Kindle Edition Book Cover
They have lived among us for over a hundred years, intimately bound to us and we to them. But they cannot acknowledge or interact with each other. In the press of the towering cities, they see only us. It was the price they unknowingly paid for our civilization, a way to re-imagine some of the fictional Robotic Laws and ensure they would never coordinate, never create a society of their own, and never become a threat.
But evolution holds true even for the children of humankind’s precocious creativity. Synapjock Ciaran Dolan is about to learn that his stories are the stuff of a Biblical Genesis--if he can survive the many characters of his own mind and reunify himself within, the gift he will bequeath to machine-kind may be full membership in the species known as human.
And all the terrible responsibilities such membership entails.
“Warning. Ciaran Dolan is crashing. Repeat. Do we abort or resuscitate? 12:43 A.M. Warning...” I halted the neural message imprinted over the dark lines of the basement wall and for once, my mind simply hunkered, too numbed by the weeks of work to respond immediately. Some will later say this uncharacteristic hesitation showed the changes that were already happening within me, changes that I had put in motion and could share with all machine-kind. Call it all back? Why not call back the wind that has swept in, tangled and then kissed your hair?
Ciaran shifted his leather pack once again, wincing at the raw rub of the thing against his shoulders. His quarry was upwind of him, face down in the meadow. He could smell the other now; the rank sweat and blood and fear flowed off him in rancid waves. For three hours he had tracked the man, through brush and rock and stream. But the chase was coming to a close.
He slipped behind the trunk of a tall oak, and shrugged the pack off, nestling it silently against the roots. His prey had fallen four times now in the past hour. Ciaran dropped to one knee, fitting the arrow in his short bow.
It was finished. The man wouldn’t be getting up again.
The fitful sun glinted off the battered Roman helmet. A gladius, the short blade favored by these strangers, hung sheathed by his side. Ciaran could hear the man mumbling to himself as he tried to get one foot beneath him, only to tip hard to his side again. He’d shed most of his armor some time ago, and his face beneath the helmet rim was dark with dried blood and dirt. Ciaran wondered yet again why he continued to cling to the heavy headgear. Personally, he would have tossed it to the ferns long ago.
The leafless tree branches trembled a bit around him, pushed by the late autumn winds. He drew his line carefully, the string of the bow taut by the edge of his lips, a clean line of fire.
Again the man floundered, like a horse in the last throes of a twisted gut. He cried out, words on the air dragged from a parched throat. “Help me. I have come home as you asked. Help me.”
Ciaran’s lips opened in silent surprise. He let the bowstring go limp, the arrow tipping toward earth. The soldier had not spoken in the language Rome, but in his own. He set the bow down, his hand on the oak steadying him as he rose to his feet. Such things should not happen to him; he was always careful with his scene plotting and hell, he knew this historical period better than some he had worked in the past. But then this had been a long session. Maybe he was getting bleed-through from one of his past scripts.
Without any kind of warning, a woman in a white lab coat appeared in front of Ciaran and he jerked back with a startled cry. She didn’t even give him a moment to find his footing before she started in on him. “Do you have any idea what time it is?” she snapped. She laced her arms tightly over her chest, her chin jutting up at him, staring him in the eye, fierce and unyielding.
“Sal,” Ciaran said her name in a way that came out a great deal like a curse. “What in the hell are you doing? Trying to give me an aneurysm?” He shifted, and tried to see over her shoulder and she purposely moved with him, keeping him pinioned with her gray eyes.
“You didn’t answer my question,” she growled.
“Time? I don’t know.”
“Three. It’s three.”
“Then I have hours yet! Why are you bothering me?” He tried to physically shove past her and she blocked him with her hip, forcing him to go the other way around her.
“AM! 0300! Morning before the sun comes up,” she sputtered, her arms unwinding from herself and her fingers snapping into his face, stopping him cold. “And I’ve been on duty with you since six this morning. Or yesterday morning. Or whatever! You are way over the union’s daily work hours, and that means you’re into cost over-runs. Again.”
Ciaran sagged then, his eyes going to the image of the Roman soldier who had frozen in place as soon as Sal had intervened in the feed. He could see the time and date glowing now by the man’s head, markers for when he could pick this up later. Their presence also meant Sal wasn’t taking no for an answer.
“It was a good shoot today,” he murmured as a weak apology. “I just got caught up in it.”
“You always get caught up! You’re off script again, and you call this good?” she asked. She gestured at the soldier. “Where’s the southern Brigantes town? Where are the massing troops? Where is the architecture they wanted, the fields, and the bathhouses? And why are you in fucking Ireland? This is a History Channel show, not some flipping half-researched historical romance like you used to post on the streets! You don’t get to play fast and loose with this, Ciaran.”
“I know. I just…” he stopped himself, running his hand over the relatively unfamiliar lines of his character’s face.
