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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Axiom's End

A Novel

Noumena (Volume 1)

Lindsay Ellis

St. Martin's Press

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1



On the morning of the second meteor, Cora’s 1989 Toyota Camry gave up the ghost for good. The car was a manual transmission with a stick shift its previous owner had wrapped in duct tape years ago, a time bomb the color of expired baby food that should have gone off sooner than it did. At $800, she had paid more for it than it was worth, but back then, she had been a freshman in college and desperate for a car. In the two years since, she’d grown accustomed to the ever-loudening squealing of the fan belt, but on this morning, after she put her key in the ignition and the engine turned, the squealing turned into a hostile screech. A disheartening thunk thunk thunk followed, then a snap, then an angry whirr, all before she could react. But by the time she turned off the ignition, it was clear that the car, her first and only car, was dead forever.

And she was already late for work.

As the Camry went into its final death throes, Demi, who was locking the front door on her way to work, froze mid-motion as she beheld the scene, wearing an expression of disappointment, but not surprise. Cora’s feeling of horror that this was even happening quickly hopped to embarrassment before settling onto her old standby: numbness. She got out of the car, with no choice but to leave it on the street despite it being street cleaning day, approached her mother, and asked, “Can you give me a ride to work?”

Demi looked at her like she had just lost their house in a drunken bet. “Sure.” It was the last word she said to Cora for about half an hour.

In short order, Cora was suffering the indignity of her mother driving her to work through the vehicular sludge of the 110. In any other circumstances, Demi would have told Cora she was shit out of luck, that she should have gotten the car fixed months ago, and that she could find her own damn way up to downtown LA. But it had been through PMT, the temp agency Demi worked for, that Cora had her temp job, and it had been Demi who had vouched for her. And so, here they were, crawling under the 105, Demi sacrificing her own punctuality for her negligent daughter’s.

“What happened to that $200 I loaned you?” asked Demi just after they passed Rosecrans, her anger now cooled enough that she was capable of speech. “You were supposed to replace the belt and get your hair done, and you have done neither.”

Cora resisted the urge to pull her hair behind her ears, as though that would hide her mess of a dye job. She’d bleached it blond several months ago, before she’d dropped out of college, but about six inches of her natural wet-hay hair color had grown in since.

“I had to use it on gas,” lied Cora, keeping her gaze on the passenger-side mirror. “And I had another credit card bill I needed to pay off.” The truth was she had used that money on a Neko Case concert, her third this year, but Demi didn’t need to know that.

“Sure you did,” said Demi. “After today, you take the bus.”

Cora did not retort or offer excuses. She knew it was absolutely on her that she had not fixed the car. The fan belt was just the last in a long line of events that only tightened the spiral of powerlessness that was coming to define her existence, and by this point, she was getting used to it. Trying to exert some control over her life was an exercise in futility, so why bother? A good concert was the one place she could genuinely lose herself, have an out-of-body experience and detach from the deteriorating morass that was her life. And if it meant getting bitched at by her mother and an indefinite period with no car, then oh well. That’s life.

That was when she noticed the black Town Car tailing them. It was close, like it was being dragged along on a hitch, so close she could see the faces of the two men in the front seat clearly. On the driver’s side was a younger-looking man of East Asian descent, seeming to curse whatever cosmic force had made him be awake this early. His passenger was a slender-faced white guy with black wavy hair, maybe late thirties, though it was hard to tell, as his face was obscured with a cartoonishly large pair of aviators.

“Jesus,” said Cora. “What is their problem?”

“What?” Demi looked in her rearview mirror. “Oh, Christ. Those assholes again.”

Suddenly, Cora was on alert. “What, you know them?”

“Well, I’ve seen them,” said Demi. “More than once on my way to work. They always tailgate.”

“Holy shit,” said Cora, a little shocked at Demi’s blasé attitude. Did it not occur to her that these people might be stalking her? Cora had been on guard for that sort of thing well before she dropped out of UCI.

“I’ve never seen them anywhere else, though,” said Demi. “I figure they leave for work around when I do.”

Cora turned around to study them, but they didn’t seem to notice her at all. Probably just a couple of guys who were late for work, thoughtlessly tailgating Demi’s car like it would get them there any sooner. That wasn’t so abnormal, but the fact that the car didn’t have a front plate caught her attention. Only out-of-state cars lacked a front plate, and a commuter wouldn’t be from out-of-state.

She hadn’t really been paying attention to NPR’s Morning Edition, which had been reporting something about the previous day’s wild fluctuation of the Dow Jones, but their next segment made her shoot to attention. “In the three years since it was founded,” said the newscaster, “The Broken Seal has gone from fledgling website to the forefront of the transparency movement.”

The words “The Broken Seal” sent a sharp icicle through her chest, and she momentarily forgot about the tail.

“But one month after the website’s most infamous and controversial leak gave The Broken Seal and its founder, Nils Ortega—”

Demi reflexively slapped a button to change the station, and a Fergie song piped innocuously from KIIS-FM. Cora shot her a look. “I’m sorry,” said Demi, smiling coldly. “It’s too early.”

