“We’re losing her,” my ragged whisper is almost inaudible amongst the roar of CPU fans screaming from the server racks.
Sweat pools on my forehead and drips, stinging, into my eyes despite the frigid air blowing through the HVAC system. I wipe it away and try not to stare at the gurney where Carrie lies. It’s hard to pretend I can’t hear the alarms from the half-dozen monitors situated around her either. Pretend there isn’t anything to worry about.
I try and fail because I can’t stop thinking about the fact I killed my wife.
“Dee,” I say, voice cracking. “Start chest compressions.”
Dee springs into action. A short, elfin girl as pale as I am dark, with a hefty blonde ponytail, Dee’s been my right-hand for two years now. She’s hands down the best AI programmer I’ve ever met. With her on the team, the three of us–Carrie, Dee, and I–have created something grand. Something spectacular.
Something I’ll burn to the ground if it means saving Carrie.
I take a harsh, steadying breath, the taste of ozone and sweat sweet on the air and look at the monitor in front of me. The console window in the top right is a stream of insanity–just raw text and gibberish I barely understand. The rest of the window has the design sense of an Emo band’s antiquated MySpace page thanks to Carrie; all pinks and blacks. It makes my eyes bleed, but those control panels are what hold Carrie’s consciousness, so I squint and search.
The server farm, via the bio-digital interface hooked up to the gurney with zip ties and duct-tape, allows the transference of human consciousness out of a body temporarily. With enough practice–and funding–it can move a mind from a body to a machine, or even, if technology advances enough, to a clone.
And it works. At least, it worked until Carrie. We’ve done this dozens of times with Dee and me, but Carrie… Carrie leads the Department of Defense presentation next week and wanted to know what it felt like. She wanted to see the demo simulation in person.
An ache builds in my stomach. It’s getting hard to breathe. My vision blurs… and I scream a curse and hammer the panic away on the stainless-steel desk until my right hand erupts in bright, flushing pain. I might’ve broken something, but it’s worked. That nervous energy has coiled into a tight collection of ball-bearings in my gut, painful but contained.
Find the logic loop, close it, then re-upload her mind, I say to myself, an emotionless cold descending on me. Bring Carrie back.
I search for what feels like days, the harsh screech of alarms, nails on a chalkboard. The CPU core-temp rises as the servers try to load-balance Carrie’s consciousness across them. Digging through panels and parsing live logs searching for something, anything, that shows me how we killed her brain activity when extracting a copy of her mind.
I find nothing. And it’s my fault.
All of this is my fault.
My fingers drop from the keyboard. She’s gone.
I killed her.
From the corner of my eye, I see Dee step away from Carrie’s body, stare at the electrocardiograph.
Carrie has a heartbeat.
Then Dee is on me, shoving me from the chair. “Rahul, move!”
I stumble away, almost face-planting into a server rack, but don’t argue. “What are you doing?”
Dee doesn’t say anything. Instead, she pops open an admin terminal and types, new code flashing on the screen with blinding speed. Dozens–hundreds–of lines of code stream from her fingers and onto the screen, full-formed and perfectly written. It almost looks like she’s copied it from her mind and pasted it onto the terminal.
She wraps the last curly brace and slaps the Enter key.
The server racks exhale. Freezing air from the HVAC system wafts over me. My face feels like it’s covered in icicles.
But the beeps of Carrie’s monitors even out, a steady rhythm instead of frenzied screeches.
Now there’s only one low tone issuing from the row of machines.
Carrie’s chest rises and falls normally, but brain activity is still flat.
I hold out a hand toward Carrie, but Dee waves me away.
My hands are shaking.
Through a tight throat, I whisper, “It’s not working.”
“Shh,” Dee snaps, holding up a trembling finger.
Leaning over her shoulder, I squint at the last line of code. It’s an export directive pointing to a set of IPv6 addresses. None of them look familiar in the least and, as I stare at them, they look like they have too many characters in them.
What the hell is Dee doing?
“That can’t be right,” I mutter, reaching out to the monitor, finger hovering, unsteady next to the line. “Why–what–are you exporting?”
Dee doesn’t answer, but does raise her finger again, slowly pushing my arm out of the way. After a moment, she cocks her head like she’s listening to something, then her fingers drop to the keyboard and flash again.
This time when she finishes, a textual download prompt kicks in. Around us the servers roar as CPU and case fans are pegged, sending a warm breeze coasting through the room despite the HVAC’s best efforts. My phone, sitting on the table next to Dee, tones repeatedly with overheating and storage capacity notifications.
Whatever Dee is doing, it’s pushing our server cluster to the brink. The prompt hits 100%, then flashes again with another progress bar, this one labeled upload.
The electric panel behind the server racks sparks and one of the long rows spins down, groaning like an old man leaning into an easy chair.
“We already uploaded that chunk, don’t worry.” She looks at the prompts, closes her eyes, then says more to herself than me: “Don’t worry.”
Another series of circuits pop with machine-gun efficiency, crack-crack-crack, and two more racks power down.
And then it’s done. All at once, the fans in the remaining server racks slow and transform back into their gentle hum. The freezing air of the HVAC wipes away the lingering heat.
My eyes snap to the brain wave monitor as it quivers to life. Somehow my hand is on Dee’s shoulder. She’s trembling, cheeks flushed, tongue darting over chapped lips.
“What’d you do, Dee?” I ask, unable to keep the awe from my voice.
Carrie was gone. I was so sure of it.
But she’s not and the flush running through my body is a heady mix of relief, joy, and confusion.
Dee looks up at me, the corners of her mouth twitching into a smile. “I saved her.”
Then her smile fades, and her eyes go dark. There’s something there I can’t quite identify. Something shaky and scared. Dread?
She looks at the monitor. “I saved her.”
The way she says it sounds like she’s not sure.
A breeze thick with moisture and the stolen stink of a city soaked in too much rain runs across my arms making goosebumps stand at attention. A thudding bass beat ripples through the brick wall behind me, tickling my back and sending pleasant vibrations through my legs. The gentle murmur of Syracuse is everywhere; the sounds of peeling wheels on wet asphalt, raucous chaos from a chorus of angry horns, and the babble of folks milling around the biker bar across the street.
It’s a comfortable moment, made more so by the people I’m with. As if on cue, fingers entwine with mine. They’re warm, familiar. My grin goes as wide as the liquor buzz allows it to, which is all the way.
I turn toward Carrie, but she’s still chatting with Dee on the other side. The world fades at the edges and it’s just her and me. It’s only been a few weeks since she almost died, and I’m not done being thankful she’s still here. And tonight, of all nights, I am thankful.
The check from the Department of Defense just cleared, which means Neural Transmissions, Inc. is funded for the next five years.
We did it. And no one died.
Carrie turns toward me, brown eyes twinkling in the street lights. “Ready to head home?”
Her body spray washes over me, a gentle mixture of wild flowers and lavender.
I nod, sure I’m grinning like an idiot. “Let’s do it.”
Carrie smirks, then turns toward Dee, fingers unclasping, and grabs Dee in a fierce embrace.
“Thank you!” She grunts out.
Dee makes a fake choking sound and Carrie lets go. “I’m just glad you’re feeling better.” Dee pauses, lips pursed. “You are feeling better, right?”
“Yes,” Carrie says, knocking Dee in the shoulder with a smile. “I feel great. A new lease on life. And look,” Carrie pulls down the V-neck of her t-shirt to show off the fading yellow-green of a bruise on her chest, “the bruises are almost gone.”
Dee pushes her lips into a thin line. “No side effects? Nothing weird?”
“I’m sorry, Dee,” Carrie says, crossing her arms with a faked grimace. “The position of ‘my mother’ has already been filled.”
Dee rolls her eyes and sighs. Carrie laughs.
“But seriously,” Carrie adds, hugging Dee again. “I’ve never felt more alive.”
I smile at Dee and she returns it sheepishly, her free hand rubbing hair over her ear. I’m still not sure how the hell she did what she did or what she uploaded and downloaded. It’s come up a few times, but Dee always finds a way to avoid the topic.
It doesn’t matter. We’ll tackle that tomorrow. Tonight is for celebration.
“Fine. Off you go then,” Dee says with a smile, smoothing the scarf she’s wearing despite the summer warmth. “Two aspirin and call me in the morning.”
Carrie and I snicker in unison.
Carrie’s fingers wiggle back into my own and we take off toward home a few blocks away.
Before rounding the first corner, under the halo of a streetlight, I glance back at Dee and toss a farewell with my free hand.
Dee’s eyes go wide. Her mouth opens in a silent shout.
“Carrie Anthony?” A low voice grumbles behind me.
It all happens so quickly.
One moment, Carrie is holding my hand, then there’s a spasm as her fingers break from mine and she stumbles backward, trips, and slams into the brick wall of the club with a thud.
Eyes wide, hands on her neck.
Blood leaking between white fingers.
I catch a flash of red light from my left and turn in time to catch a pair of arms connected to a long fileting knife slashing at my neck.
Everything fades into a haze and I’m grappling with a man for a bloody blade next to where Carrie kicks and gasps. The man is ungodly strong despite being only a little over five foot, almost a foot shorter than me. The thing that catches me, though, are his eyes. They’re huge, black, and glossy, like the polished glass of a poorly taxidermied animal.
A scream breaks from somewhere behind me, but the man, and the knife, take my full attention because I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’ve never taken self-defense courses. All I have are fear and adrenaline. Luckily, the lessons are simple, if daunting.
