Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable
Within minutes of its deployment, Miles could not imagine a universe where Edge was not at his disposal. The mesmerizing sensation of wonder, like the moment a child discovers their reflection in the mirror, deafened Miles to some of his immediate surroundings. For instance, he completely forgot his second in command had vanished.
At the touch of a button, his data pad displayed the location of every real human in his vicinity. The masks worn by his StateSec agents had also been adjusted to detect Edge’s special transmission frequency that tethered itself to fully organic bodies.
On every block, he heard his repeated message warning of an imminent curfew ringing on people’s phones. To his dismay, few of them seemed to listen. Some even mocked the sound of his voice. While it was not his goal to cleanse everyone on the streets tonight, Miles could not summon a shred of sympathy for those could not appreciate the sacred gifts they had been endowed with.
So be it, he thought. There will be collateral damage tonight.
Miles and his agents trailed the immense marching mob by several city blocks, scanning through pedestrians for those not in possession of an Edge token. The first to die were the loitering stragglers, who hung around broken storefronts chatting among one another. Quiet and discreet, the silenced muzzles of Miles’s agents were drowned by the ferocious chants and bellows of the massive crowd ahead of them. Dozens of bodies littered the pavement before anyone noticed.
The next group to be purified were the ones who fled, especially those who stumbled in the direction of the ocean of people massing towards the center of the city. Some of these victims were innocent. Miles prayed for the absolution of souls who had been too stupid to heed his warning.
“Don’t move!” Miles implored the remaining survivors. “If you’ve received a message concerning the Edge Protocol, you will be spared. Please do not be worried. Good, good. Some of you seem to understand. Oh, no. See what happens to those who don’t? Stay put, and I can guarantee your safety. Alright now gentlemen, dispose of the impure.”
Finally, there was the matter of the immobilized bodies that lined the sidewalks. Their faces remained concealed by electronic helmets. At first, Miles considered eliminating anyone who had dared to experience the artificial distortion of that digital world. Furthermore, the need to slow down the growing intelligence lurking in that blasphemous game world also played into his murderous calculus. However, within his insane spiritual fanaticism, Miles rediscovered a sliver of his own humanity.
Who am I to be the sole arbitrator, Miles pondered. Surely the old ones will want to cast judgment independent of myself.
“Tag them,” Miles barked. “Leave the ones who possess Edge alone. They’ll face judgment eventually. Purge the rest.”
At the next big intersection, Miles spotted a moving convoy of unmanned vehicles. The convoy featured a blend of taxis, vans, and buses. They paid no attention to the violence and moved in the opposite direction of the crowd just a few blocks ahead.
There was a woman bouncing alongside the self-driven cars. Miles recognized that face. He glanced at his data pad just to double check. Sure enough, the woman was not in possession of an Edge token. As he looked back at her, he watched her argue with herself. Her voice oscillated between feeble intonations befitting of a senior citizen and the harsh acerbic cadence of some of Miles’s superiors.
“I’m telling you. We should keep following them. They’re headed toward the bridge at the outskirt of the city,” she pleaded. “No. We’re not headed that way. I’m not leaving town. Why don’t we make plans, you know, as a team? We’re not a team. You’re a parasite. Biologically, that means we still have a relationship. Shut up!”
“I’ll have to deal with that lazy hitman later,” Miles sighed, reaching into his coat. That man had allowed a cybernetic schizophrenic to walk loose in the streets. Unforgivable. “I’ll take care of this myself.”
For the second time that night, Miles drew his sidearm. He trained it on the woman’s head and fired. The shot slammed into her forehead and knocked her head back. The metal casing shattered on impact, but then the rest of the cartridge crumpled against an impenetrable surface like a flattened paper bag. What was left of the pitiful bullet dropped to the pavement with a mellow clang. The force of the collision had thrown the woman off balance. But as she cocked her head back into place, she appeared otherwise unharmed.
“Why can’t anybody ever just die,” Miles muttered.
“Ow! Why the hell are you equipped with pain receptors,” the woman howled. “Oh, I don’t know? Maybe so I know when I’ve been hit by a bullet! Touché, but did you have to calibrate them that highly? Oh, I’m sorry, is the old mad scientist hurting? Would you like me to rub where it hurts? Or would you like me to kill the man who has a death wish? No, no, I’ll leave it all to you. I’ll shut up now.”