Cora didn’t know how to respond. On the one hand, she felt like it might be a good idea to know why “The Broken Seal and its founder, Nils Ortega,” were in the news, but on the other hand, there was no subject she wanted to hear about less.

“It’s okay,” said Cora, glancing again at the Town Car behind them. “I don’t want to think about it, either.”

She turned to face forward, watching the tall buildings of downtown LA sprouting up like distant spires in the haze, and tried to put thoughts of The Broken Seal and stalkers from her mind. But the tailgaters, bored though they looked, were not letting up.

“Mom,” she said, “ever feel like we’re being spied on?”

“By who?”

“I don’t know,” said Cora. “Like … paparazzi or the government or something.”

Demi blinked hard but didn’t look at her daughter. “What, because of Nils?”

“Yeah?”

Demi snorted. “Maybe, but anyone who follows us would be on the wrong trail.”

“Well, I know that,” said Cora, unconsciously bopping along to “Fergalicious,” her movements restrained by her too-small business casual button-up shirt. She had bought it for an interview a year ago, but she had gained a size since then. “But maybe they don’t. Maybe they think we know something. And that’s why they’re, you know, spying on us.”

“I try every day not to think about it.” Demi tried to laugh, but it came out more a sigh. “If they are, I’d rather not know.”

Cora bit her lip and looked behind them again. “Really?”

“I have enough to deal with,” she said. “I feel like if I knew I was being spied on or phone tapped or followed, I wouldn’t even know how to function.”

“I guess,” said Cora, eyes still on the car behind them. She switched the station back to NPR, but the report on The Broken Seal had already come and gone. “Lu says we’re always being monitored.”

“I know she does,” said Demi coldly. “I know.”

Cora decided to drop it and tried to keep her focus on the Dodge Stratus in front of them. Living under The Broken Seal’s shadow was a source of chronic fear that had only worsened since the Ampersand Event and subsequent leak of the Fremda Memo. Like the fan belt on the verge of snapping, The Broken Seal was a time bomb that would inevitably blow up in their faces. Again, she looked into the passenger-side mirror for the Town Car but saw that it had vanished. She couldn’t shake the dread that this was the day the bomb would go off.

Once Demi had dropped her off at the Kaiser building downtown, Cora tried not to think about the Town Car, trudging through four hours of mind-numbing data entry during which, owing to company policy, she was not allowed any internet access. On her way to lunch, however, the dread only now starting to subside, she spared a glance out the window, at the roof deck of the parking garage several stories below.

There was the Town Car.

Seeing the car briefly stunned her into a stupor; she had not actually expected to see anything there. Why hadn’t she turned the station back to NPR? Why, God, why had she listened to “Fergalicious” instead of the news?

She whirled around, scanning the mostly empty cubicles, half expecting the Town Car guys around any corner to throw a bag over her head and stuff her in their trunk. She considered leaving work altogether before deciding it would reflect poorly on Demi, and she was already on Demi’s shit list. Besides, the Town Car was there, the men were not. They were likely somewhere in the building. Perhaps they were waiting for her to leave. Probably, this was nothing.

Possibly, it wasn’t.

Cora stiffly brushed past the few other people in their cubicles who had decided to work through lunch. By the time she made it to the elevator, half convinced a couple of FBI agents were waiting in ambush at the exit, she decided to go to the cafeteria on the third floor rather than find lunch anywhere half-decent. But when the elevator doors opened, a large brick of a person stood on the other side. His face lit up upon seeing her, and Cora struggled not to wince in return.

“Sabino!” It was Eli Gerrard, one of the only people at Kaiser she knew by name. Eli was not a temp but a college graduate who worked in IT. “You okay?”

“Um,” she managed. The door began to close, but Eli smashed the Door Open button, smiling like he’d done her a big favor as the door bounced back open. He fancied himself part of the hacktivist crowd, and, like most of his peers, he adored Nils Ortega.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

She wasn’t sure whether Eli was the best person she could have bumped into or the worst. She grimaced, conscious of how suspicious she looked, and moved inside the elevator. “Well…”

His eyes lit up as the doors closed behind her. “Is it something to do with The Broken Seal?”

“Maybe?” she said, now kicking herself for being in a situation where she was trapped in an elevator with this man. Even at a distance of a couple of feet, his eagerness, his overfamiliarity, felt like a violation of her personal space.

Eli was a scene kid, the type that was just a little too into Panic! at the Disco to be trusted. Ever since she’d started temping here a couple of weeks ago, Eli had been one of the first people who had taken a special interest in her, and for the worst possible reasons. At first, he saw her as an in where The Broken Seal was concerned and then, when he realized she wasn’t, he turned cold. She saw him sometimes talking to other people while staring at her. She was always waiting for him to accuse her of being a traitor to the cause, an enemy of free speech.

