This is chapter 1, titled RITRY GOLIGH A, of my science-fiction thriller MR. RUINS, book 1 in the RUINS SONATA.
Read more about it here.
Her neurons are starting to burn.
Her name is Mei-An, a sweet-looking meta-Asiat with black face-framing bangs to die for, and her brain is in my hands. She came in to my graysmithy building an hour ago asking for a language inject, for what purpose I have no idea. I didn’t question her. I’m a graysmith, a smith for the gray matter of the mind, and this is what I do: implanting memories, erasing them, easing the weight of them away. One way or another I’ve been doing it all my life.
We’re lying in the dive-bay on my graysmithy’s third floor, a bland gray-walled room, with only the thumping metal bulk of the Electro-Magnetic Resonance machine as a feature. Mei-An and I are enclosed by the EMR, lying face to face like lovers on its input tray. The EMR should be helping me to smoothe her brain’s acceptance of the language inject, as the core-transponders implanted in my brain find resonance with her own, but it isn’t taking well. Her mental immunity’s kicking in, the Lag, and without a deeper dive it’ll fry her badly, losing the inject and along with it a million or so neurons.
“Dopamine’s up,” my assistant Carrolla calls from the EMR’s control panel, barely audible over the thump thump thump of the machine around us. “Get it calmed Rit.”
I’m looking into Mei-An’s eyes, big dark terrfied orbs, and reading in. This happens, sometimes. Perhaps she was scared, or too stiff when Carrolla fed the long syringe through her eye socket and into her brain, inserting the silver liquid engrams. It could just be that her mind isn’t built for receiving injects. It doesn’t matter. I’ve dived deeper than this a hundred times before, into hostile minds bent inward by chemical interference, searching for troop movements and stock-pile stations in the old deep Arctic floes while the skirmishes were at their peak, and it never gets any easier, or safer.
I can feel the Lag snapping up at me from within her head.
“Look at me, yes,” I say to Mei-An, as I slowly work the controls in my mind, bringing my brain’s core-transponders into stronger resonance with her own. “Look at my eyes, Mei-An, that’s it.”
She tries to nod but I can see she’s glitching on motor control too, making her movements uneven and jerky. She’s terrified. I kick a leg at Carrolla to increase the cooling Cerebro Spinal Fluid flow bathing her brain, because if it gets any hotter inside her skull those neurons really will begin to cook.
“It’s OK,” I tell her softly. “Mei-An, I need you to relax. Can you do that?”
She attempts a nod. For an instant I see my face reflected in the liquid sheen of her eyes. This is Ritry Goligh, graysmith, ex-Arctic marine and skirmisher. I look so old. It’s hard to believe the Arctic skirmishes ended 10 long years ago, and I’ve done nothing. I’ve gotten older. I’m 37, and already my face is forming up in lines like calving Arctic ice.
I’m glad as Mei-An moves her head, and this paralyzing image of myself flits away.
“It’s going to be OK,” I say to her in my most soothing tone, “everything’s OK.” Then I slide my transponders’ wavelength all the way down to fully match with hers.
A precautionary warning pops up in my thoughts and I accept it, opening the file of her mind in my own. A meaningless flood of binary data rushes up like bubbles rising through water, unreadable without the aid of a more advanced EMR or a deeper dive. These are the inputs and outputs of billions of her individual brain-cells and their action potential states. I glance over them, able only to see the pattern of her mounting panic. Her whole system is in emergency mode. If I had a better EMR I could fix her through that, but this is proto-Calico, a floating slum built of old wreckage and flotation barrels, and I don’t.
So I dive.
I squeeze her hand and keep my eyes on hers as I plunge deeper into her mind. External signals like holding hands and eye contact are merely a formality now, outer layers of data in the cortex before the real mingling begins, but they help smoothe the way. A tear leaks down her cheek, and distantly I can feel her terror. This far out higher functions like emotion don’t resonate well, though soon I’ll be in the thick of it, and I won’t feel anything so discrete as terror, fear, even love. It’ll all be magma.
