No. Not possible. This couldn’t be happening.
Standing just in front of a couch, in a room that shouldn’t exist and didn’t seem quite real, I stared at the woman who had just walked in through the front door. There were a handful of situations when i remember being too stunned to speak, but none of them could compare to this one. Those were gentle brushes compared to this current mind-fuck.
“Alexis,” I croaked out, my lips barely even able to shape the name.
The woman smiled at me, a slightly uncertain smile that I recognized intimately, instantly. That was the smile she gave me when I first swept her off her feet, promised her that I’d treat her like no one else ever had.
“Hi again, Brian,” she said softly, and I swear I heard the ripping sound of my heart being torn in two.
“But, but…” Dammit, man, find words to communicate! “But I went to our house. I found the note.” I still had it, didn’t I? Tucked into my inner jacket pocket? “You died.”
Her smile grew a little broader, raised higher at one side than the other. That was her mocking smile, I knew, when she understood something that I didn’t. She never acted condescending towards me, but laughed, as if delighted that, at least once, she had me at a disadvantage. She’d always step forward, lean forward and whisper the truth in my ear, and then kiss me as my brain caught back up…
Alexis, or the thing that was shaped like her, stepped forward – but I held up a hand to forestall her. “No. I – I can’t. Not until I have some idea of what’s going on.”
She stopped, her face turning towards apprehension. “I’m sorry, Brian. This is probably a lot.”
I barked out a harsh laugh. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Let me start at the beginning.” She stepped towards me, and I hated how I shrank back, pulling away from my own wife, the love of my life. Fortunately, Alexis didn’t appear to notice. She settled down on the couch, crossing her long legs, legs that I remembered kissing hundreds of times, running my hands over every inch of smooth skin.
“It happened on a Tuesday,” she said, as matter-of-factly as if she was telling me about her last run to the grocery. “I was at home when I felt it.”
“What was it?”
She tilted her face a little to the side, as if trying to recall an unusual flavor. “It was… a call,” she answered after a minute. “An invitation. An offer, extended out freely.”
“So you could have said no?”
She thought about this for a second, then shook her head. “No. I could say yes, or choose not to answer. But there only was one answer. Yes.”
“It wasn’t bad,” she answered, her face still frowning as if these weren’t the right words. “It felt like…”
“…like slipping into a warm bath,” I finished for her, remembering the words of her note.
Alexis nodded. “Yes. It was like standing outside the door of a party, knowing that all your friends and family are right on the other side of the door, waiting for you. They all want to shower you in love, hold you and tell you that you won’t be alone any longer, and all you have to do is step through the doorway.”
“So you stepped through,” I said.
She gave me a sad little smile. What else could I do? her eyes asked. “Yes.”
“And now what?”
“And now, I’m here.”
“Which is where, exactly?” I looked around Nathaniel Hobbson’s living room. Was this the afterlife? Had we both died, and now I’d joined her in this purgatory?
“I couldn’t explain it to you, not with a hundred years. You’d never grasp the math.” Those words would have sounded patronizing from anyone else, but Alexis’s little smile took the sting out of them. “Heck, I don’t really understand it, myself, but I know that others do. We’re… united. All of us, together, our brains on the same network.”
The expression on my face must have made clear my lack of understanding. Alexis pouted, and then scooted down on the sofa to make room for me. “Sit.” She patted the spot beside her.
I sat. What else could I do, when my dead wife gave me an order?
“Dr. Hobbson built a neural network,” Alexis said, her eyes slightly unfocused as if she was reading from an invisible script. “The network served as a sort of matrix for thoughts to come together. It’s like building a computer with a huge, empty hard drive, and then opening it up so that others could fill the empty space with their data.”
“So you’re all living in his head?” I asked, struggling to understand.
“No, because he’s in here, too.” Alexis pursed her lips. “Okay, imagine that someone created a shared supercomputer, but they did so by taking everyone else’s computers and combining them all. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it kind of works. The resulting supercomputer is large and ungainly, but smaller than all the original components, and more efficient, too, because everything is connected to everything else.”
I sat there, listening to my dead wife, thinking about that huge mushroom. I thought about how it erupted into massive superstructures, and I thought about how the bodies of almost everyone across America had vanished, completely and utterly. I still didn’t understand everything, but enough of the pieces were starting to come together for me to get a general sense of what had happened.
What I still didn’t see, however, was what would come next.
“You’re wondering about the next steps,” Alexis said. She must have caught the expression on my face, because she laughed. “I can’t read minds, Brian. But I know you. I love you, have spent the best years of my life living with you, coming to understand you. You think I can’t sometimes guess what’s on your mind?”
“Fine, I’ll give you that point.” Was she really Alexis? She seemed just like her, so close that I couldn’t point at a single thing that felt fake. But how could be she here? How could any of this really be happening?
Alexis reached out and picked up my hand, intertwining her fingers with mine. “We’re working right now to bring the rest of humanity in with us,” she said, smiling at me. “And everything else, too. Reptiles, mammals – everything with nerves, with neurons that can give it a neural network. All of it will become whole, soon enough.”
“Animals?” I echoed, remembering how we hadn’t seen any wildlife on our journey across the continent.
She nodded. “Not because we value their minds, but for the raw materials,” she said. “We need room to grow, need raw materials to do so. We have to harvest those components from somewhere.”
That opened up a whole other, horrifying line of questions, but I didn’t want to get sidetracked on those just yet. “How are you reaching the others?” I asked. “You’re in Texas – or, at least, the mushroom is. The combined computer. The physical part – because all of this is fake, right? We’re just imagining it?”
“All of this is real, just because it’s taking place somewhere else,” Alexis said softly. “But yes, on Earth, we’re inside the center in Texas.”
“So reaching the others? You mean the people on the other side of the globe?”
She smiled at me, her fingers tightening around my own. “That’s easy,” she answered. “We don’t need to go around the crust. We’re going through.”
I sat there, next to my smiling wife, feeling her warm and living fingers caressing my hand, as the rest of my body went numb and cold with horrified understanding.
To be continued…