Chapter 9 - The Deadline
Jakob paced up and down the central aisle of his 3978 Pursuer as it sped down the rails of a southbound tunnel. Through the windows, he could see hundreds of other alcas, cast in the shifting glow of the red, pink, and yellow neon lights winding like technicolor waves along the tunnel walls.
Jakob yawned. He’d been up late, exploring alternate motivations for his villain, and then, early this morning, Proto had woken him abruptly. Even now, an hour and a half after leaving his home in a rush, he was still replaying in his mind the cryptic call he’d received from his agent.
“What is it?” Jakob had answered groggily from his bed.
“I need you to come in today,” Maye Vennamin, his agent, had said back, coolly.
“What for,” he’d asked.
“This needs to be in person,” said Vennamin. “You haven’t seen the new HQ at Talon Park yet, have you? Perfect chance to check it out. Be here by noon.”
Jakob continued to pace as he half listened to a Quistive interview over the Pursuer’s speakers.
“Now, Carlton,” said Elliot Jay, the Quisitive’s infamous journalist, “I think what people really want to know is, why the secrecy? It’s been two-and-a-half years now, and we know nothing.” His voice was young and full of energy.
“Well, if people wanna pay the lawsuit I’ll get for breaching NDA…” said a second voice, older and laid back. “I kid. I kid. Still couldn’t tell ya.”
“Can you at least give us a hint? Entertainment? Business? Heck, I’d be happy just knowing what continent you’re building on.”
“I promise it’s somewhere on Inya,” laughed Carlton. “I can tell you that much.”
“Suppose I can return that space suit then,” bantered Elliot. “But in seriousness, I’ve got a conspiracy to float past you.”
“Shoot,” said Carlton.
“I did a little digging,” said Elliott. “It looks like your firm usually takes about six months to design. Two and a half years in… the scope of this project must be unbelievable. Whatever it is, it’s going to take a shraft load of manpower to construct. So, you’ll understand why I was… intrigued… when Meddow Construction Corporation suddenly became Meddow Construction Conglomerate a year back. Dozens of smaller groups absorbed in the span of a few short months, and yet none of them have any active jobs on record? Carlton… where is Meddow making the money to keep on buying up these no-business businesses?”
“That’d be a great question… for Mike Meddow,” suggested Carlton.
“Are you denying any affiliation?” asked Elliott?
“Sorry to interrupt,” said Proto, over the speaker. “We’re five minutes out. You ready to go?”
“As I’ll ever be,” mulled Jakob, still pacing.
His Pursuer shifted to a side track and began to rise out of the tunnel. They surfaced and then climbed further, into the skyrail network between the residential high-rises of South Wyndon. Each highrise had its own distinct look. There were wide sweeping balconies, lush hanging gardens, and sleek rooftop lounges, though a heavy layer of lowsun snow was packed heavy atop every building in sight.
Jakob’s Pursuer broke from the highrises as it sped out onto a bridge over the rushing waters of the Akai river. The murky river was spotted in shallow rapids, running from a massive lake, just visible on the eastern horizon, then disappearing around a bend of towers in the west.
It took seconds to cross the Akai into Centra, Hampson’s corporate heart. Colorful advertisements flashed across gargantuan displays climbing all up and down the faces of the city-state’s impossibly tall skyscrapers. There were more alcas here than anywhere else, and the tangle of rails between the towers took up over ten stories by themselves.
The only break from the sky-reaching steel and stone was an expansive snow-blanketed park walled in on all sides by towering skyscrapers. It was here that Jakob’s pursuer began to slow. As he descended from the rail network toward a ground-level station near the park’s grand front gate, Jakob got a perfect bird’s-eye view of the snowy wonderland below. The largest and most notable feature was the four-story structure taking up almost half the park by itself.
“There it is,” said Proto, “Talon Media Corporation’s new multi-billion encred Headquarters.”
The building had four pointed wings angled like a bird’s open talon. Its walls were sleek black glass, and its roof was hidden under a thick layer of snow. The rest of the park was sprinkled with colorful shops and rides, themed after the company’s many iconic stories.
Among the crowds that strolled the winding pathways below, were an assortment of fictional characters. Jakob spotted legendary knights, astronauts, politicians, detectives, even aliens and fantasy creatures from novels he’d read as a boy. They looked as real as the starry eyed children rushing to meet them. Most of the magcoasters and other attractions looked shut down for the lowsun snows, though Jakob could see a long colorful carriage chugging along in slow circles around the park as it carried guests between different themed areas.
“Coming in now,” reported Proto, as the alca pulled up to the front gate. “Lucky us got a priority spot.”
