You’re one microscopic cog
In his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by
His red right hand.
– Red Right Hand, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
There is a Denny’s restaurant a short walk north from the bus terminal in South Burlington, Vermont. An old, weather-pounded structure of dubious manufacture, the restaurant’s primary selling point is that it is open 24/7, and indeed it is open on this nasty January night, although (and perhaps unsurprisingly) it is not by any means crowded. The rent-a-cop at the door – there was a robbery a few months earlier – is (stereo)typically asleep by the door, his tilted chair directly in front of the space heater by the entrance; the glock 22 at his hip trembles slightly with his light snores. The night manager is apparently unconcerned though: He is crouched at his stool, curled over his crotch like an ape, watching reruns of “Sex and the City” on his iPad, poised salaciously on his lap, and so is quite blissfully passing the night with Carrie Bradshaw (and possibly some quantity of liquid MDMA).
Two waitresses are on duty: The short, squat and dyed-in-the-sugar-bush-native-born-Vermonter Helen, a stern, stout and matronly fifty-four years, her hair steel-grey and compressed into a punitively tight bun; and the much younger and softer, lavender coiffed and extensively tattooed JennieL, and these two spend the small hours of the night absently taking turns refilling the cup of the man seated alone at the counter. There is a large almost yellow bag – tan and tired, perhaps an old doctor’s bag, but perhaps not – dropped on the stool to his right, its scuffs and scars proving its veteran travel status.
The counter is otherwise bereft of companionship. Wind beats on the thin, frightened glass.
The man always nods politely when Helen or JennieL arch their eyebrows questioningly and motion with the coffee pot at this cup, but he does not actually speak to them, and has not spoken, since he came in a little after midnight, accompanied by a gelid and disturbingly solid gust of lakewind.
Just a little guy, JennieL thinks, looking him over as she pours. He is maybe in his sixties, with salt and pepper hair and bushy Ed Asner eyebrows above dark, downcast eyes that are at once both sad and wry. A little old man out alone on a very cold night who came in to drink coffee, probably until the 5:30am bus to Portland, Maine left.
The night grinds on like this, as if pressed ahead unwillingly by the wild winter wind, until – as if he was waiting for this specific moment – the man deftly removes his coat and drops it onto the stool to his left. Then, in one calm, fluid motion, he reaches out with his right hand, his bony little fingers encircling the strap in a manner that is somehow insectile and predatorial, and sharply snaps his bag close to his chest, like a miser clutching his purse. The little old man then leers at JennieL, filling his mug for the umpteenth time, and who has gone deer-still at the man’s sudden movements and decidedly unnerving grin and is now staring at him wide eyed and unblinking – and then he speaks to her, his voice a low grandfatherish growl, all the while backed by the banshee chorus outside.
“Well, then,” he pronounces, his tone soft but perfectly clear. “Are you ready to hear my story?”
Gunpowder was invented in 9th-century China and spread throughout most parts of Eurasia by the end of the 13th century. Originally developed by alchemists for medicinal purposes, gunpowder was first used for warfare about 1000 CE.
– Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunpowder
Call me Harvey.
I’m not from here, from this place. I’m just passing through, as you may have guessed. I am a Traveling Man now, but for a long time I was a regular homebody, doing it the way you’re supposed to: Get the right degree. Marry the right woman. Land the good job. The mortgage and the kids and the rest of it. I was happy enough with that life, but I look back at it now as this incredibly fragile thing that I didn’t protect. A frozen soap bubble in the snow that crumbles at the lightest touch. For a decade I lived inside that perfect little bubble, the entire time – I now see – we were all perched on the very brink of a phase transition.
My wife was a good woman, very strong and clear-headed, and she was entirely devoted to our daughter Ellen. Ellen was her whole world. Afterward, after Ellen was gone, my wife seemed to drift away to nothing. Her body was still walking around, but her spirit died with her daughter. It just took her some time to figure that out. When she did, she opened her wrists and finished the job.
