When he first put the glasses on, Norman Jayden was supremely unimpressed.
"All right," Carruthers' voice came over the intercom. "Don't move. Keep your right hand in a fist. Now, what do you see?"
Jayden peered around. "The room. The room, and you, through the glass. And is that Jen Conrad off to the side? Hey, Jen." A barely-visible figure waved a hand.
Carruthers frowned at him, hit the intercom button again. "Describe what you see. Be as specific as you can. Where are you, right now?"
Jayden sighed, started again. "I'm sitting in a metal folding chair, in a white room – I'm sorry, a room with two cinderblock and two . . . other walls painted white, dimensions approximately . . . eight feet by ten feet." He looked up. "By eight feet. The floor is white tile. There is a suspended ceiling with one fluorescent light and a speaker in one corner. There is a wood laminate door to my left. I am seated at a grey metal desk, dimensions . . . I feel like an idiot, do I really have to do this?"
"Dimensions maybe five feet by three feet by three feet. On it is a closed petri dish, which appears to be empty. The wall in front of me contains a window, maybe about four foot square. Through the window, I can see the back of a computer monitor, and beyond that, Special Agent Henry Carruthers in a similar room. He is wearing a remarkably ugly tie."
"Enough." Carruthers looked even more deeply irritated, but at least Jayden got to stop the exercise. "Okay. Now, we've got that room pretty clean, but it's hardly sterile. If you feel overwhelmed immediately, I want you to shut your eyes and tell me so. Understand?"
"We'll begin. Recording on. Agent Norman Jayden, number 47023, ARI stress test. Agent Jayden, please tell the ARI you're wearing to turn itself on."
"ARI, turn on," Jayden said obediently, and jerked as a world of images flew quickly through his field of vision. He gasped a little as they faded, and left the world beyond them changed.
"What's just happened?"
Jayden was blinking a little, and began craning his head around curiously. "There was a very brief flash of what looked like information that appeared in front of my eyes, passing by too quickly for me to read," he said. "It's gone now. It was a little startling, but I'm fine. I still see everything I just described, but . . . muted. As though the color were drained out. Watching a color program on a black and white set."
"Good. That's normal. That flash was just your ARI's bootup screen. It was figuring out who you are and whether it was working properly. The color loss is intentional, for contrast; you'll see what that means in a minute. I want you to take the top off that petri dish with your left hand."
Jayden curiously lifted the clear lid and set it aside. "Right, done."
"Now, with your right hand, extend your index finger and tap it against the interior of the dish."
It was even stranger than he'd expected, this whole thing. But he brought up his right hand, cloaked in the ARI glove, and clicked his first finger down into the center of the dish. The universe exploded in front of him, and he jerked back so hard he nearly went over in his chair. His mouth hung open, his eyes widened impossibly, and he fell into unexpected beauty. He watched his new layer of reality spin and flow.
"Agent Jayden! If you don't answer me we'll have to end this!"
"No!" he shouted, wondering how many times Carruthers had already called his name. "Don't!" He was lost, so lost, so totally transfixed in that new universe. "Let me look! I'm fine!"
"Describe what you see."
"Everything," Jayden said. From the petri dish had sprung beautiful orange blossoms, endless streams of data. He was transfixed.
Oh, Jesus, he wished Carruthers would shut the hell up. "Information. Orange boxes of information linked to things in the dish. I'm . . . trying to . . . it's going too fast." Words and numbers were flowing, jumping.
"How many boxes?"
Jayden blinked. "Five."
"Dammit. Sorry, ignore that, that's a higher amount of contamination than normal. You can use the ARI glove to manipulate that information. Try to touch one of the boxes, the most prominent one, if you can. Do it slowly so you don't get any more input while you're reading it."
Jayden raised his right hand and placed it gently against the box he could see but not feel. Its brightness dimmed a little, and the data slowed to a crawl, then stopped. Intrigued, he cocked his head, zipped the information forwards, backwards, magnified different parts of its contents, sped up the movements to explore it further.
"Can you read what you see now?" Carruthers asked.
Jayden was hardly even processing what the information actually was, just that there was so much of it, and so many ways to see it, and so many meanings of it. "Yeah. Yeah, I can see the words."
"Can you tell me what the dish contains? What information do you have there?"
"You licked it," Jayden said in dazzled wonder. "The petri dish. Your saliva's in it. You had toast and orange juice for breakfast. Your wife's name is Isobel."
"You already knew my wife's name," Carruthers said, but Jayden was off and running through endless miles of footnotes and interconnections and backtracks and spirals and loop-the-loops. His right hand flew, spun, stabbed, tore at the words and numbers and molecular chains.
