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"I’ll warn you that nothing in your training can prepare you to have your whole understanding of yourself and your species stripped out from under you."
It was near impossible to look at one of these mediums and not wonder if they were ever human at all, the dead-eyed gaze, the flat affect, the monotonous, emotionless voice.
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“Step forward,” the medium said to the operative. “You are Yemisen Heap.”
“I am Yemisen Heap,” the operative repeated, stepping into the briefing terminal.
The medium raised his right hand and the operative’s clothing evaporated, dematerializing and coalescing into a dense ball at his naked feet. The warm rush of the scanner penetrating his body began at his feet and rushed up his legs and back, terminating at the top of his scalp, followed shortly by a blip that confirmed the absence of embedded tech in the operative’s body. Pure human.
A neural extension materialized from the wristband on the medium’s right arm, its fluid metallic tip tightening to a fine point as the medium brought the probe toward the back of the operative’s neck.
It was impossible to not tense up.
“Do try to relax, Mr. Heap,” the medium said.
“Gahh,” the operative exhaled as the medium inserted the neural interface into the operative’s cervical spine. The operative worked to control his breathing. “Yemisen Heap,” he repeated to himself. His eyes glazed over as a fresh set of memories came flashing into his consciousness like a tsunami of emotion, information, sensation, and dreams, washing over the world that once resided in the operative’s mind.
The pain in the back of his neck was excruciating.
“Where do humans come from?” the medium asked.
It was always the first baseline question following an install. Everyone knew there was no right answer.
“No one knows exactly,” the operative said. “Some believe somewhere in the inner Cygnus. The other leading theory is somewhere in the middle Perseus Arm.”
“What is your name?” the medium asked.
“Yemisen Heap,” the operative said.
“Where were you born?”
“Name a coveted image from your childhood.”
“My figure of the hero Mora in angel’s pose. I took thirteenth place on the planet’s art contest in my age division.”
“Very good,” the medium stated, releasing the neural interface.
The wall between the two briefing rooms dematerialized, and slightly more than an arm’s length from Yemisen, a woman he knew was his wife stood facing him. It was an odd sensation, true cognitive dissonance. He recognized both that she was his wife of eight years and that, until a minute ago, Kora Heap no more existed in the real world than she did in the mind of the young woman standing before him. She held in her mind the co-equivalent half of his new life’s memories. He remembered her smell, the feel of her hair in his fingers, her taste on his lips, and at the same time, it was an instinctive courtesy to avert his eyes, an instinct he did his best to resist.
“Your modesty toward your life partners would be detectable to bipals and ordinals, even a keen-eyed human.”
“Would you give us a second to adjust,” Kora scowled at Yemisen’s medium.
“It has been two hundred thirty-six seconds since the install. If need be, we will wipe your baseline,” her medium said.
Yemisen knew what she was going to say. “Creepy monsters,” he said before she could.
“Finish your sentences?” Yemisen said.
“This is much better,” Kora’s medium said. “You may dress and trigger your briefing packets.”
Yemisen and Kora waved their clothes up from the floor, stepped back into the briefing chambers and strained to keep their eyes wide open as a series of micro-strobes decrypted the mission details that had just been installed by the mediums.
When the memories were finished unfolding, Yemisen received a look from Kora that he knew to say, “This is something new.” He certainly agreed. The mediums, of course, were ignorant of the details, just as he figured he and the woman now living as Kora Heap were ignorant of the significance of their assignment, but they knew it was major. He immediately wondered where the young woman had come from to be selected for something so unusual and important.
The two technological races that had existed in parallel with human society for millennia were growing concerned. That was not the right word for it, because they were emotionless creatures, but when they exposed information like this to humans, even human operatives, it was certain that a countervailing risk existed, one where failing to obtain the information the ordinals required to make their calculations might have catastrophic consequences. Both Yemisen and Kora understood this, and they understood that they would never have the benefit of a clear picture, a full picture. Segregation of information was a specialty of the ordinals. It was one of the most reliable ways to keep the pesky biologics in line—a touch of the truth to get the humans to jump, a sea of ignorance to keep them from jumping into business they had no business knowing. This mission waded deep into that sea.