Hell, people like Eli were more than their share of the reason she was so paranoid. Back in July, she’d made the mistake of doing an interview for the Los Angeles Times. She’d answered their questions as diplomatically as possible—had Nils Ortega been a good father to her, her brother, and her sister? No. No, he had not. There was a reason he hadn’t been in their lives for half a decade. Oh, the outrage in the hacktivist community that she had dared insinuate that their god-king was fallible. She’d had to delete all her online profiles, both the ones with her current legal name as well as the old ones that still bore the name “Cora Ortega.”

But Eli had never been beastly to her as so many others had, at least not to her face. She figured she may as well see what he knew. After all, he actually followed this junk. “I think I’m being followed.”

His eyes twinkled. “Really? By who?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “but I’m a little freaked out.”

“Where?”

“They’re outside. Or at least their car is.”

“Is it the feds?”

“Maybe? Probably? I don’t know.”

“Oh, man, this could be huge,” he said as the door to the third floor at long, long last opened. Cora all but fell out of the elevator, and he followed. “All that shady stuff the feds have done that’s come out—up in Altadena and Pomona. You know?”

Cora stopped in front of the women’s room and restrained the urge to roll her eyes. “I’ve heard rumors.”

“People saw some stuff. Real witnesses after the Ampersand Event. But then the government fried their brains and erased their memories so they couldn’t say what they saw.”

“Yeah, I heard that one.”

“Why would that have happened if they didn’t see something they weren’t supposed to see?”

Despite deliberately trying to avoid all things Nils-related for her own sanity, she was well aware of that conspiracy theory. People like Eli thought the Ampersand Event was a spaceship or something, a UFO or a scout, or at the very least a probe. Cora, like most people, believed it was a rock that fell out of the sky and landed in the hills north of Pasadena. “I don’t think that has anything to do with who’s in the parking lot.”

“It might,” he said. “What makes you think they’re following you?”

Cora almost started moving toward the cafeteria, but stayed put next to the women’s room in case she needed a place to escape where he wouldn’t follow. “They were behind our car on the way here. Then, just now, I saw the car parked on the roof of the parking garage.”

“And you assume they’re here because of you?”

Another batch of people unloaded from the elevator, and Cora kept her voice down. “I don’t know, maybe? I mean, there was something on the news this morning.”

“Oh, right. That.” He watched her while she waited for him to continue, a tiny smile starting to form.

The spike of fear, the same one that always came with the mention of Nils, prodded her in the gut again. “What?”

“You don’t know?”

“Eli, The Broken Seal is at the top of my list of things that I try not to think about if I can help it,” she said. “Did he say something about me?”

He ignored her question. “I just can’t believe you don’t know. If I were you—”

“You’re not me.”

Eli took a deep breath, like he was about to bungee jump for the first time. “Dude. If my dad released the most important leak in human history, no, the most important discovery in human history—”

She snorted and started to respond, but he cut her off.

“I’d be all over it,” he said. “You’re an inch away from some of the most important stuff that’s ever happened on this planet. I would be on it. Every hour, on the hour. I’d know what’s up.”

“You are on it, Eli. And that’s why the sky gods gave you to me. So just tell me what you know or leave me alone.”

“Did you ever read it?” he asked. “The Fremda Memo?”

That caught her off guard. “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

“It has everything to do with why the feds might be following you!” he said. “It has everything to do with these cover-ups!”

She was by now alone with him in a long, empty hallway, and her fear had chipped her patience down to the marrow. “I’d better go.”

“I don’t get you, Sabino,” he said, not even giving her the chance to turn to leave. “This is a big deal. Let’s ignore the biggest discovery in human history that is being hidden from us as we speak. What about the civil liberties aspect? Don’t we have a right to know? And those disappearances—five people that we know of disappear for a few days, when they come back, none of them have any memory of where they were. And all of them have brain damage. All of them. One guy has complete and total amnesia of his entire life. He can’t even talk. So if some government guys are tailing you, the world needs to know. This is infring—”

No!” It came out as a shout. “Dude, the last thing I want is anything to do with him! Can you appreciate that?”

He smiled and shook his head. “You’re amazing. You don’t care. You don’t care what Ortega is trying to do or what he’s uncovered. You’re too caught up in your anti-daddy agenda.”

Cora just stood there, mouth agape. Eli shifted uncomfortably, seeming to glean he’d crossed a line, but then doubled down. “Why do you hate him so much anyway?”

“I’m going to step away,” she managed, turning before he could respond and darting inside the women’s room, shoving the doorstop behind the closed door just in case. She half expected him to try to force his way in, but by some unseen mercy, he did not.

She ambled into the stall farthest from the door, leaving the doorstop in place, giving not one fuck if there was anyone out there who might actually need to use the restroom. She fell onto the toilet, pants still on, rested her elbows on her knees, and stared at the dirty tile of the bathroom floor. There were so many black hairline cracks in the tile she could read shapes into them like a Rorschach test. A whimsical cartoon T. rex. A volcano erupting into pyroclastic flow. A broken fan belt.

