Chapter Two - August
ONE HALF OF KNOWING
What variety of demon chases the soul of a man out from his own private eternity?
Is it the echo of unformed pain resounding within the flesh of his ambition? The ticking clock of incremental regrets counting out the remainder of his days? The shattering of darkness complicating even the grandest oblivion? Or the involuntary cry for help unanswered?
All of these and none, wearing his own face, looking back though his own eyes with an inescapable vacuity present in even the most steadied outward gaze. The daily competing crises, the unending task of personal resurrection, the monotony of intoxication, the confining shallows of narcissism. The man, once confident striding out upon the familiar shifting of this terrain, is now uncertain. He senses something watching him from beneath this ceaseless swamp, a familiar presence without a name. The demon waits for him patiently, outside the passage of hours. It stalks him relentlessly, immune to distance or circumstance. It may destroy him in an instant, although lacking the force of the slightest breeze.
The man spends his days not hearing this faint whisper he cannot afford to ignore, becoming a constant refugee from the omnipresence of an unrecognized foe. He may conquer the universe, yet this will not deliver him. For, though as insubstantial as a dream within a dream, the demon holds a devastating advantage. It is this.
The demon is only as real as the man is false.
Only in these morning hours of interrupted dreams, rare moments of wakefulness, exposed nerves played by a ragged wind - only now can the man hear the demon call his name.
This time the man answers back.
* * * * * * * * *
The man’s cry, which could not travel through the vacuum beyond his helmet, felt as though it travelled all the long way back home to an intimate place on the vivid blue world balanced above the horizon. Mesmerised by the planet’s beauty, he had been drawn out here, sleepwalking out of a morning dream, yet in some way more awake than he had been in a long time. The contrast between the living Earth and the strange country of light and darkness, which he currently inhabited, mirrored this inner dichotomy. Shadows retreating from the merciless brilliance of the rising Sun on the surrounding regolith plains were jet black. The man padded himself through his suit for reassurance that he was still alive against the evidence of his eyes that life, in this place, was never intended.
The man’s name was August Bridges, but the fact of this name and the history of circumstance attaching it to the wealthiest person in the solar system were irrelevant at the moment. At the moment he was simply a man in pain, as he had been long before the name had outgrown its owner. The dream, which had inspired this morning’s exodus, was from that time. From before his ambition had replaced friendships. From before isolation and loneliness had become his last refuge.
The indicator blinking in August’s neuroview told him that his oxygen was running low. How long had he been out here? He reluctantly turned back, and then panicked when he realised how far he had walked away from the station. He must be kilometers away from safety. Puffing as he bounded back, steadily sucking in the remaining air in his tanks, August realised this time he had gone too far. As his stride fell into a slow trudge, and his lungs shrunk, August tripped and fell on his side, staring back at the angelic Earth and praying for deliverance. His eyelids began to narrow, focusing on a path homewards into the safety offered by his dream.
He struggled against their fall. Unwilling to surrender his life with all of his sacrifices, feeling its fragility in each labored breath. It was impossible that August Bridges, the legend he had become, could actually die so easily and so stupidly. Like a moth lured into a flame. It simply was not possible.
There had to be another way. There must be. It was to this flicker of possibility that August committed his survival. Having decided to continue at this moment only one thing was sure. It was time for August Bridges to wake up.
“August. August. Respond to me please.”
“I’m here Dmitri,” August thought back to the voice in his mind.
Even his thoughts became whispers. Was answering a mistake? Surely it was better to just let go.
“I hear you my friend. Thank God. I have locked on your coordinates.”
August attempted to stand, but his muscles demanded too much oxygen and he swooned again, falling back into his dream, promising himself it was only for a moment.
The alarm in his helmet, a mosquito’s buzz, pried its way into the recurring dream until he could ignore it no more. August swatted it away. The action rolled him off of his side onto his back. He lapped at the residual air in his suit, extracting what life was left in it.
Where was he? August wasn’t sure anymore. His eyes rested on the cooling blue and white circle hanging alone in a field of infinite blackness above.
“Mom? Is that where you are?”
“Who are you talking to August? Is there someone with you?”
Then August remembered. They had chased him away from there. His own people. All he had wanted to do was save them. Ignoring Dmitri’s question, August closed his eyes and did not answer, leaving the pain to burrow back into another time when he had been happy. To the point where Anya’s eyes had first left his.
Was this where it had all begun to go wrong?
“August. This is Dmitri. You’ve gone Out okay? Don’t do anything stupid. Your head is screwed up. I’m on your trail - I’m coming for you.”
Dmitri’s voice forced August’s eyes back open. Why wouldn’t they just leave him alone? August rolled off the mound where he had fallen and onto his stomach. He groggily lifted his helmet out of the talcum soil and suspiciously regarded twin lights rolling towards his location. Sweat dripped into his eyes, turning the view into mirage. The indicator panel floating in his mind’s eye warned him that the cooling system circulation in his suit was beginning to slow. If he didn’t get back inside soon he would fry like an egg out here, if he didn’t suffocate first. The lights winked out as the rover went down into some riffle in the terrain; August panicked for a moment at the thought that his pursuer had disappeared.