"You went to college at Georgetown. You got a citation for drunk and disorderly when you were twenty but otherwise have a clean criminal record. It has been determined that it is not legally considered a violation of privacy for police to retrieve spit from a sidewalk to analyze its DNA during an investigation. You have been with the FBI for ten years, four months, six days. You used mouthwash this morning. A cursory examination of your saliva indicates that you have not recently used narcotics. Isobel Carruthers teaches high school in Hyattsville. The DNA in saliva comes from cells shed from the inner lining of the cheek. You live at 85 Garner Street in Baltimore, Maryland."
"Stop. Agent Jayden, shut your eyes."
"No! I can see everything. It's all here!"
"Slow down. I will hit the panic button if you don't slow down. Close your hand or it's over."
That was an acceptable compromise, in that it let him keep his eyes open. He made a fist in the air so Carruthers could see it, but Jayden's eyes kept looking and looking and looking at the information still hovering, pulsing, in front of his face. His heart beat high and fast, and he had a deep, wild, sudden conviction that one of life's great mysteries had just opened to him.
He'd heard other people talk about this, but he'd never understood before now, never quite got it into his head what they were talking about. He got it, now. He understood it in his brain and his mouth and his heart and his belly and his balls.
For the first time in his life, Norman Jayden was in love. He panted with pleasure.
"You're breathing pretty fast in there, Agent Jayden. How do you feel?" Carruthers' voice came filtering into his ears; Jayden could just make out the dim face of the man himself beyond his worlds of information, but it wasn't very interesting, in comparison to the ways in which he could see Carruthers as an amalgamation of data.
He couldn't say the truth, of course, but he got pretty close: "Amazed."
"Keep your hand closed. Does the room look the same?"
He glanced around briefly, hating to tear his glance away from his infatuation. "Yes."
"No." Jayden didn't think so, anyway, but he wasn't paying much attention to anything beyond those still-hovering boxes.
"All right. Stop as soon as you feel any. Out of curiosity, can you tell me what the other four boxes indicate is also in the dish?"
Jayden flew back into action and stroked the floating boxes; each lovely flower faded a little bit at his touch, as though he were frost stalking through a garden. "Nicotine remnant. Alconox detergent. Cloth fiber, cotton. Eyelash from Christine Walker, a laboratory technician employed at the FBI Headquarters in –"
"Stop again. Hand closed. Still all right?"
"Yes." Jayden obediently clenched his fist, but he was burning with impatience. "I want more."
There was a long pause, and Jayden let his eyes flicker back beyond the window. Carruthers and Conrad seemed to be having some sort of animated discussion, which he wished they would hurry the fuck up with.
Finally, Carruthers' voice came back over the intercom. "Does your environment look the same to you?"
Jayden was just about ready to go through the window at him in impatience, sink his teeth in the other' man's throat; he checked the room in two seconds flat. "Fine. Perfect."
"All right, we'll try this. Back up your chair a little." Jayden scraped backwards across the tile. "Now, very gently, spread your whole right hand and flick your wrist at the floor in front of you, and see what you get."
And with that, Jayden was in the information. It was all around him, a swamp of waving cattails, a quagmire of data he could easily drown in. He gasped again, not giving himself time to recover before he started pouncing in growing excitement at his new prizes. He practically was the information, now.
"Agent Jayden, stop." He was getting used to the request now, made the fist. "Are you aware of what you're doing? What are you doing, right now?"
"Looking at the floor." He tried frantically to determine just how specific he was being asked to be. "The data on the floor. Taking the ARI test."
"You're rocking very quickly in your chair and I'm afraid you're going to tip over. I'd also like you to slow down your breathing a little."
Jayden was simultaneously startled and annoyed by the request, but became aware of his metronomic body movement as soon as Carruthers mentioned it. "Okay, no," he said. "I didn't know." He made himself slow down, be still, but that excited motion had to go somewhere, and he started shaking his head, instead.
The other man was continuing: "You look distressed. Like you're trying to say 'no.' Is something wrong?"
It was so hard to explain what he was feeling. "No, but I know where the janitor lives."
Carruthers' voice let Jayden keep poking, digging into every bit of trivia he could find about the floor – who'd made the tile, what kind of cleaner had been used most recently, what traces Jayden himself had left on it from the soles of his shoes.
"Can I get up?" Jayden asked hopefully. "I want to see what else there is."
"Okay, you can explore a little bit if you want to," Carruthers said, cautiously. "But go slow."
Every inch of the room was a universe. And Carruthers' voice let him keep going as long as Jayden kept answering. He learned things he'd never known he didn't know about how everything fit together, about paint, about dirt, about the oils left behind by human skin, and it was all part of his vast new love affair with the kind of world ARI had shown him it could give him.
He explored forever.
Out of nowhere, his body convulsed. And then, Jayden's world exploded in absolute pain, absolute overload, shortout, whiteout, a million voices screaming directly inside his head, and then he didn't know anything for a while.