Archive for the ‘General Futuristic’ Category
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.
Subway platforms always make me claustrophobic. Don’t know if it’s the being underground, the heat, or the people. Maybe all three.
Clint’s glaring at me. “Martin, stop it! You’re gonna pop a button.”
I look down, confused. My fingers have a mind of their own, twitching up and down my lapel. Damn starch. Years it’s been in my closet and this suit’s still stiff. Clint’s right, a lost button’s just one more thing to worry about. I push my hands into my pockets. Look up at Clint. He nods, approval. Patronizing.
“So Yolanda said you had to interview today, huh?” He knows this of course, just trying to make me talk. Get out of my own head. Probably not a bad idea.
I answer. “Just to keep up my disability.”
Again Clint nods, like he understands. He doesn’t. He’s one of the few of us not getting Federal Aid. Stop – Clint’s the only friend you’ve got. Quit being a dick. After all, the rules and regs of G.O.D. welfare aren’t his fault.
I need to talk. “I don’t know why these case workers insist on making us run this gauntlet of humiliation.” I let my eyes drift across the empty tracks, land on the graffitied-over station sign. I like the new name better – Blue Barrio. Better fit. “It’s not like I’m gonna get hired.”
“I did.” Clint’s voice is small. This is well-worn territory.
“Sort of.” I gesture toward his coveralls and I.D. badge. “But you’re a teacher, not a… Recycling Technician.” Glorified garbage man.
“And I’ll teach again.” As always Clint’s nothing but confident.
“You really believe they’ll open schools for us.” Not a question. Not any more. Clint’s a true believer–his face hardens. He believes, I don’t.
“Of course they will. Every day more kids are born with the Blues. They’re gonna need some schools, and soon. Special schools, just for us. Like the housing.” He nods across the tracks – toward the name of our state sanctioned ghetto. He’s right, of course. Got to keep the infected out of the general population. Schools, hospitals–a whole separate world is slowly materializing.
Even at a distance in the hazy daylight, Sylvana could see Captain Ruggero Barsetti frowning at her as she walked down the dock carrying her diving suit. It was easy to read his thoughts: Her belly was growing, and it wasn’t seemly for her to be working so hard.
“What are you doing here, little one?” he said gruffly. It wasn’t his usual custom to be tender.
“I’m going out to Gate 38. Giorgio reported that something was causing it to snag. He could see it on his sonar on the big boat, but he didn’t have a diver. If it turns out to be a building, we are going to have our work cut out for us. Another big incursion is coming.”
“I appreciate your dedication, but I am aware of the gate problem,” the Captain retorted. “We are working on it. You should just go on home and take it easy until the baby arrives.”
Sylvana looked down at her calloused hands. “You know I can’t do that, cugino,” she said to her older cousin. “If I quit my job, I’ll never get back on. I’ll soon have another mouth to feed now, you know.”
“You’re a member of the clan. We’ll take care of you,” Ruggero said. He added, “Have you thought of joining the farming initiative after the baby comes?”
“And what will we use for fresh acqua? The only measurable rainfall is out over the sea. No, I don’t think the farming is going to happen soon.”
The Amborgettis were building freshwater collection platforms several miles offshore, but it was a risky venture in her view. The storms could be ferocious, and it was still too dangerous to subsist out on the exposed ocean. She’d stick with diving salvage from old buildings.
Sylvana felt a little guilty about playing the baby card, but she was the chief diver for the Barsetti clan. Maybe someday she could take it easy if the new farming project got off the ground. Or on the ground. There would be plenty of easy work then dusting off solar panels, to funnel back energy and provide additional light for the crops. But for now she had to keep her independence with Franco gone.
Sylvana and her relatives lived, barely, in one of the few coastal cities on Earth to survive the Gemini, the twin extinctions. The first disaster was widespread starvation initiated by runaway global warming. People moved from drought-stricken areas to the continental shores, only to fall victim to flooding and tsunamis. Then, as if humanity were not facing trials enough, an untracked extra-solar system ice ball struck Mexico in nearly the same spot as an asteroid had 66 million years ago. Any species unable to live on sludge, worms, and detritus had a difficult time in the aftermath.
Fortunately, humans are omnivores, and Sylvana’s scavenger ancestors had been fairly clever about turning dead plant and animal material into foodstuffs for people. Also luckily, there were a lot fewer people who needed to be fed. Those living in what remained of southern Europe clustered around Tristezza, or Trieste, as the Italians used to call it half a millennium ago. Now the name simply meant “sadness.”
