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.

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