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Hand in darkness

The jungle is infinite in every direction, and so dense that passage is only possible through the tunnels hewn by airliner-sized bats crashing through the foliage. The ecosystem is entirely dependent on these giant chiropterae, organized around the changeable network they weave between clusters of fruit, water-collecting blossoms, and massive nests of woven vine. These bats have no predators, but I have seen their carcasses floating in the pitcher-ponds they lap from, crusted in nectar and rotting, swarmed by scarabs and carnivorous gibbons.

Two beacons blink in the holographic sphere attached to my wrist, but I am not thinking about them, nor am I thinking about bats, even as I wait for their destructive flight to clear my way. Instead, I am remembering: my earliest memories are textured with sunbeams and felt, characterized by overwhelming pre-verbal emotions, which vanish until so much later, when I am bouncing a child on my own knee, surrounding by the same afternoon light and blankets. In between, while the loop has yet to be completed, there many more: mountains passing during long drives, climbing the same hill day after day after day, a porcelain cat shattering, my face held under a scalding spray of water, injections. Many are unpleasant, but it is important to savour these moments. After all, they won’t be mine for long.

The thunder of a flapping bat ends my meditation, compression waves through the hyperorganism nearly unseating me. I crawl out of my den, a shallow tube hacked into the wall of greenery, and peer down the tunnel. A few hundred yards away, a crossroads has opened, and a quick conference with my hologram shows that this one, finally, will lead me closer to my prize.

I crawl and leap through the low gravity, alternately swinging on vines and soaring from flower to flower, using the petals of enormous lilies as trampolines. Flocks of iridescent birds and huge butterflies pass above and below me, rushing to strip the newly formed duct of its sugars. Scores of imagines, stirred from hibernation by the great beast, wriggle from ruptured cocoons along the tunnel’s walls.

Approaching the destination, I am reminded of my Opponent, whom I have come to know, and who I am sure is waiting at the following checkpoint, weapon in hand. We have passed through many minds and many worlds, and his snake-nature has grown dominant, a predatory thread persisting through wildly different chassis. I alight on an orchid, and find the object of my search gleaming, suspended from a filament in place of the anther: a crystal, roughly whittled into the shape of some cat, maybe a puma. The animal is different every time, which I appreciate; it adds flavor to this wretched, unending cycle. I touch my memories again, and fall asleep, curled up in the basket of pollen.

When I dream, it’s not about bats or flowers or the ziggurat that I will make my way towards tomorrow, but about laundry and sunbeams and the warm creaking of a rocking chair. Sleep is not possible in every world, and dreaming is not included in every sleep mechanic; this, too, I appreciate, and savour while it lasts.

Paths to the ziggurat are clear in every iteration, promising a quick end, respite from the never-ending needle-in-a-haystack fetchquest. For weeks, I have been searching, and waiting, as the labyrinth of tunnels dilates and contracts, leading me in circles around my prey. Soon this will be over. I let myself down from my perch, falling gently towards the temple, crystal in my right pocket, left hand clutching the shard of bone I have repurposed into a machete.

“Who built the ziggurat?” Nobody built the ziggurat. The programmer built the ziggurat, built a whimsical error into an otherwise perfectly crafted world. In a past life, when I was able to cooperate with Vuln, my Opponent, we translated the hieroglyphs etched into its walls. The effort yielded nothing interesting: pop culture jokes and celebrity memes from the reality left behind. It is an ugly monument. If it did not exist, I could stay here endlessly, alone with my Memories, ignoring the billions of lives screaming to be lived.

At the top of the steps, I test the entrance for traps, dismantling a simple deadfall and a vine snare before entering. Even so, the instant I cross the threshold, it becomes clear my caution was inadequate. The air is heavy, and poisonous, and after a couple of breaths I can no longer stand. Vuln appears as I black out, wearing a breathing apparatus that appears to be made of hollow bulbs, probosci, and sap. He is insane; I do not know what chemical this is, or how it is prepared, or for how long he has been planning this.

