Dock 2 • Falling: August 2000 • Uncle Karl
Soundtrack: “Song and Emotion” by Tesla
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
At eight p.m., only a skeleton crew remains to manage the plant. Marissa has worked late into the night before; if she is seen here after hours, no one will think anything of it.
In Shipping and Receiving, she walks out into the darkness on Dock 2, the utility door falling shut behind her. She looks to her left. Then, to her right, her heart sinking. There is no truck backed up to Dock 2, or anyplace else. Did he change his mind? Did something happen to him? In despair, she starts to turn back to the door.
Fast, like a camera flash, headlights at the far end of the Dock 2 runway. The hulking, black rectangle of the UPS truck is just visible out there, nearly indistinguishable from the shadows. Seconds later, she is swinging up into the cab on the passenger side.
“Miss Mimosa,” says the shaggy silhouette behind the big steering wheel.
“Virgil.” Turned sideways in the elevated jumpseat, she savors the name. “You looked. You found her. I don’t know how to thank you.”
He props one elbow on the steering wheel. “Well, I guess you could start by telling me who you really are.”
“I’ve told you. Marissa Kelvin, CFO of—”
“You walk right up and start talking to me like a decent human being, you’ve got an actual last name instead of some kinda serial number. Then you ask a perfect stranger to look up some long-lost friend in World Two, when everyone knows the World Oners despise anybody from outside their little trash heap world. Miss Chief, you are practically screaming that you are from Middle America. Curiosity’s killing me, how a World Two-er winds up with a power job in purgatory.”
Marissa opens her hand. The nametag lies on her palm. “I’ll tell you,” she says. “After you tell me where you got this.”
Virgil settles back in the driver’s seat, stretching out his long legs so one lies against hers. “Out of a cubby hole in the back of that restaurant.” He nods at the nametag. “Westgate Boulevard in Lincoln, Nebraska, home of the Huskers.”
“Westgate? But that’s where we used to work since we were kids! It was called the Pot O’Gold.”
“New owners, new name. Now you, Miss Marissa.”
“I’m putting you in danger by telling you this. I’m only doing it ’cause you might be my only hope.”
“Stop teasin’ and give it to me.” He twirls a finger.
She takes a deep breath. Her story might end with him despising her—provided he even believes a word of it. “Nine years ago, I was kidnapped in Kansas and brought here against my will. They used a potion to enchant me and turn me into a slave.”
“Sure don’t look like a slave to me.”
“I overcame the enchantment. The CEO took a special interest in me because I was different, stronger than the others.”
“There’re hundreds. DimCor is using the Channels to kidnap people from my world. They’re made to work until they die.” Virgil is very still. She hurries on. “If I try to escape, they can yank me back here anytime they want. But I’ve been watching, waiting for a chance to blow this thing wide open and end it once and for all. I can’t leave Robadu until that happens. I’ve had to do things I will go to hell for. Things that contributed to…that caused…people to die. To make her trust me.”
“The CEO, Kelley Robadu. She’s not human, she’s…something very old and very powerful.”
Virgil is silent for several minutes. Marissa feels her sins threatening to devour her from the inside. There are no good choices left. She has chosen the least bad one. She wishes she could see his face, but the shadows here are too deep. “Your friend,” he finally says. “Tori. She went to the university there in Lincoln.”
Marissa is spent from the things she has confessed tonight. It takes a few seconds for his words to register. Then, she shakes her head to clear it. “UNL? But—that wasn’t the plan. She was going to Norman, Oklahoma. She was going to be a meteorologist!”
“Looks like she hasn’t gone anywhere.”
Looking out over the dark city, unable to think, Marissa is startled by Virgil’s hand covering hers. “Miss Marissa.” Grasping her hand in both of his. His hands, ungloved, are large and warm, and…clawed. “I feel things. And right now, I feel your suffering, it is tearing you apart. Now, there’s only a few like me—ones that’ll drive out here to the ass-end of the universe. They call us the crazy ones—but there’s a reason we do it.” She is absorbing every word, lost in the gentle comfort of his touch, which is unlike anything she has ever felt before. “Way back when the NFMA started doing business with DimCor, a lot of folks thought it was insane, letting anything from down here…up there. Not long after, DimCor got hold of some CV, and pretty quick, they proposed a long-distance deal with CycloPress, Inc., the company out of Talladega—that’s my borough, back in Darphina—that extracts the gas. We were in shock. It was as if the whole reason this shithole was sealed off didn’t matter anymore, as long as it created jobs. And yeah, our economy’s better than it’s been in years.”
“Yet here you are, shipping goods to and from the Factory.”
“We do it to keep an eye on DimCor ’cause we’ve never trusted them. Of course, the DIR’s warned us not to stir up any trouble, just make our deliveries. But now…” He slowly shakes his head, then lets out a pent-up breath. “I hate being right about this. It’s even worse than anyone figured.”
