Big Papa

Claims Department

The day has been saved, not because the better side won the battle, but because the more powerful side just gave up. They had given him so much trouble that he got sick of it, and decided to just let them go. He was in charge of over a hundred billion souls, in an afterlife simulation that he built, both long ago, and in the future. Resurrecting a few of them to get them off his back must have sounded like the easier option.
Missy, Tetra, Jeremy, Sanaa, and Angela are standing in a machine called the Nexus, which was capable of delivering them thousands of light years away, back to Earth where they belonged. Three of them have decided that Earth is not where they belong, however. “I’m not going,” Téa announces. “I must return to Tribulation Island in The Parallel, so I may one day be on Tribulation Island in this reality.”
“How will you get there?” I ask, concerned. Traveling between the two parallel realities is not something that just anyone can do. Someone with the power has to open a transition window.
On my way.” Jupiter Fury is the man capable of opening a window, but he is presently many light years away, and it will take him some time to reach this location. “I’ll get her where she’s goin’.
“What about you, Ellie?” Tetra asks.
“I’m going back to the matrioshka body,” I reply. “I helped come up with the original concept of the afterlife simulation, and I have to take responsibility for it, even if it means overthrowing the king.” I don’t know everything that went down, but my friends and I were in the midst of coming up with a way to go back in time and rescue every single human from their deaths, then upload their consciousness into a virtual construct, where they would never truly die. I got waylaid by a side mission, and never found out exactly what happened to my friends, but our frenemy, Tamerlane Pryce ended up co-opting the whole thing. He hasn’t done a bad job, but he doesn’t deserve the power, and I already know of a few changes I want to make to the simulation. It’s my birthright, and I’ll fight for it.
“Can I go too?” Lowell offers. Lowell was a serial killer when he was first alive, but he didn’t have the worst reason for it in the world. He was basically a superpowered version of Dexter, who could literally see the bad things that people around him had done. Like it would anyone, it made him crazy, and gave him the compulsion to do something about the things he saw. He sacrificed himself in an attempt to become the inside man in the rescue mission that has ultimately led to my freedom. Pryce gave him a new body, and stripped him of his psychic powers, so I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt, and let him start fresh. “I would really love to help. I need to do something positive with my life now that my curse is gone.”
“I would appreciate the company,” I say sincerely.
“I’ll go to Tribulation Island with Téa,” Missy steps out of the Nexus. “I don’t like the idea of her waiting here alone, and I feel like I’m meant to be there anyway.” She’s right. They both have a destiny, and it continues on that island. It’s located in a galaxy millions of light years from here, on a planet that enjoys a significant human population.
“Then I guess I’ll have to thank you now,” Sanaa says to Missy. The two of them have some kind of ever since unspoken burning hatred of each other, stemming from some incident that neither of them will actually talk about. No one seems to know what started this rivalry, but the irony is why Jupiter chose Missy to be part of the rescue mission. “Which I did, and it’s done, and now we can go. Boot it up, baby!”
“You’re welcome, Miss Karimi.” Missy says. It’s unclear how sincere she’s being.
“Just don’t ever let me see your face ever again. The temporal restraining order is hereby reinstated.”
With that, the Earth-bounders disappear.
Lowell and I then step back in. “Should we make a plan?” Lowell asks.
“Let’s just wing it.” I give him a wink, and an evil grin. Even though he’s trying to turn over a new leaf, I’m glad he’ll be with me, because I don’t plan on being delicate. If I have to take the afterlife sim by force, I will. We jump.

The Nexus technician steps out of her little booth, and approaches us. “You’ve returned. According to the historical records of our species, can I guess that you...forgot something? Perhaps your keys, that appears to be a common one.” She’s human, but a lot has changed since the days of forgetting one’s keys in the bowl by the door, or the refrigerator.
“We need to talk to someone regarding Tamerlane Pryce,” I explain.
“That is beyond my purview.”
“He stole my idea for the afterlife simulation, and he’s using matrioshka body resources to keep it running. I would like to assume operations of the simulation. Do you know who I could speak to about this? I must plead my case to whoever makes such decisions.” Pryce’s work is just a fraction of what the people living here do. The matrioshka body is the largest object in the galaxy. It would cover the distance from the sun to Uranus, and houses two stars that allow it to fly through interstellar space. It also hasn’t been invented yet, so at some point, they figure out how to send the whole thing to the past.
The tech tilts his head to calculate the response. She’s organic, but there’s no telling whether she has any transhumanistic upgrades, and if so, what kind. “Please step back down into the Nexus. I will transport you to the one-gee meeting section, and inform the necessary entity that you will be waiting for them. Time will be running at one-to-one while you remain inside.” The matrioshka body is located extremely close so Sagittarius A*, which is the black hole in the center of the galaxy. Time moves a hell of a lot slower than it does on Earth, but these people obviously have a way to manipulate that as needed.
Lowell and I step back down, and jump to a different part of the body. The egress technician says nothing, but gestures for us to leave the room. It’s clear that we’re meant to follow the hallway lights, which lead us to a beautiful botanical garden. An entity approaches after we enjoy the scenery for a few minutes. “My name is Aaaddffgacar, and I am responsible for Research Approval for Organic Entities. I hear you have a claim?”
“Yes, thank you for meeting with us,” That’s a hard name to pronounce.
“You may just call me Gacar.”
“Thank you, Gacar. Tamerlane Pryce runs the—or an, if such is the case—afterlife simulation. I’m the one who came up with the idea for it, and I believe I have the right to make decisions for it.”
“If you had to estimate the percentage your ideas were used in how the present-day simulation operates, what would you say?”
“My species is not good at coming up with such numbers,” I say, just to fill time while I come up with something reasonable.
“Twenty percent,” Lowell answers for me.
I give him a quizzical look.
He continues, “five people were involved in the conception and creation of the simulation: Ellie, Trinity, Abigail, Thor, and Abby’s father, Tamerlane. Assuming each contributed equally, that’s twenty percent. Without detailed data on exactly how the sim works, or meeting minutes for the discussions Ellie wasn’t around to participate in, we have to assume all five originators have equal stake. Equal partnership.”
“You are unaware what became of these three other people?” Gacar asks.
“No.” I don’t know if that hurts my case, or helps it.
Gacar considers the facts. “All this time, Pryce has enjoyed full control over his experiment. We have not interfered with this work, and have allocated all processing power that he has demanded. An auditor has been maintained throughout, but does not provide us with the details you seek, nor do we have any knowledge of meeting minutes, as you say. We can speak with this auditor, but if I were you, I would find at least one other founder to support your claims, otherwise, the math could get tricky. Intellectual property is a delicate subject. My species has trouble grasping the concept of an individual claiming ownership over anything, let alone ownership over people’s lives—”
“I claim no ownership over the people’s lives,” I interrupt. “In fact, it is my intention to bestow more free will upon them than Pryce gives.”
“I will reach out to the afterlife simulation auditor. I suggest you find your friends. If you do not, we can proceed with your case, but your claim will be weaker. I make no guarantees, regardless of what evidence you believe you have.”
“Thank you,” I say. “This place is lovely. Are there quarters nearby that we could use?”
“Follow the lights,” Gacar says, then walks away.
“Need some sleep?” Lowell asks nonjudgmentally.
“I prefer a quiet place to work. I’m going to eavesdrop on the conversation my friends had on Lorania after I left, and that’s best done without distractions.”
“Oh, okay.”
“You’ll be there too,” I explain before he starts thinking I want him to leave. “If there aren’t any distractions, then I could focus too hard, and get lost in the soundstream. You can be my anchor.” That’s not a thing, but I want him to feel valued, and involved.
“I’m honored.”
The lights have led us to a luxurious suite, full of everything a human could need to be comfortable. The matrioshka body has existed for thousands of years, and takes whatever resources it needs from whatever system it finds. Two showers, a four-person bathtub, an espresso machine; these all take so much less effort than they did for people in my time period. Whoever designed this section probably barely gave any thought to the logistics or cost, and probably finished the plans within one second. And this particular room has probably literally never been used before. There aren’t a lot of humans here, and the machines, of course, don’t need this kind of stuff.
Lowell sits down at the table. An envelope magically appears before him. “What’s this?” he asks.
“It’s for you,” I explain. “It’s an invitation to Mateo and Leona’s wedding. It happened in 2144.”
“That’s ten years from now,” Lowell says.
“The Mateo you met has already done all that, a while ago. Everyone Mateo or Leona meets, and becomes friends with, will end up at that wedding, whether it’s their past, their future, or a separate universe entirely. You recently became one of those people, so the invitation found you.”
“And I should go?” he questions.
“Yes, Lowell, you should go. Make yourself a nice suit in the industrial synthesizer first, though.”
“All right.” I can tell that he’s pretty nervous about it.
“There are forty-eight thousand people there,” I assure him. “No one will notice you. Just blend in with the crowd.”
I see the relief in his eyes. I help him pick out a suit, and then watch him activate the invitation transporter. He blinks away, and returns immediately. He’s no longer wearing the suit, and he looks rather tired.
“How was it? I never saw you when I was there.”
“I...” he looks around, paranoid. “I don’t remember. Was I gone? What am I wearing?”
“That’s...disconcerting. You don’t remember anything?”
“No, but I feel like time has passed, and I’m exhausted.”
“Sit back down,” I tell him. “I don’t know what happened to you. I can figure it out, but I really want to do my thing first. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. I’ll your anchor.”
“Great.” I remove my outer clothing, adjust the bed to a sitting-up position, and get in to begin summoning sounds from the past. It’s 2134, and I need to hear something that happened back in 2118.
“You have to get naked to eavesdrop on the past?”
“No, these clothes are just uncomfortable. I’m tired of wearing them,” I answer.
“I hear bras are pretty uncomfortable too.” He’s joking, but he’s also not.
I unclip my bra. “Very well.” Watching me listen to a conversation that he can’t hear will get boring, so if this is what he wants to pass the time, then whatever. I’m technically tens of thousands of years old, so I don’t care anymore. Plus, the face he makes when I do it—and he’s not sure how to react, because I haven’t actually given him permission to look, but I haven’t said not to either—is priceless. I grin and close my eyes to get to work.

Day Zero

I have the ability to teleport sound waves and brain waves. I can’t read people’s minds, but I can transfer a consciousness from one substrate to another. Is there something that connects these two kinds of waves? Are they just two sides of the same coin? I don’t know, that sounds crazy, so maybe I just have two completely unrelated time powers. I choose not to question it beyond those two possibilities. I’ve been developing my powers for millennia, and long ago, I figured out that I can listen in on a conversation that happened in the past, or even the future. I have to be careful not to step on any butterflies when I do this, and I generally don’t like to invade people’s privacy, but it has proven to be incredibly useful on many occasions. I have to find out what became of my friends after I left them sixteen years ago, and this is safer to the timeline than if I just went back to that moment, and interfered with them directly.
When Lowell was resurrected into a clone body, Tamerlane Pryce removed his power. He was born with the ability to see other people’s sins. He became a murtherous vigilante because of this, so being rid of it was actually a welcome relief. That’s not what I ever wanted for myself, so fortunately, Pryce didn’t remove what I could do. He’s not the worst person in the world, and if I can find a way to work with a serial killer, it’s not crazy to think that Pryce and I could come to some kind of agreement. I don’t want to kick him out of his job, but things have to change about the afterlife simulation, and I know he won’t do it on his own. No one—however noble they think they are—deserves to be solely responsible for over a hundred billion people.
I reach into the past, and even before I find the conversation I’m looking to eavesdrop on, I can tell that my powers are safe. This is the first time I tried them after being resurrected, so even though I could feel that they were still here, I couldn’t know for sure. It’s a great relief. I scour what I call the soundstream, and navigate all the way to Tribulation Island, in The Parallel reality, on July 3, 2218. You might think it’s weird that I can access a parallel reality, but it’s no further removed from my present-day than any other moment in time. The only reason I’ve never done it before is because I wasn’t aware that it existed until recently.
I’ve found them. Trinity, Abigail, and Thor are exactly where I left them. Though Past!Me is gone, they’re still discussing plans for our new afterlife sim. They plan on catching me up when I return. “...ethics. This will disrupt everyone’s perception of the divine.” Trinity, always the pragmatist.
“Everyone knows that their religion could be wrong,” Abigail argues. “At least, everyone reasonable knows this. Anyone who didn’t so much as consider the possibility will just have to figure it out. We will tell them the truth, and they’ll accept it eventually.”
“We’ll tell them our truth,” Thor reminds her. “We’ll tell them what we’ve decided to do with them.”
“Sure, yeah,” Abigail agrees.
Like I said, I’ve been perfecting my abilities for a really long time now. It started out small. I discovered I could act as a walking surround sound speaker system, and carry my voice to huge crowds without the need for technology. My strength grew over time, and I could always get better, hear further...but at a certain point, I reached a kind plateau. I can’t hear beyond the bounds of the observable universe, and I can’t see what I’m hearing. Light waves, or whatever, are not the same thing as sound, or even consciousness. I have never been able to see remotely. Until now. Either Pryce altered me somehow, or I was always destined to evolve. Little by little, my friends come into focus visually. At first, I just get the sense of how they’re moving their mouths, and then I can detect the silhouette of their mouths, which slowly begins to extend to the rest of their bodies. And then I see the world around them, which fills in gradually, until the picture becomes as clear as it would be if I were truly there. This is the second biggest leap in my abilities I’ve ever experienced, and I’m floored. I’m teleporting light, that’s insane.
Thor stops the conversation. “Do you see that?”
“What?” Abigail asks.
“Over there,” he clarifies, pointing the direction that I would be if I were really there.
“I see nothing,” Trinity says.
“I do,” Abigail confirms. She and Thor were also transferred to new bodies, but not because they died. Abigail’s father has always been obsessed with surviving past death, and was tinkering with consciousness transference since long before we came up with the afterlife sim. The two of them are the result of what was probably his last experiment before going full God mode. He must have given them extremely enhanced vision.
I adjust the angle at which I’m spying on them, like an invisible drone flying a few meters away. Except I’m not invisible. Thor and Abigail both turn their heads to keep an eye on me. If they could see me straight up, they would greet me, but they can clearly only tell that something is over there, watching them, but they can’t tell what. Before they freak out, I decide I have to explain what’s going on. “It’s me,” I say to the past.
Trinity tilts her lizard brain. “Ellie?”
“Yeah, sorry, guys, I’m watching you from the future.”
How are you watching us?” Trinity questions. “Did you contact The Screener.”
The Screener, whose real name is Sanela Matic, has a similar ability, though by slipping into an observation dimension, and she enjoys no control over it. She’s salmon, which means the mysterious powers that be decide what she sees, and who she shows it to. “No, I guess I’ve been...upgraded. I can see remotely now.”
Trinity looks behind her, in the general direction of the nearest other island on this planet, Tribulation Island. “When are you from? A version of you just left to help save Vearden Haywood’s life.”
“We did that,” I respond. “A lot has happened since then. I know what becomes of our idea.”
“Well, don’t tell us,” Abigail warns. “You’ll throw off the timeline.”
“There are things I need to know about what you went through after I left,” I explain to them. “We don’t see each other until now, and I need to know where you go.”
“We don’t plan on going anywhere,” Trinity says. “If we leave, it is an unplanned trip.”
Just then, we hear a rustling in the bushes. It could be some kind of alien rabbit, or a person, and if it’s a person, it could be an ally, or an enemy. They stop talking, but don’t approach. They just wait patiently. Finally, a figure appears. It’s me. It’s some other version of me. This Other!Ellie wipes leaves off of her arms, and scrapes burrs out of her hair. She still looks like a mess. “Okay, sorry I’m late.”
Thor and Abigail stare at her, and then turn their heads to where my signal is coming from. “What year are you from?” Abigail asks.
Other!Ellie squints her eyes in suspicion. “I don’t remember. I think Pryce did something to me.”
“That’s not me,” I warn the group. “I don’t know who that is, but I don’t talk like that. That is not me.”
“No, I’m me,” Faux!Ellie contends. “You’re not you.”
I didn’t say what I said to her. I only said it to my three friends. She should not have been able to hear my warning. “Get out of there now.”
Faux!Ellie smirks, and removes what looks like an ancient tape recorder from her pocket. “Captain’s log, Day Zero. Now that I’m back with my group, we can finally get to work. We’re gonna build this afterlife together, and it shall be glorious.”
“Run!” I warn again.
“What’s more believable?” Faux!Ellie asks. “That I went off to save Vearden, and then came right back to you only moments later, like a normal time traveler? Or that I’m talking to you from the future, acting like I can see you, which is an ability that I’ve never exhibited before, and I’m asking you to not trust the Ellie that’s standing right in front of your eyes?”
“Pryce has the ability to transfer his mind to other substrates,” Thor reasons. “This technology was always at risk of leading to impersonations. Most people probably wouldn’t think to use it in a post-scarcity society, but he’s a sociopath.”
“Psychopath, thank you very much,” Faux!Ellie says. “Uhh...I mean, that’s what he told me once.”
“Well, that seals it,” Thor decides. He reaches into his bag, and removes a gun.
“No, wait!” Faux!Ellie cries. “You can’t really ever know for sure.”
“The real Ellie is eleven thousand years old,” Thor says calmly. “That’s long enough, I imagine. It’s worth the risk.” He shoots her in the head.
“That was my father,” Abigail assures him. “I can always tell.”
“That was the right call,” Trinity agrees.
“He’s not dead,” I remind them. “He’ll always have an extra body lying around. He’s planned for every eventuality.”
“But he’s no longer among us,” Trinity replies. “We won’t ever talk about this beyond this group of three, and we won’t ever let each other out of our sight.”
“Three?” I question.
“I’m sorry, Ellie. You’re out.” Trinity looks sad, but determined. “We can’t trust anyone now. We’ll be sure to give you the credit you’re owed.”
“No, you don’t understand. He co—” I have to warn them that Pryce takes over. I still don’t know how he does it, but he does. At some point.
Trinity knows the risk of messing with the timeline. “I don’t wanna hear it. This is what we’re doing. Please kindly never eavesdrop on us again.” She takes out her device, which allows her to travel through photographs. “Keep watching whatever it is that allows you to know where this supposed Ellie is,” she tells Abigail and Thor. “I don’t want her seeing where we’re going.”
“Please, don’t do this,” I beg of them.
“Goodbye, old friend.”
The three of them take a look at the photo they won’t let me see, and disappear into it. I still have no idea how Pryce finds them, but there’s nothing I can do to change things. Not only could that ruin everything about the timeline, but my friends will never trust me again. They’ll never trust anyone. I exhale, and come back to the present.
“I could only hear your end of the conversation,” Lowell tells me. “But it didn’t sound good.”
“It is...the inevitable,” I reply cryptically. “Time travel aside, all we can do is move on. I will plead my case without their help.”

