Mind’s Eye View
by David Schibi
None of this is real, he thought.
The sounds of children’s laughter echoed and a cool breeze chilled his cheeks. Slowly, Eli Denson opened his eyes.
He sat on the park bench, alone and still with his black bowler hat in his lap, his weathered hands grasping the brim loosely. Pigeons scurried about his polished black dress shoes looking for the crumbs of bread he wasn’t throwing.
His sky blue eyes, blood-shot with exertion and sunken with years, stared absently at the playground in the distance. The Traffic Pad in the northwest corner of the park sparkled to life leaving in its wake the picture of the perfect family; Dad, Mom, Son, and Daughter, with enough money to afford to use the Traffic Pad. The children barely waited for the Complete Transport chime before they were rocketing off toward the other children, shouting and laughing as they went.
The parents shouted instructions after them, “Watch after your sister!” and “Behave!” But Eli was sure the words had been lost in the wind whipping past the running kids’ ears. Dad shifted the wicker picnic basket to one arm before he put his other arm around Mom. They shared a smile before he gently kissed her lips. Just like on all the holo-programs, they seemed the ideal family.
It nearly made Eli vomit.
His mouth made no sound, just hung open slightly while his porcelain teeth dried and his lips cracked from the coolness of the light breeze. He thought about shouting at them, telling them all to leave. He considered rampaging through the park like a madman and driving them all away. But he knew it wouldn’t affect the outcome. Not really.
The sparse strands of white hair covering his spotted scalp moved gently in the cool wind. He sat slouched, exhausted from the past few days.
Beside him, as always, was Alice.
Her posture near perfect, she glanced at him with that perpetual smile just touching her lush lips. He admired her again, as he had so many times before – as he had on this very day. This was how he always saw her.
Eli felt a flush of shame seeing her there on the bench, smiling at him. Even as he watched, she reacted to things he had told her long ago. Insignificant things not worth the precious little time they had.
Running his semi-moist tongue over his dry lips and teeth, he adjusted his posture a bit to face her more directly. “Alice, there’s something I want to say,” he said in a croaky underused voice.
Alice laughed and swatted playfully at his arm, missing it. “Stop it,” she said, smiling and laughing, her eyes shining green in the sparse mid-afternoon sun that seemed to only light upon her. “You’re such a kidder.”
Eli’s head dipped for a moment recalling what he had just said to her. He gathered his emotions and lifted his eyes to hers again. “I don’t think we have much time so I need you to listen for a moment.”
Alice lurched forward with laugher, her beautiful red hair swooshing about her head. Eli ran a hand over his strands of hair putting them back in place. Before his hand landed back in his lap, the strands were moving in the wind again.
Eli was about to speak again when movement across the park caught his attention. Two Public Protection Service Agents moved across the grounds, their dark, metallic blue armor plates catching just a moment of sunshine. Though built to imitate the human form, Eli knew how very little of the PPSAs were truly human.
It was actually only out of public uneasiness that the PPSAs were constructed in the form they were. Other, more efficient models were kept solely for the military since ordinary citizens found their presence intimidating and unsettling.
If only the general public knew just how many of the non-human models were around them everyday, Eli thought. If only I had known.
The two patrolling PPSAs moved through the park, scanning the children playing on the playground as they went by, and then were out of sight. For a moment, Eli was lost in reflection as he considered all he had done wrong in his life. Mistakes made and excused in the name of progress and protection.
Something had to be done, he reminded himself though the excuses didn’t exonerate his conscience anymore. There was no way I could have known.
Bio-Cybernetics was a science in the late-birthing stages, the type of thing only written about in science fiction stories. At first, their goals were just to add cybernetic parts to human bodies; replacing a lost limb or a malfunctioning organ. They had no idea how quickly their science would advance.
Or what it would lead to.
Successfully integrating the human brain with a cybernetic body was the single greatest accomplishment in human history. It meant the end of disease, of suffering, of cancer.
Of Alice’s cancer.
But it scared a lot of people.
Eli had risked his very life to prove its success.
Shortly after the success, the military bought out the private investors of the program and Eli left. Ended was the research and development of ordinary skin-like bodies. Instead, armor plated bodies with all sorts of built-in weapons were the priority.
Walking tanks, Eli called them.
