“Look, we aren’t exactly dealing with rocket science here.”
“And you aren’t breaking new ground with that phrase smarty pants…”
Satisfied with her answer, Ruth ploughed on with eating the cheaply processed sausage roll that’d been glued to her right hand for the last hour. The accompanying arm ache was old news now, but her walk and talk companion (friend was too loose of a word) couldn’t hope to notice past those overbearing wannabe Joplin cherry red sunglasses. She dipped them down to peep at the clouds above them.
Still hot, but there was an air that at any second rain could wake up and chuck itself down for god knows how long. Ruth clocked her friend’s unease. Anna was trying to tug a jacket sleeve down her right arm. All the way down past the hand. The titanium had been shaped and paired with plastic components to best resemble her original arm, but things hadn’t quite gotten back to normal yet. Clothing especially.
The two of them were dwindling here and there up sun-kissed streets on a hot July afternoon. Making their way to a bookstore Anna had been recommended. That recommendation came by an odd, humourless and more importantly anonymous phone call earlier in the day. Anna had answered, cute face plastered with queasiness. An old ache back for another bite.
After each pause the words got weaker. Anna put the phone down to her side. Ruth’s automatic questions floated past Anna’s ears. But with no response it was like talking to a blonde wall. This weirdo behaviour wasn’t new. Every other night for the last week Ruth heard Anna through walls talking on the phone. Her tone being an obvious attempt to whisper, but the panic underlying her words kept the volume boosted. Certain keywords cropped up a lot. Ruth maintained a mental checklist of them, stomach flipping when they got ticked.
Paid. Delivery. Cash or card? Uh huh…yeah…sure.
So either it Anna was cleaning out the local takeaway places at ungodly hours, or something much more pricey was going on that required delivery or collection…
That little thought was kept secret. Ruth had the muscle memory of being able to intercept a thought from the route of brain to vocal cords. Ruth scratched the arm that didn’t ache. She pulled back after realising how overly long silence paired with scratching was giving off a junkie vibe.
“Sorry wha?...” The slurred comeback won’t help much dummy Ruth thought.
“For the last fucking time.” Anna emphasised the fuck. “It ain’t, and never has been complicated. So let’s take a breath, head down to the bookstore and find – shit – out.”
“Okay fine let’s get this show on the road before we melt…” Silently, Ruth added You know more than you’re telling me. But okay, let’s play your game then.
A weakened bell sounded dimly above the doorframe.
Ruth’s boots sank into the purple carpet, imitating the sound of a purring cat. Anna shut the door behind them. They’d walked the rest of the way in stern silence. Now that they were at the bookstore, the tension was evaporating a little bit in a unspoken way.
Anna’s delayed reaction to the bell was a snap-turn of her head to the sound. Bleached hair flicking with as much of a swish as was possible given its short length. Ruth caught herself staring. Looking for sores or any other substance-induced blemishes. “Surprised I haven’t caught flies.” Ruth laughed at herself as she said it.
“Nothing.” Ruth snapped in a panicky streak of babble. Anna nodded. The kind of expression that says I don’t care enough to ask about your bullshit so let’s move on now please.
The place seemed to have that vague hippie-dippy vibe. Curtains and carpet a mix of lilac and magenta. The next words out of Ruth’s mouth dripped sarcasm.
“Okay to sum up…you get a sketchy call telling you to come on over to a bookstore that just happens to be quite possibly better hidden than any other in history. AND it has all the trademark colours of a marital aid specialist service kiosk. Is there something you need to tell me?”
Ruth’s breath capacity was dry by the time of trademark colours of a marital aid specialist service kiosk. She hoped the joke would pay off by Anna laughing and relaxing. That way she’d be more likely to give information.
The snarky blonde trailed the finger with the longest nail across some hardbacks.
“Can we talk about this later?”
If Ruth’d been holding one of those fat books it would’ve been thrown at that stupid girl’s head. A great surge of energy focused itself on dashing through Ruth’s veins. Fuck maybe she would do it. Just go ham, beat her around the skull with a few dull history tomes, knock some sense into her.
Okay maybe that’s too crazy. Ruth chose her next actual spoken words carefully.
“Later, seriously? There’s no better time to talk about it than now. So spill, what’s this all about?”
