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First part: The riddle of the horizontal eight.

By Martin S.Published about a year ago Updated about a year ago 14 min read

"Look on the bright side," she says, aiming the gun right between my eyes. Though I can't move and am dazed, her voice rings clear in my head. Without any compassion, instead seasoned with a caustic mix of arrogance and sarcasm, she adds, "one door closes, and another opens," and pulls the trigger.

I tear open my eyes and gasp for air like a drowning man. The first thing I notice after my lungs have filled with air and supplied my brain with the amount of oxygen needed to assess the situation is the dizziness that makes my environment dance like a ship caught in a storm on the open sea. The second thing I notice is the hardness of the floor I'm lying on – and the familiar smell of PVC in my nose. The floor! Am I imagining it, or is the floor on fire? Just as the sensation of being cooked on the impossible hotplate of a PVC floor sets in, the chills chase a shower of a thousand ice needles through my body that seem to pierce my skin from the inside out. These symptoms make me consider the worst-case scenario. Have I relapsed? With shaky hands, I wipe the cold sweat from my forehead and carefully open my eyes. The dizziness is subsiding, but that's about the only good thing. My body feels strangely squishy, like a wet sack of potatoes that's been trampled on. My bones, my muscles, my skin, everything hurts... As if in slow motion, I heave this body, which seems familiar and at the same time alien, upward. My movements are sluggish, like those of someone who has been in cold water too long. Now that I am finally sitting, I look around: My apartment looks as if a bomb had hit, at least a teeny one – I don't own much, after all. The small dining table next to the kitchen counter has fallen over, and a glass bowl lies broken on the floor; countless Smarties contrast with the blue-grey PVC floor; next to it, a water bottle and a torn open package.

A matte black box lies open on the floor; in it: are a syringe and a compartment with several pills. At the sight of the syringe, I wince inwardly, as if my nervous system were hanging on invisible strings that an equally invisible puppeteer is holding in his hands and suddenly begins to pull. From a clear corner of my mind, I hear a voice: It is not as it seems! With this thought, I take a closer look at the syringe. The plunger is pushed through, and a dried drop of a bluish liquid sticks at the end of the needle. I put the syringe away and examine the pill compartment. It is divided into seven smaller compartments: six notches containing a pill. One notch is empty. I take out one of the pills and look at it with narrowed eyes: it is ruby red and has an engraving of a horizontal eight in the middle. As if by reflex, I swallow the pill in my mouth. Why the hell am I doing this? I leave the silent question unanswered and intuitively reach for the water bottle on the floor next to the casket. I wonder if I'm being remote-controlled, but for some unknown reason, I know I'm doing the right thing. In greedy gulps, I drink the bottle dry.

I pick up the casket and flip it shut. On the outside, it bears the exact engraving of the horizontal eight that can also be seen on the pills—the infinity symbol. I can't make sense of it yet, so I take the package, which I assume contains the casket, syringe, and pills. There is no sender on the package, only a very discreet engraving of the same lying eight, which is only noticeable at second glance. Then I remember The box. A drone had brought it yesterday morning. Or had it been this morning? I could not say for sure.

Suddenly, a thought comes to me: the roof!

The adrenaline rush washes away the last bit of drowsiness – or is it the pill's effect? – and I quickly rise as if stung by a wasp and run straight out of my apartment to the roof. Once there, it doesn't take long to find what I'm looking for: the satellite dish is behind the water tanks, directly above my apartment. Its thin antennas and spherical body remind me of the Sputnik satellite – and that's only because I had recently seen a documentary on the 100th anniversary of the Sputnik shock in the holosphere. As I step closer to the antenna, a tingling sensation runs through my body as if I were entering a magnetic field. There! The logo of the horizontal eight. I knew it! The same symbol as on the box and the package... It couldn't be a coincidence. I have no idea what it means, but at least now I have a starting point.

"What are you, of all people, doing back up here?"

I turn around and see Señor Ortega, our janitor, looking at me with concern.

"Oh, I... I just wanted to stretch my legs a bit."

My answer doesn't seem to convince Señor Ortega because the wrinkles on his forehead are even deeper now.

"Do you think it's a good idea to come up here again already?"

"Again?" I ask, puzzled. "What do you mean, again? I haven't been up here in Google knows how long."

At this, Ortega wrinkles his nose. "Are you serious?"

Ortega's question leaves me pacing uncertainly, "Well I... I'm not sure what you mean... Are you saying that I was up here recently?"

