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ABOUT SYNTHETIC SAINTS Alex Hargreaves is being haunted by the past. But the ghosts that plague him are born of science, not superstition. As a Security Specialist for the ISA, Alex has a memory implant that allows instantaneous access to memories – both good and bad. He can recall facts and figures with unfailing accuracy, but cannot move past the painful sense of death and abandonment made manifest by the tragic loss of his wife and daughter. Those memories, like all the memories within his mind, remain excruciatingly present. When communication with an isolated Deep Space Observatory is lost, Alex and his synthetic partner, Persephone, are sent to investigate. The Cochrane is a small observatory tucked within a pocket of relative inactivity. A single data analyst runs it on a six-month rotation. Six months in the emptiness of space can feel like an eternity. Depression is a common problem. Suicide and accidental death are not unheard of at stations like Cochrane. Alex and Persephone are sent to learn which of these fates has found Amanda Hayes.

From Vagabondage Press


Prologue Hephaestus stood on the platform watching the sky, smoking an opium cigarette. The smoke and the smell, married with the brooding intensity of his eyes, kept the other would-be passengers at bay. He hated taking the metro. He hated the inevitable small talk that accompanied rides along the New Detroit-Quebec City corridor. The people were far too friendly for his liking. He missed Paris. He blew smoke in someone’s face, smiled when the stranger said “excuse me,” and sucked back on his cigarette. An attractive older woman said, “That was fucking rude.” Fucking rude, he thought. He turned and looked at the woman. She was tall and slender, with a pale complexion. Her eyes, barely hidden behind a pair of inexpensive transition lenses, remained locked on his. She held her husband’s hand. “That depends on your name, doesn’t it?” he said. “Don’t bother,” the woman said. She led her husband farther down the platform. Hephaestus smiled. He could smell their fear; it lingered in the space they’d just abandoned. He shrugged and turned his attention back to the empty tube. He could hear the metro approaching, more a rush of displaced air than anything mechanical. The high-speed train linking New Detroit with the Greater Toronto Area still smelled like fresh lemons and new plastic. It hadn’t been around long enough to be spoiled by the smell of blood and human urine. He missed New York. He tossed the last of his cigarette on the tracks, ignored the dirty looks of those nearby, and stepped toward the train before it came to a complete stop. It was crowded, of course. The last remaining empty seat was directly across from the very same woman he’d offended on the platform. God works in mysterious ways, he thought. She moved when he sat down, shifting into a tighter ball against her husband’s arm. Her transition lenses began clearing. Her eyes were dark brown, far deeper and much more interesting than he’d imagined


they would be. He turned toward the couple, lowered his voice and whispered, “This train will never reach New Union.” They ignored him, turning instead toward the window and the world beyond. The metro would soon slip beneath that world. It would slide below the sludge-brown waters of the Detroit River, passing through the moldering marshlands of Southwestern Ontario tucked neatly inside a tube of high-pressure air. On a good day, it took the metro one hour, eighteen minutes, and thirty-two seconds to travel the three hundred and ninety-three kilometer distance between the two cities. In less than an hour and a half, they would see the grey-light world of Upper Canada’s densely populated capital. On a good day, Hephaestus thought. He looked up at the conductor, a synthetic with a smile far too white and breasts far too perky to be real. “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it.” “Excuse me?” the woman sitting across from him asked. “The gentleman was just quoting from the first chapter of Genesis,” the conductor said. Neither smile nor breast sagged as she bent forward to collect their tickets. “The Pennyroyal Caxton edition of the King James Bible, if I am not mistaken.” Hephaestus beamed. “Oh you’re not mistaken, love. But did you catch the subtle innuendo?” “Hardly subtle,” the woman said. “Are you so hard up you’d hit on a synthetic?” Hephaestus turned and looked at her. “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?” “What the bloody hell are you talking about?” the husband asked. “The gentleman is now quoting William Shakespeare,” the synthetic conductor explained. Her voice changed, filled suddenly with