Couldn’t they hurry up and catch him? He was too exhausted to run and he wasn’t sure anymore who he had run from, only that he had crimes enough to answer for. And then he wasn’t sure even of that. Nothing made sense. August huddled into himself, clinging to all that was left to him, his dream, his future, his past.
“Augustus Mishen’ka, I see you. I see you. I’m coming.”
August reacted to Dmitri’s entreaty by curling tighter into himself. Whatever they did to him when they caught him, whatever uncertain terrors had driven him from the protection of the station to certain death where he lay - for a short while more he had a hiding place they could not reach.
This was the place in his dream August wanted to stay in, a place far away from the exposed conscious part of his mind which was busy ignoring the red blinking indicators that his neurovisor projected into it.
“August? August? Can you hear me? Shit. Please don’t be dead.”
“Give me some sign. Move.”
Insistent tugging jerked August up to his feet and back into what was left of his life. A familiar presence linked into the unsecured part of his mind, flipping through the life support monitors floating in his imagination. They quickly changed color from red through yellow towards green as energy and oxygen were injected into his suit.
“Thank God you are still alive. You lucky shit. You stupid, stupid ass of a man.”
Dmitri was weeping. Such a good friend.
Energised by the injection of oxygen, August flailed his arms, kicking, twisting, and offering what resistance he was able offer, kicking up a cloud of dust that launched away into the vacuum with unbroken momentum.
“Leave me be,” he whimpered.
“Slow down idiot. I’m trying to save you.”
The infusion of energy quickly exhausted, August went limp and felt his body being lifted, feather-light, off of the ground and over a shoulder. A spasm of paranoia tightened his heart. This was it. They had caught up with him, and he was even grateful it would soon all be over. August fell once more into sleep, protected by the truth that there was nothing real in his fear.
His dream ran out into darkness.
Later, out of a fog and unsure where he was, August wrestled to pull a tube out from his nose. Achieving his purpose, he rubbed his nosebleed across his face and wondered why he was here in the infirmary. The acrid smell of burnt charcoal reminded him that he was still on the Moon. When he reached for the bed rail he was given another reminder as a painful jolt of static electricity fired through his body. August leaned over the railing and puked, watching the vomit arc lackadaisically out across the room and skid lightly across the floor into a corner where it began to evaporate into the parched artificial atmosphere. Hanging over the rail, August noticed where the ground wire on the bed had not been attached. There was the source of his nausea. Not only that but the therapeutic vibrator in the bed base that helped bones and flesh retain their mass in lunar gravity wasn’t even hooked up. Someone was going to lose their job over that.
At that point August recovered himself and who and where he was. He remembered he had fired almost everyone. Damn Gudanko and his pedantic pencil sharpening. August had sent them home to make a point. As if the safety of the Mirtopik Com CEO was as luxury. No unnecessary expense would be needed to support his exile on the Moon, and Gudanko could go shove that up his tight ass.
That was basically what he said at the time, although the other reason, which August wouldn’t admit to, was that he felt safer without so many potential assassins wandering about. With numbers down to a very short list of people he still believed he could trust, and the crater walls of Plato separating him from the shift workers in the helium-3 mines down South in the Sea of Rains, August felt almost safe. Almost.
Except that he didn’t. And time was running out.
Which brought him back to the question of why he was wasting time here in the infirmary. August coughed uncontrollably as he attempted to leave the bed. He reflexively reached for the vaporizer that simultaneously countered a litany of symptoms of living on the Moon: sinus passages continually overfilled with gravitationally liberated body fluids, constant heartburn as stomach acids lifted off into his oesophagus, throat and mouth lining scalded away by a parsimonious atmospheric pressure, and a host of other irritations. At least this was working. After a few drags he was able to settle himself enough to climb out of bed. His dehydrated body ached as he made his way to the sink for a drink.
There he was confronted by an army of Augusts reflected endlessly in wrap around mirrors, each reflection as dishevelled as the rest, only from a slightly different angle.
“My God,” August recoiled, “the hair.”
The static standoff occurring on his scalp exaggerated the one aspect of August’s appearance with which he felt wholly unsatisfied. An exploded fault line of a cowlick jagged across his head from mid-brow to the crest of his spine. Hair fell indiscriminately about the rift like a forest knocked down in a windstorm. The condition could be easily corrected, if only he had not let it become his signature. In earlier days the “hair bomb,” as Gregori had named it, had given August a rangy, boyish appearance that endeared him to others and encouraged trust. So August had kept it, cultivated it in truth, cutting it jagged, scrambling his fingers through the golden thatch, letting it fly in the wind.
