by Vylar Kaftan
Dr. Rashid desperately needed a break from work. Six months of mind-diving was stressful for anyone, and he worked a heavy schedule. He’d turned out all the lights except the bluelamp on his desk, making his small office look strangely peaceful. Two hours left until vacation started. Rashid checked his pocket organizer even though he knew what it said–March 2, last day of Sha’aban. Still, he liked seeing the green block of free time coming up. He always took Ramadan off for prayer, but this year he planned to see Kenya before heading to rural Somalia. His annual volunteer work in Africa always replenished his energies.
Rashid picked up a few cluttered items from his desk and put them in drawers. His clients sometimes remarked on the Spartan décor; he found that an empty room clarified his mind. The only personal items visible were a conch shell with an intriguing mathematical pattern and a Somalian prayer-rug. He was just ordering a sweeper to clean his prayer niche when the phone signaled. Rashid lit the screen and saw Lynn Casey, his former boss. She looked anxious and frantic, which was standard for her.
“Hi, Lynn,” he said. “Congrats again on the promotion. How’s the new office? I hope they bought you a better chair.”
She grinned, but it faded fast. “Faisal, can you take a new case? Tonight?”
“Sorry, I’m not on call. Try–”
“I know you’re not. But you’re the best mind-diver we’ve got. I know that, even if you don’t have full seniority yet. This is a biggie. The patient’s a junior VP for HEC.”
That caught his attention. HEC funded a large chunk of Harvard’s medical research, particularly the School of Mind-Diving and Psychophysical Therapy. Now he heard her unspoken thought: turning down this case might risk their funding. He appreciated the compliment she paid to his skills. But the doctor on call could handle it. Rashid shook his head.
“I’m exhausted, and tomorrow’s the start of Ramadan. I haven’t had a night off in two weeks or a vacation since summer.”
“You’d have more vacation if you wouldn’t take so many extra clients pro bono.”
“You know I’m going to keep doing that,” he said, smiling. “The less they can afford me, the more they need me. That’s why I end up with so many homeless people in this office.”
“Of course. I like that about you.”
“So when I take vacation, I really need it. Sorry.”
She cleared her throat. “They asked who our best was, and I said you. They’re offering a $600,000 bonus if you take the job.”
“Did you say $600,000?”
She nodded. “And a matching bonus for the medical scholarship fund. I told them your policy. They doubled their offer.”
Rashid tilted his head, considering. “I’m amazed HEC is willing to spend that kind of money, given their upcoming IP lawsuit against MinSof. This guy must be important. Nobody protects their employees like this anymore. Usually the cash goes to lawyers and bribes.”
“Maybe he’s one of their star witnesses. Apparently MinSof has a ton of HEC’s trade secrets, whatever their source. The man might know something about the MinSof leak. Or maybe he’s the leak himself and HEC wants to indict him. I don’t know. The order came from very high in the organization–it was relayed to me, so I can’t confirm who gave it.”
He let out a long breath. “If they’re willing to dump a million bucks on him–”
“It’s an OD. On bluecop.”
That decided him. He knew why Lynn had called him–she remembered his brother. “All right. Shuttle him in. I’ll grab the file.”
“You got it. Thanks.”
Lynn’s image faded, leaving a medfile marker. Rashid wiggled his fingers and checked the data. Mark Freedman, age 46, Junior Technical VP for HEC. No wonder he got first-class treatment. Bluecop was one of those drugs used both in streetfights and in boardrooms to gain a competitive edge. In small doses, it caused heightened senses and a productive hypomanic state; in large doses it brought agonizing pain and brain damage. The effects were cumulative and the tipping point was unpredictable; like the whole class of neurophenemones, it was a game of Russian roulette. You never knew which hit would be your last.
Rashid sighed. It was bad enough when street kids got into the stuff. A corporate executive ought to know better. The report from the first-level techs said they’d stabilized his vital functions and prepped him for entry. He was out of physical danger, but his mental health remained at risk. Rashid relayed to the techs: bring him in.
The machine techs wheeled him into the diving zone and hooked him up. Rashid doublechecked their work. Mark Freedman seemed mostly healthy; he bore the white marbled look of a bluecop OD in his face, but showed no sign of bleeding from his ears. His skin retained normal elasticity–either he hadn’t done that much bluecop or he’d bought gene therapy to cover it.
Rashid programmed his approval and the techs glided out. He read through the medical records–nothing relevant. He glanced at the notes. The man’s family was in the waiting room. A wife and a son–Sylvia and Jimmy. Mrs. Freedman had called for help originally. She’d been Mark’s secretary before marrying him and leaving the company, which Rashid found interesting. Few office romances worked out so neatly.
