5800 words, short story
The captured agent sits clamped into the hot seat, her cover washed away by antiseptic light. We stare in wonder as if at some mythical creature poached from the land of fey. We’ve never had something like her in our out-of-the-way little security station.
“You’re going to be uploaded,” Captain Maas says. “Nothing can change that now. But it’s a lengthy process. You’re currently in the prelim scanning stage, during which you can still talk. This will last for . . . ” The Captain glances at me.
“Three days,” I supply.
“So, if you were to cooperate now . . . names, operations, safe houses . . . we could make you more comfortable on the Other Side.”
She stares at the Captain, her poker-face an admirable piece of tradecraft.
“You’ll be on our substrate,” Maas warns, “entirely under our control. We could make that quite unpleasant for you. Far beyond physical pain or even psy torture, as you’d experience them from your current substrate of meat. Or there’s cooperation, and we arrange a pleasant V-world of your choosing on the Other Side. We’re going to assay your mind, regardless.”
One of the other officers, some kind of apparatchik from the Capital, leans toward Maas and whispers something.
“Of course,” the Captain says. “How silly of me.”
The Apparatchik is tall and broad-shouldered, her head shaved, her dark uniform something I haven’t seen before. Captain Maas seems shabby and provincial by comparison. He straightens his tie, frowning at the prisoner.
“You’re one of them.”
He means the agent is from Sylvania, the Democratic Republic thereof. The superstitious enemy to the north, the DRS. Cherishers of continuity-of-consciousness, believers in souls, revilers of upload.
“You think you’re going to die with your meat,” the Apparatchik says, her tone pitying. “Or float up to heaven, maybe?” The agent meets her gaze. “You believe it will be a mere copy, what we end up with after the scan, and furthermore an abomination. Isn’t that right?”
The agent shrugs as well as she can within her constraints. A real professional.
“Inducements or threats to her post-scan self will hold no weight, Captain,” the Apparatchik says.
“Well,” Maas says, “there are the old ways.”
He means torture, but of course he knows better. Trauma would compromise the scan, and torture is a primitive, unreliable technique, regardless. But he hopes his prisoner doesn’t know these things, or doesn’t know that he knows them. He has nothing to lose at this point.
“Electricity, sleep deprivation . . . she won’t need her body much longer anyway.”
Everyone in the little white room knows scanning means biological death. But if this or the Captain’s threats frighten the agent, she doesn’t let on.
“How was she picked up?” the Apparatchik says.
The Captain nods at me, and I hand her the file.
Prisoner 8571, alias Amina Hadzic, entered the Republic of Metropotamia as a minor functionary of the Sylvanian Trade Delegation. On a fake Metropotamian ID (Dee Spendlove), she traveled by marshrutka from the Capital to the Pleasure Coast south of the Chicago ruins. In the unregistered pontoon nightclub Manifest Destiny, she approached Joe Aspinall, 27, formerly a junior code architect at the Metropotamian Bureau of V-Worlds. Aspinall was on a bender. He’d been fired for creating an unsanctioned porn biome accessible by the uploaded aristocracy of the Spheres. It could have been a Sphere connection, the patron of his art maybe, that kept him out of prison.
8571 plied Aspinall with designer cocktails. Toward the end of the night she offered him a “consultancy” in the DRS. Things were changing in Sylvania, she claimed, just as they were changing here in Metropotamia. The Council of Nine were getting old, their attitude toward upload softening. If Aspinall came to the DRS and shared his expertise, it would not only pay well, but he’d be spreading the light and truth of his homeland, Discontinuity, to its ignorant foes. He might well end up a Metropotamian hero.
This was mostly lies, of course. Sylvania just wants to hack the Spheres and other V-worlds, and bring them down.
8571 was a real pro. She laid it on thick, with a sob story for the big finish: she’d had her father scanned, on his deathbed, by a black market Sylvanian technician. She wanted a pleasant afterlife for him.
The Apparatchik looks up from the file. “This begs a few questions.”
“How did she give our delegation handlers the slip,” I say. “And how did she know about Aspinall.”
“We’ll know more when we’ve assayed her, but regarding the first question . . . with the state of the economy and the importance of the negotiations . . . ”
“It may have fostered an indulgent approach to handling the delegation. Who knows how they’re being entertained, for instance.”
