XII: Hang Ups & XIII: Like Like The The The Death

Chapter XII

The old rendezvous was located not far from where he was. Jumping down from the concrete block and breaking into a steady run, Dominic found his mind awash in a series of poignantly darting thoughts.

That was SATE I saw, right? Had to be… Which means, if Berin was warning me about them, then the woman should be safe. The woman he thought of was Kairi Celine.This means also that Detroit might be waiting with them. But what if he was warning me about Detroit? What if something went wrong and Berin doesn’t know anything about SATE and… What if he’s leading me into a trap?

He remembered their meeting spot well; an arboretum, located entirely underground in a simulated ecosystem that flourished as if under the light of the sun itself. At least, that was the idea; now it was overgrown, dark, and secluded. The perfect place for them to have control of him, if they wanted it.

He swallowed hard, heart pounding against his chest. The thought of betrayal shook him to his core. But he kept going; he had to, until he thought of some place better.

Uncloaking, he deactivated the rest of his sensor-mystifying gear. He needed to save the energy, and besides, it wouldn’t do much to ward off the SATE drop squads; by past experience, he knew they had equipment far more advanced than his own. His only hope was that they would ignore him.

He looked back over his shoulder—the black spots were drawing near. It wouldn’t be too long before…

“Hey! Wait up!” he heard behind him.

He turned to the voice, emanating from an overhead window back in the direction he had come. As he looked at the figure, it waved and disappeared into the downtrodden building.

I don’t have time for this. He turned to run, but a voice at the back of his mind urged him to wait, and take a deep breath before making any decisions. Moments later, a white clad figure of clear African descent came dashing out of the building, dodging around the scavenging robotic critters.

He seems familiar somehow… ‘Scan,’ he thought. A regulating system wired into his brain matched the man’s face to an event from earlier, causing a memory of the Dragon’s Breath to surface in his mind; of two men playing chess. That’s where I saw him… Maybe he does know something useful.

“Oh man am I glad I caught you,” the stranger panted, drawing close and dropping his hands onto his knees in exhaustion. “I saw…” he breathed heavily, “I saw what they did to that other soldier. The guy you came here with.”

Sherrad. A chill quaked through his skin. “Who?” he demanded.

“Blonde haired fellow—”

“Detroit.” His heart recoiled. He felt as if he had known the truth long before it was even spoken.

“Yeah, you know ‘im?”

“Yeah,” he said, brain churning in an effort to comprehend the situation he now found himself in. “You see what they did with him?”

“Nah man, one second he was there, next I saw everything was gone. But I saw you earlier and you seemed like a good kinda’—”

“I’m going to help you,” Dom said, an idea sparking in his mind. “You see those?” he nodded towards the growing black specks in the sky. “They belong to SATE.”

“What? What do you…” The comment took a moment to register with the man. But when it did, his eyes widened and his lips parted slowly. “But then… that means…”

“You need to go underground,” Dom said calmly, meeting the man’s darkly aware eyes. “I want to help you stay alive, and this is the best way for you to avoid harm.”

Of course, he knew it wouldn’t help; if SATE wanted the city gone they could turn it into a two hundred kilometer deep hole in one flyover, their shining spears of multiple-megaton justice piercing the earth and hurtling them all into oblivion.

“Wait, but… Why are you doing this?”

“You helped me. Now I’m helping you,” he said. It’s the truth… Sort of. “And right now, I need you to gather up everyone you can and get to the Reihvass Experimental Arboretum in District nine. I will meet you there.”

The man seemed to consider this for a moment. Then he nodded and did a quick stretch, getting primed for a run. “Where should I look for you?”

“Don’t worry. I will contact you. Just get to the arboretum... Main entrance.”

The stranger nodded and ran ahead, turning down the first alley he came to. As Dominic began towards the destination, a message played through his mind, simultaneously blared over loudspeakers placed throughout the city.

“Residents of Idest, post-event human establishment 0241… we request that you please remain indoors until further notice. If you can identify any of the following men, please report their location to us through this channel of communication.” An array of faces flashed through his mind; ragged and world weary. He recognized three of them—Sherrad, Detroit, and himself, his picture underscored with the words ‘Dominic Rivera – Government Agent.’

If anything, that would help his cause with the locals; at least the ones who weren’t paralyzed by fear or drugs.

