Jay’s mind melted away, thoughts descending into confusion and chaos. Then even that quieted, and there was nothing.
When he came to, he was without frame of reference. He didn’t know where he was, or even who he was. It took several moments before his memories came flooding back, and with them came a wave of claustrophobia. Where he was, he could not see, and he could not move. He was frozen, lying on the ground—though not exactly lying, because he had no body. He tried to flail his arms, or see, and then he realized he had no limbs or eyes. He tried to scream, but he had no mouth. So he existed, inert in darkness, panic growing. And then, gradually, in that twilight existence, he realized that there was something to see. A sort of shimmering lightness. He felt it more than saw it on the periphery of his mind.
The sensation was new, like discovering eyes in the back of his head that had always been there, but never been used. It was like training his brain to see through a different set of eyes. He could feel the lightness there, and he could feel this new set of eyes—or whatever they were—even if he could not actually see with them. So he groped randomly, moving closer and closer, and then suddenly he was in blinding light, and could see everything.
The first thing he noticed was that the quality of these new eyes was terrible. Back in middle school, in Mr. Hensley’s class, they’d spent a semester studying bees. As a class they’d made a standing sculpture out of refractive glass pieces. Through it, they could view the world as honey bees saw it. Jay was reminded of that now. The room was heavily pixelated, in high contrast black and white. It was maddening and unsatisfactory, but better than nothing at all.
He guessed that he was atop a shelf, or table. He could see a little ledge stretch out beneath him, before dropping precipitously down. His perspective was tilted, which told him he was lying on his side. Light poured down from a window, so bright it was almost painful. He realized, too, that he had ears—or something like ears—because he heard a voice, garbled and compressed. Muttering.
He tried to speak, and found he could, kind of. Not speak as he normally would, where he could hear his voice through his ears. No, it was just his stream of consciousness, but with his other senses muted, it sounded thunderously loud.
A few moments passed, and then he heard Colin’s voice in his head: “Jay?”
“Where are you?”
“I think on a floor somewhere. You?”
“On a table. Can you move?”
“Not very well.”
Jay tried to move. Nothing. Remembering his experiment with his eyes, and searched his mind for an arm, an unused limb, something he could manipulate. Suddenly he felt a click. His view tilted sideways and his body jolted into the air. In surprise, he released whatever it was he’d touched, and he dropped down out of the sky and lay still again. Above his eyes, a rotary blade loped around, slowing, then finally resting.
“I think I’m… some kind of helicopter.”
In his new, shifted perspective, he now saw further down the desktop. He was looking up at a large box. Its sides were transparent and he saw a variety of electronic components glowing within. A ring of lights flashed around the edge of the interior—grey, in Jay’s view, as he couldn’t see colors—and though he recognized none of the pieces, it was clearly some kind of computer, more advanced than anything he’d ever seen.
“I see a computer. It’s… it’s beautiful, Colin.”
The computer had not one, but three monitors—huge—that curved round into a 180 degree panorama. He marvelled, until he finally noticed the man sitting in front of it.
Though Jay’s vision was pixelated and jerky, he saw the man wore a light tuxedo with a boutonniere pinned to the vest. His face, lost in rolls of fat, sported a bushy moustache and thick glasses. He stood on short legs, leaning precariously forward, large gut swaying as he propped himself on his arms, his right hand clacking loudly over his keyboard. Jay heard a clenched grunt that segwayed into a “Hrmmm,” then terminated in a fart. He stood up and scratched an armpit. A sickening wave of revulsion washed over Jay. It was him. Thirty, perhaps forty years older. A disgusting, out of shape man.
“I see Hal.”
The man turned away. Jay heard his footsteps moving over carpeted floors. Stevie’s voice crackled inside his brain.
“You guys make it?”
“We’re here. How’s everything there?”
“The hill across from the baseball field is gone. Can you stop the deletion?”
“I don’t know, I don’t have hands.”
“Colin, do you have hands?”
“Yeah. But I’m stuck behind a chair.”
Jay willed himself up into the air. He hovered for a moment, practiced a quick dodge left, then flew to the edge of the table and peered over. The floor was carpeted, light with off-white stains. The room was a small office with a rolling chair, a wastebasket, and a sparse bookshelf with other small toys.
Jay spotted something moving at the bottom of the bookshelf. He dropped unsteadily to get a better look and found himself hovering over a small, mechanical monkey. His sense of scale was warped due to his size and the fish-angle distortion of his lens, but he guessed the robot was about the size of a remote control car. It jerked stiffly forward, walking on a combination of knuckles and rear legs.
