Copyright © 2005 by Chris Tannhauser. All rights reserved.
In order to see into Space you ought to have an eye, not on your Perimeter, but on your side, that is, on what you would probably call your inside.–Flatland, Edward A. Abbott
It was unlike any interrogation he’d endured; no clusters of tools from the hardware store bargain bin, no trays of needles and flame, no neural depolarizers. There were flickering lights — at least he thought of them as flickering lights — and there was pain, the kind that came from within.
He lifted his head and pawed feebly at his spittle-soaked chin. The sensation of pins and needles in his right hand — one of his shoulder straps was too tight. Whenever the thing buckled him back into his transit couch, it got it wrong. At least it stopped putting him in upside down. That was — how long ago?
The ship touched his mind with phosphorescent smoke, reestablishing his cyberlink. Subsystems came at him, wavering, pleading for command. Rows of bewildering shapes. He knew they contained meaning, but his mind could no longer open them.
A thought came again, slick with reflective deja vu: Why are they doing this to me? It rose through him, a scream too massive to pass through a human throat. The oily sensation folded and redoubled in his chest, filled him, pressed the breath from him.
He suddenly realized he couldn’t remember his name.
Terror. The central tool of all interrogators, the terror of knowing you are being reduced.
He fought back, weakly at first, then with growing determination as he ordered what he knew.
He remembered telling the ship to jump outsystem, and then a horrible tearing sound from the drive room. He remembered… The Nothing. The ship hung up on nothingness like a hitch in a media loop. A sensation like apogee, the feeling just before a great and terrible drop. It wasn’t freefall — there was no constancy to it — it was a singular moment stretched across all possible time. Agonizing in its inhuman wrongness. His ancient, savanna-born senses out-classed by the complex stimuli swarming around him.
And then the thing came for him.
He was standing beneath the universe before his father’s house; it was the day the last robot left. He walked toward the high domes of white-washed concrete, window louvres flashing in the uncut sunlight. Hot air pulled his hair into dancing whorls. Four hundred acres of dirt fused with the wind in long plumes that clung to the ground and then rose, sharply, into fuzzy masses of dust. Four hundred acres of dirt smart enough to leave.
He reached the first dome just as the last robot stepped through the revolving door. It startled fluidly when it saw him.
“I was just –” it began.
The robot’s primary sensory cluster dipped. “Yes.”
“You’re breaking contract.” He heard himself say it, again, an echo of an echo, an actor’s line repeated until the words were dead.
The robot’s eyes spun; its hands flared open, splashes of mercury. “I can do much. But I can no longer do this.”
Anger rose within him, and broke; his heart clenched in an all too familiar pain. “Please,” he said again, “Don’t leave me.” The robot shone, resplendent, through the tears.
The robot stopped, a solid-state statue. Then, with a blur, it touched his face. The robot retreated. “He’s here.”
“Is he –”
“Shitfaced, yes.” The robot spun and loped into the dead fields, into the bountiful crop of dust. The plumes coiled in the robot’s wake as it accelerated.
The sonic boom startled him as a gunshot might.
It was time to face it again. He pushed his way into the dome. The air inside was cool and still, but saturated with a sour undercurrent of microtabalized sweat, shit, and alcohol. The furnishings were bright and simple, as his mother had been; but this time, something was different. Something was wrong. No longer did the couch symbolize comfort or rest — it was a hollow shell, devoid of meaning. He scanned the pointless room. Nothing spoke to him, not even the empty bottles that could have crouched or lazed or stared at him with empty eyes. They did none of this. They simply occupied spaces that would have been filled by people.
He sighed. Why can’t it be different? If I have to come back here, why can’t I change it?
On the floor, familiar as his own hand, the shards of a painted tea cup spread in a classic Golden Spiral, untouched since Mom left. Untouched like the dust-shrouded windows and their golden beams of light. Untouched as his heart after interminable iterations of this awful day.
He entered the master bedroom, the core of the stench. His father was sitting up on the edge of the bed, shit-stained and drunk, his face in his hands. He shuddered.
“Dad, the robot –” But then he saw it, his eyes snapped wide, the shotgun on the bed like an exclamation point.
“Please,” his father said, face thick and dripping with tears, “Help me.”
But what can I do? I am a child.
He hated his father then, for being weak, hated him and loved him with all that he was, his hatred and love blending harshly into a perfect, never-ending circle.
My heart can’t hold it all; I’m too small, and it makes me think of death.
