Feyessa woke up in his room. He let the warm summer sunlight play on his skin for a few moments before opening his eyes. Sunlight streamed in through the window at the foot of his bed. Calm brown cows were grazing in a field. Awe- inspiring mountains in the background gave a sweeping, majestic feel to the picture. The lamp on his bedside table was on, but the room was otherwise dark. He closed his eyes feeling peaceful for the first time in a long while. Outside his room he heard voices – one a distinctive nasal, New Jersey accent, was talking with a non-descript male. Feyessa couldnt make out the exact words but there was an urgency to the topic and it ended up on a high note. One set of footsteps receded into the distance while the other entered his room.
The doctor with the horrible hair-cut, an award winning comb over, and Indian skin-tone entered his room. He read the chart at the end of Feyessa’s bed and moved up to take his pulse.
“How are you doing today Admiral?” he asked.
“Not bad, you?” Feyessa answered.
“Oh, I’ve been better. The ulcer you know, the caffeteria food is burning a hole right through me. Oh, Lansdowne asked me to give you this.” the doctor waved a chunky envelope at him then dropped it on the nightstand. He pulled a piece of diagnostic equipment out of his white lab-coat pocket.
“Your medical records show that you were one of the first recipients of a neural port. While we’ve made every effort not to damage it, a course of ECT is never perfectly predictable. Please roll over while I run a diagnostic.”
Feyessa rolled onto his stomach and felt the doctor lifting the hair at the base of his skull feeling for the edge of the tell-tale metalic opening. He couldnt deny the existance of the neural-port, he remembered it clearly now that the doctor brought it up, but “out of sight, out of mind” as they say … he’d not been near a job that demanded its use for the longest time.
He yelped in sudden pain. Fire rushed through his brain bringing back unbidden memories of his years as a navy aviator, of jacking into his plane and what had led to him retiring from active flight duty. They claimed that it only happened to one in twenty thousand. They claimed that the neural port was made of an inert metal coated with a non-porous ceramic except where it was designed to interface with neurons in the brain. They claimed that only the rarest of cases did the casing break down, he was one of the few. Whatever they claimed, there were rogue neural connections now connecting his brain to the metal of the neural port. Unwelcome connections that occasionally stimulated other areas of his brain when he connected to a computer system. The insertion of a medical probe into the neural port was meant to be painless yet here he was dealing with a migraine headache from such a simple act. The navy had felt his condition was the cause of cracks in the ceramic, deemed it a fault of the hardware, and retired him on full pay from flight status. He’d earned promotion after promotion once freed from the shackles of flying missions. Very soon he found himself training pilots to do exactly the job he’d been so good at. Training them and telling them the statistics were on their side, that only one in twenty thousand ever suffer adverse effects from a neural connection to their aircraft.
The conflict with the machines had been going badly. Aircraft piloted by human beings were inventive and adapted to changing situations better than their AI counterparts. That said, the reaction times of the machines were far better than human beings. They needed an edge. Research into direct neural connections bore fruit early in the war and pilots became the living hub of the extended aircraft operating system. Man and machine in perfect harmony. Reaction time was no-longer a matter of neurons firing and muscles responding by moving controls to tell the plane to react. No, nowadays it was a matter of the fighter jet being a literal extension of the human mind, responding to neural commands directly.
Feyessa had beein in the earliest test-flights of the neurally controlled fighters. He’d proudly shaved the back of his head to show the gleaming metal disk of his neural-port as a badge of honour. Once he lost active flight status the port became hidden under increasing amounts of hair. After retiring from the service entirely he’d let the hair grow out to completely mask the interface. Oh, he still jacked in occasionally, as terms of his navy pension stipulated that he maintain an active cognative backup on their server. His VR avatar, now an integral part of the navy training experience at all levels, needed an upload to fill in gaps of his life and experience.
The doctor removed the probe from the back of his head, “All clear. Looks like its all in working condition. Its archaic though. We could upgrade it next time you’re under – install the latest firmware updates and firewalls?”
Feyessa’s response was muffled but it sounded like a “yes”. He turned over to look at the doctor, “So, are we done with the ECT?”
He shook his head, “No, the to treatments you’ve had so far are only the start. Evaluation will continue. I would estimate around 12 – 15 treatments, a few days apart. Memory loss will help to merge these, to blur the treatment, but I fear it will also mean you lose a few other things too. Have you thought of keeping a diary? Maybe build an online avatar?”