“Colin is that you?”
“If that police helicopter thing is you, then yeah.”
“Colin’s a… robo-monkey. But I can confirm: he has arms.”
Stevie’s voice was anxious. “Colin, can you work the mouse on Hal’s computer?”
“Let’s see...” Jay watched the monkey stand on its hind legs, raise its hands and leap into the air in a backflip.
“I can do that.”
“Hmm. There are a few more inputs you guys aren’t using. Let me connect them…”
Beneath Jay’s vision, he saw three glowing words appear:“Halt”, “Follow Me” and “You’re Under Arrest.” He picked the first one.
“Halt!” He heard his robotic voice, garbled through his small microphone. There was the faint sound of footsteps. Jay stopped his propellor and fell to the ground. A shadow fell over him. Then he was sailing through the air, spinning around. He found himself staring into Hal’s pockmarked face, looking up at the hairs that sprung from his nose and the tiny capillaries over his eyes. Hal turned Jay round, examining him with suspicion. Jay froze. Finally, Hal placed Jay on the table and pulled up his chair. He plunked a bowl of cereal down and returned his attention to the computer, taking occasional bites and scraping the bowl with his spoon.
Jay couldn’t move without Hal spotting him. He sat, considering what to do next, when Colin spoke.
“What happens if we shut the computer down?”
“That would stop the deletion, but it’d shut us down too and I doubt we’d come back. Here, one sec—”
“Guys?” It was Liz’s voice. “Listen, I can stop Hal if you can get me out. You’ll have to do it on your end, though. Can you find me over there?”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know.”
Stevie’s voice crackled back through. “There’s gotta be a lot of data transferring between Liz there and Liz here. Gigabytes per second. Look for a Cat7 cable.”
“A big, thick wire!”
Jay piped up. “Colin… have you made it past the chair?”
“Yeah, I’m free.”
“Great. Get Hal’s attention.”
“Cause I’m off to find Liz.”
Jay heard a whirring noise. Hal’s chair jiggled almost imperceptibly. Hal looked down, furrowing his brow. This was Jay’s moment. He flew into the air, spun around, and launched away. He heard Hal rise behind him.
On the carpeted floor below, the thick, black wire he’d spotted snaked out the door and turned left. Jay followed it, down a bright white hall, passing doors. At the far end was a door opened just a crack. Jay followed the wire inside.
The room looked like a hospital, was clean and white. A queen-sized bed took up most of the space. Medical equipment stood over the bedside, rising from the ground like strange pilings. A nightstand held dozens of pill bottles, and there was a large trash can with a biohazard sign. The black wire disappeared into a slithering pile of other cords, and all of them led up over the bedside into a coagulated dark mass around a human form lying under the sheets. The face was covered by a black helmet, so only the mouth was visible. Revulsion washed over Jay.
“I— I found you, Liz. It’s— really messed up.”
Footsteps thundered behind Jay. Without waiting, Jay buzzed over to the bed and zipped back and forth before Liz’s face. He thought he saw her jaw tremble slightly.
“Did you hear me?”
“I just buzzed your face.”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“Well how do I wake you?”
“I don’t know.”
From somewhere in the room came a loud burp, followed by a soft “hrrrm.” Jay swivelled to see Hal rushing him. Hal’s face was flushed and he held a broom like a baseball bat. He swung at Jay, and Jay just barely zipped up into the air. The broom smashed down into Liz’s lap and she stirred but didn’t wake.
“Did you feel that?”
“No! What’s happening?!”
Jay didn’t have time to explain. Hal stepped forward, swinging wildly. He hit a lamp and clumsily knocked over one of the medical stands by the bed. The broom swished over Jay, and Jay dove down under the bed. He hovered under the mattress, swivelling left and right, waiting for Hal.
“Colin… now’s your chance. He’s in here.”
“Okay, I’m trying.”
“Can you get on the table?”
“Well try harder!”
He heard Colin huff. “Easy for the helicopter to say.”
Colin had the room to himself, but his functionality was limited to walking—poorly—and jumping. A robot monkey made to do backflips. Great. He’d spent the last two minutes leaping into the air over and over again, in the hopes of landing in the chair.
“Well, whatever you’re gonna do, hurry.”
