Chapter 22

I came to on a cot staring at plexiglass walls rising into the ceiling above me. This didn’t make much sense, but when I pushed myself upright, I could see that I was inside a small, plastic-walled built inside a larger room. I had a cot, a strange metal toilet with no seat and a sink built into the top, a small table and that was it. They had removed my clothes and dressed me in an orange prison jumpsuit. Classy touch.

“He’s awake.”

I looked out the cage where a nerdy type with glasses sat on a folding chair. That was Nate Marvin, the NSA tech. He pointed a mobile phone at me and looked over his shoulder. “Ferret says he’s still in there.”

A larger and more serious man rose from a desk at the back of the room and approached. That would be John Kolcane, the spook who shot me. He unfolded another folding chair and sat down behind a yellow line on the floor. It wrapped all the way around my cage and was well out of my reach. Smart move. But it wasn’t like I could stick more than a couple of fingers out the air-holes.

I decided to bluff. “What’s the meaning of this John? Is this how we treat friends now?”

“You’re not Andrew Wilder so let’s just stop that shit before it starts.” Kolcane said.

“What are you talking about John? This is crazy. You shot me! Why am I locked up?” My first rule is, never break character, no matter what.

“Well Andrew, I’m very sorry about that,” Kolcane said sarcastically, “but you’ve been taken over by a transient consciousness named Daniel Beemer. Ring any bells?”

Oh shit, he knew my real name. I’d been detained probably a dozen times for various kinds of misbehavior in my life, but no one had ever used my real name before. Somehow the NSA had found out about me.

“I know everything Daniel, where you were born; Seattle; about your adoptive parents Sylvia and Jerome; your birthdate May 9th, 1979; your social security number, best friends, enemies and favorite foods. I know that for the last two years you possessed a buddhist monk in Dharamsala and three days ago you infected the President of the United States. I also know you’d probably get the death penalty if we sent you to Thailand and could convince the authorities in Bangkok of what you really are.”

Well, that was pretty much everything. No sense playing stupid now. If they wanted me dead I’d be dead already, and if they were going to put me in prison for the rest of my life I wouldn’t be here. I hoped. Kolcane wanted something from me.

All I needed was a touch. A glancing fingertip while passing a dinner tray or a sudden lunge when someone came to clean my cell, then I’d be out. I decided to play nice.

“How is Chodak? Any trouble with Chinese intel?” I said. Kolcane looked slightly surprised that I gave in so easily. He didn’t expect that, but he quickly composed himself. A slight widening of the eyes, no more, but I’m a keen observer of human behavior. Faces tell tales whether the brain inside wants to or not. The man can be flustered, I noted.

“Chadic is fine. I interviewed him after your little altercation. He has no memory of his infection but he’s reintegrating into the community well. After landing two agents in an Indian prison, he declined to continue your anti-Chinese political diatribes. I believe the PLA gave up on him.”

“Good,” I said, “he was a great man. His mind was amazingly focused and his ability to concentrate was…”

“Cut the chit-chat,” Kolcane interrupted. “I’m going to ask you some questions and you’re going to answer them.”

“Get bent,” I said. “What are you going to do? Zap me again with your taser?”

“CBT Electron doesn’t use this room. It would be an interesting experiment to see how long you’d survive if we sealed it off and left you in that cell. What do you think Nate?”

“He’s got water, so I’d guess it would take him a month or two. Andrew has some extra pounds.”

“We can cut off the water.”

“A few days then,” Marvin said.

“Bullshit,” I said. “you’re not going to let one of your colleagues die. We’re in an interesting situation here John. You’ve got me but I’ve got Andrew. Kill me and you kill him.”

“Perhaps,” Kolcane said, “but we’re working on that. We think we have a way to put you back in your original body.”

I laughed at him. Nice try spook, but that wont work. “That would be an interesting trick. My original body died years ago in a Connecticut nursing home.”