Hold onto him.
Keep the knife away.
I squeeze the murderer’s wrists and feel the bones twist. Sweat coats the other man’s face, but, besides the slightest twitch in his cheek, I don’t see any other indication he feels it. That he feels anything.
Water strikes my face and arms as the sky opens above us, suddenly soaking me to the bone. I hear a soft gurgle from my right and something inside me cracks.
A scream rips through my body, tearing like a wild beast, and I press forward on the man, leveraging my extra height. He grunts as I howl in his face.
I can smell his sweat.
Feel his heartbeat in my hands.
He’s killed Carrie. Killed the most important thing to me.
The world goes red as I get close to him, close enough to smell his fetid breath and hear the sucking gasps of his straining lungs.
I’ll make him pay.
He doesn’t know pain.
But I’ll show him.
And I’m sure I can do it… up until the sound of running footsteps behind me stops it from happening.
The spell breaks and for some godforsaken reason, I turn toward the sound. It’s a single mistake, but there only needed to be one.
My right-hand flares in pain and I instinctively let go as the blade tears a long, crimson line across the pale skin on my palm. Before I can stop myself, I’m cradling my left hand, hissing in pain.
The man slams the blade into my stomach with his now-free hand. I feel a sharp tugging, as if someone’s hooked my guts on a line and is reeling me in.
Then comes the pain.
My insides light on fire and I freeze, a deer in headlights. And like a hunter who missed his shot, the bastard slams the blade in my stomach four more times, each hit tearing and ripping further toward my chest.
Red-hot pain fills me, and I cough, my chin hot and wet, before staggering to my knees. My hands slide to my stomach and swim in blood and slick threads of flesh I shouldn’t be able to touch.
The red haze that kept me going fades entirely. My vision goes fuzzy. Standing over me, the man grabs me by the hair and sets the crimson blade to my neck.
I try to say something, anything, but only succeed in gurgling blood down my face.
Then Dee barrels past and into the man with the knife, taking them both from my view.
I try to get up and fall, collapsing to the broken concrete sidewalk. The ground, still hot from the summer sun, warms my face. Carrie lies a short distance away. Her face is pale, blue lips moving wordlessly. Red hands grip her own throat. The front of her shirt and the ground around her is covered in blood. It seeps into her worn blue jeans, turning them black and scarred, her shirt a monochrome tie-dye.
I don’t have time to process what’s happening. The pain hits in earnest. Blinding. Terrifying.
Each breath ends in a hacking, bloody mess.
I can’t breathe.
A wet gurgling sound echoes in my ears.
I can’t breathe.
I reach for Carrie, but she’s too far. A chasm splits her and me. My fingers scratch through the cooling crimson puddle around her. Wet and thick. She reaches to me. A hand waving in the air. Then it falls.
Brown eyes go flat.
It’s like I’m watching her die from the other side of a monitor.
Like it’s a movie. A horrible movie.
I try to call out to Carrie and spit blood across my extended arm. At the edge of my vision, I see my fingers still crawling at the concrete. I can’t feel them anymore.
Dee’s face breaks into my vision and, for just a moment, I feel like I’m under a microscope. She pulls off her scarf and presses it against my stomach.
Everything is numb.
Dee’s eyes shift rapidly as if looking for something.
My eyes break from her. I look to Carrie. I try to tell Dee–will her–to save Carrie. To leave me and save her.
To save my wife. Again.
Dee follows my eyes. Her face blanches. She stands in a rush, looking about in a panic.
“I’m sorry,” Dee whispers, voice thick, just short of a sob. “I shouldn’t be here.”
Dee turns and runs.
And I can’t process that.
Why would she run?
I want to howl that Carrie is going to die. I want to drag her back, kicking and screaming, to save her. But those feelings soften and fade as the world turns cold. My eyes wander to Carrie. To Carrie’s body.
Because she’s gone.
Maybe Dee knew that? Maybe that’s why she ran?
It doesn’t matter.
The world fuzzes over like someone draped cheesecloth over my head. Whether it’s from tears or dying, I don’t know. My fingers keep stretching, scraping at the ground toward Carrie. Soon, numb and disconnected, they twitch and stop.
Carrie’s vacant stare and slashed throat are the last things I see before everything fades away into frigid emptiness.
Death is cold and creeping.
It’s an eternity of slithering eels, wet and slick against your skin. Unseen claws trace frozen lines along your spine, dragging and draining the last motes of warmth from you. Sucking and feasting like a parasitic twin.
But it’s familiar. Something there in each distant thought, even when you’re young. A nagging reminder it’s all temporary.
Nothing lives forever.
But now it’s more. Now it’s everything.
And soon it’ll be nothing. I can feel it in my very being. Feel that small speck of energy that’s me fade with each touch. Each caress makes the impenetrable blackness around me somehow thicker. An inky permanence.
A star bursts in the distance.
I try to block the light, but my limbs don’t respond. I’m paralyzed, unable to blink. The thick, clinging hands of death strip away from my vision under the blazing, heatless flames. Fingers scratch and tear as they’re ripped away, a wordless howl echoing in the vast empty fire of the supernova.
And I can see again, even if it’s just this intense light that undulates and swims like liquid marble. I try to blink away the brightness but can’t. There’s nothing to blink, nothing to move.
Because I’m dead.
And so is Carrie.
The reality of it settles on me like a brand. Panic flares where I imagine my chest should be. I can’t feel anything beyond this blistering light attacking my sight. It sears and drives into me, weaseling behind my eyes and into my mind.
I expected the light to help me. To, maybe, open my eyes and let me save Carrie. But that’s not its purpose.
It’s an invasion.
The light claws my brain with rough hands, prodding and pressing. Skimming my thoughts. I try to struggle, to flail against it, but it’s like trying to snuff the sun with a glass of water. Instead, the light teases out my most precious moments–my most treasured dreams–and rips them from my head. Carefully, the light arranges those memories before me as iridescent globes; dozens–hundreds–of slowly spinning bubbles murmuring softly in the white haze.
And a haze it’s become. From the edges of sight, a mist has entered my field of view. It crawls and drags its way around the edges of my vision, wreathing everything in shifting spines like an animated book ornament. From somewhere distant, I hear the rolling susurrus of voices.
And all at once it hits me.
The first breath jars me. A deep, guttural scraping sound fills my ears as I suck in huge gulps of air. The voices around me, once slight and barely audible, grow urgent. The fog darkens, thick veins of black writhing like maggots exposed to daylight.
My breath turns into a ragged staccato and, through a mixed haze of anxiety and relief, I feel something I never realized was there until it wasn’t.
My heartbeat. I feel it–really feel it–even though it’s unsteady and rapid.
Ahead of me, the mist and fog pulses, then lashes out at the bubbles hanging before me. Tiny stories flash on their surfaces as if a video stuck on a loop. The dark tendrils wrap around them and squeeze, a virus trying to infect a cell.
He’s in shock, someone says, on the edge of hearing.
The voice strikes something in me–familiarity, knowledge–but I can’t place it.
The fog rolls over my senior prom, my parents.
Memories, thoughts, echo around my mind, a confused jumble that grows worse as something else wriggles in; something foreign, yet somehow familiar.
My memories twist as the name enters my mind, warping my memories to something different, alien. I find my eyes drawn to a swirling ball of iridescence, of flowers and green grass on a summer day. The mist wraps around it and tenses, quivering–
The perpetually warm breeze from the air filters. The scent of newly modified marigolds on the upper deck of the Einstein, a false sky shining its fake light across glistening golden petals.
And it’s gone. I don’t know what it is. I’ve never been out of the United States, let alone on a ship called the Einstein. Another memory flexes and writhes–
The hum of air purifiers over my head while studying the history of pre-solar system travel. The holo flickers over my face, its orange glow lighting a spartan bunk that smells of gear oil and freshly-applied sealant.
Each new memory layers across my mind, coating and tweaking old reveries until they’re something different. Something as alien as this mist. More slam into me and my mind twists, changes.
The fog gets thicker.
As the gray tendrils wrap a memory, they birth another bubble and, in that bubble, is a near clone of my old thoughts with marked differences. I can remember my senior prom, but it’s as if I’m remembering it from a television show; external. Separate. Instead, the driving, visceral memory of that time is of an academy dance a decade after leaving Earth.
After leaving Earth.
I try to process that, to make sense of the blasé way that knowledge leaps into my mind, but there’s no time for it.
The fog is relentless in replacing me. It whirls and twists around everything, gripping and squeezing until a new memory takes priority, methodically supplanting me with someone else.
With Jake Sullivan.
And then, for a brief, blissful moment, it stops and I’m left wavering between two worlds. In one, I’m Rahul Anthony, a man who has spent his career working on ways to move consciousness from a human to a machine and back. A man with a partner he’s loved for more than a decade with everything he has.
In the other, I’m Jake Sullivan, a three-hundred-year-old scientist trying to find his people, a people who’ve given up, a new home. A man who sacrificed everything, including his happiness, centuries ago for the greater good.
And then I see why the onslaught stopped.
Directly in front of me, the cloud wraps around a bubble with Carrie’s face, twisting and turning as it struggles to replace her with something similar.
But there’s nothing in Jake’s memories like her.
