I took a breath and, as calmly as I could manage, said, "Break, Charlie." There is no knife. Panicking will just surrender control. You're wearing a v-suit. It's just an image. "Remove me from this sequence, Charlie. Break, you piece of shit."
My stomach lurched as I realized that Janet was suddenly above me, that I was looking up into her eyes, that she was framed by blue sky. A wind was rushing past my ears, and my right hand was locked in a deathgrip on a stone spur. Another perspective shift.
The rock in my right hand snapped off just as Janet let go my left wrist. As I fell away from the cliff wall, she called out, "It doesn't have to be like this, Jack!"
I clutched at the rope (we were obviously rock-climbing—a rope was a logical assumption) with my left hand. Pain like fire blazed in my left palm and blossomed in my left shoulder. I felt another sickening lurch as I swung into the rock wall, crushing my ribs. Schist and granite slid by in a greyish, yellowish blur, and my leather glove smoked with the rope burning through, rocks shearing away the tips of my right glove as I continued to fall, unable to slow my descent.
An undercut in the cliff wall yanked the stone out of reach. With a painful twang that bent my back the wrong way, I slammed into the end of my rope. The harness forced all the air from my lungs, and the pain in my ribs crescendoed.
I had stopped falling just a few feet above a safe ledge, but my harness was crushing me, suffocating me, and—dangling as I was in the undercut—I couldn't reach anything with my hands or feet. Just the rope. Between the pain and the pressure there was no room to draw a breath. I had to get loose. My vision blurred, and I blew saliva out my nose. My still-burning hands scratched for the buckles of my harness.
Harness. And that's when I froze.
"Fuck you, Janet," I hissed. I tapped up my time: 1635. I knew the injuries were all virtual, but the pain was vividly real. "Break, Charlie. I'm not leaving this chair. Get me out of this sequence."
The lights went out, and the air became cold and damp enough to prick up goosebumps on my arms. I was standing upright. A spot of light from a flashlight in my left hand crawled along the slimy walls of an arched brick corridor and picked her out of the gloom. Janet was hanging, manacled, spread-eagled against the wall—naked, of course. She had long, voluminous blonde hair, a fluid shape, and peachy skin: a decidedly pleasant virtual image.
"Save me, Jack," she whined, tears running down her cheeks. "It'll be back any time now."
I shook my head. "Give me credit for some intelligence, woman. You're a doll, but the big head can out-think the little one."
She screamed and something wet and heavy struck me across the right side of my face. The blow tossed me into a pile of something rotten, wet, and full of broken bones. The flashlight landed near my foot. The hand I used to hold my spinning head in place came away bloody, and my face was beginning to sting below my right eye. Whatever hit me had apparently raked my cheek.
Janet screamed again, and the whatever grabbed me. A breath full of warm, rancid meat flowed over the left side of my head, and several arms, tentacles, and claws swarmed over my torso. The talons started to sink slowly into my chest and abdomen. Pain blossomed from my abdomen, and blood ran down over my groin and thighs. I could feel something like a scream rising into the back of my throat as my hands involuntarily scrabbled for the steely claws.
Then I remembered Phaedrus—insane is not stupid—and tapped up the time: 1641.
I whistled. "Pretty impressive, Janet. I think I had a nightmare just like this, once. Charlie, break you cloud of electronic stupidity. I'm not responding to pain." Even though it's fucking killing me, you motherfucker! "Now turn off my goddamn v-suit."
I woke with a start. I was sitting on a blue, leathery log at the forest's edge, looking into a red sun high in the orange sky. In the distance a pod of house-sized three-legged frogthings with sonar loops atop their heads leapt alongside a sparkling purple river. I knew the view all too well. Adrenalin flooded my system: Miller's World.
I glanced around quickly—no visible sign of predators. The only sound I could hear was that of my own breathing within the ecosuit.
I chuckled to myself. Echoes in the ecosuit. Nice sensory touch, and a v-suit does feel a bit like an ecosuit. I could almost believe I'm actually there—if I were a complete imbecile.
I was about to describe in loving detail the parts of my anatomy that Janet and Charlie could kiss when a crystalline insectthing, two hand spans long and with six wings and no apparent legs, landed on my knee. Immediately, it drove what felt like a two-inch stainless steel proboscis into my leg just above my patella. My back was yanked taut as something cold and screaming charged up the veins of my leg and all up my spine. My vision tunneled on the insect, and panic roared in my ears. I grabbed the bug and tried to pull it off.
