by Nicholas Jay
“Welcome back, Taylor,” intoned a serene voice, reciting its script from somewhere inside my brain. “The neural mesh will begin momentarily. Are you ready?”
They had given me plenty of time to calm down from the last attempt, but my nerve endings were still cranked up to eleven. For a sensory deprivation chamber, I sure sensed a lot: the spiky chill of the saltwater pool, the sharp pop of the water flooding my ear canals, the soft tugging of the silicone pads affixed to my skin. Too many sensations all at once.
I tried to take a deep breath. My lungs strained against the water’s pressure. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Neural mesh commencing.”
Surely it would go better this time. The first try ended with me spasming and losing consciousness. On the second try I got to 45 percent before, according to the technician, my frontal lobe went into overdrive. I nearly quit on the spot, Pax be damned. I didn’t need to do this. But all the stats said the mesh’s failure rate dropped to 13 percent on the second try and just 1.2 percent on the third.
So I gave it one more shot. For Pax.
“Neural mesh at 5.7 percent. You may experience cognitive dissonance as you begin to feel your legs.”
Alarm bells rang in my mind as it instinctively rejected this notion, even though I knew I would indeed feel them in ten interminable minutes. None of MICA, Inc.’s stats or their glowing customer reviews truly captured the out-of-body horror and exhilaration of having one’s brain mapped to something else, especially when parts were missing. A fuzzy tingle enveloped my lower body. Phantom limbs slowly filled in and a new, deeper chill oozed from my spine. This was normal, my body struggling to interpret the foreign sensation of new legs. But knowing it was normal couldn’t quell the heavy, hollow awareness that this sensation wouldn’t and couldn’t last.
“Warning. Moderate dissonance occurring. Neural mesh at 32.9 percent.”
I put my mind to other things: Pax flashed a fiendish grin while he waved his exclusive invitation to tonight’s Blue Glove bacchanal, Rachel walking in the door and flopping down next to me on the bed after another twenty-four hours of rounds at St. Luke’s. Last night, she asked if I was ready. I said I wished the bed would swallow me like quicksand.
“Neural mesh at 81.8 percent.”
I grit my teeth. Everything would be fine, afterwards. A brief walkabout and it would be over, no need to do it again. I chose to do this. I was in control.
“Neural mesh complete.”
A spongy calm blanketed me as the darkness of the tank disappeared, a brilliant bright nothingness fading in to take its place. I drifted through the sludgy white a while before sounds returned: the insistent beep of a monitor, soft footfalls, polyester swishing against itself.
I squinted. There was a blurry head of resplendent red hair, ringed in a halo of fluorescent light.
“Taylor, can you hear me?”
Rachel stood in front of me, much shorter than usual. I shut my eyes hard before opening them again.
“Did I just blink?”
“You don’t have eyelids, silly,” she teased. “Why don’t you give your legs a try?”
I looked down to see two sturdy, metallic pillars coming out of me. They bore an old coat of matte white paint marred by several scratches. My left thigh was branded with bold letters reading “MICA-0613,” though the C and 3 were peeling off. I lifted one metallic leg, feeling foot and calf dangle from the patella, and wiggled my toes. An ecstatic chuckle burbled from my simulated mouth. With all the grace of a newborn fawn, I took the first steps in fourteen years I could feel.
I had naively expected my mastery of walking in prosthetics would transfer to the MICA. Instead, my legs quivered with each step. Rachel held my arm and softly cheered me on, careful not to rush me even though we were on the clock. After a few laps, I wrested greater control over my new body, graduating from a timid shuffle to more confident strides down the smooth floors of the MICA lab.
Not all surfaces would be so easy. I struggled to climb the three tall stairs to board MICA’s complimentary shuttle, graciously included in my rental package. I stumbled over curbs and block after block of cracked sidewalks. But I managed, following Pax and Rachel through side streets and service alleys as they searched for the entrance to the decommissioned subway.