all the bitterness and anger of Shakespeare’s Shylock. “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” The synthetic leaned over the woman until her breasts brushed her crossed arms, and her perfect brown eyes, alive with intent, met the husband’s gaze and held it. “If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” “Excuse me?” “Tickets please,” the synthetic said. Her broad, white smile returned to its rightful place. The couple held out their tickets and nervously watched the synthetic scan them. “Thank you, Professor James William and Elizabeth Ann Massey, 555 Pontiac Road, Southfield, Michigan, United States, North American Union. Please enjoy your trip.” “That’s private information,” Elizabeth said. She snatched the tickets from the synthetic’s hand and shoved them back into her purse. “They’re not supposed to give out that kind of information. They’re programmed to be civil, by-the-book. For all I know that thing’s got a virus. My credit’s probably already ruined. I fucking hate those things. I swear to God, if I’ve just become a victim of identity theft, I’m going to fucking melt down that plastic piece of shit.” The synthetic stood and said, “I must ask you to refrain from using such vulgar language, ma’am. You must respect your fellow passengers.” She smiled when she said it. Hephaestus admired the synthetic’s panache. “You mustn’t take offence,” he said. “Intolerance has long been considered a sign of social standing. My seat mates are merely the product of cultured breeding.” “Excuse me?” Professor Massey said. “I’m sorry, was I speaking to you?” “Who the hell are you?” Hephaestus extended his hand. It now held a gun. “My name, dear James, is Hephaestus. I’m a saint to those of a synthetic persuasion. But that’s a theological lesson you’ll learn soon enough.”


I

Seven days had passed since Alex Hargreaves had left the Indefatigable. The Cochrane Observatory would be visible outside the Kaku’s warp bubble, but he would have to wait another twelve hours before he could disengage the Alcubierre drive. The observatory was in orbit around HD 37605b, a Jupiter-like gas giant, one hundred and forty light-years from earth. Eight hundred trillion miles lay between Alex and the ghosts haunting his life in Montreal. He could understand the loneliness, the feeling of isolation that accompanied deep space assignments. The Cochrane was a small observatory, tucked within a pocket of relative inactivity. A single data analyst ran it on a six-month rotation. Six months bordered on an eternity in the emptiness of space. Depression was a common problem. Suicide and accidental death were certainly not unheard of at stations like Cochrane. Alex had been sent to learn which of these fates had found Amanda Hayes. “What can you tell me about Amanda?” Alex asked. “Would you like a detailed biography or a summary?” Persephone’s vague British accent annoyed him. It brought to mind an old girlfriend and the unpleasant memories that went with her. “I can read the file myself. I just want an impression of the woman before I reach Cochrane, anything that might help me understand her state of mind.” “You believe she committed suicide.” Alex rubbed his eyes. He scratched his smooth-shaven chin and sighed. “I’d rather not speculate. Suicide’s an obvious possibility, but accidents do happen. How long was she on Cochrane before we lost contact?” “Four months, thirteen days, five hours, forty-two minutes, and fifty-five seconds leading up to her final transmission.” An eternity. Alex thought about Mina. His daughter had died more than a year before he’d accepted the Cochrane assignment. She was a


beautiful little girl, so small and delicate. His wife, Emily, took her own life. She blamed herself for Mina’s death. She couldn’t cope with the combined weight of guilt and loss, and, in the end, left it all on his plate. He found it difficult to remember what life was like without them. He found it difficult to understand why anyone would leave the world they knew for the unknown. He’d read about data analysts, their quirks and their idiosyncrasies. Emily always said there were only two types of people one hundred and twenty-nine trillion kilometers from earth: those running from the past and those running toward the future. “Why were you running?” he whispered. “I do not understand your question,” Persephone replied. “Forget it. Display the personnel file for Amanda Hayes.” “I can brief you on the contents if you’d like,” the synthetic said. Her voice tweaked his last nerve. “Thanks, but no. I’d rather read it myself.” Even at superluminal speed, the remaining twelve hours would crawl by. He missed his wife. Emily always found clever ways to pass the time. He closed his eyes, and there she was, wearing the black turtleneck sweater and dark blue jeans that never failed to convince him he was the luckiest man alive. He opened his eyes, and Amanda Hayes stared back at him. She was a pretty girl. Her denim eyes held a faded depth Alex found haunting. Amanda had left the University of Michigan with a degree in astrophysics, a year’s worth of experience at the Angell Hall Observatory, and a well-written but unexciting research paper dealing with HD 37605b. She requested the Cochrane assignment, but it was her work at Angell Hall that convinced the International Space Agency to send her there. Her parents were alive and well and living in Kalamazoo. Her only sibling, a younger sister, was in teacher’s college. At first glance, it seemed as though Amanda Hayes was someone running toward the future, but something in her eyes suggested otherwise. Alex fell asleep listening to the gentle rhythm of the Alcubierre drive. He still found it difficult to accept that the Kaku itself was not moving, that it was actually the warped space around the small craft carrying it toward HD 37605b and the Cochrane Observatory. The drive created a wave that contracted the space ahead of the ship while


