“Pardon me s’il vous plait, but we seem to have erased your memories.”
The face that is leaning over you is young but heavily spectacled, with a nose so small and prominent that it suggests an anthropomorphic small animal. Clustered around the face are dense masses of darkish hair as curled as coiled cord electrical cables. He steps back as you move to get up.
You are getting out of a wheeled hospital bed with straps hanging from it, onto grass. Why would there be grass, when you can see the roof is that of a stony cave? And why were you lying on a gurney fully dressed? On your feet are well used mountaineering boots, contrasting with spotless white pantaloons, a white shirt, and a tweed vest in the tan and dull green colors of far developed mold.
The other man is dressed in a dingy grey boilersuit, covered in an assortment of needles, pliers, and other similar tools. He is offering you a lump of dried figs with a trembling hand. He seems somewhat afraid of you.
The light is from fluorescent lamps mounted along the uneven tops of the walls. They are not really walls however, but a many layered multitude of black circuit boards, consisting mainly of a city’s worth of labyrinthine interconnections and lines. The only other thing they seem to have is lights: tiny, red lights by the thousands, like a neatly organized infestation of demon possessed ants, occasionally blinking in the light.
The place seems to be a passage, continuing on to your left till its lack of straightness prevents seeing further. A ways off to your right there is a corner, around which comes an erratic flicker of white light. All over the ground there are various mechanical droppings similar to old, industrial vacuum cleaners, portable stoves, military flamethrowers, air compressors, and other such things. They are scattered as if several companies had left their old equipment in that place, but you see that they are all connected in some way to machinery inside the “walls”.
“Monsieur?” the man says, “We could perhaps restore VIMs… pardon me: Very Important Memories; these could be restored from backups, you know.” He is showing you a metal object, holding it up next to his cheek. It is cylindrical, large, and with a large handle. The word “Cosmant” is scribbled on a bit of paper pasted to its side.
While you consider this, your keen eyes notice a low gap in the circuitry, large enough to crawl through. Above it is an “EXIT” sign with the backlight turned off. There are even marks as if someone ridiculously tried to rub the word “EXIT” off the sign.
Should you allow an attempt at partial memory restoration and what that might reveal, or make a move to leave and see what follows?
5 – 1
Allow him – Leave him
“Then you may lie down again Monsieur, and I will prepare.”
You do so, regretting the lack of a pillow. The man walks some steps away to a machine, slides the cylinder into it, and turns the cylinder to lock it; the machine has several spaces for such objects, some of them occupied. The cylinder seems to fit badly, and sticks as it turns: you can hear the man grunt somewhat peevishly with the effort; it seems a bad omen for you, if this is where your Very Important Memories are preserved.
The man returns and rolls another machine up next to the hospital bed. He takes a hose with a face-mask at the end, like what is used for applying anesthesia, except that it is obviously not sterile: it seems as antique and gas-station like as everything else on the ground. He places the mask over your nose and mouth, and switches the machine on. It rumbles and grinds like an old tumble dryer, and you feel whatever gaseous application it is giving you sputter on your lips and nostrils.
You had braced yourself for something uncanny, but whatever the machine is pumping into you seems like ordinary air, not even warmer than otherwise. You breathe several times, until the man turns the machine off and removes the mask. He is clearly satisfied, so its purpose was clearly not anesthetic. You wonder how this machine is connected with the other holding the cylinder, which is across the passage; you had not seen any cable going between the two sides.
The man is looking about for something, and at last pulls it with a clatter from an assortment of things piled between two, large, dismantled machines. As he returns, you see that it is a medieval executioner’s axe.
“Now to reboot.” he says. “And, I must assure you Monsieur, this is not technically what is happening.”
He raises the axe above you, quivering a little under its weight. You thought yourself a rather athletic man with perhaps a military past, but, at least in this case, you find to your surprise that your instinct is to freeze in place.
The axe comes down, rather clumsily; nonetheless your neck is severed, and the gurney beneath you in all likelihood.
You realize that you are not dead; indeed, your body seems to remain untouched by this experience. Though you cannot sense anything by normal means, it seems as if you are in a kind of waiting room, while a stream of bio-digital activity rattles through. It is apparently going well, with few hitches, but soon you find yourself standing on a metal grid surrounded by darkness.
A keyboard on a stand is before you, and you can see no structure holding up either this stand or the small gridwork you are on. White letters appear in the darkness, without any screen that you can see, displaying the words:
Unexpected entry at 5L_
Authentication required to proceed
You probe your mind, hoping that a memory of some passcode might be there now. As if your thought had been an entered command, the hovering words change to the message:
No items match your search
Then it returns to the previous message. At a guess, you type “Cosmant”, and press Enter. The message now reads:
Do you confirm secondary procedure?
You wonder whether “secondary” means “something other than your memory restoration”, or if memory restoration is the secondary procedure. As no other options come to mind, you again press Enter.
You vanish, and the things that are going on now apparently have nothing to do with you, or at least should not.
