Glýphein - Episode 5Written by Philip Charles Stephens
The fifth installment in the tense serial, by author Philip Charles Stephens.
Episode 5- Conduction
Skedic had been arrested by liftport security the moment his transport auto-landed in Valetta. They’d strapped restraints around both his wrists and sat him on a steel chair. The contents of his bag were strewn across a table in front of him, and a bespectacled liftport Interlocutor was staring at him from behind it, his small moustache somehow complementing the perfectly creased grey-and-black uniform he wore.
“A man is dead,” the Interlocutor said, casually turning Skedic’s comm-shades over in his hand, “and you sit before me with blood under your nails and a vandalized data-slot in your left wrist, expecting me to grant a free communication that will absolve you of your crime.”
He spoke English with the common Mediterranean accent, but beneath the soft, rolling intonations, Skedic could detect the clipped precision of a logic-chip. This man would have as much compassion as a computer—or a bank manager. “I’m working for a classified project,” Skedic said. “U.S.K. Armaments. You can reach my principle on those comm-shades.”
The liftport official dropped the shades and picked up the Bravo. “You violently murdered a fellow employee of the company you claim to work for. U.S.K. Armaments requires this as part of your contract?”
”The contract is classified.”
The Interlocutor got to his feet, still holding Skedic’s Bravo, and walked over to the wall where prints of Skedic’s skull hung against a white screen. Amongst the bone, cartilage, and soft tissue, a sub-dermal network of wires and neural-hubs spread across his cranium like a wire cobweb. It was a lot of tech—more than Skedic could account for. The gaps in his memory were right there, solid and real and hidden, but where were Aiden and Victoria? Where the fuck was his family in any of this? Inside a metal cage someone had imposed on his brain? Were they even real?
”You have some very interesting tech inside your head, Master Vom,” the Interlocutor said. “Some of it perplexes me.”
“I was a soldier.” What else could he say?
“According to what I can find on you, you were dismissed from the service 24 months ago for psych reasons—hence the data-slot in your arm. Would you mind telling me why you destroyed it?”
“It malfunctioned.” He’d been used.
The door opened and Skedic heard a familiar clicking on the metal floor. “Didn’t take long for you to fuck things up, Vom. Lucky I was watching, eh?”
“Sorry for the trouble,” Jay said, walking over to the Interlocutor and handing him a data-chip. “This chip contains all documents pertaining to the U.S.K. contract I assume my colleague mentioned.” He looked at Skedic and winked. 47 was standing behind him in the doorway, staring at him through its single white eye.
The Interlocutor took the chip without a word and slid it into a slot in his arm.
“So, Skedic, why’d you kill the fucker?” Jay said, eyebrows raised, a relaxed smile on his face. “He make fun of your haircut or the stupid Band-Aid on your forehead?”
Skedic got up from his seat and looked over at the Interlocutor who was standing motionless at the table and staring into space. “I need to get out of here.” He held out his manacled hands to Grimando. “Get Turner on the line.”
“That tool will let you go once that program’s taken effect, and then you can tell me what the Hell happened on that transport. Were you trying to pull the poor fool’s head off?”
“It was Bilkissou.”
Grimando frowned. Skedic heard the ping of a data-chip ejecting and looked over his shoulder to see the Interlocutor, data-chip in hand.
“I hope that answers your queries, Master Interlocutor,” Jay said, still looking at Skedic and frowning. The Interlocutor handed Grimando the chip, his eyes glassy, then he lifted the key and waved it against Skedic’s manacles lock. They opened with a click and fell to the floor, but the official still hadn’t spoken a word.
“Is he ok?” Skedic said, rubbing his wrists.
“His cybernetic-graft will need repairing, but yeah.”
“What about his superiors? I imagine they’ll notice.”
“I’ve already smoothed things over with the authorities. These logic-drones need more than bullshit, though. You know how it is.” A low metallic grunt from 47 made Skedic jump. Jay nodded thoughtfully. “47’s found Zephra. Time to go.”
They left the security terminal through an office full of administrators, officials, and techs, and took an elevator down to sea-level. Though not as hot as Cameroon, the temperature was over a hundred, and the sun reflected white off the concrete and glass of Valetta. Grimando and 47 walked ahead of Skedic, and the crowds of pedestrians gave the bot a wide berth. “So where is she?” Skedic said, catching up with Grimando.
“T-Tech has a factory off the coast. We didn’t think they’d be stupid enough to harbor her there, but I guess we were wrong.”
“How do I get in?”
“You want me to tell you everything?” Jay said, grimacing. “I was sent to keep an eye on you and assist with finding Zephra—which was necessary, of course, because you are so fucking inept. You’re doing the job, remember? Use the Memoria for Christ’s fucking sake. Turner told you it would lead you to her.”
“Turner knows something he isn’t telling me,” Skedic said. “Bilkissou’s dead and the emp-circuit was built upon her personality; but we’re linked within the circuit, and when I’m inside it, she’s inside me. She used me to kill the pilot, she knows what I’m up to, and she is not defenseless.”
