I never expected to be contacted. But who would? It’s like the Skull & Bones, Masons, Illuminati, or Knight’s Templar getting in touch with you. The fucking secret cabal of the Vatican getting hold of you to offer you a fucking job. Not only did you dispute their existence, but now they want to goddamn hire you?
The Ostium Network. It was the epitome of Special Agent Fox Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” poster. If you’re not familiar with the X-Files, well, fucking shame on you! It took up a significant chunk of my Immersion Research. I didn’t have to watch every single episode. A few woulda been fine. But . . . It was a fucking good show. Hooked me in good. I know the last few seasons dragged like a motherfucker. The plot kinda went out the window, I know, but still. Just fun to watch some of that ancient entertainment. What did they call it? Oh yeah . . . [said awkwardly] television? Nah, I’m only kidding!
But that poster. With the flying saucer. Aliens! Half the world thinks they’ve had a visitation, close encounter, or even a fucking abduction experience. The other half thought they were all fucking nuts. But all of them . . . Everyone . . . Wanted to believe in the existence of extraterrestrials.
The Ostium Network is a myth. A legend. A rumor. An occasional thought. It’s joked about and laughed at. Because like next to no one knows if they’re real. There’s the faction of conspiracy nuts who love talking about it, along with every other fucking hair-brained idea about something secret that may or may not exist. And those crazy few who do talk about it have no fucking clue what it might be. A group of the super-rich looking to control the world economy? A cadre of super-villains? A syndicate of special people looking to wipe out most of the human race so they can live in a fabricated paradise? Yeah. That last one’s a fucking trip. Oh. Also: a conglomeration of the most intelligent people on earth look to control the future and destiny of the planet. So: the usual.
Get the picture? So when I got a pop-up message telling me I had a new voice recording from T.O.N. I was about trash it like a piece of rotten fruit. I still don’t know what possessed me . . . What made me change my mind. Sometimes . . . I wonder if the Ostium Network was somehow able to influence me . . . Way back then. Way, WAY back then. Some-fucking-how. I dunno. I’d decided to delete it. Make it gone and continue with what I was doing. And just as I was about look up and look right three times and send that voice message into the void, I stopped. I actually made the eye movement once, but that’s why the command is to do it three times. So you don’t trash something accidentally. A thing humans have been doing since the first computer chip was used to . . . Compute. Though you can probably recover it if you really need to, though I’ve never needed to, so . . . I literally changed my mind on the spot and opened the voice message instead.
“Hello . . . Monica. Thank you for not deleting this message, and, instead, taking the time to listen to it. I guarantee you will not consider it a waste of your time. You may never have heard of us, but we are pretty sure you have. Because we know about you and you life and who you are. We are confident you know of us because of your history. We are the Ostium Network. And we would like to offer you a position on our growing team. If you are interested – and we are almost certain you will be – you will meet with a woman named Qiao Zhang at the Five Elephant Kreuzberg on October 16 at 15:05. It is located within the city of Berlin. I trust you will be able to find it . . . Monica . . . Do not squander this very special opportunity.”
The first time I met Qiao I liked her right away. I dunno what it was. We just connected. It was fucking freaky that she had my exact coffee drink of choice made to my specifications ready for me. Still very hot. She knew . . . Or rather, they knew my coffee drinking tastes. Down to a tea! Sorry, that was a Jake joke. But if they knew something specific like that: three shots, one pump of vanilla, one pump of cinnamon, and chocolate shavings on top – they probably knew a whole lot more about me. I was scared. Fucking scared. Who wouldn’t be? But I was also intrigued. Fucking curiosity-killed-the-cat-level intrigue.
“Thank you for meeting with me,” Qiao said as soon as I approached her table. It wasn’t the only table with a single person sitting at it but she’d been waiting for me to come through the door and immediately made eye contact. She was expecting me. She was a Chinese woman with striking eyes that drew me in from across the cafe. I knew it was her right away. Little did I know what our future together would be.
