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Qoheleth — Chapter 51
Dr. Carter Ramirez — 2112
Caitlin helped Carter wheel the mirror rig into place.
Rather than the usual cradles and headrest, both sets of contacts came in the form of gloves and a headband. She remembered her first experiences, of laying back in a recliner with the uncomfortably itchy accessories, of the panic and sensation of falling that first time, of the world reorienting itself and the gray hands and skin of her default avatar swimming into focus. The instructor’s kind voice as he helped her move her arms and legs for the first time.
The mirror rig let the instructor and the student share a space, yes, but also share a body. It gave the instructor access to the panic button that would knock both instructor and student back out of the sim.
It was that experience of watching Sasha get lost that had kicked Carter’s mind into gear. If it acted like a crash and an incomplete withdrawal, mightn’t she use the mirror rig to help pull RJ back? A slight hope, yes, and she might not even have time: judging by the sounds of the argument outside the door, Caitlin’s voice now joining the fray.
But she had to try.
She slipped the headband over RJ’s head and the gloves over eir hands, and then dragged two chairs closer together so that she could lay on them. No recliner, and the interferites would make her voluntary muscles relax, so sitting up was out of the question. It would have to do.
She pulled on her own set of accessories, the scratchy, inexpensive fabric familiar even after all these years.
She lay down and delved in.
Blackness. A black that hurt the eyes. A black so bright that it drew forth tears.
And then, a slow softening. A raising up from the impossible black to something merely pitch, and then from there through Eigengrau to grey.
This was not how it was supposed to go. The mirror rig was not connected to the ‘net by default, it was a self-contained sim holding a simple demo room. A room with malleable ACLs that could be manipulated by student and instructor both. A room for learning.
This was not a room. This was not a space. This was not being.
Carter tried to cry out, to move, but no muscle would respond to her commands.
And yet, the instructor could control the student, right? It took several attempts and what felt like hours, days, but she was eventually able to will a menu into existence. Thankfully the ACLs for that were tied to the contacts rather than to an account, for there, at the bottom of the menu, was a ‘shared controls’ option.
She was dizzy and the words kept blurring in and out of focus, but she was eventually able to select ‘Mirror all", and with a teeth-rattling pop, the world came into focus.
Not the room, the whole world. RJ/Carter sat on a low bench at the edge of a small pond. The bench sat at the edge of a trail in the midst of a narrow ridge of dry, knee-high grass. Cottonwoods dotted the rim of the pond, peanut shaped with a short bridge crossing the narrowest section. Behind em/her: a shortgrass prairie, stretching to a valley. Wind turbines.
RJ/Carter was murmuring, was speaking aloud. “May one day death itself not die? Should we rejoice in the end of endings? What is the correct thing to hope for? I do not know, I do not know.”
The Carter half of this shared mind struggled, screamed, beat upon a strange membrane that kept her from truly interacting.
“To pray for the end of endings is to pray for the end of memory,” the murmur continued.
RJ/Carter could feel the way the fabric of the tunic hung off their shared shoulders, feel the way it billowed, beneath their shared thin coat of fur, feel the gentle sway of their shared tail behind the bench.
It was familiar/alien.
The voice was eir own/not her own.
The feeling of a muzzle natural/unnerving.
“RJ.” The murmur, that stream of words arriving from nowhere, was interrupted by the two simple letters.
The fennec stiffened, paused. Something new/something strange. A feeling of terror/a feeling of terror.
“Should…should we forget,” the litany continued. Their voice was clouded by tears, panic. “Should we forget the lives we lead?”
Panic rising/hope rising.
“RJ, listen to me. Should we forget the names of the dead?”
A struggle for autonomy/a struggle for control.
Carter pressed on. “RJ listen to me. My name is Dr Carter Ramirez and I should we forget the wheat, the rye, the tree?”
Tears welled, coursed down cheeks. The fox stood, paced anxiously, tore at grass, threw stones into the still water.
“My name is Dr Carter Ramirez. The only time I know my true name is when I dream.”
Ey beat back at the words with eir own/she struggled to maintain some semblance of calm, to bring her voice low and soothing.
“My name is Dr Carter Ramirez and yours is RJ Brewster, or…uh, AwDae. You are at the Univ– the only time I dream is when I need an answer– the University Medical Center in London. You have– Do I know god when I dream?”
Ey felt a veil being lifted, being torn, being tugged at/she pressed against that veil between them, searching for soft spots, for weak spots, for ways in. Their breathing came in coarse gasps.
“RJ, b-breathe. Keep breathing,” RJ/Carter stammered. The veil began to tear. “We’re connected using a mirror rig. D-do you remember learning to use your implants with one?”
Paws tore at grass, though no longer with panic but with anger/frustration. This was unconscionable/taking too long.
Ey did not have time for this/she didn’t have time for this.
The veil tore.
“RJ, I’m going to stop mirroring. Please do not. Please leave me RJ we don’t have much time and please leave me alone RJ, Caitlin and Johansson are here.”
And with a final rending, the veil disappeared completely and Carter swiped from mirroring to coexisting, and in that grey, default shape sat on the ground by the weeping fox. “RJ…AwDae. I shouldn’t be here. At the UMC, I mean. We don’t have too much time. The police are outside and arguing with Johansson. Can you feel for the exit?”
