Born Out of Due Time, by Ched Rayson, Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight 

like a man observing the face he was born with in a

mirror; he observes himself, goes away, and immediately

forgets what kind of man he was.

 

By Thursday morning Smith at last settled into a routine.  Routines were important to Smith, because they allowed him to get things done without wasting any mental attention, and he needed to make the most of what little attention he could command.  He decided to spend most of his afternoons working on what he called (with apologies to James McNeill Whistler) “A Study in Black and White,” and to divide the morning between the VSET games and his own investigations into the dream life of the Veritas staff.

He already knew something about the five dreamers who had confessed: Shawn and Corey, the student Forrest Jackson, Macmillan Ross and Caterina Oriundi.  To find out if there were others, he decided to start with Ross’s secretary, Mrs. Goodine, whom he had already met.  Though she had taken part in several games, no one had noticed any indication of a personality change.  She was a handsome blond in her early forties.  She was carefully groomed and wore a full skirt and frilly silk blouse.  The clothes suited her, but it seemed somewhat elaborate for a secretary working in Nadir.  Ross’s own dreams of a nicer world seemed to be rubbing off on his staff.

Sarah Goodine was 100% Swedish like her bank-manager husband.  They both came from the area: She from the outskirts of Nadir, he from the less unprosperous Zenith across the bay.  When both her children were in college, she had gone back to work, mostly for the sake of something to do.  She had majored in English at Nadir State and had later signed up for a few literature courses at Northwood.  She felt proud to be helping Macmillan Ross, to whom she was fiercely loyal, in his work.  

Smith asked her about the games she had played, and she ticked them off: Tombstone, Julius Caesar at the Rubicon, Socrates in jail, and Robert E. Lee—American or Virginian?   She had played all of them several times.  Had she noticed any changes in her own outlook or attitude?  Her outlook had been broadened, she said, and she had begun to study history, particularly the American War Between the States.  Smith noted the implications of the title, and asked:

“Sometimes these sorts of experiments can inspire unusual, even disturbing dreams.  Has anything like that happened to you?”

“I have had some vivid dreams, though I wouldn’t call them disturbing.”  

She particularly enjoyed the Robert E. Lee game, in which she had several times played a Southern belle who spied for the Confederacy.  It had inspired her to rent Gone With the Wind, and she’d even read the book.  and she had persuaded her husband to take a Winter vacation on the Gulf Coast.  It would be an excuse to get out of Nadir after New Year’s and more “dignified”—her word—than Florida, where they had already gone several times.

“I’ve lived in Nadir all my life, and, with the kids gone, I’ve been getting bored.  Going a little Southern is fun, don’t you think?”

Smith agreed with her and told her he had lived in the Carolinas.

“Oh, I’d love to go to Charleston, she exclaimed, “‘Where there’s something left in life of grace and charm.’”

Smith thanked her for her help, and she swept out of his office with a regal grace not often glimpsed in Nadir.  A bored housewife’s interest in the South was hardly alarming, though it did give some indication of the power of VSET to alter attitudes.

Smith had two brief interviews with student volunteers and learned little.  A Romance language major (male) was developing an interest in Nordic studies, after playing a game based on the life of Harald Hardrada, the Norwegian Viking who had served in Sicily and very nearly conquered England in 1066.  A chemistry major, after doing the Tombstone game several times, was reading up on the Old West.  All pretty harmless and predictable, though it was an encouraging sign that the imaginations of intellectually starved kids could still be kindled by exposure to something more exciting than social media and video games.  Perhaps the American future was not so bleak as he had supposed.

He had wanted to do staff first and then students, but Heather Bergstrom the receptionist had to squeeze in time when Sarah Goodine could cover for her.  Heather was a pretty cornfed girl of the type you only meet in the upper Midwest, and they are rare enough even there these days.  She had a roundish face that promised some day to turn plump, as the rest of her would, but at this point she was blooming in good health and yearning for motherhood.  Smith thought about advising her to be careful but, what good would it do?  Heather was the simplest of the cases.  She had gone straight from a country high school to a secretarial training program, where she had even learned shorthand.  With computers, she never got a chance to use her skill, but she offered to show Smith how good she was at taking dictation.  When he gently suggested that she might be able to assist him in taking notes,  she smiled gratefully.

