Check out Jamil Nasir’s Tunnel Out of Death, out on May 7:
Heath Ransom, former police psychic turned machine-enhanced “endovoyant” private investigator, is hired to find the consciousness of the rich and comatose Margaret Biel and return it to her body. Tracking her through the etheric world, he comes upon a strange and terrifying object that appears to be a tear in the very fabric of reality. He falls into it—and into an astonishing metaphysical shadow-play.
For Margaret is a pawn in a war between secret, ruthless government agencies and a nonhuman entity known only as “Amphibian.” Their battlefield is a multi-level reality unlike anything humankind has ever imagined. When Heath learns to move back and forth between two different versions of his life, and begins to realize that everyone around him may be a super-realistic android, that is only the beginning of a wholesale deconstruction of reality that threatens more than his sanity….
Ransom International’s conference room was upstairs in the 1930s mansion that Heath Ransom used as both home and office. It had an antique cherry-wood table, an ambience system that was currently pumping out the invigorating air of a mountain pine forest, and remote conferencing lenses in the ceiling. Unfortunately today the lenses were dark: instead of a hologram, the actual physical body of a young man continued down past the surface of the table and pressed heavily into one of the conference chairs, which made slight sounds when he moved. Particularly unfortunate because the young man—a large, handsome, impatient person whose business card said “Dr. Eugene Denmark, President and CEO of GeneMark LLC”—had an unusually disturbing neural-field leakage, full of apprehension and grim determination, as if whatever business deal he wanted to propose to Ransom International was a matter of life and death.
Field leakage was a muted background murmur that Ransom heard around people, like a low-voiced discussion going on in the next room. He had bought this house to minimize such distractions: the spacious grounds that separated it from the street and neighbors kept it quiet enough for him to conduct his endovoyant investigations business, and relax when he wasn’t working. His neurological bug/ feature also made it tricky to choose employees: like Charles Tobin, the small, elegant man sitting next to him, they had to be both competent and benign—a less common combination than you might hope.
Tobin, well aware of his boss’s sensitivities, was taking the brunt of the meeting, and Ransom had gratefully allowed his attention to wander. Just now he was discreetly watching out the window as a retro-style hippie minibus passed down Anglia Street in the distance beyond his lawn and autumncolored trees, meter-high letters on its side scrolling out the message reap what you sow. The current mania for religions had brought out amateur preachers all over the country. Not only that; more and more of his clients nowadays wanted religion-related services, like proving doctrinal fraud or locating the resting places of saints. An unpleasant feeling came over Ransom; he disliked that sort of work, which presumed he was some kind of witch doctor—
The unpleasant feeling grew stronger, and with a start Ransom realized that it had not come from the thought of his religious clients at all. Rather, his guest’s field leakage had suddenly taken on a grating tone, and in some confusion Ransom realized that the man was staring at him.
He tried to take in what Denmark was saying. “—isolating Class One humans for long periods in a specific nervegrowth medium stimulates unusual development of the medulla, and consequently of the telepathic and clairvoyant faculties. We theorize that the enforced sensory and social deprivation stimulates activation of the telepathic areas to overcome the isolation. Then, once the subject emerges from the tank, you have a ready-made telepath or clairvoyant.”
“Wait a minute,” Ransom said, now roused completely. “Is this some kind of government research? The NGF tanks you’re talking about are USAdministration military, aren’t they?”
Denmark’s eyes went vacant for a second, as they had every time Ransom had talked during the meeting. Of course, one of the few reasons anyone would ask for a physical meeting nowadays was to sneak snoop gadgets into the venue, and RI observed the usual business protocol of ignoring such things if they weren’t too intrusive. On the other hand, business protocol also prescribed that the wired party keep his surveillance subtle. Did this Denmark really think he was going to close a deal by making a bug-eyed display of peeping all over Ransom’s somatic indicators during their talk?
Denmark’s attention came back. “Mr. Ransom, I can assure you that there are no legal or national security strictures barring GeneMark from selling this technology, or you from buying it.”
