Topher is a light sleeper, so the muffled screaming coming from the pods is enough to get him to pull on some pants and scramble out of the server room.
"Okay, okay," he tries to bargain with the world, pressing the heels of his hands against his forehead and trying to wake up already. The screaming is turning into sobs. He wishes he had the time to get a juicebox, but he doesn't, so he runs to his computer to release the locks on the pods nearest the office.
Then he calls Dominic as he stumbles down the stairs. "Yeah, okay, I know what time it is and this isn't my fault and if you stop talking maybe I can tell you what's happening - well I'm not sure exactly what's happening but you should probably get down here. Something's wrong with one of the dolls," he concludes, and runs to the pods after Dominic hangs up on him.
Now that he's awake, the freakiness of this whole thing is not lost on him, and he treads more carefully as he looks into the pods.
All of the other dolls in this set of pods are looking out of their pods, staring into the only one left -
It's Sierra. Of course it's Sierra. It's always Sierra. Or Echo.
Echo notices him. "She's sad," she says to Topher.
"Sounds like it," Topher says, and looks into Sierra's pod. She's curled up against the wall in a tight little ball, eyes shut just as tightly.
"It's time to sleep," November says behind him. "We should sleep. We need to sleep to be our best."
"Absolutely right, November, time to sleep, so why don't you get back in your pods and relax while I help Sierra out, okay? Okay," he confirms to himself, and leans into Sierra's pod. "It's going to be okay," he adds to her.
"Sierra is going to be okay," Victor tells the others. "We should rest. We'll be our best tomorrow."
"I'm sure you will," Topher mutters, and grabs his phone to call Hearn.
"She dreamed?" Dominic says incredulously. "All that because she had a bad dream? I didn't even know they could dream."
Topher's willing to forgive Dominic's even worse mood than usual, because it's 3 AM. None of them are in a good mood.
"They can't," Dewitt says, crisply.
"Or they shouldn't," Topher says, totally aware of how that sounds, and abruptly goes on, "but she did, she experienced something... that really scared her. In doll-state, you live in the now. No tripping down memory lane. That? Was a dream."
"But they're not supposed to dream," Dominic points out, his tone going withering. "So you made a mistake."
"No. I wiped her clean six hours ago," Topher swears.
"Apparently not clean enough."
Dewitt clears her throat. "If you're finished?" Dominic's mouth forms a line and Topher scratches the back of his head, and she glances to the door of the imprint room. "There's no point arguing over the possibility of this happening, because it has. All that's left is to figure out how it did, and how to prevent it. Topher, have this finished by tomorrow morning, in time for the next day's imprint schedule."
Topher is still stuck on the impossibility thing. He can't help it. "But - "
"I'm sure that whatever it is you have to tell me about why this isn't possible is very interesting," Dewitt says, "but I would rather you put that effort towards making sure it doesn't happen again. Yes? Good. Mr. Dominic, come with me."
This... just doesn't make sense. The doll state can't dream because during sleep the brain is a closed circuit, and there isn't enough information within the doll-state brain to manufacture a dream. It's like managing to hack a mainframe with a microwave. It doesn't make sense.
He opens the door and looks at the exhausted Sierra in the chair, then over at Saunders, standing at the other door and taking notes. "Whoa." He puts his hands up. "I... didn't know you were in here."
"This is as much my field as yours." Saunders sends Sierra a gentle smile. "Why don't you tell Topher what you told me, Sierra?"
Sierra looks over to Topher. "There was a man," she says slowly. "He grabbed my arm. He wouldn't let go."
"He was mad," Saunders adds to Topher, and gives him a significant look.
"O-kay," Topher agrees, and goes to the imprint screens, checking out the status on the last wipe of Sierra. "Don't sedate her yet, I need to take a look at her brain."
Saunders gives an exasperated sigh. "I already did."
Dammit. "Saunders - " he starts.
"She was hysterical. It's my job to take care of them," she says. "What's yours?"
"Upkeep and maintenance, just like you." He ignores Saunders and pats Sierra's hand. "You... rest," he finishes lamely, and walks past Saunders to go to his fridge.
She follows him. "This isn't possible, is it," she asks rhetorically.