From under the bed, Jay watched Hal’s legs. He heard a grunt, then Hal’s arms appeared, followed by his head. He spotted Jay and his eyes narrowed. Jay watched Hal’s arm go slowly for the broom. Jay hovered, waiting until the last second, then spun around and zoomed out into the room. He spotted a patch of light and rose higher, hoping that… YES! One of hopper windows was open. Jay waited just long enough for Hal to scramble back out and spot him, then he zipped out the window.
The brightness of the world washed over him, blinding him, and then his iris contracted, and everything became clear. He was on a paved street of a steep incline. Cars lined the sidewalks, and maple trees shaded the cars. Ten story buildings reached up into the sky; apartment complexes with convenience stores, bars, and coffee shops underneath. There was a strange sleekness to the cars, a newness to the buildings, and a terrifying enormity to it all.
A tremendous noise filled the air, and Jay felt he were being overtaken by some huge, terrible machine. The noise neither dimmed nor grew, and Jay gradually came to hear it for what it was: the sounds of the city. Car horns mixing with voices and jet roars into a low, constant rumble that shook the earth.
Dozens of people walked the sidewalks. Their outfits were neat, pressed, and perfect, like no clothes in Dunam. He saw a black-haired woman in a dark woolen coat and sunglasses. She strode with purpose, passing a man in jeans and a striped shirt. Neither acknowledged one another. This, Jay realized, was the city, the world he’d longed to see.
Through the dense wall of city noise, he heard a metallic clang. He spun around to see Hal, still in his prom suit, creeping out of the gate surrounding his apartment complex. He gripped his broom like a sword, searching the sky for Jay. Jay dropped down and strafed back and forth, catching Hal’s glance. Hal furrowed his brow, then ran down the sidewalk pointing at Jay with the broom.
The dark-haired woman on the opposite sidewalk stopped and stared at Hal. Hal pointed at Jay.
“Don’t touch it! Stay away.”
Hal leaped into the air and swung his broom at Jay. Jay dashed upwards, then zipped across the street before the woman, activating his speech module.
“Halt. Halt. Follow me.”
The woman flinched at his approach and threw out her hands. “Get away from me!”
“Careful!” Hal jogged heavily towards her, puffing: “It has a virus.”
At this, the woman turned and ran up the sidewalk, heels clicking against the pavement. Jay lurched forward, staying out of swiping distance while Hal unleashed another volley of broom strokes.
Colin had made it onto the chair. His last flip had been a graceful turn. Now he stood on the mesh seat, craning upwards to the ledge of the desk. The spongy surface was softer than the floor—like walking on a trampoline—and it provided no purchase for his leaps. He centered himself in the chair to avoid falling off entirely.
“Yes?” Colin sighed.
“Guys...” it was Stevie voice. It sounded nervous. “...there’s not much left here.”
Colin positioned one foot on the vinyl mesh, one foot on the hard plastic frame, scrunched his little frame and leaped. This time, he could feel one foot overpower the other, and he sailed sideways through the air. He hit hard plastic and slid. When he looked up, a giant keyboard and three monitors towered over him.
“I did it. I’m up.”
“So stop the deletion.”
Colin took a slow step toward the huge mouse. “Okayyy…”
Outside, Jay zipped back and forth. Depth perception, with his wide-angled view, was difficult, but he could see Hal’s face flush deeper with every swing.
“Jay, how long can you keep him there?”
“Dunno. If we’re lucky he’ll have a heart attack.”
Hal seemed to have the same thought, as he paused for a moment. Sweat poured down his face and he was breathing in ragged gasps. Though Jay couldn’t see color, he could tell Hal was a deep shade of red. A small crowd had now gathered. Three girls trained black devices on the crazed little man, as they narrated his actions and giggled. A man in a dark suit, walking to his car, also stopped to watch.
Hal didn’t seem to care. Perhaps he was used to getting stares. Jay, disoriented from all his quick turns, flew far out of reach. Unable to reach his quarry, Hal turned, beet-faced and huffing, to address his onlookers.
“What are you staring at?”
The man hurried away down the street, and the three girls burst into another peel of laughter. Hal flushed with rage, and Jay dropped back down to bait him again.
In Hal’s office, Colin inched slowly across the desk. His body had been made for backflips and he did not scuttle easily. In fact, it took great mental coordination to move at all. And there was another problem, which he had been hesitant to mention to the others. He was low on batteries. On the periphery of his vision, he saw a small battery gauge. It had dropped precipitously over the course of his leaps and now it flashed red.
