Chapter 66: Forever in a minute
Steven appeared in a deserted corridor in the Orange Sector and he lingered on the platform for several moments as he tried to take a breather. He was certain that he was in the Inuit Station; its pristine marble walls and ceiling murals were beautiful proofs of this. It didn’t take long for someone to arrive on an antigravity transporter and acknowledge his arrival. It was a svelte female that was casually dressed in a long brown patterned dress; her long black hair lay loose on either side of her shoulders. She was clearly native, but not Inuit; her face was too fair for that, he observed. He found her attractive in her own way. As their eyes found each other, he found a profound sense of tranquility in her deep black eyes, which elicited a smile on his face.
“Hello Steven, it’s an honour to finally meet you. I have seen you step on the pad in Norway and I put the system on pause to give me the time to get here. I was monitoring the unusual activity at the Norwegian Station and have already discussed what I have observed with Gill and my husband,” she said calmly, with a smooth voice that soothed his frayed nerves.
“If I may ask, what have you observed?” asked Steven, too surprised to take the time to ask who she was.
“An unspeakable tragedy that we could not prevent,” she answered. “My husband and I will take all the time necessary to explain it to you when you are ready. Go now, you have something you want to do and you shouldn’t be prevented from doing it.” As she looked at the grief on his face, her own heart sank and she added, “Don’t worry, we will be there when you have time for us,” and motioned to depart.
“Wait!” pleaded Steven. “One quick question: Who is your husband?”
She smiled and turned back. “Ataninnuaq.”
She must not have looked a day over thirty and Ataninnuaq looked a few days short of eighty. Steven didn’t want to, but the statement made him grimace.
Used to seeing that look, particularly in the face of the newcomers, she gently replied, “I’m actually three years older than he is. I was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, on the day the town was named. It was in 1882. I was a few weeks shy of seventy when we entered the Station with the first wave of people. I have since restored my body using the MARS, and Atani did too. For him, however, it’s a phase that comes and goes, like people changing their hair style to look more serious or festive, depending on the occasion.”
Steven was awestruck by the revelation. The possibility of it had simply eluded him despite his vivid imagination. He wanted to ask more questions, but was essentially denied the chance as Ataninnuaq’s wife gave him her warm regards and went on her way.
He made his way to the Station’s Chamber—or Core, as they called it here. Upon entering, the first thing he noticed on the touchscreen interface was that it was occupied by one individual. He paused and looked at the control and it was on a one-to-one ratio, indicating that the time inside was passing as fast as the time outside. He engaged the program and entered. He rematerialized inside and noticed that he was no longer in emotional turmoil. His hands were no longer shaky and the knot in his stomach was gone. The computer had made sure that he was completely sound again, both physiologically and psychologically. At first he was glad, but soon an irrational thought surfaced in his mind and he felt somewhat cheated. The pain, unbearable as it had been, at least gave him the feeling of still being connected to Chrissy, but now, it felt as if the connection was severed.
The inside of the Core looked like a small apartment in Norway, but here he had trouble making it out. It looked like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, the CNN’s Atlanta Newsroom, or at least what he imagined NORAD should be, with four giant screens in the centre of the circular room and an innumerable number of smaller screens on each side. Every monitor was displaying something different. He had appeared on an elevated position and his eyes levelled with a group of screens on the right, showing what he assumed to be the Oval Office inside the White House. The eagle seal on the carpet was unmistakable. He didn’t know if it was a movie, the record of some meetings, or a live image, but it didn’t look rehearsed. The people were sitting on two opposing couches and were discussing something the muted screen didn’t reveal. Other screens showed other rooms that he couldn’t identify. The four main screens were displaying a map and more people in meetings, two in what looked like restaurants and the last screen on the bottom right portrayed two men, one clearly in white Arabic robes with a double-rounded black band holding the hood on his head in place, his beard and sunglasses preventing Steven from guessing his age. He was gesturing a lot as his wide sleeves flapped in the wind, but the conversation seemed friendly overall. The Caucasian man he was talking to seemed relaxed, likely in his late forties or early fifties, and impeccably dressed in a black suit.
The screens on the left were too far for him to make out any important details, but if he would have to guess, he would have said more of the same; people in meetings in famous conference rooms or private offices around the world..