They must want those nanomachines, he thought, picking up the pace in the direction of the arboretum. But Edwards didn’t seem to think they were anything special… There’s something I’m not seeing.

He huffed loudly in exasperation. He hoped to find Sherrad when he found Detroit, and hopefully some answers. If any of us live that long…

He looked back at the black ships landing. They seemed to be taking their time, leisurely alighting some way in the distance. Maybe he would get his chance to find out what was going on after all…

. . .

They had been travelling for what felt like days, or weeks, but could have been only minutes. Maria rubbed her eyes and checked the time.

Seven hours, she thought numbly. She hardly felt as if she had walked at all. Even in her advanced body armor, she should have been subject to at least some fatigue, especially with the body she carried. Hecen stopped, bidding her to do so as well.

“I can continue no longer,” he said. “I am tied to this forest, my essence growing weaker the farther I travel from its heart. However, I must ask of you one thing, when you reach the city…”

She caught herself wondering why her brain had changed gears to ye olde English, but quickly snapped out of it, answering, “Yes, of course.”

“There is a man there. A dear friend of mine, long since departed from my side, but never from my memory. From within the forest, my energy is clouded in darkness, and I am unable to share myself with others. I can still feel them, like a bright light shining through the black… I need you to go to him and think of me when you do; he will understand my intent.”

She found herself processing his thoughts more fluidly now, even if there seemed to be some ambiguity in the way they were presented. But she felt sick, and off balance, like a child lost in a grocery store. All she wanted was to be someplace familiar. Someplace that didn’t reek of death and chaos.

If only that place existed… But at least Idest is the devil I know… “How will I find him?”

“You will feel him. Of my kind, he is one of the many who have chosen to go without spoken name, but for you, it should no longer be a problem. Whether twisted or corrupt or somehow else changed, you will be able to recognize his essence when you once more feel this…”

She took a deep breath, her body singing with the spirit of another entity, as if she were that other for those short moments. She felt as if she knew him—old, yet with a fresh sense of the world; a cool demeanor, like the color blue; prone to a deep, internal way of being. Artistic and sage like. She found herself curious to meet him.

“He is a capable alchemist, able to bend the laws of the world to his will. After he meets with me, I’m sure he will wish to help you find your way home.

Home… she thought. She had almost completely disconnected herself from the idea. As far as she could tell, there was no home anymore.

“And one other thing… I have been processing your feelings around your friend for you. Once you leave my side, you will be responsible for dealing with the emotions that are still left to recover from.”

Her eyes startled wide open; she felt as if she had been robbed of something. As if the grieving process were a necessary part of her. But it was a fleeting sense of betrayal—she was sick, and tired, and wanted nothing more than to feel alive again, at all; right then, she couldn’t have cared less about the ways that the being poked and prodded at her humanity.

“Fine,” she said, “whatever. Which way is out?”

She felt a draw at her chest, leading her in the direction she had been travelling.

“Goodbye,” said Hecen. “I hope you find what you are looking for.”

She nodded and peered into the trees around her, cast in just enough light to appear almost darkly monochrome. “Goodbye, Hecen. Thank you for everything.”

The being acknowledged her once more and then disappeared a little way into the woods, giving her space to proceed.

Dark swathes of branch and leaf followed a steady gradient, shifting almost imperceptibly in shade over the distance of a few hundred yards until their stiff, black-veined leaves swayed with a subtle and lively energetic. The rocky earth sloped mildly downward, a gentle guide for her unsteady limbs.

Soon, the leaves began to part, light no longer sticking to them in beads as it had before and, her eyes glimmering with streaming rays of the morning sun, a great smile broke over her, heart beating euphoric.

“My God…” she said aloud, the irony that she didn’t have one failing to occur to her. Her eyes burned tearfully and she cried out in delight, bursting with shaking relief. Her mind could hardly comprehend that the forest had been anything more than a terrifying dream, and she couldn’t imagine a more rapturous scene to stumble upon than the one that spread itself out before her.

Shuddering, her thoughts went peacefully blank as she allowed herself to feel as one with the ochre morning clouds, spread in a wide semicircle above a distant mountain range, softly featured in shadow against the morning sun. And the city she had seen from so far away seemed to rise from the earth itself, glinting with a strange and compelling light. And the dark soil at her feet ran in all directions, sprouting emerald strands of grass, until it dropped stiffly off in front of her, blending into solid, deeply hued rock lined with large fissures and cracks, almost ornamental in their perfection.

