Stephen York stood on the dirt, kicking at it, willing his feet to do what he told them. After a while, they did. He stopped kicking and fell still. Then he leaned back and crossed his arms. Soon he realized his arms were twitching, so he pinched them harder to his sides. He told his mind and body to still; he needed to concentrate for what was coming.
He began reciting prime numbers, like a mantra.
One. Three. Five. Seven. Eleven. Thirteen.
In between numbers, York tried to decide what the last few days of foreboding could mean. His mind kept wanting to slip, but he held it down, focusing on the numbers. Seventeen. Nineteen. Twenty-three. He could keep going. He had, over and over and over. He knew up to 3571 by heart because he had once memorized the first five hundred primes while studying cyphers and encryption. It was a relatively useless skill, but today, he was grateful for it. Like an old man searching his mind for names from his youth, York felt that reciting the primes was a way to keep him sharp. He walked through the list repeatedly, feeling like he was running a stone over his thoughts, trying to hone their edge. Still, his thoughts kept slipping. His memories were there, quiet and orderly deep inside him, but they kept threatening to fall away. Some thoughts were stickier than others. Through simple repetition, some memories had become grooved and conditioned. Like the primes. He’d had reason enough to recite his wife’s name that he knew it without thinking. He knew his bank account number. He knew the access codes he’d used back when he’d helped develop Crossbeam decades ago. He could remember line after line of code — all obsolete today, of course. But doing reasoning with that archive of knowledge? Plumbing it in order to draw conclusions? That was hard. Maybe impossible.
He felt like his mind was inside a literal box. He kept rapping his mental shoulders and knees on that confining box because there wasn’t enough room to maneuver. That was the firewall, of course. He’d helped develop some of that technology too, but the details weren’t as well-rehearsed as his wife’s name or the prime numbers and so he couldn’t access much about them. He knew the firewall had blocked most of who he was. He knew it kept him inside this box, locked down tight. He knew that his normal way of expressing himself was hampered, and that he’d need to find other ways to do what he needed to do. He had references. Back when York had studied neurology, he’d learned about a man who couldn’t form new memories, but who had re-learned how to “learn” by establishing habits that played themselves out without his conscious awareness. York wouldn’t be able to do that to get out of his box, of course, but the process was the same: when one way is blocked, you find another.
1163. 1171. 1181.
Something was coming. There was something on the horizon. And here he was, with his hands tied behind his back.
York swore, heard himself swear, and again found his foot kicking at dirt. It was still kicking when a woman came up to him on horseback.
“Hop on, Crumb,” she said, indicating a second horse behind her. “We’re going for a little ride. Leo wants us to play on The Beam.”
It was a good idea. York didn’t know why, but somehow, it was.
He tried to tell the woman on the horse that he wanted to go, that he felt a sense of foreboding in the air.
“Noah Fucking West,” he heard himself say instead.