Laurence, known as Laurie to his friends, but otherwise Laurence to everyone else, drops the dented suitcase on the counter top. Dallas stands opposite him and coughs at the dust that sifts through the air. He never removes his eyes from Laurence’s. The day is long. It’s hot. Both men are parched for completely opposite reasons. The temperature in the room hangs around like a third party to a two-way deal. Neither blink. Both men fail to see that this ritual extends beyond mere formality.
“Does it open?” Dallas asks. He allows a glance down at the goods that likely removed some of the counter’s lacquered top. He doesn’t want to let on that this is the most intact recorder that’s landed before him. Laurence reads Dallas like an open book spied over the shoulder of a passenger during a long commute. Laurence likes books. It’s one of the few liberties he allows himself.
“Probably,” Laurence says, doing a better job at keeping mum. “I want payment.”
“You all do,” Dallas says, waving away dust or comment before inspecting the case’s clasps. The combination wheels have jammed. One of them is missing. With fat fingers that never seem clean, Dallas pulls out a screwdriver, then looks up. Laurence shrugs, then holds the other side of the case while Dallas jimmies the lock.
Inside is a keyboard in one compartment, the other a glass window spider-webbed from some long forgotten impact. Dallas knows this is a computer screen. Laurence doesn’t care. Some of the electronics appear to be damaged, but Dallas’ happy fingers leave a smudge over a tape slot that looks intact. The corner of his mouth turns up.
“It don’t count until I know it works,” Dallas says, his mouth as straight as a chewed pencil. Those chubby fingers are wiped on a rag before tapping the keypad. There’s no sound or noise, but the keys don’t stick. The case is swiveled around so that the screen-side dangles precariously over the counter’s edge. Before he liberates the keypad and tape reader from the screen, Laurence shoots out a hand.
“Half-pay before the elbow drops. I don’t want you skimping on payment because you damage it.”
Dallas stops; with a side shuffle he reaches for a weather-beaten container, metal and dented. As he makes a withdrawal, he eyes Laurence and counts out by tens. Reaches fifty, considers it for a moment, then ups the amount to seventy. When Laurence doesn’t budge, he stops counting. “You want one-sixty for it?”
“Knowing you and your obsession with all this shit,” Laurence emphasizes a semi-turn with his arm as though he is orchestrating a crescendo’s peak to the various objects that occupy the room, “you would easily pay over two for it. Then you’ll be thanking your mate Laurie for the find.” He follows this with a cheshire’s grin, an eerie similarity to the actual beast that plagues the lands to the west.
Another ten is added to the pile before it’s slid across the counter, gesturing to the scavenger that he should take it or leave it. Laurence humors him by picking up the payment at the exact time a snap sounds out, knowing he could have leaned on the collector a little more. Dallas tosses the broken screen, which lands in a pile of miscellany that borderlines refuse. “I didn’t realize we were so well acquainted,” Dallas says. With less poise, he finishes with, “Laurie.”
The scavenger meets this with a blank stare that would have put a boulder to shame.
“I’ll send you the rest of the payment if – and that’s a big if, capital eye, capital fucking eff – the tech works.” The only thing worth more than intimidation is emporidium, which is as rare as a good deed. Intimidation is a currency as strong as coin or bullet. Dallas hopes that he has given enough of it over to suggest Laurie take a hike. There was not offence intended, just the desire to observe the tapes alone.
“Na-uh. I want to know it works.” The intimidation is not on parity to Laurie’s own currency.
Dallas sags. “You said it yourself, it’s all shit. Why would a scav want to know if it works?”
“Pay me the full sum now without checking, or play your damn tapes. Either way, I don’t leave here without my payment.”
Dallas attempts his own silence before giving up and waving at the air, saying, “fine,” over and over again. He fusses about getting the rig set up. While he wants to savor the moment, he doesn’t want to hand over the remaining payment without first knowing it works. He couldn’t call himself an archaeologist with so much money and knowledge by throwing all it at scavs like Laurence. He wheels out a small wind-up generator and cranks it until a soft hum builds to a steady pulse. The sound is barely enough to drown out Dallas’ own heartbeat.
Laurence takes the opportunity to look around the shop, marveling at everything on the shelves or sitting on the floor. He thinks about asking Dallas whether he actually turns a profit, but knows the outcome would be a one-sided conversation filled with whys and laughter, since Laurie considered it was all for naught. This is an arrogant thought filled with irony, since Dallas would have pointed out that scavengers like Laurie were kept in business, or kept out of becoming raiders on the Glass Sea – a profession that was as common as sand storms since the Jarl was toppled.
Laurie recognizes some of the miscellany as his own handywork – a green metallic sign that says ME, then under it 120 that had been dug from a trench a year ago. Then there’s rubber tubing, sealant, strips of plastic (a rare commodity in such good condition, just strewn on the ground like roadkill) and other variants used for electrical manipulation.
Perhaps there is a market, as unseen and absent from society as the scavenging that Laurence undertakes. It was a job where long nights were becoming common mates, where conversation about reserves running dry prevents sleep from coming home and settling down before the fire. In those low hours he’d find himself wondering what would happen if raiders stole what he’d packed away. His nightmares were filled with thirst, endless wastelands, and a stomach full of nothing. Or worse.
The relationship between Laurence and Dallas had lasted four years. It was akin to a riverbed and the banks that lined it. Dallas never enquires where the junk came from, and Laurence never felt the need to ask what it was for. Neither man contemplated what would be left over for the next generation. Neither man realized this would be the last time they would see each other.
