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       Fire World, p.1

           Chris D'Lacey
 
Fire World


  FIRE

  WORLD

  CHRIS D’LACEY

  for Angelo Rinaldi

  Thanks, as always, to Lisa and Jody, and everyone involved in touring me through North America. If I tried to remember you all I’d come unstuck, but I can’t forget Sheila Marie, who was always on the end of a phone when I needed her. Emily, Ann, and Edie, my wonderful media escorts. Elliot and Kevin, the alligator dudes. Rachael and her Reading Rockets at WETA, and Barb Langridge at ABookandaHug.

  Nearer to home, thanks to Catherine for her patience, support, and ongoing belief. (Mr. Henry would surely love you as his own.)

  And last but not least, a big thanks to the tireless Agent Ed, Rod Duncan and his camera, everyone at LWC, and Jay — who keeps it all going.

  Hrrr …

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  PART ONE

  1.

  2.

  3.

  4.

  5.

  6.

  7.

  8.

  9.

  10.

  11.

  12.

  13.

  14.

  15.

  16.

  17.

  18.

  19.

  20.

  21.

  PART TWO

  1.

  2.

  3.

  4.

  5.

  6.

  7.

  8.

  9.

  10.

  11.

  12.

  13.

  PART THREE

  1.

  2.

  3.

  4.

  5.

  6.

  7.

  8.

  9.

  PART FOUR

  1.

  2.

  3.

  4.

  5.

  6.

  7.

  8.

  9.

  10.

  11.

  PART FIVE

  1.

  2.

  3.

  4.

  5.

  6.

  About the Author

  Also by Chris d’Lacey

  Copyright

  PART ONE

  WHICH HAS ITS

  BEGINNINGS IN THE

  STRØMBERG CENTER

  FOR AUMA THERAPY

  NOVEMBER 3, 031

  1.

  Professor Merriman. Eliza. Please, come in.”

  Counselor Strømberg stood at the doorway of his office and swept a welcoming hand into the room. He was a tall, well-built man with pastel blue eyes and shoulder-length fair hair. He nodded at Eliza as she went past, noted her look of concern, but said nothing. He shook hands with Harlan and guided him toward one of the two aumatic chairs positioned in front of the helegas screen on the far wall. A gradient of soft pink colors was playing across it. In the corner nearest to Eliza, a tall frondulus, with bell-shaped flowers of variegated colors, was suspended from the ceiling. Eliza ran a knuckle down the twisting stem of the plant and smiled when the flowers opened a little. She came and sat down beside Harlan.

  Strømberg positioned himself behind a kidney-shaped desk and placed his hand on the v:com terminal. “Lara, could you bring David in for me, please?”

  A moment later another door opened. A petite young nurse in a pale yellow uniform walked in with a boy of some twelve years. Strands of his nut-brown hair were almost digging into his dark blue eyes. “Mom,” he said, going straight to Eliza. She swept one half of her stunning red hair behind her ear so they could touch cheeks in the standard Co:pern:ican fashion.

  “You look great,” Harlan said, patting the boy’s arm. “Have you been OK here?”

  Dad, all I’ve done is sleep, David “said,” extending his thoughts to everyone present.

  They all laughed and Strømberg said, “Thank you, Lara.”

  The nurse waved to David and left the room.

  Eliza gently tugged her son’s sleeve. He was still wearing the blue gown and pants of the auma center. They suited him rather well. “I’ve told you before, when you’re in society it’s polite to speak, not commingle.”

  “Ah, that’s my doing,” Strømberg said, coming to the boy’s aid right away. “I’ve been encouraging David these past three days to use his mind to commingle or imagineer as much as he likes. It helps us to measure the full extent of his fain.”

  No worries on that score, Harlan Merriman thought. His son’s ability to materialize objects just by thinking about them was unparalleled, in his experience. “So, how’s the therapy progressing? Did you discover anything — about the dreams?”

  I don’t remember any dreams, David commingled.

  Strømberg came in quickly again. “David is fit and well. A very intelligent and interesting young man. He’s flown through every test we’ve thrown at him and kept us all amused with his abilities. We’ll be sorry to see him leave. As you know, he’s been filmed in our sleep laboratory and we have recorded evidence of the disturbances you observed at home.”

  Have you? David commingled. Sorry, I mean, “Have you?”

  “Yes,” said Strømberg. “And that would support the theory that you’re … imagineering in your sleep, though why you don’t remember it is still a mystery. For that reason, David, I want to continue your therapy so that we can get this resolved properly. It won’t be here though. I need to move you to another facility.”

  “Oh,” said Eliza, who’d assumed he was coming home with them that night. The sensors embedded within her chair immediately registered a change in the auma envelope surrounding its occupant. Strømberg, looking at the readings on a monitor only he could see, moved a dial on his com:puter. Accordingly, Eliza’s shoulders lifted and her pretty facial muscles relaxed.

  Will it be more sleep? David commingled.

  “No,” said Strømberg, swinging in his chair. “This will be an altogether different adventure.”

  Harlan sat forward to ask more about it but Strømberg was quick to speak again. A little too quick, Harlan thought. Had he been deliberately cut off?

