Sehnsucht 4

Hoffman tapped his pencil on the desk impatiently. He was trying to work, but everyone in the entire goddamned office decided to be as distracting as possible, right as he was approaching a deadline. Across a plastic divider, thumping bass poured from improperly fitted headphones while the person in the adjacent cubicle hummed along, and he'd nearly had enough of it.

"Please forgive me, I've got demons in my head, in my head…"

He tossed a crumpled Post-It over the wall. A matted swatch of brown hair peeked up over it, followed by a set of green eyes. "What?"

"Could you please turn down your fucking lesbian music for 5 minutes so I can focus? I'm trying to edit the quarter 3 interdepartmental briefing, and Mantell is breathing down my neck about it."

"I don't see how he could be breathing down your neck with that collared shirt of yours. That, plus the sweater vest, and you have no business calling it 'lesbian music', you twink."

Samuel stands up quickly and puts a finger to his lips, looking in the vague direction of Dr. Jonathan Mantell's office door, slightly ajar. "Shut… the fuck… up, Marie!" he whispers. "Don't you know the boss-man is…" he starts, and ends by mouthing the word "homophobic".

She chuckles a little. "Yeah, but I don't give a crap."

Hoffman straightens his bow-tie a little. "Well, I do. If you want to keep your job, you should too. You do know he's in charge of payroll for the office too now, right?" He steps around the divider to chat with her in her cubicle.

Dr. M. Hylius puts her boots up on her desk and retrieves the cup noodles she'd smuggled in past the "no food or drink" ordinance at the front desk of the Heimwehmut Industries Building 3. Her desk is strewn with a large collection of spare electronics, mostly connected to a modified, store-bought VR system. The precision molded plastic was largely cut away to access the electronics beneath, the cabling intertwining with other cables from an EEG headset integrated into the VR system to a PC in a state of disarray. A monitor displayed a blank readout of a human mind, and the error message "HEADSPACE NETWORK NOT DETECTED".

"I suppose," she says, pausing to slurp a stray noodle. "I'm not really worried about it. This isn't precisely a 'resume job', after all. Plenty of people want someone with my expertise."

"That's true. It's precisely why we need you here." Jonathan Mantell pokes his head over the cubicle wall, giving Hoffman something just short of a heart attack. "Come see me in your office, and bring your work too, 'kay?" Sam and Marie share a glance, with his look of worry and hers of annoyance.

"So, what's this about?" she says, taking a quick scan of the room while Jonathan locks the door behind the two of them. There's a cylindrical pod sitting on a pedestal next to Dr. Mantell's desk, the slightly transparent black plastic betraying the contents partially. Inside the canister, capped on both ends by hemispheres, some partially viscous liquid stirs gently. Just as before, wires run from it to a less disassembled PC; at least, as far as Marie is concerned.

"Just a little ascertainment of how funds are being managed. I need a full rundown and demonstration of what you have so far, for the quarterly report. Don't worry, Marie. Any progress is good progress, but I need to quantify it."

Dr. Hylius frowns, raising an eyebrow. "I thought Hoffman was already working on editing the quarterly report?"

"Yes, I…" Jonathan begins, but catches himself. "Yes. That's true. I'll be submitting this as a document alongside it, since I only remembered to do this on short notice."

"Right." She places her equipment down on the empty table nearby. "What's in the… cylinder?"

"I'm sorry, I can't… I'm not at liberty to say. Just something they've been cooking up in Psychotronics." He pats the pod gently, and there's a slight sloshing. "We need to see how it interacts with the Headspace, and this is the only currently working prototype Headspace server right now. You'll be sharing server space with it."

There's a beat. Marie isn't dumb; Mantell is clearly lying to her. But why? Unfortunately, Marie has a different perspective on what "why" could possibly be than Jonathan does. She shrugs, and gets to work setting up her equipment. "Well, full dive is still indev, as you know… but I/O is operational. I'll start you on infodump sequences, and move on to-"

Mantell cuts her off. "I'll be demonstrating the work?"

"Well, no, but you-"

"I'd rather like to see how the system works on you, rather than me. You understand, right?" There it is again. That same feeling of unease. Some silent warning going off. Something she can see in his eyes, but nothing on the surface. Same old Jonny.

"Sure thing, boss. I'll reconfigure to defaults; they're based on me. Shouldn't take but a few seconds." She runs through the necessary protocols and connects to the black box. Checking the display, she boots to the default profile, removes her beanie, and lets the EEG net fall over her cranium, followed by the VR eyepieces over her eyes. 'ChivalryOS' boots to a home screen, which she navigates to the proper application. "So, the thing about an infodump sequence is that-" she starts. Her mouth would keep going, if it was listening to her properly. Similarly, her arms fall away from the keyboard she was using to operate the interface.

