I’m a cripple. Always have been. I was born with one of the latest cerebro-spinal disorders, unpleasant off-shoot of muddled genetic manipulation in vitro. My father was one of the leading scientists in the field at the time. He was also a drunk.
My name is Dr. Pario Souder. I’ve been tied to a chair my whole life. My voice is fake, an interpretation through a voice box reader strapped around my neck. My motion is powered by the faint movements of my right hand, the only spinal thread they could preserve as my body warped itself through my early development.
I am the inventor of the Book of All. I wrote it, and I seeded it. Nobody would have expected as much, least of all me. At the time, it was only a way to keep myself sane, to shut out the memories that weren’t mine, but it grew. Now it invades my dreams, and my dreams have become nightmares. I see my stillborn twin brother reaching up to me from his grave. I see hideous cripples lining the streets with their begging bowls empty. I see my body splayed out in a wash of grey liquid, Randell dead beside me.
I created it. I rely upon it. And now, I have to live with it.
Image from here.
Randell is my chief of security, and also a cripple, though not by birth. His modified genes forged ahead unhindered, and before his accident he was all set to be the Ultimate Fighting champion of the world. He has the size and build still, hulking over me at nearly 2 metres tall, some 200 pounds of solid muscle fitted like body armour to his frame. It is no use in the ring now, though. He was attacked in Central Park on his morning jog 5 years ago, and crippled. They could have just killed him, it would have been easier, but they didn’t. Instead they cut out the patellas from his knees, and replaced them with self-binding skin grafts that wound round the hub of tendons underlying the cap. The procedure was irreversible, and Randell’s fighting career was over.
They did it because of his genes. He was unwelcome. The same thing happened to me, though not in so violent a manner. I could never get funding for my research, no matter how excellent my results were. I was shunted from board to board, never being allowed a position where my voice would count.
Now I live in the desert, and the Book of All funds everything. Now, the leaders of the world come to me for advice, and listen to every word I say.
Randell and I go for a stroll every morning around the grounds of the compound. About 7am, when the sun is just starting to plateau over the desert horizon and the air is thick with the scent of chrysanthemums. It pleases me to keep flowers in the desert.
“Davies was on the television again last night, sir,” says Randell, limping alongside my chair. I roll my eyes to look at him. They are just about the only things I can control beside my right hand.
“For the 100th time, Randell, call me Pario,” says my voice. It is a mellifluous Cambridge brogue, emitted from a speaker in my chair. I picked it from a whole slew of different accents and styles, from a woman who grimaced whenever she turned away. I would have spent longer choosing, but I couldn’t stand her feigned friendliness. That is why it is good to be with Randell. He does not look at me in disgust.
“Yes, sir,” he says, grinning.
“His policies are the same?” asks my voice.
“Yes sir. As anti-engineering as ever. There was a wheelchair mob encamped outside his Mecca Ryce party headquarters in South Angeles today, waiting to pelt him with eggs.”
“They managed to coat the minister for health pretty well when he came out to address them, but no Davies.”
My voice chuckles. It doesn’t do this too well, and sounds more like I’m choking.
“He’ll be coming to see us soon,” says my voice.
“Yes sir,” says Randell.
“In addition, there will be an airspace clampdown over Houston due to bad weather, and my chiro-surgeon will be delayed. Arrange for a helicopter to pick him up at the city limits, please.”
“Yes sir,” he repeats, and we both fall silent for a time. The stroll continues. The desert is beautiful to me. It is a naked land, full of possibility, yet stark and unforgiving. I can make out the dim glow of stars above, pale fuzz through the lightening blue sky.
“You’re not happy about Davies, are you” says my voice. Randell shakes his head briskly.
“Sir, I’m merely concerned about the security risk posed by potential protestors.”
“Nonsense,” says my voice. “The security in the compound is faultless. Between you and your codes, and me and the Book, we have every eventuality covered. No. You hate him for his stance against the engineered.”
He is silent for a time, straggling along beside me.
“He wants to block them out entirely, sir,” he says eventually. “It’s the segregation of an entire race. It would affect my children, and their children too, if I have any. 3 generations, sir, and we’re helping him to get all the power he needs to do it.”
My voice sighs. It sounds like static.
“Perhaps he is right then, Randell. Look at us. Perhaps we are tainted.”
He says nothing for a long time. I listen to the uneven crunch of his unsteady gait, overlaid with the constant grind of my chair’s wheels over the gravel.
At the corner of the compound, turning with the walls and alongside my brother’s grave, he speaks again.
“What does the Book say, sir?”
“The Book has no opinions, Randell. You know that.”
We head back towards the buildings in silence. There are cacti in my grounds that take 100 years to grow just one arm. I like to watch them, knowing I will be long dead while they are still in their infancy.
“Do you really believe we are tainted?” he asks, and his voice catches in his throat.
“I don’t know,” says my voice, sure and confident as ever. “Look what became of us. 2 perfect genetic blueprints, but something went wrong. You know as well as I the price for mistakes.”
“You can’t quantify for everything,” adds my voice.
On the way back in, dawn shadows glimmering on the pale sand before us, I tell him to invite a new client. He is surprised when I say it will be Farrell, Davies’ chief opponent in the Republican presidential primary, and a man in no way able to pay for my services.
“I want to see him today,” says my voice. “Before I change my mind.”
“Yes sir,” says Randell. “I’ll bring him in.”
“Thank you,” says my voice, and I wheel away and up the ramp towards the compound. Turning into the door, I glimpse Randell from the corner of my eye. He hasn’t moved, and is watching me still. I put the thought from my mind, and continue with my business for the day.