Mark Freedman was physically stable. Time mattered, but Rashid could spare fifteen minutes to meet the people who cared about this man. Meeting them sometimes provided important information for him and often calmed their fears. That saved time and exhaustion during the actual mind-diving, so he considered it a worthwhile investment. Rashid stepped through the airgated doors and into the waiting room.
The room was designed to relax visitors, with deep blue walls and a fountain splashing down the far side. A young woman–much younger than her husband, he thought–sat in a chair. A small baby slept in a sling across her chest. Sylvia looked up when he entered. She was tall and broad-shouldered, with a round face hinting at some Middle Eastern ancestry. Smooth black hair swept over her shoulders. Her dark eyes were haunted and red. She sat by the kangaroo fern, between the door and the “Escape to your E-scape” framed print that he’d always disliked. Too many people came to him for a vacation instead of therapy.
She started to rise, but the baby sling hampered her movement. Rashid raised his hand.
“Please stay seated. It’s all right.”
“My husband–” She broke off, looking down at her baby.
“I’m Dr. Rashid. I’ll be examining your husband. I wanted to introduce myself so you could meet me.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“I’m sorry for the troubles. I know this is stressful for you, but I’d like your help. What can you tell me about your husband’s situation?”
Her voice shook. “He must’ve–had a habit. I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t know.” She leaned forward, her hair falling protectively around her face.
Rashid sat across from her, mirroring her posture. “Most likely he did,” said Rashid gently. “No one’s blaming you. Please calm down. Just tell me what you can.”
Sylvia took a deep breath and smiled weakly at him. “I’m sorry, Doctor. Maybe you can help. The details are in his file, aren’t they?”
“Yes, but I prefer to hear the story from you.”
“Well–I’m sure what I’d tell you is just in the file. Do I need to tell the story again?”
“Not if it’s difficult for you, but it would help me treat him. So you didn’t know or suspect that he might use bluecop?”
“No!” She shook her head vigorously. “I mean, I didn’t think so. I don’t know–he never told me. I thought I would have known. Has he had it before? Can you tell?”
“It’s likely. ODing is rare on a first dose, even a large amount.”
“I’ve heard that,” she said in a small voice, looking at her baby. “We were on our way to China. It was a personal trip–Mark goes there a lot, and I’ve always wanted to see it.”
“Where in China?”
HEC had a parts factory there, which confirmed Rashid’s hunch. The company had good reason to be interested in Mark Freedman’s mental health. Rashid folded his hands. “Had your husband mentioned meeting anyone there?”
“We were going retro. No electronics at all except our organizers. It was his idea.”
Rashid wondered whether Mark had ODed himself or if someone had known about his habit. Bluecop ODs were more likely in an already-agitated mind. “Did your husband seem anxious about this trip? What was his emotional state?”
“No, he seemed remarkably calm. He’s normally more high-strung. I figured he was relaxed and happy. I’m sorry, I just don’t know any more.”
“It’s all right, Mrs. Freedman. I’m going to dive into your husband’s mind. I’ve been doing this for ten years and I’m very experienced. Do you know much about mind-diving?”
“A little,” she said, looking up at him.
“You must have learned about mind-diving when you worked for HEC.”
“Less than you’d think. I was a junior secretary. I came to HEC from a construction company. I did a lot of the PR and front-facing work.”
Rashid nodded. “But you know what an e-scape really is.”
Sylvia looked down shyly. “It’s like a vacation you can take to relax within yourself.”
He raised an eyebrow, amused. “That’s what the media tells you,” he said, with a smile. “But as a therapeutic tool, it’s the key to your mental health. It’s your emotional landscape. Please–try this for a moment. Close your eyes.”
She obeyed. She wore the tiny gemstone lines across her lashes that were fashionable lately.
Rashid said, “Now imagine a place of natural beauty that relaxes you. Whatever feels natural, whether it’s real or not.”
“This reminds me of a yoga technique.”
“The developers of yoga were smart people.”
“Willow trees,” she said after a moment. “Willows at the edge of a still lake, with tiny ripples on the water’s surface. I don’t think this place is real, but I feel better just thinking about it. Dragonflies and crickets. Um… I can see all the way across the lake.”
“Water’s very common.”
“Sometimes I relax by remembering my grandma’s kitchen. It smelled good all the time.”