Nothing, though two faces flash as the fog tries to find something. One, a woman with almond eyes and a severe tilt to her thin-lipped mouth, the other, a woman with bright blue eyes and gray-streaked brown hair pulled back into a tight bun. Both appear suddenly and are discarded as quickly.
Despite Jake’s many years, the man has never loved someone like I do Carrie. He’s had friends, but no great loves.
For a moment, I feel sorry for him…
Then the cloud clamps down, Carrie’s face flashing with sudden light, and the memory fragments out into our fifteen years together. Each of them is of her.
Of us together.
Working, playing, making love; all laid out before me like photos for a scrapbook.
Tendrils of fog wrap around each image like constricting snakes. There’s the feeling of something pulsing at the back of my head, then the coils of fog shudder and squeeze. Cracks spider web along each snapshot, each memory a glimpse of something beautiful through a shattered window.
A thick line splits through one of Carrie’s eyes as I lift her veil during our wedding, a frigid wind neither of us feels whipping past–
The zephyr carries the crisp scent of melting snow and fresh turned soil. A grin splits Carrie’s face, her nose scrunching up, brown eyes glinting in the bright, yet chill, May sun. Her face is flushed, though from the cold or excitement, I can’t tell. I don’t ask. I imagine I look the same way.
Searing white lines shine across it.
The memory shatters.
I can’t remember my wedding.
My heart slams in my chest, breath coming in clipped gasps.
There’s no sound; no high-pitched wailing… just a vibration that rattles through this place, reflecting off everything. The fog shudders, like it’s unsure what to do. Like it’s surprised. The fault lines on the rest of my memories hesitate.
I howl until everything shakes. Until the heartbeat pounding away in my chest is an out of control rail car nearing the end of a track. I put everything I have into forcing away this fog, this intruder.
For the briefest of moments, it feels like it’s going to resist, but then it retreats all at once. Gray tendrils slip out of my line of sight.
The light recedes.
Everything goes black except the shimmering bubbles floating before me. Without the light and the fog to separate them, the memories merge and twist. Like soap bubbles flown too close to each other, they touch and fuse, mixing and muddling until everything, all of it, condenses into a single, roiling ball.
It floats there, impossibly large, lights flashing and spinning. For a moment, I wonder if I should do anything… but that’s answered for me. The ball shoots toward me, enveloping me in flashing lights.
There’s a flood of memory as two men’s minds merge into one.
The marigolds of the Einstein merge with the lavender of Mrs. Eaton’s backyard.
An old, beaten air conditioner and Civil War history snakes alongside my cramped bunk in the Academy.
Chen Al and I, sweaty and urgent, after Advanced String Theory swaps back and forth with Stacey Tompkins behind the bleachers, rocks digging into my knees.
My wedding is gone… but Carrie isn’t.
The bubble pops, fading away until I’m left floating in this massive empty nothing. Memories and thoughts war with my identity, but, ultimately, settle behind me.
Behind Rahul Anthony.
This other man, Jake, merges with me; thoughts, feelings, memories integrating and twisting amongst my own; half-merged, half-unique.
For a beautiful, fantastic moment everything stills as the last thought flits into my mind. I’m walking to what I know, logically, is a glass wall facing the exterior of a ship, but it stares out into a vast empty void at the edge of the galaxy.
The framing around the window stands stark against the empty blackness before me. There’s only the window, my now-pale hand striking in its color against the nothingness outside. It’s dark, so lacking in light it hurts my eyes and…
It’s too much. Jake is–was–ancient. Three-hundred-years old or more, and every thought, every feeling, blasts a stranger’s presence into my mind.
Carrie’s dead face flashes in my mind amongst it all.
My minds collapse together… and in this deafening void, they scream.
The beeping wakes me up.
It’s dull and muted, but familiar in a way that rattles me out of a dreamless sleep. A vital signs monitor.
My arms shoot out before my eyes open, expecting the broken concrete of Franklin Street, but instead cracking against the softened edges of a plastic hospital bed. The distinctive scent of antiseptic tickles my nose and throat and, from someplace distant, I swear I can feel, rather than hear, a subtle rumbling. My eyes crack open slowly, caked rheum fighting me every step of the way. Fingers sliding across the bed, I fully expect to see an emergency room, but instead I see…
The world comes into focus slowly, as if my eyes can’t quite get it right. Everything is blurry in a way I only vaguely remember from before I had vision correction surgery, remaining a blob of white and gray despite my best effort.
“Hey. Take it easy,” a feminine voice on the edge of husky says from my left. “Here, take these.”
I blindly take the proffered object. Unsurprisingly, they’re a pair of glasses–my glasses–and I put them on awkwardly. I haven’t worn glasses in six years… but these are mine. They sit strangely on my face at first, but a quick adjustment and they feel right.
They’re Jake’s, I correct myself, though I’m not completely sure what that means.
An intense ache crawls across the sides of my head until it meets at the front as a pounding headache. I rub at my temples with a groan and the pain fades, easing into the sides of my head, where it sits like an uninvited guest waiting for the right time to pilfer the silverware.
“Take your time.” The voice offers. “You’ve been through a lot.”
A pair of blue lips on a pale face flashes in my mind.
“Where am I?” I ask, trying to sit up in the bed.
My right-hand slips and it knocks into the wall to my right with a thud. My breath catches.
Because it’s not a wall. When I touch it, the surface dissolves until it’s transparent and looks out onto… a city.
That’s not the right word. I’m high on what appears to be a massive bifurcated cylinder. And I do mean massive. The top half of the cylinder is the sky. I can see clouds rotating in front of the sun, though they warp ever so slightly as they cross from side to side, like they’re projected onto a curved surface. The lower half is laid out from what I’d call the western edge of the cylinder to the eastern as an exact grid pattern. The structures and streets creep up the far side like that city carved into the stone in Mesa Verde.
And the trees. There are so many trees; huge towering things that rise until they tickle the stomach of the fake sky far above us. Squinting, I notice little forms darting to and fro amongst the thick foliage of the trees. If I can see them from here, they must be massive, just like this strange city. I can’t tell how long the cylinder is from my bed, but it looks to go on forever.
A light pops on behind me and I see something new in the window. Something that makes my heart skip a beat.
Or, rather, a me that tickles the loose memories at the back of my head. A me with pale skin and a receded hairline of dirty-blond curls.
I lean away from the window, peeling my hand off the glass though I don’t remember putting it there. There’s something about hearing someone else say that name that twists my stomach into a knot.
I swivel to look at the source of the voice. She leans toward me, a hectic blend of eagerness and concern etched on a face with almond eyes framed with close-cropped black hair. She wears a jumpsuit of grays and whites that almost makes her vanish into the room like she’s wearing camouflage. She smells like nervous sweat and wildflowers.
I know her. There, in the back of my mind, I know her.
“Vani?” I ask.
Her narrow lips break into a wide smile of perfect teeth. “Yes,” she says, reaching out and grabbing my hand. “It’s me. How’re you feeling?”
She doesn’t notice–or doesn’t care–I flinch when she touches me. Her fingers are cold. I stare at her lightly tanned hand on top of my own, lighter skin, for what feels like an eternity before responding.
“I think I’m a little confused…” I start, tearing my gaze away from our hands. “Where am I?”
When I meet her eyes, I freeze. Her deep, brown eyes are filled with unwept tears hidden behind a forced, tight-lipped smile that reminds me of conversation in a hallway many years ago.
The memory tickles my fingers, my throat. The room darkens; Vani’s voice fades. Then the world disappears…
We stare out into the vast nothing of the cosmic void.
Vani kneels quietly, her forest green holo shining from her wrist, reflecting off the thick glass. Her hair falls past her chin, almond eyes lit only by the light coming from her wrist.
Her holo winks out as she gives her right wrist a tap.
“You ever think maybe we’re just wasting our time, Jake?” She asks suddenly, eyes locked on something in the emptiness before us, like she’s somehow making sense of the vast blackness of space in a way I’ll never understand.
And I’m not about to try because no one has time for that level of sadness. Instead, I pull out the plastisteel carafe of whiskey I finished aging earlier and take a long pull.
“Jake?” Vani asks, breaking her stare and looking at me.
I lean forward until my forehead is against the cool glass of the massive porthole. The chill feels good against the fevered heat in my drunken skin.
It also sobers me up a hair.
“No, I don’t think we’re wasting our time, Vani,” I say, eyes closed, letting the chill soak through my skull. “We’re just not challenged anymore.”
“This,” Vani thrusts her hand toward the dead vista before us, “this isn’t a challenge?”
I lean back, adjust my glasses, and slap the firm faux sod beneath my ass. “No. This,” I slap the sod again, then gesture below us toward where I think the Tesla floats in the flotilla, “this isn’t a challenge. The people on the Tesla aren’t challenged. Why risk sacrificing your life for a new home on a strange, terrifying planet if you live like a king in the flotilla?” I shrug. “For most, it’s an easy choice.”
Vani watches me like she watches her cloned cell cultures, then holds out a hand. “I’m not them.”
“No, you are not,” I say as I hand her the bottle.
She takes a long pull.
“Ergh,” Vani hisses as she pulls the bottle away. “That’s a new level of horrific.”
“It’s whiskey,” I say with a grin, “not tea.”
“It’s harsh,” she says, handing the bottle back.
I take another long sip, feeling the fire of the liquor igniting my insides. “It’s real.”
Vani raises an eyebrow. “Real?”
“Why?” Vani asks. “It takes seven seconds to synthesize liquor.”
