-Nora Farthington, Ned Silver, Nelson Garrett, Naith
-Nebraska, Nigeria, the Nest, the NICHE, nowhere, neighborhood
-nighttime, next, never, Neanderthal, nanosecond
-napkin, necklace, note, nebula, nightclub, name, nightstand, nightgown, nerves
(*A sequel to the story "Occupational Heresy")
Nora took a deep breath to steady her nerves; no sense in notifying the Occupants that one of their number was at present severely high-strung for no apparent reason. Ten minutes after Professor Silver departed, Nora made her way back into the neutral zone, back to the noxious hum that buzzed in her ears louder than ever before. She tucked the necklace back into her collar, felt the warm metal nestle against her skin.
Could she really be the one to liberate Earth, as the professor said? She wondered, for a nanosecond, whether it could actually be possible. No one had ever thought to resist the Occupation; the longer they remained nested in every continent, the more the Occupants negated any historical record in which they were not the dominant species. As far as anyone even knew, an insurrection had never been tried.
Nora concentrated on her firm, measured steps all the way back to her small apartment. She had agreed to meet him at noon the next day; he promised information that would help her. It sounded so easy when he said it: in order to find the other keys, they would have to break into the NICHE—the National Interspace Command Headquarters Edifice from which the Occupants controlled the entirety of human governments worldwide—and find the Nest, which served as the nexus of power for these Occupants whose presence everyone felt, but never actually saw. She had initially objected at being the “lone heroine to save the day,” but Professor Silver had laughed and assured her, “You won’t be alone. There are others who will be with you every step of the way.”
Nora went through her customary nighttime routine, wrestling against the urge to change even a single moment of what would be considered normal. She combed her hair, exchanged her uniform for a nightgown, and brushed her teeth. Last of all, before getting into bed, Nora removed the earplugs, basking in the stark silence. She closed her eyes and drifted to sleep.
Not much later, the nightmare began. Nora found herself navigating an endless maze of dark hallways, with nebulous shapes wafting in the shadows, manifesting periodically in forms from the deepest, darkest corners of Nora’s psyche. Slithering tentacles, gnashing teeth, fearsome claws—Nora could do nothing but run from one horror straight to the next. She woke with a small whimper to an absolute mess of her bed, pillows and blankets thrown about, nightgown rumpled. She sat up and rubbed her face, panting hard to calm her shaken nerves. The earrings on her nightstand flashed a soothing green. The Occupant assigned to her neighborhood was trying to make contact. Nora groaned softly to herself as she obediently replaced the earring so the Occupant could network with her.
“I noticed you weren’t sleeping well just now. What seems to be the problem?”
“Nothing,” Nora tried to keep the tremor out of her voice. “Just normal things; a nightmare is all.”
“Nightmares are often caused by neural unrest. What is the nature of your nightmare?”
“Know what?” Nora murmured, “I don’t even remember it now. I think I can sleep just fine.”
“All right. I will be with you in the morning, Nora.”
“As always, Naith.”
Nora couldn’t get the small studs out of her earlobes fast enough. She laid the gemstones back on their stand, now returned to their customary blue hue, and laid down in her bed, pulling the covers up to her chin. She glanced out the window, watching the undulating nebula wavering over the sky. No one could pinpoint exactly when the nebula had first entered human cognizance—whether it had appeared as suddenly as the Occupants, or whether it had always hovered in the night sky, undetected until the present moment. Nora knew there was some important connotation attached to the phenomenon, if only she could figure out what it was.
Nora found it even more difficult to focus on the mundane routine the next morning. She fumbled through dressing, and she nearly walked out with only one earring in, and her necklace in plain view on the outside of her uniform. Frantically, she kept the door of her apartment firmly shut until she had everything in order, and only then did she allow herself to emerge like a good little Occupied student.
Nora fought to keep from nodding off during the Arithmetic lecture; at least here she didn’t have to worry about double-speak and ever-changing narratives—did she? Nothing about numbers and figures seemed in the least way out of the ordinary. Contrary to what she had told Naith the night before, she could remember the most intense moments of her nightmare, seared into her brain with vivid, excruciating detail.
Nora walked out through the university commons as the massive clock tolled the noon hour in digitized knells.
