The first fingers of dawn caressed the skyline of the city almost three hours before sunrise, the warmth of a winter sun condensing velvet ice clinging to the upper windows of the Burj Dayan into an aerosol frost, a precipitate unlikely to float the four kilometers to earth by the time the sun should break the horizon. To the typical observer living within the confines of the mile-high city, the sunlight reflected from the glass crown of the skyscraper peaks- now burning through the morning vapor and ash- would soon herald a new day for the city of Rumi, vast Rumi, jewel of the Persian Gulf.
To a certain observer thirty kilometers away the faint red glow emanating from the citys highest clouds brought with it a measure of psychological warmth, as a man walked barefoot upon the stripped sands of an artificial island stretching into the sea. The place had once resembled a great palm tree, he was told, a monument to the opulent dreams of past barons, and the acquiescence of well-paid engineers who shrugged their shoulders and made it so. The sand was cool and damp, and for a moment his feet ached for it again as he lifted himself onto a landing, veins of tidal growth filling cracks in the concrete before snaking into the gray water. In better light he might have seen a reflection staring back from that water, a smiling semblance of a thirty-something, wiry man with little to show on his person but a cheap suit, equally cheap watch, callused feet, intricate glasses, and a well-traveled Prayer Book for Jewish Personnel in his breast pocket. Rabbi Daniyyel Koris preferred to travel light.
The concrete sprawl before him soon opened into an empty amusement park, a faded sign welcoming visitors in Arabic, English, Hebrew, Farsi, and German. Toluca Pier had not seen visitors in a very long time, as the booths and rides could attest- an army of carousel horses, coaster carts, and suspension swings swayed reluctantly on rusted bearings all around. The Rabbi meandered his way through this metal forest, making his way towards a small wharf- his wharf. Like most people he held certain places in sentimental regard; the metal bench at the far end of this wharf happened to be his. And so it was that he felt a tinge of uncharacteristic irritation and fear as he realized that he was not alone- a man was seated on his bench, gazing at the sea, casting stones far into the dark water.
Regarding his guest cautiously, Rabbi Dani walked tentatively beside the bench, and contemplated the concentric ripples the mans missiles made upon the water as he threw them with deliberation. The man paid him little heed, and after a moment the Rabbi risked a glimpse at him. As though on cue, his guest returned a glance, his face a furrowed mask of unreadable emotion in the low light. Turning back to his task without a word, the man continued to toss his offerings to the low tide. The Rabbi began to notice a number of details amidst the uncomfortable silence. The rocks being cast by the man were not rocks at all, but small assemblies of electronic hardware. The mans face was damp beneath the eyes, and the emblem of the Cloud Walker Medical Center on the mans white coat told the Rabbi all he needed to know regarding which sector of the city he hailed from.
Tashlikh? he inquired.
You could say that. replied the man quietly.
Rabbi Dani smiled, and seated himself on the opposite end of his bench. If the man was here to perform the ritual of penance, it meant he was most likely a citizen of the Floor Hallaj, the Israeli district two kilometers above their elevation, known for hosting some of the most renowned clinical practices and arms wholesalers this side of the globe- a mixed legacy that was hardly uncharacteristic of Rumis strange melting pot.
More importantly, it indicated the man could probably be trusted. Lifting his sleeve, Rabbi Dani allowed the man to see his clergymans white brace, and spoke again.
Most people toss bread crumbs, but Id be surprised if there were any fish left to feed out here by the Old City.
The man waited a moment, and said,
Some people prefer to write their sins on little pieces of paper, and throw those out into the water. Youve seen that, right?
The Rabbi told him that he had indeed seen such a thing.
Mine are written here.
The man handed him the last of his misshapen gadgets. It felt heavy and slick in his hands, resembling a dodecahedral die, albeit a die of obviously expensive alloy, studded with little protuberances of dead diodes and ports where numbers might have been, skinned in wiring so fine it felt like paintbrush hair to his touch.
Let it go for me, the man said.
In a moment the curious orb splashed a few meters away, cast to sea by the Rabbi. He turned to face his guest, and asked what he meant when he said that his sins were written into those sinking things of machined metal and circuitry. The man looked at his hands, as though in shame, and nodded after a moment. He removed his white coat, revealing a set of medical coveralls beneath. He held out the coat at arms length, and said,
Ill tell you. If you have time. It started the day a nice man gave me this.
Time is all I have. And its been awhile, Im guessing.
Even amongst the Rabbis most worn suits, frayed cuffs and collars like that betrayed a long time of use on a busy man. The scarlet emblem of the medical center on the shoulder had long faded to a dry maroon, and the nametag on the breast was equally washed out, though the mans name was still legible.
14 Years Earlier
Alexander Mercer. The name felt foreign rolling off his own tongue. A green light flashed where the doorknob should have been on the portal he faced. The twinkling indicated that the voice-recognition software liked him today, a spot of luck in a week sorely lacking. He removed his shoes and placed them into a metal cubby, eschewing them for a set of lab booties. As he did so, the sharp, Dionysian face of Dr. Eduardo Lansoon poked out from behind an isolation screen like the star of a puppet show.
Alex! Man, you made it! Hurry up so you can help out in the Prep Ward, weve got a real treat for you today.
