Vikram was waiting for him when Delaware arrived at his private lounge. He stood before the picture wall, hands linked behind his back as though examining an art exhibit. Delaware observed him for a moment, then moved into the room.
“I apologize,” he said, keeping his tone neutral. “My briefing ran late.”
“Please don’t apologize,” Vikram said, the soul of politeness. “This is your ship. I’m your… guest.”
The hesitation on the word was deliberate. Delaware did not conceal his scrutiny as he looked the young man up and down.
“You’re not what I expected, Mr. Kori,” he said finally.
“You expected the spoiled son of a despot,” Vikram said with a quick smile. “Does my family strike you as despotic?”
“I suppose I’ll know when my brother reports back,” Delaware said lightly, not wanting to commit to confidences with this young man.
“I don’t expect he’ll find much to interest him,” Vikram sighed. “It’s a simple life in Taaj. Not easy, but luxurious by comparison. You saw for yourself a small part of what we face.”
Delaware crossed his arms and looked directly into Vikram’s eyes. The same eyes as his younger sister’s, liquid black, with the ability to close up his thoughts, or to appear wide eyed and innocent.
“I last saw you on CNN,” Delaware remarked. “I don’t normally follow that kind of thing but I had a layover at O’Hare. As I recall you spoke a damn good line about the need to resolve the Heartland Crisis without deadly force. Late, though, as it turned out.”
Vikram took a deep breath. “I tried, Captain. For every strike, donations flooded into the Church networks. Less than one-third of their servers were located in the crisis states, and aerial attack disabled almost none of them.”
“I agree, it was absurd,” Delaware said, warming a fraction of a degree. “The administration didn’t want to put boots on their own ground. But you understand why that is.”
Vikram turned back to the photographs, sucked his teeth in annoyance. “Oh, I understand. I also saw the cost borne by the UN coalition forces. Not for the first time in my career, but certainly the first time in the affairs of a nation with the most powerful standing army in the world.”
Delaware tilted his head. “They didn’t have access to your ordnance networks. They weren’t blowing your bases up, or running your ships into each other.”
“Is that the reason this vessel’s OS overrode Geneva 2 protocol?” Vikram asked casually. “I’m just interested.”
Delaware smiled. “You didn’t really think the United States of America was going to allow itself to be hamstrung by some UN protocol in the event of nuclear attack, did you?”
“It was only ever intended to be a mitigation contingent.”
“We’ve been at sea for nearly three years,” Delaware said softly. “Your “mitigation contingent” disabled most of the world’s navies. We were able to recover some sailors from those vessels, but most of their ships are either sunk or dead at sea. How did that occur?”
“Piracy by noncompliant vessels, presumably.” Vikram turned to look at him. “We did what we could. We rescued who we could.”
Delaware stared him down. “How did you keep the noncompliant vessels away? Your own fleet appears small and does not run heavily armed, and yet you’ve contained harbour access.”
“Mines,” Vikram explained, confirming Delaware’s existing intelligence. “We built them, scattered them around. Some of them are motorized and we change their locations. The inlet is too shallow for most war vessels, and the ridge is too high on the eastern side for G2 ordnance to make it over. A little bit of a good luck.”
“And you don’t have any true naval power of your own?”
Vikram smiled. “Without the UN’s technicians, there’s no unlocking a ship’s controls after their clearance holders are dead. There are some vessels with mounted guns, but none capable of any serious long range damage. But you knew that, of course.”
“This ain’t my first rodeo, Mr. Kori.”
“And you,” Vikram continued. “I suspect your uncanny ability to remain undetected by our vessels has something to do with an interesting trick Major Ortiz showed me earlier this evening. She said you would explain.”
What little levity Delaware felt was arrested by a sudden tension between his shoulder blades. Vikram looked at him expectantly, mild to a fault, but that expectation seemed to conceal more insight than he, Delaware, was comfortable with.
He looked up, and for the first time, noticed which photograph his guest had been examining. It was a photo of his brother, and Rhiannon, Delaware’s then-future wife, in their graduation gowns along with the rest of the University of Hawaii medical school class of ‘36.
