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Singularity, Part 3
A Four Visitors story
Start at the beginning of the Four Visitors series
Power lines were a paradox to Alex. Every kind of crazy shit had been reported around power lines. But that wasn't what bothered Alex. As Alex looked at the cleared dirt track between the high-tension towers that stretched to the horizon in both directions, he was thinking about control. And loss of control.
The power lines represented everything that Alex believed in. Order, industry, efficiency.
Once he'd been studying satellite imagery of Cape Cod, where his dad had taken him on vacation with his kid brother every summer of his childhood. This was in between sessions of remote viewing training. He was supposed to learn Google Earth, as well as the more robust government satellite imaging systems. The goal was unity: a perfect convergence of human intelligence on the ground, electronic intercepts, social networking, satellite imagery, and clairvoyance. A singularity, they'd called it. The perfect spy that could see anything anywhere at any scale. Of course, it wasn't really a single spy, but a network. An amalgam of human intelligences and artificial intelligences and all of the tools that technology could provide. Many minds, human and mechanical, united for one purpose.
Alex had been training for his role in the network, and he pulled up the satellite image of Cape Cod and scanned it for recognizable landmarks. He began to trace the line of the Mid-Cape Highway from east to west back toward the Sagamore Bridge, admiring how easy it was to spot the thin straight line that cut along the length of the Cape.
But he wasn't looking at the Mid-Cape Highway. Alex remembered cursing out loud when he caught his mistake. Fortunately he'd been alone in the room at the time. There wasn't room for fuck-ups in his operation, and showing signs of instability was a good way to convince people that you were a first-rate fuck-up.
Alex had made an amateurish error. He wasn't looking at a highway. He was looking at a power line cut. As it turns out, highways aren't straight. The story goes that the Eisenhower people had experimented with straight interstates when the system was first laid down in the 1950s. But straight roads had a rather deadly habit of hypnotizing drivers, lulling them to sleep until they drifted toward the guardrail on the right or the oncoming traffic on the left. Turned out that the human mind needed imperfection in order to function. Alex knew some people who still didn?t want to accept that.
Electrons, on the other hand, have no such needs. Electrons travel perfectly well in straight lines. And so America got a second set of highways, a flawless geometric pattern like of those old string art pieces where you'd tighten threads between tacks against a background of an old three-masted sailing ship or a Cape Cod lighthouse.
The national power grid was everything that Alex's superiors loved: It was orderly, efficient, all-pervasive, and barely noticed by a public that simply took for granted the idea that when they flicked the switch the light would go on.
What bothered Alex about the power lines was that his side had somehow lost control of them. They'd become a secondary highway system that no one was watching. People moved along the power lines at night. Alex had caught glimpses of them during recon missions and stakeouts. Probably just bums heading down to panhandle in Florida when the weather turned cold, or teenagers on their way to smoke dope around some campfire out in the woods somewhere.
This was the fucking national electric grid. Probably wasn't good enough. Alex thought that someone ought to know what was going on. Because if you can't keep control over a network of straight lines, then how are you ever going to maintain order anywhere else?
Alex stopped, suddenly aware that he'd lost track of how far he'd walked. His instincts told him he hadn't gone far enough yet, but his training warned him to check. He accessed the satellite imagery from his phone and overlaid an online map. He counted six houses with property that backed up to the power lines. That made the tracking easier. People who don't know anything about tracking tend to think that it's all about following a continuous set of prints or traces. Most of it is guesswork. You need to get in the head of the quarry and figure out where they are thinking of going. The actual tracks are just there to confirm that you're getting it right.
The mud helped. Alex eliminated two back yards that were securely fenced in. Dogs or small kids. Either way, there was no easy access to the power lines. He struck pay dirt on the third.
There was a tall wooden fence, a narrow gap, and one crisp footprint in the mud. It was a running shoe, a bit big for the average teenaged girl, but then Tina Cronin was taller than average. And the sneakers were expensive and brand new. A rich kid's Christmas present.
This was the place.
Alex thought back to those training sessions down in Virginia and the voice of his CO came back loud and clear.
"The Golden Rule, ladies and gentlemen: You make a mess, you clean it up."
Alex recorded the GPS position and checked his sidearm.
Time to start mopping up.
The inside of John Crowell's house was as much a garden as the back yard was. Hanging and potted plants were arranged on every windowsill. Tina Cronin sat on a worn sofa that had seen better days, between two cats that sniffed her casually every time she shifted in her seat to look over her shoulder. Outside, the driveway was still empty.