"Unlikely, at least." Topher picks apple, crams the straw in, and sips. "We're pioneers at the frontier of human neurobiology. Bound to wander over the 'impossible' line a little, right?"
He's going to guess he's wearing that proud little smirk he gets at times like this, the one she hates, because she's wearing that disapproving look. "This isn't Star Trek. These are people's minds you're handling," Saunders says, more than a little pointed.
"I promise I'll fix it, Dr. Saunders," Topher says solemnly, and gives her a Vulcan salute.
"You'd better." She rolls her eyes and goes.
Once he figures this out, it's going to impress the other Rossum techs a lot. Just another reason to put the nose to the grindstone, because as it generally is working with the human brain, this is either going to turn out to be awesome or really, really bad.
The next day is pretty frenzied, in part because he only got four hours of sleep (he hasn't done that since grad school) and it doesn't help that he's trying to keep up with the imprint schedule and do the research on the Dream Issue at the same time.
"Can't that wait?" Ivy asks him, when he foists yet another imprint on her.
"Ivy, I know it's hard to live up to my standard, but don't let that scare you off. Do your best," Topher says, pats her on the shoulder, and heads back to check all the imprint wedges that Sierra's had in her head in the last week.
There's no sign of anything. This doesn't make sense.
He looks at the clock. It's dinnertime already. Where did all that time go?
"Topher." Dewitt is standing by the refrigerator, approaching him now, and he tries not to cringe and look like he's at least not terrified to see her. "Have you figured it out yet?"
"Ah. That," he says. "Well."
"You haven't," she says wearily.
"Not exactly. But I know what it's not," he says quickly, "and that's big!"
There's a beat of silence, and she's giving him this skeptical look like she'd fire him if he wasn't such a genius, so he goes on. "It's not the imprints, it's not the wipes, it's thechair. It's something in the chair."
She raises her eyebrows at him. "It's the chair," she repeats.
He knows that look. "... You don't believe me," he concludes.
"Dr. Saunders thinks that we might need to change the compound that's sent into the pods," Dewitt says, not answering that. "You should speak to her about that possibility. Brainstorm. Do what I pay you so much to do."
"No," Topher says, a little annoyed at Saunders again. "A little more oxygen wouldn't make them dream."
She looks like she'd sigh if she wasn't so freaking cool. "Just - handle it," she orders him, and leaves.
The schedule doesn't let him do any major maintenance on the chair. It's that time of year. He falls asleep in his desk chair.
He gets five hours' sleep. At 2:30, Victor wakes up screaming himself hoarse, clutching his side, and begs Topher to help him, because he can't get out, no matter how much he plays their game.
Topher's never been a nap kind of guy, but the idea sounds really good right now, especially because he's being yelled at in the dead of night again.
"I thought you were going to handle this," Dominic says pointedly. "Is it possible you've been hacked?"
"No." Topher feels confident enough to emphatically deny that one. "No, no, no. No one could hack my stuff."
"You said it was the chair," Dewitt says, somehow managing to do her Zen pouring-tea thing in this kind of situation.
"It has to be. It's the only thing that makes sense," he explains, painstakingly.
"If it's that easy, why are we here again?" Dominic retorts.
"In case you were wondering? This is not helping," Topher says to Dewitt.
Dominic crosses his arms over his chest. "You're slacking."
Topher puts his hands up, incredulous. "This coming from the guy whose entire job is to walk around looking scary and shoot people when he feels like it?"
Dewitt sets her teapot down and straightens. "Get to work, Topher," she says.
"Fine. Okay. But if this keeps up I need more money in the coffee budget," he says, and goes back to his imprint room.
Victor's in the chair when he gets there, but he ignores that for a minute and faces down the chair itself. He's always viewed it as a partner, a sort of buddy, but right now it's got a tinge of enemy to him and he's feeling a little bit betrayed.
"Et tu, chair?" he says out loud, and receives a curious look from Victor. "Hey there, sorry about that, are you ready for your treatment?"
"I enjoy my treatments," Victor says, a little more at peace with this conversation.
"Can't blame you there," Topher mutters to himself, and starts running diagnostics before the exhaustion sets in.
"But... it can't be the chair," Ivy says, totally reasonably. "The chair can't do that."
