By Fritz Bogott
They look like fat grey worms. Étienne’s couriers hand-carry them through Douala International Airport to Cape Town, Bangkok, Kiev, Mexico City – anywhere with a surgical reamer and a sterile suite – and into your temporal cortex they go. A little skull-putty and a band-aid, and you’re off to the pub for a celebratory pint. None for me, thanks. I respect Étienne’s genius, but I prefer to hold onto my memories.
“Merde,” I said, when I finally got the phone to my ear.
“I need you,” Étienne said.
“I’m not your type,” I said. Stéphane rolled over and grunted in his sleep.
“The power’s gone out,” Étienne said. “Can you fix it?”
“How fast do you need it?” I asked.
“The fermenters are already cooling,” he said. “We’ll lose this batch. We need to be online by this time tomorrow or my insurance will send troops.”
“I’ll need fifteen million francs for expenses,” I said.
“I sent Géraldine with twenty,” he said. “She’s waiting outside.” Géraldine has been Étienne’s driver, bodyguard and bagwoman for almost five years. He sweats visibly whenever she enters the room, but, as far as I know, he’s never laid a finger on her.
“Tell her I’ll be out in five,” I said.
I dressed in the dark, picking out my sixth-best suit (a pale-blue Hugo Boss) by touch alone. Stéphane snored softly and didn’t stir, even when I opened the door.
“Good morning,” I said, as I slid into Étienne’s armoured BMW.
“Morning, my ass,” Géraldine said. “It’s dark night.” She passed me two Adderall in a paper cup.
I swallowed the tablets. “The lab, please,” I said.
I should do all my errands at 4:00am. It’s as quiet and unobstructed as traveling in space.
The gates of the lab compound opened without Géraldine even having to honk. Eric, the lab director, met us outside. “This can’t be happening,” he said. “It should be impossible.”
“Show us,” I said.
He led us around the side of the main building.
“We have reserve generators,” he said, “but they only run lights, security and fire-suppression. Generators large enough to power production would be larger than the lab itself.”
He pointed out a large transformer. “That’s the entry point for the city grid,” he said. “And this,” he added, leading us around the corner and showing us another equally-large transformer, “connects us to Ratel’s grid.”
I laughed. “Ratel has his own grid, these days? I suppose he grows his own ndoleh now, as well?”
Eric shrugged. “Ratel hates to buy anything he could sell. He has his own police, hospitals, air force … why not his own grid?”
“You’re getting old,” Géraldine told me. “Even Eric knows the news before you.”
I winced and straightened my necktie. “Perhaps Ratel is simply selling you city power with a false moustache? Both sources appear to fail together, so perhaps they are the same?”
“Pfft,” Eric said. “Ratel’s power has never failed before, even in the floods. And you know what the city power is like.”
“We’ll go talk to Fakhani,” I said.
“That bureaucrat?” Eric said. “You’ll get faster service dealing with Ratel’s people. Fakhani will have you buying tea for half the city before he tells you it can’t be done.”
“City first, then Ratel,” I said. “Or would you prefer to handle Ratel yourself?”
Eric paled. “I can’t leave the lab,” he said. “Let me know when you have a solution.”
Géraldine stared at Eric’s crotch with a disappointed expression on her face.
“Go,” he said.
Fakhani eyed the stack of bills on the table and tugged at the collar of his dressing gown.
“Tell your wife we regret waking her,” I said. We could hear dishes clinking in the next room.
“I’m afraid I can’t do anything to help you,” he said. “But please join me for a cup of tea.”
In the next room, someone slammed metal against metal.
“I’m aware you put away your lineman’s boots quite some time ago,” I said.
“But perhaps,” I said, “there is an engineer in charge of that particular sector?”
Fakhani looked at the money then walked to his desk. He brought back a wrinkled map and spread it out.
“M. Mbape’s laboratory is here,” he said, “in Mehenni’s sector. The distribution transformer is here.” He jabbed a finger.
“Would it be possible,” I asked, “for you to telephone M. Mehenni and ask him to have one of his men meet us at the transformer station?”
A veiled woman entered the room carrying a tea tray.
“Madame Fakhani,” I said. “Please forgive us for waking you at this hour.”
She dropped the tray a full hand-span down onto the map and stalked from the room. Fakhani watched spilled tea run onto the carpet. “I will phone Mehenni,” he said.
“I’m afraid I can’t do anything to help you,” Yeye said. “This entire substation is drawing 15% too much current. Worst case, the upgrade may take a week.”
“And best case?” I asked.
“Two days,” he said. “Transformers don’t grow on a vine.”
“What if the substation were suddenly to draw substantially less power?” I asked.
“The laboratory is going out of business?” he said, shocked. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Géraldine rolled her eyes. “Perhaps,” she said, “some customers could experience longer outages than others.”
“Monsieur Mbape’s laboratory might be lucky in that regard,” I said, “and find itself one of the first to be restored.”
“I suppose that is a theoretical possibility,” Yeye said. He tore his eyes away from Géraldine’s breasts and looked at his shoes.