Since the Gemini, Tristezza had watched its sister city across the Adriatic slowly succumb to the rising sea levels. Venezia had battled encroaching waters from the surrounding blue Adriatic Sea for centuries, and spent multiple fortunes hiring Dutch engineers to remove river silt and hold back the tides that threatened to overwhelm its lagoons. Venezia’s MOSE, with its series of gigantic steel sluice gates anchored below the surface, was a wonder of the world. When high tides threatened, the gates would float to the surface to protect the city. But after the Gemini, Venezia’s population dwindled, and, sensing a bargain, Tristezza negotiated to buy, dismantle, and move Venice’s gates to its own waterfront. Then the ocean erased any other signs of the great city.
Sylvana’s clan all worked to preserve the coastline and maintain the gates of Tristezza. Another clan, the Amborgettis, was responsible for running the pumps that constantly filtered the Adriatic waters for food and potable acqua. Although the climate had cooled considerably, the Adriatic Sea’s low salinity and moderate temperatures provided a climatic refuge for the remaining human population.
Sylvana’s scientist husband, Franco, had spent most of his life aboard sailing ships that Tristezza sent out each year, traveling around the boot of Italy and up the Ligurian Sea, looking for pockets of surviving species that might be suitable for refilling ecological niches or providing sustenance for humans. Franco had died five months earlier when his ship Santo Antonio tragically sank on the rugged Cinque Terre coast. Everyone thought it must have been in one of the aftershocks that continued to radiate across the ocean bed. Icelandic volcanoes regularly spewed ash and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere, cooling and darkening the hemisphere.
The argument over for the moment, Sylvana donned her suit, while the captain waved to Giorgio to bring the rowboat closer to the dock. The Barsettis owned 16 boats of varying sizes, all created from digital models and constructed of liquid plastic.
Giorgio rowed with one of the plastic oars and nosed the boat up, holding it steady so that Sylvana could step in.
Sylvana flashed a smile and clambered aboard. She sat near the prow to monitor the echo locator, perching her helmet in her lap. To save fuel, Giorgio made the two-mile row out to the gates. Sylvana silently counted his strokes to estimate when they were close to the 38th sluice. The sea was a touch choppy today, making it a bumpy ride.
As the water slapped against the sides of the boat, she unsnapped a long telescoping pole from the interior wall and unfolded it over the water. Giorgio rowed in a tightening circle, while Sylvana poked into the murky water. The tide was not yet officially an incursion, so it should be low enough that she could find the gate without having to try to inflate it with compressed air.
Ah, luck was with her. Her pole hit something solid.
“Let’s stop here, Giorgio,” she said. Her red-bearded oarsman tossed over a heavy anchor, which would slow them down, although the rope wasn’t always long enough to reach the sea bottom. The rope would be her lifeline if she was unable to see the surface, which was most of the time.
Sylvana tucked in her long braid, as Giorgio helped her don the helmet and twist the air hose onto the valve. She slipped into the chilly water and began descending the anchor rope. As the surface closed over her, she could see only a bit of pale sun overhead. It was a short journey to the obstruction they had located. She could barely make it out with her torch, but it appeared to be part of an old wooden dock from the original Trieste marina that had slipped under water about 80 years ago. It should have floated out to sea, but part of it was stuck about 50 feet below the surface, maybe on one of the gate pylons. Chunks of plastic and other trash were accumulating on the obstruction. She pried a piece loose and tucked it into her catch bag.
She tugged on one of the timbers, but it didn’t budge. She would have to surface and get more rope. And more help. Maybe with two or three boats they could dislodge it and pull it inland. Wood was a valuable commodity, even if waterlogged.
Sylvana’s efforts to move the dock kicked up a dark green slow-motion cloud, probably dead algae that would have been useful as food, except that now she couldn’t see anything. She swam around for a while without finding the boat. She reminded herself not to panic and hyperventilate. After what seemed like an eternity, she heard Giorgio pounding on the rowboat hull. She swam in what she hoped was the right direction and with relief grabbed the anchor rope.
Giorgio pulled her in, and said, “What took so long? What did you find?”
Exhausted, Sylvana began shedding her suit. She noticed that Giorgio stared a little, and was a little embarrassed that he probably was looking at her expanding stomach. She started to tell him about the submerged find, but suddenly she felt queasy, and spots swam before her eyes. She sank toward unconsciousness, and the last thing she remembered was Giorgio shouting soundlessly as he struggled to pull up the anchor.
We had nothing but peace at the Lion’s Paw for as long as I can remember. Ted Parros was a connected fellow, and he looked the part, with matted white hair and a face that rarely smiled. He used to frequent the place, now and then doing business deals in the back poker room, and he didn’t want some punk causing a fuss and drawing any unwanted attention.
He never had to get physical with anyone, but he made damn sure that any troublemaker knew who he was. All it took was a sharp glance, or a tap on the shoulder.