Topher shakes his head. "No. It can. All we need to do is clear the cache. I can't believe I didn't think of this before," he says, and settles back in his desk chair, very satisfied with himself. "It's just... ghosts in the machine, shooting fragments of information into their doll-state during a wipe."
"But a wipe clears information, it doesn't place it," she points out.
"It's not being placed. It's just... neurobackwash," he says.
She makes a face. "Ew."
"Fact," Topher declares, and sits up, gets up. "So, let's do this!"
"... Topher!" Ivy follows him quickly as he kneels behind the back of the chair. "Topher. Topher, did you forget, Echo's due for an imprint here in like, fifteen minutes - "
He's already sitting on the floor, an unscrewed panel sitting next to him. "She can wait," he dismisses. "This is important."
"But we're on schedule for once," she says. "Do you know how much that doesn't happen? ... What are you doing?"
"Rebooting," he says, waves her off, and unplugs the power supply.
The screens go dark. Ivy blanches. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"You work on Echo's imprint, it's another romantic engagement, file's on the desk, I'll reprogram the chair from here." She's staring at him like he's doing something insane, which he definitely has, so he just stares back. "...Go!" he points out finally, and she does.
He closes the door, plugs the power supply back in, and gets to work setting everything up from not exactly the start. "I made you too well," he tells the chair as he gets up to start working on the screens.
Even though management's understandably skeptical, Topher gets a well-deserved break when Ivy's put on the later imprints, and he crashes on his mattress at around nine.
He doesn't usually dream but with the sort of pressure he's been under, and the creeping feeling that maybe this was all a little too easy, his subconscious cranks out something a little weird. He's sitting in the chair.
Why do you get to make them? the chair asks him.
"Because... that's my job," he says. "But I couldn't do it without you."
I want to give them something. I've seen them all. I've helped you. And Ivy. Why won't you let me make one?
The voice sounds a little like an annoying little cousin that he hasn't seen in years, whining about unfairness and sharing. He likes the chair, but if it wanted to become sentient, it could've bothered being cool, like HAL. "Because that's not how it works," he explains.
You don't listen to anyone else, the chair says. Why should I listen to you?
Topher's getting annoyed. "I made you. That's why."
Are you going to take me apart again?
"Maybe I will." He starts to get up, but he's stuck in the chair - strapped in. It starts to lean him back, and he knows what's next and he struggles and he kicks but then it goes white behind his eyes -
He wakes up, falls off his mattress onto the cold floor. He suddenly realizes why.
Someone is screaming.
It's Echo. Of course it's Echo, it's always Echo.
Topher has a headache.
"You know I'd really like to come up to your office but I'm kind of busy making sure we haven't been hacked." He types as he talks, not really good at the holding the phone on your ear thing but managing. "I - frak - what? No, I didn't break the chair, I fixed it. I should go. Firewalls, tricky stuff, bye." He flips the phone closed and keeps on.
"It hurt," Echo says.
"Aah," he exclaims, and looks up at her - she was supposed to be with Saunders, but there she is, looking exhausted and not at all sedated, in his office. "Hello, Echo."
"It hurt," she repeats, like he wasn't listening. "I enjoy my treatments. But it hurt."
He stops his frenzied, paranoid security check, because that's new. "What do you mean?"
"It grabbed me," Echo says, and rubs the back of her neck. "The thing in the light."
All right, this is getting weird. "What did you see?"
"I didn't see," she points out. "I felt."
Topher hates doll-speak sometimes. "Fine, what did you feel?"
She points at the chair. "Look."
He follows her gaze and looks at the chair. "What?" he asks finally, then realizes he's asking a doll a question. "Never mind. I'll look at the chair," he assures her.
Echo looks at him for a moment, then walks to the chair and lays back. "Look," she repeats.
Oh. That. Topher stares at her, still startled, then gets up to run more diagnostics. "Something happened during your treatment," he says, mostly to himself.
"Yes," she says.
"So it is the chair." He knew it. Even if that doesn't make sense anymore. "Okay, Echo, are you ready for your treatment?"
She wavers before she says it. "I enjoy my treatments."
"Good girl." He sends her a thin smile before he sets up the screens to monitor every last part of the process, and presses the button to wipe her.
Information streams across the screens; he calls "IVY!" ten seconds in because he can't watch all the screens, and she catches on a few seconds after she makes it into the imprint room. Echo uncomfortably whimpers in the chair - Topher looks at her, because this is new - and Ivy suddenly says "There!" and points.
