Chapter 1: 001. Carlos
[Begin Timeline Fragment 001.]
I’m sorry. We did all we could.
She didn’t have to try to recall how many times she’s had to say those words to families. Friends. Once, just a stranger who found the poor man in the street and brought him to the ER. Thirty-seven. It had been thirty-six until last week, when a mother of four had bled out. They tried everything. They did everything correctly. They still failed. That was how life was sometimes. Unfair.
As her son had reminded her, so many times, in so many timelines.
There’s no consolation in the knowledge that he had likely SHIFTed just before. That just meant another Carlos had been drawn into this world against his will and suffered death on the infirmary table. Maybe it wasn’t the Carlos she knew, the one who had suffered through a Decision Game with her in another timeline, worked alongside her in this one. The one who shot an elderly version of her son in the middle of the desert. But even if it wasn’t that one, a Carlos from somewhere was dead.
I’m sorry. We did all we could.
Darlan had been busy with Celeste – who had slipped away three hours ago with no family to notify – so Sigma had wielded the paddles, shouting for Junpei to step back with the Ambu bag. Akane had breathed a sigh of relief as the heart monitor started beeping normally again, but Diana had known it wasn’t over. She had kept working on him and Sigma had to go through three more rounds with the defibrillator.
Sinus rhythm only came back twice.
There hadn’t been any dramatic live, damn you, live yelling like on inaccurate tv shows. No pounding on the chest. No frantic running around. Sigma had just told everyone to clear, placed the paddles on Carlos’s body – sloppy positioning but it didn’t matter at that point – and pressed the buttons again. And again. And again.
Akane and Aoi had been silent.
Junpei had stood at the head of the bed, squeezing the Ambu bag so tightly Diana found fingernail indentations in it after.
It had been a quiet death, punctuated only by muffled noises from the next room, where Darlan had been trying in vain to save the other victim of the attack.
She had thought she would have to put her hand on Sigma’s arm. Tell him to stop. Thought he would argue, yell, keep shocking the body – just a body, then – but after the sixth time on that third round, he had looked up at her and she knew. He knew.
He had placed the paddles back on the cart and stepped over, beside her, as she pronounced. They had both anticipated what was coming; her from years of experience, him from his own agonizing loss on the Moon.
Silence. Long, painful silence. And then all hell had broken loose.
If she were a betting woman, she would have taken odds on Junpei resorting to destruction and violence. But was Akane who had started throwing anything in reach – pulse oximeter, scissors, gauze, bags of saline solution. Aoi had started shouting at Junpei. How the fuck did they find us, they must have followed you, what the fuck happened, how could this happen. While Junpei had just stood there as if in shock.
The screaming and sound of things breaking had triggered anxiety in her, so even though it was a foolish idea, Diana had tried to calm Akane and got an elbow to her nose in response. Blood had trickled onto her shirt and then she had to calm her husband. It had just been an accident. There had been a blur as Alice came in from the surgical ward to restrain Akane. Aoi had kept yelling at an immobile Junpei. Phi … she hadn’t known where Phi was. Just that she was okay, unhurt, alive, safe.
We did all we could.
She sat in her car, building up the courage to go knock on Maria’s door. Sigma had offered to come with her, but Maria had always been uneasy around him, even though he had been part of the team that pulled her out of her Reverie Syndrome.
Or maybe that was why. Maria had said she caught glimpses of memories from the minds of people who helped her. She knew about Diana’s first marriage, about the time he had broken her arm. Maybe there had been something in Sigma’s mind…
We did all we could.
They had seen Carlos put a bullet in their son’s head. Even if they knew why, even if they had suffered through the Decision Game like everyone else, they saw him kill their child. Sigma and Phi had held her back as she tried to rush to Delta, his body twitching on the ground.
Then months later, Carlos was shot and his life was in their hands. Maybe the paddles weren’t placed just right. Maybe the countershock wasn’t strong enough; she hadn’t looked at the panel to see the settings. Maybe she hadn’t injected –
She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. No. They did all they could. They had.
But maybe in her haste she grabbed glucose instead of –
We did all we could.
