Excerpt

Synapse

Steven James

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Synapse, the new novel from Steven James. Thirty years into the future, advancements in Artificial Intelligence have allowed identical humanoids called Artificials to live in everyday society. When a grieving human named Kestrel Hathaway witnesses a terrorist attack, she and her Artificial, Jordan, join forces with a federal agent named Nick to help prevent a worse second attack. But as they fight to save lives, Jordan begins to wonder about what it means to really be human.

At my apartment, I found that the package from my brother had not yet arrived.

No word yet on Ethan’s condition.

I cleaned up—a shower and fresh clothes—but through it all, I still couldn’t relax or find respite from all that was on my mind. When I checked my messages I found several from congregation members who’d learned what had happened to my daughter.

Which brought her death to the forefront of my mind again.

One woman asked urgently if I’d had the chance to baptize Naiobi before she died.

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Our denomination believed in baptizing infants, that it was the covenant God makes with us to call us into his presence through his prevenient grace.

But we didn’t believe in baptizing the dead.

So, no, I had not baptized my daughter.

According to our understanding of baptism, an unbaptized child would still be received by the Lord through grace that was bestowed through the Holy Spirit. So I tried to take comfort in that.

Tried.

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But comfort eluded me and a dark sweep of grief returned, locking me inescapably in its arms.

For the time being I didn’t reply to that message.

Other people told me that they were praying for me and emphasized that if there was anything I needed, to please let them know.

I knew that the offers were heartfelt and came from genuine concern.

If I asked, my congregants would bring me food or do whatever they could for me, no questions asked. But I needed some space, and I didn’t want to see anybody else today.

Last month, anticipating that I’d be at home here with Naiobi, I’d arranged for another pastor to cover for me in the pulpit for the next few Sundays. So, thankfully, I didn’t need to prepare a sermon or even show up this weekend. And at this point, I was no longer planning to. I had no idea what to say to anyone about God or his plans for us, or how I would respond to people’s sympathy with the appropriate measure of respect.

I messaged the people back, expressing my thanks and telling them that I would let them know if I needed their help. I wanted the two o’clock viewing tomorrow to be private, so I didn’t let anyone know about it.

So, our congregation.

Our church was quiet and predictable, and though it was welcoming, it rarely received new members.

In truth, it was slowly dying.

We only had seventy or so regular attendees, and most of them were older than me. I didn’t put on an impressive Sunday morning show, so maybe that was it—just simple preaching with traditional hymns sung to a synthesized piano.

These days, using free software on the Feeds, a ten-year-old could produce a symphony that was nearly indistinguishable from one played by professional musicians, so fewer and fewer people were bothering to learn to play actual instruments.

I found the declining number of Natural musicians sad, though I wasn’t certain why. Simple nostalgia maybe. I owned a violin that my grandfather had taught me to play when I was a girl. I didn’t really want people to think I was clinging to obscure ways so I rarely brought it out to play. But I hadn’t gotten rid of it and it waited in my closet, stored on the top shelf.

The adrenaline from being present at the explosion had drained away, and now the emotional impact of what I’d been through over the last twenty-four hours began to overwhelm me.

Out of sight, out of mind.

A way to make music without a machine.

The adrenaline from being present at the explosion had drained away, and now the emotional impact of what I’d been through over the last twenty-four hours began to overwhelm me.

I found my way to the couch and collapsed onto it.

The wall to my left contained sturdy shelves that were packed with my books—inspirational titles, biblical commentaries, and tomes of theology, as well as a full collection of the works of the prolific author and minister from the early 1900s, F. W. Boreham. All of his were first editions.

Call me old-fashioned, but for some reason I had a penchant for reading from the printed page rather than a screen or hologram or VR program. And so, I had a rarity in my apartment—a library with actual paper-bound books.

In contrast, the wall in front of me was digitized and, with a simple command, could become a window, a mirror, a dozen different screens to watch a dozen different shows at the same time, or a sweeping vista of veritably anywhere on the planet. I tended toward the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina where I grew up near Asheville, in an artist’s enclave nestled high in the mountains.

