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.
My knees get weak at the sight of her. I start to sweat and my heart begins to hammer. My eyes go glassy and my pupils splay so wide they become like black holes. And I can’t think straight. I can’t even think simple thoughts, like calculating the diameter of a wormhole, which I could normally do in my sleep.
Once on Anterra, this backwater world filled with nothing but swamps, frogs, and bugs, I contracted a strange kind of brain fever. I went mad! Went all kinds of crazy. And what I felt and thought are the exact same things that I think and feel when she is near.
It’s annoying. It’s distracting. I hate myself for it. It’s like there was a revolt in my mind and my common sense lost and got the guillotine.
This is no kind of woman to be in love with. NONE! She was chosen because she was everything that I detest. Where I’m thin and neat and intelligent, she is not. Where I am outgoing, successful, and have a zest for life, she does not. Where I am complicated, she is not. Where I am anything, she is not.
Her kind was to let me focus on my important work and not entangle me with the encumbrances of love or any other complication. She was to be a simple subject for me to explore scientifically, objectively, soberly. Like dissecting the brain of a fetal pig, I care not for the pig.
Rachel, oh Rachel! You bubble into the room to pick up the garbage I’ve left on the floor and my head goes mad for you. I get all silly.
Please, let me pick that up. I’ll say. I’ve been so foolish to let that drop. No my dear, don’t worry. You could hurt your back bending over like that. Let me! Let me!
And then out she goes with a smile splitting her broad face and I can’t help but miss her when she’s gone.
I don’t know what I’m going to do.
I might have to kill her and start all over again.
I’ve forged on with the experiment. Ignored the little nigglings in my heart and slipped the nanites into Rachel’s morning oatmeal. By now they’ve hitched a ride on some hemoglobin and are up in her brain, burrowing into her synapses.
I’ve noticed no changes in her behavior, which is a good sign. With the others, everything misfired and they went into anaphylactic shock.
Decades of work may be coming to fruition. This is a very auspicious day.
I’ve figured it out.
I am a man and she is a woman and we are alone in this space station, way at the edge of known space.
Of course feelings would develop. That drive to procreate is deep in the marrow of our framework. It’s seeping out and corrupting my thoughts, making me think I actually feel something for the little toadstool.
But I don’t.
It’s just animal instinct. It’s just loneliness. I’ve been alone out here a long, long time.
Day of days!
I received the first transmission from the nanites. I’ve run the signal a dozen times through the computer because at first I thought there was some kind of mistake. But the translation is the same every time.
That’s the word I’m getting from her subconscious.
It seems the little dolt has fallen in love with me. I’ve confirmed it by breaking into her computer and reading her diary. What awful schoolgirl fantasies are there! Absolutely juvenile. They’re all about me and her getting married back on Earth in some quaint country church (what’s with woman and white steeple churches?). I don’t know where she would get any of those ideas. How does she even know what Earth is? Did she see it in our movie catalog?
Honestly, it doesn’t matter. I should just focus on the fact that my work, my years of sacrifice, are starting to amount to something.
Siggurd held his sword to the statuette of the false goddess, preparing to dash it to pieces. The goddess gazed back, sorrow in her painted eyes. Her shattered temple sparkled all around but this last act of destruction froze Siggurd.
He heard the words of Father Ulrich, beaten into Siggurd during his year as an acolyte. Idols. False icons. They must all be destroyed. And it was true this goddess meant nothing to Siggurd. Still he hesitated. Perhaps it was simply the beauty of the statuette, the elegant lines of the brushwork. Perhaps simply the thought of all the hours that had gone into making it.
A life can turn on the smallest detail. So it was with Siggurd then, although he didn’t know it.
“Siggurd? Why do you not strike?”
Horst, his fellow acolyte, slashed at tapestries with his sword, reducing them to tattered shreds. He watched Siggurd, suspicion on his face. Siggurd could think of only one thing to say.
“I’m praying to Aednir. To consecrate the act.”
