I stood on the viewing platform in the crystal globe's centre, listening to the dull rush of silky purple fluid across its outer surface. In front of me was a triplet of screens with readings on high contrast backgrounds: warnings beeped across them in warm colours, and a 3D diagram of the globe registered the external disruption in its seismometer-like reading.
'I can't get used to it,' Dr Schwarz said.
I turned around to look at him standing there behind me. A stream of corridor lights began to die, starting with those furthest from him. Dimples tightened and broke through his scarred cheeks. His scalp shifted as he smiled, but his hair didn't: it was gelled into a rigid bowl.
'If there's no chance of us evacuating, maybe a chain will crash through the globe and have us all drowned,' I said. 'Save us the daily "what-if" heartache.'
'Yeah, yeah,' he said, laughing.
He joined me in watching the globe: it sat on a crater-shaped plinth atop the Smart Dynamics Facility's black metal shell. Long chains outside, sprouting from its surface, waved around to gather the force of eddies thrust against them: one came crashing down and purple lightning fired off in all directions, crackling as the energy dissipated - they were poorly tuned.
'Follow me,' Schwarz said. 'The subject's speaking again.'
The subject's room had burial chamber walls, lined with sooty copper, each metal panel's corner scorched by a yellow flame. The smell... incense.
'Hi, son,' Dr Schwarz said. 'How've you been?'
The subject looked haunted: had the experiments changed the colour of his eyes? They were a foggy blue, but I couldn't remember if they ever looked different. Being down here messed with my memory.
I walked over to the zinc slab slicing out the wall and opened the journal that lay on top to read from the last test transcript. The corresponding case report read:
Case #0000289: "JR"
'When was this experiment conducted?' I asked Schwarz.
'Three days ago.'
'Without my consent.'
'There were complications with your globe. You were busy all day.'
'It's fine this once. But that's it.' I tied my hair into a low bun.
'It was a good one though, right kid?' Dr Schwarz said.
'Dude,' I said, 'don't you hate being called "kid" or "the subject" all the time?'
'Fine. I used to go by Junior.'
'How do you feel, Junior?' I asked.
'Splitting headaches, two times a day. The white light flares up and I have a five-minute window to stop it with painkillers or the day's gone.'
'And the fits?'
'Only one since last time.'
'Progress,' Schwarz said. He turned to me and Junior stuck up his middle fingers behind Schwarz's back. I smirked.
'Ready to go again?' I said.
'As ever,' Junior said.
Dr Schwarz turned to a clean page in the journal, hopping onto the table and poising his pen. In the wall's embedded autoclave was the exchanger, a large sleek metal spike with a circular base. I took it and slipped it into the aperture drilled and stretched into the base of Junior's skull, poking it up through each of the brain's structures of interest, triggering a release of the device's electrolytic adhesive. The screen on the base lit up and readings, the images of Junior's mind's many voices, flowered out from a central point on its little screen.
I walked round the front of Junior and nodded to Dr Schwarz, who clenched his jaw with determination. I sat down on the table beside him.
'When you're ready,' I said, cutting Schwarz off.
'I'm embarrassed about this one,' Junior said.
'Hey,' I said, 'it's not like you're in control of the visions. Let's just get it all written down and you can stop thinking about it.'
Junior chewed on a knuckle and looked away, but subsided and met my eyes again.
'I'm a little boy,' he said. 'I just have that sense.'
'How old?' Schwarz said.
'Doctor!' I said.
He looked at me like I'd lost it.
'We agreed that you wouldn't guide the visions.'
'I'm walking through a house,' Junior continued. 'It looks like my old family home, but all the walls have aged and turned grey. There's a snail on the ceiling and a smell of mould. Something is wrong.'
Dr Schwarz continued to scribble, noting in the margins: Snail description? Obtain later...
The exchanger beeped with a heightened pace.
