1 year, 6 months ago
The narrow streets of Philadelpia were nearly empty by the time I made it out of work. My heels clicked on the pavement as I rushed through the crosswalk, towards the Irish pub where my husband had told me to meet him. Approaching the restaurant, I could see Malcolm sitting alone at a table near the window, lost in his phone and halfway through a porter.
“Hey,” I said, giving him a quick peck on the cheek. “Sorry I’m late.”
“No worries. Busy at work again?”
A waitress appeared from behind me and set a heaping plate of nachos down between us. He plucked a chip from the top of the pile, tearing it from the melted cheese, and looked up at me. “So I assume you read the text then? About the new job offer in New York?”
Usually Malcolm was the one teasing me, but today was my chance, and I was going to milk it for all it was worth.
“So let me get this straight,” I started, “The Malcolm Reynolds, Mr. ‘I’ll only settle for my dream job and nothing less’, who spent years getting his PhD in quantum physics, plans on accepting a job working for…a wifi router company?”
He grinned. “Shut up. Gravative isn’t just a router company.”
I pointed at the spherical router next to the cash register behind the bar, its LED lights blinking back at us, with Gravative printed in large letters across the glossy black surface. “Could have fooled me. So what else is it known for?”
“Nothing yet, through no fault of their own. It just so happens that long distance signal transmission is the company’s most lucrative market at the moment. But, the technology they use behind it is some seriously ground breaking stuff. Their research division is discovering things that defy modern physics as we know it, even if the first applications are a bit mundane. Truth is, my professor stuck his neck out to get me an offer.”
“What’s so groundbreaking about it?”
“So, they are still working out the kinks, but the next iteration of Gravative routers will theoretically have the ability to transmit signals to anywhere.”
“Sounds unrealistic. Or just really aggressive marketing.”
His smile was so wide that I thought it might extend past his face. “Well, it’s only rumors, but it’s said that the new model of routers employ the use of microscopic wormholes to transmit waves over long distances.”
I laughed at him. Being married to a physicist meant that I knew the pitfalls of what he had just suggested. “But you told me that it was realistically impossible to stabilize-”
“I know what I told you.” He winked. “Imagine the applications though, having the ability to send a message to any known point of space in the universe. With something like that, people could even access the internet on Mars.”
“That sounds exactly like a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. And speaking as a business analyst, those typically don’t generate much revenue.” But I was curious now. “So how did they manage it then? To create wormholes, and while we’re at it, break the most basic rules of modern physics?”
He ripped away at another nacho. “Do you want the long version, or the short version?”
“Lon-” -I broke off, seeing his eyes ignite with the fire of a scholar ready to launch into a thirty minute academic lecture which would surely lose me- “let’s go with the short version.”
He took a moment to think. “Basically, it involved a lot of dicking around with negative mass material.”
I reached over, grabbing his hand, and smiled at him. “Well Mr. Reynolds, PhD, if your true calling in life is to dick around with negative mass material, then I’ll support you one-hundred percent of the way. We never wanted to stay in Philly long term anyway.”
He gave my hand a squeeze. “Gravative pays well. But you’re seriously okay with moving? What about your job?”
“Come on. It’s New York City,” I said. “I’m sure I can find something.”
“I must be the luckiest man in the world, to be with a girl like you.” His eyes twinkled as he stared at me. “Do you have any idea how much I want to jump over this table and throw myself on you right now?”
I tried my best to look disgusted by the thought. “I’d advise against that course of action. For one thing, you would be putting a lovely plate of nachos in great danger.” I blew him a kiss and winked, daring him to make his move. “For another, public displays of affection are frowned upon in many cultures, ours included. People might call us trashy, and you see, I’m the classy wife of a very sophisticated doctor, so I couldn’t have any of that.”
“And you think I care about any of that?”
“I was kind of looking forward to those nachos.”
“Point taken.” He carefully pushed the plate to the back of the table, out of the way. “There you go, smart-ass.”
