Part One

Heather Nann smacked j.s.lamb’s face so hard that the pink, raggedly chewed, Blammo bubble gum in his jaw-dropped mouth catapulted two rows away onto Jennifer Smith’s desk. At the same time, Lamb’s finger-fat, crystal-glass fountain pen fell slow-motion-like onto the ceramic floor, shatter-splatting an eerily elegant series of blue-black droplets that dotted both Nann’s and Lamb’s boots, a pattern that would later be christened “Orion’s Tears” because they resembled that conspicuous constellation.

“That,” said Nann firmly, “is direct dimensionality: I see you; you see me, and one of us initiates and executes contact. Do you understand the concept now?”

Lamb nodded physically, but struggled mentality. A fine communicator with paper and pen — what Nann termed indirect delayed dimensionality—Lamb, the eldest member of the team, grappled mightily with direct human contact at any level and in all dimensions. The only reason he was selected for the upcoming mission was his savant-like knack at cryptology that, latter in the op, would undoubtedly prove invaluable.

With tension as high as the sound was low, in walked Gutbloom.

“Hello, dear ones,” he said in his trademark tone of faux sophistication. “Missed something, have I?”

“Mr. Guffman,” Nann said, deliberately mispronouncing his name. “Glad you could join us.”

Head tilted slightly, Gutbloom flashed his infamous half-smile — until he saw the splatter.

“Has Master Lamb dropped his pen — yet again?” he asked.

Nann didn’t answer but stared with such icy intensity that he wisely chose to end the conversation and casually stroll to his desk.

“May I summarize?” asked Lt. Jg. Todd Hannula 🤓, perhaps the only person in the room with the perfect balance of nerdiness and normalcy. It would be neither the first nor last time he stabilized a shaky situation and nudged things back on track.

Nann nodded, her brow dipped furiously, like a deep valley.

“Direct dimensionality is eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand, mouth-to-ear — it happens in real time-space. It can’t be replicated, though it can be simulated, at which time it becomes augmented dimensionality, Level 1, 2 or 3, depending on the data available for — and inputted into — the simulation.”

“Exactly,” snapped Nann, who pierce-eyed Lamb as he frantically took notes with his back-up No. 2 yellow-lacquered pencil.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Proctor Mary Holden half-entered the room and motioned that Nann step outside.

“Class,” Nann said as she walked out the door. “Guffmann!” she yelled, unceremoniously, as it slowly closed.

Gutbloom goose-stepped smartly forward, executed a perfect 180-degree snap-turn, then clicked his heels together three times.

“We’re not in Kansas, anymore,” quipped the G-mistier, Nann’s aide-de-camp and primary stand-in.

The class knew what he meant. Each person stood up and walked to a pre-designated portion of the room, whose walls were sprayed with a slick, glossy white substance that, when properly dried, turned the entire room — floor-to-ceiling — into a giant white-board box.

“Master Lamb,” Gutbloom said, quaintly. “Might you clean up the ink from your celebrated pen?”

“I might,” said Lamb, and he did.

The G-man watched as team members scribbled away: John Ward, writing in crisp, thin block-letters, contrasting with nearby Savanna D'Amato’s elegant script. Meanwhile, Michelle Stone carefully preceded her data-dump with perfectly precise square bullets. Next to Stone stood Brad Decker, who preferred numbered bullet points.

“They add clarity,” Decker explained.

Tough, smart, and witty Lauren Modery stared into the blank space, as she often did, to focus her internal energy. Typically the last to start — usually the first to finish.

Mike Essig, “The Warrior,” wrote with deliberate down-strokes, reminiscent of the stabbing shower scene in “Psycho.” Though his method was unsettling, the outcome was near-always eloquent.

Jack Herlocker, first to start and last to finish, was already frantically re-writing. By contrast, Rocket Worley’s designated area was quickly being filled with witty cartoons while Tremaine L. Loadholt jotted down answers in shorthand at a breathtakingly fast rate.

As dozens of others made their marks on the bright, white walls, Gutbloom zeroed in on Dave Grigger.

“Herr Grigger,” he said, slyly. “Do we bore you?’

“No,” said Grigger, who broke his arm during the last Medium mission, and was struggling to write with a hand not particularly skilled at maneuvering markers.

“Let the poor guy alone,” challenged Colette Clarke Torres. “He’s trying!”

“Mother-protector?” Gutbloom quizzed.

Lisa Renee stepped forward, placed her red marker squarely under Gutbloom’s chin, and was about to threaten him when Nann re-entered the room.

“Good work, Mr. Guffman,” she said sarcastically. “Usually Lisa has the marker stuffed up your nose by now.”

When she got back to her desk, Nann stopped momentarily, took a deep breath, then said, “Back to your desks.”

The class obeyed.

After an uncomfortably long pause, Nann spoke.

“The mission has been moved up a week,” she said.

A convulsive gasp rippled through the class.

“The Masters of the Medium Matrix have altered their deadline, so we must react accordingly,” she explained. “Please go to your cubicles, update your survival packs, then get some rest.”

Nann’s eyes scanned the room, trying to recall each name, each face, each strength, each weakness.

“Call-up 0400,” she barked. “Breakfast, oh-five. Then gather in the Charles O'Meara Memorial Meeting room at six. Understood?”

There was a collective, brusque nod.

“Dismissed.”

As she watched her team march briskly into the hallway, she detected an odd croaking sound at the back of the room. She went to investigate. There, behind the large oak bookshelf, was j.s.lamb. He was throwing up …

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