'I'm walking to the upstairs bedroom door,' Junior said, his eyes closing tightly. 'It's grey and peeling. The wood beneath the dead paint is weathered. I feel the wet floorboards beneath my feet and look down at them and the floor is rotting, the fibres splitting from each other like hay. I open the door and trace my eye along the slats. I see the bare legs of what I know are my nan and grandpa. If I keep looking, I'm gonna see them naked, you know? But I'm scared to be in this house alone.'
'Continue, please,' Schwarz said, looking at me as if mock-pleading to speak. I frowned back.
'I hide a little behind the door,' Junior said. 'I breathe deeply. I open the door fully and see an ebony cross on the wall in front of my grandparents. It's upside down.'
!!! Schwarz wrote. Is he sure ebony? Or painted black?
'They're kneeling by the bed,' Junior said, the horror of his dream as seen by a child brought through in his eyes, his creeping posture, his wavering voice. 'Their hands are together in prayer and... their underwear is pulled down to their knees. They turn to face me and I try to scream but I can't and I see their faces and they're -'
The beeps got so close together they merged into a single stream of high-pitched noise, which held for a second then broke apart again.
Schwarz got up and marched towards him. 'They have snakes' faces, don't they? Tell me what you see!'
I gripped Schwarz's elbow to hold him back, but he tugged it free and marched forwards.
'They're not...' Junior said.
A stream of milky vomit erupted from Junior's mouth and splattered on the floor. He sounded like a demon resisting exorcism. He fell face forward into the sick and seized, flopped around, his mouth still full.
'Shit!' Schwarz said, his trousers and smock emitting a vapour of sick.
I lay Junior on his side and twisted the exchanger to disengage it.
'You're not supposed to do that!' Schwarz said.
'And you agreed not to guide him,' I said.
Schwarz pushed the emergency button by the door. He took the exchanger from me and held me back from the door with one arm.
Two medics in yellowy-green nylon uniforms ran in, generically handsome men with strong jaws - the blond one was shorter.
'Hey!' one of the medics said. 'Can you hear me?'
Once Junior stopped seizing, he was carried back to his bed.
The blond medic watched, pressing both palms into his back. 'Guys,' he said, 'whatever it is that's making this happen is getting worse. You can't keep doing this to the poor kid.'
'He's the reason you're not down below,' Schwarz said.
'Can't you at least get a new subject?'
Schwarz sighed. 'This kid was the only subject who scored highly enough in clairvoyance. No one else was proficient. You knew this going in.'
The medics shot Schwarz dirty looks.
'Tell me it's good,' Schwarz said, handing me the exchanger.
I wiped the synthetic mucus from the probe and turned it to read the dial. 'Three ninety-one over two seventy.'
'Is that all?'
'We didn't go on for very long this time.'
'The efficiency at least?'
'About... seventy per cent.'
He grabbed the device from my hands and looked at it, holding his breath. 'That's the biggest leap since -'
'Ever, but I've never seen him get ill so fast.'
'I've examined the data. His reactions are flukes. Nothing to do with our experiments.'
The medics walked out.
Schwarz grunted and left.
The room's light grew dimmer. I walked to the dumbwaiter and requested a standard pack of toiletries, using wet wipes to clean Junior's face, toilet paper to mop up the floor and sanitiser to clean my hands. I requested "incinerator" and dropped the used supplies back in the dumbwaiter. Watching Junior made me feel weak, so I returned to the table to lie down for a while, on my side, a parallel of Junior's position.
Fields of artificial grass grew all over the planet and had their own floating islands, their own invisible air balloons. The grass was made of smart fibres that predicted the motion of the wind down to the molecule and bent to catch the greatest fraction of its energy, much like real grass bent towards the sun.
After the flood, the grass was too fragile to use, and most of the fibres were destroyed.
I'd already been working in the Smart Dynamics Facility. Ours was the world's first and only subsea smart fibre plant. The initial investment required was much higher for subsea: the "fibres" were heavy chains, and the building's walls had to be thick enough to withstand the sea's hydrostatic pressure. The facility was about a tenth of the size of a standardised industry-scale plant. I'd been working with bench scale models of the plant in my lab as a postgrad, and Smart Dynamics sought me out for the job of getting the facility up and running.
