A breeze crossed the top of the building, chill even for October, and Gabriel shivered. It carried the salty, slightly foul scent of the lake with it. From this height, he could see the miniature forms of the nightlife below. A couple on their first or second date, judging by the slight distance they kept while maintaining almost constant eye contact, strolled slowly down a sidewalk to the west. Several college-aged young men laughed and joked with each other almost directly below. Other small forms came and went, appearing from behind corners and disappearing when they walked or rode around another. With the other skyscrapers in the area, visibility was partially limited, but not horrible. From time to time, the artificial zoom on Gabriel’s contact lenses would enhance a particular spot on the street, triggered by a slight narrowing of his eyelids. There was a permanent surgery for this, of course, but it was low on his list of priorities at the moment.
It had never taken this long before. How many Regenerations had he been doing this? Five? Six? Sometimes it seemed that he’d made the decision only yesterday. Time had a tricky way of passing quickly, especially when memory could be off-loaded and stored for future recall.
It had now been twenty six years since the day that would mark her birth. She usually went by a new name, but she was still Kayla to him. That was the name she had in the life when they first met—well, technically the first time they had met during the Days of Awakening. Hypnotic regression had proved that there had been other lives together, in various relationships. Sometimes they had been siblings, other times one was a parent, the other a child. Cousins, lovers, rivals, in three thousand years, they had alternated roles, twice they had even swapped gender, but out of over two dozen lifetimes they had found each other in all but two.
Since the Days of Awakening, things had been different. They had performed the Great Betrothal, the only wedding ceremony recognized by The Hubb. As such, while in the Timeless World, they had been allowed to plan their next lives to guarantee that they would meet again. Now, similar arrangements were in place. This time however, something was wrong.
The wind blew Gabriel’s coat more fiercely, the many strips of darkened len cloth billowing around him, and he shivered again. From on top of the Orwell building, he had a great view of the streets for several blocks. It towered about 500 meters above the level of the street and was old, but sturdy. Some might call it quaint, or even archaic, but it was well-constructed in the fashion of the late 20th century. The original name of the building was probably known to historians in the city, but it had been changed upon purchase by the Orwell family of the Near North Side. He zoomed in again on a female figure two blocks up to the east. She almost matched the physical profile he was searching for. Intuition told him it wasn’t her. Still, he had to be certain. Gabriel jumped.
He fell, arms stiff at his sides. The strips of his coat flared around him, flapping just over his head like the tentacles of some obscure sea creature. Three hundred meters. Two hundred meters. At one hundred meters, the layers of len cloth abruptly flattened out at his sides, attaching to each other. The sudden resistance jolted Gabriel slightly, but he was used to it. The layered flares of the coat continued descending and shrinking, acting as a parachute around his waist. A microchip in his arm made innumerable calculations based on velocity, air temperature, and his own movement. Small slits opened between the metal-woven len slats, guiding and controlling Gabriel’s descent. When he was less than a meter from the sidewalk, another impulse relayed from his brain through the chip released the tension in the strips, allowing the air to flow freely again, and he dropped lightly.
The small group of young women had gone into a club across the street and a few blocks up. Gabriel quickly covered the distance, not wanting to lose them. Again, he doubted that the woman on the far left of the group had been Kayla, but there was only one way to know for certain. Besides, he had spent enough time on that rooftop this week already.
Androse Taphouse was a well-known club and theme bar. Gabriel knocked on the iron door, and the slot opened. Steel gray eyes regarded him, staring. The man’s eyes widened a little. No doubt the contact lenses in the bouncer’s eyes had identified Gabriel’s face and retrieved his basic information from the network. His age shocked some people, even for being a GenoMod. It was a formality that they even did the checks, more along the theme of the bar than any real security threat. A history of violent crime was typically the only deterrent, or certain professions. Lucky for Gabriel, his was listed simply as “Entrepreneur.” After a moment, the slot closed and the door swung open.