Kenny Heachem was the exact type of guy Ted didn’t want around. He was a bit of a rowdy fellow, but not the loudmouth drunk type that I’ve seen over the years. On occasion, Kenny would wander into my establishment buying rounds of drinks and throwing money all over the bar. He’d place bets with strangers, which wasn’t abnormal at the Lion’s Paw, but he’d want people to put down their earnings for the week, and such a thing rattles the room with all kinds of commotion.
From what I knew at the time, aside from the bets at the Lion’s Paw, Kenny wasn’t involved in any illegal activities. But there was something peculiar about Kenny. He was a large, soft looking man, and he had a shuffle when he walked. The peanut shells on the floor would collect around the tips of his shoes. And whenever I served him drinks he’d give me a long look as if he was waiting for me to say a little more to him. I never let it bother me though. He was a generous tipper, polite enough, and I’d be fine with twenty more customers just like him.
I knew for sure that Ted didn’t care for Kenny. He was quite vocal, once saying, “That piece of shit makes any more noise I’m going to find a way to sew his mouth to his barstool.” Ted said it loud enough so that Kenny would hear it, but Kenny just turned around and looked back at Ted with a laugh.
And there was also that night in the spring, when Kenny sat at the bar drinking some scotch, watching baseball on the television monitors over the bar. A young patron, likely from the college just up the road, sat in the only empty seat in the house, which to his luck happened to be right next to Kenny.
“Do you care for baseball?” asked Kenny.
“I don’t mind it,” said the college kid. “I used to play in high school. I follow it enough I suppose.”
“What do you know about this game, Yankees and Indians?”
“I know the Yankees are going to win. They have Tamada pitching.”
“But the Orioles have this new kid dealing. Pichardo.”
The college kid shrugged. “I don’t know much about him, but his triple-A numbers don’t look all that impressive. They called him up because Crangle got hurt.”
“Well I’m a bit of a believer in this Pichardo. I’ll even bet you on it. Yankees are big favorites, but I’ll give you even odds.”
The kid tipped his head from side to side. “I don’t have all that much to bet you. Maybe a twenty.”
“A twenty? But you think the Yankees are a lock.”
“I do. It’s just all I have really.”
”You can’t dip into your college fund a little?” Kenny said, and he gave the kid a playful nudge on the shoulder.
“No, sir. I can give a call to my father. He likes playing the ponies, and he loves baseball. He might be willing to put up some money.”
“Well, sure. Go on and give him a call.”
“Like hell,” said Ted as he walked up to the bar between the two of them. He pointed a finger close to Kenny’s face. “You can go ahead and bet the kid twenty, but like hell you’re going to let the kid go on and tell his dad about it. His dad could be chief of police for all I know.”
“He isn’t,” said the college kid. “He’s a factory worker.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Ted keeping his focus on Kenny. “Don’t do it, and I’m not going to tell you again.”
Kenny nodded, but as Ted walked away he shrugged his shoulders and turned to the kid. “I’m fine with keeping it a small bet. I’ll even sweeten the deal. I bet you Pichardo throws a no hitter against these Yankees.”
The kid nodded with a smile as he put his twenty on the bar. Kenny put his twenty on top of it, ordered a beer for the kid, and a whiskey for himself.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the game. The bar started to fill with more people, coming in from the concert around the corner that just ended, and damned if my hired hand, Jen, didn’t call in sick to have me all by myself for serving the customers.
I really only noticed the change to the atmosphere when someone shut off the jukebox in the corner, and when all the bikers stopped playing pool to look up at the TVs.
“This bet still going?” I asked.
“Sure as hell,” said Kenny. “Bottom of six.”
“They’re swinging at bad pitches,” said the college kid.
The ballgame continued, and as it did, the bar got real quiet.
“Last hurrah for the Yanks,” said Kenny.
With two out, and two strikes, the Yankee shortstop ground his cleats into the dirt of the batter’s box. Pichardo dealt a perfect curve that arched through the strike zone, and down and away from the batter. The shortstop swung a big hack over top of the ball to end the game.
The silence and tension inside the Lion’s Paw broke and the room erupted with cheers. Everyone but the college kid celebrated with drinks. Kenny picked the two twenties off the bar, and the kid laughed, shook Kenny’s hand, and walked outside for a cab.
That’s when I saw Ted lean in and say something into Kenny’s ear. I couldn’t hear what, but Ted asked me to come to the back room after he returned from taking a piss.
When he left the washroom, I headed to the back poker room. “You stand guard outside the door,” said Ted.
Kennit Martin charged into the playground like a tumbleweed on a mission. “Hey Jeff!” he yelled, still thirty feet away from me. “Steenrud’s bought a whole gallon of gasoline!” He gulped air. “I was at the post office when the creeper came! He said he’s already put the wheels on!”