When the flood happened, we were still in the testing phase, but others soon arrived and dug out the city-sized bunker, told me we were getting the first colony, a population as big as could be sustained by the energy of one inefficient subsea globe. My testing was halted and the government forced me to maximise the energy efficiency as far as safely practicable.
All of us soon retreated from the surface to live beneath the seabed - well, all former land was seabed now.
Other colonies had to make do with less developed means to harness wave or geothermal energy, lest they return to more primitive energy sources. The luckiest colonies had the resources to develop long-term sustainable subsea cities, or cities that would float and weather the storm. The floating cities-in-progress were anchored to the seabed and constructed by divers, to be launched upon completion, taking their colonies with them back to the surface; or, they were made on precarious platforms floating on the water and tied back to the colonies by long, tense wires. I couldn't imagine how depressing it must be to build a new city in the raging storm that sunk the cities beneath it, in that purple darkness, on a black sea in thick rain from a sky of black clouds, in the harsh white of floodlights.
Every other colony had to prove that at least some of its constituents could contribute something new and useful to a surviving civilisation. There were clean water, waste recycling, food production, military and even colony-wide artistic projects: theatre pieces with thousands of actors, enormous murals and full colony symphonies that took days to perform. Most elected to develop the technology to harness energy from new sources, working on everything from compact thorium reactors to volcanic probes, cold fusion and even attempts to harvest radiation from black holes. Few projects involved the whole colony, from what I'd heard, but if a project made it, the whole colony associated with it would be saved. Wasn't that just the way...
Rather than choosing to optimise the Smart Dynamics Facility, scaling up the subsea technology to harness wave energy, our colony was seduced by Dr Schwarz, an esteemed scientist in the field of oneiric engineering, which he himself pioneered. He presented the colony with his exchanger, and his dangerous experiments were expediently sanctioned. I convinced him he needed my expertise in nanofluidics to perfect the exchanger's electrolytic membrane, so I could at least carry on performing some sort of research as well spend as much time as possible in my globe and minimising the number of new people I had to meet. I'd always liked being alone, and underwater, even as a kid: I may have been the only one subsea out of choice.
Our colony was set to join a floating city if we could create an affordable and suitably efficient exchanger before the globe crashed. The globe was designed to weather a hundred-year storm, a theoretical overdesign at the time; now, a hundred years was a very real measure of the facility's destruction.
A slap woke me up. My right shoulder ached and my head slumped on the metal table.
I was looking right up Junior's nose. 'Oh... shit... Sorry, I didn't mean to -'
'This is my room, love!'
'I was just making sure -'
'You didn't stick that thing in my head while I was asleep, did you?'
'Don't you think Schwarz would have done that already if it worked?'
It just slipped out. He looked at me, horrified.
'I made sure the device will only work if it registers consciousness,' I said.
'Hah! That's reassuring. You need to leave.'
'Wait!' I held out my hand. He had no authority to make me go, though I wanted to respect his decision. 'That house, your grandparents... Did that really happen to you?'
He went to sit in the revolving black chair we used for the experiments, spinning around. 'They're just visions. They don't mean anything.' He shot me a sardonic smile. 'What do you dream of, Dr Brook?'
'When we don't have to do more of these experiments. Anything you can offer me to help us get there?'
His smile faded. 'What would you have me tell you?'
I didn't know.
The light in Dr Schwarz's office revealed every remaining pore on his face.
'Do you have coffee?' I said. 'You'll never believe that I -'
'Slept in the subject's room?'
Did he have cameras in there? 'I was worried.'
'And I was trying to earn his trust.'
I grabbed at a clipboard at the table to examine Schwarz's scrawlings, but he snatched it back from me and said 'Coffee's over there,' flicking me a sharp nod.
I poured a cup from his personal canteen. Our conditions in the facility were monumentally better than in the bunker - but Schwarz's coffee still tasted better than mine.
I sat in front of him. On his desk were several sheets of paper, all at skewed angles, linked by obscure drawings.
'I've been trying to map his world,' Schwarz said. 'I'm convinced all the visions take place in the same space. The kid was raised by his grandparents. Did you know that?'