John Crowell made tea in the kitchen while Tina waited for Nick to arrive and get her out of this nightmare. He knew something was wrong. And he knew more than he's been willing to tell on the phone.
"Anything in your tea?" Crowell leaned his head into the kitchen doorway.
"No. Thank you. I should call the police." Tina didn't get up from the couch.
Crowell disappeared back into the kitchen. "You know where the phone is," he said. Crowell had a casual approach to the whole situation that was disarming and infuriating at the same time. But when Tina reached out, it was to pet one of the cats.
"Yin. And the boy kitty is Yang, of course. Not all that original of me, I know." Crowell held a plate with a porcelain teapot surrounded by five little teacups.
"Are we expecting more company?" Tina asked.
Crowell put the tray with the tea set down on the coffee table in front of the sofa.
"Well, you called your boyfriend."
"Ex-boyfriend," Tina corrected him, wondering silently why it mattered. "And I don't think he's going to want to stay for tea."
"You may have to wait for the police."
"I didn't call them," Tina said.
Crowell poured two cups of tea.
"Would you like to talk about it?" he asked.
Tina shook her head. "No. I want you to tell me about Una. Who is she? Why are these people after her? Why is she looking for you?"
Crowell took a sip of tea. Tina still hadn't touched hers.
"Sometimes, not knowing is better," Crowell offered.
"Not now," Tina insisted. "Please, I don?t have much time."
"I don't know any more about your friend than you do, Tina. She's a stranger here, and I don't expect she'll stay long after she tells me whatever message she's been charged with carrying. I just know that she's been making some inquiries about me."
Crowell nodded. "Me, my art, my connections and my influence, I suppose. She's wrong about that, though. I don?t have any influence here anymore. This place went over to the other side long ago and I got left behind with the mess."
He stood, paused a second. "She's here. She can explain it all far better than I could."
Crowell turned his back on Tina and returned to the kitchen, Tina heard him fumbling with the back door lock.
The cats scattered at the sound of the gunshot. They understood it before Tina did.
Tina froze long enough to hear Crowell's warning, a sputtering, choking wheeze, "Tina! Run!"
It was followed by rapid heavy steps of boots on the linoleum kitchen floor.
They weren't supposed to shoot people in cold blood. Not out in the open like this. Una should have known. She'd read the man's aura. The man was a killer. But it had been inconceivable to her, and now the intended recipient of her message was probably dead and her best friend could be next.
Una waited until she could sense that the man had moved away from the back door and into the house. Tina was still inside, moving into the windowless attached barn. That was probably Crowell's studio.
Una needed to distract the man or slow him down.
She crossed the garden at a run, dodging bird feeders on poles and jumping a copper frog that stood guard over a sundial.
At the corner of the house, Una found the electric meter. Even among friends who understood Una's quirks and joked about her tendency to cause their gadgets to stop working, Una had never tried to make the effect happen voluntarily. She hadn't intended to blow out the scoreboard on New Year's Eve. She'd just been very angry.
Now she was terrified. And as she put her hands on the electric meter, Una recalled every light bulb, every cell phone, every stalled car and she searched her memory as she'd never done before, seeking out the greedy little bit of darkness, the energy-swallowing singularity that not even light could escape from.
Una's hands touched the electric meter, and it was even easier than she'd thought it would be.
Sparks bounced around in the clear plastic case that held the electric meter and John Crowell's house went dark. Behind Una, the transformer box on top of one of the power line towers exploded.
And halfway up Willow Street, Nick Lorem's pickup truck stalled out.
Tina got one good look at John Crowell's paintings. The barn was full of canvasses, hanging on walls, set up on easels, hanging on wires from the beams and rafters. They were all the same: black. Crowell's art was canvasses painted black. No light escaped them.
Then the power went out, and Tina realized that she needed to hide.
Alex still had plenty of light coming in through the living room windows. He checked his phone with one hand, keeping his gun trained on the door the girl had disappeared through. The phone was dead. This went beyond anything he'd been briefed on. If you can take out the electric power in the house at the same time you fry handheld devices inside? He tried the cordless phone on the coffee table. Fucking paperweight.
Outside and around the side of the house, Una watched Nick Lorem making his way up the driveway. Nick was a mess. He'd pretty obviously been on the receiving end of the kind of beating that he and his buddies were accustomed to dishing out. Una didn't have much use for bullies, which was regrettable for a number of reasons. First and foremost was that Nick Lorem represented Una's best chance for getting through the next hour without anyone else dead.
