ryan was one of their competitors. They did a couple’s act in which they talked about their marriage, but each of them with obviously differing points of view and complete blindness to the other person’s — and it brought down the fucking house.

They took first place, then started to do the premium Friday and Saturday 8 p.m. gigs around town, took their act toward a political bent by pretending to support different presidential candidates starting around June (they didn’t, they were on the same side), and wound up being invited to do their thing on SNL’s October 2024 premiere as a feature in the opening sketch.

After that, the offers came left and right, but so did the press attention, once their former lives as cops combined with their de-aging during the incident came to light, but there was the downside, because the little revelation that they were a pair of fifty-somethings who only appeared to be in their mid-20s thanks to a lucky accident brought out the resentment in people.

It died down a bit leading up to and after the election, and they dropped the dueling politics aspect right after, but then decided to address the other part head-on. They spent the rest of the year figuring out how to write funny about their situation, and brought Ryan, Tyler, and their teacher into it, as well as continuing to take classes.

They even went back to improv, and while Davis still couldn’t rhyme or pun for shit, Lewis had suddenly gotten a lot better at listening and doing scene games. After about three years, they both managed to audition and join the main company, and a couple of years after that, an agent approached them after a show.

“You two have really got something,” he told them. “You’re probably way too young, but you remind me of Nichols and May.”

Davis and Lewis shot each other a look, their smiles telling each other to not give it away. “Really?” Davis said. “We don’t know who they are, but what are you thinking?”

He presented his card and said, “I book some of the major showrooms in Vegas, and we’re always in need of opening acts for the headliners. It might include having to relocate, for at least part of the year, but given your talent, I’m sure we could work something mutually lucrative out.”

Lewis and Davis exchanged another look, then turned back to the booker. “Hit us,” they said.

He gave them the paperwork and a week. Four days later, they had signed and were scheduled to do their first shows in two weeks. They would regularly be taken by limo to Burbank Airport and flown the half-hour to Vegas, put up in whatever hotel owned the showroom, then do their opening act for six nights plus a matinee (the non-filthy version) before being flown back to L.A. for two weeks.

Lather, rinse, repeat, ridiculous paycheck.

After a year or two of this, they got a gig being the audience warm-up act for Penn & Teller’s Fool Us, and that became the game changer. It was a lot more money spread over a shorter shooting schedule, and with better accommodations.

They even worked up an act where Davis played Penn and Lewis played Teller and they mocked the relationship as an old married couple. They were nervous as hell when they first presented it, but the real Penn & Teller laughed their asses off, taught the duo a couple of stage illusions, and let them loose on warming up the audience.

They eventually went from warm-up act for the TV show to opening act for the main stage show, in which Lewis played an arrogant, know-it-all magician, and Davis played the mostly silent assistant who was clearly the actually talented one, and the big joke of the act was the audience slowly realizing that the magician would have fucked up every single trick if the assistant hadn’t suddenly helped him.

It was a total crowd-pleaser and got rave reviews.

What was even more amazing was that by this point Teller was in his early 80s and Penn was in his mid-70s, and neither one of them showed a single sign of slowing down.

Then again, neither Lewis nor Davis had shown the slightest hint of aging since that particular “incident” at JPL which was now about seven years ago.

Coraline never knew enough to realize the irony that the same incident that had brought her back to physical life was also the one that had taken her (former?) husband out of it permanently. But when she finally made her way home the first time after a couple of weeks to find a completely vacant lot, she wasn’t sure what to do.

Her first instinct was to visit her daughter, Gretchen, which she immediately realized was a bad idea when she answered the bell, opened the door, screamed and fainted. Her husband, Henry, hurried into the foyer to see what happened, took one look at Coraline and just stared.

“Um… hello?” Coraline offered.

“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” he asked.

“One of…?” she replied.

“One of those abominations from hell,” he shot back before slamming the door in her face.

“Rude!” she thought, so then she went to her son’s house. When he opened the door, Valentin seemed a bit more accepting of her, but there was still a certain wariness in his attitude.

“Mom,” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

“My house isn’t exactly livable right now,” she explained. “And has anyone mentioned that your father killed me?”

“What?” Valentin exclaimed. “Oh, crap.”

“Yeah, that’s a good description.”

“No, not that… we’ve already filed probate, since Dad left wills for both of you, and we found out a couple of days after the whole… thing that he’s dead, too.”