'How did you find that out?'
'Bribes. But he wasn't much of a talker back in the bunker either.' He flipped up pages of a clipboard, skimming through his notes. 'In earlier dreams, I noticed that someone kept visiting the city of his mind. Some weird cobbled together version of Junior's father from early memories, distorted through a sort of impressionistic lens. Why?'
'A wild assumption,' I said. 'Dreams don't have rules. They're never obliged to mean anything. You can't make deterministic sense out of chaos.'
Schwarz leaned forward and clasped his hands together. He stood up and his aluminium chair skidded behind him. 'Isn't that the whole point of being a scientist?' he said. 'Didn't they say the same of turbulent fluids, Dr Brook? Did you ever think you would see a globe like ours?'
'Like mine,' I said. 'I enjoyed the mystery: before we had a theory for turbulence, technology could only approach its true movement, minimise errors, improve predictions - never gain a clear picture. I trusted that idea: felt the same as when I tried to make sense out of anything in life.' I swirled a spoon in my coffee and watched the resulting vortex as it lost energy. 'I hate dreams. They sound like stories, but they aren't. They don't have any rules. They don't proceed with any consequence or meaning transferred between events. They're totally pointless. And the only thing more dull than keeping a dream journal is journaling the dreams of someone else.'
'But what do you suppose is the purpose of clairvoyance? These aren't just dreams: they mean something.'
'How could we translate them into something useful?'
'I have my theories. But surely you wouldn't want me to know the outcome before I investigate?'
'You should know intuitively which investigative paths will lead to nothing.'
He shook his head. 'You're trying to tell me that our fate rests on the work of an uncurious scientist.'
'An efficient scientist,' I said. 'I don't waste my time examining outliers.'
'I have a strategy.'
'Don't you think our interference is likely to alter the trajectory of his accounts?'
'Then how do you explain the jumps in efficiency?' he said. 'Each night, I have taken the exchanger from the autoclave. I've been speaking to it, telling it my predictions about the world it sees, and together, Junior and I are getting closer to describing it. Improving the prediction, minimising the errors - just like you said.'
'This is insane!'
'You disappoint me. I wanted to brainstorm this with you.'
'"Thought shower" is the appropriate term. Especially when our patient is an epileptic.'
'We're giving Junior the fits,' he said.
'But you said to the medics -'
'Lies. He would be perfectly healthy otherwise. But think of the... where are you going?'
I was at the door. Schwarz stood up and tugged on the string attached to a blind used for presentations, and it curled up, revealing a large touchscreen on the wall, with more mind maps and drawings and notes. I read around the spiral of his schematic:
Case #0000289: "JR"
Description: Available in case file.
Symbols: Improbable return of the father. MOTHER MISSING.
Tattoos of eyes and cross. VISIONS OF OUR SAVIOUR.
Comments: First dream deemed of sufficient symbolic merit for record. Some symbols were not captured by the subject (additional tattoos). Likely a serpent or ♀
Case #0000290: "JR"
Symbols: The upside-down cross. ANTI/COUNTER/CONTRARY
Grandparents. OLD REGIME.
Comments: Promising but as yet inconclusive. Predictions for Dream 3 based on personal experience:
FEMALE ∩ TRANSPORT ∩ STRENGTH
The world is building!!
'More wild assumptions!' I said. 'What are you looking for? And what do you mean "personal experience"?'
'The scars,' he stroked his face, 'my father's bulbous head. A flying serpent with a metal tongue, the shape of an inverted cross, branding my stomach black. I've seen them all.'
'I'm a clairvoyant, Dr Brook.'
'What? Then... why aren't we experimenting on you? You know how valuable every subject is to us. Why didn't you tell me?'
He held one hand over the other, resting in his lap as he sat on the edge of his desk. 'Soon, I will be able to dream while awake,' he said. 'Using Junior's visions, I have noted the common symbols between us, and I will be able to command my own visions at will.'
'Was that the real purpose of our experiments?'
