Alter Ipse Amicus
Future Carl plunged ahead. He passed through Sector 4 and the Main Control Room and into Sector 5 without the faintest awareness of his surroundings. He ran for the sake of running – the past which stretched out behind him was a wasteland of widely-spaced footprints; his future was only more of the same. But no matter where he went, no matter how fast he sprinted, he could not outrun his own dead weight.
“I’ve got to get…to the room…”
He panted the words to himself, rationalizing and repeating until his tiny nugget of guilt shrank and faded away. The bliss room was a drug, a balm, a healing salve built on lies and trickery; nevertheless he rushed toward it with the desperate resolve of one pursuing a mirage.
“I have to…I need to this time…I don’t go there that often, but this time it’s too much…”
Over and over his feet struck the ground, but his thoughts didn’t change. He didn’t change. Nothing ever changed…
Future Carl skidded to a halt in front of a blank panel on the wall. He swiped the palm of his hand over the inactive screen, and the words 'Control Panel: Sector 5, Zone 7' appeared on the monitor, followed by a series of other options. He selected one of them, and a schematic of the emotions maze popped up on the touch-screen. With a brush of his fingertips, he highlighted a small block of the rooms and, with another rapid click, powered them down. Feeling a touch of relief mixed with self-reproach, he rested his forehead against the wall – now a path had been cleared between himself and the bliss room.
“I shouldn't be doing this...”
After a few more self-disparaging comments, he gathered his wits enough to push away from the wall. He brushed a curl heavy with perspiration out of his field of vision before heading toward a door to his left. It swung open automatically upon his approach. He shook his head once and, squaring his shoulders, stepped through it and into the maze.
Jimmy pushed open the door to the next room, and a gust of wind whistled over the kids.
“Air currents?” he muttered, shielding his eyes. “How is that possible? …Is another door open?”
They peered through the doorframe into the chamber, which was square and drab. The walls, floor, and ceiling were painted an identical shade of dark gray.
Libby winced. “What God-awful interior decorator is responsible for this paint job?”
“That would be me, I believe,” replied Jimmy.
Carl tugged on Jimmy’s arm. “I’ve got a really bad feeling about this one, Jimmy…and I’m not just saying that this time.”
“We’re almost out, Carl. We’ve made it through all the other rooms…it’s nothing we can’t handle.” Carl continued to hang back, and Jimmy sighed. “Fine, I’ll go first. Here, see? There’s nothing to worry abou–”
Jimmy took one step into the room, and instantly his eyes rolled back into his head, and he flopped down like a limp doll. Cindy lurched forward to catch him.
“Neutron! –” As soon as she cleared the threshold, she too seized up and collapsed beside the fallen Jimmy. She convulsed once, then lay still.
“Cind!” Libby reached after her friend, and for a moment it looked as though the domino effect would continue. Sheen hurdled forward to stop her from making the same mistake as Cindy, but instead tripped over his own shoelace, causing them both to plow face-first into the floor beside Jimmy. In the space of five seconds the whole ordeal was over, and all four of them lay motionless.
Carl recoiled with a panicked screech. “Jimmy! Sheen! Libby! Ahhhh, what do I do? What do I do?!”
“Grrr mbark bark bark bark!!”
“I don’t know what that means! Goddard, help! …Do something!”
“Eeow, bark bark!”
“Oh no! Oh no!! Come on guys, wake up! Wake up!!”
For a brief moment, Carl half expected his friends to awaken of their own accord; instead, they remained where they were, laid across the grungy concrete like tangled marionettes with no one to hold the strings.
“G-guys? Can you…can you hear me?”
They made no reply, for they heard no question: Jimmy, Cindy, Sheen, and Libby were completely cut off from the exterior world – the instant they had entered the room, they were ripped one from another; rent apart, scattered, thrown into the farthest corners of existence and left completely alone.
“Hello? Hello??” The next thing Jimmy knew, he was by himself, standing on the very precipice of a bottomless canyon. Roiling storm clouds churned overhead; thunder rolled in the distance. The air was dewy with impending rain, and wisps of wind tugged on the sleeves of his red atom shirt.
He glanced down. “That’s funny…when did I change back into my t-shirt?”
A gust nudged him forward, and he flapped his arms to catch his balance. Shuddering, he stared down into the chasm beneath his feet. When he looked up again, a dark castle loomed immediately ahead of him. He stumbled backward as his eyes climbed its full height.
“Whoa! Where did that come from?”
As if in answer, a bell tolled inside the fortress, and the portcullis rose with a clink-clink-clink.
Jimmy whistled. “Wheeeew. Analyze this one, Freud…” When he looked back down, the canyon was gone. Gulping quietly, he took a hesitant step forward toward the threshold of the castle gate.
All the while, his physical body lay catatonic on the floor of the room, only a few inches away from the immobile bodies of his friends.
