[Author's Note: “Shakedown” is a prequel to an unpublished novel of mine called The Primus Labyrinth which continues the story of the X4 prototype—renamed the Primus—as it undertakes an even more critical mission into startling new territory.]
[It was originally published in the anthology Canadian Tales of the Fantastic from Red Tuque Books.]
“He’s a test pilot for what?”
“He tests video games.”
“They don’t call them games anymore—they’re too sophisticated for that.”
Devon Kierkegaard grinned from behind the worn desk, showing a little wear himself from the six years since Truman Bridges had last seen him. And more than a little grey hair. Bridges fidgeted on the edge of the desk.
“How much did you say this Project of yours cost?” he asked.
“By the time it’s finished? A billion. Give or take.”
“As a taxpayer, I know who’s doing the giving.” The ebony face wrinkled into a frown, then exploded with a laugh that showed very white teeth.
“Spare me the righteous indignation. You haven’t been running a private psychology practice for at least five years. Who pays your salary now?”
“Which is why I am at your disposal.” Bridges nodded his head in a mock bow. “And now you tell me you’ve entrusted your billion-dollar toy into the hands of a man who tests video games for a living. You do need my help—we can begin our first analysis session right away.”
Kierkegaard laughed. “You haven’t changed at all. I’m glad.”
“But Devon, my friend, do you really mean you’ve spent a billion dollars to create a miniature submarine? And then what? Shrink this game-playing pilot of yours? I think I’ve heard this story before.”
“Everyone says that. Fantastic Voyage was an entertaining movie, but physically shrinking something still isn’t possible. What we’ve created is the next step in nanotechnology: engineering on the atomic scale. To perform medical miracles.”
“A submarine with no crew?”
“You’re thinking in the wrong terms. Let me explain.”
The submersible known as the X4 was the size of a virus. Self-propelled, drawing its power from the ionization of atoms in the surrounding fluid. An assembly of Buckminster fullerene tubes made of Carbon 60, like long rolls of molecular chicken-wire a billionth of a meter in diameter with a hundred times the tensile strength of steel. No crew quarters, no cockpit. Only the smallest possible cargo space, capable of containing a microscopic payload.
“The X4 is controlled remotely, using virtual reality. Which is why we made what you consider such an unorthodox choice for a pilot. Its sensor array depends on atomic interactions and their byproducts, from which a supercomputer the size of a bus actually gives us a visual image and limited auditory information. It’s a miracle of technology. Soon we hope to get enough data to produce haptic stimulus…the actual feel of the craft’s motion.”
“Like a carnival simulator ride.”
“I suppose. But very convincing, I promise you.”
“What if the pilot’s experience is too authentic—enough to make him forget it’s a simulation? A human being hurtling through a living bloodstream. Can a man’s psyche survive that?”
“That’s what I need you to tell me. We almost lost him.”
* * *
Travis Li looked up at the white ceiling, trying to keep his mind as blank as that featureless space. Instead his brain treated it like a movie screen, displaying nightmare visions he was desperate to forget.
Protoplasmic projectiles…blind behemoths appearing out of nowhere and threatening to flatten him like a bug on a windshield. He hadn’t signed on for that.
What had he expected? A joy ride? A chance to earn some easy money and notoriety? Or had the shrink at the juvie centre ten years ago been right? Was he still compensating for a childhood in Chinatown’s Combat Zone? He had a scar on his left arm from a bad parachute jump, and a scar on his psyche thanks to a skinny frame and good grades. But he’d showed the bastards. These days he only returned to the old neighbourhood to show off his money. And sometimes treat the street kids or give his mother a cheque to help raise his orphaned niece.
Hell, the early trial runs had been a piece of cake. In fact, his first ride in the X4 had been the biggest thrill of his life.
Powerful nausea. Warned about that. Something about the VR interface enhanced by electrodes at the temples and neck.
Grey…all shades. But twinkling. Like fireflies in peripheral vision. A virus-eye view of the world. X4 floating free in a test-tube ocean, filtered, sterilized, and filtered again to remove microorganisms.
Some angled bars in the bottom of the view. Computer’s painting them a darker metallic grey: the craft’s manipulator arms, with pincer ends crafted atom by atom, folded in a triangle around X4’s nose. Incredible. Like something from a mech game, but the view is no game image. Softer, grainier, yet compellingly real.
