David Louis Edelman
Geosynchron
'Geosynchron' trade paperback cover

Excerpt: The Prisoners

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Chapter 5

No way forward.

“You wanted a day or two to think things over. Fucking fabulous.” Feet shuffle against the floor, a foot idly kicks at the wall. “If we’d got in touch with Magan Kai Lee when we said we would, everything would be fine right now. We’d be up to our asses in Vault credits. Well! Look what’s happened now.” Another kick.

“So… two squadrons? Are you sure about that, Frederic?”

“Am I sure? Of course not. This is the Defense and Wellness Council. They don’t go broadcasting their plans all over the Data Sea. But why else would they be doing reconnaissance missions way the fuck out here?”

The sound of nervous foot tapping. “I suppose the real question is whether those squadrons belong to Borda, or whether they belong to Lee.”

“Guess again.”

Silence.

“One of each?”

More silence.

“Shit. What do we do?”

“You know exactly what I want to do, ’Trucio.”

An exasperated sigh. “You’re not going to bring that up again, are you?”

“Why not? There’s still time to pull this thing out of the fire. If we can hand MultiReal-D over to Magan before Borda’s thugs get here, we can still fulfill the contract.”

“So then let’s do that.”

“Don’t be naïve, ’Trucio. Nobody’s going to give us shit unless we can prove it works. The contract specifically says working prototype, remember?”

“Of course it works. Natch is still sitting in the chair, isn’t he?”

“I’m talking about in the real world. Solid weapons. Real steel.”

“It worked in Old Chicago. That was real.”

“How do you know? Come on, ’Trucio, we have no idea what happened out there in Old Chicago. What the fuck was he doing wandering those streets in the first place? Who was it tried to murder him? Some diss throwing stones? Bullshit.”

Pacing. Tense, thoughtful silence. “There’s too much at stake. What if the program breaks down and he winds up dead? Then what do we do?”

“Don’t tell me anybody’s going to mourn for that motherfucker.”

“That’s not the point. I’m not going to risk killing him just to fulfill a contract. I don’t care how much we’re getting paid, Frederic, even in your L-PRACG murder is illegal.”

An angry snort. Something thrown against a wall. “It’d make our lives much easier if he was dead. It would get the Council off our backs.”

“Oh, really, would it now?” A derisive snort. “Are you about to go in there and cut his throat?”

“What makes you think I wouldn’t?”

“Use your head, idiot. You can’t kill him. Didn’t it ever occur to you that if he dies, the MultiReal databases disappear for good and there’s no getting them back? Then who’s going to pay us, Frederic?”

A wet razzing sound. “You’re being ridiculous. We know this works. I just spent nine months of my life working on this stupid MultiReal-D program. I’m not gonna let it all go down the drain without a fight. Somebody’s gonna have to put his neck on the line to test this thing. Why not him?”

“Forget it. The answer’s no, and that’s final.”

Furious stomping around, the sound of things smashing. “In two hours, we’re going to have the fucking Autonomous Revolt happening right outside our door. Borda and Lee are going to blow this place to pieces trying to find Natch. All because you’re afraid of getting your hands dirty.”

“Just give me twenty minutes, Frederic. I’ll think of something.”

*

The chamber is dark. Natch is tied to the chair once again, and this time he’s bound tight enough that he can’t even wiggle an arm free. Any attempt at escape from this accursed chamber would be futile anyway. Spider, web, helpless fly.

Natch thinks: if he died here today, if he were never found or heard from again, what would he leave behind?

The list is not an encouraging one. The MultiReal databases — to which he has only had time to contribute the merest fraction of code. His fiefcorp — which has been handed to Jara and will likely be dismantled by the end of the year. His bio/logic programs and RODs — scattered now among a dozen different fiefcorps and diluted beyond recognition. His modest possessions — which will remain sequestered in the dark crevices of his compressed apartment until the building management finally liquidates them. His record of defiance against the Defense and Wellness Council these past few months — soon to be engulfed by the vast bureaucratic ocean of official government business where it will be forgotten. The few personal relationships he has maintained over his lifetime — each sullied and denigrated by his own hand.

Brone told him some of the same things back in Old Chicago. Don’t try to blame me for this state of affairs. If you want to blame someone, blame yourself. You’ve done a much better job isolating yourself than I could have ever done. I daresay even those few you label your friends will give up on you soon enough. He remembers the words, but not the conversation they came from. When did Brone confront him in such pointed terms?

He tries to summon in his mind the evening before the Shortest Initiation, the last evening in the hive. The night where he discovered that Brone had bested him. He had a meeting, he thinks. But with whom? And for what purpose? He probes that alcove of his memory, but the shelves are empty. Somehow he knows that this is not a moment of stress-induced amnesia, not a mere temporary misconnection in the neural circuitry. That night is gone. Scoured clean.

Natch feels a brief moment of panic. The night before the Shortest Initiation, gone. Whatever happened in Old Chicago, gone.

He knows he was ambushed on the streets of Shenandoah, a few months ago. He remembers talking about it. He can still feel the black code worming its way inside him. But when he tries to summon an image of his attackers — shadowy figures in black robes, Thasselians, disciples of Brone — there is nothing.

Gone.

