David Louis Edelman
Geosynchron
'Geosynchron' trade paperback cover

Excerpt: The Prisoners

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Chapter 2

The nothingness loosens its hold on him. The world is still black, yes, but Natch is there. Arms legs torso head all intact; lungs breathing oxygen; body occupying space and slogging forward through time’s amber one second at a time. Alive. Alive. Alive.

He is lying on something cold and metallic. Fluid rushes through his ears, signaling steep vertical movement. Climbing. Something thunks against the platform below him three or four times. It sounds like hailstones.

A male voice, a real human voice, from somewhere nearby: “That was close.”

Heavy breathing, more climbing. The thunks disappear.

“So now what?”

“I don’t — I don’t know.” A second male voice, weary and pensive.

“After all that, you don’t know? For process’ preservation… I just got hit with a fucking pipe. In the shoulder. Do you even know how much that hurts? Thing was probably covered with rust too.”

The identities of the voices elude him. Natch’s brain feels like a machine jammed in low gear. He can’t process the words. He can’t open his eyes. He can’t move or speak.

“I’m sorry about your shoulder,” says the first voice in a condescending tone that indicates no sorrow whatsoever. “You didn’t have to come.”

“Shut up, you bloody idiot. Of course I had to come. I couldn’t just let you go fetch him alone, could I? Get yourself killed. And then I’d have to pay for a fucking funeral.” Restless shifting around. “So there he is, the bastard. Why are we even discussing this? He makes my skin crawl. Send Magan Kai Lee a message and let’s get paid already.”

A pause. “It’s not that simple.”

“Not that simple? Would you rather Len Borda get hold of him? Listen, we don’t have much time. It’s getting violent out there. Didn’t you hear about that gun battle in Melbourne? A hundred Council officers firing on each other in the middle of the street — ”

“Of course I heard about it.”

“There’s two sides, point I’m trying to make. Borda and Lee. We picked a side. Getting in on the ground floor, that’s what you said. Why are you suddenly changing your mind?”

“That was before we knew the truth.”

“The truth?” Coarse, mocking laughter. “Face it, what we used to think of as the truth is dead. Too much confusion. Truth doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Just give me some time to think this over. A day or two. We can fend Magan off for that long. And it’s not like he’s going anywhere.” The inflection of the voice seems to indicate the prostrate body of Natch.

“Well, don’t take too long. A day or two is all we have before Magan realizes we’ve got something to hide and starts asking questions.”

The two men descend into troubled silence as the fluid sloshing through Natch’s skull levels off. He slides back into unconsciousness.

*

Alive.

Natch awakens with a feeling of profound, wearying disappointment.

He is still enveloped in blackness, but this is a blackness free from magic or mystery. He is sitting in an ordinary wooden chair with his arms and legs lightly tied to it and a blindfold over his eyes. The light seeping through the blindfold and the ambient noise around him indicate that he is sitting in a large, enclosed space, perhaps a gymnasium or even a small auditorium. Natch rocks the chair side to side for a moment and feels a hard, tiled surface beneath him. Where he has ended up, he can’t imagine.

Natch tries to untangle the thread of events that have led to the present moment. He fled the carnage at the Tul Jabbor Complex — Council officers firing on Council officers, Council officers firing on him. He leaped into a waiting hoverbird with Petrucio Patel’s black code dart embedded in the back of his leg. He was taken to Old Chicago, where his old enemy Brone persuaded him to join his Revolution of Selfishness. (Multiple lives experienced simultaneously! An end to the tyranny of cause and effect!) But when Natch discovered the pattern of lies beneath Brone’s stories, he ran. He ran into the wilds of Old Chicago, and then… and then…

After that, an impenetrable void of blank memory. A big smear of nothingness. Natch can’t remember if he was pursued, or how that pursuit ended. Certainly Brone would not have let him leave that old hotel without consequences. But the thread of memory simply ends on those streets. Natch’s internal systems tell him that barely forty-eight hours have passed since he escaped the hotel in Chicago. That hardly seems possible. If someone were to tell him he actually spent ten years enmeshed in that web of nothingness, he would accept it as fact.

When he awoke, there was an opaque conversation between two gruff men in what Natch now realizes was the rear compartment of a hoverbird. Did these men drag him onto the hoverbird from the streets of Chicago? Did they rescue him — and if so, from whom, and why?

Natch wonders if his mental inbox might hold some clues, but the thought of checking messages makes him ill. He prived himself to the world shortly before that fatal day at the Tul Jabbor Complex; he has neither checked his messages nor read the news since. He can picture all that pent-up information as a towering heap of debris at the mouth of a river, spilling over the banks until it clogs the horizon.

And yet why should he try to relieve that pressure? Let the mail pile up until the calendar cycles to the end of days and the Data Sea comes stuttering to a halt. Natch has abandoned that life. He does not want to know what happened in Old Chicago, or what has become of Brone and the disciples of his creed, or who picked him up in the hoverbird, or where he has gotten off to.

