Long Fall — Chapter 33

It’s Thursday night, and I hope you’re ready for some psychedelica. Tonight’s mind-warping journey into Biotech Legacy: Long Fall is Chapter 33: Soul Transistor, and is best accompanied by weird, dramatic music. I’ll give you a few minutes to find something appropriate in your collection.

If you’re just joining Biotech Legacy: Long Fall, you can find all of the preceding chapters right here at the Oktopod Blog.

The previous novel, Biotech Legacy: Stars Rain Down, is currently available exclusively through Amazon.

Ready? Ensure that your safety-belt is firmly buckled, be sure to keep your hands and feet inside the cart at all times, and please have a pleasant ride!


Chapter 33
Soul Transistor

An hour passed before Jack found the strength to stand again. The time had disappeared while the same doubts, fear, and shame spun like hurricanes in his head.

Kai was still there beside him, patiently waiting for him to return. In times like these, Jack sometimes wondered if Kai’s patience was endless. The alien had been fighting wars longer than Jack had been alive, and it’d apparently taught him the value of waiting.

“I don’t think I can do it,” Jack said. Speaking the words twisted something inside him, a wound that felt like it might never heal no matter how well Legacy had wrapped it in gauze.

This just hadn’t been his year.

Kai said, “Why don’t we start at the beginning. What’s he asking you to become, precisely?”

“A weapon,” Jack said. “I don’t know everything about it. It’s like trying to remember an econ lecture from high school.”

“Humanoid?” Kai asked.

Jack closed his eyes and saw the multi-colored Eireki warriors, armored in patterns of interlocking tiles which he understood to be their skin. The proportions of their bodies seemed strange, an idealized and refined version of the human form like some kind of sculpture from the ’40s.

“Yeah, I guess. Kind of like you… This kind of shit isn’t really my area of expertise.” He scratched his chin and sighed. “What was it like when you… when you became a… uh, construct?”

The interrogator sat down on the floor opposite Jack and locked his hands around his knees. “Will it make a difference?”

Jack shook his head. Shrugged. “You tell me.”

Kai took a second to collect his thoughts. Then he said, “To be honest, I was afraid. I’d trained my whole life for this one honor, and when the time came, it frightened me. What if the procedure went wrong? I could lose some part of myself and arrive in the new body a drooling idiot. Or worse, what if I wasn’t strong enough to control it? Power like that could drive a man mad. I had questions and worries, but in the end, none of them mattered because it was my duty. My nation was at war, and they needed me to be stronger.”

“And the process? What was it like?”

“Painless. I went to sleep, and then came the dive. That’s what my predecessors had called it… like sliding through a tunnel made of light, with darkness chasing you. I’d always suspected it was just a dream or hallucination, but it was exactly the same each time I transited afterward, so I don’t know.”

“Then you just woke up?”

“In the tank where the body was grown,” Kai said. “That experience… well, it’s not pleasant. Takes a while to clear out brand new lungs.”

Jack giggled and Kai joined him in his odd manner.

When they were quiet again and the mood of the room had become just a little too heavy, Kai said, “You don’t have to be a weapon, you know.”

Jack looked confused.

“I’m just saying… having this power doesn’t automatically make you a weapon. Not anymore than having fists does. Unless this new form has knives for hands… That would make my case a little more tenuous.”

“It doesn’t have knives for hands,” Jack assured him. In fact, though they looked strange, the Yakara were still human in shape. Two hands, two feet; limitless possibilities. There wasn’t anything that made it a weapon… except perhaps for its ability to punch holes through starship hulls.

“Then it’d be your choice how to use it, Jack. It could be a weapon, or it could be something else we haven’t even imagined yet. It’s just a tool.”

“An extension of my will,” Jack said, echoing something he’d been told once while laid out in the dirt. “And what about the lie? Fucking Donovan wants to start what? A religion with Charlie whored out as its savior?”

