Ex Nihilo

/Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo2018-11-03T17:25:49+00:00
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Chapter 1

Allison Rhode didn’t know much about the sleeping man, and that concerned her. After following him for months, she’d only learned that he traveled a lot, which was why she needed to keep searching for him every day or two. The last few nights he’d been staying at a bed and breakfast in the country; tonight however, she found him checked into a filthy motel in downtown Grubsttip.

She always found him though; that much never changed. She always found him sleeping, always in the same nightshirt, and always smelling of sweat and cigarette smoke. As she inhaled his toxic scent once more, Allie considered it odd that such a noxious odor could at the same time seem pleasant, or even endearing.

Stepping toward the bed, she knelt down beside him, and studied the creases of his weathered face. She didn’t know his name, didn’t fully understand her own reason for seeking him out each night. She only knew that they were connected, somehow, and that tonight she was determined to find out how.

“Wake up,” she whispered into his ear; he barely moved an inch. “Wake up!” she demanded with a great deal more volume; the man winced and began to stir.

As she reached out to shake his shoulder, however, she felt a surge of cold run through her hand, causing her to draw it sharply back. She hadn’t actually touched him, but as her fingers neared his shoulder a warning shot through her nerves, not unlike the freezing sensation she felt when digging with bare hands through a bank of snow.

Interestingly, that same sensation must have passed through the man’s shoulder as well. He shivered, wrinkled his brow, and then jerked open his wild eyes. For the briefest of moments, Allie could see into them, could see that they were blue as the sky. Yet soon they focused, moving down from the ceiling to meet her gaze. As soon as their eyes connected, however, Allison’s world went dark.

Her eyes shot open. She was back; she was home; she was safe. As her heartbeat slowed to its regular pace, she stared at the sky-blue ceiling of her bedroom, until finally she forced herself to sit up. A glance to her window revealed that dawn was only minutes away, so she grudgingly rolled out of bed, put the dream and the man out of mind, and began to prepare for the workday.

Still, as she stepped toward the shower, Allie couldn’t purge from her mind or from her nostrils that scent which still seemed to linger beside her bed. Sweat, she noted, and cigarette smoke.

At the office, a familiar voice called her name. “Allison Rhode,” she heard; looking up from a rather tedious stack of tax law documents, Allie glanced to her right and smiled.

“Hey Grace,” she replied in a friendly tone; then when she caught her coworker’s perturbed expression, she followed the greeting with an uncertain, “What’s up?” In reply, Grace Hawthridge released her crossed arms, and strode over to Allie’s desk. Then, before Allie could raise her own arms in defense, she felt the sting of Grace’s backhanded slap across her shoulder.

“And where were you last night?” she demanded.

Last night? Allie wondered; then she remembered. “Oh.”

“That’s right,” Grace nodded condescendingly. “You missed my graduation.”

“Sorry,” she winced. “It completely slipped my mind.”

“Not surprising; you have a terrible memory.” Grace sat down in the swivel chair beside her, swiveled a bit, and sighed. “It’s all right,” she allowed, rolling her eyes. “I mostly just wanted to introduce you to my family.”

Allison nodded, then quickly glanced back to her friend. “You mean you wanted to introduce me to Brendan,” she accused; she shook her head as Grace quickly masked a smile. “I told you, I’m not going out with your brother.”

“And why not?” she challenged.

“Because it’s weird!” Allie shot back. “He’s your brother.”

“How is that weird? People go out with other people’s brothers all the time; that isn’t weird.”

Allie sighed. “I’m just not interested in starting a relationship right now.”

“I know,” Grace nodded. “You never are.”

“Well what about you?” Allie returned. “Last I checked, you were single too.”

“But at least I get out there,” her friend shot back, appearing almost angry. “At least I try! What do you do? You drift through every day, waiting for the perfect man – a man who is never going to arrive.”

Allie touched her hand to her forehead, more than aware of the chattering office around her. She griped, “Do we really need to have this conversation again?”

“Until you do something about it,” Grace returned. “You’re twenty-nine years old,” she said, “and counting. Another year and you’ll be a relic.”

Allie raised an eyebrow and snorted. “That’s a bit of an overstatement.”