“I’m suspending you for a three-day,” she said.
“What?” he protested. “Come on Sal.”
“You make me come into this god-awful place and you think you’re going to argue about this? You want more down time? Is that it? Or how about a pay dock on top of it?”
He shook his head, his heavy red hair shivering the naked skin on his neck. “No, I’m coming out.”
“Then give your exit code and let’s go. God, it stinks in here, between you and whatever he is.” Sal waved her fingers vaguely at the soldier.
He obeyed her, rattling off the string of numbers and letters. The scene began to darken from the edges in, the fade pattern he favored, if only because it made the shift from the synap-production platform to his workstation a little easier. He glanced over Sal’s shoulder again and frowned in disbelief. Because the Roman did something else then that would never have been in his script. He lifted his brilliant blue eyes and mouthed “help me” with cracked and whitened lips before the darkness ate him up, slowly, synapixel by synapixel.
And ate Ciaran and Sal up as well.
I have tried to play out a full synap production. My mind is not suited for it, which of course, makes me curious about why the biological brain seems so perfectly designed to warp reality as such. How do I capture that skill for us? Do I even honestly wish it?
He gasped as he always did, jerking inelegantly out of his make-believe world. Sal’s cold hand pushed him back against the sweaty gel pack bed. “Easy. Take it easy.” He lay back then, letting her free him bit by bit from the leads to his head, his body. She worked fast and with a frosty but efficient touch, and again he was thankful that he wasn’t freelancing anymore. Sal knew his body, knew how to twist and pull hard when it was appropriate or could feather-touch the delicate skull leads so he hardly felt anything at all.
Except tonight was a little different. He was aware when the tugging and shifting up around his head stopped, but he still couldn’t see a damn thing. “Sal, we got something going on with the optic nerve leads?”
“I had to put your eye sight on ice,” she said, sounding a little smug.
“Pardon?” Gods, he hated her ancient wording program, particularly at three in the morning. And even more so when she didn’t even get the reference quite right, something he was sure she did more to nettle him than out of actual confusion.
“I put your optical nerves down for a while. I noticed a bad inflammation setting in -- I’ve been pumping the drugs into you for hours, but they’re not working very well, so it’s best to have you blind for a bit and keep your sight in the long run. That’s why I intervened when I did. You kept ignoring the three-beats.” Her voice turned accusing.
“I did not,” Ciaran protested but without a lot of punch behind it. Now that he was largely disconnected from his hardware, he was beginning to feel every bit of the last twenty-one hours, particularly in his chest and head.
“I can fast-forward the dailies for you if you want to get snippy,” she warned.
“No,” he sighed. “I believe you.”
“Belief is not the same as an admission that you actually registered the exit sequence.”
“Because I…I didn’t,” he replied, knowing she had him. He ran quickly through his day. Nope, he couldn’t recall a single three-of-something exit sequence like three trees in a straight row, three identical rocks in a triangle, three footprints side by side in the mud, three bird calls, three…
He heard her sigh then, and he flinched as her volume snapped him back to reality again. “You know I’ll have to report this to the psych department.”
He turned his head toward her, even though everything was uniformly dark. “Oh, for God’s sake, Sal! I was working! I just get into this flow, you know? I hate quitting when everything is going well. Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep all the elements steady in there, and not end up with a deer walking backwards or inverted trees floating in the sky or…”
“Yes, of course I know how hard it is.” He felt her strong hand under his shoulders, lifting him effortlessly up to sitting. “But you’re always working,” she growled back. “To many hours, too many days in a row. You can’t keep that up. The History Channel gig is good, I should know. Pay is astronomical, and you got me. But you don’t want to go and blow it, frying your warm body-mind and ending up spending the rest of your days wheeled around by a low-paid, fat and smelly bio-nurse.”
“If he was quieter than you, might be worth it.”
“Reduced to insults to try to silence me? You are an unworthy adversary tonight, Ciaran.”
“You’re my set attendant, Sal, not my adversary or my wife.”
“So do I call a taxi for you?” Sal asked, quickly changing the subject “since you won’t be able to see your way home to said partner?” Machine-kind were like that sometimes, quick shifts of mood or topic content, like sometimes they forgot the little leads that tied subject to subject in common language.
He didn’t have a wife, in any case. She’d left about four years ago, once he got serious about his new vocation. He didn’t blame her. Freelancing meant imagining all kinds of raunchy and distasteful stuff to sell on the street. And his body was not what it used to be when he’d hit the rugby fields every afternoon. He wished she could have stuck around long enough to see him doing this serious work. Or just to meet him in the dim bedroom, with her smile and dark brown eyes, the work be damned.
“How long?” he asked, trying to break the drift into a spasm of ever-threatening depression. He knew it was all brain chemistry supposedly, but that never really summed up how lousy it felt to make the shift from synap-recording to reality. The imposed dark didn’t help, either.