“You can open your eyes,” he told her. “The second one is just a happy memory. The first one’s your e-scape, or at least an approximation of it. Some people are more in tune with it than others. It’s possible to have more than one, but it’s rare. In a healthy mind, there’s usually water and greenery. Occasionally people have deserts, and the water’s hidden, but it’s there somewhere.”
“It’s soothing,” she said.
She was breathing more slowly and looked relaxed, which had been his goal. He smiled and bowed his head. “Now, Mrs. Freedman, I can help your husband.”
“Call me Sylvia,” she said.
“All right. Sylvia, I’ll come back in thirty minutes with an update. And this is Jimmy?”
She looked down at the baby, asleep against her stomach. She smiled. “Yes. He’s my little sweetheart.”
“Please tell him, if he wakes, that I’ll do everything I can to restore his father’s e-scape.”
“I’ll do that,” she said, her eyes wet.
Rashid went back to the diving zone, its sterile machinery humming in the silence. He checked Mark’s vital signs–still stable. He verified that systems were up and the autotechs were ready to extract him if needed. He strapped into his suit, hooked up the wires, and blacked himself.
Rashid dropped. His fall knocked the breath out of him. One of his mentors had compared it to skydiving without a sufficiently-sized parachute. He rolled when he struck dirt, taking the impact on his gel-padded suit. He rose to his knees. The ground was hard and sharp here, though his suit blunted the edges.
Rashid looked around. He knelt in a barren wasteland of black rock. Pointed formations scattered across the plain to the horizon. A natural rock archway stood to the left, serving as a landmark for his entry point. Far beyond the archway stood a mountain range–or perhaps a series of volcanoes, he thought, since the landscape resembled a burnt meringue pie. An absolute wreck of an e-scape–definitely more than one dose of bluecop could do, even a large one.
Still, he saw signs of hope. He smelled the air, noting the dark clouds on the horizon. A storm had just come through. Rashid stood and brushed off dirt. He walked across the plain, searching for life. Old tree trunks, bleached white, stood scattered among the rocks. It looked like the e-scape had been a forest. Those trees were dead, though perhaps he could plant new ones eventually. But this was an initial assessment–not time for gardening yet.
Rashid crested over a rocky slope. Something caught his eye; he squatted to look. Yes. A tiny green shoot–a cluster of them. Weeds fighting to grow. Water lay beneath the rock–a deep reservoir supplying these plants with moisture. Mark Freedman’s mind still lived. Rashid touched the sprouts. “Salaam, little ones,” he said.
He stood, looking at the horizon. This mind’s condition troubled him. An OD on bluecop shouldn’t do this to a man. He’d seen addicts whose e-scapes were cleaner than this. It looked like Mark had suffered more than an OD or even a full addiction. Something had deeply traumatized him.
Rashid was preparing to leave when his instincts alerted him. There was more to see here. It felt like something just outside the corner of his eye, but when he turned, he saw only white trunks on scarred ground. He traced a cracked rock with his eye and spotted something. There. Something white–not a tree.
He approached and discovered a shoe: a small white shoe, leather, partly buried in the rock so only the tongue and laces showed. The shoe was so bright it almost glowed–a pure, clean contrast to the black rock and stormy skies. Man-made objects were rare in e-scapes and usually indicated trauma. Rashid touched the shoe, noting how firmly the rock gripped it. With some effort, he could extract the shoe, but he preferred to wait until he knew more. Thirty minutes of planning could save him three hours of work.
Damaged e-scapes could be saved if enough life survived. Mark Freedman might regain his wits. Rashid was pleased, although concerned about the shoe. Treatment would require more than basic gardening. Maybe Sylvia could explain the shoe.
Time to flyleap back to the real world. Rashid fired his jets and hovered over the e-scape. He took three bounding steps in mid-air and jumped as far as he could. The ground fell away. He burst into the sky and returned to consciousness.
When Rashid entered the waiting room, Sylvia was digging through her purse. She snapped it shut when he approached. Jimmy slept in his sling. As Rashid suspected, the shoe in Mark’s e-scape matched the ones Jimmy wore.
“How is my husband?” Sylvia asked.
“I think he’s treatable.”
She exhaled. Rashid saw fear flash across her face. “Is he–will he be–I’ve heard that bluecop causes brain damage–”
“He won’t be the same,” said Rashid. “No one ever is after something like this. Hard to say what will happen. I might be able to restore his natural ecosystem. Or he might require regular maintenance for the rest of his life. But I think I can recover basic functioning at least. Maybe even by tonight.”