Time had removed the charm. Middle-aged grey and a general hardening of his features should have accentuated what he was, a man in the prime of life at the crest of his powers. Instead he was crowned like an eccentric mad scientist. The only thing that would look more ridiculous now would be getting rid of it. The vanity of an aging man was not something August was ready to admit to the world, and besides no one would recognize him. If they were to mint a coin with August Bridges’ head on it, half of it would be this hair.
August pushed his dripping locks carefully in place, appreciating the temporary order enforced by a rapidly evaporating dampness.
“August?” It was Dmitri.
Startled, August turned to escape only to slip on vomit and drop slowly to the floor. Dmitri caught him halfway. Recovering, August pushed Dmitri back and drew himself to full height, struggling to enact some semblance of dignity.
“What, what am I doing here?”
Dmitri laughed his disbelief. “Staying alive for a start.”
August flattened his hair again with frustrated brushes of his hand.
“This is no joke Dmitri.”
“No, no, no my friend. No it isn’t.” Dmitri smiled and shook his head and embraced August tightly. “Death is no joke, at least we never see the humor in our own. On the other hand our life? Hmm.”
August struggled, reluctantly, to free himself from Dmitri’s steady support.
“What are you crapping on about? We have things to do. I don’t understand.”
“Is okay. You are confused, no? Not so surprising. I found you out there with only enough oxygen to fill your tiny prick. A few minutes more, world loses its favorite pain in ass.”
August attempted to stare his friend back into place, but Dmitri responded with the casual insolence of long familiarity. It did not matter how far August had come, Dmitri had been with him the whole way.
“I saved your ridiculous life. Don’t be such peacock.”
August raked his hair and it flicked back into disorder. “Okay. Tell me what happened.”
“What happened? I come all way up here to kick your head out of the clouds. What happens? You are nowhere to be found. I thought you were hiding in the Station somewhere. Instead you are laying on ass five kilometers out towards the crater wall.”
“But I called you up?”
“Why else am I here? Am I rich enough to come as tourist?”
August smiled. “Actually, you are.”
Dmitri frowned, “Actually, you don’t watch our share price.”
“What would be the point in that?”
August gave his leave before Dmitri could respond to the provocation. “When I am dressed and more myself, and we each have a few drinks behind us, better you tell me then.”
“Better I stay with you.”
“You want to hold my dick while I piss?”
Dmitri regarded August with exasperation. “You are going crazy out here.”
“If it makes you happy, I’ll give you access to the ComSec cams in my eyes.”
“It would make me happy.”
August focused his attention through a series of menus in his imagination and linked over to Dmitri’s neuroview to transfer the relevant permissions.
August watched Dmitri’s eyes twitch as his mind’s eye linked into August’s perspective looking back at his own face.
“So that is how you look at me.” Satisfied, Dmitri shrugged. “Okay Boss. Call me.”
On his way back to his cabin, August pushed away a curious impulse to turn back towards the airlocks instead. Entering the room he checked the corners for hidden assailants and, finding none, welcomed his loneliness back like an embrace. Loneliness had become his refuge. It was the backdrop against which everything else in his life came to be. Wasn’t his greatness the product of his abandonment? People would not follow those who followed others, and he had still to lead them a very long way.
August thought open the skylight and gazed past the Earth out to the stars. The Earth might have rejected him but the stars were where his destiny lay. Even in the early days, those stars had called out to him, if only in a metaphoric sense. These days, of course, August had the ability to pick up the phone and listen to their conversations. One day, not too distant in the future, they would call him home.
Reclining into his webbing, a hammock like chair he had mentally commanded to descend from a portal in the ceiling, August extracted his neurovisor from his skull and waited for it to cycle through its repair and cleaning algorithms. The neurovisor looked like a pair of spectacles without lenses, the cross-bridge instead merging into a stem leading to a writhing mass of almost imperceptible silver threads that, when positioned correctly, would feel their way to the center of his forehead and into a network of pore sized portals that had been drilled through his skull. There they would merge with the neurons in his brain and link his mind to the neuronet. It seemed almost too creepy to work, but it did.
After removing the device, the room felt expansive. August breathed easier. It seemed contradictory that extraction of a technology that expanded his senses into an endless virtual panorama would contribute to his claustrophobia. Removing it made him feel vulnerable, as if the majority of his senses had been suddenly blinded. But without it his thoughts were also completely his own.
What, August wondered, had happened to him out there? How had ended up nearly dying so far out on the edge? Why would he have wanted to run from Dmitri, of all people? These were all bad signs, indicators of the inexorable degradation of sanity that visited whoever left the Earth for too long. Of course the Moon was supposedly close enough to avoid the more extreme symptoms of that condition. Then again he was in the process of setting some kind of record given the length of his exile. The lunar miners that those studies were based on were all one month on, two month off shifts. August had been here much longer than that.
There was a knock on his door, a sound that had become unfamiliar to August. Why hadn’t Dmitri mentally telegraphed his request to enter? Looking down at his neurovisor, August remembered why. He walked over to the door and searched awkwardly for the manual latch.
“Are you there August?”
“Yes, just a moment.”
