From the doorway of Allen Place, Principal Jenson made unpleasant gasps as she tried to recover from whatever Clearing had done to her. Clearing gave the woman a look of mingled pity, frustration and contempt. He tucked the weapon she had brandished at him into the pocket of his trousers.
“We’re just going to leave her?” Bugs said.
Cary ducked his head at the question, he wanted to know as well. It was wrong somehow.
“We have no choice. We can’t bring her with us, she will betray us at the first opportunity...” Clearing paused to caress his beard. “And I won’t just kill her, though right now I feel like I want to. She was different once, better, brilliant even, someone worth saving.” Clearing tossed his head like he couldn’t believe someone could become the wretch struggling on the ground before him.
Jenson’s eyelids flicked up, she swept hate-filled eyes at Clearing as she caught her breath. “You’re going to pay, Malston! I WILL see the Book one day!”
“We should definitely get away from here...” Clearing said. “Lurlene Darxis...or worse, could arrive at any time.”
They piled into the car and drove away, Clearing kept himself between Cary and Jenson the whole time until they were in the car, Jenson shoved into the backseat with Bugs and Cary in the front passenger seat. Halfway down the dark, narrow gravel drive they saw headlights approach. There was not enough room to pass, with the surrounding, close-in trees looming. Clearing made a vexed noise under his breath.
“Stay here.” Clearing ordered when they stopped. A wash of bright light burned up the darkness. The coming car stopped and Cary saw Lurlene Darxis enter the beams of her headlights. She wore dark grey camo and her hair had been shaved short, a military buzz-cut, making her look fiercer, angular and imposing - especially in the dark - with her quick, angry stride. Clearing met her between the cars, his hand thrust deep into his pocket.
“Should we go..?” Bugs whispered, leaning up from the back. Jenson made muffled noises through the necktie gag Clearing had fastened around her mouth.
Cary chewed his lower lip in stunted silence.
“I guess..” Cary muttered. They eased the car doors open and slid out. Lurlene and Clearing’s shouts immediately caught their ears.
“....don’t have any idea what you are facing, Malston Clearing!” Lurlene shouted harshly. "This is just the beginning.”
“That may be Lurlene, but whatever happens I will face it. I won’t just turn tail and flee. And I won’t give them to you.” Clearing’s voice wavered as he spoke, though he did not flinch away from Lurlene.
She snorted in response.
“Do you honestly think you can stop ME?” Lurlene said as she inched forward, menacingly, a hard loose-kneed swagger to her step. “From taking exactly what I want? I’ve offered you all I intend to offer, Malston Clearing, accept and be gratified or I swear by the Mother I will end you.” Lurlene spat the words, drops of her spittle flashed in the beams of light. To his credit Clearing remained standing firm, which made Cary oddly proud, though he wasn’t quite sure why.
“Never.” was all he said and his hand flicked out of his pocket, again, faster than Cary would have thought any man of his girth and demeanor should be capable of doing. So quick, Cary almost missed the flourish of black and silver followed by Lurlene’s growling curse.
“You will regret that...” Lurlene said, a bit louder. Bugs was crowded in next to Cary, silent, looking past Cary’s shoulder, enthralled. Clearing did not respond to Lurlene, he simply held up his weapon, pointed directly at her and pressed a button or did something which made the weapon spark brightly. Lurlene snarled as she was surrounded by a nimbus of light. The nimbus shrank in on her and was gone. It happened very, very fast. Had he blinked Cary would have missed it.
“What foolishness is that thing, Malston?” Lurlene said when she raised her arm, palm facing outward at Clearing. Cary noticed a pulsing triangle of silvery energy in the center of the woman’s hand. He blinked at it several times, to make sure he truly saw it, not just some trick of the light caused by Clearing’s weapon or the bright headlamps.
What HAD the weapon done?
“Remember me when you get down there, Malston,” Lurlene said with the eidolon of a smirk on her face. The triangle on her palm blazed and spluttered, a flame pressed between wet fingers, a spark jumping between anode and diode. Smoke trailed off the triangle into the suckling dark. Lurlene stared, shocked and clearly startled. She thrust her hand out, harder, at Clearing, the triangle ignited again, but still nothing came from it. Lurlene swore loudly in some language Cary could not understand, screeching and sharp like the taste of a battery on the tongue.