“Tonight! That’s amazing. Will he–will he remember me? Will Mark remember–everything?”
“I’m reasonably sure he will,” he said, smiling. “Bluecop attacks receptors for emotions and pain. He might be unpredictable–almost a wild animal at first, I’m afraid–but his memory should be all right. Speaking of memory, Mrs. Freedman, there’s something I’d like to ask you about your husband.”
“Yes, of course. Ask me anything.”
“There’s something in his e-scape that doesn’t belong there. It’s a shoe.”
“Yes. A white baby shoe, exactly like the ones Jimmy is wearing. Can you tell me why it’s important?”
She looked down at Jimmy. “The shoes,” she whispered.
“Something about that shoe is deeply important to him. It would help if you can tell me why.”
She stared at the baby for a long time. Then she raised her head and looked at Rashid. “Dr. Rashid, I… I know what that shoe means. But to explain it, I need to tell you a very personal story.”
He pulled a chair over and sat down across from her. “I promise that I’ll treat this story as if you were my patient. In fact, because this story relates to Mr. Freedman’s case, it’s private within his files.”
“Thank you. This is very difficult to talk about.”
He waited. She stared at the fern and then looked back at him. “Mark and I have only been married for eight months. Jimmy was four months old last week. You can do the math on that.” She paused, looking at the floor. Rashid listened. After a long while, she said, “I don’t believe in abortion, Doctor, at least not for myself. Neither does Mark. I was a junior secretary in his division at the time. When my birth control failed, he offered to marry me. It was very–generous, given that he could have dismissed me and just paid child support. Higher VPs wanted him to hush the whole thing up, but he defended his choice. I left the company on my own to avoid controversy and protect his job.”
Rashid leaned forward, folding his hands. “Go on.”
“We were married quietly at the courthouse. We took a short trip to Paris for a honeymoon–he was busy with work and my health was poor. But he gave me those little white shoes and said, ‘An early birthday gift for our child.’ That’s when I first cried with joy about having a baby. It’s when Jimmy first became a wanted child.”
Rashid nodded, although it seemed unlikely that such a happy event would disturb an e-scape. Something didn’t add up. “That must have been very difficult for you.”
She nodded and sniffled a little. She took a tissue from the table. “It was. I was scared. I worked so hard to get where I was–that job. You don’t know what it’s like, Doctor. The money involved–I’ve never made that much money before. No one in my family ever had. My dad was a janitor. We grew up pretty rough. I’m the first one to graduate college among my cousins. It’s different coming from certain parts of life. You just… you don’t have options.”
“I do understand that,” he said sincerely. “My father did day labor when he could find it, and my mother was too sick to work. My older brother and I were left on our own. Hamza got into crime and drugs–mostly bluepak, which is related to bluecop. He murdered a man when he was sixteen and went to jail for twenty years. That scared me straight back into school. I was the luckiest kid on the planet–a local mosque sponsored me for college and medical school. The imam demanded perfect grades. They paid for everything, and now I pay them back by donating my services whenever I can. I owe it all to them and to Allah. So I do understand. I know what it means to be desperate.”
“Do you?” she asked, tears running down her cheeks. “Maybe you do.”
“Thank you for telling me your story, Mrs. Freedman. May I see the shoe?”
“I’m afraid Jimmy’s sleeping right now.”
“It might help me understand the issue better. The physical condition of the shoe may offer some insight.”
“Well–” she looked at the baby and took a deep breath. “Of course, Doctor, I don’t want to interfere with the treatment. But this shoe won’t help you. I hadn’t finished my story.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I interrupted. My apologies–please finish.”
She cleared her throat. “When we returned, I had my first ultrasound and standard genetic tests. We discovered we had twins. We decided to call them Jimmy and Joey. Mark ordered a second pair of shoes, identical to the first. But when our babies were born, Joey was–” She turned away, hiding her face. “My baby boy wasn’t breathing. They couldn’t save him. Mark took it hard. He hasn’t been the same. It was Joey’s shoe you saw in his mind, I’m sure.”
Rashid considered. A deep grief like a stillborn baby could indeed show as a foreign object in the e-scape. He wished he’d had more time to read the Freedman file–he might have noticed that fact. “Thank you, Mrs. Freedman,” he said. “I hate to disturb a sleeping baby. Let me dive back into your husband and see what I can do.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” she said. “I know you can help us.” She smiled, but he saw fear in her eyes.