But right now, he didn’t want to focus on the decisions he had made. He wanted to focus on fixing what he could. “Alice,” he started again. “I’ve made my share of bad decisions, I know.” He looked down at his black bowler hat, his fingers fidgeting with the rim. “I know I always told you I was going to save the world, to make things better for everybody. I never quite got there. But I want you to know…” he looked up and the rest of what he had to say stuck in his throat.
The gentle breeze that had been blowing the fall colored leaves became a swirling tempest. Like paint too wet on a canvas, the green grass and cloudy blue sky background melted into one. The vicious wind nearly blew Eli out off the bench. His bowler hat was ripped from his hands and lost in the maelstrom.
With his heart rate increasing exponentially, Eli looked at Alice. That perpetual smile was still in place on her lips and her green eyes shone even brighter, boring straight into him. Her hair was caught in the wind, twisting and churning uncontrollably. Then large chunks broke loose of her scalp and disappeared into the storm. Within seconds, only strands of her red locks remained. But those were dislodged as well, when her very scalp peeled back under the unbearable wind.
Eli watched, horror-stricken, as the skin on Alice’s face did the same. Her clothes, also, peeled away, as though they too were layers of skin. But instead of bone and muscle tissue under all the layers of rapidly retreating skin, there was ash. In what couldn’t have been more than a second, but felt like hours, Eli watched as Alice, turned to ash, blew away from him.
Eli squeezed his eyes shut.
None of this is real…
The smell of rank body odor assaulted his nostrils. Eli slowly opened his eyes. A sharp jab in his ribs made him turn and look to his left. A young man sat beside him, staring at him expectantly. Beyond him, was part of the long rectangular window that let the passengers look outside as the tram traveled.
“Well?” prompted the younger man. Eli looked at him blankly. To his right was another, older, man – the source of the stink. Eli looked back to the younger man.
“I’m sorry, what?” Eli’s voice wasn’t old and croaky. Surprised, he looked down. He was buckled into a seat on the tram that took workers to Tether Station.
And he wasn’t old.
The younger man shook his head. “What’s with you anyway, Eli? Do you know how hard it is to carry on a conversation with someone who forgets what ya just told’em?”
“No,” he answered absently. “I’m not old,” he said turning his hands over and over in front of himself. His body rocked just slightly as the tram began its two hour climb. Outside the window, the metropolitan view shrank away and turned into clouds. The view of the clouds only lasted seconds before a brief flash of fiery red and then nothing but the blackness of space could be seen.
“Well, that’s a matter of opinion if ya ask me,” the young man said. “Yer not as young as I am,” he leaned forward and pointed to the stinky guy beside Eli. “But yer not as old as Earl there, he’s skaddin’ old.”
“Shut up, Francis,” Earl said, un-amused.
Francis sighed. “Anyway, whaddaya think?”
Since Francis was staring at him again, Eli deduced this question was for him. “I’m sorry, I forgot the question.”
“Forgot the…” Francis pursed his lips into a thin line as he adjusted his ball cap. “Skaddin’ scatterbrained…”
“Watch your language, Francis,” said Earl without opening his eyes. “There could be children around.”
Francis turned in his seat and raised himself up slightly to look over the tops of the seats. “I don’ see any,” he said. “Besides that, if there are any kids ridin’ the outside car I’m sure they’ve heard worse than ‘skad’ before.”
“Then watch your language because I told you to,” roared Earl rising his back off the seat just long enough to stare Francis down. Francis held up his hands in a placating gesture and Earl slowly lowered himself back into his seat.
Eli took the moment of quiet that followed to take in the interior of the tram car. Since the outside cars were the least expensive they were generally the dirtiest; typically occupied by workers or people looking for work. Occasionally, a vacationing family would take a ride in one of the outside cars to see the sights as they rocketed up to space.
When the space elevator had first opened, the outside cars were the most popular ones. Until the accident with the magnetic couplers that released one car in the upper atmosphere. It took the next three down with it before they all burned up on re-entry, killing everyone on them. After that, the inside cars (which have backup cables attached to them) or the system of Traffic Pads became the most popular modes for getting to Tether Station.
“Anyways,” said Francis resettling in his seat. “I don’t think they do.”
