Friday, June 7, 2019

Proto Query 2: The Beforelife

Tall bonfires pushed back against the primal darkness of the deep forest. Large chunks of meat sizzled over burning coals while men and women in their primitive attire danced and sang under a bright spring moon. It was a festival of sorts, though Adamah hadn’t yet come to think of it as traditional. It was merely a celebration, an observance to the last of the snow melting from the ground, the air shifting to something warmer, and the game becoming fat and plentiful.

Aramas stood just at the edge of the flickering firelight, the glow playing along haun black scaled exterior, creating a flecked yellow gleam which broke the inky silhouette free from the shadows. Aramas had come to observe the festivities, but wasn’t one for frolic. On the opposite side of the fire was Eboo, resembling more and more Adamah’s peculiar shape with its long thin limbs and nimble digits, but still with the unmistakable glittery eyes and wings of haun native form, creating a fantastic hybrid, a mesmerizing creature never before seen in nature. Adamah seemed endlessly fascinated by the strange form, which for now was crouched down by a series of large rocks, making primitive drawings with ocher and coal to the delight of children who clamored and shouted for a turn.

“Why do you bother attending the festivals?” Thryy asked, stepping from the darkness to stand beside Aramas. “It’s obvious you don’t enjoy them.”

“I suppose my curiosity got the best of me.”

Thryy’s hide rippled, the blues and greens oscillating with more vibrant hues of orange and yellow, displaying haun amusement, the dermal equivalent of a chuckle. “And it’s hard to say no to Eboo.”

Aramas didn’t respond immediately, absorbed in haun observation as Adamah twirled and pranced around the fires, the deep percussion of the drums and footfalls resounding even beyond the canopy above. Aramas turned haun eyes to Thryy, taking in haun sibling’s smooth, moist skin and large bulging eyes with there singular vertical slits. The form was streamlined and efficient, unlike Adamah who had maintained hair in strange places despite having long evolved beyond the need for its protection, the strange patches of hair on their heads and faces somehow even more offensive to Aramas’ sensibilities than before.

“I think Eboo finds it important that I observe Adamah, being the closest living relative. Perhaps lhe thinks we’ll find some camaraderie given our relative similarities.”

Thryy’s skin pulsed in approval. “Things should be more interesting from this point onward. Adamah is beginning to grasp at the forerunners of science; the relationships between the moon and the tide, the stars and the seasons. Soon you’ll be able to have a real conversation, if a simple one.”

“Perhaps.” Aramas said, noncommittally.

As the two beings spoke, their conversation transitioning to topics in a different echelon of thought, a young woman approached Aramas, carrying with her a small mat like the floor of a woven basket. On the humble plate of reeds were a few small trinkets: a simple carving of some misshapen animal, a stone tool, a small morsel of roasting meat still steaming from its cooking. Stepping gracefully forward and moving to her knees she bowed and held the odd collection high above her head.

With a flare of haun nostrils Aramas pointed toward a crude altar that had been constructed for the festival, a gathering of large flat rocks sitting atop short, neat mounds of smaller stones. The area on and around the altar was piled with similar offerings, which had been slowly accumulating over the course of the evening.

“Are you extracting some form of payment from Adamah?” Thryy asked in distress, haun skin transitioning to a murky puce. “That’s most irregular.”

“No, Thryy.” Aramas replied, haun words thick with annoyance. “Those are for the ancestors.”

“The ancestors?” Thryy asked with great confusion. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“That young one.” Aramas replied, motioning with haun head toward the girl who was now squeezing her bundle neatly onto a small exposed section of the stone altar. “Her grandfather, as they call it, recently died. She wants me to take this gift to him in the afterlife.”

“I’m afraid I still don’t follow. Is he lost somewhere? Is this gift suppose to help us find him? Or maybe she isn’t aware yet that he is dead? We really should say something.” Thryy’s skin was now a dull matt black, belying haun melancholy at the thought.

“No, they are deceased. The body is in a cave on that mountain where the tribe inter their dead. The whole clan was present for the entombment. It is a simple ceremony.”

“So they want to bury these things with their ancestors… as a sort of remembrance? That seems a little sentimental, and maybe not very practical to dispose of so many valuable objects. But I suppose if it brings catharsis then it has value. What I don’t understand is why they want you to deliver the gifts. If they know where the bodies are buried why not just deliver the offerings themselves?”

“Because my friend these gifts aren’t going to the cave. As I said before they are for the afterlife.”

“I see, and where precisely is that?” Thryy’s skin was now rolling with a tone of soft, questioning amber.

Aramas gave a shrug of haun massive obsidian shoulders. “Here, there, everywhere, all around us, far away. It’s hard to pin down, but I am to understand that we spend a lot of time there.”

“Aramas, please, if you’re being intentionally obtuse, I don’t appreciate it. Anyway, it’s not like you.”

Aramas gave a loud sigh. “Apologies, I shouldn’t punish you with my annoyance. Although now that I attempt it, I realize I’ve never actually articulated this thought before. Let me try again.” Aramas turned haun body to more properly face Thryy. “Begin with the idea that an intelligence can be entirely disembodied, without any tangible form.”

“I can’t say I understand, but I’ll humor you for now.” Thryy said, settling into a seated position on the ground.

Aramas gave a nod of thanks. “Now, where would such an entity dwell?”

“That’s quite a puzzle. Would it dwell anywhere? Could it even possibly occupy space as we understand it?”

“Assuming this place can, and does exist, this is the place where the afterlife would occur.”

Thryy’s body transitioned through colors so fast they seemed for a moment to be a kind of strobing rainbow. “One moment Aramas, slow down.”

“Take your time.” Aramas said thoughtfully, watching as Thryy’s changes began to slow and settle as lhe gathered haun thoughts.

“I think I am beginning to understand. Now, tell me again, where exactly are you taking the offerings?”

Aramas shook haun head in exasperation. Aramas had to practice patience. It was not a concept that was easily digested. Aramas themself had found the thought daunting at first. Lhe decided to try a different angle. “You are aware of this creature they call the butterfly?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Adamah believes that lhe is like a simple grub, that haun corpse is like a cocoon, and that some time after death haun intelligence, haun essence, escapes as invisible, incorporeal, immortal, disembodied entities, and that we,” Aramas indicated Thryy, Eboo, and themself with a gesture of haun clawed foot, “somehow have the ability to communicate with these entities and bring them gifts from their friends in the beforelife.”