It failed to surprise Alex that even this of all days could do nothing to cloud the enthusiasm of the illustrious Dr. Lansoon. The mans lopsided grin was unbreakable, he looked like he was watching a good stand-up routine whether his fingers were flying on a virtual keyboard at a board meeting or dancing inside some creatures chest cavity. Even a surgical mask and face shield wasnt enough to conceal it. Alex had seen the man genuinely upset only once- friends and associates of the Director often came to him to spay and neuter their pets, and on a single occasion one of his little patients crashed hard and suddenly. He didnt smile that day.
Ushered into the lobby of the prep ward, Alex was greeted by the red streamers of morning airglow stretching into the great room, illuminating a single horizontal ribbon across the far wall at eye level. A single pane of double-walled spinel revealed a remarkable vista as Alex walked along the length of this window. For something he had seen every day since moving here a year ago, the experience of looking down at the clouds and cable gondolas between the towers was still breathtaking.
Yo, dreamer boy. A hand here?
His supervisor beckoned him to the cargo elevator at the back of the hallway. Trent Valni wasnt the malicious kind- his commentary was a friendly brand of rib-jabbing. Hell, he was probably the only person on this floor of the Munich Citadel that hed call a friend without hesitation. Perhaps Dr. Lansoon as well, but Alex was hesitant around anyone who could work an autopsy saw with such passionate technique. The lateral elevator came whistling down from a nearby tower to greet them, and with a hiss, click, and the electronic, cautionary intonations of a of a bored-sounding German woman, the cable-suspended gondola pressed itself to the metal hatch behind Trent and opened to reveal Lansoons treat. Six men in the neon-lined lab coveralls of the Ikaheka Combine rolled a matte-gray casket on a gurney into the hallway, while a flight of technicians buzzed about the short coffin, hoisting cables, pushing carts of refrigerant, and generally crooning over the vital status of their entombed charge. Alex led this quaint parade into a staging room within the Prep Ward. After transplanting the web of power and environmental support to the local outlets, severe-looking gentlemen signaled noiselessly to the technicians, and the group departed back the way they came, led by Trent. An uncomfortable silence hung in the air between the two men left in the room, as the man glanced at his watch and twitched irritably. A moment later Dr. Lansoon materialized in silent-puppet fashion at the doorway behind the moody guest, and tapped him on the wrong shoulder, sneaking a wink at Alex.
Instantly contorting his face to assume a serious disposition, he greeted the man after he turned once, then twice to face him, victim of the juvenile ruse.
Good morning Dr. Roth. Ive spoken to Acquisitions and everything looks good. Im sure the packing peanuts did their job.
Dr. Roth regarded him with a glare that could debride burn tissue. After a moment, his eyes calmed and he stated simply,
Right. Liability for infection and all that jazz is your problem now.
Squeezing a dab of sanitization fluid onto his hands from a wall dispenser, Dr. Pontios Roth slowly worked the fluid between his hands, his eyes fixed upon his grinning counterpart as he absolved himself of the little coffins future. When he was finished he dismissed himself curtly and made his way back to the elevator.
When he was gone Dr. Lansoon regarded Alex with a semi-serious glance. He spoke quietly and with excitement.
You know what we got here, right?
We cant thaw it here, gotta set it up in the operating ward first, keep the inner casing totally clean cause this guy is completely compromised -a glance at a clipboard- total immune knockout. But I promised you a treat for the inaugural delivery, didnt I? And a promise is a promise
His smile was back.
Dr. El, its its quite all righ-
In the middle of his protest the doctor had unsealed the casket, waving his hand about to disperse the heavy cryogenic gases that tumbled out of the gunmetal tomb and off the gurney. Before Alex could articulate his shock at such a blatant breach of protocol, he saw the body inside was bagged under thick sterility polymer. Even so, the doctors spontaneous stunt made him mildly uncomfortable. And then he looked inside.
Those who found themselves compelled to research the innocently-named Homo Sapiens Homeobox Model on the Free Web would find lengthy digital pamphlets on the definition of what it means to be human, as well as educational materials for students of various ages. Alex had watched a program for gradeschoolers in his downtime, a cartoon lizard narrating to him the history of bodily spiritualism from the Egyptian reverence of the heart as the vessel of the soul, to the twentieth-century assertion that the brain was the great biological black box within which all things would someday converge. The purpose of these materials was obvious- to reassure those who witnessed the form and function of a Model that they were not looking at a human being.
And the Model was not a human being, in the strictest sense of the word. The Model was a human body, grown from a sperm and egg modified to produce delicately corrupted homeobox genes and regulators. It was not a tampered zygote. It was doomed from before the start, built such that the vessel of the soul was never assembled during the dance of cellular division and differentiation. The embryo would grow without a head and without any brain structures frontal to the cerebellum. Genetic and hormonal progeria could be induced as needed to accelerate growth to the desired age, while knock-out or knock-in of desired genes allowed a versatile platform for disease modeling; the strain catalogs were growing by the year. Maintaining the body was a demanding process- permanent intubation and ventilation to cycle the lungs, permanent gastric feeding and catheter/colostomy drainage, and even electrical stimulation of the musculoskeletal system to prevent atrophy- all this performed to exacting standards of sterility so as not to disturb the custom microbiomes developed to complement each strain.
