Chapter 8

We didn’t return to the Labyrinth. Wraith drove us silently to the subway station. It was only after he parked the van and led me inside that I came to realize what he had really meant when he said ‘below’. With renewed anticipation, I got into the now familiar subway train as Wraith set it into motion in what for a moment felt like the wrong direction: towards the Heart Park. I knew this line never actually went into the park, but Wraith still navigated the underground network’s switches and crossings effortlessly. When Wraith stopped the train, I knew exactly where we were; directly below Skytown.

There was no station here. Not even a platform or an emergency exit, just the darkness of the tunnel. Still, we got out of the train, and the lights of the tunnel, inactive for years, flickered on. They only confirmed that there was indeed nothing here beyond the soil that allowed the park’s vegetation to grow.

From the corner of my eyes, I saw a silhouette. For a brief moment, I thought it was Mo. But those bright blue eyes, lit up in the dimness of the tunnel, could only belong to Mr. Grave. And yet that ragged hood and robe were typical of Wraith. But Wraith was behind me, I reasoned and then instantly reminded myself that there was, without a doubt, more than one Wraith. Regardless, it was a hallucination and I no longer had the desire to indulge in one. I turned around to head back into the train, but found the tracks empty. There was no trace of either the train or Wraith.

I spun around to the sound of a door opening. A door that I was certain had not been there before now stood wide open, with the apparition inviting me in. I carefully approached him and asked: “Who are you?”

The hallucination chuckled and spoke in a voice that was almost a perfect imitation of Mr. Grave: “Asking difficult questions right off the bat, don’t you? You could’ve started with a simple one, such as ‘What is your name?’”

A thoughtful expression covered his face as I told him that was practically the same thing. He completely ignored that and shook his head. “No, that’s only slightly more simple. How about ‘May I come in?’ Yes, Mr. Oban, please do.”

If he hoped that I’d take the hint, he must have been disappointed. I simply stood there, blank-faced and commented: “You are by far the craziest hallucination that I’ve had.”

He completely ignored that comment and addressed my first question: “I suppose you would know me as the first anomaly.”

That took me off guard. “I thought Wraith had made all of those.”

He showed a grin that again reminded me all too much of Mr. Grave. “I like to think I’ve been a great source of inspiration.”

“And do you have a name, oh muse of machines?” I asked.

I hadn’t thought it possible, but that grin grew even wider, as if he had waited for ages for just this moment: “You may call me Shadow. Now, shall we?” he said and gestured at the door again.

“Of course,” I sighed and finally took his invitation.

The door led to a hallway that seemed to stretch on into infinity. I have no idea for how long we walked it, but there was, eventually, an end to it. Shadow opened the door that led into a large, circular, domed chamber. It was just like the chamber that housed the Livecrete heart in the Fringe, but this one was even larger. The heart pulsed with life, showing colours from deep red to purple and in places even a bluish hue. There was no dust, no crumbling concrete, only vibrant life. Around the heart stood a ring of seventeen ARG chairs, but I barely noticed them, so taken was I with the heart itself. “So this is what a real, live heart is like,” I muttered to myself, conveniently ignoring that it was another hallucination.

“You think this is Livecrete?” Shadow asked, amused.

Livecrete builds, I reminded myself. We were in the centre of the Heart Park, largest and perhaps only unbuilt space within the Link. “But it is Livecrete technology. It just doesn’t build. It…,” I wasn’t sure what exactly it did.

Shadow took on a lecturing tone: “It Links, Mr. Oban. Your Home System to the store, the store to the factory, the factory to the mine. And since its conception, it has grown to encompass the entire world’s infrastructure.”

“No, that mine still needs to send out shipments, the factory’s products go to distribution centres, and so on,” I argued.

“And where are your ships, your docks and distribution centres, exactly?” Shadow asked, confronting me with a rather harsh truth.

I had never seen them, I just knew them to exist. It’s what my education had taught me. My silence invited Shadow to continue his lecture: “In the Link, there is only one commodity: information. Images, sounds, flavours. You are currently gawking at the world’s primary distribution centre for everything in the world.”

