The Song rang out clearly from the battlefield. Aliara heard it in the lilting moans of the wounded as the ground spread crimson beneath them. She heard it in the joyful chorus of the victors as they stood triumphant over their foes. Before she’d become a Knight-Initiate, people had often told her they could hear the Song in the simpler aspects of life. Farmers in the scratching of their plows as they tore through the soil to prepare it for seed. Mothers in the bubbling laughter of their children as they lay in their cradles. Yet, for her it was the battlefield that cast its voice to the sky in a hymn that was both mournful and exalted at once.
“The plan worked perfectly,” Aliara breathed as she looked around for her horse. One of the Illdrin, the heathens from the south, had struck a lucky blow and unhorsed her. His part in the Song ended soon after.
“You are surprised, Aliara?” Havvermath rumbled.
Aliara looked up at her friend and mentor, and smiled at his gentle rebuke. “I guess not. I’ve heard people speak of the general in awe since I first began training to be a Knight. Some even claim that He of Many works through him in battle, giving the general insight into the minds of the enemy.”
Havvermath nodded. “I too have heard this.”
“Do you believe it?”
Havvermath rode silently a while considering the question. Aliara didn’t mind, she knew her Sword-Father to be a thoughtful man. She waited for his answer and let the sounds of the battlefield wash over, and comfort her. Spellchanters could be heard, using the power of Voice to heal the wounded and praise He of Many for granting them a fragment of His power. She smiled to hear this, feeling closer to the Most High and knowing that the agonized moans of the wounded and dying were but parts of the Song.
“Well?” Aliara prompted.
“I think it is for the Spellchanters to ponder the will of He of Many, and for us to deal death to those who would be His enemy,” Havvermath said.
Aliara frowned at Havvermath, but before she could reply she noticed their Sergeant yelling at two Knights. His face was flushed and his eyes flickered dangerously between rage and murder. Sergeant Falmere saw them and waved them over, glowering at the other two Knights as they hastily departed.
“Where have you been, Havvermath? Everything’s falling apart, and you’re off flirting with this doe eyed child?” Falmere growled.
“Sir, Aliara is a Knight-Initiate, and I am her Sword-Father, set to look after her until her own blade sings true.” Havvermath placed his hand on Aliara’s shoulder. “This was her first battle, but already she holds her sword steady and delivers death like a seasoned Knight. I have no doubt that she will soon have no need of me, and easily surpass my modest skill with a blade.”
Falmere snorted. “Always the humble Knight, eh Havvermath?”
“I only speak the truth. What is it you require of us, Sergeant?” Havvermath asked.
Falmere narrowed his eyes and looked around, making sure no one else was in ear shot. “The general was abducted and his honor guard slain while we battled the Illdrin.”
Aliara muttered a prayer to He of Many. “But, how?”
“We don’t know. No one saw the godless bastards come or go! Luckily, one of our Spellchanters managed to pick up their trail. He said he could sense the vestiges of the general’s incorporeal form or some such crap. Who knows what they’re talkin’ about half the time. All that matters is that we can track the general, and get him home safe,” Falmere said.
“I’ll alert the other Knights,” Havvermath replied.
“No!” Falmere barked. “No one can know! Only us three, the Lieutenant, and the Spellchanters are aware of this. If the rest of the Knights find out there’ll be panic, and half the damned army will charge off on their own tryin’ to find him.”
Havvermath sighed. “What aren’t you telling us?”
Falmere spit and scratched his chin. “There’s more god-cursed Illdrin camped to the south. An even bigger group than the one we just fought, and they’re lookin’ for trouble.”
“Then I will stay here with a squad of Knights and sing my last verse in the Song, while the rest of you go and save the general,” Havvermath declared. “It will be my honor to die so that the general may live.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Aliara said, gripping the hilt of her sword.
“Shut up, both of you!” Falmere shouted and pointed at a lone Spellchanter who approached. “You two, and this fool are gonna rescue the general. A small party will attract no attention, and you’re our best warrior, Havvermath. You’re easily worth ten other Knights.”
“I think you overestimate–.”
“Shut up, I said! This is Colvin, the Spellchanter who found the general’s trail,” Falmere explained.
“These are my escorts? Why so few?” Colvin asked with a frown.
“I must agree, this is foolishness!” Havvermath protested. “Let us at least take a full squad of Knights.”
Aliara waited for the Sergeant to explode and start screaming at Havvermath, but the rage never came. Instead he sighed and his shoulders slumped. He looked like a man drowning with no land in sight.
“I tried, Havvermath. I tried to have the whole bloody army ride off after the general the moment I heard about this, but the Lieutenant won’t hear of it. When I pressed the point, I thought the dead eyed son of a whore was gonna have my head for insubordination. You ever try arguing with him?”
“This is pointless,” Aliara said. “If it’s going to be only us three, then let’s stop wasting time and go. Each moment we wait could be the one that costs the general his life.”
“Doe eyes is right. Go! Get the general and bring him back to us!” Falmere shouted.
Havvermath nodded. “My blade shall free the general or slay all those who had a hand in his downfall. I swear it, Sergeant.”
“Let’s hope it’s the first one,” Falmere muttered.
