Updated: Sep 29
by Matthew Stuart Evans
(Taken from The Beginning & End of All Things, Science Fiction Short Story Anthology)
Elskede - beloved
“Incoming download. Network 56-2639, environment variable 9-5018. Data fragment 878.” The woman with dark hair tied neatly back in a slick bun flips the switchboard and continues speaking into her headset’s microphone, “Permission to open transmission line.”
“Permission granted,” comes a static male voice on the other end.
She flips another switch and rises from her chair. Smoothing out her placket front dress, she crosses the floor and descends a clanking metal staircase to the ground level of a massive bunker. Mainframe technicians, busily activating their eight-foot terminals, nod to her as she passes. She stops at a control panel next to an adjacent room, separated by a plate glass window. She turns a large dial, and a countdown begins on a black digital display above her.
A deep boom resonates above. The entire facility quakes; dust shakes loose from the ceiling. The woman hesitates for a moment then says, “Begin download in 8, 7, 6, 5 . . .”
The room on the other side of the window fills with a pale green gas. It is thick and moves with purpose. Soon, the woman can no longer see inside. The whirrr of a printer brings her attention down. She checks the printout and makes a note on a clipboard beside it. The gas in the room shifts color from green to pulsing orange. Electrical bolts pop. The pulsing and zapping grow louder, faster. Then, all light and noise cease.
The digital display dings; the color switches from black to green. Download Complete.
The woman turns the dial back to its original position, and the gas slowly seeps from the room. She picks up the clipboard. Straightening her dress one more time, she heads for the door between the two rooms, her low heels click-clacking on the hard concrete floor.
Inside, she approaches a metal slab. On the slab lays a man—seven feet tall, muscles bulging, long blonde hair and beard matted. The woman picks up a mercury thermometer and takes the man’s temperature. When done, she inspects his body, making marks on the clipboard as she goes.
Satisfied, she leaves the room and busies herself back at the control panel. More explosions shake the ceiling. This time she ignores them until one particular bang nearly cracks the window in front of her. She jumps back and looks up at the blonde man, nakedness in full glory, staring at her from behind the glass.
“Valhalla?” His booming voice sounds muffled from inside the room. His blue eyes dart wildly.
The woman reaches up and presses a switch on her headset, projecting her voice through the room’s intercoms. “Not quite.”
My name is Orm Knudsen, and I long for death, but not the death that awaits me now. As I spin the wheels of my chair back and forth, waiting for the next recruit to be ushered into my office, I dream of the deaths I could have had.
I’d been so close to dying at Ethandun, where we fought Alfred’s Saxons. I felt the sword puncture my side, the warm trickle of blood drain from my mouth. But then everything was gone, all an elaborate illusion.
I mourned the afterlife that had been promised to me for some time but soon fell in step with my newfound role as protector of this realm. One of many.
My second death might have been three years ago. After fighting the Grays for nearly two decades, it appeared my time had finally come again, and not knowing what awaited me after made it even more exciting. The enemy shot me in the abdomen, a wound many men before me had succumbed to. But I had not. Beyond all reason, I lived. And now I haunt these halls as a spirit with a squeaky wheel and feast at the head of a table of scientists, not gods.
At last, a knock on the door.
The door pushes open and the first face I see is Lauren’s. My wife flashes me her sweet smile. She was the first person I saw upon arriving in this strange world. I believed her to be Freyja herself. Despite learning later that she was not the goddess, it mattered not, for I had already fallen in love.
“Orm will take it from here. Try to relax,” she says to the quivering man she shepherds into my office. She then vanishes from my sight, my last glimpse of perfection until we both retire for the night. The man with a close-shaved beard and puffed-up hair, passes the threshold and into the room. He wears the cream linen pants and shirt of a new arrival.
Small and weak are the first words that come to mind upon looking at him. He shuffles from one foot to the other, staring at me like a whipped dog. His flesh hangs plump off his bones, his skin pale and soft. This man could not have seen much fighting if any, yet I have been wrong before. Not every recruit spit out of the program was a physical warrior in their past life, such as myself. Some have proficiency in weapons that I would never have been able to imagine before this existence.
I cannot stand the pitiful look on his face for very long, so I break eye contact and read through the documents before me one more time. Network 56-2639, environmental variable 11-5093. Data fragment 2020. It is the same network that I was created in. Most downloads from data fragment 1950 on are adept with several different projectile weapons. I’ll reserve judgment for now.