“What HAVE you DONE?” Lurlene snarled.
Clearing tucked the weapon back in his pocket, yet another inexplicably smooth motion, though he breathed hard. “Enough.” he said, “Leave us be and we’ll leave you be.”
Clearing inched to turn away and a look of desperation crossed Lurlene’s face. Cary was flabbergasted, he had never seen his neighbor look anything but angry and confident. She was reduced, small and fustian. “HE will destroy you, Clearing! Only I can protect you! Your pathetic little toys will not stop HIM! Nor will the Book! All too well does he know how to skirt its powers! I am your only hope! You MUST...”
Clearing had turned away from her and waved Cary and Bugs angrily back to the car. They had to wait while Lurlene quivered in the glare of the bright headlights, crackling with rage. She jumped back into her car and backed out at a high speed, sending a cloud of dust and hail of gravel. Clearing sighed and drove in the same direction. They all watched at the intersection of the gravel drive and the highway as Lurlene swirled her car in a circle and sped off towards town.
“What was all that, sir?” Bugs asked. “I mean, what was that thing on her hand and what did your..thing...your gun... whatever, right? What did it do to her? Is she still dangerous? Should you have, um, killed her?” Bugs stammered.
What was she going to do to US? Cary thought. He looked at Bugs, as though seeing her for the first time. Kill her? He couldn’t keep the image of her wall of pinned insects from his mind, only now the insects had been replaced by wriggling little people. Cary shook the vision away.
Clearing sighed, kept his eyes on the road, both hands hard on the steering wheel. Jenson struggled and grunted against her seat belt and gag. “More than I can readily explain. And less, maybe, than I truly understand.” His voice was troubled. "As for the weapon, it’s a local field EMP-generator. A genner. Creates a localized, directional, electromagnetic pulse: very, very intense, and strong enough to disable anything electronic.”
Cary understood something of this, but it didn’t make total sense. Bugs nodded along, she clearly understood every word. “But, how could that stop her...?” Bugs asked. “Is she a cyborg or something?”
Cary didn’t know what to call the thing on her hand, even in his own thoughts. “Yes, Miss Edgecombe, she’s part machine, I don’t really understand it or her fully, but I’ve figured out that much. She’s cybernetically enhanced, somehow. But that EMP blast won’t stop her for good, I think, hopefully it will slow her down long enough... but she will recover. I am sure of that much.”
“In fact, I don’t think there is much of anything I can do to stop her for good. And I’m not sure I would if I could.” He almost seemed to be talking more to himself than Cary or Bugs. “I think she was telling us the truth about one thing, at least. There is definitely something quite fearsome out there, and you can bet whatever it is, it’s looking for us. And the Book.”
Again Cary and Bugs met eyes, mouthed the same thing.
Clearing made a left turn into a parking lot. They had driven quite a ways. This is Happy Endings High!
“What are we doing here?” Cary asked.
“I’ve got another weapon here, can’t use it more than once or twice at best, but whatever’s out there, it may protect us.”
“For a while.”
“What about after that? You’ve got a plan, right?” Bugs asked, her face serious. The adventure was immediately and obviously more real to her, Cary was sure. She quivered as they exited the car and made their way towards the main building, dragging Jenson with them. The parking lot was empty and as quiet as Allen Place had been. Clearing determinedly kept her away from Cary.
He’s afraid she’ll do something to me!
Clearing answered her like a clipped woodwind note. “No.”
Bugs gulped and squeezed Cary’s hand in fright.
“We’ll be OK,” Cary reassured her. She smiled in watercolor. “I know, right?” she whispered back.
“Why don’t we go and get the tablet? Use the Book?” Cary asked once they were deep inside the building. Jenson screeched from behind her gag He was surprised to see the doors had been unlocked.
Clearing did not stop or turn around as he said, “For now, we should keep you and the Book apart. If they manage to get you and the Book of Fates together at once, and I cannot stop them...” His voice diminished across a fathom, frightening Cary.
What does he think will happen?