A memory flashed by of the old house, where a pair of candles burned on a shelf. He hadn’t thought of it in years.

“If you want moral guidance regarding the truth, you’re asking the wrong man,” Kai said. “But from a purely tactical stand-point, I believe his plan is sound. These people are breaking, and they’re desperate for something to believe in. If it’s not you, it may be someone else.”

Jack felt the empty hole that his beliefs used to fill, and he could sympathize. “I’m not cut out for this,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone is.”

Kai said, “Someone will be.”

And Jack saw what a clever line of attack that was. Who in the universe would he trust with that kind of power? The possibilities lurking within that question chilled his heart.

“We have to destroy it,” he said. “It’s too much.” He cupped his hands over his mouth and nose. “It’s just too much.”

Kai’s voice took on a quality that wasn’t particularly human, but it was incredibly soothing. “Then millions will die. You know the stakes here, Jack.”

He did, and it made him want to punch the wall. Instead, he started tugging at his hair again.

“Let’s just imagine for a second that I decide to do this… I… combine with this alien thing, and I… I fucking pretend to be Charlie. What then? I’m not going to be Donovan’s puppet. So where do I point these lost, broken, sad-sacks?”

“Where you’ve pointed this one,” Kai replied. “Toward protection of the weak, and helping those who need it most.”

Jack realized a funny thing about persuasion: if the manipulator was good enough, it didn’t matter how obvious their moves were. It didn’t matter because the best manipulators simply pushed people toward what they already wanted.

A few seconds passed before the alien added, “And if you forsake it, what will happen tomorrow?”

It was an honest question and Jack knew the answer. It was a vision he couldn’t stand for.

***

Six hours later, Jack Hernandez sped through Legacy’s maze of crimson tunnels. The feeling was baffling and miraculous, lacking any sense of acceleration except for a spell of weightlessness and the rush of oncoming wind. He knew he was moving at an incredible speed, but he was totally fearless. Legacy’s control was so fundamental, so innate that the tunnel posed him no more threat than his own circulatory system did to red blood-cells.

As Jack travelled, he couldn’t help but think about Kai’s experiences and the mysterious dive he described. Would he see the same thing? Sadly, none of the Eireki crap in his head included this particular step, and that meant there was no way to know.

He was flying blind yet again, but now it seemed he’d finally gotten used to it.

A bright portal appeared at the end of the tunnel and he passed through into Legacy’s medical facility. The place was stark white and sterile, much like the rest of the ship. Between that and the flat lighting, he couldn’t help feeling he’d been transported into a home-goods catalogue; all it needed was a collection of brightly colored salad bowls, and the mimicry would be complete.

Kai followed a few seconds later, setting down on the floor gently but unable to mask his irritation at the technology. Jack wasn’t sure what bothered the alien about it, but he’d never seen him so thoroughly rattled by anything.

Jack thought he had more reason to be upset—freely walking back into the hospital that had been his prison just a few short hours ago—but instead he felt oddly at peace. He briefly wondered if he might feel the same given a tour of his old cell back in Africa, but he doubted it.

Donovan and Juliette St. Martin had arrived ahead of him and they stood astride the main entrance, he in an Fleet uniform with a bit of extra embroidering around the collar, and she in her flowing blue labcoat. The physician looked worried, while the fleet commander simply seemed excited.

Jack might’ve thought Donovan’s excitement a cause for worry, but he knew from touching the man’s mind that this was just how he reacted to the unknown. If he wasn’t moody and lost in thought, it was only because there was something new and invigorating that he refused to miss.

“Mr. Hernandez,” Donovan said. He managed a hefty dose of decorum, despite clearly being as giddy and eager as a child locked in an ice-cream shop overnight.

“Donovan,” Jack replied. He turned to the physician. “Are we ready to begin?”

St. Martin squinted at him. “Not yet. I want to examine you first… and… you’re sure there’s no way I can talk you out of this? There’s no telling how this thing might react with a modern human.”