A second insect thing landed right next to it, on my thigh, and the pain doubled. I couldn't get a grip on either one; their carapaces and my gloves were too slippery, and their snouts were buried too deep. I fumbled with them, pain escalating, wondering how I could repair the suit in time to prevent atmospheric poisoning. Suddenly, one of the stingers snapped off close to the suit, and the pain lessened.
I immediately swatted the other bug to snap off its proboscis, and the pain stopped.
The hallucinogenic colors and bright red sunlight were gone, replaced on all sides by the blue-grey plastic and white shipboard lighting panels. Something looked wrong. Broken. I had snapped off two of the toggle switches on my console. One was the control that would have allowed me to trope Janet. The other was the hailing switch for the ship's intercom.
How could she have known where those switches were? Or that they were salient electromechanical switches? Those were by no means standard. For that matter, how could she have known about my trip to Miller's World? Was she in contact with the AI? Did I have any secrets left?
My readout tapped up at 1653.
The console before me burst into flames.
"Come on, Charlie," I said, still trying to sound as calm as possible, "break for Daddy like a good little AI. I know this is virtual. The coincidence is just too tidy."
"Collision imminent!" called the voice of the skipper over the PA. "Collision imminent." A siren wailed.
"Emergency planetfall!" called the female voice of the OOD. "All hands prepare for emergency ocean landing. All hands prepare for emergency ocean landing."
I could feel the whole ship moving around me as the flames licked at my feet.
I pulled off my v-helmet and threw it on the deck. Then I tapped up my time: 1702.
"You may as well cut this plot, too, Janet!" I shouted over the siren's wail. "I can see the time readout. I know I'm still wearing the helmet. I know this is a sequence."
My shins began to burn, and I screamed in spite of my knowledge. Pain picked at my skin, and I started to sweat. The air filled with the acrid odor of burning plastics and the sweeter smell of burning flesh.
It's not happening. It's a dream, a computer construct, I thought as I tried to rip away my kinesthesia collar.
The ship's damage control computer kicked on the extinguishers in my chamber. Flames died in a fog of halogens, but I could still feel the burning in my legs. My skin was charred away below the knees. Tears bled from my eyes.
The room had grown hot and smelly. The stench of smoke battled with the rubbery-chemical smell of the extinguishing agent and the pungency of my own body odor. Sweat ran down my sides and prickled my forehead. My head spun in a damn fine simulation of shock, or possible the pain was sending me into shock. I could barely see through the veil of sweat and tears.
"1708," said my readout. I was pretty sure the readout required the helmet. Doesn't it?
The chamber spun hard about in a nauseating spiral. Didn't I remove the kinesthesia collar?
"Prepare for crash landing. Second collision in thirty seconds," said the captain.
The spiral grew faster, and my head and stomach started counter-spinning.
"Collision in five."
The entire universe slammed to the left with a neck-wrenching jolt. I hung in my chair in a chamber that was apparently sideways. The chamber rocked and surged like a ship on a rough sea. The main lights went out; red, battery-powered emergency lights came on.
"Prepare to abandon—" The PA system crackled and went silent. A bulkhead groaned and then ripped open. Screaming and hissing, a column of water punched through to the opposite bulkhead. The chamber began filling with salty-smelling water.
I tapped up 1711.
"I'm not undoing the straps, Janet!" I said with what volume I could manage, trying to shout above the roar of water.
"You will die, then," Charlie's voice said inside my head, cutting through the roar. "Even if your assumption is correct that this is a virtual concept, you will drown. Your body will react to the virtual fluid as it would to water."
"Whose side are you on, Asshole?" No one answered, but I wasn't really sure the voice in my head had been Charlie's.
The water was less than a meter below my head, now. I could just reach it with the fingertips of my left hand. Cold.
"I probably won't enjoy drowning," I said, not bothering to shout over the roar. "Janet should get a kick out of it, though, eh, Charlie? Too bad mine will be the only death she can claim this time."
The water pushed up against my left side. God it was cold. It sucked the heat out of my body, numbed my side. I completely forgot about the pain in my ankles as my rapidly shrinking lungs expelled air and my muscles began to shake and cramp.
I turned my head into the water. It's not there. You're looking to the left, and you're about to take a deep breath of air.
