Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chapter 8

    The sky seemed darker than it had been two days before, the sun's feeble light somehow weaker. Outlines were indistinct and fuzzy. Deserted buildings with gaping windows, cars abandoned along the street, out-of-use mailboxes - all possessed physical boundaries that weaved in and out of Steven's vision. Each object melted into the one beside it.
    Some buildings were beginning to fade from the ground up.
    Out of habit, he crossed at the corner, at a nonfunctioning traffic light, his route taking him along an avenue that had once sported street signs on every corner. The signs were gone now, and he found it annoying that he could not recall any of their names. There was simply nothing in his mind where that information should have been.
    There was something horribly wrong with his sense of direction as well. For a moment he thought the direction he followed was south. The next instant it felt like west. Then he was no longer sure. Here, in this strange world at the end of time, direction no longer had meaning.
    As he passed the remains of a building that had once housed a camera shop, he heard a noise behind him: the sharp tap of claws on cement. He spun about, crouching into a defensive stance, his hands working awkwardly before him without the ax handle.
    Ten yards down the sidewalk came the same pack of dogs he had encountered two days before, the pincher/pit bull now the leader. They advanced slowly, their massive heads swinging from side to side, scanning the street for prey.
    Amazingly, they hadn't seen him.
    But that couldn't be! They were certainly near enough. Could this be some new tactic they had learned to confuse their prey? Were they trying to lull him into a false sense of security? Could they be that smart?
    Panic took hold of him, and he turned and sprinted down the sidewalk. He lunged into a looted drugstore and crouched behind a door sagging on broken hinges, then peered out from behind its chipped and peeling frame. Holding his breath, he waited for the pack to enter his field of view.
    His armpits were suddenly moist with perspiration, and the hair at the back of his neck bristled. A rivulet of sweat ran between his shoulder blades as the tapping of the dogs' claws on the pavement became louder.
    He crouched lower behind the door as the dogs went by in a tight group. They should have seen him. They should have smelled his fear, heard his heart pounding or the harsh rasp of his breathing.
    Gradually, the staccato tapping of the claws faded. He remained huddled behind the door, trying to calm the fear rising in him, trying to understand what had happened. He could do neither.
    When he finally did leave the store, the cloud-shrouded sun hung low in the sky. He was sure he had been hiding in the drugstore only a few minutes, yet now it was nearly dusk. And that filled him with sudden dread.

    He walked quickly down the middle of the street, a stiff wind at his back. He had to find the grocery he had been hunting for several days before. No, matter what, he still had to eat. But he had forgotten where it was.
    Far ahead, also in the middle of the street, he spotted something. It was a human figure - harsh, angular, bathed in a cone of strange, blue-green light. The lines of the stationary figure grew softer as he drew near, gradually rounding into the form of a woman.
    There was something familiar about her even from a distance. Steven knew her. He knew only too well that stance of one hip thrust slightly forward. This time there was no doubt. The figure ahead in the middle of the street was no manikin, no phantom dredged up from the depths of his tormented subconscious by the crystal chip buried in his brain.
    It was Pamela!
    Stumblingly, he ran. Twice he fell, tearing his trousers and scraping his knees and the palms of his hands. Both times he got up immediately and ran on, inarticulate moans escaping from his throat. He feared she would disappear before he could reach her.
    Soon he stood before her, his body numb and shaking, his heart pounding in his chest like a jackhammer. His breath came in harsh gasps, and he felt a slick film of perspiration over his entire body.
    Pamela stood as still as a statue. Her body was draped in a long, flowing gown covering everything below her neck except her hands.
    Suddenly, Steven knew this wasn't his Pamela. She was somehow different, but he couldn't quite....
    Then he knew what it was. This girl's eyes were green instead of blue, and her hair was cut short. It was platinum blonde, not the color of honey. And there was a softness around her eyes and the corners of her mouth he had never seen in the Pamela he had known.
    Still, there was enough familiar about her that he knew she was Pamela. A Pamela.