“Oh,” she replied with no feeling. “Was it painful?”

“They kind of only found bits of him from the tits up and thighs down.”

Coraline tried not to laugh.

“Anyway,” Valentin went on, “That’s kind of a done deal, because in the wills, everything went first to whichever one of you survived, and then next fifty-fifty to me and Gretchen. That included any property or possessions or, since those clearly aren’t a thing anymore, any insurance benefits. It’s already been settled.”

“But, I guess there’s a hitch now,” Coraline replied. “Because I’m not quite that dead anymore, so it sounds like everything should go to me, since I survived.”

“Except that you and your kind are not considered legally alive, Mom. Sorry. But that’s how it goes.”

“So… that’s it? You have nothing to offer you mother who’s been put through this ordeal of being murdered and then brought back to have nothing?”

“Um… I hate to say it, Mom, but you and Dad were never the best parents in the world. He was totally abusive to us, and you just let it happen.”

“Because he was just as abusive to me!” she exclaimed. “Couldn’t you see that?”

“No,” he replied. “What? It’s hard to see someone else’s abuse when all you see is your own. You two totally fucked it up raising us. Gretchen and I haven’t spoken in years, although I suspect that her husband beats her. But I can’t force myself to care. And when I heard the news that Dad was dead? I felt an enormous sense of relief. No, almost joy. May that motherfucker rot in hell!”

“Valentin!” Coraline snapped. “This is not the man we raised you to be!”

“Oh, no, Mother. This is exactly the man you raised me to be. I finally pulled the lever and hit the jackpot with those wills, you don’t have a legal leg to stand on, and you can just fuck right off. Have a nice day.”

He smiled and gently closed the door.

Coraline didn’t know what to do, so she wandered, but the closer she got to L.A. itself, the more she suddenly started having feelings, like voices in her head, telling her, “Find Brenda!”

She had no idea what that meant until Anabel suddenly appeared next to her. “Family problems, huh?” she asked. “You need to talk to my friend.”

Coraline hooked up with Brenda, and the first thing she managed was freezing all assets and payments Valentin and Gretchen were scheduled to receive — they hadn’t gotten the checks yet — and then setting County lawyers off to prove that Ausmann had died and Coraline was not dead. It took about four years, during which time Coraline studied with Anabel and started her own business.

Eventually, she collected on all of Ausmann’s life and property insurance, reminded Valentine and Gretchen’s husband of their reactions when they came sniffing for their slice, and used her new-found fortune to retire to a nice little ten-acre ranch in 29 Palms.

Coraline had had to deal with being dead and trying to prove herself alive again, but it was just as difficult for the LEOs at JPL, who had abruptly dropped three decades in age.

Once it became public knowledge that there were a number of officers between the ages of just under 31 and about 42 who had suddenly been turned into anything from newborns to 12-year-olds, actions had been taken to either find their actual parents, or to find families to take them in.

All along, no one ever questioned how they managed to retain their memories all the way into how long they’d lived, but that was probably a good thing, because the scientists who had studied it knew exactly how. To explain it would be to reveal too much, because it was all wrapped around the idea that the machine could send thoughts and concepts back in time, which it had when it failed.

In essence, even as it dredged up the hardware via the physical bodies, it downloaded the last back-up, which was the one in their heads either right before the LEOs were de-aged, or the last time a Rêve hung out with humans or any other entity giving them any kind of input.

Again, no one outside of the land of science ever thought to ask that, so social workers did what they could, but this also meant that Schrantz was a bit SOL, being apparently too old for the criteria.

What she did get was temporary housing, a promise of disability pay until she had returned to adulthood, and an ancient cell phone that wasn’t even smart, but at least wasn’t a flip. It was an early 00s slider.

While she got the housing, she wasn’t going to see any money until Congress ironed out the whole deal on how to declare people no longer dead, and she wasn’t holding her breath, so she finally gave in and called her parents in Indianapolis, and got both of them talking on the same cell phone speaker.

They had seen the news stories and heard mention of her agency being involved, and had been beside themselves. She spent the first half hour reassuring them that she was fine, mostly, before she broke the big news about her now much younger status.

“So, it’s kind of weird,” she went on, “But I’m like this adult teenager in limbo, until Congress figures out how to classify us. I’m wondering, then, can I come home and live with you both again until this all resolves itself? Or five years, whichever comes first.”