Ruth’s internal haze was made way worse when Anna stopped looking at the books suddenly and instead chose to stare at her. The blue gaze locked onto Ruth’s forehead. It shifted to the right, to the right again, and then a little more to the right over Ruth’s shoulder. Ruth was ready to swear in a court of law that flies were dancing in her mouth. Here it comes. An admission. Nothing came. Someone else.
¬Ruth heard it too late. The person was lighter that her and Anna, by comparison the footsteps were nothing more than a patient shuffle. First thing Ruth saw was the puffs of dust kicking up from the fabric, but the hand clamping down on her shoulder was bigger news. She twisted right, snapping her right hand up to the figure’s elbow, left hand on the wrist. All it took from there was to jut out her hips and twist down and to the left.
It was a man who ended up crumpled on the floor in the middle of Ruth and Anna. Age roughly in the bracket of twenty-seven to twenty-nine, fair hair with a tinge of dandruff. Ruth was still holding onto him, so used the leverage to twist his arm. He writhed and squirmed, giving a better look at his face. Ruth didn’t recognise him.
“Friend of yours?” She asked Anna.
“Not exactly.” Spoken with a frown.
The man was so thin he appeared draped in his white shirt, the dirty jeans that hung off him held in place only by a fake leather belt. Unkempt hair fell forward down to eyebrow level. Despite the discomfort his face wore a bright fake smile. Only part more unsettling was his lack of shoes and socks.
“Now…ahhh….which of you is Anna?”
Anna and Ruth made eye contact. You gonna keep quiet huh bitch? Ruth echoed in her head.
The man stayed stubborn. “I want who I spoke on the phone with. Unless it was a false name. Doubtful though, she didn’t sound very smart.”
Don’t fall for it you idiot, don’t prove his point.
The first step of Anna’s overreaction was to blink in a rapid pattern. Step two meant to stand there slack jawed and awkward. Step three was to dig her own grave.
“You fuckhead, tell you what you can take your product-Anna used fingerquote marks for that word-and sell it to someone else!”
Sighing out the last of her breath, Anna addressed Ruth. “Let him go.” Before rubbing both eyes like a tired grandparent. Ruth did let him go. But not before taking advantage of her stance one last time by striking the man in the ribcage using her shin. He made no noise, but his face said it all as he forced himself up from the carpet. After firing a death glare at Ruth he composed himself.
“Let’s get this over with, I hoped this would be swift and chilled out but hey, we can’t always get what we want.”
Scratching his chin he led them on. Anna and Ruth heard his voice as he vanished into the maze of bookshelves. “Follow me.” Ruth rolled her eyes. On the floor a cringe-worthy My name is … sticker was covered in fresh carpet lint. It had no surname filled in. Just “Paul” written with marker pen.
As they followed, she switched the conversation back on about the elephant in the room. “Talk.”
Anna took off her sunglasses. “It’s not drugs, well…it’s something else. Tech from the sixth or seventh latest crash.”
Ruth scoffed, ducking under an archway. “Since when are you interested in technology.”
Anna did not look at her, and Ruth remembered. Her arm. As if in response, the thing
“I’m not.” The blonde stated with firmness. “…worst case scenario we can flip it for double the price.”
“And what’s the starting cost?”
Anna coughed. “Couple thousand.”
Ruth bit her tongue.
They came to a stop as “Paul” stopped in front of the tallest bookcase. That was the reason for the archway and its step, the floor was lower and the ceiling higher here to make room for it. More room for information in the books. The man reached out, pulling a heavy dry historical volume from the third shelf from the bottom. It stopped before leaving the shelf. A mechanical clicking sound ping-ponged off the walls. Clicking was joined by whirring and hums. The book set itself back into the shelf. That shelf then set back further into the wall, and slid to the left, letting all three glimpse the oiled pistons and other precision engineering. After it was gone everyone was left looking at a steel vault, polished to give it the look of chrome. Blinding even when just reflecting the dim old lights of the shop. Paul brought out a wireless keypad from his back pocket. Its buttons made no noise but were fancy enough to have an ambient LED feature that changed colours within five second intervals.
Red. Amber. Green.
It stayed on green as the man finished tapping in his esoteric rhythm.
With a grunt like a depressed bear the vault door groaned into life. Fulfilling one of its two existence purposes, open and shut, shut, and open. Now was time to open up. It took a while but it got there (while was relative to people standing still, a few minutes at the most. Two and a half tops).
“Voila.” The man dripped smugness.
Ruth saw. Shock spilled out.