I threw my boomerang down by the climbing frame. Across the playground, kids dropped bats and balls, put VR glasses and dolls into backpacks. Our lazy summer afternoon had just come into focus.
Old Mr. Steenrud had the only car in town. Sure, there were some biodiesel tractors and electric carts, and the big cargo creepers that crawled slowly along the rough roads. But those weren’t exciting, not like a real old-fashioned car.
It was a Chevrolet, red as blood, and about fifty years old. It lived inside his barn, up on blocks, wheels stacked beside it like giant checkers, and every kid in town was in awe of it. Its speedometer went up to a hundred and fifty miles per hour, ten times as fast as a tractor. Twenty-four hours… I did the multiplication. Why, in one day, it could go anywhere! Minneapolis, Chicago, Winnipeg… maybe even Alaska or Oz!
In ones and twos, kids left the playground, all heading past the drugstore toward the Steenrud place. Soon there was nobody left but me and Luther Petersen. “Come on, Luther!” I said. “Bet he gives us all rides!”
He scuffed a shoe in the dust. “Can’t.”
“C’mon, it’s not far!”
“My mom’d kill me, Jeff. She hates cars. She says they’re why the climate’s in such a mess today.”
“You could come and just watch.”
“Better not.” He turned and walked off towards his home. I felt sorry and relieved and guilty all at the same time: I’d been wondering if being a real friend might mean staying and watching with Luther instead of riding in the car myself, and I didn’t think I could do that.
Outside Steenrud’s barn, it was almost like the county fair had come early. Not just kids, grownups too. Horses tethered everywhere. People had brought plates of cookies and pitchers of lemonade. Oranges and lemons were big crops around there in those days; now they grow most of them up in Canada. I got a gingersnap and a glass of lemonade, and joined the long line. I thought of putting my VR glasses on while I waited, but didn’t. This was better than any of my games.
Mr. Steenrud was already giving people rides, circling the dirt track around the edge of his big field. I stood there, sipped the thin tart lemonade, and watched. There was no wind. Dust and blue smoke hung in the air, harsh and exciting.
Behind me, Ms. Steenrud was talking to somebody. “Never thought I’d see it again, Angie. Six years back he bought some gasoline from somebody, and next day he was swearing fit to bust. Crap wasn’t gasoline at all, it was some kind of cleaning solvent. Gummed her up so bad it took him three months to fix. He swore, if he couldn’t get proper gasoline anymore, he’d just leave her on the blocks. ‘Let the old girl rust in peace,’ he said. But looks like he’s found some. Still won’t tell me what he paid for it.” She laughed, but she didn’t sound quite happy.
Finally it was my turn, with the very last group. The car rolled up and stopped where we were waiting, the red paint gleaming in the warm March sun. Up close, you could see where it had been touched up with paint that wasn’t so shiny, and the front window was cracked. The doors creaked open, and the other passengers lingered for one last moment, then climbed carefully out. They were a few yards away from the car before they started chattering again.
And then we scrambled in. I’d imagined sitting in front, but Amie Telford got to do that. Paul Hartshorne’s dad got in back, in the middle, one foot straddled on each side of a big bump in the floor; I got one window and Paul had the other. Inside, it smelled of straw and horse manure, like the barn. We closed the doors. Mr. Steenrud turned around with a grin.
“Seatbelts all done up? It’s the law!” We fiddled with the awkward metal buckles. He nodded approval. “That’s right, that’s how you do it.”
I reached out to touch a little silver switch on the door. He shook his head.
“Better leave those windows down, the air conditioner hasn’t worked for years.” He grinned and faced forward again.
He pushed on the black steering wheel, and there was a loud honk, just like in the videos. He did something, water squirted onto the front window and two skinny black arms wiped it off again, leaving clean semicircles on the dusty window. The car coughed, and started to make a long, low purr, like a giant cat. And then we started to move.
It felt cooler almost immediately. We went faster and faster. I strained forward to look through the gap between the front seats. The red needle of the speedometer pointed to twenty miles per hour. I couldn’t imagine what a hundred and fifty would be like. We rattled over the bumps in the dirt track, and I was James Bond or Arnold Schwarzenegger or somebody, in an old action video. And we hung out the windows, and pointed our fingers like guns, and felt the wind in our faces, and tried to forget what we’d heard about cars making you sick to your stomach.
We went all round the field twice, and partway round again. Then the engine started to hesitate and stutter and went quiet. The car slowed and stopped.
“Sorry, kids!” said Mr. Steenrud. “Think the gas just ran out.” He tried the starter again, but it just coughed. He bent down and did something else, and the red metal lid ahead of the front window jumped a bit. He got out, walked around to the front, and opened it.
