Li picked herself up and metaphorically dusted herself off. The altercation with Shawna had been unexpected. It was so much easier to deal with fights if they are expected. She’d got that down to a ‘T’. It was far easier to deal with harsh words. Somewhere along the line she’d started to _roll with the punches_ – to hear what they were saying and not answering back to defend. The lack of push-back was enough for some people to simply get bored and leave. Others were more persistent. Li sighed as she remembered high-school and learning that she could agree with the things people were saying to her and about her. Agreement really dulled the edge of the cutting words. The step beyond that was to take their words and point out where they had stsopped short. Even the worst of her detractors stopped at that point. They usually curled up like a conversational woodlouse. Li’s brain registered the abstract concept of embarassment was associated to their mannerisms but the reality didnt sink in. Her analyst had worked on that point but it never had stuck.
Eventually she got to the point of echoing the cutting words when her supporters were around. She never really made friends but did at times have allies, fellow freaks caught in the whirlwind of school, college or the working world. It didnt take her long to progress from saying the cutting, self condemnatory comments with supporters around to saying them to herself when she was alone. It was a short hop from cutting comments and condemnation to fully believing them and seeking ways to absolve herself of the guilt. Cutting comments to physically cutting. from words to razor blades. The pain washed away the whirlwind of thoughts in her head that otherwise had no other avenue of release. The sensor net covered so much!
She found herself at the threshold of her lab and turned around to look back along the corridor. She’d walked along it but had no memory of the time. Autopilot. Internally she scanned the list of symptoms and checked it off: unusual level of focus. Knowing the thing was half way to defeating the thing. Perhaps the ancient pagan nations were right, knowing the _name_ of a thing gave you power over it. Li nodded and said it to herself: “Asbergers syndrome”. She didnt know if the repetition of the name did any cosmic good or whether _knowing_ the thing gave her power but in moments like these she had a ritual. Focussing on the name and speaking it aloud drew that focus in and tethered it to a known location allowing her to gain a measure of control. With a deep breath she turned her gaze outward again and stepped into the lab that had become home.
Waiting inside, in clear view of the doorway and with enough distance that she had time to recognize his presence without any measure of surprise or shick, was Eric. He had his back to the translucent section of wall that served as one-way mirror into the isolation lab and his ass was propped against the console. His sensor-net was gone, replaced with green military fatigues and a Chicago Cubs baseball cap pulled low over his eyes.
“Hey Fanny.” he said, teeth gleaming against the backgrop of smooth chocolate skin, lips pulled up at the corners, dimples in his cheeks. Li catalogued the details and compared against her mental inventory. Teeth – snarl, anger, or possibly grin – lips and dimples – definitely the grin then. He was happy and he’d used his pet name for her. She decided that he was pleased to see her and relaxed. His grin widened as she walked across the room.
“How do you _do_ that?” she asked.
She reached up and brushed fingertips across his cheeks, up over the blank space where his eyes should have been and out across eyebrows. Her sensor-net transmitted tactile sensation at the most basic level and she ached for more. She ached for the freedom to be rid of the thing, to enjoy him directly.
“You know … when I arrive. You smile as I relax and the defenses come down. How?”
Eric laughed, “I still have ears. Its all in your walk. Hell, I could have had my own sensor net built in with the bonus I made after the last tour. Did I tell you that? There are times I just like to be free of the damned thing. As much as I admire the Captain for it, I could never wear my ‘net all day. It creeps me out. Did I tell you, the salesman had opted to eat his own dogfood. When he met me the first thing I noticed were his eyes, or the lack of them. They were black. Like deep space without a hint of colour to them. Who would _do_ that to themselves? It nearly killed my dad when the surgeon diagnosed a retinoblastoma. He could watch his two year old die or they could take my eyes to get to the cancer. God, what a decision! The salesman did it voluntarily for a _product_? Damn him. It just creeped me out too badly to want to go there. So here I am, au naturel.”
“How much more do you have to do here?” he asked.
