I woke up.
Confused. I don't know what I'd been expecting. Something like an afterlife -- or maybe nothing at all. But this wasn't it. I suddenly felt very cold, braced by the realization that there was no longer any part of my existence I controlled. Not even its end.
I pushed myself up on one arm and rubbed the back of my neck -- surprised to find smooth, undisturbed flesh. No wounds. My clothes were clean. The gash in my hand had healed without a trace. The broken chain of Turanov's dog tag hung restored around my neck, its metal lozenge clean and polished. I dipped my head. It dangled there in front of my face, rotating slowly, twisting itself up and winding itself down. Flashing. Hypnotic. For a long time I watched it. Collecting myself.
The floor felt like wax -- hard but malleable, molding to my shape where my weight pressed into it. Its surface seemed to crawl beneath my hands. Nano everywhere. I tasted it on the air -- the slightly acrid, stale taste of absolute sterility. Everywhere. In the air, on my skin. Inside me, holding me together, even when I'd tried to tear myself apart.
I was lying in a pool of light, glaring down from somewhere high above. Cold light, dazzling from a brilliant white disk almost directly overhead. Like a winter sun ... but its light fell only in a small circle extending a few meters around me. It made the world seem small. The darkness past its edge was palpable -- a deep, ravenous emptiness that had swallowed all but this tiny fragment of existence. It strained my eyes to look at it, like a blind spot. It was much more than just an absence of substance -- an absence of absence. Less than nothing.
But yet not quite empty. If I looked hard enough, I could convince myself I saw things moving in it. I felt them -- perceived them with a sense I couldn't identify. Phantoms in the blackness, meandering out of infinity to peer at me through that inky surface. I heard them whispering in my mind, their voices like cracking ice. They trickled past, regarding me with the kind of curiosity one might give an insect perched on a twig. They lingered for only an instant before they moved on, their interest spent. A fleeting moment of whimsical attention, drawn back to the greater matters of a world beyond my ken.
A bitter taste stuck in my mouth. Realization washed over me like a slow tide. I found myself in the midst of a metaphor. My own shriveled world, isolated from a greater reality by the boundaries of my own crippled senses. A prison built from the inadequacies of my own sight, too feeble to penetrate the darkness of its own past.
It hurt -- more than watching a man bleed away his shattered hopes in my arms. I blinked away a blur and watched tears splash onto the floor. I didn't even feel them fall. Just saw them. I lay down with my cheek on the back of my hand, feeling warm saltwater run over the curves of my fingers and pool between them. For a long time, I couldn't move. I stared into the darkness, straining to make out any trace of what I knew must be there. Willing that, if I could only stretch my senses far enough, I might break free. But nothing came, and the more I looked, the more consummate the emptiness became.
I closed my eyes. I wondered if I could just will myself to stop. It wouldn't matter what they did to my body then. Reconstruct it; simulate it; otherwise force it to exist -- it would be meaningless if I could just somehow pry my mind loose and float away.
A tiny sliver of light flitted across the inside of my eyelids. It came out of nowhere. I almost missed it -- mistook it for the aura of the headache I figured I should have had, had I only been a little less numb. Gradually, though, it grew. It became distinct. Before long, it had surged into an unmistakable brilliance. It frolicked like the lightning bugs of my dreams, twittering through the lonely vacuum of my thoughts. It clung to my peripheral vision, no matter how hard I tried to shake it loose and bring it to the forefront. Confounding every effort to resolve its details. Teasing me.
I squeezed my lids together. When it still didn't go away, I threw them wide open, hoping to banish it in glare.
Only the glare was gone. Drained and focused into that tiny, animated thing. My pool of light had grown dim. For a moment I panicked, feeling the last remnants of my universe contract around me. But the empty fog had also begun to lift, and something new was taking shape.
The schizy little butterfly darted into the forefront of my vision. Damn persistent. It hovered there, a splatter of ivory and gold. Hints of details popped out of the broad loops of its wings. Fleeting and indistinct. More slivers of light fluttered in to join it, like stars popping out of the newborn night. They shifted and distended, carving little lanes of brilliance through the black as they moved. Shapes resolved, traced out by those gyrating paths. Whirlpools of gold and scarlet; dotted loops and whorls of green and yellow. Close enough to touch ... but receding as soon as I reached for them. Never diminishing with distance; always as if they were right there.
