The Antisocial Network – Chapter Sixteen

“I hate hospitals. How did you stand being in here so long?”

Rachada shrugged. “When you’re comatose it doesn’t bother you as much. Besides, my dad is a surgeon. I got used to hospitals a long time ago.”

“Rough break.” Eric paced around the room, which admittedly was bigger than most hospital rooms he’d been in, trying to ignore the prickly feeling of illness he always got when he visited a sickbed. “What did the doctors say?”

“Clean bill of health.” She tapped the side of her head. “It was all up here and the CAT scans didn’t find anything wrong. They’re going to do another MRI later to see if there are any signs of nerve damage but I doubt that I would have regain consciousness so quickly after you corrected the nerve blockage if there was. I owe you a favor.”

“I wouldn’t have known how to fix it if Vent hadn’t shown me. You probably could have done it yourself if you knew how.”

“But you’re the one who went out of your way to find out how to reverse it and make sure I got the solution.” Rachada smiled and settled herself into a more comfortable sitting position on the bed. “I think that makes you the one I owe the favor to.”

Eric flung himself into one of the rooms overstuffed chairs as if sitting more emphatically would make him more comfortable there. “If that’s the way you feel.”

“I guess that’s settled then.” Rachada folded her hands in her lap and gave him a searching look. “Eric, how sure are you that you’ve really prevented the Network from launching another brainworm?”

“Preventing it from ever happening again is probably impossible. After all, he’s still a smart guy and he’s got a lot telepaths backing him up. So it could happen again, but not any time soon. You guys,” Eric gestured around to encompass Rachada’s coworkers scattered through the rest of the building, “need to look into a way to eradicate dangerous brainworms if you want to make them impractical as a weapon in the future.”

Rachada gave him a curious look. “I thought you said the First Telepath didn’t intend his brainworm as destructive.”

“He didn’t. But that doesn’t mean that someone else couldn’t build one that way. And if he builds another one odds are it’ll wind up just as dangerous as the first one.”

She treated Eric to another one of her small, mysterious smiles. “Are you sure you don’t want to work for the FBI? Dr. Thorwald is pretty sure he’s going to get a full taskforce funded in the next month and we could certainly use the help.”

For a moment Eric seemed to think about it, glancing around the room from under half-lidded eyes. “I don’t think so. It doesn’t seem like my kind of thing.”

“Going back to the theater, then?”

“No.” The answer came immediately that time. “I’m not even sure it’s possible for a telepath to do live theater ethically. There’s so many things you do on stage that wind up leaking into headspace. Maybe some day Vent and I can work out some way to safeguard against it but in the mean time… I’d rather not worry about mesmerizing the audience in the wrong way. And I’d rather not have to fight the temptation to psychic my through an audition.”

“This is why you belong in the FBI, Eric. You’re worrying about the right things.” She sighed. “But if you don’t want to stay and work at least try to stay in touch.”

Eric pushed himself up out of the chair and stepped over to the side of the bed. “Count on it, Cherrywood. I’m pretty sure the FBI didn’t hound me into jail because of you so if there’s any owing favors going on it’s from me to you.” He patted her on the hand and smiled. “Stay safe. Make your parents proud.”

“Thanks. And I’ll pray your parents will have understanding . Unless you’re planning to study medicine? The law?”

Eric laughed. “I’m thinking of becoming the first Doctor of Telepathy.”

“That will do the trick, I’m sure.”

He slipped out of Rachada’s room, burying himself in layers of anonymity. No one Eric passed in the halls gave him a second glance save for the tall, white haired man with the intense beard who’s name tag proclaimed him to be Rachada’s direct superior. But Dr. Thorwald didn’t do more than glance at Eric as they passed, a brief moment of confusion that passed as the two men parted ways.

The FBI probably needed to think up a way to deal with people who could just walk in and out of their buildings at will, too. Of course, the trick wouldn’t have worked if he hadn’t gotten into the building with other employees but that hadn’t been too difficult. And he clearly wasn’t the only one who’d pulled it off.

At first he wasn’t sure what was waiting for him in the small lobby outside the building’s medical ward wasn’t a meme. It had all the trappings of the First Telepath, the worn flannel shirt, near-skeletal proportions and distant odor of stale booze, but he was looking through a magazine when Eric approached. When the First tossed it down on a nearby table it made a realistic thump and the other magazines on the table fluttered in response. The magazine was real enough, so there must have been a real hand underneath. And, once he was looking for it, he could pick up on the gentle way the First Teep was nudging people’s attention away from them.

“Hello, Echoes.”

“FT.” Eric had settled on Vent’s way of talking about the First as the least pretentious. “To what do I owe this honor?”

“I know you took something from me.” Eric backed slowly away as the First advanced, radiating hostility. “I want it back.”

Eric placed himself strategically next to a wall with a door to one side and a hallway to the other . “Sorry, FT. I know a good way to forget things and what I got from you wasn’t worth remembering.”

The tension in the air slipped a bit, then redoubled. “Not worth remembering? I am the Network, Echoes. You’re very name means imitation, who are you to judge me?”

“The funny thing about echoes is they don’t have to explain themselves to other people. An echo is a reflection of you.” Eric gave the First a cocky grin he wasn’t really feeling. “You made me because you thought it was fair to look into other people’s minds without permission. Why complain when your echo does it to you?”

