Give me a new world, a place where what I feel and what I think twirl with abandon across an endless dance floor. Give me the two-way waltz, a mind-body concert never-ending.
“Give me more cereal,” whines Jesse, his nine-year-old face glaring from across the kitchen table, his tone demanding instant maternal resolution.
I segue from dreams to corn flakes, dump a handful in his bowl while recognizing that breakfast has little to do with his mood.
“Did you finish your homework last night?”
He runs fingers through shoulder-length brown hair and smacks at the cereal with his spoon. A flake sails through the air, lands on our ancient Formica countertop.
“I could do my homework better if we moved somewhere else.”
The heart of the matter. I maintain an even tone.
“You have friends here.”
“Mom!” The word contorts with exasperation. “I don’t have friends like Danny does in Missoula. He’s got like six thousand friends.”
“Yeah! Real friends.”
“Finish your cereal.”
I pour milk in his bowl, hoping that will be the end of it until I get home from work and the complaints begin anew. All of them center on our living here in Wildbunch, a cloistered Montana county that went dry-sci decades ago.
I want Internet.
I want to watch TV like you did when you were little.
Why can’t we move to a wet county?
Why can’t we live in the real world?
The real world, where the gulf between feelings and thoughts grows wider with each passing day. At least in Wildbunch, there’s hope for synthesis, hope for body and mind to trip the light fantastic.
Or so I tell myself.
My husband Joe and I settled here in 2029, in this ancient farmhouse not used for its original purpose in generations. Joe was an early adapter of the dry-sci movement and a founder of the Rationalist Ecostatic Cooperatives, lobbying for global limits on technological development. When I was three months pregnant with Jesse, he dragged me to a REC convention in San Francisco.
The daily panels were boring but we had wonderful nights. On the third one, coming out of a Fisherman’s Wharf ballroom after a delirious evening of dancing, we blundered into a street battle between Army special forces and a Paratwa assassin.
Joe was among the 27 soldiers and civilians who died that night, victim of a stray energy beam from the assassin’s co-he wand. I brought his body back to Wildbunch and buried him in the field behind the old barn, in rich Montana soil said to perpetuate serenity.
The drive into town takes 15 minutes. I endure more of Jesse’s complaints and pleas to relocate to Missoula, where friend-rich friend Danny moved last summer and from where letters extolling that city’s virtues pepper our mailbox. I’m thankful when we reach the elementary school and my offspring exits, still breathing fire.
Five minutes later I’m at the courthouse, making my way through the ugly cinderblock monstrosity toward sanctuary, the office of the prosecuting attorney.
“Mornin’ Mizz P.A.,” drawls Sheriff “Stone-Boy” Bobb, strolling through the door of my private domain before I can even hang up my jacket.
Stone-Boy adjusts the twin revolvers strapped to his flabby waist and shovels his 300 pounds onto my sofa. Today, Wildbunch’s law enforcement honcho wears faded blue jeans, a Nascar-emblazoned windbreaker and a Pirates baseball cap a size too large. The cap, like Stone-Boy, is an original, acquired before terrorists nuked Pittsburgh and the team relocated to Erie.
“Something wicked this way comes,” says Stone-Boy, solemnly quoting from some obscure tome.
Fantasies of a stress-free day at the office dissolve. It’s obvious he’s here with bad news.
I pour a cup of coffee, my one and only for the day. The troubles in Africa and South America have launched coffee prices to an all-time high. I hear the Starbucks in Missoula now charges $18.95 for a tall.
I’m not hurting for money. The java discipline is at the behest of Doc Zilken. On a recent checkup he noticed I was becoming edgy. He suggested I cut back on caffeine.
I haven’t noticed a difference.
Stone-Boy squirms on the sofa, trying for bulk comfort. “You know the Rip-Rip Tavern?”
Everyone knows the Rip-Rip. Over the years, it’s had many nicknames. Fight Club and House of Broken Jaws are current favorites.
“Had a really bad one last night. Three dead, two critically injured.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“Didn’t want to trash your evening too. Besides, five of my off-duty deputies happened to be in the place for a birthday bash. They tasered the perp as he was trying to escape.”
