The Facility

Iteration J-485– “Ruth” –crossed the last Gate’s threshold at breakneck speed, like it would make a difference.

The poor woman had told me beforehand she planned to get to the Exit, where no one had ever been before. If just to see what was there. It was a stupid and naïve way to approach something like this, but I nodded as if I approved and her smile made her face glow. Perspective is reality, and that holds doubly true for a person’s last moments. Their last, stupid, naïve moments.iteration case file #A-001 – “Oportyna”

The Mayor and l watched her go from the other side of the Gate—a massive wall of (yet still) unidentified, transparent, sky-blue energy generated by a vertical metal frame ringing the room. Rusted metal archways behind us towered above the path back to the tunnel which led to Maggie’s Plaza. It was almost as if the Facility had tried to hide this place away before I found it.

Around us before the colossal Gate, my own saturated graveyard of failures: monitoring consoles and measuring instruments, long-dead relics of attempts to study the effects of the last Gate. The walls and terraces of the chamber around us teemed with Iterations pushing and clamoring to get a closer look. Hundreds of thousands, maybe a million of us—short, tall, bald, corn-rowed, gay, straight, and everything else in-between, sideways, and upside-down.strengths: determination, intelligence

I remember when I used to be frightened by the idea there could be so many versions of just one person. The reality? It’s just annoying.

The Mayor—dressed in a sharp crimson suit—leaned over.

Really, really annoying.

“Ten bucks, she cracks before the corner,” she said. The rum on her breath hit me like a train.

“Jesus Christ,” l coughed, staggering away. “Are you drunk?”

The Mayor gave me a look and gestured around us. “Are you not?”

We both looked back at Ruth, shrinking into the distance. The enormity of the hallway turned her into an insect. I was reaching for my satchel to break out the binoculars—ignoring the flare of unpermitted optimism—when a murmur ran through the crowds above us. I looked through my binoculars just in time to see Ruth sway and slam into the wall like a car out of control.age: 36

The woman pulled herself off of the wall. The light caught her and in the distance I saw something black-red dripping from her ears. She staggered back to an unstable, drunken run. I tapped my temple like a woodpecker, trying to find the frequency of her collar microphone before it was too late.flaws: violent, short temper, emotionally reserved, sociopathic tendencies

Nothing but snowy static until I hit the screaming, laughing, gurgling gibberish I’d been hoping against reason not to come across. She was gone.

I swore, pointedly and long and loud enough to cause a temporary hush in the crowds above us. The Mayor leaned uncomfortably close to me, giving me a “told you so” look.

“Goddamnit, stop,” I snarled, moving away. “One of your people has gone insane.”

“‘Your people,’ huh?” she said with a knowing grin, backing off and taking out her flask. I frowned at her as I rubbed my eyes. The steady hum of the Gate dug into my bones, mocking me from my core. The Iteration had succumbed and her Departure was a failure, as if anyone expected otherwise.  Again. I slammed her collar remote on the metal floor and it shattered.

The Mayor, looking pleasantly buzzed, offered me her flask. I pushed her arm away and stormed back towards Plaza del Barnes in J City. Upon seeing my departure, laughter and jeers arose from the masses of Iterations around us.

The Mayor stayed behind, craning her neck up to search for the top of the Gate—somewhere up in the darkness.

“We can’t keep doing this to ourselves,” she called after me, and tossed back some of her swill.

“Yes, we can,” I shouted without looking back. “We can keep doing it until we’re through. That’s always been the plan.”

She belched. “Yeah, well. ‘Case you haven’t noticed—not many people left who care about that.”

I flipped her off and one of the ancient, creaking archways overhead shuddered and toppled with a clangor behind me.

“Oh, real mature,” she shouted after me from the Gate. “You want to drive us all into insanity against our will for something that might not even exist, and you won’t even admit it. Yeah, okay, cool. I’ll, uh, I’ll just go and handle the rising suicide rate your little crusade maintains year after year. Sound good?”

Christ, she sounded just like Andrew when we used to fight.

The Mayor was wrong. We were going to get out. We all were. They could laugh and joke and jeer behind my back all they wanted. But in the end I’d get us all out. Alone, if I had to.f̙̯̣̤̞̹͒̐͒̊͑ͩͭḛ̹͍̫̼͋̊͐́ả̠̙̥̭̪̲̌̏͌ͫ͑r̠̠̈́̋ͨ̀̋̄s̮̟̠̟̋͌:̞͈̩̭̺̼̞̔̂̐̈̐̊̈̂ ̤̼̩̳ͤ̈́ͯ̇l͎͖̟̗̱̃̽͌ͥȁ̦̰̞͈̐̌͊̚̚c͚͙̰̜̝̹͗͊k̻͔ͣ̆̆ ̻̣͇̱͑̏͆ͪ̊̇ͪo̠̻̙̻̼ͨͣ̈́̓ͥ̐̏f̦̘̜͚͆ͣͪ̒ͅ ̫̰̼͚͖̤̅ͭͨ́̍̎ͫ͐c͙̖̳̓̓͆̉ỏ̩͎̱̄̂̀́ͥ̉̂n͕͔̭͉̰̄ͅt͎̟̔̔͛r̞͆̌ͨo̭͈̣̥̺̻̩̓ͣͥ̆l͈̳̗͎͂̊̚,̹̮̂̌ͧ̒͛̈͋͂ ̥̳̃̈̓͛̇̐̋b̜̭̰͔̦̱͓̯̍̂͋ͧ̆̌e̦̙̩̓ͫ̈̐̋͋͒̒ȉ̤̜̹͇̦̤̻ͯn̪̠̖̣͙͆̃͆̽ͬ̊g͙̼͈ͭ͆̎͑͋̚ ͔̬̉ͭ̃͊͗̇ͪͬa̰͍̙͎̪͔̹̓ͩ̓͋̔͌͆ͭl̗͈̩̟̩͙͍̹ͯ͒o͔̠̦̩̝͂ͩ̌ͦn̻̏̇͛ͤ͊ẹ̾̏̈̍͛͆ͧ

Why else would we all have been stuck here in the first place?

What kind of sick person would do that?

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

I’m sorry, but I told you… I can’t remember anything.”

I clenched my hand but caught myself in time. She scared easy, and the last thing I needed right now was her getting spooked again.

So instead I thought of my toaster back at home and punched a hole through it. That frustration had to go somewhere.

“Fine,” I said, turning from her cell back to my workstation strewn with Iteration parts. “Let’s take a break.”

When I discovered the office up in the sky, I’d installed the Quarantine room and spruced it up for her state of mind: live plants, mood lighting, deep crimson carpeting, pleasing background music, bean bag chairs, video games, et cetera. She had a special affinity for blueberry scones, which I made sure her pantry was never in short supply of.

The rest of the Facility’s aesthetic was in similar style: HUD panels on the windows, light strips on the walls and floors, chandeliers, plenty of hedge plants, rich carpeting and—curiously—an upscale ‘50s accent around it all. Whoever designed this anachronistic maze had a sick sense of humor but a sharp eye for interior decor.

By now I’d lost count of the different types of frequencies and wavelengths I’d had to program G-1192038’s cell to contain, just to protect the Facility. By all rights, she should have been cooked by her own—whatever the hell it was she emitted—long ago. g̝͉͈̙͒̃ͪͭ̒ḷ̯̯̫͇͆̊̋̔ͮͤ̄ǐ̳̫̫̦̼̜̻̲ͣ̉t̗̘̪̬̯̫̼̳͛ͩ͊c͈̯͊͐h͙́̆̍ͫ̒ͩ̊̑̚ ͓̦͎͇̜̺ͭͦͧͣ̔̉ͅ ̤̟͚͕̜͖̔̾̒̌͒͒͆ ̙̩͌ ̟̹̜̤͓̯̣̭̑ͣͥͭͩ̋̃ ͉̬͈̼̝͓ͧ̄̋͑͌̉ ̖̟̰̦̳̣̭͍ͦ̾͛̓ͬ ̗̱̪̲͎̎̏͗̓͋̄̚  ̭̑ͦ̈ͣͧg̗͖͈͉̳̣̻̣͚ͬͫl͕͉̂͊i͓̞͊t̥̰͚̞͚ͦ̈́ͩ̈́̈́ͬ͛̚c̥̗̺͎͑̊ͬͣͫ̑ͫh̗͖̉̏͋

The office—or whatever it had been in a previous life—was the only room in the Facility (that I knew of) that deviated from the general aesthetic of the lab’s design. It was drab. Corporate.

She came to the edge of the field around her cell. “I’m sorry,” she said, sounding disappointed with herself. “I really thought I could remember today.”

I said nothing, crossing the room.

I’d first discovered this maze of offices in the two-hundred-and-fifty-second story of the Facility wall south of A City. The city was a ghost town, hadn’t seen visitors or heard footsteps since a long-dead time from before I woke up at the Beginning.

The wall opposite the G’s cell looked out onto the endless sky. A thunderhead was building up in the distance, somewhere close to B City. The rest of A City was obscured by a thick prairie of clouds. Not bad, if I said so myself. The Its of the Facility were aware the sky was false, but I’d forgotten to report my discovery of the old, abandoned lab above the celestial simulacrum. I’d found it by accident while laying out the framework for the sky the Mayor had drawn up. It was a relic, ancient. An abandoned maze of cubicles, desks, water coolers, phones and desktop computes, unlike any other room or floor in the entire Facility.

I’d moved the Contraption up here as well, for the sake of convenience. Not even the Mayor knew about this place.

I floated up the stairs to the lab’s next tier. I had made Ji’s cell as spacious as I could without having to make any significant changes to existing Facility infrastructure, which was a bitch and a half to do. So I’d designed her cell as a sort of large living room. Her peace of mind meant my safet–

I almost sat in my chair before I realized it had gone photo-negative.

Stumbled, I swung around, nearly touched the damned thing, tripped over my feet and ended up sprawled on the floor.

I moaned and looked around. The room was peppered with Anomalies I should have easily spotted: my coffee mug flashing through random colors; a half-eaten chocolate scone emitting sparks; my hat, stuck halfway through the wall by the computer console, and more, on or in the floor. The Matisse hanging by the entrance, Le bonheur de vivre, had turned into a pineapple nailed to the wall.

Ji sat up in her EZ Boy recliner by the large HUD in the wall, and wrapped herself in a blanket. Her face dropped and she muted the K-pop documentary she’d been watching. “You’re angry.”

I used the computer console to pull myself to my feet, groaning. “No, no. Just… confused.”

Ji got up and came to the edge of the cell, wearing the blanket like a shawl. Just in front of her thrummed the protective field around her cell.

Can we talk about the woman I keep seeing?” she asked, cautious eagerness in her voice.

I changed the subject; it wasn’t often she was this lucid, and God only knew how long it would last.

“How have you been feeling?”

She rested her face on the wall next to her. “I really think we should talk about her.”

I ignored her and tapped a sequential code on the wall panel. It whirred, chunked, and spat out a Dummy Iteration. The Dummy stumbled, caught its footing, then turned and faced me with a blank look. The thing had far less detail than the end product, but it got the job done.

I nodded at the Anomalies around the room. “Clean them up.”

It went to work, gathering up the ones on the floor first. In no time, it began to grow patchy and incorporeal, its body flickering at the edges and drifting up into the air like ghostly cinders. It continued picking up the Anomalies, seemingly uncaring that its body was slowly—for lack of a better word—evaporating.

Keeping an eye on the Dummy, I looked at Ji and gestured at the Anomalies the evaporating Dummy was carrying in its arms. “Do you remember doing any of that?” I asked.

Ji shook her head. “They were there when I woke up.” Then, pointing at the Dummy with an armload of small Anomalies, “Why can she touch them and you can’t?”

I sat on a rolling chair by the couch after making sure it was safe, lit up a cigarette, and burned through a third of it. I exhaled, watching the smoke curl in the light.

“It’s not a ‘she’,” I said, leaning back and crossing my legs. “Just a body with enough consciousness to respond to verbal commands. Meat that does what you tell it.” I tapped my head. “Never gave it the brain-mapping installation.”

This seemed to confound her, as she grew quiet and stared hard at the Dummy Iteration by the incinerator chute in the far corner. I smoked a couple cigarettes in silence. The Dummy’s right leg was now canted at an odd angle and its hair had changed from the standard safe soccer-mom cut to a red mohawk. It gave all this as much attention as it did everything else. It tossed the twitching, shifting, flickering, or otherwise “off” Anomalies into the incinerator. Each Anomaly caused a lick of flame and a faint screeching noise when it caught fire below.

Ji turned from the degrading Dummy and looked at me. “Is that what I did to those people? What you said I did? Reset them?”

I didn’t answer. Instead, I finished my cigarette while the Dummy finished its work. Once it had dumped the last Anomaly–—a lemon with a grenade pin—into the incinerator, it climbed in afterwards and with an evaporating, burning hand, closed the chute behind itself.

Ji had retreated to the far end of her cell, transfixed on the closed chute and looking quite traumatized. Fortunately, impersonal stressors weren’t a factor of her episodes. So I let her be while I logged the details of the Anomaly incident into the computer.

Whatever she did to these things—be it a coffee mug or a chubby Schnauzer—physical contact with the affected objects or creatures became wildly dangerous in turn. Contact with synthetic Gate fields during testing destroyed both the Gate and the Anomaly. But as there were still parts of the last Gate’s data cache I hadn’t been able to access yet, introducing an Anomaly into the real deal could potentially blow the whole city up or flood it with nerve gas for all I knew.

Ji was now sitting in the corner. Her voice was shaking, anxious, distant.

“I’m dangerous. Aren’t I?”

The Dummy gone and Anomalies safely disposed of, I turned back to Ji. There was no point in lying—somehow, she always knew when I was. I grabbed a tablet display and kicked off from the desk, rolling over to her. En route, I brought up case data on the casualties of her last escape. Less this time. Getting better. Covering up the incident had necessitated further casualties, though.

I wouldn’t say ‘dangerous,’” I told her. “But we do need to figure out what’s going on with you.” We’d had this same conversation dozens of times, but only I seemed to remember it.

The hopeful expression on her face told me she hadn’t followed much of what I’d said. “So I can go soon?” she asked from behind the bars, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

I gave her a patient look.

She seemed to finally get the idea and frowned. “But—I need to leave. I need to get out so—”

“Right, to stop this, uh, ‘Variant’ you keep dreaming about.” I sighed, and rolled over to one of the consoles in the wall by the entrance. “I’ve checked everything on every Departure’s Iteration—timestamps, Gate stability, camera feeds, bio-sigs, heartrates, blood pressure, who they lost their virginity to. Ji, it’s just a—”

“It’s not a dream,” she said, furrowing her brow. “I really saw her. Here. In the Facility.”

I ignored her, looking up at old data of the ten Gates going all the way back to a century ago. “There’s nothing out of place. Look, I’d really like to try some behavioral tests today. So let’s get back t—”

“Maybe the machines can’t see her,” Ji broke in. Her voice wavered. “Maybe… maybe they’re broke—”

The HUD on the wall next to her cell showed her vitals were rising. I knew it was dangerous but I needed to get some damn work in.

“Look,” I said, bringing up a test protocol on the monitor, “we’ll talk about it later. For now, please, let’s just focus on some meditative relaxation techniques to get you stabili—”

No!

My hands slowed to a stop over the keyboard. I knew pushing her was risky but she wasn’t normally this quick—

If she gets in to the the hatch by the Exit, everything e̸n̶d̶s̴ ̶e̸n̸d̵s̴ ̸ E̸x̸i̸t̷ ̶e̸n̶d̷s̵—”

Oh. Oh no.

M̶a̸ i̶ n̸t̸ e̶ n̷a̶ n̷ c̵e̷ ̸  h̴  a̷ t̴  c̷   h̵ ”

No no no no, not again. Not now.

I jumped from the chair and ran to her cell. Ji stood in the middle of the room, glassy-eyed. Her arms hung limp at her sides. She was shaking, vibrating. One of her hands clenched and blood trickled from the fist.

“Ji,” I whispered, working to keep my voice steady. “Ji, it’s okay. Wake up.” I tried my best to sound soothing, comforting. But that was a joke: my heart was going ninety to nothing and panic soon wired my jaw shut. I paced around her cell, helpless, useless.

“Ḧ̶͙́ a̸̜̓t̴̛̩c̴̡̑ẖ̶̐ ̶̲́b̸̪͑y̶̪͗ ̷̛͇t̵̺͑h̸͉̑ ḛ̸̀ ̵̢͛  Exit  then  e̸̫͙͐̉͠v̷͖̟͊̅̽  e̶͇͛͝r̵̢̠̺̈̈́ỳ̷̬̱̚ ṯ̴̀̊̕h̸̼̲̉i̸̫͔͝ ǹ̵̳̫g̴̩̥̈́ ̴̫̍͑     wil l   s̸̰̒t̷̹́ơ̸͙ṗ̴͉ ̵̻̎   sto p    stop̧     i҉t̡͟͝‘̵l̀͜l ̀͟      ş͟͞ t  o   p

Static flashed in her eyes like a lightning storm and that was it.

She had reset.

Again.

I slumped into a velvet wingback chair outside her cell and stared at her in disbelief.

Twenty years. Twenty years of progress.

Gone in the space of a few seconds.

Just like that.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

By the time I was done destroying the Quarantine room, the sky outside the floor-to-ceiling windows had grown dark and cast the room in starlight. I held my head, panting and grimacing; the inside of it felt like a minefield full of gophers. I really needed to start meditating again.

I turned to look at Ji. Between the scorch marks and craters, the Quarantine room hadn’t fared very well. For someone normally so excitable, she hadn’t moved during my entire rampage.

I walked over and got right up to the field between us. The static in her eyes glowed in the darkness.

“You,” I said, catching my breath, “have to stop doing this.”

Ji spoke in a monotone. “r̵e̵a̴l̵i̵t̷y̴ ̸l̷i̴e̷s̶ ̷f̸a̴r̸ ̴b̴e̴y̵o̸n̵d̷ ̴s̵p̶a̴c̷e̸ ̵a̵n̷d̵ ̸t̷i̶m̴e̵ ̶a̷n̸d̶ ̷I̷ ̴n̴e̵e̸d̵ ̴t̵o̴ ̷k̴n̵o̸w̵ ̵w̷h̸y̷”

Well, at least we agreed on one thing.