“I Have to at least start data-mining. Specimin B is really dull. I think I have all I want from him but there’s something to the other that demands investigation. Not to mention Shawna’s desperate to get her hands on him. The longer I keep him the longer she waits. I like that. Her anger … amuses me. Move your ass.”
Li stepped up to the console and ran her fingers over its surface. The sensor net had mapped virtual controls onto its surface and read her movements, translating them into commands to the ship’s mainframe.
Eric turned to her, “What’s wrong?”
“Im in trouble. Protocol dictates that I need logical separation in the VR environment between one experiment and the next.”
“OK…” Eric said, moving his head in a gesture she interpreted as a nod.
“Well, that’s just it. Protocol Seven was enacted with tighter data-retention policies while I had a live translation running. Part of the VR matrix was memory-mapped into the computer’s address space. Protocol Seven had blocked me from deleting that memory.”
“And again, this time in English?” he asked.
“OK. I cant tear-down the experiment. Protocol Seven wont let me. The best I can do is reset everything except the memory mapped segment and hope that’s enough. I cannot achieve complete separation of experiments. This could invalidate everything else, everything I learn could be moot. I dont know, maybe it will be enough to reset everything else? The memory-mapped segment is tiny, just a single book. If we’re lucky it’ll be below the threshold of perception.”
“And if you’re not lucky?”
“Well, the book will persist across instances. Datamining is inherently random. The book will form a chronological record based on external shiptime, violating the subject’s perceptual timeline. At worst it will drive him mad.”
Eric took a deep breath, “And best case scenario? It doesnt _always_ have to go to the worst you know.”
“Well, best case is that he somehow integrates the book into his world with a protective layer of fiction. He might lose it. Lost, found, buried … as long as it is integrated he’ll not reject the programming of the VR. If things go wrong he’ll wake and we’ll be royally screwed.”
She turned back to the console and began furiously typing, mumbling to herself.
Eric stood and walked to the door, forgotten. She’d slipped into “the zone” and would be that way until finished, anything from minutes to hours. He knew better than to try to fight it. If he did succeed in breaking through she’d be in fight-or-flight mode, skittish and distracted at best, violent and moody at worst. He had nursed the emotional and physical bruises long enough to know neither option was pleasant. He chose to return later. He decided to indulge in a little of his own obsession, and took off toward the ship’s cargo hold deep in his own thoughts.
Eric knew the ship back to front, top to bottom and didnt need his sensor-net to get around. The unchanging environment was a welcome relief to navigating the streets of Chicago, riding the metro and a thousand and one other things that “normal” life had required of him before he’d signed up. Initially the only thing he’d wanted the generous grant for college and military service seemed the easiest approach. They’d gladly accepted him under an affirmative action program that had introduced him to a sensor-net for the first time. He’d fallen into a lucky sub-classification of users: his visual cortex was functional and the ‘net could stimulate it, unlike many other visually challenged applicants. They’d explained something about brain real-estate having changed hands – swapping grey matter between visual processing and touch allowing him to navigate and read Braille – and with practice his ‘net usage would rival that of sighted recruits.
The morning of his second day in the service he was lead to a room in the basement of the medical building. The nurse had him strip to the waist and lay face down on a cold, hard surface. She seemed really friendly and promised to return after the doctor’s visit. A few seconds after she’d left the room he heard a hiss and the air near his torso dropped in temperature slightly. He felt a pressure at the base of his neck but before he could turn or reach out to feel what was going on back there the door opened and someone entered the room.
“Everything’s perfectly OK Mr. Jakobi.” a male voice reassured him, “My name is Doctor Oberweis and I’ll be introducing you to your new sensor-net. Did nurse tell you what to expect? Oh, dont get up, this will only take a moment.”
Eric grunted in response, the pressure on his neck now gone. He felt fingertips, dry skin, slightly cracked. The doctor probed around his upper back and the base of his skull, “Ah yes, perfect. This will feel a little odd for a moment, maybe a little warm, hmm?”
