“Go to sleep.”
“I am asleep.”
“You are not,” Edward murmured, opening his eyes to look at his companion. Even in the dark, he could feel Vikram’s wakefulness, something that had intensified once they’d taken custody of the ship.
He understood — there was something disturbing about it, being surrounded by all of the trappings of a world that no longer existed beyond this floating metal behemoth. As a member of the world’s most covert special force, Edward had rarely travelled aboard marked naval vessels, except for one extraction.
Even so there should have been something familiar about these environs. It tickled him, their feat of piracy, but past that he was troubled by something he wasn’t prepared to name openly. It was Vikram’s affinity for the machine that unsettled him, and more than unsettled him. He had immersed himself in the Neurocommand, and though he still had plenty of attention to spare, Edward disliked sharing.
He knew he was being greedy, and he hoped to hear soon from Lucretia that their objective had been accomplished, so that he could return to land and assert his claim. He missed her terribly, and he knew that Vikram would be far more inclined to accommodate his appetite once he’d secured his own powerbase. Potentially scratch Rachel from the scene, and he’d be desperate for Edward’s anesthetizing embrace, though he had faith in the girl’s ability to deliver herself.
He leaned over and put his lips to Vikram’s ear. “If you are asleep, tell me what you’re dreaming.”
The slight smile on his face was enticing, and Edward was tempted to reach under the covers and break his concentration.
“I’m listening to music,” he said, without opening his eyes. “Beethoven.”
“The 9th Symphony. I saw the Austrian Philharmonic perform at the Albert Hall when I was small.”
“And you’re watching it again.”
Vikram opened his eyes and turned to him, a mischievous look on his face. “Want me to show you?”
Edward, who by now had experience of the NCOM’s perception trickery, was still somewhat skeptical about its ability to replicate something so complex as Vikram’s recollection of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
Vikram took his hand, smoothing his thumb over Edward’s calloused knuckles. “Close your eyes.”
Edward, feeling a little silly, obeyed. He felt a tingling like pins and needles running over the back of his neck, and then he was suddenly met with a very strange sensation. A wave of olfactory information hit him all at once. It was the smell of perfume, powder, of scotch, of carpet cleaner, of wood polish and hairspray, and strangely, of electric lighting. That was something he wouldn’t have considered to have a smell, and he couldn’t define it, he only knew it was accurate.
Then, the sound. It was not music, but rather the low thick thrum of many hundreds of human voices, snatches of conversation meeting his ears, along with the rustle of taffeta and silk, of clinking glasses, flat leather soles on carpet, the dull click of high heels on marble. He could hear a bartender pouring drinks, while a couple complaining about the exorbitant price of a gin and tonic.
The human soundscape was not only in his ears, but physically pressing against him from all sides. He could feel the carpet under his feet, the slow moving air circulating around him. He could feel the closeness, the heat of the space against his skin, only he was not naked, but now clothed in some soft, luxuriant material that was tailored to him. He almost didn’t want to open his eyes, but then he felt Vikram’s hand on his arm, and he could not help himself.
Here it was, the Albert Hall foyer, and it was clearly intermission. The crowd, be-gowned and besuited, milled around Edward just as they had once done when he had come here to take in the occasional performance. The space was perfectly replicated, down to each marble spindle, and not a single face gave away any hint of artifice or construct. Each of them was human and complete.
He almost fell over, so intense was his feeling. Not just his amazement at how pristine the memory was, but what it did to him, his own understanding of the world and what it had become. He wondered if he had just woken from the nightmare, and that this was reality. Then, he turned to look at Vikram, and knew that it was not.
Vikram smiled at him, a real grin, showing his white teeth. He’d elected to adopt his previous appearance, and his wavy black hair fell just below his chin. The tuxedo he’d chosen, and indeed, had chosen for Edward, was tailored to perfection, just a little gloss on the material.
Edward felt slightly light headed as the younger man, this strange boy with whole galaxies locked away in his mind, reached out and straightened Edward’s lapels. Edward glanced over into one of the tall, spit-shined wall mirrors and saw the handsome middle aged man, his hair lightly styled, chin shaven, trimmed in a keen edged black jacket and trousers that hugged his frame, yet moved easily with him.
“Would you like to get an overpriced gin and tonic?” Vikram said, meeting his eyes in the mirror. Together they were an absolutely striking pair, Edward noted. It felt strange to see the two of them like this, as though auditioning for a life they might have had together if he had never met Gregory. He felt a little odd thinking about that, but decided he might well indulge.
“In a minute,” he said, then took Vikram’s face in his hands and kissed him, bending him back a little.
Vikram kissed him back, a little bit of a blush coming to his cheeks as Edward finished with a wet smack of the lips. Then the lights dimmed and rose, and Vikram looked up.
“Come on, it’s starting again.”
