Well, I guess this is it.
Grey light filtered in through the rippled glass of the window. The static of raindrops clinging to the glass offered a somewhat pixelated view of the city, which seemed grimly appropriate for the occasion. At least, it seemed that way to Katrya.
In nature, the rain often serves to intensify the saturation of colour. In this city, consisting of irregularly stacked concrete boxes perforated by precise lines of dully shining windows, any moisture seems to deepen the shade of the day. Scattered along patches of green approximately the same size and shape as a postage stamp, forlorn skeletons of trees appear to huddle together for warmth. Katrya shivered. Her chill was unrelieved by the slow boil of cloud overhead, vague outlines leaping over one another, trailing wisps of vapour along the corners of the buildings.
Perched in a cushioned window seat and partially screened by the ancient velvet of a faded red curtain, Katrya scanned the scene before her, as if searching for a means of escape. But of course, there was none. After all, today was a special occasion. All eyes would be on her.
Stupid. Stupid, stupid. I was a fool to even imagine that this perspective would offer something different, any alternative. It’s just another fucking building. An antechamber to my “wonderful future.” And I’m just as trapped as I was before I stepped foot in it.
Slow, measured footsteps crossed the worn stone floor behind Katrya, echoing off the lofty ceiling. The Mentor paused by the marble fireplace, which had never had a fire in it to Katrya’s knowledge, rested a gnarled hand on the mantelpiece, and gently cleared her throat.
“It’s nearly time, dear.”
Katrya turned to face The Mentor, impatiently brushing the curtain aside. Once again, she was struck by the woman’s appearance. Mentors were the only ones permitted to remain Integrated to this advanced age, and it was always a little unsettling to observe what changes the simple passage of time can inflict on the human body. Deep lines creased The Mentor’s face, invoking an image of long-dry river valleys snaking their way across a monotone desert. A confluence of valleys about the mouth gave it a sunken appearance, and dry wisps of white hair writhed from beneath the traditional head covering. Despite this, The Mentor maintained a refined deportment and impeccable posture, befitting the austerity of her dark robe. And the eyes. An uncompromising, steely blue glinted from beneath the hooded lids. Those were the eyes that had struck fear into the hearts of Incumbents for decades. Well, not just fear. Duty. Honour. Dedication. Obedience.
Katrya scrambled to her feet, and bowed her crown of dark braids deferentially.
“Come here, dear. Let me look at you. This is the last time we shall see each other like this, you know.” A creaking half-laugh.
Gathering the luxuriant folds of her skirt together, Katrya slowly approached, footsteps reverberating in every lonely corner of the room.
“Lovely, dear. Just lovely. Red is truly your colour. Makes your skin look almost porcelain. Quite the change from your usual attire, isn’t it? Well, we girls all must have our vanity at some point, mustn’t we?”
Vanity. Is that what we’re calling this ridiculous pageantry, now? Go fuck yourself with it.
“Sit down, Katrya.” The Mentor took Katrya by the hand and led her back to the window seat. As always, Katrya had to work hard to repress the involuntary shudder that arose from contact with The Mentor’s swollen joints and unnaturally soft aged flesh. Maybe it was the forced tenderness of the touch. It was so much easier to endure a hand raised in violence.
“I just wanted you to know, dear, how proud I am of the progress you’ve made. Indeed, how proud we all are. Given the… difficulties at the beginning of your time with us, your journey has been nothing short of astounding.”
Katrya glared straight ahead, willing the empty opulence of the room to dissolve into its component atoms. As she would soon be doing. Or, near enough.
A dry chuckle. “How strange this life is! After you were first Integrated, I felt certain you were destined for Re-Formation. For once, I am glad to be mistaken, my dear. Quite glad.”
Re-Formation. How euphemistic a term for recycling a human life and starting over again.
