The Wailing in the Void
by Dal Merlin Jeanis



The wind whips by my ears, grasping at my hair. There is a vibration coming from my arms, my legs, my chest, as I fly through the chill night air above Lake Grapevine. It is like the flying dream, but real.

So real.

Crisp blue-black sky with scattered thunderheads and the faint smell of ozone. The drought has broken, and Texas is soon to be drenched under eight inches of water. The water in the lake below will build to its normal level for the first time in three years. The full moon reflects off a thousand little wavelets.

Patterned circuits hum along my whole body, moving and reshaping themselves to my mental commands. The suit is a patchwork of nanotube fibers, both a computational mechanism and a focusing agent for the gravitational energy. It is light-years beyond "intrinsic gravity fields," as if light-years meant anything any more.

I stoop to skim the surface, watching my reflection. With the shock of recognition comes remembrance -- I am Old Glory. But the red-clad hands shoot up through the water to grab me around the throat.

"You think you're me, boy? Not in your best dream!"

The sucker punch throws me high into the air, only a little pain penetrating the surprise. Tatters of my uniform tear away, writhing with a will all their own to form a macabre face of patchwork cloth.

"You are what you are," sings the patchwork man as it falls. "Bits and pieces of a thousand ideas."

And Old Glory rises to meet me, like a biblical comet, like an icon, like a hero. His fists connect with me, but the words punch deeper, into the void inside me.

"Truth."

"Justice."

"America."

The image of America, his America, white suburbs with manicured lawns, punches through my stupor to finally meet opposition. A rage rises within me.

"The America that killed Jason?" My fist connects with his shoulder, throwing him off in a crazy loop. I speed to meet him near the ground in the Grapevine historical district. Ugly 1950's tract homes are protected against improvement by local building codes. This is the corpse of Old Glory's America.

"The America that supported the Shah, only to create the Ayatollah?" My fists strike him at the same time, shattering the mask to reveal the face of my father, a father I long ago swept from my mind. He looks old as he crashes through a wall into a card game, the old dog poster with a twist. A red cat and a blue dog are playing poker with a two-headed eagle and a vampire. The Dog is cheating, and winks at me. I have no time for them.

"The America that gave radiation poisoning to people to see what would happen?" A roundhouse punch sends Glory speeding up into the night, bringing the ceiling down on the foursome.

"Another round." says the vampire as the roof beams impale her. The glowing eagle nods with one head and shakes the other as I speed after the Fading Glory, my head pounding. Autocrat the bartender brings drinks to the table.

******

Switch woke in a cold sweat, his head and heart pounding. Or maybe that pounding was the door.

"Jesus, Ben," said Molet as Switch opened the bedroom door. "You really have to cut this out. I need more sleep."

Switch looked at him through bleary eyes. He stroked his chin gently, making sure the goatee was firmly attached. "Me too. But there's so much I need to know."

"Look, when I invented that damn thing I knew there were problems. When I built it for you I knew there were problems. But did you listen? No. You're so American." Disgusted, Molet stalked off down the hall.

Switch set the stim-helmet down beside the bed and followed Molet through the hall to the large, open living area. It had taken some serious engineering to refit the interior of the brownstone, without arousing any notice among the neighbors. Of course, half the houses in the area were abandoned and falling down. Because they were built on landfill, he was picking them up at bargain prices. "It's working, though."

"At what cost, Ben? What is it really worth to you to see a few more connections every day? Does a few more IQ points mean that much to you? Enough to risk your sanity, such as it is? Well I've had enough of that."

The conversation had played itself out this way for days. Switch didn't want to tell Molet yet. He didn't want to, but he couldn't afford to lose the brilliant engineer.

"Jean-Claude."

"What is it?"

"Jean-Claude." The seriousness in the man's voice made Molet pause. Alan Benjamin Kott had saved him, nearly a complete stranger, from the bullets of assassins. They still had not traced the assailants, although they had their suspicions. If it weren't for Kott's friendly and easy-going personality, Molet might have even suspected him.

Kott's house here in Philadelphia appeared to have been completely safe and undetected for weeks now, and the projects had been interesting. Kott was brilliant, in a quirky sort of way. However, perhaps it was time to be going, back to his home in Montreal. He had some friends, and some defenses of his own there. Perhaps it was time to let go of this one.

"Jean-Claude, I have to tell you something."

Molet waited patiently, lighting a Player's while he listened. Kott began the story quickly. Molet already knew that the safe house he had visited in Santa Fe was for research, and had also been designed as a trap. He hadn't heard about the near disaster.

Kott had been testing an idea for a new force field, apparently gleaned from some theoretical journals and the wiretap Kott had placed on a scientist in New England. He did preliminary tests, then set up the final combined experiment.

******

The waldos give me gentle feedback on my hands while I solder the final few connections. The preliminary results are fascinating, well within the tolerance of the equipment. Even so I feel some apprehension about a full-scale test.