Heather had played many of the games.  In most of them she had been confused by the history, but she liked Tombstone, because she had seen the movie and liked the actor Val Kilmer, which was not the best omen for her marital future.  She had had a few dreams about the Wild West, but they had quickly faded into a series of episodes in which she was a beautiful young Catholic girl with a vocation who followed Mother Teresa to Calcutta.  Heather had been brought up in the Lutheran Church Wisconsin Synod and did not think much of Catholics or women with vocations. Had the dreams affected her?

“Yes and no.  I’m not turning Catholic, if that’s what you mean, but I’ve learned to respect nuns, and when I see one on the street I always say, ‘Good morning, sister,’ or ‘good afternoon sister.’  It’s the least I can do, you know.”

“Is there a game about nuns and have you ever played it?”

“One of the earliest games was designed by Dr. Ross.  It was based on a novel about Scotland.  There were, you know, really extreme Protestants, who were destroying stained glass windows and killing monks and nuns.  I didn’t care at first, and when I was a Protestant housewife and they told me to throw rocks at the windows, I joined in the fun.  Later I had to play one of the sisters, and I could see their side of it.”

“Did anything unusual happen in the Sleepdown?”

“Not really, but that’s when I had my first dream about Mother Teresa.  At first I was disturbed and went to Dr. Ross.”

“What did he say.”

“He told me the whole point of the games was to encourage the players to put themselves in other people’s shoes.  He didn’t want me to think they were trying to make me Catholic, only to see things from another point of view.”

“Did he say whom he meant by ‘they’?”

“Not in so many words, but he did talk about Dr. Freeman and the Monsignor.”      

His last interview was with Steffie Diamond, the Jewish research assistant who had recently begun to develop an interest in the Third Reich.  Steffie was an outgoing redhead—one of those all hugs-and-smiles rich kids who have been pampered all their lives, from ballet lessons to computer camp to an expensive girls school.  She flirted harmlessly with Anterus, though he could not help wondering how far she was prepared to go.  He asked her about her interest in Hitler and company.

“You know my family’s Jewish..?”

“But you don’t think of yourself as Jewish?”

“Not really.  We’ve been in this country since the 1840’s.  We had no friends or relatives killed in the Holocaust, and I’ve got a little tired of hearing about how we suffered.  Of course, it’s a terrible thing, but it doesn’t have much to do with me.”

“That would explain your indifference.  But what about your recent interest?”

Who’s been telling you that?  Probably one of those two geeks—they’re always hitting on me.  Yeah, after a lifetime of hearing about those terrible Nazis, I decided to find out something about them.  More anyway than you could get from seeing the Producers or reading the Diary of Ann Frank.  What could possibly be wrong with that?”

Smith asked her if any of the games she had played had anything to do with Hitler.

“No, nothing, though it was after playing the Socrates game that I started thinking about alternatives.  What would a good German have done in the 1930’s?  What if he were both a Jew—or partly Jewish—but also a German patriot?  That’s when I went to the Northwood library and found out that there were Jewish officers in the German army.  Weird, hunh?”

  “That’s simply life.  Did you have any memorable dreams during Sleepdown?”

“Not really, though when I wake up it’s as if am trying to remember something I heard or learned.  You know the feeling?  It’s like, ‘Did I lock the door before going to bed?’”

“Do you ever remember?”

“Nothing really solid. It’s more like a vague feeling.”  

Asked if she could describe it, Steffie looked down, shaking her head slowly and then looked up and smiled.  It’s sort of like those dejà-vu things.  You know, you think like you’ve been through something before?  I feel like, oh I don’t know, like I am remembering a past life when I was a princess or something, a lady in a Viennese operetta.  It’s a happy feeling and clean.  It’s when I started getting these feelings that I started getting a little fed up with the endless whining of my Jewish friends.  I mean, most of the Nazis were pretty terrible, but some of them said they dreamed of a better life, I guess, a world government that brought peace and rejected all the degenerate filth of the Weimar Republic which was—let’s not forget—dominated by Jews.”