“That’s Linkspace. It’s an Alternate Reality, a simulation, built inside a computer. It needs a server in P-space to sustain it,” I argued.

Shadow grinned. This was the point he had been working towards: “You consider P-space to be a more ‘real’ reality than Linkspace. What makes you so certain it is not the other way around? What proof do you have the this is not a simulation, run for the sake of your person?”

I wanted to list all the proof I had, but I found my mouth hanging open, silent, unable to bring forth a single, sound argument. One blink later, I was back in the subway tunnel. The door was gone. Shadow was gone. He had made his point: he could run a simulation inside P-space. Or perhaps I had done so myself.

Wraith’s metal hand reached for my shoulder. “You appear unwell,” he said.

I nodded and muttered “I need some rest,” letting him guide me back into the subway train. He took me not to the Labyrinth, but Annie’s. I stayed there for a few weeks, sleeping in an ARG chair, for I dared not return to my own home: Magnusson would find me the instant I walked through the front door. I came to know some more of Annie’s patrons. Most were elderly, coming to Annie’s out of a sense of nostalgia, but not all. What all did share was the idea that the Link was an alternate reality, supported by thousands of servers, cables and transmission towers worldwide: an infrastructure that existed in P-space.

After I had rested up, I was visited by Mo and Argos, taking again the appearance of Mr. Grave. Over tea, we discussed my ‘vision’, as they called it. It confirmed the triangulation Argos had performed during my rant against Magnusson, and they had already discussed the possible entrances into the Nexus chamber. But the chamber had been sealed shut. There was not even plumbing, only the veins of the Nexus itself, spreading the Link outward. How the XVII ate and drank and where their waste went, remained suspiciously unanswered questions, but Argos failed to notice them, contemplating only his access into that chamber. It was staggering to me that they could only think within the framework of existing infrastructure. Did it really take an engineer to conceive a tunnel? Once I had voiced that thought, it was really a simple step to outfitting all Wraiths and starting to dig.

However, I did not nearly put as much faith in my ‘vision’ as Argos. I desired answers, but I dared not leave the safety of Annie’s. Still, I found a way: as disconnected as it was, Annie’s was still built on ARG-OS and had a direct connection to the Labyrinth. This provided me with a backdoor entrance into the Link. If anyone were to trace me through the Link, the trail would end at the Labyrinth.

The moment I connected, I received a couple of panicked messages from Samuel: the first said he was swamped in work, having to deal with over a hundred deadly anomalies that all occurred in Skytown over the course of less than an hour, and begged me for help. The next message indicated he knew I had been present there and asked me to come in as a witness, if not a colleague. The third said I had been filed as a ‘missing person’, but with all the death in Skytown, there was nobody available to look for missing persons. He asked me to simply let him know I was all right, as soon as I could. I ignored it all. Even if Sam had no desire to arrest me, others would be quite eager.

It was a blessing for me that the entire force was occupied with the bloodbath Wraith had caused. A rather distasteful blessing, but I couldn’t let the opportunity slip by. In that week, I made multiple visits to the university library, where I started to seriously study my own hallucinatory experiences. I soon found myself delving into the matter of objective reality.

My studies were noticed by the resident Professor of Philosophy, who messaged me with an apology for the lack of recent data and theses. Supposedly, over the past years, interest and funding for his faculty had dwindled to the point where only he and a handful of students were left. VOC had certainly never granted scholarships into studies that could not be monetized or weaponized. He pointed me to the works of classical philosophers, men from an age where the field still held respect. Thus I was introduced to the idea of communicative rationality, the idea that truth depends on consensus: Linkspace was reality because society believed it so. The people at Annie’s were marginalized dissidents. After all, for anyone that lived in Linkspace, Annie’s didn’t even exist.