The Apparatchik is thoughtful. “This new perestroika is a mistake, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. We need to get back to our planned economy, only stick to it this time.”
“Yes Ma’am,” the Captain says, eyeing me uncomfortably. “I couldn’t agree more.”
This doesn’t surprise me, coming from Maas. These aging security officials at marginal postings tend to be reactionary.
I meet 8571’s gaze. Eye contact lasts just a moment too long, and leaves me wondering, on the edge of paranoia. She’s staring at the floor now. What did it mean, that gravid moment and look?
The Apparatchik finishes perusing the file. As is often the case with clandestine operations, random exigency trumped the best laid plans. The Manifest Destiny came unmoored and drifted into international waters. Things might’ve gone differently if the Sylvanian Navy had been on its toes. Instead, the MS Michiana found the Manifest Destiny practically falling apart at the seams. 8571 tried to swim for it, but the Michiana net-gunned her and dragged her aboard. Aspinall sobered up and spilled his guts, claiming he never agreed to 8571’s offer. Now he’s awaiting decision. He’ll likely be uploaded and assayed.
Ours is the closest station to old Chicago, so 8571 was delivered to us, rather than to the Capital as she probably should’ve been. Maas jumped the gun, excited to finally get someone of consequence in his hot seat. Only after locking her in did he have second thoughts and contact the Directorate in the Capital.
“You Sylvanians really puzzle me,” the Apparatchik says.
8571 is impassive. She seems to be meditating.
“You can’t imagine the self surviving a jump from brain to machine. That is, you can’t fathom a Discontinuous self, even though this failure of imagination is itself Discontinuous. The self flashing right now in your skull is Discontinuous. If you don’t like the preponderance of biological research indicating that, time itself is Discontinuous. Quantized. That’s the foundation of modern computing, you know. V-worlds wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Don’t they teach you these things in Sylvanian schools? I suppose not. Too busy learning what your priesthood counts as a soul. Fooling yourselves. But for you to be sent here by your government, you must be smarter than that.” She kneels in front of 8571. “I can see you’re smart. Deep down, you must know that you’re Discontinuous. That you have been all your life. A spy should understand this better than most, perhaps. You’ve been a million strobing Dees, or Aminas, or whoevers, since we clamped you into this hot seat. And therefore, when we say you will suffer on the Other Side, we mean you, inasmuch as you means a damn thing, now and forevermore.”
I admire the Apparatchik’s delivery. I’ve heard it all before, of course, from Metropotamian intellectuals, and bureaucrats and entertainers, and even common laborers. Every good Metropotamian accepts Discontinuity. Every good Metropotamian yearns for upload to the Spheres, and works toward it.
They convinced me long ago.
I, an agent of Sylvania, ostensibly a saboteur and provocateur, just like 8571. I, a mole in Metropotamian Fatherland Security. But I’ve been here too long. I’ve gone native. And now all I can think about is that look 8571 gave me. Inscrutable, or was it?
“So,” the Apparatchik continues, “with all that in mind, do you have anything to tell us?”
8571 looks up, grinning. Her Sylvanian faith is perfect. The fool.
Does she know who I am? If so, her assay will blow my cover, and I’ll be next in the hot seat. It’s standard procedure for her not to know, of course, unless she needs to. These are strange times. I haven’t been in touch with Sylvanian Intelligence in over a year. Maybe she was tasked with checking on me. But why combine that with such a delicate recruiting mission? Operationally, it makes no sense.
But that look . . .
It’s about time your assay ’rithms found germane memories. I was getting tired of reliving the catechisms and grim, cold lecture halls of my Sylvanian upbringing. Though I suppose it’s only been a few seconds of real time. Anyway, here I am. Pick me apart, catalog my crimes! How far we’ve come since the days of waterboarding and stress positions. I can’t help but think of the Last Emperor, Puyi, writing his life story over and over until his communist reeducators were satisfied. The inefficiency of it all.
Thank God or History for the science that has brought us together, here and now, on such intimate terms.
I don’t fool myself that I’m bound for anything but unimaginable psychic torment, or oblivion (which is also unimaginable). I only ask that when your assay is done, you grant me one small favor.
Three days until the hot seat starts to pick her brain apart. Three days until her neural networks are destroyed as they’re mapped, and another mind makes the Metropotamian Leap, though she’s not bound for simulated paradises. Assay, and possibly torment: these are her only fates, regardless of what her flesh has been promised.
