by Fred Warren -
It’s a trap.
As his possessed valet plodded ahead of him, leading the way to who knew where, John Milton ran down the list of his enemies—a roster of considerable length that grew with each successive Founding. One of them had to be behind this. Chamberlin? No...he’s a vindictive thug, but far too stupid to coordinate such an elaborate deception. Chun Hee? She has the technical skills, but she’d rather eviscerate her rivals publicly. Mkombo? Too craven. Sanchez? Busy fending off his own enemies. Jaworsky would rather haggle. Torrance just steals what he wants when nobody’s looking...
“Cheer up, John. It’s not as if I’m leading you to the gallows.”
It still made his flesh crawl to hear Anya Sherikov‘s voice coming from the cyborg butler’s mouth. “I’d be less tense if you’d tell me where we’re going,” he muttered.
“We’re going to the place where all your questions will find their answers. Here’s the door.”
The air was uncomfortably hot. They’d been walking for what seemed like hours through a maze of twisting corridors. By now, they must be somewhere close to the heart of Avenir, near the power core. The metal bulkheads resonated with eerie sounds—clanks, hums, whistles and gurgling. The valet stood before an oval hatch at the end of the corridor and palmed a square glass plate set into the left side above a recessed handle.
John’s head snapped up at a high-pitched whine overhead. Two laser turrets emerged from the ceiling, one trained on him, the other on the valet. The door plate glowed green, and something clicked within the hatch. The valet tugged on the handle and motioned to John as the door silently swung open, releasing a welcome rush of cool air.
“Please, come in. I’ll leave your man here for the return trip,” Anya said, then the valet froze in position, eyes blank, jaw slack, bent slightly forward at the waist. John edged past, through the hatchway, and the door swung shut behind him.
The corridor continued, but it was rounder, more tunnel-like, and sheathed in some soft material that silenced John’s footsteps and the other ambient noises of the station. He could see the end of it, a brilliantly-lit opening painful to look at after so much time spent in semidarkness. He had to cover his eyes with one hand as he drew closer, pressing the other hand against the corridor wall until he felt it give way to open space.
Anya’s voice came from within, and the sound reverberated through what sounded like an immense emptiness. “Your eyes will adjust in a few moments. Welcome to my home, John.”
Tears dribbled from the corners of his eyes as he strained to open them in the blinding light. Shapes began to form, white within white, darkening to vague shadows, then taking form and focus. The room was huge, as big as any concert hall on Avenir, and lined with ovoid structures, each at least five meters high and twice that in diameter, connected to each other and to the walls of the chamber by an array of pipes and conduits. Cyborgs shuffled about at the margins, inspecting panels and adjusting controls. John staggered into the room, head swiveling, trying to comprehend what he was seeing.
“Thinking of buying the place? I’m afraid I’m too attached to it to sell outright, but I might consider letting you move into one of the spare rooms.”
He spun around. She stood before him, eyes blue and laughing, golden hair tumbling across her shoulders, resplendent in crimson--the same dress she’d worn at their first meeting.
Anya Sherikov, scion of Mikhail Sherikov, Avenir’s original communications officer, heir to his power and authority.
John struggled to gather his wits. He was a businessman—the best of his generation. He couldn’t blindly accept Anya’s proposal, no matter how overwhelmed he felt or how beautiful she looked. He needed evidence of her good faith. He needed collateral.
She smiled. “Now I can formally introduce you to the community. We rarely have visitors, but there is provision for a temporary connection to our virtual space. There’s a comfortable couch in the alcove, over there. My drones will make the necessary attachments. The resolution doesn’t compare to a hardwired link, but...”
“No. First, I want to see you, Anya.”
“I don’t understand. I’m standing right here. Perhaps your eyes still need time to adjust.”
“The real you. No holograms, no video, no illusions. Otherwise, there’s no deal. You’ll have to find yourself another successor.”
“The real me? Ah, the stories. You’re afraid I’m a mutated horror, or a disembodied brain immersed in a nutrient vat. Believe me, I’m as human as you are. This hologram is a true image...well, perhaps with a few cosmetic enhancements for vanity’s sake. Besides, John, a lady values her privacy, and Dreamers even more so. This is a rude request. Most of us wouldn’t grant it. Some would destroy you for merely asking.”
“If you’re my future, I need to see with my own eyes exactly what that means.”
“Silly boy. The body is only a reservoir for the spirit. In a few weeks, you won’t care about it at all. You’ll barely remember what it was like to be so limited.”
“You want my trust. This is the price.”
She sighed. “Very well.” A drone turned from his inspection of a data panel and took John by the arm. “Follow him,” Anya said, “but I’ll tolerate no gawking. My dignity still matters to me, even while floating naked in a preservation chamber.”
Anya chuckled and shook her head. “No, you idiot, I’m not naked. You make it far too easy, John Milton. Have your look—I’ve no more time for these ridiculous superstitions.”
The cyborg guided John to one of the white ovoids and passed a hand over a glass plate on its side. A circular panel irised open, revealing a small porthole. The interior illuminated, and after a moment’s hesitation, John looked inside.
Anya’s body lay motionless within the liquid-filled chamber, nestled in a spiderweb of thin cables and tubes. The hologram was a true image, and yet...beneath the white gown and skinsuit her body looked thin and fragile, emaciated. A cascade of blond hair framed hollow cheeks. Her skin was sallow and her eyes shadowed.
Her voice whispered over his shoulder, and he thought the pale lips of the woman sleeping within the chamber might have moved along with it. “Satisfied?”
John nodded. “You’re beautiful, even now. Your illness...how much longer will you live?”
“A few months. Perhaps a year, if I’m fortunate. Time enough to teach you all you need to take my place.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’ve had a full life—several of them, by your standards. The preservation technology is very effective at easing the ravages of time, but death finds us all, eventually.”
The drone closed the panel, and John turned to find Anya’s hologram watching him with a faint, sad smile, eyes bright with an illusion of moisture so vivid, he had to restrain the impulse to reach out and touch her face.