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By Stephen R. Lawhead
ZondervanCopyright © 1996 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe man is sleeping. The huddled mass of nerves and sinews rests easily on the bed; outwardly there is no movement. Inwardly, the brain hums with random activity. A maintenance force continually monitors the man's internal activity by way of a vast trunkline of nerves.
At rest the network is dark. Momentary sparks of electrical impulses shunt their messages to and fro along the axons. At the outer fringes, the individual beads of light link up and begin their journey up the spinal column like midnight trains heading for the city. Eventually they arrive and send their impulses off into the tangled circuitry of the brain where each flash, briefly noted, dies out. Except for these momentary pinpoint flares, the system is dark and quiet.
Gradually, the sparks increase their activity; more messages are coming in, flooding the circuits. The lines begin to hum, glowing with energy. Impulses of light speed to their destination deep within the labyrinth, illuminating their passage. Soon the darkened webwork is alive with light-arcing, tingling, pulsing, throbbing with electricity. The man is waking.
* * *
The dreams had been at Spence again. He could feel their lingering presence like a dimly remembered whisper. They were unsettling in a vague sort of way. Nothing he could put a finger on-haunting. There was a word that seemed to fit. He felt haunted.
Now, nine weeks into the project, he was not so sure he wanted to finish. That was a strange thought. For almost three years he had worked for nothing else but the chance to test his theories in the most highly respected advancement center: the orbiting space lab GM. It had taken him a year to write the grant proposal alone. And he was here; against considerable odds his project had been chosen. To back out now would be professional suicide.
Spence raised his head carefully from his pillow. He removed the scanning cap-a thin, plastic helmet lined with neural sensors-and placed it on its hook over the couch. He wondered how the night's scan had gone, but realized he was feeling less and less interested than before. When he had started the project, his first thought was to run to the control room to see his scan as soon as he awoke. Now he seldom bothered, although he still occasionally wondered. He shrugged and stumbled into the tiny sanibooth to begin his morning routine.
He emerged from his quarters and hurried off to the commissary without stopping by the control room. I'll check in later, he thought, not really caring if he did. He headed down the axial and joined the flow of traffic. The space station, even one the immense size of GM-or Gotham as it was called by those who considered it home-was beginning to wear on him. He glanced around at his colleagues, and at the well-scrubbed faces of the student cadets, and knew that he was in the presence of the brightest minds on any planet. But he watched as the cadets followed one another dumbly into Von Braun Hall and thought, There must be something more. Knowledge was supposed to set one free, wasn't it? Spence did not feel very free.
He suddenly felt an urge to lose himself among the eager students, and so allowed himself to be pushed into the lecture hall. When the line stopped moving he flopped into a cushioned chair. The overhead lights dimmed and the automatic transcriber poked its hood up from the seat directly in front of him. He absent-mindedly flicked a switch at the arm of his chair which sent the hood sliding back into its receptacle. Unlike everyone else around him, Spence had no intention of taking notes.
He swiveled his head to his left and was shocked to find himself sitting next to a skeleton. The skeleton's sunken eyes blinked brightly back at him and the thin skin of its face tightened in a grimace. On anyone else it would have been a hearty grin.
"My name is Hocking," said the apparition.
"I'm Reston." Spence's mouth was dry and he licked his lips, trying not to stare.
Hocking's body was painfully thin. Bones jutted out at sharp angles, and his head wobbled uncertainly on his too-slender neck. Why isn't the man in a hospital bed somewhere? wondered Spence. He looked too weak to endure even sitting through the lecture.
Hocking rested in the hi-tech comfort of a pneumochair; his body, which could not have weighed more than eighty pounds, sank into the supporting cushions. He looked like a mummy in a sarcophagus. A thin tangle of wires made its way out of the base of Hocking's skull and disappeared into the headplate of the chair. Obviously mind-controlled, Spence considered; the chair probably monitored its occupant's vital signs as well.
"What level are you?" Spence heard his voice asking. It was an automatic question, one that opened every conversation between Gotham's inhabitants.
"A-level. Sector 1." Hocking blinked. Spence was immediately impressed. He had never heard of anyone reaching that designation. To most people it was merely a theoretical possibility. "How about you?" Hocking nodded slightly in his direction. Spence hesitated. Ordinarily he would have been proud to share his designation, but it was embarrassing to him now.
"Oh, I'm C-level," he said, and let it go at that. Spence knew that most of his countrymen never progressed beyond the lower sectors of E-level. Even those allowed aboard advancement centers were mostly D-level-although none were ever below Sector 2.
Spence realized he was staring again. Hocking shifted his weight awkwardly in the chair. It was clear that he suffered from some neuromuscular ailment-he had no muscle control at all, or at least very little. "I'm sorry," Spence said at last. "It's just that I've never met an A-level before. You must be very proud of yourself." He knew it sounded foolish, but the words were already out.
"It has its advantages," Hocking replied. He flashed his grimace again. "I've not met many Cs."
It was impossible for Spence to determine if the skeleton was joking or not. True, Cs were a rarity, and Bs were almost nonexistent, but on Gotham there were plenty of both. Before he had time to wonder further, Hocking spoke again.
"What is your specialty, Reston?"
"I sleep," said Spence sarcastically.
"And do you dream?"
Spence prickled at the notion that this specter might know something about his special problem. He also noticed that Rocking's voice came not from his throat but from a source at either side of his head. The chair amplified his voice as he spoke. This colored Hocking's speech with an eerie cast, as it overlapped his natural voice somewhat and gave Spence the impression that Hocking was speaking a duet with himself. Hocking noticed his glance, and his voice automatically lowered a tone. Hocking had only to think and some need was accomplished. Having never actually seen one of the rare and expensive biorobotic devices, Spence wondered what else the chair could do.
* * *
The lecture began and ended much as lectures do. Spence remembered nothing of it, except the feeling all through that the person sitting next to him was watching him, appraising him, sizing him up for some unknown purpose. Spence squirmed in his seat uncomfortably.
When at last the lecture was over, he stood up, turning to tell Hocking that he would see him again. On an orbiting university, no matter how huge, one always ran into the same people. But as he turned, he realized Hocking was already gone. He thought he glimpsed the back of the white ovoid chair in the flood that moved out the doors of the lecture hall, but he was not sure.
Spence wandered along to the commissary nearby. One was conveniently located on every level of the station since scientists hated to be more than a few steps away from their coffee. He fell into the short line and picked up one of the blue circular trays and a matching plastic mug.
He slid into a booth at the far side of the dining area and dosed his hot black liquid with a liberal amount of sweetener. His mind drifted back to the day he left Earth. He could still see his father beaming at him through the tears and he smelled the soft citrus scent of oranges in the air. They were sitting at a table beneath an orange tree in the courtyard of the visitor's center at the GM ground base.
"Just relax and don't tense up," his father was saying. "You won't black out that way. Don't forget to ..."
"I won't forget. I don't have to fly the shuttle, you know. Besides, it isn't like it used to be."
"I wish your mother could see you. She would be so proud."
"I know, Dad. I know."
"Do you think you could write now and then? I know I don't know much about what you're doing-your research and all-but I like to know how you are. You're all I've got now...."
"The effect of long-term space travel on human brain functions and sleep patterns. I'm part of the LTST project. I told you. I'll be fine-it's a small city up there. And you have Kate. She's here."
"You and Kate. That's all."
"I'll try to write, but you know how I am."
Excerpted from Dream Thief by Stephen R. Lawhead Copyright © 1996 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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