Something was laid across Eric’s neck like a heavy scarf. He wriggled and it moved with him, stuck there. Then the lights came on. Eighteen years he had lived in darkness and had compensated for the loss of sight by learning new skills and honing old ones. His sense of direction was unerring. The sudden appearance of _light_ was a shock. Laying face down he couldnt make out any details, just a clear sense of _seeing_ the surface near his face.
“There. I think we’re done. Nurse will be back in here momentarily and you can get dressed again. Good day.” The doctor’s footsteps receded and then Eric was alone in the room. It was all so simple, so sudden, so easy. Why didnt _everyone_ do this?
The nurse came in and helped him down from the table. He couldnt see her very well, but amist the rest of the blur he thought he could make out her face. While the lips were turned up in a smile her eyes were flat, glazed, dead. She wasnt happy no matter how perky her words were.
The first few weeks of basic training were hell. His visual accuity was rock bottom and he failed many of the early tests. He had and an almost constant burning sensation in his fingers, lapsing back to a blessed numbness for only a few hours each day. In those early days he blamed the ‘net personally for his discomfort. “It” was acting as real-estate broker in his head, “it” was burning new pathways and “it” was making itself at home. His training officers pushed him hard and his grades improved but the attitude never did, despite their claims that his sensor-net was merely a tool. He was one of the minority that would take it off at night making sure to shower in the hottest possible water after he was free of it’s enveloping touch.
College came and went, first a Batchelors in materials science then a Masters in engineering. The combined military services paid for it all gladly, offering a generous stipend to live on. He made the most of things. He found that there were a few others, mostly on the fringes of their respective subjects, who distrusted the sensor-net as much as he did. An unofficial coalition formed to research the technology, a “clean room” approach using none of the publically available information sources. No-one in their distributed group wanted to be lied to. Then the military called in their marker, payback for the more-than generous education allowance: a standard four-year tour of duty aboard a long-range scout ship that took him light-years away from his fellow researchers. The tour was uneventful: a collection of dead solar systems, nebulae and comets. His engineering skills were used far more than the military training.
His return to Earth was bitter-sweet. The acceleration into hyper-light speed had caused side effects. Time had passed, every ship measuring “shiptime” against the tour of 1461 days, but shiptime had turned out to be malleable. A great cosmic hand had wadded it up and compressed it somehow. His four years on ship had cost him ten back on Earth. Suddenly the generous college stipend seemed like a cheap knock-off. Four years of service had meant ten of research into the sensor-net technology. Great strides had been made, but it had demanded its own toll. First came a government clamp-down. Then there were “accidents”. He was met with excitement by the remaining members of the coalition.
Ten years. So many things had changed in that time. Eric felt lost and out of place, even in Chicago. Especially there. His old neighbourhood had been redeveloped. The Cubs had a shining new stadium. When the invitation for another tour with the scout service came he jumped at it as his best option of escape.
Then came the knocking at his door, the night before he was due to leave. It was a dark and stormy night. The figure outside was soaked to the skin. He refused to stay, to even enter Eric’s temporary lodgings, he just thrust a data-storage device into his hand and left. Eric’s computer had read the disk: multiple gigabytes of research data with a single “readme.txt” file explaining that they needed him as “offsite backup” should any more of their coalition disappear. They promised to contact him in a decade, somehow.
Twenty years, and Chicago was no longer the city Eric remembered. Sure, the corruption was still there. That would be there until the heat-death of the universe, but the rest had changed almost beyond recognition. Eric found himself back in school and working for his officer’s commission. He returned to the stars in his first command without a second glance. In the two years he’d spent on Earth there was no hint of the coalition, and his involvement with school distracted him enough that he really didnt notice. It wasnt until he was going through his meagre belongings on board ship that he noticed the data-storage device had been “upgraded”, ten years of progress had miniturized things a great deal allowing for exponential growth in storage capacity. Someone, somewhere had covertly switched things and he’d never known. The new device gave him access to a single file, all the rest was locked away in a hidden (and it explained, quantum encrypted) filesystem. It was no longer safe to meet. They would work out what to do, if anyone else was left, next time he made it to Earth.