Jack looked to Donovan, whose eyes took on an uncharacteristically steely quality. “No,” Jack said. “We’ve run out of options. I mean, unless you have a better idea, Doctor. I sure don’t.”

She pursed her lips and shook her head.

“Then if you don’t mind,” he said, and motioned for the door.

Three of them walked while Donovan flew, down the hospital’s main hall and then to the far end of the building. From there they travelled upward via vertical tube, bringing them finally to a heavily guarded wing tucked away on the highest level.

With each step, Jack’s world grew just a little bit brighter, a little less stable, and he recognized it for what it was: an adrenaline surge. The glowing walls cast off a dizzying glare, and he fought to keep his breathing steady, his heart-rate under control as he marched.

They came to a large bubble like a ceramic bowl set in the wall at the hall’s end, which burst and shrank away as they approached, and revealed a large circular room on the other side. Researchers were situated around the outside perimeter, each at one kind of workstation or another, while the center of the room was filled by a glass case that looked like the reptile enclosure at a zoo.

Jack knew the glass was an illusion, of course. The walls of the container weren’t truly transparent, but instead displayed an image on their surface, like a much more sophisticated version of Kai’s camouflage.

Inside the enclosure, there was a simple pedestal with the hollow-drive resting on top of it. The device was a pentagonal case made of something clear, with machinery wedged in the corners which held a ridged ring in the middle. Unlike when Jack first recovered it, the drive was now vividly alive, no longer home to a shower of sparks, but instead a burning, sputtering light like a road-flare.

And it grew visibly brighter an instant after he caught sight of it.

When no one else spoke, Doctor St. Martin adopted the role of tour guide. “Welcome to Deep Well Six, our highest security research and containment lab. Normally, we wouldn’t allow anyone inside without the best vetting possible… but you appear to be a special case, Mr. Hernandez.”

She walked out toward the enclosure and pointed toward its contents. “I believe you’re already acquainted with the miniature hollow-drive. We’ve been studying it since it came aboard with you, in hopes of divining some secrets that the larger version won’t reveal, but to no avail.”

Jack took a few steps forward, and his eyes were instantly transfixed. He couldn’t tear himself away from the hollow-drive, pulsing with light there in the middle of room like nothing else in the world. The stream of fireflies inside came in shades of amber and gold, occasionally streaked through with electric blue.

The doctor managed to tear him away. She tugged at his shoulder and led him to the side, where a small examination area had been hastily set-up. There was a bed made of Legacy’s white flesh, flanked by various pieces of medical equipment.

“You’ll need to strip down,” she said, “so there’s a curtain…”

Jack’s shirt was already on the floor, and the pants joined it a few seconds later. He couldn’t wait to get out of the poorly fitted uniform, even if it meant being stark naked in a packed room.

A few of the researchers couldn’t resist a look, and Jack smiled sheepishly.

“Oh… you’re not bashful, I see. Good, now step onto this pad.”

Jack did as told, and over the next half-hour, the doctor thoroughly examined every last bit of him, inside and out. She took his vitals first, and a blood sample which her computers analyzed in seconds, then inspected him like an art collector considering a piece of dubious origins. She paused at several of his moles, but otherwise seemed satisfied.

At her touch, Jack began to feel the tingle of what he now realized was a psychic connection, but he refused to let it make contact. The doctor didn’t need to know about that. Mostly, he was just glad her hands were warmer than the old grey-hair who checked him out at the ERC entry station.

“Well, Mr. Hernandez… you’re still under-weight, and I’m concerned by some of your blood work, but you appear to be in reasonably good health.”

“So he’s cleared?” Donovan asked.

St. Martin glared at him. “I couldn’t find any excuse to call this idiocy off, so yes.

Jack glanced back to the hollow-drive, and it struck him that he was about to become one with this device… or creature… or whatever the fuck it was. The thought was accompanied by a blast of fear that nearly blew his hair back, but it didn’t matter… what else did he have to live for?