That means I have three days. To flee, possibly, but where? Not back to my homeland. I’m no longer a Sylvanian, I know that much. I can’t live their prayer and austerity, not anymore. West there is only The Dust. East, ruins engulfed by toxic jungle. South, more Metropotamian plantations, gradually giving way to wetlands too stifling for human habitation.
Besides, all I want is here. Not the upload promised to traitors and foreign agents, but that which all Metropotamians aspire to, and only a privileged few achieve. There’s nothing for me anywhere else.
I leave the station grounds for lunch. Warm February rain blows in from the Lake, casting a pall over the town, and hearth-like cafes seem all the more welcoming for it. Vast screens glow with visions of the Other Side: the Spheres, a multiverse of Happy Hunting Grounds and Olympuses, multiuser and private, that I’ve come to believe I might one day enjoy.
After lunch I return to the station, my mind racing.
They’re showing 8571 what her lack of cooperation will get her on the Other Side. A wall of the little white room darkens with visions of horror. Some of the inmates are rendered as they were in life, and when they’ve been burned or mutilated beyond recognition, they regenerate and suffer all over again. Others have been given new forms, quivering blobs of sensitized, immortal flesh sagging from meat hooks in infernal dungeons. Regardless of how they’re rendered, the unfortunates are all the same. They are coded minds. They can be made to suffer with an efficiency never possible in the corporeal world. They are not tortured for information. Scavenging algorithms comb out their secrets before their punishments begin.
“You’ll never sleep again,” Captain Maas says, “and you’ll never die.”
The Apparatchik watches 8571 expectantly.
I’ve seen this work before. The punitive hells on the Other Side function wonderfully as deterrence, and as incentive at times like this. But we’ve never dealt with a dyed-in-the-wool Sylvanian agent before. 8571 seems unimpressed by the horror show. Her faith in continuity-of-consciousness is perfect, as mine once was. She really believes she’s safe. Not from death, perhaps, but from pain. She hasn’t had my years in Metropotamia to see the truth of Discontinuity. She will suffer unless I do something. Rescue is impossible now, but I might arrange for her premature demise. A mercy killing within the next three days. I owe her that much, don’t I? I owe Sylvania that much, and Sylv-Int, which I once served with the fanaticism of a monk.
Of course, killing her would also save my neck, if she does indeed know who I am. If that’s what her look meant. It would be my first kill, a fellow Sylv-Int agent no less. But it would be about sparing her.
Not saving myself.
It has to be more than that. Doesn’t it?
The afternoon wears on and 8571 remains aloof.
The Apparatchik finally takes me by the elbow and ushers me out of the white room, leaving Maas in charge. She leads me into a neighboring interrogation cell. She produces a flask from the hip pocket of her sharp new uniform, takes a pull, and offers it to me. My hackles are up. I want to set her at ease, so I partake. It’s good whiskey from the Capital. All I’ve had for years is small-town jag juice.
I nod in appreciation and hand back the flask.
“All that earlier about getting back to the plan, economy-wise . . . ” She waits for me to say something. She could be feeling me out as a co-conspirator, intrigued by my near-criticism of the trade delegate handlers. Or she could be testing my loyalty to the current paradigm. If that’s the case, Maas will soon find himself in the hot seat.
I study her gaze, hoping to wait her out. One of the dark arts I remember from training: make them just uncomfortable enough to keep talking. But she’s unflappable. “The Captain seemed keen,” I say.
“He’s a fool, but a useful sort of fool. We’ll need people like him in the days and weeks to come. And we’ll need people like you. Careful, clever sorts.”
Watch and wait, watch and wait. Maybe this time I’ll get her.
“I can’t seem to sniff out your politics,” she says. “I really do have a nose for it, believe it or not. So, when I meet someone like you it usually means they have no politics. You’re simply a professional, am I right?”
“I like to think so.”
“And if the current regime were to be . . . challenged, if it were audited and found wanting, if it became a question of core Metropotamian values, you would uphold your oath. You would do everything in your power to safeguard those values.”
“Of course,” I say, hoping the gamble pays off.
“That’s fine, then.” She takes another swig and passes the flask back. She watches me pull, smirking. “In the meantime, we’re still Metropotamians, aren’t we?”