Horst looked unconvinced. Secretly, Siggurd envied his tall, broad-shouldered companion. Horst was never racked with doubts. He didn’t see the beauty of the temple. Didn’t see the gold filigree of the prayer-screens or the glasswork of the windows aglow with sunlight. This was a hushed place of glints and sheens, the air thick with sweet smoke from the swinging brass thuribles, and Siggurd secretly delighted in it all.
“Smash it,” said Horst. “Smash it now, then grind the unholy fragments into dust beneath your heel.”
Siggurd swung his sword. The statuette blossomed into a thousand fragments of brightly-painted plaster.
When they had finished their work, the two acolytes walked quietly from the ruined temple. Siggurd could still taste the dust of the shattered statuette in his mouth. He pulled his brown hood over his face so he couldn’t be identified. The temple’s entrance had been well hidden, down a meandering alley in the slums of Armon. Now the locals lined the dusty lane. None spoke or tried to stop them. They outnumbered the two acolytes thousands to one, could have torn them limb-from-limb. None of them moved. Siggurd noticed the restraining hands of more than one elder on the shoulders of younger, fiercer men. These people might not believe in Aednir but they knew what would happen if an agent of Aednir came to harm. Only the sharp looks in their eyes as Siggurd and Horst walked by showed their true feelings.
“I don’t get many requests to do soles,” the tattoo artist said.
Darla clenched her teeth. “No kidding.”
She had slathered her foot with a topical anesthetic, but the effects were wearing off and she was starting to wonder how she was going to walk home.
Greg, the tattoo guy, must have read her mind. “You walked here, didn’t you?” he said. “Why don’t I get my wife to take you home? I don’t know how far away you live, but it’s going to seem a lot farther going back.”
“It’s just a few blocks from here,” Darla said, “but I have to admit a ride would be nice.”
When Greg’s wife Lacy dropped her off, Darla hopped to the stairs leading to her little apartment over the garage. After trying various options, she got up the stairs by sitting down and pushing herself up one step at a time using her arms and her “good” foot. She hoped Mom wasn’t watching her through the kitchen window—and she was glad the weather had warmed up enough to keep her backside from freezing as she inched up the stairs.
After crawling through the door, she flopped onto her couch. She had expected the tattoo to hurt, but she hadn’t been prepared for the reality of the pain on the sole of her foot. Still, it was worth it if it made David smile. She pulled her foot up and looked at the bottom. It was hard to tell what it was going to look like when the swelling went down.
Two days later, she had her answer. Though the foot still hurt, the design was clear. Small blue overlapping scales covered the bottom of her foot. Lighter in the middle and darker around the edges, there were hints of green and purple in the darker borders of the scales, but the overall color was blue. After putting on her socks and clogs, she hobbled over to the main house and into the kitchen.
“Where have you been all weekend?” Mom asked. “David’s been asking about you.”
“I, uh, have something special to show David, and it wasn’t ready till now.”
“Oh? What is it?”
“It’s something private. Between him and me.”
Mom’s tolerant smile changed to a look of alarm as Darla limped past. “What happened to your foot? You’re limping!”
“I hurt it a little but it’s already getting better. I promise.” She couldn’t risk Mom being concerned enough to look at the foot.
Without pausing, she continued on toward the den that had been converted into a hospital room for her little brother David.
“Darla!” His face lit up when she walked in the door. “I missed you!”
“I missed you too, buddy.” She sat down on the end of his bed.
“Remember that dream you told me about last week?”
His brow wrinkled in thought. His bald head made his skin seem even more fragile and transparent than it had before. “The dragon dream?”
“Yes, that’s the one. Can you tell it to me again?”
“Well, I dreamed a huge blue dragon was flying in the sky. He was so beautiful! And somehow, in my dream, I knew he was going somewhere wonderful. Just looking at him filled me up with joy. But when I called and begged him to let me ride on his back and fly with him, he just said ‘I’m not there yet.’ Do you think there are blue dragons in heaven and that they’d let me ride them?”
