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The Maze of Lethe

Here is the full story of the second Choose Your Own Adventure Serial, where friends on Facebook voted for the events of the next episode.


“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?

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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:

CATASTROPHIC FAILURE

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:

TRIAL REDIRECTION

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?

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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?

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3- 2
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.

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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.

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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.

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1 – 3
Lardero town – Crispin copse

The grass gives way to industry standard woodchips, very loose and dangerous for the sort of steed you possess. The trees that begin to surround you look surprisingly real, yet this only gives you an uncanny feeling, remembering how real the tree with the holographic fruits had looked. The objects scattered about are as random as before, yet a different bend of random: the various things now seem to have been sifted out of ships that dredge the dreams of children who have never seen outside cluttered rooms. You pass things like stacked, miniature combine harvesters full of puppets, a giant mushroom with a globular top covered in shingles and a stalk of concrete, and a contingent of gloves and pressed leaves kicking with small, pointed feet.

Rafe is whispering into his device, and trying to keep the velociraptor to as rapid and quiet a pace as possible. You hear sounds like table saws in the distance, reminding you of your time as meat in a butchering factory. At least the background sounds help to hide the noise of your wobbling conveyance.

In mid whispered sentence Rafe shouts to you to get off, and leaps clear of the raptor. The suddenness of this maneuver almost sends the beast and yourself tumbling in the opposite direction. You double over, and indecorously slide head first onto the prickly ground.

Upside down, you see your conveyance continue a step and a half with Rafe’s directing device swinging by its cord. Then there is a deafening blast; the raptor skids sideways with an intense shudder, and falls over like a lampstand.

You get up, and see a cave-in the size of an innkeeper’s crock in the side of your reptilian vehicle. Looking back, there is a thing in the path like a heavy, ornate demon’s head wrought cheaply in thick metal tarnished to a faded blue. It has two, short legs of the same work attached where the ears would have been, and a dark, gaping maw, which you suddenly realize is very much like a cannon.

You make for cover, but Rafe is running to his fallen beast. You wonder for a moment if he is reckless over the loss of the raptor, but see that he is hastily unwiring his device from the wreckage. You call him, but he responds that there is no danger, and that he only wants to get his device before “they” do. He is quickly explained, as from every direction gathers a crowd of whirring and buzzing contraptions: animate masses Frankensteined from various things not even necessarily mechanical. They piranha the “dead” dinosaur with a cacophony of snippings, pryings, and exultant chirps and hoots. The cannon creature seems to have wandered off, its unaccountable animosity satisfied.

“You gentlemen seem to be in a cleft stick.” says the voice of an indescribable object, apparently extracted from a wax totem pole. Rafe explains to it the nature of your enemies and your desired haven near the Anvil Memorial. The shiny oddity warns of an approaching band of the data-killers, and offers a temporary concealment in its treehouse.

“I can do better.” says a voice from a tree branch. There reclines a being dressed in a peaked hat and rusted metal which is actually cloth; instead of legs it has two extra arms. “I can get them through here if anyone can.” it boldly insists. Its face has something of the frog and lemur to it, and the rest of it is like a small goblin. The waxen figure claims to have friends it can gather (plainly hinting both that the creature on the branch is not one of them, and that it probably has no friends of its own). The imp returns that this would be as useless as asking the data-killers for help. To punctuate the matter, all that is left now of your raptor is a star shape of scratches in the ground. You confer with Rafe.

“Are either of these the friends you mentioned?” you ask. Rafe scratches the hole in his forehead.

“No.”

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6 – 1
Treehouse – Guide

Rafe politely informs the imp that you will accept the other object’s hospitality, but would also appreciate any help the imp has to offer. It tips its cap – which act uncovers a head of hair that startlingly resembles an exposed brain – and it climbs in a shuffling manner high into the tree, giving no indication of whether it does plan to help anymore.

The indescribable leads you (somehow without revealing its method of locomotion) to a black painted ladder. Above you see what at first looks to be a bloody mass of slime based paper-mache draped over a branch. As you climb closer you see that what seemed to be blood is sealing wax. The house exudes a smell like frozen gravy. At the top of the ladder is a round door, closed by long, triangular flaps, each with its own door knob. Rafe has to try various ones before he finds the right one to open first.