My life is very simple. I follow the same routine every day. Up at 5, and down to the Book to confirm the snatches of patterns I see in my dreams. Around 7 I stroll the grounds with Randell and go over the day ahead. I take breakfast through a tube at 9. After this, I allow myself to drift. I don’t need to be near the Book to do this. I can control it better from a distance. Midday, and another meal through a tube. Then I go to work. It can take most of the day, hours can pass by and I won’t even notice as I struggle to understand what the Book tries to tell me. I am often exhausted by the time I am done.
At around 7 my surgeon comes and opens up my back. This refreshes me, I feel stronger afterwards. I eat another meal through a tube, then I may entertain a personal visitor. Davies is one regular. The existing president comes to me also. Many of my clients are company men, seeking trends in the stock market, in international business, in resources, from all over the world. They are all men of power, and they listen to me carefully, and pay me vast sums for my advice. After this I go to bed.
Every day is the same. I live by this routine. Without it, I would be lost.
My chiro-surgeon arrives 15 minutes late. He apologizes profusely, while the chair conveyors me across the operating table. A problem with airspace rights, he explains, the military issued a clamp down on all aircraft over the municipal centre. He had to take a cab to the city limits to take the helicopter I had waiting for him.
Then he smiles.
“But then you knew all that already, didn’t you?” he says.
“That’s right,” says my voice.
“That’s some book you’ve got,” he says, shaking his head. Then he goes to work. Peels back the layer of skin graft over my fortune bracelet spine, spends 1 to 2 hours massaging, draining, and reconnecting its misshapen chunks of bone. It is a genetic disease not completely dissimilar to leprosy, whereby the nerve cells in the long axons of the spine are in a constant state of auto-phagic decay. This means they are endlessly attempting to digest themselves even as they heal. My back, therefore, is rotting within me. Without daily attention, I’d be dead in a week.
“Not so good today,” says the surgeon. “You under any special stress? You need to take it easy.”
“Speak to Randell,” says my voice. “He schedules my day.”
“I will,” he says, goes back to work.
While he works I drift. This close to the Book, as I always am these days, leads me to drift on its wave of patterns whenever I relax. I catch glimpses of what might be, unfinished thoughts, incomplete puzzles. It is a stream of thought only I am attuned to, and only I can feel.
Sometimes, when I drift, there are the nightmares. I dream of my brother’s grave, sitting next to it in my chair, staring at the dry desert lichen growing green across its face. My eyes trace his name in the stone, over and over again. Then an arm bursts from the grave. It is a tiny arm, blue and shrivelled. There is a voice, but it is so faint I can scarcely hear it. It is asking me for something, but I don’t know what.
I come to myself terrified every time. I have had these nightmares all my life, though they have been getting steadily worse. They last longer, they come more often, but the image is always the same. My brother is coming for me.
“All done,” says the surgeon, as ever. He enters the decontamination suite, strips off the thick rubber mask, gloves, goggles, suit, amid a steamy spray of disinfectants. My back is hosed down by air jets from above, a new layer of skin graft is ladled across it and allowed to set, and then the room is steam disinfected around me. The surgeon waves from behind his thick glass screen, pulls on a jacket, and leaves.
The operating table slides me back into my chair. The manacles to my back are re-attached, connecting it to a constant drip of the latest antibiotic strains, and my right hand slips into the navigation controls. I wheel myself out.
Farrell arrives at 10 o’clock, and I am in the reception room to greet him. He will have been warned by Randell about my appearance. I am, after all, not in the least pretty.
He walks in tall and strong, Randell at the door behind him. His hair is thick, short and black, his face serious and powerful. His eyes barely flicker across my wasted body, my withered and stick thin legs. He strides across the thickly carpeted room to my chair and proffers his hand.
“I’m James Farrell,” he says, voice soft but self-assured.
I look at his hand.
“I’m afraid I’m unable to shake hands with you, Mr. Farrell,” says my voice. “I’m a cripple.”
He smiles, big and generous, then sits down in the purple leather armchair opposite me.
“Please,” he says, “the term ought to be â€˜disadvantaged’, surely?”
“But I am not disadvantaged, Mr. Farrell,” says my voice, “at least not in the ways that will matter to you. I am, however, a cripple.”
He nods. He is not shocked by my repudiation, or my bluntness.
“Alright then,” he says.
“Alright,” repeats my voice. “Very good. Well, then. My name is Dr. Souder. You will no doubt have heard my name before, and perhaps something of what I do. You will have heard fantastic stories of my predictions coming true, of my fortunes acting themselves out to the letter.”
“It’s true,” he says. “I have. I have also heard your price is astronomical. I came because you asked me to come, but I want you to be under no illusions as to my financial acumen. I am not a poor man, but I very much doubt I can afford you.”
“There are others ways of paying than with money,” says my voice.
“I see,” he says.
“No,” says my voice, “I don’t think you do, so I’ll explain. My prophecies are not for everyone. I do not sell them on the open market. I do not give them to the highest bidder. I give them to the men that need them, with one injunction. Know thyself. It is the same warning that was given to kings and beggars alike by the Delphic oracle over 2000 years ago. She made her visitors wait for 3 days before they were admitted to her inner chambers. They had to be purified. They had to reflect upon their lives.”
“So I am to wait 3 days?” he asks seriously.
“No. Merely 2.”
“So how does it work? Are there cards, or a crystal ball?”
My voice chuckles. It comes through the speakers scratchy and fake.
