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Imperfect Equilibrium

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They'd been driven insane. The others, his fellow passengers on that merry jaunt to uncharted territory. The chip had driven them insane. In truth, though, nobody had really been all that surprised. Insanity wasn't exactly an unanticipated potential side effect of experimental brain alteration. The failure rate had been daunting, yes, but not, in the end, surprising.

The other side effects might have been a little moreso, had he chosen to mention them. Shocking. Possibly even fatal. That was, he supposed, the reason why he hadn't.

There was a certain sort of irony, Simon couldn't help but think, that something so remorselessly impartial as the chip should have spawned so utterly impractical, emotional and ephemeral a companion alteration. An equal and opposite reaction, one might say, if saying anything at all wouldn't have been so very terribly unwise. Such a ... a formless thing, this side along effect. Such a terrifying one.

He had, in fact, for that first endless few days, actually wondered if he hadn't gone insane after all. Had they experienced it, the others? That, that fog, that barrage of sensation? That disconnect, gaping and terrifying, between those same sensations and the crisp, savage edges of new and impartial recall? The chip had been terrifying enough on its own, that layering across his thoughts, that strange double memory. Those sharp, clear visions, endless and depthless, waiting to swallow him whole. On its own, the chip was enough to drive any man mad. That other thing, that extra thing, had at first seemed only part of that. It was only after he had begun to regain himself, to be able to separate and categorise sensations once again, that he had realised it was something else.

Or thought it was, at least. He did not discount the possibility, even now, that it was simply his insanity, phantom sensations thrown up by an addled and altered brain, and he was simply managing to function remarkably well despite them. Or not at all, perhaps, but presumably if the delusion was that deep then someone outside him would eventually catch on and deal with it. Him. Both.

... They'd likely have done so already, of course, they'd have done so long ago, if he'd actually at any point told anyone about the problem. If problem it was. He never had, though. He couldn't. Cowardice. Complete and utter. But he couldn't.

The sensations had pattern, was the thing. As, as strange and ephemeral as they were, they did seem to have a degree of reason and rhyme. He'd noticed it, almost from the first. Or the chip had. No. No, not quite the chip. It didn't seem to register that particular input. Never had. But the frame of mind that came with the chip, that came with interacting with it and, eventually, mastering it, that had noticed the pattern. Accessing the chip had the interesting effect of drawing his mind back out of current sensations, necessary to engage with equally vivid past ones, and in the interim stages, hovering between the two time frames, his mind was free to analyse in a way it wasn't while fully engaged with either one. It was there, in that halfway space, that his phantom sensations had first begun to make sense.

They were emotions. Or thoughts, perhaps, he still wasn't entirely sure. Possibly a bit of both, or something between the two. But. Call them emotions to start with. The things he felt. They were emotions. And they weren't his.

It was insanity, of course. That was, for a perfect irony, the only sane explanation. Or, if not complete delusion, it at least had to be some wayward effect of an altered brain, struggling to interpret new input. It was the worst sort of fantasy to presume to somehow sense what others were feeling. Thinking. Not by any rational analysis, not by study of behaviour or body language or minute expressions, all perfectly rational things, but ... but as though they were vapours in the air, eddies and currents around their owners. Through walls. Through doors. The proverbial sixth sense, made tangible by some accident of crossed wires mid-installation. It was fantasy or insanity, evidence of a broken or at least badly cracked mind. It had to be.

And yet. And yet. They tallied. All along, they had tallied. Well, of course they did. If the delusion ran deep and true, of course they would. That made sense too. Still. He could only operate on the input he was given. He felt what he felt. And those feelings tallied, later, with what he learnt. By rational means. By exacting, impartial, remorseless memory. They tallied. They matched.

Nurses and doctors, in the beginning, taking care of the volunteers as one by one they fell to the chip's embrace. Flashes of pity around him, of boredom, of warm, maternal care. That one had had children, he'd found out later. That one had lost a son. Flashes of other things too. Of lust, sharp and predatory, in one distressing case. Not towards him. He hadn't been that doctor's type, he thought. Too sharp still for that. That one was felt through walls, Ensign Kevran across the way, his vague, confused distress a terrifying thing. The boiling, implacable fury that had greeted that discovery was evidenced on his chip and with his other sense both. The maternal doctor had gone through her lustful subordinate like a plasma arc through flimsies. It had been gratifying and terrifying in equal measure. And guilt inducing. Kevran had already been too far gone to properly understand the respite. The chip, mostly, but not completely. Had Simon only spoken ... but what could he have said? He'd neither seen nor heard anything. The chip was evidence of that. He'd only sensed, if it wasn't delusion, and only understood too late.