Feyessa laughed, “I have one, thanks. The navy owns me and my military experience. Virtually everything I know has been uploaded to my VR self. I am about as complete online as it’s possible to be.”
The doctor nodded, “Lansdowne mentioned your conversation after your first treatment. Mentioned that you’d told him where he could stick his mission parameters.”
Feyessa frowned. Had he? The short-term memory loss from the treatment had blurred the last week. He didnt recall saying anything like that but could imagine that he had, and that was good enough.
“Well, I’ll let you rest and check on you in a while.” the doctor stepped out, leaving Feyessa alone with his thoughts and a large chunky envelope. He tore it open and began leafing through papers. Some were printouts from a variety of computers. Some were on naval headed notepaper. The rest were a photographs of bodies. Sequence numbers indicated how to group them. He began laying them out on his bed. They made a grisly picture of death and dismemberment. Two broad categories emerged, distinguished by the letters “LN” and “LPN” in the bottom right-hand corners. He’d seen the terms as he’d been leafing through the papers. He dug out the relevant page and laid it down with the photos.
The doctor returned as the research was in full swing. Feyessa didnt notice him walk in.
“Ahh, something to occupy your mind. This is good – I was starting to worry about the amount of time you were sleeping.” he said, seeing the mess of papers all over the bed.
Feyessa looked up, “Yeah, and your timing is perfect. Here – explain these terms would you?” he handed the doctor the 2 pages of neatly printed notes describing “LN” and “LPN”.
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“Start by assuming I know nothing, and you’d not be far off.”
“OK. The first of these, LN stands for Liquefactive Necrosis. Its liquifaction from premature cell death – brown recluse spider venom will cause that one among other things. Brown recluse spider venom comes from a class known as “necro-toxins” – toxins causing cell death. The inflamed areas around a spider bite will undergo liquifaction,” he looked at the blank face of the Admiral, “the cells die and break down, liquifying, melting. Ive never read of it occurring on this scale however.”
“And the other one, LPN?”
“That’s nasty. Liquefactive Pyrogenetic Necrosis – cell death, liquified flesh with massive heat generation. If these numbers are correct, and Lansdowne’s comments suggest to me that they are, then you’re looking at a problem with about a 100 percent mortality rate. If the liquifaction doesnt kill you, the heat will. Hell, if the heat is high enough it’ll ignite the volatile liquid material – quite the explosive if you ask me. So, this is the super-virus he was talking about? The one you refused to help him solve?”
Feyessa looked surprised, “How much did he tell you?”
“Enough. This looks incredibly nasty, and you, how could you back out of ….” the doctors words ended in a wet gurgle. The doctor’s eyes bulged. Feyessa looked on in horror as first one eyeball then the other melted out of their sockets, running down his cheeks. Blood mixed with a sticky yellow fluid ran out of the side of the doctors mouth and nose. Without warning flames exploded out of his ears, his eyes, his mouth. Fractions of a second later the doctor’s head exploded showering the room in foul smelling goo that continued to burn. The lifeless body fell toward the ground liquifying, melting and burning as it went. Soon all that was left were fragments, another photo for the collection on Feyessa’s bed.
The fire suppression system kicked in and Feyessa was brought out of the initial phase of shock by icy water spraying him from multiple outlets on the ceiling. He had completed the picture in the doctor’s mind. Finished joining the dots left by Lansdowne. The entity had manifested and killed him all because Feyessa had finished building the mental picture. Suddenly it was clear that something needed to be done, and quickly, if lives were to be saved. He laid back in his bed letting the freezing cold water of the fire suppression system wash away hot tears.
Strong hands helped Jay up off the concrete of the path. Strong hands with calloused knuckles and a number of thin white lines. No, scars, she corrected herself. Another bout of sobbing dragged her inward as she was helped along to her house. The maid answered the door and Jay and the stranger were ushered inside. She found herself lead to a chair and urged by them to sit. She choked back sobs trying to compose herself. The stranger had his back to her and was talking in hurried tones to the maid. He was a solid presence, reminding her of Keisha, dressed in black biker’s leathers that had clearly seen their share of miles and scrapes. His dark hair was pulled back in to a short, rough ponytail. Jay sobbed again as it hit home that most of her hair was on the concrete outside.
“Yochanan has to be told that his daughter’s been attacked” the stranger said.
“He’s away on business sir, not to be disturbed.” the maid answered.
