Writing ‘Deep In Thought’ went the usual way my mind works, which was ‘Here is a theme. How can I twist the meaning of the sentence to make it about something oblique?’ It’s by far not the first time I’ve done it. Playing with words is a favourite pastime of mine, and I’m always looking for anagrams, codes, Spoonerisms, hidden meanings and words-written-backwards (pretty much any time I see a name, like Mr Radnor, I’ll read it backwards in case it’s important. 99% of the time it’s not.)
Deep In Thought is one of those. It’s about someone deep in thoughts... someone else’s thoughts.
It was mostly dark when Jerod opened his eyes. He was on a bench seat in the front of a skimmer, looking at the cramped dashboard with its softscreens displaying dials for speed and fuel, its cupholder, the little trophy girl with her hula skirt rocking drunkenly from side to side; even the little lead-glass laser sculpture of a brain he’d stuck on with sticky tack, a memento from his first ex. The main control panel was alight, its sepulchral glow illuminating only the barest edges of everything. He ran his hands over the plastic fascia, feeling in its ruts and scratches a wealth of memories. There was the tiny smooth circle where his dropped cigarette had melted it; they’d been at an open-air concert, just Alice and him, and the touch of her lips on his was a welcome distraction. The music had been terrible, but at least it was free. In the darkness, Jerod smiled sadly. It hadn’t lasted. The sweet nothings became arguments. He was working long hours, on the fast track to make commander. She accused him of having an affair; the argument had escalated, and she’d threatened to get out while he was driving. He’d pulled over, of course, and that was that.
His earpiece crackled, breaking into his thoughts. “Commander, are you in?” The voice was female, all business.
“Yes, Helen” he replied. “The projection’s holding.” The blast shield was shut, and he tapped at the controls. Light flooded in as the heavy metal blinds rolled up, and he shielded his eyes.
The skimmer was floating in a vast chamber, the walls almost lost in the sheer distance that separated him from them. Crisscrossing the space were tapering white columns and bridges that crackled and spat electricity, connecting a network of colossal structures, smooth purple spheres. The nearest one was veined with black.
“Can you see the problem?”
“Hang on a minute.” Looking down, Jerod frowned. The skimmer, a 2146 Ford, didn’t have any of the sensors he needed. Regretfully, he closed his eyes, pushing down the memory of Alice, and concentrated.
When he opened them again, the battered old car was gone; instead, he was sat in a state-of-the-art military spec skimmer. He knew that the exterior would be black and glossy, the red Psy-Ops logo on the side, and he blinked a couple of times as his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light cast through the tinted front screen.
“Just making some adjustments. This isn’t exactly a science.” His fingers danced over the controls and he felt a slight jerk as the repulsors fired, moving him forwards and up.
“The scale of this place is massive,” he said as the craft moved under one of the white connecting spans. Easily a dozen miles long, the fibrous substance was made up of several strands, woven into a cable. The lightning strobed over its surface, distance making it look slow and plodding, but each fork touched down half a mile further along it until the arcing blue bolt danced over the giant sphere at the other end and vanished.
As the tiny craft began its slow orbit, Jerod brought up a computer simulation of one of the structures. Not truly spherical, they were made up of hundreds of smaller balls melded together, more like enormous raspberries than anything else.
“I think I can see what’s wrong,” he said, moving as close as he dared. “There’s black stuff shot all through this neuron. The white matter looks fine, but there’s definitely something wrong. Could be that the KP2 isn’t activating correctly, digging into the neuron instead of the myelin. Ask the medics if that could cause the symptoms we’re seeing.”
While he waited for Helen’s reply, Jerod swivelled the craft around. It was all an illusion, of course; a shared controlled psychosis being constantly conjured up by his own mind and the mind he was inside: Ramona Childs, just sixteen years old and already convicted of five counts of arson. It wasn’t her fault – but then, it was - which was why the Psy-Ops had been allowed an intervention. If they couldn’t find out why her power leaked out whenever she slept, she’d be wiped.
Perhaps that would be a relief for her. Her body would be put to work somewhere, circuitry replacing brain material. Streets needed cleaning. Potatoes needed chopping. Activists needed something to rally around.
