Fleeing the city of New York on the TransContinental atmospheric transport vehicle, Dran Florrian is traveling with Palimpsest-the ultimate proof of a lifetime of scientific theorizing.
When a rogue organization attempts to steal the device, however, Dran takes drastic action.
But his invention threatens to destroy the very fabric of this and all other possible universes, unless Dran-or someone very much like him-can shut down the machine and reverse the process.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)|
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By David Tallerman, Lee Harris
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 David Tallerman
All rights reserved.
The TransContinental was packed, as always.
As Dran Florrian turned away from the observation window, a young man in a logoed coverall, sour with the odour of three-day-old sweat, brushed too close — and for a moment Florrian saw, vivid against the deep black of his skin, the pink of gills at his throat, pulsing voraciously. A popular mod these days amongst the worst-off: the man would be paid a small incentive for the work his reconfigured respiratory system did in filtering the blackened atmosphere below.
In here, however, in mid-leap above the smog layer, the air was relatively clear, the gills' incessant palpitation without purpose. Florrian knew — as the man surely did not — that the blood-poisoning his modifications were inflicting hour by hour would kill their owner long before his tiny government stipend ever amounted to anything. The incentive was a small, wheedling fix, when what was needed was the vast, the drastic, the world-defining.
An alarm trilled in Florrian's ear — and though he'd been expecting it, he still started. The young man eyed him curiously, and Florrian wondered if he was an agent, as anyone on the TransCon could be and one in every twenty surely were. He forced calm, gave the young man a carefully measured smile that said, Nothing I'm doing is any of your business. The young man turned away, and after quick consideration, pushed deeper into the TransCon's lounge, elbowing past a woman with tightly bound grey hair above engineer's epaulettes, who looked at him with hatred. The press closed behind him and he was gone.
Florrian took the measure of the lounge once more, his gaze drifting over the moulded plastic of the benches, cramped with bodies pressed so close that they appeared to overlap. Looking back over his shoulder, he gave one last glance to the protruding bulge of the observation window, the TransCon's only slight concession to form over function. Before he started moving he singled out one head, turned somewhat away from him, a woman with bronzed skin and lustrous black hair cut above the ears. He gave a half nod, as though in greeting, and sidled towards her.
Only at the last moment did he veer aside. His true objective was a door marked NO ENTRY in heavy block case, recessed discreetly from the public space. It was unguarded; but unguarded did not mean the same as unwatched, and neither implied that it wasn't alarmed. Florrian considered the back of his hand, the small diamond of discoloration nestled just beneath the skin. He had his doubts about the crack on his Ident Plant. Necessity had narrowed his contacts to only the most shadowy and disreputable — and in the end, to a man whose name he'd never asked or been offered.
"What will my new identity be?" Florrian had asked. "What does it say?"
The old hacker barely glanced up from his work. "You don't need to know."
"What if they stop me?"
"If they stop you it's already over." The old man's eyes drifted to Florrian's right forearm, crinkled, refocused, as though they were seeing for an instant through skin and sinew — as for all Florrian knew they were. "You've got something there, don't you? They stop you, do for yourself quick ... or else they'll do you slow."
Florrian knew what would happen to him if he was caught. No crime was less forgivable than changing sides, as they'd surely assume he had done. They would empty his head like cats around a broken fish tank, not caring what else came out so long as there was even the possibility of valuable information. They would take their time, as the old hacker had said.
Yet the crack had activated on time and it had got him aboard, his cargo too, which was more than he'd dared hope for. Now every step felt like pushing luck he had no right to expect. They had made him a spy — because, they said, it was impossible these days to be a great scientist and not be a great spy also. Because if he worked for them, (and what choice was there but to work for them?) then by default he knew too much. They would protect what was in his head by any means necessary. If he was to be a scientist, then he must be a weapon too, and he must be their weapon.
Anger lurched into Florrian's thoughts. He stilled it — as they had taught him to. He raised his hand to the scanner's glinting eye, a casual gesture. The eye blinked, red and then green. The door hushed into its frame.
There were stairs down. He took them hurriedly. If he met anyone, then he could not explain his presence. He had dressed functionally, anonymously, but still he did not belong. If he was discovered, it would come to violence, one way or another — and for all the training they'd forced into him, Florrian had no liking of violence.
At least he knew where he was going. The TransCon's schematics had not been hard to find. At the bottom of the stairs he turned left into a tight tunnel of metal, excessively lit, and continued halfway down its length. There was a door to the right, another lock, and this time Florrian didn't hesitate. The access light flickered, red, red, red — and then green. The door whispered aside.
The TransCon's storage bay was even larger than he'd imagined: larger than the passenger compartments on the level above and every bit as claustrophobically packed. Here near the door were smaller items of personal luggage, strapped in dense tiers with bands of lurid orange elastic. He pressed further in, through the rows of ceiling-high shelving, until the space opened out.
