The Gathering Storm, Part 8

Posted: December 16, 2010 in The Gathering Storm series
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Silence was a delicate thing, Jeremiah has always thought, and needed to be treated with respect. His employer had read the letter—his first official task of the morning—and had clearly been considering its implications. But, being ever-attuned to the nuances of environment, behavior and timing, Jeremiah felt that the silence was on the verge of gathering pressure and mass—it was poised to become oppressive and distracting. So he did what he had always done in his role as executive assistant—a role that had been built as something far more than a glorified secretary, even if it was also far less than a vice presidency.

He intervened to manage the silence, and keep the flow of activity in its proper course.

“Sir, how should we respond?” Jeremiah asked the man who had been named Arturo Vasquez shortly after emerging from his mother’s womb, but was known by most people now simply as Fortunato.

Fortunato smiled lightly, both a recognition that it was time to act somehow and also an acknowledgement that he appreciated Jeremiah’s exquisite timing and perception. “For now, we do nothing.”

“Sir, Janus has officially issued you a challenge,” Jeremiah noted. “He is stating his intention to you—as I’m sure he has to other business leaders, as well as various criminal bosses and public officials—to set up a new operation for himself in this region and to impinge upon your income.”

“And that is just the thing,” Fortunato pointed out. “I’m not his only target of interest in making this known.”

“But you are one of the richest men in the nation and one of the most powerful businessmen in New Judah, and a known transhuman. Much of your influence and wealth comes from your notoriety and popularity, which in turn comes from the fact that you lead a life publicly and openly as a transhuman. Even though you rarely intervene directly in crime and such anymore, Janus may see you as a threat.”

“Perhaps,” Fortunato said, “but clearly he sees Query as the big threat. I’ve heard through the transhuman community that Query was targeted by a very well-equipped hit squad backed by Janus. No, Janus isn’t interested in engaging me directly—at least not any time soon. He likes fear and he likes to make aggressive postures. He’s sending a message to all of us that he want a piece of what every one of us has, whether we pay protection or whether we let him into our operations, criminal or legitimate.”

Jeremiah frowned. “But you’re not going to ignore him.”

The words were a statement, not a question; he knew his boss too well. It was just a confirmation, and an invitation for Fortunato to continue.

“Not a bit,” Fortunato said. “As you well know, while I don’t engage in truly unsavory commerce, there are aspects of my corporate reach that are less pure than others, and which Janus might be able to touch directly. I’ll have to keep an eye on those shadier areas in particular.”

“But most of all, we wait for now to see what he will do next, and to determine how we will respond,” Jeremiah stated.

“Exactly,” Fortunato said. “Now, on to reviewing matters that actually impact my bottom line in the short run, before I have to talk to the board of directors this afternoon.”

* * *

Mornings were already anathema to Zoe; having to endure the discussion section for Prof. McGinnis’ Sociology and Culture class at 8 a.m. on Monday was sheerest torture.

Today was worse than most such Mondays.

The grad student who oversaw these discussion sessions was wholly in the professor’s camp in terms of theory, to a degree that was verifiably sycophantic; Zoe wondered often whether Cheryl had a single original thought in her head when it came to the topics they covered in class.

And now that they were discussing religion and culture, the heavy focus on transhuman influences in culture that had so pervaded the class had been poised to go precisely where Zoe didn’t want it to go. But, as she had worried, it did anyway.

Adding to the discomfiture was a woman in the class whom Zoe didn’t recognize—too old to be a student. Perhaps some kind of academic observer? In any case, she was an outsider, which added to Zoe’s stress levels.

“Why does Jesus have to be a transhuman?” Zoe said in response to a theory Cheryl had tossed out to the class like fresh meat to a cage full of lions, and which had been under discussion for at least 15 minutes now.

“Because it’s what makes sense, Zoe,” countered one of her classmates, Ralph, whom she normally liked well enough. But he was rigidly and even haughtily atheist and she had long since learned that religious discussions were a lousy place to go with him.

No helping that in this venue, though, she thought bitterly.

“Why?” she asked. “Look, if you want to say the stories of Jesus’ miracles were just made up, fine. But why does it ‘have to’ make sense that he was a transhuman when we only started seeing transhumans in the 1970s, and Jesus was more than 2,000 years ago?”

“Really, Zoe,” Cheryl chimed in, “do you believe that there were no transhumans before the late 20th century—that they just popped up out of nowhere?”

“Of course not. They have probably been on the rise for some time, but unnoticed for decades—maybe a few centuries. But 2,000 years ago? Because then you have to say that maybe Moses was a transhuman, and that’s even farther back. Or Samson…or the sources of any other miracle-based biblical tales or even the older pre-Judaic mythologies. And you’re saying we almost never see these transhumans throughout all those millennia and then, boom!—we hit the jackpot in the ‘70s? C’mon!”

“It makes a hell of a lot more sense than God incarnating as a human,” Ralph said. “Jesus’ healing powers would be easily explained by him being a Regenerator, and his charisma and ability to discern danger and future events could have been Psionics and/or Primal powers.”

“The loaves and fishes?” Zoe noted. “Creating matter from nothing? Or water to wine? There are no known Transmuters or Creators—those are strictly theoretical and unlikely powers.”

“Well, those were probably just stories added later.”

“Convenient, Ralph,” Zoe said. “The stuff you can’t explain was made up; everything else was due to being transhuman. How about the resurrection? Because I don’t see his entire apostolic crew praising him and risking crucifixion or worse themselves after he called himself the son of God and then died like a punk on the cross. As far as I’m concerned, he had to come back to life for them to put themselves on the line like that.”

“This isn’t a theology class, Zoe,” Cheryl cut in.