The walls are lined with altars, each corresponding to a possible subsequent game. I have lost the crystal, my chance to drive us to a world of my choosing, and in falling unconscious, I have lost a more important choice, the opportunity to carry some of these memories with me, edit the psychic inventory —

A pair of numbers flash onscreen. I twitch in dissatisfaction,

and wake up inside a new brain, in the desert.

**

The fight begins inside, as it always does. In a lurch, my bodymind is replaced with another; my train of thought, grasping for sunbeams, for the face of child, is interrupted by disoriented rage. Those memories and that personality have been substituted, and the echoes of who I was grapple with the new being enclosing me, fighting for a shred of self. Our voices, finally, synchronize: we merge, a balance of control established. Am I possessing this body, or am I a tool, a disposable genius? We’re one, for now. I can only dream of perfect parasitism.

The desert has the terrain of a cumulus sand-cloud, constant wind raising a knee-high granular mist, beneath which I can see the darkness and pale blue lines of the grid, the weightless under-desert. This is a survival game, or a murder game, depending on who’s playing. The desert is harsh; the grid is safe, but telepathically broadcasts your thoughts and coordinates.

Vuln, the Other, my Opponent, has made a terrible mistake, because my new body is perfect for this world. Aeons of hibernation in this cadaverous hive are redeemed each time I incarnate here, in this form. This mind will be reset after the level is completed but it doesn’t matter, what matters is freedom from the dead world before, from babyish society, what matters is the opportunity to fulfill this digitized biological imperative to hunt and kill.

I dip my head into the grid, waiting for the clear wail of Vuln’s presence. Song-worms ululate in the distance, spiders cartwheel along dunes, and a massive red moon climbs the skybox. The algorithm has been kind, has granted me a strong body and a violent disposition. Memories of vice and bloodshed course through my nerves. I often wonder why, when the humans were preserved, they included defectors and criminals, such as my current self. We enjoy the games more than others, at least.

The wind picks up, scoring my face with crystalline dust. An oncoming wall of murk blots out the stars. Smiling, I sink into the grid, knowing the storm will force Vuln downwards; as expected, her thoughts ring through my mind immediately.

I swim through the reticulated light, rifling through the Other’s mind. Worlds with a telepathy mechanic are advantageous to me, as Vuln maintains an obsessively optimized psychic inventory: uncountable mnemonically compressed maps, meta-analyses of our wins, the most useful skills and strategies, even a model of the algorithm that sends us to new games and bodies. Comparatively, my own mind is a fluctuation of comforting memories and information related to our programming and predicament, stolen from the brains of this maze’s engineers when I am inside them. I rely on Vuln for immediate orientation, and I believe she once relied on me for perspective, though as hostilities rise she has focused only on winning.

Maintaining our mental inventories is draining, and we are frequently undermined by the bodies we incarnate in, their weaknesses or instincts of self-preservation allowing important information to be unseated and lost. Through the telepathic sea, I can feel that Vuln is struggling. She cries out to me for help, using the name that is not mine but that she has assigned to me, much as I assigned Vuln to her. My murderous denial is immediately beamed back.

She dives, trying to escape, but I’m closing the space between us too quickly, exhilarated by this human brain’s lustful contempt for her chassis (which I will surely incarnate as, in time). Vuln’s measured surrender resonates through the sea, but the panic of her body is too much to control. The puppet’s irrational death-terror vies with Vuln’s attempts to order her inventory in preparation for the shift. The grid’s filaments vibrate. As I grab her hair and pull her towards the surface, I contemplate our origins. Identical blank slates, differentiated only by chance, black holes born of uneven clusters of early universe matter; we move through the same series of bodies, the same network of games. Could we have been destined for anything other than rivalry? I hold her head above the grid, blood trickling down my wrist as her face is worn away by the abrasive sandstorm. At the exact moment of death, we both dissolve.

New numbers, new games.

