The Heretic – Snippet 09
When Abel awoke, he was looking at his reflection in still water. His head ached.
Not still water. Probably blood, he thought. My blood. I’m seeing my reflection in my own blood. Must be a lot of it.
He reached for the blood to see if it were still warm. Maybe this was what it was like to be dead.
His hand stopped against the shiny surface. He pushed harder. The water was solid, and it wasn’t water at all. More like stone. Smooth stone.
Abel sat up. He was surrounded by himself. He moved. Many other Abels moved with him.
Reflections. But there were dozens. It was as if he were inside a gem.
Where am I?
Abel stood up. He walked forward. One step, two. He ran into himself, nose to nose. Reached for his face. More smoothness.
Not blood, not reflecting water. This was a room made of looking glass. Mirrors. He’d only seen one once before. His mother’s friend Dagmar in Garangipore had a small glass she used to apply the khol liner to her eyes. That she could do this without poking her eyes with the liner pencil had fascinated and scared Abel, and he’d liked to watch.
Yet this glass was different. Brighter. Completely reflective. Where did the light come from, anyway?
Suddenly Abel lashed out, swung at a wall as hard as he could with his fist.
Pain shot through his hand.
Nothing, not the slightest effect on the wall. A smarting hand. Abel nursed it to his side while considering his next move.
It might help your plans for escape if you had some idea where you are, wouldn’t it lad? And just who and what you are dealing with. The gruff voice had returned again. He hadn’t managed to smash it out of his skull after all.
Then, as a man might step through a waterfall at the Second Cataract (Abel had seen it happen once; there were caves behind the falls), a tall man with pale skin, dark hair, and a curly black beard stepped out of one of the mirrored walls and came to stand beside Abel. The man wore strange garb. Abel had never seen fabric so uniformly smooth. His own trousers and tunic were made from beaten flax fiber and always felt scratchy.
In addition to a shirt that covered the man’s arms down to just below the elbow, the man wore not a well-bred man’s muslin trousers but the kind of baggy legged pants that only beggars and wastelanders wore in the Land. These pants were stuffed into black boots of what must be the finest herbidak leather Abel had ever seen. He wanted to touch those boots just to see if they were as supple as they looked.
“Hello, lad, I’m Raj Whitehall,” the man said. He gestured at the surrounding mirrored walls. “And this, all around us? This is Center.”
Greetings, Abel. The voice came from everywhere and nowhere in the mirrored room. We were concerned, but the danger has now passed. I am effecting repairs on the trauma your actions have cause to your brain. My efforts will allow you to avoid a convalescent period and, in fact, keep you from experiencing any ill effects at all, to a ninety-three percent probability.
“This is like the flying, isn’t it?” Abel said to Raj — mostly because he knew where to look when speaking to him. “It’s not really a. . .a simulation. This is a –” He searched for the new terminology, found it, implanted,”– mind-space.”
“You’re in the district prelate’s house, lying on his wife’s sleeping pallet,” Raj replied. “Your father and she are watching over you until you wake up. You managed to give yourself a fine concussion.”
Raj smiled. His big white teeth shone brightly in his black beard, making him look less like a wastelander and more like a Redland barbarian.
“Father found me?” Abel asked.
“That he did,” Raj replied. “The high priest was with him, too. It caused quite a stir. You got picked up and taken to Prelate Zilkovsky’s home on a private litter.”
“Father must be worried.”
“He was. And by the sound of his voice, a bit terrified that he would lose you as he did his woman. I would not expect him to be in a happy mood when you wake up.”
Abel was in the priest’s house. He lay propped up on pillows upon a sleeping pallet. The walls of the room were painted white with a wash that Abel knew had to be very expensive. He smelled the familiar odor of surkrat cooking somewhere, a dish his mother had made. His father paced back and forth, his sandals slapping in rhythm against the ceramic tile floor.
Then Abel was back in the mirrored room.
“I want to wake up. I want to tell Father I’m all right.”
“In good time,” Raj answered. He hunched down to face Abel eye to eye. “Let Center do his work upon you first, lad.” Raj settled into a crisscross position on the floor. He did not fidget, and seemed like a man accustomed to occasionally sitting on floors — or wherever the situation called for.
“You dress funny, but you look kind of like a man.”
Raj smiled. His teeth flashed within his dark beard. “That’s right, lad, I’m a simulation,” he said. “But a good one. I even manage to fool myself.”
“You’re not real.”
“I used to be.” Raj nodded as if remembering, though how could a simulation really remember anything? “A fighter. Then a soldier. Helped bring a world or two out of darkness.”
“Center is no simulation. He’s here on Duisberg, contained in that capsule in the storehouse. And, in a way, so am I.”
“Then how come I see you when I’m supposed to be asleep in the prelate’s house?”
Raj nodded, thinking. Then he smiled and spoke. “You know how the Signal Corps has those towers along the road?”
“Those are for wigwag. You can send a message, or get one.”
“Well think of it like this: there’s a little wigwag tower in your head now, lad. We talk to you that way.”
“And you can change things?”
“What do you mean?”
“In my head. Like make me forget about my mother. Wipe her out. You could do that, couldn’t you? And when you find out I’m not the one you’re looking for, you’re going to wipe her out. Like a rake on sand.”
He felt a sob coming on. How could you sob in simulation? You shouldn’t be able to. It wasn’t fair.
“Lad, we won’t take your mother away.”
Abel felt his teeth clenching, his whole body clenching. He didn’t want to say it, didn’t want to admit it even to himself.
“Doesn’t matter anyway.”
“What?” said Raj. “I don’t understand, lad.”
“Because I’m forgetting what she looked like,” he said.
Raj’s hard face softened. “So that’s it.”
Interesting. The room filled with Center’s voice. Your precipitous action was a distant outlier in my own calculations. It’s not often that I am out-thought, especially by a six-year-old.
But now that he had his point, Abel was not going to let go of it. He was being stubborn. He didn’t care. “You can wipe my mother away, can’t you?”
Raj nodded. “We could, lad.”
“Leave her alone,” Abel said. “Just leave her alone.”
Raj reached out, touched Abel’s shoulder, but Abel jerked away. “I’ll kill you both if you touch her,” he murmured.
“You have my word, lad,” Raj said. “Wouldn’t serve any purpose.”
“You’re a simulation. You’re just. . .you’re just a nothing. I don’t like you. I don’t trust you.”
Raj shook his head. Abel risked a glance at him. He seemed sad.
“It’s the way of all things,” he said. “Maybe we’ll earn your friendship, Abel. But we’re going to have to stick together anyway.”
“How come you are doing this to me?”
“We have to reach you when you were little, before the Law of Zentrum gets all the way beaten into your brain, that’s why.”
Suddenly, as loud as he could, Abel formed a thought. He wasn’t going to say it. He was going to shout it. I can get both of you out of my head! Any time, I can!
That is correct, Abel. But at the cost of your own life, said Center.
I’d rather be dead than a slave.
Raj rose to his knees from the crisscross sitting position. For a moment he looked Abel straight in the eyes. Abel returned the gaze with a glare.
Raj took Abel by the shoulders. Abel looked down at the backs of Raj’s big hands.
He could shake me to death with those. Well, let him try.
Abel pushed Raj’s hands away, crossed his own arms and continued to glare.
Then Raj threw his shaggy head back and began to laugh. “Oh, we’ve found the one, all right.”