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Authors: Peter Sargent

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BOOK: Unhaunting The Hours
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He said, “I’ll get it checked out to
make sure it’s operational. Then we’ll fire it up.”

 

I jerked my head away and said, “I
didn’t say anything about that.”


If you want to live, I’m
not sure you’ve got a choice. Trust me, this will work much better
than what I had in mind originally.”

* * * *


Where’d you get this guy,
Balder?”

I said, “I’m right here; why not ask
me?”

I was sitting in a tiny windowless
room, on a cushy table covered with paper. A doctor had something
plugged into me, and he was watching the output on a diagnostic
screen. The detective stood across from me.


What’s the story?” said
Balder, to the doctor.


This one jack’s connected
to a multiplexer that branches out all across his brain. It’s got
tendrils everywhere.” He counted out the connections, “Visual,
auditory, olfactory and motor regions of the cortex. And look at
this; it’s even got a line into the reticular system. This is a
beautiful job; you can send it sensory input and motor
output.”


And you can wiretap it?”
said Balder.


Excuse me?” I
said.

The doctor said, “Yeah, with this
reticular fiber. You’ve just got to figure out the mux code for
that pin. Just a moment… here we go. Do you want a
look?”


Hey!” I grabbed the cord
and pulled it out.

Balder raised his hands and said,
“Sorry. But do you mind telling me how you got this done? It
must’ve cost a fortune.”


Honestly, I don’t remember.
The Abderans…”


Yeah, the Abderans. I get
it. Fine, we’ll talk later. Right now, what I want is a remote
transmission from your eyes and ears. This is better than wearing a
wire, do you follow? We can even program the transmitter to come on
when something interesting happens – you know, ah – when you get
fight or flight arousal? So we won’t miss anything.”

All I said was, “Mm.” I figured they
were going to do it anyway, so I let them hook me up to their
machine again. I didn’t expect it to hurt as much as it did. They
woke up the very thing I was trying to kick, and it was like they
lit a fire in my head. I figured that if I ever activated the jack
again, all the old images would come rushing back to me. But all I
saw were clusters of paint spots and glowing colored strings. It
was just like the floaters you see when you squeeze your eyes shut,
only with the volume turned up. I figured it was because their
machine was a receiver, and so there was nothing for my starved
neurons to consume. They gasped and twisted up inside my skull.
Then I lost time again.

I awoke an hour later. The doctor had a
tiny device that looked a bit like a plastic pushpin, and he stuck
it in the jack. Then he played with my hair a bit, to make sure it
covered that transmitter.

I said, “Did you see anything
interesting?”

There was a silence. Then the doctor
said, “Like I said, you’ve got quite a system there. It cost
somebody a lot of money.”

Balder grabbed my shoulder. He looked
at me, as if he had something important to say. And then he said,
“Do you think you’re ready?”


As you’ve said, I don’t
have a choice. So you’ll send the SWAT team when that red-headed
butcher sinks a knife into me?”

Balder grinned. “You bet.”

* * * *

I declined the ride home, because I
wanted to sit on the El train and brood. My good mood was over,
just like that. What the hell? I’d split my back in two trying to
salvage my life and get something good going again. It was ironic,
because I was easy to please. Honestly, I could find happiness just
staring at the wall like some kind of Zen Buddhist, if only
everyone else possessed the common courtesy to leave me the hell
alone.


So what’s your problem now,
George?” I said.

My problem was, I’d burned out all of
my most useful neurons to get out from under the Cipher’s digital
thumb, and then I’d gambled on debt to buy myself an education. But
you can’t start a new life when some asshole with a gun and a badge
wants to string you up and reprogram you for a suicide mission. And
you can’t start a new life when your lost twin wants to carve you
up, either. That happiness I’d risked it all for? It seemed a good
bet, because I figured I was so insignificant that no one really
cared enough to screw with me. Everyone had a chance of winding up
somebody’s dinner; the trick was to look less tasty than the
rest.


Hold on, George.” I
breathed. “Don’t lose it. Remember the plan?”

I hit my fist on the seat. A little boy
snapped his head up from a sing-song book; he looked terrified.
There were moments when I thought that maybe I kept odd hours
because running into your average circadian rhythm types reminded
me of how they saw me.

I had to get a lift that wasn’t
Spectrum or a jack-in to Abdera. I went to the grocery store. Now
there’s a calming place. It’s clean, bright, and full of food. I
just had to forget that it was the same place my twin had struck
one day ago. Or maybe I was curious.

I gathered up my ingredients and headed
for the registers. As I stood in line, listening to the beeping bar
code scanner, I noticed a big man in a suit yelling at one of the
clerks. He stretched his arms and jabbed at the guy with his
finger, and I saw a tiny mark on his hand every time the cuffs
shook back from it. It was a tattoo, one that I knew I’d seen
before. It had me fixed for a moment, until the guy at the register
called me up. I filed the scene away in my brain.

* * * *

When I reached my apartment, someone
red-haired was waiting for me. It was that orange cat I’d displaced
from the garbage bin the night before. He looked up at me as if to
say that he’d been wondering where I’d been all day. When I opened
my door, he trotted inside and sat on my kitchen floor.


What is it?” I said. “You
think I’m going to feed you?”

He meowed and waggled his head. I
checked the collar. It was Mrs. Brown’s cat. Of course I had to
feed him. Who else would? He snapped up the pepperoni I gave him,
and reminded me that I better check on his owner. I left the cat in
my apartment and walked to the top of the hill. There was a shabby
wooden building there, with an old store marquee that read “Berm
Shelter”. I walked up the stairs and stopped short. There was
Molly, sitting behind the reception desk. While my mind tried to
come up with something interesting to say, my brain came up with
something stupid to pass the time.