Una stepped out of the bushes, got Nick's attention, and signaled for silence. He picked up her meaning quickly and changed course.
Alex slipped into the barn and closed the door behind him, pausing to let his eyes adjust to the darkness.
Tina's knees ached. Her sweat had turned cold in the unheated barn and she was trying to will herself not to shiver when Alex stepped into onto the creaking floor of the barn.
He was walking with purpose now. Tina tried to plan. Nothing worked. Images filled her mind: Shot in the gut after a useless struggle for the gun. Shot in the back when she tried to run. Alex's footfalls were just about on her. The black canvass separating them was no barrier at all, and still Tina couldn't move, caught in the fatal paralysis between fight and flight.
Alex walked past her to where he'd made out the shape of the gas heater in the gloom. He positioned himself with his back to the barn wall and knelt beside the unit. He brought out a cigarette lighter from his pocket and scanned the heater's controls for a second by the light of the flame. There. Alex twisted the knob to turn on the gas, and hit the red button. Same controls as Dad's gas grill. The heater emitted just enough flickering blue light to illuminate the barn.
Alex spotted Tina hiding behind one of the canvasses and took aim.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Nick screamed it out as he shoved past Una, the plan to try to sneak Tina out quietly already forgotten. Nick had never had any intention of going along with it.
Alex trained the gun on his brother. Nick walked straight into the barn.
"Nick, do not fuck this up for me. I told you before, you do not want any part of this. Walk away now."
Nick shook his head. "What? So you can shoot more people? You're?"
"Doing my job. And right now, you are in my way."
"Alex, you're going to have to shoot me too."
Alex raised the gun. "You think I have a problem with that?"
Nick took one step back. Tina was standing now, and Una had moved into the room to stand a little bit behind Nick.
"Consequences." Una whispered it, but it was loud enough for them all to hear.
"In your world, bitch. Not mine." Alex said. "I clean up my own messes. And then I walk away, and the people I work for make it all right again. You think I go to jail for this? Won't ever happen."
But Nick understood what Una meant.
"Alex, you could kill me. You could get away with it. Make it look like suicide or make it look like someone else did it. Whatever. You don?t care if it makes you a murderer. But it makes you something else. It makes you the guy who lost his brother. You think your bosses will just let that slide?"
"Grief counseling, Alex." Una picked it up where Nick had left off. "Shrinks. The shrinks will get done with you and they'll put their reports in your file. You really think they're going to give you the missions you want after that? When there's a chance that maybe, just maybe, the guy who had to kill his own brother on some fucked up mission could be a little unstable?"
Alex stared at them for a second. Then he marched up to Nick, shoving the pistol into his belt. His hand shot up to grip Nick's injured shoulder. Nick gasped and his knees partly buckled.
Alex screamed into Nick's face. "They don't talk! That's on you, brother. You make it fucking happen, or I swear people will die."
Alex shoved Nick down and walked out without another word.
John Crowell was dead.
"Is it over? The thing you came here for?" Tina stood close to Nick while Una finished checking the body.
Una stood. "There is someone else."
Tina came over to Una and took hold of her hands.
"Tell me," Tina said.
Una shook her head. She looked at Nick.
"No. No fucking way." Nick looked scared and tired. He was leaning on his good shoulder in the doorway that his brother had walked out of.
Una asked Tina to wait in the barn.
Tina waited there long enough to learn something.
Una was alone when she finally came in.
"He's gone?" Tina asked.
Una nodded. "He listened, but he didn't want to hear. He loves his brother. I'm sorry, Tina."
Una shook her head. "He's crossed the event horizon. We all have. Nothing will ever be the same."
Tina reached out and took Una's hand. She led Una to one of the easels and ran Una's hand over the blackness of the canvass. Una smiled slightly.
"He paints with textures. It's a face, see?"
"No, I don?t see. But I feel."
"Yeah. That's what I meant. You're going away, right, Una? Can you tell me any of it?"
Una walked slowly around the barn, reaching out to touch patches of darkness on easels and hanging on wires.
"Yes, I'm going away. There are four. I was the first. I hope the others do better. Be there for Nick, Tina. He doesn't want any of this. But it's not his choice anymore. If it ever was."
John Crowell's death made the local paper. The coroner ruled it a suicide.
Nick Lorem changed the relationship status on his facebook page to "It's complicated."
It took a week before the teachers stopped calling for Una Blanco when they took attendance.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2010