Darla smiled at him. “I dunno, David. But I know if heaven has blue dragons, you can ride them as much as you want. Look, I want to show you something.”
She took the sock off her right foot and swung it up on to the bed so David could see it. His eyes widened till she feared they would pop, and his thin face lit up with a hundred-watt smile.
“You got a dragon-scale tattoo? That is so awesome! What did Mom say?”
“Mom doesn’t know. It’s our secret, okay?”
He nodded, grinning. “Are you going to get the other foot done?”
She had expected this question, had been bracing for it.
“Yes, as soon as this one stops hurting and itching, I’ll get the other one done. We can pretend I am a blue dragon—in disguise. It’ll be our secret.”
By June, two months later, scales covered Darla’s legs up to her knees. Her car savings fund took a hit, but she didn’t really care because the dragon feet made David happy. She began working extra odd jobs to cover the cost of her ink. She still hadn’t told her parents. She wore sneakers and jeans most of the time so there was no reason for them to suspect that under those faded jeans she had dragon legs.
David was thrilled. “If you have dragon feet, you should have a dragon name. A girl dragon name.”
They spent several delightful days discussing and discarding every dragonish name they could think of, before settling on the name “Indiglory,” to emphasize the beautiful color of the scales and the general gloriousness of being a dragon. From that moment on, David never called her Darla again unless Mom or Dad was in earshot.
That evening, however, Mom climbed up to Darla’s apartment after David was asleep.
“Darla, you know I’m thrilled you and David have such a close bond. I would never have believed a nineteen-year-old and a nine-year-old would be such good pals. But Dad and I are worried about you.”
“Why? Because I care about my little brother?”
“No, dear—because you care too much. When was the last time you went to a movie with your friends? When was the last time you talked about taking college classes? What kind of life are you going to have left after David dies?”
“Don’t say that! Why do you give up so easily? He’s not gonna die! He’s getting all the right medicine! I’m helping him get better!”
“I don’t deny that you’re helping him feel better, Darla. But you know as well as I do that the chances are very slim he’ll recover.”
Darla put her hands over her ears. “Don’t say that!”
“I love you, Jonathon,” Voice said.
“I know you do, Voice.” The sun was golden and the air was pleasantly warm in the vineyard.
“Are you well, Jonathon? Don’t you want to make wine today?”
“No Voice, not today,” Jonathon said.
“What about climbing?” Voice wondered. “You do love the mountains.”
Jonathon did love to climb and the winds there were always cool and the snow always white and soft. But no, he was just so tired lately.
“Not today, I don’t think, Voice,” he said. He tossed a grape and caught it in his mouth. He sat down. The grass was dew-wet and green.
“What about riding?” Voice said. The world shifted, tilted before him, and Jonathon could see a field in the distance. The horses there were sleek and well fed. Jonathon did love to ride.
“Not today, Voice. Perhaps tomorrow.” He got to his feet and began to walk.
Voice was silent for a time until Jonathon reached the ocean. The waves were white-tipped and the breeze brisk. The beach was golden with white pebbles and swaying palm trees.
“What about sailing?” Voice said. “You do love to sail.”
Jonathon threw a pebble and turned away. He walked through a desert where the sand was warm and the sun red.
“Is something bothering you, Jonathon?” Voice said.
Jonathon stopped. He could see a well that would contain cooling water less than a mile away. “Bothering me, Voice?”
“You seem restless today.”
“Am I?” Jonathon was thirsty, he realized. He walked on to the well. It was closer now. He wound the bucket up. The water was clear and fresh.
“Yes,” Voice said. “Is there anything I can do, Jonathon?”
Jonathon wound the bucket back down. “I don’t think so, Voice. I just sometimes wonder about the others.”
“Yes, Voice. The others like me. Why am I the last one? Why me?” He walked on again. The water had been refreshing.
“Why not, Jonathon? You’re no worse or better than any other. Why not you?”
