When I come to, the lab is empty.
I sit up, and the projected heart monitor on the wall behind me is beeping erratically. My hand shoots to my middle; my black jumpsuit is firmly in place. The room blurs for a minute; I take shallow breaths to calm down. My mouth is sour, and it feels like someone took nails to the back of my throat.
I’m sitting on the dark leather chaise in RL21. I hold the settee tightly and my fingers make contact with the cold steel underbelly. The darkness feels different, but the light never does. It’s always the same when I wake up – like waking up from a nightmare. Or maybe into one, because I know it’s only a matter of time before I die again. I’m not sure which one is worse – dying, or knowing you’ll keep dying for a very long time.
On the metal med stand beside the chaise is a plastic water bottle. It feels wobbly in my hands, too solid, too real. I touch my stomach again. There’s nothing there. It wasn’t me who died, but at the same time, it was. I died. Except I didn’t. The water burns the back of my throat as it slides down. I choke on it, like I choked on my blood earlier – like she choked on her blood earlier – and my mouth feels dry again.
I take a tentative step to test my balance; the floor is hard and firm. I pass, and hobble over to the desk against the opposite wall. There’s a pen there and a pad of paper – a bit old fashioned – but it feels real. And when you wake up from a real-not-real alt-con, you appreciate the finer things. I roll the pen around in my hand before pressing it against the paper. Solid, solid, solid; very, very, very real. The blue ink sinks into the paper.
Remembering a Rereading is like trying to recall details from a nightmare you just woke up from. It’s never just a plain dream; if a Rereading order has been passed, there wasn’t a happy ending. I don’t get to relive happy endings. I relive the endings that go wrong. I press my head to the desk and try to extract a single brick without the entire skyscraper crumbling down on top of me. A sharp pain shoots to my stomach. Death hurts. It seizes; twists; rips; destroys. And you feel it, the burst of every atom; the numbing pain that slowly paralyses; the struggling beat of your heart; the desperate inhale of your lungs; the useless floundering of your limbs; the everything that does nothing at all because you can’t beat death.
When the pain hits you don’t think about the big questions that matter, you think about the smaller things. Like never smelling fresh roses again, or seeing that cute guy from IT again, or drinking a cuppa with your friends on a winter’s eve. The kind of things that don’t help people like me. The kind of things that clutter and take up space. To get to the good stuff I need to delve in deep. It frustrates me because seconds ago, it was clear, it was there, and now it’s slipped like water from my fingertips into the endless depths of consciousness.
I struggle and struggle; I think and think; I write and write, and when I’m done and the words have been scratched into countless pages, I don’t feel better. I feel worse, like I’ve missed something. If I did, I can’t get it back. It’s gone. You can only Reread once; the tissue sample tends to gradually disintegrate during the process. I file the pages together. I don’t even know her name; the less information a Rereader has about the victim, the less chance of interference in alt-con.
RL21 is one of the smaller labs, and the second room dedicated to the REM Protocol in Precinct: Loscester. The precinct has its own nuclear power source buried deep beneath the base; all the walls are reinforced with metal. In the RL rooms, they tend not to focus on aesthetics. The walls are a bare brown metal, the floor is steel. There’s a leather chaise toward the back, and right above it, a small laser that redirects the computerised nerve signals. On the wall behind the chaise, the projected health screen glows an eerie blue. The only other item of interest is the desk by the door where I do my transcribing and a small loveseat where a doctor is supposed to wait, to avoid complications during the procedure – but Dr Midhurst is conspicuously absent. Instead, in his place, there is a ripped piece of paper with almost illegible scribbles defacing the front:
It was important – the note reads. I squash the paper in my hands and shove the crumpled ball into my pocket. I try not to focus on it; wandering thoughts tend to make the memories retained from alt-con even hazier. If there was something else I could remember, I should remember it now, while there is still time to add to the file. I feel it isn’t important though, because I have all the main information: I have the killer’s name; I know he was high on Lysphil; I know he had a prior relationship with the victim and the stabbing was a passion killing. Combined with the facts the Precinct likely had on file, it didn’t require investigation – only an arrest.