Steven scanned the room further and found a staircase, on which a lone figure—perhaps the sole occupant of the room according to the access panel—was descending; behind him was a glass-floored loft that supported a couple of velvet black méridiennes and a richly ornate dark wood coffee table. He appeared to be a middle-aged man wearing a luxurious smoking jacket made of gold quilted satin silk.
“What is this place?” asked Steven, momentarily forgetting his manners.
“Hello, Steven. Welcome to the nerve centre of the Inuit Station,” answered the man.
“Yeah, sorry, Hi,” replied Steven, recognizing Sears from his previous visit. “Our Core seems to have only two rooms.”
“That’s because you have forgotten that this is not a room. At the moment, we are inside the computer. So, you can recreate anything in the database or customize your own if you focus your thoughts long enough,” explained Sears. Just like that, the room changed into a warm desert and, before he had time to complain about the stifling heat, the room changed again and they were at the summit of Mount Everest, standing on compacted snow, the clear blue sky and a sea of glaciers all around them.
“Wow! What a view! It’s hard to breathe up here,” he said, a little blinded by the white snow.
“You bet, we are at almost 9,000 metres above sea level,” replied Sears. “A little higher and you can board a jumbo jet in mid-flight.”
Sears laughed and Steven surprised himself by laughing too, and cursed the Core again for robbing him of the hate and pain.
As his surroundings changed again to what it had been when he entered, his plan was also changing in his mind as fast as the images on the screens in front of him.
“You know, it’s not just rooms and landscapes. You can imagine people, animals, and events, anything that you have in your mind or that you can access in the database. Don’t tell anyone, but when I need to go and relax, I go to Egypt and fuck Queen Cleopatra, who was quite a stunner I tell you. But you have to be careful too; the system is so accurate that you could lose yourself in those realities,” replied Sears with a grin.
Steven returned the smile and was astonished that Sears had used such a direct and private example. “But you are married, right?” asked Steven, looking at the golden ring on his finger. “Not that I’m judging you or anything,” he corrected.
“What? Don’t tell me you never jerked off in front of a porn movie or imagined being with someone else when you were sleeping with your girlfriend?” Sears replied, knowing the answer to that.
“I’ll take that as a yes. And did you consider that as cheating your girlfriend?”
“No, of course not, but that’s—”
“That’s not the same, because here you can touch them and they can touch you?” asked Sears as he laid his forefinger on Steven’s chest to drive his point.
“Maybe... but I think this is not really a good time to ask me these questions,” said Steven, half expecting the pain to return, but it didn’t.
“What happened to you?” ask Sears, noticing the long face.
“You don’t know?”
“We can’t monitor everyone on the planet and, even if we could, only the major events have a decent level of accuracy. Individuals can change their minds at anytime and if the Station sensors or recording technologies on the outside world are not monitoring it, we can’t know about it.” explained Sears.
“Can I ask you a big favour?” asked Steven with pleading eyes. He had now totally dismissed the idea he had since he left Norway and knew now with extreme clarity what needed to be done, and he only needed a few minutes to do it, he assumed.
“Sure, anything my friend,” answered Sears honestly.
“I need a few minutes, say ten, here, alone to test something. I couldn’t try it at the Norwegian Station anyway,” said Steven, not really lying, but at the same time looking for any signs of rejection. But he saw none. Sears respected people and the Builders’ concept of level even more and if they had decided that Steven was good enough to be in there, who was he to argue with that?
“Sure, I’ll go and take a real cup of coffee with real people,” Sears replied, as he motioned to end the conversation and depart, his thoughts already returning to his virtual royal bed companion. Sears made his way up the stairs and requested to be transferred out, and he vanished.