“And we have this Sylvanian. I don’t think she’s going to talk. I want you to go to the Capital and poke around. You have informants there, I assume . . . ”
“Find out how she got away from that delegation.”
I don’t know who the Apparatchik is or even if she outranks me, but I was planning on heading to the Capital anyway, so I have no problem saying, “Yes Ma’am.”
Now you’re on the right path. Now you’ll begin to understand what a Sylvanian wretch you’ve captured. I can no longer lie, so you’ll believe me when I say that toward the end, I really did feel like a Metropotamian, and I really did feel like you were my comrades.
If I ever meant a damn thing to any of you, you’ll grant me one small favor.
“So, you have information on the missing Sylvanian,” the Minister of Foreign Affairs says. “What was her name . . . Hadzic?”
The florid, middle-aged man is an admirable thespian. I suppose you’d have to be to reach the bureaucratic heights he has, but Minister Fitzjames is no field operator. His pretense of innocence—or ignorance, or whatever he’s going for—is absurd in the context of this meeting. Here we are in the dead of night, among the rotting crucifixions outside the Capital Wall, treading upon the weeds of what was once something ludicrous called a “golf course.” We’re alone among the hanging, floodlit bodies. He didn’t even risk bringing a bodyguard, let alone the investigators and soldiers of his Ministry.
I don’t have time for his evasions. I leveraged my security clearance to get a message to him. That will be on record. It’s well within my remit, but suspicious to the right gaze.
“Hadzic, or Spendlove if you prefer, is a Sylvanian intelligence agent. As you know.”
Fitzjames stops beneath a corpse whose placard identifies it as a “Ration Hoarder” and “Continuity Roader.” Closer to the steel and concrete of the city wall, a fresher body, something called a “Spiritualist,” hangs nailed to an ancient utility pole.
The Minister opens his mouth to object, or deny, but I interrupt:
“You helped her leave the trade delegation and covered up her absence.”
One of the last things I did before abandoning Sylv-Int was investigate Fitzjames as a potential asset. I discovered his extramarital affairs, leverageable perhaps, but common among these privileged creatures of the Capital. More interesting was the time he declined an invitation from the Spheres. The opportunity coveted by so many, the chance to upload. Most of the other Ministers of Metropotamia, of Defense and Agriculture and Propaganda, had already gone over. Now they run things from the Other Side. The Minister of Foreign Affairs claimed he had to stay on the ground a bit longer, what with Sylvania to the north and barbarian coalitions forming in The Dust. Economic reform was a delicate thing. It needed him hands-on. Somehow, he sold this to the Metropo aristocracy and retained his position, but I didn’t buy it. I smelled fear of Discontinuity, fear of oblivion, maybe even a closet Continuitist. That would be a leverageable thought crime and might also speak to hidden Sylvanian sympathies.
I reported these findings to Sylv-Int and thought nothing more of Minister Fitzjames. Until this evening, when I found him on the list of trade delegation handlers. In fact, he’s running the whole show.
“Who are you?” he says. “How dare you—”
“Relax, Minister. I’m here to help.”
I reach into my overcoat and he follows suit, leveling a pistol.
“Okay okay.” I produce the file I showed the Apparatchik, and hand it over. He keeps his weapon aimed as he reads. When he gets to the last page I say, “She’s scheduled. Everything comes out in two days, unless you act.”
“And what the hell am I supposed to do?”
There we are, past denial. The file shivers in his hand.
“You’ve got connections, resources. She must not be assayed.”
He’s in shock now. He sits down beneath the crucified ration hoarder, staring into the void beyond the floodlights. I congratulate myself again on my choice of meeting place.
“Do you understand?” I say.
He sets aside the file and contemplates his pistol.
“If it helps, at least two of the officers holding her are subversives. They spoke against your perestroika.”
He chuckles, sounding borderline hysterical. “They’re not the only ones.”
“One of them, I don’t know her name, seems to be planning something. A coup maybe.”
“Well, that makes sense.”
“She was wearing a black uniform I haven’t seen before . . . ”
“Padraic’s new security force, or political police, I should say.”
Lesley Padraic, a Subminister of Defense and one of Fitzjames’ staunchest foes, a Metropotamian of the old school.
“That sure didn’t take long,” Fitzjames says, more to himself than me.