Aliara couldn’t help but agree.
In the middle of the open plaza, a bullet spanged away, leaving a puff of thin, red dust trailing skyward. The old woman leaning over the well shrieked, threw her hands up to cover her head, and raced for the alleyway. Too late–the next bullet barked, and she went down.
Sanachi, hiding in the shadowed nook below the crumbling church steps, shook his head. Stupid. She should have hunkered down and waited. The guard would’ve gotten bored and left. Instead, she’d made great target practice.
He squinted against the harsh, late morning light. Atop the city wall, some 30 feet up, the single Peforri guard strolled away whistling a happy tune, his rifle slung over his shoulder.
Sanachi stayed put, despite the heat from the open plaza engulfing his tiny hidey-hole. He was twelve now, not some stupid eight-year old, and he knew a set-up when he saw one. Five years on your own teaches you things. Like how to wait.
And, he hoped, how to plan his escape.
The door swung open. “I do not hesitate,” he said, eyes glazed over, forehead cut and bleeding.
“Good,” said Mary, holding the shovel tightly, lips pursed. She was ready. Her eyes said it and more. Swing.
I gave up on any rational way of storytelling a long time ago. That’s not to say I can’t tell a story simply. It just takes on different beats than most stories out there. The above is from my latest story. She Walks Alone. It’s a terrible title. Sounds like a rape-victim western. It’s about a waitress in the Midwest who kills a psychopathic trucker. Typical thriller variety. My publisher wanted something sexy but suspenseful. The strong heroine angle is popular now. She kills him with a shovel and walks out of the café alone into a snowstorm. Yeah, I know. Cliché stuff.
Yet there was something in this story that hit a nerve with a woman actually living in the Midwest. Like I said, my stories may be typical, but my storytelling is definitely off the beaten path. The only reason, at least I assume anyway, for it getting published. This woman got ahold of my contact information somehow and wrote me the following email:
Dear Mr. Kyle,
I have just finished reading She Walks Alone after a friend recommended it to me. I don’t know how you know what you know. We must meet. I will be in Seattle on Sunday. Please meet me at my hotel lobby at noon. The address is below.
He’s still alive, Mr. Kyle. I didn’t kill him.
Of course I blew it off at first as some deranged fan’s idea of a joke. Or she just wanted to jump my bones. Either way it turned me off completely. A nice “liked your story email” is much preferable. But of course more often than not these days, people sound off on social media. They love you or hate you. I couldn’t quite make out what this was, but it seemed more in the like you column. But under crazy and possibly dangerous. The fact that she was going to travel halfway across the country to meet me is scary enough. But then to believe that she was the character in my story? Or at least it seemed that was what she was alluding to. My character’s name was Mary not Martha, but I suppose delusion is delusion regardless of accuracy.
That Sunday I wasn’t even thinking about the email or Martha Anderson. I was at home working on my next manuscript. My cell phone buzzed. It was my friend Connie. She wanted to do lunch as she had something exciting to tell me. I said sure, showered, dressed, and went out. I didn’t even think about the fact that the lunch spot was in a hotel. I just knew it was a place Connie frequented. I walked through its lobby to get there.
I knew her at once. She was standing near a table, the light softly focused on her face. She was clutching her beat up bag looking desperate and completely out of place. Her eyes darted around the room fervently. She wore tight jeans and a dark leather jacket. Her makeup was loud and her hair too poofy. She looked like a groupie of an 80’s hair band.
She leapt forward at the sight of me like a bumbling child. I suppose I was scared when I realized what was happening. But mostly I was just annoyed. I had forgotten about Martha Anderson until that moment. Seeing her brought the whole ugly thing into focus and my face tightened. She immediately apologized.
“Mr. Kyle… Mr. Kyle, I’m sorry. But I had to see you. Thanks for coming. Please, could we sit down and talk?”
The desperation ebbed and flowed as she tried to control it. She wanted to assure me of her urgency, yet tried to keep it down enough not to annoy me further. I hesitated. I was just going to tell her that there was a mistake. I was going to meet a friend. But then I thought, Connie can wait a few minutes. I was early anyway. What harm could it do? Then I looked at her bag again. There could have been any number of weapons inside it. I was acting stupid. I needed to get away.
She pulled on my arm and I looked into her eyes. Tears were beginning to swell. Regardless of whatever insanity lay inside the woman, I’m a sucker for displays of human emotion. I sighed and relented, letting my body drop from its tension. I let her lead me to a seating area of the lobby by a big window. I figured, well, we are in a public area. People on all sides. I decided to speak for the first time.
“Miss Anderson. I really don’t understand what this about. What did you mean when you said ‘He isn’t dead’?”
“Bill. Bill isn’t dead. Oh, I know you called him…Brian or something in your story and me, Mary…but that’s not what matters. What matters is you got everything else right. The snowstorm, the shovel, down to the details of the truck. The feathers he had hanging from his rearview. The crack in the middle with the stuffing coming out. The way he…his hair. It was so unsettling I cried for an hour after I read it. I don’t know how you did it. Did you talk to someone? Do you know him? I just have to know. Please.”