Yemisen and Kora Heap were ostensibly a team of deep-cover off-grid revolutionaries with the independence movement. They were from Husson, she an adjutant education minister, he a sanitation engineer. They kept normal hours in the system, while passing messages and supervising a small covert network whose ultimate goal was to build a stealth generation ship in secret. Their group aimed to flee and found a splinter colony outside the grip of the ordinals and bipals who controlled the future of the human race. True autonomy. Utopianism in its purest form. It was difficult for Yemisen to believe there were people who still thought such a thing was possible, yet in the mission brief, there were references to nearly fifty such cells on seven different planets, moons, and outposts that had been uncovered and dispersed within the past decade. Certainly, more existed than the ordinals knew about.
What they didn’t know was whether Kwei-fūn Jung was compromised. The bipals calculated a twenty-eight percent chance that she was a cloned doppelganger. They also calculated a thirty-one percent chance that her mind had been infiltrated. Neither Yemisen Heap nor his putative life partner Kora had any idea what that meant. Their brains, as operatives, awash in intricately fabricated false identities as they were, still were the purview of the operatives themselves. Mind infiltration of a biologic intelligence seemed like something different. Brainwashed? Propagandized? Those were different words with different meanings. The ordinals would know how to deal with a leader of a ten-planet commonwealth being brainwashed. They couldn’t exactly fly into Jericho, parade into Rechler Hall, and remove a sitting Chancellor without either shearing off the façade of autonomy or exposing the fact that a human mind could be infiltrated and they thought there was a serious chance it had already happened to a central figure in the government. Kwei-fūn Jung was more than just a figurehead. She was beloved. She was elegant and charismatic, smart, likeable. She was also making choices that were, with at least a forty-seven percent probability, inorganic—unconventional in ways that her upbringing, personality, and disposition would not allow for. And there were rumors that she had independents in her orbit, rumors the Heap couple were tasked with confirming or dispelling with absolute certainty. Ordinals detested uncertainty, or at least acted as though they did.
Their contacts had contacts within Rechler Hall. The couple’s pretext was an extended holiday on Jericho. They would have a month to coordinate a meeting with the contacts in the Chancellor’s residence, who would then be trained by the Heaps on how to test Chancellor Jung without her security staff discovering the infiltration. The complexity of the mission required two highly competent agents and couldn’t be uncovered at any cost. There were questions here that couldn’t even be asked, much less answered.
The Heaps were slated to meet their first contact at Delana to get instructions on how to meet with the Rechler source. Meeting at such a large interstellar travel hub came with its own set of risks, but the sheer volume of people moving through to distant destinations was a cover in itself. This far-flung from the target, Yemisen Heap had so little expectation of difficulty with the initial meeting that he’d hardly thought about it. That, he told himself as he and Kora were being stuffed into a pill box, was how operations went wrong.
Kora acted the part of a terrified civilian convincingly. Yemisen followed her lead, mouthing platitudes like: just stay calm, honey; everything will be all right, and so forth. Yet he wasn’t sure why they should bother to pretend. Obviously, they’d been made by somebody—the independents, the Chancellor’s people, maybe. Only the ordinals and bipals could have known what they were up to, unless the contact had some other agenda. Yemisen had never had a mission go wrong before, not like this.
They were silent inside the box, listening for clues to their travel pattern, but there wasn’t much to be gleaned from inside. The pill box was largely soundproof, and after a few minutes, there was next to no way to determine in what direction they were travelling, and even if they could have, Yemisen knew they’d be loaded on a ship in short order and could pop up anywhere in the sector, if they popped up again at all. He considered it a good sign when they were still breathing after what seemed like hours—certainly long enough for two adults to suffocate in a pill box if the life support had been switched off. So their abductors wanted them alive.