The door slid open as August mastered the switch.
August motioned to the table and his neurovisor.
“You took it off?”
“I needed to think. Come sit.”
Dmitri casually summoned another webbing from the ceiling with a twitch of his eye. A beverage tube descended between the seats.
“Vodka tonic?” Dmitri asked as August seated himself first.
August picked up the suppressed tension in Dmitri’s motions as he carefully poured the drinks. “Why are you here Dmitri?”
“Not this. Are you going to run out on me again?”
“No. Seriously. Why?”
“You called me up. Remember?”
“I’ve called you up before. Many times. You didn’t come then. No, there must be a reason.”
Dmitri’s posture tightened and he exhaled audibly. “Do you have to ask, or are you trying to make some kind of point?”
“The other Directors. Gudanko?”
“No. No, of course not him.”
Dmitri scowled. “Are you being obtuse? This is me.”
It was as August feared. “They got to you.”
“I am here for my own reasons August. What? Do you think I went to all this trouble to climb up someone’s asshole? I would have had a much shorter trip back in LA.”
Dmitri set his drink aside and stiffened. “They’re dead August.”
August tugged at his hair, composing his features to best express his sympathy.
“Sacha, Gennadiya, Irina.”
Dmitri shook his head. “I haven’t heard.”
August released his breath. “Dmitri, we’ve been over this. What do you know?”
“Sacha. My brother. Definitely. Mama told me.”
“I’m so sorry Dmitri, Sacha. Such a terrible sacrifice.”
“Sacrifice? Sacrifice? You think he died for some cause? It was senseless. He was shot leading a group trying to break into a Com warehouse trying to help widows and children survive the famine. He died fighting us. Fighting me.”
“That’s incredible Dmitri, and so senseless. Why didn’t he just ask for your help instead? This is what comes of siding with Revs.”
“Revs? You know better. We used to be on their side remember?”
“Yes Dmitri. I remember. But...”
“But? But what? You think this has nothing to do with you? You bring down the economy of whole countries and it is nothing to do with you?”
August smoothed his hair and sipped his drink intently. “Dmitri, this was never what we wanted. Things will get better.”
“No August. We didn’t intend. But it all went too far too long ago. Let our Hubs out of their contracts, it is time. Let them go back to Ecos. For the love of God.”
August swirled the alcohol in his mouth. “At least now I know, Dmitri. You didn’t come from the Board.”
Dmitri’s expression hardened and he shook his head. “Tell me August, when you make a whole society dependent on the share price of the Com that you head, don’t you have some responsibility to that society?”
August widened his eyes in sympathy. “You know the answer already Dmitri. Would we be here without those contracts? Do you think we would have developed the moon with a ‘gratitude economy’? How do you thank someone for the favour of freedom? We needed capital, upfront not after the fact. Where would all the energy come from for society, for geo-engineering to repair Gaia? Packaging up all the plastic floating in the Pacific in reflective wrapping to increase the Earth’s albedo. A million micro-pipelines in Siberia intercepting melting methane. Absorcrete dry reefs. This all takes power. Where do we get it? Look out the window man, from our helium-3 mines on the Moon. And then, when the aliens have told us how to conquer Space.”
Dmitri scowled. “That’s where you have to stop August. Space? Listen to yourself. This capital doesn’t come from nowhere. This isn’t a hundred years ago, before we strip-mined the planet. It doesn’t take much to destabilise Gaia these days.”
“Hey, hey, my friend. Sit and drink. Calm yourself. We both know where this leads. The reason we came back to the moon, the reason we abandoned the Ecolution. The damage was too deep to lead anywhere but a long decline. Humanity deserves better. We made this decision together.”
Dmitri tentatively returned to his seat, tears welling. “August, I don’t know anymore. The price has been too high.”
August’s hair bristled. “Do I believe what I am hearing? Dmitri - my Dmitri - throwing up his hands. Such crap. The exergy imported from the moon, helium-3 fusion is even creating Ecos, because the eco balance is positive. And when we have Space, Mars, the Solar System?”
“Stop August. Can you hear yourself? The Moon, it has begun to pay off, almost, a little bit. But these other adventures besides?”
“This is unbelievable. You want to quit now when everything is nearly in place? The lunar mines, the Mercury antimatter factory, MASO, the deep space listening stations already tuning in on extra-terrestrials. Even the monks that man them have been prepaid. These are sunk costs.”
“You think Mirtopik isn’t bleeding, August. Do you think there are no on costs? Do you think the world even still needs our exergy, with all the gaiatech development happening down there? The Board has had it. The shareholders, whole countries, have been cut from food distribution through the Nets because you got them to trade their Eco rights for shares in your mad dream. They gave you everything you wanted. And what return have they seen from these exorbitant projects? The aliens have told us nothing.”
“Of course they have. We’ve already heard from five alien civilisations. We’ve opened the galaxy. We know we are not alone. We know it is possible.”
