Chapter 5Mature

"And now I see why you needed a drink."

The Burning Couch, a familiar student pub, was largely empty at this time in the afternoon. A subwoofer, buzzing like a huhu beetle, generated an ambience of mediocre quality electronic music - not too loudly, fortunately, but loud enough to obfuscate David's recounting of the morning's events: After the police had evacuated the professor as a precaution, then gathered David's details and statements, they had set him off on his way with a brochure for a "trauma, stress and grief counsellor" in case he needed one. One's more than enough.

The trench-coated Asian man across from David was his first point of call after most of his life's ups and downs, and this particular incident was no exception. Akira Kinomoto gazed through the eye-glass screen of his HEDSET with a cocktail of concern, compassion and consternation. It was obvious, even beneath his Heads-up display gadget, he didn't entirely believe what his friend was saying. Although he was tactful enough not to come out and say it, he wasn't particularly skilled at masking his body language and expressions.

David just nodded. He probably thinks I'm crazy. He considered that thought for a moment. I probably think I'm crazy. I go from dropping in on a fringe science lecture to surviving an explosion that ripped a car open. The sound of a can of cheap local beer being eagerly opened nearby reminded him he was yet to order his drinks, and was still uncomfortably sober.

"Speaking of drinks..." David remarked as he produced his cyPhone and scanned the menu that was neatly positioned upon the high customwood table. The gadget blipped as it recognised the datacode printed at the end of the menu, and immediately downloaded an applet containing all the menu's information and more. David's eyes scanned for the cheapest liquor and beer available, settled on the house beer and vodka, and placed an order for one of each. The cost would be automatically transferred from his synced bank account, and the wait staff would bring the drinks to their table in a moment.

David closed his cyPhone's protective cover and placed the gadget on the table. "Are you going to order something too?" David queried.

"Just did" was the reply, as Akira pointed to his own cyPhone - a state-of-the-art Taiheiyo Corporation Electronics WISP, which looked positively alien sitting atop a cheap table made of glued sawdust.

"I swear there's something inhuman about how quickly you can use that thing." David said in astonishment, but not surprise. Akira knew his arsenal of gadgets like the back of his hand, which shone with an anarchist tattoo beneath the UV lights that dotted the bar.

Akira took it as a compliment, tossing his green-tipped, asymmetrical hair back with the quip "I'm a natural at the artificial". He moved in closer, preparing to get back to the topic at hand. "So, the pair of you survived a 'splosion that fragged a car, so that means one of you could be a whatcha call it, post-human?" The tone of his voice was sceptical, but not to the point of accusing his friend of lying.

"Or we were attacked by one. But yeah, what you said's a possibility - but one that would be difficult to prove. And dangerous. You can't just blow us up again to see who survives. Besides, as I just mentioned it could be neither of us." He noticed the waitress - a girl who looked barely old enough to drink - approaching with their drinks. She looked bored, hungover, or possibly both. "Thanks" he said as he was handed a mug of amber beer and a shot glass of clear vodka.

"That sounds far more likely. Cheers." Akira thanked the waitress for his own drinks - a mug of dark beer and shot of golden liqueur - and watched her return behind the counter. "Look, if this professor is the very thing he's been looking for and trying to prove even existed - let alone still exists - he would be shouting it from the rooftops. Yet you said his lecture was grasping at straws at best. I doubt a guy with a PHD and half a lifetime of research would miss something literally staring at him in the mirror."

"That's what I was thinking..." David admitted to his mug of bargain basement brew, taking a sip before realising why it was the cheapest alcohol on the menu. "God, they should be paying me to drink this" he remarked in disgust. His buddy braved a sip of his own, which was met by ambivalence. "So what did your drinks set you back? A drop in a bucket or a drop in the ocean?" David asked. He was anxious about the implications of the conversation so far, and wanted to go off topic until he gained some courage - Dutch or otherwise.

"...yes" Akira replied ambiguously. He had never been vocal about his wealth, and David would occasionally tease him about this. He squirmed slightly when the topic was raised - embarrassed at how rich he was, or perhaps at where the money came from - and this was no exception. One thing he had never revealed was exactly how much money he possessed, and today wasn't going to change that.

"How about you? Aren't you supposed to be a starving student working part-time for minimum wage?"

"It's a drop in a teaspoon, I guess. But like you said, I needed a drink - or two." With that, David dropped his shot glass of vodka into his beer, creating a frothing depth charge cocktail. Akira followed suit in a ritual that had started the previous year, once both men had reached the age threshold for buying liquor. "Here's to still being in one piece." David clinked his beer mug against Akira's and took a thirsty gulp.

As David simultaneously took in his drinks of choice, Akira returned the subject to what had brought them here. "I'm glad you're in one piece, but are you sure you're all right? All your talk of post-humans and whatever... I don't know. You've been through a lot, and I think you might not be completely with it. Do you think you might have been confused by, say, the fumes or the shock from the explosion?"

David looked into his drink, as if the answer was engraved on the shot glass that swam at the bottom. "That car did smell pretty weird - both before and after it blew up."

"What about concussion, or the panic that followed the blast? After all of that, I reckon your recollections might be more shaken than Bond's martini."

This question required a little more thought. "I got thrown back, but didn't hit my head - I must have been side-on to the blast, 'cause I had just shaken the professor's hand." He hesitated. "I think." He paused again. "Look, it's hard to think, let alone remember, when it all comes flying at you out of nowhere." He punctuated his statement with another swig of beer and vodka. Akira nodded across the table and waited for David to finish.

