March 2012

In the depths of most forests of any size, one will eventually come across an impenetrable wall of brambles or underbrush.

That is its Asylum.

The entrance is always hidden, known but to a few small animals who guard the secret and pass it down among generations. The trees and insects see this wisdom of this endeavor, and lend their considerable aid–even those that fly or climb will find no escape. And well that these things are so, as the Asylum is a place of containment meant to sustain and isolate its inhabitants until the end of their days.

For even in nature, it is the case that dark things sometimes slip in from the void between the worlds and take possession of innocent creatures. Their actions are not their own, so death would be an injustice, yet to allow them to roam unchecked would be violence and chaos. Hence the Asylum, a place of gentle confinement where the unfortunates may be sequestered.

Few humans have ever beheld even the leading edge of such a place; fewer still the interior.

None have ever returned.

And despite–or perhaps because–of the glowing sea of neon and steel and fibreoptics and invisible datastreams that the Protectorate had become, it was still rent with discord. Governments rose and fell at a pace that was only regular in its irregularity. Cycles of stifling stability and control alternated with years, months, or even days of howling chaos.

The Programme sought to change that.

It had been put forth by a long-dead lecturer, albeit one who lived in a Protectorate not so very different from that which came after. She posited that the Protectorate, with its interconnecting, competing, and ultimately self-interested systems of government, economy, and information could only be tamed if everything, and everyone, began to work toward a common goal. Even if–or in the original Programme thesis, especially if–neither the individuals within them nor the systems themselves recognized that their actions were on concert.

Dreamers and revolutionaries began the process at once, as did bureaucrats, technocrats, would-be dictators, and petty thugs. Each new unrest, each new wrinkle, seemed to be in the name of the Programme, promising the final and interlocking unity its long-ago progenitor had so vaguely promised. The goal seemed always at hand, always tantalizingly out of reach.

One person, though, had a hypothesis. Maybe they were a dreamer themselves, or a reactionary, or just a little off in the head.

They said that everything that had happened so far, even before and including the Programme’s announcement, had in fact been part of the Programme all along. The chaotic and fractious Protectorate that had seen the Programme as its salvation–that lone voice said that its citizens were already living it.

Some people say the quiet ringing sound people hear in a very quiet area is a mild auditory hallucination, thanks to the human ear’s limited ability to perceive sounds below certain frequencies. Others say it’s a case of nascent tinnitus, or the sound of blood rushing through your veins–just like hearing the ocean in a conch shell.

They’re wrong.

Certain people, if they’re fast enough and keep at it–to say nothing of being a little lucky–can begin to make out what’s behind the sound. Voices, soft and quick and secret, speaking in every language you’d care to name and many that defy classification. They’ll take no notice of those rare few who listen, and with practice one can begin to catch and interpret words, phrases, conversations.

The understandable snatches dwell on people, places and possibilities. What has happened, what might happen, what should happen. The tones are, for the most part, oddly benevolent if completely detached from anything resembling the human condition. They discuss rescues, redemptions, about-faces, sacrifices, gifts. On those rare occasions when the comprehensible part of the whisper-speech turns to the negative, it is always in the context of how things might be salvaged.

As for those behind this low and benign humming? None can say. It espouses no creed, plays no favorites, advances no positions.

Those who have heard it first describe many sleepless nights, followed by a feeling of profound and sweeping relief.

People had been talking lately, saying that junkies on the Sol had been flooding doctor’s offices and hospitals. Why depended on who was talking–Trick had heard everything from seeing things to bleeding from the eyes to thinking they were stuck on Jupiter. That last one especially gave him an easy laugh as he downed two tablets of Soliaq with a swig of bottled water.

He needed the Sol to take the edge off, to give him the cool calm to pull off deals. If that meant a few side effects, who cared? He wouldn’t go screaming to some doctor on account of a few little blips and bloops.

Jayden was waiting at the appointed spot, in the alley behind the hardware store, usual steel briefcase in hand. “You’re late.”

“No I’m not,” Trick snapped. “Stop trying to act like some kind of rinky dink movie gangsta and show me the goods.”

The steel briefcase snapped open, revealing a pharmacological cornucopia–legal but stolen, prescription only, and the hard stuff. “Two-fifty for the lot.”

Trick felt the gentle, soothing hand of the Sol on him and shook his head. “You kidding? The street value of this stuff’s fallen by half since the Sol hit. You get seventy-five, and only because I’m feeling generous.”