  What Strømberg said was this: “There are the usual tedious formalities, which will be of no interest to you, David. Why don’t you go and challenge Lara to another game of Flyng while we sort this out? She’ll be eager to get her revenge, I’m sure. You can see Mom and Dad again before they leave.”

  “OK,” David said. He smiled at his parents and scooted from the room.

  Eliza’s gaze trailed after him. Before anyone else could speak she said, “Listen, do you need me for this?” She waved a hand at Strømberg’s desk. “If David’s staying in therapy for now, I’d prefer to spend some time with him rather than with filing answers into a com:puter. Is that all right, Harlan?”

  “Yes,” he said, getting a nod from the counselor.

  “Have as much time as you like,” said Strømberg, gesturing toward the door that David had gone through.

  “Thank you,” she said. She pressed Harlan’s shoulder and left.

  “So,” Harlan said, as the door closed behind her, “what do I have to do?”

  “I want you to watch something,” Strømberg said. A note of seriousness had suddenly crept into his voice. He moved his hand across the com:puter’s neural interface. An image of David, asleep in a single bed, appeared upon the helegas screen. A prompt flashed once and read pause. “I’m rather pleased Eliza isn’t with us. I don’t think she would have coped with this very easily.”

  Harlan narrowed his gaze. “What exactly have you filmed, Counselor?”

  “Something extraordinary,” Strømberg replied. And he switched the com:puter to PLAY.

  2.

  The footage is br
ief, but dramatic,” said Strømberg. “David slept peacefully for most of the night, with no abnormal spikes in his consciousness. This segment was recorded some six hours in, close to the break of dawn.”

  Harlan turned his eyes fully to the screen. For the first few frames, David lay on his back with his hands tucked under his therma:sol sheet. Then, just as if a pin had been stuck into his foot, his head twitched away from the camera and came violently back, making an audible whack against his pillow. He drew up his knees. His back arched slightly. His hands began to push the sheet away.

  Suddenly, the screen flashed as if a light had popped. At the same time, David jerked up in bed with his jaws wide open and his lips curled back. Two of his teeth seemed slightly extended. His eyes, normally so placid and round, slanted sideward and briefly changed color from their usual deep blue to a strong shade of brown. With both hands he clawed wildly at the space in front of him, though nothing appeared to be occupying that space. And out of his throat came an uncommon noise. A roar, not unlike the sound of an engine.

  In a moment, it was done. David sank back onto his pillow with a thump that almost buried his face. The only indication of stress was a trace of saliva running down his jaw. Whatever force had animated him had just as quickly left him.

  Strømberg paused the film. “These were the only abnormalities we captured. After this, David slept peacefully with no other conflicts.”

  Harlan Merriman stood up and stepped toward the screen, tilting his head to examine David’s features. “Have you recorded morphing like this before?”

  “No.”

  Harlan looked puzzled. “But what could be happening within his fain to make his eyes change color and his teeth grow like that? And what was that noise he made? It looked as if he was fighting something. How could he possibly be fighting something?”

  Strømberg raised a hand. “Sit down. There’s more to see.” He reset the film clip to its beginning, but this time David was pictured the opposite way around. “This is the view from a second camera. When I run the sequence, you’ll see exactly what you saw from camera one. But I want you to look beyond David to the window behind him. Concentrate your attention there.” He gave a command and the film replayed.

  Harlan watched closely. The window next to David’s bed was darkened by a set of vertical blinds. But as the recording reached the point where the boy’s body jerked up, a series of brightly glowing objects appeared in blotches behind the slats. The objects swelled in size then slipped through the slats in lines of colored light. Strømberg paused the film. “Any guesses?”

  “The only things I know of that move as rapidly as that are firebirds.”

  “Correct,” said Strømberg. The film ran in reverse, back to the moment where the colors had materialized. “Here it is again, nine times slower than normal speed. Watch carefully.”

  And Harlan did. This time, as the colors slipped through the blinds, it was possible to see them re-expand into the familiar long-tailed shapes of the creatures that inhabited every part of Co:pern:ica. Firebirds. Four of them. Green, cream colored, sky blue, and red. They flew to David’s bed and hovered in the region of his flashing hands. It was then that Harlan witnessed something even more extraordinary. Just in front of David, over an area approximately two feet long, the air was rippling in a vertical line, as if the fabric of the universe was being torn apart.

  “In the name of Co:pern:ica, what’s that?” Harlan muttered, and watched in fascination as the firebirds went about sealing the rift with bursts of the white-colored fire that was sometimes seen to issue from their nostrils. When it was done, they went back the way they’d come. Only one, the green one, a kindly-looking creature with a yellow plume of feathers sprouting up between its ears, stopped to hover in front of David. As the boy fell back to his pillow, the creature touched its feet to David’s forehead and zipped away. The film ended.

  “What just happened there?” Harlan gasped.

  Strømberg ran a hand through his long fair hair. “I don’t know,” he answered truthfully. “But I’m bound by the nature of my work to tell you that these pictures would be of great interest to the Higher.”

  “You’re going to report him?”

