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Tunnel Out of Death



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About The Author

Jamil Nasir

Jamil Nasir's third novel, Tower of Dreams, won France's top science fiction award, the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire, and was runner up for the Philip K. Dick Award for best science fiction paperback published in the United States.  His short story “The Nomalers” won a first... More

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EXCERPT

1
 

Ransom International’s conference room was upstairs in the 1930s mansion that Heath Ransom used as both home and office. It had an antique cherry-wood table, an ambience system that was currently pumping out the invigorating air of a mountain pine forest, and remote conferencing lenses in the ceiling. Unfortunately today the lenses were dark: instead of a hologram, the actual physical body of a young man continued down past the surface of the table and pressed heavily into one of the conference chairs, which made slight sounds when he moved. Particularly unfortunate because the young man—a large, handsome, impatient person whose business card said “Dr. Eugene Denmark, President and CEO of GeneMark LLC”—had an unusually disturbing neural-field leakage, full of apprehension and grim determination, as if whatever business deal he wanted to propose to Ransom International was a matter of life and death.
Field leakage was a muted background murmur that Ransom heard around people, like a low-voiced discussion going on in the next room. He had bought this house to minimize such distractions: the spacious grounds that separated it from the street and neighbors kept it quiet enough for him to conduct his endovoyant investigations business, and relax when he wasn’t working. His neurological bug/feature also made it tricky to choose employees: like Charles Tobin, the small, elegant man sitting next to him, they had to be both competent and benign—a less common combination than you might hope.
Tobin, well aware of his boss’s sensitivities, was taking the brunt of the meeting, and Ransom had gratefully allowed his attention to wander. Just now he was discreetly watching out the window as a retro-style hippie minibus passed down Anglia Street in the distance beyond his lawn and autumn-colored trees, meter-high letters on its side scrolling out the message REAP WHAT YOU SOW. The current mania for religions had brought out amateur preachers all over the country. Not only that; more and more of his clients nowadays wanted religion-related services, like proving doctrinal fraud or locating the resting places of saints. An unpleasant feeling came over Ransom; he disliked that sort of work, which presumed he was some kind of witch doctor—
The unpleasant feeling grew stronger, and with a start Ransom realized that it had not come from the thought of his religious clients at all. Rather, his guest’s field leakage had suddenly taken on a grating tone, and in some confusion Ransom realized that the man was staring at him.
He tried to take in what Denmark was saying. “—isolating Class One humans for long periods in a specific nerve-growth medium stimulates unusual development of the medulla, and consequently of the telepathic and clairvoyant faculties. We theorize that the enforced sensory and social deprivation stimulates activation of the telepathic areas to overcome the isolation. Then, once the subject emerges from the tank, you have a ready-made telepath or clairvoyant.”
“Wait a minute,” Ransom said, now roused completely. “Is this some kind of government research? The NGF tanks you’re talking about are USAdministration military, aren’t they?”
Denmark’s eyes went vacant for a second, as they had every time Ransom had talked during the meeting. Of course, one of the few reasons anyone would ask for a physical meeting nowadays was to sneak snoop gadgets into the venue, and RI observed the usual business protocol of ignoring such things if they weren’t too intrusive. On the other hand, business protocol also prescribed that the wired party keep his surveillance subtle. Did this Denmark really think he was going to close a deal by making a bug-eyed display of peeping all over Ransom’s somatic indicators during their talk?
Denmark’s attention came back. “Mr. Ransom, I can assure you that there are no legal or national security strictures barring GeneMark from selling this technology, or you from buying it.”
The sentence came out smoothly, but Denmark’s background murmur had changed. The man wasn’t exactly lying, but he was holding something back. This made Ransom uneasy. NGF tanks turning out ready-made telepaths would have been huge news in the endovid detective community, but he had heard nothing about it. Could Denmark be a federal agent? USAdmin made an enormous income from industrial espionage, using spy technology that was illegal for nongovernment entities to possess; but it was rumored to still be light on endovid talent. Catching a prominent investigator breaking federal law—by trying to buy top-secret government technology, for example—might be a good way of blackmailing him into working for them.