There was a long silence on the other end, and then her mother spoke. “Of course you can, dear,” she said. “But… can we tell everyone that you’re our niece or something?”

“Why’s that?” Schrantz asked.

“Been a lot of bad blood out here between the living and the undead,” her father replied in his unvarnished way. “Not that we actually have any undead here. But mother and I wouldn’t want you getting killed or anything,” he continued. “I mean, if that’s possible.”

“I’m not ‘undead,’” she reminded them. “Just… unaged.”

“We know that,” he continued, “But people in these parts are not the most critical of thinkers, and you popped up at the same time, so you’re all the same in their minds. But sure, of course we’ll take you in.”

“Of course, dear,” her mother continued. “How soon can you be here?”

“Well, that’s the other thing,” Schrantz sighed. “I kind of need a ticket to ride, as the Beatles said. Bus, plane, train, some cousin I’ve never met who’s driving that way…”

“Right,” her mother replied, her father obviously sighing heavily in the background. “But, how are you going to get on most of those when your ID probably doesn’t match what you look like now? I mean, if that whole de-aging thing is true.”

Schrantz froze and looked at the screen. “Shit!” she finally muttered.

“I think you can still do the bus,” her mother went on. “Although you do have a cousin who’s about to drive out here.”

“Really?” Schrantz asked. “Who?”

“You remember Tommy?” her mother asked.

Schrantz did, and her immediate reaction was to say “Oh hell noes,” but she didn’t, because all of her negative reactions to him had happened, oddly enough, before the time she’d aged into the form she was stuck with now.

And the more she thought about it, while those moments had been creepy, they had also not really been rapey either. Then again, he was the same age as her, which she wasn’t now, so she didn’t know what to say.

“I’ll give him a chance, Mom,” she finally replied, “But he used to be really creepy, so if I say no to him — ”

“Understood, dear,” her mother replied. “I think you’ll find that he’s changed.”

“Whatevs,” Schrantz thought, but she finally told her mom to send him along. What’s the worst that could happen? She could easily dick-punch him into the next county if she wanted and if he tried any crap, since she’d been trained in that.

All her worries vanished when he pulled up to her place and hopped out of his car, a Toyota Yaris with a huge rainbow flag sticker on the back. He certainly had changed since the days of being a creepy youth. He was tall, thin, all glowed up, a bit on the flamboyant side, and a very snappy dresser.

“Cousin Becky!” he cried out. “Look at you, girl. I remember you at that age. And I remember you a lot older.”

“I didn’t think I’d seen you since I was about fourteen.”

“We were both at grandma Remy’s funeral,” he explained, “Although we didn’t talk because I didn’t stay for much of it. It was right before I came out to the family, so I wasn’t in the mood to be social just then.”

“Well, you’ve certainly changed,” she said.

“Nah, I haven’t changed. I just burst from my cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. Now, come on, baby girl. We’ve got some driving to do to get you home.”

They loaded her stuff into the car — she had stored or sold almost everything, although she had to rely on a friend on the force who hadn’t de-aged to handle renting the storage and arranging movers.

They took a few days to drive back to Indiana, staying in nice hotels when they stopped — and always two separate rooms. Tommy explained up front that Schrantz’s parents had paid for everything and reserved the rooms online.

He finally got her home and stayed for the evening and the next day socializing with his aunt and uncle, then continued on his way. As for Schrantz, she finally did wind up living at home for the next five years. Somewhere during that, although not soon enough, the governments involved finally got the whole restoration of personhood thing sorted, and she began to collect her permanent disability benefits from San Bernardino County and the state of California, despite not living in the state, which was a thoughtful exemption they’d included.

Once she’d been declared a person again and had her prior information restored, she used her graduate degrees in Law and Criminal Science to get into a PhD program and, while she couldn’t qualify for Quantum Physics like she’d wanted to, she did get into a PhD program in Quantum Ethics, finishing the program as part of the class of 2030, at the technical age of 20 going on 50.

She would never know the irony: She had gone into exactly the same field that had brought Ausmann to Operation Slingback in the first place.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #59: The Rêves Part 37

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece 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. In this one, the shit hits the fan.

Zero Hour

Simon and the Boys made sure that Joshua was up well before seven in the morning, although Joshua himself was uncharacteristically ready to go. At seven on the dot, he called Brenda.

