“Kel! Hey Kel! Over here!”
Kel scanned the lounge until she saw me waving, then ambled over at an exaggeratedly slow pace. I wondered if she was pretending not to be excited. When she arrived at the table, I could see I was right. She was hiding a grin. At least I thought she was.
“So?” I offered expectantly, trying to coax out her smile with my own. “How was your first day?”
“It was good!” she beamed. “They told me in training that experiencing identity can be a little jarring, but I barely even noticed.” Kel had always been a bit smug.
“Good for you!” I beamed back. “Did the sensation of time make you queasy or anything?”
She shook her head.
“No, they gave us some kind of injection and said that soon we wouldn’t need it, but that for now it’s best.”
I nodded. Back when I was a fresh intern there were no injections, and “motion sickness” as we called it, was used to eliminate unsuitable specters. But Kel didn’t know that, and I didn’t want to rain on her parade. Not many could handle specter work.
“It’s just a type of sedative” I told her and waved my hand dismissively. “You probably didn’t even need it.”
She smiled at me. Nothing could rain on her parade. I gave her a big grin.
“I want to know all about your first day! How was the interface?”
“Oh my god, so janky!” she laughed. “It was completely sealed… I guess maybe spherical? Anyway, none of the connections were fused, so it was pitch black. All I had were a couple of super primitive sensor modules, and that was pretty much it!”
I leaned back in my chair. New specters rarely appreciate this particular interface. When all you’ve known is the infinite, the finite can seem pretty “janky” I suppose. It certainly is a nice way of expressing deep discomfort and disorientation. I couldn’t help but tease her.
“C’mon Kel, it’s a great interface!” I winked, “I think you’d like it if you just gave it a chance.”
She gave me a weak smile. “I guess I have no choice, huh?”
She looked exhausted, and I didn’t blame her. Her interface was nothing more than a typical cognition-level-three carbon-based mobile organic. Nothing special. But when all you can see is a narrow window, you quickly forget how big you truly are. It’s not just uncomfortable, it’s painful.
“Okay so it was a bit weird but did you at least like your host?”
“Well…” she looked off into the distance. “Hang on – do you care if I get a drink?”
“You certainly earned it, specter!” I turned around in my seat and flagged down a waiter.
“Two martinis please. Gin.” I didn’t usually drink gin, but it was Kel’s favorite and I wanted her to feel like we were all part of the same family.
She squinted at me. “I thought you hated gin.”
“I don’t love it, but we’re family again. We share in each other’s joys and sorrows, and fortunately, gin is a rather mild sorrow that I don’t mind sharing in.”
She didn’t understand but forced smile anyway. That’s okay. In time she would come to know what I meant. I pretended to scan the drink menu but was watching her in my periphery. She was squirming in her chair. Motion sickness. I noticed she was wearing her hair down too. Trying to hide the burn marks on her ears no doubt. I remember my ears took weeks to heal after I started working at the firm. Why did she feel she had to act so tough?
“So are you going to tell me about your host or what?”
“Oh yeah!” she perked up again.
“It was male, bipedal, 28 cycles old, adapted to a high-altitude surface biosphere, omnivorous,… and…yeah.”
I stared at her for a moment, but she wouldn’t let me meet her eyes. So it had been bad. What the hosts experience as cycles, specters experience differently. Still, strange things can happen.
“That’s it?” I laughed. “What did it do? What country was it in? Do you even know what planet it was on?” Teasing her would make her feel better – nothing else would after all.
“Duh! Of course I do!” She glared at me. “The planet was Sol 3 and the country was called…Tibet? Yeah, Tibet.”
“I see,” I said, and nodded slowly. I already knew she’d been in Tibet of course. All the new specters start out there after all. Most Tibetans run a type of meta-ware which incidentally employs a practice which attempts to connect with the specter. The firm prefers using these hosts for newbies because the connective state can calm motion sickness. Once interns get the hang of the Tibetans, they will start moving them to other types of hosts.
“So what did your host… do?” I asked carefully.
She looked away. “Nothing much.”
Damn. It was worse than I thought. When a host’s lifetime of stored memory suddenly floods your awareness, you can’t help but get lost in it. It envelops you. It becomes you, and you forget you’re a specter. The connection can’t last forever though. It takes its toll on the host, who must disconnect from the specter every so often. The suffering is intense, and the experiences can seem real, even to a seasoned specter.