I sank to my haunches and cradled my head. Ji was my ace in the hole and my hand had just gone to shit.

I had no idea what I was doing anymore.

“A҉re͢ ͟͠y̸̶̛ou ǫú ͜҉͝G͟҉ o͏̢d̡̛?” Ji asked.

I started, then got to my feet, wiping at my eyes. I looked her. She had started twitching uncontrollably.

I hope not,” I said, turning to leave for the night. “I really hope not.”

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Two days later, I popped up through the floor of the Mayor’s two-tiered office. She and another half-naked Iteration appeared to be wrapped in each other’s arms up against the window looking out over J City.

Synthetic sunlight poured through the glass, which took up the entire wall behind the desk, and made the room glow. The air was heavy with cigar smoke, thanks to a couple of forgotten Cubans in a tray on the gilded coffee table. Bottles upon bottles of Whistle Hog Boss Pig’s whiskey littered the Mayor’s desk, the sofas, both tiers of the ostentatious room in general.

The sight of an intimate moment caught me off-guard, and for a second I was reminded of Andrew. Faceless—forgot that long ago—but his smell, his touch, his style, his habit of being goofy and sexy at the same time. His way.

But none of that would ever come back if I stood here daydreaming.

I coughed; the Iteration I assumed to be a co-worker or prostitute turned, saw me, shrieked, and nearly fell over in her stumbling attempt to hide behind the Mayor. The Mayor just sighed.

“Jesus,” the woman hissed, peering around the Mayor at me and covering her bare chest. “Jesus, Sharon, is that the Operat–”

Ah, Iteration J-1027. How interesting.

“Listen, girl,” the Mayor snarled, pointing up at me. “This is eleventh time I’ve had to tell you: Use. The. Waiting room. Got it?”

I cocked my head. “Then I’d have to wait to talk with you.”

“That’s the p—oy, vey…” The Mayor held her head, then turned to the Iteration behind the desk. “Honey, I’m sorry, but I’m gonna need you to wait for me at home.”

“Yeah.” J-1027 started pulling her pants on, staring at me like I was an art exhibit nobody understood. “‘Course, yeah. I’ll… I’ll pick up Biscuit from the daycare. On the home. The way. The way to the home.”

Fully-clothed, she kissed the Mayor goodbye. She seemed rather anxious to be out of the room as she left. Once the door closed, the Mayor turned to me with her suit in certain disarray, a less-than-pleased look on her face.

I could tell I had upset her, so as I landed on my feet, I tried to diffuse the situation.

“Your prostitute is very beautiful,” I said.

The Mayor choked. “That was my wi—you know what, nevermind, just… what do you want?”

“I need you to cancel walling off the last Gate,” I told her.

The Mayor gave me a strange look. Then, she laughed. She laughed, finished getting dressed, sat down, poured herself a full glass of whiskey, laughing the whole time, and I was beginning to think she’d somehow gotten stuck in a strange loop until she tossed the whiskey back and set down an empty glass, snickering.q͚͕͕̭̻ͣ̊̑͆̇̽ͫu̦̠̔̽̎i̗̮̘̤͍͇̯̯̹̊͂ͯ͆̈́͗̋̉ť̻̃̓ͧt͖͙̗̿̓͌́̓e̲̻͚ͦ͑̅̆r̝̘̟̼͈͙͛̋̓͌ ̗͖̤̩͙̍̍ͫ͋ͧ̏̏ ͇͖͓̘̳̣͕͖̟ͯ̅ͥͪ ͍͓̺̫̗̩̳̻͌͊̅ ͇̹͔͈̫̰̹͙̪̒͑̈̎̐̂ ̣̰̅ͬ͐ͤ͑̚ ̭̟̤̲̆͌̒ͬ͊̌̓̐̓ͅq̙̘͎̝͔̭̣̫̽̽̉ͪủ̙͓̟͂̿̿͊ͮ͒͋i͔͎͉ͪ͒̎͑t̩͚ͦ͑̓́t̼͎̫͇͈̀͑ẹ͓̘̺̲̠̔ͭ̓́̌ͅr̞͇͙͍̲̤̬̦̺̾͛̒ͪ̇ͦ͗

“So that’s a yes?” I asked, brushing some bottles off one of the sofas and sitting down.

“Look,” she said, trying to look serious but still giggling. She propped her elbows on her desk, slipped and hiccupped, corrected herself. “Let’s forget for a second that promising to wall off the last Gate is the whole reason I’m in this office. Let’s ignore all the constituents who’d wish firebombing my home or slitting my throat would kill me.”

“Done.”

“You and me, Op. We both agreed I would lead J City in your place. Back when I got elected. Remember? Yeah. You didn’t have time for ‘direct interpersonal leadership.’ Besides, I was the first Iteration to ever have crossed the Gate from I City to J. H to I City, too. Can’t forget—”

I gave her a patient look and tuned her out, thinking about what model toaster I was going to make to replace the one I’d destroyed the other day. I gave my temple an innocent tap. After a quick scan of every toaster model I had on-file in the Contraption, I ended up choosing the Breville Professional Smart model.

It looked like she was getting to the point, so I started listening again.

“—left us all here on our own so you could go chase a fairy tale,” she was saying. “You know things, Op. Things even I don’t know. Instead of studying the Gate or experimenting on people or whatever it is you do all day, why not actually help the quality of life ‘round here for a change?”

I gave her a blank look. “What do you think the sky was for? The flora and fauna?”

“And that’s great,” she said, spreading her hands in admittance. “But you just left us here all those years ago. You think you can tell people they’re a bunch of clones made by a machine above the sky and expect them to handle it in a healthy way on their own?”

I was getting ready to tune her out again when she swiped an empty whiskey bottle and hurled it at me. I blinked and it fell apart into its respective molecular compounds before hitting my face.  

Don’t you drown me out, you bitch psychopath,” she whispered, leaning on the desk. There were torn-up nail marks in the wood leading to her fists. “The Wall goes up. End of discussion.”

I groaned and sat up. “If you won’t stop it, then delay it. I just need more–”

“—time?” she asked, smiling. “Seriously? Haven’t you been at this, like, two-hundred years or something?”

“Irrelevant.” It was actually three-hundred eighty-six. I got to my feet. “Look, you need to meet me halfway here.”

She shook her head and turned around to look outside at the city below. At the absolute mess I’d—we’d—created.

Down on the ground, out of sight, the different wings and wards of the laboratory had been repurposed to become storefronts and restaurants and hotels and bars and apartment complexes and all of life’s other silly little distractions.

Air travel was strictly forbidden, of course. The walls of the lab disappeared into nothing but sky once you got about fifty stories up. It was easy for any fool aviator to crash into a wall I’d disguised to look like an empty patch of sky.

“Ruth had a history of depression,” the Mayor said, her back to me. The sun illuminated her edges, darkened the rest of her. “So did eighty-nine percent of the last fifteen thousand Departure… ‘participants.’”

I leaned against a nearby life-size gold statue of the Mayor and waited. For a while, she said nothing.

“I know this is a long shot,” she said, turning sideways and holding her arms, “but try and imagine what it’s like. Walking by the tunnel to that goddamn thing day in and day out. A big, fat, sky-high reminder of how cowardly we’re all trying to pretend we’re not.”

“It’s a numbers game,” I said, observing the statue’s face. “Its from Cities A to I are still progressing at a stable rate. Statistically, someone who can survive the last Gate will pop up sooner or later.” I peered closer at the statue: at a glance it was impressive, but the longer you looked, the clearer its flaws became. A bit like the Iterations before the Contraption put the finishing touches on them.

The Mayor turned and glared at me with bloodshot eyes. White powder lined her nostrils. “You don’t even know what’s outside the Exit,” she said. “Christ, we don’t even know what year it really is. If it’s day or night outside the Facility. For all we know everyone else is dead. We might not even be on Earth, Op.”

She walked around the desk, collecting a nearly-full bottle of whisky in her hand along the way.

“Andrew, the kids,” she muttered, reaching the front of the desk. “They might not even be real. Did you think of that? Did you forget we’re all just synthetic sacks of synapses stuffed with a randomized iteration of a single freakin’ brain map?”

“And who knows who or what is even spitting us out into this dungeon?”

I kept my tone even. “And if they’re real and alive?”

“The family? Then they have about twenty million mothers and wives to deal with,” she snarled. She slumped against the desk front and took a slug from the bottle. She wiped her mouth on her arm. “How do you see that playing out, oh divine creator?”

A bottle across the room by the bookshelves shattered.

“Don’t call me that.” I held her with my eyes.

“Sorry, oh, sorry,” she said, pantomiming her apology and swinging the bottle around. She got to her feet, steadying herself with the desk. “I forgot, you don’t like being reminded of all the crap you’re supposed to be taking care of.”

Another two bottles went off, one up in the bedroom behind us and one in the middle of the room, closer.

“You don’t want to continue this,” I told her.

She walked over to the sitting area, across from me. She swayed a bit, but her eyes could have thrown hot embers. She leaned forward.

“A quarter of my city,” she breathed, jabbing the coffee table with her finger, “is using your freaking Gate to commit the closest thing to suicide they’re capable of. En masse. Do you understand that, you deadpan psycho? The amount of people filing for Last Departure has skyrocketed over the last hundred-fifty years. Guess how many Exits we’ve achieved in that time. Give ya a hint.” She leaned forward.  Anger bubbled like hot magma beneath her voice, quiet but rising. “Less than one. No one’s fooling themselves. No one expects to make it to the Exit, Op. Those memories, whatever J Gate installs in the Departed? It’s clearly driving them insa—”

A dozen random bottles around the office shattered. Some of the shards fell on me from above, drawing a few clean black lines down the side of my face. My eyes never left the Mayor.

“Shut me off. Go ahead. Or send me through your freakin’ Gate.” She took another, longer drink from the crystalline bottle, then reached for one of the Cubans. She bit it, lit it, inhaled, blew smoke. “Whatever you get your sick kicks to. But I can’t imagine whoever takes my place afterward’ll be willing to put up with all your shit.”

She stuck the cigar between her teeth. The Mayor knew very well the territory she was treading into. I warned her by saying nothing. Doing nothing. Just sitting, looking at her.

She put on her small, sympathetic politician’s smile. “Look, we have to learn to work together,” she said. “We—”

“I can’t work with someone who gives up on everything so easily,” I whispered. I spat the words out like they were rotten. I realized I was scratching at the sofa fabric with my pinky.

Her look of sympathy melted away. “I told you, he cheated on me,” she said, sitting straighter.

“Really?” I allowed myself the specter of a smile; the Mayor knew I had access to everyone’s files. “So after you got back from your tour in Iraq and Andrew confessed to having gone on a single, chaste date: was it he or you who stormed out? Moved to a motel, refused the other’s calls—”

Her face twisted. “I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

“No, no you don’t. Because I have it right here.” I tapped my temple. My right eye projected a visual of her model information into the air between us. “Says right here, ‘emotional claustrophobia.’”

The Mayor turned and hurled the bottle through the window into the city below. She looked back and her eyes had grown wild.

“We are never getting out of here,” she hissed. “Face it like the rest of us have. Just because you can’t remember your own Andrew, or Maggie or Jason—”

My lip twitched and every liquor bottle in the office exploded.

The room transformed into a glinting hailstorm of shards and light. The Mayor flinched, but didn’t make an attempt to hide. The explosions of glass cut us both, everywhere, tracing long, gentle trails of blood down our arms and flaying parts of our faces, revealing wet glimpses of the flesh and wires underneath.

The fallout was just as bad. A torrential downpour of flashing sparks of afternoon sunlight that sliced our skin and drew blood. It crashed on us both, opening us up one small cut at a time.

Fortunately, I was incapable of feeling pain. One of the perks of my hazard-prone position. A convenience, considering the amount of blood I saw leaving me. And while the Iterations were never in danger of death in the traditional sense, pain-immunity wasn’t in their wheelhouse.

Yet the Mayor just stood there, enduring that hailstorm of knives. Staring at me. Wincing, hissing, shaking. But never breaking eye contact. Even after the glass had all fallen, she just stood there, slumped, staring me in the face through a veil of red and sucking air through her teeth.

How interesting. All these years, I’d never thought it in her.

I cleaned myself up in her bathroom. I snapped on a small plasma torch at my fingertip and, peering into the mirror as if shaving, welded my face back together.

None of us said a word; there was only the hissing of my torch while she dried off.

By the time I was finished, she had collapsed on the couch, paler than the expensive pearl-shaded upholstery she lied on. Her breath was shallow and she stared at the ceiling.

I stopped by the sofa where she lay, picked up the last, now-dead Cuban, lit it, and bit the end. I sat down on the coffee table, ignoring the way she followed me with her eyes. She was so pale, her breathing so shallow, that one could have been forgiven for mistaking her for dead. I picked up a vodka bottle and placed it next to her on the couch.

“Drink this. You’ll want it in a second,” I told her, puffing on the Cuban. I fired up another fingertip jet of plasma and studied the lacerations decorating her body. “You’re not going to like what comes next.”

The Mayor turned her bleeding head and knocked the vodka bottle aside, spilling it onto the floor. She grinned up at me from behind her own blood, but the look she gave me was black. Her words were a scratch, barely above a whisper.

“Wanna bet, bitch?”

I smiled in spite of myself. It was so rare to see someone with some fight left in them after all this time.

“The Gate stays open,” I said through a cloud of smoke. “Or your wife goes missing.”

Her eyes widened, pupils constricted. She struggled to speak.

I ignored her and brought the fizzing plasma torch towards her face.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

The Mayor proved either too weak or too spiteful to scream.

Convenient, either way.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

I had just washed the blood off my hands in the kitchen upstairs and was getting ready to leave when she called to me from the sofa below.

“You touch her,” she spoke to the room at large, breathing strangely. “Then no Iteration’ll ever want. Anything to do with you again. Ever again.” I walked downstairs into the main office, pausing halfway down to find her propped up against the armrest, out of breath. She had taken the Cuban up again despite her state. Her face had regained some color behind the burn scars. “You’re stuck here. With the rest of us. For who-knows-how-long. Learn to live with it. You ain’t dying any time soon.”

I stared at her from the staircase. Unlike most Iterations, she stared right back. I didn’t have the energy to teach her another lesson. The trick with the bottles had taken a lot out of me.

“This city wants the Wall to go up,” the Mayor continued, sitting up. “And that’s what’ll happen in three weeks. You can spend eternity moping. The rest of us will make the best of it.” Her voice was weak but firm. She collapsed back onto the couch and geysered cigar smoke.  “Now get the fuck out of my office. I need to put my blood back into me.”

A reaction would have been what she wanted. I stared at her a moment longer, then sank through the floor without a word.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

“You never told me you were the Mayor’s wife,” I shouted over the music.

“Bitch, you chopped my wife up like a jalapeno,” she shouted at me. “You don’t really scream ‘confidant.’”

The club was packed, humid, and permanent-hearing-damage loud. I could feel the storm of a migraine coalescing with every single bone-rattling beat. The only reason I had insisted on meeting here was because she enjoys clubbing herself. To “relax.”

I looked around. Outside the hard drugs and meaningless sex, I failed to see the allure of the place. Taste aside, it was important that test subjects people felt comfortable before synthetic Gate testing.

Iteration J-1027 took a rather extended sip of her long island.

The club was in downtown J City, about a good hour’s tram ride from the Gate to I City. The street around outside buzzed with Iterations enjoying their weekend. Shopping, dining, entertainment. The usual distracting nonsense.

Some of the Its around us were in their Saturday night best, others who looked like they’d sever your femoral artery if they felt like it. Most were casting what they undoubtedly believed to be inconspicuous glances, muttering sidelong to each other. Like I might start destroying the place at the drop of a hat, for no reason.

Finally, J-1027—“Vicki,” as she preferred—put her empty glass down.

I waited for her to speak. She drummed her fingers on the LCD menu in the bartop, chewing on her lip and looking around.

“So does this change our arrangement?” she asked in an undertone.

She was a peculiarity.  Her time of passage from A City all the way to J City was in the top three percentile of the entire Facility.  An Iteration of that mental and emotional caliber was rare in itself. One who was willing to undergo Gate experimentation was a damn unicorn.ḋ̜̠̗̘͖̼̇̾̏ͮ̒ͥa̗͎̦̎̊ͅn͍̋͛ͤ̏̏̏͊ğ͈̘̟ͣe̝̭̹̞͗r͍̭̳ͭͫ̚̚ ̙͍̩̖̳̝̝ͨ̈ͩ͒̂̓ ͙͈̜͚̬̳̞̾ͭ͆̌͌ ̟̳ͥ̏͐̓ ̻̦̺͂ͣ̽̾͐ͮ̍̊ ̯͔͈͔̩̳͖̂ͬͩ̿͌ͨ ͖̱͉͇͍͎͔̐͌̿ͭ̈́̽̾̓ ͎̬͒͒ͧ̊͆ͩ͑ ̜̝̟͔̮̺̮̞ͯ̊ͥ͂̓ͩͮͨͯ ͉ͪ̔ͭ͋ͅ ̮̫̜͉͋̀͌̐̅̾͌͐̚ ͓̮̙͛ͮ̚ ̪̯ͨ̍̐ͮd̯̂ͅạ̗̿ͯ̑͋ͥͣ̇n͕͔̠̳̹͒͌g͍̤͔̲͙̹̯̏ͬ̽ͭ͐ͤ̿ͅͅe͈̞̗̰ͧͯ͑̍ͭ̂̇r̹͔̩͈̙̀̅̾͊̓ͥ

“No,” I answered. I stared at my beer, searching for clues. “I just think the situation is… statistically curious.”

What struck me was that her general demeanor didn’t suggest one iota of inner strength. Her passion for jewelry and—even in this hellacious purgatory—reality television screamed basic bitch through and through. Yet she showed uncharacteristic strength when confronting the synthetic memory loops, neural installation processes I’d designed to mimic that of the Gates’ energy fields as much as possible. Quite a fortunate turn of events.

Vicki leaned in to me, for some reason feeling the need for vocal discretion under the ear-shattering bass. “Please don’t tell her,” she whispered, appearing to be on the verge of tears. “If she found out I was involved in your—your ‘Gate experiments,’ she’d leave me. I know she—”

“Why,” I asked, “do you want to reach the Exit if you care so much about her?”

