|THE CHILD OF THE OBJECT by JW Baker|
The drive back was certainly a lot quieter. Chren concentrated on the scenery, trying to see if he could detect signs of Kuela nests—a skill Xhaja had taught him. Look for what doesn’t seem right in the forest, she’d said, at that moment, he didn’t feel right in the forest.
“Puzzo’s a cracker barrel activist,” Steinbeck explained amicably. “Wanted independence but now he’s got it he don’t have the first clue on how this place should be runnin’.”
He took a detour down a wider path. This one had a few Kuela hunters, beating away at the mushrooms, trying to disturb them from their nests. He had told Steiny everything He was perhaps most shocked about his sister’s pregnancy.
“Colonial Union an’ Earth are mighty clever, cuttin’ us off an’ callin’ courtesy.”
They took another detour.
“Bad news for radicals like Puzzo; realisin’ that what they wanted was a big ol’ pile a crap.”
They were at the outskirts of the city now. It was a sudden cut off from the rural and rustic to the industrial and the corporate.
“An’ yet, you are gonna sell your own son to him.”
The engine cut out and Steinbeck leaned in close, an expression not to dissimilar from the one he wore when he’d made his kill.
“You must be really in the red or be a goddamn pussy,”
Chren fumbled for the palm lock but couldn’t move it was like a scene out of one of those ancient horror flicks.
‘It’s hard for a Halfl—”
‘Don’t use that word.”
Steinbeck’s hand was on his shoulder now, half paternally half like he was about to twist his arm out of socket.
“You say Puzzo wants to open the Object and use your kid?”
He climbed out of the car and opened the passenger door, taking out his gun.
“Well, I say we see what an’ how the boy does it before Puzzo gets a look in.”
Steinbeck gestured his gun toward Chren. For the second time in as many days, he tasted vomit and felt his bowels turn to water. That was what it came down to in the end; people bigger than you with bigger guns telling you to do things. Steinbeck F Milton may have genetically altered musculature and more retrovirals than a state hospital swimming around his blood but in the end he just wanted to protect his family and hunt. You couldn’t breed out those instincts, biologically advanced, genetically engineered ‘Nu-Man’ or not.
“We’re going to find Xhaja and we’re going open the Object.”
From the highest viewpoint, the city wasn’t a city at all but a circuit board with people and vehicles coursing through it instead of electricity. This was one of the corporate blocks, a sort of Ethernet ‘switching station’; hundreds of floors of servers and hard-drives, fibre optic wire coiling around like a technological simulacra of the mushroom forest. Millions of peoples’ thoughts were floating in the data around him, at meetings like the one he’d had with Puzzo, playing games or just hanging out. One of the oldest buildings in the city was built right underneath the Object; interesting, Chren supposed, that the first thing the early colonists had thought about was getting good Wi-Fi. Steinbeck’s ‘friends’ were a strange collection of people, mostly Nu-Men of course, with a couple of off-worlders and one severely ‘roided Cyber with a carapace of burnished steel and vein cables bulging out of tree trunk arms. Mostly successful corporate hipster types with fancy pinstripe robes and designer boots. The types who were permanently dissatisfied with everything and backed whatever political movement or ideology was ‘in’ at the time. The rest were mercenaries from elsewhere in the Gliese system, all bullet belts, bandoliers and bandanas, the Cyber could have been their leader but he couldn’t be sure.
“Hellova’ crowd,” Chren observed grimly, fishing in his pocket for cigarettes and remembering he had smoked the last one on what felt like a very long time ago.
“Not to many people taken a likin’ to the government,” Steinbeck told him, elbows resting on the graphene-glass wall which skirted the tower at waist height—or, for Steinbeck, near knee height.
“An as you can imagine Puzzo ain’t won over too many friends”
He’d changed from his farmer’s work clothes into a rather funerary black one piece suit. Steinbeck wasn’t as provincial as he projected himself to be and had money and connections in places Chren could only guess at.