A note had found its way into her locker, in Professor Silver’s familiar handwriting and inscribed hastily on a napkin. He wrote in bold capitals for some reason, and the message was especially cryptic. “NOWHERE IS NOWHERE,” it said. At the bottom he had drawn a symbol she recognized, the logo of a long-defunct nightclub. Nora headed there now, nagged by the incessant humming of her earrings, knowing her every movement would be tracked—she could only assume the Professor had found another one of those “noise-canceling pockets” like he had near the library.
She passed through the narrow gate under the decrepit sign that read NETHER-LAND. Rather a naughty name for an establishment, however appropriate. Her hand trembled as she knocked at the door. The nozzle of a gun peeked out the window next to her.
“Nobody home! Buzz off!”
Nora held up her note, hoping that whoever was inside could see it. “Professor Silver indicated that I should come,” she said.
“You numpty!” The voice growled, and the door opened at just about the same time two large hands grabbed Nora by the arm and dragged her inside.
“Naming names in the open like that! Do you want to get us all nixed?”
“Who are you?” Nora demanded, wrenching away from the grip in the dark interior of the vacant nightclub. “Where’s Professor Silver? Is he here?”
“Ned!” the man called, leaving Nora standing in the middle of the room that stank of countless crowds, unwashed dishes, stale cigar smoke, and who-knew-what-else. “Someone here for ya!”
“Nora!” At last, a familiar voice! Nora nearly cried as the professor she barely knew stepped into the room and wrapped his arms protectively around her. “You got my note! You found us.”
“I did,” she admitted, swallowing the tears and rubbing her nose. “Though I’d like to know: who is us? What is this place?”
Ned Silver smacked his forehead. “I’m sorry; in my effort to hide our true intentions from anyone who could betray that information, I may have muddled things for you. Come! Let me show you!” He took her hand and led her further back into the club, where a large room completely hidden from any windows held many monitors and screens and some very sophisticated navigational equipment. “Welcome to N.O.W.H.E.R.E.!”
Nora gazed in bewilderment at the assembled group: people milled about the screens, entering information, reading articles and streams of text she couldn’t possibly dream of understanding, and speaking together in small groups over short stacks of printed material. “Nowhere?” She repeated.
A man stopped in the act of walking by. “Yes, we are the National Organization of World Historians to End Research Entropy.”
Nora frowned. “Research Entropy?”
Ned nodded. “What can I say? The acronym came first, before the official title. Basically, what we are doing—right under the noses of the Occupation—is collecting and preserving any records we can find of pre-Occupation historical events. That way, no matter what they try to do with replacing or negating our past, we can still know how things really happened.”
“And someday,” the man agreed, “When we figure out how to neutralize the Occupant’s surveillance, and how to re-activate the Stonehenge Shield, we’ll be able to correct the nullified records.”
Ned smiled and squeezed the young woman’s hand. “That’s where you come in. Nora, meet Nelson Garrett, one of the first historians on the team. Nelson, this is Nora Farthington—and she is the key-holder for North America.”
“Key-holder?” Nelson gasped, and the same time Nora cried, “North America?”
“Yes,” Ned agreed. “You recall how I told you there were five keys? Well, thanks to some very relentless hacking, our team has discovered that potentially the other four keys are located somewhere within four other continents: Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa. We’re still narrowing down the specifics—which we can’t do unless the neural network spanning the nation is neutralized—but thus far we’ve been able to isolate four different regions: Norway in Europe, Nepal in Asia, Nigeria in Africa, and New South Wales in Australia.”
Nelson snorted. “Yes, well, if we were at the Home Office in Newfoundland, I could network with all the agents in those areas, thereby making our search more effective, but no! You had to call us all out to bleeding Nebraska, of all places—“
“Oh!” Nora gasped, noting the nature of Nelson’s complaint. “That’s what your note meant! “NOWHERE is now here.”
Nelson would not be so easily deterred. “We are indeed, and we have precious little to show for it. I mean, really! I acknowledge that Nebraska might be a nexus of power for the Occupation in this part of the world, but the accommodations are bordering on Neanderthal!”
“Nevertheless,” Ned cut in, raising his hand, “we’re doing pretty well with what we have, working in secret like this, and—if you’re on board, Nora—we can start planning how we’ll infiltrate the NICHE.”
Nora took one more glance around the room, and then nodded at Ned.
“Count me in,” she said.
|Original Suggestion Box Image|
Also in the A-to-Z Challenge Series: ( * Continuations of previous Suggestion Box installments)