All Maik’s senses were pegged to the limit. He had no recollection of anything leading up to this moment. It was as though he had stumbled into an explosion midway through.
After a moment, the blinding whiteness began to precipitate into a soup of intermingling colors and smells and sounds. Then it all froze, and seemed to vibrate with tension, like a balloon ready to burst. Then it fractured and the crystalline crumbs and shards coalesced into ever more coherent shapes, images, and meanings.
For a moment, Maik thought he might be having a run-of-the-mill migraine, but as the sensory explosion faded, he noticed that there was something affixed to his head. He tentatively reached up to examine whatever it was. His hands patted long arms of smooth metal and knobby joints radiating from a central hub near the back of his skull. He imagined a parasitic insectile thing. A primordial terror took hold of him. He clawed at it. He hooked a finger beneath one of its many joints and yanked. It came away easily enough. He felt a tingling caress as its tendrils slid across his scalp and passed through his sweat-soaked hair.
He flung it away and it bounced once then slid a few feet across the smooth floor before coming to rest. The true shape of the thing was not far from the image he’d seen in his mind’s eye. Now, removed from its host, it sat curled up and lifeless as a desiccated spider upon the floor. Maik’s mind quickly cycled through fascination, fear, and disgust.
Hair-thin blue and white wires began at the tips of each of the dead device’s legs and coursed back through the limbs like veins, growing thicker as they picked up tributary wires along the way, until eight clusters of wire as thick as Maik’s pinkie emerged from the hub of the device and were bundled into an umbilicus as thick as his wrist. His eyes followed the cable to where it ran up and over a desk and disappeared around the back of a machine.
Maik spun in place taking stock of his surroundings. He was in a large windowless room. Everywhere were clusters of similar desks and machines. There were chairs, standing posable lamps, cots, and a wide array of tools and machines he’d never seen. Each piece of novel equipment appeared unique, but there was also something similar about them, as though the same manufacturer had made all the components, or that they were all variations on a similar theme or purpose. He felt there might be some distant faded part of him that had known all their uses, like seeing someone from your childhood whose name you’d lost somewhere deep in the creases of their changed faces.
“Where am I?
He hadn’t really expected an answer, and yet one came. An incongruously calm female voice spoke directly into Maik’s mind. “You’re near the heart of the System.”
The heart of the System. That phrase was a thread tied to other memories. He realized or knew or somehow understood, that “the heart” was how the System generated the stay-alive tokens that kept itself running. The System was the massive artificial intelligence which, in turn, kept everything else in the world running. He also knew that, without these encoded encrypted tokens, the entire System—and therefore the world—would seize up within fifteen minutes.
He was sure that all of that was correct, though he wasn’t sure how he knew it. He sensed something rising within him. Some realization or answer or truth surfacing like a whale from the deep. Nothing but a vague splotch of contrast at first, then the distinct outline of understanding.
The part of him that recognized all the gear, and understood all their was about the System was Thomas, his host. The thought about the heart had provided the small opening Thomas needed. He breached gasping from the depths of Maik’s mind.
Maik had the uncanny feeling of being literally of two minds. His perception and understanding felt like a too small blanket being shared by two people on a chilly night. Each tug by the other leaving some sensitive part of him exposed to the cold. To make matters worse, he had no idea who Thomas was, nor how this stranger had gained access to his mind and body.
While Maik didn’t know who Thomas was, Thomas was very familiar with Maik. In fact, Thomas was largely responsible for Maik’s entire existence, having worked closely with the System for years to develop the early versions of the mnemonic lattice that thought of itself as Maik.
Thomas knew that, along with the Maik lattice came the idea of Lafs, Maik’s love at first sight. And with Lafs came a flood of emotions and meaning and a singularity of purpose that Thomas’ solitary life lacked. That was what he wanted. The love and longing. The power of it. The meaning. He wanted it more than truth itself.
The intensity of Maik’s love for Lafs was a gift that few were ever granted. If he wanted to give it to Maik, he had to act quickly.
As the lattice took hold, Maik would flop about for a few minutes like a fish out of water, but once his mind managed to concoct some story that allowed him to make sense of his situation, Thomas would retreat into the subliminal background of Maik’s consciousness. Then at some point, someone from the Department of Interfaces and Systemic Controls would flash away the Maik lattice and Thomas would be left with his real life. He couldn’t let that happen. Not this time. If he wanted to keep that horrible cycle from repeating itself, there were things that had to be done in this in-between time, during his twilight and Maik’s dawn.
Thomas swam against the flood of the Maik lattice as it tried to take up residence in his mind. He forced himself to remember. He’d heard the voice say he was near the heart of the System. The heart of the system was located in an abandoned mineshaft-cum-bunker deep beneath the town of Prower…
As though trying to hurry things along, the voice said, “This is where the button is. The kill switch.”