Inside there is little room to stand, but plenty of places to sit: an overturned cauldron, miniature models of dressers and cabinets made of stuffed canvass, a few large globes of fur, and other such things. In a corner stands one of the conglomerate machines, but it seems to be inanimate, set up perhaps like a hunting trophy. The voice of your host comes from a speaking tube:

“You may help yourself to anything you need, but do not touch the candlesticks: they may break. Also do not touch the telephone: you may break.”

These instructions are somewhat aggravating, as there is nothing you can see that resembles candlesticks. The telephone is there, and it is fake: stuffed like a teddy bear (and like the desk on which it sits), but it does have an dangerous look about it. Even the cord is stuffed, but the way it vanishes behind the cloth desk is ominous.

There is a window across from the door, and the same size as it, with triangular panes corresponding to the door’s flaps. By its light Rafe is looking about for anything helpful to provision his pockets and little basket, keeping a careful watch for any candlesticks.

You move to help him, but catch a glimpse of something reflected in the polished surface of a large bowling ball. You see that it is your own face, bent and warped; but one part of your head seems disfigured by the reflection more than the rest. You take the dark globe and experiment with various positions until you can see your face more clearly. It is a few moments before you realize and start to accept what you are seeing.

There is a hole between your eyes, large enough to take in a child’s fist. It must have been there all along; strange that you never touched that region of your face. In this place the hole must have something to do with the loss of memories. This explains why Rafe said you would be safer from the data-killers than he: the hole in your face is far larger than the hole in his face. But you wonder if he lost memories in the same way as you. You hesitantly ask him how he received the hole. He pauses in his examination of some small machine, and his face takes on a somewhat tired look.

“I got tagged by a PIDS, the data-killers, and they ran me down. But thankfully the unit that caught me malfunctioned before it had well begun its work.”

“Can you remember much from before the attack?”

“A lot of routine days. But there are some things I thank God they missed.”

What does Rafe remember?

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4 – 1
His country – His art

After a time the two of you are sitting silent, and the light seems to be dimmer, though you know it hasn’t changed.

The voice of your host buzzes in the speaking tube, not loud, but harshly piercing in the stillness.

“Come down now. We are ready to bring you to the Anvil Memorial.”

A glimpse of your helpers as you open the door makes you wonder if the imp was right. Once on the ground you take stock of the six or seven members of the “force”. First of all you notice that the bluish cannon-creature, the same that shot your mount from under you, is one of them. But the most imposing of them is a machine that was apparently designed to extract cars from train wrecks; it could only move on the woodchips because of the great wideness of its multiple feet. There were also three men, dressed in ordinary clothes, having no gear between them other than a battered duffel bag and a small, yellow tool chest.

The waxy object is inspecting the cannon-creature’s muzzle, and chiding another creature on the subject.

“This one is useless, it has already fired today; why did you bring it? It can only be used to intimidate the more timid of the PIDSes.”

The creature he speaks to thus is a machine after a more computerish theme. A late-comer arrives – a rabbit more than half consisting of rough prosthetics and carrying a heavy grocery sack – and your host immediately gives the command to start.

The group moves with great slowness, and no stealth at all. There is apparently only danger for the two of you, having been “tagged” by the data-killers. It is more like waiting in line than walking. The other humans in the group chat and laugh. The random structures and discarded objects of that place grow fewer. The trees and woodchips do not change.

Finally the PIDSes attack. But these tower taller than the largest of your group, shaped like dark tripods with strange, whipping feet, and robotic spider faces. They pipe and whistle with a haunting vibrance, and you feel very much that everything has been useless.

But the monstrous machine, which had slowed the company down more than any other, now proves the most violent and comforting of them all. It stands by you, and swings arms like those of excavators, snapping massive shears with six blades to a side at the end of each.

Several of the party, including the waxy one, merely watch; though to be fair you don’t see what they could do, and they didn’t know what kind of data-killers they would be facing when they set out. Two of the men nonchalantly set about tangling one of the data-killer’s feet with wires, and dismantling its legs with screwdrivers.

The machine-rabbit hybrid ducks to your side, and surreptitiously reveals the contents of its bag to Rafe. A voice like that of a boy with sore throat is quietly emitted from a speaker near the rabbit’s hip:

“These are cancellers I have: they won’t last long, but you can get away, without the PIDSes following, to the next safe spot. It’s a place underground, where the others can join you after these PIDSes are dismantled. If you stay they will keep coming until we can’t do a thing about them.”

