David Louis Edelman
MultiReal
'MultiReal' trade paperback cover

Draft 4: December 12, 2003

For a while, the title of the first section of “MultiReal” was “The Trials of Magan Kai Lee.” I desperately wanted to begin the book with the image of Magan Kai Lee kneeling on the floor of a dark prison in chains. This particular version was started November 29, 2003 at 11:17 PM and last saved on December 12, 2003.

*

Len Borda was dying.

He would not die today, not this week or even this year. Despite the string of decades that hung from his neck like lusterless pearls, the High Executive looked hale enough to weather another decade or two at the head of the Defense and Wellness Council. Certainly there were no lingering gaps on Borda’s calendar, no telltale signs of weakness or indecision that the omnipresent drudge community could use to predict an imminent shift of power.

But Magan Kai Lee knew the signs of approaching death. He had firsthand knowledge of the subject. Long before the skin paled and the heart stopped thumping, there were other, more subtle signs. Plans that meandered from their heretofore steady paths, appetites that suddenly went cold. And then there was that look of inevitability that settled in the eyes, the look that the Prepared got when they cut all ties to the material world and disappeared behind those compound gates forever. The look of the stalk of wheat witnessing the approach of the thrasher and knowing that it was time for a new and stronger crop to bask in the sun. [1]

“You got ten minutes,” came a voice.

Magan Kai Lee tried to raise his head and make a reply, but the iron band around his neck was too heavy. He wheezed, snorted, managed to work out a terse “okay” before realizing that the guard had already left.

Lee was not a muscular man. Were he twice as large, they still could have shackled him with the same chains without worrying in the least about escape. Perhaps then Magan could have at least salvaged his dignity by standing up to face the judges that would determine his fate. [2] Instead he would grovel here in supplication from the weight of these chains, forced to defend himself while gazing at the muddy cement floor of some anonymous dungeon. Surprisingly, his jailors had not cut him off from the Data Sea. World news and fiefcorp share prices streamed through his skull unimpeded, along with the usual sludge of advertising. Magan reached his mind out to the flow, found the swirling eddies of the bio/logics market, activated the StrongArm 52.8 muscle-enhancement program he found there. A product of the Ferfiglione Fiefcorp, the number one company on Primo’s for two years running now, since mid-348 of the Reawakening. [3] Yet the program did not make the slightest difference. His bonds were just too heavy.

“All I ask,” he muttered to himself, “is to stand and face them in the eye.”

Indeed that was all Magan Kai Lee had ever asked. Not to be agreed with, not to be understood, and certainly not to be surrendered to. Just to stand unbowed and make his case. Why live life under any other terms?

For twenty-eight years, he had done just that: lived unapologetically under terms of his definition, no matter what the price. And he had paid heavily. His headstrong Daoist father had disowned him at sixteen for pledging to Creed Bushido and fraternizing with its “enemy culture.” His friends had spurned him for sacrificing all to become the youngest creed security director in the history of Bushido at twenty-one. And then a mere two years later, the bodhisattva had cast him from the order for embracing the outrĂ© philosophy of aido. [4] He had never resented these minor players in the cast of his life for making such decisions. They had their own choices, their own paths to follow, as he did.

“But have I gone too far?” Magan mumbled into the dank stone.

It was not a rhetorical question, nor an admission of fear or regret. It was a question of strategy. After all, should the Defense and Wellness Council decide to cast Magan Kai Lee out of its ranks for murder, then where would he go? He would be forced to abandon this institution to which he had devoted five years of his life. He would be forced out into the streets. And while High Executive Borda’s controversial measures had definitely done much to stimulate the moribund economy, the malingering presence of the Plunge still hovered on the edges of the world like a dark cloud that refused to dissipate.

Had he gone too far? Almost as soon as Lee had formulated the question in his mind, he answered it. No, he had not.

The death of Council Lieutenant Vung Po during sparring practice had been no accident. Magan Kai Lee had killed him with a clean open-handed palm thrust to the bridge of the nose, which had sent a sliver of bone into his brain and snuffed out his life before the lieutenant had even hit the ground.

Po had deserved death and Lee would not apologize for being the reaper’s herald.

And it was at that moment that the lights came on and the back wall disappeared, revealing the Defense and Wellness Council tribunal. Magan Kai Lee’s trial had begun.

*

“Name and rank,” said a husky male voice like stale bread.

“Sergeant Magan Kai Lee,” replied the prisoner. “42nd Disruptor Brigade, Norafrica.”

“Louder,” demanded a second voice that was no less gravelly for being female.

“Sergeant! Magan! Kai — ”

“Enough.”

There were at least five more in the room, arrayed before him in a semi-circle with a radius approximately three times his height. Four males and three females, by the cadence of their breathing, sitting at a stretched stone table. But the room itself was much larger than the table. It climbed up perhaps twenty or twenty-five meters and ran half that distance beyond the table.