“Yet following those rules, P-space does exist alongside Linkspace. Both constitute reality, but P-space is merely an inconvenience. Let’s say someone had devised a way to eliminate that inconvenience, there would be no reason to ever go into P-space. Would it cease to exist?” I theorized, thinking of the XVII, living in their underground chamber. If it was indeed there, there was no water, no food, no fresh air. The XVII were sustained only by the Link.

“You suppose that if one reality is dependant on another, the latter is true while the former is merely a fabrication, like a painting, created within the true reality,” the professor summarized my ideas better than I ever could, and then asked: “How would you go about testing that hypothesis?”

“That is the very question that led me to this research,” I responded.

“Good luck,” was his only response to that.

It left me frustrated, after bringing up my hopes of having found someone that might help, but truth be told, without him, I would never have devised the plan that now began to formulate in my mind. I went to the Fringe one last time. I didn’t have Wraith drive me there, but did it myself. The trains were old enough to still have manual controls, and it did not take me long to figure them out. I returned to my old home, and let the desolation of the Fringe strengthen my resolve.

Inside the house I saw something I had not seen the previous time: a pair of ARG chairs, each with a skeleton in them. So this is how they died, connected to the Link, but deprived of the essentials of life.

Or was it? I could not have possibly missed this scene on my previous visit; the ARG chairs were in plain sight. Was I hallucinating again, imagining a justification for my hate? Or had I not seen this before because I had not wanted to, clung to hope they were still alive, somewhere? There was no way to tell. I left the house, convincing myself that it didn’t matter. It didn’t change what I had to do. Not vengeance but truth was my motive to try to destroy the Link. Either I would succeed and prove that it only exists on the servers and PC’s, or the experiment would fail, and my hypothesis would be wrong.

I drove the train onwards to the dead Livecrete heart. The bomb was still there. I still didn’t know why it was there, but that didn’t matter. I would have never been able to assemble the parts to make one myself without the XVII becoming aware. Between my old contacts in the military and my access to the RAUU library, I had all the knowledge needed to safely dismantle the bomb. Knowledge did not stop my heart from pounding in my throat as I carefully removed the trigger mechanism. Still, it all went according to plan, and I was now in possession of a bomb. I kept the different parts separated, each in their own little box. I drove the train back to Annie’s and hid the bomb at the subway station.

For the next week, doubts gnawed at me. Was the Nexus really there, as I had seen it? When had I stopped believing that vision to be a mere hallucination? Would I really destroy something I did not understand? The only answer I could give myself was that the truth would become apparent soon enough, and to that end, I made myself overseer of the tunnelling project. The Wraiths were hard workers, day and night, but they struggled with the soft soil and the high groundwater level. The tunnel needed walls and a proper ceiling, along with the necessary support structure. But once I had drafted the schematics, work proceeded quickly.

I am almost certain that a police investigation must have occurred. Wherever Argos got our steel and concrete from, it’s disappearance would have been noticed. But if Argos could make an army of robots without anyone raising the alarm, smuggling our construction materials must have been trivial. Either way, nobody ever found us.

Once the tunnel was done, I eagerly went to see what we had uncovered. A single Wraith followed me. It turned out exactly as Shadow had shown me, the massive Linkheart pulsing vibrantly, surrounded by the seventeen ARG chairs that could only belong to the XVII. But the bodies in the chairs were dead, and had been so a long time. They weren’t skeletons though, but carefully mummified.

Wraith projected Mr. Grave’s voice: “Well, that is interesting. My trace on Magnusson leads here, that is certain.”

“You stored Mo on your servers, right?” I asked.

“Indeed. Were I to sort through the data, I could tell you exactly which one he inhabits.”

“Which means Magnusson should be on a server here,” I reasoned, but as I looked up at the heart, I came to quickly reject that theory. The Linkheart appeared almost organic. It was connected by cables to the seventeen ARG chairs, but rather veins burrowed into the chairs. “Doesn’t this prove that the Link is alive in the same way a Livecrete heart is? The difference is that it connects, rather than builds, and that it is an Intelligent System. Perhaps it gained consciousness in the same way that you did, through the inputs of millions of users. But I know for a fact that the Link was conceived in the Intelligent Systems lab of the VOC. It was engineered to be an IS, and this heart was programmed to connect, and to control. It probably stored the identities of the XVII, not on a server, but across its network.”