    He watched her chest, but he could not detect the steady rise and fall of breath. Her face was frozen in a quiet, smiling expression very much out of character for the Pamela he had known. Her piercing green eyes stared straight ahead, seeming to look right through him. Even her hair did not stir in the cold wind.
    Calming himself with an effort, he forced his tremors to stop and his breathing to become more regular. Then he reached out for her hand where it lay against her out thrust thigh.
    His hand passed through hers without the slightest resistance and entered her leg. He watched in horror as his fingers clutched and wriggled inside her.
    Withdrawing his hand, he stumbled back a step. He bit his lip hard and tasted blood. Suddenly, he was aware of the steel skeletons of partially vanished buildings visible through her body. But somehow it would no longer register; he knew what he was seeing and how he should react, yet his numbed mind merely found it amusing, some strangely curious phenomenon that neither touched nor moved him.
    His legs became suddenly weak, and he sat, drawing his knees up to his chest and resting his chin on them. He hugged his legs tightly against the cold, hard wind and rocked silently back and forth as he watched the phantom Pamela in the fading light. It soon became dark, and still she did not move. Still she remained bathed in the strange blue-green light.
    Closing his eyes, Steven again concentrated on the microcomputer in his head. With difficulty, he reconstructed its image in his mind as he had seen it in the electron micro-graphs months before. Then he again tampered with its structure, as he had before in his hospital bed, altering the molecular circuitry in his imagination.
    I might be doing nothing at all, he thought. I might be fighting something I simply can't hope to win against.
    But Pamela was there before him. He opened his eyes and looked at her. She wasn't the Pamela he had known, but somehow she was a Pamela. Maybe he had done that. Maybe he had brought her here.
    He closed his eyes again and concentrated on altering the computer embedded in his brain.
    Soon, he fell asleep.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Chapter 7

    When Steven opened his eyes, the light in the room was different than it had been before he had fallen asleep, somehow more diffused. The strange light gave everything in the room a feeling of unreality.
    The room was clean, white, antiseptic. It contained two other hospital beds: one neatly made, the other recently slept in. This was obviously one of the university's first-aid clinics. Hansen had taken it over.
    Steven got out of bed, found his clothes hanging neatly in the closet, and quickly dressed. He fumbled in the drawer of the cart until he found the cigarettes he'd had when he left his apartment.
    How long has it been? he wondered. He stepped to the mirror beside the bed and studied his reflection. His beard showed no more than three days' growth.
    Taking a cigarette from the crumpled pack, he placed it in his mount and lit it. The first lungful of smoke seemed to take the edge off, calming his nerves. Somehow, it brought a bit of sanity back into his world.
    Suddenly, he realized what was making him feel so strange. He felt much better than he should be feeling. The fever was gone, and his wounds no longer hurt. There was only a touch of headache behind his eyes.
    He brought his right hand up and examined his wrist in the strange light. The gash was gone; there was not even the merest trace of a scar. He tore the crude bandages from his arm. That wound, too, was no longer visible. It was as if he had never received those injuries, as if the last few days had not happened.
    But he knew they had. At least, he thought they had. He searched his mind for the events of the past few days and found he could remember only gross generalities. The fine details and the sharpness that marked the computer-generated memories were missing. It was as if someone had told him about what had happened, instead of his actually having lived it.
    Or, like he had dreamed it.
    Still, the bandages - and he did remember some of it.
    The feeling of unreality became suddenly stronger, a heavy mix of both old and new. Had those things really happened? Had he actually met the dog pack? Had Hansen....
    Too many questions, and far too few answers.
    Again he thought about Hansen. Should he try to find him before leaving?
    No, he decided. He had to get out of this room, out of this building. And he had to do it now.
    He shuffled to a low counter on the far side of the room. A piece of hard bread only partly wrapped in aluminum foil lay beside a brown-stained hot plate. He picked the bread up, unwrapped it, stuffed it in his mouth. It crumbled dry and powdery on his tongue and scratched the roof of his mouth. He was tempted to spit it out, but he needed its nourishment.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Chapter 6

When Steven finally awoke he felt much better. Hansen was there, sitting nearly rigid in a straight-backed chair. When he noticed Steven was awake, he took a heavy mug from the tray and handed it to Steven. “Be careful,” he said. “It's hot.”
