Of the many tiny beads of sweat that had formed on his forehead, two fell down, further soaking his already dampened brow. Suspended, he floated upside-down in a padded room, dreaming without consciousness of his body or its position in space.
His mind reeled from slide to slide—images of adolescence pooling together and then streaming into an old time film: The Life and Times of Donald A. Silver. The yellowed silent movie showed a young man smiling and leaning against an old Chevrolet sedan. Cigarettes burnt the corner, and he was dancing with the woman he'd asked to marry him. But in the center of the shot, a blur grew from the inside of the lilies on her wrist. A quick rewind to remove the obstruction, but instead it continued to grow across the bare chest of a flexing boy at the public pool. And finally, it consumed the picture and gnawed it to the pit, leaving behind a carcass to rot in its old age.
The man awoke, silently frustrated and still spinning about the Sleeper Cell. Effortlessly, he stretched and pushed off the ceiling with the tips of his toes, spinning gracefully as he descended gradually to the floor and his feet. He swiped his gaunt fingertips across a switch on the wall and felt (as he often did) the weight of his body return to harass his aging joints and muscles. He paced to the automatic door, briskly moving through a narrow corridor which extended to a massive dome-shaped room where, near the center, a chair sat reclined toward a black, rotund camera fixed to a short stalk hanging from the zenith of the room.
The man slowly gripped the back of the chair and took a seat, and almost instantaneously a thin cerulean beam extended to the center of his forehead. As he closed his eyes, the beam grew vertically to a line extending from his chin to his receded hairline. Quick mitosis split the beam into two, and they crept horizontally to his ears and then moved back to the prime meridian and contracted to the single point of blue light.
A slipstream of colored images flew upward from his head and painted a kaleidoscopic mosaic across the ceiling above him. The images dissolved into stark white, and a calm, clear voice rang through the room.
"Any luck, Sir?"
The old man in the chair rubbed his eyes and sighed, "Very little."
The ceiling was flooded quickly with an image of Donald's prom obscured by a grey-blue blur.
Tone unchanged, the voice asked, "What is the nature of this obstruction? Is there someone or something that is blocking the image?"
"I honestly don't know; but it's not the first time it's consumed the dream. This time it originated in the lilies," he said pointing upward.
"Of the 3,428 obstructions, this is the first to involve flowers. It is the 1,792nd time it has involved your wife. Two of these three images are repeats, drawn from your memory bank. This one," it said as the image of the bare-chested boy flashed onto the screen, "is anomalous. Is it you?"
"The boy is me, but it's not a memory. I was terrified of water at that age. I must have fabricated the idea… dreamt it up. It's totally irrelevant."
"Perhaps not, nearly two-hundred times the obstruction has originated from the same memory," A video showed a boy of barely five years, unconscious and sinking into a deep blue body of water as bubbles slowly escaped his mouth and rushed quickly to the surface. "And nearly seventy percent of the memories invoked after the obstruction have involved water."
"And I've told you every time that the drowning sequence isn't a memory, but a nightmare. Nearly all of it is fabricated—irrelevant."
"Don't be sure. I hypothesize that the blur may originate in your fears."
"It's a good, but old, hypothesis, and it really doesn't account for why the thing would show up anywhere else," Donald said with a short sigh. "I'm going to go review the tape. If you could render it to the screens in the North Wing, that would be great."
"Shall I brew tea for you?"
As he stood up to walk out of the room Donald said, "Yes, Sol, thank you."
In the North Wing, a padded circular chair stood, facing three high-resolution monitors. The blank, black screens showed three identically aged faces, patched with white and grey facial hair that embedded a wrinkled face and eyes which kept a luster hidden behind dark-rimmed glasses, one which his body had long left behind and forgotten.
Don reached forward, flicking a pewter black ball with his fingers. The monitors lit up a bright white. He reached back into the drawers that sat along a counter, pulling out both a small opalescent cup and a thin silver wire. A small mechanical arm moved fluidly and gripped the cup with a two-digit claw and moved it to a small machine where brewed tea flowed cleanly into it. The steam that rose from the cup fogged the lenses of his glasses.
