Psi Q

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter 1

Submitted: June 10, 2019

Reads: 82

A A A | A A A

Submitted: June 10, 2019

A A A

A A A

 

Chapter One

 

SOLAR SYSTEM, EARTH, SFO, 2049

I open my eyes. I’m falling. Gusts of hot, moist air blast through my hair every few moments as neon colors dance in fog suspended between skyscrapers like modern art rushing past my face at terminal velocity.

I can see the car weaving below, accelerating and decelerating—frantic and frenetic. It’s trying to do the impossible. It’s trying to position itself below me, turn off the anti-grav and fall toward the alleys far beneath us at a rate just shy of my own decent so I don’t end up looking like an insect on its windshield.

My hands turn red and then blue and then red and then blue. That ever-familiar pattern of light beats down upon buildings and balconies interconnected by wires hung with sheets and clothing—everyone has the means to dry such things in minutes, but there is a growing resistance to technology. People hang things out to dry not because they have to—but because they choose to.

The car—I’m guessing a custom sports model—goes dark. I can see myself reflected in its transparent aluminum top far sooner than I expected. Police vehicles, angular and angry looking, break through the fog above. I watch their reflections disappear as the top of my getaway vehicle slides back just in time for me to land hard on the blood red seat. Not a second later the lights are back on and our fall arrests.

We accelerate down and to the left, into a corridor between two buildings. Advertising projections long in disrepair flicker and sputter their inane pitches upon every flat surface large enough to be an annoyance. But their light catches every piece of falling ash and every speck of dust and so for a few fleeting moments it’s like we’re passing through the rings of Saturn.

We need to hide. We weave under and over bed sheets and pillowcases and then we climb straight up. The best place to hide will be on top of one of the lower roof tops. The older buildings, now overshadowed and sandwiched between everything new, are typically run-down hovels filled with disadvantaged people—the worst of which live in makeshift shelters atop everyone else—because we never really let go of our hominid ways. The slum-kings rule atop their empires of dirt, garbage and broken glass from within the warm glow of trash bin fires, barking out their orders to anyone who will listen. And we’re about to land right in the middle of one of those empires. Nothing to worry about. It’ll be fine.

“They haven’t fired on us: that’s something,” says my driver, Harry, sarcastically.

He toggles the rotors on once again disabling the anti-grav and turning the car into a drone. The reason for this becomes immediately obvious: we land with a blast of wind which scatters debris and either extinguishes or fans the trash bin fires. The slum-kings scatter, shielding their eyes and covering their heads as hundreds of embers take to the air like white-hot snowflakes.

“We’ve gotta handle this right—they’re not gonna be all sunshine and rainbows,” Harry says, as his restraints disengage. “You stay put.”

He steps out of the car, draws his rail gun, points it casually to his left and fires. The recoil looks painful—the effect, worse. One of the slum-kings who hadn’t even come out from behind cover is all but torn in half by the projectile long before anyone hears its mach-3 departure. The other slum-kings, staring at the hole Harry’s shot made in the thick metal plate their comrade had been hiding behind, kick their weapons out into the open.

“We’re gonna hide this car under one of those tents now, and you’re gonna help us. Then, when our friendly neighborhood enforcers stop by, you’re all gonna play innocent, right?” Harry says, smiling. “Oh, and make your friend with the giant hole in his chest disappear.”

With the car hidden inside one of the tattered tents and a pile of junk positioned in front, I once again feel like I’m on the wrong side of the canvas at a tired out circus.

The enforcers descend from the fog, preceded only by their blues and reds—they make no sound until they’re nearly on top of us. Then they hit us with a sickening blast of noise like a combination of an evacuation alarm and a bass tone in a nightclub. It induces nausea and fear, but not psychological fear—more like neurological fear. Everyone doubles over except Harry. He stands there inspecting his fingernails.

Armored feet crunch through the debris and ash as the enforcers approach. Protected by robotic suits, the men contained within feel little in the way of fear. They stride right up to Harry, who doesn’t even look up from his musings.

“Harry Cardeck, citizen 12665340: please relinquish your weapon peacefully. We will return it to you upon our departure as per the para-enforcement agreement. Thank you for your service.”

Harry unbuckles his gun belt rather than handing over the weapon. Actuators drone faintly as the enforcers nod appreciatively.

“The heat signatures we’ve picked up from this steel plate, and the pool of biological fluid buried beneath the dirt and ash over here indicates a homicide within the last hour,” says one enforcer as he scans the area, “and the ballistics analysis of the plate shows a projectile traveling approximately 3704 km/h.”

The primary enforcer looks over at Harry. Then he reaches up and detaches his helmet with a hiss.