Then his hands were holding mine, and I watched in half-horror, half-amusement as my husband slid across the table and landed in my lap.
I could wiggle my toes.
The feeling was coming back to my legs, a thousand pins and needles creeping through my feet, growing in intensity as I twitched them about. With the return of feeling came a burning itch that could never be satiated.
I swung my legs out over the bed, and tested the weight on each, gingerly pressing the pad of each foot against the shag carpet covering the ground. My legs seemed to hold, so I took a chance and tried to push myself to my feet. For a second I stood, wobbling, then collapsed to the ground as my weakened legs gave out.
The door opened and Mia entered the room followed by a couple more servants.
“Good morning, my queen.” She looked down at me, a bundle of bed sheets tangled with limbs sprawled across the carpet, and blinked. “The bed, this was not to your liking last night? Or did you prefer the carpet for sleeping?”
“What? No.” Again, I tried to push myself to my feet, boosting my body with my hands so I was hunched on all fours. My legs shook violently, but I snatched at the side of the bed and worked my way back up slowly. “The feeling in my legs is coming back. I’m gonna try to walk in a bit.”
She beamed. “This is wondrous news. And just in time for the banquet. To dance with the King, this will make many happy to see.” She extended an arm and handed me a scroll wound tightly with a thin, red string. “A message for you.”
I tore the string off the scroll and unrolled the parchment. The message read,
To our fair Queen,
I, Ugeth Hendrik, humbly volunteer myself to the task of twenty four hour surveillance on Nadia Highburn. I vow to produce detailed reports of every glass of wine she sniffs. The easiest way to accomplish this task will be for me to seduce the young Baroness, and to do this I will need every resource of the crown at my disposal. Doing so will cause me great emotional duress, seeing as my heart already belongs to another, namely you, but I am above all else selfless and willing to put my duty to my Kingdom before my personal feelings. Below I have provided a comprehensive list below of all that is necessary to woo the fair young maiden out of her dress…
I put the letter down and looked up at Mia, who was failing to keep a straight face. “Mia, what the hell is this?”
“I am sorry my queen, though last night you did ask that if Nadia were to sniff a glass of wine-”
“Yes, I’m aware.” I crumpled the parchment up into a ball. “Does anybody screen this trash before it gets to me?”
She looked down at the ground, her guilty gaze telling me the answer. “He put you up to this,” I said, and Mia giggled in confirmation. “Don’t laugh at him. That was a serious order to prevent someone from killing me. This is a stupid waste of time and you’re just encouraging him.” But even as I said the words, I felt myself fight back a smile as well. Jackass. “Doesn’t he have things to do? He’s supposed to be finalizing the banquet hall for tonight.”
“Finished, this task,” Mia said. “The hall is beautiful!”
As it turned out, banquet planning was an avenue that had not been significantly affected by Caollin’s departure, and steamed forward like a well-oiled locomotive. It appeared to be the one area that the disastrously dysfunctional royal council remained competent, with Hendrik taking point.
Nobody could deny the bard’s flair for showmanship, and his ability to turn a dinner on a small budget into an extravagant affair. His bright eyes lit up when he worked, piecing together the evening like an engineer drawing up a blueprint, delegating tasks amongst the group regardless of their title and status. The rest of the councilmen nodded and followed suit; perhaps they were as mesmerized by the normally apathetic man’s fervor as me. After all, there were whispers around the palace about the bard’s past record of parties, many referred as if they were nights of legend.
“In truth, Malstrom hates attending banquets and celebrations, especially after returning from a day of travel,” Hendrik had explained, several days prior to the banquet. “He appreciates grand gestures held in his name though, so it’s important that the banquet look grand and impressive, even if only at a surface level. The King never makes it before the third course, and leaves well before the last, so we’ll spend most of our budget on an extravagant middle. The appetizers and desserts though…we’ll skip those. And the hired singers will be rubbish. Not a chance he stays for any music and dancing afterward, and he hates any song with lyrics. I want a full orchestra in the pit tonight though, but seasoned professionals this time, and not those pimply-faced amateurs from the scholar’s college again.”