She waved her hands around a lot. Every time her purse strap would fall from her shoulder, she’d swing it back up again. She’d look me in the eye for a moment, but realizing it was too much and that she may start crying, she’d turn away. But her eyes would always search for me again. I could smell donuts and coffee from the coffee stand across the lobby and became distracted by it. I mean, what was I supposed to say to this woman? Yes, I met Bill in Fargo and we hatched a plan to find you and put you through a wood chipper? He’s at the coffee stand now getting donuts with Bob from Twin Peaks.
I turned my hands over and shook my head. “I just made it all up, Miss Anderson. I swear. Look, you seem in earnest. But either this is some sort of sick joke or you’re off your meds…I don’t know. And frankly, I don’t care. Good luck to you. I’m going to meet my friend now. Please don’t follow me. Have a nice time in Seattle.”
I stood slowly watching for a big reaction. But her head was bowed and I realized that she was crying. Again, I’m a stupid sucker. “Are you going to be all right? Can I get something or someone for you?”
“No. No, thank you. I don’t know why I thought… It doesn’t matter. Thank you for your time. I’m sorry I wasted it.”
She stood, brushed by me, and quickly made her way to the elevators, wiping her face and pulling up on her bag. That was not what I expected at all. I expected a big scene or more babbling or something. But not a quick, apologetic exit. I felt as if I was being pulled into a mystery, yet I knew all the while the whole idea was ludicrous. The woman was just some goofy fan and if I wasn’t careful, she could have a shovel waiting for me too. But I was just so taken aback by her fear and her commitment to her story and her reaction to my rejection of her claims.
I tapped her softly on the shoulder as she waited for the elevator and she spun around, shocked to see me standing there. She wiped her face again, her eyes big and anticipating. “Mr. Kyle?”
“Listen. Um. I’m probably going to regret this, but… Have you had lunch yet?” She shook her head tearfully, thankfully. “Why don’t you have lunch with me and my friend? On me. You can tell us your story—”
“I couldn’t tell anyone else, Mr. Kyle. Telling you was hard enough…”
“It’s all right. You can trust Connie. She isn’t like most of my friends, who are bunch of gossips. She’s discreet, trustworthy. I promise. And if you don’t feel right about anything, you can go at any time.”
Why was I trying to convince this woman to have lunch with me? Moments ago I wanted nothing more than to get as far away as possible, but now… I suppose she intrigued me. She was a project. A puzzle to solve, a gift to unwrap. There was something more to this whole ordeal and I wanted to see what was inside, behind all the tears of desperation. Research, it was research. At least, that was what I was convincing myself of at the time. After lunch, it would be much, much more.
Fritz couldn’t draw his self-portrait in crayon. Not unless they made a color called “liver” to match the spots that dappled his thin and aging skin. Seafoam might work for the obvious and pliable veins that shone through like some anatomical model, but the electric white of his sporadic hair wouldn’t even show up on paper. Not that anybody used paper anymore. Or crayons.
He glanced away from the back of his decrepit hand in disgust, focusing instead on the immaculate and voluptuous young woman forcing his weak arm through the sleeve of a threadbare shirt at the bedside. Erma.
She wore natural trousers that clung to her ample backside, stacking ineffability on top of perfection. Her face, free of the finest of lines and wrinkles, broadcast an unattainable air of apathy.
“The sweater, too,” he said after his shirt was on.
“No,” she replied. “It’s ancient and pilling all over the place. Besides, it’s too hot for a sweater.”
“I like it warm in the morning.”
“You like it warm all the time, old man.”
A small sting, but more than enough to crush his token resistance. Oblivious to her victory, Erma slipped a pair of sensible, elastic-waisted bottoms onto him and then transferred him to his mobility chair with a dispassionate hug. Fritz savored the contact, hollow as it was.
Her task complete, Erma sashayed to the bedroom door. Fritz watched her go, licking his chapped lips with a dry tongue, forgiving her insouciance in a quick uptake of breath. There was no outlet for his desire, but it was still there, even after all this time. She looked like she had twenty-two years, if that. They’d been married for seventy.
And then he was alone, blanketed in the quiet fug of his own making. Antiquated paper books on sagging shelves insinuated their musty potpourri into every available surface. An unintegrated mobile that hadn’t rung in twenty years wallowed on the bedside table. Three pairs of archaic eyeglasses waited for him on a desk of scattered miscellany. He panicked for a moment before finding the fourth, his favorite, already on his head.
After mustering the motivation, he rolled out of his homey cave and found Erma sprawled across the lounge in her own bedroom, a cold and minimalist wasteland echoed by the rest of the flat. She was on the phone, yapping away at the integrated hardware embedded in her palm.
“Who was that?” he asked after she’d hung up.
Her smile vanished. “Gabor,” she said. “From work.”
“Have I heard of him before?”
“Who can keep up?” she asked. “Here.” She held her palm in front of his face, showcasing a photo.
“Not so close,” he said, leaning back until it came into focus.
It was a man, Slavic, with thick, healthy hair and tasteful liner accentuating his eyes. He looked to be mirroring at about twenty-five.
“How many years does he have?” Fritz asked.
“One hundred thirty.”
“Ooh. An older man.”
Erma uttered a noncommittal grunt.
