I awoke into a dream and slowly found my way to the fringes of reality.
Size of a Thought
The morning-after taste of stale wine hung on the trailing edge of each breath as I awoke to a pounding inside my head. The room was black with shadows cast by bright colored lights that lurched through the darkness from neon lights, which flashed over the empty streets of Downtown Prime. I settled my head into my pillow as my left foot fell to the floor, where it encouraged the room to stop spinning. I comforted myself with the knowledge that the floor was underfoot, and the ceiling was up from there. For a moment, I lay calmly in bed and stared at the cool, neon colors that shimmered inside the slow curve of the glass fixture in the middle of the ceiling.
My mind felt confused, as wine-heavy blood diluted its every thought. I strained to lift my hand from my forehead, but it stayed in place. After a few tries, I realized it wasn't my hand. It belonged to someone--who lay next to me and that "someone" had long graceful fingers finished off in gold and precious stones. I was quiet for a moment, hesitant to move, and afraid I might have awoken her. Then I thought, "Should I wake her or just slip out the door?" That was when I noticed we were in my hotel room.
I wasn't up to the polite fumbling-for-words that would take place between us if I woke her, so I lifted her hand from my forehead and placed it in the hollow in my pillow as I crawled from under the covers.
My lungs burned. Evidently, I mingled among a smoke-filled crowd last night because I was not a smoker, and her aroma was alluring, yet I recognized the scent of stale cigarette smoke. It must have been one hell of a party because my head swam, and it must have lasted a day or two judging by the smell, which wafted up from my T-shirt. There were some memories, but they hung tenaciously behind a hazy mist that clouded my mind.
Cool air filled my lungs as I leaned out the window. My head cleared a little, and I began to wonder about the woman in my bed. I wondered where I might have found someone of such obvious prosperity, and beauty -- a high-class woman, who must have left an elegant party and came to my sleazy hotel room in the seediest part of Downtown Prime. Somehow, that made no sense.
I turned back into the darkness of my room, "Hey, you, with the smile on your face. You want me to take you home?" She didn't answer. "Say? What did your Mamma call you when you were a little girl?" I said as I stumbled across the room. "My head is swimming, so I can't get a handle on last night. Please, tell me your name." Still, there was no answer, so I nudged her. "Darling, you okay?"
She was not okay. I figured that out as my head cleared when I felt her vinyl, cold, skin. The lights that flashed into the room glinted from her opened and fixed eyes, which stared straight up, out of a frozen scream. I pulled a chain that dangled from the light above the bed and searched her neck for a pulse. It was obvious. She was dead.
"What the hell you doing here? Where did I find you? And why can't I remember anything about last night?" I searched the room for her handbag. It wasn't there. I reached for the phone but stopped. The police? What would I tell them? I probably appeared as a broken-down bum. After all, I lived in a different hotel every month, and she looked rich. I froze as fear nailed my feet to the floor.
I needed to think. Maybe she carried some identification in her clothes or purse? I found the clothes neatly draped over the back of a chair, folded along the creases. I pulled them apart as I searched for anything that provided a clue--nothing.
I went back to the bed and stripped the covers from her naked body. There was no sign of struggle, no bruises, no blood. There was a pair of glasses on the nightstand. They weren't mine, so they belonged to her. I laid them over her eyes, to see if that image sparked memories. That was when I saw the spot. I used the glasses and magnified the spot that floated on the surface of her eye.
On the edge of her iris, at about six o'clock, I saw a tiny electronic device about the size of a thought. I spat on my finger, touched the meniscus of the drop to the device, and lifted it from her eye. I searched for something to lay it on, so I could get a better look. I found a postcard on the nightstand next to where I found the glasses. It was one of those hotel advertisements with palm trees and a perfect day on the front and a big white blank under the hotel's logo on the back. I laid the tiny wafer inside the blank.
Someone knocked at the door, twice, then three times, four times, and then started pounding. I looked toward the door, and the postcard fell from my hand and settled into the same spot on the dresser. I turned my attention back to the bed and threw the covers over her body. "Yeah?"
"Police! Open up!"
"What's this about?"
"There's been a report of screams coming from this room. Open up now, or we're gonna have to break it down."
