I was once again back in darkness – but this didn’t feel like the mindless, empty void of earlier.
I felt pressure of a sort – and when I pushed at it, I could get the thinnest sliver of brilliant light, piercing into my skull.
Wait a minute – I had a skull! I pushed again, felt those brilliant slivers enter, not quite so blindingly bright. I reached out to lift one hand up to block some of the glare, only realizing as I did so that this also meant that I had hands, which presumably were connected to the rest of my body!
I finally managed to open my eyelids, sat up and looked around. I lay…
…on a hill, surrounded by long green grass. Bits of equipment were scattered around me, and when I sucked in a deep breath, I caught a salty taste, fresh, like the smell of a just-cleaned fish market.
That wasn’t a smell of Texas.
I blinked, looked around. The hill was quite tall, and I could see down it towards a small town, spread out almost like a picturesque painting at its base. Beyond the town, shimmering blue and silver stretched out towards the horizon.
Either Texas had just developed an inland sea, or we were someplace very far away from home.
We… hold on! I jumped up to my feet, every muscle in my body screaming at the sudden movement. I climbed back up to my feet, staggered, somehow managed to just barely keep upright. I turned in a circle, wincing as I tried to find a way to shift my weight that didn’t hurt.
I didn’t see the bodies of any of my team members. The long, waving fronds of grass seemed undisturbed and unbroken.
“Henry? Jaspers? Corinne?” My voice cracked, sounded hoarse, as if I hadn’t been speaking for weeks. I turned around again, took a few steps away from where the long blades had been crushed down by my arrival, searching for anyone else.
A horrible thought occurred to me. Was I really out? Last memory I could recall that I knew came from the real world was back in Texas, when I’d been about to be crushed in a truck with Sara. After that, everything else had been false, all in my head, caused by exposure to the monstrosity, the mutated neural network.
Now, I stood alone on a field, far away from where I’d last been in the real world. It all felt real to me, but how did I know? The previous world had felt real to me, as well – up until it all fell apart.
I spun around at the sound of the voice. My hand flew down to my waist, grabbing for a sidearm that wasn’t there.
Sara stood across from me, barefoot in the long grass. She looked fine – but there was a strange blankness to her eyes, and she stood slightly awkwardly in a way I couldn’t quite explain. She looked up at me, not a single trace of nervousness or uncertainty or confusion in her expression.
“This is the real world,” she said, gesturing around with one small hand. “This is out on the edge of its territory. I can’t feel anything beyond this point.”
“Can’t feel…?” I echoed, frowning. When Sara gestured out with her hand, she’d turned slightly to one side, and I thought I’d caught sight of something nestled into her hair. “What’s going on, Sara?”
“You’re out,” she said, her gaze returning back to me. Again, there was no look of fear or uncertainty, just flat awareness. “You wanted to go out, so it expelled you. It wanted to kill you, but it can’t. It’s programmed not to kill people.”
“Programmed?” What was she talking about? Was that why the figure of my dead wife had been trying to convince me to join? “You mean the neural network? When Hobb- when your dad created it, he put in programming to tell it not to kill people?”
Sara nodded, her face solemn. “Yes. He said that he thought it might be used to kill people, instead of keeping them safe. So he made it that people had to choose, that it couldn’t kill anyone.”
“How do you know this, Sara?” I took a step closer to her. She didn’t seem to register my presence moving in towards her. “Did it try to convince you to join, too?”
“Try to convince me,” she repeated, her eyes closing. “It’s… it’s not different. It was waiting for me, but to rejoin it.”
“What are you talking about?” There was something behind her, pressing down the blades of grass. I couldn’t make out the details, hidden beneath the long blades, but it stretched away, wandering back and forth, down the hill away from the town…
“I can feel them,” she said, still looking straight ahead, off at nothing. “Everyone’s inside my head, but they aren’t deafening me. They’re just sort of listening, like they want to offer me advice if I need it.”
I could see that, whatever it was snaking through the grass, seemed to lead up to Sara. I took another step closer to her, dropping down to one knee. Dew felt wet against my pants as I sank down to my knees, down to her level. She still looked off in the distance, not acknowledging me.
There was something coming from the back of her head, sure enough, in with her hair and almost covered. I reached out, following its path down, reaching to pick it up where it entered the grass…
I wrapped my fingers around it – and then dropped it, recoiling. It pulsed, alive, at my touch! It felt like a warm cord, like skin, like wet meat, fresh off a carcass!
“What the hell!?” I exclaimed. I reached out again, this time preparing myself for what I was about to touch. I picked it up, traced it up towards Sara. It ran up her back, mingling in amid the strands of her hair, connecting to the back of her skull…
My fingers gingerly probed the connection. I couldn’t feel any sort of differentiation. It was a part of her, as if it was her own skin, a growth from her body.
I turned and looked in the other direction. It stretched away, down the grass, running down the hill. I lifted it a little higher, saw it twitch all the way to the base of the hill where I couldn’t pick it out any further from the other brush and plants.
“Sara.” My voice felt hollow inside my mouth. “What is this?”
She turned back towards me, her eyes focusing on me again. Her turning motion plucked the cord out of my hands, swishing it through the grass. “It’s the network,” she said. “It’s out there. See?”
She pointed, and I looked past her, off into the distance in the opposite direction of the town. Inland. “I don’t see anything.”
“Now watch.” She lifted her hand, her fingers crooking upwards as if wrapped around an invisible ball.
And out in the distance, huge blades, white and bigger than mountains, burst up from the ground. They shot up into the air, curling slightly, shedding tons of earth and sending waves of vibration back up the hill to us. They curled around, twisted and thrashed…
…and looked almost exactly like the upwardly crooked fingers of Sara’s hand.
“See?” she said, as I looked back and forth, my mouth hanging open, unable to believe it. “It’s listening to me.”
She shrugged. “I think my daddy made it for me,” she said. “He says he can’t tell me everything, but that’s a start.”
To be continued…