Story and Illustration by: Chris Thompson
The saga continues with the eagerly anticipated 7th chapter……
Chapter 7 – The Thorn
The nighttime sky over Los Angeles was anything but dark. Eternal light birthed from a million sources cast a gossamer glow about the city, painting it in glossy hues of yellow-gold, neon blue and electric pink. It flowed through the city in a rich current of modern alchemy, seeping into every crevice and reflecting off LA’s thick blanket of dripping smog, chasing away the darkness and replacing it with perpetual twilight. Night rarely came to LA anymore.
John Stanton walked outside and placed his hands firmly upon the rough-carved mahogany railing. Slowly he leaned forward and cast his gaze downward, letting a momentary wave of lightheadedness wash over him. A wall of stale air came rushing up to meet him, driving his wavy hair straight and ruffling the collar of his half-buttoned shirt. The view from his penthouse terrace was dizzying and John enjoyed the slight sensation of falling that always accompanied his first downward glance. From his vantage point high above he commanded a sweeping view of LA, shimmering in the midsummer heat thousands of feet below. The perpetual drone of the restless city couldn’t penetrate to these heights and John was grateful for the silence, occasionally interrupted by the hollow whisper of the wind gusting through his open terrace doors.
John’s residence was enormous. Open-aired and lavishly appointed, it was a sharp contrast to the cramped and dirty metropolis that was LA stretching out far below, its countless sprawl-laden tendrils diffusing out to the grimy horizon. His penthouse crowned the top two floors of the glass and steel Supertall that housed The Company’s main headquarters. The Supertall was a triumph of modern engineering and John–as head of The Company–had been intimately involved in every facet of its construction. Reaching over a mile and a half into the sky it was an impressive symbol of The Company’s wealth and power. The press had taken to calling it The Thorn and John liked the strength that that name suggested. Entirely self-sufficient, The Thorn had no need for an umbilical to the cities aging infrastructure or crumbling utilities. Fully off the grid, it could provide for itself all that was required. Its curved, all-black surface was pocketed with clever little structures perfectly designed to funnel moisture from passing clouds and rainstorms into massive fresh water cisterns buried deep below. The building used this captured water in a variety of manners, exploiting the frigid temperatures of the subterranean liquid to cool its many floors during the increasingly hot summer months. The Thorns outermost layer was remarkable for it was covered in a highly efficient solar skin. Lightweight yet strong, this composite mesh of cells worked tirelessly to provide the building with all the power it desired. With an albedo of virtually zero, the solar skin gave The Thorn a shadowy, matte-like finish, rendering it almost invisible in the twilight of the city. Like a black hole in the nighttime sky it hid in plain sight, silently absorbing every photon that struck it. In the daylight, when the smog rose high and danced in the vortices of the cities buildings, The Thorn resembled a lusterless black spine thrusting its sharp point high into the clouds. John liked to think of it as a modern expression of the ancient symbol for the world center–the axis mundi. Every night he imagined he went to bed atop a soaring pillar, connecting heaven to earth and the four compass directions to one another.
Several of these Thorns had been strategically placed around the world, in the few remaining cities that still functioned economically. This allowed The Company to peddle its influence regionally, a fitting commodity as petroleum supplies crashed and the world grew smaller. The Company’s Thorns dominated each urban skyline, a dark and silent citadel, tirelessly gazing upon the people, reminding them who really controlled their existence. Each Thorn was topped with a similarly luxurious residence but Johns LA penthouse was by far his favorite. He enjoyed a private kind of happiness there that he seldom felt elsewhere. Being here–out on the terrace–was the closest he came to a feeling of home, and he tried to spend as much time with that sensation as his affairs allowed.
Silently above John an AdBlimp materialized from the cloud-like smog, the daytime high-elevation charging of its solar batteries complete. Lazily it descended down to street level, powering up it’s myriad advertising stages in a day-glow multitude of color and light, readying itself for a tireless night of pushing products to the teeming masses that filled the sidewalks below. As John watched the AdBlimp diminish, a pleasant chime sounded in his ear. It was an implant he used to rouse him from his musings and it served dutifully to remind him that there was work to be done. Always more. Never less. Contemplations of the future tortured John. They consumed his waking hours and bubbled up from his mossy subconscious while he slept, rousing him from his hard fought slumbers. There were always new aspects to consider. New angles from which to gaze upon. Feint-laden subterfuges to design. Positions to strengthen here, holdings to lessen there. It all functioned to cement The Company’s hold on humanity. To make them believe that without its products, its services, or its organizations they were lost. Doomed to drown in the sea of oblivion that lapped against the walls of their increasingly fragile lives.