She’d been staring at the floor for a few minutes before she realized how hard her heart was beating, and then the thump of her pulse in her head was all she could hear. It was stupid of her to even ask Eli what he knew. Stupid to think that people like Eli even saw her as anything but a brick in the castle Nils built. Nils was only getting more famous, and this was getting worse. So, so much worse.

It took her nearly twenty minutes before she got off the toilet, the cacophonous thumping in her head only just starting to quiet. By that point, at least five frustrated parties had tried and failed to get into the bathroom, and she knew she had to leave or risk being discovered. She didn’t bother going to lunch. Eli might still be in the cafeteria, and besides, she wasn’t hungry.

She made a beeline for the elevator and took it back up to the fourteenth floor, where she found an internet-accessible computer that was not occupied. She pulled up Nils’s website through a proxy, steeling herself for whatever he had written. She found it immediately, and the title alone made her put off reading it for another minute—“These Disparate Lives.” Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Once again shooting for a Pulitzer for achievement in pretentiousness.

Leaks on The Broken Seal always came with a bright red header labeled LEAK, but “These Disparate Lives” did not, meaning it was probably one of Nils’s op-eds. Sometimes they ran in mainstream publications like The New York Times, but just as often, he preferred to keep it in-house so as not to be edited by The Man. He released his articles two or three times a week, mostly polemics on the state of free speech, transparency, his hatred of Bush, or how evil the mainstream media and government were for trying to silence him. She was hoping for something along this line. The worst thing it could be was personal.

Which, of course, it was.

Hello, Friends and Strangers,

Drink with me, or celebrate as your personal tradition dictates. Today marks the one-month anniversary of the leak that has come to be known as the “Fremda Memo,” and we have not yet been brought down. In fact, next month will be our four-year anniversary, and, defying all odds, our little dog and pony show still stands. But with any increase of attention, regardless of the moral rightness of an endeavor, comes controversy.

The word of the day coming from the White House this morning: “thief.” Others have built on this narrative—is The Broken Seal an organization of thieves?

Why steal secrets that are not yours to share?

To which I would counter, can one actually steal a secret?

Anyone who’s worked with free speech advocacy, regardless of their hopes for society, has a personal reason for doing so. Do I have a personal motivation? In brief, I do. Three of them, in fact. My children.

Cora stopped breathing. Nils mentioning them in a public forum was the thing she’d been living in fear of for at least two years, but she hadn’t expected it to take this form. The form that implied that they were still on good terms, that he was doing them a favor.

She noticed one of the white-collars watching her, a fortysomething woman with more pictures of cats than her children in her cubicle. The woman’s look could be one of generic mom-judginess, or it could be one of recognition. Did she know who Cora was? Was it just fringe conspiracy crazies who had read “These Disparate Lives,” or had this been the national news that Demi had flipped away from in favor of Fergie?

It should go without saying that I don’t do this for myself but for the pursuit of a world that will allow them to live their lives without fear from one’s government, media, or society for speaking the truth. My children are all in school in California, right near where the Ampersand Event occurred. And I’m not allowed to see them, nor even allowed to set foot in my own country.

This was, perhaps, an inevitability, but if I do have one hope for myself, it will be that I might one day reconcile these two disparate lives. That I may continue to do this work, and be with my children again. I hope I inspire them, as they do me. I hope one day they may be inspired to take up arms and join me.

Her mouth ran dry, her face was growing hot, her fingernails digging into the flesh of her palms. The earth was falling away around her, leaving her in a vacuum, no sound, no air.

Take up arms and join me.

It felt like the atmosphere was changing, and she was so disoriented that, for a split second, she thought she had imagined the blast that came from outside.

The noise startled her out of her stupor, and before she could wonder if they were under attack, a shock wave followed, shattering two of the north-facing windows, glass singing and clinking as it fell down like waterfalls, tiny shards ricocheting off the blinds. The few white-collars sitting near the windows screamed and fell away as the object that had created the blast shot overhead.

Stunned and ears still ringing, Cora slowly approached the window, now with no barrier between her and a hundred feet of open air. The object that had caused the blast had already disappeared, leaving only a bright white vapor trail in the blue-brown sky.

“Is that another meteor?” shrieked one of the women who’d been sitting by the window, now brave enough to approach it.

It sure looked like one. Its trail hung in the sky like a 747’s, and where she’d sworn she’d seen it engulfed in flames as it shot overhead, the glow had dulled as it disappeared into the distance. Its trajectory was taking it northward, like it was following the 110 all the way to Pasadena.

In the same direction as the Ampersand Event.

Six minutes ago, a second meteor landed in the Angeles National Forest. It shot right over my location, so I want to get this eyewitness account down before they can censor it. We don’t have precise geodata, but there are several witness accounts stating, yes, it landed very close to Altadena.

That’s right. Meteor 2, right next to Altadena, and less than a month after the Altadena Meteorite, code-named the “Ampersand Event” by the CIA.

For the event code-named “Ampersand,” we didn’t have a sense of direction on the day the “meteorite” landed. The Broken Seal didn’t leak the Fremda Memo until one day after the Event. We didn’t understand its significance on the day that it happened, and by the time we really understood the hugeness of the Event, how deep the conspiracy ran, the dust had already settled. The feds had already cleaned it up.