I flash a big, drunken grin. “Because it’s hard.”
“Jake?” Vani’s voice is harsh, urgent.
The room swims at her words and the memory breaks, my vision snapping back to the present with a blinding flash. I try to say something, but nothing comes out.
A high-pitched whine screeches through the room and I’m somewhere else.
Beneath freezing wind, my skin is hot and sweating.
A body on a table.
My heart is in my throat.
I can barely breathe.
“Where’s Carrie?” I ask as I hear a door open someplace and footsteps flood the room.
Fingers are on my arms, on my face and all I can think of is the fog and I scream and swat at them as they pull me away from the desk. Away from the terminals flashing their terrifying cacophony of tones.
Away from Carrie.
“Jake, calm down!” Vani’s voice yells in my ear.
More hands grip me, force me onto my back. More voices as Carrie fades from view. More screaming as something floods into me, splitting me open, a deep warmth suffusing my body for just a moment before the freezing embrace of the cosmic void envelopes me again.
I wake up in a blisteringly white room.
It’s tiny. A glorified closet.
Between the smooth plastic bed and toilet, there’s room for me to stand and pace two steps forward, two steps back. A chill permeates everything, lending every surface a persistent cold that leaves me blowing anti-septic scented air into my hands to keep warm. The single door to the room sits opposite the toilet. It’s very plain and is made of the same shiny plastic as everything else. The door handle looks like something you’d find on a bedroom door, not a jail cell.
I spend the first few minutes after waking trying to figure out if this is real. If I’m actually locked away, or if I’m stuck in some lost memory. After careful consideration, and an unfortunate incident involving my shoulder and the immovable door, I can say for certain it’s real.
I’m a prisoner.
Every time I sit down or stop moving, my mind is invariably drawn back to Carrie. To the look of horror on her face as she hit the wall. To the paleness of her skin as she bled out. To the light leaving her eyes as she died.
So, I don’t stop moving.
Door to toilet.
Toilet to door.
I walk in as tight a circle as I can, forcing my mind onto my footsteps, keeping memories and recollections at bay for as long as I’m able. Jake’s memories flit and flutter like crippled butterflies, disjointed and random. If I focus long enough on one, I can almost make out the details. As if trying to recollect a drunken evening out to determine where your pants went and why there’s an orange tabby purring on your chest.
For the most part, I avoid his thoughts, focusing instead on my breathing and my four-step pacing.
And it works for a while, though how long, I can’t say.
But it does eventually stop, and I’m forced to confront my situation.
I’m locked in a room.
On a space ship.
In another man’s body.
And Carrie is dead.
There’s a knock at the door that echoes softly throughout the spartan room.
I wipe my eyes. “Hello?”
There’s a loud thunk sound from the frame around the door, as if pistons are released. The door opens, revealing Vani in her pale jumpsuit. Behind her is the other woman the fog tried to replace Carrie with.
Katie. I–Jake–has been friends with her for seventy years. She was my intern for a decade at the Virtual Reality studio on the Tesla and followed me to the Einstein when I started–
The thought disappears in a swirl of pain. The headache swells back to the sides of my head and rub at my temples but stop as Vani enters the room. Katie stays behind in the hallway.
“How’re you doing, Jake?” Vani asks.
There’s real concern etched on her smooth face. I can see the strain running up her chin and into the set of her jaw. The throb of that vein on her forehead.
“Honestly?” I say, fingers still pressed to my temples, though I’m not massaging anymore. “I’ve been a lot better.”
Vani looks stricken. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Right,” I roll my eyes as I flop onto the toilet unceremoniously. “That’s why you threw me in a cell?”
I’m shocked at how sarcastic that comes out. Usually, I’m a bit more tactful.
Vani’s jaw works wordlessly for a moment, but she doesn’t respond.
It’s Katie who speaks up first.
“We didn’t have much choice,” Katie says in a voice that sounds as if it’s coming from a librarian with a migraine. “The consciousness merge seems to have had a few unexpected side effects.”
“There shouldn’t be any issues, as long as the serum administration times were met,” I say, then stop as forms and figures that made so much sense a moment ago fade from my head.
What the hell am I talking about?
Consciousness reprioritization, I answer myself.
If Vani notices my sudden discomfort, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she purposefully avoids looking me in the eye, settling on some spot above my forehead.
“That’s the problem,” Vani says, then clears her throat. “There was an issue with serum delivery. You had a seizure on the table and we missed timing on the last dose.”
Katie squeezes into the room with us, her back straight as a flag pole in the same sort of gray jumpsuit Vani wears. “Which resulted in excessive cortical stimulation in the recovery room that’s… worrying.”
Because I’m not Jake.
“We’re concerned,” Vani shoots Katie a look. “That’s all.”
I clear my throat. “About what?”
“About whether you’re experiencing any psychosis,” Katie says flatly.
“Doctor Stays!” Vani snaps.
Katie shrugs, then elbows past Vani, who curses, but steps back. There’s apparently some sort of pecking order here I’m not following and none of Jake’s memories are popping up to help.
Katie kneels in front of me, her blue eyes digging into mine like she’s searching for something, though what that is, I don’t know. For the briefest of moments, the sense of familiarity between us is overwhelming, as if we’ve known each other for years, decades…
And as quickly as it occurs, it disappears.
After a long moment, she asks a question. “Do you know who I am?”
“Katie,” I say quickly. “My old intern.”
“Good,” Vani mutters.
Katie throws a look at Vani. “Stand outside for a minute.”
“I said,” Katie snaps, “go outside, Vani.”
Vani looks like she’s going to argue, but instead leaves the room, turns the corner, and disappears.
Then it’s just me and Katie and it occurs to me this may be my only chance at escape. Or it would if I had any idea where I am, how to get out, or where to go once I do.
I’m halfway through that thought when I hear it.
“… stroke and seizures until, eventually, you die.”
“Wait, what?” I ask, thoughts of escape fading like smoke in the wind.
Katie cocks her head to the side and rubs a stray blond hair behind her ear. “If we don’t fix this, you’re going to die.”
“Fix what?” I ask through a sudden haze.
Katie raps her knuckles on my skull. “This. The best I can figure, you have two men’s brains running inside you. Competing. You’re supposed to be dominant, so you can access those thoughts and knowledge when you come out, but I don’t think you are.”
Katie narrows her eyes at me, like she’s searching for something. “I’m not even sure if you’re one-hundred-percent you, if I’m honest.”
“That’s insane,” I lie, though I’m not sure how I think I’m fooling her; hell, I’m barely keeping it together as is. “I’m me.”
“Carrie is dead,” Katie says.
And my composure breaks.
I lose track of time.
Tears flow through me with deep, shuddering gasps that cut apart my soul. I feel a warm hand set on my shoulder as Katie gets to her feet. I try to look up but break down into shuddering half gasps and half spoken words that mean nothing to anyone, even myself.
Katie leans down and whispers something to me, then turns on her heel and leaves, locking the door behind her.
Those words echo in my mind for an eternity as I struggle to get myself under control. To mend the pain tearing through my chest.
They’re simple words, but they strike a chord in me. A note I can’t quite figure out. A sound that’s either dissonance or harmony.
I promise. I’ll fix this.
And I want that, but I can’t help but ask a different question, one I’m not sure Katie can answer the way I want her to.
If she “fixes this,” what happens to me?
It doesn’t take long for me to start planning an escape.
Setting aside the fact they’ve locked me in a goddamn jail cell, the way Katie talked about “fixing” things makes me think she’s planning on flipping me upside down and replacing me with Jake.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sad Jake only exists in the snapshots of my brain, but he had a long, long life already. And while it’ll be hard without Carrie, I’ll move on. I can make it.
But I won’t unless I get out of here.
There’s a part of me that knows getting out of this cell won’t help anything. I think it’s Jake’s memory of being trapped on a massive ship speeding around the outer edge of the Milky Way trying to put a damper on things. Almost every challenge that pops into my head is met with old counterarguments about scale and effort. Why try to do something if it won’t be manageable?
It’s a frustrating niggling thought that saps my will and drives me to the uncomfortable bed more than once. It’s as if I have the world’s most passive aggressive angel on my shoulder whispering how useless my plans are. It’s frustratingly draining.
But, from somewhere deep in Jake’s mind, I realize that’s the problem with his people. They look at something inconceivably huge, like world colonization, and scrap the idea for the instant gratification of the Flotilla. Why go through the hardship of finding a home when everything is provided for nothing on the ships? Sure, you might never see a real sunset again or feel the salty wind off a green sea, but at least you won’t die.
It’s a prison of their own making.
They’ve forgotten all big changes start with the smallest of steps.
And all great works require sacrifice.
So, in the spirit of getting out of here and taking the first of many steps, I’ve been tracking everything.
My meals come like clockwork. Three squares a day as my dad would say. They taste like clockwork, too. Each meal is made of some sort of gray paste with the texture of overripe apple sauce. Jake’s memories assure me it’ll provide all the nutrition I need to survive.
I guess I shouldn’t doubt those memories, right? After all, apparently Jake made the paste to subsist colonization efforts a hundred years ago.
Colonization efforts that don’t exist anymore, if the thought running through my head is correct.
It’s just before they turn out the lights on the fourth day, I hear voices outside my cell. They’re hushed, muted things, but when I put my ear to the cold plastic door, I can make out most of what’s said.