“Hey! Enough’s enough, Neutron! What’s going on?”
Cindy stood alone in the middle of a wind-swept plain. The air was dusty and stale, and skeletal brambles strained skyward from between pockets of cracked earth. Cindy took a nervous step backward, and something brittle snapped beneath her heel. Frowning, she turned to discover the remains of a shattered human skull. With a cry, she stumbled away, but her toe caught in a tangle of thorns, and she plummeted earthward.
“Oof!” she hit face-first.
Digging her fingers into the soil, she spit out a clod of dirt and hauled her torso off the ground. As Cindy raised her gaze, a gale of hot wind slammed into her, and she threw up one arm to shield her face. Ahead of her, a light pierced through the clouds: like a wound in the sky, it dripped fire instead of blood. The air howled and churned as silent lightning flashed around the apocalyptic blaze – then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the light vanished, and a black vortex spiraled open in the space where it had been. Cindy rose slowly, overcome with awe.
“…What…is that?” she murmured.
Her real body barely breathed.
“Marco! ……Ahem, I said, Marco!!” There was a pause as Sheen waited for a response. “Come on, it’s not fair if one of you doesn’t yell back ‘Polo’! No cheating, you guys! Polo, anyone? …Anyone?? Hellooooo…” Sheen peeked out from between his fingers. “Hey, what’s the big idea? We’re not in the pool!”
Sheen dropped his hands and took a look around. Twilight veiled the grassy clearing where he stood. The smell of damp leaf litter lingered in his nose, and beads of dew tickled his bare ankles. Ahead of him, rows upon rows of trees stood like sentinels; a greenish mist hung in between the moss-covered trunks. There was no birdsong, no sound of flowing water, no chirping crickets…merely a staccato unease beneath the silence.
Sheen swallowed nervously. “OK, I’m really wishing I had my Ultralord Utility Belt right about now…” A twig crunched behind him, and he whirled around, aiming a finger-gun into the fading daylight. “I-I’m warning you! Don’t come any closer! I’m…really an angry mob in disguise!”
A guttural growl rumbled from among the trees. Sheen looked around frantically, biting his fingernails; he spied a rock nestled in the grass and reached down to snatch it. His arms trembled as he cradled it against his chest.
“I’ve got a rock, and I’m not afraid to use it!”
A voice whispered into Sheen’s ear from behind, and hot, moist breath settled on his skin. “And you shouldn’t be…”
With a yelp, Sheen dropped the rock and whipped around. There, a few feet in front of him, crouched a carbon copy of himself – albeit dressed in rags, and covered here and there in patches of thick fur. Sheen exhaled in relief.
“Oh, man, it’s just werewolf me! You had me scared for a second there, buddy.”
Werewolf Sheen bounded away on all fours, disappearing into the grove of gray-green trees.
“Hmm, I’ve never met my Halloween costume in a dream before. Hey, that’s right! If this is a dream, then I can fly!” He strained on tip-toe, grunting and grimacing at the sky, with no effect. After a moment he ceased his fruitless efforts. “OK, so maybe this isn’t a dream…which means…” Sheen turned around slowly, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. “Uhh…you’re not a mirage by any chance, are you?”
Werewolf Sheen leaned out from behind a peeling trunk, yellow eyes shining. “I’m the skin beneath your skin, the meat beneath your meat. I’m your blue and purple insides, the slime and the phlegm and the blood and the bile.”
Sheen winced. “Eew, what the heck? That is nas-ty. Man, Libby was right. I am extra weird as a werewolf. Say, weird-me, you wouldn’t happen to have a map on you or something, would you?”
There was a brief pause. “…Libby? …Mmm, where’s she?” Werewolf Sheen purred the words hungrily, and a tremor of alarm raced through his human counterpart.
“Uh…not here…” said Sheen, backing away. “…Hey, listen…you’re really starting to creep me out, so…I’ll just be going now.”
The werewolf crept backward until he melted into the olive fog, and Sheen gratefully released the breath he'd been holding. He nearly jumped out of his skin a moment later when he felt a clawed hand tugging on his pant leg. He turned to find the creature skulking at his feet.
“Take me with you.”
“How did you get behind me…?”
“I want to see everyone. I’m lonely here. How do you think I feel? There’s no TV or sugar or Ultralord. There’s nothing to do at all. Heck, I’d even prefer summer school to this place.”
Sheen jumped back, gasping. “Egads! Blasphemy!”
“You see?” coaxed Were-sheen. “It’s that bad. So please, please, please let me come with you. All it takes is one little word.”
For a moment, Sheen's judgment wavered. Then the werewolf smiled up at him, exposing rows of blood-stained, predatory teeth. Sheen took a tiny step backward, then another.