“Didn’t you say we need to use the Book again, soon?” Bugs said.
Cary nodded. Clearing tossed his head "no.”
“I said you must use the Book again, Cary.” Clearing corrected her. “There is no we with the Book of Fates. It can only be used by Cary. That much is clear now. And even then, only in certain places can its power be fully realized.”
How does he know that?
This hit Cary firmly and he congealed. But Bugs did not, she scoffed, echoed Cary’s thought.
“How can you know that? What else do you know you’re not telling us? We deserve to know, right?” Bugs said.
Clearing blinked at her, pushed his glasses up his bulbous, veiny nose, his beard twitched. An humanely animalistic warning gesture. Bugs swallowed hard, maybe remembering how fast the fat teacher had disabled Principal Jenson. Cary was certain Clearing had other tricks up his sleeve as well, aside from strange Star Trek-like stun guns. Truly not a man to cross.
Does Bugs understand that?
“Maybe you do at that, Miss Edgecombe.” Clearing murmured. He seemed safe again. He glared at both Bugs and Cary. “But perhaps now is as good a time as any for this life lesson: you don’t always get what you deserve, and sometimes you get way, way more. And further, I am not beholden to you. I do not owe either of you any more explanation than I choose to give. You, Miss Edgecombe, will not survive this without me, of that you can abide, not now that you are connected to Cary. They have no need of the Scion’s best friend. You are irrelevant to their plans. So, accept what I offer and be content. Too soon it may all be clearer than any of us could wish.”
Clearing went inside his classroom. Bugs glared, indignant and nudged Cary, “Once we get the tablet back, I hope you wish him something horrible, like give him a pair of pig’s ears or a tail or something.”
“To go with his pig’s body?” Cary snickered, mostly at Bugs’ indignation, she did not laugh at his poor, mean-spirited fat joke. "Come on,” she said to him and led the way into Clearing’s classroom. He had the distinct suspicion Clearing had told the truth, they would know more than they could expect, and sooner than they would want to know it, once they did.
Inside his classroom, Clearing shifted his whiteboard, revealed a safe tucked into the wall behind it, the hole containing it obviously recently made. A shimmering field of some kind of bluish energy flickered before the safe. Clearing touched his palm to it and the field flickered and went abruptly out. He opened the safe door and pulled out a set of milky-colored white marbles. They clacked in his hand like they were solid metal.
Not marbles then.
“Here.” Clearing said, handing them one each. Cary rubbed the white ball in his hand: it was smooth, slick and heavy. Yet it had a strange lightness, as though it could shatter upon a whim. “These are simple to use, it terribly complex to create. Simply smash one and it will release a magnetic resonance in the area around you, like refraction in glass when light passes through. Energy will skirt around you, for a time.” It must have sounded odd to Bugs, because she chimed up right way. Cary didn’t understand it at all.
“What could possibly repel energy like that and not hurt us doing it?” she asked.
Clearing’s head bobbed up and down. “Dark energy. The sphere will draw power from your life-force, convert something of you into dark energy. These will protect you without draining you too much, it will shield you for a minute or two. It’s the best I can offer. Our tech just isn’t on the same level as theirs, what they can do is far more alike to magic.” Clearing said. “We must hope they won’t expect this. They don’t know it’s been discovered here, I only figured out how to do it in the last few months.”
He was almost to talking to himself. Worse, he was dropping overt hints he knew more than let on. It made Bugs obviously and increasingly frantic, and started to annoy Cary.
Why can’t the man just be honest with us?
Clearing shoved his face back into the safe, retrieved something else. He attached something held in his left hand to the end of his gun-like device with a loud click. The man’s shoulders quibbled before he turned around, grim-faced with plowed resolve. As soon as his eyes lit upon Cary, his expression softened into a windy and voluminous sigh.
“Lord.” Clearing breathed. “I’m sorry, guys. I’m not ... I don’t want to be so secretive, believe me. Old habits simply die very hard, long deaths. Sit down.” Clearing waved his gun at two desks in the front row.
Cary and Bugs both sat down, facing the whiteboard. The atmosphere was identical to a regular session of the Clearing’s physics class. He pushed his glasses up his nose yet again. How do they keep falling down his nose when his nose is so fat? “You two have heard of DARPA, I presume?”
