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.
“Apparently, it is something developed for use with computers to store and send information.”
“Computers. Like the ones we have here? The ones that run the program?” I blow hard out of my nose as I attempt to puzzle it all together.
“Not quite, but it would seem very similar.”
“How can this be possible?”
“Well, it makes sense that at least one of the environments would evolve to create something close to what created it in the first place. Theoretically, this Internet has become its own form of program. A simulation within the simulation.” She passes the paper back to me. “Orm, why does this matter?”
“I think the algorithm has become corrupted.”
Lauren laughs. “You’re not serious.” When she sees that I am, it makes her sit up straight. “That’s not possible. The parameters are very specific.”
“But what if the algorithm is accounting for the simulated personas created by those on this Internet.”
Lauren sits back in her chair, tapping her fingers over the edge of the console. “In that case, depending on how often those personas show up, and the Internet’s span . . . the algorithm would start to favor them, thinking it a successful environment and data fragment.”
From directly above us, an explosion rings through the base. Light bulbs shatter, and glass rains down on us.
Another hit comes immediately after, this one launching bricks from the walls. Technicians scream, dodge debris, and cover their heads. The explosions seem to be right on top of us. The Grays have never gotten this close to the facility before.
“They’re getting in,” I realize aloud.
Lauren replies to my statement with a look of horror. She shakes her head and paces away. “No. no.”
A crash reverberates through the facility, punching a hole through the steel and concrete.
I grab her sleeve and pull her down onto my lap. I cover the back of her neck then hold her head up to look at me. “Listen, Elskede, we need more fighters. And quickly. How many can you download at once?”
“What? Um . . . as many as the bunker can hold, but the algorithm decides who will be downloaded and when.”
I can see panic rise in her eyes, though she keeps her face calm.
“Can’t you override it?”
“Yes, but only from the mainframe. Might be able to do it in a few minutes if I run.”
“No. You will tell me how to do it. I need you here to initiate the transfer the moment it is done.” I wheel my chair to the console table and pick up a headset.
Screams and gunshots get closer by the second.
Lauren gives me a pitiful look. “Orm . . .” She glances at my chair and sighs. She knows better than to say the words she is thinking.
“I will get there. Just get me more soldiers.”
She purses her lips and nods.
I roll my way to the door, the squeaking of my wheels drowned out by alarm sirens now blaring throughout the compound.
I stop to look back at Lauren, already focused on her task and speaking into her headset. “All download personnel, prepare for transfer dump. Network 56-2639, environment variable 9-5018. All data fragments prior to . . .”
That’s my girl. I hit the handicap button on the door.
Soon, I run into Alfrik, pushing his way toward me through the newest group of recruits.
“Am I to find glory so soon, my friend?” He smiles but the blood has risen to his eyes; the man has unleashed the killer inside him. He is ready.
“Brother, go to the armory and get as much steel as you all can carry.” I nod to the group behind him. “Then back to my wife. She will need you. Lead your men.” We grip each others’ arms then go our separate ways.
The sounds of battle are getting too close for comfort; I am running out of time. I push my chair to its wobbling limits, surpassing the heavy burning sensation in my arms. When did I let myself get so weak?
I turn the corner down another hall. The power has gone out, and it is pitch black. Speeding ahead into the darkness, I pray there is nothing in my path that will obstruct my wheels. I am mere yards away from the hub when a pulsing light and sharp ringing force their way into my head. Something knocks me violently out of my chair, and I smash against the cinderblock wall. A bone inside my arm twists and snaps, and I feel the ribs on my left side crack.
It takes me a moment to realize where I am. The wall to my right is gone, replaced by a mountain of dirt pouring in to fill the void. Streams of moonlight illuminate the hall just enough for me to see the rubble that I am lucky not to be buried under. Mere feet in front of me are the two steel doors to the mainframe, holding, though askew. The walls around it have fissured. Electricity spits out of the cracks. I wonder if our enemy knows how close they came to taking out the entire system with that one hit.
I groan and pull myself forward but fall on my face in defeat. Dragging my dead weight over jagged concrete with only one weak arm seems impossible. I’m gasping for breath, and my lungs ache.
My headset crackles to life. “Orm, are you all right? That explosion was way too close. Orm—Orm!”
