He made his way down the hall carefully, ever alert for the telltale swishing of robes. There it was, up ahead. He ducked down a side passage. There was brief glimpse of blue as the figure passed by. Still safe.
Would they find out, he wondered? Would they find the pillow under his blankets, come running? He hoped to any kind of god they wouldn’t. He was getting out of here, one way or another.
No! Oh God not now! The pain began as it always did, in the back of the neck, creeping upward, until in a moment his head was wrapped in a vice. Vision blurring, he fumbled for something, anything, to keep himself steady. He found purchase, but his handhold turned in his grip, and some tiny part of his mind that wasn’t on fire told him he’d found a door handle. The door swung open, and he sprawled into the room, blind, head screaming.
Louis, if you can hear me, relax and breathe deeply.
It wasn’t a voice that was heard as much as felt. Direct and commanding, it cut through the haze of pain like a knife, and the man, Louis, found himself doing as he was told, breathing slowly, in and out. Amazingly, the pain began to ebb. It didn’t go away completely, but it was easier to deal with now that he wasn’t panicking. Finally it was down to a dull ache, but Louis still didn’t get to his feet. Hard experience had taught him not to move too quickly.
“Who...Where are you?”
Louis risked looking up. The room was dominated by a tank, cylindrical and filled with fluid. Within this vessel was a strange creature. It was like some kind of three-eyed octopus, bright red with white spots. For a moment Louis was a t a loss for words. Then he understood.
“You’re a patient. You’ve been Shaped.”
The voice in his head seemed to laugh. Why else would anyone come to Proteus? At any rate, yes, I am a product of the Shapers craft. You can call me Daniel.
Yu. Louis Yu. Earthborn, accountant, married, no children. And there is a malignant growth attached to your brainstem.
Louis got to his feet. “How the hell did you know all that?”
Daniel bubbled. For whatever reason, the Shapers decided to “enhance” my faculties. In the days since my procedure I have found I am quite the powerful psi, though I can no longer survive outside of a liquid helium environment. Such is the price for surviving lymphoma. However, I do not need to read your mind to know that you have lost your nerve and are running away. What would you do if you snuck out? Where would you go? Your ticket from Earthport was one way. You’ll be stranded.
“I’ll think of something.”
Will you? Why are you running?
Louis stopped short. “What?”
You have terminal cancer Louis, and yet you are running away. Why?
“I’ve, I’ve heard stories about what Shaping does, how the cure is worse then the disease. Look at you.”
I’ll admit my form comes with disadvantages, but consider yourself. Despite all those rumors, you came here. You have little time left, so you’re grasping at straws.
Louis took a seat in a nearby chair. “So what if I was grasping at straws. I want to live.”
As do we all. But you didn’t understand what you were getting into. All of Daniels eyes closed halfway. To Louis it gave the impression of looking thoughtful. There’s an idea. Perhaps you could decide if you saw what Shaping has accomplished.
Louis raised an eyebrow. “How could you show me anything? You’re a squid in a tank.”
You’re thinking physically.
In a blink Louis’ view went topsy-turvy, and he was looking at himself, still seated in the chair, staring vacantly at nothing. Experimentally, he tried to touch the body. His hand went straight though. “Holy shit!”
Pretty cool, huh?
Standing behind him was an older man, with a beard, dressed in a fine suit. He looked to be about 40.
It’s me, Daniel. This is how I looked before my illness, before my transformation. This way we can observe without the guards coming after us.
“Man, you weren’t kidding when you said you were powerful.”
I’m just getting warmed up. Daniel gestured at the door handle. There was click as it locked itself, and he walked though the door. Somewhat bemused, Louis followed.
Just as they stepped into the hallway, attendants stepped around the corner. Like everyone in the hospital, they were dressed in the blue robe and black goggles of the Shapers. At first Louis was sure he had been found out, but neither man gave any indication that they had seen either him or Daniel.
“They can’t see us.”
You have a gift for the obvious Louis. This way.
Louis followed. He was led to a room with transpara-steel walls. Beyond, the airless surface of Proteus was visible to all. Louis figured Daniel just wanted to look out the window, but surprised him again by going right through it. Louis hesitated. Daniel, for his part, simply crossed his arms and looked impatient. Louis phased through the wall. Carefully.