He studied the photo some more. “When was this taken?”
“The work-only party?”
“Then why is there a child on the edge of the frame?”
“Don’t be a bore, Fritz,” she said, returning the hand to her porcelain cheek. A grin, concealed too late, flashed across her rosy lips. “That reminds me. I have a Safety Committee meeting tonight.”
“Can I come too? I could use some fresh air…”
“Sorry, my dear, meeting’s at a second floor walk up. Maybe next time.”
His jaw tightened. “Is He going to be there?”
“Who? Gabor?” she asked with a yawn. “Probably.”
“Are you two sleeping together?”
“Honestly, Fritz, what kind of question is that? Of course we’re sleeping together.” The grin returned. “Amongst other things.”
His head sank. “I wish you knew how bad that hurts me.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” she said, inspecting her lustrous hair for split ends. “I haven’t left you. Everyone says I’m an angel for everything I do for you. That I deserve something for myself. Even your mother.”
“She probably just feels guilty for how she treated my father.”
Erma stood up. “I don’t have time for this,” she said. “So the treatment didn’t work on you two. You age. So what? We all have problems.” She glided out of the room.
“And what are your problems?” Fritz asked, chasing her into the hallway. “Herpes?”
She stopped at the front closet and opened the door. An electronic melody chimed from within. “Herpes has been eradicated for decades, old man,” she said. “And I’m not going to debate my love life with you.”
Servos whirred and The Thing staggered out of the closet beside her.
Fritz stopped. “No,” he said. “Put it back.”
“You need help,” she said. “Chemise can’t take care of you until she’s healed and presentable again, so Helping Hans will have to do in the meantime.”
“I’ll be fine on my own.”
“Don’t talk so stupid. What if you fall again?”
Fritz sighed. “Fine. But I’m not calling it that.”
“What? Helping Hans?”
A digital manifestation of a smiling face illuminated on The Thing’s facial display.
“Does someone need a Helping Hans?” The Thing asked in an earnest, mechanical voice.
Erma pointed at Fritz. “There’s your man,” she said.
The Thing pivoted on its rickety legs and staggered toward Fritz. “Greetings, Chemise Beauregard,” it said.
Fritz glared at his wife. “Tell me again why we settled for a secondhand robot?”
“Because Chemise charged a lot less to reprogram her RehaBot than the price of a premium rental,” she replied, strutting to the front door and inspecting herself in the mirror beside it. “We’re on a budget, silly. A cleft in my chin isn’t going to pay for itself.”
The cruise seemed to have been going on forever. How many days now since they had left Vancouver? Brad leant into the breeze with his elbows on the rail, gazing disconsolately at the distant snow-capped mountains that slipped slowly past. And there was the curious way the sea seemed to curve up to the horizon, almost as if the ship sat at the bottom of a great bowl.
A few other passengers, some standing, some in deckchairs, were sharing the view, while the inevitable attendant watched them, oblivious to the wind. Turning, Brad could see the ship’s broad wake extending behind them, diminishing to a white line that curved through the channel between the islands. Islands, sea, mountains–endlessly changing, and always the same.
The wind gusted; Brad turned to go in.
“Had enough?” came a quiet man’s voice from beside him.
Brad turned to see an old man in a deckchair, his head turned enquiringly. “Nearly!” he said with a laugh. “It seems ages since we left Vancouver. How many days is it now?”
The man grunted and turned to gaze again at the horizon. He wore a cap and sunglasses and was wrapped in blankets. Must be very old, Brad thought. In truth, that had been one of the disappointments of the cruise. Cruising was a retirement thing; his mates’ ribbing about ‘the pick of the Alaskan lasses’ had proved sadly wide of the mark. Most passengers were like this chap, in their declining years. There were few young people, fewer children.
Brad tried again. “I can’t remember our last landfall.” This was almost true–somehow the smooth succession of days made it hard to track the passage of time.
The man nodded. “My wife feels the same.”
As if on cue, an angular but sprightly woman tripped out of the swing doors from the ship’s interior and grasped the back of the deck chair.
The old man raised a limp hand. “Elsa, have you met my young friend?”
The woman smiled, her face crinkling into lines, and extended a bony hand. Brad clasped it and introduced himself. Elsa proved responsive and, glad of the contact, Brad vented his frustrations with the cruise, the sameness of everything, the unvaried food.
“Oh, my daughter’s just like you!” Elsa said delightedly. “You must meet her–don’t you agree, Henry?”
The taciturn figure in the deckchair inclined his cap, and Brad also agreed. It was determined that they should meet at lunch. “We are the Ullmans,” Elsa confided; “the waiters will know our table.”
Excusing himself, Brad glanced once more at the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The sameness was uncanny: he could almost swear he had seen a particular double peak before. It was if the mountains were sliding past them on an endless conveyor belt. As Brad stepped into the warmth of the ship’s interior, his last impression was of Henry gazing fixedly at the horizon like the eternal watcher in some Greek legend.
I jolt awake, foggy at first. I’m sitting in an armchair, hands gripping the armrests, leather cool under my palms. Directly ahead of me, mounted on a beige wall, is an oil painting. Men in dark suites, and women in long dresses mill about in a sunny park.