The First Telepath hesitated, a wary feeling tinging his memetic projection. “Return what’s mine, Echoes, or the Network will be closed to you.”

“Fine. Take your Network, I don’t really care.” The brass ring popped out of his right hand, spinning quietly and ready to scrounge for thoughts again. “Just keep in mind that if you cause trouble I can keep digging through your head until we sort out what your real problem is. I’m not a shrink like Rachada or Vent, so I’m not about to do it for charity or money, but if it’s what it takes to get you off my back I’m sure we can work something out.”

They stood for a moment, the tension teetering on the brink of something nasty, then the First Telepath turned away. “Fine. Do as you want, Echoes. But whatever you’re hoping to accomplish, without the Network there’s no way it will work out.”

Eric watched the other man leave, people nervously moving to the sides of the hallway as he stalked away, avoiding his radiating anger even as he kept them from fully noticing he was there. Once the coast was clear Eric went out by the back entrance, just in case Tails or Hugo had tagged along with the First as backup. He didn’t want another brush with them. Maybe the First Telepath was right. Maybe he couldn’t accomplish what he wanted without them.

But for the time being he didn’t have anything he wanted to do. And that was okay with him. It was time to go home, get his bearing and work out a plan.

Then maybe he would talk to Vent. After all, there had to be some use for his new talents. It was just a matter of finding them.

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Fifteen

After a experiencing short term memory loss in an entirely new way – all while under attack by a semisentient mental disorder – getting thrown off the top of a building wasn’t quite as upsetting as Eric would have expected. Some part of his brain had figured out that he wasn’t really in that much danger here. Hubris, possibly, since all the experts seemed to think things happening in headspace could still hurt him, but it was a gamble he was willing to take. The building rushed by at an incredible speed and most of Eric’s attention was drawn to the man who was holding him but Eric was able to see around the First Telepath just enough to see their reflection in the windows of the building just beyond.

Or rather, their lack of a reflection.

The blurred silhouette of a diving bird was the only thing Eric could see in the glass as they rushed downwards. For a second he was confused but then he remembered what Vent had said about his personal headspace being based on what his body was seeing and manic grin split his face. “A bird. We’re seeing through the eyes of a bird. That’s so cool!”

“Perceptive, aren’t we?” The First’s eyes narrowed. “And remarkably possessed. Let’s find your limits, shall we?”

There was a wrenching sensation and suddenly Eric found himself flat on the ground. Everything looked big for some reason and the First Telepath was little more than a receding sensation in the back of his mind. He looked around in confusion, then panic hit him for some reason. He looked up on instinct just in time to see the falcon swoop down, talons outstretched, and grab him.

There were some really uncomfortable sensations that compounded his already throbbing headache and then he was back in empty headspace with the First Teep approaching him in a rather unfriendly manner. Head in one hand Eric asked, “What happened?”

“You just enjoyed a rat getting eaten by a peregrine falcon. I apologize if you found it unpleasant but you were the one who intruded here.” The First picked Eric up by the scruff of the neck, pulling his shirt tight under his arms. Eric had just started wondering if he could make his shirt vanish, since his meme was really just a projection or something, when the other man clamped one hand to his head and pushed.

Not in the literal sense, of course. Like most of the things Eric had experienced since becoming a telepath the sensation seemed to start at the back of his head near the joint with the neck but it quickly spread to encompass his entire skull. Headspace blurred again and suddenly Eric found his life flashing in front of his eyes. From the way the First Telepath watched the proceedings he could apparently see it too.

Most of the scenes that flashed by were from the last few years as he tried to go from being a med school student to a working actor. There were a lot of glimpses of life back stage – although more often as stage crew than an actor. Scattered throughout were the occasional quiet, forceful discussion that passed for an argument with his parents about how he was misusing his gifts. Those would eventual stop the First got to memories from the last year, after he’d stopped talking to them.

Not that Eric really wanted a total stranger poking through his memories, no matter how depressed they were likely to make him. He tried to push back but couldn’t find the strength to make any headway. He tried kicking at the other meme’s legs but that didn’t help any either. In a last ditch effort he grabbed at the First Telepath’s head and tried to dig into his memories.

At first he couldn’t make any headway, every attempt to push into the mind behind the First Teep’s meme was easily pushed back. But as Eric got a firmer grip on his opposition he heard a click and a whir and the metal ring from the rogue brainworm emerged from his hand and wrapped itself around the other meme’s arm.

The smell of stale beer and cigarettes, a constant undercurrent through the entire encounter, suddenly became so strong Eric could taste it. Headspace wavered and bent, his own memories fading and morphing into an unfamiliar office. Men in police uniforms hustled past the door as two men argued in a way that would have been considered downright uncivilized in the Han household.

Hours spent in a police cruiser before the promotion to detective. Weeks trying to crack cases obstructed just because people wouldn’t trust the cops enough to talk to them. A wild gunshot from a strung out drug dealer. Physical therapy. Psychiatrists.

A long descent into alcohol and nicotine. Nearly loosing his job. Antidepressants.

And then the breakthrough. The ability to read minds. A hundred ideas for new ways to do his job. But just one person who could read minds wouldn’t be enough. He’d need more. Lots and lots of mind readers who would help him out. Like snitches. An information network that would let him get any information, find any person, crack any case just by skimming other people’s thoughts.