Time to look around? What is there to see in a water column the size of Lake Champlain?
Treasure. Planted at the bottom of the test-tube. But which way is down? No feeling of gravity. No difference in light.
Give the pedals a kick. Whoa. Serious spin—instant response. Countered with too much force, too. Definitely going to take a while to get the hang of this. Ease the left joystick forward…yes, a sense of the nose dropping into a forward tumble. Damn.
Nudge it back. Level again? No way to know. Orientation is only meaningful in relation to other objects.
So where are the other objects?
There. Hint of a different colour, maybe dark orange. How far on this scale? One kilometer? Ten?
Point the nose and ease the throttle forward with the right stick. The engine’s always running, will never stop.
Whatever the coloured thing is, it’s huge. Is that a curved edge or a horizon? Too far to go around. Best to head straight in and hope to gauge the distance right. Hate to dent the bumpers first time out.
The world becomes the colour of dull copper, with shadows of darker brown. Ease back on the throttle. Could be flying straight into a cliff face or in a suicidal dive toward the hard deck. No way to tell.
Sudden impression of hills on either side. Pull up! Craft responds too fast, the nose snapping up into a loop.
Level off, goddamn it! Get the adrenaline under control and use some finesse instead of overreacting like a rookie.
Better, much better. High walls, like a broad valley with a grooved floor. Another valley on the left. Turned too fast though—a sense of skid or drift. Of course: a fluid environment. Sim programmers have never been able to get it quite right.
The valley snakes around a little—a good chance to practice steering. Nearly perpendicular face on the starboard side. Whole thing is a series of rectangular facets as far as the eye can see. Flaked? Metallic?
Good God. It’s a penny! A goddamned copper penny.
Picture a billion-dollar craft tracing the lines of Lincoln’s face. Is the irony deliberate?
The view suddenly flashing red. A warning—must be. Are they going to pull the…?
The wrenching nausea passed quickly, but he’d felt a surge of elation, realizing the historical significance of what he’d just done. His rational mind still thought that way, as he lay on the clinic bed. But the primitive core of his brain clung to a memory of a later journey: a lurid hell of demon projectiles run amuck.
His mouth filled with the taste of bile.
* * *
Truman Bridges examined the model of the X4 in his hands: a single oversized propeller at the rear of a cigar-shaped fuselage, and two small fans on each side instead of diving planes.
“The motors are electric,” Kierkegaard said. “And each propeller is independent. Much simpler than constructing gears or drive shafts at that scale. The oblong strip across the top is the sensor array. A series of paired atoms in an astonishingly complex order.”
“How is the quality of the image?”
“Not high. Which is why we chose to…augment receptiveness to the simulation with electrodes in the VR helmet.”
“Electro-stimulation of the brain?” Bridges’ eyes grew wide. “The potential for serious side effects….”
“The headset accidentally produced a strong magnetic field during one of the first tests, and the results were amazing. We’ve seen no adverse side effects. I’ve tried it myself. It draws you into the simulation more and more, the longer you spend in the environment.”
“In the environment. You mean seeing the universe from the perspective of a microbe.” The psychologist drew his fingers through short-cropped hair. “Good Lord, Devon. It’s an utterly alien environment, yet your pilot knows it is real. Not some game in which death simply means you have to start that level over again.”
“Are you saying Li could believe he’s in personal danger? I don’t agree. Realistic or not, he still knows that his body is sitting in a chair in a laboratory, watching images in a helmet and listening to sounds you might hear underwater.”
“And people watching IMAX movies sometimes get motion sickness. Simulator rides provide a rush of adrenaline from excitement and fear. Otherwise people wouldn’t keep coming back. If the mind accepts it, that’s what counts.” Bridges leaned toward his friend. “You said that he was flushed and sweating with a rapid pulse, as if he’d suffered a terrible fright.”
The leader of the Project slowly shook his head.
“We thought it was simply excessive stimulus. Li hadn’t encountered obstacles before. The lab rat’s vein was full of blood cells. They would have appeared to be coming at him at very high speed. Even allowing for the time dilation effect.”
