Realistic depiction of a panic attack.
Chapter 18: Detective, Defective, Dissociative
“Well in short, you physically died.”
MaTRON’s words fell with a fatal finality, she probably hadn’t intended. Fatal finality, an apt choice of words thrown up by my mind as it fought off the need to shut itself from the world.
I'd experienced this once before, when I was told my parents had died. The feeling of your senses closing off as if someone had found the dimmer switch. Until finally your eyes were seeing, but you’d fail to notice the hand of a concerned onlooker waving before your face, unable to hear anything except your thundering heartbeat in your ears.
Faced with a concept that seemed so inconceivable, so impossible and earthshaking that your mind shuts itself off from external stimuli in an attempt to process it. To try and deny it, because if it were true, your very foundations would shatter and nothing could ever be the same again. Nothing ever again could be seen as firm, constant or safe.
Almost total sensory deprivation, leaving you alone with your thoughts. Those words of hers were the sound of a gun dropped on cement after a murder. Technically speaking, my murder and I was still trying to work out who was the killer.
Had MaTRON killed me, she’d been acting extremely anxious and in my earlier interactions with her almost like she had felt guilty? Then why go through such efforts to keep me, umm, alive?
The scan? If I trusted MaTRON then the scan was a killer, was I some sort’ve unintentional casualty in a war on sentient AI or did the people who oversaw the FTLN just go around killing people for pirated connections? I’d heard the ghost stories about them grabbing people crossing the border to check their sabotaged links and those automated guns on the border were certainly real and very deadly, but...
Well I didn’t buy into the local propaganda and I didn’t want to give up believing grass was greener on the other side.
I was vaguely aware of someone, MaTRON probably, trying to talk to me, but it was like it was like I was viewing it through a long tunnel. I couldn’t hear what she was saying and I couldn’t bring myself to care enough to struggle against the detached numbness.
So, who then was responsible?
The pod? Had Dreammaker placed some sort of anti-theft deadly DRM set to trigger in the case of a wrong response by an external audit? A trigger designed to cause one of the parts to act out of concert with the rest, setting into effect a cascade of faults that would ultimately render the pod and all its parts fried beyond repair.
I wasn’t dumb enough to fixate on that theory. Even the most callous company wouldn’t risk commiting such an act of PR and company suicide by bricking a device in a way that could kill a user.
If it wasn’t any intentional actions by MaTRON, the scan and any DRM measures, then who or what was to blame?
Had I made a mistake with the pod? I knew it would have its quirks, but I’d spent months meticulously cleaning and testing the parts from the three pods picking only the best. And if I was unsatisfied by a part from any of the pods, I found and bartered for a suitable replacement.
It would really suck if I missed something after all that.
The dim sensation of my hand being grasped and held, reached me through the null. Oh… MaTRON looks worried…
Where was I? The pod, right.
It wouldn't be the first time I’d messed up, I had a long list of devices that had malfunctioned or broken since I started this. It’s not like I am working with third grade parts and tools by choice, improvising with what I have is part of the job.
I’ve mentioned my jerry rigged transformers catching fire before.
I’m not sure how many attempts I made at jerryrigging a transformer to get free electricity from the forgotten utility lines that travelled through my shack. I was usually fine making or repurposing the windings, it was the cooling where I had the trouble. Trying to source the right flame retardant oils to act as a coolant, calculating the right volume of oil and finding the right container.
I’d tried various oils, as well as different housings; old oil drums, boilers, industrial kettles or pressure cookers. In the end I had resorted to using the body of the largest flued oil heater I could find, the casing’s design had a high surface area to volume ratio allowing for maximum heat exchange with air for a minimum volume of oil.
The hardest part was fitting the transformers core so it didn’t have any contact with the outer casing. If the insulation on the windings broke the current could travel across the coils instead through the strands length and if it was in contact with the casing, though that as well.
If the transformer failed, the pod might suddenly find itself receiving electricity at the same voltage as in the utility lines instead of the much reduced voltage the transformer was responsible for.