“What!?” Thryy exclaimed in absolute disbelief, haun skin now an alarming, sickly white. “Is it true? Can Adamah possibly believe such a ludicrous notion?”

Aramas tilted haun head gravely. “Yes.”

Thryy’s large eye stalks twisted to glance both at Adamah and the alter before turning once more to regard Aramas. “...all of Adamah?”

Aramas nodded. “Every tribe, every social structure, of every level of sophistication, on every corner of the globe.”

“Shocking. What can it possibly mean?”

“I’m afraid Thryy, that Adamah is quite ill. It worries me, and frankly I don’t know what to do.”

There was a long pause before Thryy’s next words. “What does Eboo say?”

Aramas’ mouth twisted in a sharp fanged display of open derision. “Eboo has decided to humor them for now and wait in hope that they grow out of it. I find this course of action...unsatisfactory. At this point in Adamah’s evolution, I think it's more likely lhe will continue to degenerate.”

Thryy’s body eased back to a pale blue. “Well, I suppose it couldn’t hurt to wait a little. If Eboo thinks the action is sound I can’t see any immediate harm.”

Aramas had been afraid of this, that Eboo’s opinion would be valued more than haun own. “Eboo possesses an empathy that overpowers reason. I think it clouds haun judgment. It’s hard for me to understand why lhe finds such a trait worthy of preservation.”

Thryy’s eye stalks waved in a kind of calming motion that Aramas found patronizing. “You are the youngest, you haven't the experience of an older sibling like Eboo. Lhe attended most of us during our youth. I’m sure there are many stories to be told and many lessons that can be learned.”

“I’ve studied all of the records available to me. I know as much as is possible under my circumstances. My theories are sound.” Aramas was surprised at the resistance given the presence of such compelling evidence, but Thryy continued waving about soothingly and Aramas realized there was nothing left to be said.

“I’m sure that’s true. Still, it’s different to see it for yourself. In any case if the sickness becomes too severe evolution will take its natural course. It’s sad, but not all of the siblings survived into adulthood.”

Aramas looked back to Adamah and thought on haun evolution, on the momentum of haun gestation. It came down to one fundamental of Adamah’s existence, the speed of haun development was unprecedented. Despite haun deficiencies, Aramas could not deny haun potential. The scenarios were thus: experience the joy of fostering a gifted intelligence, or suffer the pain of watching a great potential slowly wither and die. Aramas felt compelled to act, but had been encouraged to let nature take its course, to do nothing.

“Very well, if that’s the consensus then I will wait, and watch.”

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Query 2.20: Fractures

“Alice,” Xavier asked, looking out over the chaos in the streets beneath him. “How long before WHO has all of the city quarantined?”

“Information restricted by Wonderland protocol.” Alice replied, her voice filling the air of Xavier’s study.

“Good girl. Now, how many barricades have the Q.C.B. managed to put in place?”

“37, before communications became compromised.”

“Interesting.” Xavier said to himself, walking to retrieve a tablet from his desk.

Xavier had gotten hold of the Q.C.B. plans a few hours before shit hit the fan. After speaking with his man from Rathford, Xavier did everything he could to send out word and get his people tucked away safely. Hopefully the members of the congregation had found shelter for the night and had missed the worst of the panic and confusion. It would’ve been possible for some of them to leave the city, to search for safety outside Delphi’s walls, but Xavier would stay, Apostle’s orders. So, he’d done what he could for tonight. He had no idea what he was going to do tomorrow.

Flicking the screen of his tablet, Xavier took a few steps from the window to his soft leather swivel chair, reclining back and throwing his feet up. “Richard Pythagoras Black, Alice, you know him?”

“Richard Black is a Vergeron Marketing Analyst, significant in this context because he was the first to profitably employ the Alice system toward marketing projections.”

“True...” Xavier spoke making a note on his pad. “And what about the Night of Madness?”

“Information restricted by Wonderland protocol.”

“So, Mr. Black wasn’t present during the Night of Madness?”

“Information restricted by Wonderland protocol.”

“Come on Alice, try harder. Eliminate the federal database from your search.”

“Delphi Police Department records indicate a ‘Mr. Black’ assisted the D.P.D. during the Night of Madness.”

“See, that wasn’t so hard. We may have Wonderland wrapped a little tight.” Xavier remarked, continuing to make notes in his log.

I’ll have to get the devs to loosen things up. If Alice misses easy questions like this, they’ll catch us for sure.

“What about you, Alice? Were you present during the Night of Madness?”

“No.”

“Huh?”

Xavier wrapped his fingers on his desk. Xavier had gambled a lot on Wonderland, had called in favors, risked exposure. It would be a devastating setback if his hunch had been wrong.

“Was anyone named Alice present during the Night of Madness?”

“Voice parsing seems to indicate an Alice was involved.”

“But you don’t think that Alice was you?”

“No.”

Xavier could feel the annoyance building. He knew so far as Vergeron’s top brass were concerned there was no distinction between this Alice and the one operating on the Night of Madness. Cain Westbrook had admitted as much at their first meeting.

“How did you help Mr. Black apprehend the Alleyman?”

“I did not.”

“I see… So we’re still keeping secrets.” Xavier continued to scroll through the information on his screen, the Wonderland design documents as well as information gathered on the Alice project and its staff. “I suspect the good Doctor hasn’t been exhaustive in his reporting. We’ll have to dig deeper.”

Xavier’s thoughts were interrupted by a knocking on the door. “Who’s that I wonder?” Xavier spoke to himself.

“It is the Archdeacon.” Alice replied, as if Xavier had been speaking to her.

“How could you possibly know that?” Xavier muttered as he opened the door to let the Archdeacon in. “You’re early.”

“I’m sorry Bishop,” The Archdeacon huffed as he shuffled over the threshold. “But we need to leave now. The Q.C.B. barricades have apparently muddled something up and the Apostle says your audience with his master must be now.”

“Very well.” Xavier sighed, “Do you need anything before we go? A quick drink?”

“...why not,” The Archdeacon spoke shuffling toward the bar, obviously anxious.

Xavier swooped around the Archdeacon, recovering a decanter and discovering with some relief that there was still a little scotch in it.

“You seem nervous.” Xavier spoke as he distributed the golden liquid between two short glasses.

“Xavier, this is unprecedented. Unprecedented!” The Archdeacon stammered with some distress, extending his hand to take the offered glass.

“What? The streets running with rivers of the dead?” Xavier replied sarcastically. “Or were you thinking of something else?”

