Chapter 1

 

For the hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men.

– Walden

Spur was in the nightmare again. It always began in the burn. The front of the burn took on a liquid quality and oozed like lava toward him. It licked at boulders and scorched the trees in the forest he had sworn to protect. There was nothing he could do to fight it; in the nightmare, he wasn’t wearing his splash pack. Or his fireproof field jacket. Fear pinned him against an oak until he could feel the skin on his face start to cook. Then he tore himself away and ran. But now the burn leapt after him, following like a fiery shadow. It chased him through a stand of pine; trees exploded like firecrackers. Sparks bit through his civvies and stung him. He could smell burning hair. His hair. In a panic he dodged into a stream choked with dead fish and poached frogs. But the water scalded his legs. He scrambled up the bank of the stream, weeping. He knew he shouldn’t be afraid; he was a veteran of the firefight. Still he felt as if something was squeezing him. A whimpering gosdog bolted across his path, its feathers singed, eyes wide. He could feel the burn dive under the forest and burrow ahead of him in every direction. The ground was hot beneath his feet and the dark humus smoked and stank. In the nightmare there was just one way out, but his brother-in-law Vic was blocking it. Only in the nightmare Vic was a pukpuk, one of the human torches who had started the burn. Vic had not yet set himself on fire, although his baseball jersey was smoking in the heat. He beckoned and for a moment Spur thought it might not be Vic after all as the anguished face shimmered in the heat of the burn. Vic wouldn’t betray them, would he? But by then Spur had to dance to keep his shoes from catching fire, and he had no escape, no choice, no time. The torch spread his arms wide and Spur stumbled into his embrace and with an angry whoosh they exploded together into flame. Spur felt his skin crackle… .

That’s enough for now.” A sharp voice cut through the nightmare. Spur gasped with relief when he realized that there was no burn. Not here anyway. He felt a cold hand brush against his forehead like a blessing and knew that he was in the hospital. He had just been in the sim that the upsiders were using to heal his soul.

You’ve got to stop thrashing around like that,” said the docbot. “Unless you want me to nail the leads to your head.”

Spur opened his eyes but all he could see was mist and shimmer. He tried to answer the docbot but he could barely find his tongue in his own mouth. A brightness to his left gradually resolved into the sunny window of the hospital room. Spur could feel the firm and not unpleasant pressure of the restraints, which bound him to the bed: broad straps across his ankles, thighs, wrists and torso. The docbot peeled the leads off his temples and then lifted Spur’s head to get the one at the base of his skull.

So do you remember your name?” it said.

Spur stretched his head against the pillow, trying to loosen the stiffness in his neck.

I’m over here, son. This way.”

He turned and stared into a glowing blue eye, which strobed briefly.

Pupil dilatation normal,” the docbot muttered, probably not to Spur. It paused for a moment and then spoke again. “So about that name?”

Spur.”

The docbot stroked Spur’s palm with its med finger, collecting some of his sweat. It stuck the sample into its mouth. “That may be what your friends call you,” it said, “but what I’m asking is the name on your id.”

The words chased each other across the ceiling for a moment before they sank in. Spur wouldn’t have had such a problem understanding if the docbot were a person, with lips and a real mouth instead of the oblong intake. The doctor controlling this bot was somewhere else. Dr. Niss was an upsider whom Spur had never actually met. “Prosper Gregory Leung,” he said.

A fine Walden name,” said the docbot, and then muttered, “Self id 27.4 seconds from initial request.”

Is that good?”

It hummed to itself, ignoring his question. “The electrolytes in your sweat have settled down nicely,” it said at last. “So tell me about the sim.”

I was in the burn and the fire was after me. All around, Dr. Niss. There was a pukpuk, one of the torches, he grabbed me. I couldn’t get away.”

You remembered my name, son.” The docbot’s top plate glowed with an approving amber light. “So did you die?”

Spur shook his head. “But I was on fire.”

Experience fear vectors unrelated to the burn? Monsters, for instance? Your mom? Dad?”

No.”

Lost loves? Dead friends? Childhood pets?”

No.” He had a fleeting image of the twisted grimace on Vic’s face at that last moment, but how could he tell this upsider that his wife’s brother had been a traitor to the Transcendent State? “Nothing.” Spur was getting used to lying to Dr. Niss, although he worried what it was doing to his soul.

Check and double check. It’s almost as if I knew what I was doing, eh?” The docbot began releasing the straps that held Spur down. “I’d say your soul is on the mend, Citizen Leung. You’ll have some psychic scarring, but if you steer clear of complex moral dilemmas and women, you should be fine.” It paused, then snapped its fingers. “Just for the record, son, that was a joke.”