"Thank you, again, Sol," Donald said, holding the wire between two gaunt fingers and rolling up the cuff of his sleeve. Gripping the counter, he inserted the tip into a dilated vein and cringed in severe pain. A mechanical clanking scraped across the surface of his brain as he choked down a small sip of scalding tea. Feeling immediately woozy, Donald inhaled deeply and opened his eyes to the screens that had flooded with a large database, archiving seven years of dreams and memories collected during suspended hibernation—aging clips of long-forgotten dreamscapes.
Gently he pressed the fingers of his right hand over the orb and swiped them sharply to the left, leaving the ball in a rapid spin. The images streamed both through the window of his mind and in a quick strip across the monitors. Donald deadened his mind, his body and his senses, allowing his hand to waver just above the hardware. After a few moments he tapped the ball and scrolled very gently to the right, focusing on a very blurred scene: his proposal to his wife.
"Sol, zoom in. Factor, three hundred percent. Thank you."
Pointing to a darkened figure in the background, Don sat silently with a crooked smile.
"What is it you've found, Donald?" Sol asked.
Scrolling slowly to the left, then back and then to the right, he replied, "A disappearing man. A shade on my memory."
"Yes, he's only in one frame."
"Do you believe that he or she has any connection to the obstruction?"
Before he could answer, a sharp beep echoed through the Wing as Sol rang out, "Sir, there is a call from Admiral Phillips."
"Yes, thank you," Donald said with a grin and a nod. "I'll take it in the Main Observatory. If you could quickly pull a random sampling and scan for anymore suspicious figures while I do, that would be great."
"Happily, Sir, I've already gathered the sample."
Gingerly, he pulled the wire from his arm and made his way back to the reclined chair that now faced a very large and roughened face that did not soften at Donald's presence. He saluted quickly and took his seat.
"Mr. Silver, how is the research going?"
"Good evening, Admiral. I was just in the North Wing reviewing data through the Sol unit when you called," Donald replied.
"And how is the research going?" The Admiral pressed, looking unmistakably impatient.
"Most of the gathered data, even through heavy analysis, has yielded little-to-no relevant results," Donald said, trying to pick his words carefully. "Certain repetitive phenomena have occurred, but no major breakthroughs, as yet."
"No major breakthroughs. What does that mean exactly?"
"It means I have hypotheses, but no formal conclusion, Admiral. Let me reassure you, answers will come. We'll find it, whatever it is."
Hardening further, the Admiral rubbed the bridge of his nose and said, "Resources are thin, Mr. Silver, and it's not easy to convince refugees that this project is worth it. You've given me no assurance, let alone any reassurance. I need results that we can act upon, and I need them soon. If you can't deliver them, then I'm afraid we can't keep this going indefinitely."
"Those refugees should understand the cost," Donald began, leaning forward in his seat and raising a protesting hand. "The prevention of another cataclysm could be—"
"That's enough, Mr. Silver," The Admiral interrupted. "A shuttle will be by in two hours to deliver provisions. I'll call you within a week."
Donald hardly had the opportunity to open his mouth before the Admiral's visage was wiped from the ceiling. He slouched slightly, his vigor dampened when suddenly a voice—neither from Sol nor the Admiral—came tumbling down from the rafters and into the room.
Find it, Donnie.
Slowly, but fluidly, he rose from his chair, searching for the source of the voice. He craned his neck to look behind him then came back around, eyes squinted and searching for a shadow.
"Sol, playback the last audio capture, please."
A shuttle will be by in two hours to deliver provisions—
"Yes, thank you, Sol," Donald replied, shaking his head.
Convinced of nothing, he walked morosely back to the North Wing where the three monitors showed three distinct images. Each contained an indistinct figure in the corner of a frame eaten out from the inside by the blur that plagued Donald's dreams. He sat, resting his chin on his hand and furrowing his brow.
"Are these the only images with the shade, Sol?"
"Yes, Sir. There are no others. Is that significant?"
"It may yet be. None of these memories are real; none of this actually happened," Donald replied. "But I don't know how it could possibly be related to the blur or to the cataclysm."
He picked up his tea cup to take another drink, but as it wet his tongue and the back of his throat, he felt his eyes go lazy and watched the room go out of and come back into focus. He blinked several times, testing his vision.
"But you do have a hypothesis, Donald?"
"Just a strong hunch, certainly nothing conclus—"
He was interrupted by a sharp tone and an incoming transmission. He closed his eyes, shocked silent by the intrusion.
"Kepler 27i requesting permission to dock, Sir."
"Thank you, Sol, I'll let him in. Brew another cup of tea, will you?"