“Well, yes, that. But I can’t find any record of anyone ever having appealed to the Prophet in person. I suspected it might have been unusual, but I can’t find any record that it’s ever been done. Xavier, are you sure this is wise?”

Xavier shrugged and took a swig of scotch. “I have to try something. If you haven't noticed things are getting bad out there.”

“But what if there’s a reason? What if he’s displeased? As far as we know his grace is the only thing keeping us safe. What if we’re making everything worse?”

“Stop it, you superstitious idiot.” Xavier said, taking another pull from his glass and letting the smooth burn calm his own nerves. “Make your crosses and signs and let’s get out of here. Besides, I really doubt anything could be much worse.”

“I suppose your right. As the Bishop of Delphi I could argue you’re within your rights to at least try.” The Archdeacon raised his glass in salute and tipped the scotch down his throat in one large gulp. He sputtered and coughed, apparently not much of a drinker, but managed a tepid smile up at Xavier once he stopped hacking.

“That’s the spirit. Now what else do you have for me? Think hard, there must be something.”

Xavier moved over to place a hand on the Archdeacon’s shoulder, before directing the man toward the door.

“Not much, as I said. I found a few more fragments of original gospel. I spoke to a colleague about it briefly. He seemed to indicate that several sections of the gospel had been omitted from the canon because the College of Scholars can no longer translate them. He was very upset by the whole conversation. He said if I mentioned it to anyone he would deny everything. There are a handful of writings by more contemporary authors attempting to fill in missing bits of scripture, but since they were unauthorized they’ve been seized and locked away. I asked to see them, but my friend said they wouldn’t help. That they were raving, impossible to understand.” The Archdeacon shook his head. “I find it odd to say the least that these texts are supposedly both raving and untranslatable.”

“Marvelous.” Xavier groaned. “What the hell is really going on here?”

Xavier’s brow furrowed, watching the last swallow of scotch swirl around his glass, giving the Archdeacon a final chance to do something useful, but the man just stood there, wobbling nervously.

“Alright.” Xavier spoke gruffly, slamming his glass down. If he had any chance of getting answers tonight, there was only one place he could go. “After you.”

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Xavier hadn’t been sure what he expected, but a subterranean expedition through Dephi’s undercarriage had not been on his radar.

The Apostle hadn’t said much, merely gliding ahead as some sort of spectral guide, weaving through tangled corridors of access hatches, piping, and cable nests that constituted much of the journey.

They were somewhere near the divide, Xavier knew that much, where Old Town and Uptown embraced. They would occasionally transition into areas pristine in their construction, with placards and access panels denoting purpose, function, with a keen eye to aesthetics, even in the underground. They had spiralled, their progress warped and meandering enough that Xavier had lost all sense of direction when their path suddenly opened into a hollow cavity, a grotto that at one time might have been a cafe, or perhaps a bookshop. It was a comfortable space for being buried beneath the city. The centuries old concrete and brickwork had been carved out, the i-beams of the ceiling open and vaulted some twenty or so feet above his head and Xavier could see that the ingress though which they had made their entrance was one of many, the walls, and indeed the roof, were punctuated with gaps and holes of varying size.

The open pocket was well manicured, tidy in a way that suggested having been lived in, with a few plates and cups scattered about, even a battery powered kettle, and as Xavier glanced around his eyes met oddly familiar set pieces. There was a small shrine in one corner of the room, with kneeling cushion, candles, and a vacant, blood stained altar, arranged such that Xavier couldn’t help but feel the nudge of memory, an echo from a past that saw his family with their own, similar mode of worship. The idol above the altar, fixed to the wall, was something else entirely.

Xavier had seen numerous interpretations of the holy iconography through the years. It was almost a right of passage for cult youngsters to mold and shape their own approximations of the sacred images for personal prayer and reverence, but Xavier couldn’t guess at the inspiration for this particular totem. It was a sculpture, of a kind. A collection of molded pieces of varying materials: wood, steel, wire, and what looked like meat in the dim lights that were scattered about the space. The sculpture was a collection of appendages, eight in total, connecting into a central distended mask, painted black with symmetrical yellow markings on both sides of the face.

“We will wait here.” The Apostle said, wafting as he did to float along one wall. “The Prophet will be here shortly.”

Xavier looked back over his shoulder to the Archdeacon, who had only just emerged into the room, breathing heavily. The walk wasn’t one Xavier had considered strenuous, but the Archdeacon wasn’t in the best of shape.

Xavier thought they might sit, the chamber having a few dusty looking chairs along the opposite wall when he heard the Archdeacon give a strangled yelp and fall to the ground. Xavier turned to find the Archdeacon staring upward, eyes wide and panicked. Xavier followed that gaze and felt his stomach drop to the floor.

Suspended from the ceiling, its outline obscured in a darkness that devoured the surrounding light, was a monster, a demon straight out of a fairytale, insectoid legs spread across the ceiling, each extremity smooth and jointed to flow into the next, coming to impossibly sharp points at the tips. In the darkness a face glowed, huge and iridescent, a pulsing skull of yellow that began, Xavier realized, to fall.

Xavier didn’t have time to react. The thing, big as a car, hurtled toward the ground and at the last moment stopped to pirouette in midair, its limbs coming to rest gently on the ground as it seemed to twist, straighten, and unfurl, its body shifting, legs to arms, thorax to torso, its color graduating, first to gray, then to a white that seemed to have its own internal glow. The yellowed skull was gone, obscured Xavier realized because the hideous outlines were facing away on the creature’s back. Now, a new face presented itself. Several eyes arranged upon an oblong head, like rows of glittering jewels, the deep impression of a handsome, angular face shimmered smooth and chitinous and seemed to regard Xavier with perfect, regal indifference, looming some six feet above Xavier’s own head.

“You have asked to see me, Bishop?” Its mouth did not move. There was simply a resonance occupying the space around Xavier’s ears that rung in clean tonal notes, like a finger being swirled around the rim of some impossibly large crystal glass.

“Ye… yes...” Xavier stammered, despite his best efforts. He took a calming breath and began again. “Yes, Prophet.” Xavier inclined his head automatically. “I wish to entreat you for guidance during these unsure times.”

“If you’re looking for confirmation of of your excellence, you have now received it.” The creature’s hands opened, for it did have hands, it’s digits long, even elegant, the fingers equal and jointed far more than a human finger. It seemed to be making a gesture approval…or maybe placation? Xavier didn’t know. He couldn’t parse the intention. What he did know was the beast’s response in no way helped his situation.

