The tremors started on Sunday morning.
At first, Clyde thought it was just the weather, something about the barometric pressure dropping as a storm slid down over the mountains. The gray clouds brought only a fine mist, but they blanketed the land, cutting visibility down to almost nothing. Clyde was on the south edge of the ranch when his fingers began to tingle in his leather gloves. He’d been working on a section of fencing that had rotted away, and the rain wasn’t helping the evercrete set. Whenever he tried to attach the crossbeams, the stud shifted in the wet ground.
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!
Clyde dropped the long wooden pole and headed back to his truck. The rear gate on his camper was up, and if he stood close enough to the bed, he could at least get his head out of the rain. He removed his gloves, tossed them into the open toolbox, and ran his fingers through his hair. At first, everything felt normal—just cold, wet hair as if he’d just stepped out of the shower—but then his fingers began to buzz again, tingling as if from static electricity. He pulled his hands into his lap and stared at the spasming digits.
He knew what was coming next.
If he had to guess, he would have given himself about forty-eight hours until the shit hit the fan. If the weather held, that meant he wouldn’t be able to finish the fence in time. It would have to remain broken, and any man, woman, or animal would be able to come and go as they pleased. Not that he had any animals. The ranch wasn’t even his, and some years back, the original owners had come and moved the animals on to greener pastures.
They’d taken Clyde’s favorite horse, a stallion he’d named Blue due to the sheen of his black mane that looked almost cobalt. He’d asked to keep the horse, even thought about fighting for old Blue, but he knew it would be pointless. He couldn’t care for something as special as a horse.
After several minutes, the tremors subsided, and Clyde went back to work tidying his area. There was always the possibility that the tremors were nothing more than muscle aches, as natural as the rain that fell around him. He cleaned throughout the morning, stopped to eat a sandwich around noon, and then spent the afternoon gathering enough rocks to hold the fence post in place. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it would hold for a little while, so long as nothing more than a toddler came up and leaned against it.
The sun set early under gray clouds. Clyde had to use the truck’s headlights even though it was barely six o’clock. The thick tires slipped a few times as he drove the mile and a half back to the house, and once he arrived, the rain had stopped completely. A cool breeze met him at the door, and he thought about how he might sleep with the windows open.
Waiting all day for the tremors to return had upset his stomach, so he skipped dinner and after stripping down to his underwear in the mudroom on the side of the house, he plodded up the exposed stairs to the master suite on the second floor. Flickering sconces lit up the hallway, casting shadows on various framed photos on the wall—all people Clyde didn’t know and didn’t care to know. Why the owners had come for the animals but left the photos of their family was a mystery.
In the bedroom, he grabbed the remote from on top of the television. He tuned it to a random channel and set the volume to low. It was an old model, big and bulky, and with no connection to the network. There were no vidscreens or palettes or even phones in the house. The ranch was remote and received no visitors. Clyde was as cut off from the world as he could be, and he preferred it that way. No one bothered him, and in return, he didn’t have to bother anyone else. All he had to do was keep up the grounds, and the manual work suited him, made him feel connected to his body.
He went into the bathroom and shed his underwear at the door. He kicked it toward a growing pile on the floor near the toilet. At the sink, he examined his thick hands. He flexed the fingers, then his forearms, and finally his biceps. In the mirror, he watched the muscles bulge under damp flesh, glowing like embers trapped under a thin piece of cloth. The heat coming off them warmed his face.
His tracer lines reacted, turned an icy blue as they popped out of his skin to form a crisscrossing weave. He relented, relaxed, and let his augments cool down. The tracer lines covered his entire body, and though not all of them were responding to the situation, they had all come to attention, making him appear less like a human and more like an anatomy doll missing its skin, except that the fibers of his muscles were too far apart.
The shower was on the warm side of room temperature. Clyde stood for a long time in the stream, thinking alternately about the fence and about the day when he would have to go back into the real world. The fence was important; the real world wasn’t. He tried to focus on the evercrete, tried to think of how he could get it to dry even with the rain. While he puzzled the problem, he washed vigorously, until the shower floor was spotted with mud and black streaks.
Later, after drying off and opening the windows, he climbed naked into bed and stared at the ceiling. He didn’t believe there was anything beyond the roof of the ranch house, and yet he couldn’t stop himself from praying.
Just let it be tremors, he repeated, over and over, until sleep took him.