And there had been other, more worrying eddies, too. The junior doctor, the vague sensation of her avarice, her fascination, her greed, tallying with snatches of conversation, information changing hands, the implication of money behind it. That had been later, when only he and three other survivors remained visibly sane enough to provide hope for the experiment. It had been matched, followed, by the cold suspicion of Negri's men, ever present then, calm and without ripple. It had tallied with her disappearance shortly afterwards. Eddies. Threads. Ephemeral, but nonetheless real. Or else paranoia. Delusion. But maybe no less real even then.

With all Simon knew now, of Negri and Ezar both, he honestly thought that even the most paranoid delusion of his then-innocence could not have hoped to beat out their reality.

It had been that, that paranoia, that sensation of fear and watching, of remorseless need for results, that had first kept him from mentioning his problem. From what he had gathered, even then, the insanity of his fellows had been ... somewhat obvious. Raving, in some cases, words and fragments of sentences tumbling without meaning as the mind flip-flopped helplessly between time frames. Long gaps, as they forgot to come back from the sharp exactitude of a memory. Eventual silence, as sooner or later they failed to come back at all. It hadn't been hard to see happening, at least not in the strictly physical sense. It hadn't been hard to notice. He'd hoped, in the absence of those symptoms, that whatever his problem was it still hadn't been outright failure. He had been sane enough to remain in the present. He'd been able to track the line between memory and reality. He'd been able to watch his surroundings, to think, to track, to judge. To make decisions, even if questionable ones. Had that been enough to qualify for sanity? He'd had to hope. He still did.

And he'd wanted to be sane. Not only out of duty by then, hope for the experiment's success, hope to be of use to his Emperor, but also from sheer survival instinct. He'd wanted to avoid the confusion, the distress, the eventual catatonia he'd felt happening around him. He'd wanted to avoid the howling despair and sharp shock of suicide that two of them had resorted to. That had been hideous. With his problem, his other sense, it had been near beyond bearing. He'd reeled from it in shock, and clung to sanity with iron-fingered, terrified instinct in its wake. He'd wanted to live. He'd wanted to be sane. He'd wanted to be of use.

He'd wanted not to be disappeared. Like that unfortunately greedy doctor. Like those who'd slipped into catatonia. Like the failures and the betrayers around him. He'd felt the cold suspicion that watched them, icier than any chip. He'd felt the gaps and the holes in the web as they were removed. He'd wanted to avoid that. He'd wanted not to die.

And it was, ironically, the chip that had saved him. Even as it killed them, it had saved him. The chip, and his problem too, perhaps in equal measure.

They balanced each other, was the thing. The wonderful, hideous, breathtakingly ironic thing. Equal and opposite reactions, holding themselves in imperfect but functional equilibrium inside his head. They kept each other balanced and, between them, kept him somehow mostly sane. Enough to function. Enough to be of use. Enough to stay alive.

The chip did not register his other sense. Like smell, like taste, it was an entirely present-moment sensation. It drew a line, helped draw a line, between memory and present time. And the chip, in return, grounded the fogginess of that sense in crystal-edged reality. He'd found that first when those two had committed suicide. The slight withdrawal necessary to access the chip provided a buffer, and the sharp-edged, regimented act of recall provided, if not shield, then at least distraction from formless and overwhelming present horror. And, too, the chip grounded sensations after the fact, the cold reality of evidence granting some justification to formless initial suspicion. His sense was a warning, and his memory a reminder. Between them, they kept him balanced between past and future, grounded in the present.

And, he thought, they gave him an edge. Though that had come later. There was no better place than the fires of treachery, war and death to combine warning and reminder. No better, and no worse. Oh, but he had paid for his gifts and his problems both before he was done. He had paid for them in spades, and everyone around him too.