“So,” he said, “how does this all work?”

St. Martin furrowed her brow and frowned. “Frankly speaking, I’ve no fucking idea, Mr. Hernandez. You seem to know more than anyone else here.”

“Yeah, flying blind,” Jack said. He tried not to let his fear get the better of him.

The doctor exhaled and relaxed a little, the same as anyone who realized they’d been making a bad situation worse. “We’ve tried to study the organisms as best we can, but they were designed to resist analysis. They can’t be opened without destroying their internal structure, and if Legacy’s previous drives left any remains at all, they degraded completely over the eons she sat here waiting for us.”

St. Martin pointed to the blank wall and a diagram appeared which depicted the hollow-drive and its components. The wall itself remained white, and the images which appeared on its surface resembled pencil drawings.

“In the absence of data, I’ll have to rely on theory. The drive was built to combine with other life-forms, some like the ship which are tailor made to accept it, and others like yourself which are not. To achieve the latter, it’s able to rewrite its own genetic code, creating a seemless hybrid of the two. The action may be similar to some extremophiles on Earth which freely trade genetic traits across species, but obviously taken to another level entirely.”

The hollow-drive diagram was replaced by the familiar double-helix of a DNA strand. A smaller chain approached and the original flew apart, first splitting down the center like a zipper, then breaking into smaller fragments that spun away. The new DNA also came apart as it neared, then threaded itself throughout the broken pieces and assembled a new whole.

Jack closed his eyes for a moment and tried to remember the Eireki who had bonded to hollow-drives. Yakara, he remembered. Other memories came along with them, recalling failed experiments where hollow-drives couldn’t properly combine, leaving only a mangled mass that quickly died.

“Are we exactly like the Eireki?” he asked of no one in particular.

“You’re exactly like the Nefrem,” Kai replied. “Every gene.”

St. Martin shook her head. “That can’t be quite right. As sophisticated as your people were,” she said while eyeing the alien interrogator, “there are differences that simply must be represented in the code. If your understanding of genetics is similar to ours, you almost certainly ignored whole swathes of DNA… Introns we call them… which we believed until very recently to be junk data.”

Words flashed across Kai’s gauntlet, and he ducked his head. “That… is correct.”

None of this meant much to Jack, and he was afraid his face showed it. “Not the same,” he said. He managed to keep the creeping worry from his voice.

“No, but we’re very, very close,” Donovan said after a moment. “The Eireki designed us to be their successors, custom built to defeat the Nefrem… do you think for a second they’d deny us their most powerful weapons.”

St. Martin had a look of deep introspection on her face, and then the light of faith came to her eyes. “Marc’s right,” she said hesitantly. “They planned moves that have played out over geological epochs. They were working on a level we’re only beginning to see the edges of.”

Even though Jack only had murky fragments of Eireki memories, he could feel the shape of their intelligence and it was vast. It was unmistakably similar to his own, unlike that of Felix or Amiasha, but the depth of it was astonishing. Accessing those memories felt like dipping his head into a swimming pool only to find himself drowning in the sea.

But even without finding what he was looking for, he knew what the others said was true: this too had to be part of the plan.

He hopped off the bed and felt something else stirring in that distant Eireki consciousness. There was something there that resonated with him, a strength and fearlessness born of compassion that refused to be quieted, a will that could not be cast aside. This is what it means to be Eireki, he heard the multitudinous voices of Legacy sing.

Jack realized that his mind was made-up long ago. The only question that had ever existed was one of time. “I’m ready,” he said, and all the faces that greeted him were full of worry and hope. Even Donovan’s.

He walked passed them and then to the glass enclosure, where the wall parted like a waterfall split by jutting rocks. He stepped inside and it closed again behind him, leaving him in silence so perfect he could hear only his breaths and the slow thump of his heart. The walls on the inside were bare white without defect.