Steven was now finally alone in the place he wanted to be since he was searched and evicted from his own room in Norway. He requested the system to see who was in the Preparation Room and, as soon as Sears was out, Steven also exited the Core. Once outside, he quickly started requesting the computer for a series of calculations, unsure if it could have been accomplish from within. At first he wanted to suspend himself in the Core and synchronize his exit with that of Chrissy, which would have prevented him from suffering their parting and would maintain the relationship alive. But the cons were too numerous to count: Among the few he had time to list, the most important was that he had no way of knowing when she would be getting out. What if he remained in the Core longer than her? That would only create the problem in reverse. Also, that scenario would take away a lot of control from him. What if she got out and didn’t know where he was or didn’t wait for him? Another point was his ability to help her; he was smart, somewhat fit and he had a little money set aside, but very little else in the way of education and training that could make the difference. Finally, one more point which entered his mind while talking with Sears was that if he remained in the Core for years or even decades, it would hurt everyone here. Gill said that the next few years were critical to Canada and the rest of the world. Remaining in the Core would mean that they would lose their access to it for all these years. For the greater good, he couldn’t do that.
It dawned on him that all that was left for him was to become strong and learn all he could that would help him in taking Chrissy out of the Core in Norway or at least ensure their security, once reunited. The only real danger with the plan was that he could forget or stop loving her.
He finished inputting the time ratio on the console and, as he reviewed the data, the display was now showing an extreme time dilation, effectively redefining the term forever in a day.
He felt calm and ready. It was not the time he would spend alone that scared him. It was his ability to stop himself with a simple voice command. Just as a fat man on a treadmill can press the big red stop button at anytime and fail to achieve his goal, he too could bailout at anytime. He now knew that this would be the biggest challenge of his life and he would have to find a way to keep running and complete the set time, despite how much out of breath he would get.
In the meantime, Gill was made aware of Steven’s arrival the minute the latter appeared in the Station. He was kept abreast of the situation as he was informed by the system itself, which had also informed him that Steven was now inside the Core. He was now running toward that location, blessing the morning empty corridors. Sears had also been contacted by Gill and returned to the Core with his cup of coffee in hand and was now looking at the display from the preparation room followed by Gill, who entered mere seconds after his call. He too had gotten the complete picture at a glance. The display indicated clearly that for each year inside the Core, only seventy seconds would pass on the outside. Sears knew it to be the maximum processing speed of the Core computer. Faster than that and it ran the risk of lagging or not being able to show the user all the details and calculate all the probabilities accurately, making for a poor quality experience.
“Don’t. I recommend we let him be,” said Sears, grabbing Gill’s hand centimetres away from the control. “We never tried to stop a simulation from the outside. The system is not designed for it; you risk harming him and look, he already figured it out,” he added, pointing at a large screen that was now rapidly displaying images and headlines in translated text which they read in English.
Gill didn’t answer and pulled his hand away slowly as he started reading the headlines, though he was not as used as Sears in deciphering the images, which were changing like those of a projector on steroid. The text Gill missed had said that Steven had already spent weeks reading and discussing with Sordana the possibilities of bringing Chrissy out of the Core before she exited it on her own. Sordana replied that from the outside, it couldn’t be done. All he could do, Sears knew but didn’t have time to explain to Gill, as the scrolling text raced upward, was to enter the Core and be trapped inside with her. Something he already tried in a simulation of the Norway Station and now just dismissed from his mind as the text said.
“He is back in Toronto. That was Union Station,” said Gill, confused to see it repeat many times.
“Yeah, he is spending a lot of time in the Ontario Provincial Police firing-range underneath the tracks,” answered Sears. “He is becoming a good shot.”
“Ah,” exclaimed Gill, believing his friend at his word but thinking of something else.
“Care to let me in on it?”
“He used to go out with a girl, Stephanie something, a cute brunette with long brown hair, but he didn’t go and see her in the simulation,” replied Gill.
“Yeah, he is controlling himself rather well, under the circumstances,” said Sears, referring to all the courses Steven was now taking at various universities both in Canada and the United States. “No one goes through university without sex unless you are in a Chinese school and told that sex will ruin your grades and get you expelled,” he jested.
“Ah, he just finished a few courses in Psychology, Philosophy, and he has now, well, just completed Latin,” commented Sears. “Oh, look... he just completed a degree in Archaeology at McGill University and he is about to go to Harvard for more of the same,” Sears continued. “Wow, he managed to last four years and a half, damn!”
“What? I missed that one.”
“You missed both the images and texts, it seemed. You need to look at the big picture; don’t focus on understanding only one line of text at a time,” Sears advised. “Now you just missed his first blowjob. It took him five years before he let go of his mental barriers in that aspect.”
