Issue #23: June 18 (Post Modern Prometheus)

This entry is part 13 of 15 in the series The Descendants Vol 2: Magic and Machines

Humanity has taken to the marking of days as their most common pastime. Days to celebrate births, anniversaries, and milestones; holy days and days of remembrance; days for things we wish to always remember and days that will forever live in infamy.

There are three hundred and sixty-five days in a standard year, plus one on leap year. As of the timeframe of this story, there are nearly nine billion human beings on Earth. This means at least twenty-four million people share a birthday with any given person.

Isn’t it odd, then, statistically speaking, that people see fate or kismet in two tangentially related events happening on the same day?

***

“Everyone else is gone, Juniper.” A voice said in her ear. She was surrounded by forest; leafy boughs and undergrowth impeding her vision in all directions. “You’re the last one in the field. The assailant has incapacitated everyone else. They won’t be able to help you.”

Juniper bit her lip and kept going. She didn’t even know what the objective was. The dead weight of the weapon in her hand feeling quite foreign to her. “What am I supposed to do?” She asked, eyes darting about her. “Am I supposed to find and save the others? Is there some kind of flag?”

Pressing up tightly against a tree, she scanned her surroundings again. ‘Be aware of your surroundings’ had been the theme of training for the past week, which was odd, considering that she’d expected ‘fighting large scale opponents’ would be on the docket after the battle at ConquesTech…

The voice was silent. That was never a good sign. Juniper turned a quick circle. There was still nothing. She needed to figure out what was going on. That was number one. Or was it finding the others? They would be a priority, right? Absently, she snapped a twig off an overhanging branch.

“Ow!” The limb twitched around to hit her, but Juniper had already gone down to a knee and raised the weapon. Two knot holes glared balefully and the plant lunged. The gun made a ‘paff’ sound. “Damnit!” the tree groaned.

Before Juniper’s eyes, the bark turned supple and melted to pale white. Twigs and branched retracted into fingers and arms and a head emerged from the crotch of the tree, which now became a pair of shoulders. Cyn frowned at the florescent blue splatter of paint on her forearm. “I should have just pounced you instead of waiting to get closer.” She said.

“Cyn?” Juniper blinked. “But Laurel said everyone else was out, how—“

“The name of the game, my twitch shooting chum,” Cyn said, motioning for Juniper to walk with her, “was predator and prey. I was the predator and…”

“I was the prey?” Juniper asked, giving the gun a philosophical look. “But I turned out to be the predator, huh?”

“That’s why they call us wily humans the most dangerous game, I guess.” Cyn offered as they emerged from the woods and headed to the patio where Laurel and the others were waiting.

“Good job, girls.” Alexis called as they came up the stairs. “The point was to see how well Cyn could use her powers to create active camouflage and for the rest of you to counter it with our lessons on observing your environment.

“I didn’t even see her coming.” Warrick admitted. He and Melissa sat side by side against the stone railing of the patio, having been taken out early.

“I didn’t hear her either.” Melissa said, her eyes closed.

“Your active camouflage capability must be better than we expected.” Laurel said. She and Ian were at one of the patio tables having cereal.

Cyn smiled widely at the praise, but let it drop was she lowered her gaze and thoughtfully scratched her head. “Yeah, about that… active’s not really my thing. Shifting color once every few minutes is one thing. But blending to match the background as I go by? That made me really hungry and tired really fast. So I just shifted into a tree and waited for them to come to me.”

Melissa’s eyes flashed open. “You beat me by turning into a tree!?” She looked to Alexis as if for support. “That isn’t fair, that’s not active camouflage at all! I can accept being last in all these things all the time, but not if you’re going to cheat!”

“Actually.” Ian said, “We only told her she had to tag each of you out without you seeing her. We kind of hoped she’d think up camouflage on her own. After all, part of the exercise is creativity.”

Alexis nodded. “And once she realized that that wasn’t to her advantage, she adjusted. Good job, Cyn.”

“See?” Cyn stuck her tongue out at the redhead. “So there.” Melissa sighed in exasperation and put her head back against the wall.

“On that note…” Alexis said, standing from her seat. “It’s almost nine, so Warrick, Juniper? You’d better get dressed if you want ride with me to see Professor Demetrius about helping him out this summer. Melissa, Cyn, would you like to come too?”

Cyn thought for a moment but shook her head. “I think I’m going to spend my first full day out of school making like a mermaid.” She gestured toward the pool. “Maybe literally.”

Alexis nodded and turned to Melissa. “Actually…” the redhead said, in response to the look, “I was going to get a cab downtown.”

“To see Terry?” Juniper asked.

Melissa gave her a sharp look, but nodded. “Yeah. It’s nothing really, we’re just going to see Vanished at the multiplex. It’s supposed to be pretty important; the first 3-d immersive independent film and all. He got advanced showing tickets because he’s a reviewer for the Interesting Times website. So he…”

She trailed off. The others were looking at her with the collective expression of people waiting for the right time to exclaim ‘awwwww, how sweet’. It was a sickening expression. “You know what?” she stood up, “I really don’t have to explain it.” With that, she retreated into the house.

“I think it’s really nice that she met a boy she likes.” Juniper said in the following silence. “Maybe she’ll have a better attitude about things now.” The last part was said with all the hope she could muster.

“You haven’t actually met or heard of Terry Whitman, have you?” Cyn asked. Juniper shook her head. Cyn chuckled knowingly. “Come on, I’ll explain while we change.” They headed in with Warrick following soon after.

“I’ll go get changed too.” Alexis said to Ian and Laurel. “Did either of you want to come?”

“Actually,” Laurel cut in before Ian could say anything, “I need to go over some alterations I made to the Chaos costume with Ian.” She cocked her head at Ian and gave a sweet smile. “Sorry.”