An audible click rings out. Laurie’s fingers jump to the firearm cradled in the dusty makeshift holster. He doesn’t draw. The sound came from Dallas. It wasn’t a raider. It wasn’t a mutant beast. There was no snarl or growl, just the idle hum from the genie that shifts frequencies as Dallas tunes some dials. If radiation has a sound, Laurie thinks, it would sound just like that.
“And that goes there-” another click and the hum’s pitch changes again to one of urgency, “-and we should be set,” Dallas says. On the table is a box full of dials, wires coming out like metallic noodle soup, and a giddy grin to accompany the sight and sound of what sits before him. Laurence doesn’t know where to look – the contraption full of coils and danger. There is an intact screen, unlike the one he had brought in. The screen blinks. Laurence blinks a reply.
He looks at Dallas, fingers twirling to get it going, who in turn gives Laurie a look of partial pleasure knowing the scavenger is finally out of his comfort zone. A fat finger, brought up in a fantastic display of melodrama, is planted on the player. The button with the sideways triangle clicks down. Both men find the sound satisfying but don’t voice this. The humming is substituted with the shush of static.
“IFL-245-678 is being interviewed for possible connections with outside terrori-“
“Stay away from the future. It’s why I came back. Don’t go near it – no good can come from it. The whole thing is fucked,” A young male voice says. The tone is enough to set both Dallas and Laurie’s skin to gooseflesh.
A sigh, full of authority and poise, emanates from the small speakers next to the screen. The female sounds tolerant in a stoic way, “-connections with outside terrorism. Look… Khali, you’re a lifer. You’re going to die here. I get the appeal to disrupt what you can for those on the outside, but you must know we can make your life hell before you actually end up there, right?”
Dallas presses the square-button down in a flash of dexterity that shocks Laurence. The triangle button removes itself from the player. It sails across the counter before landing on the floor. Laurie stamps his foot to stop it bouncing away, like he had with spilled coins and bullet casings a million times before. The screen blinks with a flash then goes blank. Laurie stares at it, unsure how to respond.
“Careful. I don’t have another like it,” Dallas says, peering over the counter to stare at a pair of well-trodden yet completely intact boots.
“Why’d you stop it?” Laurie doesn’t move his boot. The electric ghosts and their voices are replaced by the consistent hum of the genie. It encroaches in on both men – a stranger trying to join a friendly conversation.
Dallas, who is reluctant to reply and impatient to see whether the button is still intact, looks up at Laurie. “You heard it work. I’ll give you money – and you’re right, you’re completely right. More coin for your troubles, but please, please, get off the button and leave.”
There had never been a spare thought in Dallas’ mind for what Laurie did as he scavenged. If he did, the thought would have fallen short of the man who has used human remains for practical means. It included, but was not exclusive to: jimmying floor boards when no crow-bar was around, setting traps to snare beasts (both for food and for safety), and been used to level a wonky bookshelf.
That same bookshelf, found in Laurie’s hovel on the outskirts of town, houses three books, all of which could earn him some easy money from the right person – maybe even Jarl’s coins and entrance into Mournium. Laurie tells himself, in a hollow justification, that they’re for insurance purposes. No matter how low his coin got, how desperate the search for food became, or how tired he was from sweating out on the sands along the edge of the Glass Sea, he would never actually sell them.
Laurie’s mind flashes to those books and their spines – well-worn and bound with a crude resin, but practical enough to keep the pages from scattering. There’s The Magician, his favorite of the three, and the most worn-through. He’d lost a couple of pages, but knows the story of Pug well enough to fill the blanks. The second is the Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe, and while Laurie was as poetic as a dried fish, he still opened it on occasion, delving into the velvety unknown the book gave off. The last book, Simulacra and Simulation, is his least favorite, only on account that he barely understood its concepts. But even this book captivated Laurie, the same way a butterfly would as it flies around a kitten on the ground: a fleeting moment full of hope in an otherwise disastrous situation.
The notes in Dallas’ hands shake with either impatience or nerves. Laurie stands there, letting time stretch. The hum pushes the two men closer together, as if to offer a suspicious deal that’s too good to pass up. Like bottled air. Or an invisible coat. Dallas isn’t sure what will happen if the screen warms up and shows moving images, a promise made a long time ago and one he had yet to fulfil. So far as the blinking interface went, the images were as truthful as a concubine’s love.
Both men speak at the same time. Neither hears what the other says. There’s another silence. Laurie hands over the button, but doesn’t take the money. The cicada-like hum breaks as Laurie speaks. “Let me stay for one tape. I’ll keep this…” he holds up the initial payment, then stops. He looks at the rest of the money, dripping with Dallas’ greasy discharge. He could sit quietly for a few weeks. Put some fat on. Maybe hire a whore and drink her and himself into a prickly stupor. At least he might get some sleep…
Laurie grabs a stool and drags it closer to the desk.
While it isn’t ideal, Dallas figures he can properly enjoy the tapes later, under low lighting. A bottle of his finest cracked open and bled into his only intact Champaign flute. He could almost taste the gree-berry wine now. Laurie never thought what might be on the tapes until this moment. Dallas believed them to be significantly important. Both men were right and wrong at the same time.
“Okay, fine. Whatever. No further payment. You can stay for one tape. That’s all.” Fat fingers fit the button in place before it is pressed. The shush of the tapes replaces the hum. The screen blinks, then changes to fuzzy black and white beads, like ants. It’s just as unsettling to Laurie. Dallas visibly slumps, a child promised ice-cream and getting gelato instead.
A shudder emits from the speakers, a man on the verge of crying. “Why don’t you start from the start. How is it you came into contact with Beecroft?” the authoritarian figure asks. There’s another pause. Another shudder.