But Rafe is digging his device out of his lunch basket.

“If your cancellers last long enough, I could wire my translator to an immobilized PIDS, and may be able to get us off their tagged list.”

The rabbit looks doubtful, and twitches its one ear that is still rabbit.

“If you cannot, there is no second chance to get away, and there may come ones that will attack the rest of us.”

“But we’ll be in the same fix again later, unless you have more cancellers at the next stop?”

The rabbit shakes its head. A crack resounds from a data-killer’s leg in one of the big machine’s choppers. Through the trees you see several, small, black machines approaching in vigorous zigzags.

You look at Rafe, but cannot tell whether he is afraid his own plan will not work, or simply troubled by a decision that must be so quickly made.

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3 – 5
Attempt untagging – Head underground

Rafe presses his lips together, and thrusts the device back into his basket.

“Try to disable one of the smaller ones and bring it to the safe spot, where we can work on it thoroughly.”

You draw the cancellers from the machine-rabbit’s bag: worn, blackened, leather hoods, each with tail housing a thin, jointed computer. Each hood comes down past the eyes, and between the eyeholes is a small, metal hole centered over the hole in your forehead, connected with the computer at the back by a wire. Rafe hands you an item like a glass rod, a foot long, and thin as a grass stem, with a metal cap at the end. He tells you to break it, which is more difficult to do than you would have expected; after an effort it snaps, but rather than breaking into pieces it turns white, and becomes flexible as a riding crop. Rafe slides his into the hole in the front of his hood, and so into the hole in his head, and locks the cap in place. You wonder how this can be, as the rod is longer than his head, and ought to extend several inches out of the back; but when you do the same as him you feel nothing. However, the thought of the long stem passing into you makes your scalp tingle and tighten.

The rabbit-machine gives you brief directions, and you set out running. The crashes and hot computer smells of the odd battle fade behind you. After passing the landmark – a glass grapevine climbing a tree – you turn left, and soon see the small enclosure through the trees. It is a rectangle of metal fence, like one would find surrounding a family grave site, and when you approach it you see that the opening into the underground safe place is itself shaped just like a freshly dug grave. Rafe unlocks and draws out the rod from his hood.

“Only just in time. These cancellers must not be fresh.”

The rod has already darkened to a grey color.

You hear the sound of clapping, and you see the imp lounging in the skeleton of a truck, clapping with its hind hands, and with its fore hands behind its head.

“Have you decided to help us?” Rafe asks. The imp sits up and puts its fore hands and on the “knees” of its hind arms and pulls a toothy smile.

“You haven’t a choice but to take my help now.”

“How so?”

“You’re sweet friends,” it says, waving a finger the way you came, “I tagged them all.”

“Why?” you ask with just indignation.

“Whatever reason you like. But the fact is, I, and I alone, am at your disposal.”

“But how did you do it, and arrive here before us?” Rafe asks.

“Simplicity.” it says, and flicks out its hand after dipping it in a satchel. A thing like a black zip-tie strikes Rafe’s wrist, and wraps itself around, cinching tight. A small, black object dangles from it. The imp chuckles through its teeth.

“I have plenty. They’ll get them off if they have the wherewithal. As for arriving before you two lead-hooves…” he makes a face indicative of heavily injured dignity.

“Will they try to take refuge here?” you ask.

“There is a reason they had you wear cancellers to get here.”

“And how will you help us?” Rafe asks.

It spreads all its hands, gesturing to the wreck it sits in.

“Climb aboard! This isn’t as dead as it looks.”

You take the chance while there is still a modicum left of your cancellers. After a rough handling of the controls by the imp, the ragged frame scrapes across the loose ground, showering the fence and the funebral hole in its wake. This particular vehicle, as if to compensate for having little more than a few, charred sticks of metal left of its body, possesses several additional levers and “steering” wheels of various sizes. It is just as well its driver has additional hands. The naked machine crackles with a bestial grinding all around you, as the imp steers it like a swaying yacht cresting jagged waves. Curtains of debris leap up on either side and fall back, like porpoises made of dirty, wooden froth. But as the journey progresses, the imp becomes more impatient and exasperated.

