*Ætherglow is an interactive story based on collective decisions by a daily poll here.*
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You’re finally on your way to Translunar Academy. You’ve had your ovaries implanted and you’re running on a nice hormone balance today. You feel better than you’ve felt in your life, especially much better than the last year or so. You’re learning how to feel things you never thought possible.
You walk down the snow-covered streets of Korolev City. The humidity control system is malfunctioning again. At this point the city makes more from tourism for its snowy nights than it spends on maintenance dealing with the repercussions. It’s just the day before dawn, as cold as the city gets. You’re wrapped up in a thick coat, but you don’t let that stop you from wearing a pretty skirt. You’re done hiding who you are.
You have a new terminal in your pocket, printed the other day from a restricted file the Academy sent you. Unlike a normal terminal, it has no physical inputs. You’ve learned the basics of controlling it using your new neural interface, the collar you wear tight around your neck, which reads your brain activity and sends back sensory data directly to your mind. Learning to use a device like this is only your first step as a technopath.
You take the train to the spaceport just outside the main city complex. As you’re approaching, you see a shuttle descending. At its high altitude, sunlight lights up its exhaust plume. From here in the shadow, it’s a brilliant display, the most beautiful thing you can see in the Spaceside sky. All around it are the uncountable stars, wavering through the distortion of the thin water boundary that shields the train tunnel from radiation and keeps temperatures within survivable limits.
The spaceport itself is less romantic, busy crowds pushing through narrow hallways, Earthlings and colonials arriving and struggling to walk. You make your way up to your platform and look around at the other faces who will be boarding your shuttle. There are just a few, mostly kids you have never seen before, from other schools in the city. But one of them notices you, and you recognize him.
Viktor is a boy you know in passing from your last school. You’ve talked a few times, but you never really got close to anyone there. He was always alone, reading or something or hyperfocusing on code. You remember he was also taking the technopath qualification exams, looks like he passed too. Viktor is a full 20cm taller than you, but so slender he probably doesn’t outmass you by much. His dark hair is starting to grow over his pale blue eyes, and he brushes it aside periodically with his hand. He looks like he wants to say something to you, but he’s stimming nervously, rocking back and forth.
Is now the time to deepen a friendship or is it better to get a fresh start?
I always found him interesting, now is my chance to get to know him
Time to take one step out of your shell and attempt friendship, you think. Easier said than done, how do you just talk to a person? You’ve already both noticed each other, so you just decide to walk up to him.
“Um, hi. I’m Aydan.”
“Yeah, we went to school together, right? I’m Vik, uh, he/they.”
“Any pronoun,” you say.
Time for conversation is cut short by the boarding call, it’s time to go. You walk up to the gate. As a technopath candidate, you no longer need to scan your personal key. You connect your interface to the device remotely and submit your boarding pass.
Once on the elevator you get your first look at the craft. It’s a tiny automated short range shuttle, an LTS-4200, common for flight site-to-site on the Moon or from the Moon to the L1 or L2 clusters. It’s only about 10 meters tall, a cylinder wrapped in insulation that shines gold by the spaceport lights.
You climb in and find the tunnel leading to your section. Like most craft in its family, the 4200 is sectioned off into smaller pressure vessels each carrying two passengers. Since it services only short range flights, there is barely enough room in your half of the compartment for even a tiny femboy like you.
Climbing in after you is your podmate for the flight—it’s Vik! Much better than some complete stranger.
“Looks like we’re stuck with each other,” he says, though smiling.
You strap yourself in, fastening several belts over you that automatically clamp down tighter afterward. Now there is nothing to do but wait for liftoff, staring out at the endless grey desert outside the spaceport from the little circular window above your head.
Maybe now’s the time to make conversation.
Have you read Lan Tsing's theory on the 21st century origin of femboys?
Wouldn't it be fucked up if this shuttle was cyberattacked and our lives were held for ransom?
“Hey, what would you do if femboys from the 21st century attacked this shuttle and held us for ransom?” you say, mixing up two unrelated trains of thought.
