The Echo Chambers, 49

“Do you ever find it unsettling?” she asked, her voice thoughtful as she touched one of the silver cylinders that controlled the terminal. “To know that anyone can see so much of you at the spin of a dial?”

“Monitoring my biological systems is the least of it.”

She turned to face him fully, and he forced himself to do the same. “What else is there?”

“I think we both have enough to think about for now.” He smiled, feeling his age pull at him.

 

Lyssa sat in the car the next morning, her fingers squeezing and releasing the steering wheel in slow, convulsive movements. The sky was the light-rimmed dark of early morning, soft in its stillness, the grace of a predator lying in wait. She swallowed hard, ignoring the cold sweat at her temples and down her spine, cursing herself. Again.

Movement stirred the shadows at the corner of her eye, and she turned, heart racing. Ji turned the corner of the building, his eyes watchful. He approached with sure steps, and she had the sense that he’d been watching her long before she’d noticed him.

Lyssa waited until he stopped several feet away before she opened the car door. “I didn’t think you’d come today.”

“I thought as much when I saw you leave without me.”

She felt her cheeks heat a little. “I’m sorry. I should have asked, but I…” she trailed off and shrugged, jiggling the keys in her hand.

“It’s been difficult,” Ji finished for her. Then, casting her a significant look, “For everyone.”

For Clare, he meant. Lyssa frowned. She still wasn’t ready to deal with that. Not yet. Instead, she crossed the tiny lot and unlocked the door to her bakery, turning on lights and trying to ignore the relief she felt at the sense of Ji at her back. A stranger, given to grand delusions, and yet he felt safer than anyone she’d ever known.

Having been introduced and trained in the basics by her competent staff, Ji immediately began to turn on the ovens in preparation for the breads left rising overnight. Lyssa entered her small office, cluttered but ruthlessly neat, and booted up her computer.

After checking her email and confirming her schedule, she returned to the kitchen to start her baking. They worked silently together, both ignoring the subtle hum of tension that lay beneath the quiet. An hour later, Sarah bustled in, her cheerful running commentary enough to break the strange melancholy that had begun to sink into Lyssa, and she fell gratefully into routine.

By the end of the day, her exhaustion was one of satisfaction. She logged out of the computer, gathered her purse, and poked her head through the bright curatin that separated the kitchen from the storefront. “Are you okay closing?” she asked Sarah.

“Yep.” She lifted her head from the display of petite fours. “Have a good evening.”

“Don’t stay too late.”

“I won’t.”

“Ted next door says he’ll walk you to your car if you’d like.”

“I know.”

“They’re open until eight, though, so you should—”

“Lyssa,” she interrupted, turning to give her boss her full attention. “I know you’re worried after… everything, but you don’t have to do this every night.”

“Not every night,” Lyssa said, frowning.

“Okay, fine. Ninety percent of them.”

She blew out a breath that lifted her bangs. “It’s at most seventy-five percent.”

Sarah’s lips quirked, but she managed not to laugh. “My point is, you don’t have to worry. I’m very careful.”

“Good. That’s good.” She hitched her purse strap higher up her shoulder. “Ji’s left already?”

Sarah nodded. “About an hour ago while you were on the phone. Why?”

“I could see if he’d be willing to change his shift so he could be here in the evenings.”

“Don’t you dare.”

Lyssa blinked, taken aback by her assistant’s vehemence. “What? Why?”

“Because I worry about you, and someone should be here in the mornings. Besides, you know you can’t handle everything by yourself first thing. A couple of weeks maybe, sure, but it’s just too much. Besides, he’s hot.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Sarah grinned, her eyes glinting with mischief. “I’m just saying.”

Lyssa narrowed her eyes. “Whatever’s in that head of yours can stay there.”

“Okay.” Fighting back her smile, she reached for a paper towel and needlessly swiped it over the counter.

“Be safe.”

“Okay.”

Lyssa hesitated, feeling strangely unsettled, but Sarah still refused to make eye contact. It wasn’t until she was passing through the back of the kitchen that she heard the muffled laughter and, shaking her head and having a chuckle at her own expense, she opened the door to the warmth of the late afternoon.

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The Echo Chambers, 48

“You’ve already seen some of its benefits,” he said, reaching beside her to turn on the terminal. The screen came alive again, the image of the beating heart in the upper corner.

“Seya?” that lilting automated voice said.