    Steven looked at the steaming liquid and smelled its rich aroma. “Coffee!” he said.
    “Only instant, I'm afraid.”
    Who cares, Steven thought. It was coffee, and he hadn't had a cup in months. And with cream! Or was it milk? Neither, he decided. All processed milk and cream would have gone bad long ago, and Hansen certainly wasn't keeping a cow. Not here. It had to be a powdered non-dairy creamer.
    He brought the cup to his lips and sipped. The hot liquid burned the torn flesh around his mouth, but it tasted like heaven.
    “Thank you,” he said. Hansen nodded and sat quietly, watching Steven as he enjoyed the coffee.
    After a while they talked. Light conversation at first, but soon the discussion turned to their strange new world.
    “I guess we're both pretty lucky,” Steven said.
    “Are we?”
    “What? Oh. I see what you mean. Sure, it's rough out there. But even at its worst, life is preferable to death.”
    “Under most circumstances,” Hansen said, “but certainly not under all.” Then he smiled a strange, haunting smile. “But this doesn't have a thing to do with death.”
    “What are you talking about? This is the end of the whole damn world!”
    “That's true. But I don't think all those people died.”
    “You're insane.”
    “Perhaps I am,” Hansen said calmly. He smiled again.
    There were several seconds of awkward silence. Somewhere the whine of an electric motor - perhaps the fan in an air conditioner - wavered, then died. Steven knew with a detached portion of his mind that it would not start again.
    “Just what are you trying to say,” he finally asked.
    “Only what I did say - that they're not dead. How can I possibly explain this?” Hansen paused for an instant, chewed nervously on his lower lip, then continued,
“They're in another dimension, in another universe, in a world existing parallel to this one. When this,... our sphere of reality... when it all began to fall apart, they transferred to that other world.”
    “And we can't get to that other universe?” Steven sensed a ring of truth to what the boy was saying.
    “I can't. My condition is permanent.”
    “Are you saying that I can?”
    The boy shrugged. “I was thinking about that while you were asleep. My condition is natural, there isn't a thing I can do about it. Oh, it can be controlled to a large extent, with drugs. But it will always be with me. Your condition isn't natural. You are trapped here because of memories of this world continually being reinforced, regenerating this world for you second by second within your mind. These memories are called up by the artificial device implanted in your head. They make you too much a part of this world to be able to cross over into that other one.”
    “And? Make your point.”
    “Well, I can't take it out of your brain; I wouldn't know where to start. But maybe you can disable it somehow, from inside your head.”
    Steven was silent for a few beats. This was unbelievable, something he simply had not expected. Pamela might actually be alive, waiting for him somewhere. If only he could reach her.
    “Do you have proof of any of this?” he asked.
    Hansen shook his head. “I'm in this world,” he said, “as trapped as you are and lacking any kind of contact with that other world. But the new quantum physics does call for such things. Look at how everyone acted just before they disappeared.”
    They had acted strange, Steven thought, like their minds were elsewhere while their bodies were still here. And suddenly he remembered that last night he had tried to make love to Pamela - a harsh, vivid, somehow accusing memory.
    “All right,” Steven finally said, “I'll take your word for it that it's possible. But how can I possibly disable this computer in my brain?”
    “That I don't know. Maybe you can shut the thing off by just willing it so. Have you tried?”
    Steven shook his head. “Until now, I hadn't even thought of it.”
    “I wouldn't be too disappointed if it doesn't work the first few tries. You're still pretty weak. This bout with the fever has taken quite a bit out of you, and you're not entirely through with it yet. Maybe it could even help in a way. Your elevated body temperature might have weakened the device some. Electronic circuits are delicate, particularly susceptible to damage from heat.”
    “This thing in my head is supposed to be self-repairing,” Steven said. “It's made of molecular circuits, and it uses my body tissues for raw materials. Very experimental. They just couldn't go breaking into my skull every time some little thing went wrong.”
