Speculative fiction. Copyright © 2007 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved. Originally published in Straying From the Path (Drollerie Press, 2009)
She had lost weight. At least ten pounds. Her black-and-navy fatigues belonged to someone much larger, but along with the oversized clothing and wild brunette curls, her wide eyes deceived if they suggested childlike innocence. “You’ve looked better, Alex,” I said.
“Not going back.”
“You’re all leaving.” The voice faded behind the thud of cleats as a ragged soldier stepped from behind a stack of metal pipes. He charged his rifle and nodded an apology to the bald man standing beside me. “Sorry, Colonel, but they don’t belong here.”
“We lost twenty soldiers in the last offensive,” said the colonel. “We don’t need trouble with the Nation, now do we, Sergeant? Alex is leaving. They’re all leaving.”
The Nation’s reputation encouraged cooperation from a careful man like the colonel. The sergeant was another matter, but they were both traitors to their army, their faithlessness hardly a surprise to me. I had spent my life defending my species against sapiens aggression.
Heat from the sergeant’s charging rifle shimmered the air, and when the colonel raised his own, it gleamed with an oily seep. I carried a revolver loaded with jacketed hollow points. The load gave good expansion without excessive recoil and, more importantly, it avoided extensive meat damage. Like all Patriots, I might have been mistaken for an Old West gunfighter, complete with leather boots, a black blazer, and a lawless revolver holstered on one hip. That is, if a woman had ever ravaged the American frontier.
With a discreet finger, I unstrapped and cocked the hammer. My adjutant, Ricqa, did the same.
The sergeant swung his rifle, gesturing with exaggerated movements that covered for trembling hands. “You let one in, and more always follow. And what do you think they want? To help us? To help themselves!”
I watched the sergeant’s lips compress into a tight, white line, and color drain from his cheeks, so when the colonel growled his order again, I was already diving at Alex.
The sergeant fired. Ricqa fired back, his bullets scarring the steel walls as Alex and I rolled. Caught in the crossfire, the colonel dropped like dead weight, a rifle burn leaving a black crater in his chest.
The sergeant took aim but stumbled, hit by a ricochet. As he sprawled onto the floor, his rifle spun away. Ricqa flipped him to his back, used a boot to break his nose, and stood awaiting an answer to a question he hadn’t asked. When I gave a slight nod, he shot the sergeant dead.
Alex fumbled with a rifle until I plucked it from her grasp. Ricqa cuffed her wrists and escorted her to my ship.
I spit black water and splashed away from the roar of tanks, their metal hinges groaning as their steel belts crushed the forest. After the water receded and my boots hit hard ground, I felt renewed strength. The deafening roar had faded to a hum, punctuated by explosions of grenades that fizzled out quickly on a planet with no oxygen.
Although a viroskin covered me like a second skin, absorbing the radiation from Dahmin’s suns, the stinging ammonia rain made my lungs burn. Metabolizing drugs created oxygen internally and filtered poisons through accelerated sweating. What the film didn’t protect, the viromeds repaired, but their turpentine reflux was nauseating.
I was on my way to meet with the colonel, and not for the first time. I had been through this moment over-and-over, hoping to undo everything I had done. I wouldn’t make the mistake again of leaving her at the mercy of those with no mercy.
I carried a map and note from one of the cells of Resistance fighters that littered the valley. If I could avoid the tanks, I might also work my way clear of other cells entrenched in the outskirts of the city.
Picking my way through blue foliage, I glanced around, searching through the darkness for something alien on the alien world. I thought I saw the grimy face of a pale man, and when I blinked, the world became a riot of ghostly images. Across the landscape, people stood superimposed, their entangled iterations like trails of motion, but nothing moved. Although I swiped at the closest ones, I failed to move them. Unlike my mind, my hands were trapped in time.
Time travel was not so glamorous as one might imagine. Mostly, there was the insanity. If Einstein had been right, and light speed was a constant, then time travel would have become a technology as popular as the Integrid. Since science had not been entirely successful with its notion of time, metascience developed its own. The technology of Shifting had yet to achieve what I discovered on Dahmin. The trouble with “shifting” your mind from one probability to another was the inevitable confusion of who, exactly, “you” were. Hence, the insanity.