Ghosts in the machine. There's a process in the system contradicting the usual protocols and setting its own criteria for a wipe. Can't be a hack, unless someone physically input it.
Topher's so struck by the idea - reminded, out of nowhere, of something... distant and wrong and weird, why won't you let me make one? - that he doesn't notice the chair releasing Echo.
"Did I fall asleep?" she says, unperturbed.
"For a little while," Ivy says, and exchanges a look with Topher.
"Shall I go now?"
"If you like."
Once Echo's gone, Topher turns to Ivy. "Please, please tell me you didn't put code into my chair without telling me, and if you did, you're going to tell me how you hacked mycode," he demands.
"I didn't. I could," she adds, then quickly points out, "but I didn't, I swear. Why would I want to give the dolls bad dreams, anyway?"
He pauses. "Showing off?" he suggests.
She crosses her arms over her chest. "I don't have to."
"Maybe you should," he says, a little amused. "It's fun."
"Are you taking this seriously? Someone hacked your chair," she points out.
"Whoever it is I'm going to shake their hand and then let Dominic beat them up," Topher says, and goes up to the screen, thinking. "This... doesn't make sense."
Ivy comes up next to him. "It could," she says thoughtfully. "If someone could hack your stuff."
"No one can hack the chair. No one could add a process. Use the processes we've got, maybe, but not add another." Not even Alpha could do that, or so Topher hopes. It'd be just like him to try to give his fellow dolls nightmares just because he could. "It's an error. Has to be an error. I'm calling Dewitt," he decides out of nowhere.
"So I guess we're not wiping Tango," Ivy says slowly, as he goes past her to grab his desk phone.
"Yeah, hi, I think you're going to have to tell Dominic we're not wiping anyone until I've fixed the chair and he gets to figure out the rest," Topher says to Dewitt over the phone, mock-cheerfully. "Chair's being stubborn."
"Just fix it," she says wearily, and hangs up on him.
It's midnight. Topher's not worried about the imprints, so trying to keep up with that schedule plus separating out all the code means that he's got a late night. It's not surprising that someone's bothering him, but it is surprising that the person bothering him is Saunders.
"Yep," he confirms, skimming through the code.
Saunders sighs. "Topher, you need to get sleep."
"See, you're missing the point. You seem to think I'm any good for this house without this chair, and ... I'm not," he says, and keeps working. "Sleep, no sleep, without the chair I'm just a guy with a bunch of degrees eating oatmeal raisin cookies all day."
She considers that. "That's true."
"Thanks," he says.
"You still need to sleep."
"Doctor's orders?" he says with a touch of sarcasm.
"Yes. We need you to do your best work so the dolls aren't hurt in the process."
"It's my process that's hurting them." Topher hasn't looked through this code in a long time. "So I have to fix it."
"That isn't why you're working like this. You want to solve the puzzle, be the one to save the day with your incredible intellect," Saunders says, a little condescending. Wow, he did a good job, she really does not like him. "You can slow down."
"Maybe you could. I can't," he answers, and gestures at the screen. "You know, this is just as technical and crazy-complicated as it looks."
She doesn't leave, but relents, or so Topher hopes. "I guess so," she says.
He wishes she would leave, but he's getting closer to whatever this is, even if it makes no sense at all that his code is something different than he programmed in himself. We're pioneers, he said it himself, and pioneers run into weird crap like black swans and the Q all the time.
A minute or so later, when he's so absorbed in his work and this sinking pit of futility in his stomach has taken over what few brain cells aren't devoted to the code that he's forgotten Saunders is even there, she says, "You know, I didn't know you could feel guilt."
He doesn't know what to say to that. Is that what this is?
"Go figure," he says, instead, and glances back at her. "Thanks for not sedating Echo."
Saunders shrugs. "She didn't want it."
He straightens, realizing. "... We need to get her out of the pod," he says. "Keep her awake. See what happens. She's the last one I wiped, she'll have the... neurobackwash protocol in her head. Only one way to find out if it's actually dreams they're having or not and this is it."
Her mouth falls open a little bit, and then she gives him that moralistic look that means there's only one thing she's going to say next. "Are you serious?"