I’m wearing a sharp tuxedo. Personally tailored. The jacket is unbuttoned, revealing a wrinkled dress shirt. My pleated black slacks are soft and comfortable. Shiny Oxfords complete the ensemble.
Where am I?
I turn my head from side to side. Plain walls, evenly-spaced doors and room placards, stand stoic guard down carpeted corridors. Each side is a mirror of the other. Ceiling-mounted lights illuminate the carpet’s brown and black diamond pattern. Clean and orderly. A five-star hotel, four at the least. But which one, and how did I get here?
A worse question occurs to me, one that drives out the others. Who am I? My name is there, ready to be taken but each time I reach for it, it slithers away like a wriggling eel.
Think, damn it. Think.
My mind bumps into one wall after another. It’s an awful feeling. Lost, helpless, insecure. The answers are beyond those walls but they’re impenetrable, inscrutable, silent.
I push myself up, stand on stiff limbs, and gaze at the painting again.
A pinprick of memory stabs through the wall. I owned this painting, or rather a reproduction of it. Sunday afternoon on some island I’d never heard of. I made an important decision, a life changing one, while staring at this painting. I squeeze my eyes closed, take in the darkness, and reach for the full memory. All I get are the dregs. Nevertheless, they’re powerful. There’s a bone-deep sadness there, a twinge of fatalistic resolve, and even a little curiosity. Despite their power, I can’t resolve these feelings into anything concrete.
My hands tremble as I smooth down the wrinkles on my dress shirt.
The hallway is quiet. Not even the sound of guests, ambient street noise or the ever-present buzz of hotel air-conditioning. I stand there concentrating, listening. I make out the faint electric hum of the hallway light bulbs. It’s like I’m in the vacuum of space, where sound waves die unheard, and the hum is my spacesuit keeping me alive in an airless void.
Sudden inspiration has me patting my jacket. I find a pair of glasses in my breast pocket but ignore them. I almost weep with relief when my hand comes down on the bulge of a wallet in the inner pocket of my jacket. I pull it out. It’s a dark leather like the chair, but more worn. Soft and pliable, where the chair had some strength left. Barely breathing, I rip it open. Inside is a driver’s license, credit cards, and a hundred dollars in twenties.
The license says my name is Jacob Sheppard. Jake. It doesn’t feel right. My name should fit, shouldn’t it? It should feel as uniquely mine as my hand or foot.
The picture on my license is of a man in his late thirties. Pale skin. Dark reddish hair. Trimmed mustache and beard, blue eyes framed by glasses. A hand to my face confirms the mustache and beard. I rub at it, feeling the soft facial hair.
The credit cards are mine too if the silver lettering is to be believed.
I still can’t dredge up anything about myself and it turns my stomach sour. A hundred hastily-formed explanations coalesce and then melt into oblivion under scrutiny until only one remains.
I’ve had an aneurism or something similarly catastrophic. I need medical help.
“All right. All right,” I mumble, tamping down the panic. “Go get help. There’s plenty of people who can help.”
Turning to the right, I see elevator doors. Taped to one of them is a piece of bright yellow construction paper. Scrawled on it, in dark green crayon, are two words.
The message is for me, I’m sure of it, so I snatch it off the door, fold it and jam it in my pocket.
Gratitude and fear mix. The second word is ominous, but someone’s guiding me and that bolsters my courage.
I take the elevator down and when the doors glide open, I look out on an empty lobby. Sunlight pours in through tall plate-glass windows. The striated marble floor, buffed to a high shine, reflects the glare.
The elevator dings, prompting me to step out. I take two tentative ones and peer around.
The reception desk has no one behind it, but above in gold lettering is the name Cheshire Hotel. It means nothing to me, and there is nothing familiar about the empty lounge bar, or the abandoned concierge desk. The entire lobby appears pristine, the smell of some lemon-scented product hanging in the air. The hum of the ceiling’s florescent lights are my only company.
“Hello?” My cracked voice echoes about the lobby, rebounding off the walls and empty furniture. I clear my throat and try again. “Is anyone here?”
No answer. The hotel can’t be closed, and there’s no sign of it being under renovation. It’s midday or at least looks like it. There must be guests in the rooms above, and if there are, there must be hotel staff to cater to them, but no one’s around.
I find the phone at the concierge desk, pick up the handset, and listen. No ring tone at all. I try dialing, but the buttons don’t produce tones. So much for calling nine-one-one.
The emptiness and silence gives me the creeps. I’m like a lone man wandering the interior of a snow globe.
Outside, parked cars line the street and more buildings stand tall across the way, but there are no pedestrians. And worse, no traffic. Not a single car, minivan, or box truck passes. There are no waiting vehicles at the intersection.
My blood runs cold. Has there been some disaster? A chemical weapon attack? If that were the case, there’d be evidence of panic, of chaos, and there is none. Fear washes through me, and I force myself to turn away from the windows. The hotel lobby must have some clue to make sense of this hollow madness.
A flash of bright yellow catches my eye by the check-in counter. It’s out of place in a room so meticulously orderly and clean. Another piece of construction paper lays crooked on the hardwood surface. I hurry over to it and read. The words Saint Mary’s Confessional and Hurry are scrawled in that same handwriting.
