by Elyn Turne, January 10th 2023
“I happened on a house,
Built of living Light,
Where everything evil,
Disappears and dies.”
Millennia ago Toba nearly extinguished the light of the sun, dwindling earth’s population to around 10,000 people. What did those survivors think when the ash finally cleared – those tribes who retreated to caves with only wise oracles to assure them it was not the end. A time when there was no art or ethos to explain the loneliness of shivering under ashen skies, crowded around meager fires and dim gray light falling Godlessly through the entrance. 10,000 people. What would the stoic traveler think upon leaving to find something out there among those empty twilit steppes?
Portrovieda, Charon, Hell
I take the elevator up from below the surface, where critical infrastructure is. On the ground level inside my sector of Dome 9, the climate generator doesn’t work properly anymore. It used to have dynamic weather, now it only snows on days it was programmed to rain. The husk of a tree sits in dome square, just as gray as the simulation of an overcast sky projected at the roof of our enclosure. There’s no wind, just the stale recycled air that hums through the dusty vents in the streets. When I was young I would look at the sky as I walked. Now I just look at the ground.
I work at Dark Fantasies, an adult entertainment lounge on the corner by the dome square. It has the most hardcore debauchery someone can get in this place. Emphasis on fantasies – fictional settings and creatures. Elves, orcs, dwarves. Then there’s the stuff addicts need because their brains get so beamed – dragons, werewolves, tentacle monsters. All forms of depravity in the fantastic are at our disposal. Red neon signs flash in the window, “X++++.” Tier 4 scenarios. They can rewrite beta waves. People who come here too much start to lose their grip. I see it through their sanpaku eyes.
My morning shift consists mostly of clients who want to escape hangovers. A few hours of hedonistic bliss while their bodies purge the poison. One out, another in. These are the people who want the most vanilla scenarios. They’ll pop in for a little mischief in a bathhouse or maybe unwind with their milkmaid wife on the farm. That’s not so bad I guess. People here are lonely.
A miner comes in – a regular here – and asks for one of his usual scenarios. He picks Noble Knight: Seaside Castle. A tired knight returning at last to his endearing maiden. He’s ashamed to come in, but leaving is always worse. What feels like days can pass. It’s not like a lucid dream, his regular life will fall away, and he’ll start to think perhaps he really is somewhere better. Portovieda, Charon, Pluto, what are those again? What’s the System? By the time he’s accepted it, the scenario ends, and he’s plunged back into this frigid box with a splitting headache. And then he’ll see my face: a sight for when his life has gone from pure ecstasy to utter disappointment, regret, sorrow.
But he won’t berate me, because between myself and my clients, there’s an agreement: I’ve never judged. I never sneer, I never shake my head. I guide them to the booth, plug them in, and take them away. I’m like the ferrylady, but they don’t get to stay dead. I know my job and I know my place. I’ve read descriptions for these things, I know what the “Dragon’s Lair” is. I know when someone’s about to crawl up a dragon’s asshole and hammer away on its prostate like a bongo drum. But this unwritten agreement is what they pay for. They pay not only to crawl up a dragon’s ass in lala land, but for me to stand there professionally and act like that’s an entirely normal thing.
However, this miner only wants to be a heroic figure in a world where maybe he had a chance. There’s no shame in that. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that’s a “dark fantasy.” Dragons, ghouls, demons, eldritch monstrosities, absolutely. Perhaps something worse it’s fortunate there aren’t words for. But the notion that somewhere, out there in the mire of space and time there’s someone who loves him the most – that’s just a dream.
I hear the clack of heels and boots on the pavement outside. They approach with the petty urgency of a tyrant. I stand and smooth my uniform as the door slides open. Nyx Nakamura, the youngest daughter of the Chief’s children. Her and her lackeys. She’s only 20, but parades around the city as though she has earned the respect of us. In a way she has. She stands taller than anyone else in the city, ready to make an example of anyone she pleases. I’ve seen her do it, once puncturing the throat of a doomsayer preaching apocalypse at the tree in dome square. In a flash the nail of her middle finger extended, instantly, like a bolt gun used to slaughter cattle. It was strange seeing someone die in that way. I always thought it would be dramatic, cinematic even, but it wasn’t. He kind of just clutched his throat, and dropped to his knees. Slowly, he bled to death, kneeling there like a pennant monk, his exact moment of death ambiguous.