I dive harder, and the columns of numbers rise above me like the Allatanc ocean in tsunami- dopamine counts spiking, the neuron firing rate shooting up, even Brodmann’s area for speech flipping belly up as unconsciousness dawns.
“Damn it Rit she’s slipping,” I hear Carrolla faintly from above, the voice of a ghost.
I dive through the readouts and deeper still, down into the root and branch systems of her brain’s architecture, blasting by neurons both afferent and efferent, through dendritic tufts as thick as kelp, so deep I lose my grip on the world above and the sense of my own body flits away, beyond the confines of the machine and into the realm where my mind meets hers.
The Molten Core.
Lava blooms around me, the burning red and orange fire of the living mind. This is her consciousness, where she thinks, and here I am an invader. Here her memories are formed, here they fade, and here too they die. Here she makes all her decisions, driven by her past, propelled by her will and the drives of her body up above. It’s bright and chaotic with the violent churning of her thoughts.
Nearby I can see the language inject is being attacked by the Lag, in a powerful engrammic immune reaction. The Lag here is a kind of worm, massive and fleshy, able to burrow through the blazing lava with ease. I am powerless before it, battered and buffeted by fiery tidal flows.
They wouldn’t do this kind of dive in Calico, beyond the tsunami wall. No one does this kind of dive anymore, because beyond the wall they don’t need to. They have the advanced EMR tech to bypass it completely. But we’re here now, and I’m the only thing that can save a good chunk of sweet Mei-An’s mind.
Everything is to play for now.
My sublavic ship coalesces around me, a submarine built for diving magma in the Molten Core, as it has a thousand times before, hulled with six layers of heat-proof, ablative brick cladding. Within its belly, one by one the crew members fire into existence, like clay pots forged in a kiln, each a facet of my mind and built out of pure attention. I rouse them up and send them to their posts in the ship, so through them I man the periscope at the conning tower and look out into the magma, and through them I order propulsion to bank for the amniotic frequencies sounding within Mei-An’s Solid Core.
The Solid Core is the utmost center of the mind, inaccessible to all. I’ve never entered the Solid Core of another living soul; it would be madness. I’ve only ever dabbled around the edges. The risks inside are far too massive, where the Lag is infinitely stronger, and the pathways are an unquantifiably complex maze. I’m not even sure I could get in if I tried.
But I don’t need to. I only need to get close.
The engine-screw churns the ship inward, and bubbles of memory burst out of the lava ahead, popping over the sublavic ship’s prow, leaving behind frazzled hints of who this girl is and was. In one I glimpse her slinging back Arctic gin in an off-wall dive with a guy with a sternum-piercing. In others she makes her first tentative forays across the tsunami wall and into the neon skulks of proto-Calico, falling into company with smugglers, shits, and the children of Don Zachary, lord of proto-Calico’s criminal enterprise.
The Lag snaps up at me with ravenous meat-jaws from the magma, and I launch a few sacrificial memories as torpedoes to slake its hunger: my walk through the blue-tarp park that morning, the taste of the juice-box Carrolla brought in for me- Arclo-berry, one of the newest strains out of the pack-ice. I won’t miss them too much, and for the moment the Lag is distracted. It’s just a dog, ever hungry; it’ll eat its own tail if I could find a way to feed it to it.
My sublavic ship powers on through molten rock, and in moments I sight the radiant outreach of what I’m looking for through the sonar, embodied as liquid sound. It is waves pulsing through the magma with a steady
thump thump, thump thump
that is utterly unique, and key to deciphering this girl’s burning architecture: her mother’s pulse.
The mother’s pulse is the first memory formed in the neonate brain. Though all other sound is also heard dimly across the mother’s belly wall, muted and simplified like the sublavic’s Engine Order Telegraph bell, it’s the pulse that sounds the loudest for that forming seed in its budding amniotic sac.