“Want to hear the kicker?”
“Perp says he knows you. Rufus Poe?”
I sip a dollar’s worth of coffee, try to hinge a face to the name.
“Doesn’t ring a bell. Maybe he met me at a party somewhere?”
“You don’t go to parties.”
“What do we have on him?”
Stone-Boy pulls out an ancient iPad. Like the few telecom devices legally permitted within our borders, the device has a special interface that allows Internet access.
“White. Five-foot-seven. Twenty-four years old. No known priors. Lives by his lonesome on the west side of Clamor Mountain.”
The boonies. Wildbunch is isolated enough but west of Clamor is for dedicated hermits.
“No friends, no lovers as far as we can tell. On the job, keeps to himself. Third-shift maintenance tech at the Bleecker Street Transjam.”
The Bleecker, one of five transjam arrays scattered throughout the county, contributes to Wildbunch’s dry-sci status. The big antennas sweep the skies 24/7, scrambling and neutralizing all unauthorized signals. The transjammers, along with Stone-Boy’s border patrols, keep satellite and over-the-air influences at bay, especially Internet and TV transmissions.
We’re not Luddites, despite what much of the world prefers to think. We generate our own electricity – hydroelectric, mainly – and employ numerous modern conveniences. Contrary to rumor, we’re fans of indoor plumbing.
It’s just that we believe that humans can live a saner existence disconnected from the global infostream. We also restrict intra-county transmissions except those necessary for municipal and emergency services. Land-line phones are permitted, but only as a closed system within our borders.
Stone-Boy continues. “The fight broke out around 10:30. Apparently, Rufus Poe was having dinner, minding his own business. His assailants were drunk. Bunch of cretins from the coast, imported as cheap labor on that Wilkins Dam upgrade project. Anyway, one of them started giving our perp a hard time. Mr. Poe did not like that.”
“Recover the weapon?”
“Poe wasn’t packing. Victims all had knives, not that it did them any good. He tore ‘em apart. The three DOAs had their necks snapped. The two survivors got off with multiple broken bones. In serious condition but expected to pull through.”
“Sounds like our perp had military training.”
“Got a call out to the DoD.”
“What does Rufus Poe say?”
“He ain’t talking, at least not to me.”
“Nope. Refused counsel.”
Stone-Boy heaves himself off the sofa and waddles out the door. “Insists on chatting with you and you alone.”
* * * * *
An hour later I’m down in lockup, hoping to elicit a confession and cycle the case straight to trial. On paper, it’s a no-brainer – a minimal charge of manslaughter should be jury-proof. Even Wildbunch’s libertarian attitudes toward self-defense have limits when it comes to savagely killing your assailants.
Still, it would be nice to have some background on our perp. Rufus Poe is a cipher. The DoD has nothing on him. He acquired a social security number upon immigrating to our county three years ago. Prior to that, there’s no record of him.
That’s not unusual, of course. Dry-sci counties like Wildbunch tend to attract off-the-grid wanderers, gypsy bohemians and hardcore survivalists aching for the Apocalypse. Among those core groups, not surprisingly, is a hefty percentage trying to escape shady pasts.
I enter the interrogation room. One look at the handcuffed Poe seated across the table and I know this won’t be an easy interview. He’s way too cool, almost looks bored. Not the demeanor of someone in serious trouble.
“Good morning, Wendy,” he offers, as if he’s known me for years.
“Good morning,” I reply, certain we’ve never met.
He’s tall, lean and well-muscled, with a mop of blond hair combed straight back. Hazel eyes regard me with amusement as I sit and open my briefcase, ready to review our preliminary case.
“Wendy, would you please switch off all monitoring and recording devices.”
“That’s not our policy.”
“An informal discussion between the two of us will clarify the situation.”
“The situation is that you’re facing manslaughter charges.”
“No, Wendy. That’s not the situation. Not at all.”
I don’t like the idea of going off the record. But his confidence unnerves me. Something’s going on here, something I’m missing.
I turn off the recorders, rationalizing that it won’t harm the prosecutorial case. I can always flip them back on if he starts feeding me a line of perp-crap.
