(Fiction) Cages

The tea kept falling.

The peg that held the shelf was loose, and every time it slipped, the canister of tea would hit the floor and spread its contents over the soft wood. It happened first in the middle of the night, and the sound, although not loud, seemed like an explosion amid the silence of the forest. Nio jumped out of bed thinking an animal had somehow gotten inside. Her left hand was still heavily bandaged then, and she had to pick up the dried leaves one at a time with her right. The following morning, she hammered the peg back into its hole over the sink, but much like the log cabin to which it was attached, the peg was old and hand-carved and the fit was poor and some days later, it came loose again, the shelf dropped, and the canister of tea hit the floorboards a second time, spilling its contents in exactly the same place. It was an expensive tea, imported from a shop in Taipei near the international school where Nio and her siblings were raised in exile. There was no hope of getting more before the end of her convalescence, which meant those few ounces, whose every scent reminded her of her youth, was all she had, and the second spilling awoke in her an irrational frustration, as if it were her life that was falling apart, and she threw down her tools at the sound of it and walked outside to pace.

The cabin was perched at the edge of a crooked wood overlooking an alpine valley through which a small river meandered indecisively. After swelling its banks with the spring thaw, it flooded the surrounding wetland and nursed a small but thriving ecosystem. There was no time Nio had looked out the front and not seen at least one bird swooping among the reeds. Elk and even moose were occasional, if wary, visitors. The sloping ridge opposite was not very high as mountains go and was mostly bare of trees, which made for a less-than-spectacular view, but on clear mornings, the top positively glowed amber in the light of the rising sun, and if Nio hiked the steep rise behind the cabin, ascending through the clusters of lodgepole pines to the castle of rock at the top, she could catch glimpses of the snowy peaks beyond, so many in fact that they seemed to go on forever.

What mattered to her more than the view was that her retreat, deep in the Canadian wilderness, was nowhere near another human being. In fact, for all but the handful of people who knew it from experience, it was effectively impossible to find. She had only heard about it on accident. There were no roads there. She had to be flown in a small aircraft to a remote lake, where the plane landed on the water and deposited her on the shore. From there it was a five-hour hike to the east with only a hand-drawn map to guide her. Everything but the firewood had to be carted on her back, and it took three trips over four days to bring all her food and supplies from the lake shore to the cabin, including the Taiwanese tea that was then scattered over the floor. But that was what she had wanted, a place definitively out of reach of the modern world, and if not for the plague of mosquitoes that seemed to descend on the valley every other day or so, Nio might’ve considered moving there permanently, or so she had told herself at the resplendent sunrise of her second day.

But as that excitement subsided, the prolonged lack of internet stretched every calm minute to the unbearable, which surprised her. She’d been without it plenty of times before, including months at a time when she was an international fugitive, and it wasn’t at first obvious why life at the cabin should be any different. After all, she still had access to a small library in the form of a slim e-reader, from which every nonessential app had been removed (so as not to become a distraction). Other than the accompanying wallet-sized solar charger, it was the only piece of electronic equipment she had brought, and only then because it was impractical to carry enough books on her back to last the duration. But her selections, chosen well before her surgery, were insufficient. She had covered all the usual bases, including an advanced copy of a new paper on cellular automata that she had been excited to read. But after perusing the conclusions, she quickly lost interest. Her brain didn’t want to study rule sets and algorithms. Nor was it very interested in the impressive collection of turn-of-the-century science fiction novels she’d borrowed, most of which had nothing especially interesting to say.

By her third week of convalescence, Nio had already chopped enough firewood to last the entire stay, and she had the arm muscles, and the cut on her left hand, to prove it. She had cleaned the cabin, including removing from it everything that could be removed and wiping down the floors and rafters. The latter in particular were caked in a good bit of particulate ash from the fireplace, and she had spent more time sitting atop those beams than she had on the porch. But it felt good when she was done. It felt good that she was leaving the place better than when she found it. And that, she realized, was what she missed. Unlike earlier episodes in her life, when Nio could look ahead to an entire adult life, the patent fact of her healing incisions reminded her that her time was slipping away, which mean romantic notions about communing with nature and contemplating the meaning of existence, perhaps even writing a memoir on her life as a fugitive, were not what her head or her heart had truly wanted.