I stepped into an iteration of myself and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the phantoms were gone, but my throat was dry. I choked on my own saliva. As I coughed, an exquisite rush distracted me, and I tasted a mouthful of scotch. The heady burn was too real to be a mere memory. Distracted by taunting desires, I didn’t notice the body until I tripped over it. Alex gazed up at me, her body charred and smoking as she sighed away her final breath.
I would have to try again.
Ricqa was in his sleeptube for the journey home after helping me retrieve Alex from Dahmin.
I sat at command, appraising Alex a moment before I said, “I can medicate you, restrain you, or we can have a pleasant visit on the way home.”
She stood with arms crossed over her chest. Her belligerent jaw called my bluff, so I raised the stakes. “We have the sergeant’s body.”
She glanced away.
I softened my tone. “Aren’t you tired of synth?”
“You’re lying. They would kill you if you went near it.”
My lip curled as I thought of what she had suffered. “Is that how they’ve been treating you, these friends of yours? Burying fresh meat in mud? They’re mindless, humping apes. Morality so twisted it defies logic. They’d rather feed worms than us.”
“It would be illegal.”
“You’re responsible for his death. You’d be breaking a dozen laws. It’s the kind of thing that makes them think of us as monsters.”
“They’re the monsters.”
“You’re so casual about your crimes, so relentless about mine.”
“What crimes? Do you think the truth matters more than their fear? It’s the notion of what lurks under their sapiens exterior that so frightens them. They blame us. They’re the wolves.”
She closed her eyes. “Just let me go.”
Her plea made my heart pound faster. I wondered if I could ease surrender from her exhaustion. I left my chair and tried to kiss her mouth, but she turned away, so I kissed the rise of her cheekbone instead.
After a moment, she acquiesced. “I’ll do whatever you want.” She turned to me, eyes full. “If you tell him I escaped.”
She began to unbutton her shirt, but I stopped her. I couldn’t let go of her hands until the discipline that had circumscribed my last twenty years reasserted itself. Accepting her offer might solve my dilemma, but it wouldn’t solve hers. The premier wanted his daughter home.
She smelled inviting, like warm vanilla, so I stepped away. “It’s because of the Protectorate that you can make speeches about all men living in peace, about all men being equal,” I said. “You do what an ‘enlightened conscience’ dictates, but I make sure the Nation’s preserved in spite of its idealists.”
“She’s experiencing withdrawal,” said a metallic voice. I shifted my focus. The translucent human face of my sentinel stared back from the contact in my right eye, its voice piped directly to my auditory nerve. It faded from view, replaced by clouds of color. Patches of blue overlay parts of Alex’s body, revealing the poor functioning of her liver and several surgeries from her childhood. More than a thousand users routed access through her bioprocessors, and a routine crawler was examining her genome. Nothing concerned me until I saw her hormone fluctuations, the result of sedative abuse. The sapiens soldiers ate the drug like candy.
I refocused on Alex. “How are you feeling?” Her eyelids drooped, so I guided her to the command chair and addressed my sentinel. “Scream, direct 5 cc’s GBVH to Alex. Go hot.” Along with the bioprocessors that comprised the Integrid, tiny microarrays floated in her bloodstream, allowing her own body to manufacture the medication I prescribed.
She pushed away. “Don’t drug me.”
“You’ll feel better in a minute.” I carried her to a sleeptube.
Afterward, I sat in the command chair and thought of home.
I had left Earth in late November, when high above Lake Michigan, the scarlet tiles that jacketed Embassy Tower recalled the saturated autumn. The bright glass building was more than an idiosyncrasy amid a brittle season. It was the first defiant apportioning of a world that had once belonged to a single species of man.
A Patriot had saved me from a lynching when I was seven. Not that my would-be judges knew what I was. It wasn’t easy to tell a virens from a sapiens.
Like most virens, I had resisted becoming a citizen, but unlike many, I quickly accepted the inevitable. By training, I was a psychiatrist. I was a Patriot serving the Protectorate of the Virens Nation. I was a protocol redactor, an agent who fit history to policy, and so, in essence, a woman who recreated the Nation almost daily.