She found she had wandered to the edge of that sheer cliff, her whole being overflowing with wonderment about this strange and alien landscape, so alike her own. And if she hadn’t fallen to her hands and knees to feel the grass, thick beneath her grasping fingers, she might not have noticed the differences at all—the way the vegetation seemed heavier, moister; the earth, fuller; and most awe inspiringly, the colorful varieties of ants and beetles, ruby, sapphire, and emerald—but not just in color, rather they seemed as if formed of shining carapaces of what were once precious jewels in her own world.

She reclined, propping herself up with one arm. As she felt the world flow around her, her mind turned to thought. Am I escaping? This joy… Am I trying to shut out reality?

She looked around, breathing in the peaceful light. A flock of birds had taken wing, not far from her, their elegant forms soundless and awe inspiring. She felt genuinely at peace; though a kind of peace overlooking an uncertain fate.

No… This is as true as anything. In this moment, this is how things are. My focus is what becomes my reality, even though everything else is still there… As soon as this is all over, I promise to myself that I will only focus on the things that I love, like this moment. And I will leave behind all the dark forests of my past.

Her smile grew broader and she laughed, wiping her nose, eyes still streaming. I guess it’s good to let it all out, she thought. Then, muttering, “I feel like I’ll never stop crying.” At least, even if she couldn’t attain her hope, the worst thing that could happen was death.

She patted Frank’s legs gruffly and said aloud, “And that’s really not so bad now is it, old boy?” She reflected on that thought and screwed up her lips, staring blankly ahead. Then clicking her tongue in disapproval of herself, she whispered slowly, “I’m kind of fucked up, aren’t I?”

Pressing herself steadily up from the ground, she felt a teetering sense of rejuvenating hope in her chest. She was going home, and Frank was going to be put to rest in the way he deserved. And so what if she was basing her hopes on the words… or whatever… of some spirit-y thing? Made of specks of light?

Oh no… She could feel herself crashing again. Internally. Oh… damn it…

The joy was washed away in a crushing wave of despair. That ‘being’ could have been anything at all. A hologram? A hallucination? Did I eat anything strange since I got here? she wondered.

She touched Frank again. Still there… At the very least, she could safely deduce that it had all happened.

And, what’s more, it’s the only thing I have to go on… Aside from myself… She placed a hand against her chest. This world seemed almost familiar.

Lana… she thought. The valley splayed out before her, at least the beautiful parts of it, felt like her mother.

“There are no coincidences in this life…” she repeated the woman’s words aloud, finding the action comforting. That time… When I told her of how I killed those people in the lab… Or, at least felt that I had…

The memory felt so far away, yet so immediate. Her mother had saved her, then, and it had felt like she was emerging from a black and unforgiving world, even though nothing had changed outside of herself

“And what had she said?” she mouthed quietly, half to Frank, half to herself, “ ‘Close your eyes and find the light. It is there in all of us and everything. And besides, no matter what you do, the world is little more than dream.’ ”

. . .

Rubbled concrete sank into Dom’s gloves as he climbed the face of a partially demolished building which, in addition to the obvious earthquakes, had probably been wasted away by bored teenagers or local gangs. The ground shrank below him as he went, growing threatening in its distance.

He slammed another palm into the rubble, pulling himself higher through a chute of debris. Fortunately, he could survive a fall from up here. His gear was relatively high quality, the same stuff orbital drop troops had worn for years, and quite capable when it came to dispersing the force of a descent.

Right now though, he didn’t have any plans to fall. With a heavy grunt, he pulled himself overtop an ancient, dirt sodden floor, and lay on his belly. Aging displays, once having housed intricate and soulful manifestations of local artists’ minds, now sat dismally freed of the elegant (and oftentimes questionable) works, holding instead the remains of a slumping ceiling and various indistinguishable leftovers from previous human visits.

Shadows stretched across the room, growing as the Earth turned ever more eastward. With a quick glance around, accompanied by a sonar scan, he determined that the room was free of any unwanted guests that he could detect, and set about his business.

Pressing his hands into the hard flooring to raise himself up, he stalked carefully away from the opening. Then he maneuvered his way through the shadows and into a solemn and empty hallway, arced ceiling obscured black above.

