I occasionally write something other than horror or fantasy, and when I do, it’s usually science fiction. “The Fold” is an example. Fans of hard SF will be disappointed as the science is more or less gobbledygook, but science isn’t really the focus. This story originally appeared in the Irish magazine Albedo One back in the fall of 2001.
Warning: This is a long one.
Parke leaned forward and tapped the shoulder of the man ahead of him. “Do you know what happened?” he said.
Rebuffed, Parke settled back to wait in silence, but then a woman behind him said: “I heard it was the Foldies.” He looked at her over his shoulder. She was small and blonde, dressed in a blue and white uniform, like Bo Peep from the old story. Her hair was tied back with a tattered red ribbon. “One of them went through with a plastic bomb set to go off when it got sniffed, and—”
She broke off as one of the Governor’s soldiers came up beside them. “There was an electrical malfunction in one of the scanners,” he said. “Rumor-mongering will not be tolerated. Desist immediately.” The guard backed off, but stayed within easy listening range.
Electrical malfunction? Not likely, Parke thought. He would believe ten rumors before he’d believe one official statement. Especially rumors about the Foldies, who could always be trusted to hit the Governor where it hurt innocent people like him. They just didn’t understand that no matter how much damage they did—no matter how bad they made things in the Fold—the Governor would just carry out his reprisals and rebuild what they’d destroyed, and life for the survivors would go on as it always had.
He finally reached the red line on the floor that marked the beginning of the run to the sniffers, three parallel archways that you had to pass through to continue along the corridor. They were separated by perpendicular plastic barriers that divided the hallway into thirds. The middle aisle was cordoned off with charge tape that hummed and crackled unpleasantly; the scanner beyond was a bent and twisted mess of dangling wires and severed tubes hanging down to a cracked and blackened floor.
Electrical problem. Of course.
A bored-looking soldier directed Parke to the right, where another guard patted him down and a third ran a glowing wand over his body. After a moment they let him through, and he felt the usual faint electric tingle as he passed beneath the crooked arch of the sniffer. It queried his identity, logged the time of his passage, and scanned him for illicit substances before letting him out into the broad hall that housed the translator screen. It stood at the opposite end of the room, a broad flat panel showing the city outside the Fold.
At least two dozen guards clogged the big room, soliciting free food and drinks from the vendors and generally getting in the way. There was scarcely room to breathe in the tightly-packed morning crush. The flow of people gradually brought Parke closer to the Gate, and finally it was his turn to climb the rattling metal stairs to the platform. He stood near the corner, watching the scene shift as the focus of the Gate cycled through the various panels in the city. The imagery stayed pretty much the same, a screening canopy of trees that thinned and thickened but never went away. Sometimes he could see the needle-sharp crystal spires that pierced the perfect sky, could see the aircars that swarmed like insects around their top-floor hangars; and sometimes he couldn’t. At ground level, the layout of the black plastic sidewalks changed slightly from station to station, though they always wove in and out through the trunks like paths in a park. To keep things straight, the synthesized voice of the conductor announced the name of each panel as it appeared.
At last, the image changed to his own destination: the courtyard of the Astoria II. The hotel towered overhead, a translucent blue-green obelisk so tall it seemed it should unbalance the world.
Parke stepped out of the Fold, and into another colorless day.
Parke was late getting back. His boss made him stay into the next shift to atone for his tardiness; the fact that Foldie terrorism had been responsible was irrelevant. At least returning at an odd hour meant he didn’t have to fight enormous crowds at the panel.
The alignment of the Gate was a little bit off and he stumbled coming through, falling instead of stepping onto the platform. The big hall was mostly empty, only eight or nine guards left; they outnumbered the residents. The damaged scanner was obscured behind a wall of thick plastic. As Parke picked himself up, he noticed the woman who’d been behind him in line that morning. She sat alone at a round table near the middle of the room, watching him and toying with an empty food basket. He tried not to pay attention to her, but she kept looking at him and he couldn’t help but go to her.
“Why are you staring at me?” he said.
“Was I?” she said.
“You still are.”
He hesitated a moment, then said: “Parke.”
“Sit down, Parke.” He just stood there. “Really. I won’t kick you under the table, I promise.”
He climbed into the chair opposite her. “What do you want?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Just someone to talk to. Someone who’s not afraid to ask questions.”