“He is not made of wood,” Gill said, shaking his head and blinking his eyes, everything to try to keep up. “Damn, he is on a Sci-Fi fest alright. He must have watched all the series presented on television.”
“Yeah, but he fast forwarded through Babylon 5,” added Sears.
“Can’t blame him for that.”
“Nope, if that’s what humanity will look like in two hundred years, I welcome the apocalypse.”
“Oh, what’s with all the naked people? Is that Jesus’ time?” asked Gill.
Sears put his hand on the touchscreen panel and slowed the feed down a notch by using his implant. “That is Spartacus!” declared Sears, throwing his fists in the air like the crowd in the arena in front of him.
“How do you know?”
“Just saw the name Lentulus Batiatus. That’s the owner of the ludus where Spartacus was trained in the gladiatorial arts. That means he is in Capua, 73 years before J.C’s inaccurate calendar.”
“You mean B.C.”
“B.C., before J.C, only the Builders’ dating system is accurate anyway.”
“Well, better get another trainer. He just died tons of times,” Gill said. “Oh, he just won and… what the hell?” The images had been slowed a step lower by Sears, who didn’t care to miss some of the rest of the story for this.
“Well, it seems like he is engaging in a fuckathon,” offered Sears, grinning and making a mental note to visit that period when time allowed. Steven had become a great swordsman and fought in the style of Dimachaerus with two swords of equal size, but he was not using the helmet, disliking the restriction in his vision. His chest now looked like those of Californian surfers, which made Sears grinned even more, thinking that Steven was lucky to be in an injury-free simulation, otherwise his chest would have soon looked like a surfboard after a shark attack.
“Oh shit, did I just see this for real?” Gill said, shaking his head as if to clear his mind of something that made no sense to him.
“It was normal in those times to have a slave girl, you know, to warm you up before you do it with your wife,” explained Sears, not paying attention to these details since it was all a simulation.
Things were moving fast and Gill’s implant didn’t seem to help much and seeing a high level engaged in virtual slaughters and orgies made his mind jam, like a vinyl being scratched back and forth on a turn-table by a DJ.
Sears had tried repetitively over the years to explain to Gill his idea of separation in his mind between the virtual reality of the Core and his relationship in the outside world. Now, he was proud to see that at least Steven understood it clearly.
“What’s that? England in the eighteenth century or an Amish village?” asked Gill, happy that Steven had skipped Athens’ good old days.
“Ah, that’s not England. It’s Austria and that dude is Sigmund Freud, I think,” Sears said. Again, he was right. The decades Sears had spent in the Core helped immensely in his understanding, not only of the Core display he was watching but Steven’s behaviours and needs while inside.
“You think he would remain in Austria for the entire seven years?” referring to the Freudian’s seven years of psycho-analysis. “Nah, I have been to Vienna. Who wants to spend seven years there in that time period with bouffant dresses and ten layers of underwear?” said Gill, unmindful of the fact that he had just answered his own question.
“He is already out and in the United States and discussing with a Harvard professor. Damn, it’s hard to follow details in that compression mode with a year worth of events in seventy seconds,” told Sears while making it worse by asking the computer for more information. As soon as he received his answer, he paused the entire feedback system.
Gill had heard the question and the answer too, but his heart nonetheless skipped a beat when he heard Sears give the command. The text stopped as well and the last image on the screen showed a bow target with four arrows so tightly grouped that if an arrow could split another, it would have been it.
“Damn, he is becoming super good at this,” Sears noted, having noticed that Steven had been practicing almost twice a day for the past ten years. He is almost ready for the Olympics, saying it sarcastically at first, then thinking that it was looking good enough to qualify him for the Nationals at least.
“Are you sure there is no risk in putting this thing on pause?” ask Gill, not paying attention to the Robin Hood story.
“It can’t be paused for long, look,” pointing to the countdown on the screen, which had just turned to an even one hundred seconds. “Two minutes is the maximum you have; that way, you can’t imprison the occupant for long, same with the transporter.
“I thought I knew a lot about the Core, but I still can’t understand how the people in Norway managed to program the computer if they didn’t have access to it?” asked Gill rhetorically, knowing that there was no time for that now.
