by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in The Lorelei Signal, January 2012
Nicole and Ivan were among the newest, promising young scientists at the Western Spiral Arm Planetary Institute of Technology. For the time being, they were working on a project together. He did the chemistry, and she did the physics. The partnership worked well. Almost too well.
This morning, while warming up the elasti-tron, Nicole cruised through the Wespirtech history files to pass the time. They meant to get an early start, but the old vid-files were too funny. By the time the elasti-tron made its blink, blink, beep, beep, I’m ready signal, Nicole and Ivan were deeply absorbed and didn’t notice.
“Look at this folder,” Nicole said to Ivan, who was watching over her shoulder. “These vids are absolutely ancient…all the way back from when people lived on Earth I…” They shook their heads appreciatively.
“Mindular telechips…” Ivan read. “I wonder what that is…”
Intrigued, Nicole opened the folder and played the first vid-file. After a series of credits and graphics, a middle-aged man with gray hair appeared on the screen and introduced himself as Alan Alda.
“It started out harmlessly enough,” Alan Alda said. “Jason Middleton, a student at MIT and part of a group called the MIT cyborgs, designed the original implant as a receiver for an mp3 radio station he ran off of his wearable computer.” The speaker’s voice continued, but the video showed an image of a young man with a computer strapped on at his waist and a tiny monitor eye patch covering one eye. “The implant played music straight into Jason’s brain. He called it a Mindleton, as a play on his own name, and convinced all of his cyborg buddies to get them too.”
Here, the video showed an image of a bunch of cyborgs, fully outfitted in their wearable computers, walking around the MIT campus and banging their heads to the same inaudible music. Nicole and Ivan burst out laughing. Meanwhile, Alan Alda explained how a cell phone company recently purchased rights to Jason’s patent and changed the product’s name to the Mindular Telechip. After discussing telechip construction with Jason and future mindular possibilities with a representative of the cell phone company, Alan Alda ended the section with these words:
“Might these telechips be the next step in human evolution? In twenty years, will we all be, essentially, telepathic? Where are you taking us, Alexander Graham Bell?”
After that, the vid-file cut out, with a note that the rest of the program was available but contained no information on mindular telechips.
“Who’s Alexander Grambell?” Ivan wondered, but Nicole paid him no heed and started up the next vid-file. It was labeled a tv-ad. There were several, actually, and Nicole ran all of them. The first featured a husband and wife at a stuffy cocktail party.
The wife, cornered by an annoying neighbor, sends a message to her husband. He tilts his head, showing he can hear her plea for help; then he walks over and rescues her from the boor. The piece ends with the slogan: “Mindular Telechip: Get Even Closer.” The rest of the tv-ads were pretty much the same.
“Cute,” Ivan said when they were all over. “Looks like it was just a fad.”
Nicole didn’t respond. She was deep in thought.
“Nicole?” Ivan asked. “You okay?”
“You know what?” she said. “We should make some of those.”
“You kidding?” Ivan asked.
“The concept is pretty simple…”
“Sure, I could probably hobble something together in a few days. I’m pretty good with electronics. But why?”
“Think of how much fun it would be! We could walk around secretly talking to each other. The admins wouldn’t have a clue what’s going on!”
“Admin has no clue what’s going on anyway,” Ivan said.
“Just do it?” Nicole pleaded.
“Sure,” Ivan agreed. “If you say so.”
Nicole flashed a brilliant grin. “Great, I have to go tell Cora.”
* * *
Cora was in her room, feeding the pet sea-bunny Nicole had given her. The sea-bunny was jumping about contentedly in its tank, splashing fitfully.
“Cora,” Nicole said, out of breath leaning against the doorframe. “Would you like to be telepathic?”
“You’re out of breath. Have you been running?” Cora asked.
“Ran all the way from the elasti-tron lab…” Nicole puffed. “Would you like to be telepathic?” she repeated.
“You were working with Ivan on the elasti-tron?” Cora asked.
“Sure, you know we’re studying string dimensionality together.”