“Uh…maybe some other time…but for now I have to RUN!” He turned and sprinted away from the forest, the surreal setting pounding by in a blur of adrenaline.
Were-Sheen leaped after him, snarling. “You won’t get away from me!”
The werewolf rapidly gained on the boy. With no way to escape, Sheen screeched to a halt, sending shredded grass and clumps of dirt shooting out from under his sneakers. He faced his aggressor, fists clenched but expression pleading.
“Listen, man, I can help you find a sheep to eat or something first, but I really have to go look for my friends!”
“I don’t want a sheep! I’m after you! And if you won’t come willingly, then I’ll take you by force!”
The werewolf sprung onto Sheen, and they both crashed to the ground, rolling over each other in a tangle of claws and fur and shredding cloth. Were-Sheen pinned the human boy and savagely grinned down as his victim struggled to break free.
“Hahaha!” laughed the creature. “Look at you! What a waste of effort. Keep fighting! Ask yourself, ‘what would Ultralord do?’ Haha!”
Sheen wriggled. “You know, I would, except Ultralord has never written a self-help book on ‘how to defeat your freaky wolf-man self in some weird dream thing’. And you call yourself a fan? Pathetic.”
The werewolf arched his neck to the sky and let out a blood-curdling howl; when he looked back down again, all the color had drained from his captive’s face. “This isn’t a dream! This is real! You’re about to self-destruct, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You’re stupid and weak. You fail at everything you do, and you waste your life watching a pointless cartoon. Libby only pretends to like you because she feels bad for you, and Jimmy just keeps you around because no one better has come along yet. Carl is his real best friend. And why not? Why would anyone want you? You ruin everything. Cowardly, annoying, under-achieving, Mother-less loser!”
With a perverse smile, the werewolf lunged down and sunk his teeth into Sheen’s shoulder. Sheen’s whole body spasmed as burning tendrils radiated from the wound and flowed across his chest.
“I’ll get rid of all that for you,” whispered the werewolf. “I’ll cure you. And then we’ll go hunting together.”
Sheen felt his fingernails lengthen and his muscles twist underneath his skin. His senses sharpened and branched into synesthesia – scents became colors and sounds morphed into sights. Sitting up, he swiveled his neck and sniffed the night air; somewhere, far away, the scent of flesh drifted on the breeze.
Back in her dream, Cindy pushed her bangs out of her face and squinted up at the hypnotic whirlpool – as if in a trance, she began picking her way across the dead plain. Next instant, time skipped ahead, and the scenery rushed by her in lagging, zigzagging frames. She found herself standing at the very event horizon of the black portal.
“Whoa! How did I…”
She jumped in surprise when she saw her own face staring back at her from inside the vortex. She exhaled in relief, believing it to be only her own reflection – but then the face smiled of its own accord.
Cindy pulled back. “Wh-Who are you?!”
Her doppelganger morphed forward out of the spinning hole in the sky. The black clung to her like a second skin, before turning to liquid in the sunlight and running off her body in gummy streams. Beneath the gunk, this second Cindy was clad in venom green from head to toe, except for an evil-looking black necklace.
“What kind of a question is that? You know who I am.”
“I do?” asked Cindy.
“Of course. I’m you. And not just you. I’m the real you.”
“Huh? What are you talking about? I’m the real me. Where did you come from anyway?”
The green Cindy ignored the question, and instead spread her arms to indicate the wasteland around them. “You see this?”
“Ya? It’s a desert. What of it?”
“This is you.”
Cindy raised an eyebrow. “I’m a hallucination caused by an evil dictator’s emotion-manipulation technology?”
The other Cindy giggled. “Clever! We’re so clever, aren’t we? But no, that’s not what I meant. The room you’re in now isn’t making you hallucinate. It has merely lifted the barrier between your conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. It put you in touch with your deepest self. Your real self.”
Cindy looked up. “And I suppose the vortex in the sky is a kitschy metaphor for my last name? Really, I thought my subconscious would be more creative.”
The other Cindy laughed again, and each tittering word was a concealed knife. “What a good joke.”
There was a moment of tension as Cindy tried to regain her footing in the conversation. “Look, I hate to be rude, but would you mind staying out of my face for a few minutes, so I can figure out what the heck is going on and find a way to get back to reality?”
“This is reality. The world you see around you is just a reflection of what’s inside you.”
Cindy frowned. “Is that some kind of riddle? Are you saying that if I alter my perceptions, this desert-world will disappear?”
The green Cindy paused, puzzled. “What gave you that idea? Of course it’s not a riddle. Your personality is your personality. You can’t change it. …And honestly, why would you want to go back there anyway? Stay here. It’s who you are, it’s where you belong.”
Cindy peered past her doppelganger and sized up the rotating black vortex. “If I go through that,” she pointed, “will it take me out of here?”