“I’m fine,” I force out in the clearest voice possible.
There is silence on the other end. She is deciding whether or not to believe me. “That’s good,” she says finally.
The pain in my arm and side is only eclipsed by the pain of knowing what will happen to Lauren if I am unable to complete my mission. “Be ready.”
The headset goes quiet.
I take a deep breath and hold it. Reaching up, I grab the sturdiest rock available and pull with everything I have left in me. I tell myself that this is what I was made for. And as the pain of moving rips through my entire body, I am reminded of what battle felt like before I was put out to pasture. The vigor of purpose surges through my veins and drives me forward. I can hear the footfalls of the advancing Grays and the distinct buzz of their weapons, both of which add to my determination.
I make it to the doors and slide my fingers between them where they sit ajar. Growling, I use the muscle in my hand and wrist to pull then push the door open enough for me to wriggle my way through.
“Lauren, I’m here. What do I do?”
Static, then a click “—Behind the main computer, there is a cable plugged into a green circuit box between two mainframes. That’s what runs the algorithm. You need to disconnect it. Do you see it?”
“Hold on.” I mute the headset so that she can’t hear my groaning as I pull myself around the main computer. At first, I don’t see any cable, that is until I heave myself onto my back and find it about six feet above me. I close my eyes and take a frustrated breath. “I see it.”
Heavy gunfire pierces the air right outside the door, followed by erratic yells and the high-pitched chatter of Grays. I glance around the room and the only thing I can find is an emergency axe even higher out of my reach. I drag myself out from behind the main computer and begin the search for something else I can use to yank out that damned cable.
Just then, the doors swing fully open, screaming on their hinges. I am caught in the middle of the room, and I sink into the floor with dread. The Grays are here, and I have failed. Then out of the shadows appears not one of the wraith-like creatures but a man. A man I recognize.
It has been nearly a year since I’ve seen him last, and it appears real life has not been as kind to him as his simulated one had been. His loose plump has tightened around more defined though not large muscles. His close-cut beard has grown, kept neatly trimmed. He may appear more like a man, but the flash of fear in his eyes when he spots me on the floor of the hub reveals the same cowardice I noticed the first time I met him.
Leon jolts back subtly before he clears his throat and kneels down to address me. “Didn’t think I’d find you here.” He tilts his head, sizing me up from my spot on the floor.
“What are you doing here, Leon?” I grit my teeth and try to lift myself to a less compromising position. I sit, leaning against one of the large mainframes.
Standing and pacing around the room, Leon says, “Saving the world. Putting an end to the barbarism. Ending slavery.”
Static. Click. “Orm. I don’t know if we can hold them back any longer. We need you to do it now!”
“Why?” I choke out to Leon, finding it harder to breathe in my upright position. I scream on the inside, knowing that Lauren needs me and I am unable to move.
“Remember how you told us that the Grays couldn’t be negotiated with—? Bred us all to believe that they were monsters from our bedtime stories. Well, guess what? They can be negotiated with. In fact, they’re quite judicious. When I went to them and explained the atrocities your side was committing every day, they were very sympathetic. They offered to help us.”
I couldn’t contain my laugh of disbelief, despite the pain it brought with it. “You idiot. They do not care about your pathetic whimpering. These things don’t feel like we do. They believe our emotion is our weakness. And they are right. You have been fondled like a milkmaid. They will dispose of you as soon as you fulfill your purpose.” I eye him then let my gaze follow the tower to the top. “Which is, let me guess, to destroy this?”
“I’m doing what’s right! This breeding program is using people as cannon fodder. Bringing them to life then demanding they give up those lives for—for what? Some intergalactic war they were never a part of?”
“What of the people born and raised in this world? Whose only hope is the men and women that are ‘bred’ from this machine?”
“Let them fight their own damn war!”
“They are!” I shoot back. “And they died. The ones who are left . . . my wife, they all worked together to build this so they might stand even a chance. There is not a warrior among us who would not lay down our lives for such a purpose. No matter what world we find ourselves in. The program ensures it. That’s why its algorithm chooses us.”
“Then I am just doing what it chose me to do. Standing up for what’s right.”
“It didn’t choose you. You were a glitch!”