Cora sighed. “My research hasn’t been going anywhere lately. I haven’t done anything of interest to the admins since they brought me here, and I’ve been here a lot longer than you. It must be easier with a partner.”
“You haven’t been here that long,” Nicole said, feeling flustered. “You know, you could work with Ivan and me. There’s plenty of physics in our project to support two physicists. The super dimensionality of strings is really challenging. There’s a certain elasticity that…”
Cora broke in: “I’d feel too intimidated working with Ivan.”
“Really?” Nicole said, genuinely surprised. “Ivan’s so easy-going. Like a big teddy bear. I’m sure you’d get used to him. And I’d love to have your help.”
Cora turned back to fiddling with the sea-bunny tank and said, “Don’t worry, I’m sure if I keep working hard I’ll come up with something.”
Nicole wanted to help. If Cora would join her and Ivan on the elasti-tron project…Nicole would gladly share the credit, even for the work she’d already done. But forcing Cora didn’t seem right. Perhaps it was best. The other scientists could be such sticklers for credit; they’d have probably thought it odd. “So, telepathy…” Nicole said, returning to the original topic. Maybe that would cheer Cora up.
* * *
By the time Ivan finished making the telechips, Nicole had convinced Cora to join them in their fun if not their research project. The three of them tried the telechips first, before telling any other scientists. Nicole had a plan.
Wespirtech’s one dining hall served the scientists, admins, and other workers alike. Of course, the groups usually kept to themselves. Nonetheless, the admins liked to keep an eye on the scientists, and subscribed to the theory that their arrangement kept the scientists better socialized than if left entirely to themselves.
When Nicole, Cora, and Ivan arrived at the dining hall for lunch, each equipped with a new telechip, they fanned out. Cora and Ivan seated themselves at separate tables among scientists as far across the hall from the admins as they could. Nicole found a place much closer to the admins’ table.
Once they’d been there awhile and made a good start on their lunches, Nicole got up and walked straight over to the admins’ table, holding her hand as if it held a blaster.
“Prefect Osterio,” she said to the admin who usually reviewed her work. “I’ve got something to show you. I know I should wait and make an appointment, but it’s just so exciting…”
Pre. Osterio lowered her glasses a little, looking at Nicole’s empty hand. Her expression conveyed the message, “Well, this should be a good one.”
“See,” Nicole continued, “I’ve managed to create an invisible, weightless blaster. Would you like to hold it?”
Pre. Osterio continued looking skeptical over the top of her glasses and didn’t answer.
“Oh,” Nicole added, “It’s also completely silent. Here, watch.” Nicole turned to the crowd of diners and pointed her “blaster” towards Ivan’s back, supposedly at random. She thought the message, “Ivan, on three… one… two… three…” through her telechip.
Ivan was a good forty feet away, but he spasmed and fell out of his chair right as Nicole mimed pulling the trigger. There was quite an uproar at his table, and even something of an uproar among the admins.
Pre. Osterio stayed seated and skeptical, but the young man next to her, who’d been working at Wespirtech less time than Nicole had been researching there, jumped up, all excited.
“Sit down,” Pre. Osterio commanded. “When you’ve been here a little longer, you’ll see that the scientists have a penchant for pranks. Their research is generally the only thing they take seriously. If you really want to know how she did it, just wait a few weeks and ask. By then, I’m sure she’ll be proud to explain it to you.”
The new admin looked chagrined.
“You don’t believe me?” Nicole asked, feigning surprise. “I can do it again…” Nicole repeated the same stunt, this time with Cora. The excitement among the scientists went up another notch, but Pre. Osterio still didn’t look impressed.
“Okay, your loss,” Nicole said. “I’ll just have to sell them on the black market.”
Pre. Osterio looked mildly amused by that, but she made no move to stop Nicole from leaving and returning to her lunch.
Nicole, however, could hardly keep herself from skipping with elation. She was dying to hear what all the scientists were saying at the other tables. She had to settle for listening to Cora’s and Ivan’s mindular reports.