The gateway’s grand face was a tall crescent of glass with a wide opening cut through the center. Between the two halves, floating high above the crowds, was an enormous globe. As it slowly rotated, the continents along the surface shifted, continuously changing the globe to mimic Talon Media’s many fantasy worlds. At the bottom of the glass crescents, thick stone slabs read ‘Talon Park,’ in bright golden letters.
“Wow, the luxury treatment,” said Jakob, collecting his grey peacoat and navy scarf off a hook beside the bench, “all so they can sack me.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” chimed Proto as the alca came to a stop. “I’m sure Vennamin would have just done that over her call this morning.”
“S’pose so,” said Jakob, bracing himself for the cold of Centra. It’d been years since he experienced a snowy lowsun. At his approach, the door of the alca slid open, and Jakob strode out into the chilly breeze of the park.
Music and merry conversation met Jakob’s ears as he watched his Pursuer zip off down the rails and disappear into the skyrail network. A wide cobblestone road led from the loading zone through the arched park entry, all the way to the corporate building, with smaller pathways leading off in every direction. Thousands of guests carried large bags full of colorful toys and memorabilia as they stopped to meet their favorite fictional characters brought to life.
“How are we looking on time?” asked Jakob.
“Close, but you should be—” Proto was cut off as a golden raven appeared out of thin air in front of Jakob.
“Welcome to Talon Park!” squawked the raven, flapping his wings as he hovered at eye level. “My name is Livespark, here to introduce you to your personal guide for the day.”
“My guide?” asked Jakob.
“Oh, you’ll see!” chirped Livespark. “Tell me, do you have a favorite Talon Media series?”
“I feel obliged to say the Aurilius saga,” answered Jakob.
“Ah, Inspector Aurilius. Smart choice,” tweeted Livespark, glowing bright. The features of the crow faded and its light expanded until it began to look vaguely human in form. Details took shape again, the dark cowl and heavy coat, a reed pipe poking out of the pocket, and, of course, the inspector’s signature golden watch. Aurilius’ face was exactly as Jakob had described it, narrow jaw, hollowed cheeks, and young blue eyes behind an aged face.
“No way…” gasped Jakob. “There’s never been a VUE adaptation… What’s this model based off of? Hand crafted? Or did you generate him from my writing?”
“Now this… is unexpected,” said Aurilius, taking a measure of Jakob with his eyes before grinning broadly. “Doubt I need to introduce myself to you, Jakob… a real, meet your maker moment.”
“Your maker?” asked Jakob, intrigued. “Aren’t you just Livespark dressed up like Aurilius? I’m hardly your maker.”
“A simplification,” said Aurilius. “Though Livespark is the vessel, you’ll find me, its contents, to be more substantive than a simple illusion. I am, truly, the Aurilius you wrote.”
“Wicked tech,” said Proto, while a strong cold breeze battered Jakob’s cheeks with drifting snow.
“It’s cold, and we’ve hardly time for philosophy,” stated Aurilius, looking at his golden watch. “Average pace will put us at Vennamin’s office twelve minutes from now, leaving five or so for bathrooms on route… assuming you need them after your trip.”
“Sure…” said Jakob. In his wonder, he’d hardly noticed the snow. He studied every detail of his creation now standing before him. The smooth voice, the attention to time, he was flawless.
“Just this way then,” Aurilius led Jakob down the main road, and for a while Jakob silently observed. The many boot-prints along the wide path had reduced its snowy blanket to spotted patches of brown-grey slush, though, fortunately, there wasn’t any ice. Jakob once had a nasty fall on a sleek patch on the path up to his snowy peaks apartment that had turned his backside black for weeks. Ever since then, he’d been apprehensive about long snowy walks.
Though the park was busy, traffic moved quickly along the well-organized roads. It was a short trot to the headquarters building, and as Jakob approached the entry, he was befuddled to find that there were no doors in sight. The entry was a single black-glass wall with the Talon Media logo printed in gold near the top. It appeared solid as any other pane of glass, except for the slow trickle of men and women in bulky jackets or cardigan blazers passing straight through its surface. As far as Jakob could see, the glass wasn’t parting for them in any way; it was as if the glass itself were an illusion.
“A projection?” asked Jakob as they approached the glass. “Doesn’t seem like it’d keep much of anything out… birds… rain… especially not the cold.”
“Not a projection,” answered Aurilius. “That would indeed be ineffective. This is phaseflex, cousin to formflex, if you’re familiar. Should an unwanted party try to pass through, they’d find the glass quite solid, hard as steel, in fact. For those of us welcome here, however…” Aurilius stepped through the wall. “Don’t worry,” came his muddled voice from across the wall, “it works on real people, too.”