“Hi, Josh,” she answered when she picked up in the middle of the first ring. “Construction barriers have been set up on all freeway routes into Pasadena, with at least three-mile detours before off-ramps, but which will lead to really complicated street routes back, and we’ve also shut down all Metro stations in all of Pasadena.”

“Wow,” Joshua replied. Thanks! So… once you re-open, how long will it take people to get to us?”

“Usual time,” Brenda said. “Which is why we’re not going to open until you tell us to. The only complication might be Federal agents, but we can at least provide them with enough union rule headaches to stall them for half an hour or so.”

“Great,” Joshua said. “So, we are going to send the message and go pick up the package. Thanks!”

“You too. Good luck!” Brenda hung up and Joshua dialed Ausmann’s burner.

It took him a few rings to pick up before he answered with a terse, “Yeah?”

“Hey, Assman,” Joshua replied in high spirits, “We’ve got Lorre, he can definitely tell you how to destroy the Rêves, and it’s go time. We can be there to pick you up in half an hour or less.”

“What do you mean ‘pick me — ’”

Joshua didn’t let him finish. “You heard me,” he said. “It’s for your own protection.”

“How the hell do you even know where I am?” he demanded.

“Because we have spies,” Joshua said. “What? You thought that turning my husband into one of them wouldn’t have consequences?”

“Oh, goddamn you!” Ausmann spat.

“No, dear,” Joshua replied glibly. “God has already damned you. Now get ready, because we’re going to be there really soon. Bye!”

Joshua hung up and the four of them headed downstairs and piled into the Tesla. Joshua drove — of course — and they were actually in DTLA and at the Alexandria hotel in about eighteen minutes — the advantages of a traffic-free Saturday because most people had already fled the city for the holiday.

Preston and Danny took advantage of their physical state to skip the elevators and head on up, while Simon also begged off of the elevator, but promised he’d wait for Joshua upstairs. Joshua took the slow human transit and, when he arrived, found Simon true to his word.

They went to Ausmann’s door — the boys had told them the number — but before they could knock, they heard a lot of commotion inside.

“Fuck it,” Joshua said, moving to ram the door open, but Simon stopped him and pushed his way through it, unlocking it from inside.

Joshua’s entrance startled the other occupants — Simon, Danny, and Ausmann.

“All right,” Joshua called out. “Fucking freeze. We are here to take you back to JPL in order to do what you need to do to end the Rêves. Okay?”

“What makes you think I want to go back there?” Ausmann demanded.

“Because it’s the only place you can do what you want to,” Joshua explained.

“What if I don’t believe you?”

“Well, then,” Joshua replied, approaching him, “I believe that the term is… oh, what is it?” He quickly swung up his arm and jammed the high voltage Taser into Ausmann’s shoulder, bringing him to the ground. “Oh yeah. Right. Bringing you into custody in a subdued state. Boys?”

Simon, Danny, and Preston merged together and picked up Ausmann’s unconscious body. They dumped it in the convenient wheelchair, and then the three-in-one of them rolled it out and down the hall, letting Joshua take it into the elevator.

They all reconvened in the lobby, got Ausmann out to the guest parking lot three stories down, then dumped his ass in the trunk, shut the lid, and set off for JPL.

They made their way out of downtown via the 110 and then the 2, heading almost due north. As they approached the 210, Joshua saw the brilliance of what Brenda had done — the entire interchange between it and the 2 was shut down, allegedly for construction, traffic being rerouted off the freeways in all directions.

Joshua pulled up to one of the workers standing by a barrier and rolled down the window. Danny and Preston were hiding in Simon again so that he would appear like a normal human and not draw any attention.

“Road’s closed,” the man said, but then Joshua showed him the credentials Brenda had sent him on his phone. The man pulled a device from his tool belt, scanned it, then nodded and whistled loudly.

He was soon directing some of his men and they quickly lifted one of the concrete rails and moved it out of the way. One of the other men waved Joshua and he drove through, onto the completely deserted 210.

“Wow,” he said to Simon. “Want to see what this thing can really do?”

“I’ve seen what your thing can really do. Besides, you don’t want to overshoot the exit.”

“Party-pooper,” Joshua teased him. But it was true. They were at the exit to Oak Grove Drive in no time. Joshua drove up, but not directly onto the campus. Instead, he pulled up outside of the emergency exit they had used the last time they left.