He filled his lungs and let the air escape slowly, then walked across the floor. In six long and careful steps, he reached the pedestal and placed his hand gently on the hollow-drive.

There was nothing at first, but then in the quiet he began to hear the song. A single voice sang in a melody of sadness, its words describing endless dreams of fury and despair. Those dreams stretched out across eternity, until finally they faded into shadow.

He brought his other, tortured hand forward and took hold of the device. The song’s volume surged in response, its meter starting to race out of control, and Jack’s pulse quickened to match it.

He raised the hollow-drive from its place and the light at its core became blinding. He watched in wonder as the stars and embers that originated inside of it began to race outward, spreading around him like burning party streamers.

The light pulsed and Jack tried to relax. Colors he never imagined hid within it, swirling in circles, in spirals, then they too reached out toward him. Together, the light, the colors, and song embraced him, and any last memory of fear melted away.

***

Something tore.

The darkness stood undivided. He heard neither his breaths nor his heart, and he quietly wondered how long he’d been here. He felt as if he’d been in this place before, and he would be here again. The cycle was never-ending.

Somewhere cloaked in the shadows, ladders were spinning and catching fire. The infinite dark that contained them breathed slowly and remained silent.

He tried to stand but his legs failed him. He felt an unquenchable urge to scream, but his lungs, his throat, his mouth failed him too.

Everything failed him, and time itself became torment.

“Hate,” he heard a voice whisper, crackling like dry leaves under hard boots. “Burn,” it said, so close it must have been inside his disembodied ear.

“Who are you?” he asked with a voice that arose from outside the dark, but no answer came.

The shadows watched him and waited, and soon they changed. They billowed like sheets on a clothes-line, rippling from some force inside them. They rolled and waved and then faded away.

Flesh clothed him, thin and spectral as sadness grown dull with age. He found himself on a spiral staircase with sky waiting both above and below, while memories of clouds slowly drifted across their surface.

“Hello?” he called out, and that seemed eerily familiar. No reply came, and that too was as it had been.

He began to climb. The steps beneath his feet flexed and bowed, while the sky above grew no closer. Instead, the chamber gradually widened, its far wall stretching into the misty distance until he suddenly found himself standing in a grassy field.

The wind whispered across the softly undulating ground, catching dandelions on its back and spreading them everywhere. There was no sun but he could feel its warmth. When he took a step, he felt moist blades bend without breaking, and it reminded him of when he was so small that every field seemed too large to cross.

And just as when he was small, he set out to cross it anyway.

He wandered up and down the hills without ever feeling any strain, just slow progress toward a horizon that remained as clean and unperturbed as a mother’s love. The breeze pushed lightly against him, caressing his face and whistling through his hair, and he journeyed ever on.

The phantom clouds gathered overhead at some point, and the grass gave way to soft soil. Day turned to moonless night, and the now blistering winds embraced him. All around stood ancient cedars like solemn witnesses. They were guardians and guideposts.

When the darkness was nearly complete, he stumbled from tree to tree and came upon a cave lit from within by light as red as blood. He felt the cold marching up behind him, and he rushed himself in ahead of its approach.

The cave was not a cave, but instead a hollow cylinder made of alabaster whose far ends were bridged by a thin walkway. He began to walk its length and figures appeared on either side of him, living bodies without heads, hands, or feet. They dangled from meathooks, and turned to watch him pass.

No dread assailed him. His patience welled up like ground water in a ditch, shallow but never exhausted, and he sipped from it again and again.

He reached the far end and the cylinder was gone, replaced by a sphere whose walls were inward facing daggers. He floated in place, arms and legs outstretched, and he closed his eyes. The sphere somehow remained.

“What do you want?” he asked.

The sphere vanished and he found himself in the forest as a boy. His brother stood beside him, only rising to his spindly shoulder. His brother sniffled quietly, already too proud to cry out loud.

All he saw was horror. Their dog was in front of him, whimpering and quivering, trapped in the jaws of a trap that was far too large. It wasn’t meant for him, and the steel teeth had sunk deep into his chest and side.