"Jesus, give a guy a chance to put his pants on--will ya?" Then I feigned a conversation. "Hey, Sweetheart, it's the law. Put some clothes on." As I pulled my pants on, I grabbed my wallet and pocket change. I rattled the dresser as I leaned against it to balance myself, and a book of stamps fell from the corner of the mirror, where I placed them earlier. I removed one of the stamps and placed it on the postcard, over the chip. I turned and tucked the postcard back under the edge of the lamp that sat on the nightstand.
I crawled out of the open window before I buckled my belt, and sidestepped my way along the ledge, passed a couple of empty, dark windows, toward the corner of the building. Loud voices screamed from behind me, and that turned my attention back to the window I just crawled out. An officer waved his firearm at me and screamed, "Halt! Halt!" I didn't halt. His first shot glanced off the brick above my head. It was a warning shot, but it hit close enough that I thought I could smell the gunpowder in the dust that fell into my hair.
The stubble on my face scrubbed against the cool brick as I turned toward the corner of the building, and searched for my next handhold. A handful of bricks exploded in front of me, and I covered my face. I staggered, and without a steady handhold, almost fell from my perch on the ledge. With shots behind me and explosions in front of me, I had nowhere to go. I froze.
Then a rope caught my attention. It dangled from the hole created by the explosion about a meter in front of me. It was attached to an anchoring device wedged between the broken bricks. I watched as the rope tightened, and its other end disappeared into the shadows across the street from the hotel. A voice rose out of those shadows, "You gonna stand there or come with me?"
I stripped my unfastened belt from my pants and threw it over the rope. I wrapped both ends of the belt tightly around each palm, tested my hold, and fell forward. My stomach lurched into my chest as I slid down the rope and concrete bit into my flesh when I tumbled to a stop on the sidewalk. I ended up on my back, gritted my teeth and stared straight up--again. The stars looked peaceful overhead, and at that moment, I wished I had been lost somewhere behind them.
"Hey, man, you gonna lay there and wait for the cops? I mean, that's okay with me--but I'm getting the hell out of here." A face, covered with acne and stubble bent over me, disintegrated my beautiful dream and robbed me of my peaceful view of the stars.
"Who are you, and how did you know the police were coming to my room? Do you know anything about that dead girl back there?"
"Oh no, man, did Darla lose it? She was a good kid. I told Allison she couldn't handle you. You see we know who you are, Jonah."
"Then you're one up on me, pal. Who the hell are you?"
"My name is Jason. Now, do you want to follow me--or go with them?" He pointed across the street where two police officers ran out of the hotel. They stopped and fired their guns into the air, while they screamed at us. "Halt!"
We ran away from the streetlights, and deeper into the shadows then ducked into a dark alley at the other end of the street. Jason stopped, and while I searched over my shoulder, he pulled the lid from a utility hole and dragged me down it. The smell reminded me of the bathroom at "Mick's Place" and the ooze underfoot almost sucked my shoe off as I walked.
"Jason, you said you knew who I am; so who do you think I am?" I asked.
"You're one of the Six Apostles, aren't you? Allison told us all about you guys. That's just weird, man."
He disturbed a memory from deep inside me, and I felt fear as it crawled into my brain. "I don't know what you're talking about." This "Allison" person knew too much about me, and I knew too little about him--or her. The identities of the Six Apostles were never given to anyone, as far as I knew, so how did they know that I was one of them? "So, who are these Six Apostles?"
He smiled big like he knew something I didn't. "They're the children of Jonah Knightsbridge, well kinda anyway. I mean, they're Cybrids he created. But, according to Allison, they're something more special than any other Cybrid. You know, because he made them from his DNA."
"Yeah, so what's so special about them?" I asked.
A shot echoed through the sewer, and Jason slumped. I reached for him, and his weight pulled both of us to the floor of the sewer. Blood flowed from his chest, and his eyes drained of life before he could do or say anything. I felt for a pulse and couldn't find one. His skin lost its color, and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. Some second sense told me he was dead and urged me to get to my feet, so I trudged into the darkness ahead.
After several forks in the tunnel, and more than a few midget-sized overflow pipes, I stopped. The only sound came from my wheezing gasps for air, my chokes as my lungs finally filled and my heart as it pounded against my eardrums, so I folded up and settled into the ooze, where I tried not to pay attention to the stench. "Who was Allison, and where did he or she find out about the Six Apostles? Who was Jason? And why did he save my butt?"
