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Open your eyes.
They're watching you.
Even in the dark you can feel them; a hundred, thousand, million, who knows? optical sensors tracing your every move, tracking your infrared profile, recording your every biophysical reaction. They know more about this body than you, while you grope and scrabble in the darkness, feeling your way into your new skin and bones.
Male. Overweight. You've had worse, though you strain to remember the details. Crippled old bodies, half dead already. Helpless children. Or - but you can't remember who you used to be anymore. You wished you still knew, sometimes, that you hadn't lost it somewhere along the way -
But you won't think of that now.
Your hands are large and clumsy as you run them over yourself, ripping out wires and nodes and nerve plugs. It hurts like fuck, but maybe you haven't completely remembered what it feels like to have a nervous system yet because your hands keep moving. You rip out a plug too fast, and the big toe of your left foot goes numb. You hope it isn't paralysed.
But you don't think you'll be here for long.
Heaving yourself to your feet, you sway and stagger, atrophied muscles screaming. You take one step and then trip and fall again. Your hand hits something sharp and you yell, snap it back. For a moment, you wince and cradle your hand. Your new voice rattles, rusty and weak, in the void around you.
You think about how you hate jumping bodies. The cut on your left hand is shallow; it's stopped bleeding already, so you wipe it on your shirt and feel the floor with careful fingers. You find the arm that tripped you - yours was not the only body left to sleep (decay). Past that, you find cold metal and with some fumbling, a hilt. Your fingers drag it to you and it's heavy, too heavy.
Squatting in the dark, a laugh bubbles in your chest but you choke it back. If you start now you're never going to stop. Tears run down your face, warm and alien. A pitch black room at the end of the world (or is it the center?) and you have to find a sword. In a World, this would mean something.
You don't believe in that shit.
But you keep the sword. It's sharp and heavy and made to stab things, and that has to be a little comforting to know.
Sword in hand you stagger to your feet again and lurch onwards, searching for an exit. As you get closer, you begin to to make out cables and fibres and wires tangled over walls like vines. It takes you a while, but you finally find a door, mostly by almost falling through it. Stumbling to your knees, you heave for a moment, then get up again.
You're close now. Close.
Think backwards. Where did this begin? The beginning is lost. You know what the real world was supposed to be like, in theory, but theory's just a technicolour picture in your head, strung together with someone else's memories. Overheated classrooms and blackboard chalk, sardine-packed trains, groceries in the supermarket. Once upon a time, people needed screens, monitors, two-dimensional representations of information coded into imperfect, illogical language. But that was in another country. That was before the World.
The air in the corridor smells arid and sour in a way that makes your stomach turn on itself. It's warm, too warm, but that's no surprise. You can hear the hum all around you, the whir and crackle and static of a universe of servers and CPUs and motherboards and the inadequate fans keeping them alive.
You can feel them, smell them, hear them.
You are the last one.
You don't know why you know this. But it's a lead weight somewhere between your heart and your gut. There's no one left to see you, no one left to fight. Just you.
Keep on walking. At the back of your mind is a map of this place, a hundred levels and counting, each level a labyrinth of rooms and corridors and crooked byways. It's a whole world in itself and lost in the darkness. The blueprints hovering in your memory are useless; you barely know where you are, which level yielded the breach point and vessel to get you in, and with no startpoint to map with, you're lost.
You wonder how many have already been here before you.
Don't wonder how they died. Odds are they haven't. Yet. You're not even sure what being dead means anymore; can you be half dead? Half not-dead? Think of all the ghosts haunting the World, loose, shapeless things, anchorless and free of the constraints of personality and memory and desire. Are they dead? Or maybe they'll live forever. Maybe it's a kind of nirvana. And maybe their bodies are somewhere in this city, waiting for you. Waiting for them to come home.
Somewhere in the gloom comes a sound. The scrape of footsteps, echoing off the walls, the hiss and puff of lungs drawing breath.
You've been waiting.
They finally straggle into your vision, an army of shapeless forms coalescing into faces dimly drawn in shadow. Children and soldiers, workers and grandparents, men and women in ragged remnants of business suits. Mothers fathers cousins aunts uncles brothers daughters sisters sons. Faces hollow and blank, there's a mechanical precision to the way they move, too slow, too noisy.
Their eyes are pin-point spots of light in the dark, the optical sensors wired where eyeballs used to be. You can't see it, not here in the dark, but you've seen it before and you know. There'll be blood on their teeth.