“Do you ever wish, sometimes, you weren’t Jewish?”

“I do have several Gentile ancestors, and my mom is only half Jewish—“  She added as a belated afterthought: 

“Not that that stuff really matters,” and got up to leave, explaining she had a class to attend.

It was after 10:00 and time to play another game.  This morning, the game was “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” the assassination of Julius Caesar.  The text consisted mostly of scenes from Shakespeare’s play but, for the sake of the college students,  put into sixth grade English.  The first time through he played it solitaire, as Caesar and then, successively with Shawn and Jack the student, he was Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony. 

As Caesar in the first round, Smith was a noble statesman, saving Rome from foreign enemies and rescuing the republic from the arrogant nobles who used it for purely profit and personal revenge.  As Brutus, he was a self-sacrificing Stoic who appreciated Caesar’s nobility and heroic exertions but reluctantly had come to the conclusion that he had to die for the good of Rome.  As Cassius, he tried to make the same arguments, all the while knowing that he really wanted only to take Caesar’s place.  

Antony was perhaps the most complex part he played that morning: A brave officer and skilled politician, he was also a complete waster.  He was loyal to his friend and commander but more faithful to his own ambitions.  Antony was not so sure as Caesar was that some vestiges of the old order could not be maintained under the guidance of strong members of the old nobility, such as himself.

In the last round, Smith was once again Caesar, and young Jackson was Brutus.  When “Brutus” was the last to stab him, “Caesar” sighed in Greek, “Kai su teknon?” (Even you son?) which some interpreted to mean an admission that he was Brutus’ father.  Going off script, Brutus screamed, “That’s right:  Death to fathers who betray their sons and to allies who betray their friends.  You are the traitor, Gaius Julius, and you must die!”  

It seemed a bit over the top, but Smith dismissed his fears by the reflection that Jack was, although nearly 20 years old, still a kid.  Americans did not grow up until they reached their fifties—if even then.

Smith had learned nothing he did not already know about Roman history in the morning’s exercises, but he did more fully understand what Ross was driving at.  Mutatis mutandis, a subject could be expected to apply some of the insights to the careers of Napoleon and Lincoln, Hitler and Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon.  He had a better understanding of what sort of game he should be designing, and he felt more confident of the value of Ross’s projects—zany as they had seemed at first.  Quite apart from history, though, he had a vague feeling he cold not quite put into words that one upon a time in another universe he had had to make a choice between being loyal to a friend and being loyal to his country. 

During the Sleepdown, his dreams were more confused.  He seemed to be the friend of Caesar, who looked a great deal like Ross.  Caesar’s young wife Calpurnia—whom the old dictator most decidedly did not deserve—was a blue-eyed young blond, who worried a great deal.  He realized that he was Brutus talking to his uncle Cato, some time between the Battle of Pharsalus, in which Brutus had been captured in arms against Julius, and Cato’s suicide at Utica.  Brutus had become reconciled to Caesar as a man of high principle, but Cato was adamant.  In a cold and clinical voice, he explained that only the death of the man who was now his nephew’s friend and benefactor, could save Rome.  Cato put forward as an ultimate principle, that sometimes a good man had to betray his friend for the sake of the common good.  The voice droned on: ”You have to kill him, you have to kill him.”   

  There was a loud crash.  One of Cato’s slaves had dropped a tray of dishes.  As he awoke, Anterus thought he could, still hear echoes of Cato’s voice.  As he became aware of where he was, he realized the crash had been in the laboratory.  Asbury came running in.

“What happened?  The monitors revealed you were suddenly disturbed and your voice was recorded saying you wanted to kill someone.  Sometimes the VSET scenarios dredge up people’s memories and anxieties.  You want to talk about this with me or Freeman?”

Knowing he had to think fast, Smith started talking about a lost memory that floated to the surface.

“No need, something in the scenario made me remember the time I was jumped by gangbangers somewhere in San Francisco.  I got very mad, because I was sure they were trying to kill me.  For years I had nightmares.  I’d nearly forgotten the whole thing, and this dream replay of it was cathartic.  I don’t think I’ll ever worry brood on this again, even subconsciously.  Tell Freeman ‘thanks’ for the experience.”