“Sit . . .” I glance at the document one last time “. . . Leon.”
With a burst of speed, the boy pulls out the chair and sits in it, never taking his eyes off me.
“Would you like to know why you are here?”
Leon’s eyes bulge like the question has allowed him to fully realize his alarm. “Where am I?”
“Earth.” I wheel my chair out from behind the desk. “Just . . . not the Earth you know, but an Earth nonetheless. The real Earth. Though, little will be familiar to you.”
“W-what? What are you talking about?” Leon begins to hyperventilate.
“Calm down, boy. I need you to concentrate.”
“I need to get back to my friends. I need to get out of here. Who are you people?”
“You won’t be seeing your friends or family again, Leon. But you don’t need to worry about them. This may be hard for you to hear, but the people you knew do not exist. Your life wasn’t real. But you are one of the lucky ones in that you get to live a real life now.”
A bomb goes off in the distance, and the room rumbles. A black fly, disrupted from the rafters, buzzes around the room.
Leon yelps and leaps from his seat. “You’re crazy this-this is all crazy, man. I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but it’s not cool.”
His reaction gives me pause. Not his reaction to the news I just gave him, but to the bomb. His fear is palpable. Fright of this magnitude is not often an instinct downloads possess.
“I would love to give you time to come to terms with what I have just told you, Leon, but time is something we do not have a lot of around here.” Though I’m finding I have had more than I’d like . . . “You must join your fellow recruits.”
I wheel over to the side of the door and hesitate before pushing the handicap button to open it. Even after three years, my body recoils at the idea of needing assistance to do something as menial as leave a room. Odin is surely laughing at me. Or at least he is in my imagination, the only place I know he truly resides.
Upon leaving my office, Leon follows at a safe distance, gazing at his plain and cold surroundings and breathing hard. Faint explosions fill the space, followed by the pop pop of rapid gunfire. The bulbs above us swing gently, and one dims before flickering out completely.
Leon stumbles through the corridor, flinching every time another round fires in the distance.
“Are we safe?” he pants.
“We are never safe. But for now, there is nothing to worry about.” I stop beside another room, this one with two tall steel doors.
“Open these,” I say to Leon.
He looks at me, then the doors, then back to me before dragging his feet toward them. He pauses with his hands on the knobs and glares at me. The look flashes hateful for a short moment. He opens the doors, and the hum of the central computer fills the hallway. Leon falls back a few steps as if the sound were accompanied by a gust of wind.
The computer fills the entire room, lights flash, and consoles beep. In the middle stands a thirty-foot tower, spinning vertically at such a rate one might think it wasn’t moving at all if not for the ungodly howl it makes. Leon’s mouth gapes as his head tilts up; his eyes follow the tower to the top. Electrical bolts shoot out sporadically up the length of it, illuminating the space with their blue and white flashes.
“What is this thing?” Leon takes tentative steps forward.
The lad spins around and cinches his eyebrows together. I continue, “Our Earth. And many others. This is the network hub of our program. Some who have come through have labeled it the Multiverse. But no matter what you call it, it is the thing that gave you and I and many of us here, life. Not simulated life, but real life. As limited as that life may be.”
“No. No. I don’t understand. One minute I’m in my car on my way to get a latte when I get t-boned by some jackass trucker, and the next, I’m lying naked on a metal shelf—like waking up in a morgue—then you’re telling me nothing in my life is real. And now this . . . this is supposed to be God? A 1960’s Star Trek set?” Leon shakes his head, then backs out of the room.
I wheel myself after him. “It is not God!” I say the words with more force than I intend and wheel my chair back a few paces to compose myself. “It is a machine, nothing more. A machine that runs the algorithm that allowed us to grow and become the people we need to be to serve the purpose we need to serve.”
“And what purpose is that?” Leon slumps against the wall.
“To fight. To save this world.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Sliding down, Leon crosses his legs on the floor and looks up at me with tears welling in his eyes.
“Your questions will be answered soon. But don’t dwell on them. You’ll find there is little point of self-pity here.” The way he sniffles makes my skin crawl. I can’t understand why the algorithm would have chosen this boy. I’ve yet to see any evidence that he is or ever was deserving of the title: Warrior.
“Come. The others await us.” I turn around and wheel down the hall.
At last, we reach our destination. Yet another door that looks no different from the countless others we have passed along the way. I motion for Leon to open it and step inside.
His gait slows at the sight of the other recruits, all dressed in the same plain clothes. I roll into the room behind him.