Soon you reappear, not in your natural human form, but in the form of words; you cannot see yourself, but by the most basic sense of self-awareness you know your form, and your color (which is, of course, red). The words that you spell out are:
You repeatedly vanish and reappear in this form, as if blinking on and off. Then your form changes to something which is even more ominous to you, according to a kind of dream knowledge that you somehow have; you read:
You wait, throbbing in and out of manifestation like a heavy, slowing pulse of red blood, you wait for your redirection.
What will happen to you?
2 – 4
This? – Or this?
You are now in the form of a piece of meat (of unknown species, but it feels like wild boar) hanging on a rack among countless other pieces of meat in similar condition. The racks move, stopping and starting as their turn comes, and all proceed toward a sound of machinery. You attempt some struggling, first by force of will, then by the motion that salt stimulates in frog muscles, but apparently you are not salted, or you are not a frog. The machine you approach sounds ominously regular and powerful.
Then, instead of stimulating muscle movement, you try to bend local reality, in the literal sense of bending the meat back and forth. You succeed in this, and then notice that your surroundings have changed.
You are now hanging on a beam of light, with a massive audience below and all around you, an audience which you recognize: tiny, red lights by the thousands, sometimes staring, sometimes blinking. You wriggle about persuasively, and they seem greatly interested.
You are now a briefcase in the back of a car (perhaps a taxi?). You wriggle a few more times for good measure, and in response you feel the taxi increase its speed and urgency.
You are again in your natural form, staring up at the rocky ceiling, but this time the ceiling is further away, and smoke is moving past. You begin to feel that the rocks look fake, as if in a movie set, and the grass is even more suspicious: it isn’t wet enough.
You get to your feet, and cannot see into the heaps of smoke, but in one direction you don’t have to see far. A giant machine, like a small city without streets, towers up toward the dubious ceiling. The slots, pillars, silos, and ventilation shafts all gleam like old fashioned toy soldiers or robots, and nearby is an archway, no doubt for mechanics and cleaners to enter the area of the machine, but it appears in attitude to have been made for tourists.
You now take stock of yourself: your boots are a little more worn, your shirt and pantaloons are even more spotless and white than before, and your vest is impossible to tell either way. It is another reason to be suspicious of the grass that lying in it has no effect on your clothes.
You search hopefully for any trace of new memories. Fortunately all the memories since the wipe have survived intact, but nothing previous has reappeared in defined form as yet. All you find is a sense, as when you remember a dream in the morning, but later in the day you realize that you can no longer put your finger on any one detail.
You step through the archway rather than trying to wander blindly in the smoke. There is a light you can see deeper and higher in the structure, apparently separate from the machine, and you feel that it holds some helpful significance to you.
Nearer at hand, you see a shadow vanish around a corner. Whether attempting to hide from you, or happening to leave just as you saw it, you do not know. It did not seem to be a human shadow – it was too low – but it moved with intelligence. It may be dangerous to ignore, and it may give you directions if asked.
What should you investigate first?
Light – Shadow
You wind your way up narrow, sometimes rickety walkways, between various, rounded modules of the machine, with your hands stretched out in the smoke dusted shadows to avoid walking into a pipe or fusebox or some other such thing. You never lose sight of the light you are trying to approach, however complex the structure is, but you often have to retrace your steps.
It shines white, and bright as a lamp, without a flicker, yet you feel that it is not electric in nature.
You come to a place it cannot be beyond, yet it is. There is nowhere else you can go, yet it sits in the air some distance before you, as if it had never moved. Yet it must have been nearer, for it is now a good way outside the machine. You try bending reality again, to pull it nearer, but it is more difficult than bending your own form. You bring all your mental strength to bear.
A part of the ceiling suddenly gives way with a sound like a stampede of styrofoam rhinoceroses. You almost glimpse the world beyond the false rocks, but a memory steps in the way.
In the memory you see yourself, standing on a path in a park, holding the hand of a boy with shiny, dark hair. Full sunlight falls heavily on the pair, and casts deep shadows over their eyes (the memory seems to be overexposed). The white light you were trying to approach shines on, unmoving, its colorless brilliance incongruous with the warm sunshine.
But you are only allowed a short look at the memory, as the broken rocks from the ceiling come flying through it towards you, like asteroids through a holograph. You instinctively throw up your hands – and your hand strikes the white light.
Briefly you take its form, but almost instantly you are thrown clear, and fall on the grass. The outpouring of energy from yourself, even for a moment, was far too much to comprehend. It felt like you had been made of long, hair thin needles, hard, white with extreme heat or cold.
Apparently the light had never been out of your arm’s reach: just your luck that you never touched it in all your groping in the dark.
You roll over and rise stiffly to your feet. Your boots look like they’ve been scorched. Your white clothes look like they just arrived from heaven. Your vest looks dizzy.
You are in a place with a lower ceiling, still made of the fake rocks, but this whole area is more well lit, without any smoke in sight. It also seems more cluttered, perhaps because more can be seen. The objects are as motley as a time-travelling pirate’s dump. You feel utterly exhausted, and the two most useful looking items happen to be a jukebox (some rousing music sounds just as good as a bath) and a very real looking tree with gleaming red fruits.