The sentence came out smoothly, but Denmark’s background murmur had changed. The man wasn’t exactly lying, but he was holding something back. This made Ransom uneasy. NGF tanks turning out ready-made telepaths would have been huge news in the endovid detective community, but he had heard nothing about it. Could Denmark be a federal agent? USAdmin made an enormous income from industrial espionage, using spy technology that was illegal for nongovernment entities to possess; but it was rumored to still be light on endovid talent. Catching a prominent investigator breaking federal law—by trying to buy top-secret government technology, for example—might be a good way of blackmailing him into working for them.
Tobin’s field also expressed unease. He used his own smooth voice: “Frankly, Dr. Denmark, we would normally consider such a radically new technology only if it came from one of the established firms in the field. I for one have not had the pleasure of dealing with GeneMark previously.”
“GeneMark is a start-up formed specifically to market this technology.”
“I would think that most start-ups couldn’t afford the FDA licensing costs. Has FDA cleared you to do Phase Two studies?”
“Ah, right, let me explain,” said Denmark, smiling. There was a slight stiffness about his face, Ransom thought, as if he had recently had some cheap plastic surgery, like a mobster. Or maybe the man’s bad vibes were making him imagine it. “Your concern is understandable, but this technology is actually perfect for a start-up like GeneMark. Under FDA’s regulations, gene-expression modifications taking place strictly in response to environmental factors are presumptively Class One. That means that the burden of any testing would be on a party trying to prove that our medulla enhancements are not Class One.”
“And are they Class One?” Tobin asked.
“We believe so, yes.”
Again the murmur from Denmark’s etheric “other room” underwent a change. There was an iceberg somewhere under the tip the man was showing. But even if there hadn’t been, as far as Ransom was concerned the meeting was over. Nowadays even some Class Two mutations were legal, but he had grown up in the late twentieth century, and such things disturbed him. He had been a successful endovid for almost three decades without any engineering; if his competitors started packing on gene enhancements that left him in the dust, he would simply close up shop. He had more than enough money to retire on, even if they kept up the advances in life extension.
Providentially, at that moment his assistant Clarice buzzed. With a murmured “excuse me,” he took her out of his pocket and looked into her attractive Japanese face. “Sorry to disturb you, Heath, but a prospective client is requesting an urgent meeting. They’re here in person. Anna is with them in your office. They say it’s an emergency.”
“In person?” The knot in his stomach tightened; two physical visits in one morning.
But he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. He said: “Dr. Denmark, I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve just been summoned to an emergency meeting downstairs. I want to thank you very much for coming in to talk to us. Obviously, we’ll have to discuss your proposal internally before getting back to you.”
Denmark looked taken aback. “Well, actually, Mr. Ransom, I was hoping very much to have a few minutes alone with you. To discuss a somewhat delicate—”
“I’m really awfully sorry,” said Ransom, rising. “I hope you’ll send us any additional materials you think we need in order to evaluate your product.”
“But it’s very important.” Denmark stood up, too. A flare of panic suddenly expanded from him like a flame, catching Ransom off guard. He steadied himself against the edge of the table.
“Perhaps I could continue with Dr. Denmark while you run to your meeting,” said Tobin, reading Ransom’s body language.
“Good idea,” said Ransom dizzily, now desperate to get away. “Dr. Denmark, my assistant Mr. Tobin has my complete confidence. I will rely on his recommendation in any event.”
For the first time during their meeting, Ransom felt that Denmark looked into his eyes without the split second of glassy distractedness. “This is something you need to hear, Heath,” he said, too loudly, as if trying to get his attention in a crowd. Ransom had not invited him to use his first name. “Reality is more malleable than you can imagine. This fact is being exploited. I need to talk to you—to you personally. Someone very dangerous—” He stopped talking abruptly, as if he had said too much.
With difficulty, Ransom maintained his professional demeanor. “I really am very sorry, Mr. Denmark, but I have to rush.”