“Do what?” asked Eli since Francis pointed the comment at him.
“Dream,” he said as though giving Eli the answer.
“Who doesn’t dream? Everyone dreams.”
“The walking tanks, you ska…” Francis looked quickly over to Earl who flashed him a warning glare. “…a, ah, scattered brained idiot.” Francis refocused his attention on Eli. “You know, the things we’ve been talking about for the past fifteen minutes.”
Suddenly, Eli remembered walking with Francis to the tram station and boarding together as they often did at the beginning of the work week. Even though Eli could afford it, he didn’t rent quarters on Tether Station where he worked as a general laborer. Instead, to help keep up his illusion as a common man, he did what Francis and the other lower class workers did and stayed in government housing on the surface while staying in bunk houses during the week on the station. Anyone who could afford station quarters didn’t have a job as a general laborer.
“Oh,” Eli said trying to act as though he hadn’t just woke up.
“You always talk as though ya know so much ‘bout them. I figured you’d have more of an opinion than ‘oh.’” Francis sounded a little disappointed as he sat back in his chair.
Eli sat quietly for several moments hearing only the quiet background noise of the magnetic couplers moving the tram car steadily higher. His mind was going over all the research he had put into the bio-cybernetic program, before it had been modified to produce walking tanks.
In his original research and trial runs, the brain functioned normally. So technically, it would still dream when the person went to sleep. He had heard, through the grapevine, that the military scientists and doctors who took over the project had made alterations to Eli’s amalgam processes; the kind of changes that could drastically change the functionality of the brain and its mechanical components.
“Yes,” Eli said softly, staring forward at the back of the seat in front of him.
“What?” asked Francis.
“The walking tanks, they would still be able to dream. In fact, they would have to.”
Francis smiled and turned to face Eli like an eager little kid listening to his grandpa read him a story. “How do ya figure?”
“Well, they’re human brains. They would need to rest. Even if their bodies were tireless machines, the brains would still need to rest.”
“So what do you think they dream about?” Eli asked. “Do you think they dream like normal people dream or do they dream of … I dunno … circuits and gears and oil changes and junk?”
Then it hit Eli. He remembered why he was working as a laborer on Tether Station. There had been a recall of the scientists that had been on his original development team. They were being brought to Tether Station with the promise of continuing their work. Their passage had been booked for them on the outside cars.
The tram crash. If Eli hadn’t refused the invitation, he would be dead, too. And he didn’t believe the “accident” was an accident. That was the reason he had gone into hiding. But he knew the PPSA program had been moved to Tether Station. And he knew Alice had been one of the first full transfer attempts.
He knew because he had volunteered her. And if it hadn’t been for his disability, he would have performed the operation himself. Instead, the blast had left him paralyzed and useless. He could wait. He was damaged, yes; but he wasn’t dying. Alice was.
And it was his fault.
It was because of him they had been there at the park. It was his fault they had fought and she had risen to leave when she had. Because she had risen, she had moved herself into the edge of the blast shockwave. Her body was completely ravaged. But her brain was salvageable. If they moved fast enough.
His own body, seated on the park bench, had been crippled by the intense radiation. But he had survived. He had to. To save her.
So after the attempt on his life – he was sure that’s what it was – he had paid for surgery to alter his appearance and assumed a different last name. No one looking for him would expect him to keep the same first name.
Eli had wanted to get to Alice. Though she hadn’t appeared to recoup her memory after the surgery, Eli was sure he was making progress with her. Then, in the middle of the night, the entire operation was moved to Tether Station. He only found out when the invitation had been sent to him and the other scientists. His stubborn pride and suspicious nature had kept him from agreeing to go. After the crash, one of Eli’s few friends left in the program had told him about a dream program that was being developed to help clear and focus the minds used in the PPSAs. His friend had told him he thought complete wipes were being done on the subjects. Eli knew he had to get to Alice and rescue her from the hell he had put her in.
Securing a position as a general laborer on Tether Station wasn’t difficult; the pay was low and the work dangerous and difficult. After a couple of months of work, he had a pretty good layout of the station. He was pretty sure he knew where the lab was and how to get there. Now it was just a matter of opportunity. He had to be patient.
I have to save her. I have to fix the dream program.