No, the thing was definitely not human. Strictly speaking. It would never think or dream. More importantly, it would never feel. Alex once mused that the whole affair was as though one could be born into their own funeral, and never recognize the faces of the bereaved, nor the tune of the dirge. There was no tragedy to the sight Alex laid his eyes upon. And yet this most fundamental understanding did little to stem the tide of emotion that filled him as the icy mist of the preservatives stung his nostrils, the cold gas flowed about and tickled his ankles, the Stygian wet of the dark polymer shimmered in his vision... and the unmistakable figure of a decapitated child in the embrace of a skintight body bag registered in his mind. How must his mother feel?
With a dizzying click, Alex watched Doctor El seal the casket a moment later. After several seconds he realized he was being spoken to.
Eyes up, kid. You okay? Dr. Lansoon looked concerned.
Yeah. I was just reminded of why I went into the computer side of cybernetics rather than your specialty.
Dont sweat it. I was there, too. While you were learning to read cereal boxes, probably.
His eyes lit up.
Hey, I got something for you by the way, now that youre finally working for Surgerys design bureau.
Dr. Lansoon produced a white lab coat that looked slightly large for Alexanders small frame. The seams were bordered in neon, like those of the Ikaheka Combine, but on the shoulder was embroidered the patch of Cloud Walker Labs, and on the breast a name tag: A. Mercer in matching red embroidery.
Doctor Roth forgot this last time he dropped by, and gear adrift is a gift, right? I think youll wear it better. Welcome to the club, kid. No, seriously. We meet Thursday evenings at Tower Two down in Necropsy. Alex donned the coat, and realized it might take some time to fit snugly. But he couldnt help but return his boss infectious smile.
The two men upon the seaside bench watched the waters at their feet ripple faintly as the ground rumbled out of slumber, stirred by the morning bustle within the Catacombs. Most citizens fortunate enough to live above the foundation districts were isolated from this seismic alarm clock, though virtually anyone who had spent more than a week in Rumi could share the latest gossip or creepypasta surrounding the giant cave networks. The city was born and forged in the cooling embers of the old world, the first sapling to emerge from the burn zone left by the wild fires of war that had consumed the Gulf both men once recognized as children.
The tree of Rumi could not have hoped to have risen so high without sturdy roots, and the subterranean marvel of the Catacombs provided the active transport needed to keep the city alive by feeding her insatiable appetite for freight, labor, and power. It was a sensation that Alex Mercer had nearly forgotten about after years in the clouds. To him the rail lines far below just made the tuned mass damper arrays of the Burj sing a magnetic note that one might hear if he listened closely enough at the right moment.
He glanced at the Rabbi.
I thought I was experiencing an earthquake the first time I felt it, you know.
The Rabbi suppressed a chuckle.
I thought the cease-fire was being thrown out the window. Figured my friends and I would be eating space tungsten within the hour. But that was all so long ago, enough of me. You mentioned you grew up in the Munichzitadelle... and youre a long way from home. What brought you to Rumi, Doctor?
As if to signal his interest in a detailed yarn, the Rabbi produced a small packet from a niche beneath the bench, and began the ancient ritual of rolling a cigarette- a kretek clove mix, the scent suggested to Mercer- as he regarded his guest opposite the bench. Thus far the doctor had not been terribly forthcoming, only revealing his background as a cyberbiologist specializing in digital cognition. He had regaled the Rabbi with tales of Cloud Walker Labs glory days in deciphering the mysteries of dream recall. He had spoken of the pride he felt in seeing his name on groundbreaking publications; photographs of himself and his fellow principal investigators holding the unsightly wetware in triumph, back when they were the standard bearers of the discipline.
Soon the doctor fascinated him again as he described the progression of events- and the role he played in them- that led to the boom in subconscious and nonconscious research. The machines he helped design so many years ago allowed virtualization of neural patterns associated with known phenomena- whether the stimulus be the memory of a song, or the sight of an object real or imagined. Dreams could be visualized by researchers via virtual reality, and within very little time the servers of sociology departments everywhere smoked and strained under the virtual weight of primary research utilizing dreamcatchers of ever-improving design.
One major limitation existed, however. The Halsey Uncertainty was always at play, a consequence of biological inadequacy rather than a digital one (for a change). The hurdle came down to this, he explained: while the sense of vision can be reduced to a signal from the hardware of the Mark I human eyeball, verbal language represents a cognitive process that does not begin and end with the detection of sound. Meaning is derived from a phonetic understanding of discrete words and their organization, an abstraction similar to the visual categorization of the world into discrete objects and their interactions, as performed with vision. Unfortunately, the two processes were not so similar as to allow both to be deciphered in tandem by any dreamcatcher on the market today. Every researcher, interrogator, and cult retreat leader tuning their machine to a creature had to make a choice: reveal the language of a dream, or the visual element. To attempt otherwise would be an effort to think without a voice, or to imagine a color never before seen. The more signal received one way, the more noise in the other, potentially interrupting the visualization process and waking the patient.
By the time this was adequately explained, the Rabbi noticed that the Sun was about to rise, and the lights of Rumi were shutting down from kilometer marker one upwards, as the red airglow was turning orange at the tips of the tower peaks. Although the Doctors explanations of dream machines and uncertainties were little more than noise to him at times, Rabbi Dani found himself intrigued by the emotional character with which these egghead ramblings were delivered- mister Mercer almost looked shaken in his fits of passionate narration. How all of this related to the sins he symbolically cast away a mere hour earlier was anyones guess, but the Rabbi was intrigued to the point of distraction. He had barely finished rolling a second cigarette liner, turning it vertical to load the filter, crushable diode, cell battery, ash lattice, and kretek mix as the Doctor finally seemed on the verge of answering the original question as to why he, German mastermind of mastering the mind, found himself in Rumi.