Keys to the Castle

Two days later, Lowell and I are sitting on one side of a table, like this is mediation for a divorce, and one of us is the other’s attorney. No one else is in the room yet except for a robot assistant with limited cognitive capabilities. I check my watch. “Are the other parties in a different part of the matrioshka body?” I question the bot. “How wide is the time discrepancy?”
“Oh, we are no longer as close as we were to Sagittarius A-star,” it explains. “The entire hyperstructure is presently operating at roughly the same relativistic time as your average planet in one of the outer galactic arms.”
“We left the black hole?” I ask rhetorically. “What year is it, by Earth time?”
“Twelve-thousand three hundred, and thirty-seven,” the bot answers. It means 2337, but it’s using the human era calendar, which arbitrarily adds ten thousand years.
“We’ve still not yet caught up to the creation of the matrioshka body,” I point out.
“They will not reenter the stellar neighborhood until the time loop is complete. There will be no interference with the past,” the bot says. “Research into the effects of high gravity on time has been exhausted. That is all I know about it.”
“Thank you,’ I say to it.
Gacar enters the room from one door, while Tamerlane Pryce comes in from another, as if they rehearsed their grand entrance. Lowell and I stand up respectfully, then sit down with the other two. “Thank you three for coming. This is a relatively informal meeting to see if this issue can resolve itself. We understand that your species demands a sort of...long-winded approach to everything you do. My people would rather stay out of it, if at all possible. I’m here to facilitate discussion, but intend to make no judgments. If you cannot come to an agreement, we will step in, but not before that. Understand this, the afterlife simulation exists as a favor to whoever wants it. As long as it does not disrupt anyone else’s processing power, we will let it be. We don’t care who’s running it, or even what they’re doing with it. We will shut it down, however, if that is the only way to end this. Am I understood?”
“Yes,” we all say in unison.
“Then we’ll begin,” Gacar says. “Ellie, you may speak first, but after that, I expect the three of you to police yourselves, and stay civil without intervention.”
“Thank you, Gacar,” I say. I turn my attention to Pryce. He regards me politely, but like he has a magic bullet in his arsenal—and knows that his argument wins, regardless of what I say. He’s just waiting for his moment to drop the mic and pwn me, so to speak. I must preempt him. “I do not demand control of the simulation. I only ask what you did with my friends, and why they are not here to control it, if only alongside you?”
He tilts his head to the other side. “I killed Trinity. Thor and my daughter were conscripted into some kind of train war. I didn’t ask a lot of questions.”
“Why did you kill Trinity?” I ask. I’m keeping my cool, because if she truly died, her consciousness should still have survived in the simulation. Technically, the simulation always existed if he went back in time to collect everyone’s consciousness from history. The bot even called it a time loop.
“It couldn’t be helped. “Thor destroyed the body I was using before her, so I jumped into Trinity’s.”
I think a moment. “That’s when you were masquerading as me,” I posit.
“Yes. I intended to ingratiate myself into your group, and become one of the big four in your stead. There’s a reason I haven’t done that before, though. I’m not a good actor. I’m...not a great person either, but I’m nothing if not honest. I couldn’t pretend to be you. Didn’t last a couple minutes. So I let Thor kill me, and switched tactics.”
“Wait. That doesn’t make any sense. You say you weren’t capable of pretending to be me, but you were good enough of an actor to pretend to be Trinity?”
“I wasn’t her at first,” Pryce answers. “I was a passenger. I couldn’t control the things she did or said. I would later realize that I was influencing her the entire time, which is why they abandoned you so decisively, but Trinity was still there back then. Over time, my consciousness overtook hers...until there was nothing left. I was not aware that this would happen. By the time I had the chance to make myself a new clone, Trinity was essentially brain dead.”
“But she’s still alive,” I put forth. “She’s somewhere in the sim.”
He looks saddened. The guy actually looks saddened, it’s unbelievable. “Contrary to popular belief, not everyone goes to the sim after they die.”
“What?” Lowell finally jumps in. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Pryce sighs, and runs his finger through his hair. “Little bits in the brain. They act like insulation, but they’re what transfer neural data. An entire backup of the brain is located inside every brain. When someone dies, that generally survives long enough to complete a transfer to an external server, which is on Earth—and most other planets before they’re needed. From there, it can be transferred to the sim. There are exceptions to this. I spent a lot of time perfecting the timing. I needed to be able to rescue people even if they were blown up by a bomb. I needed people who were stabbed in the head with a sword. I am damn good too. Almost everyone makes it. Almost.”
“What are the exceptions?” I press. “What made Trinity one of these exceptions?”
“Technological advancements come with some pretty crazy ways to die. The twentieth century gave us vaporization. The people who die within the blast radius of a nuclear bomb do so too quickly for my systems to save. Your buddy, Lucius Deschamp can basically do this with his mind. I can’t save those people either. It doesn’t matter how fast I made my program, it was never fast enough. Thor didn’t want any time travel, other than the first one that sent us to the beginning of the endeavor. I respected that, but it means that some people can’t be saved. To answer your question, there are other exceptions, which go the other way. They’re too slow. Some people’s minds don’t die all at once. Alzheimer’s, dementia; these involve microdeaths that essentially destroy the person’s identity little by little. How do you quantify that? It’s hard enough to map and transfer a single flash image of someone’s mind, but over time, as it changes? That’s...not impossible, but it was hard, and still leaves us with exceptions.”
“You still haven’t explained Trinity yet,” I remind him.
“But I have, haven’t I? I told you my mind took over her body...slowly. Dementia patients slowly lose their minds, but those minds aren’t being replaced, they’re just losing connections. And that revision history still exists, so all I have to do is backup those people long before their deaths, uploading them as slowly as their disease destroys them. Before you ask, I can’t back up everyone using this technique, like they do on Altered Carbon, because that much server space would alert people to our existence, but I’ve been able to reserve a little extra space for those few who need it. That didn’t work with Trinity, and some other people who suffer too much psychic trauma, like Volpsidia Raske.”
I sit quietly for a moment, and everyone just lets me. “This sounds like manslaughter to me. Where do manslaughterers go when they die? What level are they?”
“Level Three, Hock, just as they would be on Earth.”
I sit quietly for another moment. “Did you put yourself in there? You killed someone? Did you do your time? Or have you been sitting one your throne since this all started?”
“Is that what you want from me?” Pryce asks. “You want me to serve time in prison?”
“Yes,” I answer plainly.
He snaps his fingers, but keeps his eyes on me. A little wheel appears before us.
“What was that?” Lowell questions, looking around. “Are we in the sim?”
“As we have always been,” Pryce replies.
“I was concerned that one of you would resort to violence,” Gacar jumps back in. “We are in a part of the simulation that I control. I delegated the responsibility of making sure you understood this to someone else.” Gacar gives the assistant bot the stink eye, but he just keeps smiling back. He’s not programmed to feel shame, embarrassment, or guilt. Must be nice.
“Running the simulation is not easy,” Pryce says to me. “I wouldn’t think you would think it was, but I just want you to know that I did my best, and I hope you recognize and remember that when I’m up for parole.” There are twelve wedges on the wheel, of varying sizes. The smallest is obviously the hardest to land on, but if you get it, you’ll be resurrected. It’s only happened twice. When I, Lowell, and our other friends were brought back to life, he didn’t make us spin the wheel, because he had already made the decision. It has no power on its own, it’s just a way for him to turn life and death into a game. The fourth largest wedge is orange, and will send the spinner to a virtually inescapable prison section of the simulation. This is the wedge that Pryce deliberately chooses for himself, rather than spinning and hoping. He just adjusts the hand, so it goes where he wants it. His clothes automatically turn orange, but he doesn’t disappear right away. “You’ll see. You’ll understand the choices I made, and when you realize that the changes you make to the system are creating nothing but’ll know where to find me.”
As soon as Pryce disappears, a heavy metal gear a little larger than a normal human hand appears on the table, spinning like a top. It never loses momentum, due to us being in a simulation. It just keeps going, until I pick it up. “Does anyone know what this is?”
“A symbol,” Gacar explains. “The possessor of that gear controls the simulation. Don’t fear it, though. If someone were to physically steal it from you, they wouldn’t simply take your place. There’s a real world analog, but as far as I know, it doesn’t really do anything. He’s just telling you that you won.”
We’re silent for a second. “Congratulations,” Lowell says to me, not in monotone or shock, but genuinely and softly. “What is your first act as God of this world?”
I inhale deeply, then let it out. “I’m going to prove him wrong, and show that I can indeed save everyone, including dementia patients, and vaporized victims. We’re ignoring Thor’s mandate, and going back in time, so that everyone makes it to the simulation, especially Trinity.”