The “car” growls to a halt with a gutteral clatter outside a two-story high, chain-link fence. Skins and hides of various hard to identify beasts and vermin hang from all parts of the fence in morbid array. Mounted on the top of every fence pole is a swiveling, metal eye.

“Out now!” the imp cries with a flap of its hand. You get out and thank it, and it drives away without another word.

You approach a section of the fence made to open like a door, but smaller in size than any ordinary door. Rafe begins to wire his device into the computerized lock.

“It will take some time to work out setting up access for a new person.”

But there is no time. Out of the trees an army begins to shuffle quietly. These are more various in shape than any of the data-killers you have yet encountered, but all seem to be made of the black circuit boards you have seen in other places, all sparkling with the tiny lights of glaring red.

But also out of the forest comes the now exultant voice of the imp:

“This is it! Have no worries my lead-hooves, I’ll handle these!”

How does it mean to handle them?

Original Post

1 – 2
Machination – Improvisation

Rafe wires his device into the gate as swiftly as he can with trembling fingers. The data-killers crowd out of the trees to trap the two of you against the fence, and the thin sound of their shuffling stings your ears, quiet as it is. The imp has been hardly helpful so far; you hear it cackling to itself a ways off, but it seems to be lingering inside its decrepit “car”.

A cold, computerized howl starts up behind you. Glancing back through the fence, you see a green hill, and at its height the Anvil Memorial – an anvil the size of a house. On the memorial you see the shape of an awkwardly formed robotic dog, nose to the “sky”, giving vent to some unknown emotion.

Looking again at the host of black circuit-board automatons, you see the imp is suddenly nearby, with its big, battered satchel. It is throwing the black zip-tags it had shown you before, and throwing them at the data-killers.

It had never occurred to you to think what would happen if the data-killers themselves were tagged with their own tags. The zip-tags thrown by the imp tighten onto wires, aerials, or other convenient parts, and each data-killer so tagged comes to a halt, and its tiny red lights blink and go out by the thousands. Others nearby pause as if distracted.

“Now,” says the imp, “let us revel.” He draws from his satchel something like old-fashioned alarm clock bells mounted on a taser mace, and it puts out a loud, rapid clacking. You tense, as all around every beast hide hanging on the fence writhes and flaps.

Many wrench or tear themselves free of their fastenings, and begin a vicious melee, bestial and ragged set against dark, exposed circuitry. The imp screams with glee.

But Rafe is having trouble speaking into his device in all the noise. You realize that he could easily let himself in, rather than taking the time to set up access for you as well.

You spare a glance from the fighting to look again through the fence at the green hill, and the giant anvil near the high, stony ceiling. The dog machine is nowhere to be seen.

Then a sliding and a metallic rustling makes your heart leap. The gate is open, and Rafe is pulling you through the low, narrow opening. He roughly frees his device and throws the gate closed; it relocks with a harsh snap.

The imp turns and tips its cap, again flashing its brain-like head of hair.

“If that is all, my lead-hooves, I shall bid you adieu. This new one is more than I am up for, I don’t mind saying.” And it springs immediately into the trees. The raging beast skins also roll and hurtle themselves back onto the fence, where they hang themselves up and play dead.

There is nothing more to explain this sudden vanishment of enthusiasm and ferocity than the presence of a small, plastic heron with a slippery looking eye. It had certainly not been there before.

There is a silence. You hang in doubt just as the skins hang on the thin, chain link barrier.

Then one of the smallest data-killer units buzzes up to the gate and latches onto the wires with little, metal jaws. A cord uncoils from one of the metal eyes at the top of the fence like the proboscis of a butterfly. The cord fastens inexorably to the data-killer with a touch, and in a surreally casual movement flicks it up into the air. It vanishes into the stones of the roof by some unknown process.

You and Rafe laugh, and turn away with lighter hearts. The two of you walk up the hill towards the memorial; the grass here is real, and wet when crushed. Your brain is spinning with the unfamiliar feeling of safety.

The data-killer disappearing through the roof brings something to your mind.

“Rafe, I broke the roof once. I almost saw outside. But that was also when my first clear memory came to me. I would like to try again here: we may find out something useful, and if it only triggers clearer memory at least that won’t be a liability here.”

“Perhaps you will remember something, and I will see outside. Is there any preparation needed?”

You shake your head.