One Year Earlier
Doctor Mercer watched the sun fall slowly behind the distant spires of the coastal drillheads and tide turbines littering the horizon, the sky washed in a thin orange haze that hung low above the waters of the Gulf. Billboard balloons luminesced a hundred feet below him, upper hemispheres advertising luxuries to those who lived high enough to see them- and afford them. Hed take a walk tonight, he decided, and stretch his legs along the Hanging Gardens of the Burj Dayan. For the moment, he was content to sit by the window and complete more of the supplemental training required of his new assignment in this dusty corner of the globe. Donning the ridiculous headset the training hardware came with, Mercer allowed himself to relax, and soon felt the icy dopamine-linked electronic handshake between the device and the neural hardpoint installed beneath the nape of his neck. He shivered at the rush, and decided to practice his Turkish for an hour, instructing the computer tasker to assemble a lesson on customary curse words and petty insults- the first step to finding common ground with any foreign language. Although he might have appeared to be the victim of an alien ritual to the casual observer on the street- a bobblehead slumped on a psychiatrists lounge, dreadlocks of coiled wires snaking their way to a computer console- the thing had already taught him (or rather, allowed him to accurately recall) the meanings of the standard Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi vocabularies that he could be reasonably expected to use in the course of a day on Rumis social or commerce floors. At this time however, he was only in the mood for the therapeutic feeling of stocking ones verbal armory.
Doctor Mercer was hardly twenty minutes into his petty exercise when the headset flashed pulses of illumination to wake him, indicating a call from one of the few individuals whitelisted to interrupt a neural VR session. If it happened to be anyone in his new supervisory chain of command Mercer figured he might get the chance to put his latest lesson to practical use. Alas, to his dismay, the call tracer indicated an anonymous contact who wished to connect only through text protocol. He cautiously accepted the connection, and waited. Soon a text message scribbled itself inches from his face.
DrAM how are you? Do not write my name
Only one person made a habit of calling him by the silly abbreviation, a private network handle that began as a joke years ago. The clandestine nature of the appeal had Doctor Mercer immediately intrigued, and not a little disturbed. He signed back,
Could be worse. What about you, whats happening?
Ive got something you should look at. Switch socket channel to P2P IX and enable virtual feedback.
Mercer issued the command and entered the lockdown node, soon finding the pass image amongst his files and submitting his passcode. A tone rang in his inner ear, indicating his entrance through the protocol gate. His vision faded to black as the helmets inner screen shut off, no longer needed. His friend was waiting inside.
In the semi-lucid dream state induced and governed by the hardware, Mercer saw the artifacts of the language-learning program minimize themselves onto a transparent floor, replaced by a set of rocking chairs. An electric blue fog surrounded the otherwise black space, a visual reminder of the countersurveillance suite that was now active. Doctor Eduardo Lansoon sat, rocking upon one of the chairs. The motion, Mercer knew, was being used to generate random encryption keys to keep their conversation garbled to any possible (that is to say probable) prying ears. His avatars figure illuminated by the blue light, DrEL beckoned DrAM to the other seat with a gesturing talon. DrAM greeted his friend.
Looks like youve still got a penchant for the custom stuff, huh?
Yeah, yeah, I didnt have time to change it back to something youd take seriously. Implying you ever did.
DrELs draconic face parted into a fittingly toothy smirk. As soon as virtual-perception hardware had come into widespread use, the man had gone off the deep end of rootkits and editing software as a hobby, showing up at several of those first virtual business meetings as a talking balloon, retro robot, party shark, or any number of anthropomorphized objects, mythical creatures, or even clones of co-workers, to the Directors infinite exasperation.
I always have taken you seriously, DrEL. Especially when you put a suit and tie on that Tyrannosaur model after the HR director suggested you start taking things seriously.
You should have seen him at the next board meeting when I convinced Trent to be my little hat. But jokes aside, Ive been trying to reach you privately for some time. Somethings going on with the Model data weve been getting from the Rumi facility, and all my inquiries into the matter are getting shut down. I need your help, Alex.
The glowing red eyes behind DrELs snout narrowed empathically.
Youre the only one in that whole goddamned building I know I can trust right now.
Alright. Although this- he gestured with his vanilla, virtual human arm- is probably overkill. What data are we talking about?
Telemetry from the cortex grafts- the ones you developed for the Blackbox strain.
The dementia model?
Thats the one. Doctor Kyne in the Burj Saltkin
DrAM frowned a human frown. The Blackbox project had always made him a little uneasy, an endeavor that compelled him to tamper with the primitive Model neurology. The PIs of this project needed a digital link to monitor the decaying, misfiring nervous function of a dementia patient, and so the task had fallen to Mercers team to develop an electronic cortex of advanced enough design to exhibit plug-and-play compatibility with the Model cerebellum. Two years ago this effort had culminated in the creation of a curious little device known as the BB, whom the younger researchers had an odd habit of referring to as a plural entity. After the fanfare of publication, the BB team had set out to perform a long-term study on the physiology of dementia. Because these diseases were characterized by an insidious decay of frontal, higher brain function, they remained within the slim range of ailments that could not be replicated for experimental purposes by the Homo Sapiens Homeobox Model. Not replicable that is, until now.
