David Louis Edelman
Geosynchron
'Geosynchron' trade paperback cover

Excerpt: The Prisoners

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Chapter 4

Silence. Gloom. Darkness.

Don’t think.

Jittering in his arms and legs and teeth. Patches of consciousness stitched together with long threads of void.

Natch keeps consulting his internal systems, looking for some kind of baseline, a pulse for the universe; but time has become unpredictable. There is no consistency to those numbers. The only constant is steadily mounting hunger, the kind of hunger that spurs the heartbeat to race, the kind that stabs rational thought in the back.

Don’t think.

Too much. The hunger is too much. He has vowed to let the world do to him what it will. But does that include just sitting here in this dungeon and letting himself starve to death? That’s not surrender to the lofty Fates, that’s submission to the timetable of a more mundane authority, namely the Patel Brothers. And even in his current state of inaction, that’s a repugnant thought.

Natch pushes himself up weakly from the chair. The ropes puddle at his feet. He steps outside of them and makes for the doorway at the other end of the chamber, steadfast in his refusal to make any plans after he leaves this infernal place. Perhaps he’ll find Petrucio. Perhaps there will be something to eat.

Six paces. Nine paces.

A high-pitched whistle, a drift of wind brushing across his cheek. Natch looks up and sees —

Silence. Gloom. Darkness.

It’s not the darkness of the Patels’ domed cavern, however, but the darkness of a five-year-old’s room. It’s still two hours before dawn, and in the hive all is quiet except for the light patter of spring rain and the soft creaks of slowly weathering wood. Children don’t stir at this hour, and even the proctors have abandoned their restless wandering of the halls.

Natch is lying on the floor. Above him, he can see nothing but the dark wood of the bureau he has scooted himself under. It’s a massive piece, hand-carved and probably donated from some moldering estate. The weight would be crushing enough were the bureau completely empty. But Natch has loaded its drawers with rocks specially gathered for this purpose until the burden is heavier than anything he has ever tried to lift; anything less would make the plan an obvious setup. And Natch can’t afford to fail. There are older boys out there who have been thrashing him in the hallway and teaching his OCHREs new injuries. These bullies must be dealt with.

Natch takes a deep breath, counts to three and kicks out the block of wood that’s been propping the end of the bureau up, hard. The block goes skittering under his bed.

He feels unbearable pain as the full weight of the piece comes down on him. There’s a screaming in his left forearm that he hasn’t anticipated as something sharp on the bureau’s surface bites into his skin. It’s sharp enough to draw blood. OCHREs start to kick in and dull the ache, but Natch forces himself to relax, to take in the pain. He’s not out on the street or in Serr Vigal’s apartment now; he’s in the care of the hive, and a huge burst of OCHRE activity will only summon suspicious proctors. It takes a tremendous amount of effort, but Natch soon manages to set aside the pain. He looks on the bureau’s opposite side and sees a maker’s mark carved into the wood: a flowery flourish of the letters S and N, the carving jagged and splintery from years of neglect. It must be the complement to this maker’s mark that’s digging into his pinioned left arm, but there’s nothing he can do about it now.

When the proctors finally arrive and raise the alarm, when three of them heave the bureau off and drag him to the infirmary, when he is lying in bed quietly telling the head proctor a false story about how the bullies had thrown that bureau on top of him, Natch can feel the bloody imprint of the maker’s mark in his left forearm. S and N. His OCHREs will eventually close up the gash and erase the scar, but for several nights Natch will sit in the darkness staring at the wound and wonder what S and N stand for. A carpenter long dead? A company long defunct? A city, a country?

S and N. S and N.

He is still watching the brand on his arm as he sits with Serr Vigal in one of the hive’s wood-paneled dens twenty-four hours later. His guardian is complaining about the quality of the tea. Natch can see that there’s something troubling the neural programmer, that Vigal can’t quite slip the story of the bureau into that mental file of verified fact. He suspects something. Why should I care? Natch tells himself. I’m not a truthteller. I don’t always have to tell the truth, do I?

Don’t think.

He opens his eyes. Enough of this. Sitting here in this chair, staring at the pockmarks on the dome, waiting for Petrucio and Frederic to torture or dispose of him — enough of it. To die of his own volition? Maybe. To die on a twisted whim of the Patels? Something bilious rises up in his stomach at the thought.

Natch stands. He looks down and wonders why the ropes that were binding his legs are now gathered at his feet. Did one of the Patels do this? And if so, how?