The mantra reverberated through his head as though it were someone else’s voice. Or a message from himself delivered back through time.
“Hello?” Francis’ voice brought Eli out of his own thoughts. Eli shook his head and looked away from the calloused hand waving just inches in front of his face. “Did I lose you?” Eli’s eye went to the aisle.
Alice! There she was, walking through the tram car as though looking for something.
Eli tried to stand up in his seat but his restraint held him in. Swearing under his breath, he quickly unfastened the restraint.
“What’s it, Eli?” asked Francis baffled.
“I’ve gotta get to her,” Eli said without looking at Francis, banging into Earl’s legs as he tried to get to the aisle. Earl growled deep in his throat like a bear stirring during hibernation but Eli barely noticed. He pushed his way through the crowded car keeping his eyes on the back of the red-headed figure.
His heartbeat steadily increased as he got closer to the steady moving Alice. Other passengers kept bumping into him, slowing him down. But Eli just pushed them back and kept moving forward. He extended an arm when he got even closer. “Alice,” he said. A large, fat man banged into his side nearly knocking Eli into the lap of the lady sitting in the aisle seat. Angrily, Eli grabbed the man’s shoulders from behind and shoved him into one of the narrow aisles to get him out of his way.
Several angry voices rose from the crowd. “Alice!” Eli shouted as she disappeared up the stairs that led to the second level of the tram. Eli grabbed the rail and spun to start up the stairs.
“Hey! Eli!” shouted Francis fighting his way through the crowd in pursuit. “Wait up, I’ll help you!” But Eli was already taking the stairs two at a time. He couldn’t wait for Francis, he couldn’t wait for anybody. He had to get to her before he lost her again.
The second floor wasn’t as crowded as the first floor, but by the time Eli got to the top of the stairs, Alice was already ascending the next flight of stairs at the opposite end of the car heading for the third and highest level of passengers. He called after her again, but again she apparently didn’t hear him. He sprinted down the aisle, knocking a little girl out of the way without slowing down.
When he reached the third level, Alice was at the base of the stairs that led to the control room of the tram. Only engineers and patrolling PPSAs are allowed to enter the code locked control room, Eli thought. What is she doing?
“Alice, wait! Don’t!” he shouted as he made his way down the aisle. Finally she must have heard him because she stopped, her back to him.
Eli heard Francis behind him as the younger man made it to the top of the stairs. “Eli, you skaddin’ idiot, what are you doin’?”
But Eli was focused only on getting to Alice. He reached out as he finally made it within arm’s reach of her. A smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. He swallowed trying to get his heavy breathing under control.
His perception of time slowed as his hand landed on her shoulder. Her clothes felt like cold metal. Eli heard Francis’s footsteps approach behind him as Alice turned to face him. Her skin was a deep metallic blue and her eyes red scanners. This wasn’t Alice at all, and yet, it was.
A buzzing noise sounded and Eli felt a sharp burn as electricity shot through his body. He felt himself falling backward, unable to command his muscles anymore. The buzzing sound continued though all of his other senses seemed to dull dramatically. Metallic blue and red swirled inside increasingly narrow dark tunnels.
None of this is real…
Slowly, Eli opened his eyes. His arms lay outstretched across the large desk that his head rested on. Slowly, he raised his slumped form so he sat up in the black leather chair he occupied.
He inhaled a deep breath of the recycled air and rubbed his eyes with his hands. His neck was stiff, telling him he had been asleep for awhile. He looked around the large, dim office and things felt familiar to him. This was his office.
Finally irritated by the constant buzzing, Eli scanned the flat desktop for a com panel. Then remembered there wasn’t one.
“Answer,” he said aloud. The buzzing instantly stopped. After a moment, a beep issued out. After another one a soft, feminine voice spoke.
“Please indicate type of transmission.”
“Audio,” Eli answered. There was another beep and controls to the com panel appeared, set in to the desktop.
“Director Denson?” said the worried voice of a live young woman. “Director Denson, are you alright, sir?”
“Yes,” Eli responded without really thinking about it. “Yes, I’m fine, Christine. Just … just took a short nap is all.”
“Director, Mister Frenten is here for your four o’clock. Do you want me to send him in?” Christine’s voice sounded concerned. Eli looked down at the com panel before him and touched the mute button.