“Ja’nee,” he replied, rotating a cylinder. “Ji la noné quen sa a’rune.”

“Pah. I l’sona.”

Lyssa edged closer. “What are you saying?”

“The terminal just asked me to identify myself, and I did.”

“All of that was your name?”

“My name is Ji.” He glanced at her with a half smile and then turned back and touched the image of the heart. “The rest was just my identity code.” With a flick of his finger, he moved the image to the center of the window and enlarged it.

Fascinated, Lyssa moved so close her hips touched the desk and studied what looked to be an amazingly detailed computer simulation, the steady beat and rhythmic rush of blood rendered in exquisite detail.

“That’s me,” he said quietly.

She looked at him, incredulous.

“The mesh monitors all biological activity. At the moment, my heart rate.”

“So this is your heart? Right now?”

“Yes.”

“And the stuff in your hand does this.”

“It’s beneath every inch of my skin,” he said with a low laugh, “but essentially—yes.”

She turned to him then and gestured to his hand. “May I?”

Ji found himself hesitating before offering it to her palm up. She took it in one of hers, her touch gentle, and traced the palm with the fingertips of the other. “You’re warm,” she said, her voice soft.

“98.8 degrees.”

She didn’t seem to hear, lost as she was in the feel of his skin, tracing the contours of each of his fingers as she bent closer, studying each line and whorl, wondering if the faint trace of blue beneath his skin at the heel of his palm was a vein or a glimmer of the mesh. “You don’t feel any different.”

The steady background beat faltered, and she glanced at the screen again as if having forgotten it, watching his heart as she reached out and pressed her hand against his chest to feel its rhythm for herself. She still cupped his hand in her right, the palm of her left hot against his chest, even through the soft cotton of his shirt, her fingers pressing lightly.

“It’s beating faster,” she said, her eyes still on the screen.

She was right. Surprised, he turned to the monitor and watched his own heart claim a few extra beats. She touched him as others had, with a practicality tinged in fascination. And she was attractive, he acknowledged as he studied her profile now, as other women had been attractive, but none of them had affected his heart. Why had it been her. Why now, in this place?

Unsettled, he covered her hand with one of his. “So it is.”

Her gaze snapped to his, and something hung between them in that moment, both heavy and ethereal. Ji felt a shiver roll down his spine, and he gently removed her hand from his chest and let it go, feeling strangely raw and so very tired. Lyssa looked a little shaken, a furrow etched between her brows.

“I believe that is enough for now,” he said, turning from the hazel eyes that now seemed to look too deep. With a flick of his fingertips, he sent his heart away and brought up Cale’s stats instead, not because he needed to check on his fellow villein, but because he need a moment to gather himself.

I have been alone too long.

You have not had conjugal relations in 6,712 days¸ Mesa said.

That is not helpful.

Your stress levels are elevated. The female is aware of the program. She is now able to consent to a sexual

Silence!

”This is a fascinating system you have,” Lyssa said beside him. He chanced a glance at her, but she was studying the terminal again, watching Cale’s blood hum through his liver. He wondered if he’d imagined that moment between them, as unlikely as that’d be. He never imagined. More likely she’d chosen to ignore it.

“It’s efficient,” he said, switching off the terminal. “That is the primary focus.”

The Echo Chambers, 47

“I repeat: it’s not that simple.”

“Then we’ll get Dan or Sam in here to help.” Betrayal sliced through her again at the unmentioned Clare, and she pushed it firmly away, clinging to her skepticism like a shield. “I want you to prove it.” She picked up the box of threose mesh and offered it to him. “Go on. Show me.”

He took the box, but only because her jaw had tightened and her shoulder had grown rigid, and he couldn’t be certain that she wouldn’t throw it. He hadn’t seen the signs of her temper until now. Impatience and disbelief, yes, but not temper until it blazed sudden and fierce in her voice and stance. Ji not only respected the force of it, but her ability to have hidden its rise so well, and he took his time answering as his own temper began to stir, yearning to meet hers. Strange to feel it at all. “It’s not something the human body was designed for. The pain of transfer is debilitating. Too many transfers, especially too close together, can cause permanent damage or worse. It’s not done on a whim or to prove anything.”

Her jaw still had a mutinous set to it, her eyes burning temper, and he sighed.