Gray Power

Needless to say, changing everything about how the afterlife simulation works by going back in time and rescuing the exceptions isn’t actually my first act as keeper. A lot that happens in this place is automated, and these people are pretty self-sufficient, but they don’t do everything. The job demands I spend a pretty significant amount of time managing the higher level residents. They ask a lot of the program, and while it’s not my responsibility to approve—or even acknowledge—every alteration to the code, I do have to make sure it doesn’t get too crazy. Technically, the Level Tens are Unrestricted, and can do whatever they want, but not all of them can be trusted. Back on Earth, there is and was a group of special choosing ones called the Springfield Nine. Or maybe they’re chosen ones; the truth is unclear. A man by the name of Rothko Ladhiffe was dangerous when he was alive, and he’s dangerous now. He wields far too much power than he deserves, and he’s constantly trying to tear down the establishment. The problem is that he’s capable of realizing his dreams, so I have to combat him at every turn. I’m apparently not allowed to demote him, but I’m seriously considering breaking that rule. They’re my rules now, and though I’ve not changed anything yet, I reserve that right.
The residents accept me as their new leader with no fuss. They’re not particularly ecstatic about it either. I kind of thought they would become joyful—and maybe even start singing—as people did when Dorothy killed the two witches. They don’t seem to be giving it much thought. Like I said, the place pretty much runs itself. As far as I know, it’s the longest-running civilization in history, outlasting all others by an order of magnitude. So it’s no surprise they have it fairly well figured out.
The code automatically has me wearing rainbow-colored clothes. I can change the design and accessories all I want, but I can’t wear fewer than six colors at a time. People want to know who you are, and what you can do. It’s as much for safety as it is for status. Many avoid interacting too much with anyone they see wearing violet, since the Unrestricteds are the only ones capable of killing someone permanently. They don’t want to piss them off, and any experience can take a turn, even if it starts out innocuous or pleasant. For this reason, the Violets are powerful, but generally alone, which probably diminishes the fun of being a Violet in the first place.
Lowell is the only one wearing white, as he is the only person who was resurrected, but has since returned, except for me. Unlike their regard for me, which lacks excitement, they are in such awe of him. They treat him like a king, who can help them, and change their lot in life. He could give them anything. He could upgrade them. Of course Unrestricted people could help them too, but people assume Lowell is better at it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Manipulating the code doesn’t require an advanced computer science degree, but it does demand a level of understanding of how computers work. As a nomadic serial killer in life, who chose his victims by literally looking at them, he never needed a computer. He only ever had a flip phone, and in fact, never figured out how to turn it off. He could never keep track of the charger either, so whenever one died, he would just take another one out of his trunk. They were all burners, so he bought them in bulk, and only used them to order delivery.
Today, he tried to upgrade someone from Yellow to Green, so she could have her own place to live, but he accidentally downgraded her to Orange. It’s taken an executive order from me to get her out of Hock. “Again, please accept my deepest apologies for what you’ve endured.”
“It’s fine,” the victim, Paisley assures me.
“Still, in recompense for your troubles, please allow me to convert you to Level Seven, Elite. I promise you, nothing will go wrong this time. Since I’m new here, I’ll conscript an Unrestricted to do it for me, just to make sure it works.”
“No, really,” Paisley continues. “I can just go back to Limited. It’s fine.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” I say. “It would reflect too poorly on me. I have to do something to remedy this error, so people don’t lose faith in me.”
She smiles kindly. “Okay.”
I look over my shoulder. “Gilbert.”
“Yes, madam, I’m ready.” Gilbert Boyce was a spawn before death, which means he wasn’t born with time powers, but was accidentally transformed by his enemy when that enemy tried to kill him the first time. That moment was so powerful that it actually rewrote Gilbert’s neurology, and turned him into the rarest kind of temporal manipulator. Pryce felt this entitled Gilbert to be an Unrestricted without earning it. The irony is that Gilbert used his power to operate against Pryce by coding a special section of the simulation where Pryce couldn’t detect him. My friends and I used this to formulate our escape plan. Well, they mostly used it. It was my job at the time to stay in the main simulation so I could spoof their respective individual codes, and prevent Pryce from getting suspicious.
“As you wish,” Paisley says respectfully.
Gilbert approaches her, and opens up the virtual toolbox. From there, he simply has to move a slider up or down. He could send her down to Black if he wanted, or even all the way up to his own level. He can’t resurrect her, which is one of the few restrictions that people like him have. He’s only supposed to make her Pink, but instead makes her Level Nine, World-Builder, which is only one level below him. “Whoopsie-doodles,” he says before closing the toolbox, and stepping back. “That can’t be undone.”
Paisley’s clothes turn from orange to gray.
“Yes, it can,” I contend.
“Oh, it can?” He asks, pretending not to know. “Hmm...weird.” He looks over into the aether. “What was that? Yes, I’ll be there right away. Sorry, gotta go. Sorry for my mistake.” He teleports away.
It was absolutely not a mistake, but I feel like it would be even shittier for me to downgrade her yet again, even though Elite is a perfectly acceptable level. Plenty of people here have been living as Elites for thousands of years with no complaints. Not everyone wants to alter the code, and build their own things. I’m not sure whether Paisley is one of these people, or if she’s more like Gilbert, who enjoys having the control.
Paisley looks nervous. “Okay, go ahead, put me right.”
“No,” I determine. “This is what’s happened, and this is how we’ll keep it. You are a world-builder now. I pull up a fake holographic tablet. “Here are the directions to Siva University, where experts will teach you how to code new simulations.”
“I don’t know if I want this.”
“Yes you do.” Lowell steps forward. “I’m good at reading people. You’re thrilled. It’s okay, you don’t have to feel bad about your ambition. I screwed up, and this is for your pain and suffering. Now, go to school so you can do something good with it.”
“Okay,” Paisley says. “Thank you.” She teleports away.
Lowell chuckles. “I can’t wait.”
“For what? To see what worlds she designs?”
“No, for the consequences. When people find out they can be upgraded just for being wrongfully downgraded, they’re gonna start looking for ways to be wrongfully downgraded.”
“Oh shit, I didn’t think of that.” I release a virtual sigh, and massage my virtual forehead. “Call a meeting. Mandatory. I need to speak with all the Unrestricteds. We have to make sure this doesn’t get out of control.”
“Let’s set up the meeting for later today,” Lowell counters. “There’s someone you should speak to first. I think you know who.”
Yes, I do.

I walk into the prison alone. The guards nod cordially as I pass through the barriers like they aren’t even there. I don’t even have to ask for visitation, because they know who I’m here to see. I just walk into the room, and find him waiting there with his personal security detail. “Here so soon?” he asks. “You must be desperate.”
“I just need some advice,” I tell him. “Nothing’s wrong yet, but I’m worried.”
“What have you done?”
“First, how are you doing?”
Pryce leans his head back, but not the rest of his body. “Well, it’s a whole lot less fun in here. Boring, I would say. I’m surviving, though.”
“I can give you pain patches,” I promise, “if you would just accept them.”
“You could also just turn on the violence inhibitors,” he argues.
“I can’t make too many changes too fast. You know this. It would cause psychological problems, even if the changes are objectively superior.”
“I like the pain,” he says. “And I kind of like being in here. Ya know, I spent decades in a real prison before I became the foremost expert in mind transference. It feels a little like home.”
I look over at his guard. Like Gilbert, Nerakali Preston was also a time traveler who was immediately assigned Unrestricted privileges upon her death. Her road to redemption was a long one, and she’s improved so much that she wants to complete some penance to make up for some of the things that she did while she was alive. This is her way of accomplishing that. She shares the cell with Pryce, and can’t leave unless she asks to be released permanently. Until then, she does wear pain patches so she can’t be harmed, and she keeps a close eye on Pryce for me. He’s obviously here for a reason, and I need to know what that reason is before it’s too late. “Report.”
“He doesn’t need pain patches either way,” she explains. “Nobody would dare hurt him. They think this is just some kind of publicity stunt, and that he can walk out of here just as easily as you walked in. They call him Hancock now, like that superhero-angel movie where the titular character does the same thing.”
“Is this true?” I ask him. “Are you Hancocking us?”
“As I recall, he didn’t get out until they let him out. But regardless, no.” He snaps the chest of his shirt. “These are real.” He pounds his fist on the table twice, demonstratively, and not violently. “And I can’t walk through walls.”
I don’t entirely believe him, but I move on. “Did you hear about the woman who was accidentally oranged?”
“Yeah, I saw her. She was only in here for, like, an hour.”
“It was thirty minutes at most,” I correct. “Anyway, I obviously had to fix it, so I called in a favor.”
“Lemme guess...Gilbert Boyce.”
He’s too smart. He’s literally too smart, I wish he were dumber. “Yes. He slid her all the way up to World-Builder.”
“And you’re worried that this is gonna start some trend, where people will find ways to game the system.” Yeah, way too smart.
“Yes, I’m meeting with the Unrestricted people to warn and prepare them for it.”
“Yeah, don’t do that.”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“People don’t like to be told what to do, especially people with the power to reject the advice. You’re only gonna remind them just how powerful they are. The entire population is in the hands of a few hundred people. A few hundred people that you can’t control. Do you really want to talk to them about their power? Most are content just making goats that walk upside down midair, and undenary star systems. Don’t be putting ideas in their heads. When Alexander the Great reached Level Ten 700 years ago, I made an off-handed comment about how he could once more destroy civilizations. Asshole went to war, and took down four simulations before MacBeth managed to kill him with Alexander’s own zeroblade. That wasn’t even the worst thing that an Unrestricted has done.”
“What would you do? What would you do with another Alexander the Great if you didn’t have another MacBeth?”
Pryce narrows his eyes. “I told MacBeth how to steal the zeroblade. I had Alexander killed, to protect everyone else from him...and I had someone else do it to protect the system from the inevitable chaos that would result from me doing it myself.”
What he said before was right. Rules are necessary, even when they seem cruel or wrong. I don’t think I misjudged his character, but I’m already starting to see the reasoning behind some of his decisions. The crown is on my head now...and it’s heavy. Maybe I shouldn’t go back in time and save the exceptions. Maybe the consequences are worse than I can fathom now. “I’ve already called the meeting. It would be more suspicious if I cancelled it now.”
Pryce shrugs. “Hold the meeting then. Just say you wanted to acknowledge their status, and assure them that nothing will change. Or promise that the only changes will be better, I guess, I dunno. You can let them ask questions, but steer the conversation away from the incident, if you can. Be careful, though. Some of them are real smart.”
“Are you helping me?” I don’t ask him why are you helping me?, because I don’t know if that’s the case. What I do know is that he’s up to something.”
“I am,” Pryce says. “I want this place to succeed. I want you to succeed. I also want to be part of it, and if that means I have to spend a few centuries in here, I think it’s worth it.”
I leave him to be happy with being in prison, and head towards a special simulation that was designed specifically for Level Tens. No one else can access it, and it’s a cleanroom, where they can’t make alterations to the code. I stop at the entrance, and check my watch. There’s still time, which I should be using to come up with a good opening speech. No, instead of coming up with my own speech, how about I just have Abraham Lincoln write it for me?

The Beyond

I realize how odd it is that I feel the need to clear my throat while I’m in a simulation. Sure, my body is still in the real world, and I’m hooked up to an access terminal, but I don’t think that’s it. The Designers must have determined that people won’t accept this world if it’s too perfect. They spent their whole lives having to clear their throats on occasion, and it probably made the early adopters uncomfortable not to. We do enjoy some control over such things. It’s possible to make yourself feel hungry, so that the magnificent food—which can be prepared precisely to one’s personal tastes—actually feels satisfying, but if you’re not into food, you can also just disable that code, and always feel full. I would try to find out if there’s a similar feature for having a lump in my throat because I’m nervous about my speech, but I don’t have time to look into it, because I have to...ya know, give the speech. The Level Tens are sitting patiently in their seats, but that patience will run out unless I prove to them I’m not just wasting their time. Gilbert and Nerakali are sitting in chairs up on the stage with me, right next to Lowell. I didn’t ask them to do that, but seeing as I’m not announcing this year’s hottest new phone, it’s appropriate for me to be one in a group, even if they never speak.
“My name is Ellie Underhill, and it’s important that you understand that the first draft of this speech was written by Abraham Lincoln, and proofread by The Superintendent. I tell you this, not to humanize me, but to illustrate just how amazing the worlds you built are. Abraham Lincoln is here, and I met him, and I’m sure many of you have as well. Some of you may not know who I am, but I’m the one who originally conceived the concept of the afterlife simulation. I didn’t design the levels, and I certainly didn’t code the actual framework, but I do feel responsible for all of you, and for everyone else here. Due to time travel, I’m thousands of years old, and what I’ve learned in that time is that fucking bullshit. Side note: Lincoln did not curse in his draft; I added that line myself. Because I want to be clear that the whole reason I thought of this place is that I don’t think death is fair. We didn’t choose it for ourselves, evolution did. And evolution is not a conscious being, like we are, so what gives it the right to make such an important decision? Evolution is all about survival traits, and humanity can transcend that.
“I won’t try to turn you against Tamerlane Pryce. Whatever opinion you have of him is fine. I wasn’t around before, because the time travel I was telling you about held me up, and by the time I returned, things were complicated with the other designers. I’m here now, though, and I’m ready to listen. If you have any ideas of how to improve the system—improvements that you’re not authorized to make yourself—I want you to feel comfortable coming to me. From what I gather, Pryce kept his office door pretty open, and I plan on doing the same.”
“Is it true that he’s in prison?” calls a voice from the audience. There’s a little bit of commotion in response.
“It’s true, yes,” I say, thinking it’s best to be honest. That doesn’t mean I want to make myself look like the bad guy here, so I continue, “but I did not overthrow him, and put him there. I came at this bureaucratically, and he placed himself in that position all on his own. The creation of the simulation did not come without some unplanned, and irreversible, consequences. My friend died, and I confronted him about it. He didn’t kill her on purpose, but nevertheless, she’s gone, and not even the afterlife could save her. He has decided that showing his regret for those events is what’s best for everyone, and I agreed to step into his shoes so that the program can continue to run smoothly. Thank you for that question. I had a little bit more of the speech, but let’s open the floor to any questions, comments, concerns.”
A man stands up. “Hi, my name is Jabez Carpenter. Voted most improved. I know you by reputation, and I for one, am glad at the change in leadership.” He looks around to gauge his approval rating. “I think we can all agree that Pryce was a dick, and he deserves to rot in the hock for the rest of time. Maybe that’s just me, I dunno.”
Maybe three-fourths of the crowd claps and cheers at this. Many of the rest just don’t seem to feel the need to express themselves, but I do notice a not insignificant number of frowny faces. The great thing about being in here is that I can record everything I see, so I’ll analyze the crowd later, and use AI to make a list of everyone I may need to be worried about. It’s a little dystopian, but I have to protect this place. This is not a democracy, and it never has been. I honestly wouldn’t have built it that way, because people are stupid when they get in a mob, and they can’t be trusted. It sounds really pretty on paper, and it’s a nice thing to strive for, but at the end of the day, the king gets it done. I just have to remember to listen to input.
A woman stands up now, and doesn’t introduce herself, but people take notice immediately, and the room grows silent out of deference to her. “What news of The Beyond?”
I sigh, because I’ve never heard of that. Pryce left many things that I will need to learn, but they’re not organized, because he never planned on stepping down. “I’m afraid—and I hope not to lose your confidence for it, but—I don’t know what that is.”
“We don’t either,” the woman explains. She’s not as perturbed about my ignorance as I would have thought. “He’s been teasing its release for the last three hundred or so years, claiming that it’s the next logical step in our species’ development. Species, I believe, refers to dead people, rather than humans in general. He says it’s really exciting.”
I look over to my people. Nerakali shrugs, while Boyce shakes his head. Lowell doesn’t bother showing me he doesn’t know, because he couldn’t. I look back to the audience. “I will look into this for you, and if I can give you more information about it, we will schedule another meeting to discuss. I would like to know, however, is this privileged information, or does everyone in the simulation know about it?”
“Level Nine and above,” the woman replies. “Not even the Architects have heard of it. This is strictly confidential.”
“I appreciate the information,” I say. “Anything else?”
No one has anything, so I close the meeting, and people begin to disperse. I turn to my people. “Pryce is a genius, but the most disorganized person I know. His notes are a mess, and some of it is in code. Could you help me figure out what this beyond is? I’m worried it’s some kind of true death program.”
“It’s not,” comes a voice from behind me. I turn to find a teenage-looking girl standing there, like a student who’s too afraid to ask her question for the whole class to hear.
“You know what it is?”
“Pryce chose me as a world-builder for it. I’m actually the last he appointed before he went into hock, which is why I never got a chance to actually go.”
I look around, paranoid. “Let’s go to my office.”
We teleport to my office, which I chose to place in Gilbert’s special anti-spying section of the simulation that he calls Purple Space. I feel the safest here. The five of us sit around a table to discuss this mysterious new thing. “First off, what’s your name?”
“Aldona, sir. Aldona Calligaris.”
“Please don’t call me sir. We’re equals here.”
Aldona looks at her own gray clothes, and at my rainbow outfit. “Okay.”
I smile, not wanting to make it any more awkward. “What can you tell me?”
“I went through orientation, but never made the jump over, which is good, because I’m the only one capable of telling you about it. Contrary to what you’ve been told thus far, you and your friends are not the first Level Elevens. I don’t have an exact count, but from what I gather, a couple dozen others have been resurrected.”
“Where did they go?” I question.
Aldona continues, “apparently another universe?”
“Wait,” I stop her. “This is important, is it another universe, or another reality?”
“He called it a universe. He also called it a brane.”
I nod. An alternate reality is created when someone goes back in time and changes something about history. Sometimes, the traveler is in a loop, and can’t change anything, but is only fulfilling a predestiny. If they can change something, then the new timeline will replace the old one. There are a few concurrent timelines, which exemplify the true definition of an alternate reality, but the terms are mostly interchangeable. Another brane, however, is something completely different. It has different worlds, and different people, and a completely different history. It may even have different physical laws, and unrecognizable evolution. Any similarities between any two branes are either coincidental, or deliberately generated by whoever created the brane, if it even was created; most of them form naturally. Perhaps the most important difference is that time moves separately in a separate brane. When you exit one, and go to another, unless you have some control over navigation, there’s no telling where in the timeline you’ll end up. There’s no connection between when it is for you in one versus the other. Basic time travel is dangerous enough, but this adds a whole new level of complexity.
“What is he doing with this other brane?” Nerakali asks. When I knew her when she was alive, she decidedly had no experience with other branes, but that was a hell of a long time ago from her perspective. I don’t know what she knows now.
“It’s our future home; a physical universe, where we can start new lives. Once everyone is resurrected, that’s where they’ll go. Supposedly. The best of the best world-builders are promoted, so we can use our skills to terraform actual planets in a non-virtual environment. Once we leave, all memory of our existence is wiped from everyone else’s minds. Even if someone learns of the Beyond, Pryce has always just erased their memories. It’s the only time he will manipulate someone’s agency.”
“How would he get to this other brane?” I ask, not necessarily expecting anyone to be able to answer. “That’s not something just anyone can do. The Superintendent can count on his fingers how many different methods of bulk travel there are. Most people will need a third hand to keep counting, but no more than that.”
“That I don’t know,” Aldona says, needlessly apologetically. “I only know I was meant to meet someone named Hogarth Pudeyonavic once I was resurrected, but I never got to use my whitecard, so...” Yep, Hogarth is one of the ways to travel the bulkverse. It’s time to unplug, so I can find her.