"You didn't finish your last cup."
"I know. I don't plan on drinking this one."
Donald stood and walked along a corridor, and as he did a light flickered quickly off and then on again. He tilted his head upward, his stride unchanged.
When he reached the docking station, he entered the code to open the bay doors. The pilot of the small freight ship took notice and entered the docking bay.
As the bay doors closed behind the ship the pilot's voice came over the intercom, "This is Captain Riley speaking. I have a delivery, one provisions load for Donald Silver. Permission to enter, Sir?"
I need you to find it, Donnie.
There was a sudden burn in Donald's throat, and though he'd always before let the pilots come and go as they pleased, he shook his head and, thinking quickly, replied, "No, we're performing chemical testing, and the risk of contamination is quite high, I think it'd be best if you left the package out there, and I'll pick it up once you're gone."
"All right, Sir," the Captain replied.
"Why didn't you let him enter?" Sol asked. "We haven't tested any chemicals at all today. The Station should be perfectly suitable for visitors."
"I don't trust him, Sol, and we are about to do some chemical tests," Donald answered.
He pressed forward, briskly walking to the North Wing where he grabbed the freshly brewed cup of tea.
"I need the microscope, Sol," he said, turning around and pulling open another of the room's many drawers to retrieve a glass slide.
"Right away, Sir."
He dipped a finger in the tea and let a small drop fall on the glass to make a wet-mount slide. Finishing, he slid it under two small prongs on the electron microscope and stepped back, arms crossed. "I need the most thorough analysis you can give me."
"What are you looking for exactly?"
"Anything strange or out of place," he said, turning his head and looking intensely at the images on the monitors. "Something like a hallucinogen."
"Do you suspect you've been drugged? Is that your hunch?"
"Not exactly, I'm just trying to dust for fingerprints," he said, stiffening. "You see, these images, the ones with the shade—not only are they not my memories, but they're things that aren't even realistic."
"Take this one," Donald said, pointing to himself by the water. "I never swam as a kid, never even went near water. I certainly had any happy memories of being silly at a public pool. This memory snippet—it's completely feasible for almost anyone, but it didn't happen, would not have happened… not to me."
He took a moment and breathed, rubbing his hand across his jaw, pondering whether or not to mention the disembodied voice he'd heard earlier. "My memories are being tampered with," he said, having decided against it.
"Analysis complete, but there are no hallucinogens to be found. However, Sir, I'm afraid you may be right to be suspicious," Sol replied. "There are heavy traces of sedatives in the tea, and if you were unconscious, it would be quite easy to explore your subconscious as you're suggesting."
"And tinker with it like a hard drive," Donald said, half to himself.
"Sir, I've no video records of anyone else on the ship. The only ones recorded exiting or entering are the Captains making deliveries."
"Check the audio/video logs of the last delivery date," Donald said.
"The records show no obvious abnormalities."
"Then we may be well off-base," he replied, soft and resigned. After a moment's silence, he continued, "I'm going to check on our Captain and get the provisions to run more tests. Keep reviewing the logs and let me know what you find."
Walking back to the docking bay, Donald heard a voice ring out like church bells from a distant memory.
Find it, Donnie. Find the Argus Apocraphex.
Trying to shake free from his own mind, Donald moved on to the docking bay and looked onto a room with only a few boxes. The Captain and his ship had long gone, and he began to think about returning empty-handed, believing himself to be too far immersed in a world of memories he'd long passed on. He opened the door to the bay and stared outward into a field of passing stars. Worlds, violent red and mystic silver, passed by his windshield.
So engrossed in their cosmic beauty, he almost didn't notice the dark figure sprinting toward him.
Quick as his legs would allow, Donald ran back toward and into in the corridor, and just as he felt the tips of fingers brush the back of his neck, he swiped a small pad on the wall.
Feeling the weight leave his lower body, Donald floated upward and watched the darkened figure float past him. Gripping an air vent along the ceiling, he felt his heart as it slowly climbed out of his throat and back down into his chest. The man, unable to react, flew headlong into a wall. Donald pushed off toward the floor, landing feet first and running his fingers across the pad to return gravity to the room once again. The man in black crashed to the ground, and Donald came over to remove his helmet.
Without hesitation, he hit him sharply over the head to knock him out. He moved his unconscious body without gravity to the dome-shaped room and sat him in the chair, trying to rest his limp body upright. When he finally did, he bound him with several lengths of rope.