I gently cross my hands over my breast and bow, the way we are to greet any of the Chief’s family.
“Good morning Miss Nakamura,” I keep my eyes toward the ground as I address her “how may I assist you?”
“I need to book a party scenario.” Party scenarios are when ‘Fantasies gets reserved for a group to interlink their minds and interact with each other inside of it. It takes an extraordinary amount of processing power, so we have to close all of the booths to the lounge on those days. As a result, it’s also expensive enough so that only people from Portrovieda Prime are wealthy enough to make reservations for one. It must be done in person, so our systems can analyze each party’s brainwaves to ensure nobody accidentally gets cooked while inside.
“At once Ma’am,” I smile politely and open the reservation interface. “We can get you in as early as tomorrow.” I’m scheduled to work tomorrow as well, making me the party hostess. The role of a host or hostess in the scenario is usually minimal, but requires us to upload into the scenario with the guests. We function mostly as a vendor, to interact with the central server and to spawn any requested “props.” Our models within the scenario can also be used as one. There’s a mutual respect between our clients and ourselves in which this is nearly unheard of. However, a couple years ago there was a girl who worked here and was scheduled to host Miss Nakamura’s 18th birthday party. She got fried while hosting in there, and the Therapists chalked it up to a critical CBPU failure. But I looked up the logs. Everything in their scenario (Writhing Times: Nightclub Madness) happened in the restroom. Scenarios that require extensive fluid simulations are really hard on the CPBU, and hers was probably too out of date to handle it.
Miss Nakamura finishes selecting her scenario and books “Horsing Around: Barnyard Brawl.” She and her entourage all scan themselves into our system.
My stomach feels cold, like I’ve already been stabbed but it hasn’t happened yet. “It will be ready tomorrow whenever you wish, Ma’am.” Miss Nakemura’s OS is equipped with a metabolic sensor, effective as a crystal ball. I can feel her reading me as her eyes turn a hateful crimson. She can instantly sense my fear. “There is a problem,” she interjects.
She continues to look past me as she scans my profile, spitting out my name as though it’s tainted with arsenic. “Celeste Mary Fisher. Your heart rate has nearly doubled, your lips curved downward in an 11% trajectory. You are beginning to perspire.” She raises an eyebrow. “2028 earthborn?”
I abashedly nod, like a broken slave. “You still have a Tesla CBPU. Those tubes are butchertech. It looks like you’re living on borrowed time.”
She smells me pissing myself. After licking her jagged golden teeth hungrily, she leans in, looming over me. Three whites above her crimson pupils – drunk on psychosis. She whispers, quietly, just for the two of us. A corrupt intimacy. Her breath not human, it reeks of dead earth:
“You think you’re frightened now. You really do. What about tomorrow, though? Any condemned fool can be afraid. But you’re old. Ancient. A relic for a collection. You were born with a vision to traverse the stars, a life of such great potential. But look where you are. Do you ever think about that? You had to have known, right? There was nothing here, there is nothing here, there never will be anything here. Nothing but your doom. It’s fitting that you had your little accident, because you don’t know anything yet. You have no idea. You never have. But you will. That’s what you believe in, right? Enlightenment through Suffering?”
She reaches out and cradles the crucifix I wear, fondling it between her artisan manicured nails, cold and sleek like steel claws.
“You will come to understand: I am the only God you will ever know.”
Nyx pulls back, towering above her entourage in the light. This light. This vicious light the color of blood.
Through a subneural command they all turn to leave. One of her lackeys whistles at me. Another makes a lassoing motion as they exit the lounge.
Corrupt power revels in humiliation. They know my tech is out of date. If I’m made the central prop, it’ll fry me right there. They’d get the most pleasure out of that, watching me as I get caked by animal cum, with my eyes rolling back in my head as my brain cooks, fucking themselves with obscene appendages that would kill them in real life. Sick fucks. My hatred for them could crush planets and extinguish stars, manifest as an entity so immense I could smother entire wicked galaxies out of existence between my righteous burning fists. I can see my fury, it pulsates all around me. My world runs red with rage.
