Prologue – The heart of the System

Maik emerged midway through the explosion, just after the flash, his senses slammed beyond their limits, reeling.

The whiteness precipitated into a soup of intermingling colors and smells and sounds. Everything crystallized and began to vibrate with tension, like a balloon about to burst. It ruptured, the shards gathered into ever-more coherent and identifiable shapes.

Maik spun in place, taking stock of his surroundings. He was in a large windowless room. Everywhere were clusters of equipment and furniture. There were chairs, standing posable lamps, cots, and a wide array of tools and machines that seemed unfamiliar at first, but he thought there was some distant part of him that could name them and their uses, like each was a childhood classmate whose name had gotten lost deep in the creases of their changed face.

And there were so many wires. Wires running everywhere. One particularly thick bundle snaked its way toward him. He ran his hand along it and followed its course, up and over his shoulder to where it connected to whatever it was that was affixed to his head. He tentatively patted the smooth metallic segments and knobby joints of arms radiating from a central hub near the back of his skull. He imagined a parasitic insectile thing and a primordial terror took hold of him. He clawed at the thing and hooked a finger beneath one of its joints. He yanked and felt a tingling caress as its tendrils slid across his scalp and passed through his sweat-soaked hair.

He flung it away. It bounced once then slid across the floor before coming to rest a dozen feet away. Now, removed from its host, it sat curled up and lifeless as a desiccated spider. Hair-thin blue and white wires began at the tips of each of the dead thing’s legs and coursed like veins through its limbs, growing thicker as they picked up tributary wires along the way. Eight clusters of wire as thick as Maik’s pinkie emerged from its hub. These 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. He wanted to look away from the thing but couldn’t. His lips curled down in a grimace, and a chill traced the length of his spine.

“Where the hell am I?”

He hadn’t expected an answer, yet one came. An incongruously calm female voice spoke directly into Maik’s mind. “You’re near the heart of the System.”

“The System” was certainly the artificial intelligence that kept the world running. He’d never heard that it had a heart. Still there was something about the phrase he found familiar. He mulled it over for a moment. Then he found something, a tiny tenuous thread that connected the words to an idea. That idea lead to an entire subterranean world of memories. Somewhere deep in that network was the knowledge that “the heart” was needed to keep the System running. Without it, the System—and therefore the world—would end.

Maik wanted to get as far from the System’s heart as possible before he screwed something up. But first he had to find Lafs.

Then he sensed something rising within him. Some other will surfacing like a creature pulling itself up from the deep along that single connective fiber. It was nothing but a splotch of contrast at first, then it took shape, and finally Thomas breached gasping from the depths of Maik’s mind.

Now Maik had to accommodate two wills and two sets of memories. His attention was like a too small blanket being tugged at by two dreamers on a chilly night.

While Maik did not understand who Thomas was, Thomas was very familiar with Maik. It was Thomas who had partnered with the System to carefully construct the mnemonic lattice that thought of itself as Maik. Thomas who had imagined a woman, Lafs, and made her the bones and branches of the Maik lattice. Who had sculpted noses, cheeks, and lips; staged scenes, and scripted dialog. Who had draped and decorated Maik’s past with memories, and dribbled and dyed and brushed the broad strokes of Maik’s emotions. When he was done, he had tied off all the loose ends, tucked under the incongruities, and feathered over the seams until Maik’s mindscape was so real and so satisfying, that it became the life Thomas wanted to inhabit.

Thomas yearned to live with the memories of how Maik and Lafs had met and fell in love. Of how Maik would lay next to her aglow with awe that she was alive in the world. He even longed for the painful lurch as her departure levered him out into the unknown world to retrieve her and make himself whole again. Thomas wanted it all. He wanted it more than truth. But if he hoped to have any of it, he had to act.