“Tell me what you know already,” Delaware said, more calm than he felt. “And I’ll try to fill in the gaps where I can.”
Vikram put on a wide-eyed curious expression. “Only that the major referred to it as the NCOM.”
“Yes,” Delaware said. “The Neurocommand. It’s the ship’s OS. You won’t have heard much about it because this was the only ship launched with it installed.”
“I remember hearing something about it,” Vikram admitted. “But in reference to neurological interfacing used for medical purposes. Amputee therapy, motor control rehabilitation. The neurological interfacing would have to be quite powerful to act on this scale. And require some discipline.”
“It depends on the individual. For recreational purposes we have amplifiers that run programs. Some people even have their own presets.”
“Like the major’s cigar.”
Delaware nodded. He raised his hand, palm up, felt the faint pins and needles in his fingers as he focused his mind. The cigar, a Havana, sketched itself in golden pixels, solidifying into a fully tactile, believable object. He picked it up with the other hand, showed the blazing tip to Vikram, then turned it and offered it to him.
The astonishment in his eyes was real as he took it, felt the heft, nearly “burned” himself on the cherry end. He sniffed it, flicked the ash, and it fell towards the carpet, dissolving into those same golden pixels.
Delaware gestured again, and the thing disappeared, un-sketching itself back into virtual nothingness.
Vikram stared at his empty hand. “Extraordinary.”
“I’ll certainly never get used to it,” Delaware admitted. “And I probably have more insight into it than anyone living.”
“It’s like that old film,” Vikram said, making an expression as though struggling to consult his memory. “The Matrix.”
“If you’re asking if we live in a simulation, I suppose I can’t prove a negative.”
“No.” Vikram turned and went back to the wall of photos, directly back to the photo of Delaware’s absent brother, and his missing wife. “My question is about live interfacing. Real time.”
Delaware moved closer, unconsciously thumbing his wedding ring, the tension between his shoulders increasing into cramp. He had the urge to take something heavy and concuss Vikram before this went any further.
“Is there a reason you’re asking?” Delaware demanded, now letting his displeasure rise.
Vikram’s face coloured slightly, and he couldn’t suppress his eagerness. “If everything you say is accurate, the NCOM runs on an operating system that is dynamic, converting brainwave energy to operational behaviours. A human mind interfacing with it should be able to act as a file index, which can then be accessed and interacted with.”
“Is there,” Delaware repeated. “A reason you’re asking?”
Vikram sobered, then turned his eyes to the image, to the beautiful Hawaiian woman in her cap and gown, her lei, her accolades, then looked back to Delaware.
“I’ve never met this woman,” he said. “But I’ve seen her.”
Delaware felt the edge of his meaning, felt the precipice and the void at the edge of it, but couldn’t quite grasp what he was driving at.
“I could attempt,” Vikram said slowly. “To recount that moment through the NCOM in such a way that you…”
He held a hand open, an empty gesture that did nothing, said nothing, only reached out for a confidence Delaware did not want to give.
“Son,” he said, drawing on his most professorial tone. “I appreciate the thought, but the human mind is not a flash drive. Human memory is fragmentary. Impressionistic. Even if — ”
Vikram took his empty hand and used it to divide Delaware’s thought. “— Even if my recollection could be accessed, you couldn’t reasonably be expected to trust the veracity of its contents, is that what you mean to say?”
Delaware stared down at him. “It’s not personal.”
“If I — ” Vikram began, and suddenly there was command in his voice, an animation to his body as he raised his finger and pointed at Rhiannon. “Verbally described that woman’s fate, would that satisfy you?”
Delaware blinked. He hesitated. Then, he felt the trap settle around him, and he let out a deep sigh.
“Then what do you have to lose?” The young man entreated him gently.
As the captain raised his hand and enabled a clearance, Vikram felt pins and needles run through him. He closed his eyes, felt the memory rise through the banks of memory that catalogued all of his twenty-five years.
