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       Where the Cloud Meets the Mountain and the Mountain Disappears, p.1

           James Comins
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Where the Cloud Meets the Mountain and the Mountain Disappears
Where the Cloud Meets the Mountain and the Mountain Disappears

  Stories by James Comins

  Where the Cloud Meets the Mountain

  and the Mountain Disappears

  Copyright 2012 James Comins

  Thank you for downloading this free eBook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form.

  Your support and respect for the property of this author is appreciated.

  This book is a collection of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead, places, events or locales is purely coincidental.

  Table of Contents

  The Soft Operative

  The Silent Pasture

  Maxwell's Demon

  Red Sox Yankees

  The Old Open Door

  The Woman on the Other Side

  Four Seasons of a Man: Spring

  Four Seasons of a Man: Summer

  Four Seasons of a Man: Autumn

  Four Seasons of a Man: Winter

  A Guide to the Apocalypse, by Henrietta Stevensen, Age 46

  Who's Afraid of the Big Beowulf?


  The Sky Fell


  The Coffin Worms

  The Death of Piers Plowman, or, The Barley-Child

  The Singsonger

  The Rise of Arch-Lord Evil

  Matt and Maggie

  About the Author

  The Soft Operative

  The burnt cinnamon smoke of the flares crept up to the rusting high-carbon ledge. Twinkling red LED eyes reflected off the aluminum towers and poles far below, clouded by the chemical burn of layered smog between the distant ground floor and the security platform. The grated catwalks were cantilevered over the deep, valleying gulfs of metal that formed the outlying harbors and aerospace ports of the conglomerate.

  It wasn't a factory--the word rang with thoughts of tiny, archaic leather conveyor belts and oblong spinning cogs and the cold, authentic authority of preprogrammed robots that Colombian automobile manufacturers still used to produce the little gas-powered scootermobiles that delivered illicit Vioxx and DDT to developing nations. The word for Martial Industrial wasn't "plant" either: a plant was a fabrication site for brightly colored chemicals and girders and wires thicker than the thighs in a Dutch whorehouse.

  The Martial Industries conglomerate, a rumpled patchwork sheet of corrugated aluminum draped over a concourse larger than Texas, was a core. A department store for the military-industrial complex, the core stretched for miles in any direction, including straight up and straight down. Many of its power stations were geothermal, huge turbines creaking away so far underground and in such perfect unison that a rumbling heart-murmur emanated through the steel beams and rebar up to the transit gondolas suspended a thousand feet above the roof, making the gondola cars hum and sing as they skittered through the moldy skies. At the same time, since the increasingly swampy atmosphere didn’t block out the sun yet, elevated sheets of photovoltaics and orbital-beam microwave plants hung above, the light refracting off each little brown cloud in the soggy sky.

  I looked down over the edge of the platform. To understand the depth of vision I was seeing, crouched over the guardrail of the security monitoring station, think about perspective. Normally, parallel lines appear to converge in the distance, although they never quite touch until they reach the horizon. From where I was huddled, looking down, all the aluminum seams stretching out below me faded to blue-gray long before they vanished in the smog. Grubby rivets clung to thin, flush aluminum panels, stretching down to checkerboard oblivion. I turned away. There was more than enough metal and clouds here to occupy me without diving into vertigo at the same time.

  Rappelling down metal siding is quick and painful--no way to slow yourself except by ramming your feet through a window and ducking inside, orangutan-style. The security AI was offline for an emergency patch job. It was a hack-and-slash response to a very delicate and subtle subterfuge I uploaded with one of Sarah's old security clearances. The antiquity of the clearance code was obvious and the bug was caught before it got close enough to smell the digital smog, but the sabotage virus clearly outlined a potential security breach that a real employee with a real clearance code might be able to take advantage of. No one in a position to do so actually would, of course--no one with the credentials to get a desk job at the core would possibly consider jeopardizing that status. There was just too much money and too few corporate jobs. But no corporation was going to tell its stockholders that it didn't try to stick all its fingers in the leaky dike just because there wasn't any water on the other side.

