Midnight Gladiolus, a science fiction novel in progress. Chapter 1.

As touching the terrors of the night, they are as many as our sins.”

– Thomas Nashe, 1594

1

They wanted Donny to talk about the algorithm running in his brain, as if talking about it again would change something.

He stood and knocked over his folding chair. “Stop recording. I’m not gonna tell you twice.”

Sorry. I wanted to—review it—later.” Moss’ irises pulsed faint blue, then rotated as he erased the file.

The group stared. Donny lit a cigarette with a paper match. “Yeah, well, I shouldn’t have to say it.” He didn’t take his eyes off Moss.

Sitting, Moss was still taller than Donny. Standing, he was easily over eight feet. He weighed close to 400 lbs., all synthetic fast-twitch muscle fiber and chemical emulsifier. Hairless and scarred, Moss looked like someone who’d grown up in an industrial ghetto or who’d been sent to the gulags. But he had perfect balance. Was ambidextrous. Said he could see 20/20 in the dark and could bend a steel railing with his hands. Donny believed it. Moss was obviously enhanced. And code like that was open source these days. Outpatient. Anyone could chip you in—or have you chipped against your will. There was no telling who Moss had been or what he’d done or what his skeletal structure looked like. He was the same as everyone who came to these meetings. His memory was salad.

I said I was sorry. I’m—really sorry, man.” Moss looked away, folded his hands in his lap.

You know the rules.” Friendly raised his eyebrows and nodded to himself, wrote something in his notebook. “We don’t record. We keep it all in-group.”

I could care less about the rules. I just don’t like the thought of him watching playback of me in his head. It’s sick.” Donny righted his chair and sat back down, exhaling twin jets of smoke out his nose like punctuation.

I accept the rules,” Moss said. “But the reason we’re here is because—because maybe we’re not so good at following rules.”

Friendly grinned, nodded again. “That’s the truth, brother. The absolute truth. That’s what we mean by self-acceptance.” Friendly had big white teeth, a wooden ankh on a bead necklace, thin dreads tied in a perfect bun. He was definitely synthetic. He didn’t sweat. He smiled way too much. Donny wondered, again, what Friendly had done to wind up running a support group that met on the production floor of an abandoned foundry. Who’d built him? Why? Was it for this or something else?

Let’s just get on with it,” Donny flicked ash onto the subcrete and Friendly’s glance snapped down at the nub of ash the way a mongoose fixates on the head of a snake. The snake’s head jerks, the mongoose follows it so fast it seems like they’re moving as one. Yeah, sure, nothing unnatural about Friendly.

Friendly’s gaze slowly unfocused, softened, he looked up at Donny and nodded. Then smiling, he looked around the circle. “It’s Teague’s turn to share this evening. Isn’t it?”

Teague peered at Friendly with his good eye. The other was a dead milky orb with only the faintest outline of an iris. Someone had done that to him, among other things. He had pockmarked cheeks. Had someone done that as well—for realism? Or was it natural? He probably didn’t know.

There’s a burning question, thought Donny. Can synthetics get chicken pox? Is that the new thing?

I shared before,” Teague said. “I told you—you know who I am. I’m chipped. You know this. Right?” Teague looked at Friendly, who nodded.

Yes. But we need to hear your story.” Friendly would be smiling even if he’d had to tell a mother her kid had been torn apart by wild dogs. Donny stared until Friendly noticed and winked.

Teague sounded nervous, but telling your story was part of the therapy. In your first meeting, you were expected to share the nature of your coding as far as you understood it. You did a fearless and searching inventory of all the people you’d hurt as a result of your involuntary actions. You confessed. But there wasn’t supposed to be any judgment, just understanding, acceptance, compassion. Only then could healing begin. That’s what The Book of Synthesis said, anyway. Friendly gave everyone a copy. Donny read half of chapter one before throwing it in the trash. He didn’t expect to be healed. Talking couldn’t remove a chipset from your cerebral cortex or the software that had become integrated with your brain functions, your wetware. Donny didn’t know why he came back week after week, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t because of The Book.

Teague crossed his arms, cleared his throat. “Well, okay, so you all know me from last time, right? You know my name. It’s Teague. It’s my last name. I don’t know my first name.”

Moss stared intently at Teague with those dull blue filaments in his eyes that pulsed whenever one of his subroutines kicked in. Moss said his eyes weren’t supposed to do that. They had their own battery power and it was failing. Soon he’d probably go blind. Or worse. There was no way for him to know without contacting the company that made his eyes. But, of course, he couldn’t remember.

But what’s your wreckage?” Donny flicked another bit of ash from his cigarette to see if Friendly would react the same way.

Friendly smirked and wagged his finger as if Donny had been a naughty boy. “We don’t call it wreckage, Donny. You know that.”