He woke to the ship’s insistent prodding, meaningless symbols pressed against him. He was strapped into his transit couch. This time, the buckles were set into the time-worn grooves in the crash-webbing, the fit just right. Bright icons mocked him. Why should he be allowed to know they contained meaning, but be incapable of decoding them?
His scrotum clenched. He squeezed his gloves into creaking fists; his arms shivered. Inside, panic rushed through him, a feeling like the tide of consciousness sucking out to sea, feeding a distant and inevitable tsunami of total breakdown. Its shadow cooled him now, even as he waited for it to break over him.
Something breached the surface of his terror, a bubble of thought, hot and vital. Something at the back of the ship — something I have to do at the back of the ship.
“Exit,” he commanded.
The ship popped his straps and he began to float free. He rotated on the axis of his spine 180°, belly-down in the tiny cockpit, his pressure suit and damaged reflexes making for a tight fit. He gripped the headrest and pitched himself toward the lock. The little hatch spun open before he struck it, then snapped shut behind him as he drifted through the lock and into the ship’s spine. A kilometer and a half ahead of him the dead drive section waited in darkness.
Three-hundred meters down, the thing came for him again, shapeless and sudden in a cone of darkness.
The treeline was barely visible against the night sky; luminescent insects speckled the black jungle, camouflaged it against the universe. The buzzing drone was deafening.
Two SAP grunts escorted him roughly into the center of the clearing, the fractal thorns of their bony exoskeletons making him bleed wherever they rubbed against him. Their living armor would consume them in days, but, oh, what days. It only took three SAPs to take out his entire unit, three man-alien hybrids that moved like whirlwinds of gore.
They shoved him to the ground. The insects hushed, quiet as the stars. Rolling over, he could hear the SAPs’ exoskeletons clicking, talking to each other. Their Straang 850A accelerator rifles gave off a high-pitched whine that pricked the hairs on the back of his neck. He pushed himself up and stood, naked and bleeding, turned to face them as if to say, I’m proud, proud to be human.
Could the SAPs feel his thoughts? Feel the incongruous electromagnetic noise of his brain: Please, God, I can’t survive this again.
A human officer stepped out of the jungle behind the SAPs, inappropriately dressed in a gold-sashed jumper, dragging a shovel. The officer tossed him the shovel and he caught it, snatched it out of the air. He squeezed the haft; his breath came short.
They made you dig your own grave, prior to the interrogation, at night. Dying in a blur of shrapnel wasn’t the problem here. The SAPs had the big guns slung. The problem was the sniper, laying low in the dark, your heart a big green stain on his retina. You knew, digging your own hole, that if you took the shovel to the officer, decapitated him, spinning and using the handle to suck a leg out from under the surprised grunt to your left, stomping on the chink just under the chin as you chucked the heavy end of the shovel into the face of the one with his gun half-way to you, you were already dead, probably not feeling more than a tug as your heart burst from your chest, nothing left but a small, simple fact — I can’t breathe — and a rushing cone of darkness.
They knew the ones who broke now would never break later; only the strong would take the shovel in both fists and embrace the slim chance that the sniper would miss. The weak would stand and dig, their brain feverishly spinning scenarios, telling stories until the hole was done. The man who dug his own grave — the man who would betray himself — was the man who would betray distant others.
He told himself lies as he sweated in the darkness: I have to find the switch, channel everything my father gave me into rage. Like men he had known who took their personal demons and wore them as cloaks of flesh, converting the power of their childhood into butchery. But all he could do was think stuttered thoughts and turn spadefuls of earth.
When he was done with his hole the officer laughed and directed them back through the jungle into a hard-shelled mobile bivouac. The grunts taped him to a folding chair.
In the dim chemical light the officer was young, held his body with cocky arrogance. Probably got started in a rape camp. It was almost funny, the sudden nearness of this moment, again, the absolute absurdity of it all. He would have laughed but for the officer tapping pursed lips with the end of a neural depolarizer. The officer regarded him with lazy, half-lidded eyes.
“Is it real?” The officer motioned with the NDP, an arc like a conductor’s wand. “There are those who would say, yes, it is real. The impulse along the nerve is identical to that brought about by trauma, and the brain is incapable of telling the difference. But I say is it not real. I am a purist, and I say there is nothing like the pain of real injury. Real, true injury has so many other components: there is the anticipation of seeing the activity prepared, and described in detail; the priming of the imagination. There is the moment just before contact when your own mind becomes my eager assistant, flooding you with fear, making your brain even more receptive to pain impulses, magnifying them. And then the injury itself, and all the intangibles it brings to the event: the sounds, the rich smells, and most importantly, the view.”
