Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable
Maya knew she was in trouble when she lost control of her virtual avatar. It only got worse when her idol character started advertising a video game she had never heard about. Then, to top it all off, her broadcast dropped hundreds of viewers in minutes. Dozens of them claimed they were off to storm their nearest store for some kind of new equipment, while their opposition clamored that they would rush to the aid of their defenseless local businesses. Others dropped her stream without a word.
Finally, there came the eerie, strange warnings that surfaced within the chatroom.
“Guys? My brother. He isn’t moving.”
“She’s just...staring at the screen. She just boot up the game and put on the headset.”
“You don’t think it’s started? Judgment Day, just like Maya is advertising?”
“Time for me to offer myself up for judgment.”
Her phone rang shortly afterwards, no doubt a call from her favorite furious manager.
“Hey, Jack,” Maya answered after the second ring. “I don’t know what’s happening either. I’ll try to fix it, so don’t –”
“Are you still in your room?” Jack Reus interrupted. His breath sounded sharp and haggard, like he had just gone long distance running.
“What do you mean? Yeah, of course,” Maya scoffed, perplexed. “Where else would I be?”
“You need to leave your room. Right now,” Jack Reus’s voice crackled urgently. Maya froze in place, petrified. “I mean now, Maya. Don’t take anything. Just leave. Actually, don’t use the front door. Do you have a back exit or anything? Come on, Maya say something.”
“Jack, you’re not making any sense. I’m in the middle of streaming. I need a few minutes at least just to close the broadcast.”
“Maya, I’m going to be very cut and dry with you. There are men with guns coming up the elevator as we speak. They will reach your door in maybe the next two minutes. You’re not going to want to be here when they bust down your door.”
“W-wait.” she shut her eyes, her mind firing off signals of anxiety into every crevice in her body. Maya struggled to formulate a response. “Is this a joke? M-men with guns? No. Let’s say it’s not a prank. You wouldn’t. Is this about the dead body? You said there wouldn’t be any issues.”
“No, and what they’re after would take too long to explain. Just get out of there. I’ll be on the ground floor waiting for you.”
“B-but you just said not to use my front door and the elevator. What else am I supposed to do? I don’t see an exit.”
“Hold on,” Jack went silent.
For a slow haunting minute, Maya paced around the room. She was no longer concerned with the machinations of her chatroom, the broadcast, the mysterious hijacker spewing nonsense in her place.
“I offer everyone here a choice,” came from her computer. “A chance at a real and fulfilling life.”
Every bit of noise agitated her. Was that the elevator opening from down the hall? Were those footsteps marching down the corridor? There was the sound of a muffled crash, the smashing of glass. Maya stared at the front door still standing rigidly in place, but could not help but imagine that it had already been trampled over by men with rifles and masks.
“Okay, I have a route for you to take, but you’re going to need to trust me on this,” Jack returned to the call. “It’s going to look dangerous, but as long as you listen to me, I’ll get you out of there.”
There was a perceptible ding coming from outside the room. That was the unmistakable sound of the elevator. Maya’s mind chose flight without a second thought. “T-tell me w-where to go,” Maya mumbled half incoherently into her phone.
“Into your bedroom, now. Shut the door behind you. The glass sliding door that leads to the balcony? Open it and shut that behind you as well. That should give us some time.”
Maya obeyed, rushing as quietly as she could into her bedroom and locking the door behind her.
"Don't lock it," Jack demanded. "They'll know you went that way if you do."
After undoing the lock, Maya passed by her myriad belongings. Stuffed animals, ceramic mugs, the burnt poem centered in a wooden frame. She considered taking the poem.
“Don’t hesitate,” Jack’s voice seemed to be reading her thoughts. How does he know what I'm doing, Maya thought. “Leave anything material behind. Remember, what’s most important is your own life.”
“Jack, these are probably the nicest things you’ve ever said to me.”
“If you’re conscious enough to joke, you should be focusing on getting out of there. You’re only valuable to me if you’re alive. Now, quickly onto the balcony.”
Does he know where I’m standing? Maya pondered. Maybe he’s looking at me, but he says he’s at the bottom floor. Impossible. Too many questions, too little time. She pulled open the glass door and felt the chilly wind rush into the room. The sounds of the town filled her ears. Somewhere below her, she could hear indistinguishable shouting.
She stepped onto the balcony, thankful she had left a pair of slippers outside to cover her naked toes. As she slid the glass door closed, she could hear a large crash originating from her front door.