  “It’s my duty to note anomalies like this.”

  “But he’s a child. He’s barely twelve spins old. He’ll be sent to the Dead Lands. We’ll never see him again.”

  The counselor gave a solemn nod. “This is only an initial assessment, but it’s my belief that your son is a rare ec:centric.”

  Harlan buried his hands inside his pockets and let his worried gaze drift back to the screen.

  The image of David remained there for a moment before Strømberg hit a button and cleared it. “He could be a danger to us all,” he said.

  3.

  No, no, no.” Harlan turned away, shaking his head. “David is a kind, good-natured child. I’m telling you, he’s no threat to the Higher.”

  Strømberg spoke to the com:puter. “Project Forty-Two. Load and hold.” A violet light flashed and a few lines of text scrolled out across the screen. “And what makes you say that?”

  Without turning to face him, Harlan replied, “He materializes nothing more than any of us would. Yes, he can be surprising sometimes. But children often are when they’re learning to develop their fain. You don’t need me to tell you this.”

  Strømberg, legs crossed, let his chair swing. “Give me an example.”

  “Of his constructs?”

  “Yes. Anything unusual — or surprising, as you put it.”

  Harlan came and sat down again, perching on the lip of one of the aumatic chairs. Strømberg switched its correctors off. “All right. Recently he imagineered a katt. I know there’s nothing odd about that, but this katt was different from any I’ve ever seen before.”

  “In what way?”

  “It was imperfect.”

  Strømberg lifted his fingers off the chair arm. “Go on.”

  “It has a small piece missing from its left ear.”

  “Has? You haven’t corrected the flaw?”

  Harlan pressed his lips together and sighed. “Eliza pointed it out to him. But when she offered to help him fix it or produce another katt, he refused. We assumed at first that he hadn’t understood the template properly, but it soon became clear that he’d introduced the flaw deliberately. It gave Boon — that’s what he named the katt — ‘character,’ he said.”

  Counselor Strømberg raised an eyebrow. “Interesting choice of word. Have you gone into this with him?”

  Harlan shook his head.

  “And he does this kind of thing … how often?”

  “Look, Counselor —”

  “Thorren,” said Strømberg. “I’d be happier if you called me Thorren. I think we might be seeing quite a lot of each other and formal assignations will soon become tiring.” He placed his hands on the table and adopted a calm, professional tone. “I understand that you feel you’re betraying David by giving me information like this. But the laws of my profession are quite straightforward. The Higher expect me to thoroughly investigate cases of this nature and keep an active register of innovative anomalies. They also expect an honest testimony from the subject concerned or those involved with the said subject. Honesty is beauty, and beauty is perfection. Perfection maintains the Grand Design. Anything that attempts to challenge that continuity could be damaging to our shared consciousness. This is why ec:centrics, even one as young as David, have to be monitored and, if necessary, resolved. That is the Co:pern:ican way. However, there is a great deal of flexibility in these cases and it is left to the integrity of the counselor involved as to what action is to be taken.”

  Harlan looked up.

  “Everything you’ve told me,” Strømberg said, “confirms that David is aberrant. The film of his disturbed sleep patterns supports this.”

  Harlan felt his auma wane. So far, little had been said about the film. How much “aberrance” did Strømberg need to condemn David to t
he Dead Lands, or even de:construction? Very little, Harlan suspected. And yet the thoughtful look in the counselor’s eyes suggested that he was not about to follow standard procedures. And so it proved to be when he said, “I will need to log a report of these disturbances — but so far, the only two people who have seen what camera two has seen are you and me.”

  “Are you suggesting we hide this?”

  Strømberg pursed his lips. “I will report what was seen from camera one. If it comes to the attention of the Higher and they choose to send in another investigator, that will be another matter.”

  “Why?” asked Harlan. “Why would you do that? Why would a distinguished auma therapist put his career at risk for the sake of my son?”

  Strømberg shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said plainly (and with shining honesty, Harlan thought). “Your son intrigues me — possibly because he’s your son.”

  “You’re interested in my work?”

  Strømberg nodded. “Not long ago, I attended your lecture at the Ragnar Institute. I found your concept of thought frameworks very illuminating, particularly the way you hinted at the suggestion that what we imagineer on Co:pern:ica might also be happening, with slight variations, in an infinite number of parallel universes. It was the word ‘variations’ that gripped me most. It made me wonder what we’d be like if we all existed on another world, in a slightly different guise. You, me, Eliza — David.” With that, he swung his chair toward the helegas screen. “My com:puters were able to record a great deal of data about the rift that appeared over David’s body — coordinates and other physical factors. Like me, you must be wondering what it was and what caused it. As David’s counselor, I have the authority to call in any expertise I require to resolve his case. I’m calling in you, his father. The file I recorded, along with the film, will be downloaded to a secure server at your laboratory. It’s simply labeled ‘Project Forty-Two.’ In any correspondence, that’s how you’ll refer to it. I want you to analyze Project Forty-Two and find out what happened while your son was sleeping. Report your findings to me, and only to me. Meanwhile, I’m going to be conducting some research of my own — from a different angle.”

 
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