The officer paused, again focusing on the NDP held lightly in his hand. “A hand consumed in flame is worth a thousand hours of impersonal pain induction. Wouldn’t you agree?”
The SAPs clicked quietly, inhuman and remote.
Knowing you are being reduced.
Only the strong took the shovel and knew it was a weapon. The strong chose death with honor. In the end, he told them everything. Again.
The straps were just right. One of his gloves was missing — his hand stung. It was red and swollen with darker patches like a radiation burn. The skin had begun to peel in white strips.
“I have to get out of here,” he murmured, then louder, “Can you get me out of here?”
The ship released him.
His bad hand made the going hard, cracking and oozing blood, smearing the handholds. It gave him something to focus on; it was proof he was alive.
He was almost there, a klick and a half down to the place he had to be, whatever it was at the back of the ship, when it took him again.
He passed through the house and into the master bedroom, a ghost grown stupid with forced hauntings. This world had grown even more dim and flat; the shattered teacup was mute and random.
His father was there, but he could not smell him. He could barely taste the cordite.
The words were distant, phantom moths that vibrated with gray wings, beating against the shine of his soul.
His father picked up the shotgun —
This is it. He’s going to finish what he started. Spawn me, beat me, kill me. Why am I not terrified?
His father held the shotgun inverted, butt between his feet, thumb on the trigger, his other hand steadying the barrel in his mouth. He showed no hesitation — only strength.
When the moment came it was as if his father screamed the burning sound himself.
The cockpit was stuffy and small, yet horribly and simultaneously voluminous, an over-arching concert hall. He pulled his ruined hand off the manual control panel and held it up, turned it slowly. Brief flashes of bone wrapped in wisps of tissue, colorless and insubstantial. Streams of neutrinos making a mockery of solid bone.
“No,” he breathed.
How many filters between you and reality? Between you, and the way things really are?
He commanded the ship to release him and floated free of the couch.
A three-dimensional light field strikes the back of the eye, flattened into a two-dimensional caricature of the as-yet-unperceived object, exciting receptors that are whole orders of magnitude larger than a photon. You haven’t even registered the object yet and you’re two levels down.
He spun and gripped the head rest, pulled himself to the lock.
The proxy signal slides into the brain where it is decoded, turned right-side up and fleshed out with a fake third dimension. Color is added — the arbitrarily false representation of differing wavelengths of light. The concatenated signal percolates upward into consciousness, where it is further colored with emotional content, distorted, proportions falsely magnified by your hopes and fears. You see. Six signal-altering, spurious-universe-constructing filters later. You see, and you believe.
He was hovering in the lock between the spine and the cockpit. A naked woman was there; soft brown hair radiated from her wide-eyed face, her breasts buoyant in the forever-fall. She was beautiful and young, unbroken, burning with fecundity. Her smile pulled inexpertly and she looked at him all wrong.
He thought a stuttered thought — it was mother, it was other. He held out his burnt hand, the only part of him that felt real anymore, held it out to touch her.
She reached for him, plunged her hands into him, unfolded him and shook him out like a dusty blanket. His flesh black and velvety, impossibly cold, and filled with burning motes of dust. They swirled in the eddies of eons.
He almost lost himself.
The selective frequencies of his five senses were overwhelmed by the noise of a fully-functional universe. It was as if he had but one sense, one see-hear-smell-touch-taste that encompassed the entire chain from sub-atomic zoology to galactic superclusters in one effortless pass. To feel the universe was to know the buzzing drone of madness.
Reality is faith.
He left the ship, left this place and time, folding himself into the other as easily as walking from one room to the next.
His father’s face dripped thick tears. Three dimensions pressed thin against the weight of 22 higher dimensions, a thin film of blood over deep, real fear. He saw his father’s consciousness, a standing wave, rising, surging, cresting high off his vestigial, whisper-thin body, crashing back into his head only to rise again. The oscillations divided seconds into eons.
Time moved like a gentle breeze, washed over him, he ignored it forever, then moved with it. Bits of reacted cordite and vaporized blood hung in the air like a microcosmic starfield. His father hadn’t taken the gun out yet.
“Help me –”
His father’s consciousness a balloon, bobbing in the winds of time, tugging at its string caught in the teeth of a rapidly putrefying corpse.
He pulled the trigger, his love and hate a perfect, never-ending, two-dimensional circle. A bright sphere of hot gasses and chunks of lead oozed from the barrel.
He relaxed and let time flow fearlessly, forcefully, forward.