Grace sighed, and swiveled closer. “At this rate, you’re going to spend the rest of your life entirely alone; you do realize that, don’t you? Dreaming and wishing for the life you could’ve lived.”

Allie made a face and glanced to the side. A part of her resonated with what Grace was trying to convey; she did miss being in a relationship. Still, “I feel like I already belong to someone,” she explained, looking back to her friend. “It’s only been five months it happened; maybe he’s still out there somewhere, still looking for me.”

“Or maybe ‘he’ never really existed,” Grace countered, “Maybe you made him up. I’ve spent years waiting around for my dream guy, but you know what I’ve realized Allie?”

“What’s that?”

“He’s just that – a dream, nothing more. We live in the real world, Allison. You find a real man, an imperfect man, and you find a way to forgive his flaws; with luck, he’ll do the same for you.”

Allie glanced around the bustling newspaper office, grateful that their conversation was masked by the effervescent, ever-present noise pollution of the Pittsburgh Review’s cubicle farm. “What are you going to do with your degree?” she asked, changing the subject. She’d had about enough of this conversation in its current trajectory.

Grace sighed and shook her head, apparently deciding to drop the point. Allie gave a slight grin of relief. “You gonna stay in the mailroom?” she teased.

“No,” Grace laughed, “No, I’m definitely not going to stay here. Oh, but that reminds me,” she swiveled out of her chair, and hurried over to the nearby mail cart. “This came for you today. ‘Ex Nihilo Industries’,” she read. “Caught my eye.”

“You’ve heard of it?” Allie guessed, taking the manila envelope and studying its return address.

Grace laughed. “Of course I’ve heard of it; I’m a biochem major, or graduate now I supposed. Ex Nihilo is the most infamous research facility in the Pittsburgh area.”

“Infamous how?”

Grace shrugged. “They’re just really private about their research,” she replied. “I had a classmate who interned there for a semester – when he came back, we tried for months to pull some details out of him, but it was like pulling teeth,” she frowned slightly. “It seemed like he was almost afraid of them, of what might happen if he did talk.”

Allie raised her eyebrows. “All right, you’ve caught my interest,” she decided, tearing off the top of the envelope. Withdrawing the contents, she scanned the cover letter, and then reread it in confusion.

“What?” Grace caught her expression. “What is it?”

“It’s…an invitation,” she replied. “To tour the facilities with a group of investors.”

“You’re kidding,” Grace laughed. “The mysterious, shadowy Ex Nihilo Industries wants a reporter – an investigative reporter – to tour its facilities. Give me that,” she insisted, snatching the letter out of Allie’s hands; she read it aloud.

My dear Allison Rhode,

I must apologize for contacting you in this manner. I had hoped we might meet in a more social venue, but as it happens I have a present and pressing need for your investigative skills. I hope you will pardon me for cutting to the chase.

Something disconcerting is happening at the company I work for, Ex Nihilo. Someone is breaking into my office at night, and reading my journals and research. If it is someone outside of the company – well, in the wrong hands, the information loss could prove quite dangerous. However if (as I suspect) someone within the company is at fault, then I fear that they may be working to cover up facets of our research gone awry.

There have been accidents around the Pittsburgh area which may tie back to Ex Nihilo – unusual incidents which may (or hopefully may not) be our fault. I have been tracking these incidents in private, but now that someone has read my files, I may not be alone in this knowledge.

I don’t know if my knowledge puts me in any danger, so as a precaution I have attached newspaper clippings of the incidents in question, so that someone else has a copy. Also, there is a facilities tour coming up on August fourteenth for potential investors; if you’re willing to come, it would be great to have your eyes on this; I have placed your name on the list. Should anything happen to me or my research, I have the deepest confidence that you will find and expose the truth about Ex Nihilo, to whatever end.

Thank you for your time,

Dr. Aaron Wright

Allie felt another slap across her shoulder. “You never told me you had an informant at Ex Nihilo!” Grace accused her.

“I don’t,” she replied, distracted. “I’ve never met this Dr. Wri – August fourteenth,” she interrupted herself. “Isn’t that today?”

“Take me with you.”

“Tonight at seven, apparently,” she confirmed, scanning the invitation resting on her lap.