“Enjoy your drink. I will do most of the talking. If you have questions, I will try to answer them. But I’ll let you know up front. I can’t tell you much about the Ostium Network. I can’t tell you anything about where it is located. I can’t tell you too much about your job . . .”
“What the fuck can you tell me?”
She smiled at me.
“Good question. Drink your coffee. It’s specially made.”
That smile never went away.
She told me I was the perfect candidate. My background would become very important in the job. But it would be unlike anything I’d ever worked on before. She told me that even though I was fifty-six, the demographic for the company covered all ages from those still in their teens to those working through their seventies. The way she mentioned the septuagenarians . . . there was a short pause and a strange way she said the word, as if it wasn’t quite right. Not exactly accurate. I didn’t push. I wouldn’t have got an answer anyway. I let her keep talking and enjoyed my coffee.
“Your son has already been recruited.”
I almost spat hot coffee across the fucking table. I didn’t need to say What!, my expression made it clear.
“Please remain calm, Ms. Chase. He was instructed not to tell you. Because They knew how you’d react.”
“Who the fuck are they?”
“The people I . . . And soon you will work for.”
I sat back and drank more coffee.
“His skills, while different to your own, are just as valuable for the success and thriving of the Ostium Network. You are also a key candidate because your parents are both deceased. Normally, we wouldn’t have recruited someone like Steve Chase, due to his mother still being alive. However, in this specific situation, They knew They could recruit both of you, circumventing this requirement.”
“Let me get this fucking straight. The Ostium Network only recruits and employs orphans?”
“That is correct, Ms. Chase. Except in your case, as I already mentioned.”
“Why the fuck do they do that? So we have no ties? No fucking strings attached?”
Without hesitation she responded.
“Yes. Precisely. But also because once you start working for the Ostium Network, you can never tell anyone outside of the Network about it and its existence. You will have no contact with the outside world, except for those members of the Ostium Network, unless specifically instructed. And that is all I can tell you.”
With that, she abruptly stood up.
“If you decide to join us . . . and we know you will, please message the word “YES” to this number.”
As she said that, the number appeared in my visual display. By the time I focused back on her, Ms. Zhang was already on her way out the door.
It didn’t take me too long to think about it. I could’ve called Steve, talked it over with him. But I knew he was going to be fucking gung-ho about all this and itching to get started working for . . . The Ostium Network. I didn’t have much going on in my life at the moment, which was unusual. This was something new. Fresh. And very fucking different.
By the end of the day I was messaging that number.
I received coordinates to travel to and an exact date and time to be there.
As soon as I set foot on that jumper jet, my life changed forever.
I was born into a good, supportive family. I know that sounds a little cliche, but I feel it’s important. Lives . . . Lives are affected by their upbringing and how they begin. I know. That’s not very fucking clear. What I’m trying to say is when you have strong parents, from the beginning, you have a lot more opportunity . . . A lot more possibility of making something of your life. Not that if you don’t have it, you can’t make something . . . Grrr. Okay. Let’s break this shit down. Foundationally. We’re a black family. My dad was a dentist. My mom was a lawyer. Yeah. We were pretty well off. We never had hard times growing up. Well, not that I can recall. My parents were always supportive. Always there for me. Through school. Through high school. At like every level. I was an only kid, and they were always there for me. When you don’t have this kind of support, it’s a lot fucking harder to make it . . . To do what you truly want to do. Not impossible. Just really fucking hard. And I owe it all to them.
From a young age I liked designing stuff and organizing stuff. You know. Houses and buildings and shit. Yeah. Architecture. But also how multiple buildings are laid out. So there’s the best access to things like stores and banks and businesses. Post offices. I know. Real boring shit. But you know what? Someone’s got to think about it. Buildings keep getting built. Houses keep getting made. Towns become cities which became metropolises which become fucking megalopolises. This planet is filling up with people and they all need somewhere to live. So it’s someone’s job to organize it. A lot of someone’s. One of those someone’s happens to be me. I dunno. I just knew from a young age that I was into how these sorts of things were organized. And my fucking awesome parents supported me all the way. They helped make me a straight-A student. So high school – other than the usual teen-angst, cliquey bullshit – was . . . Okay.
