20 GOTO 10

rating: +110+x


A black sedan rolled down the street, electric quiet in the dead of night, toward "The Rusty Cam". A true hole in the wall, this place. Dumpster overflowing out front, smoke pouring from all the vents, windows and doors. True to its name the place smelled of petrol and motor oil and coolant and burnt rubber. No one with a net worth over $20K would be caught dead there. Exactly the atmosphere required for this particular brand of meeting hall.

Or Church. Same thing, really.

The driver threw the car into park, and mashed the "Stop" button on the dash. His forehead rested on the steering wheel a moment as he steeled himself up for the night's task. A furtive glance to the briefcase in his passenger seat. A dry swallow. He closed his eyes and tried to think of this meeting for what it was. To remind himself that he was allowed to be here (strictly speaking). That this had 'already happened' from a certain point of view. It did little good.

"…Fuck it."

His hands wrapped around the plastic handle of the case, and he stepped into the night, glasses fogging in the muggy heat. Past the threshold, he counted no less than 23 eyes trained upon his person (some of them were probably even human). The man cleared his throat and pressed forward into the wolfs' den, heading straight to the bar.

2245 MDT, 18 July 2031 CE. A Friday. 36 degrees in Edmonton that day…

"…what can I do for you?" the bartender asked.

"Your finest 5w-30. Straight." He had a seat.

The bartender cocked his head to the side. "You sure about that? I don't think I've seen you around before."

"A whiskey while I wait, then," the man said, placing the briefcase on the bar and patting it twice. "…For your 'manager', of course."

The bartender's tongue clucked (No… ticked. That was definitely a tick.) once, and a glass was filled with amber oblivion and placed before the visitor. "It might take a while. He's a very busy man."

"Tell him 'Book of Pieces, 12:6.'" the visitor said. "Don't worry, I'm expected."

"I never heard about it."

"I don't expect you would."

"Look, who are you, really?" the bartender demanded.

…And then someone over the visitor's shoulder whispered the word 'foundation,' with a capital f.

The visitor was now acutely aware of the silence in the rest of the bar. No music, no conversation. Just the slow ticking of machinery, the soft hiss of release valves, and the hum of cooling fans. It was true, then. He had definitely come to the right place. And that was all the more terrifying.

The visitor took up his glass and downed what must have been 90 mL of bottom-shelf Bourbon and hacked up half of a lung. He had already been quiet too long. Anything but the truth would be sniffed out in an instant. But perhaps he could get away with telling only half.

"I am a traveler. From faaaar and away. I have come to barter for a service." The visitor took hold of the briefcase and opened it, revealing the leather-bound codex within. On its face was a single roman numeral: 'XXXV'. "Do you know what this is?"

The bartender's eyes opened so wide that one of them slid out 20 cm on a stalk, adjusted focus, and snapped back. "…That's not…" He began to reach for it, but the lid to the case slammed closed on his fingertips. "OW!"

"Yes. It is," the visitor asserted. "This interview is concluded. Either eject me from the premises or get your manager. I no longer care which." His palms were wet and his mouth was dry, but they bought it. The bartender poured a double out of a brown, unmarked bottle and hurried into the back. Top-shelf, home-made stuff this time. No junk in it, clear as a bell. Tasted like new-car smell with a hint of old-world coriander and nutmeg. By the time he was finished, a woman he did not recognize was standing in the doorway, silently beckoning him to follow with one cybernetic arm; a civilian appliance, by the look of it. That was one thing Church-goers liked about the slow creep of trans-humanism. It made it easier to blend in.

Don't worry, he thought silently into the room around him. Your time will come… You'll all get to sing your hallelujahs out loud like the rest of them.

The metal-armed woman and a man made primarily of bronze duct work stood like a wall in the archway. The woman stepped forward and nodded. "I am Acolyte Henrietta Ford, this is Militant Clutch. Please open your jacket and spread your arms."

The visitor looked back and forth between the two of them and decided that it was too close to call, and so he would comply. He opened his coat to rest on his shoulders and spread his arms. "Careful with the case. That's the only copy."

"Careful yourself, heathen," Clutch puffed, and took the briefcase from the visitor's hand. A series of lenses clicked into place in front of his left eye.