Down in the tunnels I abandoned all attempts at finesse, jerking my legs this way and that, planning my moves around the remnants of the old tracks like a rock climber. Despite the effort, the sensations in my legs thrilled me. Pain, muscle soreness, the flex of my joints—they were familiar and foreign all at once, like a song you almost remember but not well enough to sing it. At one point, my right foot caught between a tie and some rubble. I lurched forward, spinning my arms for balance to no avail. I crumpled to the ground. Pain swept through my body, but all I could do was laugh.
“Taylor!” shouted Rachel, as she and Pax rushed over to me. “Are you alright?”
“I feel great,” I said. The screen from my mask painted Pax and Rachel in soft blue light, pulsing brighter with every sound I made.
“Good thing we sprang for the cheapest model, eh?” said Pax, helping me up.
“We?” retorted Rachel. “I don’t remember you paying for it.”
“Small price to pay for the experience of a lifetime! If T’s okay, let’s go.” He bounded down the tunnel.
“Remind me how I let him talk me into this?” I asked Rachel.
“You’re a good friend, perhaps?”
I sneered but remembered she couldn’t see it. A voice from somewhere far behind me said, Warning. Mild dissonance occurring. I shook my head and ambled forward.
A few weeks ago, Pax had caught us off-guard with a wild proposition. He’d summoned Rachel and me to a retro diner, complete with checkerboard floor and digital jukebox playing doowop from a century ago. He arrived, a whirlwind of limbs, and threw a mysterious postcard down on the table. On it was a cartoonish gloved hand in blue ink, its thumb extended like a hitchhiker’s.
Rachel gasped. “No way. You got one?”
I must have looked confused, for Pax began monologuing about a long chain of people who knew people, one of whom had some connection to Maurice Gant, the celebrity magician-slash-hypnotist. When Pax and I were growing up, his chocolatey voice and piercing stare were inescapable, gracing streaming channels and subway ad marquees all over the city. He’d later leveraged his mega-stardom into a career in self-help and gained a cult following. Many, Pax included, still swore by “consciousness curbing,” his pseudo-scientific contribution to hypnotherapy. Since then, he had shrunk from the limelight, resurfacing every so often to toy with his fans through his mysterious Blue Glove parties.
“We have to go. When are we ever going to get this chance again?”
“Aren’t those things impossible to find?” I wondered.
“It came with a clue,” he said, biting his lip nervously. He placed a very old photo on the table. Between the creases in the gloss, I made out a black sign with white lettering and multi-colored circles buried underneath debris.
I blurted out an incredulous laugh. “You don’t seriously want to go down there, do you?”
“Taylor, come on,” Pax said, his blue eyes twinkling. “I’m good! Haven’t had a nightmare about the crash in months.”
That stung. “How great for you. And how exactly do you expect me to crawl through the ruins of the subway?”
“What, you’re worried about scuffing up these old things?” he said, kicking my prosthetics under the table. “Never fear. I found another option.” He slid yet more paper across the table. This time, it was a brochure, “Mobile Imbricated Cortex Apparatus” written across the top. “A friend of mine with a collapsed lung used one of these to deep-sea dive. Said it was amazing.”
I could have protested the cost, but Pax knew I was good for at least the basic model. I could have rolled my eyes at Pax’s obsession with Maurice Gant and consciousness curbing for the hundredth time. I could have raised many objections. The premise of diving underground into those treacherous tunnels made my skin crawl, but it clearly didn’t bother Pax.
“Alright,” I conceded.
Pax yelped for joy and punched the air. Rachel rubbed my back lovingly. She knew I couldn’t say no to him.
The tunnels were eerily quiet. Nothing echoed, thanks to the layers of rubble and steel soaking up the sound. In a way, I was grateful to be out of my own body, to not have to hear my real body’s systems creak and gurgle without the cushion of the city’s noise to drown them out.
Warning. Mild dissonance occurring.
I groaned. That was twice now I’d gotten that warning. The drawbacks of the basic model were beginning to show.
Ahead, Pax squealed with glee. I strained to hear through the dense quiet, barely making out the triumphant words, “We found it!” He did a victory dance, his loose brown curls flailing as wildly as his wiry arms.
