“Would you like any coffee while you wait, Mr. White?”
Julian White looked up from the folder in his hands. With a folder against her hip and an antique tea tray in one hand, Imre Void’s secretary looked every bit the informed hostess. She even matched the decor in the classical study outside Void’s office. Her shoes were red, a shade lighter than the oriental carpet, and her grey suit contrasted with in her white skin in a way that was completely unreal. A moment later as he was opening her mouth, he realized that was the suit in the window of Adore he had refused to buy his girlfriend. High cheekbones, red lips, watery eyes, bright red hair, and he was staring, but she did not seem to care.
“Yes please. Coffee would be nice.”
The secretary placed the folder on her desk and returned with the tea try. Setting it down on the coffee table in front of Julian, she poured him a cup of coffee, and before he could say anything, she dropped two sugars and poured cream into the cup.
“How’d you know?” Julian asked with a chuckle.
She flashed him a smile. “I was told this was how you liked it.”
You’re important, translated Julian, and he gripped his folder tightly as he took a sip of the coffee with the other. It felt nice to be important.
“What’s your name?” he asked, more confident. “Imre Void keep you busy?”
“My name is Naomi,” she answered, “and Mr. Void is an excellent boss.”
She laughed. “No complaints,” Naomi repeated. “I expect he will be ready for your appointment in a moment.”
His girlfriend would have been proud of him—he didn’t look at her again as she returned to her desk, and he flipped open his folder again, determined to not be distracted by an assistant, an assistant that would make any girlfriend insecure about her appearance. If he hadn’t stopped attempting to match his dark socks years ago, he would probably be intimidated by her beauty.
His socks were matching today though. And as he stared at the graph on the first page of his report, thinking about his matching socks and Naomi, the secretary opened the door to Imre Void’s office.
“Mr. Void will see you now.”
Julian got to his feet and drifted through the door, dimly aware of the gorgeous secretary shutting it behind him, and dimly aware that one of his shoes was coming untied. Imre Void was gazing out a large window beside his desk, but when Julian entered, he turned and approached the scientist.
“Mr. White, thank you for coming to see me today,” said Imre Void.
Julian shook his head. Naomi’s boss was impeccably dressed in a black suit that fit so well it was distracting. The office was large, white, black, and red. The walls curved, expensive, and the suit was sharp, expensive, and the assistant was smart, pretty, and expensive.
“Please take a seat. The armchair in front of the desk is the most comfortable.”
As Void crossed the room, Julian noticed that Void’s black socks didn’t match.
Imre Void sat down in his desk chair and Julian settled into the armchair. Beside Void’s desk was an android, all smooth lines and metallic, its hand frozen over a chessboard sitting on Void’s desk. Engraved on the wrist was Void Inc in an even cursive.
“Another game android?” asked Julian.
“Not another, I’m afraid,” said Imre slyly, leaning back in his chair. “Meet Nathan, the original game android. Of course, I’ve altered his programming over the years. Sometimes when I tire of work I lay him on the desk and update his programming.”
“It’s strange,” commented Julian, beginning to relax. Androids were something they could both discuss. “I would have guessed that you would have created the outer... features.”
Julian wiped the stainless steel hand and glanced at the chessboard.
“You know, people want something to remind them androids are fake,” said Imre Void. “Metal irises, plastic fingernails, barcodes... But me? I prefer them all metal, or all skin.”
Naomi knocked on the door and then opened it.
“Would either of you gentleman care for something to drink?”
“Thank you, Naomi.”
Naomi crossed the wide office, her heels clicking on the floor as she carried them a tray of ice water. After placing the tray on the desk, she turned and left, the only noise her heels, and Imre Void stared out his window. Noami closed the door.
“I imagine you believe I have asked you here today to buy your company,” said Imre Void. “But that is incorrect.” He continued staring out the window. “I am not here to discuss your plans either, or inventions.”
Julian didn’t move, startled.
“I would like to show you something, Mr. White. What do you think that machine is?”
Void didn’t point. He didn’t even have to look at the large, metal sphere that consumed the far corner of the office. To Julian, it looked like a metal beach ball, or a prison.
“I have no idea,” he answered.
“I would like to show you. And once I show you, then we will talk.” Imre Void got to his feet and walked over to the sphere, and after running his fingers over the glassy surface, a door opened with a mechanical sigh.