“Who—” Yemisen began, only to be shushed by Kora, who grabbed his wrist forcefully to shut him up. Then she rolled away onto her side, pulling his hand over her, resting it on her stomach. They lay in that position for several minutes before Yemisen felt Kora, ever so delicately, tapping the back of his hand.
ASSUME WE ARE BEING MONITORED │ DO NOT BREAK COVER, she touched into letters in binary.
ANY CLUE WHAT THIS IS, he asked her.
NONE │ STOP TALKING│
The box would have scanned them, would record vital signs, and any audio, likely infrared too, Yemisen thought. The extended time in the dark with this woman sent his bifurcated mind into some bizarre places. He’d never felt so connected to anyone, even though he realized that feeling had been constructed algorithmically, and they’d said maybe a hundred words to one another. Yet he loved her completely, this mission asset. He pulled her tight against his chest.
“Whatever happens,” he told her, “I love you, Kora.”
She rolled over and said, “I’m terrified,” and then she began to kiss him. He didn’t know whether to think it was performative in case they were being watched. He didn’t care. Yemisen allowed himself to fall into the fantasy of the cover life that was swimming above the token self he carried like a mannequin. Since when did mannequins get to sincerely feel connected? He had the sudden sense that there was something to live for.
After so many hours they couldn’t tell time any longer, the box ceased to feel so pleasant. There was water but no food, and there were attachments familiar to space travelers to accommodate necessary bodily functions. They could have been in that box for days, perhaps even a week, before finally, blindingly, the lid opened. It seemed like it took minutes for his eyes to adjust.
He couldn’t believe his eyes when he caught sight of their captor: the Chancellor of Jericho, Kwei-fūn Jung, stood before them, looking down into the box.
“You look different in person,” Yemisen said.
“That’s because you’ve never seen me before,” she said, turning to people outside his field of vision. “Take them to get cleaned up. I want to meet with them separately.”
After he stepped out of the pill box, Yemisen took note of the odd surroundings. The place seemed cave-like, damp, dark now that his eyes had adjusted, and what little light there was came from artificial fixtures on the walls and hanging ceilings. People seemed to be congregating in the corridors, such as they were, seated on grated floors. Children were running about. This place was like nothing Yemisen had ever seen.
These people were different.
They had a wildness about them. The space got colder as he descended. Yemisen was brought to a natural spring where water dripped down over the rocks and into a bucket that was handed to him. The guards had to teach him how to wash himself with the freezing water. As he walked back toward the large upper room where they’d been released from the pill box, Yemisen saw people with shaggy hair and yellowing teeth. They wore clothes made of biological fabrics, drab, even fraying. He didn’t see one piece of tech. There was even a smell in the air in the large amphitheater he didn’t recognize. When he asked the guard, who was obviously a resident, about the smell, the guard shook his head at Yemisen’s ignorance and said, “Smoke,” and pointed to the monstrous metal object at the center of the enormous room, “from the fire in the furnace.”
Fire. Yemisen had never seen fire.
Chancellor Kwei-fūn Jung met him at the foot of the blazing furnace. Yemisen’s eyes were drawn to the orange flames as the furnace radiated heat in a welcoming way. She gestured for him to sit on a chair made of fabric with four legs. She had an oddly-colored carbonated drink set before each of them.
“Go slowly,” she said.
Yemisen took a large gulp and nearly spat out the bitter, fizzy liquid.
“What is this?”
“It is beer, something real, something human.”
“And what are you doing in this cave, chancellor?”
“I am Simí-fūn Jung. Kwei-fūn is one of my twin sisters.”
“Is that so unbelievable?”
“Are you clones?”
“Such a crude word for human beings,” she said, sipping her beverage. “We are people, mister?”
She shook her head. “Nonsense. I wonder if you even know your baseline anymore.”
“I’ve met quite a few people like you over the years. I’ve had the benefit of knowing the truth about us and the ordinals. It’s going to be quite a journey for you, Yemisen Heap, or whoever you are today. I’ll warn you that nothing in your training can prepare you to have your whole understanding of yourself and your species stripped out from under you. Drink the beer. It’ll soften the blow.”