My age had given me a certain perspective and my career a certain status, but the path I followed had turned me in a direction that was much less than certain. Alex had silenced the guiding anthem of my life.
Second time around, I blinked away the bright light. Tasted turpentine. Missed the scotch.
“You think of yourself as a tool.”
I spun to find the voice.
“You think that makes you strong, but it only makes you cynical.”
The colonel sat at a metal table.
I had arrived once again after bribing my way into Dahmin’s second city, where the Resistance had their headquarters. But I couldn’t bribe the colonel, at least not with drugs. It’s true he was a traitor, but you didn’t reach his rank in the sapiens War Ministry unless you were a company man.
I had tried another iteration, hoping to arrive in time to keep myself from taking Alex home. If I could get hold of her again, it wouldn’t be to return her to Earth this time. My thoughts darted about, searching for something to convince the Colonel to give her to me, and as it happened, it was the truth. “Alex is prone to mystical thinking,” I said. “She’s a creative child who believes if she wants something enough, it will just happen, as if her thoughts can magically change reality. I have a warrant for her. You know the Protectorate won’t leave a citizen of the Virens Nation out here alone. More Patriots will come. If she’s declared rogue, bounty hunters will follow.” I took a deep breath to clear my thoughts. “I don’t care about your war. I care about Alex. Give her to me, and I’ll leave you to your treason.”
“You’re right, Doctor. Thoughts can’t change reality. They create it. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be fighting for a free Dahmin.”
“That’s revealing. Have you heard it said that one’s philosophy is just unconscious autobiography?”
“The fact that you’ve memorized Nietzsche is maybe even more revealing.”
I couldn’t help smiling at this grunt of a colonel who knew his philosophy.
“Despite protests from my soldiers,” he said, “I let her stay because she believes in our fight, but she doesn’t begin to understand why it’s important, what this world has to offer.”
“You have an interesting perspective on things. I think one should understand something before one believes it.”
“Then you’re a faithless woman.”
“Do you know what I do, Colonel?”
He leaned forward. “You create the fictions that are the impulse of our age.” He leaned back.
“How concise.” I repaid his insight with a nod. “Then maybe you realize the kind of access I have, the kind of information I can create. I can write your story, push it, make sure it’s discussed. You’ll become freedom fighters instead of traitors, heroes not cowards. Give her to me.”
“She’s not mine to give.”
“Of course she is, Colonel.”
Later, as I waited for him to bring her, my skin began to itch. Despite the many times it had happened, I still had no idea how to prepare as the world again became a ghastly morgue of frozen moments. I was coming to understand the thriving trade in sedatives.
Afraid of getting lost in some strand of time, I closed my eyes and didn’t move. Sensing the heap of potentiality surrounding me made it difficult to concentrate, so I lost track of what I was doing. Then someone was talking, and rifles fired. I opened my eyes.
Ricqa chased after the sergeant, who ran from the warehouse, and the colonel was lying dead nearby. Alex was on the ground.
Dropping to my knees, I pressed my hands against her stomach to stop the bleeding. I ordered Scream to increase her fluids, but he didn’t respond, and I couldn’t get any readings to appear on my contact. Only then did I realize rifles had always been firing and Alex had always been dying.
I would have to try again.
Halfway home, I woke Alex from her drug-induced sleep and offered her meat. Good nutrition, comfort, and expectations of satisfaction were the best tools for control. Her youth gave her stamina. A habit of deprivation gave her courage. Unfulfilled in life, she was bland about death. She had been following the path set by her ideals, but that had to end at some point. I needed her surrender, her acceptance of what she was. It was the hardest step to pass from the dreamy midnight of what one wanted to be, to the cold morning of facing what one was.
The death rates for my generation were twenty-percent before the age of seventeen. I had seen childhood friends not only beaten but beaten to death. What good did it do if they punished criminals, when they created them to begin with? If not for the Protectorate, the old species would still be making bonfires with us. And what were we but reminders of what they hated in themselves?
Alex took a bite after some effort to ignore her plate. To weaken her resolve, I chatted about events back home—the work of friends, promotions, marriages.
She seemed to be assimilating until resentment darkened her lovely green eyes. “So Grace, did you find me or was it Scream?”
