The skimmer flew on. Now that he was inside the long and gently curving tube, Jerod gunned the engine. It was an artefact of the visualisation, he knew; pushing further into the neuron had shrunk his skimmer down, to the point where the journey was taking far longer than it should have, but it was the only way his mind could make sense of it all. Either that, or Ramona’s mind was resisting, taking more of an active role in the simulation.
The axon tunnel ended abruptly, opening up to another large space, this one roughly ovoid.
In the centre, pulsing irregularly, was something akin to a large jellyfish – the nucleus of the neuron. Its transparent body contained large red solids. As Jerod moved around it, he could see that the infection was extensive here. The black goop was nearly a webwork, constricting the nucleus’ movements. A large clot of the stuff was protruding, topped with hard grey plates that looked like broken tarmac.
“I think I’ve found the cause of it, or at least something to work with,” Jerod said. Quickly he described the scene, his fingers moving constantly to keep the damage in view.
“You’re going to have to be careful destroying it,” Helen said. “You can’t just use the lasers on that thing. One stray shot and you’d do more damage than it’s worth.”
“We need something focused, controlled.“ Jerod said. As he spoke, as if mocking him, the interior of the cockpit melted away. It slowly blurred back into the old Ford with its comfortable seats, the clutter in the passenger footwell and its knickknacks on the dash.
“If you’ve got any good ideas, let me know,” Helen said, sounding dejected. “We’ve got less than six minutes to do whatever we’re going to do.”
Not really sure why, Jerod leaned over and grabbed at one of the decorations, the little lead glass sculpture. It was a cube of greyish glass, small enough to fit into his palm, and inside it hung a frosted image of the human brain. The touch of it brought back a flood of memory – opening the parcel on a balmy summer’s day – a hundred embraces in the cornfields of home – her skin on his – and he squeezed the sculpture tightly, feeling the corners dig into his hand.
“Helen, d’you know how lead glass sculptures are made?”
“They burn the designs into these little blocks of glass by focusing two lasers. Individually the lasers aren’t enough to damage the glass. But where they meet, enough heat is generated to etch the glass.” Jerod carefully put the sculpture back. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
In the blink of an eye, the Psy-Ops skimmer was back around him, and its targeting holo flashed into life. A constantly-updated scan of the surrounding area floated directly in front of him, and Jerod placed one finger on top of it, one to the side.
“You just moved your hands on her head, Commander,” Helen said. “I hope you know what you’re doing, because I have no freaking clue.”
“I’ve got this,” he said, not taking his eyes from the holo. A small yellow target had appeared on the interior, marking where the lines from his fingers would cross. Painfully slowly, he adjusted his aim a millimetre at a time – in reality, mere nanometres – until the yellow crosshair was squarely on the black mass.
There was no fanfare, no massive blast. With a pulse of pyrokinetic force, fire sprang into life on the surface of the infection. With a sound horribly like a scream, it began to shrivel and curl, peeling away from the nucleus as it did so. The fire spread to the thick artery, now detached from the host and flailing around the space, and Jerod deactivated the holo to watch the show.
“Reading a buildup of psychic energy,” Helen said. “She’s going to go off. Jerod, get out of there!”
The air in the chamber shimmered, and Jerod saw that the fire, far from burning itself out on the infected black substance, seemed to be spreading from surface to surface. The temperature rose sharply in the cabin.
“We’ve got to back away, Jerod – if she goes off you’re going to get caught in the blast,” Helen said.
“Shield us then,” he replied, ferociously entering commands into the softscreen. The world lurched as the skimmer turned and blasted back up the axon tunnel. Fire and fury chased him as the inferno reached the tunnel a moment later.
“We’re too close. If she goes off... I’m sorry, Jerod.”
“Goddamn it, Helen,” he raged, but she didn’t reply. “As if you wouldn’t do the same thing in her position,” he muttered, bringing the careening skimmer up through one of the windows and out through the milky trunk.
The analogy of a tree was even more apt in the sudden firestorm, as the individual clusters of memory were lashing around like branches in a high wind. Pushing his way through the purple orbs, Jerod tried not to think about what might happen if the fire caught up to him.