“What the Object is,” grunted the Cyber, his throat constricted by ropes of bio cabling, “will give this new Gov’ment the boot,”
He sounded as stupid as he looked. If Puzzo was a ‘cracker barrel activist’, Chren thought bitterly, then this motley collection were a lot less. Steinbeck had soon spirited him away into the corporate enclave of the city centre, to a luxury yacht night club on the lake where the group had materialized out of the throng of drunk, stoned patrons. Where the appropriate course of action was quickly decided: Get Chren and Xhaja to the Object; hook her up to some new communications device and see what happened. What happened didn’t seem to important just as long as they fucked over Puzzo, maybe selling him information on the object or letting him invest in a fool hardly venture. That had to know what Puzzo knew before he knew it.
“We’ve had probes ‘n’ every kinda of wave an’ beam bouncin’ round of there.”
He chucked the bottle over the side. Chren briefly wondered if, due to the Coriolis Effect, it would smash a window and take out one of the servers.
“They all says there is somethin’ goin’ on in there that ain’t a natural phenomenon. You know the old Astronomers of Earth used to look at Pulsars and think that they were alien radio programs.”
Chren saw another police helicopter, its search light snooping lazily into the windows of the opposite slum spire, he could just make out the minute shapes of a couple in a barren living room, jacked in and unmoving.
“You’ve never been up close to it.” Steinbeck gave a curious half smile which certainly betrayed that he wasn’t just the corn-fed farmer who liked the occasional hunt and good Sunday roast.
Xhaja appeared at the door of the central elevator, flanked by two very well dressed thugs in tailed coats and gold braided shirt-tunics. He hadn’t contacted her since before meeting up with Steinbeck. He couldn’t think what to say: Tell her he’d sold her son off to a gangster and that he was a maudlin coward for not telling Puzzo where to shove it? She ran and embraced him. She felt just as warm and soft as when he’d left her, her hair still smelling of cherry mint.
“Chren, Jesus, I’ve been worried.”
She lifted him of his feet and buried her face in his shoulder “You’ve been gone all day an—”
“Please, we’re here about your son, Xhaja,” Steinbeck interrupted.
Xhaja broke away from her hug and fixed him with an unreadable look.
“Steiny, an I thought you’d given up the activist game,”
Steinbeck laughed, it sounded surprisingly natural.
“Oh, this is strictly business.”
Two of the brand-name dressed men began strapping a metal box around her belly with thick leather straps. The box was perhaps large enough for Chren to fit his head inside and had a glass window at the front, in which could be view a micro world of hair fine fibre optics and blinking diodes and circuitry, a cloth covered cable ran out of the box like an umbilical cord.
“Pull too tight an’ you’ll have it rested up your ass,” Xhaja told them curtly, her skin flushed a darker blue in anger.
“Steinbeck explained t—”
“Yeah, he explained, what the hell he hopes to get out of it I don’t know.”
The two men checked the box strapped next to their unborn son with complicated looking probes. From Chren’s angle they looked like people listening for the baby’s heartbeat. Mercifully Steinbeck had neglected to mention Puzzo but he supposed Xhaja had pieced it all together. She was a smart girl, brilliant in fact. The meeting, his sudden rush to meet with Steinbeck, her sudden summons, none of that could be glossed over as coincidence.
“This is a terrible baby shower,” she smirked as the guys finished playing with the box.
“You always indulged my scientific curiosity when we were little,” Steinbeck smiled wistfully.
“Let me do experiments on you.”
Chren wasn’t sure he liked the man’s tone. Xhaja shot him a filthy look.
“I want a cut,” she stated plainly,
“I know whatever’ll happen people will pay for recordin’s, market for everything these days.”
The technicians—Chren could only assume they were technicians, these people didn’t look like they had any official roles, jobs or title—finished their work.
