The words scraped along the lowest registers of the MESH, giving off enough distortion to rouse Mara from an idle daydream about the minibar back in her hotel room. She’d barely glanced at it when she checked in, but in the hours since, she’d imagined all sorts of wonderful spirits behind the pay-for-play glass door. Now the image of those gleaming bottles shimmered and broke down, replaced a misty darkness from which no light could escape.
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
Mara looked up from her palette and scanned the room.
The two hundred or so people in the large conference room at the Sheraton Midwest who made up the audience looked as bored as Mara felt. She knew why she had to be there — Dr. Muncy was helpless when it came to these conferences; a brilliant scientist, yes, but pathologically inept when it came to socializing — but everyone else had chosen to be there, chosen to come listen to a panel of doctors and scientists present the results of their research into the Bleed.
That was probably it, thought Mara. The cry for help had bled over from somewhere else, someone in the crowd perhaps.
However, as she looked from face to face, she saw no one who looked in need of assistance — just slight disinterest and heavy eyes. The conference was in its third hour, having started at noon, and the air conditioning was struggling to keep up with Oklahoma City’s fifth hundred-degree day in a row. The result was a warm room with the sounds of droning speech and a real danger of slipping off into reverie.
Beside her, Dr. Muncy sat with his arms crossed and eyes closed. His head was slightly forward, and his glasses perched precariously on the end of his long nose. His fine gray hair reminded Mara of her father, who was sitting in the outside chair a few rows back, arms similarly crossed over his chest.
Mara smiled, the plea momentarily forgotten. How many conferences had they attended in so many towns, only for them to all end the same way? There was a reason the Bleed wasn’t getting any better, and it had nothing to do with the men and women trying to cure it and everything to do with the men and women falling asleep when they were supposed to be sharing information.
Was it an age thing? Did the scientific community need more young people, more energy-rich twenty-somethings who could stay awake on a hot afternoon?
Dr. Muncy was already in his mid-60s, and Mara was only a couple of decades behind him. Even she felt the warmth drawing her to sleep, drawing her thoughts to a cool vodka tonic enjoyed while sitting naked in front of the window’s air conditioning unit. No one on the panel was younger than forty, and Mara supposed no one in the audience was either.
Though it was hard to tell just by their faces — cosmetic augmentation definitely masked the ages of several audience members — the answer was plainly written across the MESH. In a group of young people, the MESH crackled and buzzed with activity, as if their still-growing brains couldn’t help but broadcast every insignificant thought. Older brains, those that had ceased their growth, and in some cases started to wither, were far less likely to make noise.
At least, that’s what Dr. Muncy had presented, what they’d spent the last two years focused on. Ever since the discovery and naming of the Bleed, it had been obvious that those most affected were the weak-minded — not in any judgmental sense — just those who were biologically on the other side of the growth curve. Their cells were still replicating, but only in maintenance mode, and in some cases, not fast enough to keep up with the decay.
As Dr. Muncy’s research assistant, Mara had seen and helped organize data that suggested older people were most susceptible because they had the most difficulty distinguishing between thoughts in their own mind and sensory data bleeding over from the MESH. They literally couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t.
Mara looked at her father sitting by the gray wall. He was fully dozing now, with his chin practically resting on his chest. How many times had he sat like that in the recliner in the den? How many Thanksgivings and Christmases had found him alone in the dark room, football blaring on the television, and a small pile of empty beer cans on the side table next to him? Predicting her father’s actions in his final years had been easy: cut the turkey, make a little small-talk, then retire to the den.
She remembered the first Thanksgiving the family had after he’d died, how the sliding doors to the den had been kept shut. At some point during the day, after she’d had enough wine to muster the courage, Mara had slipped into the room, put a Buffalo game on the vidscreen, and placed a single, open beer on the side table.
The act became a ritual, repeating at every major holiday, until Father’s Day a few years later, when she saw him fully materialized in his chair, head turned to the dormant vidscreen, jaw moving as if he were chewing something. His appearance had come as no surprise; everyone in the house was thinking of him. It was only a matter of time before those thoughts crystalized in the MESH, bounced around the echo chamber, and came spilling out into the real world.
Mara saw her father in the den and in the audience of her conference for the same reason: she wanted to. And though the family had gathered around and cried together in her father’s den the first time he appeared, now there was less novelty to his presence. If anything, Mara found comfort in his company, the way he was always showing up when even the slightest thing reminded her of him.
A round of polite applause went up from the audience. Her father stirred slightly, then flashed into a flurry of arm movements as if the Bills had just scored a touchdown. It wasn’t the right reaction for the moment, but then Mara couldn’t remember a time her father had clapped just because etiquette demanded it.
“Well that was a waste of a Thursday afternoon,” said Dr. Muncy, leaning into Mara’s space as he got up from his chair. “I suspect this is the last time we’ll be coming on this leg of the circuit.”
His breath smelled of bad hotel coffee.
“I thought some of the presentations were good,” said Mara. She stood, collected her palette and water bottle. “That one guy, Gerrold, had some good ideas about returning to a MESH-lesh society.”
