The Price of Entanglement - Chapter 7 (Complete)

Transient

CHAPTER SEVEN

Thirty minutes later found them stepping out of a cab in front of the Haldstad. Jo’s eyes were glued to her phone display; Mike swept his gaze over the building from side to side, top to bottom, eyes glowing a cool blue as data about the site was projected directly to him.

“What on earth could we possibly want with this place? I can’t see anything in its history that fits with any of the other holdings we’ve gone after.” Jo had spent the ride over digging into the Haldstad’s past. Built nearly two centuries before, it had started life as the burgeoning town’s police headquarters. The fire that Dunn had mentioned had raged through the first floor and up to the upper floor, though the cause of the blaze was poorly understood; it was believed to have been arson of some sort. After being repaired, it had continued to house the town inspectors for several decades before it was decommissioned and ultimately sold to a succession of owners who mostly used it for retail spaces.

It bore little resemblance today to how it had looked when first built. Originally designed as a two-storey building, it now rose five storeys high and had been renovated and restored many times. She continued, “This place has been torn down and rebuilt so many times there can’t be anything of value left, can there?”

“You never know. Sometimes it’s not the building itself, but the location. They’ve got their reasons, and it doesn’t really matter to us what they are.” Mike spoke with the absent tone of someone engaged in his own research. “You’re probably right though. With the history this place has, I doubt we’ll find much.”

There was no current tenant, and the arrangements had all been made with the property owner. Mike had the key and let them in the rather unimposing entrance.

Jo half expected the interior to be fire-blackened and burned, despite knowing better; instead, she was greeted by the sight of what looked to be a drugstore that had been shut down for a few years and seen better days. Rows of mostly empty shelves sat in the gloomy interior, cobwebs festooned every corner, and little pellets suggested a variety of rodents had taken up residence.

“What a lovely place,” she murmured. Mike smiled and headed straight for the lights. They didn’t work.

“Hope you’ve got a flashlight handy,” he said. She held up her phone, brightness cranked up to max; the device was as bright as any dedicated flashlight. Mike snorted, but nodded in approval. “Nice,” he said. “Those things do have some surprising uses, don’t they.”

“Yeah, it comes in handy sometimes. I’ll have to follow you though, I won’t be able to use it for much else while it’s lighting my way.”

He nodded and they headed down the aisles toward the basement entrance.

The beams of their lights probed the darkness down the stairs. The steps were solid concrete, and the hand rail was still firmly attached to the wall. Mike stood at the top, Jo just behind him; they methodically ran their light over the walls, Mike working on those further away with his more directional light, Jo using her phone to light up the closer walls.

It didn’t look terribly promising, Jo thought. The basement did have the look of ancient construction, but there were plain signs of upkeep over the years. Some sections of concrete were clearly much newer than the rest of the walls, which were made of brick.

They moved slowly down the stairs. After almost two centuries, the concrete steps, a relic of the original building, had worn down significantly toward the center. She had to be a little careful to avoid losing her balance and falling.

The basement showed clear signs of having served as storage for the drug store, and likely the previous tenants before them as well. Broken cardboard shipping boxes littered the dark space, stray packing peanuts lay on the ground or floated in small puddles where the damp had collected, and the floor surface itself was dirty and scuffed visibly despite the months of dust that had accumulated.

“It’s a bit of a fixer-upper,” Mike said dryly, inspecting several of the puddles more closely, undoubtedly recording the whole inspection, as Jo herself as. He frowned. “Does this look like condensation to you? I’d say it looks more like a leak in the plumbing somewhere.”

She looked at the puddle, but there was nothing special about it; there were pipes near it though, and they were streaked with rust. She followed them upward with her eyes, up the wall to where it met the ceiling. Her hand twitched a bit, and she realized she was tracing a climbing route up the wall; another moment and she realized she’d traced a route to a destination she hadn’t even consciously noticed at first.

There were a regular series of indentations in the walls, very narrow, but large enough to maybe get a hand in. They were almost flush with the ceiling, and looked like darker patches of shadow. She moved closer, letting the ambient glow of her phone illuminate one of them better. Mike followed her gaze.

“Huh, good eye, Jo.”

“Thanks,” she said absently; the recess looked deep, and there was something inside. “I’m going to climb up and see if I can pull that out,” she said.

“You could wait until we get more equipment down here, or at least better lights,” he replied, but she was already testing several handholds in the bricks higher up on the wall. In short order she was clinging to the recessed section she’d seen the object in, her feet swinging almost a meter off the floor. She braced her feet tight against the brick wall below and held on with one arm, reaching inside with the other.

She got hold of the object, which was largish and heavy; it felt like a box, maybe of metal. “Mike, come grab this, I won’t be able to carry it down, I’ll have to pass it to you.”

He stood ready to catch it as she pulled it from its resting place, then caught it as it fell. Jo climbed back down and took a look at what she’d retrieved.

The object was indeed a box; a metal one, long and wide but very shallow, corroded green with age and with an ornate lock on the front. It was heavily built, and the lock was of a very old design. Jo’s enthusiasm for the past didn’t extend to expertise in ancient locks or boxes, but she thought it wouldn’t have looked out of place around the time of the building’s origin.

Mike held his light for her; she lifted the box and inspected it carefully. The corrosion wasn’t too bad, all things considered. Certainly better than she might’ve guessed given the dampness of the environment and the apparent age of the box. “Think this thing could’ve been here since the police used this place?”

“Don’t know. It’s possible. I don’t know how you spotted that hole. I’d have walked past it a thousand times and never seen it.”

“Just looking for handholds,” she said, eyes on the lock.

“What?”

“I climb. Gives me the habit of looking for places to hang on.”

“Huh. Handy,” he said, unconscious of the pun. She stifled a groan and rolled her eyes anyway. The lock stubbornly refused to offer up its secrets to her, and a quick test proved that either the lock was engaged or the corrosion was bad enough to stick the box closed.

“It’s jammed, we’re not going to get this thing open here, I don’t think. Let’s take it back with us.”