Another memory breaks through. I made a confession to a priest, but not in a church. He was a small man, wizened and wrinkled, with kind eyes. Soft hands enclosed one of mine on a hospital bed. Reluctantly, I confessed to a series of illegal acts. I should’ve been guilty but all I felt was pride and a touch of fear. What if he broke our confidence and told someone? He wouldn’t do that, would he?
The crisp construction paper folds neatly and I tuck it away beside the first. These notes are my only clue. They’ve been left for me like a trail of breadcrumbs. Without anything else to go on, it’d be foolish to ignore them.
All right. I’ll find Saint Mary’s.
Two of the three experimenters learned that God exists and that He values human life. They made this greatest of scientific discoveries almost an hour ago. Conrad remained outside the capsule in the atmospheric suit, delivering last month’s results. Technically the most isolated man alive, he still didn’t know. Chase sat stunned and staring on the flattened padding of his swivel chair where he practically lived for eight years. Millet, however, spent most of the hour with the lab rats.
“I still can’t believe it,” Chase said to the tiny screens nearly pressed to face. “I mean, I believe it, but…you know what I mean. The shock won’t leave. God exists. And He values human life.”
Millet stretched in his chair and tried not to bump into anything important–which meant everything. He felt no awe, only a steady joint stiffness from eight years of this capsular confinement. He felt the months of training in the test tank stacked on his bones too, that cramped, extra time required for a psychological evaluation. The discovery of God hadn’t done much for him to relieve the cravings for space and freedom.
He also still had work to do, preferably with some grace now that you-know-who watched for sure. He exhaled extra hard at the curved wall of the capsule, the experiment station which immured him and his two colleagues. His long sigh seemed almost visible, for in here the breath always bounced back to the breather. The rows of switches and gauges numbered in the hundreds just in the small patch of wall pushed up to Millet’s face. It looked the same everywhere. The three experimenters lived in a squalid eggshell of controls which, like the men, clustered in the smallest space achievable by science.
Millet left his chair–everyone’s chair–and clambered around Chase to the opposite side of the capsule. He pressed his hand down on Chase’s shoulder twice. It lessened the risk of toppling while he maneuvered half stooped. Despite the paper-thin tawny coveralls they wore, the balding environmental technician didn’t notice. He kept gazing slack-jawed at the onscreen data, the proof of God. No one reacted to getting used as a crutch forty times a day anyway.
Still hunched, Millet leaned toward the little station of the capsule he could call his. He didn’t have to walk to it, but just bend closer to the segment of wall with the greasier controls. There at stooped chest level, the row of three lunchbox-sized chambers remained closed. Their black doors still gleamed a little in the fluorescent light, despite eight years of accumulating smudged fingerprints. One chamber never got used; it served as a backup. The other two each contained a live rat.
Millet knew this despite how the chambers forbade a single photon to enter or leave with the doors closed. He had sealed the rats in there himself. Nonetheless, a little white light above each door indicated “filled” or “unfilled.” They helped on those dreary days when Millet forgot what work he had done earlier. No one would need the idiot lights today, though, nor ponder over Schrödinger’s cat problems. No one forgets anything on the day man discovers God.
Now, Millet threw the switches in the long sequence which always annoyed him. He had done it exactly 24,000 times before. Even Chase could probably flick the switches in order just from hearing the constant rhythm of snaps and seeing the procedure peripherally.
Over the years, however, only Millet ran the chambers. He pushed the flashing red button a final time and heard the expected buzz muffled by the middle chamber door. A hissing sound followed. Whatever mist remained of the vaporized rat now suctioned away into a vast tank below the capsule.
He killed the last rat the eight-year experiment required. This final death punctuated mankind’s greatest discovery. As always, Millet leaned his forehead on a familiar bit of wall oddly devoid of buttons and dials. The spot cooled his head briefly, a relief from the sudden heat of the chamber doors. While bending his head today, Millet wished he could vow to never harm another animal. But he couldn’t.
“Twenty-four thousand and one rats,” Chase said without looking. “Congratulations.”
The last rat to die served as a post-experiment test of the equipment. Millet, although having killed so many, still felt a pang in his gut. The cruelty of man’s thoroughness had created both the God box and witch burnings.
All the other rats, though, through their deaths combined, squeezed out a message to God in His dimension. By killing so many sentient animals in perfect timing, man had asked God if He values human life. A response at all meant that God necessarily exists.
Millet mustered a smile at the wall, for he at least had that answer. The experimenters gained irrefutable proof. God had sung a reply to every rat which asked a quantum snippet of the question, and He had ignored the rats man intended for Him to ignore.
Each rat had to exist in a witness or no-witness state at their individual times of death. The states measured God’s responses in a sort-of quantum Morse code. A rat functioned as a bit, a zero or a one in God’s eyes, potentially. The brief observance of God by a rat left a different reading than a death with God choosing to hide. For reasons Conrad understood much better than Millet, the animals had to die in a matter of Planck seconds for a reliable measurement. Hence the vaporization.