Bugs nodded, but Cary did not.
“Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It’s the Defense Department’s research arm. They make all kinds of...secret... weapons and, um, stuff like the Internet.” Bugs said with a mix of uncertainty and confidence. Cary beamed sidelong at her.
She really does know almost everything.
Clearing nodded at her. “Yes, Miss Edgecombe.”
“Bugs.” Bugs said. “Call me Bugs.”
“Alright then, Bugs.” He grinned, it looked painful. “However, embedded within DARPA is a very small, very hush-hush unit .... the Dark Energy Search Team There were six of us originally, and our purpose was to use the cutting edge of scientific knowledge to search for and harness dark matter and dark energy. To weaponize it.”
Clearing looked away, as if some dark memory had seeped across the paper of his mind, disturbing him greatly. “I met Derek there. He was the database engineer. And Beverly Jenson, your Principal. She was our Unit Chief.”
“We found what we were looking for.”
A pained schism crossed the fat man’s face, he pulled his glasses off and wiped the lenses.
“You found dark energy?” Bugs said, pitchy and incredulous.
Clearing nodded. “Just over fourteen years ago, our particle accelerator cracked the Planck energy for a fraction of a fraction of a second, but it was enough, the picosecond which changed our world. The barriers between verses broke down. A flood of dark energy flowed into our reality in that minuscule moment. We couldn’t contain it. We nearly destroyed the facility. Two us were killed. The Joint Chiefs decided the technology was beyond us: we could never harness it again, they said. We only managed to contain it because the accelerator destroyed itself. The Joint Chiefs said we would never control the weapon and they were afraid of the Russians, or terrorists, getting a hold of it, so our funding was taken and we were turned out to find other jobs. And sworn to secrecy on our lives.”
Clearing lurched closer. Cary was sudden;y very intimidated by Clearing, remembering how fast he had disarmed Jenson. He tried to shrug it away.
“What I didn’t know was the dark energy ... it didn’t all dissipate as we assumed it would, and had. How could we know? We had no way of detecting it. But some of it stayed. In us.” Clearing sighed. “It was not obvious at first, Derek changed first. He became obsessed with a vision he’d had during the explosion. His eyes darkened until they were nearly black. What need of a detector then?” Bitter emotion overcame Clearing and he pulled off his glasses yet again to wipe his eyes with the back of his hands, set them on his desk. He continued.
“And Beverly, she was far, far worse. She experimented on her own, trying to open the barriers again, got funding from corporate sources. Eventually recruited the entire team to join her. I think perhaps she thought herself unremarked, but all of us felt it. Perhaps it was inevitable. I know it sounds ridiculous, but..” Clearing pointed to the spot just under his heart. “A tugging. Here.”
Cary choked a gasp and covered his mouth.
“But, sir,” Bugs chimed, “HOW did you crack the Planck energy in the first place? That’s like a QUADRILLION times more power than the earth can generate right now...”
Clearing went bemused at her. “So we thought at first, Miss Edgecombe, er, Bugs. Sorry. But the energy is there, in the seamless whole, in US. It’s EVERYWHERE. However, the only energy source which can summon that kind of energy is exotic matter. Derek and one of our colleagues discovered how we could synthesize exotic matter. And Jenson discovered their work.”
Both Cary and Bugs moved forward in their seats, eager to hear this. Clearing smirked in deprecation and pointed with his left index finger to his temple.
“Disgustingly simple, like so many truths, once realized. It’s in us. Consciousness. That was the answer all along. What we term our ’soul’ is quantumly connected to higher dimensional realities twisted up within our own dimension. Super-string theory comes close to understanding it, but it’s so bulky only supercomputers can process the equations. Derek did it though. He used a human soul to create a conduit to those higher dimension realities. And dark energy flooded through. The Planck energy was achieved. Only Derek’s foresight in creating a fail-stop saved us from destroying half the continent, maybe half the world. He was...practical, Derek.”
He’s left something out, something important.
Cary was about to say so, Bugs got there first.
“A fail-stop? Human SOULS?” Bugs grumbled. “But... you CAN’T mean...?”
