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.”