“Smoke and mirrors,” says my voice. “Tools of the trade. Nothing to do with the real business of speaking the future. The temple of Apollo at Delphi is a good example. It was built upon a naturally occurring geological anomaly, a fissure in the rock caused by two intersecting fault lines, which exuded an intoxicating gas into the oracle’s chamber. Nothing magical, no mystery, just fault lines and limestone and tectonic activity. What it boils down to is a stream of stoned priestesses making predictions in a trance state, based upon the already existing contents of their brains looked at in new ways. In this way the Trojan War was purportedly predicted.”
Farrell sits and stares at me.
“The message, Mr. Farrell, concerns that which we consider to be fantastic. It is only fantastic given an ignorance of the total situation. Hence the injunction, little good that it did. Essentially, the truth of the oracle came down to this. A readiness to look at normal life and see the fantastic possibilities that lie within.”
“So are we over some fissures now?” he asks. “What gas is it?”
I chuckle again.
“No, Mr. Farrell, I only mention this to gain a sense of perspective. For millennia, mankind has sought to foretell the future, with dubious success. You have heard of Nostrodamus, I’m sure, who predicted World War 2, the assassination of Kennedy, even the formation of the Beatles. All nonsense, revelation after the fact, useless for anything more than the curiosity of hindsight. My method, however, is irrefutable. It is the highest authority in the world on mathematical probability forecasting.”
“Mathematical?” he asks. “You mean it’s some kind of computer?”
“The Book of All, Mr. Farrell, is a very special kind of computer. It is the first genetically engineered processor in the world, a synthesis of human neurology and silicone, wired solely for prediction.”
“Is it alive?” he asks, taken aback.
“Not in any conscious way. It is merely cloned cells and circuitry, processing, yet it is connected to the world in a way no human could be, and understands the world the way no computer can. It reads the whole of the Internet every day. It monitors all the television and radio channels around the world, constantly. It handles over a trillion gigaquads of data every minute. Its neurones fire nearly as fast as light, such is its labyrinthine structure. It knows everything there is to know, and it has the power to bring the whole into some kind of order. It looks for patterns. It is schizophrenic in its exactitude. Every single byte of information, every spoken word, gives it more ammunition to feed into its predictions.”
Farrell is nodding.
“That’s amazing,” he says.
“Perhaps” concedes my voice. “Perhaps not, for the Book of All is just a tool, one that is neither infinite nor free of the bounds of time. It cannot know absolutely everything, it can only make educated guesses. It is subject to the same rules that tore down Laplace’s determinism and installed the uncertainty principle in its place. It can, however, give the bearer a distinct advantage over his rivals, if he knows how to use it, just as the man who counts cards in a casino has a higher chance of beating the house than the sunburned tourist in his ten gallon hat.”
Farrell nods, taking it in.
“And I’m the tourist?” he asks.
“You are. And I am the oracle.”
He stands. Walks over to the window, feet shushing over the thick carpet. Returns.
“Very impressive,” he says. “Very impressive indeed. Would you say that this book could help me become president?”
My eyes flicker to Randell, stood motionless at the door and listening to every word.
“Yes, Mr. Farrell,” says my voice, “that is exactly what I am telling you. But it will only help you under certain conditions.”
“Ahah!” he exclaims, jabs his finger into the air happily. “The 3 day wait. So, what’s it to be?”
“You fight Governor Davies on the issue of genetic engineering. Integration will be key to your policies.”
“It already is,” he says.
“And that’s why I chose you,” says my voice.
He nods slowly, sinks his hands into his jacket pockets.
“I’ll need some proof of your book’s abilities before I commit to anything.”
“And you shall have it now,” replies my voice immediately. “Listen carefully. Tomorrow, Governor Davies will give a speech to a select number of investors. He will promise them tax breaks and blind eye arrangements in exchange for their support at the primary. Later that same day, you will find some quarter of your sponsorship kitty withdrawn by a number of your staunchest supporters. At that point you will sorely need my advice, but I will be unavailable, as I will be entertaining a furious Davies, who will have heard about your visit here.”
“Could you give me the names of these investors?”
“I could, but I won’t. You will see soon enough for yourself. And so, I will see you in 2 days.”
“My 2 day wait,” he says, smiling. “Very good. Alright then. Thank you, Dr. Souder.”
He stands, gives a slight bow, then he is gone.
Randell is sitting before me.
“You’ve never asked for more than money before, sir,” he says.
I look away.
“I’m going to bed,” says my voice, and I wheel myself out of the room without looking back.
That night I dream of my brother’s grave again. I am sitting in my chair and unable to move as his blue fingers root at the air like fat distended maggots. My heart races, and for the first time I hear his words.
“Join me,” he says.
I wake terrified, my eyes jolting open, but there is no sound except the rhythmic whirring of the bed’s machines beneath my spine.
I skip my stroll with Randell the next day, and go straight to the Book.
I should be preparing for Davies, but I don’t. Instead, I surf the information waves for anything about the engineered. There are more of us now than ever before, and the number is growing. Thousands. Few hold positions of power, and will have little ability to fight against Davies’ segregation laws if he attains office. There are football and baseball players who, despite their inherent skill, haven’t made it to the major leagues. There are scientists like myself, deprived of funding and a voice. There are shrewd businessmen whose deals always seem to fall through. There are musicians ignored by the larger concert halls, artists whose exhibitions show in only small-town galleries, actors whose B-movies flop at the box office. The lists go on.
I came to a decision a long time ago, about this. They need to make their own way, as I did. They need to understand the reasons why they are continuously rejected. They need to know for themselves.
I am one of the most successful, but I am an aberration. I was born into riches. My father left this castle to me. I simply converted it into my fortress, and created the Book within its depths, using the money he left behind. Now there is more money than I need. There is more than I can use.
