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.