“What do you hope will happen?” she asked, loosening the straps.
“Ideally nothing, so it really screws Puzzo over.”
Steinbeck flipped out a palmtop, it was see through and without any brand name—the ultimate status symbol.
“But if we’re right, an’ I make a livin’ outa guessin’ right,”
Steinbeck opened a program on his palmtop and popped out a Bluetooth from its side.
“The object’ll just be full t’brim with all sorts of technological goodies,”
He slipped the Bluetooth on, completing his transformation from farmer to yuppie.
“An’ it looks like its signallin’ for someone like what’s inside you.”
“Well I did want my boy to be special.”
She sounded bitter. He couldn’t look her in the eye.
“At least Puzzo is paying you well.”
“This could have sat for years,” Chren felt defensive, “one day after soccer practice, hey let’s go a look at the Obj-,”
Her look silenced him.
“Enough with the domestics.”
Steinbeck waved them into the little jet car he’d brought up with them, it was modestly priced 3D print, just big enough for four with a thorium powered jet engine at its rear. Open-roofed so they could get as close as possible to the Objects underside. They climbed in, the seats un-upholstered.
“I’ve never liked heights.”
Xhaja put out her hand and Chren held, she normally just travelled by monorail. They rose a dozen or so feet. How odd they all looked, Chren thought as the vehicle rose above them, the light particularly catching the Cyber’s chrome head. They were beneath the Object. Steinbeck was so tall his coppery mop of hair brushed against it. Gradually it began to stand on ends and separate out into a forest of golden wire, mad scientist spikes, styled by the static electricity. Chren felt his own hair tingle and the fine hairs of his hand and arm prickle; it wasn’t an unpleasant sensation. The air was suddenly hot and dank like a warm summer’s day in a glass room with no windows and Chren nearly gagged on the eye watering flavour of ammonia.
“Produces this stuff naturally,” Steinbeck explained, connected his blue tooth ear piece to the Object—a doctor putting his stethoscope to an expecting mother. He connected it to his palmtop and the palmtop connected to the box on Xhaja’s belly. They were all neatly joined up by wires and software bridges, except Chren. Chren wasn’t connected at all. The Object was totally unreflective, black and drinking in the light. It was so black, smooth and dense that it seemed unreal, cut from a richer swatch of reality. Even the lights of the city didn’t shine upon it.
“Different waves at different intensities, so there is somethin’ in there that produces ‘lectricity and heat.”
Steinbeck rapped the Object as though hoping for a response.
“Get on with it,” Xhaja snapped, hugging her body against the cold.
That was once my job, Chren thought sadly.
Without another word he took the cable that was strapped to Xhaja and put its end—which resembled a tiny three-toed claw—and stuck it on the Object.
A noise which wasn’t a noise.
Chren was warm and comfortable. Thing where peaceful and relaxed, the world was smaller now and it moved fluidly around him. Though he couldn’t see, he knew all was right. His thoughts were few but generally an aura of happiness pervaded him. Yes, happy, warm and safe.
A noise which could have been screaming.
“We have to get out of system,” Chren concluded, sitting in the hospital corridor, trying to take in a news download. All he could get out of it was a general feeling of chaos and disorder, governor urging for calm.
“I’m not leaving because of him,” Xhaja said flatly, she was trying to drink a cup of stale, bitter coffee.
“What will it be like when he’s born?” Chren exclaimed, watching a muted video of a rioting crowd on a luxury nightclub yacht, bodies falling over the side, tear gas creating a new atmosphere.
“He’ll be our son.”
Xhaja threw her coffee to the floor and got up to stare out the window. It was a state-run hospital, white, sterile but not unwelcoming. Dr Fallow came out of the screening room, some print outs of X-rays and cat scans in his arm.