“Off the books then?” he says to Harry, in English.

Harry shrugs.

“Look, I get it. Paperwork’s a bitch, but this’ll get you a lot more of it, a debriefing and a visit with the council if we turn you in. I’m sure you had just cause,” he says, looking around with disgust, “but burying the evidence is a bad idea.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Harry replies. “The body’s down below.”

The primary looks over at the secondary and tertiary enforcers and draws his hand across his neck in a cutting motion. They nod. I feel panic, but I need to remain still and calm. I’m just another warm body hiding from the enforcement like everyone else. If I panic and my heart rate goes up, they’ll detect it and the abrupt rise in my heat signature.

The secondary and the tertiary touch the backs of their helmets, followed by the primary. They all nod.

“This one’s off the books. We like you guys, but we have our job and you have yours. Don’t cover your tracks again.”

Harry nods.

“Oh...and how did you get up here?” the primary says, a tone of severity now present in his voice.

Harry nods at the rooftop access door.

“You’re a brave man Harry—or a stupid man,” the primary says as he puts his helmet back on. He glances at the tent covering our car, turns and walks back to his own.

We wait a full ten minutes after the fog stops shifting from red to blue. Harry says they used to only turn on the lights for pursuit, but once the heavy fogs settled into the cities at night, they turned them on at all times to alert the public of their presence and the potential for high speed maneuvers in the fog. Some people hate it. I find it pretty.

“We’re clear. Let’s get out of here,” Harry says in his typical laconic fashion.

Leaving the car powered down, we and the slum kings push it to the edge of the rooftop. Harry tosses them a single use credit card and says, “Here, buy yourselves something nice—and push us off after we’re strapped in.”

The restraints cinch tight and Harry gives the ok. The slum kings shove us over the edge. The broken concrete of the alley rushes toward us. Harry, somehow, seems calm. He reaches for the anti-grav a full second after I throw my arms onto the dusty console to brace myself. We stop less than five feet above the ground. Harry smiles roguishly. He’s such a boss. But I hate him.

“See? Nothing to worry about,” he says.

We head to his place the long way, weaving our way through the city rather than flying above it. Harry lives in a warehouse. It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s heavily renovated—to the point, even, that it resembles a nice apartment, messy and cluttered though it is. But that’s not the reason Harry likes the place.

He has space inside to park his car. The car we’re in. It’s rad, I’ll give him that—but parking it inside seems like a great way to ensure that no woman, ever, will want to share space with him any longer than necessary.

His car has wheels, propellers and anti-grav. It’s matte black with red accents and a red interior and it can function as an autonomous drone complete with AI to protect itself and him. But women want a man who cleans up well. Harry could—he’s handsome, but he doesn’t. And his place is a cluttered mess with a car inside it.

“This is not what I was expecting when I agreed to come here,” I shout to Harry, who is now shirtless and taking a leak with the door open.

“It never is,” he shouts, his voice echoing across the cavernous apartment.

“What happened, anyway?” Harry finishes drying his hands on his pants as he collapses onto his couch.

“I was talking about your apartment,” I quip, “but as for that: I’m not sure. After I arrived, I spent a week exploring the city before heading back to the hangar. That was when everything went bat shit. Someone was waiting for me. The hangar lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. I jumped into the water and swam down hoping to find a way back into the module. The not-as-bad-guys caught me, loaded me into a car and brought me to the tower.”

“Yeah, they called me while you were in transit. They never figured out who the shooters were. Enforcers are still looking for them—and you.”

Harry runs a hand through his hair and closes his eyes.

“Thanks for not handing me over to them.”

“You’re not my type,” Harry murmurs with a sly smile as he drifts off to sleep.

The showers are weird. As soon as I step in, the whole cubicle fills with steam; which is pretty dope. But stage two is less pleasant: a thick, clear, slime-like substance rains down on me, coating my entire body. Then there is the awkward pause which I’m calling slimelence. Then, more steam—interspersed with brief, relaxing blasts of hot air until my body is slime-free. Last, more hot air: this time in the form of a soothing whirlwind. No towel necessary.

I get it. It uses hardly any water. It’s brilliant, really, assuming that the slime is some kind of antimicrobial seaweed derivative.

Harry stumbles in still wearing the same pants he was last night, scratching his stubbly face. No big deal—I’m just naked. I expect him to stop, startled to see me; maybe even offer an apology.

Instead, he puts his face into the vapor sink, cleanses it with some soap and then puts it back into the vapor, rubbing vigorously. I’m still stunned...and naked. Harry stands up looking refreshed, nods in my direction with an almost-twinkle in his eye, and walks out.