“Just found a couple research docs on it,” reported Proto. “Brand new tech, impressive they’ve already implemented it on such a scale.”
“Here goes then,” said Jakob, extending an arm to the glass. As his hand passed through, he felt a current of warmth, like a waterfall of hot air. “Rad,” he said, stepping through fully.
On the far side of the wall was a triangular room, four stories tall with polished black-marble floors, walls, and ceiling. In the center was a thirty-foot statue of a golden raven, wings spread wide, one talon menacingly outstretched. Stark white lights ran along the seams between the walls and ceiling, and slow but steady foot traffic passed between large hallways on either side.
“This way,” said Aurilius, leading Jakob to the right-side passage.
“I feel the need to ask,” said Jakob, following close behind, “as Aurilus, you can turn invisible, right?” It was obvious to Jakob that Livespark could simply cut the projection, but he was interested to see how his creation reacted to this specific request.
“Can,” said Aurilius, “but won’t.”
“Why’s that?” asked Jakob.
“There’s no need for it,” answered Aurilius simply.
“So, it’s just a practical thing, then?” asked Jakob. “What if I asked nicely?”
“I know what you’re trying to do,” said Aurilius. “You’re curious whether or not I fear my curse’s consequence in this form.”
“And do you?” asked Jakob. “You clearly recognize that you’re a product of livespark. You must know there’s no cutting time off your life in this state.”
“But what fun is that?” asked Aurilius. “The rules may not apply because, at heart, I am still Livespark… but I am as an actor, Aurilius, my role. Does the thespian laugh down the barrel of a gun because they know it fires blanks? No! To them, to the person they embody, that weapon is just as real as the curse is for me.” He took a bend in the hall and paused before a pair of doors. “Bathrooms?” he asked.
“Yes, thanks,” said Jakob, stepping inside.
Minutes later, Jakob stood in front of a gold gilded mirror, fixing a few stray hairs in his tired looking reflection. Shadows had settled beneath his steel-blue eyes.
“So… you done torturing that AI?” asked Proto. The lens pinned to Jakob’s coat pulsed alongside the index’s words.
“I suppose so,” said Jakob, still struggling with a stubborn hair. “Though, the intelligence running that thing is incredible. Would certainly make my job easier if I could just consult Aurilius on what he’d do next… Shame you can’t you do anything like that, huh?”
“And maybe I could… If only you’d finished your degree,” countered Proto.
“Fair enough,” sighed Jakob, giving up hope that the rebel strand would fall in line with the rest of his part.
He rejoined Aurilius outside the bathrooms and followed around another bend, up a flight of stairs, and down a long hallway. They stopped at a door, made of the same black marble as the walls and inlaid with a fancy gold pattern. Though there was no handle or knob, a plaque at face level read, ‘Maye Vennamin.’
“She’s expecting you,” said Aurilius. “I’m afraid, it’s here, I take my leave.”
“It was fun talking to you,” said Jakob. “Sorry if I was a bother.”
“Not at all,” chuckled Aurilius. “You’re a bright lad… though… I suppose you must be to write me.” With a wink, he disappeared.
Now alone, and not knowing what else to do, Jakob knocked.
“That you, Jakob?” came a voice from the other side. “Come on in.”
Without warning, the door slid aside, receding into the wall beside its thick golden frame. The modestly sized office inside was dark, even with the brilliant white strip lights outlining the ceiling and floor. There were no windows, instead, the onyx walls were littered with dozens of well-organized accolades in fancy gold frames, while a display cabinet in the corner showcased a dozen or so standing awards. Vennamin’s desk was topped in black glass, clear of any clutter, with a sleek golden frame.
On either side of the desk sat a woman. Vennamin, middle aged and sporting a permanently crooked smile, waved Jakob inside. Across from her, with her back to Jakob, was a woman he didn’t immediately recognize. She had short blue curls and skin black as night. At his entry, the stranger turned and smiled, her eyes glinting beneath large thick glasses. She wore a plum turtleneck sweater and, as opposed to Vennamin’s heavy makeup, appeared to keep her face rather natural. Locking eyes with Jakob, her whole body tensed up.
“Oh,” said Jakob, stopping in the doorway. “I didn’t realize you were in the middle of something.”
“No, no,” said Vennamin, “This is Madeline Empire. She’s here at my request to meet you.”
Confused, Jakob sauntered slowly into the room. “A pleasure,” he said warmly to Madline, offering her his hand and taking the empty seat beside her.
For a moment, he thought she wasn’t going to accept his gesture as she simply continued to stare. Finally composing herself, however, Madeline snapped out her hand and shook his vigorously.
“It is an…” Madeline started to say, “well… honor doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling.”