Dmitri pressed his temple. “August. The promise was space travel. Cheap and affordable space travel. Myself, I thought you were mad but went along because things looked differently then. Now I know.”
August was rolling now. “Have I not delivered? Five times.”
“What? Five ETs with less tech than us. What kind of payback is that? People aren’t eating August.”
“Why are you doing this Dmitri? You know the deal. The Sys and the Hubs control the Earth, mostly. All our Coms have left, besides Russia and a few Free Cities, is Space. That is the Peace that we ourselves negotiated for the continuation of the Free Markets. If we back down?”
“It’s time to reconsider August. People, people we love are starving. Isn’t the Moon enough? The AGM is a chance to step back, to reconsider, to be reasonable.”
“Reasonable? Get out of here.” August wrestled his friend from his webbing and towards the door.
“What? You are insane.”
Exhausted, August stalled on the way and drooped pathetically. “You betray everything. Go back to Gudanko and tell him he can stick his numbers up his ass. If I tuck in my tail and give in, who will lead Mirtopik Com? Who?”
“August I’m not...”
“You came here to kill me.”
August saw Dmitri flinch, which revealed an unexpected truth in his asinine accusation.
“You are. You give yourself away. I see it in your face. You’ve come to finish what Gudanko is too pristine to dirty his hands with.”
Dmitri shook August roughly. “You are the most ridiculous man. Should I have spared myself the trouble by not saving you in the first place. Go to hell.”
The door snapped shut behind Dmitri as he left August slumping to the floor.
“The shareholders will still believe in me,” August shouted after him. “You’ll see. You all will.”
Weary, August pulled himself back up using his webbing and held his cleaned neurovisor to his forehead, waiting for the tendrils to squirm their way back into his brain. He would show Dmitri, that coward. August Bridges fail? Traitor.
Following a thought command, a new reality painted over August’s third eye as the room faded into the background, retaining only enough substantiality for August to maintain his balance and to keep him from walking into walls.
August strode out into his ComSyn, a projected stylized map of the world where three-dimensional icons indicated the offices and operations of Mirtopik’s myriad empire and alliances. Graphs and executive summaries floated about the heavens like majestic flocks of birds. Pulsing red pointed out current Rev flash points. Green sinew connected these attacks to flesh out the bodies of declared Campaigns. The sabotaged launch pad connected to the class action suit connected to the coordinated supply chain disrupts connected to the Hub boycott.
Divining the strategies and affiliations of the ramble of enemies and allies that lurked behind these divergent flat facts employed an army of Syns. The writhing, world-embracing creatures projected live from the intertwined brains of thousands of people, computer systems, satellites and nanoid sensors into August’s virtual domain were wondrous to behold.
A large green thicket ran wildly around and over Papua New Guinea and surrounding islands. The bleeding beast at its core BilongMeCom, a Mirtopik Com subsidiary, was facing a hostile ecoversion takeover coordinated by the Revs. Although structurally no different, a majority of stock was now held and traded within a close knit family of Hubs and Nets, and the Sys to which they were integrated. The Board of the Com would now be replaced or otherwise intimidated until they fell into line with their new masters.
August would have, in his previous life, cheered news of a big ecoversion together with the rest. Ecoversion meant power and wealth being shared more democratically, or rather, and more importantly, that someone else wasn’t enjoying your birth-right. But ecoversion was ultimately about jealousy. They’d all been raised on the propaganda - about how the Ecolution had saved the planet, about how people had finally risen up over the century to claim their rightful share of diminishing ecological resources and in so doing had stopped disaster, about how nearly all the Coms now included the Earth in their balance sheet, with the Ecos from their realignment being ‘recycled’ to the services supporting the poorest and most vulnerable.
Crap. All gone to shit.
Take Ecos for instance. A good idea. Give economic value to efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by making that the basis of money. It gave everyone something to do after automation had taken most of the jobs away. A good idea. But what had they done with the Eco once it became the new God? To begin with the formula had been straight forward. Everyone understood it. Any physicist could calculate it. But now they had complicated it to fit some religious idiocy about a living planet. And once the high priests had taken over GEO, the lunatics were in charge of the asylum. Now the formulae changed every year, chasing this mysterious goal of Alignment, that elusive point where all the sins of the Fathers would be paid out.
And what would that accomplish? Intergenerational equity. What a crock. Had our forebears given a shit about us when they cranked the thermostat on the planet to just below survivable and flooded the cities and salted the Earth. So why was everyone eager for Mirtopik Com to pay out on the bad bets of the long dead? This kind of thinking only killed the ambition and creativity need to clean up the awful mess. It wasn’t like people were going to suddenly start doing the right thing for no reward. Since when had human beings been wired for altruism?
That’s the world Dmitri wanted to latch back onto - back to sucking off the tit of a worn out Mother Earth. Was that a manly thing to do? How disappointing.