There was one unfinished task in particular that vexed her. More than once in those early weeks at the cabin, she woke in the night, her heart pounding at her brain’s reminder that the killer—or killers—known as Amok was still out there, and that it was only a matter of time before he resumed his wicked hobby. She repeated to herself what the doctors told her: she didn’t know for sure the man the FBI had arrested the previous year wasn’t actually him, she didn’t know he hadn’t otherwise stopped or fallen ill, and anyway, she wasn’t responsible for what he did. All of that was true, of course, but every few nights or so, a momentary panic would grip her, and she would wake with a start and get no more sleep until dawn. She’d hoped that some time away, a forced isolation, would break his distant hold over her. If she took away her own ability to get up and check the mod boards for signs of activity, then she might come to accept that the doctors were right—or at the very least, that Amok would come when he would come and that until then, there was nothing she could do.

But the tea kept falling and spilling its contents over the floor. After the second time, she tried using mud as mortar. When that also failed, she moved the canister to another shelf and left the broken one bare. After finding an awl in the shed out back, she took to widening the hole in anticipation of the new peg she would carve. (Nio had never carved wood before. But how hard could it be?) The next morning, when the sun lit the top of the ridge, she finished washing the blankets in the river and hung them to dry. She changed the bandages on her hand, and when the mosquitoes returned, she hiked to high ground, inspecting every passing tree for an adequate branch to claim for her project.

She heard the helicopter well before she could see it. The sound of the blades fluttered faintly on the breeze, so faintly in fact that at first she thought it was the wind. Only after catching an echo did she climb to the top of the rock castle and scan the horizon. She saw it then: a tiny black dot approaching from the south. But as she stood and watched, curiosity turned to concern. Was there some danger? There was no reason why anyone would want to hurt her, but then, there was also no reason for a helicopter to be heading straight up the valley toward the cabin. No one was supposed to know where she was. She had left enough of a trail, she supposed, that she wasn’t impossible to find, but it would take no small effort. Someone would have to be motivated, which instantly made some possibilities more likely than others.

As the sound of the helicopter’s blades grew louder, the cold calculus of risk versus reward got the better of her, and she dropped down below the rocks, which she hoped would be sufficient to shield her. If the interlopers were friendly, then they would eventually reveal themselves as such. And if not . . . Nio had only intended to enjoy a short hike and return to the cabin before dark, which meant she had no flashlight, no provisions, and no shelter from the elements. Her pockets held only a multi-tool and small folding saw. There was some chance she could hike back to the lake shore and from there to an abandoned logging road some miles distant, which, if she followed it south, would eventually deliver her back into civilization. But that was a journey of many days, and she wasn’t even carrying a coat.

The helicopter suddenly grew very loud, and even though she couldn’t see it through the crack in the rocks, there was no question that it had turned the bend in the valley and was descending on the cabin. A moment later, it came: a long-range drone, superficially similar to a twin-bladed cargo helicopter, but larger and with a sophisticated hooking mechanism in place of a cab. Its dual set of counter-rotating blades were very long, like albatross wings, which helped it fly over great distances at high altitude, where wind resistance was lower. The heavy, multi-armed hooking mechanism hung low enough to wrap around the sides of a shipping container, giving the angular black drone a vaguely wasp-like appearance. But it was not carrying a shipping container. It was carrying a cube roughly one-meter square, which it set down swiftly in a clearing between the wetland and the cabin—so swiftly that Nio was worried for a moment that the whole thing might crash. But then, just as swiftly, it rose again and turned back south through the valley.

It was possible of course that someone was watching from the cameras that no doubt covered every inch of space around the machine, but given the drone’s behavior, it seemed more likely that it was operating independently, that it had been given a set of GPS coordinates and a package and it did what it was programmed to do. To the drone, there was nothing any more special about Nio’s remote hideaway than any other place on the planet. Drones just like it, she knew, routinely delivered pallets of food and medical supplies to remote villages in India or herdsman the middle of the Gobi desert or researchers in Antarctica. For all she knew, that particular drone had been to all of those places and more, and would be heading back shortly.

After watching from cover as it departed, Nio turned her gaze to the mysterious gray cube it left in the grass near a stream that cut a furrow to the wetland below. She did not immediately descend to inspect it. Instead, she returned to the cabin to make tea. With the warm cup in her hands, she lit citronella candles and sat on the porch and waited for something to happen. But nothing did, and as the sun got lower, threatening to descend behind the ridge and bring an hour-long dusk, it seemed silly then to think someone was trying to hurt her. Too much time alone was turning her paranoid.

“How long before you start talking to yourself?” she asked aloud.

