David Louis Edelman
Geosynchron
'Geosynchron' trade paperback cover

Excerpt: The Prisoners

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Chapter 6

Natch’s feeling of cognitive dissonance only multiplies when Petrucio Patel snaps the fingers on his right hand and makes the entire dungeon vanish. One instant they’re in an oppressive, dome-shaped chamber with a radius of thirty meters; the next they occupy a ten-meter-square storage room lined with shelving and assorted household objects. Dusty furniture, gardening tools. Only the chair and side table remain. SeeNaRee, thinks Natch, stunned from his near decapitation and embarrassed it hasn’t occurred to him he might be a captive in a virtual environment rather than a literal one.

He watches the sprawled figure of Frederic twitch and moan in unconscious discomfort as Petrucio unties the ropes binding Natch to the chair. Petrucio keeps the dartgun leveled at Natch’s chest as he motions for the entrepreneur to stand and move towards the door. Patel clicks his tongue reproachfully at his insensible brother and retrieves the katana before they leave. His expression is serene, but not untroubled.

They climb a flight of stairs and emerge in the first floor of a house whose construction dates back hundreds of years, or at least it’s been built to look that way. They pass through a room full of kitschy memorabilia from ancient Japan, including a print of Hokusai’s Great Wave, porcelain geisha dolls and a pair of katanas much like the one Petrucio has under his armpit. The programmer deposits the sword on a table and then gestures Natch out the back door.

They emerge in a drizzly countryside with no sign of other human habitation for a kilometer or more. A dark green Falcon hoverbird sits parked next to the building. Natch offers no resistance as Petrucio eggs him through the hatch and then climbs aboard after him.

“Frederic not coming?” yawns a bored pilot almost thin enough to get lost between the seats.

“He’ll catch up with us later,” replies Petrucio drily.

The pilot doesn’t seem to care. “Ready?”

“Ready. And thanks again for letting us use the basement, Hiro. We owe you one.”

The pilot nods, yawns again, initiates the hoverbird’s launch sequence. Seconds later, they are off. Once they’ve climbed high enough to see the surrounding territory, Natch starts scanning the horizon for landmarks. He zooms in on the corroded husk of a building far off in the distance, pointing to the heavens like a finger. Pinging the Data Sea with the image, Natch confirms that this is the Banespa Building of São Paulo, one of the tallest ancient skyscrapers still standing. Petrucio, meanwhile, gazes nervously to both starboard and port as the vehicle rises; he visibly relaxes when he determines there’s no one else around.

Natch is strapped into a chair opposite Petrucio, watching the retreating fog-shrouded lights of the city. He can’t say why he doesn’t fear the dartgun in Petrucio’s hand, even though it remains aimed at his head for the entire ascent. Nor does he understand why that head is still seated firmly on his shoulders and not rolling on a cold tile floor at Frederic Patel’s feet. He reaches up and rubs the spot on his neck where the cold steel of the blade touched his flesh. All he can think is that he is glad to be alive.

Glad? Yes, definitely glad to be alive.

As soon as the ’bird levels off, Natch is astounded to see Petrucio flipping his dartgun around and offering it to the entrepreneur grip first. Natch reaches out hesitantly and lets Petrucio push it into his hands.

He feels a mental ping. “We’ll talk over ConfidentialWhisper, if you don’t mind,” says Patel, arching his eyebrows in the direction of the pilot. Probably a needless precaution; the rhythmic bobbing of the thin man’s neck hints that he is absorbed in some slow, sensuous groove on the Jamm. Natch shrugs.

Petrucio leans back and stretches one arm over the seat next to him. “There’s three darts left in the gun,” he says. “When we land on the outskirts of Angelos, you’re going to plug Hiro in the back once, and then use the last two darts on me.” His voice is disarmingly calm. Up front, Hiro blithely runs a hand over the instrument panel, still lost in his musical reverie. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing dangerous,” continues Patel. “Temporary blackout. Same thing I used on Frederic.”