She blinked. “Sorry, what?”

I sighed and looked up, staring at our distorted reflections in the bar mirror through the silver-to-amber rainbow of liquor bottles before it. “Assuming you survive the Gate—you understand that when you pass the Exit, you’ll have a husband and kids waiting for you?”

She laughed and her jewelry sang against the bass. “Of course,” she said, smiling and giving me a look to see if I was winding her up. “Everyone knows that.”

“Then,” I continued, stirring my drink with my straw, “what are you going to do about the wife you have here? Who, I may add, wants to wall off the last Gate.”

Her smile faded and she looked down. When she spoke, it was without looking up and her voice was heavy. “Andrew and the kids are waiting for us out there. A family for each of us, just like we remember them.

“I need mine. I can’t just—just forget the life I had with them.”

I sipped at my tonic water. The Mayor’s words

they might not even be real

rang through my ears and I grit my teeth.

She looked at me and asked with poorly-concealed desperation, “They’re out there, right? Andrew, Jason, Maggie…”

“Of course they are.” My answer was like a reflex. “We just need to get past the last Gate.”

Her eyes softened and she gave a tiny smile of relief. “Speaking of, I was hoping we could bump up my Departure before Sharon puts up the wall.”

Absolutely not, I wanted to tell her. She was far too valuable a specimen an Iteration to just toss through the gate without proper training. Most Its who volunteered for experimentation were the excrement of society. Deadbeats. Addicts. I knew just from looking at most of them that they’d never survive the first test. But she—test after test suggested she may be the one.

I told her not to worry, that I’d come up with something before the Wall went up. She frowned.

“Miss President—”

“Not a president.”

“—I don’t want to have to leave in front of my wife. That’s all I ask.”

“Of course, of course.” I waved my hand. “Let’s get going. I’ve got a new domestic abuse loop for you to attune to today. You should be able to withdraw from it without my help.”

The look on J-1027’s face was less than enthusiastic. I grasped her arm.

We sank into the club floor and I watched her out of the corner of my eye.

The Mayor wouldn’t get away with this. I’d come up with a plan. I still had a week and a half left.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

A week and a half later, I was working late at the lab the night before the Wall’s unveiling, using a screwdriver to tinker with a Dummy’s frontal cortex. If I could just get the damn thing to bypass its emotional reaction sequence, then it could stroll through the Gate, leave the Exit, and get help.

Ji, pressing her face up against the field of her cell, spoke up.

“Why do you wanna leave this place so badly?”

“Because,” I said, not turning from the Dummy’s open head.

I hadn’t eaten, slept, or bathed in days. My idea with the Dummy wasn’t faring well against the synthetic Gates: its right arm was burned off and it was missing an eye. An object needed a certain amount of sentience to pass the memory installation field, or it vaporized the object on contact. But if I gave the Dummy full sentience, it would just go insane after passing the Gate.

“Does it have to do with those people?’” she asked, apparently meaning the photo of Andrew and the kids on the wall by my desk. I had found it in my pocket after first waking up at the Contraption’s end, where the Beginning and the whole Facility started.

“Are you not answering because I’m right?”

“Yes.”

“Are they our family?”

My family. We each have one.”

The eagerness in her voice was impossible to ignore. “Even me?”

I nearly snapped her in half for that. If she would just maintain her damn stability long enough to survive a single goddamned test Gate without spazzing out and generating a roomful of Anomalies, she’d remember. Everything went fuzzy and warm.

When I came to, I was standing in front of her cell, breathing heavily and holding the screwdriver like a knife. Even though I couldn’t enter her cell, Ji had retreated to the far end of the living room, watching me with wide, fearful eyes.

I looked at Ji, at the Dummy, at the screwdriver in my hand. Something in my eyes burned and I stumbled backwards to the wall opposite the cell, slumping to the floor.

“I give up,” I said, my voice sounding funny. My vision blurred and my eyes felt wet. “There’s nothing I can do.”

“D-don’t say that,” Ji piped up from the far corner of her living room prison cell. She hesitated when I looked up at her, bleary-eyed, then continued. “Maybe there’s something you haven’t tried yet. Maybe.”

I grunted, wiping my eyes and staring at the carpet. “Maybe.”

“Think of something you haven’t tried yet!” She crawled toward me until she was at the edge of her cell and sat hugging her knees. “Anything! Maybe, uh… maybe me!”

I chuckled. If that was an option I’d have tried it long, long ago. It wasn’t, of course. All these blacked-out fits she kept having, distorting the nearby environment… it was insanity. If she even came close to the Gate’s field, what would happen—

–would—uh…

My chuckling lapsed into silence as something dawned on me.

I stared at the floor.

Eyes widening, I looked up at Ji with a curious realization:

I no longer cared how that sentence ended.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

So many Iterations had turned out the day of the Wall’s unveiling, they overflowed from the Gate’s chamber, through the tunnel, and out into Plaza del Barnes. I’d arrived on the roof of a fifty-story apartment building overlooking the Mayor’s stage in the Plaza, so startled by the size of the crowd I nearly lost control of Ji’s mobile quarantine field. The voice of the Mayor seemed to fill the city; I could feel it buzzing in my bones.

Next to me, Ji peeked out from behind the stairwell cover.

“Are you sure this is safe?” she asked. Her voice was high, nervous. I watched the Mayor give her speech on the stage down by Maggie’s statue, buttering them all up. Couldn’t blame them—this had been coming for centuries by now.

“You want to leave, don’t you?” I asked, glancing at her. The quarantine field around her glistened like an iridescent space suit. I’d managed to finagle it out of the multi-wavelength inhibition fields that comprised her prison cell. The suit served the same function, but turning its field mobile had made it delicate and unstable. I could only pray Ji didn’t have one of her fits until I got her to the Gate. Maintaining the suit alone was difficult enough.

“I need to stop the Variant,” she hissed. “If she gets to the maintenance shaft by the Exit, she’ll—”

“Right, right.” I hunkered down on my heels, watching Vicki standing politely behind the Mayor in a formal mini-skirt with the Mayor’s aides. Shame; Vicki had shown such promise during testing. But she wasn’t ready yet, still needed time we didn’t have. “Yeah, I found your Variant. She’s, ah, in a room past the Gate.”

Ji lit up, stepping out from behind the stairwell cover. “R-really?” She looked like a kid who had just unwrapped their Christmas present to discover the hot toy of the season.

The Mayor, dressed in a paisley pantsuit abortion, was going on about “learning from the past” and “moving on.” That studying the past brings insight but wallowing in it inevitably brings suffering, as evidenced by the last several decades. Hinting at plans to demolish or rename all the family memorials. Really getting them wet over the whole thing.

“Yes,” I said, looking at Ji and remotely shoving her back behind the stairwell cover. “We have to wait for the Mayor to finish. Then they’ll put the Gate in standby mode while they prepare the shut-down sequence. During that time, the Gate’s field will technically be in Departure mode for maintenance purposes.”

Ji looked pensive. “Do all those people know about this?”

“Sure, why not. Just remember to run for the Gate, fast as you can when I say so.”

Ji’s brow furrowed, but she nodded. Then she grew sheepish. “Can—can I see the plaza before we—I mean, I’ve never seen Maggie’s statue, or the statue of us in the family Christmas photo from—”

I groaned, looking around at the trees and family memorials of the Plaza. What the hell. In ten minutes none of it may even exist anymore.

“Fine,” I said over the Mayor’s rising voice. Sounded like she was finally wrapping up. “But remember—”

She squealed, got down on her belly, and crawled towards the ledge.

“I know, I know,” she said, peering over. “‘Shut up, stay out of sight, and shut up some more.’”

A few moments of blessed silence passed between us as she oohed and aahed at the Plaza below us. It occurred to me she’d never been outside Quarantine since I first found her at the Beginning, some eighty years ago.

“Hey, who’s that behind the Mayor?” she asked.

I peered in the direction she was pointing. “Who, her wife?”

“She looks… weird.”

“Well sure. She’s probably wearing a metric ton of eyeliner. But how can you even see that far—”

“Sh-she’s red,” Ji said, sounding upset. She got to her feet. “Red, like a stop light. And flashing. Flashing. Flashi–”

The hairs on the back of my neck rose.

Acting out of pure instinct, I tried to pull us through the roof and back to Quarantine when her eyes went static and it hit her like a howling storm.

“–c̛͙̫̘̯͕̹̥̳̖̦̥̜̦̯̞̯͚͜͜͞u̴̧̜͚̹̙̳̼̘̜̺̳̩̳̤͈͚̖̩r͏̸̶̸̬͙̪̤̫͈̕r̢҉̖̝̜̝̀̕͢e̢̩̗͕̗̝̖̬͎̭̬̥͈̬̮̕ͅͅn҉̥̠̮̮̣̼̟̖̥͓͔̝͟͞t̷̨͝҉̺̯̬̙̪̯f͞҉̢̼̬̙͕̰̰̱̩̳̀a̧̧͎̦͈̼̮͓͕̰c̨҉̡̺͔̤̼̯͕̮̦̫͍í͠͏̴͔̲͈͈͔̻̼̱̺̜̠̰̣̮̜̕ͅl̻͖̜̙̭͟i̴̶͙̼̫̞̠̮̞̩̙͙͈̪̗̬͎͓̕t͞҉̦͈̹̫̟̖̪͕̫̗͈͇̹̳͇̗̥̜̗͘͝ý͔̩͇̠̦͓̹̣̱̬͈͖͉̼̠͈̪͘͢r̷̛͞͏̭̫͖̳̝̹u̷͉̰͓̗͚̦͍͔̯̘͍͙̞̲͔͕͚̱̪͞n̶̳͖̲̫̳̥̰̹͜͢͜͡ṯ̲̯̪̫̻̗́̕͡i̵̫̮̮̺͖͎͍͍͉̞̲̲͝m̴̘̞̻̟͉̥̗̱̞͎͉̙͙͜͠é̡̦̞͕͖̹̞̗5͏̢̛̻̬͇͖͓̜̘̣̪̱̙͡2̡̩͔̫̖́̀7̵̢̬͖̥̜̟̩̜̞̹͕ͅ6̡̗̜̙̻̱̪̜͖͝6̡̧̛̩̲̣̫̪̖̯̺̻̟̥̤̳̪͢ͅ6̴̤̜̘̪̹͖̲͙͕̦̀8̡͓̜̣̠̰͉͠9̨̧̡͚̘̥̞̝̫̱̳̟̪̫̟͢1҉҉̶̧̞̰͈̜͉̱͎̭̻̮7͢͡͏͍̩͔̮͓͔͇̘̯͙͔̪̠̗̰̘͍̕3̛̗̰̰̜̟͖̯̟͖̲̻͈̠̯̳́̀ͅ9̶̧͚̝̥͖̹͓̮͎̘͓́͟͞2̵̵̛̭̖͓͎͎̺̠͎͙7͏̴̧̱͈̭̜͍̬̞͙̭̬͖̺̕͟ͅ4҉̵̨̛͙͍̥̼̣̼̭̱̣̺͇̠̦̪̩̺͎̦̰͜5̛͠҉͔̞͍̞̹͈̟̯͍s̵̵̛͔͇̻̼̬̣͙̘̻͚͈͎͇̱̥̖̲̟͞͞ȩ̵̧͇̦͇͉͙̼͡ͅc̼̱͔͍̩͠s̴̢̨͕͖͉̭̜͓̦̻͈͔͍̝͙͓̻̝̞͢ͅ–”

shitshitshitshitshi

Returning to the lab was no longer an option. It took everything I had to keep the quarantine suit up around her.

I looked around for help, sweating. This was beyond me. But if I asked for help, if anyone found out about her, I could kiss my potential ticket out goodbye.

I didn’t know what to do.

So, I froze. Froze and watched, helpless. Hoping and knowing better.

Eyes filled with the thunder and lightning of a television screen, she touched my field around her and everything stopped there was

 

a͚͎̘̙̺̝̭͐̓̃ͫ̔ͤ̚ ͚̳̟̮͑̄ͨ͆b͉̠͎̥̻̻͓͂ͤ̃͑̃ͪ̓͑̃ř̟̑̾ͅi̘̮̿̎͌̒͐̎e̠̝̭̬̻͕ͮ́f̜̱̲̘̪͕̑ͯ̿̉̉̍̆̓ ̗͕̥̼̙͕̳̉ͤ̂ͨ̀m̤̬̟̘̦͈̱̠ͧ͐ò̻͍̖̪̲̍̎m͙̯̰̬̘̩̟̓̀e͖͇̮̍̄ͣn͚̭̟̣͕͛ͨͬͅt͕̺̮ͭ̌͋̋̓͊͛ ̲̺͙̿͑̆̒ͣo̯̜̮̔͒̌͋̾ͯf͚̬͚̍̋ͥͥ̔ ͇͉̺̹͑ͩ̑̎ͧͯo̳̥͐̏̀ͦ͊͊̔b̠̫̞̠ͮ̓ͬ͋ͫ̚l̟̤̫̮͔̇̓͊ͅͅi̬̬̟̾̎ͪ̊̋v̘̦͙̥͔͑ͩ͊i͇̜͇͎̭̹̯̋̇̑̆o̗̯̟̜͔͒ͫͧ͂͂͗̓n̳̖̐

 

and then I was back on the rooftop, reeling and dizzy. G-1192038 shattered the quarantine suit like glass, took two steps towards the ledge and dove into the air over the packed plaza. Everything in her wake turned to pure chaos. The air twisted in on itself, parts of it crackling with what could only be static. The presence of her graceless, tumbling descent caused the brick and glass and wood of the nearby building face to erupt into disarray and freeze in space.

I reached out, tried to remotely grab her. At the very least knock her into the building and slow her down. But nothing happened.

This was the first time I’d ever faced an element of the Facility I couldn’t control besides the Gates. I didn’t like it. Didn’t like the fear-sweat.

I took a deep breath, focusing, and looked down. The four walls of the building’s floors that Ji was near all snapped open, around, and slammed shut on her like amassive  bear trap. The deafening boom, even in the distance, cut the Mayor short in her speech. The crowd of Its turned and looked up. Some screamed, not understanding what they were looking at.

It didn’t work; the bear trap of walls dissolved into a distortion of static and brick, and Ji, unharmed, continued her somersaulting descent.

I watched in disbelief. She hit the ground like a meteor. The chunks of stone and cement that splashed up from the impact seemed to be having fits: rotating on themselves, bubbling, their outlines seizing first one way then another.

I twitched my lip. The marble walkway shot up and domed-in Ji’s crash site. The third floor of the apartment building slid out above the crowd of Iterations like a floating Jenga block, sheltering them from the rain of Anamoly rubble.

The marble dome around Ji dissolved a moment later. There she stood, limp hand outstretched, eyes a snow of static. Threads of what seemed to be the very ground she stood on reached up and snaked through the air above her without direction, like a stormcloud.

I stepped back, struggling to catch my breath. My heart slammed against my ribcage.

There was nothing I could do. Nothing.

Down below, the Mayor took one look at Ji and shouted into her bouqet of microphones:

Run.”

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

It was a stampede.

Vicki, the Mayor, and her aides barely managed to get off the stage before it collapsed and disappeared under the waters of the fleeing crowd. Screams and shrieks filled the air. People fell and disappeared under the wave of panicked Iterations.

Ji fixated on the direction of the tunnel to the last Gate’s chamber. From a standstill, she broke into a dead sprint so fast that, by all rights, it should have ripped right through the fast-twitch muscle fibers in her legs. Every footstep planted the blight of… whatever was wrong with her. It spread through the ground fast, reaching out with seizing, undulating arms that rained static up into the air. The threads of the ground growing around Ji had gotten so thick they were turning into columns and pillars growing upside-down and sideways through the air.

Feeling the urge to panic, I took a deep breath and collected myself.

Nothing had changed. For whatever reason, Ji was still going for the Gate. My plan had simply jump-started itself.

I drew a quarantine suit around myself, stepped forward into empty space, and plummeted. At the same time I sought out the Mayor and Vicki off in the distance. I spotted them just as they fled into the tunnel to the Gate, forced in by the spread of the blight.

I stopped my descent several feet above the ground, which had turned nearly black and appeared to be twitching. I shot towards the Gate tunnel. The swampy, bubbling substance the ground had become divided below me like water as I flew, reaching up at me with flashing, jittering arms. I passed Ji at a distance halfway to the tunnel.

I looked around, trying not to clench my teeth so hard. The Iterations caught in the blight had become… inexplicable. Some walked around like automatons running out of steam, stopping and starting. Others sat or lied on the ground amidst the static embers, some gibbering to themselves, others apparently stuck in violent seizures, and yet others doing nothing but emanating that dial-up screech through their open mouths.

I entered the glowing tunnel at a good 90 MPH and came up on the Mayor and Vicki a moment later. I snagged them both remotely and maneuvered them behind me without slowing. I ignored their exclamations of shock, their questions. I assumed Ji’s fit had neutralized her rationale and she had fixated on Vicki for absolutely no reason. But the time for words was long past.

Screaming Iterations filled the tunnel beneath me, joined the next second by the shrieking of Anomalies. Ji had entered the cave. I sped up, on the point of blacking out.

We exploded into the Gate chamber ahead of the fleeing crowd and approached the Gate field.

I realized I may not survive whatever came next. I cared less than I thought I would.

The shriek of Anomalies rose behind us, echoing in the chamber. Ji was getting faster: she was already here in the chamber, ahead of the crowd of Iterations.

Which meant everyone—J City, the rest of the Cities in the Facility—were either some kind of dead or doomed.

But it didn’t matter. The Gate loomed up ahead, disappearing into the sky.

None of this mattered anymore.

I was leaving.

Oh God, I was actually leaving this goddamn prison.

I felt the Gate the nanosecond it touched the tip of my nose. It felt… scary. Happy. Sad. Disgusting. Surprising. Angry.

One way or another, I was finally going home.

I braced so hard for the memory installation process to hit me that I lost my concentration and the three of us tumbled to the floor, rolling and bruising ourselves badly.

A moment later, the first wave of Its crashed through. And then Ji hit the field behind us.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Vicki was the first to get up, looking spooked. The Mayor stayed on her side, clutching her head and screaming some kind of gibberish directed at her family. I lay on my stomach, struggled to catch my breath, looking at Ji.