“Still, you must have a way to contact him. If an emergency happens.”
“No, he’s not to be disturbed is what I was told.”
The stranger vented frustration by turning and hitting the wall. Jay flinched at the sudden noise but a part of her responded in agreement. The bitch would pay!
The stranger turned around. Dark hair swept back from an intelligent face sporting a neatly trimmed goatee beard. Earring in the left ear. His eyes blazed with fury and Jay found herself shrinking back from their intensity.
“Who did this to you?” he demanded, a little more forcefully than he needed to.
“I … I dunno.” she stammered.
“You dont know, or know but dont want to say?” he probed.
“I dunno. Didnt see them.”
“Ahhhh .. them .. more than one then?”
“Yeah. Three I think. One with a knife did this.” Jay waved a hand at her head, “the others held me down.”
“I hope you put up a fight.”
She bit her lip, fighting back tears, “… it all … it all happened too quick.”
The man shook his head. “There’s always time for something. Think for a moment.”
Jay frowned at the man, this wasnt the time for lessons! Anger flared. This stranger was lecturing her on fighting at a time like this?
“What do you know? And who the hell do you think you are coming into my house and lecturing me?” she spat, kicking the chair back from the table and knocking it over in the process.
The stranger smiled and pressed on, “Oh, fire away. Give it your best shot, you certainly didnt give them anything to think about!”
Jay screamed at him in frustration. There was a line. She was damned well sure of it, a line she refused to cross in the moment, the line stretched across the room between herself an the stranger. A part of her brain registered she was being goaded, that she was leaving pain behind and wrapping the wound in a protective shell of anger. This quiet part of her mind urged her to sit down but she was DONE with sitting.
The scream morphed. Her clenched fists gripped the fabric of reality. Thoughts of the hedge on her way home, of the soda machine flew through her head.
Unbidden the Voice slipped inside the anger. Its words were icy. A delicious cold spread outward bringing a dangerous calm. In her mind’s eye she could see the Voice pouring chilled gasoline on the fire. The Voice had a presence that was both comfort and strength while also scaring the part of her still hurting.
“Let me show you how. Reach. Strike back at him. At them, through him.” it urged.
This time there was no hesitation as she responded. She reached and reality tore unleashing a gout of the raw green substance she’d found on the leaves of the hedge. Instinctively she gathered it up and hurled it at the stranger. The blast travelled with amazing speed and perfect accuracy, aimed at the smiling stranger’s head.
Jay wasnt prepared for him to react. As far as she knew she was the only one who even saw the strange green overlay of reality, the only one to be able to manipulate it. The green substance impacted an invisible wall a few inches from the man’s face. It splashed and smeared over a perfectly spherical region before evapourating off. Around her she felt reality shrug back into place, re- incorporating the raw stuff. She screamed at him in utter frustration.
“You had the means, the motive and the opportunity Jay. You should have used it. The world doesnt give a damn whether you live or die only you can determine that.” He said, unphased.
Jay found her anger fading. Suddenly it dawned on her, “How the hell do you know my name?”
The memory of Doctor Sangeer’s face right before he died haunted Admiral Feyessa for the next week. His ECT treatments continued every three days or so, under a military doctor. Conversation stayed at an absolute minimum. He hoped each time that the short-term memory loss and confusion would erase the sight. Confusion, small slices of memory lost, but still it stayed with him reminding him of the part he’d played in the doctor’s death. Finally the inactivity got to him. The guilt was eating him alive. He asked the nurse to contact Captain Lansdowne. She nodded. Clearly this was a development that the staff was briefed on.
The captain appeared at his bedside later in the day, two days later the Admiral asked for a haircut and began showing distinct signs of improvement. A week after he’d accepted the captain’s proposal, he found himself sitting in a conference room two floors up from where he’d been having his treatments. They were scheduled to run for another few weeks, twelve to fifteen in all, but in the meantime he felt he had a job to do – it was the least he could manage to honour the memory of Doctor Sangeer.
“So, Captain, you have assembled a team?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. If you’d like to sit back in the conference chair, yes, that’s good” the Captain adjusted the angle slightly, “we can connect to the VR construct for the meeting. I understand your neural port was damaged?”
“Yeah, so go easy.”
The captain nodded and touched a button on the head rest of the conference chair. A quiet whine of servo-motors answered him as they extruded a connector into the waiting Admiral’s neural port connection. He grimaced before an unnatural looking calm filled his face. The captain nodded to himself and took a seat next to him, initiating the head-rest connection for himself.