Leon steps back, his face twitching.
“You’re not a hero, Leon. You just invented one and confused a machine. Did you actually think you deserved to be here? That first day, did you really think you were like the other recruits? You convinced yourself you’re a warrior—that what you believe equals fighting for what you believe. Look what you’re doing. You would doom a world of people to slavery and suffering because you can’t see past your privileged existence that never was.”
Spinning on his heels, Leon lets out a moan and charges back, kicking me in the side. My injuries make the blow worse than it otherwise would be. Leon seems to take pride in his ability to cause me any pain at all.
Through my headset, Lauren screams, “Orm! Now!”
Blood comes up and pools in my mouth. I spit before continuing, “Then prove it, Leon. If you’re the warrior you think you are then do what you came here to do. But you’ll have to kill me first.”
Leon balks. “I don’t need to be a killer to be a hero. And being a killer doesn’t make you one either.”
I stare off to the left, to the axe on the wall. Leon follows my gaze. “Maybe not. But I’m not going to let you destroy this machine. So if you want to do the right thing, you’re gonna have to become one.”
I drill my eyes deep into his, and although he tries to match my resolve, I see it wane and the fear returns. He knows I cannot move and yet he is unsure.
Leon takes cautious steps toward the axe case. We watch each other as he slips his hand up blindly and opens the glass door. He lifts the axe out, and I can see his bicep strain under the weight of it. He quickly compensates by gripping with two hands and takes a deep breath before walking over to me.
“I was going to leave you alive because you’re crippled, but . . . you asked for this.”
Leon raises the axe above his head. He hesitates. Squeezing his eyes shut, he brings it down. With all the speed of my youth, I reach up and grab the handle before it can meet my face. Leon opens his eyes in horror as I rip the axe from his weak grip and in one swift movement, slice open his stomach, letting its contents spill to the floor.
The lad tries to hold his wound together in vain and drops to the ground. He pleads to me with his wet, red eyes.
“I’m a person with a disability,” I mutter.
I grip the axe tight and allow myself to fall to the floor on my chest. My eyes blur on impact, and more blood sprays from the corner of my mouth. I drag myself back to the central computer, stopping only momentarily to click on my headset.
“Lauren . . . Elskede. Come on. Talk to me.”
I give up and decide my time is better spent completing my task. I roll over onto my back and swing the axe weakly at the cable. I can almost reach it. I re-adjust and try again, but I only manage to loosen the connection. In a desperate last attempt, I swing the axe high, letting it leave my grip just slightly, hoping to get a few extra inches. The axe does what is intended, and the cable falls from the socket, but the axe clanks to the ground, out of reach.
I croak into the headset, “Do it now, Elskede . . . I love you.”
I stretch my good hand and touch the axe with my fingertips, but a sharp pain in my side sends tremors through my whole body. Breathing becomes painful and difficult. One of my broken ribs has now punctured my lung. More blood spews from my throat, and I lose the last of my energy to move.
I am dying. Finally. I just hope that I was able to save Lauren. That my death is not in vain. I can’t help but wonder if there is going to be another life after this one. Maybe this too has been an illusion. Who is to say Valhalla does not await me after all? I gather my strength and make one final attempt to reach my weapon.
Just in case . . .
The dark-haired woman stumbles over the rubble of a ruined hallway. She is accompanied by several men, all tall and fair-skinned with toned, sinewy muscles. The men have various injuries, and even the woman dons a fresh slash on her forehead and a deeply bruised cheek.
She climbs up and over the concrete, ignoring an offer of assistance. When she reaches her destination, she holds up her hand to her companions and continues on her own into a large, noisy silo. The silo contains a spinning cylinder and rows of mainframe computers.
The woman stops just beyond the threshold and blinks back tears. Once composed, she makes her way around the tower, ignoring the corpse of a young man, and kneels to stroke the hair of one much older, lying on the ground. His body has grown stiff some time ago. His left arm and side are badly bruised and twisted, and in the firm grip of his right is a bloodied axe.
She stares at the axe, and a weak smile stretches across her face. She bends to kiss his forehead and whispers into his cold ear. “Dine well, my love.”
Rising again, the woman leaves the room. As she passes the men outside the door, she nods to them, and they head inside.