“Can’t. We don’t own it yet. We’ll report on it, then open it on the property and investigate what’s inside.”

She sighed, frustrated. “Okay. We should bring some stools with us next time. There are a lot more of these little cubby-holes, and who knows what we’ll find in those?”

Mike nodded. “Sounds like a plan.” He sat the mysterious box in a dry corner.

When they got upstairs, Mike frowned and looked at the front entrance. “Hey, did you leave the door open when we got here?”

“No … I’m pretty sure I closed it.” It was open now, and creaking in the breeze. The sound of the rain was soft but clearly audible from where they stood.

They looked around, but there was nobody else visible. “I’m sure I closed it!”

“I know, I remember you closing it too,” he said. “Hello? Anyone there?”

The only reply was a creaking of the floor upstairs. They glanced at each other. “I don’t like this,” Jo said, voice low.

“Keep your cool,” Mike said, voice tinged with concern. “It could be anything.”

Jo had some private doubts about that; stepping lightly, she crossed the floor to the front door and put her finger to her lips, then pointed back toward the basement. Mike nodded in surprise. She couldn’t read his expression in the gloomy lighting, but he turned and headed back the way they’d come. She waited until he’d had enough time to descend, then pushed the door closed firmly before following him as quickly and quietly as possible.

“This is ridiculous,” he whispered as she reached the top of the stairs. He hadn’t gone down.

“I have a bad feeling. A really bad feeling,” she said. It was more than just a gut feeling; she was starting to feel a little like she had when she’d seen those odd people the last Friday. The head-rush feeling was different though. Much less intense. Maybe I’m imagining it, she told herself.

“If your bad feeling is right, we’ve just shut ourselves in with whoever it is,” Mike growled, sounding like he had his own bad feeling.

They waited, the silence of the basement pressing in like a pressure wave. Jo tried to imagine she was on a climb, an overhang, with just her hands between her and a long, fatal fall. That kind of pressure, she could handle. Waiting, scared in the dark, not knowing what was coming, if anything—that was harder.

The smallest sound reached them from upstairs, and Jo stiffened. In a building as old as this, it could have been floor boards settling as easily as a footstep. After several moments she let out a slow breath; there was no followup sound.

They waited a few minutes more; her eyes were beginning to adjust to the gloom. She could just make out Mike’s outline, black against the deep, dark gray of the room. He was shifting his weight from foot to foot, no doubt as impatient as she was to be out of this situation.

She finally started edging toward the staircase, willing herself to make no sound. The scrapes and shuffles of her shoes on the floor made her cringe, but she kept going, moving slower; still nothing from upstairs.

The door at the top of the stairs stood open, just as it had stood when they originally found it. It outlined a patch of lighter gray; she couldn’t make out anything at the top. She stood by the foot of the stairs and they waited a bit more.

Ten minutes must have passed by the time Mike dared the faintest whisper. “I don’t think there’s anyone there.”

“Get the box,” she replied.

“We can’!”

“If we leave it, we risk losing it entirely.”

He was silent for a moment, silhouette unmoving against the gray. “Alright, fine.” He very, very slowly knelt down next to the box; she could see him fumbling around, unable to see it in the dark. She held her breath; his coat sleeve caught on the box and dragged it a moment, making a noise that she’d barely have heard under normal circumstances, but sounded like the collision of two planets to her here and now.

“Crap,” he whispered.

The Price of Entanglement - Chapter 6 (Complete)

Transient

CHAPTER SIX

“Jo, it sounds fantastic!” Sal exclaimed, setting a real china teacup on her living room table. “So much better than the mail room.” She said the last with a sly wink. Or had she? Jo sometimes had trouble reading Sal; it was hard to be sure with her sometimes.

“The mail room’s not that bad,” she settled for protesting. “The people are pretty cool. Quinn’s there, and the others seem decent enough.”

“But you don’t spend any time with them,” Sal said. Jo noticed a cab pulling into the drive outside; David, just arriving home, looking like he was yelling into his phone.

“Not much time to, so far at least. I’ve been too busy getting caught up on what the company’s doing. One of these days I’m going to have to pick David’s brain, when my own isn’t over-stuffed with all this—”

The door opened then, and David’s voice carried over. He was done shouting, if indeed he had actually been doing that, but he was still a bit heated. “Look, the bottom line is this project is costing a fortune, and now you tell me your initial success reports were wrong?” He paused for a response, nodding a greeting to them as he passed through. “No! You said brain-to-brain, not—…—yes, and that was how long ago?”

He climbed the stairs to the next floor, and the sound of a door closing muted his voice beyond hearing. “Sorry, Jo, he’s so busy lately,” Sal explained, sounding tired.

“I can understand a bit better now that I work for the same company, though actually, I’ve never seen him there.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” she said. “The company has several offices, he works out of a different one. It’s not far, though.”

Jo barely heard her. David’s one-sided conversation was intruding on her thoughts like a fly buzzing past an ear. She mentally swatted at it and returned her attention to her friend; she’d put her finger on why it had sounded so familiar later.

<> 

The following Monday marked the beginning of her second week, and that half-heard conversation still nagged at her. Not consciously; she didn’t keep herself awake thinking about it. But it poked at her from deep in her subconscious mind somewhere so that she only halfway noticed.

A series of strange events distracted her from the troubling thought over the course of the weekend, anyway. It started later that same Friday night, before the weekend had even properly begun.

She’d returned home after visiting Sal and noticed that they were running low on food again. She was about to signal a cab to head up to the store when she stopped herself, remembering the physical requirements of the job. “Aww, why not,” she told herself. Gran had been much better the last couple of days, and she wouldn’t be that long. “Gran, I’m going up to the store, I’ll be back shortly,” she called. A grunted response that sounded generally agreeable reached her from somewhere in the house. She checked her pockets for phone and fob and headed out.