“I guess not.” Ian gave Alexis an apologetic look. “How about we go out tonight though?”

“It’s a date.” Alexis started back toward the house.

“So what’s this about my costume?” Ian asked, turning to Laurel.

“Nothing, just a cheap ploy to talk to you alone.” Laurel admitted.

Ian gave her a measured look. “Okay…?”

“Monday is June 18th, Ian.” The genius said flatly. “I know you missed it last year, but I really think you should go home for it this year. And… I think you should ask Alexis to go with you.”

Biting his lower lip, Ian reluctantly shook his head. “Maybe I should go; it was hard missing it last year. But I can’t ask Alexis to go with me. She wants to keep an eye out for possible fallout from Morganna last week, and this is—“

“Personal?”

“I wasn’t going to say that.”

“Ian, I know you pretty well and I know that’s what you were going to say.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “I also know that Alexis means a lot to you and so does your family’s day of remembrance. If you two are really serious about your relationship, you’re going to have to share it with her sooner or later. Plus, maybe this will help her get over her own anxiety over going back to Louisiana after the whole Tome debacle.”

“You are the smartest person I know and trusting in you has never done me wrong.” Ian reasoned with a shrug. “Okay, I’ll talk to her.”

***

“Welcome to AI Solutions Unlimited.” The cheerful, brunette secretary chirped as a spindly man in dark glasses walked up to her desk. He carried a slim briefcase with him.

“Yes.” He flashed her a genial smile. “The name’s Henson, James Henson. I’m here to meet with Mr. Atwater to discuss the contract I have with him regarding the AI systems you’re developing for my animatronics firm?”

After a quick consultation with her computer screen, the secretary nodded. “Here we are. Mr. Atwater is expecting you, I’ll have security escort you to his office.”

“Thank you very much, miss.” He nodded.

“My pleasure, sir.”

A few minutes later, he was escorted into an express elevator by a uniformed security guard. Not long after the doors closed, the guard spoke. “Jen said you were James Henson? The James Henson?” the wiry man nodded. “Well, it’s an honor, sir. My kid loves your shows. Especially the one with the family of turtles.”

“Always nice to meet a fan.” Henson said cordially. “I have to say, I find it interesting that a company like this feels the need to escort guests around with an armed guard.” He gestured to the security guard’s sidearm.

“Wouldn’t have needed it in years past.” The guard said, “But corporate espionage is big these days.”

“Not surprising.” Henson said, “Especially with all the AI companies trying to nab the billion dollar HAL award and the inevitable government contracts for developing the first true learning AI.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that.” The guard said, “I’m no engineer. I’m just here to keep it all safe. If I were an engineer though, I wouldn’t mind that billion dollars.”

“That’s a little short sighted, isn’t it?” Henson asked, “I mean, the AI program alone would be worth billions by itself, and think what you could build with a computer brain that thinks and learns on its own.”

“I guess you’d use it to make those turtles into real actors, eh?” the guard joked.

“Something like that.” Henson said, adjusting his glasses.

The elevator doors opened into a white tiled office. In fact, everything was white; walls, ceiling, furniture. Even the fasteners and other odds and ends were white, as if a massive, localized blizzard had struck.

At the far end of the blank expanse Donovan Atwater, owner and lead programmer of AI Solutions Unlimited sat in his white leather chair at his white ceramic desk, working on his white plastic computer. The fact that he himself was dressed all in black didn’t miss Henson’s attention.

“Your five o’clock, Mr. Atwater.” The guard reported. “James Henson.”

Atwater tapped a few more keys and made several gestures with his mouse, then looked up. “Thank you, Sam. Mr. Henson, good afternoon.” He stood and shook hands. “This is highly unusual; Mr. Drake usually meets with me to discuss your contracts for you. In fact, I believe that this is the first time we’ve met.”

“That it is.” Henson made a move as if adjusting his sunglasses, but lifted them instead, training his gaze on Sam the security guard. Eerily blue eyes danced as the guard fell instantly catatonic. Atwater soon joined him as ‘James Henson’ stared him down as well.

Replacing his shades, the Henson, really Aces High member Fellgaze put his briefcase on the desk and flipped it open. “Okay, we’ve got ten minutes.” He reported to the image of Thunderhead that appeared on the display inside the top of the briefcase.

“All I’ll need.” Thunderhead replied haughtily. He was wearing a complex metallic circlet on his head. “Okay, attach the cortical scanner to his temples so I can sift through his mind for his passwords.”

Fellgaze removed two thumb sized discs with trailing wires from the case and placed them on Atwater’s temples. “Done.”

One screen, Thunderhead’s eyes closed and he twitched infrequently for a few minutes. “Got it. Press his thumb down on the ‘G’ key of his keyboard, and then enter username ‘sg-sg1-10’ and the password ‘p3x774’. Copy the file ‘Cerulean’ from the directory ‘Kaleidoscope’.”

As Fellgaze got to work, fitting a flat format module into the drive, Thunderhead continued his perusal of the comatose man’s thoughts. “Wright’s source didn’t even know they’d completed it. Atwater was planning on releasing this little ditty as a surprise at the top of the quarter.”

“The HAL prize, the government checks and a spike in their stock price. Sorry, Donny, but that money is ours now, buddy.” Fellgaze said, watching the download continue. “Wright does have a lab ready to field this as their discovery right?”

“He better.” Thunderhead said, “If he’s just using this to build his oversized tinker toy and not milk the hell out of this cash cow, he’s a damn moron. Uh… ew.”

“What?”

“Nothing, Donovan here married real ugly and I stumbled into memories I’m never going to be able to get out of my brain.”

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Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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