The entrepreneur stares at the dartgun in his hand. Natch’s memory has sprouted a disconcerting number of leaks lately, but to the best of his recollection he has never actually held a black code weapon before. It’s significantly lighter than he expected. “What makes you think I’m going to do any of that?” he says.

“Because it’ll give you a two-hour head start.”

Natch frowns. “You’re going to chase after me?”

I won’t. But Magan Kai Lee will. He’s on his way to São Paulo now, with Borda on his tail.”

Natch leans forward in the seat and ducks his head under the canopy of his clasped hands. He closes his eyes to block out the dartgun in his lap and pictures the diminutive Council lieutenant. Natch has always believed that human beings are constructed on scaffolds of emotion and irrationality, scaffolds that invariably have their weak struts. He has built his career on this belief. But Magan Kai Lee does not seem to have such an architecture; he’s a man of rigid calculation all the way through. Natch tries to recall the first time he ever saw the lieutenant, back when he was just another faceless minion of Len Borda’s ubiquitous military and intelligence force. He has a fleeting memory of Magan standing on the stage of a Council auditorium, pointing out into the audience… but no, the memory is gone now.

“What is he up to?” says Natch over ConfidentialWhisper. “What does he want?”

Petrucio leans his head back to face the roof of the hoverbird and closes his eyes, mimicking sleep. “He wants MultiReal.”

“For his rebellion.”

“I don’t know for sure. But that’s my worry, yes.”

At first it seems ludicrous: why worry that someone might overthrow Len Borda? But then Natch thinks about the Council lieutenant standing in the midst of the Prime Committee’s auditorium, with the power of MultiReal at his command. Unassailable, unconquerable. And suddenly he can understand Petrucio’s hesitation.

What does Magan Kai Lee represent? What are his aims and goals? The man is accumulating a rebellion almost solely from the public’s hatred of Len Borda. His own beliefs remain an enigma. Does he support Islander sovereignty? What is his position on public funding of TubeCo? Is he capable of balancing a budget? What will Magan Kai Lee do with MultiReal, if he gets ahold of it? Would that be better or worse than if Len Borda should get MultiReal in his possession? Natch recalls the aphorism he has heard many times recently about the wisdom of preferring the known enemy to the unknown enemy. The world has suffered much under the stern rigidity of Len Borda — but is replacing that rigidity with a blank cipher any less frightening?

And are either of these alternatives better than putting MultiReal in the hands of Brone and his Thasselian disciples?

It’s all too confusing, and not for the first time Natch wishes he could return to that time of simpler loyalties. When he was merely an entrepreneur looking out for his own ass, when his enemies announced their intentions with press releases, when a single incontrovertible authority filed winners and losers into slots of descending order every hour.

“I don’t understand why you’re not handing me over to the Council,” says Natch over the silent channel. “I assumed you and Frederic were working for them.”

“Honestly, so did we.” Petrucio chuckles softly. “Shortly after Margaret recruited us to help her finish MultiReal, we signed another deal with a faceless shell company. We were to continue our work with Margaret as agreed. But on the side, we were to construct MultiReal prototype programs. Defensive programs, code named MultiReal-D. The deal was negotiated, signed and paid for by Magan Kai Lee from an untraceable Vault account. We figured he was acting on behalf of the Council.”

“And it didn’t bother you to go behind Margaret’s back like that?” says Natch, surprised at his accusatory tone.

Petrucio’s lips curl into a half-smile. “It was a different world then. A plum military contract with a big paycheck, no oversight, nobody looking over our shoulders? Why not? I didn’t really understand what Margaret was building out there in Andra Pradesh, and neither did Frederic. It didn’t occur to us that Magan might be doing this behind Borda’s back. But now…”

He pauses, but Natch does not need him to fill the gap. He knows what MultiReal can do. Sometime in the past three months, the world has been remolded.

Petrucio sits up and looks Natch straight in the eye with an earnestness that’s atypical for a Patel. “You and I are businesspeople, Natch,” he continues over the ’Whisper connection. “We’re not kingmakers. Politics… war… madness and freedom… it’s not our domain. And it certainly isn’t Frederic’s.