When he opened them again, the steep new beachhead was perfectly matched the one now encompassing the western banks. It was a yellow-blue day, as with every day down in the roots of the mountain. The sea foamed as it washed up against the shore. Each dying tree, each stone, each piece of sea trash. It was exact. He was pleased to find the NCOM was equal to him.
“Jesus Christ,” Delaware murmured from behind him.
He worked to find his footing, then followed Vikram’s beckoning hand to a more level spot. Once there, he reached for Vikram’s shoulder, and Vikram allowed himself to be turned.
“This level of detail isn’t possible.”
“It’s often a struggle for me,” Vikram said calmly. “To live in the present. My sister’s… gifts… are more systematic. She’s better at tactile application. Mine are more holistic. Believe me, Captain, there are things I wish to forget.”
Delaware looked at him with a newfound caution. Vikram was pleased by this, too. The captain wasn’t a fool, and that was really the best Vikram could hope of anyone.
“Follow me,” he said, and began to press forward towards the coarse stone beach that was waiting around the bend.
He heard Delaware’s sharp intake of breath as he took in the vista. Hundreds of human corpses floated in the surf, most of them still freshly dead, clinging to debris. Living people struggled out of boats and makeshift rafts while volunteers and Alpine Security workers helped them to safety, to warmth, to food.
Vikram went to his father’s side, taking his place in the memory. “More will come.”
“We can only hope,” Radhesh said, scratching at his day old beard.
“We can’t feed them all,” Vikram insisted.
Radhesh looked him in the eyes, stern, immovable in his compassion. “Go help them.”
He indicated a large speed boat that had lost its engine and was nearly swamped. Vikram jogged down to the water’s edge, and helped Sergei and Mikhail drag the boat in. Of the twenty-two people in the boat, eight were children, all mercifully alive. Mikhail helped them out of the boat one at a time. A few adults were able to make it out on their own, but the others were either dead or dying.
Sergei helped him to remove the corpses, laying them out in the line that was steadily growing across the beach, and attracting vultures. The last was a generously proportioned young woman dressed in blue scrubs, with dark skin and wet curls, her face covered with sand. Vikram knelt beside her, and brushed the sand gently from her face. He looked up at Sergei, inquiring.
Sergei picked up her hand, and let it drop. “Less than a day.”
Vikram looked down at the woman, examining her beautiful face, her parted lips. She could be asleep, he thought. Her name tape read “Dr. Rhiannon Ford”, and under the v-neck hem of her scrubs, he could see the edge of a tattoo — a Polynesian pointillism silhouette of a turtle’s wing, just over her silent heart.
Behind him, Vikram heard Delaware make a sound like he’d been punched in the stomach. By the time Vikram rose from the woman’s side, the world had gone dark, had returned to the confines of the captain’s lounge. Delaware’s fist glowed with the power of the NCOM, and Vikram felt a light sweep of energy raise the fine hairs on his arm as the clearance was removed.
Delaware was pale, sweating around the collar, but his green eyes were full of naked hatred. Vikram accepted this, unfazed. This man’s pain and apprehension had been his objective. He had no intention of remaining aboard this ship and away from his family longer than was necessary.
It remained to be seen whether his second objective — the one he had accomplished without Delaware’s knowledge — would remain undetected. Vikram thought it was a safe bet. The distraction of Rhiannon’s dead remains, and the undeniable truth revealed in the recollection, would infect the captain like a virus. Hatred of Vikram was a bonus.
“I apologize,” Vikram said. “It was… cruel to subject you to my nightmares.”
“We all have nightmares,” Delaware said, a sneer twitching at his lip, his eyes now evaluating Vikram, envisioning all the different lethal applications he might use on this, his enemy.
Vikram indicated the door. “Shall I…?”
Delaware nodded, turning to the photo wall, a muscle in his jaw tightening as he suppressed his grief, fighting for composure.
Vikram moved to leave, but Delaware’s voice halted him.
“I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful,” he said in a monotone, his eyes on the empty frame where the photograph had been.
Vikram turned, and offered a slight bow of his head. “Perish the thought, Captain Ford.”
He turned before he could see the expression on his captor’s face, and smiled to himself as he left his presence.