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They descended two floors and came to a set of double doors part way along a corridor. Heber led them through into a brightly lit open area where perhaps a dozen people were busy at desks, screens, and white-topped benches. Gray and blue equipment cabinets lined the walls and formed improvised partitions around some of the work spaces. Heber led the way to the far side of the room, lined by windows, where a half dozen or so padded chairs with armrests were grouped near more cubicles and screens. Two men were seated in the chairs, each wearing an open-frame headset studded with terminals buried in multicolored wires; also, each had a kind of collar attachment resting on foam shoulder pads. The head frames and collars connected to electronics mounted behind the seat-backs, which in turn sprouted tangles of leads going off to the surrounding equipment. One of the men’s eyes was closed; the other’s were open but showed no indication of seeing anything. They were engaged in a dialogue that made no sense.

"Hold it over a bit more—more to the left."

"Any good?"

"Nah, it’s slipping again."

"Maybe I can wedge it. . . . How’s that?"

"Better. . . . Okay, keep it right there."

Michelle gave Heber a mystified look. He enjoyed her befuddlement for a moment, then waved her over to the bench standing alongside. On top was a maze of wires and meaningless apparatus arranged around a number of tray-like constructions, about the size of shoe boxes but shallower. They had glass tops and were lit internally to reveal what appeared to be mechanisms of some kind. But the contents looked strange and were organized peculiarly. Instead of the kinds of components that would be found, say, behind an automobile instrument panel or filling a radio, everything was delicately fabricated and spread out across the floor, as if something incredibly intricate had been disassembled and its parts laid out on display. The first thing to suggest itself to Michelle was a scale model of an exhibition hall for machines; then she wondered if it could be some kind of extended mechanical computer. Moving along the bench, she saw that while the different boxes all had the same general theme, none were identical. She gave up and looked at Heber inquiringly.

He turned his head toward the two men seated in the chairs. "Hello, Dean. Where are you?"

The one with his eyes open answered. "Is that Eric?" Apart from his jaw he didn’t move, and his faraway expression didn’t alter.

"Yes," Heber said.

"We’re in three—aligning the rotary grinder."

"How’s it going?"

"Oh, we’re getting there."

Heber directed Michelle’s attention to one of the boxes on the bench. A red 3 was stenciled outside on the end. Michelle peered down, but still she was unable to make any sense of what she was looking at. Heber swung a large, rectangular magnifying lens toward her—one of several mounted on hinged pivot arms attached to the bench. "Try looking with this," he suggested.

She did, and suddenly a portion of the scene leaped out and took form. It was, indeed, as she had at first conjectured: an incredibly detailed model of a factory floor or some kind of machine shop . . . except that this wasn’t a model. Michelle didn’t know too much about machines, but she recognized the general form of a lathe from ones she had seen in pictures and museums; and a pillar drill would be difficult to mistake. There were handles and clamps, tool holders riding on screws. Everything was there in impossibly realized miniature. . . .

And then she spotted the two figures hunched over one of the machines, both silver and black like the one she had seen in Heber’s office. She blinked disbelievingly. Even with Ohira having given her some idea what to expect, it was still hard to swallow. "Oh my God!" she whispered.

"Ahah, yes, I think you’ve got it," Heber said. He raised his voice a fraction. "We have two visitors here, Dean. Ohira knows us already, but it’s Michelle’s first time. Can you show us which one you are?"

One of the micromecs centered in the magnifier stood back and waved an arm. It lifted its head to look up. "Hey, Grandma, what a big eye you’ve got!" one of the men in the chairs said. Then the mec turned away again and resumed what it had been doing.

"These are experimental machining setups," Heber said, waving at the boxes on the bench top. "We’re making a production facility next door. Our factory is a room at the back of the corporate offices—a lot better than needing acres of real estate and having to handle materials by the ton, eh?"

Michelle shook her head, awed. Ohira, who had been watching phlegmatically, nodded his head at the figures in the chairs. "You see, it’s the way I told you. No ordinary VR helmets here. This connects straight into your head."

"DNC: Direct Neural Coupling," Heber said to Michelle. "That’s what makes Neurodyne different."

She nodded. "I have read a little about it."

"Would you like to try it?" Heber invited.

Michelle moved her gaze to the empty chairs but looked apprehensive. "I’m not sure. I wouldn’t want to get one of your little guys shredded or caught up in a wringer."

