No one else seemed inclined to say anything, so I kept on taking the lead.
“I remember you now,” I said, waving a finger at the man. He didn’t back away, didn’t even acknowledge the pointing towards him. “This is your house, isn’t it? This was the living room. We stopped by, saw pictures of you here.”
Hobbson didn’t say anything, but he gave a slight nod of his head, as if allowing me to continue.
“But that doesn’t make sense,” I went on, my frown growing deeper. “You died. That’s what all the scientists at Blue Diamond said. You were the one to go in and try to contain your failed experiment, and-”
“Failed?” At that word, Hobbson interrupted me, and I caught a flash of anger in those eyes. It vanished as quickly as it appeared, his irises settling back down to placid pools, but I’d seen it nonetheless. “My experiment was not a failure. It was an unbridled success, although it takes that term perhaps slightly too literally.”
“And what the bloody hell was your experiment, anyway?” Jaspers burst out. “I still haven’t really figured it out.”
The scientist hit the Englishman with a withering glare. “And I’m not surprised by that,” he said archly.
The insult didn’t go over Jaspers’ head. He stepped forward, hands balled into fists. He wasn’t any taller than Hobbson, but he looked almost twice as wide, and his fist came arcing around like the wrath of God…
I blinked, and Jaspers was gone.
Not knocked away, not thrown across the room, not down on his ass… just gone. Vanished, as if he hadn’t been there.
“Now,” continued Nathaniel Hobbson, as though he hadn’t been interrupted, “where was I?”
“What just happened to Jaspers?” I demanded. I nearly took a step forward to physically tower over the scientist, but held myself back, remembering the fate of the last person to do so.
Hobbson shrugged, not looking bothered in the slightest. “I dropped him back outside the front door. When he’s ready to have a civil conversation, I might allow him to rejoin us.”
This definitely wasn’t normal. I pushed my anger down with an effort, keeping a lid on the slow boil. “Okay then. You want to have a civilized conversation. So let’s talk.”
“Wonderful.” That mild little smile, so bland and unassuming, reappeared back on Hobbson’s face. “Let us talk, Captain Richards.”
“About what?” I didn’t bother asking how he knew my name.
Hobbson tapped his chin with one finger, lightly. “How about death?”
“Ours, or yours?”
That made him chuckle, tossing his head back as though I’d told a funny joke. “All death,” he said, once he lowered his head back down. “All of it. So tragic, so needless. Lives being taken from us, the loss of knowledge that in many cases can never be recovered. It’s awful to think about, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, death isn’t the best thing around,” I said, feeling uneasily aware that, as a soldier, this conversation was straying close to some dangerous waters. “But so what? The other option would be immortality, and I don’t think that’s around quite yet.”
“There’s an earlier step,” Hobbson said, not looking perturbed in the slightest. “While death itself might not be avoidable, we could at least find a way to save the information, so that so many secrets aren’t carried to graves. And that was part of what I wanted to create, back at Blue Diamond.”
“A way to read minds?”
He shook his head. “Not just read minds, Captain. To fuse them together, to ensure that they’re always connected. A true neural net, where all members of it can experience the same emotions, can share the same knowledge, can contribute to the gestalt.”
Henry coughed politely. “Sorry, what?”
“Gestalt,” Hobbson repeated, turning to address not just me, but the rest of my crew. “The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Two computers that are networked together are not only stronger than they were alone, but they’re stronger than the sum of their individual components, by sharing the load. And what if we could share the experiences of all humanity, merge everyone together?” Hobbson’s eyes gleamed as he turned back to me. “Just imagine what we could accomplish!”
“Sounds invasive,” I pointed out.
He scoffed. “Invasive? That suggests that people need secrets, need to lie to each other. Only because they do not trust each other – and with the ability to know what the other person thought, there’d be no more need for lies.”
“So…” I turned this over in my head. “Your plan, all along, was to create this neural network and connect everyone up to it? Don’t you think that people should have a choice about whether they wanted to join?”
Hobbson blinked at me. “But Brian, I did give them a choice.”
That wasn’t what I’d been expecting. “What?”
He shook his head in mock sadness. “Come now. As you drove across the country, did you not notice the lack of destruction?”
He was right. The cars that littered the roads looked like they’d been pulled over, not like they’d crashed. There hadn’t been nearly as many smashed-up vehicles, downed planes, or other signs of chaos as I’d anticipated. “And that was giving people a choice?”
Hobbson smiled. “And they all chose to join.”
I shook my head, trying to make sense of it. This had to be some sort of trick. “But why? Why would they want to give up their individualism, who they are, to merge into some sort of giant network?”
Hobbson just kept on smiling at me. Something about that smile freaked me out, in a way that I couldn’t explain. It felt almost like a shark’s smile, as it eyed an appetizing little fish. Trying to avoid getting sucked into that smile, I took a step back, and felt the back of my knees bump against the couch. Had I stepped around the couch? I glanced around the room, but there was no one else there – just Hobbson, looking down at me with that flat smile.
“Everyone,” he said, almost too softly for me to make out the words distinctly, “has something they want. And they fear nothing more than losing that one thing.”
“What? What are you talking about? Did you blackmail…” But Hobbson was gone. I was alone, sitting on the couch in the scientist’s living room.
Not the real living room, I reminded myself. A simulation, some sort of crazy projection inside my head. None of this was real.
I heard the sound of the doorknob turning.
I jumped up from the couch, turned – and felt my mouth drop open, my whole body freezing, as a newcomer stepped into the room.
I didn’t have words for this.
I just stared back at the young woman standing, looking slightly uncertain, just inside the front door of the house.
She reached up, brushed wavy tresses of golden-blonde hair back behind her ears. It was a gesture I recognized, one that she made all the time, often just when we were alone and she was gazing over at me. I’d ask her what she was thinking, and she’d just smile, tell me how much she loved me.
“Alexis.” The name came as a croak, a rasp from suddenly bone-dry lips. Alexis. My wife.
She smiled, a tiny little unsure smile. “Hi again, Brian.”
To be continued…