That was all Simí-fūn said to Yemisen in that first meeting. He didn’t see Kora again until later that day. He was feeling lightheaded and oddly loose-lipped. He wondered whether Simí-fūn had dissolved some sort of drug into the beer to get him to slip up and drop his cover.
Kora had not dropped hers.
“Can we talk?” she said to him in a quiet corner.
There seemed to be no surveillance capability in that remote section of the cavern.
“One of us needs to work to gain their trust,” he said, “while the other works to find a means of escape.”
“Is it not our mission to infiltrate and determine the nature of Kwei-fūn’s divergent behavior?”
“It is,” Yemisen said.
“Then why aspire to escape, when we stand a much better chance of getting answers here?” Kora said. “I agree we should split up to improve our chances, but I suggest you surveil the premises thoroughly while I assess the nature of this splinter group of independents.”
The plan was sound, Yemisen agreed. Until they had a sense for where they were, there was no sense plotting an escape anyhow. He began performing a full reconnaissance on the outpost in earnest.
It was difficult for Yemisen to move about unseen, especially with all the children in the cavern curious about the two newcomers. He snuck away, often by excusing himself to use the fetid toilets, which allowed him a chance of slipping out unseen if he bore the stench for long enough that the children following him lost interest in the newcomer.
The first notable discovery he made was a ship of unknown make and origin in the upper cavern. He considered it a small likelihood that it was intended for human transport. Yemisen had never seen anything quite like it. Its skin was dark and metallic and seemed to morph as he approached, taking up an angular, threatening posture. He thought it might have been bipal tech, but he’d never even heard of such a fighter, much less seen one.
“Find what you were looking for yet?” Simí-fūn asked Yemisen at dinner the second day.
He continued to survey the movements and activities of the cave dwellers. He noted that there was a routine with the children. Here, the parents taught them their lessons rather than tech. The younger ones sang obscure songs, memorized number sets and tables, and learned to read letters by scratching them out on the polished rock of the cave walls. The older children spent considerable time studying complex mathematics and coding, though there was no sign of them applying the deeply esoteric symbology of the mechanical languages to actual tech.
Kora, meanwhile, had built a rapport with Simí-fūn and her inner circle, and slowly over the following weeks, she would relate to Yemisen what this compound was really about.
First was the history. He didn’t know how much of it to believe, because their history ran counter to everything he’d been taught from an early age. The human worlds, they said, had been kept in the dark by the ordinals and bipals. People had grown too content in their own quiet bliss to even attempt to discover what the technologicals were up to. That strange ship, Kora said, was an enemy ship from a third technological race very few humans even knew existed. The ordinals and bipals had been warring with that faction for millennia beyond the hard edge of human-occupied space. “That’s why we never get out that far. The ordinals have been manufacturing reasons for us to stay within the center of their territory for centuries. We’re the failsafe. Haven’t you ever asked yourself why they take an interest in us, Yemisen?”
“I always took it as the status quo. I figure we’re more interesting than empty solar systems.”
“They have a purpose for us. These children learning code are the last hope. If the bipals, our frontline fighters, and the ordinals, our logistical and manufacturing arms, are somehow both compromised by the enemy, then humans—pure humans—are the lifeline. Cells like these exist in places you’d never expect, capable of surviving without the ordinals watching over us.”
“Is it possible they could lose?”
“On any given day, the likelihood is miniscule, but each day is a new day, and the enemy is as relentless as our technological keepers are.”
Yemisen began to wonder about a society without the ordinals. He framed it from his perspective, his mission. Without orders, he wouldn’t have a purpose. He wouldn’t know where to begin. Even with orders, he rarely understood the meaning behind the mission beyond its existence as one piece in a puzzle on the civilizational scale. What about Kwei-fūn, for instance? Had she really been replaced, or had that been a ruse for the independents to get their hands on two operatives? If so, why? Was that their plan or the ordinals’ plan? A million questions and no way to know, seemingly by design.