“What makes you think that’s me?”
“You asked a question this morning, didn’t you?”
“It got us in trouble.”
She shrugged. “What are they going to do? Take us away?”
She picked at the paper wrap in the basket, said nothing.
“I don’t think I should even be sitting with you.”
She looked up then. Her eyes were bright blue. “So leave,” she said. When he didn’t, her pale lips twitched into a smile. “You’re lonely.”
“Isn’t everyone?” Parke said.
“Want to go for a walk in the city?”
He looked up at the Gate. It was night on the other side, but you couldn’t tell that from here. The glow of the buildings made the sky a hazy, washed-out azure. At this hour, taking a walk in the city meant being stopped half a dozen times and asked for papers and possibly searched. Still, it was far more pleasant out there under the trees than beneath a ceiling made of fiberglass panels and chemical illumination tubes.
“Well?” she said.
“Okay,” Parke said. “Sure. As long as we’re back by curfew.”
“We will be,” she said. “One a day is my limit on reprimands.”
When Fiona’s birthday came up five weeks later, Parke lingered in the city after his shift had ended, hoping to buy something nice for her, something she wouldn’t be able to get in the Fold, but he couldn’t afford anything he saw. He couldn’t even get into the better stores; their scanners immediately identified him, queried his job history and salary information, and switched on force screens to keep him out. Being denied entry didn’t bother him as much as the gentle pre-recorded statements. You are not permitted in this establishment. Please leave. Security will arrive in thirty seconds. Only once did he linger long enough to hear the pleasant synthesized voice say Security will arrive in twenty seconds; this was at a jewelry store, where a velvet mannequin head wore a jeweled torque that would’ve looked stunning around Fiona’s neck. Rubies and emeralds flashed between diamonds the size of his thumb, gold glowed warmly under the spectrum-balanced lights. There was no point mooning over it; the torque cost more than he made in two years.
As he left, the voice said, Thank you for your cooperation. They always did.
Empty-handed, he walked to the nearest Gate entrance. The restaurant where Fiona worked was at the top of one of the nearby crystal skyscrapers; he thought he might run into her at the panel, but when he checked the time he saw that he’d missed her by a few minutes.
Before he reached the station, he noticed a plume of ash-white smoke through the trees; and when he came to the platform, the broad, flat panel was grey and dull and cracked right up the middle. Wisps of vapor rose from the shattered surface; the air was hot and heavy with the aura of burnt electronics. The area had been cordoned off with charge tape. Five soldiers stood behind it in formation, facing outward, weapons unholstered.
As Parke stepped onto the platform, the nearest soldier said: “This panel is nonfunctional. Please use another.”
“What happened?” Parke said.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss that.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
The guard eyed him appraisingly, then said: “There were casualties.”
“I don’t know. Please move along.”
So Parke went back to the sidewalk and walked to the next panel. He hoped Fiona was all right. You never really thought about what could happen if the Gate malfunctioned while you were using it, but it could be deadly. The panels implemented the Fold technology that allowed two objects to share the same physical space; if there was a problem while you were passing through, you could end up embedded inside the electronics or lost as a collection of impulses reverberating around the network. The unreliability of early panels was legendary; virtually everyone had a grandfather or a great-aunt who had fallen victim to a glitch and ended up riddled with wires and circuitry.
When he reached the next panel, he joined the others who were waiting for it to get the focus of the Gate. A couple of people were talking in hushed tones about the damage to the other panel; he sidled closer to listen, but they noticed him and stopped talking. A few minutes later the screen came to life, showing the platform in the Fold. The synthesized voice of the conductor began counting down the seconds of safe travel. Parke stepped forward, felt the usual lurch as he crossed through the panel, and stepped down on the other side.
The hall was crawling with guards. The overhead loudspeakers droned away in a soporific voice, saying, Return to your quarters. This area is under curfew. Parke and the others were herded toward the one-way doors in the side of the hall, but he caught a glimpse of a triage area in the corner where a medic, sheathed in a second skin of breathable latex, worked on the injured.
Beyond the doctor he saw a flash of blonde hair, a blue-and-white uniform, a red ribbon.
There were casualties.
Parke broke away from the group, pushed toward the triage, shoving aside the startled soldiers. Behind him someone bellowed, “You! Stop!”
