Chapter 6

While we discussed where exactly the arrow was pointing, another traffic report came in. This time, a subway train had been set in motion, and thus the train had filed an ‘unauthorized driver’ report to the police. When a quick query revealed that it was heading for the same station we had investigated before, we knew we were onto something. We went there immediately and awaited the train’s arrival. When I did, it stopped at the platform and opened its doors. But despite the report, there was no driver.

I was about to dismiss it as yet another anomaly, but a question kept bugging me: if it was, why wasn’t it filed as an anomaly report like the others? If an actual person had set this train in motion, the train would have, successfully or not, tried to identify this person, but no such attempt had been registered.

“The subway is pre-Link, isn’t it?” Sam reminded me.

“So someone programmed the train to move, and then left it,” I surmised. “But why, and where?”

“That second question is easy enough to find out,” Samuel said and stepped into the train.”

I followed his example, but as the doors shut behind me, I came to regret the decision. I began to seriously consider the option that this was either a trap or a distraction. In case of the latter, perhaps one of many. There was nothing we could do about that now, though. The train didn’t stop at any of the stations. Curious as to our destination, I tried to read the station names as we races passed them. I soon began to recognize the names of stations that reported the train: this line went straight for the Fringe.

As we approached the station I frequented in my youth and thus the end of the line, I made ready to depart. The subway train, however, didn’t even slow down and thus I watched the last station pass by. I had always believed that the tracks stopped here, but the train rode onwards, into the darkness. No more stations came up, and I don’t know how long it took for the train to finally come to a halt, somewhere underground. It appeared more like a cave than a tunnel. Luckily for us, Samuel had a light with him.

The train doors opened right in front of a security door. A soft thumping sound came from beyond it. It seemed obvious that this was where we were supposed to go. Sam tried connecting to the security system with his PC, to no avail. “This place is too old for that,” I reminded him.

There was a keypad, and in with no small measure of nostalgia, I entered ‘0123’. With a click, the door unlocked, surprising both me and Samuel. Now knowing where we were meant to go, I led Sam into the chamber that housed the massive Livecrete heart.

I am certain that it is the same heart as I saw in my childhood, yet it was wholly different. The arteries were intact and had a moist, silvery sheen to them. The heart itself was beating vividly; much slower than a human heart, but appropriately for a beast of its size. Yet my attention was drawn to the figure, dwarf like in comparison, that stood in front of the heart. A black cloak and hood instantly reminded me of the reaper-man I had met on the aircraft. The figure turned to face us and pulled back the hood, revealing the familiar face of Mr. Grave. He smiled and said: “You’re here,”

Before I had a chance to respond, he pushed a button on his PC and the entire room burst in flames. The livecrete’s heartbeat sped up, shaking violently. But an instant later, the explosion engulfed me and I lost all consciousness.

I woke up in my lounge chair, bathing in sweat.

“A simulation?” I asked myself. I knew it had to be, but to be sure, I queried ARG-OS for any recent Livecrete failings and explosions. When the search result came up zero, I breathed a sigh of relief. I called Samuel and confirmed my suspicion with him. But neither of us had the slightest clue who had created it. The only lead we had was Mr. Grave, but Samuel had not seen him. Had we both experienced a separate but synchronized simulation, or was Mr. Grave yet another hallucination entirely? I went for the one place that might hold some answers: Annie’s.

I asked Annie, still assuming that was her name, if Mr. Grave was in. She didn’t know any of her patrons by that name, and I realized it was a nickname he had made up just for me. Continuing that blatant display of ignorance, I described his appearance to her. She made a valiant effort to not laugh at my folly, which ultimately failed, as she said: “Not by that look.”

Of course, inside the Linkspace of the café, people were free to present themselves with an avatar of their choosing. Annie herself had already shown this at my first visit. I realized that I knew absolutely nothing of Mr. Grave that could reliably identify him. The best chance I had was to simply plug in and hope.

I was in luck, for he was at his usual seat. I joined him and offered him a tea in exchange for some answers. He agreed and chose a Creamed Spice for both of us. I first asked after Lifecrete, feigning an engineer’s interest. His answers showed him clearly more knowledgeable than your average citizen, at least as it was before the Link. He did not mention anything about the hearts, though.

I don’t know what I had expected. If he really had, or was planning to bomb a heart, he certainly wouldn’t tell anyone, least of all a police consultant. I used the topic of resuming my studies to bridge the conversation topic to ARG-OS simulations.