This time, we know better. This time, we have the upper hand. Are you in the Los Angeles metro area? Don’t be a good citizen. Don’t be lied to and just take it. Follow the noise.

In the words of Ortega: Truth is a human right.

Gerrard, Eli. “Follow the Noise.” DeceptiNation (blog). September 20, 2007.

http://www.deceptination.com.



2



Cora all but fell upon her front door, fumbling out her keys in a frantic bid to shut herself inside and lock the world out. If traffic was forgiving, it took about half an hour to make it the ten miles home from downtown LA. By bus, it was closer to ninety minutes, but panic on the roads had put today’s journey closer to two hours. Cora hadn’t been the only person to cut out of work early.

An initial panic had resulted in several fender benders both downtown and on the 110, although by the time Cora made it to her house, it seemed that the traffic was now back to boilerplate rush hour, perhaps slightly exacerbated due to a higher-than-normal number of car crashes. On her way from the Kaiser building to the bus stop, she saw dozens of people tearing by in their vehicles, clogging the streets and one of them nearly hitting her in their fervor, although what they were running to or from, she wasn’t sure, and she suspected neither were they. It wasn’t like there were any fifteen-mile-wide spaceships hovering over the U.S. Bank Tower that they needed to get out from under.

Despite the time passed, Cora’s hands were still shaking as she struggled to get her key into the front door. The Sabinos lived in a three-bedroom house that had been illegally converted to four when they moved in, and that had been the only renovation the house had ever gotten in the forty years since its construction. It still had the same old peeling linoleum, the same old swamp-brown carpet, the same 1960s wallpaper that had been bleached by the sun through the windows. Before they had moved in four years ago, it had been a rental unit owned by Nils’s mother that was adjacent to an active oil well. Since the late ’90s, most of the oil wells in the South Bay area had dried up and been replaced by million-dollar McMansions, although the McMansion that had gone up on the dried-up oil well next to the Sabino home was probably worth closer to a million five.

Cora made it inside the house, shut the door, and slammed her back into it, exhaling a massive breath. The two family dogs, Thor and Monster Truck, had been whining at the door before she’d even gotten the key in the lock and were happily pawing at her thighs, but her nerves were still too fried to give them any real attention. She was so preoccupied that she didn’t even notice that she wasn’t the only person in the house.

“What are you doing here?” Cora nearly screamed when she noticed that there was a person on the couch, and that said person was playing her copy of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

“What are you doing here?” Luciana countered, not even pausing the game or turning to look at her. Luciana had a head of rusty-red tight curls that on a good day would be anyone’s envy, but lately, she hadn’t been taking care of it, and right now, it looked like a crown of drunken tumbleweeds.

Cora’s purse slid off her shoulder and fell to the floor. “I live here,” she said. It wasn’t at all unusual for her aunt to use her spare set of keys to arrive home ahead of Cora or Demi, usually to babysit. It was weird that she was here alone. Playing Oblivion. She’d thought Luciana hated that game.

“How did you get home?” asked Luciana. “I saw your car still outside. Did you get off early?”

“Our antiquated public transportation system,” said Cora, ignoring the second question as she lowered herself into a crouch to give her dogs their desperately sought attention. Monster Truck, a wall-eyed pug who looked older than her eightish years, had already lost interest and returned to the couch next to Luciana. On the other hand, Thor, a mutt who, as best anyone could tell, was a chihuahua-dachshund mix, was insatiable.

“Weren’t you supposed to work until six?” asked Luciana.

“Yeah … most of the windows shattered on the floor where I was working. So I just left.”

“Really?” said Luciana. “I heard that happened in really tall buildings. Downtown is apparently a mess. You took public transportation? All the way from downtown?”

Cora stood up, eyeing her aunt. She had figured that between the confused chaos of a meteor event and Nils making the news with his “I’m fighting for my children” proclamation, Luciana would have reacted with a little more than, you know, nothing. “Yeah, did you not see my car out front?” she asked. “I think it’s done for good.”

“Oh, yeah, I had wondered about that.”

Cora moved herself between the television and Luciana, studying her, starting to humor the idea that her aunt might have been replaced by a body snatcher.

Luciana just leaned over and kept right on playing. “How was traffic?”

“It was really bad,” said Cora. “Seemed like more doomsday preppers than usual were heading for the hills.”

Luciana stayed silent.

“I can’t say I blame them, though,” Cora continued. “Two meteorites landing in the same spot in the course of a month makes me think that maybe we should start thinking of shacking up in a cave, too. What do you think?”

Luciana shrugged, paused her game, and at last looked at Cora. “I think the conspiracy crazies are having a good week, and you need to stop listening to talk radio.”

“I wasn’t listening to talk radio,” said Cora, offended at the insinuation. “But I was thinking, it does lend some credibility to Nils.”

“What does?”