And then there was Vent with his nifty brainworms and-

With a jolt Eric came back to himself. For a few seconds – or maybe hours – he’d lost himself in the flood of memories. But with Vent came memories of the brainworm and, with a sharp snapping sensation, Eric found himself holding the metal band again. There was a weird tangle of brass wires and delicate looking pipes wrapped up in the center of it.

Headspace around them had turned blank once more and the First Telepath was sitting on his haunches, his meme staring aimlessly off into the distance. Eric turned over the mess in his hands and got glimpses of the First building a brainworm and discussing the details with Vent. The First Teep’s meme twitched once and Eric took it as his cue to exit. It was time to get back to his own body.

And he was away, as quick as thought.

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Fourteen

Vent tilted his head from one side to the other, immediately prompting images of Stallone in the Rocky films to run through Eric’s mind. For a split second Vent’s meme wavered like it had back in his mother’s mind, whetting Eric’s curiosity about what had happened there, but he pushed the question into the back of his mind along with the Stallone impression he’d nearly started into and waited to see what Vent was going to do. Vent, for his part, didn’t seem to notice, or at least didn’t comment on, the brief distortion.

Instead he exhaled slowly, something Eric understood more than heard, since their meme’s didn’t have lungs or mouths, and suddenly headspace around them began folding like the world seen through a kaleidoscope. There was a sensation of stale beer and old cigarettes, again more an impression than a real smell or taste, then they were suddenly on the edge of a new patch of headspace.

A pair of memes was there to meet them. One sported familiar pigtails and a giant hammer. The other was impossibly thin and tall, like a hairless specter in a worn plaid shirt. Neither one felt particularly welcoming. At a guess Eric figured the new meme was Hugo and, given the very abrupt way they’d met and parted, Eric wasn’t counting them as friendly by default. He lapsed into his default defensive mental routine, wrapping himself in the layers of anonymity, trying to become the most unremarkable, featureless meme he could.

Vent straightened up and grasped at the lapels of his coat like a man about to take the podium but Hugo got the first word in. “What’s this thing, Vent?” Hugo swept around Eric and he got the sensation of being watched. “Brought a new toy for the First to look at? I’m not sure he wants to talk to you, though.” Hugo drifted over to Vent – literally, his legs didn’t move and there was no real floor for his feet to rest on. “Want me to take it to him? I’m sure he’ll get back to you if he’s interested in your new project.”

A pressure at the back of Eric’s mind nudged him towards the center of the headspace up ahead.  Vent stepped up between Hugo and Tails, pulling their attention towards him, and said, “Unfortunately I’m not here to pitch a project to the First Telepath. Frankly I’m not any more interested in collaborating with him than he is with me, I think the days of fruitful cooperation between us is over. Particularly given the work he’s done recently. Very counterproductive.”

“I beg your pardon? You never bothered to listen to what he was trying to do when you were here, how can you possibly know what would help or hurt it?” Tails sounded personally offended, not surprising given how defensive she’d been about telepathy when they first met. Hugo didn’t say anything in reply but Eric did feel the attention from Hugo move over to Vent.

And just like that the three of them were clustered in a circle, Vent holding forth about their recent run-in with FT’s custom built brainworm, and no one was paying attention to Eric. He drifted away from them and towards the center of the headspace, doing his best to keep the smell of sour booze and cheap tobacco in mind. It only took a few seconds for the headspace to shift from blank space to a dizzying view of the top of a building. Eric wasn’t very good with skylines but he was willing to bet he was back in Chicago.

As Eric looked around trying to get a handle on exactly where he was the sharp wind brought a strong whiff of cigarette smoke to his nose. A quick sweep of the rooftop and he spotted another meme on the opposite corner of the roof, looking down at the city below. Eric hesitated, not sure what to say, and settled on something straight to the point. “Hello?”

The other meme turned around slowly, almost like it didn’t want to know what it would find. Eric noted that it was the first meme he’d seen that looked… formal. Even Vent’s steampunk getup had more of an outlandish look than anything. This meme, and Eric was willing to bet just about anything it was the First Teep, was dressed in a very humdrum suit and tie and it held a burning cigarette between two fingers. “Who are you?”

It was the obvious question but Eric found that he didn’t have a considered answer on hand. He went with the option Vent had suggested to him. “Call me Echoes. Are you the First Teep?”

“That’s what they call me.” The coal on the end of his cigarette brightened for a moment, then a cloud of smoke puffed into existence by the meme’s head and drifted off. “I don’t remember hearing of any telepath going by Echoes. And believe me, I hear about most of them.”

“Probably true.” Although with Rachada and who knew how many others working for the government, Eric was willing to bet he didn’t know about them all. “I’ve been doing the whole teep thing for less than a week.”

There was a sudden sharp prick on Eric’s awareness, like a focusing of attention. “Is that so? Hugo mentioned a new guy coming in and leaving right away just a few days ago. He didn’t call you Echoes, though.”

“The name is kind of a new thing.” Eric cast about for what to say next. The last few hours had unfolded kind of fast and, in retrospect, he really could have done with a little more planning before plunging right into the heart of things. “Not what I wanted to talk about.”

