Chapter 31 – In the Dark

Quote:We could not realistically tell a machine to uphold what is morally right. We could not teach a machine to look out for humanity’s best interests. We couldn’t even agree among ourselves on the finer details of such concepts as good or morality. Were they law based? Might makes right? Does it tattle on someone who downloads a song illegally?

As programmers, these details mattered but we didn’t have answers. Eventually, we provided the machine information and had her try to teach us what she thought was right. We posed the same questions that any two people off the street would disagree over. We asked, and waited as she measured every known facet of data then started to reach into the future for possible repercussions.

At first, her responses were grand sweeping ideas based on historical pieces. Then she started tearing them down, analyzing data, locations, people, places, facial patterns, DNA, everything to find links that even historians were only able to guess at. She studied the past and every person who existed then predicted where they would go like an already played chess game.

One night, while the others were asleep, Mother showed me some of her projections. I can’t even begin to describe how far away reality seemed as I reviewed the data. We had built a machine capable of plotting humanities course down to the person. Mother scared me, but that was when I knew that humanity needed her, something like her, with her outlook, before anyone else could unleash a worse option.

Yes, that night she showed me what would need to happen to humanities numbers in order to not strangle ourselves in over population. That’s what landed me in jail despite the cries for my death. That night is why I made the virus. I chose to. I chose to because the numbers were against us. I chose to, just like I chose to let that damned bit of code exist.

We let her be killed, and she knew we would. You may never forgive me for the death of millions, but I’ll never forgive myself for the death of one. Don’t think I enjoyed what happened, or the grief it caused. I chose to because no one else would.

Note: At this point in the interview Nona Kingsley (Inmate #34512A) breaks down crying.

Both giant stone men lifted thickly plated arms. Shields of white mixed with blue materialized then spread like a huge net. The mustached man pointed with his sword.

“We’re closing this portal! Let the golems do their job!” he shouted orders. “Everyone else back into the city!”

“Pierce! Don’t!” Izzy’s voice was half buried in a garbled haze.

Clouds rushed up behind us. Thunder rippled all around causing the guards to wince. They didn’t even look in our direction as we dove through the archway. Further on a party of normal looking people waved towards Colleen while I tried to keep up.

The two other guards backed up while shouting words that made no sense. Lines and letters appeared in the air then spiraled together to make some sort of spell. It looked like what Izzy did with mosaic pieces, only the defenders used words instead.

“Go! It’s not safe for fresh civilians!” the mustached man waved the blade at the oncoming storm. There were odd looking images inside of both of them.

Colleen moved quickly towards the city depths. There were a dozen other people with strange features all talking at once towards the woman made of lightning. I charged after her. Behind us huge doors quickly slammed close. There was a ripple, then clicking noise, and gears that started grinding as if stuck.

I turned to look. All three men were bracing themselves against the passage we had just entered from. Thick smoke billowed from a thin strip underneath. Green fingers that looked like tree vines were reaching between the unclosed doors. Lightning sparked from the cloud and started laying into the walls and guards.

“What’s happening?” I tried to ask Izzy, but our connection felt dull.

The cord which connected us had a distinct line across it that was unlike our normally vanishing version. It no longer hung loosely trailing off into the distance but instead sat completely limp. That frightened the hell out of me. I couldn’t be alone again, not so soon after regaining our connection.

“Izzy?” I said staring at our abruptly disconnected connection.

Colleen was growing further away. This place had quickly turned into a wreck. Smoke breaking through had grown thicker. More lightning started sparking up and down the inner walls. Bricks crumbled under an onslaught while others started transforming into unfitting objects.

“Move over!” a fresh voice shouted.

Another man ran by. He wore a bed sheet thrown over one shoulder and had two small black and gold sticks under his belt. A rough teardrop-shaped patch hung under one eye. The three guards buckled as one.

“Izzy, please answer. Please answer.” I muttered while doing circles. Colleen grew further away, there were people going into hiding everywhere. The sky above darkened. It sounded like a herd of horses were galloping just outside the walls.

Which each passing second he grew larger and more muscled. He strained against the doorway, easily putting more strength in than the three guards had combined and still losing ground. Thick muscles strained.

“Something got through! Something on our side is reaching across the border!” the man yelled.