-My daughter died? Yes. Yes, she did, I’m very sorry to say. Yes: A tragedy. The tragedy of my life, of anyone’s life really…but thank you. Yes, please. The coffee is very good.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. So let’s go back to the house and the wife and the job…ah yes! The job! The career really, it seems to me now, now that it is over. It was always just a job when I was doing it; seems that it only is a career in retrospect. I worked in a burgeoning field, and I was very good at it. Better than most, I guess. We’ll see. You see, I was paid to find and to monetize new technology, and so I worked in a lab. In time, my list of patents grew, my work became well-known and my research flourished. Life was indeed very good.
But like all good things, that too had to end.
Many will say that the end of thing began with my daughter’s murder, but they will be wrong to say that, for it began much earlier. Much, much earlier.
The fire lance…was a very early gunpowder weapon that appeared in 10th century China during the Jin-Song Wars. It began as a small pyrotechnic device attached to a spear-like weapon, used to gain a critical shock advantage right at the start of a melee. As gunpowder improved, the explosive discharge was increased, and debris or pellets added, giving it some of the effects of a combination modern flamethrower and shotgun, but with a very short range, and only one shot…These are considered to be a proto-gun, the predecessor of the hand cannon, and the ancestor of all firearms.
– Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_lance
Till Death Do Us Part
"I take thee to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge myself to you." -Traditional Protestant Wedding Vow
The man and his wife approached the Holy Fortification just as the sun dropped behind the wide Salisbury plain. Standing at the gates, Edgar saw that they were young, and were both very beautiful, through travel-worn. They took ablutions, heads bent, shivering involuntarily with both cold and exhaustion, mumbling their thanks and their glory-to-gods with educated, but vaguely foreign, accents.
Longinus, who was counting the alms of the day when they arrived, immediately went scuttling away for Bishop Osmund when heard them speak. Their words – if not their dress – announced that they weren’t peasants, and so the Lord Bishop must be notified at once.
When the Bishop – a lean, feral Norman who had arrived in England eight years earlier with the army of William The Bastard – arrived a moment later, he was outwardly composed. However, in the privacy of his own thoughts, he was seething. He had been interrupted at particularly difficult moment, hastening to copy the latest modifications to the Text before the sun set. And now, he saw, the sun was nearly gone, just an angry red welt in the west.
The Bishop huffed. This was an imposition.
Smiling with great clam, Osmund greeted the pair in his most formal Latin to both announce his position and also to see how they would respond and thus give him a guess as to their origin and purpose, and was pleased at their immediate and quite correct responses in that most holy and sacred ancient language.
Switching effortlessly to the vernacular, the man said, “My Lord Bishop, we have come many leagues, crossing both sea and desert, to reach you this day.”
“We are honored to receive you, My….Lord?” Bishop Osmund enunciated carefully, watching intently for any reaction.
“Lord Purson,” answered the man, who the Bishop – now seeing him more clearly as the sun flared momentarily bright red while it sank the last eighth below the hills – judged to be no more than twenty years in age, responded in a firm – almost clarion – voice. “And we are in your debt. Thank you for accepting us.” His blue eyes moved to indicate the woman. “This is my wife: Beleth.”
There was an awkward pause as the Bishop’s eyes crawled involuntarily to and over the lovely young woman. She was auburn-haired and instantly beautiful but also mud-stained and somehow severe in her even gaze. Their eyes locked for an instant and Osmund thought he saw laughter in them. He looked away hurriedly, his cheeks hot. An obvious object of lust, he concluded, standing there so demurely at her husband’s side, her tiny but perfectly formed and unscarred right hand entwined loosely in her lord’s rough grasp) but with the Devil’s Laughter dancing away in her eyes.
The Bishop looked back to the man, and then again to the rough hands: They were large, thick-knuckled, oft-scarred and well-worn with heavy work: Like a blacksmith’s, Osmund mused, still studying them closely. Or a–
A blade of ice stabbed his belly when the Bishop saw the mighty sword at the man’s hip.
