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 Nine

Eric hadn’t mastered the strange art of forming a meme. In fact he hadn’t been thinking about it much at all even though his time with the Network and his own observations suggested it was pretty central to what telepaths did. The day after Rachada got in touch with him Eric wasn’t working so he spent part of the day taking care of basic things, like writing his parents to let them know he was okay and picking up some cheap Goodwill clothes to wear. As he poked through the racks of discarded clothing he absently wondered whether he’d see anything he’d left behind in his apartment again.

With that done he turned his attention to the all important task of figuring out what the heck a meme was and how he made one.

Hugo and Tails had both talked a lot about the collective unconsciousness, not something he really understood that well. All he really had to go on was the idea that everyone was somehow connected at the back of their minds, which he supposed the existence of telepaths kind of supported. He knew from theater classes that people really had two levels to their personality, who they thought they were and the thoughts and motives below the surface. Showing both was one of the challenges of the stage and, he was guessing, one of the challenges of being a telepath, because a meme sounded a lot like the below the surface part of a character.

And it was really a kind of character, since the way Tails had described hers made it sound more like a stereotype or an archetype mixed with elements of herself. That kind of went along with Rachada’s theory that meditating, a thing that Eric guessed put you in touch with your subconscious to some extent, had given her a very realistic meme. It was mostly her, with very little cliché. On the other hand, Eric figured he was an actor and it would probably be easier to go the other way entirely.

He was going to go with as much cliche as he could. He’d had a whole class on the hero’s journey, it’s importance and unimportance to film and theater, that kind of thing. But most of that was unimportant because most people agreed on the important part: The hero’s journey was one of the biggest cliches there was.

Actors leveraged cliches all the time, it’s why there was such a thing as “character actors”, another thing Eric had a class on in school. Slipping into the persona of a vaguely naïve, well meaning and optimistic would-be hero was very easy. To his immense frustration making the jump from that to meme wasn’t. After pacing around his friend’s apartment for a few hours Eric finally broke down and went for a walk.

Indianapolis wasn’t big on parks but it did have a pretty good sized zoo and after some debate Eric decided to head there to clear his mind. Tickets weren’t expensive but he didn’t want to shell out the money and, after a moment of guilt, he fired up the “I belong here and you know it” aura he’d used when walking away from Hugo and the Network. The zoo employees at the gate didn’t stop him for anything, barely looked up from the textbooks and college ruled notebooks most were reading, and once again Eric worried about what people without morals could accomplish with these kinds of powers. He wondered why Rachada hadn’t been more worried about it.

Thoughts about national security kept him from noticing the meme until it cleared it’s throat. Eric started and shook his head. “How can your own thoughts sneak up on you?”

“Surefire sign you aren’t using your head enough,” the meme replied. Cheekiness aside it was a pretty bland thing, dressed in unremarkable khakis and an unbuttoned collared shirt with sleeves rolled up to its elbows. It was built like a runner and had hair that was both longer and several shades lighter than Eric’s and like all of its ilk, save for Rachada’s meme the night before, it had no face whatsoever.

Eric frowned. “You’re the archetypical hero?”

“Well not yet,” the meme replied with a shrug. “We’re still early in the journey. We’ve just crossed into an unknown world-”

“The zoo?!”

“You always wanted to go on a safari when you were younger,” the meme said, talking around Eric’s interruption like it hadn’t happened. “So we’re in the unknown and it’s time to tackle the real challenge.”

This was going to be more complicated than he had planned on. “Okay, what do I need to do?”

“Not get run over by a car?” The meme shook its head. “I don’t know, but if I’m the hero it’s going to be me doing the work, right?”

Eric hadn’t counted on that. “So I can just tell you to look for someone and you’ll find him for me?”

“I guess. Although that’s not a very heroic thing to do.” The meme didn’t sound very enthused at the prospect of playing messenger boy.

“Think of it as looking for a mentor,” Eric said, fairly sure that was a default part of the meme he was trying to generate. “That leads to the bigger goal.”

The meme nodded, some excitement starting to creep into its movements. “That makes sense. I’ll look for Vent and be back ASAP.”

The meme faded out of sight leaving Eric standing in the middle of a path into the zoo with a few people nearby looking at him strangely. He ignored them and started walking again, a little discomforted. Somehow he’d thought that finding Vent would be more of an involved process, not just a matter of asking a meme to go find him please. In fact, he hadn’t even asked the meme for anything it had just sort of read his mind and gone. That was an uncomfortable thing to think about.

