Even by common wisdom, there seem to be both people and objects in my dream that are outside myself, but clearly they were created in myself and are part of me, they are mental constructs in my own brain.

—“The Sacred Meditations of the Bio-Prophet Kurzweil”

IN THE dream she was being torn to shreds, not physically, but in her mind, atom by atom, probed, plucked, dissected, stripped naked until every thought stood as bare as the bleached bones of a whale on a desert beach. A glaring light shone mercilessly into her eyes, masking the source of the voice that intoned, “You will…You will…”

The voice! She knew that voice! It whispered to her in her dreams, murmured to her in her waking moments. Dr. G! She didn't have to see the rounded figure or the soft, bland face to know the voice belonged to him. They were alone together in the dark chamber, all in shadow except for the bright light that shone mercilessly down onto the table on which she lay, clothed only in a sheen of sweat. “You will, will, will…” She tossed and moaned feverishly as the sensation gathered itself deep inside her core, then convulsed as the hellishly bright light exploded in the center of her mind.

Then she awoke, her skin flushed and red, her legs weak with the intensity of the release. She was shaking with a strange chill. My God, the dreams!

“I am Myranda Flare, Myranda Flare…” The words rushed from her lips in a sobbing refrain before she could clamp them tight. She cast a quick look around to see if anyone had heard, as if there was anyone to hear her in the solitude of the hotel room in which she had been sleeping. It was a name that had been locked away until just now, even from herself.

“You will not divulge your identity to anyone except those dictated by your mission requirements.” The warning abruptly entered her mind out of nowhere; at the same time she realized that she knew the names of those she needed to contact next. Like her own name, they were indelibly engraved in her memory. That was the whole point of the secretive process she had undergone. The risks had been tremendous; it was almost more than they'd dared hope that she had already made it this far.

“All information about the mission must be locked away inside your mind!” The voice behind the light had told her as much. “Who you are, what you are, and what your next move will be, everything must be safely locked away in the event you are intercepted and captured. The machines give you a 22.641 percent chance of penetrating the naval blockade, but the odds will increase in your favor with each step you successfully complete. Through the programmed event triggers, the data you require will come out precisely as you need it. This is the opportunity for which we have waited for decades, Myranda, perhaps even centuries. You are the best operative we have and everything is depending upon you!”

The voice was kinder, less intimidating now. For all his frightful intelligence, Dr. G was a good and gentle man. Pushing herself up on her elbows, Myranda looked at the bluish-white light streaming through the latticed windows, momentarily perplexed at its color.

Sivorno! The name formed gradually in her mind. She was in a second-rate chain hotel in the city of Sivorno. The planet was Valatesta, a rich border world that marked the present limits of the Greater Terran Ascendancy. It was only yesterday that she arrived. She remembered the rapid trip from Astarkhan aboard a ghosted blockade runner, the terrifying descent, and the surreptitious landing that took place well outside the city's suburbs. Then there was the meeting with the short, shifty-eyed Valatestan who drove her into the city and whose loyalties would only last as long as the payments were promptly made. She had won her one-in-five bet. What were the odds against her now?

Let them try to catch her. They would fail. She was Myranda Flare and she was better than anything the Ascendancy had to throw against her. Memories were coming back to her, falling into place as neatly as the tumblers of a time lock.

No, not everything. Far from everything. Very far. But she knew where she was now. Sivorno. She was to meet someone here. Someone important. Someone who was vital to her mission. But what was that mission? Her mind shied away from the question. Ignorance was her shield. The less she knew, the better. It was always better to genuinely be innocent than to act innocent. She rolled off the bed and looked in the mirror. A snub-nosed face framed by long waves of newly blond hair stared back at her. It was a modestly pretty face, a face that no one would ever suspect of hiding the Integration's most feared intelligence operative behind it.

Not that she felt dangerous. She felt lost and alone, abandoned to the cruel vagaries of space.

My mind, my mind, why have you abandoned me?

Something itched behind her left ear. Ah yes, the interface. She remembered consenting to having the other one installed, the special one, the one in her left ring finger. And whatever the objective was, she knew that she would never have permitted Dr. G to erase her memories and modify her mind if it was not worth it.

She walked to the window and looked out upon the city. The sun, blue-white and larger than the one to which she was accustomed, was high. She guessed it was nearing noon. She must have slept away the morning, exhausted by the stress of the interstellar flight and the terrifyingly rapid descent from orbit. She felt a strange sense of lassitude, no doubt inspired by the physical reaction the dream had stirred in her body.

She sighed and smiled faintly. Better pleasure than pain. Both worked equally well in reprogramming the human mind, but Dr. G was a kind man by nature.

The scene below was strange, yet vaguely familiar to her. People, animals, machines, vehicles—every world was fundamentally the same as another, she concluded. All worlds, all governments, all people. They were all simply variations on a theme. The only variables were those of emotion, custom, gullibility, and belief. What she needed to do now was to stay within those patterns, to ensure that her actions only disturbed the status quo when her mission required it.

And what it required next was that she contact the agents of Prince Li-Hu. The thought came to her without warning. It confused her. Prince Li-Who? Ah yes, House Dai Zhan. Then run!

Run, run, run….

Sacred Meditations image number 1

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A Mind Programmed: Sacred Meditations