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Naked Sky

By Robert_Aardvark All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Scifi

Blurb

Drop Tuesday took the Orbital Lift Tower right down out of heaven, made folks wonder if Genesis hadn't been a misprint, and King Nimrod just had run out of money for bricks on the Tower of Babel.. Now ghosts, minds separated from their bodies, circle about this elevator to space. Hermit, chief among them, was once the most powerful telepath on Earth. He has drifted for years, teaching those in whose forms he finds himself, but losing aspects of his older consciousness each time he changes bodies. Ama is the opposite to Hermit, physically powerful and, alone on Earth, immune to telepathy inside her silver skin. Both are seen as a means to take the Tower, but they only want to save themselves.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

"It's just a matter of maintaining this state of mind, speaking with a right tone of thought."

"Ever want to run flat out on the beach, Hermit?" Julia smiled.

"Yes. That's it." Hermit smiled back, or something like it. His imaginary eyes gleamed through mental darkness.

One tone and the world opened up.

They were on a beach in the Florida Keys, white sand flecked with pink coquinas and the ocean's salt spraying her ankles. The water was warm from the afternoon sun. She ran along the blue water's edge, just seaward of the high water mark, where small fragments of shell bit into the soles of her feet and she could soothe them in the wash of the salt. She remembered the sting of the water.

"Keep going. You have it now."

The tourists and other sun-burnt souls lazing dreamily on the beach had watched her when she ran, when she had really run, when she was eighteen. She had wondered what they were thinking then, if they noticed the horizontal plane of bodies they made as they slept on the beach, that she broke the symmetry with every step.

Hermit showed her: Smooth legs took graceful strides across the sand. Women ran in an odd way, thought the old tourist. They were graceful, but slightly off balance. He could not remember his wife ever having run. She had walked everywhere with a slow ease that made the world seem safe under her feet. As the young woman passed, she blocked the sun for a moment and the old man could make out her face, a soft mouth and slightly upturned Irish nose, perhaps freckled. Her hair was salt frosted and moved chaotically about her shoulders. It was the wrong color he sighed. His wife’s had been blond, years and years ago.

Show me others, Hermit," Julia whispered to what was once only herself.

Hermit’s shared voice answered. "You can show yourself. Try."

She pulled at the edges of the minds around her, tugging in thoughts like china riding on a tablecloth pulled over a corner. The thoughts tumbled into her vision, tremors of shocked surprise and waves of aesthetic sexual pleasure. A young painter watched the curved line that traced the back edges of her legs and up to the small of her back. An old woman thought the sun would hurt her hair.

The five-year-old girl building a sand castle at the water’s edge saw huge calves and knees. Where Julia’s feet touched the water it was like a tornado of sea and spray, a thunderhead incoming towards her castle, and with lightning. Graceful strides of storm and feet rushed towards the girl’s work, the sandy walls standing bravely. She felt the twinge of panic. Then lower, a sinking-soft relief came as the legs made a long graceful leap, an arch of shadow over the shell topped spires. The little girl built more walls against the incoming tide.

"It's beautiful," she said, in runner’s high.

"Yes, Julia. Yes, you are." Hermit's voice was two inches behind her eyes. He was leaving.

"Hermit, please don't go."

"Don't worry. I'll return soon."

And Julia was gone from him as he left.

Hermit pulled to keep himself together. The place was unformed. It was between dreams, and he called it Wonderland: a terrain of mad reality drawn from a sane mind. The name was a reflection of the first time he was in another's body, looking through the eyes of a white rabbit in the Nevada lab.

Wonderland did not fit any one name well. It had been music, light, fields of green grass, or appeared to him sometimes as hell, an inferno of open space and separated souls. It was a creation of the moment, the collective imagination of the whole world.

Now, Hermit looked out over Wonderland, and it was a desert of pink coquina shells. Tiny creatures scurried across patches of pale ground, and in the hard sun Hermit found himself as his namesake, a Hermit crab sprinting at a mile an hour across the sand. He was running, running to a safe hole and a labyrinth of tunnels that stretched forever away from the incoming tide. Vaguely he knew why he ran.

Then water.

He drank deeply as the new thoughts flowed in through his stomach, making him visibly solid, like paint poured into a clear glass mold. He was seated at a brown wooden piano. Pages of smeared, unfinished symphony were written out in front of him, and endings rushed through his mind.