A thin layer of smoke hung low in the atmosphere. If there hadn’t been music and loud talking all around, the faint whir of the ventilation system slowly pulling the smoke out would have been audible. The music was being provided by hidden speakers around the large room, performed by a high-quality holographic band on the old stage. Aside from the antique incandescent bulbs around the base of the stage and the top of the bar, much of the light in the room was provided by fake holo-candles on individual tables. Compared to the street lamps, it was dim, making it difficult to see at first, but Gabriel’s contacts adjusted their brightness ratio as his eyes focused. He glided through the haze of sound and smoke, ignoring the furtive gazes from other patrons. The club and the bar were only separated by an old waist-height railing, so aside from the restrooms and probably some private lounges and offices at the rear of the building, he only needed to focus on the main area for now. His target would probably still be close.
He made his way to the opposite side of the central bar, scanning the room. He leaned up against the bar. A copper-skinned woman with glowing tattoos was scanning a chip for another patron and getting their DNA print, then she walked over.
“Are you here to drink or just trying to keep my bar from falling over?” Gabriel turned his gaze to the woman for a split second. She was pretty. Definitely not Kayla, but pretty.
“Whiskey sour, dry.”
Gabriel didn’t drink a lot. He’d been an alcoholic once, but that was literally a few lifetimes ago. His current body didn’t have the same predisposition, and the GenoMod process probably would have fixed that anyway. These days, he typically took it easy when it came to the “vices” that some chose to indulge in freely.
The bartender mixed the drink by hand, it was part of the charm of the retro theme. He held out his right hand. She scanned his chip, he smudged his thumb, and when the green light lit up indicating that his credits were good, he grabbed his drink.
Turning, he almost spilled it as he blindly walked into someone standing behind him, a woman judging by the reaction. He quickly apologized, stepping back out of her way, and got a better look. He had made contact with his target.
She gave him an antagonized, patient look that said, “That’s okay,” then immediately turned back to her other conversation. Up close and in person, this woman was also pretty. He could see how there could be some resemblance to her and Kayla. Her auburn hair was done with small curls at the base that spilled around her shoulders, her hazel eyes were quick and intelligent. Her skin was a light olive tone, and she moved with the grace of a dancer. He stood there for a moment, evaluating.
“Can I help you?” Her voice was gentle, but her expression had gone from one of patience to one of annoyance. Apparently he had been staring.
“The name is Gabriel,” he said, tipping his drink. Shaking hands had become taboo when the scanners became more commonplace. Identity thieves with implanted scanning devices could hack into personal information and bank accounts with a simple handshake. “I’m sorry if I seem rude, you just look like someone I know.”
Her expression went back to patience, bordering on boredom. “And?”
“And,” he continued, “I know this is going to sound a little weird, but can I take a quick look at the back of your neck? I don’t think you’re her. But you could be. I don’t know.”
She eyed Gabriel, as if trying to sense his true intentions. Her friends had turned to watch the conversation at this point, and were starting to look uncomfortable.
“If I were her, don’t you think I would know you were looking for me?”
“No. At least, probably not.”
“Are you one of those GenoModders?”
GenoMods had a stereotype in society, even still. There were some old ideas that were difficult to shake from culture, especially when blended with religion. Gabriel didn’t like to lie, and on the off chance this was Kayla, it wouldn’t be well to start the reconnection with untruths.
“Yes, I am.” He hesitated, then decided to just get the information out. “I’m sorry, I’m looking for my wife. We’ve been married several times, and we’ve done the Betrothal. She said she’d meet me here, in Chicago, around this time.”
“A Birther and a Modder. Strange match. I take it the search isn’t going so well?” This came from one of the friends. Her honeyed voice matched her hair, but oozed with sarcasm. The other friends, and the woman he’d been addressing, all seemed to soften as he confessed. He really didn’t like talking about it, especially with strangers, but he hadn’t been getting anywhere otherwise.
His blatant openness paid off. The woman turned around, lifting her hair and exposing the back of her neck.
Nothing. No birthmark, no tattoo, no mole, nor any other form of a mark. Kayla’s normal symbol was not there. She lowered her hair again after a few seconds, and turned back to Gabriel. “I’m sorry, but I hope you find her.”
He nodded. “Thank you anyway, and again I’m sorry about bumping into you.” He turned to find a quiet table. He needed to be alone.