Denmark’s field was hopeless now, as if he had lost a fatal gamble. Wordlessly, he leaned across the table and held out his hand. Long practice at being polite overcoming his reluctance to touch another person, Ransom extended his own. Denmark’s hand was cold. And at the touch, the unfocused murmur of the man’s psychic leakage suddenly sharpened.
A still summer morning rose up around Ransom, nearly erasing the conference room. Birdsong and the gentle wash of surf were the only sounds. He stood at the top of a high bluff, a sandy path leading down among trees to a beach. But a feeling of menace and danger hung about the peaceful scene, like ominous music at the beginning of a horror movie.
Quickly disengaging his hand, Ransom nodded politely and found his way unsteadily from the room.
Shaken, Ransom took the stairs to the first floor. If only Viewing could be confined to when you were actually working—but of course the brain didn’t operate that way. Years ago he had tried low doses of neuroleptics, first in the evenings and then only on weekends, but they had occluded his trances. He was going to retire one of these days, he promised himself for the thousandth time, and then he would take whatever drugs made him feel better and subtle perception be damned. He especially hated getting impressions from people who, like Eugene Denmark, seemed to have some serious misfortune in the offing: natural scenes where a path or road led to a geographic boundary—like a shore or cliff—were usually auguries of death. But without an investigation using his full array of techniques and analytic systems there was no way to tell for sure, and so the information he had picked from Denmark was cryptic and garbled—a source of distress rather than enlightenment.
And what the devil could the man have meant by “reality is more malleable than you think?”
He had a moment of swelling anger at Denmark, at everyone who pressed upon him with their uncontrolled leakages and incomprehensible fates. He quickly calmed himself. It was his own “talent” that made him vulnerable, not anyone’s intentional intrusion. Besides, he had a meeting—with a prospective client this time, not a salesman—and it wouldn’t do to go in full of angry self-pity.
Anna Heatherstone was waiting in the hall outside his office, tall, slim and dark-haired, wearing a fashionable 1940s-style suit, her freckled Irish face lighting up when she saw him. Ransom felt himself relax. Anna’s emanation was like barely suppressed giggling, and being with her always made him feel that nothing was so terribly serious. She murmured a five-second summary: Boston society people, family issue, research shows they have plenty of money but also plenty of debts, refuse to talk to anyone but the boss. Ransom nodded, and Anna briskly opened the door to the large, paneled office.
“Mr. and Mrs. Merrivale, Dr. Heathcliff Ransom, President and Principle Endovoyant Investigator of Ransom International,” she said to the two people sitting in the visitors’ chairs.
The male Merrivale stood up and gave Ransom a firm, manly handshake accompanied by a firm, manly look in the eye. “John Merrivale,” he said. He was over six feet—which made him half a head taller than Ransom—looked about ninety, wore 1940s-style yachting clothes, and his silvery hair was cut short enough to suggest both late-middle age and virility. Ransom glanced at the hair enviously; he had to keep his own head shaved for the View tank induction leads. The female Merrivale stayed seated and gave Ransom a long, slender aristocrat’s hand, smiling and murmuring politely. She was a handsome, slim woman, also silver-haired, with bright blue eyes, perhaps a few years older than her husband. In the murmur of their psychic tone Ransom could feel confusion and anxiety.
Everyone sat down, Ransom behind his desk. He looked at the Merrivales benignly.
There was an uncomfortable pause.
“We’ve come to see you on a matter of some delicacy,” began John Merrivale. “Great delicacy, actually.” He glanced at Anna.
“Ms. Heatherstone is my trusted employee,” said Ransom. “She assists me in my investigations, so I will have to apprise her of the facts in any case.”
The Merrivales exchanged a look.
“Our aunt—Ardice’s aunt, actually,” said Mr. Merrivale finally, “fell ill several days ago, and went into a coma.”
“There was no sign of any health problems. It came out of a blue sky.”