He moved at a glacial pace, concentrating furiously on putting one leg before the other. He stared up at the monitors. The deletion bar—where was it? He spotted it in the corner of the screen, next to the mouse arrow. It was several painful minutes as he chugged. He felt his motor groan in protest. Soon, he knew, it would seize up. He paused to check his progress, and saw with some satisfaction that the onscreen arrow had moved towards the deletion bar.
Stevie’s questions were endless:
“How’s it coming, Colin? You almost there? What’s the status?”
Colin hated to disappoint her. He answered her questions in the same careful neutrality: “Just fine.”
Jay, who knew his friend well, applied all of his willpower not to snap at Stevie. He could tell by Colin’s manner that everything was not fine. And Hal seemed to be growing tired. His brooms strokes slackened. Which was just as well, because Jay’s battery had begun to drop sharply.
Hal turned his frustration back to the girls filming him. He stopped to catch his breath and glare at the girls. Then—suddenly—he straightened. Without a word, he spun round and stomped back across the street, pushing through the girls away as he passed, eliciting shrieks of outrage and delight. He fumbled with a set of keys, threw open the gate, and stomped across the small courtyard into his apartment. Jay rose and followed, watching in horror as Hal ran through the glass doors. Jay flew back up to Liz’s room. He was level with the window, when he saw a hand reach up to the glass. The window slammed shut, and he heard the sound of it lock.
“Colin!” Jay shouted. “He’s coming back!”
Jay’s voice was faint in Colin’s ears. Even the thought of responding filled Colin with weariness. Colin could feel the last of his battery slipping away with each push of the mouse. His mind was going too. One by one, his thoughts disappeared and he felt lightheaded, almost giddy. At the end of each push, his motor relaxed, and thought and vitality for a moment flooded back to him. But each time, it was less than before. He turned at a glacial pace and looked up at Hal’s monitors. The arrow icon now lay over the “cancel” button of the deletion bar. All he had to do was click the mouse.
With slow, painful steps, Colin worked his way forward. It was like moving through mud. He raised his fists with laborious efforts, then swivelled his torso over the button. With his remaining energy, he lowered his arms, watching them slowly descend over several seconds. They touched the mouse button—and went no further. His motor seized up, and Colin’s consciousness faded into black.
Which was how Hal found him. He’d realized out on the street that if one A.I. had escaped, there could easily be more. He hurried back in and shut his windows. Then, entering his office, he had a moment of panic when he saw the monkey-bot over his mouse. He grabbed it and tore it into pieces, yanking its plastic arms and legs from their sockets and throwing them on the floor. He lifted his heavy computer and shoved the plastic figure under it. Then he smashed down again and again until the monkey’s casing cracked and its head popped off. He checked his shelf of toys. No more rogue devices. Then, finally, he turned to his monitors and breathed a sigh of relief. His hard drive wipe was more than halfway done. It was a mistake to transfer his brain to The Build, he saw that now. But Pantheon Games would never know. He was almost done deleting the evidence. Everything would soon be fine.
“Colin?” Jay ventured. No response.
“Guys?” It was Stevie. “We’re surrounded by grey now. Tutorial is literally an island.”
Jay felt panic overtake him. Colin was gone. Dunam was too. The last bar of his battery disappeared, flashing red on his dashboard. He flew back over the metal fence and hovered in the apartment courtyard. A small, tacky fountain bubbled in a rock garden below. Flagstone pathways wound up to three glass doors. Suddenly, Jay heard a wail somewhere nearby. A smoke detector. He circled around until he spotted smoke billowing from an open window. He zipped inside.
It was another carpeted living room, identical to Hal’s. Past a small kitchen counter, stood a skinny man in baggy jeans and sweatshirt. He waved a dishtowel at smoke that poured from his toaster. His face was pale and gaunt. Dark posers lined the walls. Bob Marley. The Grateful Dead. If Jay could smell, he knew he’d catch a stale sniff of marijuana. The toaster smoke drifted out the windows and through an open hallway door as the man swore and cursed.
The beeping of the smoke detector stopped, and the man relaxed, poking at a blackened piece of toast with a fork. Jay powered forward at full speed and slammed into the man’s face.
The man leapt back, sizing up Jay.
“What the fuck?”
Jay activated his speakers.
“Halt! Follow me.”
The man didn’t move, so Jay again rammed his face. This time the man threw up his arms, and Jay felt his rotor thundering into the man’s hands.
“Shit, stop it!”
Jay backed off. The man whipped his towel at Jay, who dashed out of reach.
“Follow me. Follow me. Follow me.”