Bursting free of the neuron, the skimmer emerged into the open space between Ramona’s neural pathways. He looked back and just had enough time to see fire bursting out of the gap he had vacated, a raging flamethrower of seemingly infinite length that lanced across the gulf and blasted the next neuron over, then the next, a chain reaction that threatened to engulf him.
Jerod closed his eyes, trying to ignore the sweat dripping off his nose, and willed himself back into the hospital room.
A moment later, he opened his eyes. A tangled mess of impressions assaulted him; the curtained partition on fire, two green-smocked medics shielding their faces from the blaze; Helen, coughing, shouting, ten feet away; consoles melting, softscreens turned to reflective puddles of plastic goo; and in the centre of it all, Ramona, her eyes closed, her hospital gown unblemished, her face an angry frown.
“She’s combusting!” Helen shouted over the roaring. Jerod tried to stand, but a tongue of flame burst almost in his face, and he stumbled backwards.
A voice echoed in his mind. “Why did you keep the things on your dashboard?”
“What?” he shouted. Helen called something, snatched away in the chaos.
“There were memories attached to them,” the voice said. Ramona’s voice!
“You were watching... peeking in my mind. You changed the skimmer back!”
His trousers began to smoulder, and the smell of burning shoe leather floated up as Ramona spoke into his mind again. “Some of the memories were painful. Why did you keep them?”
“They reminded me that life was good,” he thought back desperately. “Of the lessons I learned when things weren’t good, and that there was good even afterwards.”
“Better to let them go.”
“I’d be letting the good go with the bad.” Smoke was beginning to swirl around them as well, cloying black fumes that choked him. He fell to his knees, a faint pressure on his chest.
The world wavered in and out of view, and a tiny corner of him realised that she was shielding them, even as the burning tornado began to die down. On all fours, he coughed, breathing the sweeter air under the hospital bed. The heat grew less, and then in an instant the flames snuffed out.
There was silence, but for the quiet ticking of rapidly-cooling metal, and Jerod slumped down.
Helen rushed over. “Are you ok?”
“I’ll be fine-” he said, then coughed as his raw throat spasmed in pain. “I’m ok.”
Clambering to his feet, Jerod looked at Ramona. She lay on the bed, unburned; around her the sheets, the mattress, everything was singed or burned to a crisp, but she looked serene. She smiled and opened her eyes.
“Thank you, Commander,” she said.
“What happened?” Helen said, her hand on the butt of the handgun at her belt.
“I... had a choice,” Ramona said, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. Her bare feet were instantly stained with soot as she stood up. “It was so clear. I read it in the Commander’s mind, as he tried to undo the damage in mine. I could face my punishment. Eventually be trained. Taken to Noctis Point, to the school, and taught how not to hurt. Or I could stop being.” She staggered slightly, catching herself on the bedframe.
Helen frowned. “Stop being what?”
Jerod stood, leaning heavily on the warped edge of the bed. “I’m glad you made the right choice,” he said. “I’d hate for all that to be for nothing.”
“I’m sorry,” Ramona said. “Choosing between a woman you love and a job you love can’t have been easy.”
Helen frowned. “What are you-“
“It’s ok,” Jerod said, cutting her off. “Ramona, you were riding my memories, yes?”
The young girl nodded, tucking strands of her dark hair back behind her ear.
Jerod held two fingers up to within an inch of her temple. “May I?”
She nodded again, and he gently touched his fingers to her skin. “You have to learn to look beyond the bad times, Ramona.” A rush of images filled his mind, pushed across to her. The long weeks alone. The good friend, the one that got them talking again. The reconciliation. His proposal, on a beach in Mauritius. Their wedding. Honeymoon. Then a sharper stab of regret as they mourned their inability to have children. Two dogs, running on the beach, as Jerod and Alice held hands.
He opened his eyes. “That last one was yesterday. Holding on to something, like life, or a memory, doesn’t just let you keep it. It gives you the opportunity to make it better. To make it right.”
Brushing away the tears that gathered in the corners of her eyes, Ramona nodded. Without another word, she moved out of the blasted remains of the ward and out into the corridor, to where another officer was waiting with her handcuffs.