Forecast is being serialized semiweekly across 42 web sites. For a full list of participants and links to live chapters, please visit www.shyascanlon.com/forecast. Read Chapter 37 at 3am, Chapter 39 at Puerto del Sol.
I had no idea where I was, or what was going on.
Blain came up and stood beside Helen.
Rocket kept his distance.
“Even if this guy was your teacher at some point, he’s nobody’s teacher now,” Blain said. “He’s nothing but a junky.” He leaned in, squinting down at the pathetic collision of fear and wasting flesh. “Aren’t you, guy? You got a massive REMOver, or what? C’mon, Helen,” Blain said, turning back the way they’d come, “we gotta go.”
Helen didn’t budge from her spot. “Go easy on him,” she said. “He’s not a bad man; he’s just in a bad spot.”
“Zara!” Handpepper whimpered. “Zara, please!”
“Helen, Mr. Handpepper. My name’s Helen now.”
Handpepper looked over at Blain and back at Helen, giving her a knowing wink. “Oh, I get it. Okay Helen.” He curled his finger with what seemed like all his strength. “Come closer, dear. I have one last lesson for you!”
“Unbelievable,” Blain said in disgust, and walked a few steps away. He pulled out his phone.
Helen looked back at Blain, unpleasantly aware of how far he was away. She looked then at Rocket, who simply shrugged. Irritated and uneasy, she bent slightly closer.
“What is it, Handpepper?”
“Zara,” he said in a loud whisper. “Zara I’m so glad you came. I didn’t know if you’d make it. We’ve all been crossing our fingers.” His eyes were wide open, wild.
Helen leaned in closer to say something just as a pair of men opened the door I’d just come through and stood there with ladders and big buckets of paint, looking annoyed.
“We’ve gotta get past you, mister,” one of them said. Then, upon further reflection, he added. “Are you even authorized to be in here?”
I turned around and high-tailed it.
“Hey, come back here,” the painter yelled, but as he tried to run after me he fumbled his bucket of paint and it fell, landing on its side and splitting open, spilling clean white paint all over the dirty white floor.
The hall I was in ended at an intersection, and a quick glance at my gauge sent me shooting down the hall to my right. The hall seemed to stretch on forever before me, and as it didn’t seem likely that the painters were going to follow me I slowed my pace a bit and turned my attention back to the scene playing out, I imagined, under a mile away from me at that very moment.
To my horror, Helen was responding to something I’d missed, and she was obviously upset.
“That’s crazy!” she said. “Blain, did you hear this? Rocket! Rocket, you were right!”
Rocket stayed put, but Blain jogged up to her and asked what was going on. He was still on the phone, and he held it out, hand over the mouthpiece, to the side of his head as he tried to intervene.
“Helen I told you not to get into it with this guy. We should really just—”
“What the hell is going on?” Helen demanded. She felt light headed, and looked back and forth between Handpepper and Blain. The bland colors of the building began to blur with the fake greenery underfoot, and she looked up to focus, for clarity, to breathe. The sky swirled above her, moving in a staccato stutter, swooping in one direction and then abruptly stopping, returning and doing the same. It was like she was drunk. She squinted, tried to steady it.
“You don’t believe me? Look for yourself,” said the pile of man beneath her. But his voice, she noticed, was different. Instead of the weak, gravelly voice Handpepper had used a moment before, this voice was clear, commanding. Familiar.
Helen looked down. Looking back up at her was not Handpepper’s face at all, but her father’s, still dirty but no longer sickly. Her father’s soft blue eyes gazed up at her, with their trademark of stern kindness mixed with regret.
“I said to go to your room, young lady,” Marshall said.
“But dad,” she complained. “What did I do?”
“You know very well what you did,” he said. “Don’t insult us both by pretending you don’t.” And with that he disappeared behind his book. “Anyway, it’s for your own good.”
She watched a pale white hand reach to the table next to his chair, grab a steaming cup of coffee and raise it. It disappeared behind the large volume that hid his head.
Helen turned around and stomped off down the hall, Rocket at her heels.
“I told you we’d get into trouble,” the dog said.
Blain followed them both down the hall, and walked into the bedroom behind them. After closing the door, he walked over and stood in front of the closet.
“Helen I don’t know what he’s told you but these buildings are empty,” Blain said. “They’re unused, abandoned, and probably locked. Like I said we should …” Blain put the phone back to his ear and listened for a moment before continuing. “We should get the fuck out of here. Now.”
Helen looked down at Rocket. “What do you think, Rocket,” she said.
Blain took a few steps away again, and spoke quietly but with great frustration into his phone.
“I think living with Joan’s hatred of me sounds like a pretty good alternative to this little adventure you’ve taken me on,” he said.
“Gee, thanks. That’s helpful.”
“I’m just saying,” said the dog.
“Listen Rocket,” Helen said, now serious, “I know things are a little fucked up right now but if you really want to go back to Joan that can probably be arranged.”
Rocket looked at her, and then hid his muzzle under his paws.
“Okay then stick with me here,” she said.