And there it was. Encased in its shockproof carrigel it was a monolith of lime green, no different to the other cargo arranged around it like graffiti-spattered ruins of some antediluvian culture. Only its sheer size gave it away; its peak nearly brushed the steel rafters. When Florrian touched his palm to the gel and dug with his fingertips it shrank and withdrew with a faint sucking hiss, until its entire mass was a ball cupped in the palm of his hand.
He put the ball at his feet and inspected the newly revealed machine, caressing its front panel, inspecting for any slight damage. It was vaguely humanoid: a sphere of blistered metal above an angular carriage of black plastic, with panels protruding at either side, one of which curved around its front like an arm bent ready for a bow. Towards its base the surface spread into a metallic skirt, wherein lay most of the actual mechanism. It was far from being the most attractive thing he'd designed; in fact, it was ugly, unfinished-seeming, vaguely monstrous. And for all his paternal care, it frightened him — terrified him to the depths of his heart.
He called it Palimpsest. Five years of work, a lifetime of theorising, a thousand lies, woven tight.
Florrian touched two fingertips to his forehead. Though the gesture wasn't necessary to activate the chip nestled against his brain, he found — in a way he recognised as old-fashioned — that it helped him to concentrate. He evoked the virtual interface he'd tagged to the arm of the undignified machine-figure before him and, sure enough, it lit in recognition. At first the light was just a glow as of luminescent mist, and then a phantom square of blue appeared, flush above the arm's surface. Text spiralled, conjured by the modified retina of Florrian's left eye. Satisfied, he let his hand fall to the pad, which shifted subtly to meet his fingertips. He tapped out a lengthy authorisation code and received an acknowledgement, which he himself had written: WELCOME, DOCTOR FLORRIAN. PALIMPSEST IS ACTIVATING.
"Step away from that, will you?" The voice came from behind him, from somewhere near the entrance. "A dozen steps backward, please, and don't turn until I tell you to."
He didn't recognise the speaker. Male, not discernibly young or old, no clues of accent or intonation. Whoever they were, they didn't sound nervous or angry. In fact, their tone was perfectly composed. They weren't TransCon staff then, or even an agent. They were not surprised by Florrian's presence here — and that disturbed him.
He had set a nine-letter kill code on Palimpsest — according to statistical analysis, that being the lowest number of characters impossible to type by accident. He might have programmed a word sequence he could transmit by thought alone, but he'd determined the risk was too great. Memory struck Florrian as a fractious, unruly thing; he couldn't bear the danger of trusting Palimpsest's security to the whims of his unconscious. Instead, he had practised every day for a month, until he could enter the tactile code with the barest flicker of the fingers of one hand. It took him just under a second.
It struck him now that that was considerably longer than it would take whoever was behind him to fire a weapon.
"Please don't do anything we'll all regret, Dran. Just do as he said."
Florrian froze. The second voice he knew — almost as well as his own, though it was nearly a year since he'd last heard it. "Karen?" he asked.
He wanted badly to turn then. The urge was a palpable itch. He wanted to see her; he wanted to see the expression on her face. But he remembered what the first voice had said, and if he was going to be killed, he didn't want to be killed for something stupid.
For typing the kill code though? For making certain Palimpsest could never be misused? That was worth giving his life for.
A sudden jolt of pain in Florrian's forehead made him arch his neck. It was gone as quickly as it had arrived. When he looked back for the phantom blue of the interface, however, he found that it had vanished. Where it had been was only the grey crust of Palimpsest's curving arm.
"Okay," said a third voice: nasal, unsure. "That's it. He's shut out."
It was true. When Florrian attempted to recall the interface, nothing happened. His first efforts were a reflex. After that he tried to think methodically, picking through the simple mental sequence that should have restored the virtual keyboard. Then he became desperate. It made no difference.
There was a physical interface built into Palimpsest's side panel. There was no way he would have time to reach it, let alone make use of it.
"Put your hands up, Florrian. Do as I told you," the first voice said. "A dozen steps backward."
Florrian raised his hands and began to walk backwards. That had been it, his chance. He'd let it slip between his fingers. Yet it was useless to berate himself; as long as he was alive he might yet create another opportunity. At the twelfth step he stopped, mildly surprised he'd managed not to collide with anything in the crowded storage bay.
"Well done. Keep that up and you'll get through this in one piece." The male voice was close to his ear this time, and moving. The speaker walked past him on his left, and Florrian watched from the corner of his eye, glimpsing a face: late thirties perhaps, blonde hair, discreet signs of minor surgery, piercing blue eyes, hard lines of cheek and jaw. Handsome, he supposed, though he thought there was cruelty in those azure eyes. In any case, it was a face he knew.