Did you talk to Doctor Kyne? Whats the issue?
Rock your chair, man. A year ago their BB began to show data corruption after recording stimulus events in one of their Models. Six months later all of them were doing the same thing. Two days ago, none of them could be brought to ground-state to run diagnostics. I told them they might need to kill power and format over it.
The dragon looked at the glass floor sheepishly.
But I had no idea what I was talking about. Thats your specialty, not mine.
DrAM shook his head.
Cant just do the old plug-and-unplug with that gear, DrEL. You cut BB off from power, and boom! Shes gone.
Right then. So thats pretty much it. They cant debug their toys, and theyre sitting on their hands until they can work this out theoretically. Until then theyve locked the lab down.
DrEL rocked in his chair a little more vigorously, tail swinging behind the chair for momentum. The comical action was in stark contrast to the tone of his voice.
But heres why I needed to find you, specifically. Although they put them to hibernation condition and left their monitoring gear in-house, the backup server here is still receiving
His gaze burned into DrAMs.
This morning the data stream was interrupted. Went nearly flat for a while, and then came back with this.
From a dark hand DrEL cast a mote of light to the distance. Where it struck the glass a horizontal line split the ground, and the moonbeams that escaped the fault projected the horizontal surface of a personal computer screen. Six program windows were visible, each labeled with a strain identifier and serial code. DrAM recognized this as a monitoring plot for six Model pods. In sequence, the Cartesian terrain map of each brain-activation graph went from the characteristic jumble of simple peaks and valleys to a wave-like motion, smoothed of noise and primitive impulse. Mercer could hardly breathe.
Even a dumb fuck like me knows what that is, DrAM. Rock your chair.
DrAMs voice was barely a whisper.
How youve got to tell them, DrEL. They have to know-
Someone on this side isnt letting me contact Doctor Kyne or his crew. My workstation machine glitched out and got taken out of the office for a hard reset- the rocking dragon made talon quotes- so youve got to tell them, DrAM. But youve got to be very careful. I dont like this one bit. This is starting to look like the Uday years. You may have to go under the ladar to set things right.
I remember Uday. The Udays, you called that summer.
The memory of the short-lived Deputy Director still lingered in his memory like an unpleasant aftertaste. The man was vile, a former floor boss of theirs whose disposition and body shape would most easily find company in a box of grenades.
Sure didnt like you after you let his pet die when he convinced the Director to make you fix him.
The dragons eyes became a violet blaze. DrEL stood upright and pointed a talon almost accusingly at DrAM. He slapped his tail against the chair to keep his encryption as he retorted.
No! That wasnt a failure. You remember that dog, dont you? You remember how I showed you the registration tattoo for the fighting pits in the Catacombs? The one I discovered when I shaved him to inject a fluid bolus?
Yeah, it was like the one good thing he did for the world, bringing a rescue dog in.
Wrong. That number was registered the previous night, to a winnings account with Cloud Walkers prefix.
DrELs voice grew to a snarl.
When the son of a bitch brought him back the next week with clipped ears and tail looking to get the sutures removed, I couldnt do it. *I* made that adjustment to the evacuation pump that didnt let the induction gas out, and *I* unplugged the speaker to the sevoflurane alarm. Sometimes I wish I had stuffed Uday into an autoclave and put him out of his misery instead of that poor dog.
He relaxed, and ceased his whacking of the chair.
Im out of time on this end. Sometimes youre the only one in the right place to make a difference, my friend. Whatever you must do, do quickly. You might not get another chance.
DrEl shook his companions hand, and walked away into the fog. But before he had completely vanished he glanced over his shoulder, and DrAM saw the luminous eyes gazing back to him.
Watch your back.
The world turned to fragmented static as DrAM realized his friend had severed the connection without ejecting their devices safely. The blue fog evaporated brightly and loudly, the warning of his friend echoing into luminous sublimation. The familiar sensation of ice on his neck pulsed as the wetware struggled and failed to maintain his lucid state. Jerked abruptly into the skyline of Rumi, Doctor Mercer grasped the headset into hands prickled by pins and needles and lifted it away.
When the world stopped spinning the first thing that came to focus was the stone face of Pontios Roth a scant foot away, staring in amusement as Mercer fairly jumped out of his skin.
You murmur in your sleep, you know. Its a good thing you dont work in espionage he said evenly, with a side of menace.
Mercer could taste his adrenaline.
I suppose not, sir.
The Rabbi offered his guest a cigarette, and watched as Doctor Mercer idly accepted the chitinous paper tube and clicked the thermal element into motion, a tiny flame at the end of a winding filament igniting the kretek. The men gazed at the calm horizon of the sea in the dawn light, the cruciform lights of the old American Misty-III constellation still visible setting over the opposite horizon. Although from here they were mere stars, the Rabbi knew the decommissioned relics reflected sunlight from their concealment balloons, torn and bleached after so many years in dead orbit. It was a popular target for amateur astronomers, as well as fuel for speculation regarding what kind of orbital keyhole the States might be peeking through these days.
