When Steven finally awoke he felt much better. Hansen was there, sitting nearly rigid in a straight-backed chair. When he noticed Steven was awake, he took a heavy mug from the tray and handed it to Steven. “Be careful,” he said. “It's hot.”
Steven looked at the steaming liquid and smelled its rich aroma. “Coffee!” he said.
“Only instant, I'm afraid.”
Who cares, Steven thought. It was coffee, and he hadn't had a cup in months. And with cream! Or was it milk? Neither, he decided. All processed milk and cream would have gone bad long ago, and Hansen certainly wasn't keeping a cow. Not here. It had to be a powdered non-dairy creamer.
He brought the cup to his lips and sipped. The hot liquid burned the torn flesh around his mouth, but it tasted like heaven.
“Thank you,” he said. Hansen nodded and sat quietly, watching Steven as he enjoyed the coffee.
After a while they talked. Light conversation at first, but soon the discussion turned to their strange new world.
“I guess we're both pretty lucky,” Steven said.
“What? Oh. I see what you mean. Sure, it's rough out there. But even at its worst, life is preferable to death.”
“Under most circumstances,” Hansen said, “but certainly not under all.” Then he smiled a strange, haunting smile. “But this doesn't have a thing to do with death.”
“What are you talking about? This is the end of the whole damn world!”
“That's true. But I don't think all those people died.”
“Perhaps I am,” Hansen said calmly. He smiled again.
There were several seconds of awkward silence. Somewhere the whine of an electric motor - perhaps the fan in an air conditioner - wavered, then died. Steven knew with a detached portion of his mind that it would not start again.
“Just what are you trying to say,” he finally asked.
“Only what I did say - that they're not dead. How can I possibly explain this?” Hansen paused for an instant, chewed nervously on his lower lip, then continued,
“They're in another dimension, in another universe, in a world existing parallel to this one. When this,... our sphere of reality... when it all began to fall apart, they transferred to that other world.”
“And we can't get to that other universe?” Steven sensed a ring of truth to what the boy was saying.
“I can't. My condition is permanent.”
“Are you saying that I can?”
The boy shrugged. “I was thinking about that while you were asleep. My condition is natural, there isn't a thing I can do about it. Oh, it can be controlled to a large extent, with drugs. But it will always be with me. Your condition isn't natural. You are trapped here because of memories of this world continually being reinforced, regenerating this world for you second by second within your mind. These memories are called up by the artificial device implanted in your head. They make you too much a part of this world to be able to cross over into that other one.”
“And? Make your point.”
“Well, I can't take it out of your brain; I wouldn't know where to start. But maybe you can disable it somehow, from inside your head.”
Steven was silent for a few beats. This was unbelievable, something he simply had not expected. Pamela might actually be alive, waiting for him somewhere. If only he could reach her.
“Do you have proof of any of this?” he asked.
Hansen shook his head. “I'm in this world,” he said, “as trapped as you are and lacking any kind of contact with that other world. But the new quantum physics does call for such things. Look at how everyone acted just before they disappeared.”
They had acted strange, Steven thought, like their minds were elsewhere while their bodies were still here. And suddenly he remembered that last night he had tried to make love to Pamela - a harsh, vivid, somehow accusing memory.
“All right,” Steven finally said, “I'll take your word for it that it's possible. But how can I possibly disable this computer in my brain?”
“That I don't know. Maybe you can shut the thing off by just willing it so. Have you tried?”
Steven shook his head. “Until now, I hadn't even thought of it.”
“I wouldn't be too disappointed if it doesn't work the first few tries. You're still pretty weak. This bout with the fever has taken quite a bit out of you, and you're not entirely through with it yet. Maybe it could even help in a way. Your elevated body temperature might have weakened the device some. Electronic circuits are delicate, particularly susceptible to damage from heat.”
“This thing in my head is supposed to be self-repairing,” Steven said. “It's made of molecular circuits, and it uses my body tissues for raw materials. Very experimental. They just couldn't go breaking into my skull every time some little thing went wrong.”
“What can you lose by trying?” Hansen said with a shrug.
Steven remained silent. He thought about the microcomputer buried in his brain. He thought about a parallel world, a hypothetical place of dreams and wishes that might or might not exist.
And he thought about Pamela.
“That's enough talk for now,” Hansen said, shattering Steven's thoughts. “You still need a lot of rest; it'll be a few days before you can get up and around. Besides, there are a number of things that need my attention.”
Without another word, Hansen turned and hurried from the room.
Steven closed his eyes. But this time he did not allow himself to sleep. This time he forced his thoughts on the computer locked in his head, trying to visualize it. It wasn't hard; he had seen electron micrographs of it before they'd placed it in his brain, and now the computer itself called up sharp, clear memories of its own pictures.
He saw the brilliant blue-green field of the gallium-arsenide chip vivid in his mind. On the chip, nearly indiscernible, was the delicate golden lacework of the circuits.
Gone was the crude metal-oxide-semiconductor technology of his youth. In its place were organic circuits, constructed of strands of protein, billions of times more compact than their predecessors. A biochip. A fine web to one side of the chip was the computer's interface adapters, the molecule-thin electrodes which carried minute jolts of current to shock memories from Steven's subconscious.
With his mind, he tried to alter the molecules that formed the computer's circuits, jumbling them in his imagination, rearranging them, making random connections. But, try as he would, he could not change them. And he could not make them disappear, even in his imagination.
Finally, totally exhausted, he slept. His sleep was troubled by a disturbing mixture of memory and nightmare.