Finding Alex had not been the hard part. Resisting the urge to medicate her into submission was. “Address me correctly. I’d hate for anyone to think I didn’t command your respect.”
One eyebrow rose. “Well then, Doctor Witcher, was it Scream?”
“It’s humbling to see heuristic algorithms slowly replacing you.”
“Humbling? Since when have you ever been humble?” She looked me over. “No, it wasn’t Scream. Human intuition can’t be reproduced, especially not yours.”
“That’s what they said about quantalogic predicting events in chaotic systems, and look how well we can predict the weather now.”
“But chaotic systems are still completely deterministic. Data miners can handle non-repeating and complex functions, but behavior is entirely different.”
“Are you trying to tell me behavior is not a chaotic system, that it isn’t completely deterministic, that free will is somehow an unquantifiable, unpredictable, non-probabilistic event?”
“Interesting.” I took a bite of my roast. “That hasn’t been my experience. In fact, I’m often quite amazed at just how well behavior follows patterns of probability. The key to prediction, of course, is understanding how to weight the choices, and that requires experience. If we can instill that sort of intuition into sentinels, then my profession will be unnecessary. And, you know what? We have. Scream can accurately predict human action eighty-percent of the time.”
“Only when you supply the data. The best sentinels can predict human interactions sometimes, but that’s not intuition. That’s just counting cards.”
“You sound like an old woman. It’s the young ones who usually embrace our technology like a religion.”
“Is it a religion to you?”
“Eat. You’ll think more clearly.”
“You mean I’ll be more pliable.” She scowled, until my attention brought a sly smile to her face. “I can be anything you want me to be.” A mocking pause. “Doctor Witcher.”
I was too introspective to believe she had ever appreciated me as a woman. I was her warden, a status resulting in the pendulum of worship and loathing that had her promising me ecstasy one day and death the next. “The one thing you won’t be is ‘rogue’,” I told her. “You can’t imagine what your life would be like without the Protectorate.”
“I imagine it all the time.”
I sat on a rock, black with volcanic dust, knowing already that I was too late to retrieve her from this timeline. With so many iterations to step into, I kept finding the wrong one. In principle, the longer I stayed on Dahmin, the better I should become at reading decoherence, but exactly what “longer” meant, I couldn’t say. Quantum decoherence was just as obvious but just as immeasurably complex as metascience claimed.
Dahmin had few animals and no sentient natives, so I wasn’t sure who the Resistance was fighting to free. I found areas entirely devoid of animal life, including a valley inhabited by plants that looked like footstools for dinosaurs. No telling how long ago that had happened. Or how soon to come.
I made my way to the warehouse. My viromeds were running low, and Scream couldn’t help me. I had counted on Dahmin’s fuzzy reality to make myself disappear from the Integrid, but I hadn’t considered how much I had come to rely on it.
A thud on my back drove me to my knees. Working to breathe, I crawled forward and dragged myself to my feet with the help of a table. I swayed as I turned around.
The sergeant grimaced, revulsion fighting with fear for dominance. The barrel of his rifle pressed against my chest as he reached forward and tore my revolver from its holster. “God, I can’t stand your stink!” He stepped back.
I looked up into his red face. “And may I say I have no such difficulty. In fact, you smell delicious.”
I took a blow that broke my eye socket and sent me tumbling across the floor. He followed and yanked me up with the ease of snatching a doll. He had dropped his rifle, freeing his hands to squeeze my neck, and my hyoid felt as if it would snap any second. With no hope of loosening his grip, I clawed his eyes with my fingers. One good stab and he finally yelped. I doubled him over with a kick to his gut.
“I’ve been beaten by better men than you,” I rasped, rubbing my throat. “I’ve been smeared with shit, hanged, shot, burned, and stabbed. If you think you can hurt me, you’re an arrogant son-of-a-bitch, like most of your kind.”
I picked up my revolver and shot him dead.
I would have to try again.
“This is your last chance.” Alex sat at command with her eyes closed. “We’ll be home in a few hours. We can still get out of here. Kimir Station. No, we can join a ship of pirates out by Irahu.”
Leaning against a console, I tracked her liver function, adjusting her medications with Scream’s help.
“Is he going to put a security bracelet on me?”