“Everyone wants to know what just happened,” Cora said, mindularly.
“Really? What are they saying? What are you saying?” Nicole mindulared back.
“I’m telling everyone to talk to Ivan privately if they’re really interested. Just like we planned,” Cora said.
“I’m gonna be so busy…” Ivan added, jumping in.
The first scientist to seek Ivan out privately and ask about the stunt in the dining hall wasn’t one of the younger scientists now, but, when he’d come to Wespirtech at the age of fifteen, he was the youngest they’d ever accepted. Having been at Wespirtech, interacting almost exclusively with other scientists, for most of his life, Einray could be a little odd. Still, the plan Nicole, Cora, and Ivan had worked out was that they’d give telechip implants to anyone who really wanted them. It wasn’t their intention to be exclusive.
After Einray, a few of the solar biologists, an eccentric lot, joined the growing group of telepaths. By the end of the week, the group of telepaths totaled nine in all: Nicole, Cora, Ivan, Einray, three solar biologists, a chemist friend of Ivan’s, and another physicist named Anna Karlingoff.
At first, the telepaths thought their lives would go on as usual; that the telechips were just a novel oddity. However, Ivan set up the telechips so that a message sent through one telechip would be received by all the others. So, whenever one of the telepaths said anything mindularly, all the others heard it. The growing and ongoing presence of their mindular conversation drew the telepaths closer and closer together.
In fact, barely a week and a half after the original invisible blaster stunt, the nine telepaths were eating all their meals together. This is how it worked:
Whenever a meal was approaching, one or another of the telepaths would mindularly note feeling hungry. The other eight, once started thinking about it, would soon be hungry too. They’d debate it awhile, coordinating across the entire span of Wespirtech, and, eventually all nine telepaths would march into the dining hall within minutes of each other.
And, of course, the telepaths sat together. It was easier that way. Their mindular conversation would rage on all through lunch either way. When they sat together, normal conversation, among the non-telepaths, didn’t interfere with their mindular conversation.
So, there the nine of them were: sitting around a table, eating silently, occasionally all breaking into spontaneous laughter together. The admins, the workers, and even the other scientists gave them very weird looks.
* * *
“It’s fun, isn’t it?” Nicole said to Cora, in normally voiced words.
The two of them were having a private, best friend type conversation in Cora’s room. Nicole was lying on her stomach, on Cora’s bed, kicking her feet in the air above her head. Cora was tending to the flopsy, splashy sea-bunny.
“I knew it’d be fun to get Ivan to make these chips…” Nicole continued, “but I really had no idea just how neat it would be. I mean, would we have ever really got to know the solar biologists? And Anna…I’m really getting to be friends with her.”
Cora looked up from her aquatic ministrations. “Really? Anna?” Cora said. “She’s kind of pretentious.”
“She is more reserved…” Nicole agreed cautiously. “But, I think it might just be because she’s older. She’s been here several years longer than either of us.”
“I suppose,” Cora said, putting the lid on her sea-bunny’s tank. “But that’s not a very good reason. Maybe she’s just nicer around you.”
The skin between Nicole’s eyebrows furrowed as she thought about Cora’s words. Cora could seem really paranoid sometimes. First she was worried about Ivan; now about Anna. Nicole wished she could help Cora be less insecure.
Just then, Cora and Nicole heard one of the solar biologists say mindularly: “Telepaths! S’mores! We’ve got the makings in the solarity lab, and the flames look perfect for mallow-roastin’!”
“Want to go?” Nicole asked, jumping off the bed, and looking expectantly at Cora. For a moment, Cora looked tempted. Then, they heard Anna’s mindular reply, saying she was on her way.
“No, that’s okay,” Cora said. “I’ve got reading to do.”
“Come on,” Nicole urged. “Maybe you’d get to know Anna a little better, and you wouldn’t be so afraid of her.”
Cora stiffened and turned away. Nicole felt bad about leaving. She knew Cora pretty well, though, and she suspected there wasn’t anything she could do. Cora just needed to sulk sometimes.