Viva the Ecolution. A toast to the beautiful memory it had become. What was it now? This sad, long unwinding of human potential. The Earth was no place to look to live a life. Only Space could deliver true abundance and new wealth. Goddamn Dmitri. Now it would only be himself, August Bridges alone, who would ultimately save the cause everyone thought he had betrayed. One day they would understand.
August grimaced at the problems on display before him, specifically the screw up in PNG. Someone had been asleep at the wheel here with this ecoversion and he knew who it was.
With a thought he materialised in Duoshi’s office, or rather in Duoshi’s office as it existed in the idiot’s brain. Too clean, especially for someone whose responsibilities so clearly exceeded the hapless salary man’s capability. It would have given August pleasure for the shock of his unannounced entrance to throw at least the wall hangings into disarray, but the Mirtopik Head of East Asian Integration responded with the well-practiced placidity that never failed to infuriate August.
He spent a fruitless hour of grilling Duoshi over his failure, which was inevitable given the decay of relations with the Nets over the usual complaints on local control over ecological benefits. August left the meeting with a frustrated sense of his increasing irrelevance. In the old days he would have handed Duoshi his ass. He stopped short sensing that it would might look like he was lashing out, which might be perceived as a sign of weakness to the Board. Too much had happened today anyway and he didn’t have the energy.
As August strode back across the Pacific towards California, one of the Rev alerts, impatiently swooping up and down over Fiji caught August’s attention - a display window containing a stylized chalk outline of a body. When he looked at it the summary indicated an assassination attempt at Mirtopik Com headquarters in Los Angeles. August clutched his hair and groaned. All of his nightmares and paranoia came at once to the fore.
Who was it? Many of August’s key allies were based out of LA and a loss of any of them could have a critical impact on the outcome of the Annual General Meeting. The thought sent August into a rage. Why the hell hadn’t ComSec briefed him? Did they think that because the boss was locked away on the Moon that they didn’t have to do their jobs? Someone was going to pay for this screw up. His angry stare told the alert box to swoosh over to meet him out near the coast of Hawaii.
He read the summary with trepidation and, as he did, his hair bristled. The lack of information was ridiculous. To begin with there was no name, just the fact that the victim was a member of the Com executive. Not even his position was included. For all August knew it was just some assistant vice president, but it could be bad. Dmitri? But it couldn’t be Dmitri. Dmitri was here. What was going on with his memory? Frustrated, August was about to discard the alert box and head over to ComSec when he noticed the location and date details of the death. The date was in the future, a few days time, and the place was . . . the Moon? An icon near the location details offered pictures. August ordered them up.
A single photo appeared containing a dimly lit tall figure with a prominent thatch of hair that August recognized instantly. The face in the picture was his.
The caption read “AUGUST BRIDGES. Struck down in the prime of his time.”
What the hell?
A wall pressing against his back stopped August from backing away and contained his urge to run and hide. This was the realisation of every fear that had chased him to the Moon, which had left him cowering in the most remote of exiles, and which, at the arrival of a ship purportedly carrying his trusted deputy, had driven him out to almost certain death.
But, for some reason, this validation of the threat that had driven him to the edge of madness and death had a calming effect. Phantoms could not be fought, but a flesh and blood adversary? August had a long history of overcoming many of these. August’s mind, stimulated by a real challenge, became clearer as he considered the possibilities.
Apparently he wasn’t dead, so what was this? Some Hax prank? “In the prime of his time?” For pity's sake. But of course August knew who it was.
“Calvin30,” August commanded but the neurolink rang through to a message bank. “Pick up, damn you.”
Whatever shit Calvin30 got up to on his behalf August was sure he didn’t want to know, but he was always off line at the worst time, even on the most urgent channels. Times like this he’d love to fire the little bastard. The problem with owning people was that you simply couldn’t get rid of them.
August thought through the situation. Classic Calvin30 to leave things out in the breeze, trailing breadcrumbs leading through mazes within mazes. Smart-ass.
Although it pissed him off, August had to accept the logic. Following the tracks as Calvin30 left them made August sniff the wind and touch the soil in which they were embedded. And far more critical, in these days of exile, this engaged August instead of isolating him.
So what was going on here?
August’s attention moved to the green Campaign lines creeping out from the Alert to the Four Corners.
“Pull links to Alert 827E.” August thought.
A mad mob of images flapped down, perching in green branches sprouting up underneath the named Alert. August followed the thickest branch down to a report detailing a number of small Alignment account transfers from the Directors’ discretionary funds to several Pacific Island Orgs having something to do with reef stabilization and humanitarian services for Islanders displaced by rising sea levels due to the greenhouse effect.
Nothing was out of the ordinary there. It was standard practice for Coms to ‘donate’ Alignments, documented improvements of ecological performance, to the Orgs. It was by this ‘donation’ process that the Alignments could be converted into Ecos to be paid out to those working for the Orgs and the Hubs they serviced. The Coms routinely made these payments in order to strengthen strategic relationships or for public relations reasons.
The next branch sideways up from the Alignment account transfers made more of an impact on August.