“Take me with you!” Grace insisted. Ignoring her, Allie placed the invitation on her desk, and turned her attention to the old newspaper clippings that were piled beneath it.

Boy falls from tree, suffers hallucinations

By Jordan Hermire

Eight-year-old Henry Willis was admitted to Allegheny General Tuesday with a broken arm and concussion after falling from his tree house in North Millvale woods. He claims to have fallen when “the forest disappeared around him.” Doctor Warren Bittle attributes his hallucinations to head trauma, although Millvale local Fred Burnstein corroborates the story, stating, “the woods just disappeared for a couple seconds, then came back.” The North Millvale woods are presently intact.

Accountant goes missing, mob loses millions

By Gretchen Sparrow

Suspected mob boss Gary Petrovich reported the theft of $960,000,000 yesterday, along with the disappearance of his accountant Slim Richards. Petrovich states that he will “pursue Richards to the full extent of the law, and then some.” (continued on page 8)

Serial rapist escapes prison, rolling heads to follow

By Gretchen Sparrow

The search for escaped convict Harold “Skippy” Darnight continues, although state police neglect to report any progress. Escaped on Mar 7 from the Pittsburgh State Correctional Institution, Darnight has been at large for nearly a week, “drawing this investigation closer and closer to FBI jurisdiction,” states Harold Dretch of the… (continued on page 2)

The last article immediately caught Allie’s eyes, and she nearly choked. The picture beside it, the photograph of Skippy Darnight – “I know that man!” she exclaimed, shoving the article onto her desk and as far away from her lap as possible. “He’s a,” she looked away, then felt Grace’s eyes riveted on her own.

“How do you, Allison Rhode, know a rapist?”

Allie breathed, glanced at the photograph, then immediately wished she hadn’t. “You remember that recurring dream I told you about?”

“A man who keeps traveling, and you have to keep finding him.”

“Well I don’t think he’s traveling,” she suggested; Grace’s eyes grew wide. “He’s running.”

“That’s your dream guy?!” she exclaimed, jabbing her finger toward Darnight’s picture. Allie shook her head.

“He’s not my ‘dream guy’,” she retorted, “it isn’t like that. We’re just…connected, somehow; I don’t know how.”

Allie paused a beat, took a long breath, then blinked. “Wait a minute.” Grabbing for the article, she scanned its text once more, then shook her head in disbelief.

“What is it?” Grace wondered.

“It’s…the date,” Allie replied, glancing up. “It says here he escaped on March seventh.”

It took Grace a moment before she perceived the connection. “Five months ago!” she started. “If memory serves, that would the same Friday you marched in here, demanding a job.”

“The first day I can remember,” Allie nodded.

“Still can’t believe they hired you off the street,” she complained. “I’ve been after your position for years.”

“So Darnight escapes on the same day I lose my memory, and now I’m dreaming about him,” Allie frowned. “There has got to be a connection there.”

“What do you know about him?” Grace asked.

“Not much,” she replied, “only what the article says, and that he reeks of sweat and cigarette smoke.” Allie paused for a moment, then looked Grace in the eyes. “You know it’s funny,” she spoke, “every morning when I wake up, even if I haven’t dreamed of him, I can still smell his stench in the air beside my bed.”

“What, like he’s watching you sleep?” Grace asked with incredulity; then she glanced to the side as though recalling something.

Allie expelled a laugh that was part pragmatism, and part nerves. “Of course not, it’s just a residual smell from the dream,” she decidedly replied. “But it is kind of creepy.”

Allie glanced at Grace’s mouth, which remained uncharacteristically shut, and then at her averted gaze and somewhat labored breathing. “What is it?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Last month,” Grace slowly began to speak, “when I crashed at your apartment? I got up in the middle of the night to use your bathroom.”

Allie tensed. “Okay.”

Grace shook her head, slightly. “I remember thinking it was strange,” she recalled, “because I knew you didn’t smoke.” Allie stood, ignoring the revulsion running through her veins, and Grace looked up into her eyes.

“I never saw him of course,” she allowed, “But I do distinctly remember the smell – sweat and cigarette smoke.” She paused. “We can’t both be having the same delusion, Allie; he isn’t in your head.”

Grace looked up into her eyes. “He’s in your bedroom.”