Simon took a still groggy Ausmann out of the trunk and carried him to the door, which is when Simon realized that it had no keypad or keyhole on the outside, Danny and Preston slipping out of him once he had put Ausmann down.

Meanwhile, Joshua did a quick search of the neighborhood, found a safe residential street nearby with no parking limits, and sent the Tesla off to park and wait until he called it back.

When he got there, Ausmann was starting to focus, and he looked at the door.

“We can’t get in from this fucking side, you idiots!” he spat at them.

“True,” Simon replied, slowing pushing his way through the door, then opening it from the inside. “Ta-da!”

“This way, please,” Joshua said, gesturing Ausmann in, and they all headed toward the tachyon generator chamber.

There was a surprise waiting for them before they got there.

“Well, hello, dear!” a voice called out as a trio of women stepped around the corner into view. Joshua and Simon recognized two — Anabel and Pearl — but not the third.

“Coraline!” Ausmann exclaimed, stunned.

“I bet you never thought you’d see me again, dear,” she said. “Correction: hoped. I would get my revenge on you in the obvious way, except that your machine would just bring you back, meaning we really would be stuck together forever.”

“Revenge? You died when the house collapsed.”

“I saw what you did,” she countered. “That’s what you get when shiny things fall into the basement from the upper floor. I knew you couldn’t resist coming here, so I brought some friends.”

There was something weirdly mythical about it, Joshua thought — the young and ethereal Anabel, the earthy Pearl, and the very senior Coraline, standing shoulder to shoulder, apparently with one goal.

“So what are you going to do?” Ausmann asked nervously.

“We can’t stop you,” Anabel explained, “If that’s what you’re wondering. All we can do is let you try.”

“I will succeed!” Ausmann insisted.

“No, darlin’,” Pearl cut in. “You will fail and see the futility of your efforts, and then maybe you’ll turn yourself over to human justice for all your crimes.”

“There is no futility!” Ausmann shouted. “I have a secret weapon.” He turned to Joshua. “Where is he?”

Joshua looked anxiously to the women, but Pearl gave him a look and a feeling shot over him that he understood as full permission. He took the trap out of his pocket and opened it. The usual smoke shot out and coalesced into Peter Lorre, in character.

He was about to speak to Ausmann when he looked past him. “Pearl?” he said nervously.

“Mr. Cairo,” they replied, but said nothing else while giving him a serene look as he heard the whispers of the Hadas in his ears.

We know exactly what you’re all doing and what you have planned, so do it as you planned it, and we will play along. But don’t be afraid of anything we say, except in character, of course.

Pearl smiled broadly at him, and then Lorre turned to Ausmann, feeling an enormous sense of confidence and relief — so he turned up the performance as weasly sell-out lackey to ten.

“What do you want of me?” he pleaded to Ausmann. “I am innocent, I did not do anything.”

“I want information,” Ausmann said.

“Anything, anything please, I beg you,” Lorre went on in a very convincing manner.

“All right,” Ausmann said. “What will destroy the Rêves for good?”

Lorre started at him bug-eyed, then looked at Pearl nervously. She glared at him while sending him encouraging thoughts on his performance.

“I… no. No, please, anything else, but they are my friends. I cannot let you destroy them.”

“So it is possible?” Ausmann asked him.

“Of course it…. oh, damn you! Damn me, you have made me say too much,” Lorre exclaimed, making what could have been melodrama work by sheer virtue of his well-crafted creepy little screen persona — which was nothing like him in real life.

“And you know how to do it.” Ausmann announced in triumph. “So give me the information.”

“Or what?” Lorre attempted defiance, but it was backed by terror.

Ausmann just pointed to the trap. “Back in there for you, sealed in forever and no getting out. Didn’t that happen to you in a movie with Vincent Price?” he suddenly asked.

“I was in that movie,” Lorre replied, briefly changing character, “But I was Montressor. I could be again, but then I would not negotiate.”

“Fine, then back to whatever sniveling little coward you were.”

“Is there anything else I can tell you, please?” Lorre groveled.

“No.”

“But you have no idea what they’ll do to me if I tell you,” he said, looking at the three women, terrified.

“If you tell me, they’ll be gone,” Ausmann explained. “They couldn’t do anything.”

“But I would be gone, too,” Lorre added sadly. “You are asking my suicide.”

