The unconscious body lying beneath her blushes. The first few times Cat tried this technique it was strangely exhilarating, like she was staring at her own corpse from the Other Side. Now it's more complicated. That thought ECHOs across the interweaving matrices of the GAIT until fractions of a second later it triggers the nerves of her gray matter and Cat's sleeping body exhales a soft sigh.
When she’s trapped in her own head, locked behind her own eyes, she can’t help but look away. Gazing at herself through the optics of the small camera above the center console, however, leaves nowhere for her to hide. Her puny limbs collapse around the contours of the reclining GAIT deck that doubles as her bed. Black wires snake around her frail body, coiling towards terminals in every direction until her scrawny frame is just one more kink in the knot. With the unbounded information of the GAIT pulsing like a heartbeat through those wires, she resigns to the pointlessness of that one sleeping body.
Stack always lauds how uncanny her mind is for someone unmodified. Even if the detective’s right it only means she's smart enough to understand her obsolescence. Uncanny or not, she knows exactly where she stands.
The GAIT united all of civilization into one exponentially expanding network, constantly learning and evolving as it accelerates its decoding of the universe. Witnessing the boundless complexity and knowledge of that network is like staring into a mirror the size of existence itself. Every night, Cat probes the infinite along the flowing leylines of digital information, searching for a hint of herself in the ethereal glass, but she’s nowhere to be found. Exposure to the raw fury of the GAIT has a way of annihilating the concept of self.
The camera blinks off. Cat detours through the modem and up into the lights before slipping into the office next door. Her mentor is still out in the night. The heart rate in her sleeping body quickens. As she wonders if Stack will ever come back, Cat dials the network port and her consciousness feels an unraveling tug, like a black hole siphoning off her mind. Pins and needles prick at her shed skin next door and her thoughts slip helplessly through the gaping maw of reality that beckons.
In every direction, light glitters like the night sky. Colors streak past until a fraction of a second later, Cat’s on the other side of the city, peering up at real stars. Next to her, currents of aggregate data rip past in a cacophony of voices and a flurry of images, all stretched and distorted beyond human comprehension.
There are popular destinations she can browse: brain melds, memory banks, external VR bodies stashed around the city. Cat usually prefers to stay alone, however, free falling through space-time, deafened by the noise and blinded by the light until she can scarcely remember the anxious young woman sleeping back home.
Stack? Where are you?
Tonight, however, she has a more specific task. Cat climbs the highest towers and scours the darkest alleys, searching everywhere for her mentor. She knows she’ll never find her. Cat never can.
It’s always the same whenever she goes looking. Anonymous eyes lurk just out of view, always blinking away before they’re spotted. Then come their disembodied lips hovering in the same darkness. Sneering. Salivating. Eventually, encrypted shadows follow her from a distance, flashing and juddering like static. There are always stalkers on the Net. But no Stack.
Just show me where you are. Please…
It’s the same plea she makes almost every night now, though not spoken out loud. From within the merged thoughts of civilization, her silent cries are much louder than that and still just barely a murmur. But then comes something she never expects. For the first time ever, Cat finally hears a response.
It’s little more than a whisper itself, almost completely drowned out by the gales of the data squall, but the further Cat retreats from the core networks the louder the voice grows. Whatever it’s saying, the voice sounds like...
Increasingly desperate, Cat realizes where this voice is leading her—the one place Stack forbid her ever to go. It's the only place Cat can go to to be truly alone. As a last resort, she pings the Deep Net and plunges into its bottomless depths.
Many years ago, after much begging and pleading, Cat convinced Stack to teach her how to access this treacherous wasteland. One lesson came with one warning. The knowledge had to be purely academic, Stack said. Cat agreed for a time.
Currents of data in the core networks are ferocious, but predictable. The Deep Net, however, is pure chaos. Endless fractals of random, recursive code could suddenly surge into a storm of information that risks the delicate fabric of consciousness itself. A sudden barrage of uncompressed thoughts, memories, and sensations could plunge through the naked human mind like a virtual lobotomy. Subcultures thrive in seeking out these data maelstroms, which often leave decomposing bodies in the real world to be found days later. Cat doesn’t come here for sick thrills, however, but to drift in the vast, black oceans of dead code. And now to go looking for her only friend.
Stack! Can you hear me?