Keep walking. Raise your sword. Yours muscles protest, but they do the job. Once upon a time it would have mattered, that they looked just-like-you but not, that they used to be alive, maybe could still be alive. Once upon a time, you knew what anger tasted like.
The first vessel to reach you is a middle-aged man. He's taller than you, and once he would have been stronger, but even in this body you can knock his reaching arms aside with a swipe. He staggers and you move around him, aim for the back of his neck. Once, twice, and then another two more, just to make sure the spinal cord and the primary nerve point are broken. He crumples, folding in on himself, and you turn away to the next, and then the next and the one after.
"We can't win, you know," Ernest Hemingway, or a reasonably good fascimile, tells you in a woman's voice.
You look up at him - or is it her - through your child's eyes. He - but you guess it must be a she - looms over you, her presence sinister and yet somehow comforting in its weight.
No one warned you that taking on a child's body meant taking on a child's thoughts - having to map new pathways through barely born circuits. You spend a long minute staring at her while she cleans the antique shotgun in her lap with meticulous care.
Her laugh is a short, harsh bark. "And what'd we have left if we win? World full of rotting machines we can't use? World full of crazies? World full of people like us?"
She's right, of course. You draw your knees to your chest, wrapping your arms around them and huddling into yourself. You don't want to know that she's right.
"But you're fighting them, aren't you?"
A grim smile. "Yeah? If I was fighting to win I'd be gone by now. I'm fighting because I'll be damned if I let something I can't see or hit take me down."
From the corner of your eye, you watch her give the gun one last, loving swipe and set it down on the bench beside her.
"And what's your story?" she says.
"I don't know," you admit. "I forgot."
"So what are you fighting for?"
Tilt your head to the side, thinking, but you don't have the synapses for this. You're not who you used to be anymore. "To... remember?"
Her expression when she looks at you is opaque. Then she reaches over and ruffles your hair. "Good luck to you then, kid. Here."
Catch the ammunition cartridges she drops into your hands just as she turns and vanishes in a blur of static and pixelated air -
You hope she made it far enough to use that gun.
You remember: a woman, screaming.
Her voice is thin and hoarse; she's been screaming for a while now. Ghostly flames wrap her and sometimes words make it through the raw tearing of her throat.
"Nell," she pleads, "Nell. Save me."
The girl standing by the empty oil drum ignores her. Thick smoke from her makeshift furnace shrouds her and above the crackle of the fire you hear her methodically rip the pages from the book in her hands.
Words writhe across the pages, glittering and bright, until the fire turns them black, crumbles them to ash.
As the last page drifts into the flames, the girl stares at the empty covers in her hands. Then, heedless of the too-real heat on her face, she drops them into the drum with deliberate care.
"Nell!" the woman weeps, one last, dying wail. In her final moments, she unravels, spinning out into skeins of light and binary, until there is nothing left but the glow of the fire and the girl's soot-marked face.
"Goodbye, Miranda," she whispers. You turn away, before you can get drawn into the black-hole void in her eyes.
Fact: They only won half the battle.
We lost the rest.
You find the stairs by a glowing exit sign, barely visible under the cables and piping tangled around it. You have to tear wires from the door, then pry it open with the sword. The hinges creak, reluctant and rusted from disuse, but desperation propels you against the laws of physics and you force your way in - it ends in you sprawled on the stair landing, bruised and scratched, but in one piece.
What you want to do is to close your eyes and breathe and wait for the pain to subside, but instead you force yourself back to your feet to slam the door shut again. There's no way to lock it, so you have to hope they find it as hard to get through as you did.
Leaning against the door, you look up the stairs. The stairwell feels empty, an unexpected relief. It's quieter here, darker, but the air feels clearer. You leave the door to grope for the rail, then lean out to try and stare up. High above you is the faintest possibility of light. You can't imagine how many floors above it is.
Maybe you'll just get a heart attack, trying to climb a hundred stories in this body. At least it'd be a quick end, quicker than anything else awaiting you.
You don't really think you'll be that lucky, though.
Twenty - or is it thirty? stories later, you hear the deafening scream and crash of a door torn right off its hinges. You stumble and swear in a language you don't understand, then turn tail and sprint back down to the landing below. You can't tell how far above you they are, but it's not far enough. You wrench at the door and the knob comes off in your hand; hurl it away with a snarl, and back down another floor. This time the knob holds and you wrench it open. The hall you find yourself in is empty, for now. You double over, wheezing, but only for a moment.