Reluctantly John turned his back to the glimmering city. His evening’s quest for that elusive feeling of peace would have to wait. Casually he strolled across the glazed concrete of the terrace floor. The stone felt warm on his bare feet as it radiated the days heat back into the coolness of the summer night. He stepped through the terrace doors and slid aside a large cherry wood Shoji screen diligently protecting the plush inner rooms from the high-blowing winds.
John’s penthouse was impeccably furnished in a Deco-Japanese style based strongly on craftsmanship and beauty. He stepped into an interior focused on streamlined geometric forms and metallic color and found the very act of gazing upon its many rooms calming. As he crossed into his office John’s left hand went reflexively to his pocket, rhythmically fingering the Japa Mala prayer beads he always kept on him and he silently repeated a mantra designed to gently purify and focus his mind. The thick colorful pile of his Kashmiri rug felt comfortable on his tired feet and with every step he buried his long toes deeper into its soft fibers. As he walked his toes swam in alluring hues of ruby red, aquamarine, sapphire blue, and emerald green. He still wore the silken black suit pants he had put on for the days affairs but his suit jacket had been disregarded, tossed uncaringly over a chair as he made his way out to the terrace. From the pocket of his jacket he pulled out his reading glasses, a relic from the past that he chose to entertain. Nowadays, with xenotransplantation, people just didn’t wear glasses. They bought new eyes instead, mass-produced and grown inside pigs or baboons. But John was nostalgic for certain aspects of the past and he felt that the eyes–being the window to the soul–were the one thing you just shouldn’t fuck with.
* * *
Several hours later John leaned back in his leather chair and closed his tired eyes. He had been reading a particularly frustrating report and in a rare moment of anger and weakness had tossed it onto his desk, its pages scattering chaotically across the desktop. “Fuck!” he exclaimed. The word was a verbal bullet and it echoed violently about the room shattering its quiet peacefulness. Softly, the opening movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata began to emanate from speakers concealed throughout his office. It was an attempt by HAKU, his penthouses intelligent home system/Zen hypervisor, to create a calming atmosphere and John welcomed it. As the songs pianissimo melody gradually gained momentum John removed his glasses and sunk deeper into his chair. With a practiced motion, he deftly spun and kicked his feet up onto his cluttered desk, letting the ghostly sound of the songs adagio sostenuto wash over him.
HAKU was getting good at sensing his mood John thought and he welcomed its efforts to relax him. Over the years its intricate maze of wires, sensors and optics had tirelessly studied Johns expressions and mannerisms, his words and body language. HAKU input these silent observations into its numerous relaxation algorithms, constantly rewriting and adjusting its contents. Each day it became more in sync with John’s rhythms–suggesting a song here, a change in lighting and temperature there–all in the name of keeping one of the most important people in the world comfortable and pleased.
John took a deep cleansing breath and let the music flow over him. The French composer Hector Berlioz had once said that Moonlight Sonata’s opening was one of those poems that human language does not know how to quantify. John, in an effort to rid himself of his anger, reflected on that thought as he forced a newly inhaled breath deep into his lungs. He imagined the air flowing into every part of his body, infinitely filling him with a radiating sense of calmness. When he could hold the breath no longer John exhaled forcefully, releasing his anger and frustration on the spent breath–a fragile ball of negativity for the universe to devour. He did this three more times and then slowly opened his eyes.
“Feeling better.” A woman’s voice spoke, interrupting the sonata’s fiery final movement. From the tone John couldn’t be sure if it was a question or a statement and that made him nervous. It was a feeling he occasionally felt from the woman behind the voice and he felt his pulse quicken.
John kicked his feet off his desk and leaned forward, squaring his shoulders and gripping the desks firm curved edges. It was an intimidating pose he routinely struck when conducting business and, having been caught off guard, he fell into it out of habit. He stared keenly into the half-light of his office’s long hallway. A hallway that admitted the sundry politicians, generals, and officials who found themselves allied with The Company.
Standing there, just inside the door was Ekaterina Maxinova, John’s exotic and young personal assistant. She obviously had been watching him perform his breathing exercises and that unsettled John. She had an innate ability to materialize whenever John’s emotions deviated from his normal self. He got the feeling that she hadn’t made up her mind about him yet. Like she was a young lioness just learning how to hunt, toying with her prey before callously slaying it. He presumed she used these instances of silent observation to add weight to the balance of her opinions about him and John cursed himself for providing her with yet another occasion.
Ekaterina strode confidently down the lengthy hallway and pushed into the openness of John’s plush office. She was tall and slender, sleek and toned. Like chiseled stone brought to life. She wore a form fitting turquoise skirt that fell just above her knee and a cream-colored sleeveless blouse with a suggestive yet tasteful neckline. She had green eyes and long lashes. The lashes John suspected were fake, a young woman’s indulgence, but the jury was still out regarding her eyes. They seemed far too intense to be real and he suspected the flecks of gold mixed in with the green we’re synthetic–most likely a night vision or infrared upgrade. He figured someone in her profession could use a good set of augmented eyes so he didn’t press the matter further.
