/’skAn/ : a loosely coiled length of yarn or thread wound on a reel

Alpha vs Delta - Part I

Update: For all parts of this story, check the Alpha vs Delta category.

Remember the story pitches I posted? I got some comments from a pair of my favorite podcast authors. So, I started writing the 7th Son / Infection fanfic. I've got the plot outlined to pretty decent detail in notes, and I've worked out an ending. Let's see how this comes together - here's a first draft of part 1 of 5:

The snow crunched under Marten's feet as he made his way home from work at the computer lab on North Campus. His shift at the help desk had ended around five o'clock, but shorter days toward the end of the year meant it was already dark out. He cut across the yards of student family housing on the way back to his apartment a half-mile or so away. There were sidewalks, which in theory might've been the faster way, but campus maintenance didn't seem to do that great a job at keeping the paths shoveled up here. So, rather than do a slow shuffle all the way home on snow packed down into ice by a day's worth of foot traffic, he opted to forge his own route through the fresh stuff.

Of course, by the time he got to crossing Plymouth Road toward his apartment complex, his jeans had gotten soaked up to his shins, his hiking boots were soggy, and he wondered if this had been such a great idea after all. With a break in traffic, he hustled across the street. Waiting for him there was dinner, in the form of a triple cheeseburger, extra large fries, and a jumbo chocolate shake from the fast food place on the corner. He warmed up a bit, at least, with the time it took to order and fetch his greasy feast. The time it took to walk the rest of the way from there to his apartment building, however, left him with frozen pant legs.

He checked his mailbox outside, which was empty, and let himself into the building. His place was the last door at the end of the short hallway, fourth on the right. As he was stamping off the snow, though, his neighbor Laurel emerged from door across the hall.

"You're always coming when I'm going," she said, smiling shyly as she locked the door behind her. She was pretty, though just a little gawky. She had green eyes, dark hair chopped at her jaw line, and a cascade of silver rings in each ear.

"Yeah," said Marten, punctuated by a pull on his shake. He stared at the tattoo of a pentacle in the hollow of her neck and caught a haze of incense that followed her out into the hall.

There was a beat or two of shifty silence, broken when she gave a little laugh and said, "Well, I guess I'll catch you later."

"Yeah," said Marten. Shrugging, Laurel bundled herself up her a coat and scarf, and slouched past him into the cold outside. He took another pull from the shake and sighed when she was out of earshot.

To himself, he said, "You're a real ladies' man, Marten."

With that, he turned to his door — and noticed the package at his feet. With a little spike of excitement, he scooped it up and hurriedly let himself into the apartment. His dinner balanced precariously atop the box, he locked the door latch behind him with his elbow. Juggling things a bit and thankful he'd left the kitchen light on, he threw his coat and backpack off into a ratty recliner just inside. He never took his eyes off the address label on the box as he left a trail of slushy footprints back to the single bedroom.

He bumped the lights on with his shoulder and was greeted by a rumpled twin-sized bed, along with semi-permanent piles of random laundry — none of which smelled at all like Laurel's incense. He swept past all of that though, because the important stuff was at the computer desk and attached workbench that filled up most of the tiny room. He carefully set the package and food down on the table top and, grimacing, was suddenly reminded of the condition of his pants and boots. He paused to untie, unlace, and kick off the footwear. Then, he stripped down to boxers and tossed the jeans aside. From a nearby pile, he produced a dry pair of jogging pants and pulled them on.

Finally, he parked himself in the office chair stationed at the center of the workspace. Winding down, he grabbed his cheeseburger and considered the package between bites. He scratched thoughtfully at the back of his neck and ate a few fries.

He couldn't believe it was here — and now that it was, he was almost afraid to open it.

It had started a few weeks before, when Marten posted some ideas from his ongoing post-graduate work to an obscure computational neuroscience listserv. Dating from the early 70's — the veritable days of networked antiquity — the email distribution list was populated by a lesser known cabal of PhDs and grad students. It was also rumored to have a number of government spooks quietly observing — the list had a rich history of folklore and in-jokes surrounding these lurkers.

Participants in the groups used aliases as often as real names, so the only things that really carried weight and granted reputation were verifiable ideas and consistency. Anything else resulted in cranky ridicule and an eventual boot from the list. This was something from which few ever returned, virtually speaking.

It was with that danger in mind that he declared being on the verge of extracting a complete human neural state vector, along with an algorithmic understanding of the brain's in-built signal redundancy and error correction.

In other words, he was convinced that he was just a few steps away from downloading a copy of a human mind — memories, skills, personality, and all. Not only that, but in studying the brain as an information system, he'd uncovered some interesting natural structures and patterns. They pointed him toward ways in which damaged or missing portions of the system could be rebuilt and filled in from the whole of the remaining parts. He was probably getting ahead of himself, but he suspected that someday this stuff could be used to fix brain damage and cure senility, among other things.