Ransom nodded sympathetically.
“We—well, to be very blunt about it, Mr. Ransom, we suspect foul play.”
The Merrivales looked at him plaintively, as if there was no more to say, until Ransom felt obliged to continue. “And you want me to try to identify the malefactor?” He sometimes got cases like this based on his years as a Metropolitan Police Force forensic endovid, but he usually didn’t take them; they were often ugly, and the police resented private operators mucking up the waves for their own people.
“Well—not exactly,” said John Merrivale. “We want our aunt back.”
Anna Heatherstone shifted uncomfortably in her chair.
“I can certainly understand that,” said Ransom sympathetically, waiting for more.
Mrs. Merrivale spoke up for the first time. “Mr. Ransom, we hoped you might be able to help us.” Her hushed, moneyed voice had a warmth Ransom felt in the middle of his chest. “Aunt Margaret isn’t dead. Her consciousness is still somewhere on or near this plane. We are told that you find lost things, and that you are the best in your field. Will you find Aunt Margaret and bring her back to us, Mr. Ransom?” She said it as if she were willing to seduce him if necessary, her wide, appealing eyes on his face.
Ransom exchanged a glance with Anna. “I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Merrivale; I find corporeal objects, not people— or rather, the people I find are still alive. Or if they’re not, I find their bodies, not their . . . spirits.”
“But John’s friends in the police department told us that you have solved crimes by contacting the spirits of the recently departed.”
“Well, it’s more complicated than that.” Long practice had given Ransom an instinct for which version of his introductory spiel to give which clients, though the current religious upheavals and schisms made it a constantly moving target. “It’s true that in trance you often speak to people, but the working assumption is that this is just anthropomorphized information. The theory—though it’s not accepted by everyone—is that the endovid’s brain acts like a radio, somehow tuning in to fluctuations in the vacuum field left there by specific thoughts or other mental events. But because the mind has no model for this kind of cognition, it dresses it up in familiar forms: so you may experience it as someone talking to you, the spirit of a murdered man naming his killer, for example.”
“Or it could be that you are actually talking to a person’s spirit, couldn’t it?” asked Mrs. Merrivale. “Isn’t that what souls are—semi-stable torsion waves in the Hamiltonian? And bodies, too, for that matter? Aren’t we—both body and soul—just anthropomorphized information?”
“I take it you are a religious woman, Mrs. Merrivale?”
“Ardice and I belong to the CUEC,” said her husband quietly.
“Well then, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know,” Ransom said, shifting gears smoothly. The Cosmic Universal Evolutionist Catechism was a little far out for wealthy people of European stock, but anything was possible these days. “Holographic torsion wave interference patterns in the vacuum field constitute the forms of this world, including the forms of what we call matter and consciousness. The matter patterns of the body dissipate after death. Do the consciousness patterns also dissipate? I leave that to the theologians. But if they do persist, I know of nothing to suggest that they do so in any part of the field accessible to living humans. And even if they do, I have no experience or training for finding them, much less reconnecting them with their bodies. In the couple of cases you heard about I was looking strictly for information—time of death, location of the body, and so on— and I didn’t care where it came from. I have no idea whether the people I seemed to talk to were spirits or completely nonpersonal etheric field fluctuations that my mind invested with human shapes and voices. A lot of luck was involved, too.” Not to mention neurological and psychological wear and tear, he thought. And a great deal of the client’s money.
“But you might apply the same methods to finding Aunt Margaret, mightn’t you?” asked Mrs. Merrivale. “That’s how flux doctors work, they say—they find the person’s consciousness field and communicate with it, coax it back into the body.”
“So they say. But I have no training as a flux doctor. I would have no idea how to—”
Mrs. Merrivale’s eyes, which had been brimming, overflowed. She bowed her face into a lacy handkerchief she had taken from a tiny, precious-looking handbag.