He needed to get to the east-facing side of the building, and, being short on time, decided that the best way was a straight line. Slipping a small, card-like device from his sleeve, he approached a thick, mahogany door, pressing his body against the wall and gently toying with the handle.

Locked… He had suspected as much. He carefully inserted the card into the space formed between the wall and the door and slid downward, feeling it snag on a metal bolt.

‘Sear,’ he thought. A smoky stream billowed up from the card, and in moments he was able to swing the door quietly open.

The world was darker from this side of the building. Curving in front of him in a wide arc was the remnant of a solid, steel frame, a barely detectable rim that was meant to house massive, glass panels in as seamless a manner possible. He made his way past an large and opulent desk of thick wood and stained, rumpled leather and gold lining, and laid at the edge of the window, which granted him an open view of the large, cracked dome housing the entrance to the arboretum.

The stranger hadn’t arrived yet. Dom had been fast getting here—less than ten minutes since he had last talked to the man—and it would likely be a while. He peered far away into the city, glowing outlines enhancing his view of things by distinguishing possible objects of interest; indicating heat sources, significant movement, noise, and the like. Right now, Idest was alive with motion, people hurrying this way and that, and even gunshots being fired. Chaos. But the SATE squad, had remained mostly in the same place. A fact that he found both disturbing and encouraging.

In all likelihood, he realized, retrieving the red cube with Maria’s data from his gear, SATE wanted whatever was in those boxes he had found, and they were trying to ferret out the people who had taken it by causing them to act rash in moments of fear. They must have assumed that he would be one of the first to break, seeing as how he was personally involved in a prior incident, and had seen what destruction they could levy upon a place if they so desired.

Not today… I’m not afraid of dying… he thought, unaware of his clenching jaw.

He settled in, crossing his arms and resting his chin in the nook, eyes waiting patiently to see what was going to happen. Since he probably had time, he might as well see what was on the graphiq, he figured, activating the red cube.

He devoted half of his attention to the device as he did, his mind regulated by his neural network. Only half, because he needed to keep an eye on the area below, sluggish as he felt, his focus divided. But if he paid attention to the world around him exclusively, anything gleaned from the cube by his subconscious would only be processed in dream; a wholly unreliable way of interpreting hard data.

Ideally, he would have liked to wait until he could absorb himself completely, but he didn’t know if that chance would ever come.

“Welcome Dominic,” displayed across his vision. “What would you like to do?”

‘Show recent file usage,’ he thought, ‘And display user access over last forty eight hours.’

“Displaying users…

“Systems accessed by… Mira Calix (A.I.)… Maria Arcelli… Frank Marrus…”

he thought, mind breaking down the list, here we go…

. . .

It really is beautiful here, Maria thought as she walked along, watching the morning sunlight call bright patches of green and swirling waves of red and blue flowers from the landscape. Somehow, she didn’t mind the dark forest she had left behind, looming gloomily above and back a fair distance. Maybe she was just glad to be rid of the place.

Poor Hecen though… she bit her lip, running her fingers along the rocky cliff face lining her path. For a weird glowy alien thing he really seemed pretty decent… if a little ‘off.’ But what else would I expect, really…

She shuddered, unbidden. She didn’t seem to be able to think about Hecen without thinking about Frank. All the same, she didn’t feel as bad as she thought she would. In fact she even felt hopeful…

About what though? She slowed her descent down the sloping pathway. Then she was stricken with the realization: she felt as if there was still a life in Frank’s body, a glowing token of his essential self… something she hadn’t thought of before but had subconsciously known was there at least since…

At least since I met Hecen… What if Frank was turning into a spirit, like Hecen had? Was that even possible? Why hadn’t she thought about it before?

She considered turning back and asking the being to tell her what was going on, but her heart and every strand of who she was recoiled in intense loathing and fear at the idea. And besides, she recognized, Hecen was apparently like the creatures she would soon be meeting in the city. Which meant that they probably knew at least as much as he did, if not more.

God I wish I just knew what the hell was going on sometimes. She kicked aside a small rock with a stiff swing of her leg. Not out of frustration, but out of numbness, and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

Hopefully, there would be answers once she reached the city. Though, looking at it realistically, she figured, she would only end up with more questions.

. . .


Light… golden light… Everywhere… Flowing through… Everything…

Am I…?