Eric missed the meeting: the scout service extended his tour, running the same crew back-to-back with only the briefest R+R stop at a bland space station in the viscinity of Sirius. The promised bonus after the tour was large enough that the crew were able to look forward to getting out of the service, to retiring. They laughed and joked together, made plans. Discipline toward the end of the tour became lax and relationships blossomed. The last two years were the best that Eric had enjoyed since being in the service so it was with great pain that he said goodbye to the crew. True to their word, all five cashed in their accumulated pay plus bonus and left the service. The last he’d heard of them, the Captain and ship’s medic were raising a family in Utah. Another was making a name for himself as a writer and motivational speaker and the other two had gone into business selling scuba-diving equipment to tourist in Malta.
Technology had advanced in leaps and bounds since he’d been away. Eric suddenly understood the Luddite movement in England. He despised the new musical styles. Fashion head leaped forward then reverted into a new era of puritanism, with a resurgence of conservative moral leadership spearheaded by multiple generations of Mormon presidents, and he hated it. Even his morning coffee was bland and lacked the punch that he’d always remembered. Something to do with the genetically modified, caffeine-free coffee plants that been developed under Federal grant funding. He felt the draw toward the stars more powerfully than ever. If he couldnt go to the stars, he felt like he’d explode … begin sabotaging the technology that had taken his familiar world away from him.
Two months after his return to Earth, precisely seven days since meeting an oily salesman offering him the latest in sensor-net eye replacements, he bumped into Inga. His next crew assignment had been delayed, something to do with technical difficulties and needing a complete overhaul of the ship drive systems. He was assigned a training position at the refurbished Scott Spaceport. He shook his head as he read the orders, remembering when it had merely been “Scott Air Force Base” but times change.
The morning had been crisp, a frost on the ground as he walked from mess-hall to the first orientation meeting of the day. Inga spoke with a faintly European accent, claiming to be from Sweden. She greeted him, walked with him between buildings and as she peeled off to a meeting elsewhere, she took a moment to shake hands with him and wish him luck. Something small, about a half-inch long, was pressed into his palm. He didnt dare look until he was safely inside and standing in the seclusion of the stairwell. It was smooth, oval and smelled good. The smell took him back to his college days. He rolled it between his fingers as he stretched back for the memory – dark smoky environments with friends, late nights studying, and someone would always share expresso beans covered with bitter chocolate. Without a moment of hesitation he popped the caffeinated contraband in his mouth. First the chocolate melted. He leaned his head back against the wall and sighed with pleasure. The revealed bean was hard and had a dark roast. He crunched it and felt his mouth flood with the rich coffee flavour he’d been missing for years. Federal funding might have all-but eradicated the old-fashioned coffee bean but _someone_ knew where to get them. The caffeine buzz lasted long into his meeting.
Inga met him again two days later, bumping into him in the mess hall, “Sorry.” she said, and walked away quickly. He found two coffee beans slipped into his pocket after the encounter. Two days after that she pressed a note into his hand as they passed in a busy corridor. She wanted to meet: a bar in Union Station, St Louis. The cab ride there was dull and the live band at the bar itself was playing a form of neo-jazz that left Eric cold. He was on the verge of leaving when he became aware of a presence behind him.
Inga spoke in a hurried whisper, “You were followed. I need you to go to the bathroom and throw up. After that, stagger out of the side door and lean against the building. If you can manage to, puke out there too. A cab will pick you up. Your tail will assume you’ve gone home early especially with that smell on your breath. Do it quickly.”
He turned to speak but she’d already melted away into the night.
Should he do as she’d said? Three coffee beans and a clandestine off-base meeting. He had no reason to believe her story. Something inside of him yearned for excitement. There was a freedom in space that he never felt back on Earth. He felt alive as he faced each day. The hostility of the environment with the thrill of supporting real discoveries was enough to propel him through the countdown, 1461 to 1. Two months chained to a desk teaching new recruits the ropes was killing him. What would it cost him to lose his evening meal?
Refried beans and a bland taco, “tasted the same coming up as it did going down” he thought as he leaned on the wall outside the bar. A vehicle pulled up, “You order a cab?” a foreign voice asked. Eric tried to place it. Middle-Eastern for sure.