“Really?” Kolcane said. He walked to a corner desk and returned with a plain manila folder and a grabber. He squatted at the yellow line, used the grabber to open a tiny door at the bottom of the plexiglass and slid the manila folder through. I hadn’t noticed that before. Too small to squeeze through, but another potential avenue for escape nevertheless — if someone came close enough. I opened the envelope.

Inside was a face I hadn’t seen in years. I looked like myself, if a skeleton took my skin and pulled it tight over its bony body. I was strapped to a respirator, feeding tubes and a dozen other wires, but it was me. My original body. The time stamp showed last month.

“That’s a nice likeness. Bravo. You spooks do good work. Who is it?”

“We removed your body from the Pines Rehabilitation Center in Winchester County in 2008.”

Shit. That was when I was notified my body had passed away. I looked at the photos again. If that was me, it changed everything. When I first developed my ability, I’d spend most of my time in my own body, with only occasional forays riding other people. But it was like a drug and I got hooked very quickly. My teenage hormones were especially fond of riding teenage girls and trying to get their girlfriends to experiment with me. It was all pretty despicable and I’m not proud of what I did. I broke up more than a few relationships when I refused to have sex with my ride’s boyfriend. That’s one reason why I rode Chodak for so long. I needed to repair all that bad karma.

After the break-up with Annie, I spent most of my time riding other people. The problem was my original body. When I leave a ride, they’re dazed for a while, but they just pick up their lives and move on. But when I left myself, my body went into a coma. I solved this by putting my body in a series of private care facilities, funded through the generous and anonymous contributions of various wealthy rides. From 2002–2007 I only saw my body once, from the outside, while riding a visitor. It made me sad to see it withering away, but after tasting the outside, I didn’t like to spend my life in just one house. I had billions of bodies to call my home, and each was new, exciting and different. The crucible of excitation that was my id drove me to the next, the next and the next.

I always wondered what would happen when my physical form passed away. Back then, I don’t think I cared…maybe even hoped I’d vanish too. When I received the notice from Pines Rehab that I was dead, I assumed I had solved all sorts of eternal philosophical questions about mind-body distinctions. I was an eternal spirit, liberated from the confines of one physical form to travel amongst all mankind. Perhaps I’d be immortal?

The death of my body seemed to confirm that belief. I was a spirit in the material world. I could only die if my medium of existence croaked.

But with my body still alive, it raised the possibility anew that I might not survive if my original form died. I wasn’t the angst filled kid of a decade ago who didn’t care if he lived or died. I liked life. I didn’t like this at all.

“Doing the calculus on what this means for your mortality Daniel?”

Kolcane was smarter than he looked. Andrew had a very limber intellect. I could do the math quickly. My hand sucked and I had to fold the pot.

“Ok, John, you’ve got me. You own the leverage. I can imagine a dozen scenarios that you could use to force me back in my old body or some forgotten criminal no one cared about. Or just kill my body and see if I disappear. Let’s deal. What do you want?”

For the first time, Kolcane smiled. He had me and we both knew it, so there was no point in drawing out the negotiation.

“We have a number of questions,” Kolcane said, “Nate?” Marvin slid his chair to the yellow line and held up a photograph of a tall office building on fire. I knew it well. I almost died there.

“We’d like to know the circumstances surrounding your involvement in the plane crash into the Haritori building in Los Angeles in 2003.”

Christ, they knew a lot. “How did you know I was there?” Kolcane ignored me.

“You encountered a User, correct? And they tried to kill you?” he asked.

“A User?” I wasn’t familiar with the term, but I knew the entity in question — the Others. Like me, but not. “A User…what is that? Is that what was inside McCloud?”

“Tell us about the incident, then we talk about Users,” Kolcane said. I shrugged. I was as curious as they, and if they could provide answers I was happy to tell them.

“At the time I was riding an entertainment executive named Clay Abrams. He worked for Fox and we were in pre-production for a sci-fi show about aliens that can possess people. I gave them a lot of good creative material for the show.”