Inside the jukebox there seem to be shadowy figures moving. The fruits of the tree seem to be made of red light, and it has a draw like a high class item in a computer game.
1 – 5
Jukebox – Fruit tree
As you approach the tree you seem to see some of the fruits flicker out of the corner of your eye. Undeterred you reach up to take one of them: the size of a grapefruit, red as a candied cherry, and indeed made of light.
You feel a slight tingle as your fingers touch it, but it vanishes, as the fruit itself vanishes, revealing something like a holograph projecting device in the branch of the tree. There is a sound like a wheezy, mechanical grunt, and a hole near the projector releases a spray of small devices that embed themselves in your outstretched hand. The process is alarmingly painless.
You try to pull them out, but it seems as impossible as pulling off your own fingernail. Thankfully you do not seem to be poisoned. The eye of a plastic heron flashes some distance away.
You move away from the tree, and your foot strikes something that feels out of place, even in that place of randomness. You look down: you have stumbled upon a man, in cleanish beige clothes, sitting slumped against something like a weaponized washing machine from the moon. He is looking at you, with his weak blonde hair falling around his face. There is a dark hole between his eyes the size of a bullet.
“You should be safer from them than I.” he says. “They’re rogue private information defense systems, and at the moment they are drawn to large bodies of information, which they try to delete, no questions asked.”
He gets up, and stretches his back in different directions.
“My name is Rafe Holden. What’s yours?”
“Cosmant.” you reply, since that is the only word you can remember connected with you in any way.
“Do you have any food?” you ask him. He turns, and lifts a small, basket lunchbox, which he must have been using as lumbar support. Opening it, he offers you a tuna sandwich. You thank him, and find that the sandwich is quite good and very restoring. But your repast is rudely interrupted by a howl, as of a wolf howling over a sound system.
You look around, and notice that the plastic heron is significantly nearer. Rafe is already casting about for some speedy conveyance, and you hope that it will not turn out to be a trap like the last thing here you tried to use. There are surprisingly few objects that seem capable of enhancing mobility. You and Rafe find two workable candidates of dubious nature: a nimble, animatronic velociraptor, and a tank with a turret modeled after the head of George Washington.
3 – 1
Velociraptor – George Washington
The mechanical reptile seems to have the best measure of speed and ferocity that might be needed. The two of you mount its less than stable bulk, Rafe sitting foremost. He removes a panel in the back of the beast’s neck, and swiftly and deftly wires into its workings a device like an old microphone, which he had in his lunchbox. He hums a single note into the device while experimentally twisting a small knob on the side, as if tuning it. Now he speaks:
“Untitled connection, make location Anvil Memorial true.”
The beast sets off with a shimmying jolt that almost hangs you on its tail. Rafe has no hands free to help, and you have a bit of a struggle to stay on the swaying, long-legged contraption. A smell like hot lecithin seeps out of all its joints. Over the sound of its drumming machinery you hear a coarse buzz from some distance away, and when you catch a glimpse of the source of this new sound you see it is a gray, six-wheeled machine the size of a large suitcase, moving to cut off your escape.
“Detail, identify object… yes, avoid object, important.” Rafe says into his device. “Like the plague.” he adds to himself. He explains to you that he recognizes the thing: a ravenous data-scenting drone.
“You must have more memories than I thought, or they’re combining our two signatures. They’re paying us too much attention.” he says.
You go over your mind again, and in fact you do have a sense of more and clearer memory. The specific one accessible at the moment is of you riding a pony, again with the small, black haired boy. This memory isn’t static like the last one, but, whether because of your present condition or not, it is rather jerky.
You are almost shaken from your mount when the pursuing drone comes close enough to go at the raptor’s legs. Rafe stutters various short commands into his device.
The beast swings around a loaded forklift and bounds over a stream: you are flung completely off and roll across the grass and into a tombstone. You manage to get your bruised body behind it, and look back. The water of the stream is too blue, and its rippling is obviously looped animation. But it has a pleasingly waterlike effect on the drone, which swerves too late and plunges in. You cackle gleefully as it pops with lights and sounds like deflating cymbals, and a heavy, sulfurous smell rolls over you.
Ahead you see the velociraptor strutting about erratically: Rafe is apparently trying to convince it to wait; you stagger to your feet. Remounting is more difficult than keeping your seat, now that the beast won’t hold still. But with a few more bruises the two of you are off again.
“With that bit of a breather,” Rafe says, “we have a few options as to our course. Via Lardero town is longer, may take more than forty hours, and who knows what move the crackbolts will make in that time. There might be someone in town who can help us though. Following the scram line is short, but rough: we may lose our conveyance, and that would be trouble; however it is relatively unfrequented. The Crispin copse would also be pretty short, but it takes us near some swarming grounds of those troublemakers. We might meet one or two of my friends in there.”
You rule out the scram line, not liking the thought of ending up on foot.
Lardero town – Crispin copse