But they had kept him alive. They had given him warnings. They had given him tools. They'd made him of use, and later on of help. He thought, at least. He liked to think. He had to hope. But alive, yes, that was beyond contest.

He'd kept his problem a secret. All along, and even still, if perhaps mostly from habit now. He'd kept it first in the hopes of appearing sane. He'd kept it first from cowardice and survival instinct, nothing more and nothing less, and not, he thought, without some justification. He'd felt Negri's suspicion since then. He'd felt the vast, terrifying thing inside Emperor Ezar, that desperate, steel-spined, unconquerable will. No, his paranoia hadn't been without justification. He might not have died, had they known of it, but Simon had felt Lord Vorkosigan too, before they were done with him. He'd felt what ruin they'd made from using the man. What use could they have made from his gift, he wondered? How much of him would have survived it?

Perhaps it hadn't been his right to withhold it from them, regardless. He'd promised service. He'd promised loyalty. But this thing, this other thing, the formless things he felt, they were something ... something else. And Lord Vorkosigan, that had been something else too. A life was one thing to offer up, but a soul? Was that so easily demanded? Could it be? God, he didn't know. He still didn't. Conscience or cowardice, it shouldn't be so hard to sometimes tell the difference. Or so easy, to hide behind the question. Maybe it didn't matter, in the end. Whether he'd been right or wrong, the fact remained. He'd kept his problem a secret.

He'd been able to, as well. That wonderous quirk of fate, the chip and his problem aiding and abetting each other as ever. The chip didn't register that input. Even when forcibly replayed, the chip had been unable to offer up that evidence. Even if Negri had perhaps suspected something, some edge of a more concrete suspicion, there'd been no evidence. He took care never to react overtly to his gift's promptings. No matter how urgent. Again, oh again. Conscience or cowardice. But he waited for concrete evidence, or at least more plausible suspicion. Ensign Kevran, every time. But what could he say? Would they even believe him if he tried? Even he didn't, always. Or perhaps sometimes he simply pretended not to.

Sometimes he wished it really wasn't true. Sometimes he hoped it was delusion, or wished it would be. Wished he could turn it off. Wished he could finally flinch away. Those suicides had been hideous. Ezar had been terrifying. The blow dealt to Lord Vorkosigan at Escobar had been ... gutting. But Serg. But Vorrutyer. But Bothari. But Escobar. But fire and treachery and death. But Kareen. Ensign Kevran, writ large, over and over and over again. It was too much, and the chip was only ever so much comfort. And it shouldn't be. It should be the opposite. Sometimes it was. Some things were etched in too much crystal clarity. The chip could drive a man insane all on its own. It wanted to. It waited to. It could.

But still. Even still. They balanced each other. His memory and his sense. His pair of equal and opposite problems. The chip provided distance from formless present horrors. The chip didn't register, didn't remember, certain input. Those were mercies. And the sense pulled him forward from the endless, vivid clarity of the past. Those present horrors. Those present joys as well. The web, all around him. The sensation of lives forever surging forwards around him. They tugged him forward in their turn. Iron-fingered, clinging to sanity. A cracked mind, kept in imperfect but functional equilibrium. They kept him balanced between them. They kept him sane, as much as was possible. As much as could be hoped.

It was a grand irony, Simon couldn't help but think. A perfect pair of impossibilities, each as insane as the other, and only approximating sanity somewhere in between them. It was laughable, wonderous, obscene. And it was his. His problems, his gifts. His life and his soul, his past and his future.

His secrets, and his uses.

He had reasons not to tell. So many, really. What could he say? Who would believe him? What would they use him for, once they did? Would he bear it? Would he be able? Instinct wrapped around him with iron fingers. Suspicion. Paranoia. Delusion, quite possibly. Simple cowardice. He had reasons not to tell. Good ones, or plausible at the very least.

But he looked at Aral sometimes. He looked at Cordelia. He looked at Gregor. He felt them, with that other sense, and examined them, with that remorseless memory. And he wondered. It would be fantasy. It would be insanity. Complete and utter. But he wondered, sometimes. He looked at them, and he wondered.

If he'd ever really been sane to start with. And if insanity, sometimes ... might be worth the gamble either way.