Doug Blackford: Traces

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By Doug Blackford

Memory is an odd beast. I intentionally use the word beast. You never truly know what to expect from it. You may understand its basic nature, but you can’t always predict its behavior. It often stalks you, on the edge of your conscious mind, darting from shadow to shadow, but never quite showing itself. It just as often surprises you, jumping into you face first, teeth bared, without warning or any desire on your part. It might get triggered by a photo or a song, though often a scent summons it forth like a wolf suddenly appearing out of nowhere. You can control it to some degree, but it’s more of a wild animal than a pet. Thus, it’s a beast.

You would think I’d have better things to do right now than to create an analogy for memory, but I really don’t. As I lie here, basking in the haze of a drug-induced euphoria, my memory has been gnawing at me for days now. I think it’s been days. I’m pretty sure it’s drugs, though it’s been a while since any have had much effect on me. I can’t talk. I can’t move. Most of the time, I’m uncertain whether I’m lucid, hallucinating, or dreaming. I can hardly tell the difference anymore — they all seem equally real. Hell, at this point, who’s to say they’re not? So yeah, I really don’t have anything better to do.

Gnawing at me like a dog at a bone. Yeah, worrying at me like a bothersome terrier — too damn quick to grab hold of, and more annoying because of it. Back and forth. Back and forth. I grab for it. It darts away. Repeat. I’ve even tried the old trick of thinking about something else, but no dice. Like that damn terrier, the memory stays just beyond my grasp, teasing me — laughing at my inability to catch it.

It starts the same way each time. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried remembering it, nor why I keep going back to it. I remember a path, but little more than that. I can’t recall its significance or where I saw it. I can feel its importance, and that’s what really drives me bonkers. I know it’s important to me, but I don’t know why. You ever feel that way — when you know something with absolute certainty, but you can’t explain how you know? Not personal opinions or political views or any of those things that may or may not change with time and knowledge and experience. I’m talking the kind of knowing that is in your core — is part of who and what you are. A pure truth. Yeah, like that.

The path leads into a forest. The forest seems like one of those rain forests you find in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. There are several types of conifers and ferns, but virtually no deciduous trees. It’s not quite cold, but it’s definitely cool. My ears feel tighter than I’m used to, so it’s a high elevation. No snow, but damp, so it feels like late May, maybe June. The path appears well maintained with partially-buried supports spaced fairly regularly to help prevent erosion. A national park trail maybe? I can smell the green, which reinforces the seasonal feel. Small scurrying sounds in the underbrush along each side indicate to me that people use the trail pretty regularly. The animals aren’t surprised by my presence. I can hear birds too, but I don’t see anyone. It seems like I’ve been on the path for hours, but I haven’t seen a single person. All I do is walk, endlessly, without end. It’s infuriating.

Dr. Fender keyed the transmitter for the small microphone attached to his lab coat’s lapel. “He’s on the forest trail again.”

It took less than a minute for a woman dressed in military uniform to come striding in with a pair of full birds riding her shoulders, wearing a name tag that read Rafferty. She studied the monitor for a moment. The resolution was pretty low and it was black and white only, but it was good enough to display an image of the subject’s audiovisual processes. It looked like a trail to her. She could even hear … birds? She had no real idea how it did what it did, but that the contraption worked at all was good enough for her.

“We’ve tried letting it play for the past three days, doctor. It hasn’t worked and neither have your audio cues. You have a new approach?”

“Yes, Colonel. It’s called projection.”

Colonel Rafferty wasn’t unintelligent, but this neuroscience stuff was a bit beyond her. “Do tell.”

Dr. Fender was what many would call a borderline genius — it was sometimes hard to tell which side of the border he was on between genius and insane. There was no denying, however, that he was brilliant. He also had many years of experience in breaking concepts down into simple enough language for others to understand the basics of what he was trying to communicate.

“I won’t bore you with the complex implementation, but the essential concept is actually pretty simple. The machine will create a bridge that allows my mind to enter the subject’s mind so that I can experience and influence it. The subject will be aware of me. It can create other scenarios as well, but that is the one we are going to explore.”