Magan could see none of this within his limited scope of vision, which covered little more than the tepid puddle of water under his knees. No, this knowledge was a product of the heightened sensory perception that was aido’s gift.

“Sergeant Magan Kai Lee, you are accused of murdering a senior officer of the Defense and Wellness Council,” continued the male voice. “In the civilian world, most L-PRACGs punish this crime with death or solitary life imprisonment. Here in the Council, however, we are not bound by civilian law. Here the penalties are far less — binary. Do you understand?”

Less binary: torture by pain-inducing black code. Confinement in depraved SeeNaRee environments designed specifically to break men’s wills. Cruel Sisyphean labor until his OCHREs gave way under the strain. “I understand,” Lee croaked.

“How do you plead?” The female voice.

Magan reached within himself and slowed his madly beating heart. He would need all of his reserves here, all of his poise and verbal alacrity. “Not guilty,” he said.

“Not guilty?” cried a third voice, a shrill older man with a colicky rasp in his breath. “Then do you deny issuing a direct challenge to Lieutenant Vung Po during Council officers’ training last Tuesday?”

“Hand-to-hand combat is not prohibited among officers during training exercises.”

“But only under strict guidelines!” shrieked the man, slamming a fist against the stone table. “There are rules, Sergeant Lee, strict rules! Protocol dictates that combatants must adhere to the martial art declared upon commencement of the fight.”

“I made no such declaration. There are scores of witnesses who can verify that.”

“But Sergeant Lee, from the outset you and Po were clearly sparring using the rules of Ti Kren — ” [5]

“That is not a declaration.”

“And the fact that Vung Po was a known disciple of your enemies Creed Bushido had nothing to do with this.”

“No.”

Magan could feel the frustration growing among the tribunal. By all rights, the shackled prisoner on the floor should have been the one on the defensive. He should have been the one trembling before the faceless menace of this court, he should have been the one searching the depths of his soul for explanations. But the judges were the ones with the air of desperation, and their inane questions only strengthened Lee’s resolve. Creed Bushido? A lifetime ago! Did they really think him so narrow-minded? From the highest attic to the lowest crawlspace of his mind, Magan Kai Lee harbored no trace of doubt. His actions were just. His cause was right. He would not waver, not now, not ever.

Another voice chimed in, an exasperated voice obviously used to being practicality’s designated spokeswoman. “Sergeant Lee, regardless of any declarations made or not made — you delivered an open-handed palm thrust on an opponent whose guard was down. The whole point of sparring practice is that it’s practice. We don’t use lethal ammunition in our black code darts, we don’t use lethal moves on the sparring floor.”

“Not usually.”

“Are you suggesting that what happened to Vung Po was an accident?”

“Yes.” My actions are just. My cause is right. I will not waver.

Stupefaction reverberated around the chamber. “How could you possibly classify that move as an accident?” The first voice, the man with a perpetual frog in his throat. “The man was standing still with his arms by his sides.”

“I was acting in self-defense.”

A breath. Two. Magan again cycled around to the question in his head about whether he had gone too far when another voice began to speak.

And for the first time, he felt fear tiptoe up his spine.

“Pre-emptive self-defense,” said the voice, a basso profundo as deep as bedrock and twice as solid. [6] The end result of Lee’s own strength of will after a century of hammering by volcano-hot forces of nature. The man was not sitting at the table with the others. He stood some ten paces back, and yet his presence, once disclosed, thoroughly dominated the chamber.

“Y-yes, High Executive,” stammered Magan.

“You are a disciple of aido,” said Len Borda.

Magan Kai Lee did not respond because Borda’s statement was not an accusation so much as a statement of bald truth. Lee should have felt a sting in the pit of his stomach at this revelation. Aido was not exactly illegal, but its practice was not condoned either, especially in the Council barracks where military discipline trumped all other loyalties. Yet somehow the fact that the High Executive had pierced through all of the silly questions of the tribunal provided Magan with a small level of comfort. If Borda had not yet shown that he was on Lee’s side, he had amply demonstrated his contempt for his alleged adjudicators.

“I will speak to the prisoner alone,” said Borda. And within seconds, the four men and three women had vanished. Multi projections all. Magan pictured seven relieved judges standing on separate red tile squares in their homes and wiping their wrinkled brows in relief.

The shackled sergeant listened for the rustling of a robe, the shuffle of a pair of feet on stone, the muffled scratch of fingernails creeping through stubble. But the High Executive was a black hole from which no soundwaves escaped. Either Borda had activated a particularly effective sound deadening program, or he had some kind of training in the martial arts…

“You have studied aido,” croaked Magan.