His pronouncement had sparked a nasty debate on the list. On one hand, his alias had never been known as one of the crazies. He usually produced solid data and critical analysis. He took criticism well, calmly conceded points where he was wrong, and generally kept his ego out of the way.

But, the things he'd posted just came too far out of left field for most of the list subscribers. Worse yet was that Marten's results were very difficult to reproduce: He'd developed a pile of custom equipment during his experiments, and it would take awhile before anyone else managed to follow in his footsteps. That is, if anyone even cared to do more than simply, sadly, dismiss yet another nutter from the list who'd succumbed to the pressure. Although he hadn't been tarred and feathered quite yet, the sentiment on the list was that he was dangerously close to joining the ranks of John Titor, cold fusion scientists, and that Time Cube guy.

So, it was in midst of that textual firestorm that John Aleph contacted Marten privately off-list. At first, he thought Aleph was just screwing with him, because the first line of his initial message said:

"I am interested in your ideas and would like to subscribe to your newsletter."

Over the course of an extended email thread, though, it turned out that John Aleph took Marten's claims seriously — he just had a peculiarly sardonic wit that Marten had trouble following. Half the time, Marten felt like he was the punch-line of a joke he hadn't heard. Aleph also proved to be frustratingly vague and evasive about who he really was and what he really did. But, this intrigued him: Marten quickly came to assume that Aleph was one of the list's mythical spooky-lurkers.

Aleph was the real deal, though: He shared notes and experimental results — signed and carefully encrypted — that followed tracks eerily parallel to Marten's own. He could see that Aleph had access to tools with drastically better sensitivity and precision than his own. Yet, there were places where Marten had had better insights than Aleph's analysts. They'd coined different terms — mental entirety versus neural state vector, for example — but it was clear that they were exploring the same terrain.

Eventually, Aleph suggested they do more than just share stale notes. While he remained cagey about any face-to-face meetings, he offered to ship Marten a few pieces of equipment. That way, they could combine the knack Marten had shown for discovering patterns with the data that Aleph's equipment could so deftly extract.

With that, he was sold: Marten was undoubtedly a sucker for gadgets.

In theory, Marten knew what was in the box. According to Aleph, it was ultra-secret technology, astonishingly compact and powerful. Whereas Marten's state vector capture equipment was a room-filling hack of an MRI machine with repurposed firmware and tweaked emitters, Aleph's equipment fit in a small shipping box.

Carefully, Marten peeled away the packing tape that sealed the edges of the box top. Lifting open the flaps revealed a bubble-wrap cocoon filling the space within. Without realizing he was holding his breath, he gently lifted the bundle out and started unravelling the packaging. What emerged was a glossy black slab, about the size of a sub-notebook computer. Along with the slab was a large ziploc bag containing spooled wires, electrodes, and a manilla envelope hand-labeled "READ ME" in wide marker strokes.

He extracted the envelope, which contained a sheaf of printed instructions for operating the device. It described the placement of electrodes on a human skull. There was a wiring diagram for the electrodes, to be connected to discrete terminals along an edge of the slab. Communications and data offloading protocols were documented, presumably so that he could connect the device up to one of his PCs and interact with the data it captured.

Over the next few hours, Marten poured over the instructions twice. He hooked the slab up to the USB port on his primary PC, and installed some drivers that came on a small thumb drive — they were strangely hard to probe, but he forged ahead. He painstakingly connected each of the wires to the slab and a corresponding electrode, then seated each electrode onto its proper location around his head.

Finally, after rechecking every connection and reviewing every step detailed in the guide, it all came down to a pushing a button. It was more of a slight thumb-sized dimple in the surface of the otherwise featureless panel, really. His thumb hovered over the spot and he scratched at the back of his neck with his other hand, mulling it over.

This was the point of no return. Before, it had all been just an interesting email thread. But at that moment, with his thumb about to touch down, it occurred to him that he'd wired himself into a machine about which he didn't really know that much. If he hadn't been so excited by Aleph's promises and impatient to just see it in action — and if he weren't afraid that he'd never be able to put it back together again — he would've pried it open and tried reverse engineering it like every other gadget that fell into his hands.

But, no, not this time. He took a deep breath and pushed the button.

There was a quiet buzzing sound. Marten's head snapped back and his spine arched away from the chair. In his head, a storm raged.

What the hell? You're mine now. What? I'm moving in! Who are you? I'm John Alpha, and you're mine now. Aleph? No, that was a bad joke on you. The device was meant to capture a state vector! This feels like the opposite! That's right, you poor bastard. What's happening to me? You're going away, Marten. No, please, you can't! I never thought— I don't want— Too bad, Marten. You're mine now.

As the buzz subsided and Marten's body relaxed back into his seat, an unbidden and mostly unnoticed thought — belonging neither to Marten nor to John Alpha — whispered through their shared mind:

(we're hungry. feed us.)

blog comments powered by Disqus