In response, the second Cindy stepped forward and crossed her arms, blocking Cindy’s view. “Don’t ignore me!”
“There’s no need to get so pushy! Jeez!”
“I’m not being pushy! Besides, I just told you, you’re not leaving.”
“Uh…you wanna run that by me again?”
Dream Cindy leaned forward, and her manner shifted to one of open hostility. “Ya, as a matter a fact, I do. I said, I’m not going to let you leave. You’re staying here with me.”
“Pfft, you can’t tell me what to do! Now get out of my way!”
She tried to muscle past, and Dream Cindy’s face twisted into an expression of childish rage. She shoved Cindy, who, caught off guard, tripped backward and fell to the ground.
“What’d you do that for?” scowled Cindy, jerking upright. “What the heck is the matter with you?!”
The green Cindy released a spiteful, unstable cackle that rose and coiled like a snake. “Look at you, all covered in dirt! What a pathetic little wimp! Roll around in the dirt some more! Nya na na na na!”
Cindy hauled herself up, simultaneously disgusted and amused. “I don’t believe it! You’re nothing but a petty, immature little bully! Now bug off, before I deck you back!”
“Hahahaha! There goes the pot, calling the kettle black! Hahaha! Petty? A bully? I’m right, you’re wrong! Hahahaha! Everyone but me! Me! Me!” She laughed wildly, stamping the ground with her foot.
Cindy backed away, shaking her head back and forth slowly. “You’re crazy! I am out of here.”
The green Cindy looked up abruptly. The action was startling, for her whole countenance had changed. Her eyes were unnaturally wide; they gazed dully to the fore, immobile, while her words tumbled out from behind a twisted, piano-key smile. “You can’t get out of here, Cindy. You can never truly get away from yourself. If you reject what you really are, I will destroy you.”
Cindy made a fist. “I’m in control of myself and my actions, not you! Now get out of the way! If you threaten me again, I’ll take you out!”
Dream Cindy listlessly tipped her head to one side. “You can’t destroy destruction. To do so only causes more destruction…” She raised her arm languidly, and the earth began to tremble.
“What’s…what’s going on?”
Green Cindy was suddenly shouting. “I’ll show you what you are!”
Next moment, sharp grains of sand rose from the ground and swarmed through the air, stinging Cindy’s skin like a hundred frenzied bees. She cried out and turned to run, but stumbled as the landscape pitched about like a ship’s deck in a tempest. The world rattled and cracked and rent apart, until the very sky itself began to crumble. The pieces rained down around her like chunks of dry plaster, and Cindy threw her arms up over her head to protect herself.
“Hahahaha! I’ll make everything fall apart. Rationalize, rationalize! I’ll wreck it! I’ll wreck it all!”
“Stop it! Stop it, please!” begged Cindy. “What’s the matter with you? Don't be like this!”
“Useless, useless, useless! Now die, disappear, cease to exist; break, break, break!!”
The fragments of celestial debris piled up over Cindy, crushing her, pushing her down. After one last struggle, the whole stack collapsed down on her and extinguished her consciousness. As the rubble settled to the ground, Green Cindy slouched forward, panting from the force of her exertion. After a moment she looked up, and tears trickled down her cheeks and around her deranged, grief-stricken smile.
“I just wanted you to stay with me. That’s why I…” She staggered slightly, then slumped down on the broken turf, a fragile little child alone in the wreckage. “Why wouldn’t you?” she whimpered. “I’m sorry. Come back. Love me, please, just accept me…don’t leave me here, all alone…”
But there was no answer, and then even the heavens themselves went dark, as if someone had switched off the light.
Libby’s eyelids fluttered open in her dream, and she found herself standing in the middle of a long passageway. Every few paces, a torch bathed the hieroglyph-covered walls in flickering orange. Beyond these oases of light the cavernous passage faded into purple gloom. The air was stiflingly hot, and the powder fine-dust which settled on her skin sapped away its moisture.
“Queen Howsaboutislapya’s tomb?” she murmured, glancing around. “How’d I wind up here?”
She took a few cautious steps forward. The crackling flames did little to mask the deep, rumbling silence of the tomb, and Libby’s unease only grew as she proceeded down the passageway. She approached a pair of sealed doors, which were fashioned from fragrant cedar and inlaid with garnets and lapis lazuli. Carven images of pharaohs and their consorts worshipped a pantheon of animal-headed gods, while twin paintings of the goddess Hathor flanked the entrance. Gulping, Libby summoned up her courage and gave the handle a push. To her surprise, it swung open.
“That was easier than I…”
She trailed off, unprepared for the sight that awaited her. The sanctuary was filled with treasure – chests loaded with jeweled necklaces and bracelets, tall alabaster vases, tables laden with waterfowl and honeycakes, gilded statues of muscular gods, boxes overflowing with amulets and shabtis – and everywhere gold, piles upon piles of gold, shining fiercely in the light from the torches.