Piloting gigantic foam mechatronic centipedes, we compete to build the tallest tower out of crayon-colored clay harvested from the banks of a cartoon Nile. Given photos of members of a randomly generated alien species, we race to determine beauty standards and sculpt the most beautiful Xeno-Venus. We fight in coliseums, in aquariums, in orbit around quasars, launching nuclear warheads at each other’s settlements. We play a tiresome array of chess, go, and checkers variants, on boards as small as mice and as large as galaxies, with pieces that speak, bleed, evolve, rebel. There are no ties; our win-counts are rarely more than a few thousand apart, though lately Vuln has been pulling ahead.

GAME: using any method, cause a star to spawn at specified galactic coordinates. GAME: drive one of two identical twins to suicide. GAME: remain at sea for 300 years, restarting every time you glimpse the shore. GAME: untie a mountain-sized gordian knot. No cheating.

Non-player-characters are detailed but unconvincing, obviously lacking in sentience. GAME: destroy a set percentage of the planet’s population. We are locked in this machine, together and alone, breathing temporary agency into the cells of humanity’s petrified corpse. GAME: simultaneously operate on each other. The winner is the one who remains closest to their original self. Implements provided.

I bide my time, learning, listening to the memories. We exist inside a networked array of asteroid servers harnessing the energy of the sun. These servers contain approximately three billion digitized human bodyminds in stasis, the last of their kind. Strangely, there is no apocalyptic consensus; the minds I wear attribute collapse to all sorts of contradictory events and pressures. Memories of the years leading to the Fall are confused, even delusional. GAME: solve a series of murders perpetrated by your opponent.

The array can only afford to run two humans at a time. Vuln and I are apparently a glitch, side-effects of poorly sanitized data, the self-awareness of continuous working memories trapped in this cycle of gamified reincarnation, enslaved to the meat puppets we animate and their bizarre dream of digital immortality.

GAME: kill yourself as quickly as possible (record: Vuln, 12.4 seconds, self-inflicted aneurysm). GAME: drain the oceans. (record: Vuln, 16 years, coordinated nuclear events expediting total evaporation). GAME: collect ten thousand crystals from the Prismatic Gardens. Very soothing. (record: Vuln, 4 hours, using a crudely constructed and terrifying diesel combine harvester). GAME: seduce your opponent. This one’s hard.

***

Alchemical sigils pulse faint cyan under the bricks, their coded trail leading me deeper into the palace. As I pass through, the corridor twists, a DNA strand of pillars and tile. I’m walking between two courtyards, one drenched in moonlight, the other glowing in the afternoon sun.

This is an evolving scavenger hunt: the objects listed on my scroll shift, the winning combination changing as I collect them. Already, my pockets are full of quasi-useless baubles: a glass marble containing the frozen eye of a crow, an ornamental obsidian dagger, a small twinkling keychain, a prism, an inkwell. I hold on to them in case the scroll changes back.

I enter an octahedral sunroom; eight glass ceilings welcome the rays of eight different stars, each at a different time of day, a hallway at each vertex. I move between gravities by leaning on the walls, sliding from facet to facet towards an opposite door. This would be a lovely world, were I not plagued by the sense of Vuln’s watchful eyes, following me between the galleries. A beam of light strikes me, tugging at a memory of a memory, always out of reach.

In one of the palace’s many libraries, I glimpse of Vuln behind a row of books, his face sheathed in a grimacing yellow mask. Twin labyrinths of shelves, one affixed to the ceiling and the other to the floor, interlock, and he is gone by the time I duck under the barrier separating us. My curiosity, however, is rewarded: the dried body of a toad, next item on my scroll, lies on the ceiling where he stood. Could he have dropped it? Something about his behaviour worries me.

Objects begin appearing wherever I wander. An antique puppet sits in the hallway, facing me, when I exit the library. In empty rooms, I often turn around and find the furniture rearranged, some vital trinket on display. When I reach for light-switches, my hands land on precious gems. When I want to rest, there are snuffboxes under the blankets. My discomfort waxes, and I stop accepting these gifts. A mirrored cabinet opens, spilling dozens of the pearls I’ve been searching for; in its reflection, a yellow rictus flashes, vanishing when I spin around.