But there will be time for questions later. Right now, Natch is starving. He takes a wobbly step forward, then another. Decides to head for the door at the far end of the dome. Natch takes six more steps. He hears the whistle of the wind from somewhere above, looks up, and sees —

Silence. Gloom. Darkness.

But this is a darkness of Natch’s own making. He’s purposefully dialed the lights down, preferring to see his office as it would appear were there no human eyes to see it. Of course, without a human presence, the entire room would be neatly compressed into a few cubic meters of collapsed wall with the furniture clamped down in place. A petty distinction, but an irritating impediment in Natch’s mind.

Stop wasting time. Do what you came here to do.

He walks up to his workbench and waves his hand. Before he’s even finished the gesture, the space above the workbench’s surface is no longer empty. Now there’s a transparent bubble, barely visible in the darkness, and inside that bubble hovers a holographic pyramid. The pyramid is colored a sickly green, the color of mucous, and looks like it’s been pierced dozens of times with long needles that stick out of the sides.

The bio/logic program has no identifying label, but Natch’s contact has told him exactly what it is. He has spent countless days swimming through dark and dangerous trenches in the Data Sea looking for this code, and now that he’s found it he’s spent countless nights hammering away at the spikes on his workbench. It must be the perfect, untraceable, anonymous communication machine. The ability to spray the whole world with convincing forgeries at stunning speed. Yes, his plan relies more on social engineering than on bio/logic engineering, but a few slack connections could expose him to ruin and put number one on Primo’s forever out of his reach.

Yes, number one on Primo’s. That is what this code will accomplish for him. It’s the token that will gain him admittance to a larger realm. It’s the talisman that will place him above the Patel Brothers and Lucas Sentinel and Bolliwar Tuban and Pierre Loget and all the rest of the imbeciles he’s been jousting with for a few years now.

He looks at the spiked green pyramid and hears Horvil’s meek protestations from the previous day. What if we spark too much panic? I mean, we’re all connected, and so we’re all vulnerable. There could be another black code attack on the Vault any day now. Everyone knows that. The Council might really be gearing up for another assault. What if we cause too much panic? There might be a rush on the Vault. People might stop trading. The whole financial system could collapse.

Natch had laughed at the engineer in response, but he knows that it’s a serious possibility. What are markets but contained panic and quantified disaster? What keeps the whole thing functioning but confidence?

He thinks of Captain Bolbund deluging him with his rancid poetry. Of Brone taunting him with defeat. Of the bullies in the hive pouncing on him and beating him close to unconsciousness. Of all the stings and jabs he’s felt over the past few years during his ascent up the Primo’s charts.

Too late.

Natch closes his eyes and launches the program.

He opens his eyes to find himself lying facedown on the floor of the Patels’ dungeon. One arm and one leg are throbbing crazily, out of control. He’s ready to be anywhere else but here. Something about this place unsteadies his nerve.

Natch takes a deep breath, pushes himself up to his knees, then clambers to his feet. He takes one step, then another, then another, then —

Don’t think.

Silence. Gloom. Darkness.

Walking in circles around the chair, staring at the spindly table, now occupied by an empty plate and an empty glass.

Silence. Gloom. Darkness.

Natch tries to open his eyes, but they sting with smoke. The smell of creosote fills his nostrils. He reaches up, rubs his eyelids brusquely with his forearm, waves the smoke away. His fingertips touch flame and he yanks them back. He looks down at his fingers and is surprised to see a spreading smudge of blackness where the fire has burned him. Remember what the proctor said, he tells himself. No OCHREs out here in the wilderness.

The boy holding the torch looks astonished to see him. It’s one of Brone’s friends, a stick-thin boy who spent much of the previous night making obsequious comments to support Brone’s plan for getting the camp through the winter. And now all he can do is stare dumbly in terror at the bear rampaging through the trees a few meters away, blood on its claws.

Natch yanks the torch from the astonished boy’s hand and runs.

Runs not away from the bear but towards it. Fear must be confronted. Adversity must be tackled, not fled from. But you must have a plan, and Natch has one.

Don’t think.

Silence. Gloom. Darkness.

He is tearing through the woods with the bear in pursuit, ignoring the branches slashing at his face. He must reach the clearing he knows. A place he has spent many hours in quiet introspection, trying to pinpoint his future. If he can only reach that spot, he will be safe, and so will the camp. Behind him, the savage roar. The smoke of the torch still seeping into his eyes. Claws grappling at his back, nearly catching on the stray threads of his shirt.