Julian walked over, curiosity getting the better of him. Imre Void was his only rival, and he was a rival that had always been beyond him. Void had always seemed to find the chinks in his armor, always seemed to be in the boardroom first, and he seemed to be made of relentless ambition. Julian’s android company was an upstart, a little riot in the tidy world that Void otherwise controlled, and it gave Julian White a little pleasure to know Void at least respected him to show him his newest creation. He crossed the room, Void opening his arms like a grandfather revealing a surprise.
“If you step inside,” said the creator, “we can begin.”
Void stepped away from the door, and Julian entered the sphere. Black wireless receptors buzzed around him, and he blinked into the pitch black space. He heard the machinary chirp, like a muffled bird, and the sphere flooded with white light.
The air in the sphere became damp, the air of a humid summer day, and Julian could feel his sense of space expanding. Julian tried to look at himself, but when his vision swung downward to look where his legs should be, there was only white space.
So, it’s altering my spacial perception and I cannot see my body, which means Void has created a mind from body machine. Julian turned around as the white space began to form a forest, dark pines appearing from a white mist. Even though he had no arms, he could feel the cold mist gathering on his arms and face, and he could smell the pines. But it’s not just some video game.
Imre Void had made a fortune developing androids and then arcade video games. The Void games could place a person in a game, but players could only “see” in the game. The machine attached to the visual sections of the brain and shut off the others. Players could not feel, smell, hear, and whenever they thought, their thoughts echoed around them as if they had spoken aloud.
This machine attaches to all my senses. Julian moved towards a pine tree. He wanted to touch the pine tree, and he could feel the bark crumbling under his fingers, even though he had no limbs.
His voice was not echoing either. It was as if the machine had cast an illusion over his mind. There was the Julian White who had walked into the machine and whose mind was pulled from his body. Then his mind was tricked into sensing a misty pine forest, and then the new tricked mind could fully function and make decisions in the illusion.
“I have not programmed your body,” came Void’s voice through the program. He could hear Imre typing, putting data into the program. “As you can probably guess, I would have to insert a description of your body into the program, just like those pine trees you’re touching.”
Julian drew his hand away from the tree. He moved deeper into the woods. Then he heard the crunch of boot on branches.
“Hello?” he called out into the mist. “Anyone there?”
An ax swung towards Julian’s head, and the poor scientist ducked. He slipped on the wet ground, got a face full of moss, and as he rolled over, he screamed. A man covered in furs, wearing a metal helmet, was lifting his ax over his head. The viking gave a battle cry, the ax plummeted downwards.
Julian heard Imre Void sigh and the clicking of a keyboard.
The forest vanished. The mossy ground changed underneath his feet, and colorful underbrush sprang up. Massive tropical trees drenched in vines as thick as his forearm blocked the sky, and thick leaves cast the entire rainforest in a green, like stain glass windows. A yellow dart frog sprang from a tree to a vine, a cloud of tiny butterflies drifted overhead. He could hear bugs squirming and clicking, like Naomi’s heels, and it seemed like every millimeter of the humid, sweaty air was crawling.
Julian moved through the underbrush, pushing vines aside. While the pine forest seemed foreign, there was something in the rainforest that seemed calming, more familiar. He recognized the smell in the air, the floral and musty scent so heavy it clung like dew to his nostrils. It was hot, but he had always felt more comfortable in hot places. Julian had never been to a rainforest. But Julian felt like this was a game where he knew the rules. This terrain felt a reoccurring dream, a childhood home, or an old photograph of a place he had been but just couldn’t remember it.
So when a native, a small man with brown skin and a bow stepped in front of him, Julian White didn’t scream. He stared at the man with his back straight, and raised his chin. Instead of firing his bow, the man circled him, pulling back on the bowstring and watching. Julian could feel his heart pounding in his chest, but he didn’t want to fight. He wanted the man to realize he wasn’t a threat.
Why? wondered Julian as the thought occurred to him. Why are we allies?
As the man came to a stop and lowered his bow, Julian inwardly smiled and shook his head to himself.
That’s some brilliant programming, Void. I have no idea how you did that. No freaking idea. What part of the brain was that?
As Julian followed the jungle man along the path, he was barely paying attention to his surroundings, his brain moving a mile a minute.
How could you influence that... unconscious? What were you even playing with? How could you change irrational, familiar... What?
