Plugs

A. Portland, Oregon

1. Grand adventure is calling!
2. Slide your ass out of bed.
3. Drink a Stumptown or three.
4. Clear IPAs from your head.
5. Gas up the Subie wagon!
6. Put on your old Birks!
7. You’re in Oregon camo.
8. (In the city that works.)
9. Avoid roads with bored cops.
10. (You don’t want to go down.)
11. Stash the weed! Crank some indie!
12. Head straight south out of town.

637 miles later (about 10 hours, 2 minutes):

B. San Francisco, California

1. Cross your choice of big bridges.
2. Pick one – pay the damn toll!
3. Go up and go down.
4. Don’t stop at stop signs – just roll!
5. Go up and go down.
6. Get lost and then again!
7. Do E with a homeless dude.
8. He’ll become your best friend!
9. Good luck finding parking.
10. (Though it helps some to pray.)
11. Kick the homeless dude out.
12. And head south to L.A.

381 miles later (about 6 hours, 26 minutes – up to 7 hours, 50 minutes in traffic):

C. Los Angeles, California

1. Oh! The freeways and cloverleafs!
2. Lots of lights! Lots of cars!
3. Oh! The silicone breast implants!
4. Lots of strip clubs and stars!
5. Don’t turn down the wrong roads.
6. Never trust a valet.
7. Careful snorting while driving.
8. Buy a hands-free coke tray!
9. Party at clubs with ridiculous covers.
10. Drive like you’ve got the heart of a beast!
11. Avoid being on a reality show.
12. Onward, the desert awaits to the east.

792 miles later (about 12 hours, 19 minutes):

D. Albuquerque, New Mexico

1. Take that left turn.
2. (You know that you want to!)
3. Make fun of the town’s name.
4. Just where no one can hear you.
5. It’s a good place for business.
6. And for jobs (Forbes says so).
7. But they drive like they have
8. Nowhere special to go.
9. So just drink some peyote.
10. View the great color fountain!
11. See hot air balloon fiestas.
12. Then head on up the mountain!

449 miles (about 7 hours, 11 minutes):

E. Denver, Colorado

1. Celebrate that you’re here!
2. Your adventure is done.
3. Drink beer and get stoned.
4. Pretend you’re in Oregon!
5. It’s the Mile High City.
6. Snow’s a beautiful scene!
7. Reflect on your adventure.
8. All the places you’ve been!
9. You’ve had traffic and parking.
10. Yes, at times you were vexed.
11. But it’s your destination!
12. Where will you go next?

‘Miss Millikan?’
I can barely hear the woman for the noise in the background at her end. ‘Yes?’
‘It’s Nurse Seraph at Sacred Heart. It’s your grandmother.’
I feel the cold hollow in my stomach, where a vacuum forms. ‘Has she?’
‘Not yet, but you need to come down. The others are here and there’s a bit of a problem.’
‘What sort of a problem?’
‘You’ll see.’
The hospital isn’t far. I go on foot. The automatic doors are opening and closing erratically. Ghosts move back and forth just inside. I take a deep breath and walk through them. They’re cold and my clothes feel damp.
At the desk, a large nurse is trying to calm down a crowd of old ladies. She sees me, looks relieved. ‘Miss Millikan?’
I nod.
‘Thank God. She’s responsible for this.’ She gestures at the spectres. I recognise a couple from sepia-tinted family photos. Uncle Seth looks better dead than alive.
‘She’s just a little old lady,’ I lie.
‘She’s panicking my patients!’
‘Okay, okay.’
A great line of spirits keeps exiting Vina’s room, while she lies on the bed, comatose. My cousins stand around. Tansy sidles up to me, yellow eyes sly. ‘It’s coming out.’
Petyr says, ‘The Inheritance. It’s dissipating.’
Vala, Arthur, Jezebel and Elizabeth agree.
‘Well?’ I ask. ‘I don’t want it.’
‘We all have to be here for one to take it,’ sneers Arthur.
I stare down at the woman who raised us as harshly as she could. We grew up worse than hyenas; no love, no kindness. I don’t like them any more than I like her. I tell myself I don’t want her inheritance.
‘Take it, then, one of you,’ I say.
They look at each other, then Petyr reaches and my arm, seemingly of its own accord, shoots out and beats him. I clamp thumb and forefinger around her nostrils, and cup the other hand across her mouth and hold down tight.
She doesn’t struggle much. The silver wisps rise from her body slowly, then coalesce into a great silver arrow that shoots into my stomach and knocks me across the room. I cough silver smoke as I sit up.
All the ghosts troop back into the room and politely wait for me to stand. When I do, each steps into me and settles inside the repository of my body. I am the new well of souls.