The pulse is goddess, a fingerprint of the mother’s heart that molds the baby brain like it was soft clay, shaping it in its own image, instilling it with a unique engrammic immunity. It is the foundation all minds are built upon, locked away in the Solid Core at the heart of the mind. And I can use it, but I don’t need to break into Mei-An’s Solid Core to get it. I’m close enough to tap the sound like a keg.
Tuning forks winch out of the sublavic ship’s sides, punching through the brick cladding, to store this invaluable pattern. The forks melt in moments, but the pattern is captured. I turn the ship around and unleash the sound outward through the ocean of lava-thoughts, amplifying it massively. The Lag is soothed at once by this gentle lullaby memory of the womb. I drag the sound away from the Solid Core with me, causing Mei-An’s mind to bathe itself with the right kind of Cerebral Spinal Fluid, tinged with harmonics too complex to fake.
It works. I feel her chemical dopamine levels calming through the flow of lava. Her brain-rate is settling down, so I pull my consciousness out a few layers, back into the realm of my sublavic’s bridge. More meaningless numbers bubble up in green across the periscope, but calmer now, as the panic spike of her immune rejection stills beneath the smoothing pulse.
thump thump, thump thump
The Lag has been quieted, but it’s still out there tracking me sleepily through the lava. The job is not over. If I don’t do something, the Lag will still eventually scrub the language engram-inject completely, so I head to Brodmann’s zone where Carrolla first injected the Afri-Jarvanese engram, in the crevice between the tail-end of the optic nerve and the auditory cortex. There I massage the pulse around the engram’s edges, guiding it by the nose like I would a kelp-tilling shark. It cools the enflamed cells lining the language dump and pets the Lag on its head like a trusty old dog.
I sigh with metaphorical relief.
“Can I have my Arcloberry back?” I ask the Lag, a wordless information request through the Cerebro Spinal Fluid. I remember the memory because I only gave the content not the frame, so I remember that it happened and that it’s now missing, but not any detail or emotional connection. The Lag is mute on its refund policy.
“Walk through the park then?” I press. “Come on, don’t short me.”
It bares its lipless, fleshy teeth. Fair enough, I’ve lost far more in the past, and at least I still have the frame. Nothing earth-shattering happened on my way through the park anyway. Did it?
Dammit. I pull outward, feel my body and the sublavic ship merging back into one as my thoughts suck free of Mei-An’s mind. I rush up the tunnel of data and figures as my consciousness disengages, then I’m out again, and panting hard in the decelerating thump thump of the EMR machine, back in the graysmithy office.
I’m leaning over her still, looking down on her dark eyes staring back at me. I notice I’ve drooled on her face. Oh man, that looks bad. I hastily rub it off, my arm a bit jerky as the gears of my brain slot back into sync. She doesn’t notice, she’s totally out. Then the tray engages, and we’re sliding out of the quieting machine together, into the filtered gray light of the dive-room. It’s gray for just this moment, to not provide any disconcerting stimulus to a disoriented brain.
“Strong work Ritry,” Carrolla says, slapping me on the back.
It takes a moment to associate his words and his movement with the impact on my back. He knows this, and keeps patting until some rudimentary synchronization takes places.
I roll away from Mei-An and look up at my employee Carrolla. He’s tall and shaven-headed, with features just shy of model-worthy. I’ve never asked him, but I think he must have been a skirmish marine too, or at least had the training. He reminds me so much of someone I used to know, but he never fought in the Arctic ice. He’s too young for it, has way too much energy. Instead I’ve always imagined this skulk is his skirmish; the floating slums of proto-Calico. It makes him a tourist, but I can’t complain about that. Having him around makes me feel good.
“Fine work, really excellent,” he’s still saying, words more to key me back to my body and sense than for anything else, “and you bedded it in too. How was the Lag?”
I slide my legs woozily off the EMR-tray, to sit up with my back away from the girl. She’ll need a few hours of medicated sleep for her mind to fully settle.