Señor Ortega raises his eyebrows.

"Don't you remember?"

I have no idea what he means, and shake my head.

"Hmm, yes. It makes perfect sense that you don't remember," he says, scratching the back of his head. "Three days ago, ..." Ortega explains, hesitating as if searching for the right words " fell off the roof."

"I what?"

"You fell off the roof! 11 stories down ... Unspeakable accident. Miraculously, you survived!"

I carefully step up to the railing and peer into the depths. 11 stories... never in my life could I survive such a fall!

"And how you can already be on your feet again is honestly beyond me. Looking at you like that, I can't even see a scratch on you. Are you in any pain at all?"

I shake my head. "None. I just feel a little woozy."

"Hmm," Ortega strokes his chin, "it's probably that thing in your arm."

"That thing in my arm?"

"Yes, after you came back from the hospital, you had this thing on your forearm!"

Señor Ortega points his index finger at my left forearm.

I roll up the sleeve of my shirt and sure enough, there is a flat box attached to my forearm that reminds me of an old-fashioned cell phone from the 2020s. The bulk of the box consists of a display showing a total of seven dots: three are filled, four are empty. The last filled dot – or the first, depending on how you look at it – pulsates slightly, like a gently beating heart. Next to the display is engraved a familiar symbol: the horizontal eight.

What the hell?

"My wife had an infusion pump like that, too," Señor Ortega says. "Made her life with the damn cancer at least a little bit more bearable. This was back in the days before anti-carcinogenic nanotech became affordable, of course. If only she'd lived a few more years .... "He shrugs his shoulders.

My mind races. Why the hell am I wearing this thing? And what in Elon's name does it have to do with the antenna, the package, and those damn pills?

"I hope you get off that stuff soon." Ortega sounds worried. "Those painkillers are not to be underestimated. You can get hooked on that real quick. Especially someone with your past."

By now, I hear Ortega's words distant, as if spoken through a pane of glass. My heart races and my head throbs painfully in matching rythm. These are certainly not the ideal conditions to analyze my situation, but I have to try. What do I know? I seem to have gotten into something, which not only caused me to supposedly fall off the roof and miraculously survive, but I somehow also managed to be back on my feet a short time later as if nothing had ever happened. The only thing that is actually different is this THING on my arm and the fact that the last three days seem to have been erased from my memory. This whole mess must have something to do with the package, this antenna and the damn infinity symbol, only what? At least Ortega seems to know something about the situation.

"Señor, excuse me," I say, "but the painkillers actually seem to be messing with my memory a bit: How exactly did I fall off the roof?"

Again, deep wrinkles form on Señor Ortega's forehead. "Yes, as I said, it makes perfect sense that you don't remember... that must have been a traumatic experience. If your memory wasn't affected by the fall itself, it's certainly something like a protective function of the brain that you don't remember. Your brain probably wants to protect you from the horrible memory. Anyway, I think you have a right to know what happened, even though those guys warned me not to tell you anything. Probably thought they could intimidate me with their gorillas.... "

"Guys? What guys?"

"They came right after you fell, got here faster than the puercos. As if they were already in the starting blocks. That's was odd indeed."

"Who were they?"

"One supposedly was a marshal from the Metropolitan Security Service, had a dangerous aura that guy. The other posed as a lawyer. He was flimsy. If you ask me, they were using fake identities and were really government agents. My guess is Secret Service or Department of Defense."

When Ortega says this, I almost start laughing out loud, that's how absurd the whole thing seems to me. The story sounds like the script of a second-rate spy thriller or something that sprung from the mind of a conspiracy theorist.

"Mr. Ortega. I still can't make sense of it all. It's a mystery to me why I fell from the roof. I mean, what was I doing here in the first place?"

"I was wondering the same thing." Ortega points his head in the direction of the camera mounted on one of the water tanks monitoring the roof. "I went to check the recording but all the footage was suddenly gone. Poof. All erased, as if by magic. Like it never existed."

"You mean to say that your security system was hacked so someone could delete the recordings?"

"Looks like it..."

"Hmm," the more I think about it, the more confusing it gets. "Couldn't it be that the whole thing is a mix-up. I mean ... Are you sure it was me who fell?"

"I'm afraid so, quite sure of it. I identified you, after all ... You ... Well, how shall I say it, you were hardly recognizable, so badly battered were you after the fall. But I knew right away that it was you. You... by God..."


"You were even wearing the same shirt!" says Ortega while pointing his finger at my shirt.