She threw herself down on the bed and looked around at the mess of her bedroom. Unfinished projects lay scattered about, books with broken backs, paint sets and instruments she’d lost interest in. It was nice to be back. She felt comfortable in the disarray, the crowded collage of memories and fixations and influences that made her who she was. She thought about what Handpepper had told her.
“So the REMO experiments you told me about,” she said. “What do you know about them?”
Rocket made sure that Blain wasn’t paying attention, and walked over to the bed, putting his head close to hers.
“I heard they just let them do as much REMO as they want.” He paused, reconsidering. “Actually, they want them to do it.”
“And they ask them questions.”
“Well, they give them hypothetical situations and ask how they’d respond. You know, they have to see if they’re ready, or if they still … care.”
“If they care?” Helen asked. “About what?”
I came to another fork in the path, my third or forth, and because I’d been focused on Helen I almost ran into the wall. I checked the gauge. As I walked the signal kept getting stronger, and at this point it was very near the top. I must admit that I was relieved that the signal was strong and unambiguous—even though it meant I was drawing near to my target, and was thus, I imagined, in greater danger—because without it as a guide, I doubted I’d have any way to navigate the increasingly complex underground halls I was walking through. Everything looked exactly the same. There were no numbers on the doors, no signs anywhere in the hallway. The only thing that had changed since I’d walked off the street, in fact, was the growing volume of a strange, low hum that reminded me of an amplified electric clock. It reminded me of something else, too, but I wasn’t sure what. In fact, the whole place seemed a bit familiar, despite a lack of distinguishing characteristics to which I could pin that recognition.
Blain came over to the bed. He seemed displeased.
“Well, there’s been a change of plans.”
“Yeah,” Helen said, looking up at him. She was displeased herself, and while not exactly accusatory, she’d obviously changed her tune. She eyed Blain suspiciously. “We’re going to check out one of these buildings. If he’s actually in there I want to see him.”
“Right,” Blain said. “Look, first of all I gotta say I’m sorry that we misled you about this whole thing.”
“So it’s true!” Helen threw up her arms. “I don’t fucking believe it!”
“Really Helen, it was for your own—”
“Oh don’t give me that shit. I want to see him, now.”
Blain turned back the closet door and began to fiddle with the knob.
It was no small source of frustration for me that, in addition to Helen’s hallucinations, I’d missed some obviously critical pieces of information. Like what they were talking about. I could only hope that, though I’d been unable to contact the Professor while the walkie-talkie still worked, he was in fact in the viewing room, and was recording all this so I could fill in the gaps when I returned to the office. I looked up and down the hall I was in, and then read the gauge. The indicator was almost to the top, meaning I was very close. I walked slowly forward, passing one unmarked door after another, and wracked my brain for some clue as to why it all seemed so familiar. The low, roiling throb was louder, too, and it was beginning to feel somewhat oppressive. No sooner did I wish I had earplugs to block it out than it occurred to me where I’d seen these halls before.
“Hey!” I heard. “Maxwell!”
I looked up. It was Busy. He was coming out of a room farther up the hallway, and, since he was pulling out earplugs, I assume I was at that very moment standing outside rooms containing the very same monolithic ETMs he’d shown Helen when she, earlier that day, was in this very same hall.
Busy started running toward me.
He was even bigger in person than he’d appeared in the viewing room, and his loud footsteps echoed down the hall as he approached, his enormous frame surprisingly quick. For the second time in the space of thirty minutes, I turned and ran. Unfortunately, this time I was actually being chased. I was a good hundred yards ahead of him, and I used this distance to try and turn as many corners as I could find while out of his sight.
“Maxwell, stop!” I heard. “I just want to talk to you.”
I had to get back to the office and warn the Professor. I had to get back to the office and notify my troops that we needed to intervene, to intervene now. Of course, I had to lose Busy before I could get back to the office. After a number of turns I started trying doorknobs. He’d easily overtake me if I kept running, and though I didn’t have any time to spare, I thought my best option would be to wait for Busy to pass, and try to find my way back the way I came by using the ET gauge in reverse, walking so the signal became weaker and weaker. It was my only hope.
After finding a few doors locked, one finally opened. The room was similar to the one Busy had taken Helen to – mostly bare, a table in the far corner, a plain couch to my right, its back against the wall. I closed the door, manually turned off the lights, and sat on the couch with my little monitor, praying that the Professor would come in to Helen’s rescue, or that Helen would somehow sense that things were off and get as far away from Blain as I hoped I was from Busy.
Sadly, it didn’t look like the later was a realistic hope. Helen was standing at the closet door in her hallucinated bedroom, Rocket at her feet, waiting for Blain to negotiate what appeared to be a very complicated security mechanism.
“I can’t believe,” Helen said, “you were going to let me walk right through here without—”
“Look, none of this was my decision, okay?” He was flustered.
Helen opened her mouth, doubtless about to argue with the man, when Blain swung the door open before them and she got an eyeful of what actually went on inside the underground carcass of Lightning Strikes! Or rather, her AS-Mask induced hallucination took on ever-greater and more detailed proportions.