“Not bad,” I say. My tongue feels thick as a wodge of dry seaweed in my mouth. Carrolla hands me a glass of water and helps me hold it up while I take a sip. Better. “Have you got any more of those Arcloberry juice boxes though?”
He frowns. “What, you gave up the juice? Hell no, Rit, that didn’t come cheap. What’s wrong with water, do you not have enough memories of that?”
I shrug. “It came to mind.”
He laughs. “Well shit. Still, I heard they’ve got vodka mixes out at the skulk-end, some new seed-blend. Sound good? Yes sir. Let’s get you to recovery.”
“Of course, I’m fine also, now move it.”
Carrolla is always effervescent, even when he’s blackout drunk. Perhaps this is part of why I find him cheering, because he hasn’t learned to doubt himself yet, though most people want to punch him after a few minutes. He can get very loud. Either punch him or sleep with him, actually, he gets his share of both.
Together we hoist my body up off the bench, and I can mostly walk on my own, so he mostly lets me, assisting only when I sway. We trudge like that together out of the gray dive-bay, and he’s saying something about the girl, Mei-An. I barely listen.
Down the polished iron-floored corridor we go, to the end of the smithy building, and the outlook space. Here there’s a massage chair with a cerebro-sonic bath, overlooking the green-gray effluent on the Allatanc waves, off the edge of skulk 47.
I let him settle me down in the chair, looking out at the gray sky and level sweep of empty ocean. Beyond the glass the Allatanc spreads north into endless nothingness, into spaces where there used to be ice and life. There’s nothing left now, not since we blew it all up in our hunt for hydrate resources deep underwater, in the Arctic skirmishes. This is the world we’ve made for ourselves.
“Switch on your favorite music,” Carrolla says, as he guides my head into the bath-spot. He makes a good nurse, better than he’d ever have been as a marine. That’s a small mercy. “Settle in, and you’ll be up in time to party.”
“Arcloberry,” I mumble, in place of what I meant to say which was perhaps some kind of joke.
He nods and repeats the word but I don’t hear it, as the world fades back and the sonic bath takes hold with a medley of music I’ve reacted well to in the past. Underneath the beat it attempts to mimic the sound of the mother’s pulse, automatically reverting the body back to the same womb-like state of recovery and growth I put Mei-An into.
It’s a poor facsimile for most, and works even less for me, since I never had a mother, and the pulse I grew up to was the seven-tone chime of an external machine womb, but still, I like the music. In a few hours I’ll wake up feeling better, and so will Mei-An. We’ll probably have sex, part of the contract for those who need a little extra context to frame the mental re-jigging a graysmith provides, and that is not an entirely unpleasant notion. She was pretty, and real.
I drift off thinking of her and the depths of her life, while the sonic-bath does its best to smooth the stress of the dive away.
I rouse hours later with Carrolla’s steady hand on my shoulder again, odd memories flitting up from the remnants of the bath. Who I am, and what I’ve done.
“You’re up for it?” Carrolla asks, as he lowers the thrum of the sonic bath. “We can always dose her, if you’re not.”
I blink, looking out of the glass. The sky is dark outside; I must’ve been comatose for hours. It was a deep dive, as deep as any I’ve done since working as a graysmith to marines in the Arctic skirmishes. Now I’m woozy and disoriented.
“I’ll do it,” I say, patting at Carrolla’s hand. “Give me a minute.”
“No problem. She’s in recovery.”
“She awake?” He nods. “Five minutes,” I say. “And see you for that Arclo gin later.”
He smiles. “It’s vodka. But I’m glad you remembered.”
His footsteps clank away, and I’m looking out of the glass again, waiting as my mind gets itself together. It’s all darkness beyond, waves lapping against the skulk’s quays, but for a few buoy lights on the kelp-farms and the faint lights of ships out in the distance. All so fragile, tenuous, like limpets clinging to a rock.
Memories of my last skirmish-day dives rise like bubbles from the down deep cortex, those boys and girls who’d needed memories excised and implanted at once, expertise instilled while the trauma of tight-corridor combat and the steady stream of loss was lifted. I hardly breathed back then, between dives and the balm of sex that followed.