Clearing nodded. “I can. I do. Death was the fail-stop, Miss..er, Bugs. We killed the man whose soul powered the devices.” If Clearing was upset by this he didn’t show it, which made Cary gape.
They KILLED people after using their SOULS to power a particle accelerator?
It blew Cary’s mind.
“The fail-stop troubled our funding sources. They knew if it ever got out how we had made such discoveries, the liability could be monstrous. Still I don’t think that’s why they shut us down. Our energy... sources...were always volunteers, but it hardly seemed to matter. The benefits of our technology would have been worth trillions, properly applied. No. It was Beverly Jenson...”
Clearing pushed his glasses up and coughed. “Beverly was not so discriminate. She had parallel projects. Kept secret from the team. Before we caught her she had used nearly seventy people as subjects. Some against their express will, she surmised that the resistance might improve the flow-through rate. Our benefactors stopped her, stopped us, took our funding, though they could not hold her, to do that would be to admit what they had been a party to, which they would never do. I doubt they had any interest in holding her regardless. They simply wanted her to cease and move and keep quiet. After all, what could the authorities charge her with? Stealing souls is not a crime. It..”
Cary cut him off. “Killing someone isn’t a crime?”
Clearing clucked. “Of course it is, but stealing souls doesn’t have to kill Cary. Not when done properly. Jenson had a...method.”
Cary backslid in his seat, squirmed uncomfortably. Bugs was ice, her eyes wide, though she stared past Clearing at the whiteboard, at nothing. Where the safe was hidden.
“I’ve gotten a bit off the track here...” Clearing said. “What you two need to understand is this: dark energy is not simply a force. It is alive. It has consciousness, purpose, intent, sentience. And it’s HERE.” Clearing waved his arms around him, to imply “everywhere.”
Cary swayed in the desk seat. Bugs was still immobile.
“But you said Derek was a programmer at Pottermore....” Cary got out. Clearing was troubled, but recovered.
“He was. After. After we lost funding, he became obsessed with the vision he had seen during the Planck moment. Lines of code that would flash before his mind’s eye, he often mumbled them in his sleep. As incredible as it seemed, he was sure it was doable. So he took jobs to pay the bills and searched. And searched. Eventually he found Pottermore and the code was already there somehow. He didn’t know what it was, and couldn’t explain it, but he was sure it was related to our work, said he felt it in his heart.” Clearing tapped the spot on his chest which corresponded to the place where Cary felt urgency when he had wished on The Book of Fates.
“And strangely enough, he found coordinates in the code. Directions.”
“Directions to where?” Bugs asked.
“Here. Happy Endings.” Clearing replied.
“Here? How could it have been HERE?” Bugs gasped finally. “This is like nowhere, right?”
“We didn’t know at the time. But now I think I do. It was Cary. Cary was here.” Clearing said inclining his head to Cary.
Me? What? Why me? I’m nobody.
But the nasty voice disagreed. Scion! Scion! Scion! It snarled at him. Cary’s head swam. Clearing’s words became too much to take in. Clearing must have sensed it. He waved the comments off.
“We should plan our next step...” the teacher said. Bugs’ head tossed from Clearing to Cary, disbelieving, her first movement in some time. Cary knew she was not going to be satisfied till she had wheedled more information out of the teacher. Clearing was deft however.
“Later, Miss Edgecombe. Er. BUGS. LATER.” the force of his voice was enough to silence her. Bugs shifted and went sour-faced.
“A plan?” Cary said questioningly.
Clearing nodded. “You can’t stay here Cary. The Dark energy is coming for you. For the Book and you. I think that is what Lurlene tried to warn us about.”
Clearing’s words were like a small hammer between the eyes. “But we can’t run from dark energy, it, how can we...” words failed Cary.
“We must, Cary, or they will take you. I won’t guess what its purpose is, what the Book of Fates is REALLY made for, why it is connected to you, or how, but I know some things, and I know they want you, desperately.
