Chapter 45:// Respawning

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Massive Explosion and Fire at Illegal Chemical Dump Kills Twenty (Alameda, CA)-Federal authorities are still combing through the wreckage of an unlicensed hazardous chemical dump on the site of a decommissioned military base near Oakland. A massive explosion and fire there killed twelve undocumented immigrants and injured twenty more.

He floated in the darkness of his mind for what seemed decades. Thoughts came to him only as raw concepts-black despair, vertiginous fear. As he began to coalesce from the emptiness, he slowly pieced together scraps of his personality, regaining some measure of self. His mind no longer floated on a sea of nothingness. It was enmeshed in a carnal vessel again. That vessel was named Peter Sebeck.

He wasn’t sure at what point he noticed someone talking-perhaps they had been there all along-but they kept up a persistent chatter while his mind came into focus in the darkness. At first Sebeck couldn’t distinguish individual words, but as he concentrated they became more distinct.

“…Christ figure is a recurring motif in many cultures; death and rebirth; symbolic turning of the seasons, all that crap. Wyle E. Coyote was a fucking Christ figure, man, and Acme Company was Rome, baby.” A pause. “You can find it in Hindu legend, Sumerian mythology. Shit, you find it in modern folklore, like Rip van Winkle.

“Although Rip van Winkle didn’t die. He slept.But that’s the damned point: death as sleep. Sleep as death. Isn’t our life a cycle of death and rebirth? Sleep and awakening? The promise of eternal life is a threat unless you get to start over. The mythmakers knew that. They weren’t dummies, man.”

The clattering of metal tools.

“They were the ones who invented rhyme and meter-the programming language for human memory in preliterary civilizations. It was a cultural checksum — a mnemonic device. You couldn’t fuck with the code or the rhymes didn’t work; and if the rhymes didn’t work, people noticed. And so the knowledge of a people was passed down intact. It was a shamanic code. If you fucked with the code, then society lost its collective mind. Smell me?”

A pause.

“Hey, I think our boy’s coming around.”

Sebeck opened his eyes and slowly focused on a pasty-faced twenty-something kid sporting a tangled mane of black hair. A few days’ beard shadowed the kid’s neck and climbed higher than usual up his cheeks. This was a hairy guy.

Sebeck blinked at the overhead lights. He coughed and tried to sit up. A rock-hard surface greeted his elbows when he tried to push up. He immediately abandoned the attempt as his head began to swim.

The hairy kid leaned in close. “Hey, bro, sit back for a few. You’re still trying to metabolize the meds.”

Sebeck noticed the kid was wearing a lab coat. He tried to remember where he was. His brain was mashed potatoes.

Sebeck’s voice croaked. “Where is this?”

“Phoenix Mortuary Services. I call it PMS.”

Sebeck tried again to sit up, and he pushed aside the kid’s hands when he tried to help. «Who-» He stopped short; his throat was sore as hell. He put a hand to his larynx. No exterior damage.

Sebeck leaned to one side and looked around. His eyes tried to focus to a greater distance. He was in a long room with several medical examination tables. Oak cabinetry lined the walls. A strong chemical odor assaulted his nose. He’d smelled this before. Formaldehyde.

Sebeck snapped alert; the body of an old man lay naked on a nearby metal table. The old man was definitely dead because his body had the pallor and flattened appearance that comes when blood pressure and breath leave the human frame.

“Where am I?”

“Like I said, my man: funeral home. That’s where they send dead people. It’s the law. And you, my friend, are legally dead. Got the paperwork to prove it.”

Sebeck looked around for a few moments more, then brought his gaze back to the kid. “Who are you?”

The kid wiped his hand on his lab coat, then extended it. “Laney Price. Body prep. I take out the pacemakers and shit like that. That stuff’ll blow up if it goes in the furnace.”

Sebeck ignored Price’s hand and tried to shake his head clear. He glanced down, then swung his legs over the edge of the table and sat up.

