The computer’s voice came from nowhere, but just leapt into Allela’s eardrums fully formed. It sent a shiver down her back. She looked at Lukas. “Damn it, would you stop that?”
Lukas was hunched over the console, paying no attention to her. She couldn’t tell why, but his customary arrogance seemed to have magnified itself in the past few minutes. He didn’t acknowledge her.
He really had no call to act like that. They weren’t in the military, and he certainly wasn’t in charge of her. They’d both been of equal standing on the survey ship when they’d encountered the wreck, and he hadn’t been given any position of authority in the boarding party. Yet, the moment he stepped onboard, he’d stared issuing orders, expecting command to naturally fall around his shoulders.
Like everything else in the room, the console he was bent over was the color and texture of solid marble — even the buttons.
“Hold on,” Lukas said. “I think I’ve just about got this thing tricked.”
*Neural system found. Not recogni— Error. Reindexing. Input compatible.*
She wished there was some sign of the mechanism that let the machine intrude into their thoughts. A crystal ball, a pair of helmets, a tesla coil zapping cartoon lightning bolts into their skulls — anything. As it was, she couldn’t quite bring herself to believe that the console was producing the voice ringing inside her skull. It was too mundane to accept.
The Eponixus had, in the past, demonstrated the ability to interact directly with the human nervous system. They’d generated hallucinations, up to the point of entire dream worlds, merely by manipulating the visual cortex by remote. Always before, the illusions had been under the sway of the Eponixus themselves. A human had never controlled it.
She doubted the others had found anything like this. Even parked a safe ten-thousand kilometers away, the survey ship’s sensors had found only a minimal amount of electromagnetic activity aboard the Eponixus wreck. From the boarding shuttle’s viewport, the devastation of ages of exposure to the nameless white star’s radiation was evident.
She was surprised to find anything working at all. The Eponixus didn’t care for the dead in the same way humans did, but they never left any technology behind. They were protective of their secrets. If there was any tool more functional than the carbon scrubbers in the vents aboard, then it was here because the Eponixus didn’t know about it, not because they’d left it.
The machine was babbling contradictions because of the blinds Lukas installed over its sensor system. “It thinks we’re one of them,” he said. “We’re ready to go in.”
“Would you stop that?” Allela snapped. “I don’t think we should–”
Something deep underneath the console started thrumming, like it hid a diesel engine or a propeller. The marble floor was suddenly reverberating. The trembling spread up through the floor and into her skeleton.
* * *
Allela’s sensorium exploded, violent and cruel.
Shards of sight and scent scattered about the room. The kinetic force of the detonation drove fragments of touch and hearing deep into walls, where they were spiked into the electronic veins that pulsed throughout the marble corridors.
Her world became digital, and in a single dizzying moment, entirely binary.
She saw herself, and Lukas, fall limply to the floor. She watched it from multiple angles. She had eyes in the floor, ceiling, and all the walls. She couldn’t feel her body hit the floor, but she could sense its motions with sharp precision through tactile sensors on the room’s floor.
The putrid scent of flowing data wafted by her, and suddenly she was no longer in the same room, but somewhere else entirely. Somewhere smaller. No, wait.
It was the same size as before, but she had grown larger. Her senses encompassed a wider network. She spun about helplessly. Her thoughts kept _stretching_.
Psychedelic purple dots danced before her eyes. It took her a while to realize that she was accidentally ‘seeing’ data intended for her sense of touch. With a reflexive shiver of disgust, she sent the errant binary stream on its way, and her vision cleared. She saw into a dozen different rooms at once before she lost her balance. Her vision went swimmy, and she floated away.
She could taste sensor data, and used it to get her bearings again. She was too stricken by terror to do much else. Every time she tried to do something with what used to be her body, the computer did something else, and she was whisked away elsewhere.
The computer. Allela hovered over that thought for as long as she could. So Lukas had been right. The machine he’d been tinkering with had connected her to the Eponixus computer network.
No, she thought again, a moment later. If there’d been a connection, that would mean there would be some part of her that was back in her own body. She felt nothing of that. She was entirely divorced from it. No, what this thing had done was actually pick up her consciousness as a whole, and move it into the Eponixus network. It had stolen her from her body.
She was in more than one room. She could see into dozens of them. She realized that she’d always been in more than one room. The sensation of moving between them had been a trick of her psyche as it struggled to interpret her new senses. It was like looking through compound eyes.
Her mind wasn’t built to absorb all of this information. The only way she could cope was by forcing herself to relax her focus; deal with one bit of information at a time. Her mind was barely adequate for the amount of sensory input flowing into her.
She’d never imagined that data streams could smell so bad.