I wasn’t liking where these thoughts were leading, but the facts fit. A surge of high voltage electricity could have caused all of this. Had I fucked up? I didn’t want to admit that, I wanted to blame anything else. Blame the scan, say the increased load on the pod from it scanning every last part had increased the pod’s power consumption and say it had overwhelmed the transformer.
“It’s my fault?” I mumbled, trying to come to terms with it.
I’d fucked up. I’d managed to survive for six years since they’d died. I’d managed to become independent, maybe even successful by some measures, but then I’d gone and got myself killed over a game. I should have just rented out the FTLN connection and sold the pod. I’d killed myself.
I’m a fuck up.
The words seemed to echo and repeat in my mind, growing louder with each repetition. I might even have been mumbling along with it for all I knew, sounds like a fuck up thing to do.
I’m a fuck up.
My hand had been released and I could feel hands on my shoulders gently rocking me, as a voice sounded in my ears.
I’m a fuck up.
I was vaguely aware that she was repeating a different set of words in response to my mental mantra. I don’t think I was mumbling it anymore, but my throat felt burning hot and raw. I was beginning to see flecks of black crossing my vision like particles of ash drifting up from a bonfire.
I’m a fuck up.
A sense of lightheadedness had intruded on my bleak numbness. I found myself no longer sitting on the bed, instead I was laying on it curled up on my side, hugging my knees. My face felt wet...
I’m a fuck up.
Slender fingers brushed hair from my eyes and I felt a warmth radiating through my body, pushing down on my emotions. Gasping I took in a deep breath and then another, the fleck of black in my vision fading. I’d been hyperventilating?
“That’s it, good girl. Slow deep breaths,” the sentient A.I. said soothingly, her hand resting still resting against my temple.
Recoiling slightly, I jerkingly pushed myself up from the bed and clumsily scrambled across it to where I was out of her reach. Something had brought me out of my panic attack and back to my body and present situation. It felt invasive and my sense of my own body and emotions felt muted, without looking down at my chest I couldn’t tell if I was breathing anymore.
I felt like I should be freaking out about that, just like the news about my death and this virtual dreamlike reminder of my loss of family. Resisting the urge to bolt as I eyed the door, I swallowed to clear my throat to speak. “I want to leave,” I demanded as calmly as I could manage.
“You can’t log out remember,” she said apologetically.
“No.“ Glancing down at my chest I took a deep breath. “No. I mean I want to return to the game,” I clarified, trying to keep my tone calm but firm.
“I don’t think you should be alone in that state,” she protested. “Besides there are things I still need to tell you.”
“I need to leave,” I repeated, folding my arms. “I want to be alone.”
With a resigned sigh MaTRON surrendered, “Ok… I’ll send you back, just please contact your friend. Please let people help you. I’m so sorry I couldn’t do more for you, I wish I could have... ” she faltered as she spoke, her expression turning both apologetic and mournful. “I’m sorry.”
I shrugged helplessly, any sort of reply felt like it would be forced, insincere. A lie.
Flashing me a worried look, she flickered out of existence, a look of defeat in her eyes. “You know where to find me... if you need me.”
With her gone from the room, the world went black again and again I experienced the disorientating sensation of my spatial orientation shifting from vertical to horizontal. I was back in my bed in the palace suite.
The instant I was back in the game, everything slammed back into me, emotions that had been strangely detached from my core psyche came careening into my skull and chest like a freight train. The sobbing came next, each breath rending my throat with raw emotion, and I turned to my pillow clutching at it like it was one of my lost moms.
Illegal Alien is a canon story in QuietValerie's Troubleverse setting. Make sure you read Quietvalerie's Trouble with Horns, her second Troubleverse story Witch of Chains and ChiriChiriChiri's Troubleverse story Snowbound.
The Troubleverse & Kammiverse have their own discord where you can talk to other readers and the various authors including myself and QuietValerie.
Oh and while I have you here, please give Tadpole's The Breaking Bond a read! Its a great trans story!