“Yeah. Got a tissue?” he said.
“Heh. Yeah, here you go. Puke in my car and you’ll be paying double-fare though.”
After he’d cleaned up he dropped the tissue on the small, steaming pile he’d left next to the bar door. He got into the cab not knowing where he was going.
“Are we going far?” he asked.
“Seattle.” the cabbie answered, “But I cant take you all the way. If anyone asks, that’s your destination, OK?”
Eric was dropped off and picked up twice, each time the cabbie asked where he was going and he dutifully answered “Seattle”. Finally he was dropped off in a residential street. The cabbie knocked on a nearby door, and drove off. Inga met him.
“You made it! Come inside.”
The smell was heavenly. Coffee. The “new prohibition” had caused a whole new breed of Speakeasy establishments to spring up serving contraband caffeinated goods. Eric found himself holding a double expresso with Inga pressed close to him at the back of the room.
“Sorry for the subtefuge but we needed to be sure that you’d be free of your tail. I dont think they know how important you are, or what it is that you’ve been holding in safekeeping for us but we couldnt risk it.” she said.
He heard her sigh, “Yes. Remember … offsite backup?”
Realization dawned, “Fourty years ago! Well, sixteen for me, you’ve been waiting that long?”
Inga laughed, “Not me, no. The coalition recruited me two years ago and I was brought up to speed. They were all-but wiped out. When you missed the meeting the remaining members went to ground fearing the worst. It was a good thing they did. Government strike teams raided the research facilities. They know about us. They fear what we know. Will you continue the mission, ten more years might be enough to break this. A coup is being planned…”
Eric interrupted her, “… a coup? Hold on. We’re talking about clean-room reseach of the sensor-net tech, right? What’s that got to do with government?”
Inga paused before speaking, waiting for conversation around them to be in full flow before she spoke, “Yes. but think about it. We are the sum of our experiences. Those experiences come from outside and reach our brain through our five senses. Sensor-nets bypass that process, feed directly into the brain. The technology has been in use to dupe people for decades. Filtered perceptions, carefully crafted fictions, and that’s not the worst of it.”
Eric shook his head. The politics was all too much. He’d begun a skeptic, bad attitude toward the new technology and now here he was a political subversive plotting to overthrow the government.
“What? What’s worse than that?” he demanded.
Inga snorted, “You really want to know?”
“Well, I cant tell you. All I can do is show you a single file from the archive. If nothing else convinces you, this should.” her hand went to his arm and she lead him out of the room and down into the cool off the basement. She maneuvered him to an old couch and sat him down, straddled his lap and leaned forward to plant a passionate kiss on his lips. Her hands caressed his shoulders, his neck then up to his shaven head. Inga’s lips never left his but her voice echoed in his head.
“You hear me?”
He started to respond and she interrupted, “Just think of your response. I’ve establinshed a local-net for us, running via skin contact. I’ll pick you up.”
The shock at her kiss had worn off. He’d never expected real coffee, and certainly not expected the passionate lip-lock. Surprise gave way to enjoyment.
“Hey now.” Inga chided him, “this is the only secure method of communication I had available.”
“Yeah, yeah … and I’m the emperor of China.” he responded.
Light exploded in his head. He wasnt wearing his sensor-net yet somehow he’d begun receiving input. His visual cortex ate it up. He saw a young black man, barely into his twenties, being lead along a featureless grey corridor. He was lead into a sterile white room with a gleaming metal operating table its only furniture. The nurse told the boy to remove his shirt. Something inside Eric recognized the scene, and the memory of a cold, hard surface sprang to mind as he watched the young man lay face down on the operating table at the centre of the room. Vents around the edge of the table puffed a cloud of something into the boy’s face as a robotic arm swung out of the ceiling. The tip of the arm was already spinning, a vicious drill bit that swung into place and plunged without remorse into the back of the kid’s neck.
Wasnt there meant to have been a doctor? He watched as a secondary system in the arm activated and a probe trailing wires swung out and into the drilled hole.