What if Maria saw a piece of this future? What if Sigma hadn’t pressed down with enough pressure to stop the bleeding? What if she had injected him with something that hindered his recovery? Had they subconsciously killed Maria’s brother to punish him for killing their son?
They did all they could.
Sigma was at home, with Phi, because hearing this news would be bad enough. There was no need to make it worse or more uncomfortable for Maria.
As if it could really get any worse than this.
Her face ached. Her nose wasn’t broken, and that felt wrong, somehow.
The others were moving anything they could out of their old headquarters, so they could destroy the building and relocate to somewhere safe.
If anything was safe in this world anymore.
Diana’s hand shook as she knocked on the door. Shook worse when Maria answered.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“We did all we could.”
She hoped they had.
[End Timeline Fragment. SHIFT to 002.]
Chapter 2: 002. Akane
[SHIFT complete. Begin Timeline Fragment 002.]
It really was the timeline that God abandoned.
Not like he really believed in God anymore. Maybe he never did. If God was real, when had he ever answered one of his prayers? How many fucking thoughts and prayers had been offered up at how many fucking tragedies, as if they did a damn thing? Babies still died. People were still murdered. There were tornados and hurricanes and fucking earthquakes and innocent people drowned in ships that weren’t even ships buried out in the desert.
He clutched Akane’s hand, Diana’s voice just a buzz in the background. Junpei hadn’t heard anything after I’m sorry. Nothing a medical professional said after that was ever good news.
She’s just a nurse; what does she know? She could be wrong.
Except without even hearing the words, he knew she was just saying what the three other doctors had said, what the specialist from Russia had said. The one Aoi had kidnapped at gunpoint, because he wouldn’t come willingly. Aoi had made it very clear what would happen if Dr. Usov didn’t do his best. There had been so many tests. They had drawn so much blood that it seemed like they were taking it all. If Usov was going to lie, it would have been in his best interest to disagree with the others, say that she would be just fine. But all he did was repeat the same damn words.
Six months, maybe.
If she was lucky.
Except Akane Kurashiki had never been lucky, had she?
It wasn’t fair. This was supposed to be their fucking time. They were supposed to be planning their wedding. Planning their life together. She should be talking Diana and Phi into wearing hideous bridesmaid dresses while he looks for the perfect wedding band, something to go with the ring already on her finger.
The ring they had to take off when she was wheeled in for scans. The ring he held so tightly it cut open his flesh. He would have gladly spilled all the blood from his veins, if only it would have saved her.
They had fucking done it. Over a year of frustration and losing hope and fear and desperation and finally, finally, the religious fanatic had been shot dead three weeks ago, her compound burning to the ground even as Sigma pulled the trigger. It cost them … more than he could have ever anticipated, but they did it. They saved the world.
And now his world was lying in a coma. At first, Diana thought it was just Reverie Syndrome. But they tried to bring her out with the same techniques they used on Maria and others. None of them worked. He almost hadn’t wanted the doctors to run the tests. If they didn’t run the tests, then Akane was just sleeping. He could sit by her bed and pretend that she might wake up any moment. Maybe if he kissed her. Whispered the right words in her ear.
Akane couldn’t even have cancer like a normal person. One tumor in the parietal lobe, one in the temporal. Sigma hypothesized, with more than a touch of horror in his voice, that it could be from excessive SHIFTing.
Well, if he’s right, you won’t have to worry about living without her for too long, will you?
Why couldn’t the universe cut her a break, just once? Just fucking once?
He wanted everyone to leave. He was fucking tired of Carlos’s platitudes, the way he kept putting his artificial hand on Junpei’s shoulder as if to remind him that he lost something, too.
Or maybe it was his way of saying, look, I lost my fucking arm, Diana might be stuck with that nasty burn scar on her back if the grafts keep getting rejected, Sean might never be able to be rebooted, and Clover’s fucking dead, all to save Akane’s life. Look at this now, less than a month later. We shouldn’t have fucking bothered.
Except Carlos would never say that.
Her heart stopped and the alarms went off and the doctors rushed in, and Sigma had to pull him back, because he didn’t fucking understand that it was pointless, but if he was still holding her hand when they shocked her, maybe he would SHIFT to the same place she was going. A place where they never had to go through this goddamn shit. If he was still holding her hand, he wouldn’t have to live in a world without her.
