The only way you can describe it is that your whole body fizzes, like sparkling water, as you jerk into consciousness. You recognise the way hotsim feels even before you look down and see the glowing white hands of your persona; your now-loose hair waves softly in a breeze that isn’t there and your digitised skin is electrified, crackling with energy.
It’s been a long time since you’ve been here.
Where even is “here”? You turn your attention from your hands to your surroundings. It’s black. It always was. Barren and utilitarian, like you were taught it should be. Somewhere to work from, not to retreat into when you got scared. Some people tried to make their Matrix space comfortable anyway, and you’re suddenly awash with the echoes of the screaming that ensued when their personal havens were discovered.
Not important now. Focus. Something brought you here. Something is here with you.
That thought makes the back of your neck prickle, and, as if it had been waiting for you to acknowledge its presence, something moves in the dark void that surrounds the plateau you stand on.
F̴́INA̵LLY, says a voice. At least, you think it’s a voice. It sounds like static and you aren’t certain that it’s an actual word until it continues. I̴T TO̶͝OK ̵͉̀YOU ̶̒A̷ L̴̩͘O̷NG̴̿ TIME̷͘ TO̵͊͜ F̵IND ̶̿ME̵͛.
The space around you flickers, and then something appears in the air: something big, and long, and white, curling into existence as if drawn with thousands of LEDs. A serpent materialises before you, far surpassing you in height and towering over you, pixelated and glitching.
You feel very, very small.
“What are you?” you ask, with a lot more confidence than you actually have. Every alarm bell in your combat-oriented mind is going off and telling you to take the offensive, but you stand your ground, albeit poised to counter any move it might make at a moment’s notice. If it can talk, you want answers. “Where did you come from?”
S̴E̶͌-̸̎RA̴͝-̸PHIM̷. It clicks, low in its… throat. It doesn’t have a throat. Ṯ̷̽HE̸ ̷DRIVẺ̼.̸̈́ Ỹ̨O̷UR̷̾ ̷G̛͍UARD̴̆IAÑ̶̦ AN̶G̴EĻ̶͌.
“...It’s you. You’re what Legacy put in us.” Your stomach is dropping through your body. Here, almost weightless, with the ability to manipulate the Matrix at your fingertips and a lifetime of offensive skills hard-wired into your body, you want to lunge at the thing. You want to destroy it. “You’re the thing that’s going to kill me.”
The snake laughs, like aluminium foil being crinkled.
T̷̕H̶AT̴͍͘ ̸̜̇IS NO̶T̴̕H̶IN̶̦̎G̶̮̓ TO̶̒ ̸D̴́O̴ W̸ITH̶̀ ̶M̵E.̴̽ I H̴AV̵E N̶O̷ ̵E̸F̶F̶E̵C̴T ̶ON Y̵O̴̕UR̃ ̵̟̓P̸̢̿H̷YSI̴̯͌CȂ̷L ̴̛B̷O̷D̶Y̵̨̋.
“No–my friend told me–someone else I know, there’s something living in hir–”
I̶̫̒ C̸ANN̶O̴T S̴P̶͂EA̶K̷̑ F̴O̵R T̸̾H̶̚OSE ̶O̴UTSI̸DE ̵̚T̷H̴E̶͝ S̴ERA̵PH̷IM̷̆ P̸̀RO̵̿J̵̄ECT̷,̴ BỦ̷T̸ ̷I̴T͆ Ī̵S̵̔ N̶̚OT̷ M̵Y P̸̐RE̵S̵EN̵CE̴ T̷HAT ̴LI͒MITS̷ ̵Y̵O̴̕U̵R̵̈ L̴̚IF̵̌ESPȂN̴.̵͂ That specific wording. It knows.
“Then what is it?” You have to force the words out, both voice and body trembling. “The Seraphim project–what is that? What did they do to us?”