Dr. Muncy scoffed. “Would if we could,” he muttered. Then, turning to face her. “I promised to meet up with an old friend at the bar soon. Would you like to join us?”
Mara considered the offer, but the image of the booze and heat shimmered in her mind and turned her stomach. She took a swig from her water.
“No, thank you. I think I’ll just head up to the room.”
His eyes flickered to her body. “Yes,” he said, trying to hide a smirk. “You need to get upstairs and sit naked in front of your air conditioner.”
Mara sent a curse into the MESH. It echoed loud enough for a few nearby people to look in her direction.
“Well,” continued Dr. Muncy, “there’s no need to be bashful. Not that I would carelessly dump such a provocative scene into the MESH, but I’ve got a mind to do the same thing after my meeting. In my boxers, of course. You know they don’t clean those chairs between customers, right?”
Mara hadn’t thought of that. In the same moment, she received an image of a towel stretched out over the chair.
“Thanks,” she said.
They walked together through the emptying conference room. A few audience members had stayed behind to ask questions, but none approached Dr. Muncy. Outside in the main foyer, the air smelled of cigarettes. Oklahoma had only repealed the indoor smoking ban the year before — the warning signs were still up in the hotel lobby — and people had been happy to get out of the heat.
Dr. Muncy looked around to get his bearings, then said absently, “I saw your father was in attendance today. It’s been a while.”
“Yeah,” said Mara, examining the wrinkled label on her water bottle. “The echo chamber was big today. Lot of receptives in the audience, I think.”
“I got that sense too.” He waved to someone down the hall. “But what I’m asking is why you summoned him. What prompted you to think of him?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she lied. Immediately, she turned her mind back to the air conditioner, to a sweating glass of vodka and tonic water, to her bare legs stretching out to a dirt carpet.
Dr. Muncy bristled, shook his head. “That’s harassment. But if you don’t want to answer my question, far be it from me to force you. I’m only asking as your friend.”
Mara touched him lightly on the elbow. “Go meet your friend,” she said. “I’ll see you tonight for dinner. Maybe we can go somewhere and sit outside once the sun goes down.”
“Yes, okay,” he replied, pushing his glasses up his nose. “Maybe Italian. I hear good things about the Italian food in Oklahoma City.”
A grin flashed and faded in the MESH.
Mara turned and headed for the elevated walkway that connected the convention center to the hotel proper. The tinted windows barely held out the sun, and it felt to Mara like walking through a humid greenhouse. Below, ancient cars raced along a sunken roadway, their mufflers pumping out a sickly black smog that rose to the sky and dissipated.
She quickened her pace at the sight of the glass doors at the far end of the walkway. The panes were fogged over with condensation, and when she pushed through them, a wave of cool air washed over her, as if she were passing through a ghost.
The door clanged shut behind her, and that’s when the MESH crackled again.
The voice sounded closer. Even though the words were just signals replicated by a chip in her neck, the MESH had a way of communicating proximity through something Mara could only name as liveness. There was a weight or a glow to the voice, a trait that was stronger the closer she was to the signal’s origination. Distant sounds degraded over time, losing something in the echo. But this…
Mara followed the voice to the right, along the backside of the hotel. The room doors on the left side of the hall stood tall and impassive; she paused near each one, listening, but no voice came. After a dozen doors, the wall broke back to reveal a small area with vending machines. There, sitting at an afterthought of a small table, was a young woman.
Her head was down, and long, stringy hair covered most of her face. Despite being full-grown, she had the MESH-presence of a little girl.
“Are you alright, sweetie?” asked Mara. She tried to stop herself from addressing the woman so informally, but it was too late. “I thought I heard someone asking for help.”
The woman twitched, but said nothing. The MESH darkened, took on a foggy atmosphere that dampened the din of nearby hotel guests.
“What’s your name?” asked Mara.
Mara jumped at the voice from behind her. A young man maybe in his mid-twenties stood at the opening to the break room, well outside of her personal space.
“She’s my sister,” he continued, after Mara was unable to summon a response. “I guess she got lost.”
“I…” Mara felt her biochip react to the sudden increase in her heart rate. A cool, metallic feeling flooded her veins. “Is she… is she alright?”
The man nodded. “Just the Bleeds.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Mara tried to reach the man through the MESH, but it was still too dark, too oversaturated. “Well, I hope she feels better soon.”
She started to leave, but the man blocked her path.
“Actually,” he said, and this time his eyes came up and pierced the vail of greasy hair covering his forehead, “I was hoping you could help her. We came a really long way to see you.”
“Me? Why? I’m not a doctor.”
“No, but you know one.”
Mara shook her head. “We’re researchers. We don’t treat people. I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t help you.”
The man grunted, sparking thunder in the MESH.
“Yeah,” he said, slipping a hand into his pocket. “We’re not asking.”
He rushed forward. Mara sent an emergency beacon screaming into the upper atmosphere of the MESH, a cry for help that should have been visible for miles in every direction. She even watched the sparkling red firework rise, hopeful it would catch someone’s attention, only for that hope to be ripped away as the darkness swallowed it up.