Welcome to the Machine
The Machine. No one really knew what it was, or what it did exactly, just that it was there. It was in charge of everything, and saw everything. Any people in the Government were just a cover. The Machine was the government. There was no escape. Or so we all thought.
The Machine, as I've said, constantly watched us. There were restrictions that, as soon as they were detected, were enforced by the Custodians. They would take the offenders away, force cuffs on them despite the flailing limbs and hoarse screams, and would return them a few days later- now docile and reserved. The victims would never tell anyone what exactly happened, and when pressed, seemed to shut down and escape into their minds. This was only for the minor offenses, of course; being out a few minutes past curfew, using any sort of unapproved substances, swearing, that sort of thing. For the larger crimes- which were often something as minimal as simply the mere thought of rebellion- the perpetrator was taken and never returned, with no word to their families or friends. No one ever knew for sure if their loved one had been taken by the Custodians or was just simply gone.
I grew up lonely and, for all intents and purposes, abandoned. I doubt my parents would have missed me if I'd been taken. They were very high-up in the Government, only a few ranks from receiving orders directly from the Machine itself, and were very busy with work, too busy for their only daughter, who they didn't really want, but had had for appearances' sake. They were on their way up to the top tiers right before the War. I don't know what happened to them after that, and, even though I know I should, I really can't seem to bring myself to care.
I think that's why I joined the Resistance- besides the fact that I knew there was something wrong with that society. It was, even if they were unaware of it, my personal rebellion towards my parents for never giving me love and affection the way they should. Being from such a prominent, powerful family, I was very useful to the cause- once they trusted that I wasn't a spy, that is. I had access to large quantities of neccessary information through my parents, and, because of their personal detachment to me, my betrayal went unnoticed. I relayed information to the rebellion, and they in turn used that to strategize their uprising. I had also received training in the various forms of combat that were customary for members of the upperclass. This, combined with my knowledge of the workings of the Government, gave me a strong advantage, and I moved up the ranks quickly- somewhat ironically mimicking the rise of my parents in the very cause against which I was fighting.
It seems it was a miracle that the Resistance succeeded- and at the time, it seemed downright impossible. I was initially held back from many of the field missions, as they didn't want to risk losing such a valuable informant, but I continued training. Finally, when everything had been planned out, and we were at the end- either we'd come out the victors, or we'd lose and all be destroyed anyway- they allowed me to accompany the final mission. I remember the adrenaline of suiting up; of checking, double-checking, and triple-checking that I had everything; the nervous looks exchanged with the other members of the team; and way the General, who'd become a sort of mother to me despite her somewhat abrasive personality, gave me a last, parting hug, the trembling "goodbye" that fell from her lips; the way she lingered as she let go before hooking the Transport to my suit; the look in her eyes as she pressed the activation button; how her face faded to black as the transport took hold; and finally, the last thing I saw before the blackness- the single tear that trailed down her cheek, the one time I'd ever seen her break her stoic exterior. Of the mission itself, I don't really remember a whole lot, other than vague echoes of screams and smoke and blood- lots of blood.
The first thing I remember being aware of was someone carrying me to safety from the flames that licked my arms- someone telling me that "you've done it, the Machine was destroyed"; someone else asking "is she alive?"; frantic hands pulling back my eyes, checking my pulse, attempting to heal my injuries, but without much success. Someone thoughtfully poured a few small drops of water into my parched mouth, and I regained (nearly full) conciousness. My first thought was that I was surrounded by ventilation masks floating in midair. After a moment, I realized that the masks were attached to members of the rebellion. The floating masks tried to explain to me that the mission had been mostly successful- the Machine had been dismantled, but the General, who was supposed to be in charge of this new world, had been killed in an ambush moments after my team had left- the team, of which, I was the only survivor. I was hysterical, and kept alternately laughing and crying, but it was the type of crying where you can't quite breathe, and you just sitting there making those painful gasps, and you have no more tears, but you cry anyway. Most of the information the masks gave me didn't register at the time, over my loud hysteria and oxygen deprivation, but I must have heard it, somehow, because the Astrals have since found and read that memory and brought it to the forefront of my mind.
After the War, with no Machine and Government, the world fell into chaos; with people suddenly free to do and think as they pleased, and no stable leadership; and everyone turned on each other, and the world slowly started falling apart.
That's when they came. The bright lights that suddenly appeared, so bright that no one could stand to look at them, and the beings that emerged, so bizarrely beautiful, with their inhuman grace and strange features. They came and took us- well, only a few. There was no method to who they took, or, at least, none that we could tell. They came up to us and gently touched us on the foreheads with two extended willowy fingers, and there was a glow that slowly intensified, until it reached a level of intensity bright enough to equal the light at their arrival, and then when it faded, we were in a different place, all glowing and white; and somehow the pristine, sterile brightness also gave off a strong sense of welcome. This, I suppose, was in keeping with the beings themselves- their communcation is conducted through telepathy and projections of their emotions, as opposed to formulating actual physical words. It took some time to adjust, but now it seems completely natural to me.