I don’t like how he’s staring at that weapon. I think about massaging his ego, starting with something about the forgivable and necessary vices of great men. A few mistresses and a minor indiscretion with a foreign power, weighed against the renaissance he’s engineering. His flaws nothing more than colorful footnotes in some future history.
“What’s your interest in all this?” he demands.
“Does it matter?”
I find the gun pointing at me again. “Maybe not.”
“Minister . . . ”
“I mean, as long as I’m tying up loose ends . . . ”
“Give me some credit. If I die, everything comes out . . . the women, your recruitment, Hadzic, all of it.”
“So, you’re one of them?”
He means a Sylvanian, or more specifically a Sylv-Int agent, I suppose.
Running me like this, between memory activations, very cute. I guess it amuses you to let me babble here in the perfect dark and limbo of the upload bridge. Or maybe it interests the ’rithms to listen and see what I recall naturally. If you can call this natural.
As the train pulls into my stop, I notice the station is much more crowded than it ought to be at this hour. Plainclothes thugs wearing black armbands fill the platform and the square beyond. They might be Fitzjames’ or the Apparatchik’s. Whatever the case, things are moving, and an instinct tells me to stay in motion as well.
I sink into my seat as the train moves on. I ride it to the last stop on the line.
In the predawn gloaming, I wander through the remnants of an ancient town, a community built in the Age of Excess. Every house has its own expanse of land. These days it’s all sand and weeds, but back then it was grass—idiotically watered and trimmed—and later, toward the end, desperate vegetable gardens. Each house has a smaller companion, a house for the family’s internal combustion vehicles.
Now it’s all abandoned and weather-beaten, half-swallowed by dunes.
I come to a familiar structure missing most of its roof. I enter through a collapsed section of wall. Inside I’m surrounded by faint, oxidized saints, peeling paint, and broken, crudely-carved, phantasmagoric idols. I like coming here. I like the sense of connection with deep time, the geological strata of religions. A church first, of some eastern orthodoxy, then a mosque, and finally an end-times polytheist temple. But long after the citizens of a doomed republic quit this town, a new religion arrived. It came to occupy this building that had been so hospitable to previous creeds. It was a religion with one follower.
I ascend the altar. I reach into the space under the collapsed masonry and pull out a little plastic bundle. A roll of paper, sealed against the elements. A coded message from Sylv-Int.
I found a spirituality in spy-craft that I never attained in the masses and rallies of mainstream Sylvanian life. I think many of us Sylv-Int agents are like that. We are the Sylvanians who don’t fit anywhere else, the unbelievers safeguarding the faithful. When I came to Metropotamia, it was an epiphany, like a religious or sexual awakening, every moment imbued with new significance and new dimension. I wasn’t just buying dumplings from the street vendor outside the station. I was buying dumplings in the clandestine service of Sylvania, risking capture and worse, and the dumplings were not just dumplings. Hunger was not just hunger. Sleep, when I managed it, was a blessing. Life was as I’d always imagined it for faithful Sylvanians: pregnant with meaning.
It didn’t last, of course.
When I came to my senses, there was nothing left for me but Metropotamian dogma: the cold, inescapable logic of Discontinuity. There was a kind of freedom in accepting the reality of my Discontinuous selves. The me who accepted it was distinct from the billions of mes who’d doubted it. I was a series of fleeting brain states, each with access to memory and the illusion of continuity. But it was okay. The illusion was enough.
Better than enough. It meant that upload to the Spheres held some promise of escape, even salvation.
I pocket the roll of paper. It is dangerous coming back here, though if I’m caught, I could say this is 8571’s drop site. Then again, she might know about it, if she knows about me, and she may have sung by now. But to survive, cover intact, I need all the information I can get. I have to be proactive now. The instinct to hoard and weaponize information is a hard one to shake. Maybe some day I’ll manage it, far from this sordid corporeality.
Heart racing, I scan the shadows of the ruin.
The voice was deep, self-assured, amused. And the operating name, no one’s called me that in a long time. I reach into my pocket for my sidearm.
“Let’s not, shall we?”
My hand freezes, fingertips on the grip.
“Where I can see them . . . that’s it.”
A shape that I took for one of the fading orthodox saints detaches itself from the far wall. A short, balding man steps into the blue predawn light, an antique machine pistol leveled.
“We’ve been worried about you, Field Mouse.” No attempt to hide the Sylvanian lilt. “Been sick? Or just playing truant?”