“Magan Kai Lee knew you’d turn up in São Paulo eventually. He figured we’d have no problem handing you over to him. But that puts me and Frederic in a very difficult position. If we hand you over to Magan, his rebellion will be a fait accompli. If we allow you to fall into Len Borda’s hands, the rebellion will be crushed.” Petrucio weighs these two options with his hands on an imaginary balance scale. “We can’t keep you here forever; sooner or later Magan will come around asking questions. But if you manage to escape…”

Natch does not hesitate. “I’ll disappear.”

“Exactly. We tell Magan that you overpowered Frederic and took his dartgun. That’s not hard to believe. Then you kidnapped me and had me charter you a flight to Angelos. You completely vanish, and we don’t have to be responsible for what happens.”

“And is Frederic on board with all this?”

“Frederic.” Petrucio sighs dramatically and then rolls his eyes. “Don’t worry about Frederic — he’ll see things my way, eventually.”

“Assuming the Council doesn’t kill him when they reach your pilot’s house.”

“No, Borda and Lee will leave him alone. He’s got nothing they want.” Patel stares at his hands, and Natch wonders if he’s having second thoughts about shooting his own brother in the back with black code. “Frederic needs to realize that things have changed. The world can sort out its own messes without us. And without MultiReal.” He lapses into a moody silence as the South American continent below disappears underneath a gray gauze of cloud.

*

Half an hour passes. Inside the hovercraft, there is no sound except for the almost-undetectable tapping of Hiro’s foot in time to the Jamm channel that has enveloped his senses. Either the tempo has picked up considerably, or he has switched channels to something more upbeat. Natch wonders exactly how complicit this pilot is with Petrucio’s schemes. Complicit enough to let the Patels use his basement as a makeshift prison, and then to fly their prisoner hundreds of kilometers out of his way at a moment’s notice. But does he know he’s going to get shot with black code when they arrive? Does he know the Defense and Wellness Council could be at their heels? Natch supposes it’s none of his business; Petrucio is capable of sorting out his own personal affairs.

Natch opens another ConfidentialWhisper channel with his erstwhile enemy. “If you expect me to go along with all of this, then I’m going to need some answers.”

Petrucio’s been gazing out the window for the last half hour, lost in reflection. “Would you prefer to stay in São Paulo and wait for the Council to show up?” he replies, deadpan.

“No. But maybe I’d rather not wait until we land to use this dartgun.” He holds up the weapon and points it at Petrucio’s forehead. A can’t-miss shot at this range. “Maybe I’d rather shoot you right now and dump you in the middle of the ocean. For fuck’s sake — you imprisoned me, Petrucio. Just because you decided to let me go doesn’t mean I’m going to forget this.”

Petrucio’s face sparks into a grin. For some reason, extreme adversity always seems to bring out the jester in him. “All right, what do you want to know?”

“These defensive programs you’ve been building. MultiReal-D. If I’m going to stay a step ahead of Magan Kai Lee and Len Borda, I need to know what they are.”

“Fair enough.” Petrucio stretches, sits up and gives his most serious stare while Natch lowers the gun back to his lap. Natch is under no illusion that his threats have convinced Petrucio of anything. It’s obvious that the programmer resolved to impart this information to Natch as soon as he burst into that SeeNaRee room and shot his brother in the back.

Petrucio narrows his eyes for a few seconds, trying to decide where to begin. “Tell me how you can use MultiReal,” he says, “to reverse death.”

Natch again resists the urge to rub the spot on his neck where he should have met his mortality. “I don’t know,” he replies.

“Now you’re just being lazy,” chides Petrucio. “You’ve had Margaret’s program for months. You haven’t spent the entire time dodging black code darts, have you? You must have thought some of these things through. Suppose the lieutenant executive of the Defense and Wellness Council gives you unlimited funding to build a MultiReal program that reverses death. How do you do it?”