“Well I wasn’t expecting that…”
They stepped inside. Worth noting that when Anna and Ruth had been making their way to the shop, they hadn’t gotten the full scope of the building. So this big bit had remained unknown to them. Unconscious embarrassment flooded Ruth’s emotions. How could she have missed what must have been a huge section of brickwork? It was a rhetorical question with an overly attached answer. Other things had been on her mind. It took a large dose of effort to clear her mind now, to take in the new, frankly suspicious surroundings.
Walls lined with control panels and loose gears winked flashing lights at Ruth, who chanced a sneaky glance at Anna. She stood, elbow tucked into the crook of her other arm. If she was as blown away as Ruth then she hid that fact well. But as with everything related to this strange situation, Ruth would not put anything past Anna in regard to secrecy or lies. She looked at it all like that logically in her mind, but that did not undercut the unavoidable emotional fallout from essentially a betrayal of trust. Or a state of secret keeping that was only just starting to fall apart. Neither was good, and neither was warming Ruth up to Anna. Just dropping the temperature bit by bit.
In the middle of the vault a huge green hexagon structure sat with a casual attitude. Sculpted in a three-dimensional way, Ruth admired the precise flawless angles as she walked around it. Observing it in a room with sterile walls and ceiling lights made the experience like a demented museum. Roll up roll up, look at the weird hexagon crystal thing Ruth thought. She caught herself. Wait, is it crystal? Questions multiplied in her brain like impatient frogspawn. She kept her mouth pursed. Letting the answers come from what she viewed as the guilty party. On the same hand the best chance to ask questions is now. Stop being a passive weak doormat.
“Explain.” Ruth snapped her fingers at the man, then twirled, doing the same to Anna. Despite her instinctual tornado of anger, hurt and venom, she played it off coolly. She knew that whatever was to happen, Anna was getting cut out. No answer or defensive explanation was going to be a good one that wrapped everything up in a nice bow. In the trenches now.
The man walked around the hexagon, taking his time in observing it. His eyes had a sense of familiarity to it. As he did this Ruth kept on the ball and latched her view on Anna’s eyeline. She was looking at the hexagon too, and her eyes held that same air or recognition. Gotcha. “Hey fuckwit!” Ruth raised her voice, adding an angry overhead clap to steal attention back. Nothing, they were both still transfixed. Okay let’s play it your way. Ruth turned her own attention back on the crystal and marched. Heavy deliberate steps. Going further than she had before when just looking at it. Then she reached out. As her fingertip just barely grazed its emerald surface. The other voiced hit back.
“No. Don’t.” Apathetic and muted but with anger hidden underneath.
Finally a reaction, let’s really get this party started.
She sank her hand deeper. A warm sensation coated her fingers, and her palm as she placed it flush against the surface. Warmth floated up her arm. This is…relaxing Ruth thought sleepily. She felt a hand grab her shoulder again, but the lightness of the touch told her it wasn’t the man.
“Ruth, don’t. Pull back before it takes you.” The words sounded tinny, spoken through an invisible tunnel during a sandstorm. Any emotion conveyed in her statement was muted and flat. Ruth did not know if that was from the girl herself or the effect of the hexagon. She knew what her response was though.
“Then you better tell me what’s going ooonnn.”
The effect was dancing with her speech now too. Each braincell felt like it was getting individually removed and cleaned out. “Why don’t…” Ruth started a sentence but was cut off as yet another hand latched onto her deltoid. For the third time in less than an hour. Both pulled back hard. It took a twenty seconds of struggling and distant sounding storm grunts but soon Ruth’s arm was revealed again bit by bit, inch by inch, centimetre by centimetre. Its skin not scarred or blemished, but…fresh somehow. Like a dipping into a Himalayan salt bath for an hour. The warm feeling faded by the point of when the hand came out. The tinny noise stopped, and for one peaceful moment there was quiet. Her sight obscured by white. Oh fuck I’m on my back. That’s the ceiling. Using this realisation Ruth went to stand up, fighting off both the dizziness that overtook her and Anna and the man wrestling her to the ground. “Get uff mee.” The words slurred to a stop and it all became about the physical action. She was on her back again of course. The two weren’t hitting her, just restraining her, their arms outstretched and planted on her upper collarbone and shoulders. Muscles tensed with the effort it was taking to keep her down.
“Calm down it’s still in your brain dammit.” His tone was gruff and stricken with panic.