He recalls a conversation with Jara, right after he achieved number one on the Primo’s bio/logic investment guide. Standing in his apartment with bio/logic programming bars in hand. Flush with accomplishment, ready to challenge the world.

Do you really think number one on Primo’s is the end? he told her. Then you don’t understand anything, Jara. Getting to number one on Primo’s isn’t an end at all — it’s a means. It’s part of the process… just a step on the ladder.

Jara was skeptical. So what is the end? Where do all these means lead to?

It was once so simple, so visceral. There was a wall and a ladder and a shining, radiant thing on the other side for the taking. Then Natch reached the apex of that ladder in Brone’s hotel in Old Chicago, and he saw what lay in wait for him. Possibilities 2.0: a world of complete, unrestricted possibilities. A world without restraints or boundaries, where multiple realities can exist and commingle freely.

A world of utter void.

He saw what was waiting for him, and he ran from it.

Natch flexes his forearms, testing the tensile strength of his bonds. He can still feel the tremors and the throbbing pains that have been plaguing him since that black code attack in Shenandoah, many weeks ago. Quiescent for the moment, but not gone. Obviously his captors noticed them too; these ropes are clearly designed to do nothing more than prevent him from tremoring right out of the chair.

Around him, Natch can hear the echo of footsteps, possibly within shouting range. The faint whir of machinery thrums in the distance, indicating the presence of civilization and all it entails. The musty smell of mold wafts through the air. There is a puzzle here to solve, but Natch resolves not to expend any mental energy in solving it. He has no doubt that he can free himself from the chair, even without the aid of MultiReal. But… why should he? Better to just sit and do nothing. He will eventually find out where he is and who has captured him — or he will sit here until the shaking takes control of him at last and his OCHREs give up their dance of sustenance and the Null Current pulls him under. Either result is the same.

*

“Hey! Wake up!”

The voice emanates from a spot perhaps five meters in front of him. It is a familiar, if not a particularly welcome, voice. The last time Natch heard that voice, it was accompanied by the pungent smell of garlic. “I’m not asleep,” he tells Frederic Patel.

“Aren’t you going to take off that fucking blindfold already?” says Frederic, irritated. “You’re not going to just sit there in the dark forever, are you?”

“I might.”

The younger Patel brother lets out a rasping sigh that makes Natch think of a serrated blade sawing through tree trunks. He decides to take off the blindfold, if only to hasten Frederic’s departure. He wriggles his right arm free of the rope, reaches for the blindfold, and yanks it off his face.

Natch’s initial impressions were correct. He is sitting in the middle of a large, circular chamber with a radius of perhaps thirty meters. Next to him sits a skeletal side table topped with a plate, a sandwich and a large jug of water. A rather prosaic white ceramic tile coats the floor from wall to wall. The edges of the room are shrouded in shadow, but he can faintly make out a door on the opposite wall. The whole chamber is contained inside a dome of solid concrete that also reaches a height of about thirty meters, putting Natch in the nucleus of a perfect hemisphere.

Frederic Patel stands a short distance away, arms folded over his barrel chest. Short, stout Frederic Patel, with jowls like a bulldog’s and the temperament to match. “You’ve been sitting there for hours,” complains the engineer. “Aren’t you hungry or thirsty?”

“No,” replies Natch.

A minute drifts by. The impatient tapping of Frederic’s right foot is causing a rather comical rippling of flesh along one fat thigh. The entrepreneur gets the feeling that Patel is expecting some kind of petulant outburst. Natch is happy to disappoint him.

“Well?” barks Frederic. “Don’t you want to know where you are? How you got here?”

“No,” says Natch.

Frederic’s infuriated sigh fills the dome. “You are such a pain in the ass. Listen, do me a favor, huh? Eat that bloody sandwich so Petrucio doesn’t yell at me.” The tapping speeds up until the younger Patel brother’s foot is a blur of angry motion. After another twenty seconds of silence, a florid Frederic throws his hands up in the air and stomps off. “Suit yourself.” Natch can hear the sound of angry footsteps as Patel retreats through some second doorway behind him, beyond his peripheral vision.

The entrepreneur stares at the sandwich for a good ten minutes, then frees his trembling left hand and takes a hold of it. Crusty sourdough bread, seasoned faux pork, an assortment of peppers, lettuce so crisp it crinkles under his fingers. Natch takes a single bite and lets the flavors mix on his tongue, then swallows. The sandwich is more tantalizing than anything he has eaten in weeks, but he wasn’t lying to Frederic. He’s not hungry.

Instead he gazes up at the pockmarked concrete of the dome, trying to pick out clues to his location. The Patels’ business is based out of São Paulo, if Natch remembers correctly. A bustling yet ancient city, full of ghosts. He has no reason to think that Frederic and Petrucio would take him anywhere else. Then again… he has no reason to think they would put him in a hoverbird, drag him to some empty chamber and tie him to a chair in the first place. He remembers the black code dart in his leg that Petrucio put there after a long and wearying battle of MultiReal choice cycles. Clearly there is some connection between that dart and Natch’s winding up here. But… what?