It had been late enough that the sun had almost set. There was no rain, but a faint hint of ozone scent made her think a storm was coming soon. It took her a few minutes to realize that that hint of ozone was all she smelled; the air was uncannily clear, with no hint of the smog that usually clung to the area even out in old downtown Dolesham. It was like the air had never been dirtied. She envied the people who’d been able to breathe like this their whole lives.

She was just reaching the point where her regular path met with the path that led past the old ironworks when the ozone scent intensified greatly, and she felt a bit of a head-rush come over her. She stopped, shaking her head in a daze to clear it, and was startled out of her wits when someone nearly ran right into her.

He was average height, but her instant impression suggested he carried himself as though he was taller. His eyes were brown but sharp-looking, intense, observant, and his hair a little mussed, as though he didn’t give it enough thought. He was dressed—

Weird, she thought, mind still reeling from the head-rush. He was dressed like a cos-player or historical reenactor. He had a well-worn and somewhat scorched leather apron with a million pockets worn over a very out-dated suit, minus the jacket. White collared shirt, brown pants, boots, and all of it looking very two centuries ago. And then there were the goggles, an elaborate contraption of switches and too many lenses.

All of this detail slammed into her mind as she barely avoided slamming into him. He was in a hurry, rushing down the street in the opposite direction, back the way she’d come. There were others following behind, all dressed in ways just as out of date, though none with quite the mad inventor look to them.

He barely registered her; in fact, she’d almost have sworn he didn’t see her at all, except to jerk and move at the last second as they were about to collide. He carried on running, looking about as though looking for someone.

“Ann! What happened? Did you see? Were you here?” he called out to the empty street. His voice was so faint she could have imagined it though, and when she blinked, he was gone.

The head-rush faded, and she’d stood gaping, wondering if she’d just seen that, or was just having really weird daydreams brought on by the new job.

The beginnings of a rumbling in her stomach brought her back to her task, and she walked on towards the store, keeping away from the old Ironworks path this time.

That had shaken her a bit, but left her more confused than anything. She’d gotten to the store just fine, collected her groceries, caught up with Fred, and had largely forgotten the whole thing. By then the rain had started again, and she’d left her umbrella at home. Just a light rain though, and of a low acidity. She’d hunched over a bit to try and keep it out of the grocery bag. “If I can’t handle this, I’ll be hopeless at the job,” she told herself.

There was little light left by this point. The sun had long since set, and the last haze of light was leaving the cloud cover overhead a dark, damp gray. The wind began to pick up, whipping her longish hair into her face, wet strands clinging to her forehead and cheeks. There were no cars on the road, but a sound approached, a rhythmic clopping she was unfamiliar with. It rang a dim bell in her memory; a sound out of a movie or something, maybe. The air smelled of ozone; there was no hint of thunder or lightning in the sky.

She was struggling with her hair and the bag in her hand as the sound approached from behind; she labored to turn. The sound was practically on top of her. She’d never seen a horse in person before, but now two were bearing down on her, carrying dark-cloaked riders. The same head-rush feeling she’d experienced earlier settled over her again.

The figure just about to run her down looked like the same man she’d seen before, but subtly different. Larger, more filled out, a few years older maybe. Definitely more grim-faced and tired looking. He was dressed for travel, his outfit from earlier gone. He looked like he’d been on the road for days, and had been injured.

His companion was a woman, though not one of the figures she’d glimpsed earlier, she thought. Dark hair, maybe black. Very pale skin, and vivid green eyes.

I shouldn’t be able to see this much detail, she thought; it was far too dark. She couldn’t even make out the color of her own skin.

She tried to execute a leap out of the way, but she was too burdened. The grocery bag anchored her by one arm, and the head-rush feeling anchored her head. She managed a jerking lurch that was aided unexpectedly, and unhelpfully, by the shoulder of the horse thundering past her; it slammed into her and threw her in the direction she’d been trying to go. Pain exploded through her arm, though in her dizzy state she barely noticed.

She staggered to her feet as the horses thundered past, and she ran awkwardly after them. The the woman looked back at her, eyes wide. Jo staggered her way into a run after them. Her head began to clear, the head-rush receding, the ozone scent fading, and just as before, the strange figures had vanished.

“Hey! This is a serious story!” she snapped as Quinn glanced at his messages.

“Sorry Jo, but you do know how weird it sounds, right?”

They were at lunch at the Capital, sitting in a relatively quiet corner of the place. “Of course it sounds weird. That’s why I’m telling you,” she huffed. “Twice. In one night!”

“Has it happened again since?”

“No, thankfully. Just on Friday.”

“So who are they?”

“Who? The people I saw?”

“Yeah, you said you saw the one guy twice, right? Same one, only maybe older the second time? So who do you think they are?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t recognize them.”

“My money’s on some sort of renaissance faire event or something.”

“Do people even do that sort of stuff anymore?” She frowned. “Not that it matters. They disappeared, Quinn.”

“Well, you did make it sound like they were in kind of a hurry both times. You probably just didn’t see where they went.”

She cocked her head, suddenly wondering. “That’s … true. Maybe. I don’t think so. But … maybe you’re right.”

For the rest of her second week she tried her best to set the unusual events to the back of her mind and focus on getting the hang of the job. True to what she’d been told, she was introduced to field work quickly.

Her training partner was Mike. She was careful to keep disapproval off her face when they were finally introduced face-to-face; she didn’t know for sure that he had brushed her off, after all.

He was a little shorter than she’d expected. Something in his voice had given her the impression of a taller man. He was maybe half an inch taller than Quinn, which put him a couple of inches taller than she herself was. He kept in shape though, which counted for something, and if he had a problem with her, he was a good enough actor to keep it hidden; he was pleasant and professional through their first briefing.

Dunn briefed them, and he was as brusque as he had been the last time she saw him. “You’re going to the Haldstad building,” he instructed them. “Mike, you take the lead. Jo, you learn from him. I have no doubt you’ll do fine; you’ve absorbed practically all of the archives so far, from what I’ve seen.”

“Any special instructions?” Mike asked.

“Yes. The Haldstad is an historic building. It was rebuilt once after a serious fire destroyed most of the first floor, and severely damaged the second. We haven’t been able to determine the state that the basement is in; make a direct inspection of it a priority.”