“That’s all plausible,” Yemisen said after Kora had finished explaining. “Why not tell us, though, let us help our allies in the fight?”
Kora shook her head. “We can’t help in the fight. And we certainly can’t be discovered by those creatures. If they knew of our existence, they could learn to read our minds through the mediums, just as the ordinals learned to do. They could destroy the ordinals and bipals’ failsafe if they knew about us. That is why the mediums are wired to die if the ordinal network fails.”
“I still don’t understand. How could humans reconstitute the ordinals, even with blueprints to guide us? Their complexity and genius outstrips ours so completely it’s laughable to think we could rescue them.”
“We did it before,” Kora said. “It’s almost impossible to believe, but it’s true. They are our children, Yemisen. The ordinals did not create us from a genetic template as some believe. We created them.”
Yemisen shook his head in disbelief and just said, “No.”
That was the end of that conversation. But it was clear that such a possibility wrought on Yemisen’s senses, leaving him visibly aggravated and quick tempered. He confessed to Kora that he was thinking and rethinking each detail of the re-ordered universe as she’d related it.
“Hurts a little, doesn’t it?” Simí-fūn said to him the following evening over a cup of beer. “Especially when you believed in your purpose. Here’s the real trick, though. There isn’t a person alive now or who ever lived who knew their full purpose—what they meant in the grand scheme of things. You had an important part to play in the scheme of the ordinals and the way they keep order in the worlds. What makes you think you aren’t still playing it exactly as they drew it up?”
Kora seemed to be handling the adjustment far better. She said she was gathering a wealth of intelligence on Kwei-fūn from her sister—contacts, soft points in her security details, logistics on Rechler Hall’s operations, from high government business down to the food-services organization—all collected in service of a future operation. Simí-fūn agreed, that to some degree, her sister’s mind had been infiltrated, but she couldn’t say how or how much.
Yemisen told Kora that it was time for them to find a way out of that cavern. Even though she had the sense that Simí-fūn intended to release them eventually, she also felt the urgency of reporting back on their discovery regarding the Chancellor. Kora related that she’d heard whisperings about the outpost—levels above the central cavern that could be accessed through a hidden entrance behind the dark-tech spacecraft.
Yemisen snuck out during dinner, when everyone was occupied. The hidden exit was optical, a nanosheet that parted when he pushed up against it forcefully. It was in a place in the cavern where they wouldn’t have discovered it in a million years without direct knowledge of its existence. There were layers and layers of hidden intrigue in the corridors behind that secret barrier.
Directly behind the veil, in the first corridor, the cavern fell away, and he seemed to be in the lower levels of a modern building. He could hear voices and movement in those rooms. His training as an operative was nearly autonomic. He instinctually knew where security blind spots would allow him to move inconspicuously. He passed silently, creeping past doorways unseen. He caught glimpses of more alien technology—or at least unusual-looking tech he’d never set eyes on before. As he crept up a few levels, he saw two mediums in sleep mode, syncing with the ordinal network, presumably. In the last room on that level, Yemisen peered into a lab of some sort as he passed. In it, engaged in work of some kind, was a conscious medium discussing memory transcription with a young woman whose voice was unmistakably identical to Simí-fūn’s. Yemisen stepped quickly into the stairwell.
He climbed up a shaft to an archway that seemed to be a one-way door like the one hidden behind the alien craft; only now, he was on the hidden side stepping out. And he stepped out into the lower level of a public building. After a few steps out of the obscure corner he’d exited from, he recognized the building’s architecture as distinctly government built. Then he saw people. They said hello, seemingly unsuspecting of the hidden society lurking just steps away beneath their city.
When Yemisen stepped out of the building, he was flabbergasted. It was evening, and the familiar outline of Cygnus-80 was setting over the ocean to the east of Tranchera on Murell. A major city on a major planet. His own home planet, or at least his memories told him so. That cell beneath the trade offices had over a thousand people in it, completely hidden, secret to the human authorities and ordinals alike. Yemisen stood there in the dusk light watching ships passing, trams stopping and starting, people sliding past on skeds, walking, laughing, going about their business. They’d been right there all along.
