I glance from the vial to the man’s eyes and back again. The black liquid is writhing within the bottle, struggling to escape its confines, and I swear that I can see it trying to move in my general direction, black and ugly inevitability.
“How do I–”
“Drink it. Inject it. Mix it into your food or water. It can’t be diluted. As soon as it’s in you, it works.”
I stare at the bottle. “Why me?”
“Because you have exactly what I need to finish my research.”
“A pile of money and a gaping hole where any sense of purpose in your life ought to be.” I stare at the man. He throws back his head and laughs, the noise unnatural, like he’s trying to relive a memory of laughter, or trying to recreate it from a second-hand account. His teeth are stained black as pitch, his whole mouth is, so dark that it’s like there’s nothing inside him.
He raises his hand up to cover his mouth. When he removes it, his smile has been replaced by a frown. “I need your money to complete my work. The product is sound, but it requires refinement. And I don’t have the means to produce it on the necessary scale. But I will. I’ve seen it. But knowing the path is not the same as walking it, and you are an unpleasant but necessary step.”
“Jesus, you want to mass-produce this stuff?” I shake my head, put my hands up. “No. No way. I’m not going to help you kick off a fucking cognitive arms race. I’m not going to have that on my conscience.”
“Please. I have no intention of producing Beast for mass consumption. I just need the resources to produce a dose large enough to be permanent.”
“The only immortality is memory. For all of our history that has meant the memory of others. But no longer. With Beast, I can live in my own memory. I can read it like a book, flipping through the pages of my mind, dwelling in the choicest passages and ignoring the low points completely.
“Or better yet, I can rewrite them. I can look at my life as a garden of forking paths, and at any moment I can bring myself to a different split and follow it through to its end. And if on reaching that end I find it wanting, I can start over again.
“This is what the ones who wanted to upload their consciousnesses never understood. They wanted a perfect simulation of a life, a simulation indistinguishable from the real thing.
“Why not just have the real thing? Over and over again, why not have the real thing?”
I sniff. “So it’s a hallucinogen, then. Might as well just fry my brain for cheaper.”
He grins that broken-toothed grin again. He chuckles, and it sounds like liquid in his lungs, Death sardonic. “Our brains perceive time as an river, flowing in one direction. We pop into the stream at birth and we leave it at death. But time is an ocean, Mr. Studlu, infinite and bottomless. You can navigate it, if you have the wits and the tools.” He holds up the vial and gives it a little shake. The fluid goes still for a moment as if startled, then begins roiling once more. “Don’t you want to learn how to swim?”
I want to say something, but there’s no point. It only takes a moment’s consideration, really. Less, even. “Alright. Let’s go to the Libretto and I’ll make a withdrawal.”
The man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a Conncomm of his own. “No need. I don’t need the cash; just an account-to-account transfer. Just tap here. All the information’s already in the device.”
Less than a minute and it’s all gone. The stranger slides the vial into my hand, gives a quick curt thanks, and disappears. Another deal on the streets of the Meadows. Another sucker betting it all on a single roll of the dice and hoping that the gods are with him. Within the glass confines of the vial, the black stuff seems calmer now. Still moving but less frantically. Like it’s waiting for something. Maybe it’ll kill me when I take it. Probably it’ll do nothing at all.
Or maybe it’ll do exactly what it’s supposed to and I’ll be able to stop the Lady in White before she ever comes into existence.
I only know one thing for certain at this point. Calcium carbimide be damned, I need a drink.