“We are finished sequence.”
“Roger, sequence shutting down.”
“Spinning down the box.”
“Roger, spinning down.”
The words came to him as though spoken through cotton. He felt dizzy, disoriented. “Where?”
“Hang on a sec,” came a reassuring matronly voice. “We’ll wind down and you’ll be right as rain.”
Hearing the voice, he believed her. He knew the voice from somewhere. The familiarity was reassuring.
“Okay, Mark, you can open your eyes now.”
He hadn’t realized they were closed and opened them slowly, blinking against the bright harsh light. He raised a hand to shade them and realized he was lying down on his back. He looked left and right to see if he could spot anything that would tell him where he was.
“Relax, Mark.” The familiar voice came from his right, and he swung his head there automatically, searching. When he spotted her, he immediately knew.
“Well, that’s the first test done,” she beamed down at him, holding a stylus and board. “You’ll be happy to know the sequence went off without a hitch.”
“Oh, okay,” he responded automatically, not having a clue what she was talking about.
“You can’t fool me,” Christine wagged her finger at him. “You’re obviously not all back yet. We’re still reincorporating your pattern. Don’t stress yourself and we’ll get you back from your wanderings.”
“Where was I?” This was confusing. His body felt like he hadn’t moved in hours, maybe more, but this woman was telling him he’d been gone and had now returned. What was going on?
“Please watch the following sequence of images,” a mechanical voice said from somewhere beyond where he could see.
In the air in front of his eyes, pictures began to appear. A dog, a sled, a tree, a woman’s face, the number seven, a toy truck, a spacecraft, a hallway. Faster and faster they cycled in front of him, and while at first he was confused, before long, he started remembering specifics about the objects in the images. There was a poster of his favourite band, there a toy he’d had as a child. There was his sister, Marie.
The sequence of projected images stopped, and Christine leaned over. “How do you feel now?”
“Excellent,” he responded readily. As the images had played back, it had all come rushing back to him. The mission, the intel, the project. “I’m ready for debrief.”
He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the white medical-looking contraption. His feet dangled bare a couple of inches off the cold tiled floor, and he leaned forward to stand up.
A sudden wave of dizziness crashed over him and he fell forward, knocking down a tray of instruments at his side that he’d reached out to grab on the way down.
“What the hell?” he said from his new position on the floor.
Christine leaned over his and grabbed him under the armpits. Showing surprising strength in her slight frame, she hauled him unsteadily to his feet, then held him there while he regained his balance. When he felt well enough, he waved her off.
“Getting old, Mark,” she laughed at him.
“Maybe,” he responded, then laughed. “Who’s doing debrief?”
Christine turned quietly mischievous. “Guess.”
“No, he’s off on assignment,” Christine waved vaguely behind her.
“Okay, now you’re just being silly,” Christine scolded him. “It’s Jenna.” She waggled her eyebrows suggestively at him.
“Oh,” he said. Then, noticing her antics, he stuck his tongue out at her. “You’re much too old to be behaving in such a manner.”
“I’m older than you, but not dead,” she shot back. “Besides, it’s not exactly a secret that you want to jump her bones.”
“Christine!” Mark could feel his face reddening. He turned quickly away before she could continue teasing him and walked toward the exit, familiarity of the routine lending it ease. Not a sign of the dizziness of earlier.
Mark placed his palm on the pad next to the door and it whooshed open smoothly in front of him. He stared out into the antiseptic white corridor stretching out before him. He never understood why they decorated this place like a hospital. It wasn’t like they could bring germs back from their trips. Well, not the catching kind, anyway. He’d heard rumours about travellers coming back raving, but if those were real, they were kept hushed up by the powers that be.
He snorted. Powers that be would be his bosses, he supposed. They were pretty tight-lipped about most things, though, so he supposed that people going insane on their trips might be something they’d want to keep under wraps. Wouldn’t look good on a recruitment poster, he supposed.
He walked slowly down the hallway, looking for the door that would lead to the room where he’d detail everything he’d seen and experienced while he was away.
He found it on the last door on the right.
It had a green light on the lock panel beside the door, a sure sign he was supposed to enter. Once again placing his palm on the lock, he waited for the security system to prove that he was who he said he was, which was ridiculous, given that he was the only one in the hallway, and who else could have opened the door?
When it finally opened, he peered inside and just as Christine had said, Jenna was waiting there at the table in the center of the white room. He could feel a blush coming back, so he studiously looked away from her, at the sloping walls that joined the floor at a smooth angle, making them look almost organic. The lines in the room all flowed toward the center, and the table, and once again, his gaze was on Jenna.