The Orgs involved in most of these transfers had possible links with Kaliyuga Rev. Just reading the name gave August an involuntary urge to look over his shoulder, as would be the case with most Com executives. The majority of Revs were steadfastly committed to the non-violent ideals of the Ecolution and the gradual capture of target Coms, as they had done to BiLongMeCom, through relentless globally coordinated and targeted Campaigns. Kaliyuga was not one of these. They were extremists, lethal terrorists who went straight for the top so-to-speak. They considered space travel to be the principal heresy of the human race. Mirtopik, and August Bridges especially, were not high on their love list.
Which brought August down the next branch, the subsequent arrival from Fiji to L.A., a few days prior, of a suspected high-level Kaliyuga operative. The branch back from here traced to Moscow, the last known location of this woman, where, as the next branch revealed, a scan of her apartment had revealed the presence of tracer nanoids released during an earlier criminal investigation by Euro Gov authorities. A web of dun lines emanated from this last Alert like roots disappearing into disparate ends of the Earth, containing odd facts from seemingly disconnected events. He followed each root as far as he could before they disappeared into the ground. Money transfers, travel itineraries, names and faces, histories and relationships.
It was a grind working through this morass of data; hours passed as August’s interest waned. He stopped several times to rest his eyes and attempt to tame the static building up in his hair. During one of these breaks he became aware of the time and resolved to abandon the search after one last attempt.
It was then that a jumble of roots finally gathered again beneath a new, minor stem growing upward to a new thicket of Alerts. These involved a police report regarding a theft from a decommissioned military research institute that had once specialized in the development of nanoweapons. Invisible, invasive, intelligent and capable of unending combinations of lethal terrors.
Nanoweapons. August read the word several times as if questioning its meaning. The word related to every paranoid fantasy that had plagued him since the terrible events that had brought him into power. It was the circularity of fate implicit in the word that terrified him. A man must reap what he has sown.
August read the Alerts with renewed intensity but failed to uncover any description of the items that had been stolen. This was a surprising omission for a police report; but less surprising when one considered the potential political messiness involved for a Gov to admit possession of technology that had been illegal throughout Gaia for nearly a quarter century.
He tried Calvin30’s neurolink again. “Listen you insolent shit,” he left his message in a stony voice, “if I die today because of information you have failed to provide, I will not be the only one with a problem.” The threat only increased his feelings of impotence. Threatening Calvin30 was like threatening the dirt beneath his feet, because both were simultaneously inconsequential and irreplaceable.
An unseen and unexpected hand touched him lightly on the shoulder. “Sir?”
The neuroview blinked out and August nearly lost his balance with the abrupt change of perspective. “Don’t ever do that again,” he gasped at the slight woman standing beside him, “Do you understand? Shit.”
Linda, his new admin assistant, bit her lip while smoothing the skirt of a smart, corporate cut sari. “Sir,” she pressed valiantly on, “Terribly sorry to startle you. We couldn’t reach you otherwise. The Director’s ferry has confirmed that they have left Earth’s orbit and are on their way.”
“Of course. Of course,” August recovered his breath. “That’s okay Linda.”
“Thank you sir.”
August ran his fingers through his hair, preening it as he thought. He had to think quickly. In a short time he would walk into a room containing the few people in the universe capable of determining his fate. One of them, perhaps several, could be holding an imperceptible loaded gun to his head. Of course Calvin30’s trail of evidence was entirely circumstantial, the rough skeleton of a conspiracy theory. But it wasn’t implausible, and Calvin30’s imprimatur on it made more than plausible.
Why? Perhaps it was Gudanko’s cold actuarial style of management. Certainly, the businessman would have dealt with other enemies this way, with as much passion as signing off on an annual return. But if that were the case, surely his enemy would have many years ago eliminated the extreme outlier to the Com risk model that August represented. And besides, wasn’t time on the accountant’s side? Besides, the thought that Kaliyuga and Gudanko would conspire on anything was a theory that stretched the bounds of the believable. Their mutual contempt outweighed any animosity they harbored towards him, which was saying something. Besides, murder was a horrible way to do business. August’s tangential involvement in one still gave him nightmares such as the one this morning. It was possible that Calvin30 took care of such things on his behalf, but he didn’t want to know.
“Linda,” he spoke evenly, “this is absolutely critical. One. Transfer this mneme I’m sending to you by neurolink over to ComSec.” August switched back on his neurovisor to transfer the access codes. “Have them take care of it. I don’t want to be interrupted. Two. Prepare the kitchen for a full nanoid scan. We have a possible contamination that ComSec will be investigating. It doesn’t matter if the process delays greeting our visitors with food,” he added with a grin, “it’ll be good to keep Gudanko off balance, his blood sugar is a weak point. Three,” he paused, but there was nothing else she could do for him, “three, do whatever needs to be done.”
Linda turned on a delicate heel and vanished in a brisk and competent manner leaving August with racing thoughts. The faces of each participant of the upcoming Board meeting flashed before his eyes, challenging him to guess who might try to end his life. But his immediate thoughts were on the unjust inconvenience of it all. This was just insane. He had more important things to be thinking about than staying alive.