AwDae’s fingers dug into the earth, clutched at the roots of the grass. Ey hesitated there, perhaps considering trying to tear up the whole tussock, before sitting up once again, cheekfur stained with streaks of tears. Ey would not look at Carter, and instead looked out toward the mountains.
There was a moment of vertigo as the mountains fell away, the pond rose, and the scene shifted from the curated wilderness into that of a simple flat. Water became hardwood flooring before Carter got wet. Bench became bed. Trees became walls. The sound of the stalks of grass rustling phase-shifted into a quiet purr.
Carter was kneeling on a rumpled bed next to a sobbing fox while a long-haired cat traipsed across her lap to go stand on AwDae’s. The fox lifted a paw to stroke through the cat’s fur.
“Since then — tis centuries — and yet Feels shorter than the Day,” ey said between gasps. “I first surmised the Horses Heads Were towards Eternity —”
“Or perhaps,” ey continued, seeming to gain strength from the words. “Distance — is not the Realm of Fox nor by Relay of Bird Abated…”
“AwDae, can you hear me?”
“Emily Dickinson.” Eir laugh was choked. “I am at a loss for images in this end of days: I have sight but cannot see. I build my castle out of words; I cannot stop myself from speaking. And could never come close to the beauty of Dickinson. How long have I been here? Has it indeed been centuries?”
Carter shook her head.
The cat bunted her head against the fox’s paw, and ey scratched claws gently between her ears. “This is Priscilla.”
“AwDae, we need–”
“I know. I can feel the exit.” Ey sighed. “I am not sure I want to go.”
Carter hesitated, then leaned in closer to hug an arm around the slender fox’s shoulders. “I don’t know that you’ll have a choice, RJ. I don’t think Johansson and Caitlin are going to hold off the police for long.”
“If they pull us back, will I come with?”
“I don’t know.”
AwDae sagged against her. “I know I should come with. But in case I do not, here is what happened.”
Carter tamped down her impatience and let the fox speak. Let em speak about the experience of getting lost. Let em speak about dreaming and the mirroring of exo- and endocortices. Let em speak about Cicero and the vote in the DDR, the trap that had been triggered by some outside authority. Let em confirm all her suspicions and then some.
That impatience melted away. There was no way that Johansson and Caitlin were somehow holding off the police for this long. Too much time had gone by.
Had any time gone by?
Carter could feel the maddening influence of this non-place, so detailed in appearance. She could feel the way the dream buffeted her, drew smudging lines away from her mind. Pulled at words, wrapped her in blankets of language. unforgotten. Something innate made real. Memory froze, and forgetting was forgotten. And yet, when she focused, she could still feel that cool breeze of the exit behind her. She focused on that.
“Thank you, AwDae,” she said when ey finally fell silent. “This confirms much of what we learned in the lab and in talking with Sasha.”
The fox sat bolt upright. “Sasha? You were talking with her?”
“She contacted me, yes. I wasn’t supposed to, but I talked with her and Johansson both.”
Ey subsided. “I am glad to hear she is alright, then.”
Carter frowned. “She isn’t, though. She got lost about an hour ago. Or something, I can’t tell time in this place. I delved in to pass on information before the police caught up with me, and Debarre and I watched her get lost. That’s what led me to try the mirror rig. You should–”
As she spoke, the fennec’s frown grew deeper and deeper, and then, apparently having heard enough, ey dissolved from view. Not disappeared; dissolved with the pleasant disconnection animation.
Ey had pulled back.
Carter reached for that cool breeze on the back of her neck and pulled back as well. The quiet purring of the cat was replaced with screaming.
No, not screaming, shouting. Surprise, not fear or pain. Caitlin and Johansson shouting.
Carter lifted her head from the chair she had appropriated as a pillow and tried to tug off the gloves of the mirror-rig and found her hands bound with a zip-tie. Police frowned down to her. They couldn’t prevent her from looking, though.
Caitlin was holding RJ’s hand, and Johansson was shouting for a doctor.
RJ’s eyes were open. Confused and anxious, but cogent and bright.
Before she could rejoice, before anyone could stop her, even herself, she delved back in. Delved back in to the sim, then swiped ‘net access on. She signed on, dropped into her home sim, and swiped up an audio broadcast to Sasha, Debarre, Avery, Prakash, Johansson, her MP…everyone she could think of, and began talking. Those that were not listening live would receive a recording.
“My name is Dr Carter Ramirez, researcher at University College London studying the lost. We have succeeded in waking up one patient, RJ Brewster, and have discovered the mechanism by which individuals get lost. The police and Western Fed agents are here to prevent me from saying this, I think, so if I disconnect, that is why. Do not use the DDR. This is the source of the mechanism as described by Mx. Brewster.”
She kept speaking until she had exhausted the knowledge of what she had learned over the last week. The pressure from on high. Sanders’ carefully-constructed ruse. The data shifting. The rising panic. The only thing she left out was Prakash’s involvement, the Sino-Russian Bloc’s interest in the case.
And then she pulled back once more, sat up, and tugged off the gloves with her teeth. She shrugged to the police and, on seeing RJ sitting up, smiled over to em.
Ey did not smile back. “We have to get Sasha.”