The whites of Libby's eyes reflected the fevered glitter. After glancing furtively behind her, she approached the nearest chest and began pawing through its contents.
“Look at this necklace!” she exclaimed, turning a scarab pendant over in her hands. “I bet this’d go great with my teal dress...man, I gotta find a way to get this stuff outta here. Hmm…”
“Who goes there?”
Libby spun around, and her braids ricocheted off her cheek. At the far end of the room, on top of a raised dais, sat a girl about her own size. The uraeus cobra curled out from her brow, and a heavy beaded collar spanned the distance between her delicate brown shoulders. Four sets of bracelets covered her arms, and a blue sash closed her snowy linen gown tightly across her waist - but beneath all the finery, she was clothed in Libby’s normal pink shirt and jeans. It was only then that Libby was able to pin down the girl's real identity: not Queen Howsiboutislapya at all, but Libby herself, costumed to look like an Egyptian.
“You’re…me?” she asked breathlessly.
The Queen fell back against her throne, aghast at having been addressed in such a direct manner. “How dare you show such disrespect to your queen! Who do you think you are, comin' in here without an invitation!”
Libby hesitated, confused. “In…vitation?”
“Of course. Everyone knows that an invitation is required before having an audience with the queen.”
Next moment, Libby got a real fright. The area around the dais came to life with movement, as half a dozen mummified guards shifted in their stations. The room filled with the sound of rattling bone and straining sinew, as the dried-out husks swiveled to fix their eye sockets on her. Jewelry did nothing to lessen the gruesomeness of their soiled wrappings, which dangled in shreds from their limbs. Libby shuddered, goose flesh crawling over her body. She forced herself to turn back to the queen and attempt a curtsy.
“Please forgive me, uh… your ladyship. I just sort of woke up in the hallway outside. I didn't mean to intrude...”
For a moment, the queen's mannerisms mirrored Libby’s own. “Hold up! Whaddya mean, you woke up in the hallway outside? Did someone leave you there while you were asleep?”
“It’s kind of a long story, and I don't really have the energy to explain it all right now. It's been a rough day...”
“I don't care what kind of a day it was! Explain why you trespassed here!”
“Cut me some slack, will ya? I didn't know it was against the rules to come in here... I just found the door and didn't know where else to go.”
The queen stuck her nose in the air, resuming her arrogant imperial manner. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse. You have seen my majesty when I was not prepared to receive visitors, you interrupted my planning session for the party I’m throwing tonight – and worse still, you put your greedy little hands on MY treasure! For that you must suffer the consequences. Courtiers, do your thing, and dispose of her!”
Before Libby could blink twice, the bejeweled mummies had descended upon her. They grasped her body with their bony, desiccated fingers, but her scream never made it out of her throat. When she tried to pull away, they threw her down onto the ground and bound her hands behind her back with a golden cord. Grabbing her roughly by the shoulders, the mummies hauled her up enough for the queen to see her dirt-smeared face.
“Please!” implored Libby. “This is all just a misunderstandin’! This is some sort of weird dream or somethin’…I need to get back to my friends!”
“Is there no end to your insolence? A dream? Ha! Guards, impale the little liar on the torturer’s stake!”
They wrenched her off the ground, and Libby struggled wildly. This time her words to the queen were not pleading, but panicked. “How can you do this? You’re me! Don’t you recognize your own face when you see it? Look! Look at what you’re wearing underneath all that Egyptian stuff. How can you not see that you and I are the same person? Haven't you looked at yourself in the mirror before? You must be blind not to recognize your own face when you see it!”
The Queen rose up from her throne, practically seething with anger. “Blind? You want blind? You shall have eternal blindness! Guards, I’ve changed my mind about her punishment. Lock her in a sarcophagus.”
The Queen’s servants pulled Libby up, then dragged her over to a row of sarcophagi lined up against the wall. The nearest coffin was painted to look like a beautiful young woman with azure hair and winged arms; her serene expression belied the cruel fate awaiting the one entombed within her. Two of the mummies worked together to lift the coffin, tilt it horizontal, and place it down on the floor. Libby coughed on the cloud of dust kicked up by the casket, then redoubled her efforts to escape.
“No! Let me go!” Lashing out, she kicked over a table covered in gold statuettes, which crashed noisily to the ground.
The Queen's gaze snapped to the fallen idols, and she hastily added another command. “And fill the coffin with necklaces and jewels. Let's show her how useful fashion is when you don't have a crust of bread to eat.”