That damned modem shriek swelled into the air like a grainy ringing. Ji stood frozen in the middle of the Gate field. The static had gone from her eyes, replaced by a child’s ignorant terror. She stood there, disintegrating from the feet up.

“M-Misss Operator?” she asked. Parts of her body twitched unnaturally. She was gone from the knees down now, and the Gate’s field had started to take on the appearance of her weird static blight. She looked as if she expected me to fix her. Like I always did.

The swarm of corrupted Iterations behind her looked to the sky, and the Facility on the other side of the Gate field started to drift apart. Just—one wall went that way while the furniture and plants and lighting went other ways. Behind it all was… dark. Nothing, emptiness.

I watched in disbelief. There was nothing I could do now. Ji tried to smile, failed. Then her eyes widened.

“The Variant!” she yelled, now nothing but a floating head. “Don’t let her get to the maintenance hatch by the Ex–”

And just like that, she fell apart into static and was gone.

The Gate field fully corrupted, I watched as J City came apart at the seams until there was nothing on the other side of the field but blackness and the shrieking, corrupted husks of what used to be people.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

I rolled onto my back and looked up into the sky, exhaling. I was so tired. I waited for the memories to come.

And waited.

And. Waited.

It must have been five minutes before I understood what was happening:

Nothing was happening. Nothing was going to happen.

I looked around, feeling as if in a dream. The Mayor hadn’t moved but had at least lowered her screaming to whimpering. Vicki stood with her mouth agape and a thousand-yard stare, as if having just remembered something. A large group of Iterations appeared to have crossed the Gate while I was waiting. Some of them were in the same position as the Mayor, screaming their fool heads off. The rest were in the same position but didn’t move.

I started shaking. I didn’t understand. Something had to happen to me. It had to.

The centuries I spent—the things I did.

All that time. The entire time.

Jesus Christ, I could have just left. Just walked right out at any time, had I not been such a miserable coward.

A white-hot fury rocked me. Tears spilled down my face. I clenched my fists until they bled and, lashing out, willing the pointless furniture around us into flame. It took me several moments to realize the furniture around us sat perfectly unburned.

I staggered backwards, tripping over a screaming Iteration. I tried willing the floor to open up underneath her. Nothing. I looked up and stared down the giant, empty hallway.

I’d lost my Operator privileges. I had no control over the Facility anymore.

Amazingly, the Mayor got to her feet, swaying.

In my confused rage I screamed and drew my fist back, ready to rip her eyes out with my fingers.

It was then that I realized something: Vicki had disappeared.

At that moment, the floor started collapsing tile by tile, the walls shot into the sky, and the world around us f ҉   e̷  ̀l̀   ̀l     ą̮̥̳͙͖̪̮͎̤̜͉̙͖́͘͡ͅ

                                            ṕ̸̨̟̼̠̺̼̳̪͕̦͕̫̟̣͖̖̙̭

                                               

        a̸̡̡̨̤̯̲͔̱̬̠͕͈̙̜̝̘̦͙̫̝̩̖̬̱̹͇̹̥͎͕̹̻͐̿̾͒͌̀̈́̇̈͛̑͊̾̆̆̓̈́͌́̆̆̃͋͌͘̚̕̕͜͝

                                                                   

 

                                                                 r̠̱̼̹̤̮͉̙͔̫̙̼̗̻̱̣ͅ

                   

                                                                           t̸̨̧̖̙̬̝͔̫̰͚̩̟͙̪͖̻̻̙͎͍̩̹̻̞͓͂

                                                       

                                                                                           

                               

When I came to, the Mayor was sitting on a coffee table, watching me with raw, red eyes.

We seemed to be on a massive column of a strange, soft material. Topping it was a set of… familiar living room furniture. Sofas and loveseats and small tables. Empty picture frames hung on walls that weren’t there. Around us, comatose Iterations drifted upwards as if underwater. Tiny sparks of light accompanied them, dancing from one to another.

Other than that, there was nothing. No Facility, no walls. Just… nothing.

I looked at the floor and realized it was writhing with white-eyed Iterations. Iterations upon Iterations, arms and legs woven together to form a crude pattern.

I got up and turned to the Mayor, the first and probably only Iteration to survive the last Gate in the history of the entire Facility. You could cut the irony with a knife.

“Well?” I asked, stepping closer. “What did you see?”

The Mayor looked up.

“What was that Iteration?” Her even tone didn’t match the unhappy look on her face.

“Wh—”

“Stop,” she interrupted. “Enough lies. Just tell me.”

Before I could give any kind of response, the floor of Iterations moved. It reached up with dozens of arms and pulled us both to the floor, pinning us in place. I swore, struggled and fought, but there simply too many hands.

A figure emerged from the shadows around us. It was Vicki, rubbing her arms and looking around.

“Vicki?” the Mayor grunted from the floor. “What’s going on?”

Vicki stepped forward, then hesitated. She glanced at a lamp on the side table by one of the loveseats.

“I’m sorry, baby,” Vicki whispered. Her voice shook. “Really, I am. You weren’t supposed to be here when I—But this?” She gestured at the column we stood on, the Iterations and lights floating up into the darkness. “All this demented shit? Honey, it’s gotta stop.”

The Mayor squinted. “What are you—”

Vicki twisted the lampshade clockwise. A single, nude Iteration popped up from the floor in the middle of the furniture arrangement. A thick stream of wires and cables rose from the column of bodies and plugged into her scalp, like hair. It appeared to be asleep, or comatose. It breathed fitfully, twitching this way and that as if enduring a nightmare.

I bit a flailing hand so it would stop clawing at my mouth, then demanded, “What the hell is this place?”

Iteration J-1027 crossed the living room at leisure, watching the nude Iteration with a pure hatred spilled across her face. Then her face fell.

“Where everything starts,” she answered, melancholy. “Where everything always ends.”

“Okay, no,” I told her. “No cryptic riddles. Be specific.”

J-1027 stopped by the sleeping Iteration and looked up at her, then at the hair-like cables and wires running out of her head into the floor of bodies.

“The time for talking’s over, Miss President,” she said, looking at the ground in disappointment. “Way over.”

She reached up and tore a handful of wires out of the Iteration’s head.

I gasped. An aggressive, high-pitched drone filled my head like an icepick through the ears. The air vibrated with an explosion both far-off and inside my very marrow. The floating Iteration remained unconscious but convulsed, grimacing. I grit my teeth until I thought they’d crack, wrenching against the hands holding me to the floor. I’d forgotten how long it had been since I’d felt pain. Couldn’t say I missed it.

Between the agony and the droning, I heard pieces of J-1027 muttering to herself. “-ry time –oddamn time. No matter what –lways end up here—”

She reached for a large cable and I screamed, begging her to stop. All my dignity and shame meant nothing in that moment. All I cared about was making—whatever she was doing—stop. J-1027 made a point of not looking at me and placed both her hands on the cable.

“Victoria.”

The Mayor sounded exhausted. Her eyes looked tired. She looked around at everything, then back at her wife from down on the floor, blinking.

“…fuck is all this?”

Around us, the Iterations, the sparks continued floating up into the dark. J-1027 rubbed her face, looking torn.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” she explained, plaintive. “You weren’t supposed to be here.”

“Be here for what? Where are we, Vicki?” the Mayor shot back. Flames licked from her voice. J-1027 heard them and winced. The hands pinning the Mayor recoiled from her and retreated into the floor.

“The Contraption,” she said, sounding hurt. I snapped my head toward her. “The Core of it, actually.”

“What,” the Mayor asked, sitting up and rubbing her arms, “the hell is a Contraption?”

I fought to speak, failed. How did she know about the Contraption? And if this was its Core, that made the cable-headed nudist–

“Honey,” the Mayor went on, getting to her feet. “She’s connected to the Facility. If you shut her down—”

“That’s the whole point,” J-1027 implored. “She’s the only extension of the Facility I can get to. None of this will stop. Not ever. Not until she’s shut down. If she dies, so does this whole sick, twisted… place.”

The Mayor shook her head, looking around at the slow, inverted rain of bodies. The nothing behind it all. “It was the Gate, wasn’t it? You remembered something.”

J-1027 gave her a curious, sick look. “I’ve done this all so many times, Sharon. We all have.”

The Mayor approached her, took her hand in both of hers. J-1027 tried looking away but couldn’t help looking her wife in the face. The moment their eyes met, the swarm of arms pinning me down grew weak and listless.

“Victoria,” the Mayor said. Smiling, begging, pressing close. “Icky Vicky.  You’re my everything. We don’t need the kids. Or Andrew.”

J-1027 looked at her for a long time, her face gradually falling to tears. I shrugged the arms off and got to my feet, flinching from the whining.

“I’m sorry, baby,” she said, almost inaudible. She withdrew her hand from the Mayor’s, inch by inch. “But I do.” The Mayor watched her move away, tears in her eyes.

J-1027 placed both hands on the cable and ripped it out of the Iteration’s head just as I slammed into her shoulder-first, knocking her off the column into empty air.

The Mayor’s scream was animalistic, echoing into the void.

J-1027 grunted from the impact, looking at the Mayor and I with shock and confusion.

“Uh?”

Then she plummeted, disappearing into the abyss below.

I watched her go, having fallen to my knees. Blood drooled from my mouth, ears, nose. The droning hum had focused into a much more torturous, needle-fine whining. Spots popped in my vision.

Something collided with the side of my head and made a metallic sound. I discovered as I fell sideways that, in addition to losing my control over the Facility, I was also no longer immune to physical pain.

Fantastic.

When I opened my eyes I was on the floor again, looking up at the Mayor. She stood holding a blood-specked fire iron from the fireplace. Her red and sunken eyes bored her every grief and fury into me.

She glanced at the edge of the column near my side.

She knew what pushing me over meant. She might have been the Iteration strong enough to withstand the last Gate, but in the end she was still too attached to the pleasantries of existence. The Mayor looked back at me, holding the fire iron before her like a sword.

We looked at each other like that a moment. There was really nothing left to say.

So instead, the Mayor came at me.

She beat me with uncharacteristic savagery, accompanying each blow with a scream or wail. Sometimes muttering, sometimes laughing. Quite frankly, it was unbecoming of her. I cried out with each hit. She broke my ribs, tore my skin, bruised my skull. Compared to the whining in my head, though, it was nothing. Besides, it was the least I deserved.

She hammered and beat me bloody and blue, swearing her lungs out at me, until she stopped. She bent over, sweating and panting, staring at me wild-eyed from behind her hair.

Everything started going fuzzy around then. Sleep took me, and I imagined the column of bodies disintegrated, and everything—me, the Mayor, the Its, the furniture—everything floated up and—

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

I came to with a start, as if from a bad dream.

The Mayor was still there, ignoring me now. She wasn’t assaulting me, which was good. I still felt pain in every fiber of my being, which was bad.

We seemed to be in some sort of lobby. A large one, with comfortable chairs, plush carpeting, plants, and a monstrous, blazing chandelier overhead. It was the first room of its kind I’d ever seen inside the Facility because it suggested an–

An Exit.

I struggled to my feet, my hands slipping in my own blood. I whipped my head around, wincing and looking for the doors. The Mayor looked at me and said nothing, wearing a look of distaste. She stared ahead. I followed her gaze.

The lobby doors and windows were completely caved in. Rocks and slabs of stone spilled through the doors and two-story windows in mounds and hills. I would have panicked had there not been an inexplicable and rather daunting pit in the floor, just under the chandelier- maybe 80 feet in diameter. The lip was lined with a metal rim that matched with the general décor, as if it had been planned.

I peered over the edge. Looked a moment. Pursed my lips.

Gates. The Exit was nothing but Gates all the way down. Built into the walls, stacked on top of each other so closely it was impossible to count them. Fully-functional, with shimmering memory installation fields in place. Of course.

I fell backward, sucking in air. If I was no different from any other Iteration now, then—

“No,” I said, shaking. “No more.” The despair in my voice turned it into that of a stranger. “This can’t be it. There has to be another way out. This- this-”

The Mayor growled and reached down, wrapping her hands around my neck. She hauled me to my feet, squeezing. She brought her face in close, spoke in a meandering, emphatic tone.

“After everything you’ve done,” she whispered through her teeth. “You and me, Op? We’re both going to see this through, to the end.”

“You won’t make it,” I managed to croak. “You’ll go mad.”

The Mayor chuckled. It was an unstable, discomforting sound.

“What’s left for me? My city? The love of my life?” She squeezed harder and stars burst in my vision. Her face was so close now I could count the veins in her bloodshot eyes. “We just wanted to live our lives. But your fixation—your stupid obsession—you took everything away.” She squeezed until the world grew fuzzy. “It’s all gone. Everyone’s. Gone.”

And then she released me, shoving me backwards. I fell over the Exit’s edge, watching as the Mayor stepped over herself a moment later. She fell with a look of weary serenity on her face. An acceptance she’d only reached after it had been pummeled into her over and over.

We plummeted. Memory after memory flooded me; the honeymoon with Andrew in Cabo. Taking Maggie and Jason up to Big Bear when Andrew had to spend Christmas in China for business. Maggie nearly strangling herself with the umbilical cord in utero. My first kiss with Andrew at Rosie Goldblum’s party in ninth grade. The layoff. The time Jason stumbled off the curb and nearly got creamed by a semi. My deployment to Iraq. Andrew’s painful affinity for dad jokes.  My insecurities about myself. About Andrew, the kids. All the small thoughts and connections and memories with my family I’d never been able to recall slammed into me all out of order.                        c̴̡̧̧̧̡̧̢̡̡͉͕̣̻̙̥̫̗̯̬̣̘͔̫͕̦͓̟͖̦̹̞̼͎̻̺͙̥̩̭̬̳̣̥̦͕̖̻̗̙͚̱̝͍̺͉̺̗̝͖̱͇͖̥̺̮͍̮̲̙͈͚͔̻͔̰͎̼̣͍̝̼̱̽́̑͂̿̓̕̚͜͜͝͠ͅc͕̙̥̝͔̦̖͇̋ͭͮ͂͊ͪͦ́̓ͩͪ̾̍̀̅̔o͖̪͍͍̗̮͇͓͙̝̗̔ͭͬ̎ͣͪ̄̅͋́ͤͧ̏̏̀ͅr͔̝͉̩͖̈́̊͗͐̔̌ͤ͊̍ͣ̚ͅr̺͕̥̫̼͉̩̜̖ͫͬ̊́͒ͦ̓̒̋ͬ̐͛̂̓͒̑̚u͕͔͉̞͓̟̲̗̹̞̓ͦ̅̃ͣͦ̄̈́̿ͅͅp̘͔̰̻͔ͩ̐̽̃ͧ͆̌ͪͪ͒̄̑̍ͮ̀t͖͎͚̯͖̘̤̘̭̦̠̮̖͈̥̼͊ͦͦ͌ͦ̾ͪ́̆ͥ͆̍́ͪi͍̘̙̪̺̤̗̹̘͉̼̼ͤ͂̓͛̓͋ͦͩ̎o͈͔̥̘̭̰̠̗͇̹͓̲̲̲ͫ̇̇̾ͬͤ̂̉n̞̟̠̥͈ͣ̽̓̍͋ͪ̽̂̓͑ͅc̖̞̞͖̹̲͇͓͙ͮ̀̔͊̉ͬ̀͋ͧͦ̈́͂ͯ́̂ͧͬ̒o̳̠̮̠̩̮̟̳̤̘̥̝̹͊͂ͧ̿̿̃̄͋ͅͅͅr͉̼̣̹̤̟̦̯̗̞̭̜̓͋̾ͩ̎ͯ̌̂́ͣͬ̒̄ͭͅr̝̱̞͍̮̱͔̤̘͈̩̩̠̹̙͚̆ͦ̔̑̓̆ͯ͌͊̓u̠̹̯̪͔̹̩͙̽̆̏̑̋ͧ͑ͅp͍̭̥̱͉͉͇̜̲̬̜͍͕̜̯ͥͪ̋̏t̗̝̗̼̮͕̹̰̟͈͔̫̻͖͈̼͙̅ͪͬ̿̋̓̎ͧͮ̋̍ͬ̚ͅi̲̩͈̰̞̼̖͂̿̑ͥ̎̋͐͐̊́̈ͪͦ̔̾ͬͦ̊ȍ͍̞̞̬͖͍̱͒ͮ͛ͥͩ̾̓̔̄̋ͭ̑n͉̥̙̪̤̟͙̥̺̹̯͖̺̎̀̌͆̔̽̃̓̏̚ͅͅc̬̫͕̠͉͚̮̺͙̗̺̠̭̙͌̈́͊̐̐̓ͮ̔̌̀̇̓ͥ̽ͬo̬̝̜̬͔̘͒̎̍̎͒̏̄̉̓ͩͬ̔ͬͩͬ̓ṛ̘͇̖̺̯͈̰͚͕̥̬ͮͫͫ̋ͬ̽̑̇ͨ͑̏͊́͐͗ͅr̻̬̙͓͓̞̳ͬͤ̒̔̈́ͦͯ͐̎ͧ͊ͣͣ̒̿̈̌̚ṷ̱͎͕̪̳̦͈̜̟̩̭̱̝̙͎͌̓͌͒̇̃̀̌ͬ̒ͪͫ̐̂̓͑͑̏ṕ̜̝̠̞̜̪̦̥͔̱̮̯̣͚͙͓͋ͬ͛̎̇͗ͤ̊̐̂̎̑̓͗̆̚ť̪̺̬͓̰̥̲̻͎͔͖ͭ̌̈͊ͦ̊̑ͧͣͩ̍̒ͅͅi̪͔̜̱͍͚̼̙͕̜͎͎̜̭̟ͦ̑̓̋̇̇̓͗̚̚ͅo̥̝͈̭͕̳̹̦̪̺͔ͦ͑͛͂ͬͫ̑̓̑ͨ̏͗̽̀̓̂̽̚ͅn̪͎̖͖͓̱̟̬͎̹̺͍͎̲̗̆ͩ̀̋͂͒͆̎͌ͣ̈́͂ͬc̴̡̧̧̧̡̧̢̡̡͉͕̣̻̙̥̫̗̯̬̣̘͔̫͕̦͓̟͖̦̹̞̼͎̻̺͙̥̩̭̬̳̣̥̦͕̖̻̗̙͚̱̝͍̺͉̺̗̝͖̱͇͖̥̺̮͍̮̲̙͈͚͔̻͔̰͎̼̣͍̝̼̱̽́̑͂̿̓̕̚͜͜͝͠ͅc͕̙̥̝͔̦̖͇̋ͭͮ͂͊ͪͦ́̓ͩͪ̾̍̀̅̔o͖̪͍͍̗̮͇͓͙̝̗̔ͭͬ̎ͣͪ̄̅͋́ͤͧ̏̏̀ͅr͔̝͉̩͖̈́̊͗͐̔̌ͤ͊̍ͣ̚ͅr̺͕̥̫̼͉̩̜̖ͫͬ̊́͒ͦ̓̒̋ͬ̐͛̂̓͒̑̚u͕͔͉̞͓̟̲̗̹̞̓ͦ̅̃ͣͦ̄̈́̿ͅͅ                                                                                                                                                                                     Our skin and muscle began to disintegrate into sparks of light. There was no pain. Almost felt like peeling a film of dried glue off of your skin. The wiring and metal beams in the flesh of our hands and arms peeked out and were soon unveiled.

