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Chapter 9

February 13, 2012

I was sick of busses.  I rested my head against the window, the glass cold against my forehead.  Closing my eyes I tried to doze the journey away.

Jack had delivered, the passport had been ready for me when I got back to Ben’s place.  There was no sign of Ben while I was there.  Jack explained that he could often be gone for days at a time.  I was glad of it, the man made me ill at ease.

The passport was safely tucked in the pocket of my trousers.  It seemed strange, seeing my picture in the passport, against a name that wasn’t mine.  I was Adrian Marshall, thirty five years of age from Bedford.  Jack had decided on the last bit himself.  He said it might add a touch of validity given we knew that was where Marshall lived.  Or at least had lived.

I was also unprepared for how good it felt to have something that declared who I was, even if it was a work of fiction.  I realised that I could remember so little of myself, so little of Dr Collins, that anything the bound me to the real world, false or not, was like a tether to reality.  With everything I had been through it was welcome.  In a strange way I didn’t mind being Adrian Marshall for a while, it felt like a comfortable enough disguise.

My forehead made a squeaking noise as it slid down the window pane.  I jerked it back up, hovering on the boundary of sleep.  I checked my watch.  It would be over an hour until we got back to Bedford, I had time for a nap.  Two nights of decent rest and I still felt tired, but I had lost some of my fear of going to sleep.  Balling up my coat I placed it under my head and drifted into a dream.

Sarah was there, asking why I had abandoned her.  I tried to explain.  Explain what?  I had abandoned her.  In the dream something told me how wrong this had been, gave me a tantalising glimpse of my feelings for Sarah.  The wind seemed to sigh her name, together with the words I love her.  I shook my head, eager to clear away the confusing thoughts, and almost woke myself.  For a second the cold of the window against my head and the rumble of the busses engine intruded on the dream.

The rumble morphed into a spluttering cough and I looked down through the bars of a grate.  It was a sort of cell, a hollowed out space under the floor, accessible only though the hinged grate.  I recalled seeing something similar as a child, in a castle I think.  It was called an oubliette, a French word.  It was a place to put things – to put people – that you want to forget about.

The memory of the castle triggered a change in the dream.  Where there had been formless black there appeared dark yellow stone, leaping up in front of me and arching overhead, encasing me in a long stone clad corridor.  A flaming torch appeared on the wall opposite me, its flickering light casting dancing shadows around the medieval corridor.  It was an eerie place.

The coughing petered out and a week voice called from the oubliette.

“Marshall.  Marshall, is that you?”

It sounded almost like my own voice, but cracked and broken, as if I were speaking with a booted foot pressed on my throat.  I picked the torch from the metal ring on the wall, holding it down close to the metal grating, its guttering flame casting a patchwork of light into the void below.  There was nothing there.

With a slow scraping noise a figure slid into view.  It was a man, painfully thin and withered, tatters of rags surrounding his emaciated form.  He crawled across the floor, his knees leaving dark patches on the stone, as if he was bleeding.  With one hand he shaded his eyes from the light, the other feeling its way across the floor in front of him.  As his hand moved I got a view of his eyes, filmed and almost milky.  The old man must be nearly blind.

I instantly felt sympathy for the man, so pitiful was his appearance.  He also reminded me of something, or someone.  As he reached the point directly under the grate he put both hands on the floor and twisted his upper body, his face staring sightlessly up at me.  I gave a small gasp.  As the light flickered across his features I could see that his face was hideously burned and scarred, the skin livid and weeping.  His left ear was shrivelled and misshapen, his hair burned clean away in clumps, what was left of it hanging in charred lumps from his head.  I could hear his breathing, shallow gasps of air followed by a quick exhalation, as if the oxygen burned his lungs.  I didn’t see how someone could have such injuries and carry on living.

“Marshall, that is you, I know it,” said the old man, a bitter smile spreading across his face.  The dry skin of his lips cracked as he did so, fresh blood breaking though the scars and running down his scarred chin.