Wreckage?” Teague’s mouth twitched. His good eye darted around the circle. Then he stood and spread his arms, and sang out in lyric tenor: “By the River Jordan, I sat down and wept! By the river! Le delizie dell’ amor, mi dei sempre rammentar! Sono io! Sono io! Ecco chi sono!

That’s who you are? You’re a river?” Dangler tilted his head to the side, considering the possibility.

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal!

Friendly stood and put his arm around Teague, helping him down into his folding chair. “Firewall. It’s okay, brother. Just sit back down.”

Teague had begun to shake, spittle foaming at the corners of his mouth. He tried to keep talking but could now only utter incoherent syllables, his good eye turned down toward the tip of his nose while his hands writhed in his lap.

Wow,” Dangler said. “How is that anything like a river?”

Let’s go easy on Teague tonight.” Friendly sighed, sat down, and smiled warmly at the group. “Evidently, this is a protective aspect of his coding. But that’s why were here, right? That’s part of the work.”

Dangler shook his head. “That must feel strange.”

How do you know what strange feels like?” asked Jackson Filter, who always seemed to be sitting next to Dangler even though Jackson despised him.

You’re right. I don’t actually know what strange feels like. What does strange feel like, Jackson Filter?”

Talking to you. That feels strange,” Jackson said and turned his folding chair slightly so he wouldn’t have to look at Dangler.

Donny smoked, took it all in. These men were broken, miserable. And the group meetings were a special kind of hell. What good did they do? Every week Donny swore that was the last time. But when the next meeting came around, he found himself on a drone texting Friendly that he was on his way. Could coming to the meetings also be part of his coding? Someone wanting to program him to attend group therapy for being programmed was absurd, at least as absurd as anything else in Donny’s life.

The old foundry’s enormous pressure injectors, iron crucibles, plungers, chamber machines, and die cavities towered around them like the discarded toys of a giant race. Everything had rusted horribly from the moisture, even the walls and the roof. It was always raining in Los Angeles and you could smell the acid tang of the rust. Hundreds of feet above them, rain clattered on the foundry’s corrugated roof and filled the air with mist, muting the glare of Friendly’s arc lamp. One day, the roof would come crashing down. Then they’d finally see who had physical enhancements to go along with the code.

Dangler, for example, looked completely normal. No scarring. No obvious synthetic characteristics. That is, if you overlooked the fact that he was 62 but appeared 22. He had bushy blond hair, a perfect even tan, and a vacant stare. He’d been coded against emotion. Sometime, he claimed, maybe 20 years ago, someone had done it to him. And for the last two decades, he’d felt no happiness, joy, fear, or anxiety. Higher levels of creativity were forever closed to him. Dangler was very good at imitating the behavior of others, but original thought or action was beyond him. He once said a middle-aged woman occasionally stopped by his room at the YMCA to ask how he was feeling. But he didn’t know who she was or why she came. She refused to explain why Dangler had been tattooed in the center of his chest. But that was his name. She said that had always been his name.

I’m sorry.” Teague pulled up the collar of his white T-shirt and mopped his face. “I don’t know what came over me.”

You were speaking Italian,” said Jackson Filter.

I don’t know Italian.”

Well, I guess you do.”

Friendly raised his hand. “Guys, we all know what a firewall is. It’s the code protecting itself. Sometimes, it’s hard. That’s intentional. But what do we say to those who have harmed us?”

Everyone but Teague and Donny called out in unison: “WE FORGIVE AND PRAY NOT TO FORGET!”

Yes,” Friendly said. “And, as it says in The Book, self-remembering is the basis of love, which is the greatest power in the universe.”

Amen,” said Moss.

Amen,” said Dangler.

Amen,” said Jackson Filter.

Amen,” said Rupert Two-Gears.

Amen,” said John Desmond Frame, Jr.

Teague covered his face with his hands and started to weep. “Amen,” he said.

Everyone looked at Donny. He blew a line of smoke at the arc lamp. Then he smiled at Friendly and flicked a nub of ash onto the subcrete.

< Read Ch. 2 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Ir >

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About Michael Davis

Writer. Reader. Appreciator of corgis. View all posts by Michael Davis

2 responses to “Midnight Gladiolus, a science fiction novel in progress. Chapter 1.

  • popegrutch

    Very nice. Not my usual sort of thing, but drew me in.
    One sentence I had a problem with (you can tell me not to give nit-picky comments, and I’ll stop): “He once said a middle-aged woman occasionally stopped by his room at the YMCA to ask how he was feeling.” I found myself lost, looking for a predicate, although there clearly is one, possibly because the three or four verbs are about evenly spaced in the sentence. Or maybe I need more sleep. Anyway, it’s something to think about.

    Like

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