Tears came to Libby's eyes as the monsters pushed her to the floor – she could hear their dried flesh creaking, feel their knobby hands as they bore down on her shoulder blades, smell their fetid odor as they tied her legs together with a length of rope. Though her face was buried in the sand, the metallic clatter of treasure hitting wood made it perfectly clear what was happening. The weight on Libby’s shoulders relented, and she was able to roll onto her side and spit out a clod of dirt. Sweating from fear and from the stress of moving without the help of her limbs, Libby heaved her torso off the ground and sat up to face the queen. The undead stood in a semicircle around their victim, waiting for their mistress to finish her final speech.
“This is my realm, not yours,” proclaimed the Queen. “This is what you get for digging in forbidden soil. Pray to your gods that someone will come along to save you... because you have no hope of saving yourself from the fate that I've prepared for you.”
“This is just a dream,” said Libby. “I fell asleep, and I still haven't woken up – you're just a… mental projection, or somethin’…”
“Enough. Guards, gag her and throw her in the sarcophagus. Then we'll get back to plannin' the party.”
One of the mummies ripped a length of rotted cloth from his own arm and rolled it into a ball. Libby anticipated his next action, and with a shriek, tried to pull away. Another one of her captors grabbed her by the head and pried open her jaws, while the first mummy shoved the vile wrapping into her mouth. Her cries muffled, the mob hoisted her off the ground and dumped her into the open coffin. Assailed by terror, disbelief, and the cold bite of the treasure, Libby barely had time to drink in one last glimpse of light before the lid slammed shut.
Jimmy was still alone. After wandering through countless stone corridors, up meandering flights of stairs, and past rows of locked doors, he turned the corner and happened upon an open doorway. Attracted by a glow from within, he entered the chamber. He found himself inside a vast holographic planetarium: as he crossed the wooden floorboards, stars and planets whizzed overhead in a harmonious cosmic dance. Jimmy reached up and brushed his hand through a galaxy, and the individual stars scattered like pixie dust. He turned about, smiling in wonder at the sight.
“Superb! This is so well programmed!”
“You like it?” came a voice. “You built it.”
Jimmy tensed up. “Who said that? Show yourself!”
A second Jimmy stepped through a spiral galaxy hanging in midair, parting stars as if they were strands on a beaded curtain. He was dressed in a white lab coat. “Well actually, I built it, but it’s basically the same thing.”
The two geniuses quietly observed each nother before one of them spoke.
“What are you?" asked Jimmy. "Part of the hologram? My clone?”
“Neither, actually. But that’s not important. Now, I’m curious: what’s the last thing you remember before you came here?”
“I was…stepping into a new room in the emotions maze, when all of the sudden I looked down and I was standing at the edge of a canyon instead. Did that room…transport me somewhere? Or am I under some sort of hypnosis?”
“This room has created an interface between the different realms of your consciousness. It will let you dig up what’s buried deep down inside.”
“DJ wouldn’t make a room devoted to a meet and greet with the subconscious,” said Jimmy distrustfully. “This maze is designed to destroy the people who wander into it, not give them insight into themselves. What’s the real purpose of the room? Is it merely to stall for time while we’re trapped in this state?”
“I suggest you don't worry about it. Try to think of this as…a learning experience.”
Jimmy raised an eyebrow. “And what exactly will I be learning?”
“You’ll have to wait and see, won’t you?”
The holographic planetarium vanished from sight and was replaced by a laboratory, complete with eerie lighting and racks of bubbling test tubes. Jimmy looked around at the rows of Erlenmeyer flasks and tables dotted with half-finished inventions, before turning to his double with an ironic smirk.
“Mad scientist’s lab?”
“In a manner of speaking…” The labcoat-clad Jimmy lounged against one of the tables, smiling easily. “This is all so thrilling, don’t you agree? The others will not be able to carry out a dialogue like the one we are having. Their brains simply haven't developed the necessary reasoning capacities...cognitively, they are still just pre-pubescent children. Therefore, they will not be able to make sense of this experience in the same way that you will. Sure, they’ll feel fear and disgust and bewilderment, but they won’t understand what it means.”
“Fear?” repeated Jimmy, frowning. “Disgust? Just what sort of meaning am I supposed to be taking away from this?”
The double ignored the question, and instead asked one of his own. “Would you like me to show you my latest experiment?”
Jimmy hesitated for a moment, but curiosity got the better of him. “Well…I suppose it wouldn’t hurt…”
The doppelganger uttered a short voice command, and the floor began to shake. The glassware rattled on the tabletops, and Jimmy tentatively extended a hand toward the nearest bench, just in case he needed to steady himself. With a loud grating noise, a trap door slid open, and a slab-like object rose up from beneath the floorboards.
“What is that?”
The second Jimmy pushed away from the table he’d been leaning against. “Care to have a closer look?”
The two boys headed over to the object, which proved to be a three-by-five foot brick of solid gray material, with a human-shaped indentation in the center. The surface was covered in a tangle of wires and metal nodes which hooked in to a nearby computer. Jimmy eyed the device with suspicion as he examined what appeared to be a set of leather restraints.
