James nodded as the lab tech ran him through the process for the fifth time. He ignored the tech’s speech on safety and precautions as he watched the holo-screen playing behind the man. A perfectly calm subject sat down, the dome descended, and forty-seven seconds later it was all over. Doesn’t look too bad, but still gives me the creeps. “Play the chip part again.”
The tech scowled at the interruption, but pushed a button on his console. The holo-screen blurred and shifted. A cylinder etched with lines and symbols appeared. It looked like an artist’s rendition of an alien spacecraft though James was again informed that it was a hundred times smaller than the tip of a needle.
The man broke script for the first time. “Chip is a misnomer. These are much more than that, more like independent computers with biometric sensors, neurostimulators, and a direct nanotubular interface with neurons. They are composed of silicene, graphene, a special gold alloy, organo-phospholipid sheath…” He trailed off. “Never mind. You don’t really care, do you? Call them ‘chips’ if it helps.”
The tech slipped back into his script. “Four of these will be injected into your cranium. We don’t go into the brain itself. The devices are designed to take care of the more delicate work on their own. You will be fine.” The words were exactly the same he had used an hour earlier when James had watched the video for the first time.
The man must have given this speech a hundred times, forcing a practiced veneer of comfort into his voice, meant to be soothing, but James thought the tech had delivered the same line too often to sound sincere.
James tuned the man out as the chips grew more defined on the screen. This is the best part.
The cylinder unfolded, each line and symbol splitting open like a flower in bloom. Microscopic pieces of metal, carbon, and specialized proteins all coated in lipids stretched and crawled, sliding softly along the surface of someone’s brain with a life of their own.
The chips flowed around blood vessels, doing no damage as they did their work. The growth stopped as they reached their limit, a thousand times thinner than paper the tech had said.
James had read an article a year or two earlier about electrodes reading brainwaves in order to distinguish left and right commands, but the machinery seemed huge, clumsy, and archaic compared to this. How could they have come so far without anyone knowing?
Tiny tendrils flowed from the thin surface, cautiously testing the surroundings before boring into bone and brain in order to hold the chip in place and form the neural link that still seemed impossible to James.
James swallowed. “See, that part still gets to me.”
“You’re ignoring the size. The damage done is less than a late night drinking would do, less than a minor concussion. We really have to get on with this, sir. We cannot delay the procedure further. Vander will be expecting you to be ready to work tomorrow.” He’d broken his script once more. These were at least new words and didn’t sound practiced or calm.
The tech opened his mouth to voice yet another technical idea of comfort, but James cut him short. “I’ll do it. I’m not excited about any of this, mind you, but Mike seems okay…or at least as okay as Mike ever was.”
The tech smiled, looking pleased to have finally convinced his most unruly student to take the final exam. He pressed a button and called in the anesthesiologist to administer the initial sedative. The tech’s practiced smile brightened as the needle touched skin.
Sadistic jerk, James thought and then he ceased to care. He let them lead him into the chair. As he sat, a tickling sensation started in his arms and neck then inky shadows spread across his vision and swallowed him whole.
He floated, weightless and warm. He could see nothing but black. His identity eluded him. He also had no idea where he was, but he felt something was wrong. I don’t belong here.
He could make out shapes swimming in the darkness. He felt a vague sense that this wasn’t normal. Something told him that in this absolute darkness he shouldn’t see anything at all.
The shapes circled him. They looked familiar, but he couldn’t place where he’d seen these silver cylinders before. Each cylinder grew larger as they slid silently closer. He struggled with the darkness to move, run, swim away, but nothing worked. He could find no purchase in the emptiness that surrounded him. He felt no fear, didn’t know what fear was, yet something urged him to avoid these shapes.
A cylinder stopped just a few feet from him, twice his own size. It split open, oozing black oil. Metal slid over metal with a hiss as the cylinder became a disk. An edge touched him and the metal worked its way around his skin, enveloping him. Another disk floated closer and then another.