I only had sex with the women. The men I spent longer with, sitting by their bedside while they wept about their fathers or mothers, something lost, something found. It’s all complex dopaminic compounds, the body’s unique cocktail, and through it we’re forging a bond in memory that serves as solid ground for the injected engram to bed into. Sex is easier really, and faster, but I never savored being with another man. It would probably only rile the inject up worse, if I tried.
I get up and start through the graysmithy. Down the corridor there are no decorations, only sheer gray walls, plastered and painted since I took this place over, but otherwise unchanged. They look solid but that’s only because I’ve retro-fitted the place with steel pilings I bought from a salvager. This place was as rickety as a junk shop when I took it over, all rotted wood and warped linoleum. I smile at the memory, run my fingers along the wall, and walk on.
Mei-An is waiting in the recovery room, the best room in the graysmithy overlooking another open swathe of gray ocean. She smiles when I come in, a shy thing that belies what she’s done, and gets to her feet.
“Alsh bevral I ferraqu,” she says. “Kalin Very.”
I nod, because she’s speaking Afri-Jarvanese, the language I injected. “Very good. Do you know what it means?”
“Not really. Just a feeling.”
“You said good morning, and wished me well. I suppose it’ll be morning soon.”
She brushes a strand of dark hair from her face, an errant bang. For a long moment she looks at me, sizing me up and down. It’s not an unfamiliar sensation, and not entirely uncomfortable. “They said it’ll make me feel better,” she says at last.
“How do you feel now?”
“Bad. Nauseous. Like I’m not myself.”
“Then it will,” I say. “If you’re willing to trust me.”
“You don’t mind?”
“It’s my job.” I give a smile, which always helps. “And you’re beautiful, so no I won’t mind.”
She raises an eyebrow, clipped like a silkworm, and walks over to me. Each step is measured, a carefully managed gait she surely learned at one of Calico’s schools of manners. She’s dressed again in the clothes she came in wearing, a bright red gho over her shoulders and hanging down like the curtain at an old movie theater, pink stockings underneath. From the Calico Reach, the uppermost crust of the wealthy, across the wall.
“I remember what you did,” she says, taking my hand. “In the skirmishes.”
I hold her hand in my own. Soft, small like all the Reach girls, modified to be that way. I wonder what she’s doing here, why she came to one of the lowest skulks to get her brain mauled, but I won’t ask. Of course she knows something about me now too, some glimmer of my skirmisher life, since I’ve been within her. This is why the post-dive contact is so important, to add context to knowledge that would otherwise be corrosively unsupported. To alleviate the mystery and help the inject sprout roots.
“Don’t think about that,” I say. “Come on, let’s go.”
Hand in hand we walk down the beaten steel floor of the graysmithy, past the reception desk where Carrolla is talking seriously with my receptionist Habeas. He gives me a nod. The elevator chimes in seconds, and we ride the three floors down in silence. There never used to be an elevator either, I added that too. This place was a dump when I came to it.
Outside the air is thick with salt and rot from the off-skulk kelp farms. Stars glimmer faintly overhead through the noxious off-wash of Calico’s glow. A desultory alley winds down to a nondescript dock on the left, flocked with nesting crulls, half gull half crow, and a shark-tiller’s coracle. The dirty gray ocean laps steadily at the dock’s barnacle-crusted plastic flotation barrels, as dark and rhythmic as sex. On the right the alley leads up to the wall through a gauntlet of cheap pink and purple neon, signs glowing off the skulks’ three B’s; brothels, bars, and barrios. Each is lit in their own lurid glow like a row of hungry divas lusting for applause.
Mei-An looks at me. “How can you live here?”
“I don’t live here,” I say. “I just work here.”