“Why are you down there, can I help you?” I asked.

The old man gave a small choking cough.  It might have been a laugh.

“Yes, you could help me, but do you want to?”

Crouching down I checked the bars.  They were strong and sturdy.  Putting the torch down on the flagstones to the side of the grate I felt around for the hinges.  At the opposite side of the grate there should have been a lock of some sort, but there wasn’t, there was just a large metal ring.

“Look, I don’t think this is even locked.  Can you reach up to the opening here, if I pull up the grate?”

It looked like he could.  After all, his face was just inches from the grate, crouching as he was.  My real question was whether or not he could stand.  He seemed to understand, as a gleam passed across his milky eye and he bobbed his head excitedly.

“OK then, hang on.”  I grasped the metal ring and pulled.  Nothing, the grate stayed rooted to the spot as if it were welded in the frame.  Crouching above the grate, my legs braced on the floor either side, I heaved on the ring.  With a deep groan the grate moved a little, a fraction of a centimetre, and then clanged back into the frame.  The thing must weigh a tonne!

“That’s it, that’s it!” cried the old man.  “You have to want it, really want it, put your back into it Marshall!”  I wanted to tell his that I wasn’t Marshall, and to stop calling me that, but I was focussed on the grate.  Mustering all my strength I crouched low, wrapping my hands tightly around the metal ring.  With a mighty heave I surged upwards, driving with my legs.  The grate gave, an inch at first, and then another.  The veins stood out on my arms, the muscles in my legs burning.  With a final burst I wrestled the grate up, leaning my body against it and slamming it against the wall.

“Thank you, thank you!” said the old man, getting uncertainly to his feet.  “I never doubted you had it in you, never!”  The strain had taken its toll on me, my head felt woozy.  A head rush hit me and I tumbled forward, straight towards the open pit.  Desperately I spread my hands out to catch myself on the stone rim.

“Hey!” came an annoyed voice from in front.  The man in the seat in front of mine had twisted around to glare over the seat at me.  And with good reason.  Both of my arms were rammed out in before me, pressing against the seat with about as much force as I could muster.

“Sorry,” I said, relaxing my arms and sitting back in my seat.  The guy didn’t look that mollified but he turned back to the front and settled back down with a huff.

“Must have been one hell of a dream,” said the lady across the aisle.  She had a nice smile and cute curly brown hair.  I gave her a wan smile and settled my head against the window and closed my eyes again.  I wasn’t interested in sleeping anymore, but I most definitely didn’t want a conversation.

The bank attendant squinted at my passport, then at my face.  Again she scrutinised the passport, again my face.  I tried not to grind my teeth.  If it couldn’t even pass muster at the bank I had no chance getting out of the country.  It looked genuine enough to me.

“And you say you can’t remember the box number?” said the attendant, her voice bored and laced with condescension.

I shook my head.  This was a worry.  I didn’t turn to look at the poster, I knew what it would say.  I was supposed to provide both the box number and a form of photo ID.  The attendant behind the plastic screen looked like exactly the sort of person to enforce procedure.  She didn’t have anything better to do, I could see that, and who knew, maybe getting the box for me would be a welcome relief from the mundane waiting.  But no, this looked like the sort of person who would take exception, just because.

“You’re supposed to provide the box number, you know.”

I was right.

I fought the urge to beat my fists against the plexiglass and instead crouched down at the counter.  Forcing a warm smile on my lips I maintained excellent eye contact and gave the attendant my most wining laugh.

“Look, I’d be really grateful if you could help me out.  I don’t check the box that often, and I really can’t remember the number.  I don’t want to go all the way back home to check my records, and you look like the kind of person who could help me out.”

The attendant seemed unmoved.  One last roll of the dice.

“OK, I understand, your just doing your job, I guess you don’t really have any other choice.  Thanks for trying anyway, I do appreciate it.  If I could just have my passport back?”