What lunacy. August grinned in spite of himself. His life on the line and it was all just too much of a pain in the ass. But when he thought about it there was some logic there. Who was he, after all, besides the greatness of his dream? Having recreated his self in its image, what would be left if the dream were subtracted?
Underappreciated and over-accumulated wealth, the unreliable vagaries of power, iconic hair on an aging body. No loves, few friendships, no enjoyment of time’s passage. Who was he indeed, if not for this all consuming, all inspiring, all demanding master? His dream. Until now August had assumed his dream was something possessed by him, but now he could see that he was just as possessed by it. Or rather, that both he and the dream had arisen naturally together, from some primordial source.
Dmitri had it wrong. There was no speculation in August’s assurance that the message from the aliens would come. It was certain. It was as if he had sent it to himself, simple cause and effect, and in that reality there was no other choice but to see his dream through. Consequently, what was there to fear?
“Destiny drives history, not the other way around,” August shouted at the crescent Earth hanging in his skylight.
The Earth did not answer and August felt fatigue overtake him. He replaced the wad of bloody tissue from his nose and then lay down in his bed and tried to work through why he had almost died today. His memory of specific events was sketchy. Most of what was alive in his mind today were details from a strange dream, which had entranced him while he was in the process of dying. Like a ghost it had haunted his thoughts since.
Even now he could remember almost every detail, as he yawned and closed his eyes and surrendered back into it.
The Earth hanging in the skylight above faded, replaced by the full moon casting long shadows across a Russian winter and into a grey bar room with many mirrors, which reflected the moonlight and the gas flame in the fireplace. Both were a vain attempt to shut out the frost and the day long night. The deep brown of Anya’s eyes surreptitiously met his while Gregori, her husband and August’s most loyal friend, played the clown for the cheering locals.
The slumping black spruce forest outside the windows gave no hint of specific location - only a typical Siberian village, the local Hubs incredulous at the discovery of unclaimed ecos buried in the drab swamp that surrounded their home. August and his friends had been to this same place, bearing different names but populated with the same hopeful expressions, many times. Always the same bar.
All was as it had once been, a possibility only in dream. Laughter spilled freely, untainted by the betrayals yet to come. The future was still sensitive in its unfolding to the small events of life. The sense of sharing fate over a drink and a prayer was a particularly bittersweet emotion that held August’s attention most profoundly. The memory of what true friendship had felt like.
They toasted with the bar. “To warm friends and cold winters. To Mother Russia and God’s Earth. To the Generations!”
Gregori and August, locked arm in arm, spun to some hectic ballad as the sweat spun down off their flailing arms into the cheers of the crowd and under the spotlight of Anya’s admiring eyes. Even this flirtation, a first of many betrayals to find a home in August’s soul, was still innocent.
The waiter visiting their table, a passing detail in August and Gregori’s whirling rapture, was oddly attired - threadbare robes and an odd moon-shaped miter perched atop a broad Mongolian face. The waiter refilled August’s glass and retreated into shadow.
Contrasting with the grey moon cast hues pervading the other players and props, the liquid in his glass glowed warmly. August again drank the nectar and relived it rolling back, sweet flavor encasing his tongue, pulling his awareness down his throat to his heart. For only an instant he felt completely at home in himself and in this place.
And then the dream betrayed him. Abruptly the longing in Anya’s eyes for his began to fade, to pass through him to Gregori, now the sole recipient of the crowd’s adulation, and beyond. This sudden departure of his substance was disconcerting. August called over to his friends, who reacted at first by turning slightly as if hearing their name mentioned in conversation, and then not at all.
August floated through the room and its inhabitants, his anxiety steadily mounting. This was not possible. He could forget them but they were not allowed to forget him. After all, it was he who had betrayed them - how could they ever forget? The music and singing continued unabated. Anya’s eyes engaged Gregori’s with a meaningful glance before roaming off to greet the patient stares of other men waiting their turn for acknowledgement. August waited with them, hungry to glimpse even a hint of memory remaining in her eyes.
Heedless of his agitation, the laughter continued, tormenting August as he circled the bar, straining for recognition from even the most obscure figures in the dream - shouting at them. A gust of wind slammed open the door and August slipped out the exit, pulled by a vacuum of moonlight that he was helpless to fight against.
Illya was there standing broad-legged at the edge of a slough, urinating. As the great bear-man hummed contentedly in his moody baritone, an immense wave of anxiety engulfed August. He could not abide this. August the wraith, the phantom, pleading to be seen by a dead man. Illya: his friend, his mentor, his father, his victim. Illya, whose ghost would haunt him forever.
Illya beamed beneficently as the swamp swelled and over spilled with his magnificent discharge. Opulently dyed with tannins and Earth, the deluge overcame August in a swirling rush. As the rising torrent drowned him, August reached out for the hand of a man who wasn’t there.