“You hear there’s an issue with bay thirteen?” A man says with the sort of forced cavalier tone you expect to hear from a half-drunk frat boy trying to pick up a woman at a bar off campus.
“Nope,” another man says with bored disinterest as they pass by my cell. “Not my department.”
Someone clears their throat, probably the frat boy, and continues on as if he didn’t hear the dismissal. “The entire quantum storage array got set to read-only and encrypted somehow.”
“I’m not interested Terry,” the second voice starts to fade away. “I have to get authority to deactivate Sullivan’s holo for Vani. Have to head to the Constitution for some bloody reason. They aren’t accepting the digital request. Even had to cancel my Lifeline session today, if you can believe that.”
“That’s obnoxious. I’m still on the Lifeline wait list.” Frat boy says. “They say it’ll be another four months before I can jack in. Anyway, what’s wrong with the old bastard?”
I jam my ear against the door as the voices get softer.
“Well,” the first voice says, suddenly more than willing to conspire, “you didn’t hear this from me, but Jake seems…”
The voices fade off into the distance because of course they do, but at least they left me with something.
“The holo,” I say. “My holo is still active.”
I close my eyes and let my mind wander, willing it to lend some sort of meaning to the word…
And nothing happens. Of course, it doesn’t. I can’t make it through breakfast without a random thought slipping into my head, but now that I need to access those thoughts? Nothing.
Hands balling into fists, I take a steadying breath and pace back and forth between the bed and the door muttering the word “holo” over and over, hoping Jake’s memories pop up to help.
But they don’t.
Sometimes Jake is persistent in the back of my mind. His drives, ambitions. Dreams. Even the frustration of trying to motivate a slothful populace to find a home.
But most times, there’s nothing. Like none of this happened. In those moments, I almost feel like myself.
But then I remember Carrie. And I see the cell again.
To the toilet.
I rub my face as I pace, blood boiling.
Back to the door.
I need to get out of here. So, how do I do that?
And to the toilet.
I use the holo, but how do I activate it?
I stop at the door. My pulse is in my forehead. The scent of burnt copper filling my nostrils.
Fingers twitch into fists. The scream rips from me all at once, tearing at my throat. My fist slams into the plastic with a dull thunk. The smell of blood fades all at once. My hand immediately goes numb and I grab my wrist with a hiss. A moment later, fire lashes up my fingers and into my forearm and sits, throbbing.
The pain is refreshing, honestly. Grounding.
When I look at the subtle red lines blossoming to life across my knuckles, I see it on my other wrist. A raised section of skin on the back of my left hand. An implant.
Hesitantly, I give my left wrist a tap. A small, orange holographic display flashes to life over the top of my left hand, lending the pristine white room a warmth it desperately needed as it illuminates the area. A flush runs through my body at an indicator in the top left of the screen.
Apparently, I don’t have to log in. I guess that makes sense if the computer is installed in your body. But that seems like it lends to a pretty obvious security vulnerability, though I’d hazard a guess this specific case probably hasn’t come up much in the past.
That’s lucky for me, especially since Jake apparently liked staying logged in as a superadmin. That means I have access to everything. Or everything he had access to, at least.
It’s going to be a long night.
By the time I stumble onto the Project Lifeline reports, I’m half asleep, leaning against the chill plastic wall, one finger swiping through the tingling holographic interface like a robot fueled by Xanax.
It wakes me right up.
The first document is an abstract of the general proposal.
“‘Using a 100:1 time-lapse simulation, determine if human drive can be replicated and fostered in a simulation’,” I murmur. “‘And, if successful, present options for public deployment for the purposes of planetary colonization.'”
The documents are thick, and I spend more time skipping boring operational text than I do reading it.
Daily quantum storage maintenance.
Unverified data storage approval.
I pull that report up and skim it. It’s a notification showing a massive data upload for long-term storage in one of the quantum storage arrays from five days ago.
The signature on the document is a hastily scribbled illegible mess, but the content list only has two letters.
I’m pacing then, heart in my throat at the idea. If there’s one thing the Project Lifeline documents showed me, it’s the world I grew up in–the world I know–is nothing more than a simulation of 21st century Earth. It’s a project meant to develop drive in the humans of this time. To birth a new generation of explorers.
It has nothing to do with me or Carrie.
Or it didn’t until I found this.
Catching my breath, I raise my wrist and start scrolling through more documents. To my surprise, everything after the storage notice appears to be lists of errors and warnings.
ERROR: Undefined authorization detected.
Processing spike originating at 43.0478718,-76.1553168.
Storage access spike originating at 43.0478718,-76.1553168.
NOTICE: Citizen log updated.
There’s a long gap in the notices and then two lines catch my eye.
ERROR: Unscheduled Violence against citizen $_undefined. Result: fatal, flushing consciousness to host. ERROR: Missing host, failsafe override triggered, storing consciousness.
ERROR: Unscheduled Violence against citizen SULLIVAN, JAKE. Result: fatal, flushing consciousness to host.
My stomach clenches at the memory of that glassy-eyed bastard who killed Carrie and me, but somewhere deep down I’m disappointed. What a blasé way to record your own death. Everything I was up until that point condensed down to a line in an error log.
The thing that really catches my eye is the line above that, though.
I try to keep calm, to avoid jumping to conclusions, but it’s difficult. The processing and storage spike… could those be from when Dee saved Carrie a few weeks ago? Does the math add up? Is Carrie “Citizen Undefined?”
And who the hell is Dee? How did she do this?
Never mind. It’s not important. What is, is Carrie is still here. Alive.
In quantum storage bay thirteen.
The warm flush that runs through me is welcome and I don’t even try to stop it because I’m sure I’m right.
Carrie is alive, or at least some semblance of living. I just need to find this storage array and get her consciousness out and into… something. Someone.
I need my research. With that, I can transfer her consciousness somewhere else.
At least, I should be able to. If my research is accurate. Which it probably isn’t, because I developed it in a goddamn simulation.
I massage my temples and rub away the tingling sensation that’s spreading down my neck and into my teeth.
It’ll work. It has to.
But first I need to get out of here.
Okay. Jake is a superadmin, which means I have what I need to get out of here, but where will I go after I leave? According to these notes, the Quantum Storage array is in the main Project Lifeline offices. I just need to get there from here.
Wherever here, is.
“Well, fortune favors the brave,” I whisper, then bring up the security tab on the holo and scroll to a conspicuously labeled “Access” section.
“I’m coming, Carrie,” I take a deep breath, then tap the unlock button.
And there’s a knock at the door.
I scuttle back, grab the tray they gave me for dinner, and get ready to knock someone the hell out. I crouch down to the left of the doorway.
The footsteps stop just outside and whomever it is pauses.
My heart is in my hands. The tray twitches as my forearm muscles writhe in anticipation. Sweat beads on my face.
Then there’s a telltale beep as the door is unlocked, followed by the soft sound of retracting pistons, and the door opens into the room.
It’s Vani. I recognize her voice, though she still hasn’t stepped in.
For some reason, my resolve wavers, the plastic tray in my hands dipping ever so slightly.
And that’s when Vani’s on me.
I don’t even realize what’s happening until I’m driven back against the wall, air pounded from my lungs by a kick to my stomach. The tray drops with a clang and I hit the wall in a lump, gasping for breath. I hear the door shut rather than see it.
Vani doesn’t even look winded; she wipes hair from her face and sighs. “Seriously?”
I shrug through sucking breaths.
“There’re cameras, Rahul,” Vani sounds like a mother chastising an ill-behaved child. “Be smarter than that.”
“Okay,” I hiss, slowly getting to my feet.
Vani backs up, setting her feet like a boxer. Luckily, I’ve learned my lesson already. I’d hoped maybe Jake had some sort of martial training over the years and those instincts would somehow appear if I got into a fight.
The only instinct I felt when she came through the door was panic–
Then it hits me.
“You called me Rahul.”
Vani shrugs, dropping from her fighting stance. “There’s no use in denying it, so I’m here to help.”
I furrow my brow in confusion. “How? How could you possibly help me? Katie said–”
“Fuck Stays,” Vani spits and she looks like she’s about to say something else, but her shoulders slump and the fight goes out of her. “I know how to save both of you, but I need your help.”
Something doesn’t feel right, but I can’t pin it down. I stare at Vani for a long moment, willing Jake’s memories to show me something to back up the feeling, but, as usual, they don’t help.
Hell, they don’t even pop up.
“Why do you need my help?” I ask.
Vani takes a seat on the bed across from me, shifting this way and that as she tries, and fails, to get comfortable. “This is a bed?”
“Yeah,” I say, pressing hands into my lower back until sweet popping release. “Only the best for prisoners, I guess.”
“Jesus,” Vani says. “This is cruel and unusual.”
“A human rights violation, to be sure,” I say, and she laughs.
“I know you’re not him, but,” Vani smiles sadly, “I really wanted you to be.”
Not really sure what to say, I do the first thing that pops into my head. “I’m sorry.”
Vani straightens at that, any sign of emotion wiped from her face all at once. “No need for that. It’s not your fault.”
The look on her face seems to say that this is all someone’s fault, though. If not me, then who?
“Like I said,” she says, interrupting my thoughts. “I need your help.”
“How can I help?” I ask, gesturing around the room. “I’m kind of indisposed.”
Vani taps her wrist and a lime-green hologram pops into existence. “Your access will get us where we need to go.”
I stifle the excitement rising in my chest. This all sounds too perfect, but that’s probably because I haven’t asked what Vani needs yet.
