The Echo Chambers, 43

When he paused again, Lyssa waited, sensing he battled some inner protest as he stared at his colleague without seeming to see him. “What can I say that will convince you to leave?” he asked. “Forget you ever saw this place?”

“Do you work for the government?” she asked instead. “The FBI? CIA? Something like that?”

He looked at her this time, his head cocked with the distant look she’d come to realize was him searching for words, the absent glaze of his eyes like someone trying to remember where he’d put his car keys or whether he’d left the oven on at home. Within seconds, his expression cleared and a small smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “No. Nothing like that.”

“Some other agency then.”

He shook his head. “I work for a higher power than your government.”

“Crap. You’re in a cult.”

That brief distant expression again, his gaze turning inward and out in a moment’s hesitation. Then another smile, this one suspiciously charmed. “No. Not quite.”

“What does that mean?”

“Religion, science, technology—they’re more alike than anyone realizes. Each can be taken to an extreme that you may designate as cult-like. Our pantheon of gods, where one cannibalize the others, claim false the truths that speak through them.”

She studied him. “You sound like someone in a cult.”

Again that barely-there smile. “My apologies. I’ve had much time to think about it.”

Lyssa considered this a moment, still aware of the unconscious man resting between them. “And which do you serve?”

“All.” He paused. “And none.”

This exchange had long reached ridiculous. “I told you, I don’t want riddles.”

“Ah, but our conversation is still philosophical, is it not?” He inhaled slowly, expanding his lungs, a cleansing breath that had Lyssa thinking—oddly—of a martial artist preparing for a match. Ji turned to her fully, his gaze steady on hers. “I serve a soul named Sheng, and to do so, I must serve all three. So all, but none.”

“You serve a soul.”


Unease shivered down her spine. “A…human soul?” Even as she asked, she couldn’t believe it even had to be a question.

“An ancestral soul,” Ji said, his gaze faraway again. “Perhaps a god. Or, yes, maybe a human soul. An ordinary, everyday human. Wouldn’t that be something?” The faint tug of a smile around the lips again at his own rhetorical question, and then his gaze focused, sharpened instantly on the man in the bed who’d suddenly sighed in his sleep. “We should leave.”

Lyssa looked at him, too. “Can he hear us?”


Didn’t they always tell people in the movies that the coma patient could hear them? “You sound confident.”

“Because I know. Come. Let us leave him to rest.”


The Echo Chambers, 42

The breathing did not alter as Lyssa waited, uncertain and scared. In the waiting, her eyes adjusted to the dark, and she saw a human form in the bed that stood as its twin had in the other room. His breathing did not alter; he didn’t move at all, and, running on instinct, her body tense, she flipped the switch.

 A man lay in the hospital-style bed, bald, well-muscled, and eerily still save for the slow, even breaths of one in deep sleep. When he didn’t react to the light, Lyssa began to ease into the room, watching him closely. Something about him seemed… off. Artificial. She stood two feet from the foot of the bed before she realized that it was his sleep that seemed unnatural, the breaths too evenly spaced, the body too still. She’d never seen someone on life support, but she imagined they’d look something like this, only this man was connected to no machines. He lay on top of the sheets still tucked with hospital corners, and he wore a shirt and pants in loose, white linen, his feet bare, and the hairs on her neck rose as she remembered meeting Ji in an outfit like that one.

“You should not be here.”

She gasped and whirled around to find Ji in the doorway, watching her, his expression impassive.

“I—” No excuse came to her, no explanation both credible and innocent. Her heartbeat pounded in her temples, and she realized that her hand had gone to her throat. She dropped it and, at a loss, could only stare at him. Her body felt both light and heavy, and she shifted her weight to the balls of her feet, thoughts skittering as she acknowledge how little she knew of this man, this powerful, silent man who now stood between her and the only exit.

Ji stepped forward into the room but stopped when Lyssa stepped back, keeping the distance between them. “You should not be here,” he said again, “but I will not harm you.” Slowly, deliberately, he moved sideways into the room, clearing the way to the door while still keeping his distance.

Lyssa studied him as he stood silent now, letting her take his measure with not sign of impatience or agitation despite the admonition of his words. He frightened her, yes, but as her heart calmed she realized she didn’t feel threatened by him. Strange how the distinction had never occurred to her before.

Still, better to be cautious even as her curiosity waxed and her fear waned. She turned enough to keep Ji in sight even as she glanced at the man on the bed. “Is he okay?”