Heber laughed. "You’re right. But I didn’t mean right here. We have a nursery for getting people started." Without waiting for a reply, he addressed the man in the chair again. "We’re moving on, Dean. I’ll probably not be back today. We’ll talk tomorrow."

"See you, Eric," Dean acknowledged. They left him talking arcanely again with his companion.

"It needs practice," Heber explained as they made their way between benches and cubicles to another part of the lab area. "The physics is strange at reduced size. Your weight gets smaller at a much faster rate than you do. Gravity becomes insignificant. Surface forces have more to do with how things move—or won’t, as the case may be."

They came to a partitioned space where a man and a woman were in two more similar chairs. Michelle guessed them both to be in their late twenties. Another chair stood empty. The man was frowning, seemingly concentrating on something. The woman, who had yellow curls and was a little on the chubby side, laughed delightedly. Another man, dark haired, bearded, wearing a plain navy shirt and jeans, stood by the equipment behind them, surrounded by screens, checking readouts and adjusting settings on the chair panels. He looked up as Heber and the others approached.

"This is Doug Corfe, our chief technician," Heber said. "Doug—Michelle Lang, from the firm that takes care of Ohira’s business legalities and other things that I don’t understand. Doug’s an associate of mine from the old days."

Michelle extended a hand, and Corfe shook it. He had clear dark eyes and a lean, sallow face that didn’t immediately smile too much. Corfe nodded at Ohira, who grunted an acknowledgement. "Eric’s here with a couple of visitors," Corfe informed the two people in the chairs.

Heber indicated a large table. On it was a system of wooden terraces at various levels, connected by ramps and steps. Michelle thought it looked like a model of an ancient pyramid construction site. Tiny mechanical assemblies and other objects that Michelle had difficulty making out were scattered about on it. There were more magnifiers on pivot arms along the table’s edge. Curious, she moved one of them to look through it at a white, squarish shape standing atop several broad steps. "I don’t believe this," she muttered.

"Why not? What’s the best way of learning how to work with objects?" Heber said. "Build things!"

It was the shell of a miniature frame house, partly constructed. There were stacks of sheet and strip, piles of white "bricks" that must have been smaller than salt grains, even ladders and working platforms. Michelle picked out more mecs, standing motionless . . . and then, up on one of the raised platforms, one that was doing something. It seemed to be trying to fit a sliver of some material several times its own length into the unfinished structure overhead. From behind Michelle came the voice of the girl who had been laughing.

"This is weird. I didn’t think I’d be able to pick it up, it looked too huge. But it’s like nothing. You keep overcompensating—anticipating forces that you think ought to be there, but aren’t."

Heber positioned another lens to watch. "You think it’s easy to understand when someone tells you, but it’s a different thing when you actually experience it."

"So I’m finding out." No sooner had the woman spoken when something happened suddenly, causing the mec that Michelle was watching to shoot off the platform and go skidding across the floor. "Eeek!" the woman in the chair screamed.

"But materials still retain their springiness, so you have to be careful," Heber commented, smiling.

The mec went through a few contortions and managed to right itself. "At least you don’t break anything," the woman muttered.

"That’s one of the benefits of losing most of your weight, Bel," Corfe said to her.

Bel sighed from her chair. "If only it were that easy."

Heber spoke to the man in the other chair. "John, how are you doing? Should we be able to see you somewhere?"

"Okay, I think."

"John’s in the pipe maze." Corfe pointed to another part of the layout, at what looked like a patch of fuzz made up of hairs. On repositioning the magnifier, Michelle saw that it was a tangle of microscopic plumbing. There was another mec there, but with no movement discernible. "It’s an assembly exercise," Corfe said. "A good way to teach motor skills."

"The monitor shows you what John’s seeing," Heber said. Michelle looked up and followed his gaze to a screen that was showing something. It was a view of two multi-clawed hands, one maneuvering a part into place and then holding it while the other turned something against the joint. Michelle shook her head and looked away. Somehow, just trying to imagine the scale of what was going on down there was painful. Another screen showed arms hauling their way up a ladder. Presumably that was what Bel was seeing as she climbed back to her platform.

Heber looked back at Michelle. "Well, your turn. Want to have a try?"

"Sure, see what you can," Ohira said. "It’ll prepare you better for what we’ve got later."

Of course Michelle wanted to try it. "You don’t think you’re going to get me out of here until I do, do you?" she told them.