I remember him from Sylv-Int HQ. He was always in the background, watching us train. We speculated about him endlessly, but never learned who or what he was.
“I’m doing everything I can to save Hadzic,” I say.
“Oh I’m sure you are.”
I stand on the altar, palms out like some iconographic Christ.
“Think you’re the first agent to spoil down here? You defectives are commonplace, and you’re my specialty.” His words provide context for this holy space, like prayers and confessions must have long ago. “Hard to say at this point how many of you I’ve retired. Know what really kills me? Never mind the primal fallacy, the fundamental heresy . . . that it would really be you in the Spheres, and not a copy, however perfect a copy. Forget that particular failing of reason and faith. How about some pragmatism, Field Mouse? Did you really believe you’d rise high enough for an invitation?” Already referring to me in the past tense. “What are you now? A lieutenant in one of their second-tier security bureaus?”
“And you aspire to the Spheres . . . ”
I don’t see the point of lying now. Besides, I’m tired of lies. “Yes.”
“I hope you’re not going to tell me its part of some long game. I’ve heard it all before. I know your orders, and our policy. We gave up on infiltrating the Spheres. Now we just want to take their servers down.”
“Fine then, I wanted it for myself.”
“Quite a leap of faith, if you ask me. They call our faith in souls and continuity blind, but look at them. They’ve made their own heaven and hell. Faith makes them strive toward their heaven and fear their hell. Faith in the insignificance of that gap, fundamentally different from whatever fleeting gaps may or may not interrupt normal consciousness.”
“A gap’s a gap. How many of you have there been since this conversation began?”
He chuckled. “Forget it. They always try to convert me. Unlike you, I’m a real Sylvanian.”
“Then just let me go. I’ve served Sylvania too. I gave you Fitzjames, and he proved useful, didn’t he? I gave you a lot over the years. I gave you my youth.”
“Sure, let you go. And some day, maybe years from now, you realize you’re never going to rise high enough for the Invite, and you decide to sell our secrets for it.”
“I would never—”
“And they make the deal, then just assay you. Or you’re en route to the Spheres, and some screening ’rithm we don’t know about flags you, flags our lore. You haven’t thought this through, Field Mouse.”
But I have. It’s just that despite all the risks, and the low probability of success, I have nothing to lose.
The ruins fill with blinding light from above, as though the old conception of Heaven, insulted by blasphemies on sacred ground, seeks to enlighten us. The sky erupts with the clamor of a stealth chopper. The Sylv-Int man stares at me wide-eyed. A dart quivers in his neck. He staggers back, squirting automatic fire, firing wide, peppering an old mural of dour monks, and I feel the heaviness spreading from my neck downward.
They shot us with those in training, I remember. We joked about it afterward. The anticipation was much worse than the sting of the dart. And then it was quite enjoyable, briefly, like giddy drunkenness, before the darkness welled up and it was simply nothing. I suppose if I was still me after that oblivion, a gap more profound than sleep, I might still be me after upload.
My mother would have thought so.
My father, a grim, joyless preacher of the Sylvanian old guard, found her with a copy of that illegal Metropotamian classic, “Freedom of the Discontinuous Self.” He reported her, the supposed love of his life. They sentenced her to death by stoning.
“Don’t look away child,” he said, the rocks pelting her flesh. She curled up, arms wrapped around her head, muffling her own screams.
“Watch and remember. Sylvania comes first, and the soul is continuous.”
I twisted out of his grasp and broke through the other adults, into the circle. It wasn’t bravery. I’m not even sure I meant to shield her or save her. Maybe I thought it wasn’t real, couldn’t be real, and sought the mechanism behind the illusion. I don’t know. A rock struck my head, and the darkness came, fast and total. I was unconscious for three days. They tell me I nearly died.
In what sense was it the same person who awoke, nursing an adult disillusionment?
I recall the stoning as I’m dragged from the burning wreckage of the chopper. The air is full of sand and smoke. Coywolves materialize occasionally, yipping and whining, only to vanish again, ghostlike. People walk among them, strange figures bandaged head to toe like mummies or lepers. A train of Bactrians loiters in the background, belching anxiously as the air gets worse.
I’m in The Dust, somehow. Among the savages. Or I’ve been uploaded and assayed, and this is the punitive V-world I’ve been sentenced to.