That that should be her first thought surprised him. She stood as tense as a doe catching the scent of a wolf, and yet she worried for another. “Yes. He’s in an induced sleep is all.”

“Is he hurt?”

“Yes. And no.” He moved closer to the bed, keeping his eyes on Cale even as he watched her watching him in his peripheral. “He would be suffering from acute nausea were he conscious. He’s asked to sleep through it.”

“Who is he?”

“A colleague.”

“And who are you?”

He faced her then, startled to find her gaze suddenly piercing. Their steady intensity unnerved him, felt fierce and familiar and unknown all at the same time. “Ji.”

“You’re more than that.”

“Only as you are more than Lyssa.”

“I don’t want riddles.”

“Then don’t ask philosophical questions.”

Lyssa narrowed her eyes, but her shoulders relaxed, a minute shift that had Ji offering her a small smile. “You’re not related to Clare or Dan, are you?” she asked.

He considered, fleetingly, of lying. But something about her tugged at the truth of him, and he felt almost relieved to be unburdened of it. “I should insist that I am, but no. I am not.”

“Why shouldn’t you be honest about that?”

Ji didn’t answer right away, his gaze drawn to the unconscious Cale. He drew in a slow breath, wishing he’d had more time in her world before his had intruded. “Because it is safer that way.”

He sensed rather than saw her focus sharpen to a honed edge. “For who?”

“For us all.”

The Echo Chambers, 41

Possibilities reduced to 2,863.

Ji ignored Mesa, scrolling through the list of names on the screen in front of him. Considering he’d culled this list from an original of several million collected by Sam from hospital records, blood banks, government agencies, private companies, and other miscellaneous sources, less than three thousand should be respectable, but it was still too many.

A hand dropped on his shoulder. “How’s it going?” Sam asked.

Slang. Possible meanings: what is your emotional status; how—

Silence, Mesa. Ji straightened and turned as Sam sat next to him and glanced at the screen. “Tediously. But you’ve cut my time here substantially with the amount of data you’ve been able to provide. I’m impressed.”

He grinned, the expression one of unrepentant pride. “I’m damn good at my job.”

“You are.” Ji relaxed back into the chair, studying Sam as the other man leaned against one of the desks. “In fact, I have to wonder how you ended up here.”

Sam shrugged one big shoulder. “This isn’t the worst place I could end up. Not by a longshot.”

“No. But it’s not one that, shall we say, attracts the most ambitious of technicians.”

Though he didn’t move, a hint of warning appeared in the slight tightening around Sam’s eyes. “You don’t have to be ambitious to be good at your job.”

Ji had a feeling that further subtlety would only piss Sam off.

Slang efficacy at eighty-nine—

Shut up, Mesa.

“I’m here to observe,” Ji said, meeting Sam’s eyes with a direct and steady gaze. “To pay attention to details, collect information, even be an impartial judge when the situation calls for it. And what I see is isolation, outdated technology, one technician who hasn’t handled a transfer in decades, and one who wouldn’t pass her first examination back on Prism. Then there’s you.” Without turning, he reached out to touch a button on the screen to bring up Sam’s dossier. He saw the other man glance at it as he laid his arm back on the armrest. “Top five percent of your training year, high marks on every review for the first three years, chosen to transfer to Omega-85—the general populace has started petitioning the council to open it up as a resort, by the way—and yet, here you are.”

“Here I am.”

“Some might say this assignment was a punishment.”

“Most would.” He grinned again, sudden and mischievous. “I wouldn’t, especially not after meeting Clare. Who, by the way, cannot be blamed for her lack of training.”

“I don’t blame anyone except the people on Prism who lost Dan and his wife in the first place.”

Sam nodded. “Then we’re in agreement with that.” He pushed up from the table, leaning over to delete his dossier from the screen. “I started to question the process, and I didn’t accept bullshit for an answer. The folks in charge didn’t care too much for that, so they sent me here, a conveniently lost world that needed to be found again.”

“Just isolated enough for a revolutionary, but strategic enough to put your skills to use.”

“You got it.” He waited a moment. “So are we good?”

“We’re good.”

“You know, if you cross-reference for genome mutation tendencies on the X chromosome, you should get a more manageable list.”

Ji frowned, turning to the screen. “What?”