“Madeline has assured me that she’s your biggest fan,” clapped Vennamin happily. “What a wonderful start to a long and fruitful relationship.”
Jakob’s gaze shot suddenly to his agent, sitting back in her traditional black blazer and stark white button-up with the top three buttons undone. “Fruitful? Vennamin what--”
“I just want you to know I’ve read everything ten times over,” said Madeline, talking over him as she raced through her words. “The fact I’d get this opportunity… It means everything to me. I’ll prove it! Quiz me on anything, don’t care how obscure.”
“Quiz you? What opportunity?” asked Jakob, his eyes narrowed. “Vennamin?”
Madeline seemed suddenly to understand something Jakob didn’t as she sunk back into her seat. “He doesn’t know?” she gasped.
“I wanted you to be here,” answered the agent, calmly, to Madeline. “Listen Jakob,” she said, turning her attention to him. “Inspector Aurilius is a hit. There’s real momentum behind your story, but the powers that be are concerned how much longer that energy can hold up without big news about book three.”
“This couldn’t happen over the phone?” sighed Jakob. “Let me guess… want me to get in front of the cameras, tell the adoring fans I’m almost done? And what’s her deal?” He stuck a thumb towards Madeline. “PR expert come to save my hide?”
“No,” said Vennamin, “That charade is behind us. Orders from on high are to hand off the writing of Aurlius to Madeline. She’d simply be a ghost writer, making sure the words reach the page. You’d still be directing the story, and she’s the best I know at—”
“No,” said Jakob firmly. “Not interested.”
“Here’s the thing,” said Vennamin. “I care. You know I do. Your interests are important to me, but I only get so much say. There is one other way out, and that’s if you can promise me book three, on my desk, this time next year. It doesn’t need to be your magnum opus. As long it’s Aurilius, people will eat it up.”
“And if it’s not done by then?” asked Jakob sharply. “Inspector Aurilius isn’t yours to take.”
“According to your contract… the series is ours to manage,” said Vennamin cooly. “We can’t revoke your ownership, but Talon has the right to hand the writing off to Madeline. I know what it means to you, but really, Jakob, this isn’t the end of the world. You’d be involved every step of the way and Madeline—”
“Hang on!” burst Madeline, leaping out of her seat. “I’m sorry, Jakob… I thought this was… I didn’t realize… I don’t agree to this.” She looked frantically between them before her eyes steeled. “I think I’d better go,” she said.
“Now hold on--” Vennamin began, but her words were lost on Madeline. The writer scowled one last time at Vennamin then strutted proudly out of the room.
“I think I’d better follow,” said Jakob sternly, beginning to rise.
“Don’t be dramatic,” growled Vennamin. “Walking out that door doesn’t take our contract away, it just robs you of your say in this decision. We both know you’ve nowhere else to go, neither does she. Talon is media. Your best bet is to work with me, the one person on your side.”
Jakob looked at his agent, sickened. “How dare you pretend to care?”
Vennamin sighed and reached below her desk. Jakob heard a cabinet open and close as she retrieved two square glasses and a bottle of reddish-caramel liquid.
“Verius Nova, just over fifty years old,” said Vennamin, filling both glasses up halfway. “Though not technically allowed, it can be our secret.”
“Getting me drunk isn’t going to help,” said Jakob pointedly, as she pushed one glass over to his end of the table. He paid the drink no mind.
Shrugging, Vennamin downed her drink and poured herself a second. “I’ll be straight with you,” she said, leaning forward and folding her hands over her desk. “Believe it or not, I do care. I want you to have the freedom to write your book, but I also want to see you succeed. A thousand stories hit my desk every week, Jakob, and I’m telling you… Aurilius the hottest damn thing since Deity. I’ve known from day one that you, Jakob Rite, were the next Annalaide Martin. It’s that very reason I pulled strings to get you in print. Those old presses aren’t cheap… that’s real money invested, because it was important to you.”
“Money invested?” scoffed Jakob. “Talon’s made twice what you’ve spent because of me.”
“Pocket change,” said Vennamin, sipping at her second glass. “Some day, these novels could very well be the popular books in all of Irasil. In terms of profit, that’d put you just under any old Lowend morning cartoon… Tell me, do you know how exactly Talon Media Corporation came to own sixteen square blocks of the most expensive city in the world?”
“Buying up every franchise you could get your grubby paws on?” guessed Jakob.
“Wrong,” said Vennamin. “That’s a result, not the cause. The reason Talon became the giant it is now is because four hundred years ago, when the index room was first pitched, our founder, Charles Raven, was the only person willing to back it. ‘Too much infrastructure,’ everyone else whined, but Charles saw the future in visual index technology. With the backing of Talon, the first VUEs were filmed, and the rest is history. Fact is, Jakob, your print novels are… a novelty. Talon runs on VUE.”