It jarred me to see him so relaxed down here. Between the two of us, he’d always been the one with more anger and resentment after the accident. The day they shut down the subway, there had been another crash, the latest in a series of misguided attempts to ram state-of-the-art maglev pulse trains through the system’s narrow arteries. I sat in the backseat of his Skypod as he piloted. He became so agitated by the news, he nearly swerved into oncoming traffic. He yelled back to me, “Better late than never, I guess!”
“At least the subway will be a lot safer now,” I offered.
Safer but certainly just as claustrophobic. Nowadays, with the openness of short-trip air travel, it was hard to imagine routinely scuttling beneath the city like rats.
Pax and Rachel waved their arms at me, their voices still muffled at this distance. I picked up my pace. They were waiting in front of a plain, metal door up on a raised walkway that ran down the length of the tunnel. Spray-painted on it was a stencil drawing of the gloved hand, this time giving us a thumbs-up.
“Pax, I’ll boost you,” said Rachel.
She stepped closer to the walkway and made a cradle with her hands. Together, they vaulted Pax onto the ledge. I followed, feeling her strong hands on the bottom of my foot as she pushed my lightweight frame over the edge. A pang of sorrow hit me, as I realized this wouldn’t happen again. My breathing sped up and my lungs became heavy and strained, like I was back in the pool.
Warning. Moderate dissonance occurring.
Just then, the sound of something rushing past my ears, fast and close. I whipped my head around to look at the tunnel behind me. Nothing but silence.
“You alright, babe?” asked Rachel. “Your face mask is red.”
“All good,” I lied. “Got it under control.”
Pax, who had passed through the door, poked his head sideways around the frame. He blew his curls out of his face and said, “We’re on the right track.”
Beyond the door was another railed ledge, with a stepladder descending into darkness below. Pax waved his flashlight over the vacuum before he volleyed himself over the edge and down the ladder. I carefully climbed down backwards, one foot at a time, planting each one firmly with every step.
The ladder began to shake violently, filling the empty chamber with a loud clatter. I gripped the railing with all the strength my titanium hands could muster.
Warning. Moderate dissonance occurring. Remain calm to maintain imbricated cortex mesh.
“Hey!” called Rachel above me. “Why’d you stop?”
I braced myself and looked up. Rachel, concerned and cast in crimson light, frowned at me. I looked back down. The ladder was still once more.
“Hey Pax,” I said. “Do you think hypnotherapy would work on me in this body?”
“Ooh, getting curious?”
“You wish. I just don’t want any surprises tonight.”
He scoffed. “You think Gant is using people as guinea pigs at these things? It’s a party, not a lab.”
“A bunch of random people, inhibitions lowered, in a secret room underneath miles of abandoned tunnels? What better place to experiment?”
Pax clicked his tongue. “Fair enough, but don’t worry about it. Pretty sure it’s impossible to hypnotize someone when their mind isn’t physically there.”
“Shut up, Pax!” shouted Rachel. “Can’t you see the mask is red?”
My fingers were suddenly very wet and slippery. I cursed under my breath. There was a steady crescendo of wheels on a track. A klaxon blared, echoing loudly off the room’s bare walls. I seized and then I was falling. Air whirred against my metallic body while my corporeal body squirmed in the tank, wet and cold.
WARNING, scolded the voice, closer and louder now. EXTREME DISSONANCE OCCURRING.
The short fall lasted hours, until I finally collided with the concrete floor below. I groaned. Pain whooshed through my back and shoulders. Rachel and Pax appeared over me, bathed in the red light from my facial display.
I tried to lie as still as possible to help my body stabilize. I could keep it under control.
Gradually, the light turned blue again. We all sighed with relief.
Against the back of my head, I registered another sound: strong, rhythmic vibrations pulsing through the concrete slab. I knocked my knuckle against the floor. Pax and Rachel put their hands and ears to the ground. He snickered with glee and ran off, while Rachel stayed and caressed my robotic head before helping me up.
We felt our way through two more rooms and down two more stepladders, following the roar of the rave. At the end of our path was one more door, framed in neon blue. Pax drum-rolled on it, then held up the sacred invitation to the peephole. Several muffled beats later, the door cracked open, letting out a pressure wave of heat and music.