I sat in that stink and slop, almost in shock and thought about Jason, and what he said. That I remembered the girl in my room, Darla, she was a Cybrid. Cybrids are genetically engineered to accept neural electronic interfaces, and the dot in her eye must have been that type of microcellular-chip. It was a downloading device placed in her eye for Infrared file transfers. That technology would have been slow in Jonah Knightsbridge's time, but since the Revolution, it was considered lightning-fast. She encountered an overload of data when she attempted to download my neural core. The data-surge must have overloaded a neural juncture on the wafer in her eye, and that created a crossover spark that resulted in a current surge. The current surge caused a short-term system shutdown. However, it was the computer virus Jonah Knightsbridge placed in my head, that eventually caused a complete neuron collapse as it loaded during her reboot. That would have been something like an explosion in her brain. At least it was instantaneous, with no simulated pain.
But who sent her? Allison? Where did they get the technology? The government outlawed that kind of technology after the Revolution, and that was a long time ago. Sure, Cybrids were everywhere these days, most of them entertainers or police crime scene analysts. None of them were legal, and all of them guarded like treasure. I searched my memory banks and found no one named "Allison." Although, the past hundred-plus years afforded me plenty of opportunities to lose the memory of someone named Allison. More than a hundred years filled with people I met, while I ran and hid from discovery. Over a hundred years, during which time I carried something, which no one wanted, and waited for the day when it would again become popular. Two hundred years, while I just tried to stay alive.
"Allison," that name stuck in my head. It was familiar. I was sure that I had known someone with that name, but I was too tired to waste energy on unnecessary thoughts. I needed rest, and I needed it now.
I was surprised by my adaptive abilities as I disregarded the slimy feel of the ooze where I laid. I choked on the smell and was scared shitless that someone might break through the dark curtain in front of my eyes, regardless, I found myself able to grab a few winks. As I slept, the hangover eased away and left behind an achy hole in my stomach.
I returned to my hotel, to the "scene of the crime." That was stupid, I guess, but I wanted answers, and nothing else came to mind. Anyway, it was morning, and I sat in the shadows of the alley across the street from the hotel. A constant stream of police in-and-out of the front door remained from the night before. It was a hell of a crowd for a Downtown, sleazy-hotel murder. They must have figured out there was something special about this one. They hated it when a crime involved technology, and that hole in Darla's eye must have had fragments of DNA circuitry hanging out of it.
In this world-against-technology, the only ones with access to the old ways were the police, the outlaws and maybe the underground. I watched as they dragged their technology through the front door of the hotel. Huge, clumsy machines antiquated by the standards of Jonah Knightsbridge's time. Each cumbersome piece of equipment took two men to lug it through the door and would have fit on the head of a pin during his time. I knew that because I had access to his memories--all of his memories. He discovered a process that enabled him to grow DNA circuitry on superconductive ceramic matrices, and that patent made him a wealthy man.
A familiar face slinked through the front door of the hotel, sidestepped policeman's eyes that mauled her as she passed and left a trail of turned heads in her wake. "Baby." She had that "way" about her. Even a man on her arm, pushed away every so often, so he could get a better look. Thick, auburn hair wrapped tightly into braided buns over each ear, her pouty lips, her blue-ice eyes and the taut but fluid flesh of her breasts jiggled as she walked by. These characteristics only accentuated her simple beauty. She liked me because I never drooled on the front of her uniform, and I told her about the places she wanted to go.
She dressed as, Helga, the Swedish maid. All the maids at the Farrington Hotel dressed in meager outfits, which presented a multi-national parade of flesh that attracted the worst type of client. The type of client who may have been on the run for more than a hundred years. The type of client who paid in cash kept quiet, never started trouble and left before the law got too close. She crossed the street in my direction, and I caught her attention as she passed the shadow, under which I stood.
"Hey, Baby. What's going on over there?"
"What?" She jumped when my voice startled her. "Don't you know? They're all over your room and that dead girl you left behind and right now, I should be screaming my lungs out, but you were always so sweet. Did you kill her?"
"No, Baby, I didn't. It's got to do with a long story--"
She lifted her hand and covered my mouth. "I'll listen to your long story later. Right now, we'd better get out of here before those cops wakeup, stop staring at me, and see you. Follow me."
She led me down the alley at my back, and we emerged on a narrow, cobble-stoned street somewhere in the middle of Downtown Prime. I waved down a rickshaw runner on his way to lunch, and we caught a ride toward her flat.
