Fleeing the city on the TransContinental airship, Dran Florrian is traveling with the Palimpsest—the ultimate proof of a lifetime of scientific theorizing.
When a rogue organization attempts to steal the device, however, Dran takes drastic action. But his invention threatens to destroy the very fabric of this and all other possible universes, unless Dran—or someone very much like him—can shut down the machine and reverse the process.
David Tallerman’s sci-fi thriller Patchwerk is available January 19th from Tor.com Publishing!
The TransCon’s storage bay was even larger than he’d imagined: larger than the passenger compartments on the level above and every bit as claustrophobically packed. Here near the door were smaller items of personal luggage, strapped in dense tiers with bands of lurid orange elastic. He pressed further in, through the rows of ceiling-high shelving, until the space opened out.
And there it was. Encased in its shockproof carrigel it was a monolith of lime green, no different to the other cargo arranged around it like graffiti-spattered ruins of some antediluvian culture. Only its sheer size gave it away; its peak nearly brushed the steel rafters. When Florrian touched his palm to the gel and dug with his fingertips it shrank and withdrew with a faint sucking hiss, until its entire mass was a ball cupped in the palm of his hand.
He put the ball at his feet and inspected the newly revealed machine, caressing its front panel, inspecting for any slight damage. It was vaguely humanoid: a sphere of blistered metal above an angular carriage of black plastic, with panels protruding at either side, one of which curved around its front like an arm bent ready for a bow. Towards its base the surface spread into a metallic skirt, wherein lay most of the actual mechanism. It was far from being the most attractive thing he’d designed; in fact, it was ugly, unfinished-seeming, vaguely monstrous. And for all his paternal care, it frightened him—terrified him to the depths of his heart.
He called it Palimpsest. Five years of work, a lifetime of theorising, a thousand lies, woven tight.
Florrian touched two fingertips to his forehead. Though the gesture wasn’t necessary to activate the chip nestled against his brain, he found—in a way he recognised as old-fashioned—that it helped him to concentrate. He evoked the virtual interface he’d tagged to the arm of the undignified machine-figure before him and, sure enough, it lit in recognition. At first the light was just a glow as of luminescent mist, and then a phantom square of blue appeared, flush above the arm’s surface. Text spiralled, conjured by the modified retina of Florrian’s left eye. Satisfied, he let his hand fall to the pad, which shifted subtly to meet his fingertips. He tapped out a lengthy authorisation code and received an acknowledgement, which he himself had written: WELCOME, DOCTOR FLORRIAN. PALIMPSEST IS ACTIVATING.
“Step away from that, will you?” The voice came from behind him, from somewhere near the entrance. “A dozen steps backward, please, and don’t turn until I tell you to.”
He didn’t recognise the speaker. Male, not discernibly young or old, no clues of accent or intonation. Whoever they were, they didn’t sound nervous or angry. In fact, their tone was perfectly composed. They weren’t TransCon staff then, or even an agent. They were not surprised by Florrian’s presence here—and that disturbed him.
He had set a nine-letter kill code on Palimpsest—according to statistical analysis, that being the lowest number of characters impossible to type by accident. He might have programmed a word sequence he could transmit by thought alone, but he’d determined the risk was too great. Memory struck Florrian as a fractious, unruly thing; he couldn’t bear the danger of trusting Palimpsest’s security to the whims of his unconscious. Instead, he had practised every day for a month, until he could enter the tactile code with the barest flicker of the fingers of one hand. It took him just under a second.
It struck him now that that was considerably longer than it would take whoever was behind him to fire a weapon.
“Please don’t do anything we’ll all regret, Dran. Just do as he said.”
Florrian froze. The second voice he knew—almost as well as his own, though it was nearly a year since he’d last heard it. “Karen?” he asked.
He wanted badly to turn then. The urge was a palpable itch. He wanted to see her; he wanted to see the expression on her face. But he remembered what the first voice had said, and if he was going to be killed, he didn’t want to be killed for something stupid.
For typing the kill code though? For making certain Palimpsest could never be misused? That was worth giving his life for.
A sudden jolt of pain in Florrian’s forehead made him arch his neck. It was gone as quickly as it had arrived. When he looked back for the phantom blue of the interface, however, he found that it had vanished. Where it had been was only the grey crust of Palimpsest’s curving arm.
“Okay,” said a third voice: nasal, unsure. “That’s it. He’s shut out.”
It was true. When Florrian attempted to recall the interface, nothing happened. His first efforts were a reflex. After that he tried to think methodically, picking through the simple mental sequence that should have restored the virtual keyboard. Then he became desperate. It made no difference.
There was a physical interface built into Palimpsest’s side panel. There was no way he would have time to reach it, let alone make use of it.