Asbury seemed reassured by the explanation.  In the dream, he had been accepting the argument for tyrannicide, but, as he returned to himself, he thought immediately of Dante and shook his head.  If even he could be talked so quickly into almost approving of treason and seduction, this project might be dangerous.  At the same time, he felt—as Steffie would say—like he’d been there before, not in Rome but in the same position as Brutus.

He walked out with Shawn and invited him to lunch.

“As in you are taking me and actually paying?  Wow!  Next you’ll be offering to drive.”

“One step at a time, kid.  You can pick any place you like. In this town, nothing is beyond my budget.”  

Which is how Anterus Smith ended up at the Olive Garden at last.  Shawn reassured him that it would be all right. He had been to Italy while he was in college, and, while the Olive Garden’s food was not the real thing, the pasta, salad, and bread were pretty good.  Smith did not even try the tortellini on his plate, though he tasted the sauce with a bit of the flabby bread.

“You were half right, anyway, it’s not the real thing.  But there is nothing fit to eat in this place.  I can smell it.”

“You’re not even going to try the tortellini?”

“I don’t have to.  I can see them and smell the garlic powder, and that’s enough.”

“Nothing is good enough for you, is it Smith?  And yet you live in a dump and the only friend you have is a dumb barmaid.”

“Doreen is like most people and better than many.  Unlike a lot of people, she’ll simply live until she dies.”

“What’s that supposed to mean.  People like me and the suckers here who haven’t had your good luck to live in Italy are too bourgeois to be alive?”

“Nothing wrong with being bourgeois, if that is what you are, but a lot of the people I run into these days don’t really have any real identity, much less an authentic self.  They think they like the movies they are taught to like, and they waste their time and money on simulacra.  Junk food, junk music, junk political movements.  All mass produced for consumption by zombies.   They are living in someone else’s imagination, and that someone is really just a computer-generated fantasy.”

“You mean like in The Matrix?”

“I don’t know what you are referring to, unless it is a TV show or a movie, which proves my point.  And no, don’t tell me about it: I don’t need to know.  What I am suggesting is that people like Doreen have made their share of mistakes, and their minds are pretty much whatever mush has been slopped in by teachers, pop columnists, and Hollywood, but, because they’ve had to face so many ugly things in their lives, they are in some respects more like ancient Greeks or Medieval Italians than they are like Californians.  They are a kind of peasant, sure, but they do not share all the delusions of people  who can only be truly alive when they go to Disneyworld or Vegas.”

“What makes you think you have the right to judge people?  And that bit about Greeks, how could you possibly know enough to make a judgment?”

“I’ve made it my business to know. That is what we are here for: Not to be as as dumb when we leave this world as when we entered it.  Look, Shawn. You’ve got some decent stuff in you, and before you started having this dreams, you were doing your best to do your job, which meant you had to be loyal to a better man than you have been up to this point.  I just want to know one thing, and I want you to tell me straight, because I almost always know when someone is lying to me.”

“So what do you wanna know?”

“Just this:  Can I trust you for the next few days to be loyal to Ross?”

“Yeah, sure.  I guess so.  I brought you into this, didn’t I?  Though I’m not sure what you are doing, apart from making time with Katie Oriundi.”

“Your suspicious nature makes me afraid to trust you.  Let’s leave Miss Oriundi out of this.  Surely your mother taught you not to talk about women.  No?  Too bad.”

“Save your pity for your pals at the Icehouse.  I’m going places, believe me.”

“We’re all going somewhere, even if we stand still.  Listen.  I am going to tell you something that has to be kept just between us.  You may not tell Corey or Dr. Ross or even your wife, at least not until I have had a chance to meet her.”

“I won’t tell anyone, I swear to God.”

“I’m not asking you to drag God into this.  Just let your yes be yes and your no be no.”

“OK, then, yes.”

“First, then, we have to keep an eye on three people:  Justin Wright, Eric Dyson, and, above all, Dr. Freeman.”