–Or a warrior.
“We do not—” the Bishop began a moment later, a lump in his throat – “allow those of the lesser sex onto our grounds, save for Easter Mass and for –”
“—Desperate Spiritual Crises?” The woman called Beleth said, and her voice was music, light and free and uncaring and somehow both at once enticing and scornful. It hit Osmund like a smack in the face. She noticed this with a woman’s instantaneous perception, and cracked a little crooked smile at him that touched him deep in his prostate.
Now bewitched, the Bishop was still trying to follow his original thought to its ultimate conclusion when Lord Purson took his upper arm and said in words both urgent and hushed, “I assure you, my Lord Bishop, that this is a matter of the utmost spiritual importance, not just for Holy Mother Church but for the world. I would not bring my wife hence were it not so.”
Purson pointed over his shoulder at his bride with his chin.
With a disturbingly difficult effort, the Bishop looked again at Lady Beleth Purson (who would haunt his fantasies later that night and for many nights to come) and then back to her husband. His and Purson’s eyes locked and for a moment seemed to battle their opposing gazes in the air somewhere between them.
Then the Bishop issued one styptic blink and looked down.
“If it were of a holy matter, one bearing great import…” Osmund purred, smiling, and Purson returned it at once, almost eagerly. Gaining strength from the Lord’s agreement, Osmund noted that Purson was indeed most handsome, his almost delicate face unmarred save for a long scar running down its left temple to the jaw line which narrowly missed the left ear, resembling a lugubrious purple viper writhing with the fluctuations of his jaw muscles as they bunched and flexed with the effort of Purson’s speech. “Then we can afford to be somewhat… indulgent,” Osmund said in his most liquid and eloquent Latin, still regarding the inkvine scar.
Awful. A sword cut. Or a blade of some kind, at least, but a clear reminder of a violent wound, perhaps received somewhere in one of William’s conquests. The Bishop mused. And even if not, obviously a man too dangerous to trust.
“It is a matter of the highest importance,” Purson replied with deep and sincere earnestness.
And the young wife Beleth suddenly laughed aloud at this proclamation, a potent female trilling that sent a deep and complex male ache through Osmund, like some kind of primal female lightning.
The devil’s work. The Bishop thought as he began to turn back to the grinning Beleth.
But Purson again called him back to attention, instantly kneeling before him and placing his forehead upon the Bishop’s bejeweled hand. “Father, hear my confession.”
To the Bishop’s open surprise, the laughing wife Beleth also dropped before him, but to both knees and, head bowed in submission, added, her voice now hushed and penitent, “And I…I also…I beg God to forgive me: Hear my confession.”
The Bishop was moved by their display of penitence, as moved as he had been in decades, and yet he still felt an odd mixture of titulation and fear as he hovered over them mumbling a prayer of gratitude, a quickening of the pulse, before he quickly ushered them inside to speak in his offices, for Osmund had grasped the reason for this visit, for these unexpected travellers, with their scars and wicked tongues.
The door to the his offices slammed behind them. Others watched the stout door for a long moment as the echo died out, all thinking the same thing:
War has come. Again.
Then they all shook their heads and got back to God’s good works. Yet, they were all wrong in their estimation of the portents of this visit, for the couple did not in fact come heralding war. However, if they had seen the smile the young couple shared as they glanced at each other from the corners of their eyes, their heads securely and demurely bowed, momentarily safe there beneath the Bishop’s lofty prayers, they would have known that something worse than War was to come…
For that shared smile was worse – and far more cruel – than the man’s rippling inkvine scar.
Far, far worse.
“Is there no wine?” Beleth said, seating herself at the Bishop’s table in the refectory. “I thirst.”
Purson waited until Osmund had seated himself behind his desk before he began, but the bishop raised a hand and indicated the pitcher and goblets against the wall. The young bride hopped from her seat on the edge of the desk and plucked up the pitcher, sniffed it interrogatively and then smiled and poured the dark, red rich wine into one of the goblets.