“But we had better do it around a corner of the big anvil: I don’t know how much the rocks hurt if they hit you.”

The great horn of the anvil is larger than a van. Standing under it with Rafe you look around the corner, and bend reality with all your intent and purpose. As before, nothing happens for a time.

Now, unlike before, there is an echoing sound like a wrong answer buzzer in a game-show. At the same moment a ghostly figure comes down towards you, as if you pulled it out of the roof.

It is an old man in glistening robes, with shining eyes and a heavy mace of office. Its voice crackles from a distant sound system speaker.

“No! You are so hard to deal with. But my watchdog saw you when you broke it last time. I dislike you now, you know.”

Its eyes flash, and it swings the mace at your head. You dart under the blow, and cling to its transparent waist from behind. Rafe seizes the mace before the phantom can swing it again, and twists it out of its grip.

There is a grating squeak as the mace leaves the thing’s hand, and both mace and phantom turn to flying dust. With a thud like the fall of a dead ox on the floor above, all the lights go out, and you see a message glowing in the dark:

Connection lost_

You are back on the gridwork platform, with the old, dusty keyboard before you. But Rafe is there too.

Another message appears:

Pending process in wing:
 Cosmant

Rafe looks at you, then pulls his device from the pocket of his coat where, fortunately, he had stuffed it after the fight at the gate. He begins to wire it into the side of the keyboard, and you feel excited as a child. When it is connected, the message hovering in the darkness changes.

Rafe, is that you?

“I’m here Ace. List ‘Cosmant’ directory ‘souverain contraintes’. Please.”

Righto

A column of data stacks up, and Rafe scans through it.

“Move file ‘souiller contrat’, and accompanying files to directory ‘Crispin’, flag and skip ‘Mullos’, ‘winter’, and ‘Mullos_4’, enter ‘windpack56g4’ at 5L, and end ‘cyclisme’.”

Ah, splendid
Process finalization

Rafe straightens his back exultantly. He seems full of more nerve and energy than at any point before, even in a fight. He turns to you with a nearly theatrical sweep.

“Well, “Cosmant”, feeling better? You’ll feel good enough soon. Look there.”

He points into the darkness opposite the keyboard. You turn and see the back of the closed eyelids of a human eye. A warm light like distant or indirect sunlight is welling softly through the skin, and the perfectly curving seam where the lids meet draws you like the surface of a lake seen from beneath when you can hold your breath no longer. Rafe is still pointing.

“I never thought it.” he says. “To regain only my own mind I had lost hope and desire. But now it is offered to us to live, to see and touch what is real, to meet each other in truth, not in fabricated representations. We can walk in the real fields, and see the real sun riding over the fatherland in a pure sky. “Cosmant” is an escape. I never thought I would see that.”

He turns back to the keyboard, and goes still. You feel his spirit collapsing again into numbness. The final messages at the bottom of the code hanging in the shadows read:

Inactive parties press Enter until process recipient remains
I’m sorry Rafe
There’s someone with you isn’t there?
No end sorry

“You’re alright, no worries Ace. It’s no one’s fault.” Then, after staring blankly for some moments: “Show default redirect destination of inactive parties.”

Point of last login

Rafe turns to you a face difficult to read in the dim light.

“So that’s the story is it. One gets free, the other gets landed at the point of last login: outside the gate.”

The thought rises of several hundred thousands of red lights and the gleam of a plastic bird’s eye, a grim vision blotting out the picture of freedom and light you had felt and Rafe had painted before you with his words.

You put out your hand to press Enter. But Rafe is already doing the same. You both pause, each with a hand hovering near the key, and you wish you could see his face better.

“Goodbye Rafe. Thank you. God be with you.”

He smiles, and this you can see, even with only the dim light of the luminescent code on one side, and the faint glow of the way out on the other.

“Goodbye “Cosmant”. You’ve given me a reason to remember. God go with you wherever you are. I hope we meet again, though the blackness of forgetfulness lies between.”

But still one of you must choose to let the other go, and face the data-killers, who will certainly waste no time capturing whoever they find and erasing all memory of friendship and almost tasted liberty. Who will make the sacrifice?

Original Post

3 – 2
Rafe does – You do

“Rafe, you should be the one to go free. You’ve done everything for me, let me do this. I’ve lost all my memory before. Go and see the sun over your land like you said.”