“Whatever works. You’re the expert.”

I hear a voice. I’ve heard it before. I almost recognize it, but can’t quite place it. It’s one of the pieces that gnaws at me. It’s up ahead on the trail. When I see him just past the curve, he seems familiar, but not. I hate that. Everything is a tease. It’s like my memory is playing a game with me and I don’t know the rules.

The guy waves and smiles with teeth too white. “Hello! Nice day, eh?”

He seems dressed a little light for the temp, not even a light jacket, but who am I to judge. Some people run hotter than others, and it’s easy to warm up by walking.

“Yeah, not too bad. I like it like this, just before the season opens. Too many people after. What brings you out? You know it’s illegal to be out here, right?”

That was new. He was, too. I didn’t quite remember him, but I remembered the trail now. For the past ten years, I had come here each year just before it opened for the season to the public. I was allowed because I worked the park and had to make sure things were ready and safe. This guy didn’t belong here.

He smiled again and gave me a wink. “I won’t tell if you don’t.” I didn’t smile back.

“Dude, really. You’re not supposed to be here. The trails haven’t all been cleared yet and if you get hurt out here, you’re screwed. Won’t nobody know to come looking for you.”

The guy just shrugged at me. “It’s fine. I can handle it.” From out of nowhere, or at least what looked like nowhere, but was probably just a pocket or something I hadn’t noticed, the guy pulled out a multi-channel two-way radio. It was a good one, too. One of those government issue types. Must have been attached to the back of his belt. “I can just call for help if I get in a bind.”

I returned his shrug with one of my own. “If you say so. Still, you need to stay with me while I check the rest of this trail. It’s only another two clicks or so before it joins back up to the main.”

“If you insist, Ranger Rick!”

A quick nod and a too-easy smile set my teeth on edge about this guy. There was something about him that just didn’t feel right.

“I insist.” I had stopped walking when I reached the guy, but I now resumed what I had been doing. It felt different somehow.

“Name’s Erak, not Rick. And you are?”

The guy fell into step next to me and remained entirely too cheerful for my taste. There were several reasons I worked this job. Chief among them was to get away from people.

Gotcha, you annoying mutt! Well, I got some of it. Even a little was progress, though. I could feel more on the edges.

“You can call me Finn. Are you an Eric with a c or an Erik with a k?”

Great. Cheerful and inquisitive. A killer combination. “E-r-a-k. It’s short for Veracity. My mother picked it. I figured out how to live with it.”

My mother. When was the last time I had thought of her? Ten years? Twenty? She had died. Fifty years gone now. Fifty-two, actually. I was decades past the age now that she had been when she passed. A peaceful death in her sleep. She had deserved at least that much. My father, too, got the death he deserved, abusive bastard that he was.

Ahhhhh, there it was! It all came back to me in a rush. Why the trail was important. Where it was. Why the memories were elusive. Everything.

I finally gave the guy a smile and nodded my chin at a spot just ahead on the trail.

“Can you wait right there for a minute? I need to take a leak.” I had already headed off-trail and into the woods. The damp woods. The woods that went suddenly silent around me as I invaded non-human territory.

“Sure thing, boss. I promise not to peek.” He almost made the slight chuckle sound real, but I knew him now. There was nothing sincere about him.

I did my business, ‘cause I really did need to go. I knew this was a dream or memory or something and that in the real world I was pissing into a catheter right now, but the drugs they had me on made this feel just as real as real itself — the drugs and whatever kind of neural interface they had me hooked into. I didn’t understand how it worked exactly, but I’d read enough science fiction in my youth to have an inkling of what was going on. That, and I now remembered things from when I was conscious.

I worked my way back toward Finn, but quietly. The damp ground made that almost too easy. A shovel appeared in my grip as I sneaked up behind him and caved in the back of his skull without a sound. He crumpled to the ground like a puppet that had just had its strings cut, but he didn’t disappear. That meant Finn was still connected to whatever had us connected. Seemed likely, anyway. What that meant in the real world, I could only guess at right now.

“You have been peeking.”