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Chapter 2

Allie must’ve spent thirty minutes washing her hands before she exited the ladies’ room at Ex Nihilo Industries; even then, her hands still felt filthy. She smoothed out a wrinkle in her pencil skirt.

The facility was smaller than she expected; it consisted solely of what looked to be the main building, and a tall, warehouse-looking thing that stood immediately adjacent to it. However, the walnut paneling and granite floor of the impeccably clean bathroom suggested that the company wasn’t cash poor; it simply spent its funding on quality rather than quantity, a trait which immediately garnered Allie’s respect.

“This is great!” Grace whispered as they exited the bathroom. “No one will ever believe I’ve been inside this place.”

“Just remember,” she whispered back, “we’re here as investors, not investigators. I can’t afford to get kicked out.” The statement was true on two levels. From a professional standpoint, if Ex Nihilo was operating unethically, she did have a duty to the public, and to this Dr. Wright, to bring that wrong to the light. More to the point, however, she suspected that this place could hold the key to understanding her connection to that man, that Skippy Darnight. She couldn’t afford to lose this moment, to lose this one opportunity to make sense of the last five months of her life. She needed to know why a rapist was stalking her sleep.

The two girls strode across the marble floor of the entry hall, to the small group of men waiting beside the reception desk. “Ms. Rhode, I presume?” asked one man, holding out his hand. Bespectacled and graying, he had to be in his early fifties.

“That’s right,” she returned the handshake. “You must be Dr. Wright.”

The elder man’s face portrayed an inquisitive glance, and he replied, “No, no I’m Charles, the Chief Executive Officer of Ex Nihilo. But you know Aaron?”

Before she could reply, Allie felt a light poke in her right shoulder; assuming it was Grace, she immediately brushed the hand away. Yet when she glanced to the right to learn why Grace was poking at her, she instead found that it was one of the other two investors, a youngish man with two remarkably pronounced earlobes.

He poked her again. “Excuse me,” she demanded, brushing away his hand again. His eyes jerked from her shoulder to her face, shifting every second or so as though examining her lips and jawline; they then shifted upward to greet her own eyes. “Yes?” she asked.

He glanced at her shoulder again, then returned to her face. Then he glanced at her shoulder and returned to her face. Then, still holding her gaze, he poked her shoulder once more.

“What is your problem?” she hissed; she heard Grace chuckle from behind.

“Sorry,” the man finally spoke. “You’re just so beautiful; I wanted to make sure you weren’t just my imagination at work.”

“Hah!” Grace laughed in reflex; Allie gave her an over-the-shoulder look of aggravation.

“Does that line actually work on women?” she rolled her eyes.

“Not once,” the man replied, “But it’s my first time trying it out. What do you think?”

“Not a chance.”

“Try it without the poking,” Grace chimed in. “Oh, she’s single by the way.”

Allie slapped her hand to her face in exasperation. “Thanks Grace.”

“What are friends for?” she beamed.

“Grace,” the man repeated, moving to take her hand. “A lovely name. Might I know its entirety?”

“Grace Hawthridge,” she smiled. “And this is Allison Rhode.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet the both of you.”

Fortunately, the conversation was then interrupted by the grandfather clock standing beside the reception desk, a clock which seemed strangely out of place in this modern laboratory. “All right everyone,” the CEO spoke after the clock finished chiming seven times. “It’s time to begin.”

Allie subtly moved away from the man with the earlobes, and wound up standing beside the other investor. He glanced over at her, snorted, then looked forward once more. “I promise not to flirt with you,” he whispered.

“Thanks,” she laughed, offering her hand.

“Derek Winthrop,” he said.

“Allison Rhode.”

The CEO began his presentation. “First of all, I’d like to welcome you all to Ex Nihilo Industries,” he stated grandly, as if the four members of the semicircle now formed around him were closer in number to fifty. “My name is Charles Redcoat, CEO of ENI. As a courtesy to your privacy, the building has been emptied of all employees not essential to the tour.” Allie shifted her weight from one leg to the other; with a glance around the sparsely furnished entry hall, she realized that they wouldn’t be doing much sitting.

“Ex Nihilo began as a small biological engineering firm with a highly specific purpose,” Redcoat began. “Our goal was to produce a line of genetically engineered plants which replace photosynthesis with a process we call ‘melasynthesis’. Essentially, instead of harnessing light for power, they run on darkness.”