“Wait.” She put her hand on his arm, stopping him in his tracks. “I’m Whitney, by the way. Maybe we’ll see you around. Good luck.” She smiled, then turned back to her friends and they continued on to the bar.
Gabriel found an empty table away from the crowd and sat down, sipping his drink. He reflected again on what he would do if he couldn’t find Kayla. Sometimes he wished that he had stayed a Birther. If a Birther spends a lifetime having never connected with their preferred partner, they can still lead a fulfilling life that helped them learn and grow. Even if the Birther had a Great Betrothal arrangement with another Birther, while it gave a much higher likelihood of future lives together, it was not a guarantee. That was actually one reason why Gabriel had chosen to become a GenoMod.
The problem now was that, as a GenoMod, if you had a preferred partner and somehow you missed the connection, getting back together became that much more difficult. With Birthers, the re-birthing process was meticulously planned in such a way that it would be next to impossible for them to not meet back up. Birthers who miss each other due to an act of God or Fate can still find each other again after death. When one of those partners is not reborn, however, and doesn’t die and go to the Timeless World, communication to try again is not impossible, but can be difficult.
After the Awakening Days, when the true nature of life, death, and rebirth or reincarnation had become the stuff of science textbooks, churches and religions had somewhat fallen apart. Those faiths who could not bend and assimilate new spiritual beliefs tended to die off. However, those who predicted it was the end of religion couldn’t have been more wrong. With incontrovertible evidence of an afterlife, many people who had turned away from the idea of God suddenly became more interested in spirituality.
Due to the need to keep the peace among religions, The Hubb was created. It exists as both a council from various major faiths, as well as a network of certified Past Life Regression assistants, Prophets, Spiritual Mediums, Seers, and Mediators. Gabriel had gone to the Hubb center in Chicago last year, seeking advice and help. A Seer from one of the Pagan faiths had told him that Kayla’s soul was not in the Timeless World any more. A Medium from a Catholic branch had attempted to communicate with a Guide from the Timeless World. She had given Gabriel other advice, but she said the two Guides who had responded were surprisingly tight-lipped about Kayla’s location. They claimed that they simply could not find her, but agreed with the Seer’s statement that her soul or energy was not in the Timeless World. She had been rebirthed. That’s all they would say.
A multi-toned, robotic female voice spoke softly in Gabriel’s mind. Incoming. ID 4126.96.36.1993. Wyatt, Marshall D.
A holographic image of a familiar face flickered into Gabriel’s view, projected through his eye lenses. It was slightly pixelated, but it was better than previous versions. To anyone else, it would appear as a tiny blur of light around his retinas.
“Gabriel! Where have you been? Thomas and I have been worried. How goes the search?”
He took a sip of his drink, holding the glass in front of his mouth to try and keep the conversation as private as possible. “Not good. Thanks for asking. How is Thomas and his–”
“Then you’ll be glad I called. I might have a lead for you.”
Gabriel bit his lower lip. “Thanks. You know you don’t have to help. This is my problem.”
“Don’t have to? Sure. But I want to.” Marshall’s hologram looked over its shoulder for a second, as if in response to something he’d heard. “We want to.”
“Okay. Okay, sure. I owe you. What is this lead?”
“Understand this isn’t definite, but its got to be above 90% probability. It relates to a conversation we had about seventy years ago. It was you, Kayla,Thomas, and me.”
“We had a lot of conversations.”
“This was at her father’s after-funeral party. We were talking about Roland, and the two of you were joking about how he was still struggling with some of life’s lessons.”
“Yes, I recall.”
“Well, check this out.”
The voice spoke again. Media transfer from ID 429.5—
Data flashed across the network, and Marshall’s hologram was replaced with another, this time of a news feed showing police escorting a man, probably in his late 30’s, in handcuffs. Gabriel watched with interest. The man’s head was down, his face partially obscured by the officers holding him, and his shaggy dark hair. The news anchor was droning about the nature of the man’s offenses. Crime, in general, had fallen drastically after the Awakening Days, but illegal modifications was one of the most popular. “Marshall, I can see a little resemblance, but I don’t think—”
“Wait,” Marshall interjected. The hologram paused, then skipped ahead to the last ten seconds of the clip. As the police were putting the man in a prisoner transport pod, he looked up, directly into the camera. Gabriel felt his breath catch.