But right now I didn’t want to think about growing up or my childhood because it only made me think of my dead parents and my estranged brother and my inability to start a family of my own.

And, of course, that made me think of Naiobi.

The grief I’d started to feel while reading the notes from my congregants sharpened and I wept, oh how I wept for my daughter.

Tears, like those of my Lord—the tears that had drawn me to him in the first place.

I’d never understood what it meant to be a Christian until I was twenty and met a homeless, elderly vet on a park bench in uptown Charlotte and he spoke to me about the tears of Jesus.

Three times we read that the Savior wept.

Once he cried because of Jerusalem’s rejection of him as their Messiah. Riding that donkey into the city should have been a victorious moment. Instead, his heart broke.

A verse in the fifth chapter of Hebrews mentions that Christ prayed with vehement cries and with tears. We don’t know which exact instances those words refer to, but apparently Jesus was known for his despairing and desperate prayers.

Third: he cried when his friend died.

“Jesus wept on the way to the tomb where Lazarus had done been buried,” the grizzled old vagrant who’d once served his country in Iraq told me that day. “And yet the Lord knew he would see him again in just a few minutes.”

“Then why did he weep?” I asked.

“Well, some people say it was from seeing the grief of those around him, from witnessin’ their lack of faith, but I think the people who were there understood the truth: when they saw the Lord cry, they said, ‘See how much he loved his friend.’ Jesus loved Lazarus and he lost him, and it hurt.”

He paused long enough to take a drink from a crinkled water bottle, and then went on. “They say the Lord knows all things, so the future is in there too. He knew he could bring his friend back, but he still cried.”

I waited quietly as he continued.

“Despite Jesus’s knowin’ all about the future, his belief in heaven, his miraculous power to heal—and even to raise the dead—he cried. None of those things quieted the pain of loss when his friend died. That’s how deep the love of the Carpenter runs.”

At the time, I imagined that those who believed in God had varying impressions of what their deity was like—perhaps an imposing judge or a distant and disinterested monarch or a doting mother. All caricatures.

To me, this image of Jesus at the tomb of his friend was different.

A carpenter with a broken heart? A man who could cast out demons, calm storms, and walk on the water, yet found his love for his friend so consuming that he wept when the man died?

That was the kind of Savior I could be drawn to—not a detached, overly holy, halo-wearing saint, but a man who passionately loved his friends and whose heart broke when they died. A man who was ultimately willing to die even for his enemies.

I could fall in love with a God like that.

And I had.

And it’d led me all the way to the pulpit to preach about him.

But now, I wondered if any of it was real after all—the stories, the miracles, my faith.

Did I love a God who would take my daughter’s life and ignore my prayers and abandon me when I needed him the most? Could I? Was he even there at all?

The thoughts were too much for me.

I needed a distraction.

Drying my tears, I told ViRA, my apartment’s Virtual Residential Assistant, “Bring up nineteen.” A simple voice command to the microphones embedded in the wall. “The Pacific Ocean. Sunset.”

As drained as I was, I thought the calming scene would send me right to sleep, but even with relaxing music and the serene view of the gently rippling waves, I couldn’t unwind, so at last I gave up, warmed up some leftovers, and turned on the Feeds to see if Ethan had survived.

The news anchor confirmed that the Purists had taken responsibility for the bombing, something I wasn’t surprised to hear. Also, though I’d feared there might be a second attack, that hadn’t been the case, so at least there was something to be thankful for.

The announcer informed us that two more of the wounded had died, bringing the total to five fatalities. However, the authorities hadn’t released the names of the deceased, so I still didn’t know if Ethan had made it.

Considering the amount of damage to the building, I was astonished that the death toll wasn’t higher.

A Terabyne public affairs representative came on and, after sharing his condolences, assured us that the facility’s production was still on schedule and that the public should not expect any disruption in the services they provided.