He didn’t stop.
This area is under curfew, the loudspeaker said mildly.
Parke stopped beside the medic. There were three injured people, maybe four; he couldn’t tell if the grotesquerie on the left was one person or two fused together by the destruction of the panel.
The one in the middle was unmistakably Fiona.
Her soft alabaster skin had faded to a pallid grey; wires and bits of metal stuck out of her at odd angles, poking through her clothes, her flesh. Her long-lashed eyes were closed, the rise and fall of her chest shallow and rapid.
The medic noticed him, and said: “Get back!” When he didn’t move the man shoved him roughly, his latex-covered hand leaving a bloody smear on Parke’s shirt.
He stumbled into the waiting arms of the soldiers, who seized him and held him fast. “Take it easy,” someone said, but he squirmed and struggled, trying to get loose, to get back to her before she woke up.
The medic knelt down next to Fiona and pulled a small device out of his bag, a white plastic paddle with two electrodes on the bottom. He touched this to her chest. Parke heard the buzz of electricity; Fiona jumped once, then lay motionless, the rapid breaths stilled.
“No!” Parke shouted, wrenching one of his arms free. His flailing hand struck one of the guards across the face; his foot connected with plastic armor and bounced off.
Then he felt something cold and hard against his neck.
An instant later, he was lying in a white-sheeted bed in the infirmary.
It hadn’t really been an instant, of course; it had been something on the order of a week. A guard’s stun gun had been discharged into his spinal cord, scrambling his nervous system all to hell. It would’ve been better to have stayed unconscious; then there would be no constant pain, no relentless tingle from his nonfunctional legs, no twitch, no drool, no uncontrolled bowel and bladder movements. No dreams of Fiona stalking him through the corridors of the Fold, trailing gummy wires that scratched along the metal floor.
He lost his job; the guests would find his appearance “distressing,” according to the terse message he found waiting in his cubicle when he finally returned from the infirmary. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, he spent most of his time in the cafeteria near his quarters, sitting in a motorized wheelchair he’d gotten third-hand, watching insipid programming on the big display panel on the wall.
That was where the Foldies found him.
It was during a news report about the destruction of the panel. The screen was showing successive photos of the victims. When Fiona appeared, bright-eyed and smiling, he closed his eyes and didn’t open them again until the funereal musical accompaniment stopped. At that point the the Governor’s chief of security had come on, standing next to three prisoners. They wore the green uniforms of the condemned; their shaved heads hung toward the floor as if in shame.
Foldies, the security chief announced with satisfaction. They had each signed a full confession, he said, waggling a handful of papers in front of the camera.
“It’s a setup,” someone said. A big man leaned against the wall next to Parke’s wheelchair. “The Foldies didn’t do it. The panel malfunctioned.”
“How do you know?” Parke said.
“Saw it. I was in line to use the panel myself. Those first people went in, and I was on my way up the steps when the thing shorted out and cracked right up the middle. Wasn’t a bomb.”
“Why’s he saying it was Foldies, then?”
“Because it’s convenient. Better to blame the Foldies than admit their technology was at fault.”
“Why should they care what we think of their technology?”
The big man grinned. “You ask a lot of questions. What’s your name?”
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Talking made him drool more than usual. “Parke.”
“Ludwig. Forgive me if I don’t shake.” Ludwig drummed his fingers on his knee for a few seconds. “You’re the one who got zapped that day, aren’t you?”
Parke said nothing.
“You knew Fiona?”
“Yeah. We worked together.” He shook his head. “Shame.”
“Yeah,” Parke said faintly.
“She was a good kid.”
“Yeah,” Parke said. “And those bastards didn’t even try to save her. They killed her. I saw them.”
“Why don’t you come with me?” Ludwig said after a moment. “I know some people you might be interested in meeting.”
Ludwig pushed Parke’s wheelchair through the white corridors, taking him into a maze of distant nonresidential hallways. At length they entered a tunnel that ended in a ventilation column, a black pit covered by a steel grating. As Ludwig pushed him across it, carefully guiding the chair to keep its wheels from getting stuck, Parke leaned forward and looked into the abyss between his feet. It was impossible to tell how deep it was, but he could hear the hum of distant fans pushing the air into a breeze that wafted past his head.