Hugo and Tails had told him letting the collective unconsciousness touch someone’s mind was potentially really dangerous but the meme he’d just talked to had done it twice, first when it learned he’d wanted to go on a safari and again when it had pulled the name Vent, and presumably what the guy looked like, strait out of his head.

And now, from the sound of things, the only way for the meme to stop looking for Vent would be for Eric to get hit by a car, or presumably have something else equally traumatic happen to him. No wonder the teeps were so worried about those brainworm things. No matter what you did it sounded like stopping them would take something nasty. Telepathy was sounding like it had more and more dark sides to it every minute.

Hopefully Vent would show up in the next few days and give him some idea of the upsides.

——–

As it turned out Vent showed up within the next hour. Eric had just finished an ice cream cone and was thinking about heading for the exit when he spotted the tall, black cloaked meme crossing an open plaza and coming in his direction. It was immediately obvious as a meme, Eric could see the faint outlines of people through it as it approached and the top hat with steam leaking from the top confirmed that it was the exact same one he had seen when his own telepathic abilities woke up.

At least, Hugo and Tails had seemed sure there was only one of these guys and Eric figured that was as close to an expert opinion as he was likely to get.

Eric approached the meme, dodging other zoo patrons as he approached it. As he got closer to it, it held out a hand and waved him towards a secluded corner of the plaza where it situated itself on a bench. After all that had happened to him after the first time he’d seen this meme Eric approached it warily, coming to a stop a good ten feet away.

The meme spoke first. “Hello, mirror maker. You meme was a very nice bit of work, a perfect echoer if I’ve ever seen one. Which I actually haven’t, that was an entirely new breed of meme to me and that alone is more than enough to get my undivided attention.”

“A perfect echoer?” Eric asked dubiously.

Vent tilted its head to one side, the blank face somehow more disturbing than a scrutinizing stare. “Perhaps it wasn’t a deliberate creation but just a true reflection of its maker? Either way, pretty impressive stuff. You wanted to talk to Vent, Mr. Echo, so I came to talk. What do you want?”

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Eight

A quick check revealed that there were no men in suits getting ready to burst in and drug him into submission again. Eric felt a very minuscule amount of tension ease out of his body. “Am I okay?” He demanded. “It kind of depends on whether I’m going to be dragged out of here unconscious, doesn’t it?”

“Pretty much impossible,” Rachada said with a wan smile. “I don’t know where you are. When people communicate like this they only have a vague idea where the other person is. I only know what the room looks like because I’m piggybacking on what you see.”

Eric’s eyes narrowed as he looked Rachada over hard. “Weird. You look like you.”

“I look like- oh.” She waved at her face. “You mean I show the full range of human expression and all?”

“Well, close. It’s not perfect.” Eric leaned side to side to get a look from multiple angles. “You’re see-through in places. But yeah, it’s pretty accurate to life.”

Rachada shrugged. “I did a lot of meditation when I was young. It helped me develop a really good imagination. We think it may be part of the reason I have such strong memetic presence.”

“Who’s we?”

“Dr. Thorwald and some of the others working on our project.” She planted her chin in one hand and watched as Eric went back to inventorying the bar. “There’s a lot we still don’t know about how telepathy works, though. We’d like to be in touch with the telepath group that talked to you, glean some of what they know and maybe build a better idea of what’s going on.”

“Afraid I can’t help you there.” Eric headed into the back room to get some fresh bottles. A curious glance over one shoulder showed him Rachada drifting along behind him, still seated on a barstool behind a section of bar that suddenly existed on its own, apart from the rest of the building, and followed him at a distance of about six feet. Weird. “The fact is I bailed on the telepaths ASAP after we left you. Not really eager to get back in contact either.”

Rachada made a mildly disgusted noise. “That’s disappointing.”

“I’m sure you’ll get a subject to dissect sooner or later.” Eric headed back to the bar, Rachada repeating her moving barstool trick except in reverse.

“We need to understand the physiology of stable telepaths better, we don’t need to dissect anyone to do that. And there’s still a lot of things they can do we don’t understand. Case in point.” She tapped the side of her head. “Whatever that woman did to me in the van has left me disassociated from my body.”