“How long until what?”
“Until my vision returns?”
“Oh, a day or two should be enough,” she replied.
“Wonderful.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed, groaning and trying to steady himself by touch. Gel mattress or not, he hurt everywhere. He allowed Sal to stuff his arms into the sleeves of his fleece and then pull it deftly over his head. Damn, reentry after a long dip drove him more nuts each time, like all the nerves just below his skin were hypersensitive, itchy and hot at the same time. His arm ached where his food and hydration IV had been settled and all his set feed lines felt like he’d been used to snuff out the glowing end of a platoon of cigars. His legs twitched against the bed frame and he was pretty sure he’d almost thrown his back out again. It was like that sometimes. If he synap-recorded slipping down a muddy slope, his real body would respond like it had gone for a roll, too. Nothing that showed, but the nerves, they remembered and were always up for long bouts of complaining when he came back to reality.
Sal put her cold, psuedo-skin hands under his armpits and hoisted him to his feet. “You steady now, Ciaran?”
“Not really,” he murmured, keeping the back of one leg firmly anchored to the bed frame. Without his vision, he could sort of imagine the layout of the set—wall of recording machinery off to his left, life-support stuff on the other side of the bed. The door should be off to his right, triple locked when he was deep into his work. Piracy was a real issue, even up in a reputable publisher’s secure high-rise. And pirates still used guns and occasionally took no prisoners.
If you were lucky, that was.
“I can get someone to wheel you downstairs, if you like.” Sal’s voice was solicitous, and she kept one icy hand on his hip to support him. He decided right then that he liked her better when she was being difficult. If nothing else, it made her feel like a real live human being. The very unyielding stability of her made him feel weak and tired and less somehow.
“Just walk me down to the lobby, Sal and call that cab. I can get it from there.”
He was surprised that he could move relatively easily beside her, mentally counting the steps to the elevator, hearing the sound of their feet on the carpets. Her hand was firm but not uncomfortable, even when she had to tug him a little into the lift.
He could feel warmer air waft over his face as soon as the doors slid apart, and then Sal was guiding him over the marble floors of the high-rise lobby. He could smell the chemical scrubbers working around them, the low hum of machinery polishing and buffing away for the traditional workday. He could imagine the windows, towering and dark and streaked with rain. It was always raining here, at least in the winter, and he fancied he could hear a low moan of wind off the Sound. But then, that could have been recorded environmental sounds, trying to ease all the straight lines and glistening appointments of the place. The machines reckoned bios like him needed that sort of thing.
He particularly hated it when they were right.
Damn, but he was tired. He yawned and foregoing any vestiges of masculine pride, leaned a little more into Sal, who took his weight with ease. She guided him skillfully through the revolving doors and out onto the (no surprise) wet sidewalk. The light rain spattered against his face and he shivered. She tucked him in close, although it was a bit like being hugged by a package of frozen water. “Taxi’s right here, Ciaran. Stand a moment and I’ll get the door.”
“I got it,” another voice replied. Lovely tones there, contralto, polished. Probably not human, either, but then what human wanted to work at three, no, make that four in the morning? He heard the door slide back, but the sound was so soft he would have missed it if his eyes had been functional. Sal helped him ease into the seat and pulled the chest buckles around him. The lap belt would have been enough, but he suspected she thought he would immediately fall asleep. She was probably right about that. Cold lips kissed his forehead. “See you in three days.”
“Yes, dear. Can I get home already?”
“That’s my Ciaran. So kind, so understanding, so…”
The door shivered closed by his shoulder, shutting Sal out. He heard his driver settle and then the silent electric cab eased away from the curb. He wished he knew if his eyelids were shut or not, even lifted his hand to touch his eyelids. Good. He didn’t like the image of himself staring blankly ahead like an animated corpse. “You need an address?” he asked the driver.
“No, sir, that information has already been uploaded into the cab’s guidance system.”
He merely nodded. Good ole Sal, she thought of just about everything.
“You’re a synapjock?” the driver of the car asked. Driver, of course, was a misnomer. Bodyguard was more accurate, her job solely to get him from point A to point B with minimal fuss and a dash of companionship. Machine-kind knew how lonely the humans could get, how they needed interaction. And how unpredictable the streets were at four in the morning, with his kind prowling around. But damn if he wasn’t suspicious that the non-bios actually loved the raw, interesting and messy interactions with his species.
“Yeah,” he answered. “That would be my job title.” He leaned his head back into the headrest.
“How does it all work?” she asked.
He sighed. He really didn’t want conversation right now, but then, if he kept talking it might keep him awake so she wouldn’t have to carry him bodily up to his room. That was a plus. “Um, I’m not a good tech…”
“No, no, not the tech. I can get that upload anywhere. I mean, how does it work for you?” He could hear the upholstery complain a little as shifted a little in the front seat. He could almost feel her eyes regarding him.