The very first mention of that topic returned that twinkle to his eyes. “You’re in one right now. Annie’s runs at least twenty café simulations, of which we frequent just one. This is the beauty of the link: we can shape reality to our wishes and desires, and if those desires do not match up with those of others, they’re free to shape their own, independent of ours. Can you even conceive of all the conflicts that have simply ceased to exist because of this?”

“What if you’re being forced or tricked into a simulation of another’s making? is such a thing possible?”

“Theoretically, sure. But who would be capable of such control?”

That was exactly what I had set out to discover, but now that he posed the question to me, the answer seemed obvious: “the same people who created the Link: VOC.”

Mr. Grave chuckled. “A reasonable first guess. The Link was indeed built by VOC engineers, but stop and think about what the Link really is. When it comes down to it, it is little more than a network, connecting all of our ARG’s. Dig deep enough into the link and you’ll find the ARG Operating System, more commonly known as ARG-OS. So who runs ARG-OS? It is open source and thus, it is created, maintained and supported by everybody and therefore, nobody.

“That still leaves VOC in control. Anyone can build and run a simulation, but others can only access it while VOC keeps that connection open. For instance, I am denied access to this café from my home, because the connection simply doesn’t exist. And if they can shut you out of certain areas of Link-space, they can, by extension, force you into one,” I argued.

“Be careful, you’re getting dangerously close to the truth here,” Mr. Grave teased me, and then threw the conversation in another direction: “Tell me, would you have chosen to work for Mo’s resistance out of free will?”

“I did it out of free will!” I protested.

“You liked it, enjoyed it. You would not go back to VOC out of free will. But that is not what I asked. Suppose that Mo offered you not an exchange of service for freedom, but simply freedom: either join or go your own way. Suppose you had never been taken prisoner at all, but simply given the opportunity to defect and switch sides. Knowing what you now know about VOC, and about Mo and his resistance, would you have chosen to work for him?”

That question struck me like a hammer. Mo had been my best friend, and I wanted so badly to say ‘yes’. Anything less felt like betrayal. But the honest answer was: “No. My ties to VOC were too strong. They had bought my service and I had friends there. I would not have turned my back to them for a stranger.”

And I was still tied to them, I realized then; I lived in a house provided by VOC, received a veteran’s pension and in about a month, would resume studies that VOC granted me access to and paid for. I felt the need to justify this, perhaps more to myself than Mr. Grave: “I would return and help rebuild the resistance, if only I knew where to start, who to contact, how to contact them.”

“You are not the only one,” he said with a smile. It wasn’t his usual, cocky, know-it-all, grin, but a genuine smile “I told you, I would not mind being Mo.”

An image of Mo flickered over Mr. Grave, as if they were one and the same. Was it a prank he played on me, or another hallucination? Either way, it was unsettling and served well to remind me that Mr Grave was but a persona. “You might want to start with being more up front and honest,” I said. “For starters, why did you bomb the Livecrete heart?”

That cocky grin of his returned, but it was now partially worn by Mo’s face. “You might want to start with making a more thorough investigation than a simple ARG-OS query.”

I wanted to ask him how he knew that, but I already knew the answer: if ARG-OS was half the Intelligent System I suspected it to be, it would store queries and results for future reference. I queried ARG-OS for my own search history to confirm that suspicion. It turned out to be far more expansive than I had expected, including everything I had learned from Mr. Grave. Those had not been search queries, I told myself, but immediately began to question that knowledge. Not that long ago, I had questioned his very existence.

I queried for the Link ID of the person in front of me. Even if he was not there physically, he still needed a Link ID for his persona. The search came up, predictably, with another 404 error. I looked up at him, still sitting there with his smug grin. He probably knew everything I had just searched for.

I decided to put aside the question of Mr Grave’s existence for now and return to my actual investigation. I rose from my seat and he asked mockingly: “Are done questioning me?”

“I am, until I can get some actual answers out of you,” I said and walked away.

“Experience has taught me that people learn best through experience. Have a look at that heart, a real look, and then we shall see whether you’re the one,” he said.

I turned around with a questioning look. “The one?” no sooner had I spoken than I regretted the words. I would not be distracted again. I left Annie’s and summoned a taxi. I entered my parents’ address as destination, which the taxi rejected. I asked why, and it responded with “Alternative mode of transport found.”