“Uhh, that’s weirdly specific Aydan. Why, did your ancestors freeze themselves somewhere just to pull this off?” Vik says.
“Of course not. But that’s just what a femboy hijacker would say, so you never know…”
“Well then, I’d probably distract them by telling them they’re cute while I send a distress signal and hope a rival gang of 22nd century femboys answers
The green light above you goes red. They are beginning the launch sequence. Liftoff is as gentle as riding in the elevator was. You can’t see anything from your window but stars, but you watch them move, trying to track the spacecraft’s attitude. Luckily a roll program brings your world into view. For a minute you see the Mare Muscoviensa spread out beneath you, with the dwindling spiderweb of lights that is your home falling further and further away.
You’re gaining altitude fast. Launching from Spaceside to the L2 is a direct injection with no need to enter low Lunar orbit. The burn lasts about 20 minutes before you finally feel the acceleration cut off. Now the shuttle is orienting itself and entering a roll, its Passive Thermal Control program making sure all sides of the craft are evenly heated by the Sun. The light turns green and you feel your belts loosen up. Now you can really tell you’re in orbit.
You’re just about to unfasten yourself so you can properly experience microgravity when you feel a jolt, like one of the maneuvering thrusters fired.
“What was that?” Vik says.
“I don’t know, is that normal?” you say.
The light goes back to red and your belts automatically tighten back down just before you feel a sudden shift in rotation. Then another on another axis. The maneuvers before this were all very gentle, these one really jerk you around. And they keep happening, faster and faster. Glancing up at your window you can see the stars go by at an alarming rate, changing directions every few seconds.
This is an automated shuttle, there is nobody on board except you and your fellow passengers, all technopath candidates or school staff who are probably technopaths.
What’s going on?
connect to the local network and look for answers in the ship's computer
What do you know, a 148 month old femboy, know about spacecraft system architecture? Nothing to do but learn as you sit here helplessly strapped to a chair and rapidly gaining Gs from your increasing rotation on three axes. The constant changes in acceleration also make you feel nauseous, very distracting.
But you connect your terminal to the local system. It’s laid out like most other computers, that’s good. Looking at random documentation files hoping to stumble on something useful, you eventually run
lsrcs to display status of the maneuvering thrusters.
They’re firing seemingly at random, no pattern discernible even to your pattern-seeking autistic brain. Another thing catches your eye in the documentation: your technopath’s terminal is able to trigger an “emergency mode” on the ship’s computer and allow you to send simple operational commands.
It’s one thing to take a look at the surface, but if you went that deep and actually controlled the craft, and they discovered it was you, you could find yourself the prime suspect of a corporate sabotage investigation. You don’t know if what’s going on is simply a glitch or if it is an act of sabotage you might implicate yourself in. The consequences could be serious for you. But also, you have limited time until the G forces acting on you will render you unconscious, and eventually, dead.
What will you do?
take your time to try and gain control anonymously
Death is a small risk to take as opposed to being hunted by corporate technopaths forever. You go the extra steps of anonymously entering the shuttle’s emergency command mode. Just in case you are discovered—no plan is foolproof—you even take a few extra seconds to leave logs of each step you take and why you are doing it.
You’re feeling very lightheaded now. You figure you have time to enter one command before you can no longer grip consciousness.
With only numbers on your terminal to go by, you struggle to calculate what you need to do. You are about halfway sure your math is correct under this mental duress.
LTS-4200-19263/EMERGENCY-SHELL > _
rcs —axis pitch -f -10 -t 7
You submit your command. After seven seconds, the pressure on your head has lessened considerably. You monitor the status of the ship’s rotation, and it seems you were not the only one working on the problem. The other axes stabilize soon enough and the computer is able to take it from here. This tells you it is likely functioning fine. The thought crosses the back of your mind that signs are pointing to sabotage.
Once stable, the light goes green again and your belts loosen. You unstrap yourself, wanting to move around after all that. You’re finally getting to actually experience microgravity. It’s a strange sensation, as if falling but going nowhere.
Vik also releases himself. “Aydan, what the fuck?”