I hoisted Finn’s body over my shoulder, which was made considerably easier by the fact that I knew it wasn’t real. It wouldn’t have been all that difficult in the real world either. Having a forever thirty-something body was a definite plus. Becoming immortal in a frail ninety-something body would have sucked. I knew just the place to bury the body, but then realized it didn’t matter here. It wasn’t real.

“Finn, huh? Quite clever, Dr. Fender. Almost had me, but I’m not ready to give up my secrets.”

I dropped the shovel and let Finn’s body roll off my shoulder and thud to the ground. It certainly sounded real. This was amazing — consciously aware of myself inside my own mind.

“If you can hear me, whoever you are that is, or was, pulling Fender’s strings … oh, that’s funny. Fender’s strings. Get it? Never mind. Whoever you are playing puppet master, bite me. You can’t kill me. Well, not for long anyway. I know this is my mind, so you can’t trick me forever, either.”

I contemplated burying Fender’s proxy anyway. There was a certain satisfaction in burying a body. Not all of them, of course. It hurt when it was someone close, or even a casual friend. I never got used to that. A hundred and twenty plus years now, and it always hurt. I guess it made me human, though a lot of people thought I had stopped being human decades ago.

When it was those who had earned a Final Truth, though, that was different. I wasn’t a god. I did not claim rights of judgment. Someone else carried that burden. I wasn’t even a demigod, though I knew more than one. I was just a base-class immortal — self-healing and unaging, like a hundred others in the world. Unlike many of them, I had discovered a purpose. I am the deliverer of Truth — for some, the last truth they will ever hear as a mortal.

“I will never tell you my secrets, and I will eventually become immune to your drugs. When that happens, I will get loose and I will make sure your body is never found. Maybe it’ll end up in some place like this, or maybe I’ll dispose of it in a desert. No wait, one of those bayous or swamps down south and let the gators take care of you.”

I had a talent for learning things — any things. Now that I knew what was going on, I would soon find my way out to the real world. In the meantime, I would explore the many possibilities of what I could do within my own mind. I closed my eyes as a surge of drugs overwhelmed my system. I’d get started as soon as I woke up. Right after.

Colonel Rafferty looked at the unseeing eyes of Dr. Fender gazing back at her from under the induction helmet, then at the youngish man all wired up and restrained in the experimental chair next to him. A quick pulse check confirmed that Fender was still alive, but he had obviously suffered some kind of mental trauma. The audiovisual display was dark and silent now, but she felt a little unnerved by what she had just witnessed. The attack on Dr. Fender didn’t bother her that much, even though he seemed effectively brain-dead. The self-aware mind of Veracity James is what bothered her. He shouldn’t have been able to beat all of the drugs in his system, but he was obviously doing it … somehow.

Her sources claimed that he admitted to being immortal. Was he really immortal, or just that delusional? It was true he healed at a theoretically impossible rate, but that was more likely some sort of mutation. It wouldn’t be the first inexplainable mutation they had encountered. Such a mutation could be useful, except that her scientists had been unable to replicate the ability. Every time they took a tissue sample, it degraded into useless goo within an hour. They kept trying, hoping they could find a way to stabilize it or glean some useful information before it degraded, but nothing yet.

That alone would have justified to her what they were doing to Mr. James, but that was just something to give her superiors. What was it he seemed fond of saying?

Truth doesn’t care about your feelings.

Well, neither did she. He had information she needed to know. It was virtually impossible to trace anything concrete back to him, but she knew in her bones that Mr. James was a serial killer. Multiple sources indicated as much, though none could confirm it. He wasn’t just any serial killer, though. He was the one suspected of killing her older brother.

She leaned over Erak’s face and whispered with true hatred in her voice.

“You will give up your secrets and then your body will be spread all over like butter on toast. Let’s see you heal that, you bastard.”

It only took a moment longer for her to stand back upright and compose herself as a military colonel should present herself.

She called out loud enough to be heard. “He did something to Fender. I hit his drug button to put him back under. Call me when someone has something new.”

She then turned and walked out. An almost imperceptible smile quirked one corner of Erak’s lips.

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Write the Story: March 2019 Collection

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