We couldn’t see anything with it up, so we climbed out too, and came around to look. Inside, the front of the car was full of strange shapes in shiny metal and black plastic. What he was looking at was a metal gallon can, with a hose rigged to it with a pipe clamp.
He shook the can; there was no sound but the dry whack of the hose against one of the metal parts. “Yep, that’s it. She’s out. Nothing left. Ride’s over.” His voice was quiet, as if we weren’t there and he was talking to himself.
Back by the barn, a bunch of the others had noticed that the car had stopped. A straggle of grownups and kids were on their way across the field to help.
“Something wrong, Bill?” one of the men asked, when they got there.
“No, she’s fine. Just out of gas,” Mr. Steenrud said. He was still smiling, but he looked tired from all the driving, and his eyes were red from the dust.
Gently, he lowered the lid down. It clunked softly into place. Then he climbed back behind the black steering wheel, and closed his door, and we all pushed the car back to the barn, like a parade.
Robert Dawson teaches mathematics at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia. Apart from math and writing, he enjoys hiking, cycling,
music and fencing. His stories have appeared in Nature, AE, and other publications.
I am running.
I am running down a hallway.
I am running down a hallway and they are chasing me, but they won’t catch me.
I don’t know what I am, but all of a sudden, I know I’m fast.
The doctor was in on it the whole time. He pretended to be interested, maybe concerned. But not scared. Not worried. He talked about bioluminescence, about algae that makes whole stretches of coastline glow in the dark. He said “perfectly rational explanation” several times.
Then he told me to relax. He told me I could lie down. He even adjusted the bed for me. “I thought only nurses do that,” I told him. I don’t know if he even heard what I said; the tissue against my nose muffled my words.
He smiled absently, said, “I’m gonna switch out the light so you can rest,” and left the room.
An hour before, I thought I’d never sleep again. But it’s amazing what a dim room and cool air can do.
When the bomb hit, I was almost inside the ladies’ clothing store where I work. If I hadn’t paused to check out a cute bicycle courier I would have been safe. The bomb detonated silently, coating the street with a brief yellow burst like the mother of all paintball hits. As far as I could see, everything and everybody bloomed yellow, the cars, the houses, the early shoppers. In the next eye blink, the yellow became patchy, and the passers-by, still frozen from shock, wore it like partially melted slickers. The last of the yellow goo evaporated and I was left standing in the doorway with the strangest tingling in my right hand, from the elbow down. The only sound was the scooter accelerating in the direction of the Rijksmuseum. The messenger’s helmet was as yellow as the goo had been.
A knack bomb hit. I’d never been this close before. I’d been two blocks over from the balloon lady who made a mess of last King’s day, filling the whole of Dam Square with orange balloons in the shape of the king’s head and apparently scaring people a lot. It might seem like a fun knack to have, but she had ended up in Detox Camp. What would I get?
It looked normal. My hand. But what I knew about other knack bombs warned me that anything might happen. I closed the door with my left hand, holding the tainted one aloft like it had touched something nasty. I shouldered through to the bathroom, rinsing the evil hand twice and rubbing it dry until it turned red. One eye on the clock – only 10 minutes until the arrival of the Alpha Bitch.
Alpha Bitch, Angelique Roussignon, was the owner of the shop. She loved dressing me in purple satin party dresses to entice the customers. She says. She knows I like minimalist styles and plain dark colors, and I say she just likes torturing me. I don’t call slapping sequins, tassels, lace and embroidery on synthetic taffeta designing, but knowing better won’t pay my bills, so I eat crow and do her bidding.
The shop door ding-donged. Angelique. She wore canary yellow fake Chanel. She sailed through to the back with a garment bag over her arm.
“Look Inge, darling, especially for you, from my Christmas line.” She whipped out something red and sparkly and boned; with white fake fur trim everywhere trim was remotely possible.
I forced down the bad hand, which I was still holding up as if it was contaminated. I kept sneaking peeks at it, but it looked normal. Maybe the knack bomb had been a hallucination. Nothing might have happened, except too much to drink last night and one too many stiff espressos on the way here. Could be.
I didn’t know how to check if I actually had a strange new knack. I wanted time for myself so I could experiment and freak out in peace. I could have slipped off to the bathroom again, but knack couldn’t be washed off anyway. The only thing I could do now was put the freaking-out off until six o’clock.
Angelique tapped her shoe, her red lacquered claws carefully held away from the satin fabric. She never snagged it, I have to say. I didn’t like being touched by her slippery, over-moisturized hands, but I sighed and slipped out of my black sheath, into the red monstrosity. Angelique zipped me up, one hand on my shoulder.
The fabric seemed to tighten around me. I gasped for breath. Black dots danced before my eyes, like when you’ve stood up too fast.