Nio stomped in her unlaced boots to the grassy knoll where the cube rested at a very slight angle above the water. She stopped when she saw the name. To communicate clearly that the cube’s appearance had not been an accident, her name had been printed in small letters near the top: NIOBIUM TESLA. But there was no return address, no shipping label, not even a corporate logo. There was only a metal handle, pressed to the side, that was affixed to a pair of wires such that if she pulled it, it would tear a triangular section of the cube away and reveal the contents—or so the little printed diagram told her. She did so, and the staccato sound scared a bird from a nearby tree. Inside, some kind of large electronic device—exercise equipment perhaps, or maybe a specialty computer—was inserted obliquely and in pieces, all of which were wrapped in plastic. It smelled strongly of it, in fact, as if the cube had come directly from the manufacturer. There was no note and no instruction manual. The only paper she found was a slim customs receipt, affixed near the top, suggesting the cube had entered Canada at a port in British Columbia and that it had originated in Vietnam.

After pulling the side panels open, Nio was able to slide the heavy base of the device onto the grass, along with a medley of smaller components, and to drag the lot one at a time up to the cabin, even as the last light faded. (The empty cube she left until morning.) With all of the pieces unwrapped and arrayed on the rug in the middle of the cabin floor, she still wasn’t sure what she had. It wasn’t until she attached the curved railing to the heavy circular base that it became clear. It was a personal VR platform. The central section of the round pedestal had a raised rubbery inset that could slide with her steps in any direction, like an omni-directional treadmill, and although it flexed softly under her weight when she stepped on it, she knew it could be stiffened to simulate harder landscapes like concrete or rock. The collapsible railing fit into the base and lifted around her once the machine was active, preventing her from falling off and giving her hands something to grasp if she lost her balance, which often happened in highly active games, and during sex, which were virtual realty’s two biggest uses.

To her surprise, the pedestal had already been charged. Once the control panel clicked into its pedestal at the front, the machine started automatically. The screen indicated it had enough charge for 67 hours of continuous use. But its memory was empty. No VR matrix was locally stored. Instead, there was a small satellite receiver, a puck-shaped device no wider than a coffee mug that could be clamped anywhere with a clear view of the sky. The platform was already paired with the receiver and was configured to connect to a single IP address. Changing the address required an authorization code, which ensured the device could only be put to one use. Nio either agreed to see what someone wanted to show her, or she threw the lot of it in the river.

After sliding the sleeved gloves over her elbows, she put the transparent visor over her eyes and hit ‘Start.’ It took a moment to acquire a satellite connection, but immediately thereafter, the machine displayed a selection box virtually in the air in front of her, asking if she would like to play: Yes or No? All other menu options were grayed, which suggested she had to answer in the affirmative to continue. When she raised her hand to touch the ‘Yes’ button, everything around her appeared to change. There was a brief strobing flash, where she seemed to move sideways through a hyperspace tunnel, accompanied by a jiggle of the pedestal such that it felt as if she truly had been whisked away, and despite herself, she lifted the visor slightly to make sure she was actually still in the cabin.

The VR matrix deposited her in an old brick factory warehouse, not more than two stories high. Rows of arcade video games, all broken and in complete disrepair, were covered in dust and the occasional cobweb. The stochastic detail in the image was exceptional, and for a moment, she thought it was very good VR. In front of her was a standing mirror with a carved wooden frame, like something from Victorian times, and by its reflection, Nio could see she was controlling a telepresence bot—a cheap, headless bipedal robot often used by businesses and government agencies in place of costly travel, or when a needed participant was ill or otherwise unable to make the journey. That suggested her surroundings weren’t virtual at all, that she was receiving a video feed from someplace real.

The robot’s left arm was missing, so Nio raised her right hand and watched in the mirror as the robot did the same. Since executives and dignitaries were rarely robotics experts, they were often hard on the devices, accidentally walking them into pools or off balconies, and the machines’ yellow torsos were like bulky, rubber-trimmed tanks. A heavy bar bent around the back to prevent all the expensive bits from breaking if the machine fell backward, or if it were hit by a car. The small touchscreen control panel was recessed into the front chest for the same reason. Another bar bent over the top to prevent damage from falling, or from falling objects. The arms and legs, however, being the only moving parts, tended to wear out quickly, and were typically replaced instead of repaired. As such, they were lightweight and easily detachable.

Nio opened and closed her fist and watched the robot match her movement as best it could with only two large fingers and one thumb. Telepresence bots were not finesse machines. They could only be used for simple grasping—carrying a tray of drinks, for example, or retrieving a page from the printer—and not for remotely hacking internal systems via a keyboard. The arm looked like it was made of corrugated plastic wrapped around an articulated carbon-fiber tube. Movement at the elbow and fingers was myoelectric. Translucent yellow sacs under the plastic functioned as muscles, contracting or relaxing in response to a fiber optic signal, which triggered an electrical realignment of the fibers. They were not very strong, but then that was the point. A telepresence bot had the approximate strength and dexterity of a five-year-old child—a hard-earned lesson for the manufacturers after the first disgruntled employee used one to beat his former boss within an inch of his life.