I entered the banquet hall that night, alone by my request, hobbling on a single make-shift crutch that Mia had crafted from spare pieces of cloth and wood with the help of a local blacksmith. Though I had taken my meals in that hall every day for the last three weeks, the room looked completely foreign that night.
Tall maroon banners hung from the rafters of the spacious room, extending all the way down to the floor. Long wooden tables were arranged to face the head table in the front, elevated on a dais, looking down over the rest of the room. Silver platters were heaped with stacks of food, a servant standing near each one holding a brightly colored carafe of wine. With some effort I heaved my stiff legs up onto the dais and found my seat of honor, at the front and center of the room.
An aide from the church was waiting at the ready behind my seat. He had been assigned to help me out at the request of the high priestess Margaret Velton, and was to navigate me through some of the more difficult political encounters I was to meet that night. “Just smile and nod dear,” Margaret had instructed. “Your base-born upbringing is common knowledge at this point, so expectations will not be high, but it wouldn’t kill you to act a lady as best you can.”
During parties in college, I had never strayed far from my group of friends or Malcolm. My husband was noticeably absent from the celebration, and even in the event that Hendrik and myself were still talking to one another, he had been relegated to the back to sit with un-distinguished guests, leaving me to fend for myself without a familiar face for support. I had hoped, perhaps vainly, that I could slink back into the shadows and observe the banquet as a wallflower, but it appeared that I was a key attraction of tonight’s festivities. As soon as the guests began filing into the hall, I was approached by a vast assortment of well dressed nobles. Scribes, wealthy merchants, ministers, clergy men, tax collectors, dukes, earls, barons– all of them wishing to speak to their new queen.
To his credit, my aide performed his duties admirably, deflecting difficult questions and apologizing for my numerous failures to observe customary greetings, carrying the brunt of each conversation and lightening the mood. Some of my visitors looked sincere, others clearly doing it as a formality, but most faces were above all, curious. They all wanted to know about the Outside.
I saw no harm in telling the guests about my life before Lentempia, omitting the fact that I had been previously married to the King. They hung on my every word as I told them about the marvels of modern technology, and soon I forgot my social anxiety altogether and started to enjoy myself.
“I’ve met many Outsiders in my travels,” an old portly duke with a thick beard told me, “but never in my life have I met one which hails from your homeland. You speak of such wonders! I would like to visit your country, once we develop the means to travel to the Outside lands, of course.”
Others expressed shock at the fact that I was literate.
“You mean to tell me that on the Outside, many base-borns can afford an education? Fascinating, simply fascinating!”
Not all the guest were friendly, although thankfully they did not approach me. I could feel eyes on me at all times, some jealous and hostile. They mostly seem to come from the side of the room where Alynsa sat, watching me with frigid hostility.
Once dinner had concluded, the tables in the center of the room were cleared and pushed against the walls of the hall. An orchestra assembled in the pit in the back, and then music and dancing commenced.
After a while the music slowed, and guests began to saunter out of the hall, red faced with wine and tired. Soon I dismissed my aide, with the promise that I would be retiring soon, but once he was gone, I decided to stay, hoping that Malcolm would eventually appear and join me for at least one dance. Just when I was ready to abandon all hope, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I swung around to face Hendrik’s best friend Victor, better known as Quickhand, the guitar playing bard.
His tall, dark figure towered over me, but without his signature spear in hand, he looked far less intimidating. “Well done tonight, my queen,” he said with a smile. “Hendrik and I have been listening to the crowds, and many are fascinated by our new queen.”
“Thanks Victor,” I said. Since my initial encounter with the duo of Hendrik and Victor, I had only seen the latter sporadically. Victor was a quiet, soft spoken man, though cheeky enough to keep company with Hendrik. No doubt Hendrik had sent him over to check up on me in his place.
“Where’s your date?” I asked him. “Two girls were fighting over you yesterday.”
