I blink as my eyes adjust, squinting into the twilight and studying the shadowy forms that loom in the void before us. The dome is huge, far more cavernous on the inside than it appears from without. The walls arc away above us, bowing almost imperceptibly inward before fading into the gloom above. To either side, great, girthy conduits snake their way to the perimeter from some unseen interior point, humming rhythmically as though conveying the lifeblood of some prehistoric leviathan. Smaller cable bundles occasionally break off from the main body, winding out into the darkness like a fractal spray of capillaries.
We strike out into this electronic hedge maze, wending our way through monolithic server towers strewn haphazardly about. They are playthings for an ill-tempered titan, perhaps. I’m feverish with questions – What is this place? What is all of it for? Who, or what, constructed this? But my guide is expressionless and silent, striding forward with brisk, authoritative confidence. I am not a fearful man by nature, but I find myself trailing him closely, my pulse quickening at the thought of what might be following us just beyond the faint glow of his luminary.
Within minutes I’ve completely lost my bearings. The guide has forged a tortuous path, taking turns in rapid succession and plowing forward through junctions seemingly at random. I had hardly noticed the ambient heat from the server banks when we first entered, but now I’m sweating through my clothes. I manage to think that if we get separated, I’ll at least be able to retrace our steps by following the trail of salt. I draw closer to my guide, near enough for my knuckles to brush against his muslin cloak.
As we progress, the lighting evolves so gradually that at first I can’t decide if the false night is simply playing tricks on my eyes. A pallid flash seems to emanate from just around the next corner, like some errant neutrino striking deuterated water and sending off faint scattershot bursts of radiation. Just the fabrication of a stimulus-starved imagination, I tell myself, wiping a slick of sweat from my brow. But no, there it is again. Through the briar patch of sinuous wires and cooling coils, beyond a tumble of purring servers, a wan light flickers erratically, casting shadows that crackle out in all directions before being swallowed up by the darkness.
We emerge into a clearing and I shield my eyes against the fluorescent glare. The floor is draped in a snarl of wires and thrumming transmission lines, probing the space like a filamentous network of roots. An array of transparent monitors is precariously suspended above us, bathing the area in sickly hues of red and green. I look to the guide for some sort of explanation, but he stands impassively, his hands held at his sides, eyes fixed on a point just over my left shoulder.
I wheel to follow his gaze, and only then do I see the figure.
In the midst of the clearing, a single reclining chair is bolted to the ground, all screws and probes and metallic angles like the apparatus of some deranged dentist. The boy is stick-thin, scarcely filling the seat, and even from the edge of the clearing I can see his chest heaving with exertion. I inhale sharply, looking to the guide with alarm, but his face is a woodcut, stolid and indecipherable. For an instant, the space is cast in an ethereal green light and I think I see his dark eyes glitter, but then the flickering staccato resumes and the moment is lost.
I turn and pick my way gingerly across the clearing, cautiously stepping over the whining electrical leads that extend from the boy’s temples. As I draw near, I can see his eyes flitting back and forth with impossible speed, his fingers spasming away at some phantom Rubik’s cube. The air smells of ozone and solder.
Above us, the wall of screens suddenly pulses a deep red, swathing the clearing in a sanguine glow that momentarily hides the angry, raw wounds where the boy has writhed against the leather restraints. The electrical leads whip taut, practically buzzing with the voltage. His jaw snaps shut, and a piteous moan escapes from somewhere deep in his throat, like the terror-frothed lowing of a calf ascending the slaughter chute. I stand there paralyzed, looking down upon this little body wracked with convulsions, my own hands opening and closing helplessly at my sides. And then the screens flash green once again, and the leads fall limply back to the floor. I turn and advance upon on the guide, my own eyes flashing.
“This?!” I cry, my voice rising to a quavering keen. “I knew there had to be costs, but this???” My fingernails are digging into the palms of my hands, but I barely feel them. Behind me, the leads hiss and pop once more, and the guide is doused in cool green light. He looks at me without remorse, without feeling, his face a mask of stoic pragmatism.
I am struck with visions of my own child – about the same age as this one – riding his bike, playing on his wrist-tab, smiling up at me with chocolate ice cream smeared hopelessly across his face. Without thinking, I storm across the clearing to the boy’s side. In one fluid motion I rip the wires away from his head, blue sparks of electricity arcing and questing after his flesh as the leads are pulled free. Immediately, the boy’s back collapses out of its painful arch, and his sharp, wheezing breaths begin to slow and soften. And still the screen continues to flicker – green for a few beats, red for one, green for a beat, red for two. Perhaps, I think, perhaps after all of this, this boy needn’t pay for our sins. Perhaps he never needed to at all.
I brush the long, matted hair away from his eyes, which look glazed and unfocused in the flickering light. I loosen the strap around his arm and release the clasps, and before I can react his fingers are wrapped around my wrist in a painful grip, far too strong for a boy of his age. Startled, I look back to his face, into eyes now clear and laser-focused. His pupils seem to collapse to a pinpoint and he smiles up at me, lips curling out in a gruesome sneer that extends nearly from ear to ear. And then in an instant his pupils expand, inky black, spilling out to fill the entirety of his eye sockets, and the room is plunged into a deep burgundy umbra.
I wrench myself free and fall onto my back, staring up at the gory red screens hanging above me. They seem to throb angrily, and the air itself glows with malevolence, like the interior of an iron smelter. A long, resonant klaxon bellows through the dome in reproach, and seconds later I feel my wrist-tab vibe violently. I stare down in disbelief – an automated state message declaring a mandatory curfew, a message from my wife in all-caps, and these… These are alerts I had forgotten about altogether, alerts that I had set way back in 2018. The blaring bass note rattles through my rib cage, and I look to the guide with horror, realizing what I have done. He stares back at me blankly.
Clambering to my feet, I stagger to where the leads are sputtering and snapping against the scorched linoleum. It cannot be too late to undo this. I seize the leads like poisonous snakes – grasping them just behind the head – and pull them over to where the boy lays, a dark, grimacing slash of a smile still spread across his face. I straddle the chair, and the boy’s fingers rake at my eyes as I wrestle his free arm back into its restraint. I am moving quickly now, cinching the strap even tighter than it was before. He has begun to thrash, hacking out spittle and bile, but I am undeterred, drawing the leads in towards his temples.
And then I pause. As quickly as they had filled, his eyes have now drained of their ink, and once again his is the face of a scared child. He – it – blinks at me beseechingly, and speaks to me in the voice of my son. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” I hesitate, the wires hanging loosely in my hands, eyes swimming. Perhaps at one time, this creature was someone’s boy. Perhaps they dreamed of one day teaching this child to ride a bike, to play with a wrist-tab, to not eat ice cream like a Neanderthal.
My own wrist-tab buzzes again and I’m shaken from this reverie. I think once more of my own child, of the life that I want to provide for him, of the life that he deserves. Staring down at the carmine-tinted face of this creature, I whisper, “To the moon.” And I connect the leads.
The boy’s shrieks pierce through the still air as we walk away, shrill, animalistic howls that echo off the interior of the dome far above us, setting the hairs on my arms on end. I stop at the edge of the clearing to look once more at the small figure, his bird-like body stretched tight like a towrope, his teeth chattering, his contorted face illuminated in a fluorescent green glow.
Expressionless, I turn and follow the guide back into the shaded hush of the labyrinth, the flickering lights of the clearing receding behind us. And once again, the boy is alone.
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