A third female voice, who is just as determined, speaks. “Put him back into solitary.” Her voice is distant. Dallas adjusts the dials to increase the volume enough to hear her clearly.
The shudder from Khali builds into a sob. “He came to me.” His voice sounds like broken soil that cannot grow a single weed. Laurie shifts on his stool which lets out a light creak. He leans forward, resting his arms on the available counter space. The screen with its dancing ants continues to flicker.
“That brings us to more questions, Khali. The surveillance from your room was unrecoverable during your little visit,” Distant Officer says.
“How?” Stoic Officer butts in. “How did,” there’s a rustling sound of paper. The sound builds. Turns into crackling fire. The tape player spits the sound out. Dallas’ hands are already up trying to adjust the tracking while Laurie leans back. Then the tape comes back on. Dallas assumes correctly that the tape has jumped. Laurie doesn’t guess anything.
“-as just sitting there at the edge of my bed. He told me he had something for me. Something he wanted to show me. Said it wouldn’t get me away from where I am now, but I would at least be able to do something that could make a lot of wrongs right.” Khali’s voice is calmer. To characterize it as bored would be wrong. Laurie picks up on its subtly – information being given at half measures.
“For the purposes of the recordings since we’re still fixing the monitor situation,” says Stoic Officer, “the surveillance, when it came back online, showed a man matching Beecroft’s description standing at the edge of IFL-245-678’s bed. The lab results have come back positive for a DNA match, along with blue-aura residue indicating a temporal rift. Some items have been acquired for further study.”
Dallas and Laurie look at one another. Laurie offers a shrug, believing the other man to be asking a silent question. Dallas mimics the action while pulling a chair over. The scree sound dominates the sound from the tapes. Laurie hits the stop button so they don’t miss anything more. The play button sails across the room again.
“Gah,” Dallas says.
“I know, I’m getting it. You’ve got so much shit in here,” Laurie answers, on all fours, looking for the button that bounced between some empty lamps. “Can you take it back?”
“Yes and no. Have I done it before, no. Is it possible, probably? But I need that button,” Dallas replies, punctuating the final words a little too clearly for Laurie’s liking.
With as much subtly as a loaded gun to the forehead, Laurie slams the button back in place and sits back, waiting for Dallas to weave his magic. The machine belches out a sound, like wet rubber pinched between fingers, before play is pressed again. Dallas is not aware of how close he is to actual magic, having accomplished the arcane ability of rewinding just enough so that nothing is repeated or missed without further adjustment.
“… for further study.”
“When can I get a new bed?” Khali asks.
“When you damn well cooperate,” Distant Officer says, though her distance has lessened as much as her anger appears to have grown.
“Yes, I left with Beecroft. But what he showed me… Fuck – there wasn’t anything to see. It was all… gone.”
Distant Officer, breaking character once more, asks what he means. Khali describes what he supposedly saw. As he did, the screen that accompanies the tape player flickers. Laurie thinks he saw something – an image of fire and rubble. The screen goes black, the ants completely gone. Laurie points to the screen, trying not to talk over Khali who is explaining that towers and sectors had all been eviscerated and that he could see the sky and the stars. Khali openly wonders at this last part, astonished at the sight of a million pinpricks in the void beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
This, of course, is lost on Dallas, who is trying to understand what Laurie is pointing at. Dallas gives up, hitting the stop button again. This time Laurie catches the play button cleanly.
“What?” Dallas asks.
“The screen. Did you see the screen?”
“Yes, it turned off. Or it’s broken. Gods, I hope the tube isn’t blown,” Dallas says, getting up to check the connections.
“Did you see the picture of the fire and the rubble?” Laurie asks.
“We’re taking it back.”
“Like hell we are. Look, I don’t know what you’re getting out of this, Laurence. Part of me is suspicious that you’re trying to see whether there’s a name to be made in the archaeological business. Which is not, by the way, the cut-throat and exciting life of a bleeding scavenger. But we’re sitting here, listening to this tape uninterrupted, then you’re going to pick yourself up and walk on out of my store, and you’re then going to leave me to the rest of them.”
Laurie looks at Dallas, taken aback by the tone and strength of the pudgy man. He drops the play button on the counter and somewhat relaxes in his seat. Dallas’ stern face holds the stare for a moment, before he replaces the play button and presses it down.
“Elaborate for us,” Distant Officer asks Khali.
“What is there to elaborate on when 900 million people are wiped out in a single incident?”
The tape makes a distorted sound, a warble that is completely artificial. It obscures the sound of a door opening which becomes clearer when Stoic Officer speaks up. “Uh, for the record, we are now joined by Professor Sanders-“
“Turn that off. Turn it off immediately,” an older male voice says. “I need to take the prisoner in for further examination. Guards.”
Khali starts shouting a repetitive no. The tape emits a scuffling sound as a fight breaks out.
“Hurry up and restrain the prisoner,” the Professor says.
The technological warble comes back. There’s a shout. Dallas and Laurie can’t determine whether it’s one of the officers or if Khali has become hysterical. The screaming becomes incoherent.
“He’s phase-shifting,” Distant Officer shouts. Then, “Do something, Professor.”
“Sedating the prisoner. We’ll then move him to quar… is that damn tape still recording? I’ll have your goddamned ass if it is, Officer Bentl-.”
The tape stops. The play button stays in place. The hum soon resumes, bold against the discord that exploded from the tapes. Laurie considers his words carefully, then says, “If that’s it then I want my full payment.” Before Dallas could agree, Laurie holds a finger up. “One more. All or nothing.”
