Authors: Andrew Wallace
SONS OF THE CRYSTAL MIND
Units #23#1106*737123*1 to #23#2507*737123*44 [edited]
From the Accumulated Experience Realm Account
of CHARITY FREESTONE
Darkness ripens to a honey glow as day lights come on over Centria. It reflects off delicate clouds, the part-hidden ceiling above them and shines finally into the apartment, where my breathing returns to normal after this morning’s immersive workout.
It was a tough one. In the shared two-hour simulation, various Centrian colleagues and I fought off a MidZone incursion by orange-clad New Form Enterprise soldiers. They had modern weapons. We used Old World projectile rifles that were much tougher to use, although that didn’t stop me shooting five of the NFE.
I still clutch the rifle although I’ve deposited the simulator, whose built-in armour, paddles and restraints gave the workout its bruising physicality. Each muscle is a cluster of dull pain as I place the weapon on the floor. I ignore the discomfort and click DEPOSIT in my ifarm. The floor absorbs the rifle and it lies encased in clear, unfaceted diamond. After a second the rifle vanishes as the Basis breaks it down into its constituent molecules and transfers them back to my account, which rises by 187 kilos.
I stand with effort and turn to see the holo of a kindly middle-aged woman with shoulder-length grey hair.
“Doctor?” I say, surprised.
“Your heart rate activated the ifarm’s emergency medical interface.”
I clap my hand over my heart angrily, as if it has betrayed me.
“Oh,” I say and then become conscious of over-reacting. “That’s… annoying.”
“Yes but my performance must be exceptional if I’m ever going to get promoted.”
“Your performance was exceptional.”
“It wasn’t. Some NFE woman giffed a twenty-metre tower right under me and then blew it up so I fell to my ‘death’.”
I shudder, remembering. I will do anything to avoid a repeat of that experience, which I suppose is the point.
“Charity, even for a fit twenty-three year old girl-”
“I need to do better. Imagine if I messed up a workout and got demoted…”
“That’s not very likely is it? Your sister is doing amazingly well. I’m sure that’s got something to do with you.”
“It’s nothing to do with me.”
“Aren’t you her secretary?”
“No! I mean, I’m more of an executive… er…”
There’s an awkward pause as my rudeness taints the air even more odiously than the sodden singlet I’m wearing. It was white when I giffed it but is now grey and streaked with red.
“You need to let the Basis heal you,” the doctor says tactfully.
“Right, yes. How much?”
The medical package appears as a purchase option on the transparent screens over my eyes. I pull off the singlet and throw it into a corner, where it lands with a slap and is absorbed. Blood trickles from injuries in my sides and legs; my jaw feels odd and the left shoulder is numb where I ‘landed’.
I swig water from a glass by the bed and then carefully lie down on my back. The surface beneath me is neither hot nor cold, as if it has matched itself to my body temperature. I click BUY on the medical package and sink quickly into the floor. There is no bowing or concavity; I simply pass through the horizontal plane, which closes over me. The edge tickles where it meets my skin.
In a few moments I come to rest with the soles of the doctor’s shoes visible about a metre to the left of my face. The silence is total. No vibrations are transmitted from elsewhere in the tower or the city at large. I can breathe although my chest is motionless, while my weight has not displaced any part of the floor. I don’t know how the Basis does this; I don’t think anyone does anymore.
Internal and external wounds begin to itch as the healing begins. I’m used to the sensation and can work without being distracted, so I access the ifarm to arrange another of Ursula’s pre-wedding parties. After a while the doctor appears in the lower left of my vision.
“Do you mind if I ask how things are going?” she says.
I enter a clean white virtual space so we can speak.
“They’re going very well,” I reply, warily.
“You seem to be under pressure.”
“Nothing I can’t cope with.”
I would like to tell her more; however, I don’t know who else is listening or which files my replies will end up in. I have to be perfect or I risk losing everything.
“I love Centria you see,” I tell her.
“We all do,” she replies.
“No, but I really do,” I say with a surge of pride. “It’s amazing here at the heart of Diamond City, where it’s safe, where anything that matters happens. I mean look at it!”
“Yes, it’s the most beautiful part of the city.”
We reflect on the glory of our home, encased in its gleaming sphere.
“So how are plans for Ursula’s wedding?” she asks.
“Really? When I organised mine it was chaos.”
I grunt as something knits together in my rib cage.
“She must love him very much,” the doctor says.
The wedding is an advertising opportunity for the corporate merger between Centria and VIA Holdings.
“Yes,” I say.
“How do you feel about the man who’s stealing your big sister away?”
I hate him.
“Balatar is a fine man,” I say. “Plus, what a catch! Son of the Chief of VIA Holdings…”
“It’s the nearest we’ll get to a royal wedding.”
VIA Holdings are a bunch of subs. However, they possess an enormous quantity of liquid capital, which Centria wants in order to fix its position as the most powerful company in Diamond City.
“I hope so,” I say. “The weather will be astonishing – I hope!”
I’m repeating myself because I’m nervous. I’d like her to go. Her role is to keep me company rather than do the actual healing but I was abrupt to her earlier so guilt prevents a swift end to the conversation.
“It will be,” the doctor says. “There hasn’t been this much excitement since the end of the Ruby War a year ago.”
“Now that was a party,” I say as if I had something to do with organising it which, regrettably, I didn’t.