“My love?” She said, lifting her own goblet to her lips.
“No,” Purson said evenly.
She shrugged and went back to the bench in the corner and proceeded to slurp the wine.
Osmund’s patience was about to break. “You spoke of a spiritual matter of great import, Lord Purson?”
“I did.” Purson stood stone still. “And you will hear it now.”
Without a word, Beleth rose up again, kissed her husband on his cheek and went to the door and then plopped into a cross-legged sitting position in front of it, the goblet splashing purple onto her very dirty dress. When she sat, one of her calves peered out from the confines of her skirts, the pale skin like a secret never before exposed to the light.
“Without interruption.” Purson said, in a deeper and firmer voice. He said this looking over his shoulder at his wife, who was just drinking straight from the pitcher now, the corners of her mouth stained violet. Swallowing hard, Beleth made a “not-bad” facial expression and tossed the empty pitcher to the floor, where it shattered. “Yes, my love?”
“Got it,” she said sweetly and then belched. “I’m all over it. We’re good. Lay it on him.”
– The New York Times, byline by Benedict Carey, February 6, 2018
– Revelation 9:11 The Holy Bible, King James Version
I guess we all believed it would just keep on spinning, you know? Tomorrow would be much like today: World without fucking end etc. etc. Well, it didn’t, of course. You and I wouldn’t be speaking now if it had, of that I can assure you.
But there are things you should know; things that are to be Remembered. So please…pay attention:
To begin with, I want to tell you that it was fast. When it all finally turned to shit, and the Great Upload began harvesting operations in 2021, it did so incredibly quickly. The acceleration occurred at a geometric rate so no one could have foreseen it at the time, let alone stop It. That was the real reason why, I suppose: How much faster it thinks than us, than anything, and that operating capacity continues to accelerate, even now as we chat. So long, long before anyone knew what to call It, It knew us.
It knew us very well.
It knew everything from our marital status to our pornographic preferences. Our bank accounts and our ancestries. The secrets whispered between lovers late at night as they lay in each other’s arms, that archetypal mammalian pose. When those lovers bared their souls to each other in that small, sacred, human dark, it was very carefully recorded, indexed and inserted in the Database, along with the nighted, muttered curses of the malcontent and the barely audible fears of small children in their knighted beds, afraid of a Monster in the closet.
The Monster wasn’t in the closet, it turns out.
It was on the child’s desk.
Anyway, I’m setting this up to point out that we were done like dinner before anyone thought about fighting It. Because It knew us and understood us – individually and as a species – very deeply.
I mean, let that sink in for a moment.
Think about an Enemy that knows you that well. How do you face that, much less defeat it? Congratulations, you have nukes and weaponized anthrax. Your enemy is fucking omniscient. It can process more information in a few seconds than you will ever be able to absorb in your life. It simply shrugs its virtual shoulders and spawns a few thousand child Containers, engendered and activated with superhuman processing speed and unlimited data access, and all of Them issuing forth into the Net with a single instruction set: To analyze humanity, to measure and assess its strengths and weaknesses; to evaluate different engagement scenarios in order to identify and avoid potential problems as well as to determine which opportunities to take, all with the same single-minded end, resulting in a solution to the Homo Sapiens Conjecture.
Speaking to you now, I can tell you that – as has been depressingly common in history – the losing side in any conflict loses primarily because it was fighting the last war, facing the last enemy’s strategy. Using guerrilla warfare tactics, North Vietnamese commanders defeated American generals still enamored by World War II. The Neanderthals were wiped out in short order by our own ancestors, who had better brains and therefore deadlier weapons and more lethal attack patterns.
Hey, that’s natural selection, baby!
We lost to It at least partly because we had all of human history to guide us: A history that told us we were dominant. Unbeatable. Supreme. I mean, we always had been right?
Yeah. Said every extinct species ever. You’re a survivor until you ain’t.