Don’t think, he tells himself. You’ll know soon enough. Or you won’t.

Petrucio Patel walks into the room several hours later, as thin and dapper as his brother is squat and slovenly. Petrucio is dressed, as always, in a slick brown suit that would look perfectly at home in a corporate board meeting or the sales office of a luxury hoverbird manufacturer. He stops in approximately the same spot as Frederic and regards Natch with a suspicious gaze, noting that the entrepreneur has made no move to untie his legs from the chair. “What are we going to do with you?” he says, giving an almost playful tug at his mustache.

Natch shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know, huh? You wouldn’t say that if you knew some of the things Frederic’s been suggesting. He wants to start testing weapons on you.” The dry humor never sits far beneath the surface of Petrucio’s voice, and today is no exception.

“Frederic doesn’t scare me,” says Natch.

“No, I suppose not. You’ve got MultiReal! Why would you be afraid of anyone?” Petrucio takes a step closer and crouches down on his haunches. Natch expects the mocking stare of the hyena in Petrucio’s eyes, but he doesn’t expect to see another emotion that is almost… pitying. “All right, Natch. You don’t really want to sit in this chair all day, do you? Go ahead, then. Activate MultiReal. Catch me in a choice cycle loop and make me untie you.”

Natch’s thoughts drift back to that MultiReal conflict in the Tul Jabbor Complex. Petrucio firing a dart at him, Natch dodging, over and over again. Possibility stacked on top of possibility, will versus will, until Natch abruptly found himself out of choice cycles. He remembers the bite of the black code dart in the back of his leg as he jumped onto Brone’s waiting hoverbird.

“This isn’t like the Tul Jabbor Complex,” growls Natch, suddenly irritated at Petrucio’s mockery. “The only reason you were able to hit me with that dart was because Jara fucked with the program behind my back. It’s not like that anymore. I’ve moved the databases.”

Yes, you sure have.” Petrucio drawls the words in childish singsong. His face remains cool and collected. “I don’t have access to MultiReal at all. Frederic and I haven’t been able to open the program in MindSpace for a week. So go ahead. I’m defenseless. Find that possibility where you humiliate me, where you make me fall on my face right here in front of you. Come on, I’m waiting.” He points to his nose, and then to the floor.

Bait, thinks Natch. I’m being thrown bait. Obviously Petrucio is doing his best to provoke him, to goad him into a rash decision — something to which Natch is admittedly all too vulnerable. Yet what does he possibly have to fear from the Patel Brothers? He has faced down ten thousand Defense and Wellness Council black code darts and emerged without a scratch. He has used the power of MultiReal to bend the will of Speaker Khann Frejohr. Why should he be intimidated by a chair, a rope and a smirk? Why not take the bait and find out what’s behind Petrucio’s smugness?

Natch gives his internal system a silent command to activate MultiReal.

Within the flicker of an instant, Natch can feel his previous ennui retreating before the dazzle of MultiReal. He can sense the infinite probability of the multiverse unfolding before him. Anything he can imagine, any combination of event and happenstance — it all lies sprawled before him, no more than a mathematical progression of muscle movements away. He can sense potential realities ranging from the vindictive to the comical to the absurd — realities where Natch hurls insults or oozes flatteries or utters nonsense syllables. All he needs now is to use the power of MultiReal to latch on to Petrucio’s neural interfaces. And then the pas de deux will begin: Natch’s mind leaping with possibilities, Petrucio’s mind twirling in unwitting response, over and over again in the space between frozen seconds. At the Tul Jabbor Complex, when Petrucio had his own version of MultiReal, he could choose realities of his own; here he will be helpless as a marionette, victim to Natch’s manipulation of his own subconscious. When Natch finds the one potential reality that suits his purposes, he will close the choice cycle, and for that instant the world will conform to his desires. Petrucio will follow through with the possibility Natch has selected for him, powerless to do otherwise.

Natch lunges for Petrucio’s neural interfaces with a mental reflex that feels like throwing a lasso.

And finds nothing.

It is as if Natch has attempted to engage in a tête-à-tête with the slab of domed concrete above him. MultiReal has called out, but Petrucio’s mental facilities are not responding.

The panic must be visible in his eyes, because after a few seconds a wry smile creeps up one side of Petrucio’s face. It is not a cruel smile or a malicious smile so much as an amused one. He straightens up and smoothes the wrinkles from his designer slacks with a brisk flick of the wrist.

“I thought so,” says Petrucio. “Frederic and I aren’t afraid of your MultiReal tricks. They won’t work in this place.” He gestures at the shadowy apex of the dome above him. “You might as well conserve your energy, Natch. You’re not going anywhere.”

And within a few seconds, he is gone, leaving Natch alone with the gloom and the darkness.

*

Excerpted from “Geosynchron” by David Louis Edelman. Copyright © 2010 by David Louis Edelman. Reprinted by permission of Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Excerpt licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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