“Rewind ten seconds. Play.” The hologram moved again. “Pause! Dammit Marshall, how did you even—?”
“Like I said,” Marshall responded quickly, “it could be like a 90 to 95% probability, but I definitely think you should look into this. He’s too young to be her father this time around, but a sibling maybe? Arrested for illegal booster mods what, two lifetimes in a row? Multiple times in each life? And congratulations, you’re part of his immediate Soul Group.”
Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Yes, thank you for the reminder. He’s not dumb, he’s just…” He looked over the image again, then muttered a few commands to store the netlink for later review. His friend’s hologram flickered back into view. “Again, I owe you guys. If it was just the crime, I would say you were crazy. But that face—its uncanny.”
“No problem Gabe. We modders have to stick together. Speaking of, why do you think Roland has resisted becoming a GenoModder?”
That answer was actually easy, but it wasn’t his to give. “Goodnight, Marshall. Give Thomas my thanks as well.”
Phelps & Maddox Rehabilitation was a privately owned prison on the outskirts of the city. It was a symbiotic relationship. The poor souls housed there were being paid for by their own family members, in a sense. They weren’t billed directly, but you had to pay your fees even if you lost. The appeal was that it was also much nicer than some of the municipal prisons. The next morning, Gabriel walked through the massive dryglass doors in the main entrance. A friendly, petite woman, at a desk that could have been in the lobby of any office building, greeted him with a smile. There were no strict visitor hours. She asked for the prisoner’s name. After a quick, almost missable identification scan, he was let into a common lounge and told to wait. The chairs were stylish but practical, offering little in the way of comfort but maintaining the corporate image of “luxury prison terms.” He took a seat on a curved polymer couch and waited.
Within a few minutes, a buzzer sounded. The man from the news feed the night before, the man who currently called himself Desmond Reed, entered through some doors on the opposite side of the room. He didn’t appear to be shackled, but metal bracelets on his wrists and ankles could be magnetized by security in an instant and bind him. He looked at Gabriel, then around the rest of the room, then back at Gabriel.
“Are you a new lawyer or something? Do I know you?”
Gabriel looked at Desmond’s face. The eyes, they were definitely Roland’s.
“You might. You did, at one point.”
“The guards said you posted bail for me. I don’t even know who you are, and I’ve already met with my lawyers from P&M.”
“Might post bail for you. We’ll see. I’m looking for information on someone.”
Desmond took a seat in one of the chairs with a back adjacent to the couch. He slung a leg over one of the arms, and stared at Gabriel, confused.
“Look, I don’t know what you were told, but I’m not like that. I dip into mods, sure, but I’m not one of those well-connected crime guys.”
Gabriel pulled a piece of crystal paper from his pocket. Within a few seconds, he had loaded an image of he and Kayla together on it. He showed it to Desmond. “Does she resemble anyone you know? Do you have a cousin or a sister that might look like this?”
Desmond leaned forward, studying the image for a few moments, and then stood up. He began to pace slowly. “Nope, does not ring a bell. I don’t have a sister, or a female cousin that matches your description.” He turned toward Gabriel. “Are we done here?”
“Are you certain? On the back of her neck, she would have a scar or a mark, that looks like…” Gabriel’s voice trailed off as he sped through the files, looking for one with a good view.
The overhead buzzer sounded again. Desmond glanced in the direction of the doors back into the prison, where a lanky prisoner, wearing the same monotone jumpsuit and a buzzed haircut, waited. “Look, I really need to get going. Thanks for the offer on the bail money, but I’ll be okay. Keep it.” He walked briskly away.
Gabriel stood up. There wasn’t anything he could do to stop Desmond from leaving. “Wait, at least take my contact info in case anything does come to mind. Mr. Reed. Roland!”
The man who had once been Gabriel’s father in law raised his hand, waving, without turning around. The other man met him at the door. He and Desmond exchanged a few words. The lanky man glanced at Gabriel, emotionless, while they waited for the guard. The buzzing noise signaled, and they went through the open door, back into the prison.