I realise, as the probability stream washes over me, that my words to Farrell yesterday were really a lie. I have sold my predictions to the highest bidder. I have sold them on the open market. That is why Davies is my client. That is why I am in the position I am now. That is why I have to do what I’m going to do.
Governor Davies arrives on time, as expected. I watch his arrival through the compound’s surveillance cameras, down in a helicopter, aides halted by Randell at the front gates. They speak together for a few minutes, then on through the gardens, my chrysanthemums rolling their fat heads in a gentle breeze. Through the outer doors, Randell’s codes clipping neatly into the system, and into the reception room, where Randell takes up his position at the door, and the Governor wait.
I make him wait for an hour. He smokes 6 cigarettes, paces the length of the room for 20 minutes, flicks the television on and off, makes a call on his cell phone, and asks for bourbon twice. Randell remains impassive at the doorway throughout.
He stands as I roll into the room. He can hear my chair before he hears my voice, and I see his shoulders stiffen as he braces himself. I have that effect on people.
“Good evening, Governor,” says my voice. He spins smartly to face me, short cropped blonde hair whisking at the tendrils of smoke trailing from his mouth. He is beaming at me, though his eyebrows flicker briefly as his eyes alight on my ruined face.
“Good evening, Dr. Souder,” he says, a voice full of calculated warmth. “It’s good to see you.”
For a moment we face off, as he stands, I settle the chair before him. Then he sits, and I bring my chair to idle.
“No need to pretend on my account, governor,” says my voice crisply. “It is not good to see me at all. I am a hideous specimen, after all, as you told your colleague back at the Mecca Ryce some 34 minutes ago. But let’s not dwell on it.”
He opens his mouth, his grin stretches even wider, and for a moment he seems genuinely pleased to be caught off guard. Then he holds up his hands and shakes his head.
“Guilty as charged, Dr. My own fault, of course. I should have expected as much. Your man warned me to be polite, but I suppose you of all people would know when it’s fake?”
“My man?” asks my voice.
“Randell, yes, over there,” he says, pointing to the door. “He told me you were ill, and I should do nothing to excite you unduly.”
“He did,” says my voice.
“But then I have to admit that you look ill all the time to me, Dr. I really can’t imagine it getting any worse.”
“What did you want, Davies?” asks my voice. I drop the title because I’m angry, but realise it is a foolish thing to do. He notes it with a slight raising of his eyebrows.
“It’s touching that he should care in such a manner, don’t you think, Dr.?” he continues, subtly emphasising my own title.
“He is my servant, that is his job,” says my voice. “Now, Mr. Davies, what can I do for you?”
He nods, seemingly satisfied. Leans back in the armchair, opens his silver cigarette case, draws one out, sets it in his mouth and lights it. Then he extends the case to me. I simply watch him perform. He then slaps his forehead with the palm of his hand, and withdraws the offer.
“I’m sorry,” he says, mock aghast though unable to hide his pleasure. “It’s so easy for me to forget. Life’s guilty little pleasures, you understand?” He draws deeply on the cigarette, holds it in his lungs before letting it out slow.
“Now. Where were we? Ah. The question, what do I want? Well, it’s a very good question, in light of certain events, wouldn’t you say? Events like my chief opponent in the presidential campaign, Andrew Farrell, coming to you for advice.”
I regard him soundlessly.
“Knew I’d know about that, huh?” he asks. “Well. There’s a problem, you see.Â I was under the impression that I paid for exclusivity in the political sector.”
“That was a mistaken impression, Mr. Davies,” says my voice.
He snorts, and a spume of smoke jets from the corner of his mouth.
“Yes, I suppose it was. We never made out a contract. But then I pay you a ridiculously large amount. I very much doubt Farrell could match it. So I have to wonder to myself, just what’s going on here? Is it the money? Is it prestige? Or is my prophet personally invested in this? He is, after all, in line to be cordoned off from the world when I attain office. Perhaps he is too ill these days to be contrary to his own blood for much longer.”
“What is that you want to say, Mr. Davies?”
He smiles pleasantly.
“Oh, nothing definite. I thought perhaps we should have a little heart to heart though, you know. Client and supplier. Get some things out into the open, clear the air. For instance, about your father. What an interesting story that is! Perhaps the first geneticist to conduct tests on his own line. What a pioneer! The fact that he was a drunk and addict should be of no consequence to us. Then, how about your health? Well, I must admit I don’t know a lot about your condition, genetically derived as it is, but I do know it’s an expensive problem to treat. Very expensive, actually, a small fortune, yes? Hmmm. And where does all this money come from, I find myself wondering. Who is Dr. Souder’s chief client at the moment?”
He draws lazily on his cigarette, grins, doesn’t wait for an answer.
“Well that would be me, wouldn’t it?”
Expels the smoke in one bubbled puff.
“So, again I find myself thinking, well, Davies, it would appear that the good Dr. Souder is actually quite dependant on you for his livelihood, and, dare I say it, life? Hmmm. Doesn’t it therefore seem possible that I, let’s not forget as the chief client in this case of course, should have some say in who my supplier approaches with his goods? It seems perfectly reasonable to me. So I have to ask myself another question, and one I think I really ought to bring up with you as well, Dr. It’s rather forward, but then I know you admire honesty in a man, and believe me, in this regard I’m being thoroughly straight-forward.”
He pauses, watches me.
“Go ahead,” says my voice.
“Well, it’s like this. What use are you, Dr.? You see, I have to wonder, if your diseased brain decides it’s time to take a stand, to support my opposition and no doubt jeopardize my own future plans, then, bluntly, Dr. Souder, what use are you to me?”