“Alice,” he said remembering the name he had assigned to his personal computer. “Time.” Instantly, a projector from within the desk activated and projected the time above the desktop in soft blue lights. Simultaneous with the projection, the feminine voice spoke it aloud.
“The time is four seventeen, standard Earth time.”
Eli thought for a moment. Things were still a bit muddled in his head but he did know this meeting with Morty Frenten was important. He touched the mute button again, deactivating it.
“Yes, Christine, please send him in.”
“Right away, Director,” Christine said professionally. The audio line closed.
Eli rose from his seat and looked around the spacious office. Tinted windows lined the curved walls that dominated most of it, except for the straight wall directly in front of him that had the only exit, an elegant set of wooden double doors.
Eli stared into one of the large, tinted windows and his reflection stared back at him. He was a young man, maybe in his middle thirties. His hair was full and parted to one side without a sign of grey anywhere to be seen. His sky blue eyes shone from his unlined face.
With a slight hiss, the doors behind him parted into the walls and the robust form of Morty Frenten filled the doorway. Eli watched through the reflection on the tinted windows as Morty waddled into the room.
“They’re called “traffic pads,” he roared raising his arms above his head and waving them in frustration as he made his way to one of the chairs positioned in front of the desk. “Everybody has them.” He plopped down in the seat, breathing heavily. “They’re as old as the skadding wheel for crying out loud. And more common nowadays. Who the skad actually has stairs and makes people use them anymore anyways? It’s skadding ridiculous. Ten whole stairs!”
Eli faced his guest with an amused smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“Oh sure, you think it’s funny,” Morty said, seeing the grin. “You’re going to give me a heart attack one of these days.”
“Don’t worry, Morty,” Eli said, “I’m sure your insurance will cover the cost of another heart replacement.”
“Yeah, and then I’ll be stuck in bed for a full day while I recover and that’s not the point,” Morty started but quit when he saw Eli smiling even bigger. “Ah, forget it. You just like making the fat guy sweat.”
Eli clasped his hands in the small of his back as he and Morty stared at each other for a moment. Sweat rolled down Morty’s plump face and his cheeks were bright red.
“Well?” Morty prompted finally. “Are you going to offer me a drink before I fall over?”
“Oh,” Eli said, slightly embarrassed at his lapse in manners. “Sorry. Alice, bar please.” At his command, a full wet-bar materialized one foot in front of him. “The usual, Morty?”
Morty stared at him for a beat, as though in shock. “Of course the usual. Have you ever seen me drink anything else? Really, what’s wrong with you today anyway?”
Without a word, Eli scooped a few cubes of ice into a glass and grabbed a coaster of non-alcoholic soda. He twist-locked the coaster to the bottom of the glass via the built in system and the glass instantly filled from the bottom up with soda. Eli handed the fizzing drink to Morty who snatched it from his hand and quickly started drinking. Eli filled a glass with ice for himself and took a coaster of water before he said, “End bar.” The bar dematerialized from the room.
By the time Eli attached his coaster, Morty lowered his glass to the arm of his chair, breathing like a diver coming up for air. The soda fizzed softly as the empty glass refilled itself again. Once his thirsted was sated and his breathing under control, Morty looked around the room.
“Why is it so dark in here?” he asked.
Eli shrugged. “I was napping. Alice, please raise the lights to seventy-five percent.” On cue, the lighting intensity inside the office rose to a comfortable level.
Grunting, Morty rose from his seat and carried his drink with him to one of the windows. “So, let’s get to business, Eli,” he said, his casual personal tone not escaping Eli’s attention. “What do you want to do about the situation?”
Now Eli was lost. To buy time, he strode over to window panel next to the one Morty stood close to. He racked his brain to remember what situation Morty referred to but he couldn’t recall it. Slowly, he lifted his lightly perspiring glass to his lips and took another sip of the cold water.
“What do you think?” he finally asked, fishing for information.
Morty snorted through his nose. “You know what I think.” He took another long, glass empting drink of soda. “I say skad’em all. For the pay and housing we offer, they’ll be easily replaced.”
Eli furrowed his brow. He still didn’t know for sure what they were talking about but the careless tone of Morty’s voice didn’t sit well with him. Morty must have been watching him.