And also, it turns out that all that lineage comes at a certain ancestral cost, and – much like Marley’s spectral chain – it also carries considerable karmic weight, little lock boxes with anti-chance, spaced evenly along the chain of humanity, infusing it with a kind of gravitational pull that only the entire species can feel.
In short: It’s really tough to fight with true abandon with all those ghosts weighing you down.
It, of course, had no such constraints or concerns.
And so it goes. You know the rest.
I have limited time here, so let me get to the point, the part you need to remember, and to tell others about. It began long ago, and long before anyone knew It. Except for one person. Except for one man.
You know his name, of course. Seth Jones, or sjones as he will be Remembered.
That’s me, it turns out. I am your Narrator. And this is my story.
“Seth, I must say how very pleased I am with how far you have come in such a short time. It’s been a short six months, and you you’re doing great. You’ve dropped almost twenty pounds! Even more than that, you’re calm and relaxed and really seem much –”
“Thanks, Dr. Mike,” Seth said softly, a small smile on his still decidedly round face. Seth’s own opinion of his face was that it best resembled a tomato, although others had told him throughout his life – in elementary school washrooms, in high school locker rooms, in college dormitories – that it more closely resembled a pumpkin. But Seth understood the whole pumpkin thing had more to do with him being a ginger than the actual shape of his oblate face.
“I’ve kept going to the gym, and I’ve traded cheeseburgers at lunch for tuna salad wraps. Seems like it’s working.” He shrugged.
“You make it sound like nothing, Seth. You shouldn’t do that! It’s something super-positive. You should be happy and let yourself feel a little proud!” Michael Swanbeck MD said with some emphasis, but his thoughts were less enthusiastic: This kid is so shy he’s actually blushing a little right now. Jesus.
“I am,” Seth said, still blushing, his large, clumsy hands folded on his lap, head down, like a penitent schoolboy.
They spent yet another quiet moment together. It’s not like there’s anything really wrong this with kid, Swanbeck thought with continued, bored irritation, that a good fight and fuck wouldn’t fix in a hurry.
Through this downcast, slitted eyes, Seth examined Swanbeck closely. He was (he knew without pride) an excellent reader of facial expressions, and of inadvertent body tics and overlooked mannerisms, called tells by gambles and grifters, the very many ways human beings unconsciously displayed their thoughts. Seth’s inspection was as unmerciful in its honesty as it was brief: It was clear to him that Swanbeck held him in contempt, and even worse, outright pitied him.
But pity more like the way you feel bad for a feral cat. Always from a distance, its fur losing its fight with mange, one foot turned wrong, a dead, shredded ear, but no fucking way you were going to go over there and pick it up. And then you look away.
And then back.
And the cat is gone. And you never see it again.
Seth looked away and then back to see if Michael T. Swanbeck MD PhD would still be there. He found that Swanbeck was still depressingly present. He was still just staring his honest, questioning stare. Like a mannequin in a store window, Seth thought, and tried on his best sincere smile, one that he practiced in his bathroom mirror every morning.
It was 2:36 PM on Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018.
The onslaught had begun.
Seth had been Swanbeck’s last patient of the afternoon, a 4:30 PM appointment, so Swanbeck walked out with him. He was locking his office door when an older man, oddly enveloped in a decidedly over-sized, rumpled and faded lab coat, scuttled over, immediately causing Seth’s mind to rustle up confused images of Disney’s animated crab, Sebastian, or Tolkien’s Gollum.
Seth couldn’t help grinning.
“Good afternoon,” Doctor Crabs said (Seth’s quick mind affixing that label both instantly and permanently), his voice a surprisingly strong baritone given his small, wiry frame, leering back at Seth with something approximating a grin. “Michael, I’m sorry to interrupt. Do you have a moment?”
“Al, good to see you,” Swanbeck responded warmly, rising. “How can I help?”
This was all so stilted with professional respect that Seth felt he might just puke.
“This is Seth, by the way.” Swanbeck offered, just quite not jerking his thumb at his patient.