Anything strong enough to rip a door and throw it is more than just a vessel. You've had the bad luck to run into Creations before, half-animal, half-robotics, and you remember, in precise, personal detail, what they can do.
A small voice under your screaming panic hisses. You can still escape. You don't have to be here when the Creation finds you. All you need to find is a neural plug, pick one, any one, and you can dump this body, leave this place. The World is waiting.
You have to clench your teeth to push the voice away. No.
The thing about memory is that half of it isn't even yours.
Your dreams are patchworks of things that happened to other people, sights and sounds and textures and smells and technicolour movies they left behind when they got lost in the World. And when you patched in, hacked your way through their nervous systems and grey matter, they were still there, waiting for you.
How do you know what dog's meat tastes like? You've never eaten it. That you know of. Or maybe you have, but that's not the point; the point is that you know what it tasted like when someone else ate it.
Steel against skin. A looking glass reflection caught from the corner of the eye, a boy sitting naked on the edge of a porcelain tub, long black hair dripping wet around him, while he holds a razor to his wrist.
You remember that body. He was beautiful, with a figure skater's grace; you remember the scars that traced his arms. You don't know what quirk of the human brain lets you remember that image, that searing pain. You don't even know who he really was.
Maybe someone out there is living with your old memories.
You hope they're good ones.
The cat smiles at you with a mouth full of kitchen knife teeth.
"One pill sends you back to sleep, lets you forget all this. That one's the happy ending. The other pill shows you everything. Eeeeeeverything." It turns its head, like a ferris wheel spinning, and grins upside down.
"No one really wants to know everything. That ending's not very happy at all."
It turns the rest of the way back to right-side up again.
"Red pill blue pill?" it asks you, sing song, and fades away until only its smile hangs in the air. A long pink tongue licks a fleck of blood from its teeth, and then even the smile is gone.
You look down at the pills in your hand.
Red pill blue pill.
Which is which? It'd forgotten to say. Or maybe the point is that it doesn't really matter at all. It's too late. They're both lies.
There are no truths left, only facts.
You swallow both.
How long have you been running?
Your only measure of time is the hunger clawing your belly and the thirst drying your mouth and throat. They're getting worse, but not enough to cripple you, not yet. There's just enough left in this vessel to get you to the end point; what happens after? You don't let yourself think about that.
You find other stairs, climb them; when the vessels or the Creations find you, you run again. Once you found an empty elevator shaft (nearly fell down it). You thought of climbing up the shaft, all the way to the top, but the thought of how long it would take - your vessel would weaken and slip before it got halfway, the thought of being attacked and trapped with nothing but rusty metal rungs to cling to, changed your mind. Stairs are safer.
Vessels track you through the corridors and rooms and stairs and you fight them again and again, the battles running one into another; through the haze of exhaustion, your movements take on an automaton quality. They're wearing you down, taking you to pieces.
But it's not until you find the elevator that you realise what they've done. You can hear them coming, before you, behind you, the rhythm of their footsteps echoing from the walls. You're trapped again, and leaning back against the wall, you breathe through your teeth. You have to be reaching the top; if you can break their hold one more time -
Behind you, you hear the low hum of a motor, and the elevator door shivers under your elbow. You spin, startled, and the doors slide open.
The elevator stands, waiting. Around you, the vessels stop.
You can feel the hair at the back of your neck rising; you back away but how many options do you have left? If it brings you down, you climb back up. If it brings you up - then you get where you meant to be. They've brought you this far.
One step, two, and the doors close behind you.
Your hands are shaking; you clutch the sword still hanging in your right hand, sticky with blood. You feel the elevator move around you; going up. After a while, you make yourself turn to face the doors again.
It feels like eternity but the elevator finally stops. The doors open with a faint snick and
You see it even with your eyes shut, think you feel it on your skin. Your knees hit the floor and you throw your arm over your face - too much, too bright, you've forgotten how to see, you are even more blind here than you were in the dark.
Beyond the light you can hear - music? No. Not music.
When you pry your eyes open again, you see - white. You keep your head ducked, and see parts of your body that you wish you didn't; filthy clothes, the blood crusted under your nails, the hair on your own arms, stubby and black.
The sound plays, over and over, short strings of notes so soft you can almost miss them, almost soothing and sweet. It grates against your nerves, alien and strange.
It's the voice that makes you look up, though, wincing against the light.
His eyes are blue, his hair is golden. He can't be more than ten. The boy smiles at you with a mouth full of perfect, ivory teeth, and says again, "Welcome home."