The streets were thick with pedestrians, rickshaws, and cops on horseback. The cops didn't bother me. I kept my eyes opened for the "robes." The "robes" were hooded monks, who constantly spoke into their sleeves and walked on a cloud of air two inches above the ground, through a crowd that parted ahead of them. They were scary. So I kept my face nestled in the curve of Baby's neck like any red-blooded, hormone-filled man would have done. She cupped my head in her hand, breathed in my ear, and that sent a wave of endorphins through me that almost lifted the skin from my ceramic bones.
The smell of garbage permeated the air, and in this part of town, it mingled closely with incense and the scent of sweaty bodies. I knew almost immediately when we turned off the main street because the stink diminished with the size of the crowd. However, we were not near any of the apartment complexes, and Baby hadn't said anything about a detour. "Where we going?" I said as I stood, leaned forward and grabbed the runner by his pigtail.
Baby, shouted, "I asked him to make this stop!" Then she pulled at the back of my trousers, so I settled back into my seat. "But if you don't want to stop, I'll understand."
"No, Baby, I don't want to stop. I'm in big trouble, and if anyone recognizes me from any alerts, there'll be a hell of a commotion. You don't want that any more than I do. Let's go to your place."
"Okay, Jonah, I just thought, well a little foreplay would be nice. But I guess you don't think I'm worth the trouble, and you're--" I quieted her with the cup of my hand when I noticed that the runner stopped in front of a nightclub.
"I think of you as someone special, Baby and I would love to accompany you inside," I explained with a smile.
At least, the place was dark, and a cloud of smoke lingered at head height, so no one saw my face, and the floor show started as we walked in, so all eyes were on the stage. Then the door opened again and released a gulp of smoke from the room. The air around me cleared some, so I ducked and looked for cover. "Here's a table, Baby. You take a seat. I'll find us a drink."
I skirted the crowd until I came close to the bar. It was only accessible through a couple of rows of tables, so I passed through the huddled smoke covered tables while whiffs of powerful hallucinogens surged through my body. My head lightened. Colors sprayed across the darkness and glistened in the glasses on the tables and the mirrors on the walls. The room expanded and contracted. Before I reached the bar, I leaned against the wall, stared into my palms, and struggled, then remembered where I was going.
"Hey, friend, you look like you must've walked past the wrong table. Here, sniff this. It'll clear your head."
The stranger handed me a tube-like object with a hole in one end. My brain was too befuddled to question him, so I simply stuck the thing in near my nostril and sniffed. The colors drained away, and the room squared itself. "Thanks, Buddy. You got a name?"
"Sure. Elmo. You?"
"Jonah, but just call me Jo."
Elmo's appearance was a little scruffy. My height, with red whiskers that exploded straight out from his face and a ponytail drawn so tight that the scalp on top of his head shined through. The only observable facial features were a pair of sapphire blue eyes and a cauliflower nose.
"Can I buy you a drink, Elmo?"
"Thought you'd never ask."
We went to the bar. He ordered a Boiler Maker. I ordered a Shirley Temple and a Vodka Martini, then he followed me back to our table. The girl on the stage, with her legs crossed, floated in mid-air, blindfolded. Her muscular assistant took questions from the audience, and she answered them without fail.
"How does she do that?" Baby asked.
Elmo took a deep gulp of his beer, swallowed the contents of the shot glass at the bottom and about half of the contents of the mug. "Ahhhh! That's easy. She's a Cybrid."
"A Cybrid? Aren't they part human and part wires or something? I've heard of them, but I've never actually seen one."
"Don't be too sure about that, beautiful. Cybrids are everywhere. They can be super executives, magicians, psychic sideshows girls who float in the air by utilizing superconductive magnetic wave manipulation. Her assistant asks the questions, while she searches her records, gathered from membership applications to joints like this. And they're not wired. At least, not in the way you're thinking of wires. Not like the radios you have in your house or the telephones. They have implants, created by growing neural tissue on ceramic matrices, usually a ceramic skeletal structure. The neural tissue serves to connect circuits between their cybernetic nervous system and a tiny superconductor-powered, microcomputer connected to a massive database via Infrared transmissions through a tiny chip, usually located in the eye or on the forehead."
Baby's eyes widened and grew blank as Elmo spoke. Those eyes held a mixture of fear, disbelief, and lack of understanding that left behind an unbroken silence. I liked this character, so I tried to hush the Boiler Maker inside him, which controlled his mouth. "Don't you think you should be careful about what you say? I mean, there is a law prohibiting the study or use of technology, and you sound like you've been breaking that law with a serious prejudice."