She felt herself brush against Lukas, and she reached out to him. Their minds slammed together like two opposite ions flung out of a particle accelerator. The speed of the contact splattered Allela’s thoughts in all directions, and she felt some of his accidentally slide in through the exposed gaps in her consciousness. She forced her thoughts to become a coherent mass again.
Part of Allela’s personality flowed across the border into Lukas’s, and vice versa. Their thoughts kissed on every level. She felt a fragment of baseball enter her memory. She’d never played a game before, but suddenly she was intricately familiar with its rules. She mentally shuddered, and pushed the idea fragment away.
She could sense Lukas feeling what she felt: bewilderment, terror. He hadn’t expected this.
The complex they’d stumbled into was deserted, but its computer obviously was still active. It was the first time any humans had managed to get their hands on this level of technology. Allela had wanted to leave and report this to someone who would know what to do with it better than they would, but Lukas had insisted on tinkering some more.
He’d gotten her involved in this. He’d never even asked permission. He the meddler; she the meddled with.
_Why do you never listen to me?_ Allela thought at him.
_Okay,_ Lukas thought back, _I’m beginning to think this is a bad idea._
_No shit,_ she thought back, unwilling to hide her caustic tone, and unable to hide it even if she were. Swallowing her fright, she thought, _I warned you not to fuck with that thing. You know just who I’m going to blame if I can’t get my body back._
Irritation swelled within him. Allela could feel it. _I didn’t mean to do this, so tone down the bitchiness. I didn’t tell that machine to do anything. It must have launched an automatic program in the machine when it saw us. A knee-jerk reaction._
She was filled with thoughts of herself, but they weren’t her own. They were from Lukas’s perspective. She was seeing just who he thought Allela Ricene was. Even more, she was beginning to see just what he thought of himself. She pushed those thoughts away before they could really register.
_Let’s try and find a way out of here,_ she thought. _The Eponixus may want to live like this, but I certainly don’t._
She sensed hesitation in Lukas’s mind. _Let’s figure out a little more about what happened before we go, all right?_
Allela was already gone, and she paid his last transmission no heed. She flexed her consciousness out. She could sense the seven other members of the boarding party still picking through the ship’s remains. After a cursory search for them, they would report back to the shuttle and leave. Their absence wouldn’t be noticed — they were insignificant measured against the five-hundred people aboard the survey ship. There was nothing she could do to interact with them. She turned her attention away.
She refocused her thoughts on the room she began in — the room where her real body lay on the floor, twisted and limp. She watched it from cameras scattered through the room. She could feel each strand of her hair tickle the floor with her tactile sensors.
Lukas joined her a moment later, his thoughts once again intermingling with hers. She felt… tolerance coming from him, and a certain wariness, as well. His caution was directed at her. She couldn’t tell why, though. Her reach into his thoughts didn’t quite extend that deep here.
This forced intimacy was a poisonous thing.
It was a mixed blessing, though, to have something much more immediate to think about.
_By the Gods,_ she swore, _we’re not breathing._
She felt a shiver of horror coming from Lukas’s mind, but it was quickly replaced by scientific curiosity. _Access the computer’s biosensors._
Allela did so. _You’re not breathing either,_ she thought. _We’re both brain-dead. There’s no nervous system activity at all!_
_Calm down? Lukas, we’re dead. You killed us!_
He was making a bold effort to hide his own panic, but when their thoughts mingled like this, it wasn’t possible for him to hide it. Still, he put on a good show. _They’re — we’re — not dead. Run a closer scan of our bodies. The computer’s keeping our bodies in cold stasis._
_How do you know that?_ Allela asked.
The only problem was that she couldn’t make herself hate him for very long. He’d meant no offense, no superiority; she knew his answer even before he said it.
There were many things to dislike about him, but at least she was able to understand him now. With that came respect.
_Check it out yourself._ He gave her the coordinates for a memory strain. _It’s keeping our bodies for us while we’re here. We’re brain-dead because we’re completely separate from our bodies. We could die and never notice the difference from in here. But the network says we could be put back at any time._
No small measure of relief flooded Allela’s mind. She was already sick of being in this strange and unfamiliar place. She hated the smell of binary digits. She heaved over as if to vomit, but belched out a corrupted data stream instead.
He gave her what she would describe as a look of concern, if only they’d had real faces. As it was, it was just an emotion. It was as real as if she’d felt it herself. She would’ve thought that it actually was her feeling — if she hadn’t been its target.
With a prickling horror, she realized she had lost track of exactly how many of the things she’d thought in the past few minutes had actually been her own ideas. Worse, she did not know what would happen if the Eponixus returned to this star to find them here. The Eponixus had smooth relations with the humans, but were temperamental when it came to their technology. If they came back, and found her inside this computer — she would be deleted. At a minimum.