A splash brought their glances back to the water, though neither saw the creature responsible. Doctor Mercer continued,
So where were we? They moved me to Rumi to be Deputy Director of the Cloud Walker office in Floor Hallaj, and I started watching all my friends vanish after a research team here started having trouble with an exotic Model strain.
What kind of trouble, Doctor?
Mercer lowered his voice.
They were dreaming.
Rabbi Danis face furrowed in incredulity.
Its true. The thing is, you probably know more about this right now than the researchers who did the work. No one has seen them for a year, and the dreamers are still locked away in a laboratory on top of the Burj Saltkin. No one on the ground knows about this but you and I as we speak.
The Rabbi considered this for a moment.
What will happen to them?
He looked over at Mercer, and caught the reflection of tears welling in his eyes before he wiped them away with his coat.
Theyll sleep better now.
Nine Hours Earlier
Doctor Alexander Mercer regarded his reflection five feet away in the glass window of the lateral-elevator door to Dr. Kynes laboratory. It was all he could do to keep from looking down onto the peaks of the moonlit clouds hundreds of meters below him. Despite his employers name, no man could hope to walk them if he should take a false step at this height. Mercer took a deep breath, clutching a gondola rail in one white-knuckle fist, a disposable satellite phone in the other. The words he spoke were curt and dry.
Set. Do it.
The man in the glass was bisected neatly in half as the door hissed open, a welcome rush of warm air flowing into Mercers face. It was time to rock, as his American colleagues might have put it. Hefting the weight of a polymer-foam shock case in his arms, he whispered a sincere apology to the delicate equipment inside a moment before launching it onto the landing across the aerial divide. He didnt have time to wince at the loud report of the impact, as his momentum had propelled him nearly off the edge before a flailing arm found purchase on the gondolas hatch frame. He looked down, despite himself, and caught the scent of rain. The winds had picked up, and he noticed the clouds were billowing towards him, rumbling in hunger. A storm was coming. The safety of the Burj beckoned him, offering him shelter across less than three meters of nothingness. The winds whipped his coat, the freezing air threatening to immobilize him in fright. Sometimes youre the only one in the right place to make a difference, my friend. The clouds howled for his audience below, ever closer. You might not get another chance.
He left the instinct of self preservation in the gondola, leaping from the hatch in a fluid bound, holding his focus on the elevator dock. His momentum was sure, but he underestimated the power of the winds and nearly lost his balance upon landing, blown slightly askew mid-flight. Gaining his balance and feeling the ice in his veins melt and dilute, he took a moment to regain his composure. Hed sooner play dolls with Roth than do that again. Plucking the sat phone from his pocket, he croaked,
A moment later the inner hatch to the Burj unlocked, and Mercer pinned it open with the equipment case before returning to the elevator window, firmly grasping the safety rail. The sky outside was gone, replaced by a dark fog dense enough to obscure his view of the gondola. He took the phone to his ear one more time.
Check. Seal me in and kill the gondola recall above kilometer marker three. Report storm conditions and blackout when they ask. Ill see you on the other side. Thanks for everything.
His instructions acknowledged, Mercer flung the phone into the black mist before the doors shut together and locked him in. A muffled rumble shook the doors. He would have enough time.
The Quarantine Ward above him would alert after-hours entrance to the security office, but just like his home towers facility the cargo lift was an ancient beast that accepted analog input if one knew what they were doing. This wouldnt be so easy with an infectious-disease lab, Mercer mused as he worked an access panel open. He rotated the keyswitch into the power-on position between the teeth of his needle holders, golden grips insulated by several layers of lattice tape. Soon the command console blinked to life, and Mercer ordered his pirate ship up a brisk forty stories to the target.
The six containment pods greeted him silently upon entering Quarantine, outlines faintly illuminated by indicator panels on their angular faces. He would need more light than this.
Not risking the master panel by the main entrance anteroom, Mercer opened the window shutters by hand, allowing rays of gibbous moonlight into the room. He took a moment to marvel at the menacing clouds below. A flash of lightning arced between the clouds and a grounding spire a thousand meters below. A moment later the thunder shook the glass faintly.
Returning to the task at hand, Mercer walked around the laboratory, searching for anything that might lead him on the researchers whereabouts. But there was nothing in their office but the quirky cork-board collages and discarded food wrappers one could expect from the graduates. To their credit the general cleanliness was sufficient enough that no foul odor greeted him, even when he opened a refrigerator to reveal year-old spoils mercifully sealed in plastic bags. A Moon River helium brew in the freezer called his name, however- a man could always use refreshment with his black ops. Doubling back to the round dais where the Models rested, Mercer inspected their dim diagnostic displays, observing their anomalous activation levels hovering above ground-state, nearly the same as they were when DrEl paid him a visit and informed him of the development. He chose one at random and unclipped his case, pulling up a rolling chair from the office as he set about the task. Time to get to work.
A mobile drive came first, adapted into a universal bus port on the side of the metal casket. Connected to a hand console, the device soon chirped happily, slaving the controls of each Model pod to his command. Satisfied, he retrieved his customary set of cotton gloves, donning them before the polymers. A puff of aerosol nanoskin later, his potential work surfaces were appropriately slick with the microbial equivalent of a minefield. The condensation from his thawing drink prevented the glass from keeping this microbial barrier, but Mercer merely shrugged. Sacrifices must be made. With a delicate touch on the haptic screen, he commanded the console to open the pod and activate maintenance illumination at low power. A hard-link quantum bus emerged next from the case, pre-sterilized in ethylene oxide vapor.