“Actually,” Simon suddenly spoke up, “If he’s in the trap, he should be protected from anything that happens to the rest of the Rêves, and we can let him out later.”

“So there’s your offer,” Ausmann said. “Save yourself, or I swear that I will get one of you to give the information. After all, if you have it, one of them must — ” he gestured toward Simon and the boys, “And I don’t care who I have to torture to get it.”

Lorre realized that this was the climactic moment of the scene, so he fell to his knees, tearing up although he didn’t go so far as to sob. His eyes darted from the women to Ausmann to the men and back, and he finally let his entire body sag in defeat.

“Deal,” he said. “I will tell you.”

The women feigned outrage — well, all except Coraline, who wasn’t faking it, but Anabel and Pearl easily held her back. Meanwhile, the other four were quietly elated.

“It’s fucking working,” Joshua thought to himself.

“So tell,” Ausmann replied.

“It is the machine sustaining us,” he explained. “In order to destroy the Rêves, you need to create a paradox.”

“Doesn’t the machine already do that?” Ausmann asked.

“Apparently not,” Lorre said.

“There’s a certain self-correcting dynamic in time travel,” Simon explained. “It helps prevent paradoxes.”

“So how do we uncorrect it?” Ausmann demanded.

“I do not know what it means,” Lorre explained, “But they have told me, you have to drop mass into the containment field.”

Joshua stepped forward in a fake a-ha moment. “Of course!” he said. “So far, we’ve only been sending messages on the thing. But if we sent something with mass back, it kind of breaks the rules of physics, which would create one hell of a paradox — ”

“And un-create all of us,” Lorre added sadly.

“So what kind of mass?” Ausmann asked. Joshua pretended to do some quick calculations, then announced, “Not much. Maybe a kilo. And not that big. I mean, you want it to pass between the super-conductor pipes, right?”

“I know just the thing,” Ausmann said, heading for his office. The other men followed, while the women and Pearl stayed behind.

In his office, he took a highly polished metal sphere off of a stand. It was about four inches in diameter. “Beryllium,” he said. “This is a kilo. Highly valued in the aerospace industry because it’s so light. It should do the trick, so let’s go play ball.”

As they started off, Joshua caught Lorre’s attention and pulled out the trap, indicating it. Lorre nodded and Joshua opened it, pulling him back in for safe-keeping. Ausmann led the way back to the generator itself, and then they all ascended the many flights of stairs to the catwalk above.

Neither Joshua nor Simon had ever seen the view from up here, but it was beautiful, really, the lightning-like stream of electric-blue plasma flying down the space between the six bright yellow pipes that shepherded it all the way to Virgina.

It was an impressive feat, really. Kind of a shame to shut it down, although Joshua felt no regrets now because, obviously, the thing didn’t really work. Telegram to the past, my ass, and he knew that first-hand.

But then, Joshua noticed something that wasn’t apparent on the ground, nor was it in any of the specs. He could see a reflection from here, between the pipes, and it obviously wasn’t coming from the plasma, since that was impossible.

The overhead lights were reflecting off of some sort of transparent shielding around the plasma itself. “Shit,” he sighed.

“What?” Simon asked him.

“Reflection,” Joshua pointed as Ausmann announced, “All right. We’re all doing this together, because if this shit blows up, we’re all going together, okay?”

He headed up the last stairway, which led to a railed observation platform that was directly above the first stretch of the plasma and tubing.

Only now, Joshua and Simon were feeling uncertain. Why hadn’t that shield been mentioned in the specs? Was it made of some top-secret indestructible material? Were they about to fail spectacularly as the sphere bounced off of it harmlessly?

They and the boys followed Ausmann up to the platform, Joshua and Simon exchanging a look, then glancing at Danny and Preston, who decided to suddenly take refuge in Simon just in case.

Ausmann stood at the rail looking down.

“I know she’ll survive this,” he said. “Oh — the machine, not my former wife or any of those creatures down there. But it’s probably going to be interesting.”

“No doubt,” Joshua said.

Ausmann leaned forward and held the sphere over the tube, closed one eye to aim, and then started counting down. “Three… two… one.”

On one, he let the sphere go but, at the same time, Joshua and Simon — who of course was able to do so — grabbed each of Ausmann’s legs, lifted, and pitched him over the side.

They could hear the sphere shatter glass first, but then an instant later, Ausmann hit the pipes. Danny and Preston abandoned Simon and they all took off in Rêve fashion, Simon warning Joshua as they went, “Run!”