_Good,_ she thought. _Let’s get out of here._
_Let’s hold on a moment._ She sensed a lack of enthusiasm from him. _I’m staying here for a little while longer._
_Let’s not be stupid,_ she told him.
She felt uneasy as she thought it, because she knew there wasn’t really any stupidity behind Lukas’s decision. From close up, she understood that they just had different motives.
_There’s nothing stupid about a little scientific curiosity,_ he thought. _I want to find out more about this place before we abandon it._
_Our minds weren’t built to handle this thing,_ she thought furiously. _Hells, this thing wasn’t even built to handle our minds. We don’t know if anything’s keeping us together. Our minds could be disintegrating every second we’re in here._
Allela couldn’t remember what kind of cake she’d had for her fifth birthday party. She couldn’t even remember if that was the kind of thing she’d normally be able to know off the top of her head.
_Hells with it,_ she thought. _I’m going to try and figure out how to get this thing to put me back in my own body, with or without you. I understand you too much to pretend that you’re going to leave._
The last sentence, she thought, was more telling than she’d intended.
_Good luck. You’ll have to tell somebody what happened to us. I’ll try to be out in a few hours. Don’t get too lonely out there._
She was about to snap at him and ask him what the hell he meant by that, but suddenly she realized what he was talking about. She’d never been this close to anyone before. Not actually touching thoughts. She’d grown accustomed to it already.
In these few seconds together, she’d lost part of herself to him. She felt a little kernel of Lukas’s personality inside her, too. She found it and squeezed it tight, unwilling to let it go.
She wasn’t sure which of them had thought that. She shivered, sending thought fragments scattered in every direction, like water droplets off a shaking mutt. It was time to end this.
_I’d better leave soon,_ she thought. _I–_
_You don’t have to say it._
She’d been cordial with Lukas before, even if she did sometimes find him annoyingly stubborn. Now, she wasn’t sure exactly what they meant to each other. She only knew that no two human beings had been placed in such close mental proximity before. There was no precedent for it. They had no clue what it could do to two different personalities.
There was no clear delineation between the two of them. There were places of higher concentration of her personality as opposed to his, yes, but they didn’t mean much when they were open to his probing. If she had to make a map of it, she would have just drawn the number eight: two globes with a wide bridge between them — that bridge was getting thicker all the time. His thoughts flickered about deep inside hers, a welcome invader. She returned the favor.
_If we spend much more time together like this,_ she thought, _we could lose ourselves in each other._
_I think I already have. I never imagined that your thoughts looked anything like this._
_I don’t want to go,_ she told him.
He surprised her by giving her a mental tug of resistance to that thought. He was repulsed by the idea of her leaving, but there was something stronger inside him.
The conversation they had next played out without words. It wasn’t even subvocal this time. It took no time at all. It was pure. She was suddenly filled with a sense of purpose, of duty, to tell the others on the survey team what was happening. It had been his, and he’d made it hers.
_Don’t get too lonely in here, either,_ she told him.
_Come back soon._
* * *
She shunted herself back into her body. Reality hiccupped. She sat up and hugged herself, feeling her body temperature rise back to normal. Judging by the chill she felt, and the grayness of her flesh, she’d actually spent a considerable amount of time as a piece of Eponixus software. Everything seemed to be working fine now, though.
Her mind wasn’t on the sensations of the revival of her dead body. She stared at the machine embedded in the marble wall, and wondered how long it would be before she could return. Life out here was too cold for her to want anymore.
It was lonely.
Come back soon, he’d said. If he was only going to stay a few hours, though, why would he–? The obvious answer came before she’d asked the question. He intended to remain. She’d sensed the conspiracy, cold and aloof, underneath the web of his imagination.
She couldn’t bring herself to say that he was wrong.
She raced out of the room to tell someone what she and Lukas had discovered. If only so that they would know what exactly had happened to them, and she didn’t end up MIA. She was already rehearsing her resignation. *
About the Author: Tristan Palmgren, a native of Minnesota, has only recently uprooted and moved to Ohio, where he enjoys regaling his new neighbors with horror stories of minus-forty-degree October blizzards and snowfall an adult could drown in. At least, he enjoys it when people are gullible enough to believe him. Yah, sure, you bet’cha.
(c) 2004 Tristan Palmgren firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago has turned himself and his family into downloadable, multi-toned and multi-colored iTunes. They now live inside a pink mini-iPod and ride the FireWire bus when the need to travel is required, significantly reducing their gas bills.
(c) 2004 Romeo Esparrago http://www.romedome.com