It set off and drove me to the nearest subway station. In hindsight, it is little coincidence that this was the very station I had investigated for an anomaly before. Uncertain about what to expect, I left the taxi and headed inside the station. Almost like a déjà vu, there was a subway train waiting for me with open doors. The train set off as I entered.

“Hello”

I almost jumped in the startled realization that I was not alone. A skinny figure in long, black robes sat on a bench. A large hood hid his face.

“Mr. Grave, I presume?” I asked.

“Negative,” the figure said in a low, monotone voice, and after a brief pause: “An associate. Call me Wraith.”

“Please tell me I haven’t joined some kind of crazy suicide cult,” I muttered.

“Mr. Grave says these names help remind us of the life outside the Link,” Wraith said.

I asked a few more questions, but Wraith’s answers all started with “Mr. Grave says,” so I gave up. It resulted in a quiet ride. Just as I wondered why Wraith was here, he got up, walked to the front of the train and entered the driver’s cabin. This train must have been ancient to even have one, but I soon saw why Wraith had picked it. He turned off the pilot and drove the train himself. He didn’t stop anywhere, not even the final stop at the Fringe. Only before the door to the Livecrete heart did he activate the brakes.

He did not even follow me to the heart, content to wait in his train for my return. I was almost disappointed to see the heart in much the same state as it had been in my youth, only a bit more worn. There was no sign of fire or explosion at all. Still I was committed to my thorough investigation and searched the entire site for clues. I even climbed onto the debris of the heart until I could peek inside. To the wall between two heart chambers, a large bomb was strapped. Shocked, I almost fell, but I somehow managed to force my body to climb slowly and carefully back down.

Once I was with both feet on the ground, still shaking, I noticed that Wraith had followed me after all. In his bony hand, he held a device I immediately recognized from Mr. Grave’s simulation as the bomb’s detonator. Just as I prepared myself to pounce and take it from him, he held it out to me and said: “Mr. Grave said he wants you to have this.”

Very slowly, I took the detonator from him.

“Mr. Grave said that from ashes, new life may spring,” Wraith said in his emotionless voice, then turned around and headed back to the train.

“I will think about it,” I said. It was a lie. I intended to call in a bomb removal squad the moment I had a connection again. Eager to put some distance between myself and that bomb, I followed Wraith into the train.

“Mr. Grave would like that,” Wraith said.

As the train set in motion, another dreadful thought wormed its way into my head: the Livecrete heart was dead, when it shouldn’t be. Mom and Dad were connected. They had running water. The Fringe had ceased being the fringe, for it had been integrated into the Link.

I asked Wraith to stop the train at the Fringe station, which he did without question. I promised him I would be back soon, left the bomb detonator in the train, and climbed the stairs to the surface. The sight of derelict buildings was all too familiar, and I headed straight to the house. Nobody was home. I entered into an empty space. Mom and Dad never had much furniture, but this place had obviously been abandoned. Their old bedroom was empty, the kitchen was covered in dust and there was not a trace of life left. I rushed to the houses of my old friends. They were much the same. I checked neighbours, acquaintances and just about anyone I could remember from my childhood. All of them were gone. The Fringe had indeed ceased being the fringe; it was now truly dead. I queried ARG-OS where the residents had moved to, but received no connection.

Resigning to the fact that there was nothing left here, I returned to the station. Wraith drove me back to the Link and dropped me off at the same station we had departed from. I wearily dragged myself up the stairs, only to be surrounded by police officers. As they cuffed me, I met the long gaze of Samuel. “Cor?” he asked.

“Why?” I asked him, but the answer was already forming in my head: the surveillance drone posted at this station had seen me enter and raised the alarm.

“Breaking and entering, and hijacking of a subway train. Also, you are suspect of disruptive activities throughout the Link,” Sam replied, and then instructed his agents to search the station and train.

I first wondered whether they would find Wraith, but then suddenly remembered the greater danger: “Sam, you have to listen to me. There is a device in that train. It’s a bomb detonator, be very careful with it.”

“This is not helping your case at all, Cor,” he said sadly.

“I know! I intended to call for a removal team as soon as I had a connection,” I yelled.

They held me there for an eternity as they searched the station. Eventually, an officer came up to report to Samuel: “We have found no trace of accomplices. There was also no hint of a bomb detonator.”

Sam look at me questioningly. I guessed that Wraith had taken it away, but I kept silent. “Take him in for questioning,” he decided.

>> Chapter 7

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