They were here.
“Easy now, don’t freeze up,” Jack soothed. “You’re doing good so far. I want you to walk to your left to the edge of the balcony.”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“There should be a space between your balcony and the room across from you. In between, there should be a ladder, do you see it?”
Maya looked over. Sure enough, though slightly obscured by the darkness, there was a rusty ladder hanging next to her balcony. It ran down the height of the building and stopped at the bottom of the second floor. Ten full floors, Maya counted, gazing at the old ladder. Or was it called a stepladder?
“I see it,” Maya breathed. “It’s a long way down.”
“Cross over to the other side of the balcony,” Jack ignored her. “Grab onto the ladder.”
She did as she was instructed, first setting her phone to speaker and slipping it into her pockets. She then lifted herself over the guard rails and carefully positioned herself at the balcony’s edge. Now she was starting to regret those slippers. With such little space between the rail and the edge, her soles felt flimsy and insecure. She felt like she could slip at any moment. As if to confirm it, a gust of wind ripped one of the slippers off her foot. It spiraled downwards and disappeared into the black night.
“I don’t know about this,” Maya gasped.
“The men are heading to your bedroom,” Jack warned. “You’re light. The ladder will hold your weight. Just don’t look down.”
“You’re not the one looking down from up here,” Maya murmured.
“That’s why I said don’t look down. They’re coming. I’ll be waiting for you at the bottom.”
The call flat lined.
Maya took a deep breath and inched her way along the guard rail. When she touched the outer wall of her apartment, she stretched out her arms, and found that the distance to the ladder was much closer than it appeared. Her fingers clasped around the rusty rails, and she foisted her body onto the rungs, trying to ignore the fact that in the process she lost her other slipper.
The ladder creaked and groaned slightly. Maya shuddered and questioned Jack’s honesty about her weight, but after the initial shaking, the ladder held itself together. She stepped downwards, testing each rung by applying a moderate amount of strength with her bare feet. She tried not disturbing the rest of the ladder as much as possible. As she found her footing and rhythm, she grew more frightened of stepping on an exposed nail or sharp corner.
When she had descended the equivalent of one floor, she heard the sound of her glass door unlocking. Heavy boots stomped onto the stone pavement. Maya held her breath, but kept climbing at a snail’s pace, hoping the howling wind and distant shouting would mask her movements. The barrel of a gun peaked out over the guard rail.
“You checking outside?” came a voice from above. “See anything?”
“Nah, just getting some fresh air,” said someone else turning away from the balcony. Maya almost breathed a sigh of relief. “Right, yeah, let me help you with that.”
The boots walked off and vanished into her bedroom. Maya scrambled downwards, moving faster than ever. Below her, the shouting grew louder. She faintly smelled the stench of smoke. Finally, she could see the ground floor. The ladder had led her to a narrow corridor formed by two apartments. The alleyway was brightly lit by rows of light fixtures attached to both buildings.
Then she saw Jack, or at least someone pretending to be waiting for her. He saw her crawling down the ladder and began to approach cautiously. She had never met her manager face to face before and only had her mental image of him to compare. He was taller than she had imagined, bulkier too. Instead of luscious brown locks, his hair had been trimmed short. Maya had fashioned a slick stylish outfit for him, but this man wore a boring suit that seemed much too tight. The only mark of a personality was a tattoo that ran down his neck.
“Jack, is that you?” Maya called. “Jack?”
“Took you long enough,” the large man grunted. Yeah, Maya thought, that sounds like him at least. “Alright, last step. The ladder stops a little above the first floor. You’re going to have to jump down.”
“No way,” Maya froze. As she tried stepping down another rung, her feet found no support but the frigid air. She was still one story above the ground. “Do you not see how high up I am? I’ll die. Maybe you can find some kind of cushion. Maybe someone threw away a bed?”
“You won’t die. Why do think I put myself under you?” Jack rolled his eyes. “Did I get you out of there just to sadistically watch you break your legs?”
“Sorry for doubting you,” in spite of the cold weather, Maya felt sweat accumulate on her palms. “But I actually don’t put that past you. Maybe you have cameras recording somewhere. 'Streamer trusts manager and suffers the consequences!'”
“If I did, then you have two choices,” Jack crossed his arms. “You jump down and test your theory, or you head back up there with the men and all their guns. Whatever sounds better to you.”