Price rushed to hold him steady, but Sebeck pushed him back. He glanced down at his own body. He was wearing casual slacks and a pullover shirt. Next to him on the table lay his crumpled prison khakis. He picked them up, balling them up in his fists. That’s right.He remembered now. He had just been executed for murdering federal officers. He was the most hated man in America.

He dropped the khakis and sat motionless, staring at his own hands. A wave of emotion overcame him, and he started to breathe in fits.

He was alive.

Price clapped a hand around his shoulder. “Hey, Sergeant, you’re not dead, man. Relax.”

Sebeck threw off Price’s arm and grabbed him by the throat. “What the fuck is going on!”

Price extricated himself as Sebeck nearly swooned from the effort. “You tell me.You brought me here.”

Sebeck was still trying to clear his head. God, his throat hurt. “What are you talking about?”

“Look…” Price stomped off and tore a newspaper clipping from its place on a nearby bulletin board. He came back to the examining table and pointed at the clipping-a file picture of Sebeck below the headline Sebeck’s Macabre Message.

“Message received, compadre.”

Sebeck grabbed the article. It was months old. His head started to clear as the adrenaline kicked in. It worked.The Daemon had saved him.

But why?

Before he could ask another question, Price tossed him a plastic water bottle. “Electrolytes. Better drink up.”

Sebeck realized just how thirsty he was. He cracked open the water and drank deeply. His throat throbbed.

Price continued. “Ol’ One-eye’s been asking for ya. He’s all up in my grill, an I’m like, yo, back off, Methuselah. That sprite is a screen saver from hell, I swear it, man. He’s a fourth-dimensional stain.”

Sebeck finished the bottle. “You want to say that again in English?”

“For being in charge, you seem woefully uninformed.”

“What do you mean, ‘in charge’?”

Price threw up his hands. “See, you gotta talk to One-eye. Hang on a sec.” Price headed over to a locked cabinet, pulled out a choked key ring, and started cycling through the keys. He talked while he searched. “You know, it’s an honor to finally meet you. You drew a lot of ink. Most of it said you were evil incarnate, but we all know that’s horseshit. That Anji Anderson chick is out to get you, but evil or not, that bitch is fuckin’ hot. I’d do her. Evil Daemon bitch. Laney likes the bad girls…”

Sebeck was looking around the room again. “You were talking to someone earlier. Something about myths and rhyme.”

Price paused. “You heard that?”

“Is someone else here?” Sebeck glanced around cautiously.

Price just snickered to himself. “Yeah, bad habit from working with dead people.” He stuck a key in the lock. “They’re good listeners, though. Haven’t heard a complaint yet.”

He rummaged around in the cabinet and came out with a sealed plastic box. Price walked back to the examining table, struggling to open the seal. “Damned things. It’s the Asians that do this.” He fished around among the scalpels on his worktable, near the body of the old man. “You know, the average Chinese factory worker must think Americans are insane. Picture this: you work at a plant that makes Halloween stuff-you know, like, rubber severed heads. And you’re all like: Americans decorate their homes with severed heads? These fuckers are savages, man.”

Sebeck slowly leaned forward and tried to stand. He still felt woozy.

“I wouldn’t do that yet if I were you.”

“You’re not me.” Sebeck managed to stand, still holding the table to steady himself. “So, you say I created this place?” He glanced around. “By sending that message to the Daemon?”

Price got the box open. “All will become clear, young grasshopper, when you talk to One-eye. Then maybe he’ll get off my ass.” Price pulled an intricate and expensive-looking pair of sports sunglasses from the box. It was sealed in yet another plastic bag. “Why do they do this shit?” He started biting into the plastic and twisting.

“One- eye?”

Price gave him a look. “Do you have several one-eyed undead freaks stalking you, Sergeant? Should I be more specific?”

Sobol.

Price now pulled the glasses out of the bag. They were stylish, with yellow-tinted lenses and hip frames, but the posts were unusually thick. Price also pulled a thick beltlike device from the box. He glanced at Sebeck and started adjusting a strap. “Just take me a sec. You’re a what, size thirty-eight?”