"Welcome, my friend. You've been missed."

Hermit smiled, stretching limber fingers, hearing the sound of the composer's voice vibrating back through his nose and palate, noticing as the voice was received back through the pitch-perfect ears.

"You pulled me in. Very nice," Hermit answered in the soft, clear tone of thought.

"I had a good teacher, yes? You were coming to visit me."

"Yes." Hermit used the composer's strong vocal cords at first, but at the other personality's pinch of discomfort, returned to being just a voice in the man's head. "I have something for you."

"No, talk first."

"If you wish."

They talked, and if the mouse-like mechanical servants that moved about the edges of the room considered it odd that their master sat alone and muttered, they did not let it disturb their work. To Hermit, it was odd how the old man liked these words, these sounds that preceded the real communication, a habit of talking that the composer had not outgrown, as skilled as he was. Perhaps these words once meant something to Hermit also, these empty vessels of noise. He could not remember.

While they talked, Hermit looked around the room with the composer's eyes. Much of his collection of art was gone, sold no doubt to struggle by in these uncertain times. A decorated, Victorian mirror still hung on the wall next to the piano. The man was older now, much older. The thin wisps of silver hair that had once added maturity to a boyish face were gone, lost in the complete grey that now crowned an aged head. Character lines had become wrinkles, classic posture, stiff, and the antique spectacles that sat on a flat nose no longer seemed so out of place. The composer muttered something about how long it had been, but Hermit was not really listening. That was odd to him also, a man not listening to himself.

The musician had been Hermit's first pupil, or perhaps it was the other way around. These distinctions were not important to him now. The two had met at the university in New England. Hermit had gone to school there himself, a good time ago, when he owned just one body.

The University had been a natural place to run. The minds there filled with familiar pictures of the school: freshman dorms, overcrowded with confused students slowly coming to the realization that they were there solely for the purpose of maintaining the word university at the front gate. Professors appeared occasionally. On the surface, their minds reeled with swirls of calculus and dreams of tenure. New math and the occasional bondage fantasy lay deeper in their meditations. Undergraduates were lost in wonder, and graduate assistants formed full panic as the new students asked too many questions. The maintenance staff smiled inwardly. The same dramas played out in their vision year after year. All these thoughts Hermit had skimmed while still a caged and untrained mind. The memory came through, clear and vivid, first-hand now, their richness drowning out the taste of nostalgia.

Hermit never used the bodies of course, just sat inside and watched, looked for sympathy, or someone else who had seen the Mona Lisa and noticed that she didn't have eyebrows.

The composer had noticed. He was a student at the conservatory, starting his formal education late in life. Already skilled in music, he was then determined to learn the subjects he had ignored while laboring over his piano. He had enrolled in a course in night school, taking an art history class because it was the smallest he could find.

As he sat down in front of his terminal on the first day of class the composer found himself at a loss. Why was he with a hundred students half his age taking a class about which he knew nothing? The thought of withdrawal was running constantly when Hermit drifted in.

"DO YOU THINK I SHOULD STAY?"

Hermit could still remember the words screaming out, jarring him from his quiet resting place. It was the first time he had encountered an untrained mind that could detect him. Even the newly recruited telepaths had not noticed his wanderings, but the composer had spoken to him, to him specifically, a separate entity the composer knew was inside his own head.

The fact that he had accepted Hermit's presence was as amazing as the detection itself. Hermit had wandered through the entire Psi department on his first few days at the University. Not a person there knew of the detached mind program as anything but an impossibility. Everyone else on whom the procedure had been tried, everyone who officially existed, had died. Hermit was an idea as unacceptable as faster-than-light travel, before someone had done it. Non-physical thought was still discussed in some advanced theory areas, but the composer couldn't have taken so much as a 101-level course on the subject without clearance from Psicorps, the government, or a megabiz executive board. And this was a music student.

"No need to yell." Hermit answered.

"SoRRy."

The power was impressive, but unfocused. The composer recognized bits, little stray thoughts from many minds. He consumed them like mixed concoctions at a speakeasy, relishing the stinging, illicit flavor. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he liked it.