Henrietta flipped her cybernetic hand around three times to reveal some kind of scanning apparatus that the visitor could not quite place. It swept up one side of him and down the other making a bunch of meaningless noise, and Henrietta's pupils swallowed her irises whole as the data streamed in. "…Wow."

The visitor nodded. "Yup."

"That's…" She stammered. "It's a lot. For a jailor, anyway."

"You'd be surprised."

Clutch shoved the case into the visitor's chest with a grunt. "The case is clean."

Henrietta nodded and grabbed the visitor by the shoulder, ushering him forward roughly. "A few things need to be clear before you meet the Reverend Automaton."

"The Reverend what?"

"Automaton," Clutch said roughly. "His Holiness Reverend Fourier 7, fourth generation of the Design. No more questions, heathen. Listen now."

"First," Henrietta continued, "any hostile action on your part will be met with immediate deadly force. Second, our cooperation with you today in no way implies continued cooperation with you or any other party associated with the Foundation. Thirdly-"

"With all due respect, Ms. Ford, please don't mistake me for an errand boy. I'm here on my own."

"All the more reason for us to be suspicious," Clutch hissed quietly, and reached for the doorknob with a single brass claw. "Watch yourself closely. For your own sake."

The room had no air conditioning, only a large exhaust fan bellowing a constant 65 dB through the tiny space. Behind the desk sat an automaton of some kind, but not the sort one would expect was once a man, like his escort. Five lenses stared at him dispassionately from a central mass, held aloft by four of its eight appendages. The other four, each with their own lenses attached, busily shuffled and marked and scooted and filed papers away with rapid precision. The being adjusted focus twice, and produced a brass horn from the top of its central body.

"Greetings," the automaton clamored. "I am Fourier 7. We have been expecting you, Doctor-"

"I would prefer if my name was not spoken aloud in this establishment," the visitor interrupted. "I am not a moron."

The being's lens shutters fluttered audibly (all of them), which would have sounded vaugely of laughter if one had cotton in their ears. "Do you insinuate?" it asked.

"I do not," the visitor replied, "but the Foundation has ears even in places as hidden as this. Prudence demands discretion."

"Very well. Please present the volume for validation."

The visitor took a deep, nervous breath, and opened the briefcase again, very gently placing it on the desk before him. "The Design of the Mind, Volume 35 of 36. I believe it is the only one you are missing."

One of Fourier 7's appendages finished its filing task, and swung over to the desk, analyzing the codex from multiple angles. Carefully, it opened the cover, and with a wheeled attachment clearly designed for the purpose, flipped through all 1378 pages in less than 10 seconds. Its shutters blinked closed twice, and the lenses focused on the visitor yet again. "The volume appears valid, with 99.95% confidence. However, the condition of this volume is in-congruent with its age by nearly seven centuries. How was it obtained?"

"Never mind that. Are you satisfied with its authenticity or not?"

The Henrietta and Clutch looked at one another in solemn silence, and then at Fourier 7 expectantly as small fitted gears in its trunk clacked and clicked and shifted against one another. Its lenses shifted back and forth between the visitor and the volume several times before the cacophonous clickety-clack finally quieted, and the automaton spoke.

"I am satisfied. What is your price?"

The visitor let out a long breath before beginning. "I am currently host to a Mark XXV Cerebellar Device, which has had its wireless transceiver removed. I can't file a claim through my company health insurance for reasons which should be obvious… So I want a good Maxwellian surgeon to repair it."

Fourier 7 stopped all of its ancillary filing and fixed on the visitor with his full attention. Faster than he could blink, the visitor's glasses were removed, head cocked to the side and skin at the base of his skull probed by a cold, metallic something. He tried to struggle, but his two attendants grabbed his arms and pinned him to his seat. A magnifier lens was placed over his eye, and from somewhere within, a light scanned his retina from top to bottom, left to right. As quickly as the probing began, it ended, and the visitor fell back, suddenly quite exhausted. He checked his neck and found that he was bleeding, thought it wasn't serious and would probably stop within the hour. He pressed a handkerchief on it firmly, sat up straight through the woozy, and regained his spectacles. The dirty look shot in Henrietta and Clutch's direction was not returned.

