There was a presence in my mind. Nothing new about that. I had a lot of experience in having mental lodgers come and go — in one ear, out the other, as my mother used to accuse me.
The gentle reaching across the great divide that is our shared consciousness was warmly accepted by me, dragged inside and locked in.
Welcome, everyone, nice of you to visit. Shall we get started?
There was a struggle, of course, but these people were not practised in the art of breaking out. Sneaking in, sure. Having a good poke around, absolutely. But the click of the door shutting, the key turning, the bolts sliding into place, that they were not expecting.
They no longer had a way back to their own minds and the separation anxiety was hard to deal with in a calm manner.
If they’d calmed down and thought about it, they would have realised there was more of them than me, and they could put up some resistance. But idiots gonna idiot.
For me, having interlopers in the head was familiar and not a big deal. But for people who didn’t have my kind of extensive time sharing skull-space, it was probably a surprise when the door they’d just come through slammed shut behind them.
The presence wasn’t quite like the ones I was used to. It wasn’t a distinct person with clear thoughts and ideas. It was more like a crowd, a mob. I couldn’t make out individuals or specific comments, it was a morass of impressions, like the murmur of an audience just before the curtain goes up.
It wasn’t that I was doing anything to them, but there was a sense that they no longer had control over their own minds. Maybe they would never get to go back to their bodies. It’s quite a terrifying prospect when you don’t know what happens next and there’s no one to turn to.
Think of it like peering over the edge of a really tall building. There’s an idea of what would happen if you fell, but it’s distant and unlikely. You’ve got a wall in front of you, your feet are firmly planted on the floor, your hands are securely bracing you. No harm in a quick peek, you think.
You’re just having a look, in the least risky manner possible. Most people would be able to handle something like that.
But then someone comes up behind you and shoves you so you’re leaning right over the edge. They’re holding onto you, they’ve got a strong grip on you, but you’re going to freak out.
Your hands aren’t supporting you. Your feet aren’t touching anything.
Maybe it’s just a prank, but that doesn’t mean they can’t lose their grip. And then down you go.
Or maybe it isn’t a prank, maybe it’s someone who enjoys making people shit themselves. Even if they don’t intend to let you fall, they can accidentally let you slip.
The point is, once your fate is out of your own hands, especially when you don’t know whose hands you’re now in or what they plan to do to you, it’s very frightening.
Sometimes you wish the person holding you over the precipice would just let you fall.
“What are you smiling about?” asked Lillian as we drove into the carpark. She seemed to be familiar with the layout and headed for a spot near the lifts so we wouldn’t have to walk more than necessary. She’d be handy for trips to the supermarket.
“Nothing,” I said. “I’ve never had this many people in my head at the same time. How many psychics do they have?”
“I’m not sure of the exact number,” said Lillian. “A roomful. Isn’t it overwhelming?”
“Not really. It makes a nice change to have people who want to get out rather than set up camp and never fucking leave.”
The myriad thoughts swimming around in my head were all doing the same things — looking for a way out. I could sense them searching for a door, the same way I had whenever I got stuck in the void. It was fun to see someone else flail around for once. I felt I’d handled it a lot better than these poor plebs.
I also pictured various images in my mind to try and get them to panic. I’d never been very good at using my imagination when I was inside my own head. Other people seemed able to conjure up furniture and various furnishings with ease, while I had trouble getting anything solid to appear. It was my mind, you would’ve thought I’d have some control in there.
But this time I focused on more general ideas rather than specific objects. A wall of flames, a drop of hundreds of metres, being pissed on by a giant. These were all things I had personally experienced, and now I was able to relive them for others.
They did not seem very appreciative, but then nobody really wants to see other people’s holiday snaps.
I probably should not have enjoyed torturing them, they were already in a fragile state being cut off from their physical bodies, the idea that they might be stuck in some kind of purgatory was cruel and unnecessary. Still fun, though.
Lillian got out of her dinky car, looking at me like she didn’t approve of whatever I was doing. Good luck making me feel bad via the power of disappointment. Mate, I was born in disappointment, moulded by it.
“They’ll know you’re here if you’ve let them in,” she said.
“Yes, but they can only report it if I let them out.”