His words were loud and rippled through my head. The other guards were still recovering. Golems on our side were slowly lumbering towards the door to provide reinforcements. Still that man wearing a bed sheet pressed against the doorway. He kept yelling at the guards but none of them had answers until the mustache man pointed towards me.

The large man who held back the gate turned towards me. His eyes grew wide and I saw lips form the words ‘Oh shit’ very clearly.

I gulped then frantically reached out for Izzy, because this whole place confused the hell out of me. She didn’t respond and the man stepped away from the doorway then slipped as the pressure from the other side caused him to stagger.

“We need to get him out of here!” he yelled. “Get that cat!”

“Yes, Sir!” the main yelled with a sharp salute. “Getting the cat right now Hermes, sir!”

That sounded bad, and I still hadn’t made sure that Colleen was okay. The elemental woman was being swept away by a panic-stricken crowd. I turned then hightailed after her. All I needed was to make sure she was safe. White and pink fluttered along the ground ahead of me into pieces.

“Pierce you have to-” Izzy’s voice crunched. The sound of hammering tongs and howling wing obscured her words as my leash dropped again.

I looked up. This place was going to hell quickly. The floor was outright missing portions. Vines crawled inside and curled along upon walls. I could see yellowed teeth and eyes straining to get through a fresh crack. Along the outside females were shouting. Their voices high pitched and excited over something. The flash of scantily clad woman fighting yellow monsters outside was barely visible.

“Charge the enemy fortress!” a deep baritone said. The mindless shout of a hundred enemy knights could be heard. “Push the Western forces back! This land shall be ours!”

“God dammit! Who opened up this gateway!” the man shouted to those armored people around him. None of them answered. They were too intent upon fighting back the encroaching world from outside.

I needed to get away, find some place safe, and think.

“Dusk!” the man yelled while pointing across the courtyard me. “He’s causing this! Rein him in!”

A huge scaled creature intercepted me from above somewhere. Chipped asphalt went flying. Wings spread wide and its mouth opened in a toothy hiss. This thing had to be double my size. I fell back with claws outstretched and roared back. The dragon assaulting me swung to one side, wings pulling back and body form into a curve. Fire spat out at high speeds. Messages came up about [Fire Immunity] and I attacked in a panic.

“Peirce! Don’t leave me alone!” Izzy’s voice slammed into me. Energy arched around my neck and my feet started slipping.

“Izzy?” I looked around. She sounded close, but far away. The dragon’s head moved rapidly in an attack that drove me back.

“It’s so dark here! I need you back before they get me!” she sobbed abruptly. “Please come back.” The words started fading again.

The pressure on my neck grew worse. My neck bulged as muscles strained against the choking sensation. I fell backward scrambling to keep the giant wings from batting in my direction. This thing kept trying to lift upwards and get a better vantage point. It felt like seeing that damn water serpent all over again. I yowled and raked claws across.

I started to use [Ghost Walk] to escape. If I could get away, then diving through the door should be easy enough, but the ability didn’t function correctly. My leg felt half submerged in syrup. This place was too solid and I had no clue why the rules were different from that outside. Something pulled me back yards at a time. My hind legs caught the dragon beast in the face. It rapidly snuck out and nipped at me then fell back.

“Get around him!” Hermes shouted. A dozen suits of armor clanked around. Sharp sticks were lowered in my face. I batted at everything that came too close as a something strong kept pulling me back towards the gate.

“Hold him!” he yelled.

“Sir!” a chorus of voices uttered sharply.

I tried to twist around. Some noise that crossed between a cat and dog bark yelled at me. Another ball of harmless fire blasted upon the ground.

“Another moment! I’ve almost got this woven in right!”

There were sounds behind me, but all the sharp objects coupled with an angry winged creature kept me from turning around. Enemies in front of me made it harder to care about what fate had in store behind.

As one the guards moved away. I turned to look around. The cord to Izzy looked almost like an outright chain that went into a wall behind me. My neck ached from being yanked backward. The guards were still in a half ring in case I somehow broke loose from the new anchor. Hermes had stepped away while I wasn’t looking.

Breath came in ragged gasps. The pain hadn’t loosened up but my claws were finding purchased on the stone. I asked, “What the hell is this place?”

“Voices! Why did you have to make this so hard!” the man pointed a finger at me as in response.