“But what should I…how do I protect my people?”

“You have done it Bishop, and you continue to do it now. There is no life without death. The contrary is our greatest sin. You have known these tenets since youth, you work masterfully, yet speak as if ignorant. Curious… remember the words, I have nothing left to teach you.”

“What words? The words are lost.” Xavier was shocked to find, despite his fear and confusion, he was getting angry.

The vibrations of the voice had shifted, becoming higher, sharper, filling the room and knocking dust from the exposed rafters. “Blasphemy! “The scholars have failed! The scholars will pay!” Without pause the tones adjusted once more to their original cadence. “No matter. The truth has
manifested. The work has borne fruit. The destiny cannot be concealed.”

Xavier couldn’t help but grimace. “I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but none of this tells me what to do…”

“It is said, Bishop that great men are defined by great adversity. You have been given the greatest of foes, except god’s offering and become the hero of men. Now go, we both are drawn to what demands us.”

The creature became black once more, folding in and down, pharaoh to spider, it skittered up and through one of the openings with a bestial swiftness and was gone in an instant, the only sound in the room was the Archdeacon’s rapid, frighted breathing.

Xavier turned and met the Archdeacon’s eyes, saw the naked terror in the man’s face, the helpless confusion of subverted expectations. Xavier imagined his own face couldn’t look much better, but in that shared gaze was an understanding, a mutual revelation that transcended words.

Help isn't’ coming… We’re on our own…

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

The layout was a kindness. Exquisite ovoidal passageways. Junction nodes a sprawl of quadrivials, meeting and parting and meeting again in precise symmetry.

...pulse, the path set once more. The byway open. Inviting! The background radiation of the universe playing its unremitting harmony.

A simple series of choices. Ever onward. Left, and right, and forward!

Delphi’s innards thrummed. Energy sizzled with guided purpose, electrons traversing distances of miles in microseconds.

Where did it go? Where will it dry up? What will it kill?

...perspective…

Get far enough away and it would look perfect. Macro-analysis would yield amazement at the regularity of the convergences, the substructure of fiber optics more precise, more succinct than any street could hope to be for ascribing location.

...again to pulse. Anchor the message. Simple recursion…

Skitter! Up and around. Down and through. Never seen. Never heard. Just to glide.

...up to nestle, up to wait…

A city on its knees. Is it enough? Look at the little things move and then move together. The little things were helpful in their way, and there was always more than enough.

A drone floated around a building’s corner, pivoted ninety degrees from center, rose three hundred centimeters and rotated again, the camera on the external housing flashed as the aperture of the lens expanded, trying to see into the darkness…

Invitation accepted!

There you are… But where…? It did not dry up, not all of it entirely…

And now to the next thing.

...oh to be seen…

...to be heard.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Query 2.19: Frequencies

The quarantine alarms had saturated the eatery mere moments ago, but with the exodus of the Pie Bird Diner’s few supplemental patrons, and the muting of the remaining devices, the emergency sirens and ancillary crisis alert signals were restricted to a rolling pulse beyond the restaurant’s walls.

Py was waiting as patiently as he could, rocking from heel to toe anxiously as Logan tried and failed to convince the proprietor of the establishment, Marcelles Bird, who Logan simply called Marv, to accompany them to Vergeron. Py wasn’t opposed to the idea, as Logan was obviously attached to the man, but Py was itching to get a move on. He’d called for pickup seconds after the quarantine alerts went live and was expecting to see a Vergeron self-driver pull up any minute now.

“Come on Marv, don’t be obstinate. We’re trying to do you a solid here.” Logan gestured with his thumb between himself and Py, indicating that the two of them were somehow mutually convincing Marv to come along. Py gave a distracted nod of approval towards Marv, thinking to reinforce Logan’s coaxing, before glancing through the windows to the street expectantly.

For his part, Marv just shook his head in stalwart mulishness. “No can do, Logan. You know this was my grandfather’s place. I can’t leave it, especially if the shit you say is true.” Py had been witness to this back-and-forth between Marv and Logan from nearly the instant the alarms had started blaring, like two stubborn goats trying to butt, push, and ram each other into submission, but with a deep sigh Py realized had become commonplace for his friend, Logan conceded, sticking his hand out, palm up, which Marv grabbed forcefully.

“Don’t you fuckin’ die on me Marv.” Logan said shaking Marv’s hand, and Py saw a smile cross Logan’s face. “You’re the only decent pie in town.”

“In the world, my friend.” Marv shot back before releasing Logan’s hand and making a shooing motion. “Now get going. I have to get this place closed up.”

Py was already at the door when Logan came to meet him. They exited to the curb outside the diner and for all of Py’s impatience it felt like another cycle of hurry up and wait, something that had been a constant nuisance to his life the past few months.

“So, we gonna have any trouble getting to Vergeron?” Logan asked, speaking loudly to be heard over the cry of the quarantine alarms. “I admit, I’m out of my depth when it comes to this shit.”

“No, we should be fine.” Py said back, relief taking him as he saw their ride come into view down the street. “I know where WHO will be putting up the blockades. We can maneuver around them.”

The noise that suffused the city cut out sharply, the classic neon sign of the Pie Bird Diner shut off with a sudden and surprising absence of glaring blue light and the Vergeron car down the street careened nose first into the pavement with a thunderous crash, grinding along the road and twisting up and over into a parked car along the other side of the street. This wasn’t the only rumble or thud that greeted Py’s ears, simply the closest one. Other more distant impacts, some punctuated with screams of varying levels of distress could be heard all around them as drones fell from the sky and came to sudden, unfortunate stops.

“What the fuck!” Logan exclaimed as a new, more irregular din gripped the air. Py glanced around into the surrounding buildings and shop windows, which confirmed his suspicions.

“Looks like the power grid shut down completely.”

“Shit! I’ve lived in Delphi my entire life and didn’t see a blackout until a month ago. What the fuck. Alright, so what’s our move.” Logan said, looking expectantly back at the diner. “Do we hole up and wait this thing out?”

Py shook his head. “I don’t think so. Vergeron is only a few miles out and if we wait WHO’s lockdown will be near impenetrable. If we head out now we’ll have a better chance of making the trip without having to deal with any red tape.”

“And you’re sure you can navigate this,” Logan gestured out to Old Town, clearly searching for a word, “clusterfuck without any trouble?”