“I don’t have a job for you at the moment.”

“Not looking for a job, either.” That did prompt him to wonder if Hugo and Tails go paid for the work they did for the Network and, if so, where the money to do it came from. “The truth is, I’m a telepath because of a brainworm you sent out a while back.”

The First nodded, tapping his cigarette absently and leaving a scattering of ash as he walked over to Eric. “No surprise there. You’re hardly the first.”

“Look, I’m not going to argue whether it’s good to have a mindless thing running around, handing out telepathy to people at random.” Eric shrugged, doing his best to stand up in front of the First Telepath’s increasing scrutiny. “The big problem right now is that the thing stopped working right.”

The First tilted his head in curiosity. “Stopped working?” He tossed the cigarette down and ground it out. “How so?”

“It was driving some of the people it infected crazy. And, as someone that experienced it first hand, it was a lot more disturbing than I think it needed to be.” Eric took a few steps away, trying to maintain a more comfortable distance. “I can’t give you the full specifics but Vent’s nearby, talking with-”

“Vent.” He covered the distance to Eric in two quick steps. “You were working with Vent? No wonder.”

That didn’t sound good. Eric backpedaled further. “Look, I get that you two don’t seem to be on the best terms but-”

The First Telepath grabbed Eric’s meme and suddenly the two of them hopped up and off the rooftop into a dizzying dive towards the ground below.

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Thirteen

Eric caught a glimpse of sensible women’s shoes coming towards him before the brainworm collapsed into scrap metal and buried him underneath. The pressure on him was immense for another second or two then there was a strange popping sensation and Eric found himself in empty headspace with the metal ring still clenched in his hands. He took a few steadying breaths as the beginning of a migraine built behind his sinuses. Sensory deprivation was starting to sound more and more like a perk of working in headspace rather than a drawback.

His abused cranium was really starting to protest when a door appeared, swung open and Vent stepped through, his ten year old form shifting back into the familiar Victorian persona. Eric spared a brief glance for the door, which was’t attached to any thing and vanished as soon as it swung shut behind behind the other meme. Vent hurried over to him, his meme visibly relaxing as he looked Eric over, patting him down as if to ensure everything was still there.

“Relax, Vent, I’m fine.” Eric gently pushed Vent’s hands away.

“Do you feel dizzy? Is there any sensation returning to your limbs?” Vent continued to look him over but kept his hands to himself. “Are you experiencing any synesthesia?”

“Any wha- no, never mind. I just have a headache.” Eric pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled, it was a lot less therapeutic when he wasn’t inside his own head. “Is that normal?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never heard of someone’s meme being forgotten while they were in someone else’s headspace. I guess it just bounces back to running in your own head? It’s not like your memes were ever dependent on someone else’s mind.” Vent’s voice trailed off in the same way Eric’s father’s did when he was deep in thought.

Not that Eric was sure what he was thinking about it. Now that he wasn’t under the threat of brainworm attack the idea that someone else’s bad memory could pose a danger to him seemed silly, even with telepathy in the mix. Eric decided to investigate the ring he’d gotten from the worm instead. It seemed like a featureless circle of metal until he ran his fingertips along the inside of the ring. Then it suddenly sprouted teeth and wrapped tightly around his hand.

“Gah!” Eric yelled, trying to work his fingers out from under the ring.

“Ah!” Vent snapped out of his reverie and crowded in to help.

Neither one managed to get a grip on it before it vanished under the skin. Both of them stared at Eric’s hand for a moment. With exaggerated calm Eric looked at Vent and asked, “What happened?”

“Well…”

“This is another thing you’ve never heard of happening before, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes, it is.” Vent produced the tools he’d used earlier to examine the brainworm. “But if you don’t mind, we can take a look and try and figure it out now.”

Eric rolled his eyes. “Fine. Take a look.”

Ten minutes of uncomfortable poking and prodding later, Vent tucked his tools away and humphed.

“Humph what?” Eric asked.

“You know how a telepath wakes up, right?”

“The nontelepath,” Eric put out one hand flat, “synchronizes with the telepath.” He put his other hand under the first hand. “Then the telepath slowly cranks the nontelepath up to speed,” he pushed his top hand up with the bottom, “and you have two telepaths.”

“Pretty much. As near as I can tell, what happened that the part of the brainworm that took care of the synchronization just synchronized with you.” He ran one hand along his jaw sheepishly. “But I’m not sure what happens now. I think the rest of the process was handled by other parts of the brainworm so there’s nothing left there for it to do.”

Eric rubbed his hand uncomfortably. “Right. Well, I guess that’s one problem dealt with. But it kind of leaves a bigger issue, don’t you think?”

Vent shot him a look as he adjusted a new top hat on his meme’s head. “What’s that?”

“You said the First Teep knew everything he needs to make more brainworms.” Eric gestured broadly to encompass everything that happened in the last half hour. “And I can’t image that we won’t end up right back here if he does.”

“That’s true…” Vent struck a thoughtful pose. “At the same time what do you suppose we do about it?”

Eric threw his hands in the air. “Well you’re the expert, right? Couldn’t you convince him that the thing is dangerous?”

“He wouldn’t believe us.” Vent shrugged. “It wasn’t dangerous when he first built it.”