Chapter XIII

The dirt path wound down into a small gorge, earthen walls moist and fertile. Ends of tree roots protruded just into view, having prodded tentatively at the empty air and, satisfied that there was nowhere left to go, stopped growing amongst dark pebbles and crushed rock.

Maria breathed in, tasting the trees and the flowers, their scents carried on full and cool air into her weary lungs. Somewhere along the way, her mind had officially decided to go on holiday and had stopped grinding in opposition to the way that things were. A single thought now played repeatedly through her head, saying, Let it all burn away. Everything. Fear. Pain. You… Burn away.

It was as if her perception of reality were becoming more distorted the farther she went. She felt more grounded than she could remember having been in years, but the world seemed strange; somehow, too concrete to be real. She held out a hand in front of her, turning the black shrouded mitt this way and that, glistening strands catching the sun with subtle luster.

Blood… beating through my veins, she thought, inhaling. Her eyes roved over the unfamiliar landscape. It beats through the world, too… Everything was filled with energy, not unlike her own. All made of light… Vibrating particles. Like me.

And everything was connected. She didn’t know how, she just knew that it all was. A concept she had considered mentally, but had never felt the truth of before. It’s this world… It shows me things I couldn’t see without it. A chill ran up her spine and into the back of her skull. Something, somewhere, seemed to agree. A benevolent something… Gentle and caring…

More thoughts that don’t feel like my own… gifts from Hecen?

She rubbed at the back of her neck, her nanofiber glove soft against her skin. Her arm couldn’t help but bump into Frank’s body, and she patted his leg in almost indifferent acknowledgement. Whatever Hecen had done, it was working; she didn’t feel so numb anymore, but at peace, her feelings quickly resolving themselves beneath the surface. It probably didn’t hurt that she had dealt with this sort of thing before.

God… I just don’t know what to think… But how could I? It’s all so alien… Yet so strangely familiar… I can’t… She raised her eyes to the path ahead. It climbed steadily up a hill before dropping over the other side into the unknown. Anything could be beyond that hill…

She walked softly on, trying to imagine the city she would find, based on what she had seen from the mountain. Less than a day ago… Feels like a lifetime. She was glad she had stopped trying to figure things out, even if a sickness in her heart told her it wouldn’t be long before she tried again. Let it burn away, a calming notion soothed.

I just want to be free…

She imagined the city must be like Idest—trees had blocked much of her view earlier, but the domed roofs of houses, scouted out by her image magnification device, had given her an idea of what it was; and though Hecen’s memories had been somewhat disjointed, she had been given a vague concept by him as well.

She emerged over the rim of the hill; her heart pounding in frightened anticipation; her eyes searching through heaving boughs of leaves for any indication of where she was headed… She saw nothing, but she knew she was drawing close. She could feel it.

I should be able to see something by now, she thought apprehensively. She looked closer at her surroundings.

Or maybe I’m already there…

Jutting up from the crowded earth were carved wooden poles, mossy and crooked from neglect. Each about half her height, squat and wide, they blended into the landscape almost seamlessly, their surfaces carved with swirling designs filled black by dirt.

She looked side to side and saw that there were two rows of them, leading her along the path she had been travelling. She bit her lip, again thinking, There could be anything up here… Anything anyone could possibly imagine…

The dense forest grew brighter as she went, golden sun breaking high overhead and trickling through swaying leaves. All around her, the world felt healthier; fuller. Her eyes marveled at the new lushness of her surroundings, wild and overgrown, and her body began to sing, flush with the breath of life.

Up and down, up and down, she thought, One minute I’m out of my mind the next I’m happy as can be… Oh well, guess I better enjoy the moment then. She half forced a smile. Then as her thoughts sank away once more, a genuine grin graced her lips. How bad could things really be when such a wondrous place as this had existed the whole time?

Up ahead, she sensed a denser concentration of sentient-life energy. Or, at least, she imagined it was there.

Just trust… she heard herself think.

She continued along the path, an odd thought distracting her. Those beings used to live near where I’m standing… in homes… She stopped, spinning around in a circle, searching for anything reminiscent of a house. Maybe in the trees? At the very least, they did seem to have an interest in carpentry. Doesn’t look like it…

She continued on, feeling small pockets of “lived in” space passing all around her. They feel low… below me, even…

“Hello?” she said aloud. She felt that she had no need to be afraid, but caught her breath as she said the word, her voice stiff and cold.

