Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and sixty-two.
Tonight we present The Irregular Division: Violations, Part 1 of 3
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Six Stories Told at Night!
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight we return to the near future, where the founding members of the Irregular Division – Milo Smith, AKA Head, the corporate thief with his brain hooked into a prototype computer interface, and Jennifer Glat, AKA Ms. Atlas, a military lifer whose body was augmented by science after massive combat injuries – find themselves in an increasingly upsetting meeting.
The Irregular Division: Violations, Part 1 of 3
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
[Head: Excerpted from the WIRED interview article “Like A Hole In the Him”]
I should have realized we were a submarine in an outhouse the first time we were taken to meet Theodore Turtledove. This was back when it was just Atlas and I – the Lovesick Twins had survived the fall of Britain but were still having their brains descrambled by people with notepads and soothing voices.
Well, as descrambled as they were going to get, but that’s a story for another time.
Turtledove wasn’t the first vaguely sinister government-type we’d met, but Atlas’ background meant she was always “yes sir, nice to meet you sir,” and that seemed to satisfy them. My criminal record meant most of the ribbon carriers felt a need to take a poke at me.
Still, there are worse fates than being fed a nice lunch and shaking hands with old white guys – at least when the alternative is being sent into a combat zone. Thing is, we didn’t meet Turtledove in some nondescript weapon’s manufacturer’s strip-mall satellite office, nor any aerospace industry skyscraper filled with sensible shoes and salon haircuts. Both had happened a few times, mostly for the benefit of men in well-pressed business suits who maintained long friendships with men in well-pressed uniforms. More commonly we’d simply have some gray-haired starch-collar toured by us on one of the various bases at which we were housed.
You’ve got to remember, we were basically nomads at that point. The Irregular Division was barely even a thing.
Turtledove, though – Atlas and I were escorted to a black Escalade late one afternoon and told to get inside. Our own Major Nelson Wily was already in the passenger seat, but the driver wasn’t military. Her hair was short, but the crisp cut of her black suit and white silk blouse was decidedly private sector. The easiest shorthand is that she looked like a mean Dame Judy Dench, and she was obviously making too much money to be a government employee.
It was also clear she hadn’t achieved her position by playing chauffeur, but – well, she had the air of someone who’d gotten where they were by approaching matters with their own two hands. It wasn’t erratic, but she drove fast and with the confidence of that jerk who feels their business is more important than that of anyone else on the road.
[Atlas, excerpted from debrief of Operation Pay the Pied Piper]
We were picked up at oh-nine hundred and, despite repeated complaints by Smith regarding the hour, were promptly greeted by Major Wily and [REDACTED], a civilian with whom I was not otherwise familiar.
It was a two hour drive, and, despite repeated attempts by Smith to engage in complaints regarding the distance, I took the opportunity to power down and catch up on shut eye – as is my habit during any period of travel.
It’s odd, I find it hard to read a paper book in a moving vehicle, but I have no problem using my implant to browse the web for hours. I guess it’s a different sort of visualization.
I remember our arrival well because I thought it was funny that I was skimming an article about the latest Dracula reboot as we pulled up to that huge black gate.
Now, the rest of the place didn’t look like a vampiric lair. Frankly, it looked a lot more like a golf course – all rolling hills, strategically placed stands of trees, and a terracotta-coloured manor looming at the head of the driveway – but there was definitely something ominous, even while drenched in sunlight, about the slow opening of the black mass of spirals and dragons that regulated access to the grounds.
I suppose my concern should have been more for the guys with buzz cuts and assault rifles standing in the shadows behind the stone pillars on either side, but, weirdly, I’d gotten to a point where large men with guns were just another part of the scenery.
The perimeter was well defended, but the contractors were clearly civilian. Walmart-style camouflage patterns and sneakers under their makeshift uniforms led me to believe they were either private security or possibly even imported mercenaries. They were a little too casual in their stance for my liking, but it’s not my castle.
Dame Dench didn’t get out with us. She nodded to Wily, he nodded back, and when the Major stepped from the SUV we followed suit. There were three long white steps leading to a wraparound porch, atop of which were two more beef arms with bullet chuckers on black nylon straps. The main doors were double-wide, and the entrance hall did nothing to dispel the idea that I was strolling into the clubhouse of a highly paranoid golf course. Glass cases displayed random objects: Ancient daggers, shards of pottery with writing on them that probably meant something to someone but definitely not me, long tables with books carefully distributed across their surface to appear casually strewn, and a ceiling high enough to consume both floors of the condo I used to sublet back in Capital City.
There are levels to having money. I’ve had moments where I thought I had it made, back when I was borrowing sums from corporate accounts, but wealth on that scale – well, it requires a certain sort of attitude. You don’t come by it accidentally, and you have to wonder what exactly those who possess it did to find themselves atop such a hoard. In my experience there are three routes to that kind of income: Killing a lot of people, selling something that kills a lot of people, or inheriting it when one of the first two dies.
The front hall further deepened my conviction that we were not dealing with any sort of military personnel. There is no position at any tier of the armed forces, that I am aware of, that would allow for such extravagant decorating.
Our destination was a mostly-white room flooded in light by a half-dozen windows and two glass doors that exited onto a garden that looked liked a huge pain in the ass to weed.