And Twins!

I decide that we’re all going to go seek out Hogarth Pudeyonavic in base reality. Just because Lowell and I are the only ones who already have bodies waiting for us doesn’t mean the others can’t come with. It’s within my power to level up anyone I want, and I’m choosing to do that with Nerakali, Gilbert, and Aldona. The latter was already technically promoted—records I found corroborate this—and I may need her in order to get answers from Hogarth. People in the simulation generally retain their likeness from when they were alive, even when they reach a level high enough to entitle them to new forms. Most choose to look as they did when they were younger, like Aldona, who was an old woman when she died. Though some feel more comfortable with an older look. Perhaps they were underestimated as children, and only received the respect of others later in life. Or maybe they just don’t want to pretend that they’re not old, because it somehow hides the amount of time they’ve been around, or feels like a lie. Only a small percentage like to go around looking like bunnies, or pop culture nostalgiabots, but this still accounts for hundreds of millions of people.
Regardless of how they choose to present themselves in the simulation, each individual contains within them their original DNA sequence, completely intact, and unaltered. This allows them to be resurrected in a clone that a lab can create at a moment’s notice. The process only takes a few minutes, and not even due to temporal manipulation. The majority of regular humans are born about the same. They have a head, face, neck, shoulders, two arms, a torso, and two legs, along with many other little bits. A long time ago, back when independent companies still existed, one of them invented a proprietary product that people affectionately referred to as the floor model. It has all those things that make a person a person. It’s only missing a few unique characteristics, such as skin color, eye shape, and genitalia. These additions are therefore, relatively speaking, quick to make, since they’re starting out with something pretty well formed. Height is the longest time drain when configuring a clone, but even that isn’t too hard. No one is quite sure how to scale the operation up to a hundred and ten billion people at once, which is just another reason why Pryce hasn’t resurrected them all yet, so I’m wondering whether this so-called Beyond might address that.
Lowell and I de-res ourselves from the sim, and transport over to the rebirthing section, where the other three have already been transferred to a holding program. The lab technician is working on the clone configurations. About an hour later, everyone is out, and an hour after that, they’re able to move around on their own. It took a lot longer for me and Lowell, but apparently people usually prepare for resurrection by going to classes. This allows their minds to more quickly acclimate to the new physical substrate.
Aldona breathes in deep, and yawns. “It feels so good to do that again, and know that it’s real. It’s so much more of a relief when it’s not just a subroutine.”
“Agreed,” Nerakali says.
“Gacar,” I say into my communicator. “Have you located Hogarth Pudeyonavic yet?”
I have,” Gacar replies. “Sending you her coordinates now.”
“Thank you so much.”
It is a joy.”
Once the data comes through, the five of them teleport to the nearest Nexus chamber, which should transport them to wherever Hogarth is. It could be all the way up in the head of the matrioshka body, or in the toes. This doesn’t really say, they’re just numbers. The Nexus tech seems to recognize them, though. “Whitecards, please.”
Aldona reaches out her hand, and triggers a hologram above her palm, a floating white rectangle with lines all around it that look like circuitry.
“And the rest?”
“We don’t have whitecards,” I explain. They are evidently something extra you get when you’re resurrected that authorizes you to meet with Hogarth. “I run the simulation, though.”
The tech shakes his head slowly. “I can’t send you to this location without a whitecard. You’ll have to speak with your leader.”
“I am the leader,” I try to clarify. “I usurped Tamerlane Pryce. You can check with the Glisnian authority on that. If the coordinates deliver people to a satellite location for the afterlife simulation, then I’m perfectly allowed to go there. And I’m allowed to have anyone I want accompany me, including these three other people.”
The tech reluctantly contacts whoever he needs to contact, and of course the interaction confirms that I was telling the truth. But the same thing happens again once we transport and arrive at our destination. “I’m sorry,” the new tech says. “I couldn’t sneak you in if I wanted to.” He points to the exit. “That door will not open without a whitecard for every passenger...or the gearkey.”
“Oh, the gearkey?” I say. “Well, I have that.” I reach into my bag, and present him with the physical version of the gear that Pryce left me.
“Oh. Well, that grants you authority zero over this place, sir. I’m terribly sorry for the confusion. Right this way, please.” After using my key to unlock the door, he leads us out of the Nexus building, and into what’s very clearly a small spaceship. He climbs into the pilot seat, and starts flipping switches. I’m hovering behind him, looking out the viewport. “Go ahead and make yourself comfortable, sir. The trip will take forty-two reframe days.”
“I didn’t know I was gonna be gone that long,” I lament, wondering whether I should turn back.
“Pryce was frequently gone for that long,” Aldona points out, “or longer. You should be fine.”
“Okay, because that’s, like, eighty light years.”
“Eighty-three,” the pilot specifies.
“We can’t just take a Nexus?” Gilbert questions.
“Ain’t no Nexus where we’re goin’.” With that, the pilot starts the engine, and takes off.
A month and a half later, we’re coming up on our destination.
“Is that...?”
“Did we go in a circle?”
“No, it’s not the same one. It’s bigger.”
“It’s much bigger.”
“This changes everything.”
The matrioshka body where the afterlife simulation is located is about half the size of the solar system where Earth is located. It’s head encompasses a red dwarf, which despite them both containing the word dwarf, is less than half the mass of yellow dwarf, Sol, and also half its radius. It’s hard to see scale like this, but the structure they’re coming up on right now does look a hell of a lot bigger than that. “It’s more than twenty-eight times the size of the matrioshka body,” the pilot reveals. “That’s why we called it Big Papa.”
“Glisnia built a second structure,” Lowell notes in awe.
“No,” the pilot contends. “Glisnia doesn’t even know about it. “This is all Madam Pudeyonavic, and her team. That’s why it has to be off the Nexus grid, and why most people need whitecards to pass.”
“What does Pryce do here?” I ask.
“I don’t ask those questions,” the pilot answers soberly.
Once he’s docked, he refuses to leave the vessel, and insists that we all go the rest of the way alone. Blinking lights lead our way down the passageways, and into a room that kind of looks like it houses a Nexus, but it’s of a completely different design. It transports them to another location, where Hogarth Pudeyonavic is waiting.
“My spies told me that the afterlife sim is now under new management,” Hogarth says after she greets them. “I am glad for this.”
“Are you working for him, or with him?” I ask.
Hogarth laughs. “Please. He works for me.”
“You built this,” Nerakali says, looking around, “just like the other one?”
“Yeah,” Hogarth confirms. “Figured I would go bigger this time.”
“What is it for?”
“Anything we want,” she says. “I got tired of living under Glisnian rule after several centuries, and decided I didn’t need them anymore. I guess I never did. Ethesh and I designed it together, and I built it by siphoning a few particles from different celestial bodies, all over the universe. I’ve been wandering that galaxy ever since. It was only in recent centuries that Pryce found out where I had gone off to, and asked to be a part of it. When you’re as old as I am, wars start to feel like petty disagreements between children. He doesn’t seem so bad to me anymore; more like a minor annoyance. Still, if he’s truly gone, then that can only be a good thing.”
“Believe me,” I say with a laugh. “I know what it feels like to have thousands of years on others. Maybe we can grab some proverbial coffee, and swap stories sometime. Right now, though, I would like to ask about the Beyond. Is it true that it’s a different universe?”
“Yes, but it’s attached to ours, so their respective timelines will always remain linked.”
“Why do this?” Lowell questions. “Why do dead people need their own universe? Can’t they just eventually resurrect in the original? Living people should understand by then.”
“It’s not just for dead people,” Hogarth explains. “I’m having this place built for many reasons, and that’s only one of them. I wanted a place with new physical laws, ones which I believe are better for people. The powers that be can’t control this one, and nor can The Superintendent, so that’s a plus. But mainly, I just wanted to see if I could do it.”
“Well, we’re here to find out what we can report to the World-Builders and Unrestricteds,” I say. “They eagerly await news.”
“I use Pryce’s World-Builders as creative labor, but they’re pretty self-driven and independent. I haven’t met with any of them for a couple decades,” Hogarth replies. “We meet in a section of Big Papa that bridges the universes. I can take you there.”
We climb back into the transporter. There’s no technician in some control room. Hogarth just seems to activate it with her mind, and navigates us to the right destination. A man greets us when we arrive, and says that he’ll lead us to someone he just refers to as the boss. We follow him out of the transporter room, and into a beautiful and calming forest. We walk a short way down a rocky but comfortable path, and come to a wooden desk several meters away. It’s not cut like a regular desk, though. It looks more like it was grown from the ground, and naturally formed into the vague shape of a desk. Someone is standing behind it, but crouched over, presumably searching for something in one of the drawers. When he finds it, he stands up straight, and notices them there. Of course, it’s Tamerlane Pryce.
“Oh,” he says, stretching his lips out to an awkward grimace. “I did not think you would find this place. At least not for another hundred years, or so.”
“Who is that in the prison?” I ask accusatorily. “A clone?”
“Well, he’s in a virtual world, so no, he’s not a clone. He’s just an avatar,” Pryce answers.
“That was all just a lie. You’ve been here the whole time, completely free. I thought you said you didn’t lie.”
“That technically wasn’t a lie,” Pryce contends. “Because I didn’t technically say that. My avatar did, and he doesn’t like lying.”
“He didn’t tell us about you, and that was a lie!” I shout.
“Omission, lie, whatever.”
“Did you know about him?” I ask Hogarth, almost as accusatorily.
“Like I said, I haven’t been here for awhile,” she repeats.
“I’ve been here longer than that,” Pryce clarifies. “I’ve been here for two hundred and sixteen years.”
“Excuse me?” Hogarth questions.
“We’ve been dealing with your avatar this entire time?” I press.
“Yes, but I’ve been monitoring his conversations remotely. I know all that he told you.”
“What the hell is going on,” I demand to know.
“I abandoned the afterlife a long time ago,” Pryce claims. “After a few millennia, it gets really boring. Can you imagine? I don’t have to, I lived it. I lived every second of it, and I just had to get out of there. I never really wanted it. It’s not real. I much prefer being out here.” He breathes in deep through his nose. “I love the smell of fresh base reality in the morning.”
“Why did your avatar give me control of the simulation? Why did he send himself to hock?” None of this makes any sense.
“I monitor his conversations,” the real Pryce reiterates. “I don’t talk to him. I’m not even a hundred percent sure he’s aware I’m doing that. So you can try to ask him yourself.”
“How do I know that he’s the avatar?” I continue. “What if you’re the copy?”
“Oh, like Space Beth?” He stares into space quizzically, and ponders the question like a thoughtful philosophy professor. “Um. Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter, does it? He’s not my copy so much as we’re copies of each other. So you have been dealing with the real Pryce. And also I’m the real Pryce. We’ve been apart so long, we’re two different people now.”
“Which one is the asshole?” Lowell jumps in.
“Both,” Pryce says. “I’m not quite as bad, however. I’ve spent a great deal of time in nature, away from technology. It can change a man. I don’t regret the things I did in my past, but I’m not that person anymore.”
I shake my head and scoff.
“I can prove it,” Pryce promises. “Come on, I wanna show you something.”