“Freeman, I can’t stand the bastard, but what’s he got to do with anything?”

“I don’t know, but I have the feeling he may recognize me from some time long ago.  I am not sure.”

“What difference would that make?”

“A great deal of difference.  No one in Nadir knows anything about me, and that is the way I want to keep it.  Why?  Let’s just say I have been around a bit more than you might think, and I know a thing or two that maybe I shouldn’t.  I have run into some disagreeable people.  I don’t wish to fall into their hands again.”

“Jesus, Smith.  You’re talking just a little crazy.  You think I’m suspicious, but you sound like someone with persecution delusions.  Like Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory.

“You are not getting my point, because your mind is rotted out by Hollywood.  Conspiracy theorists think they know more than anyone else.  In my case, I know less than I ought to, even about myself, and I am trying to figure out why.”

“Another Socrates.  I’m honored to be having lunch with you, even here…”

“None of this is either here nor there.  Freeman is an expert in mind-control, and that’s why he came to Veritas.  I don’t know who he is or what he is up to, but I intend to find out.  He may be the key to what is going on.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I haven’t really formed a plan, but I’m going to need someone to back me up, someone to rely on.  Will you do it?”

“Is this going to be dangerous?  I’m not the hero type.”

“I don’t think so, at least not for you, though you never know.  I’ll try to keep you out of danger, but I can’t promise.  If the time comes when I ask you to run a risk, I’ll tell it to you straight.  Right now, all I want to know is whether you’ll help me get some information.”

“I may be making the biggest mistake in my life, Smith, but, yeah, you can count on me.  I’ll do what I can.  Where do we start?”

“First, give me the number of your mobile telephone.”

“What for?  You don’t even have a land line.”

“This is your small first step, Shawn.  A particle of trust. Anyone can get a telephone.  I may need to reach you in an emergency.  Last night, while I was taking a walk in the Buttes about dusk, I heard someone following me.”

“Lots of people to go that park.  Could’ve been anyone.”

“There was no one there, when I entered the park.  It could be just a coincidence, but the way things have been happening, it may have been something else.”

Shawn scribbled down his number and gave it so Smith.  He finished his lunch, while Smith played with the salad and drank a glass of Valpolicella that was as thin as it was bitter.  

“There’s another thing, and for this I need your technical knowledge.  I am almost sure that Freeman is using the Sleepdown period to hypnotize the subjects and control their dreams.”

“That can’t be possible.”

“Shawn, a geek of all people must know it’s possible.  What the Hell do you think you are doing with these games?  Today, I was Brutus—one of Julius Caesar’s assassins—and I am pretty sure it was Freeman’s voice telling me I had to commit murder in a good cause.  The trouble is—and I get this from everyone who has gone through Sleepdown—that as soon as you begin to wake up, the voice stops.  Today, some accident in the lab woke me up quickly, and that’s why I caught just the last little something.  How can we catch them?  Is there anyway of recording the dream voice?”

“None that I can think of, but I could rig something to administer a powerful shock instantaneously—something between a joy buzzer and the electric chair.”

“Just don’t get carried away.  I’m not ready for Sing Sing.”

Shawn geek-snickered and promised he’d have a device small enough to fit in his wallet.  Whey they returned to the office, Smith settled down to the familiar task of exploring 13th century Florence, walking the streets and drawing a rough map that he plotted over a modern map of the city.  As he got down to work, he clearly understood that what his own game needed was a conflict of loyalties and principles as strong as Brutus versus Caesar. 

An obvious subject was Corso Donati’s rise to power, his rivalry with Guido Cavalcanti, the street fights, duels, conspiracies, uprisings, revolutions, and expulsions that made Florence wilder and more dangerous than Dodge City when two cattle drives hit town at the same time.  Getting the story outline straight and clear was the first step, but he would then have to concentrate on one or two key incidents—events as critical as the OK Corral.  If Dante were the center, the game could test Dante’s loyalty to his friend Forese Donati and against both his friendship with Guido and his high-pitched patriotic loyalty to Florence.  But what were Guido’s motives, apart from the heroic self-assertion of a swashbuckling poet?  And Corso, who inspired so much fear and admiration—as well as hate—what did he have in mind, apart from making himself Signore of Florence as Can Grande della Scala was lord of Verona? 