'Through my dreams I will call her,' he said. 'She will evaporate the roiling seas into a gentle cleansing rain.' He rubbed his hands up and down his arms and shoulders.
'Who is she?'
'The Serpent,' he said. He touched upon the screen and a sketch of a long black serpent faded into view, drawn over Schwarz's notes. 'The Serpent of Antimatter. To call her, we must describe the world she wants to save. The world of Junior's mind.'
'Antimatter? You think that would get us out of this? If there's any truth to what you're saying, it will destroy us all!'
'She will restore the sun.' Schwarz's eyes glazed over and he heralded the imaginary serpent, staring at the ceiling. I backed out the room and slammed the door behind me, but Schwarz continued talking to himself. 'Her arrival will be the rebirth of our world.'
I returned to the globe to see if I could catch a crashing chain. No luck. The motion of the fluid on the glass was enough to calm my nerves somewhat. Bulks of it in purple streams flowing this way and that, a dark communiqué.
I had briefly engaged in a fantasy of a clean future with an exchanger in the brain of every clairvoyant, when Schwarz first arrived. An attractive, luxury object, safe enough to wear at all times. Kids would point and say 'Cool! Look, it's a clairvoyant!' On sunny days, guys and girls alike would see the base's blinding sheen like the head of a brass split pin and look on in awe. 'What good people to wear something like that to look after our energy needs!' the energy pooling wirelessly from every viable subject in our new floating city.
The dream slipped away.
The exchanger was not an energy harnessing tool but a divining rod, gauging the accuracy of Junior's visions to the city that Schwarz was trying to describe. Our experiments were much more riddled with bias than I could have imagined. It wasn't my mind that I listened to; it was the sea: she wanted me to find the answer, to develop the right technology. If we didn't succeed, she would kill us.
But I had a plan. First, I had to convince Junior to return to the colony and use the emergency transport channels to the Delphi Colony. There he could strike a deal to provide us with back-up energy. We would form an alliance with them to ensure our combined success. Why not? I had my globe, developed technology, at my disposal: I just had to get back to calibrating it, and with Junior gone, our colony would have no better option. Through an allegiance, Delphi and our colony, Asclepius, could be the first non-city colonies to secure their survival.
On the off chance there was any truth in Schwarz's ramblings, I didn't have much time. He sounded too close to obtaining what he wanted from Junior, and given his treatment of the boy so far, what then for either of us?
I met Schwarz back in Junior's room. Junior pleaded at me with his eyes, but I proceeded as usual.
'I want the medics present this time,' he said.
I looked to Schwarz: fury contorted his face.
'We can do that,' I said. 'Doctor, if you would?'
Schwarz hopped off the table and left.
'Junior,' I whispered, 'I need to speak with you. I have a plan and I need your help.'
He could see in my face that I was serious.
'Tonight,' I said, 'we're going to return to the colony. But if you stay there, Schwarz will come looking for you. We need to get you to a neighbouring colony, and from there you'll -'
The doors opened and Schwarz returned with the medics.
'Let's not have any more delays,' Schwarz said. 'If you would, kid, proceed.'
'Fine,' Junior said. 'This isn't over.' His eyes rolled towards me for a microsecond, and back to the doctor.
Schwarz sat on the table. Junior bowed his head to look at me past lowered brows. I ignored them both and inserted the exchanger rather too briskly, and Junior grabbed his head in pain.
'I'm in an underground station this time,' he said. 'The walls, floor and benches: they're all covered in ashes. Ashes and spiderwebs broken by the ashes blowing about. They look like carrier bags of dust hanging from threads that line the ceiling.'
'What does decay mean to you, Junior?' Schwarz said.
'Junior,' I said, 'you don't have to answer. Just keep going.'
Beep beep beep.
'There's no exit or entrance to the station. I figure I must be waiting for a train. The tracks are the colour of coal, and the stones beneath are damp and grey. The ashes start to shake and fall, and -'
'Look to the tracks, Junior! Who is there? There's someone there: tell me who it is!'
'It's a girl.'
'Doctor!' I shouted.
Beep beep beep beep.