“Don’t they wonder why you come this way?” Parke said. “Don’t they get suspicious?”
“Shh. We’ll talk in a minute.”
At the far side of the grate, they stopped in front of an unexceptional section of the steel-plated wall. Ludwig pressed his palm against it, and after a moment a door swished back, revealing a narrow corridor that ran off to the right, following the curve of the chamber. They entered; the door slid shut behind them.
“We’ve got partial access to their security network,” Ludwig said as he pushed Parke along the hidden passage. “In this part of the complex, we can control what they see and hear. As far as they know, we never came this way.”
“You’re a Foldie,” Parke said.
“Fold Liberation Front, please. The Governor coined the term Foldie.”
“You said Foldie yourself.”
“Well, you can’t go around saying Fold Liberation Front,” Ludwig said. “You might as well wear a sign.”
After a short walk they came to a steel blast door embedded in the rock, but instead of going to it, Ludwig reached into a nearly invisible crack in the stone. Parke heard a click and a section of wall to their ground ponderously open. He decided to meet the Foldies under his own power, and waved Ludwig away when he came back to take the handles of the wheelchair. He buzzed along after the big man as they entered the darkened chamber.
The wall rumbled back into place, as if it had always been there.
The Foldies weren’t the foaming-mouthed radicals Parke had expected; they seemed to be reasonable, everyday people who happened to think that the best way to achieve a better existence was to blow things up. Parke couldn’t agree with the philosophy, but they treated him like some sort of martyr to their cause, as if he’d sustained his injuries carrying out some dangerous mission on their behalf. Out in the corridors of the Fold, he was a useless bit of broken machinery begrudged his minimum allotment of food and shunned for his arousal of authoritarian ire; here, at least, he was respected. As the weeks passed he returned to his own cubicle less and less often, and finally stopped going back altogether.
“I went by your old quarters,” Ludwig told him one day. “Someone else is living there. They’ve written you off as a suicide.”
“I might as well be dead.” It had become a mantra, something he said automatically.
“Nonsense,” Ludwig said. “You’re as valuable to us as any man who believes in our cause.” Parke could hardly say he didn’t believe in their cause, not when they’d been so good to him; he just shrugged and wiped the glistening sheen of spit from his chin. “We should talk,” Ludwig said. He went into the corner. Parke buzzed along after him, weaving through the thickening crowd. The big Foldie hall was slowly filling up in preparation for some sort of major announcement. It still amazed Parke that so many people could make their way here undetected; the Foldie infiltration of the security system must have been sheer brilliance. Their alpha hacker—he called himself the Red Baron, after some ancient historical figure—was clearly some sort of genius.
When Parke caught up to Ludwig, the big man leaned over and said: “We’ve learned something about the nature of the Fold. Something that changes everything. You know the purpose of Fold technology, of course.”
Parke nodded. “It lets two things be in the same place at the same time.”
Ludwig nodded. “By altering molecular vibrations. The panels are translators that convert an object’s vibratory pattern to or from the pattern of the Fold. Larger generators maintain the alternate pattern, which can’t be sustained without continuous stimulation. Right?”
Parke nodded, wondering why Ludwig was reiterating things that were basic knowledge to everyone who lived in the Fold.
“And we live inside the Fold, right?” Ludwig said.
“Wrong. We aren’t the Foldies. They are. The city. The Governor. They’re the ones who live in a Fold. We’re in the real world.” He crouched down to Parke’s level. “Listen. You’ve got centuries of accumulated waste poisoning the earth, the air, the water. Even the rich and powerful are affected, because nowhere’s clean anymore. Then, Fold technology appears. What do you do? Do you put all the factories, all the workers, and all the pollution into Folds, and clean up the earth for yourself?”
“Isn’t that what they did?” Parke said.
“No. They did what they’ve always done: they left all the junk right where it was—out there—and built enclaves for themselves, little havens to keep themselves safe.” He slapped the wall with his hand. “Look around you, Parke. Rock. We’re underground because it’s the only place on earth that’s livable. That’s their secret, that’s why they keep us down. To prevent us from learning the truth.”
“What difference does it make?”
“It gives us a new target,” Ludwig said. “The Fold generators.”
Parke digested this, then said: “But the generators are in the city.”