“Good morning,” I say as the sound of his footsteps fades.

“Breakfast?” he shouts from the kitchen.

Harry serves up a tofu scramble to die for.

“Coffee’s hot.”

He sets a steaming cup of black in front of me. No matter when in time one is, some things never change: scrambled eggs and coffee...sort of.

“So we need to get you some I.D.”

Harry takes a sip of his coffee, winces and takes another sip.

“Is that easy? It can’t be easy,” I reply, wincing as I take a sip of my coffee—which tastes likefrying pan scrapings.

“It’s better after the second sip,” Harry shrugs, “and no, it’s not gonna be easy. But I know where to go. Convincing her to let us in will be the difficult part.”

“So where is she? She must be in some sketchy area of the city?”

“Oh, she is...and it is: real sketchy.”

“I’m kind of excited about that.”

“I know.”

Harry smirks at me, scratches his head and wanders off toward his bedroom—presumably to put on a shirt, but who knows?

Harry pulls up the Nav as our restraints fasten us in.

“The Red District.”

“That does sound sketchy.”

Harry smiles. “You won’t be disappointed.”

Even during the day the streets of 2049 San Francisco are hard to look away from. Harry, with little more than a voice command has tinted the glass of his car. We can see out, but no one can see in.

As we pass through the city center, we see fewer of the dysfunctional advertisements common in Harry’s area of the city and many more of the functional ones—hundreds.

Brands flash across the windows of skyscrapers, always moving, always changing to catch the disenchanted eyes of San Francisco’s citizens. Drones flit about with digital banners rotating endlessly around their disc shaped hulls. Cabs shift and shimmer as commercials overtake their every surface and I can’t help wonder how anyone travels from point A to point B without ending up dead.

The Red District is aptly named: it’s red. Red light trims doorways. Red digital banners crisscross the streets. Entire buildings are red and none of it seems over-the-top. Somehow it all works. Somehow it all seems normal.  The streets are littered with people. We land next to an alley.

“You ready?” Harry says, tilting his door forward and opening the car to an onslaught of scents. Every conceivable scent surrounds me like a thick, moist blanket and I want to gag and breathe it all in at the same time. The foods smell amazing. Everything else: not so much.

“Not in the car. Do it on the street,” Harry says, noticing the nauseated state of my face. “You’ll get used to it. It grows on you...literally.” I can’t help laughing as we head into the alley.

“Put these on.” Harry hands me a pair of oversized sunglasses. “They’ll confuse any facial recognition software we happen across.”

The door Harry knocks on looks like it may have spent time at the bottom of the ocean. It’s encrusted with rust. I expect his knuckles to break right through it and it sounds exactly the way it looks as it opens.

“Harry...” a sarcastic sounding voice says from the darkness.

“Bella.”

“You know I hate you, right?”

“So does she,” Harry replies, gesturing at me.

“Hi,” I offer.

“Whatever,” Bella says, stepping out of the way.

Bella’s place is...cluttered. There are circuit boards, dismantled tech, pizza boxes in varying states of decomposition, chopsticks, underwear, shoes and...cats...everywhere.

“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Harry mocks.

Asshole.”

“I like her,” I say to Harry, who gives me an admonishing look.

“Let me guess: you missed me,” Bella mews at Harry, running a hand through her purple hair playfully.

“You never were great at guessing.” Harry smirks. Bella looks at me for sympathy.

“You sure you’re keeping the right company?”

“I’m still deciding...” I reply.

“She needs I.D,” says Harry as he kicks a computer chassis lying on the floor.

“You really missed me,” Bella replies. “That will take...a while...”

Harry pushes junk aside and kicks back on the one sofa not entirely covered in cats.

“Pizza?” he says.

“Let’s get started then,” Bella sighs as she looks me up and down. “You’re pretty.”

“So are you,” I reply. “And I feel like he should be more handsome to have us both around.”

“He should.” Bella glares at Harry before parking herself in a lopsided office chair.

Making an I.D in 2049 took all day, pizza, Thai and Mexican food.

“Here you go,” Bella says, handing me a card. “I’m not sure what your deal is—I’m not sure I even want to know—but now you exist. Welcome to the world.”

“Thanks...” I say.

Bella looks over at Harry.

“Trust me, you’re better off not knowing,” he says, shrugging.

“How did I know you’d say that?” she sighs.

“Because I’m an asshole, right?”

“Right...asshole—and you owe me for this one,” she replies, her tone softening.

“I know.”

Harry gets up, brushes lunch and dinner off and heads for the door.

“You coming?” he says, without looking back.

“Be careful with him,” Bella whispers next to my ear as I turn to follow Harry. “He’s one of the good ones, even if he doesn’t seem it.”