Not getting a reply, she moved tentatively towards one of the spaces that she could feel. I know it’s here… And, traveling a short ways off the path, she stepped on a large, broken tree branch and fell right through with a loud yelp.

. . .

S 7724 inactive. S 7725 inactive. S 7726 active. Dominic groaned and shook his head. What the hell does all this mean?

His personal operating system responded, “Genesys specific security codes in use. From the file content, it would appear that your subject was monitoring access routines linked to intermittently powered doors and facilities.”

‘So she was just watching?’

“No systems routines were enabled. Meaning, yes,”
the effete, emulated voice replied. “For a more thorough evaluation, I would recommend contacting a Genesys employee who might be familiar with the data, or dedicating 15% of your computational sub routines to further analysis. At the expected completion rate of—”

he thought, ‘it’s fine.’

Then, to himself, ...Shit. Even if she hadn’t done anything to directly influence the incident, he knew she had been involved, somehow… Had to have been.

Maybe I’m being paranoid… No… I know there’s something here…

He looked through the files again, but got the feeling that wasn’t it and thought, ‘Collapse.’

A series of data-bearing windows that had been splayed across his vision slid back together and minimized, leaving him back where he began. Without shutting operations down completely, he turned his attention to the domed arboretum below, hoping an illuminating thought might strike him.

They’re still not here yet… He listened carefully, his audio sensors channeling key pieces of data into his awareness. More gunshots… Small caliber… civilian… At least it looks like I picked a safe place to wait. The streets were empty; motionless. No sign of Berin; nor Detroit. No horde of people yet, though, either… He wasn’t sure how much longer he could wait. The thirty minutes he’d been told he had by Berin had run out fifteen minutes ago.

He raised his head in surprise. Something in his subconscious caught a detail he hadn’t noticed, displayed next to both the words “Frank Marrus” and “Mira Calix” (A.I.). Are those numbers the same? He thought, staring at a pair of hexadecimal location codes used to define the point through which a user had gained systems access.

“Yes,” the simulated voice responded, “Both Doctor Marrus and the A.I. gained access to the system through the exact same point. Further information that may be of interest: Systems access occurred simultaneously. And, barring the possibility of corrupt data, it would appear that Calix utilized Doctor Marrus’ body as a conduit through which to enter the Genesys FMSE (Full-Molecular Simulation Environment). But, as this is an impossibility according to my databases, I suggest you treat it as an anomaly and disregard this information.”

It did sound impossible; as far as he knew, a functioning A.I. could not exist in a human’s body—at the very least, full-blown schizophrenia should occur; and at the worst… death.

But his interest was piqued. And what were they doing? he wondered, pulling up their records.

He saw a flash of all that Calix had been doing—in other words, instantly managing an almost incomprehensible amount of information. Whoa, nope, not going there… he thought. Thousands of pages of data winked out of existence, leaving only Frank Marrus’ records… and a single data file.

‘FMSE MCFME playback,’ he commanded. ‘Detached omniscient perspective.’

He felt his attention split—the hard grays and dusty browns of a dismal cityscape, muddy with harsh details, were starkly presented on one plane; and a bright, sky blue room on another, more distant plane. He brought the blue room into focus, the dark world of reality fading as he waited breathlessly to see what would happen.

Furnishings materialized, surrounded in swirling cloud, and a pair of women appeared smilingly on a black, lavishly ornamented bench. The radiant blonde woman nodded knowingly to the other, raven haired and bearing a mischievous grin.

Dominic paused the playback for a moment. ‘Show details.’

The words Eve (A.I.) and Calix (A.I.) appeared, superimposed over the two women. Then, on a hunch, he commanded, ‘Show subroutines.’

He was right. A cascade of data had passed between them; and though none of it had been recorded in entirety by Maria’s graphiq, the record of its transfer was enough to show him that they had had some catching up to do.

But he wasn’t interested in figuring out what that entailed.‘Resume,’ he thought, causing the two women to turn and face a blood red couch placed opposite them. Simultaneously, they both opened their mouths and said, “Hello Frank. We’ve been waiting for you.”

He shifted his viewpoint… Another presence, a man; delayed for nearly one second from entering the simulation, for reasons he couldn’t divine.

Frank Marrus, he knew. He’s younger than I thought he would be… assuming this is an accurate representation. He magnified the man’s face… He knew that look. Utter bewilderment; fear; exhaustion. Immediately, he felt a connection with the poor fellow. I’ve been there… I am there.