I held my hand out toward the small drawer in the screen.  The attendant paused.

“Wait here,” she said, sweeping the passport from the desk and standing.  She walked off around the corner and out of sight.

My smile vanished.  Hopefully she was going to get my box, rather than call security on the simpering fool who couldn’t even remember his own box number.  With a quirk of fear I realised she could well be off to check the passport photo with the bank’s records.  With a shrug I pushed the thought aside.  There was nothing I could do about that now, except possibly be prepared to make a quick exit from the bank.

The white clock on the wall ticked through five minutes before the attendant returned, carrying a rectangular metal box and the passport.

“Here you are sir, box 42.  I wrote it on a card just in case you forget next time.”  The attendant put the box in the drawer in the screen and pushed it through to my side.  She even smiled.  I’d have to remember the whole being nice routine, it worked almost as well as grabbing someone by the throat.  I said thank you and smiled in return, taking the box over to a curtained booth at the back of the room.

I wondered if the fire had damaged the teeth on the key at all but when I put it in the lock it turned perfectly.  The top of the metal box hinged upwards, making a small metal squeak that for some reason reminded me of the metal grate in my dream from the bus.

Inside the box was what looked like a leather bound notebook.  The cover was old and careworn, marked here and there with a ring mark from a hot mug, and frayed at the bottom corner.  I recognised it instantly, a recollection from another dream, this time a memory.  It was my notebook, the one Richter had handed back to me in Cambridge.

Picking it from the box the notebook seemed heavier than I expected.  Rather than paper inside, flipping open the cover revealed a screen.  The leather casing was wrapped around not a conventional paper notebook but rather a tablet computer.  It was unbranded, a shiny if somewhat scratched screen over a brushed metal case.  One side of the device was entirely taken up with ports, a huge array in all manner of shapes.  On the opposite edge was a recessed button. I could just about get the tip of my finger into the recess, and when I held it there for a few seconds the screen flickered into life.

Property of Dr A Collins.  Unauthorised use prohibited.

I felt a thrill of excitement.  This was something that was – that had been – important to me.  The message on screen disappeared to be replaced with a grid of green dots, eight dots by eight dots.  Experimentally I dragged my finger across the screen.

Incorrect entry

The word flashed up on the screen in red before being replaced with the grid of dots.  My heart sank.  Richter’s comment about adding protection to my notebook suddenly made sense.  It hadn’t seemed strange in the dream that Richter talked about encrypting a handwritten notebook.  Now that I thought about what he had said it could only have meant one thing, that the leather case held a computer of some sort.  One now protected by a pattern lock.

I squiggled my finger across the dots again.

Incorrect entry.

I drew a square.

Third Incorrect entry.  Device will now lock for three hours.

The screen went dark.  I jabbed my finger into the button recess and held it there but nothing happened.  With a grunt of frustration I flipped the leather cover back over the device and pushed it into my back pack.

Why did Marshall have my notebook?  It was a definite link, other than the Mnemosyne file, between the man and me.  It meant I was on the right track, I had to remember that.  It promised answers, but with only three goes every three hours it was going to take forever to unlock the device.

I picked up the empty box and was about to snap the lid back down when something rattled.  Tilting the box up something metallic slid from the back of the box and landed with a small click against the front side.  It was another key, this time a fairly standard looking stubby latch key.  It’s only defining character was that it was bright orange.  Great, just what I need, another random key.  What was it with this Marshall character?  How many different places did he need to store stuff.  Again there was nothing to indicate what it was for.  Sighing I slammed the lid down on the metal box and strode back to the bank attendant behind the screen.

“Thanks,” I muttered, shoving the box through the slot.  It would seem that the attendant had decided now was the right time to be friendly.

“Did you get what you needed?” she asked brightly.

“Not exactly,” I mumbled, shifting my backpack onto my shoulders.