“My regards to your family,” I said, and tucked an envelope into the pocket of his coveralls.
“Ratel’s?” Géraldine asked.
“I suppose so,” I said. “Who knows how long it will take Yeye to disconnect the other customers and get the substation back online?”
“Have you met him?” she asked.
“You’re asking whether the whitebait has met the Great White Shark?” I said. “I consider it lucky that I have only met his foot soldiers’ shoeshine men. Why? Have you met him?”
She was silent.
The walls of Ratel’s compound are like those of ten thousand others, except his are strikingly free of graffiti. We removed our jackets and walked slowly to the gate, with our hands held up in plain view. A tiny window opened in the guard’s door. “Good morning,” I said into the dark.
“It’s bloody night,” a voice answered. “What do you want?”
“We’re working for Étienne Mbape,” I said. “His people buy electricity from your employer. Perhaps you could refer us to someone with expertise in that portion of your employer’s portfolio?”
“Fuck off,” the voice said, and the window banged shut.
“For your trouble,” I said, and set another envelope on the ground just outside the door. We stepped back to the car and waited.
Ratel should give a seminar on human resources management. The guard held out for a full five minutes before cracking the door, snatching the envelope and firmly re-closing the door. It was another five minutes before the window opened again.
“God damned electricity,” the voice said. “That’s Durand’s department. You missed him by about an hour. He left with the boss and a bunch of his boys.”
“Any idea of their destination?” I asked.
“The power went out,” he said, “and Durand left with a bunch of bruises and two cars of babysitters. I thank God I don’t know more.”
“Where’s Ratel’s power station?” I asked.
The window banged shut and a stray dog began to howl.
“You have tiny testicles,” Géraldine told me, “beady eyes, narrow shoulders, and a limp cock. Stéphane should leave you for someone better-hung.”
“Stop sulking,” I said. “This can’t be the worst thing you’ve ever had to do for Étienne.”
“Étienne, pfft,” she said. “I blame you.”
We were inching the BMW along behind Sébastien – Eric-the-engineer’s tea boy – who was running along the street with one finger in the air, following Ratel’s power line like a dog after a scent.
“He’s got good eyes,” I said. “You think you could follow those cables?”
“If that were you out there,” she said, “I’d run you down.”
“How would you prefer to find Ratel and Durand?” I asked. “Or were you planning to power the lab with your personal magnetism?”
“I’m going to park the car,” she said, “walk to Congo and go back to being a mercenary. It’s been years since I’ve eaten a human heart.”
“It’s not as if Étienne has you making tea,” I said. “Or pulling his dick.”
“No,” she said. He’s got you for that.” She pounded the steering wheel with her fist.
We were approaching the port.
“Where do you hide a power station down here?” I asked, but Géraldine was still sulking.
Sébastien was bent over with his hands on his knees. I rolled down the window. “You okay?” I asked.
“I’m ready for the Olympics,” he said.
“Where does the cable go from here?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I lost it,” he said. “You’re on your own. Buy me a donut.”
I handed him a couple of bills. “See you back at the lab?”
“I’m going to eat for a few hours,” he said. “After that, sure.” He walked off.
“When do I get a donut?” Géraldine asked.
I was thinking.
“I’m hungry,” she said.
“Don’t be juvenile,” I said.
She climbed out of the car and leaned against the door with her arms folded.
“We’re fucked,” I said. “We’ll just have to hope Yeye gets the power back on.”
A horn blared. Géraldine jumped out of the way as a tinted-out Land Cruiser screamed past. She watched it for a second then slid back into the car. “Quitter,” she said.
We found the Land Cruiser, abandoned with three others outside an enormous corrugated-steel warehouse echoing with the sound of screams and tearing metal. Géraldine seemed oblivious. Her attention was entirely focused on a tray of koki balanced on the head of a hurrying girl. She leapt from the car and waved a handful of bills at the girl. The girl shook her head, then nodded, then took the money, handed Géraldine the entire tray, and sprinted off.
I was out of the car, rigid with impatience. “How can you eat?” I said. “We have work.”
“Patience,” she said. She peeled banana leaf from a koki and took a giant bite. “Want one?” she asked through the food.
I took one and ate, glaring.
“Napoleon,” she said, still muffled by bean cake, “‘never pass up a chance to eat, drink or piss.'”
I swallowed. “Got any more Adderall?”
“Here she is,” she said.
The koki girl was back, lugging a Cameroon Airlines duffle bag. Géraldine grinned and handed the girl another fistful of bills. The girl picked up her tray and jogged off.
“Now, I’m horny,” Géraldine said. She unzipped the bag and pulled out a greasy machine pistol.
“I hate you,” I said. We stepped toward the warehouse.
The screaming had been replaced by controlled bursts of gunfire and low, trumpeting howls. We pressed ourselves against the wall and prepared to rush the sliding doors. A Renault Sherpa squealed to a stop and nearly pinned us with its bumper. A giant jumped out in silver-piped Alexander McQueen. He lowered the Sherpa’s gate and led out a snorting hippopotamus with a spiked collar and a braided-metal leash. The hippo dragged him into the warehouse and we followed, wary.