“I’ve never left something unfinished that I set out to do, and I’ve set out to help you. Like I said, you’ve given me a reason to remember. I would never have come here if I wasn’t ready all along to do exactly this. Leaving you behind would be giving up for me, and I would not want to return home in such a way.”

“Nor would I. You have helped me, and here finally is a time I can help you. And who knows? Perhaps you can help me from the other side. I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to help you, and I wouldn’t be able to bear that.”

Rafe holds up his hand.

“Now, I understand what you mean, I won’t pretend that you don’t make good points. But this is a choice of unknowns when it comes down to it. Let us choose by lot. I’m one, and you’ll be two.”

He spoke again into his device.

“Print a random integer from one to two.”

The number immediately glows in the darkness:

1

Rafe nods to you.

“Does that settle it?”

“Does this mean you are chosen to go out, or to go back?”

“To go back, naturally.”

“Well, just to make sure you aren’t trying to save me using commands I don’t know: I’m three, and you’re four.”

You take his hand that holds the device, and speak into it yourself.

“Print a random integer from three to four.”

4
Is that the other?
He has a good voice

“Thank you Ace.” you reply, and turn to Rafe. “It seems you’ve won. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“I’m not sure. Like I said, it is a choice of unknowns. But give me something of yours; it may help to remember.”

“I don’t have much… You put on my vest. It may not fit or suit you well, but that might even help.”

“Anyway, it reminds me of my grandmother’s couch; by the time I was born it had reached just such an enigmatic hue.”

The impending departure stifles what would have been a laugh, but there is a smile between you as the vest is transferred. You remind Rafe to unwire his device. Before he does he bids farewell to Ace. Then he takes a deep breath.

“Well now, goodbye then. For your sake I’ll go down fighting if I can. Give my regards to the fatherland. God go with you.”

He presses his fingers down on Enter. There is a heavy thud, as there was when the lights went out, and Rafe goes out like a light. A new message displays:

Process recipient may now press Enter to fulfil Cosmant

You spend some time breathing. It is no use trying not to picture what may be happening. Then you wonder whether you can at least get a response out of Ace from the keyboard, without Rafe’s device. You type an experimental message:

“Does this even work Ace? Can you tell if Rafe made it?”

Unrecognised command_
Well, not for anything official
But what is “Rafe”?
I have nothing matching this

You shudder and bite your lip. After a moment you bring yourself to type something further:

“Nevermind. Do you know what is outside of this whole place?”

Unrecognised command_
Pardon me
Are we in something?

“I hope you get out too somehow. Goodbye Ace.”

Unrecognised command_
Farewell then
Press Enter to fulfil Cosmant

Your fingers press down the Enter key. You take the form of Cosmant, and feel as when you touched the floating light. In a splinter of time you fear that you will immediately lose this form, and land in a default redirect, perhaps in the very arms of a mindless Rafe. But instead…

* * * * *

Ringing, an alarm; your ears are unused to the sound; but they are your own ears. Lights flash, blinding to your real eyes. You can only rejoice in the pain, but not for a moment do you forget your purpose. You try to move, and are surprised that you can move easily. You begin to sit up, but find yourself already sitting, apparently in a seat with arms. Before you can leave it, strong hands firmly hold you back. The lights and sounds of the alarm are shut down. You recognize the dim, warm glow that replaces the flashing.

Your head is circled with machines that look like lamps, but are clearly for a different purpose. There is a sound of keypads, and the lights shimmer rapidly. You ask them to look up Rafe in their backup files. You hear them saying things like: “Does the manager know?”, “This is the one he was hoping for, is he not?”, “A-t-il bien fait?”

Then a voice that makes your heart jump:

“That’s it finished? Put up the hood then.”

The ring of machines is raised from around your head. As your eyes refocus you see a man standing. He is older than you remember him. It is Rafe.

“You’ve done well.” he says. “Your foundation is deeper than memory or skill. You may not have seen where you succeeded or failed, but you have passed, and will join the select ten under my personal instruction. You are an honor to the fatherland.”

He clasps your hand warmly. Then he turns a little and speaks to the attendants:

“Go get his son! Tell him his father is awake.”

But, as he turns, you see beneath his coat a familiar vest, which does not suit him very well.

Finis

What should this story be called?

Original Post

4 – 1
The Maze of Lethe – Cosmant

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