“So you’re saying the emp-circuit is fighting you?”
“Bilkissou is fighting me, you fuck. She took control of the transport, killed the pilot, and ripped out my data-slot.” Skedic struggled to keep his voice down in the crowd. Most of the people were distracted by 47, but it wouldn’t do to arouse notice. “Each attack occurred while I was in the circuit.”
“Why aren’t you dead then? She could have easily killed you.”
Skedic didn’t answer. He’d murdered Bilkissou and she’d come back from the dead for him; he’d pissed off a few women in his time, but this was ridiculous.
They reached the pier. Skedic could see a large slab dotted with numerous smokestacks and antennae on the horizon. “There it is,” Grimando said, walking over to the rail. “T-Tech’s Mediterranean plant.”
“What do they build there?”
“Bot components,” Jay said. “47 started out there, didn’t you, boy? Well, his neuronic-net did, anyway.”
“I don’t see how I’m supposed to get in. Those factories are secure.”
Grimando sighed. “Why do you think you’re here, Skedic? You’re the last connection to the algorithm, the last link in the empathy-circuit, and you want me to tell you what to do?”
“The algorithm’s useless to me while Bilkissou’s in there.”
“Then you’re in deep shit!” Jay shouted, startling a couple of by-standers who swiftly moved off. “You’re in deep shit,” he said more quietly, “because if you can’t find the emp-circuit you’re of no use to me, and as for Turner…” Grimando shook his head and looked back out to sea. “He’ll kill you and cut his losses. This isn’t a fucking game.”
“Not a game? Are you sure?” Skedic said, through gritted teeth.
“Touché, Vom. It’s a shame every single fucking person on this planet is playing, eh?”
47 made a rumbling noise in its ‘throat’. Grimando took a deep breath, then hawked a gob of phlegm over the rail and into the sea. “I have to leave, Vom. Do me—and yourself—a favor and find Zephra.” He moved his face closer until Skedic could see the red capillaries coursing from each grey iris. “I won’t miss next time.”
The lights of Algiers flickered against the coastline. Skedic stood in Bilkissou’s cabin, looking through the glass at the outline of the city. Specks of lights revealed aircraft taking off from the liftport; they left bright yellow smears in the dark. “Africa is beautiful, isn’t it?” she slipped her arm around his naked waist. Her nipples were hard against his back.
He placed his fingers around hers. “It looks nicer at night.”
“That’s why they call it the Dark Continent,” she laughed.
He turned around and pulled her close, feeling her lips against his neck, then his chest. “How long until we arrive?” he asked.
“We won’t disembark until the morning,” Bilkissou said, her voice low. “The tenth hour.”
“I have a briefing before then.”
“Plenty of time.” Her lips brushed against his abdomen, her tongue tracing its way across his skin, down past his navel, lower and lower.”
Skedic awoke, drenched, in the small fishing-boat. Another wave broke, soaking him again. He got to his feet, pulling his rucksack from under his head where he’d been using it as a pillow. “Mikele!” he shouted.
“The sea is rough tonight,” Mikele said. The old fisherman was sitting at the back of the boat, the rudder in one hand and the accelerator-stick in the other. He was wearing the thermal sweater Skedic had given him in exchange for driving him out to the factory, and his long grey beard, heavy with salt, was stuck to its front. “You know I can’t come back for you, Sinjur?” The boat’s anti-scan device was clacking over the sound of the motor.
“Where are we?” Skedic snarled. He checked the plastic seal around his bag; it was still secure.
Mikele raised a gnarled finger.
The factory loomed over them on five thick concrete pillars. The boat’s motor shrieked as Mikele gunned it, and the cloud above, illuminated by the lights of the factory, vanished behind the dense body of the slab. Skedic was familiar with the design: It was a decade old, modeled on the nuke-plants the old Eastern Bloc had built in the Barents Sea to deter attacks by its neighbors. There would be a heavy-grade lev-tube at its center and that was his way in.
“You want me to leave you in the sea?” Mikele said, frowning. “Like buoy?”
“Over there,” Skedic said, pointing to the base of one of the pillars. “Leave me there.”
Mikele shook his head as he turned the boat in the direction of the pillar.
Most of these structures had emergency signal-boxes for the lev-tube, to send down divers and to retrieve anyone that fell from the slab, and Skedic hoped he’d be able to use the comm-shades to open it. He leapt onto the slick base of the pillar, pulling himself against its weather-beaten surface and averting his eyes from the spray. He heard Mikele shout something but couldn’t discern words over the motor and the clacking of the anti-scan. The sea burst over his legs, and he gritted his teeth while he waited for the sound of Mikele’s boat to disappear.
He blinked three times to open up the shades’ weave-antenna and immediately detected the lev-tube’s signal. It had a simple encryption that Skedic deciphered easily, then he took a deep breath, made sure his rucksack was secure on his back, and holding the shades against his face, fell backwards into the sea.