Carlos’s fake fingers pried his own from Akane’s hand, as the doctor yelled clear again, and Junpei screamed.
[End Timeline Fragment. SHIFT to 003.]
Chapter 3: 003. Junpei
[SHIFT complete. Begin Timeline Fragment 003.]
She could speak English, better than some clients, but most wanted “exotic” element.
Or just liked idea that they could call her whore and she would not know.
He had not called her that. Yet. But way he was downing vodka she poured for him, would be soon, probably. She shrugged off jacket, dropped it to floor. He barely looked at her. Had barely spoken except to scream curses at door when he had trouble with card.
Maybe he really did just want talk. Worked for her. Usually paid more, less work.
“She lied t’me.”
She could barely make out words. “Okay. Who lie to you?”
He ran hand through hair (greasy, not washed in days, probably smell bad) and poured more vodka into glass. Or tried to. More vodka landed on table.
“She ssssaid she was gonna stop lyin’ t’me. She lied ab’t that.”
He laughed, waved glass around, spilling more liquid. She hoped he drink too much, pass out, so she could steal wallet. She saw, downstairs, him pulling out much money from wallet. At least five hundred, she thought.
She turned away when he fell, put face over waste basket, waited for vomiting to stop. If he wanted kissing, he needed to brush teeth first.
“Sorry. I didn’t even ask you your name.”
“Катя.” Why she gave him real name instead of one of her fakes, she not know. She doubt ‘Junpei’ was his real name.
“Ka- ka- katyeah.” He stood on shaky legs. Managed to finish vodka in glass, but did not try to pour again. Just grabbed bottle and drank straight from it. “We were … w’re were we?”
“We meet downstairs. You –”
“Yeah, she.” His voice was slurred so badly she had to listen hard. “Sssshe. She ssssaid – she said she – she w’n’t gonna shift again. No m’re sh’fting.”
He stopped there, like he thought she understood.
“Я не пон- I not – she shift … gears? You fight in car?”
‘Junpei’ started laughing. “We n’er fight over n’mal stuff. We can’t just … ffffight o’er who gets to drive, or … or … sssshe s’id it was ‘ver. No m’re messssssing with stupid timel’ns. No more mani – hic – p’lating. This – this our world, now, b’tter or w’rse. We‘re sssssupposed to make future, us, now, in the pr’sent. In th’ now. But she k’ps messssssing with th’ past. She’s an addict. She can’t f’cking ssssstop.”
Maybe he was insane. Maybe this was bad idea. He drank from bottle again and stumbled, falling to his knees again. Pulled out something from pocket.
“‘Fore t’night, y’know, I was ssssober for s’ven months. Two weeks. Tree … three daysss. Gotta c’pper chip. No good now.”
He went silent. She waited, and just as she thought, he slumped down, then over. She pushed up jacket to get to wallet and counted quickly. Only four hundred fifty. Still not bad. There was still time to go back to bar, find another man.
She thought about trying to pull him up to bed, but he was too heavy. She decided instead to get pillow, put it under his face. His face was whiter than it looked before and felt cold. As if he was dead, even though she heard him still breathing. It was slow and not even, but still there. She brushed his hair off face, and as soon as she did, he started to shake.
She ran out, down hall, hitting every door until someone answered.
“I need doctor! My friend have seizure.”
Man looked at her and made angry noise. “Friend. Yeah, right.”
“Not care what you think,” Катя said. “Please, help.”
Man continued to frown but did take phone out of pocket. “I’ll call 911, alright?”
“Спасибо. Thank you.”
A woman came running down hall from other way, tying robe around waist. “You need a doctor?”
“Да, пожалуйста.” Only when back in room did she realize she was not speaking English, but it not matter. Woman was bending over him. Felt for heartbeat, then used fingers to clean his mouth.
She could not wait to see if he was okay. Police might come with doctors. As woman tried to breath for him, Катя picked up jacket and moved from room, as quiet as possible. It would not be safe to stay in hotel, but it was late and ‘Junpei’s’ money made up for last one who had cheated her. She could take rest of night off.