“Wonderful,” Kolcane said disdainfully.

“Anyway, we had a meeting with Railing Robot Pictures, which was our production partner for the shoot. The CEO of Railing Robot was Gary McCloud, remember him?”

“We have a complete profile of him. His behavior was increasingly erratic in the months leading up to the event,” Kolcane said.

“Erratic,” I said, “yeah you could call it that. Rumor was he was spending money on cars, planes, coke, high-class tail, you name it. Money he didn’t have. But when he came into our meeting, he looked so suave, so energized, and he looked so…happy. Maniacally happy. I was bored with Abrams and his slinky but chilly wife, so I decided to get a new, fun ride.”

“We suspected as much,” Kolcane said as Marvin jotted notes on a legal pad. “Continue.”

“We met to discuss the show and everything went great. Smiles all around. So after the meeting, the guy goes to take a piss, and I just followed him in. He was at the urinal, so I just walked up behind him and touched his neck.”

“But you couldn’t take him,” Kolcane said, not really asking.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“There was someone else riding him.”

“Riding?” Marvin asked.

“Yeah, that’s what I call it when I shift inside someone. I ride them.” Marvin scribbled. “I’m the Rider,” I said.

“Your girlfriend Annie Cunningham nicknamed you that right?” Kolcane said.

“No,” I said, “it was my buddy Luke.” Marvin scribbled. I realized they didn’t know about Lukas Smucker. Shit, I had to be more careful what I said. “Anyway, like I said, someone was already riding McCloud.”

“If you could,” Marvin said “please describe the sensation.”

“I could show you?” I offered, putting my index finger through an air hole and waving it at him. Kolcane scowled and Marvin leaned back in his chair. “Wow, you guys have no sense of humor. Ok, it’s like this. When I touch someone and want to shift, there is this feeling — I can only describe it as a grasping — where my mind reaches out to my ride. Their mind feels like it’s grasping too. I think this is why everyone is looking for a connection in life, why we need connections with others, but why it’s never enough. The physical gets in the way of the mental. All of us are just looking for someone we can connect with on a deeper, more primal level. But ultimately we’re always all alone. Well, almost always”

Kolcane looked impatient with my philosophizing.

“Anyway, when we connect, I just grab on with my mind and use theirs to pull myself across. It’s as quick as pulling a cord on a light. You yank and then flash, you’re across.”

“Sounds like a computer handshake,” Marvin says.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s like two hands feeling around in the dark. And when I feel the other one and get a good grip, I just pull myself out of one body and into the other one. And then I can park myself there, like a car sliding into a garage.”

“But in the case of McCloud…?” Kolcane asked.

“In his case the hand was engaged. The garage was already had a car in it.” I shrugged. “I’m running out of analogies here.”

“A dog was already in the kennel?” Marvin offered.

“Yeah and it was snarling,” I said.

“It wasn’t the first time you encountered this situation was it?” Kolcane asked.

Shit, what were they getting at here? And how did they know all this? Kolcane obviously knew a lot of things I didn’t. They called them Users. What did that mean? I wanted inside his mind badly. Fucking backassward analog conversation bullshit was so inefficient. If I rode him I could figure it out in two minutes. I hadn’t needed to chat to discover information in years. I just shifted and learned, and it had made me impatient.

I thought back to Chodak and tried to still my mind. I closed my eyes. Three good breaths. Inhale…exhale…But then a foul spirit interrupted.

“How many other times?” Kolcane insisted. I opened my eyes and frowned. Dude was undermining my mojo.

“Two previous times,” I said. “Once when I was a kid and another time in Orange County, maybe a few months before the plane crash.”

“Tell us about them,” Kolcane said.

“Well, the first time I still wasn’t very good at shifting. It was an acquired skill, you know? Now I can do it like that,” I snapped my fingers. “But back then it would take me some time. I tried riding this beautiful cognitive psych teacher at u-dub, but I couldn’t make the connection. Awkward for both of us. I was shaking her real hand politely, but she looked like I had stuck my hand down her blouse. I just couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get inside her. I think she felt the near-violation. Or maybe she just through I was trying to get inside her other parts. Anyway, she felt occupied and inaccessible to me. I thought about it often, but couldn’t really place what was going on.”

