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SPLINTER’S EDGE

MESH STORAGE – 2012-08-19 21:34:54
Hey, Dad. It’s me.
I’m in over my head.
I knew it would be bad, but I hoped I could handle it. Now that I’m staring the task in the face, I’m worried I will fail.
Or worse.
What do you think my future-self will say to me? That it will all be worth it? More likely, “I’m sorry, but everything will go horribly sideways, and the next few days are going to be a disaster.”
You always said to make weaknesses my strengths, which I try to do, especially since the accident. I’m just afraid the next few days will prove how weak I really am.
I wish I could tell you more, but it’s not safe.
Love you. Miss you.

CHAPTER 1

I think the universe just tried to kill me.

It wasn’t the first time Lahn wondered if forces beyond his control conspired against him, and it wouldn’t be the last. But this time was different. This time, it was more than breaking fourteen bones in his hand and living through the Accident, where random events felt bigger than they were. This time, the universe really had tried to kill him.

“Oh hey, jefe,” said Lucia, her artificial voice coming from speakers near the wall display. “I’m glad you’re not dead. Unless you are. Are you dead?”

Hunched on the faded gray love seat of his tiny apartment, Lahn shivered, right hand cramped in pain, eyes wide to keep back the darkness. “I’m . . . fine.” Probably? “I think I’m alive.”

“Humans are weird,” said the AI. “You fell to the floor and just lay there, like un cadáver. And I don’t know what to do if you get dead. But you’re not, so I’m glad.”

It should have been a normal Monday morning. After fighting the alarm clock and struggling with becoming presentable, he was supposed to find something not-horrible to eat for breakfast, get ready to join a video meeting, and attempt to talk to other engineers. But the Comfortably unpleasant morning routine had been interrupted.

Violently.

On his way into the kitchen—while trying to shake off an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu—his consciousness had been ripped from his present and slammed into a frozen, black, single moment of nothing. A moment where absolute zilch could exist. And if he stayed, the void would destroy him. Obliterate him. Squish him flat.

After forever—or in an instant—he’d come to on the floor, muscles cramped by cold, no idea how much time had passed.

“And ’cause you’re alive,” Lucia pressed, “maybe it was a DP episode?”

“No. I . . .”

Was it one of my episodes? he wondered desperately, heart attempting to escape his chest.

By habit, he started his exercises. Leaning back on his love seat, he focused on his breathing. Breathe in, hold it, breathe out. Five times and his pulse slowed. He closed his eyes to start a grounding exercise, but immediately snapped them back open and jumped to his feet, heart speeding again. The malevolent, silent void was still there, hovering on the edge of his perception, ready to crush him.

The crushing emptiness of the void wasn’t like the empty night sky, where the stars had been lost years ago. It was nothing like the dark of a bedroom at night, the polar glass of the windows set to black, blocking the pale-green glow of the evening sky. This was the absence of everything: light or dark, life or death, time or even reality.

“Your heart rate just spiked,” said Lucia. “Are you going to fall down again?”

“I . . . I don’t know what’s happening. It feels like I’m being chased by an empty void.”

“Ohhh . . . that sounds ominous,” she said with a bit of glee. “Want some more light?”

He took a deep breath. “Yeah, I think that would help.”

The wireless controls Lahn had installed over the light switches in his flat received a trigger from Lucia, and the lamp on his worn wood desk as well as the reading light next to his love seat shimmered on, adding warmth to the recessed lighting of the living room.

Lahn sighed in satisfaction, feeling the light like heat on his skin. “That’s nice. But how about all of them?”

“Every room?”

Lahn nodded.

¡Brilloso! Commencing Operation Supernova.”

Not a bad name, he thought as a sequential trigger started, with a delay between each to avoid blowing a fuse in the aging apartment. The doddering fluorescent lights in the kitchen flickered to life, and a cool, white glow illuminated the small plastic table and chairs nestled under the kitchen window. Next to the ancient fridge, the grow lights over the hydroponic tower faded from red to aqua.

In the living room, the display also came on, adding to the light of the room. He wished he could afford a newer holographic, but the display was a gift from his mom when he’d moved in. It was fine. A scene of vibrant woods faded in, moss growing from every tree, accompanied by gentle strains of oud and bamboo flute.

Lahn rotated slowly, eyes wide, pulling the light from every direction into his soul. He felt his anxiety receding, but the void was still there, on the edge of his perception.

Depersonalization, DP, had dominated his life for almost eleven years. Ten years, ten months, and two days, to be exact. His episodes were terrifying and horrible. It had only been in the last few years that he learned to manage them and keep them at bay. The idea of having the episodes start up again scared him more than he wanted to admit, but at least he understood them.

This? This was something else.

Lahn glanced at the binary hologram clock on the desk, a matrix of blue dots floating in the air above its base. When he’d first gotten the clock, Tia and Maddox had teased him because he couldn’t read it. But now it was second nature. He still had ten minutes before his work meeting.

“Luz,” Lahn said, “how long was I out?”

“Twenty-nine seconds.”

“Only thirty seconds?”

“No, twenty-nine.”

“It felt like forever.”

“It wasn’t. It was twenty-nine seconds.”