“Step off, Cheryl. This is a discussion section, and I’m in a discussion. Add to it or get out of it and leave me to my work,” Zoe snapped.

“Zoe, him ‘coming back to life’ would have just been autonomic self-healing as a powerful Regenerator—he never actually died,” Ralph said, and Cheryl nodded vigorously, face red with anger at Zoe’s challenge to her classroom authority.

“Have you read anything about what damage crucifixion does to the body?” Zoe asked. “After hours on the cross, then being sealed in a tomb for a couple days without food or water—no Regenerator is going to come back from that. The body needs decent conditions and some kind of nutrition to fuel the healing process.”

“It’s a strange world, Zoe, but it doesn’t need God to explain such things,” Cheryl said. “I think we can almost all of us agree to the likelihood that Jesus was transhuman, and move on.”

Zoe was mentally ready to continue the fight, but pushing her agenda and view now wouldn’t win her anything but trouble when it came time for grades to be handed out. But she fumed quietly. Her application of her personal religious and spiritual views tended very much toward liberal and centrist notions, but she didn’t like having her foundational beliefs about God and Jesus challenged and dismissed so blithely.

Yet another area of my life where transhumanity overshadows things, she bemoaned silently.

* * *

Cole’s sleep was jarred by something sharp and hard, and it was only when he heard “Rise and shine” and began to gain awareness that he realized it was the toe of a cowboy boot prodding his ribs. “Get a good night’s rest, Cole?”

“Yeah, this mat’s fantastic, and the rats in the walls kept me company really well,” he answered miserably to the costumed man he had met just hours earlier. This time, he was attired more completely, not just in a mask and wearing those boots, but with a Western-style Stetson hat and a long leather duster over his dark unitard and vest. Everything was shades of brown with hints of black, from the attire and accents to his skin, eyes and hair—making him look like almost like a antique bronze statue of a cowboy. As before, Blockbuster was here with them, and as just as lacking in humor, talkativeness and warmth as he had been before.

“If your apartment’s cozier, go back,” the man said. “I told you this wasn’t going to be easy.”

“You could have told me I’d be living here, and I might have brought a change of clothes or two.”

“You won’t be living here precisely, just camping out, and you can leave soon enough, and check in with your roommates—give them some story to explain why you’ll be gone a while. Assuming that we decide to let you stay here for a probationary period.”

“I guess that’ll be determined by the intense interrogation you mentioned before you left me here alone,” Cole noted hesitantly. “Can I at least get a name for you before you start with the thumbscrews or waterboarding or whatever you’re planning?”

“Would you like to be waterboarded?” the man quipped. “I have a trainer here in the Guardian Corps who did time with the military and has some first-hand experience. I was planning something a little less brutal, but if you prefer…”

“I’ll trust that your original plan is better,” Cole said quickly. Nervousness was beginning to fray his composure.

“Desperado,” the man said, finally answering Cole’s question. “Now you’ll have a name to curse later along with Blockbuster’s.”

Cole’s palms were sweaty and his heart was beating fast enough for him to gauge its beats by the pounding bursts at his temples. With a panicky surge in his mind, he almost got up and ran for the door.

I shouldn’t be here. What the hell am I thinking? I’m a recent college grad who should be applying for biomedical engineering jobs. I…

He didn’t want that life, he realized just as suddenly as the anxiety had struck, and he clenched his sweaty palms into fists instead, squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and took a deep breath.

“Can we get on with it? The sooner you satisfy yourself, the sooner I can find a shower and then settle in here.”

Desperado made a shallow nod, stepped toward him slowly, somehow managing to convey intense menace in those few steps across a span of less than six feet, and said, “Tell me about Hannah.”

The question caught Cole off-guard, and he blurted out “Who?” before he suddenly realized who Desperado meant.

“Hannah Marie Rosenberg, Cole. Sadie Hawkins Dance. Junior year. Was she that forgettable? Or have you assaulted a whole lot of other women we don’t know about yet and she’s just faded into the background of fresher meat? I told you we’ve been checking into your past, Cole, as we wait for our professional interrogator to arrive. I just figured I’d grease the wheels a bit and see if we can save her the trouble of having to use her skills and cut you from consideration right now.”

“I never touched Hannah!” Cole said with more vehemence than he intended.

“Well, I don’t know what your power—or powers—might be yet, so maybe you didn’t need to touch her, Cole.”

“I didn’t do it! I wasn’t even anywhere near her when it happened. I don’t even know where it happened. Everyone assumed I did it, even though there wasn’t any reason to tie me to her, but I didn’t do it,” Cole said.

“I suppose you won’t be taking credit for Paul Whitten or Isaac Stone, either,” Desperado said grimly, a savage note underlying his voice.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about with Paul—I don’t remember anything really bad happening to him in school,” Cole said, and then paused, feeling like not only was his stomach dropping, but the floor was disappearing beneath him. Isaac. “Isaac…I’m sorry about what happened to Isaac. Congratulations. You’re the first person to even say it might have been me. I didn’t mean for him to get hurt that badly. But once…after it happened, I couldn’t cop to it—I didn’t dare—and I figured I was already paying for Hannah’s injuries without having done anything to her, so it came out even.”

“I doubt Isaac felt that way.”

“He recovered all right in the end,” Cole said weakly. “Hardly any of the scars were anywhere he couldn’t cover them. But I still hate that it happened. I’m not proud of it.”

Desperado paused and seemed to take Cole’s measure, then tipped up his Stetson to scratch at his forehead. “It’s not what I would call complete remorse, Cole—not by a long shot—but it’s a start. It’s a good enough start that we can move to the next step.”

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