The woman’s eyes then darted over to Miles. In spite of his spiritual discipline, Miles felt his blood run cold. In an instant, an air of recognition settled over her expressions. She relaxed, as if no longer threatened. The corner of her synthetic lips twisted in devilish ways, her eyes widened with blood lust, and her fingers pulsated with impatience.
“Ah. It’s the StateSec fanatic that Milton runs around with like some guard dog,” April June grinned. She swiped the bullet’s remains from her forehead. “You know, he told me not to touch you. Told me you’re a valuable control asset for the Plan. Secretly, I think he feared you. But it looks like he’s not around to protect you right now. Oh, I am going to enjoy tearing you apart.”
Miles didn’t bother entertaining her threat with a response. Instead, he whistled a calm children’s medley and his closest agents assembled around him. Even surrounded by his private army, however, Miles found himself all of a sudden unnerved. An unbridled demon festered in April June’s eyes. That lurking presence towered over his wolves, whose scarlet eyes seem faded in comparison.
“Make sure there’s nothing left, then be on your way,” he ordered, then disappeared behind the pack. Miles’s agents raised their rifles and opened fire. A hysterical cackle roared above the turbulent metal storm and struck Miles once again with indelible fear. Without turning around to look, he picked up the pace, running down the street at full sprint.
“Where are you taking me?” was Maya’s first question after they sped away in Jack’s car. She rubbed the soles of her freezing feet. Jack handed her an oversized pair of woolen socks.
Maya’s apartment grew smaller in the distance. The van swerved and honked, avoiding frequent jaywalking pedestrians holding weapons that had been fashioned from home appliances. The sidewalks were bustling with activity, and Maya spotted more than a couple individuals lying prone in awkward poses.
On the other hand, Jack Reus didn’t know how to answer Maya’s question. Far away was perhaps the best option, and it was also the truth, but she wouldn’t be satisfied by that. She would want to know where, and Jack couldn’t afford to divulge that information. It’s best to lie, Jack thought.
“Somewhere safe from those men,” Jack spoke a half lie. A little more believable.
“Who are they?”
“They were government agents, scary folk,” Jack said. “Don’t worry, it’s probably not about showing all that stuff on the broadcast.”
“Probably?” Maya raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you know the real reason? You knew they were coming before they arrived. How else would I have managed to escape?”
She’s got you there, Jack thought. What do you have to say to that?
“I…got a tip,” Jack shrugged, surprised that it was technically the truth. “I was never given the precise reason. And even if I was, I must have not paid attention to any of it. Had to get you out of there, you know.”
Maya seemed satisfied by the explanation. She knew she was valuable after all. She turned away from Jack and leaned her cheek against the window. Her breath fogged up the glass, her meandering eyes perusing the crowded sidewalks. Broken windows and battered cars. Muffled mocking. She stared closer at the immobilized individuals and noticed the virtual reality helmets that they all were wearing.
“There are so many people on the streets tonight. Did I cause this?” she murmured, connecting the dots. “All this looting. The frozen people too. You said they would never leave their mothers’ basements. Look at them now. There are so many, doing what I feared they would do.”
“It’s not your fault,” Jack replied. He tried approaching the subject from a different angle. “Maybe I was wrong about these people, but honestly that makes them worse, don't you think? You can’t blame yourself for people buying into some lunatic’s fantasy. Conspiracies are for entertainment. You joke, you have fun, you move on to the next one. Everyone knows that.”
“I don’t think I can handle streaming again after this.” Maya cried, cradling her face in her hands. “This is all wrong.”
For the first time that night, Maya refused to act as Maya Kandinsky, the effervescent streamer personality. Maya Kandinsky, who only shed tears of joy on behalf of her viewers, her fans, her supporters. Instead, she implored her memory to search for the reclusive name buried in her heart. Yes, that name she possessed years and years ago.
There existed ephemeral images, nothing concrete that could be strung together. A collection of poems gifted to her. Faded pigments on the statues at the natural science museum. Constellations hanging above the observatory. A ride home on a school bus. That bus was an older model, back when they still had real drivers. Annabel on the other side of the aisle. The orphan boy sat besides her. They all crossed that bridge together. What was his name? Nameless. Just like her.
“We’ll come up with another name or something, another avatar even,” Jack interrupted her train of thought. “With the technology these days, you can become a whole other person. I’ll even switch up some of your catch phrases, maybe modify your opening scripts too to throw off those obsessed linguists...”
