Timothy Zahn has rocked your world with his Star Wars books and his other space opera adventures. But in his new book Soulminder, he's exploring questions of near-future medical ethics, and the result is much more disturbing. To prove it, here's an exclusive excerpt.
Soulminder began as a linked series of short stories in Analog magazine, but you can only read the ending to the whole story in the book version. And here's the official synopsis:
After a tragic accident takes his son's life, Dr. Adrian Sommers devotes his life to developing Soulminder, a technology that maintains someone's life essence while doctors heal the body from injury or disease. But it's quickly corrupted by those who recognize its darker possibilities: body-swapping, coercion, and even immortality.
The evening's visitors to Mercy Medical Hospital had long since gone home, as had most of the day staff, and the hallway outside the small equipment-packed room was as silent as a grave. Across the room, behind the medical repeater displays, the old Venetian blinds clattered quietly to themselves as imperfect window seals let in small gusts of the increasingly turbulent air outside. Shifting stiffly in his chair, Adrian Sommer groped for his coffee mug, trying to shut out the oppressive feeling creeping over him. Late at night, with the extra blackness of a storm approaching, was a horrible time to have to watch a man die.
That the old man visible on the TV monitor would soon breathe his last, there was little doubt. The doctor preparing one last hypo of painkiller knew it—Sommer had seen that same stolid expression on over a hundred faces over the past three years, and knew all too well what it meant. The family gathered together around the pastel-sheeted bedside knew it, too, even those who only hours before had been struggling vehemently to hide it from themselves. Sommer had listened as the conversations, faintly audible through the door separating the two rooms, had gone from hopeful to angry to resigned.
And as for the old man himself…
Sommer sipped at his mug, his stomach burning with acid as the cold coffee reached it. God,he thought, I hate this.
Behind him, a chair squeaked. "I'm getting fluctuations," Jessica Sands announced quietly. "Won't be long now."
Sommer nodded. Pushing the morose thoughts away as best he could, he forced his mind back into work mode. "Mass reader is holding steady." He gave the instruments arrayed before him a quick scan. "Nothing showing on the Kirlian yet."
"Might want to switch the Mullner off stand-by," Sands suggested. "I still don't trust the Kirlian to give us enough warning." She paused as the blinds rattled again, louder this time. "Hope the lightning holds off until it's over."
"Oh, certainly," Sommer growled. "It'd be a shame for him to die without us getting any useful data out of him."
The words had come out with more bitterness than he'd intended them to, but for once Sands had the grace to let it pass without retort. For a long minute the wind and the drone of cooling fans were the only sounds in the room, and then Sands's chair squeaked again as she turned to look over her shoulder at him. "I've been thinking," she said. "After we've finished with this set, what say we move operations somewhere else for a while? LA or San Diego, for instance."
Sommer eyed her. "Something wrong with right here?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said too casually, and her eyes slipped away from his gaze. "It'd be a nice change of scenery, for starters. Climate's supposed to be better there, too."
Sommer felt his lip tighten. "Climate. As in they have fewer thunderstorms?"
Sands threw him a glare that was half resignation, half impatience. "What are you trying to prove, Adrian?" she demanded. "That you like the feel of knives twisting around in your gut?"
In his lap, Sommer's hands curled into impotent fists. "Running away isn't the answer," he told her stubbornly.
"I'd like to know what is, then," she countered. "Standing there and getting your feet knocked out from under you every time a thunderstorm moves through sure isn't doing you any good."
"I do not get my feet kn—"
"Hold it!" Sands cut him off, swiveling back to her instruments. "I think it's starting."
Sommer's eyes flicked to the main TV monitor, heart pounding in his ears. One look was all it took: the old man was indeed in his last moments. Flicking the selector on his other display to the Kirlian, he watched as the three-dimensional saddleshape began to flatten. "How's the Mullner?" he asked.
"Coming in strong," Sands said, a steady excitement creeping into her voice. "Fits the expected pattern: standard plus—oh, lots of embellishments."
Sommer squeezed the arm of his chair, a fresh wave of acid pain shooting through his stomach. Embellishments. As if the experiences and memories, the joys and sorrows of a lifetime had no more meaning than decoration.
On the monitor one of the old man's daughters, her back to the hidden camera, had taken his hand. Sommer blinked back tears, glad that he couldn't see her face. "It's starting to detach," he told Sands.
"Right," she said, an odd tautness in her voice. "Watch real closely, Adrian."
There was no time to complete the question. On the monitor the old man stiffened…and suddenly the Kirlian trace went flat.
Or, rather, almost flat. For a second it seemed to hesitate, and then, like a strong fish being drawn in on a line, the saddleshape began to reform. "Jessica!" Sommer snapped, eyes locked on the image. "What in God's name—?"
The question faded on his lips as the saddleshape again flattened. For good, this time.
The old man was dead.
"Damn," Sands muttered behind him.
Sommer drew a shuddering breath, a sudden sweat soaking his shirt as he turned to face her. "I thought we'd agreed," he said, his voice trembling with suppressed emotion, "that we weren't going to try the trap again until we had a better idea of what exactly we were doing."