“Sit.” I point to a spot on a bench beside Jaylen, a man with dark skin and black hair growing out the top of his head in the shape of a cube.
My chair squeaks past the silent men to the front of the room, stopping beside a large screen.
“Men”—I nod to a pair of women sitting in the back corner of the room—“and women.” They return my nod with blank scowls, unimpressed. “All of you know how you got here.”
“Yeah. Only some cheap-ass sci-fi bullshit about everything I’ve ever known being fake,” Jaylen scoffs.
“You weren’t heavy on the details,” says the small-statured woman in the corner. Her name is Camila if I remember correctly.
I sigh. “What do you want to know?”
Leon pipes up first. “Why us? Why do we get to live and everyone we know . . . stays in . . . there?” He waves in the general direction of the computer.
“Because you fit the parameters of what the algorithm is looking for. At least for our purposes.”
“What does that mean?” Camila growls, her temper rising to the surface. That is what I like to see in recruits.
“The program is a mirror of this world. Or at least what it used to be, long ago. It takes all the variables of human life and tests them. Letting them evolve naturally to see which variables will create the best warriors . . . or builders, engineers, mathematicians, whatever it is that will help us. These tests are run endlessly and simultaneously. When the algorithm finds a process that matches its parameters, it downloads it. Into the flesh. Into you.”
The room is silent as the newcomers process what they’ve just heard.
“So what ‘parameters’ do we match?” Leon asks.
“In your case, the algorithm looked for keywords. Things like: Warrior, hero, justice, valor . . . among many others.” I wheel over to the screen and grab a smaller version from a shelf nearby. I tap the keypad, and the screen slowly illuminates. While it warms, I continue, “All of you were fighters in your past life. All of you have seen both horrors and found great honor in battle.”
I turn to a broad-shouldered man with long dark hair and honey skin sitting with his elbows resting on his muscular thighs. “You, Thaddeus.” The man stands tall and at the ready. “You have seen your share of combat.”
“I followed Agis II into glory against Argos and her allies at Mantinaea,” he booms, pushing up his chest. I nod to him, and he sits.
“Jaylen.” I turn to him next.
“I’ve been fighting all my life, for my life. Ain’t no battlefield like the streets of Atlanta.” Jaylen hangs his head, demure as if deep in memory.
“Where would you have us do battle now?” Thaddeus cracks his knuckles.
I look behind me to find the screen has come to life. I tap the keypad and bring up an image of the Grays. “Them.”
“Aliens!” Leon bursts out laughing and Jaylen soon follows. There are a few more quiet snickers from around the room. “Oh my god. This must be some prank show. Where are the cameras?”
Camila recoils and crosses her heart. “El Duende.”
Another man, with his legs resting on the table, looks up from picking invisible dirt out from under his fingernails. “I don’t know what an Aliens is but that there is a Faerie. Now, I’ll kill a man if I have to, but I’m not daft enough to go up against the Fae. You can put me back in that machine right now.”
“You have all come across these before, regardless of what you call them. The program made sure to insert images of the Grays throughout each environment, so you would all know them when you saw them. To instill in you the fear and hatred that you would need to fight them. I knew them as Dökkálfar.”
“Doesn’t this seem a little too Big Brother for you all?” Leon says. “Even if this is true, you expect us to fight something because we’ve been programmed to hate it? How do we know we aren’t the bad guys in this situation?” He gives me a smug look like he has caught me in some corner.
I bristle at his audacity and switch the image on the screen to one a little more graphic. Everyone in the room swallows hard at the sight of a field of men and women, scorched. Their skin bubbling like fat in a griddle at the ends of Gray biotherms. One of the newest weapons our soldiers must face on the battlefield.
“These things will not think twice about killing you, torturing you, or worse to get what they want. They are not enemies to be taken lightly or negotiated with. If they were, the smartest people in this world would not have had to create a machine to supply them with unlimited warriors just to continue the fight. These people here are innocent. Families, women, children, all trying to survive on this planet . . . their home. Now yours as well.”
Another distant rumble sends a tremble through the room.
“Are those things above us right now?” asks Camila.
“Close.” I switch to an image of the compound. “This site is our main download and training base. The Gray’s have centralized much of their war efforts on it since the development of the program. They know that if they can stem the influx of new fighters on our end they will win this war. But it has been nearly forty years, and they have yet to succeed. As long as people like you are willing to fight, we will persevere.” I can tell I have everyone’s full attention so I hammer down my point.