Dallas lets out a sound halfway between a balloon deflating and a child moaning after their gelato had fallen in the dirt. When neither noise provides Laurie with a comprehensive sense of understanding, he asks, “If you have so many more tapes then why does it matter if I listen to one more?”
The whining noise turns disgruntled, similar to a sound someone makes when a rogue stone has joined the inside of a shoe for a party. Dallas stands up and makes his way behind the counter, then through a door that is locked with three separate padlocks. A large keychain is produced with all manner of keys. As the top padlock is removed, he wonders what Laurie was playing at. The time it takes to remove the second lock leaves him with the inconclusive feeling that he couldn’t figure out the scavenger. They are a different breed. This statement, that he’s thought plenty of times before, is underlined by the time his hand reaches the third lock.
Its stubborn nature quietens his mind, save for a small voice that questions if the tapes were all for nothing, since the first was so boring. This voice, reserved for the darkest and more deplete thoughts is normally heard in the earliest hours of the morning and as such is ignored since the time read 4:38 pm. Dallas wrestles the lock from its hinge violently.
“I could have just kicked that door in, you know? Those locks don’t do anything,” Laurie calls from the shop.
“You still here?” Dallas calls back from his storage space. The tapes are in a dry but nevertheless neglected archive that houses more precious items. Bottles of colored liquids (some smelling strong, like flowers or musk, others putrid but useful for cleaning), to canned goods of food or plastic tubs of water lay about in a more orderly fashion. Everything is covered in a layer of dust.
The tapes themselves hide under a phase-rat pelt, designed so that if his storeroom was ever raided then everything but the tapes would likely be taken. His eyes cross as he tries to plant a hand on the mottled fur, the pelt playing mind games with its obtuse reality. It made Dallas queasy to look at it. He shields his eyes with one hand and removes the pelt with the other.
Underneath lie six tapes in a neat row. There’s an unlabeled one, and two that have three X’s on them. He thinks they’re kiss marks, and wonders if they’re love letters from the past. It was the unlabeled one he is most protective of. Dallas has never seen moving pictures before but knows exactly what is on this one. The thought makes him giddy, a feeling replaced with a quiet fury when he hears Laurie moving around. He walks out with last two tapes, knowing that the one they had listened to came in a bundle of three.
“That’s it? I risked a lot to get you a damned tape reader, a working tape reader, and it was all for two tapes?” Laurie asks, an eyebrow raised like it wanted to touch the roof.
“Three, but we’ve heard one already.” The smile he gives Laurie is the take-it-or-leave-it kind. “You wanted one more. Be thankful I’m in a generous mood.”
Laurie hears the half-measured tone of Dallas’ voice but doesn’t question it.
“Thankfully it looks like there’s more on this one,” Dallas says as he removes the other. Laurie takes the comment to be an added side note. Dallas intended the statement more for himself. The previous tape is tossed aside, which sends it clattering across the counter space, then careening to the floor. It crashes to the ground. Laurie cringes. Dallas does not, instead he waves a hand at it in disappointment or disapproval or both.
The new tape is inserted. The play button pressed. This time the screen replaces the white and black ants with a blurry image. Laurie had spent enough time sleeping off the previous night’s alcohol to know that the image was of a prison cell. Even if this one looks cleaner than most houses he’s visited in his lifetime. Sitting at a steel table is a prisoner.
“-acker, but then I was caught up in the middle of it all. Drugs. Cash. Women. I still think I’ve lived more of my life out there than half of you pricks have, and yet I’ve been in here what, six years?” says the prisoner. He’s young, maybe late twenties. His hair is dreadlocked, but it looks organized in the way that it’s intentionally messy. His beard, maybe three months’ old, is unkempt.
Dallas holds his hand over the ejecting play button as he stops the new tape. “I think it’s partway through – the tape, I mean. At least the screen’s working?” Dallas offers. Laurie carefully adjusts the monitor so that both of them can see while Dallas cringes outwardly. Laurie thinks it’s to do with a possible knock that could unwire the monitor which is incorrect. Dallas cringes because he missed the opportunity to be done away with the tape sooner.
As the tape rewinds, Dallas notices Laurie’s face which is not its usual mask of fastidiousness akin to concrete. There is a smile, wry and full of minute curls. His eyes are big and bright. Before the tape clicks and signals it is done rewinding, he wonders where his own spark had run off to. These tapes signaled the next phase, maybe the promise of more stories. He thought there would be details of where other tapes could be found. He’d been told about adds – though wasn’t sure what they added, other than the prospect of more stories, he presumed.
Both men sit. The screen is black, but before either get up to check the wiring some writing appears. It takes time for both of them to read because of the video’s poor quality.
IFL-245-678 – INT 4
Present: Officer Cave; Officer Montague, Professor Sanderson
Time Stamp: 143202043124
Behind the text is washed out darkness. Then the same young man from before appears. The writing fades as the prisoner talks. The voices range from the familiar Stoic Officer (whom both men, at separate times during the video, gather as being Officer Cave) to the new cast member being Officer Montague, another female officer but of a higher rank. The prisoner is Khali, but unlike before his demeanor is calmer, cocky. despite his incarceration.
Dallas and Laurie listen to a recount of Khali’s history. Laurie is fascinated, drawing some parallels where he could to his own youth – broken family, minor infractions, a profession that was legitimate but eventually came to an end (though Laurie wasn’t sure what Cyber Security was. It sounded similar to his own job as a mercenary hired for protection of a caravan that was hauling coal – that was, until the caravan was blown by raiders).
Dallas, however, yawns. He is wondering whether they should skip ahead, or maybe even offer a new tape, but when he sees Laurie’s face he sits back, thinking at least one of them is getting something out of this. Soon enough he’ll have his fill and be gone. Then Dallas can be left alone. His mind wanders to the blank-labelled tape, handed down by his father, and by his father before him.