Sirens grew loud as she exited building, so she turned in other direction, kept head down.
She would have to check paper in morning, see what his name really was.
[End Timeline Fragment. SHIFT to 004.]
Chapter 4: 004. Sean
My background is in biology, not computer science, so forgive me any errors I have made.
[SHIFT complete. Begin Timeline Fragment 004.]
They hadn’t seen it coming.
No, he hadn’t seen it coming. Junpei noticed, too many seconds too late.
Sigma had kicked Junpei out of his workshop, along with Akane, Eric, and even Diana, as they all had tried to follow him in. He loved Diana, but she couldn’t help and was only becoming more upset with each passing moment. Phi stayed, as the only one who could actually offer assistance.
The walls of their home were too thin – his only complaint – so he could hear them trying to calm down Eric. Akane with reason, Diana simply trying to be comforting. He hoped Junpei wasn’t raiding the liquor cabinet. A year of sobriety didn’t really matter much right now, but he couldn’t be mixing alcohol with whatever Diana had given him for the pain from his gunshot wound. Sigma wished they would move farther down the hall, go sit in the living room. Junpei should be lying down, anyway. There was no need for them to be loitering in the kitchen, where he could still make out snippets of Sigma knows what he’s doing and they’re doing everything they can .
It wasn’t going to be enough.
He shook his head as if to dislodge that thought. They could do this. Even if Sean’s robotics were far beyond anything Sigma had ever put together, here or in the future. Luna had been version 016; Sean represented something Sigma might achieve at version 030, if he was lucky.
His diagnostic tool was plugged in – base of his neck, hidden by light brown hair – but it wasn’t picking up any readings. It just kept prompting him, “Connect device to be scanned now.”
Phi smacked the side of Sean’s head – a real head now, or a semblance of one, still metal and ABT and circuits, but it looked like she was slapping a child.
“Why is Junpei so upset?” Phi muttered as she slapped Sean again. Sigma fought back the irritation that made him want to yell at her that she knew damn well why. He had already snapped at Diana and told her to be quiet, before Phi repeated Sigma’s instructions to vacate the room, in a much more civil tone.
“Connect device to be scanned now.”
The screwdriver slipped from his entirely too-sweaty hand, but he didn’t bother fumbling for it on the floor. With fingers that felt like overstuffed sausages, he grasped for the tiny, hot-to-the-point-of-burning-his-skin screw and tried to turn it manually.
“Move.” Phi had grabbed another screwdriver and plucked his hands out of the way, zeroing in on the target and removing quickly. He took the opportunity to wipe his palms on his jumpsuit – he hadn’t even changed, wearing the same stupid janitor’s outfit that he had on Akane’s stupid infiltration job – and then pried open the conduit.
“Connect device to be scanned now.”
Phi was frozen for only a moment before she punched his arm, although not with anywhere near the force he knew she was capable of.
“Okay, so we replace it. Interchangeable parts, right? Where is it? You know I can’t make sense of your old man organization system.”
Sigma just shook his head in response. “I can’t replace this.”
Another punch, harder this time. “What are you talking about?”
“This is his brain , Phi. I … I wouldn’t know how to construct this if I tried.”
Hands open, this time, a harsh shove. “You’ve made GAULEM brains before. Plenty of them.”
“Not like this.” He stared at what was left of circuits that were usually protected by ABT and a metal frame.
“Connect device to be scanned now.”
“You … you modified him when you downloaded his program! I remember you saying that!”
“ No ,” he growled. “I modified the program . I didn’t make anything but cosmetic physical changes. His CPU is too advanced. I wasn’t even entirely sure that downloading him was going to work.”
If only they had paid better attention. If only they’d noticed the woman with the gun before Junpei did, if only they’d reacted better when he had cried out a warning.
Phi broke off the flap and before he could warn her, she stuck her hand into neural net. She must have been intending to pull up the damaged parts of the circuitry, but the instant her fingers made contact, she yelped in pain and jerked back.
“Shit! Phi, he’s overheating!”
“Why didn’t you say something?!”