    “What can you lose by trying?” Hansen said with a shrug.
    Steven remained silent. He thought about the microcomputer buried in his brain. He thought about a parallel world, a hypothetical place of dreams and wishes that might or might not exist.
    And he thought about Pamela.
    “That's enough talk for now,” Hansen said, shattering Steven's thoughts. “You still need a lot of rest; it'll be a few days before you can get up and around. Besides, there are a number of things that need my attention.”
    Without another word, Hansen turned and hurried from the room.

    Steven closed his eyes. But this time he did not allow himself to sleep. This time he forced his thoughts on the computer locked in his head, trying to visualize it. It wasn't hard; he had seen electron micrographs of it before they'd placed it in his brain, and now the computer itself called up sharp, clear memories of its own pictures.
    He saw the brilliant blue-green field of the gallium-arsenide chip vivid in his mind. On the chip, nearly indiscernible, was the delicate golden lacework of the circuits.
    Gone was the crude metal-oxide-semiconductor technology of his youth. In its place were organic circuits, constructed of strands of protein, billions of times more compact than their predecessors. A biochip. A fine web to one side of the chip was the computer's interface adapters, the molecule-thin electrodes which carried minute jolts of current to shock memories from Steven's subconscious.
    With his mind, he tried to alter the molecules that formed the computer's circuits, jumbling them in his imagination, rearranging them, making random connections. But, try as he would, he could not change them. And he could not make them disappear, even in his imagination. 
    Finally, totally exhausted, he slept. His sleep was troubled by a disturbing mixture of memory and nightmare.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Chapter 5

    A memory - irrational, out of place, yet horribly vivid - exploded in his brain.
    He is again a child of eight. He is in bed, shivering and sweating, his body raging with fever, his mind a hodgepodge of confused thoughts. Golden summer sunlight streams into the room from a window to his left. His mother hovers above him, large-breasted and sweet-smelling, her blonde hair a soft halo in the sunlight.
    He looks down at his right arm. It is bright pink around the sting, swollen to nearly twice its normal size. He cannot believe something as small as a bee can cause so much pain.
    His gaze brushes the closet door on the far side of the room and he turns quickly back to his mother's face.
    “You'll be all right, honey,” she says. She takes the hot wash cloth from his forehead and replaces it with a cool one. Then she smiles down at him. “Sleep now.”
    But he cannot sleep; he does not dare close his eyes. He had heard his mother talking to Aunt Clara on the phone earlier that day, telling her what the doctor had said about his allergic reaction and what it could mean. He knows he will not be all right. He can feel death waiting for him - a large, dark, bearded old man who lives in the closet. He knows that if he closes his eyes, the old man will come for him in his sleep.
    “Sleep,” his mother says again, soothing his brow with her cool fingers.
    His eyes become heavy, but he fights approaching sleep. Soon his eyelids start to sag shut. He forces them open again. They begin to sting, then burn, but he keeps them open. Finally, he can fight sleep no longer, and closes his eyes.
    And he hears the barely discernible creak of the closet door opening.

    First the sound, then the familiar ritual of waking....
    But this time something was missing. The memories were gone. They were no longer being projected against the blank screen of his mind.
    His name and identity were gone as well.
    Frantically, he searched for the missing parade of his past, that glut of memories which should have been marching continually out of his subconscious into his
 conscious mind.
    Then suddenly, there it was: Steven Collins. And his memories filled his thoughts.
    He lay on his back, a sheet pulled up around his neck. He felt his body drenched in perspiration. The fever still raged in him, worse now than before, and he continued to shiver uncontrollably.
    The room was unusually warm, and the air smelled strangely antiseptic. The light entering through his closed eyelids was not right, either; it seemed too bright, too clear, not yellow enough.
    He opened his eyes.
    Back-lighted by the strange white light, a face hovered above him. Lean, almost emaciated, it belonged to a youth no more than twenty years old. Above hollow, clean-shaven cheeks, light blue eyes held a haunted look. The boy bit nervously at his lower lip as he gazed intently into Steven's eyes.