“I will not lie to you. Most of you will die. Or worse, live.” I roll to the nearest table and rest my hands together upon it, trying desperately to inject some kind of gravitas into my words from my chair. “But this world needs you. I shouldn’t have to tell any of you what it means to be a hero. What it means to fight. You can find glory in this life, just as you all found glory in your last. It will mean even more now, here.”
Everyone in the room nods in response. I have never come across a group so hard to get through to. All people need time to come to terms with everything. But something is different this time. I look over to Leon, shaking his head and mumbling under his breath. Him. He is what’s different.
“Do you have something to say, Leon?”
“Yes, actually. This is wrong. All of it.” Leon stands and turns his back to me—addressing the others in my place. “This is a clear violation of our human rights. Our lives may not have been real in the technical sense, but we still lived them. And what about now? We’re alive now, aren’t we? We are still people, and we have choices. This guy”—Leon points his finger back at me—“is acting like we’re just slaves, and we have to do whatever he says without question.”
Jaylen nods. “Yeah. I didn’t take a bullet for my brother so I could take orders from some crippled white dude in the afterlife.”
Before I can protest, Leon winces. “Oh, uh . . . we don’t say cripple anymore. It’s persons with disabilities . . .”
Jaylen rolls his eyes and blows hard through his teeth.
“I’ll fight!” Thaddeus walks over and stands behind me. I like men like him. He knows what is important, like a Dane.
More warriors take Thaddeus’s lead. Jaylen shakes his head and sighs. “Fine. Just give me a gun and tell me where them aliens at.”
Soon, all but Leon and Camila stand next to me. She crosses her arms in front of her chest. “What about you?” She tilts her head and peers at my chair. “Did you find glory?”
“No.” I cannot lie to her. “But I will die in search of it.”
That is a good enough answer for her, and she leaves Leon alone on the other side of the room.
I left the group with a more able-bodied officer for basic training, my job as half-man welcoming committee complete. Leon reluctantly joined them once it was obvious he was alone in his convictions.
I can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong with him. My every instinct is telling me the boy is not a warrior. But the algorithm has never been wrong. It must have chosen him for a reason. I have to trust that.
But, over the last months, my concerns have grown too big to ignore. Recruit after recruit has come through my office with a similar attitude to Leon’s.
The first was but one week later. His name was Colton. The left side of his head was shaved and he possessed a wide mustache that he licked into a point at his cheeks. He had better musculature than Leon but was still a far cry from any soldier I have ever known.
The one after that was a month later. A woman, long and frail. Her name in my file was Courtney, but she insisted that it was spelled Kourtney with a K, though the program couldn’t possibly have got it wrong. I eventually gave up trying to explain that to her.
The most recent was a round man—thirty-one years of age. He didn’t have a pound of muscle and breathed exclusively through his mouth. I couldn’t hide my skepticism about his qualifications to be here, but he vehemently affirmed that he was a practiced fighter. A level fifty-six paladin, whatever the hell that means.
Recruits from these same environments and data fragments continue to pile in more frequently.
I’ve started to hear reports from the battlefield about soldiers laying down their arms, protesting their commanders and refusing to take orders. Other stories have trickled in of a secret organization that calls itself the JSWs or Justice for Simulated Warriors. These groups feed the other soldiers fantasies about individual freedom and rights as if something is owed to them for simply existing.
The Gray attacks have become heavier and are getting closer to the compound. Our army is fractured and casualties are mounting. We download new recruits from the program twice as fast, but it is not enough to keep up with the staggering losses.
Even through all this, the mood on the base is hopeful. The program’s algorithm is infallible. Our soldiers are the best. They will persevere. But it seems the more we download the worse our situation becomes.
Every recruit that passes through my office makes me think of Leon. I don’t know what’s become of him since leaving the compound eleven months ago, but I feel it in my unmoving legs, he is the source of our problems.
Bombardment from the Grays is pounding especially hard on us today. It is difficult to hear myself think let alone speak with the newest recruit in my office.
He is a burly Dane like myself, and his well-kempt hair glows the pale orange of the sunsets over Haddbyer Noor, the bay near Hedeby where I was born for the first time. It is always a relief to welcome someone who shares my worldview from before. Though he was created on a different network, so our histories remain distinct in key areas. His name is Alfrik, and he is a true warrior. Strong. Confident. Ready to die for his beliefs. He relates his exploits in war like fantastic dreams—proud and grateful to have even the memory of them.