  An AI servo was strung together to patch the hole. It took their processors about three microseconds to write the code, but uploading to the entire intranet of a building the size of Texas takes up to three minutes, just enough time to stage a meat invasion. Security nowadays focuses on quantum software malfunctions, overloads, and q-jump sabotage, a way of using fishbowl computers to remotely alter data--sort of like tossing a solar flare through a memory bank. No one ever expects a computer attack in person, so with a few precautions you and your meat can just walk into the core and dick around with hardware.

  In a massive bank of legacy computer parts like the ones they use to store old information at the core, a computer part must, must, must be easily accessible if god forbid it should break. There are simply too many pieces in a corporate information retrieval system, and eventually a random power short makes the solder overheat and the plastic burn.

  Nowadays, any hunk of silicon with information in it is always backed up by at least one redundant hunk of silicon. They both say the same thing. If the first hunk of silicon goes up in smoke, you flip a little plastic toggle, pull the silicon out, and throw it away. Eventually another hunk of silicon exactly like it will take its place and copy the data. Easy.

  When sabotaging information-retrieval systems, synchronicity is the mother of invention. As long as every checksum matches up with everything else, no one bothers to review it. Even autism-AI code relays won't see the error. All you have to do is swap out all the hardware cabinets in a redundant array, swap in new ones, hit the on button, and wait for everything to purr into motion. It doesn't really matter what information the new drives have on them, because the chance that anyone will actually need the information is microscopic. The practical upshot is, you can steal a block of data from the core with impunity.

  I skittered along cheap, mottled carpeting down an interior corridor. High-traffic carpet muffles your footsteps, and the air conditioning mutes the long, tenuous echoes. The hallway had the dank, dim fluorescence of a place human beings could go if they wanted to but never did. No respectable bureaucrat would have an office out this far away from the center of the core, and soft operatives had their own clearly-marked stations. This was safe no-man's-land, the back alleys built by the janitors, for the janitors. Boxes of flickering blue striplights were set into the ceiling, nestled in between the Swiss cheese tiles. Spindly metal sprinklers added a festive flair. No one had bothered to pay for closed-circuit cameras out this far, so I was safe until some no-account employee showed up in person.

  It was as comfortable and welcoming as those segmented pipe-ramps you stumble onto when you disembark a commercial airline flight. Further and further down the irregularly sloping and angling passage, I crossed small patches of darkness where all the fluorescent lights had flickered out. I butted through the odd set of double fire doors with the little windows and long metal pu
sh-strips for doorknobs, the ones designed so wheelchair people can get through . . .

  I was looking for a professional-looking unmarked door, the sort that would lead to a tech center or engineering storeroom. There's always some useless junk in the backwashes of an office environment, and there's always that one room where all the storage space for all the computers is kept. I burst through another set of fire doors, started down the hall, and then realized what I'd gotten myself into.

  I know there're legacy silicon computers in the core. I've seen them. They're plentiful and expansive. But this corridor was not a security corridor for a legacy silicon computer array, although it had sure looked like one. It looked just like an array corridor. But it wasn't.

  This was a soft operative cel.

  The smell of putrefying tissue clung to my nose the moment I passed through the double doors. Airlocks. That's what they were. And the Formica ceiling tiles were vapor diffusers. Beneath my feet the carpet squelched with sick-smelling moisture, then ended with one of those brass carpet-trim strips. From here on out the floor was slick, damp corrugated steel, the sort that has diamond-shaped bumps so that you can keep your footing. Organic smells wafted out of the irregularly-structured doorways. The soft gray doorframes were curved, arching up to form a smooth loop, crusted with skin and pulsing with unseen, half-atrophied human capillaries. Just my luck to end up in the one spot in the core with no hard drives whatsoever. Unable to restrain my curiosity in the light of good sense, personal hygiene or time constraints, I peered in.

  Eyes looked up at me. Lots of them. All different shapes and sizes. Some were elongated, some were pinpoints, most were asymmetrical. Few seemed to possess frontal-lobe intelligence, but a number of them were cognizant of my presence there. Even some of the faces whose eyes were shaded by monitors or wired goggles or socketed to pipes or who simply didn’t have eyes turned their heads towards me, drawn by sound or light fluctuation or telepathy or something. The faces were neither alarmed nor defensive, merely curious. Feeding tubes swarmed around each of the mouths, so I forgave them all for not asking me questions about what I was doing. Being on a corporate sabotage mission is a lonely business, after all. On the other hand, I perversely wanted to know what they were doing. At the very least, the information might be worth more than anything on a data drive.

