Huffing, he lowers the doppelganger’s corpse to what serves, in this nonexistence, as a ground. He doesn’t need to breathe hard, of course. It’s all imaginary. All in his head.
The only thing that’s real is the watching eyes. The million tiny pinpricks of voyeurs dance across his body as they gaze at him from across the globe and all the ships at sea. How are his numbers? In the billions? Are the moon and Mars watching too? A true interplanetary event, his death?
He holds his arms up in the air in triumph as an army of screaming she-creatures cartwheels through the air. The furies, the Valkyries, whatever he wants to call them in his own head, he nevertheless knows whose faces they wear. With the death of his alt-self, the noble alternate furies who had been battling his crazed hunters had simply vanished. Now they make ready to plunge at him.
“Are you not entertained?” he cries to the invisible audience, clenching his eyes shut and baring his throat to the screeching feathered mob.
He waits a beat.
The feel of being in neuralspace has not left him. He knows it so well, like pulling on a favored pair of slacks long since worn through the knees but still perpetually comfortable. He’s not out, not unlinked. But would Annie spare him the pain of being torn to shreds? What would be the point?
Almost of their own accord, his eyes open. It’s not so much that the flotilla of furies is gone as that he’s gone. The “floor” is no more, yet he’s not plunging through infinite space. He’s upright, after a fashion, but there’s nothing. Or, perhaps more accurately, nothingness.
The corpse is gone. The sons or not-sons, the victims of a dark father, no longer stare in at him.
“Hello?” he calls out, and his voice echoes.
But there is only blackness and a single spotlight shining on him, a spotlight with no source.
“Annie?” he cries. “Has the program skipped? What are you doing?”
He waits, his muscles tensing, but long minutes pass with no response. He calls to her in vain a few more times, but it seems his director has abandoned her project.
Perhaps he has abandoned his mortal coil. Perhaps it has shuffled itself off at last.
Or worse. There are worse things in this world, after all, than mere death. Legend has always clouded the neuralspace of users who never returned. Enough people have had aneurysms, heart attacks and the like from its usage. That’s well documented enough in what’s left of the non-fake media.
But oftentimes on late summer nights, sleep evading him, cicadas chattering, edits of the day’s horrific video no longer holding his attention, he’d wondered about people losing their minds in the literal sense.
When one was in the neuralnet, one was truly in the neuralnet. No avatars, no barriers, just pure expression. A mind completely jacked in. It was assumed by the authorities (perhaps for the sake of retaining their own sanity) that when something went wrong, the mind was bounced out. Or if it wasn’t, it was just a medical issue. A person might fall into a coma, but they were still there, physically in their own coma, locked in their own meatspace.
But he knew enough to know that was whistling past the graveyard. It was entirely possible to slip through a crack, and instead of breaking your mother’s back, have your mind descend into the impossible depths of zeroes and ones that represented the net. What would it be like? Inevitably you would be dispersed, like a drop of ink in a swimming pool, but in the meantime there would be some cohesion of the mind. What it would be like to retain some sense of self but be lost in a sea of electrons?
It might not be unlike sitting in a wall-less black room, with a single unsourced spotlight shining on one’s head.
“Oh, get over yourself.”
The voice was not his own. Not Annie’s, either. Nor the gleeful, chittering not-sons’. It was a jolly, husky baritone he didn’t recognize.
“Hello?” he said. “Is anybody there?”
“Don’t be stupid. I’ve been with you for a while now. In a way, all your life, waiting, dormant.”
Pain blossomed in his chest like a summer rose. He dropped to his knees, clutching at his sternum. His lower lip quivered and tears streamed from his eyes. In an instant the pain had leapt from a dull ache to a shotgun blast. He could no longer form words with his lips, and simply squeaked incoherently as he watched with mortification and mounting terror as his own chest turned against him.
He felt as if his rib cage was opening up like a pair of saloon doors, being pressed from the inside. Fingers clenching like an arthritic’s, he reached a quivering hand toward his heart in a grim mockery of the Pledge of Allegiance.
He scrabbled to pull his shirt up. A tiny blossom of gray sludge poked through his sternum. In...