She had already cracked or conned her way out of every system her father devised, so there was no point in telling her of his decision. She would plead or threaten. I preferred her defiant and dreaming. “What about Ariadne’s moon?” I said. “I always wanted to see the webbed clouds.”
“We could be there in a couple of months. Then on to Marksdawn. I hear its rivers are liquid diamonds. In a few years, we’d have enough money to buy at least a small moon.” Her laughter faded as she stared at me. “How can you be such a good liar? You’re so obvious.”
“It’s that distance between your charm and a fractured nature I don’t get. Most people mistake the sadness in your eyes for kindness. You’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“Most people don’t see a sheep in me at all. They claim we’re evolved from some mix of humans and wolves, but they don’t realize the demon in us comes from them, not the wolves.”
“You work for protocol. You’re a redactor. A liar.”
“You don’t get me at all.”
“I know everything about you.”
“Do you know I love you?” When I didn’t answer, she closed her eyes. “He’s really angry, isn’t he?”
“How does it look for his daughter to run away while he’s negotiating extradition for unregistereds?”
“He can forget about me. Disown me.”
“The War Ministry once vivisected us, and there are still Resurrectionists running around who think with enough injections, they can de-evolve us. Even if he didn’t love you, he couldn’t allow you to leave.” I paused for emphasis. “And he does love you.” It was the best I could do.
She was already shaking her head, not hearing me. “The Nation tells us we never had the same rights as sapiens, but when the World Constitution talks about citizens—hell, aren’t we citizens? Don’t you see? The Nation makes us think we’re different, and that just confirms the sapiens notion that we’re also less.”
“You can’t change reality, Alex. You have to realize you’re much safer with me.”
“The laws are our laws, too, so we’re asking for something we already have a right to. We don’t need special protections, because we aren’t special.”
At eight years old, Alex had seen her mother murdered by a mob of sapiens in a mining town. Resentment never surfaced, but like a libertarian, she spoke of freedom from labels, from laws, from the Protectorate. She was a daughter of the premier, and she had publicly denounced compulsory citizenship in the nation he governed. She didn’t want to see the differences that oppressed us. She wanted to be “normal,” which meant she wanted to be like the old species.
I couldn’t tell her how truly “normal” she was to become, sapped of any drive but to obey. After the chemical lobotomy, she would take her place alongside the premier’s other children as a docile member of Earth’s second species. Her anxious father would never again awaken me in the middle of the night to evaluate her escape route or grant me a hiatus from my duties in order to chase her across the solar system. As his oldest friend, he used me to clean up personal messes, but this would be my last time chasing after his youngest daughter.
The premier wasn’t a heartless man. He was out of options, unless he could take the step his daughter demanded and see beyond the ghetto. I knew he couldn’t. He was trapped by history, like all virens. Like me.
I kept wondering about this point of view, who this “I” was. What happened to the “me” who had been here, or the “me” who had left there? Metascience said time splinters consciousness, that consciousness is a product of the space it inhabits, an emergent property of the universe expressed through a person. You can share a wave, after all, but you can’t take hold of it, so it’s a delusion to believe you’re merely yourself. Like most people who came to Dahmin, I discovered time is a place, one I could move beyond, but experiencing unified consciousness was less like transcendence and more like dying.
I had died in many small ways before I found a timeline where I managed to keep Alex alive. I had arrived in time to have the colonel bring her to me before the sergeant turned up. Ricqa and I shuffled Alex off to my ship, where he retired to a sleeptube, while I sat with her, appreciating the fire in her eyes even more after so many tries to revive it.
As usual, she railed against protectionist laws and the fear that kept us believing sapiens rhetoric. I didn’t need to listen. I needed to change reality, the one that had consumed her in a way only a fear of sapiens could. “They’ll find me wherever I go,” I said. “You, too.”
Suspicion narrowed her eyes. She tried not to smile, as if she couldn’t bear to believe me, but the gullibility I had always abused was now her gift to me. Despite her effort to appear stoic, her smile broke through. “We can do it, Grace.”
“You can do it. They don’t abide rogue Patriots. I’ll be terminated. Heart attack, I assume.”
She seemed stunned. “Murder you?”
“No one could prove it.”
“My father wouldn’t allow it.”