“Yes,” Ludwig said.
“So you’ll have to use time bombs, or else the person who plants them …” He trailed off because Ludwig was slowly shaking his head.
“No,” he said. “Too risky. If they’re found before they detonate, it’ll tip the Governor off that we know his secret. Right now the generators are lightly guarded; the Governor is more concerned about what we’re doing in and around the Gate. We want him to keep thinking that way.”
“You’re talking about a suicide mission.”
“Yes,” Ludwig said.
His sad, black eyes stared into Parke’s.
“You’re asking me if I’ll do it.”
“I’m going to get up in front of everyone and ask for volunteers,” Ludwig said. “I want you to think about it. That’s all.”
He stood then, and vanished into the crowd. Parke’s tongue felt like a wedge of rubber in his mouth. Go on a mission for the Foldies? A suicide mission? What would it accomplish? What would happen if the city were destroyed? They would lose all that technology: the hydroponics, the computers, the medical machinery … none of which had been brought to bear when Fiona had needed it. They hadn’t even tried to save her. They’d just killed her, and then they’d nearly killed him.
Ludwig started speaking. Parke could scarcely lift his head to see him on the podium as he spoke about a critical mission, one that could break the power of the Governor forever. Then he grew appropriately grave and said, “The person who carries out this mission will not be coming back. I can’t give any more details, except to the one who volunteers.”
He looked around the silent room. His gaze brushed Parke.
“I’ll do it,” Parke said.
Parke’s bomb was his wheelchair. All the hollow parts were packed with plastic explosives wrapped in a membrane of foil that would supposedly fool the sniffers. The Red Baron came up with forged data indicating that Parke had an appointment with a neurosurgeon in the city, paid for by an anonymous benefactor who had once stayed at the Astoria II. Coincidentally, the doctor’s office was not far from the generator complex.
It was risky, Ludwig said, sending Parke through the sniffers when he’d been missing for so long; if they didn’t let him through, he would have to press the small red button concealed beneath a plastic cover on the right arm of his wheelchair, to start the timer on the explosives. Do a little damage—and prevent interrogation, so the Foldies could try again.
He arrived at the Gate between shifts, so the line for the sniffers was short. They’d repaired the middle arch while he’d been with the Foldies and he ended up heading toward that one.
Before he reached it, one of the soldiers on duty said: “Hold it.”
Parke stopped the wheelchair, wiped his chin, and looked at the approaching guard. “Yes?”
“What business do you have in the city?” The soldier eyed Parke’s chair. “You don’t look fit to work.”
“I’ve got an appointment with a neurosurgeon,” Parke said. “Dr. Kidd.”
“Let me see the paperwork.”
“Okay.” Parke reached into his pocket for the forged documentation. His hand trembled but he hoped the guard would take it for palsy.
“Pull it out slowly,” the soldier said.
Parke removed the printout and handed it to the guard, who looked it over and took it to a communications console in the wall. He punched a few buttons, then lifted down a handset and began alternately speaking and listening, eyeing Parke the whole time. Finally he hung up and walked back to the wheelchair. Parke said nothing. To speak would betray anxiety.
“I talked to the doctor’s office,” the guard said. A moment later he dropped the papers into Parke’s lap. “I don’t know who likes you, but good luck with your treatment.”
Parke mumbled a word of thanks and resumed his forward roll. The sniffer loomed ahead. He passed beneath it, waiting for the screech of the alarm; then he was through it, and into the hall. He crossed to the shimmering Gate and was negotiating the ramp to the top of the platform when he realized why the guard had let him through: the Red Baron must have intercepted his transmission to the doctor. The man had been talking to the Foldies, not the surgeon. The thought brought a smile to his rubbery lips, and when the appropriate scene appeared he passed through the Gate in a good humor.
He followed his map to the doctor’s office. It was in a spire of green crystal, corkscrewed at the top like a unicorn’s horn. He stared up at it for a few minutes. Inside was a man who could put him back together again, who could reconnect his brain to his legs, his lips, who could take away the twitching, the tingling, the headaches.
Could, but wouldn’t, because Parke couldn’t pay for it.
Finally he turned away. The building was opposite a wooded park; the Fold generators were in there. He motored along the rough plastic trail leading into the trees. It brought him into a heavily forested depression crisscrossed by intersecting paths and avenues. He saw people here and there, jogging or walking or biking, but for the most part the area was deserted.