The warehouse was an enormous covered dock, its centre roiling seawater, steel plate, grey scales, and grasping claws. Ratel’s men were taking shots as though they knew what they were firing at. A crocodile’s head on an impossibly sinuous neck broke the surface. The hippo bellowed and dragged its handler into the water. Géraldine’s eyes were saucers, her gun arm limp. The hippo charged. The croc-thing made a sound like a gravel crusher. The gunmen held their fire. The croc’s head dove for the hippo. The hippo twisted in place and sank its teeth into the thing’s neck. Géraldine thumbed something on the pistol and took careful aim. The croc howled loud as a train horn. Géraldine pulled the trigger. The hippo pulled the thing’s head below the surface. The water churned. Géraldine lowered her gun. A long steel curve bobbed to the surface, and a still-grey flipper, big as a car. The surface of the water stilled.
The hippo swam to the water’s edge. One of Ratel’s men found the controls of a sling-lift, swung it out over the hippo and began lowering it.
A tiny man in a black golf shirt walked over to us. “Thank you for your help,” he said.
I looked at Géraldine.
She laughed. “Change your shorts. This isn’t Ratel.”
The man joined in the laughter. “You thought I…? But no, my employer is not one to waste time savouring his victories. I am sure he is on his way to breakfast by now. I am Durand.” He extended his hand.
I shook it. “M. Durand?” I said. “Étienne Mbape sent us here to inquire about the interruption in electrical service.”
Durand waved a hand at the scaly corpse in the water. “As you have seen, our power station was experiencing unwanted sexual advances.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I’m not aware of any power station here.”
One of Ratel’s gorillas, who had been tugging at one of the monster’s flippers with a boat hook, let out a whoop. The monster’s corpse rolled, the water filled with bubbles, and the hull of a submarine rose to the surface.
Géraldine had driven off with the half-drowned McQueen giant, leaving me to find my own ride home. Durand had found me a Hazmat suit and he was leading me through the submarine’s forward hatch. “It is Russian, as you can see,” he said. “Its home port was Vostok Station, in Antarctica. I’m told my employer won it in a game of dice.”
His flashlight’s beam played around the narrow passageway.
“Its electrical plant has been operating steadily for the three years I have been involved. The only modifications have been to carry power off the boat and into the city.”
My breathing was laboured inside the mask and I felt a chill. “Don’t we need a Geiger counter?” I asked. “Or dosimeter badges?”
“Pardon me?” Durand asked. His mask turned toward me for a moment. “Oh, I see. Yes, that is a reasonable question. But this is not a fission craft.”
“Diesel?” I asked. “Surely, your boss could trade this thing for a bigger diesel generator.”
We passed through a hatch.
“Nor is it diesel,” Durand said. “It is powered by a Stirling engine. Are you familiar with the principle?”
“Certainly,” I said. “But what does it use as a heat source if not diesel?”
“You have reached the heart of the matter,” he said. He strained against the wheel on a bulkhead door. I added my strength and the wheel slowly turned.
“Ocean water provides the heat,” he said. The door groaned open and thick fog rolled out over our boots. “The temperature differential is provided by a source of cold.”
My feet were numb. “That’s backwards,” I said. “It defies physics.”
“Here we are,” he said, gesturing at a huge, frosted bank safe. “You may report this to M. Mbape. The containment is undamaged. Power should resume within an hour or two, as soon as the transmission lines are reconnected.”
“Containment?” I asked, through chattering teeth. “What is it that’s being contained?”
He looked at me with a peculiar expression. I took a step backwards and tripped over a pipe.
He spun the dial on the safe. I tried to regain my footing, but my limbs were numb.
“As you see,” he said.
I willed my eyelids closed, but they, too, betrayed me. From within the safe, the great, icy thing stared deep into my soul.
Too many lights! What is Stéphane doing here?
“You’re safe, now,” he says.
I try to tell him about the ice, the eyes. I can’t stop shivering.
He squeezes my hand. “It’s going to be okay,” he says.
Étienne is here. The drill stops shrieking. “It really is,” he says.
And he threads the fat, grey worm into my mind.
Bio: Fritz Bogott (fritzbogott.com, @fritzbogott) was born in Berkeley, California, and grew up reading novels and writing code in Austin, Minnesota, the birthplace of Spam. After studying math, German and Chinese at a weirdly long list of American and Taiwanese colleges and universities, he worked as an engineer in Scotland, Ethiopia, Singapore, and Chile, and helped start the company GovDelivery. He is the author of the CC-licensed novels Boggle and Sneak (Paper copies in bookstores, electronic copies at http://fritzbogott.com/boggleandsneak) and Pismo (Electronic copies at http://fritzbogott.com/pismo). His stories have been published in Kek-W Quarterly, Startling Adventures, Weaponizer, Jack Move, and Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure. He builds giant, flaming things in Northfield, Minnesota with his wife and daughters.