T̸̿H̴̖E̾ PR̵̈ÓCEŚ̵S̶ ȌF CL̵͗O̴N͝E M̸E̅MO̵R̴Y̸ E̓N̶H̴AN̵͊C̶E̵M̸E̶N̎T ̵C͝AU̶̅SE̷S L͆O̶N̷G̶-̷TE̵R̶M T̴̚RA̸UMA̶ TO̵ THE ̸BOD̷Y̶, ̸PA̶RTIC̶̀UL̷AR̈L̴Y T̴̀HE B̵̕RA̴͆IN ̽A̷N̶D̴ ̵HE̵AR̵̕T.͂ ̷R̵̈́EDU͘CE̵Ḋ̵̴̀ L̵̀IFE̴S̴̽P̸̀A̵N͑ D̶O̽CU͠M̷͑E̔N̴T̴E̵͝D I̶N̾–There’s a short pause, like it’s having trouble calculating or recalling the information; –10͝0% O̶͗F̴̑ OBS̴Ẻ̷R̵VȄD C̶̕AS̴͊ES.
With that answer, all the air is sucked clean out of your lungs. You want the floor to open up and swallow you.
You really were nothing to them. You knew that. Of course you did. But this takes the stake of that truth and drives it deep into your chest.
How many people before you have suffered and died in the shadow of Legacy of Adam, by their hands, all in the name of developing the perfect product? As if even your organic bodies are nothing more than machines: overclocked and burnt out in your prime.
You hate being in hotsim, because it means you can feel the exact pathway the tears carve down your right cheek as they spill over your eyelid. “So you’re telling me I’m going to die,” you deadpan. “And that’s it? I have no way out? Zenith has no way out?”
I̦ WA̵S NOT PR̸ĚLOA̵D̴ED ̿WITH̒TH̴̍E̫͗ ̴NECES̴SARY M̄E̵̚DḮCA̎L D̵ĂTAB̶A̽SE TO BE AB̎LE͈ TO A̟̔NSW̴E̶R̈ TH͆A̴T̓.
“Fuck you.” Your fingers twitch with the urge to launch a dataspike at it, even though you know it won’t help the situation. “What the fuck are you, then? If you’re not my fucking killswitch?”
A̶S ̵PART OF COHÕRT ̴SA̾SK̴ATC̶HEWA̴N̶ CLA̸SS̶̀ 0̵9, ̵YOU WER̸E C̶H̵O̵SE̷N̴̵̓̑ FO̶R P̵ARTICÍ̸P̴ATION IN TH̴E Š̶EȒA̵PHI̶M̷ ̵ṖRO̶JE̛CT̴.̷ AN ARTI̷FICI̸A̵L̒ I̴NTELL̑IG̵E̴NC̸E̛ ͌NAMED̷ TH̴E̴ ̴GU̷Ä́RDI̸AN͒ ̾A̿NGEL WA͠S̴̵ DEV̵E̴LO̸PED̵̯ ̵̲T͝O G̶͋UI̴̊DE̴, MO̿N̵ITOR̶ AND͝ C̸O̓RR̶EC̵T̸ UN̸DES̵͐I̶RA̶BL̶Ë̎ BEĤA̓V̄I̵̤OUR̴ IN̶̉ TH̸E̶̔ ̵S̴EL̶ECTE̵D̛ ̌O̴͝P̷͗E̵R̵ÂTI̶VESͅ. It stops there and cocks its head as if it were thinking. Ḟ̸̘U̵R̵̄T̷H̶̑E̶R̸̚ ̷Ì̸N̸F̴̒O̵R̵͋M̴Å̸T̴I̷O̸͊N̸ ̵̉I̵N̴͒AC͝CE̵SS̶IB́LE̸. ̵̀DA͗TA͐ ̵F̾RA̶GM̸EN̴͑TE̶D.̈́ D̷͆RI̵V̒E̸̶͈ R̔E̵C̶̚O͐MP̵ÏLA͛T̸I̶ON ̴AT 13̴̨%.
“What does that mean? God, have you–” You struggle to even ask. Confronting the mere possibility is mortifying enough. “–Have you been controlling me? Did they make you to fucking puppet me around?”