"Sol, can you get an ID?" Donald asked, stepping away from the man and the chair.
"None so far, but I am looking. What do you suppose he was doing?"
"I'm not sure," he said, and as he did, a small object fell from the man's pocket to the floor with a slight bang.
Donald moved over to retrieve it, and looking up, noticed a second falling from the same pocket of the man's suit. A quick inspection produced a third.
"What are they?" Sol's voice rang out in inquisition.
"Small boxes," Donald replied, turning one about in his fingers. "They seem to have crevices—I think I may be able to open one."
He roughly pried at the first until it popped open, and a small silver disc came spilling out to roll, twirl and lie flat on the ground. Kneeling and squinting, Donald read out the words on the disc, "Video Feed."
Trying to be gentler, he methodically opened the other two boxes, each with its own disc respectively reading, "Input" and "Output."
"Is there any hardware on the ship that can read these, Sol?" he asked, holding one up by the center and its edge.
"Yes, Sir, the monitors in the North Wing should have an adequate drive."
"Excellent, I'm going to go inspect them. Keep an eye on our guest and let me know if he comes to, or if you figure out who he is."
Donald took the discs to the North Wing and inserted "Video Feed" into the small drive alongside the monitor. On all three screens a video played and a tranquil scene showed from every angle of the cameras aboard the ship. In it, Donald sat in the North Wing, casually observing memories while the Captain unloaded boxes in the corridor.
"Sol, upload this video and take a look," Donald called from the North Wing. "What do you make of this?"
After a few moments, Sol replied, "This video is from today, Sir."
"No, Sol, the video feed is from this moment right now."
"That can't be. You never let the Captain on the ship."
Donald moved his fingers over the small ball to rewind the feed.
"There's no evidence of what happened between the two of you, Donald. Nor is there any footage of the tests we performed on the tea," Sol said. "I don't understand what this means."
"It's okay, I think I might," Donald said, taking in hand the "Input" disc and ejecting the other. As he slid it in, images of Donald Silver appeared in motion on the screen. It was a strange stream of memories running along through time. Donald smiled and pointed to the monitor and said, "One for me." He pointed with his other finger to the "Video Feed" disc and nearly laughed, "And one for you."
"I still don't comprehend."
"They're supplementing both of our memories," Donald said, "with these images."
"You mean these aren't your memories?"
"Completely fabricated, just like the audio/video feed we just watched. You said you found sedatives in my tea before? I think if I were unconscious, it'd be the perfect time to come in and alter my dreamscape."
"Yes, and you would already be hooked up to the machine, allowing an ease of access to your subconscious. However, I've no record of you fainting or passing out after drinking the tea, and there's certainly no evidence to suggest—"
"That's why he has the 'Video Feed' disc. Now he can either delete or shut off the A/V feed and create a seamless and realistic alternative," Donald said, smiling coyly.
"And could likewise modify your memory to synchronize with said feed. It all works out. But to what aim? Why would anyone want to tamper with memories of you and your wife?"
Donald sat for a moment in quiet thought and feeling both deflated and defeated, he sighed and rubbed his forefingers against his temples. Slowly, he sat back up again, ejecting the "Input" disc and reaching for the "Output" disc.
"My only thought is that they could be trying to distract me from my work… to keep me from figuring out what caused the cataclysm. But we'll know more soon."
"Sooner than you might think, Donald," Sol interrupted. "He's waking up."
Without hesitation, Donald rose and slowly opened a small drawer and drew from it several lengths of silver wire.
"Upload and analyze this disc, Sol. And if you'll please, upload as many nightmares as you can into the Main Observatory. I'm going to go speak with our guest."
He made his way into the dome-shaped room quietly and looked on at the man in the chair. He didn't seem totally unsurprised finding himself bound in this room or at the aging man who now was now walking toward him.
"Sorry I'm not dressed," Donald half-shouted. "We're not really accustomed to much company around here; you caught me completely off-guard." He cracked a wide smile.
As he reached the chair, he knelt and held the handful of wires up near the man's line of sight, asking, "Do you know what these are?" and laughing. "Of course you do; you seem to know better than I do. You see, I didn't know you could upload ideas into a person's mind. But now that I do," he said with a smile, "I think it may just come in handy."