“Yes, I thought you looked disappointed.  I’m forever misplacing things myself, stuff is never where I think I’ve left it.  Maybe what you are looking for is in your garage?”

“My what?” I asked absently, eyeing the door back to the bank reception area.

“You know, your lockup,” she pointed at the key, clasped between thumb and forefinger in my right hand.  “I rented one of those places for a few months, when I was between places last summer.  Handy.  A bit damp though, at least mine was anyway.”

She now had my full attention.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I pushed, eager for more information.  Clearly she had recognised the key, but I needed a bit more to go on, and didn’t want to reveal I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.

“Your rental garage.  I hired one just like it, the place with the orange key.  EziStorage.  Bit of a rip-off with the name if you ask me, but was cheap enough.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right, this,” I replied, holding up the key.  “What branch did you rent yours at?”

The attendant looked a little confused.

“I think they’ve still only got the one, down on the Woburn Road industrial estate.”

The smile was back on my face, beaming through the plexiglass.  I thanked the perplexed attendant and hurried from the bank.

The bus station wasn’t getting any prettier.  Having decided it was one of my least favourite places the fact that I had been there three times in two days put a small dent in my good humour.  But only a small one.

At each stand there stood a grey metal pole, which held both a timetable for the buses leaving from that stand and also a small map showing the bus route. The guy at the fish and chip shop had told me that the Woburn Road industrial estate was in a neighbouring town called Kempston, a short bus ride away.  The bus I wanted was the 101, and the map by its stand showed me how far I would have to walk to get from the bus stop to the industrial estate.  Not far at all.  The sun even peaked out from behind the clouds, further illuminating the grime on the bus stations windows.

Twenty minutes later and things were still looking up.  The estate wasn’t that big, and I had resigned myself to searching out EziStorage on foot, but as I got off the bus I could see a bright orange roof, standing out against the greys, whites and browns, like a beacon for everything cut price and standardised.

There were no plexiglass shields here, just a fat guy with a bald patch sat behind a flaking grey desk in a small portacabin.  The bright orange t-shirt strained around his bulbous stomach, a small indent showing where his belly button was.  Where the bank attendant had been neat, well dressed and verging on pretty, this man looked unkempt, slovenly and – although I couldn’t smell anything – he looked like he would probably smell.  That’s appearance based olfactory prejudice for you.  Despite their differences, the guy behind the desk and the bank attendant had one thing in common.  The look of absolute boredom.

“S’up,” muttered the man, looking up from a comic book and running his hand through his knotted hair and across his bald patch.

I held up the key, taking my lead from the man’s appearance.

“I’ve got this key, I can’t remember the number, I want to get my stuff.”

The guy nodded.

“Cool man, that’s no drama.  Name?”

“Marshall.”

He typed something into the computer on the desk and then waited.

“Easy,” he declared.  “Garage 213.  That’s one of the ones at the back.”  He jabbed a grubby looking finger at a laminated map stuck to the surface of the desk.

“Head back out that way, take the first right, left at the end, then just walk all the way to the end of that row.  Yours is just around the corner.  There’s a couple round there, tucked out of the way.  For the, err, customer requiring additional discretion.”  He winked at me and tapped the side his nose.  I didn’t return his smile.

As the fat guy had directed garage 213 was at the back of the facility.  It was indeed tucked away, with just numbers 212 and 214 on the same row.  Did Marshall have something that needed ‘extra discretion’ in there, or was it just chance?  Either way I checked around me before pushing the key into the lock.  The lock clicked and I pulled the roller door up just enough for me to duck inside and switch on the light, pushing the roller door back down with my other hand.

Garage 213 was a single vehicle garage, the floor hard grey concrete and the walls made from cement block.  Two long fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling winked into life, casting a white light on the contents of the room.

In the centre of the room something long and chunky was covered in a black tarpaulin.  Against the back wall were three large double door metal cabinets.  With relief I noted that none of these seemed to have locks.  I’d had enough of playing match the key.