However, none of this absolves me of personal fault. And to a degree, Nyx is correct about my folly. But that doesn’t make her Right, and to foil her intent, ultimately, would not change my situation.
A Ladder to the Stars
I was still a kid when we first started colonizing the System. There was an ancient lone standing cottonwood on our farmstead. In the fall when it turned gold we’d lay there beneath it and watch the ships that launched to the moon. Hour after hour, they’d carry cargo, and more importantly, people, up to her. In the afternoon and evening the ships would burst through the clouds and leave thin silky trails, spiraling upward like great marble pillars in the sun. Gentle wind rolling across the fields, drifting dandelion seeds fading into the surging lightning bug calls. Sometimes I’d go inside for a drink, then come back outside and watch the moon ripple in my glass.
I do wonder where it all went wrong. When falling asleep I backtrack. Youthful ambition, some kind of unarticulated overromanticization of the stars themselves. I could say any number of things, but there’s never that missing link I’m looking for. All I wanted to do was chronicle the endless beauty of God’s universe, but instead I work at a porn shop where people get fucked in the brain by demons and dragons. How or where this happened eludes me. It’s like trying to figure out why one of two insects win a fight. They could be the same size, same species, so whichever wins is a coin flip. But one does, and it can’t be reduced to tactics or strategy, because they have none. That’s the worst part: I did everything I felt was right. Yet finally, I’m a still a reject, still an insect. Trapped in a jar in the most lonely part of the System with all of the other rejects and insects, overseen by the most depraved of handlers. The most wretched of humanity – I’m here too.
When I wake up I immediately have to take stock of my mind. I recall the last things I did before I went to sleep to make sure my short term is intact. Then I recall old memories. They’re attempting to merge together, presumably as the computer in my brain makes room for more storage. For instance, I remember a time when I stand on an autumn riverbank with my party of an elven rogue and a long disembodied astromancer. I can almost smell the crisp wind tainted with the stench of the dead. Across the river, a colony of quaking aspens shimmer in the afternoon sunshine. A roaming band of skeletons shamble through the cascading leaves, aimless and hungry. Leaves like gold coins flutter down into their hollow orbitals. When they spot us, they creak forward toward the rapids where the twin suns illuminate their bleached bones in resplendent alabaster light. When they begin to cross they’re washed away in the undercurrent, ushering them toward a waterfall whose basin will shatter their runecursed bones upon colossal stalagmites jutting upward like dragon’s teeth.
I know this memory is not real. It’s likely tying a beautiful fall day with a game I watched someone play, or perhaps I myself once did. It’s more comforting to pretend it’s a memory from another life. I prefer the idea that somewhere there’s a version of me which emerged heroic, and that perhaps she’ll find a way across space-time and guide me with her gentle hand through this dark and dying landscape. Or maybe she’ll just tell me it’s okay to go, to end it in this world, that I made it somewhere else.
I take the elevator up to the observation port to contemplate my impending doom. I gaze out at all of the domes that have gone dark. Nobody makes things here anymore, we replace the climate control machines with parts that are decades old. Tarnished, rusted, some day this place will be decommissioned. Our handlers will leave, and the rest of us will be left here to rot. A shrouded graveyard a black hole will mercifully swallow.
The Central Dome, Portrovieda Prime, is where anyone who isn’t considered expendable lives. “Human Relations,” they’re called. Looking through the telescope from here, I can see the sakura blossoms that fall from clean white rooftops onto the orderly streets below. I spot the pristine tower in which the Nakamuras and other high-ranking executives reside. The vast elevators which carry the rare earths and gasses mined here scale the shrouded cliffs of the Kubrick Mons, upon which the city the city of Portrovieda was founded, and where Portrvieda Prime remains.
When I peer out over the domes which are spread like tendrils in a semi-circle across the Moat from PP, 10 of the original 20 remain active to some capacity. The odd numbers are the ones which are still alight, as they connect with bridges directly up to the main city. The sister domes sit dormant in the fog. Silent, cold. Yet sometimes, I spot figures moving in their derelict observation ports. Shadows shifting against the dark, small orbs of emerald light. While I wonder, I still don’t know, what all in my mind is being overwritten, merged, or deleted. What is the computer in my brain doing with me?