"Aaaand… we're in. Ooh, this is neat. I haven't tested this on a drive that already has data on it!" Jonathan muses from the terminal. He can't tell that there's something wrong, that she can't move. She can't tell him to try to fix it, that she can barely breathe, that she-

"Oh, don't worry. Not that panicking could do you much good. I only paralyzed the C-5 vertebrae and lower. You'll be fine, for a short time."

He what?

"Mmhmm… oh, this is good… yeah, okay. I can store this all for later. Good stuff. Gonna be a nightmare to comb through, though." He lifts the goggles of the headset, leaving the EEG net intact. His unblinking eyes match with her wide, terrified ones. "Tsk, tsk, tsk… Marie… have you been keeping corporate secrets from me in here?" He pats her on the head, just the same as he did with the pod. "You know, data goes both ways… tide goes in… and tide goes out." He drops the visor back down and sits at the terminal, typing away. "As far as we know… the human brain can hold about two and a half petabytes of information. But… that is as far as we know. That means there should be a little under that kicking around in your head. But if I look at the math here… looks like you have over three! Isn't that interesting?"

She can feel… something… as if there's a chopstick poking through her brain tissue, prodding, teasing. The needle of a hard drive disk running across the folds of her grey matter. "You can check your anatomy all you want, and even though there may be normal variation, when it comes right down to it, this far inside the head it all looks the same. But that same normal variation accounts for some vast differences in storage space!" The prodding stops.

"Hey, Marie… do you want to see how much storage space you max out at?" Her breathing intensifies. "Here I'll start you out at… all of Wikipedia? It is the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, after all…" A few taps on a keyboard, a click, and there's an earsplitting screech and a flash of pain that only Marie can feel. For a moment, the searing pain conveys meaning, but it all blends together until it comes to a halt moments later.

"What was that?" He steps over, raises the visor, and checks her eyes. Her nose is bleeding slightly, as he intensely scans her pupils for something. "Must have been nothing." The visor is lowered once more. "Hmm… 20 gigs, 3.2 seconds… pretty fast download rate. Let's try… Project Gutenberg? That's 70 gigabytes of data." It's happening again, all at once, and even worse. The numbers and letters sear into her brain like a printing press with molten keycaps.

He thumps over and pulls up the visor again. His eyes narrow, lips puckered. "What is that going on under there?" He gives her a couple slaps on the cheek, certainly not gentle but clearly just to wake her from the slight daze than to deal any damage. "Get a hold of yourself, woman. We're only getting started."

Moving back to the console once more, he taps more on his keyboard for almost a minute before he finds what he's looking for. The suspense, the agony, they're both starting to get to Marie. Her arms and legs are starting to hurt from the induction of paralysis. "There it is. Alright, you should probably brace a little." He removes a pocket square from his jacket, and places it gently in Dr. Hylius's mouth, slightly smearing her black lipstick. "There. You might keep that tongue now. Wikipedia was a stretch, Gutenberg is a warmup. Since we've got the Headspace right here…" he begins, prodding the tank slightly, the sloshing revealing the form of a human embryo as it presses gently against the side, "You'll get to test how much the human brain can hold of the entire collective memory of the human race, as it currently stands. I'm betting on a max of 5 petabytes, but who knows! That's the wonder of the frontier sciences, isn't it?"

A few more keystrokes, and she watches the cables running from the pod glow slightly, the blue light growing brighter as it flows down the cable to the computer. From the input, so to the output, as the slow crawl of the light reaches ever closer to Marie, before finally meeting her scalp. If the pain before was bad, it was now unbearable. She begins to convulse, the slight trickle of blood from before now becoming a heavy flow. The convulsions knock her free from her chair, and the plug disconnects from the computer, but the cable is still lit. The brief, unlimited connection she made with the Headspace was enough to sustain a permanent connection, and the quirk of her eyes that Mantell had noticed earlier intensified: where there had once been green irises glowed an intense blue, bright enough to light the wall across the room, and intensifying every second.

Then, it stopped. The reason it stopped was fairly clear, but the reason for the reason would be something Dr. Mantell and his team would never be able to understand or precisely replicate from this point further. It started in the tips of her fingers, the skin slightly glowing before becoming transparent, and then disappearing. After her fingers, the skin on her arms, and then her legs. It followed up to her head, after which followed her muscles, the same way. Her organs, blood vessels, and skeletal structure, one after another. Lastly and finally, her nervous system faded from her extremities to her head, which vanished all at once. Her eyes and brain, exposed for the briefest of seconds, shone with that same brilliant blue light, before the EEG cradle fell loosely on the chair she'd been inhabiting just moments before.

Dr. Mantell pursed his lips once more, and looked down at a clipboard. He spoke as he wrote: "Hmm… glowing… blue… eyes… comma… faded… from… existence. Testing… inconclusive."

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