"Your claim appears to be genuine," Fourier 7 said finally. "But again I am confused. The current generation Cerebellar Device developed by our Maxwellian brothers has been designated Mark II, and is not yet available for general installation."

"It will be, though, within this calendar year. And although the components have changed, the architecture of the device should be familiar enough to your surgeon that he can solder a goddamn pin!"

"Sir, please relax. Since my assembly, I have waited over 200 years to read this volume. I would be remiss to deny your request." Fourier 7 made a sort of nodding motion to Henrietta. She stepped forward and picked up the receiver of an old touch-tone phone, dialed a number, and spoke a screeching series of fax machine sounds into the receiver. "My assistants will furnish you with lodging for the evening. In the event that the Foundation discovers your capability has been restored, I believe it goes without saying that this transaction is not to be mentioned."

"Of course," the visitor said, slowly climbing to his feet.

"It is a very serious thing you have done for us, Doctor," Fourier 7 said, extending an appendage to take the visitor's hand. "I hope one day you will understand how serious."

"I do," the visitor said with a smile. "'Broken are we in his image, that we might make him whole'. Isn't that how it goes?"

Fourier 7's shutters flapped open and closed wildly as it heard this. "Indeed, it is. Good journey to you, Doctor. May you be forever whole."

The visitor was led up to a small clean room on the fifth floor, carried some of the way as his head refused to clear. "Have I been drugged?" he asked his attendants. "I feel like… like I've lost a lot of blood or something."

"It's normal," Henrietta responded. "The Reverend's examination required a full system diagnostic on your Cerebellar Device. I wear a Mark I myself. The effect can sometimes be quite draining." Slowly the two escorts lowered the visitor onto a bed and placed two pills and a glass of clear water on the side table.

"These sedatives will keep you unconscious, but physically responsive through your surgery," she continued. "Take them as soon as possible. You will awaken in 18-24 hours in the Edmonton Garden Inn/Hilton. Your vehicle will be in a reserved space in their parking garage. Check-out will not be required. If you are in any way dissatisfied or require technical support, a number you can call will be provided. Do you have any other questions?"

The visitor shook his head and waved the escorts out of the room, downing the pills as quickly as he could.

On the morning of July 1, 1999, Agent Burt Tomlin sat idling in a black sedan, smoking too many cigarettes to kill the time and resting his foot on the accelerator to keep the engine from stalling. Two hours late. Dr. Thaddeus Xyank was never late. He was just about to radio in an emergency and book it back to Site-17 when an innocuous door down the street swung open, and a very groggy looking theoretical physicist carefully stepped out of it and down to the sidewalk. Tomlin honked the horn just once to get his attention, and Dr. Xyank, eyes puffy, ear bandaged, and face red methodically walked to meet him.

"…You okay?" Tomlin asked.

"I… Yeah, I'm fine. I… There's…" Dr. Xyank's voice was cracking. He took off his glasses and vigorously rubbed his eyes. "It's a lot to take in, you know? I just… I need a minute."

Tomlin nodded and pulled deftly into traffic. "Everything go alright?"

Dr. Xyank looked dead ahead as Tomlin's phone buzzed in his pocket. Tomlin picked it up, noted the "unknown" number, and answered. "This is Homer Simpson, who's calling?"

~Everything went fine.~ said the voice of Dr. Xyank on the line.

Tomlin blinked, looked at the cell in his hand, and then back to his passenger before putting the phone back to his ear. "…Doc?"

Dr. Xyank smiled in his seat, chest bopping up and down in silent laughter. ~Yeah, it's me. See me waving?~. He looked Tomlin dead in the face and waved like a big grinning idiot. ~It's like I can see again. You can't… You can't imagine how good this feels.~

Tomlin smirked and hung up the phone. "Very cool. So… what now?"

"Don't worry about it," Dr. Xyank said as that stupid-happy smile spread ever wider across his face. All at once he watched TV, listened to the radio, and logged on to every wireless network he could find as they passed. "Everything is under control."

And lord willing, he thought to himself, all 'god's' children know well enough to wait to strike until the iron is hot. Though he wasn't quite sure, even though he'd seen it himself. Patience was, after all, a virtue best left to God.

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