Argos saw it now as well. “Then they are truly untouchable,” he said mournfully.

“No, they are as untouchable as this heart is. Destroy it, and the XVII will be nothing but scattered scraps of data,” I argued, while realizing that the XVII hardly even mattered any more: they were dead, their identities assimilated into the Link. Whether their Link-ID’s were still in control, or merely used by the Link to govern the VOC was irrelevant.

“No!” Argos roared. “Do that, and the whole Link will be scattered scraps of data.”

I nodded, and realized it was a solution that Argos could never understand. The Link connected every user of ARG-OS to his Labyrinth. Without it, there would be no queries, no updates, no life. But to me, this heart was now the enemy. It had destroyed the resistance, killed Mo, and in its careless growth, it had been the death of Mom and Dad.

I kept all of this silent, and we left the Nexus as we found it. I let Wraith bring me home to Annie’s, but as soon as he was gone, I returned to the subway station and retrieved my bomb. I decided not to take the train, for Argos might notice, and set out on foot instead. It was a long walk through the dark, but I made my way to the Nexus. As I began to reassemble the bomb, I heard Mo: “Cor, what do you think you’re doing?”

Reasoning that this could not be the simulation of Mo stored in the Labyrinth, I knew I was hallucinating again. Still, I felt compelled to answer: “Exactly what it looks like I’m doing, Mo. I thought you’d approve of ruining VOC’s ploy for world domination.”

“VOC and those arrogant bastards of the XVII yes, but who else must suffer? Think of your parents!”

“They’re dead, Mo. I’ve seen the bodies. Whatever is out there in the Link is just a replica. As for everyone else, I’d say it’s time they wake up from their dreams of utopia and start cleaning up the mess they’ve made of the real world,” I argued, probably to myself.

I found a spot on the Nexus that wasn’t pulsating so much and carefully attached my bomb. I laid out my fuse as I retreated back into the tunnel and once I was at a safe distance, I lit it. Based on my calculations, I should be safe out in the subway tunnels. Still I ran, and I was not nearly as far as I’d liked when the explosion echoed through the tunnels. For a while, everything shook, and I had to hold on to the rails, but eventually the echo passed and all was silent again.

It was late at night when I returned to the subway station, but I was not alone: a pair of bright blue eyes greeted me in the darkness. At first I thought it was Mr. Grave’s projection, and knowing Argos to be furious at what I had done, I thought of hiding. But I had already been seen, and it was Shadow in his ragged robes who greeted me, almost cheerfully: “You pass.”

“I pass?” I echoed, wondering what he meant.

“A clever hypothesis, a solid theoretical foundation and what would have been a stunningly brilliant methodology, had you monitored what actually happened to the link. Luckily for you, I can provide you with the results of your experiment: Linkspace is currently unavailable. Upstairs, you’ll find a lot of rudely disconnected, confused and upset people in the streets, Now, what are your conclusions?” the message came through my Personal Connector.

“My hypothesis has been confirmed: Linkspace is dependent on its infrastructure in P-space. Because of this, Linkspace does not constitute an independent reality. Whether or not P-space is an independent reality could not be tested. However, in the absence of both empirical evidence to contradict this, it serves no practical purpose outside the field of philosophy to assume otherwise.”

Shadow smiled. “You’re no master yet, but for a student of your level, excellent work. Now, there’s two more things you should consider. The first is that you’ve just upset a lot of people, including an Intelligent System with a small army of rather deadly robots at its command. I would recommend getting far, far away from here. The good news is that I’d rather not lose such an excellent student.”

He placed his hand on a wall and a door appeared. “After you,”

“And here I thought I would finally be free from all this madness, but still here I am, listening to my own hallucinations,” I complained. Still, curiosity drove me through that door. There was no hallway this time. I exited straight into the Linkspace version of the Fringe.

“You said Linkspace was gone,” I glared accusingly at Shadow.