According to his father, who had seen it once before when he was much younger, before his father’s tape player sizzled and popped out its last image, it told a special story. This one was of mammoth creatures that a scientist brought back to life. These creatures turned on their creators, eating most of them except the little girl and boy. It was his dad’s dying wish to see the tape one last time – a wish that would go unfulfilled. Dallas had been told the story countless times while his dad drew the labored breaths that would eventually stop.
His dad told him that being an archaeologist was a noble profession, even if there’s the prospect of being eaten. Dallas didn’t like that idea, which is why he paid others to do the digging for him. Without a child of his own he figured he may as well spend the family’s wealth while he could, since he can’t very well take it where he’s going afterwards. He’d be able to honor his father properly once Laurie left. Over the years he had found more tapes, hoping they would have more stories… instead he’d waited half a life time for what seemed to be nothing but dialogue and a production lacking a visionary director.
As Dallas ponders this, wandering in and out of his own ghost play in his mind, Sanderson asks Khali a question. Laurie knows this because he’s paying attention. Dallas is cleaning his teeth with an elongated pinkie-fingernail, blackened from tightening screws and tasting of metal. Laurie is fascinated with the way the image plays out. The screen, convex in shape, distorts Khali’s features somewhat, but Laurie feels he can reach out and touch the man whose only opposition seems to be Sanderson.
Laurie had met many people like Sanderson in the past. Dallas, if he was paying more attention, would consider some of Laurie’s stand over tactics as being very Sanderson-like. He misses the part where Khali admits that he committed grand-fraud when he broke into the G-Corp security firmware and filtered the banking details amongst those who lived in the slums far below.
Dallas was deep in thought when Khali then admitted to sabotaging Sector G’s power grid in the hopes to throw the police off his trail – an act that caused a three-day blackout for many of the lower middle-classes that lived within the 50-70 stories of Sector G, including the death of several on life support in their homes. He was charged with their murder, which was downgraded from six consecutive life sentences to three.
Laurie leans forward, parroting the smile on Khali’s face while the charges are read out. To Laurie, who didn’t know about movies, this was all fascinating.
“For the record, the patient was under a psychotic-trip endured by the temporal rift that was opening up,” Sanderson says, “which brings us to why we’ve brought you here today.”
Khali’s eyes open up, as does Laurie’s. Dallas’ doesn’t, but he has dislodged the strip of meat that was in his molars and is chewing this with renewed vigor.
“Professor, I’m still not completely comfortable with this,” says Montague in hushed tones. Khali is visibly shaking but doesn’t say anything.
“You wouldn’t be. But an encounter with Beecroft – “
“That has not been conclusively confirmed yet,” Cave says, trying to back her superior officer up.
“- cannot go unacknowledged. Ladies,” Sanderson says in a condescending tone, “this is important. If you wish to step outside that’s absolutely fine by me.”
Khali’s gaze shifts from side to side, his eyes wild. “Please don’t leave me,” he says.
There’s quiet from the tape. Inside Dallas’ shop the sound of the genie percolates. It scratches at Laurie’s core, where he suspects his soul to reside. Dallas doesn’t pay any attention to it and yawns again.
“Khali,” this is Sanderson talking, “you said to stay away from the future last time. Care to elaborate?”
“I don’t want to go back,” he replies.
“Please, Khali. Explain what you saw,” Sanderson says, a teenager trying to unlock the hidden secrets of a woman who had perhaps given him a taste, then regretted it later on.
“Why?” Khali shouts.
In a casual movement, Sanderson leans back in his chair. “Maybe we can prevent it?” he suggests, his hands opening up like a flower who is considering the worth of extending its petals to the sun today.
Khali looks down. As he does, a practiced hand shoots out, a syringe jabbing him in the neck before the liquid plunges deep within his veins. Khali can’t move, his restraints stopping him. His head jerks back, but the needle – a large one according to the scale of Sanderson’s hand – doesn’t budge. Khali lets out a grunt that verges on a shout before panting heavily. The needle is removed as sweat pores from Khali’s forehead, spittle flying from his mouth. Laurie moves further forward. Dallas is happy to see some semblance of excitement happening.
As Khali’s breathing calms, his shoulders heave up and down. With each intake, the wall behind him changes. It starts out a purple, like a sunspot that won’t go away. It then changes, growing in size and substance. From a two-dimensional image it flexes and becomes half a dimension more, layered pictures on top of one another giving the illusion of depth. Khali is opening sobbing.
“Talk,” Sanderson pleads.
Khali speaks, and with each word the image becomes more whole. He describes a world flattened by the reckoning. The towers that scratch at the sky’s belly aren’t there anymore. Laurie recognizes it as the same image that flashed up from the first tape. Dallas pays more attention, being drawn in by the illusion and magic now showing on the screen.
“How does it happen?” Sanderson asks, walking closer to the vortex. He holds a hand out then retracts it straight away. He laughs. Says, “It’s cold.” Man discovers fire for the first time and describes it as simple as he can.
“You’re the doctor, you tell me. Something to do with mutated synapses or something, right?” Khali says, his voice low.
“No, not that. The reckoning. How does it happen? What did Beecroft tell you?”
“Please,” Khali says. The image on the wall wavers. “I’m not the only one that Beecroft tapped. He’s trying to spread the word.”
“Of this? But it’s unavoidable. Like death. We know it’s not a matter of if but when, right?” Sanderson says. He looks to the officers as though he’s conducting a sermon. Both officers look to one another, uneasy with where the conversation is going.