“Thirty- four.”

“Damn. I’ve gotta lose about forty pounds myself. But then again, you were on the”-air quotes here-“Lompoc prison diet.”

Sebeck just pointed at the glasses.

“Oh, HUD- heads-up display. It’s an interface to the Daemon network. Check this shit out.”

“The Daemon network?”

“Can’t see the TOP without the HUD.”

“Stop with the acronyms.”

“I’ve got acronyms for my acronyms.” He held up the belt and clicked a battery into place. “Ready. Here, put this on.” He handed it to Sebeck.

Sebeck took it warily. It was like a thick money belt and was made of black, stretchable nylonlike material with a sleek titanium buckle.

Price was fiddling with the glasses. “The belt’s a combination satellite phone, GPS, and wearable computer. Methane-oxide fuel cell battery’ll last for about three days. Works in conjunction with the glasses. Be careful with it. It’s ruggedized and water-resistant, but don’t go driving nails with it. The glasses alone cost about fifty thousand dollars.”

Sebeck was taken aback. “What, are you joking? Who paid for them?”

“Daemon’s got cash, bro. Hell, you ain’t seen nothing.”

“Why’s it giving them to me? I want to destroy the Daemon.”

“Because it wants to have a word with you.”

Sebeck considered this for a few moments. Then he fastened the belt around his waist. It fit well and felt like a lifting belt.

Price slid the HUD glasses onto Sebeck’s face.

Sebeck wrapped the band around his head. “Nice fit.”

“Should be a perfect fit. They scanned your head.”

“They? Who’s they?”

Price shrugged. “Fabricators. Micro-manufacturers. Hell, who knows? The Daemon shipped it to me.”

Sebeck noticed the lens flicker momentarily, then return to normal.

“It’s got a retinal scanner and a heart pulse sensor. If you’re a member of the network and still alive, it knows who you are and what your rights are. It senses the moment you take them off. Put ’em on, you just logged on. Take ’em off, you just logged off.”

Price walked briskly over to a cluttered desk nearby. “Wait a sec.” He grabbed another pair of glasses sitting there and put them on.

They looked at each other.

Suddenly, Sebeck’s lenses blinked, then information appeared at the top and bottom of the “screen.” He focused on Price and was surprised to see a name call-out box hovering over Price-just like in the game The Gate.Price’s screen name was apparently ChunkyMonkey.

“You gotta be shitting me…”

“No, man. Check this out.” He pointed at Sebeck’s glasses. “See the green bar-stack next to my name? That’s my network power relative to you. That number seven-that’s my skill level.”

Price appeared to have seven bars.

“Network power?”

“It’s a point system. I see no bars-that means you’re a wuss compared to me. How many bars do you see?”

“Seven.”

“That means I’m nominally seven times as powerful as you. It has to do with the Shamanic Interface,but we’ll cover that later. Right now, we gotta see One-eye before he goes into a loop. He must know you’re awake by now, since you just logged on.”

Sebeck was having difficulty absorbing the reality of it all.

Price approached him. “Here…” He adjusted one side of the glasses, lowering a short piece of metal. “Sound boom. Gives you audio by vibrating the bones in your head. Works as a microphone the same way.” Price motioned for Sebeck to hurry. “You good to walk, or should I get a wheelchair?”

“I can walk.”

Price came up alongside and helped to steady him. “This way.”

Price brought them toward an alcove into which was set a pair of imposing oak doors about nine feet tall. Sebeck still felt dizzy and the glasses weren’t helping. Inexplicable information kept flashing and winking at him. “God, it’s like walking with sports scores flashing before my eyes.”

“Never mind that. You can customize it later. If you want to see without the glasses, flip the lenses up-they’re on a hinge. Don’t take the glasses off, or you’ll log off the system-and it’ll take a few seconds to get logged back on. You’ll get used to it.”