Julian gritted his teeth. The pair approached a village. As they walked into the primitive village, the familiarity began to subside, and Julian heard more furious typing at a keyboard. The village transformed into a city, a teeming ancient metropolis, and Julian’s steps grew more confident as his guide led him into the crowds. Rising up from the jungle was a great pyramid, and Julian felt excited, though he didn’t know why. It reminded him of the time he had visited an empty battlefield and for some explicable reason, had felt the urge to study its history. The choppy pyramid carved from yellow stone was important. Julian felt important. He glanced down to look at his socks, and then he remember that he didn’t have a body and that this was all an illusion, but then Julian bumped into the pyramid. He felt as if he was forgetting something important.
More keyboard clicking, and then day shifted to evening. The city was filled with the sounds of frog song and fires crackling. Then it was evening, and the moon was full. Torches lit the pyramid. Chanting filled the streets, and Julian had the same content feeling as one hearing a phone message from a loved one. His guide was gone. Julian wandered the streets to the front of the pyramid, the chanting growing louder and louder. He shoved the yelling crowds aside. He had to see what was happening.
Following the blazing line of torches up the pyramid to the starry sky, Julian watched a robed figure raise a blade. He knew what sharp rocks felt like. He had played with them in the yard as a boy, and he could imagine how it felt in his hand. More clicking, and suddenly he was at the top of the pyramid and the stone knife was in hand. He stepped forward, his priestly garb glinting in the torchlight, and he knew he was a priest because the chanting rose from below, and the heavens and the jungle was spread before him. And he knew there was a god, and that he brought the firm, cool weight in his right hand crashing down.
His hand acted on reflex. He barely saw the man squirming. Julian was dimly aware of the wetness on his hands, and he brought the blade down again. But instead of the muscle of the abdomen, it pushed through the ribs. His other hand plunged through the tissue, and he grasped the pulse and lifted it into the air. The chanting grew.
“Fascinating,” he heard Imre Void mutter, and as if breaking from a trance, Julian dropped the heart onto the ground in horror. Then the ancient city was gone. The machine brought him to new places, some he knew from history books, some he didn’t know. But he never spent as much time in them as the jungle city with the human sacrifice. He zoomed through deserts, forests, cities. He heard a flurry of languages, stood on rocking ships and mountain tops. Then Imre Void brought him back to the heat and the mist. There were new jungles, new time periods, but none of them felt quite right. Then Julian heard English, but with a strange accent, and the mist from the swamps felt homely. Just as Julian realized this, a Southern town appeared before his eyes.
Almost, thought Julian, but not quite...
Then the town changed to a watery field. He watched crop technology change, then abruptly stop. That strange familiarity returned, just as intense as the ancient city.
The humidity returned, and then the fires, torches returned.
He could see a group crossing the field, torches and white. Julian White moved towards a mulberry tree on the edge of the field. The men were dressed oddly, white robes and hoods, but Julian somehow felt, somehow knew they weren’t crazy, and then he watched them raise the torches and saw who they had brought with them. He couldn’t tear his eyes away. There was a flash of fire, brown, white, and then the night sky, and then he was among them in flesh, bone, and cloth. He was moving on autopilot with frightening regularity. When he tripped over his robes, he realized once again this was just an illusion, an elaborate ruse, but Julian felt sick.
There was something about the intimacy of it, and the realization of this intimacy, that made him want to throw up. Then they lit the torches onto something, and the screams, and there was the same founds a fish makes when held over a campfire, and then he had collapsed in the middle of the machine.
Imre Void opened the door and leaned inside.
Julian White slowly got to his feet, shaking. He wanted to question Void, to figure out how he had been messing with his head, his emotions, his subconscious, or whatever the hell that was. He wanted to grab one of the most powerful men in the world by his collar and shake him until he talked. But he was too emotionally exhausted to move. Void reached down and offered his hand. Julian White took it and exited the chamber. He dropped into the arm chair in front of Void’s desk just as the creator put a keyboard away in a drawer.
“What the hell was that?”
“What do you think it was?”
Julian stared at Void.
“That is a sick video game.”
Imre Void gave a very small and secretive smile. It was the kind of smile one gives two moves before checkmate.
The young man leaned forward in the armchair and tried to stare Void down. It didn’t work. Something inside Julian White was trembling, and deep down, he was afraid of what Void was going to say, and he was not sure why.