I sent out a number of college applications, like five. Again, parental support and money helped. I got accepted to four of them, but the last one took a while to hear back. Of course, it was the one I had my heart set on. My dream school to go to. I had everything planned out. I was going to major in Urban Planning and Architecture and it was going to be awesome. And that’s when I started to lose my shit, day to day, wondering why the fuck they were taking so long to get back to me. I mean. I fucking lived in New York. So it wasn’t like it was going to take longer for the letter – acceptance or rejection – to get to me. Plus, the post office like guarantees the mail only takes three days to arrive at its destination right? That’s been like a constant for what? Two hundred years? Almost three hundred? What little mail there still is. Well, my dream school. NYU. New York University. They were one of those respectable institutions. Those last bastions that still sent out acceptance – or rejection – letters by mail. Go figure that this was the one I was waiting to hear back from the most.
Then I finally fucking heard from them. And I was accepted. Squee. Joy. My dream come true.
My parents were both killed the day before. They were flying back from a combined work-trip-slash-mini-vacation. Mom did some work in Toronto. They spent a long weekend up there. The jet went down in Long Island Sound. Everyone on board was killed. I remember reading once, probably not too long after this fucking shitty tragedy, about a pilot who was able to land a plane in the fucking Hudson. Saved everyone on board. Yeah. Wish that fucking pilot was flying my parents’ plane. Even though it was more than fifty years in the future.
It was tough. Really fucking tough. My life was ripped to fucking pieces. But I still went to NYU. A semester later. They understood. Were fine with it. I got more education after, then some practical experience. Then I set out on my own. I wanted to get away. From the place I lived. The place I grew up. Too many memories. They all still felt so . . . Fresh. So I spent five years going around the world. Designing. Building. Developing. Planning. A little bit of everything, everywhere.
Both my parents had big life insurance policies. Not because they thought they were gonna die any time soon, but because they were smart people who always wanted to be prepared for anything. And that included both of them getting fucking killed and leaving me an orphan. And . . . Incredibly fucking rich. What with the properties they owned, the money saved from their affluent careers, and those big fucking policies.
So I was able to get the education and experience I wanted, because cost wasn’t a concern. But once I had all this, I didn’t just want to be working for some big fucking fancy firm, making a shit-ton of money, and you know, spending it on shit I didn’t need but was supposed to have because of the high-paying job and the affluent life that went with it.
[Breath] I didn’t want any of that. I know it was the life I’d basically been living already with my parents where money was never a fucking concern, but I didn’t like the way it made me feel, like I was above other people who had less money. Don’t get me wrong. We gave a ton to charity, and did a lot of good things for those who needed it. Volunteer work. But I didn’t feel a part of the real world. A real contributor. It wasn’t until later. When I was older. That I actually understood this feeling.
I needed to get away from everything. Put some space between me and all this history. So I went all around the world. Building and making stuff. Helping others. Sometimes I was well paid for it. Other times I wasn’t paid anything. I insisted on it. The experiences I had. Working with these people. Getting to live in their lives for a bit was worth more than any amount of money I could’ve gotten. It made me feel like I belonged. Which I guess I hadn’t really felt before. Not since my parents died.
And then everything changed.
I came to the site early that day. I’m often the first one there. With my giant-sized coffee. Yes. Those were the days before my obsessive tea drinking habit. The site was in a poor part of London. We’d gotten the land cheap. We were building new homes that were going to rent out cheap to low-income families. It didn’t exactly have a river view, but the Thames was only a five minute walk away. You know, that quasi-cesspool of a thing you could call a river. These days it’s all cleaned up and I wouldn’t exactly condone swimming in it, and definitely not drinking any of it, but it’s a lot nicer now. More eye-candy than eyesore.