Ekaterina was born at the intersection of beauty and viciousness and had been raised to use both qualities to her advantage. A product of the Communist Bloc’s efforts to militarize its endless supply of orphaned children, she had been trained in two of the deadliest arts: seduction and violence and she repeatedly executed both for John flawlessly. She crossed the distance between them with several even, confident strides and John watched with boyish wonder as Ekaterina’s long legs swung effortlessly back and forth with the deliberate rhythm of a pendulum. Ekaterina’s every fiber exuded femininity and John found he was just as susceptible to its essence as any man. The Company had recruited her to be his assistant, his bodyguard, and his assassin but more recently John had entered into a more carnal association with her.
She walked up to the desk and delicately placed a file before him. “I’m not some silly pawn in your various games of world domination John” Ekaterina spoke. “You can relax around me you know,” she said. John wanted to believe this but her body language contradicted that statement entirely. Back erect, gaze focused, arms tensed and shoulders squared; she cast a formidable presence standing there, perfectly mirroring Johns commanding posture. She was like a wound spring set at any moment to release its stored energy and it made John uncomfortable.
“I’m feeling much better Katya.” John said assertively, changing the subject. “Just some difficulty with our Singapore operations. But we anticipated this. Things are getting dicey over there.”
“Do you need me to pay them a visit?” Katya asked, her eyes locking on his. An evil smile began to spread across her red painted lips. “I can be quite persuasive.” she said, sitting down on the corner of his desk. Her thigh softly grazed his unguarded hand, and as she sat the slit of her skirt revealed a sizeable portion of her tan upper thigh. John looked away quickly, awkwardly averting Katya’s cold steel gaze. Why does she make me feel so uncomfortable he wondered? It was as if he was twelve years old again and trying to kiss a girl for the first time. But there was something else mixed in too. Like he was witnessing the aftermath of a high-speed car wreck, people and destruction strewn about. He didn’t want to look but at the same time he was strangely curious.
Ekaterina was dangerous; he knew that in his mind. And on more than one occasion he had borne witness to her ferocity, had watched as she unflinchingly performed her role. But despite her callous approach to violence bodily he still craved her. Katya knew it too and she welcomed her new geisha-like role, relishing in pleasuring him as much as she enjoyed assassinating an unlucky dignitary. John had to hastily reject this line of thinking, as it was a starting to become a distraction for him. He pushed it away for later contemplation and picked up the report Katya had handed him. He pressed his thumb firmly to its corner, releasing the encryption and making it contents readable. It was from Sheila and as he read it, a smile slowly formed on his usually stoic face.
“Good news?” Katya asked, rising soundlessly from her perch on the corner of John’s desk. She knelt down and began to collect the scattered contents of John’s discarded file from the floor. “Very good news actually. Remember that VA prostitute we came across last year? You know, the skinny one from Michigan? Made wild declarations of being able to see the future? What was her name again?” John could never recall such small details. He hastily brushed aside the papers cluttering his desktop, knocking the file Katya had just rearranged for him back onto the floor. She shot him an icy look, like death distilled, but he was too focused to notice.
Rapidly John drummed a series of keystrokes across his marble desktop, causing a pair of sizeable holo-displays to materialize before him. Instantly the screens jumped to life, bathing the office in its hollow palette of digital tones. John leaned in closely,his nose inches from the screens, and began intently scanning a sub-list of scrolling files, the holo-displays washing out his face in glowing hues of orange and blue. “Here she is.” he exclaimed, grabbing the blinking file out of mid-air and dropping its ethereal contents into Sheila’s already open report. Before he could continue Katya interrupted him. “The woman you speak of is named Chloroquine Jones” Katya recited from memory, assuming a pose that suggested she was accessing a store of banked information. “She prefers to go by the shorter name Chloe. Twenty-one, five foot two inches with auburn hair, she is the seventh child of William and Ruth Jones and their only daughter. Barely educated, she left home early and found employment as a prostitute. More recently she has developed a preference for living close to bodies of water.”
“Right!” John exclaimed. He was getting excited now. “She fell onto our radar after we took over the Federal Brothel System from the US Military. The Company routinely audits all of its new employees as part of the integration process and her affliction, some sort of pseudo-syphilis that’s currently tearing its way through the Sprawlands, caught our interest because it produced an interesting side effect in her.