Tobin’s field also expressed unease. He used his own smooth voice: “Frankly, Dr. Denmark, we would normally consider such a radically new technology only if it came from one of the established firms in the field. I for one have not had the pleasure of dealing with GeneMark previously.”
“GeneMark is a start-up formed specifically to market this technology.”
“I would think that most start-ups couldn’t afford the FDA licensing costs. Has FDA cleared you to do Phase Two studies?”
“Ah, right, let me explain,” said Denmark, smiling. There was a slight stiffness about his face, Ransom thought, as if he had recently had some cheap plastic surgery, like a mobster. Or maybe the man’s bad vibes were making him imagine it. “Your concern is understandable, but this technology is actually perfect for a start-up like GeneMark. Under FDA’s regulations, gene-expression modifications taking place strictly in response to environmental factors are presumptively Class One. That means that the burden of any testing would be on a party trying to prove that our medulla enhancements are not Class One.”
“And are they Class One?” Tobin asked.
“We believe so, yes.”
Again the murmur from Denmark’s etheric “other room” underwent a change. There was an iceberg somewhere under the tip the man was showing. But even if there hadn’t been, as far as Ransom was concerned the meeting was over. Nowadays even some Class Two mutations were legal, but he had grown up in the late twentieth century, and such things disturbed him. He had been a successful endovid for almost three decades without any engineering; if his competitors started packing on gene enhancements that left him in the dust, he would simply close up shop. He had more than enough money to retire on, even if they kept up the advances in life extension.
Providentially, at that moment his assistant Clarice buzzed. With a murmured “excuse me,” he took her out of his pocket and looked into her attractive Japanese face. “Sorry to disturb you, Heath, but a prospective client is requesting an urgent meeting. They’re here in person. Anna is with them in your office. They say it’s an emergency.”
“In person?” The knot in his stomach tightened; two physical visits in one morning.
But he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. He said: “Dr. Denmark, I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve just been summoned to an emergency meeting downstairs. I want to thank you very much for coming in to talk to us. Obviously, we’ll have to discuss your proposal internally before getting back to you.”
Denmark looked taken aback. “Well, actually, Mr. Ransom, I was hoping very much to have a few minutes alone with you. To discuss a somewhat delicate—”
“I’m really awfully sorry,” said Ransom, rising. “I hope you’ll send us any additional materials you think we need in order to evaluate your product.”
“But it’s very important.” Denmark stood up, too. A flare of panic suddenly expanded from him like a flame, catching Ransom off guard. He steadied himself against the edge of the table.
“Perhaps I could continue with Dr. Denmark while you run to your meeting,” said Tobin, reading Ransom’s body language.
“Good idea,” said Ransom dizzily, now desperate to get away. “Dr. Denmark, my assistant Mr. Tobin has my complete confidence. I will rely on his recommendation in any event.”
For the first time during their meeting, Ransom felt that Denmark looked into his eyes without the split second of glassy distractedness. “This is something you need to hear, Heath,” he said, too loudly, as if trying to get his attention in a crowd. Ransom had not invited him to use his first name. “Reality is more malleable than you can imagine. This fact is being exploited. I need to talk to you—to you personally. Someone very dangerous—” He stopped talking abruptly, as if he had said too much.
With difficulty, Ransom maintained his professional demeanor. “I really am very sorry, Mr. Denmark, but I have to rush.”
Denmark’s field was hopeless now, as if he had lost a fatal gamble. Wordlessly, he leaned across the table and held out his hand. Long practice at being polite overcoming his reluctance to touch another person, Ransom extended his own. Denmark’s hand was cold. And at the touch, the unfocused murmur of the man’s psychic leakage suddenly sharpened.
A still summer morning rose up around Ransom, nearly erasing the conference room. Birdsong and the gentle wash of surf were the only sounds. He stood at the top of a high bluff, a sandy path leading down among trees to a beach. But a feeling of menace and danger hung about the peaceful scene, like ominous music at the beginning of a horror movie.
Quickly disengaging his hand, Ransom nodded politely and found his way unsteadily from the room.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Jamil Nasir

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