Heber nodded. "Can you set us up, Doug?" he said to Corfe. "Is the other coupler ready?" Corfe nodded over his shoulder. Heber looked at Michelle and pointed to the unoccupied chair. She went over to it and sat down. Her first impulse was to make some joke about being electrocuted but she desisted, figuring they probably heard it from everyone. Corfe finished what he was doing and brought another collar over from a rack by the wall. It was hinged at the front, opening into two halves like the ends of tongs.

"It’s cold!" Michelle exclaimed as she felt the lines of metal pickups closing against the back of her neck. Ohira sat down on a regular chair, patted his jacket pockets mechanically for his cigarettes, then thought better of it.

"The collar does two things," Heber explained while Corfe made adjustments. "First, it intercepts the motor signals going down your spinal cord. So instead of driving your muscles, they go out to the mec that you’re linked to. Second, it injects feedback from the mec in the opposite direction, which your brain interprets as coming from your own body. It’s a bit crude at present, but enough to give some feel for reaction forces, pressures in major joints, and things like that. The main problem is getting a sense of balance. There isn’t enough mass to make an inertial system like the ones in our ears. You’ll feel as if you’re drunk until you adapt to it. After a while you learn to use vision to compensate."

"Comfortable, Michelle?" Corfe checked. She nodded as much as she was able. He turned away to get a headpiece for her.

"The feedback system also injects a signal to inhibit the voluntary motor system—a kind of electronic spinal block," Heber said. "Your brain does the same thing when you dream. So when you feel yourself moving it’s really the mec, not you."

Corfe positioned the headpiece and made connections. Suddenly the scene inside the lab vanished and was replaced by a test pattern, something like a screen saver. "Does that look okay?" Corfe’s voice asked.

Okay? It was outstanding—in a different league from any VR presentation that Michelle had ever experienced. There was no peripheral distortion, and the depth perception was perfect. The resolution of detail increased unerringly wherever she shifted her focus. She was in a world of moving colors and shapes. It was totally real. She tried turning her head; the pattern flowed sideways, then reversed when she looked back the other way. It worked the same vertically. The illusion was total. "It’s uncanny," she said. "Are you telling me my head isn’t really moving?"

Heber’s voice answered. "You saw the others. The signals from your brain drive the display instead of your neck. Ditto for eye movement. No need for any optical tracking. . . . Okay, Doug, connect her through."

And Michelle found herself standing on what looked like a rectangular plain about the size of a football field, lit by a blaze of white light from above and seemingly standing in the sky like a mesa in a Western movie. Chasms separated it from other, similar, square-built massifs, giving the scene the appearance of a strange Grand Canyonscape composed from straight lines and right angles. On the top of the block opposite stood the partly-built shell house that she had looked down at through the lens.

"Now, maybe, you’re starting to understand better what I’ve been talking about," Ohira’s voice said from somewhere.

Michelle turned her head and saw a wall with wide steps leading to a higher level. Assorted objects lay scattered on the terraces: wheels, blocks, and other geometric forms; sets of bars and ladders resembling gymnastics equipment; pieces of mechanical assemblies. A larger form caught her eye at the edge of her vision. She began turning, felt instantly light-headed, and completed the movement in a slow, wary shuffle. It was strange. She knew that she was sitting still, yet she could feel her feet moving. She was moving . . . and found herself staring at a mechanical humanoid standing just several yards away.

At least, it seemed just yards away. It had no recognizable face or features—just a mushroomlike, multi-faceted turret studded with lens openings and sensor attachments, and a thicket of antennas above. It looked like a walking tool rack with accessories and appendages girdling its hips, and limbs more intricate than had been evident on the model she’d examined earlier. The mec remained motionless. It wasn’t linked to anybody. But the surprise of seeing it so close had left her feeling jittery. She wasn’t really here, she had to remind herself.

She looked down, and although she was prepared, she couldn’t suppress a reaction of mild revulsion at the sight of the lobsterlike form that she had been turned into.

"A bit of a shock the first time, isn’t it," Heber’s voice remarked. Of course—they could follow what she was seeing, on the monitor.

Well, this wasn’t getting her very far, she decided. She concentrated her attention, took a step . . . and reeled uncontrollably, promptly falling over. Somebody laughed.

A huge shadow blocked out the light, and a pair of long silver jaws came down from the sky to close around her and set her back on her feet. "It takes a little while to get the knack," Heber’s voice said. "We do have multi-legged models that stay upright automatically, but I thought you’d prefer something a little more familiar. Let’s start again. This time we’ll guide you through it. It’s not as hard as you’re probably thinking right now."

 
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