I've been told that for the first few months, I was comatose, that there was barely any activity in my brain. They were able to heal all my physical injuries, but my mind was so damaged, they couldn't safely attempt to heal it, and had to wait for it to recover on its own. Something had happened with the Machine that traumatized me, that my mind has blocked out (they checked to see if somehow the Machine had removed that memory, but only found blocks that I myself had put up)- and while I know it's ultimately me protecting myself from whatever happend, I'm still frustrated that there is a large, important chunk of my life- of the Earth's history! that is unavailable to me. The Astral who is acting as my doctor has advised me against pushing at the barrier my mind has created, saying that if they are unable to access it, it shouldn't be tampered with. I was encouraged to immerse myself in the new culture and try to forget about everything that had happened back on Earth.
It's not too hard to separate the two- the way of life here is very different than it was on Earth. Everywhere there is peace, tranquility, harmony. Because everything is out in the open, there is no behind-the-scenes cunning. Any conflicts are easily dealt with, although, with their easy-going natures, this is a very rare occurance. The Astrals (as we call them, since there is no name for them in our language. I don't know exactly who came up with the name, but it seemed fitting, and so it stuck) survive and thrive off of the energy that courses throughout the Universe- some say it's the very same energy that brought it into existence. It's rumoured that an encounter with these beings is what initiated the age-old idea of particularly spiritually attuned humans being able to live off of the air and sun alone, an idea purported by many ancient spiritual gurus. Of course, we as humans can't actually live like that, and so we were provided with full hot meals, better than anything we'd ever had on Earth. There were archaic dishes such as pasta, pizza, cheeseburgers, soups, pastries, and somehow, fresh fruits and vegetables. I'd had some of these foods before, of course, but always from the pre-approved instant-pacs; the generic textured mush with added flavoring, the injected nutrients neccessary to our survival (along with, I suspect, some sort of substance to help bend our wills to comply with those of the Machine), and they'd never tasted nearly this good.
The culture, too, was an adjustment- whereas we'd been used to restrictions on almost anything we found even slightly enjoyable, and usually outright bans on anything really pleasurable, the Astrals were very proactive when it came to the topic of our amusement. Their world was filled with various opportunites for entertainment and self-indulgence. It seemed that when Old Earth customs died out, the Astrals adopted them, for many things I'd read about in the history books- books that were illegal, which didn't stop me from sneaking my parents' Government-issued copies; I spent many nights awake, clutching my light under the covers, absorbing the precious information from these forbidden books, with thoughts of the wild adventures and daring escapades that I would have had had I lived in that time- many of the things that were mentioned in the books were present here; museums full of art, recordings of symphonies and operas, literature, movies, and numerous other subjects. I was absolutely fascinated by the abundant displays of what talents humans were capable of possessing. Back home, everyone was discouraged (and when I say discouraged, I mean banned) from any type of individual pursuits that were not directly beneficial to the Government. I spent many hours engulfed in these artifacts, reawakening my childhood daydreams. I usually ended up picturing some strange hybrid world of Earth and this unnamed, unknown place to which the Astrals had brought us, with strange creatures running amuck.
Another Old-Earth wonder I discovered was the Mall. I remember when I first found it- I think I'd been up about a week, although it's hard to judge time here, especially any events from the beginning- and I'd decided to leave the safe confines of my Cottage and see this new venue to which I'd been relocated. After a long, undetermined while of aimless wandering, I stumbled across it, with its various vendor stands selling food and perfumes, and the stores- employed with hologram humans wearing uniforms that were apparently required for the various shops- overflowing with clothes, shoes, rugs, teas, books, and more, so, so much more. It must have been built especially for us, since everything seemed tailored to fit humans' needs, although, there is, of course, the possibility that the Astrals created it for themselves long before we were in the picture. I really don't know for sure; it's been left rather ambiguous as to whether they found and rescued us, and later created this Utopia for us; or if we were taken to complete their simulation of Old Earth as some sort of experiment. Either way, we were now here, in this New Old Earth.
As many changes as now were present in our lifestyle, what with these ancient customs being resurrected, the biggest adjusment, for me, at least, was probably the Astrals themselves. I'm still not completely used to, in a large crowd of people, running into a large, slender, otherworldly being who can see my innermost thoughts. They've all been very accomodating and welcoming, but there being no secrets among them was very unsettling to us at first. They could look at us and immediately know our life story, our deepest, darkest secrets, and could even bring up memories of things we didn't remember ourselves, or shouldn't be able to remember. Resigning ourselves to the fact that this was now our way of life was a huge leap of faith. Trusting these strangers, who weren't even of our own species, with our lives, secrets, safety, and wellbeing was an even larger leap. Some of us took it, some didn't. Those who didn't were apparently dropped back on Earth with their memories wiped, and presumably didn't survive very long in that chaotic pandemonium.