“She’s clairvoyant.” Katya replied, visualizing the woman’s file in her highly organized mind. “Some sort of temporal displacement in her optic nerve being maintained by the pseudo-syphilis. I remember her. The Company was trying to find a way to militarize it or use her powers to further its agenda but got nowhere. So what’s changed? Can The Company see the future now John?” Katya asked sarcastically.
“No, not necessarily. We can see glimpses, but it’s only from Chloe’s viewpoint. Hers and some retired Air Force Captain named Spontaneous Grant. They’re somehow linked. We think she first became clairvoyant while they were having sex and she somehow transferred her ability to this Captain Grant. Most likely by passing the pseudo-syphilis on to him.” John replied. He could feel himself getting worked-up inside as he spoke that last sentence. These drug-addled veterans the military is releasing from duty act like they’ve never heard of putting on a condom. John thought. No wonder this disease is eating its way through the Sprawlands with such ferocity. These people can’t keep their dicks out of each other. John sat down forcefully at his desk and began angrily punching out a series of commands. Thinking about how irresponsible people could be always caused him to get worked up. Especially when their actions directly affected his plans, The Company’s plans. The knee-jerk behavior of these mindless hordes was the one thing he could never adequately predict, could never completely plan for. It always meant he had to play both sides, put his money down on all the bets, even the losing ones because sometimes they came up winners. Case in point John thought to himself.
Before him a multitude of videos and associated metrics began to cascade across the dual holo-displays, each video cycling through the myriad wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum from microwave through visible and out to ultraviolet. It was an orgy of color and light. “I’ve been watching them both.” John said pointing to the videos. Put a Goon Squad on each of them, Chloe and Grant, in the off chance that something might come up. Total information awareness, standard protocol. We’ve had around the clock, four-dimensional surveillance and full spectrum listening of their comings and going for some time now. I was going to pull the plug on the whole thing but then something interesting happened.”
“What’s that?” Katya asked. She was suddenly intrigued, becoming less deliberate, more casual, and came behind him to look at the videos. “Captain Grant started building a machine.” John said eagerly. “We had no idea what kind of machine he was building but we could tell it was complex. We tried to perform mind scans when he came into the VA to refill his Veilflex prescriptions, see if we could take a peek forward and see what it was that he built, but the scans just looked like snow on a black screen. His minds pretty far gone by now Katya. Life’s been tough on him, he spent a few months in a Bacta-tank recovering from some pretty horrific wounds, but this pseudo-syphilis has been even tougher on him. We’re not even sure if it’s him or this disease that’s controlling his actions these days. He moves like a marionette being controlled by a blind person, it’s unsettling to watch, but his actions are clearly deliberate and he gets by. Anyway, The Company analysts over in the Intelligence division determined he must have been trying to recreate some piece of future technology. And as long as he kept seeing it we were going to help him build it.” John said, pushing back from his desk and narrowly avoiding hitting Katya with his chair. Luckily she had well-tuned reflexes and dodged it effortlessly. John turned to face her, looking up into her intensely inquisitive eyes. Such a strange creature he thought to himself as his eyes lingered on hers.
“So what happened?” Katya asked, hanging on his every word. John waited a few moments before he spoke. Let her dangle on the line a little bit longer before I set the hook he thought. “It turns out Captain Grant powered-up his machine today.” He finally said, watching Katya’s eyes go wide momentarily with child-like excitement, only to quickly harden as her programming at the hands of her Slavic masters kicked back in. “What did it do?” Katya asked excitedly, leaning in, her hands pinning John’s wrists to the arms of his chair. “Blow-up his housing complex? Take out a city block?” John could see the gears of her mind contemplating various demises for poor Mr. Grant and he smiled.
“Nope, none of that. It was nothing like that at all actually. What it did do when he turned it on was swallow-up a guy in the apartment above. Some nobody by the name of Henry Agathon. We think it sent him into a parallel world but we can’t be sure yet.” John said, struggling to free his wrists from Katya’s iron grip. She maintained the pressure on his arms, staring at him in quiet disbelief, a cavalcade of thoughts racing through her highly conditioned mind. John’s hands were starting to sting for a lack of blood and he squirmed a bit in his seat. “I’ve had an Agent on the case all along, she’s been masquerading as this Agathon fellows girlfriend and this is her report.” John said wincingly, freeing one hand finally and motioning to Sheila’s file. “She’s coming in via the Skylane from San Fran, red-lining it in the whole way, should be here soon. Why don’t you take the turbo-lift down to the Skyport and meet her? You’ll like her, I promise.” John said assuredly.
Katya stood and released her grip on Johns remaining arm, the imprint of her hand slowly fading into a purplish-red mark. “Sorry about that wrist” she said turning swiftly to leave. “You can get me back later tonight I promise.” she offered, a mischievous smile spreading across her red full lips.