Vikram took his hand, and urged him to follow him through the crowd towards the entrance to the auditorium. Edward was amused by his decision to wade through a row of seats on the first mezzanine, pausing to apologize every now and then to a fellow patron.
“Why not get us a box?” Edward teased.
“I wasn’t in a box,” Vikram said. “Ah.”
Two seats waited for them. Vikram sank into one, and Edward followed suit, finding the sensation completely accurate to what it felt like to sit in a folding, slightly threadbare theatre seat. He wondered what his actual body was doing out in the real world, whether another individual approaching them would find themselves immersed in the memory, or whether they were vulnerable in this state. He thought it was likely, though it was entirely possible that Vikram was conscious, splitting his mind between the two worlds the way he had when he’d copied Delaware’s gesture signature.
Edward relaxed into his surroundings and allowed himself to accept them. The lights went down as the orchestra began to play those initial, smooth warmup notes before taking up the themes of Beethoven’s Ninth. Edward knew it reasonably well, well enough to know that both the musicians and the mind now resurrecting them had it exact. The notes ebbed and throbbed, and the chorus of angelic human voices was enough to raise tears in his eyes. It was glorious to hear, but it pulled open the ever present wounds inside him, because he knew in his rational mind that these people were dead. This concert hall was gone, deep under the sea along with London, and the rest of the known world.
He glanced at Vikram, who seemed to be enjoying the music, but was not as affected by it as Edward. In fact, now that Edward looked fully at him, he seemed distracted. It was more than passing odd given this was his memory, and he was distracted from the truly astonishing performance he was currently recreating. Edward reached out to grasp his hand, but his attention was diverted by the sound of a whisper just behind them.
“I think he must have been like us.”
They were children, small enough that they could both share one seat. A boy of Indian complexion, perhaps four years old, and a girl who looked almost twin to him, except she was smaller and chubbier, her dark curls falling over her forehead like baby crow feathers.
The boy had his arm around her, stroking her hair back tenderly from her forehead. She was slumped against him with that graceless child posture that spoke of instinctive trust.
“Like us how?”
“He went deaf before he made this, so it’s all from memory. Every note, every instrument directly from his mind.”
“What is deaf?”
The boy smiled and signed it for her, touching his chest with two fingers, then touching his cheekbone. “Deaf. Can’t hear.”
“He couldn’t hear?”
This whispered rebuke came from Nadia Kori who was seated next to them. She was twenty years younger, an absolute beauty, and regal in her dark red gown. Edward couldn’t help but stare. Even at the height of his homosexuality, he would’ve spared a woman so striking more than a passing glance.
“Sorry, mother,” the grown Vikram said from beside him, and now Edward could see the tears in his eyes.
Then, through some unholy instinct, Edward realized what was about to happen. He saw the water spill around the stage, rushing in to surround the raised platforms. The musicians played on, oblivious, as the water began to rise over their feet, flooding the floor seats, coming up over the knees of the attentive patrons.
Water broke through the hall’s curved roof, now gushing down behind them, becoming a river that surged down the aisle, turning the mezzanine into a waterfall. Edward turned around, looking for an exit, and caught sight of Nadia. Still beautiful, but no longer vital. She was aging, jaundiced, her skin growing paler and eyes sinking back as he watched. Baby Rachel had vanished, but the child Vikram was looking right at him, his eyes wide with terror as he watched the water rising around them.
Edward turned to the adult Vikram, and grabbed his shoulder. “Get a grip.”
He gave him a shake, but only succeeded in wrinkling Vikram’s suit. He stared ahead, almost catatonic. Unsure of what would happen if they remained trapped in Vikram’s mind, but convinced it would be nothing good, Edward did the only thing that occurred to him.
He pulled the young man towards him and kissed him with all the force and passion he could muster. He thought Vikram might not respond, but he opened at once, throwing his arms around him, clinging with all the desperation of the damned.
Edward held tight to him, closed his eyes, and when he opened them, there they were, naked in bed just as they had been. Vikram’s round-eyed expression of horror was stamped on his face, just as it had been on his childish countenance.
“You’re here with me,” Edward gave him a bit of a shake. “Come on now. Look at me.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean… I don’t know how—“
“Put down your toy for a little while,” Edward told him, pulling him against his chest and pressing his lips against his fevered brow. “You’re going to harm yourself if you keep carrying on like that.”
“I can’t stop,” he insisted. “I need to understand it. All of it.”
“Not only can you,” Edward insisted right back. “You need to, or you’re going to drive yourself mad.”
“That ship sank on the way home,” Vikram said with a shaky little laugh, letting his forehead rest against Edward’s neck. “Maybe I really am going insane.”
“You’d have company.”
He didn’t answer. After a moment, Edward felt soft snoring against his neck. His companion was mercifully asleep, without additional encouragement or erotic application. That was a little disappointing, but Edward knew it was better this way. Gently, he pushed Vikram’s silky black hair back from his forehead, and fell into a doze.