“I didn’t know you were going to do that!”
She glared at him as twisted the knob on the work sink’s faucet.
“Run water over it, but don’t –”
“Nothing came off.” She turned her wrist so he could see. The tips of her fingers were bright red, but none of … of Sean … had come away and adhered to her skin. He couldn’t even remember what the melting point of silicon was, or if the Leidenfrost effect applied, or why that wasn’t really the right phenomenon to be thinking about, even as he scoured his mind for anything – anything – from his classes or his time on the Moon that might help him.
“Connect device to be scanned now.”
“God, shut up !” He ripped the diagnostic scanner out and threw it across the room, hearing it clatter to the floor in pieces.
“Okay. We’ll just download him again,” Phi said, a tinge of panic in her voice as she began pacing. “You can download him into one of your GAULEM brains, can’t you?”
Wearily, he slumped against the wall and slid down until he was sitting. “We destroyed Delta’s computer, remember?”
“I know ! I don’t mean from there. You have a backup somewhere. You have to have a backup somewhere. You have three separate backups for your thesis, for fuck’s sake.”
“He didn’t want a backup.”
She stopped so suddenly her shoes squeaked against the tile. “You … what are you talking about?”
“He wanted to be as normal as possible. Wanted to be able to eat. Give the illusion of breathing. Get tired and fall asleep. And when his body had reached a normal human lifespan, he wanted to just … stop.”
Sigma had given it all to him. Sean could consume small amounts of food, which would be stored in a tank to be disposed of later. Somewhat wasteful, but necessary with him attending school. His chest was wired to rise and fall. After 16 hours of continuous runtime, his body would start to enter hibernation mode.
And now, by honoring his wishes and keeping the only copy of the programming that really was Sean inside his GAULEM body, by not paying enough attention when they were on Akane’s stupid infiltration mission, he had given him the death Sean had asked for. Just at least 90 years too early.
She came towards him and he expected … he didn’t know what he expected. That she would try to haul up his 188-pound frame, slam him against the wall. Something. But she just joined him on the floor.
“That couldn’t have been a regular bullet,” she said after a while.
He shook his head. “It set off some kind of exothermic reaction in him. If we did an … an autopsy, my guess is his whole head is one molten mess.”
“Doesn’t he have ventilation systems?”
“For the normal heat produced by computers. Not … not whatever that was.”
“But … the gun I took off the other guard … that fired regular bullets. The wound in Junpei’s arm was from a regular bullet. This…” She gestured to the bandage around her calf. “… that was from a regular bullet.”
“They knew we were coming,” he said, his voice hollow. “They knew we needed Sean to get into the computer, and they knew normal bullets would only stop him if they got a headshot. Even then … he could have kept functioning with damage to certain areas of his … his brain. Whatever they shot him with … it’s melting him down from the inside.”
“So we didn’t get the records, Sean is dead , and Eric is probably going to snap. Maybe Junpei, too.”
“And they know enough about us to know that Sean isn’t a real human.”
Wasn’t a real human.
Wasn’t even a robot anymore, now.
ABT was extremely heat-resistant, but even it was starting to break down with whatever was happening in Sean’s body. Like a plastic container left too close to the stove, his chest was warping. The reaction was spreading. They needed to get him out of the house.
Phi seemed to come to the same conclusion. “I’ll get Akane. We’ll … I don’t know what we’ll do, but we’ll get him to the backyard, at least.”
“I’ll do it.”
Ignoring her protest, he got to his feet and easily swept up the small boy in his arms. The heat coming off him was uncomfortable, but not burning him. Yet. He had no clue how hot it would get.
He exited his workshop and ignored the anxious faces that greeted him. Even Diana’s. He couldn’t look at her right now. Eric started shouting, but Sigma kept going, fumbling a little with the back door. He walked out into their yard until he was about halfway to the privacy fence, which thankfully kept anyone from seeing him carrying what looked like a dead child. What was a dead child. He laid Sean on the grass.
Even if the reaction was in some kind of thermal runaway state, it would have to end at some point. Sean would cool down enough for some kind of proper burial.
He would wait.
[End Timeline Fragment. SHIFT to 005.]