The third chapter from my science fiction manuscript Mind fields in which I introduce the last of my three central characters. Feel free, as always, to comment or critique. Your feedback is very much appreciated.
An unpleasant writhing lives in the belly of Rachael Lynch. Standing in her true-silk wrap staring at the glittering web of the city laid out a mile below, she is grimly aware of it. She is also, however, very used to the sensation. This serpent has been her constant companion for as long as she can remember. Rachael has learned to accommodate it.
The glass wall of her exclusive level ninety apartment affords her a view of the megalopolis that stretches from the river, with its huge sprawling industrial complexes, to the Tokyo end of the old financial district. From this high up, it all looks so vast and bright. The traffic flows in a ceaseless, quicksilver stream between gigantic, luminous towers of glass as, high above, swarming aircraft hover like an electron charged cloud. It’s certainly beautiful but also distant, unreal.
She sips slowly from her brandy glass, trying hard to luxuriate in the smooth liquor that cost the equivalent of an average weekly wage. She tells herself that items like this are her reward for being one of the very best in her field, compensation for all the thousands of hours spent ‘ghosting’ the market. Somehow, though, it just doesn’t seem to help. The writhing remains.
The problem doesn’t stem from work, of course, she loves what she does. You have to love what you do to be as good as she is. Rachael rides the data streams as if she were born in cyberspace. This talent is recognised by the top corporate executives from all over the world who queue up to have her analyse their financial interests. It’s said she can track a single digit glitch, by eye, in a ten billion digit stream. She never finds it necessary to contradict this kind of hype. The fact is if it needs doing Rachael can make it so.
At the end of the day, though, upon emerging from the matrix, she finds herself in her very plush, very secure and ultimately empty apartment. She can, of course, walk out through the door at any time. Nothing bars her, and the city offers a million distractions for citizens with her kind of cred. Attractive and rich, the world literally belongs to her and her kind. Yet she is trapped by a strange feeling of inertia.
In the final analysis, Rachael is afraid, afraid of the seething mass of humanity that fills to overflowing every corner of this crazily over-peopled planet. It’s a phobia not uncommon in the later part of the twenty-first century. The pundits are calling it Critical Mass Syndrome and predicting a massive upsurge in incidence. All Rachael knows is that any trip outside is inevitably accompanied by anxiety so overwhelming that it is physically debilitating.
So Rachael stays in. And why not? From this apartment she can order up any item she might desire, from food and clothing to casual, anonymous sex, all via the matrix. From here she can work, socialise and travel and never be forced, even for a moment, to experience the discomfort of actual physical contact. In truth, Rachael cannot clearly recall her last face to face, same room encounter with a flesh and blood human being, what’s more, she doesn’t care to.
And yet Rachael feels -lonely. She paces her expensive carpet oppressed by the apartment’s nanobot cleanliness and air scrubbed sterility. It’s a cage of her own making and one she yearns to fly from. For Rachael, however, there can be only one way out.
“Jesse,” she calls, addressing the room at large.
“Yes, Rachael?” a soft-spoken, very human, voice replies.
“Could you do a little surfing for me? Find me a good A.W. agency.”
“No problem Rachael,” the voice of the apartment’s EnTT unit replies, and then adjusts modulation slightly to convey mild concern, “Rachael?”
“I feel I wouldn’t be doing my job effectively if I didn’t point out to you that you’ve already spent twelve hours in the matrix today. This is four more than the advised safe quota, as laid out by the-“
“Thank you, Jesse. I appreciate your concern -as always. I’ll be fine. Please don’t trouble yourself. Have you found one?”
“Good. I’m going in.” Rachael steps over to the Bel Sony VR capsule and slides into its bodyline stimcouch. She presses her head gently back against the rest and the interface jack slides gently home into the custom Hitachi plug at the base of her skull. She doesn’t wince. A quiet, soothing voice in her mind calmly counts down. Three, two, one -interface.
“Good day Madam. My name is Sarah.” The woman standing before her is beautiful in the way that only cyber EnTTs can be. A billion megs of processing power have scanned the neural pathways of Rachael’s mind and thrown up this composite image based solely on her own very personal aesthetic.
The striking and yet reassuringly flawed EnTT stands perfectly poised in a vast field of swaying, tulips stretching from horizon to horizon under a cobalt, cloudless sky. This too has been constructed for Rachael by the agency, an environment judged the most suitably simpatico with her tastes.
“How can we please you?” the smiling, cat-like, girl asks without a trace of irony. Rachael is reassured to see that the EnTT has been placed at a respectable distance of about three meters from her own ghost. It’s not that she really feels the same anxieties within these digitised environments -far from it. But it shows a certain level of courtesy on the part of the agency, and Rachael appreciates the little touches that mark a company of quality.
“I’m looking for a place to spend a little wind-down time,” Rachael answers, knowing full well that the agency has already scanned her mind and are fully cognisant of her reasons for contacting them.