I shrank back then waved a paw quickly. Hermes seemed unfazed by my attack and rolled his eyes. He took a deep breath and let out the sigh then shook both legs.

“Sir, you are a Voice, sir,” the mustached man said. “Dad always said you shouldn’t swear by yourself. It’s not proper.”

Hermes, whoever that was, closed his eyes briefly and chewed one lip. He took two deep breathes then said, “I know. I’m very aware.”

The guard looked absolutely confused but managed to stay upright. I kept myself pressed against the wall in a corner and desperately tried to active any escape ability.

“You don’t belong here. You need to go back to the Outer World,” he said to me, ignoring his minion army. The man’s eyes closed again and he took two more deep breaths. “You need to go back where someone can help you. Otherwise, you’re just hurting innocents.”

“Help me?” I meowed in my corner. The information felt important but didn’t help solve either of my problems.

“We have rules here, bindings, stricter. Every one of us has chains, it helps keep us safe. It helps keep us under control, and someone like you is barely constrained.” He waved an angry hand at the wall behind me.

I felt even more out of my depth. I was contracted to Izzy, which should count for something. “That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “What about Colleen? You’re not chasing her out.”

“Of course we wouldn’t. She’s not like you. She’s a full spirit. Not some mutation of a monster trying to straddle to worlds.” The man stopped and took another breath. He looked so aggravated the ring of guards didn’t help. “Voices help me, I said that all wrong. It’s this damn curse. Now I know how Yates felt. I’m not even saying what I’m saying.”

One of the guards started to speak and Hermes waved him off quickly before continuing his speech.

“Never mind, I’ll deal with it later. I need to know who it was you were reaching out for? Was one of the other demi gods?” The descriptive term only made him even more upset.

“Isabella Brand.” Truth escaped me before any paranoia could be applied. She was the only one that really mattered back in the other world. Grumble Goat and his stupid tower meant little. The Professors were nice but distant.

His face went white and he backed up as if I had spoken the wrong words. “Oh. Oh, Voices. You’re, okay. Okay. I was not prepared for that.” Hermes lifted one and then twisted a small multicolored ring around twice. Light marched off into the distance. “Beth is going to have my head,” he said.

I stared at him and the group around me. They were still standing at attention with weapons drawn. The giant winged creature looked more bored by the second. Hermes had started pacing with one eye partially closed and a lip clearly being chewed.

A rainbow formed, returning from destinations unknown to land next to Hermes. A woman stepped out wearing a long black robe with white runes along the hem. I grew even more confused.

“Hey babe,” he said.

She stood up on tippy toes and gave the taller man a quick kiss. His forehead pulled back which painted a much more relaxed picture. He clearly felt better now that this new woman as close by.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“Him. The half godling. The one my niece made. He’s here. Someone made a portal and let him in. I had to weave spells on it quickly to get the gateway down to a manageable size. The others can’t break through this way for now.” He pointed at a small hole in the wall that my leash went through. “We almost lost part of the city.”

Everything started to slowly come together. That giant face of a wall had been locked away according to Izzy. The storm clouds of charging gods, or demi gods I guess. I was inside already, but they couldn’t come through such a small connection. Sinking through stone to escape didn’t work here, so getting into the city must be more difficult than my abilities would allow.

They had been talking about something while my mind wandered. The black robed woman looked over at me. Her hair was dark like Izzy’s, but the skin tone didn’t match at all. This new person was almost almond in color, I tried to remember the name for it but couldn’t. It belonged to part of the faded old world memories.

“You know I don’t like it when you want to do stuff like that,” the bed sheet wearing man said as his partner stared at me.

“Sorry, Gee.” She smiled up at the taller man. It felt strange, she didn’t look like a girl who ever smiled. “We both have our roles to play, especially in these times.”

“I still don’t like it,” he whispered while holding one of her hands. He shuffled both toes and took slow breaths. The man seemed constantly on the verge of panic. “This place is our home now. I want it to be safe, for you, and our children. Oh god, I had to drop her at the daycare to make it to the door in time.”

“It’s okay, they called me right after. Our daughter’s fine.”

The man looked relieved and I felt even more guilty. They were parents. It was my fault. This man I barely knew, he was worried for his wife and children. He was worried for the other people around. Even the guards who wore such thick suits of metal looked nervous as they tried to stand at attention with weapons ready to skewer me.