He shrugged and pointed over to a table near the edge of the dance floor. Both girls were leaning in to hear a story that Hendrik was telling them, punctuated with sweeping hand gestures. “In the end, Silvertongue won them both back over. He always does. A true ladies man at heart.”
“But he’s your closest mate,” I said. “And he doesn’t need two dates. Isn’t he supposed to be like your wing-man or something like that?”
“Nevermind.” I struggled to put my sentiment into words. “It just seems selfish. My point is that he’s an ass.”
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” I said. “The King isn’t here at the moment, but the Queen wants to dance. Why don’t you oblige her?” I offered him my hand. “I bet that would make your traitorous little date jealous.”
He laughed and took my hand in his– his large hand covered in callouses from years of plucking strings– and helped me to my feet. “I would be honored, though I’ll have to hold back. Would not want the King to hear he has some competition for you and incite his wrath.”
“My legs are about as flexible as two planks of wood,” I said. “Regardless of your skill on the dance floor, I don’t think we’ll be wowing any guests tonight with our moves.”
Using him as a crutch, we worked our way to the center of the dance floor, stopping to face each other as the orchestra pit started another slow song. Victor was so tall that I had to stretch my arms to slip them around his neck, so he slouched down slightly to ease the burden. “Just letting you know,” I said, looking up at him, “the second you let go of my waist, I am going to crumple to the ground at your feet in a heap. And from that point forward, I’ll be the laughing stock of the Kingdom.”
He smiled. “Don’t worry my lady, I won’t let go.”
For a while we swayed in time with the music, my feet resting on top of his, so he could lead me in slow circles.
Then for no apparent reason I blurted, “I’m going to get a molding treatment.” I wasn’t sure why I told Victor, but he felt like the right person to tell.
“Yeah?” he said. “And why’s that?”
“My image needs some work; Hendrik’s right, if I want to succeed as queen, I can’t half ass the task.” I looked up at him. “The King and I, we need to be on the same page if we want to accomplish anything, instead of fighting constantly. And this would make him happy.”
Victor smiled. “Well then the King is a fool, I say. You’re beautiful already, Jillian.”
I winked at him. “I always knew you were a smart man, Victor. I wish you talked more, instead of letting Hendrik constantly fill the air with his nonsense.”
We chanced a glance back in Hendrik’s direction. I caught his eye and he turned away quickly. “Looks like we made someone jealous,” Victor said, “but I don’t think it’s my date.”
“If that’s the case, then Hendrik better lock his shit up,” I whispered. “He’d have to be the biggest fool on the planet to make a pass at the queen.”
“We all know he’s a fool. But I wouldn’t worry too much, even Hendrik’s not that dumb.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” I yawned and took another look across the hall, which was nearly empty now. “So I guess the King just isn’t going to show up to his own banquet then?”
Victor looked down at me. “It appears so. He’s been back in the palace for some time now, after all.”
“What? He is?”
“Yeah, you didn’t hear? The King’s escort arrived at the palace gates about an hour ago. They had some delays on the road, he probably was just exhausted from his journey and went straight to bed.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Though, I should go check up on him.”
“Sure,” he said with a smile. We broke apart, and he helped guide me back to my wooden crutch. “It’s been a pleasure. You want me to escort you?”
I shook my head. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m alright. Go get some sleep.”
“Second floor please,” I said to the lift operator.
He looked at me for a second and gave a sheepish smile. “Going to pay the King a late night visit, are we?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’m gonna surprise him. Don’t tell anyone.”
Malcolm’s room was on the far end of the second floor. Like the night previous, the halls of the King’s apartments were empty and silent. This time, even the torches circling Nadia’s room were dark and extinguished.
I wandered around the empty halls a bit, relying less and less on my crutch as my legs recovered. At the very end of the last hall were two large imposing doors inlaid with the symbol of a crown. I took the large brass knocker in my hand and gave the doors a few clanging knocks, to no response, before testing the handle and finding them open. They led me to a large open foyer with high vaulted ceilings and somber silver curtains, although strangely there were no windows. Rows of chairs lined the room, of all different shapes and sizes, each with a uniquely ornate carving pattern. I guessed it was some type of waiting area for those that wished to attend the King. I slipped through the room to find a second set of closed doors at the far end.