“Positive.” Py replied without a hint of reservation. “WHO mobilized faster than I expected, but I can’t believe they’d get everything in place so quickly.” Py turned and began walking down the block, feeling this conversation was better on the move. “They’ll start with all major thoroughfares in Delphi, sectioning the city into progressively smaller quarantine zones as time goes on.” Py was at a fast walk now, cutting left down Pine Street with Logan striding behind him. “With a couple strategic detours we’ll circumvent the blockades completely.”

“Alright.” Logan said, with an uncertainty in his voice Py found irksome. “Lead on navigator.”

They fell into what Py found to be a comfortable silence as he guided them with purpose towards Vergeron. Py knew these streets, knew them possibly more intimately than a lifelong inhabitant. He’d pounded this pavement in pursuit of mysteries both vocational and otherwise, spent weeks mapping the alleys and backwaters of Old Town with a singular fixation. Py was unassailable in his confidence…until they hit a barricade.

Py had been deliberate in his wayfinding. His avoidance of persons, infected or otherwise, was expert enough to keep them unaccosted and largely unseen for the first half hour of travel. Py turned a corner out of an alleyway and stopped dead in his tracks. Down the street, scant feet away, was a quarantine barricade. Seeing it there where it categorically shouldn’t be was shocking enough, but Py could see that the guards milling about haphazardly where not in the uniforms of the W.H.O.

“Quack?” Logan said, coming around the corner and seeing the blockade himself. “I thought they’d be busy with Rathford.”

“They should be.” Py said, reversing back into the alleyway and pulling Logan in behind him. “That explains why the time frames are so wonky. This isn’t WHO implementation at all.”

“Py.” Logan said, stopping firm in the alley, which caused Py to stop himself as he still had hold of Logan’s coat. “I think it’s time we phone a friend, here.” Logan gestured, indicating Py’s left jacket pocket where he kept the Alice pen. “I believed you could navigate around WHO, but from what you said earlier Quack doesn’t know what they’re doing, which means we don’t know what they’re doing.”

Py stood silent a moment and then nodded. He couldn’t disagree. It was almost impossible to predict the movements of ignorant entities and if they continued forward without proper mapping Py was little better than the Q.C.B.

Py reached into his pocket and brought the familiar silver pen out into the air. “Alice, can you direct us along a route to Vergeron that circumvents Q.C.B. roadblocks?” There was no response. On reflex Py shook the pen and began repeating the question when he stopped mid sentence, realizing there was no use. Py looked up at Logan sadly and watched as comprehension dawned across his friend’s face.

“The wireless power transmitters are down.” Py said, verbalizing what they were both thinking. “Alice can’t hear us.”

“Fuck!” Logan said, running his hand down his face. “Do we find a place to hole up? Maybe ask these asshats if we can go through?” Logan tilted his head to indicated the Q.C.B. beyond the alleyway.

Py thought through both suggestions and shook his head. “We’re only a few minutes out from Vergeron and not knowing how long the power will be down makes holing up a non-option for me. As for the Q.C.B… we technically broke quarantine in Rathford and depending on how thorough they’ve been we’re also wanted for theft of materials, both bodily and otherwise.”

Logan brought his hand back up and thoughtlessly scratched the back of his neck. “Shit. I’d forgotten about that. You know, if this shit had happened yesterday I’d still have my D.P.D. credentials.”

“If this had happened yesterday we’d likely be in Vergeron with no means of helping the situation.” Py said. “As it stands, I still know these streets in and out. If we’re careful there’s no reason this is anything more than a few minutes detour.”

“Good old guess-and-check, huh.” Logan replied back, sounding to Py’s ears a smidge bitter. “Should’ve known it would be just like any other day.”

Logan’s eyes fixed on Py and a grin crept along one side of his face. “Actually, I’m going to disagree with you here. I think you should try and talk us through the barricade.” Py knew his expression was incredulous, but Logan continued. “Hear me out. I might not have credentials, but you do. This close to Vergeron your employment badge might buy us passage through. I think it’s worth a try.”

Py remained skeptical. Even if that did work the likelihood they’d let Logan through too was near zero, but his protests went unheard as Logan all but pushed Py back into the street towards the barricade. Py scowled at Logan, who was giving the same waving motion to Py that Marv had made at them mere minutes ago.

Py sighed and turned his attention to the barrier in front of him, moving forward to the nearest guard and stealing himself for what he expected to be an unpleasant interaction. The guard put their hand out before Py could get within ten feet of the barricade and called out, “Hault! There’s no passage through at this time. Proceed to your nearest quarantine shelter or residence and await further instructions.” Py ignored the warning and stroud straight up to the man who tensed noticeably at Py’s indifference.

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.” Py said wearily, holding out his Vergeron employment badge for inspection. “That place just happens to be on the other side of you.”

The man glanced down at Py’s badge and shook his head firmly. “Vergeron is not your nearest designated quarantine shelter. Please step away from the barrier and move along.” Other members of the small Q.C.B. contingent that were holding the one-way street were moving over towards Py to posture with their compatriot. Py ignored them, thinking that if Logan was going to force him to have this conversation he would at least get something out of it.

“You know,” Py began, putting his badge away, “you shouldn’t even be here. Stage 1 quarantine procedure dictates informing the public of the danger through emergency channels while setting up screening checkpoints and enabling mobility within isolated zones.” Py looked at the men with an irritation he now understood was a deep well of aggravation that had been building since earlier this morning. “As far as I can tell you being here is decidedly useless.”

Py knew he was pushing it. The telltale signs of people on the cusp of violence were making themselves apparent in the body language of the Q.C.B. functionaries as the six or so persons holding the line gravitated towards the point of contention like flies to shit.

“Listen, sir,” the man’s voice was strained and the squeak of his gloved hand as he clinched and unclinched his fist was impossibly grating to Py’s ears, “you’re not coming through. Please, make your way to your nearest quarantine shelter or your place of residence. This is your final warning.”

Py sighed heavily. “Fine, good luck in your pointless endeavor.” Py spun on his heels and stomped back along the sidewalk and into the alleyway. He’d known the interaction would be a fruitless venture. He wasn’t even angry at the Q.C.B. officials for doing their jobs. They were just following orders, unproductive as those were, no, Py was upset at Logan for having him try at all and wasting his time.

Py entered the mouth of the alley, intent on giving Logan a piece of his mind, when he saw that Logan was now fiddling with the knobs of a walkie-talkie. Py stood silently stunned for a brief moment before swooping in with an edge to his voice.