    Beyond, the walls were white, institutional - like a hospital.
    “You feelin' better?” the youth said. His voice was high and thin.
    Steven tried to speak, but his mouth and throat were too dry. His attempt came out a hoarse croak.
    “That's all right,” the boy said. “Take your time.”
    Clearing his throat, Steven swallowed hard and tried again. “Where?” he said hoarsely, glancing around the room.
    “The university,” came the boy's answer.
    The boy nodded. “The university has its own generators.”
    “Who....” Steven swallowed again. Damn! Why couldn't he take the hint and get a glass of water. “Who... are... you?”
    “Hansen. Roger Hansen. But look, don't talk just yet. You're too weak, and you need something in your stomach.”
    The boy turned from Steven's bed and left his limited field of view. He was gone for several seconds. When he returned, he carried a tray on which rested a laboratory beaker filled with water, a bent piece of glass tubing for a straw. There was also a bowl of something steaming.
    The boy placed the tray on a low, wheeled cart to the bed's left, then brought the beaker up to Steven's mouth. Steven took the glass tubing between his lips and sucked. Only a trickle of water reached his parched throat, but it was better than nothing.
    Taking the beaker away, Hansen put it back on the tray. In a few seconds he brought a spoonful of hot, thin liquid to Steven's torn lips. Steven couldn't tell what it was - there was something wrong with his taste buds - and he had trouble getting it down.
    “I know,” Hansen said, “it isn't very good potato soup. But I doubt your stomach could handle anything heavier.”
    Steven didn't try to respond; he only hoped his expression conveyed gratitude. But right now he needed information almost as much as he did food and water.
    Seeming to sense this need, the boy talked while he feed Steven, relating his experiences since the End.
    “I was a sophomore here at the university before it happened,” he said, “majoring in physics. School during the day and janitorial work in the laboratories at night. Sweeping, cleaning lab equipment, things like that. And occasionally I'd help one of the profs, Dr. Samuels, with his work.”
    That name, Samuels - it triggered a flood of memories. Steven forced them down.
    Hansen laughed, almost spilling the soup. “It's funny, in a way,” he said. “Those dog packs roaming the city?” Steven nodded. “They're from here.”
    “From... here?” Steven managed. He was beginning to feel a little stronger.
    “That's right. And I guess I'm to blame. Dr. Samuels was using the dogs for research into various brain dysfunctions - you know, performing lobotomies, augmenting
their brains with electronics, that sort of thing. It was a large experiment. When it all started falling apart, I turned the dogs loose; I didn't want them to starve to death in their cages. I didn't know.” He shrugged.
    Steven nodded. That explained the strange scars and hardware he had seen on the dogs when he was attacked. “You didn't... didn't know what? That they'd... go wild?”
    Hansen shook his head. “Brain dysfunctions. That's what keeps the dogs here. And that's what keeps you and me here, too. I'm epileptic.” He waited for Steven's response.
    “I'm not,” Steven said, and instantly realized the boy would take it wrong. He hadn't meant it the way it had sounded.
    “Not just epilepsy,” Hansen said, with some pain in his voice. “There are other brain dysfunctions, both natural and otherwise.”
    Hansen nodded. “You know, like the dogs. It can be caused by radical brain surgery - lobotomies and the like - or by electronic augmentation.”
    “You mean like... computer implants?”
    “That's right.” Hansen brought the spoon to Steven's lips again. Steven swallowed the rapidly cooling soup. “You have one, don't you?” Hansen said after a few seconds of awkward silence.
    “Yes. This girl I knew before - “ the thought brought a sudden torrent of memories, sharp and harsh. He pushed them back into his subconsciousness. “She was doing her doctoral studies here. Then we found out I had this disease, similar to Alzheimer's. She talked me into signing myself over to a government-funded research group that was doing work on the physiology of memory.”
    “I heard about the study,” Hansen said. “They were working closely with Samuels. There were two of you, I think. Two operations. Let me see... Collins and...