“But it became dangerous over time. It took you five minutes to figure that out, couldn’t you explain it to him?”

Vent looked away and didn’t answer. Eric grunted in disgust. “Is there some reason he wouldn’t believe you?”

“We might not have parted on the best of terms.” Vent heaved a sigh and looked back. “Fine. We’ll go talk to FT. Maybe he’ll be in a mood to listen to sense this time.”

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Twelve

Eric and Vent broke through the featureless headspace and found themselves in a living room straight out of a Normal Rockwell painting. A quick look around revealed that they were standing in front of the front door, looking at a small but well furnished room with a tan colored sofa along the opposite wall. An round table with a lamp and vase on it sat immediately to their left, beyond it was a door to what looked like a dining room.  A closed door to the right of the sofa led to the back of the house, a curio cabinet full of knickknack was the only feature on the wall to the right.

There wasn’t anything that struck Eric as particularly useful against a rampaging brainworm. He gave Vent a curious look. “Where are we?”

Vent’s meme removed his top hat in a respectful fashion. “The mind of an Alzheimer’s patient.”

“Alzheimer’s.” Eric cast about for the word. “That’s the condition where you forget everything, right?”

“No.” Vent strode across the quiet room, absently running one hand along the top of the cabinet. “Alzheimer’s is a state of permanent short term memory loss. People will remember events from ten or twenty years ago just fine but won’t be able to retain memories of things that happened a few days, a few hours or, in extreme cases, a few minutes ago.”

Eric picked the vase up off the table at his side, turning the thing over in his hands and marveling at how tacky it looked. That was pretty much the only sensation he got off of it, there was no feeling of porcelain or any sense of weight to the object. He put it back on the table and, without his touching it in any way, it scooted a few inches to one side, stopping exactly where he’d picked it up. Eric suppressed a shudder. “Weird.”

“The human mind is incredible. It can completely recover from any kind of intrusion as long as it can forget.” Vent strode across the room, his meme losing coherency for a moment, wavering between the snappily dressed, pseudo-Victorian Eric was used to and a much smaller figure, half Vent’s normal height at a guess, with sloppy hair and poorly fitting clothes. “If you could duplicate Alzheimer’s in a controlled fashion you could cure any mental disorder.”

The vase may not have had much in the way of weight but it sure shattered nicely against the side of the table when Eric swung it. The pieces actually froze in mid air before most of them even hit the ground, flying back upward and reassembling on the table as if nothing had happened. “So they call stasis a cure now?”

Vent gave him a nasty look over his shoulder, the shifting, protean aspect he wore at the moment making it even more sinister than the blank disapproval of the typical meme. “Don’t draw attention, Echoes. You don’t belong here.”

“What?”

“As long as we’re in the subconscious we can’t get forgotten, not really. But if you catch the attention of the conscious mind and you can’t fit into the memories that are here you’re on the road to oblivion.” Vent’s meme tossed it’s hat on the floor. For a moment it sat there and then it crumpled flat, into a ball, then finally a tiny point of darkness before disappearing entirely. “I don’t know what that will do to your mind or body and frankly I don’t want to find out.”

“Point taken.” Eric moved to the rough center of the room, staying as far as possible from the furniture and anything else he might disturb and get unwanted attention.

Vent’s meme had settled on an actual size and shape, no longer the imposing Victorian scientist but instead a tennish year old boy in an oversized shirt and shorts. Large blue eyes stared out from under a fringe of blonde hair and he had a nose that would probably be strong and handsome someday but for the moment was just comical. Eric stared but Vent didn’t seem to notice. “Now listen, because that brainworm could be here any second.”

“Wait,” Eric hissed, trying to keep his meme’s ‘voice’ quiet since he wasn’t sure whether that would attract attention or now. “You’re going to dump the brainworm in the middle of a mentally unstable person’s brain?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. There’s nothing more stable than an Alzheimer’s patient’s mind. They’re basically in stasis, you said it yourself. If a brainworm comes in here it will have to be processed by the conscious mind, but this mind can’t hold thoughts together long enough to make anything of something as complicated as a brainworm. Long before it can do lasting damage it will be entirely forgotten.” Vent made a poofing motion with one hand. “The problem is, the worm’s coming here for you. If it finds you odds are you’ll be noticed along with it, so you run the same risk of being forgotten as it does.”

Before Eric could ask the obvious question the door to the house shook with the sound of something heavy crashing into it. Eric and Vent both jumped and slowly backed away from the door. “Okay, Vent, how do I do this without getting myself forgotten?”

Vent pointed frantically towards the kitchen. “Hide. Without interacting with the headspace too much.” Vent turned and scampered towards the other door, his now-boyish voice shrill as he started yelling, “Mom! Mom, there’s someone at the door!”

The door thumped again and this time the sound of splintering wood came along with it. Eric backed into the kitchen and crouched down behind a cabinet, his attention still focused on the door, which sported a spiderweb of cracks. The damage was already vanishing when the door took a third hit and it fell apart completely.

It didn’t look much like when they’d first found it. Any vestiges of its pseudo-Vent appearance had fallen away to be replaced with a clattering, whirling mass of wires and pistons that bore more resemblance to a headless buffalo than a worm. In spite of his efforts at hiding the brainworm made a beeline for Eric, who backpedaled through the kitchen and banged into a table he hadn’t noticed. With the brainworm smashing through the kitchen doorfram and concern for staying hidden now in the wind Eric turned and grabbed the first thing that came to hand, a chair set at the table, and threw it threw it at the brainworm. Naturally the worm didn’t pay it any attention.