He reaches the slight hill leading to the clearing. Footsteps in the snow leading up in that direction. Natch catches a glimpse of a distinctive green shirt he has seen many times over the past few months. Brone.

The bottom of the hill. Two paths. The path up leads to the clearing he knows so well, leads to his own safety, leads to Brone. The other path leads farther off into the woods, leads to his plan dashed, leads to risk and an uncertain outcome.

Natch pauses. Looks both directions. Throws a foot towards the lower path.

Silence. Gloom. Darkness.

Brone is explaining to him the power of Possibilities 2.0. The ability to be in two places at once and to live two lives at once. No more regretted choices!

With infinite possibilities at your disposal — with all those realities ripe for the plucking — why stop at just outputting one?. . . Our minds have more than enough processing power to run several tracks of consciousness at the same time. Consciousness is itself little more than a parlor trick, a low-bandwidth illusion. We’ve known this since ancient times. Yet we’ve never been able to duplicate it, until now….

Just imagine it! Two roads diverge in a wood. Why choose between them when you can take both? You can spawn separate multi projections to travel them and give each one a separate consciousness to experience them. Who’s to say you can’t choose two different jobs, two different companions, two different Vault accounts? And if one of these lives leads to bad consequences — well, then wipe it out! MultiReal can erase your memories, Natch, and the memories of those around you!

Brone throws two coins in the air in different directions. Natch activates Possibilities 2.0 and leaps after both coins at once.

Darkness.

His foot strikes white tile and his knee twists. Where are Petrucio and Frederic? How much time has elapsed? Why has he not left this place?

Natch gazes all around, sees the door on the wall of the dome that the Patels both disappeared into. That is where he must go. He can’t say what will happen after that, or if there will be anything after that. But he cannot sit here in the darkness any longer.

Don’t think.

There is a high-pitched whistling sound. Startled, Natch looks up.

A murderous metal blade like the business end of a guillotine. Lowered lightning-quick on an extended metal rod and aimed directly for his neck. Swinging towards him too fast for the dodging instinct.

Silence.

He ducks, and the bear’s claws go swishing over his head. Death forestalled by another few seconds.

Natch vaults to his feet once again. He is pointed deeper into the woods, towards a life where the bear disappears into the wilderness, a life where Brone carries his eye and arm intact with him back to camp, where he puts that arm over Natch’s shoulders and says Thanks, man, you saved my ass, where Natch’s quick thinking is commended and his respect among the boys regained. Or maybe a life where the bear catches up to Natch and mauls him instead, a life where he becomes a martyr for the camp, his sins forgotten, nobody honoring him more than Brone, who vows to live up to the selfless example Natch has set for him, who turns down the apprenticeship offer of Figaro Fi and founds a charitable institution aimed at helping those less fortunate than himself. Or maybe a life where Natch carries the scars that were destined to be Brone’s, the lost eye and the lost arm, a life where he broods over the futility of his feud with the other boy, of his relentless and aimless ambition, a life where he retreats into the memecorp sector under his mentor Serr Vigal’s tutelage, and becomes an expert on the capillaries that run into the brain —

Each future a single footstep away.

He shifts and heads up the hill.

Don’t think.

There is no explanation that can encompass it. One instant there are two paths. The next there is a path taken and a path abandoned, and as for that split-second of decision, no amount of science can penetrate it. The choice has not been made, then the choice has been made. The world proceeds on its track through time leaving only inadequate explication in its wake.

Brone, huddled at the top of the hill, looks up in shock as Natch and then the bear come streaking in his direction.

Natch stumbles and falls on the white tile.

Silence. Gloom. Darkness.

He knows these are no ordinary bonds that keep him ensnared in this chamber. Only the neural legerdemain of Margaret Surina’s MultiReal program can effect such conditions. How and why he cannot say. All he knows is that MultiReal is no longer responding to his commands, and despite the fact that the Patels no longer have access to it, the program seems to be at their disposal.

He can go nowhere. He can do nothing.

Once the world was laid out before Natch like glittering jewels in a display case, there for the plucking. Now his universe has been reduced to a circle about ten meters in diameter beyond which he cannot cross. Outside that circle there is nothing. Friends who have scorned him, a guardian who has abandoned him, enemies who have entrapped him, a government and a public that despise him. The programs he has created will dissipate into the endless deeps of the Data Sea until his name only exists in the deep strata of the changelogs. The history of his accomplishments will wither. His name will be forgotten.

But there is no outside agency he can blame. The path to this impotent circle is one he has charted himself, second by second, day by day, decision by decision.

No way forward.

No way forward.

*

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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