Clearing had more to say, but wasn’t saying it. Cary wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it either way. He contemplated what Clearing implied. They had to run from a mysterious force, dark energy, which originated in another dimension, another reality, and was more powerful than all the energy the Earth could produce. Cary couldn’t wrap his mind around it. But he knew it meant leaving Happy Endings, and leaving behind everyone there. How convenient for you! The nasty voice chided. He glanced at Bugs from his peripheral vision. She, unlike Cary, had family, real loved ones, a life. And Cary knew. I can’t take her with me. I can’t be the cause of such destruction in her life. Yet the prospect of being without her seemed equally as terrible, though he knew he must do it.
Bugs saw the thoughts behind his eyes. “You’re not leaving me behind.” her jaw was set and her fists balled up on the desktop.
Cary jaw-dropped. Clearing put his glasses back on. Coughed. “I’ll let you two talk, don’t be long. Cary, we need to be out of here before dawn.” The teacher left.
Cary looked at the clock on the wall, it was two in the morning but he wasn’t tired. His stomach grumbled though, and his mouth was parched. How long has it been since I had something to eat or drink?
“I’m serious Cary Carver. Icarus Hadwell. You are NOT leaving ME behind. Not after all this. Not after what he told us. They’ve SOLVED Super-string theory, Cary! You think I’m going to be OK knowing that, but not knowing the actual solution? It’s OUT there! And there are, truly, there are OTHER realities, other dimensions! Other VERSES! I’ve read about it, but I thought it was just theory, something we could prove in equations, but never actually know in reality. Speculation. Fancy math! But it’s REAL Cary, and if they can come here....”
Cary finished her thoughts. “We can go there.”
Bugs grinned excited, chewed her lip, eyes blazing wide, nodded at him. Her fists flattened on the desktop, her fingernails gently scratched its surface.
If this how Derek looked after they had discovered dark energy...
“So. You’re NOT leaving me behind, right?” Bugs said, “Cuz I’ll just follow you. I swear.”
Cary looked away.
Leaving her behind is the right thing to do.
What is right? You are the Scion! Right is what you say it is! The nasty voice said. It was precisely what Cary wanted to hear. But Bug is my best friend, a true sister. The one I should have had all along. Am I supposed to go along with what would make her happy or what will keep her safe? Her last words swayed him more than any others. If she’s going to follow, and I have no doubt she will, it will be safer and happier for her to stay with me.
Exactly. The nasty voice concurred.
“You know I’m part of this too, right?” Bugs said very serious. “That’s how Fate has to work, right? Otherwise I wouldn’t be here now. This moment was meant to happen – both our lives, all the variables of who we are, what we are, where we came from – they all pointed to now. They led us here, and nowhere else. You know it’s true.”
Cary didn’t want to argue with this. It sounded reasonable. He wanted her with him and it was enough. Wanted a best friend.
I deserve what I want for a change.
“OK.” he mumbled and Bugs screeched, got up and squeezed Cary in a very tight hug. A sugary warmth spread through him, seeming to start just below his ribcage, like he had just made a wish.
“Just think, Care ... other DIMENSIONS! And the things they KNOW! The things they can DO! If we can get the Book to take us there...Just wish for it!”
This made Cary uncomfortable for some reason. He hadn’t even thought of such a possibility.
Can I wish something like that?
Maybe it was the sparkling in her eyes every time she mentioned other dimensions, whatever it was Cary couldn’t say, but he didn’t like it. Didn’t know how to tell Bugs that, was afraid she’d be angry with him, so he just pushed the thoughts away. They gushed for a while longer about other dimensions and what strange and wonderful things they might find there.
Clearing came back. Shockingly, the clock showed Cary and Bugs had been alone for nearly an hour. Clearing had an armful of stuff. Candy bars, chips, packaged pastries, and sodas. “I figured you two would be hungry so I raided the vending machines in the staff lounge.”
He dumped the sweet-loot on his desk. Cary and Bugs fell upon it like ravenous hyenas. Twenty sticky minutes later, Cary felt better - if woozy - from all the sugar. Bugs took a last swig of Mountain Dew LiveWire and gave a goosey burp, laughed.
“So, have you two ...” Clearing started. Cary cut him off.
“She’s coming with us.” Cary said, sternly. Clearing appraised him with a very stern look. He nodded.
“So be it."