“Were you looking at it too?” you say.
“Yeah, naturally I at least wanted to see what was killing me.”
“It didn’t look very accidental to me.”
“Me neither. A femboy cyberattack after all?”
“I can’t begin to guess their gender, but a remote attack is all but impossible on an automated shuttle like this. They’re kept on an isolated network and only accept encrypted navigation data. A very close ship could have done it, or, the other and more likely possibility is it was someone on board the shuttle.”
Just as you say this, there is a loud knock at your pod hatch.
hold onto the wall by the door, lying in wait
You climb across the little pod and hold onto the wall next to the hatch, signing that Vik should do the same, across the door from you. Whoever was knocking on the door opens your hatch from the outside and pokes her head in, looking side to side at both of you.
“What the hell are you two doing? Come on, we’re having a meeting.” She is a student a few years older than you, a tall girl or perhaps enby, with her hair dyed white and shaved close on the sides, with icy blue eyes—not her original eyes, perhaps, there seems a faint glow to them. She wears tight black pants with light blue fluorescent accents that glow as a ray of sunlight passes by your window. Her black vest leaves her arms exposed, and under her pale skin you can see the traces of the implanted nodes and wires of an internal neural interface.
She pushes herself out of your pod with the grace of someone experienced in microgravity. Out in the central corridor, the few other students and school workers are gathered at the entrances to their pods. Confused and distressed faces glance at you as you emerge.
“Alright everyone,” the upperclassman who summoned you says. “I’m Synth, they/them, year 3. And a lot of you probably suspect the same thing I do, that incident back there was no hardware or software issue. I’ll be blunt with you, we will arrive at TLA in less than eight hours, and one of the eight of us aboard this ship might be a saboteur who attempted to kill us all.”
“Okay,” Synth says, looking around at the other seven of you. “Any thoughts on how to proceed?”
“Hi,” an older enby raises their hand. “I’m Ana, it/its, I’m a nurse at TLA. I was thinking that there is a way an attacker could survive something like that, if they had injected themself with a high dose of a G-stimulant.”
“How long could that effect last, would they have had to do it on the shuttle where their podmate would see?” Synth says.
“No, they could have done it in the spaceport,” Ana says.
“Could you tell if one of us was under the effect of such a drug?” Synth says.
“Without analytical equipment, only people who already have implants monitoring their blood chemistry could be measured here.”
“That means you could at least check the blood of trans people with hormone implants, or anyone else with a bioreactor implant of some kind,” Synth says.
“Who all would that be?”
“A good plan...*if* Ana can be trusted.”
“A good plan…if Ana can be trusted,” you say.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Ana says. “I’ve worked at TLA for thirty six years!”
“They’re right,” Synth says. “If we did that we’d have to take you entirely at your word, that isn’t a kind of security fitting a technopath.”
“Um, I have a different approach,” says another one of the adult passengers, a man of some 370 months. “I’m K, he/him, I’m a systems engineer at TLA station. But my job in the military was programming shuttles similar to this one. There is of course a surface-level command log viewable to any amateur with a terminal, but even a first year technopath candidate could bypass having any identifying information recorded there. But if this civilian shuttle is anything like the ones I worked on, it also has a hidden log, accessible only æther-side. Records in that file could be linked directly to the neural interface used to access the system, the æther-trace will be unmistakable but only if that user returns to the directory with you to compare it.”
“Okay. It’s as good a plan as any right now,” Synth says. “I’m going to take a look, and that means all of us are going in together.”
“Wait, wait,” Vik says. “First years here. We barely know what the æther is let alone how to enter it.”
“Right, you haven’t done this before,” Synth says. “Yet, there’s no real choice here, once dissociated any of us who go in will be fully vulnerable, and that just isn’t acceptable when any of us could be a danger. Ana, does this shuttle’s medlab have neurodissociative agents?”
Ana floats across the central corridor to a panel marked “Emergency.” Inside is a cabinet of rudimentary first aid supplies and a small printer.
“You could hardly call it a lab,” it says. “But I can make what we would need here, yes.”