Enri… a lump formed in Katrya’s throat. Most of those memories had been removed after Enri had been sent for Re-Formation, but a few shreds still clung to her, like wisps of a dream that interleave themselves with waking reality. Short, sandy hair, and an insolent smirk. A hurried whisper, the dampness of a sweaty palm as Enri had guided her through the velvet blackness of an alleyway, searching vainly for the promised escape. A forbidden kiss, the electric shock that had zigzagged up Katrya’s thighs as they’d joined flesh. The look of utter despair in Enri’s eyes when she’d encountered the towering plane of rough brick and realized…
But most of all, she retained the impression of Enri’s form as she’d stood in front of The Mentor and confessed to the offence of leading Katrya “astray into an impure lifestyle, not befitting the future of this race.” She’d been proud, defiant, poised. Courageous.
After the escape attempt, Enri had been deemed unfit for Incumbency and Re-Formed. Deconstructed into the building blocks of life, but not allowed to join the Others in the Shadowless After. She’d simply been recycled into components of future Incumbents.
They’d kept a close eye on Katrya after that, watching for further signs of corruption. It had always felt like they’d been waiting expectantly for her to fail. Well. She’d be damned if she was going to prove them right. Empowered by the intoxicating cocktail of rage and heartbreak, she had transformed herself into the perfect Incumbent. Resolute, eager, steadfast. Pure. She’d kept the anger deep within herself, locked within an adamantine shell. Not even The Mentor could conceive the sheer force of resentment fomenting beneath the surface.
The Mentor paused, letting the silence settle like a thin layer of dust. “Yes, well I can see you’ve got quite a lot on your mind, my dear. But don’t be nervous. You’re about to embark on the most remarkable journey available to humankind. I envy you, Katrya, I truly do. I know you already know this, but the contribution you’re making, to all of us, is something extraordinarily special. Just as you are.” She reached up, gently stroking the dark curls that framed Katrya’s features, which had acquired a terrible stillness that appeared to shift The Mentor’s assurance a fraction. “You are quite well, aren’t you, Katrya?”
“Good, I will be back shortly. The ceremony is about to begin.”
An icy fog crept around Katrya’s heart, tightening incrementally with every beat.
It’s a countdown, now. Each pulse brings me closer to the last.
The fog crept outwards, wrapping every limb in the chill numbness of panic. Small. She felt so small. Drawing herself up to her full height, she threw her head back defiantly. But the clammy fetters held fast.
Dammit, this is my last day, my last moment, in physicality. And here I am, not able to feel a fucking thing. I’ve spent my whole life feeling, experiencing, learning, inscribing everything into my conscious and unconscious mind. “Gathering the gifts of life that will sustain for eternity.” Or, in other words, bringing the best parts of physical being into a sublayer of existence, fueled by massive computational power. The Shadowless After.
Almost involuntarily, Katrya’s mind frantically reviewed everything she knew about her destination. The Shadowless After had been brought online millennia ago, primarily to prevent the complete destruction of the planet. She remembered terrible stories about the dark times. Violence, disease, poverty, starvation, natural disasters, and crime had brought humankind to the brink of extinction. The Shadowless After offered an attractive alternative. Unencumbered by the limitations of a corporeal form, minds were free to pursue their wanderings at will. No pain, no death, no torment. It was a simple and fulfilling life, capable of spanning eternity.
The networks had been constructed with care, designed to withstand the vicissitudes of nature, man, and time. Even after most of the human race had chosen to enter it, much of the After’s operational memory remained untouched. Bipedal population numbers sharply declined. The few who remained in the physical world retreated to small pockets within cities. Some chose to dedicate themselves to the maintenance of the Shadowless After’s equipment, though it needed little attention. They were the ones that received the Others’ first message. More than that, they were the precursors to The Mentor.
It seemed that eternal freedom wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Forever is a long time, and minds, overwhelmed by emptiness, were allowing themselves to simply dissipate. Memories are perishable, and the fondest ones tend to be conjured up and caressed away. Turns out, the human mind thrives on new experiences. A single emotion, fresh with youth, can sustain an Other for decades. An ineradicable survival instinct was the impetus for reaching back into physicality. Put simply, it was a cry for help. How human.