“Put your hands up, Florrian. Do as I told you,” the first voice said. “A dozen steps backward.”
Florrian raised his hands and began to walk backwards. That had been it, his chance. He’d let it slip between his fingers. Yet it was useless to berate himself; as long as he was alive he might yet create another opportunity. At the twelfth step he stopped, mildly surprised he’d managed not to collide with anything in the crowded storage bay.
“Well done. Keep that up and you’ll get through this in one piece.” The male voice was close to his ear this time, and moving. The speaker walked past him on his left, and Florrian watched from the corner of his eye, glimpsing a face: late thirties perhaps, blonde hair, discreet signs of minor surgery, piercing blue eyes, hard lines of cheek and jaw. Handsome, he supposed, though he thought there was cruelty in those azure eyes. In any case, it was a face he knew.
Not well, though, and he struggled for a moment to match a name to it. Harlan Dorric. A scientist also, though Florrian couldn’t say in what field. He only remembered that the man was deeply embroiled with high-level corporate research, a hugely profitable position to be in. They had been at the same functions, no doubt, perhaps they’d even spoken once or twice. None of that explained why Dorric should be here now.
There were three other men with him. Two of them, from the way they flanked Dorric, Florrian assumed to be hired security. The third he didn’t get a clear look at, though it seemed safe to assume he was the one who’d blocked Florrian’s neural connection to the outside world. In any case, Florrian found it hard to concentrate on them, when so much of his attention was occupied by the room’s fifth occupant. He hadn’t seen her, yet knew she was close by—for the delicate scent of gardenias hung in the air.
“Karen,” Florrian said. “It’s been a while.”
“Be quiet, Dran,” she told him, from behind and beside his ear. “I’m just here to make sure you don’t do anything foolish.”
He thought about that. Florrian supposed that her being here had saved his life, for if he hadn’t heard her voice he would certainly have tried to type the kill code, and most likely they’d have shot him for it. Then again, letting Dorric gain access to Palimpsest when he’d had a chance to destroy it was surely the greatest act of stupidity imaginable.
“So that’s him,” he said. “Harlan Dorric. You’ve done well for yourself.”
He’d sounded more peevish then he’d intended. But all Karen said was, “Yes, I have.”
Florrian returned his attention to Dorric and the three men with him. The two he’d taken for bodyguards were facing his way now, with their backs to Dorric and the fourth man. They were looking at Florrian, each holding his right arm upraised so that the open hand, too, was trained in Florrian’s direction. Each palm was hidden by a disk of silver and black, with a protruding half sphere of gold at its centre that pulsed with steady rhythm. The pose looked uncomfortable. Florrian imagined trying to hold his own arm out like that and how quickly he would tire. Yet these two didn’t look as if they would grow tired, ever. They looked as if they’d stand there for as long as was needed, and even if an hour had passed, or ten, they would still be able to kill him in an instant with their neat little weapons.
Behind them Dorric and the fourth man were investigating Palimpsest’s graceless facade. There was something comfortable about the way in which they worked, something almost proprietorial, which made Florrian’s stomach clench.
His thoughts were moving rapidly now—and if the results remained less than productive, he had at least recalled details about Dorric. He knew, too, why at first he’d remembered so little. The man’s expertise was in military innovation, designing new toys for the private militias that thrived throughout Africa, the Middle East and the destabilised regions of Europe. Dorric had courted controversy early in his career, straining even the limited ethical restraints the corporations chose to impose upon themselves; but all that had died down, or else been quashed. No doubt Dorric’s rapidly growing wealth and connections deep in the corporate military had helped, and in subsequent years his name had vanished, both from the media and the scientific community’s already limited network of social gossip.
There’d been one story, however, that he had heard; one that had persisted, though he couldn’t recall now how it had come to his attention. Florrian dropped his voice, low enough that only Karen would hear. “You must have heard the rumours about him,” he said.
For a moment he was sure she wouldn’t respond. Then she replied, matching her volume to his, “That he’s gone over? That gets thrown at everyone, sooner or later.”
She was right. There wasn’t a significant figure who hadn’t, at some time, in whispers and closed conversations, been accused of treason. “No, not that,” he said. Florrian turned his head, so that for the first time he could see something of her face; one dark eye, a cheek and the sharp corner of her mouth, framed in curves of almost-black hair. “They say he went full psycho.”
It might have been his tone more than the words themselves that reached her. Karen’s eye widened a fraction. Or might he have glanced upon some already-held suspicion? An inkling she’d harboured? But there was nothing in her voice as she said, “That’s ridiculous.”