Joshua didn’t need to be told twice. He skipped putting his feet on the stairs and rode the hand rails down as many cases has he had to until he was able to burst out a door and slam it behind himself.

That left no human witnesses to what happened next.

The sphere cracking the glass actually did nothing. It dropped through and vaporized almost instantly when it hit the plasma. The containment field did its thing.

But when Ausmann hit, he was flailing and had managed to twist sideways, so that his entire torso hit two of the pipes. They didn’t give right away but, true to Simon’s calculations, the joints to the adjacent sections had been weakened enough that they were slowly giving away.

Ausmann was stunned enough to do nothing for a few seconds, which was also all the time it took Joshua to get his human body away from the area and onto the safe side of thick concrete walls. Then, right as Ausmann tried to roll over and get up, the pipes gave way.

He and they fell, shattering the tube completely, and he kept right on going. The parts of him between his shoulders and his knees were incinerated instantly, the other bits hitting the concrete below.

When the pipes broke, liquid hydrogen immediately boiled out, sending up white clouds that were still very cold. With the containment gone, the plasma suddenly expanded as well and, unlike the hydrogen, it began to cool down rapidly. The blue glow vanished almost immediately, and by the time the burning plasma had expanded to about three times its original volume, it was no warmer than a Finnish sauna.

With the containment gone, the tachyons were free, and they had actually firehosed out of the initial small breach in the plasma, which had happened in the first microseconds after Ausmann fell in. Unlike the other escapees, no one could see the tachyons because they were gone before they got there, so it looked like nothing was happening. At least below ground.

But that stream shot up and got wider as it went, a like lawn sprinkler sending up a cone of water.

What Joshua and crew also couldn’t see was that they had a lot of company upstairs, and they’d all basically arrived at the same time about half an hour ago, traffic block notwithstanding, because all of them had originally intended to make this a pre-dawn raid, which meant they’d been aiming to arrive by six a.m., not nine.

Captain Shrantz and her crew were here, along with Captain Davis and Lieutenant Lewis on their own. About twenty minutes after they’d arrived, the FBI did show up — and then none of them could figure out how to get into the complex, so there were a lot of calls to home base and haggling back and forth, so all of them were distracted when… something happened.

There was no big bang or flash or anything like that. There was definitely a feeling that came with it, but suddenly everything within about a hundred foot radius just… changed.

No one knew what had happened, only what they experienced. Davis and Lewis suddenly both looked like they were in their late 20s again, although their cruiser and their uniforms — and all of their clothes and other possessions — had vanished, with the exception of Davis’ chai necklace, which her grandmother had given her when she became bat mitzvah, and which she never took off, and their wedding rings. They had married at 26.

The same thing happened to countless other law enforcement officers around them, with most of the vehicles in the lot within the area suddenly gone, the few exceptions being employee vehicles like a fully restored OG Volkswagen Bug, a couple of vintage cars from the 30s or 50s, or anything from earlier than about 1990.

And the place was populated with hordes of now naked people of varying ages, all the way from infants to, at most, maybe mid-40s, but the latter were few and far between.

Shrantz found herself thirteen again, or so she estimated, and awkward and embarrassed as hell, although that was a very common reaction from everyone right now.

Then it became apparent that a lot of the younger officers in their 20s were just gone. Not there at all. Vanished. And though no one noticed, the trees were shorter and younger, some of them not even there, and the buildings, especially Ausmann’s complex, looked decidedly newer.

So did some of those 80s and early 90s clunker cars still remaining.

But everyone was blind to the obvious because they were all so focused on their own situation and their inability to process what had happened. That, and suddenly being naked in front of their co-workers.

Well, except for two Mormon FBI officers, who had owned the same sets of secret underwear since their mission days in their early 20s, which they had almost caught up with, but not enough that they lost their undies. Of course, to them, that was just as bad as being seen in nothing.

But if they had actually taken a moment to think about what had apparently happened, their next question would have been, “But then why do I remember my future?”

Down below, Joshua had seen none of this, and he had managed to get to where Simon and the boys were before shit went down. This also happened to be where Pearl and the ladies were, and he joined them, breathing heavily.

“Well,” he said, “I think that worked.”

He smiled, and then the other six of them abruptly vanished.

“Fuck!” he exclaimed.

* * *

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.

* * *