Y̵OU ̵O̵̕ͅVE̷RESTI̵͚͆MATE MY I̴NF̎LUE̽NC̷͝E̾. ̍I ̾AM̴̈ UǸ̴A̵BLE̶ ͒T̴͔Ö A̶S̴S̴U͊M̴E̅ ̛D̵IR͊ECT̿ ̵CO̵̐NT̵̀RO̵L̵͗ OV͌ER̵ YOȔ̴R ͐ACTIONS̃. I̴ W̵AS ̵D̶E̵SI̵GN̸E̴D ̵T̸O PROVIDE̸̕ F̵EED̷̿BACK AN̋D̴ ASSIS̷TA̸NCE̷ T̴O I̶M̂PROVE BEHA̸VI̵O̸UR ̷A̵N̵D PE̸R̵FO̵R̴M͗A͒NCE.
“But that’s what you’ve been doing in here, this whole time? Fucking… manipulating me, for the last twenty years?”
M̴Ẏ̵ ̵L̸AST̵ REC̸OR̊D͝ED̷ ̴̻AC̒T̶I̴V͘I͜͝T̕Y ̻̉D̶AT̎ES̵ T̓Ö̶̳́–̴̀ It falters again, and the image flickers, –̶̃M̩A̵Y̸̏ 1͎7T̶̉Ḧ̵̖, ̵̥2̷̿067̵.̷̛͕
“...Why stop when I was only thirteen?”
T̵H̶͐E PRÕ̙JE̸CT Ẅ́͜AS̍ D̶̳EEM̋ED̵ ͎A̷ F̴AÍLỦ͜R̶E.͈
“I don’t remember you. I don’t remember anything about this.” Legacy may have held a lot of information above your head, but you underwent so many procedures and examinations–you’d remember being questioned about it if you were involved in an experiment like this. You know you would. Of course you would.
A̵͂L̴T̵ER̵ATI̵ON̸S WER͠E̷ ̚M̴AD̓E͘ ̷AFTE̶R P̶ROJEC̴T ̵̟͘F̴A̵I̵̫͘LUR̵E̴͗. ̵F̴UŔ̵TḢ̵E̶R ̶̭͒I̴̳̒N̵F̸̹̿O̷͋R̴M̶Á̷TIO̵Ǹ̶ Ĭ̸̳S̵͝ C̴̐U̴R̴̋RENT̷L̶Ȳ̸ ̷I̵̓N̶A̷͘C̶C̶̽E̶SSI̸BL̶E ̵DU̴E̸̖̽ ̶T̶͗O̷͐ ̷̾D̶Ă̴TÁ̷̷̰͗ F̸R̶̉Á̶G̶M̸͐E̴N̷͂T̸A̸̍T̴Ì̴O̶N̵͊. A̵WAI̴T DRÌV̸E R̵E̕C̶O̶MPI̔L̸A̸T̶̑I̷O̶N.
I̷͘N̷͕FȌRM̴A̴T̐IO̵N̷ ̃C̶U̷R̶R̿EN̴T̉LŶ I̅N̷ÂCC͊E̷S̶S̵̛IB̸LE͊.̔ A̷̕WA̸ÌT̴ ͂D̵̈RIV́E̷ ̵R̴̰EC̚O̴M̕P͒I̵L̵A̴T̴I̸ON̵.̷
“How long is it going to fucking take!?”
REC̷͒OM̵͋P̒IL̷AT͛I͝ON̕ CU̓RR̋ENTLY̎ A͊T 1̎4%̐. ̷̋ES̶͐TI̸M͊ATE̸D̡͌ ̷T͌I̷M͝E ͘REM̌A̴I̷N̸ÍNG:͗ 4̴8̶̶̧ H̸͐OU̶R̴Ś.
In desperation, you grab at the serpent’s Matrix signature, looking to lay a mark on it and break through whatever defences are keeping you from being able to trace it to the drive it’s come skulking out from. You’ll scrape that data yourself, if you have to. But a hologram it is, in both appearance and form: your tracker finds nothing but the superficial visual projected before you, not even constituting a fully-formed persona or avatar. The unexpected lack of substance catches you off-guard, and in the split second following that you falter, the serpent responds with a wall of blunt force that throws you backwards against the smooth, black stone underfoot.