expanding the space behind it. Alcubierre’s metric circumvented relativistic issues like time dilation and the belief that slower-than-light objects could never reach faster-than-light speeds. Locked within the confines of its warped space bubble, the Kaku never traveled faster than light. Aboard larger ships like the Indefatigable where the sound of the drive was masked by a million other noises, there was never a sense of movement associated with space travel. Aboard the much smaller skiff, Alex felt the subtle vibrations caused by the drive. He experienced an occasional jolt, a gentle reminder that there were enormous tidal forces at work near the edge of the warped space. The jolts, though negligible, kept his complacency in check. Alex felt a slight shudder when the warp bubble dissipated. Although he knew that the physics surrounding it were far from trifling, he marveled at the apparent subtleness of space travel. He briefly considered docking with the observatory himself, but in the end, he let Persephone complete the journey. It was cold aboard the observatory. His preliminary scans indicated the temperature aboard Cochrane had slipped below minus thirty-nine degrees centigrade. Alex had not packed for cold weather, so while Persephone traced the malfunction in the station’s environmental system, he slipped into an External Operations suit and crawled through the umbilical that led to the station’s docking bay. The darkness carried with it a weight that lingered long after his LED lamp chased the shadows from the room. A thin layer of frost covered the floors and walls. Alex had spent six months at CFS Alert in Northern Canada. The small station was the northernmost permanently inhabited place on Earth, and the last place Alex would ever willingly go. His friend and commanding officer, Maria Grazia, had sent him there to complete his cold weather survival training. He spent the minus thirty-seven-degree nights wrapped around a can of liquid heat, silently swearing he would never give in to Maria’s demands again. “Yet here I am.” When his LED found the door, Alex increased the temperature inside his suit and stepped into the station’s central corridor. The darkness was artificial. The lights were programmed to simulate night and day. Studies suggested the use of artificial sunlight,


standardized time, and the simulation of Earth’s lunar cycle had a significant positive impact on depression and incidents of suicide during prolonged deep space assignments. Alex found the concept more depressing than helpful. He missed his daughter. There was an imperfect silence in the station’s recycled air, a stillness broken by the muted hum of Cochrane’s internal systems. Alex followed his LED along the central corridor. The broad shaft was the station’s hollow spine; it ran the entire length of the observatory. Twelve smaller corridors curled from its length like ribs and offered access to the station’s Spartan accommodations. The Data Center sat a level below the Operations Center. While the OC was little more than a command console with a breathtaking view, the DC housed Cochrane’s Artificial Intelligence, its Double Quantum Dot computer, and its massive data warehouse. If the OC served as Cochrane’s heart, the DC was definitely its brain. When the OC door snapped open, Alex found himself staring into the lifeless face of HD 37605b. He saw the storm’s cyclonic endlessness staring back at him, and he felt overwhelmed by a mixture of amazement and inexplicable fear. HD 37605b was a monstrous world. One thousand, four hundred and twenty-seven Earths could fit within its girth. A storm had raged across its troubled surface for centuries, a constant scar upon the great planet’s face, while fifty-four moons lingered within its daunting shadow. Most were sulfuric or volcanic, and breathtaking in their lifelessness. But Tycho shone with all the brilliance of ice-and-water life. Named after the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, the moon was covered in an ocean of slushy ice water. “We know that life on Earth began in ice,” Amanda wrote in a letter to the ISA a year and a half before she’d been given the Cochrane assignment. While still working at the Angell Hall Observatory in Michigan, she’d taken part in James Massey’s Eden Experiment. Professor Massey taught physics at the University of Michigan. He was a close friend of Amanda’s father, and the owner of a keen interest in the origins of life. Five years before Amanda was born, Massey filled a