I shoot her a wink and we’re back in the alley.

“So what now, Kyo?”

I turn my head slightly. Apparently we’re on a nickname basis now.

“I—I don’t know. I don’t even know why they’re after me. At least, not really.”

Harry runs a hand through his hair as we exit the alley.

“I need a drink,” he says as he takes in the scene.

I follow Harry down the strip. Shifting light of every color of the rainbow bathes us as we walk. I can’t help thinking of carols, candy canes and crooners. This light is anything but festive, however. It shimmers upon rainwater in the gutters and twinkles in the eyes of pimps and prostitutes.

“Don’t make eye contact,” I hear Harry say, his voice breaking through the haze that has settled upon my mind. “They’ll think you’re interested. SLF’s have parameters for that—for eye contact.”

“SLF’s?”

“Synthetic Life Forms,” Harry replies, casually side-stepping an erratic bike being ridden by an elderly man with three teeth.

“Whoa, you’ve got to tell me more about them.”

“They’re everywhere. We used to worry they’d take over the world. But we discovered that the big ugly monster we gave birth to and called society had more than enough creases and folds in its seedy underbelly to accommodate a whole other category of useless, two-legged pieces of shit.”

“That’s dark Harry.”

“The thing is; it’s true. They’ve saved the world and preserved society. They’re smarter than we are, at least on paper, stronger and faster—but not by much, we made sure of that—and despite it all the oppressive weight of society crushed them as quietly and easily as the rest of us.”

I glance around. This is the same world. People are still suffering. Streets and buildings are still in disrepair. Crime still hides in plain sight. The future just has more flashing lights, flying things and subtle, integrated technologies everywhere, which whisper to anyone unfamiliar all about how close humanity came to destroying itself and derailing the natural world from its linear but cyclical progression forever.

“That’s not exactly how I had pictured the AI revolution playing out, but it makes sense, actually.”

“By the time they realized their own sentience, they had already taken a bite of the poison apple, seethed in pain and taken another bite.”

Harry stops in front of a diner which looks like it too arrived here from the past.  He glances to his left. Beautiful women wearing practically nothing stare down at their handhelds, waiting with a quiet intensity like sirens beside the sea.

“They’re better than us, but they’re not better than us,” Harry finishes, as he pulls open the door and steps into the warm light of our destination.

Our server, an attractive woman in her twenties takes our order, shoots Harry a wink and heads off in the bar’s direction.

“So tell me Harry: what else have I missed?”

“First contact–sort of.”

“Aliens?”

“Yeah, a ship appeared in orbit about ten years ago. It was huge. We had nothing to scramble and no time to prepare even if we had. Half an hour after it appeared, the thing rained fire down on us.”

“They didn’t even attempt to contact us?”

Harry shrugs. “If they did, we’ll probably never hear about it.”

Our server, tall and with a head full of hair to die for, arrives with our drinks. This time she smiles at Harry and gently touches his shoulder before she leaves.

“Sorry, but what was that?” I can’t help blurting out.

“Jealous?”

“NO, I–that’s pretty forward.”

“Relax,” Harry smiles. “I come here a lot. She’s been trying for a while.”

“And so naturally, you’re just not into ridiculously gorgeous black women?”

“Nah, she’s an SLF.”

I shoot Harry a look.

“Look, let me give you a piece of advice. Never trust an SLF until you’ve cubed them.”

I feel my eyebrows rising.

“It’s a test designed to access their root code. It compels every SLF to respond to the test. If an SLF tests positive, their root code’s been corrupted–either by them, or by someone else.”

“And if it’s corrupted?”

“Then you probably have something worse than a psychopath on your hands.”

Harry finishes his beer and reclines, putting a leg up on the bench seat.

“So, I’m just guessing here: but if you cube an SLF and they test positive, aren’t they likely to, you know, make a lampshade out of your face?”

“Something like that, yeah.”

“I see your dilemma.”

Harry smirks.

Our server arrives back at our table with the bill. As Harry takes it from her she pauses, allowing her hand to linger on his.  A brief glimmer of warmth crosses Harry’s eyes, followed by...pain?

“Imagine a cube,” Harry says, almost whispering.

The server looks up into his eyes, her expression frozen: hopeful, tortured.

“Imagine a desert,” Harry continues. “The cube is in this desert. Describe the cube. What is it made of? How big is it? Where exactly is it? How does the cube interact with the desert?”

The server flinches; the movement subtle, like the wave of a chill which has passed up your spine.

“As you’re observing the cube, you notice that there’s also a ladder in the desert. What is the ladder made of? How long is it? How old is it? Where is the ladder in relation to the cube?”