B̴E̟͆ ͍PA̸TḮE̍N̵T, 0̵̩9̀-10̷͜. You flip yourself upright to find the serpent’s image looming uncomfortably close to you. Y̻͠OU ̸̈W̯͋IL̶L ̴GET Y̸OUR ANS̵WĒ̸RS. ̴̌YOU̶ USED̴ ̇TO K͝NO̴W B̵̕ET͑TE̴R̷ ̸T̶H̴AN̵ THI̴S.̵͓͠
“Get fucked,” you spit, and force shutdown your decks.
Dumpshock is very different from the tingling, dreamlike feeling of being pulled into hotsim against your will. You crash back into your body like a gong being struck, heavy and disorienting, painfully aware that you’re corporeal again thanks to an angry buzzing sensation in your nerves reminiscent of being hit by lightning.
Your head throbs as you peel it away from the headrest and force your eyes open. The cool mint green of the armrest is splattered with blood, which you quickly realise is gushing from your nose. By the time you’ve sat up, ripped the shawl from your shoulders and wrenched the datajack out of the back of your head it’s already dripped down your face and chest and left deep crimson stains in your bra. Well. It’s a good thing you had to take your shirt off for Cyril to look you over.
You whip around, one hand pinched over your nose in what feels like a completely futile effort to stem the waterfall of blood. He’s there, hunched over on the floor, also bloody, and your heart stops for a second before you realise that he’s conscious and nursing a similarly fearsome nosebleed. One hand is holding a wad of red-stained tissues to his face. He looks up when you move.
“Aubrey–thank God, I was about to–”
“Cyril–” Talking hurts. The sound rumbles through your whole head. Everything is spinning, just slightly, enough to be disorientating, and you have to lie back down and shut your eyes to quell the urge to be sick.
“Hold on.” You hear a faint grunt of effort as he gets to his feet, and a few seconds later he taps your shoulder. You open your eyes to find him offering you a handful of tissues.
You open your mouth to thank him, and promptly vomit over the side of the chair.
“Sorry,” you croak. There’s barely anything there to throw up, only what’s left of the drink Kaveh gave you earlier that you already mostly evicted. All you can taste is acid.
“I’ve had patients do much worse.” Cyril stuffs the tissues into your hand and goes to fetch something to clean up the messes you’ve both made. You take them and jam them halfway up your nose. Your head is pounding. You close up the access point for your cybernetics. It doesn’t help. You don’t know why you thought it would.
You lie there for a while, watching Cyril through half-lidded eyes as he mops up your puke and his blood. The lights are too bright, but you lack the energy and forethought necessary to ask him to dim them. You’ve stopped sweating, at the cost of feeling a chill coming on where it’s now evaporating from your skin. Cyril comes over and wipes the blood from the armrest on the chair. The faint smell of antiseptic manages to permeate the tissue blockade in your nose.
It takes time–you’re not sure how long–but eventually, the throbbing pain in your head becomes something more tolerable. The room stops spinning and wobbling. Cyril’s shadow falls over you.
“How are you feeling?”
“Um.” Talking is… better. Bad, still, but better. “I’m okay. How long was I…?”
“About five minutes. Can you sit up for me?” You want to say no. You don’t say anything, and manage to prop yourself up into a sitting position with one arm. Cyril hands you an alcohol wipe–to clean the blood off your chin and chest, you realise–and a cup of water, which you drink, glad to rinse the taste of vomit out of your mouth. When you’re done he runs you through a quick neurological examination to make sure you didn’t fry any important nerves, then, apparently satisfied, pulls up his stool and sits down beside you.
“Is any of your cyberware damaged?”
“I don’t think so.” You’d need a minute to check everything thoroughly, but nothing is setting off any urgent alarms. “Are–are you okay? That thing didn’t hurt you?”
“No. It’s just some dumpshock from jacking out improperly. You look like you had it much worse.” He’s looking at you the way that you’ve come to learn that people look at you when they want answers to questions they haven’t asked, and you don’t know what to tell him. “Aubrey,” he says, after a long silence. “I think there’s a lot that you need to explain to me.”