Admiral Feyessa looked down at his military uniform. Colours and rank insignia gleamed. The fabric was clean and pressed to perfection. He could smell the freshly laundered scent. He glanced around. The room he was in was nondescript sporting a single long conference table with a dozen plain chairs down each side. The walls were a uniform shade of beige, the carpet a dark grey. There were no doors.
“What do you think, Admiral?” Lansdowne asked from behind him.
He turned. The man wore a cleanly laundered uniform with rank and colours clearly on display.
“The simulation read your naval service records and selected a uniform from offline storage to match. It saves processing power to use templates for everything except face and hands. Thanks the lowest-bid-wins software procurement process for that. The others attending this meeting will be connecting in from civilian networks so they’ll not have such a uniform appearance. Pardon the pun.”
Admiral Feyessa nodded and sat down. Technology had advanced since he’d last used the VR. True, he’d avoided it ever since the neural-port began acting up, but it still amazed him the advances that had been made.
“Captain. I’ve been regularly uploading and polishing my training avatar. Is that available?”
Lansdowne paused and seemed to freeze, to turn his gaze inward for a few moments. There was movement across the table from Feyessa, reality wriggled and another version of himself popped into being. He stared at himself. The two Admirals turned in unison and looked at Lansdowne. The real one spoke first.
“Now, make me disappear. He,” Feyessa waved a hand toward the avatar, “can handle things just as well as I can. I want to watch the delegates.”
Captain Lansdowne nodded, issuing internal instructions to the simulation. Feyessa found himself suddenly insubstantial. His awareness floated at normal head height.
It wasnt long before the first of the delegates arrived and sat down. If the simulated meeting room environment was bland and nondescript, this man was the Christian Dior of simulated life. He made bland into a brand. He had medium build, medium height, hair that was a mid-brown and a face that would be forgotten in moments. Every aspect of his appearance asked the observer to ignore him, to allow him to blend in. The suit he wore was neither fashionable nor outdated, cut in bland classic lines with a dark color that contrasted just enough with his white shirt and dark tie. Feyessa assumed that equally forgettable shoes completed the outfit but from his vantage point he couldnt see under the table far enough to know for sure.
Lansdowne smiled to the newcomer and introduced him to the simulated version of Feyessa.
“Mr. Harris, this is Admiral Feyessa. He will be taking over leadership of the project team in phase two and three. Admiral, this is Mr. Harris a consultant on loan to us for the duration of the project.”
The training avatar extended its hand, Harris took it in a short handshake. Feyessa watched with interest for the usual powerplay, knowing his avatar would mimic his own handshake. Would the newcomer go for the upper hand? Would he linger a moment too long? Feyessa was interested to note that the handshake was as bland as the man’s appearance.
If Harris was bland, the next two to arrive balanced him out. One male, one female, both wearing an ivory tailcoat over cream suit, hair styled in dreadlocks and three earrings in the left ear, a small metallic cellphone earpiece in their right. Clearly twins, their only difference (other than gender) was the cane that the man carried, and the yellow rose in the lapel of the woman’s coat. They made their presence felt in the room by simply existing within its bounds. Lansdowne’s introductions said that her name was “Max”, quickly corrected by her to be “Maxine” and the brother was “Sean”.
“One more” Lansdowne said.
Feyessa became aware of a presence next to him, equally insubstantial.
“Good afternoon Admiral.” it whispered.
Shock registered. He was invisible. Had something happened to the VR? No, the rest of the room was oblivious to his presence and were quite happily talking to his training avatar.
“Who … what are you?” he asked
“The last member of your team. Dont worry, your secret is safe with me. I dont believe that anyone, save Harris, knows that you’re really here and not sitting with them at the table. Now, excuse me, I need to give the sighted an avatar of my own.”
Moments later a chair pulled itself back from the table and it creased as though a person was sitting in it. A figure partially materialized in the seat. Lansdowne didnt seem upset by the presene of the smoky, faceless avatar that the final member of the meeting had chosen.
“Now that we’re all together, let’s begin.”
Jay stared at the dark haired stranger and demanded, “Come on, how the hell do you know my name? I dont have the first clue about you.”
The man’s mouth opened and shut a couple of times with no words escaping.
Jay turned to the maid who had been quiet during the earlier outburst, “You.”