“Commander,” Helen, her voice filling the cabin as the limited onboard AI transferred the signal from his earpiece to the interior speakers. “If there’s some sort of infection, or an imbalance in the KP2, we’ll not be able to do much from out here. You’re going to need to go in deeper, isolate the cause.”
Jerod nodded and keyed the repulsors for a short burst. Whatever medium he was moving through, it acted most like being in space – was that pulled from his mind or hers? The momentum kept him moving forwards, until he was inches away from the surface of the neuron. It was shiny, and he could see the warped reflection of the skimmer, with a tiny malformed man at the controls peering back from each of the clustered spheres. Then the image changed again as he got closer; the spheres had little images moving inside them, like vidscreens endlessly looping. They were all from the first-person. The nearest had a teenager - Ramona, probably, before the bad times, before sleeping rough – doing her makeup in a mirror. The next was a blurry image of a meal at a fancy restaurant, a glass of wine half empty. Another sphere had a purple tinted moon; the viewpoint looked down, into an alleyway, to where a man was holding a credchip and crooking his finger. Come here, lovely,his lips said soundlessly.
“Charming,” Jerod muttered. Gently, he pressed forwards. The nose of the skimmer began to push between two of the spheres, nudging them to one side. The videos – memories – playing inside the clustered spheres fritzed and danced as he passed them by.
“Is this causing Ramona any discomfort?” he asked.
“She’s still asleep. Not much choice, with that many drugs in her system.”
The skimmer chose that moment to move past a purple ball playing an image of a bag of rainbow-coloured powder being given to Ramona. “She’s not a stranger to drugs, Helen. Keep an eye on her.”
Deeper into the young psych’s thoughts, into her memories, Jerod delved. The purple spheres gave way to a small open space filled with smaller blue orbs, these ones connected to a central stem by thin white stalks, not unlike the white matter outside. Here, again, the black veins were winding and twisting like a cancerous ivy.
“I’m at the telodendria now,” Jerod said. “The visualisation is showing it as a tree. The trunk has got more of the infection, or whatever it is. Want me to push on?”
“I think you’re going to have to,” Helen said. “Be aware of the time, though. You’ve got another twenty six minutes before the Supreme Council wants its verdict.”
At a thought from Jerod, a digital timer appeared on the lower right corner of the windshield, counting down. He ran his palm over his jaw, feeling the grit of stubble there, trying to rub away some of the tiredness. How long had they pushed for this? And now it came down to a handful of minutes.
“Ok, going in,” he said, and the skimmer began to move forwards again. There was a stomach churning moment as he turned the craft ninety degrees downwards, parallel with the thick white trunk, then began moving along it towards what used to be the floor. With no reference points, no ‘up’ or ‘down’, there was only the regular pull of the halflight-generator’s artificial gravity to comfort him. It shouldn’t be that way, of course. In reality, he was sat on a chair next to Ramona’s hospital bed. He breathed in; a faint clean hospital smell, not the stale-coffee and foam of the cockpit.
The skimmer slid gracefully below the surface of the white material, as if it were no more substantial than milk. Light suffused the cabin, brighter even than the auto-tint system could handle, and Jerod squinted against the glowing substance.
Then he was through that layer, and into a tube. The interior of the tube – the axon, his navigation software told him – was pink and lined with regular windows, allowing light in. It would have been beautiful, Jerod decided, if not for the tendrils of black infection merging together, forming a single artery that spiralled around the inside of the tube.
“I think we’ve got something here,” Helen said, and Jerod frowned; he could hear the soft Australian burr that came in when she was worried. “Seems like she was the victim of an assault a few months ago. Hit over the head... that’s probably not enough on its own. But it says here they recovered vials of a drug that wasn’t on the system, something new. They tested it on her. It’s called... BlackGuard?”
“I think it’s pronounced ‘blaggard’,” Jerod said, moving the skimmer closer to the material clogging the inside of the axon. “Appropriate, though, if that’s what’s making all this black crap. I could try blasting some of it.”
“No, don’t do that. Find the source of it.”
The skimmer flew on.