“What exactly are you trying to do?” I ask, dismissing my holo in a flash of orange light.
Vani smiles and gets to her feet. “I’m trying to help a friend and save a new one.”
“Okay…” I say.
For some reason I don’t tell her about my theory about Carrie, though I’m not sure why. Something feels wrong, like a mislabeled candy cane; you’re expecting peppermint and end up with a mouthful of sour cherry.
Vani interrupts that thought by opening the door and taking a step back against the hard bed.
With a dramatic sweep of an arm, Vani gestures out the door. “We’re going to save Project Lifeline.”
I lose myself.
One moment, I’m following Vani out into a dimly lit white hallway, the next I’m standing next to Vani in an elevator as it rises, the smell of gear oil and cinnamon attacking my nose. I fall against the pristine wall of the elevator as a wave of dizziness washes over me.
A knot of pain threads across the front of my brain and extends down into my neck and spine.
I grab my head.
“Whoa!” Vani exclaims, hands on my arms to steady me. “Hey, hey!”
I wave her away, back sliding against the wall until I’m sitting on the chill floor. “I’m okay.”
The pain in my head recedes, drawing into a sharp point over my left eye. “I’m okay,” I say again, more to myself than her.
Vani hesitates, then offers a hand to help me to my feet.
I take it, grunting as she pulls me straight.
“Where are we?” I ask.
Vani’s brow shoots up. “The Lifeline offices. Follow me,” she pauses for a moment before continuing. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah,” I lie as a tingling flush runs down my neck and fades into my feet. “Just lost myself for a minute.”
“Sounds like you might’ve had a seizure,” Vani chews on her lip. “That’s…”
“Not good,” I finish, rubbing at my temple. “So, let’s do this.”
The elevator dings and the doors hiss open to reveal a dark foyer. Any sympathy that may have settled on Vani’s face is whipped away by the flush of air from the room. The sharp scents of antiseptic and industrial cleaner tickle my nose and tongue. I can’t help but think of a hospital as I look over the room, taking in the desk directly ahead of me and a series of couches and chairs nestled in the shadows. A dimly lit hallway continues beyond the desk, muted track lighting showing the way.
Vani steps out of the elevator and beckons me to follow.
I do. Or I think I do.
There’s a gentle flush of warmth at the back of my neck, then I blink and we’re well down the hallway. There’s a numbered door coming up on my right, seventeen. It’s a darker gray than the rest of the whitewashed architecture and has a sickly little potted plant sitting beside it. Twenty feet or so ahead, the hallway tees off under the gaze of some barely visible painting.
I blink and we’re turning the corner at the end of the hallway, the painting before me. The colors are exaggerated–all purples and magentas–like someone whipped together their colors using directions they read in a book.
Vani is in the middle of saying something in a hushed whisper. “–Once we get there, we’ll get you seated while I start work on the decryption process.”
I stop and look behind me, expecting the potted plant to be right there, but instead it’s a dozen feet behind me and clothed in shadow.
“Rahul?” Vani’s voice has a strange edge to it this time. “You still with me?”
Scratching at the back of my head, I nod. “Yeah, but I think we should hurry.”
Vani nods back and takes off at a quicker pace down the hallway. I try to keep track of where we are, but each time I close my eyes I feel like I lose seconds or minutes of my life. Our path feels disconnected and rushed through the building, as if it’s live video that keeps hurrying the picture to catch back up with a video stream. I try keeping my eyes open, to see if I can delay the next stutter, but it doesn’t seem to help. My surroundings pop and dissolve every few seconds, each instance bringing us a little closer to our destination.
“–here,” Vani says, though I only catch the end of her sentence as the world snaps back into existence in front of a door with the number thirteen embossed on it.
Everything feels strange, like I’m walking on a cloud.
Or maybe falling through one.
“Unlock the door, Jake–Rahul,” Vani orders, turning to stare at me with her almond eyes. “We’re almost there.”
I nod and tap my holo. It springs to life, illuminating this part of the hallway with the rich orange of a ripe pumpkin. I remember this time Carrie and I went to this small pumpkin farmer out near Cooperstown. We pulled up into the muddy field in front of a corn maze, the frigid air of fall tickling my nose with the rich scent of tilled earth and…
“Rahul. Hey. Come back, now.” Vani is shaking me. Hard.
I hold up my left hand, the holo flashing light around the hallway haphazardly, and gently push her away. “I’m good, just had a moment.”
“If it’s getting worse,” Vani says, the edge in her voice more prevalent, like she’s on the edge of screaming at me. “We need to get in here.”
The room spins and I fall heavily against the doorframe. I feel like I’m in that place between waking and sleeping, my brain a muddled mess.
I thrust my holo at her. “Here, you open it.”
Vani sucks a breath through her teeth. “That’s not how the holos work. It’s coded to you.”
“I’m having trouble standing up here,” I mumble numbly.
“Just open the fucking door!” Vani snaps finally, grabbing me about the shoulders and shoving me at it. “Now!”
“Jesus, okay!” I yell, blinking arrhythmically.
I look down at the holo and sweep through a few prompts until I get to an Access page. All at once, it pops up a list of numbered doors. And there are a lot, so it takes me a second to scroll down to thirteen and…
Carrie. The logs I read earlier mentioned room thirteen.
Logs that I think show Carrie’s consciousness is stored here.
“Why are we here?” I ask, finger hovering over the door number on my holo.
I catch Vani’s eye. She looks away.
“I told you,” she says. “We’re here to save the project, but first we need to help you before these little seizures you keep having get worse.”
“By doing what?” I ask.
Vani looks at me, eyes pleading. “Rahul, I need you to trust me. Can you do that?”
I stare at her for a long while, the vaguest of memories spinning and dancing in my mind. Jake trusted her; trusted her with his life. That should be good enough, right?
It should, but it isn’t. There’s still a nagging voice in my head telling me something is off, though it doesn’t deign to get any more specific than that. Hell, I can’t even tell if it’s my voice or Jake’s. Maybe there isn’t a difference anymore.
And that’s the reason I nod and unlock the door.
There’s a harsh sucking sound, then, like the door to my cell, pistons move, freeing the door. Vani smiles at me, then pushes through, the gray door swinging silently open.
“Come on,” Vani says. “It’s almost over.”
I get to my feet and step in after her unsteadily, a chill breeze sucking past me and into the hallway.
Around me, quantum computers hum and whisper. It’s hard to tell how large the room is. Tall black stacks line either side of a central walkway, blue light outlining each rack of machines. Above them I can make out a darkened ceiling that stretches left and right farther than I’m able to see in this dim light.
Directly across from the door is what looks like the desk of a supervillain. A massive black display covers most of the far wall. At the base is a small desk with a chair that appears to be made out of the same white plastic as everything else in this godforsaken place. Minute vibrations tickle my skin from the thrumming of the servers.
Vani motions me forward and I follow, the dizziness plaguing me balanced on a knife-edge between walking and faceplanting on the floor. Seeing this, Vani grabs my arm and guides me forward until we get to the desk.
“Just take a seat right here,” Vani grunts as she helps me fall heavily into the chair. “Okay. Almost done.”
I blink… and there are wires hanging in front of my face.
It’s happened again.
I try to raise a hand to push them out of the way, but I can’t. My arms are strapped down to the chair. And there’s something reminiscent of an IV cannula stuck in the back of my right hand. When I wiggle my fingers, I can feel it in my vein, rubbing against the muscles in my hand.
“Try not to fuss,” Vani says, an unfamiliar lilt to her voice. “It’ll all be over soon.”
“Vani,” I say, testing the bonds and looking toward her voice. “What’s going on?”
The massive monitor before me flashes to life, blinding me briefly. Then I see Vani standing at the desk, interacting with a series of lime-green holographic terminals that’ve sprung to life in front of her.
“I have to shut it down,” Vani says, voice thick with emotion. “I’m sorry, but I have to.”
“Vani,” I say, panic battling with the throbbing pain in my head. “What do you mean, ‘shut it down’?”
“All of it,” Vani says, her fingers flicking in the light before her. “It was supposed to save us. To help us overcome our apathy so we could find a home, but it hasn’t. It’s made it worse. Now people beg to be added to the simulation because they’re bored. Bored!” Her body shudders like she’s taken a deep breath. “And then you went ahead and made that abomination with the tech Jake and I built together. It’s unnatural.”
Vani stops then and turns around. There are tears streaming down her face as she reaches out a hand and lays it on my cheek. “And that’s when we lost you.”
Her skin is freezing, and I flinch back. She pulls away as if struck and rubs at her eyes.
“It was you,” I say as my vision blurs. “You killed her.”
Vani shrugs and wipes at her face. “She’s not a person, Rahul. She’s a program.”
The rage that fills me is beautiful in its purity. I tear and shake the chair, rocking back and forth howling wordless accusations at her until my throat is raw. Until my arms are bruised and bleeding.
And still she looks on. “Are you done?”
All at once, the rage dissipates. I fall into the chair, strength gone.
Vani raises her chin, then turns back to the holographic interface. “Now. It’s time to get Rahul out of you now, before you’re gone forever. I can’t let that happen.”
I think about saying something else, but, just then Vani finishes doing whatever it is she’s doing, and the vibration running through the room kicks up to eleven.
A heavy hand grips my chest as the sound thrums into me.
