2858 words (11 minute read)


There’s not much time to contemplate the mysterious and terrifying SIM appearance of Mateo. After a brief visit to the medical wing for a scolding by Nurse Esperanza, I skip dinner and make my annual pilgrimage to the non denominational chapel Prothero erected on the Fort Columbia base. It was constructed within the last five years and the walls and floors retain a fresh chemical smell I associate with military installations. 

An ordained priest leads services here twice a week, Wednesdays and Sundays. A rabbi Thursdays and Saturdays. They both commute in from Portland by train. The Buddhist monk sleeps in the only quarters the chapel provides. He performs all the other services, maintains the building, makes sure to douse the candles in the evenings. 

I’ve only passed these doors half a dozen times. There are a few times of the year where I need solace. I find it here. Amongst the smell of fresh paint and treated wood and the streaming false winter sunshine from the floor length windows. The church is mostly glass. The Prothero government has reservations about surveillance cameras in churches, but people in glass chapels can’t hide.  

I pull the door open and the quiet assaults my senses first. Anywhere else on Fort Columbia there is always noise. Coughing, snoring, chattering, rustling. The sound of water flowing through pipes and floors, the hum of electricity, doors closing and opening, footsteps in the hallways. 

In the Chapel it’s silent. The steps of my booted feet are loud and disruptive to the peace. I survey the room. A wooden confessional with decorative panel doors is built into the left wall. An image of Jesus Christ crucified on the cross hangs on the wall behind a raised stage and podium. To my right is a basin of holy water and behind that, tucked into the wall is a display of white candles, with eight rows and ten candles in each row. A sprinkling of candles are lit and the tiny flames dance, their spark reflected on the glass around them. 

I side-step the holy water basin and move towards the illuminated wall. My business here will be brief. I try to avoid seeing the priest or rabbi or monk whenever I make a quick jaunt in. I don’t want to hear from or about God. I just want to light a candle.

I’m about to pick up the incense burner when the door behind me whooshes open on its well-oiled hinges. I turn as a familiar, stooped shape enters. I spin away, flipping the hood up over my head. I hear him stride to the basin, the soft plink of his fingers dipping into the liquid, the rustling of his clothing as he makes the sign of the cross, and moves into the pews. He takes a seat on the sparse wooden bench. I let out a watery sigh and grab the incense, setting it against the wick of a candle. It sparks.

I rifle in my pocket and pull out a letter from one of the weirdos. The people who remember the anniversary just like I do. They remind me I am loved and cared about by complete strangers who sympathize with my plight. I touch the incense burner to the bottom of the letter and a flame catches, crackles and licks up the paper material. I watch it burn and feel nothing but the gravity of Rabbit Santiago watching me across the distance. 

“What are you doing?” He asks while flames consume all those senseless, comforting words, turning them to ashes. Finally the fire touches my fingers and I close my palm around it fast. It burns.

“Stop. Stop!” Santiago calls out, scrambling out of the pew, down the short hallway and over to the basin. He grabs my hand and, with no other option available, dips it into the holy water. 

Another sigh escapes me as the cool liquid counteracts the false pain. The scorched skin isn’t real, but my brain tells me it is. The nanos send the warning signals and the heat registers in my phantom limb. 

“What are you doing?” He asks again, visibly dismayed at the fouled holy water in the marbled basin. 

“Minding my own damn business,” I answer, pulling my hand away from him and jamming it in my pocket. There’s another letter in there from another secret admirer who refuses to forget the past.

“Not wanting to die in a fire kinda makes it my business.”

Fair point.

“I get these letters once a year. I don’t like them. So I burn them,” I say, narrowing my eyes at him. 

“Not that you asked my opinion, but it doesn’t seem like a great ritual.”

Another fair point.

“I’ve never seen you at Mass. Didn’t realize you were religious,” Santiago tips his head towards the sparse, cavernous ceiling. 

“I’m not.” 

“So you hang out in churches burning letters for fun?” He asks, the ghost of a smile haunting his lips. 

“No. Just once a year. The day my parents died.”

The smile drops off his face.

I’m not sure why I tell him this. Maybe it’s the loneliness in my chest, the emptiness of the chapel, the confessional mood all these religious trappings inspire. 

Or maybe it’s Santiago. Santiago who I’ve been trusting with my virtual life for the last five months. Santiago who I see almost everyday. Santiago, the patron saint of confined spaces and fighter pilot simulations.

“The Paris bombing,” he says. 

“It’s not exactly something you forget.”