After twelve years, the Gate, constructed on Peaks Island off the coast of Maine, was complete. The Cancrians had removed their spaceships from where they had been parked around Portland and Brunswick, explaining that their drive mechanisms would interfere with the Gate’s operation. We–everybody, I mean, the whole world–was watching when the First Lady, escorted by an honor guard of Marines and several of the tall, hunched Cancrians, stepped up to flip the switch.
And by “everyone,” I don’t just mean Americans: this had been a world effort. After the initial arguments, the raging debate, a feeling had gradually spread that the interstellar age really had dawned, and it was our destiny to enter it as a species. I doubt there were more than a few thousand people in the entire world who weren’t there in Portland or else glued to their TVs to see the Gate opened.
There had been speeches, you know, obviously. I’m not going to tell you there weren’t speeches. But who cares about the speeches? What could they say other than “Wow, we’re about to open a portal directly onto another populated planet! How cool is that? And scary. And sobering. Wow, people!” Not much. The speeches took up an hour and a half, but that’s all they said.
The First Lady stepped up to the control pedestal, and a deep, stomach-shaking whirr shook the world as it lit up automatically. She placed her hand on the receptor, and with a sound like angels gargling, the Gate opened, spilling light out onto the massive crowd. We looked through it and saw … Maine. There was a grinding noise. Something crackled, and all at once the lights on the unit went out. It was deathly quiet. The Gate had failed.
We were all stunned for a little while, so stunned that I think it was at least a few minutes before anyone realized that the Cancrians had snuck off somewhere. Where were they? The odd, shy, infinitely harmless-seeming Cancrians … what had happened to them? And why, when they clearly were technological geniuses, didn’t their gate work?
“Hey!” someone shouted (I later found out that he had been checking a Hawai’ian webcam on his Blackberry). “Where the hell is the Pacific Ocean?”

The shortwave radio still sat on the desk and it felt like more than luck when Shelly found a numbers station on her first run down the dial. A woman’s voice read the numbers, calm, never pausing for breath, reciting five-digit combinations.

During the day, Shelly’s grandfather only gave those stations a few seconds before moving on to more interesting transmissions, accented voices from places she’d find in the old atlas with loose pages. At night, he’d let the numbers ramble.

“Soothing,” he’d say, and make her cocoa in a metal cup. “Codes sent around the world for spies, they say.” He’d open another beer, grandma would read fat historical paperbacks, and Shelly would doze off.

The monotone numbers soothed her now, while her spun questions for morning. Should she go north to the city? Should she take or avoid the interstate? Which logging road was it had a station where she could top off the tank? The further she got tomorrow, the better.

“I know how you think,” Glen always said. “You’ll never leave me ’cause I’ll guess where you’re going before you even get there.”

But he hadn’t known she would leave. She hadn’t known until she drove past work and onto the onramp. Then she couldn’t go back — even if she got home by five like everything was normal, he would know.

The radio voice repeated the call sign “Papa November Pa-pa Nov-em-ber,” and maybe Shelly did doze, because a man unfolded himself from the air up near the ceiling, his gray skin nearly silver in the light of the bare bulb. He climbed down the dresser and looked at her.

She tried to speak, but all the muscles in her throat and neck froze rigid. The man’s shoulders were twisted, one leg was too short, one foot too big. He stared as if seeing into her, and evened out. He had Glen’s eyes and forehead, then he didn’t; there was a hint of grandpa’s many-times broken nose, then his face went mannequin blank.

Shelly felt her lips moving with the numbers, as if she knew them.

Then the gray man replied with codes of his own: “35-A14, 24-C9, 63-J2…”

She woke just before dawn with a hunch. In the atlas, she saw she was right: those were pages and map-grid coordinates. Places she could go.

Glen might know her, but he didn’t know Papa November.


You can hear some actual Papa November transmissions here, or read more about numbers stations in this Salon article or this Wikipedia entry.

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