It took Eric a minute to parse that and figure out what Rachada meant. “You mean your stuck in an out of body experience?”

“Basically. Dr. Thorwald says I’m in a REM catatonic state, which hasn’t ever been recorded before.” Rachada pushed herself up off the barstool and took a stroll around the room. “We’ve been running a lot of experiments and it looks like I still have the full suite of telepathic abilities we’ve recorded before. I just can’t wake up. I was hoping you could ask them for me.”

“Where are you right now?” Eric asked, watching her and wondering if she was trying to figure out where he was from the room’s decor.

“A facility somewhere just outside of Chicago. It’s where we were taking you when we got hijacked.” She looked back at him over one shoulder. “How are you doing, by the way? Any sign of complications?”

“Not yet.” Eric considered what he should say. He knew it wasn’t really his fault Rachada was in a bad position, he wasn’t sure he could really be considered responsible for most of what had happened to him in the past few days. But his gut told him he should help out in some way or another. “Apparently I’m lucky in that respect. I got my telepathic abilities from a guy who’s a bit of a rogue on both sides of things. The telepaths call themselves a Network and they’re looking for him and Vent doesn’t sound like one of yours.”

“Vent?”

“That’s what they call him. Nicknames sound like a thing with them, maybe because they’re worried about people like you. Vent sounds like he likes to tinker.” Eric mimed working with a wrench. “He might be kind of like you and your doctor friend, working to figure out what telepathy can really do, except he’s not working for anyone.”

Rachada nodded. “He does sound like a person worth knowing. You’ve met him?”

“Not yet,” Eric said, giving the bar top a final wipe down. “Although I’ve been thinking he might be a good person to try and get in contact with. Maybe I can finally get some straight answers from someone.”

Rachada looked down at the ground and her meme got more transparent. “I’m sorry, Eric. I know there’s a lot you want to know but there’s limits on how much I can tell you if you’re not under oath. Especially now that I’m officially out of the field, Dr. Thorwald was very emphatic that I wasn’t to try and contact the telepathic Network until my brain is fully recovered.”

“You’re talking to me.”

She gave him an amused smile. “You’re a convenient loophole. A telepath outside the government and the Network isn’t off limits.”

“How did you know I hadn’t joined them?” Eric stepped out from behind the bar and headed towards the back door. Once again his distance relative to Rachada didn’t seem to change.

“They actively avoid us. There are ways to avoid contact if you don’t want it, most of it is unpleasant.” Rachada flicked a hand in his direction and Eric experienced a moment of vertigo. “It’s like how they knocked out Franks and Beane in the van, kind of like the telepathic equivalent of screaming in someone’s ear. We have reached out to the Network before, they just don’t want to talk.”

Eric hesitated at the door. Rachada had mentioned she saw what he did, or something like that, he wasn’t sure he wanted her to get a look outside and possibly realize where he was. “How would I go about talking to the Network if I don’t know where they are? Or you for that matter?”

“Basically you build a meme and send it looking for whoever you want. Eventually it gets back to you and you’re in touch.”

He heaved a sigh. “I only understood half of that, Rachada.”

“What more do you want, Eric?” She shrugged, the closest he’d ever seen her to exasperation. “You won’t let us help you figure out your gifts and you won’t work with the Network. You’re bound to be missing out on a lot. I don’t know where you are but I can tell you’re not anywhere nearby. Talking to you is already becoming tiring and I won’t be able to keep it up nearly long enough to explain everything you need to know.”

“Okay, fine, I get it. Some of this is my fault. Pardon me for being paranoid about the men in black suits.” Eric massaged his temples, feeling something he figure was an approximation of the exhaustion Rachada must have been suffering. “Tell me, if I need to get ahold of you again how do I jump the distance between us?”

“That depends on how many telepaths there are around,” Rachada said. “As near as we can tell there’s a collective boosting effect. One telepath has a range of a couple of miles but they can piggyback across the subconsciousness of other telepathic minds to expand their reach, like an actual phone network, or a bunch of them can work together and boost a signal. A group of a dozen or so can make contact with another telepath anywhere on the continent given practice. The piggyback route is trickier. You need a line of telepaths stretched out like breadcrumbs. We think the Network uses bundles of telepaths scattered through the country to stay in touch with each other.”

“Got it.” Except, of course, he really didn’t. But what she didn’t know couldn’t hurt him. “Rest up, Rachada. If I hear anything that could help you recover I’ll be in touch.”