The jumpsuit clings to my skin uncomfortably. Dr Midhurst insists I wear it during alt-con. There are small nanonoids threaded into the fabric that monitor my temperature and body state. “It never hurts to be cautious,” Midhurst always says. Then why is he absent? It baffles me. It’s against protocol to enter alt-con without a doctor on standby and Midhurst is a stickler for protocol.
The nanos in the suit are outfitted with autoresponse tech. It wasn’t likely anything would happen – with or without Midhurst...nothing did happen – but if it did, and it wasn’t life threatening, the nanos would activate. I push away the oddness of Midhurst leaving. I can always ask him.
Outside RL21, the hallway is deserted. No one wants to venture so close to the nuclear inhibitor; those tend to be…volatile. Next to RL21, is the control room where REM Protocol computers are staged. I peep through the thin window on the door, thinking maybe Midhurst is there, but the room is empty. At the end of the hall, in small assigned rooms, are the lockers. I change quickly, grab my rebreather, and slip on my slab specs. The red light at the edge of my vision alerts me to the newer messages from my mother. Where are you, she asks. Will you be back for supper, she asks. Why aren’t you back yet, she asks.
I sigh, stuff the nanosuit into my duffle bag and call for the lift. I look at my hands and I can’t get used to them. They’re mine. Tanned, smooth, nails clipped short. I look at them, but I see hers. Her hands were creamy, freckled with manicured French tips. Inside the lift, I lean back against the steel wall. It feels so real. It is real. Everything that happens in alt-con is real. But it’s not my real. It frightens me that with only twenty minutes in a host’s mind and I am more accustomed to their bodies than to my own.
The light blinks sequentially and stop on the third floor.
3rd Floor: Homicide Division flashes before my eyes on the thin glass of my Specs. I shiver and slide hand over my arm to adjust the regulated temperature of my sweater; I only wear temperature moderated clothes. In a world where the weather is as unpredictable as slots at an old world casino, it’s wise to sacrifice the extra marks for guaranteed temperature modulation. The doors slide open and again, in large silver lettering, the wall reminds me this is the Homicide Division. My heels click on the tiled white floor; it always makes me feel self-conscious – am I being too loud?
The churning dark grey clouds are visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Behind her large grey desk, Ola – the blonde receptionist, is flirting with two new recruits, noticeable by the lack of the silver badge on their left breast most Precinct officials have. Her counterpart, Xio, is missing. I wave to her as I bypass her desk, and she gives me a disinterested nod. My Specs connect with the double glass door’s authentication system and the door parts for me. Precinct: Loscester has some of the best tech in the city, and it shows. All systems are synchronised with each employee’s personal enhancements for maximum convenience.
My Specs flash: Homicide Division Offices, but really, it is just a mismatched jigsaw of desks propped against one another with no divides and a cacophony of frustrated groans, exhausted sighs and desperate slurps of coffee.
O’Neil’s desk is close to the entrance, embedded into a convenient corner – just the way he likes it. From his desk, he can peer through the glass wall, into the street below, where people are always pushing against each other and analyses the opposite shops’ wares. O’Neil says it gets the inspiration buzzing.
As I approach, I see his chair is empty and the glass of his desk glows a neon green: [Inv. C. O’Neil] – Locked: on standby.
Opposite O’Neil’s desk is his partner’s. Most Investigators, like O’Neil, are paired with a lower level officer for training. Jostle used to be O’Neil’s complement, then he wasn’t anymore. Then his desk was cleaned out and O’Neil took a paid vacation to somewhere faraway for a while. Now the desk opposite is occupied by someone who I think is an inch shorter than O’Neil, with honey blonde hair, eyes glued to the desk and fingers playing with the surface. He looks up when I step closer, and he doesn’t look happy. No one else pays attention to me – too many cases, or too little? I’ve been here often enough, though O’Neil is usually beside me; I don’t know if it is because he doesn’t trust me, or he doesn’t trust everyone else.
“Who are you?” he says and immediately, I am on the offensive. Does he not have an Optics Display? An orange ring appears around his face in my Specs. The gears start rotating and the file feels stiff in my hand. I ignore the anger that tingles in my fingertips. I clench my free hand into a fist and hope the impulse passes soon.
“I have the report for O’Neil,” I say. I hope my voice does not betray my thoughts, but I don’t think it matters because his glare turns darker for a second; I almost miss it. The gears are still rotating over his head.