At the center of the park he came to a wide paved circle around a splashing fountain. Paths radiated in every direction. He took one to the right. After a few minutes he became aware of a hum in the air, a deep, almost subsonic vibration that set his teeth on edge and made his wheelchair shiver. He was getting close.
But the path ended in an empty clearing, making a loop back on itself. Something was wrong. He left the pavement, his wheelchair plowing through the waist-high grass that grew in the clearing. Despite the natural appearance of the meadow, the ground was smooth and firm and level. Artificial wilderness.
Suddenly he came upon a wide metal grate in the ground. It caught the wheels of his chair and he pitched forward, sprawling face-first on the vent. After a momentary disorientation, he realized he was on top of a wide, circular shaft that dropped thirty or forty feet to a concrete bunker filled with machinery.
The grate thrummed under his fingers. Heated air wafted out of it. He could see some guards in the pit, but they were in a corner playing some sort of card game. Bored and inattentive, as Ludwig as predicted.
He needed to get his wheelchair down to the machines, to make sure they were destroyed in the blast. He circled the shaft, dragging himself with his arms, and found a ladder only ten feet from where he’d started. It was beneath a hinged section of grate, sealed with an electronic lock that winked green lights at him.
Parke returned to his wheelchair, gently worked it loose. It took some time and left his arms feeling soft and rubbery. Still, he managed to drag it to the hatch. He pulled out the tiny laser torch Ludwig had given him and lanced through the lock. Immediately a siren began to wail from below.
The guards jumped to their feet, spilling cards and credit chips.
Parke yanked open the hatch, punched the detonator on the chair, and shoved it into the hole. It dropped out of sight. Reflexive self-preservation prompted him to squirm away through the tall grass, but he hadn’t gotten far before the chair detonated. The earth shook, and the air roared, and a plume of fire belched into the sky.
Then the shockwave hit him, and all that went away.
It felt like unraveling, maybe the way a piece of cloth would feel—if it could feel—as someone took hold of a loose thread and pulled it apart. It must have only taken an instant, but it was an instant that went on forever.
When it was finished, Parke rolled over. He was in a dark, flickery place. A tunnel. Tubes ran overhead, fastened onto bare rock with grey metal clamps. Chemical illumination tubes.
He was back in the Fold.
He tried to drag himself to a sitting position and realized that he wasn’t on the floor so much as in the floor, sunk into it up to his shoulders, the way a wealthy citizen might recline in a tub. But he wasn’t fused with the floor, the way they said would happen if the Fold generator shorted out on you. He could lift his arms right out of the stone as if it were nothing more than smoke.
He saw shadows approaching in the hallway, heard muted voices. He couldn’t tell who they were, couldn’t understand their words, until they were practically on top of him: Ludwig and some of the other Foldies.
“He did it,” Ludwig was saying. “Parke did it.”
One of his companions said, “What now?”
“Now the Baron opens the doors and we see what it really looks like outside.”
“Ludwig!” Parke cried. “Ludwig, it’s me, it’s Parke!”
If he heard Parke, he gave no sign of it; he just kept walking. In fact, when Parke reached up to him, Ludwig’s leg came down right through his chest.
“Ludwig!” Parke shouted, twisting around to view his friend’s retreating back. “Ludwig!”
Parke lay in the floor, breathing hard. The ground didn’t even feel solid beneath him. It was soft, permeable, insubstantial. Like thick mud. He was in it now up to his neck, and slowly sinking.
He realized then what had happened.
When the generators had exploded and bathed him in their energy, they had Folded him.
He was out of sync with the rest of the world. He was off far enough that people couldn’t see him, and he could barely see them; he was off far enough that the ground couldn’t support him, not really. Somehow, he could still breathe; the air itself must have been Folded. He wondered how long it would sustain him.
His lips went below the surface. Now only the top of his head was still in the corridor. He opened his mouth and screamed, “Ludwig!” He expected the stone to rush in and fill his lungs, but it didn’t.
The floor covered his nose. He inhaled, and still got oxygen; the Folded air was joining him on his downward journey.
He began to laugh: a dry, hopeless chuckle.
He was going to be sinking for a long, long time.