This was a shorts story I was working on which expanded slightly into Grey Engines. This is the state it was at when I decided to rework it, so it's probably not as polished as it might have become.
Conscious thought flared in the darkness, its wakening accompanied by questions. And the realization that consciousness seemed to be all. No physical sensation accompanied it, a fact which oddly drew little panic, only a calm analysis of the possibilities.
Sensory deprivation of some kind? This spurred no more recollection than anything else, as the mind groped first for its last memory, and then for whatever distinct memory it could grasp, unable to gain a firm hold on any.
"Are you awake?" The unconcerned voice had an odd echo to it, a not quite metallic quality, made odder by the indeterminate distance of the speaker.
[Where am I?] The question had jumped to mind, but before he had the chance to speak, the words echoed back, and he knew he'd somehow thought it aloud.
"One moment." After that moment a vision flicked to life. A man sat before a machine, alone in a small room populated only by odd mechanisms, few of which stirred memories. The man glanced up at him. "Can you see me now?"
"Do you remember who you are?"
A moment after he realized he didn't, faint memories began bubbling to the surface. [Stone.] The thought came out slowly, uncertainty mixed with experimentation, as though saying, or thinking, the name for the first time. Another memory surfaced in its wake, and he amended his answer. [General Stone.]
"Good, we shall..."
[Who are you, and where am I?]
The man halted, displaying only a faint irritation at the interruption. "Names, as you would be familiar with them, are no longer used. My designation would be difficult to communicate, and we have a limited time here. As to your current location, what's the last thing you remember?" This time nothing emerged from the depths, only a few vague wisps lurking just out of reach, faint shadows on the periphery of his consciousness. [I don't. I'm having trouble remembering anything. Why is that?]
The man took a moment before responding. "You're not General Stone. You're an artificial reconstruction of his consciousness, using what we were able to download from our collective memory store. We're afraid the process has yet to be perfected, and the remembered data from that time is fairly fractured, but we've found that memories continue re-emerging and tying together as we communicate. Unfortunately, the process is still unstable, and revived minds rarely remain coherent for longer than an hour, at the utmost."
The false Stone considered his response for a moment. [What?]
"General Stone died in the Devastation, a few generations ago."
"A signal had been received, a message, of extraterrestrial origin. The message was encoded, and it took a while, and our best minds, to decode it. This proved a mistake. The message was a test, to see whether the receiving civilization was advanced enough to be of interest to those who had sent it. When the message was decoded, the trap sprang. The concepts in the message altered the victims thought processes, triggering new neural pathways, which unlocked latent telepathic abilities. The consecutive portion of the message triggered the main part of the trap, as the telepathy became a cascading virus, spreading, literally with the speed of thought, affecting every mind on the planet within hours, all the while building up waves of mental agony which proved too much for most victims. Less than one in every hundred thousand of the planet's population survived the event."
Stone took this in without question, the unreality of the situation almost threatening to overwhelm his thoughts.
"Do you understand everything so far?"
[I think so. But I'm not sure why I don't feel more concerned about it.]
"That will be due to your lack of body, and the associated biological impulses which can confuse the thought processes."
[Okay. So society survived this attack?]
"Individuals survived the event. Society, as it was, changed. Even those who survived had troubles adapting to their new abilities, and it proved difficult for them be around each other without becoming overwhelmed. It required discovering certain techniques to allow control. They initially had little choice but to endure the problems, though, as the necessities of immediate survival required cooperation."
[But society recovered? Since the technology around you, and that required for us to be talking, seem beyond what I can recall, I assume it couldn't all have come from scratch during only a few generations.]
Curiosity lifted the man's brows. "You're recalling technologies?"
[Not so much recalling as having a general idea. Some bits I see around you, I know what they do, but others just feel more advanced, or alien. And certainly the way we're communicating is beyond anything I knew.]
The man nodded. "Certain elements of society survived, and there was a concerted effort to retain knowledge. Society itself, and how people interacted, changed dramatically, basically starting over. It was quickly realized that survival would require fully accepting these new telepathic abilities. Group minds began to develop, allowing truly democratic decisions to be made very quickly. It was soon discovered that all minds on the planet could network together, although it required some effort at the time, and one of the first decisions was to try to preserve knowledge. All minds on the planet had been linked during the event, and concentration allowed the survivors to recall much of the knowledge and memories of the lost. Understanding it, particularly the memories, proved more problematic, and it's only our advancing artificial brain technology which has allowed us to reconstruct enough of your mind to achieve a coherent consciousness."
[Artificial brain? Anything like artificial intelligence?]
"Not really. It involves the use of artificially generated brain matter, which we manipulate to serve a number of vital functions in this new world."
[Artificial brain matter? And I exist in one of these artificial brains?]
"Yes. It's one specifically designed for data mining the archive of recorded memories, reconstructing specific individuals of importance from their memories, and from those others have of them. You're among the first to be successfully reconstructed."
[So is this archive used purely for reconstructive purposes?]
"Earlier iterations of the encephalopedia sift through the archives to amass knowledge on various subjects, which may then be accessed and added to by members of our society. So if a person is assigned to agricultural work, they may access the relevant knowledge on farming."
[If you can access all the knowledge on a subject, why recreate me. I assume you require my military knowledge, so why go to the trouble when you can just access my knowledge, along with that of every other soldier and military historian?]
"Some things are more than mere knowledge. Strategy and tactics can be learnt to a degree, but are also a matter of innate talent, and experience."
[So are you ready to tell me why you brought me back, yet?]
