It began with images of death.
Not from the outside—like the time he had nightmares for a month after he’d watched a Sudanese terrorist lob off his clone’s head with a machete and it bounced off a rock into the brown sludge of the Nile. Or the time in the Khartoum market when the suicide bomb sent steel and glass and mortar through five of his clones… and three of them almost survived. The nightmares hadn’t lasted as long that time; instead Billy lay awake nights worrying if he was getting too used to that kind of thing and wondering what that might mean about him.
No, these images were from the inside, through his clones’ eyes, evoking a different kind of terror. Some hit suddenly—a bright flash of light, a burst of pain shearing mercifully off into nothing. Others took time. His heart thumping out blood like a cavitating oil pump. Trembling so hard his elbows dug into the dirt. Light slowly leeching out of his vision. Trying to scratch his nose and wondering why his hand wouldn’t move, or why it was two yards away. The exact moment of death felt different every time.
There was supposed to be a firewall against those images. The quantum non-locality of thought should shutter closed, the group consciousness break, before you could feel them. Yet he sank into them now as if drowning in a bottomless ocean. He could barely hear his own screams under their cold weight.
Jude had warned him. “I wish I knew a way around it,” she said. “But once I’ve injected you with the virobots all the military’s programming falls apart and the shunted memories hit you hard before there’s been time to cut you off from the other minds. Just remember it will end.”
And it did. Only after he’d come to an end a hundred times. He spent the night gasping. Waves of loneliness rocked his body; he floated on them, nauseous and trembling. Jude tried to soothe him in the dark, but he wouldn’t allow it. This was the kind of deep, pure loneliness that couldn’t be disturbed and he resented anyone’s attempt to do so—especially some filthy Neo-Weather Underground hippie like Jude.
In the morning things were different. He rose from the cot, pulled on his fatigues and stumbled through the camp Jude used as her lab, smelling coffee in the kitchen. The front door was open. Pouring himself a cup, he considered the silence stretching out around him in an ever expanding ring. His throat caught and tears welled in his eyes. He sipped and walked out to the narrow deck overlooking the pond. It was mid-autumn and the air was a contradicting crisp and warm. The trees down the bank had exploded in gold and umber and vermillion.
Billy set his cup on the wood railing and was about to call Jude’s name when he saw her at the bottom of the crooked stairs, her jeans and tie dye abandoned on the half-rotten dock. Red hair fell across her narrow back and the meat of her ass twitched slightly under those cotton panties as she stepped toward the edge. Then she slid like a pale needle into the stillness of the pond. Billy hardly heard a splash, and the golden leaves scattering the water’s surface barely moved in the expanding circles where she’d disappeared.
Then her head broke the surface and she blew spray out her nostrils. As she dragged herself back up to the dock Billy couldn’t help watching how she filled out her bra, how she quivered, and what the cold water had done to her. He watched as she wrung out her hair and dried off her thin legs with the t-shirt. Asian women and redheads, Billy always said. Always stunningly beautiful or really homely; there’s no continuum. As Jude pulled worn denim up her long legs he tried to decide which of the two extremes she fell into. And reminded himself he didn’t like hippies.
He must have moved because she looked up, all freckles and fly away ears in a ray of sun that made it through the dappling trees.
“Spying on me, perv boy?” she said.
He watched her decide not to be offended.
“I swim whenever I come here no matter how cold it is.” She twisted water out of her shirt and pulled it over her head. “This is one of the last almost natural places in the world. I like to appreciate it.”