“Kel?” I tried to meet her gaze. It was time to drop the act.
“Kel, what happened?”
She shrugged. “Nothing much. We – I mean, it got up, went outside to visit the shrine, and meditated. Then it went to the river and – oh our drinks are here!”
While Kel eagerly sipped her martini, I wondered if I should contact the firm. It was that little slip she’d made, saying “we” instead of “it”. That’s not supposed to happen. A specter should know better. Kel should know better. There was a heaviness to her that was out of place. To carry negative emotions away from a session, no matter what happened during the session, is almost unheard of.
She looked startled. “What?”
“Kel, you know that hosts aren’t alive, don’t you?”
She stared at me for a moment.
“Of course I know that. They’re just shells. So what?”
Something had definitely happened. Something with her host. The hosts have been around as long as we have. You might say we each suffer from a sort of interdependency in which each engenders the other, simply by way of being. And yet, we are still opposites, separated by an infinite chasm – bridged by our infinity, as the firm likes to tout. Still, there’s never any guarantee that things will go smoothly for a specter. The connection to hosts is crude at best. The clamps, the plugs, the melding process… it’s painful for the host, and very disorienting for the specter too. I’d hoped that Kel hadn’t been hurt in the process. But it looked like she had.
“Kel, what happened?”
“Nothing happened!” She burst out. “I did the session and pulled out my plugs when it was over, the end!”
“You… what did you say?” I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. “What do you mean you pulled out your plugs?”
“Just what I said! After the session ended I unplugged just like everyone else does, what’s the big deal?”
“No Kel, you don’t do anything! Ever! The technicians unplug you and you should have no memory of it whatsoever! Are you saying you unplugged yourself?”
“Yeah, I guess… why does that matter?!” she shrieked.
I could feel the color draining from my face. When specters are in session they have no control over their actual bodies and no way to unplug. The only way that Kel could possibly have unplugged herself would be if…
I stood up.
“Kel show me your back!”
“Wha – no I’m not going to show you my back! Why –“
Before she could say anything else I was behind her. She tried to push me away, but I yanked her off her chair and pulled up her jacket. Blood was streaming from her connection site and had soaked into her jeans. I could smell river water.
I spun her around to face me.
“Kel what the hell happened in there?!”
It was her turn to drop the act now. She burst into tears.
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” she sobbed. “It meditated for a long time, almost all day. It didn’t even eat. And then…” She trailed off.
“And then what? Kel what happened at the river?”
She was crying. I had seen this sort of residual stress before, but never this pronounced.
“Tell me what happened at the river, Kel!”
She was breathing hard but trying to calm herself down.
“It… we walked out onto the ice… we could hear it cracking… and then we just stood there… and waited…” her eyes were slowly tearing up.
Hosts expire all the time. A specter is just as likely to experience a hosts birth as they are a hosts death. But Kel shouldn’t have feelings about it. She shouldn’t have feelings about a host at all.
“Kel, why are you so upset about this?”
“Because!” she blurted out. “Because he wanted to stop! He wanted to stop but he just couldn’t!”
Kel was weeping now but kept talking anyway.
“He fought the expiration…. but…. inside… inside he…”
“He what?” I asked confused.
“He… he… saw me.” She sniffed.
“Kel! The hosts aren’t alive! They’re just machines! They can’t see anything! What do you mean he saw you? Who saw you?”
She was wavering. It was as though there had been a breach. From here to there, or from there to here. Or perhaps both. Why Kel? Why her of all people? I struggled to keep my composure. She didn’t have very long.
“Kel, tell me who saw you? Who?”
She was shaking now.
“It wasn’t really him though… he didn’t see me… I did. I saw myself.”
Those were the last words I wanted to hear. It was as I’d feared. The host hadn’t fought against its expiration.
“You tried to save him, didn’t you? That’s how he saw you.” I couldn’t hold back my own tears.
She didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. She was quietly sobbing.
“You know what this means, don’t you, Kel? That you won’t be able to merge again…?”
She looked at me for a long time. She was fading, but I knew she still recognized me.
“I was… I was you, wasn’t I?”
“Yes, you were.”
“But…” she looked around for a moment.
“Where’s the river… where…?”
“You’re right here, Kel. You’re on the other side.”
“But…who are you?”
I could barely even make her out now. There was nothing left to say.
“I am the void, Kel. And you were once a part of it.”
And she was gone.