“You’re going to keep them?” Lillian was doubling down on her disapproval.
“No, but it’ll be interesting to see how long I can keep them locked up. These are the strongest psychics on the planet, yes? Or do the Chinese have a secret facility where they grow super-psychics — twice as many for half the price, eighty percent of which stop working after a week?”
If there were psychics in the world, there had to be others who had rounded them up, too.
“I don’t know. I haven’t detected any,” said Lillian, opening the tiny boot of her car. “But I haven’t been to China.”
She took out a smart jacket with a laminated ID card attached to the lapel. Once she put it on and tied back her hair, she looked like any other office worker.
“Won’t I look out of place without one of those?” I asked.
“It’s my last day,” said Lillian. “I resigned two weeks ago.”
“Because you’re psychic?”
“Yes. And also, it’s really boring working here. We’ll just say you’re my boyfriend and you’re here to help me pick up my stuff. Hopefully they won’t find that too hard to believe.”
“That I’m your boyfriend or that I’ll be able to carry your stuff?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Both. It’s okay, though. They’ve always thought I was a bit odd.”
The lift doors opened and we stepped in. The walls were mirrored and the two of us did look an unlikely pair. She was smartly turned out and very well groomed. I wasn’t.
Then again, me next to anyone had the same effect.
She pressed the very top button. None of them were numbered.
I could still feel the crowd rattling around in my head. I hadn’t sensed Little Me since I’d gotten back, but if he was still in there, he wasn’t going to be happy about the noise. Serve the little shit right.
“You haven’t asked what to expect once we get up there,” said Lillian.
“No. I’m sure it’ll be obvious.”
“How? You aren’t psychic.”
“I don’t have to be,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’ll just wing it, should be fine. No point wasting time learning the details when this is probably a trap and none of it will be relevant.”
“You think I’m leading you into a trap?” She sounded offended. “Why would I?”
“How do I know?” I said. “I’m not psychic.”
There was a moment of silence. There was no way to tell how far there was to go without a floor indicator. It was a very minimalist lift.
“You think this is a trap, but you’re going along with it anyway?” she asked.
I nodded. “Yep. Imagine if some knob thought he had the better of you, lied and misled you to get you to be in a certain place at a certain time, just to fuck you over. And you went, walked right into the jaws of the bear trap he’d set up for you. Iron teeth clamped to your leg, blood everywhere. And you just ignore it. Carry on walking like nothing happened. Imagine how the guy’s going to feel then.”
Lillian arched an eyebrow. “You want to show off how much better than them you are?”
“It’s got nothing to do with showing off,” I said, slightly irritated by her choice of words. “I’ve realised since I’ve been back that people here use very basic methods to mess with each other. Money, violence, advertising. It’s all crap. It only works if you care. You can’t tempt someone with something they don’t want, and you can’t threaten them by taking away something they don’t have.”
“You’re some kind of monk?” asked Lillian. “You have no desire?” There was an implication that I was sexually impotent which I ignored. “You think you’re better than everyone?”
“I desire a lot of things, just not the stuff they’ve worked so hard to convince me I want. Unlike you, Lillian, I was never gullible enough to buy an iPhone. So yes, I do think I’m better than everyone.”
Was I really that confident? No. My real strength wasn’t in believing I couldn’t lose, it was not caring if I did. And if you fail, no one really cares what nonsense you said. On the other hand, if you do manage to eke out a win, if you acted full of yourself and like it was skill rather than luck, then others will piss themselves next time you turn up. It’s just the way people are conditioned. If he did it once, he can do it again. Whereas in reality, if I did it once, I probably won’t be able to do it again for the next ninety-nine attempts.
“Good for you,” said Lillian. “But this isn’t a trap and I haven’t sold you out, although I still don’t see what Jenny sees in you.”
“Yeah, well, if you find out, let me know.”
“Once we get to my office, I’ll be able to use the equipment I’ve got stashed there and get in touch with her. We can ask her. And if you could keep from being so much better than the rest of us until then, I’d appreciate it. The security people get touchy when someone looks down on them, especially when they look like you.”
Her assessment was a little harsh, but far from unfair.
“Sure. Lead the way.”