“Ah, come on, Eli,” he said, “Most of them have their whole family living up here. They’re bluffing. They can’t afford to strike.”
“Strike?” Eli asked. Morty looked perturbed that Eli wasn’t on top of the conversation.
“Really, Eli, what’s wrong with you today?” Morty paused for a beat as though expecting Eli to answer. When he didn’t, Morty shook his head. “Alice, please open the windows.”
Eli took a step back, breathed in sharply, and almost dropped his glass as the tinting vanished from the windows. Below them was the crescent Earth and mimicking the curve of the planet was a great ring stretching out for as far as he could see, disappearing around the horizon. Lights from hundreds of thousands of little windows lined the completed portions of the ring.
Small ships carried material to and from different locations on the ring. Just at the edge of his field of vision Eli could make out the forms of workers walking along the outside in space suits, welding pieces in place. Beyond the ring itself, sat a huge oval shaped starship. Its plain grey exterior was only broken up by the many lights that illuminated its hull. Three enormous circular engine exhaust ports glowed red as they worked to maintain a stationary orbit.
Eli felt numb.
“You feeling okay, Mister Director?” Morty asked squinting one eye as he stared at Eli.
“I think I need to sit down.” Eli turned and walked on shaky knees to his desk and sat down, his eyes focused again on the sight outside his window. Morty crossed back to the front of the desk and sat down.
“This isn’t the first time, you know,” Morty said.
“What?” Eli looked at his pudgy guest.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve forgotten.” Morty seemed to measure Eli with his eyes before he breathed in a large breath and exhaled it, both through his wide, smashed nose. “Alice,” he said in a tired voice. “Display a real time image of Earth and Perihelion Station.”
Above the desk’s surface, a blue-green image of Earth appeared. Instantly, Eli noticed how much of the planet’s surface was covered by water. The space elevator was still intact but was one of four placed ninety degrees away from each other on the equator. Each of them connected to a bulbous location in the ring that encircled the planet concentric with the equator. A skeletal grid mimicked the planet’s shape fleshing out the ring into a sphere.
The real time image also revealed half a dozen starships like the large one Eli had seen out his window in orbit around the planet with smaller ships barely visible as they busied about the ring.
Eli knew his mouth was hanging open but every time he tried to close it, it just fell open again. He tried to swallow but his throat was dry and the paste-like saliva got stuck halfway down. He took another drink from his glass of water.
“When,” Eli started to ask then stopped and started again. “How…” Eli gave up trying to ask and just stared at Morty.
“It’s all you, Eli,” Morty said seriously. “All of this,” he spread his arms and twisted his torso to take in all of their surroundings and then pointed to the display. “The salvation and advancement of the human race is due to you. The Earth is dying, its core cooling. Humanity raped it till it was on its deathbed.” Morty rose from his seat. He walked over to Eli’s side of the desk and leaned his considerable backside against the desk facing Eli. “It’s a fatal flaw that has plagued mankind since its earliest days, the exploitation of resources without thought for the future. Mankind has abused everything from the earth to the air to the flora and animals that used to call Earth their home, too.” Morty paused a moment before, in a lower voice, he said, “They even use others of their own race until there’s nothing left for them to take.”
Eli could feel his heart beating in the bottom of his throat.
“But you, Eli, you gave us a second chance. Your vision for what Tether Station could be, for the direction our research had to go in order to save ourselves…” Morty shook his head and fell quiet for a moment. “But we’re not done yet.”
“We’re not?” Eli asked. A shudder ran down his spine. His hands became clammy sliding on the armrests he gripped.
“No.” Morty’s voice was a whisper. “You forgot something, or rather, never got the chance to get to one of the most important parts of your work.”
“The dream program.” Eli didn’t know how he knew; he just did.
“Yes,” Morty confirmed. “The virus that will destroy all of your work was entered through the dream software. Only you can find the flaw and fix it. You must discover the secret.”
The look in Morty’s eyes changed, their intent more menacing than it had been before. And there was something familiar about him; something that made Eli remember a time long passed.
“We need you to be strong for awhile longer, Director.” Morty strolled back to the other side of the desk.
