"That poor man," I said, fighting off tears again. "I just can't believe this. Will he recover?" Before me was Rokun, lying unconscious on a bed in the palace clinic, enmeshed in a web of monitors and other medical equipment. His face and what was exposed of his arms were badly bruised, and both eyes blackened. A band encircled his head, with several indicator lights glowing softly.
"Until we find out for sure what he did to himself it's impossible to say," Veldra answered. She looked inquiringly at Brinkman standing next to me.
"We're got members of his team examining the machine now," he said, and his own voice was hoarse with fatigue and anguish. "We should know soon."
It had happened just yesterday, two weeks after we'd returned from Qozernon. I'd been going over my latest assignment with Brinkman when one of the other researchers had interrupted us and asked to speak to him privately. Her agitation was obvious, and apparently contagious, because when he returned he curtly told me that our lesson was over for the day and not to bother reporting to Rokun that afternoon. And then he'd dashed out of the room in a tearing hurry.
I'd wandered back to Rann's apartment, now shared by the two of us, filled with anxiety. I hoped Wisela hadn't finally provoked Rokun into quitting. Rann was out when I arrived, so I spent the afternoon working on my Deshtiran and aggravating Halogen no end with my distracted state of mind.
True to my word I'd moved in with Rann the day we returned, after a long talk with my mother. She'd given us her blessing, and I'd promised I wasn't going to forget about her existence, after which she'd helped us move my things. So far everything had worked out well once we agreed on the basics, like where we were going to keep our toothbrushes and who was responsible for which housekeeping chores.
Rann had wasted no time pestering me again to start sword training with him, and after being caught red-handed with Senaria I no longer had a leg to stand on, so I relented. Naturally we didn't train in the central courtyard. It's one thing for an Empress to put on a spectacular performance and incidentally disrupt everyone's afternoon duties; it would have been highly resented if I'd started doing likewise. Instead we used the palace gymnasium. Although I felt awkward at first, I soon noticed that many of the others training at the same time were clearly there for the exercise and wouldn't have survived five seconds in a real fight. After that I started enjoying myself.
Getting back to Rokun, I found out that same evening at dinner what had happened. My mother and Gelhinda had been absent, having gone out to eat somewhere, so it'd been just Kiri, Will, Brinkman, Rann and myself. Neither Brinkman nor I had ever mentioned what had happened on Qozernon, as though an unspoken agreement had been made between us, but after that I was much more aware of the loneliness lurking behind his eyes.
"Alan, I think you can safely tell these two what happened," Kiri had said. "Hal was his assistant, and Rann has my total confidence as well. I'd just as soon they didn't need to keep secrets from each other."
The woman who'd brought my lesson to an untimely end was one of Rokun's lab assistants. She'd only a few minutes earlier entered the room where the Virrin mind machine was kept, to find Rokun on the floor, apparently utterly unaware of his surroundings, thrashing about wildly in the throes of severe convulsions. She'd called the palace clinic and then gone to fetch Brinkman. He'd followed her downstairs to the restricted area, where he found emergency medical personnel from the clinic already converging.
The medics were frantically trying to subdue the unfortunate researcher, but discovered that in his current state he seemed to have far more than normal strength. He'd already badly bruised himself in his frantic flailing, and it took the efforts of four medics to hold him long enough to administer a sedative, in the process getting severely battered themselves.
Once he was safely in the clinic, a "sedator" (the band I saw around his head) had been applied which dampened neural activity sufficiently to render chemical sedatives unnecessary, and that was the state in which I found him when Veldra advised Brinkman that it was safe for us to visit.
Later that evening Brinkman reported to us what the other members of Rokun's team had found. "Although the machine was constructed by Tenako according to the original Virrin specifications, he designed the computer interface himself. That means there's a log that shows what commands were entered. From what we can decipher, Rokun attempted to download the Virrin mind crystal into himself."
"He what!?" Will exploded. "Was he crazy?"
"He was sane enough to use the setting which should have added the Virrin knowledge and memories to his, instead of replacing his own personality entirely," Brinkman answered. "But the machine was apparently never designed for such an eventuality, and as a result the effects proved to be unpredictable. Just what it did to him we don't know yet. Wisela," and he spat out the name with contempt, "has appointed herself acting head over what was formerly Rokun's research unit and is leading the effort to determine what the exact effects must have been."
"And how is he now?" Kiri asked.
"Under total neuromagnetic sedation, to keep him from injuring himself further. According to Veldra his autonomic nervous system and lower brain functions are relatively intact, so there's no danger of any immediate deterioration in his physical condition. But the brainwaves associated with higher brain functions and consciousness are utterly unlike anything she's familiar with. There are several specialists coming in tonight to see what they can make of the situation."
Over the next week there was a slow but measurable improvement in his condition. Each time they began easing down the sedator's effects, the seemingly aimless thrashing would resume, but with decreasing intensity. Apparently he was gradually regaining control of his motor functions. However, there were no signs that he recognized any of his visitors, and he made no attempts at speech other than an unintelligible wailing sound from time to time.
A conference between Veldra, Brinkman, and the specialists ended in stalemate. Rokun's team (in spite of Wisela's meddling) had successfully determined that Rokun had stored a copy of his own neural engrams prior to his disastrous experiment, and one suggestion was to simply reload them. Brinkman had been aghast at the idea. It would in effect have killed any remaining traces of Rokun's real consciousness, replacing them with a copy. As long as there was any hope of removing the Virrin mind overlay, he insisted, that was not a viable option.