    Instantly, the newspaper stories Steven had read about Alvarez prior to that other's operation flashed into his mind. Raul Alvarez had possessed symptoms similar to Steven's, but his condition had been attributed to the bite of a black widow spider a few years before. He had spent nearly two years in a coma. When he came out of it, his mind began to deteriorate.
    “You must be Collins,” Hansen said, shattering the memories.
    Steven nodded. “They got to me at a relatively early stage, so I was just what they were looking for. But my short-term memories were beginning to fade fast. I guess I shouldn't complain. They gave me quite a bit of money to let them put their computer in my head.” He tapped his right temple with his index finger and felt a sudden lance of pain. Was it real? he wondered. After a few seconds it passed, and he continued. “I wasn't even supposed to know it was there, unless I wanted to remember something specific.”
    Again the memories flooded his mind, and he shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. But the strikingly vivid parade of events from his past would not dissolve.
    “Now there's something wrong with it,” he said. “It seems to be going out of control. The memories keep coming, whether I want them or not.”
    “That explains why you're still here, in this world,” Hansen said. “But look, you're too sick for this kind of exertion. You need rest. I want to give those antibiotics I pumped into you while you were asleep a chance to do their stuff.” He placed the bowl down on the tray just out of Steven's reach.
    “Thanks,” Steven said, suddenly realizing how exhausted he really was. His entire body ached with the fever and quivered uncontrollably beneath the perspiration-soaked sheet. Hansen was right; he did need rest now more than anything else.
    The boy smiled down at him. “See you later,” he said. Then he turned and left the room.
    At first, in the irrational fog of fever, Steven fought sleep, trying desperately to think through what Hansen had said. But it did no good; he couldn't think clearly. The effects of the fever, combined with his exhaustion, made thinking impossible. Soon his eyes closed and he was asleep.

    He sits across the large walnut desk from a small, gray mouse of a man, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a hearing aid. The man keeps pushing his glasses up on his nose with his middle finger, and talks with a lisp.
    “You realize, of course, that this procedure is highly experimental,” Dr. Hadley says.
    Steven nods. “Then I'll...” He pauses. For an instant, the thought won't come. “I'll be the first,” he finally says.
    Today is a good day. The thoughts flow relatively smoothly through his mind. His ability to express himself is less impaired than it has been lately.
    “No,” the doctor says, again pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “There's one other operation scheduled before yours.”
    Steven must think about that for a few seconds before it makes sense. Hadley waits patiently.
    “The other.. he has... what I have?”
    “Yes. At least his symptoms are much like yours. And again, we can't be sure just what it is, but it shares many symptoms with Alzheimer's Disease.”
    Has the doctor told him this before? He can't remember. But there is a question he wants to ask. If he can only think of it.
    “Who...” he begins, but it is gone again. After a moment it returns. “Who is the other....”
    “A man named Raul Alvarez,” the doctor lisps. “He teaches architectural design at a community college in San Diego. His operation will be nearly three months prior to yours. On...” he flips forward through his desk calendar, “October thirteenth.” Again he pushes his glasses up.
    Another question tries to form in Steven's thoughts, one he is not sure he has asked before. It hangs just beyond his mental grasp, refusing to congeal.
Then suddenly, it is there. “How does the device work?” he asks.
    “You have asked me that question a number of times, Steven,” Dr. Hadley says. “If you think hard, I'm sure you will remember.”
    Steven concentrates, and slowly the memory surfaces. But before it is completely in his conscious mind, it again vanishes.
    “No,” he says. “I can't remember.”
    Hadley nods and smiles patiently. “We'll go over it one more time,” he says. “Your memories are always there, in your subconscious. Everything you have ever experienced or witnessed is stored in your brain. But the mechanism which calls up memories for most people, bringing them from the subconscious level into the conscious mind, is dysfunctioning in your brain. Although the memories are there, you cannot access them.
    “The device I intend to implant in your cerebral cortex will electronically manipulate that faltering access function. On demand, it will literally shock the memories from your subconscious into your conscious mind.
    Steven nods. The only thing that matters to him is that he will again have his memories.