“If you want VUE so bad then do it,” spat Jakob. “You’ve got two books to work with. I don’t see why the third book is so damn important to you now.”
“No producer is willing to go anywhere near a half-finished story, not when the third novel is taking you so long, especially not after what happened with the Grand Winter Saga,” argued Vennamin. “Listen to me, Jakob. I know you don’t want this. But look around, you think this is what I want?” she motioned around the windowless office. “My greatest achievements on display and none of them mean a thing. Aurilius is my ticket to a UniVUE, to an office on the east wing, to a perfect view of Koperra Tower. Every day, all day, I want to look up at those losers slaving away, and when I think of how they used me… held me back… well… Livespark won’t be the only bird flying.”
“Ah, there it is,” said Jakob. “All this talk of helping me, and you just care about a fancier office.”
“You’ve got it all wrong,” cooed Vennamin. “If you and your stories put me in that office, Jakob… I won’t forget it. Once I’m on top, I’ll have the power to give you all the time in the world. Hand this thing off to Madeline… or at least work with her to get the damn thing done this year. After that, you’ll never have to compromise again.” She extended a hand, smooth and pale with a large diamond perched upon her ring finger.
“I’ll see you in a year,” said Jakob definitively, then he rose from his chair and promptly left.
The ride home was silent. Jakob’s nervous pacing was replaced with a downcast slump on the bench, and the three hour trip slogged by in a miserable blur. For all he’d expected to be in some state of panicked planning, Jakob found he couldn’t seem to form a single coherent thought. Yet his mind was far from empty. Wordless emotions buzzed about his brain, stabbing at his psyche like a hive of angered wasps.
Jakob’s pursuer dropped him off on the platform at the end of his block, and the whole world seemed a haze as he stumbled home. He had only just stepped in the front door when he felt it in his gut: a wrenching sensation, fueled by the frantic buzzing. All those emotions had to go somewhere, and Jakob was fairly certain he knew exactly where they were about to go. Sprinting to the bathroom, Jakob barely managed to throw open the toilet lid before lurching up his breakfast.
The wordless panic hung over Jakob the whole next week. Night after night he’d sit at his desk, staring down at an empty page, clutching his pen tight until his knuckles turned white. He wrote so many words, and yet he got nowhere. He couldn’t make any sense of it. Where had the hours gone?
On the sixth day, lying in bed at noon, Jakob finally decided it was time to seek help. “Proto, can you get through to Madeline?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Proto, “one sec.” A moment passed and then Proto spoke again. “She’s there, Putting you through.”
“Hello, Jakob?” Madeline’s voice sounded nervous as it filled his room.
“Hey, Madeline,” said Jakob, sitting up in bed.
“Holy…! It really is you!” said Madeline excitedly. “I’m surprised you still want to talk to me after…”
“About that,” said Jakob. “Thanks for standing up for me. Bold choice, storming out of Vennamin’s office like that.”
“Eww, just her name gets me…” Madeline growled. “So, what’s up? I can’t imagine you took her offer… did you?”
“No,” said Jakob. “One year. That’s all I’ve got now…”
“I’m sorry,” Madeline spoke softly.
“Anyway, didn’t mean to turn this into a pity call,” sighed Jakob. “I actually wanted to reach out because I had a question. Seems like you know what you’re doing, when it comes to getting words on the page, you ever been in a rut before?”
There was a moment of silence.
“Jakob Rite asking me for writing advice?” he heard her speak under her breath. “Sorry,” she said, louder. “This is just… wild. But yeah! Actually, there’s this chick I dig, Haez, she runs a creative writing club. It’s real small time… maybe it’s not the most helpful to someone like… you. But, if you’re interested, it really helps get me in that creative mode.”
“Oh yeah?” said Jakob. “Sounds like just what I need. When and where?”
He heard Madeline gasp loudly. “Haez is gonna… She’ll love this! Lowpae, up in North Wyndon, if you can make it there. Tenth hour.”
“I’ll see you there,” said Jakob.
“Definitely! Yeah! Awesome chat! See you there,” Madeline sounded about ready to explode with excitement as the call ended.
Despite Sylvia’s constant presence throughout the week, Jakob had managed to keep her ignorant of his crisis. That is, until that Hykel evening. Sylvia had come home early from classes and was relaxing over a Quisitive docuVUE in their index room. Though Jakob was pretending to be busier than ever, he was, instead, huddled on the bathroom floor, head hung over the toilet, ready to donate another meal to the bowl. While he should have been excited for the upcoming writing club, Jakob was dreading the opportunity to flaunt his failure to a wider audience. Just as partially digested biscuits took their leave of his gut, there was a knock at the door.