Before us sat an ancient man on what I guess was a couch. I mean, it was a long piece of furniture with cushions, but when there’s that much hand carving and custom sewing involved I’m sure the salesperson refers to it as something with a loftier title. A settee maybe? I don’t know.
Anyhow, this was when we were introduced to Mr. Turtledove – or, really, Mr. Turtledove and his curtains.
The study was also well appointed, and it was there that we were introduced to an aging Mr. Turtledove. He provided the intelligence briefing.
Theodore himself was bald and thin-faced, but one of those people who survive into a phase of undecipherable age. I couldn’t have guessed if he was a slightly ragged sixty or a healthy ninety.
Those curtains though. They were hung from the ceiling with bronze chains that matched the earthtone highlights dotted around the rest of the room. I’m not talking screw-in Home Depot hooks, these things had been properly mounted. It reminded me of when I had my tonsils out as a kid. I had to share a room with this brat who’d broken both his legs and the only privacy I could get was by pulling at that green drape that was on a U track surrounding my bed.
His curtains formed a perfect little white box of mystery sitting directly beside Mr. Turtledove. Maybe the width and depth of a cat carrier, yet tall. It was clear this was not erected just for this visit, this was so necessary to the old man’s existence that they’d marred the ceiling’s paneling to hang it in place. I tried to convince myself it was his dialysis machine.
He didn’t refer to us by our names, he used our PR titles.
“Ms. Atlas and Head, welcome, welcome. It is good to see you escaped the English nastiness unscathed.”
Was the attack on Britain an act of war? A crime against humanity? A possible sign of the apocalypse? I might describe it as any of those things. “Nastiness” though?
We weren’t offered seats.
As Wily passed along his hellos from other folks in their shared circle of acquaintances I did my best to pry from a standing position. When Turtledove raised his right arm it became apparent that the curtain he was sitting beside had been tailored to be raised without bunching.
I’m a known pryer, from a long line of pryers. You ever poke around a bit at a funeral? The old man’s suit reminded me of undertaker tailoring; You know, how they cut the backs out of the suits or whatever to make dressing easier. The edges on Theodore’s otherwise finely crafted formalwear had been cut to allow access – or a connection – to something beyond the curtain.
If you’ve seen the media photos you know what I mean about Turtledove’s age, but they could never convey the sheen that always on the man’s skin, nor how his smile in motion looked like a skull unzipping.
I’d checked out of the conversation until his jaw pulled that awful trick and he said, “clever bunch, those spider cultists.”
To my mind, at that point, the Kar’Wickians were almost cartoonishly evil monsters, but before my brain could stitch together a clever rebuttal regarding the things I’d seen in the UK, Wily replied, “Yep.” and Theodore changed the topic.
“This thing in Capital City is also a ball of nastiness.”
Ever tried not to laugh in a library? I guess it’s the same thing when you need to pee in the middle of a service station desert. You just get so focused on that one thing it amplifies the problem and the whole situation starts spinning out of your control.
The longer it went unaddressed, the more I found I was getting that way about the curtain.
Was he worried we were going to covet his prized fish tank? Did he have a dozen hooded arachnid worshipers stacked in there like 1950s college kids piled into a phone booth? Was it a tumah? An attached twin?
Still, the mention of my home town set me back a bit. Exactly two years previous I would’ve likely been in Capital City crashed out on what we would mostly definitely have only called a couch, but instead there I was, loafing in daytime-Dracula’s million dollar living room while wondering what kind of medical condition was lurking behind door number one.
How had my life sunk so low?
It was about to get lower, however, as I checked into the conversation just long enough to hear Turtledove say:
“You will go to Capital City; you will find this pervert, Timothy Mustard; and you will take away his toy.”
All of his sentences were delivered in slow drips, like cold syrup, and I’ve got to admit, I’d planned on reviewing the whole thing via my implant’s recording when I could do so at double speed on the way home, or on the plane to whatever godawful place they were about to send us – but Capital City? That had been home once – and I’d heard that name somewhere, though I couldn’t quite place it.
Timothy Mustard – how could I have forgotten it?
All of that was just wind whistling through my empty skull as we exited though. We were standing, and it was the first time we’d really gotten close to Turtledove. He was old school and clearly expecting a handshake even if he wasn’t going to rise to do so.
It was then that I finally caught a glimpse through a crack in his curtains, and then only because I was watching the window behind him and trying not to think about how leathery his fingers felt.
Through that little slit I spotted a face. His eyes were open but engaged with nothing, his mouth was slightly askew but unmoving, and he was naked except for a large diaper that was that shade of blue indicating Serious Medical Business.
That wasn’t the odd thing to me though. If a body was going to fit in that tight little curtain box beside Turtledove it would have to be just a torso. There was no room for arms, no overhang that would allow for legs. He was strapped into some sort of rig – it reminded me of a kid’s car seat – and I don’t believe he could have remained upright without it.
There was also a bundle of tubes that seemed to loop around his chest from somewhere behind him. I thought at first that they were red, but it became clear when the colour started drifting that I was really looking at a crimson fluid moving through clear conduits.
I shook, the human bonsai stared at me over Turtledove’s shoulder, and we left.
Then things got weird.
Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.
Text and audio commentaries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.
– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.