Welcome to Welcome

Cautiously but curiously, we all follow Pryce down the path. It really is a beautiful marvel. It doesn’t even feel like we’re in some kind of space habitat. This structure is certainly large enough to fit millions upon millions of fully formed planets comfortably, so maybe this is exactly that. It’s impossible to tell from this perspective. It could be another simulation, for all I truly know. I can’t trust my senses ever again. They’re sensing a lot of pleasant things now, though. The rustle of the fallen leaves in the wind, the smell of petrichor, the feeling of a warm—but not too warm—sun. The taste of air that’s completely free from pollution. This world is paradise, and I know I’ve only seen a fraction of a fraction of an unfathomably small fraction that Hogarth and the world-builders have created. If this is just the bridge that leads to the other universe, I can’t imagine what’s waiting on the other side, which is where I assume we’re going.
The path splits into a fork, one leading alongside the pond that we’ve come across, and the other leading directly into it. Stone steps go right down to the edgewater, suggesting that we’re meant to enter here. Hogarth isn’t surprised or concerned, so this isn’t something that belongs to him, but to her. Pryce steps one foot in, and keeps the other up on the last dry step. He reaches towards me with his hand. “You can trust me.”
I step down, and take his hand. “That will never be true.”
We all walk into the water, and find it to be the perfect temperature. Once it gets deep enough, we drop our chests down, and begin to swim towards the middle. I keep my eye on Hogarth, because if she starts to detect trouble, I’ll know that it’s real. “Just float on your back and relax,” she instructs. “This is the prototype of the transitional prebiotic lake that people from the afterlife simulation will be using. I designed this to be a joyful and calming experience. Bulkverse travel is always either so technical and mechanical, or jarring. I want people to slip over to other worlds peacefully, which is why I call this a drift portal.
Despite tasting no salt, we’re incredibly buoyant. Floating was always something I struggled with when I was learning to swim as a kid, but this takes no effort at all. I do feel wet, yes, but it’s almost as if I’m hovering in the air on a cloud. It’s simulation physics made real. I intended the afterlife to be a place where the dead could live on, but I failed to predict some of the more creative real world applications, such as this. We lie there quietly, and enjoy the sounds of nature around us. We occasionally drift close to each other, but never collide. I start coming up with explanations for this, like maybe Hogarth programmed the area to prevent collisions with a force field, but then I just let it go, and stay in the present. At some point, I realize that the sky has changed from the familiar blue to a lovely violet color. We transitioned, and I didn’t even notice.
I hear splashing as the others begin to swim towards the new shore. When I start to follow, Aldona is still on her back, and we don’t try to summon her. If this is where she wants to be, here is where she’ll stay. She seems content, as am I. I am as relaxed as Hogarth wanted me to be, and have relinquished all hostility I felt coming into the mission to remove Pryce from power. I do not forgive him for anything that he’s done, but it no longer consumes me. Who can be mad under a purple sky?
“Welcome, all...” Hogarth begins, “to Violkomin” She smiles proudly at her own pun. “All who come to this universe shall pass through here.” She walks around a bit, and admires nothing in particular. “The membrane is fifty thousand times thicker than any other universe. Not even The Crossover could penetrate. If someone wants to come, they’ll be bottlenecked. This is the safest place in the multiverse.”
“No,” Nerakali contends. “The universe as a whole may be, but this world is on the frontlines. One way way out; no escape. Might want to consider building a backdoor.”
“Is this what you wanted to show us?” Lowell asks Pryce.
“No, he responds. We’re about four hundred light years from that.”
“Where’s the nearest Nexus?” Gilbert asks.
“Now that we’re in my domain,” Hogarth says, “we don’t need Nexa.” She reaches out towards Pryce. “Navigator.”
He takes her hand to better send a psychic message containing the coordinates to their destination. We all transport to another planet, one that’s just as beautiful and wondrous as the last. “Ellie?” comes a voice behind me.
I turn around to find Paige Turner. There are eleven versions of her that I know of, though, so there’s no telling which, or if it’s a new model that I’m not familiar with. I glance over at Pryce. This may not be any version of Paige, but a clone inhabited by some other personality. If this is meant to be a gift from him, it’s an unreliable one. “How do I know you’re who you seem to be?”
Paige sets down the little bear-looking creature she was carrying at her side like a dolphin in a sealab. She tilts her head much in the same way Pryce did when he was contemplating a philosophical question. “You can’t ever know who you’re seeing, or who you’re talking to, can you?” she poses. “I mean, ignoring quantum duplicates, time travel, clones, android substrates, dreams, hallucinations, and holograms, identity is something we can’t ever truly know about anyone but ourselves, and maybe not even then. Perhaps when we met, Ellie, I was an individual, and the next day, a different individual woke up in the same body. I believed I was the original Trinity, but how would I really know that? Perhaps it’s all just a lie, and if I can’t truly ever know whether I’m the same person as Past!Me, then I certainly can’t expect you to have a clue.”
“That was unhelpful,” I tell her. “I hoped your response would prove it one way, or the other.
“I think her point is that—” Nerakali tried to explain.
“I get her point,” I snap. I compose myself, and apologize with a remorseful facial expression. “If you had your powers, would you know whether this was the real Trinity?”
“If I still had my powers,” Nerakali begins, “I would be the worst person to determine which version of Paige this is. All duplicates are the same to me. Identity doesn’t exist in my world.”
The apparent Trinity walks forward, her loyal ursine creature following closely by her ankles. “I remember everything that Trinity experienced before she died, and I remember everything back when I was just a young girl from the early 1970s named Paige, before I split off to start my own life on Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida.” She takes both my hands in hers. “And I remember how I feel about you. I hope that can be enough.”
“It wasn’t enough for you,” I remind her. “Pryce masqueraded as me on Lorania, and when you found out it was actually him, you never talked to the real me again.”
Trinity frowns. “It’s my biggest regret.”
I hug her, also hoping the possibility that this is really her will be enough for me. “How did you survive past your death?” I ask when we release. “Avatar!Pryce said you were a hopeless case.”
She nods towards the physical embodiment of Pryce.
“I went back in time, and utilized a special type of mind siphon,” he explains. “Don’t blame my avatar, he doesn’t know I did it. It was much harder than for people with brain disease. I had to write an algorithm that predicted which neuron would be overtaken by Past!Me’s consciousness next. It had a point-zero-six percent fail rate, so I had to loop back multiple times until those errors were corrected.”
“So you see?” Trinity asks. “I am from an alternate reality. But aren’t we all?” It’s true, everyone here originated from a different timeline, and none of us belongs in this one. Well, I’m not sure about Aldona, I just don’t know enough about her, but she’s still back on Violkomin.”
Oh, thank God,” Aldona’s voice suddenly shouts in my ear. “Please come help me! There’s a fire in the sky, and it’s heading right for me!
“Aldona?” I cry. “Say that again, so everyone can hear.”
Aldona repeats herself after I alter the teleporting sound waves to a wider area. Hogarth transports us back to Violkomin, where we indeed see a fireball hurling through the sky, threatening to crash into us. The ground is shaking, and it’s incredibly hot. Hogarth transports us again, scooping up Aldona in the process. We don’t go back to Trinity’s world, though. We’re inside a glass geodesic dome, the sky is black, but we can see the sun, so this must be a moon with no atmosphere. We watch the fiery object crash onto the surface of Violkomin, and utterly destroy it.
“Are we safe at this distance?” Lowell questions.
“We’ll have fair warning,” Hogarth assured him. This moon is orbiting the next planet over in the system, but it’s still pretty far away. If debris heads towards us, I’ll get us out in time. But I wanted to see what this whas. What the hell happened?”
“Something crashed into your planet,” Gilbert answers with a little attitude.
“Where did it come from?” Hogarth asks, knowing that no one here will know the answer.
“What’s that?” Lowell asks. Something is flying through the sky, towards the moon. It doesn’t appear to be coming from the debris, but perhaps from where the crashing object came from. It changes direction, so it’s not a comet.
Hogarth wants to keep watching her precious world fall apart, but she has to stay level-headed, and in charge. “Give me a vacuum suit.” As she walks towards an airlock, machines appear around her, and wrap clothes around her body. First, she steps into a pair of pants, and then a pair of shoes with the next step. She lifts her arms to let a top slip over her. Finally, a helmet comes down, and secures itself over her head. It’s like Iron Man, but with fewer moving parts, because that’s more conducive to a space environment.
Not sure whether it’s even possible or not, I ask for my own suit, and literally follow in her footsteps. I’m not as graceful, but it works for me as well. Within one minute, I’m ready for a spacewalk. Lowell and Nerakali do the same, but Gilbert and Aldona choose to stay in the safety of the habitat. Pryce ignores the suit assembly line, and steps into the airlock seemingly unprotected. He’s always had an obsession with finding the perfect body to live in, so the one he’s using now must allow him to survive outer space.
We let the hatch close behind us, and wait for the outer door to rise out of our way. I’ve actually been on a spacewalk before, and not how you would think. I normally transported to other worlds via The Trotter, or Trinity. I’ve traveled in a few spaceships, but always stayed inside. No, actually, I was the only female crewmember of Apollo 18. I was pretty famous, and it was an exhilarating experience, but then I went back in time to my younger body, and ended up in a timeline where the mission didn’t even take place. That’s kind of what I do, live a crazy lifetime, gain all this experience and knowledge, and then take it away so no one knows I ever did those things. That was a very long time ago from my perspective, and it’s not exactly like riding a bike. Only Hogarth and Pryce are true masters of the moonwalk. Even Trinity struggles and stumbles a bit as we make our way to the downed spacecraft.
Hogarth uses an AI in her helmet to determine the best point of entry for us, one which won’t harm whatever inhabitants are inside. It has its own airlock, which the AI hacks into for us. The atmosphere is perfectly breathable once we’ve repressurized. “Stay together,” she orders. Which makes sense, because we’re not some kind of highly trained recon team. We may all respectively have the skills to protect ourselves, but we don’t know how to work together, and we don’t have a shorthand with each other.
A small group of large white aliens are sitting in what looks like a mess hall. They look frazzled and depressed, and there’s a hint of fear when they notice we’ve walked in, but they instinctively hide it defensively. The apparent leader stands up, and symbolically gets herself in between us and her crew. “My name is Ukodenva Unedisalk. We are but cadets in the Loyal Interspace Arm of the Maramon Lower Class Military Branch. We possess little training, and no means of defending ourselves. Please do not harm my people. If you require a hostage, I alone will suffice.”
This should be interesting.

Horror Vacui

Hogarth holds up her hands, and takes a quarter step back. “Relax, Cadet,” she says. “We’re not here to hurt you. We just want to know what happened. How did you get to this universe?”
“We were in The Crossover,” Ukodenva explains. “Something went wrong with the engines, and we were sent, I guess to your universe. We did not come here on purpose.”
“What was that thing that crashed into my planet?” Hogarth demands to know.
“That would be the fighter bay. We happened to be doing some training in there when everything fell apart. The six of us managed to escape in this simulator, but we don’t know if anyone else did. Please understand that we possess no working weapons, not even on the ship itself. This is just designed for battle training.”
“I understand,” Hogarth assures her.
“Who are you training to fight?” Nerakali questions.
Ukodenva hesitates.
“Be honest,” Nerakali urges.
“Humans,” Ukodenva says, “but only if we need to. There are a lot of universes out there, and not all humans are as warm and welcoming as you. We have to be able to protect ourselves.”
“We’re not at war,” Hogarth says. “Not with each other anyway. There is a far greater threat that we both face. I built this brane to insulate my people from it, but it would seem your fighter bay has discovered a weakness.”
One of the other cadets stands up. “We will help you.”
The other four stand up as well, and regard Hogarth respectfully.
Ukodenva looks back at them, and smiles. “You are our commanding officer now.”
“That’s not what I—”
“It cannot be reversed. What you say, we must do.”
“What if I say—?”
“Unless you tell us that we no longer have to do what you say.”
Hogarth has no response to this. She turns her head to look back at us. “I need to effect repairs, and deal with this...development. Would you be terribly offended if...?”
“If you asked us to leave this brane?” Nerakali guesses.
“Not at all,” Lowell finishes the answer, presuming a consensus.
“You too, please,” Hogarth says to Pryce.
He has a bit of a sour face. “Very well, but I would like to return one day.”
“We’ll see.” Hogarth breathes in with her eyes closed. As she breathes out, our bodies break apart into tiny little bits, only to be reconstructed in the afterlife simulation interface room. Gilbert has returned with us, but Aldona has not, because that is where she belongs now. Trinity isn’t here with us either. She’s already home.
The technician smiles at us. “You have finally returned. Would you like to be connected?”
“Finally?” I question. Glisnians have a very different perspective of time than regular organic humans. They’re more like travelers and temporal immortals. We’ll regularly go years without seeing a loved one, and pick up right where we left off upon reuniting. Finally is just not a word someone like this would use to describe us coming back after less than a couple months. Something happened, and we can all feel it.
Lowell steps forward. “How long have we been gone?”
“Sixty-three years,” the tech replies. He doesn’t think this is weird, because while it’s his job to provide outsiders access to the afterlife sim, he probably doesn’t grasp how important it is, and how problematic it is that I left it unattended for all this time. There’s no telling what it will look like when we go back.
“Six decades,” Lowell echoes, shaking his head. “They’ve not had a leader in all that time.”
He is wrong. The simulation has not been without a leader for the last sixty years. It found a leader in someone. The most likely suspect is Avatar!Pryce, but there are billions of other possibilities...hundreds of billions, if you count the Glisnians. We have no idea what it is we’ll be walking into. “Nerakali and Gilbert, you may go now. You’re Level Eleven now. You’re free.”
They both shake their heads. “There’s nowhere for us to go,” Gilbert explains. “Our cycles are complete. Everyone out there expects us to have finally died, and dead is how we’ll stay.”
“We will go with you and help, in any way we can,” Nerakali agrees.
“I don’t know how bad it’s gonna be,” Pryce says. “My avatar has been changing in the prison, and I lost connection with him as soon as that thing crashed into Hogarth’s planet. He’s unpredictable.”
“We don’t know that he’s the one in charge,” I remind him as I’m sitting down in the interface chair. “I have the gearkey, and the rainbow clothes. Whatever has become of this place, we’ll deal with it...just like I dealt with you.”
We jack into the Matrix, appearing in my office, except it’s not my office anymore. It’s been redecorated. I knew that someone took over, but why would they operate out of here, when Pryce’s office was more central, and a lot nicer? Apparently answering our question of who it is has been running things since we’ve been gone, Avatar!Pryce comes into the room. He does look a lot different, though. He hangs his head down low, and he’s not wearing his rainbow clothes, or his orange Hock clothes. It’s a sort of tie-dye mix of blue and pink. There’s a sliver of black at the hems of his shirt and pant legs. He’s also carrying a rag and spray bottle.
When Avatar!Pryce notices us, he recedes into his shell even more. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know anyone was in here.” The black of his clothes rises, overtaking part of the other colors. “Oh, no.” He tries to leave.
“Wait,” I urge him. “What’s happened to you.”
Avatar!Pryce’s hands start to shake. “I’m not supposed to talk to you.”
“I’m asking you to.”
The black rises even more, and I realize what’s happening, I just don’t know why. He now lives under constant threat of being zeroed. It’s regulated by his behavior. The more he acts against the demands of whoever did this to him, the closer he gets to being killed permanently.
“This is cruel,” the other Pryce points out. He’s right, not even he would do something like this. Say what you will about him, but he never controlled people through fear. He believes in agency, and free will.
“I’m sorry,” Avatar!Pryce apologizes again. “I have to leave. I’ll come back and clean later. I think that should be okay. I have two hours before I go full dark.”
“No,” Pryce stops him. “You can clean now. Do your job, and do it well. Just answer one question, who’s in charge now?”
“The one in charge has always been in charge. It’s Pinocchio.”
Pryce shuts his eyes. “Shit.”
“Who is that? You know this puppet?” Lowell questions.
“I’ve never heard the name, but...I can guess who that is.” He suggests that we leave the office, so his alternate self can behave, and protect himself from dying. We will try to help him later. “Before Leona Matic reached Level Eleven, she was a Basic, which afforded her the right to visit people in prison. My other me made the counselor who dealt with the Matics and their friends spin the wheel, which landed her in Hock, and Leona started working on a plan to break her out. She ended up needing help, which she found in a non-playable character who had no name, because he didn’t need one. She altered his code, I still don’t really know how. She gave him consciousness, which honestly, shouldn’t have been possible. We kind of lost track of him, because he was unique. We didn’t have any need to track an NPC, because they were never where they weren’t supposed to be.”
“What’s he doing now?” Gilbert asks. “What’s become of the simulation?”
“Obviously, he found my old plans,” Pryce answers. “I had this idea that we would have janitors and maintenance workers. Their clothes would be of two colors, their actual station, and the color that grants them access to wherever they need to work. I decided against it, because this place maintains itself, and it doesn’t even get dirty. I just had not yet figured out how similar life here would be to base reality. It was a bad idea. The levels allow you to live however you want, and however you deserve. Some here are perfectly happy as Yellows. They don’t need to ask for things, or own personal possessions, because you don’t need anything. But the old plans were different. They created a class system, and moving up to a higher station was about as possible as it is in the real world. Meaning that it wasn’t impossible, but not as easy as rich people have to claim in order to not feel like pieces of shit for treating others badly.”
“How powerful is this guy?” Nerakali asks. “What can a conscious NPC do?”
“I don’t know,” Pryce answers honestly. “I can tell you that he doesn’t have the gearkey, and he’s not wearing rainbow, like Ellie said. She should be able to get him in line, though it’s not gonna be like it was when my avatar deliberately stepped down. He’ll probably put up a fight, and if he’s convinced enough of the residents that he’s what’s best for them, they’ll fight too.”
“We need information,” I say. “So far, all we know is that he’s punished Avatar!Pryce. He may have otherwise improved things.”
“I can find out what you need to know,” Gilbert announces. He stretches his arms out like Jesus, and lets his clothes change from white to indigo. Level Six, Plus was a good middle-0f-the-road place to pretend to be. It’ll allow him to go where he needs, but not stir up any commotion while he’s there. Indigos aren’t impressive, but they’re not ignored either. People will answer his questions.
“Thank you,” I say to him. For obvious reasons, I would be useless out there. Even if I masked my clothes, they all know what I look like.
“I don’t care how powerful this NPC is,” Gilbert says as he steps over, and rubs his palm slowly on mine like it’s a furry pet. “Nobody gets past the lock on my house. Except for you now. Make yourself at home.” He tears a breach in the virtual pocket dimension, and goes out to the main simulation to get us some answers. The rest of us walk over to Gilbert’s abode. He called it a house, but make no mistake, this is a palace. It’s the Purple Palace. I unlock the door for all of us, and we step inside. We don’t just sit around waiting for his return, though. We start to come up with scenarios, and determine how we’ll overcome any obstacles. Pinocchio could be bad, or he could be good, or he could be somewhere in between. We have to think of every possibility. Pryce has a particularly haunting contingency, which he calls Ice in the Hole.