“My colleague in the other room requests that her remain unconscious for a minimum of three days after every single one of his transfers. And he’s a villein like me. This is his life. It’s what he does, travel from world to world. He’s better equipped than anyone else in this world—other than myself—to make these transfers, and he would still rather lie in a coma than deal with the aftereffects. So, no.” He slapped the box onto the counter. “I won’t ‘show you’.”

“So I’m just supposed to trust you?”

He spread his hands. “Or just walk away. It’s your choice.”

She stared at him, her anger and frustration palpable, and he found himself holding his breath even as he struggled to maintain a calm, neutral expression. He met her challenge for challenge and, finally, Lyssa looked away. He released his breath softly, his body relaxing. He hadn’t realized how much he needed her to stay, and he didn’t stop to exam why.

Turning, she began to absently turn dials on the console. Ji suspected it was more to avoid eye contact than a manifestation of interest and let her. “So what makes villeins better equipped to handle the jump—the transfer?” she asked.

“Several things. Genetics. Training. And the mesh.”

“You have different stuff than that?” She lifted her hand from a cylinder long enough to wave at the box beside her.

“Yes. Ours is denser, more intelligent. More like one of your computers, I suppose, though more advanced of course.”

“Of course.”

He lifted an eyebrow, though she didn’t see it. “Sarcasm? When you have evidence of our technological advantages in front of you?”

Ignoring him, her fingers found the button to turn on the screen, and she looked up at the symbols and images that appeared before her, the heart in the corner still beating steadily. She watched it a moment before glancing over at him. “Can I see it?”

“Yes and no.” He offered his hand, palm up. “Technically you’re looking at it now. It’s embedded in my skin.”

“Embedded in your—” Shock had her turning to stare at his palm, her expression bordering on the horrified. “Seriously? What, are you like some kind of Borg?”

No immediate reference known, Mesa whispered.

He looked down at his own palm, unwilling to watch the jumble of emotions pass through her eyes. “I really wish you’d stop with the references to popular culture.”

“Like a Terminator. A cyborg.”

Cyborg, noun—an entity part human, part machine. The term now identified, Mesa was able to flip through examples, in short order providing images and references for both the Terminator and the Borg. He had a strange urge to laugh. “No. Nothing like that.”

He risked a glance at her and found her still staring at his hand.

The Echo Chambers, 46

Resigned to her interest despite her incredulity, Lyssa watched as Ji crossed to a cabinet near the empty bed with the strange oblong ring above it. He opened a couple of drawers, apparently unfamiliar with the room’s setup, before turning back holding a long, thin box not unlike the kind used to deliver roses. He offered it to her, but she instinctively put her hands behind her back. “What is it?”

“Mesh,” Ji said, moving to place the box on the counter beside her. He removed the lid, and she leaned closer despite her trepidation. A delicate material lay folded inside, its mottled gray color unremarkable and unexpectedly bland.

She hadn’t been sure what to expect, but it wouldn’t have been something so benign. “This is the stuff? The living tissue?”

He nodded.

“It doesn’t look living.”

“It’s not really. Not in the way that we’d call living anyway. It’s purely synthetic and non-sentient, but it’s designed to behave much like skin, and it’s grown just like human tissue. It also reacts to stimuli. Touch it.”

She looked at him, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

He merely nodded toward the material. “Go on. It’s perfectly safe. Just be careful not to tear it. I wouldn’t call it fragile, exactly, but it is… delicate.”

Lyssa reached out a hesitant hand and brushed her fingertips over the surface. The gray brightened to a near silver where her skin touched and spread out over the surface of the mesh like ripples in a pond. “Wow,” she breathed, pressing her palm to it this time and watching the entire surface warm to the color of brushed nickel. The mesh felt smooth and cool like a silk scarf, and as she lifted an edge, she found it as thin as gossamer. The colors shifted as she pulled out a length, letting it fall through her fingers as it shimmered and pooled onto the counter. “It’s not what I expected.” She looked up to find Ji watching her, his expression shuttered. “Why does it turn silver?”

“It responds to movement, pressure, temperature, or some combination of the three. It’s a failsafe. Whatever is moved between worlds must be covered completely by the mesh, or it won’t transfer fully. When the mesh touches end to end, it knows to create a field within its boundaries, and while it does have a kind of aura effect that extends beyond it, it’s only a distance of half an inch or so. Anything beyond that gets left behind.”

She stared at him. “So if your hand isn’t completely covered?”

He grimaced. “You transfer into the world missing a hand.”

With a shudder, she folded the mesh back into the box.