“Very good, we’ve taken the liberty of preparing a few samples that we feel may well meet your requirements. If Madam will just turn her head to the right…”
Rachael looks where the girl indicates and sees three doors standing conspicuously amongst the tulips. She smiles appreciatively at the little touch – added simply to appeal to her own sense of the surreal – and walks towards the nearest door.
“How much time do I get to sample each?”
The girl’s smile widens a little. “One hour Madam. You can, of course, exit at any time before that if you find the environment, not to your taste. We understand that your time is valuable. Do you wish me to give you a brief synopsis of each world before you enter?”
“No that won’t be necessary thank you. I like surprises.” With that Rachael steps through the door and into another reality altogether.
The faecal smell is almost overwhelming and her mind reels at the unexpected assault. Processors monitor her adverse reaction and adjust the olfactory input gradually downwards. Slowly she becomes used to the appalling stench, impressed however at the shear bite of the reality. When her stomach has settled a little she attempts to get her bearings. Tudor style houses, small, strangely deformed, most of them looking as if the beams supporting their roofs are made of rubber – very strange – surely unsafe. The streets are unpaved and filthy, as are the people that go about on them, such people, though.
Capes, plumes and bucket top boots are everywhere. Swords swing at the hips of rakish young gentlemen, whilst the ladies of quality fairly drown amongst the froth of their lace gowns. Romantic, but just a tad too ridiculous for comfort.
She’s pretty sure where she is now, though. Rachael studied fashion as a sub-major at university and easily recognises the clothing around her as mid-seventeenth century – probably English. Oh Oprah, cavaliers and roundheads. Cromwell and Charles I slogging it out over conflicting interpretations of religious dogma. No thank you.
“Extract please.” Instantly the door appears before her and she steps through without a backwards glance.
The EnTT is still standing amongst the tullips, still smiling serenely. “Our apologies Ms Lynch. that period was rated an 85% match. It was considered most likely to engage you on both an intellectual and emotional level. Perhaps the program gave your perceived propensity towards the romance of the period more weight than was justified.”
“Well, actually the period has always appealed to me, in literature. It’s just that…well I really wasn’t prepared for the sheer… filth. It detracted a little too much from the spectacle. I actually found that I couldn’t phase into character at all.”
The girl’s face takes on a look of empathy. “I understand. It can come as quite a shock. Our customers demand reality and we strive to provide it in every detail. But there is no denying that in a world where even dust has been largely eliminated some aspects of these ‘realities’ can be somewhat…confronting.” The feline face turns towards the second door. “Perhaps this will be more to your liking.”
Rachael looks hesitant. And the smile becomes reassuring.
“Don’t worry Ms Lynch. We feel more than confident that this sample will serve you far better than the first.” With a
With a shrug, she moves towards the door and…
For the next hour, Rachael lives a dream. It begins with her exhausted and battered body washed upon the swirling waterline of an unknown beach. The water is warm, tropical, the sands baked by an equatorial sun. Her name is Delores ‘change please.’ Gwyneth, Lady Gwyneth Greyson. She had been travelling from England to New Zealand aboard the liner Britannia when, somewhere south of Singapore, the typhoon they’d been trying to outrun for three days had finally caught them.
The ship went down with appalling speed, and in the confusion of the evacuation she had lost Francis, her husband. She’d searched frantically for him until she was finally bundled, protesting hysterically, into one of the lifeboats. The burly seaman who had carried her to the boat had screamed into her ear words she couldn’t hope to hear above the rage of the storm.
They’d pulled clear of the ship fearful of the undertow dragging them with her to the bottom. The storm, however, had been too fierce for the tiny boat and it had soon capsized, pitching its hapless occupants into the wild foam. Heaven only knew how Gwyneth had stayed afloat. Her desire to survive must have been very strong indeed for a lady of such drawing room delicacy. She fought the waves all night and the morning found her here, washed upon a lonely shore.
As her strength begins to return Gwyneth drags herself to her feet and makes her way, staggering, to higher ground. The ebb and flow of the waters drag at her long skirts making the effort doubly difficult. she tears at the sodden fabric, shedding its weight not caring a whit about the amount of pale flesh thus exposed. Who is here to see?
At the treeline she collapses again and lies heaving, no longer able to rise. The air is full of strange, disturbing sounds. Unknown birds call across the green. Monkeys chatter inanely amongst themselves, no doubt perplexed by the bizarre, hairless sea creature that has invaded their forest home.
At last Gwyneth, her strength slowly returning, turns back towards the sea, hoping to spot some sign of the Britannia or at least one of the boats. It is then that she sees him. He is emerging from the surf, a weary, leaden-limbed, Adonis. The tattered whites of his officer’s uniform clinging sodden to his slim, muscular torso. His fair hair is sea-soaked and dishevelled. She has never seen a more beautiful sight. He is life. She begins to weep with the joy of her relief.
The man, whom she recognises as Carson, the Britannia’s first mate, staggers as he makes his way from the waterline. Halfway across the beach he finally collapses and Gwyneth’s heart leaps into her mouth.
“Oh please let him be alright,” she prays to a god she’s never believed in. With the last of her energy, she pulls herself to her feet and lurches drunkenly across the sand. As she reaches his prone body she too collapses, her face inches from his, all strength spent.