He places his arms on the rests on either side of his chair and leans back. “Which case?” he asks, and I think he is taunting me. There is a malicious undertone to his question, but I could be imagining it. I am still frustrated by the dreamlike remembrance of the Rereading session. I tell myself I am projecting. The gears flash green:
Led Whitson. Officer = Precinct: Loscester. Partner = Inv. C. O’Neil. Born 2748, 12 LC.
I open my mouth but I realise I do not know the victim’s name. I know the killer’s name. We are at an impasse of information. The look in his green eyes return for a moment and I recognise it. I see it on TV on all the time. I see it in the crowds that rally and shout. I see it in the unquestionable belief they hold so close, so dearly. I have never encountered one of those people before, but here is one now. He thinks he can catch me, play with me, maybe, but he is just an officer. I flip the file as though I am playing with it. “024475 SZ,” I say as though it is perfectly natural to remember a six digit case number. I give him what I hope is an airy smile and hold the file out to him.
He tenses. I have passed his test and he does not like it. I think. “Right,” he says. I don’t think he knows cases by their number. He takes the file and is too busy berating himself to see the case number and barcode printed in the corner of the cover page.
“Do you know where Midhurst is?” I ask. It really isn’t like him to leave mid-session. The words ‘it was important’ rings in my head in Midhurst’s gruff voice.
Led Whitson looks at me as if to say, ‘why are you still here?’ and tilts his head. “Who?”
“Right,” I say. And maybe he is lying. Maybe he is not.
He turns back to his desk and types up the keywords: ‘Stacia Zcu’. His desk lights up and in the corner a girl’s face appears. I know her face – it was my face half an hour ago. On the sides there are pictures of her apartment. It looks different. There is a clinical aspect to it, and a lot more blood than I remember. The yellow walls look less like flowers and more like pale vomit. An index of links appear on screen: the coroner’s report, suspect interview transcripts and alibis – the desk blanks out: [Off. L. Whitson] – Locked: on standby. Officer Led Whitson is glaring at me.
“Well,” I say. “Bye.”
He glares more and doesn’t turn around this time until I am out of the Homicide Division. He is not like Jostle. Jostle was funny. Jostle was big and hulking. Jostle didn’t glare. Maybe that’s why O’Neil was out. There’s only so much time you can spend with someone as brusque and unpleasant as Led Whitson. Paper pushing is best left to certain people; Led Whitson is those people. I don’t feel bad about giving my report on paper and leaving him to transcribe it into his desk.
None of the other Rereaders use paper and pen. I know Szah has an Investigator waiting and as soon as she wakes up, she starts blabbing. I know of others who type it up on a computer when awakening, and some who even re-enact it for an ‘air of authenticity’, believing it helps absorb and hold onto the foreign brain waves. I think maybe it is because they don’t know how to write. They don’t know how a pen feels in the hand. They don’t know how immersive it is to just write. To not think, to not feel, to just have the weight of the pen pressing into your hand and the swirling blue ink patterns that make it out on the page.
I take the lift down to the ground floor, but I have before the doors of the Precinct to take out my yellow raincoat from my bag. It’s raining outside. I ask the receptionist if it’s acid, thinking maybe I will have to call someone to pick me up, but she tells me it isn’t. I put on my bulky rebreather and go outside. Maybe a part of me expected the receptionist to be lying; she did look preoccupied. But the droplets speckle onto my hands and duffle bag and it does not burn. Acid rain is becoming more and more common. The scientists on TV tell us that sulphur clouds are forming in the atmosphere. The air is poisonous, they say, like we aren’t already all wearing rebreathers. The air will kill us, they say, like everyone who doesn’t own a rebreather and a decent home air filter isn’t dead already. I don’t know how much sulphur clouds change things. It is not my area of expertise, but the clouds are still thick, deep grey and not green like old mould at all. Though some days, when the acid comes, the clouds grow stale and the stench and the warmth arrives first. Sometimes I don’t feel it because of my clothes adjust to warmer temperature instantly, but other times, the bright, toxic greens brings a suffocating heatwave that scalds the edges of your face long before the acid pelts down.[ truncated for character count, await the remaining bit of the chapter ]