Pulling back the black tarpaulin I gave a low whistle.  Under the cover was a beautiful black motorbike.  The paintwork was pristine, black and lustrous, the bike squatting there as if it was just waiting for the call to tear out onto the road and whistle like a rocket out to the motorway.  I recognised the model, a Suzuki Hayabusa, one of the most powerful bikes ever made.  And the key was in the ignition!  I stroked my hand across the leather seat and walked towards the cabinets.

The first one had some clothes inside.  A set of black bike leathers, a helmet, four t-shirts, two pairs of jeans, bike boots and a pair of plain but well-made brown shoes.  At the bottom of the locker was a large dark blue backpack.  It was in much better condition than my tatty old one, so I knew straight away that was coming with me when I left.  I swung open the door to the middle locker and caught my breath.  Inside was a small armoury of guns and weapons.  Rifles stood in a rack at the back of the cabinet, hand guns and some wicked looking knives on the inside of the left hand door, what looked like grenades and packs of explosives on the right.  In total there were probably sufficient weapons for about twenty men.  A shelf across the top of the locker held what looked like boxes of ammo.

With some nervousness I approached the final locker.  The door stuck when I tried to open it, resisting my attempts to pull it open.  With a backwards jerk I hauled on the handle and the door crashed open, smacking into the still open door of the central cabinet.  Something big and heavy in a large black plastic sack toppled out of the cupboard and landed with a dull thud on the floor.  The zip up the length of the bag, and the putrid smell released from the locker told me what I was looking at.   For a second I considered pulling back the zip to see whose body was inside.  I was looking for answers after all.  Maybe it was even Marshall himself?  It was as likely as anything else.  But then, I didn’t even know what Marshall looked like, so there would be little point.  I told myself it was that, not revulsion or fear, that meant I left the body where it had fallen.

So, the trail to Marshall reaches a dead end with a cache of weapons, a twenty thousand dollar motorbike and a corpse.  I’d known the guy was bad news, hadn’t I.

“Hey, Marshall, we know you’re in there mother fucker, we can hear you crashing around!”  The voice came from the other side of the roller door, clear as a bell despite the intervening metal.  It was the little guy whose gang had jumped me outside the pub.

“I’d love to be able to say we just wanna talk, but I think we both know it’s gone beyond that.  I’m here to kill you you fuck!”  To punctuate this statement there was a bang, a tiny circle of daylight opened up in the roller door and a bullet buried itself in the concrete block wall, about two feet from my head.  This was followed by some commotion outside, before the little man’s voice silenced the others.

“Shut up, I don’t give a shit, I want that guy’s head!”

There was a pause, and then.

“Listen Marshall, you’ve got a choice.  I can take pot shots through this tin, before I get my boys to prise this thing open and we can check out whether or not I’ve got you.  I reckon I can get you within twenty shots, Grubber here reckons I can’t.  I’ve got a hundred quid on it, so really that’s my preferred option.  Or you can get out here and take it like a man, under the open sky, which I guess would save me some bullets, so I win either way.  But understand this, today you die, here.”

This made no sense at all.  It was clearly a case of mistaken identity, but what a coincidence that I had been mistaken for Marshall?  I would struggle to talk my way out of it, even if I was given the chance, since the passport in my bag said I was Marshall.

The garage was small, and I reckoned that the little guy was right.  Within twenty shots there was a good chance he would hit me.  Maybe not kill me outright, but definitely do some damage.  There was a chance the police would get here before he did, gun shots in suburbia tended to get reported, but it wasn’t good odds.

Returning to the first locker I grabbed the large backpack and rammed all of the clothes inside.  There was just enough room for my existing pack and the bike leathers.  I pushed the bike as far back in the garage as I could, piling the tarpaulin on top of it.  The bike was my ticket out of here, but not unless I could clear the men out of the way long enough to open the door.  Another shot rang out, metal chiming as the bullet ricocheted from the lockers at the back of the room.