Since he had never played a role-playing game—he barely knew what they were—he decided to consult with Corey, who, predictably, had wasted his adolescence in video parlors.  Smith had tried to help Corey a few months back.  The young man’s problem—what to do with the girlfriend who was expecting his child—was aggravated by the usual minor complications.  Both he and his girlfriend were often drugged up, and neither cared for the other much more than they cared for the other people they had gone to bed with.  Neither knew what he or she wanted out of life other than the good times they used to have and were finding increasingly difficult to experience again.  

Smith had not tried to talk either into anything.  He only guided them down a path to a point where they began to realize how they thought of themselves and what they really did want out of life.  They were both surprised to discover that they really wanted something more like the lives their parents had lived: a stable marriage, a house with children.  That is what he meant by “paramoral investigation”: the process of helping someone to discover his own moral identity.  Teachers, he explained to them, can’t actually teach much of anything, but they can help students to teach themselves.  Anything else amounts to indoctrination.

Young Todd had not been exactly thrilled with the decision he had come to, but the trouble he was in was not the baby’s fault, he realized, and if Michelle was not quite the kind of bride men dream of getting, Corey was in no position to be choosey.  He had smoked a lot of dope and still drank too much and ate too much.  He was seriously overweight and usually dressed like a slob, even at work where it was frowned upon.  He did not seem to know what he wanted to do.  He did his work every day, though he was often late, but he did not seem to be able to concentrate on his job as if it meant anything more to him than a paycheck, yet he seemed to resent it when someone else was rewarded or promoted for working hard and getting results.

“The Catholics stick together,” he complained, including the Anglo-Catholic Dr. Ross in the indictment.  Other times it was Shawn’s technical expertise or Katie Oriundi’s ‘snobbery’ as he termed her cool reception of his advances. 

“She looks at you to see if you’re looking at her as she walks up the stairs.”

“Well, are you?”

“She’d be disappointed if I didn’t.”

  Smith had tried to persuade him to concentrate on his own shortcomings, but it was an uphill battle.

Still, Corey was holding on at Veritas, and Michelle, who had quit her pointless job with a web design company, was trying hard—at least for the time being—to look after their baby.  They were far from perfect, but they seemed to be seeing their way to finding out what they wanted.  They both respected Macmillan Ross since their student days at Northwood.

Ross was a traditional Anglican, but he read the Bible every day—in Greek as well as in the Authorized Version—and he was forever coming up with some insight that seemed to set Corey on fire.

“My my my,” he would say in his watered-down Oklahoma accent.  “I’n’t that somethin’”

As his moral guru, Smith already knew something about Corey’s background.  The Todds had moved to Nadir from Oklahoma before Corey was born.  They belonged to a charismatic Evangelical church, and Corey had been brought up in a home filled with Christian pop music and TV preachers.  He had been born again at the age of 14, but during his senior year at Christian Faith Academy, he had hit the skids, and in his five years first at Northwood and then at Nadir State, he had gone the usual route to Hell, without benefit of a hand-basket.  Now that he was married with a kid, however, he and Michelle joined a local branch of the Land of Goshen megachurch, the “One Gospel Outreach,” where every Saturday night (Sundays being reserved for televised football) they watched Pastor Joel Devine deliver inspiring sermons from his Faith Central Cathedral in Tulsa.  The show’s theme song was a Christian version of the Gene Pitney classic, “24 Hours from Tulsa.”  

“We are only 24 minutes from Jeezus!”  

The gimmick was that Devine’s’ sermons were supposed to last just 24 minutes, though in fact they often stretched out to a half hour.  “When you hot, you hot,” Corey observed.

From the time he had spent counseling the pair, Smith had concluded that Corey was a something of a goofball, who would probably never figure out what he wanted to do with his life. Today, for example, he had not shaved and was dressed in a ratty jacket with frayed sleeves, a wrinkled shirt with coffee stains, and creaseless pants.  