“Save a marshmallow for me,” Nicole mindulared, giving Cora a squeeze on the shoulder as she left.
* * *
The next morning, Nicole slept in. The s’more party had run late, and then Nicole stayed up even later talking to Anna. So, although she heard the other telepaths gathering for breakfast, she stayed in bed, dozing through the mindular breakfast conversation.
When Nicole finally got up, she went straight to the elasti-tron lab, hoping to see Ivan. They were close to a breakthrough, and she was hoping to report their findings to Pre. Osterio soon. Unfortunately, Ivan wasn’t there. He hadn’t been at the s’more party either. Nicole hadn’t seen much of him at all lately.
“Ivan?” she mindulared irritably. “Has anyone seen Ivan? Ivan, where are you?”
Ivan didn’t reply, but Einray mindulared: “I saw Ivan leaving Cora’s room this morning.”
Cora’s room? Nicole thought. Come to think of it, Nicole realized that Cora and Ivan had been spending a lot of time together lately. Was that why Cora had been so intimidated by him? She liked him?
Einray continued, unprompted: “So, he’s probably sleeping, ’cause it didn’t look like he’d got much sleep when I saw him.”
“Einray, you idiot!” Nicole mindulared. “Everyone can hear you.” This interchange was followed by a titter of mindular laughter from the solar biologists, but none of the other telepaths said anything.
Nicole thought a bit more about Cora and Ivan together…she kind of liked the idea. Maybe Cora would be less insecure with a boyfriend. That would make her easier to take. “Sorry, Einray,” Nicole mindulared. “I shouldn’t have called you an idiot.”
* * *
After that day, Cora hung around the elasti-tron lab whenever Nicole and Ivan were working. She didn’t help with the physics. She just hung off of Ivan’s arm like a coat. At first it was sweet, then it was sickening.
“Come on guys,” Nicole said, less than patiently. “Can we get some work done? I want to have this ready to show Pre. Osterio by the end of the week.”
“Sorry,” Ivan muttered, stepping back to the elasti-tron controls. Cora sat down in a rolley chair and began spinning, ostensibly reading the physics treatise in her lap. Her antics were clearly inordinately cute as far as Ivan was concerned. He was soon back at her side.
Nicole ignored them, glaring at her work. After a while, she realized that was all she was doing: glaring at her work. This was not what she’d imagined when she invited Cora to work with them. “Do you want to be working right now? You can leave. I can do this on my own,” Nicole said.
“No, no, I do want to work on this,” Ivan said.
Cora said nothing, so Nicole snapped at her: “Cora, could you please work somewhere else?”
Suddenly, Cora straightened up, looking all seriousness. Her giggles gone. “You asked me to work with you.”
“Yes, but you’re not working.”
“I don’t recall having to log a time sheet with you.”
It wasn’t worth it. Nicole mindulared: “I can’t handle my work anymore. Anyone want to take a break with me?”
* * *
Nicole worked at night for the rest of the week, skipping out of the telepaths meals. She finished the work on her own, leaving the records out for Ivan to see. She scheduled an appointment for them with Pre. Osterio, and stopped by Ivan’s room to make sure he knew. He was distant, formal.
At the appointment, Ivan didn’t show up. So, without any other choice, Nicole presented their results alone, giving credit to Ivan wherever it was due. Pre. Osterio was impressed with the work, and Nicole left the admin offices wanting to celebrate.
“Anyone up for a field trip down to Da Vinci?” Nicole mindulared, thinking it’d be nice to get away from Wespirtech’s steel and granite halls. She’d heard that Da Vinci was quite beautiful, and it was only a short flight away. Wespirtech orbited Da Vinci, looking down at the beautiful planet from the height of Da Vinci’s largest moon.
After a few minutes, when no one replied, Nicole began to worry. “What’s everyone up to?” she mindulared. “You’re all too busy now for a break?”
“Hey,” Cora’s mindular voice suddenly said, “how about we all get together after Ivan’s and my meeting with admin?”