John Merrivale put a large hand on his wife’s shoulder. The gesture gave Ransom the sudden, odd feeling that he was watching a play, though the Merrivales’ field leakage indicated that their distress was real enough. “We understand that you can’t guarantee results,” said John Merrivale. “We just want to turn every stone, make every effort we can to pull Aunt Margaret through.”
“It’s not just that I can’t guarantee results. I wouldn’t know where to start. I can refer you to a couple of excellent—”
“We can’t afford to waste time on uncredentialed operators,” said Merrivale. “Aunt Margaret’s coma is what they call labile. She could deteriorate on short notice. Our only choice is to go straight to the top, get the best help available. That’s why we’re here.” He glanced at Ransom almost bashfully. “I’m sure it doesn’t make any difference to a man like you, but we’re willing to pay a premium, if only you’ll take a stab at it. We’ll stipulate a minimum fee payable whether or not you succeed, plus a bonus if you do. You’ll have a free hand to try whatever measures you think necessary.”
He named a sum of money.
As it happened, Merrivale had been wrong. Money on the scale mentioned did make a difference to a man like Ransom. After a decent pause, in which he pretended to hesitate, he took Clarice out of his pocket.
“Clarice, will you get Mr. Lewin into my office? Anthony Lewin is my lawyer,” he explained to the Merrivales. “It will have to be understood that I’m taking the case making no representations as to results.”
Mrs. Merrivale looked up from her handkerchief, joy showing through her tears, and her husband stood up to fold Ransom’s hand in another manly handshake.
Ransom had met Lewin in person just once, and the man’s fussy, hostile emanation had driven him to distraction. But Lewin was smart, and he could work fast when he had to. He did so now, his holographic bust floating an inch above Ransom’s desk like a hectoring ghost. Within twenty minutes a heavily customized version of Ransom International’s standard retainer contract appeared on the electronic paper Anna Heatherstone handed out, and were duly thumbprinted. In return for a handsome guaranteed fee, to be secured by a priority lien on one of the Merrivales’ homes, Ransom would initiate his investigation immediately, preempting all other matters whatsoever, and exercise his best efforts to reunite the body and consciousness of Mrs. Margaret Biel, relict of the late Raymond Fenton Biel. At the mention of Raymond Fenton Biel an uncharitable suspicion formed in Ransom’s mind, but he kept it silent.
After Lewin had evaporated, Ransom and Anna, joined by Bobby Mandelson, their intern, listened to the Merrivales’ story. Mrs. Biel, widowed, age 132, had been in good health and socially active, with everything to live for. She hadn’t been depressed or shown any symptoms of stroke or organ trouble. In fact, the only cause for complaint she had given her doting relatives had been her sudden preoccupation with an upstart religion, the Church of Mind and Beauty of Greater Boston, Inc., which appeared to worship fashion models.
“I couldn’t understand it at all,” Ardice Merrivale said in her hushed, exciting voice. “Aunt Margaret asked me to go with her when she first joined, and they have their services in a lovely half-size replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in a subbasement of the Bank of China building. They said the models were symbols of the eternal self-renewal of the natural world, and of the beauty of the spirit that infuses all things, but to me it seemed—well, they seemed to put a lot of emphasis on the ‘erotic power of youth,’ and the altar girls were naked!
“And they did tricks—magic tricks. I don’t know how, but they were—they seemed impossible. The priest said they were demonstrations of the mutability of reality, and that anyone with the determination and resources could use that same mutability to turn back time and regain youth. Aunt Margaret seemed simply hypnotized by it all. And then when I learned that she had changed her will to leave this church a large sum of money, I was naturally concerned that they had taken advantage of her.”
“Touching, isn’t it?” said Anna Heatherstone subvocally in Ransom’s earpiece, her face still turned toward the Merrivales. “Because before the Mind and Beauty Church came along, the Merrivales were in line to inherit the Biel fortune.” Ransom had noticed Anna’s eyes going in and out of focus as she concentrated alternately on the meeting and her online research.