Something has been happening to his memory ever since he arrived in this place. It’s not only the chronology of the present that’s blurred and confused, it’s the past as well. Long-settled events in Natch’s mind, bedrock memories, are disappearing. He feels like he is sliding down a tightly coiling spiral into nothingness. His accomplishments, such as they were, have all been stripped away. His willpower has been effectively nullified within this nine-pace radius. And now, even his memories are slipping down into the void as well.

A slice of light appears on the far wall, with Natch’s bound silhouette framed in the middle. The door behind him is opening.

Frederic Patel doesn’t so much walk in front of Natch as he slinks, with hunched shoulders and a furtive expression of hatred on his face. He’s clutching one or more objects to his chest, but Natch can’t see what because they’re hidden in shadow. He comes closer and cocks an ear to the domed ceiling as if listening for a pursuer. Natch can see one of the objects Frederic’s holding: it’s a sword.

A sword? Natch’s mind reels. Yes, an actual Japanese katana, smooth and sheathed and yet still deadly.

“Awake?” says the boorish younger Patel brother in a hoarse whisper.

Natch says nothing, but he knows that Frederic can see his unblinking eyes just fine.

“Good.” Frederic nods, kneeling in front of Natch and dropping the sword onto the tile from a distance of a dozen centimeters at most. The katana hits the tile with a soft, reverberant clang. “Would hate for you to die in your sleep.”

And then, before Natch has time to even contemplate a response, Frederic makes a stabbing motion with his left hand. The entrepreneur feels a slight sting on his left forearm and catches a glimpse of a syringe, its plunger now deployed.

Natch glances over at the pinprick in his arm with its infinitesimal drop of already-scabbed-over blood. He should be inured to the idea of invasive black code flowing into his bio/logic systems by now — he is, after all, still playing host to Thasselian black code from his attack in Shenandoah, not to mention the mysterious program from Petrucio’s dartrifle in the Tul Jabbor Complex and Margaret Surina’s MultiReal back door. But he feels that frisson of impurity, that shiver of uncleanliness anyway. Foreign code. Unknown.

Frederic stands, then leans down to grab the sword. He unsheathes it and grins the grin that only sadists know.

Natch stares at the katana, wondering where Frederic could possibly have gotten hold of such a thing. Neither Patel brother is a collector of Japanese relics, as far as he knows. The jade green pattern running around the pommel of the sword looks much too ornate for a weapon of everyday use; not like there are samurai running around using edged weapons anyway. But this katana is clearly a museum piece, an expensive gift from some gracious capitalman.

He looks at the blade and thinks, He’s really going to kill me.

It’s a wholly unique sensation. For months, he’s felt the undertow of the Null Current dragging at him at every turn: a relentless force that flows beneath everything human, like groundwater, a subterranean tide that tugs and pulls at all thought and emotion, that seeps through all the petty barricades of society without pause or consideration. It was there when Brone’s minions shot him full of black code in that alleyway in Shenandoah. It was pulling at him when he escaped ten thousand deaths by Council dartgun at the Tul Jabbor Complex.

But now Natch knows that his death is here, standing right in front of him. It’s an absurd death, one he could never have foreseen — slain by a sword, in an anonymous dungeon, by Frederic Patel, of all people? He knows that Frederic despises him (and the feeling is mutual), but why the engineer should choose to decapitate him he doesn’t know. And he will likely never know the reason. There will be no escape with the help of MultiReal miracles; Petrucio has ably demonstrated the Patels’ baffling ability to nullify the program.

He thinks, I have thirty seconds left before I die.

No way forward.

Don’t think. Don’t struggle.

Patel hefts the sword in two heavily calloused hands and tries to get a proper grip. Natch knows virtually nothing about samurais or katanas beyond what he’s seen in the dramas, and he’s fairly certain that Frederic knows little more. He half expects that the edge of this gilded weapon will be too dull to actually cut through flesh. But as the engineer gingerly touches the blade to Natch’s neck and makes the most delicate of testing cuts, Natch realizes that this is not the case. The sword is sharp enough to make expertise a luxury.

Frederic leans back for a swing. He bares his teeth and snarls.

Natch waits for the long-anticipated feeling of relief, of ending. The dead have no responsibilities, no anguish, no wanting. No confusion or uncertainty, because to die is to be utterly certain and unambiguous, for the first time, for the rest of eternity. Is this what he has been striving for? Simplicity, absolutism, peace?

Is it, or isn’t it?

He hears the door open, followed by the sound of madly scrambling feet. “Frederic!” cries Petrucio Patel.

But it’s too late. Frederic’s muscles tense and the sword begins its death arc. His aim is true. Death is a second away. Unavoidable, beyond the reach of any wild probability. And as Natch sits here, trussed and helpless — as he watches the edge of the blade approach — the realization explodes from the depths of his consciousness.

He doesn’t want to die.

He wants to live.

Natch screams. Petrucio bounds across the room, hand extended. But it’s too late. The katana flies through the air in its killing stroke. The glint of reflected light strikes Natch in the eye. The icy blade touches flesh —

*

Frederic Patel is kneeling in front of the entrepreneur, syringe in hand, expression unnaturally gleeful. The sword lies on the floor, still sheathed. Natch’s head is definitely still attached to his shoulders.

Petrucio bursts through the doorway, bounds across the room and extends his hand. Natch sees the black gleam of a dartgun. Petrucio fires.

At Frederic.

The dart strikes Frederic right between the shoulder blades. There isn’t even time for the younger Patel to display a look of shock on his face before he slumps to the floor.

*

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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