In places the neon is interrupted by dark gulches of shadow, lean-to escarpments and scaffolded construction projects, squat boat-holds and opium dens built out of rotten-hulled boats, much of it flotsam salvaged from after the last tsunami. My graysmithy doesn’t look out of place here, about as equally squalid and dingy as the rest. It even has its own neon sign, chosen by Carrolla, though it’s gray, and only says ‘Graysmithy’. I’m not sure if that’s a joke or not, but it seems to amuse him.
With her small hot hand in mine, we start along the alley. Underfoot the skulk fabric shifts, as the flotation barrels it rests upon flex with our weight. Ahead of us, rising above the crock-pot chimneys and uneven lines of the skulk, stands the implacable off-white shank of Calico’s tsunami wall.
It’s vast, of course, as big as any dam in the pre-skirmish days, enough to stop the twenty-meter tsunamis that churn up from quakes in the Allatanc fault-lines. It’s been over twenty years since the last big one, way back when I was a hungry young recruit headed north to the pack-ice, when there was still some ice left. We’ve been due another for as long as I’ve been in the skulks, all these past ten years.
We’re all living on borrowed time.
“You don’t belong here,” says Mei-An, catching me looking up at it. “You belong on the other side. You paid your dues in the skirmishes.”
“I paid enough to stay wherever I want.”
She doesn’t say any more, and I’m glad of it. I wouldn’t want to fall out over this, not when the job is still unfinished, nor do I want to hear any more of her life in Calico. I have enough life histories weighing me down already.
The massage boys, whores, and touts leave us alone as we pass by their neon dens, each a cave to forbidden pleasure. Some give me a wink. These are the people I drink with most nights, after Mei-An is long gone, back to whatever life this new language patch will build for her. All of us make our choices one night at a time.
“You must like it here,” she says, as we turn off the alley and into one of the blue-tarp parks. The old homeless man shouts out something as we pass over the salvage astroturf. A few stunted trees root toward neon from soil-pods dropped amongst the barrels, fractalling out like dendritic tufts. I imagine chromosomal messages passing through them, genetic information like an electronic charge popping on off, on off, as the tree builds the seeds that will outlive it by far.
We skirt the sunken pond, rainwater trapped in the plastic sags where a few barrels have lost their buoyancy, and I wonder how I can best stem her curiosity, in the fewest words.
“You know about the Lag,” I say, hardly a question.
She nods by my side, clutching to my arm more tightly now. I don’t blame her, it’s dark here, out of the park and walking the skulk-slums where the sex-workers and ex-bountymen go to burrow in, ride out the daylight like vampiric worms.
On either side the maze of slums unfolds, shacks built in whatever order their owners settled this giant barrel raft. I came in on the skulk’s first non-wave, when half of these were empty, vacated by those afraid the tsunami warnings were true. I didn’t care. I found an empty condo on a second floor, with glass windows, and like a hermit crab switching shells took it for myself.
“It’s like that,” I say. “This whole place is a Lagged zone, a doldrums in space that doesn’t mean anything to anyone. You can do anything you want out here, and none of it matters, because none of it’s going to last.”
We enter through the backdoor, the canvas walls flexing as I lead her up the stairs.
“I don’t understand,” she says, an excited flutter in her voice. Of course she doesn’t understand.
I ease off my jacket as we enter my bedroom, an oblong space in the air held together with rope and sailcloth. There’s my bed, freshly made, a television which I never use, even a glass wall looking out over the lower slums, all dark outside, and my books. The red glow of an alarm clock casts a brothel-like glow over the neat, hollow rest of it.
“It’s so empty,” she says. I feel through her touch that she is crying. The inject has played havoc with her emotions.
“It’s not empty now,” I say. “You’re here.”
Her gho comes off easily, and now she’s weeping against my chest. This is nothing new. She pulls at the buckle of my belt and starts to kiss my face frantically.
“Thank you,” she murmurs, as her lips crush against mine, her hands racing hungrily into my pants. They come off, as do hers.
She pulls us to the bed, tugging at me so hard it hurts, squirming off her stockings, pressing her hot flesh against mine, folding me into her. She gasps and we begin, this most ancient of complex dopaminic bond exchanges.