She was looking at him expectantly. He stopped on his path to the chair pulled out for him and studied her. Her long brown hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail today. Often, she wore it up in an even more severe bun, but he waited in anticipation for those days where she wore it down in long, loose waves. When she did, it framed her face perfectly, and lent colour to her hazel eyes. Her slight figure perched birdlike on the white plastic chair on her side of the table, a pad and stylus lying flat on the surface of the table.
He took his seat and placed his hands carefully in his lap, composing his thoughts for the debrief ahead. He knew every detail, the programmed sequence of images having worked as designed, like a combination lock revealing all the details stored within his mind.
Jenna looked across the table at him, her face betraying no thoughts. A pity, he thought, that the debrief had to be so formal. But it was important, he supposed.
Jenna raised one perfectly sculpted eyebrow and he took this as his cue to begin.
“Insertion went perfectly. Anders has kept to the schedule he sent us, and he was in a sleep cycle when I took over. It seems like business as usual in Pompeii, though someone has apparently been stirring up the local people’s council. Anders didn’t leave me anything on that, so either he doesn’t know anything about it or, more likely, he doesn’t consider it important.
I used his credentials to gain access to his office, per usual. I read through the files on his system since my last outing, and there’s nothing there to concern us. Some trouble with a caravan that didn’t want to abide by quarantine, but that was about it.”
“Name of the caravan?” Jenna inquired.
“Uh, as I recall, it was Joseph Lovat’s,” he answered. He knew that information, along with everything else he’d just said, would get added to the city’s database, accessible to only a few upper-echelon government ministers, who would never know where the information had come from. Oberon’s security apparatus didn’t trust even those who ran the city, and separation between information gathering and those who acted on it was a requirement of the service. If it turned out that any of their ministers was a walker, the city who espied Oberon’s reports would never know which of the city’s citizens was spying on them.
[[It was a complicated way to run things, but necessary. Ever since the technology had existed to project one person’s consciousness into another body, the potential for the world’s spy agencies had been obvious. Even before the Fall, there had been safeguards in place to monitor those whose compromise might prove most damaging to the state. After a couple of attempts to hijack city administrators, the ones in position to do real damage, most governments had developed some sort of shielding technique that every civil servant had to learn if they were going to be responsible for anything more than the most menial tasks.
The techniques were surprisingly effective, and so the spy agencies of the world were now left with the age old solution: co-opt someone from the other side and get them to agree to let down their defenses long enough for an agent of the city to take over the body. Walkers could not, by nature, last very long, since the people who worked around them would notice discrepancies in their behaviour if the agent tried to stay too long in the body. Also, some cities had managed to find physical barriers that broke the link between the travelling mind and its home body. They were energy-intense and so couldn’t be used on an ongoing basis, but the schedule on which they operated was a closely guarded state secret. Even Mark didn’t know when Oberon’s shields were scheduled to come up and had to trust that he hadn’t been sent travelling at any of the times when the shield was to be activated. By a stroke of luck, or perhaps, Mark suspected, huge financial application, the body that he rode around in belonged to the city of Pompeii’s shield official. That meant that any of Oberon’s spies could safely travel to Pompeii if they stuck by the schedule that Mark provided. It did, however, mean that he had to be absolutely certain of the information he obtained while driving Anders’ body. If Pompeii ever discovered their shield operator was being paid by one of the other city states, it would be far better for them to simply give false information that would be carried back as trusted than to kill Anders so Mark couldn’t drive him anymore. Better the devil you knew, after all.
The schedule information was one of the things that Mark had to check every time he travelled, in case it had been changed. Fortunately, this would arouse no suspicion on the part of Pompeii’s security systems, since Anders was supposed to have that information and verify it at all times. It was the other information that was dangerous for Mark to access. If anyone started wondering why the shield officer was so curious about what were, after all, routine matters of state, that could go very badly for everyone involved. For that reason, Mark suspected there were at least a few more of Oberon’s agents infiltrated into Pompeii looking into all of the other information that Mark couldn’t or shouldn’t access.
For all that, Oberon did not have a huge security bureau. There were only a half dozen of the giant machines that connected consciousnesses through quantum tunneling, and they weren’t even all operational at the same time. There were more than two dozen city states scattered over the surface of the world, so Mark had no idea how the city councillors decided which ones needed spying on and which ones didn’t.]]
When he’d finished giving his report, he headed back to his apartment, exhausted. He did a quick exercise to make his mind impenetrable, then fell into bed.