There is that annoying fifth equation, with the three imaginary roots. What the heck does i, the square root of negative one, mean in this case? I haven't a clue, except that there's a small chance it will mess up my experiment completely. Unknowns are generally messy.

The last connection is fused, set, and the automatic trigger is set for the fifteen second countdown. The time drags. Three. Two. One. Zero.

The screen goes black. Empty. No signal. Completely black.

All of a sudden, the answer dawns on me with the ferocity of a shrieking alarm. There is a large chance, thirty percent perhaps, that I have just created a small black hole. In which case the city of Santa Fe is now imploding.

Quick calculations confirm a two kilometer crater will be ripping its way toward the heart of the Earth, gobbling up all matter in its path. My imagination fills my head, matter wailing into the void of the hypermass. Gamma radiation is killing all humans within a few miles. Magma will soon shoot back up the hole, obliterating the rest of the city. But Santa Fe will be only the first stop. The entire planet has a few days at most.

My hands claw the phone, dialing a number at random in Santa Fe. Any number will do. The recording says, "All lines busy. All lines busy." Electrical failure of any kind would result in the same message. So would destruction of the city.

I sit, my knuckles white, my muscles tight, my mind flailing for a solution that would sweep the hypermass out of the planet and into a safe orbit. But there is nothing that can act quickly enough to stabilize the structural damage. Unless there is something on the Monolith that is already correcting my mistake, Earth is doomed.

I hold on to that thought, providing the last morsel of hope that I have not brought destruction to all I hold dear. The batteries on the experimental frame had a twelve-minute life. There is nothing to do but wait, wait for the earthquakes or the experiment to end.

I turn the television on to CNN. No news.

Inside me a wailing begins, the sound of a planet dying. Ten minutes.

Twelve.

CNN reports an unexplained power outage in New Mexico. No information is available from the Santa Fe affiliate. Thirteen minutes.

Fourteen.

No earthquakes. No signal. Fifteen minutes.

Sixteen.

The screen flickers to life, showing the experiment with no apparent change. The clock on the wall is fifteen minutes slow.

A female journalist on CNN reports that an unexplained city-wide power outage has now been corrected in Santa Fe. The electric company is still investigating the anomaly, which appears to be centered on the downtown area. Metahuman involvement is suspected, as always in these things. Seventeen minutes.

Slowly, the wailing subsides. My hands relax. After a long time, I rise to wash the blood from them, where the nails have bitten deep into the palms.

******

Molet sat for a moment in silence. What a burden to carry. Finally he began laughing. "You? You were responsible for that?"

Switch nodded, a rueful smile on his face. "Because of what I didn't know. And it could have been much worse."

"Then I owe you another debt. When the lights went out, I was with Trina."

Slowly, Switch began to smile. Then laugh. Their laughing continued long into the night.

******

Molet heard the unmistakable sound of a cork pop behind him as he labored over the redesign of the robokitty. Kott's basic design was excellent, but there were modifications that would increase efficiency and battery life. Molet hesitated to interfere with the brain function -- despite the fact that his expertise was in exactly that field, the cat's systems were just too advanced to risk messing with. Besides, he liked her as she was.

He closed the panel and she purred to life. "What are we celebrating?"

"The end of the world," Switch replied, a smile in his voice.

"Already?" Molet turned to look at Kott, then at the bottle.

"Fin du Monde?" He was almost speechless. "Fin du Monde!"

Switch poured the beer from the champagne bottle into two frosted mugs. The beer was brewed in Molet's home town, and was meant as a sort of peace offering. Actually, a month before he had ordered several cases delivered, and had been waiting for the right moment. "I figured that if you drank that Molsen's crap, you were really hard up for home."

Molet tasted the fruity bitterness of the beer and blinked back tears. It brought memories...

******

"I'll spot you a Fin when I get off," said the throaty voice on the other end of the phone. Maria pronounced it 'fin' like a shark's back, rather than 'feen', just to annoy him. Her French was as good as his when she wanted it to be. "We just have to get this thing up and running."

"Zat is what you always say," he replied. "But I always pay."

"That's why I love you. You're such a gentleman, even when you call me a liar."

"I did not..."

"You just did. But it's okay. I forgive you. But you owe me a Fin."

He sighed. "But of course. When will you be off."

"I don't know. Depends on how much damage there is to the tank. I'd invite you over but it doesn't look like the brain is damaged at all, just some exterior systems." The pout in her voice was replaced by a grin. "Anyway, I'll see you at seven."

The line went dead, fading into a contented silence. With almost a pain he looked forward to seeing her face, touching her skin. She filled a void within him.

It was the last time he heard her voice.

******

Switch watched the tears run down Molet's face, not understanding. He knew what it was to be homesick, but this was something beyond.

Way beyond.

They continued to drink the fruity beer in silence, the silence of peers, the silence of company in a personal emptiness.

Perhaps later there would be time for words.
 

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