"Yeah, but I do it legal. I used to work as a technician for the cops."
"Uh-huh. The cops don't like anyone who enjoys learning as much as I do. It seems I understood too much about the old ways. So they banned me from the data centers for life." Elmo leaned closer to me and whispered. "But I've learned twenty-fold out here in the streets. These outlawed Cybrids need someone to repair them every once-and-a-while, and I've learned to make a good living at it." He sat back straight in his chair and waved for a waitress. "The next round's on me."
Elmo nearly passed out, but some part of him hung on to consciousness. He had the constitution of a man twice his size, either that or buckets where his ass-cheeks once were. I tried to get some more information out of him about the Cybrid underground, but he only smiled and shook his finger in front of my face. "I'm no dummy. If I tell you, then you'll try to take all my business away. No thanks, pal." Then he turned and screamed something rude at the girl on stage.
If I could get into the Cybrid underground, I might be able to find out something about the dead girl in my room and maybe a little about this Allison person. I figured Elmo might be the key to gaining acceptance among them, so I decided to take him with us to Baby's place.
We arrived at Baby's apartment with Elmo slumped over the back end of the rickshaw, shoulders and arms hung down the outside, and his butt straight up in the air. Baby huddled between us with her hand cupped over the side of her face. She shielded her eyes from the sight of Elmo's backside.
I pulled Elmo out of the rickshaw, dragged him and leaned him against the wall of Baby's apartment, then I looked up and down the street. Thankfully, her apartment was on the first floor, and the neighborhood didn't contradict the impression made by a drooling-drunk passed out with his back wedged under the apartment's window, and his legs stretched over the sidewalk. People just stepped around him, and some stepped over his unconscious body without breaking stride.
Baby went ahead, while I retrieved Elmo, and she unlocked her front door. I saw her as she stepped through the threshold, and I dropped Elmo's unconscious form in the yard, then started toward the door behind her. As I stepped inside, the phone rang for the second or third time, so I picked it up and watched Baby's back fade into a dark hallway. "A1, where were you this morning? Do you know that we lost Darla last night? A1, are you there?" I stayed quiet, and the phone suddenly buzzed with a dial tone.
I wondered if that was a wrong number. If not, it was sure cryptic. "A1?" It sounded like a code name in a spy movie. My eyes followed the top of the table to where the base of the phone sat, and I placed the receiver back into its saddle. My vision drifted, then mindlessly settled on a framed picture of Baby in a lab coat. She smiled big as she posed next to a wall of wide-screen computer monitors, the type of monitor outlawed after the Revolution. A handwritten inscription read, "To A.K. my wonderful Daughter, with love," it was signed at the bottom, "J.K.(Dad)."
My eyes slowly drifted back up to her image, while my mind stirred in the background. It was her, without all the makeup and a different hairdo, maybe a little younger. It was Baby. My brain churned with a storm of memories, visions; it was Baby and--it was Allison Knightsbridge, Jonah Knightsbridge's daughter.
When I first saw her as she cleaned rooms in that seedy hotel, I thought there was something familiar about her. But I thought it was the familiarity of an extremely beautiful woman. Someone, every guy wanted to know up close, in arm's reach. The makeup changed her appearance slightly, made her more exotic, more voluptuous if that was possible. She looked much younger than the Allison Knightsbridge I remembered from Jonah's laboratory. That woman looked to be in her early forties, maybe late thirties, still beautiful, but in a more wholesome, mature way. No makeup, hair draped over her shoulders. She always looked down, into a microscope or a monitor or a test tube. That woman looked somewhat plain, but in many ways, just as alluring. The only problem was that woman would be over one hundred years old now, not twenty-five and gorgeous.
"What do you have on your mind, handsome?" A sultry voice breathed over my shoulder and tickled the back of my ear. I turned into her warm body, finding myself nose-to-nose with Baby. She pulled me close. Our faces came together, her mouth opened to mine. I felt cool metal as it pressed into my stomach, through my shirt. My eyes drifted down her naked body. She held a pistol, pointed at my midsection. There was a loud noise, and then a bright light slammed into my vision. It slowly transformed from a searing light into a warm, soothing light. A light that comfortably washed over me in silence, and in a calm manner. I floated for a moment and felt warm, tranquil, content. A strange, yet not at all alarming, thought entered my mind. "Is this what it's like to die?" Everything faded.
"Jonah is dead, long live Jonah."