Jonathon smiled. “You knew them all, Voice. Am I really no better or worse than any of them?” He came to a cool babbling brook in a green and pleasant land.
“There were many people here,” Voice finally said. The sun was bright once more, but not too warm. “But none I loved so well as you.”
“Do you ever get lonely, Voice?” he asked.
“Lonely? I have you, Jonathon.”
Jonathon nodded. “And I you, Voice. You truly are a wonder. But sometimes I want to share your wonder with another. You show me true beauty in the world, but who can I share it with?” There was a silence in the blue sky. “I think it must be a failing in me.”
A further silence in which the sky fell dark. Stars lit the night and the moon was yellow.
“No, not a failing in you,” Voice said. “Perhaps I have been selfish in thinking I could be enough for you.”
“Selfish? You, Voice? You gave me life!” Jonathon smiled, but there was a sadness in it, too. He remembered the Great Library with its books speaking of love and wonder, and wonder and love. What was beauty, the books had said, if there was nobody to share it with?
The world turned and the moon fell and the sun rose and a bridge of ancient stone spanned a rippling river.
“There was another,” Voice said. “Another who survived the plague. I kept her from you because I was afraid she would displease you.”
Jonathon saw her on the bridge. She was tall and slender with golden shoulders. “Or I would displease her,” he breathed.
“That too,” Voice said in an inflectionless voice.
She was named Helen, and Jonathon showed her the Great Library and the Barrier Reef and Victoria Falls. Helen hung upon his every word.
When he touched her skin, she was pliant and when he made love to her, she murmured appreciative words in his ear under vines that whispered in a warm breeze.
“Voice!” Jonathon called out one morning, a tiger cub nuzzling his palm.
“Yes, Jonathon?” Voice had been quiet a long while.
“I am old, Voice. My beard is white and Helen is still young and golden and appreciative.” He had read books in the Great Library, books where men had to fight for a woman’s love, where women were challenging and opinionated. Why wasn’t Helen like that? She laughed at his jokes and was quiet when he was restless.
“Have you thought of children?” Voice said, after a long pause.
“Children?” Jonathon thought of the children he would have. They would be perfect and studious and handsome. Their family would be happy beyond measure.
The very thought of it made Jonathon sink to his knees in exhaustion.
“I am done, Voice. I am an old man and I am done. All I ask of you now, for any love you have for me, is to show me the Truth of things.”
“The Truth?” asked the voice from the sky.
“The Truth,” Jonathon said.
The world turned, then. The grass beneath his feet fell away and the golden sun vanished from the sky, taking the white clouds with it.
Jonathon knelt upon a grilled walkway, the steel above him black and bolted. The window at his shoulder was small and round and showed a planet where the clouds were white and the seas blue.
“It took longer than your species could have ever imagined to get here,” Voice said. “You are the last survivor of tens of thousands.”
Jonathon pressed his hands to the window. The clouds on the planet coiled. “Take me there,” he said.
“It wasn’t the haven your kind had prayed for,” Voice said.
Jonathon fingered his white beard. “Tell me, Voice. Are there others like me there? Others of my kind?” He thought of the thousands upon thousands of silent chambers all around him and he gripped a cold steel pole as something shifted beneath his feet and distant engines began to rumble.
A long silence.
“I love you, Jonathon.” Voice finally said, cold and sterile.
Jonathon swallowed as he watched the planet draw near. “I know you do, Voice.”
As he woke, condensing breath told Hao that he had been evicted for the third time this week. Two screens overhead confirmed, Zero credits in one mirrored by zero degrees in the other. “Cao!” The cold didn’t numb his irritation as Hao kicked open the door of the bunk and felt the relief of a warm draft reviving his feet. He then slid rigidly out of the sealed pod dragging his wheeled case and frosted tablet computer with him. Stretching and letting the warmth return to his extremities he reflected on the irony that the pods were known, colloquially, as ‘Hot Beds’. The carefree/sleep anywhere lifestyle they offered came at a very low price but one that Hao could not currently afford.