The Mayor caught up to me by grabbing my hair. It got entangled in the metal and meat of her hand, so she ripped the chunk out of my head. Physical pain was, it seemed, still painful. She yanked me upwards by the head and stared me in the face as we fell, somersaulting over each other in freefall, the Gate fields hitting us with loop after loop of memories both heartwarming and heartrending.

Consciousness wavered. I didn’t like the way she was smiling. Eyes wide, all the teeth, the fall turning hair into a spastic halo. I pushed at her, tried to get away with feeble hands.

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” the Mayor shouted over the wind in a wild voice. She was sobbing, laughing, screaming, already on the edge and getting worse by the second. I couldn’t tell how I was doing. I couldn’t tell what was real anymore.  “Whatever’s on the other side, just remember, remember, remember you wanted this.”

I wrestled to force her hands off me. Having drifted near the wall of the pit, the Mayor seized my head with a smile of true joy and shoved it into the metal, letting gravity scrape half my face off.

As our flesh disintegrated, so did the world around us one final time.

Underneath the Mayor’s audible breakdown, the pain of being grated like cheese, the mind-breaking whistling in my head, the blood-loss induced weakness that should have killed me, I only had two questions:

 

 ̸̢̧̛̤̜̺̹̲̻̹͉̯̗̼̜̳̦͓͚̲͔̝͖̹̦͎͎̘̳̤̯̲̤͖̗̥̉̈́̄͂̊͂̾̈̈̽͆͘ͅ                             e̷̢̞͇̩̼͋̆̏͆͘͠ͅr̴̢̧̧̧̧̥̠͚̘̙̥͇̫͉̰̞͖̜̺̪͚̪͈͔̮͍̣̤̦̠̟̠͕̤̠̘͖̲̜̥̱̮̈́͒̊̈́̿̆͂̍͜

                                   Had I been a good wife?

                         Had I been a responsible  mother?

̸̡̢̨̨̢̧̼͖̘̭͎̱͈͇̦̞͖̖̖͙̰̺̞̰̰̙̬̖͔͎̤̘̮͇̞̠͍͓̭̲̣͈͖̳̤͙̻̠̠̝̘̒̑͐̓̒̒̋̒͊̒͑̈́̀͒̆̏͌͌͜͜ ̴̡̢̨̡̧̢̢̡͓̬̺̼͉͖̠̗̬̦̬̟̤͓͖̟͖̙̫͕̮̟̬̝̫̼̳͓͎̤͉͔͍̰̤̦̣̗͓͚̞̮̞͉̪͙̰̝̖̱͉͉̰̙͓̤̪̫͉̯͙̬̗̖̖̌̓̔́͆̀̿̄́̎̑̈́̒̈̾̅̂̈́͂̈́̕͜͜͜ͅͅͅ ̴̧̨̨̡̢̡̢̲̤͖̜̲͓̯͉̭͎͕̠̘͈̗̝̺̻͚̺͚͖̮͔̣͚̯̱̝͔͍̮̬̘̬̳͔͚̤̣̟͇͉͚̤̰̖̝̳̻̜̣͎̪̟̖͖̳͔̥̲̩̱̺͇̣̂͜ͅͅͅ                                                  ̸̢̧̛̤̜̺̹̲̻̹͉̯̗̼̜̳̦͓͚̲͔̝͖̹̦͎͎̘̳̤̯̲̤͖̗̥̉̈́̄͂̊͂̾̈̈̽͆͘ ̵̨̧̧̡̢̮̯̹̹̤͉̰̹͈̫͉̼͔̱͚̮̯̳̱͖̻̱͈̣͎̩͕̜̺̼̞̣̘̣͎͚̠̯̺̞̗͎̪͙̼͔̮̫̱̯̠̟̰͎͕͈̙̱͚͓̻̪̩̦̰͗͋̃̍͊̊͒̋͑̂̓̔̏̾̒͐͛̋͋́͆͒̈́̅͘̚͜͜͜͝͠ͅe̸̛̛̖̙̺̍̃͌͐̀͋̃̓͆̃́̓̃̆̃̾̆̉̂̈́͒̄́̂̏̆͐̎̄̋̿̊̉͊̎̒͋̓̐͂͐̏͗̀͋̌̾̿̽̓̄̾̾̂͊̈́̈́͂̓͋̊̈̒̈̿͑̚͘̚̚̕̕͘͘͠͝r̴̨̧̢̧̢̩̤̙͉̭̩̗͕̝̮͇͉͕͚͍̺̺͈̺̙̠̼͔͙̳̪̠̭̺͕̜͔͙͎̗̞̜͍̺͔̮͙̣̟̹̥̻̮̞̱̹̹̺͕̩͔͍͈̟̥̬̙̝͓̥̣͔̔͑͆͒͑̾̄̅̾́̿̔̑̋̔̇̂́̿͐̌̋͐̔̿̑̾̍̎̄͘͜͜͝͝ͅŗ̷̢̡͙͎͇̯̞͓̥̘̟͕̮̹̺̼̻̺̥̖̺͈̣̬̬̳͈͎̪̩̤̘̮͕͎̺̲͔̅͑̑̈̽̋͋̍̊̓̓̊̑̏͝ơ̸̡̛̯͈̜̦̤̳̙͉̫̠̥̹̟̬̳͓̙̈̒̉̈̇͂͆̊͒̅͐̽̓̏͋͊͐̋̿̈́̈̿̈́͑̇̄̿̿̂̓̂̓̎͆̌̈̚͘͠͝͝ͅr̸̨̡̡̡̢̧̛̛̮͔͓̭̭͓͓͍͉̘̫̙̞̯̗̣͙̩̫̗̞̭͚̲͎̬͉͉̹͕̪̞̘̼͔̹͓͚͚͓̜̭̪͎͇̙͓͍̤͙͓̯̬̙͇̮̭͓̗͓̱̃̐̏̍̿̍́͛̐̊́̊̊̽̑̃̀̎̆͊͑̎̔̔̓͆̀͋͑̊̈́̅͑̆̆̓͆̑̂͂͛͊͋̃̽̏͋̈́͌̑̓̌̑́͊͊̏̓̈́͊̊͒̏̈́̓̌͛͘̚̕̚̚͜͜͠͠͝͝͠͝ͅͅͅ ̷̨̨̡̢̛̛̛̝͚̩̭̪̗̗͎̖͓̼͖̼̱̲̤̜̘̦̖̣̤̪͍͚͔̜̯̲̻̠̺̻͚̝̹̜͍̬͖͍̲̪͍̯̬̰̱͍̗̭̻̪̖̜̼̟̱̲̬̞̭̝̬̟̣̗̫̺̜̀͆̎͗̍̎́̋̑̈́̒̒̀̾̓̏̒̈͛͛̑͆̓͌̆́́̓̄̿̅̾̇͌̾̌͂̏̈́͂͛̂̆͘͘̚͜͝͝͝ ̷̡̢̡̛̬̜͉͖̯͍̻̪͇̻͓̩̩̺̥̼͓̬̽͐̀̈̔̿͑̓̈͋̈̔̓̌̿̉̄̐͌͊̈́̀̎͒̏͐̉́͗͊̊́̕͘͝͝͝ǫ̴̡̛̬̹̠̤̙͖̼̟̥͉̘͔̺͖͓̻̤̩͙͚̆̊̓̄̀̐̉́́̐̓̿̎̋̄͂͂̄̇͒̂̀̆̐̌̿̅̃̄̀́̏̄̄͂͒̑͋͌̕̕̕͘̚͠ͅr̷͈͔̗̳̈́͠ ̴̧̨̢͍͚̤̼̣̺̗͇͍̣̳̬̹̞̭͈͖̤̳͈̼̞̯̟̫̭͈̖͈͚̲̜̣̻͇̭͎͔͙̼̻̩̘̜̯̱̂̾̑͌̈͗̐͋̎́̈́̎̈̈́̈́̍̌͌̀͌͐̈̔̈́̽̂͑̌̑͆̾͗̐̕͝ͅͅ ̴̡̧̧̧̨̢̢̙͍͖̤͈̝̞̯̟͉̺̞̦̹̩̭͔̥̠̗͍̫̗͔͙͈̺̦̟̹̖̣̩̪͔͖͉̺͖͚̞͚̠̤͇̪͖̦̦̀͆͌̈͛̒͘͜͝ͅͅ ̸̢̧̛̤̜̺̹̲̻̹͉̯̗̼̜̳̦͓͚̲͔̝͖̹̦͎͎̘̳̤̯̲̤͖̗̥̉̈́̄͂̊͂̾̈̈̽͆͘ͅ ̴̨̡̨̨̡̧̢̡̧̨̨͍̩͇͇̦̗͍̘̗̭͔̺̗̬̞̞̝̮̯̤̲͚̮̺̼̞̰̯̙̗̮̫̻͔̬͔͍̲̣̝̳̪̪̥͍̳̏̒̅̏̂̌̀̀̾̈̌̉̅̒̓̓͛̈́̀̽̋͊̑̀̌̎̈̇̓͐͂́͌̒̆̔͊̀͆͂̾̈́̈́͋͐̆̊͊̔͋̄̆̎͑̊̌̈́̿̑̉͒͑͘͘͝ͅ ̵̨̧̧̡̢̮̯̹̹̤͉̰̹͈̫͉̼͔̱͚̮̯̳̱͖̻̱͈̣͎̩͕̜̺̼̞̣̘̣͎͚̠̯̺̞̗͎̪͙̼͔̮̫̱̯̠̟̰͎͕͈̙̱͚͓̻̪̩̦̰͗͋̃̍͊̊͒̋͑̂̓̔̏̾̒͐͛̋͋́͆͒̈́̅͘̚͜͜͜͝͠ͅe̸̛̛̖̙̺̍̃͌͐̀͋̃̓͆̃́̓̃̆̃̾̆̉̂̈́͒̄́̂̏̆͐̎̄̋̿̊̉͊̎̒͋̓̐͂͐̏͗̀͋̌̾̿̽̓̄̾̾̂͊̈́̈́͂̓͋̊̈̒̈̿͑̚͘̚̚̕̕͘͘͠͝r̴̨̧̢̧̢̩̤̙͉̭̩̗͕̝̮͇͉͕͚͍̺̺͈̺̙̠̼͔͙̳̪̠̭̺͕̜͔͙͎̗̞̜͍̺͔̮͙̣̟̹̥̻̮̞̱̹̹̺͕̩͔͍͈̟̥̬̙̝͓̥̣͔̔͑͆͒͑̾̄̅̾́̿̔̑̋̔̇̂́̿͐̌̋͐̔̿̑̾̍̎̄͘͜͜͝͝ͅŗ̷̢̡͙͎͇̯̞͓̥̘̟͕̮̹̺̼̻̺̥̖̺͈̣̬̬̳͈͎̪̩̤̘̮͕͎̺̲͔̅͑̑̈̽̋͋̍̊̓̓̊̑̏͝ơ̸̡̛̯͈̜̦̤̳̙͉̫̠̥̹̟̬̳͓̙̈̒̉̈̇͂͆̊͒̅͐̽̓̏͋͊͐̋̿̈́̈̿̈́͑̇̄̿̿̂̓̂̓̎͆̌̈̚͘͠͝͝ͅr̸̨̡̡̡̢̧̛̛̮͔͓̭̭͓͓͍͉̘̫̙̞̯̗̣͙̩̫̗̞̭͚̲͎̬͉͉̹͕̪̞̘̼͔̹͓͚͚͓̜̭̪͎͇̙͓͍̤͙͓̯̬̙͇̮̭͓̗͓̱̃̐̏̍̿̍́͛̐̊́̊̊̽̑̃̀̎̆͊͑̎̔̔̓͆̀͋͑̊̈́̅͑̆̆̓͆̑̂͂͛͊͋̃̽̏͋̈́͌̑̓̌̑́͊͊̏̓̈́͊̊͒̏̈́̓̌͛͘̚̕̚̚͜͜͠͠͝͝͠͝ͅͅͅ ̷̨̨̡̢̛̛̛̝͚̩̭̪̗̗͎̖͓̼͖̼̱̲̤̜̘̦̖̣̤̪͍͚͔̜̯̲̻̠̺̻͚̝̹̜͍̬͖͍̲̪͍̯̬̰̱͍̗̭̻̪̖̜̼̟̱̲̬̞̭̝̬̟̣̗̫̺̜̀͆̎͗̍̎́̋̑̈́̒̒̀̾̓̏̒̈͛͛̑͆̓͌̆́́̓̄̿̅̾̇͌̾̌͂̏̈́͂͛̂̆͘͘̚͜͝͝͝ ̷̡̢̡̛̬̜͉͖̯͍̻̪͇̻͓̩̩̺̥̼͓̬̽͐̀̈̔̿͑̓̈͋̈̔̓̌̿̉̄̐͌͊̈́̀̎͒̏͐̉́͗͊̊́̕͘͝͝͝e̷̢̞͇̩̼͋̆̏͆͘͠ͅr̴̢̧̧̧̧̥̠͚̘̙̥͇̫͉̰̞͖̜̺̪͚̪͈͔̮͍̣̤̦̠̟̠͕̤̠̘͖̲̜̥̱̮̈́͒̊̈́̿̆͂̍͜r̸̢̢̡̨̡̠̺̙̤̩͕͓̰̳̘̹̟͎͚̬̱̘̱̗̠͚̗͔͔̝̪͍͍̝̬͇̱̟̱̖̙̘̲͔̜̮̹̫̜̹̓̒̔̈̈́̃̽͂̀͋́̇̃͑̈́́̿͌̌̈́̅́̒̊̽͂́̓̈́̀̂̔̒̌̓̓̾͗͌͠͝͝ͅͅͅǫ̴̡̛̬̹̠̤̙͖̼̟̥͉̘͔̺͖͓̻̤̩͙͚̆̊̓̄̀̐̉́́̐̓̿̎̋̄͂͂̄̇͒̂̀̆̐̌̿̅̃̄̀́̏̄̄͂͒̑͋͌̕̕̕͘̚͠ͅr̷͈͔̗̳̈́͠ ̴̧̨̢͍͚̤̼̣̺̗͇͍̣̳̬̹̞̭͈͖̤̳͈̼̞̯̟̫̭͈̖͈͚̲̜̣̻͇̭͎͔͙̼̻̩̘̜̯̱̂̾̑͌̈͗̐͋̎́̈́̎̈̈́̈́̍̌͌̀͌͐̈̔̈́̽̂͑̌̑͆̾͗̐̕͝ͅͅ ̴̡̧̧̧̨̢̢̙͍͖̤͈̝̞̯̟͉̺̞̦̹̩̭͔̥̠̗͍̫̗͔͙͈̺̦̟̹̖̣̩̪͔͖͉̺͖͚̞͚̠̤͇̪͖̦̦̀͆͌̈͛̒͘͜͝ͅͅ

                                                                But before I could glean an answer, everything

 

                                                                                                          c rr  t  n

                                         I҉̕͞͝ n̷͡ v̸̷͟ à̸̧l͝i̶͟͜d̀͟ ̡͘p̷̴̢͘ ŕ̨́͢͝o͡͞m̸̢̛͡ p͡͠͠ţ̸҉̶͡

                                             N                              op.cycle = send.Beginning       >

                           i                                                                    e̵̢̢̢̛̮̪̖̲̖̗̤̬̗̮̲̟̤̹̣͙̲̙̟̠̗̮̯̼̽̀͑̈́̾̎̍̈́̓͑͗̇̕͝͠͠ŗ̴̢̛̹̩̥̫̪͕͙̠̘͔̠̳͍̭̲̰͑̅̿̆̎̽̀̾͐̽̈͗͗̉̌̆̾̋̅̈͑͗̍̀̈̑̋̀̋̀̀̀̎̈́͛͐̈́̿̈́̅̓̑̒̀̾͛̅̌̄̔̓͋͊̈́͛̆̒͂̈͗̔̀̂̅̈́̂̽̾̇̌͌͘̕͘̕͘͠͠͝͝͠͝ṟ̷̡̧̢̡̨̢̢̛̩̭͖̭̘̥͔͇͇̰̹͓̳͇̪̫͖̭̮̠̼̰̠̯̲͚͕̖̺̰̼̪̘͎̟̤̻͕̮͙͙͈̖̟̥̙͔̖̩̬̲͓̩̳̙͖̘̼̭̌̄͌͗̋̽̐̅͒̊̂̄̃̊̋̌͊͗̓̀̊̎̍̈́̏͑̋̔̎̀͆͐͐̏̽̓̐́̈͊͋̀̎̒͒̂͐̔̐͂̿͘̕̚͜͜͜͝͝͝͝͝͝͝͝ͅͅờ̸̢̧̢̡̛̛̭͈͔̹̹̭̯̹̞͓̪̣̼̼̯͓̬͕͈̣̟͍̝̖̠͓̰̫͙͕̭̼̳̼͔̭͚͕͎̥̘̩̱͇̺͕̗̰̺̭̪̗̻̫͓̪͓͖͓̟̓̓̏̋͒͐̃͆̿̐͋̈̿̈́̑͂̄̐̉̇̀̀́̒͗̆̀̂̍̌̓̀̓̀̎̈́̒͑̂̈́̈́̅̚̕̕̚̚͜͠͝ŗ̶̧̢̧̬͇̠͙͍͕͙̬͇͙̠̝̭̮̖̼̳̼̥͖͉̰͉̘̭͇̤̠̖͉̐̽͑̀̉͊̿̇͂̉̑̂̿͛̓̀͗̌̓̄̔͐̒͌̇̐̈́̎̾̽̀̔͋̈̌̎̊͑͋̇͑̾͂͘͜͝͠͠͠͝ͅ    error code: 9336$@#!#%67792