A low rumbling noise from the far side of the room: laughter filtered through earth. “I have studied many philosophies,” said Borda. “Occasionally they come to me with trial gifts, of which I partake if I find them useful.”

“Did you find Vung Po — useful?”

“People are statistical averages, Magan. They have their spikes and their troughs. Vung Po ranked considerably higher than most.”

Lee’s mind was abuzz with the shifting of gears, the realigning of mental pistons. He had tried to imagine many times how Len Borda would feel about the death of his trusted number two. History had not recorded the high executive’s state of mind the two prior occasions that his hand-picked successors had met with similar fates. And even now, kneeling across from him in this stone chamber with the deed having been done, Magan could not read his emotions.

Still, if he was to succeed in his self-appointed task — if he was to take Vung Po’s place in the Defense and Wellness Council hierarchy — he needed to act. “I can also be useful, high executive,” said Lee.

“You could be more useful if you were not so stupid,” replied Borda. His voice said that he had long since plotted the trajectory of Magan’s actions far into the future, and prepared for each contingency he might encounter along the way. “Relying on the tribunal to declare Po’s death a sparring accident is sloppy planning, Sergeant Lee. You are lucky that the tribunal is even stupider than you.”

“If they’re so stupid, why don’t you appoint smarter judges?”

“Who says I want smarter judges?” The high executive let that sentence sink in for a moment. After a pause of twenty seconds, he spoke again, this time from a mere ten paces away, though Magan had not heard him move. “Tell me why you executed Lieutenant Po.”

“What I told the tribunal was true. I was acting in self-defense.”

“Bullshit. Explain yourself.”

Magan Kai Lee inhaled dank dungeon oxygen into his nostrils, expelled hot carbon dioxide. “Vung Po was your designated successor to the post of high executive. Since I will be the Defense and Wellness Council’s next ruling officer, however, it became inevitable that Po would seek to eliminate me. By eliminating him first, I have expressed the principle of pre-emptive self-defense.”

The high executive considered this explanation for a moment. Magan could sense his boots hovering just beyond the limited arc of his vision. “Not so stupid as I thought,” he mused aloud. “Yet your methodology is sloppy. Your weapons are crude.”

Lee remembered one of the tenets of aido that he had studied relentlessly over the years before leaving Creed Bushido. There is no weapon more effective than the human body. “My weapons, High Executive?”

“Death is crude and inefficient, Magan,” said Borda. “It is the tool of last resort. If you have not learned in your Council training by now that the mind is capable of much more devastation than any open-handed palm thrust, then you have learned nothing.”

And it was then that Magan Kai Lee heard what he had been listening for in Len Borda’s voice. The subtlest hint of the tomb, the most minuscule of inflections which leaned back towards the past instead of forward into the future. It was nothing that an ordinary listener would have noticed. But at that instant Magan knew. High Executive Borda had reached the inevitable crossover point in his life’s differential curve. Death was approaching, and he knew it.

“If I have learned nothing,” said Magan, “then teach me.”

“Obtuse man. Haven’t you realized yet that the lessons have already begun?” [7]

Notes

  1. Much of the language in the preceding two paragraphs would stay in the manuscript and eventually find its way into Marcus Surina’s mouth. [Back]
  2. These “judges” were a part of an idea I had early on where Len Borda would have an Inner Council that he consulted for advice. The degree to which he paid attention to them throughout the book was supposed to be a device for making the reader question Borda’s sanity. I never made it far with this concept. [Back]
  3. A constant issue running through my mind in these flashback chapters was how to apprise the reader of the fact that we’re in a flashback. You’ll see me trying on places to slip in date references here and there throughout these drafts. [Back]
  4. I hadn’t quite convinced myself to give up the concept of “aido” yet. As for Magan’s past, I’ve still kept some vague references in the finished novel, but kept it purposefully vague. All you really need to know is that he’s something of an outcast, and the Defense and Wellness Council became a refuge of sorts for him. [Back]
  5. What are the rules of Ti Kren? I had no idea then, or now. Just throwing things out there with the expectation that a more involved definition would present itself. But I’ve definitely learned that there are some things you can’t convincingly fake in a novel. You need to take time to research and respect the subjects you broach, and if you’re not willing to do that, then you have no business writing about them. [Back]
  6. The concept of “pre-emptive self-defense” should raise flags for anyone who followed the debate leading up to the Iraq War. I wondered if readers were going to use this and other hints (such as Borda’s strong-arming the Prime Committee into giving him authority to shut down any program on the Data Sea at his sole discretion) to conclude that Len Borda represents George W. Bush. Definitely not what I intended. I ended up ditching this entire aspect of the story anyway, so it’s a moot point. [Back]
  7. I really liked that sentence, and wish that I could have found a way to include it in the final draft. [Back]