Over the centuries, the Incumbent Program was established. The raw materials of life were easy to cultivate. And to edit. Enhanced memories gave Incumbents the ability to remember almost every single moment of their existence and to carry those moments into the After. What does it feel like to learn? How can a smile produce such light? Touch, taste, smell, the sensation of discovery. All were indelibly etched into an Incumbent’s soul.
And The Mentors? Their function was simple. They were Integrated and duty-bound to care for the Incumbents. An instilled sense of reverence eventually gave rise to a sort of quasi-religion. Traditions were established. Ceremonies were observed. Other Mentors were Integrated to continue the cycle. Fearful of contaminating the Shadowless After with unpleasant memories, which would no doubt perpetuate the corruption of the Others who remained, an unyielding dogma of positivity was established. Incumbents were given a supremely happy existence, and in exchange, all they had to do was share a few experiences once they reached the After. To do so was to sustain and nurture almost the entirety of the human race. It was an honourable calling.
Of course, no existence is truly perfect. Like training a plant to grow in a certain direction, a modicum of pruning was necessary on occasion. Katrya had been fortunate. After Enri, she’d never given them a reason to look inside her mind to make alterations. The shell had remained intact.
The wooden door swung open, and The Mentor invitingly extended a hand.
“It is time.”
Run. I have to run. But where would I go? Even if I could get out of the building, even if I could elude the guardians, even if I could travel past the horizon, what waits for me? Just the Wall. I know this. I’ve been there.
For a moment, Katrya stood in the centre of the room. Proud, defiant, poised.
I will have courage. For Enri. Not for the Others, not for their precious afterlife, not even for myself. For her.
The Deconstruction chamber resembled the old churches she had seen in books. Dark wooden beams curved overhead, polished to the brightness of glass. The panels lining the walls were warmed by flickering sconces of flame. Long wooden benches, placed row on row, rustled with dark robes.
Step after echoing step, Katrya allowed her stiff slippers to carry her down the aisle towards The Mentor, the Technician, and the Chair, elevated on a simple dias. At the foot of the chair, she turned to face The Mentor.
“Incumbent Katrya. You have proven yourself worthy of carrying the memories of physicality into the Shadowless After. The time you have spent here will help sustain the Others for centuries to come. This is a duty and an honour that befits the exemplary behaviour you have demonstrated. Have you chosen the Experiences you wish to share with the Others?”
“I have, Mentor.”
“Good. Please be seated.”
The Chair wasn’t much different than the traditional, high-backed chair used by The Mentor. Only its unusual weight and somehow potent matte black surface hinted at the power it possessed. A gentle whirring filled the chamber as Katrya’s physical form began to dissipate.
This isn’t so bad, really. I feel lighter. More… expansive. All of my memories are intact. I’m still me, but more like the essence of me. Maybe this will be OK.
She called up the Experiences she’d marked for sharing, bringing them to the forefront of her mind, ready for transfer to the Others once they’d noted her arrival.
Suddenly, they were there with her. The Experiences were greedily snatched from her mind as quickly as she could recall them. She wanted to cry out, tell them to slow down, but the tenants of the Shadowless After were soundless beings, long stripped of the need for words or vocalization.
S-something’s wrong. They shouldn’t be able to… They’re taking all of my memories. How? This shouldn’t be possible. Stop! Damn you, I said NO!
The Others continued to relentlessly strip every shred of Experience Katrya had accumulated. As each layer was peeled away and devoured, she could sense the insatiable cravings of these beings. Their merciless hunger for pure, sweet memories. They didn’t just want to sustain themselves. They needed to feed.
The Mentors haven’t preserved the purity of the After at all. They’ve only succeeded in creating a host of demonized addicts and scavengers. All the Incumbents before me… all the ones who will come after… Shit, this isn’t a reward. We’re nothing more than human sacrifices.
Cohesion was already fading. Katrya’s mind was dissipating, like her body had done only moments before. Disjointed thoughts danced along the shriveled edges of her memory. They were drawing closer to her core.
You…fuckers. No idea what… waits for you… inside me. What I kept from them. From all of them.
The adamantine shell at Katrya’s core started to crack.
Not long, now.