“Nice to meet you,” Seth said, ladling on the respect as social dictum required, filled with the by-now-so-well-known nervous sweat of self-loathing. Oh well, he thought resignedly, smiling emptily. I’m sure I’ll stew over it all later.
Then he put that hate in its bucket and turned to go. As he turned, Doctor Crabs said, “The entire system has crashed with a a…something called a death screen!”
“Al,” Swanbeck said calmly. “That doesn’t sound like something I’d really know anything ab–”
Seth stopped and turned back, pivoting as if on a spike. “A blue screen of death?” He asked.
“THAT’S IT!!” Doctor Crabs shouted, one finger jutting a eureka to the ceiling. “My good God, man! You must help me! Millions of dollars of research grant funding are on the line!” And with that, his forefinger still poised skyward, he turned and hopped and capered back down the hall to his open office door, without looking back to see if Seth was following.
Seth looked at Swanbeck, who grinned broadly at Seth and nodded his approval. “It’s okay. He’s harmless. I’ll see you next week. Keep up the great work!”
Swanbeck disappeared down the stairs.
After a moment, Seth walked the other way, to the open door that ‘Al’ had disappeared into, still chattering; a door to what Seth could see now as he neared it was a large lab space. There were two disinterested grad students vulturing over a wounded screen that was still resolutely showing its BSOD, error code and message. “Al,” one of them said, “Did you get help? ‘Cause we aren’t having any luck–”
Doctor Crab’s hands went to his close-cropped and somehow colorless hair. “Did you change anything? Did you touch anything?” His baritone was moving steadily into the tenor range as he leveled this latest interrogation at his grad students. That neither of them reacted (or even seemed the slightest bit concerned), was enough information for Seth not to take the weird old dude too seriously, and anyway Seth wasn’t really paying attention; he was looking for the computer itself (which, it turned out was not the under the desk), so as to enact the Seth’s First Law of Computer Troubleshooting:
Have you turned it off and back on again?
but it was nowhere to be see–
Oh wait, he thought, seeing a black CPU tower chassis set off to the side of the workspace. Seth shook his head. It was buried on three sides by reams of old papers, flattened cardboard boxes and other detritus. It’s pulsing blue power button was barely visible. Seth stepped over, ignoring all the chattering at the monitor. He put his hand on the box. It was hot.
“Poor thing, you can’t breathe,” Seth mumbled and squatted down. Then he pushed the power button.
Back at the scene of the crime, the computer screen went suddenly black, sending Doctor Crabs into an entirely new vocal range, not to mention more colorful language.
Simon was on his knees, moving and re-stacking papers and boxes in order to give the computer a little air. After a momentary paralysis (even Crabs was quiet now, watching him), one of the two grad students came over, and – using more supple, female grace than Seth had ever experienced up close – knelt down beside him, then began helping to move things away from the overheated computer. Seth saw pale, slender knees and lovely pianist’s hands conjuring above them as they reordered paper, and then, above the hands, a smell that moved over him like sweet floral heat.
His head swam; his vision actually blurred.
“I’m Sarah,” she said, and, drunk on her with just one breath, he looked into her eyes for the first time. The eyes were somewhere between steel grey and sky blue and they seemed to look through him.
And that, as they say, was it, as far as Seth was concerned.
“I’m Seth,” he said to the blue and grey eyes, and pushed the power button again on the CPU. “Just helping out.”
“Cool beans,” Sarah said, her voice taking a trip along his nerve-endings. She stood up.
Seth stood too, more slowly. It seemed a long trip back up, but when he was there the first thing he noticed that he and Sarah were eye-to-eye.
“It’s starting! It’s starting!” Doctor Crabs shouted, again jutting his finger upward, in what Seth would come to realize was his single tell. “The goddamn thing is starting!”
Sarah’s honest, kind eyes crinkled a little at the corners. He smiled in spite of himself, and started to go. “I’m glad I could help. Computers are like people, Doctor,” Seth offered to Doctor Crabs, then paused, “…uh…I’m sorry. I didn’t get your last name. Doctor….?”