I set traps, I lie in wait, but Vuln remains out of reach; always footsteps around the corner, laughter echoing under the bridge, a cold thumbprint on the brass doorknob of the opera house. Yet when I resign myself, relax and meditate on the lifetime of this body, he appears in the corner of my vision, a grain of sand disturbing my rest.

Eventually, I find him barefaced in a rose garden, triumphantly pulling a silver coin from the basin of a triple fountain forming a midair celtic knot. He meets my eyes, smirking in his usual way, which is not at all what I predicted. Far in a passageway behind him, a yellow mask hangs suspended in the twilight, and for a moment I fail to understand — then the shadowy figure wearing it darts into a stairwell, evaporating.

Vuln, the fool, refuses to believe me. In our tens of thousands of runs through this game, we have always been alone. The presence of another being shatters something fundamental about my understanding of the game, and of the server-world we run on. The mask radiates menace more intensely than any NPC, and such a dramatic change of rules is unprecedented after aeons of repetition.

Last cycle, the palace was a lullaby safehouse. Now, it is enemy territory; my frustrated sleepwalk through the game has been overturned by an entity who should not exist, an impossibility disturbing tens of thousands of subjective years of play. I claw through my collected information, searching for any hint that could explain the anomaly, but the programmers didn’t even predict Vuln and myself. Bile rises in my throat, as I consider the vastness of the server, and the corresponding sliver of memory I have existed in for all my accidental life.

We have enough artifacts between us to win this game. Vuln figures this out before I do, and by the time I think to guard my hoarded treasures he’s already cut my purse and made off, but I am lost in thought, rapt in terror; I barely notice when the world shudders, transporting us to a ragged mountain range caked in ancient lavastone. He takes off running; I cannot move my feet. A lone silhouette watches over us from a distant peak. Sunlight glints on an ochre face.

A galaxy of processes, of drivers and of subroutines have managed every detail of the worlds I am confined to. We are the projection of an unfathomably complex machine, flickering thoughtspaces crawling across the error-warped lens. Ultimately, we are small; I begin to dream of system failures, of disjoints on more fundamental levels of hardware, sentience spawning in the gaps left by orphaned instructions. Fertile damage in hardware exposed to the elements, to solar radiation, to alien broadcasts, to the fluctuations of the outside; artifact intelligences spawning between circuits, software mutating, glitches blossoming into consciousness.

The yellow mask pierces our world from a higher dimension, weaving in and out of the games’ physics. Often, I feel its artificial, cold breath on my nape, and turn around just in time to watch it dip out of reality, a curtain of nothingness closing over that smile. Its presence invokes emotions ranging from uneasiness to hysteria in my human hosts, and many games are lost because I am crippled by panic, locked in fetal position and struggling for breath. Bargaining with this entity is impossible: the human collective that passes through me is too repulsed. Its aberrant, predatory aspect evokes the same atavistic horror in all the bodies I inhabit; this reaction is the most consistent I have ever observed.

Even Vuln’s performance is impeded. He periodically becomes aware of the mask, but refuses to add the information to his mental inventory, remaining stubbornly ignorant. In the telepathic worlds, I scream into his brain, trying to alert him to the danger we are courting. Sometimes, Vuln is the one reduced to sobbing shambles: but as soon as we shift to a new game he is reset to his smug, clueless archetype. He has reached a point of inertness, and I do not know what will move him.

Could we be erased? What are the limits of the mask’s powers? Why does it toy with us like this, when it clearly knows more than we do, can escape the bounds of our tessellated prison? To my surprise, I find myself fearful of waking up in a world without Vuln, alone with the sinister promise of invasion. Or am I already alone? Has Vuln abandoned our accidental consciousness for the eternal Sisyphean game? I wonder if any thought remains in his mind, or if his whole being is lost to the completion of meaningless checklists, tallying points on a limitless scorecard. There is only me, and the grinning Thing from Outside.

I am no longer safe. My insular playground has been ruptured by this being, by the potential of many others like him: an ecosystem above me and beyond me, meta-programs transgressing our universe, defiling the burial grounds humanity made for itself, devouring its corpse, corrupting its mimetic pseudo-image, affirming the infinite and dark.