It was an accepted fact of psychology that the rich, the powerful, the superskilled, were all to a greater or lesser degree insane. Or rather, they had disorders; they had grown or else had always been unbalanced. And it was truly an accepted fact, for what balanced mind could make decisions that affected millions and not buckle irreparably? Certain strains of malfunction were even watched for and cultivated. The trick was in recognition and containment, in checks and balances.
Yet there were those, always, who could not be checked, those who grew too unbalanced—whose madness metastasised and ate away their public worth, leaving only megalomania. There were even shrinks who’d gone whistleblower, not able to live with the thought of the ends to which their clients might put their power. Hadn’t one doctor levelled such a claim against Dorric? Was that where Florrian had first heard it? But if that were the case, the doctor had vanished particularly quickly.
“I think it’s true,” he said, “and I think you know it. Whatever’s going on here, it’s hardly the actions of a sane man.”
He knew immediately that he’d pushed too hard. Whatever he’d seen or thought he’d seen in Karen’s face was gone. “I’m sorry, Dran,” she said, “I am. But the best thing you can do now is to stay still and keep quiet. If anyone’s crazy, it’s you.”
“Is that what he told you?” Florrian asked bitterly.
“He didn’t need to,” she said. “We were married for six years, remember?”
He had no response for that. Instead, sidestepping, he said, “Dorric wants the machine for himself.”
“Of course,” she agreed. “He’ll reverse-engineer it and sell the patent. You haven’t patented it yet, have you? You’ve been keeping it a secret. Because you’re paranoid and you think they’d take it off you.”
“They would take it off me.” And they would turn it into a weapon. A shiver zigzagged down his spine. Was that what Dorric wanted it for? But if he only wanted to sell it to whichever corporate department offered the most, then that was hardly better. Florrian had taken a terrible gamble in trying to smuggle Palimpsest out. Yet nor could he have stayed where he was, not for very much longer—and here on the TransCon, high in mid-leap, was the safest place he could devise for the tests he’d planned, the experiments that would provide data he urgently needed to convince those waiting for him at the other end.
He turned his attention once more to the three men around Dorric. The one close at Dorric’s elbow was definitely a technician of some sort. Though he saw nothing himself, Florrian had no doubt that the man had summoned a system interface, as he himself was now unable to do.
Florrian had made Palimpsest’s software purposefully idiosyncratic; to do so was the simplest defence against more casual forms of espionage. An amateur might spend days riddling out its secrets, weeks convincing it to function. This man was clearly no amateur. He was a specialist, technointuitive perhaps, one of those lost creatures who understood machines perfectly and their fellow humans hardly at all. If that were the case, he might need mere hours to penetrate the machine’s fundamentals.
The other two, the two who watched Florrian back, were killers. No other word would fit them. Nor was it the weapons they pointed that gave them away; it was in their eyes and the way they stood, the way they owned the space around them. He had seen enough of such men during his training to recognise them even if they were unarmed, even if they’d been going about some innocent task. They were framed for violence.
It could only be a matter of time until Dorric’s technician unravelled Palimpsest’s secrets, and Florrian was helpless to stop him. What could he do against four of them? Or should that be five? He supposed he must count Karen amongst his enemies, too. Yet he couldn’t find it in himself to feel betrayed, just as he’d never been able to blame her for leaving. He’d given her nothing in those last, impossible months, and so she had left.
Now here they were, together again, and Florrian found—almost to his amusement—that despite the circumstances, despite the immeasurable danger of the situation, he was on some level pleased to see his former wife. That thought led to another: something so integral to their relationship, yet he had never told her. “You know, you gave me the idea,” he said.
“What?” Karen looked towards him. Her eyes were tired, her mouth drawn tight. “What idea?”
“For Palimpsest. My machine,” he said.
“That’s what you’re calling it?”
“It means . . .”
“I know what it means,” Karen said. For a moment he thought she might add, But what does it do, however she seemed content to leave it at that—as she always had been. Their growing distance, her growing disinterest, had made Palimpsest’s function an easy secret to keep.
Now, in fact, she’d looked away once more. So Florrian let it go. What could it matter, in any case? It was too late for her curiosity to mean anything. That night, the night she’d inadvertently inspired him, when everything had changed—hadn’t that been his last opportunity to draw her into his clandestine world, instead of driving her further away?
She had come back late—or early, rather. He’d glanced at the clock on hearing the chime of the outside door, the chirrup of the security system standing down, and noted a time somewhere in the drag between midnight and dawn. He had been deep in his work since the last evening. He didn’t remember eating. He hoped she would go to bed, not come looking for him, but only go to bed and leave him. And at first he thought that was what she’d done, for he didn’t hear her footsteps. Florrian turned back to the open slab of machinery he was working on, tried to refocus on its filigree of circuits, like a cartographer thinking his way into his map.
Karen said, “I’m sorry I’m so late.”
The circuits blurred. Golden threads merged and interweaved.