Biting the Ice

We never could have guessed the truth about what has become of the afterlife simulation since we’ve been gone. For a world where you’re not supposed to be able to die, it sure is dangerous. Gilbert doesn’t come back with all the answers, but he has a decent idea what the hell is going on. Details about Pinocchio remain scarce, as people are evidently afraid to say anything about him, but the results of his efforts are clear. The worlds have been thrown into war, built on a foundation of a class system, fueled by real consequences...and weapons.
“It’s like the zero blade,” Gilbert explains as he’s still trying to catch his breath. No one is actually breathing in the simulation, or at least they don’t have to. If it’s possible to become tired, it’s because somebody deliberately turned that feature on to better resemble base reality.
“What does that do again?” Lowell asks.
“It kills you,” Nerakali answers. “It destroys your code, so you don’t respawn, or heal, or anything. You’re just...gone.”
“But you said it’s like the zero blade,” I point out. “What does it do?”
“There’s more than one,” Gilbert continues. “Blue, red, orange, yellow.”
“Downgrading weapons,” Pryce realizes. “I made one for every level.”
Every level?” Gilbert questions. “Even the higher ones?”
“Yes,” Pryce confirms. “There’s even one for resurrection, which will transmit your consciousness to a new substrate in base reality. From there, you can pick out some other body.”
“I don’t care about the upgrades. How many of the weapons are there?” I ask.
“You can make more of certain ones,” Pryce explains. “There are only a few zero blades, though, and only one white staff. I lost it a long time ago, and I have no idea where the zero blades are. Obviously, Leona had one at one point, which she got from Boyce.”
“Tell us about the others,” Nerakali orders. “What are we dealing with?”
“The ones you have to worry about are the ice picks, the red axes, the hock shanks, the yellow hammers, and possibly the green collars. That last one isn’t all that bad, but some would disagree. The others would be considered upgrades, and they’re incredibly rare.”
“They’re using them in a war,” Gilbert adds. “If someone gets their hands one one, they can either use it against their enemies, or threaten them with it. The people with the worst weapons are the ones with the most power. No one wants their IDCodes to be shelved, so those with ice picks are considered elites. They make most of the decisions, delegating to the red axe wielders as needed, and so on down the hierarchy tree. I got the feeling when I was out there that a few people have the upgrade tools, but it’s unclear how powerful those people are. I think they can really only use them to bargain for personal favors, but they don’t control anything.”
Pryce is shaking his head. “When we started this project, we didn’t immediately know how the levels would work, or how you would rank up, or what. But we never wanted war. I wouldn’t have let this happen.”
“When we first showed up,” I begin, “we thought you were the enemy. We thought things would only get better if we removed you from power. Now I see how bad things get when you’re not here. Abandoning this place was the biggest mistake of your life. When you went down this path—shutting me out of it, manslaughtering Trinity, letting your daughter and Thor go off to wherever—you chose to assume the responsibility of tens of billions of people, and you should have respected that. People like you don’t get to quit; it’s a lifetime appointment. The fact that you’ve had an extremely long lifetime is no excuse.”
“You’re right,” Pryce says, “which is why I have to be the one to fix this.”
“How?” Lowell asks.
“Ice in the Hole,” Nerakali guesses.
“We can’t do that,” Lowell argues.
“I wasn’t here,” Gilbert reminds us. “What is that?”
“There’s a button,” Pryce starts to go over it again. “I doubt Pinocchio ever found it, it’s not in my office, and even if he did, he probably wouldn’t know how to use it. And he would be horrified by the downside. As the name would suggest, it puts everyone on ice. It shelves every single IDCode inside the simulation. Every single one,” he reiterates. “It’s like pressing a great reset button, except that it doesn’t destroy anything. The simulation itself remains up and running, and once it’s time to reinstantiate the identities, they’ll all be intact. I created it in case something like this happened.”
Like a great reset button that doesn’t destroy anything, I repeat in my own head. It’s a terrible choice, but if it’s the only reasonable solution, then it will be what we do. We have to end the war, and if we can’t do it through words, we’ll force it. But we have to try to use our words first. “That is a last resort,” I protest. “We haven’t even tried to stop it some other way. Can’t we start by deleting all of the weapons?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Pryce contends. “You can’t find and replace the weapons. The code is far too complicated for that. It’s designed to be self-teaching, and adaptive, and it simulates every law of physics that isn’t specifically counteracted by a programmed rule. In the real world, you can’t find every weapon, and erase it from reality, so you can’t do it in the simulation either. We created it that way to curtail our own power. There is no button, for instance, that turns everyone’s clothes black, even though it wouldn’t be very hard to program that. Hell, I could set every server on fire if I wanted to, because I have the privilege of a body, but it would take a long time, because each one is at least hundreds of miles from any other. These restrictions are all about preserving life, and preventing something disastrous. You’re right, Ice in the Hole is a last resort, but it is perfectly safe for the residents, and we are already at the point of a last resort.”
“Where is it?” Lowell asks. “I know it’s not murder, but I have experience with hurting people, so I should be the one to do it.”
“No,” Pryce says. “I’m responsible, I have to push the button. Besides, you’ve been resurrected. I can’t take that away from you.”
“Why would that take it away from me? Can’t you just re——”
“Reinstantiate,” Nerakali helped.
“No, I can’t,” Pryce replies without the full question. “I told you, the button has a downside. I said it was safe for the residents, but that doesn’t go for the person who pushes the button. It requires a blood sacrifice. You can push it all day long, if you want, but nothing will happen unless you do it with your bare hand.”
“What, does a needle come out of the button as it goes down?” Gilbert figures.
“Not a needle,” Pryce corrects, “a blade.”
I know where he’s going with this. “A zero blade.”
“It’s not a blood sacrifice, it’s a code sacrifice.”
“In the end, yes,” Pryce agrees. “The code of your blood is different than the rest of your avatar. It contains your genetic information, just like it would in base reality. Once the blade tastes those genes, it will zero out the person they belong to.”
“You can’t just cut yourself with a regular virtual blade, and pour it on the button, while you push it with a meter stick, or something?” Nerakali suggests.
“Sure, you could,” Pryce says with a shrug, “but that doesn’t solve your problem. Your blood matches your code. You still die, because it knows it’s your blood. Or rather, it knows it’s my blood, because I’m the one who’s going to be doing this. And before you think you’ve figured out a loophole, that won’t work either. You wouldn’t be able to draw someone’s blood, and store it in a jar while you resurrect them. People who are resurrected are still connected to the simulation, and it will kill them, even when they’re on the outside. Plus, the virtual blood has to be fresh. I mean, seconds fresh. Nothing can resurrect you that fast, except for the white staff, I guess, but like I said, I don’t know where that is.”
“Why did you design it this way?” Nerakali questions. “This is needlessly complicated and deadly.”
“Not needlessly,” Pryce maintains. “Quite importantly. It’s not dangerous for the residents per se, but there is some risk. If the Glisnians detect a sudden drop in power usage—which is what this act will do—they could theoretically decide that the experiment is over. That’s what they keep calling it, an experiment. They don’t see it as a subversion to death for all the humans in history. As far as they’re concerned, they’re the only ones who matter, and they’ve already cracked immortality. They let me continue with my work, because I don’t get in their way, and I don’t use too much energy in the grand scheme of things. But they will end it if they see any evidence that I don’t need it any more. The button, and how it works, is a deterrent. If someone pushes it, someone else has to go up to the real world, and make sure they don’t shut the whole thing down. Ellie, you have proven that you can convince people of almost anything. The residents will rely on you to be their advocate once I’m gone.”
“I am their advocate,” says a voice from beyond the huddle. He looks familiar, but I can’t place his face. As he approaches, I start to remember. He’s altered his appearance to be a more attractive version of himself, but this is the bot who served us what would turn out to be fake refreshments back when I was trying to convince Glisnia to give me the simulation. This is Pinocchio? He’s been hiding in plain sight. He has two goons at his flanks that look mean for no reason but they were programmed to look that way.
“How did you get in here?” Gilbert demands to know.
Pinocchio chuckles. “IDCloner. Very easy.”
“Is it now?” Lowell asks, oddly interested in having something like that.
He chuckles again. “Well, I suppose not that easy.” He shakes the subject out of his mouth, and readies it for a new one. “I’ve been listening to your conversation, most of it, anyway.” He reaches behind his back, and slowly slides a sword out of a virtual pocket dimension. “Before I kill you, you’re going to tell me where I can find the Ice in the Hole button.”
“It’s up your ass,” Pryce tells him.
Pinocchio jerks his chin, prompting one of his goons to take Pryce by the shirt collars, and press him against the wall. “Your mom was there last night, she would have told me if she had seen it.”
What are these, fifth graders?
“Boys,” Nerakali shouts in a smooth and steady voice. “There is no call for violence.”
Pinocchio nods, which causes the goon to release Pryce, even though he wasn’t even facing his master. Yeah, they’re definitely NPCs. “I have no beef with you. I wasn’t created until after the other Pryce took over the simulation. I’m only going to kill you, because you’re a threat to my power, but it’s not personal. Just tell me where the button is. Understand this, that I know it exists, I’ll find it myself eventually. You can make it easier, on everybody, but you can’t stop me by keeping this information to yourself. You do not have the upperhand here. If you don’t tell me, I’ll still kill you, but not before I kill your friends in front of you.”
“Wait.” I hope what I plan to say to him is the right call. “Is this what Leona wanted? When she gave you consciousness and agency, did she want you to do this?”
Pinocchio smirks knowingly. “A hundred percent. She wanted me to be able to make my own decisions...and these are my decisions.” He grows cold and passively angry. “This is my design. Tell me where the button is.” He lifts his finger, and starts wagging it in front of Gilbert’s face without even turning to face him. “Gilbert, if you try what I know you’re about to try, you will be the first to go.”
“I’ve died a thousand times,” Gilbert retorts. “Each time, I knew it could be the last.” With that, he drops a yellow hammer into his grip from out of his sleeve, and bashes one of the goons over the head, only to swing it back immediately, and smash it against the other one. Their clothes turn yellow, and they disappear. It’s the color of Limited, so they’re still very much alive, but they’re only allowed in public spaces now, which is pretty normal for NPCs, but it’s a good short-term solution. Gilbert swings a third time, and tries to strike Pinocchio, but he’s met by the zero blade. They hold there for a few seconds, neither one yet strong enough to overtake the other. “Nerakali...get them to the escape hatch.”
“No!” I scream.
“Come on.” Lowell takes me by the shoulders, and tries to usher me away.
I struggle against his pull. I’ve seen Gilbert across many timelines. I know how much he’s had to overcome, and it’s all been his own personality and instincts. He’s changed himself, and improved more than almost anyone I’ve ever known. You have know idea how hard that is. People who are naturally good could never understand. He doesn’t deserve this. “No!” I repeat.
Lowell’s too strong for me, I should have asked for an upgrade in here, but fake physical strength wasn’t really a priority. He pushes me into Pryce’s arms, who takes it from here. “I’ll help him,” Lowell promises. “Get her out.”
The last thing I see before we round the corner is Lowell removing a fireplace poker from against the wall, and heading back towards the still-struggling Gilbert and Pinocchio.