Hermit, too, was thrilled. He had never seen such potential, untrained. He rushed through all the levels of the composer's mind, touching each sensation and memory until it was theirs together. Then he moved, like flexing a forgotten muscle. Hermit wiggled the composer's mental ears.

It was something they had never thought of, even at The Institute, where new students studied for years to find the proper switches in their minds. Hermit was the perfect guide. He drifted with hometown familiarity through the stages of learning, pushing the composer along for the ride in narrated, cerebral tour. Hermit reached for the switches. He reached, and the composer imitated as easily as if he were playing back a string of notes.

"Notes..."

"Sorry, you said something." Hermit returned to listen to the voice speaking.

"You said you had something for me?" The composer's lips moved, shaping the sound as the breath rushed out.

"Yes, now," and Hermit moved the air also, as, at last, they truly spoke to one another. "Let me show you something."

They remembered a beach, in California, not the Keys. The beach here was less white, and sharp rocks in the water held on to frothy remnants of strong waves. Hermit was young, eighteen, and on his first visit to the West Coast, making no pretense of being anything but a tourist. He stood on the long wooden pier that marked the end of Solana Beach, taking picture after picture of the sunset as the day ended in the Pacific.

"Never seen color like that before, have ya?" An elderly man, tanned and wearing a San Francisco shirt, offered the comment from the end of the pier.

"No, sir. That sure is something else. I mean, I've never even seen green in the sky before."

Hermit let his finger squeeze gently on the button, and the camera clicked another picture.

"Complex hydrocarbons in the air, or something like that,” the old man said. “Same stuff that killed the birds around the beach." He shook his head and shuffled closer to where Hermit stood watching. "Sure is pretty though."

Hermit remembered the man's half-sad expression as they stood together on the pier, a thin mouth whose edges were curled downward into the wrinkles of the old man's face. The two of them stayed there for more than half an hour, just listening to the sounds of the beach, and watching the perfect shades of green that had slain the seagulls.

"Yes. Yes. That is it." The image cleared, and the composer clapped his hands together. His mind was a whirlwind rushing to translate the image into music. A clear strong note took the place of green skies, building in a pulse that washed away the other melodies of the symphony. Then there was only that one green note, half sad, sinking into a sea of silence.

The composer rushed to scribble the notes down, and Hermit was amused at how the graceful fingers shook with excitement as the last page of music was completed.

"I am glad you liked it."

"Oh, it is perfect. What made you think of it?"

"I have a new pupil. Her name is Julia. She took me on a tour of a beach today, and I remembered this scene."

Hermit tapped out a few notes with the composer's limber fingers. It was quite good.

"You must invite her to hear it," the composer said with a boyish charm that went well with his other thoughts.

The wideness of his grin reflected in the large mirror as he played. It was not a young grin anymore. Hermit thought this only to himself; the composer did not know the tragedy in his own face. His hands, though, even the cold unthinking mirror could not help but show the vigorous grace and joy of the composer’s hands. His hands danced. They moved like a lover across the piano keys, drawing new music like a sigh.

"I would send a copy of it to her home, but I believe my wires are monitored. They have been by a few times now."

The composer let the image roll into his mind.

A tall woman in a well-pressed military uniform had stood in the doorway, asking questions. The silver-circle insignia of the Psicorps was on her left lapel, but there was no gold pin, no real ability. She was just a plebe, sent out to stir the water and make him nervous, let him know they were aware of his contacts.

"No, that is not all of it," the composer spoke up.

And there was a memory that came in like a needle, slow and painful, going too deep under the skin. Another visitor, one who had not come to the door.

"Not very subtle, was he?" Hermit flinched inside the composer's mind.

"I wrapped him up almost immediately. He did not see anything important, but they have been watching me since." The composer's voice was now silent, a noise only inside the shared skull.

"This was about a year ago?"

"Yes. Their seeker tried a few more times, very crude. I sent him back some nice practice scales to think about."

"They at least know you're an unregistered?"

The composer nodded.

"I did not think it very important at first, but they have been getting more persistent."

Hermit felt the memories of the repeated probes.

"You see,” said the composer.

"The Psi-corps are bureaucrats. End of the world or no, they don't like it when their balance sheets don’t match. They probably just want to make sure you get put in the total count. If you like I could go down with you to city hall. You could tell them you discovered some new ability in yourself, and I could dampen your signature so that you didn't get sent off to Nevada after your first wave test."