Inside, the bunker was awash in phosphorescent blue, pelted with strobes. Hundreds of bodies moved together through their own sweaty haze. We fell inside and were consumed by a crowd of entranced dancers sporting glowsticks, neon crop-tops, glittering body paint, and more than one chrome cape.
We quickly lost Pax to the mob as he thrashed forward in rhythm with them. Sapped of energy, I swam through the humid air, trying my best to stay upright on my wobbly legs. Multiple revelers bumped into me and pointed up at my face, awed by my blue aura. A push on my right shoulder threatened to topple me, but Rachel came to my rescue.
“Rachel, is there somewhere else we could go?”
She nodded and led me to the back corner of the bunker, stopping before a rope and sign reading “Invitation Only.” Several nicely-dressed people wearing theatrical masks lounged among some plastic tables and chairs. They turned in unison to look at us, their dead eyes scanning us up and down. Undeterred, Rachel pressed on.
“Can’t you read?” one said.
Before we could reply, another one said, “Now, now, no need to be rude.” He was taller in the torso than his companions and dressed even more elegantly in an immaculate navy velvet jacket with silver buttons. “We can accommodate new friends, especially one wearing a different sort of mask.”
“Thanks,” I shouted. “Just not used to crowds.”
“You’ve come to the wrong place,” rasped the first figure, prompting haughty laughter from the others.
“Let’s get our distant friend some help, shall we?” commanded the velvet man. Some of the VIPs loyally rose and dragged some chairs over to us. Relief flooded through me as I sank into mine. I’d go find Pax in a second once I’d gotten my bearings.
On my left, Rachel gasped.
The tall man had pulled up his mask to reveal the unmistakable piercing blue eyes and black hair of Maurice Gant himself. Pale and gaunt and wearing a thin half-smile, he looked even more vampiric in person.
“I feel terrible,” he said. “The neural mesh must’ve been exhausting enough. I’m sure my little party must be putting you through the wringer.” He stared at me, his eyes bulging as though he was scrutinizing my robotic shell under a microscope.
“It’s okay,” I muttered, leaning as far back as I could. “We chose to come.”
“Indeed. And I am grateful for it.” He paused, folding his gloved hands and lifting his two forefingers to his mouth in a pensive gesture. He turned to his entourage and whispered, “Scatter.”
In an instant, they were gone. He continued. “People usually attend my parties in person. May I ask why you are visiting from afar?”
“You may not,” said Rachel, bitterly. She rested a comforting hand on my shoulder.
“It’s okay,” I said, placing my hand over hers, trying to match her tenderness. To Gant, “It’s a favor to my friend.”
“Your friend wanted to come with a MICA unit?”
I hesitated, feeling very small under Gant’s glare.
“I lost my legs.”
“How horrible. My apologies for the intrusion…” His brow furrowed and his lips curled with a hint of amusement. “What was your name again?”
“Right. My apologies for the intrusion, Taylor, though I suppose you’re used to it now, having meshed,” he said, gesturing to my new body.
“Actually, this is my first —”
“You know,” he continued, “I have always been curious about MICA. To map the brain is a lengthy and laborious pursuit, yet they do it handily hundreds of times a week. One wonders how much care they could take with each brain?” He leaned in, so close our faces almost touched. “Is it even your brain anymore?”
My breath caught. Warning. Moderate dissonance occurring.
“Did they capture all of you? Did they leave anything out when they shoved you into that simulacrum? How much control do they have over you?”
As he spoke, the buoyant cloud of noise around me began to fade until the bass, the crowd, MICA’s serene warnings, everything slowly shrank into a tepid silence. All that was left was his baritone voice, suffusing me with unnatural calm.
“Mind if I satisfy my curiosity?” he asked. Gant’s glower focused and the blue light of his eyes enveloped me.
I was nowhere surrounded by nothing, save for Maurice Gant in front of me, alone, masked once more, still clad in his elegant jacket and blue gloves. I felt nothing, no sensory inputs to speak of. The room had slid away into darkness.
So many questions. How had I arrived here? Why can’t I remember? Where was Rachel? Yet Maurice Gant was there, telling me it was alright. I was safe. I hadn’t left the party. I was in control and this would be over whenever I wanted.
