By the time they got to the safe house, which turned out to be a semi-decrepit apartment block just inside the Chicago city limits, Eric had settled on his strategy for the moment. He started asking more questions. With his eyes roving about for trouble – although realistically the whole neighborhood promised it – he climbed out of the car. The state of the building didn’t say good things about anyone who lived there long term.
“Nothing to be nervous about here,” Hugo said, catching Eric’s looking about as he climbed out of the car. “This place is safer than it looks.”
On the other side of the vehicle Tails slammed the passenger door shut and paused for a moment. Her distinctive, pigtailed meme broke away from her and drifted off around the corner of the building. Its legs didn’t move, instead it just drifted along the ground much like the ghosts Eric first thought of them as.
“What are you doing?” He asked, watching as another meme drifted around the corner where Tails’ had just disappeared.
Her eyes opened and she gave him an appraising look. “Checking the perimeter. Nice catch, most teeps less than a day old wouldn’t notice something like that.”
“Thanks?” Eric followed the two of them through the doors into the building, winding up in a small antechamber that looked just as decrepit as the rest of the building. As Hugo fished for keys Eric asked, “Speaking of noticing, how did you guys find me, anyways? Is there a teepdar or something?”
“Please never say that word again,” Tails said with a venomous look.
“Tails is very protective of our little group of telepaths. Doesn’t like things that would give us a bad image.” Hugo unlocked the door and pushed it open, leading Eric out of the rundown entrance and into a hallway that looked like it would be more at home in a hospital or modern office building. The floors were tile, the walls a bland beige and the doors heavy metal industrial monstrosities. Hugo ignored the hallway and instead led them into a stairwell and started up. “Anyway, we don’t exactly find new teeps. You guys kind of tell us where you are.”
Tails laughed. “The first thing a newborn does is cry, right? New telepaths are the same – you haven’t got a concept of inside-your-head voice and outside-your-head voice. Most of us shout a lot when we become teeps and that clues the Network in to where they are when we aren’t the ones who wake them up. Of course we can only hear you over short distances, kind of like the Feds.”
Eric stopped halfway up the flight of stairs. “Not the ones that wake them up? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Hugo stopped at the top of the stairs, giving him an odd look. “Telepathy is an innate human ability but it takes another telepath to wake someone’s telepathic abilities up. The active teep synchronizes thought patterns with the sleeper and pushes their dormant telepathic abilities into an active state.”
“Do they have to be close by?”
“In the same room, generally,” Tails replied. “Like the government telepath with you.”
“I didn’t run into Rachada until after I started noticing memes, though. That means I was telepathic before I met her, right?”
Hugo’s face went blank and instead of answering he waved them out of the stairwell and into another hallway, one with the same basic layout as the hall before but carpeted, and into the farthest of the three rooms along the building’s south side. It looked like your average studio apartment, nicer than the one Eric was living in at the moment, with a bed and couch on one side. No sign of a TV but Eric guessed you had to give something up for a place that nice.
Hugo sat down on the couch and waved for the other two to sit down. Eric made himself comfortable on the bed and Tails hesitated for a moment before perching on one arm of the couch. “What was the first meme you saw, Eric?”
“Uh… I’d guess it was something I saw this morning? I thought it was a dream.” Eric quickly sketched out the strange, faceless figure in a tux and hat leaking steam.
When he was finished Hugo grunted disgust and Tails muttered, “Vent. He hasn’t let it go.”
Eric waited a moment then, when no explanation was forthcoming, asked, “Who’s Vent? What hasn’t he let go? And most importantly, should I be worried?”
Hugo heaved a sigh. “Vent is something of a troublemaker. Not intentionally, you understand, he just has a tendency to meddle with things that are less than safe.”
“Before you panic, you’re probably not in any danger right now,” Tails put in. Somehow Eric felt less than reassured.
“There’s a dark side to memes that you probably haven’t seen yet,” Hugo said, ignoring Tails. “Are you familiar with the origin of the term?”
Hugo waved it off. “It’s not really important. They were postulated as the mental equivalent to genes in the evolutionary journey of the collective unconsciousness. Or something like that. Regardless of their origins that’s kind of how they function.”
“My meme looks like this, right?” Tails pointed to an empty patch of floor next to the sofa that was suddenly occupied by her pigtailed meme, this time sans hammer. “It’s a pretty refined meme and you’ve seen some of the things it can do. Nerve hammering can be used to knock people out. Then there’s more refined things, like nervejacking, which will let you exert a certain amount of control over people. That’s how we got the driver of your van to pull over before we pulled you out.”
“Okay, I’m with you so far.” Eric frowned, looking at Tails’ innocuous looking meme with new respect. It was a little uncomfortable to think that anyone could exert that kind of control over other people. On the other hand, Rachada had resisted Tail’s nerve hammer so maybe telepaths were more resistant to other teeps. “Why can’t you use your meme to wake a telepath?”
“Because memes are somewhere between a personal projection and a chunk of the collective unconsciousness,” Tails said. “I’ve basically taken an idea that exists in the back of everyone’s mind and used it as a vehicle to broadcast my personal thoughts. But letting that chunk of the collective unconsciousness synchronize with your brain, like you’d have to do to awaken a teep, can cause issues. The biggest is that the person who’s exposed can wind up becoming unstable.”
“It depends. Anything from paranoia to psychosis to lapsing into a semi-catatonic state.” Eric thought of Rachada and how she had mentioned his “condition” and wondered if she’d been referring to something like this. Tails waited a moment, perhaps expecting another question from Eric, but then kept going. “What’s almost worse is the meme becomes pretty much impossible to control and runs rampant, inflicting itself on any telepath it stumbles across. We’re not sure why they suddenly become independent because normally a meme takes a lot of effort to project. It’s kind of like insanity turned into a virus. We call them brainworms.”
Hugo took up the train of thought. “The saving grace is, right now, there aren’t many telepaths to be infected by brainworms and people who aren’t teeps seem to be safe from them. Like most diseases, without a host brainworms quickly go extinct.”
“That is a good thing,” Eric admitted, “but it doesn’t explain who Vent is or what that has to do with me.”
“Vent was an old associate who wanted to make a study of brainworms,” Tails said. “We worked together for a bit trying to understand memetic telepathy. But he was convinced brainworms could be used constructively. His first area of study was going to be whether you could make a brainworm to wake telepaths, get rid of the need to have someone there in person.”
“He left us a couple of months ago and we’d hoped he’d given up on the idea for the time being. It’d be safer for everyone involved.” Hugo leaned forward on the sofa. “But now there’s you and I think we can safely say that not only has he not given up, he’s actually succeeded.”