“Time dilation. It’s a property of the nano-environment we hadn’t expected. Time seems to stretch. The pilot may be hooked up for only fifteen minutes, but to him it feels like hours.”
“That sounds like damned convincing evidence of subjective reality. I think you’re the one who doesn’t want to believe. Because it would make you responsible.”
There was no answer to that.
“And what were you thinking, running a test in a lab animal so soon?” Bridges continued. “You should have trained the pilot for months in a controlled environment before doing that.”
Kierkegaard’s eyes lit with a dark flame. “Believe me, that was not my choice.”
* * *
“We need your ship.”
“Your miniature submarine. We need it.”
The man in the grey suit had made the statement in the same tone of voice he would have used to say, “Pass the salt.” He tossed an open wallet across the desk, but Kierkegaard had already checked the man’s credentials: CIA, and with the backing of the Department of Defense at the highest level.
“I don’t care if you’re God Almighty,” Kierkegaard said. “What the hell do you think we are?”
“You’re a top secret research project funded by your government for hundreds of millions of dollars. It is now expecting a return on its investment.” The voice sounded bored. “Please sit down, Dr. Kierkegaard. Histrionics will benefit no-one.” The man casually took a seat himself. “The Prime Minister of Israel collapsed yesterday.”
“I read about it.”
“Impossible to keep quiet—it happened at an official function. Doctors believe it was a cerebral hemorrhage, caused by a blood clot.” Grey Suit lowered his voice. “We believe it was enemy action.”
Kierkegaard’s mouth fell open.
“You can’t be thinking…. That was a movie, for God’s sake! Our machine cannot possibly find its way through the brain and destroy a blood clot. We have no shrinking ray, no miniature lasers. You’re looking for Hollywood. We have only science.”
“We’re not asking you to destroy the clot. We only want an examination of the site to help doctors determine what treatment would be most effective. And to learn if this really was an artificially induced injury. The political ramifications could be…profound.”
Kierkegaard sank slowly back into his chair, part of him cursing the day he’d given up a tenure at Harvard for a venture that could only be funded by the military. But when he’d lost Madeleine to cancer he’d learned that sometimes unconventional treatments were required to save lives. Even if you had to make a pact with the devil.
He stared into space. “The submersible hasn’t even been tested in a lab animal, let alone the human bloodstream. It’s never been subjected to a current, or moving obstacles. Good God, man, we only have course charts for the bloodstream of a white rat.”
“Do whatever you need to do,” said Grey Suit, getting to his feet. “Doctors are keeping the Prime Minister alive for now, but his days are numbered.”
The other also stood, pleading. “You can’t expect us to produce a miracle dreamed up by Hollywood.”
“Dr. Kierkegaard,” the agent said, as he opened the door to leave. “If you and your team weren’t expected to perform the things people saw in that movie, do you think you would ever have been given a billion dollars?”
* * *
Li had told them he was accepting the job out of curiosity. But he’d known that his ego was calling the shots. His cup had runneth over with cockiness from placing in the top 5 at the Cyber Gamers Championship in Vegas. He’d leapt at a chance to walk with geniuses, to be accepted as one of them.
Except he hadn’t been accepted. His faded hammerloop jeans, hooded sweatshirt, and water mocs were a statement lost among men and women who were willing exiles from consumer society. A couple of techies tolerated him but never invited him for a drink. So he threw himself into the work, determined to show them all. He recognized what he was doing, and hated it, but did it anyway. The X4 was the ultimate challenge. A few scientists had tried it out, and he’d made them look like monkeys. His skill improved every time he jacked in.
Then came a time when he realized that he preferred the inside world to the outside.
* * *
“Why do you ask about psychosis?”
Bridges and Kierkegaard kept their voices low, although there were only a few other people at the far end of the commissary.
“He became withdrawn,” Kierkegaard said. “He volunteered for more and more time with the X4, though it exhausted him—a long day’s work for the rest of us may have felt like weeks to him. Then even stranger behaviour. He kept his back to walls. Scouted a room before entering it. Looked startled when someone spoke to him.”
“He seemed to have trouble remembering how to navigate the building. Appeared confused when he entered a room. Finally I found him at the top of a flight of stairs, paralyzed with indecision. That’s when I called you.”