“I can’t ask for more than that.” Her meme faded away and left Eric alone in the back of the bar.

Eric slipped out of the building and onto the street. He hadn’t been lying when he said he’d be in touch but at that moment he was determined not to talk with Rachada or Hugo and Tails again until he knew more about telepathy and what it might mean for his brain. And if he was going to get answers to those kinds of questions without tangling with either the Feds or the Network he figured there was only one place to go.

The only real question was how he was going to find Vent.

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Seven

Under the watchful supervision of Captain Hilts Eric managed to wiggle one of the old springs on the mattress frame until it broke off and straightened the wire into a lockpick. Actually picking the lock in question proved to be more of a challenge but took less time overall. All in all it took him nearly two hours to get out of the room and according to Hilts that was the easy part.

As far as Eric could tell, this was the first time the meme was wrong. Although it took a little caution and timing to make sure he never encountered two people in the building at once all he had to do to effect a disguise was pretend he was a telepath. An evil telepath, aparently. After some consideration he decided to play at Spock, since the Vulcan was at least cold and sometimes unsympathetic and he couldn’t think of a truly evil telepath vibe. So he just acted like he belonged among the Vulcans.

To his shock and not inconsiderable horror it worked.

Not that he wasn’t happy to be out on the street and under his own power again. But it barely took him three minutes to get out of the apartment, down the stairs and out the door. He passed four people in the halls and none of them thought to stop him.

It was possible that one or two of them were too new to realize he didn’t belong but four of them? Hugo had certainly made it sound like the place was a central hub for teep activity. Surely most of the people there knew one another already. At least one of them should have stopped and said something, even if it was just a quick “hello” before moving on.

If it was that easy to go through a building full of telepaths undetected it was no wonder the X-Files were so worried. Imagining what a bunch of teeps with no morals who knew the technique and wanted into military bases or research centers could do gave him the shivers. The next question was where he should go now that he was away from everyone who wanted him locked up, at least for the moment.

It didn’t take him very long to decide that he wanted to leave town. If the government was only watching major cities the telepaths couldn’t be spread much further. After all, no matter what the movies made it look like running a resistance movement across an entire country was pretty expensive and took a lot of people and cash, things he was pretty sure the teeps wouldn’t have. At least, not people. The whole process of “awakening” a telepath sounded tricky, especially with what Rachada had added about complications. He wasn’t sure if that just came with the brainworms Hugo had mentioned or if it was a universal danger but he was willing to bet it was the latter. The experience had been – still was – pretty freaky.

After a little thought he decided the right move was to go someplace big enough to blend but small enough that neither of the groups interested in him would have outposts there. Indianapolis sounded like the right bet. Indiana wasn’t a particularly notable state but capital cities were always happening with lots of coming and going and he was pretty sure there was regular rail service there.

Still, he wanted to check without drawing too much attention to where he was going. And there was something else worth checking out too. He wasn’t sure if the Hilts meme that had helped him escape was some kind of fluke related to being around a bunch of telepaths or if it was something he could do anywhere and trying to check his travel plans seemed like a good way to get a confirmation of some kind. Once he got to the L station he climbed into a car and started to think real hard about where he wanted to travel.

At first all that Eric saw were the same kinds of memes he’d spotted floating around the cars earlier, all clearly attached to people and kind of aimlessly directed into the space in the center of the train. Not what he wanted. After a few minutes, with no miracle answer meme showing up to impart wisdom Eric switched tactics. Rather than thinking hard about going to a city he’d never actually been to in his life he started focusing on the idea of travel by train. Then he switched to thinking about Amtrak and finally just movies with trains in general.

After about ten minutes, by which point he was almost to his next stop, a new meme made it’s appearance. This one had taken the appearance of a conductor with luxurious mutton chop whiskers (but no other facial features) in a uniform from the late 1800s. If pressed Eric would have guessed he came from some version of Around the World in 80 Days.

Eric stared at it for a second, wondering if he could talk to it just by thinking hard. Eventually he decided that it was probably best to just stick to what he knew worked. So he looked around, saw no one paying him a lot of attention, and said, “Can I get from here to Indianapolis?”

