Plugs

Between densely gnarled groves, the ruins of Castle Noland rose on Spindle Mountain against the late sun like a needle one cannot spot in the grass unless the light catches it or he treads upon it.  The mountain, though stunted, was steep and crumbled in Yul’s hands–a miracle it had lasted.  It would not bar him from his lost father.

Castle Noland lacked drawbridges and doors, so Yul made one, knocking down bricks, some of which decomposed to powder.  Sunlight streamed through the roof and holes in the mortar, illuminating dust motes.  One beam shone on a white-bearded, white-robed old man stooped atop his throne:  like God after the sixth day.  The beam moved, and the old man regressed into shadow.

Was this the same man who sent the child Yul on quests:  Track the Amethyst of Memory to the caves of Kaldan, wrestle the Ruby of No Regrets from the King of Cobramen, hunt down the Cape of No Tomorrows through the thorny jungles of Afterwine?

Yul had never put his mind to quests.  He’d set out but–heavy-hearted–stopped to rest on a stump.  Days passed like a clock’s pendulum.  Soon hunger roused his head, and he’d slink home.

Yet Yul fetched the Ruby of No Regrets by trading plastic beads he’d dubbed the Necklace of Deathless Dawns:  “Death slipped by if you gripped the necklace righteously.”  True, it’d fail, but had they held it right?

The Ruby had never ceded Yul the confidence needed to begin his own life.  Instead, Yul had worried over quests his father shipped him on.  Late in his third decade, he, still questing, paused at a village where the Miller’s daughter drew well water.  When asked for a draft, she gave without reservation.

Twelve decades later, he’s returned, to bring Father to a new home among sheep and grapevines.  Yul stood beside the old man:  his white contrasting with the gleaming ruby ring lolling on the right, wrinkled hand.

“Hello?”  The old man leaned forward, milky white eyes scanning the room.  “That you, Spot?  I’ve a doggy biscuit.”

Yul gritted his teeth.

“I shouldn’t have let you go.”  That last word was a sob.

Yul wanted to shake the man, ask if a lost dog was all he regretted.

The old man’s body shook violently.  His ribs rippled beneath robes, coming and going.  “I loved you like a son.”

Yul wrapped his arms around his father, shushing and humming a lullaby.

At first I thought I should of never had said yes because they promise you fame all up and down the planets and all kinds of money, but then there you are head-over-heels and pissing into a squeeze bottle, or trying to figure out how to open one of those tubes of steak and you don’t remember the last time you woke up from one of those nightmares without flying across the room and smashing your face on the bulkhead. I just can’t sleep all strapped-in, okay?

But they said, Act natural! Like there’s anything natural about reality television I should of said but didn’t, because I didn’t think of it. I wanted to be better than that but you can’t act different than everyone else.  You just can’t. We acted natural, like monkeys. All over the space station. Zero-g has got a lot of advantages when you stop smashing your face—these chicks were pretty stacked I could not help but notice—and we did what we wanted and things were pretty okay, beer and tubes coming up like clockwork until they stopped and finally we noticed. The insides of our heads were banging and we noticed we were alone maybe for real. Chuck got right up into one of the cameras and he screamed his head off and Jamie cried pretty steadily when we ran out of tube lasagna and vodka, and if the cameras were still recording no one cared any more. Not even us, mostly.

We’re going to run out soon. Of squeeze bottles because Charlene won’t just wash hers like the rest of us mostly remember to do, and food tubes. Jimmy says we’re going to end up being like cannibals as if it was funny and then he said and I’ll eat Jamie first and the way he grabbed at her, and her shrieking, it was like they thought the cameras were still rolling.

Mostly we play gin rummy, or sleep or screw and wait for how it’s going to end. I’ve got a bottle of Jack under my bed, and I’m pretty sure I can take the girls. When Charlene’s down on her knees and I put my head against the window, when I look at that view, the Earth and all our fans floating out there too far away, I wonder if I should just crush her skull now.