Angelique looked at me oddly.
“What?” I said.
She gestured along my body. “I think this is my best work to date,” she said, awe in her voice. “Incredible. You look – fabulous. Here.” She stepped aside to let me look at myself in the mirrored shop wall.
Wow. I did look fabulous. I looked down at the dress. Still synthetic satin, still overdesigned and overdecorated. But my mirror image showed someone utterly magic and fabulous, like one of these pre-war actresses seen through Vaselined lenses. A glow hung around me and my suddenly hourglass shaped figure. A magic dress.
A knack dress! My eyes flicked to mirror Angelique, staring rapt at her own creation. She didn’t look that different, except maybe a little fuzzy around the edges. She gave me a blood red lipstick to match the dress.
“Get some shoes, will you? I think the red sequin Jimmy Choos.”
The fuzziness of her outline sharpened a bit. Hm.
I looked back at myself. Definitely not me. Still hourglassed and fabulous, though. A slow suspicion trickled through me. Angelique had come in only minutes after me. Maybe she had been caught in the knack bomb. And her newfangled knack was glamouring her own ugly dresses into fabulous creations. When I looked at them, my critical faculties just shut up. I tried thinking about the dress with my eyes closed, and managed to muster something like, derivative. Under normal circumstances I could have written a thousand words why every fashion designer and consumer ought to hate the dress.
I tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t. The dress held my waist and ribs in their unnatural wasp shape. I felt a great desire to rinse my mouth, but the tingle of the shop bell warned me about an early customer.
I turned to walk towards her, and caught a glimpse of grace and elegance in the mirror I’d never possessed before. Sheesh. The fake satin draped like silk.. Old Hollywood meets Valentino. It would have looked right on Queen Máxima.
I waited all day for sirens and policemen in white hazmat suits to show up, but nothing happened. Had none of the good citizens reported the bomb? Maybe the Knack Bombardiers had more popular support than the papers suggested.
Thursday, December 23, 2044
It was on the seventh day of Rachel’s disappearance that I finally left the house. I felt like the broad whose husband goes out for a pack of smokes and never comes back. I tried to lose the feeling in an afternoon ski amidst the mountains surrounding our cabin, in the graveyards of birch, in the skeletal branches grasping towards the still-hidden sun. We’d camped in the trees here just a year ago, though it seemed an eternity. Time flows strangely up in the mountains, it’s passage bent and slowed by ancient ridges and slopes. I wondered if Rachel was out here somewhere– camping under snow-pregnant pines or down and dying cedar. She loved camping as much as I loved skiing.
I lit a cigarette then, a blend of perique tobacco that I grew myself during the long summers, Rachel hated it, but she was gone and there was nothing for it. The wind picked up, and I wiped tangled threads of snot from my beard as howling gusts pulled hungrily at my exhaled smoke. A final glance at the stand of birch, and I tugged my balaclava back on, chipped a piece of ice off a binding, clicked into my skis, and stripped my sodden cigarette, pocketing the filter. I wished briefly that I’d worn goggles, then set my shoulders before starting a strong stride back home. It felt like a storm was coming, lightning and snow. I kicked off, racing down the valley’s curves, stomping back up the sloping hill of her white belly. My lungs burned, and my breath froze in the mountain air. I was old, out of shape.
An hour later, just as the sun began to hide its face behind the mountains, I crested the final ridge overlooking my little world. I lived in a secluded valley, with a single road winding down the south side. There was a small grove of maples surrounding the house, which was set into a small mound in corner of the valley.
There was also a gleaming black snowmobile purring out front. A man garbed in a parka stood outside. He looked like he was about ready to scale Everest. Maybe he was lost. I took the downhill slowly, savoring my last breath of solitude. I rarely had visitors. That was kind of the point.
“Mikkjal Turing Helmsdal?” They always ask for your name, solicitors and evangelists, like it’ll somehow make you friends right off the bat. He was smothered in layers of goose down and Gore-Tex. Funny. It’d probably never even gotten colder than twenty below up here. He definitely wasn’t a local. Probably an evangelist. I hoped he wasn’t a Neo-Christian. I was already well-acquainted with the faith.
“I don’t need saving, friend, if that’s why you’re here.”
He unwrapped his scarf, and slid off a pair of sunglasses. “I don’t know about that, Mickey. I seem to recall saving your ass on a number of occasions.” He grinned. “Remember when you were chock full of whiskey and Robitussin, trying to get away from Professor Wegler’s wife? You ran gasping into our room and hid under the bed for three hours. I thought you’d lost your marbles, until she came in looking for you. Sounded like a lovely evening.” He looked around. “Looks like you got that all straightened out though, eh?”