“Okay,” Nicole replied. “I can wait until then.”
The other telepaths agreed as well, and Nicole headed back to her room, wondering why Ivan and Cora were meeting with admin together. Maybe they wanted to switch rooms. Trade their singles for a double. Nicole felt a little left out. If it were her, she’d have talked to her best friend about it first. Maybe she’d go talk to Anna.
* * *
Anna wasn’t in her room. Einray wasn’t in his room. Nicole couldn’t seem to find anybody these days. “I know we’re all gonna get together after Cora and Ivan’s meeting with admin, but I’m at loose ends right now,” Nicole mindulared. “Anybody else looking for someone to talk to?”
When no one replied, Nicole headed to her own room, feeling really ignored. She lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling. Suddenly, Anna’s mindular voice echoed in her mind: “Has anybody heard from Nicole lately? I borrowed a book from her and want to return it.”
“Anna?” Nicole mindulared, sitting up and perking up. “I’m in my room; you can bring it to me here.”
“I guess I’ll just hang on to it a while longer,” Anna said.
“Anna? Did you hear me?” Nicole said. No reply. “Can anybody hear me?” No reply.
Great, Nicole thought. Her telechip was broken. No wonder no one was paying attention to her. Maybe she could catch Ivan and Cora on their way back from admin. On her way towards them, Cora mindulared that their meeting was through. Ivan’s chemist friend mindulared back to ask how it had gone.
“Osterio loves our work, but…” Cora said, and Nicole stopped, outraged: Cora hadn’t done any work.
Ivan interrupted, finishing the thought for Cora, “Nicole already reported it as her own.”
“What?!” Nicole mindulared, angrily, forgetting that no one could hear her.
“What do you mean?” Anna said.
“You know how she’d hang around the lab with us,” Cora answered. “She tried to pretend the work was hers. She was in to see Osterio this morning. I guess she was jealous of my being better at physics. And of my being with Ivan.”
“What kind of play are you putting on here?!” Nicole shouted, ineffectually, through her broken chip. Although, she had to admit that Cora and Ivan had a good story. All that the other scientists had seen was Cora and Ivan in the lab all day. None of them had seen her working late.
“You’re kidding…” Anna said.
“That is so low,” mindulared Einray.
The solar biologists nattered about how surprising it was, and Ivan’s chemist friend said he wasn’t surprised at all.
What surprised Nicole, even shocked her, was that none of them seemed to care whether she could hear the nasty things they said. Her guilt opened her up to any and all character attacks, and they all assumed her silence was an admission of guilt.
Then, Nicole realized: her broken telechip was no mistake. With a single mindular signal, properly encoded, Ivan could disable any telechip he wanted. Easily. From a distance. Without anyone knowing. It hadn’t seemed important that he had that power. Until now.
Indignantly, Nicole added to the fray of mindular words: “I was never interested in Ivan.”
Then the tide of condemnation overtook her. Nicole sat back on her bed. Stunned, she listened to them rip her apart.
She was a thief. A pretender. Never any good at physics. So taken with herself. Who did she think she was? Not a scientist. Not worth knowing. They wished they’d never met her.
Anna tried to be nice…but her charitable thoughts soon folded. It was a crime too awful to contend against: to steal another scientist’s work…unthinkable. They all hated her.
“I’m sorry,” Nicole mindulared, although she knew it would do no good.
* * *
When the admins came for her, Nicole was still listening to the telepaths talk. It had been days, but Nicole couldn’t bring herself to take her telechip out. The conversation of her old friends, laced with cruelty towards herself, held a morbid fascination.
None of the telepaths would acknowledge her anymore, but she could sit in the dining hall, at her own, empty table, watching them and listening to their mindular talk. It was not healthy. These people were not, had never been, her friends. Yet she could not stop listening to them.
Nicole went mildly with the admins when they came. She told Pre. Osterio the truth: Ivan had been working with her; it was her research, not Cora’s; Cora and Ivan were the ones lying. Pre. Osterio, looking more severe than usual, didn’t believe her. Nicole couldn’t really blame her. It looked like Ivan had done a bang up job of changing the computer records around. More than that, one liar was more believable than two.