He turned to the left. I did the same, and found a younger, blonder Pax standing beside me. We were kids again, walking down our block to the train. Our parents lingered behind, making sure we stayed on the sidewalk.
“Please don’t,” I whispered to Gant, who had disappeared, but no sound came out.
Around me the city roared. Music played and people shuffled across streets and up stoops and called to each other. A chilly wind threaded through the skyscrapers that circled me, making me feel like an ice cube at the bottom of a tall glass. My parents, ahead of us now, insisted we hurry up or we’d be late.
“Please don’t,” I whispered again to Gant. Then a voice, faint and full of static.
The memory unspooled just like it always did. Our descent underground, taking the stairs one by one while Pax slid down the railing. A fight with the turnstile when my metro card got stubborn. The train arriving, its wheels clacking steadily, accompanied by a klaxon and a piercing screech as it slid to a stop. Me, settling into a window seat behind a bulkhead, Pax beside me on the aisle. The train starting again, barreling through darkness.
Then another piercing screech, a louder one, and the shattering of the window next to me. My upper body was thrown forward, but the bulkhead in front of me buckled toward me, threatening to crush my legs. I braced myself for the impact —
But it didn’t come. Everything stopped. Nothing crushed me against the seat. No alarms blared, no one screamed. Instead, my limbs suspended in midair. Pax, beside me, floated in the shifting gravity of the train.
Everything around me — the train car, the other passengers — began to fade, swallowed by a void, leaving only Pax and the bulkhead in front of me. I couldn’t feel my legs. I couldn’t feel anything anywhere.
The voice spoke again, vibrating my whole body. It sounded like the MICA voice, the one from the neural mesh, but it was wrong. A pale imitation by Gant.
I can shrink the aperture if you want. Spare you the details from this moment. Cloud it over and release it piece by piece as you’re ready.
The voice paused. I lifted my head and looked around into the nothingness. The rest of the memory was already shrouded from view. Just Pax, terrified, and me.
And Maurice Gant somewhere beyond, pulling the strings.
Would you like me to shrink the aperture?
In the erasure was a comfort, a calm. But as I peered into the billowing black, it thinned, pixels of soft light filtering through holes in the dark veil obscuring my memory. No matter how well it could be hidden, I worried I’d always feel an interloper lingering at the edges.
Are you sure? You will have complete control over the release, the voice said.
“How can you control something you can’t sense?”
I will teach you.
Slowly, ten-year-old Pax turned to face me. He was smiling, oblivious to the void around him. “Come on, Taylor,” he squeaked. “Try it. I haven’t had a nightmare about the crash in months!”
My stomach dropped, and an acrid taste at the back of my mouth signaled I was about to spew all over little Pax’s angelic face. “I want out,” I said. “I want out. Pull me out now!”
The world rushed back bright and loud, a cacophonous mix of water splashing and alarms blaring and “WARNING, EXTREME DISSONANCE OCCURRING” ringing in my ears. My real ones. A battalion of white coats pulled my shivering form from the water and draped me in towels as they yanked the silicone discs from my body.
Every receptor on my body had been heightened, every nerve primed. I tried to quell my spasms as I reached for what I had just remembered. For a long moment, all I could see was the train’s bulkhead, buckling toward me, surrounded by thick, black murk.
I shook my head. I could get this under control.
I focused and everything came rushing toward me—the sound of splitting glass, the groan of the train as it strained to hold onto the tracks, Pax’s terrified shriek and his dread-filled blue eyes.
I sighed. Normally the memory filled me with a creeping, miserable cold. Now, I only felt a numbness. It pushed against my lungs like the saltwater pool had, confining me. I took a breath and succumbed, letting the cloudy numbness swallow me like quicksand, just for a moment. I would climb out when I was ready.
Nicholas Jay is a conservation-minded urban planner living in Atlanta, Georgia. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Dread Machine, Tree and Stone, and LOLcraft: A Compendium of Eldritch Humor from Dragon’s Roost Press. He enjoys his time most with either pen, violin, or map in hand — sometimes all three at once. Find him on Twitter at @kn1ckkn4cks.
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