“Department of Interdimensional Relations. The agency that regulates trade and travel between the worlds. When I get back to Darphina, I’ll get with the other drivers. We’ve got to figure out how to make someone higher up believe your story.”
“You believe it.”
“I told you, Miss Marissa. I feel things.”
“You mean, you’re not all like that?”
He chuckles, leaning across her to reach into the glove box. The flare of a lighter briefly illuminates the angles of his face as he lights up a smoke. “Just like humans everywhere, some got it, some don’t. A little magic of one kind or another. Or—” He nods in her direction. “A lot.”
Like Tori. She almost tells him, then. Almost. “So, mister sensitive,” she says instead, “What things are you feeling right now?”
He regards her silently for a while, and she wonders what those strange eyes can see in the darkness. “Things that are going to have to be addressed at a later date.”
Her heart is bursting with a mixture of excitement and sorrow. Excitement that the dark secrets of this world might soon be exposed; that the sad and violent progression of bots could come to an end; that the power of Kelley Robadu could in fact be finite. Sorrow that she will probably never live to see any of these things become reality, let alone explore the new feelings trying to bloom inside her.
“What will you do now?” she asks.
Virgil starts the truck, and they roll slowly up the promontory, headlights off. “Us drivers always had a plan, if we found out something dirty on DimCor. We wouldn’t start with telling the government. Instead, we’d inform all the companies that do business with them—their customers in World Two, their suppliers in World Three. But when that happens, there’s no telling what DimCor’ll do. That means we’ve gotta have solid evidence beforehand.”
“I’ll take care of that, just tell me when you’re coming back.”
“Same time next week, next shipment of CV.”
They roll to a stop at Dock 2. “Tori and I always had a saying as kids.”
“’Don’t mess with the UPS’.”
“New company motto. After all this is over with, we’ll get it embroidered on our hats.”
They are silent for a minute, neither wanting this to end. “I promise to look in on her. I can feel how important she is to you.”
“Thank you” is all she can say.
“Hey. You’re a good person, Miss Marissa. And now you’re not alone.”
She rises from the jumpseat, starts to climb down, pauses on the bottom step. “Hey.” Gives him the slow once-over. “Everything still where it belongs?”
He is grinning, half-hidden in shadow. “Last I checked.” He salutes, reversing, then motoring down the runway. Opening the utility door, she looks back in time to see taillights wink out over the chasm.
Falling: August 2000
And then—here he was again, idling at another intersection, elbow poked out the truck window, chin resting in the heel of his hand. It had to be the same guy. I could’ve sworn he was watching me. Behind the black shades, his thick unibrow twitched upward, once. By the time I’d driven back around the block, he was gone, of course.
I started to look for him wherever I went. Once, I might have glimpsed him leaving the NFMA by the north entrance as I cruised Magnolia Boulevard. Once, backing up to a dock at the UPS station up on Cornhusker as I was sitting in a drive-through. Always long gone by the time I reached the spot. And, no matter how I tried to silence it, the little voice in the back of my mind whispered: You’re crazy, Marshall. Clinging to dreams and vapor, certifiably bugshit.
It was only these past couple weeks I’d started getting a handle on reality again, admitting this was all just one sad, stupid, grownup UPS Game. Whoever I’d seen in that truck, it was just some ordinary schmuck with no idea I existed, and here I’d gone and turned him into some kind of fairytale to comfort myself, to convince myself Marissa was still out there somewhere, alive.
Just this last week, that fact had hammered itself home when I nodded off in the break room and had some sort of weird daydream about her. Not as I remembered her, but as a grown adult, worn down somehow, lean and desperate. She was standing on the edge of some dark cliff overlooking a yawning abyss, gazing up into blackness. I yelled at her, but like in most nightmares, my voice made no sound. I tried to pull her away from the ledge, but my arms passed through her as if we were ghosts, and her hair lifted on the wind as she started to fall forward, into nothingness.
Then, an instant before all hope was gone, my arms solidified, pulling her back off that ledge, and down we fell, together, onto a cold, hard floor. In the second before I jerked awake with my head on the break room table, I saw a black sky, awash in stars.
“She has a boyfriend?”
Virgil grins at Marissa’s obvious delight, but then gives a little headshake. “His father owns the restaurant. They don’t look happy, though. You ask me, she seems kinda restless.”
They are once more in his truck, parked at the far end of the runway of Dock 2. She is hanging onto every word about Tori. But that is not the purpose of this meeting, and reluctantly, she changes the subject, reaching into her pocket and withdrawing a small, glowing tube.
Virgil takes it from her, holds it up in wonder. “What do they do to the CV to make it look like that?”
“Feed it through a magical reactor that applies a spellbinder charm at 20,000 PSI.” Throw in a freezing spell and you’ve got yourself a concentrated fluid, she silently adds, keeping her gaze averted from the koolaid’s delicate shimmer.