“Where the hell did you get that?” The question was answered before Logan even opened his mouth as Py’s eyes locked on the blue shield of the Q.C.B. logo prominent on the back of the device.

“I decided to take a page out of your book and just ‘borrow’,” Logan brought his hands up into air quotes by his head, “what we needed.”

“I...what...why didn’t you just tell me what you were doing?” Py could hear the conflicting emotions battling for supremacy in his question: surprise, annoyance, elation, all of them were tangled up in seeing Logan with their possible salvation so unexpectedly appearing in his hands.

Logan looked at Py with a raised eyebrow. “Py, we just had this conversation. You’re not the best actor in the world. If I’d told you what I was planing you wouldn’t have been half the distraction I know you could be.” Logan gave Py a self satisfied wink and Py hated that he knew Logan was right. That didn’t make him feel any better. Py did his best to put it out of his mind. There were more important things to worry about.

Py held out his hand to Logan. “Give that here. I can set it to broadcast a recursive message on all frequencies.”

Logan looked relieved as he handed over the radio. “Thank god. Everything the D.P.D. had us train on is automatic.”

Py quickly set the device to record a message and handed it back to Logan. “Just press and hold there when you’re ready to record. Once you release it will start repeating the message on all available channels.”

Logan simply nodded and brought the radio up to his mouth. “This is Officer Logan Maxwell, requesting aid from any available party, please respond. Repeat, this is Officer Logan Maxwell, requesting aid from any available party, please respond.”

Logan released the button and looked at the device expectantly. There was no response.

“Hopefully we’ll get a response from someone who can actually help us.” Py said. “In the meantime, we should keep moving.” Py began walking down the alley away from the blockade and Logan fell in step close behind.

They eased into silence after that. Py circled back and maneuvered down the street a few blocks before cutting back towards Vergeron. He found this route blocked by the Q.C.B. as well. He tried again, this time avoiding the roads altogether only to find the alley he’d peeked down to be crawling with infected out the other side. Frustrated, Py tried a different tack. It was possible the Q.C.B. had adopted a herding strategy and were deliberately trying to encourage travel along the main arteries of the city. It was therefore likely that the main roads and thoroughfares were still open. It was a tactic Py thought did more harm than good, but with their already thin resources it was a play that had an obvious effect.

Py swung them wide this time, doing his best to avoid the people that were now more common as they pushed along Old Town’s more trafficked byways. They turned a corner and Py froze holding his hand back to keep Logan from progressing any further.

Out ahead a group of infected people had settled in the wide open space of a four way intersection. Without any obvious prey in sight they seemed to have stopped for a moment to catch their collective breath, spaced in strangely even intervals and swaying gently back and forth. The heads of the group periodically swiveled this way and that as if vigilantly looking for a reason to erupt from their stupor.

Py couldn’t help but stare as he and Logan made their own investigation of the area, looking for a way to slink past the waiting mob. Finding a loose door, they started moving into a nearby storefront, hoping to find the interior clear of the infected. As they prepared to enter something caught Py’s gaze. There was a man on the ledge of a building across the way. His face was desperate as he crawled over the buildings facade with no obvious place to go, a small group of the infected trying their best to find a way out to him, struggling against competing objectives, the need to feed weighed against the impossibly dexterous task of navigating the narrow walkway while in a frenzied rage.

After a moment it was over, the man lost his footing and fell into the mob beneath him. Py looked away with a wince, knowing the man would almost certainly die from the fall, or worse, survive with no hope of escape. Instinctively turning back to witness the aftermath, Py saw something strange.

The infected had parted into an almost perfect circle around the area where the man had fallen, the group stepping away in a sweeping sequence, moving in concentric rings, like ripples in a pond, each responding with shocking consistency to the movement of their neighbors. After a brief moment an infected man started to dive into the void, only to step back when another on the far side attempted the same advance. This dance repeated several times, the infected bounding forward and back, almost as if they were afraid to touch. More remarkably the swarm of infected behind the ring of aggressors followed in almost flawless unison, the strange progression of pushes and pulls causing the crowd to pulse in rhythmic fashion. Py was stupefied. It hardly seemed possible that a group of creatures, which he assumed were bereft of higher communication, should be capable of such a mesmerizing ballet. Even among thinking people Py had rarely seen such a flawless and intricate choreography.

“Py^” Logan whispered urgently, tapping him on the shoulder. “Hurry up^”

Py turned away from the storefront windows and followed Logan through another door. This led back to the exterior, dropping them into a small cramped space between their building and the adjacent structure. They eased their way along the narrow passageway, away from the horde of infected still swirling in their oddly hypnotic kinesics.

Logan’s jacket gave a high pitched whine as a distorted, unintelligible static came blaring from the radio nestled somewhere in its interior. Py winced and locked eyes on the mob who had all, in unison, stopped swaying.

“Run!” Py bellowed as the first of the infected turned and charged for them.

Py and Logan burst from the alley, the throng of infected partially impeded as they struggled to navigate the narrow passage, pausing awkwardly at tight places and stumbling strangely around the deepest areas of detritus.

Upon reaching the main street, Py and Logan turned sharply in the direction of the Vergeron tower. The street was strangely vacant. A few infected had slowly begun to infiltrate from several narrow alleyways running the length of the road, but otherwise the Q.C.B. intervention seemed to have created a small gap in the chaos. In the open space Logan began to pull away, his naturally longer strides driving him out ahead of Py several yards.

In the distance there was one vehicle distinctly out of place, parked in the middle of the street perpendicular to the road. It was a large armored vehicle with D.P.D. emblazoned boldly on its sides. Unlike other vehicles that had collapsed and become useless with the shutdown of the maglev system, this car was stationed securely on six glorious rubber wheels, and better yet, it appeared to be running.

A single man stood on the ground near the drivers side of the vehicle, staring and scratching his head, looking puzzled and kicking one of the hefty tires and swearing in obvious frustration.

“Hey!” Logan called forward in warning. “Watch out, they’re coming!”

The portly man turned at the sound of the panicked voice, squinting hard in their direction before finally responding.

“Logan!?”

“I can't believe it.” Py heard Logan breath as they continued to run forward. “John!? Is that you!”

Logan‘s pace slowed as he neared the armored personnel carrier, courtesy of D.P.D swat. “What are you doing here?”

John gave a shrug. “The chief wanted me to round up a load of officers and bring them back from Rathford. I had to grab this big fucker, since the maglev went nuts, but now the damn thing won’t roll.”