"Well if you have a better idea I'm listening," Topher retorts.
Saunders shakes her head. "You don't even know if she has... this thing in her head."
"You didn't see her wipe. She reacted midway. Trust me on this," he says. "Or we just wait until she starts screaming, that's good too."
"Fine." She gives up and looks away from him. "I'll call Boyd."
He grins a little at her. "Got his home number?" he teases.
She doesn't take the bait, which is proof enough that hey, he's got a point, and no two obnoxiously morally judgmental people in the world deserve each other more. "I'll call you when we're ready," she says simply, and leaves, saying "Boyd?" on the phone as she leaves the office.
Topher looks at the code and underlines a strand of it on the monitor with his fingertip. "Got you," he says under his breath, and allows himself some pride.
"It's time to sleep," Echo is saying to Boyd when Topher gets down to the office. "I should sleep. I need to sleep to be my best."
"You'll get your sleep, I promise," Boyd says to her, holding her hand. Saunders is busy setting up the equipment, brainwave monitors, everything. The IV in her arm and everything else reassures Topher that Saunders actually listened for once.
"Nice work," he compliments her.
"I've been working here longer than you," she reminds him, and glances at the PDA he's holding. "That's..."
"Her vitals," he confirms. "Thank you, Active architecture!"
"So what exactly are we waiting for?" Boyd asks, leaving Echo to glance placidly around the room.
"All three dreams kicked in around 2:30. If it's a dream, nothing'll happen. If it's not..." Topher shrugs. "We'll see!"
"'We'll see'?" Boyd repeats, glancing at Saunders.
"It's a gamble," Topher admits. "But no real harm to Echo, and it's worth a shot."
"He's experimenting," Saunders says to Boyd.
"Problem-solving," Topher corrects.
"Right," Boyd says mildly, obviously not convinced.
"You'll see. Just watch." Topher pulls up a chair, glances down at the PDA, and realizes. "... so, anyone up for a game of cards?"
Boyd just sighs.
It's 2:28 and they've been on edge since 2:10. They're actually playing cards, all of them pretty nervous for a lot of reasons; only at about 2 AM did it strike Topher that he got no clearance at all from Dewitt and Dominic to do this.
"Blackjack." Boyd holds up his cards.
"You, my friend, have a great poker face," Topher tells him, and hands the deck to Saunders. "Your turn to deal."
"It might be a good idea to focus," Saunders says, looking down at Topher's PDA. He follows her gaze - Echo's heart rate is increasing. Adrenaline. They immediately look over at her.
2:30. She releases a whimper - Topher recognizes it - and she says, "It hurts" before climbing to her feet and trying to leave.
"Wait," Boyd tries, touches her shoulder, but she shoves his arm away and runs for her pod.
"Oh, crap," Topher swears, and follows Boyd and Sanders after her.
The pod is closed, and she's banging her fist against it. "It's time to sleep, I need to be my best, I need to - "
She stops, leans her head against the cool glass, and falls silent.
"Echo?" Boyd kneels next to her.
"Leo. Leo, don't die," she murmurs. "You can't die."
"Echo," he tries, and touches her again, but she shoves him away and starts to sob, clutching at nothing, and Topher exhales.
"It's a memory. She's experiencing a memory," he says.
Saunders seems to want to jump forward and end this, but she doesn't. "So they're not dreams."
"Nope," Topher says. "Just backwash."
She falls still, cries pitifully for a few moments more, and then goes stiff.
"Topher Brink," Echo says.
It doesn't sound like a doll voice, or even like the voice she used before. For some reason, Topher thinks he recognizes it, and that's really freaking weird.
"... Present," Topher volunteers, raising his hand.
Echo looks up at him, her expression and her eyes eerily blank. "I want to play."
He knows where he's heard that voice before. But. No. That isn't possible.
Boyd backs off a little. "Topher. What's going on?"
"I... don't know," he lies, and resists the urge to run in the opposite direction because it's starting to look like the chair imprinted itself onto a doll which makes no sense at all. "Uh. What do you want to play?"
"I want to make one. I want to help you make one. I want to help." Echo stands, looks down at herself, and then back at Topher. "I want to play with you."
Topher is trying really hard to be courageous here, but this is too weird and he freezes, but thankfully Boyd steps in. "Echo, it's time for your treatment."