Natch drops a token thought or two on the problem. “Impossible,” he shrugs. “Or at least, that’s what you want me to say.”

Again, the wry smile. “Frederic and I thought it was impossible too, at first. Time only moves in one direction, right? Prengal Surina proved that. But then I had an inspiration. If you send a multi projection into a real building, and that real building collapses on top of you, do you die? No, of course not — because you’re not actually in the building in the first place. It’s just an illusion. Neurons firing.” Petrucio taps the side of his head with one finger. “When the building collapses, the multi network can sense trauma coming an instant before it happens. It cuts off your projection and you wind up standing on your red tile again. So I thought: if you can project a virtual body into space… why not project a virtual body into time?”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” says Natch, shaking his head. “Virtual time? What would that even look like?”

“Tell me what time it is.”

“What — ”

Petrucio cuts him off. “You’ll find out. Just tell me what time it is.”

The entrepreneur turns his attention to the internal clock that has been acting as metronome for the bio/logic symphony in constant performance since the hour of his birth. “It’s 10:04 a.m. São Paulo time.”

Petrucio puts the palms of his hands together and touches his fingertips to his nose. “You’re sure about that.”

Natch makes no response. Ever since he hit number one on Primo’s, ever since he got enmeshed in Margaret Surina’s tangled skein of MultiReal programming, all of the sureties in his life have been vanishing one by one. Career, friends, ideals. Why should time be the exception?

“In actuality,” continues Patel, his demeanor maddeningly placid, “it’s 10:03. You want to know what virtual time looks like? You, my friend, are living in it.”

Natch grips the armrest of his seat as his stomach does backflips. He remembers the feeling of queasy vertigo that wormed through his extremities when Brone and Pierre Loget demonstrated how he could stand in two places at once. He’s suffered this primordial shock so often these past few months it should almost feel commonplace by now. But no matter how hard he tries, Natch simply can’t adjust to this new world of constant gut-wrenching change. “You did this to me,” he mutters over ConfidentialWhisper. “At the Tul Jabbor Complex. The black code you hit me with when I jumped on the hoverbird.”

Petrucio gives the slightest nod of affirmation. “Magan’s idea,” he says.

“This doesn’t help me at all. So my clock’s out of sync. I still have no idea why that matters.”

“Let’s take a step back.” The programmer settles deeper into his seat and waves one hand in the air like a professor diving into a didactic lecture. “What does MultiReal do? It lets you explore alternate realities in your mind, before they happen. Glorified probability calculation, right? Run the program with someone else present, and it becomes a collaborative process. You still see the potential realities, but now the other person is effectively telling you what they’re going to do, before they do it. MultiReal can project all this much, much faster than real time, because it’s all just mathematical calculations in your head.” Petrucio points again to his own head, with its neatly combed slick of hair. “Once you’ve chosen the reality you want, you still need to make it actual. It hasn’t happened yet; it’s just potential. So you close the choice cycle and turn that possibility into a reality. If we’re using the baseball analogy… you choose where you want the ball to go. You close the choice cycle. MultiReal tells your body to hit the baseball just like so, and tells the other person’s body to catch it, or not catch it. You with me so far?”

“Yes.”

“It only takes a fraction of a second for your brain to project all those realities and for you to make a choice. But the actual hitting and catching of the baseball takes several seconds. So what are you doing during those several seconds?”

Natch frowns. “I don’t know. You’re acting out the choice, I suppose.”

“Sure. But who says your mind can’t continue onward? While your body is hitting the ball and running for first base, why can’t MultiReal just keep calculating further into the future? Why not keep going for a whole sixty seconds — and why not stay sixty seconds ahead of everyone else?”

The entrepreneur has no answer.

“If you did this continuously, without stopping, then you’d effectively be living in the future, wouldn’t you? One minute in the future. As long as life conforms to the probability calculations in your head, the outside world would unspool in ‘real time’ behind you. All of your interactions with the people around you would happen ahead of time in that collaborative virtual space. Even when unpredictable things do happen, the program can usually just back up and weave those things into the virtual fabric. MultiReal can erase those nascent memories, so nobody would be the wiser — including you.”

