Brena sat by herself on the floor of her small dirt-covered habitat, sipping tea. Above her was her only window: a circular borehole filled with still water—for the radiation—terminating in a skylight. Through it was the familiar splash of the Milky Way spilled across the night sky. She didn’t look up. Didn’t need to. A million other eyes showed her the same sight from a million different angles. It was quiet here, save for the myriad sounds heard by the 50 billion people vibrating discreetly along the neuroweb.

All of humanity, across gulfs of lightyears, sharing every physical sensation, all at once. It was a hypnotic cacophony. So, naturally, Brena felt a bit like a severed limb when the melding of tastes and smells and sights abruptly guttered. She was truly alone now, left only with her thoughts, that last terrible refuge of privacy.

This had happened once before.

At once she was on her feet and lunging for the door to bolt it shut, but she’d been too slow. The Freewheeler burst in like an out-of-time knight breaching an enemy castle, clad in dull metal plating that stopped not arrows or swords, but shared experiences. Brena hadn’t seen him—him? Admittedly it was an assumption—for months, and had willed herself to believe it had been a nightmare. She stepped away but slipped on the saucer she’d left on the floor and tumbled back. The Freewheeler advanced and pinned her against a wall with a heavy hand. She looked directly at him, but he didn’t fear her gaze.

The Freewheelers—radicals who eschewed the linkages of the neuroweb—used technology that could block the connective quantum signals between minds, both inbound and outbound, with an effective range of ten meters or so. Just as this one was doing now. But they wanted to weaponize this ability to shut down the neuroweb entirely. Permanently. She knew because this one had told her. And he wanted her help.

“Have you done as I’ve asked?” he growled synthetically.

Brena nodded her head in the affirmative, and the Freewheeler slapped her across the cheek.

“I know you’re lying, because I can see everything you do. Stop defending a system that cages you. I’ll give you one more chance.” He released her and returned to the doorway. “I’m not a nightmare,” he said, “but I can become one. Get it done.” He slipped away and pulled the door shut.

For awful seconds, Brena was alone again, and then all of humanity washed over and around and through her, and then all was right.

Or, was it? Something tickled at that hollow place where no one else could feel it. She began to consider.

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