Eli blinked his eyes through the cold sweat that showered his face when Morty’s image appeared to ripple. When he turned back around to face Eli he looked even more familiar than he had before, the shape of his body was thinner and the outline of his face longer.
“We need you to finish what you started.”
Eli recognized the form now. Morty lurched forward shoving his face through the real time hologram over the desktop. His eyes shone red, their intensity hurting Eli’s own eyes for the second it took him to look away.
“You still have more to give.” The voice started out as Morty’s but morphed into a deep mechanical one.
The face before Eli was no longer human. Lit from underneath by the blue-green lights of the hologram, the source of the voice had changed into the metallic blue face of a Public Protection Service Agent.
Reacting instinctively, Eli jumped to his feet and ran for the door. From where Morty had been just moments ago, a fully armored PPSA now stood. It swung its massive body around, tracking Eli with its red scanners.
Eli got to the doors, his eyes still on the PPSA which was walking toward him. Upon Eli’s approach the doors slid open and Eli nearly knocked over the person standing on the other side.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, there, Eli.” The voice was distinctively Francis’s. Eyes wide, Eli looked at the figure to be sure who it was. The casual smile that had been on Francis’s face slowly turned into a look of concern. “What’s wrong, buddy?”
“Francis?” Eli asked. “Francis, is that really you?”
“Well, last time I checked it was.”
“What the hell?” Eli looked back to the office he had just vacated. The PPSA was visible just beyond the doors as they slid shut.
“That’s what I’m wondering,” Francis said, a hand still on each of Eli’s shoulders.
“Morty?” Francis asked. “Who’s Morty?”
Eli looked at Francis their looks of confusion mirroring each others. “Christine,” Eli said turning his head to where her desk was.
Well, should have been.
But there was nothing. Eli looked around. They were in a dimly lit room with bunks against one wall. Spinning, Eli looked behind him at the single wide, drab grey door that led out of their quarters. He spun back around to Francis.
“Skad me,” he said rubbing his temples with his hands.
“What is going on, Eli?” Francis asked.
Eli paused for a moment, looking his friend in the eyes and then turned and quickly exited the room. Francis called after him but Eli didn’t stop. He pushed his way through the crowded corridor and stopped at the first porthole he came to.
“Skad me,” he repeated as he stared out. Nothing but empty black space filled the view around Earth.
“Wow, man,” Francis said catching up with him. “That shock you took must have really rattled yer head.”
“No, I, I was in the future, I guess. I was the director. There were starships and … and a huge ring…” Eli looked at his friend and could see the doubt in his eyes. “You gotta believe me, Francis,” he pleaded.
“Look, buddy,” Francis said softly. “You took quite a jolt from that PPSA on the tram. You should probably go lay back down. We’re not sure what kind of effects it might have on someone your … age.”
Eli looked back out the small round window. This time he focused in on his reflection and noticed he was considerably older. His grey hair was thinning and wrinkles lined his face.
“No…” He touched the reflected image with a hand, an old spotted, wrinkly hand. “How?”
“Come on,” Francis said putting an arm around Eli’s shoulders. “Let’s get back …”
“No!” Eli said throwing the arm off from around him. “Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong with me!”
Francis stared at Eli for a moment, his demeanor changing. He moved in close to Eli. “Okay okay,” he said conspiratorially. “Let’s go to the control room.”
With a nod, Francis placed a hand on Eli’s back and gently led him down the corridor. Eli couldn’t remember how long they walked for or even the path they took, but before he knew it, they were standing before a set of double doors.
Large, wooden, double doors.
Before he had a chance to voice his concern, they were through them. In the center of the room was a canopy hanging from some unseen point above. The large room was as dark as space itself except for the lit center where the canopy hung. A scratching sound permeated the air as though coming from another room accompanied with an obnoxious beeping, like an alarm clock that needed shut off.
“What is this?” Eli asked turning to face Francis. But there was no one there. Nothing but darkness surrounded him. He faced the canopy again. He didn’t know how he knew, but he knew the answer to all of his questions was under that pure white canopy.
He stepped into the light.
“He’s peaking again.”
The voices were slow and muddled, barely decipherable. But nowhere near as torturous as his vision. He blinked and the colors swam together in a whirlpool rainbow instantly raising the nausea to dangerous, near intolerable, levels.