Thomas could still exert some influence while the Maik lattice flopped about trying to make sense of its new host and its environment, but once their shared mind concocted a story that explained the situation, Thomas would be forced into the background, and this opportunity would be lost forever. He couldn’t let that happen, there were things Thomas needed to do before his twilight and Maik’s dawn.

Thomas swam against the flood of the Maik lattice as it poured into the corners and creases of his mind. He willed himself to remember why he’d come to the bottom of this mineshaft-cum-bunker deep beneath the town of Prower. He focused on what he planned to do here.

As though offering its help, the voice in his head added, “This is where the button is. The kill switch.”
The kill switch would stop the heart and with it the stay-alive tokens. No tokens would cause a cascade of failures through out the System. Without the System, there would be no DISC, no HSCI tech, no way to ever flash away the Maik lattice, and he could hold on to Lafs forever.

Thomas tried to compel them forward, but their shared mind understood what Thomas intended. Maik had followed Thomas’ reasoning and had grasped the implications, and was having none of it.
Then Maik heard a woman’s voice. This was a new voice, it originated not inside his head, but from somewhere across the room and out of sight. It had to be Lafs.

He rushed around a nearby nest of equipment and wires and office furniture that stood between him and the voice. He saw 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. Just beyond them was a console adorned with caution stripes. Sitting on top, like a crown jewel on a pillow, was a bright red mushroom-shaped button. Thomas’ memories whispered to him, “That’s the kill switch.”

Now, Thomas tapped into a reserve of will and came to the fore. He marionetted their legs and moved them ahead.

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. Their mind hummed and their whole body shook with it. With every step they took toward the button, the systemic era and some alternate reality drew nearer. They could feel the preliminary arcs striking out across the dwindling distance.

As they drew near, the woman’s brow wrinkled, and her head listed to one side as though trying to match a name to their face. She was about the same age Lafs had been when Maik first met her. Thomas’ resolve hardened, and Maik’s began to slip away. The man and woman parted like game show curtains and Thomas fixed their eyes on the button.

The clear plastic protective bubble had already been flipped back. Before Maik realized what was happening, Thomas mustered a final surge of will and brought their hand down heavily on the button. The mechanism inside compressed and clicked.

Maik heard himself say, “I’ll never lose her again.” Then he was alone with his thoughts, and the peculiar feeling that he had been watching himself from afar.

Everything was quiet and still. He let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, put his back against the side of the console, and slid down to sit on the floor. He closed his eyes and could feel the tension in his face relax into a soft smile. Lafs was somewhere in the room. He’d heard her, she was just out of sight. She would come find him in a moment. He just needed to wait for her.

Then everything changed.

The light on the other side of his closed lids flashed orange then red then orange again. A new voice resonated through the room, this one stilted, tinny, and obviously artificial. “Emergency protocols have been activated.” This new voice told everyone to leave. It began counting down. A bell chimed and quickly grew urgent. The artificial voice said, “The blast door is closing. The blast door will be fully secured in two minutes.”

A deep boom echoed through the room, accompanied by the screech of metal sliding across dry metal. Maik opened his eyes and pushed himself up from the ground. His heart racing. Lafs was here. She had to be. Why else would he have come? He needed to find her. He turned to the two strangers who had watched him press the button. He demanded, “Where is she?” Their eyes tightened as though trying to read an unfamiliar word in tiny print. The man cocked his head like a confused dog. He couldn’t wait for these two idiots to answer. He began searching the room, and calling out for Lafs, looking around the clusters of equipment, and checking under tables and cots as though she 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 other voice, the calm one that had been speaking directly into his mind, came 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.” Maik didn’t hear the rest. It didn’t much matter what the voice said, he would not abandon Lafs to die alone behind that great thick door.

Maik was in a far back corner of the room, when there was a deep boom. More a pressure in his ears than a sound. He knew that the massive steel door had settled forever into its place.

The flashing lights, urgent warnings, and shouts from the strangers all stopped. And the calm voice returned to his head. “Hello Maik, my name is Arley. I’ll keep you company until the end.”

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