“Thank you, Wendy. I assume that by now you’ve made online inquiries about me?”
“We know pretty much everything.”
“Unlikely,” he says, his chuckle calling my bluff. “But the relevant fact is that by having instituted communications with the world beyond Wildbunch’s borders, certain outsiders will have become aware of last night’s incident.”
“I hardly think the word incident does justice to what you did to those men.”
“I didn’t want to kill. It was a… reflex action.”
“Where did you acquire such reflexes?”
He ignores the question. “These outsiders will recognize my signature.”
“The way I fight. I’ve done it before, enough times to establish a subtle pattern, a style. Those outsiders will read your report on the incident and recognize my signature. They’ll know where to find me. They’ll send someone to Wildbunch.” He pauses. “Someone to kill me.”
“Whatever trouble you’re running from, we can protect you.”
His smile dismisses my naiveté. He changes the subject.
“Doc Zilken says hello.”
I shake my head in confusion
Rufus Poe rises from the table. In addition to the handcuffs, he’s in leg irons. There’s no danger. Yet I don’t feel safe.
“Rub the salve on your thighs twice daily, Wendy. The skin rash should go away in less than a week.”
A chill goes through me. Word for word, that’s Doc Zilken’s remedy and prognosis for my recent ailment, uttered to me in private at the clinic two days ago.
“You stole Doctor Zilken’s files,” I blurt out, unwilling to consider the other possibility, the scarier one. But even as I search for a less distressing explanation, a mound of evidence reinforces my worst fears.
Doc Zilken came to Wildbunch three years ago, same time as Poe. The Doc is a loner too. He also lives out in the sticks, on the west side of Clamor Mountain.
Rufus Poe turns away, stares at a blank wall the color of dying wheat.
“You need to call the school, Wendy. You need to ask about Jesse.”
My hand shakes as I punch in a municipal access code on my phone. There’s an unbearable three-second delay as transjammer instrumentation processes my ID and approves the call.
Vice-principal Millie DeCarlo answers on the third ring. She sounds agitated.
“Oh, Wendy, I’m so glad it’s you. Is everything okay? Did you talk to Doc Zilken?”
“With the Doc. He didn’t call you? He said he was going to.”
“No. What happened? Is Jesse all right?”
“Doc said the antibiotics should knock the infection right out of him. Thank god it’s not contagious. The other students are in no danger.”
“Millie, what are you talking about? What infection?”
She relates the whole story. Doc Zilken came to the school and told Millie that the results of a recent blood test done on Jesse revealed he was harboring a dangerous infection. Doc took my son back to the clinic, supposedly to administer the antibiotics.
Heart pounding, I hang up and key the clinic’s number. The receptionist answers on the fourth ring.
“No, Jesse isn’t here. Doctor Zilken left half an hour ago without explanation.”
Rufus Poe motions for me to end the call.
My voice quivers. “I don’t understand.”
“Yes you do, Wendy. You’re just having trouble accepting it.”
Poe has received no visitors. Scanners and bug checkers bleached his body from head to toe before he was jailed. He wears no hidden telecom devices. That leaves only one rational explanation.
Rufus Poe and Doc Zilken are not two people.
They are one.
Poe/Zilken is a binary, a product of genetic engineering run amok, a single mind occupying two bodies. He’s a telepathically-linked amalgam of thoughts and feelings existing simultaneously in two locations. For the past three years, he’s been hiding within our population by pretending to be separate individuals.
Worse, Rufus Poe’s fight skills imply membership in that dark pinnacle of binary existence, the Paratwa assassins. Like the creature that killed my husband, Poe/Zilken – or whatever his real name is – has been bred and trained to slay humans.
“Jesse is safe. No harm will come to him if you do as I say.”
I sit on my hands to stop them from shaking.
“What do you want?”
“What we all want, Wendy. Freedom to be who we are.” He smiles. “But for now, I’ll settle for getting out of this cage.”
"Ever the Twain Shall Meet" continues in the graphic novel BINARY by Christopher Hinz and Jon Proctor, available through Amazon and Comixology.