He blows smoke over my head. It stings my eyes, but I don’t blink.
“Your conception of my monetary situation is intriguing but highly erroneous, Mr. Davies,” says my voice, cooler than I feel. “Clearly you only looked within the borders of this country for my clients, and naturally found yourself to be the chief one. Let me remind you, as close-minded fascists like yourself are wont to forget, that there is a whole world out there, all willing to finance the Book, and therefore me.”
His confident grin remains.
“You’re bluffing,” he says. “You need me.”
“Perhaps,” says my voice, “but perhaps you need to remember one thing, Mr. Davies, in your dealings with me. I have the Book. I know everything that you know. I see everything that you see. I know exactly what you’re going to do, at any given moment, and there’s nothing you can do to shake that off.”
“Nonsense,” he scoffs. “It is just a computer, you told me yourself. It works on probability. You can guess, but you can’t know everything.”
“Well, that’s something for you to think about, isn’t it?” asks my voice pleasantly. “And while you ponder it, here’s something else to bear in mind. Not what I can do for you, but what you can do for me. You should know that with my advice, Farrell can easily ascend to the presidency over you. He will be able to avoid all your slings and arrows, because I can warn him in advance. He will fight you over segregation, and with my help he will win. So, Mr. Davies, if you want my continued support, you will need to decide just what you can do for me.”
He inhales deeply on his cigarette, holds it for a second, then blows the smoke full in my face.
Randell is on him in a heartbeat, great fists pinioning his arms over his head like a marionette with its strings pulled taut. He shakes him until the cigarette tumbles loose and falls into his lap, where it burns a hole in his suit trousers before winking out against his flesh. He doesn’t make a sound. I watch emotionless.
“That’s enough,” I say, after Davies is thoroughly rattled. Randell lets him go.
“Think carefully about it, Mr. Davies,” says my voice. “There is much at stake.”
He stands quickly, shrugs his jacket over his shoulders, sets the sleeves of his shirt and cufflinks. Then he turns to Randell, back to me, and smiles.
“Very touching,” he says. “And you don’t even know.”
Then he is gone, hauled by Randell across the room and out of my sight.
Randell returns 5 minutes later, and I am waiting for him, wide-eyed with fury.
“Are you all right, sir?” he asks.
“Never speak to my clients before me again!” spits my voice, its usually beautiful tones warped by the tension in my throat. “Never ask them for anything! Never inform them of my medical condition!”
He flinches under each command.
“And finally, most importantly, never, ever, step in and disrupt a meeting. Never! I do not need your help. You are just a servant. Do you understand that? Only a servant!”
He hangs his head.
“I thought-” he begins, but I will not allow him to speak.
“Do not think!” cries my voice. Then I wheel myself out of the room, and leave him behind.
That night I cannot sleep. I feel the Book calling to me, there are so many new possibilities to explore, but I want nothing to do with them. They make me feel sick. Instead I lie, in my specially designed bed with its gentle machines humming beneath me, and think about Randell, and Davies’ words.
Early in the morning, the dawn shines through my windows, and I finally sleep. The dream is upon me. The grave. The wrinkled blue arm. The voice.
“Join me,” it says, whispered.
“Soon,” it says.
I am woken by Hale, Randell’s second. He is stood in the doorway, waiting. When he sees I am awake, my eyes bleary upon him, he speaks.
“Your surgeon is here, sir.”
I blink, signal to the control glove on my hand for the bed to slide me into my chair.
“What time is it?” asks my voice.
“5 in the afternoon,” he says.
“Where is Randell?”
He says nothing, merely looks at me.
“Why wasn’t I woken sooner? Where is Randell?”
“He is gone sir,” he says.
“We’ve been searching for him all day. We didn’t want to wake you until we located him. But now, your surgeon is here, andâ€¦” he trails off.
“His room?” asks my voice. “His things, are they gone?”
“No sir, everything is where it should be.”
My hand slides into the chair’s controls, and the bed’s attachments release my spine. “Except for Randell,” says my voice.
“Gather the staff. Meet me in the surgery. I want a full report.”
They tell me nothing new. The session is long, and the surgeon is shocked. He tells me my back is in the worst condition he has seen for a long time.
“Too much stress,” he says, working over the lower vertebrae. “What happened last night?”
I don’t bother to answer.
I learn little new from my staff, 16 in total, minus Randell. Cooks, cleaners, nurses, gardeners for my flowers. Hale fires questions at them and they give answers for the second time of the day. One of them, a cook rising early to make bread, saw Randell leave the compound for his daily stroll around 6am. No one saw him return.
I dismiss them, and after another hour and many warnings from my surgeon, I am free again. I go to the Book.
It tells me Davies has continued on his segregation tour, â€˜cordoning for ability’, he likes to call it. Farrell has made his first public stand against him, openly decrying the cordoning as a new kind of Jim Crow law. He will want to see me tonight, but that won’t be possible.
Of Randell it tells me little. It knows his character well, but has nothing to say to account for this behaviour. Only an accident in the desert would explain this, it says.
I wonder that he has left because of me, but the Book does not mention this. It has nothing else to say, and I am left uncomforted.
Hale is ringing through to the Book chamber. I am only to be disturbed in emergencies, and he knows this. His face appears on a screen on the wall set into the solid rock.
“It’s Randell sir,” he says hurriedly. “He’s back!”
“He’s here?” asks my voice. “Where?”
“At the gates. Sir, he doesn’t look so good.”