The man sat silently and stared ahead into Donald's eyes as he rolled up his sleeve and began inserting the lengths of wires into the raised veins in his arms. Wincing and struggling, the man cursed.
"The more you wriggle, the more prone I am to miss a vein, and the longer this will take. You should really try to relax," Donald said slowly, beginning to wind the wires into one band and inserting the end into a small slot at the arm of the chair.
Pointing to the large circular monitor overhead, Donald began, "Look up there. Those are not very pleasant images, are they? You may not be able to tell, there are so many of them. It's really hard to focus on one." Noticing that the man had not looked up, Donald looked him in the eye.
"Who are you? Why are you here?"
"I'm here because you tied me to this chair," The man said quite sternly and quietly.
He knelt again, having noticed another object in the man's opposite pocket. A black box identical to the other three was bulging out. Donald took it out and opened it to reveal a fourth silver disc. It was labeled simply, "Argus Apocraphex"
"Why are you really here?"
The man laughed almost silently, "Why don't you just ask the question you're dying to ask?"
"What is the Argus Apocraphex?" Donald asked in almost a whisper.
The man laughed wildly now, completely unable to contain himself. But he stopped as he heard Donald say, "Upload." Quite suddenly, his laugh turned into a wild grimace as his face flushed cherry red and his eyes welled up in pain. He jammed them shut but could not block out the images that ran rampant through his mind. He screamed in guttural spurts of absolute horror.
"Stop, Sol," Donald commanded.
Tears gushing from his eyes, the man spit on his own foot, stuttering, "Y-You c-crazy old man. What's wrong with you?"
"What is the Argus Apocraphex?" he asked.
After a moment of silence and without looking away, Donald spoke again.
"Nonono, wait," the man contested in disgust. "It's nothing. It's just an idea we put into your head. An idea to distract you from what had been done to your memories."
"So you are tampering with my memories?"
"Y-Yes, we extracted memories that contained vital information and replaced them with new ones, hoping you'd never notice the old ones went missing."
"What did you take out?"
"Tell me what you took out, or I'll make sure you never stop seeing these nightmares," Donald said, inching closer to his face.
"Oh-Okay. We extracted all your memories c-concerning the nature of the cataclysm. We tried to replace them with new ones, but they j-just didn't stick."
Donald knelt in disbelief, trying to choke down the information.
"But why? Who are you working for? Why don't you want us to figure out what happened?" Donald quietly probed.
Coughing and stammering in fear and in pain, the man choked, "Please, just st—"
"No! You tell me who did this! Who caused this disaster? Who did it?" Donald screamed, raving.
"Sir," Sol interrupted. "You did."
"Excuse me?" Donald asked, turning around. The man cringed and shouted in pain.
"The 'Output' disc contains more than thirty years of extracted memories—your memories. Your birthplace, old friends, a political career," Sol continued. In your twenties, you and six colleagues developed a political initiative. You conceived an idea to bottleneck the population when the world became overcrowded."
"Pl-Please, Sir, it's not—"
Shaking, Donald screamed, marching toward him with a finger raised "You, shut the hell up!" He nervously paced quickly in a small square on the floor. "If I destroyed the world… that means…"
"You were looking for yourself all along," Sol said.
Eyes wet, Donald looked to the man in the chair, hoping for some kind of salvation, when he knew he could find none. He looked up and in his tears reflected a life he had truly long forgotten.
"H-How much did you take out?" Donald asked the man, quivering and weak-kneed.
"As much as w-we had to," the man replied. "Nearly all of it. It's what causes that obstruction on your memory; the mind isn't meant to take this much replacement."
"Why did you do it then?"
"You asked us to, Sir. All seven of the men who orchestrated the cataclysm had their memories taken away, so that they could start the world anew. A fresh slate," the man said in earnest. "I'm one of the agents responsible for making sure you never remembered what really happened."
"So all this," Donald said, gesturing limply and weeping. "This is all just a lie?"
"Sleight of hand," the man said, looking softly down at Donald who was crumpling to the floor. In pity he continued, "You were never meant to find out, Sir."
"The question remains," Sol pointed out. "Why were these memories not simply destroyed? Why would you keep them after all this effort to extract them?"
"Memories can't be destroyed; someone had to carry the burden," the man said with a vigorous pride. "We did what we did to protect you, Sir, to protect the world."
Through tears, Donald weakly croaked, "You didn't do a good enough job."