A second idea was to overlay his stored personality onto the existing one, rather than replace it, as he'd intended to do with the Virrin mind engrams. A heated debate immediately broke out over what the effects would be of having two copies of the same personality in one mind. Further study was required, it was finally decided.
The disaster cast a pall over what would otherwise have been an occasion for major celebration, as my mother was informed by the Deshtiran Cultural Affairs Office that she and the other two members of her chamber group had been awarded a five-year contract to perform around the planet. This meant that she no longer had to worry about an income for a while, and would be getting paid to perform to her heart's content. Kiri and Will threw a small party for the group and we all did our best to keep up appearances. My mother, of course, knew nothing about what had happened to Rokun.
The next day I headed across the courtyard for my lesson with Brinkman, to find armed guards scattered all over the quadrangle. Although Will and Kiri normally kept a token force around the palace, it was more for show than anything else, and in most cases sentries were armed with practice blades if at all. But this morning every soldier I saw wore a sword belt, and several doors were guarded by soldiers holding naked blades.
When I arrived at the research institute I found more armed guards at every door. They made no effort to question or detain me, so they were evidently looking for someone else.
"What's going on?" I asked Brinkman the moment I reached his office. He motioned for me to sit down, his face grim.
"Rokun nearly killed a doctor this morning and disappeared," he said.
"What doctor? Not Veldra?" I asked, suddenly apprehensive.
"No," he said, and I felt relief wash over me. "One of the others. She was terribly beaten. They're not sure if she's going to make it at this point. Apparently he just went totally berserk."
"And he's disappeared?" I asked incredulously. "Where could he go in his condition?"
"A small flier is missing," he said. "But we don't know yet if he's the one who took it, or if someone else just happens to be using it. For all we know he could still be hiding somewhere on the grounds."
He looked at me intently. "There's a meeting of his staff this afternoon. I'd like you to be there, since you've worked pretty closely with him for the past two months."
"Sure," I said, still stunned. "I'll be there."
When I arrived, most of Rokun's co-workers were already present, but there was no sign of Wisela or Brinkman. We must have waited for a good ten minutes before the physicist strode in. There was an expression on his face that I couldn't quite interpret, but I thought I read a mixture of anger, satisfaction, and disgust all rolled into one. I wondered what had happened now. Wisela arrived a minute or two later.
"Proceed," Brinkman said curtly.
Wisela took her place at the front of the assemblage. I saw no sign of concern in her expression. Rather, it was as though she were addressing a routine departmental meeting. Doesn't she think this affects her? I found myself thinking. On the other hand, with her connections perhaps it didn't.
"What is this child doing here?" was the first thing she said, gesturing at me. "This is supposed to be a high-level classified meeting."
"She has my authorization to be here," Brinkman snapped. "She was his assistant, after all." Wisela started to say something else, only to be cut off. "Proceed," he repeated.
Things didn't improve when she began her presentation. It was glaringly obvious that she only had the vaguest grasp of the technical issues involved, substituting embarrassingly banal generalities whenever facts failed her, which was almost continually. Several times a researcher from one of the other sections attempted to get specific details, only to have her invariably turn to her assistant for the answer. About ten minutes of this ensued, out of which we managed only to glean the general idea that the mind download hadn't worked properly. (Duh.)
It was when she declared that clearly Rokun's had been a maladjusted personality, which somehow the mind download had exacerbated, that I couldn't take it any more. "That's a total lie," I burst out. "He was no more maladjusted than you. He wouldn't have hurt a fly before this happened."
For a moment Wisela simply stared at me, as though I were a stray dog that had wandered in by accident and urinated on the floor. Then she turned to Brinkman. "I demand that this child be removed," she said haughtily. "I will not be interrupted in this manner." Slowly he stood up, fixing her with a steady stare.
"Wisela," he said icily, "shut up and get out."
"How dare you," she gasped. "That is totally unprofessional behavior."
"I've seen enough unprofessional behavior today to last a lifetime." He gestured in the direction of the door. "Now get out."
She stared at him in disbelief. "What?" she finally croaked. "What are you saying?"
"I mean," he said, "that you're fired. Canned. Sacked. Effective immediately. You can remove your personal belongings from your office at once. Any items in dispute will be settled later. Now get the hell out of my sight." As if by magic two guards materialized in the doorway, and I realized that they must have taken their positions shortly after the meeting had started.
"This isn't the end of this," she stormed, but her voice was shaking. "You're going to learn an expensive lesson, I promise you."
"Go!!!" he roared, and she practically ran from the room, followed by the grinning guards. For a few seconds there was dead silence as we carefully suppressed our collective urge to cheer. Finally one of the older researchers spoke. "That may not have been a good idea, Alan," he said cautiously. "She does have friends, you know."
"She does indeed," he answered, a thin smile on his lips. "I was speaking to Senator Nokamian on the telecom just before this meeting. He's the kind of 'friend' that doesn't like to be publicly embarrassed. There's a major scandal in the making here, and I'm afraid she's going to discover that she'll make an ideal scapegoat. After all, this happened on her watch, under her directorship. Besides, the alternative is to go after me, and to do that they'd have to publicly take on Empress Mikiria. It's a pretty simple equation, after all. Now, will one of you who actually knows what you're talking about be so good as to continue?"
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|