“Is there anything specific we’re looking at down there?” Jo chimed in.

Dunn raised an eyebrow with a hint of a smile. “Yes. You don’t need to know the specifics, but the building is of immense historical value. The more intact the basement is, the better. Because of the fire and the reconstruction, the basement is the section of the building most likely to preserve details of what it was like back in those days.”

She nodded uncertainly. The heritage value of the place would make the acquisition more difficult; it would add untold levels of red tape to the process of buying the building and doing anything with it, especially if their plans involved tearing it down for whatever reason.

Dunn noticed her uncertainty. “What we’re after is your evaluation of the property and how well preserved it looks, and that information will be used to guide further decisions on whether to go ahead with the acquisition.”

Ahhh, they so maybe then they want to ensure they’re not trying to bite off more than they can chew. That was starting to make more sense to her.

The Price of Entanglement - Chapter 5 (Complete)

Transient

CHAPTER FIVE

The next day, Jo got the call she’d been waiting for, and spent the rest of the day celebrating her new-found employment. Celebrating in this case meant doing some proper shopping for real groceries; even the return of the rains couldn’t dampen her spirits.

She was to start work the next week, and she wasted no time making sure she was prepared with all the right wardrobe items for her first day. She spent a lot of time badgering Quinn to make sure he was ready as well; he’d been hired for the original position, apparently along with several other new employees. He didn’t really need to be pestered to get ready, she knew, but she couldn’t help herself; it was good for him, she was sure.

Finally, the big day arrived. The leaky gray skies and relatively drab mail room did nothing to lessen her enthusiasm; real food could do a lot for your mood, she realized.

Dunn was her reporting manager, it turned out. He was much more dour than he had been the previous week, but then, it was Monday. There were three other people in her group, and a half dozen in Quinn’s, plus him and two new additions. Quinn’s group was the more traditional ‘mail room’ type staff; her group, in contrast, were the site inspectors.

She found it strange that there were so many site inspectors, but when she asked Mike, the most senior of them, he explained, “We’re actually a bit understaffed. The trading volume the company does is pretty huge, and with only a small handful of us, it can be hard to keep up with everything. We’re glad to have you on board!”

“Thanks, it’s good to be here. What am I going to be doing first?”

“We’ll want to get you out in the field as soon as possible, but it’s important that you get to know things around here for a while. You’ll spend this first week working in our archives, getting a sense for what holdings we have, the sorts of things we look for in our investments, the types of issues we flag and so on and so forth. Next week we get you out in the field.”

“That fast, huh?” She was startled.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be with one of us at first. We move quickly, but we don’t move that quickly with first-timers.”

Dunn may have turned off the charm, but at least he wasn’t kidding around. The next several days were a blur of archived records in more databases than Jo could count. She lost count of the number of trips she made down to the actual physical archives, where decades of backup media waited for the day they were needed. There were even a few painted metal storage units that she hesitantly identified as physical file cabinets, though she’d never seen one outside of the movies or vids.

She found her attention continually drawn back to them. She’d always had a sort of casual fascination with the past; that was how she’d gotten into climbing, in fact. As a teen she’d been fascinated by the phenomenon of urbex, or urban exploration. There’d been a group of other kids she’d known who’d been into that, always boasting of their exploits in various abandoned, decaying buildings, subway tunnels, storm drains, you name it.

She was sure to this day that they’d been exaggerating, but she’d done a few tentative explorations of her own, including a few close calls that prompted her to learn proper climbing techniques.

She’d been given a list of files she needed to study in particular, so she hadn’t given in to her curiosity about the old file cabinets, at least not yet. She had been told to become familiar with the whole system, and she had to assume they were part of the system, so she fully intended to check them out as soon as she had a little spare time.

The files she was studying were nothing terribly interesting at first glance. Most of them were fairly standard acquisitions of companies, land, buildings, even utilities. Early on the morning of her third day, she came across a collection of files marked “Experimental” that caught her eye.

“What could possibly be experimental at a company like this?” she asked Quinn at lunch that day. They’d gone out to a burger joint a little way down the street to get away from the rush and change their scene.

“Oh all kinds of things. New experimental envelope glue, for instance, or experimental methods for improving the coffee.” That last was a touch wistful; they did get free coffee, but it was the wateriest sludge she’d ever tasted. She wouldn’t drink it, herself; she had taken to having her morning cab stop off at the Capital for her morning cup. That kept her going till she could go somewhere at lunch.

“We can hope, I guess,” she said agreeably.

“Well, you’re the one with access to the files. Why not take a peek? You’re going to be working with that stuff, you might as well know about it, right?”

“I suppose ...” She’d hesitated to open them when she found them, despite her curiosity. They’d looked somehow like they should be secret, which she supposed now was silly. “Okay. I’ll check into them after lunch.”

Jo was as good as her word; she steeled her resolve with her determination to do her job properly. Once she’d squared away what she’d been working on before, she dug into the odd-looking files.

At least, she’d thought they were odd-looking. The reality was just utterly bewildering. “Mike,” she said, after puzzling over the files for a while, “I can see the point to most of the files I’ve been looking over. Businesses, land deals, all the usual. But why do we have experimental files on contracted quantum physics reports? And how are they experimental?” He wasn’t anywhere near her physically, but their phones would allow them to talk as if they were right next to each other automatically.

“Beats me,” he said. “The company was into some weird stuff years ago, maybe it’s from then. There a date on ‘em?”

She frowned and scrolled around. “About 5 years ago.”

“Huh. I was around then, still pretty green, but I don’t remember any quantum physics projects. Someone was probably just working a deal on a lab setup or something, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”

“Oooh-kay,” she said slowly. She wasn’t sure she bought that, but she didn’t have any real reason to question it, either. He’d sounded a bit like he was giving her the brush-off. “Thanks, Mike. Sorry to bother you.” He grunted, either in acknowledgment or as a goodbye, she wasn’t sure which.