“When a full seal is created, the mesh turns completely silver. Fewer hands are lost that way.”

“There has to be more to it,” she said as she closed the box. “You can’t just wrap yourself in a blanket and pop into the next dimension.”

“The mesh works with the halo circuit,” he said, pointing at the ring of white above the bed, “and with the echo chamber.”

“Which is?”

“This room is an echo chamber. As is the one my colleague is occupying. The walls, ceiling, and floor must be imbedded with a special configuration of materials and mechanisms that allows it to concentrate the push and pull of the mesh and the halo circuit. To use your analogy of the radio station, the mesh is the radio, the halo circuit is the antennae, and the echo chamber is the tuner. It’s all controlled here.” He waved a hand at the clear glass screen above the counter, the one that she had turned on earlier.

“Okay. So you wrap yourself up like a human burrito, lie down under a plastic ring, and then push a couple buttons, and you’re bouncing around worlds studying people.” With her arms now crossed and her eyebrows raised, her skepticism would have been obvious even if she’d said nothing.

“Did I not make it clear that it’s not that simple?”

“Show me.” She cocked her head, a challenge in her eyes.

The Echo Chambers, 45

He sighed. “Our roles here are not as grand as all that. We, each of us—” his gesture included Clare and Sam, “—help facilitate the transfers. We’re technicians.”

“Transfers?”

“The arrivals. For the vill—for people like Ji.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What didn’t you say just now?”

“Villein,” Ji said before Dan could speak. “It’s what I am.”

“It’s your word for anthropologist?”

“You could say that. We don’t really have anything that translates exactly.”

Clare took a step toward her. “Lyssa, he isn’t—”

“I’m not talking to you.” Her words were clipped, her mouth tight, as she turned hot eyes on her friend.

She flushed. “I just—”

“No. No, you don’t get to talk. Not now.” Her anger burned too bright to be swayed by Clare’s wide, hurt eyes or the way they began to gleam with unshed tears. Clare’s throat worked and then she turned and walked out on unsteady legs without another word.

Sam cursed quietly. “Was that really necessary?” he asked her as he followed his wife.

She turned to Dan, silently daring him to challenge her temper. Instead, he offered a small, sad smile and stood. Without a word, he left.

Lyssa pressed a hand to her eyes and realized she was shaking. A long breath, then another, and she felt calm enough again to raise her head. Ji watched her, one hand on the table and the other on his knee, patient and relaxed. “If this is some sort of sick joke—”

“You saw the technology. Watched my colleague’s heart beating from one room over. Tell me, have you ever heard of technology like that?”

“How did you know what I saw?”

“You think our technology lacks security?”

“Surveillance?”

He nodded.

“So you didn’t find me by accident.” She blew out a heavy breath and tapped her fingers on the tabletop. “I’ll admit I haven’t seen anything like that, but that doesn’t mean that someone  somewhere hasn’t designed it.”

“Well, naturally.”

“I meant here.”

He shrugged a shoulder. “I didn’t.”

“Right.” She leaned back in her chair and mimicked his pose, trying for the same easy posture. “So let’s just say it’s true and not some twisted, expensive, horribly complicated prank—”

“Yes, lets,” he said, not quite able to keep the amusement from his voice despite the straight face.

“—Then how does it work exactly? Is it a ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ situation or like a ‘quantum leap’ or what?”

His brow creased. “Those are popular culture references, correct? I have more difficulty accessing those.”

“Accessing? Nevermind,” she said when he opened his mouth to explain. “Later. Right now I want to know how you go about jumping around different dimensions. What’s the magic spell that makes you go poof, Houdini?”

“Threose mesh. It’s a special material that can be tuned to the frequencies of the various dimensions and transfer whatever it surrounds between the planes.”

“Right,” she said, drawing out the word. “So it’s cloth.”

“Put simply, yes.”

“Magic cloth.”

“Not magic.” He leaned forward, his expression earnest now. “It’s the result of generations of scientific study and technological advancement. Our greatest achievement. Threose mesh is constructed of something similar to what you’d call a bio-nano-chip, suspended in living tissue that—”

“Wait. Living tissue?” She asked, her nose wrinkling.

“Yes, it’s—” At her growing look of disgust, Ji stood. “Come. I’ll show you.”