“Doesn’t your Sheng’s appearance tend to vary more than most other Remnants? In one world, he’s blonde and fair-skinned, in the next he’s black-haired and dark. He’s more subject to the previous generation’s genetics than others, right?”

“That’s correct.”

“Then try factoring in the Slyndus Effect on the X, say with a reactionary range of seventy percent and above.”

Ji frowned. “The Slyndus Effect hasn’t been approved for genetic identification.”

“Not for confirmation of identification,” Sam said. “Isn’t that what they have you for?”

Ji made a noncommittal sound, staring thoughtfully at the list of names.

“I’ll leave you to it, then,” Sam said, sounding satisfied as Ji began to tap commands on the screen.

“One more question,” he said, looking up.

Sam lifted an eyebrow in question.

“When I first received this assignment, Director Kai said Clare was an excellent specialist. How would he know that?”

Sam chuckled. “I may have…exaggerated a bit in my reports back.” With that, he turned and left.

Ji faced the computer again and, within moments, a new list of names appeared on the screen.

Possibilities reduced to eleven.

“Huh. Well, son of a bitch.”

Slang efficacy to nine—

“Quiet, Mesa.”

The Slyndus Effect has not been adequately detected to account for genetic anomalies along the axial strain of—

Ji tapped into his backdoor and silenced Mesa mid-sentence. He focused back on the computer screen and up the photos and scrolled through them, studying each in turn for any similarities to previous Sheng’s. A few looked more promising than others, but the second to last one had his stomach dropping. “Son of a bitch,” he said again.

Before he could call up any more information, movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he turned to the large screen dedicated to the security of Cale’s room.

The Echo Chambers, 40

Lyssa opened the door and slipped inside the dim. The lock snicked shut behind her. She waited as her eyes adjusted to the filtered glow of a light-rimmed door at the end of a hallway. She could see a short couch in front of her, and as her eyes adjusted, she could tell that the mod design wasn’t vintage but just old, its cushions worn and sagging. A wicker wastebasket sat beside it, a strangely desolate sight alone on the floor.

The hallway extended both right and left, bookended by doors. Lyssa moved to the right, following the fluorescence of the human presence. Easing the door open, she found another hall, perpendicular to the first, and voices. Doors and doorways lined the left, privacy windows high along the right.  Lyssa slipped down to the first door and peeked inside. Metal shelves ran along both sides of the narrow supply closet. She didn’t go inside to see, but the closest shelves held linens and medical supplies, including vials, syringes, and what looked to be a variety of machines beyond the mere collection of first aid kits.

Closing the door, Lyssa moved to the next one, she could hear male voices rising and falling, a steady, muffled cadence distant enough that she ignored them as she opened the second door and stepped into a large room. She hesitated before flipping the light switch. Off-centered in the middle of the room stood what looked to be a metal pegboard, attached to both the floor and ceiling. A large rectangle of frosted glass covered a good quarter of it, mounted somehow at eyelevel. Below it, a metal table held a couple flat screen computer monitors, a slim tower, and a series of short silver cylinders among a collection of odds and ends.

To the left of the tech setup lay an oversized hospital bed, dressed in fresh white linens, its handrails down. Another silver cylinder, this one broad and squat, had been drilled into the wall above the pillow. Above it all, an oblong length of white plastic hung suspended by silver wires, the bed centered beneath it. Lyssa ignored the computers for now, drawn to the seamless form above the bed, hanging like a mod-style chandelier despite the lack of overhead light.

Her scalp prickled as she moved closer, and she felt more than heard a low constant hum, sending her blood shivering in her temples, her back teeth aching. Unnerved, she stopped a yard away from the foot of the bed and stared. Nothing about the smooth white sheet of plastic ringing six feet above the bed suggested danger, but Lyssa’s body screamed otherwise. She backed away, rattled, until she bumped against the desk. Turning, Lyssa picked up a small device that looked like a child-sized blood pressure cuff jerry-rigged to a tablet. Running her thumb along the cuff, she felt a hard square patch beneath the rough textured cloth.

When she tried to turn the tablet on, the screen remained dark, and she set it down, moving on to the cylinders. They looked to be nothing more innocuous than highly polished stainless steel rods. She pressed her fingers against the closest one and found it unmoving, as if welded to the desk. The second, though, rotated in place. Lyssa turned it until she heard a click, and then the opaque glass above the desk lit as if from within, images and words flickering to life inside the glass. A high-tech computer monitor? Though none like she’d seen before.