The meme thought for a minute or two and then rattled of a list of possible ways he could do just that. Eric tried to figure out what the best move was and wound up asking the meme to repeat itself a few times. He noticed that he got different answers the more he asked but, as with so much he’d seen that day, he had no idea what was going on. He started trying to work it out but quickly decided he didn’t care anymore and wouldn’t care until he’d had a good night’s sleep.

As it turned out, whether by luck or due to the strength of meme-Hilts’ advice, he managed to get to the Amtrak station and out of Chicago without further incident.

——–

As it turned out he got almost two nights’ sleep before thinking about it, although not back to back. With only the money in his wallet to live on he’d been forced to go out and find a job as soon as he got to Indianapolis. The city didn’t have a large theater scene, at least in comparison to Chicago, but Eric still knew a couple of people in town he’d gone to school with. It only cost a handful of change and a few minutes at a payphone for him to track one of them down and get a couch to crash on.

Money was still an issue so the day after Eric arrived his host brought him to the bar where he worked and Eric had something of a job by the end of the day. Eric briefly considered trying to use telepathy on the bar owner in some way to get the job in the bag but he wasn’t confident enough he could influence the woman without hurting her.

So he worked that night as a bartender, collected his tips and got invited back to work the next evening. So Eric slept another night, went back to work and was given the dubious privilege of closing bar that night. Eric never liked closing, not because getting the last few drunks out the door was a chore or because he had to walk the deserted streets at night but because once the bar was closed he had to clean out and restock the bar.

Every bar had it’s own idiosyncracies and learning them was always a pain. He was in the middle of running through the hard liquor trying to remember what went where and make sure it was all in the right place when he felt the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. He’d never been a real believer in sixth senses but after acquiring telepathy he’d started paying more attention to the voices in the back of his head. So he looked over one shoulder and took a look around the bar room. At first glance it still looked empty but, just as he was about to write it off, he caught a meme fading into the room at the far end of the bar. To his surprise it wasn’t Hugo or Tails or even Vent.

“Hi Eric,” Rachada’s meme said. “Are you doing okay?”

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Six

They left him with a promise that the First Teep would show up to talk to him in person. Eric still wasn’t sure he wanted to stick around for that but it turned out he didn’t have much choice in the matter. They’d locked him in his room.

It seemed like a good time for him to find a corner of the room and panic for a bit.

Unfortunately for that plan, the Han family had never been big on panicking when he was growing up and he’d not bothered to pick up the skills on his own so he wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. He wound up sitting on the bed, his back against the wall, and wondering what Indiana Jones might do in this situation. It would probably be improvised, whatever it was, and Eric had never been any good at improv. He was still trying to think of what to do next when a pair of loud thumps startled him and he looked around in an attempt to find the source.

He found Captain Virgil Hilts bouncing a baseball against the wall.

Technically it was a meme, he could tell that right away as from the angle he was looking at it clearly had no face, but otherwise it was a pretty accurate recreation of the character from The Great Escape.

“Sorry to bother you, Captain,” Eric said, “but this isn’t solitary confinement.”

“Really?” The meme bounced its baseball again. “Because it seems like you’re the only one here.”

He had to give it that one. “Okay, let me put it another way. Why are you in here with me?”

“I’m anywhere someone wants to get out of. Most people just don’t bother to talk to me.” Hilts pulled off its glove, tucked it under an arm and stuck out its hand. Eric reached out to shake it reflexively but naturally found there was nothing there to actually grab. If the meme was bothered it didn’t show. “So should we get started?”

“Started on what?” Eric asked, dubious.

“Breaking you out. That’s what I do.” The meme showed no sign of irritation or exasperation at what, from its choice of words, it must have considered a stupid question.

“Breaking me out of here.” The meme nodded its agreement to the sentiment. “What, aren’t you on the side of the telepaths?”

“I am on the side of getting out of places,” the meme said, its voice taking on enough of a tone to suggest it thought this was a very profound statement.

Come to think of it, when Eric compared the way it was acting to Tails’ meme or Vent’s brainworm, meme, whatever, it was acting really flat and monotone. “Who’s meme are you, anyway? Do you guys just run around and do whatever when teeps don’t need you?”

“I’m the meme of getting out of places. I go wherever someone needs to get out of and tell them how to get out. No one sends me, people just think about me.”

Eric studied Hilts for a minute. Hugo had mentioned that memes were part of the collective unconscious. He vaguely remembered something about that from college but obviously nothing in what he’d studied had covered how the idea might interact with telepathy. It seemed almost like he’d just tapped into everything the human race knew about escaping from places.