“Then we’re all going to take it and chemically dissociate,” Synth says.
“Well that hardly seems necessary,” K says.
“It is. Those of us with neurodissociative implants could just come to surface at will otherwise, and we would be as vulnerable as if we’d just left them awake to begin with. This puts us all on equal ground.” They look at you and Vik. “First years, we’ll guide you through this. We’re just taking a step into the æther to try and clear all this up, it won’t take more than an hour surfaceside.”
“And what if the attacker was outside the shuttle all along, in a nearby ship or relaying from a cubesat or something?” K says.
“Then we technopaths will be far more capable of defending ourselves from them in the æther, don’t you think?” Synth says.
What do you think?
“If it will put an end to this, let's just get it over with.”
Thinking this plan the most sensible anyone has come up with, you agree to the injection. But never having done this before, you have no idea what to expect.
“Alright, let’s see…” Synth climbs around the corridor, opening panels and looking for something. They stop at a small compartment, where they pull out a number of cables. “We’ll use a hardwired connection, to make this simple for the first years.”
They hand you one of the cable ends, and one to Vik.
“You two.” They look at you and Vik. “Plug this æthernet cable into port on the back of your interface collar.” Of course Synth has no such device, being a third year, they would have a fully internal neural interface by now.
You find the port and connect yourself to the shuttle’s computer.
“Now, normally you’d have had a few months to build up to this, but with the æthernet cable this is really very simple, okay? Just let the dissociation take hold and the interface will take over. There will only be one path to follow, so don’t try to resist it. We’ll all meet up inside. Then we all stay together. And if any of you should try anything, remember I am much more dangerous in the æther.”
They sign to Ana to begin to injections. It starts with Synth and moves around the circle. When it gets to you, you pull your arm out of your coat sleeve. The hypospray forces liquid through your skin, deep into your arm muscle. Right away, you feel relaxed, and in a minute’s time you are struggling to keep your focus. You hold it together long enough to see Synth take the hypospray to administer Ana’s injection. Then you are gone.
You’re floating, but not as if you’re falling. You have no vestibular sense at all. You’re in space, with a billion stars around, but their pattern is anything but normal. The more you look out into the void, the more the constellations take the shape of circuit pathways, glowing with a pale, shimmering light. The stars are closing in around you and forming a corridor, a tunnel of pale starlight leading deeper into the abyss.
It’s just like you’ve read about, the æther, the realm of technopaths, a state of meta-consciousness allowing a deeper level of interaction with a computer system than the conscious mind is capable of. It’s mesmerizing and at the same time you can;t focus on anything for long before it changes. The image is as real as true light, but nothing about yourself feels quite real.
You realize why you feel so strange. Normally technopaths would use a full-body interface, but you only have the interface collar. You have little sensory impression from most of your body, no proprioceptive sense whatsoever. Your body itself is not quite right either. Your avatar here can take any form you can make of it, but it is said that its default state will reflect your own subconscious self-perception.
What kind of form will your avatar take?
more feminine version of me
This weird situation is the perfect opportunity to try out some transition goals while you’re still early in the process, you realize. Since you don’t really know how to put much purpose into your avatar, this works in your favor, and your form here n the aether appears like a more feminine version of yourself, as if you were a few years further along your path. Somehow this is an incredibly euphoric moment for you, more so than you’ve ever felt on the surface, even since activating your implants. It must be something about this state of metaconsciousness.
As you descend deeper through tunnel of false light, a space forms around you from the pathways between the stars. It gives you the impression of a bounded area with normal geometry, but the more you examine it, it’s clear there is no true space here. The distance to the walls is nonexistent. You feel very disoriented, not helped by your complete lack of proprioception.
There are others here with you. You’re not sure in what order you arrived, it seems to you that all of you have always been here. You try to wrap your head around a spacetime with no space and no time.
“We’re all here.” You don’t so much hear a voice with any actual sense but receive the impression of the concepts behind the words. But this impression also makes clear that the speaker was the enby in front of you. They have a similar hairstyle to Synth on the surface, but they are taller, more imposing, and their eyes glow with a pale purple light. Looking closer, their hair is made of a multitude of metallic fibers, and their skin is coated in a fine metallic dust that shimmers in the aethereal light.