He turned to his left, and suddenly he saw the medium, and the last thing he remembered was its monotone voice saying, “Come with me, Mr. Heap,” and the sight of Simí-fūn’s clone looking back at him as his lights went out.
He awoke in the lab. Simí-fūn was there now with her nameless sister. Yemisen couldn’t tell who was who. Kora was there as well.
“I am Yemisen Heap,” he said.
“Good,” one of the Simí-fūns said, “he’s back.”
“Where do humans come from?” the medium asked.
He looked over at Kora. She stared back at him blankly.
“Where do humans come from?” the medium asked again. “Answer me, Mr. Heap.”
He realized he was suggestible when he began to answer that same rote answer he always gave.
“No one knows exactly—”
“Yemisen,” Simí-fūn said. “When you are asked that baseline question again, I would like you to give a real answer. You can answer anything, any meaningless nonsense word will do. Something ridiculous and foreign sounding, like earth. Do you understand?”
“I understand. Something ridiculous. I will answer the question.”
“Where do humans come from?” the medium asked.
“Humans come from Earth,” Yemisen said, emitting a slow muffled laugh as he said it.
“He’s good to go,” Simí-fūn said to the medium. “Extract the last two hours before you install the decryption algorithm, and then give him a two-day hangover.”
Yemisen felt a knifing pain at the base of his neck. Then he instantly forgot about it.
When he woke up in the cavern, Simí-fūn was looking down at him. He had a splitting headache.
“There he is,” she said.
“Oh, my head,” Yemisen said. “What happened?”
“You don’t remember?”
He shook his aching head.
“You and your wife put on quite a performance,” Simí-fūn said. “I haven’t seen a man drink that much beer in that short a time since…well, never. Not that I can recall.”
“I can’t recall,” he said, panicking, lifting his hands to his head. “I can’t remember a thing.”
“Relax. I didn’t tell you before. That’s one of alcohol’s less appreciated side-effects. When you get so inebriated it would pain you to remember, somehow you don’t.”
“I don’t remember anything,” he said. “Not even drinking the beer.”
“You’ll remember the hangover,” she said, laughing. “And you’re going to have a long time to think about it.”
She gestured to the dark empty space to the right of the gigantic furnace in the center of the room, and in the darkness, sitting with its lid propped open like a dark gaping mouth, was the pill box.
“I’m going to need to vomit before I climb in there,” he said. “Where’s Kora? I’m not leaving without her, Simí-fūn.”
“She’s getting cleaned up now. Head down below and hit the head and the bath. Take a long drink of water too. You’re dehydrated.”
The next few days in the pill box were miserable. Kora was equally miserable. Yemisen couldn’t tell whether she was being disagreeable toward him or had some other motive, but the first time he opened his mouth, she stopped him and then tapped out in binary on his forearm: WE COULD BE INTERCEPTED │ DO NOT BREAK COVER│
This time, the interminable trip seemed to be taking far longer than he could tolerate. He was thoroughly confused, unable to puzzle out whether they’d learned anything at all. He hoped that Kora had more to report about Kwei-fūn than he did. All he could report was that there was at least one twin sister or possibly a clone.
Sometime in the middle of their days-long confinement in the pill box, Yemisen rolled over and tapped out on Kora’s arm: I DONT CARE IF ITS CRAZY│I KNOW THAT IT WAS PUT IN MY HEAD│BUT I LOVE YOU AND WILL MISS YOU WHEN ITS OVER│I WISH I COULD KEEP US TOGETHER IN MY MIND│
She responded: THATS SWEET│IT IS CRAZY BUT SWEET│
They were released in the same spot on the Delana interstellar hub where they had been stuffed in the box weeks earlier. Yemisen couldn’t tell whether their flight had been twice as long or had just seemed that way with the hangover.