“It’s a neat trick,” says Natch, “but I still don’t see how that’s going to reverse — ” He stops short.

Petrucio’s face blooms into a massive smile. “You’re starting to see it, aren’t you? Anything that happens during that sixty seconds — someone shooting you with a dartgun, someone pushing you off a ledge — ”

“Frederic cutting off my head with a samurai sword,” grumbles Natch.

“ — it hasn’t really happened yet, right? It’s just a possibility you’re exploring in your head. A collaborative fantasy. You’ve still got time to alter your path and avoid that future. So back to our original analogy. If you’re a multi projection standing in a building when it collapses, the system cuts you off and brings you back to reality. Same thing here. If someone decapitates you with a sword…”

“You get snapped back to ‘real’ time, one minute in the past.”

“Exactly.”

Natch stands up abruptly, tries to pace in the cramped hoverbird cabin. Now that he’s caught the scent, his mind is charging ahead, galloping through the possibilities with furious speed. From the pilot’s chair, Hiro starts to turn around to see what’s going on, then thinks better of it and disappears back into his mocha grind haze.

“You told me MultiReal-D erases nascent memories,” says Natch. “Then why do I still remember Frederic swinging that sword at my neck?”

“Did you see the syringe he injected you with?”

“Yes.”

“Modified OCHREs, for testing. So you’d remember the whole thing.”

Natch’s mind is reeling. It’s insane, ludicrous, borderline nonsensical — but if he accepts the original premise of MultiReal, where’s the logical break? There is none. It follows. And furthermore…

“A bio/logic program can’t really know when you’re about to die,” he says over ConfidentialWhisper, more to himself than to Petrucio. “All MultiReal-D can do is guess. All it can do is take your sensory input and calculate the probability of death, based on the factors it’s given.”

“Correct.”

“So if someone shoots you in the back, or poisons your food, or pushes you over a cliff when you’re not looking… If you can’t see the assassin coming, and he’s not looped in to your collaborative process, then MultiReal-D provides no defense.”

Petrucio purses his lips thoughtfully. “True.”

“Yet if you can see death coming… somebody could take advantage of that. They could set up a SeeNaRee environment where you’re completely surrounded by certain death. Every time you get close to the edge of the room, a guillotine comes down from the ceiling and cuts you in half. It’s not a real guillotine, but you don’t know that. As long as your brain thinks you’re going to die, MultiReal-D will keep yanking you back a minute into the past — into the present — every time. The potential memories would get erased. You’d be trapped.”

Petrucio extends his hands behind his head and puts his heels up on the seat that Natch has just vacated. He seems extraordinarily pleased with himself. “Clever, isn’t it?” he says. “But don’t give me the credit for that idea — that was all Frederic’s doing.”

*

Natch’s mind won’t stop its mad charge through the possibilities, as if trying to make up for lost time. He’s been in the dark for so long — both literally and figuratively — he feels like he must continue pressing on until all the questions are answered.

He wheels on Petrucio and extends an accusatory finger. “You’re still not telling me everything. Someone tried to kill me in Old Chicago.”

The programmer has quickly moved from satisfied to pleasantly exhausted, and seems on the verge of slipping into a nap. “We think so, yes. That’s why Magan had me put the code in you to begin with. To protect you, and to track you.”

“I don’t understand this. I’m standing on the street in Chicago when someone tries to kill me. The program stops calculating my future and snaps me back a minute in the past, to ‘real time.’ But what if in real time, I’m still standing on the same street with the person who’s trying to kill me? Neither of us would know any better, because our memories have been erased. So why wouldn’t we do the same thing over and over again until our OCHREs wore out? Why wouldn’t he just try to kill me again?”

“Ah,” says Petrucio playfully. “Here’s where things get fun. We think he did.”

“So then what happened?”

“Nothing happened. Things unhappened.”

Natch simply gapes at the programmer.