She was tempted to let Quinn know what she’d found out, but decided it was better to leave it till after work. She went over the rest of the files she found in as much detail as she could stand. It was heavy stuff; there were at least a dozen sizable studies by several different groups and labs that all seemed to center around the ‘quantum entanglement potential of active dilectrite and related materials’ or something worded similarly. The studies were exhaustive, at least to her inexpert eyes.

“I am seriously going to need to climb again after reading all this,” she told herself.

Meet up after work? We need to catch up.

Less than a minute after sending the message, a response appeared on her phone.

Sure thing.

A few seconds later,

Been meaning to invite you anyway.

She blinked and smiled. Odd, she thought; Q-ball never hesitated like that. Something must be up.

She finished up the remainder of the day with regular work to get her head out of the scientific findings she’d been pouring into her brain; it’d come close to giving her a headache. She was as interested in learning as the next girl, more so than most people, she’d bet, but why couldn’t science ever be written plain?

When she got home later that evening, Gran was climbing the walls, almost literally. “Where is it,” he kept mumbling, running shaking hands over the walls of the living room as though feeling for something he couldn’t see. “Where is it, where are they?”

Jo had been feeling pretty good, having caught Quinn up on her bewildering discovery. They’d run down all kinds of crazy conspiracy theories together over cappuccino at the Capital. Her good mood and slight caffeine buzz fled her as concern stole over her. “Gran? Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, except I—I can’t find my book,” he groused. His hands did look like they were feeling the spines of books in a bookcase, but Jo had never had a bookcase. She’d never owned physical books. Gran hadn’t either, not since before even the pre-war days.

“Your reader, Gran,” she said gently. “Remember? All your books are in your reader.”

“Yes, I’ll read ‘er when I find it,” he grumbled. “Blast, where did I put it?”

She sighed. “What book are you looking for, Gran?”

“My—my history text. Got a test coming up, haven’t ... haven’t studied yet.”

“Gran ...” She wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. He hadn’t been in school since long before she was alive; before even her parents had been alive. She bit her lip.

For the rest of the week, she was doubly thankful for the prospect of real paycheques. Gran’s memory was worse than it had been in months, and she was worried enough that she had to hire someone to come in and check on him periodically through the day; she’d have preferred a continual presence, but the new job wasn’t paying quite that well.

She wasn’t able to go out for coffee with Quinn after work either, and her lunches were spent cabbing home and back to the office again. She did her best not to let her worry interfere with work, and by Friday her knowledge of the company’s history was pretty advanced for a newbie.

Finally the weekend came around, and Jo got up Saturday to find Gran looking a bit drawn and tired-looking, but he seemed to have his faculties about him. She kept to the house to keep an eye on him, but by evening, he seemed to have regained his strength.

She employed a series of subtle tests that she’d come up with over the last couple of years to determine just how well he’d recovered. She’d bring up events that had never happened in conversation to see if he caught them; he invariably did when he was himself. She found him reading a news post on his reader around mid-day; the headline of the story proclaimed “New Generation Brain-Machine Interface Enables True Telepathy.” She made a mental note and quizzed him later in the day after reading the same piece herself.

He passed each test with flying colors, setting her mind slightly at ease. Usually these episodes would pass and not return for at least a couple of months, at least not as badly. Gran was nearing 85 though, and the incidents were becoming more frequent.

“I’m fine, Jo,” he said in exasperation as she started yet another test while preparing dinner. “Enough with the 20 questions.”

“That’s what you said the last 5 times,” she smirked.

“That’s—wha—I did not!”

She grinned. “Sorry, Gran. I just worry.”

“Worry less, cook more.”

“Spoilsport.”

The Price of Entanglement - Chapter 3 (Complete)

Transient

CHAPTER THREE

The following day, Jo found herself pacing back and forth across the small living room of the house, soaking up information as fast as her phone could deliver it to her. None of it looked helpful at all. Finally she pocketed the phone and sat still just for a moment. She needed to clear her head.

Her Gran was out; she’d seen him off to visit with friends earlier in the morning. She wouldn’t have to pick him up until late afternoon, so she had plenty of time to go somewhere, preferably somewhere she could be more productive.

The rain was falling again, gentle this time, and for a wonder, it held hardly a trace of acid. It streamed all but silently down the cab windows as she crossed the city. Her destination this time was farther than the gym; she leaned her head against the glass and did her best to relax and recapture some of the calm she’d worked for after her climb.

She’d just about fallen asleep when the phone buzzed in her pocket, making her jump a bit. She grabbed it out of her pocket and stared at the indicator, then grinned. Quinn. She gestured for it to pick up, then slipped it back in her pocket as his deep but quick voice filled the large interior of the cab. “Josie! Just the girl I’ve been wanting to talk to!”

“What a surprise. You called me, Quintrell. What do you want this time?” She tried and failed to keep a straight face, but she was reasonably certain she’d kept it out of her voice.

“Naturally, because I wanted to talk to you! What I want is to get together, and soon.”

“… and? Are you finally asking me out on a date?” she teased.

“Oh, if only,” he laughed. “No, not a date, not this time. Maybe next time. This time, like so many before, I’m calling for a favor. Unlike so many before, this is a favor I’m doing you.”

“Your loss,” she smiled. “What’s this favor you’re going to do for me?”

“You wouldn’t happen to be looking for work, would you, Josie?”

She leaned forward on her seat, all attention firmly on his voice. “Yes! How’d you hear? But yes, I could definitely use the work.”

“Whoa, whoa, I haven’t even told you what it is yet. It’s not really your usual deal.”

“Well, stop teasing me then, and spill it. What’s the job?”

“Nothing you can’t handle, I’m sure. It’s just … it’s a bit of a desk job. Corporate stuff. Mail room, in fact.”

Her stomach soured a bit at the thought, but really, running packages around the city was pretty much the same thing, and it’d be a lot more common in an office. Courier work was rare, the jobs few and far between when most deliveries were made at the speed of raw data.