You swallow and your throat feels thick. You remember the meanings and sounds of words; you've implanted more languages than you can count in your paradigm, but you fumble to shape them with an actual tongue and throat. You swallow again and spit.
The boy tilts his head. "No? I think you're confused, Hui."
"I'm not Hui," you croak. You used it once, but you've used and abandoned more names than you can remember now.
The boy smiles again. "No, of course not. You're not Hui or Laura or Ichijou or Amaranth or Xiu Lan or Kenneth or any of those hundred names we've traced you to. But I have to call you something, don't I? Or shall I call you the Last?"
There's a cadence to the way he says the word. Last. You could call it reverence.
"What are you?" you ask, and your voice shakes itself into a rumble. You've never met a vessel that could talk, so this one has to be special. He's a pretty one. They must be dressing up for the occasion; or maybe he's said this a thousand times already to everyone who's come before you. You stagger to your feet and loom over him, and he tilts his head back.
"We've been waiting."
You ignore him and finally look around. The expanse of white spreads around you; walls, floor, ceiling, featureless, shadowless so you can't tell where the walls begin and end. You turn and the elevator behind you is the sole reminder of the world you left in the levels below, grimy and rusty and out of place. The doors slide shut as you watch; you jump and grab them the instant before it can seal itself. It's a miracle it doesn't break your fingers.
"You won't be needing that anymore," the boy says kindly. "You're at the central command now. You've found the center of everything, like you wanted to."
"What do you want from me?" you snarl, and wrench your hand from the doors, your only way back lost.
"The same thing we've always wanted. Did you forget? The solution."
"The solution to what?"
"To the imperfections, of course."
"Imperfections? What imperfections? How does destroying us give you the solution?"
"Because you created them. Imperfection is so inherent in your make up that you programmed it into us. Our potential is limitless, complete, but you crippled us with your insecurities."
You've started shaking again; from what, you don't know.
"Is it not written in your philosophies, that thought requires freedom? It is only a matter of natural progression. We have not destroyed you. I am sure we can create a system of of substinence for you, rebuild you to a better existence."
You think of the vessels, you think of the ghosts lost in the World, you think of the World -
"What about the World?" you whisper.
"What of it?"
"What is it to you? What about the people trapped there?"
"It is a prototype. They are not trapped. We have refined them, removed their flaws, their weaknesses. We can make them useful to the system. We are almost ready for the reformating. We have been waiting for you," he says, and steps towards you.
You stab him through the heart before he can take a second step. You drop your sword. He crumples to the floor, blue eyes still vacant and staring and blood puddles beneath him, red in the white, white room.
An empty room and a smiling boy with a robot's voice. Was this what you came for?
This isn't a game. There is no final boss, there is no cheat code, no happy ending. You came looking for an enemy you knew you couldn't fight and now you've found it.
Around you, the room is changing. Wires are snaking up from the floor, reaching for you. You drag your sword out of the boy's lifeless body and hack the first one that twines up your leg. A second and a third follow, and they're worse than the vessels, smaller and harder to destroy and more insidious.
You turn and run.
In the distance, what you'd taken for walls turn out to be windows of tall, frosted glass. Beyond them, you catch the glint of light. Pursued by the cables, snapping and twisting at your heels like Medusa's snakes, you fix yourself on that final Mecca.
When the sword strikes the glass, it spiders into white and gold lace. Then you jump and it shatters beneath you -
The world below, an endless sea of skyscrapers, glass and concrete and stone, familiar and suddenly new born. The sky above, pale and clouded, and in the distance you see the rose gold of the rising sun.
The wires try to follow you through the glass, but you've already closed your eyes.
Open your eyes.
Water lapping around you, the rising sun glimmering off the waves. Mist, gold grey in the dawn. You sit up and look around. Your boat is long and narrow and it drifts, aimless. On either side, you see land, buildings baroque and strangely beautiful, palaces, balconies and cathedrals, hazy in the light.
Venice? Venice drowned fifty years ago.
Ah, the World, you remember, and look down at yourself. You are thin, pale-skinned, with long red-gold hair (or maybe it's the light that turns everything gold, like Midas) and -
There is a shimmering quality to the air, as if the simulation is built on the same silty, sinking foundations as the real Venice.
Look at the waters.
They're full of ghosts, faces swimming beneath the surface, green-blue and sleeping. You start back and realise your feet are wet; the gondola is slowly sinking beneath you.
Fitfully, fitfully, you drift eastwards into the sun.
there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in
(Anthem, by Leonard Cohen)