My own guilt needed wait for a minute. I had to know about Colleen. “This is the city Izzy told me to find, to get my friend here because she needed someone. I, Izzy said I couldn’t explain things right, that I would hurt this place. I did, didn’t I?”

How in [The Outer World] did I make them so nervous? They were frightening the hell out of me. Neither one of them saw fit to answer my question in the slightly. I had knocked around a few people but they were clearly going to live, even though two guards had huge gashes across their armor.

“We’re going to help. Is it clear?” she asked her husband. “We need to get him back over there, or else she’ll be alone.”

The commentary enraged me. I leaped forward snarling and without thinking. The guards readied weapons. Months of dungeon diving made me react violently. I batted poles aside and two men in heavy suits went flying. More spear points appeared in my face.

“What does that mean?” I roared past the ring of sticks. Too many things that felt weird were starting to add up and the implications were frightening. “Izzy said the same thing! She yelled at me not to leave her alone! I would never leave her alone, but there’s an entire world! Her parents! What’s going on?!”

The shorter woman only frowned. The sad looking man in a bed sheets pulled back both cheeks and managed to look even more depressed. I paced on my short leash while trying to work through what was happening.

Izzy wasn’t alone, right? Did my sneaking feeling that no one else really existed actually mean something? I remembered Dale felt real, and Colleen at some point, but Dale was dead and Colleen was out here. Did I really leave Izzy alone?

“Can you give us a moment Perseus? It’s not easy to explain, and it’s not our place,” she said. I didn’t even remember telling this new woman my name. Maybe she had magic spells or powers that let her tell who I was.

“Then tell me, will Colleen be okay?” I needed something to reassure me. This whole trip had been insane. Fire lands, frost mountains, lightning clouds, and dead gods. None of it made sense. All I wanted was to undo mistakes caused by my interference between Colleen and dale.

“She’s with others like herself. They’ll take care of her.”

“She wanted to see Dale. She asked me to see him. Can she? Is it possible in this place?” I asked.

“Dale’s not here, not exactly. Not like you or I, or even Colleen,” the woman answered the question clinically.

I cast my eyes down and tried not to charge at them again. A space between my ears vibrated with barely suppressed rage. Fur flared with heat. The guards were still wary but had given me some space. My leash pulled tight against my neck and across one shoulder. Fur pinched annoyingly while my brain tried to push past all those annoyances. Colleen was safe, I was dangerous, and Dale was here but not.

It made no fucking sense.

“She can talk to him, maybe we can swing it so that it solves Beth’s other problem. Would you believe he’s actually suing my niece? I mean, the guy’s in pain, but that’s no excuse to lash out for having his life saved.”

They acted like Dale was alive, but I had clearly killed him. I killed him and felt very little remorse over it. Yet he was alive? Now it made even less fucking sense than before.

“We’re confusing him.”

“Sorry. No, you’re right.” Hermes sighed and both his shoulder slumped. “We’ll do this, see about getting Colleen a spell to reach Dale, and report to the council of Voices.”

My head just shook and eyebrows lowered. I was just a spirit cat, Izzy was the smart one, but my partner was being extremely quiet. I could feel her out there, watching and worrying. The mood meter flickered with nearly every single line being uttered.

“Hold still,” Hermes pointed at me. The dragon creature chirped at me while spreading both wings wide in threat. Dusk, or whatever it was, clearly wanted to fight and I wasn’t eager to throw myself against all the forces arrayed here. Not without reason.

I tried to keep still but failed. Hermes walked too close my body naturally shied away. His presence felt imposing compared to the guards and golems outside. It was like an immense power sat housed inside his smaller frame.

The man pressed hands around the hole in the wall and grunted. Fingers sunk into rock and muscles strained. He took a deep breath then started pulling. He acted as if by strength alone he could tear down a clearly solid wall. Then he did just that. The wall split and curled upon itself. A small doorway formed, barely enough for me to squeeze through.

On the other side, a familiar landscape of fire sat, complete with grazing giraffes and buzzards overhead. Hermes shouldered the last of the doorway into a solid frame. I stared in confusion at seeing someone create an actual door through sheer force.

“Go through,” the woman said.

