Better Than Memory
Fulton braced himself for torture.
The military police kept him and Emily together in a holding cell. For furnishings they had a broken toilet and bunked metal beds. No mattresses, just bare wire mesh.
A single MP stood guard outside. He smoked continuously. As he approached the end of one cigarette he set a second between his lips and lit it. Not a moment went by where he wasn’t sucking down nicotine. As he finished each cigarette he ground the butt out beneath his boot heel. The pile accumulating at his feet looked a bit like flattened shell casings.
From time to time men came by to gawk at Emily.
They stared openly, but remained careful to keep plenty of room between themselves and the bars. Not unlike children admiring an exotic animal in a zoo. Rationally, cognitively, they knew they were safe. Yet this animal had such a reputation for brutality they couldn’t help but wonder whether the cell would actually hold up in a crisis.
It didn’t seem to bother Emily. She sat on the edge of the lower bunk with her face in her hands.
“How is this place on prisoners’ rights?” Fulton asked. He lay on his back on the top bunk, tracing cracks in the concrete with his eyes.
Emily laughed a laugh that made Fulton think of marbles striking pavement. “Depends on the prison,” she said.
“One like this, say.”
“They do general beatings. They break fingers. They may put cigarettes out on you, unless prices go up or the Finance Ministry is threatening to take away the tobacco subsidy. Then they won’t waste them of torture.”
“You know I don’t think I’d stand up under torture.” Fulton figured he might as well come right out and say it. Coping with physical discomfort had never been one of his strengths. A man who found wet socks unbearable was hardly cut out for the depravity of a third-world prison.
“Try meditating,” Emily said.
Fulton rolled his head to left so he could actually see her through the cot’s wire mesh. She hadn’t moved. Just stared at her hands.
“Is that your secret?”
Emily didn’t answer.
“May I raise a practical question? Since we seem to have the time?”
“Why did you want to go after Jefe? Better yet, what possessed you to do business with a man like that in the first place? It all comes off a bit like The Quest for Saddam’s Nukes, if you know what I mean.”
Fulton tired of watching her. He rolled his head back to face the ceiling and flipped on his lens. Unbelievably, the prison had network coverage. Probably leakage from the administrative wing. Too weak for any heavy lifting, but a minor miracle its own right.
Fortunately he had Reese for amusement. Here, lying in this cell, awaiting his fate, he finally had a chance to do the job they’d paid him to do in the first place.
Better than memory, the Datadyne adds claimed.
A chip did not forget. The images, sounds and sensations it recorded did not degrade with time. Ironically it was the adult entertainment industry that pushed the technology hardest, in the early days at least. Tech-savvy porn directors had long dreamed of fully-interactive skin flicks. They’d gotten halfway there with the old interactive DVD features that let you choose from a menu tree of prerecorded positions and actions, from foreplay down through the money shot. The key feature the old DVDs lacked was tactile feedback. A chipset provided unmediated access to a person’s full range of physiological responses. One porn maven had described it to Fulton thusly: with one of these rigs you don’t have to imagine Lana Lipstick licking your shaft, you’ll actually feel her tongue on your balls.
Indeed, “Advanced Market Penetration: Adoption of augmented systems within the adult film industry,” was one of the livelier papers Fulton ever presented.
He went back into the Zone, back to Reese’s hotel.
Again the Claire-Spider welcomed him.
Again she led him to the corridor, where they traveled in place for a while before stopping outside the door to room 13, when it cracked open and cast a familiar sliver of light into the corridor.
Inside, Reese lay slumped over his desk. Dead. Just like his suicide, but different in important details. There was nothing on the note and the gun wasn’t the right kind. It didn’t look like any gun Fulton had ever seen (not that he knew anything about guns in the first place). Really it was a placeholder – a generic gun where a gun was required. Reese might not even have owned the real gun when he coded up the app. This might have been a fantasy suicide, or a trial suicide — an idealized version of the final production.
How long had he spent coding this?
How long had he lived with absolute certainty he would press some gun to his temple and splatter his brains all over a motel desk?
Fulton sat down on the edge of the bed. He rubbed at his chin.
The real Claire had blamed herself for Reese’s death. Fulton remembered her crying at the funeral (it was a small funeral), mascara running down her cheeks in spidery black tendrils, hiccuping softly to herself. She made a show of forgiving him, whispering sweet nothings with a hand on the edge of his coffin. Awkward enough Fulton actually looked away. Reese didn’t give a damn about Claire’s feelings. He certainly wouldn’t have felt any need to beseech her for forgiveness. Even then the joke was on Claire. This app was proof.
Fulton clapped his hands.
On the desk Reese twitched. He lifted his head and turned it slowly till he faced Fulton. He ported an ashen complexion and a bullet hole in the center of his forehead (not quite the right spot, as it happened). He’d turned himself into a ghoul from an old black and white horror film, a ghost made up in greasepaint with red corn syrup trickling from a wound in the center of his forehead. A nod to old horror flicks: Carnival of Souls, Night of the Living Dead, etc.
This, Fulton understood, was Reese’s idea of a joke.
It was Reese’s voice, exactly as Fulton remembered it. Gravelly from the accumulated wear of, booze, cigarettes and horse tranquilizers.
The rational part of Fulton’s brain knew that this was just a recording. Reese wasn’t really speaking. Not in the present, not off the top of his head and certainly not to him specifically.
Yet still Fulton felt as if someone punched him in the stomach, not with a flesh and blood fist but one carved out of lead. His jaw went slack. He worked it up and down a few times while struggling to regain his composure. He disliked surprises, almost as much as he disliked wet socks.
Reese, of course, remained unperturbed. “Thanks for dropping by. I was getting a bit lonely, truth be told, counting off the seconds with my brains trickling out of my head. Not to upset you or anything.” He said it that mischievous hint of a smile that made it perfectly clear that was exactly how he intended the viewer to feel. “While you’re here there’s something I’d like to show you.”
He swept a hand toward the wall behind him. The wall collapsed backward. Behind it lay a star field.
“The cosmos,” Reese said, putting on his best Carl Sagan voice. “Fancy a stroll?”