                             a                                                                                                      ç̴̛̛̛͎̻̘̰̮̗̆̔̓̉̎̒͊̉̀̈͂͆̒͗̑͆̆̌́͋̽̋̽̐̃̃̍̈́̒̎͌̈́̈́̍̉̐̄̓̉͛̿͋̀̈́̒̒̑̃̃͑̓̒̎̓̈́͂̽̀̐̕͘͘͠͝͠͠͝͝ͅo̷̢̢̢̧͇̝̮̰͔̻̜̘̻̪͚̺̮̰̮̘̩͔͎͎̤̗̥͉͔̥̖͕̰͈̲̣̰̪̥̗̦͚̘̝̰͚̙͖̓͊̀̽́̅̐̎͊̀́̀̐̔̅͊͑̆́̀͆̀̈́̒̓̇̏̓̆̀̽̍͌̾̄̐͆̑͊̏̒͂̀́͌̽̄̑͗͛̕̕͘̕͜͜͜͠͝͠͝ͅr̷̢̛̛̲̝̮̣͉̲̫͓̰͓̖̪̖̰̼͙̦͎̺̬̩̮͔͊̏͆͊̀͂̃̈̿͛͐̾͛̇̄͊̀̆̓̔̀͂̌͌͑̊́̀̎̊͒̓͂̌̓̆́͂̆̈́̑͆͌̾̎͛̂̒̀̊̂͌͛̐͑̊͊̑̀͛͊̈́̐͆̔̃̐́̌́̃̔̈́̈̀̐͆͑̊̽̈́̑̇̓͗̏̇͑̾͋̓̔̌͗̀̚̕̕̕̚̕̚͠͠͝͝͠͠͝͠r̴̡̢̢̡̡̧̨̺̖̦͎͔̪̠̳̦̯̰̫͈̞̗͕̱̗͍̼͔̦̼̺̖̮̘̟͓̠̯̞̩̭͙͇̤̣̫͙̫͙̖̜͇̠̞͔̥͔̬͙̝̜̣͖̞͇̜̩̻͈͉̤͍̼͉͈͓͔̺̔͗̍̄̊̎̾̈́̽͜͜͝͝ͅͅü̴̧̨̢̨̧̧̢̨̡̧̢̡̢̡̧̢̨̡̧̡͎͇͉͉͙͉̤̟̗̟̰̘̹̲̘̩͎͉͖͈̘̝͇̞̫͕̘͎̞̼̣̜̰̺̫̟̬͈͉̜̗͈͇͎̯̭͓͍̫̣̭̬͍̝̦̩͖̟̳̖͇̣̗̖̞͎̣͎̱͍̯͕͉͍͕͕͓̲̲̱͓͉̗̤̗̞̟̝̫̠̝̯̬̠̤̳̬̞̟͔͔̈́̋̔̂̿̈͋̎̚̕͜͜͝ͅͅp̷̢̢̢̧̡̡̨̡̨̨̢̧̧̭̥̬̦̱̜̳̳̫̩̞̬͕̬̼͓͇̼̝̳̻̗̙̳̺̠͖͎̳̗̦͙̣̼͕̬̟̻͕̣̺̳̜̼̲̰̗̗͖̰̩͈̪͓͚̣͖̣͇̝̗̪͔̥͕͓̺̩̩̳̣̖̭̠̼̦̰͕͈̜͔͓̝̠͚̼̝̬͙̣̾̇̎͊̆̑͛́͂̓̚̕͝ͅͅͅͅt̸̡̢̛̖̲̜͓̹͉̺̮̻̦̯͓͚̜͍̫̮̦̰̲͉̰̜̜̝̤̝̖̺͍̠͎̭̫͓͈͓͍̩̘͈̪̮̯͔͓̰̼͙̘̱͈̮̲͕̹͖̲͇̟̯̙̪̲͈̱͓̥̞̰̺̥͚̻̪̥̭̆̌̕͜͜ͅͅȋ̶̢̢̢̢̢̨̢̛̛̮̺̪͉͈̬̥̫̬̦̗̹͕̼̤̜̙͇͓͍͓͓͉̺̲͖͖̩̖͚̺͙̩͔͓̹̬̥̟̹̭͕̬̟͙̣̣̖̼̟̮͕̝̰̘͚̳͔͕̞͚̻̟̻̺̖͇͆̓͐̀̊̓̿̅̔́̅́̍̐̿̍̂́̅̓͌́̈́͋̽̓͒̆̏̌̆͂̈́̅͆̈́̈̒̓͋̀̽̍̀̀́̿̀̽͂͒̍̐̑͋̋͗̎̉̀̋̐̕͘̕̚̕͘͘͜͠͝͝͠͠ͅͅ  ǫ̴̧̡̨̧̣͔͓̖͎͎̳̼̤̰̣̙̩̗̰̻̱̘̭̟̝̼̫̣̮̻̪͖̖͕̲̜͚̼̙̝̲̭̤̯̗͈̳̬̟͎̱͍̖͈͎̦̗́̂̇̓̈́́̽̇̊͊̊͋͒̂͗̈̒͋͐̊̋́̈́́̆̍̒͐̒̓̔̚̕͜͝͝ͅ  n̸̢̨̡̛̛̛̛̛̘͇̠̯̝͖̤̥̥̺̣͙͔͍̙̯̥̺̣̜͙͇̲̆̅͋͌̃̇̾͑̃̇̀͒̐̓̈́͆̎̆͋̐̓̈́͒̓̔̎̂̏̋̊͛̓̄̏̌͆̿̀̈́̓̊̒̽̅͋́͊͑̆͊́̈̅͊̓̅̋͌̿̓̅̽̆̇͊͛̓̾̓͊̈́͐͛͘̚̚̚̕͠͠͠ ç̴̛̛̛͎̻̘̰̮̗̆̔̓̉̎̒͊̉̀̈͂͆̒͗̑͆̆̌́͋̽̋̽̐̃̃̍̈́̒̎͌̈́̈́̍̉̐̄̓̉͛̿͋̀̈́̒̒̑̃̃͑̓̒̎̓̈́͂̽̀̐̕͘͘͠͝͠͠͝͝ͅ  o̷̢̢̢̧͇̝̮̰͔̻̜̘̻̪͚̺̮̰̮̘̩͔͎͎̤̗̥͉͔̥̖͕̰͈̲̣̰̪̥̗̦͚̘̝̰͚̙͖̓͊̀̽́̅̐̎͊̀́̀̐̔̅͊͑̆́̀͆̀̈́̒̓̇̏̓̆̀̽̍͌̾̄̐͆̑͊̏̒͂̀́͌̽̄̑͗͛̕̕͘̕͜͜͜͠͝͠͝ͅ   r̷̢̛̛̲̝̮̣͉̲̫͓̰͓̖̪̖̰̼͙̦͎̺̬̩̮͔͊̏͆͊̀͂̃̈̿͛͐̾͛̇̄͊̀̆̓̔̀͂̌͌͑̊́̀̎̊͒̓͂̌̓̆́͂̆̈́̑͆͌̾̎͛̂̒̀̊̂͌͛̐͑̊͊̑̀͛͊̈́̐͆̔̃̐́̌́̃̔̈́̈̀̐͆͑̊̽̈́̑̇̓͗̏̇͑̾͋̓̔̌͗̀̚̕̕̕̚̕̚͠͠͝͝͠͠͝͠  r̴̡̢̢̡̡̧̨̺̖̦͎͔̪̠̳̦̯̰̫͈̞̗͕̱̗͍̼͔̦̼̺̖̮̘̟͓̠̯̞̩̭͙͇̤̣̫͙̫͙̖̜͇̠̞͔̥͔̬͙̝̜̣͖̞͇̜̩̻͈͉̤͍̼͉͈͓͔̺̔͗̍̄̊̎̾̈́̽͜͜͝͝ͅͅ ü̴̧̨̢̨̧̧̢̨̡̧̢̡̢̡̧̢̨̡̧̡͎͇͉͉͙͉̤̟̗̟̰̘̹̲̘̩͎͉͖͈̘̝͇̞̫͕̘͎̞̼̣̜̰̺̫̟̬͈͉̜̗͈͇͎̯̭͓͍̫̣̭̬͍̝̦̩͖̟̳̖͇̣̗̖̞͎̣͎̱͍̯͕͉͍͕͕͓̲̲̱͓͉̗̤̗̞̟̝̫̠̝̯̬̠̤̳̬̞̟͔͔̈́̋̔̂̿̈͋̎̚̕͜͜͝ͅͅ    p̷̢̢̢̧̡̡̨̡̨̨̢̧̧̭̥̬̦̱̜̳̳̫̩̞̬͕̬̼͓͇̼̝̳̻̗̙̳̺̠͖͎̳̗̦͙̣̼͕̬̟̻͕̣̺̳̜̼̲̰̗̗͖̰̩͈̪͓͚̣͖̣͇̝̗̪͔̥͕͓̺̩̩̳̣̖̭̠̼̦̰͕͈̜͔͓̝̠͚̼̝̬͙̣̾̇̎͊̆̑͛́͂̓̚̕͝ͅͅͅͅ  t̸̡̢̛̖̲̜͓̹͉̺̮̻̦̯͓͚̜͍̫̮̦̰̲͉̰̜̜̝̤̝̖̺͍̠͎̭̫͓͈͓͍̩̘͈̪̮̯͔͓̰̼͙̘̱͈̮̲͕̹͖̲͇̟̯̙̪̲͈̱͓̥̞̰̺̥͚̻̪̥̭̆̌̕͜͜ͅͅ ȋ̶̢̢̢̢̢̨̢̛̛̮̺̪͉͈̬̥̫̬̦̗̹͕̼̤̜̙͇͓͍͓͓͉̺̲͖͖̩̖͚̺͙̩͔͓̹̬̥̟̹̭͕̬̟͙̣̣̖̼̟̮͕̝̰̘͚̳͔͕̞͚̻̟̻̺̖͇͆̓͐̀̊̓̿̅̔́̅́̍̐̿̍̂́̅̓͌́̈́͋̽̓͒̆̏̌̆͂̈́̅͆̈́̈̒̓͋̀̽̍̀̀́̿̀̽͂͒̍̐̑͋̋͗̎̉̀̋̐̕͘̕̚̕͘͘͜͠͝͝͠͠ͅͅ ǫ̴̧̡̨̧̣͔͓̖͎͎̳̼̤̰̣̙̩̗̰̻̱̘̭̟̝̼̫̣̮̻̪͖̖͕̲̜͚̼̙̝̲̭̤̯̗͈̳̬̟͎̱͍̖͈͎̦̗́̂̇̓̈́́̽̇̊͊̊͋͒̂͗̈̒͋͐̊̋́̈́́̆̍̒͐̒̓̔̚̕͜͝͝ͅ   n̸̢̨̡̛̛̛̛̛̘͇̠̯̝͖̤̥̥̺̣͙͔͍̙̯̥̺̣̜͙͇̲̆̅͋͌̃̇̾͑̃̇̀͒̐̓̈́͆̎̆͋̐̓̈́͒̓̔̎̂̏̋̊͛̓̄̏̌͆̿̀̈́̓̊̒̽̅͋́͊͑̆͊́̈̅͊̓̅̋͌̿̓̅̽̆̇͊͛̓̾̓͊̈́͐͛͘̚̚̚̕͠͠͠

                                            <b≯̧̢̨̧̧̧̡̧̧̛̖̝̣̮̘̟̮̜͍̬̣̣͎͙͇͎͈̻̹̠̹̞͎̟̖͖̗̮̺͔̤̪̮̜̖͉̰͕͉͕͚͈̩͎̣̭̯̬̙̰̩̺̤̻̭̖̻̣̱̠̤̙̹̖̭̭͓̉̓͂̆̑̊̓͂̾̌̈́͗̅͒͑͛̆͐̇͑̍̄̆̅̈́̀̔͋͋̄̓̽̉̓͆̎̋̑̋̅̌͒̊̓̆͗̀̽̉͑̇̋̍̈́͛̕͘͘͘͘̚̕̚͜͠͝͝͝͝͠ͅͅͅe̵̢̢̢̛̮̪̖̲̖̗̤̬̗̮̲̟̤̹̣͙̲̙̟̠̗̮̯̼̽̀͑̈́̾̎̍̈́̓͑͗̇̕͝͠͠ŗ̴̢̛̹̩̥̫̪͕͙̠̘͔̠̳͍̭̲̰͑̅̿̆̎̽̀̾͐̽̈͗͗̉̌̆̾̋̅̈͑͗̍̀̈̑̋̀̋̀̀̀̎̈́͛͐̈́̿̈́̅̓̑̒̀̾͛̅̌̄̔̓͋͊̈́͛̆̒͂̈͗̔̀̂̅̈́̂̽̾̇̌͌͘̕͘̕͘͠͠͝͝͠͝ṟ̷̡̧̢̡̨̢̢̛̩̭͖̭̘̥͔͇͇̰̹͓̳͇̪̫͖̭̮̠̼̰̠̯̲͚͕̖̺̰̼̪̘͎̟̤̻͕̮͙͙͈̖̟̥̙͔̖̩̬̲͓̩̳̙͖̘̼̭̌̄͌͗̋̽̐̅͒̊̂̄̃̊̋̌͊͗̓̀̊̎̍̈́̏͑̋̔̎̀͆͐͐̏̽̓̐́̈͊͋̀̎̒͒̂͐̔̐͂̿͘̕̚͜͜͜͝͝͝͝͝͝͝͝ͅͅờ̸̢̧̢̡̛̛̭͈͔̹̹̭̯̹̞͓̪̣̼̼̯͓̬͕͈̣̟͍̝̖̠͓̰̫͙͕̭̼̳̼͔̭͚͕͎̥̘̩̱͇̺͕̗̰̺̭̪̗̻̫͓̪͓͖͓̟̓̓̏̋͒͐̃͆̿̐͋̈̿̈́̑͂̄̐̉̇̀̀́̒͗̆̀̂̍̌̓̀̓̀̎̈́̒͑̂̈́̈́̅̚̕̕̚̚͜͠͝ŗ̶̧̢̧̬͇̠͙͍͕͙̬͇͙̠̝̭̮̖̼̳̼̥͖͉̰͉̘̭͇̤̠̖͉̐̽͑̀̉͊̿̇͂̉̑̂̿͛̓̀͗̌̓̄̔͐̒͌̇̐̈́̎̾̽̀̔͋̈̌̎̊͑͋̇͑̾͂͘͜͝͠͠͠͝ͅ <b≯̧̢̨̧̧̧̡̧̧̛̖̝̣̮̘̟̮̜͍̬̣̣͎͙͇͎͈̻̹̠̹̞͎̟̖͖̗̮̺͔̤̪̮̜̖͉̰͕͉͕͚͈̩͎̣̭̯̬̙̰̩̺̤̻̭̖̻̣̱̠̤̙̹̖̭̭͓̉̓͂̆̑̊̓͂̾̌̈́͗̅͒͑͛̆͐̇͑̍̄̆̅̈́̀̔͋͋̄̓̽̉̓͆̎̋̑̋̅̌͒̊̓̆͗̀̽̉͑̇̋̍̈́͛̕͘͘͘͘̚̕̚͜͠͝͝͝͝͠ͅͅͅe̵̢̢̢̛̮̪̖̲̖̗̤̬̗̮̲̟̤̹̣͙̲̙̟̠̗̮̯̼̽̀͑̈́̾̎̍̈́̓͑͗̇̕͝͠͠ŗ̴̢̛̹̩̥̫̪͕͙̠̘͔̠̳͍̭̲̰͑̅̿̆̎̽̀̾͐̽̈͗͗̉̌̆̾̋̅̈͑͗̍̀̈̑̋̀̋̀̀̀̎̈́͛͐̈́̿̈́̅̓̑̒̀̾͛̅̌̄̔̓͋͊̈́͛̆̒͂̈͗̔̀̂̅̈́̂̽̾̇̌͌͘̕͘̕͘͠͠͝͝͠͝ṟ̷̡̧̢̡̨̢̢̛̩̭͖̭̘̥͔͇͇̰̹͓̳͇̪̫͖̭̮̠̼̰̠̯̲͚͕̖̺̰̼̪̘͎̟̤̻͕̮͙͙͈̖̟̥̙͔̖̩̬̲͓̩̳̙͖̘̼̭̌̄͌͗̋̽̐̅͒̊̂̄̃̊̋̌͊͗̓̀̊̎̍̈́̏͑̋̔̎̀͆͐͐̏̽̓̐́̈͊͋̀̎̒͒̂͐̔̐͂̿͘̕̚͜͜͜͝͝͝͝͝͝͝͝ͅͅờ̸̢̧̢̡̛̛̭͈͔̹̹̭̯̹̞͓̪̣̼̼̯͓̬͕͈̣̟͍̝̖̠͓̰̫͙͕̭̼̳̼͔̭͚͕͎̥̘̩̱͇̺͕̗̰̺̭̪̗̻̫͓̪͓͖͓̟̓̓̏̋͒͐̃͆̿̐͋̈̿̈́̑͂̄̐̉̇̀̀́̒͗̆̀̂̍̌̓̀̓̀̎̈́̒͑̂̈́̈́̅̚̕̕̚̚͜͠͝ŗ̶̧̢̧̬͇̠͙͍͕͙̬͇͙̠̝̭̮̖̼̳̼̥͖͉̰͉̘̭͇̤̠̖͉̐̽͑̀̉͊̿̇͂̉̑̂̿͛̓̀͗̌̓̄̔͐̒͌̇̐̈́̎̾̽̀̔͋̈̌̎̊͑͋̇͑̾͂͘͜͝͠͠͠͝ͅ

if !city = @#!$%                         G                                                     operator.cycleEnd = sendAll.Beginning

                                                                                                if jcity.build and

     Exit = +1                                  a          if iteration = Gate!.x.y

          then install.itmemory!     