“Holy shit,” she said.
It was a cavernous, two story building with only one room. The room was divided into two areas. To the right side lay a vast expanse of rugs and beds and TVs and chairs, all soft material and muted colors. To the left was a largely white, clinical space, with curtains drawn in front of a series of stalls that I first thought might be bathrooms. There were nurses in both areas, though their light blue gowns made them easier to spot walking up and down among the darker colors of the plush area on the right hand side. Frankly, I was a little worried. Helen’s hallucinations weren’t normally this elaborate. She seemed to be sinking farther from the already-surreal enough reality of her underground environment, and I feared that she could possibly lose touch with it altogether. Blain didn’t seem to be doing anything to discourage her fantasy, and of course Rocket put the idea in her head to begin with.
There was a loud knocking sound coming from farther down the hallway, and I heard my name being called. Somehow, Busy had tracked me down. He was slowly making his way through the halls, calling after me and banging on the doors and generally making a racket. The glow from my monitor broke through a small bit of the room’s blackness, and I looked around me, wondering if there was anywhere I could hide. Busy was getting closer.
“Maxwell it’s okay! Helen is safe!” he called out.
“Zara!” someone called, a figure too far off to make out, but moving quickly down the center of the building. “Zara honey you made it!”
I turned off the sound on the monitor, fearing that Busy would hear it through the door, and tried to come up with a plan. He’d be at this door any minute and there wasn’t anywhere in the room to hide.
Who would call Helen Zara? And honey? And was it part of her hallucination, or was there actually someone she knew in the abandoned building?
“Maxwell let me explain!”
I stood with my back against the wall right next to the door and weighed the two instruments I had in my sweaty, shaky hands. The monitor was my connection to everything that mattered, everything I’d devoted years of my life to protect, but I’d be stranded, unable to help Helen at all if I couldn’t find my way out of this underground, unsolvable puzzle of tunnels, and the ET gauge was my only ticket out of there.
I took a deep breath and watched the figure—female—grow closer and closer to Helen until the door burst open and I closed my eyes and I brought the hard device in my hands down hard on Busy’s hard head. I heard a loud crack and then the delicate tinkle of plastic pieces and glass skittering across the floor.
Busy crumpled to my feet.
I dropped what remained of the broken monitor, stepped over his body into the hall, and consulted the ET gauge. It clearly pointed me to the left, so I went right. I ran. I ran down hall after hall, following, or rather, going against the only information I had about where I was, and hoped like hell it would lead me back to Helen, to my office, to the viewing room where I could regain command of the situation, send in the troops, and debrief the Professor. But what had I gathered, really? Though I was sure he was right, that the emotional transfer energy was being stored in massive ETMs like he’d said, I hadn’t actually seen them myself. All I’d seen was Busy. And he’d seen me first. I kept running, out of breath but pushing myself. I thought that I recognized the hallways I was in, but couldn’t know for sure. I wondered how Busy had known who I was, but thought that surely, if this illusive conspiracy went deep enough that the Professor couldn’t even locate its origin, Busy would know who I was. He probably knew my face like the back of his hand.
Except that I was wearing an AS-Mask.
I stopped in my tracks. Even if Busy knew what I looked like, how had he known it was me behind that mask?
I looked down at the ET device the Professor had cobbled together, and a thought occurred to me that sent a wave of nausea curling through my weakened body: the Professor was the only person who’d known where I was going. He was the only one who’d known what I’d be carrying, or that it was me under this mask. The moment this thought entered my mind, a million other thoughts flooded in behind it, each one more horrifying than the last. Who did I know who still called Helen “Zara?” The Professor had always refused, of course, but it was partially because Zara’s parents hadn’t accepted the new name either. Could that figure, that woman, walking toward Helen in the Lightning Strikes building have possibly been Helen’s mother? Could Helen’s own parents be involved in her capture? Had they been arrested too? Abducted? Or were they even behind it themselves? The thought that any of these people could be willfully putting Helen at risk made me so furious I almost smashed my remaining device on the floor. I’d been lied to by the person I most trusted. The Professor had sent me on this errand to get me out of the viewing room! He’d sent me straight into the belly of the beast, engineering my intervention, or worse.
No doubt Busy had been ordered to silence me.
I wove my way through a few more hallways and finally saw the door I’d come through. The first casualty of my passage back into the outside of the underground was the ET gauge, which shattered when it hit the pavement, and crackled under my feet as I began to run to the office. I had to get back to the viewing room as soon as possible. It was the only place I had any power and I knew that if I could just make it back there I could alert the appropriate people. I could storm the amusement park, and hopefully pick up poor Helen’s trail, though by now they’d surely be miles from Lightning Strikes! Of course, I’d have to figure out what to do about the Professor. My heart broke as I thought this, but I was determined. I would go as high as I could and present everything I’ve seen for the record and I’d watch as heads with even the slightest involvement rolled. I had spent every waking hour of the past five years serving Zara, serving Helen, serving the greater good, and damned if I was going to watch it all amount to nothing.