"I am not sure if that is wise. For some reason I get the impression that you may have some part in why they are investigating me. You have not been getting yourself in trouble again have you?"

"Not that I am aware of."

"Well then, we have nothing to worry about." The boyish charm returned to the composer. "After all, we are still better than they, yes?"

Hermit pictured a line of psi-corps graduates, all with golden pins, but no further explanation came to the surface.

"Yes."

"Then I, we, relax and listen to my new work. Also, I have one last bottle of Australian wine. It is too precious not to keep to myself, and far too lovely not to share. With you I can do both; so let us enjoy, yes?" The composer turned to speak to a wooden cabinet to his left. "Play back the complete piece, please, with full instruments, and bring me the Black Swan '24."

The cabinet answered with the hum of a holo projector.

A miniature version of the European Grand Orchestra took shape in the center of the room, exact to the extra bassoonist on the conductor's left. The ten-centimeter conductor, wearing a size three-fourths tuxedo, tapped his baton on the podium. His small arm brought up his left hand, and with a downward motion he commanded the music to begin. The hum of the projector was completely drowned out in the first full size strains of well-tuned strings.

Miniature violin bows rose and fell in unison with the soft background of sound, while the woodwinds colored the edges of the music. The French horns followed a second behind in eerie vibration of parallel sound, and a triangle sounded like rain. To the composer it was rain, the image and word transferred to this purer language.

At a short lull, the lead holograph turned his head up to his one-person audience, then, noting that all was well, left his small baton and gloves floating in flawless rhythm. He slowly grew into a full sized man, a thin gentleman with a neatly-trimmed, salt-and-pepper beard. The holographic conductor bowed and looked approvingly over his small orchestra, smiling as if it were a wonder to him also. He turned and went into the next room to fetch the wine.

"I allow myself some concessions to the modern age." The composer smiled. "It was the only way I could get Von-Segren to work for me."

The holograph of the famed conductor returned, carrying a green glass bottle that didn't rest quite properly in his hands. Hermit looked at the bottle, searching for the hidden mechanism that actually gave it support, but it was lost in the light and shadow of Von-Segran's Tuxedo.

"Do you require one glass or two? The etiquette for guests such as you is unclear." The Von-Segren holograph spoke with a thin German accent.

"One will be fine."

The wine and music mixed well, sweetness and subtlety rolling through the palate and ears, slowly settling into a warm place somewhere in the center of the chest.

"What did you say her name was?"

"What?"

"Her name, your new student who gave you the idea for the song, what is her name?"

"Oh, it's Julia."

Julia, yes, the composer liked the name. It was soft and archaic, passed down from a great-great-grandmother like a bit of old lace or other family treasure. It was her name, true to her despite its own detached heritage, and she kept it since birth, not even changing the spelling on her eighteenth birthday.

Hermit was not the name the composer had known the last time they had been together, but the composer knew his friend by so many names. Hermit was a name Julia picked, perhaps because she had never chosen one for herself. Hermit Crab, she had seen a hologram of one in third grade, an odd creature that had scurried across her desktop between images of the dodo and blue whale. For now, Hermit liked his new name, and the composer was already comfortable with it.

The music continued into another glass of wine. Hermit listened and tasted, relaxed as two friends relax together, and the half-sad greens washed into the end. Hermit saw Julia in those sad colors, and knew he had to go now. They sat for a time, silent even in thought.

"It's quite good," they said together, out loud.

Hermit started to drift, and the two thanked each other for the exchange.

Hermit's mind clicked like a metronome as the Euclidean shackles of the composer's body fell behind into the pure music of Wonderland. G sharp flashed into taste, its acrid flavor making him spit. Scales ran up and down into blue and grey, and memories of the composer's first love took the music's place in hearing. Only touch remained clear as Hermit felt his way through the clinging cloud of sensation. Bits of an unfinished symphony, so lonely, buffeted him back to the old shape: horns, voices, songs in Latin and Greek, clashing chords, and flowing notes, bits of silence near the end. Hermit reached for the exit.

Coda.

Wonderland faded into the soft cradle of Julia's sensation. She had left the mental exercise of the beach and was now physically asleep. Not dreaming at the moment, she rested in a soft, dim silence, in which, Hermit was charmed to find, she still worried about him.