“Jakob?” came Sylvia’s voice. “Did you just puke?”
“Ugh,” groaned Jakob, lightheaded. He frantically reached for toilet paper to wipe the tears from his eyes, then collapsed back against the bathtub, just in time for Sylvia to barge in.
“What the…” Sylvia’s eyes jumped between Jakob and the remnants of his dinner, left unflushed. Her mouth curled to a grimace, though her eyes were soft and full of pity. “You’re not sick, are you.”
Jakob shook his head, wiping his cheeks of tears.
“That shraft snake,” cursed Sylvia, her strong shoulders filling the doorway. “Come on then, no use moping. There’s a report on Quisitive right now that’s bound to perk you up.”
“I’d rather not,” groaned Jakob, reaching to flush the toilet and spare both him and Sylvia the smell.
“I don’t care,” said Sylvia. “Not about to sit here and let you puke yourself to death. You need to think about something else for a while. This’ll do just the trick. Besides, my index is bust again. I need to borrow Proto anyway.”
“Ah, her true intentions revealed,” mumbled Jakob, though playfully.
“Up time!” Sylvia proclaimed and marched across to where he was propped against the tub. Grabbing his arm, she hoisted him to his feet. Jakob’s legs felt weak beneath him as he followed her up the wooden steps to the round index room with a couch as its only decoration.
“Proto?” she asked, holding out her hand.
“Here,” said Jakob, taking the thick lens from his pocket.
“Evening, Sylvia,” piped Proto cheerfully as the device flickered on.
“I’ve got beef with you,” said Sylvia, swiping the index from Jakob’s hand. “You knew what’s been going on with Jakob all this time and you didn’t tell me?”
“Loyal to a fault, I suppose,” answered Proto. “Although… if it had gotten much worse, I’d have reached out. I assure you.”
“Well, now you can make it up to me,” said Sylvia, going to the center of the room. “Quisitive report, load it up.”
“Of course,” said Proto.
A narrow podium rose from the floor with a slot for a lens at the top. Sylvia removed her index and fixed Proto in its spot. Once Proto was secure, the podium sunk back into the floor and Sylvia and Jakob took their usual spots on the couch.
The room went dark for a moment, then the plain white chamber was replaced by a much larger room. The walls and ceiling looked like natural bark, as if they were in the hollow of a tree. There were a couple small round windows, and the floor was draped in a braided reed rug. Cubbies grew right out of the walls and were lined in colorful books and stacks of loose papers.
Just in front of the couch where Jakob and Sylvia sat was a heavy wooden desk. Two chairs had been pulled up and they were occupied by two starkly different figures. Behind the desk was an old and sickly looking capillum. Unlike the few capillum Jakob had met in his life, this man had little of his body hidden. His top, if you could call it that, was simply a few long straps that crossed his chest and disappeared over one shoulder. His fur was dark grey and patterned with streaks of black dye along his dangerously thin arms. Beside him, a young redheaded human sat with perfect posture. The man, who Jakob recognized as Elliot Jay, had abnormally large ears and a fiery eagerness in his eyes.
Taking a moment to absorb the space, Jakob knew there was only one place this could have been filmed.
“This is… Roana?” asked Jakob, bolting out of his seat and running over to a window. It was dark out, and soft moonlight filtered down from the canopy many hulking boughs above. Below, a dozen layers of heavy branches disappeared into a lightless void. He couldn’t get a sense how high up he was, only that the trees must be immensely tall. All across the many towering trunks and interwoven branches, Jakob could see twinkling lights through the windows of other homes. “How’d Elliot pull this off?”
“Shh, listen,” said Sylvia.
“Doctor?” asked Elliot, placing a hand softly on the capillum’s shoulder. The frail looking capillum had light tremors in his arms as he stared blankly past his desk.
“Oh!” said the capillum, perking up at Elliot’s touch. “I’m sorry… forgotten the question.” Though his accent was strong, the capillum seemed to be at the very least conversational in Unified Standard.
“Twilights Maw,” said Elliot. “In your writings, you report your team was herded to this place, by creatures you’ve called felphants. Now, I’ve some knowledge of Roana, but nothing I’ve read has ever mentioned a species of that name. Is it a slang?”
Jakob had returned to his seat, as absorbed by the exchange as he was the exotic city.
“No…” said the capillum absently. The question seemed to strike a nerve as the capillum’s arms began to shake more violently. His left eye kept blinking, almost with a rhythm, and his shoulders tensed sharply from time to time. “Never … we’d never seen it before.”