“Seya?” a woman’s voice asked as screen cleared. The words were a mix of English and a foreign language that looked like a blend of Arabic and Chinese, but she focused instead on the images. They looked like what she’d expect to see from an MRI, only more vivid and detailed than she’d thought possible, full color and appearing to move in real-time, the two heart images in each corner beating steady if at separate rhythms.

“Seya?” the voice asked again as she moved her focus to the rush of blood through veins, the picture so clear she could tell it wasn’t homogenous. “Seisana seya i l’sona.”

Worried the voice acted as a security feature, she twisted the cylinder to turn off the screen. She ignored the rest, running her fingers over the other objects resting on the desk, picking up a shimmering disk of a strange material, not unlike a CD though smaller and thinner. She pocketed it, snapped off the lights, and moved on.

An open doorway let her peek into what looked like a break room before moving on, opening the next door to yet more darkness. The voices grew louder as she continued down the hall, though she still couldn’t make out what they said, and she continued to ignore them as light spilled in from behind her, lighting the interior enough that she figured it for another room like the other, and she slid her hand along the wall in search of a light switch. But then a sound, light and steady, made her freeze. Breathing.

Someone was in the room.

The Echo Chambers, 39

If Jimmy hadn’t called in sick, and if eight dozen specialty cupcakes hadn’t need to be delivered for the Cahill’s 50th anniversary party, Lyssa never would have noticed the truck pull into the winding drive beside the entrance of a Whataburger and disappear. She sat at the red light, drummed her fingers against the wheel, and considered. The dented front bumper from Clare’s run-in with the mailbox at 16 didn’t leave any doubt that the truck was Dan’s, but what was it doing out here?

A car horn blasted behind her. Jolting, Lyssa noticed the light had changed and hit the gas, but instead of continuing to MoPac, she turned into the Whatburger parking lot. It wasn’t spying if she just had a bite to eat, was it? Even if she happened to watch and see if and when Dan passed by again? Inside, she ordered and sat beside one of the large tinted windows, studying the narrow lane on the other side of the fast food parking lot. Only a few days ago, she wouldn’t have thought much about seeing the truck. Passing curiosity might have had her asking Clare about it next time they met for lunch, but current circumstances…

“Number 32,” a short, round woman in brown and orange polyester said, swapping the numbered plastic stand for a tray of food. “Ketchup?”


She handed over a couple miniature tubs and asked, “Anything else?”

“Actually, I have a weird question. Do you know what’s down there?” She pointed.

The woman glanced out the window then shrugged, shifting the tray of napkins, straws, and condiments she carried from one hand to the other. “Some research facility. Supposedly it’s been closed since the ‘60’s, but I’ve seen cars go down now and then. Strange hours, too.”


“We’re open 24 hours,” she replied, looking a little offended. “I work the graveyard sometimes. Quiet nights, you notice things like that.” She shifted the tray again. “Let me know if you need anything.”

“Thank you,” Lyssa said to the woman’s back as she walked away. She ate slowly, watching and waiting and thinking. Just as she balled the wrappers, Clare’s car came around the strand of trees hugging the bend of the single lane drive and pulled up to the road, her blinker on. She could see Clare in the driver’s seat, Dan beside her talking. Within seconds, Clare turned onto the road and rove away, which meant they’d left behind Dan’s truck. Or, maybe, left behind whoever had driven Dan’s truck?

One way to find out, Lyssa thought, tossing the remnants of lunch in the trash as she left the restaurant. She began to walk down the drive, pitted and narrow and obviously untended. Asphalt gave way to gravel as she came around the bend and the concealing copse of trees. A squat, nondescript building sat on the other side of a small parking lot, Dan’s truck parked beside a tiny concrete patio that led into an alcove and door. If the building had windows, they weren’t in the front.

Lyssa hesitated at the edge of the parking area. The building felt foreboding and forgotten, tucked away as it was in a thicket of cedar and pine, a hush about it as though the world disappeared at its boundaries despite the busy road only a few hundred feet away. Gravel crunched underfoot as she crossed to the alcove. The metal door looked solid, the dirty white paint peeling at one of the corners. A keypad on the wall beside it looked a decade old, the “6” nearly worn away, a red light blinking steadily, its green companion unlit. Lyssa tried the door knob and found it lock, then hesitated again. She hadn’t crossed a line—not yet, anyway—but breaking and entering could be the least of her problems. Clare, Sam, and Dan were family, and they were obviously deep into something that had them all worried. Maybe they didn’t want or need her help, but information had power, and right now she was defenseless.