Lahn shook his head in confusion. His Depersonalization usually lasted hours or days, not seconds. But even if the experience of vast nothingness was not DP, his brain was sure he was still in danger. The light in the room had helped, but not enough. Whether or not his vision of the void was Depersonalization, his beating heart told him if he didn’t do something he’d find himself in an actual, full DP episode. His mind would split from the here and now. His perspective would become one of viewing the world through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, or watching his life as a movie. And that would only be half the fun; with the stress of the morning, he knew there was no way he could fight off the inevitable despondency that always came along for the ride.

Lahn drew in a huge gulp of air and let it out slowly while stretching his hand to release tension. He needed to start his grounding process to fight off the DP, but the void was still there, he could feel it, waiting for him. He couldn’t close his eyes for fear of that void. He couldn’t ground.

“No!”

Frustration coursed through him, and he leaned into it, driving off the emotional spiders of helplessness. “I can still ground!”

He turned from his clock and stood in the middle of the living room, allowing his vision to blur as he stared at nothing. With conscious effort, he put all his focus on his sense of touch. Pinpricks of residual chill ran across his fingers, and he blew hot air into his cupped hands, the temperature contrast causing goosebumps on his arms. As he rubbed his hands on his pants for added warmth, the fabric of yesterday’s jeans felt rough against his legs. He reached up and ran his fingers through his jet-black hair, bringing chills to his scalp.

“I can feel what’s real,” he said, stating the mantra with forced conviction. [I can feel what’s real.]

The thought reverberated in his head, echoing as if from an external source, and conviction became reality. One last breath released slowly through pursed lips and his anxiety receded to a tolerable distance. His heartbeat settled to a minor throb in the scar on his hand. Tentatively, carefully, he closed his eyes, and to his relief the dark void was not there waiting for him.

“Stars! What was that?” He slumped to the love seat and struggled to convince himself that it was not as bad as it seemed. Grabbing the fuzzy gray blanket draped over the back of the small couch, he pulled his feet up and wrapped the blanket tight around his whole body, with only his nose and eyes exposed to the cruel world.

“If it wasn’t DP,” said Lucia brightly, “maybe you were attacked by a weapon. I bet Lex Luthor hit you with a sleep-ray.”

“It was violent,” he said, poking his head out of his cocoon. “More like I was incinerated by the Eye of Sauron.”

In a fit of nostalgia, Lahn pined for his mother’s thrift-store couch back home: floral brown, tragically hideous yet cozy. A safe space to sit with his sister, Tia, and talk for hours about everything. Or nothing. She had always said to address his episodes head-on. Describe them, quantify them, put them in a box and move on. Even when Tia was not around to help, he always tried to do that.

Maybe he could catch Tia before she left for work. “Luz, call Tia.”

The call went through. “Hello, Lahn,” said Tia’s proxy, Tane, in a formal but friendly voice through the room speakers.

“Oh, hi, Tane,” said Lahn.

There had been a boycott against proxies a few years back, people afraid of the AI. The boycott didn’t last; proxies were too convenient. Which was fine by Lahn. He would almost always rather talk to a robot than a human anyway. “Is Tia available?”

“I am sorry, Lahn. She is busy at the moment. Would you like to leave her a recording?”

“Um, yeah, I guess so.” Better than nothing.

“Hey, Chị,” Lahn said as the recording started. “Kind of had a rough morning. Maybe it was a DP episode, but it didn’t feel like one. It was dark, cold, vast, and violent. Or none of those things. I don’t know, I can’t describe it, but it put me on the floor.” He sighed. “I’m not making any sense. I’m fine. Call me when you get a chance.”

How do you explain an impossible experience? Not well, apparently.

A growl from his stomach reminded Lahn how important food was to managing his emotions, and he freed his feet from his protective cocoon and stood. Tossing the blanket onto the love seat, he stretched and rolled his shoulders back, then moved into the kitchen for breakfast. Something light. He opened the freezer and pulled out frozen berries, grabbed fennel seeds from the cupboard, and tore some spinach leaves from his hydro tower. With an apple from the counter cut into slices, and a handful of ice, he put everything in the blender. The grinding sound bounced off the walls of his small apartment, a harmony to the grinding of his chaotic thoughts.

The strange letter Lahn had received yesterday, sitting innocently next to the blender, drew his attention. Blessedly, it had nothing to do with the incidents of the morning, and he allowed himself the distraction.

The letter was weird, for sure. It had shown up, slipped under his front door: full-sized manila envelope, string clasp and everything, with only his name typed on the front. Inside was a single piece of paper with a string of numbers typed in the center.

Who would leave him a note with only random numbers on it? The strangeness had kept him from throwing it away. In the corner was an icon: a solid, upside-down triangle, with a hollow, diamond-shaped overlay. Maybe he could ask Lucia to do an image search and find out what it was.

“Soooo . . .” said Lucia. “Your work video meeting. Are you skipping?”

Stupid job, he thought. He wanted to skip. For some reason, he’d been dreading this meeting more than normal. But this one was important. They were kicking off the functional engineering project for a new set of features. “No. I need to go.”

He took a sip of his blended mix and closed his eyes, sweet and bitter flavors overlapping as the cold drink slid down his throat. He could be a minute late. Muscles tense, he focused all attention on the simple sensations. Yes, life was complicated and weird things were happening, but he could get through it. Sure, he felt a lingering sense of unease. Okay, the sense was getting stronger. But he’d survived before. He could set up an appointment with his therapist, and together they could—

Something intangible slammed into Lahn, a flash of white light, heat, and noise.

Fear, confusion, and smoke.

And the horribly familiar sensation of not being in his own body.