series of vials with a mixture of ammonia and cyanide, chemicals known to have contributed to the rise of life on Earth. He’d cooled the mixture to the temperature on Tycho’s frozen surface and had nurtured the experiment for a quarter of a century. The chemicals in Massey’s vial had coalesced into nucleobases and amino acids, the very building blocks of all life. Amanda Hayes referenced Professor Massey’s Eden Experiment during her initial interviews with the ISA. She pursued the HD 37605b assignment, not because she wanted to observe and study the gas giant, but because she was determined to search Tycho’s ice-water surface for signs of life. She’d planned to work with Massey despite the physical distance between them, but the professor had been killed a month before Amanda left for Cochrane. The CanAmtrak massacre claimed the lives of more than eight-hundred men, women, and children. The metro tubes beneath Southwestern Ontario were closed for weeks following the incident, and while Alex had not been involved in the investigation, the corresponding evidence suggested the terrorist had been a spiritual machine named Hephaestus. “Can you access the command console?” he asked. “I am still attempting to bypass security,” Persephone replied. “The Cochrane AI isn’t responding to any of my queries.” Alex sat down behind the console. He closed his eyes and accessed his memory implant. He had read the station’s technical manual before leaving Indefatigable. He smiled as an image of Emily danced through his memory. She had their daughter in her arms, and she was singing “Behind Blue Eyes” while she walked barefoot through the yard. The memory bled into the black-and-white schematics of Cochrane’s command console. “There you are,” he whispered once he had identified the correct controls. “Shit. I can’t access the interface, let alone the environmental controls. Run a system-wide diagnostic. I’d like to know what went wrong.” “The temperature has slipped to minus forty, Alex,” Persephone said. “And the Cochrane AI was intentionally off-lined.” “Amanda brought it down on purpose? Can you bring it back up?” “I can,” Persephone replied. “But I would advise against it, at least


until I’ve finished reviewing the event logs. We should try to determine why the AI was brought off-line to begin with.” Alex stretched, felt the stiffness in his shoulders, and let out a deep and meaningful breath. The time spent aboard the Kaku had taken its toll. He cracked his back and then his neck and decided that sitting anywhere would not ingratiate him to his beleaguered muscles. The mystery would wait; his stiffness and his hunger would not. He left the OC through a narrow hallway that led past the head, the small galley, and Amanda’s personal quarters on its way back to the central corridor. Alex found a block of mild cheddar and a bottle of cheap merlot in the galley and decided life aboard the observatory might not be that bad after all. He thought about Emily again, about the summer they had spent exploring the French countryside. Wine and cheese had been the staples of their diet, and as he slipped the bottle and the block into his side-pack, he felt more than a little melancholic. He thought about Mina. “My daughter,” he said aloud. He still found it difficult to believe she was gone. There were times when he felt lost. He increased the volume on his cochlear implant and listened to the ship’s flawed silence. The sounds were foreign to him, strange and unfamiliar, but he tried to place each one. He made his way back toward the skiff, but stopped when he reached Amanda’s bedroom. The door hissed when it opened. The stale air that lingered in the bedroom carried hints of lilac and cinnamon. Alex stood in the doorframe, while his eyes wandered the room. The sheets were disheveled, the duvet a yellow and white pile on the floor beside the footboard. For some reason, he found the sight disconcerting. A black picture frame stared back at him from the nightstand, its face a timed cycle of friends and family, of pets and places that meant nothing to him and everything to Amanda Hayes. Alex had studied crime scenes before. He had spent time at them, absorbed in the subtle and often grotesque details lingering in the features and the fibers, the very fabric of the victim’s life. Crime scenes were often pregnant with memories, revenants that wandered through photographs and books, carelessly discarded clothes and cluttered


shelves. He could see the memories at work here, but this room was different. It lacked absence. Maria’s commanding voice still echoed through his mind. Amanda is either dead or she is no longer aboard the Cochrane observatory. He sat behind the small computer console and accessed Amanda’s personal log. He knew that while the log might not contain information relevant to her disappearance, at the very least it would shed some light on Amanda’s state of mind. He began with the last entry she had made before contact had been lost. She was sitting in the same chair Alex now occupied. She wore a bath towel and held a glass of red wine. Despite her obvious excitement, there was still a persistent sadness in her blue-jean eyes. It was a brief entry, one he wished she had expanded on. “I’ve recalled the probe,” she said. “I think I’ve found something.”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born and raised in Southwestern Ontario, Jason Rolfe grew up in the shadow of Detroit, Michigan. Rolfe attended both the University of Windsor and St. Clair College, and is currently working toward an Honor’s English degree through the University of Athabasca. Although he has a background in communications and computer science, he is currently working as a market specialist for a Natural Gas company in Chatham, Ontario. He is married to a wonderful woman, and has been blessed with a beautiful daughter named Lyla. He is not ashamed to admit that he is a bibliohaulic. He has a humble (yet ever-growing) book collection and a keen appreciation for independent publishers. Jason is the co-editor of Fear of the Dark: an Anthology of Dark Fiction, an associate editor at Horror Bound Magazine, and a writer of speculative fiction.

From Vagabondage Press

Synthetic Saints by Jason Rolfe  

Alex Hargreaves is being haunted by the past. But the ghosts that plague him are born of science, not superstition. As a Security Specialis...

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