Inga’s voice spoke, “You remember the voice? Doctor Oberweis telling you that he was going to introduce you to your new sensor net?”
Eric was in shock at what he was seeing, “Yes.”
Inga continued, “You’re drugged and that probe is broadcasting into your brainstem. Doctor Oberweis is a convenient fiction to help you assimilate this…”
Eric watched in horror as a small slug-like creature was lowered onto the shoulder of the prone boy. It inched up onto the back of his head and reared up. Eric felt bile rising as he watched it bite down, extending what looked like its tongue deep inside the the kid’s skull. The thing pulled back, hard, and the tongue broke off. The creature pulled its mouthparts back and crawled away, even as the severed piece was wriggling, writhing in its own kind of pain, and receeding inside the boy’s head. Another arm flashed out from the surgical robot, fired an energy weapon and vaporized the slug creature. Simaltaneously the probe retracted and sprayed a metalic silver mist across both wounds.
“That looks like a military issue nanite repair spray. I didnt think nanites were legal on Earth.” Eric said, finally.
“No. And if the world knew that their first introduction to the sensor net left pieces of a genetically crafted creature in their brain as an interface, who would use one? How many would campaign for _those_ to be illegal too?”
“I dont get it.”
“Its simple Eric, we are all living a lie. When the government started lying to us about how the sensor nets work, about that initiation, they opened the door to greater lies later on and to widespread abuse of the system. With a vast proportion of the population with the implant, how long do you think it was before they began diffusing pro-government messages directly into people’s heads? How long was it before they took control at the polling booth, inducing votes for a particular candidate while telling people they’d voted freely? Give us another decade and we’ll be ready to tell the people. To open their eyes to the truth. They’ve tried hard to suppress our ability to research the technology, but we’re on the verge of cracking it. You can buy us that time. We need you to take another tour, carry our data to the stars, and return with it. We will be ready. Can you do this?”
Eric didnt hesitate, “Yes, I can. But I have to know, when was that recording made?”
Inga paused and over their link Eric felt reluctance, and a deep sadness welled up, “My grandmother paid with her life to smuggle that recording out. That was you. Dont you remember her? She hated watching them process hundreds of new recruits. She was waiting for her chance to do _something_ and you tipped her over the edge. She watched you trade a free mind but empty eye sockets for an invaded cranium and the joy at seeing again. She knew the cost and knew how hollow the joy truly was.”
Eric understood, tried to radiate the best equivilent of a supportive hug across the link, “I remember her eyes. She was acting. I couldnt see more than a few inches but her eyes … such deep sadness. She looked dead inside.”
Inga broke the kiss, and the link faded quickly, “Then go. There was more in that link than just the truth of your first meeting. You wont remember it and no-one will be able to draw it out of you without another local-net link, but you hold the latest details of our research inside you. They cant be lost or stolen. All you need to do is return to us, someone will be waiting even if we start paying in blood to manage it. One more tour, bring back something you know and something you have.”
Inga kissed him again a few minutes later, to say goodbye. He carried the memory of that last kiss through the cab ride back to Scott Spaceport, through another three weeks of training recruits and out to the stars again. An awesome dread was rising in him as the tour began to draw to a close. He thought of the coalition, asking himself what it had cost them to wait for him. The captain’s announcement of Protocol Seven wasnt as much of a shock to Eric as the extension of their tour of duty. Fourty days of shiptime, at a minimum. He was going to be late and he was powerless to do anything about it. The weight of it lingered with him. How much more blood would that cost?
He was deep in thought as he left Li working in her laboratory. A fire burned inside him. He _had_ to get home no matter the cost. Potentially there were millions who needed what only he knew. One small data-storage device sewn into the inner lining of his kit bag had more explosive power that the largest bomb he could think of. He wanted to check that it was still there, still safe. Half way to the cargo hold he thought better and turned back toward his bunk. The best course of action would be to ignore it and not draw attention to it, to live and serve the next eighty or so days, then focus his entire will on getting his charge home safely. Eric slipped into his bunk lost in thought. He gladly counted off one more day as sleep claimed him quickly.