Their patterns diversified. Little knots of color shattered into seedling sparks that scattered on a phantom wind. They stuck at random, blossoming into kaleidoscopes of abstract imagery. A coherent picture began to emerge from their chaos. Something like an impressionist's cityscape, scratched on velvet with a razor blade and pressed against a backdrop of primary colors.
Zurin. If I squinted, I could just make out the elegant silhouettes of it towers, rising against a burnt sienna dawn. The distant rim of the city wall etched out the horizon in a jagged black line. It obscured everything beyond. Everything within lay dark and indistinct. Shapes bled slowly from the shadows. Graceful, interweaving loops of metal ribbons that looked like highways. Blocky, irregular shadows of buildings. Haphazard fissures among them, throbbing with a faint red light like dwindling coals, cutting canyons through the city's black plateau.
The place defined a world within itself. It traced itself out in the tracks of fireflies as the first light of morning settled over it. Revealing itself a sparkle at a time.
It was alive. The entire city throbbed with a life all its own, over and above that of its inhabitants. I couldn't tell if the activity I saw in it was real or illusory. A good portion of it must have been mirrored down from the net -- crammed through my interface by whatever it was that had been masquerading as Kat. The strange juxtaposition of reality and virtuality hinted at some looming greater existence, and here I seemed to float impossibly over it all, buoyed on a wax disk hundreds of meters in the air. The perfect vantage from which to cultivate my envy.
I nearly missed the change when it came. A subtle desaturation, like someone had laid a smoky film over my eyes. The sense of presence changed. It became heavier. Frightening. I felt the phantoms draw away, startled by the newcomer in their midst.
I felt sick. Quiet seething. Hollow, impotent rage. A chatter of static whispered in my ear. Kat's interface kicking on. It drove away the whispers of the loitering transapients who had gathered to snatch a look at their condemned cousin. I found myself bracing. Waiting. Dreading the judgment of my god.
" The voice was soft, almost pleading. Kat's voice, but not eir words. Kat was gone entirely now, the farce abandoned, the last vestige of eir presence faded away. "Z'ara, you look so small. So lonely.
"What do you care?" I dug my nails into the waxy floor, but it just shifted around my fingers. I sensed the thousands of probing eyes that had clustered at the edge of my perceptions, drawn by the confrontation. Even those who had been utterly uninterested moments ago took the time to notice now. Their world watched me. With the compassion of a vigil or the fury of an execution's witness, I couldn't tell. But all were waiting.
The Keeper's borrowed voice echoed in my mind -- the closest thing to a gestalt my brain could cope with. "Of course, I care, Z'ara. Why would I have gone to all the trouble of bringing you here if I cared nothing?
"You killed Kat."
Something like amusement, so powerful it made me reel. "I've done no such thing. I offered Kat the same opportunity I come offering you now. E was only prepared to receive it much sooner than you were. You would understand, were you were still as you had been. These things must happen as they happen, for reasons wholly unto themselves. You should realize that life is not about ends. It is the process itself that bears importance.
"Well ... here I am. Not going anywhere. You saw to that."
How? A reconstruction? An upload? How much of a thrall to this creature had I become? Would it matter, anyway, whether this was real or a simulation? Instinctively, I lifted my hand. Studied it. Felt my breath across my fingertips. Fished for the dog tag; gripped its cold metal in my palm. Savoring its realness -- whether it was real or not.
"Just tell me what you want."
A silence. Kat's shrug. "You already know. I need your help. In return, I'll help you get back what you've lost.
"You didn't seem to care much before. Why the sudden change of heart?"
"I have my own reasons. They're complicated ... and very few of them really have anything to do with you. Be honest with yourself, Z'ara. Had it been you in my place, would you have given notice to the plight of a creature so far beneath yourself? Did you pay them any heed, before you became one of them?
I thought about it, but I honestly couldn't recall. Anyway, it seemed pointless to argue moral obligation with a thing that could probably prove the world really did revolve around em. Still, the inconsistency that jumped out at me seemed very unlike the Keeper. "I'm even lower now -- I couldn't do you any good. I wouldn't even know where to start."
"I don't expect you to strategize. I simply need a free agent to carry out some fairly simple tasks. I'm a creature of law, Z'ara. I am bound by the same Covenant that binds the Tribunal ... that binds your fellow beings. Every action must have its consequence ... and I'm not willing to accept the consequences of my own action. Not yet. That's why I need you to act for me. You're unconstrained. They've seen to that themselves
"I don't even know why they did this to me."