“Are we talking the Raymond Fenton Biel?” asked Ransom via the private channel that he, Anna, and Bobby Mandelson shared, willing his speech muscles to work without actually moving them so that his nerve mike could pick up the impulses.
“How much money is involved?”
“A lot. Unless she wakes up and changes her mind, the Merrivales only get a few million.”
“—then three days ago,” Mrs. Merrivale was saying in a voice that quavered with emotion, “the morning coffee maid couldn’t wake Aunt Margaret up. They rushed her to the hospital and took all possible measures, but they say her condition is deteriorating.” At this point, Mrs. Merrivale dissolved into tears again. “If those horrible Mind and Beauty people have hurt her, I’ll never forgive myself,” she sobbed. “I tried to get her to stop going, but she wouldn’t listen.”
“Steady, old girl,” said John Merrivale gallantly. “It wasn’t your fault. There’s nothing you could have done.”
“Oh, gag me,” said Anna in Ransom’s ear.
“Do you have a police agency on retainer?” Ransom asked out loud.
“We have Pinkerton,” said John Merrivale. “But they say there isn’t any evidence of foul play.” He sounded indignant at their disloyalty.
“All right,” said Ransom. “It takes me a couple of hours to prep for a Viewing. In the meantime, Mr. Mandelson will accompany you to Mrs. Biel’s home to pick out a few objects intimate to her that I can use to get a spoor. I can’t spend more than about twenty-four hours continuous in the tank, so we’ll know soon whether I’ve had any success, say within thirty-six hours. Oh, and would you please provide me with a picture of Mrs. Biel?”
He helped Mrs. Merrivale on with her coat, glad-handed her husband out of the office, and closed the door softly behind them and Bobby Mandelson.
“Raymond Fenton Biel,” said Anna Heatherstone, wideeyed.
She and Ransom took a side door out of the office and walked quickly down a back hallway into what had been the servants’ quarters a hundred years ago, Ransom shedding jacket and tie and talking in rapid-fire to Clarice, rescheduling appointments and the Viewings he had just displaced by taking on this astonishingly profitable job.
“Heath,” said Clarice, “Mr. Denmark is still in the upstairs conference room waiting for you. He insists he has to see you before he leaves, says it’s a matter of life and death.”
“Tell him I’m very sorry, but I have an emergency Viewing, and I won’t be available for at least forty-eight hours. Ask him to make an appointment for next week, and then make sure someone else meets with him.”
“You’re supposed to get your blood exchanged and your lymphocyte firmware upgraded this afternoon. You’ve already rescheduled twice, and your tissue readings are down.”
“I know, but this really is an emergency. Tell them to come at the same time tomorrow. The day after tomorrow.”
“Okay,” said Clarice with resignation.
“Did you find out anything else?” he asked Anna, as they reached the prep room door.
“It appears the Merrivales are in debt up to their eyebrows. So maybe being left with only a few million euros really does mean abject poverty for them.”
“Figures. Anything else?”
“Well, there’s one interesting thing. Margaret Biel isn’t the only super-rich old person to go into a coma recently.”
“Meaning that in the last eighteen months at least three other fabulously wealthy people over a hundred and ten have had sudden comas that sound a lot like Mrs. Biel’s: one other in North America, one in EU, and one in Japan. All of them have died within a week or two. A few conspiracy dataminers have commented, but no one mainstream has paid any attention.”
“Huh. Weird. Not members of the Beauty Church or whatever, were they?”
“No, the Church of Mind and Beauty is strictly Boston. On the other hand, at least two of them seem to have gotten involved in some kind of cult right before they went under. I tried checking whether those are tied to Mind and Beauty, but I have to do more research. From what I’ve dug up about Margaret Biel, she would just love a church dedicated to youth and beauty. She’s had an interesting life, if you’re interested in parties, weird sex, divorces, lawsuits, and rehab. And spending money like a geyser. She was very good-looking at one time, too.”
Tunnel Out of Death © Jamil Nasir 2013