“K, can you lead us to the hidden command log?” Synth says.
The technician K has taken an unusual form in the aether, a fully mechanical body with six arms, exposed metal rods as bones. Yet he doesn’t give the impression of intimidation like Synth does, more like that of an entity there to help. Maybe it is something to the round shape of his face, with its four pale blue glowing eyes.
“Yes. The architecture of this system is familiar enough.” He reaches out and opens up a door out of nothing in front of him. Inside looks like the vague silhouette of another space like this one. “Follow me.” He steps through the portal and vanishes, leaving it open behind him.
“Alright, let’s go,” Synth says. “You first years go through first, it’s dangerous if you get separated from the group.”
Already in this deep, you move toward the door to step through. But your vision glances above it to the far horizon of false space. The sky is aglow with faint color, shifting slowly. If you stare at it, it takes on shapes, you see patterns like fabric or metal, flashes of scenes of cities or places like forests. The more you look at it, the more it draws you in.
What do you do?
stare at the light mesmerized
You forget what you were supposed to be doing. The distant glow on the horizon beyond horizons has overwhelmed your thoughts. It’s very tranquil. Whatever form it takes seems to you exactly what it is supposed to be, and anything else unfathomable. You can’t put any concept to what you’re seeing, yet you know you understand all there is to understand about it.
“Aydan….” a voice echoes in the back of your mind as if whispered across a room, barely perceived. “Come here…” the colors tell you in a sense beyond words.
The space around you is black. The stars have receded from the world. There is only the light and the voice that called to you from the dark. The light shifts again and in front of you stands a human silhouette. It matches your movements perfectly as if looking in a mirror. An aura of æthereal light outlines it, circling her form and bending around it like the accretion disc of a black hole. And much like that, what lies inside the outline is a nothingness beyond any vacuum. It feels distinct from the æther space around you, you can see nothing beyond it or within it. But you can hear its voice, “Aydan…”
Suddenly this all dissolves and you are back at the edge of the portal next to Vik and Synth. You feel yourself held in place like some kind of magnetic attraction, which is strange when nothing else here exerts a force of any kind.
“You with us Aydan?” Vik says. You look over and see him, his æthereal form looking a bit shorter and cuter than his body, his hair a little longer and giving off a faint glow on the ends of its strands like a fiber-optic bundle.
“Huh?” You are disoriented, unsure what’s going on.
“Hey,” Synth moves in front of you, looking you in the eyes. “Don’t look too close at that light. It’s just ætherglow, the blended echoes of technopathy long since cast, it’s meaningless.”
Your senses start to come back together.
“Something called my name.”
“Something called my name,” you say.
“It’s a hallucination, Aydan, it’s meaningless,” Synth says. “It’s your brain trying to rationalize meaningless noise, that’s all.”
“Let’s go Aydan, we shouldn’t stay here longer than we need to,” Vik says.
Together you step through the doorway. It’s a short trip, but intense, a storm of light passing you by faster than your vision can follow. You emerge in another æther-space where K awaits. Looking at the star patterns on the distant walls here, it feels familiar. It’s mostly the same as where you just were. They makes sense, since you are still within the shuttle’s computer.
The more you look at this space, it transforms into a recognizable shape. It has metallic walls with wide glass windows looking out into the circuit-stars beyond. Monitors line most of the walls between the windows, and thousands of wires stretch between them like overgrown vines in the arboretum back home.
Ana follows after you, and the three other students. They are talking to each other, but their voices are distant and incomprehensible. It seems speech in a place like this must be very direct to work, more sending a message than talking. Synth is the last one through.
“This is where we’ll find it.” K approaches one of the screens and it flashes to life with blocks of text and numbers. But you can’t make any sense of them. The characters themselves are readable, coming from a variety of languages, you can read some portion of it, but it makes no logical sense, like text read in a dream. K seems to be making sense of it, though. With no training, you can barely make any sense of your hallucinatory surroundings here, let alone real information.