I retrieve my burnt hand from the pocket, studying it. It’s raw, but the wounded flesh heals itself, the nanos stitching the pale pseudo dermis back together with swiftness and precision that could only be engineered by man and carried out by robots. 

“Not something you forget,” Santiago echoes. The weight of his gaze burns on my cheeks but I don’t lift my head. 

“What are you in for?” I ask, nodding towards the front of the church, changing the subject. “You don’t seem religious either.” 

“My mom, she guilts me. Sent me a wave today reminding me about mass and I haven’t gone in a couple weeks. I told her I’d go today and we synched our bands for the same time. It’s kinda like being in the same place. The same time zone ...” He shrugs and fires off a loose smile, letting it hang in the air like the end of his sentence. 

“What time zone is your Mom in?” I ask. “North America?” 

“A little further than that,” He does this stupid nose wrinkle. Another facial expression I haven’t seen from him before. “A lot further, actually. Haven’t seen her in five years.”

“Do you miss her?”

“Of course I do. Not like you miss your parents. Is that why- because today is-”

His voice trails off again. He’s probably asking about my breakdown in the SIM. It didn’t occur to me the two might be related. But it’s not a bad supposition. 

“I saw what I saw.” I sidestep the basin between us and move past him. “I’m not crazy.”

“Don’t. You don’t need to go,” he says, holding out a hand to stop me. It does. Stops me right in my tracks. “You haven’t finished burning things.”

He points down at the letter in my hand. A lopsided grin blooms on my lips, in spite of the anxiety pecking at my insides. The anxiety Santiago produces with his shaggy hair and big nose. 

“Cool. I’ll stay then. I promise I won’t try to light myself on fire,” I say.

“That’s reassuring. Is your hand OK?” He gestures toward the red, angry flesh rapidly losing its crimson color. The computer is almost repaired. 

“Yeah, it’s not like real pain. It’s simulated, the kind of sensory shock a droid might receive if it bumps into a wall,” I say.
“But you’re not a droid,” Santiago observes. 

It’s hard to tell if that’s a question or a statement.

“I’m not.”

“You’re not a droid.” Santiago holds up a closed fist and lifts one finger. “And you burn letters in churches.” He lifts another finger. “Now I know two things about Eleni Garza.”

He closes his fist back up and offers me a genuine smile. 

My metal heart shudders.

“Are you making a list?”
He chuckles quietly. “I am. It’s a pretty short list. You gonna finish those letters?” 

He taps on one of the paper envelopes.

“You didn’t even open this one,” he observes. 

“I don’t need to. They all say the same thing. Anniversary weirdos filled with useless pity. I don’t want their pity or their gifts. I just want to forget. So, I burn them.”

"Does it help you forget?" he asks.

"A little.”

“Does it help you feel?”

“A little. I told you, I don’t feel pain. Not the way you do." I pull the damaged hand from my pocket and hold it up for him to inspect. Nanos healed all the wounds. "Prothero took care of that for me."

His mouth twists and he reaches towards me with his long fingers, then draws them away as if he would be burnt himself. 

“Must be nice,” he says. “Not to feel anything.”

“You think so?” 

He frowns. “Maybe not.”

He moves to jam his hand in his pocket and I notice a beaded rosary bracelet cinched around his wrist. A tiny red cross dangles down between two white beads. A bolt of recognition shoots through me, but I can’t place it. Maybe because whenever we’re in close proximity he’s clothed in a uniform. But it looks so familiar, I must have seen it before and forgotten.

“What’s that?” I gesture towards the bracelet.

“It’s a rosary.” He tucks it down into his sleeve. “I wear it so I don’t forget to go to church and catch Garza trying to light herself on fire.”

"I guess it’s working then,” I say, our gazes drifting down to the letter. “You want to burn one?" 

He gives a reserved nod. I offer the letter to him. He accepts it with a rolling of his shoulders, as if a heavy weight pushes down onto him. I turn and grab a lit candle, touching it to the bottom of the page. It burns fast but he keeps his eyes locked on mine.The flames hit his skin and he curses under his breath in Spanish, dropping the letter. The paper ash drifts to the floor. He sucks the tip of thumb and forefinger to dull the pain, looking down at me with a little lift to his lips. My stomach dips unexpectedly. 

I turn to reset the candle into the display.

“Did you feel anything?” I ask, my back to him. 

“Yeah, I felt something,” He whispers. The emphasis on the final word, the emotion he imbues into those syllables makes the hairs on the nape of my neck tingle. I will myself not to turn around.