“Uh,” Grace blurted out from the other side of the semicircle, “That’s like, physically impossible. Darkness isn’t an energy of any kind; it’s simply the absence of light. Darkness doesn’t exist.”

“Mm,” Redcoat nodded, “That is an excellent point, Ms…”

“Hawthridge,” she replied.

“However, just because something doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be useful in one way or another.”

The man beside Allie – Derek Winthrop – spoke up. “I’m not sure that I follow.”

The CEO smiled, then strode over to a plaque situated on the wall beside a nearby door; the semicircle turned into a gaggle, and then reformed around him. “Our company’s logo is a good example of this principle,” he asserted; Allie peered at the plaque. The logo was familiar; she had seen it on the envelope she’d received that morning. It consisted of two lines of text, both of which read ‘Ex Nihilo’; however the top line was written in white text over a black background, while the bottom line was black text over white.

“What does this sign say?” Redcoat asked, glancing at Derek Winthrop.

“It says ‘Ex Nihilo’ twice,” he replied; Redcoat shook his head.

“Actually, it only spells out ‘Ex Nihilo’ once,” he corrected. “If we decide that white is the color to be read, then the top line reads ‘Ex Nihilo’, while the bottom only contains the outline of ‘Ex Nihilo’. If on the other hand black is the color that we read, then the situation is simply reversed.”

Allie nodded and smiled; the example was a clever one.

“So,” he concluded, “Even though Ex Nihilo is technically only spelled out once, we automatically read it twice. The second line is given meaning not by the existence of the necessary letters, but rather by their lack of existence.” Redcoat paused. “In a similar manner, our plants are given energy not by the presence of sunlight, but rather by its absence.”

“And you’ve actually succeeded in creating these plants?” asked Grace with incredulity.

“We have,” Redcoat qualified, “although in the end there was very little genetic engineering involved.”

Allie watched Grace frown as she grappled with this new paradigm. She then watched the CEO grin as he relished the words, “Would you like to see them?”

“Absolutely,” Grace replied.

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Chapter 3

“Right through here,” Redcoat motioned to the doorway nearby, “is an entire forest of melasynthetic plants. Watch your step though, we keep them in absolute darkness.”

As Allie stepped into the darkness, she could feel the concrete beneath give way to earth, and what felt like moss. A feathery plant, probably a fern, brushed against her leg, and soon she could feel the cragged bark of a deciduous tree; strangely, the trunk was so wide that Allie couldn’t wrap her arms around its circumference.

“How old are these trees?” she asked into the void. Much older than Ex Nihilo Industries, she concluded after receiving no response. Straining her ears, she could hear Redcoat’s voice still back in the entry hall; he probably hadn’t heard her.

“All right everyone, watch your eyes,” he called out; after a moment, the room was flooded with light. Squinting, Allie glanced upward. Judging by the fact that the lights were suspended stories above the group, she concluded that they had entered the warehouse portion of ENI. Makes sense.

What didn’t make sense, however, was the clarity with which she was able to see the lights, and the wavy, metal roof. “What in the…” Grace trailed, clearly as shocked as Allie. She looked down, away from the lights, and peered over the barren wasteland that entirely canvassed the warehouse floor. There wasn’t a tree in sight.

“Is this a joke?” asked Winthrop. “You said there was a forest in here.”

“There is, in a sense,” Redcoat replied. “What you are looking at right now is a forest of trees which don’t exist.”

Allie considered that statement for a moment. Before the lights were turned on, she had felt the trunk of a tree; of that much she was certain. Now however, she could step entirely through the space which the tree had previously occupied. Not invisible; it disappeared.

Her mind made a connection. Digging through her purse, she found the article regarding a disappearing forest in Millvale, and skimmed over it again. There have been incidents, she recalled Wright’s letter, strange things happening around the Pittsburgh area, which may tie back to Ex Nihilo – accidents which might be our fault. Was that disappearing forest somehow connected to this one? Her informant seemed to think so.

Dr. Wright, she reminded herself; she was surprised he hadn’t come to the tour to meet her. “I hope he’s all right,” she muttered.

