Li’s fingers danced across the virtual console. The inevitable was happening and there was nothing she could that would stop it. The VR matrix was collapsing. She could clearly see cause and effect. The diary. She kicked herself for leaving the live translation running when the Captain had enacted Protocol Seven. The computer had locked that memory-mapped segment of the VR matrix down as being part of the (now) non-volatile memory being preserved. It persisted across resets of the VR matrix and there was nothing she could do about it. By rights a test subject should have been unaware that his environment was changing as data-mining was under way. The computer mining his memories followed a memetic path, tracing theoughts and themes, unaware of chronology. For the purposes of Li’s study, mnemonic access had been perfect but the diary proved to be its undoing, providing a real-world chronology inside the random access environment of the memetic memory mining.
Everything would have been fine if James had packed the journal and never refered to it. He would never have started the feedback loop that had resulted in the sytem crashing. The spiral had started the moment he’d resolved to read the book, become inevitable the second he opened it and read his recollections that had already been recorded in the virtual book. The mnemonic of “ghosts” had already played out, and crossed the path of his last evening in the manufactured Victorian environment.
Li pulled her hands away from the keyboard just before the keys vanished. It was disconcerting at best to use the keyboard, the way the keys would reconfigure according to the task at hand. In her sensor net she could believe that the net itself was processing the computer input and projecting it into her brain. Here she was standing in a Japanese silk kimono, no hint of a sensor net anywhere near her and still the computer was overlaying the image of a keyboard on the blank console before her. Eric’s story of the brain implant made more sense as she looked at things like this. The sensor net piggy-backed on the implant, or were they part of the same creature? She didnt know if they were paired. Perhaps she could commission a study if they made it though this whole debacle?
She pulled her hands away from the console in frustration at not being able to do anything about the crashing VR matrix. She didnt know how it would reflect on her, with the current data retention policies being what they were. The system would reflect that the Captain had asked to read the journal entries wouldnt it? It would certainly show that he’d enacted Protocol Seven, and an indepentent audit would clear her of any wrong-doing, wouldnt it?
Eric knocked on the glass separating her from the isolation lab. He was standing in combat fatigues and frowning. The room was sound proof. She had heard stories of test subjects screaming and how operators had cut the audio feed. The computer projected Eric’s voice to Li and she was sure that it wasnt true audio even then, more trickery with the _thing_ in her head. Eric’s voice was processed to sound like it was muffled by an intervening barrier, a nice touch for sure, but the attempt to mimic reality in this case only annoyed her.
“Which of these two specimins is the one you want?” he asked.
Li was about to answer when Eric almost screamed, “Oh crap, he’s awake! Li, if you’re going to do something, now is the time.”
Eric stepped to one side and Li could see James sitting up. The sampling equipment has programmed to retract in the case of emergency, such as this one. First to retract was the ventilator, sliding neatly out of his throat. Then the other tubes popped off other parts of his body. An arm swung between the various exit wounds spraying a fast drying synthetic skin solution over the holes. In a matter of seconds, while he was still gasping for air, he transformed from a specimin under study in isolation to a human being in a hospital recovery room.
Li chided herself for the abrupt change in her thinking. He’d been a person all along yet she somehow distanced herself from his humanity with the cables snaking in and out of his body. Now without the cables and tubes he was transformed. She felt suddenly lucky that she was still separated from him by a pane of unbreakable glass, she didnt know what she would do if she had to face him directly and be the one to explain what had befallen him. She glanced at the other specimin, at Vincent, she corrected. She’d terminated him without a second thought for the singular crime of being boring. He was still laying on his slab, silent and still. He was Shawna’s problem now. She wanted biological samples? Let her run all her tests on him. Li had more pressing problems.
James sat up gasping for air in a brightly lit room. His throat and lungs felt violated. Numerous points of his body felt like they’d been impaled but as he took a quick survey he found nothing more than a few patches that looked a healthier shade of pink than usual. He coughed.
A voice behind him spoke slowly, the words oddly accented, “Take it easy, you’ve been through a lot. Here’s some water to help your throat.”
James turned toward the voice. The man was a tall, brown skinned soldier, complete with fatigues and dog tags. His head was shaved smooth. James started when he saw the man’s eyes, or at least the complete lack of eyes. There was smooth brown skin across the spot. James tried to get a sense of the rest of him, he was clearly muscular and moved with an easy grace despite the missing eyes. So, he knew his way around. In his hand was a small paper cup with water in it.
Whatever notes of caution James was feeling, they couldnt cover the thirst. He accepted the cup and gulped at the water.
“Take it slow…” the soldier said.
James tried to speak but his tongue and vocal chords didnt want to work. He finished the water and handed the cup back to the soldier.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
James tried to answer, the words coming out as a husky croak, “Like crap. What did you _do_ to me anyhow? Where am I?”
A voice interrupted them, filtering down from somewhere above them, “On the clock here gentlemen. Eric, can you give James a hand out of there? Thanks!”