What good is a mental body if you treat it like a real one? Daniel asked when they were both on the surface.
“Have I mentioned that this whole situation is completely crazy?” Louis replied. “Why are we even out here?”
Look there. Louis followed Daniel’s pointing finger. Three figures stood in the distance. Two of them wore pressure suits. Like the robes of the shapers, these were blue, emblazoned on the back with a double helix. The third had no space suit.
At least eight feet tall, he made the other two look tiny by comparison. He was a humanoid figure sculpted entirely out of crystal. Diamond growths jutting from his shoulders and elbows added to the impression that he was some sort of ancient elemental. He spread his arms wide, basking in the glow of the blue star.
That’s Niven. He was quadriplegic. Now he’s almost indestructible, and doesn’t need to breath. Wonderful what biotech can do, no?
“There’s got to be downsides.”
Daniel smiled. Oh, there certainly are. If something hits his flaw-kaboom-he’s history. Otherwise I think he’s got a pretty sweet deal.
“Doesn’t look like he’s got any balls.”
At this Daniel laughed. It beats being dead though, doesn’t it?
Louis gave the crystal giant one last look. “Show me more.”
As you wish.
There was no walking this time. A snap of the fingers and they were gone. Louis blinked, and they were standing in a long hallway, lined with doors. Without exception they were reinforced ferracrete. Daniel motioned him over to a door on the east side. As before they walked through.
There were no windows in the room. All light came from lamps in the ceiling. Most of the cell was taken up by what looked to be a massive glass tray, square in shape. Within was a massive blob of pink flesh. It shifted slightly, and Louis recognized the barest hint of features within the mass. A nose, hair, a mouth. And the eyes. The eyes were the worst, silent, pleading.
Behind them, the door opened, admitting a pair of Shaper attendants. One carried a tray of slurry, the other a funnel. Daniel and Louis watched in silence as the thing in the glass bed was fed.
“What is that?” Louis asked. He wanted to throw up, even if he didn’t have a stomach.
That, said Daniel, is Lydia. A degenerative disease was destroying her eyes. Now she can see just fine, but that’s about all she can do, having no bones and all. She stares at the ceiling, just like all the other failures.
“Failures?” He looked at the mass of flesh called Lydia, and shuddered.
Despite what the net would have you believe, Shaping isn’t an exact science. They make mistakes, mistakes that never see the light of day again. Nothing is without risk. Raise your arms to the sky as a crystalline god, or rot in the darkness.
“Or be a mind-reading squid.”
Daniel smiled sadly. Indeed.
Louis took one last look at Lydia before he spoke again. “Take me back.”
Instantly they were returned to the room where it all began. Slumped forward in the chair, Louis’ body looked like it had simply fallen asleep. Daniel’s own form simply stared straight ahead, and it was hard to tell if he was awake one way the other. Perspective flipped, and Louis was once again looking through his own eyes. He got right down to the point.
“You say you’ve got power.” Louis said. “Just how much?”
I haven’t found a limit, but then again I haven’t tried to stretch it either. There’s no telling what the Shapers would do if I could, say, set people on fire.
“I think it’s time you tested those limits.”
I don’t like where this is going.
Louis stood. “I’m going back to my room. In thirty minutes, I want you to kill me.”
“You heard me, and if I’ve understood you right, you know what I’m thinking. I want to die, die in my sleep. I’ve got a malignant tumor right? Won’t be much of a stretch.
“You know why. Sure, I’ve got a chance to be a god, but I could just as well end up like…like Lydia down there. I don’t want to risk it.”
Daniel’s mental voice seemed to sigh. I can see there’s no dissuading you. Very well.
It proved surprisingly easy. Louis managed to bluff his way back to his room with a story about how he was taking a walk. The attendants perhaps doubted his story, but since he was returning to his room willingly, they didn’t press the issue.
Louis lay in bad, staring at the ceiling until he was suddenly sized with an overpowering drowsiness. “You’ve really got it Daniel.” Was his last thought.
Daniel floated serenely in his tank, probing the minds of the patients and staff with his mind, as he always did. News had already arrived of Louis’s death. As he had predicted, his passing was ruled a result of his cancer. Daniel couldn’t say he approved of Louis’ solution, but it wasn’t often someone could so quickly and decisively cross the Rubicon.