“A unique specimen to the Dead Coast… effect of the continued radiation from the facility perhaps?” said Elliot, scrawling furiously in a journal.
“Not the facility!” burst the capillum, appearing almost compulsive in the force of his delivery.
“Oh…?” asked Elliot. “Tell me more.”
The old capillum seemed to suddenly freeze up. His eye stopped twitching, his limbs locked still as statues, and an absent gaze clouded his eyes.
“Doctor Rotier?” asked Elliot, again, touching the capillum’s arm. “Does this have something to do with your expungement?”
Rotier gripped the edge of the table tight, his jaw going tight. “Mockery,” he whispered. “They mock me… you mock me!”
“No, doctor, I swear I mean no offense,” said Elliot, throwing up his hands apologetically. “In fact, I’ve very good reason to believe your telling of events.”
Rotier looked back to Elliot, apprehensive optimism painted in his giant eyes.
“Before, you said, ‘not the facility,’” said Elliot. “I’m still connecting some dots… so, if you can tell me more about what that means, your proposed origin of the Dead Coasts’s radioactivity, I may know a way to prove some of what you claim.”
“No…” said Rotier, shrinking back again. “Hollow words… like hers…”
“Let’s start with the proof then,” pushed Elliott. “You are the only survivor, and to date, no footage has ever been captured within the coast. Under strict conditions, we were able to get close enough to view a small stretch of land via telescope. Of course, none of our recording instruments worked, however I’ve a written account of what I suspect to be these felphants you discuss. Five capillum tall, twice as wide as your home. At first, we weren’t sure they were more than hills, peaking above the sage fogs. However, there’s no denying they were moving, however slowly, up and down the coast.”
Fear flooded Rotier’s gaze and the capillum began to shake.
“You don’t like discussing them, I know,” said Elliot softly, “but if you can give me finer details, something to match my account, without me telling you, you’ll confirm both our claims. We’ve ensured the whole exchange is recorded and left no room for me to feed you the information beforehand.”
For the first time in the interview, Rotier seemed calm, his ticks easing. “I… suppose it can’t hurt to try,” he began. “We first saw them on the fourth night. Our compasses had broken on the first day, and barren as the trees were, there was no sense to the sun above us. Direction was lost to us. There was day and night, but no logic to their order.” As he spoke, Rotier was filled with a lively awareness. There was confidence in his words. “The emerald clouds were not gas, as we had expected, but spores. The felphants made them, walked among them, shrouded in them. We heard them… stomping… and then came silhouettes.” Rotier’s nerves suddenly shot back. His eyes widened, his breathing shallowed. “I see… I see… I see…”
“Doctor?” said Elliot, calmingly.
“I can’t,” said Rotier, frantically.
“It’s okay,” said Elliot. “Let’s try something else. I’ve seen your sketches, the way you capture nature in meticulous exactness. Could you try drawing it, perhaps?”
Rotier nodded. Turning in his chair, he slid a paper off the shelf behind him and clutched a silver pen. Instant recognition flooded over Jakob.
“Hang on,” Jakob said. “I know that pen, it’s the same as mine!” He plucked the silver and gold banded pen from his pocket. “What’s a Pruvian Series Q doing in Roana? Of all things to smuggle through the trade embargo… why a pen?”
“I don’t know, but hush,” shushed Sylvia. “I wanna see this.”
Rotier flattened out the paper against his desk then, uncapping his pen, he began to draw in wide curved lines. At first he sketched the outline, rotund with a long tail, droopy ears, and fearsome tusks. Then, came finer details. Rotier added massive bulbous growths all up and down the back. As he moved to the legs, Rotier suddenly shot up in his chair, flinging the pen across the room.
“HER!” he screamed, pointing a finger across his desk.
Jakob turned to follow Rotier’s point past the couch to an empty corner of the room.
In a panic, Rotier lurched back sharp into a shelf, knocking off several hardbound books. “Her!” he continued to cry at the empty corner. “You’ve brought her here!”
“What is…?” Jakob stood and walked over the corner, but then he saw it, a soft shimmer. It was so subtle that Jakob would never have seen it if he weren’t standing so close. Like heat of a radiator, the air in the corner rippled, and, if Jakob squinted, he swore he could make out the shape of a capillum.
Suddenly, the shimmer stopped. Jakob turned to see Rotier, frozen in place. Elliot Jay, however, was still animated as he turned to face the couch directly.
“These were the last intelligible words Doctor Vukor Rotier would speak to us,” said Elliot. “However, before you draw any conclusions, I’d like to present our evidence.” Elliot reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter. A seal on the back pictured an emblem of a tree, its canopy shaped like the nation of Roana. “This letter has been sealed by the Council of Gau, and we’ve an officiator, just offscreen, to verify the integrity of its opening. Without further ado.”