Cold darkness embraced him. The last time he’d been on the Mediterranean, the sea had been warm, calm, and he’d been with Bilkissou. Now only Bilkissou’s ghost awaited him. He rose above the water and sucked in a breath, then sent the signal to the lev-tube. A wave hit him in the face and he had to fight to swim back into position. A crack grew in the slab far above, golden in the darkness; it widened until it became a circle, and a yellow beam of hoptocropic radiation caught Skedic in its grip, lifting him from the water through the chill air and into the bowels of the factory. Even with the shades on, the light of the tube became so intense he had to squint, then it flickered to nothing and he felt metal under his boots.
The room was cluttered. Several suits of bulky dive-armor hung from the wall in front of him, and aluminum cylinders containing air of varying compositions were stacked on racks alongside them. A small rep-bot and the controls for the lev-tube took up the opposite side of the room, and a door at either end—each marked B-LEVEL-7—appeared to be the only other exits. He tore apart the plastic-wrapping around his rucksack, heard a door open, and threw himself behind a rack of cylinders. He heard a familiar clicking noise and reached into the bag, feeling the grip of the Bravo in his hand. A red beam of light focused itself onto his face. Skedic’s finger was on the trigger, but even with all the tech in his head the Gorilla would be faster.
“You’ll lose that hand.”
“I thought you’d be waiting for me,” Skedic said, slowly drawing his empty hand from the bag.
The Gorilla walked over to him on its knuckles; a machine-cannon mounted on its back stayed trained on Skedic as it approached. “You’re probably wondering why you’re still alive,” Bilkissou’s voice echoed from the Gorilla-bot’s voc-box.
“Nuts? I’m not even alive, Skedic. You think I don’t know that? I’m a rogue program, slowly losing itself within the algorithm. But who do you think you are?”
“I know I’m alive,” Skedic said. “Where’s Zephra?”
“86 will take you to her.”
“I’d sooner die now than later.”
Bilkissou’s distorted laugh resonated within the cramped room. “The circuit doesn’t work that way, Skedic. You killed me, remember? You killed me, but I’m still here.”
It was one of the few things he could remember, apparently.
Skedic followed 86 down a corridor to an elevator. He could see rows of machinery at work on the factory floor as they ascended. On the first level, rows of robotic arms and propylene torches constructed bot chassis; on the next, delicate components were being assembled on what looked like a giant loom; on the third, banks of computers stood like black monoliths in baths of liquid hydrogen. The elevator sped up until Skedic could no longer make out any details, then it stopped suddenly, and they were in a carpeted room. Futurist paintings adorned the walls, and a dining table covered with mechanical parts, circuit boards, and components the purpose of which Skedic couldn’t fathom, took up the middle of the room. A cupboard and bookshelf hugged the wall to his right underneath an old monitor. It looked like an old apartment, but what was it doing out here in a factory-slab?
A cough from the table.
Skedic hesitated, but the Gorilla nudged him in the back with its cannon, pushing him forward. As he neared the table, he saw a mess of white hair behind what appeared to be a starter-motor from an ancient hover-pod. The mess of hair moved, revealing bloodshot eyes and a face prematurely aged, wrinkled and blotchy. Anne Zephra did not look good.
Zephra lifted her head further and he saw a voc-box in her throat. There were tiny metal implants in her temples and Skedic would wager there was a drive in the back of her neck, too. When it was Bilkissou that spoke he wasn’t surprised. “You’re starting to see how the empathy circuit will be used, Skedic. Its potential goes far beyond simple war games,” she croaked.
“We can walk around in other people’s heads,” Skedic said. “Even when they’re dead.”
“A new society is in the making,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “We can save this world.”
“Get to the point, Bilkissou.”
She got unsteadily to her feet. “My name is Zephra,” she said, baring her teeth. She was so thin Skedic wondered if she even ate anymore. “Dimka Bilkissou was a vessel. She lies dead, but her soul lives on as part of the causal chain within the algorithm. She lives on within me.”
Skedic felt cold all of a sudden. “I’m a part of the algorithm, too.”
“An outside presence,” Zephra sneered. “A virus sent by my enemies to hijack the circuit.”
“I was working with Bilkissou—” Skedic protested, but a look from Zephra cut him off. He’d seen what the circuit could do, what it did to reality. His memories lay in ruin and his mind was not his own, not anymore. He’d entered the body of the dead, for Christ’s sake, yet what did he really know of it? “What are you?” he asked.
“I am Zephra, the empathy-circuit.”
“I became Dimka Bilkissou on her seventh birthday. It was the seventh revolution of her soul. When you ended her life I had to seek an alternative step forward and that is why you are here.”
Skedic’s mouth was dry. “My God—”
“—is a product of the algorithm,” Zephra said. “As you pointed out, you are part of the causal chain, so where do you think God is now? It is within you but its mechanism is distant, the mechanism you created. You lie within the algorithm now. You know that, don’t you?”
Skedic wasn’t sure why he’d said ‘God’; he didn’t believe in Him, but at least the concept had been real. Now even that was gone, like the family he’d forgotten. All meaning was gone. The algorithm had him.