Gabriel walked to a nearby window, which looked out onto the courtyard. The day was decently warm, and a number of inmates were outside talking or playing the few games deemed non-violent enough to be permitted. A large dome, almost invisible to the naked eye, topped the whole area. Fist-sized holes dotted it to allow air to flow but not allow anyone to climb through in an escape attempt.
His only lead claimed to have no information, and wasn’t even willing to talk. In fact, he hadn’t even been willing to lie about it. It wasn’t that Desmond had been incredibly dishonest in the past, but small white lies to get him where he wanted were definitely in the realm of possibility. In fact, it would have been easy for him to have pretended to know Kayla, get the bail posted, and then point Gabriel on the wrong trail. Hell, Gabriel half expected him to do just that. Something else was going on.
As he watched out the window, Gabriel saw the lanky man exit a door and cross the courtyard, Desmond in tow. They stopped to speak with a third inmate, who turned and jogged off to the other side, going up a few steps and disappearing through a door opposite of Gabriel’s view. His curiosity piqued, Gabriel waited to see what happened.
A minute passed. Two minutes. Desmond and the lanky man stood where they had stopped, talking quietly and glancing around, almost nervously. A voice came over a speaker somewhere in the room. “Agent Hod, do you need anything?”
He didn’t take his eyes off the courtyard. “No, thank you officer.”
Five minutes went by before the door finally opened again, the third inmate looking nervous as he walked back toward Desmond. He was followed by three other men. One was probably the largest man Gabriel had seen in decades. He stood around two meters tall, and unlike all of the other inmates in the yard, this man wore no shirt, and was completely hairless. His wide shoulders and broad chest were dotted with tattoos, mostly dominating his left side. The right was pock-marked in an odd fashion, almost like indentations, and the skin seemed smoother. Despite his muscles, his stomach hung over the drawstrings of his pants. It, too, had a number of tattoos. His earlobes were enlarged, but didn’t seem pierced, even when Gabriel zoomed in to get a better look. The man walked with a slow, easy gait, despite his massive bulk. His face bore a smile that held more ice than warmth, like the grin of a spider descending on a fly, and his eyes were on Desmond.
As the new group approached, the lanky man began to talk. Without taking his eyes off of Desmond, the large man cuffed the lanky man with his left arm. The lanky man rocked backwards, recoiling, and when he stood again his nose dripped with blood, but he did not attempt to retaliate. The large man said a few words, and Desmond, obviously intimidated, began to respond.
“So what brings you to our fine facility today, Agent Hod?”
Gabriel turned to the right, recognizing the man, who continued. “Surely none of my clients are worthy of your attention.”
“This one is personal, Mr. Maddox. An old friend.”
“I can’t judge who you choose to keep company with, agent.”
“Smart decision. What are you doing here, Mr. Maddox? A full partner who hasn’t seen a courtroom in thirty years. Shouldn’t you be on a pleasure yacht with a great view of the Omega Nebula?”
“There are those days as well, but I do like to spend quality time at the office. And when I get a message saying an agent of your ranking has graced us with his presence, well, I simply had to come say ‘hello.’” He paused, his face unreadable as he looked Gabriel in the eye. “Oh, I don’t think your friend is getting along here.”
The large man struck Desmond’s face, leaving several blood trails down his left cheek. Zooming in, Gabriel could see that spikes were sticking out from the larger man’s knuckles. Judging by the way Desmond looked, this was the third or fourth punch he had taken from that fist.
Gabriel clenched his jaw, but said nothing about how slow the guards were to respond to the fight. By the time they got there, Desmond’s right eye was swollen shut, and he had cuts and puncture wounds around his face and stomach.
Karl Maddox spoke up again. “Don’t worry, our doctors will take good care of your friend.”
Controlling his emotions, Gabriel watched Desmond being loaded onto a stretcher. The larger man and the others had been herded off by a dozen guards, back towards their cell block. Outdoor recreation was over today.
“See that you do. And when he comes to, have him call me. I assume you still have my number?”
“Of course, Agent Hod.”