A brief pause occurred as the man seemed to consider this. "Artificial brains have become possibly the most important elements of our new society. Our population has grown to close to a million, scattered in enclaves around the world. Communication brains allow contact with minds on the other side of the world, without straining or using an intermediary network to send the message that distance. More specialized technology allows even further projection. Long enough that we can scan for signs of conscious thought light-years distant. Communication is not a realistic possibility at that range, but detection is achievable."
[And you've discovered the aliens who sent the 'bomb' are on their way here. That's why you need a military mind. To prepare a strategy.]
"Correct. We estimate a month until they reach us, so preparations are underway."
[What resources do you have?]
"Little which could enable us to confront them directly. We have achieved a degree of space worthy transport, but too little to either threaten them, or evacuate the planet. Our only offensive option would be attacking them psychically."
[If they use psychic weapons, wouldn't it be logical to assume that the rest of their tech is based on similar principles, so they'd be protected from this kind of attack?]
"From what we've been able to learn of them from other aliens we've encountered, or scanned, they are primarily scavengers, taking bits and pieces of useful tech from other civilizations. Which would be their reason for coming here. We believe the 'bomb' also sent a beacon, which they are now responding to, coming to pick over the remains of our technology. It seems possible some societies would be completely obliterated by this weapon, but we would seem to have gotten off relatively lightly. The fact we can even detect their approach would seem to indicate an absence of constant defences against psychic intrusion, but they are not yet within range for us to try individual scans."
Silence followed, as connections coalesced. [That they're scavengers would make sense of a few things.]
"What course of action would you support?"
[Scans of the crew as soon as they're within range, beginning with the lower level crewmen until you're sure they have no psychic protection or scanning technologies. If they don't, full scans of senior staff should be carried out to learn strategies, and what intel they have on us. If they do have shielding, it should be tested for weak points. The level of scanning from this point forward should depend on whether they become aware of it. If they're able to detect the intrusion, secrecy becomes irrelevant, and hiding is no longer a realistic strategy.]
"Hiding? You believe evasion the best option?"
[Unless you can determine that their weaponry is weak enough to make the threat posed negligible, which I'd tend to doubt. Do your telepathic abilities allow you to affect other minds in any way?]
"We don't know. We've theorized it may be possible to influence other minds, if the mental processes of the targets are compatible with ours, but have yet to test this theory. The presence of telepathic abilities makes it impossible to test on each other."
[What about brute force attacks on other minds?]
"These are possible, although such actions are heavily discouraged, since they also affect nearby minds. But, again, we have no idea what effect this would have on non-telepaths."
[Then that would be best left as a last resort. The primary course of action should be to attempt to alter their minds so that they don't detect you. Initially try to convince them that the planet was badly devastated by their attack, or by subsequent events, and holds no salvageable technology. If they've closed to a range where they can scan through this before you can influence them, you try to prevent them from detecting life signs. If they find out you're still alive, then you'll need to abandon your population centres and hide in isolated regions, still blocking your presence. If they're purely scavengers, and have no interest in claiming the planet, they should be content that you pose no threat, letting you live as long as it would be more effort to hunt you down than to keep watch for you.]
"Sorry, but you have yet to offer any ideas our people have not already come up with. Are there really no better options for dealing with them?"
[Of course there are. But I have no intention of sharing them with you.]
Confusion, the first crack exhibited by the detached visage, slid across the man's face. "Why not?"
[Because I remember. Well, not actual memories, so much as knowledge. My military knowledge seems intact. Not just the strategic stuff. I also remember combat training. But you know the funny thing? While I seem to 'know' that in life I had two arms and two legs, just as you do, some of my combat training just wouldn't work with fewer than three arms, and two livers.]
The man's face had lost its confusion, its previous detachment now replaced by a cold curiosity as it listened in silence.
[And I'm betting some of the bits of technology around you are as alien to each other as we are. You're the scavenger race, aren't you? Since I'm having faint recollections of some of the technologies I see, I would have to conclude that my race was a victim of one of your attacks. And this is all part of your studying the strategies which could be used against you if you use a newly acquired technology. And this is the reason you won't give your name. Not because it doesn't translate into speech, but because I may recognize it as alien.]
"Very good. Yes, evaluations of the weapon from its previous owners state the possibility of survivors who could have psychic abilities which could prove problematic. Our technicians have proven slow to understand the technology sufficiently to produce shielding against this type of attack, so we're running scenarios on how such survivors could resist us, before we try it out. Recently acquired technologies have allowed us to scan the minds of prisoners to recreate in this machine, although, obviously, we're still learning how much of the memory to edit. You are, however, an artificial construct, and fully subject to our control. Since we must assume you're unwilling to cooperate..."
"Then the computer can access the thoughts you logged during our discussion."
[But not with complete accuracy, I would imagine. So even if I hadn't prevented myself from considering the more interesting strategies, you'd be unlikely to get much of any use. And if you could force me to work for you without allowing me this degree of awareness, we wouldn't be...]
"Computer, override personality freedoms and halt the construct."
Indifference gripped the artificial General Stone as his projected thoughts ceased, and he found he didn't even feel any frustration at his inability to do more than observe.
The alien turned his gaze to the machine in front of him. "Session notes: While a visual link allows the subject to acclimatize faster during the initial phase, visual clues are allowing the subject to penetrate the scenario too quickly. Suggest visual construct of operator as member of the subject's species, and furnishings entirely drawn from the subject's civilization. Computer, extract memory line, and delete the construct."
Awareness blinked out.