“The second time in Newport Beach, I understood what was happening. There was someone else there.”

“Someone?” Kolcane asks. “You think it was a person?”

I always assumed the Others were people with similar abilities and they were just hitching rides, but Kolcane was talking like they were…something else. Interesting.

“I assumed they were people,” I said. “I figured it was someone like me, another rider. You don’t think so?”

“Tell me about the third time?” Kolcane asked.

“The third time I knew someone was there. And I tried pushing him out.”

“It was a him?” Kolcane asked. “How do you know?”

“It was a consciousness. I couldn’t tell the gender. But it was like a mental arm-wrestling match. He…it, whatever, tried to just push me out. But I got a good grip on him and started to shift. But then something really strange happened.”

“What?” Marvin said.

“It was like he started to shift out.”

“He tried to leave McCloud?” Marvin said.

“Yeah, he was on his way out. But I grabbed onto him and pulled him back.”

“And you kept him there?”

“Yeah, it was like he pulled out of the garage, but I pulled in and then chained him to the side of the house.”

“He couldn’t leave?” Marvin asked.

“Nope, I had him good and tight. It was like riding two people at once, except… there was a big difference.” Kolcane was stoic and poker faced, but I could see Marvin leaning forward in anticipation. He wasn’t skilled in interrogations and his deep interest in what happened betrayed him. Maybe I could use that.

“Say, how about we take a break? I could use a stretch and a snack,” I said.

“What was the difference?” Marvin asked. Kolcane put his hand on Marvin’s shoulder and gently pulled him back into his seat.

“The difference was that you couldn’t access the memories of the second consciousness,” Kolcane said. Shit again. This guy was pretty good. I wanted to ride him so bad to find out these secrets. I closed my eyes and reached out to him with my mind. I could feel my own grasping, reaching, looking for a handle to pull myself out. I could feel Wilder pushing at me, wanting back into his own mind. Wanting control. But although I reached, there was no mind to be grasped. I could not use the force Obi Wan.

Kolcane spoke and I opened my eyes.

“Unlike most victims whose memories you can access directly, this extra consciousness was like that trapped dog. You could sense and feel it, but you couldn’t get inside. Close enough analogy?”

“Close enough,” I said. “You’re very well informed. How do you know all this?”

“Tell us the rest,” Kolcane said. “Your answers come later.”

“Well,” I said, “the mental wrestling match took a few seconds, but once I was in and had him — had the dog, chained up — I took over McCloud and just walked out of the bathroom and back to the office.”

“And then?”

“And then ten minutes later the fucking building blew up.”

“You were injured?”

“Fuck yeah I was injured,” I said. “But it’s a miracle I wasn’t killed instantly. The force of the plane crash blew me right out a third story, plate glass window. I landed on the roof of somebody’s bimmer. If that gardener hadn’t been mowing grass twenty feet away from where I landed, I wouldn’t be here.”

“The autopsy report said Gary McCloud died instantly from massive blunt force trauma,” Kolcane said.

“Well, it wasn’t instantly but it was pretty damn close,” I said. “I couldn’t see or hear anything. Hell I couldn’t feel anything. I think McCloud’s spine was severed. But I felt the gardener’s mind when he took my hand.”

“In interviews after the accident Mr. Gustavo said that he went to check McCloud’s pulse and then fainted,” Kolcane said.

“Yeah, well I’m glad he tried, because I shifted into him just as McCloud left for eternity.”

“You felt him die?” Marvin asked, leaning in. “What did that feel like?”

Just remembering gave me a shiver up my spine. “It was like a giant black chasm opened up below me and McCloud just fell into nothingness. I hung onto Gustavo and pulled myself across just before the lights went out. Scariest moment of my life.” I wondered if any other person had ever witnessed someones’ soul exiting the universe. Probably not. I’m just lucky that way.