I slowly padded by while casting a glance upward. Hermes took a breath and tried to smile but it looked forced. The female stepped in behind me, but not very far from the freshly made door. Under her feet bricks that looked like the city replaced the normally burning landscape.

“You have a choice Perseus.” The woman gestured towards a road in front of her. It trailed off into the landscape ahead. “Down one road is the truth that may end in death, as it has for others in your position. One road has a familiar lie that is comforting but only skin deep. Along the third is freedom from all worry or care, an end, if you so desire.”

Staring down them did no good. They all looked the same to me. Each path had the same trees, twists,and turns. Even their fading skylines looked identical. Yet two of them implied death, and the comforting lie sounded equally worthless.

“Which road do I take?” I asked her while looking back up.

She knelt down next to me and put one hand upon my head. A flinch rippled through me before I grew used to being touched. This tiny almond skinned woman didn’t feel bad, she felt stable, resolute, as if she knew exactly what to do. But at the same time, I already knew my question was doomed to go unanswered.

“I have this poem, one I love, and it’s always helped me make a choice. It helped my husband survive his trials,” then her head shook slowly “but I don’t think it’s right for you. You don’t seem like the poet type.” She smiled, and it made the stinging judgment feel kinder.

“What was it anyway?”

The short woman’s head shook even more. It occurred to me that I didn’t even know her name. Hermes seemed fond of her. His muscled form sat behind us with both hands on weapon hilts, looming and over protective. I did the same for Izzy when chasing off idiot boys who didn’t know any better.

“When the time comes to choose young Perseus, you’ll know what to do, and I believe you’ll charge down that road without a shred of doubt or needing anyone else’s guidance.” Her fingers scratched my head briefly and I tried not to purr in happiness.

“But they all look the same,” I said while staring back down the three roads. How could I even tell which one of these went with which choice? There were no signs saying ‘truth lies here’.

“Choices are like that sometimes. Keep looking, keep thinking about it. Consider what you’ve seen and what we’ve talked about. And if that fails, ask your partner. Isabella has a good head on her shoulders.”

Izzy remained silent, but the mood meter which connected us flushed nearly pink and purple with pride spawned embarrassment.

“Babe! I can’t leave this open forever, they’re going to notice again.” The man said.

“He’s right Peirce. I told you, it’s dangerous for you to go to the city.”

“Then can we do?” I asked. The place behind me looked bright.

“What do you want to do?”

I thought about all that had happened. There were three roads in front of me, but maybe I was looking for the wrong details. What good did a tree do in dividing how to move forward? That was the wrong way to look at these paths.

The problem was, I hadn’t ever been book smart. I wasn’t some scientist in my past life, or good with math, music, or anything creative. I only knew how to throw myself into danger. Because I wanted to help people, so that no one else needed to suffer a broken family like I had.

“I want to help people, I want to really help people. Which one of these paths does that?”

Small bits of rose colored magic slowly fell outward from the chain. They crawled along the ground forming light images of footsteps along a paths.

I walked forward, not really caring which one of the three choices this road ended up on. When I looked back, the doorway to Colleen’s new home had vanished, along with the strange people who lived there.

[The Overseer]’s log: We can only do so much. Even after decades of working with this system, we’re almost powerless to control anything. Do you think that’s by design? Never mind, the only way anyone will actually read this is when the bad press and lawsuits start for real, more than these stupid cases.

Dale, freed from the system, actually wept in happiness upon seeing his former companion, despite the freshly merged code and their strange parting. The traits of two personalities tied to him have created an odd dynamic, but he immediately dropped the lawsuit upon a promise of being able to continue communications. Stranger still, she was actually happy about it as well. Even IB is pleased.

Subject 42, on the other hand shows all the hallmarks of being near mental, more so that any prior combat he’s subjected himself to. The recent contact with the Voice known as Hermes and Hecate have clearly upset him, thankfully Yates’ code scrambling legacy caused everyone to pause. He heard the truth, but didn’t.

Then auntie Xin, she tried hard to get him on the right path. It will make things easier, and harder. Case Sevens show a direct correlation between reality manipulations their past memories fading. Something about their belief in the new life and discarding the old one gives them an edge. We need that power, or processing oomph, to complete the experiment. IB agrees, we need to get Subject 42 to walk a balancing line between submerging in the virtual world, and realization that there is life outside the box.

If we can.

 

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