“If I may?” he smiled, a small bespectacled man with kind welcoming features and a neat fistful of beard. A Saudi immigrant all the way from Earth, whose glasses were an affectation, Chren suspected, used to make patients feel more at ease. He bustled them into his office and set down the CAT scans and X-rays on the grand Blackwood desk—another affectation he probably used to make himself feel more professional.
“Your son’s brain has a deep neuro-electrical connection to the Object—”
“Spare me your medical gibber gabber doc,” Xhaja sighed tiredly.
“For a single moment, he transmitted his thoughts across the entire continent, from where you were to Eastport and Fishtown in the east. We’re even getting reports of people hearing them on the polar cities.”
This clean cut professional, even he’d experienced it, Chren thought, with his designer leather and foreign made furniture, he too had been like an unborn baby for two minutes, unable to conceptualize of anything but utero life.
“I felt it, for a moment I thought I was him, inside of me.”
Xhaja still looked tired and pale from the ordeal, her skin the colour of unclouded sky. She touched where there son lay, sleeping in his warm gelatinous bed, of which they had all momentarily experienced.
“Matroyoshka,” she murmured faintly.
“The noosphere was suddenly swamped by the thoughts of an unborn child. He had some ability to interpret brainwaves; the enlarged cranium with a highly developed neuro-cortex. But this was something more, actually projecting brainwaves onto others, a sort of...second brain has developed.”
“Because of the Object.”
Chren didn’t need a medical answer or a scientific explanation, Steinbeck had attached the cable and for a few minutes he had been inside the womb.
“The oscillating of neural transference across an unthinkable distance, bouncing from person to person like Wi-Fi in a matter of seconds, it’s incredible.”
He sounded excited but Chren didn’t care about the science. He felt tired, drained and dried out. The city had once felt so homily and familiar to him was becoming an alien place of politicals, religious zealots and gangsters. He wanted out, Earth maybe, one of the frontier worlds looked more likely, Groombridge or Leonis, the further the better.
“And my son is unharmed?”
Xhaja looked calm but Chren could read her enough to know she was rotting inside from panic. For all his bedside manner Dr Fallow didn’t pick up on this and instead sifted through the X-rays and scans.
“His brain activity is beyond anything I’ve ever measured but yes, healthy and...well, not normal but healthy.”
The ‘second brain’ on the scan looked nothing more than white misty lines on a grey-black background, chiaroscuro post-modern photographs which represented existentialist dilemma or god or some such bullshit. These were not the baby photos he had hoped to see of his son.
“From what we understand, the Object has been waiting for someone with the right type of brainwave to come along”
Dr Fallow showed them another rendering of their son’s brain.
“Now it has planted the second brain, medically this all unheard of, but of great interest to myself and other...invested parties,”
Doctor Fallow didn’t noticed Xhaja’s cold stare. After some more medical bobbins and chat about ECC’S, neuro-electrical impulses and hyper-conductive neurons that Chren didn’t care about nor understand, they were transferred to a luxurious room in the Neonatal ward. They didn’t speak or even look at each other but still, in the plushy double bed they found themselves curled up against one another asleep, warm and safe.
Darkness. Not comfortable warm darkness like he’d experienced but black, stifling darkness. The smell of diesel fuel and sweat.
“Chren are we awake?”
The voice was familiar, plummy and confident and not entirely unkind.
The bag was whipped off his head and he found himself staring into a pair of squinting albino eyes, blood red pupils in contrast with milky, blemish less skin. So close, the woman was nearly kissing him. She pulled away.
“Hope you enjoyed your little nap,” she crooned in Puzzo’s voice, “you’ve had such a busy time,”
Chren blinked away the rheum. He was in a small boxy room, sterile and beige, like a hospital. Steinbeck was lying in a corner, his hands secured behind his back and wearing a similar black sack over his head. Doctor Fallow was next to him, looking at the women nervously and fiddling with his glasses.
“So I hear the opening went well,” she remarked conversationally in her odd male voice.
“Oh, this is one of my back up bodies,” she giggled and glided over to Steinbeck, giving him an energetic kick to the ribs.