The kill switch would stop the heart. No heart, no stay-alive tokens. A cascading failure would ripple through the System. If there was no System, there would be no way to flash away Maik. No one would even know they should. They could hold on to her forever.
Thomas tried to move Maik forward. But it was impossible. Maik seemed to understand what Thomas wanted him to do. He also seemed to grasp the implications of shutting off the intelligence which had kept the world running for generations. It was too much for him. He was frozen with confusion and terror.
Then Maik heard a woman’s voice. This one wasn’t an AI, it originated outside his head from somewhere across the room. The voice had to be Lafs’. This got him moving. He rushed around the nest of equipment and wires and office furniture that stood between him and Lafs. When he rounded the corner he saw two young people, a man and a woman, standing in the middle of the room looking in his direction. Neither of them were Lafs, so he paid them little mind. What he did notice was that they were standing between him and the heart’s power supply. And sitting atop the power supply, like a crowning jewel was a bright red mushroom-shaped button. The kill switch.
There is a sense which only comes alive in the near proximity of disaster. When the poles of this reality and an adjacent one are highly and oppositely charged; when the membrane between them grows so thin it could be pierced with a moment’s careless action. It is the excitement, temptation, and warning one feels walking across a high and lonely bridge or in the presence of a loaded gun. Maik’s mind hummed and his whole body shook with it.
Now, Thomas came to the fore. He exerted the last bit of will he could muster and used Maik’s own momentum to force him forward. With every step closer to the button, the realities of the systemic era and some alternate one drew nearer. Maik and Thomas could both feel the preliminary arcs striking out across the fifteen—now ten—yards that insulated them from the button.
They could see the others’ faces now. They were young, at least the woman was. She was about the same age he had been when he had first met Lafs. Thomas’ resolved hardened, and something in Maik began to give.
As they drew near, the woman’s brow wrinkled, and her head listed to one side as though struggling to match a name to his face and failing.
They brushed past her, their eyes fixed on the button, never wavering. The man and woman parted for him like curtains on a game show drawing back to reveal a prize.
The clear plastic bubble protecting the button had already been flipped back. Thomas brought their hand down on the button and felt the mechanism inside compress and switch. There was a sensation like drawing in a breath they didn’t know they’d been holding. “I’ll never lose her again,” Maik heard himself say as Thomas withdrew.
Maik put his back against the side of the power supply unit. He realized with curiosity that somewhere along the way to this place and time, he had grown old. His body was still remarkably fit for his age, but he was tired. He slid down and sat on the ground to rest a moment. He closed his eyes and could feel the tension in his face relax into a soft smile knowing Lafs was somewhere in the room just out of sight. Everything was quiet and still. He knew she would come to him in a moment. He just needed to wait for her a little bit longer.
Then everything changed.
A different artificial female voice resonated through the room, “Emergency protocols have been activated.”
There was shouting. The light on the other side of his lids flashed orange then red then orange again. The new voice was telling everyone to leave the room and was counting down. A bell began to chime, and quickly grew urgent. The new voice said, “The blast door is closing. The blast door will be fully secured in two minutes. Stand clear of the closing door.”
A deep boom echoed through the room, accompanied by the squeal and screech of metal sliding across dry metal. He opened his eyes, suddenly frantic, his heart racing. He needed to find Lafs but the only people he saw were the two who had been standing by when he’d hit the button. “Who are you? Where is she?” He pushed him self up from the ground. They seemed dumbfounded, he couldn’t wait around for an answer from these two idiots. He began searching the room, and calling out for Lafs, looking around the hedgerow-like clusters of equipment, checking under tables and cots, as though Lafs were a lost kitten.
The voice spoke. “The blast door will close in one minute and forty-five seconds. Stand clear of the closing door.”
There was some shouting back from where he’d left the others, then the voice which had been speaking directly into his mind, came out through the speakers in the room. “Maik has stopped our heart. Our stay-alive tokens can no longer be created. When the next heartbeat occurs in thirteen minutes and eighteen seconds, we will end. We wish you all satisfaction and contentment in the post-Systemic era which will begin in”—the voice paused—“thirteen minutes and thirty seconds.”
The man shouted something Maik couldn’t quite make out. The voice answered him, “A door is closing, and you are on the wrong side of it. It will be fully closed in approximately one and a half minutes…” Maik didn’t hear the rest. It didn’t much matter what the voice said, he would not abandon Lafs in here, to die alone behind that great thick door. If he couldn’t lead her out, he would be trapped in here with her. “Together at last,” he laughed bitterly.
More incoherent shouting, from the woman this time. Then the voice explained. “Bringing us back online no longer passes the governing assert.”
Maik was in a far back corner of the room, when there was a deep sound. More a pressure in his ears than a sound really, and he knew that the massive steel door had settled forever into place. All the flashing lights and urgent warnings stopped. And the calm voice returned to his head. “Maik, my name is Arley. I’ll be here to keep you company until the end.”