Again, the plink of his fingers dipping into the water. He performs the sign of the cross, moving to the entryway and down the row of pews. He stops to kneel and say a prayer in front of the crucifix. I watch him, compelled by his sincerity in these actions. 

The Buddhist monk enters from a side door and nods kindly at me. I don’t return the favor. Rabbit stirs and looks over at him, blinking. He wipes a palm across his face and rises from the ground. I take this opportunity to slip out the door.

In my dreams, I keep dying. By electrocution, by an explosion. I’m walking for miles down a sterile, white hallway similar to those in the Prothero lab where they rebuilt my broken body ... but it stretches on endlessly with hundreds of doors. Some open as I pass, revealing the horrors lurking inside. My dead parents, disfigured from the explosion, clothed in hospital scrubs hovering over my bloodied corpse on an operating table. Burnt and mutilated children, with the smell of fried flesh wafting towards me. Moaning, helpless victims of the nano virus, black veins tangled like roots in their skin. 

The sounds of chaos and suffering bounces off the walls and echoes down the corridor. Whispering, fuzzing voices... a high pitched whining sound and the crunch of static. The scent of copper, the taste of metal on my tongue, the tempo of the buzzing increases, until I have no other choice but to run. The end of the hallway holds the key to my salvation, if I can only reach it before the noises drowned me completely.

Overhead the fluorescents crackle and snap, the bulbs exploding as I pass, raining down glass and little sparks of electricity, landing on me like flakes of snow. They absorb into my skin, leaving a glowing blue residue in their wake. I run to avoid the mini explosions above, but escape is futile. My presence triggers them.

Up ahead, the door recedes no matter how fast I run, until there’s no other choice but to give up. I slump against a sterile white wall, closing my eyes in defeat. When I open them again, the door is right in front of me. I swipe my band across the security key to enter and the heavy metal door slides cleanly open, silencing all the sinister noise in my ears. The illumination spilling into the hallway blinds me, and I take the first step inside, shielding my face.

The room is huge, cavernous, a storage warehouse devoid of any items. My shuffling steps echo against the walls as I move further into the beam. A large platform rises in front of me, and on it rotates a massive metal ball riddled with microchips and wires. It is suspended in mid air of its own accord, there are no cables attached either above or below. I stumble towards it, drawn by its overwhelming size and the subtle shivering of the metal. It emits a pleasant calming hum, transfixing and compelling me forward.

I approach with caution, and though the room is too large for this to be a reality, I’ve only taken two or three steps before I’m at the base of the platform. I mount the stairs, and notice the entire platform is comprised of a similar material to the metal ball. It thrums and shudders beneath me, like a microscopic, violent earthquake. As I step down, the wires and coils trapped underneath and within the metal flare a vivid green and fade away. The platform senses and tracks my progress. 

I’m close now, I’ve nearly touched the surface of the ball when the humming turns to a scraping, grinding noise. The white hot light of the room shifts to a strangely familiar silvery blue. A window shutter to reveal a giant floating mechanical eye. In the center, the pupil, an orange pulse clicks on. Before I can scamper backwards, or run, or contemplate doing either of those things, the beam hammers into my stomach, knocking me off the platform. The room erupts in an electric pulse and the once pleasant humming of the metal ball becomes maddening. Pounding into my skull. Whispering nefariously at my ears.

A robotic, prosthetic arm reaches out from the center of the orb, the iris of the eye. The flesh of the limb is mottled with disease, crisscrossed with data chips and tiny veins of wires. Cybernetics. A fully realized merger of man and machine. But no, not man. This is the arm of a woman. My arm, the one Prothero gave me, palm open and grasping. Somehow, without mounting the steps, I’m standing back on the platform in front of the orb eye. I touch the chilled, synthetic skin. Its fingers lock around mine and pull me forward. I fall into the ball of energy and disintegrate instantly.

When I awake, I should feel fear or terror. Sweat cools on my brow, and the metal heart shivers in my chest. I push a tangle of hair out of my eyes, working to calm my ragged breathing. A warmth wraps around my wrist. Growing too hot and almost angry. My body is on high alert, but it’s not fear. Not fear.

I sink into relief, relaxing back into the pillows, pulling the covers over me. What is it? What is this warmth spreading in my chest like the exhalation of a breath I’ve trapped for too long. Like the hand trapped in the orb, begging for freedom from its prison. Freedom from its body. 

Or is it begging for freedom from something else entirely?

Am I?