Yes, sir.” Spur forced a smile. “Sorry, sir.” Was getting the jokes part of the cure? The way this upsider talked at once baffled and fascinated Spur.

So let’s have a look at those burns,” said the docbot.

Spur rolled onto his stomach and folded his arms under his chin. The docbot pulled the hospital gown up. Spur could feel its medfinger pricking the dermal grafts that covered most of his back and his buttocks. “Dr. Niss?” said Spur.

Speak up,” said the docbot. “That doesn’t hurt does it?”

No, sir.” Spur lifted his head and tried to look back over this shoulder. “But it’s really itchy.”

Dermal regeneration 83 percent,” it muttered. “Itchy is alive, son. Itchy is growing.”

Sir, I was just wondering, where are you exactly?”

Right here.” The docbot began to flow warm dermslix to the grafts from its medfinger. “Where else would I be?”

Spur chuckled, hoping that was a joke. He could remember a time when he used to tell jokes. “No, I mean your body.”

The shell? Why?” The docbot paused. “You don’t really want to be asking about qics and the cognisphere, do you? The less you know about the upside, the better, son.”

Spur felt a prickle of resentment. What stories were upsiders telling each other about Walden? That the citizens of the Transcendent State were backward fanatics who had simplified themselves into savagery? “I wasn’t asking about the upside, exactly. I was asking about you. I mean… you saved me, Dr. Niss.” It wasn’t at all what Spur had expected to say, although it was certainly true. “If it wasn’t for you, it… I was burnt all over, probably going crazy. And I thought… .” His throat was suddenly so tight that he could hardly speak. “I wanted to… you know, thank you.”

Quite unnecessary,” said the docbot. “After all, the Chairman is paying me to take care of all of you, bless his pockets.” It tugged at Spur’s hospital gown with its gripper arm. “I prefer the kind of thanks I can bank, son. Everything else is just used air.”

Yes, but… .”

Yes, but?” It finished pulling the gown back into place. “‘Yes but’ are dangerous words. Don’t forget that you people lead a privileged life here — courtesy of Jack Winter’s bounty and your parents’ luck.”

Spur had never heard anyone call the Chairman Jack. “It was my grandparents who won the lottery, sir,” he said. “But yes, I know I’m lucky to live on Walden.”

So why do you want to know what kind of creature would puree his mind into a smear of quantum foam and entangle it with a bot brain a hundred and thirty-some light-years away? Sit up, son.”

Spur didn’t know what to say. He had imagined that Dr. Niss must be posted nearby, somewhere here at the upsiders’ compound at Concord, or perhaps in orbit.

You do realize that the stars are very far away?”

We’re not simple here, Dr. Niss.” He could feel the blood rushing in his cheeks. “We practice simplicity.”

Which complicates things.” The docbot twisted off its medfinger and popped it into the sterilizer. “Say you greet your girlfriend on the tell. You have a girlfriend?”

I’m married,” said Spur, although he and Comfort had separated months before he left for the firefight and, now that Vic was dead, he couldn’t imagine how they would ever get back together.

So you’re away with your squad and your wife is home in your village mowing the goats or whatever she does with her time. But when you talk on the tell it’s like you’re sitting next to each other. Where are you then? At home with her? Inside the tell?”

Of course not.”

For you, of course not. That’s why you live on Walden, protected from life on the upside. But where I come from, it’s a matter of perspective. I believe I’m right here, even though the shell I’m saved in is elsewhere.” The sterilizer twittered. “I’m inhabiting this bot in this room with you.” The docbot opened the lid of the sterilizer, retrieved the medfinger with its gripper and pressed it into place on the bulkhead with the other instruments. “We’re done here,” it said abruptly. “Busy, busy, other souls to heal, don’t you know? Which reminds me: We need your bed, son, so we’re moving your release date up. You’ll be leaving us the day after tomorrow. I’m authorizing a week of rehabilitation before you have to go back to your squad. What’s rehab called on this world again?”

Civic refreshment.”

Right.” The docbot parked itself at its station beside the door to the examining room. “Refresh yourself.” Its headplate dimmed and went dark.

Spur slid off the examination table, wriggled out of the hospital gown and pulled his uniform pants off the hanger in the closet. As he was buttoning his shirt, the docbot lit its eye. “You’re welcome, son.” Its laugh was like a door slamming. “Took me a moment to understand what you were trying to say. I keep forgetting what it’s like to be anchored.”

Anchored?” said Spur.

Don’t be asking so many questions.” The docbot tapped its dome. “Not good for the soul.” The blue light in its eye winked out.