They reached the door. Price motioned for Sebeck to stay put, then he grabbed the door handles. He glanced back. “Sergeant, welcome to the Daemon’s darknet.” He opened the doors.

They swung inward, revealing a plushly appointed but rather stodgy office with stuffed leather chairs and thick carven furniture. It looked like the office of an eighteenth-century natural philosopher. Bookcases and curio cabinets filled with insect and rock specimens lined the windowless walls. There was dust everywhere.

But what riveted Sebeck’s gaze was the translucent apparition of Matthew Sobol sitting behind the big mahogany desk, hands folded, as if waiting patiently. It was post-surgery Sobol, with his open eye socket, hollow cheeks, and bald head-a shriveled wreckage of a man ravaged by chemotherapy and cancer. He was wearing the same suit he wore at his funeral.

His spectre nodded in somber greeting. “Detective Sebeck. I’ve been waiting for you.” He motioned for Sebeck to come forward. “Please, have a seat.”

Sebeck looked to Price.

Price nodded in commiseration. “I know. It’s freaky, but don’t worry. You’re not Hamlet. This is a Temporal Offset Projection,Sergeant-it’s an interactive 3-D avatar projected over the GPS grid. It’s only visible and audible in your HUD glasses.”

Sebeck studied the spectre. He flipped up his glass lenses. Sobol disappeared. He flipped them back down again and Sobol’s spectre returned. “It’s a private dimension.”

“Actually, it’s a dynamic array capable of encapsulating a variable number of dimensional elements.”

Sebeck looked at him blankly.

Price patted him on the back. “You’re right. It’s a private dimension.” He made a scooting motion. “Better sit down. He’ll know if you don’t do it.” Sebeck stepped forward and sat in one of the stuffed leather chairs. He wiped a thin layer of dust from the armrests and shifted to keep the computer belt from pressing into his back.

Sebeck could actually see Sobol more clearly now, since he was closer. Sobol’s phantasm was gaunt, and the gaping eye socket looked horrific. He really did resemble a restless spirit wandering the Earth.

Sobol looked toward Price. “Leave us.”

“Damn.” Price looked to Sebeck. “You’re on your own, my man. I gotta leave.”

Sebeck gestured to the apparition of Sobol. “What the hell do I say to this thing?”

“I was hoping you’d know.” Price rushed out, closing the double doors behind him.

Sobol’s spectre gazed at the doors. A loud click sounded as they locked.

After a few moments, Sobol turned again to Sebeck. He smiled slightly. “I’m glad it was you, Sergeant. You were my favorite. So damaged by your choices. You never understood games. Maybe that’s why the world was such a mystery to you.”

Sebeck stared. “Why don’t you just die already?”

Sobol paused. “Mammals of every species indulge in play. Games are Nature’s way of preparing us to face difficult realities. Are you finally ready to face reality, Sergeant?”

“Kiss my ass.”

Sobol’s spectre pointed at his own forehead. “It’s so clear here. Even if you can’t see it.” He lowered his arm. “Civilization is about to fail.”

Sebeck felt a wave of anxiety wash over him. Kee-hrist.

“The modern world is a highly efficient, precision machine. But that’s its flaw-one wrench in the works and it all grinds to a halt. So what does our generation get? A culture of lies to hide weakness. Decreasing freedom. All to conceal one simple fact: the assumptions upon which our civilization is based are no longer valid. If you doubt me, ask yourself: why was I able to accomplish this?”

Sebeck shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“But what if we corrected civilization’s weakness-as painful as that correction might be?”

Sobol changed expression, looking more relaxed. “But you’re probably confused. Why did I frame you? It’s simple: you were bait-bait that they took. The weak hide their weakness. By now, the plutocrats have put their money in safer havens, and I have closely watched this transfer. Now they are more vulnerable than ever.” Sobol grinned humorlessly. “You were my Trojan horse, Sergeant.”

Sebeck’s fingernails nearly tore through the chair leather. “Fuck you! You destroyed my life!”