The shadows cast from the chairs were large and daunting as I stood before these doors. They were smaller than the first, but looked to be made of pure silver. “Malcolm?” I called out meekly into the closed doors.
I grasped the brass handle of one and gave it a shove. To my surprise, it gave with a groan.
The next room looked to be some kind of private dining area. A long oak table was set with an elaborately patterned tablecloth, with polished silverware and dishes set for one at the far end. This room had a window at least, which extended all the way to the floor, letting the moonlight cast pale white strips against the varnished wood.
Wonder why he never invites me to have dinner here with him, I thought, watching my long shadow extend the length of the room.
The doors at the end of this room were painted gold, and slightly ajar. I could see candle light flickering from within. “Malcom?” I called out again. Still nothing.
Where is he?
I couldn’t say why my heart rate increased as I moved towards the final set of doors. It was only my husband’s bedroom, after all. Still, it was ludicrous that I had stayed here for over three weeks and felt afraid to enter it. But as I stumbled awkwardly through the doors into the bedchamber, I was acutely aware of the blood pumping through my wrists, and could feel my breath coming faster and more shallow. I didn’t feel welcome here.
The bed chamber was empty. There was a four-poster bed in the center, dressed in delicate silk sheets the color of cherry. The covers were ruffled and balled up at the foot of the bed, as if he had slept there recently. The stone-walled room had no windows, and was otherwise bare, except for a heavy copper bed-stand and a tall mahogany dresser on the opposite side of the room.
My gut told me to leave, to go come back and find him in the morning, but as I studied the room, something on the front of the bed-stand caught my eye. Something sticking up out of the smooth surface, pale yellow, clashing with the dark bronze of the furniture.
I walked over to the bed-stand to get a better look. It was a corner of a piece of parchment, sticking up out of…well…nowhere. At first glance, it was not apparent that the bed-stand had any drawers at all. I set my crutch down against the wall and ran my fingers across the top and sides, looking for any grooves or a handle. If there was a drawer, it was imperceptible to the human touch.
My legs were starting to grow weak from sustaining themselves, so I dropped to my knees and stuck my arm between the legs of the piece, exploring the underside of the table with my fingers.
Then I felt it– a small, indented button in the back corner, so far that I had to strain my arm to reach it. I depressed the button and felt the hiss of a spring release click. A secret compartment immediately sprang forward out of the front, nailing me squarely in the nose.
I covered my mouth with my hands and swore silently into them. After a second of massaging my now bruised nose, I turned my attention back to the contents of the drawer.
The letter that had been sticking out lay on top of the compartment’s contents. Its wax seal was broken, and not an insignia that I recognized, although truth be told, the only seal I knew at the moment was that of the Royal Crown. It read,
My Old Friend,
This is your only warning.
The note only held my attention for minute, because something else in the desk was glowing. I set the letter down and, unable to contain my curiosity, began to rifle through the rest of the contents. I pushed aside a weathered pack of playing cards, a brass candle-holder and a rusted silver ringlet, before finding my prize.
My fingers wrapped around the familiar plastic and I gasped.
Malcolm’s smart phone?
The source of light was coming from the back of the phone. A small yellow orb was sticking out of the battery pack, identical to those decorating the ceilings of the infirmary. I turned the device over in my hand. The plastic was weathered and chipped, and small cracks spider-webbed across a warped glass screen, but otherwise the phone was –perhaps remarkably– intact.
Almost as a reflex, I pressed the home button at the bottom of the phone. The screen flickered to life, Malcolm’s old wallpaper displaying, a picture of me and him smiling together at the park near our old apartment, showing momentarily before rows of square application icons overlay-ed the image. A wave of nostalgia hit me as I studied the old picture; we looked so happy.