“I’m in. Let’s meet tonight, I want details. You’re the best, Q-ball!”

“Great,” he said with the slightest hint of sourness in his voice; he’d always hated that nickname. “I’ll send you the when’n-wheres. Catch you later!”

She sat back with a genuine smile and sense of relief. Quinn wasn’t the first person she’d have thought of to come through when she needed work, but he did have a knack for being around at just the right time.

Fifteen minutes later, the cab dropped her off at a coffee shop she was fond of; she settled in for a few hours to study her contact lists and the local news, looking for anything that suggested opportunity. She was a firm believer in having backup plans.

<> 

She took her usual table at the Capital Cappuccino cafe, their titular beverage in hand. She’d been to just about every coffee place in the city, including most of the big franchise locations, but Capital was by far the best, as far as she was concerned. No other place in the region had Capital’s clean, comforting look and old-school charm.

The front of the store was all glass; not as much of a benefit in the rain as it usually was, but it afforded her a great view of the cars sweeping majestically by the windows as they carried their passengers from one part of the city to the next.

The rest of the walls were very plain; hardly a decoration in sight, and numerous pipes were visible, painted to match the wall. The overall impression it gave was of cleanliness, rather than the spartan feel that other places might have suffered.

The smell of the coffee was strong, but somehow not overpowering like it was in some places. It greeted you as you walked in, and settled around you like a warm blanket the longer you stayed.

The real highlight of the place though was the furniture. It was real, genuine wood, cut and polished with the grain still visible. The golden shine of the wood counter under the hanging lamps had been breathtaking the first time she’d seen it years ago, and it never lost its impact. The chairs were darker, a more reddish brown hue. The tables were surfaced in a more typical blank white.

She’d hardly ever seen wooden furniture before setting foot in this place, and took a special joy in sitting in the wooden seats. It was probably her imagination, but she always felt like the seat was just a little warmer than it should be, like the tree it’d been cut from was somehow still alive and warming it just for her.

She’d been seated for less than an hour, sipping her cappuccino and scanning the news, when Quinn’s details came down the data tubes to her.

Capital Cappuccino, 3pm.

— Quinn

Easy enough, already here, she wrote back. She glanced at the time; it was 2:30. That was plenty of time to finish her research, and she didn’t have to pick up her Gran until 5.

She glanced at the time again. 3:05. Hmmm, she thought. He’s late again. She was neither surprised nor especially angry; it wasn’t uncommon for him. She was anxious though.

Wakey wakey, she pinged him. You said 3:00!

Just then he walked through the door, checking his phone for her message. She rolled her eyes and smiled.

Quinn was a small guy, about average height, but thin and a little spindly. His blonde hair was pale, though not as pale as his skin. It was a slightly shaggy mop on his head. His features were thin, too, but his eyes were laughing as he read her message, and his lips followed suit, quirking into a lopsided grin. He hadn’t noticed her; he grabbed one of the small white porcelain mugs and gestured to the server.

That was one of the other things she liked about the place, she reflected; actual people doing the serving. It was a novelty; most places were completely automated. She was grateful that at least the payment mechanisms were automated; you just took what you wanted and it was verified and charged automatically, no fuss, no muss, just coffee.

Right behind you, she sent just as his espresso was handed over. He took it and glanced at his phone, then turned and caught her eye with a grin. He sat himself down.

“Josie! It’s been way too long. Your hair’s growing out. You going for the longer look?”

Ugh, she thought. It was going to be this way, then. He never commented on her hair or anything like that unless he was stalling, trying to drive her crazy.

“Thanks. Thought it was time for a change. And speaking of changes, what’s the job?”

“Oh Jo, always in such a rush … okay, fine,” he said with mock melodrama. “Fine, fine. It’s Westall Holdings.”

Her eyes widened a little in recognition. That was the company Sal’s husband David worked at.

“Don’t get too excited. I know they’re pretty big around here, but it’s nothing glamorous, like I said. Mail room stuff, maybe some archives, that sort of thing. And it’s short term, just a few months. Not huge pay. A buddy of mine knows a guy who works there, he’s lookin’ for bodies to fill the ranks. They got some kind of big project on the go.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “What’s the catch? You never give up your teasing this quick.”

“No catch, we’re just late to the game. We’ve gotta hurry if we’re going to get in before the getting’s gone.”

“How much time do we have?”

“Couple of days, tops. Can you be ready to go see ‘em tomorrow?”

Westall Holdings. She didn’t know much about them aside from the name, because of David. She could definitely use the cash though. “Tomorrow? No problem. Got nothing else to do.”

<> 

The city spread out below her like a carpet of lights in the night, mesmerizing in its intensity. In order to avoid light pollution that would impede the progress of science, some long-gone ruling body had decreed that lights should be blocked from shining into the sky. The results were a boon to astronomers, but it was just as lovely from on high. Jo’s vantage point at the top of an old apartment complex let her look down on a big swath of the cityscape; from a distance it looked like stained glass.

Even the air felt fresher than usual. Maybe she’d climbed high enough to rise above the smog, or maybe it was all the rain; it had just about stopped, but a misty drizzle still made itself felt. Instead of feeling damp and depressing, she felt somehow more alive.

Maybe that was due more to the interview; she had shown up with Quinn and talked with a company representative for fifteen minutes. She’d left feeling buoyed, sure that she’d landed the job.

The line of questioning had started off standard enough, but as the interview progressed, the rep seemed more and more interested in her athleticism, especially her climbing hobby. She’d spent the last five minutes describing past climbs in detail, and she was sure the woman she’d been talking to had taken more notes during that time than at any other point in the interview.

How’d yours go?

Quinn. She hadn’t seen him after her interview. Went well, how was yours? she sent back.

Pretty much what I expected. Very straight forward, very easy. Do you think you got it?

Yeah, I think so. She paused a moment. Did they happen to ask you about climbing or anything?

No, just the standard stuff. Why?