My fear is that it will make me begin to act like an AI, rationally focusing on essential “processes,” like boosting work productivity or pissing as infrequently as possible. Even if Nyx and her friends don’t fry me today, I’ll still end up some anomaly of a creature, a useful economic unit whose old life is preserved by ever-fragmenting memories, only becoming further optimized. My mind repurposed, I’ll exist in the back of my head thinking I found a way out, that I’m sailing across uncharted verdant seas, or racing an antidote across the Yukon with my loyal pack of huskies. Maybe I’ll be nurturing a family in the monolithic habitat stations orbiting Jupiter, or even seeing what I set out to do, and chronicle the endless beauty of the universe. All the while, my mind becomes compacted until there’s no need to entertain it anymore, until I’m completely gone, my body all that remains as I shamble vacuously through these flickering corridors and crumbling walls. A transmogrified simulacra unrecognizable from its original being.
It’s not just my consciousness that this computer is starting to delete – it’s my soul.
The Silent Chasm
Death and debauchery, I’ve considered the two.
I look in the mirror at my synapses. Before my memory started becoming this convoluted narrative of fiction and reality, they would convey my brainwaves efficiently from one part to another. They consist of two flexible transparent carbon-fiber tubes. One wraps from my right temple around to my cerebellum, and another from the left lobe on my forehead around to the back right under my ear. 50 years ago they used to have frequent activity, somewhat like plasma globes, but over time I see less and less going on in them, except for the front, where my CBPU is located. A series of scars across my body mark my titanium rescaffolding, a result of the procedure before there was medicine to combat marrow decay. Some of my organs have been replaced. I’m on a bionic heart with a gold-plated pacemaker, and it stays strong as ever. I could have opted for a full digestive replacement, but I instead chose the synthetic stomach because of the faster recovery time. It feels stable, but rapidly speeds up my digestive process, and as a result, my metabolism. I’m so thin. I barely get enough to eat, and I’d be malnourished if the computer didn’t drop my heartrate so low while I sleep. My biology itself is being optimized. I already look like a ghost.
I pull my hair behind my synapses and tie it in a ponytail. As I exit my apartment I check to see if I’m leaving anything behind. I take an extra pair of shoes and leave the door unlocked behind me. When I walk down the corridor I follow some workers on their way down to the Moat, the great canyon which separates us from PP, and where the entrances to the mines are. Today instead of up to the surface and ‘Fantasies, I’m headed the same direction, albeit with a different destination.
At the entrance to the mines there’s a small natural corridor that snakes down into the rock. It was discovered near the beginning of the construction of this dome, and after being prospected was considered financially useless and thus left open but unexplored. I’ve heard rumors of an underworld existing down there, but to what extent this is true nobody actually knows.
I approach the gap in the wall, an uneven oblong crack obscured by shadow. I look at the memorial. Photographs and trinkets for those who have gone down and disappeared. There’s no way back up. I remove the pair of extra shoes from my backpack and place them near the memorial and eye the entrance to the cave.
When I cast my flashlight down, I see a moderate slope of 15-20 feet before it bends further down into blackness. I call down and hear my voice echo until it disappears. No response. A dead wind rolls up to the surface. I zip up my jacket and prepare for a descent, clutching my backpack in one hand and my flashlight in the other to illuminate the path. With one final look up to Portrovieda Prime, and reminded of my other options, I slide down. Air rushes past me, and I navigate the winding passage into this abyss.
The Pestilent River
I fall into an open cavern, down onto a pile of bones. All of these have been long rotted clean, yet the stench of death persists in here. As I climb down the mound I can see lights flickering from different forks leading deeper inside. When I look up I see why no transmission can be received on the surface. The ceiling is lined with a metallic alloy, shimmering with an almost astral quality. Besides my many options of routes to take, I discover the source of the stench which permeates in this cavern. A putrescent sludge flows from an opening near the entrance, and forms a gurgling, twisting river which spans onward until it disappears down another fall.