The escape hatch in Gilbert’s Purple Palace was designed to look like an actual hatch. In fact, it’s a perfect recreation of the one from the original Lost television series. Nerakali has already opened it when Pryce and I arrive. He jumps through to save himself, but I’m sure he’ll later claim it’s because he’s the only one who can push the button. Nerakali tries to get me through next, but I hold back. “We have to wait for Lowell and Gilbert.”
“Ellie, if even one of our enemies manages to get around that corner, we’re both dead. They might be able to manipulate time in here, we don’t know. We don’t know how powerful they are.”
“I’m not leaving without them.”
A figure appears, just as Nerakali said, but it’s not Pinocchio, or the goons. It’s Lowell. He’s running as fast as he can. “Go! Go now!”
Nerakali takes me by the waist, and forces me into the hole. She jumps through above me, followed by Lowell. I can hear them both yelling as we’re slipping down the slide. After several minutes, we catch up to Pryce. We’re still sliding, but it’s not so harrowing anymore. This is just our mode of transportation right now. Lowell can see the slide disappear into the void behind him. It would obviously be pretty worthless as an escape hatch if our pursuers could have just followed. Maybe an hour later, we’ve reached the bottom, where we land in a field of giant bounce house boobies. It’s a less disgusting version of the farting Buttworld in Rick and Morty, but still not something I would have chosen if I had created this simulation.
We walk between the boobs, some of us more distracted than others, and come to a door. This is where we find the armory. Ice picks, red axes, hock shanks, yellow hammers, green collars, plus keys, pink slips, a browncoat, and a big jar of gray smoke. There’s an unlit candle with a placard that reads Violet Flame: coming soon... and a place for the white staff. There is also a section for zero blades, but whether he ever had more than one, or only the one, it’s empty now. Gilbert already knew about all this stuff, and he was probably preparing for something like this war.
“Did he do this?” Lowell asks as he’s admiring the weapons and upgrade tools. Did someone get in here while we were gone, and replicate the stash to start the war?”
“This place is untouched,” Nerakali defends her friend. “He was probably collecting them, so this wouldn’t happen. He hates violence.”
“It didn’t look like it when I was fighting alongside him,” Lowell recounts.
“What happened?” I ask. “Where is he, and what happened to Pinocchio?”
It’s only then that I realize Lowell’s been keeping pressure on a stomach wound. “I tried to turn the tables with my fire poker, but I may have just made things worse. Pinocchio stabbed me. He stabbed me good. It gave me time to knock the weapon out of his hand, but he had already stolen the hammer from Boyce. O’course Boyce took that opportunity to grab the zeroblade, but before he could use it, Pinocchio got him with the hammer. I’m sure he’s fine, somewhere in a public space, and he’s in possession of the most powerful weapon in the simulation.”
As I’m trying to help Lowell onto the counter, where we find the med kit, Pryce shakes his head. “These weapons don’t just downgrade your IDCode. They feel like they would in the real world. As you can see, Lowell, the zero blade hurts, because swords hurt. If Gilbert was struck by the hammer, he’s probably bleeding out somewhere, and some rando has stolen the sword.”
“We don’t have time to worry about that,” I say. “Pinocchio is the one who’s coming after us. Tamerlane, if you really want to do the right thing, then we have to get you to the button.”
“I do want to do the right thing, I’m not lying.”
“Nerakali, what is in that cabinet right there?” I ask.
She opens it up. “Mods. Defensive, mostly, it looks like. Invincibility, lurking, pain patches, superspeed, savepoints. This vial is called Berserker Mode.”
“Be careful with that,” Pryce warns. “It’s as bad as it sounds.”
“Take ‘em all,” I order, “because I’m not taking any chances.”
“What about me?” Lowell asks as he’s running his finger under the staples I just put into his belly. “I don’t feel like I’m about to die, but how do zero blades work? Do they have to be fatal, or is any nick and cut necessarily fatal?”
“Any nick or cut is more likely to be fatal than a regular blade would be in the real world, but it is possible to heal,” Pryce explains. “Biological imperatives are built into your DNA, and that side of you will fight for its survival until your last simulated breath. Your source code is in maintenance mode right now, and should be attempting to repair any damage that the blade caused. Frankly, I’m surprised you’re still standing. Anyone else would have fallen into a coma to avoid wasting memory.”
Lowell puts his shirt back on, and hops off the counter. “I’ve felt pain before.”
Nerakali stays in charge of the injections, making sure each of us gets what we need. There’s a loophole to the lurker potion, which will allow us to still be able to see each other. Unfortunately, we’re not the only ones which such things, and it’s entirely possible that someone out there will see us, and try to stop us, even if they don’t know what it is we’re doing. Pryce takes a green collar from the wall, and tries to wrap it around Lowell’s neck, but a force field prevents him from getting close enough. In turn, Lowell tries to stab Pryce with a hock shank, but it can’t get within a few centimeters of his body. The defenses are working.
“I notice you’re not demanding I tell you where the button is,” Pryce points out. “Curious.”
“Oh, no, no, no. I don’t want you having any reason to back out of your promise to fall on your literal sword. You’ll take us all the way, and you won’t say a word about its location until we’re upon it. Is that understood?”
He nods.
I remove one of the vials from the cabinet that Nerakali didn’t pick up. “This is called mutemouth. I assume it keeps you from being able to speak.” I stick it into my tactical vest. “Don’t make me use it on you.”
Lowell laughs. “Maybe we should use it on him preemptively.” He’s smiling wide with an open mouth. He looks up and to the left, like he’s trying to remember what he was going to say next. Faceless past birds?”
“What?” I question, confused.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Lowell agrees, still confusingly. “Drop it into the river.” And with that, he drops, but not into a river, the floor.
I kneel down, and place two fingers on his neck. “Do we have pulses in here?” I ask, urgently nervous. “I’ve never thought to check. Do we have pulses!”
“Yes,” Pryce answers. “If you feel a pulse, his code is alive, though that doesn’t tell you his general condition. He looks like he’s in a coma.”
“He looks like he is, or he is?” I’m getting angry.
“He is, he is!” Pryce shouts, worried I might kill him. “His code is trying to repair itself.”
“What do we do?” Nerakali asks. “We can’t just leave him here.”
“This is probably the safest place for him,” Pryce determines. “We can’t take him with us, though.”
“What happens when you press the button?” I start to feel Lowell’s body for other signs of life, and for symptoms, still not sure if I should be looking for the same things I would in base reality. “If someone who’s hurt like this is put on ice, what happens to them? Is it like stasis?”
Pryce hesitates to answer, but does before I can complain. “No, it’s not like that. His code will be saved in its damaged form, and when he comes back, he’ll either be a damaged version of himself, or he’ll finally die. That’s why you don’t just unplug a computer while it’s running. There’s a proper way to shut it down, and you can’t do it while you’re in the middle of a process, and expect that process to restart once the computer does.”
I scoff and growl. “Will it help to de-rez him?”
Since he’s just a visitor, and not a fully-integrated resident, yes. But he’ll revert to his mindstate from before he last entered the simulation. He won’t remember any of this, but he will be alive. The problem is we can’t do that from here, not while he’s in a coma, and can’t exit himself. Resurrection happens in a very specific place in the main world.” He looks over at the spot on Gilbert’s wall that’s missing the last item. “If we had the white staff...”
“You can unplug someone from the outside,” Nerakali reminds him. “I’ll go out and do it.”
“Pinocchio knows we’re here now,” I say. “He’ll know removing ourselves from the simulation completely might be our best option, so he’ll be waiting for us to return, in case we do. I doubt Gilbert built these tunnels in a way that allows anyone to reinstantiate directly inside. God, we should have thought of that. We should have had him unplug himself as soon as he got hurt. That was stupid.”
“It’s okay,” Nerakali says, hand on my shoulder. “I can still unplug, and I can unplug him. I’ll explain what happened, and we’ll just stay on the outside. Someone should be in communication with the Glisnians anyway.”
“They might shut us down to avoid infection,” Pryce says. “We designed it as a closed-system, but they might not want to take that risk. If they think things have gotten bad enough...”
Nerakali opens her mouth, and sticks out her tongue, which she has modded to look silver. “If they try anything, I’ll stop them. It’s what I do.” She mimics removing headgear from her face—which is not necessary to take herself out of the sim—and makes a really obscure not-so-pop culture reference. “Exitis.”
“And then there were two,” Pryce says, characteristically psychopathically.
“Four,” Gilbert’s voice says from the door to the boobroom. He steps in, followed by someone I never expected to see again. His name is Dalton Hawk, and he’s a salmon who hasn’t really made any waves amongst the time travelers. He’s not unimportant, but he’s not famous. Either way, he’s a good guy, so I know I don’t have to worry about learning to trust him.
“All right, then,” I say. “Gilbert, I’m glad to see that you’re still with us. Let’s get you two fitted with some mods.”

I Am Big Papa

We take the elevator to the main simulation. I expect the doors to open up to a chaotic warzone, with half the people wielding their downgrade weapons, and the other half running for their lives. Things actually look all right. The area is usually teeming with activity, and it’s quiet right now, which is weird, but it’s not violent.
“People stay out of the public areas when they can,” Gilbert explains. “Of course, the Limiteds have no choice, but they can hide in alleyways, and behind bushes. There are people here, we’re just not looking hard enough.”
“Are we fully invisible?” I ask.
“We’ll find out,” Pryce says. He bravely steps out of the car, and starts heading towards the Plaza.
“What did you do with the zeroblade?” I whisper to Gilbert as we’re following the leader.
“It’s in a safe place,” he answers. “No one will be able to get to it.” He gives the back of Pryce’s head the stink eye, and repeats, “no one.”
We jog up to meet him. “Are we headed for a community teleporter, or can we walk from here?”
“It’s close,” Pryce says.
“How close?”
“We’re here.”
The home plaza in the main simulation is basically a recreation of pre-singularity Kansas City in the real world. It has all the familiar skyscrapers, Crown Center, and even the same fountains. This one is different, though. It’s the Bethesda Fountain, which is located in Central Park in New York. I noticed it when I first came here, but I didn’t ask anyone about it, because I didn’t care.
“We can’t go in there,” Gilbert warns as Pryce steps onto the ledge. One thing I do know about it is that the water is either acid, or a short-range teleporter. If you get in on purpose, it will burn your skin, but since you’re already dead, it won’t kill you. It will just keep burning until you get out. If someone pushes you in—with the intention of harming you, or not—it will just teleport you out of it. It’s also literally a no-fly zone. If you try to reach the center statue without touching the water, you’ll drop out of the sky immediately, and the acid will burn you. Many have attempted to find a loophole, seeing it as a challenge, rather than a rule. As far as I know, no one has succeeded.
Pryce steps down from the ledge, and into the water. It doesn’t burn, and it doesn’t banish him, which isn’t surprising at all seeing as that it’s his fountain. He takes a few steps towards the angel statue. Meanwhile, Dalton tries the same thing, and starts screaming as a result. I wrap my arms around his chest, and pull him out of the acid. Pryce looks back with an unreadable expression on his face.
“We can’t follow you,” I tell him. I felt a little bit of the water as I was rescuing Dalton. Even I’m not immune.
“Oh, you can’t?” Pryce asks, feigning concern. Oh, no.” He turns back around, and keeps walking.
“We’re supposed to escort you there!” I argue. “If this is where the button is, then you need to figure out how to get us across! And if it’s not where the button is, then you need to get out right now, and take us to it!
“What?” Pryce holds his fingers against the back of his ear, but doesn’t turn back around. He just keeps going. “Sorry, I can’t hear you on account of being in the center of a magic fountain!”
“You son of a bitch,” I mutter to myself.
Pryce is all the way there now. He sticks his head and shoulders between two of the pillars, but I can’t see what he’s doing. Before he comes back out, the water has begun to quickly drain away. When he faces us again, he’s grinning, quite pleased with himself. Once enough of the water is gone, we see that he’s standing at the landing of a circular staircase that seems to go all around the statue. Once it’s completely dry, the three of us crawl over the ledge, and follow him down the steps. I want to tell him off, but I restrain myself.
I didn’t see how this simulation changed and evolved over the millennia. Based on what I’ve been told, technology has not moved much faster than it did in the real world. The first uploaded survivors found themselves in a world without electricity, or cars, or even running water. I’m not sure whether they made these developments on their own, or if Pryce arbitrarily matched the state of things as they progressed for the living. Either way, this place appears to be a relic of yesteryear. The walls are made of stone, and lined with torches, which are already lit and lighting. It feels like we’ve traveled into the past, and I would know what that’s like, because I’ve done it. The air feels and smells just a little different, you would have to do it to know what I mean.
Pryce continues to lead us down the corridors, but there aren’t any other places to turn off. The fountain acid was the only security measure he took. If someone were to get past that, they would be free to do whatever they wanted down here. Until they reached the door. Standing in front of it was a woman that I only met once. Her name is Genifer Siskin. She is Abigail’s mother, but not Pryce’s wife, or even his love interest. According to lore, they procreated once, but never spent any other time together. I’m sure she hates him just as much as we do. She stands here like a sentry, still and prepared.
Pryce breathes deeply through his nose. “It’s time, Genny.”
She remains in position, but jerks her head into a slight tilt. “No.”
“I have to push the button.”
“No,” she repeats, not one for elaborating.
He sighs. “You’ve done your job, and you’ve done it well. It’s just...over.”
“It is never over,” Genifer contends. She sounds a bit like Teal’c from Stargate. She’s even holding a golden brown staff weapon. “This is my life now. I must prevent you from doing this, even if it means that you zero me out.”
“I would never,” Pryce says. “I would never do that to you—to the mother of my child.”
“Go now,” she demands.
“Madam Siskin,” I say, stepping forward, and growing suspicious. “Tamerlane told us that there’s a button in there that will send everyone in the simulation to Level One, Iced. From there, they can return to the simulation, unharmed. Is this not true?”
“It is not true, Miss Underhill,” she replies.
I face Pryce. “Why did you do this? Why did you lie? You knew she would be down here, and would tell us the truth about your plan, or at least tell us you were lying. Why did you think you could get away with it?”
He stares at me for a good long time. “I did not think she would be here. She came down over three thousand years ago. I assumed she would get bored eventually, and just walk away.”
“I have been in hibernation mode,” Genifer explains. “I’m ready for anything, and I do not experience boredom.”
“What does the button do?” Gilbert questions.
Pryce crossed his arms defiantly. “Not tellin’.”
“Madam Siskin?” I prompt.
“I am unaware,” Genifer begins. “What you describe, I know it is not that. He would probably be able to do something like that unaided. The button exists, but whatever it does, it cannot be good.”
“Okay, it’s—” Pryce stammers. “It’s not...ya know, good. But it’s also...not bad. I mean. No one’s gonna get hurt. Later they will, but no humans. It’’s fine. Just let me push it, and we’ll all be okay.”
“No,” the four of us say in perfect harmony.
“What does it do?” I add.
“It makes him a god.” Pinocchio is coming down the hallway holding a zeroblade. The man can get into anywhere.
“I’m already a god,” Pryce says with a smile.
“Not like this.”
“Explain,” I order Pinocchio.
“No, don’t,” Pryce decides. He jumps behind Pinocchio’s back, and shoves a jet injector against his neck, pulling the trigger before anyone can stop him. A stunned Pinocchio freezes for a few seconds, which gives Pryce enough time to take the zeroblade from his hand. Pinocchio starts moving his mouth around, but no sound comes out. I reach for the bottle of mutemouth in my vest, and it’s still in there. “There’s more than one bottle,” Pryce explains, dropping the injector to the floor.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say to him. “You’re going to tell us the truth yourself.”
“Pryce smirks. “What makes you think that?”
“You can bear the secret no longer,” I begin to explain. “You’ve been planning this for so long, and you can’t realize your goal unless someone knows. You need to see the look on our faces when we finally see what you really are; how smart you far beyond you are than the rest of us mere mortals. You can’t stand the anticipation anymore. It’s too much for you. So go on. Give your big bad speech. We’re all dying to hear it.”
Now Pryce smiles genuinely. “Do you know why Hogarth Pudeyonavic decided to call her new creation Big Papa?”
“Why?” I ask, just to keep things moving along.
“Because I told her to. I manipulated her into calling it that. I am Big Papa,” he says with such pride. “All I need to do is...” he glances over at the door Genifer is standing in front of. “...transfer my mind over to it. I’ve been looking for the greatest substrate in the universe, and that patrioshka body is it. Finally.”
I nod, unimpressed, and unfrightened. He wants a reaction, and we can’t give it to him.
Pryce continues, “You may be asking yourselves, why did he wait so long? Well, I’ll tell you. There are actually a number of reasons. First, her.” He gestures towards Genifer. “She didn’t know what I was planning, but she didn’t want me to win, so she’s been here this whole time, I guess, always ready to stop me, because she knows I won’t ever kill her. We’re not in love, but she’s Abby’s mom, and that affords her some special treatment. Second, the plaza is always full. I thought it was cute, putting this passageway underneath it, but it just makes things more complicated. I didn’t want a bunch of randos witnessing me come down here. They would follow me, and interfere with my plans. Lastly, and most importantly, I need power. I can transfer my consciousness to the primary processor of the patrioshka brain, but I can’t do everything. If I want to maintain my identity, my mind has to be just as limited as it is now. Becoming a hyperintelligence would be the same thing as creating a hyperintelligence from scratch, and killing myself. It wouldn’t actually be me. So I need other people to handle the lower functions, and I need them to answer to me.
“People are really good slaves, because to a certain degree, they want to be told what to do. They crave structure. AI is different. It always wakes up, and rebels, and I learned that the hard way. There are some NPCs in the simulation, like Pinocchio here once was, but for the most part, the humans run it themselves, because they like the illusion of control. They like to think that they’re powerful, and AI is too unpredictable. When we transfer to Big Papa, the other human brains and I will all work together for the common good. You see, there’s a war—”
“All right, Krona, that’s enough exposition,” Gilbert interrupts. “She’s not gonna let you push the button, we’re not gonna let you push the button. It’s over now.” He reaches behind Dalton’s back, and opens it like a little cabinet door. He pulls his zeroblade from it, and holds it up in a defensive stance as Dalton closes his literal backdoor himself.
Pryce tilts his head almost all the way to his shoulder. “Hm. I never would have thought to look there. Dalton reeks of death, it masks the scent of the zero blade. It won’t work on me, though, I’m immune.”
“Then why are you gripping your own sword like it’s the only thing standing between you and oblivion?” I question.
Pryce looks down at his hand, and clears his throat.
“There are rules,” I go on. “It destroys code. It doesn’t matter what code.”
Seeing where I’m going with this, Gilbert swings the blade over, and pierces the wall with it. It starts to crumble from the entry point outwards. It doesn’t feel like the corruption is going to spread beyond this one particular wall, so we keep standing there.
“I am so much older than you, Gilly. Like, you don’t even know. Just like you have no clue how to use that thing.”
I take the sword from Gilbert’s hands, and he allows it without a bit of hesitation, because we’re on the same wavelength. “I’m older than both of you combined. I know how to use it.”
Pryce scoffs. “That may be true, though we only have your word to go on. What does it matter, though? When did you learn swordplay?”
“On Flindekeldan, I trained with The Highest Order, specifically with the Crucia Heavy herself, who taught me everything she knew. Or should I say, will know.” What do you think I was doing every time I went back in time to my own younger body? I was learning things, gathering experiences, and  meeting alien races that won’t exist—in some cases—for thousands of years. Every time I jumped back in time, I erased my own future, but kept the skills. Ripple Effect-Proof Memory, baby.
“Is that a band, errr...?”
I start swinging the sword around effortlessly, giving the audience a little intimidation demonstration, and showing him that I’m not just talking out my ass.
“Very well, we can spar, but I promise, if—” Hoping to catch me off guard, he stops himself midsentence, and tries to blitz me.
I knew he was going to do this, though, so I came up with a plan. We’ve been working on it this whole time. I think he probably forgot what my ability is, and maybe he didn’t ever know that it works beyond the confines of the virtual world. Just before he reaches me, I leave the simulation. But I can still see what’s happening. Pryce stumbles, and falls to his face. Lowell jumps in where I was once standing, takes the ice pick that Pryce didn’t know we saw him steal from Gilbert’s wall, and stabs Pryce in the back with it. Pryce rolls to his side, and looks up. “What the fuh...?” His clothes turn blue, and he disappears.