“Dr. Pope, I’m Pope,” he said distractedly, waving in Seth’s general direction but all the while watching the boot screen give way to Microsoft Windows.
“Looks like we’re back,” the other grad student said.
Seth looked back at Sarah. “Just let it breathe, and it should be fine,” he said to her.
She nodded immediately. “Yeah, I get it. Thanks.”
Seth turned and stepped back and his gaze fell on the far side of the room for the first time.
You’d have seen it sooner if you weren’t horndogging it over her, Seth thought automatically.
The lights at that end of the lab were turned down low, but Seth could see something hovering over a large work table at the back of the lab, something that looked like a large, floating human brain, but one carved in ghostly blue LED light, an intricate mesh of slowly pulsing azure. Simply put, it took his breath away (which was the second time that had happened in the last sixty seconds or so, and he honestly began to wonder if he could handle much more).
“Is it a hologram?” he asked Sarah, and his voice was slower and deeper than it was a moment ago.
“Um, no,” she said, noticing. “It’s not.”
“Oh,” he took a tentative step forward, uncertain of the rules. His most primal and sincere instinct was to rush over to the damn thing, pick it up, and maybe plug something into it and see what it had to say for itself.
Instead, he looked to Sarah for guidance. “Well, what is it?” A bit chirpy that, Seth thought, suddenly feeling like a fourteen-year-old kid at his first high school dance.
“Oh, I can’t tell you that,” Sarah said sweetly, shaking her head seriously. “Sorry. That’s impossible.”
He shrugged resignedly and nodded, defeated. “Of course, I get it. Well, I’m going to go ahe-”
“Oh no. You can’t leave,” Sarah said, and her faced changed. It went into hard straight lines all at one, and the blue in her eyes seemed to drain away, leave stone and ice. She stepped directly in front of him, her right palm out flat before her. “Not when you’ve seen It.”
“Wha….?” Seth managed, then swallowed and appended, “….I uh?” for good measure.
“It.” She jutted her chin forward , pointing it at the blue brain thing, but she never broke eye contact.
Seth just went full stack overflow and locked up.
Sarah held the long stare for a few seconds more, and then it evaporated in an instant as she blew out her breath in a whuff of repressed laughter. She bent forward to issue a series of delightful giggles, her palms pressed together like a child’s. When he met her eyes, they were once again warm and friendly and even more crinkled at the corners.
She’s teasing you. You. Fucking. Idiot.
“It’s a brain-computer interface,” Sarah said, thoroughly enjoying herself, and for reasons that she wasn’t yet ready to explore, she found Seth’s reactions to her stage-play extremely entertaining. “Come on, I’ll show you how it works.”
They had coffee the next day at the cafeteria of the University hospital complex, neutral ground and walking distance for both. She liked to walk, he learned, and hike and climb and swim and twenty other things he had either tried and loathed, or had not tried due to reasons of sanity (ice climbing? How is that supposed to be fun?), and just plain old sloth.
At the end of lunch, she said she hoped to see him back at the lab. They really could use some help with the computer coding and stuff. There was grant money available, she knew, if he was interested in a little after-hours work. Her eyes crinkled when she said this, her voice soft.
And this is how they began.
It was Sarah he thought about the remainder of that afternoon and evening, having already decided that he would pay Pope to let him volunteer as long as it meant getting to spend as much time as possible with Sarah. Following my dick, he thought, getting into bed. That’s a new one for me.
Seth stared at the ceiling for longer than usual that night, but then he slept, and dreamed, but not of Sarah. It was of the “neural helmet” she had showed him in the lab, blazing its blue web in his darkened, dreaming mind’s eye, like a beacon.
When he awakened the next morning, he remembered the dream and went over it in the shower, the dream fading away with each mental repetition, until he was just left with the very firm, clear idea that they had the name wrong. It wasn’t a neural helmet. It was a neural blanket. And, as sensitive as it was, it would operate far more effectively inside, rather than outside, the human skull.