“That last incident is no great mystery,” Bridges said. “Imagine having just spent a day in a place where there is no up or down. No gravity, perhaps not even any discernible inertia. What would you make of a flight of stairs?”
“His body forgot how to walk down steps?”
“Temporarily unsure, anyway. Like the way a sailor still swaggers after he’s landed on solid ground. The mind soon adjusts. As for the rest….” He swirled the lukewarm coffee around his cup but didn’t drink it. “Is he being treated with suspicion by the others?”
“I know there’s a rumour circulating that he might be a plant from the intelligence community. But before you ask, no-one else knows about my conversations with the CIA.”
“It sounds to me as if he’s feeling isolated because he is being isolated.”
“No more than that?”
“That is plenty, I assure you.” The psychologist frowned. “Bad enough feeling like a fish out of water among you scientists. Think about the rest of his time. Imagine being the only one of your kind in an entire universe….”
* * *
Calm again. In control. The world as it should be.
The ship responds the way muscles respond to a nerve impulse. Reflex. No translation required. A body obeying its mind.
Visuals are still pretty primitive. Better than the early versions of “Doom” or “Descent”, but not much. Enough to find new stuff tossed into the world. New world, even: a beaker-size ocean now. Room for whole new countries to explore. No longer just Lincoln Penny Island, but Metal Screw Peninsula, and even Silicon Chip Archipelago.
The spiral shape of the screw was good practice—finicky, with tricky magnetic fields close to the metal surface. Should have told somebody about that.
Might get around to it. Might not.
The computer chip was more fun. Like hacking a flight simulator so it’ll let you take a JetRanger down to the deck on Madison Avenue. Dodge the skyscrapers. A few spooky moments with thermal currents and prop-wash bouncing back from the flat surfaces. Takes time to master something like that.
Lots of time, though. All the time in the world.
A virgin world, there for the taking.
All the property of the King.
* * *
Bridges was a master at putting patients at ease, but he found himself up against a wall with Travis Li. When he made his way to Kierkegaard’s office to give a report, he noticed his friend’s lopsided collar and tie askew.
“The CIA has paid another visit, hasn’t it?” he asked.
“They’re bringing the Israeli Prime Minister here the day after tomorrow,” Kierkegaard said. “Ludicrous.” He rubbed his eyes. “What about your patient?”
“Well, he doesn’t trust me enough to open up. But there are some things I can infer. As I’ve said, the environment of the X4 is like another world to him. He’s even possessive about it. But just when he thought he had it all figured out, you threw him a gigantic curve, injecting the submersible into a living bloodstream. That was frightening, even debilitating. It dealt a severe blow to his ego.”
“His ego? Are you suggesting that he had a near breakdown because his pride was hurt?”
The doctor shook his head. “There’s much more to the ego than pride, Devon. It’s our whole concept of self. Who we are as a person. The sieve that sifts the universe for the elements that relate to our lives, and filters out the rest. We act and react according to our life experience. But Travis Li has entered into an entirely new realm, with the X4 as his avatar. In that realm his experience counts for nothing.”
“I suppose he’s not used to failure,” Kierkegaard said.
“I don’t think you give him enough credit,” Bridges said. “He didn’t just run afoul of a game with some new rules. This game violated the parameters of every system he’s ever encountered. It shattered his confidence. In himself. In his world. It will take time to pick up the pieces.”
“I don’t have time,” the other snapped. “We have to get him back in that chair at the peak of his abilities in two days.”
“Have you heard anything I’ve said?” Bridges’ face was a thundercloud.
“Of course I have. But what if we were able to give him back his self-assurance? Augment his abilities so he could handle the challenges of the bloodstream. Wouldn’t his confidence reassert itself?”
“Do you have some powerful voodoo I don’t know about?”
“Look, Truman, I brought you into this because you know as much about the workings of the brain as you do about the mind. I’m talking about enhancing his brain’s processing of the VR input—giving him a fighting chance to keep up with the sensory overload. There must be drugs that would do that.”