Apparently, a number of earlier-model Artificials were damaged beyond any hope of repair when the corner of the building collapsed in the explosion, but he explained that they were all scheduled to have their CaTEs next week so it didn’t ultimately matter that they’d been destroyed today.

Also, he promised that the company would do whatever it could to cooperate with the investigation and bring the “domestic terrorists who perpetrated this brutal and barbaric attack” to justice.

In his job of overseeing global security, my brother would no doubt be playing a significant role in the investigation—at least from Terabyne’s side.

“The Purists will not succeed with their tactics of terror,” the representative assured us. “They will not deter the technological advances that our society needs, and they will not hinder us in our quest to provide the continuing benefits of Artificials to humankind.”

I found it somewhat ironic that the spokesperson for a company that produced nearly eighty percent of the world’s cognizant Artificials was a Natural. After all, reading from a screen and answering questions from reporters would have been easy for most modern Artificials, but the company apparently preferred to keep its public face that of someone who actually breathed air and had a heart that pumped real blood.

Our world has not been the same since the Uprising began twelve years ago.

The Purists were fiercely against Artificials, arguing that giving machines autonomy would eventually have catastrophic consequences when the robots one day turned against us. So far, however, the most violent attacks had not come from machines waging some sort of apocalyptic uprising but from humans killing in the name of peace.

Sometimes derisively labeled “technophobes,” Purists claimed they weren’t against progress; they just had a different view of what progress looked like. They believed that augmenting humans to be more like machines and designing machines to be more like humans was not the pathway to true progress, but a departure from it.

With roots in Deep Ecology, most Purists shared the view that overpopulation and human encroachment on natural habitats had resulted in climate chaos. They supported the return to a much smaller world population and simpler, less technologically dependent lives.

Some even belonged to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, refusing to reproduce and believing that human beings were not the best thing to come along on our planet but, by nearly all objective measures, one of the worst.

I shared the Purists’ passion for caring for the environment, and after what happened to my parents, I also understood the group’s reticence to blithely embrace new technologies just because they were available—when your mom and dad are killed by an Artificial it seemed like a natural response.

I’d blogged about those issues years ago in my more liberal and vocal twenties, even briefly considering joining one of the Purists’ more mainline environmental advocacy groups. But I’d held back and now, after I saw what they were capable of, I was thankful that I had stayed clear of joining.

No more news came on about the attack, but instead, the story shifted to the civil war in Egypt; however, rather than listen to more tragic news, I turned off the Feeds and finished eating in silence.

Still exhausted, I returned to the couch to try to rest, and this time when I closed my eyes, I dropped off into a much-needed but agitated sleep.

And I dreamt.

I was sitting on my bed holding Naiobi, and she was staring at me with wide-open eyes, ready to take in the wonder and the glory of the world. Now a few months old, she was smiling, and I could not get enough of looking at her precious face.

So much joy there. So much promise and hope.

A tapping at the window caught my attention and I looked up to see a face—torn with shrapnel and darkened with sooty burns. The man—it might have been Ethan, I couldn’t tell for sure—opened his mouth but made no sound.

His eyelids were gone—either burned away or simply missing, for it was a dream.

A dream.

Fierce eyes, wide and unblinking, staring deeply into me.

He held up a still-smoldering hand with bone fragments visible through the split and blackened skin, and placed his palm against the glass, then peered at me as he removed his hand and then smacked his palm against the window, which shuddered from the impact. After opening his mouth again but saying nothing, he hit the glass again, harder.

Smack.

Clinging protectively to Naiobi, I rose to get her to safety.

Hand against the glass.

—Smack—

And this time the window shattered and he climbed through, the teeth of glass that were still wedged in the window frame tearing at his clothes and ripping through the burnt flesh of his hands as he grabbed hold of them.

I spun to get away, to make it to the door before he could reach me.

Naiobi began crying, and when I glanced at her, I found that now her face was scorched too, blistered and smoking. Her eyes glowed like two coals embedded in her eye sockets.