The world hums. It’s an out-of-tune drawl, like the hiss of a broken radio. It fills me from head to toe; crawling from where the terminals touch my skin, down my limbs, and into my fingers and toes. I smell and taste copper.
“I’m sorry, Rahul,” Vani says as she fishes in a pocket I didn’t know she had. “If it’s any consolation, you’re not real either. Just a dream in a much greater man’s head.” Each word seems to build Vani’s resolve; her back straightens to match her raised chin; shoulders square up.
As the humming reaches a fever pitch that rattles my teeth, Vani approaches. In her hand she has two syringes, one with clear liquid, the other a deep brown.
She kneels next to me and fusses with one of them.
“No, no, no,” I mutter, trying to flinch away from her, but it’s no use.
She sticks the clear syringe in the IV, then depresses the plunger.
“Why?” I ask for some reason as the world starts the shimmer and fade.
Through fresh tears, Vani smiles at me. “Because he’d do the same for me.”
Vani’s words follow me down into the void.
I recognize this darkness.
The crawling fingers. The drawing cold.
The complete discomfort from being a disembodied consciousness floating in an empty void.
Like last time, there’s a flash of light and the clinging tendrils of darkness are wiped away, leaving me blinded.
Unlike last time, I fall.
It takes me a moment to realize it’s happening. One moment, I’m a floating ball of thoughts and emotions, the next my stomach is in my ears and I can see my arms flailing as wind whips by.
My brown arms.
I don’t even have time to process it before I see the ground rush up to meet me. I close my eyes and curl up defensively, though I know that’s not going to help.
And… somehow it does, because I never hit the ground.
When I open my eyes–no glasses, either–I’m settling lightly onto a strip of gray asphalt running down the center of a corridor like a dirty rug. The walls are the color of an overcast sky, while the ceiling is the white of a new cloud on a spring day.
The strip of asphalt runs far into the distance until it, too, fades into the bright light beyond. Infrequent doors run the length of the hallway, blinding white slivers that pulse to a beat I can’t hear. I reach out and touch the wall. The soft, warm surface throbs under my fingers.
“This is new,” I mutter.
Then I hear it. The beat pervading everything grows from silence to a steady beat, like footsteps.
A moment later, I see it’s not like footsteps, it is footsteps.
From the end of the hall, I catch the shape of a man walking confidently forward. We’re of a height and, as he gets closer, I recognize him. A rock forms in my gut.
“Jake,” I say in form of a greeting.
He stops a few feet from me, flashes a smile of perfectly white teeth while adjusting his glasses, and nods. “Rahul.”
This is it. This is where I die. Alone and forgotten in another man’s mind, nothing but a series of snapshots. Memories of a character in a game he played once.
And it’s all my fault.
If I’d never agreed to let Carrie test the transferal system none of this would’ve happened. I’d still have her, and we’d be together. Sure, it might be in a simulation, but I’d have more time.
All I want is more time.
I grit my teeth and meet Jake’s gaze.
This time, I’m going to fight for it.
A grin splits Jake’s face for a brief moment… then he bursts out laughing.
I feel the heat rising in my cheeks and neck. “What’s funny?”
Jake stands up straight, smile disappearing like it never existed. “You got so serious, like you have some choice in what’s happening.”
I open my mouth to speak, but he cuts me off.
“You’ve taken my body for a ride, even got to see the future, woo-hoo,” Jake says, spinning his index finger in the air sarcastically. “That doesn’t make you a person.”
“I’m as much one as you are,” I manage, though my voice sounds weak and pinched even to my ears. “I’ve as much a right to live as you.”
“No,” Jake says, pointing a finger at me. “I’m real, you’re the result of a complex simulation Vani and I developed to help our peers internalize drive and inspiration.”
He takes a step forward and I stand my ground.
Though my palms are sweating, and I feel like I’m about to vomit, I raise my chin in defiance. “I’m alive, Jake. I’m a person. Carrie is a person.”
Jake stares at me for a moment before raising an eyebrow and nodding. “Well, can’t say the experiment wasn’t at least a partial success. You certainly have balls.”
Jake sighs and lifts his left hand, then taps open his orange holo. “Too bad those balls aren’t real.”
We’re both surprised when I attack him.
There’s this surreal moment when my hands grab onto his wrists and I realize I’m actually going to fight him, then it’s gone and it’s everything I can do to keep him from breaking away from me.
“Get off me!” Jake roars in my ear as I drive him against the wall.
I don’t. I hold him there, unsure of what I’m doing or what happens next. There’s no plan, just survival. One more second. One more minute.
Because if I’m alive, there’s hope.
Then my pelvis erupts in pain and I fall backwards to the ground. It feels like someone just hit me in the testicles with a baseball bat. I taste blood.
My world is pain.
“Jesus,” Jake says, running his pale hand through his dark hair. “Well, I guess you do have balls then.”
I try to respond, but the only noise I make is a tiny whining sound as the air escapes my lungs.
“Phew,” Jake exhales, then lifts his wrist. “I’d say it was a pleasure, but that’d be a lie. Bye Rahul.”
Through a veil of red, I think I see the door behind Jake crack open ever so slightly and silently.
Jake sighs and taps something on his holo… and then stares at it, dumbfounded. “Who the hell took away my write access to the project?”
Jake’s body goes rigid, as if he’s grabbed a live wire, then he collapses on the ground, his holo shining a message directing him to speak to his system administrator for write privileges.
Standing behind him, replete with her long, blond ponytail and crimson scarf, is Dee. And in one hand is what looks like a baseball bat of all things.
Relief floods me, though it doesn’t quite drive out the lingering throbbing pain filling my stomach.
Dee drops the bat and rushes to me. She helps me get to a sitting position against the other wall.
“Dee,” I laugh, then grit my teeth. “It’s good to see you.”
She rubs a strand of hair behind her ear, a strange look on her face. “Well, actually, it’s Katie.”
Dee taps her wrist and the imagery fades away until Katie Stays is standing before me in a lab coat, her hair a shortened bob that keeps slipping from over her ear.
I stare for a long time, then shrug and get to my feet. “That explains a lot.”
Dee (or Katie? Or both? I don’t know) helps me up. “Sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“Before or after?” I ask as I straighten painfully.
It feels like there’s a koala hanging from my intestines.
“Do I have to pick one?” Katie asks.
I shrug. “I guess not. I’ll accept a blanket apology, I guess. But how?”
Then the hallway starts shaking, the thrumming sound surrounding us changing pitch. The walls tremble and, far away, I hear the sound of something collapsing.
Katie shakes her head and the grin fades. “Later. Right now, we need to save Carrie before Vani deletes this place.”
“She’s alive?” I say, grabbing her around the shoulders, all thoughts of pain disappearing. “Where is she?”
Katie turns to her right and points into the distance. Toward the collapsing hallway. “Right through there.”
“Okay then,” I say, taking a deep breath. “Let’s do it.”
The sky is black.
The world crumbles around us as we run. Entire portions of the walls disappear in a writhing mass. Thick vines of ebony darkness grip and squeeze until each piece shatters and is drawn away into the inky distance. Every now and then I hear the sounds of screaming as a room is closed, followed by a flash of light screeching off into the sky.
“What the hell are those?” I yell as we run.
“People getting ejected from the simulation,” she calls back. “Keep up!”
Katie leads the way back to room thirteen.
Or, at least, the digital facsimile of it.
When we get to the door, Katie slams into it as we approach. It explodes into a scatter of sprites, tiny lances of light dancing away into the encroaching darkness. I move to follow her but stop short.
I mean, Carrie is in there. What if she knows I couldn’t save her? That she died a foot from me, and I couldn’t even hold her hand while she passed?
Around me, the light grows dim and the sounds of scraping intensifies, but I don’t move. Not yet.
Because what will Carrie think of me?
“Rahul!” Katie grabs my hand and pulls me in after her as the skittering sounds of crawling darkness snap forward, only to be stopped by some unseen barrier where the door used to be.
I let go of Katie’s hand and look around.
It’s the office. Our office.
Rows and rows of 21st century server racks whir and whisper around the edges of the room, but my eyes are drawn toward the gurney directly before me. It’s covered in cables secured with duct tape and laying atop it is Carrie.
And she’s breathing, a small smile on her face.
I rush over and, with trembling hands, touch Carrie’s forehead. She’s warm under my fingertips.
“When we uploaded her into the simulated environment,” Katie says, stepping up next to me. “We made a massive, recursive logic loop. Almost crashed the entire project.”
“Because we uploaded a program into a simulation inside a simulation?” I say quietly, fingers wriggling into Carrie’s familiar hand.
Katie nods, then walks to the terminal next to the gurney and takes a seat. “Almost correct, but not completely. When Carrie was dying in the simulation, I pulled her consciousness out of Lifeline and used the algorithms we developed inside the simulation to reimport her into the larger simulation. It turns out the tech you, me, and Carrie made actually works.”
“I’m not sure I’m following,” I say, tearing my eyes away from Carrie. “It works?”
“It does,” Katie says as she pulls up her violet-colored holo. “And when I used it on Carrie, it did something… beautiful.”
Katie looks at Carrie again and heaves a sigh. “It created a new consciousness. Something so completely human if you compare her to another person in Lifeline, no one–not me, not Vani, not the system itself–can tell she isn’t real. Because–”
“Because she is,” I finish for her.