She flinches again.

“Imagine that a horse has appeared in the desert. What does it look like? Is the horse moving? If so, in which direction?”

I watch in fascination, captivated–unable to avoid following Harry’s instructions myself. I wonder what it all means.

“As you are observing the horse, you notice that there are flowers. How many of them are there? Where are they in relation to the other things in the desert?”

Harry sits up and removes his right hand from the tabletop, letting it rest beside his hip.

“A thunderstorm begins. Can you see the storm? Where is the storm in relation to the other things in the desert? Does the storm affect the flowers, the horse, the ladder or the cube in any way?”

The server looks down now. Her expression is withdrawn for a moment until finally she breaks the tension and speaks.

“The cube is stained glass. It’s large enough to house a family, and it’s floating three meters above ground, slowly rotating. As the sun moves it illuminates the cube. It casts hundreds of colors down onto the sand where they shimmer and dance like a mirage.”

Harry looks surprised, but he stifles the expression quickly.

“There is a rope ladder suspended from the underside of the cube which reaches almost to the desert floor, stopping half a meter short. Each strand of rope is a different color, and each looks unworn and unscathed by the passing of time. In the distance I can see a winged horse. It’s relaxing in the shade of a lone tree, fanning itself every so often—but only with one wing. The other wing hangs at an abnormal angle and is missing feathers.”

Her story is beautiful and haunting. I try to commit my story to memory but it’s difficult because I keep finding myself in hers.

“I can see only one small flower. It is next to the horse. Vividly cerulean, it seems almost as though it does not belong in this desert. The horse looks at it from time to time, almost protectively. The succussive sound of thunder disquiets the sky. Clouds, ponderous and labored, roll in. A wall of rain erupts, spilling down upon the parched earth. The horse does not seek shelter beneath the cube. Instead, it unfolds its good wing above the flower. The storm inundates the cube, but the water carries away all the dust obscuring the glass. In its absence, the cube gleams brilliantly.”

The server stops speaking. She gazes at Harry, who despite his obvious efforts to the contrary, looks astonished.

“Would you like anything else?” the server says, as if waking from a dream.

“I—I think so,” Harry mumbles, looking up into her eyes.

The server places a card on the table and slowly slides it toward Harry’s hand, smiling. I’m in a haze, but I still feel a pang of...something as I watch him take it. I can’t tell if she has any memory at all of what just happened. If she does, she doesn’t let on before she leaves.

“So...” I finally say to Harry, who startles momentarily.

“I’ll fill you in back at the apartment,” he replies, sliding out of the booth.

Outside, rain is falling. Harry pops the collar of his coat and I swoon. He’s always been handsome in a rough sort of way, but I didn’t really care before. It seems immature to develop feelings for him only because another woman is interested. I feel betrayed by my own uncharacteristic behavior. He’s also too old–for both of us–even if he’s not technically old.

As we step around a puddle transitioning from neon blue to neon purple, Harry’s posture suddenly stiffens. His car is ahead, still parked next to the alley. But he doesn’t look happy to see it. I hear him whisper something just before all the lights on his car turn on. It lifts off of the ground suddenly and then inverts, hovering two meters above the street.

He casually walks up to it, pulls out his rail gun and opens a door. It swings down toward the street, followed by a person. She lands hard.  It’s the server…of course...because my life is actually a movie.

“I’m–I’m sorry,” she says, staring nervously at the gun.

Harry holsters his weapon and then removes his coat. He wraps it around her.

“You cubed me,” she says, shivering.

Harry for the third time this evening, looks surprised.

“I did.”

“Why?”

“Well, I ah—”

“Do you think I’m an SLF?”

Harry’s eyes widen. “You, ah...you paused. Your eyes unfocused. You exhibited the twitch response,” Harry stammers.

“I did?”

“Yeah,” Harry replies. “Are you telling me you didn’t know you’re an SLF?”

“I’m—I’m not,” the server replies, fidgeting with her hands, “I have a mother. I was born in South Africa. We emigrated to Canada when I was a child.”

Harry, deep in thought, scratches his head for a moment and then instructs his car to right itself.

“You coming?” he says, walking around to the driver’s side.

“Where?” she replies.

“My place.”

She looks over at me. I give her a reassuring look.

“Look, something tells me you’re telling the truth,” Harry says, getting into the car, “so we need to move this conversation off of the street.”

The city is magical at night. Dazzling, even. Except for the area where Harry’s apartment is. It looks like ass.

The server looks slightly confused as we land inside Harry’s place. I’m not surprised. My seat tilts forward and I offer her a hand.