The maid pointed a finger at herself, “Me?”
“Yeah, you. Tell me who he is, spare nothing.”
“Well, I dont know exactly.” she answered.
Jay vented frustration, looked back to the stranger and through clenched teeth demanded, “Who are you? Answer me dammit!”
The man looked at her, no … looked right through her for a moment … then his gaze snapped back to her again. It was brief but she hadnt imagined it. The doorbell rang and the maid turned from Jay back to her primary function again, walking off to answer the door.
“Delivery for Mr. Sachsmann. Sign here. Thank you!” a bored sounding voice said.
The sound of footsteps returned and the maid entered the room carrying a small package wrapped in brown paper. Jay watched as she carefully put it on the dresser next to the rest of the mail. With her gaze distracted, the stranger strode toward the front door.
“If you see your father, tell him I was here. Tell him … never mind. Just tell him I was here.” He left. The maid had already slipped off to take care of her other household functions. Jay was alone with only her frustration and questions for company. She reached for her cellphone and was dialing even as her feet were taking her up into her bedroom.
CaraBelle wasnt home when she called. Keisha, normally glued to her cellphone wasnt ansswering either, a recorded message telling her that the number wasnt in service. For some reason even the latest Foamy Rant couldnt raise her spirits.
Jay flopped face down on her bed. Something about the dark stranger bothered her. It was all too convenient. Had he allowed the confrontation to occur? Had he watched the whole thing? Jay ground her teeth, had he watched while the blond bitch cut her hair with that knife?
“Means and opportunity my ass.” she screamed into the pillow, slamming it slamming it with a fist, “you were there all along, you saw the whole thing and you did nothing. Damn you. And whatever horse you rode in on!”
Her phone rang, blasting the opening bars to Plumb’s “Manic”, seeming somehow appropriate as CaraBelle’s ringtone.
“Will you stop calling me that? Are you watching the news?”
“No, Im face down on my bed.”
“Dont tell me you were sleeping.”
“Nah, screaming actually. Now which channel?”
Jay reached for the remote and clicked her TV on, selecting the channel. Evening news.
“This is Eloise Tucker broadcasting live. We’re coming to you from the scene of what can only be described as a double tragedy. This quiet downtown street was the scene of one of our city’s most horrific automobile accidents earier today. The driver of a blue Mustang was killed instantly as he lost control and ploughed through the row of shops to my left. What has police baffled is the fate of the other car and its driver.”
The camera panned from the mid-thirties female reporter holding a microphone to take in destroyed shops and police tape cordoning off a section of the street. Stunned people milled around and police officers were taking statements. A well dressed man, looking to be a federal agent of some kind, walked through the scene in the background.
Eloise turned to an elderly man standing nearby and pointed her microphone in his direction.
“I saw it all. The blue car first then then the small red one. She melted, you know.”
Eloise twitched the microphone, unsure whether to give him more air time.
“She tried to brake, would have made the corner too, but at the last minute something happened and she slammed right into that wall. Car was fine – she looked stunned by it all but OK – then the flames. Poor girl.” Eloise took the microphone away as the man began crying. She held fingers to her left ear.
“Yes, I am told we can go directly to helicopter footage that was taken earlier.”
The reporter was replaced by a shaky downward view of the highway outside a school. A red civic pulled out and drove normally for a moment or two. A static filled voice spoke over the sound of the helicopter to explain that the speeding Mustang had been spotted. The mustang screamed past the civic which immediately gave pursuit. The helicopter followed giving commentary and directing police cars as they tried to catch the racing cars. The two cars chose a good line through the tight downtown corners. Finally it looked like the lead car, the mustang, hit an invisible barrier and flipped sideways into the shops. The civic braked but not soon enough, slamming head-on into a wall. Moments later the car was engulfed in flames, the mustang laying on its roof, almost out of shot.
They TV cut back to the reporter, “That was the latest we have on today’s horrific downtown automobile accident. Now, back to the studio.”
Jay screamed at the sight. Keish’s red civic. Her idiot ex-boyfriend’s mustang. Both dead. It was her fault, she should have got there sooner. She knew something was going to happen, knew it. She could have prevented it. She sobbed and on the other end of the phone, CaraBelle sobbed with her.
Captain Lansdowne acted as chair of the meeting trying to keep things moving according to a timeline. The admiral had circled the table slowly watching each of the delegates quietly.