The choices I can take are many, and as I approach the mouth of this labyrinthine network, I can hear voices echoing forward from several. Some maniacal laughter, some moaning and cries of ecstasy only conceivable in scenarios, and from others, harrowing shrieks of pain and endless Suffering. I shine my flashlight down a passageway, one where I can hear the clanking of mugs and banter of a hearth. Yet as I move closer, there’s an aura of deception to it. Red lamplight flickers menacingly from down the hall, unlike the inviting orange glow of a fireside which should be there.
Looking further, I follow the flow of the rot-colored river until I come to the fall where it disappears into the rock. Nearby, there’s a narrow, low passageway that I can only fit through if I crawl. No light emanates from the tunnel. Better than red, the same color as ‘Fantasies. I drop to my knees and begin to push through. My flashlight only shows what’s directly in front of me, like I’m a doomed cave diver hopelessly trying to navigate a silted-out tunnel. It snakes maddeningly, twisting left and right, and I sometimes topple face-first down into darkness. Dread begins to creep back into my mind, that I will die trying to navigate this infinite corridor. No. It can’t go on forever. Even Hell has a final circle.
Sleep comes intermittently. I rest wherever I am, and once I have the strength, I continue forward. My hands and knees are numb to the stone floor, and I only stop to take a drink from my ever-dwindling water bottle. My flashlight weakens, just like my body. And soon, it no longer responds when I strike it against the wall. Submerged in the darkness, hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet below the surface of Charon, I fear my attempt of leaving proved just as foolish as it seemed. My hatred for Portrovieda could not fuel the power I needed to escape the Godforsaken rock it was smeared upon.
I collapse to my side and pant as my breath creates a stale, humid cloud around me. Contemplating on my future tomb, I wonder if I’ll ever be found here. If thousands of years from now some alien race will find me encased here and imagine they’ve stumbled upon royalty, like hidden chambers in the sands of Egypt. I enjoy the irony of that, only in death would anyone find me important again. But what would that prove? I have no battle with God. Rather, I still can’t figure out what led me here, as if something living in my mind destined me here, like a parasite, or a worm, or an evil twin. That’s what I sought to defeat.
I shift to my side, and as my eyes begin to adjust, I can see a faint light. Green, not like the redness bleeding out of the corridors at the entrance of the cave. Constant, it glows steadily, nonexpanding, but unwavering nonetheless. I push myself forward. One more bend, one more corner.
I see the end, it opens up into some kind of antechamber. The sluggish, bubbling flow of the river comes into earshot. Scrambling forward, I approach the berth into the chamber. While I never find the source of the light, there’s what appears to be a stockroom, and it gives me hope that perhaps there is some kind of civilization down here besides total Damnation.
Footsteps, the shadows of two figures stand still. I quit moving. One squats down, a woman, I can see the light in the eyes of her silhouette. “You’ve come to the right place,” she calls to me. Her voice sounds genuine, reassuring, as if she knows what forced me down the yawning gullet of this evil moon, that I don’t need to explain myself.
As I crawl out of the tunnel I attempt to stand, but yowl as a flash of pain grips my spine. “You’re safe here, for now,” the man next to her says, “You can take your time.” I hobble to a crate and sit down, slowly straightening my back.
“Something I’m running out of these days.”
I eye the two of them, they’re both much taller than me with muscles like bodybuilders. The woman wears a white blouse tucked into tight black pants somewhat like a swashbuckler, and the man is dressed similarly with a thick bomber jacket.
The woman approaches and bends over to look at my face, which lets me get a better look of hers. Her hair is jet black and cut forward in a bob, yet her features are striking. She looks vaguely Eurasian in a classical earthborn way, but what is most fascinating is her eyes. They are not synthetic, but possess an emerald glow. Same with the man, with slicked back hair and a modest beard who tilts his head toward a boat shifting in the dense muck of the river, like it’s in slow motion. “Might be able to find you some,” he says.