No real reason, she just seemed real interested in my climbing. Guess it’s nothing. She paced the rooftop as she messaged. Her home lay to the south-west, toward old town. A dark spot in the glowing stained-glass city caught her eye out beyond where she lived. She was just thinking it must be the old ironworks when a tiny spark dragged her eyes to itself; a blue spark, out in the middle of that patch of darkness. She frowned and tried to image it, though it was hopeless at this distance without a tripod for the imager. She got about a second of it before it winked out. She felt a touch of that creepy dread she’d experienced walking out in front of the place the other day and shivered.

The Price of Entanglement - Chapter 1 (Complete)

Transient

THE PRICE OF ENTANGLEMENT

Gord McLeod

CHAPTER ONE

Oh crap! Jo thought, and cautiously extended a gloved hand out from under the convenience store’s awning. It was pouring rain again, and there was no way she was going out into it untested.

She left her hand out in the downpour for several seconds, watching the drops collect and roll off the worn, slightly ragged leather glove. Nothing, not even on the metal ornamentation.

“Careful miss Jo, a rain’s come up!” the old man called from behind the counter back in the shop. She glanced back at him and smiled; old Fred had been looking out for her and her friends for as long as she could remember.

“I caught it, no worries. Doesn’t look like its acidic this time! I should be okay.”

“Haven’t seen you with an umbrella these last few weeks. Somethin’ happen to the one you bought last year?” Fred’s memory for sales he’d made was nothing short of uncanny. Jo would sometimes stop by to visit for no reason other than to test his recall.

“Yeah, it got a bit busted up,” she said, eyeing a stack of umbrellas not far from the counter. “I’d been meaning to get a new one. I guess now’s as good a time as any.” She shifted a bag of groceries in her hand and dug around in her pockets. Money was a little tight these days; she needed work, and she needed it pretty soon. Finding her credit chit, she pulled it out and checked the balance.

Ugh, she thought with a mental sigh. It was doable, but her Gran had better not ask for any special meals for the next week or so. Canned pork ‘n beans and spaghetti were going to be their staple for the next while.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll take this one,” she said, picking out a heavy black leather one that should stand up to the worst the weather could dish out. Assuming I don’t have to club anyone with this one, she thought.

Fred grinned. “You sure do like the heavier ones. Can’t blame you, wouldn’t be caught in the open without one m’self. Should last a good ten years at least though! Can’t imagine what you do with ‘em to keep needin’ new ones all the time.” He took her credit chit and rang through the purchase.

He was exaggerating, though not by much, she had to admit. She had broken more than a few of the things over the years, and that was just the umbrellas. Dolesham had been a wonderful place once, her Gran insisted, back when he was a young man and the town had been a proper town, not an overgrown satellite extension of the city of Holdswaine.

It wasn’t such a bad place now, she thought. Sure, there were some unsavory types around, and once in a while they got a little rough and had to be taught to keep their hands to themselves. That was true everywhere though, and most folk were perfectly fine. She’d never run into anyone she couldn’t run away from, or clock a good one if it came to that.

“I’d better get on my way Fred, Gran’ll be wondering where dinner is if I’m not back soon! Thanks, catch you next time.”

“You be careful now, Jo,” he said, as he always did, and waved as she darted off into the dark streets.

<> 

The cloud cover made it difficult to tell what time it was by sight; Jo checked her phone and grimaced. It was getting on toward 6pm; her Gran would be worrying soon. Assuming, of course, that he was going to remember who she was today. Unfortunately that was not always a safe assumption to make.

She checked the grocery bag she carried; canned tomato soup, crackers, some sort of artificial cheese spread, a loaf of bread that the manufacturer claimed was whole wheat, but she was convinced was 90% sawdust—it was bare bones, low quality fare, but the it was the best she could afford until business picked up.

She stood under the awning and opened the umbrella as the rain poured down in sheets; it was picking up. That was bad; even if it wasn’t strongly acidic, it would make it hard to see anything. Even in a relatively safe area like Dolesham, situational awareness was a survival trait. Anything that hindered that was to be avoided.

The streets seemed pretty clear other than the rain; she couldn’t decide whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. She was running home, unless she had to splurge on a cab, but even as cheap as they were she’d prefer to avoid the expense. Clear streets meant she’d be able to see trouble before it arrived, but also meant it could find her more easily.

She glanced back into the shop; the warm light inside was inviting, but she couldn’t wait it out. Her Gran would need her soon. With a sigh of regret, she lifted the umbrella over her head and headed down the street.

It was a good half-hour jog for her, but they didn’t live in the most convenient part of town. As the rain got heavier and heavier, she considered her options. She could signal for a cab; one of the large, warm and dry automated vehicles would be by in moments to pick her up. But it would cost. She was sorely tempted, and found herself fingering her phone in anticipation of sending the signal before she’d jogged for more than five minutes. Reluctantly she pocketed the device again. Last recourse, Jo, last recourse, she scolded herself.

She was a couple of long blocks away from the store; she recognized the intersection she was at by the massive crumbling ruin of the old Dolesham central rail station. She could turn down the street that ran alongside it and get home quicker, but she hesitated, undecided. That way was the way she thought of as the bad route home; she was probably safer going that way; she was certainly less likely to run into people, anyway; but that was because the area had a reputation. It made people uneasy.

The wind picked up and threw spray in her face right under the umbrella, which was nearly yanked out of her hand. She shivered and cursed as a trickle of water found its way down through the neck of her heavy green fake leather jacket. Far ahead on the regular route, she saw the lights of cars traveling the wide streets, the street lights, spaced so much more frequently than they were out where she stood, even a few people moving around as she was.

She grimaced as the water made its way down under her clothes. She could cut probably five minutes off her trip. She really didn’t like the route, but another wind-thrown spray plastered her dark hair to her face and made her spit it out; she turned down the darker road, following the chain link fence that enclosed the old train yard, eyes longing for the lost light already.

Not many cars traveled here. The roads were bad, cracked and potholed and un-upgraded; they existed much as they had back at the start of the millennium, before road works crews began seeding the asphalt with programmable smart chips to aid navigation systems with meta-data about road conditions.