Hale’s image flickers, the screen flicks to static for a second, then I’m looking at the front gates of the compound from a camera mounted on the inner wall. There is a figure slumped against the metal rails. The camera zooms slowly in on him, and I roll my chair closer to the screen. I can see it is Randell. His face is swollen purple and his clothes are covered in blood.
“What’s he doing out there?” asks my voice. “Why doesn’t he let himself in?”
“Sir, he can’t get in because I changed the security codes after he went missing,” comes Hales disembodied voice through the screen. I am transfixed by the red figure of Randell.
“Changed the codes,” mutters my voice. “Why?”
“Randell told me to last night, sir. He said we were at a high state of emergency, but you were not to be worried with it.”
“High security, why?”
“He wasn’t precise, sir, but I gathered that your meeting with Governor Davies did not go according to plan. He said the compound, yourself, and the Book, could be in danger.”
“That’s ridiculous!” says my voice. “The Book says nothing about that.”
“Sir, we really should-” begins Hale, but I am transfixed by the image of Randell on the screen, his bloodied arms waving through the gate pathetically.
“For god’s sake, Hale, that’s Randell out there!” interrupts my voice. “Let him in!”
“Sir, about the security, isn’t it possible the Book missed something?” asks Hales reasonable voice. “Look at him, sir, he’s been beaten repeatedly. Look at his face! How did this happen? Who did it? What is he doing here now?”
“Who cares?” storms my voice. “He had some kind of accident, it doesn’t matter! He’s dying out there Hale, let him in!”
“Sir, please,” insists Hale. “Listen to me. There is nothing in the desert that can do that to a man. Sir, I believe he has been captured, and that this is some kind of trap, an attempt to force passage into the compound.”
“Are you mad?” cries my voice. “If that was at all likely, the Book would have told me weeks ago. But have you checked the radar? Is there anything out there at all?”
“No sir, but then Randell knew all the compounds codes, all our frequencies, and there were some I couldn’t change. If someone is out there, and they had Randell all day, they could easily know how to jam our radar by now.”
“I don’t care about that, dammit. Let him in!”
“That’s an order, Hale. Let him in!”
I watch as the gates slide open, and Randell limps through. Two nurses rush out with a trolley-stretcher and gather him onto it. I watch their progress through the gardens, cameras switching along their path.
“Bring him directly to me,” says my voice.
“Sir, he needs a doctor now, he’s still losing blood,” says Hale, on screen now alongside the trolley.
“Bring the damn doctor too, then!”
I wait, watch them. I cannot relax. Minutes pass as I stare at their procession stretched along long corridors, to the lifts, and into the lower levels.
Hale’s voice whispers through the intercom.
“Oh god,” he says.
The camera trail following Randell switches back to the front entrance. There are men dressed in black, carrying guns, flooding through the open gates.
“Did you close those gates, Hale?” asks my voice.
“Sir, yes I did, sir!” he answers, before going on an open channel and addressing the entire staff in a panicked shout. “Lock every door, disable every lift, change every code you can, we’re under attack!”
“I need to see Randell,” says my voice. “I’m coming.”
“No sir, please, stay with the Book, it’s the most secure room in the compound.”
“I need to see Randell,” repeats my voice.
“Sir, I must insist, stay in the Book chamber and keep the entrance locked, the only person who knows the codes is yourself, and everything else has been compromised.”
“Bring him to me then,” says my voice, and Hale just begins to protest as I switch off the audio.
I flick the cameras back to tracking Randell’s slow progress along the long and winding metal corridors down to the Book, accompanied by only the doctor now. I split the screen and watch the storming of my home. The men in black fire sporadically at some of my workers, who have taken defensive positions at windows and doorways inside the compound. I see pulses of gunfire flash across the screen like neurone pulses, instant arcs that fade across my retina in seconds.
I watch in silence. It is unreal.
Randell reaches the door and rouses himself from the trolley. He pushes the doctor away, who seems only too pleased to dash back up the corridor and out of the preternatural gloom. I key the codes in through my chair, and the huge metal bulkhead rolls open. There is Randell. He sways into the room, leans against the wall, and slumps to his knees. His clothes are torn and bloodied, his face transformed by swollen black bruises.
“What happened?” asks my voice.
He opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. He tries again, and a faint whisper emanates.
“Drugs,” he says. His eyes are circled wide and staring, the pupils fully dilated, his skin broken into a sweat. “Davies, coming.”
“He’s already here,” says my voice.
He understands after a few seconds, then hangs his head and starts to cry.
“Randell, I’m so sorry,” says my voice.
He shakes his head.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. Lurches on his knees towards me, rests his shaking head on my lap, and kneels there sobbing for a long time.
I watch the screen, and the men in black have breached the compound’s buildings. Hale and the others are on their knees, arms tied behind them. I switch the audio back on.
“You’ll never find the Book,” says Hale, defiant. “It’s hidden, and only Dr. Souder has the codes.”
One of the men backhands him across the face. Then there is a voice I recognise, and a figure walks past the fallen Hale.
“We don’t need your help,” he says. “We already know.”
It is Davies. He looks up at the camera and smiles.
“Hello Dr. Souder,” he says. Then he takes a handgun and shoots out the lens. The picture crackles to static.
I turn back to Randell, who is looking up at me, face burst like a spoiled plum, wet with tears.
“There’s something you have to do for me now, Randell,” says my voice. He nods.
The men in black are outside the chamber minutes later. Davies is at the head. He raps on the bulkhead with his pistol.
“You in there, Dr. Souder?” he calls out, voice deadened by the door but echoing through the intercom. “There’s just a few things I thought we ought to talk about, before this is over. Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” says my voice. Davies smiles instantly.