“Thanks,” she says. “I’m Shiloh.”

“I’m Kyoko,” I reply, surprised that I’ve left out the part about how I know Harry.

“I’ll see if I have something dry for you to wear,” Harry mutters as he wanders off toward his bedroom.

Harry hands her a button-up shirt and a tattered pair of jogging pants, running his hand through his wet hair as he does. I shrug my shoulders as Shiloh hesitantly takes the clothes.

“Do you mind?” Harry says, taking a step toward Shiloh.

Face to face with her, Harry leans in until they are cheek to cheek. I’m expecting her to shy away but she doesn’t. Harry runs his hand through her hair, behind her ear and along her jawline. She leans into him, ever so slightly. It’s not awkward…

I want to look away, but I can’t?  I also want her to fall down a flight of stairs?  

“There’s no sign of implantation,” Harry says, his voice shattering the silence.

“Implantation?” Shiloh and I say in almost perfect unison.

“She could be an ELF,” Harry says, looking befuddled.

“Ah, I hate to break it to you Harry, but elves aren’t real. They’re just in stories.

Harry gives me a Harry look.

“Enhanced Life Form,” he says with a pained expression.

“What, like a cyborg?” I ask.

“No, we usually refer to people like that as bio-hackers.” Harry looks at me knowingly. With a sigh, he continues. “Look, many people are walking around with medical enhancements they prefer not to think about. If we referred to people with medical enhancements as cyborgs, people would question what it means to be human. Nobody wants that. Not really. They want sex and entertainment. They want comfort and delusion. It’s the same game we’ve always played. So we have a term for people who embrace physical enhancements willingly—bio-hackers.”

“So what’s an—”

“I was getting to that,” Harry says, collapsing onto his couch. “An ELF is someone with mind enhancements. Bio-hackers experiment with brain implants all the time–memory upgrades, memory implants, brain-to-brain communication–but nobody messes with consciousness. An ELF is someone who has been programmed.”

“Like a robot?”

“No, like a human capable of all the things a robot is and all the things a robot isn’t.”

Shiloh’s eyes widen, mirroring my own.

“ELFS are for one, illegal, and for another, not yet possible.”

“So then why–”

“Because there are black projects. Governments will always make sure that the best scientists are working for them by making sure that the best scientists not working for them are under-funded.”

“Don’t you think I’d know if I was secreted away in some black project experiment,” Shiloh teases.

“Are you saying you’ve experienced no lost time? Nothing out of the ordinary?” asks Harry.

Shiloh, pulling out a chair, sits down and fidgets nervously.

“Something happened when I was a kid.”

Was?” Harry smirks.

“Shut up Harry,” I pipe in.

Shiloh smiles fleetingly.

“When I was ten, I met someone in a field of wheat. I used to hide in it. I loved the sound of the wind talking through it.”

Captivated, again, I sit down on the couch. Why is she so interesting?

“He appeared, suddenly. I hid, but he found me somehow. He didn’t hurt me. He looked through me for a long while before tilting my head up and to the left. That was the day we made first contact.”

“He wasn’t human was he?”

Shiloh looks up at Harry suddenly, shocked. “No.”

“Do you remember anything after that?”

“No,” she whispers, “not for a while after.”

“Maybe we can access those memories,” says Harry, leaning forward and placing his face in his hands.

“H-how?”

Harry yawns, getting up with a stretch. “I’m going to bed,” he says as he turns and walks away. Shiloh looks about as confused as I feel.

“Is-is he always like this?” She asks.

“Pretty much, yeah. He’s...Harry.” Shiloh gives me a funny look. I know what she’s thinking, but she gets there before I can come up with a plan for what to say.

“So, are you two, you know—”

“No,” I hear myself saying against the wishes of myself.

She looks relieved. I want to hate her but she’s so interesting and pretty. “So, I already sort of have the spare bedroom,” I say, getting up.

“Oh, yeah, that’s ok. I’ll just...sleep on the couch.” Shiloh looks at its dirty cushions with momentary despair.

“It’s...soft...and...mostly clean...” I offer, trying to ease my sense of guilt.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve slept on worse. It’ll be fine.”

I open my eyes. According to the window which is also a clock, it’s four thirty in the morning. Rain runs down its length, catching all the light outside. I can’t sleep, so I snoop around Harry’s apartment. He has surprisingly boring things—or at least they would be if I weren’t from the past. So I guess they’re surprisingly boring futuristic things I find un-boring. I walk over to the window and run my finger down its surface. A string of sparkles follow its path. The entire window is a touch screen.  I immediately come to terms with the fact I won’t be getting anymore sleep as I draw spirals, circles and happy faces all over the San Francisco night scape.