"I'm fine," he whispered, and drifted down farther into her sleep.

Her mind was almost the exact opposite of the composer's. No single thought had his force or passion, but each of Julia’s delicate musing was laid out in perfect order, a latticework castle. Even in sleep her defenses were flawless. Most psiers had to work for years to achieve one tenth of this order, but Hermit had found her mind like this. It was neat and very pretty.

"Is that you Hermit?"

"Yes, I told you I'd be back soon."

"That's good. I was worried. On the news, a nuclear bomb went off in Africa."

“Bombs can’t hurt me, and I was nowhere near Africa.”

“Just checking.”

Hermit changed his own state of mind, and the two dreamed together. Julia always knew when she was dreaming. She balanced the pictures in stable reality, like a perfect memory of something that never quite happened. She knew, but that did not change the nature of the dream.

They dreamed they were in the Nevada lab. Julia's body instead of Hermit's sat in the baroque mass of wires and telisensers. The white rabbit through whose eyes they saw themselves was in a cage. Their old body towered above like an abandoned skyscraper, while its mental contents swirled about in the tight space behind pink eyes.

The cage vanished, and the rabbit ran with adrenalin-packed might. It ran looking for a hole or a patch of greenery. It ran to anyplace where it could hide from the huge blades of thought that cut inside its head. The rabbit knew it was a pawn. It knew it would one day die. The rabbit knew it was alone, and that its fear was now far deeper than any dread of tooth and claw. The rabbit ran and ran—until morning.

“I guess we got away." Julia said groggily, blinking as the shards of sunlight flashed into her perception.

"Yes, I believe we did. Good morning Julia."

"Yeah, whatever. Good morning, oxymoron isn't it?"

"Not necessarily. Here, let me show you how to wake up a little faster."

Hermit plucked Julia's mind gently, and the morning mist vanished.

She smiled heartily at the refreshing wave of wakefulness that filled her. "Hermit, you're amazing. How about some breakfast?"

"First you try it," said Hermit, returning the morning lethargy to her mind.

"Yeah, whatever," said Julia, rolling over to re-surrender to sleep.

"Try it," Hermit spoke as a sharp, bell-like memory.

Her mind moved with slow precision, tracing out the steps that Hermit had made, touching each suggestion with fastidious grace. First she quickened her heartbeat, then her reactions. She cleared the line to her memories, and the last bits of dream vanished into the darkness. The mist moved back at her command. She was wide awake.

"Wow, not bad, eh?" Julia smiled again.

"Not bad at all. Now, let us have that breakfast. You are hungry."

"It's still weird when you say things like that, you know."

Julia swung her legs out from under the Dacron covers, placing her feet exactly in her slippers as she sat up. The furry linings were cold against her bed-warmed toes, a sensation she had never noticed before.

She made the bed while the clock holo played music that normally eased her into the morning.

"So where did you go last night, Hermit?" Julia spoke out loud as she rummaged through the refrigerator for breakfast.

"I visited an old friend. He is eager to meet you and let you hear one of his compositions. I let him use an old memory to finish the piece."

"I didn't know you studied music Hermit."

"I never have. He translates thoughts into music."

Hermit flashed a memory of the composer's perceptions.

"Oh, how beautiful."

Julia's mind clicked thorough images she wanted to hear as music: snow, hiking in the Rockies, visits to her grandmother as a child, flying, sex, winning and losing races.

"I think that might be a bit much for one visit, Julia," Hermit interrupted, laughing with Julia’s delicate voice, "but I think you two should meet."

"WONDERFUL!" Julia's mind filled with excitement, the pleasant thoughts swirling around Hermit in a way, that if he still owned a body, he might have compared to a hug.

Hermit returned the pleasant thoughts amusedly. For such a well-controlled telepath, it was shocking, almost disturbing, how enthusiastically Julia could respond. Perhaps it was just his own vanity, if he had anything resembling vanity left after so much time. But it seemed to him that these bursts of unrestrained joy often corresponded to a moment when Hermit opened up some new aspect of himself, or his past.

Hermit had taught several students since he first worked with the composer, and he had been close to all of them. It was impossible to share another's thoughts and sensations as intimately as he did and not become friends, but he worried that Julia might be becoming a bit too attached.