The lift stopped and the doors opened. Orions was standing there, flanked by large men wearing headsets like they’d just come from a Halo LAN event.
“You’re here,” said Orion, sounding pleased.
I looked at Lillian, smiling. “Yes. You were expecting me?”
“This has nothing to do with me,” said Lillian.
“But you’re psychic,” I pointed out. “How could you not know?”
She looked a bit flustered. I let her stew for a bit. Orion seemed happy to wait.
I turned to him. “I guess you have more psychics held in reserve, blocking people like her.”
He nodded. “If you don’t mind, could you release the ones you’re holding?”
“Or what?” I asked.
“Nothing, it wasn’t a threat. I was hoping you would do it as a kindness. They’re becoming quite agitated.”
I wasn’t really achieving anything by keeping them trapped in my noggin. I’d made my point, I felt, so I opened the doors of my mind and let them go. I felt quite light-headed as they all rushed away from me.
I stepped out of the lift and the men with Orion backed off. I was the scariest guy in the room, which was an odd feeling.
The floor was filled with desks with people sat behind each one. There were dozens of them, maybe hundreds.
“Hey!” I said to the room. “Let’s just be clear. I’ll give you a pass this time, but if any of you try to get in my head again, I will brain-fuck you until there’s nothing left but jelly dripping out of your ears.”
I had no idea how I would do that, but I felt like I had the upper hand, and the best way to use it was to make sure they didn’t try again. If they thought they had no chance against me, that was as good as it actually being true.
The room stared at me without making a sound.
“Ah,” said Orion. “These are just the support staff. Mainly clerical duties.”
I had just threatened to brain-fuck a bunch of strangers who had no idea who I was. It takes a special sort of person to introduce themselves to a busy office in such a manner. They would definitely avoid sitting next to me in the company canteen, so… mission accomplished?
Lillian was staring at me with her mouth hanging open. I turned my back to her.
“So, the psychic portal to Never-Never Land? This way?” I pointed towards the far end of the floor. I was here now, might as well see what their set up was like.
“This way,” said Orion, pointing behind me.
To the side of the lift doors was another door. Orion led the way, with the big guys bringing up the rear.
Through the doors was a corridor leading to stairs, up to a platform. He stood on it and waited for the rest of us to join him. Once we were all on, the platform rose up, about ten metres, and we entered another floor.
This one was bathed in blue light and was entirely covered in large pods, bullet-shaped and about the size of Lillian’s Smart car.
“There are sensory deprivation tanks,” explained Orion. “Each contains one psychic. We find it helps them focus.”
“Very humane,” said Lillian. “Are they naked and smeared in Vaseline?” I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic.
“This way please.” Orion led us through the pods, which were making a soft bubbling noise, towards a raised control area with computers and consoles and half a dozen people in lab coats.
“Open it up, please,” said Orion.
The white-coats went into action, pressing buttons and keys and what have you.
The wall behind them was mostly a circular glass window looking out into the wastes of East London ( I say wastes, mainly I mean Dagenham). The window began to separate and open, the panes of glass disappearing into the walls. Outside was a platform stretching out from the side of the building, like a bridge going nowhere.
“This is the Nexus,” said Orion. It was windy and hard to hear him. “From here we can go to your world.”
It looked like from here you could take a running jump to your death.
“It isn’t active, yet,” said Orion, “but with your—”
There was a loud buzzing noise and a black circle, a couple of metres in diameter suddenly appeared at the end of the bridge.
“What’s happening?” shouted Orion. His people were rushing around, checking readings, calling up data, sending memes to Elon Musk and whatever else it was scientists did these days.
“Something’s coming through,” shouted one of the speccy twats.
“Shut it down!” screamed Orion. “Shut it down!”
“Why?” I said. “Don’t you want to see what it is?”
“This portal connects to an infinite number of dimensions. It could be anything. It could be the worst evil in the universe, coming here to destroy us.”
I felt he was being a bit over the top.
“We can’t,” said a panicked boffin. “It’s coming, we can’t stop it.”
We all looked at the end of the bridge. A figure appeared through the hole in space and time. A smallish, female figure.
“I found you,” said Claire.
“You were right,” I shouted at Orion. “Shut it down! Shut it down!”