Petrucio, though caught in a sleep spiral, is clearly happy at the entrepreneur’s befuddlement. He has the same kind of brain as Horvil, one that derives pleasure from tough logical conundrums and mathematical challenges. “You’re right,” says Petrucio, letting out an enormous yawn. “The program’s not all that useful unless you can solve that problem. But it’s not as difficult as it sounds. During the whole time that MultiReal-D is active and calculating the future… why not keep a record of everything that’s happening? Keep the whole memory trail stored in case you get caught in an endless loop of attack and reprisal. If that happens, start backtracking.”

“How?”

“By undoing everything you’ve done.” Petrucio interrupts Natch’s budding protest with another yawn. “Impossible? Hardly. We live in a virtual world, Natch. Memories can be erased. Vault transactions can be reversed. Posts on the Data Sea can be taken down. You can rearrange the furniture in your apartment by editing a database entry. You can move your multi projection back to the same place you were standing yesterday with the blink of an eye. You’d be surprised how many of your actions can easily be reversed.”

“Until?”

“Until the program finds a point in the past when you’re no longer in imminent danger.”

Natch catches himself on the ceiling of the hoverbird, feeling as if he’s about to faint. Margaret Surina promised in her big speech before the world to eliminate the tyranny of cause and effect — and from all appearances, her program has done just that.

He tries to reconstruct that day in Old Chicago with his newfound knowledge. Natch discovered that Brone was not telling the truth about the black code, and so he fled from the hotel. He was pursued by Brone and his minions. But this time, Brone was not satisfied with threats; he actually killed Natch. Or at least, death was so imminent and irrefutable that MultiReal-D concluded Natch’s only recourse was to wade into the morass of unhappening. The program began erasing memories, both his and Brone’s, until it found a point where Natch could escape the Null Current one more time.

“How… how much time did I lose?” says Natch.

Petrucio’s eyes are closed now, and he’s clearly only keeping himself awake with great effort. “You couldn’t have lost too much, or you would have noticed. I imagine only an hour or so. Don’t forget that this is all still experimental, Natch. There are plenty of things the program can’t reverse. It can’t actually move objects. It can’t reprogram bio/logic code. If you burn down a building, MultiReal-D isn’t going to bring the building back. There are a number of Vault transactions that we can’t figure out how to reverse.”

“Don’t you think it would be easier if the user didn’t lose his memory?”

Patel shrugs. “Perhaps. But that brings its own problems. You can imagine how that could be quite disorienting in a combat situation, which is what the program was commissioned for…. Listen, we’re a long, long way away from this being ready to deploy. A lot could change between now and then.”

Natch nods. He’s still trying to make that last mental leap, from him lying in the street in Old Chicago to the Patels heaving him onto a hoverbird bound for São Paulo. “How did you find me?”

“I told you, Natch — this is just a prototype. When we’re testing the program, we can’t risk someone’s memories getting erased to the point where they’re lost with no idea how to get home. It’s almost happened too many times to count. So whenever the rollback kicks in, Frederic and I get notified exactly where and when it happened.” He shifts in his seat and crosses one leg over the other. “We got a ping from Old Chicago. You were the only one running the program.”

Natch staggers back into the seat next to the one where Petrucio’s feet are now resting. There seems to be no end to the vertiginous implications of this infernal program. It can enable impossible feats of physical skill, it can control minds, it can enable you to be two places at once… and now it can even reverse death? All by opening up a vista of possibilities and allowing you to cherry-pick between them. “If only Margaret had known about this,” he says quietly over the ’Whisper channel. “She wouldn’t have ended up how she did.”

“If only she had known?” Petrucio opens his eyes and fixes them on Natch. The levity has completely drained from his face. “Who do you think built all this in the first place? You don’t think Frederic and I wrote that whole program in nine months, do you? Everything we needed to make MultiReal-D work was already inside those databases. All we had to do was find it.”

And then Petrucio cuts off the ConfidentialWhisper program and falls asleep.

*

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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