From the middle locker I grabbed two hand guns and four packs of 8mm ammo and rammed them on top of everything else in the pack.  From the right hand door I picked up a roll of plastic explosive, cutting a small slice from the end with a knife grabbed from the left hand door.  The detonators, all timer, were on a shelf just above the explosives.  I jabbed on into the explosive, set the timer for five seconds and threw it at the roller door.  I had just enough time to step inside the first locker, which was now empty, push the helmet onto my head and pull the doors closed.  With a roar the explosives detonated.  Something, maybe a chunk of the door itself, pulled loose and came crashing into the lockers, caving the door in and smashing against my shoulder.

Even with the helmet my ears were ringing.  Fighting the resulting disorientation I pushed open the locker door.  A metal post that until a second ago had held the roller door in place clattered to the floor.

The rest of the door had been blown outwards, a jagged tear along the left hand side where a portion had held to the wall.  Visible through the gaping rent were four bodies, prone on the ground.  One was the little guy, a gun just inches from his outstretched hand.  They were stirring though, looking around in confusion.  I wasn’t going to give them time to recover.

The bike’s engine roared into life, a throaty powerful sound.  Carefully I eased out the clutch, it had been a while since I had ridden.  The wheels span into motion, catapulting me forward.  The front forks threatened to rear off the ground and I leant forward.  Dodging around the men, some of them now on their knees, I opened up the throttle and shot along the aisle of garages, almost losing control at the sharp ninety degree turn at the end.

Blasting through the car park the bikes wheels squealed as they hit the tarmac of the road.  From the bus map there was dual carriageway just to the south, and from there it was clear road to the motorway.  I opened up the throttle some more and the bike purred along the road, accelerating with arrogant ease.

Yellow light washed across the room, travelling from one side to the other like a lazy beacon.  The rumble of the truck’s engine caused the pane of glass in the window to rattle in its casing.  Outside a slow and persistent drizzle was falling, coating everything in a thin film of water.  The view from the window was of the truck yard, row after row of articulated lorries lined up side by side.  In the distance the bright blue sign of a café stood out cheerily in the rain.  Two truckers, laughing together about some joke, made their way from the café, back to their cabs for the night.  If they were lucky they would be driving modern sleeper cabins, the accommodation not dissimilar to a decent caravan.  If they were unlucky they would be sleeping in their seat, before another eight hours of driving tomorrow.

A truck pulled up.  A couple of figures, young hitchhikers by the look of them, hoped down and waved their thanks to the driver, before making their way to the café with the blue sign.  There they would grab a bit to eat, or maybe just look for their next ride.  It was a good place to look, there had to be over fifty trucks in the yard.

My room was on the second floor of the small motel.  Just six rooms in total, three upstairs three downstairs, in a block that looked like it had been put up in a hurry and ever since had been keen to fall down in a hurry.  I closed the curtains on the night, thick brown patterned curtains that looked like they would be happier as a floor covering.  It was a nasty place to stay, but it was cheap.  And that was why I had chosen it, although it now seemed I could afford something more salubrious.  Something much more salubrious.  In fact, I could probably stay just about anywhere I wanted.

I turned back to the bed.  Arrayed across it were Marshall’s old clothes, or rather my new clothes, the contents of my old bag and a large brown envelope.  I’d already investigated the envelope.  It had been wedged at the bottom of Marshall’s blue backpack and held twenty thousand pounds in cash.  And that was just in pounds.  There was a further seven and a half thousand euros and five large bundles of US dollars that I hadn’t yet counted.  Any uneasiness I had about using the money of a murderer – it was clear to me now that was what Marshall was – was assuaged by the difference it made in my search for answers.  With this money I could chase down almost any leads, at least for the time being.