“This has fascinating metaphysical implications. I would love to learn more and maybe write a paper on this,” Marvin said. Kolcane frowned at him.

“Focus Nate.” Kolcane turned back to me and continued. “You left with Mr. Gustavo, infected someone else shortly after and then resumed your life,”

“Yes.”

“And your next encounter with a User was on a subway platform in Manhattan in 2008.” Kolcane said.

Hmm, interesting. He didn’t know about the other one. He was too confident he had all the facts.

“Yes, that was the next time,” I lied.

“What happened?” Kolcane said.

I had to be very careful here. I thought back to that day. I had been standing in a crowd when the train pulled into the station. NickNick Brower, my investment banker ride, had neither the need nor the inclination to ride the subway. But I loved tightly packed trains. I could shift in and out of thirty or forty people a minute, riding each for just a second or two, sampling their bodies, minds and lives. It was like a gourmet reception, a Chinese buffet, Spanish tapas and burger king all in one subway care and I could have a taste of everything. Since it was a closed environment, I could always get right back to my permanent ride before the doors opened. I always imagined it was like what dogs felt when they rode in the car with their head out the window and smelled the world at forty-five miles-per-hour. Just a rush of people overwhelming my senses. Drugs for the mind addicted.

“Rider?” Kolcane said, “still with us?”

“Sorry, just remembering. That was a really shitty day.”

“I can imagine,” Kolcane said, “want some water?”

“Sure.” Marvin fetched a bottle of water from a cooler in the corner and passed it to me with a grabber pole. I was getting my reward from master for answering questions, so I drank deeply. Wilder’s body was thirsty.

I wasn’t lying about the shitty day. October 2, 2008 was the worst day of my life. My favorite ride was killed, and another woman who loved me would never get to see the real me within. Three lives were ruined that day.

“Ready to continue?” Kolcane said. This would be a lie — actually a life of omission — but what the hell. Let’s see what they know.

“Yeah, so I had been riding this banker since 2005, and one day in the subway I encountered another Other.”

“Another User?” Kolcane said.

“If that’s what they are, then yes, another User. I called them Others because they seemed like they had my ability.”

“Where did you encounter it?”

“I was on the platform and I touched the hand of a woman next to me. It was in there.”

“Why would you shift on a subway platform?” Kolcane asked. “Wouldn’t your ride…Mr Brower, wouldn’t he collapse.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I said, “whenever I shifted out, Nick would take a long time to regain his senses. I’d been riding him for two years, and I guess it just takes time for their minds to refamiliarize with their bodies. I usually only shifted on the train. I’d sit him down and it would look like he was sleeping or just waking up. But I can taste people without shifting into them.”

“You can taste them?” Kolcane looked disgusted. “Do tell.”

“It’s like the handshake without the shift. I can link my mind with theirs for a moment but not actually change rides.”

“What’s that like?” Marvin asked, fascinated.

I thought for a moment before answering. “It’s like putting your head in the door of a fantastic Italian restaurant. You get a quick sniff of delicious aromas from the kitchen, you hear the noise and see the patrons, but then the door shuts and you have to either walk in for good or move on.”

“And she was already taken?”

“Yes,” I lied. “Same as the time before. But this time when I tried to get in, that fucker Birch pushed me onto the tracks.” That part was true. I was standing on the platform waiting for my train when a homeless man named Cornelius Birch gave me a two handed shove in the back as the number six train came into the station. I landed hard and barely missed hitting my head on the third rail. I could see the light of the train and through pure adrenalin I picked myself up and made it back to the platform edge. A couple of bystanders grabbed me by the hand and were pulling me out, but it was too late. When the train hit, my lower body was still in front of it, and I was just twisted in between the train and platform like a length of taffy.