The upper half of the casket opened and the familiar form of the subject came into view by the sterile glow of the interior diodes, after Mercer waved the clouds of cryogenic gas out of his way by manner of habit. Shrink-wrapped in black, Mercer contemplated the seamless joints, ports, and inclusions that protruded here and there from the slippery dark of the sterility skin, like so many receptors, proteins, and ion channels emerging from the membrane of a living cell. One in particular caught his attention- the neurology instrument port where the head existed on humans. He saw the Blackbox bulging just beneath the plastic, a red light blinking faintly through the twilight gray of the membrane. The diagnostic port poked out just above it.
A touch a dielectric grease and a practiced movement later, the hard-link was in place, and on his console Mercer confirmed that the subject was ready. It was time to take the plunge into those slow-rolling waves and get to the heart of the matter. A years efforts had come to this moment, simulating it, modeling it, and most importantly, hiding it from the shadow of Roth after he was placed in charge of the Kyne laboratory in the researchers absence. Mercers formal appeal to the man had been officially shut down, and uncoincidentally, his goons had started following him around soon after. Mercer had been through enough trouble breaking his tail over the past week. He popped the top of his drink and toasted his countersurveillance exploits. Who did you say wouldnt make a good spy, Roth?
A boom of thunder brought him back to the moment. It was only him now, alone over the sea. One item remained in the case, and Mercer saw with infinite relief that he had not damaged it as he linked the device to his console, connecting an adapter to the Blackbox that he had fabricated and programmed for the occasion. With a deep breath he slipped the isolation hood of the dreamcatcher over his head, and the last thing he felt was the selector for audio recall ring a tone in his inner ear before the familiar night claimed him.
Today is the day, as you know. Twelve hours, and then she must be returned to this room. The voice was steady, matter-of-fact. For the record, I dont blame you.
Yes hard to believe its come to this. May I see her now? A mans voice, subdued, broken.
Of course. She is still sleeping though, its quite early.
The hiss of a door opening.
The rustle of fingers stroking hair.
A voice of bottomless pain.
The words echoed audibly as Mercer woke with a start, catching his fall with instinct. He had slipped from the chair and lost the connection, the motion of his cochlear fluids providing a feral override to his excursion. Collecting himself from the floor, he hastily reclined the seat into a different position and primed his next dive, opting for visual input to make sense of the plea ringing in his ears. He let the waves take him away.
A small room. Threadbare curtains trying in vain to keep the morning(?) sunlight at bay. A nightstand with paper cards and balloons. An oversized bed with electronic controls within reach. What may have been a number above the door to the room did not register as such to Mercer, tight in the grip of Halseys principle. But he recognized one shape repeated throughout the room, a red cross that lost little meaning to his perception, even here in the machine dream. The observer lay in a hospital room.
The gaze turned from the window. A nurse, a young woman sat on a chair facing him- or rather, her, Mercer realized as the observer shyly averted her gaze downward. The nurses lips moved with speech that Mercer could only hear as noise- Quiet noise, tender noise, yes- but not as words.
The nurses hand held hers, and with a little brush she applied gentle strokes of glittery blue polish to her fingernails, applying gossamer layers until the hemorrhage lesions on the nail beds could no longer be seen. She blew on the fingers, a cooling sensation that Mercer could perceive through the feedback link. He trembled, struggling to focus.
Tentative, excited noise as the nurse put the polish away and produced a colorful cardboard box. Opening it, she revealed a kit of strings, charm beads, and colorful things. Mercer watched as the nurse deftly measured and cut a length of string for the girls wrist, assembling an array of charm blocks with various shapes etched onto their faces. The nurse took great consideration in selecting them, it seemed- though Mercer could not see why. Stacking them upon the string one by one, the nurse at last tied the ends and looped it around the patients fingers, rolling it onto her wrist so that she could see. Mercer focused upon the shapes, and recognized the outermost elements- the charms were decorated with stars, the five-pointed shape as recognizable as the red cross. But the beads in between were etched with angular, or curved lines that he could faintly remember. It was an itch, a tip-of-the-tongue urge to understand, that compelled Mercer to stare intently at the symbols and understand their meaning. At once it struck him- letters! A name!
A flashpan burst of light. Mercer was back in the moonbeams, a headache pounding his skull like a merciless boxer as he slipped the hood off. He shuddered and drank deeply of the bottle.
His moan may have been two octaves higher than normal on account of the brews helium carbonation, but he couldnt laugh at himself right now. The Models dream was a memory, he realized, even as he struggled to recall the details mere moments after waking. A memory of whom? Of what? He had to see more.
The room grew darker as clouds began to obscure the moon. The storm was hardly dying. Mercer glanced at the console output as he reclined to dive back in. Realizing he could not rectify a visual tap at the moment, he switched wavefunction virtualization to deliver audio. If he could not see more, he would hear more.
A rolling series of thuds coming to an abrupt halt. The sound of water chortling, and waves roaring. A gull cries in the distance. The breeze whistles in her ear.
Darling, could you put the brake on? Thats it, pull the- no, the... its all right sweetheart, Daddys got it.