“You just told me what happened in passing third minutes ago. Let us resume here and then I can evaluate the situation, and see if we can mount a rescue,” replied Sears, knowing that Steven had already studied the possibilities with Sordana for weeks at the beginning and came out empty-handed. Gill nodded agreement and turned his head toward the screen to ensure that he would not miss the action when everything resumes.
When the images started again, Steven seemed no longer competing for the Olympics.
“Where is that, you reckon?” asked Gill, still unable to read the text and view the flashing images on the screen. He found this sequence rather difficult to follow and he likened it to watching a fast-paced war movie while reading the subtitles at the same time.
“That’s the Black Forest in Germany and, believe it or not, it’s high noon,” answered Sears, remembering visiting this dense forest once.
“Wow! He invented his own game, a hunter game of sort if I read that right,” said Gill.
“A hunting game alright. The difference is that he is the prey and the guys pursuing him were Waffen SS right out of Nazi Germany. Then, I saw Green Berets and Canadian Pathfinders. Now it seemed that he is in a snowy country—yeah, these are Spetsnaz soldiers and they got him within hours every time in the first few months,” commented Sears, not surprised of the result. He and Fisher participated in a lot of joint exercises with the Spetsnaz soldiers. They had found these elite Russian commandos to be formidable warriors and their training extreme. Unlike the Navy Seals, the Russians didn’t wash out from the team. Their weak members generally died in training or were killed during soldier-on-soldier interrogations that, to Sears, had seemed more like comrades torturing and beating each other than real training. But it was effective since the Spetsnaz were winning almost every skirmish against American Forces infantry men and Special Forces at their yearly training exercises. The Americans only won against them when using their superior technologies and mobile equipment such as tanks, helicopters and planes. But on the ground, with conventional rifles, machine guns, pistols, ballistic knives or with their bare hands, the Russians were besting them almost all the time.
“Oh, he gave up,” announced Gill.
“I’m sure Steven wants to learn and be good at evasion and modern guerrilla warfare, but I’m not sure he wants to spend years being tortured and ridiculed to get there, and that’s why he is now in a gym with a medicine ball and learning Kapap,” observed Sears. Seeing the lack of understanding in his friend’s face, he explained the concept further. “It’s an Israeli close-quarter battle system. I saw them in action personally. Their instructor can disarm three guys with guns with his bare hands, then fight them as he tried to shoot them with their own guns. It was an impressive demonstration and one I would never try.”
“Oh, that’s the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Training Facility. I know it well and that’s their special car with the hydraulic lifting apparatus that removes traction on the wheels to simulate snow and ice. Damn, it seemed he is following the full course... sweet, he brought his bow,” said Gill, getting all the details right this time. “Why are you putting the system on pause again?”
“I just remembered something. Before Steven continues training, with him getting educated on everything that he laid his eyes on, I would like to see if he can actually retain that training when he gets out and if not, I propose to go in and tell him to end his studies,” announced Sears while browsing some pages of documents on a new screen that had just appeared.
“Can you enlighten me?” asked Gill, obviously puzzled by the statement and looking at a disturbing image of a man’s head, an enlarging hole forming where his right eye once was and his hair at the back violently blown aside, letting no doubt that a bullet was exiting from the back of his skull. He turned from the gruesome image to look at Sears and continued, “I don’t get it. You and I are in there every day, learning about the events of the world and we remember everything, so far as implant and memory allows.”
“True, but that’s informational memory and not muscle memory,” answered Sears, pausing for a second to make sure he explained this point correctly. “Take the bow, for example. A professional bowman like Steven needs to learn a special movement that consists of twisting only your forearm muscles while leaving your wrist and elbow straight so you can clear the rope when you release it. As you can see, I can’t do that movement and I won’t until I spend hours exercising for it. That’s muscle memory and unless the system can imprint that into Steven’s body when it is recreated upon exiting the system, he will be unable to do a lot of the things he did in the Core. It would be like trying to learn to swim by reading about it on the Internet. You would know all the techniques, but it doesn’t mean that you will be able to go to a pool and do laps the first time.”
Unfortunately for Sears and incidentally for Steven, the system resumed automatically before he had time to find out his answer, as Steven seemed to have returned to Ancient Rome. The subligaculum, which only covered his genitals, was a dead giveaway.
