Void Star: An Excerpt from Zachary Mason's New Novel

A young man awakens in the hospital to find that a hard drive has been installed under his forehead to save his life; he "remembers"—in perfect detail—the two weeks since his hardware was surgically implanted.

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Feb 15 2017, 3:25pm

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Thales stumbles, catches the wall, clings to it, suddenly woozy.

He looks over his shoulder at his brother Helio, sees his dawning horror, realizes this might be serious.

His upper lip is wet. Touching it, his fingers come away red, but taking his hand from the wall was a mistake because he loses all sense of where he is in space until he finds himself on the floor, which is covered in wet sand, coarse and cold against his cheek, reeking of ocean.

They're in a tunnel from the beach, under the corniche. The seaward mouth is an oculus of variegated blue. The tunnel's acoustics make the wave's crash ring.

Black wave of nausea, then he's vomiting. Gouts of red darker than blood should be. That's bad, he's thinking, as the spasm climaxes.

"We need some help here," Helio is shouting to the bodyguard who is also, Thales remembers, a nurse, and who, from the footsteps, is coming at a run.

Shadows kneeling around him. A needle pierces his shoulder.

He couldn't recall, and he couldn't look away from the restless sea, because, incredibly, its changing shapes persisted in his memory, a new memory, another memory...

"This will help you breathe," says the bodyguard who is a nurse, his voice too calm, it seems like he should be more upset in honor of the occasion, and then a plastic mask is pressed over his nose and mouth.

Black military boots by his face. Beyond them, white lines slide down the glowing circle of celestial blue—waves, perhaps—but they won't come into focus, so he looks at the weave of shoelaces, the scuffs and scratches on the black leather, the grains of sand stuck to the rubber sole. His implant will record this moment in every detail, as it records every moment, so perfectly he's come to feel that nothing is lost to time.

Oxygen hisses into the mask, chills his lungs.

"Medevac drone incoming in... 91 seconds. Eighty-nine," a bodyguard says hoarsely.

All photos by Taylor Smith

A girl in a crocheted bikini has stopped in the tunnel mouth, her fingertips at her lips, like she's just seen the saddest thing in the world. The men kneeling around him are like statues, immovable and remote. He tries to roll to face the wall, but they hold him down. I don't want to be here for this, he thinks, and retreats into his implant's memory.

The tunnel and his pain dissolve, and there's the recollection of the last two weeks, there in their entirety, sharp and undecayed. He skims over the surface of the hours—there's the clinic, the beaches, the many books on the theory of numbers, the freeways of Los Angeles as seen through the hardened windows of the armored town car—and finally alights on the first moments of the implant's record, when he was waking up in a hospital bed in a room he didn't know. A window framed the early light on a strange sea—it wasn't Leblon, maybe not even in Rio. His mother, looking haggard, was drowsing by the bed; waking, she crushed his hand in hers, bent to kiss his cheek and, he thought, breathe in his hair. Beside her sat a stranger, tie but no jacket, perhaps a doctor, immersed in his tablet.

Something was stuck to Thales's chest—his fingers found a thick pad of gauze, and another on his forehead—had he been injured? He couldn't recall, and he couldn't look away from the restless sea, because, incredibly, its changing shapes persisted in his memory, a new memory, another memory, and every moment as though immured in glass, as clear as the little poetry he had by heart, and he wondered if it was a hallucination, or the side effect of some drug.

"How are you?" asked his mother, her voice thick, smoothing back his hair, careful of the bandage, and he saw her relax when his eyes focused on hers. There was the memory of his words, and the memory of the memory, and then the memory of that, echoing on until his attention shifted. "What happened?" he asked. A beat of silence while his mother worked out what to say, which meant it was bad, which was, come to think of it, obvious.

Thales had read about memory implants, had wondered what it would be like, had never thought to learn.

"There was an attack," she said. "An assassination. You were wounded, and your father was killed. It was political." He reached for sadness but felt only surprise that the old man had run out of tricks; he wondered if his father's demise would turn out to be staged, if, like Sherlock Holmes, he was not dead but just in hiding, waiting for the right moment to dramatically reappear. "Rio was untenable," his mother went on, "and the doctors you needed wouldn't come to Brazil, so I brought you here, to Los Angeles, with your brothers. We'll leave for the US proper once we get visas and you're well enough to travel."

"I was hurt?"

"A sniper fired armor-piercing rounds at your father's car," the stranger says, standing. American, with an intensity and an absolute confidence, his cologne redolent of river water and orchids. "You were hit twice. You suffered a pierced lung and major cranial ablation. You've been in an induced coma for three weeks. I operated on you for 26 hours." The surgeon's motions seemed excessively controlled, as though he refused to let his fatigue show.

"I'm remembering things."

"That's your implant. It's about two inches under the bandage on your forehead. It took over the function of the unviable tissue, and so saved your life. The expanded memory is a side effect, a kind of bonus." The surgeon looked at his tablet and smiled, the first crack in an otherwise impenetrable professional facade. "The installation was... complex, but I'm happy to say it's working perfectly."

Thales had read about memory implants, had wondered what it would be like, had never thought to learn. "But those never really worked," he said. "The memory thing worked, but the people who got them usually died." 

Impassive, distant, compassionate, the surgeon said, "There is absolutely no doubt that the implant will improve both the quality and the duration of your life."

And then he's back in the tunnel feeling like he's choking as someone stuffs a glove into his mouth, and now he's biting down on the leather and cotton as a lozenge of white light—reflected from someone's watch?—skitters across the ceiling. His muscles are trembling—is he cold?—and someone is holding his head on their lap, and he wants to say he's going to be sick again, but the tunnel is dark and its roof seems far away, and as though from a distance, he hears Helio say, "You're going to be fine!"

Someone is complaining that the medevac has been delayed by two minutes, its flight path went over the wrong neighborhood and someone shot at it, it's rerouting, fuck LA, in Brazil they'd know not to fly over the fucking favelas.

His awareness narrows to a single mote of light, the implant diligently recording.

Then it's time to let go of everything, and then he does, and the implant quietly turns itself off.

He wakes up in a hospital bed in a room he now knows well. Out the window, the early light shines on the Pacific. Through the window, he sees the sun shining on the sea and is aware of the rules of light's motion through space.

He touches his upper lip—his fingers come away clean. There are gauze bandages on his chest and forehead.

The sea heaves and shifts, but its shapes slip away from him. He wonders if the implant is broken, and what happened, and, confusedly, if this is anesthesia annihilating time.

His mother isn't there, but the surgeon is sitting by the bed; he looks up from his tablet and says, "We need to ask you some questions." 

Excerpted from VOID STAR: A Novel by Zachary Mason, to be published April 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Zachary Mason. All rights reserved. 

CAUTION: Users are warned that the Work appearing herein is protected under copyright laws and reproduction of the text, in any form for distribution is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the Work via any medium must be secured with the copyright owner.

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