We’re a big family, notoriously hard to fright, unless you count Uncle Jack; the rest of us got our horses walloped over fences when we were young enough to learn— no fear, or don’t show it. My cousin Gilly’s shaping up to be like Uncle Jack. The aunts talk about what’s to be done about her.

Therefore when my horse cast a shoe coming up on Overlea Marsh I didn’t fret too much. Everyone warns about the marsh— “not after sunset,” & etc. I found the shoe settling in a pool off the track, pulled it out in the reddening light, and decided against going after the missing nails.

“We’ll have to walk it, Conqueror,” I told him, and he had the grace to look ashamed. We crossed the first bridge, by Cold Water.

“Who passes there?” asked a voice like water weed.

I stopped dead.

“John Overlea,” I said, addressing the empty dusk.

It said nothing more; yet I found myself kneeling in the middle of the bridge, weeping with loneliness. My whole family despised me, though they’d never said a word. Overleas don’t. They thought I was worse than a hundred Uncle Jacks.

“That was quick,” said the voice by my ear. “I thought to have to try you at all three bridges. Mind the lesson here. If you do, nothing more will fright you tonight.”

I stood up, startled. The loneliness had gone, my aunts and cousins and all didn’t despise me in the least.

I walked on leading Conqueror, thinking; the voice kept its promise.

When I got home, I walked round the porch to where Uncle Jack always sits, alone with his pipe on the far side. I sat down beside him.

“Young John,” he nodded.

“Uncle Jack,” I answered, “You suffer a great deal from us.”

He smiled, looking out over the north field towards the marsh.

“Yes,” he said. “Someone’s got to carry the fears awhile, if nobody else shares the burden. Makes you strong, I admit, though you hate it.”

He turned to me.

“Something happen in the marsh?”

“Yes,” I blinked.

“Ah,” he said, smiling out over the field again.

“I’ll share the burden,” I offered suddenly, because nobody ought to bear what I’d felt on the bridge, even if sometimes they must.

He patted my arm.

“Some’s you can, and some’s you can’t. Thank you.”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is the final chapter of the flash serial, “Connected.” Search for the tag “Connected” to find other chapters.

They find Morello surrounded by the bodies.

“My son,” he says, by way of an excuse. “They put my Caul in a coma.”

One hundred forty-seven dead. All terrorists. Responsible for thirty-six deaths and sixty-two comas. Including Morello’s son. One forty-seven to ninety-eight. Morello takes that as a win.

The Vigilant Vigilante, the pressfeeds dub him. Rogue AI leak parts of his recorded feed. Children relive his moments of rage and revenge. They hack Caul’s feed too. Five hundred bucks for five minutes of coma static. It’s a seller’s market.

They put him on trial. The pressfeeds go wild. They blame themselves, music, society. A society of hate they say.

“No,” Morello says. “I did it for love.”

With Morello, society is on trial. When everyone is connected, when the thoughts of parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, celebrities, presidents, all mutter in the back of your head, who is innocent? Who is guilty?

And Morello sits in his cell. And his son lies in his coma.

The first jury is hung. Perfectly balanced. Mind connects to mind and fails to find black and no white. Just gray.

There is no answer, no simplicity. Only fuel for a media funeral pyre. And eventually that burns out.

Finally the government lawyer comes for him. “We cannot hold you,” he says. “We cannot let you go.” The lawyer’s meatsack wears round polished glasses. He outlines the compromise.

#

Caul’s hospital room is cold and white. Caul’s meatsack is two years older than when it first lay down. Morello lies down next to it. Nurses attach wires and evict his soul.

#

Caul’s mind is cold and white. His body does not move. Morello is the ghost in its machine. “Caul,” he says, “I want to tell you a story. I want to talk to you about love.” And he speaks into the white blankness of his son’s mind, and he tells him of ties stronger than wireless signals, and what it drove him to do.

#

Outside, Morello’s wife sits and watches what passes for justice. She sits alone. Disconnected. And she does not share the moment when her son’s hand twitches.

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