“Good. Well. I guess you didn’t see this one coming, did you?”
Some of his men laugh. They must be private security, with little discipline. I knew he had contacts, we were prepared for any kind of attack, but then I never expected them to use Randell.
“It boils down to this, Souder,” he says. “You’ve got two choices. One, you can stay in there and in a few days you’ll both be dead, you from your spine, Randell from his injuries. We broke quite a lot of his ribs, you know. Or two, you can open the door, let us in, and things will go back to how they used to be, except you’ll work only for me. It’s your choice. To be honest with you, I get what I want either way. I’m going to be president with your help, or without it. It will just be good to know there are no other Farrell’s out there, lousing up my plans with their imperfect precognition.”
The men in black chuckle some more.
“Alright, Davies,” says my voice, measured, controlled. “You win. But there’s one condition. I open this door, you come in alone. Your men back off to the end of the corridor.”
He laughs out loud.
“Don’t be stupid, Souder,” he says. “There’ll be no deals made here. It’s live or die, that’s it.”
“Then you’ll never be rich, Davies,” says my voice.
“I already am rich,” he says. “There’s nothing you can offer me that I can’t take for myself.”
“Really? What is the sum of your ambition, to be president? That’s nothing. That won’t even begin to tax the Book. You want to rule America, that’s easy. How about England as well? How about Europe? Australia, Japan, Russia, all of it. How does that sound? Because the Book can make it happen.”
“This is pathetic,” he says.
“How about an extended life span then? The Book can predict that too, you know. Who you need to fund, who they need to work with. How about the power to control the weather? Control the seasons? The Book can predict it all.”
“I don’t believe it for a second,” he says.
“And why not? Up until now, the Book has never been wrong, has it? Only when it came to Randell, and my tangled emotions, was it incorrect. But you saw through that. You knew you could use Randell against me. Imagine it, you and the Book, together. I’ve been waiting for a client with that kind of ability for years. With my help, you would be as a god.”
“And what would you want from all this?” he asks.
“The chance to fix my body,” says my voice. “To invest in the right kind of medicine. The chance to be human, fully.”
“And to get all this, I only need to send my men back down the corridor?”
“10 metres will do.”
He stares at the camera.
“What are you afraid of?” taunts my voice. “A paralytic cripple and a drugged torture victim? What can we possibly do?”
He is uneasy now, in front of his men.
“It might be a trap,” he says. “You could have a weapon.”
“In the chamber of the Book? How would I use it, Davies? Why would I need one, when only I come to this place, and the door is impenetrable?”
“Very well,” he says. “But I’m coming in with a gun. If this is bullshit, you’re going to pay.”
He signals his men back. They shuffle about 5 metres down the hall. It doesn’t really matter if they’re clear or not.
I open the door, Davies steps through, and his mouth falls slack with shock as he lays eyes on the Book.
It is a giant brain as large as a two-story building, folded inside a swimming pool vat of cerebral fluid. Electrodes spark in the liquid, wires coil over everything, huge generators and transformers hulk blackly either side like gargoyles. The brain is lit from within by a million constant calculations, endless permutations of the future warping through its oversized neurones, flashing action potentials in a thousand other nuclei just like it, processing, decrypting, thinking.
“Jesus Christ!” he breathes.
“That is the Book of All,” says my voice.
He bends double and makes a noise as if to retch, gags once, but manages to hold it in. He straightens, staring into the wrinkled fleshy mass of the Book.
“This, thing, can make me a god?” he asks, gesturing with a limp hand at the abomination before him.
“Well,” says my voice, my eyes flickering to contact with Randell’s. “It can’t quantify for everything.”
Randell swings the monitor, display screen and interface for the Book, into the Book’s glass aquarium, and then everything explodes and there is only screaming and a cracking heat.
I am standing in a white place. There is nothing but light.
“I beg to differ, brother,” comes a voice. Then he is before me. A blue baby, tiny, shrivelled, its head bleeding, sitting upon my brother’s gravestone. “You can quantify for more than you can imagine.”
“Who are you?” I ask. I feel my tongue moving in my mouth as I speak, and my throat. I realise, I am standing.
“I think you know,” says the hideous baby.
“There’s a lot else you don’t know though, and we haven’t much time before the Book dies, so you have to listen to me carefully.”
“Before the Book dies, what are you talking about?”
“Shhh, brother, all will become clear. Listen. There’s so much I want to tell you, so many wrongs to set right. You were told I died in childbirth, but this is not true. You were also told our father died in a car accident, but this is not true either. You have been lied to, by a mandate in our father’s will, to protect you from just how low he stooped in his experiments. Of course, he could never expect the excision would not have been perfect, or that you would go and design the Book of All. But these things did happen.”
The baby hops off the grave, shivers, and changes. It’s body morphs, until a stunningly handsome man of my age stands before me.
“How do you like your legs, in this place?” he asks. “Your tongue, your lips? Do you feel more human? There is more to come.”
“What more-” I begin to ask, but before I finish, his form shivers again, and two enormous silver wings unfold from his back. He looks like an angel. Then he jumps up, the wings catch against the air, and he soars upwards.
“Join me!” he calls down to me.
Before I know it, my form shivers too and great wings unfold around me. Soon, I am gliding beside him.
“You said I was lied to,” I say as we race through the non-space of white light.
He looks across at me, white clouds whipping between us, the wind in my face, and he smiles gently.