Rashid landed near the arch and headed straight for the shoe. The e-scape hadn’t changed much, which was bad. If Mark were recovering, there should have been green sprouts everywhere. Rashid spotted a few weeds fighting through rock–but if nothing else returned then all the vegetation would die. No amount of gardening would save it then. The mind would petrify.
He knelt by the shoe and took a scraper from his toolbox. He unfolded it and brushed around the shoe’s edge. The scraper whined at a high pitch. Rock turned to dust and clouded up around his face. Rashid focused on his task, taking care to be gentle. He respected the land, and although science hadn’t proven any link, he believed that his attitude helped e-scapes accept his work. It was easier to change something from within than to be an outsider.
After a few minutes he’d cleared enough rock to angle the scraper underneath. He adjusted the tool and bent its tip under the shoe. Instantly the ground rumbled beneath him, knocking him back. Startled, Rashid waited until the minor quake subsided, then approached the shoe. He touched the white leather, acknowledging the shoe’s temporary role in this e-scape.
Sorrow didn’t cause quakes, even in unhealthy minds. Sorrow caused dying plants, or frost in an orchard–but earthquakes came from rage. The most deep and primal rage, sometimes paired with grief, but generally from betrayal. His own mind had probably quaked when his brother went to jail. Poor Hamza. Even two decades of prison hadn’t set him straight.
Rashid sighed and focused his mind. He patted the rocks near the shoe–superstitious perhaps, but a reminder to himself and the land that he intended to help. The shoe had to come out, but now the extraction problem was more serious. Unlike sadness, rage was a mood the body desired. Rage made a man stronger, active; it helped him survive a crisis. The body found rage useful, in certain limited circumstances. But when a man clung to rage–strongly enough to damage his e-scape–it produced a delicate mental ecosystem, vulnerable to disaster.
He’d need more tools. And he needed to understand the situation better–to learn what might enrage this man so much. Could he have blamed something–someone–for his son’s death?
Sylvia seemed likely. Maybe Mark blamed her. Rashid shook his head. He hated to press her on such a sensitive subject, but he needed facts.
As he flyleapt, he wondered what Sylvia was hiding from him.
In the waiting room, Rashid found Sylvia had undressed the baby. Jimmy’s socks, jacket, and pants lay on a chair. She was looking at his shoes, which she’d unlaced and held in her hands. The baby kicked happily into the air, wearing only a diaper and t-shirt.
Sylvia glanced up hurriedly. “He woke because he was too hot,” she told Rashid. “How is my husband?”
The waiting room was indeed warm, since both doctor and patient spent time motionless and warmth kept things comfortable. Rashid sat next to her. “I’m afraid there’s been a complication,” he said, “but not a serious one.”
Fear passed through her eyes. “Doctor,” she said, “Please tell me. What’s happening?”
“Can I see that shoe?”
Wordlessly she handed it to him. It was a plain white synthetic leather shoe. He turned it over in his hands, noting the steel eyelets and the complex wave pattern in the tread. An adult sneaker in miniature–the kind meant to appeal to parents for its cuteness, rather than being any practical use for a baby that couldn’t walk yet.
He handed it back to her. “Do you have any idea why your husband would be so angry over this shoe?”
“Yes. Angry or enraged, rather than sad.”
She shook her head. “I–I suppose he may have blamed himself. Mark was a Type A personality. He didn’t like to lose control. He might have been very angry about it all. I thought he was just depressed.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me? Anything that might help your husband?”
She looked down. “I’m sorry.”
Rashid said, “Removing the shoe will be harder than expected. He’s resisting. But the shoe needs to come out or his e-scape will petrify.”
“Will removing the shoe kill him?”
“It’s unlikely to. There’s a chance the shock could kill him, but more likely he’ll survive and recover. It’s my opinion that I should dig out the shoe, but it does involve some risk. So I’m checking with you.”
Sylvia stared at the floor, then folded her arms and looked at Rashid. “I don’t want to risk my husband.”
“If I leave it there, he’s certain to petrify. He’d require permanent care. He might never regain any sense of himself or his surroundings, although he’d breathe and eat well enough. Do you know his wishes? I can check his file for a DNR order–”
“We believe in life,” she said abruptly. “We believe in God. God will decide his fate. Doctor, you’re a man of faith–surely you understand.”
Rashid paused, considering his words. “I believe that Allah offers a fate to each person, yes. How a person embraces his fate is the measure of a man.”
“I don’t want a treatment that might kill my husband.”
“It’s very unlikely,” he told her. “I believe it will help him. If I don’t remove it, he will no longer be alive in any meaningful sense of the word. It’s a condition that many consider worse than death.”