“You realize Rathford’s in the other direction?” Logan panted. Py saw Logan glance over his shoulder and relief cross his face as he saw Py still charging up the street.

“How the fuck would I know! I just put the destination into nav and put my feet on the dash. Next thing I know I’m fuck-all nowhere.”

Py stumbled forward having just caught up with Logan. Halfheartedly he raised his hand to great officer Dalton, his other hand resting heavily on his knee as he struggled to regain his breath. Officer Dalton met the greeting with a sort of sympathetic smirk. Dalton’s face fell as he looked beyond Py to the thrashing swarm of infected scant seconds away.

“Alright little guy, you’d better get inside.”

Officer Dalton turned to the armored vehicle and looked surprised as the doors opened on their own, a staticky voice coming over the radio.

“Hello Py.”

“Alice?” Py responded in amazement.

“Hurry,” Alice replied. “The barricades are nearly in place.”

Py scrambled into the back seat of the tall vehicle as Logan and John piled into the front. The doors closed heavily behind them and the engine roared loudly as they turned and sped down the street, leaving their pursuers to find less nimble quarry.

Py caught his breath as Alice chauffeured them along Delphi’s now frenzied setting. Old Town was a mess. Some cars had gone up in flames, the blackout having sent many vehicles either into buildings or each other. People flooded the streets, infected or otherwise Py wasn’t sure as Alice guided the vehicle in a circuitous way, snaking through Old Town in avoidance of obstacles Py could only guess at.

“I’m surprised Alice has enough bandwidth on the emergency channel to navigate for us.” Py mused, watching buildings fly by, talking to no one in particular.

“I didn’t think Nav was that intensive.” Logan spoke back in what Py thought must be a careworn reflex. “I’m more amazed Alice found us at all.”

“What the fuck are you two on about?” John chimed in, clearly feeling a little left out.

“Nav is easy when the maglev is running.” Py replied to Logan, glossing over John completely. Maybe it was impolite, but Py remembered John hadn’t been the kindest person Py had ever met. “Alice must be driving us manually. It’s probably not easy under the circumstances.”

“The data rate of emergency radio transmissions is low.” Alice’s voice floated from the front of the dashboard. “I am able to compensate by multiplexing across several frequencies. Jamming other emergency communication guarantees me access to the required block of channels.”

“Please don’t do that.” Py replied with a strained patience, squeezing his eyes shut and pinching his nose, imagining all of the emergency responders who were unable to coordinate as a result of Alice’s intervention on their behalf.

The APC shuttered and veered to the right, hurtling over a sidewalk and into the side of a building as control of the vehicle reverted to manual.

“Py!” Logan screamed, bouncing around the driver's seat as they ricocheted off a parked car, smashing through crashed drones and garbage cans on their way to the other side of the road. “What did you do!?”

The momentum of the vehicle finally subsided as they came to a hard stop, rolling over a newspaper stand and smashing nose first into the store front behind it.

“Why would you say that!?” Logan reiterated, turning around in his seat to Py with a glare painting his face.

“I didn’t know she was going to throw us into a building.” Py replied defensively, feeling a little foolish at his lack of foresight. “I just didn’t want her jamming every radio frequency in the city.”

Logan gave a heavy sigh. “Guess we’re in manual.” He said, grabbing the steering wheel and reversing back into the road. “Do you know which way to go?”

“Maybe... “ Py, pushed his head close to the window trying to get his bearings. Looking at the crumpled newspaper stand underneath them he had a fleeting recollection of the fateful day the three occupants of the car had first met, not far from here, as the result of an investigation into the Hearst Communications newspaper. Glancing quickly over the wreckage Py noticed that a bundled stack of papers had flown comically out of the stall during the impact and had landed quite neatly into a recycling bin further down the sidewalk.

Py gave a little chuckle as he was struck by a sudden wave of realization. “Wait^... Oh my god^...”

“Py?” Logan turned again in his seat, staring silently at Py for a moment. “I think I’ll head North.”

“Huh… Oh, good.” Py replied, shaking himself out of his trance. “North for about three blocks, then see if you can turn left down Pine Street. They’ll almost certainly be a barrier, but maybe they’ll let a D.P.D. vehicle through. It should be a straight shot from there.”

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………

“I know this is a stupid time to bring this up,” Py spoke sheepishly into his phone, “what with everything that’s happening outside.”

Making a call to anyone beyond Vergeron’s walls was still effectively impossible. Every standard line was occupied with either emergency responders or the handful of people who’d won the cosmic lottery and obtained a brief slice of time to speak with family and friends as everyone in Delphi struggled to make sense of the chaos. However, now nestled safely in the confines of the Alice lab, an internal network had become available and it was possible to call others with access to Vergeron’s private, dedicated block of frequencies, lines which were slightly less busy by virtue of being restricted to interoffice communications.

“No Py, it’s okay.” Cain’s voice came back. His tone was hurried, but somehow still calm. Regardless of what was happening wherever he was, Cain had maintained remarkable composure. Frankly Py was shocked when Cain had answered the phone personally. Py had expected Glados at best, and more likely voice mail.

“Do you remember that first job you gave me when I started at Vergeron? The newspaper job? Well, I finally figured it out. I looked at it from every angle I could think of and in the end it’s the simplest strategy you could possibly imagine. It turns out one of the distributors of the Hearst Communications newspaper is a shell company dealing in the sale of recycled paper. Hearst buys recycled paper for printing, then immediately resells a percentage of the paper through their shell to other recycling companies as pulp, which actually has a higher market value than a newspaper at a stand, but since the sale originated at a news outlet they still collect the government subsidy provided for the distribution of print media. They're basically printing money while simultaneously inflating their sales and I’m not ever sure if it’s technically illegal.”

There was a soft chortle from the other end of the line before Cain responded. “Great work Py. I wish I could extend a more appropriate congratulations.”

“It’s fine. I just needed to get it out of my mind.”

“Say...” Cain replied, sounding somehow unsure of what he was about to say. “Why don’t you come with me? I’m leaving Delphi for a while and I’m sure I could set you up comfortably somewhere. Maybe even break you out of marketing.”

Py paused for a moment, the sudden invitation throwing him completely off guard.

“...I’m sorry sir. I think they need me here.”

“I understand.” Cain responded, sounding a little disappointed, but unsurprised. “You have about fifteen minutes to change your mind. Promise me you’ll consider it.”

“I will.” Py replied humbly, removing his phone from his ear and staring at it absently for a few seconds before terminating the connection.