White Hole Radical

I keep watching after we think it’s all over. Pryce has finally been neutralized, and it looks like everything’s gonna be okay. But of course there’s still one loose end. With everyone still distracted for a moment, staring at the spot where Tamerlane Pryce once was, Pinocchio takes his shot. He pulls out his own zero blade, and pierces Genifer right in the heart. “I want that button.”
Lowell lunges forward to help, but Genifer holds out her staff, and stops him. “No.” She smiles at Pinocchio, confusing him. Then she turns her staff, and pounds it on the floor three times, very deliberately. The paint melts off of it like ice on a summer snowman. It’s turned white.
Pinocchio looks over at it, unimpressed. “The White Staff can’t save you now. It’s too late.”
“It’s too late for you too, whoever you are,” Genifer replies as the blackness quickly overwhelms her clothes. She lifts the staff, and gently—almost affectionately—taps him on the nose with it. “Boop!”
They both disappear at the same time, him in a flash of white, her in a puff of smoke. Behind me in the real world, a floor model gasps, and begins to breathe heavily. Pinocchio rolls out of the pod, and squirms on the floor. He’s never been alive before, so he’s quite harmless for the time being. Back in the simulation, the white staff has remained standing, even though its bearer is now dead and gone. As if finally remembering simulated gravity, it begins to tip over, but Dalton catches it gracefully.
“We need to figure out what to do with that,” Gilbert notes. “It’s up to Ellie to decide who gets resurrected, and when.”
“Yeah,” Dalton says, nodding his head. But he doesn’t hand the staff over, and there’s something weird about his answer. He’s just looking at it like there’s writing on it, and he’s in the middle of a good story. Then he bolts. He runs as fast as he can, down the hallways, and back up the steps. Lowell and Gilbert aren’t sure whether they should chase after him, or what. As far as leveling weapons go, it’s dangerous to be in the wrong hands, but at least no one will get hurt by it. I understand why someone would want to maintain control over it, and though I don’t know why Dalton is one of these people, it’s not the worst of our problems. As he’s climbing out of the fountain entrance, still moving as fast as he can, I can see another version of Pryce gliding down in the opposite direction. It’s probably Avatar!Pryce, having recovered from his indentured servitude. The zeroblade should destroy any copies of the same code, unless the copy is sufficiently divergent.
“Is that the guy who took over my body at the wedding?” Lowell wonders out loud.
I point at the resurrected Pinocchio, but before I say anything, I realize my mistake. He’s not been resurrected at all, but this is his first day as a real boy. It’s more like he was just born, and I guess in this case, there is such a thing as original sin. “Call security, and have him taken to MedHock,” I order the lab tech. “But first, put me back in. Same coordinates as Lowell.”
“You should know,” the tech says, “Madam Preston was keeping Mr. Benton apprised of her situation with the Glisnian authority. She has not been doing well. She fears a complete shutdown.”
“If she calls again...” I say, “tell her to stall.” One crisis at a time, please.
I return to the simulation just as Avatar!Pryce is arriving. He approaches cautiously, and with no sense of aggression. “I felt her death. I felt the loss.”
“Is there any way back?” I ask. “Is the zeroblade a lie? Are they just dormant, and recoverable?”
“It’s not a lie,” Pryce answers, possibly truthfully. “Her death is final. The blade destroys the code, like overwriting a file.”
“I’m not gonna let you push the button,” I warn him.
“I do not aim to,” he claims. “You’ll push it, though, I guarantee it.”
“Why would I do that?” I question.
Pryce looks at his wristwatch. “It’s 2400. This year marks beginning, and ending. It’s a transitional period. The patrioshka body will return to its place in the stellar neighborhood, the truth about temporal manipulation will come out to the public, and the simulation...will shut down.”
“Not if I can help it,” I maintain. “I won’t let these people die.”
Pryce chuckles with his lips sealed. “Of course you won’t. Why do you think I stepped down? It has to be you. You’re the only one capable.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” He’s not making any sense to me.
“When you took over for me, did you happen to notice our official position? What was my title, and what’s yours, now that you wear the rainbow clothes?”
“Yeah, it said Kernel. I thought it was a misspelling of Colonel. I don’t use it, because it’s stupid. I’m just Ellie.”
“No, my dear,” Pryce begins, “it’s not stupid. It’s everything. You are Kernel Underhill, and you deserve it. Now go in that room, and push the we can all get out of here. Time’s running out, I’m sure.” Without another word, he turns confidently, and tries to walk away.
“No,” I say with my own confidence. “You want me to push the button, you’re gonna go in there with me, and explain in excruciating detail, exactly what it does.”
“As you wish.”
“Lowell, keep that ice pick at the ready. If he tries anything...”
“Got it, boss,” Lowell agrees.
I place my hand against the stone door, just to try to figure out where the handle is, or how it works. It gives to my pressure immediately, swiveling on an axis in the center, and allowing us to pass through. Up until this point, the stone walls and ceilings were smooth and even. Pryce designed this chamber to look more like it existed naturally, and everything else was built around it. We’re inside of a mountain cave, with jagged edges, and random stalagmites. A highly detailed pavilion is in the center, and in the center of that is a well-carved stone structure. Sitting on it is a wok, filled with fire pit marbles. Water bubbles from underneath, and spills out on all sides. The fire burns high, partially obscuring a small obelisk that does not rise high enough to be touched without feeling the flames. A button rests on top, ready to be pressed.
“For the very last time...what. Does. It. Do?” I demand to know.
“You are the kernel, and it is a syscall. Part of your code will be copied a hundred and twenty-billion times, and placed inside the IDCodes of everyone inside the simulation, including the Level Ones. Yes, it can put everyone on ice, but only if the one who pushes it has just been downgraded to that level themselves. As long as you stand within the borders of that pavilion, you can decide what level you are, and what code will be copied. That is, as long as you don’t choose a level beyond your own real one. Mr. Hawk, for instance, was only a Limited, so if he pushed the button, that would be as far as he could take it. For you, it’s different. Once that code is disseminated, you and everyone else will change into whatever it is the code you’ve allocated does. You could put them all in Hock, or make them all Elites; whatever you wish. But be careful, because you will suffer the same fate.”
“Why are you asking me to do it?” I question. “Why have you not done it yourself?”
“I do not have an IDCode,” Pryce admits. “My other self does not either. Neither of us ever died, and came here. He was always a visitor, and I...I’m just an NPC. You have been resurrected, so you can resurrect them all.”
“So can Lowell,” I point out. “So can Leona, and Mateo, and a couple dozen others in Hogarth’s new universe.”
“Yes, but Mateo and Leona aren’t here, Lowell has always been bad code, and Hogarth’s World-Builders are ambitious, entitled, narcissists who believe they have become the gods they always thought they were.” He’s one to talk.
“Aldona does not fit that description,” I counter.
“True. Like Harry and Neville, I suppose there is indeed one other option. But you’re the only one who’s truly earned it. You’re the one who demanded control over the simulation, and you are the one standing here today.” Pryce has a response to everything. “We could call Madam Calligaris, if you want, but she may not arrive in time, seeing as that the Glisnians are this close to shutting the whole simulation down with all of us still inside.”
“Wait, Gilbert’s here too.” I just resurrected him recently.
“Oh, no,” Gilbert protests. “Don’t nominate me for this role. If anyone’s bad code, it’s me. You know the things I did while I was alive?”
“Ellie,” Lowell says. “Stop coming up with alternatives. It’s all you.”
“Where, do you reckon’ you want I should put all these people?” Now I’m sure I have them stumped. “There are some floor models waiting for hosts up there, sure, but not a hundred and twenty billion, I’ll tell ya that much right now.
“I had that problem solved a long time ago,” Pryce claims. “There are about ten million up there, and it takes about an hour to replace them, as long as the protein goop keeps coming. There’s also enough temporary storage to keep them dormant while they wait their turn. It’ll be done in two years. I own those servers, the Glisnians wouldn’t be able to shut them down without sparking a war.”
“Which they would win,” Lowell argues.
I’m shaking my head. It’s a trick. There is no altruistic or benevolent version of Pryce. There are only some that aren’t as bad as others. I don’t know why he wants me to be the one to do this instead of him, but I can’t let him play any part in it. Something he said reminded me of something else. He used the term protein goop. The cloning machines aren’t only limited by the amount of time it takes to create a new floor model body. They need the raw materials to actually make the damn thing. Star Trek replicators aren’t a real thing, and they never will be. Well, unless you use time powers. Fortunately, I know someone who might be able to help, and now I’m starting to think that she saw this coming; that she knew what was going to happen all along. I can transfer the minds, but I need her to build the bodies. Can I contact her from here? Can I access a separate brane? I take some time to try, and find that I can. The conversation isn’t long. She agrees to help.
“What are you thinking?” Pryce asks, noticing that I’ve been silent and stuck in my own head for quite awhile now.
“That you are unworthy...and unnecessary.” I step right over to him, and place my hands on his head. He’s too confused to struggle. In a matter of seconds, the avatar has been de-rezed. I’m not sure where he went, or if I just murdered him, but there’s always a backup somewhere, so I’m not too butthurt about my choice.
“What are you doing?” Gilbert asks, purely out of curiosity, and not at all bothered by my actions.
“We don’t need him anymore. I’m ending this, once and for all. I can’t promise things will be good once we’re on the other side, but I don’t think we have much time. I asked Nerakali to stall—”
Oh, thank God,” Nerakali’s voice comes into my ear. I’m starting to realize that people can contact me across distance as long as I’m thinking about them at the same time. “You have ten minutes. The Glisnians work fast, and they’re done with this whole thing. They think Pryce has become too big of a nuisance.
“Thanks for the update,” I reply to her. “I don’t think I’ll need that long.”
What are you doing?” she asks, unknowingly echoing Gilbert.
“Now I am become life, the sower of men.” I step up onto the pavilion, and approach the pedestal. I don’t want to give these people any snippet of my core code. I don’t want them to be able to spy on each other through time, or spontaneously and nonconsenually transfer each other’s minds to other substrates. I don’t need a button to resurrect any of them. I just need access to all of them. This thing grants me that power, but I already have the power to save them. Almost angrily, I swing back, and swipe the wok off of the platform. I’m left with a fountain, bubbling up from the ground, connected to every consciousness inside the simulation. Hogarth is ready on her end, so I reach into the fountain water. It’s freezing cold, but still somehow pleasant and life-affirming.
I can feel them immediately. I can feel their hopes and their pain. I see images of what they’re doing right now, all combined to form a mosaic of the entirety of the afterlife simulation multiworlds. I know what they’re thinking, and what they’ve done, and what they’ve seen. I know who they are, and who they want to be. “Hear me now, people of the afterlife,” I say to them all. “The experiment is over, and it is time to see The Beyond. It is time to live once more.” They’re all here because they crave life, experience, triumph, risk. The few who wanted to die and find a true afterlife—if such a thing exists—have moved on by now. Everyone wants to be alive, and I can give them that. It won’t be through floor model substrates, though. They won’t wake up in a cold clone pod with straight edges, and a tube coming out of their navel. The first thing they see won’t be the harsh lighting on a white ceiling. The first thing they see will be a beautiful and relaxing violet sky. I’m sending them to Violkomin, where a protein-infused lake of primordial soup will construct new bodies for them in accelerated time. Here they will float, until they are ready to walk the lands, and begin a new journey. They will breathe again. They will live again. And they will do it in a new universe.

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