“No, we can get help!”

But it wasn’t true. They’d walked together for hours, having left the world far behind them. If they left, the dog would suffer and die alone.

The only thing he knew for sure was that he couldn’t let that happen. Something inside of him stood tall, and wouldn’t let him take the easy way out.

Tears raced down from his eyes, caught on his lip, seeped into his mouth. It felt like the world was ending behind his eyes.

“Please!” his brother pleaded.

He heard the same inside his heart, but he knew what had to be done. He pushed his brother back then bent down. His small hands grabbed either side of a jagged rock. The sharp edges of it bit into his fingers, and his arms burned from the strain as he hefted it above his head.

He didn’t want to believe it, but knew this was right.

His brother howled.

He screamed.

Darkness poured out of the sky like boiling oil. It washed over him until his scream faded away.

“You want to die,” he said, but the seething shadow refused to answer. He and it sat together waiting until the light began again to shine.

He appeared alone in a tarnished cage made of pewter while shards of blackness and light danced outside. They bobbed up and down, flipped and spun, buoyed by some unseen and patternless current. They flashed in series and reflected a single unblinking eye.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Hush,” the whispering voice replied in his own voice.

He reached out and took hold of the bars, feeling the ruined surface bite into his flesh. When he tried to pull them apart, they wouldn’t budge.

“No escape,” Hush cooed. “Only hate.”

But he knew there had to be another way. If he could be placed inside the cage, there must be some way out. No trap was perfect.

“Another way,” Hush said, taunting him with malevolent laughter.

A knife appeared in his hand, its pure silver blade catching flashes of the dancing shards outside. It felt heavy as defeat.

In a voice tainted by lust, Hush said, “Kill.”

There always had to be another way.

A light inside of him pulsed with the rhythm of a human heartbeat. Its strength flowed into him, became him. He spun the knife in his hand and drove it into his own chest.

A voice of haunting sorrow escaped the wound, slipping out past the blade to fill the air.

“Only one way!” Hush howled.

And the cage too was gone.

He floated through the boundless solitude of space, surrounded by stars who remained far beyond his reach. New worlds coalesced in their orbits, grew old, and crumbled to dust.

A dense blackness lay ahead of him surrounded by rings of absolute light. He made of himself a spear and lanced out, diving deep into a shadow who had a name.

Harsh gravity drew him inward and down, while hatred pushed him away. Time stretched into eternity, and only his infinitesimal strength tipped the balance.

He and Hush screamed together while his sharpened tip pierced the bubbling night. Then he was inside, bathed in blood and bile that flowed into his open mouth.

“Who are you?” Hush demanded.

He tore free of creeping shadows that tried to lash his mouth. “I do what needs to be done,” came his growling reply.

The black blood of Hush pumped through his veins, filling his fingers and toes like balloons. The shadows pressed at the back his brain, threatening to shatter his skull into pieces.

“Kill!” Hush cried.

He held firm.

“KILL ME!”

He opened his heart and gentle light spilled out. It formed into tendrils, arms of loving grace that sought to embrace the shadow. Where its numberless fingertips touched, the shadow was cleanly dashed away.

The hungry darkness thrashed and wailed. It made of itself a hammer as large as the heavens, and it drew back in anger. It came down and crushed him, but he would not break. It struck again, flattening him under its rage, but he now knew nothing could destroy him.

The blows came faster and faster, until the violent impacts melded into one. It beat on until he was the hammer and the malleable metal it worked, while the hidden stars sang with the voices of angels.

Then all was quiet, and he sang himself to sleep.


I think that’d make a pretty good prog-rock video.

Next up, we’ll be tackling Chapter 32: The Devil Awakes. I’m achingly close to finishing the book, so I don’t want to promise a Saturday update. We’ll see…

~Chris

Copyright 2013. All rights (currently) reserved.

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