“When I came to I couldn’t feel anything. I looked up and all I could see was a crowd of knees backing away from me. I remember the faces — the faces of everyone in front of me were just either a puzzled shock or absolute terror. When I looked down I could see why. My body from the ribcage up was wedged in the crack between the train and the platform. Everything below was just gone.” I felt myself getting queasy at the recollection. That truly had been a miserable day.

“A couple of bystanders came to comfort me. I remember an old woman, she was ninety if she was a day old. She got down on all fours and then turned herself so she could sit next to me with her legs out. She just put her arm around my shoulders and gently rubbed my face, telling me it would be ok. A guy who looked like a doctor was in a tizzy, telling me to be calm and checking me over. When he looked through the gap and saw there was nothing left of me below, he turned white and just held my hand. The transit cops were just losing their shit. They all knew I was a dead man.” I felt an immense wave of sadness come over Wilder’s body. He too must have felt a deep loss in his life and his body was reacting to my emotion as his own. I looked at Marvin; he had his hand cupped over his mouth. He hadn’t seen the pictures. Kolcane just stared at me with those dark brown pits in his skull. He had.

“After the EMTs came and checked me over, they explained that I was going to die. They said the only thing keeping me alive was the pressure of the train pinning my belly against the platform, and when they moved the train, all my insides would just fall out on the track. As it was, my guts and blood were dribbling out the bottom.”

“So you called your girlfriend?”

“Fiancee,” I said. “She was my fiancee.”

“You called her?”

“The EMTs called her. They put the phone to my ear and I heard her answer, but I panicked. I could feel myself getting faint and I was afraid I was going to pass out and die. So I grabbed his hand and shifted into the EMT.”

“What did you say to her?”

“I should have told her everything right there,” I said. “But how do you confess to the love of your life that you’re an impostor and the man she fell in love with is just a skin that you inhabit and cast off as needed.”

“Like a hermit crab,” Marvin said. He took a note. Clever boy.

“So what did you do?” Kolcane said.

“I hung up. She found out later when the police called her.”

“You had a new body. Why didn’t you go to her right away?”

“I was pretty fucked up, you know. One minute I’m standing waiting for the train, the next I’m watching myself die caught between the train and the platform. I had ridden Nick Brower longer than anyone. When I shifted into the EMT, I got to watch myself die from a third person perspective.”

“You got to watch Brower die,” Kolcane said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “But it was like watching myself die. I loved riding Brower. He was kind of a dick when I shifted into him — that’s one reason I rode him. I made a nice guy resolution to only ride shitty people. But he had a sharp mind, a clever wit and he ran triathlons so he was in great shape. Plus he was like six foot two, extremely attractive and worked on Wall Street, so the girls in New York just flocked to him. He was a great ride.” Rider paused, getting a bit misty eyed. “He was my home.”

“He was your host,” Kolcane said. “And you’re responsible for his death.”

“Yeah, probably,” I agreed. I spread my hands. “Nature of the business I’m afraid. When I ride, accidents are on me.”

“So what happened next?” Kolcane asked.

“So Brower was pretty out of it, thank god. It would have been awful if he had regained his senses just enough to realize he was dying. After he passed out from blood loss and the EMTs pronounced him dead, the firemen came in to free his body. They inflated these giant air bags to push the train away from the platform. and the medics were right, everything below my chest — his chest — just fell out. I’ll never forget that sound — splat, like the contents of a giant can of tomato paste hitting the floor.”

“So you were distraught?”

“Distraught and scared,” I said. The plane crash could have been a fluke, but the subway too? Someone was obviously out to kill me and it definitely had to do with whatever I found inside those people. I thought they might go after me again, or get Devan next. I was scared and I left.” Rider thought back and a tear rolled down Andrew Wilder’s cheek. Rider sniffed and changed the subject.

“You called them Users. What are they? Wilder thinks they are some sort of extra-dimensional beings. But that’s crazy right?”

Kolcane ignored me again. “I’ll tell you, but first I need to know something… if you found another person who had been taken by a User, and you got inside, do you think you could you access the User’s memory?”