“Orm . . .” He sits back in his chair and pats his robust belly. “Surely there is a way to see what was. If events happened as you say, according to some great Norns of this place, spinning their threads.”
“Not see. But we can access a review of your life in written form, yes.”
“I would very much like to read this story of my life. To keep with me.” Alfrik goes silent for a long moment then nods. “Valhalla may not exist as you say, so I will look on my own deeds as a god and judge them for myself.”
I smile in understanding. I’d wanted much the same thing when I arrived.
I take him back to the downloading chambers where we were all born—for the second time. I avoid this place when I can, but today will be worth the discomfort. As usual, a shiver runs down my severed spine when we enter the cold open space. Partly because they keep the temperature down to prevent the computers from overheating, and partly from the memory of waking up here with that cold air on my bare skin.
Lauren stands at the control panel, readying my next conscript. Wheeling over, I grip her around the waist and pull her onto my lap. She squeals, and holding her dress down with one hand, punches me hard in the thigh with the other. She doesn’t hold back, knowing she cannot hurt me. Though, even if I did have the sensation, I don’t imagine that would make a difference to her.
“Elskede, I need a special favor from you.”
She looks at me then turns to Alfrik, her eyebrow raises with suspicion. “I can’t put you back, you know.”
Before he can reply, my wife scoffs, takes Alfrik’s file from me, and starts punching numbers into the console, knowing full well what I was about to request. Soon the printer starts to hum, and as the single long piece of paper edges out, I begin to wonder.
Most recruits speak of their past experiences in battle with the same pride as Alfrik. And if not pride, at least a somber respect for their trials. I remember Thaddeus who’d filled himself up as he told the room of his greatest victory. But Leon had shown no respect for the fight. Nor did any of the others like him.
I mouth to Lauren that I will return. She narrows her puzzled gaze at me, and I take my leave. As they wait for the file to finish printing, I return to my office.
Wheeling to the filing cabinet, I fish through the folders until I find Leon’s and a few others. I return to the download chambers as quickly as my chair will take me. Inside, my fellow Dane is glossing over his life, printed out before him.
“Can you find your way to this room yourself, my friend.” I scribble directions onto a piece of paper and hand it to him.
“Danes found their way across the western seas, I think I can find my way across a stone hall.” He laughs heartily and pats me on the shoulder with a hard hand before heading out into the corridor.
I slam the files I carry onto the console in front of Lauren. “I need you to print these out as well.”
“What’s wrong?” she asks cautiously.
“I just have . . . a feeling.”
She immediately sets to work, if anything, just to humor me. “Feeling,” she mocks under her breath.
It seems like a lifetime passes waiting for the first printout to complete. I then hold Leon’s entire existence in my hands and soon the others’ as well.
It takes me a long time to read through all the information, much of it numbers that don’t make any sense. I interrupt Lauren’s work multiple times to get them translated. I skip through most of the beginning, only giving it my full attention after the age of fifteen. His life was mostly uneventful.
School, then more school, then even more school after that. He had never suffered any injuries or major losses apart from a grandmother and a dog that he appeared to be very fond of.
It all ended with his car crash. I flip through again, sure I missed something vital. But that’s all. Just as I’ve suspected all along, Leon has not seen a day of combat in his life. Not even a brawl in his adolescence. From what I can tell, he has led the meaningless life of a privileged Saxon princeling.
I flip through the other printouts on my desk, and they read the same. No war, no battle, no hardship, no fighting. Apart from a few incidents with bullies in a schoolyard, which were resolved through adult intervention, these recruits had virtually no opportunity to find glory in battle.
How? How could the algorithm allow these people to be downloaded? I need more information.
I return to the original files. I study the keywords the algorithm used to filter out the recruits. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. Warrior, justice, liberation, defend . . .
I scan through Leon’s printout one more time and then I see it. Posts on something called ‘Facebook’ and ‘Twitter.’ All referring to the defense of the less fortunate, how to fight for justice, and similar comments. The other printouts reveal the same types of messages.
It turns out that the chubby man was, in fact, a great warrior as he claimed but only on something called ‘World of Warcraft.’
“What is this?” I slam my finger down on the word ‘Internet’ and push the paper at Lauren. She appears about to chastise me for distracting her from her work again until she sees the seriousness in my expression and slides the paper toward herself.
She studies the word for a moment. “Not sure. I’ll have a look.” She types away, the printer coming alive. A few seconds later, it spits out something onto the paper. Lauren rips off the result and analyzes the numbers on the page.