Two men clad in white lab coats and wearing masks over their mouths and noses worked feverishly over him, trying to hold him down. He could hear clanks and thuds of metal striking metal nearby. His disorientation enabled his fight or flight instinct and he tried to move anyway he could.
“Dammit, there he goes again,” said one of the men, leaning his considerable weight over Eli’s upper body.
“Okay, that’s it,” yelled the second one. “Lock’em down!”
A soft hum sounded in Eli’s ear and suddenly he couldn’t move anymore. The knocking of metal quit as well and for a long moment the only sounds were the constant hum and the heavy breathing of the two men.
Eli blinked several more times and the spinning of the room lessoned slightly. Finally, swallowing a throat full of bile, Eli gained the strength to open his eyes fully.
“There he goes again,” one of the men said.
Fear made his chest feel heavy, breaths became hard to get. He kicked and bucked against whatever was holding him down though he couldn’t budge it and he could feel his strength fading away.
Staring right back at him was a metallic blue PPSA.
“Give’em a second,” the second man said. “He’ll settle down.”
After the initial shock, Eli noticed the stainless steel examination table behind the PPSA. There were two figures standing near wearing white lab coats. Eli got the distinct feeling that he was watching the scene from above. Then he turned his head and looked around at the lab-like environment.
He looked back at the PPSA as it dawned on him that he was staring into a mirror. Looking at himself. Then, in a moment, it somehow all made sense to him. He remembered the explosion and the decision to have Alice implanted into a prototype PPSA. But there was a malfunction. There was no method by which the brain would get the rest it required. Eli remembered working as much as his own battered body would allow him to; often working so long and hard it put him back in the hospital. Then he had made the decision to have himself transplanted into a PPSA prototype body. But the governing officials vetoed his request and forced him to take a leave of absence until he was deemed mentally stable enough to return.
He had not been an old man that day in the park; nor had he been a young man that day on the tram. He had designed and overseen the construction of the Global Sphere and been the director of the largest construction corporation in human history.
All at a time when he wasn’t very human at all.
The one problem he had never fixed was the dream sequence for the prototype PPSAs. Every one of them had suffered catastrophic neural failure and ceased operation within a decade of activation. But he had been transferred to a newer model before his brain failed, so he could continue to serve and try to solve the problem that had no solution.
The prototype PPSAs were simply not capable of operating correctly. And now it was too late to fix it.
“What do you think?” the skinny man with the long face asked.
“I still think the same thing I thought the last time this happened; it’s time to shut this one down.”
“But you know who this is…”
“Of course I know who it is,” the plump one responded. “But he’s been around so long and been through so many models,” he paused shaking his head. “He can’t possibly survive another transfer. His synapses are already deteriorated more than most.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” the skinny man said. “Let me check’em one last time.” The skinny man leaned in over Eli and stared at him. Then his eyes lit red and traced Eli’s entire skull several times. His scan complete, he stood upright. “Processing,” he said and then paused. “Double checking results.” Another quiet moment passed. Eli wanted to scream out and tell them to transfer him no matter what they discovered. But he could not speak nor utter a single sound.
“Triple check complete,” the skinny man announced. He turned a sad face toward Eli. “Your analysis was correct.”
The plump man spoke with a distant expression on his face. “I’ve just updated the net. Catalog the time and let’s pull the plug.”
No! Eli tried with all his might to yell, but in the reflection above him he saw that his helmeted face never even twitched. Through the reflection Eli watched as the plump man stepped behind the head of the table and pulled a wire loose from the computer it was jacked into.
The hum of the table quit and Eli felt his limbs relax. Thinking now was his opportunity to escape he tried to move, but his body was unresponsive. He tried to speak again as the skinny man followed the plump one out the door and the lights in the room went dark.
Eli’s vision tunneled. In the stale still room, covered with battle-grade armor, he felt a soft cool breeze on his skin. His tunneling vision grew bright with sunlight and in the distance he heard the joyful laughter of children.
None of this is real…
David Schibi was published in the Hadley Rille Books anthology RETURN TO LUNA [ISBN-13: 978-0-9819243-2-8] where his story THE RETURN has garnered online praise. He lives in Southwest Missouri with his awesome wife and three amazing children.
Story © 2010 David Schibi. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publishing.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish