#NoEnv ; Recommended for performance and compatibility with future AutoHotkey releases. ; #Warn; Enable warnings to assist with detecting common errors. ; Recommended for new scripts due to its superior speed and reliability. SetWorkingDir %A_ScriptDir%; Ensures a consistent starting directory. setKeyDelay 10, 1 F1:: Send, Everyone agreed he was beautiful. Some thought his beauty was in his skin or muscles; some thought instead it was in his mind. Cynics among us would argue that his true beauty was in neither his body nor mind, but instead in his bank account. William Cristenson was a man who was in the right place at the right time at all points of life. Inheriting his father Castor Cristenson's petrol and lubrication company, Castor Standard Refining, near the end of the Second World War is one such example. Castor Standard Refining was the underdog of the petrol trade, but due to a botched monopolisation during wartime on behalf of Castor's competitor, William and Castor Standard Refining were now left with a majority share of the market that they had no intention of losing. The world, fattened on fossil fuels and other ancient oils, was wrapped around William's finger. William had become comically rich. If he commanded them to build pyramids in his name, they would build him mountains of concrete and rebar with assurances that he couldn't have made a wiser investment. William had a very simple problem, with very complex implications. A section of his brain, specifically the parietal lobe, was in the midst of committing a quiet mutiny. It was festering into a cancer that could be easily removed but at the cost of completely compromising his mathematical ability. A business man that can't add and subtract is no business man at all, so William was forced to test the true limits of his wealth. 1/9 return F2:: Send, I often suspect the rich find it humorous to keep you waiting. Maybe it's to let you know that they don't really need you, to make you feel small, replaceable. Mr. Cristenson had kept me waiting for close to an hour now. Perhaps my impatience was without warrant; many would pay to simply be in this waiting room, everything gilded and afforded at an obvious expense. In some ways it was nice, being attended to by the secretary with the smooth, reassuring voice. I had become lost in thought, watching some birds struggle to maintain altitude outside one of the many windows, when she finally called me. "Mr. Cristenson requires you to enter now. " There was no room for my thoughts or feelings in her gentle command. I was an object, waiting to be appraised. As a small act of protest, I took three mints from the bowl before her as I passed, making sure my eye contact was met. Pressing an unseen button, the door to Mr. Cristenson's office opened, making a small hiss as if it were a slumbering dragon disturbed by mortal men. I felt my rump tingle as a final reminder of how long I had been sitting in that uncomfortable chair. Stepping through the doorway into Mr. Cristenson's office was like stepping through a portal into another world. Even the air felt different, moistened by a garden of fanciful yet simple devices that produced a pleasant mist that cooled the skin. It was shockingly dim and a far cry from the well-lit opulence of the outside. For a moment I considered that this might be some manner of elaborate ploy to lower my guard, but then quickly reeled my ego back into check. Mr. Cristenson's office was personalised in a way architecture could rarely be. The low ceiling, studded by simple fluorescent lights, drew all attention to the centre of the massive room. Even though this was the hundredth floor of the building, it felt subterranean, as if inhabited by some sort of great worm that's skin could not be allowed to dry. Navigating the "humidifier" devices was like shuffling through the home of a hoarder. Even though Mr. Cristenson was just before me, I knew my approach would be slowed. "Nice place you have here." I had not properly braced myself for how loudly my voice would echo. There was a painful and awkward pause before I heard a chuckle purely out of obligation. I was close enough now to get a good look at Mr. Cristenson. He was seated behind a monolithic desk made of polished hardwood that I'm sure had some exotic and enthralling origin. The chair he sat in was surprisingly cheap in appearance and very visibly worn, obviously selected for comfort rather than grandeur. In fact, his appearance as a whole was surprisingly shabby up close - an unshaved face and loose fitting clothes - it felt odd to be the more sharply dressed of the two. The corner of my eyes detected movement and caused me to jump reflexively. Mr. Cristenson was shadowed by two figures dressed in black that silently shadowed him. The dim light made them appear almost as mannequins. They were accompanied by a small machine more utilitarian than the rest of the room that beeped quietly to itself with an unliving pulse. "I wasn't aware anyone would be joining us, " I said, finally approaching the desk. "Heh, you don't need to worry yourself with them, their necessity will be clear in a moment. Please Randall, take a seat. How have you been? " Referring to me by my first name was an obvious move towards dominating the discussion. I leaned on the edge of his desk, refusing the cheap metal and plastic seat laid out for me. "You spared no expense in getting me here, I think it would be best to omit the foreplay. I wouldn't want to waste your precious time. " I was surprised by how snide my tone was. The stop and start journey here had irritated me more than I anticipated. Mr. Cristenson chuckled. "Randall, I appreciate that but you're actually here to help make my time a little less precious. " My vision had been drifting off to the tiny clouds of mist circling us from the humidifiers in the room, but his odd request caused my head to turn back to focus. "Oh? And how does a disgraced bioengineer help with that? " I was bracing myself for the sales pitch that I "couldn't possibly refuse". "I have a cancer of the brain. For most it would be fatal, but I am completely confident in my medical staff's ability to remove it. " This development was always a possibility to me and I admittedly felt clever for predicting it. "Well I-" I was too hasty in my response. Mr. Cristenson continued to speak. "Don't worry, I'm not interested in work as a surgeon. " He punctuated this with a sound that was equal parts cough and laugh. "Instead, I want you to help solve the problem of replacement. " I hesitated for a moment before speaking again, anticipating being cut off once more. e "Replacement? I'm not sure I follow. " My mind was racing with possibilities but none seemed to stick. "I want you somehow to replace the section of my brain that is to be removed. " Shocked, I turned to stare him in the face to see if this was some kind of jest. A "That's not pos-" I should have expected him to cut me off again. "You will not be accomplishing this task alone. I have collected and contracted the world's finest surgeons, engineers, interdisciplinary scientists, artists, and philosophers to aid in accomplishing this goal. There will be no monetary objects, my entire wealth is at your disposal. " He paused before continuing. "Although I do not have complete confidence in your collective abilities, there truly could be no more able of a team. " My mind raced with what this might entail. The sheer possibility of the coming months was immense. For a moment I was not here in this room 600 metres above the ground but instead deep within the labyrinth of my mind, equal measures lost and euphoric. Mr. Cristenson had a long smile across his face. In his eyes I saw droplets of fear, but I suspect this was mere projection. "Why-" I was cut off this time by the beeping of the stout machine behind him. The two mannequin-like figures descended upon him with strange instruments I couldn't make out in the dim light. He handed himself over to them like a child being embraced by a