“Uh…what exactly does this thing do?”
“Well, nothing at the moment. It’s incomplete. But, when it’s finished, it’ll be the most powerful computer ever built.”
Jimmy bent closer, teasing out the individual wires. “It doesn’t look like a computer to me. It looks more like a…well, like a cardiograph-encephalograph combo, with a bit of stasis technology thrown in to boot.”
His double grinned. “You’re getting warmer. Let’s see if I can give you a hint…all right: what is the most powerful computer on earth?”
“Well, as of right now,” recalled Jimmy, “I’m pretty sure that the fastest supercomputer is capable of something like a million billion calculations per second.”
“That’s right. It’s amazing what it can do, really - if six billion people were to do one sum per second on a calculator, it would take them 46 years to do what that computer could do in one day. And yet, in terms of the flexibility of its reasoning and its creative power, the world’s greatest supercomputer is still 50 times less powerful than the human brain. Now, here’s where things get interesting – what if the two could be made to work in tandem? What if a human brain and a supercomputer could be linked together into one, super-intelligent hybrid computer?”
“It’s an interesting thought,” granted Jimmy, “but it wouldn’t work – the human brain simply isn’t built to handle the kind of calculations that go on inside a normal computer. You could never join them together into a single entity, at least not without completely destroying the brain in question.”
“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. You see, with the help of my Brain Gain helmet, I can increase the intelligence of the subject until they can withstand the union. And from there it’s only a matter of strapping them in and hooking them up. That’s where this device comes in: I call it The Platform, and it acts as an interface between the organic computer in a person’s head and an artificial intelligence. Where one falls short, the other excels – it’s the perfect complementary technology.”
He chuckled blithely, but Jimmy looked unconvinced.
“But…what happens to the test subject? The computer would never function in an orderly manner if it were controlled by unstructured human thought. The mind is a strange and complex organ – the subject would likely have all sorts of mental blocks, and who knows what kind of things could be lurking in the depths of the unconscious, ready to steer the computer in random directions…”
“That’s why the test subject would have to be, for lack of a more politically-correct term, brain-dead upon insertion,” said Jimmy’s double evenly.
“Of course. I need the power of the organ without the fallibility of awareness. The success of the experiment depends wholly on the subject being unconscious and without willpower. The brain must be merely a component of the system – a gear in the machine, if you will. In fact, it would even be possible to hook up more than one test subject, allowing for an even stronger and faster processor.”
“But…you’d have to strip away their identities, turn them into a computational vegetable garden!” blurted Jimmy. “Who on earth would be willing to submit to an experiment like that?!”
The second Jimmy smiled again, but this time his lips had a sinister curl. “Why, no one, I imagine. But that wouldn’t stop me.”
Jimmy backed up a step. “You- you can’t do that! You can’t force that kind of an experiment on someone! It’s…wrong!”
“ ‘Wrong’? ‘Right’? What do those categories even mean? You know the answer as well as I: they mean nothing. Those concepts exist solely to facilitate human social interaction. There is no real meaning or value in anything – well, other than numerical value. Math and science are the only things that have substance, and even they are imperfect. That’s what you really believe, and this project aims to further that end.”
“That's not true at all!” defended Jimmy. “I've always believed in right and wrong. Science needs a degree of self-awareness, or else it has no framework in which to operate. I need to be a moral person; otherwise, how could I understand the impact of my inventions?”
“You, a moral person? Whatever gave you that idea? All the evidence points to the contrary. Where’s your sense of right and wrong when you’re endangering the people you love with your careless experimentation? Don't your actions PROVE that you care far more about technological advancement than you do for the welfare of those closest to you?”
“That’s not at all what I –“
Jimmy’s copy interrupted. “Let’s have a recap, shall we? What about the time you nearly got everyone in your town killed by aliens because you thoughtlessly sent a message into deep space? Or how about when you brainwashed your parents into giving you extra birthday presents, or mutated your teacher, or plunged Retroville into an Ice Age? Where was your sense of right and wrong when you cloned yourself, and then put those creations – who were living beings – on ice, thereby denying them of their right to live? And what about all the times you’ve risked Carl's life in the name of science – Carl, your very best friend? If you search through your memory, I'm sure you'll find plenty of similar examples. Are those really the actions of someone who cares about being ‘moral’?”
“OK,” admitted Jimmy sheepishly, “so maybe I haven’t always made the best decisions, but I always come through in the end and save everyone from the disasters that my inventions cause. And it’s not like I haven’t saved the earth from other catastrophes – like when that meteor was heading straight for Retroville. And what about all the dangerous villains I’ve sent to jail over the years?”