Jack’s voice trailed off as Maya finally realized where they were headed. They had arrived on a bridge at the edge of the city. A dark stagnant lake rested below the bridge. Rows of empty taxis parked on either side of the bridge. On a night like this, it was impossible to tell what lay on the other side, but Maya acutely recollected small details from her memory.
"Don't I know this place?" Maya whispered.
Jack didn't respond.
She saw a vast desert and tumbleweeds, faded wooden signs with cryptic epithets, silver coins, all under the embrace of starless nights. Then, if one ventured far enough, there was an oasis of metal. The forged smile of a bus driver. Sanitized clean rooms and dead children visited by a sorrowful angel.
Maya blinked. A woman wearing a black sundress stood directly in front of the moving van.
“Look out!” Maya screamed. Jack saw her too.
Jack yanked on the steering wheel. The car lurched to the side and veered into an adjacent lane just in time to miss the pedestrian. The woman did not budge. Jack spun the wheel the other way and slammed the breaks. Maya jolted around in her seat and experienced the uncomfortable sensation of endless falling.
The car tires screeched. Skid marks traced the car’s erratic trajectory as it swerved and finally ground to a halt. The passenger door besides Maya just faintly grazed the rough cement center divider. The woman in the black sundress turned to face them.
“Hey, are you trying to get killed out here?” Jack yelled as he exited the car. “Maya, stay in there. What the hell were you thinking?”
“Please have Milena exit the vehicle,” commanded the woman in the black sundress, disregarding Jack's aggressive accosting.
Milena? Maya's heart stopped at the sound of that name. Is she talking about me?
“I’m afraid you have the wrong person,” Jack raised an eyebrow. “This is...my daughter. Her name –”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Mr. Reus. Or, if you’d like, I can call you Milton?” the woman placed a finger on her chin. “Or was it Mr. Caulfield? The one watching the children? The one the children trusted? You have so many faces, Milton. Let’s go with Milton. Milton. I wonder how many layers of alloy I will need to rip through before I see your true name.”
“Stay in the car, Maya,” Jack, or was it Milton now, whispered. “She’s nuts. She must be working for the government. Another agent.”
“If you would like to know my name, Milena,” she called out to Maya. “Milena! It’s Erin. I’m a humble owner of an automated taxi service. I remember the others too. Joshua. Annabel. Cain.”
“Jack,” Maya whimpered. Those names. They sounded familiar. “What’s she talking about? My head hurts.”
“Of course it hurts! Mine does too. Just listen to her,” Mr. Milton rolled his eyes. “Does any of it make any sense to you?”
“How long have you used her as a social opiate for the Plan? Why was she wielded tonight as a spark that starts a wildfire? Was the course of the Plan in jeopardy, I wonder?” Erin asked. She smirked. Milton’s sudden shaken eyes betrayed his otherwise unflappable façade. “Oh yes, Milton. I'm aware of the Plan. I’m not aware of all the contingencies of course. I’m just here for that one.”
Milton settled himself and took a few deep breaths. He processed the new threat in front of him.
“If you’re aware of the Plan, then you're a potential deviation,” Maya watched as Milton’s expression darkened. The man unfurled the top button of his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. From the insides of his blazer, Milton drew a combat knife and a submachine gun. “I can wipe Maya’s memories at any time, but you cannot be allowed to leave.”
Maya’s head spun in confusion. Memory wipe. Deliberate erasure. Failed trial number twenty thousand, six hundred, and seventy two. Personality matrix reset. Maybe try singing next time.
Erin, on the other hand, simply sighed. Behind her, the engine of a nearby taxi roared to life.
“I must say, I don’t like making a habit of requesting it when one’s fate is still uncertain,” Erin shrugged. The headlights of more vacant taxis on the bridge flickered on. Motors in the distance rumbled. Erin’s eyes glimmered with cold calculated loathing. “But for you I shall make a notable exception.”
A hologram flashed in front of Milton. The bright glare broke Maya out of her trance. Where the radiant sapphire glow originated from, Milton couldn’t tell. Satellite transmission? Beam emitters lodged beneath the bridge?
The hologram’s amorphous contours transformed into the visage of a sepia leather bound book adorned with crisp thin pages. The book flipped open to the page bookmarked by a red ribbon strapped to the spine. A feathered quill lodged between the pages arose and floated above the book, dripping with an infinite supply of digital ink.
The page in front of Milton was blank.
“Go ahead and write it down, Mr. Reus. Milton. Whatever else you’ve called yourself all these long years,” Erin gestured to the hologram.
“Hand over your death sentence.”