The woman lifts my arm over her shoulder and aids me to the boat. Her body radiates with an unusual warmth, feverish. I can feel some semblance of strength returning to my joints as I touch her. The man offers an arm as he helps me into the boat, and his body exudes Light in the same way. After climbing aboard I take a seat near the middle, and the woman stands confidently at the head with her hands on her waist like a captain, while the man sits down a few seats behind me and begins to row. How he can effortlessly guide the oar through this thick putrescence evades me.
We depart from the room, and the green light fades into the darkening tunnel. I see less and less, spare from the light which comes from their eyes and pierces through this enveloping darkness. “What are your names,” I ask.
“Alice,” she replies as a fleck of Light jumps from her finger towards me. “And that’s Bernard.” She doesn’t ask for mine, and I sit for a moment before I reply, wondering if she’s waiting for me. “I’m Celeste.” There’s a pause before she answers. “Aye,” then adds as if she can see my leg shaking anxiously: “It’s gonna be okay.”
I sense the boat chugging faster, and clutch my backpack in my arms. The thud of muck splashing against the sides is replaced with a trickle, then what sounds like the lapping of water. After we shift directions, tiny lights emerge on the cavern above, scarce at first, more begin to dot the ceiling like constellations.
As we pick up speed, I can sense Bernard sitting down next to me, and I turn to see his outline, his eyes. “Do you trust us,” he asks in a calm, serious tone. I know he can see me, and I nod. I hear the footsteps of Alice as she sits down across from me. She looks me in the eyes, Light cascading from them as if spilling forth from another realm. “If you fall in, don’t worry. Hold your breath, we’ll get you out.” Curious about what she means, I nod again.
Above, the cosmic formations grow in numbers, and as we gain speed, a green aurora snakes across the ceiling, a great wayward finger from the hand of God. The three of us sit and follow the light with our eyes, until Alice directs herself towards Bernard.
He returns to take his place with the oar. The boat begins to list as we encounter heavy currents, and I drop my bag to hold onto the sides. The might of the water steadily builds, and soon the roar overtakes us. Rocking back and forth, we hurdle towards what I sense in my gut is a waterfall. I take faith in what Alice told me, and as my feet depart the floor below me, I close my eyes and clasp my hands over my face.
Lake of Cosmos
The water is cold, freezing cold like the vacuum of the infinite void. I open my eyes, yet all around is dark. In here, I only see the faint purple glow from my synapses, surrounded by blackness in this relative nowhere. At first I rest calmly, floating and drifting aimlessly. But as my chest begins to ache, I feel around for something, a wall, rock, anything which could tell me which way to swim. I spread my body as wide as I can, like a drifting timelost starfish. Once I make myself as big as I can, a warm ring tugs at my wrist. I ascend.
I gasp for air as I emerge while Alice and Bernard pull me aboard. Once I’m upright they wrap a blanket around me. The sensation of hot needles penetrating my skin is a welcome sensation, like the rush of blood across the back of a flagellant. I lean over the bow to cough up water and bioluminesecent creatures. They shimmy away into the depths of the pool, bottomless and cosmic. I wipe the water from my face and pull my hair behind my ears and synapses. The rapid cooling and heating makes the titanium in my bones shutter and ache. “Gettin’ old,” I choke out. I’m so old.
I look up and find the eyes of my saviors glowing like forming nebulae. Brilliant, primordial and green, they shine down upon me like ancient auric gems of radiant glory. Bernard sits next to me and removes his jacket to drape over my legs. Alice stands with a foot on the front seat of the boat, an arm resting triumphantly on her knee, gazing upward. Neither of them are wet.
“You didn’t fall in?” I ask.
Alice glances down to me, a sly, yet reassuring grin on her face. There’s something all-knowing about it, but absent of condescension, like a parent appreciating the innocent wonder of a child. She looks at Bernard, who chuckles and winks at her.
“No,” she says. “We didn’t fall in,” then looks up again.
The sky, this is no cavern. Above and below the vast expanse of the universe shines in opulent splendor. Towering, shifting motes of stars and systems, all raining prismatic dust which flickers silently through the formless lake. Maps, tapestries and profound manuscripts of the ancient times and all possible futures, forever chiseled into the cosmos by enigmatic celestial giants. Yes, perhaps there is still time. From within, from without.
Machines reduce to zero, the Soul expands to the Infinite.