There was a door out of the kitchen in to the back of the house and Eric did his best to drag the table across the doorway as he continued his frantic retreat. The brainworm crashed through the remaining chairs in the dining room and stomped the table into twigs with a single bounding leap.

The table did make the brainworm stumble, a dozen leglike pistons churning as it tried to force its way through the door frame. As it twisted one way Eric tried to push through the gap on the other side but the flailing hooks and wires caught his arm and yanked him up short. A second later Eric was trapped under the brainworm, trying to deflect the churning limbs that threatened to crush him.

Over the noise he caught fragments of a feminine voice yelling, “What is going on, Harold?”

If there was an answer Eric missed it as a piston slammed him down into the floor hard enough to splinter it. Which made him kind of glad he couldn’t feel anything that was happening to him. The sudden change in altitude put Eric in a perfect position to see the table remnants vanish. Not good.

Eric made a frantic scramble for freedom but he suddenly felt much heavier than a moment ago. The brainworm creaked and groaned, trying to pull itself along on legs that were starting to bend and buckle under its own weight. As it got closer to Eric its center of mass split open and it extended the metal crown of teeth it had put on his head the last time they’d met.

Eric managed to get his hands on it and pushed back as hard as he could. But that left him sinking deeper into the floor as the pressure to restore the house to normal crushed ever harder.

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Eleven

It didn’t take Eric long to decide that being detached from his body was on the list of top five things he hated about being a telepath. After a mere thirty seconds of his first out of body experience he’d compiled a list of at least a dozen things he hated about it, starting with no feeling in his limbs and ramping up to the pressing urge to hyperventilate as no air got into his nonexistent lungs. Vent stood off to one side, watching the whole thing without comment or advice.

Fighting down rising panic wasn’t easy but after a few minutes he found himself getting used to the new sensations, or lack thereof. Once he had his wits about him again Eric stood up and gave Vent an evil look, probably completely lost on him with the way meme’s had no expression. “I thought you were here to help out.”

“Help you find the brainworm,” Vent clarified. “And hammer out the basics, but I’d like to see you figure out as much as possible on your own. It’s already revealed a lot to me.”

“Right. Whatever.” Eric looked around his cramped, borrowed room. “Why can’t I see myself in here?”

“Because we’re piggybacking on your senses. We can only see what you can, and you weren’t looking at yourself when you jumped into the network.” Vent put a hand on Eric’s shoulder, the first thing Eric had felt since he ‘jumped into the network’ as Vent put it. Although it wasn’t the usual sensation of touch, it was more a tingle in the back of his head. “Now, there’s a lot of what we call ‘headspace’ out there, basically it’s in the back of people’s heads where they dream. At least, that’s my theory.”

“Any other theories?”

Vent shrugged. “Not that I know of. There’s still not many people looking into telepathy in a scientific fashion.”

That made sense. “Okay. Headspace, the back of the mind where dreams live. Simple enough.”

The pressure in the back of Eric’s mind got a little stronger and he found himself drifting along with Vent’s meme, the wall of the apartment fading into the blank, featureless expanse where he’d first met Tails. “It’s important to keep in mind that stuff you do in headspace might work its way into other people’s minds. So try not to cause too much havoc here. Likewise, you can run into some pretty freaky stuff in people’s subconsciousness. Later on we can cover general mental self defense, for now it’s probably best to move through headspace fast and not linger.”

“Go fast, keep a low profile. Got it.” Now that Vent had mentioned it there did seem to be ripples and distortions on the seemingly featureless darkness around them. It was almost exactly like something out of a cartoon dream sequence.

While Eric tried to sort out the murky subconscious Vent fished around in his cloak and produced a weird bundle of gears, wires and membranous cloth that looked like a cross between a bumblebee and a clock. “This is a little something I put together to track brainworms back when they were the focus of my research. I did some tinkering with it and I think it will pick up the thread of the worm that woke you and lead us to it. Think you can keep up?”

Eric tore his attention away from the weirdness around them and turned it back to Vent. “I think so.” An experimental push moved him a bit in one direction, then another. “Do you get tired quickly doing this? Do you have to build endurance or anything?”

“To an extent. People build up mental endurance every day, of a kind, it’s just not suited to this kind of work. It’s like a long distance bike rider trying to become an endurance swimmer – it doesn’t all transfer but it’s not going to be like you’re learning to walk.” The gizmo clanked and whirred for a moment then lifted into the air. “I’ll pull you along for now.”

The tracker spun away into the darkness, looking more like a maple seed whirlybird than an insect once in motion. Vent took off after it and Eric trailed along behind. He pushed himself forward as much as he could but still found he couldn’t keep up with Vent, even though they didn’t seem to be moving very fast. Then again, with the featureless nature of the headspace around them there wasn’t much to judge by.

On top of the lack of terrain to measure speed or distance by, Eric found it was very difficult to judge time. He wasn’t sure how long it took but it felt like they hadn’t been in motion for more than a a few minutes when Vent started to slow. The tracker had come to a stop and was spiraling around one of the ripples in space. Vent let go of Eric and drifted over to the tracker, picked it up and tucked it away.