She looked back at him unblinkingly. "We do have a better idea what we're doing," she said calmly. "Every death we record gives us a better picture of how the lifeforce is mapped out—"
"How the soul is mapped out," Sommer corrected her.
She shrugged fractionally. "The point is that we've identified fifteen new characteristic curves in the trace since the last trap experiment, and I thought it was time to give it another shot."
She had a point—Sommer had to concede that. But that didn't excuse her setting up the run behind his back. "You could have told me," he growled.
The hard set to her eyes softened, just a little. "The anticipation is almost as hard on you as thunderstorms are," she said quietly. "You know, I meant what I said before about taking this show on the road."
Or in other words, the subject of her unauthorized experiment with the trap was closed. Temporarily, at least. "We can't afford to move," he told her flatly. "Our equipment is here, our computer contract is here, all our financial support is here."
She gazed at him, studying his face. "We're close, Adrian. Real close. You saw what happened. We had a genuine grip on the life—on the soul—there."
"Except that it didn't look any better than the last attempt we made."
"Maybe, maybe not," she said. "We'll see what happens when the computer's chewed over it."
Sommer shook his head heavily. "It's not working, Jessica. Somewhere along the line we're missing something. Proximity requirements, pattern identification, power, trap design—something."
Sands's eyes flicked over his shoulder to the TV monitor. "Well, we're not going to be able to get the trap much closer than this. Not without putting it in someone's lap. But if it's pattern identification or one of the others, it's just a matter of time and experimentation."
Sommer sighed. "I know," he said. "It's just that…" He shook his head.
"I know; it's been a long road for you," Sands said quietly, her voice about as sympathetic as it ever got. "Look, I can pull all the packs and shut things down here. Why don't you go on home, okay?"
Sommer wasn't in the mood to argue. Outside, he could hear the rain beginning; the thunder wouldn't be far behind. If he got a sleeping pill down him fast enough, he could possibly be out before the worst of it hit. "Okay," he told her, getting to his feet. "See you tomorrow."
For a moment he paused, his eyes shifting one last time to the TV monitor. The family had left the room now, and the doctor was tiredly turning off the various monitors. Sommer focused on the figure beneath the sheet, and as it always did, David's old bedtime prayer whispered through his mind:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Blinking back tears, he turned away. Fumbling for the doorknob, he left the room.
He'd hoped to beat the thunderstorm home. The thunderstorm, unfortunately, won the race.
It was an especially violent one, too. The lightning flashed across the sky like a stuttering strobe light, blazing across the night and burning bizarre afterimage shadows into Sommer's retinas. The thunder stabbed at his eardrums and shook his car, while the wind turned the trees lining the road into crazed dancers.
And as he fought the wheel and winced every time a particularly deep puddle threw a blinding wash of water across his windshield, he thought about David.
It had been exactly this sort of night, with exactly this sort of terrible visibility, when the SUV had run a stop sign and slammed into the passenger side of their car. David had taken the full brunt of the impact, his little body half crushed, half torn by the wall of twisted metal as he was thrown sideways against his restraints.
And with the rain dripping through the cracks in the roof, Sommer had held his son in his arms and felt the life leave the little boy's body.
The life. The soul.
Could he have been saved? That was the question that had haunted Sommer's every waking hour in the eleven years since that night. David's body had been badly damaged, but even in the middle of a storm Sommer had been able to see that most of the injuries could have been repaired with proper medical care. Maybe all of them could have been.
But there had been no chance of that. Not that night. Not with the two of them trapped in the car, with the raging storm scrambling every cell phone in the area. And so Sommer had held his son, and watched David's last few minutes silently drift away into eternity.
He vividly remembered wishing over and over that there was a way to keep his son alive. To keep the child's soul attached to his broken body for a little longer.
Or if not to keep body and soul together, perhaps to capture and preserve that soul until the body could be repaired.
It was in the moments afterward, as Sommer laid his son gently back onto the cushions, that the idea of Soulminder was born.
Two months later, he resigned his position at the hospital and set off to make that desperate hope and dream a reality.
Everything he'd done since had been focused on that goal. He'd dug into the literature and discovered the work of James Mullner, who had investigated the long-forgotten fad of Kirlian photography and found an unexpected but intriguing link between a person's coronal discharges and his moods and personality. He'd found Jessica Sands, whose technical and electronics genius more than compensated for Sommer's own limitations in those fields. When the insurance settlement money ran out, he'd cobbled together enough loans and grants from friends, colleagues, and small professional groups to keep the work going.
Only now that work had hit a dead end. Possibly the final dead end.
Sommer snarled a tired curse under his breath as a particularly dazzling spear of lightning blazed across the sky directly in front of him. No, he told himself firmly. There'd been other roadblocks over the years, and he and Sands had always found a way around them. They'd find a way around this one, too.
Sommer had made a promise to himself, and to David, and to every parent, child, or friend who had ever watched a loved one die. And that promise was going to be kept.