So, a quick peek. She studied the keypad. No doubt it unlocked the door. Likely there was more than one way in, but why not try the obvious first? If Dan or Clare had programmed the keypad, it’d have to be a number they’d all remember. She punched in Clare’s birthdate, March 4, and waited, breath held as the red light went out. Then she let it out in a rush as it came on and stayed on. A warning? It’d make sense. The building wouldn’t be secure if someone could stand here and try an endless combination, which meant that it had a limit before an alarm or something of the like went off. But how many chances did she get?

Better to find another way in, Lyssa decided, and began to step away before pausing again. She stared at the keypad and the worn “6”. Dan’s birthday was October 8, so no six there. Sam’s was in April, but the keypad looked older than his connection to the family. Maybe it wasn’t a birthday. Maybe it wasn’t even a date, though Lyssa thought that wasn’t the case. So often it was something easily remembered, and if not a birthday, maybe an anniversary? Dan was sentimental. Maybe he used his own. He and his wife had celebrated their fortieth right before she passed away. Lyssa had been there, remembered she’d just finished her junior year of high school, which would have been the summer of ’96. Early June. Could it be as simple as 6-6-56? Did she dare try?

Lyssa bit her lip, reached out, and punched in the code. The red light blinked off and she waited, breath held.

The green light flashed as the door lock clicked open.

The Echo Chambers, 38

“I shouldn’t have left.” Clare’s husband Sam sat at the small table in the kitchenette of the Echo Chamber, his jaw set and his hand in Clare’s. “I knew better. I shouldn’t have gone.”

“I’m the one who talked you into it,” Clare said, reaching with her free hand to rub his shoulders. “Honey, I’m the one who’s sorry. I should have listened to you and Granddad when you told me I needed to be better prepared.”

“No, it’s my fault,” Dan said. “It started with me. I knew—”

“You’ve all been lax,” Ji interrupted. “You’re all at fault. And now that we’ve established that, let’s decide how we can fix it.”

Sam looked up at where Ji stood across the table from him, a sardonic smile playing across his lips. “You’re not one to beat around the bush, are you? Colloquialism,” he added when Ji’s brow furrowed. “Means you’re forthright.”

Ji inclined his head. “May I take that as a compliment?”

“It’s how I intended it.” Sam stood and extended a hand a hand across the table. “Sam Washington, previously Saneym Fiel s’Ishim.”

Ji studied him as they clasped wrists in the formal greeting of Prism. He stood a few inches over six feet, broader and fit than most other technicians of his ilk. The sleeves of his crisp linen shirt had been rolled to his elbow, the tails untucked from his jeans, his dark hair cropped close, and he had a welcoming face, his eyes creased by laugh lines. Impulsively, Ji reached out to place his free hand on top of Sam’s, changing the formal greeting to one of friends.

Sam’s grin was quick and genuine. He returned the gesture before both let go. Then his smile dimmed and he sat back down. “How long, do you think, before we’re relocated?”

“We’re not leaving,” Clare said. The words had a panicked edge despite the confident way she spoke them.

“I’m sorry, albé, But from what you told me about the last couple of days, we’ll be reassigned so you can be formally trained. It’s standard procedure.”

“Ji said we wouldn’t,” she said, glancing at him.

“I said I can help, but I can’t make any promises. Not now.”

“I don’t care who you know on Prism,” Sam said, “But I don’t appreciate you giving my wife false hope. As soon as you get back and sync with Mother, we’re gonna get reassigned.”

“I don’t off what I can’t provide.”

“Look, unless you have a backdoor, I don’t see how—” he stopped, blinked. Studied Ji with unabashed fascination. “That’s it, isn’t it? You have a backdoor.”

He didn’t bother to answer.

Sam leaned forward, his forearms pressing against the edge of the table. “Who set it up for you? When? How does it work?”

“What’s a backdoor?” Clare asked.

“It’s like a computer virus. Or, better yet, like a Trojan horse. It gives Ji control of his own mesh.”

“You don’t have control now?” she asked Ji.


“And illegal,” Dan said, watching Ji.

He merely looked at him.

“Well, hell.” Clare threw up her hands and sat back. “What isn’t in your world?”