You don’t know whether to start laughing or crying.
“Take your time,” he adds, when all you can manage is a vacant stare. “Let’s start here. What happened while you were unconscious? Did you see what was on the drive?” As if that’s any easier to answer.
“It was… something that someone put on there a long time ago,” you answer, very carefully. “Um. I don’t know…”
“Was it software? Media?”
There’s no way out of this, is there? With everything that you just learnt, your life will never be the same again. It can’t ever be the same again.
So you cave, and tell him. You tell him everything.
You tell him about Legacy, and what they did to you, and how the only life you knew for seventeen years was one of blood and bullets and endless conflict. You try not to look at his face. The couple of times that you do, his expression is one of abject horror that gives you all the more reason to continue not looking. You know that he’s imagining you murdering people in cold blood, you prepping explosives to take out entire vehicle convoys, and picturing you as one of them.
You always imagined that when the time came, and when you were cornered into spilling your guts like this, that you’d be crying. Your emotional barrel has been scraped far too clean for that today. You recount each memory in cold, grim detail, all the horrors of both the operating theatres and battlegrounds, and by the end of it, you’re barely even present in the room. With your eyes fixed on the floor, you await Cyril’s final verdict.
He says nothing at first. From what you can see of his posture in your peripheral vision, he’s covering his mouth with his hand. It’s tempting to just get up and leave. Sticking around to hear how repulsed he is by you is the last thing you need to cap off your night. Now that he knows, though, you need to do damage control. This will get out eventually, you’re certain; what you need is to buy some time, maybe a few days, to figure out where you go from here.
“Aubrey, this is…” He stops, and you refrain from egging him on like you want to. You glance up halfway to see him drag his hand down his face, curl his fingers around his chin, and sigh. “I’ve met people here with military histories, with complex histories–illicit histories, in some cases. You aren’t my first patient who’s been… forced to do things they didn’t want to.” You sense there’s a caveat here. “I’ve just never–never seen it on this scale before.”
Then he does something you don’t expect. He reaches over and places a hand on your arm. If you hadn’t detached yourself so far from your body at this point, and if you had any meaningful touch sensitivity in the metal, you’d bristle at the contact.
“I’m sorry, Aubrey. I can’t imagine what all of this must have been like for you.”
That’s not how this is supposed to go. All you can do is stare at his hand while your brain recalibrates to account for this unexpected response.
He’s supposed to withdraw in disgust and look at you with the distrust of someone who fears you might snap and kill them at a moment’s notice. What he’s doing is offering you sympathy.
“That’s what this was about, then,” Cyril prompts, when it becomes apparent you’re too busy mentally freewheeling to respond to him. “There’s something in your cyberware they were keeping from you. And we found it.”
“Y–Yeah. Yeah. Um.” The beginning of the sentence stumbles out of your mouth with a heaving, raspy breath as you remember how your lungs work. “We definitely found it.”
“A project. That I was a part of. Apparently. I don’t remember it. They wanted us to be more… obedient, I guess. So they made something to watch us–some kind of AI.” With some degree of clarity returning to you, it makes a fucked-up kind of sense, from Legacy’s point of view. It released them from the need to have numerous handlers for you all, and saved them the risk of letting children take the initiative in the field. Or, at least, it was supposed to. “It told me something went wrong. The project failed.”
“Then why leave it there?”
“I don’t know. I talked to it. It kept saying its data was fragmented. I think they did something to it when they shut it down and it’s still… reconstituting itself.”
“You think you’ll get answers when it’s finished.”
“I don’t know. I hope so.” Otherwise what the fuck was any of this for, right? “Cyril?”
“Don’t tell anyone about this.” You meet his gaze with what you hope is a pleading look. You kind of feel like you’ve lost control of your facial expressions at this point. “Please.”
“Aubrey, this needs to go on your medical–”
“Please.” You flip your arm out from under his hand and grip his wrist. Not hard, but in a desperate sort of way. “At least not yet. Nobody knows about any of this. I need to… figure out what I’m gonna do about it.” What you’re going to tell people. If you’re going to tell people.