Grace’s voice returned Allie from her musings. “Trees which don’t exist,” she repeated. “You’re kidding.”

“Not in the slightest,” Redcoat replied with the straightest poker face Allie had ever seen. “The trees in this room don’t exist; they are a product of your imagination,” he asserted. “Well, not your imagination, someone else’s, but you get the idea.”

“So if I understand you correctly,” Winthrop summarized, “your trees, which run off of nonexistent darkness, themselves do not exist, and are instead…imaginary.”

“That is an excellent summary,” Redcoat nodded; Grace let out an incredulous laugh.

“Then tell me,” he continued, “why am I here, wasting a perfectly good Friday night on this ridiculous company of yours?”

“Because,” Redcoat stepped over to a toggle switch jutting out of the wall, “this ridiculous company is in the business of taking imaginary things which don’t exist, and bringing them into reality.”

He flipped the switch. Without a warning of any sort, stalks of brown and canopies of green appeared instantaneously around them. Leaves crunched underfoot, and the smell of pine and cigarette smoke saturated the air.

Cigarette smoke?! Allie whirled around, her mind resisting the suspicion that she might find the man in her dreams – Skippy Darnight as the article named him. Fortunately all she could see was empty forest. Still the scent was strong, and she began to imagine him somewhere nearby, hiding behind one of the trees.

“He’s not here,” she convinced herself; she had stared across the expanse of the warehouse only moments before, and the only people present were those in the tour. Behind her, Allie could hear the excited chatter and excited footsteps of the tour group as they explored this impossible wonderland. In front of her, despite her best efforts to convince herself of her safety, she listened intently for any sign of the man she never wanted to meet.

A foot crunched in the leaves.

I should run. She knew that she should run; every instinct in her body was telling her to flee to the safety found in numbers. Yet still she lingered, to her own surprise. In a way she felt as though she needed to see him, to know that her fear was grounded in something real.

The footstep had come from her left, from the other side of the tree she had touched in the darkness. Slowly she approached the tree, and began to feel her way around its circumference. As damp leaves crunched under her footsteps, she began to hear the labored breathing of a nearby man, breaths which grew in intensity with every step she took. She herself grew aware of a cool sensation on the back of her left hand as it neared the other side of the tree. The sensation became steadily colder, until the man drew in a sharp breath; he had noticed it too.

Suddenly, the sensation became a frigid pain, and Allie drew her hand back just as he was about to touch her. She jumped around the tree to face Darnight head-on, but when she saw the place where he should have been, all she found was silence, and a fading scent.

“Hey!” came a voice from behind; Allie jumped a mile in the air. Whirling around, she discovered it was only Earlobes.

“Ugh, don’t sneak up on me!” she grumbled.

“Sorry; Grace was looking for you.” He jerked his thumb toward the sounds of frolicking in the depths of the woods.

“Grace?” Allie breathed. “You guys are on a first name basis now? Whatever, I’ll be right there.”

“Listen Allie, I was wondering if I could speak with you in private for a moment.”

“It’s ‘Allison’,” she replied, hoping he’d take the hint. “Only my friends call me ‘Allie’.”

“Haven’t I thoroughly endeared myself to you already?” he attempted a joke; still smelling the stench of Darnight, she couldn’t bring herself to laugh. She turned away from him, and placed her hand against the nearby tree trunk.

“What do you want?”

“I wanted to compare notes, you know, see if we’ve come to similar conclusions.”

“I’m sorry?” she glanced back, giving him the most wearied expression she could muster; his face registered confusion.

“I’m assuming you got my letter,” he replied, stepping around to face her, “after all, you’re here. We’re going to investigate the truth about Ex Nihilo together. Remember?”

Allison blinked. “You’re Dr. Wright?” she asked in astonishment.

“Well, you can think of me as ‘Mr. Wright’ if that will help convince you to go out with me.”

“But you’re young…ish.”

“Ish?” he questioned. “Gee, thanks. How does coffee sound?”

“No, no the man who wrote that letter was well versed in English, refined in his speech.”

“I happen to have a sensational vocabulary.”

“He was dignified.”

“And yet not averse to poking people,” he returned, nudging her in the shoulder.