Nio raised one leg, lowered it, and raised the other. There the illusion faltered. The leg movements were jerky, and the robot shifted hard with each footfall, which was less a function of technology than cost. Already there were robots that could outperform the most graceful of gymnasts, but grace was expensive, whereas the only movements a telepresence bot had to master were walking, standing, and sitting, preferably without falling over, although they did that quite often as well. Still, the interface was working smoothly, and Nio was able to walk around the mirror with no issues. The room itself was mostly empty. Other than the rows of arcade games and odd bits of debris on the floor. Glass-tile windows near the top tempted a view of her surroundings, but they were too high to reach. The doorway was the only exit, and it led to a long hall that ran left and right along the side of the old building. With no clue as to which direction she was supposed to go, Nio turned left on the theory that there was some significance to her missing arm. Her strides on the sliding track of the VR pedestal were almost perfectly translated into robot movement, and very quickly it felt like she was actually in the factory. The only missing sense was smell, but then, she didn’t imagine it could smell very good anyway. It clearly hadn’t been used in decades. Glimpses of other dilapidated roofs poking above the high windows suggested she was in an abandoned industrial park. There was daylight, whereas it was dark outside her cabin retreat, which gave her a clue as to location, but only a very general one: the factory was somewhere on the other side of the planet.

At the end of the hall was a short staircase going down, as if the adjacent buildings were on a slope and one was slightly lower than the other. Before exploring further, she thought she ought to clear the rest of the floor, a standard video game strategy. You never knew when you might miss something. So, instead of descending, she turned around, only to find debris blocking the other end of the hall. Fallen bricks and metal pipes were strewn across the floor in one spot in a such a way as to prevent the robot’s advance, which seemed awfully convenient. The rest of it was very much clear. When she tried to approach the mess, however, the robot stopped as if it hit an invisible barrier. The track on the VR pedestal wouldn’t budge, and Nio was forced to study the debris from two strides away. It seemed real, but the fact that she wasn’t allowed to approach it suggested it wasn’t really there, that the blockade was programmed, and that her surroundings were neither real nor virtual but a mix of the two: augmented reality—live video seamlessly overlaid with select digital alterations. It was entirely possible that much of what she was seeing wasn’t actually there. The factory might’ve had no roof, for example, or it might not be a factory at all. The robot could be in someone’s home or office with every contrary detail faked by a computer.

Nio turned and explored the space around her by attempting to move the robot toward the walls, but it wouldn’t budge from the central path, not until she reached a “gap” several meters away, where she was allowed to reach the wall under the windows. A long pipe lay on the floor, and she picked it up and returned to the virtual debris, where she used the pipe to dislodge some of the bricks, which instantly caused the rest to fall and clear a path. The lazy player, discouraged by the blockage, would presumably miss whatever lay beyond.

After another right turn, Nio entered a squat nook. On the floor in front of her was a mechanical arm exactly matching the one attached to her telepresence bot. Since robotic joints could pivot 360 degrees, there was no difference between a right and left limb, and when she attached the arm to the bot using the Victorian mirror as a guide, it automatically adjusted for her left side. She now had two hands and half expected a window to appear announcing “Achievement Unlocked!” Since there was nothing else down the hall to the right, Nio returned to the staircase and walked down to the next floor, where she entered a second large storage space at the corner. The room was small compared to the others. Its once-whitewashed brick walls were now cracked and pale. The floor was stacked with old plumbing equipment, most of which had a fine layer of rust. To her right, another open doorway led to a very long brick hall entirely roofed in glass tiles, most of which were shattered or missing. In the middle of the large space, which was dark at the far end, was an enormous industrial vise, like something a junkyard might use to crush old cars.

Sitting inside was a woman.

She had long, dark hair that appeared recently styled and she wore a fancy green dress, as if she had just come from a dinner party. She was trapped and sitting with her back to the heavy cage door that had closed over the space between the steel slabs, presumably to keep anything large from squeezing out while in use. She had her face in her hands and was trembling. Nio moved immediately to help but froze when she saw the dribbles of red that had dried to the side of the bottom slab. She stared at them for a long moment, registering their meaning.

The vise shuddered suddenly and the woman screamed as a tree-sized piston began pushing the metal slab slowly toward the floor.

Snippet from my work in progress, the second installment of Science Crimes Division. The first book, The Zero Signal, goes on sale next week!