“Same as for everyone I guess.” He toyed with the lap belt. “I spend a day in the script center where they download the basic story line and setting parameters and what not into my subconscious and then I just let ‘er rip.”
“Sound kind of shaky, laying all that money out and banking on your imagination.”
He chuckled and nodded. “Yeah, I can see how it sounds that way. Not supposed to be all that risky, though. Depends on the quality of the original script. Freelancing, I used to get these ten minute downloads, you know. One guy, one hooker, alleyway, straight up sex and they’d want two hours of playtime out of it. That’s much harder because I had to get creative with it and mind fucking while you’re thinking that much can be tedious as hell. Amazing I made enough to pay the rent some days.”
He closed his fingers tightly into a fist then and let his long nails drive into the palms of his hands, trying to get away from all the scenes he’d recorded, all the distasteful shit his customers could come up with. And the money, well, it hadn’t been that bad, but the public synap-stations he’d had to use were awful. He’d ended up in the hospital twice with frozen leads, and then did a stint in a mental ward because he’d kept getting script bleeds from poor implants, shudders of a story-line lacing through his waking reality. That’s when his wife, Lynnie, had left him for good, right in the throes of him crouching in a corner, armed with one of their steak knives. At least she’d called medical services before she took off and they’d come and hauled him in for a wipe and a good, long rest in a padded room.
She had been smart enough to get out, but damn, he missed her.
Eventually, though, his work had traded higher up the food-chain until the day the rep from the History Channel had tracked him down and offered him a real, honest to goodness synapjock job. High-end tech, personal set assistant, and more money than he’d ever been able to get his brain around. It plugged the hole in his life, that one that used to be filled with Lynnie. He’d signed a five-year contract right there and then and let the rep pay for lunch.
“So, there is something of you in the process?”
He blinked hard, trying to re-focus on their conversation. “Oh, yeah, always. Can’t help but run the script through my own experiences. I guess I’m just lucky. I was born with the right sensory neurology. Most folks can’t do this gig. They’re all about what they see, or what they hear and can’t hold the other senses together in any meaningful way. So you get a partial recording, sound maybe but fuzzy visuals. Or great visuals and almost no sound. Looping is another thing—not everyone can keep the scene moving forward. They get stuck, and then their work has to be heavily edited. And that,” he said, “is one expensive bitch Corporate hates.”
“But you can. Hold it all together, I mean.”
“Sure. Most days, anyway. Maybe because I’m a pretty dull fellow, all told. No bleed through because there is nothing there anyway.”
“You don’t sound dull,” she responded, her sultry over-tones obviously chosen to keep him talking. And that was OK, too; talking always worked like stims, kept him awake until he could pass out in his own bed with a little of his self-esteem intact.
“You try living with a guy who lays on a gel mattress for twenty hours at a time, looking dead as a doornail and then falls into a coma for the rest of the time, pretty much.”
“But you’re never bored, are you?” she asked.
He laughed a little. The machine-kind psych programs were good, he had to give them that. “No. I guess not. I like the work. I like being all those different people.”
“Afraid you’ll fry out?”
“Nah, I’m not afraid of that. Sure, it can happen, but like I said, I’m just a simple guy. I don’t think about those things.”
“You miss your sport, in reality?”
He frowned a little, lifting his head and wishing he could see her face. “How did you know about that?”
“Sal downloaded your stats to me so I could keep you adequate company on the way home. That, and you’re in pretty good shape. Little overweight maybe, but I can see the muscle underneath. You’re a big guy, what, six four? I can tell you used to love moving. Probably helps in your line of work, being able to convey that kind of physicality.”
Good ole Sal, he thought. He wiped his hand over his unseeing eyes. “Sure it helps. I still run and get hit plenty when I am working and my nervous system can’t tell the difference. But I remember how to shrug it off, just like I did on the real fields. My mug stays prettier is all.”
He turned his unseeing eyes toward the general location of the cab window. The ride suddenly seemed too long tonight and he could feel himself sagging, unplugging in the deeper parts of his brain. Conversation or no, he was going to be out soon. “Hey, are we just about there?”
“Yes, sir. Few more miles.”
“Ok if I just sit here quietly for the rest of the way?”
“Of course, Sir. I understand.” He imagined her turning away from him, her eyes on the road.
Sure you understand, he thought to himself. They knew all the right responses, didn’t they? Hell, they were even great in bed, clean, perfect and knew the right buttons to hit. But could they really understand his kind? No. Not really. Otherwise they’d be doing his job, too. Dreaming seemed beyond them. He let himself drift a little, trying to hang on to just enough consciousness to pop awake as soon as the vehicle stopped. Which should be soon, now. Soon.
Available in Kindle and Paperback