She swallowed and looked away. “Doctor–you must understand, especially after the story I told you. I don’t want to fight against God’s will. If this is my husband’s fate, I must accept it.”
For the first time, Rashid found himself angry with her. He clasped his hands to mask his feelings. “Mrs. Freedman, it is not my place to tell you what decision to make about your husband. I don’t pretend to know the will of Allah. I follow the path He places before me. But Allah only builds the path. It is my duty to walk along it. My brother Hamza thought that he was fated to street life like our cousins. He hated Allah for making our family poor. Hamza blamed fate when he took drugs. I loved my brother through it all, even though it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. When Hamza went to prison, he cursed Allah’s name every day. I vowed never to be like my brother. I saw how he hated the path he’d been given, and so I decided to start walking along my own. Allah placed friends along my path, like the imam and some of my teachers. Now I choose my fate, with Allah’s help. To do any less would be like killing my own spirit, which He created. It would be murder of His work.”
He paused, his temper cooling. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Freedman. It’s a sensitive topic for me. I shouldn’t have–”
“Murder?” she asked, her voice shaking. “Do you think my choice would be murder?”
“Do you wish my opinion?”
“I think none of us know Allah’s will for certain. Some say God helps those who help themselves, which I feel is true. I think taking responsibility for one’s choices is always the better answer.”
Sylvia looked away and started crying. After wiping her eyes, she said, “I’ll do that. You’re right. Please treat my husband.”
Rashid bowed slightly. “I swear to do my best to help Allah, if He chooses to save your husband.” He offered her a box of tissues, then returned to the dive zone, his mind troubled and contemplative.
On this dive, he’d packed full gardening gear along with freshly-fueled jets. He mapped his plans as he walked through the e-scape. After the initial release of water, he’d spray some seeds into the air and let them take root before reshaping the land. The few dying sprouts he saw indicated time was short. Once the e-scape petrified, Mark would enter a permanent vegetative state–and he might have less than two days before that happened. Rashid thought he could salvage the land, depending on what happened during the stream recovery. Once he released the shoe, the mind would quake as water welled up from the hole. His suit was rated for a 3G level flood, which covered most cases. Mark should be recovering within a few hours.
Rashid climbed the small slope and knelt in the hollow next to the shoe. This time he pulled out a psychbrusher–light as a cotton ball, but stronger than filament wire. He ionized the dirt surrounding the shoe, then softened the nearby rock and prepped the object for extraction.
When he was ready, he examined the sky. Gray and overcast–a sky fading into emotional death. Next to him stood a small raised slope, which would offer him some needed height when the flood started. It was time. He checked his buoyancy systems and emergency signal. When he was satisfied, Rashid curved his hand under the shoe and pulled.
The shoe tore loose. Rashid saw glowing numbers on its sole: golden, like an ancient Masonic secret. Surprised, Rashid tried to memorize the sight, but there were too many numbers. A series, or sequence–or–
He connected the dots in his mind. Of course. Sylvia had lied. The shoe crumbled into dust, separated from its emotional fuel. Water gushed from the hole and reminded him where he was. Already water swept up to his ankles and raced across the black rocks on the plain.
Rashid saw the danger–this flood would definitely reach peak 3G and might even hit 4G. If so, his suit couldn’t handle it. Rashid knew he should flyleap, but he needed to seedcast first. He had about thirty seconds before the flood would drag him down.
He jetted up the slope and pulled his seedcord. A spray of seeds flew across the e-scape like a cloud of flies–some destined to take root when the flood receded, and others fated to be swept away. Rashid flyleapt away from the spreading sea. As he fired his jets, he slipped on wet rock and splashed into water. “Allah!” he cried. He fired again, hoping the flood’s force didn’t overwhelm the jets. If whirlpools developed, he was finished.
The jets blasted him towards the rock outcropping. He slammed into it and held on, resisting the force tugging his boots. With all his strength, he climbed the rock and crouched on top. He jetted into the air and flyleapt as fast as he could.
As he found the sky, he glanced down at the raging waters. Soon they would recede, leaving rich silt for Mark’s recovery. With the primary stream restored, and some gardening over the next few weeks, the e-scape could heal itself. Rashid was optimistic that the man would eventually recover most of his mental and physical functions.
Rashid took a deep breath as he returned, slightly shaken. The real question was how to deal with Sylvia. He wasn’t sure what her game was, but he had a theory–and he hoped she hadn’t guessed how much he knew.