“Your father has authorized many such … terminations.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I’ve programmed the cocktails, Alex.” I didn’t enjoy the roast as much this time around. I pushed my plate away. “I’m taking you to Jupiter. You can seek asylum at the colony there, which should give you a few months of bureaucratic fighting before extradition. If you can sneak away, I recommend you get out of the solar system. You’ll probably be running forever.”
“But that means I’ll be alone.” The sparkle faded from her eyes.
“Yes, well, I’ve been a mother to you long enough.”
“My mother’s dead. I don’t need another one.”
Her solemn mood didn’t affect mine. My good humor was the result of a success that couldn’t be taken away. I had found my path and a new anthem. “Then what? Big sister? Guardian angel? Is that what you want?”
Leaning forward, she took my hand. “Come with me.”
“You would have to watch me die.”
“What about Dahmin? There’s such chaos there. Maybe they wouldn’t find us.”
“I found you.”
She let go of my hand. “Because I left that article behind. You think I don’t know you rifle through my quarters every chance you get?”
Not as gullible as I thought. “They’ll terminate me and send another Patriot.”
“Even to Dahmin?”
“Alex, you can’t possibly want to go back to that insane jungle. The soldiers are going mad, at least the ones who aren’t overdosing. It wouldn’t be long before the same would happen to you.”
“You managed, and I know you wouldn’t medicate yourself.”
I don’t know why I hesitated, except that I had already planned to return to Dahmin alone and didn’t want to risk her life or her sanity. And really, I had no need for her to come, because she was already there.
She rose from her chair. “Suppose we did, Grace. Suppose we went to Dahmin anyway. It wouldn’t take us long to get back. A day, two? And some of the soldiers have been there a year at least. We could make it that long, couldn’t we? A year? How long do you think we’d have?”
Another hesitation, this time to brush away an unruly brunette curl from her eyes. I was pleased that I would never have to see her without them again. “If the Protectorate gives me forty-two hours,” I said. “I’ll give you forever.”
“We’re going back to your quarters now, Alex.”
Two days after returning her to Earth, she sat on a bed in the psychiatric wing of Central Hospital. I helped her dress. She wore black slacks and a white blouse. Her hair was boyish, her curls, like her enthusiasm, gone. When I began to button her vest, she pressed my hand against her chest and stared with unfocused eyes. “I remember. I remember, Grace.”
Leaning in, I touched my forehead to hers. “Don’t call me that. Especially not here. You know better.”
Foreheads still touching, she squinted at me, her focus making her cross-eyed. “I know many things. I know I’m a warning to anyone who can see through walls.”
I kissed her forehead and wrapped my arms around her. “No one can see through walls. No one needs to, because you can always go around them.”
She giggled. “Sometimes you only think you can.”
Her relentless drive for freedom was nothing less than pathological, but I found the experience of an Alex devoid of that passion demoralizing. Losing her self to preserve her life sickened me, and I knew the only one who could understand that sentiment was Alex, at least, the Alex I loved.
I spent weeks trying to figure out how to reverse a chemical lobotomy, but even Scream couldn’t solve the equations. And if I had managed it, crawlers would have discovered it. There were no secrets in the Nation, except those of conscience. I dreamt of escaping with her and spending a lifetime by diamond rivers, but I woke from nightmares that had me hemorrhaging before I left orbit.
From Earth, the Protectorate can send an order for the microarrays in a rogue to manufacture cancer, or something a little more invalidating if she’s a threat, like psychosis, or something immediate for a really dangerous one, like a heart attack. It’s an efficient process of detection using bits that both exist and don’t exist to generate probabilities relayed through living nodes. They can find a rogue anywhere because all virens are part of the Integrid, and yet, they receive output at an informatics lab, where the probability wave collapses, and all those ambiguous options result in a single fact. They need that single fact.
What was inevitable was not so clear anymore. Like rocks hardening out of a lava flow, our spacetime actualizes from the possibilities, but all possibilities actualize somewhere, and that means when things begin to make sense, information is already lost. What we know is only what we know, not all that is, so I would pass beyond this mortal horizon and enter Dahmin’s unchanging season, never before imagining a splintered life could be made whole by knowing less and desiring more.
Speculative fiction. Copyright © 2007 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.