“What the hell is this?!” Doctor Whitechapel exclaimed the second he saw Py was free.

“So you see it too.” Py said turning to face the large screen at the back of the Alice lab, now looping satellite footage of the bizarre movements of the infected he’d witnessed at the intersection earlier.

The Doctor gestured to the screen. “I've never seen anything like it. They're clearly flocking, but humans don’t move like this. I don’t know anything more intelligent than a fish or bird that shows this complexity of spontaneous behavior.”

“It has to be some aspect of the disease,” Py shot back, “but even pathogens that alter behavior don’t usually cause coordinated group behavior.”

The Doctor rubbed his chin pensively as though a thought was beginning to form in his mind. “I’ve seen something like this before, but I’m not sure it’s relevant.” The Doctor pointed up at the screen. “See how the infected can’t seem to decide who should advance. Sometimes in A.I. if two decisions are effectively equivalent the A.I. may struggle to decide which of two arbitrary strategies to act on. A lot of times we get around these issues with simple tools like random number generators. Human minds being inherently more random than computers I wouldn't expect to see this manifest in a living creature.”

Py watched the looping video over and over, each time hoping for new insight with nothing useful emerging.

“I was going to ask you.” Py said, half engaged with the Doctor and half trapped in the meditation of flocking behavior. “How long has Alice been listening in on emergency frequencies?”

“Actually she isn’t. At least not through her normal input system. She found your request later on while syncing a copy of the D.P.D. server. It’s almost like she remembered the communication more than having heard it. Funny to think on our inherent instinct to anthropomorphize computer processes. Still, it’s a new trick.”

Py pulled himself away from the looping feed and gave his full attention to the Doctor. “Now that we’re talking about it, Alice seems strangely quiet lately. I assumed it was because we agreed earlier to rollback new features, but this makes me think something else is going on.”

The Doctor gave a small shrug. “You’ve never been on the stable development branch of Alice, you work exclusively on Alice Beta, features come and go constantly, bugs get filed, fixed and new bugs pop up in their place. I’m not sure how aware you are of the instability in the system. You aren’t talking to a single Alice, but a rapid succession of Alice systems in constant evolution. Some days I bet she’s changing query to query, so it never really surprises me when you complain that she’s acting ‘weird’. Having said that, I agree, something does seem a little strange. It’s like part of her is somewhere else. Our current benchmarks don’t show any real change, but, I don’t know. I’m struggling to put a finger on it myself.”

“I’m glad you feel it too.” Py replied, getting up from his stool. “It’s not as satisfying as a real answer, but at least I feel less crazy. I’m heading upstairs for a minute. I want to talk to Brian.”

“What are you going to do?” The Doctor asked as Py turned to leave.

“Make a cure.”

“Can we do that?”

Py shook his head. “No.”

The Doctor just smiled, slowing shaking his own head. “Alright Py, I won’t keep you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

“The flocking’s important. I just don’t why.”

“I’ll think about it.” The Doctor agreed. “I've been asked for a list of essential personnel, in case they need to ration out supplies. Who should I count?”

“Logan.” Py answered.

“Anyone else?”

Py’s brow furrowed as he thought. “Define essential.”

The Doctor gave a light chuckle. “I’ve vouched for Aster, if that’s what you’re asking, but I’m not vouching for anyone else.”

“Alright.” Py replied turning toward the door. “I’ll be back.”

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Cain stood in the doorway of the helipad, hiding from the thin evening air at the top of the Vergeron tower as he waited for everyone to assemble. “Make a note” he spoke to his tablet “Opportunity for new ‘Asymmetric Accountability Investment’: Hearst Communications.”

Cain waited a moment for the computer to dutifully capture the thought, then with a flick he brought up a new screen displaying the seating chart for the arriving helicopter. With a finger Cain began to cross out one name, a particularly obtuse board member, scribbling Py’s name in his place.

“The man who pays me to make money? Or the man who makes the money? Easy enough.”

Cain tapped his finger on the tablet thoughtfully, remembering his brief conversation with Py earlier. He wasn't coming. Cain could technically order Py to leave Delphi. It was clearly stipulated in his contract. But to what end? Py would be useless anywhere else, at least until he knew that Delphi was safe.

And such is life.

Cain dropped his tablet to his side and walked out into the night air. From here the city looked fractured, split into black and white pieces, places like Vergeron where power flowed bright, and places like Old Town that had been plunged into darkness. The rolling sirens filled the sky, the chaos at the barricades replacing the normal din of everyday life with people scrambling to cross from both sides with no obvious strategy for containment emerging. Most people wouldn’t have the luxury of leaving the city. Even if they did, most of them didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Cain had already been on the phone with the W.H.O. As a government contractor dealing in the manufacture and distribution of vaccines on a global scale Vergeron was on a short list of entities that could be called to help assess damage and participate in containment. Because Cain was a local the assignment was handed down to him. He had exploited that knowledge to arrange his little trip out of Delphi, beating the citywide blockade by only a few hours. If WHO wanted him, they could have him, remotely, from somewhere nice. He would leave the real work to people with the appropriate training and pay. But where did that leave Delphi?

Even during his short tenure as CEO, the Delphi skyline had blossomed. He’d eaten at it’s finest restaurants, probably enough times to keep a few of them in business. He’d heard it’s greatest musicians, rubbed shoulders and shook hands with the rich and powerful, helping to shape the world in which he now dwelled.

So, where did Cain’s loyalties lie? With Vergeron? With Delphi? What were his responsibilities? A nudge this way or that from Vergeron and the city could burn. Would he remain the pragmatist and ride the bottom line, or would he follow the example of his curious charge and fight boldly for the denizens of this remarkable city?

Cain felt strangely torn. It was rare for him to be in such a situation. Not just a situation that could put his job on the line, but a situation that would force him to care. He'd make a bundle if he got fired. He’d almost certainly get an attractive raise at his next post. So, what would Cain lose if he took a chance, made a moral decision when business dictated otherwise? The power to make change... to make a difference... to lose the sentimentality of the people he’d carefully collected and cultivated. One thing for sure, it wouldn’t be a decision he’d make tonight. Cain needed time, and at the moment there wasn’t much to spare.

Cain examined again the seating chart for the helicopter, looking at the seat he’d crossed out, moving to restore its prior occupant, his finger just about to touch the display when he stopped and instead made a call.

“Glados, we have an extra seat on the helicopter. Any ideas? Who is it that tidies up when you’re on vacation?... Married huh, I might be able to free up one more spot…”