The rest of us who elected to stay (or, as in my case, were unconscious and so unfit to make such a judgement at the time of the decision-making) were provided with all the aforementioned comforts and priveleges, as well as a few new ones. We were given access to simulated environments; beaches, mountains, rivers, cities, countrysides. In these habitats, we were able to construct our personal living spaces, whether that be a mansion or apartment, cabin or castle. I kept it simple, choosing a small beach-front cottage, just big enough to be comfortable, with a soothing view of the ocean and cozy, inviting decor; but nothing too large. The idea of living in a large empty mansion on my own was unpleasant, at best. It threw me back to my childhood, living in our large house, which was usually unoccupied except for me and the Cleaning-Bots- which hardly provide adequate company for a small child.
At first, this new environment helped me distract myself from my past, and the nightmares went away, but, after a while, when I'd seen mostly everything there was to see, and the newness had worn off, my mind, bored, started dredging up memories of the war, and the nightmares came back, worse and more vivid than before. I saw the General's accusing face, heard her telling me that it was my fault she was dead, that I should have had information on the attack, and then, boom! The remnants of her now bloody, ruined face stared at me balefully, and a single tear made its way down where her cheek should have been, in a painful mockery of my last memory of her. It's lucky that I opted for the slightly isolated cottage rather than the apartment, or I'd have long since awoken all the occupants of the building with the screams from my nightmares. After many sleepless nights with no improvement, I returned to the doctor-Astral, and after consulting some of its companions, it recommended that I create a journal of sorts to log the event, and hopefully allow my mind to release the memories. I think I'm somewhat of a fascination among them, as up until now they've been unexposed to mental trauma due to their open lifestyles. I don't really care though, as long as there's a way to fix me. I say fix me as if I'm broken. I think I am, inside, but you woudn't know it to look at me. Thanks to their superior medical abilities, I am (physically) perfectly healthy, but my brain remains in lots of small scattered pieces.
I find comfort in going to the New Old Earth area and reenacting my old childhood pasttime of imagining myself living in that era, although it was now more realistic, and I immersed myself in my fantasies, browsing libraries, strolling through museums, renting movies and watching them curled up on the sofa in a blanket, eating popcorn and soda. When I did these things, I was able to forget myself, and I could become someone else instead, someone who hadn't lived through a war. The only thing I lacked was companionship- which, although I grew up without it, I'd gotten used to it during my time as a Strategist, even if only that of my bodyguard. I hadn't been able to summon up the courage to speak to anyone yet- and I was pretty sure that I was only viewed as "that crazy girl who happened to win the War", anyway. I still can remember from when I was first discharged, the whispers, the stares- some rude, some pitying (and I couldn't decide which was worse); the way people seemed to avoid me as if I were a venomous snake, likely to lash out at any given moment. In this time, I found more kinsmanship with the aliens than with humans, but, as accepting and kindly as the Astrals were, we were hardly more than pets to them with our vast intelligence and emotional differential, so I didn't exactly see myself striking up a friendship with any one of them. I would probably just bore them, with my inept human brain. So even though this was ideally a sort of heaven on New Earth, to me it still seemed to be lacking and incomplete.
Until that day- the day I met her. I wasn't actually going to write this account until then. It was a fairly normal day- I was at the museum in front of my favorite painting, gazing at the framed canvas with its artful splashes of colors, taking in the calming image of the flowers floating under the bridge, when I felt a presence. A human presence. I was scared to look over, afraid that if they saw who I was, they would shrink back, trying to avoid my supposed insanity. Instead, I was met with curious brown eyes- eyes the color of chocolate, one of the many things I'd discovered here- and a hesitant but warm smile. I tenatively smiled back, the sensation foreign to my face. I couldn't remember the last time I'd smiled before then.
"Wonderful, isn't it." It was a statement more than a question. I was taken aback by the speech, though, as all my communication since Earth had been mentally, with the Astrals.
"Yes." I somehow managed to get an intelligible word out, although I'm sure it sounded awkward. It certainly felt it, at least. I turned my focus back to the painting to try and hide my embarrasment.
"I don't think I've ever seen you before." It was said casually, but I could hear the underlying question.
"I...usually don't come out during...normal hours." It was true- as much time as I spent here, I tried to come late at night, when there would be the fewest other humans, although today I'd come a little earlier.
"I see." I felt a need for an explanation after the short reply.
"I was left somewhat...compromised after the Battle on Earth." I offered. I could see the recognition strike her eyes, could see the gears turning.