“They’re not the danger, you are. Sooner or later, the day will come when you aren’t able to save everyone from whatever monster you've most recently created. It’s a simple question of statistics.”
“I’ll find a way around it!” shouted Jimmy.
“Will you? Maybe you will. Or maybe by then you’ll realize the truth about the cost of advancement. Progress demands sacrifice; there are bound to be some casualties along the way. And why should that be a problem? You’re better than all of them anyway – look at the amazing things you create!”
Jimmy whirled around, fists clenched. “This conversation has gone far enough! I am out of here.”
Jimmy strode forward, red with anger – until it dawned on him that the doorway leading into the room had mysteriously vanished, leaving him with no way out. He turned back to face his enemy, goose-bumps rising all over his body.
“That’s a neat trick, but you can’t keep me here forever.”
“Can’t I?” The double snapped his fingers, and Jimmy suddenly found himself lying on his back, his arms and legs pinned to his sides.
“What the – ? How did you…?” He struggled to sit up, but a set of leather restraints held him firmly in place. He realized with a lurch of fear that he had been strapped into The Platform. “This is cruel and unethical! Let me go!”
His captor stared down at him without the slightest hint of remorse or conscience, as if he were nothing more than a specimen on the dissecting table.
“I don’t need your approval. That’s not why you’re here. You have a far more important role to play – can you guess what it is?”
“You’re a lunatic!” exclaimed Jimmy. “This room doesn’t connect us to our subconscious – it’s a leg-trap for our intellect…and our most depraved tendencies are the teeth!”
The labcoat-clad genius laughed. “Eloquently put! You’re right, of course. This room hijacks your flaws and fears, and then it uses them against you. It lies and manipulates and captures and ruins – whatever it takes to make you collapse under your own weight.”
“I thought as much. Now let me go!”
“Not going to happen,” said the doppelganger. “You’ve engaged with me; you can’t overpower me now. You might be able to keep me contained out there in the waking world….but in here, I make the rules. And as far as I’m concerned, you’re just a sophisticated organic computer.”
He momentarily walked outside of Jimmy’s line of vision; when he returned, he was wielding a syringe filled with a clear liquid. Jimmy’s eyes widened in fear, and he squirmed inside the restraints.
“I probably don’t need to point this out, but struggling won’t do you any good.”
He carefully prepped the injection site with a bit of iodine, then dispassionately jabbed the needle into his victim’s upper arm. Jimmy winced, shuddering as the fluid coursed through his bloodstream like a spreading fire. One by one his fingertips went numb, then his hands. The deadening sensation crept up his arms and onto his chest, until it crawled over his entire body like a second skin.
“Uuugh!” cried Jimmy. “Get it…out!”
“Don’t say such irrational things," scolded the other. "You know I can’t nullify an injection once it’s been given.”
Prickles raced up Jimmy’s sternum and into his neck. “Come on…it doesn’t have to be this way! I could…I could help you with the project! Two geniuses are better than one, right?”
Second Jimmy snorted. “Do you honestly think you can manipulate me? I know what you’re trying to do. I know everything you know, and more – for I have no qualms to hold me back.”
Jimmy wriggled with all his might, but his body wouldn’t respond. “I…can’t move my legs! I can’t move anything!”
“Yes, the paralysis is setting in now. Pretty soon you’ll lose consciousness as well.”
“You…you!!” raged Jimmy. “Get out of my head! Get out! You have no right to be here. You’re a trick, a ploy, a sick hallucination forced upon me by technology I don’t even understand! I’m not like this. I would never do this to anyone!”
“Give it a rest, my friend. I’m just the messenger. It’s not my fault you don’t like what you see.”
Jimmy bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut. “I won’t let this room beat me. I WILL wake up. Everyone is counting on me. I need to help the others. I won’t end this alone, trapped inside my own head.”
“Alone? Whoever said you’d be alone?” Retrieving a remote control from the table, second Jimmy indicated the far wall with a nod. “As it happens, I’ve arranged some company for you. Look, while you’re still able –”
A section of the wall slid to the left, revealing four cylindrical tanks filled with a glowing green liquid. Jimmy squinted over at them, and his eyes widened with horror: for inside the tanks, floating in suspended animation, were the bodies of Cindy, Libby, Sheen, and Carl.
“You see?" his captor chuckled. “It’s practically a party now that you’re here.”
“They’re just mental projections,” whispered Jimmy. “My real friends are out there, in the maze…”
“It amounts to more or less the same thing, wouldn’t you agree? You’re all out of commission, and that’s what matters. Enjoy your last seconds of consciousness, Jimmy. You’ll never be able to wake yourself up from this.”
“My friends will save me! They’ll…they will…” The edges of his vision grew dark, and his voice slowed to a deep, surreal crawl. “…will…”
“…will self-destruct too,” finished his double. “Idiot.”
-> Chapter 38 ->