Elliot peeled open the letter and pulled a small handwritten note from inside. “The creatures are roughly thirty feet tall,” read Elliot. “From what we can see through the masking of the clouds, their backs are lumpy and uneven, perhaps natural growths? We believe we’ve seen tusks, but auxiliary limbs cannot be ruled out.”
Putting the letter aside, Elliot once again turned his attention to the couch. “Nature, it seems, has found a way,” he said, “even in the Dead Coast. I can only wonder what other exotic lifeforms make their home of its sage fog. Try as we might, we could not reach Rotier for additional comment. The council, however, was impressed by our diligence. They have rescinded the strike against Rotier’s legacy, though, given his mental state, have decided against restoring his council seat. Still, this experiment was a win for Rotier and perhaps even a clue to the unending spread of the Dead Coast.”
“Now, that…” started Sylvia.
“I know,” said Jakob. “This is it! It’s the perfect mystery!”
“Is that a smile I see?” asked Sylvia playfully.
“Proto, jump back to the drawing,” commanded Jakob, “right before Rotier jumps back.”
The scene rewound swiftly, Elliot facing Rotier once again. The books from the floor flew back up onto the shelf as Rotier returned to his seat.
Jakob went over to the corner where he saw the shimmering capillum. “Go ahead, play it,” said Jakob. “And Sylvia, watch over here.”
“For what?” asked Sylvia, wrinkling her brow.
The scene sprang suddenly back to normal motion as Rotier once again crashed from his seat and barreled backwards into the shelf behind him.
“Look,” said Jakob, “you see this shimmer.” Training his eyes on the ripple in the air, Jakob could make out what looked loosely like the figure of a capillum.
“What am I supposed to be looking at?” asked Sylvia as Rotier yelled, the scene paused, and Elliot began his monologue.
“Come over here if you can’t see it,” said Jakob. “Proto, back it up, same spot.”
Sylvia grunted and rose from the couch, joining Jakob in the corner. “So, what is this about?”
“Hold on,” said Jakob. “Proto, play it.”
Once again, the air in the corner began to ripple. Now that Jakob saw the capillum, he couldn’t unsee the figure.
“A blemish in the recording?” scoffed Sylvia. “Jakob, just now, when you described ‘the perfect mystery,’ were you referring to the impossible life forms discovered by a disgraced scientist or a blemish on a docuVUE?”
“Both… and neither,” said Jakob, “they’re both just a piece of it.”
“It?” asked Sylvia.
“It’s just like when Proto recorded the girl,” said Jakob. “Light… but from where…” His eyes snapped to one thing in the room that didn’t belong.
“Proto,” said Jakob, “Same spot… actually, a couple seconds more.”
As the scene rewound Jakob walked over to the desk where Rotier was drawing. “Go ahead, but slow it down,” he said, stepping right through the desk, putting his face at level with Rotier’s hand. The pen was exactly like the silver Purvian Series Q he carried everywhere, except for one feature. On the cap of the pen was an orange gemstone, small as a pea.
“That’s it… I’ll bet anything…” whispered Jakob, watching as Rotier adjusted the pen, his thumb briefly passing over the gem. A moment later, the old capillum lurched back in slow motion. “I knew it!” exclaimed Jakob. “This is my story. I was born to solve this.”
“Knew what, Jakob?” Sylvia asked, sounding a touch annoyed. “Believe me, I’m happy you’re excited, just help me see what you’re seeing.”
“It all ties back to that day in the park,” said Jakob. “I wasn’t crazy, and Proto’s not busted. It’s tech. That dancing girl, her light, it’s what Rotier sees, in the corner there. It triggered when he touched the cap of the pen and… a pen, mind you, that would be all but impossible to get in Roana. Whatever this light is, it must be targeted somehow. Explains why no one else in the park noticed that girl!”
“Jakob…” Sylvia started, but instead she sighed and raised a hand to her temple as if nursing a headache. “Whatever gets you writing, I guess. Proto, end VUE.”
Rotier’s home disappeared, and the two siblings now stood on opposite ends of the plain white room.
“You’re leaving?” asked Jakob.
“You clearly have your own thing going here,” said Sylvia. “I’m off to get my index repaired so that I can look up more about the impossible biology of the Dead Coast.”
Jakob rolled his eyes and gave her a dismissive wave. When Sylvia was gone, and the door was shut firm behind her, Jakob returned to the matter at hand. “Proto,” he said, “how far back can we go? Was the pen on the desk when the VUE began?” It turned out, the pen had been there from the start, meaning it hadn’t been gifted to Rotier by Elliot or his team, and Jakob was even more invested for it.