“You alter the subconscious to invest people emotionally in the game?” tried Julian.
“That’s impossible,” Julian muttered to himself.
“What did you do to me?” Julian whispered.
“I simply placed you in various times and places,” said Void carefully “and observed how you reacted.”
“You didn’t interfere with my...”
“Conscious or subconscious, or anything in you for that matter. I simply observed and changed the settings.”
Julian closed his eyes and leaned back into his chair.
“What were you observing?”
“The question you want me to answer,” said Void calmly, “is why did you react the way you did in those situations.”
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t.”
“Why would you be personally invested in a place or time you had never been?”
“If I had researched it, if I had studied it perhaps,” tried Julian. Void shook his head. “I can’t think of anything else.”
“You know the answer,” said Imre Void. “But this answer seems too impossible for your brain to suggest it to you. You suggested research. But what would prompt you to research something you knew nothing about? What leads you to draw a book off a shelf for no reason? What makes you, you Julian White, connected to an Inca priest and a twentieth century KKK member, hmm?” Void pressed his fingertips together and looked at Julian long and hard. Julian shook his head to himself.
“I don’t understand...”
“How could we connect emotionally with something that never happened to us?”
Julian stared out Void’s office window, the floor, his matching socks, and the neglected ice water Naomi had brought in earlier that was covered in condensation. It was dark outside. He had been in the machine for several hours. Julian was exhausted, and even though Void was only on the other side of a desk, he seemed completely beyond him. Void had a eerie kindness in his eyes as he said:
“How could we connect emotionally with something that never happened during our own lifetime?”
Julian couldn’t move.
He implies a connection to someone beyond this lifetime. He means we are somehow connected to people gone, that we’re influenced by previous lifetimes. He means...
“You don’t mean...”
“That is exactly what I mean.”
And the bastard said it with the same assured calmness as someone reading a completed crossword puzzle. Julian trembled grasped the armrest, just to have something to hold on to.
“Why did you stop on those two incidences in the machine?” Julian whispered.
“I think you already know the answer to that, Julian White.” Void got up from his chair and smoothed out his suit before walking around the desk and picking up one of the glasses of water. “Which brings us to our next discussion.” He handed Julian a glass. “I would like to purchase your company.”
“I will not sell my company to you.”
Void watched him and took a sip of his own water.
“I think you will.”
“I don’t even know if what you’re saying is true!” hissed Julian. “I don’t know how you’ve done any of this—I don’t know how you’re gotten to this conclusion! Your machine could be the source of the reaction, not the other way—”
“I constructed that machine to discover other people’s previous lifetimes,” said Imre Void. “Everyone, I believe, is influenced by our older existences, whether we are aware of it or not. We are drawn to irrational things, we connect with places we’ve never been, and we easily imagine ourselves in certain circumstances. Every person has layers to them before they are born. We have multiple lives. We now know two of yours.”
Imre Void picked up a form screen and an electric pen. “For better or worse,” he added. “Maybe this knowledge will answer some questions for you, hmm?” He paused, thoughtful. “Or maybe it will create questions.” Void held out the form screen and the electric pen to Julian.
“Why me?” croaked Julian, visions of the sacrificial knife heavy in his hand, the white hoods, and the way he had once pulled off the highway to watch a train burn after the reactor overheated, fascinated.
“Because you are a brilliant scientist, and I have plans for you. Plans that involve this machine.”
“You can’t blackmail me,” hissed Julian White. You can’t blackmail me just because of a feeling. “I won’t just hand over a company because of your voodoo.”
“I think you’ll find the deal is quite reasonable,” Void said with a careless glance at the contract. “I’m sure it’s the deal your board of directors has been hoping for.”
“Go to hell.” He wanted to break the pen in his hand and throw it in his rival’s face.
“Would you like to step in the machine again?” asked Void, his dark eyes snapping Julian into tiny pieces and rebuilding him again. “You might be able to figure out how it works.”
The younger man stilled. He didn’t want to trudge through another field and burn a man alive and feel...
Void paused, watching as Julian White signed his name.
“And I have always wanted to buy your company, but never had the right wedge.”
Julian shoved the form at Void, who took it and placed it on the desk. The younger scientist looked at the machine with loathing.
“What are your plans for the machine, boss?”