At the surface at least, she had contemplated nothing about which he should be concerned. She viewed him as a teacher, not a lover. This did not, however, guarantee safety. The mind is a many-layered thing. Freud had been right about that, if nothing else.

Hermit could, of course, probe into deeper levels of her consciousness if needed, but he tried to avoid such intense violations of privacy. Unrestrained searches were, after all, one of the principal reasons he had offended so many authorities. Besides, thought Hermit, as he caressed the outer edges of Julia’s mind, he should probably look more deeply into himself for such things before he started to rout out strong emotions in others.

"So, when can we go and meet your friend?" Julia thought or spoke, Hermit wasn't sure which. "I've never seen one of your other students with my own eyes, you know."

"You may have to wait for a short time. He is being watched." Hermit re-played the entire memory of his meeting with the composer. Julia would have asked for it eventually anyway.

She paused, silent for a moment.

"I hadn't thought they would still be looking for you."

In the memory, Julia had noticed more keenly than Hermit the run-down state of the composer’s once-grand abode. The world was becoming a poorer place. She was worried.

“We all still have enough for our needs.” Hermit tried to be comforting. “I'll visit the composer again soon. When I'm sure it's safe we will see him."

"It won’t be safe," she said, “not if there’s a war.” The news hologram of the mushroom cloud blew a scorching wind of pain through Julia. He put the thought away. It might not be fair of him, but he was not with Julia to confront the woes of the world. This was his haven. She was.

They returned to their morning chores, Hermit opening up new subtleties in her mind as she let him toy with her senses. She cracked an egg and dropped it onto the smooth metal surface on the stove. The crackle of grease came to her ears like a foreign language, and Hermit pointed out what each word meant, how each sound corresponded to the vibration of a tiny drop of fat on the stovetop.

Hermit slowed her senses. The heat of the cooking came first into her fingertips and washed back slowly to the backs of her wrist as if she were placing her hand into a basin of hot water. With almost no practice she could move to the exact point where warmth became painful heat, and stay there, moving only in the subtlest ways to dodge the popping bits of grease that flew up from the eggs. He told her to turn up the heat.

"Ow!" Hermit and Julia said together, though Hermit's reaction was more from surprise than from the pain. Julia had failed to anticipate a spatter of hot fat that shot from the pan.

"You should regenerate that burn before the DNA denatures," Hermit suggested without reproach for the slip.

As Julia applied first aid to her burned hand, Hermit realized she was still thinking about the composer.

"You are upset about not being able to see my old pupil?"

"Oh, I don't know. I'm just worried about people looking for you, I suppose."

Yes, that was true. Hermit could feel the thin ruffle the concern caused in her mind. But the overall disturbance was larger. It was not the explosion, or the Orbital Lift Tower, or the state of the world. Something very personal was causing her disciplined mind to lose a bit of its focus.

"May I study your mind for a moment?"

"Yes," she said, "I suppose so. Will it help?"

“That,” thought Hermit, “is always the hope.”

Hermit faded back from Julia's senses, letting the pain of her now-healing hand leave him. As always, Julia's thoughts were steady on the surface. She wanted to continue with her training. She enjoyed sharing her thoughts with Hermit. And she was slowly running over some memories.

"Ping-pong," said Julia. She was thinking about their playing ping-pong.

What about ping-pong? Hermit had used the game as one of Julia's first introductions to digitized thought. She had bought some time on one of Sim-Corp's mainframes. They called up the games file after she walked into the cubical in the downtown office.

"One player or two?" the computer asked in the polite fashion these games had always been written.

The computer of course knew from the log-in file, as well as the whole battery of detectors located around them, that only one body occupied the cubical, but the computer asked nonetheless.

"Tell it one," Hermit instructed.

They had played the first game manually. The holographically simulated paddles followed the movements of Julia's right hand. She could not actually feel the paddle that she appeared to be holding, but Julia played adequately. She defeated her first opponent, and was then trounced by a simulation of the local district champion.

"Now tell it two players," he had said.

"Are you sure? One player or two?" The computer had checked for verification.

"Two." Julia relayed Hermit's request, and the computer, though perhaps somewhat puzzled, did not protest.