He grew an annoyingly smug grin. “No, I said that the primary connections were down. You did not destroy Linkspace itself, nor did you disable direct connections.”

“I suppose you shoved me into an ARG-chair when I wasn’t looking, then?” I responded cynically.

“Is it so hard to imagine any other vehicle to travel with?” Shadow responded.

I had no answer to that.

“You had better get used to this mode of travel, because we’ve only taken the first step. Which brings me to the second thing you should consider: To go in there and say farewell. What I am offering you is a one-way trip. Of course, you can still go back and test my hypothesis that Argos and his Wraiths will not be very merciful, but I’d really rather you didn’t.”

Reluctantly, I walked up to the door and rang the bell. The time it took for Mom to open the door and embrace me in her bear hug might have been exactly the same, to the millisecond, but I found that I didn’t care. She told me I looked like I needed a bath and a hot meal, both of which were probably true. I told her she looked well. Her hands had lost much of the callouses now that she no longer did any hard work.

Once she let go of me, I went to apologize to Dad for my outburst. He had already forgiven me. “Did you know the entire VOC top just resigned over a slave labour scandal in Libya?”

“Yes, I suppose they had little other choice,” I said, masking my bitterness over yet another VOC lie.

“It’s a terribly corrupt mess up there in Skytown, everyone knows that. But the workers, they’re good folk, do good things. Just look at what they’ve done with the neighbourhood here,” Mom said, and then Dad said something I hadn’t expected: “We know, it’s all Alternate Reality, but it’s the best we’ve ever had. Someone really poured their heart and soul into it.”

Mom then interrupted the conversation: “There’s a strange man standing outside. Is he with you, Cor?”

“One of my professors. We were just running a little experiment and decided to stop by on the way back,” I said, and then hastily queried Argos for more information. I received a contradictory mess: Tharash Kaern, Professor of Philosophy, was appointed a few weeks ago. The RAUU faculty of philosophy was closed three years ago. The name sounded like it was made up, too.

Then came the terrible realisation that I had just queried Argos, which meant that the Fringe was probably stored on his servers: It wasn’t VOC who had kept Mom and Dad alive in the Link, but Argos.

I excused myself by saying that we still had a lot of work to do and I didn’t want to keep Prof. Kaern waiting. I hugged both of them and told them I’d visit again as soon as I could, which was of course a terrible lie, but what else could I say? As soon as the door had closed behind me, I told Shadow of my error.

He just laughed and said: “Do you even realize what that means?”

I replied panicked: “He knows exactly where I am.”

Shadow only laughed harder. “It means that you have nothing to fear.”

I forced my mind to stop and think about that for a moment. Argos had somehow maintained or re-established his connection to the Link. I had destroyed the one thing that had kept him chained to his Labyrinth. “You knew, didn’t you? You lied to me!”

“Experience has taught me that people learn best through experience,” he said with endless amusement.

With a drawn-out sigh, I resigned myself to this new reality. “What now?” I asked, myself more than Shadow.

“Now, I have no prison to release you from, no violence to threaten you. You must decide whether you wish to learn what lies beyond Linkspace and P-space, free of all constraints.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Please tell me you’re not an alien after all.”

“I have been called so,” was his typical non-answer.

I decided to focus on his offer, and finally made a real effort to look around. The Fringe I had known did not exist here. This neighbourhood was every bit as splendid as Seawind, barring their seaside location. Someone had indeed made a serious effort at making this place not just liveable, but beautiful. I tried one more query: who exactly had been responsible for the design and creation? It turned up a long list of unfamiliar names, except for one: Erik Jansen, Concept Artist.

It almost was enough. But this Fringe was not my home, and for me, the Link’s enchantment had been broken. I had no idea where this madman intended to take me, but my curiosity won me over. “What lies beyond Linkspace and P-space?” I asked.

His answer was another mystical door that appeared out of nowhere. “Follow me,” he said cheerfully and disappeared into the blackness behind it. I did not hesitate to follow.

>> Epilogue

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