The man came around the kitchen counter, and Jay flew out the apartment door and into the hall. At end of the hall was a closed door. His dead battery signal flashed. It was now or never. Flying as fast as he could, Jay smashed into the door. He bounced back, falling, the ground rushing towards him and he willed his rotor to spin. He rose, holding steady in the air. Again and again he hit into the door, until he heard muted footsteps. He spun around to check behind him. The man in baggy jeans was jogging down the hall, after him.
The door burst open. Hal stood in his boxers, broom in hand. Jay buzzed past, into his living room. Hal swiped at Jay. The other man, the neighbor, yelled at them.
Hal turned to this intruder. “Hrm?”
“Is that your drone?”
Hal grunted. “Technically, yes.”
Hal went to shut his door, but the neighbor put a hand on the door, holding it open.
“Then why was it in my apartment?”
“Hrmm. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.“
Hal again tried to shut his door, but the man held on. “Don’t you gotta have a license or something? Where’s your license, man?”
Jay hovered above Hal’s shoulder, watching their exchange, his hope rising. He zoomed past Hal’s head, and bashed the neighbor in the face, running his rotor against his nose. The man screamed.
Jay dropped and zipped back through Hal’s legs. The man lunged at Hal forcing the door open and pushing into the living room after Jay.
Hal’s face was furious. “Get out!” He screamed. “Get out or I will call the police!”
The neighbor shoved Hal aside. Jay zipped through the kitchen, the neighbor chasing him. He rounded the fridge and zoomed into the short hall. Jay hit his voice module again.
“Follow me. Follow me.”
He heard the neighbor mutter. “Yeah, I’ll follow you.”
Behind them, Hal was stamping a foot and screaming, “Get out!”
The door to Liz’s room was opened a crack. Jay turned sideways and flew inside. The neighbor burst past, throwing open the door. He froze, looking down at Liz’s bed. His face went pale. When he spoke, it was a whisper.
“Man. What… the… fuck.”
Hal stumbled into the room. “She’s sick. Hrm. She’s my sister. Hrm. Please don’t touch her.”
The neighbor stared at the black helmet that absorbed Liz’s head. “Why is her face covered in that?”
“To protect her. She has cancer. Leave, please. Hrm. She needs rest.”
The neighbor stared. Jay zoomed into Hal’s face.
“Halt! You’re under arrest. You’re under arrest.”
Hal snatched Jay out of the air. Jay beat his rotor blades into Hal’s hands and Hal held him out, snapping off his rotor. Jay fell to the carpet, immobile, repeating:
“You’re under arrest. You’re under arrest.”
The neighbor slowly shook his head.
“This isn’t right, man.”
“Hrmm, you’re trespassing in my house.”
The neighbor shook his head again. “I think I need to call the police. This isn’t right.”
The neighbor pulled up his wrist and tapped rapidly tapped on a watch. Hal grabbed the neighbor’s wrist.
“This is none of your business!”
The neighbor grabbed Hal’s hand and spun Hal around. Hal’s eyes bulged in pain and he gasped.
“I’m making it my business. Don’t touch me, man.” The neighbor moved past Hal and, leaned over the bed, whispering. “Miss? Can you hear me?”
The neighbor loosened the strap under Liz’s helmet.
“Don’t take that off!” Hal screamed. The neighbor ignored him.
From where he was, Jay couldn’t see Liz’s face, but one of her arms lifted up. The neighbor held it, pulling her gently up by the elbow. She sat up, eyes blinking in the light. Jay tried to call out to her, but couldn’t activate his voice module.
The man gently took her hand, and Liz stepped unsteadily out of the bed. Her hair was streaked grey, and Jay could see—even from a distance—her eyes blink, adjusting.
“Jay? Are you there?”
Jay tried to call out, but nothing came now.
Hal picked himself off the floor. He was muttering.
“This is trespassing! The very definition. You’re all under arrest. You’re all in big, big trouble.”
The neighbor ignored him, helping Liz hobble from her bed. As the neighbor passed Hal, Hal shrunk back against the wall, fearful. Jay saw Liz glance down on him. A flash of recognition passed over her face. She pressed into her neighbor’s arm.
“Oh, here. Help me, quick.” Liz hobbled down the hall, leaning on the man. Jay could hear their muffled voice in the office.
“”Jay! It’s off now. The deletion’s done”
Jay relaxed. It was out of his hands. The battery light on his dashboard blinked steadily, then drifted out. His mind powered back down into blackness.