  From the HUD layouts visible on the monitors, I decided the cel was an engineering-repair center, the sort of back-alley techie bunker where Geordie LaForge would have hidden his porn stash underneath a plastic panel full of red and green LED lights and color-coded wires. The soft operatives seemed to be remotely controlling something--probably "hard operatives," come to think of it, the brainless repetitive robot arms and mechanical Swiss Army knives that fluttered around aerospace complexes fixing things. The robot arms were probably acting under the supervision of these guys here.

  The cel was driven by semi-human brains scattered throughout the irregular masses of flesh and bone, most of which were probably linked to external memory drives. I remember reading about the arguments between the group of genetic developers who insisted on treating soft operatives as human, giving them light and heat and pleasure centers that could be accessed on a conscious level, and the group of genetic developers who kept trying to digitize everything. They implanted electrodes everywhere, disabled sensory inputs and audio outputs, and recreated the human body into these practical little lumps of fused bone and epidermis. They were the ones who won out, eventually.

  It smelled awful, what a chocolate cake would smell like if you buried it in the Florida Everglades for a few years. No need to worry about the smell if your employees don't have noses, but to me it smelled as if they had tried to teach a herd of camels to dance like the Rockettes. Organic odors clung to the inside of my nose like a GI to the last baby out of Saigon.

  Time running short. No action I took in the next minute and a half would register on security. What the hell, I grabbed the most important-looking soft operative, a smug, squat little Kewpie doll with a spiked external backbone and no eyes, tucked it into my bag and ran like hell out of that place. Climbing a nylon rope with a duffel under your arm is slow and painful. I swung my leg up over the railing and pushed the sail craft over the side of the core.

  The sail craft, an aluminum can with a rotor and a tendency to shine sunlight directly into my eyes, hummed to life just below the layer of colorful plumes of noxious gases and just above the radio and microwave transmitter towers with the blinking red lights. The sail craft was a cross between a dinghy, a Chinese kite and the Wright brothers biplane, a little aluminum ultralight that could take off and land almost vertically. Even with a heat-diffusing aluminum chassis, the bench seat was seething hot from the sun streaming through the gases, and I had to keep hopping from side to side to keep my butt from burning. Sweat made the legs of my trousers stick together, squelching and peeling off the dirt and grime-covered seat. I maneuvered past the outskirts of the complex and into the raw sunlight.

  The Silent Pasture

  Beauty and the beast sat in the garden of Eden, waiting for a tree to grow. Beauty named the woodland creatures while the beast dug its claws into the topsoil. That will make it harder for the tree to grow, she said. The beast growled at a rose-hip.

  In truth, Beauty had never known anyone like the beast. Thorns covered its boots, and its topcoat was sewn of peacock-feather lace that she had stitched herself. The beast was meticulous to keep its topcoat tidy, almost as if (she thought) it cherished her affection. Carrots and parsnips grew beneath them and the beast pulled them to the surface. She washed the carrots and parsnips, and they would eat. Thank yous and pleases hung in the air, like dust motes in light, but were never spoken. After all, the beast couldn’t answer back.

  Beauty’s eyes were gray and wide open all day long. Sometimes Beauty wondered if the beast was looking at her. They could share the world through sight, she thought. It could not be blind, after all. The wide garden would be so difficult to move in, and the beast was so very graceful. She wondered if it practiced at night, as she slept, practiced delicate grace to show her in the morning. To Beauty, nothing less would be believable.

  Night was peace, for Beauty. In sleep she always found herself in the same tranquil dream. In a room with no doors or windows, she sat in front of a curious dresser made of boxes. Each box held the head of an animal. Beauty would imagine she heard them speak, and it was a comfort--the beast, had he been in my dream, she thought often, would speak. Words of love. Words of such love.

  Never did the beast sleep. It keeps watch for the tree, Beauty told herself. For it was a wise old thing. It must have seen acorns grow to leafy forests and still it keeps watch, she imagined. At night, the wide garden grows, she told herself, and the beast watches it grow from its place by my side. The hard edge of its muddy print was always there, right beside her head, the night vigil of the beast.
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