But that would be crazy. Who just waves their hand and just has everything the human race knows on a subject available?

Eric decided he’d need to do a little more digging before trusting the oddly helpful meme. “Okay, Captain Hilts, why don’t we start planning an escape then. Where do we start?”

The meme considered Eric for a moment, going so still that, along with it’s totally blank face, it looked more like a display from a history museum than an embodiment of human knowledge. Finally it said, “You’ll need to blend in once you’re out. It’s important to cover that kind of prep work before you think about actually leaving. What you have and what you need to take can make a difference in what way you go. Do you speak the language?”

That was a weird question. “Yes?”

“Good.” Hilts started pacing the length of the small room. “Do you have all the papers you need? Will your clothes blend with the local population?”

“Yes.” Eric wondered how much of this was influenced by the film the meme’s appearance was drawn from. If he was remembering right, The Great Escape had put a strong emphasis on these kinds of details. It would be interesting to see if he could get the meme to show up again in a different guise and find out if there were any differences. Or maybe memes were always the same for the same people.

Hilts was looking over Eric’s clothes with a skeptical eye, as if he couldn’t believe that what he was wearing was the kind of clothing that would blend seamlessly anywhere, but it didn’t comment. “Okay. What kind of person are you going to pose as? It’s important to have a coherent cover story if someone stops and questions you. Making that kind of thing up on the spot is a recipe for disaster. They’ll catch any inconsistency in a heartbeat.”

Eric hadn’t given that any thought. “I don’t know. You’re the expert. Any suggestions?”

“Who is the opposition?” The meme asked quickly enough it had probably anticipated Eric’s question.

“Well that’s kind of tricky. I don’t really know what’s the deal with these guys.” Eric waved vaguely at the rest of the building. “But I do know there’s some FBI wannabes out there looking for me and I’d prefer to avoid them too.”

Hilts thought about that for a second. “A group of irregulars and a Federal agency. You’ll need some kind of a role that will create respect and a desire not to ask questions from both parties. You could try for a doctor.”

Eric thought about it. He had watched some ER but he’d been paying more attention to the actor’s performances than the words they were saying. He didn’t really know enough jargon to pass. But even more importantly, “I don’t look like a doctor.”

“I thought you said you had everything you needed to blend with the local people.”

“I do,” Eric said, pressing down a surge of irritation. “But that’s a lot different from looking like a doctor.”

“I see.” The meme paced some more then seemed to come to a decision. “You need to rely on something else, then. I don’t know if it will work, since most people who do this in the field have a lot of training. But it’s worth a shot.”

“Lay it on me, Captain.”

“You act like you belong.”

Nothing more was forthcoming. “I’m sorry, what?”

The meme took a seat and started tossing his baseball against the wall again. “It’s pretty simple. You are a telepath. If you act like you belong wherever you are people will be sucked in and believe you.”

“Yeah, but believe I am what?”

The meme caught the ball deftly using a glove Eric was pretty sure it hadn’t had a few seconds before. “That’s the real question, isn’t it? You’ve got no way of knowing, it all depends on what they’re expecting to see. And if your actions don’t meet their expectations the illusion won’t hold.”

“I guess that makes sense.” While he wasn’t the greatest improviser to ever walk the boards Eric did know all the stock nonsense phrases you could use to cover over an awkward moment on stage when someone missed a cue or something unexpected happened. Hopefully that and an occasional flash of brilliance would be enough to get him through. “One question. What if I run into a group of people? Will they all see me the same?”

“It depends, but probably not. Of course, they may not realize they think they’re talking to different people until they stop to compare notes. All part of the gamble.” Another toss of the baseball. “That’s one reason why I didn’t suggest it right off the bat. Still, given all you’ve got to get around I think it’s your safest method of approaching the matter.”

“Well it’s nice that you think so but there’s still one thing we haven’t addressed which is definitely keeping me from escaping here.”

The meme caught its baseball and gave him what Eric assumed was a curious look. “What’s that?”

He gestured around at the room. “I’m still stuck in a locked room with no way out.”

“Oh!” The meme sounded genuinely chagrined. “Well that’s easy enough to fix. To start with you’re going to need to crawl under the bed…”

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Five

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.”

“What?”

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?”

“Not really.”

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.”

“Unstable how?”

“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.”