I inhaled deeply. The cold water scratched at my throat and bronchi. I coughed and retched. I breathed it in again, and the same thing happened. Ice-cold needles pierced my head and razor blades slashed at my trachea. Panicked, I turned my head to get the "air" that had been on my right. There was no longer air anywhere near my head. In-flooding water had completely enveloped me. A faint red glow from an emergency light winking at me through the water: that was all I could see.
I tapped up the time: 1714.
I sat perfectly straight in my chair, trying to ignore the salt stinging my eyes, the uncontrollable shivering, the pains in my head, the numbing out of my extremities.
You're not drowning. I took another cold breath and felt nothing but cold pain. It was like breathing in a vacuum.
The faint winking red light went out. Everything went black.
Hell was quiet, cold, and black.
A thousand years later, something like warm pain happened in my chest. It coursed through the appropriate arteries and pressed on my head. A narrow bar of light snuck through my eyelids.
I coughed, and light flooded my sight. My skull sparkled with tiny muscle aches. A young man in a white uniform pulled back out of my vision.
"He's coming around now," said the white blur to two darker blurs behind him.
The things closest to me came into focus. I was still strapped into my chair. The chamber was intact (except from those two broken toggles on the console), and my helmet and collar had been removed and placed on the console.
"Let's get you out of that," said the white blur, reaching for my buckles.
At the thought of the buckles, fear took control of my arms, and I grabbed his hands.
"It's okay, McClintock,"said Ms. Uglysuit, leaning her epaulets into my range of vision. "It's over."
The other, fatter blur had to be Lars.
I shook my head. "What are you two doing aboard this crate? Did we abort?"
Lawson cleared his throat. "Uh, this isn't an othership, Mr. McClintock. We had to keep you in the dark. If you'd known, Ms. Coombs would have discovered the truth."
Ms. Uglysuit said, "This is an interface simulator at the Spock City Interstel Training Center. We had to find out how Janet Coombs was getting through to her directors. You see, we knew she had to be doing just that. Tyson had similar controls to yours in his chamber, but she still got loose. We had to know how she did it."
"You set me up." Fuck, my fat juicy contract.
The medic or doctor or whatever he started trying to undo my buckles again. He was stumped by the mechanism, so I helped.
"We, of course, will live up to the terms of your contract," Lawson said, showing more perception than I'd have credited to him.
The last buckle undone, the straps retracted into my chair.
The doctor/medic/nurse/guy helped me to my feet. Lawson gave me an arm to lean on, and Ms. Uglysuit led us out of the chamber into a white-and-blue-tiled corridor.
"You helped us find the key, McClintock." Ms. Uglysuit led us to and opened an ornate wooden door with antique brass hardware. "When Charlie spoke to you, we could see that she'd somehow infected the AI. We didn't know it was possible, but Ms. Coombs's illness is so profound, so pervasive that she can project her delusions onto even an artificial intelligence. With her coaxing, Charlie lost track of who was directing and who was piloting."
We entered a plush conference room, furnished with leather upholstered and a conference table of yet more of the ostentatious wood. Lawson closed the old-fashioned wooden door behind us and led me to a seat.
"Thank you, Mr. McClintock." Lawson offered me a pen. "You've done us an incredible favor. I'm sorry we had to put you through such pain for this."
On the table was a new version of my contract, nullifying the otherflight required by the previous contract but entitling me to receipt of all benefits laid out therein. Lawson had already signed.
Uglysuit smiled. "Any questions, McClintock?"
"Just a couple. What happened to Janet Coombs?"
Lawson raised a hand. "She's been troped and returned to her ward to monitor her recovery."
I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. "And how do you plan to prevent all of this happening again in the future? I don't suppose you're ready to give up on the opies."
Ms. Uglysuit shrugged those giant epaulets and pulled up a chair. "We're not sure yet. Backup AIs? Backup directors? That's all up to the psych boys in R&D. I imagine they'll be sorting through the records of this 'trip' of yours for quite a while, yet, just to figure out how she counter-programmed a class seven AI."
I signed the paper and stood, handing back the pen. "And now, if you don't mind, I really need a shower and a change of clothes."
Lawson smiled. "Right away, Mr. McClintock." He made an after you gesture to another ornate wooden door. I thanked him and grabbed the door knob. Turning the knob clockwise did nothing. Counter-clockwise made a click. The door opened on a small, empty closet.
My heart raced, pounding in my throat. I turned around slowly. The room was empty. No furniture. No Lars. No Ms. Uglysuit.
God help me, I turned it counter-clockwise.
Shaking, I tapped my earlobe. The time was 1844.