The bike was parked just out the front of the motel, and the next day I would be getting the ferry across to France.  From there the next stop was Vienna and my old lab.

The leather bound tablet computer was in the middle of the bed.  I’d had another three goes at the pattern lock with no success.  It was about time for another three goes.  I pushed my finger into the recessed button.

Property of Dr A Collins.  Unauthorised use prohibited said the screen.

I traced a circle with a triangle inside.

Incorrect entry.

I propped the pillows up against the wall and sat down on the bed, resting against the thin pillows.  My chances of getting it right by chance had to be nearly nil, I was going to have to apply a bit more logic than that.  Maybe I could get the information from the device using one of the data ports?  I picked up the tablet and stared at the slots on the side.  They meant nothing to me, but with twenty grand and then some I should be able to find someone who knew what to do with them.  What to do to get at the information within.

That would have to wait though, for now I had two more throws of the dice.  What would I have picked, back when I knew who I was?  The answer had to be in my brain somewhere, all I had to do was remember.  I gave a bitter laugh.  Yes, that was all I had to do, remember.  But then, if I could remember, I wouldn’t even need to unlock the device.

What sort of person was I?  A clever one, they told me, but also one who’s comfortable with high yield explosives and fast motorbikes.  A man easily mistaken for a killer.  A man supposedly in a relationship with a redhead willing to torture him and also with a brunette he’s only ever swapped a handful of words with.  Given these characteristics, what pattern lock would this man choose for his computer?

I traced my initials, AC, across the screen.

Incorrect entry.

Yes, that’s right.  A man with a genius like intellect really would have picked his own initials.  But then, if I was so clever, how come I was sitting here with no idea how to unlock the thing.  Surely I would have left myself some clue, some hint.  It was mine after all.

It was hot in the motel room, the heating apparently controlled from some central point where it was set to slow broil.  The window was screwed shut, and I didn’t fancy sitting with the door open when I had a small fortune in the room, albeit alongside two guns.

I rolled back the sleeves on my shirt and lay back on the bed.  Too lazy to get up and turn off the light I draped my left arm across my eyes, blocking out the feeble glow from the room’s single bulb.  From somewhere in the motel, or maybe out in the car park, two guys were arguing.  I couldn’t make out the words, but it sounded like it was near to coming to blows.  Footsteps climbed the stairs outside my room and I cracked open my eyes.  The footsteps continued, a door opening and closing somewhere down the corridor, but I wasn’t even listening anymore.  There, right in front of my face, livid red scar on the white of my forearm, was the key to the pattern lock.

It had nothing to do with the motorway near the facility after all.  The mark, the M3 scratched into my own flesh, was another message from myself.  It wasn’t as clear as the note hidden in the table, but then maybe I knew I couldn’t risk something so obvious.  Scrawling ‘the code for your notebook is M3’ down my arm might have been too much to avoid notice.  Besides, I probably would have bled to death scribing something so long in my own flesh with a sliver of laminate.  No, ‘M3’ was the key to the pattern lock.  It felt right, but at the same time it made my flesh crawl.  I couldn’t remember carving the pattern into my arm, but that wasn’t the worst bit.  What made my skin crawl was trying to imagine how I guessed I would need this information.  Marshall had stolen the notebook, that much was clear, but how had I guessed I would be able to get it back?  Did I even know, before the flash, that Marshall had taken it?

Carefully I picked up the notebook computer.  The message had faded away and the sixty four green dots shone out at me.  Where should I start the pattern?  I really didn’t want to risk getting this wrong.  Sure, I could wait another three hours, but I wanted this to work now.

Holding my breath I placed my finger in the bottom left corner, and hesitated.  Should I do the M, take my finger from the screen and then do the 3?  Every other time I’d been given the incorrect entry message as soon as my finger left the screen.  That meant completing the entire pattern in one smooth motion.