Only at the experiment’s end could the team look at the data and see that God’s message had gotten through. He had let some of the dead rats observe Him as man requested, with each assigned rat “witnessing” God in His own dimension for a Planck second. The readings pieced together a message to and from Him one death at a time. Though the rats didn’t have time to truly perceive the Almighty, God certainly saw them, and the machines recorded the blip of interaction.
The Sisters of Beneficent Misery orphanage and girls’ school sat precariously at the very top of the only hill in Orangeville. When Rita saw it for the first time, from the outskirts of the town, she thought it was about to topple over. It looked like such a shithole she nearly started to cry.
“Jesus-Christ-Mary-Mother-of-God,” she said. “That’s the dump you’re going to ditch me in?”
“Rita!” snapped Auntie Margie. “Watch your fucking mouth!”
“Oh God,” moaned Rita. “It looks like a prison, or a mortuary, or a lunatic asylum. I’m going to die of typhus in there. While you’re getting drunk at the Legion I’m going to die of typhus. It’s a certainty: I’m going to get typhus and die.”
Auntie Margie scrabbled around in her handbag for her smokes and ended up spilling cigarettes all over the vinyl seat.
“Just a couple of hours more,” she muttered and jammed the lighter into the dashboard, “a couple hours more.”
Rita glared out the window at all the clapboard houses with their neat lawns and their picket fences.
They pulled up at a four-way and a kid on a banana-seat sat at the corner staring at her. She gave him the finger.
Wirambi knelt and dug the moist ground with his fingers. He rolled a lump of soil in a ball and rubbed it on his forehead in a circular motion.
“I am Wirambi, son of Witjiti and Kinawinta, of planet Alcheringa. Please accept me on your land, Guriyal, and protect me.”
He watched the echo of his words bounce on the cliff face and fall on the ground, which shimmered with spirit energy in a multitude of shades of purple.
Now that his presence had been accepted, he could continue his journey knowing he would be able to draw his strength from this land, infused with the power of his totemic ancestor.
He had landed his spaceship at the foot of a snow-crested mountain on planet Currunjiwal. In the time of creation Guriyal had made love with Tjunkaya on the summit of the mountain after saving her from the evil Darluvouduk, and their spirit children had wandered along his songline, populating the planets he had created.
The same songline Wirambi was following. He had eight-hundred and eighty-eight standard time units left to complete his interstellar walkabout. At his return to Alcheringa, he would turn eighteen and become a fully-fledged adult member of the Guriyal nation. Only then could he ask the beautiful Elandra to marry him.
But that was assuming he would return. Boys who could not come back from their walkabout in time for their eighteenth birthday never came back at all. They settled on other planets where they had the same status of second-class citizens they would have had on their home planet, but without the shame of facing their families and friends. There was a settlement of such outcasts on Alcheringa, but they kept to themselves and Wirambi had never spoken to any of them.
He was confident he would make it in time, too confident in the eyes of the elders who knew the dangers Wirambi was going to face.
Whether or not Elandra was going to accept him was a different matter. He had tried to approach her, but she had waved him off like an annoying insect. She only had eyes for the ugly Galypilu, the son of the shaman who must have put a spell on Elandra to make her fall in love with his son. Either that or her father saw a union with the shaman’s family as a way to increase his influence on the tribe.
But things were going to change on Wirambi’s return. He pictured Elandra listening to the heroic deeds he had performed during his walkabout, her eyes ablaze with love and admiration, Galypilu burning with jealousy.
Squawking interrupted his reverie. He chided himself for being distracted, but he reminded himself that thinking about Elandra wasn’t a distraction, it was a motivation.
Darluvouduk had been defeated, but his descendants had survived and they had recognized Wirambi as a child of their ancestor’s nemesis. Wirambi shrugged. He had Guriyal’s strength on his side, more than enough to overcome the black birds with scaly wings who were circling his spaceship.
Wirambi’s task on Currunjiwal was to walk to the summit of the sacred mountain and spill a drop of his blood, as an offering to Guriyal.
He checked the contents of his backpack: a gourd of water, a bag of Darrangara nuts, two bumarits, curved sticks carved from the sacred Galimbula tree he could use as weapons, a length of rope and a coat he had made from the pelts of three tree-dwelling animals that looked like burumins he had killed at his previous stopping place on planet Badagaroong. Not only was he going to need it to keep warm here, it was also evidence of his passage he had to bring home. He put it on top of his purple kaftan and looked around him, searching for something unique he could bring back from this planet. The birds flew away as if they had guessed his intentions.
With millions of lives at stake, I personally inspect every single line of code in the system. A deep breath escapes my lips. After seventy-two straight hours staring at the laptop’s screen, my headache escalates into a full-blown migraine. Closing my eyes, I allow the whirring sound of dozens of computer servers to drown out my own thoughts. Not that it matters. The Digital Eden project might’ve been founded by both Mariana and me, but the truth’s that she was always the real genius behind it. I just happened to be lucky enough to sit next to her in class at MIT, almost forty years ago.
From behind, someone opens the door. A quick turn of the chair and I confirm that Michael’s back. Since this room stores the mainframe server, it needs to be kept at a chilling fifty-five degrees. That’s how I know that his recurring visits don’t simply happen because Michael likes to chitchat. In these last three days I have reviewed the system’s code, over and over again, only to reach the same conclusion.