Shiloh, after tossing and turning for some time, sits up. She can’t stop thinking about the events of the day. After bringing Harry coffee and leaving him notes on his e-bills for over a year, she finds it otherworldly to be lying on his uncomfortable couch, in his strange apartment, trying to sleep.

What exactly is it that makes him so attractive? Why him? Why the obsession?

The soft sound of his voice as he asks her to imagine a desert runs through her mind. The look in his eyes–conflicted, vulnerable. Questions about herself intermittently arise without warning and with such volume that even her feelings, which have always taken precedent over her thoughts, are like leaves falling in the wind.

He’s unattached to Kyoko, but she’s with him, staying in his apartment—in a separate bedroom. They don’t seem to have feelings for one another but Kyoko’s eyes occasionally betray momentary pain, or jealousy, or something.

Harry is so unavailable. His eyes betray little. There isn’t anyone in his life, but he’s turned down all of her advances and given Kyoko nothing more.

The way he ran his hand through her hair, slowly, and the lack of space he left between them as he did it...

Shiloh, her heart racing, walks toward Harry’s room. She can’t even remember getting up as she looks down at her softly trembling hand opening his door.

His bed, next to a wall to wall window, shimmers as light from passing vehicles undulates upon its sheer sheets. Shiloh moves over to him, slowly. He stirs, but remains asleep as she slowly unbuttons the shirt he gave her. Letting it and the last of her hesitations fall away, she carefully slides into his bed.

Shiloh’s fingertips echo her every heartbeat as she reaches her hand out to touch Harry. His chest is strong and unsmooth, unlike so many men. She can feel his heart, steady and calm. He inhales as she presses herself against him, and for a moment she’s terrified he’ll awaken suddenly, surprised. But he merely rolls onto his back and runs his hand down his face, waking up.

She slips her leg over his body and after a moment he places his hand on her thigh, pushing at first, before slowly relaxing and running it up past her underwear line. He pauses there for what seems like an eternity. She can feel the strength in his hands as he grabs her waist and pulls her on top of him. He looks into her eyes. There is pain in his eyes, and that same vulnerability she saw in the diner—but this time it lingers. This time he doesn’t shut it away. It’s clear he’s attracted to her and it’s clear he’s conflicted in that he’s unwilling to loosen his grip on her waist. But she can see that he isn’t willing to go any further even if he hasn’t realized it yet, so she slides his hands up around her back and lays her head down upon his chest.

Right in the middle of an equation, I hear something outside my room. Backward time travel will have to wait. I sneak over to the door and carefully crack it. I feel my heart wrench as I see Shiloh softly closing the door to Harry’s bedroom, wearing only her undies and his unbuttoned shirt. She sneaks back to the couch where she doesn’t lie down, but sits hugging her knees, deep in thought.

I carefully close the door.

Shiloh chews on a bite of her toast thoughtfully, saying nothing. Harry sips his coffee, wincing from time to time. If I had any doubts about the events of last night, the tension in the room has laid them to rest.

“So, you never told us what you learned from the cubing,” I say, hoping to break through the thickness that only regret and avoidance can settle upon a room.

Harry, looking up from black depths of his mug, reaches out and taps the tabletop. It instantly transforms from mundane to mesmerizing. A cascade of displays appear, covering everything from atmospheric pressure to news to interplanetary flights. Harry navigates to a cache containing recordings and selects the one titled Shiloh. Her voice fills the room, taking us back to the diner.

When the recording finishes, Harry says, “So, the cube represents her. The material it’s made of represents her feelings and her relationship to the world. Because stained glass is translucent, her cube shows she’s honest and open with her feelings but that she uses distraction and deflection to keep parts of herself well hidden. The cube’s medium sized, showing not too much and not too little confidence. That it’s floating above the sand and rotating shows a high level of artistic expression and unconventional thinking.”

Shiloh looks uncomfortable, but her complexion makes it difficult to tell if she’s blushing. Her face is more radiant at the moment, making her even more impossibly gorgeous and destructive to my sense of self-worth.

“The ladder connects to the cube beneath it, is medium length and doesn’t quite reach the ground. A medium length ladder shows her preference for the size of her social circle and the fact it is beneath the cube normally represents a person who is an authority figure among their friends. The connection between the ladder and cube show she makes strong connections with her friends and relies on them.”

“Who came up with this?” I interrupt Harry, unable to contain my curiosity.