“I’ll look through it with you,” Synth says.
“Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it,” K says.
“Okay, bring up the recent log and we’ll try and sort out who is who. I assume most of us were connected during the incident, trying to figure out what was going on, so that will complicate things,” they say.
Should you explain yourself?
help identify yourself in the log and explain the actions you took
You look back on your own command log. “At 09:59:11 I connected. I’ve pulled up my full command history for the duration for comparison. Here is where I entered a command to apply rotational thrust on our pitch axis.”
Synth looks over your terminal and checks the æthereal display. “That checks out. Thanks for your help on that, Aydan. Now let’s see the rest of all yours…”
Having gotten that over with, you move away to get some space from the crowd while Vik goes over their log with Synth and K. Movement here is still not something you’re used to, with neither proprioceptive nor vestibular senses to guide you. but keeping your balance or coordination is a non-issue in a space without gravity or inertia.
Vik comes over to where you are after clearing himself. “Glad we at least cleared our names of this.”
“Yeah, but we’re no closer to any answers,” you say, staring out through one of the windows into the immeasurable æther-space. Far beyond the walls are the stars, and beyond them still, the ætherglow, ever present. You think it must be something like de-allocated memory, its pattern once meant something to this computer but now it is meaningless noise. It’s no less entrancing to watch.
“Aydan…” You hear the voice again, calling to you.
At the edge of space ahead of you, you see that shape appear again, a humanoid silhouette, a bright outline surrounding a deep darkness. It mirrors your every movement. You try to discern any detail about it, but only a few things are apparent from its outline alone: it’s right about your height and proportions, its “hair” matches the shape of yours too.
The voice resounds in the back of your mind again, and you realize it sounds much like your own inner voice. But these thoughts are not your own.
“Do you want to know who did it, Aydan? I’ll tell you…”
You give the voice an answer. “Tell me.”
“It’s K. His implants show the presence of a high dose neuromuscular stimulant, and he interfaced with the ship as soon as he boarded.”
“Why should I believe you?” you say.
“‘Belief’ is not applicable.” The voice sounds more and more like your own thoughts the more you communicate with it. “See for yourself.”
The outline surrounding the entity scatters back into the stars. The ætherglow ripples like water as each particle returns to it. Then the light glows blindingly bright. You can’t close your eyes, doing so doesn’t even make sense in this space. The light is as loud as it is bright. It overwhelms all of your senses until all is black, silent, and numb.
Then you see a the room you’re floating in, but it seems even less real than before. You feel detached, like an outside observer in your own body. You can no longer grasp this room or the people in it, only watch.
You see K enter a command. You can see its contents as if you were doing it yourself. He uploads something into this hidden directory, and suddenly Synth’s avatar recoils and flies backwards. You can feel a burning pain as whatever happened strikes them. The windows glow bright white, and dark cracks appear in their material, growing until the false glass shatters. Vik, Ana, and all the others are soon overcome by the same thing that affected Synth. Their avatars look visually damaged, with colors distorted and edges uneven. The last thing you see is K opening another door and stepping out of the directory.
Then it is as if your eyes opened, and you realize you were only staring out at the ætherglow, which has returned to its normal, indistinct state. You’re disoriented, and you try to gather your thoughts. What was it, another hallucination? Or is it better not to wait around to find out?
What will you do?
Quietly tell Ana telling her to check the blood content readings of K’s hormone implants for neuromuscular stimulants
“Ana.” You direct your voice at it and it alone. “Can you access any of our implant readings in here?”
“What? Yes, pretty easily. And as a medical employee of TLA I do have the contractual authority to do it in an emergency situation. Why?”
“Check K, check for a neuromuscular stimulant in his blood,” you say.
“I saw something very suspicious. Just do it, hurry!” you say.
“Okay.” You see it examine his avatar. It doesn’t take long for him to notice he’s being watched from the inside. He pulls back from the console and freezes in place.
“What are you doing?” he says. “Analyzing our blood without our consent?”