“He didn’t stay long. Less than a week, I saw, but he seems to return there often to that time period,” Gill offered.
Sears listened, but remained focused on the screen. “He is doing great with the evasions and he’s now practicing with a female partner of low skills, as a good simulation for when Chrissy would rejoin him.”
“Training as a federal police officer and investigator likely helped him a lot to understand the methods police are using for hunting down criminals and terrorists,” added Gill, realizing the disagreement in the face of his friend through his reflection on the black screen next to him.
“Hmm, he is good, very good, but these are only short term evasions. He did the same simulating a pilot crashing over and over in different countries. But I didn’t see him try to live undercover behind enemy lines for very long. That’s the hard part,” explained Sears, remembering some close calls in his time. “You see, the longer you remain hidden, the longer you run the risk of making a mistake, because the mind wants to return to something normal. That’s when most of the people get caught.”
“In this case, I have to say that if he gets caught, they better send the entire SWAT team in the building after him or they will have to have a calculator to count the dead,” added Gill, understanding the implications and wondering what was Steven’s frame of mind after almost twenty-five years living in the Core simulation and hoping he wouldn’t be reduced in level by the Station. He had seen it happen before, but never from someone that high and that was comforting.
“He must be about to get out now. I mean, he covered almost everything, including driving trains and piloting planes and large boats,” said Sears. “He just discovered my dream holiday tour package.”
“Another fuckathon?” Gill grinned, despite the fact that he couldn’t see anyone naked on the screen.
“Nope, something better—it is already over; it took only fourteen seconds for us. He just completed a tour of all the secret locations in the world since 1525, starting at the Vatican secret archives all the way to Area 51 and MI-5 secret base in the Falklands,” explained Sears.
“Yeah, it is about ninety-five percent accurate, I would say. It was great, but I don’t know who you have been seeing lately, but it is not as good as sex, maybe because you have the chance to read about all those secret reports on a daily basis and it becomes trivial for you,” Gill offered.
“I think I should go. He will be out soon and I think you should be the one to welcome him to the real world, if we are indeed in the real world,” mused Sears with a chuckle. “Don’t forget that to him, more than thirty years has passed.”
“Wait a few minutes until we see him get out. I’m missing so much stuff,” requested Gill.
“That’s very private stuff, you know.”
“Too late to have remorse, it is almost over.”
“Ok, but I’ll go when we see the system return to normal time mode.”
“Bye, then,” Gill said, smiling wryly.
“Oh, yeah,” Sears smiled back. He didn’t leave immediately and stopped the system instead, but this time Gill didn’t object. “Hmm, I can’t get a reading on his level. Oh, there it is... it’s still a little lower than me and higher than Chrissy by a hair.” Sears pondered deeply on the implications of the data that he was receiving before elaborating further. “It appears his level decreased by almost nothing... interesting. It probably increased overall because of the new knowledge and decreased in another aspect. It says here that he’s essentially unwilling to keep the Builders’ tech secret in case of major problems. I know that one; it’s not too costly because the system tests you and recognizes that confidentiality is secondary to protecting your safety. At least, that’s how I interpret it.” The observation brought back fleeting memories to Sears. He had that same conversation with Fisher, who constantly exposed Builders’ technologies to people during his operations and didn’t get so much as a slap on the hand for it by the system.
“I have studied both their profiles,” Gill said, relaxed while the system was on pause. “They are both good people at heart and although I’m sure Chrissy’s imprisonment and Steven’s almost thirty years in that simulation will certainly change them, I think he will remain fundamentally good and the system knows it.”
“I hope so, too. At any rate, you will soon find out,” finished Sears with a complicit smile and left the room.
It took another five minutes by Gill’s watch for Steven to emerge, reappearing in front of him. Steven didn’t lose a second and gave him a bear hug, sending Gill gasping for air. Seeing someone, a real person of flesh and blood after all these years, had overwhelmed him with emotions. He quickly let go and looked around the room in a self-congratulatory manner and then at himself, noticing his enhanced body for the first time outside the Core. Finally, he looked toward the exit, happy to realize that his first thoughts were for Chrissy.