I live just down the
street.” I paused. “I brought an elderly woman in. Mrs. Brown. I’m
a friend of hers, and I wanted to check in on her.”

Her finger drummed out a nervous
beat.

She said, “So you brought her in. I was
wondering. We haven’t seen her in a couple days.”


Oh. So you work here?”
Stupid brain. “I come here on Sundays, and I’ve never seen
you.”


I’m a volunteer. Tuesdays
and Fridays. You live down the street?”


Yes.”


And Mrs. Brown usually
stays on your street?”


Yes.”


I guess you better go find
her.”

Right; fine. I started to walk out the
door, but then Molly called after me.


She left some things
behind. Maybe you’d like to come get them?”

I followed her into the basement. It
was musty, bounded by the exposed stone foundation. Cots pressed
against the walls, but only two were occupied. Old men sat on each,
one of them staring at me with glassy eyes, and the other tucked
beneath a cap. Between them, there was an empty cot, a folded
sweater on its pillow. Molly gestured in that direction and I went
to get it. By the time I turned to say thank you, she was gone. I
heard her light footsteps going up the rickety wooden
stairs.

There were dark spots on the sweater. I
lifted one fold, and saw dried blood inside.

Then my head buzzed, and I heard a
voice coming from somewhere behind my eyes.


Shit.” said
Balder.

I said, “I thought this wasn’t on all
the time.”


I was curious. Now get the
hell out of there.”

I opened the sweater. The entire inside
was covered in blood. I looked to my side. One of the old men was
nodding off, and had his hat pulled over his face. The other still
watched me with that vacant stare.


Get out of there.” said
Balder. “I’m coming for you.”

I climbed the stairs, and at the top
there was a figure blocking the light. Then the door slammed shut,
closing me in pitch darkness. I felt a jab in my side, and I was
falling, tumbling over the steps. I think I bruised a bone, when I
banged around the corner and collapsed in the basement room. I
looked up. The two men were there, still as ever. Then someone
pressed my back with a heavy knee.


Why don’t you take it
back?” said Healing. “You are what you always were, you murderous
bastard.”

Something hard and thin pressed against
my back, and my jacket ripped. Then I felt the cold metal from the
blade, and he slit my shirt. For the second time in the same day, I
thought - what’s this guy going to do to me? Healing dropped a
plastic syringe cap on the floor, stuck the needle in my IV, and
pushed the plunger. I jerked like a snared fish, but then my
muscles relaxed and disappeared. I didn’t even feel it when Healing
took his knee off me; I was startled to see his boots in front of
my face. He knelt down and pulled Balder’s device out of my head,
and inserted something of his own. Then he left.

My eyes filled with static flakes, and
a shape emerged from it, a ghost. It came towards me, with
something in its hands. My neck had frozen at an odd angle, tilting
the room at a crazy slant. I panicked – my breathing was shallow.
My lungs were failing me, seizing up. The stuff we’d used in Abdera
was usually just strong enough to lubricate the mind-machine
connection, but this was too much. This was something else,
something – well, something much worse. Healing hadn’t come here to
scare me. That wasn’t the usual juice he put in me. Think. It was
something more like – yeah – it was pancuronium bromide. Some of
the more hard-core Abderans used it when they believed their minds
were ready for the final transfer into the graphene – for passage
into immortality. Your body dies when your lungs paralyze, just
before your soul departs for the machine.

Against a snowy background, the
silhouette inched closer to me. I rolled my eyes, and I saw a man
on the cot. Weren’t there two before? Now there was just one, the
one with the glassy eye, and there was that figure close to me,
that phantom shimmering in the half-light. It had something heavy
in its hands, and it lifted the thing over its head. Then I was
out.

* * * *

At first it was all black, and I heard
a bodiless voice, neither male nor female.


Memory front load. Record
Hex Prefix Echo Foxtrot 7836 Bravo 1”

And the memories snapped on in
sequence, like a dreams inside a television…

* * * *

I could’ve killed him then, but I
didn’t. There he was, at the back of that grimy little café, his
eyes rolling at the ceiling in a hallucinogenic stupor. I’d stopped
short when I first saw him. I knew at once who he was, because
fifteen years earlier he was the one leading the chants of my
school mates. They came after me, yelling,


Georgey has no mommy!
Georgey has no daddy!”

They picked me up and carried me to the
thorn bush at the end of the school yard, where they dumped me in
it. And now here I was, and the guy was a shrunken core of what
he’d been as a child. When I approached him, he lolled his head in
my direction, and I knew he recognized me. Maybe for a moment, he
thought I might take advantage of his frailty. Or maybe he thought
I was a Spectrum-induced ghost from his past. Either way, he held
out a hand and offered me the drops I’d paid for, and I took them
and left him there.

* * * *


Memory front load. Record
Hex Prefix 44 Delta Foxtrot 175 Charlie…”

The woman with the crew cut held a vile
of my semen. She was dressed in a lady’s business suit, but it
covered the large shoulders of a man. When she reached forward with
her cell phone, her sleeve rode up her arm and revealed a tiny
tattoo just above the gold watch. I’d suspected it all along, but
now I knew I’d gotten mixed up with organized crime. No matter,
this was just a sale. In a few moments, I’d never have to look
back. It didn’t occur to me then that the moment might catch up to
me whether I looked back or not.

I said, “Can you tell me where he’ll
go?”


Do you honestly care?” She
said. “Or do you just want to make yourself feel like you
do?”

I paused. Every moment I was with her
felt like a weightless free fall. I feared that at some point, I’d
fall too far to get out.

I said, “Just give me the
money.”

BOOK: Unhaunting The Hours
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