They played this game manually also, Julia playing with her right hand, Hermit controlling her left. The computer projected both ends at once, an effect that at first seemed to Julia an unintelligible blur. Julia missed the first few shots altogether, swinging blindly where she thought the ball should be. Slowly, however, Hermit had helped her to sort it out so that the two, simulated images became clear.

Ping, she hit the ball on the end her right hand was playing. Pong, she watched as the left half of her body returned her serve. The game picked up speed at both ends of the table, and Julia barely noticed when Hermit let her control both hands.

Then he had let her play with no hands.

"This is going to be expensive, you know."

"You won't be charged. We'll erase the tape," he had reassured her.

Julia nodded slowly and asked the computer for mental control. A panel had opened in the left wall of the cubical, revealing the thought-scanner suspended above a metal seat.

"Please sit down. The control unit will lower automatically." The computer spoke politely.

Julia paused. The seat looked something like a chair once used for executions, though the hat portion was much more intricate. Her impression of the thought scanner was that it looked like a bicycle helmet for computer jocks.

"Well, I guess this will be some ride," she said out loud as she sat.

The helmet lowered. It was heavier than she expected, and it bit into her scalp. It also seemed to make her hair feel numb, if that were possible. Rather unwieldy, she had thought. As long as they were avoiding payment she should have gone to one of the most up-to-date cubicles, one with the psi-circuitry built into the walls. It had been too late for that, however. Besides, she didn't even know of one in the city. Remote psi-circuitry was still too expensive for all but the most exclusive establishments.

Julia had adjusted the helmet so it was less uncomfortable and signaled to the computer that she was ready to terminate physical control. The face plate slid down from the helmet to cover her eyes. She was blind for only a moment before a computer- generated image of the room appeared in her visual cortex.

The voice of the computer, which had previously been a deep sound on her left, then resonated throughout her head. It was something like Hermit speaking to her, but not as clear, or as friendly. For non-psiers, she supposed, this was as close to telepathy as they ever got. She started the game again.

"Ping Pong. One player or two?" the computer's thoughts asked.

"One." Hermit answered for her, an inside joke.

The ping pong table appeared in front of her again, but this time Julia could feel the paddle. Her senses were better than in life. She could tell exactly how many millimeters up the paddle her hand extended, and when she served could hear the difference between a ball that hit in the center of the table and one that clipped the edge. Her mental eyes followed the ball like it was in slow motion, and her hand speed seemed lightning quick. She just thought of the paddle being in front of the ball, and it was.

Three games in a row she beat the world champion, smiling graciously as Li-Wen Chen sagged her shoulders in a simulated posture of defeat she had never needed outside the digital world.

"Now let’s really play," said Hermit as Li-Wen came to life again, the computer resetting for a new game. "Jump," he said.

"Oh," said Julia in a gasp as she hit the first serve, and instead of watching the ball move away from her hand, she had sailed away in its place, cruising across the vast mesa of ping pong table, flying, bouncing, seeing herself, not as a player, but as the ball.

"We're directly in the computer system now," Hermit had explained. "I'm not quite sure how sophisticated this particular machine is, but I'd like to erase all trace of you being here just in case it managed to figure out I was here too."

They swam past the giant green paddles, and the facade of Li-Wen Chen that once on the other side Julia could see was only two dimensional. Numbers dominated her vision and her hearing, her smell and her touch. The computer was like a lover, feeling every part of her, and she caressed back, somehow knowing just what to do to produce the desired response.

"One player or two?" Julia saw the message and erased it from the computer's memory.

"One player or two?"

"One player or two?"

"One player or two?"

Coming back up from the memory, Hermit realized Julia was obsessing now, obsessing on a computer's polite question in a ping pong game.

"One player or two? Visit the composer. One player or two? Hermit visited his house? One player or two?" She repeated the series over and over.

Then the thought broke through to the surface and Julia said it out loud. "One player or two? Do you require one glass or two?" Julia said frantically now.

"I beg your pardon?" Hermit asked, still confused with his pupil's fixation with the computer's question.

"The holograph. Von-Segren asked you if you required one glass or two. How did he know you were there?"

The sound of the alarm on the door going off came from the other room, and Hermit had the feeling that both he and Julia knew the unfortunate answer to that question.

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