"That's why I need you. I'm ... disturbed ... by the actions of the Tribunal. I feel there lies a certain perversity in their decision regarding your punishment. One cannot pay penance for an act upon which one cannot reflect. Given an eternity as you are now, you could never even begin to conceive of the nature of your crime. And even leaving such considerations aside, we should always move forward ... or not at all. Never backwards. This is where I find the greatest injustice, and not just injustice to you. I want you to help me rectify the problem ... by helping me to disavow them of the power they've abused
"After the terms of your service are met, you will be free to live your life in whatever fashion you wish, in whatever state you desire. If what you desire is within my power to grant, then you shall have it. You need only make one simple choice. Will you accept my offer, Z'ara? Will you help me?
"Does it really matter what I choose?"
"It matters to me. That itself should be enough that you would trust me to honor the decision you make. The choice is meaningless if not your own.
A brief, measured silence passed -- just long enough for the words to really register in my mind. "I'm not your enemy, Z'ara,
" the Keeper went on, finally. "Would you even be standing here now if I were?
Small comfort. If it fit the process ... but it seemed like such a waste. There were easier ways, and the Keeper had never struck me as one to take part in such wasteful indulgence. And yet ... I could spend forever, going in circles, speculating justifications. In the end, it all boiled down to one thing. "I don't know. But it doesn't seem to make much difference if you were, I guess. It's not like I have anything left to lose."
"In your heart, you know what I am. You may hate me ... you may feel I've sold my soul to the devil. You may turn your back on me. But I will always be your Kat. Long after you have turned to dust ... I will love you still.
How much of it was true? A part of me insisted that, if the Keeper wanted to compel me to play along, I would never have even considered doing otherwise. How much did this thing-that-had-been-Kat resemble Kat still? Could e still feel any shred of loyalty to me ... now that e was a part of something so much larger? Or was this only some unfeeling agent of the Keeper, feigning Kat. Using Kat's voice. Exploiting this affinity e knew I must have had for this estranged fragment of myself.
I looked out over the city. Spires of light flashed briefly out of pits among the buildings, licking toward the dark sky for a split instant before flickering out. They came sporadically, staggered -- only a handful stabbing from the shadows every minute, all across they city's staggering breadth. Beautiful. Once, I'd known their purpose. Now I could only appreciate their artistry.
Out of those swimming vortices of color on emptiness, out of the swirling eternities that bound the souls of these odd creatures to their world, I had once drawn purpose. Once I could have retained something meaningful from that brief flash of understanding -- from that brief instant of absolute clarity that hung so close, but that remained so entirely out of reach. I felt the limits of myself more keenly now than ever. Beyond anything else, I understood that to stay like this was to be swallowed by that abyss. To be dragged down into those unthinking depths. To sleep without dreaming. To die without knowing what I'd lived for.
I could make do ... and live like the other humans under the Covenant -- bound by laws I could never really understand. Locked inside this husk of myself for as long as it would last and turned under the dust with it when it finally broke down.
Or I could buy my chance at ascension ... for a price I didn't know.
I thought about Kat. About the Covenant. About the Tribunal ... and about the Keeper, brooding over me now, playing me, pulling my strings and watching me dance. E was as much a party to my suffering as they were. All the coincidences; all the happenstance. E had orchestrated everything for the sake of eir cherished process.
So damn them. Damn them all. But if I was going to damn anyone, I could never do it like this. As long as it took, I could wait. I could be patient. I remembered at least that much from my former being -- that, in due time, all things will come. If nothing else, a god is infinitely patient. It was a start.
I thought about Turanov. For whatever reason fate or the Keeper had crossed our paths, I was stuck with his memory now. A suggestion or a warning. I'd tried it his way, and it hadn't worked. They wouldn't let me. The Keeper said I had a choice ... but e knew as well as I did that the choice had already been made.
I licked my lips, tasting the salt of tears, the tang of blood where I'd bitten down in anger. I turned away from the city and stared down at the chrome dog tag in my hand. Brushed fingerprints away from the gold text on its back. If this was hope, I'd hate to know its absence.
I closed my fist. "All right," I said. "I'll help you. What do you want me to do?"The End
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