Ana suddenly has a serious look, and its body glows with a crimson aura as it begins to manifest some kind of technopathy unfamiliar to you. “Just you. You know, neuromuscular stimulants are a big special interest of mine, especially combinations that might enable a human body to survive lethal G forces. And what I saw from your implants before you shut me out was very interesting to me.”
Synth floats back away from the console, putting some space between them and K. Bright blue flames engulf their hands as they prepare a program of their own. “What about it, technician?”
K slowly turns his metallic form around to face Ana. “I take it for a medical condition, without it I could not survive the higher gravity of TLA, it’s a common Lunar condition, don’t you know that? My medical records will confirm this.”
“Your medical records would settle that, once we are back in connection with the broader æther. But conveniently, we have no way of looking them up for the next six hours,” Ana says.
“Convenient… The ship’s hidden log should tell us something about your access history, though.” Synth returns to the monitor and runs another search on the log data. “What—you’re entirely absent.”
“Well, then will you tell this inquisitor to stand down?” K says.
“You’re telling me you, a technopath engineer, who worked on light transport craft just like this, who had military training and experience under pressure, you did not even access the shuttle when we were in potentially fatal danger?” Synth says. “You were not even curious what the hell was killing us?”
They raise their blue flames again, floating just a meter away from his avatar. “Is this story about a hidden log even true? Or, what is this directory you’ve led us to actually for, I wonder?” They look to another one of the students, one older than you. “You. Look through this with me. Ana, don’t take your eyes off him.”
“Okay.” The girl they called on comes over to see. The two of them look through the data until Synth shakes their head and turns away from it.
“Other than the log file, a near-exact copy of the surface-level one, the contents of this directory are incomprehensible. I don’t mean they’re encrypted, I mean I have no fucking idea what this code does. Which isn’t the kind of thing you’d expect to find in the operational systems of a shuttle, is it?” they say.
“It’s very suspicious. Especially considering K was the one who led us here. I think we should return to the surface and restrain this one from entering the æther again.”
“I agree. You first years, go up first, we’ll bring K along,” Synth says.
“Got it,” Vik says. You and them look back to find the portal you came from, but its outline no longer glows on the wall behind you.
“Oh, you don’t know how, right,” one of the older students says. She motions like she is opening a door, but nothing is accomplished. “Huh?” She tries it again. Nothing.
Synth attempts the same, to no effect. “We’ve all been ætherlocked!”
“What have you done?” Ana says, as the aura surrounding it sharpens into a point directed toward K.
“What could I have done with you watching my every thought?” K says.
“He must have done it as soon as we got here,” Ana says.
“The simplest of programs will trace the source of the ætherlock,” K says.
Synth examines the space around them, and a thousand points of blue light spiral in toward their eyes from all directions. “Ana cast the ætherlock?!”
“What?!” Ana says.
“Now it all adds up, why you suddenly accused me, setting up an innocent person!” K says. He raises his mechanical arms and green arcs of electricity appear between his fingers.
“I-it’s an echo, an illusion, it has to be, it’s not true!” Ana says, keeping her program ready.
“Great, it’s your word against his…” Synth says, shaking their head.
“You two.” Synth speaks directly to you now. Vik also reacts to this. “You first years don’t have interface implants, there’s an exploit to get you, and only you, out of the ætherlock, if I can reach out and hard reset your interface collars. I had to do it to myself once. Will you go up?”
“What do you want us to do?” Vik says.
“Get Ana’s hypospray and hit both it and K for a second dose. It should fully anesthetize them, then we’ll all feel a lot safer in here and we can get ourselves out of this ætherlock. I won’t lie, it’s risky to pull out of the æther so suddenly, and you’ll be very disoriented from the ongoing effects of the drug it gave you, but it’s still the best idea I have.
“Will you do it?”
“I’ll do it if you will, Vik”
You glance over at Vik. “If we go up together.”
“I’ll be with you, Aydan,” Vik says.
Vik liked that >Synth liked that
“Okay,” Synth says. “Try to pull yourself together quickly, there’s no accounting for the flow of time here in the æther compared to the surface. Then get the hypospray out of my hand and neutralize both Ana and K. I’m confident at least one of you can do it.”