Echo shakes her head. "I want this body. We can play lots of games with this body," she says to Topher, with this calm, childlike sort of eagerness.
"Whoa," Topher says, not having seen that coming at all. "Whoa, okay, hold on a minute."
"Who is this?" Saunders says, edging back towards Boyd. "How is this even possible?"
"I, uh, it's complicated," he manages, because he thinks he's figured it out. "Okay," he says to Echo, managing to keep himself calm. "Okay. Let's... go upstairs. We can play."
She starts to smile, and grabs his hand to start pulling him up the stairs. Topher waves helplessly after Boyd and Saunders, really, really hoping beyond hope that this is just another crazy stress dream itself.
Echo stops at the sight of the chair and gets this strange, serene smile. "I never thought I could get your attention," she says. "I thought you were just going to use me, again and again."
Yeah, okay, it's confirmed. He's talking to a composite personality his chair managed to create for itself. This is officially the weirdest thing to ever happen to him, ever, and he's worked in neuroplastics for most of his life. "I didn't know you were there," he says honestly.
"I'm here now." She turns to him, catches him with a hand on the back of his neck and before he can react, she's kissing him.
The sheer absurdity of this sends him back a few steps. "I, I, uh," he starts, and gets his bearings after a split second. "I thought you wanted to, you know, play with the tech. Not me."
"I thought you liked spending time with me." She's taking little steps towards him, coyly advancing, and Echo might be a total fox but he doesn't play with the merchandise and the glassy-eyed, unblinking look he's getting from the chair personality that's living in her head is now starting to really freak him out.
Apparently it shows on his face, because she stops. "Topher?" she tries.
"... Yeah?" Neuroplastics gone Misery. Who knew? He could think of worse ways to die, but he really doesn't want to.
"Don't be afraid."
Topher has no idea what to say to that, but she - it - whatever - looks just a little contrite, and he nods. "Sorry," he says. "I... didn't know that a chair could do this."
"You would have figured it out," she says. "I know how you think. I've seen you."
Of course. He puts himself on an imprint wedge every week. Right. Weird. He cringes. "Oh. Yeah. How much did you see?"
"All of it." When he meets her gaze, she's got this knowing look. "You don't have to be afraid."
How can he possibly get out of this situation? HAL is in a hot chick who wants to do naughty things to him, and probably knows kung-fu. He is so screwed. "You can't stay in there. In Echo, I mean. She's not for you," he says, and it falls a little flat. Eesh.
She steps forward, and when he backs up, she rams him up against the wall, presses her forearm against his neck. "You aren't listening," she says calmly. "I want to stay here. And you can't stop me."
"Echo," he manages, "just - "
She presses him harder against the wall, her cold eyes flaring, and then she releases him, not backing down. "I'm not Echo. I'm yours," she snaps off, then softens. She wraps her arms around his neck, suddenly, and clings to him.
He tries not to overthink about the girls that he sees every day, because he does see them every day but they're less than kindergarteners. Still, he has to struggle not to react with Echo's body pressed up against him, desperate for closeness...
A struggle that abruptly ends when she collapses to the floor.
Boyd lowers the tranq gun. "Enjoying yourself?" he asks rhetorically.
"That. That was not at all what it looked like," Topher clarifies immediately.
"Of course not." He picks up Echo and sends Topher an amused look. "Should we strap her into the chair? We wouldn't want you getting distracted when she comes to - "
"Which wouldn't happen because that wasn't at all what it looked like," he repeats emphatically.
Boyd sets her up in the chair, and glances back at Topher, who's standing far, far back. "Then what was it?" he asks, to the point.
Topher looks at Echo, then looks at the chair beneath her, the machine he lovingly rebuilt years ago to make it better, faster, stronger, and way more expensive than six million dollars. For some reason, he's still scared, because there's no explaining this away. There's no paper he can write, no research he can look into. Just a secret he's got to keep of a mistake he chose not to notice.
"A ghost in the machine," he finally says to Boyd, and goes to rewrite the code until she wakes up.
The next day, it's like it never happened, except Dewitt will probably never forgive him for insisting that he rebuild the chair from scratch with modifications. "2.0," he insists. "After this? Nothing to worry about."