The burning chopper fades from view as I’m dragged further away.
I can’t remember the crash. The dart is just wearing off, which is odd, if all this is real. Downtime on anything in the dart family is at least four hours, much longer than it should’ve taken to reach the station, or the Capital or wherever we were headed. I’m alive, so I must’ve been pulled from the wreckage immediately.
Why was the chopper in the air so long?
I’m deposited near several other bodies.
Something that may once have been a pilot, conclusively dead.
A Metropotamian drop soldier, badly burned, groaning.
And my compatriot, singed and bloodied, emerging from his stupor more slowly than I.
The grit stings my eyes, the eternal twilight of The Dust growing momentarily darker. I don’t think. I crawl forward and scoop up a handful of sand. I jam it in his mouth and my hand forms a seal. I get on top of him as he weakly flails.
The barbarians of The Dust cannot bring down aircraft, which don’t venture this far west anyway. So, what happened up there? Not a Sylvanian attack, surely. Our air force wouldn’t be up to it.
“Break it up!” someone barks.
They pull me off, but it’s too late. The self-proclaimed “real Sylvanian” is dead. My first kill, and hopefully my last, this hunter of wayward spies. Dead, how many of my fellow prodigals avenged? But is that why I did it? For all those like me who woke up wanting more for themselves? Dead, and with him his knowledge of me, no longer available for assay. Does that still matter? Do I still have a chance at the Spheres? Did I ever? Why does anyone do anything? Maybe Sylvania and Metropotamia are both wrong. Maybe my Discontinuous selves overlap each other, existing in superposition, so that a given action or decision may arise from multiple motives. Maybe the brain is quantum, like Metropotamian computers, like V-worlds.
A knife is at my throat, briefly.
“No, you idiot!”
“We’re sellin’ ’em back,” one of the mummies screams over the keening wind and howling coywolves, “along with the memory box from the gunship! Don’t you know anything? For the Metros, a skull is just like a memory box! Readable!”
Someone else is still holding me down.
“It’s a Metro civil war!” the knowledgeable savage cries. “There’s bound to be buyers!”
They tie me up and load me onto a Bactrian. The savages don sandstorm goggles, and fit them onto their camels and hounds as well. I’m left to wonder if I sparked a war, or stumbled into one. Which side sent the chopper and which shot it down? Did they track me, or my would-be killer, to the temple? Did 8571 talk? These are academic questions, professional curiosities. It hardly matters now.
The protesting Bactrians are whipped into loping motion. I can’t see anything, but I know we’re headed back east.
I suppose you don’t need to assay much more. I ended up in the hot seat, and you were there for all that, Apparatchik. Maybe you’ve already won your little war. If it’s still raging, maybe I’m vital to winning it. Or maybe I’m just a curiosity, a distraction, a jabbering amusement. I don’t suppose you’ll ever respond.
But I have to ask. Before you send me to whatever punitive hell awaits me, I’d like to know. If you managed to assay 8571, did she know about me?
If she didn’t, I might’ve avoided all this. I mean, the war would probably have erupted regardless. When you read Fitzjames’ sins in 8571, perhaps you would’ve moved against him. Maybe that’s what happened. I just want to know if I could’ve played it safe. Not risked my cover. Maintained the possibility, however minute, of getting to the Spheres.
I’m not sure what would be worse: the uncertainty, or knowing she knew nothing, and that I consigned myself to whatever you’ve cooked up on the Other Side.
Maybe it doesn’t matter either way. Now that I’m beyond flesh, I’ve discovered the ultimate irony: there’s no way to determine if I’m the same Field Mouse that knew flesh. I have that one’s memories, but what does that prove? I feel just like that Field Mouse. I feel I’ve survived the gap of upload, but then again, I would. Maybe my compatriots were right. Maybe I’m a mere copy, a monstrosity. I can never know.
And maybe I can take comfort in that, as the subjective centuries of torment grind on. Maybe it never would’ve been me in the Spheres.
Maybe your whole fucking system is built on a lie.
Andy Dudak is a writer and translator of science fiction. His original stories have appeared in Analog, Apex, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best, and elsewhere. He’s translated many stories for Clarkesworld, and a novel by Liu Cixin, among other things. In his spare time he likes to binge-watch peak television and eat Hui Muslim style cold sesame noodles.