Sobol’s spectre flickered almost imperceptibly. “An analysis of your voice patterns is revealing. Prosody tells me that you are agitated. Save your anger, Detective. It will make no difference to the outcome.”

Sebeck ground his teeth.

“Who will mourn for you, Sergeant? No one. You and I share that. We have sacrificed for the greater good. In gratitude I cared for your family in your absence-when no one else would. Your family has no idea that I am their benefactor.”

Sebeck leaned forward, another rage building. “What have you done?”

Sobol continued. “They will continue to have good fortune-but only as long as I can count on you, Detective.”

“You son of a bitch!” Sebeck swept a curio case off of Sobol’s desk, sending it crashing into the wall behind him. Glass shards flew everywhere. “Don’t involve my family!”

Sobol’s spectre flickered again. “There is that pattern again. You’re upset. I defer to your judgment in this matter. Answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’: should the Daemon withdraw support from your family?”

Sebeck stopped short. He took a breath and realized he had no idea how to respond. If-

“Respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’-or I will make a random choice for you.”

“Damn you!”

“Answer NOW. Do you want the Daemon to withdraw financial support from your family?”

Sebeck shook his head and closed his eyes. “No.”

“Thank you. The Daemon will continue to provide for them. Now, please sit down.”

“I hope you’re burning in hell.” Sebeck sat.

“We both know you don’t believe in hell.”

Sebeck sat stunned at the spectre’s response.

“Yes, I’ve done quite a bit of research on you, Sergeant. But don’t confuse me with someone who gives a damn about you. You will live or die, and I don’t care which. The only thing I care about is the Daemon’s goal. There’s a greater good in this than you can understand-perhaps than you’ll ever understand. Since you were clever enough to save yourself, you may be of some use to me still. If the Daemon triumphs, tens of millions will die. If it fails, billions will die, and we will fall back to a seventeenth-century agrarian economy. Those are the stakes, Sergeant.”

Sebeck was practically climbing out of his skin. He whispered under his breath, “Goddamn you…”

“You want to destroy the Daemon-but you offer nothing in its place. How can you expect to handle the future if you can’t even handle the present? I’ll tell you what the Daemon is: the Daemon is a remorseless system for building a distributed civilization. A civilization that perpetually regenerates. One with no central authority. Your only option is what form that civilization takes. And that depends on the actions of people like you.”

Sobol stood and started pacing behind the desk. For the first time Sebeck noticed that the desk chair was also a phantasm-there was no real chair behind the desk.

“There are those who resist necessary change. Even now they think only of protecting their investments. I am at war with them. A war that you’ll never see on the evening news. And to my mind, the outcome of this war will decide whether civilization flourishes-or collapses into a thousand-year dark age. Perhaps even with the eclipse of the human race as the dominant species on this planet.”

Sobol ran his hand along the scar on his skull. “My enemies will show themselves soon, Sergeant. As much as you despise me, they are your true enemy. I am merely an inevitable consequence of human progress. An unfeeling, unthinking thing.”

Sebeck sat in stunned silence for several moments.

Sobol’s spectre sat on the edge of the desk near Sebeck. “I suspect that democracy is not viable in a technologically advanced society. Free people wield too much ability to destroy. But I will give you the chance to determine the truth of this. If you fail to prove the viability of democracy in man’s future, then humans will serve society-not the other way around. Either way, a change is coming. I see it. As plainly as I see you sitting there.”

Sebeck realized Sobol had indeed envisioned this moment-for here Sebeck sat.

“Do you accept the task of finding justification for the freedom of humanity, Sergeant? Yes or no?”

Sebeck sat staring at the floor. He missed his family. He was tired of being alone. Of feeling the hatred of the world seeping through the walls of every room he was in. Why was this happening to him? Why did it have to be him?

“Do you accept this task, Sergeant? Yes or no?”

Son of a bitch.

“I will ask one more time: will you-“

“Yes.”

Sobol’s spectre flickered briefly, then nodded. “Good, Sergeant. I’m glad you could overcome your hatred of me.”