I look down at myself. Sure enough: I'm wearing the traditional Mexican shirt that Ortega had once brought me back from a family trip to Michoacn.

Ortega stands there with his mouth open, as if he had seen a magic trick. "I remember it very clearly. This shirt ... I had brought it for you as a present from Michoacán. How can it be that the shirt is intact? It was totally torn and covered in blood..."

Ortega is right. It is impossible for the shirt to be intact after such a fall. Unless...

"That reminds me..." Ortega interrupts my thought "... the 'lawyer' gave me a card. Said to check in in case someone showed up asking questions or something suspicious happened. As if the whole thing wasn't suspicious enough."

Ortega hands me a plain, classic business card. On the front is a name and what I assume is a title:

Heinrich Yamashita


I'm not even surprised anymore to find an engraving of the lying eight on the back. Below that, also engraved, a series of numbers:

40.69775499466752, -73.81327466067641

Geo coordinates.

"Listen," Ortega says as I put the card in my back pocket "most people don't get a second chance. This is the second time you've been given a second chance.... Make it count!"

He's right, of course. A few years ago, as I watched my life slip out of my hands in the throes of CLMX addiction, the folks at the Morning Light Society had given me a new chance. A new life, maybe not completely free of drugs and addiction but at least one of controlled abuse. One, where I was in the driver seat most of the time. Until now ...

"Thank you Señor Ortega!" I say, shaking his hand. The short, beefy Mexican ex-boxer smiles with an intensity and warmth that brings tears to my eyes. For some reason I feel ashamed, as if letting this good man down.

Moments later, on the stairwell, I remember what Ortega told me about the camera on the roof, and an idea comes to me. Possibly the camera in my flat recorded something! Back in my apartment, I log into my holovisor and pull up the chronicle. I am lucky. All the data seems to be still there. I scroll back in the timeline. There:

Thursday, October 4, 2057. 10:47 a.m.

A drone drops a package on the PaDroPad outside my kitchen window. My holographic twin takes it and searches in vain for the sender on it. Forget it. Then "I" open the package and place its contents on the small table ... the drugs and a small box that looks like a vintage smartphone. I seem to know what to do, because seemingly without any introduction, I place the box on my left forearm and wait for the integrated Med-bots to connect it to my body. Then I take the syringe, put it on the box and shoot the bluish contents of the syringe through this thing into my arm. I then fall headfirst onto the tabletop and lie motionless for a while. About 30 minutes pass before two, no, four people enter my apartment – two of them are real giants. The other two examine me briefly and talk to the giants, who then carry my unconscious body out of the apartment. Shortly after that my apartment is empty again and for some time nothing happens. Then the impossible: Through the window of my kitchen I see myself falling into the depth... A moment later, the picture flickers, then a flash of light zaps the entire screen into glistening white. When the screen shows contrasts again, there is a person lying on the floor: me. Like a ghost that appeared out of nowhere, I'm suddenly lying on the kitchen floor, then I wake up with a wild twitch.

The geo-coordinates on Heinrich Yamashita's business card gave me my next clue. I'm on my way to Emerald Island, a place in the middle of the Belt, a part of the city that anyone with a few functioning synapses left in their brain would rather avoid. I don't know what exactly awaits me there only that I hope to find an answer to the riddle of the lying eight and what happened to me. As I leave my neighborhood, Heaven's Nest, the box on my arm begins to vibrate. I look at it and see that the background of the display has changed from a bright green to a bright orange. For the first time, I also notice a small dot – or rather an arrow – on the upper right edge of the display. Am I mistaken or was it not there before? As I raise my arm and move it back and forth, I notice that the dot always stays in the same geographical location, as if it were trying to show me the way, like the needle of a compass. Perhaps the arrow is just that: a compass! When I reach Vertical City and change from the SkyWagon to the Metro, the background of the display is a pale red. The "compass" still points to the south-west and the seven dots on the display are unchanged: Four are empty, three are full – though one of the full dots continues to pulse.

As I make my way through the masses of the Plex toward the subway, I feel a long-forgotten energy rising within me. Through crazy circumstances, I'm driven by something my life has lacked for the past few years after I got clean: a purpose.

I am determined to find out who killed me and why I am still alive.

MysterySci FiShort Story

About the Creator

Martin S.

Japanologist who earns his bread as a copywriter and occasional comedian. I also train and teach boxing in a small gym in Heidelberg. I read and write much less than I should in my spare time, so Vocal is a great place to hang out. ;)

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