Cora blinked, her worry deepening. This was international news. Half of Southern California was searching for fallout shelters to die in, and Luciana wouldn’t even look up from Oblivion. “Lu, a second celestial object just fell from the sky in almost the exact same spot as a nearly identical one did a month ago.”

“Yeah, and who knows how long Nils was sitting on the Fremda Memo?” said Luciana. “He only released it after the Altadena Event to make it seem like the two things were connected to give legitimacy to his leak. It doesn’t mean that they are connected.”

Nils had leaked a few days after the Fremda Memo that the Altadena Event had a CIA code name, “Ampersand,” which had been colloquially adopted by everyone, even mainstream outlets. Cora found it a little odd that Luciana still called it by its old name.

“So if it’s not alien invaders, what is it?”

Luciana shrugged. “Downed satellite? I have no idea, but if I were an alien, I would not conspicuously crash my ship in the mountains next to one of the biggest cities in the world.”

“Right,” said Cora. It was fantastical, and there was no official explanation from any authorities other than “This is a meteor,” which was the current line for both of them. It was frightening, and in times of uncertainty, it was natural to believe something fantastical, but in the end, Luciana was probably right. Occam’s meteor—the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. “Well, I tried to call you after it happened. I was kind of freaked out.”

“Oh, sorry. I had my phone off.” Luciana pulled out her BlackBerry and turned it on. “It’s just that with that article Nils released today—”

The phone in the kitchen rang, and Cora moved to answer it.

“Don’t,” said Luciana. “It’s probably the press. You don’t want to give a comment.”

Cora froze, pulling her hand away from the phone as if it were an electric fence. “The press?”

“Yeah, that’s another reason I’ve had my phone off. Just lie low; with a second Altadena Event, they’ll probably move on quickly.”

“About that,” said Cora, picking up Thor and hugging him tightly. The little dog emitted a beleaguered “urrf.” “I think that article Nils published today caught some attention, because I’m pretty sure some guys were spying on me before the meteor hit. There was a black Town Car following us this morning. Demi said it wasn’t the first time.”

“Oh,” said Luciana. For the first time since Cora had gotten home, Luciana finally seemed to be taking something seriously. “That’s … new.”

“Two guys. Followed us all the way to Kaiser, then right before lunch, I saw the car on the roof of the parking garage.”

“Are you sure it was the same car?”

“Yeah, it didn’t have a front plate, which is, you know, weird. Did you read the article?”

“Yes. That ass.” Luciana shook her head. “Unbelievable. I’m sorry he’s trying to drag you into this.”

Cora put her dog down and crossed her arms. “You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here.”

Luciana gestured toward Monster Truck, who, on cue, rolled onto her back in anticipation of incoming belly rubs. “I promised Felix I’d play Soulcalibur with him, so I decided to swing by early.”

Luciana unpaused the game. A jealous Thor nudged himself between Luciana and Monster Truck, wedging his nervous little head under Luciana’s armpit as though he were acting in agreement that, yes, there was nothing more interesting in this world than Thor, dog of questionable ancestry. The Soulcalibur excuse, however, was an obvious front; Luciana was doing the Ortega Thing of lying by omission. Luciana’s presence in Cora’s house might have any number of causes, but she figured since “These Disparate Lives” didn’t mention Luciana, it was probably the meteor.

“Are you hiding from the feds again?” asked Cora.

“I am hiding from the possibility of the feds.”

Cora looked through the window, thinking she heard something approaching, but it looked only to be a delivery boy on a moped. Luciana had her own struggles where Nils’s international man of mystery was concerned; the official reason they had given Luciana for firing her was “time card fraud,” but everyone knew that the real reason was that being related to Nils Ortega was not a great thing to be for someone with a job that required government clearance. Cora and her immediate family had it bad, but Luciana had gotten it way worse. At one point over the summer, there had been an entire week when Luciana had disappeared. Luciana said she wasn’t allowed to talk about it.

“Won’t they be too busy with the meteor to bother with you?” asked Cora.

Luciana chuckled and ran her fingers through her thick mop of copper hair. Cora sometimes found it hard to believe that she was Nils’s sister and not some foundling; Nils’s features had favored his German side, tall and pale, while Luciana had taken after her father, olive-skinned and petite. “They always find time for me. They were at my door within about three hours of the Altadena Event. Like zombies, hungry for brains and moaning, ‘CIA.’”

“Wait, CIA?”

Luciana shrugged. “It’s a CIA thing. I dearly hope that’s not who was following you.”

“I thought CIA wasn’t allowed to investigate domestic … citizens,” said Cora. She couldn’t help but get a little nervous at their mention. Before Nils had left for good, he had always had a particular hatred for the CIA and their history of covert abuses of power, and Cora couldn’t help but internalize some of that. “Nils said their whole raison d’être was every country besides this one. If we’re being spied on, it should be FBI or NSA.”

Luciana shrugged. “Well, first, CIA involvement doesn’t preclude any other agencies. Second, Nils isn’t domestic. He’s committing espionage against the U.S. government from a foreign country. Ergo, he is a CIA matter.” She looked at Cora, her expression finally changing into something like sympathy. “You okay?”