Eric looked over Vent’s shoulder as he examined the area, pulling on a pair of gloves he had pulled from his cloak. “Where’s the brainworm?”

“It’s dormant for now, buried at the back of someone’s subconscious.” Vent plunged his hands into the distortion, peeling away a strip of reality to reveal a nearly identical copy of Vent’s meme. The only real difference Eric could see was in the intricacy of the piping on the hat.

“Why? Isn’t it supposed to be turning people into telepaths?” The brainworm was fully revealed now, standing motionless like a store mannequin and Vent was prodding it with the end of a wrench he’d taken from his cloak.

“In theory.” Vent sank his wrench into the elbow joint of the worm and cranked it around a couple of times. The arm dropped off to reveal a strange assortment of hooks and wires. “What’s all this?”

Eric snorted. “You’re asking me?”

“Rhetorical question.” Vent started picking through the wires with a concerned look on his face. “The worm didn’t look anything like this the last time I looked at it.”

“What would make it change?”

“No idea.” A new tool made an appearance and Vent used it to crack open the arm up to the shoulder. “I’ve never seen a brainworm change this much over such a short period of time. I looked at this thing three months ago and it’s changed by an order of magnitude more than brainworms I studied for six months!”

Eric trailed his finger through the wires as Vent moved up to the body of the brainworm. “Maybe it’s got something to do with the way it interacts with the mind? Hugo said waking a telepath involves synchronizing minds. Maybe it picks up some of. The personality of whoever it infects?”

Vent paused for a moment to think. “Possible. But-” His meme froze in the process of turning around to look at Eric, then snatched Eric’s hand out of the wires. “Don’t touch those!”

There was a sharp, biting pain in the palm of Eric’s hand and he found one of the wire hooks had gotten stuck there and broken off. “Calm down! Look, you got something stuck there.”

Vent frantically reached into his cloak, fumbling a pair of wire cutters out as he said, “That was probably already there. Don’t let it sink in further.”

Eric gave Vent a skeptical look, not sure how to take that until a sudden increase in the pain levels he was experiencing made him look back down and find the wire trying to worm its way under his skin. He made a grab for it but it slipped entirely under his skin before he could get a grip on it. “What was that?!”

“That’s a – I don’t have a name for it. But it’s how the brainworm works its way from the subconscious mind into the conscious one.” Vent threw the cutters down with a curse and went fishing for a new tool. “You’re infected now.”

“But I’m already a telepath!”

“I’m not sure that matters to it.” Vent made a grabbing motion and started pulling the distortion that had concealed the brainworm a moment ago back into place. “And I’m not sure what its trying to transform you a second time is going to do to you. Should have thought about that before now.”

Eric did his best to follow along as Vent hustled him away from the brainworm. They hadn’t gone far, however distances were measured in headspace, when there was a tearing sound behind them and the brainworm came charging along behind them. To Eric’s surprise it no longer looked like a carbon copy of Vent’s meme, the loose wires and nasty fish hooks that made up a large part of its innards were dangling from its disassembled arm and whipping from under its cloak. The worm could apparently use them like pseudopods, dragging itself forward at an alarming rate.

“Great,” Eric muttered, pushing himself after Vent as hard as he could. “What are we supposed to do about that?”

“Don’t worry,” Vent said. “I have a place where I dispose of dangerous brainworms. We just have to get there ahead of it, so hurry.”

They hurried.

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Ten

“So then you built a meme and sent it after me.” Vent’s meme leaned back on the bench and sprawled with its legs stuck far into the path in front of them, its posture not even remotely matching the way it was dressed. “You sound like you’ve had a rough week.”

“It’s not even half over,” Eric said, watching the pedestrian traffic unconsciously give them a wide berth. Vent insisted that no one would take notice of them as long as they didn’t do anything that would directly draw attention but Eric still worried about being dragged away to a room with padded walls for talking to himself in public.

“Let’s try to end it on a high note. You wanted to talk to me and here I am. If you don’t have anything in particular you wanted to ask I’d love to see you pull up that meme again.” Vent switched from casual lounging to almost predatory excitement in the blink of an eye. “I’ve never heard of anyone creating a meme directly from the Jungian unconsciousness before. It’s always been an expression of their own personality that they project outward into the collective Network. So how did you do it?”

“I don’t know!” Eric leaned away, a bit taken aback by Vent’s sudden forcefulness. “No one ever bothered to tell me how to handle memes so I just had to guess at it. They seem to be the only way to get anything done telepathically, which seems really clunky to me by the way, so I just acted like a stereotype and there it was!”

Vent plunked its chin in its hand and scrunched down in its seat, the wheels in its mind audibly churning. It was the first time Eric had heard audible sound besides talking from a meme and the sound of gears clanking was a little disturbing. He did his best to edge away from it without looking weird. “It sounds almost like you did the exact opposite of what teeps normally do – instead of projecting yourself outward you pulled the Network in… or maybe you just bent it somehow? That would explain why the meme seemed so empty when it finally got to me.”

“Empty?” Eric gave Vent’s meme a once over and, like normal, it was still possible to see through it faintly if he concentrated. “That kinda goes for all the memes I’ve seen.”