“This is more than enough evidence,” Virgil says excitedly, sliding the glass tube into his breast pocket. He turns to her. “Miss Chief, how’s it feel to know you’re about to make magical history?”
“I’m a junkie.”
“That potion—Formula Forty-Five, they call it.” Her voice is low, hoarse, shaking with self-loathing. “I call it the koolaid. Turns out when the spell wore off—surprise—I was hooked on the stuff. That’s the real reason I can never leave here. I’ll die without it.”
He is silent for several moments in which Marissa wishes she could take it back. She has already confessed to being a murderer, as well as best buddies with the demon who rules this charnel house. But somehow, this feels like something even dirtier, more desperate, an admission of weakness. And the one thing she has never been is weak.
Now, slowly, he is bending forward, until the distant dock lights faintly capture his face, very close to hers. “How do you know?”
“That I’ll die? Well, let’s see, trying to quit is basically like being torched alive while your blood turns into gasoline.”
“And when you start using again, do you find actual burns?”
Marissa has considered this before. “No. I don’t think I’m actually going to burn to death. But the knowledge that an end is coming is one-hundred percent. Like either the pain will stop my heart, or it will fry my brains.”
“Is it you saying that, or the koolaid?”
Anger flares bright within her. “Easy to say when it’s not your own life, isn’t it? You have no fucking clue how real this is, you’re not the one living this—” She stops, hearing herself.
His eyes have softened, his hand resting on her arm, gently stroking with one finger. “But if you never get out of here, Miss Marissa, you’ll never get to see my world. And we have the most amazing storms there.”
“I—” She hates the words she is about to utter, naked words that have never passed her lips before. “I need help.”
“What’d I say to you last time? You’re not alone in this. I’m gonna give this junk to the other drivers. They’ll divide it up, take some to DimCor customers with test labs, then news outlets, in both World Two and Darphina. Meantime, I’m coming back here to help get you off this koolaid shit. When—not if—you’re clean…I’m taking you with me and we’re blowing this joint.”
She cannot allow this tiny sliver of hope for her own salvation get in the way of the larger goal of ending the atrocities of DimCor. “Okay,” she says simply.
“Now,” says Virgil, as if the conversation had never veered. “There’s just one problem. As you know, the governments of World Two can’t find out magic exists. And that industry has gradually become more and more dependent on DimCor for its parts and supplies. If that vendor is suddenly cut off, it could mean disaster.”
“But…so…it boils down to either continue with the slavery and death, or risk total destruction of the Earth? That’s fucked up.”
“Well hold on, I’ve got another idea. My uncle, Karl Fiaraka, works at the NFMA. He’s a contract magical engineer. He says the company is basically at war with itself. On the one side are the people who want to keep the world of Robadu sealed off from other worlds, no exceptions. On the other side are the ones that see the benefits of working with DimCor for the greater good. None of ’em knows about the slavery, of course. But if I give my uncle a sample of the potion, he’ll have enough proof to convince the head wizards to find other ways to build their instruments without DimCor parts.”
“There are Darphinians living in World Two?”
“A few, yeah.”
“But do they all look like…you?”
“You mean…” He bares his pointed incisors and flexes his claws, making a ridiculous snarling noise and forcing a laugh out of her. “They keep a pretty low profile. If they’re out in public, they wear gloves and shades.”
Her heart skips a beat. “I met one of you before! A UPS driver.”
“Not likely. We rarely interact with natives unless they’re in the magic business.”
“We were kids, Tori and me. We were running from my dad, and we hitched a ride in this UPS truck.” She is smiling fondly, remembering, but Virgil is staring at her, open-mouthed. “What?”
“That was you?”
“That was who?”
“Uncle Karl drove a truck, years ago. He used to go on about how these two little hominids hijacked his truck. We never really believed him.”
“So we didn’t just imagine it! He really was from another world.”
“He said you told him you were playing a game. But he thought maybe you were in real trouble. He always said he regretted letting you go without helping you more.”
“There’s nothing he could’ve done. Tell him that next time you see him. Now, you tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Tell me about your world. Tell me about your sky. About those storms.” Take me out of here for just a little while.
Virgil silently rises, his strong, velvet hands enveloping her own, backing through the door to the cargo hold. Lying among the big cardboard boxes, his voice low in her ear, she closes her eyes, carried away to a world twelve times Earth’s size, under a dazzling night sky where three giant moons loom so close you can see their mountains, valleys, ice caps. Where galaxies wheel in silent majesty and alien constellations adorn heavens that ring with the soundless music of the stars. Where storms explode, lashing black cliffs with rain and electrifying the skies with acres of lightning.
In her nose are the scents of rain and the welded metal of ionized air. What she wouldn’t give for Tori to know all of this. Do they have angels—? The question dies on her lips. This one remaining secret—the secret of Tori’s magic—must never be told while Kelley Robadu still reigns.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.