̸̡̢̨̨̢̧̼͖̘̭͎̱͈͇̦̞͖̖̖͙̰̺̞̰̰̙̬̖͔͎̤̘̮͇̞̠͍͓̭̲̣͈͖̳̤͙̻̠̠̝̘̒̑͐̓̒̒̋̒͊̒͑̈́̀͒̆̏͌͌͜͜ ̴̡̢̨̡̧̢̢̡͓̬̺̼͉͖̠̗̬̦̬̟̤͓͖̟͖̙̫͕̮̟̬̝̫̼̳͓͎̤͉͔͍̰̤̦̣̗͓͚̞̮̞͉̪͙̰̝̖̱͉͉̰̙͓̤̪̫͉̯͙̬̗̖̖̌̓̔́͆̀̿̄́̎̑̈́̒̈̾̅̂̈́͂̈́̕͜͜͜ͅͅͅ ̴̧̨̨̡̢̡̢̲̤͖̜̲͓̯͉̭͎͕̠̘͈̗̝̺̻͚̺͚͖̮͔̣͚̯̱̝͔͍̮̬̘̬̳͔͚̤̣̟͇͉͚̤̰̖̝̳̻̜̣͎̪̟̖͖̳͔̥̲̩̱̺͇̣̂͜ͅͅͅ                                                                o7j?h2$*)&s@~|h%]i\’*t97hh2&

                                            t                                                                    run variant.itrepair

 

                            R                                                 while Wall = yes    

                                   a                                                                                                            o  upt o

                                 p

                        A                                                                                                mayor.cycle = send.Beginning

                                                                                                                             j-1027.cycle = send.Beginning

                                                                                                                                                   m̴̀͟҉į̧͟͞ s̴̕ s̵̕͜͝͡i͟n̢̡g̸͘ ̵̸  v̧̛҉͝  à͘͝ r̢͘͘i̴͢à͝͡͝͡b͢͟l̷̵̵͜͏e͠͏̶͞                                          ̸̡̢̨̨̢̧̼͖̘̭͎̱͈͇̦̞͖̖̖͙̰̺̞̰̰̙̬̖͔͎̤̘̮͇̞̠͍͓̭̲̣͈͖̳̤͙̻̠̠̝̘̒̑͐̓̒̒̋̒͊̒͑̈́̀͒̆̏͌͌͜͜ ë̫̲̰͈͑͆r̯̼͕̞̳̀̋̊̔̾̂́͡ ̴̧̨̨̡̢̡̢̲̤͖̜̲͓̯͉̭͎͕̠̘͈̗̝̺̻͚̺͚͖̮͔̣͚̯̱̝͔͍̮̬̘̬̳͔͚̤̣̟͇͉͚̤̰̖̝̳̻̜̣͎̪̟̖͖̳͔̥̲̩̱̺͇̂͜ͅͅͅ

                                                                                   C:\> USMC.mil%%40casefileOperator

                                                       L                if j1027.death thenş̶̧̡̨̛̲̫̜͇̪̣̬̬̹̯̬͚̯̥̱̱̜͖̻̲͇͖͖͙͇͈̫̱̲̘͍͚͖͈̙̠̦̫̠̣̲̲̼̎̀̉͗͆̎̋͑̐͒͑͊̈́̃̍͒̂̀͌̔̎͊́̂̎̔̿̌̈́̀̄̽́̓̌͌̏̽̍̑̓̄̄̔͋̚͘͜͝͝͠͝͠y̷̡̪̪̹̠͚̬̬̹̺͕̼̞͚̥̜̙̽̄͋̎͌͛́̊̃͋͂̈̏́̑̆̉̈͆́̃́̚̕͝͝s̸͇͕̣̹̐̀͌͗̆͛̏̑̃͆̃̀̽͒̌̓̿̎͌̈́͑̌̐̆̃̐̂̋̽̈́̽͑͗̅̚̕͘͘͜͝ṭ̶̡̡̢̡̧̧̨̨͔̺̱̱͎̺̺͖̪̘̹̫̯̠͙̫̼̞̘̺̻̮͇̬̗̦̞̭͙͎̣͎͔̺̺͚͆̄̀́̀́̈́̎̅̀̉͂͗̔̇͋͂̅̂͘̚͝͝e̶̢̢͚͔͕̪̘̖̳̠̻̣̠̥̙̫̲̟͚̠͉̩̳̖̺̫̫̻͙̰̠̤̮̜̱̲̭̿̆̈́̒̋̀͊̌͊́̎̄͐̆̀͒̅̂̋̉̈́̅͐̉̇͌̒͜ͅm̵̡͙͙̮͉̜̟̖̦̲̬̻̣͙͔̳̤̮͈̤̖͔̜̲̞̥͚̍̒͋͊̾̉̐̆̈́̎͗̔̋̑͌̐̑͒̾̔̾̈̈́́̇̃͂̆͆̕̚͝͝͝͝͠ ̸̛̖̟̥͔̳̟̬͕̠̫͉͉͈̙̳̣̟͇͉̳̽͐̍̽̄͌̀͛̉̅̄̓̐̔̈̊̇̽̓̿̋̑͒̔́͑̎͊̈̋͌̇̓͒̓͆́̏͆̂̓̆̑̅͋͌̾̓͐̊̕̕͜ç̶̛̛̠̘̜̞͇̠̏̔̊̉̀̇̑̐̐̋̀́͂̃́̈͂̅̽͂̇́̀͋̈́̀̎̓̆̀̏̇͋̃̆̔̔͠ͅͅǫ̸̧̨̧̼͙̤͇̝̝̮̖͉̟͍͖̱̗̱̖̖̪͙̮̗͈͖̟̯͎̫̠̖̅͂̕͜͜͜r̸̢̖̠̘͖̫̜͓̟̮̼̙̙͈̺̹͕̪̹͙̰̫̦͚̀̂̉̇̏̿́̄̾̈́̀̃̕͜ȓ̴̢̨̡̢̧̛̺̹͎̗͙̮͉͈͓͎̟͎͉̟̞̣͔̮̠͉̹̖̦̮͈̖͍̠̹̥̥͇̟̼̱̗͖̮̏̅̊̄̔̒̊̆͂͌͒͗̍͒́̎͆͛̀̒̊͗͋̾̌̈́͐̒͐̊̓̌̈́̇̔̚̚̚͘͜͝ͅͅͅű̷̢̧̨̧̨̦̦̺̗̖͉͇̠̫̰̳̘̺̰͔͕̟̟͈͙̙̘̦͖̪̦͚̳̥͉͖̟͓̩͉̟̙͆̊̔̈́͒̏̌̆͋̈̏́͑͂̈́̊̌̊͛̀̒͜ͅp̷̡͈̪̺̲̰͕̖̯͚͓̣͚̖̪̻̜͕̞̤̮̜͑̉͛̓̾̂̽̔̍͛̿̑̉̆̇̀̚͘͝ţ̵̛̗̠͇͓̻̲̩͉̈́͗̈́͒̿̊̓̉̓̍̋́̔̊̽̓̓͐́̿̑͆́̒͊͋͐̈́̈́͂͗̇͂͌͗̓͂͘͜͠͝͝͝ͅi̸̧̛̹̪͓͎̤͈͍̺̭̘̲͚̟͓̣̯̽̿̈́͛̂̽͒̀̀̇̅̈́̏̀̊͌̈́͌͆̅̒͌̃̿̂̐́̓̏̊̚͠͝ͅǫ̵̢̢̻̮̞̙̞̫̺̬̟̯̲̯̞̝̞̹̭͖̹̞̤͔̘̞͙͚̪̗̟̣̤̲̘̯̳̖̩̼̹͍̟͖̝͇͚͔̈́̒̈́̾̑̚ͅn̸̨̨̪̜͉̦̬̻͙̲̠̼̱̮̮̜̭̖̤̜̱̥̜̩͙̤͔̘̙̜̎̾͗̄̈́͑̀͋͑̐͂̅ ̸̧̨̮̙̲̦̝͓̮͍̟͇̩͚̞̗̟̱͌̀̇̊͛̑̍̋̄́̚̚͜͝i̷̧̙̙̬̟̯͖͉̤͙̹̠͙̼̗̪̺̭̬͕̙̯͈̻̪̰̹̩͚̅̈́̎͂̌̒̓̽̇̓̃̓̓́̇͐͊̿̚̕͠͝ͅn̷̢̨̢̧̡̥̮̖̙̗̺̝̱̩͉̫̱̣̪͖͇̥̹̤̮̖͈͕͈͖̩͚͙̙͖̳̞̰͚̗͈̮̈̌̓͑̋͛̑͋͑͂̿̒̒͌͊͛͊̒̀͆̑͌̏̽̕̕̕̕͘͜͜͜͜͠͠ͅ ̵̨͈̭́̑̋͂̃̓̈́̎̈̓̀͗̏̓̉̎͋̎̃͂̀̈́̔̅̋̓̆͛̋͌̅̚͘̕̚͘̕͠͠p̴̧̢̠̟̙̺͔̦͓͚̺̞̝͓̩̼̺̪̲̭͓̬͚̱̠̦͉̰͇̙̰͓̞͓͇̲̥̹͕̟̭͚͍̹̬̫͉̟̬̿̈́̏̋̍̍͆̾̄͆̆́̀͒̃͌̅̒́͒̐̽́͛̉̋̑̄̄̔̑͂̃͂͑͐̔͛̽̽̀͘͘̚͘͜͜͠͠ͅŗ̵̨̧̛̳̝̖͙͉̯̳͈̜̙͕̘̙̳̙̫̲̦͊̑̑̒̀̓̑̿̃̐̌̽̀̈́͂̊͠ͅo̶̢̢͈͖̪͖͔͖͓̗̬̺͎̙̼̩͎͖̦͙͍̝͔̗͚̭̹̟͕̠̣̘͎̘̬̫̯̘͑̃̐̈́́̀́̄̈́͌͛̈̌̔́̒̈̈́̀̋͑̐͌̏̇̕̕͝ͅͅc̴̢̨̨̪͈̯̗̖̱͉̺̼͕̦̻̜̲̼̟͍͕̙̜̺͇̜͈̜̖̥̥͕̝̩̯̥̜͕̲̥̭̙̋ę̵̢̧̨̨͎̰͔͖̯͖̠̠͕̝͔͇̟̘͇̪̬̣̣̼͓̜͇̗͚̻͓̻͚͓̩͎̣͍̬͉͑̏̍̃͊̏͐͗͆̅͆͒͂̀͘̚͝ͅs̸̨̝͉̬̖̮̐̾̽͗̿̃̅̀̑̅̔̊̇̎̏͐̋̀̃͘͠͠ͅś̵̡̼͚͕͍̤͍̟̬͚͖̳̟͑͐̒̾̍̌͗͐͛͗͝ 

                                              l                                                                                                        while variant.amnesia

   hostility = -9.5                                                                                                                                               ̸̡̢̨̨̢̧̼͖̘̭͎̱͈͇̦̞͖̖̖͙̰̺̞̰̰̙̬̖͔͎̤̘̮͇̞̠͍͓̭̲̣͈͖̳̤͙̻̠̠̝̘̒̑͐̓̒̒̋̒͊̒͑̈́̀͒̆̏͌͌͜͜ ë̫̲̰͈͑͆ o̶͈̦̗͓̗̹̅͂͌̉ ̴̧̨̨̡̢̡̢̲̤͖̜̲͓̯͉̭͎͕̠̘͈̗̝̺̻͚̺͚͖̮͔̣͚̯̱̝͔͍̮̬̘̬̳͔͚̤̣̟͇͉͚̤̰̖̝̳̻̜̣͎̪̟̖͖̳͔̥̲̩̱̺͇̂͜ͅͅͅ

                                                                               C:\> run Exit.exe

                                              e                              

                                                                   variable.type = iteration

                                                                              variable = j-1027, vicki, victoria, varia6666666666666666666666666

                                         F                                      

 

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

I clawed my way through the rubble, trembling and on the verge of collapse. Two hours of crawling up through the cave-in to the lobby had torn me apart, left me weak and drained. But the darkness of the collapsed laboratory had grown lighter. I could hear sirens, voices. Smell fresh air.

When the first rock I pushed aside unveiled the sun, I thrust my head out. The world exploded with light, colors, flashing sirens, people, police tape, emergency workers, paramedics. It was too much, and I tumbled down the hill of rubble and didn’t get up from the bottom.

I opened my eyes. The sun was so warm. The clouds so perfect.

There was shouting, what sounded like a scuffle. Running footsteps getting closer.

Someone with large hands scooped me up like a rag doll. The motion felt familiar.

I looked up. A man seemed to be shouting something to me. The ringing in my ears died away and he came into better focus.

“—my, Amy! Can you hear me?” the man was yelling, cradling me. He was bald, had a thick, well-kept beard, and was the size of a large garage.

“Andrew,” I whispered, smiling. “Hi.”e̵̢̢̢̛̮̪̖̲̖̗̤̬̗̮̲̟̤̹̣͙̲̙̟̠̗̮̯̼̽̀͑̈́̾̎̍̈́̓͑͗̇̕͝͠͠ŗ̴̢̛̹̩̥̫̪͕͙̠̘͔̠̳͍̭̲̰͑̅̿̆̎̽̀̾͐̽̈͗͗̉̌̆̾̋̅̈͑͗̍̀̈̑̋̀̋̀̀̀̎̈́͛͐̈́̿̈́̅̓̑̒̀̾͛̅̌̄̔̓͋͊̈́͛̆̒͂̈͗̔̀̂̅̈́̂̽̾̇̌͌͘̕͘̕͘͠͠͝͝͠͝ṟ̷̡̧̢̡̨̢̢̛̩̭͖̭̘̥͔͇͇̰̹͓̳͇̪̫͖̭̮̠̼̰̠̯̲͚͕̖̺̰̼̪̘͎̟̤̻͕̮͙͙͈̖̟̥̙͔̖̩̬̲͓̩̳̙͖̘̼̭̌̄͌͗̋̽̐̅͒̊̂̄̃̊̋̌͊͗̓̀̊̎̍̈́̏͑̋̔̎̀͆͐͐̏̽̓̐́̈͊͋̀̎̒͒̂͐̔̐͂̿͘̕̚͜͜͜͝͝͝͝͝͝͝͝ͅͅờ̸̢̧̢̡̛̛̭͈͔̹̹̭̯̹̞͓̪̣̼̼̯͓̬͕͈̣̟͍̝̖̠͓̰̫͙͕̭̼̳̼͔̭͚͕͎̥̘̩̱͇̺͕̗̰̺̭̪̗̻̫͓̪͓͖͓̟̓̓̏̋͒͐̃͆̿̐͋̈̿̈́̑͂̄̐̉̇̀̀́̒͗̆̀̂̍̌̓̀̓̀̎̈́̒͑̂̈́̈́̅̚̕̕̚̚͜͠͝ŗ̶̧̢̧̬͇̠͙͍͕͙̬͇͙̠̝̭̮̖̼̳̼̥͖͉̰͉̘̭͇̤̠̖͉̐̽͑̀̉͊̿̇͂̉̑̂̿͛̓̀͗̌̓̄̔͐̒͌̇̐̈́̎̾̽̀̔͋̈̌̎̊͑͋̇͑̾͂͘͜͝͠͠͠͝ͅ

Andrew’s eyes watered up. “Hey, babe,” he said, brushing my cheek with the back of his hand. “How you doin’?”

Around then the paramedics made him put me, grudgingly, down on a stretcher. Andrew insisted in riding along in the ambulance and refused to hear out the ambulance’s weight capacity.

Andrew sat in the back with me on the way to the hospital, squashing two paramedics against the walls and babbling and apologizing profusely about our fight before I’d left for the lab.

“I didn’t mean what I said about your hair, it looks great like that, I’ve just been stressed with the job search lately and the fact we needed you to volunteer for this weird military ‘brain mapping’ stuff for the extra dough is just salt in the wound and I hadn’t had breakfast yet and of all days for you to go the whole place collapses and—”

I took his massive hand in my tiny one, something I’d been wanting to do for what seemed like centuries.

“The kids?” I asked.

Andrew sniffed and wiped his cheek with his hand. “Still in school. Haven’t called ‘em yet. Didn’t want to make to make ‘em wait like I did.”

I squeezed his fingers in my grasp.

He caressed my head the entire way to the hospital, humming the song we’d first made out to at Rosie Goldblum’s party. They gave him a moment before pre-op to be with me.

“They’re going to set a few bones and sew you up,” he said, his eyes red. A full cup of cold coffee in his hands. “You’ll be in a chair for a few months. Nothing permanent, thank Christ.”

I nodded, hearing nothing. His presence absorbed me. “I love you,” I told him. It filled me with a warmth I’d never felt, so much so I couldn’t help but cry. “Everything’ll be okay. I love you and you’re here and the kids are here.”

He smiled, brushing my hair back. “Anything I can do, Mrs. Barnes?”

I smiled back at him, laying my hand on his. “Waking up to a fat bowl of brownie-pecan swirl would be great, Mr. Barnes.”

Two ER staff soon approached us and apologetically wheeled me away. I watched Andrew watching me and wringing his hands until he disappeared behind a pair of double doors.

In the operating room, a surgeon strapped a mask to my mouth and in a soothing voice, told me to count backwards from thirty.

I got to twenty-five, I was already so tired. I fell into darkness for the umpteenth time that day, blissfully forgetting about all the voices I’d heard while trapped underneath the laboratory, the circus show of visions, emotions.

As my eyelids creaked shut, I looked at one of the surgeons hovering over me. I imagined her right eye flashed static, but it could have just been the light catching her glasses.

I sank into a euphoric sleep like quicksand. Falling away from the world, uncaring. It didn’t matter if I was in a chair for the rest of my life.

I’d found my way out. Found my way back to my family. One way or another, I’d found them.  

In the end, that was all that mattered.