“C’mon, what am I supposed to do with seventy-five?” Jayden whined. “I risked my life for this stuff.”

“Tell it to someone who cares,” Trick shot back. “It’s a buyer’s market, and…and…”

He trailed off, staring into the distance well beyond his contact.

“And what?” Jayden said. “Hey, you all right?”

“D-s’you see that?” Trick said, pointing over his contact’s shoulder.

“See what?”

Trick’s eyes widened. He’d thought it was distant thunder, or maybe a dust devil, but now it was clear that the tickle at the edge of his vision was actually a roiling wall of clouds. It reached from the pavement to the sky, alternating bands of vivid orange, red, and white punctuated by spots of deepest crimson. It was like the bright and poisonous atmosphere of Jupiter was closing in on Trick like a Sahara sandstorm.

“What…what’s happening?” he shrieked. “Stop it! Oh God, I’m gonna be carried away…” The full force of the clouds hit him a moment later, agonizingly stripping the flesh from his bones as he writhed and screamed.

Jayden looked down for a minute, shocked, as Trick yelled and squirmed on the ground. Nothing was wrong with him, as far as he could tell, other than flushed shin and dilated pupils. But the noise was so awful that a moment later he snapped his case shut and fled, leaving Trick to the mercy of the Sol in his bloodstream and the Jupiter clouds it had summoned.

The Morrows had thought the property was a steal–18 rooms across two floors and just about everything about the house was high-quality pre-1900 joinery from when people knew what they were doing when they were woodworking. Its previous owner, one Mr. Daugherty, had kept it up well. A retired, divorced construction worker, he had installed a rather high security fence and zealously chased people away from his property. His death plus his heirs’ stated intention to have nothing to do with him meant fire-sale values.

Sam and Jenna Morrow found the place suited their needs, and the twins’, perfectly. If they had any complaint, it was that the heating and electricity bills tended to be rather high–a circumstance Sam blamed on old wiring and Jenna blamed on drafty windows and doors that had shrunk away from their frames.

Once old Mr. Daugherty’s privacy fence had been cut down to a reasonable size, the Morrows attempted to build a garage–the only architectural feature that the property lacked. Excavations for a concrete slab began, but were unceremoniously halted after a backhoe brought up reinforced concrete fragments and four live hand grenades.

After bomb squads from three counties responded and the Morrows spent a month in a hotel, the truth emerged: Daugherty had spent his twilight years constructing a reinforced concrete fallout bunker beneath his yard in anticipation of what, to him, was imminent nuclear war. Water leakage had damaged the corner that held the bunker’s armory–hand grenades and other small arms–allowing the backhoe to burst through. But everything else was as Daugherty had left it at his death: canned food, a ventilation system that piggybacked off the chimney, full electrical power that leeched from the main house, and a basement entrance so well-hidden that neither the realtor nor the Morrows had noticed.

“Sure,” Gary said. “Give me a call sometime. Here’s my number: 555-6745.”

555-6745 wasn’t Gary’s number

It had never been Gary’s number

He considered himself far too busy to deal with 90% of the people he met. That, plus his general disregard for others’ feelings coupled with his need to appear friendly and charming, was where 555-6745 came in.

90% of the people who asked for Gary’s number got 6745 instead. The woman typed the digits into her cell and walked away.

Ten minutes later and 200 miles away, Harold Baker picked up his cell phone. “Another wrong number? Who’s this Gary and why do I keep getting his calls?”

The forest was ever tinder-twig dry and the dead brown of fall leaves. A dull, listless life kept the trees from rotting and their leaves from dropping, but each spring would find none of the green shoots and renewal visited on other woodlands.

Most who passed by preferred to avoid that wood, for legend had it that the elders of a nearby town had tied its fate with their own through a long-forgotten ceremony. As the town’s sins multiplied and grew, as weeds choked the farmers’ fields, so too did the forest darken and cease to bloom. Those who cared to comment said that the evils of the town were tied up in the trees, forever poisoning the land, and attracting all manner of darknesses to swallow up the unwary.

But those who braved the interior of the dead wood found, at its heart, a green and living tree. In spring, it alone among the boughs would be crowned with young shoots and flowers the color of driven snow. None could say why it alone was spared the fate of the others, but all agreed that its light shining in the darkness was an inspiration to lost and lonely travelers in their peril.

Much as the evils of the town were tied up in the other trees, so too was its hope made manifest in that last unspoilt bough.

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