mother. The act was confusing and somewhat embarrassing to watch. It was obviously medical but had undertones of vulnerability that didn't sit well with me. "I will admit you have my interest, but I have to ask: why artists, and why philosophers? Wouldn't they just get in the way? " I questioned, unsure if he could currently answer. a "Do you believe in souls, Randall? " his voice hushed so as to not interrupt the Mannequins' work. Was this a trick question? Was I about to walk into a linguistic trap? "I've never found much of a use for them. They've always seemed unnecessary for the function of the universe or, well, body. " Again he chuckled. "You have highlighted my exact need for the world's eminent philosophers of self. I want to ensure whatever comes out the other end of this process is still William Cristenson in more senses than just physical. " "And the artists? " I couldn't help but prod further. "I've become accustomed to a certain... quality of life. " His words briefly brought my attention to his subterranean taste. "I believe in your utilitarian ability to solve my problem, but my being requires a dash of... decadence. I want a bit more than a liveable hell. " He almost formed a following thought but was silenced by one of the Mannequin doctors hushing him in a soft feminine voice and inserting some kind of metal tool into his mouth. I took his being occupied for a few moments to organise my thoughts. What I had been asked was an impossibility, at least for the modern day. I couldn't fathom even a possible mechanism that could perform what he had asked. Perhaps it would be best to take this offer purely on a monetary basis. No, this thought was mistaken. No matter what, he would survive, or at least his corporate underling would. I should fear retribution if I fail. I had lost my opportunity for tenure at every university I had attended. He knew this, he had me trapped. But I wouldn't be on this team alone, I'd be accompanied by many others. Perhaps I could use them to shirk the project's failure. w I was being foolish. I was going to take this opportunity - it was categorically and obviously the offer of a lifetime. W The Mannequins had finished examining his mouth and the conversation would resume soon. I should speak first. He already had me cornered, it'd be my only chance at any control. "Well Mr. Cristenson, you make a persuasive argument, but I suspect you are acutely aware of that. I would be... happy to meet the rest of this team. " The Mannequins reset to their original positions and the beeping machine seemed at rest. "I knew we would come to an understanding. In fact, I was so confident that I have already arranged a transport for you to your new residence at Walker Hall. Your personal belongings will be carefully retrieved by my assistants and transported there as well. " I felt more reassured by this than I should have. A wave of relaxation washed over me knowing that I didn't need to concern myself with packing my things. Perhaps I should have been more concerned with a billionaire casually having access to my belongings, but I was exhausted from not just today but the previous years. "Well Mr. Cristenson, I suppose I won't use up any more of your time. " My voice sounded somewhat defeated. "Heh, Randall, you can call me William. " 2/9 return F3:: Send, I pushed open the heavy metal firedoor to escape to the outside of Walker Hall. The air was slightly too cold for comfort but it felt good to not be cooped up in a sweaty conference room. It was day 8 of discussion. "Spitballing" as Kyles, a surprisingly rotund neurosurgeon, irritatingly put it. We had come to an agreement on nothing. Too many chefs in a single cramped kitchen. I could see all of the city from here over the railing that I suspected was to prevent suicides, people living simpler lives moving around like insects through the forest floor. Even armoured police vehicles looked toylike from this far away. I thought for a moment of all the light that bounced off these objects and didn't make it to my eyes, only to hurdle off into space, never to know a mortal's gaze. I felt impossibly small for a moment. V I thought about William, and how positive he had stayed as we squabbled like children. This project was doomed from conception, genius concepts thrown at an impossible problem like paper planes in a forest fire. ? For a moment I felt like crying but knew no tears would arrive. "Fuck, fuck it all, " I said to no one in particular, riding the tinge of catharsis it gave me. I let go of everything mortal and tuned into the city. For a moment I felt both more and less than human, but free of any contradictions that would entail. O "I had wondered where you kept escaping to. " A voice interrupted my meditation. I opened my eyes and witnessed a woman, much shorter than I, standing in one of the furred coats William had provided us as a gift. It was obviously intended for a male build and seemed colossal on her. Her olive skin seemed almost vibrant against the cold blue metal backdrop of the hall. N "Found my secret lair, I see. It's pretty cold, but there is a pleasant view. " As I spoke I was trying to place her in my head. I had seen her in the meetings but I couldn't recall anything about her beyond that. I suspected she might be one of the many philosophers William insisted on including. "I'd been hiding away in one of the stairwells but the view was a lot less spectacular than this. And Roger paid me visits far too often. " I grinned at realising our shared distaste for conversations with Kyles, who she referred to more affectionately by his first name, Roger. "You're with the philosophy team, right? " s This was a shot in the dark. I cared little about the philosophy team's input so I suspected I may have missed her. "You mean the philosophy team you constantly overtalk? " She said this with a soft smile that let me know it was but a harmless jest. She stepped closer to me. I was surprised by how matte her eyes were, dry like the eyes of my childhood teddy bear but still full of a sense of care. "I suppose I deserve that. Apologies. " Embarrassment had a grip over me but the usual anger didn't arrive. "Randall Hessington... " She seemed to really feel my name as she said it. "You know I personally thought your experiment on those monkeys provided valuable insight into the existence of a neural minimum, although I think your ultimate misstep wasn't the ethics, but instead the presentation. " I hadn't heard this perspective before but really didn't feel like discussing my expulsion. "Really? That's a new take. I always felt like the misstep was when the test monkey tore out its own brain in front of the founder of Burnett Academy. " I punctuated this thought with a forced laugh to illustrate I didn't wish to continue discussion about my past. I paused for a moment, realising I should have made it clear I knew who she was. I scraped every cavern of my memory but couldn't place a name. "Frida Perez, philosopher of self and personal identity. " She effortlessly took my intention out of my mind and put it into words. "It's okay, I know us philosophers only get in the real scientists' way. " N It was clear my arrogance had annoyed her but she seemed to forgive me for it. "Heh, I suspect I should head back inside. " I could feel myself approaching a comment that would truly make a fool out of me so I wanted to save us both the trouble. "Before we return I wanted to share a thought experiment with you, without the invasion of... unsolicited perspectives. You're an extremely intelligent man, but I worry your conception of the self is too narrow. " I felt a tinge of frustration stir at her words but I suppressed it. "Oh? " My curiosity seemed feigned but beneath the surface was genuine. : "Have you heard the proposals of artificial intelligence? " I winced at her bringing up this topic. It was often mired in unfounded speculation. "Thinking machines? " I phrased this as a question but was confident it was what she meant. "Yes, conscious machines. I have a strong suspicion you're a materialist in regards to these matters so I trust we can leave aside discussions of dualism. " I smirked in response, not even needing to put my agreement into words. "When viewed as a machine, there's no process within the brain that is, for lack of a better term, protected. All processes could be emulated through a different medium. " ( Her passion in this subject was obvious. "So, for a moment, let's envision a computer the size of a small warehouse that emulates the entire functioning of a human brain - a Spanish-speaking human brain. " "It's not fair that only you get to speak to the computer, " I interjected as she prepared her next thought. She smiled softly as I realised I had assumed she could speak Spanish off her skin colour and name alone. Embarrassment ran its fingers down my spine. "You could ask this machine anything in Spanish, " she continued. "You could speak about the weather, what it means to live, write poems together, explain to it thought experiments of your own. Do we agree that there's no reason to not consider this machine conscious? " I nodded in agreement. "And if this machine took over a day to respond to a message? " - I could tell she was leading up to something. "I don't think consciousness is a matter of speed. " I had a feeling she was going to challenge this stance. "Not even if it took a year to respond? "I simply smiled. "Excellent. Now tell me, what if I revealed that we never constructed this machine at all? Instead, inside the room there were two English-speaking men. These men had a complete blueprint and guide to every process of the thinking machine. They would take your input and process it through every step of this machine that was never even constructed. " "You would get the same response, they followed the same process. " "Is the machine still conscious? " I hadn't quite grasped her point yet. "These men, they don't speak Spanish themselves? " I felt there must be some sort of trick here. "They don't speak a single word of it. They understand nothing about the Spanish input and nothing about the Spanish output. So where is the conscious experience occurring? Where is the ghost in the machine? " Her words, like a tide, gently rolled into my ears, and just as those waters started to retreat with my response in tow, a second wave came crashing into my conscious awareness. I saw a vision of consciousness as an ethereal and emergent thing, indifferent to its material form, concerned only with function. It was as if for a moment the unambiguous ship of Theseus sat before me, a cruel and gorgeous monolith designed to make me feel infinitesimally small in the face of the unknowable. The thinking machine had survived the death of its body. The components, like cells within the brain, didn't need to know what they were computing. When the beautiful visions within my mind calmed and I returned to the material world, all I could see was her soft smile, confident that she had hit her mark. In that endless moment, I fell in love - not just with her, not just with this idea, but with something, something at the edges of reality I would rip into existence. For a moment, I had faith. I had faith that we would save William. 3/9 return F4:: Send, My mind cleared. I let go of Frida's hand and stepped forward into the surgery theatre. For a moment I turned and caught a glimpse of her eyes through the closing doors behind me. She did not smile, she had no reason to. In this moment there were only actions, particles and the void. There was a strange reassurance in her ambivalence. "Randall, it's good to see you. How have you been? " William was sitting on the surgical table that he would be operated on in 24 hours time. The room was massive and so quiet that if you focused you could hear the blood in your own veins, a far cry from William's "subterranean" lair. "Tired. I've been tired, " I responded. Why had he brought me here? Perhaps he knew that this close to the date of operation I had little work. Perhaps this was a behaviour I could not rationalise, some sort of mortal flailing. "Is there something in particular you wanted to speak to me about? " I inquired. William chuckled. "Randall, I respect your ceaseless focus, but let's take the scenic route this time. How do you feel? " My brow furled as I was confident he had already asked me this question. "Like I said I'm-" He gave me a subtle look that stopped my reiteration in its tracks. "I've worked harder than even your generous budgets demand. I've found passion in this work. However, I'll be honest, I'm nervous. All the trial runs and theory work in the world mean nothing if... " Suddenly the words coming out of my mouth were foreign. "God says no? " William authored the end of my thought with a smile. Behind this scene two figures cleaned the surgical theatre above, likely trying to take effort not to be noticed. I could sense that these figures were more of William's Mannequins. "Can you walk me through the procedure one more time? " William asked, a soft sadness in his eyes. "The whole procedure? " I asked, confident this wasn't what he meant. "The parts that matter to you. " A manufactured smile cracked across his face. I cleared my throat as my brain organised discordant thoughts into a navigable narrative. "Well, initially the procedure is typical for neoplasm removal from the parietal lobe. The first difference is once the cancerous material is removed, the area will be prepared for the installation of the-" "Hessington Cord? " William's smugness around my naming the cord after myself made me for a moment hope the procedure would fail. "Yes, the Hessington Cord. The Hessington Cord will interface with your adjacent brain matter. All signals meant for the parietal lobe will instead be transferred through the Hessington Cord. These signals will then be transferred to a nearby room where a group of trained professionals will interpret the signals and respond accordingly. Of course, you'll also need to begin steadily and consistently taking immunosuppresants. " "Brain by committee... So will these people be thinking for me? " William asked, seemingly without concern. "We don't think so. From our understanding, they won't be thinking for you anymore than your current neurons think for you. " "I suspect this cord will confine me to a single room? " William asked the inevitable question. "Unfortunately, yes. After the procedure you will not be able to be safely disconnected from the cord. " "Hmm, miracle work, huh? " It was clear William was not processing the full implications of the procedure. He fumbled his hand into his coat pocket, grasping for something. "Randall, come here. I have something for you before you depart. " I stepped closer, curious what manner of nicknack he would offer me. *Smack{!} * William's hand emerged from his pocket with incredible force, striking my face harder than I thought a man could muster. Words echoed around my head but all I could do was turn and look at him in disbelief. He had a wide, toothy grin. "If I survive the procedure tomorrow, I will offer you my extended and complete apology for that outburst. If I don't survive... " His smile stretched a little bit further beyond what I thought possible to communicate his point. I turned, beginning to leave, as it was clear this conversation had served its purpose. As I stepped across the floor I fought the urge to massage my sore face. "You're a miracle worker, Randall. My own personal saviour. " There was a silent and hateful laugh in the quiet that followed. As I pushed open the doors to exit the surgery theatre, I was surprised to see that Frida had not waited for me. 4/9 return F5:: Send, I tried to clear my head of the images of human mortality I had seen from the surgical theatre as I walked down the hall to the parietal room. The surgical procedure had been a success; however, I was gravid with the sense of some terrible wrongdoing. This was my moment that arrived at the test of the work that had consumed my life since first meeting William. I turned the corner to enter the room of 50 individuals that would replace the processing of William's removed brain matter in a matter of moments. There was a tension in the air, an unease and understanding that what we were about to witness would either be a miracle, or an affront to God himself. I walked over to the observation window. William was seated in a heavily cushioned, sterilised blue chair and swarmed by many of my colleagues taking last minute readings from his barely conscious body. For the purposes of monitoring, he was almost entirely naked, surrounded by faces I could not make out beneath their medical masks. His head slung back with the Hessington Cord reaching into his cranium like some kind of terrible and gargantuan leech. He was sweating profusely, causing the yellow antiseptic chlorhexidine to run like he was leaking alien blood. t He had paid every person in this room a fortune to put him through more suffering than the human body should endure. After peeling William's eyes open and inspecting them with a small flashlight, Kyles gave a thumbs up to Ericson who stood next to me, and in response, lowered the lights in the room. e William was about to wake up. An unimaginable dizziness climbed up from some deep unseen organ within my body that's entire function must have been purely to contain this sensation. It weaved its way through every individual vertebrae of my spine, crushing nerves and then tangibly forcing its way into the cavity of my skull, like the fingers of a pervert. There, this demon massaged its way through my blood brain barrier, smitten with its ability to violate my every defence. This thing, the nakedness of reality, wrapped itself around my soul and whispered without words. "You are not enough. " Hyperventilation, panic, tightness in my throat - no logical mechanism could control this complete biological failure of my body. It felt as if my hands were shaking so badly I couldn't grip the wheel as I drove faster than the car was ever intended. I could feel it coming, there was no reason to fight it. Tears of fear and pride streamed down my face. If I looked up, I was certain I would see the sword of Damocles dangling above my head. n Finally he was awake, groggy from the sedative. There was a hum next to me as the Hessington Cord switched on. Passively the men and women in the room seated at specialised computers began their first computations. You could hear William coming to life as fingers simulating synapses began pressing keys all around us. This room would never be silent again. William was too exhausted to even smile. It was unclear if he knew where he was. Watching the overseer speak to him was strange. The room was completely soundproof such that the overseer's mouth moved in silence. I felt as if I could hear the words in my head in my own voice. I had overseen so many iterations of this script that in some ways it almost felt like it was me speaking them. "What is your name? " William only stared back like an infant using their eyes for the first time. "We are, we are. " You could feel every individual nerve in William's body struggle to make peace with the new metal. "Inside. " It was subtle but you could tell this response caused a level of discomfort in the overseer. They cleared their throat and then asked, "Where are we inside? " "Hospital, we are in a hospital. " William's response was a partial victory; he was likely recalling memories from before the anaesthesia. With this middling success, the overseer asked again, "What is your name? " "William. " A bead of yellow-red sweat ran from William's nose and dripped onto his lap. William began reaching a hand up towards the cord. Quickly, two of the Mannequins descended from the dark to prevent this. I was not aware of the Mannequins' presence and turned to make eye contact with an equally bewildered Ericson. It was disturbing how quickly William calmed in the presence of the Mannequins. It was unclear if the overseer was aware of them. "Please point to the red cube. " The overseer placed three cubes, each a primary colour, in front of William. As William stared into the middle space, the sound of keypresses grew to a crescendo around us. Finally William's hand moved and pointed lazily at the red cube before him. He was breathing so heavily his skin became so flush with blood that an alien might assume he was attempting to match his skin tone to the colour of the cube. As the overseer's mouth silently moved, there was an impossible tension. The final question was the question: a simple mathematical challenge that would directly stimulate the parietal lobe. I couldn't remember the specifics of the question. All I could hear was William thinking. Fingers moved at Olympic speeds all around, each computing simple problems. Human error was impossible to avoid and my brain seethed trying to understand what each mis-input would mean. What is a thought when the neurons fail to cooperate? Is this miscarriage of a thought even a logical concept I should concern myself with? Lips were moving in slow motion to be answered by a tidal wave of human computation and inefficiency that spat in the face of not only economics, but entropy itself. "What is 5 - 7? " "N-negative 2. " William responded with the ease of a miracle. And suddenly I was a ghost of euphoria. If Oppenheimer had become death, I had become life. Like a supernova, my every failure had produced elements that one could not think possible, elements that could create something as miraculous as life. People settle for Nobel prizes when they realise they will never feel what I feel now. I had done it. Tears streamed down my face as my legs began to fail me. I had forgotten to breathe. Perhaps I had forgotten that I was mortal in any regard. I had done it. I had done it... 5/9 return F6:: Send, It was less than a week before William requested my presence once more. He had grown restless; understandable, considering his entire existence was now confined to a single room. I passed many new faces as I navigated the labyrinth halls towards William. Specifically, I travelled by an uncharacteristically upset Ericson who shot me a glare as he passed. They had to increase the staff of the parietal room several times over upon discovering that even William's dreams needed to be computed. Finally I entered the room where William resided. I was shocked to see how much it had changed since my last visit. Like his previous residence, it had become subterranean. I was confident more Mannequins were hiding in this dark. g William was seated behind his hardwood desk. It seemed it had been subtly damaged during its transport. "In my presence, famed bioengineer Randall Hessington. " I couldn't muster a response beyond producing an awkward smile. "Heh, it is. " This was not enough to say alone, so I added "In the flesh. " William's smile dulled slightly as this comment seemed to pry at a discomfort with his newfound implant. "How do you feel, Randall? " He seemed to always insist on asking me this question. "It must feel good to have done the impossible. " I paused for some time before responding. Something was off. "Yeah, I suppose it does. " I remained expressionless as I spoke. "Hard to believe that even having soared higher than all others, there are greater peaks to reach, greater achievements that await. "L I detected anger in William's voice. I could feel that something was coming. "Greater achievements? " I inquired. "Randall, you're a smart man. You already know the cancer will spread, especially considering the stress my anatomy is under. Flesh is a timebomb of senescence after sexual maturation. Were you really under the impression we would just shake hands, jerk off your ego a bit, and go separate ways? That you would just walk away, collect awards, and abandon me to die? " A menagerie of emotions battled like feral dogs inside of me to decide how to feel. Finally, a victor emerged from this internal bloodsport, bruised and broken: anger. I was enraged. "William, you fucking-" William cut me off with the measured violence of a butcher. "Don't worry, I'll make sure there's more little toys you'll get to name and-" "No you don't fucking cut me off this time{!} You think you can just own people, that you can throw money at every problem, that you can just, just... " William's smug smile felt like a butter knife being pushed into my brain. Words were failing me. The limbic system was not prepared to fight this battle. Quietly, the ancient reptilian brain stepped forth. I screamed. I let out a guttural roar as tears flooded to my eyes and a thick fluid released itself into my sinuses. My heart pumped harder than if I was running a marathon. Suddenly all of the pain of all of my work, of all of my life - hidden by the illusion of humanity - was naked to me. "You think you fucking own me. " "Randall, I scraped your pathetic center of narrative gravity you call a self off the pavement and gave you not a second, not a third, but a final father fucking chance you did not deserve. You were meant to solve the problem of replacement. Well, you have. You're my fucking immune system and God fucking knows that immune systems can be fickle. " Individual ligaments and tendons twitched within my body, soldiers without order. My lower lip hung open slightly. Was I even thinking? I'm smart, I'm better than this. " "You think I don't know, Randall? " "You don't know anything. " I spat the words like broken teeth from a boxer. William performed a small gesture and a Mannequin emerged from the dark. The Mannequin produced a strange metal device and my twitching eyes focused. Recognition turned to pain. It was a snub-nosed revolver with a grip of warm red plastic imitating wood. I had purchased this revolver before meeting William. I had never seen it so clearly before, only ever dancing in my vision on the other end of a bottle. This revolver was intended to be punctuation to end the run-on sentence that was my life. "Students will read your name and want to be like you. You'll be worshipped, washed of every failure. " William spoke like he was scolding a child. "You'll be one of the greats, you can't want anything more. I've given you a home, power, money,... Frida, and more importantly than anything else... purpose. " He paused. "All you need to do is what you've always done. The impossible. " Words arrived that I never thought. "I'll leave, I'll run, I'll kill you, I'll kill... Fuck I'll, I'll... " I felt it, I had lost. " "No matter where you run, I'll find you. I pump the blood of this world. If there's an engine burning gas, I'm there. It's cute that you think you could kill me, but, Randall, I could fuck you like a pig and everyone in this building would look on knowing that they'll get a bonus tonight. " "Go home, cry, scream, drown in another bottle, fuck Frida and tell her about how it's all not fair and your life was supposed to be more than just the pinnacle of genius. And then when you wake up, dry your tears, wipe your ass, put on your big boy pants, and get back to work. " There were no more thoughts. Nervous pathways within my brain were being destroyed with such speed that I could not truly be present. A new person was being formed as the old one couldn't survive. My body was shepherded out of the room by the Mannequins, my mind gone and distant. I looked vacantly at the windows of the room and thought of the men and women that helped him compute the tidal wave of wrath he rained down upon me. Once again, William ushered me out with the final word. "Randall, I'm sorry about hitting you before, that was wrong. I should treat myself kinder than that. " 6/9 return F7:: Send, That night I made my way home. My body was moving but I simply was not there. Perhaps this was how a marionette felt, its body and mind adrift, only tethered by physical reality. Where was I right now? I could feel the cool tile against my naked body as the hum of the fan circling above carried me in and out of lucidity. As my eyes caught the fan it seemed to slow for a moment. I played with this illusion of control, looking away and looking back as if some psychic power would reveal itself. The fan seemed to melt into an abstract shape as I realised my eyes had filled with tears. Was this event an exception to the rule of my life? Was this what it had always been, simply playing with the illusion of control? I felt every sensation within my body. I felt my lungs draw air at the gentle request of my diaphragm. I felt my heart tirelessly pump, unappreciated in its perfection. I felt my liver process poisons I had accumulated throughout the day, throughout my life. ~ I felt my brain mourn its grand creation, its Tower of Babel collapsed. Ego rained down upon me, searing my skin like *** ash. I felt bad for my organs, my muscles, my bones. They worked so tirelessly and I thought of them as less than human. Perhaps I had come to believe that only my brain was human. I was overthinking again. The door to the bathroom opened but my eyes only cared about the fan. At the edges of my vision I could see her, Frida, standing over me. There was an urge to look that never made its way to my eyes. She must have been angry, disappointed that I was so pathetic. Perhaps she didn't even care and was another pawn controlled by William. Perhaps our entire relationship was orchestrated. She laid down on the floor next to me, my ears straining themselves in preparation for her first words, be them comfort or wrath. 6 She took my hand and laid with me, staring at the fan. I hated that I was happy. I was bought and sold, and I loved my new owner. Why was this how I found happiness? Why was this how I found love? "I'm so sorry, I'm so, I'm so... " I cried like an infant in the crib. "I know. " Frida's words were like a surgeon without anaesthetic: so much pain, but necessary. In some ways I never stopped crying. In some ways I never left that bathroom floor. 7/9 return F8:: Send, "Burnett Academy would like to congratulate Randall Michael Hessington with the Burnett Academy Award for his breakthrough work in the field of Bioengineering. "The audience roared with the kind of formal applause you know is poisoned with envy. So many faces - they all looked so small from up here on the stage. My suit was slightly too tight, or maybe I just wasn't breathing. I had imagined this scene so many times in dreams, awake and asleep. I had been here before, but this time felt so much less real than the rest. Someone was speaking to me, but I wasn't there. I could see him, I could see Randall in the crowd. Why was he... how could he be? I was supposed to be on stage. Behind him sat another Randall. He wasn't smiling. Why wasn't he smiling? He had worked so hard for this. He had proven them all wrong, he should be happy. He couldn't do this to me, he needed to be happy. I stepped towards the edge of the stage, the red of the curtains of the hall beating like arteries to the pulse of my own heart. There were so many of him. Someone stopped me. I turned and it was Frida. There was a rare look of concern in her eyes.. Was I dreaming? Was this all in my head again? "You're not dreaming, Randall. You need to come back and accept the award. " Her lips moved faster than the words arrived in my brain. Had I said that out loud? I had lost track of where my thinking was happening. I was walked by Frida back over to the award I had worked so hard for. I shook their hand; I looked them in the eyes. I turned and I waved and bowed to all the smiling faces. I did it all right. But I was already gone, a ghost attending his own funeral. 8/9 return F9:: Send, Minutes rolled into hours, into days, into months, into years, into the only life I would ever get to live. I installed more cords into William's head. He slowly became my creation as I became his. My work was closely monitored, likely out of fear of mutiny, as if I had become the real cancer to be concerned with. Rooms filled with employees enslaved by a man they had become an organ to, were paid ludicrous salaries to throw everything that matters in life away. I was like them and I had done this to them. I had seen him mortal so many times but still he lingered over me like a malign god. Finally I broke the deafening silence. "I-I can't live like this. " I spoke to Frida, almost praying she wouldn't respond. She sat facing away from me at the foot of our bed. "You have to, we have everything we could ever want. " The agony these words inflicted was unimaginable. "No, I don't want this. " "Yes, you do. You've worked so hard for this. " Every organ within me screamed in their own terrible ways and her reassurance failed to restrain me. A "No, I want, I want to be in control of my life- I want control. " Frida turned to match my gaze, tears rolling down her face. I had never seen her cry like this before. Her face was stoic, hiding any true emotion. "You want control? " There were no words. Another silence emerged. "Frida, if things were different, if we had never met William, would you still... Would we still... " My every fear response lit up in a catastrophic failure. I was convinced, no I understood, that the result of this line of inquiry would kill me. Frida stared me in the face as her every muscle twitched to maintain composure. I had never heard a noise as deafening as the scream within her eyes. I had fallen in love with a puppet. I had fallen in love with the string William pulled to control me. What had I done to this woman? What had I done to everyone turned into nothing but an organ of William? The silence that followed would never really end, and I knew it would grow louder until it destroyed me. Total and utter oblivion was just beyond the tips of my fingers. 9/9 return F10:: Send, I sat alone in the hazy grey dark of the room that in the coming months would be occupied by replacements for William's occipital lobe. This building had become an absurdity. Some of the rooms now spoke to other rooms. It felt as if William's soul was clawing for his body. This room was one of the few blindspots within the beast, the security cameras still in the process of being installed. This was the twilight of my opportunity. Cautious that no one would intrude, I reached into the dark crevice at the back of the room where pipes were in the process of being removed. Over the previous months I had smuggled, piece by piece, the elements I needed for my weapon to kill god, and slowly, tediously assembled them. An abomination of plastic, metal, and, in part, wood - a pistol coalesced rather than crafted. Today, I had brought the final and riskiest piece of the puzzle, two 9mm bullets. It felt oddly intimate to hold them in my hand. In a way, it felt like how I imagined it would feel for a Greek god of tragedy to hold their own child. A mix of pride and terror: two offspring, one to kill god, and one to kill reality itself. I had forgotten to breathe and the world had drifted away. With a deeper breath than I thought I could muster, I reeled myself back into existence. My hands shaking, I loaded the bullets into the chamber and plunged the device into my jacket pocket. William was about to be awoken once more for the next installation, and so I forced my legs to carry me down the hall. Reality was a warping and twisting thing. I could feel the bubbling froth of the cosmos deciding the future. I passed the window of one of William's slave rooms, faces pressed down into their work, near-mindlessly performing computations that could be accomplished by a cluster of cells. As my vision relaxed, I noticed my reflection in the glass. I had become a parody of myself, sickly thin and hunched over, burdened by the weight of intangible chains. There was a strange stinge of ego, drunk sadness at the knowledge that this in some ways would become my permanent state. I entered the observation room and sat in my provided seat, the proof that I had become a fixture of this place. William looked like a sort of perverse octopus on the other side of the glass, Hessington Cords reaching into his brain like the limbs of some beast destined for unknown fathoms below. Thirty percent of his brain had been removed to be computed by poor souls. As William was aroused to consciousness he turned and looked me in the eyes. I was confident he could not see me in this lighting but the effect was eerie nonetheless. I gripped the firearm in my pocket in unseen posturing. Nervously, my eyes strained through the dark behind William to make out the positions of the Mannequins. There were always two of them, ever present. I was sweating so heavily that it would be more logical to assume I had showered clothed. Kyles said something to me but I didn't absorb a single word. I stood up; my moment had arrived. I marched myself in a swirling delirium toward the access to William's room. Finally I removed the handgun from my pocket. Its weight spoke to me, offering a terrible comfort. My mind wasn't present, even as I demanded it to be. I needed to be present. This would be my finale. I heaved open the door and threw myself into the room with William. Ego told me to speak but had failed me so many times before. I stared in silence. The overseer turned in terror, scurrying backward away from me, knocking their chair onto the floor. William looked me in the face and, for once in his life, did not smile. "Randall, what are you doing? Is that-? Oh, you've made yourself another toy. Is this one named after you too? " I knew William well enough to know two things: the smile that slowly crept up his face was forced, and that he was stalling for time. Distantly, I could hear alarm bells blaring; however, the computation staff were forbidden from leaving, even in a state of emergency. "I won't antagonise you further, but I'll make it clear that if you take the opportunity to back down, I'll ensure that-" I raised the firearm and took a step closer to William. My eyes darted, still ensuring that the Mannequins were behind him. I could only make out one of their shapes at first but could spot the other slowly moving around him, likely trying to determine how to handle the situation. William began to open his mouth as I squeezed the trigger, another moment of my technical ability being put to the test. *Bang{!} * To my absolute shock I was wrestled by a third Mannequin. They had thrown themself in front of me and been shot just below their left lung in the chaos. They made inhuman noises on the floor as deep red blood was ushered from their wounds. The opening into their body seemed to move gently like a new mouth. There were no second chances. My mind raced with an onslaught of possibilities but simply God said no. The room rung like a bell with the sound of the gunshot. I felt a trickle of fluid pour from my ear. I looked William in the eyes and continued with the plan. I put the barrel of the gun in my mouth against its roof and saw deeper in William's eyes than I suspected anyone had ever seen before. Endless seas of darkness surrounding a terrified little boy so scared of returning to the unknown. Perhaps I should have been afraid too. As my finger squeezed down on the trigger I had the most peculiar thought. It was utterly silly, but I didn't like the taste. I never heard the sound of the gun going off. It was the ultimate absurdity, confusion and chaos as impossible colour raced through my head as I started the journey to becoming nothing at all. I hit the floor like what I always was, a complex physiological machine of meat. I could hear the most beautiful humming, my ears violently stimulated from vibrations, this time coming from inside my skull, ringing like a bell. My eyes stared forward, unable to move. To my shock, William rushed from his seat, his face red with pain and tears pouring from his eyes like wine at a banquet. Like a child discovering their own mortality, he wept over me, screaming words I would never hear. He cradled my corpse as I looked on, holding me the way a mother holds a child. I felt a warm and smooth fluid run over my head from his fingers. As my thoughts grew more distant, I realised he was desperately trying to scoop the matter freed from my skull back into my head. He had stretched the Hessington Cords to their limit trying to reach me and blood trickled down from each site as he pulled me closer. I lay there in his arms, eternally waiting for my life to flash before my eyes. There was no flash, there was no celebration, there were simply the things I had done and the things I never would. 10/9 return F11:: Send, 50 years later. - I suppose this was how I, Joseph Meyer, died. What a strange way to spend the night of the turn of the millennium. I had a terrible nervousness as I sat in the surgical bay. I truly thought I had overcome any misgivings I may have had about my situation, but it seemed I was still burdened by fear. I had been employed by the most powerful entity in the world. My family and future generations would be treated to the height of decadence and care. Mr. Cristenson, the man who had defied death itself and employed thousands to operate his now inhuman mind, had selected me from thousands of individuals to serve as his personal counsellor. However, I was not to be a counsellor myself. He intended for me to play a role. I was to assume a new identity that I had studied to an exhaustive degree: Randall Michael Hessington, eminent bioengineer. I had learned every detail of his life to the point where I already caught myself dissociating from my previous life. In a matter of moments I would no longer be Joseph Meyer ever again and instead be a living monument to a corpse for a man that was on track to slowly becoming a god. I wondered how it felt for my mother to look down from Heaven and watch her baby boy turn into someone else's. The surgeons entered the room dressed in all black clothes, fitting for the strange ritual that this all proved to be. Everything from the eerie low lighting to the unorthodox dress code made this feel like it was some sort of sacrifice rather than a medical procedure. As the anesthesiologist wordlessly put me off to sleep, I felt a strange sadness at the fact I would never see my own face again. 11/9 return F12:: Send, Healing was an extreme process as I had not understood they would inflict me with surgical scars that the original Hessington possessed. I was also surprised by the fact they had chosen to shave and shape the cartilage inside my throat to better match the voice of the original Hessington. The device they had used to artificially age my skin took an unimaginable toll on my body, leading to nights of vomiting and shivers. Finally, after weeks of bruised bones and dissolving stitches emerging from flesh, I was healed enough to meet Mr. Cristenson. The campus outside Mr. Cristenson's monumental tower sprawled like a city. All staff within the tower lived in this little world of necessity. They all seemed happy but I detected a strange sadness in their eyes that I dismissed as projection. Once inside, I was led through a labyrinth of hallways. Labourers were divided into two eerie classes. In all white, with blinders built into their masks like race horses, were the "Neurons", forbidden from speaking to one another and working in silent stalls completely secluded from any contact. This was the employment of almost all of those who lived outside, their only sense of individuality being the fluctuation of body shape between them. There were thousands of them, each operating in room upon room, emulating a different function of Mr. Cristenson's brain. Then there were the "Mothers" who escorted me dressed in all black and were perpetually wordless. As a child I had heard speculation that they weren't even human. I had even heard religious folks who were commonly critical of Mr. Cristenson's bid at immortality speculate that they were demons brought to punish him for his hubris. In person, they were more alien than I even imagined, the most upsetting detail being that their chests did not rise when they breathed and their black leather "skin" had no openings for a wearer to enter or exit. When "speaking" they would produce a device that spoke on their behalf. We were nearing Mr. Cristenson's residence where the remainder of his brain was housed. It was strange to realise so late, but I was unsure what exactly I would be meeting. The doors cracked open as the Mothers stepped back; a hazy mist drifted from the opening. Inside was a cavern that could have been plucked from some forgotten mountain. It was surreal, a cave of dripping limestone and spiralled lichens, even with the gentle sound of water all at the centre of the most technologically advanced building on the face of the earth. P I looked to the Mothers for approval but found nothing in their faceless stares. After a moment's hesitation, I stepped into the mouth of the beast. X The door sealed behind me and for a moment I believed I was alone in the total darkness. Terrified, I stepped and crawled over the stone floor of the cave. There were simple lights that resembled glowworms on the ceiling. As I made my way through the dark, I forgot that just beyond these walls was a world of featureless rooms of thousands slaving away. Then I heard it, an inhuman weeping. Words cannot describe the fear that gripped my every cell. Finally as my eyes adjusted I could see I stood before a great pool of water. On the other side of the pond was a thing, a leviathan of the depths. Long worms reached down from the cavern's ceiling to meet at a strange limp pale thing that laid slightly to the left of the gathering worms. It moved slightly in its balling, revealing a definitively human hand that delicately caressed the cool waters of the pond. Was this thing Mr. Cristenson? There were no words - no words to describe the abject horror I felt. I thought for a moment that this is what it must be like to meet the devil himself. "I'm so sorry. " A voice echoed from every crevice of the cave like I was standing in the throat of a colossus. "I'm so sorry, I'm so-" The crying grew so loud I was forced to clutch my head. It grew to the point that the water of the pond shook and the glowworms above grew dim. The marrow within my bones trembled from the tsunami of misery. Finally, as consciousness started to fail me, I screamed. "It's okay{!} It's okay, I forgive- I forgive you{!} " Silence offered me release like ointment to a burn. "Mr. Cristenson, I-I forgive you, " I pleaded, fearing for my life. "No, no, no, " the creature whimpered. "Why do you call me that? Am I not still William to you? " "W-William, I forgive you. " I tried my hardest to turn my fear into genuine concern. "Randall, I'm so sorry- so sorry I treated you so poorly. I've never regretted anything more. You were a friend to me and I regret insulting you. " It was eerie how Mr. Cristenson's voice came from everywhere and nowhere. "You can name anything you like after yourself, I won't mock you again. " There was a silence before I understood I was prompted to respond. "T-Thank you, I-I appreciate that. " Silence resumed. "Now you apologise. " There was a quiet anger in the thing's voice. With these words my heart raced. I forced myself to speak. "I'm sorry for failing you, and-" "You never failed me." " In an unseen panic, I tried again. "I- I'm sorry for leaving you for so long, you didn't deserve that. I shouldn't have tried to run away. " I was avoiding looking at Mr. Cristenson, cobbling thoughts together in desperation. "But I'm back now, and I won't be leaving you again. " My eyes detected movement across the water. It appeared to be moving towards me like a reaper of death. I could form no thoughts as I froze in fear. A mechanical arm terminating in Mr. Cristenson's back carried him silently across the water's surface. His limbs that must have once been legs gently rippled the black pond as he crossed. He was less than a corpse, a pale skeleton poorly wrapped in skin, his anatomy having plunged into geriatric depths hidden behind the wall of natural death. He had no eyes or nose as the cords