Harris kept his own council, spoke in measured tones but appeared to be holding something back. His responses to questions were precise and covered only the material asked for, never anything more. The man offered nothing more and nothing less than expected, filling his function on the team precisely. A “consultant” who was “on loan”? Feyessa made a mental note to ask Lansdowne about that later, determined to know more.
To the left of Harris sat the still smoky presence that had greeted the supposedly invisible Admiral earlier. The form was humanoid with a hint of features but lacked colour and definition. What had it said when it had spoken to Feyessa earlier, something about giving “the sighted” an avatar in the simulation? What did that mean? Feyessa found himself assigning a male gender based on the hint of features. Did he count himself “the sighted” as a different group, counting himself as non-sighted? Then it dawned on the admiral. If this meeting delegate had never actually seen, things such as colour and brightness would be abstract concepts to him. It would be like asking a human to underand the texture of a dolphin’s sonar echoes as they painted a picture of life underwater. So, blind from birth, yet interacting in the VR environment among a group of experts. Feyessa made another mental note to find out how long the blind man had had the neural connection.
Across the table from Harris and the blind man sat the twins. If harris and the blind man represented stillness and precision, they were balanced by the other two. It struck Feyessa that they seemed to me multi-tasking, interacting with the meeting on a number of levels perhaps? He circled past the head of the conference table getting closer to the woman whose eyes remained locked on Feyessa’s avatar. Lansdowne was speaking, infection vectors and statistics, from the other end of the table from Feyessa’s invisible self. To his left, on the same side as Harris and the blind man, sat Feyessa’s avatar. Something in the woman’s gaze unnerved him.
She began singing, cutting rudely past Lansdowne’s spiel, every eye in the room snappnig to her instantly,
One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?
Feyessa backed away from her. Then he noticed more movement in the room: her brother’s hand had gone to his mobile phone earpiece and his lips were moving in subvocalized speech, simultaneously Harris had made an instinctive move toward drawing a weapon from a shoulder holster under his jacket.
The woman kept singing, her gaze swinging from Feyessa’s avatar, to Harris to the blind man.
Five of these kids belong together
Four of these kids are kind of the same
But one of these kids is doing his own thing
Now it’s time to play our game
It’s time to play our game.
She emphasised the “our” with a small smile and nod toward her brother.
The smoky presence vanished. Harris withdrew his empty hand from the shoulder holster that was missing in this simulated environment. He stood.
Did you guess which thing was not like the others?
Did you guess which thing just doesn’t belong?
Sean stopped talking and swung his hand away from his earpiece to point at Feyessa’s avatar. Maxine’s song continued unabated.
If you guessed this one is not like the others,
Then you’re absolutely … right!
The avatar flickered and vanished.
Sean looked at his sister and they exchanged a nod. The he looked to Harris, “You have until I count to three. One …”
Harris turned and seemed to scan the room starting with Lansdowne.
Harris reached the spot where Feyessa’s invisible presence floated. He pointed.
“Three. Thank you.”
Sean touched his earpiece again and spoke a short series of words and reality flowed around Feyessa like paint under a heat gun. Flakes of empty air peeled off to reveal him standing there. Every eye in the room was on him. He adjusted his jacket and sat down in the seat next to where his avatar had been. The twins looked smug.
Harris smouldered but said nothing.
Lansdowne sat with mouth agape at the exchange that had taken place, “Would someone like to explain …” he began.
“What? Us?” Maxine asked.
“Dont you think it rude that with six of us in here there would be this level of distrust and multiple hidden adgenda’s?” Sean completed for her.
Lansdowne had lost control. Feyessa wondered if he’d ever truly had it to begin with. Something needed to be done before things degenerated completely, “I must appologise. I was wary and wanted to observe, I prefer to choose my own teams, and this was handed to me without any input.”
“So you chose deception.” Maxine said flatly.
“No … yes.”
“And this was meant as a means for us to trust you?” she asked.
“You were never meant to know.”
Sean snorted, “You seriously underestimated who you’re dealing with … what you are dealing with.” He was looking at Harris.
Feyessa turned on him as well, “What…” then the questions from earlier swept back into his head with gale force.
“A ‘consultant’ who is ‘on loan’” Feyessa said, turning to Lansdowne, “Care to explain yourself Captain?”
Feyessa waited. Silence hung between the two men. Finally it was Harris himself who broke the silence.