"But check this out -" the student instructed his pal, flipping open his cyPhone again. "I've got pics from the scene. There's the car. What's left of it at least" David conjured an image that showed the burning remnants of the rental, then flicked to another - the one he had been looking for. "See the scorch marks on the concrete, around the car. Now, this is where we were standing."

David let that image speak for itself - the flames from the explosion had blackened the surface of the cement in a radius of a couple metres, but there was a sudden and distinct shadow where the ground was suddenly unaffected. "It's like a force field reflected the heat and fire away from this spot - right where we were standing. And I'm damned if I know how or why, but somehow, something seems to have protected us..."

Akira didn't know what to make of this evidence. He ponderously sipped his own drink, and set it on the table once more, gripping on the cold glass handle as a bead of condensation slid down the mug. "The important thing is you got out without a scratch. You weren't slashed by flying glass, burned by flames, suffocated by smoke. Your clothes aren't even singed-" Akira pointed with his empty left hand to the worn-out charcoal hoodie that David wore, "- so if I were you, I'd be buying a lotto ticket. Save your worries for things you can actually affect - don't waste your concerns on events already past, 'k?"

As far as pep talks go, this was the best that Akira - an almost-sociophobic geek - could manage. David accepted it graciously nonetheless. "Cheers, mate. You're right, I should be glad about this whole thing. But there's a lot of questions I have, and I'm a sucker for needing to know more..."

David tapped on the aging surface of his cyPhone to dismiss the photo gallery in favour of a complex physics calculator. "I ran some calculations and figured something out - The fuel tank of an average alco-fuel vehicle wouldn't hold anywhere near enough alco-fuel to create an explosion capable of decimating a car of half that size. And..." He trailed off for a moment, sighed, then threw back the rest of his drink, hoping to find some comfort in the harsh, bitter cocktail within. He closed his eyes until the drink was consumed, then plonked the empty cups on the table, pushing them away gently.

"You think there was something else that might have, you know, amplified it?" probed Akira, gently as he could manage.

"Maybe. Like, perhaps the professor had flammable materials in the car - papers and seat covers and other plastic-y things - but that shouldn't've made the initial explosion much bigger. The oils and coolants and other junk that makes a car run are also not enough to blow something to smithereens. Even with a can of spare fuel thrown in the back, we'd be looking at a fire, but not an explosion that shards a ton o' metals and synthetics to shreds."

The stress and alcohol had combined like the drink he'd just drained, and were starting to affect David's usually decent command of Neo Zealand English. However, there was something he needed to say. "I don't think this were a fuel leak or any kinda accident. Someone wanted that car to explode when Lambton triggered the ignition."

The allegation hung in the stagnant air as the sound system progressed from ambient electronic-fusion to a tense techstep. Akira, buying some time before his response, took a careful sip of his own drink. He gradually set the mug down and puzzled out a reply. "Who'd want to kill that old professor though?"

David shrugged his shoulders as a couple of bar-goers made a beeline for the bar. Taking in a breath to unwind slightly, he put forward "I have a few speculations. What do you know about the Reconcilist Curch?"

"That cult that wants to throw Jesus, Mohammed and Moses together and see what happens?" Akira replied dismissively.

"You think every religion is a cult." David stated plainly.

"'Cause every cult thinks it's a religion." Akira explained. "But what brings them to mind?"

"They put out a bunch of stuff calling Lambton a blasphemous bigot of atheist propaganda or something. Ads for his lecture got defaced with their logo. I suppose they don't like him saying their messiahs were post-humans and not prophets."

"Perhaps. But one thing I'll give 'em is that they haven't used violence to spread their message. Yet. So it's a pretty big jump from mostly harmless to pre-meditated acts of attempted murder."

David nodded. Like Lambton's lecture earlier in the day, he was grasping at straws to try and understand what lay before him. "That's what I was thinking. It's not like they threatened him first, as far as I know." A new thread came to mind. "Terrorists perhaps? Targeting foreigners in rental cars?"

"Even those White Knight assholes couldn't pull off something that sophisticated." Akira's voice took a harsh turn as he discounted the local euro-supremacist organisation.

"Let's hope not." David concurred. "Rival academics, maybe? Looking to take the grant money currently set aside for Lambton's research. Or just looking to get rid of him out of spite or jealousy?"

Akira shook his head, his HEDSET somehow remaining in perfect position over his right eye. "When's the last time one academic got done for creasing another? Especially when basically no-one thinks Lambton is credible anyway." He considered that for a moment, then added "Hell, I don't believe him myself."

David accepted that it was a stretch at best to infer this scenario. "Of course." It was like trying to discern a shadow in the dark - there were too many variables at play, leaving too many questions unable to be answered. "Perhaps there's an unknown unknown here - maybe the professor is involved in something besides his academic studies."

"NOW we're getting somewhere" Akira beamed as he thudded his largely-empty mug on the table. As the foam effervesced from his drink, he continued "so what seedy acts is the good professor dabbling in to attract this kind of attention?"

"Again, I have no idea - we're just brainstorming here. Perhaps something involving the artifacts he studies - black market archaeological items stolen from museums, governments and collectors." a thought crossed his mind. "or..."

"...go on" Akira urged, taking the final swig of his drink.

"...a number of narcotics are explosive, or are made from explosive substances, or from substances stored under high pressure. Methamphetamines, OverDrive, forms of 'dorph, Moonshine alcohol, the list is endless. I don't want to go making allegations, but maybe this man is more than he seems. Perhaps he's involved in something much more sinister"

David glanced at his cyPhone, checking the time. Sighing, he confessed "I should get going. I've got work tomorrow morning."

Akira nodded, and the pair got to their feet. "See you next time, eh? And stay outta trouble."

David laughed his short, rare chuckle. "I'll try. But you know me - I hate not having the answers"

The End

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