“If I ever encounter another one of those things I’m running in the other direction as fast as possible,” I said. “I’m clever but I don’t know that I’d be lucky a third time. They might drop a bomb on me or something.”

“If we could guarantee your safety, do you think you could?” Kolcane asked.

So that’s what they wanted — intel on these Users. Maybe they’re Russian spies or something…

“I don’t know if I could dig into their memories,” I said. “Maybe. I only had a few seconds with McCloud and never really got into the woman on the platform. It’s possible.” Actually I didn’t think there was any chance in hell. The Other inside McCloud was as inscrutable as a rock. There was clearly something there, but I had no idea what was inside.

But maybe Kolcane had a hammer to crack that rock open. And I was worried what they’d do to me if I couldn’t make myself useful.

“Yeah,” I said “if you could keep the 747s out of the airspace and secure me from suicide bombers, I could probably get inside.”

“Excellent. Thank you very much Mr. Beemer. You’ve been helpful enough for us to keep you alive.” Kolcane said. He stood up and turned to leave.

“Hey wait a minute, you said you’d tell me about the Users.”

“Eventually…” He said. Kolcane and Marvin left, locking the door behind them.

Fucker lied to me.

But he didn’t know I lied to him too. The subway story was true, but it got really interesting because of what happened on the F train earlier. I had Nick parked in a corner seat, in and out of consciousness, and I was shifting my way around the subway car when I shifted into a young brunette model. An Other was there, same as the last two times. Its consciousness tried to get away, but I grabbed and held on for dear life. I was in, and it was trapped. Inscrutable, but trapped in her body with me. But then I got scared.

I remembered what happened in LA, and I decided to let it leave her body. I was also curious where it would go. I figured it would just shift into another person. I was wrong.

When it went, I felt it handshake with something I could only describe as outside. Not another person. Something else. An exit. A passage inside the mind I’d never encountered before.

And I could handshake with the exit too. For a moment I thought about following it out. But in that instant of hesitation, the User was gone, the exit closed and it was just me and Ms Model. I tried to handshake with it again, but the exit was nowhere to be found. I waited a few minutes to see if it would come back, but it didn’t. I tasted everyone on the train, but the Other was gone. No exits.

I shifted my way back to Brower just as the train pulled into the next station. I apologized to the woman next to me for slumping on her shoulder, exited and moved to the next platform to catch my connecting train. While I was waiting in the crowd, I started tasting again. And that’s when I found another Other.

At first I thought it was just an amazing coincidence — two in one day. But afterwards I realized, she was bait. They staked a goat to catch the bear. They put another Other in the crowd so I would find it and they could find me. And then they tried to kill me by using that homeless guy Birch to push me to my death. Which meant there were multiple Others. And they were homicidal.

I thought about the exit every day since. For years opening the exit consumed my life. All the possibility, all the potential sense of liberation I felt in that moment when I had a handshake with the exit was there, emotionally tangible but just out of reach. I wanted to believe that if I just put my mind in the right place, I could will the exit to open, handshake with it and see where it went. This path led me to Chodak and the exploration of liberation and nirvana. But after endless months of cultivating mental focus, control and precision, I had pretty much given up. I had tried drugs, extreme exercise, guided visualization and now meditation. None of them were going to open the exit. When the Chinese agents came, they were providence. I was ready to move on.

The exit had become the central mystery of my life. Nothing explained it, until those agents arrived. If life was a simulation, then there was a reason for it. I was the only one I knew with my ability, so I suspected the reason was me. I was trapped against my will. Doors were available, but inaccessible to me. Those who controlled the doors would kill me if I crossed them. That sounded a lot like a prison to me. And if I was being kept here, that meant there was something much bigger for me on the outside. The exit was the possibility of possibilities. It was freedom.

Kolcane was going to find another one to see if I could access its memories. But I had other plans. The next time I encountered an Other, I was going to let it go and follow it. I was going to take the exit.

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