"You're- hell, you're her, aren't you?" And there it was- the big question. Any second now she'd shy away, make some excuse- or would suddenly look at me with unbearable pity. I wanted to make her say it though.
"The one who took down the Machine. The war heroine." I was a bit thrown off. I was used to people regarding me as more of a psychopath or basket case than a war heroine. The few who did, I couldn't stand to be around, no matter how kind their intentions. I saw the pity in their eyes, pity at this poor broken girl, and it reminded me of what I'd been through. I saw no such thing in her expression, though, only...was that admiration?
"I- well, I had help." I internally kicked myself at my reply. How stupid I must sound.
"Getting there, maybe, but the end, that was all you." I was flashed another smile, bigger than the introductory one. It was such a strange occurance, it had been so long since I'd been received with pure welcome, and it is on that that I blame the increase in my pulse, the heating of my cheeks, the slight tremor in my voice when I next spoke.
"Most people don't seem to see it that way. They all think I'm crazy."
"Well that's hardly fair. We're all a little crazy, aren't we? What's that saying- normal is relative?" Her eyes crinkled and she pursed her lips a little, giving me the distinct impression that she was trying to withhold laughter, and even though I didn't completely understand the joke, I wanted to laugh too. Afraid of what strange noise might come out of my mouth, I quickly searched for something else to say.
"What's your crazy, then?"
"Now, now, that would be telling." She wagged a finger teasingly with his words, and the smile was back. It was infectious, and I found myself grinning in response. The action made my face hurt, from the sudden strain on the long inactive muscles, but I didn't care. I felt good, better than I had in a long time- since the War, in fact; the evenings spent with fellow members of the Resistance, after a long day of strategizing, when we'd sit down and talk and laugh about nothing, just because we had to, to relieve some of the stress of the War. This was different though- I was smiling and laughing because I could, not because I had to.
After that shared moment of lightheartedness, we fell into a comfortable silence, contemplating the painting on the wall. Eventually, as the simulated sun set, it cast shadows down the walls, and eventually was completely gone, causing the inner lights to switch on, which seemed to break us from our trance, and, with it, the mood.
"I probably should go now." I said the words with reluctance, having enjoyed the company of another human being, one who didn't once eye me warily, as if I were a bomb set to explode, throughout our entire encounter, yet feeling as though with the inner lights, the ones that were more obviously artificial than the sim-sun, something had changed.
"Yeah, I should probably..." I couldn't tell if it was simply my imagination, or...was she also reluctant to leave? My question was answered by her next question; "So, do you want to meet up sometime?" She rubbed the back of her neck, and cast her gaze downward toward her shuffling feet, her cheeks faintly tinged pink.
"That sounds good." I tried not to smile too hard, but the thought of having a friend made me happy- happier than I would have imagined. She looked relieved at not having been rejected, and gestured for me to hand her my Com, and she deftly entered herself into my network.
"I'll see you later, yeah?" I was rewarded with one last, dazzling smile before she pushed open the door and walked down the artificially moonlit street. I also exited, making my way to the Transport to my small cottage with a smile on my face at my new friendship, fingering the Com in my pocket that contained information that was proof that the whole encounter had actually occurred, not just in my head. That night, I slept completely through the night, for the first time since I'd arrived here.
That was several months ago (as far as I can tell, at least). Since then, we've met up almost every day, sometimes going to different Habitats, sometimes going through New Old Earth, and sometimes we just stay in- she'll come to my cottage , or I'll go to her mountain cabin, and we just spend the day in each other's presence. Some days we don't even talk- we just go about our day as usual, but with the comfort of a friend. Some days we talk in depth about things here- our favorite books, art, foods- and some days we even talk about life back on Earth. It was hard at first, but it's gotten easier- I chalk this down to her supportiveness- when she sees it's getting difficult for me to speak, she wordlessly pulls me into a hug, and I remember that everything will be okay. Our first hug surprised me at how natural and un-awkward it felt, despite my months with no human contact. Everything between us seems to come naturally, in fact. I've made remarkable progress since we've started spending most of our time in each others' company.
The Astrals are shocked at my sudden progress, although I'm sure they're reveling in all this new data. I'm still not completely healed, but I'm getting there. We'd been in this routine for a few weeks when the Astrals told us that they'd found a planet with a similar atmosphere to that of Earth, and we'd be transferred there soon, as the environment that they created for us here is unsustainable for a long period of time. Before, I would have been apathetic, but after I started my recovery, I began looking forward to this new beginning- who knows what this new planet will be like, how we'll adapt.
Now, standing on the deck of the ship that is taking us to our new home, these thoughts of what's in store for us when we land run through my mind once again. Standing next to me, she squeezes my hand reassuringly, sensing my anxiety, and as I look up, into those eyes with that smile, the same as when we first met, I know everything will be alright.