“He says it can be changed. We can escape. We can stay away from the future.” Khali’s voice becomes distant. The image on the wall wavers again.
Officer Cave says, “Professor, his nose…” she points. Khali’s uniform is covered in melted rose petals. Rather than become alarmed, Sanderson grits his teeth, nostrils flaring as he stares at Khali who begins to shudder and convulse. Sanderson’s eyes move between the scene, which ripples and distorts, to the officers who appear to be alarmed. Finally, a new syringe is brought out. It’s jabbed into Khali’s neck. He doesn’t resist – he’s too busy looking at whatever images are in the back of his head.
When the syringe is emptied, Khali’s body calms. His jerky movements slow, then cease. His body falls forward. “Get him out of here” Sanderson says, looking at the wall that appears as complete and solid as any concrete wall could ever be.
The tape runs out. Both men are left staring at the blank screen again. The shop’s old-world artefacts feel closer, as if they had been watching too.
Dallas lets out an elongated sigh before getting up and moving to insert the third tape. His interest is piqued about as much as a butterfly with one wing to a kitten. Dallas tosses the second tape aside. It clatters with a bang to the floor, as stunned as the first tape at the neglect they’re receiving.
Laurie doesn’t move from his seat. He’s glad he doesn’t have to argue with Dallas about staying. He didn’t want to give up the last of his bargaining chips that came in the form of the half-pay he’d received for the case. He would hand it over, reluctantly. But if asked he would hand it over. He wants to know what became of Khali. There was a level of importance and comprehension just on Laurie’s periphery that he was desperate to grasp. He had never been one for living in the past, but felt an obligation to understand what it was that these tapes were trying to say.
Dallas felt no obligation, except to his father which he was certain didn’t involve these tapes at all. Dallas admits to Laurie that he’s not a fan of this Khali person. Having said it out aloud feels good, in the same way that running water over your hands can feel good for no particular reason. Laurie’s eyebrow drops to the realms of normalcy, though his eyes take on that steely glare. Dallas takes this as a means to elaborate. “Well, for one thing, time travel is an illusion, like space travel, or the ability to cure fungal infection with tea tree oil.”
“What?” Dallas replies as he presses play on the final tape.
The screen turns on. The time stamp shows again, but without a solid date they can’t make out how much older it is from the series of numbers. Dallas is visibly annoyed but doesn’t say anything – he knew that this tape was another featuring this Khali character, but he was hoping maybe it had been erased, or better still, changed to feature something – anything – but this confused and, quite frankly, boring prisoner. How it could have ever been produced was beyond his comprehension.
The color is washed out, the contrast all wrong. It reminds Laurie of spending days out in the wastes, going sand-blind from the glare off the white powder and the constant raking at the retina from the unkind wind. A face is present – a young man with a beard. His eyes are gaunt, the circles that surround them seem hollow with the whites of his face. He doesn’t blink, instead looking directly at the screen. Laurie doesn’t move.
“It’s just fiction,” Dallas whispers, leaning over enough to lend his voice to the brief air that separates he and Laurie. He’s not sure why he said it. The tape could be real or it could be like the stories his dad told him about – a point Dallas could make to Laurie, but doesn’t.
Laurie’s read fiction and knows the difference. It doesn’t stop him from being completely immersed within the medium. Before his parched mouth can open to argue the fact a voice speaks.
“Okay then. A quick systems check before we begin. Camera two.” There’s a click, and the view of the room shifts to a different angle. Sanderson is a floating head with a pair of waving hands. Before those hands is a panel, which he clicks again after saying, “Camera three.” From this camera we see Khali licking cracked lips. Laurie offers an involuntary mime of the same action.
This view is on the opposite wall, to Khali’s back. Sanderson is in full view, standing in front of Khali. There’s another click and the camera moves back to the first position. Both men are glad that they can no longer see Sanderson. Laurie thinks it’s the way the man smiles. Dallas believes it to be the sinister curve of his eyes. Both are right, but neither confirm this with one another.
“Do you like the set up? I acquired it from some government division. A paunchy-looking kid and his girlfriend wanted to know what lay out in the wastes. Did you know we have stations that look after the dead? Apparently these monitors use enhanced spectrographs to determine the division between realities. Something you know a lot about, don’t you?” he doesn’t let Khali reply, “I let the kid know about a settlement way, way out east. Doesn’t matter to me.” Sanderson’s tone is one of casual conversation, like two strangers in a park talking about the weather, the simplicity of feeding ducks, or the mass mold migration of ’76.
Sensing the other on the park bench was mad, Khali answers with a nervous shift in his seat. He absently picks at his fingers, torn between watching Sanderson and looking everywhere else. It’s not until a briefcase is produced that Khali reacts. The contrast of the screen clearly shows his dilated pupils. He tries to stand but a chain, otherwise concealed around his waist, pulls him back to a seated position. When he realizes he’s stuck, he moans.
“What’s in the pouch?” Dallas asks.
“Shh,” Laurie says. The screen is quiet. Nothing was missed.
Dallas crosses his arms and leans back with a pout.
Khali’s moan changes pitch and becomes more like a child’s scream.
“Now, now, Khali. Don’t be like that.” Sanderson says. The angle is still fixed on Khali but a syringe comes into view, held by the older man’s steady hands. Khali struggles the closer the syringe gets. The liquid is a bright blue, despite the saturation in the coloring of the film. Khali’s struggles become ferocious. He stands as tall as he can, shouting no repeatedly as he tries to pull the chains from their anchor. He claws at the skin around the bindings. His fingers come away bloody. Sanderson seems to be enjoying himself.