God, that was terrible. Jake would be proud.
And I need to stop avoiding what I’m trying to say.
I came to the site on an early, cold foggy morning. I like to walk around first thing. Get a feel for the place. Going through my mind what I’d like to get done that day. And then I heard a sound. It’s a very specific sound. A very recognizable sound. It’s a sound that you hear, but you automatically question: “Is that really what I think it is?” There’s always a doubt. Unless you’re a parent.
It was the sound of a child. A baby making a nonsense sound. Not crying. Cooing. Just doing its thing.
I waited. Then I heard it again. Then I reacted. I checked each of the rooms in the building I was in. Didn’t take long. Found him in a laundry basket. All wrapped up in blankets. It looked like a boy. No hair, but the face. I thought it was a boy. Maybe six weeks old. Couldn’t be sure.
“Hey little guy,” I said. “Whatcha doin here? Been here long.”
I knelt down and picked him up, still wrapped in one of the blankets. He was warm and heavier than I expected. He smelled . . . Fucking amazing. Of freshness and newness and vitality and sheer living. I pulled him to my chest and he reached out a little hand and rested it on my boob.
“I don’t think you’re going to get anything from there, little buddy,” I said.
My vision was blurring. I blinked away the tears so I could study his beautiful, incredible face.
It was love at first sight. It’s a cliche. But it’s also the fucking truth.
Eventually other people arrived and wondered what the hell I was doing with a baby. And we all started talking about options. These were people I’d spent the last two months with almost everyday. They’d practically become family. I felt very open and comfortable, talking with them. Pretty sure the feeling was mutual. So I felt confident enough to broach the question: what if I kept the baby? There was expected surprise at first. Two people telling me I couldn’t do that. That I had to turn him over to child protection services. That he had real parents who might realize they made a terrible mistake? That it was illegal to do that.
I don’t really know where it came from. The thought and possibility just popped into my head. I saw a future unraveling before me, like a narrow, straight carpet. A red carpet that would take him and me into our future together. I saw that it could be. I knew what I could provide for him, how I could help him. His biological parents were probably poor; people who didn’t feel able and/or ready to look after and raise a child. I guessed. That’s why they’d abandoned him, no? I tried to get these points across. While doing so, I thought about why he’d been left here. Of all places. Why not a hospital? Or a school? Somewhere more logical? I didn’t mention this, didn’t want to let them know I was starting to think that maybe, there was the infinitesimal possibility this child had been left . . . For me. Which is just fucking crazy, right?
We talked for hours. Rationally. Quietly. The baby stayed in my arms the whole time. Never cried. Napped off and on. But remained comforted and content the whole time. By the end I didn’t think I could ever give him up, no matter what we decided or what happened. They would’ve had to pry him from my arms. But I’d convinced them by then. To a degree. Even the two naysayers. Sort of. I’d give it time. A week. Then another week. Post a notice. Spread the word. If no mother or parent came looking, then I would decide what to do then.
The days passed. Then a week. I learned the basics of parenting. I learned what it was like not to sleep. I learned what it truly meant to put everything, including your very own life on the line for another living soul. It’s an ideal that’s bandied around in a lot of love songs, in movies. Giving your life for another. Never really understood it. Until now. With this little guy, it was no question.
Then the end of the fortnight arrived and no one had come to claim him. The development project was almost done. They didn’t really need me anymore. I knew my time was up. And that it was just beginning with this little man.
I named him Steve on that first day I called him mine. Don’t know where the name came from. Just liked it. Liked the sound of it. I didn’t check with my close friends. I just left. Got the hyper-chunnel to France and started traveling through Europe with a baby in tow.
It was a very different life. And I wouldn’t have changed one second of it. Not for anything in the world.