Two clicks and a brief silence. The voice that broke it was quiet.
Youve taken after your mother, love. She gave you everything, eyes, nose, the works. A heavy sigh. Her cross, too. All this happened to her when she was many years older than you same progression. I remember taking her out here on her last birthday too. Every Saturday I come back to see if I cant hear her in the wind or the water.
The voice wavered, unsteady.
Ill listen for you too, love.
Mercer heard the man suppress a sob. A distant voice made itself known, though he heard nothing. The voice wished to say something, but could not. Mercer sought the words that escaped him, or her, and felt on the verge of cognizance when a faraway voice echoed into earshot.
Welcome ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Toluca Pier!
An electric shade of mushroom blue filled Mercers vision as the sudden rush of visual memory ripped him from the dream, the vivid sight of the sea, the sand, the spray, and the hate he held for that place surfacing without warning. With a sharp note ringing in his ears Mercer pulled the helm off, eyes wide from the pain Halsey seemed to enjoy dishing out tonight. It was rare that a name could elicit visions with such clarity, though he knew it was because of the emotional payload the name held.
Furious at himself and feeling a sense of dread building as he took the time to recall the Models dream, he steeled himself for more. His answers were still in there, in those dreadful waves the activation graph modeled tirelessly. A visual tap was now optimal, and without hesitation he pulled himself back into the helmet. He had to see it to believe.
A small room again. The flower petals of a surgery lamp inches away, blinding light focused mercifully above eye level. Three masked figures and six widening eyes. The operating ward Mercer could see now broke into a flurry of activity. One individual moved away quickly to retrieve something from a suited assistant, while another adjusted something behind the observers head. The gaze turned slightly, placing a window at the end of the room within view. A man screamed soundlessly at a figure just out of view, gesturing wildly. The strange voice Mercer recalled from the last incursion strained at his mind, though his visual focus was not lost. As though by revelation, he realized the voice belonged to the girl whose eyes he was borrowing, though she had no means of speaking anymore. Mercer simply knew that speech was a distant memory for the voice that pushed against his own, functional one. His voice wanted to direct her words at the screaming man, Mercer perceived. The masked figure returned, and in the corner of her vision a syringe was plunged into an intravenous shuttle. The shouting man was quiet, seething. He turned a tearful gaze in her direction and saw her. In that moment, the voice found purchase in Mercers cognizance.
Its okay, Daddy. Im not afraid. Dont cry.
As the world faded to black, the hidden figure rounded the corner. Although it elicited no response from the voice, the unmistakable face of Pontios Roth registered to Mercers mind a millisecond before it was all over.
MOTHERFUCKER! Mercer cursed a blue streak into the inside of his helmet before yanking it off. As if to punctuate his sentiment, a crash of thunder shook the walls, accompanied by a lengthy arc of lightning. As though illuminated by a strobe lamp, Doctor Mercer saw the body shifting underneath the polymer skin.
Oh my god. His voice was quiet now.
A heavy rain began to slap the windows behind him, and Mercer felt a strange instinct take control. He tore the adaptor from the membrane, pulling with all his might as he gripped the tough polymer and ripped it open. Even through his gloves, he could feel the wet, yielding mass beneath the plastic as he activated the room lights by voice, no longer concerned about security.
Lights, Full power!
In the harsh white that flooded the room, Mercer saw the larynx of the body shifting, a horrible gurgling and wheezing coming from the open neck as she tried in vain to speak in her sleep. The hands lay crossed over the torso, as if to shield her human modesty. A dull blue clung to the nails.
Something was very wrong. This Model had a neck. The skin was not perfect. He looked very closely at the tissues surrounding the grafted mount for the Blackbox hardware.
Microsutures. Staples. Cautery.
With a shaking hand Alex Mercer grasped the Blackbox firmly.
He ripped it from the mount with a screaming yank. The body was still, and silent, and after much time the storm followed suit.
Theyll sleep better... The Rabbi repeated his words, the statement a question.
The doctor nodded gravely.
This is what they were hiding. They werent grown, Rabbi. They werent born Models. These ones were cadavers of degenerative patients and BB had given them a means of remembering who they were.
The Rabbi regarded him gravely.
What did you do?
I took that metal mind from them, every one in that godforsaken laboratory, and
His confession trailed away as he gestured to the sea.
The Rabbi understood.
You ended them. He said it without a trace of denunciation. Thats what you threw to the sea.
Mercer nodded, meeting his gaze.
The morning brought warmth to Toluca Pier, and Rabbi Dani sat quietly on his bench, alone in the dying storm of his thoughts. The footfalls of his guest echoed into silence as the man dismissed himself to continue his flight from the city, his departing handshake firm, and his stride sure. He was lucky, the Rabbi thought, for his future would take him very far away from the epicenter of his woe. He wished Doctor Mercer nothing but fortune and deliverance, because he felt that his true hour of trial was not yet behind him. When that hour should come, he believed, Mercer might be the man to make a difference.
Some time later he lifted himself from the bench and stretched his arms towards the sky, ready to walk the long path home. Rabbi Dani looked as his watch, noting the time as a minute past noon. Upon the other wrist he glanced at his clergymans brace, and a toy charm bracelet, smiling as he regarded his daughters name enshrined between the stars, her voice in the afternoon wind.