“Stop that,” she swatted his hand away; then she realized something. “So if you’re Dr. Wright,” she said, “then that means Derek Winthrop would be the only actual investor on this tour.”

“Well he’s the only person marketing invited,” Earlobes explained, “I just slipped you onto the tour’s manifest after the fact.”

Allison furrowed her brow in confusion. “Why?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you want as many investors as possible to come to this sort of thing?” Wright shook his head.

“One of Ex Nihilo’s most important assets is secrecy. Charlie wants as few outsiders as possible to know what we’re up to. It’s more secure then if we only invite one or two, and have a small number of investors provide all the funding we need.”

“What makes you so sure Derek will invest anything at all?”

“Are you seeing this forest? He’ll invest. I even know how much he’ll give us.”

Allie narrowed her eyes. “How much?” she asked.

Aaron leaned over to whisper in her ear. “Nine hundred and sixty million dollars.” She immediately made the connection.

“Mob money?” she inquired, recalling the article he’d sent her.

“Technically no, but ultimately yes.”

“Is he that accountant from the mob?” she rifled through her purse, “Slim Richards?”

“Technically no, but ultimately yes.”

“What does that mean?” she griped, still wondering if this nuisance of a man could possibly be Dr. Wright.

“It means,” he started, then halted himself mid-sentence. “Off the record?”

“Sure.”

“Derek Winthrop isn’t the same person as Richards; he’s more like his opposite.” He glanced at Allie and she nodded for him to continue. “Winthrop is a generous financier,” he said, “and Richards is a greedy mob accountant. So, when we created Winthrop, reality took Richards and his millions in payment.”

“Wait a minute,” Allie raised her hands and stepped back, “back up. ‘When you created him’?” she quoted.

“Oh, right,” Aaron briefly glanced to the side. “Forgot that part. “Ex Nihilo is running short on cash, so we created Winthrop to donate what we need; happens every twelve to fourteen months or so.”

“You created…Derek? You can’t just create a person!” she exclaimed.

Aaron motioned to a nearby trunk. “We created trees easily enough,” he gestured. “I mean, I guess people are a bit more complex, but the process is essentially the same.”

“No, but you can’t do that! That’s just like, morally wrong. Aren’t you afraid of playing God?”

Aaron shook his head. “I never used to be,” he admitted. “It was all fun and games when mob accountants and rapists were the ones disappearing. But when I found out that boy was hurt, falling from his tree house as a result of our experiment; I’ll admit, I’m started to question whether what we’re doing here is ethical – or at the very least safe.”

“I’m telling Derek,” she decided, turning toward the sound of the approaching group; Aaron took hold of her arm.

“Bad idea,” he told her.

“He has a right to know!”

“Sure, but do you honestly think he’d want to?”

“If I were him, I would want to know,” Allie declared; Aaron gave her a dubious look.

“You would?” he asked. “If someone told you that you were created out of nothing, crafted from one man’s imagination, how exactly would that affect you psychologically?”

Allie thought for a moment. “I suppose it would depend on the man’s reason for creating me.”

“And if his purpose was financial, to pull a couple million dollars out of you?”

“I’d be pretty angry,” she admitted. “but I’d still want to know.”

Aaron sighed, and placed his hands around her shoulders. Strangely, she didn’t flinch at the contact. “Maybe you’re right,” he allowed, searching her eyes for something. Eventually he released her.

“Go ahead and tell him, if you think it’s the right thing to do,” he gestured; Allie blinked, then gave him a relenting smile.

“Maybe another time,” she decided, “somewhere outside of Ex Nihilo.”

“We can tell him together, meet him for coffee.” Aaron smiled; Allie rolled her eyes.
“Let’s just get back to the group.”

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“How long until the power is up in Security?”

“It’s not coming up,” Grace answered. “Derek was only able to restore power to ENIIC before Aaron had to seal off the battery.”

That was bad news. “Then how are we getting out of here?” she asked. “I can’t undo the deadbolts without power.”

“I have a backup plan,” Aaron replied. “Just make your way back to the lobby; there should be an exit nearby, I think.”

“You think?!” she demanded, but Aaron didn’t respond. Sighing, she made her way to the door, removing the thermal binoculars from her purse. As she began to turn the doorknob, however, she felt a frigid blast of air descend upon her from above.