Katie nods, then turns back to the holo. “She is. And I’ve been adapting the tech in the real world, so I can get Carrie out of here. But Vani is so intent on shutting everything down now. I’m not ready.”
I run a hand through my full head of hair.
It’s nice to have it back.
“Vani doesn’t seem… well?” I say.
“She’s not,” Katie says as she makes a swiping motion on her holo and the terminal in front of her turns violet. “She and Rahul are, were, close. Never close enough for her, though.”
“She did this because she’s a jilted lover?” I scoff.
Katie shakes her head. “No. But she’s loyal and she’d do anything for him.”
There’s a pause as Katie swipes silently, then she turns to me. “I would’ve, too. Then I met you,” she looks at Carrie with a smile, “and we created her.
“And now I have a responsibility to her, even if it means I lose an old friend,” she pauses. “Or more.”
There’s a vibration in my wrist and I look down to see a tiny notification icon spring to life. Apparently, I still have access to Jake’s implant.
I’d check it, but there’s something in the way Katie said “or more” that makes me nervous.
I furrow my brow and look at her. “What do you mean?”
She turns toward me, smiles a sad smile. “I mean, it’s been a pleasure working with you, Rahul. Carrie will be in bay twelve.”
And Katie collapses to the floor.
I rush to her side, but she’s gone. There’s nothing, no pulse, no breath; just the dancing violet from the lights of her holo next to me. There’s a glitch in the air, like someone folded reality, then her body dissolves into a puff of fading sprites.
I sit there for a long moment, not sure what’s happened. Katie is nestled in the back of my mind, in Jake’s memories from the last decades, but I feel like I just met her.
And now she’s dead.
Dee is dead.
A weight settles on my chest. It hurts. So much.
I just wanted to save Carrie. I didn’t want anyone else hurt. That’s why she and I dreamt up the mind transfer tech. To save lives.
And now Dee–Katie–is gone. Jake might as well be, though I’m saddled with the constant reminder of him for the rest of my life. And Carrie.
“Carrie,” I whisper to no one, eyes snapping to the terminal.
Katie’s violet holo still spins and winds as it does something. I scramble to my feet and run to the terminal. At first, it’s all a muddled mess, then, somehow, bits and pieces start to click and connect in my head.
All at once, I know what it all means.
Katie started an upload of Carrie’s consciousness to somewhere just before she disappeared. I stare at the mingling violet and black. Carrie is being uploaded into something.
“But isn’t that the shorthand for a human body?” I ask aloud.
I don’t see the chair before it slams into me.
The ground hits me, knocking air from my lungs as pain lances through my body. I let out a weak groan and try to get to my feet, but only make it to my knees.
A pair of muscular, gray legs appear in front of me. I crane my neck up to see a few Vanis there as my vision splits, then reconnects with itself, a stool held in both hands.
“We used it as a joke,” Vani says, voice thick and halting. “Jake loved those old shows and movies about AI and robots.”
“He’s back there,” I try to say, though it comes out like I’m talking through a sock in my mouth. I wave weakly behind me toward the doorway. “Through there.”
The chair hits the ground, then Vani squats before me. and grabs my head in her hands. For a moment she’s staring at me; eyes bloodshot and red, cheeks stained with tears.
Then she squeezes and drags me around painfully until I’m looking at the door.
“Back through there?” She screams, forcing me to look. “Down that way?”
My vision stops swimming enough for me to see it.
Instead of a long, glowing hallway, there’s nothing.
Just a black doorway shimmering slightly as you watch. Like eels, packed to bursting, sliding and swimming across the invisible barrier between here and there.
And nothing else.
I’d been so distracted with Carrie I never looked behind me. Never turned to see we killed him. Killed Jake.
I look at the floor and catch the small, glowing icon on my wrist. With a light tap, it pops up a tiny message I can just read.
Consciousness Lock, Achieved.
“I came in because of the reports,” Vani says as her weight settles on my back, like she’s sitting on me.
Her fingers curl in my hair. “I came in because I thought, even if Katie tried to intervene, I knew Rahul would make it. I knew. And I would be here to welcome him back. This time would be different. Everything… would be different.
“But he’s gone,” my scalp flares as she squeezes. “And it’s your fault.”
“Vani–” I try to say something, though I’m not sure what my plan is. Should I plead? Beg?
Vani takes the option away. “It’s your fault,” she whispers in my ear. “Yours and that AI Katie saved here.”
Only the slightest tightening of her grip gives me any indication of what’s about to happen.
But it’s enough.
I throw myself backward and the surprise of it all weakens Vani’s grip enough. She slides off my back with an astonished squeal. I scramble forward, hands scraping against the rough concrete floors, and spin so I’m facing her.
Vani does some sort of insane leg spin thing and she’s back into a crouch. She looks like a feral thing in that moment, face shadowed in the shadow of her short hair, the slash of white from her teeth bearing into a growl.
And then I remember.
I remember. Everything.
Vani’s hand wraps around the leg of the twisted chair she hit me with earlier. She looks like a coiled spring.
My vision swims, the edges going black, and I almost collapse but I don’t.
“Wait!” I shout, tapping my wrist so the holo springs to life. It casts Vani in a light that makes her look, well, more like a creature about to gut me.
I fully expect her to launch at me, but she doesn’t. Instead, she climbs to her feet, chair waggling up and down in her hand like she’s prepping her muscles for the beating she’s about to give me.
“What?” Vani hisses.
I tap at the holo again and an authorization prompt comes up.
“Jake was lazy,” I say, taking a step back.
She matches step with me.
“Jake Sullivan was a genius!” Vani shouts at me, pointing the chair at me like it’s a sword. “The best man I ever knew.”
One more flick on the holo.
“He might’ve been,” I say as she splits into two and merges back again. “But he had no concept of network security.”
There’s a ding at my wrist.
Vani’s eyes go wide. She hefts the chair and charges, screaming spittle.
I hold my arms up protectively… and I’m sitting in room thirteen again. Directly across from me, underneath the massive monitor, slumps Vani, a cluster of cables and wires connecting her to the simulation.
I pull at my wrist and, blissfully, it comes free. She must’ve taken off the straps so when Jake came back, he wasn’t held down.
A flash of guilt writhes to life in my gut at the thought, but I force it away. Instead, I leap to my feet. Luckily, the dizziness and, I assume, concussion, were part of the simulation, and sync my holo to the last Lifeline databanks before me.
I didn’t lie to Vani. Jake was lazy. He left major systems routines on the front screen of his holo, easily accessible to anyone who had access. I guess when no one can log into a device synced to your biometric signature and you’re one of the most powerful people on your ship, you might get a little lazy.
Lazy enough to stay logged in as a superadmin at all times.
Frantic, I pull up the consciousness storage routines, lock Vani in a stasis, then do a data dump of everything still in the cache. I stare at the dump, scrounging through lines and lines of code and visualized data looking for it.
Looking for Katie.
I’m about to give up. To leave her and go to bay twelve and try to move on when I see it.
When I see her.
Carrie and I sit quietly outside the Council chambers of the Constitution. It’s been four months since Project Lifeline was shut down and the quantum computing resources put into storage.
The two of us, recently returned to the Tesla from our ninety-day leave on the Hawking, immediately started drafting formal proposals for reviving the project. And, after nearly a month of constant harping, the Council finally agreed to see us.
I cough in barely concealed annoyance and check the time on my holo. “They’re late.”
“Aren’t politicians always late?” Carrie says, forcing down a grin.
I tamp down a return smile and get to my feet. “Almost as bad as the cable guy.”
Carrie snorts behind me but keeps tapping away on her own holo in a slow, purposeful fashion. I whistle and head toward the double doors serving as entry into the main Council hall. They’re a dull gray, like the jumpsuits we both wear, and are likely heavily networked, which works for us.
There’s a buzz at my wrist and I pop up my holo. A short message is displayed for a moment, then disappears.
“Is it time?” Carrie whispers, eagerness and excitement oozing from her.
I grin and hook out my arm. Carrie steps up to me, accepts the arm, and exhales deeply. “Time to go show some two-bit career politicians how humanity gets it done.”
I bark out a sudden laugh and sweep Carrie into a quick, fierce embrace. My wrist buzzes again. I hold it up so it’s visible out of the corner of my eye.
I’ll never get used to seeing you kiss me. Get a room.
I hold the kiss for another moment, Carrie’s hand tight against my back, before breaking the embrace. Carrie’s face is flushed. The warmth in my chest tells me I probably look the same way. It took a few weeks to get used to Carrie being in Katie’s body, but now it doesn’t seem odd. Well, not that odd.
I look up toward where I know a security camera is hidden. “You’re just going to have to hurry up and get those synthetic bodies stabilized then. Now,” I motion to the Council doors, “if you wouldn’t mind?”
The doors slide open, revealing a large, hemispherical room filled with several hundred men and women. They’re seated in radiating lines surrounding a central, currently empty, podium. My wrist buzzes and I notice Carrie has activated her holo as well.
Go get ’em, you two.
“Thanks Katie,” Carrie whispers.
We both take a deep breath and let it out in unison. I look at Carrie and see that sparkle in her eye. Ahead of us, some of the Councilmembers are getting up from their seats in confusion.
Carrie grins. “Born ready. Can’t be worse than that Department of Defense presentation.”
I laugh. “You did nail that.”
Carrie nods and stares forward, back straightening with resolve. “Let’s do this then.”
I nod and we walk into the Council chamber together, the doors sliding shut behind us.