Laurie runs his hands through his hair. Dallas picks at his teeth again. The camera changes to the one behind Sanderson, showing the whole room. They can see that Sanderson is halfway around the table, waiting patiently for the child to finish his tantrum, maybe exhaust himself to sleep, before finally putting him to bed. Khali struggles, only stopping when he looks up at the camera.
“Help me,” he says. Laurie takes a quick and short intake of breath. “Help me,” Khali says again, this time verging on a shout. Sanderson sees his opportunity and drives the syringe into the prisoner’s neck. Khali had managed to work the bindings loose. He strikes out, unable to hit Sanderson, but he’s still able to dislodge the syringe. It hits the wall and shatters. Khali thrashes about for a few more moments before the weight of the drugs presses down on him.
Sanderson grabs the prisoner before he can slump awkwardly and hurt himself, then places him on the seat. He straightens the boy’s collar on his prison fatigues, then pats his chest. “Good,” he says. Then he returns to his seat, looks across at the drooling mess that sits before him and says, “Good,” again.
The clasps of the briefcase snap open and a handheld device is produced. The room illuminates into a brilliant blue while the case is opened. When he closes it there’s ghost images across the screen, like echoes of past actions, or possibly future interaction. The outlines converge and dilute just as the contrast washes back out, a wave melting the sand away. It’s hard to see from this camera angle what the device is. It’s small and black but emits a fractal light that projects beyond its small boundaries. The same dexterous hands that drove the syringe into Khali’s neck work some kind of magic. This goes on for around ten minutes.
Dallas and Laurie both sit patiently, then look to one another, offering silent shrugs and questioning looks. Laurie stands and begins to pace. His expression is blank when it occasionally looks back at the screen to see if there’s been a change. At some point the camera changes back to its default position, showing the sleeping hulk of Khali, who looks like he’s had a big night of wasting as many brain cells as he could by taking a detour via the stomach and liver first.
A small beep emits from the screen. Sanderson doesn’t answer it straight away, but when he does he pulls a second syringe out. The unconscious Khali manages a slight flinch when the new drug is injected. Sanderson rechecks the restraints before sitting back down.
After a few minutes Khali speaks. “I don’t want to do it. We should be staying away.” His voice is like listening to someone’s conversation underwater. A tear rolls down his cheek.
“I know,” Sanderson says. “It’ll be over before you know it, then you can go back to living the rest of your life in your cell.”
Khali smiles, “In the end there won’t be a cell.” His tears mix with the drool that seeps from the side of his mouth. “In the end we’ll all be gone. You won’t be ploughing that tiny prick into that girl you call a wife anymore.” Khali’s head lolls to the side, his grin wide.
Sanderson doesn’t react, instead continuing the conversation, “For some, yes, it’ll be all gone. But when you know, when you have had time to prepare,” he says, and pats the briefcase, then huffs a laugh while leaving the sentence dangling.
“But you are here to fuck everything up. And in the end it’ll be me. I’ll be the one that everyone will say did it,” Khali’s smile changes. Under different circumstances, his neurotic behavior of extremes could be considered comical.
Sanderson takes a breath and lets it out, then checks his device. As he does, Khali’s eyes shift again to the upper corner of the room, where camera 3 is. He twitches, which shifts the camera angle to the wider shot once again. The screen gives out a high-pitched whine that grows steadily.
“They’ll know, at least,” Khali says in his underwater tone.
Laurie shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Dallas doesn’t.
“Oh, this isn’t recording. I just needed it to react to your gift to calibrate the convergence,” Sanderson says, barely looking up from his device.
Khali smiles, one that could be taken for the drug induced simplicity his brain is going through. As he smiles, the whine from the screen becomes a sonar screech. Dallas stands up and bumps the screen. The whining stops. Khali’s head lolls back. Sanderson looks up from his device and shines a small torch into the prisoner’s eyes again. Dallas is unsure whether he somehow, inadvertently, knocked the prisoner’s head. Laurie is sure of it but doesn’t say.
There’s a noise, halfway between a tearing page and a lit match. As it fizzles out, behind Khali, on the blank wall, is no longer a blank wall but a rippling scene that’s full of blacks and oranges. Sanderson looks around, then checks the monitors in front of him. He cycles between camera angles before spotting the rift in the wall. “There we go, now. Was that so difficult?” Sanderson says, before holding the device up and punching in a few numbers. He then steps back as the rift reveals itself.
“You have what you want. Please, please let me back in my cell.”
“Not just yet, Khali,” Sanderson says, patting the younger man’s shoulder as he walks up to the tear in the not-wall. Khali throws up. It’s only liquid, but the sound is clear. The vomit isn’t.
“What have you done?” Khali asks.
Sanderson turns around, looks at the mess and is visibly disgusted. Not just at the waste on the floor, but at the figure that sits slumped at the table. “Yes, well. I needed to give you something more. And emporidium – the pure stuff, is hard to come by. Even if I have a case full of it there. But what I gave you is synthesized, so there’s going to be some side effects.”
Khali tries to throw up again. His retching is more violent this time, though nothing comes up. He coughs, then heaves his body. The camera’s image flexes, as if it was imposed on muscles near to tearing. Between the heaving, Khali chokes out the words, “Like excess vomiting?”
“And death.” Sanderson pats Khali on the shoulder again, an action practiced on many students taking difficult exams and doomed to fail. “Just not yet. Hello, is anyone there?” Sanderson says to the wall’s image. There’s no answer, but the sound of a howling wind filters through like a dying breath.
“Good,” Sanderson says, more to himself. He takes a third syringe and uses this on Khali who is too weak to fight. “This one’s going to hurt.”