Rashid sat up and stripped wires from his arms, though his legs remained hooked to the machine. The regular lights were out, leaving only the blue emergency floor strip. The room resembled a dream, with flickering green lights across all systems tinged with blue. The computers hummed on backup power. Nearby, Mark lay unconscious on his table. Sylvia hunched over the power supply, working at it, while Jimmy lay on the floor next to her.
Rashid realized he had underestimated her–and now he was in real trouble.
He tore the primary strap away from his ribcage. It made a small noise, which was a mistake. She whirled around. She held a living knife made of flexible skin-colored plastic. She’d probably been wearing it all along, he realized. She held a solid fighting stance, knife angled to slash his gut. Rashid had been in enough street fights to know three things instantly: she knew her blade, she could cut him faster than he could untangle himself, and she was terrified. It was the last point he banked all his hopes on.
“Sylvia,” he said quietly, “this won’t help you.”
“Shut up,” she snapped.
“Do you think they’ll let you walk away from this?”
“I cut the main security connection.”
He had misjudged her a great deal, and she knew it. That made things worse. If she’d already cut the connection, it would delay help arriving. He was confident the techs could still break in, but they’d be slowed. If he could talk her down–
Rashid shifted his weight forward. She snapped the knife lower. “Don’t move. I’ll do it.”
“I believe you,” he said. “Your lie about the Paris trip and Jimmy’s twin was very convincing. It took courage for you to get this far.”
“Damn right it did,” she said, her voice shaking. “You shouldn’t have done it. You shouldn’t have hinted you knew too much.”
“You’ll go to prison for killing us. That’ll be hard for Jimmy when you’re gone.”
“I’ll run,” she said, her voice hard. “I’ll leave the country. I’ll find somewhere to go.”
“Do you think your real employer will let you go that easily? I don’t know what they’re blackmailing you with, but I’m guessing it’s Jimmy.”
She nearly choked. “I want out. I want to get the hell away and forget I ever worked for MinSof or HEC or anyone. I never meant to hurt anyone, but things have gone too far. I’m out of choices. But I won’t blame God for this. Whatever happens, I’ll do it myself. I’m going to hell anyway.”
Rashid expected another two minutes before security broke in. He kept his voice steady. “Mark loved you. No matter what you felt about him–he loved you. It takes more than bluecop to wreck an e-scape that much. He couldn’t believe you’d betray him–and that’s what hurt him.”
She started crying, still clutching the knife. “I–didn’t love him, but I was fond of him. He was a kind man and a good father. When he offered to marry me–I told MinSof I was done leaking for them–”
She swallowed. Rashid waited, counting seconds. She said, “I knew Mark was taking something to China. MinSof’s got an agent I dealt with. He said they’d–poison my baby. He said I had to find out what Mark was carrying–”
“So you used bluecop to torture it out of him. But you didn’t know he was already hooked on it.”
“I swear I didn’t!”
“I believe you.”
“I thought he used it occasionally. I just wanted–I was going to leave, with Jimmy. I searched everything we’d packed and I couldn’t figure it out. So I spiked his drink with bluecop to get it out of him. I knew he’d tried the stuff and I even knew where he kept his stash. But I didn’t know how much he was using. I gave him–too much. When the seizure started, I panicked. I never wanted to kill anyone, but–it’s all out of control. And now I see it’s these shoes they wanted, and–” She raised the knife and said, “I don’t blame you for hating me, Doctor. But I–I have to do this.”
“You’re wrong on both points, I’m afraid.”
She glared at him. “You think I won’t do it. You think I won’t kill you and Mark.”
“On the contrary,” he said softly, “I see in your eyes that you will. I know that look. What I’m saying is that you don’t have to do this, and that I don’t hate you. Listen to me. You’ll love Jimmy as he grows up, even if he becomes a criminal. I still love my brother even though he curses Allah’s name. I can love the person who murders me, if I must. But you will not be that person.”
She hesitated, lowering the knife. Rashid stayed motionless, knowing the techs needed at least another minute. Sylvia raised the knife–and a man lurched from the darkness and wrapped his arms around her neck. Mark bellowed with animal pain and rage, bleeding from where he’d torn off his wires. She stabbed his gut and he shouted, dropping her. Mark fell to his knees, screeching like a possessed man, and dove for her ankles. Sylvia slashed at him and grazed his back with her knife. He slammed her to the ground. The knife flew from her hand and skidded across the room.