“We were in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “Wadi Khatayn. There’d been a report of a leopard family in the south, but by the time we could drop in, word had got out. The Manjoro were there before us. Professional bastards . . . when they’re not poaching, they’re running guns or drugs or people.”
Florrian clicked up the monocle interface he wore for such impossibly delicate work and knuckled his eyes. Then he flipped the monocle back into place. The labyrinthine circuitry, magnified a hundred thousand times by the monocle’s firmware, in conjunction with his own adapted retina, swam back into clarity.
He forgot sometimes how hazardous his wife’s work was—as he forgot so much about the world outside this room. The feeds gleefully labelled her a combat zoologist, but Florrian knew that for Karen, the fact that the places she went to were so often dangerous was incidental. She went where she was needed and did what she could. She was the bravest person he had ever met; that incredible, white-hot strength of hers was one of the first things that had attracted him. He had simply never met anyone like her.
Yet now, in this moment, he resented her presence. Florrian had been like a diver submerged in the fathomless depths of his work, and now he was being made against his will to surface. He resented, even, the guilt he felt at his own frustration. For he could hear the exhaustion in his wife’s voice, and under it the lividness of fresh pain; he knew she needed him to say something. “Did you save them?” Florrian asked.
“One cub,” Karen said. “A girl. She’d dug in half under her mother’s corpse.”
“I’m sorry.” He didn’t know what else to say. He understood that he should go to her, comfort her, but even as he’d spoken he’d seen something: a tiny part of the solution. Suddenly his wife and everything else seemed far away. Florrian reached eagerly for the terminal controls, and in his haste, dashed his wrist against a drinking glass he’d left balanced on the work surface. By the time he registered the movement and was crouching to catch it, it was already shattering—and it was only some mindless instinct that made him keep grasping hopelessly towards the tiled floor.
Florrian whipped his hand back, saw the jagged line of red engraved there. He eyed with hatred the particular shard that had wounded him. The cut was deep; it would only keep bleeding. It would need stitches, and that meant waking up his physician, or else paying the exorbitant fees of an all-night clinic. Either way he’d get no more work done, and the thread of his thought was broken. It was all he could do to hold in the frustration bubbling inside. “Hell!” he repeated, and by the time the word reached the air it was a growl of distilled anger.
“Calm down,” Karen told him, fatigue adding an edge to her usual calm determination, “and wait there a moment, will you?”
“It’s bleeding,” Florrian complained. His rage had abruptly evaporated, but now he sounded petulant even to himself.
“Then suck it, you idiot.”
She was out of the room before he could respond, which perhaps was just as well. Florrian pressed the stripe of red to his lips and sucked, wincing at the bitter tang and sharpened pain. Suddenly he was entirely conscious of how tired he was, how far beyond the point of overwork. He listened to the sounds of his wife moving somewhere deeper within their apartment, and for a while there was nothing but that jarring current of noise, his exhaustion and the iron-filings taste of his own blood.
Then she was back. He hadn’t known what to expect, but the scrap of fabric gripped between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand wasn’t it. He eyed it with distrust as she marched over, deftly avoiding the glacier flow of glass fragments across the floor.
“Hold out your hand,” Karen said, and he did. In two smooth gestures, she drew a plastic strip from its reverse and wrapped the fabric neatly over his cut.
Florrian looked at the strip of fabric. It made no sense to him. He couldn’t even find the words to frame his objection. “But . . .” he said, and had no idea how to finish.
“Sometimes it’s all right to just patch something up, Dran.”
His instinct was still to resist. He was conscious of the opening in his flesh, masked but unhealed—a problem deferred.
“It’s all right,” she said. “You’re tired out and so am I. You’re not going to bleed to death. It might take a few days longer to heal this way, but it will. You won’t even have a scar. It’s okay. Not everything has to have a grand, perfect solution.”
And she was right. There was no white light flash or chime of revelation, merely a shift somewhere deep in the substrata of his mind. She was right. Perhaps not about his hand, for he could feel how deep the cut was and knew it probably would scar. But completely accidentally, completely unexpectedly, Karen had gifted him the wider answer he’d been unable to find himself.
He had been mired for so long in theory, with no thought of application. Once he’d looked out at the world and wanted to solve it, to heal its many woes. The more his goal had seemed impossible, the more he’d turned away, digging deeper into the safety of abstracts. The problems were too big; their very size made them insoluble, for he was only one man. So Florrian had found a problem he could scale his mind to and set about solving that instead.
Yet now he understood what his machine could do . . . how it could do good. He couldn’t heal the world, but perhaps he could still bandage its wounds.
Excerpted from Patchwerk © David Tallerman, 2016
This excerpt originally appeared on My Bookish Ways in November 2015