I smiled and grabbed the man in a bear hug. I’d met Harrison Yorke at Stanford. I’d doubled in computer science and cognitive psychology. He majored in gender studies, or something equally soft. I’d never really been totally sure. He’d moonlighted as a private detective, though, the old-fashioned kind out of hard-boiled crime novels. Our relationship was less academic than bacchanalian. Not that I mean to imply that we fucked. He’d always been a little thick for my taste.
“Thanks for coming, Harry. I didn’t expect you so soon. You got my letter, then?” I unclipped my skis. I’d sent Harry a message about Rachel’s disappearance two days ago, but I hadn’t thought he’d make it out to my mountain so quickly. My stomach grumbled. “Hold that thought. We’ll talk inside. I’m starved. Come on in. The fire should still be going, and I baked some cookies this morning. It’s deer for dinner, if you can handle that.”
My house warmed up quickly, and we wolfed down some cookies while we waited. I’d ordered a fancy wood stove just before moving out here. I loved watching the fire after it was stoked. I’d grown up in an old farmhouse before I moved to the States; I took an unseemly comfort in crackling flame.
After a pot of coffee and a venison meatloaf, it was pretty easy to catch up with Harry. It seemed he’d kept up with the detective business, and he was a veritable collection of mystery stories, which he shared vociferously.
“You look like you could use another coffee, Harry.” I finished my own, and got up to grind some more. He pulled a flask out of his hip pocket.
“Want to add a little fire to that coffee? I brought a bit of Bushmill Reserve.”
I paused, and eyed the bottle, then shook my head. “No thanks. I haven’t touched the stuff in 20 years. Seems a bit late to start again.”
“Suit yourself, I guess.” He looked surprised. I couldn’t blame him. My liver was the stuff of legends.
“Look, Harry,” I cleared my throat. “I’ll level with you. I do need saving. It’s Rachel. I haven’t seen her in three days. I’m worried.”
“You guys have a fight or something?”
“No, not at all. And it’s not like she can’t come and go as she wants, you know, but she’s never been gone this long, even when she goes into town for the Christmas service.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You remember the last fight you did have?”
I stopped grinding the coffee. “To be honest, I don’t know that we’ve ever had one. No arguments, no yelling, no throwing of plates or anything like that.”
I shrugged. “Really.”
He narrowed his eyes. “She still goes to church, though, huh? You guys never fight about that?”
“Hell, Harry, you know I don’t like it, but I’m not gonna tell Rachel how to run her life. She’s a grown woman, and I love her. I don’t mind it. Really.”
“Right.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Right, right. About the church, though- have you been keeping up with the Neo-Christians?”
“Not a chance. I’ve been out here in the mountains for twenty years. I don’t know shit about them anymore. I swore off it, you know, Neo-Christianity. If it’s got to do with Heaven, you’ve got the wrong guy.” The coffee dripped. I’d tried to swear off Heaven, anyway. Giving up eternal bliss is a hell of a thing. I sure hadn’t forgotten how it felt. You hear sayings sometimes, like: the grass is always greener on the other side, or pink, if you’re seeing it through some old rose-colored glasses, and it’s meant to help ground you and bring you back to reality but the truth of the matter is that sometimes the grass is greener on the other side, and taller, and full of manna.
I pulled my mug, and sipped, sitting quietly for a minute. Harry snorted.
“Oh, don’t give me that shit. You can’t give up Neo-Christianity. You wrote Heaven. You were the first one to jack in. You know it better than anyone.” He squinted at me. “Jesus, you’re scared, aren’t you.”
I snorted right back. “Of course not. You don’t get it. If it has to do with Heaven, I can’t help. It’s not mine anymore, if it ever was. It’s dynamic, to put it lightly, that’s the whole point. The program changes fundamentally every time someone jacks in. It works by reading individual neuron signals, then transcribing and recombining them. It’s like grammar, like a language. It constantly changes in response to new stimuli. That is how you create eternal happiness. Change. It’s not really heaven, you know. It’s a bunch of electric pulses. It’s a game.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Well, I’m no neurologist, but the Neo-Christians don’t think its a game.”
“Yeah, well, it’s hard to think straight while you’re jacked in to paradise.” I finished my coffee. “You’d know, if you’d ever jacked in.”
He shrugged and mimed a knife across his throat. “You know I haven’t. Epileptics can’t jack in. Might kill me. That whole recombination thing doesn’t work so well when you start tossing in random neuron signals.”
Jeff yawned at Allison through the storm door and scrubbed a hand over his shaggy salt and pepper locks. A mahogany bathrobe draped around his ex-jock physique, a body she adored and anticipated great delight in watching him whip back into its former glory.
“Am I bothering you?”
“Never,” he muttered, letting her in.