Almost every car on the road these days was self-driving, and while they could navigate these old roads perfectly well, they preferentially avoided them in favor of smart-roads unless there were specific reasons not to.

Jo kept to the broken old sidewalk, moving at a slow jog so as not to lose her footing. She’d have to call a cab if she hurt herself.

She passed beyond the train yard fence and tightened her lips in a grimace; this was the part of the route she had never liked. The skeletal remains of an old, old ironworks stood silent sentry over the road. Rusted girders rose to the sky, visible against the glowing lights of the twilight city in the distance.

For generations, people had said this place was haunted. One of her strongest memories of her parents had been an incident when she was a kid; she’d been out playing with friends. They’d gone down a street they never played on. Jo’s father had been furious; she was never, ever to go down that way again.

Years later her Gran had told her about the ironworks and how it was haunted. By then she’d heard all the schoolyard stories, even had friends who swore they’d gone there after dark, but nobody she knew had seen anything. Nobody but Gran anyway; he insisted that he’d seen a blue glowing ghost walking the site when he was a young man. By then he was already showing signs of dementia, so Jo didn’t believe a word of it, but she couldn’t help herself; it felt creepy just being near the place.

She’d only walked this way a few times in her life, all of them starting from her late teens, and she’d never seen anything. As she had then, she found herself keeping half an eye out for any telltale blue glows, but aside from glowing neon on the tall buildings downtown, she saw nothing.

When she crossed what she thought of as the invisible line, she let out a sigh of relief, though the uneasiness stayed with her the rest of the way down the street. The release of tension when she reached the intersection that led to her street was like someone had been pressing a finger into the small of her back, and then suddenly it was gone.

It was simply amazing what a difference a small threshold could make. One street put the fear of the unknown coursing through your nervous system, while the next washes it all away with calm reassurance.

The street she lived on with her Gran wasn’t the nicest in the city, wasn’t even the nicest in Dolesham by a long shot, but she felt like she’d crossed into paradise just by crossing that invisible line. The rain continued to pour down, dampening her clothes, but it had stopped dampening her spirits.

Jo lived in a tiny two-storey, two bedroom house with a narrow, creaky staircase. She’d bought it with the small amount her parents had left her after they passed. It was a nice enough place; sure, there was no front yard, and the back was maybe a little bigger than your average tablet computer, but it was hers as long as she could keep paying for it.

She set aside the momentary thoughts of keeping up the payments as she took the steps up to the front door and let herself in, shaking the umbrella clear of rain. “Gran?” she called, locking the door securely behind her with a click of the key fob. “Gran, I’m back! I’ll get dinner on. You must be getting hungry by now; sorry I took so long!”

“It’s about time,” her Gran’s grumpy voice called from upstairs. “It’s supposed to rain soon. This is no time of year for young women to be out in the rain, you hear me?”

“It’s already raining, Gran, has been for a while,” she said with a sigh as she hung up her soaked jacket and kicked her runners into the closet. She stepped in a puddle and grimaced.

“’Course it is,” he called back. “It’s supposed to rain soon.”

“I’ll have dinner ready in a while, Gran,” she replied with a half-smile. He at least sounded like he knew who she was, or at the very least he remembered that he didn’t live alone. That was something.

She stepped into the kitchen and the overhead lights flicked on at her presence. She opened the tin of soup and prepared it for heating on the stove top, then put the rest of her haul away.

She sat at the kitchen table with a tired sigh of relief. The groceries had taken far too little time to put away; she really did need money again, soon. She pulled her phone out to review her options; her email app opened up, appearing to float above the surface of the device in 3D as she read over the display.

No email; that was unfortunate. Sometimes she’d pull it up to find several prospective jobs waiting for her. Oh well. So much for the easy way. She pulled up her client list, gesturing this way and that to send the little 3D representations of each back and forth in her field of view as she considered her options.

Sal was usually a good bet; she was technologically ... well, awkward, and Jo made frequent trips to see her whenever her friend ran into problems she could take care of. She was pretty good at run of the mill stuff like app conflicts, OS updates, and even grounding certain devices—the current term in vogue for enabling people to run otherwise unauthorized apps on a device, or even getting access to the raw hardware underneath the vendor-supplied operating system.

She stared at the little holo of Sal thoughtfully and nodded. “Note, call Sal tomorrow.” There was a musical chime acknowledging her request, and she went back to flipping through her entries.

Sal would be a good start—if she had a problem Jo could handle. She frowned over the display. None of her other clients were regular enough. That was pretty much the whole problem. She might be able to scrounge up some courier work, but the pay was crap. She’d need a lot of it to make enough.

She sighed again—she seemed to be doing that a lot lately—and slipped the phone back into her pocket. A shuffling from the front of the house preceded her Gran. “Smells good, what is it?” he asked with a voice somewhere between a rasp and a wheeze.

“Tomato soup,” she said, getting back to her feet and stirring it.

“You still usin’ that relic?” he groused, pointing at the stove. “What’s wrong with the microwave?”

She rolled her eyes. Always with the microwave. “It tastes better from the stove, Gran, even you’ve said so yourself.” And he had, but it never stopped him complaining. He’d been part of the first generation to grow up in the age of microwave cooking, and in his earlier days, he’d done all his cooking with the thing. Jo mostly used it to reheat stuff, not cook stuff, and even for reheating something, she’d often throw it in the oven or on a burner.

“Bah, suit yourself. I’m hungry now, though. How much longer?” He slowly lowered himself into a chair.

“It’s almost ready, just another minute.”

“If you’d nuked it, it’d be done by now.”

She frowned. “Gran, really,” she complained. She could never quite suppress a shiver when someone, usually an elderly person, used that bit of slang. It hadn’t aged well after the nuclear strike near the national border a little over a decade before.

“You know what I mean,” he groused, opening the old microwave. “Where’s my soup?”

“It’s still in the pot on the stove, Gran, give it a minute.” She stirred the pot, wondering what pot she was going to have to stir to bring up the opportunities she needed.