'She's running on the tracks.' Junior forced his eyes shut and punched fists into his cheeks. His jaw locked.
'Resist it!' the doctor said.
'Stop this! You're just forcing him to make this up!' I got up and walked to Junior and Schwarz shoved me to the ground. I hit my head on the table on the way down. The blond medic came over to offer me his hand, to raise me back up, but I shuffled beneath the table, so he crouched in front of me to keep a barrier between me and Schwarz, who crowded over Junior's meek frame.
'Behind her are large, rusty freight train carriages,' Junior said. 'But they aren't carrying anything. The girl doesn't have any arms, and -'
He fell to his knees and vomited. There were spots of blood in it this time.
'Get out of the way!' the other medic said. 'We need to deal with this.'
'I need the exchanger,' I said to the medic crouched over me. 'The exchanger? The thing you saw me put in his head!'
'I can't touch that!'
'Just pull it out: it's doing more damage in there!'
The medic held Junior's head to keep the tongue from flopping back over the airway while the other placed his fingers carefully around the exchanger's hilt, pulling it out and examining it with horror, handing it back to me.
'Give it here!' Schwarz said, snatching the exchanger from me. I stayed on the floor. I looked to the medics, but I couldn't help them. Schwarz walked briskly out of the room.
Junior lay in the recovery position. I knelt beside him and stroked his hair. The reports were shorter, the damage more severe, as if Junior's trauma and Schwarz's mission were converging.
'Rest, son,' I said. 'I'm coming back this evening.'
Junior was still unconscious.
'He can't do this to you anymore.'
I stayed awake late, plotting Junior's route to Delphi Colony, trying to obtain permission from relevant layers of authority.
'The subject is out!' Schwarz stood behind me in the doorway.
I shuddered when I heard his voice, and now spun to face him, angling my body to cover the screen.
He must have known what I was doing. Junior was a volunteer. He could do what he liked. I said as much to Schwarz.
'Did you really believe that?' he said.
Junior didn't know my plan. Now he was out - had escaped, at night?
'We need to get to the globe!' I said.
We ran along the corridor tiles, propelled by the rubber grip of our boots, and as we ran, a clattering of metal on crystal grew louder, until out of the darkness ahead emerged Junior on his chair, chipping away at the globe's crystal. It looked like he was punching it, until we got closer and I saw the spike of the exchanger in his hand.
'You're destroying it!' I shouted.
He turned to look down at me. He balanced the chair on its two front legs to close the distance between him on the platform and the globe's surface, his atrophic little legs clouded in a billow of hospital robe.
'What am I destroying?' he said. 'The exchanger or the globe?'
'My plan!' I said. 'I was gonna get you out of here.'
'Serpent', Schwarz said. 'I offer you the world you desire. Take it from this boy. Give us back our land.'
'What is he talking about?' Junior said.
'Come with me, quickly,' I said. 'I'll fix this.'
'Clear his world of decay. Accept its offering of re-birth!'
Junior grabbed at his head and we crept forwards. If he snapped and stabbed himself with the exchanger or if he broke the globe, we were done.
'No!' he said, opening his eyes again. 'Stay where you are!'
We froze. I grit my teeth. Schwarz's eyes were alive with mania.
'The globe...' Junior said. 'I heard you talking about it. It's designed for a hundred-year storm. What about the storm in my head?'
'Now, Serpent!' Schwarz said.
We felt a soundless shockwave from outside that blew us backwards, screeching along the corridor. I cracked my head. I tried to raise myself back up on a handrail, but it vibrated too much to hold and pained my fingers to touch. All the lights glowed brighter than I'd ever seen, and in the globe was light and outside was air, no water, just sky, clear, bright sky... kilometres of ocean depths cleared in one blast. A shadow took over again and the water rushed outside, a big dark blanket crashing back down, and all the chains smashed against the crystal at once and purple lightning spread out and burst into a beautiful spiral of fractals, and as a branch reached the chipped-out fissure, everything slowed down and a crack spread across the surface like we were in a water balloon bursting in slow motion, the purple glow blasting us, black waves rushing in.