With the front door sealing off prying eyes, Allison tasted his stale mouth and gummy lips. “Have I ever mentioned how utterly dashing you are in the morning?”
“Sorry.” He yawned again. “Boudica kept going out all night. Driving me nuts. This is a nice wake-up call though.”
“Normally I wouldn’t risk dropping by. Today is extra special. I knew you’d be particularly happy to see me.”
“I’m already way past happy.” He drew her up against him.
A woman’s voice droned from the kitchen. “In. In. In.”
“‘Scuse me,” Jeff mumbled, sliding from her embrace.
Seconds later the back door squealed.
“Eat. Eat,” came the woman’s voice again, followed shortly by the can opener’s dutiful grind. “Eat. Eat,” the voice repeated in lifeless monotone as blobs of wetness sucked loose and splattered.
Allison strolled into the living room to wait, senses tingling from this, her first time inside the Lang residence, though her second actual visit. Six months ago, she’d dropped off contract originals for Jeff’s records–a cordial, professional, totally innocuous appointment, at least to any prying eyes watching at the time. Now the house wove an enticing tale through her casual observations. She absorbed impressions like a thirsty sponge slurping up a puddle.
Dust and dirt accumulated on every available surface–the sign of a mind too preoccupied with matters far beyond mundane concerns like basic house cleaning. Books, magazines and papers lay sprawled, several of the latter bearing the logo of her company and some of those were adorned with hasty scribbles and crossed-out notes. Unopened mail peeked like Easter eggs nestled in stray places: between empty beer bottles, atop grease-stained pizza boxes, on the marble coffee table, beside the Sony plasma, amidst scattered throw pillows and the occasional sock. Allison drank in the trappings of a life she knew to be normally quite tidy and efficient, now screeched to a crawl in a tight holding pattern.
And she approved.
“Sorry I didn’t clean up.” Jeff shuffled in, this time bearing a cheery grin for her instead of a yawn.
“Your maid needs a pep talk.”
“Or maybe a pink slip–wait a minute–I guess that would be me. Anyway, where were–”
The phone whistled, snatching away his smile.
Jeff palmed the handset. “Hello? Who? Lieutenant Fischer…” Twin furrows gouged into his brow. “It’s Saturday, right? You’ve got either really good news or very bad. So which is it?”
A fly’s pesky buzz escaped the handset, the only part of the detective’s report Allison overheard. Behind the whine lurked a paunchy middle-aged cop, a man that, five seconds upon meeting, she’d dismissed in summary order as seasoned but moronic; just another stereotypical male unable to break eye contact off a high-dollar pair of sculpted boobs. Unfortunately her one true dream–not to mention she, herself–remained unfulfilled until Fischer managed to just do his job. No more or less.
Which was really odd.
Here she stood silently cheering on the oafish turd that could actually stink up her whole life forever, should divine intervention somehow inspire the cop to overachieve. Not likely though. Fischer was that stupid.
“Oh my God!” Jeff choked.
Could it be? Heart thudding, Allison drifted over to him, mentally crossing her fingers as she did before every traumatic moment she faced.
“B-burned? Where?” A pause. “No… not where was the car burned. Where was it found? In Brownsville? But no sign of her. Uhhhmm… uhhh. Well, w-what do you think it means?”
A cold shudder runs through me as I look through the one-way mirror at the psycho in the orange jumpsuit who’s handcuffed to the table. What I’ll see in his head, what I’ll feel and experience first hand will be like living nightmares. I don’t know if I can handle them. I’ve seen some terrible things, but nothing like what he’s done.
The psycho raises a styrofoam cup of hot coffee to his mouth, but the chain connecting his handcuffs to the table is too short, so when he gets the cup halfway up, his arm jerks to a stop and the coffee spills onto the lap of his bright orange coveralls. He swears and frantically squirms in his seat to stop the coffee from scalding him. The pained look on his face tells me that he isn’t succeeding.
Good, I think. He deserves that. That’s fitting for a guy like him. That’s perfect.
He plunks the cup down in front of him and shakes the hot brown liquid from his hands, which sends his chains rattling and clanking over the table’s black metal top.
He doesn’t look like much sitting there, coke-bottle glasses, short salt and pepper hair, and so skinny he seems lost in those orange overalls. With what they told me about him, I imagined some beefy guy with tattoos of little spiders at the corner of his eyes and pipes the size of my head–not somebody who could have been my grade 9 science teacher.
Let someone else do this, my inner voice tells me. Don’t they have people trained to do stuff this? Why the hell does it have to be me?
Then I remind myself of the deal I made, a deal I’ll find nowhere else: get what the authorities need from this lunatic and then the agency goes back to working out how to shut off this mechanism in my head.
Life will be worth living again without it.