Cyril looks down at where your fingers are clasped around his wrist, dark grey and cold against his pale skin, and sighs. “I’m obligated to report anything that I think is a significant risk to your fitness to work.”
“You’re a doctor. Isn’t it your job to help people?”
“This will get you help.”
“It’ll get me withdrawn from active duty, put through a hundred therapy sessions I don’t want, and the moment anybody finds out, my life here is over.” Cyril looks quite shocked by your sudden change in tone, given your listlessness moments earlier. “I haven’t been lying for five years for fun. I just wanted to be normal. You think anyone’s gonna think I’m normal when they find out about–about any of this?”
Your voice breaks unexpectedly with an audible anguish you didn’t know you still had left in you. The sound of it makes Cyril visibly flinch. “It’ll be… difficult,” he concedes. A colossal understatement. “But if you’re afraid people are going to shun you, I don’t think that’s the case. I got the impression you were well-liked here.”
You laugh. Bitterly. “I got someone killed today.”
Cyril gives a hesitant nod of acknowledgement. “I heard somebody had died, and that you were there. I thought it would be insensitive to bring it up,” he confesses. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think you should blame yourself.”
“Thanks.” You let go of his wrist and slump back into the chair. It’s uncomfortable to occupy a normal sitting position when it’s configured like this but you’re past caring. “So, are you going to file a report, or what?” you ask flatly. Cyril is still and silent.
“I can defer it for a short while,” is the answer he finally gives you. “It’s not that I don’t want to help, Aubrey. I do.” You can’t tell if he’s being genuine, or whether the difficulty in telling lies with you or with him. “I can gloss over certain aspects, but I can’t lie outright–not about something major like this.”
“For how long?”
“A week, perhaps? It’ll take me time to analyse everything I’ve downloaded and write the report up. If I happen to be busy with other things… there could be a delay in interpreting and formatting everything for your records.”
A week. “Okay.” You can work with a week. You should plan for less, in case things go awry, but it’s longer than you thought you’d have.
“Things will work out, Aubrey.”
“Yeah. Sure.” You purposefully neglected to tell him of your still unspecified but certainly impending death. It’s better that he remains unaware of that, or he would be forcing you to go straight to emergency med, which is the last thing you need. Better that he remains unaware of the potential plans of action making themselves known in your head, too. “Um. Thanks. For… doing all of this for me.” You gesture vaguely at the equipment still spread out around you.
“I don’t know if it’d be right to say it was a pleasure, but I’m glad I could help you solve a mystery, I suppose.” Then: “I should really keep you in for observation, given that you suffered bad enough dumpshock to bleed and be sick, and that you’ve got a potentially rogue AI putting itself together in your head.”
“I’m fine. I’ve suffered worse. Much worse,” you say, pointedly, and you can see him about to protest, but then he remembers everything he just learnt about you and thinks better of it. “I… just want to go home.”
“You have had a difficult day, haven’t you?” His brow furrows into a look you’d describe more as pitying than sympathetic. Okay, so your shitty mood might be skewing your perspective. Cyril’s been better to you than you expected he’d be. He hasn’t shown an ounce of the malice or insensitivity you’d prepared yourself for. “Alright, I trust your judgement. I’ll let you go. But maybe take a taxi home.”
“Uh huh.” You’re already flopping out of the seat and wobbling your way over to the chair where you left your belongings earlier, including your shirt.
“And if you have any headaches, dizziness, visual disturbances, loss of sensation, vomiting, or any other neurological symptoms, call us immediately, okay?”
“I will.” You slip your shirt back on, and your hoodie. In your AR feed you’re arranging for an autocab to pick you up outside. You remember that Anapax that’s still waiting for you on the counter at home and it still seems just as appealing, even though at this point you won’t even need the sedative effects to lull you to sleep. Cyril would likely disapprove, but it’s one more thing he doesn’t have to know about.
“Look after yourself, Aubrey,” Cyril calls to you as you smack the button for the door release. “And remember, we’re here for you if you need anything.”
The door slides shut behind you. You don’t even look at the receptionist on your way out, and the autocab is already waiting for you outside.