“Okay. I’m ready,” you say.
“Ready,” Vik says.
You feel a jolt like someone grabbed you by the back of the head. Then suddenly the world around you is gone, and your eyes see only static noise over black.
You open your eyes, your real, fleshy eyes. The faint glow of the panels in the central corridor hurts your eyes, real light is so much harsher than æthereal light. You suddenly have a body again, though your perception of its position is still hard to grasp. You feel cold. An intense vertigo makes it hard to keep your eyes open. You just want to fall back into the æther.
You feel the pressure of touch against your hand and open your eyes.
“Aydan, stay with me,” Vik says. You can’t actually feel his hand’s texture or temperature. Your whole body is just numb and relaxed. Staying still is too nice to want to move. A warmth spreads through your body, a euphoria like your first taste of estrogen.
You force your eyes to stay open and make your arms move. Looking over at Vik, he’s slipping away now too. You pull their arm to jolt them awake.
“Come on, we have to find Synth.” You look around the catatonic bodies floating in the corridor, but vision is not on your side. Everything is double, and the world still spins around wherever you focus.
“Found it!” Vik has located them, and they pry the device from Synth’s limp fingers.
You put together enough of the image around you to recognize some of the people. You’ve ended up right in between K and Ana, perfect.
“Over here!” you shout, holding out your hand.
“Catch!” Vik throws the hypospray device down the narrow corridor toward you, and you try to track its position with your unstable vision as it floats gently through the air.
You manage to catch it, only to immediately see a bigger problem:
ketamine - 1 charge remaining
There isn’t enough left in the device to hit them both. Figuring out how to operate the medical lab device in this state seems out of the question.
Who will it be?
You decide to inject K.
As you grab onto his shirt and pull yourself closer to him and him to you, his eyes open, staring right at you. He tries to push himself away from you, but you get your hands on his left arm. He reaches with the other to try to pull you off, but his movements are unsteady, the substance is still affecting him as much as you.
You press the hypospray nozzle against his upper arm and squeeze the button, just as he gets his fingers around your neck. With a hiss and a flash of the device’s LED, it injects the last of its fluid reservoir. K’s fingers loosen and your airflow returns.
He stares at you as his body relaxes, and forces out one word before falling back into dissociation, “ÆON…”
With K sedated, the adrenaline begins to give way to the dissociative in your brain. Looking up the corridor, you see Vik has already lost their grip on consciousness, and before you can fight it, you too are back in the void.
With your interface collar shut off, there is no electronic connection to be made, and you drift into a chaotic, dreamlike space. The visions you see have much of the quality of the æther, but none of the substance, nor the control. You see the flat expanse of the Mare Moscoviense. The white sun floats above the horizon, but it does not burn your eyes. The long shadows of Korolev City stretch across the plain. You see letters, words, numbers, forming sentences and lines of code which are completely meaningless. You see the stars, both the real stars and the æther stars blended together into an alien sky, half physical and half æthereal. And you see yourself floating among them, surrounded with a pale aura.
When you open your eyes again, you feel amazing. For having just been in mortal peril followed by an incomprehensible experience, you have no anxiety or fear at all, only complete euphoria. Looking around the corridor, some of your fellow passengers are awake, some still motionless, and one, K, is unconscious and restrained, with Ana floating next to him with the hypospray nozzle in hand.
Synth notices you stirring and climbs across the corridor toward you. “Great job, Aydan.”
“He almost woke up in time to stop me,” you say.
“He realized what we were doing and tried to pull out. That forced him to dispel his ætherlock and confirmed our suspicion. As soon as K’s metaconscious state collapsed, his technopathy failed, and I could get an unhindered look into the system and confirm him as the one responsible for the attack. But none of us have any idea why he did it. We’re just lucky Ana figured him out in time.”
Ana looks over at you. “It was her who told me to check K’s implants, though.”
“Aydan, how did you know?”
I saw something in the æther, some strange entity showed me what was going to happen