He watched in an unfeeling stupor as the metal continued to slide around him from every angle, cocooning him alive in silver metal and black oil.
He tried to pull away from the crawling stuff that touched his skin, but it just moved with him, encasing him tighter with every movement. Breathing became hard. Each exhale brought the metal in closer.
He held his breath until the metal ceased its constant writhing, leaving him just a fraction of breathing room. Layer after layer of twisted metal surrounded him, blocking out the darkness as the silver gleamed with an oily light that stung his eyes.
Dark tentacles sprouted from the metal. These tentacles wavered slowly, feeling him out. They pushed at him, prodding clothes and tissue as though testing them for weaknesses.
When they plunged in, pain ripped through him. Hundreds of the thin tentacles explored his insides, pumping dark venom into every inch of his being.
The pain burned through his veins. He knew he couldn’t last long and he could find no reason to fight. I have no name, no memories. I am nothing. I don’t exist.
That’s right, the tentacles whispered back. You are nothing. Let go.
A tentacle penetrated his right eye, pumping cold into his brain. You are weak. Let go. Let go. He closed his other eye and, listening to the dark voice, began to let go.
He wanted the warm release of death, but his mind met only icy hunger on the other side, a sensation drawing him down into complete darkness. He could feel something at its center, a cold hatred, an evil so dense it would pull him to it and he’d never find escape.
A tentacle wrapped itself tightly around his heart. It injected the hunger and hatred deep inside him, outside emotions, not his own.
These alien emotions filled him, but the intrusion also reawakened something dormant within him. I can feel. I do exist!
No. You are nothing. You feel nothing. I will snuff you out like the weak, insignificant spark you are.
An emotion came roaring to the surface like a torrent of cold water, fear. He clung to his fear with all his might and, for the first time since entering this empty place, he screamed. Cold fire penetrated him from all sides as the tentacles swelled, burning with hunger in response to his fear. The fear increased, but with fear came hope, came some form of identity. He fought back, slashing at the tentacles, pulling them from his flesh. I do feel. I am not nothing. I am afraid! He shouted with joy to the darkness. I am afraid! I am!
Mike’s face grinned down at him. “Afraid? Are you now?”
James coughed, sending a bit of spittle flying up to land on Mike’s nose. “Oh, Mike, I’m so sorry.”
Mike rubbed the spittle away. “It’s okay. Just glad to have ya back with us. I was beginning to worry about you.”
James shuddered half from the thick memory of fear that clung to him and half from the cold room. He lay on a bed in a white room. The bright light brought a sharp pain in his head to his attention. “Ouch. That was freaky weird. Double ouch.” Talking hurt even more. “What did you do to my head, Mike? Beat on me with a hammer while I was sleeping?” He closed his eyes as fireworks blossomed in his skull.
“You had a bad reaction to the sedative and the anesthetics. The docs think you’re allergic. You shouldn’t have ever gone unconscious and then you were out a lot longer than anyone liked, but everything looks like it went well, despite your screaming deliriously for hours. Dr. Reed said she could hear you in Section Six, which is like a mile from here through all those corridors.”
James reached up and put both hands on the side of his head, trying to hold the pain inside. “Ow…quit talking so loud.”
Mike chuckled. “The headache will last a day or two, so you know. It took me a whole day before I liked light again. Probably gonna be even longer for you.” Genuine worry worked its way into Mike’s face. “How are you feeling?”
James smiled weakly. “I’m fine. I just realized that drugs are bad though. Freaky dreams and all. Tentacles, pain, and pure fear. Did Dr. Reed really hear me screaming?”
“Like a little girl about a spider.”
Vander Carlson sat behind his desk reading the reports from Section Six. The new recruit had almost died. He’d been assured everything was ready to move forward with the latest progressive neural interface devices. They’d lost a few test subjects with the earliest prototypes, but it had been years since anyone had come this close.
James Iverson was special, so he’d been the first to receive the updated version. Vander didn’t like the idea of going back several steps to animal testing before anyone else received them. Too much lost time I don’t have.