“I like being a guy mostly but IRL this is the best body,” she dragged Steinbeck’s limp form over to a hermetically sealed door.
“Had the vocal chords tightened and everything, closest to the original me I like to get,”
She giggled again and the door hissed open. Nothing but sky and the cold rush of air.
“The Objects gone,” Chren heard himself say faintly. Good god where was Xhaja?
“It didn’t even open.”
He closed his eyes and hoped everything would vanish to darkness again, maybe even go back to the womb.
“It opened...in a sense,”
The Doctor suggested, blowing on his glasses and wiping them with his jacket. Chren was surprised to find he no longer felt ill or particularly scared. He stood up shakily, his hand restraints making the movement awkward.
“What the hell is going on?”
Puzzo, or at least the middle aged albino women that was the real Puzzo laughed again and dangled Steinbeck’s body over the lip of the door, clutching his waist with strangely muscled arms.
“I’m sure you thought you’d get your money’s worth out of me,” Steinbeck was gone, body slipping from the women’s arm. “Good thing I have some friends in the health department, eh, Doctor?”
The Doctor nodded enthusiastically, accidentally shattering the lens he had been cleaning.
“I felt it too,” she said severely, helping Chren over to the door. Chren wondered idly if he could push her out. The air was hard to breathe and Chren’s throat was red raw, each breath an effort; he wouldn’t have minded asphyxiation.
“I was inside Xhaja,” she laughed. It was definitely Puzzo’s laugh, deep, plummy and warm. Chren looked down. They were at the summit of the dome. Outside in the thin, oxygen poor atmosphere, the city was lost beneath a layer of feathery cloud, beyond that the mushroom forest a yellowed sheet of parchment amongst the grey pumice of the mountain. Perhaps a service elevator for the dome, Chren thought, or a private car for Puzzo and company to chuck bodies out of? He found himself smiling at the idea.
“You see, now we know what the Object is.”
Chren felt a hand on his shoulder but shrugged it off. Steinbeck was a faint red streak along the surface of the dome. The throat was truly hurting now and breath was short and laborious.
“We have a little proposition for you,”
Chren was proud of his son, he took after Xhaja in looks, broad and with dark, luscious hair. He had some of his dad’s awkwardness too, he supposed, standing stiff and uncomfortable in his gold lame robes, leaning on his staff like an old man’s walking stick. He had something Chren knew he had never quite had, presence, he held up his hand and the crowd was silent. He smiled at the boy but his son didn’t even look at him.
“I am here to bring a message,” he said calmly, the sentence being transmitted across every network and frequency possible. The whole of Gliese, the whole civilization was listening.
“The Object would like certain things to be known.”
Chren felt a swelling in his chest and nodded at Puzzo whom sat beneath him, wearing his albino body. Puzzo raised her thumb. She was surrounded by a gaggle of Earth bureaucrats and was dressed almost as elaborately as Chren’s son. She sipped a glass of wine and straightened her mitre.
“The Object is indeed alive.”
He waited for his words to take effect. Xhaja sat beside him; ‘The Mother’ resplendent in silver and white, smiling up at her son.
“It is, in our base understanding, an egg; part of a much greater, more unknowable form of life.”
He clutched at the lectern; he had the crowd rapt. Earthmen, Numen, Oldmen, they were all there, all waiting to hear the mystery of the Object.
“We live in the shadows of beings greater than we could imagine, squabbling over this and that and who’s in charge of whom. We have forgotten how far we are from our original home. We are in an alien land, the intelligences that gave birth to the Object have allowed me this small insight. I am the first of a whole new kind of person, beyond the old man, beyond the Numan, I am the child of the Object and I wish to bring you a message of peace and understanding, the possibility of a better tomorrow...”
Chren listened to the speech, thumbing his rosary beads and began to pray, though he knew nobody was going to answer.