Then the realization hit me that I should have been amazed by the fact that the phone had just turned on.
This thing still has power?
My fingers wandered down to the orb at the back of the phone, and I felt the pinprick of an electric shock. Son of a bitch, I thought. They do have phone chargers here after all.
Just then I heard a noise.
Footsteps and voices. Panicking, I began to shove the contents back into the drawer and rammed it closed. With a jolt, I saw that I had forgotten to put the phone back with everything else. I looked down at the glowing object, thought for a second, then shoved it down the front of my dress. Thankfully, the fabric was dark enough to conceal the light of the orb.
I hobbled over to the bed and sat down on it, just as the door began to open.
“Hey Mal-” I started to say, then stopped, frozen, looking at the figures standing before me.
Malcolm stood in the doorway, staring back open-mouthed. He had an arm wrapped around Nadia Highburn, who was pressed up tightly against him. She was too busy giggling and trying to nibble at his ear to notice my presence. “What’s wrong my lov-,” she started to say, before turning and seeing me sitting on the bed. She broke off and her eyes widened in surprise.
“Jillian!” Malcolm blanched, retracting his arm from Nadia and distancing himself by a step. “What…what are you doing here?”
At that moment, I didn’t need my crutch to stand up; adrenaline did all the work to get me to my feet. For a minute I just stared at the pair of them, uncomprehending, and then I was moving forward, pushing past them, back through the doors of the outer rooms, my feet moving fast and with purpose. I could hear Malcolm calling after me, begging me to wait, but his voice grew distant and faraway, like it had traveled through millions of miles to reach me.
I was back in the lift before my legs gave out again, and slumped against the side of the cage. “You okay, your holiness?” the lift operator asked.
“Fine,” I said, my voice flat and devoid of any emotion. “Just take me up away from here.”
“The Queen’s Residence then?”
“No. Take me up as high as it goes.”
“You sure? This late, it’s cold up there.”
He shrugged. “Sky Throne it is. Hold on tight.”
I spent the next hour walking back and forth across the cool, uneven stones of the open terrace. Over and over I retraced my steps, back and forth past the glittering glass throne cathedral, the walls now a deep shade of purple and bathed in moonbeams. The wind at the top of the tower was relentless, and my shoulders bare, but the bite of cold on my flesh was refreshing.
The more I walked, the stronger the muscles in my legs became. After a while they felt so good that I broke into a light jog, barefoot. The dress was constricting around the legs so I tore it at the seam to increase my stride. Soon I was doing laps around the giant open disc, the massive pillars whirring by my face one after the other in black blurs. Malcolm’s phone began to bounce up against my chest, so I removed it from my dress and clutched it in my hand until the plastic was slick with sweat.
I still felt numb and detached from the entire Malcolm-Nadia situation that I had just witnessed, and that was good. I knew that the tears would come at some point, that it was just a matter of time, but they hadn’t come yet, and for the time being, that was fine by me.
Finally, fatigue took over and I fell to the ground, panting, picking a spot with a view that looked out over the city cloaked in darkness. I looked down at the phone in my hand and began to absentmindedly flick through the saved pictures. After I had scrolled through everything, I moved to the videos he had saved, relived the past vacations, birthday parties and goofy moments, replaying any and all documented milestones of our relationship. At one point I even opened up his old voice mail and listened to some of our saved phone conversations. Still, no tears came.
The husband I know is dead, I thought to myself. The man I loved died almost 1000 years ago.
Feeling empty inside, I ran my thumb across the screen to power off the device. As I did so, I accidentally grazed the ‘Settings’ icon and new menu opened up. I was about to close the phone, when something caught my eye.
About halfway down the screen, the Wifi Settings tab displayed the message,
One Wifi network in range.
I reread the message, sure it was some kind of mistake, then expanded the Wifi Menu. There was exactly one network appeared on the list.
I clicked ‘join’, and a window prompt opened up and asked me to enter the network password. I looked down at the prompt, still not comprehending.
The palace has freaking Wifi? Where the hell am I?