“I guess you’ll be sending me away from Wespirtech,” Nicole said, feeling a strange sense of relief.
“It looks that way,” Pre. Osterio agreed. “We can’t have a scientist who would take credit for another’s work. The other scientists wouldn’t stand for it.” Nicole’s face colored, but she didn’t say anything. The decision had clearly already been made. “Michaelson, our newest admin,” Pre. Osterio continued, “is just outside my office. He’ll help you prepare to leave.”
Michaelson turned out to be the admin who’d fallen for Nicole’s invisible blaster stunt. He walked her through a bunch of paperwork, and arranged a flight for her to Da Vinci. Nicole wondered how many of Wespirtech’s scientists never took the time to see Da Vinci. It was so easy to get wrapped up in everything Wespirtech, and forget about the rest of…well, anything else. Maybe she’d visit the Chuarian flower yards while on Da Vinci.
Nicole finished the paperwork and was left with the task of packing up her room. As she was leaving for the residential side, Michaelson said: “Before you go, will you tell me how you did it? How you made the invisible blaster work?”
Nicole looked at him blankly, not caring enough to answer. She went back in time and imagined that the blaster really had worked. She imagined Cora and Ivan writhing in pain, for real, on the floor. Nicole smiled, and Michaelson interpreted her smile as a sign that she meant to keep her secrets. “All right,” he said. “Don’t tell me.”
* * *
While Nicole packed, she listened to the solar biologists explain a new cell structure they’d found in a species of stellar fungi to Anna and Einray. Nicole was sad to leave the scientific wonders of Wespirtech behind. She was sad to lose her friends, although they were already lost to her. Not one of them had stood up for her. Perhaps she was better without such friends. Would she find better friends in the world outside of Wespirtech?
Nicole couldn’t imagine finding a friend she cared about as much as she’d cared about Cora. Perhaps that was her mistake: caring too much. How much had she really known Cora? How long? A few months. They’d been best friends… But only for a few months. That’s not so long.
Nicole was no longer surprised by how Ivan had acted. Clearly, Cora had twisted him around her little finger. Nicole remembered calling Ivan easygoing and a teddy bear; now she realized that was just a nice way of saying spineless and easy to manipulate. She hoped he’d be happy with Cora. She wished she wouldn’t miss Cora… To miss a person who betrays you… Pathetic.
Nicole looked around her empty room. It hadn’t been all that hard to pack. Everything she’d brought to Wespirtech fit in one bag, now slung over her shoulder…everything except the sea-bunny, who was now Cora’s. Walking through the residential side halls, Nicole caught one last glimpse of the sea-bunny through Cora’s open door.
There was one thing left to do, before leaving Wespirtech forever. Her last act, still to be performed. Nicole cut into the lab section on her way to the flight. She found a random engineering lab and scrabbled through drawers until she located it: a zacto-extricator.
She was ready.
“Goodbye,” she mindulared, lifting the zacto-extricator, positioning its grip behind her head. In her mind, Cora and Anna were talking. Their voices were pleasant, friendly. They were becoming the friends Nicole had urged them to be…then, suddenly, they weren’t.
Silence. True silence. No longer could she hear words in her mind to which she couldn’t respond. Nicole felt free. Shaken, but free. Like a young plant, that had been held up by supports, but also constricted by them. Now she had to stand on her own. She could see why mindular telechips had been nothing more than a fad on Earth I. Horrible to experience such an intense intimacy without the investment of having to work for it…
Nicole left the labs and went to the ship that would fly her away. She took her seat, ready to leave for Da Vinci. She didn’t know where she would go or what she would do on Da Vinci. She had no plans. Wholly discredited by the premier institution of scientific inquiry, Nicole would never research again. No respectable scientist would ever look at her work.
But there were opportunities, great opportunities, out there: outside of these steel and granite halls… Nicole would find them. The ship took off.