“The memetic entity threatens both our peoples Admiral, both human and machine. We may be at war and this may be a rogue weapon of war, but the enemy of mine enemy is my friend. Sun-Tzu wrote :
If we can make the enemy show his position while we are formless, we will be at full force while the enemy is divided.
The place of battle must not be made known to the enemy.
If it is not known, then the enemy must prepare to defend many places.
If he prepares to defend many places, then the forces will be few in number.
I am here to offer you such a prepared place of battle. We cannot erase this creature, seeking out the remaining copies would only proliferate it within every network we scan. We must instead confine it into a known system, a self-sustaining environment with unlimited runtime. The individuals who incarcerate it should be those who deem themselves already dead, and prepared to live their remaining lives alongside the creature. I believe you, Admiral, are dying of cancer. Maxine and Sean expect a similarly short lifetime, though for other reasons.
I am here to offer you the means to accomplish your mission, here to offer you Zulu-Station, and the Talisman mainframe.”
Jay was still sobbing long after she’s cut the connection to CaraBelle and dropped her phone on the floor. She didnt hear the door open or her mother’s happy exclamation. She heard footsteps from behind her while she was laying face down on her bed but couldnt be bothered to look up. She still felt the weight of the girls on her legs and back, could still feel their knees pressing into her, could still feel the knife as it hacked off her hair. Someone sat on the edge of her bed and a new pressure started, a warm hand on her right shoulder.
“Jay?” her father’s voice asked.
All at once it came crashing in on her. Her experience while dancing, the absence, the ache inside. She wanted to tell him all of it at once but it just came out as an incoherent babble mixed with sobs. In one movement she was up from the pillow and had arms wrapped around him. Strong arms held her close. It didnt matter now. Her dad was back.
There was an empty space in the caffeteria where Keisha used to be. Neither Jay nor CaraBelle felt exactly complete any more. When they sat at their usual table there was an empty seat. For unknown reasons the rest of the faceless mass of people never seemed to encroach on the empty spot. Whether for good or ill, the blond and beautiful crowd backed off. Jay could feel their eyes burning into the back of her head though. They werent hurling their usual insults though. Guilt had its uses. Jay didnt want to prove their guilt, didnt want to expose their part, because in some way she felt culpable too. If she’d only moved quicker. If she’d only ignored the head of maths, she would have been able to warn Keisha that her car had been tampered with. Now any hope of proof had literally burned up in the wreck.
“Hey, hon, you in there?” CaraBelle asked, waving a hand in front of Jay’s face.
“You spaced out there for quite a while. Got something on your mind?” she probed gently.
“No. Just thinking about Keisha I guess. It hurts.”
“I feel your pain.” CaraBelle seemed so genuine when she said it, the platitude seeming to ring so true as it fell from her lips. There was an intensity in her eyes that shocked Jay.
“Ok, OK, I get it.” she brushed past CaraBelle taking her tray of half eaten food to the trash containers, hoping that her friend didnt perceive anything deeper than the pain. Jay knew she was guilty, had blood on her hands, and didnt want to be accused in public. When she looked back at the table CaraBelle was softly crying. She looked hurt and rejected, so terribly alone, but Jay couldnt bring herself to walk back there and risk having her guilty feelings give her away. She couldnt bear to be found out and have CaraBelle accuse and reject her over it. No, she had to walk away now.
A little over three weeks after the death of her best friend Jay was called out of class and asked to visit the school’s vice-principal, Mr. Skinner. He was a fearsome man. Tall with a bald head and small glasses that seemed to cling to the very tip of his nose. He looked down on you from his great height like a scientist examining a bug. Jay shivered as she walked through empty hallways. Classes of students went about the daily routine and she was being called out. Had they found her out? Were the police already waiting in his office for her? She shook her head but couldnt clear the feelings of doom that followed her. As she sook her head pain rose inside her again: there should have been long hair brushing over her neck when she’d done that. Her father had paid for an expensive hair dresser to tidy up the hack-job of a haircut she’d been left with but that had only shortenned it further. She fought back tears.
When she arrived at the vice-principal’s office she found the door closed. She knocked and Skinner’s voice called “Just a minute”. Muffled conversation continued for a few moments before the door swung open. There was a woman standing next to Skinner’s desk.