“Most of them illegal, and for good reason!” Bridges raised outspread fingers in supplication. They trembled with anger. “Even if you were to chemically stimulate the parts of the cerebral cortex associated with the senses—which are in several different locations—or the thalamus, the brain’s gateway for all of the information, you’d intensify other brain responses as well. Hallucinations. Even the paranoia you believe this man already suffers from. You can’t condemn him to that. Where is my old friend, the one who had a conscience?”
Kierkegaard’s face was grey.
“I never wanted this, Truman. But if Li doesn’t come through we may be condemning another man to death. Maybe many others in the bloody aftermath. And everyone else who might ever be helped through this technology.” He looked into the eyes of his friend. “I won’t sacrifice one man’s sanity for another man’s life. I just hope to God it doesn’t come to that.”
Bridges shook his head. “Hope that God will make a place for himself in the X4 with Travis Li.”
* * *
The compound’s small smoking area was outside a far corner of the building. The place was empty because of the late hour. For that Li was grateful because he didn’t smoke cigarettes, and he was sure Kierkegaard would frown on his preferred substitute.
He never smoked weed when he was in a competition. It slowed down his reaction time and dulled his competitive edge. But damn, he needed a touch of mellow right now.
The thought of going back into the bloodstream scared the piss out of him. It was like jumping from the beginner level of a first-person simulator to the final flat-out phase of a multi-player space battle, with a handicap setting to keep him from seeing attacking missiles before they were too close to miss.
He held the high-grade smoke deep in his lungs, until he could feel his neck relax. Magical. The stars made pretty patterns overhead. Maybe he’d just lie on the tarmac and watch them for a while.
Pretty, pretty patterns.
* * *
The phone jolted him from sleep.
Goddamn! How could they have moved the schedule up? He had to hope a scalding shower would drive the last traces of fog from his brain.
As he jogged into the control room the members of the support team were all too busy to pay attention to him. Or maybe they were trying not to—embarrassed for him after what had happened during the last test. Just as well. It wouldn’t do for anyone to look too closely. He slid into the chair, doing his best to ignore cold fingers that clenched at his stomach.
Devon Kierkegaard stood off to the side. Nice old man, but clearly under a lot of pressure. Did he think his presence would help somehow?
Li shifted his weight to get more comfortable, and flexed his fingers. The helmet settled onto his head.
Familiar floating feeling. Everything calm, quiet. Soothing grey.
Still in the hypodermic. A few minutes to wait while the needle is inserted into a vein. Get into Game Mode. Deep breaths. Oxygenate the nerve endings. Bring the reflexes to a keen edge.
Movement now, sensed rather than seen.
Fast. As fast as the bloodstream? Soon find out.
Black tunnel ahead. Night falls. Tunnel walls not visible, but the body feels them. Hairs rising on the back of the neck.
The world is the colour of dark honey with flashes of red.
Immediate turbulence. Not supposed to feel that. Not part of the interface yet. Has to be imagination, seeing the ship pitch and lurch. Got to feather the fans and line up with the current. Spun left—too fast. Still spinning. Counterthrust. Counter the spin, goddamnit.
Concentrate on steering. The King is in command.
Crap. Something hit us. Can’t see what. Facing backward. Kick the right pedal.
Shit! Gone into a roll…now tumbling. It’s the cross currents, or maybe the wake of passing blood cells. Cells the size of—Holy Mother of God—the size of Yankee Stadium. Maybe all of the Bronx.
Too fast. Everything. Way too fast.
Whales, blimps, ocean tankers appearing out of nowhere. Is that the vein wall or just a giant blood cell? No way to know. No way to keep from—Shit!—hitting it. Total chaos. Out of control.
No. Think. Nothing can hurt the ship. Nothing can hurt us.
Something’s happened to the view. Sharper than before. Brighter. How can that be? See more, hear more, feelmore.
No doubt about it. Can feel the heaving, the wrenching. The slam of another impact.
That can’t be. Not supposed to feel. Not supposed to be here.
Sudden flash of colour to the right. Something long, snakelike. Twisting like a leech through water. Keeping pace.
Another on the left, closing in.
Wolves running down a deer.
Got to get away. Shove the throttle to full. Can’t see a goddamn thing anyway.
They’re still keeping up. Moving in. Here comes….
Christ. Like a 300 pound linebacker. What the hell are those things?
God, that’s not good. Antibodies will call in the big guns.