“Look, Michael. As far as I can tell, Mariana hasn’t changed the functioning of the system,” I say, shutting down the laptop’s screen and resting my hands on its lid. “Whatever happened with her reawakening. Digital Eden’s code seems intact.”
Dressed in an expensive suit, Michael loosens up the knot on his tie and stares at me. “For God’s sake, Vincent. It’s been more than a week since the system reported the error. What are you saying?” He asks. “That we still don’t know if Digital Eden was compromised?”
“Come on, man,” I say. “Even after the incident with Mariana’s reawakening, every single diagnostic test indicates that the system’s functioning perfectly.”
To be honest, if Mariana had really wanted to sabotage the system nobody could do a damn thing to stop her. Digital Eden was her dream from day one. With Mariana gone, I’m just the system analyst who helped her code and build Digital Eden. Someone capable of understanding how everything works, but powerless to overwrite anything that Mariana wanted to change. Getting up from the chair, I walk over towards the mainframe server. Its access panel slides open at the press of a button. Holding the laptop under my arm, I plug in a cable to connect it to the server. A couple of keystrokes are enough to access the information of all the servers in our system.
“That’s not what worries me. If something was broken with Digital Eden, half this country would know it by now,” Michael says, sitting down on the floor with his back to one of the servers. “What worries me is the possibility that Mariana sabotaged her own reawakening procedure.”
Silence is my only reply to Michael’s concerns. Instead of wasting time holding his hand, my attention focuses on the sea of information displayed by the laptop’s screen. At random, I pick a file out of the tens of thousands that Digital Eden manages every day in the city of New York alone. In this case, Digital Eden’s review of file number GH-197463 states that a Mrs. Helena Stewart, aged thirty seven, suffered a severe pulmonary embolism. The subsequent cardiac arrest led to her death.
Digital Eden then proceeded to check its servers for her clinical and personal information. Having found Mrs. Stewart’s registry as a citizen of the United States, the system analyzed the data to determine if there was anything that could exclude her from the reawakening procedure. Since her application satisfied all the criteria, Digital Eden requested that the latest copy of her consciousness be imprinted onto a cloned body. In the final stages of the reawakening, the system shows that a cloned body was readied and aged at one of our facilities to receive the copy of her consciousness. Digital Eden’s last entry regarding file number GH-197463 classifies Mrs. Stewart’s reawakening procedure as a success.
A random browsing of some of the reawakenings that Digital Eden performed last week demonstrates that everything’s fine. After what happened with Mariana, the system never once encountered another critical error. Every diagnostic test we ran. My review of Digital Eden’s source code. The inspections to our servers and consciousness imprinting facilities. Every bit of evidence supports the conclusion that nothing’s changed. Digital Eden seems to be working perfectly.
Out of nowhere, Michael pats me on the shoulder. When I turn around to look at him, he’s wearing a frown. “What happened to Mariana was a tragedy. I knew how close the two of you were,” he says. “But now I’m counting on you to help me manage Digital Eden.”
“Don’t talk about things you know nothing about,” I say, brushing his hand off my shoulder. “I’m not doing this for you.”
“That’s not what I meant. Mariana and I never saw eye to eye, but…” Michael mumbles and shakes his head. “I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry for what happened.”
Michael’s gaze drops to the floor and he steps out of the server room without speaking another word. Left to my own devices, I run a search in our servers for file number FB-749262. A knot tightens in my throat when the laptop locates the data for the reawakening of Ms. Mariana Ribeiro. The system’s review of the file shows that, on a Sunday morning, Mariana ingested enough barbiturates to induce a respiratory arrest. Called to the scene, the coroner pronounced her dead on the scene. Once Digital Eden updated the information regarding her death, the system triggered a reawakening request.
The early stages of Mariana’s reawakening went well. With nothing in her personal or clinical data to exclude her from being reawakened, a cloned body was readied and aged to receive a copy of her consciousness. Everything seemed normal. Except when it came time to imprint her consciousness onto a blank mind, an error occurred. File number FB-749262 registers a critical error that shut down Mariana’s reawakening altogether. Early on, I thought the problem might reside in the copy of her consciousness. That turned out not to be the case, when myself and dozens of system analysts combed over the file containing her consciousness only to deem it fully operational.
Desperate to force her reawakening to jumpstart, I tried every trick in the book. Rebooting the whole system. Swapping her identity with that of another citizen. Deceiving Digital Eden into imprinting her consciousness onto a different body. Nothing worked. That’s when I realized that her suicide and the error that occurred couldn’t be a coincidence.
Despite the botched reawakening procedure, her ghost remains in our system. The digital copy of Mariana’s consciousness contains her every dream, thought, and even emotion. Some people would even say that the file contains her very soul. Unplugging the cable, I disconnect the laptop from the mainframe server. While sitting back down on the chair, the migraine threatens to tear my head apart. But I suppose that’s what happens when you’re pushing sixty. My fingers hit the keyboard and the laptop returns to the source code of Digital Eden. If there’s any hope of understanding what might’ve caused the error with Mariana’s reawakening, then that hope lies in the analysis of Digital Eden’s source code.