“I don’t think I—”

He left the room without letting her finish, betting that her curiosity would overcome her distaste. He didn’t know where the others had gone, and he didn’t see them as he passed through the hall and entered the empty Echo Chamber that Lyssa had explored first. Turning on the lights, he watched with satisfaction as she trailed behind him.

The Echo Chambers, 44

Ji turned and walked from the room, pleased and oddly humbled when Lyssa didn’t hesitate to follow.

“You said he’s sick. What’s wrong with him?”

“Not sick. His body has had a shock, a symptom of which can be severe nausea among others. He’ll need a few days to recover, but he’ll wake up feeling well.”

“What kind of shock?”

He wasn’t certain what compelled him to reveal the truth to Lyssa, or what he could of it. While she wouldn’t be the first dresi to be told of the myriad worlds, she was the only one he’d chosen. Was it because of her relationship to Clare, knowing it’d be a relief to the young, naive technician to be able to speak freely to her friend? He decided it was, even though, when Lyssa looked at him in that silent, penetrating way she had sometimes, he felt her clear through to his bones. Some villeins operated solely by reason, but Ji had long ago learned to follow his instinct when pulled hard enough, so however he’d come to the decision, it’d been made, and he saw no reason to postpone it any longer. “Perhaps we should join the others in the kitchen. I can explain over a cup of tea.”

 

A low buzz hummed in her ears, underneath all the words. Maybe she hadn’t heard right. “A parallel universe.”

“Yes.” Ji didn’t shift in his seat across the small dinette table. He sat relaxed, one arm resting along the tabletop. His dark eyes stayed level and calm.

Lyssa’s gaze darted to Clare, who still hovered near an old fridge, twisting her fingers together until her knuckles bleached. Her face had gone white when she’d seen Lyssa follow Ji into what used to be a break room and now served as a makeshift kitchen. Her color hadn’t returned, save for two twin spots high on her cheeks. She tried for a smile when she met Lyssa’s gaze, but the effect bordered on sickly. It was enough to tell Lyssa that her friend, at least, believed. And because looking at Clare made those feelings of betrayal, anger, and loss rise again, she looked away.

“You do know how crazy this sounds.” She told Ji.

“No, I’m afraid not. We were all raised with the knowledge of the dimensions. Of the four of us, only Clare is born of this world.”

“What?” The claim jolted through her, and she swung her gaze to the man leaning against the counter. “Sam?”

He, too, looked startled by Ji’s words, then sheepish, his dark eyes apologetic as he shrugged broad shoulders. “A’sa na koorus. He speaks the truth.”

She turned to Dan next, sitting to her right where he’d sat silently through the whole exchange. “I’m sorry, hon. It’s true. Though you shouldn’t know about it.” He tossed Ji an accusatory look.

The buzzing in her ears pitched higher, drowning out all other sound, and she looked back at Ji. He was the eye of the storm, a calm center in the midst of upheaval, and she stared at him until the buzzing faded again. He gave her time, silencing Clare with a lifted hand when she began to speak.

“So you—all of you—” she refused to exempt Clare “—are from this—this other planet?”

“Dimension,” Ji said again. “Same planet, different… realities.” His brow creased as he frowned slightly, the only indication of his frustration as he waded through the words. “Your lexicon doesn’t accommodate an adequate explanation yet. Our worlds are layered, one over the other. We exist in the same space, only on different…frequencies.”

“Like a radio,” Lyssa said.

“Yes!” Pleased by the analogy, he leaned forward and smiled. “The sounds are there. You just need to know how to tune into the stations.”

“And this is a station.”

“Both literally and figuratively.”

She crossed her arms over her stomach. “I don’t believe you.”

Ji only nodded. “Few do at first.”

“Why?”

“It seems a difficult concept for some—”

“No, I mean why are you here? What purpose would any of this have?”

“Ah.” An easy enough question to answer with a partial truth. “To study.”

Lyssa thought about that. Same world, he’d said, but different realities. All the variations of the world, all the different possibilities of humankind manifested, and yes—she could understand that. “So you travel and study how each world is different. Like an inter-dimensional anthropologist.”

This time he smiled fully, the corners of his eyes creasing as it flashed and faded, and he blinked at her a second, as if surprised by his own reaction. “You have a way of phrasing things perfectly.”

She stared at him, her gaze caught in his. “Thank you.” She couldn’t speak for a moment, and then something twisted in her chest, and she cleared her throat as she shifted her eyes to Dan. “Is that what you’ve been doing here? Studying?”