Ruth got her speech back. “Whattya gonna do cut it out?” She did not know if she was talking about the element or her brain itself. Maybe it didn’t matter. “We’ll let you go, just promise you won’t go for it again. Let us explain.”
“Fucking hell that’s all I’ve been asking for you dummy.”
Christ it’s like being at pre-school. Promise this promise that. Cunt.
They stuck to their word and let her go. Standing was easier, the dizziness faded. I feel faded. Once she got her bearings. The other two didn’t give a moment’s hesitation and started speaking. “There’s no drugs in that thing. Unless you count alien technology.”
“Alien?” Ruth didn’t blink.
“Well it’s a loose term. Unknown tech let’s say. Alien doesn’t necessarily mean from outer space, just Somewhere else, somewhere unknown. The space between spaces.
Ruth gestured to the hexagon. “And you’re planning to sell that as what? An inconvenient massage chair? Naw.” Still some slurring then.
“It does more than what it did to you. We had to get you back before you got into deep waters. If you step fully through it you end up in another place. A place that any cunt would pay a stupid amount of money for.”
“You going to let me in?”
“I need to give any and all potential buyers a fair test of the product.”
“You falling into business mode huh? Neat trick.”
“More of a bad habit.”
“Then let’s do it.”
The man raised a hand, fingers splayed. “Hold your horses.” He nodded to Ruth. “Her turn, she’s the eager one after all.”
Once again Ruth and Anna shared a look. Falsely confident Anna accepted, folding her arms in a peacocking way. “Let’s do this.” She walked up to the crystal, bypassing feeling it out, phasing directly through it. There was no bright sparkle/sheen/glimmer effect leftover. Just gone, popped off as if she was going to the shops for a biscuit and some teabags. Ruth visibly reacted, shaking like she’d been punched in the gut. After wobbling (fuck get your shit together goddamn) and jolting on the spot, so much so that the man had to catch her from falling on more than one occasion, Ruth settled. Though still breathless.
“Relax.” The man said, with all the air and pretentions of started some gross moralising speech. To kill it in its crib Ruth slapped him. With a mean backhand. He took it like he had been expecting it, not even making a noise. Weird silent creepy fuck. “No! Not ‘relax’ she’d just fully fucked off. Oh Christ oh Christ. You fucker.” If her air rifle had been in her more than capable hands he’d have gotten one right between the eyes. Ripped up pineal gland as punishment for…for no. “Bitch you’ve been in there yourself. Well just about.” “My hand bitch, at most my arm went in. But Anna just full on disappeared. FULL. ON.”
He sat on the sterile floor, arms crossed over his legs. For a moment he looked deflated, all the life had been drained out of him. Or maybe it was always this way, and he’d been doing the emotional and spiritual equivalent of holding a bloated stomach in via sheer will. And now he was vulnerable, letting his weakness, humanity shine on. I can use this. Ruth thought. Best to let him flow like a river (even cry like one if it came to that) and gather all data available. Now was not the time to let emotion pull her strings.
Slicking back his unwashed hair, he settled back into the saddle of his spiel. “That-the thing I mean. The place takes you…to another place.”
“That’s lame.” Ruth interjected.
“No it’s not like that.” He bared both teeth rows inadvertently and did that thing aging mothers do where they wave their hands in a tea-towel flick style. Ruth swore down she even heard him hiss at some point during this freakout. The words poured out past the body language blockage.
“It takes you somewhere else. Somewhere…else.”
“If this is your pitch for a (Ruth did finger-quotes again) wild trip then I’m not interested. All I care about is if my friend is okay. Is she dead? In the short term or with a long-term O.D. or some shit.”
The man laughed a true and bitter laugh. “Not dead, I would not try and flog to a dead person, even I know my chances there are slim.” With that last word he produced a toothpick from a seemingly hidden pocket and began digging for tough plaque. This action gave Ruth a startle. If he was able to do that, grab something out of apparent thin air. Then what was to stop him from him from having pulled out a small knife, or worse, a nasty bit of iron. Some kind of spy gun, a swampy derringer with decorative plating. Okay now you’re going into fantasy land bitch. In the non-fantasy world she said simply: “I see.”
Her eyes settled in their mist. And the words straightened their backs with a jolt in pacing.
“Ruth. Get in there. For the love of-get in there.”
Relaxing, like chilling with on old friend, or slipping into scorching hot bath after a long hike. That familiar sensation met Ruth again up to the arm and shoulder. But past that point things became strange. Very strange.
That’s when it all went to shit.