As his guru, Smith had advised Corey to begin with the externals:  Dress like a grownup, shave carefully, and start each day with some kind of plan.  He was undoubtedly smart enough to be a preacher or a writer—he had a certain way with words—but he had never buckled down.  When he went home for the day, the job was through, and, when he was not watching televised sports with his wife, he was out fishing.  Fishing is a good thing, Smith had explained to him over and over, but a man of Corey’s age should have some serious work to do, even if he had all the money he would ever need or want—and that would never be the case with Corey.  If he wanted to spend a lot of time on farming or fishing, he should be a farmer or a fishing guide, but, the way he was wasting his time, he would as a preacher or writer end up as a mediocre fisherman. 

When they had had these discussions, Corey grew sulky.  He wanted respect, but he did not want to spend the time it took to  earn it.  He was in some respects less mature than his wife, whose cynical pragmatism—learned in a series of failed affairs— served her well in the world of Walmart and Megachurches they inhabited.  Corey was a puzzle, apparently loyal to Ross but too self-absorbed and resentful to be relied on.  In a pinch, who knew what he might do?  Smith was afraid that Shawn might be right to suspect possible treachery.

Smith had no qualms about getting personal with his former client.  How, he asked in an effort at breaking the ice, had his family happened to pick the name “Corey”?

“Actually, my name is Korah, though my parents preferred to spell it with a ‘C.’”

“That’s a strange name to give a Christian.  Didn’t Korah lead a rebellion against Moses and get destroyed by fire?”

“Well, sir, my father, you have to understand, was an independent free-will-grace-only-word of-God Baptist in those days, and he believed that every man had the right to interpret the Scriptures by his own lights.  He didn’t like his foreman at the paper mill, and he got the idea that Moses, though sent by God, was too dictatorial for his own good.  After all, he did strike the rock twice, for which he was punished.  He took the additional step of arguing that Korah was just trying to set Moses straight.  

“Back then Dad believed that Korah was not punished by consuming flames but actually rewarded by being taken up into the sky by the fire of the Holy Ghost—sort of like Elijah in the whirlwind.  Later on, when we joined a more mainstream church, the pastor forced him to admit his mistake, but by then it was too late to change my name.  So now, I call myself Corey, and if anyone finds out my real name, I just tell them I am named after the son or grandson of Esau.  Nothing bad is known about him, course nothing whatsoever is known.”

“Why did they want to spell it with a ‘c’?

“They thought ‘k’ looked foreign.  Besides, the full name they gave me was Jehu Corah.  See, JC.”

“Yes, I see, but even allowing for those rough times, Jehu was a traitor, a homicidal maniac, and a trickster.  That is some burden to carry.”

Corey shrugged it off.  Smith wanted to hear about Corey’s dreams, but he gave no sign of knowing about the other dreamers at Veritas, much less did he even hint that the dreams might have something to do with VSET.

Corey described his dream of living in Africa, the slave raid in which he was taken, the Middle Passage, and his experiences as a slave.  The morning after each episode, he would get up shaking so hard that he woke up his wife Michelle, who begged him to explain what was happening.   Smith closed his eyes and entered into the dream.

***

Kwame was dreaming the same dream.  He was living in the village where his grandfather ruled.  His father had taken him into the woods to cut wood, and he was set upon by men in hoods who knocked him out.  When  he awoke, he was on board a sailing ship, a slave, on the way to America.  He was put to work on a farm, where they beat him when he did not understand English or showed any resentment.  He ran away several times until the white men crippled his feet:  He could still work, but he could never run.  Night after night, he dreamed of his village and the community of love shared by his family and the other people of the village.  When he awoke from the dream, he was in a cold sweat, and his wife Beauty brought him a cup of boiled chicory with milk.  She was all he had to cling to in a world filled with ugliness and horror…

* * * *

Corey Todd never knew what to tell anyone about his dreams.  He never taken any interest in Africa or slavery, and his family—Oklahoma crackers—had never had much to do with black people.  There had been one or two black families in their church, and they seemed nice enough, but grandpa had warned him against spending much time around them.  