The meme laughed and pushed a hand through it’s chest, causing Eric to lean back queasily. “They aren’t exactly the solidest things around, are they? But that’s not what I meant about your meme. It didn’t have much of a personality when I first met it. Normally, even when you’re not piggybacking on a meme like I’m doing now, it keeps some component of the personality of whoever created it. Yours started out fairly monotonous but started acting more and more like me as time went on. It fell apart just a couple of minutes after it reached me. I’d have loved to examine it closer.”

“Maybe I just went about building it wrong.”

“That’s just it.” The meme went back to examining him closely. “You did something that no one thought to do because you didn’t how things are ‘supposed’ to be done.” Vent’s meme didn’t have much expression but the voice it was projecting managed to imply he didn’t think much of how things were supposed to be done. “You’ve done something no teep has ever done before – twice! – because you didn’t know how we would have gone about it.”

“Twice?”

“The whole making yourself invisible trick.” Vent waved at the people walking through the zoo in the distance. “I’m pushing people away by actively diverting attention whenever it comes towards us. Tricky at first but it becomes a thing you do almost by muscle memory. But telepaths notice it happening pretty easily. You did something else – you lulled them into complacency rather than pointing them into a different direction. Very different approaches. I think it might be because you’re an actor. Most of us are in the field of psychology or communication, at least so far.”

Eric jumped on the opportunity to push the conversation away from weird things he’d done and wasn’t sure he could do again. “Was that what the First Teep was?”

Vent adjusted his posture to lean slightly away from Eric, the first sign of discomfort he had shown during their conversation. “Well, I honestly don’t know. I can’t even be sure he’s really the first telepath to exist, although there are some bothersome signs…”

“Bothersome how?”

“He…” Vent trailed off and for a moment his meme was entirely silent, to the point where Eric started to wonder if he’d decided not to answer the question at all. Eric was on the verge of waving his hand in front of the meme’s face, just to see what would happen, when it spasmed slightly and shook its head. “Sorry, Echoes, I got distracted.”

Eric laughed. “Echoes? Is that me now?”

“Unless you have something else you’d like to be called.” Vent shrugged. “I don’t recommend using your real name, at least until the government decides chasing us around isn’t a good use of time, and Echo would be as good as anything. And it fits what I’ve seen your meme do.”

That seemed fair enough. “So. The First Teep.”

“Yeah. Him.” The meme leaned back and heaved a soundless sigh. “He has bothersome signs of being obsessive-compulsive, or maybe something a little more complex. Like I said, most of the first round of teeps are psychology people and I’m no exception. When I woke up to the teep world I think there were less than a dozen of us, all in the Chicago area. FT was one of us and from some of the stuff he said I got the impression he was in treatment for something. My theory was that he was part of a research project for something that needed FDA approval and he reacted differently than others. Or maybe not differently, maybe the entire first crop of teeps were disturbed people in a drug test. But it made him an interesting case study regardless, and he’s never been forthcoming about the circumstances that transformed him. Didn’t seem to think they were important.”

Like most real-life stories Eric found that Vent’s didn’t quite line up with other things he’d been told. Fortunately, with a little work he could write a script of his own. “Hugo mentioned that you were looking at brainworms. Did you think the First Teep was a source of them?”

“Brainworms?”

“Insanity that spreads mind to mind, or something.”

Vent laughed. “That’s a good name for them. But I wasn’t really that interested in them, except as an example of memetic propagation. The First was. I think he related better to people telepathically than in person and he was convinced that brainworms could be used to spread telepathy. I think he just wanted to get along with others better.”

That sounded a little closer to what Hugo had said. “So you helped him come up with a brainworm that could wake telepaths?”

“No, I knew he was working on the idea when we parted ways but it just didn’t interest me.” Vent shrugged. “I’m more interested in understanding the structure of the mind and the structures the mind creates in turn. There’s all kinds of potential treatments for mental disorders inherent to telepathy but I quickly learned brainworms wouldn’t help me understand them at all. Most of the Network just wants to keep a low profile and figure out what they’re doing with their lives now that they’re different from everyone else. I already knew, so I left them to find their own way and went my own.”

Eric felt his eyes narrow as a nasty thought occurred to him. “You’re awfully cavalier about all the people the First Teep wanted to drop his brainworm on.”

“Well it’s not like there was anything I could do to stop it, per se,” Vent said, dismissively. “He hadn’t made one yet and he knew as much about the art of memetics as I did and it’s not like there were blueprints or anything I could steal. Besides, I did notice when he released his first one and I took the time to look it over. It does it’s job and, aside from being telepathic, I didn’t notice the person it affected being any worse for wear. Even if I had done something about it, FT could always have made another one.”

“It didn’t seem like a very benign thing when I ran into it.” And Eric couldn’t help but think of Rachada’s mentioning other, nastier side effects. Unrelated? Perhaps. “Tell you what. If you show me one of these brainworms and explain how they work I’ll show you how I pulled up that meme I sent to find you. Deal?”

Vent’s meme nodded its head quickly. “A perfectly fair exchange. But you could be away from yourself for quite a while in the doing of it. Better get indoors, and give me a little time to marshal my own facilities. I’ll come looking for you in a three hours. Is that enough time?”

Eric nodded. “I’ll see you then.”