 

e̵̢̢̢̛̮̪̖̲̖̗̤̬̗̮̲̟̤̹̣͙̲̙̟̠̗̮̯̼̽̀͑̈́̾̎̍̈́̓͑͗̇̕͝͠͠ŗ̴̢̛̹̩̥̫̪͕͙̠̘͔̠̳͍̭̲̰͑̅̿̆̎̽̀̾͐̽̈͗͗̉̌̆̾̋̅̈͑͗̍̀̈̑̋̀̋̀̀̀̎̈́͛͐̈́̿̈́̅̓̑̒̀̾͛̅̌̄̔̓͋͊̈́͛̆̒͂̈͗̔̀̂̅̈́̂̽̾̇̌͌͘̕͘̕͘͠͠͝͝͠͝ṟ̷̡̧̢̡̨̢̢̛̩̭͖̭̘̥͔͇͇̰̹͓̳͇̪̫͖̭̮̠̼̰̠̯̲͚͕̖̺̰̼̪̘͎̟̤̻͕̮͙͙͈̖̟̥̙͔̖̩̬̲͓̩̳̙͖̘̼̭̌̄͌͗̋̽̐̅͒̊̂̄̃̊̋̌͊͗̓̀̊̎̍̈́̏͑̋̔̎̀͆͐͐̏̽̓̐́̈͊͋̀̎̒͒̂͐̔̐͂̿͘̕̚͜͜͜͝͝͝͝͝͝͝͝ͅͅờ̸̢̧̢̡̛̛̭͈͔̹̹̭̯̹̞͓̪̣̼̼̯͓̬͕͈̣̟͍̝̖̠͓̰̫͙͕̭̼̳̼͔̭͚͕͎̥̘̩̱͇̺͕̗̰̺̭̪̗̻̫͓̪͓͖͓̟̓̓̏̋͒͐̃͆̿̐͋̈̿̈́̑͂̄̐̉̇̀̀́̒͗̆̀̂̍̌̓̀̓̀̎̈́̒͑̂̈́̈́̅̚̕̕̚̚͜͠͝ŗ̶̧̢̧̬͇̠͙͍͕͙̬͇͙̠̝̭̮̖̼̳̼̥͖͉̰͉̘̭͇̤̠̖͉̐̽͑̀̉͊̿̇͂̉̑̂̿͛̓̀͗̌̓̄̔͐̒͌̇̐̈́̎̾̽̀̔͋̈̌̎̊͑͋̇͑̾͂͘͜͝͠͠͠͝ͅ   e̵̢̢̢̛̮̪̖̲̖̗̤̬̗̮̲̟̤̹̣͙̲̙̟̠̗̮̯̼̽̀͑̈́̾̎̍̈́̓͑͗̇̕͝͠͠ŗ̴̢̛̹̩̥̫̪͕͙̠̘͔̠̳͍̭̲̰͑̅̿̆̎̽̀̾͐̽̈͗͗̉̌̆̾̋̅̈͑͗̍̀̈̑̋̀̋̀̀̀̎̈́͛͐̈́̿̈́̅̓̑̒̀̾͛̅̌̄̔̓͋͊̈́͛̆̒͂̈͗̔̀̂̅̈́̂̽̾̇̌͌͘̕͘̕͘͠͠͝͝͠͝ṟ̷̡̧̢̡̨̢̢̛̩̭͖̭̘̥͔͇͇̰̹͓̳͇̪̫͖̭̮̠̼̰̠̯̲͚͕̖̺̰̼̪̘͎̟̤̻͕̮͙͙͈̖̟̥̙͔̖̩̬̲͓̩̳̙͖̘̼̭̌̄͌͗̋̽̐̅͒̊̂̄̃̊̋̌͊͗̓̀̊̎̍̈́̏͑̋̔̎̀͆͐͐̏̽̓̐́̈͊͋̀̎̒͒̂͐̔̐͂̿͘̕̚͜͜͜͝͝͝͝͝͝͝͝ͅͅờ̸̢̧̢̡̛̛̭͈͔̹̹̭̯̹̞͓̪̣̼̼̯͓̬͕͈̣̟͍̝̖̠͓̰̫͙͕̭̼̳̼͔̭͚͕͎̥̘̩̱͇̺͕̗̰̺̭̪̗̻̫͓̪͓͖͓̟̓̓̏̋͒͐̃͆̿̐͋̈̿̈́̑͂̄̐̉̇̀̀́̒͗̆̀̂̍̌̓̀̓̀̎̈́̒͑̂̈́̈́̅̚̕̕̚̚͜͠͝ŗ̶̧̢̧̬͇̠͙͍͕͙̬͇͙̠̝̭̮̖̼̳̼̥͖͉̰͉̘̭͇̤̠̖͉̐̽͑̀̉͊̿̇͂̉̑̂̿͛̓̀͗̌̓̄̔͐̒͌̇̐̈́̎̾̽̀̔͋̈̌̎̊͑͋̇͑̾͂͘͜͝͠͠͠͝ͅ e̵̢̢̢̛̮̪̖̲̖̗̤̬̗̮̲̟̤̹̣͙̲̙̟̠̗̮̯̼̽̀͑̈́̾̎̍̈́̓͑͗̇̕͝͠͠ŗ̴̢̛̹̩̥̫̪͕͙̠̘͔̠̳͍̭̲̰͑̅̿̆̎̽̀̾͐̽̈͗͗̉̌̆̾̋̅̈͑͗̍̀̈̑̋̀̋̀̀̀̎̈́͛͐̈́̿̈́̅̓̑̒̀̾͛̅̌̄̔̓͋͊̈́͛̆̒͂̈͗̔̀̂̅̈́̂̽̾̇̌͌͘̕͘̕͘͠͠͝͝͠͝ṟ̷̡̧̢̡̨̢̢̛̩̭͖̭̘̥͔͇͇̰̹͓̳͇̪̫͖̭̮̠̼̰̠̯̲͚͕̖̺̰̼̪̘͎̟̤̻͕̮͙͙͈̖̟̥̙͔̖̩̬̲͓̩̳̙͖̘̼̭̌̄͌͗̋̽̐̅͒̊̂̄̃̊̋̌͊͗̓̀̊̎̍̈́̏͑̋̔̎̀͆͐͐̏̽̓̐́̈͊͋̀̎̒͒̂͐̔̐͂̿͘̕̚͜͜͜͝͝͝͝͝͝͝͝ͅͅờ̸̢̧̢̡̛̛̭͈͔̹̹̭̯̹̞͓̪̣̼̼̯͓̬͕͈̣̟͍̝̖̠͓̰̫͙͕̭̼̳̼͔̭͚͕͎̥̘̩̱͇̺͕̗̰̺̭̪̗̻̫͓̪͓͖͓̟̓̓̏̋͒͐̃͆̿̐͋̈̿̈́̑͂̄̐̉̇̀̀́̒͗̆̀̂̍̌̓̀̓̀̎̈́̒͑̂̈́̈́̅̚̕̕̚̚͜͠͝ŗ̶̧̢̧̬͇̠͙͍͕͙̬͇͙̠̝̭̮̖̼̳̼̥͖͉̰͉̘̭͇̤̠̖͉̐̽͑̀̉͊̿̇͂̉̑̂̿͛̓̀͗̌̓̄̔͐̒͌̇̐̈́̎̾̽̀̔͋̈̌̎̊͑͋̇͑̾͂͘͜͝͠͠͠͝ͅ  e̵̢̢̢̛̮̪̖̲̖̗̤̬̗̮̲̟̤̹̣͙̲̙̟̠̗̮̯̼̽̀͑̈́̾̎̍̈́̓͑͗̇̕͝͠͠ŗ̴̢̛̹̩̥̫̪͕͙̠̘͔̠̳͍̭̲̰͑̅̿̆̎̽̀̾͐̽̈͗͗̉̌̆̾̋̅̈͑͗̍̀̈̑̋̀̋̀̀̀̎̈́͛͐̈́̿̈́̅̓̑̒̀̾͛̅̌̄̔̓͋͊̈́͛̆̒͂̈͗̔̀̂̅̈́̂̽̾̇̌͌͘̕͘̕͘͠͠͝͝͠͝ṟ̷̡̧̢̡̨̢̢̛̩̭͖̭̘̥͔͇͇̰̹͓̳͇̪̫͖̭̮̠̼̰̠̯̲͚͕̖̺̰̼̪̘͎̟̤̻͕̮͙͙͈̖̟̥̙͔̖̩̬̲͓̩̳̙͖̘̼̭̌̄͌͗̋̽̐̅͒̊̂̄̃̊̋̌͊͗̓̀̊̎̍̈́̏͑̋̔̎̀͆͐͐̏̽̓̐́̈͊͋̀̎̒͒̂͐̔̐͂̿͘̕̚͜͜͜͝͝͝͝͝͝͝͝ͅͅờ̸̢̧̢̡̛̛̭͈͔̹̹̭̯̹̞͓̪̣̼̼̯͓̬͕͈̣̟͍̝̖̠͓̰̫͙͕̭̼̳̼͔̭͚͕͎̥̘̩̱͇̺͕̗̰̺̭̪̗̻̫͓̪͓͖͓̟̓̓̏̋͒͐̃͆̿̐͋̈̿̈́̑͂̄̐̉̇̀̀́̒͗̆̀̂̍̌̓̀̓̀̎̈́̒͑̂̈́̈́̅̚̕̕̚̚͜͠͝ ŗ̶̧̢̧̬͇̠͙͍͕͙̬͇͙̠̝̭̮̖̼̳̼̥͖͉̰͉̘̭͇̤̠̖͉̐̽͑̀̉͊̿̇͂̉̑̂̿͛̓̀͗̌̓̄̔͐̒͌̇̐̈́̎̾̽̀̔͋̈̌̎̊͑͋̇͑̾͂͘͜͝͠͠͠͝ͅe̵̢̢̢̛̮̪̖̲̖̗̤̬̗̮̲̟̤̹̣͙̲̙̟̠̗̮̯̼̽̀͑̈́̾̎̍̈́̓͑͗̇̕͝͠͠ŗ̴̢̛̹̩̥̫̪͕͙̠̘͔̠̳͍̭̲̰͑̅̿̆̎̽̀̾͐̽̈͗͗̉̌̆̾̋̅̈͑͗̍̀̈̑̋̀̋̀̀̀̎̈́͛͐̈́̿̈́̅̓̑̒̀̾͛̅̌̄̔̓͋͊̈́͛̆̒͂̈͗̔̀̂̅̈́̂̽̾̇̌͌͘̕͘̕͘͠͠͝͝͠͝ṟ̷̡̧̢̡̨̢̢̛̩̭͖̭̘̥͔͇͇̰̹͓̳͇̪̫͖̭̮̠̼̰̠̯̲͚͕̖̺̰̼̪̘͎̟̤̻͕̮͙͙͈̖̟̥̙͔̖̩̬̲͓̩̳̙͖̘̼̭̌̄͌͗̋̽̐̅͒̊̂̄̃̊̋̌͊͗̓̀̊̎̍̈́̏͑̋̔̎̀͆͐͐̏̽̓̐́̈͊͋̀̎̒͒̂͐̔̐͂̿͘̕̚͜͜͜͝͝͝͝͝͝͝͝ͅͅờ̸̢̧̢̡̛̛̭͈͔̹̹̭̯̹̞͓̪̣̼̼̯͓̬͕͈̣̟͍̝̖̠͓̰̫͙͕̭̼̳̼͔̭͚͕͎̥̘̩̱͇̺͕̗̰̺̭̪̗̻̫͓̪͓͖͓̟̓̓̏̋͒͐̃͆̿̐͋̈̿̈́̑͂̄̐̉̇̀̀́̒͗̆̀̂̍̌̓̀̓̀̎̈́̒͑̂̈́̈́̅̚̕̕̚̚͜͠͝ ŗ̶̧̢̧̬͇̠͙͍͕͙̬͇͙̠̝̭̮̖̼̳̼̥͖͉̰͉̘̭͇̤̠̖͉̐̽͑̀̉͊̿̇͂̉̑̂̿͛̓̀͗̌̓̄̔͐̒͌̇̐̈́̎̾̽̀̔͋̈̌̎̊͑͋̇͑̾͂͘͜͝͠͠͠͝ͅ e̵̢̢̢̛̮̪̖̲̖̗̤̬̗̮̲̟̤̹̣͙̲̙̟̠̗̮̯̼̽̀͑̈́̾̎̍̈́̓͑͗̇̕͝͠͠ŗ̴̢̛̹̩̥̫̪͕͙̠̘͔̠̳͍̭̲̰͑̅̿̆̎̽̀̾͐̽̈͗͗̉̌̆̾̋̅̈͑͗̍̀̈̑̋̀̋̀̀̀̎̈́͛͐̈́̿̈́̅̓̑̒̀̾͛̅̌̄̔̓͋͊̈́͛̆̒͂̈͗̔̀̂̅̈́̂̽̾̇̌͌͘̕͘̕͘͠͠͝͝͠͝ṟ̷̡̧̢̡̨̢̢̛̩̭͖̭̘̥͔͇͇̰̹͓̳͇̪̫͖̭̮̠̼̰̠̯̲͚͕̖̺̰̼̪̘͎̟̤̻͕̮͙͙͈̖̟̥̙͔̖̩̬̲͓̩̳̙͖̘̼̭̌̄͌͗̋̽̐̅͒̊̂̄̃̊̋̌͊͗̓̀̊̎̍̈́̏͑̋̔̎̀͆͐͐̏̽̓̐́̈͊͋̀̎̒͒̂͐̔̐͂̿͘̕̚͜͜͜͝͝͝͝͝͝͝͝ͅͅờ̸̢̧̢̡̛̛̭͈͔̹̹̭̯̹̞͓̪̣̼̼̯͓̬͕͈̣̟͍̝̖̠͓̰̫͙͕̭̼̳̼͔̭͚͕͎̥̘̩̱͇̺͕̗̰̺̭̪̗̻̫͓̪͓͖͓̟̓̓̏̋͒͐̃͆̿̐͋̈̿̈́̑͂̄̐̉̇̀̀́̒͗̆̀̂̍̌̓̀̓̀̎̈́̒͑̂̈́̈́̅̚̕̕̚̚͜͠͝  ŗ̶̧̢̧̬͇̠͙͍͕͙̬͇͙̠̝̭̮̖̼̳̼̥͖͉̰͉̘̭͇̤̠̖͉̐̽͑̀̉͊̿̇͂̉̑̂̿͛̓̀͗̌̓̄̔͐̒͌̇̐̈́̎̾̽̀̔͋̈̌̎̊͑͋̇͑̾͂͘͜͝͠͠͠͝ͅe̵̢̢̢̛̮̪̖̲̖̗̤̬̗̮̲̟̤̹̣͙̲̙̟̠̗̮̯̼̽̀͑̈́̾̎̍̈́̓͑͗̇̕͝͠͠ŗ̴̢̛̹̩̥̫̪͕͙̠̘͔̠̳͍̭̲̰͑̅̿̆̎̽̀̾͐̽̈͗͗̉̌̆̾̋̅̈͑͗̍̀̈̑̋̀̋̀̀̀̎̈́͛͐̈́̿̈́̅̓̑̒̀̾͛̅̌̄̔̓͋͊̈́͛̆̒͂̈͗̔̀̂̅̈́̂̽̾̇̌͌͘̕͘̕͘͠͠͝͝͠͝ṟ̷̡̧̢̡̨̢̢̛̩̭͖̭̘̥͔͇͇̰̹͓̳͇̪̫͖̭̮̠̼̰̠̯̲͚͕̖̺̰̼̪̘͎̟̤̻͕̮͙͙͈̖̟̥̙͔̖̩̬̲͓̩̳̙͖̘̼̭̌̄͌͗̋̽̐̅͒̊̂̄̃̊̋̌͊͗̓̀̊̎̍̈́̏͑̋̔̎̀͆͐͐̏̽̓̐́̈͊͋̀̎̒͒̂͐̔̐͂̿͘̕̚͜͜͜͝͝͝͝͝͝͝͝ͅͅ ờ̸̢̧̢̡̛̛̭͈͔̹̹̭̯̹̞͓̪̣̼̼̯͓̬͕͈̣̟͍̝̖̠͓̰̫͙͕̭̼̳̼͔̭͚͕͎̥̘̩̱͇̺͕̗̰̺̭̪̗̻̫͓̪͓͖͓̟̓̓̏̋͒͐̃͆̿̐͋̈̿̈́̑͂̄̐̉̇̀̀́̒͗̆̀̂̍̌̓̀̓̀̎̈́̒͑̂̈́̈́̅̚̕̕̚̚͜͠͝ŗ̶̧̢̧̬͇̠͙͍͕͙̬͇͙̠̝̭̮̖̼̳̼̥͖͉̰͉̘̭͇̤̠̖͉̐̽͑̀̉͊̿̇͂̉̑̂̿͛̓̀͗̌̓̄̔͐̒͌̇̐̈́̎̾̽̀̔͋̈̌̎̊͑͋̇͑̾͂͘͜͝͠͠͠͝ͅe̵̢̢̢̛̮̪̖̲̖̗̤̬̗̮̲̟̤̹̣͙̲̙̟̠̗̮̯̼̽̀͑̈́̾̎̍̈́̓͑͗̇̕͝͠͠ ŗ̴̢̛̹̩̥̫̪͕͙̠̘͔̠̳͍̭̲̰͑̅̿̆̎̽̀̾͐̽̈͗͗̉̌̆̾̋̅̈͑͗̍̀̈̑̋̀̋̀̀̀̎̈́͛͐̈́̿̈́̅̓̑̒̀̾͛̅̌̄̔̓͋͊̈́͛̆̒͂̈͗̔̀̂̅̈́̂̽̾̇̌͌͘̕͘̕͘͠͠͝͝͠͝ṟ̷̡̧̢̡̨̢̢̛̩̭͖̭̘̥͔͇͇̰̹͓̳͇̪̫͖̭̮̠̼̰̠̯̲͚͕̖̺̰̼̪̘͎̟̤̻͕̮͙͙͈̖̟̥̙͔̖̩̬̲͓̩̳̙͖̘̼̭̌̄͌͗̋̽̐̅͒̊̂̄̃̊̋̌͊͗̓̀̊̎̍̈́̏͑̋̔̎̀͆͐͐̏̽̓̐́̈͊͋̀̎̒͒̂͐̔̐͂̿͘̕̚͜͜͜͝͝͝͝͝͝͝͝ͅͅ