When Steve’s fifth birthday started cresting over the horizon, I knew it was time to change things up. To settle down. He needed to start school. Experience what it was like to live in a more permanent town and get a regular education. I came back to America. But I wanted something new. Settled in Portland, Oregon. Made a life there. And Steve grew up to be a wonderful boy; a surprisingly loving teenager; and an adult I could be proud of. He went to Stanford. Got a kickass business degree. But not to make buckets of money for himself. No. He wanted to help those in need however he could. When he told me this before he started applying to different places, I couldn’t hold back the tears. It was probably my proudest moment as a parent. Fuck. Probably the proudest moment in my life.
Once he was on his own. Starting his own life. I went back to my old way of life. Traveling the world and helping others, just like my son Steve would be once he graduated.
A year after he got his degree from Stanford, the Ostium Network contacted him with a job offer. He was in Peru.
A week later they contacted me.
Even though we traveled to the specified coordinates separately, my son and I arrived at the Malaga air-and-spaceport thirty minutes apart. We’d been in touch, so Steve waited for me. And just like that, we were suddenly on the south coast of Spain for a reason that wasn’t entirely clear yet. Once I met up with Steve, we hugged and reconnected, and made our way toward the exit. It was so great to see him again, and even more awesome that we’d be working for the same company. In the same location. We were specifically instructed not to bring any luggage. No additional items other than some personal effects and the very clothes we were wearing. Since my trip took less than half an hour, this was totally fine. If the Ostium Network wanted to make a clean breast of things – a tabula rasa as Jake would no doubt say – I was okay with that. Start new and fresh. Onto the next chapter of our lives.
Outside we met a man dressed in a very sharp suit, waiting for us.
“Welcome Monica. Steve. Thank you so much for coming.”
He shook our hands and actually sounded earnest. I was getting pretty fucking excited about all this.
He guided us to the self-driving vehicle. A very nice looking Rolls Royce. Like the man’s suit, it was expensive. We climbed in and got comfortable. The man, who said his name was Wayne, offered us drinks. I took a crown and coke and sat back. Enjoying the ride. Sadly it was a short one. Ten minutes later we were on the shore of the blue Mediterranean. We followed the man down a big pier of luxury yachts. He led us to one of the largest. It was also a hydrofoil. Some fancy shit. We ascended the walkway onto the boat and once again got comfortable. More drinks and this time a gourmet meal which tasted like it’d just been cooked by one of the world’s best chefs with the world’s best cooking equipment. I’m pretty fucking sure it was one of the best meals I’d ever had. And from the look on Steve’s face, he was thinking the same thing. Wayne chitchatted with us but gave few details about the Ostium Network or where we were going. But I’d paid attention. Our options were either east towards places like Italy and Greece, or west towards the Atlantic Ocean.
I started to wonder where the hell we were truly going. There wasn’t a helluva lot out in the Atlantic. Unless you wanted to travel far. This height of luxury transportation was fast but not that fast. The Canary Islands possibly?
Then I had a thought and my wondering meter went apeshit. I couldn’t believe it. I refused to believe it. So I sat back, enjoyed my tiramisu dessert and waited.
A few minutes before I had my suspicions confirmed, Wayne had us come up to the cockpit, where the equally well-attired crew was steering and running the yacht. Ahead of us were the Pillars of Hercules. The edges of two continents. The gateway to the Atlantic. The coast of Spain was visible from our starboard side. Little changed in a hundred years in this area as far as development. Then the scars became visible. The destroyed land. Blackened. I knew the fraught history.
One of the crew signaled to Wayne who nodded. He walked up to a console, leaned in and received an optical scan. Then a hand-print. Finally his finger was pricked for a blood sample. His DNA confirmed. He was granted access and input a very long and seemingly random code.
The fog came from literally nowhere. It had all been clear. Then there was fog. The yacht shot through the fog, confident in its course. Confident it wasn’t going to collide with anything.
The fog cleared and there before us was the rock of Gibraltar.
A place that had been obliterated and razed to the ground, much like ancient Carthage, thirty years ago.
We had reached the Ostium Network.