He dreamed of being trapped in his own body, a passenger to the whims of an unfamiliar vehicle. The sensation of his body moving without his consent was so real, that when he woke the next morning, he was convinced he was still dreaming. Every part of himself was moving—perhaps only minutely—but moving nonetheless. Like a flicker of his eyelids, his arms twitched in various patterns, sometimes quickly and other times resting an eternity between each pulse.
Clyde realized then that it wasn’t a dream.
It was a diagnostic.
That meant he had even less time than he thought. They were checking him out, making sure he was still operational, in case they had to pick him. And why wouldn’t they? He was the best they had.
Clyde dressed in comfortable jeans and a flannel shirt before heading down to the kitchen for breakfast. He reheated some frozen sausage he had in the fridge and mixed them with some scrambled eggs. While he ate, he felt some of the diagnostic probing finish up, and by the time he’d cleared and cleaned his plate, most of the involuntary movements had stopped. The only one he could still feel was in his chest, somewhere near his heart, like a small flutter.
He spent the morning closing down the house. The storm shutters on every window upstairs needed to be closed and locked. All of the lights, including the sconces in the hallway, had to be switched from motion detection or timer to their off position. He repeated the work on the first floor before stepping out onto the back porch. There, extending away from the house in four neat rows were twenty solar collectors, hexagonal flowers that soaked up the sun’s energy and powered the house. Clyde touched a button on each of them and watched as their petals folded into each other, tightening up as they would before a dangerous storm.
And there was certainly a storm coming.
The truck was only a quarter tank below full, but Clyde filled it up with a can from the shed anyway. Once things started moving, every moment he stopped would just be more time wasted. The gun rack on the back of the cab was fully populated with two rifles and a shotgun. Clyde removed all three weapons and stowed them inside the shed. The only weapon he kept on him was a simple handgun with a standard 13-round magazine. In fifteen years of work, he’d never needed anything more.
By mid-afternoon, the ache in his stomach started to come on, reminding him of every horrible thing he had ever eaten and the consequences that followed. The pain was, at times, enough to double him over. He fought against it as he climbed into the cab of the truck and started the engine. The radio crackled and played some ancient jazz. There was something soothing about the randomness of the music, and Clyde liked to have it playing in the background whenever the pain came.
It always started with pain.
Baselining, they called it, a way to set expectations about what Clyde’s life would be if he disobeyed orders. He had to be shown just how bad things could get, how bad they could make things. Clyde wasn’t big on threats, but there was no one to really complain to, no HR department he could message and get some help. This was just the way things were and always had been.
The faintest whisper of cold air crossed the back of his neck before a frozen spike penetrated his skin. It drove in just below his skull, reaching from the heavens into the biochip attached to his spinal column. The pain lasted several minutes, during which time Clyde gripped the steering wheel tightly and tried to focus on his breathing. The feeling would pass soon; he knew that much. Still, he wasn’t a machine, and every tick of the clocked seemed to stretch on without end.
He closed his eyes and chased flickers in the darkness. Behind his eyes, the electrical impulses in his biochip appeared a blue wisps, shooting every which way as they sought out new nerves to strangle.
At all the once, the feeling dissipated, and Clyde leaned toward the open door of the cab and threw up onto the worn gravel beneath the truck. He spit several times before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“You have my attention,” he said, to no one.
He waited. The sequence was always the same.
First the pain.
Then the name.
It came after a full minute of some jazz musician’s manic piano scales, came like a train barreling down from the mountain, breaks shot, engine boiling over, with two dozen fully loaded cars trailing behind it. The name wasn’t spoke to him in any traditional sense; it simply arrived, crashing through the station in a fireball of rending metal and dust. Clyde leaned his head back and waited for the dust to clear.
When it finally did, he saw the letters etched in his field of view, like the faint markings of a fighter pilot’s heads up display. No sooner had he finished reading the letters than the pain started up again.
Clyde sat up, shifted the truck into drive, and started down the long driveway to the access road. As soon as he was moving, as soon as the numbers on his GPS coordinates started changing, the pain began to ease. Not completely, but enough to reward him for doing the right thing, for moving in the right direction.
There was a small notepad in the glove box. Clyde retrieved it and a ballpoint pen while keeping one eye on the road. At the end of his property, he paused to scribble out a name on the paper.
As usual, he didn’t recognize it.
As usual, it made no difference.
The only thing he needed to know about Julius Parker was that he was going to die.