Slowly, the man’s eyes open, steely and blue, to regard her with confusion and wonder. “An…angel?” He mutters, and they sink together into unconsciousness.
Rachael opens her eyes and the EnTT Sarah is standing before her the eternal smile seemingly a little smugger than before.
“I see that we were a little closer to the mark with that one,” she says regarding the fixed smile on Rachael’s own face.
“Yes it certainly had some very…appealing elements,” Rachael admits a little annoyed at her own coy tone. “A little cliché though, a bit…old school. Still satisfying for all that.”
“Does Madam still wish to see the third sample?”
“No I don’t think that will be… Then again… Alright, it can’t hurt to give it a look.” She steps towards the final door.
“I feel I should warn you, Ms Lynch, this world is something very different. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste. The programme, though, felt that someone of your calibre might well be engaged by its sense of …challenge.”
“Well, now I am intrigued,” Racheal replies, stepping through the door.
The door has become a shoji screen. The room she has entered is in her father’s house. It is the room used for entertaining honoured visitors. Her name is Jiru Kurato. Today she meets with the Lady Ogami, wife of the great Lord Tonaga , Daimyo of the clan Ogami, her father’s clan, and her own.
Jiru moves gracefully towards the tatami mat and kneels delicately upon it. Her every movement is a study in considered aesthetics even though she is alone in the room and unobserved. Her life has been a preparation for this moment. This is the day that will reward her father for all the years of sacrifice he has given to his Lord.
Today she will enter the service of the Lady Ogami as a handmaiden of the second rank. If that is, she passes the ordeal of this final, personal interview with the great Lady herself. She will pass, she is determined. A samurai does not fail.
As she waits in the expectant silence she allows her eyes to slide over the familiar features of this room. The area is large and spacious, six tatamis in diameter. There is a raised platform at the opposite end of the room. From here her Lady will conduct the proceedings. It is the height of bad manners for a vassal to sit on an equal level with a Daimyo or his consort.
The only other feature is placed upon a small black lacquered table in the corner of the room. It is a sprig of cherry blossom from the tree in her father’s courtyard. Jiru plucked it herself this morning and placed it as artfully as her humble talents would allow. She chose the simplest vase in the house, a gesture of humility to her Lord and Lady.
At last she hears the approach of her father and the great Lady herself just outside the shoji. Her heart pounds violently in her chest like a bird seeking escape, but she forces herself to remain calm. “You are samurai.” She whispers as the screen slides open and her most beloved father, bowing low, gestures to the Lady to enter.
Four samurai enter first, hands on sword hilts, taking up strategic positions within the room. Jiru knows that many more warriors will be stationed outside -these are, after all, most troubling times. Then the Lady herself enters, taking her place upon the platform. She is dressed simply in a grey homespun kimono. Jiru silently commends herself upon her own sombre choice, how dreadful to appear before this austere lady in a garb of silken finery.
“This is the child?”Lady Ogami asks Jiru’s father, her eyes never leaving the girl before her.
“Yes my lady,” the old warrior answers, barely able to conceal his pride, “this is my most unworthy daughter Jiru.”
“How old are you child?” the lady asks, addressing Jiru directly, “you seem little more than a girl.”
“So sorry, I am nineteen years honoured Lady,” she answers without a trace of the nervousness she feels.
“Nineteen, you look younger. Are you sure you are ready to leave your father’s house? It is a very different world at my Lords castle in Edo. Will you not miss your home?”
Jiru keeps her head bowed. “Oh yes my Lady, very much. But the honour that you will bring to this house, if you choose to accept my unworthy self, will be more than compensation for the foolish sentimental longings of a silly girl who loves her father too well.”
The Lady smiles, “it is well said.” She turns to the old man, Jiru’s father.
“You have taught her well honoured servant of my husband. She will, I am sure, make a valued contribution to my Lord’s household.”
Her father is close to tears as he bows to the Lady before him.
“She is unworthy of the honour you bestow upon her, and upon this house. I know, however, that she will ever strive to attain the standards that you will, rightly, expect of her.”
“It is agreed then, the girl will accompany me in the morning upon my return to Edo.”
“Yes, my Lady. Thank you. You have honoured an old warrior beyond his worth.”
Her father looks upon his only living child, he knows, for the last time. His heart is filled with sadness and joy. This position will ensure that his beloved daughter will be able to live well after he has joined his ancestors. She is the last of his line, born so late in his life. If he had died without attaining a suitable position for her then her life would most likely have ended in a monastery. The old man knows how very unsuited his vibrant little bird would be for such a life.
Jiru watches her father’s face, reading his thoughts. As their eyes meet she smiles a silent thank you. She will miss this stern old warrior far more than he knows.
“Yes, my father?”
“You must leave us now to discuss certain details in private. Go to your rooms and prepare for your journey.”
“Yes, my father.” She bows low and backs toward the shoji. Then, bowing again, she steps through the door and out of the world.
“That’s the one,” Rachael tells the smiling AI.
Words and images are my own.