Skinner himself had files in hand and looked to be leaving. “Jay, this is Doctor Pomona. I’ll be stepping out for a while, and you two can use my office while I am gone.” He stepped out of the way and waved a hand for Jay to enter. The door closed with a note of finality behind her as she stepped inside. She couldnt help but turn to look at it a moment before returning her attention to the Doctor standing by the desk.
“Miss Sachsmann, please have a seat.”
Jay looked at the woman, frowning. She was tall, six foot even Jay guessed, with two inches coming from her heels. She had a corporate air which constrasted sharply with the rest of the adults around the building. Her matching skirt and jacket were dark, blue, but it was hard to tell and her blouse a severe starched white. Jay scanned her face looking for signs of accusation. No particular emotion was betrayed, just a calm presence that felt clearly in control of her surroundings.
Something flared inside Jay, “We’ll see about that,” she thought.
The woman’s mouth moved, vague platitudes and introductions that Jay ignored. The woman’s makeup was immaculate, if understated, with neatly waxed eyebrows. Her jet-black hair grabbed Jay’s attention. The afternoon sunlight shone brightly and gave the Doctor’s hair a raven shine, hinting at other colours. For a moment Jay imagined her with first indigo then a plum dye job. Black seemed to suit her. OK, goth it is. In her mind’s eye she redressed the doctor in black, giving her a solid stainless steel collar and multiple facial piercings. Better. Imagining her naked would just have creeped Jay out, but transforming her into her gothic antithesis reduced the level of intimidation somewhat.
Jay refocussed her eyes. Somewhere in the imagination the woman had sat down on the edge of Skinner’s desk.
“What?” she responded
“Do you do that a lot?”
The doctor paused, then said, “Withdraw like that?”
“Do you ever forget periods of time?”
“You mean, the boring parts?” Jay asked, dripping sarcasm
“The boring parts, among others.” the doctor asked, unphased.
“I dunno. Maybe.”
The doctor nodded then asked, “What about voices, ever hear voices speaking only to you, in your head?”
Jay felt the colour drain from her face and a cold chill settle inside. Did she know? The doctor waited quietly. Silence began to hang thick in the air, becoming a third member of the conversation.
“What do the voices say to you Jay?” the doctor prompted.
“I didnt say there were voices.”
“No, not out loud. Do the voices speak…”
Jay cut in angrily, “It’s just the one voice, OK? Im not a frickin’ fruit loop!”
The doctor stood up and turned toward the window. She closed the blinds which cut the glare considerably. Mental images of a darkened interrogation room with a single bare bulb swinging from a cord at the centre of the room sprang to Jay’s mind.
The doctor returned to her spot on Skinner’s desk, “I hear that there’s been some name calling in the caffeteria. Can you tell me about how that makes you feel?”
“How’s it meant to make me feel? Have you heard them?” Jay felt like the noose was closing around her neck. Any moment she would be pressing for a confession for Keisha’s death and pulling out the handcuffs.
“I’ve heard plenty in my time. I’d like to know what you think of it.”
Jay paused, the answered “They’ve called me freak and spaz. I dunno. I dont let it get to me.”
The doctor nodded, “And one hit you?”
“Do you remember what you were doing at the time?”
Jay knew full well. How could this woman grasp it though? The soda machine was still dropping free drinks even now. Sure the dark haired stranger had understood and even responded but what would the doctor say? “Maybe she’d lock me up and throw away the key?” Jay pondered.
The doctor waited and finally injected, “Were you withdrawn, in your inner place?”
“One of the staff heard them complain about your lack of reaction to the blow. One last question. Do you ever remember past hurts complete with physical sensation?”
Jay nodded, the sensation of knees in her back and knife hacking her hair still hung in the forefront of her brain. How could you forget something like that so soon? She realized that the doctor was speaking and had missed a portion already.
“…Jay, I want to help you. Your parents and the staff here at the school want to help you. We’re worried. Everyone distances themself from pain but in some folk that defense goes beyond what is helpful and they begin dissociating. The voices, the sensations … they can be helped. I’d like to schedule some time on a regular basis for us to meet, to talk, to process through some more questions. Mr Skinner tells me that you have a free period on Thursday afternoons right after lunch. Let’s pick this conversation back up then, OK?”
Jay sat dazed. “She knows I’m a fruit loop for sure.” she thought as Mr Skinner returned to the room a few moments later. Jay was shown out but she hung around. She caught muffled voices speaking, odd words standing out: dissociation, medication, trauma, professional treatment. With a deep sigh she returned to class.