There’s a burst from the wall. The screen itself pops and fizzes. The room is condensed to darkness as the screen turns off.
“Gah,” Dallas and Laurie say as the image turns black.
“Pause it,” Dallas says, getting up.
“No – it’ll kill him,” Laurie replies.
Before Dallas can answer, a finger inches away from popping the button into the air once more, the speakers break the tension with Sanderson’s voice which replies, “Yes.”
Both men from the future stare at the screen as smoldering smoke emits from its back-end. The room smells as though someone had tried to turn a sheet of metal into toast.
“Yes, well, I was expecting that,” Sanderson continues. His laughs are filled with nervous anticipation. The screen is still blank. Dallas moves. Laurie shoots him a look that is simultaneously threatening and pleading. Dallas holds his hands up in defense, then points to the rear of the monitor before edging his way behind. The smoke has dissipated, and as Dallas slaps on a rubber glove, he motions to Laurie to hold the other side. He then fastens the coupler and the screen comes back on.
Laurie face brightens as the screen’s reflection shines off his face. He motions for Dallas before sitting down on the edge of his seat, head in his hands, eyes scanning the screen. Dallas moves, but markedly slower, deliberate. He looks at the tape player to see how much of it is left and is glad to have spoiled the answer for himself. He’s more worried about the damage this could be doing to his technology.
On the screen the room is a mess. The wall shows a massive tear where the future is found. It reveals a future that Laurie and Dallas know as the distant past. Laurie thinks he can pinpoint the location, but then he’s only seen the gates of Mournium once in his life. But not from the side the image is taken. Always the outside. Dallas becomes suspicious. His father never told him how accurate the future could be predicted. Except his suspicion is like trying to warm a meal with a lighter flame.
Khali is sprawled on the ground, his shackles torn away. He is also motionless. Sanderson picks himself and the briefcase up before approaching the tear carefully. He dips a finger in, smiles, then pulls it back. He looks down one final time at Khali before pitching the briefcase through to the other side. Then, carefully, so as not to step on the creaking floorboards that might wake a tiresome baby, he slinks himself through. First his right arm, then leg.
Laurie grabs at Dallas and points to the corner of the screen. Khali has moved just enough to wrap his hands around the broken syringe. Unlike Sanderson, he doesn’t offer a final look back, instead using the last of his energy to stab at his throat. There’s a sucking sound from the wall that builds so much that it distorts, bottoming out the small speakers of the already laboring screen.
The tear wavers before collapsing in on itself. Sanderson’s head is through the other side, but his right arm and right foot are not. When it closes, the sound dies with it. Sanderson’s arm hangs for a moment before thudding to the floor, the exit wound cauterizing perfectly. After three minutes the tape goes blank and stops.
With the screen blank, the darkness closes in around both men. A match is struck – this one is from Laurie. Dallas has moved, but Laurie tracks the archaeologist to where the genie sits, humming away in a minding-my-own-business kind of way. When it’s turned off, the room is filled with profound silence once more. He figures the only thing to do now is light a smoke.
Dallas fumbles for a lantern from under the counter. His ears ring from the distortion of sound that blasted out minutes before. He hopes that the wiring and tubes of the screen aren’t damaged. While he doesn’t think he could bring himself to throw the Khali tapes out, he nevertheless figures they’ll be placed somewhere far away to stop them from potentially damaging his tech further.
At least he has his other tapes for later tonight. Or perhaps it will be tomorrow. Dallas finds himself suddenly without hurry, without purpose. He feels as empty as the room appears to sound, while Laurie feels he’s full of possibilities.
“There’s got to be more out there. Khali said so himself, he’s not the only one that was tapped by Beecroft,” Laurie says, taking a drag on his cigarette. Dallas waves the smoke away causing shadows to dance around the room in a menacing way.
“But these tapes, they’re just fiction. They don’t tell us much”
“Doesn’t… Doesn’t tell us much?” Laurie says. His arrogance relents, his ignorance a thing of the past. Like Khali. He wonders how he can put more emphasis on the question, instead of spitting everywhere and losing his cigarette that rolls out of sight. “Maybe we can find where Sanderson dropped the suitcase. It must have been hundreds of years ago, but could you imagine unearthing such a treasure? Picking up where this story leaves off from?” Laurie moves about, back and forth, mostly without intention, but partly to ensure his cigarette extinguished itself.
Dallas sits. He feels tired, beyond both the time of day and his years in age. “What do you mean ‘we’?” Dallas says. It’s more of an attempt to stop Laurie from pacing back and forth, the clap of his boots pounding at his own growing headache. He knows fully well the answer – or at least has formulated his own regardless of what Laurie says next.
“Well, with your knowledge and my abilities, we’re bound to come away with something,” Laurie says. He’s stopped moving, instead his stony stare drills into Dallas’ skull.
It’s Laurie’s turn to understand the answer to an unasked question. The reserved, complacent look on Dallas’ face says more than words or fists or bullets.
“I guess that’s that then,” Laurie says before looking around for any personal effects he might have left behind, of which there are none. He knows this, but also figures there’s a need to occupy the moment with some sort of movement and thinking he could find it in his pockets. When all he can come up with is lint and nothing more, he brings his head up and smiles at Dallas.
Both men say, at the same time, but in polarizing tones, “You know where I’ll be.” They leave it at that, with the last sound either of them hear in the vicinity of one another being the door closing behind Laurie. With the wind blowing and the nighttime air crisp, the scavenger is acutely aware of how big everything suddenly feels, while inside Dallas’ shop, his counterpart waves away the smoke, darkness and silence, and an old friend with an unlikely story to tell.
by Jay D Hellis