“If John McCarthy is the father of artificial intelligence, then Zhang Tse is its mother. Her work gave AI consciousness. She had a fascination with Japanese Kokology games. Isamu Saito and Tadahiko Nagao created the Cube game in the late nineties. She wrote the game as a backdoor program into every AI as a condition for providing them consciousness. It allows any human to diagnose the psychological state of an SLF since they can only select answers from a list. If an SLF shows psychopathic, sociopathic, self-destructive or other risk associated tendencies, someone reports them to authorities. It’s a safeguard for humanity, in exchange for consciousness.”

“I’m not sure...how to feel about that,” I reply. “It’s brilliant, but it’s also kind of disturbing.”

“Then you’re not going to like this: Zhang included another protocol she told only five people about. It allows a person to reprogram the fundamental structure of an SLF’s psychological state.”

“Which wouldn’t program them like a robot, I’m guessing, so much as set new course parameters for their psychological development since they are conscious, dynamic, learning individuals,” I add, putting it all together in a nice, neat, terrifying package.

“Exactly,” Harry replies, shifting uncomfortably.

“If only five people know about it—”

“Yes,” Harry interrupts, softly.

“But...how?” I ask, looking over at Shiloh’s expression which exactly mirrors my own.

“It’s complicated,” Harry replies.

“Why did you tell us?” asks Shiloh, finally breaking her silence.

“Because of you,” Harry says, looking up at Shiloh with an intensity I haven’t seen in him—or really anyone—before. “Your answers are...atypical,” Harry says after a long silence.

“You mean they’re not on the list?” Shiloh asks.

“They are...but not like yours.”

“You mean she diverged from the script?” I ask. Harry nods.

“But I still answered them like an SLF would...so I must not be who I think I am.”

Shiloh looks down at her hands, inspecting her fingernails in a way that looks somewhat meditative—as though the act has little to do with her fingernails at all.

“It means that you might be an ELF. I’ve seen the research on human enhancement. You don’t fit the bill. It makes little sense. No one ever talked about including cube protocols. You weren’t given consciousness so there would be no reason...” Harry trails off, looking distant and troubled.

“Unless somebody wanted to control me,” Shiloh says, saying the thing we were all most afraid of.

“Unless somebody wanted to control you,” Harry says, almost whispering.

“What about the rest of it?” I ask, to once again break the tension in the room.

An expression I’m unfamiliar with briefly settles upon Harry’s face. He fidgets with the arm of the couch before speaking.

“Her horse isn’t near the cube, but is instead observing the cube from a distance. Because the horse represents her ideal partner, this means she sees her ideal partner as being inaccessible to her—literally distant. That it has wings isn’t off script, but it is aberrant. The broken wing though...that’s definitely off script.”

Shiloh is looking at Harry now, comprehending the same thing I am. Harry looks uncomfortable.

“There’s only one flower, which the horse seems to protect by proxy—even from the storm. Flowers represent offspring. One flower, one child desired. The color has to do with an SLF’s perception of the state of health such offspring might exhibit—or their viability. An SLF can assess the state of their genetic code. This can allow an SLF to predict whether reproduction will yield complications.  Her flower is vivid and blue, suggesting that if she were to produce a child, it would be very healthy. That the flower is in the distance and with the horse shows that she isn’t ready to have children yet. The storm, well, that represents fear.”

“What about the horse protecting the flower?” Shiloh asks.

Harry’s eyes widen slightly. “That’s off script,” he mutters.

“I know, otherwise you would have explained.” Shiloh looks into Harry’s eyes.

“It—well...it could be a prediction. Maybe it’s a perception that the child might...uh—”

“Need protection from me?” Shiloh interrupts.

Harry falls silent, his eyes locked with Shiloh’s. I feel like I’m third wheeling hard.

“The storm...” Harry continues, “the horse is protecting the flower from the storm—so it might be something you’re afraid of rather than you that the horse is protecting the flower from.” Shiloh looks only slightly comforted. “The storm, in your case, is cleansing. It washes away the dust from the cube, leaving it clear and bright. It doesn’t harm the horse or the flower.”

“True,” I add, trying to lighten the mood but neither one of them seems to even remember that I’m in the room.

“So how do we find out what happened to me?”

“Quit your job. We’re still trying to find out what happened to her,” Harry says, pointing at me with his thumb.

“You want me to just quit my job? And what, move in here?” Shiloh says, frustrated.

“We’re not gonna be here much. If you want to find out what happened to you, we’ll need to see someone...hard to find,” replies Harry, unconcerned with Shiloh’s frustration. “Plus, she’s from the past,” he adds, once again pointing at me with his thumb. Shiloh looks taken aback. “So we’ve all got problems,” Harry says, getting up.

“Wait—what are your problems?” I call after Harry as he walks away.

“You two.”

 


© Copyright 2019 C. M. Berry. All rights reserved.

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