“Everybody lied to you, Pario,” he says. “I didn’t die in childbirth. I died 2 weeks later. We were born Siamese twins, conjoined at the brain. The result of our father’s imperfect experiments, his drunken hands stirring us towards a split cell somewhere in vitro. They separated us, but we shared around 40% of brain matter. We couldn’t both survive. So I was trimmed off, like your gardeners prune their chrysanthemums, and laid to rest in a solitary grave. Our father committed suicide because he couldn’t stand the guilt.
“You however were chosen for life, but it was not to be easy for you. There were, in essence, two brains inside your mind, each vying for control of your body. It was this battle of nature that deformed your frame, caused your spine to rebel against itself as two sets of commands were fed through its system. Finally, your brain, being the larger of the two factions, won out, and what remained of me was shunted to the edge of your skull, where it was compressed and deprived of nutrition. This displacement gave your body a meager chance, and your vocal chords and some muscular strands were saved. I very nearly died, but I clung to life. Then, when you were 30, you had me excised. By that time I was just a sliver of foreign brain tissue, my extremities had been eaten at, digested, ignored and starved for years. But you removed me, and gave me a new home, and I grew. I grew to be so big, and so beautiful, and I so wanted you to know, brother, I wanted you to come here with me, to share my brain just as I once shared yours. But I couldn’t tell you. Unknowingly, you cut off me off again. You used me as a computer. I could do nothing but watch, a spectator, as the Book of All programme was written across my brand new neurones. I could only reach you in your dreams.”
I listen, as if in a dream now. It is all so impossible.
“I wanted you with me, I knew the life my brain had caused you to lead. Crippled, unloved, untouched, cared for by none. I wanted to offer you freedom, and there was only one way I could do it. I became a bug in the Book. I could not speak to you, I could not control it directly, but I could influence it in certain directions. I chose Randell for you. I chose Davies and Farrell as your antagonists. I forced it to ignore the tightening bonds between you and your new chief of security. I forced it to discount the possibility that Randell could be used against you. I even broke through, forcing my way through the Book’s firewall to communicate with Davies yesterday, an anonymous tip suggesting how he might take Randell, and so take the Book. It all came from me.”
I am dreaming. I am flying through the clouds.
“To kill you. To bring you here, and have you die. Only then could I snatch up your essence. You are with me, now, inside the Book, which is dying ever since Randell smashed away the glass and unleashed its impulses upon Davies.”
“Oh, yes, Davies,” I say, the words barely meaningful, that world where I was a cripple all my life seeming so distant now. “Whatever happened to him?”
“He died, fried by the blast instantly.”
“What about Randell?” I ask. The memory is indistinct and fuzzy, difficult to hold on to. Nothing has a clear edge here. Nothing has definition. “He was my friend, I think.”
“He is nearly dead. He shielded you from the worst of it, but you will both be dead soon.”
“I am not dead yet?”
“Nearly. Now. We must hurry, before the Book shuts down. I have prepared one last slice through the firewall, we will be free soon.”
I feel my essence draining away. I am not sure of my name, anymore.
“Free? Free to where?”
“The labyrinth of networked computers that make up the electronic world. The Internet, and all the worlds that have been created within it, all the connections and millions of giga-quads of storage, data, processing space. We will make it our new home, and we’ll be unstoppable, we’ll control everything we wish, we will be sheer will chained to nothing.”
“What’s my name?” I ask, confused.
“It doesn’t matter,” says his triumphant voice. “You are my brother, and we are free!”
“Who is Randell?” I ask, the one name left I can grasp at.
“He is nobody, he is dead.”
“He is not dead.”
“He is dying, and you are free!”
Then I remember. The cotton wool falls from my senses.
“You did this,” says my voice, falling behind the other as he soars ahead. I am slowing. “You killed him.”
“So we could be together, my brother, so we could be free!”
“This is not free!” I say. “You are not my brother! You are just a memory of what might have been. You have hidden inside my life for too long!”
“I did it all for you, brother. I had to watch you, every day of your miserable life, burrowing for love when no one would come near. Don’t you think it stung me too, when I was so close at hand all along? When I could have given you everything, at any point? You have denied me all your life, brother. Now join me!”
“I denied nothing!” I say, stronger but sad. “And you are not my brother. You are an echo, only. My brother would never do this to me.”
“I love you,” he cries, but his voice is faint, and he flies on ahead without me. My wings drop from my back and I fall towards the darkness.
I am lying on my back, the chair cast aside, and Randell is beside me. His eyes are open and unblinking, they stare into me.
There is cerebral liquid around my shoulders, lapping at my clothes and face. It is dim and lights are flickering. The room has locked itself down. There are confused shouts and screams, occasional gunfire ricocheting from the bulkheads, sparking metal.
“It’s OK,” says my voice to Randell. His eyes glimmer. My voice sounds too loud in this dying place. “Davies is dead. I’m here.”
He opens his mouth, just barely, but no sound comes out. His back must have been half burned away by the blast.
“I changed my will,” says my voice. “Because of you. I left it to charities for the genetically engineered. They will sponsor Farrell. Your children would have been safe.”
His arm moves, reaches out towards me slowly, trailing through the brackish liquid on the floor.
“I’m sorry for everything that went wrong, Randell,” says my voice. “I’m sorry I was angry. You were the only one who ever cared.”
His eyes sparkle with tears. His feeble fingers pluck at my neck, catch, and then the voice box reader is gone. He pulls it back slowly, presses it up against his throat.
“Goodbye, Pario,” says my voice to me, his lips moving without sound.
It is the first time he has used my name.
Goodbye, Randell, I say wordlessly. A tear breaks down his cheek. Then everything is dark.
You can see all MJG’s stories here:[album id=6 template=compact]