Not well, though, and he struggled for a moment to match a name to it. Harlan Dorric. A scientist also, though Florrian couldn't say in what field. He only remembered that the man was deeply embroiled with high-level corporate research, a hugely profitable position to be in. They had been at the same functions, no doubt, perhaps they'd even spoken once or twice. None of that explained why Dorric should be here now.
There were three other men with him. Two of them, from the way they flanked Dorric, Florrian assumed to be hired security. The third he didn't get a clear look at, though it seemed safe to assume he was the one who'd blocked Florrian's neural connection to the outside world. In any case, Florrian found it hard to concentrate on them, when so much of his attention was occupied by the room's fifth occupant. He hadn't seen her, yet knew she was close by — for the delicate scent of gardenias hung in the air.
"Karen," Florrian said. "It's been a while."
"Be quiet, Dran," she told him, from behind and beside his ear. "I'm just here to make sure you don't do anything foolish."
He thought about that. Florrian supposed that her being here had saved his life, for if he hadn't heard her voice he would certainly have tried to type the kill code, and most likely they'd have shot him for it. Then again, letting Dorric gain access to Palimpsest when he'd had a chance to destroy it was surely the greatest act of stupidity imaginable.
"So that's him," he said. "Harlan Dorric. You've done well for yourself."
He'd sounded more peevish then he'd intended. But all Karen said was, "Yes, I have."
Florrian returned his attention to Dorric and the three men with him. The two he'd taken for bodyguards were facing his way now, with their backs to Dorric and the fourth man. They were looking at Florrian, each holding his right arm upraised so that the open hand, too, was trained in Florrian's direction. Each palm was hidden by a disk of silver and black, with a protruding half sphere of gold at its centre that pulsed with steady rhythm. The pose looked uncomfortable. Florrian imagined trying to hold his own arm out like that and how quickly he would tire. Yet these two didn't look as if they would grow tired, ever. They looked as if they'd stand there for as long as was needed, and even if an hour had passed, or ten, they would still be able to kill him in an instant with their neat little weapons.
Behind them Dorric and the fourth man were investigating Palimpsest's graceless facade. There was something comfortable about the way in which they worked, something almost proprietorial, which made Florrian's stomach clench.
His thoughts were moving rapidly now — and if the results remained less than productive, he had at least recalled details about Dorric. He knew, too, why at first he'd remembered so little. The man's expertise was in military innovation, designing new toys for the private militias that thrived throughout Africa, the Middle East and the destabilised regions of Europe. Dorric had courted controversy early in his career, straining even the limited ethical restraints the corporations chose to impose upon themselves; but all that had died down, or else been quashed. No doubt Dorric's rapidly growing wealth and connections deep in the corporate military had helped, and in subsequent years his name had vanished, both from the media and the scientific community's already limited network of social gossip.
There'd been one story, however, that he had heard; one that had persisted, though he couldn't recall now how it had come to his attention. Florrian dropped his voice, low enough that only Karen would hear. "You must have heard the rumours about him," he said.
For a moment he was sure she wouldn't respond. Then she replied, matching her volume to his, "That he's gone over? That gets thrown at everyone, sooner or later."
She was right. There wasn't a significant figure who hadn't, at some time, in whispers and closed conversations, been accused of treason. "No, not that," he said. Florrian turned his head, so that for the first time he could see something of her face; one dark eye, a cheek and the sharp corner of her mouth, framed in curves of almost-black hair. "They say he went full psycho."
It might have been his tone more than the words themselves that reached her. Karen's eye widened a fraction. Or might he have glanced upon some already-held suspicion? An inkling she'd harboured? But there was nothing in her voice as she said, "That's ridiculous."
It was an accepted fact of psychology that the rich, the powerful, the superskilled, were all to a greater or lesser degree insane. Or rather, they had disorders; they had grown or else had always been unbalanced. And it was truly an accepted fact, for what balanced mind could make decisions that affected millions and not buckle irreparably? Certain strains of malfunction were even watched for and cultivated. The trick was in recognition and containment, in checks and balances.
Yet there were those, always, who could not be checked, those who grew too unbalanced — whose madness metastasised and ate away their public worth, leaving only megalomania. There were even shrinks who'd gone whistleblower, not able to live with the thought of the ends to which their clients might put their power. Hadn't one doctor levelled such a claim against Dorric? Was that where Florrian had first heard it? But if that were the case, the doctor had vanished particularly quickly.
"I think it's true," he said, "and I think you know it. Whatever's going on here, it's hardly the actions of a sane man."
He knew immediately that he'd pushed too hard. Whatever he'd seen or thought he'd seen in Karen's face was gone. "I'm sorry, Dran," she said, "I am. But the best thing you can do now is to stay still and keep quiet. If anyone's crazy, it's you."
Excerpted from Patchwerk by David Tallerman, Lee Harris. Copyright © 2016 David Tallerman. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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