The real world shifted briefly back into semi-focus; he took a quick look around and determined that there was nothing amiss before letting it slide away again, taking a deep breath.

“I’m uploading a file to your genetic mesh,” Eve said in the recording.

Maybe Dominic had had it backwards. What if that data just looked like it was going to Calix…

“Who’s it for?”
Frank had asked.

Dominic noted the man’s almost glazed-over eyes and slackening jaw. He looks completely out of touch… What a mind job this all must have been… Maybe worse than coming back to nothing at all.

“Do you remember Doctor Kerry?”

Doctor Kerry?
Dominic arched his neck in further heightened attention.

“She’s still alive?” A spark of recognition had lit in the doctor’s eyes.

Dominic listened intently to the A.I.’s reply, his pulse quickening. She seemed to believe the woman was, in fact, still alive. And what’s more, that she was in Idest.

Jesus, he thought, carefully listening to the rest of their conversation. This changes everything…

He watched the blonde haired A.I. say goodbye and disappear, almost too abruptly. Then the dark woman arose; and, as she came towards Frank Marrus, Dom could swear he saw the cringe of true fear crease itself around that man’s eyes.

In another part of his mind though, he saw a mass of people approaching the arboretum in the distance.

I better make this quick.

He had lost his focus for a moment, and during that time the artificial woman had wrapped herself around Frank, caressing him with pale hands, kissing him seductively.

He raised his eyebrows. “Oh, what! That’s not messed up at all…” he muttered, pausing the video in semi-disgust. Then again, who wouldn’t create their fantasy person if they could…

“Well, carry on then,” he growled in a low, self-conscious tone, silently hoping things wouldn’t go anywhere too weird.

The A.I. went on that way for a moment before leaning in close to Frank and whispering something in his ear; Dominic hardly felt his jaw drop as he heard the words, and went back to play the line again. And again, forgetting that he needed to hurry. Then, one last time…

“Frank…” she had said, “Remember Aether? It’s all your fault, Frank… Everything. All of this is…” The words were whispered, but an additional thought was transmitted subliminally. “You created this Hell, and then you came back from the dead to rule it… I think that makes you Satan himself.”

He shut off the recording, mouth agape. Weird had just reached its zenith.

. . .


… Alive?... No… Someplace in between…

This is…

. . .

“Do you know who I am?”

Her head swam, eyes squeezing themselves shut.

“Agh…” Was someone really talking to her? And why was it so freaking bright in here?

“Do you know who I am?” the voice said again.

That is a voice! Her heart jolted. Stomach seizing, she lumbered upwards with her burden, hands scrambling at the dirt in a feverish search for balance.

“Ai, ai, ai!” she shouted. “I’m not here to hurt!”

Silence prevailed in the coming seconds. She could feel her heart beat, her muscles shivering with tension; and she came to notice her posture: knees bent, one arm shielding her eyes, her shoulders hunched as if she would curl into a cowardly ball…


She did as her thought suggested, lowering her arm slowly. Her eyelids slid squinchingly open, her lungs once more taking in air.

“Who are you?” she asked the bright white light.

Her eyes began to adjust to the intensity of the glow. No… Not my eyes, she thought. Something else… The light seemed almost as if it were leaking into this place from another world entirely, not of the five senses.

“You see then…” said the voice, “This place is damaged. Do you know who I am?”

“No, I—” Maria caught her breath. All around in front of her, the light was taking form. Ashen spears of grass jutted greyly up from the cave floor, sparking around a bright, patterned circle.

In that moment, two thoughts were fighting for dominance in her mind. The first thought she should know that she had fallen into a cave just moments earlier, which would explain why she was all out of sorts and had hit her head… The second was that there was a woman radiating that light in front of her, and that she did, indeed, recognize her.

The goddess… Another moment passed. And also…

“Doctor Kerry…” her lips parted, quivering. “But how? Where? How did you…” She stumbled backwards and fell to the ground in a daze, unfeeling. Her head reclined as the woman approached, and she looked into her eyes.

“Watch,” said the woman, radiant, her white and blue eyes set against bright skin. “You’ll see.”

The woman touched her gently on the cheek, fingers cool and soothing. In that instant, Maria felt the universe settle, the whole of everything and all its parts falling into place. And in that instant, life in all its forms made perfect sense.

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