A voice behind me spoke my name: “Kestrel.”

The man grabbed my leg from behind. “Stop!” I shouted, and tugged to get free. “Let go!”

He jerked me backward, and as I lost my balance, Naiobi slipped from my arms.

“No!”

I scrambled toward her, but was too slow.

As she landed on the floor with a sickening thud I awoke with a start.

“Kestrel.” It was ViRA speaking my name in her calm, composed way.

My baby.

My baby.

I willed myself to fall asleep again to save her, to undo what had just happened, but despite how hard I tried, I could not reenter the dream and instead I was just left with a vague sense of lingering terror and no way to fix it.

“Kestrel.”

My heart was jackhammering in my chest from the nightmare and my hands were shaking.

“You have a visitor at the door, Kestrel.”

Then I heard the knock.

Oh.

Though I couldn’t be certain, the man in my dream hitting that glass might very well have been my subconscious’s interpretation of the rapping at the door. And that dream voice speaking my name had likely been ViRA.

Either way, it didn’t matter. I just wanted to shake myself free from the dream—but the residue of it clung to me, impossible to get rid of, and the more I tried to forget it, the more rooted it became in my memory.

“Kestrel,” she said, “are you—”

“I heard you, ViRA.”

The digital clock on the wall told me that it was already after five—I must have slept longer than I thought.

Since the police officers at the site of the attack had been more interested in securing the scene and with crowd management than with interviewing witnesses about what had happened, I’d ended up leaving without giving a statement.

I anticipated that the video surveillance outside the Terabyne plant would have captured footage of everyone present and, with facial recognition and the fact that I’d told Ethan my first name, I suspected that now a police officer had come to speak with me and get my account of the attack.

You dropped her. You dropped your baby.

No, no, no, it was just a dream.

Still trying to gather myself, I went to the door.

But instead of a police officer, I found a delivery droid waiting for me. A stout box as tall as I was stood beside him.

The droid clunkily tilted its head and smiled in that annoying and sanctimonious way that they have about them.

“Miss Hathaway? Miss Kestrel Hathaway?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent.” It nodded, a gesture that was meant to make it appear more human-like, but as rudimentary as its movements were, they looked far too mechanical to make me think of anything natural for a human being.

With the box’s dimensions and the distinctive Terabyne Designs logo on the side, I didn’t really need to open it to know what it was.

The package from my brother.

An Artificial.

“Take it back.”

“Excuse me, ma’am? I am—”

“Ship it back. I’m telling you, I’m not accepting this delivery.”

I closed the door. A moment passed before the droid knocked again. I ignored it.

It didn’t seem to know what to do. Apparently, it wasn’t used to people refusing shipments.

I asked ViRA to bring up the external camera. “Small screen,” I said. A portion of the wall changed from the view of the ocean to footage of the hallway in front of my door.

“Exterior speaker.”

“Yes, Kestrel.”

“Go on,” I told the droid. “Ship it back. Leave my home.”

It took two more attempts and a final threat to call security before I convinced it, but at last, toting the box, the droid ambled down the hallway toward the exit.

I let out an exasperated breath.

Trevor was going to find out that I hadn’t accepted the package—if he hadn’t been notified of it automatically already—so I knew I needed to speak with him.

After a year without talking to him, I had no idea how this was going to go.

“ViRA, put a call through to my brother.”

“Your brother?”

“Yes.”

There was a small pause, as if she was surprised to hear me confirm that. “Voice or video?”

“Video.”

I didn’t have to wait long. A few moments after she sent the request through, his face came up on the screen.

He was at his desk, the sprawling Terabyne campus visible in the wide window behind him, the Cascade Mountains rising majestically and protectively in the background.

“Hello, Kestrel.”

“Hello, Trevor,” I said. “We need to talk.”

__________________________________

From Synapse by Steven James. Used with the permission of the publisher, Thomas Nelson. Copyright © 2019 by Steven James.




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