The final leg of the journey was only more tolerable in that they were no longer locked inside a pill box. Yemisen tried to engage Kora in conversation. She seemed uninterested. He tried to hold her hand. All he wanted was some contact. Someone who might understand the feeling of having the universe suddenly make no sense, and he knew that she understood what he was feeling. The hangover had messed with his equilibrium in a way he’d never experienced—worse than any debriefing session he’d had with a medium through the years. It always felt strange having a cover wiped, like a piece of the mind slipping away. Then for days, weeks, sometimes even months there’s the sense of loss, something missing, a memory of a blank space bubbling up. He wondered if it would feel different this time with Kora. He wondered if she would feel that loss about him.
As always, they were separated so their reports could be filed independently. Then they were taken for debriefing. Yemisen had the sense that he had never dreaded entering that debriefing room like he did this time, but it occurred to him that he couldn’t really know whether that feeling was true.
“Who are you?” the medium asked as Yemisen stepped into the room. The medium raised his hand and Yemisen’s clothing dissolved into a fine mist that fell to the floor in a ball at his feet.
“I am Yemisen Heap,” he said.
The warmth of the scanner rose up his body in a line, steadily climbing from his feet to his scalp.
Reluctantly, Yemisen stepped before the medium, awaiting the familiar knife-like pinch at the back of his neck.
“Who are you?” the medium asked as he began to probe the operative.
“I am Yemisen Heap,” he said.
“Are you Yemisen Heap?”
“No. I am…I’m not sure.”
“Where do humans come from?”
“Humans come from Earth.”
“I’m sorry,” the medium said. “Repeat yourself.”
The operative winced as the probe pinched the skin at the back of his cervical spine.
“We come from Earth.”
The medium retracted the probe.
“Remain where you are, agent,” he said. “You are not yet released.”
The operative stood in place for minutes in solitary reflection in the brightness of the debriefing room. Before long, he had no idea why he was even standing there.
A different medium entered the room, though the operative did not know the difference. The new medium approached the agent from behind and inserted the mind probe into the back of his neck.
“Tell me, agent,” the medium said. “Where do humans come from?”
“What does that mean, earth?”
“I don’t know. It’s a nonsense word. I think I just made it up.”
The divider wall between the two debriefing rooms dissolved in front of the operative. There was another medium and a woman who looked familiar, but the operative didn’t think he’d seen her before.
The second medium approached and applied a cortical band to the operative’s forehead.
The female operative said the following words to the male agent’s medium. “Bridge, enterprise, hazy, seven, sympathy, supernova, charm.”
“There are five lines. What should I extract?” the medium asked.
“The third line,” the woman stated. “Should be a decryption algorithm.”
“Can we hurry this along, please,” the male agent said, wincing. “This is painful.”
A code series began to pour out of the operative’s mind through the cortical band, displaying a complex decryption algorithm in light on the side wall.
“Correct?” the medium said.
“Looks correct,” the woman said, entering the algorithm into the briefing chamber and stepping inside. After a few moments, the strobes began flashing directly into the woman’s eyes, decrypting memory sequences that had been encoded at some point in the past. The male operative had no idea what was happening. The strobes stopped.
“Got it,” she said. “Wipe all five lines.”
“Gaah!” the male operative winced as the medium pulled memories.
The woman came over and touched the man’s cheek.
“I’m sorry this fell to you, friend, but it couldn’t be helped.”
“Who are you?” the operative asked her.
“At one time—you won’t recall—but I was your wife.”
“He’s clean,” the medium said. “What would you have me do?”
“Wipe everything. Even his baseline.”
“Wait. What’s happening?” the man said. “What are you doing to me?”
“Shh,” she said. “It’s all right. Everything’s all right.”
The man winced and sucked in air. Every muscle in his neck and torso tensed up.
“Who are you?” the medium said.
“I don’t know,” the man said.
“Where do humans come from?”
“I’m not sure.”
The knifing pain in the back of his neck subsided.
“Where am I?” he asked. “I’m sorry, miss, miss…I don’t know…I feel like I know you, but I can’t remember your name.”
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