Sobol stood and walked toward the wall. His steps creaked on the floor to complete the illusion. He turned toward Sebeck. “Walk with me.”

With a wave of the spectre’s hand, a section of the wall opened in reality, revealing a narrow back hallway. Wainscoting and rich wallpaper lined the walls.

Sebeck rose reluctantly, glancing back at the sealed double doors he’d entered through, then looked again at Sobol’s phantom padding down the hall.

Sobol turned back again to look over his shoulder. “Please, Sergeant.”

Sebeck gritted his teeth and followed on Sobol’s heels as the apparition opened another door at the end of the hallway. Brilliant sunlight and a mild, fresh breeze filled the hall. The sound of rustling leaves came in on the wind.

Sebeck stopped. It had been many months since he’d been outside. His nostrils flared, taking in the fragrance. Balmy air whirled around him.

Sobol’s spectre beckoned him.

Sebeck strode down a short series of steps and into the sunlight. He hurried to catch up with Sobol, who was already moving across a green stretch of lawn beneath the shade of an ancient California oak. They were in a low-walled yard at the back of a great Victorian mansion.

Sebeck turned on his heels, drinking in the sun and the scenery. The Lompoc Valley lay around him. Rolling grassy hills dotted with oaks, blue mountains loomed on the horizon. Split-rail fences undulated over the contours of the land. The wind waved through the grass. The beauty of it almost brought Sebeck to tears.

He was alive.

Sobol stood next to the great oak, looking down at the ground.

Sebeck moved to catch up, and as he reached the tree he could see a small headstone there, set in the grass near the low wall. Sebeck read the simple inscription.

Matthew Sobol-1969

The inscription was centered-leaving no room for a date of death.

Sobol’s spectre gazed out over the valley below. “I loved this place.” He turned to Sebeck. “Are you familiar with the Fates, Sergeant? Greek legend said that they spun the threads of men’s lives and cut them at a length of their choosing. Like the Fates, I severed the thread of your life…”

Sobol faced toward the horizon and extended his hand. Suddenly a glowing blue line appeared in D-Space, extending from Sobol’s palm and tracing almost instantly down the nearby road and through the hills, to be lost beyond the horizon.

“Here is your new thread. Only you can see it, and it leads to a future only you can find.”

At that, Sobol’s ghostly image turned and started descending slowly into the ground of his grave, as if walking down ethereal steps. He moved methodically, slowly-like a monk in procession. Just before Sobol’s head disappeared beneath the soil, he stopped and looked up, directly into Sebeck’s eyes. “The guardian of this node will teach you all you need to know. When you leave this place, Sergeant, remember that they killed Peter Sebeck once. Do not doubt that they will kill him again if he reappears. Alive you’re a grave risk to their world-such is your fate.”

With one last glance, Sobol stepped down into his grave and disappeared beneath the grass.

Sebeck stared for several minutes at the spot where his nemesis had disappeared. His thoughts were turbulent-not yet forming into anything definite. Why didn’t he feel rage? Depression? He finally looked up, and the thread was still there, undulating over the land, projected from where Sebeck stood. He flipped up the HUD glass lenses, and the glowing thread disappeared. He flipped them down, and the line returned.

Sebeck heard the crunch of gravel, and he turned to see a black Lincoln Town Car easing to a stop just beyond the back wall gate.

Laney Price got out and moved to open the rear car door. He motioned dramatically for Sebeck to get inside.

With one last glance at Sobol’s grave, Sebeck approached the car, pushing open the wrought iron gate.

Price nodded, still holding open the rear door. “I’m supposed to help you, Sergeant. Sobol said you’d know where to go.”

Sebeck gazed back along the road behind them-away from the blue thread. He thought of his previous life. Of those he’d left behind. Of the sheriff’s department, Laura, and his son, Chris. Of everyone and everything he’d ever known. Peter Sebeck was dead.

He turned to face the blue line again, tracing a glowing filament down the road and toward a distant horizon.

“I’ll drive.”

THE END

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