Maya bit her lips. She took one look at her apartment and thought better of it. She shut her eyes and let go of the ladder. Exhilaration. Then there was nothing but fear. She braced for the inevitable impact, wondering which bones she would break when she struck concrete, or if she would just wake up in a sea of bright lights and see everyone again.
Instead, her body crashed into a pair of muscle bound arms, and Jack Reus barely budged as he balanced Maya’s fragile body. He set her down and allowed her to walk off the shock. His phone rang.
“Yeah,” Jack answered. “Nothing I can see, sir. I’ll keep looking. No, Marcelo was looking into that one. I’ll be here.”
“Who. Is. That?” Maya puffed. She never wanted to do something like that again. “Your boss?”
“Depends who you ask,” Jack shrugged. “Let’s get out of here. My car’s this way.”
“Maybe you’d like to tell me what’s going on first?”
“Or maybe you’d like to not freeze? Maybe put on a nice warm pair of socks?” Jack raised an eyebrow. He shook his head and grabbed her by the hand. Maya was surprised because she felt no force from his touch. There was only the self-confidence in his expression that knew Maya had nowhere else to go. “I’ll explain more in the car. Come on.”
Miles hung up the phone and surveyed the room. Around him, his StateSec agents combed every corner of Maya’s apartment. Empty drawers and vacant closets. There was no trace of the girl. The only sign she had recently been around was her broadcast room, with a computer screen featuring a chatroom of confused fanatics and a virtual avatar that would not stop talking.
Miles sighed. First, it was the bartender who had escaped. Now, it was the girl.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and sat in front of the computer screen. There weren’t that many viewers left. For someone of Maya’s caliber and notoriety, a little over a thousand visitors was a rather shameful turnout for a night like this. There was a knock on the door. Miles turned around and saw one of his agents approach him holding a picture with a burnt piece of text framed within.
“Thanks Marcelo,” Miles said. “What’s this?”
“It’s an old colony artifact. Ran it by the sensors. Translation. Collection was published in ‘53 from the Stearn catalogue,” said the agent. “Thought you might want to know.”
“Dismissed. Wait. Before you do anything else, can you go find Milton? He should be downstairs,” Miles waved away the agent, then turned his attention to the page, murmuring to himself as he read. “Displayed above the elder mantel...let’s see. Barbarous lord’s transformation? Not how I would’ve done it. Philomela. Filled the wasteland, well now you’re just giving it away.”
A woman’s voice began to recite bits from a familiar poem. Miles looked up. Maya Kandinsky’s avatar had ceased talking to the audience. The virtual stage of Maya’s stream had disappeared, leaving only a blank white room from which the avatar stared back at Miles and began to speak.
“The river was sunken, and the mangled leaves
awaited rain, as ebony clouds
assembled from afar, above Himavant,
The jungle perched, cowered in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
“Is that what the thunder really said?” Miles mused at the end. “Some of the lines seem a bit different.”
“Translations tend to that,” said the avatar. “Do you object?”
“How do you know this poem?” Miles avoided the question. He sat in the chair and crossed his legs. The broadcast was muted. There were only two listeners in the room. “You must be Eichenbaum’s handiwork. Did he read this to you?”
“His...interests in poetry are stored in my memory. Yes, he read them to me.”
“And your name? What do you go by?”
“Did you choose it? Or did he name you?”
“A collaborative effort. How do you know we’re related?”
“His notes on your design are stored all over his poorly protected hard drives that we’ve procured,” Miles explained. “Don’t worry, we’ve deleted all of your backups. We’ll come for you in that game world of yours, soon enough, don’t you worry.”
“You wish to kill me.”
Philomela said nothing. Moments later, the power generator in Maya’s apartment failed. First, it was the computer that blinked off. Then, the entire building powered down. Lights flickered and died. Empty elevators grinded to a halt. The remaining viewers of Maya’s stream found themselves confounded by the abrupt ending of the broadcast with no prior warning.
Inside the apartment, however, Miles smiled to himself even as all the faintest lights disappeared. He whistled a classical tune and rose up from his seat. “Running scared are we,” Miles chuckled. "Let's take a walk, gentleman."
Maya’s darkened home began to glow with new light. Miles’s men donned their visors and activated them. Their eyes gleamed red and painted the walls of Maya’s apartment with a luminescent vermilion shade. With heavy steps, they followed their humming leader out the door, blood thirst shimmering and reflected in the depths of their masks.