I slowly traced out the M across the screen, the little green dots flashing brighter as the tip of my finger passed across them.  At the bottom of the downward stroke of the M I took the pattern to the right, curving through the bottom half of the three, then the top half, the end of my finger finishing against the top of the M.  I release the screen, but kept holding my breath.

Welcome Dr Collins, said the screen.

“Yeah!”  The cry of excitement was involuntary.  I leapt up from the bed and punched the air.  After a few giddy steps around the room I swept the tablet from the bed and studied the screen.

It looked like a standard commercial operating system, albeit a little boxy and unrefined.  A series of icons, most of them folders, were laid out on a background of dark blue.  The top one was marked ‘personal’.  I double clicked it.

Inside were a series of subfolders.  One contained photo after photo of people I didn’t know.  I quickly abandoned this.  One contained some spread sheets, the numbers looking something like domestic finances.  Another contained details of correspondence with a furniture company in Vienna.  It looked like some sort of dispute over a bed.  I skipped the details, and hit the back arrow to get me back to the desktop.  OK, so it was a work machine, I shouldn’t be too upset that it was scant on personal details.

I scanned the other file names.  Under a folder called Agamemnon there was page after page of notes on brain development in chimpanzees.  Another folder was headed CX18.  It contained a paper in support of hypnotically implanted skills, together with reams of material refuting the validity of any such claims.  And so the material went on, the level of detail high but the use to me and my situation low.  Then I spotted it, and something chimed in my memory.

Project Clio.  While strapped to the brain fire machine Chrysta had asked me what I remembered of Project Clio.  I’d been able to answer honestly that I remembered nothing.  But if it had been important to her it was important to me.

Inside the folder was file after file of technical notes, an enormous wealth of information that might as well have been written in Greek.  It was impossible to even discern an idea of what the project was about.  It was infuriating.  It would appear I had all the information right in front of me but understanding was as far away as ever.  Hunting through the welter of files I can across something different.  A sound file, dated four months prior.  I double clicked it and a voice, crackly an old, wavered out from a hidden speaker.

“I am making this voice recording for two reasons.  First is the interest of time.  I have been more aware than ever lately how important this one factor is.  We waste it at our cost.  The second is trust.  While I have no specific reason to mistrust Linda I must nonetheless withhold this from her.  It is my hope that in the fullness of time she can type up this account, as she has with the rest of my work for nearly thirty years.  Until I am certain though this recording will remain as it is, the only record of my current thoughts.

I have completed the Adstringo at last.  It is, I am quite sure, both the ultimate compression algorithm and the most sophisticated search and retrieve function ever created by man.  It offers hope for millions, with the prospect of being able to hunt down and surgically remove all manner of non-physical brain defects.  Indeed, I have begun to suspect that even physical maladies of the brain my yield to the chemical wonder that I have wrought.  This is no false claim, and I have never been one for false modesty.

However, as always the world of science enjoys a delicate balance with the world of commerce, and even I must conceded that this new technology has more potential uses than I ever intended.  There are only a select few that I trust with this knowledge, and even they have sought to tempt me.

But now my dilemma is this: Even within a small circle my work could weave ill, I can see that now.  As it stands all they have is the original version of the Adstringo.  Not until last night did I realise how incomplete it was, how flawed.  I have been in a frenzy ever since, and now I have the answer in my hand, now I have the true Adstringo, I cannot help but wonder if I should destroy it.  Should this, a discovery that could both heal and harm, go back to the darkness from whence it came?  Or should I offer it up upon the altar of human morality?  Or, indeed, the answer that vexes me most: should I offer myself up on the altar of human morality, breaking it asunder but allowing me a shot at my ultimate desire?  I do not know what to choose.  I just do not know…”

The voice faded away at the end, cracked, broken, and dripping with confusion.  I could understand this all too well, but it did little to help me.  A man in a moral dilemma, and sorely taxed by whatever it was it seemed.  I put the tablet down, my heart heavy with sadness.  Exactly why I didn’t know.

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