On top of that, Section Seven was having trouble controlling Project 317, Section Eight still had no progress at all, and Section Nine couldn’t even get weeds to grow in their new greenhouse. Vander started closing down the holo-screens that hovered over his desk with a sigh.
His hands shook as he performed the required gestures to save the files he was closing. He growled and calmed himself, running his mind through meditation techniques until his hands stopped shaking.
Vander closed the files with steady hands, the glowing holograms flickering out. He hid his age well. Documentation existed from the earliest projects and anyone could do the math if they wanted, but no one knew how old he’d been when it all started.
Nearly fifty years of progress had been made under the name of Omegaphil Pharmaceuticals. He’d been fifty-seven when the doors first opened. His thick, dark hair had gone salt and pepper, but he looked to be in his sixties and he had no intention of letting anyone know his true age. He liked them guessing, thinking he’d been a fresh-faced nineteen-year-old who had worked his way to the top through hard work, diligence, and a smidgeon of cutthroat ambition.
“Visualize Project 402,” He called out to the empty office. A light hum filled the room and a white tree sprouted from the lush rug under his desk. Vander smiled as the tree grew taller and silvery leaves sprouted from the slender limbs. This project always helped him regain focus, reminded him why he was here. This one project promised progress, hope of success. He felt power course through the tree and into his veins. Ah, this may be the closest thing to peace the most powerful man in the world can find.
A persistent beeping brought his mind back to his desk. A light flashed on the black glass panel inlaid into the wood, accompanied by a high pitched tone that made his eyes twitch.
“Visual off!” The tree disappeared, leaving the office sparse and sterile once more. Vander waved a hand over the noisy, insistent light. A pretty face appeared inches above his desk. Vander’s personal assistant smiled at him and then looked away. She’d started two days earlier. The attractive, red-haired young woman reminded Vander of his youth, made him yearn for it, giving him purpose and resolve.
The floating face looked up and then away again, a tiny smile on her lips. “Sorry to interrupt, sir, but Dr. Stephens is here to see you.”
“It’s perfectly fine. Send him in, I’ve been expecting him.” Vander kept the annoyance over the interruption out of his voice for his assistant’s sake. Poor woman doesn’t know what a dangerous job she has. Might as well keep her ignorant a little while longer.
Dr. Stephens stepped past the dark mahogany door like an animal catching an unfamiliar scent, slow and cautious.
Vander forced a smile. “Please sit down, Stephens. We have much to discuss.”
Stephens looked frail for his age. He was in his mid-forties, but appeared as old as Vander himself, though less dignified. He hunched over from years spent over a microscope, a computer, and a desk, and his light gray hair clung to his sweaty balding head in strips. Stephens’s ghostly skin appeared almost translucent, which wasn’t surprising since the man hadn’t seen the real sun in six or seven years.
He’s too valuable to let out very often and he’s been very, very busy. It had taken a fair amount of time and energy to integrate the latest stolen technologies into all the other work. The quantum computer’s decryption capabilities seemed endless and its retrieval protocols continued to find more information, ideas, prototypes, software, and discoveries daily. We’re just barely keeping up with all the fun new goodies it finds for us.
“Dr. Stephens. I’ve heard some distressing news concerning project 413 and our latest guest, Dr. James Iverson. Is everything alright in Section Six?”
“A few hiccups, sir, but he’s doing fine now.” The man blotted his sweaty face with a handkerchief.
“I don’t like hiccups, as you call them. They annoy me. You’ll also understand if I don’t trust your assurances. I’ve heard them before. I hear scaring someone can cure the hiccups. Do I need to send you downstairs for some special treatment?”
Dr. Stephens visibly shivered. “Please, sir. There were a few problems with the anesthesia and the new interface triggered a few unusual side effects, but this is all good news. We’re already seeing progress, sir.”