“When I was a boy,” his grandfather told him, “I had a black friend.  We hunted and fished together, and I sometimes spent the night at his house, but we ‘as different and went different ways.  It’s just the way things are.”

Corey did not dislike black people, but he had accepted his grandfather’s wisdom.  

“Get to know your own people, son.  Up here in these godforsaken north woods, we’re aliens, as it is.  Don’t make trouble for yourself, whoring after strange people and strange gods.  It’s what the Bible teaches.” 

After several nights of the dream, however, he was having doubts.  On his lunch hour he had even gone to the Soul Express—in Nadir there was only one black-owned restaurant—and he was trying to talk his wife into visiting the AME church.

“Maybe they have something, we don’t have.”

“What, like rhythm?  Soul?”  She had always had a sarcastic tongue, and Corey wondered what his grandfather would have to say about what to do with an uppity woman. 

“So, what resolution did you and Michelle come to this morning?  Are you becoming African nationalists?” 

“I don’t know about her, but I ate breakfast and ran short of time, which is why I couldn’t shave or dress.  Man’s gotta eat, and it’s only natural to grow a beard.  Besides, Winter’s comin on.” 

Before returning to his own office, Anterus probed Corey for his opinion of his colleagues.

“You and Shawn seem to be good friends.”

“Sort of, but sometimes he tries to be condescending.  He’s a better technician than I am, way better, but he lacks common sense and experience.  I don’t know how much we can trust him here.”

“You mean personally?”

“That but also things connected with Veritas.  Shawn thinks he’s smarter than the rest of us, and, while he pretends to be solidly behind Dr. Ross, I wouldn’t trust him not to stab the boss in the back, if it meant he had any hope of taking his place.

“And Justin Wright?”

“Justin?  There’s nothing there.  An empty suit.  In fact, a suit so empty it’s more like the human equivalent of a black hole.  Don’t worry about Justin:  He’s nothing.  If he makes any trouble, I may have to teach him a lesson.”  Corey was a big fellow, and, though out of shape, not someone anyone would wish to tangle with.  Smith tried to suggest to him that teaching Justin Wright a lesson would not improve his standing at Veritas.

“I don’t give a s—t about getting ahead, here or anywhere, and, besides, who the Hell are you to give anyone advice?  Sure, you’re wearing a dark suit and a starched shirt, but where does that get you?  Shawn told me about that dump you live in and how you make money selling second-hand junk.  This is probably the first job you’ve had in years, you don’t have a girlfriend.  All you do is read old books.  You’re acting a part in a play that closed a long time ago.  You may be smart, but if you can’t see that you’ve painted yourself in a corner, then you’re dumber even than Shawn.” 

It was hard to find fault with the logic.  On the whole Smith liked Corey, though he knew the big fellow could not be trusted.  This is a brave new world, when it is not easy for young men to grow up.  

Back in his office, he tested out a series of imaginary cabals:  Sean and Corey, unlikely.  They were rivals, and, besides, neither had the initiative that would be required.  Sean and Justin, no.  Sean’s resentment at playing second fiddle to the oddball was palpable.  Justin and Corey, unlikely—if Corey was telling the truth—though he was too emotional to be entirely truthful.  Freeman and Wright, a definite maybe, assuming Wright was Freeman’s tool.  Freeman, Dyson, and Wright?  It made sense, but he felt the three were too incompatible.  Dyson and Wright?  Very likely, in view of Dyson’s snooping adventure that Wright covered for.  And, it was important to bear in mind, any cabal would have to involve at least one board member and probably more.  There were too many variables, and he had to do something about whittling down the list.

He had to share some of his findings with Ross, but first he buzzed Sean to ask if he had checked things out.  Since Sean seemed nervous, he added:

“I know there’s an ant problem, and before I brought any food into my office, I wanted to know if. It was safe.”

“Yes, your office is still clean.”

‘Clean’ was good—if Sean was telling the truth—because it meant he could still talk things over without fear of letting any cats out of the bag.  Cats reminded him of witches, which made him reflect on what sort of people he might be up against.

1 Response

  1. Ben says:

    Thrilling!