Cora pursed her lips. “I think he’s challenging me.”

“Who, Nils?”

“Yeah. With this last article. It felt … pointed.”

“Well, of course it was pointed. He has never mentioned you before.”

“No, I mean, the uh…” Cora wrinkled her nose in disgust. “The ‘I hope they join me’ bit.”

“He’s challenging all of us.”

Cora huffed. “No, I mean me. Specifically me.”

“Why?”

Cora wanted to give her an honest answer, but there was something in Luciana’s tone that put her off. Nils was a difficult subject for all of them, and one they avoided if they could, but Luciana seemed angry that Nils was still the topic of conversation at all, even if it was relevant. “Just a feeling.”

“He’s a malignant narcissist,” said Luciana. “He’ll use anyone or anything to bring attention to himself and his agenda, but if we don’t respond and nothing comes of it, he’ll move on. I suspect he’s busy trying to think on how to capitalize on the second meteor. He’s probably already forgotten about his ‘think of the children’ angle.”

“I guess.”

Cora used to idolize her aunt, the independent older sister she’d never had, the one adult who she felt understood her, especially where matters of Nils were concerned. After Nils left four years ago, they had moved to Torrance to live off the largesse of Nils’s mother (who blamed everyone but Nils for her son’s decision to skip the country). Luciana, now practically their neighbor, started treating Cora more as her peer, and Cora had learned to think of Luciana as one in turn. For a time, it had been awesome; going to shows with Luciana, even a trip to Vegas for Cora’s twentieth birthday, and Luciana had not been the type to care about legal drinking age. But now that Luciana was unemployed and Cora a college dropout, their adulthood commiseration was just depressing.

Luciana’s phone rang, and she snatched it and silenced it in a swift move, barely looking at it. “No Caller ID.”

“Probably press, right?” Cora eyed the phone suspiciously, catching the name of who the call was from just as Luciana silenced it; Luciana’s old coworker John Lombardi, who went by the name “Bard,” almost certainly a D&D reference or something. “No caller ID, huh?”

“He’s been calling me all day,” said Luciana, her expression falling. Despite Luciana losing her job months ago, she didn’t lose Bard, one of the most socially awkward people Cora had ever met. Cora was pretty sure that Bard was actually Luciana’s ex, but Luciana would never admit it, and Cora would never ask. “Rough day at work. I’ll call him back in a few.”

“I see why you wanted to keep it turned off.”

“It’s not like I have a new job to obsess over,” said Luciana. “I’m not quite ready to be out of the loop yet.”

Cora sometimes wondered why Luciana still cared about her old job, why she didn’t just move on, especially given all the grief it had caused her.

“Sounds like Bard’s being illegal, then, since you’re not top-secret clearance anymore.” Cora stopped, noting the way Luciana slumped her head and rubbed her hands over her face. “Are you okay? Is something wrong?”

“It’s not about clearance levels.” Luciana sighed. “Bard told me that someone we worked with killed themselves.”

“Oh.” Cora waited for Luciana to elaborate, but she stayed silent. “Who?”

Luciana shifted a side-eye at Cora. “Someone.”

“Right, sorry, forgot.” She hadn’t, really, but she sometimes hoped Luciana would slip up, although she never did. “Were you close to him? Or her?”

Luciana shook her head. “No. I knew them, but no. But it’s surprising. They weren’t the type that came off at all as suicidal. I hadn’t seen them since I got let go, but it’s surprising.”

Cora shifted uncomfortably, unsure how to respond with no clue as to who the dead person was, what their relationship was to Luciana, or what drove them to do it in the first place. “Sorry.”

Luciana bolted upright on the couch, her attention snapping to the front window. “Someone’s here.”

Cora moved to look out the window, expecting a cavalcade of black Town Cars barreling in from both directions. There was no Town Car, but there was her mother’s Olds Cutlass, and she could feel a thrum of anger waves emanating from it.

“It’s Demi.”

Luciana caught the undercurrent of dread in Cora’s tone. “What’s wrong?”

Demi had already caught sight of Cora through the window, slamming the driver’s-side door as she helped Felix and Olive out of the car. “She’s mad,” said Cora.

“Why?”

Cora didn’t have a chance to respond. Demi stormed to the door, jerked it open, and glared at her daughter, her other two children trickling in after her. Olive looked like she’d been crying and was on the verge of starting anew, but Felix sauntered in like he’d just scored the winning goal at his soccer match.

“You left work, Cora.” Demi’s voice was low. “Without a word. I know this because they called me. Because you left.”

The first thing Felix said to Cora was a simple, smug, “You’re in trouble.” He looked toward his aunt fondly. “Hi, Lu!”

“Hi, Felix,” said Luciana. “Hi, Olive. Hi, Demi.”

“Luciana,” said Demi, her voice an ice pick, her eyes still fixed on Cora. Demi never addressed Luciana by her full name. This was bad.

“Can we turn on the news?” said Felix, pushing a jumping Thor away from of him. “I hope this is an invasion!”