“Unusual side effects? Good news? The man almost died, Stephens. Mind you, I care little if one man dies, especially incompetent men,” Vander paused to let that sink in, “but this man and this project both have promise, and I don’t want to start over with either one. Do you know how much time and money we spent getting him here? Buying off those experts? Ridiculing his book and his findings? Blacklisting him so no one else would dare hire him?”
“No, sir…I mean yes, sir.”
Vander Carlson leaned forward, frowning while inwardly relishing the joy of seeing the younger man cower and squirm before him. “Explain yourself, Stephens, or I will replace you.”
“So sorry, sir, but I couldn’t have foreseen this. No one could have. His brain fought the latest nano-interface immediately. We designed them to trigger a defense mechanism, make the brain active where it had not been, but not right away, not like this. No other test subject had anything close to this reaction. The devices didn’t know how to compensate and just kept following their programming. They’re doing exactly what we wanted them to do, sir, just too well and too early.”
“Ah, that is encouraging. Will this affect future implementations?”
“No, sir, we’ve already begun rewriting their programming to allow for an early response and to compensate appropriately. It shouldn’t be a problem in the future. I truly think this was a special case.”
“It better be. You’ve managed to salvage your position today, but I want you to keep a close eye on our Dr. Iverson. No more mistakes with this one, Stephens. Now…about this progress you mentioned?”
“His brainwaves are substantially altered and more active and he seems to be healing faster than anticipated, though it’s difficult to tell based on the small puncture wounds from the surgery.” Dr. Stephens sat a little taller as he related the progress.
Vander Carlson wrinkled his nose in disgust at the man. Spineless. “Come back when you have more than beliefs and difficulties. I’d arrange for some injury that will be easier to analyze. You are dismissed, Doctor.”
Relief flooded the thin man’s face. “Yes, sir! Thank you, sir! I won’t let you down, sir.” He backed toward the door, once again a cautious animal, afraid, but at least smart enough not to turn his back on the predator.
“Oh, Stephens, make sure the man can still work with his injury. He has much to do, so much to do.”
Ten thousand glassy black eyes snapped open in the void, the endless space between countless universes and the dark god’s prison. Rho had slept for over seven hundred years. It wasn’t true sleep. Rho never truly slept. Its inhuman mind calculated escape while continually tormenting the sentient souls in the worlds of matter, beings Rho hated.
The moment Rho awakened, over 2 million souls screamed in their sleep on Earth as their dreams soured and grew dark. Adrenaline burned through their veins and many jolted awake with sweat and urine staining their sheets, skin crawling with fear that did not leave them even with consciousness.
Many awake on the other side of the planet froze with unexpected fear. Cars screeched and slammed into one another. Forks quivered with food untouched. Words stopped halfway spoken.
9.4 light years away on a large planet that rotated a red star, a monk named Feustis felt the quivering touch of Rho’s hate and stood with his four arms raised high. “It is time, brothers and sisters.”
His voice rolled through the great hall, amplified by his thoughts, reaching the thousands of others who meditated within as blue smoke from incense floated over their shaved heads. “Rho has awakened once more.”
The room buzzed with the whisper of cloth as each devotee sat taller and clasped their arms together. Feustis sat back down and did the same. Between his twin clasped arms formed a flickering image of a blue planet. He poured emotion through the portal as he had been taught so many years before by the gods themselves.
I will do my part. Earth is where the true battle will be waged. The gods tasked him alone with protecting this one planet while the others would split their attention across a dozen or more. They would also work in shifts while he would only take brief breaks when absolutely necessary. It is what the gods demand.
The monk glanced toward the far door where two men stood, identical in almost every way, at least on the surface. One gave him a solemn wave and nodded his head. The other waved enthusiastically, grinned, and then gave him a thumbs up before they both vanished in a circle of light. Even if the gods are strange.
Back on Earth, a sense of peace and well-being filled hearts and pushed back the fear. Dreams returned to normal while those awake shoved stained sheets into the laundry or picked up their conversations where they’d left off. All tried to forget the touch of Rho.