Hovering this far from the lights and sounds of the core, Cat feels a tingle of danger, but not even this is far enough away. It’s still only a whisper. Into the inky black she dives, probing the shadowy corners of infinity until the Leviathan is barely a glint on the virtual horizon. She’s so close now. So close. She reaches out.
The voice obliterates. The distant glow of the city extinguishes. Cat feels a weight piling on top of her mind so heavy she can barely breathe back home. And just like that, she’s gone too far. Data howls like screaming tentacles that wrap around her mind, lashing it with a nightmare of sights and sounds...
…blood leaking across the pavement…
…police sirens shrieking…
THE RAINMAN KILLS AGAIN!
…holo crime scene tape flashing…
…red and blue emergency lights strobing…
…a woman wailing uncontrollably…
VICTIM DISCOVERED BY HER CLASSMATE!
"She’s dead! Oh God, she’s dead!"
Cat is lying on a midtown sidewalk seemingly torn from reality and left adrift in the black seas. She's bathed in neon--and dying. Blood pours from her eyes, leaks off her cheeks, streams down her arms and pools on the broken sidewalk beneath her. Nausea boils in her guts, which squeeze so tightly she can hardly breathe. Icy fingers scratch at her eyes from the inside. The soft yolk of her mind ruptures. Cat folds backwards and gags as a pillar of white light spews from her throat high into the Deep Net floating above.
Her consciousness homogenizes with a frothing wave of grief until in every direction her splintered mind only sees herself. A circle of eyeless Cats screams around her, but even through the painful noise Cat still hears a frantic heart pounding against the ribcage of a sleeping body somewhere far from here. Listening to that spiking pulse, she finally deciphers the whisper. It was coming from inside herself this whole time.
The purging light extinguishes and Cat collapses onto her hands and knees. She can barely remember who she is or how she got here. Right now, her entire existence is this rough patch of red carpet and the dozens of black-robed, white-masked figures whispering with unmoving lips around her--
Wait. Wasn’t she just—!
“It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s coming.”
She needs to remember. Cat reaches up into the misty light of her regurgitated memories, now drifting like winter fog, but her fingers slip right through. It doesn't take long for her to forget what she’s even trying to grab. All the while, the chants of the white-masked figures swell so loudly they electronically distort into nearly incomprehensible static.
With a crack like thunder and a squeal like sobbing metal, a tall, crimson shadow rises before her. As soon as it sees Cat its hollow eyes swell with recognition. The shadow leans over her like a stain blotting out existence behind it. It looks like nothingness. It feels like Death. Cat finally understands. Somewhere in the Leviathan, a young woman is dying. And it’s her. So badly does she want to close her eyes from her impending doom, but on the other side of the city they’re already shut. Cat has no choice, but to stare into the approaching oblivion spreading its long, jagged arms to embrace her—
Cat explodes out of her GAIT deck just as a violent scream assails the room. She clutches her head as the deafening sound drills deeper and deeper into her skull. Breathing heavily and drenched in sweat, Cat rips the cables from her head and the awful noise fades away. Sheepishly, she inspects the room. Is any of this real? Or is she still locked behind the GAIT?
The room is quiet and exactly how she left it when she laid down to sleep last night. But everything is so blurry. Her body is numb. She hears her breathing at the wrong times. The sudden retrieval has desynched her senses and probably corrupted the temp files in her omni filter. That can be fixed later. All that matters is that she is awake now. The nightmare’s over. That’s all it was. Just a bad dream.
Two more soft knocks on the front door.
Squinting through the morning light, Cat stumbles to her feet and clumsily navigates the mess on her bedroom floor. Swallowing to moisten her painfully dry throat, Cat leans through the frame of her bedroom door and into Stack’s adjoined office.
Rain audibly beats against glass as Cat wobbles towards the front entrance. She rubs her eyes and peers ahead but sees no one standing behind the frosted glass. Is her sense of hearing this corrupted? She’s so sure she heard knocking. Isn’t that what woke her up? Or maybe her eyes are the problem. Cat turns the brass knob of the front door. The lock clicks open.
But it’s not her ears, it’s not her eyes, and it's not Stack because suddenly gliding into view on the other side of the frosted glass is a red silhouette. Cat leaps back with a gasp, covering her mouth to block a scream. She still hears one in her head anyway. It’s the same scream the GAIT stowed away in her mind as she exited her nightmare, if she even exited it at all. Retrieved from her memory, however, the scream is now only a whisper.
The door creaks open.
TO BE CONTINUED