Our virtual space becomes the view in the apartment floor again, which shifts as the Basis expels me back to the surface. I get up unsteadily and check myself in a holo. Wounds have closed into red streaks and the jaw swelling is reduced. My thick blonde hair hangs in sweaty clumps and I push it aside to check the impact abrasion, which is now just a ripple in the skin. By this afternoon it will be gone, along with most of the pain.
I continue to stare at the holo as if it will give me answers. Instead all I see is an athletic girl of average height whose breasts could be a bit bigger, especially compared to those of her voluptuous sister. I can get my chest enlarged of course but physical alterations might hide some essential truth about me, as if obscuring a clue…
“You’re quite lovely you know,” the doctor says.
“I’ve got nice hair,” I concede automatically, “but Ursula is the beautiful one.”
I squint at the holo, suddenly confused. The holo squints back.
“Are you all right?” the doctor asks.
The holo and I turn to face her at the same time.
“Y-” I start.
I turn to the holo again. Eyes whose colour is hard to determine stare back at me. Are they blue, green, aqua or grey? Each iris is surrounded by a barely visible ring of gold that darkens at the outer edge. Whose genetic heritage is that? I click off the holo and feel oddly alone without its bothersome familiarity.
“I’m fine,” I say. “Thank you for this morning, for your help.”
“Take care Charity,” the doctor says and fades away.
I look around my apartment. I like to think of the broad, kidney-shaped room as minimally styled although the bed used to be Ursula’s so that’s too big and ornate. The only decoration is a large picture of her on the far wall and a smaller framed one of Mum and Dad beside it. I can never decide on any other home ornamentation so I don’t bother. For the first time the apartment strikes me as sparse.
I gif a bath, which rises out of the floor in one corner and fills itself with steaming, foamy water. I climb in and sink all the way under. The foam scrubs dirt off me and heat resonates through my jangling muscles like pleasure. Being underwater is nothing like being in the Basis. Water is a simple element. The Basis is not simple. Rumour has it the Sons of the Crystal Mind worship it as a god.
Mum calls. I don’t accept; she will want to discuss the argument we had last night when she asked why I was still single. I told her I wasn’t very good at relationships because I don’t know who I am. She patiently explained yet again that I had been given to Dad and her as a baby to bring up from somewhere in Centria. She doesn’t know where. For once I pushed it and said with her job she should be able to find out. She got angry and said to even talk about abusing her position was to risk becoming an ex.
I thought that was a bit much. Not only is Ursula the Face of Centria and People’s Princess, but Mum and Dad are former solders and loyal agents in the Centrian Security Service. Dad risks his life for Centria on a daily basis. He has been on some mysterious mission out in Diamond City for nearly a month. Out there! Among subs, Blanks and the kind of entrepreneurs who will drug you into leaving your kilos to them and then cut your throat.
Thankfully, Dad has got Mum as his Operator. She monitors the mission and supplies him with ‘intel’ as she calls it to keep him alive. Mum is her usual secretive self about their work although she has been uncharacteristically preoccupied lately.
She calls again. Later Mum!
She calls a third time with an urgent tag, which is strange.
Surfacing, I take the call. Mum looks wild-eyed and panicky. I’ve never seen her panic before.
“Charity, log out of the ifarm and use your Aerac to call me direct. Do it now.”
Log out of the ifarm? That’s a company offence. The Aer network is free for everyone in Diamond City and can’t be intercepted any more than transactions with the Basis can. However, in Centria we enjoy the status of an ifarm interface between us and the Aer.
Admittedly, an ifarm does the same job as an Aer account; both facilities handle communication, ID and personal finance. Everyone in Diamond City has an Aerac but no one in Centria uses theirs; without an ifarm they won’t get paid and the enclave’s doors will literally not open.
Mum obviously doesn’t want Security to hear what she has to say. What is so wrong that she wants me to break her precious rules?
Nervous, I climb stiffly out of the bath and deposit it. I click on the option of my usual blue suit, which flows out of the floor straight onto me like a liquid and blooms into the final design in three seconds. Once finished, the suit sucks off the bathwater and it pools on the floor to be absorbed. I pull a sleeve over my face and hair to dry them and then close my eyes.
I take a deep breath and log off the ifarm. As the familiar visual overlay fades I tense in expectation of the door shattering to admit Anton Jelka and his security guards or, worse, Gethen Karkarridan.
I call Mum on the Aerac. She answers at once, her image on my right eye screen.
“Charity, listen to me,” she says. “There’s something wrong with Centria.”
She shakes her head as if to clear it.
“We’re finding out such strange things and they don’t make sense. But I can tell you there is a threat, a terrible threat to us.
“I don’t even know if the wedding is a good idea now, whether or not it will keep you both safe. VIA Holdings… What does the VIA stand for? And the New Form Enterprise… Darling, they may not be what we think they are.”
For a moment she is so distracted she actually seems mad. Her eyes focus again. Her gaze is frightening.
“And Charity, please, whatever happens, stay away from the Sons of the Crystal Mind-”
She looks to the left suddenly and the connection is cut.
I call her back but there’s no reply. I call Ursula. No reply. I call Dad. Nothing. A terrible dread like sickness creeps up from the soles of my feet to the top of my head.
There’s something wrong with Centria.