Eric reached up and offered a hand to James, who swung his legs off the slab he’d been laying on. His legs felt weak. It wasnt drink related of that he was certain, there wasnt even a trace of a hangover. The journal! It had spoken about this place. No, not this place exactly, this place had more furniture and a door, the journal spoke of a featureless room but they were somehow related. It _felt_like it was the same place. He found himself running through the same list of questions in his head: Why are my clothes all dry? Have I been in here that long? No hangover. Damnation. That long. But if it has been that long why am I not hungry? Why am I not craving a drink? Where’s the bathroom?
Eric reached and helped James down from the observation slab. Mercifully there had been no outburst regarding his friend. Whatever higher-power was watching over them had intervened to keep James focussed on him and not looking around the room.
Eric let James lean on him as he tried to get his balance. Tissue and fluid sampling was painful, or so he’d heard, and the drugs the system had pumped into him once the VR matrix collapsed were bound to have side effects, weakness, dizziness and possibly nausea. He helped James to the door of the isolation lab and hit the stud to open the door.
The soldier was clearly not a nurse. James noted that he was being half-carried like a wounded comrade, without the usual level of compassion he’d expect of a nurse. Nurses! The explosion! Suddenly memories flooded back. Was all that a dream? What did it have to do with this place where he’d woken up. He had no memory of coming here, wherever “here” was, the last thing he remembered was the haunted railyard and seeing ghosts.
The soldier helped him to the door, pressed a blank section of wall and the door slid smoothly of its own accord. More weirdness. Doors dont move of their own accord! As they left the room, and the door was sliding back home he caught a glance of the rest of the room.
“No!” he shouted and fought free of the soldier’s grasp. On an identical slab to the one he’d woken up on was another prone figure – Vincent – with all manner of tubes and metal implements sticking out of him.
“Calm down.” the soldier said to him.
“What? Who _are_ you people?” James demanded.
“You’re angry. I get that. It doesnt help though …” the soldier said, pausing slightly.
James began to turn to see what had caused the soldier to hesitate. The last thing he saw was a tiny Japanese woman with a black rod in her hand. The rod touched him and he blacked out.
Li breathed a sigh of relief that she’d been able to walk up to James unnoticed with all the swishing of silk that her kimono made. She silently cursed the long sleeves, hanging to her knees, and tried to be swift and precise as she tapped him with the stun rod. Eric expertly caught the crumpling form.
“I thought you said that he would be sedated!” Eric said.
“Its all happened faster than I expected. The VR collapsed on an exponentially spiralling trajectory. It was a matter of time but my estimate of the exact crash was off. Sorry. All the computer gave me were vague percentage estimates, not a lot to work with. Let’s get him to the shuttle and our ass over there. OK?” She answered.
Eric put James down on the floor, moved around him then picked him back up in a fireman’s lift. With James safely draped over his shoulder he straightened up and started off toward the shuttle bay.
“I hope you know what you’re doing Li. This is all starting to get kinda weird. Test subjects …” Eric said.
From out of nowhere it seemed, in reality from around the corner where she’d been waiting, Shawna appeared, “Yes, test subjects? We’ll have to see about that. Have you got buy-off from Genomics for this?” she interrupted.
“Shawna, we have permission for _catch and release_ on this one, ask the Captain. Copious samples were taken and the other test specimin is still in isolation waiting for you.” Li said.
“Heh. Copious? I doubt you even have the slightest idea of the scale I’d need for a full workup would you? Take your little fishy and drop him back into the pond.” Shawna said and stepped out of their way.
“Oh, and Li?”
“Remember that under the Protocol Seven lockdown all your results are mine to review. Dont think I wont be giving you a ride on things this time around.” Shawna sneered.
Li sighed and took a half-step along the corridor. Shawna blocked her. Li stepped to the side and Shawna blocked her again. The pattern repeated itself a few more times.
“Shawna, let me pass. This is infantile.” Li said.
Shawna laughed and stepped to the side. As Li passed Shawna stepped in and deliberately bumped past her, their shoulders coliding with a solid thump as they went their separate ways.
Li mumbled to herself as she marched off down the corridor with Eric in tow. What she failed to notice was a fine metalic layer that had been deposited by Shawna’s shoulder bump. The metallic patch pulled together, drawing into a soild spot and then snaked up to the neckline of the Kimono where it spread out and sank into the silk.
Eric settled himself into the pilot’s seat with Li in the co-pilot position. The shuttle showed green across the board, the heads-up display being projected directly from the computer onto Eric’s visual cortex. In front of his seat was a plain console with two hand-shaped depressions on the surface. He cracked his knuckles, getting a look of reproof from Li, then laid his hands lightly into the depressions.
“All set?” he asked.
“Yes.” Li said.
He pressed his hands deeper into the depressions and he felt them sink into the surface. Only a fraction of Scout Service personell were ever selected for flight school. It all depended on their adaption to the sensor net technology. Eric’s own investigation into the mysterious database he carried had yielded more information of course.