The world fills with dull light. A sense of menace.
Where is it? Let me see what’s happening, for Christ’s sake.
The VR’s not fast enough to keep up. Can’t see. Like a hundred miles an hour on the highway in a bitching Boston fog.
God, no. White blood cell!
The iceberg seen from the Titanic.
Kick the pedals. Reverse the engine. Anything. Anything.
Can’t run, can’t dodge, can’t fight, can’t hide….
Another white cell behind. Like Thor’s hammer.
Can’t move, can’t leave, can’t escape.
Get me out of here! Get me out! Get me out!
* * *
“You fed him drugs, after I warned you of the danger!” Truman Bridges slammed his fist on the desk.
“I did no such thing,” Kierkegaard snapped. “I told you I wouldn’t sacrifice one man for another.”
“I’ve seen the video. Something was wrong.”
“He smoked a joint.”
“We just did the blood tests,” Kierkegaard sighed, dropping into the chair. “There was marijuana in his system. Recent. God knows why. He certainly has never shown signs of it before.”
“The poor bastard. THC would only have made things worse. He could never cope with the frenzy of the bloodstream in that condition.”
“Exactly. And worse—it made the experience even more real to him. Horribly real.” Kierkegaard looked up, an appalling burden showing in his eyes. “Will he recover?”
“That’s more than I can say right now.” Bridges emptied his lungs in a long release. “At the moment he’s catatonic, his mind trapped within itself, with a terror we can’t even comprehend. If there’s any cause for hope at all it’s that the trauma didn’t last very long.”
“I pray to God you’re right.” Kierkegaard’s voice was little more than a whisper. “This could be the end…the whole Project and all of its promise. Maybe no human being will ever be able to safely pilot the X4.”
Bridges shook his head. “You can’t jump to that conclusion just yet. Perhaps he was simply wrong for the job.”
“Wrong for the job? How do you find someone who can exist in two realities at the same time, and not go insane?”
* * *
The CIA man sat stiffly, not pleased to be back in this room.
“The Prime Minister is dead.”
Kierkegaard barely reacted. There was no emotion left in him.
“Your Project has failed its patrons, Dr. Kierkegaard. In fact, it sounds like a rather complete failure at this point.”
The man under attack bristled, then dropped his eyes. “Is there any way we can still learn what you need? With the Prime Minister’s….”
“His body is being returned to Israel right away. They want to deal with it swiftly, publicly. There’s absolutely no way to gain access to him.”
Kierkegaard nodded. With the powerful current of the bloodstream stilled it might have been possible to navigate the X4. Within a short window of time. But it was a moot point. They had no pilot.
There had never been much hope that they could learn anything meaningful in time to treat a blood clot in the brain. Surely the CIA man knew that.
And then he realized that the man did know it. Had always known it.
“You were never expecting to save the Prime Minister’s life,” he said. “You were only interested in learning what killed him, so you could use it as an excuse to drop bombs on somebody. Or even adopt it as a weapon for our side.”
The other man shrugged. “Are you expecting me to apologize for something, Doctor? Maybe you should face reality.”
“Reality,” Kierkegaard spat. “That’s one word I’ve heard too many times lately. I’m not sure it has any meaning anymore.” His head bowed, and he ran his fingers slowly through his hair, the silence forcing him to ask the question he dreaded. “Does this mean our funding has been cancelled?”
“Not yet,” the man said. “The D.O.D. apparently feels your experiments still have a contribution to make.”
“A contribution. Because you believe the X4 itself can be turned into a weapon.”
“Come, Doctor.” The other man actually smiled. “Without war, surgeons wouldn’t have discovered the importance of sterilized instruments. Of anesthetic for operations. Penicillin would never have been perfected. How do you think most of today’s important vaccines were created? While searching for biological weapons, of course. There’s no need to be naive.”
“Are we done?” Kierkegaard asked.
The CIA man rose from his chair.
“Reality, Doctor, is that death is a part of life, and it is war that protects peace. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made.” There was no sign that he perceived the clichéd staleness of his words. Nor cared.
When he was gone, Kierkegaard left his office and walked the empty halls to the medical clinic. For a long time he watched through the glass of a silent room, where a bedridden man lay trapped in a reality no-one else could see.