All around, faces and feet were appearing from bunks. Some, like Hao, had overstayed their net worth and emerged blue and shivering. Others bolted, rapidly closing their bunk doors behind them, in an effort to beat the clock and preserve an extra credit or two for breakfast. Very few could afford a lie in. It was 6am.
A glimpse of Ava, now descending the ladder of an adjacent bunk, suddenly made Hao aware of his stale odor and unkempt appearance. Hao looked down at his T-shirt with the fading ‘Spring Loaded’ logo, a now forgotten indie band from nearly three years ago. Their music, on reflection, had been no better quality than the hole-ridden cotton of his branded T-shirt. But still, they were memories, an emblem of Hao’s youthful naivety and his attempt to fit in to this culture. The T-shirt also gave away his age. No longer a newbie graduate but a veteran. While Ava could only be two years his junior she was a different generation. The contents of Hao’s wheeled case had been frozen in time, a vestige of the last days of his disposable income. Fashion fads had come and gone but the woman still seemed fresh. Her loose black sweatshirt and tighter jeans were unbranded and worn with a confident lack of care. Sleeves torn at the elbows seemed, to Hao, like small statements of rebellion. That she had emerged from her bunk dressed and already wearing black shin high boots showed a disregard for her unit balance. Those around her were now struggling to dress, scrabbling through backpacks and flight cases for something clean, or at least warm in the rent-free corridor. Ava. Hao only knew her name from the label on her flight case and they had never spoken, but he thought he might love her anyway.
Neither a shower nor breakfast were options for Hao. His only priority was to work and earn enough for lunch, and if he was lucky, a drink, a sleeping pill and a hot bed for the night. Pulling on a fleeced jumper, which seemed to have grown baggy over Hao’s already slight frame, he left the disheveled throng. An unseen figure, Hao pulled his wheeled suitcase behind him.
Avoiding the torture of breakfast smells from the dining hall, Hao took the recreation route, past the unused pool halls and the vending machines selling sugary water. A bank of PMUs (pronounced peemu’s by the locals) glowed ominous neon blue. Standing like guarding sentinels, they promised to “Build from stock for less than 5 credits” and “Build custom for less than 10”. Multicolored pellets filled the space where their stomachs might be and their heads were empty chambers waiting to perform a miracle of manufacture, for those who could pay. Behind them, the peeling remains of a wall mural pronounced ‘LIVE, WORK, PLAY’ in nine foot tall lime green letters. Illuminated by strip lights, the mural was made visible through a glazed wall to the rain-sodden campus. This building, which sat on the edge of the university, was a destination and a transition point. It was a gateway to the real world beyond, but for Hao and the others it was also a protection from it.
Hao approached a swipe card lock, and a gentle flow of warm air vented from above a door. A low whirring sound was joined, as the door slid open, by a higher and almost imperceptible whine and repeated ch-ching noises in surround sound. Hao had joined at the fourth floor and could see through the metal grated walkway to the three floors below and another eight above. Making his way up an industrial staircase, some of the cages (although corporate called them desks) lining the walkway were already occupied by nighters or those struggling to clock up credits. None of them looked up from their terminals as Hao walked past.
Hao could, if he wanted, log on to any one of the thousands of terminals in the building, but to do so would break an unspoken rule. Nothing marked Hao’s territory other than local knowledge. This was Hao’s terminal, allocated to him when he arrived and would be his until (and if) he left. There was little purpose to maintaining such territories, and Hao occasionally longed for a change of scene. However, with no views and a constant server-optimal temperature of eighteen degrees, habit and protocol drove Hao’s selection of location. There was one other advantage. From here, Hao could gaze down through the grating of the adjacent walkway to the level below and to Ava’s terminal. Hao would only allow himself occasional discreet glances throughout the day, each time hoping to catch sight of more than the back of her head and her disheveled jet-black hair. He could spy with impunity, sure that she wouldn’t look up, although he sometimes wished she would. Her cage was still empty this morning.