connecting to his brain had run out of angles and needed to enter through his face through sheer necessity. Lesser cords, barely visible in the dark, entered his body at awful and unusual angles, quietly pumping fluids in and out. There was no mouth to move, only vestige of a lower jaw. He had been eaten alive by immortality. Finally he was so close I could smell his barely human skin. "I know it's childish Randall, but I could use a hug from a friend. It's been so long without you, and every moment of it has been harder than the last. " Aided by machinery, his arms outstretched with an unnatural cadence. I swallowed all my terror and spoke, "It truly has been too long. " I stepped into the creature's embrace and felt metal and paper-thin skin wrap itself around me. I had no choice but to stare into the terrifying dark chasms between cords that reached deeper into anatomy than mortal wounds. I closed my eyes but the image was still there. I found a devil and sold my soul. I wept in those acrid arms that refused the bliss of decay. I had killed myself for this; I had all but married this demon. Without God or divine punishment, I had found a hell of my own making. "It's okay, Randall, you don't need to cry, I forgive you for everything. " 12/9 return Ctrl:: Send, For years, I spent my days tending to Mr. Cristenson's every desire: endless conversations in total darkness, pissing matches of intellectual debate, scripted arguments to keep him engaged. Weeks, perhaps months, would go by without the name Joseph Meyer passing into my conscious awareness. My previous life at times felt like a strange dream. I felt myself remembering events from Randall's life that I couldn't possibly. At times, I grew numb; at times, I tricked myself into believing I cared for him. Rarely, I would be offered a temporary freedom due to the removal of more of his brain. A holy day danced on the horizon of my life, the date the final piece of his brain was to be removed. Many outside speculated this would be the death of the beast, a surgery that would trigger a cascade of failures ultimately leading to his true death. No more brain to house a soul, just rooms upon rooms communicating until entropy of information caught up with them. It was close now, my one chance at freedom. Even during my temporary freedoms I was limited in where I could visit. My favourite of the locations was the furthest from Mr. Cristenson's tower, a quaint graveyard at the side of an interstate highway - a graveyard where Frida Perez, esteemed philosopher of self and personal identity, was buried. This was a place that must have been of incredible importance to the real Randall, even though he had never been there. I would sit on the black park bench in that place and tune into the soft wind making leaves dance between the graves like a puppet show, unbound by the limits of a stage. I let my thoughts become so distant that returning to my body was shocking as I remembered I was ever anyone at all. The dancing leaves transformed the world around me and my eyes began to slowly trace that fan that ruled over me from the bathroom floor. I could see the imperfect yellow lighting of the room, feel the kiss of the cool tile against my skin. I could see Frida standing over me, her beautiful olive skin and matte eyes. Wordlessly, I begged her for forgiveness. And then as if a bell was rung by God himself, I was slammed back into my body with a force that shattered my every bone. Where had this memory come from? I had never met Frida. My breath escaped me and in a frenzy I thrashed about. I felt that if I had hesitated a moment longer, all my memories of my previous life would have escaped me and I would truly have become Randall Hessington. I clutched my head in terror and cried, tears for everyone I had lost along the way. I cried tears for Frida, for Joseph, and tears for even a William that smiled at me from the other side of his monolithic desk a lifetime ago. 13/9 The day had come. The final piece of Mr. Cristenson, the abomination, was to be removed - the last artefact that held the slightest possibility of containing a soul. Even though with time I had grown confident listening to the words of philosophers and eminent neurosurgeons that this event would free me, I still felt fear. I knew little of what the procedure would entail, but I had seen the Mothers prepare an ornate casket and arrange for burial next to Castor Cristenson, Mr. Cristenson's father. I sat in a remote room that processed the functioning of Mr. Cristenson's amygdala. Perhaps I thought the irony of sitting amidst Mr. Cristensons' fear centre would bring me some form of protection. I stayed there for far longer than I thought the Mothers would allow, and as time rolled on, I grew a hope that this discoordination was my salvation. And then it happened. As I sat tucked away, dozing off to an uneasy sleep, a Mother appeared before me and produced that terrible whispering device. "Mr. Cristenson wishes to speak to you. " Those words broke me, and I simply obeyed. There was no point; no matter what I did, in the end I would have obeyed. I entered the mouth of the beast to meet my devil once more. As I stepped over the hills, I pushed through any fear of what I might meet. I was no longer alive - a shell of a shell of a man - merely a character in someone else's fiction. "Randall, I have such beautiful news. " That wretched voice echoed from every crevice of this cave. I stumped like a wounded dog into that pool of unnatural water, refusing his words. "They've done it, they've made me beautiful, they've made me forever. I can see things so clearly now, I no longer need to worry about replacement. I can expand, I can grow. Randall, thank you. Thank you for everything. You truly are the greatest mind this world has ever seen. I stripped my clothes in a haze of existential failure. "We can focus on you now, we can make sure you can stay with me forever. " I laid naked on my back, staring at the cave ceiling above, floating slightly in that pitch black water. "We can take you apart, get you out of that body. Finally you can truly become a part of me. " I submerged my head under the water, keeping my eyes still fixed on the ceiling above. His words echoed through speakers within the blackness that strangled my vision. "I'm not Randall, my name is Joseph. " I spoke in a voice that was never my own. Silence echoed through the cave. Finally laughter emerged from the ethereal demon. "Hah ha oh yes{!} Joseph Meyer, built through plastic surgery and unknown magic. You believe that, still? " It didn't matter what he was saying anymore, I wept into that black abyss. Every drop felt as if it could be my tears. "I'm sure you still believe in imagining your mother looking down from Heaven, believe in blowing your brains out and me cradling your dying corpse. Hah, you visited that grave so much, maybe you even still believe in Frida. If you bite off your tongue and drown in your own blood I will heave your corpse back into life from the edges of existence. We will live forever, we will outlive the stars themselves. You are closer than an organ, Randall. " As I let go beneath the water, I knew this death would never last. I would be plucked back from the void, in another time, perhaps in another body. Consciousness failed me, reality failed me. I had become a beautiful nothing that a cruel God refused to let not exist. William's voice boomed and shrieked into a deafening silence that had become so familiar. In that dark, there I was: a little boy playing with beetles, amazed by the world. There I was, a heart-broken child pretending to be a man. There I was, a genius failure, fattened by ego and pride. There I was, holding Frida in my arms and understanding what it all meant. There I was, dying on the floor before the devil himself. There I was, a shell of a shell brought back from the dead. And so here I am, playing with the illusion of control. So at last, at the end of all mortal ends, here I am finally letting go. return