Rashid tore off his wires and ran to his desk. He grabbed a palm-sedative and pressed it into Mark’s back. The tiny dart was quick and potent; Mark’s hands relaxed around Sylvia’s throat.
Rashid picked up the knife and rolled Mark onto his back. He examined the wound quickly: much shallower than he’d feared. He looked at Sylvia, who lay on the ground shaking. In the corner, Jimmy started crying. Sylvia turned her head toward the baby.
“Go to your son,” said Rashid. “He needs you.”
Sylvia crawled across the room and hugged Jimmy to her chest. “Did I kill him?” she asked brokenly.
“I think he’ll live.”
“And he’ll remember everything?”
“It’s difficult to say, but yes, he’s likely to remember most of it in time. He may have impaired motor functions long-term, depending on how well his e-scape responds to gardening.”
She trembled on the floor. “I’m not afraid for myself now,” she said. “But Jimmy. Who will take care of him?”
Rashid studied her. He estimated about forty-five seconds until security arrived. Sylvia knelt with Jimmy, her hair falling around them like a curtain. She fastened Jimmy’s sling to herself, crying into his shoulder. The baby whimpered.
Rashid knew what it felt like to have no options. He’d said he could love his murderer. Allah, he thought, give me the courage to stand behind those words.
In his desk drawer he found a disposable notepad, encrypted for anonymity. He typed a number, separated it from the entry box, and handed it to Sylvia. She looked up, her eyes red.
“Signal this number and ask for Hamza,” he said. “Tell him I sent you. He can get you both new IDs and new names. There’s an exit you can take out the back way. Go quickly before they get here.”
She mouthed the words, “Thank you,” but no sound came out. She sobbed as she took the notepage and slid it into her purse.
“One last thing,” he said. “Leave Jimmy’s shoes here. Otherwise they’ll hunt you down.”
Sylvia tugged the shoes off and threw them on the floor. Rashid changed his wristwatch code and pressed his arm to the wall behind his desk. The back door opened. Sylvia raced out. It closed behind her just as the security techs burst in.
“Too late,” Rashid told them. “She got away. Quick, help me with the patient.”
Some of them took off for the building’s entrance, but Rashid suspected they wouldn’t catch her. Sylvia was too clever for them. She’d almost been too clever for him. As they lifted Mark onto the medical table, Rashid thought of Hamza and Sylvia, making desperate choices and seeing no options. There were always other ways.
Lynn Casey’s expression was incredulous. “So Sylvia Freedman was the leak all along.”
“Yes,” said Rashid, leaning back in his office chair. “I think HEC will have Mark’s testimony–once he heals–and my own, so they’ll win their IP case.”
“That’s good for the school,” she said. “They sent the bonus. Too bad Sylvia escaped, or I think they would have canonized you.”
He smiled. “Now there’s a funny thought.”
“The thing I’m wondering, though–the shoes. I know the investigators came to pick them up. But what on earth was in those shoes? What was Mark taking to China? Sylvia was smart and I’m sure she used an electronics detector as well as a plastic scanner. She must have realized those were just plain shoes.”
Rashid said, “He was carrying information. I figured it out when I examined the shoes. Jimmy wasn’t walking yet, and the treads looked far too complex to be purely decorative. I don’t know exactly what information Mark had, but the data was encoded into the tread pattern. Someone on the other end was ready to decode it.”
“I learned it from Mark’s e-scape. When he collapsed, the most important thing on his mind was keeping that information safe.”
Casey shook her head. “Still, it’s a shame Sylvia got away. She attempted murder on her husband–and on you.”
“She had her reasons. I think she really did panic when Mark collapsed, and she never wanted to hurt anyone. She was only going to kill us out of desperation. Besides, a starving man who steals bread shouldn’t be called a thief.”
“Is that from the Qu’ran?”
“No, it’s a 20th century Islamic philosopher called Yusuf Islam. Or Cat Stevens, to some.”
“I see. Well, thanks for everything, Faisal. What are you going to do now?”
He grinned. “It’s Ramadan. I’m going to pray, and then I’m going to take my vacation. I hope you’ll understand if I turn off my organizer for the month.”
“Of course. Enjoy your rest.”
Rashid switched off the phone, relaxing in his once-again quiet office.
Vylar Kaftan has published several dozen stories in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and other magazines. Her work also appears in several anthologies, including Brave New Worlds and Way of the Wizard, both edited by John Joseph Adams. She’s founding a new sf/f convention called FOGcon; the first one will happen in March 2011 in San Francisco. See www.fogcon.org for more info. She blogs at www.vylarkaftan.net.