“Hear me out,” said Cora, ignoring Felix. “Did you read the article? About how noble Nils is spearheading this movement for a brighter future for his three beautiful children? Something about that made someone decide that I was worth spying on.”

“Cora…”

“Wait, what?” said Felix, losing interest in the television. “Dad mentioned us today?”

“You left without a word,” said Demi, ignoring her son. “Without clocking out. Nothing.”

“Mom, you didn’t tell me Dad mentioned us!” interjected Felix.

Cora’s lip curled involuntarily. “Please don’t call Nils that.”

“I didn’t know,” said Demi. “And please, Felix, not now.”

“I assumed everyone would just leave,” said Cora.

“They didn’t, but you did.” Demi’s voice was tremulous with anger. “I know because Kaiser called PMT. You have been removed from staffing lists effective immediately because you left without a word during a minor crisis.”

Minor crisis?” Cora managed. It had taken her six months to even get the temp job at PMT, making $8.25 an hour, and only with Demi going to bat for her. Six months. “They consider that minor?”

“Holy shit,” said Felix. “You already got fired?”

“I just … Really?” Cora stammered. “Me not clocking out was priority enough for Kaiser to call you on a day like today?”

“Oh, they more than called us,” said Demi, the whites of her eyes flashing. “Owing to a less-than-acceptable rate at which temps do not respect standards and practices of our clients, Kaiser Permanente has decided that they will no longer be a client for People for MedTech. Also effective immediately.”

Cora’s mouth hung open. She thought her jaw might detach and shatter on the floor like glass.

“Wow,” commented Felix, pleased at the idea as he flipped to the news. “You are batting a thousand.”

“Shut up, Felix,” Cora snapped, trying to keep her cool for Olive’s sake. There were times that it genuinely disturbed her how much Felix reminded her of Nils. While Cora had gotten Nils’s gray eyes, neither she nor Olive otherwise resembled him. Cora’s hair color, round face, and stature just short of average drew from the Sabino side. Felix, with his lithe frame, black hair, and blue eyes, was looking more and more like a miniature Nils every day. He wasn’t worldly enough to be as manipulative as Nils, but she could see him getting there within a decade.

Cora looked at a shaken Olive, then at Demi. “Do we have to have this conversation in front of them?”

“Well, you guys finish your little domestic dispute,” said Felix, disappointed to see that the news wasn’t on yet, and as they did not have cable, no twenty-four-hour option was available. “I’m going to go online and find out about the aliens that are literally invading our planet.”

As Felix departed, Olive turned to her older sister, her blank stare finally betraying fear. “Are the aliens real?” she squeaked.

“No, the aliens aren’t real,” said Cora with no clue as to the validity of that assertion as she opened her arms to welcome Olive. Olive carefully moved into Cora’s embrace, looking at Demi as if to make sure she was allowed to even do so. Cora pulled her sister closer and picked her up. At just shy of six, she was a little small for her age. Cora looked at Luciana and couldn’t help but notice that Luciana seemed unusually keen on avoiding this conversation.

“I have a meeting tomorrow with the VP of staffing that may end with my no longer having a job. Because I recommended you to staffing,” Demi said, her anger now cold.

“I left during a crisis. The windows in the entire building had shattered.”

“Was that the noise?” asked Olive. “The bang?”

“It’s okay, butternut. We’re safe,” said Cora, her tone contradicting her words.

“You still have to play by the rules,” said Demi.

“Can we please have this conversation at another time?” begged Cora, not wanting this to end in a scream-out in front of a first grader. Olive hugged her even tighter.

“No!” said Demi. “No, you do not get to duck out of this.”

“I’m not trying to duck out of this—this conversation is upsetting your child. Lu?”

Luciana moved like she was about to agree with Cora, but one glance at Demi made her sink back into the couch awkwardly.

“Don’t use Olive as a shield,” said Demi, the anger turning hot again.

“It never even entered my head that it was in the realm of possibility that one temp leaving during a crisis would cost Kaiser as a client.”

“I see that it didn’t enter your head,” said Demi. “But that’s what happened. This isn’t high school, where you can just skip half a day and no one will notice. You’re an adult, Cora. Actions have consequences.”

“Hello?” A man’s voice sounded from the still-open front door.

The dogs, caught off guard, now overcompensated by tumbling off the couch in a heap of barks and rampaging toward the door. The three women turned to look at the man standing in the doorframe, looking like he’d caught a fair chunk of that conversation. He was tall and willowy, with full dark hair, a slender face, and a plastic smile.

“Demetra Sabino,” he said as he took off his big, shiny aviators. “You prefer Sabino now, right?”

Monster Truck had calmed, but Thor was still challenging the intruder. Cora put Olive down and moved Thor back. She looked at the man again and nearly choked on her own sharp intake of air.

Aviators.

“Yes,” said Demi. “I’m not giving any press statements.”

“Not with the press.” He pulled out a badge. “Special Agent Sol Kaplan, CIA.”

It was one of the men from the Town Car.


Copyright © 2020 by Lindsay Ellis.