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Project Z

MARISSA TANDON


project

Z

origins by marissa tandon


Copyright Š Marissa Tandon 2013 This e-book is not for sale Interior Design by Briana Loewen Cover Design by Liza Cortright Available online at issuu.com Fonts used are Thryomanes, Travelling_Typewriter, Minion Pro, and Consolas


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1

The first time Ace gets well and truly drunk is the night of her prom. She has enough window of clarity to hate just how cliche it all is before she takes the shot that makes her feel as though she’s going to vomit on the guy-who-may-or-may-not-be-cute’s shoes. There’s a 25 percent chance he’s not half bad, Ace reasons, calculating her state of inebriation at the time of meeting him. There is a 100 percent chance, she decides, that she will regret it in the morning if she does not find a bathroom right this instant. Ace stumbles her way through sweat-slick bodies clad in now-ruined dresses and suits, the stench of cheap beer and liquor thick in the air. There’s a line stretching too far outside the first bathroom to even warrant waiting, and she stumbles upstairs to the off-limits area. She supposes her host would lift the ban if she knew that Ace was graciously trying to keep her upholstery in tact. She turns a handle and with a sheer stroke of luck, finds herself in a bathroom. She moves to position herself in front of the porcelain throne, but she stops when she catches her reflection in the mirror. The tears are flowing hot and rapid, salt stinging her skin, and she’s uncertain what exactly is causing them. Ace thinks that maybe it’s the mounting fear of the end of high school, the idea that she has to have a plan and a purpose. There’s the additional stress of heading to college in a few months, and the fact that it will rack up an unprecedented


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amount of debt in both her and her father’s name for something Ace isn’t even sure she is good enough at to do professionally. She has worked herself up when the doorknob turns. She turns her head to meet the intruder too quickly, sense of balance shifting. She grips the sink too tightly in an attempt to right herself. It’s a guy she doesn’t recognize, and Ace pieces together that he wasn’t at prom when she takes in his clothes: a pair of sweats advertising a college she can’t focus enough on to make out, and a soft-looking T-shirt that has seen better days. There is a small hole in the neckline just below the collar where his right shoulder meets his neck, and Ace wants to stick her pinky in it. She can tell the moment he catches sight of her tears, but she steadfastly refuses to wipe her cheeks and draw attention to them, thinking that perhaps if she doesn’t acknowledge them, neither will he. “You’re not supposed to up here,” he says carefully after a moment, breaking their silent staring contest. His hand still rests on the doorknob as if he’s frozen by the sight of Ace where she should not be. “You’re here,” Ace points out. She hopes her point is not cheapened by the tears that refuse to stop flowing down her cheeks. “I live here.” “So, what, the rules don’t apply?” The guy manages an amused quirk of his lips. “Not the ones we made for drunk high school seniors, no,” he answers, amusement dripping hesitantly into his tone. The tears, Ace remembers. She’s still crying. She loses herself in the way the thoughts make her stomach roll, and she doesn’t realize she has doubled over and emptied all of her pity and self-doubt onto the guy’s shoes until he curses above her. Ace means to mutter an apology or at least acknowledge the situation, maybe stand back up. Instead, she clutches her stomach and hears a desperate, shaken voice that can’t possibly be her own ask, “It’s never going to matter, is it?” “Oh, Christ.” A pair of warm hands grip her shoulders, helping her straighten up and guiding her until she is settled on the lid of the toilet seat. “Sit still for a second, okay? I need to rinse off, and then I’ll get you some clean clothes, all right?” Ace has closed her eyes and tipped her head back against the wall, but she thinks distantly that the guy has a nice voice, one she’d like to wrap herself in. “Hey, no


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sleeping. Nod if you understand.” Ace nods and the action is rewarded with a quiet, “Thanks,” followed by the sound of the guy stripping out of his wet shoes. Ace grimaces but keeps her eyes closed. “Sorry,” she whispers. Her voice is still raw. The shower turns on after a few seconds, and Ace barely makes out the murmured assurances before she begins to focus on the tears beading beneath her eyelashes at a rapid fire pace. She feels the safety of sleep pulling at her and the warmth of the alcohol is not helping her resistance. “Hey,” the voice says quickly, close and urgent. “We had a deal. No sleeping, not yet.” Ace tries to pry her eyes open and frowns when her eyelids don’t follow her very clear instructions. “I have two younger sisters. Pouting will get you nowhere.” Warm hands prod at her sides, attempting to move her onto her feet. “Come on, up and at ‘em, and I promise you can sleep it off.” He gets Ace to her feet, pulling and prodding until they make it into a bedroom. Ace doesn’t have enough coherency to take in her new surroundings, but she does manage to open her eyes for long enough to wriggle out of her prom dress and into the clean sweats and T-shirt the guy offers her before being manhandled to lay in the bed on her side. The guy manages to get a glass of water in her system before she passes out.


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2

Ace wakes in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar room, in clothes that aren’t her own. She turns to sit up and falls back against the pillows when her head spins. “Yeah, you’re going to want to lay down for a bit. Being vertical is going to be a bitch for a while.” The voice comes from behind her, and Ace manages to turn, slowly, to put a face to the words. She remembers just enough to be embarrassed. “I threw up on you.” He raises an eyebrow and shifts so that his desk chair is facing her. He has changed into a new pair of sweats, but the worn T-shirt is the same. “Sure did. Lovely introduction, I must say. Most girls manage to tell me their name before they soak my favorite shoes and cry on me.” So we’re addressing the tears, Ace thinks bitterly. She doesn’t appreciate this change of pace; she thought they had an agreement. “Ace,” she says in lieu of an apology. “I’m Ace.” “I’m Will.” An awkward silence passes before he speaks again. “You know, you’re only, what, eighteen?” Ace opens her eyes and looks at Will, confused. “Seventeen. Why?” Will has the decency to break eye contact, looking down at his feet and scratching at the back of his neck. “After you threw up, you babbled for a while about everything ‘mattering.’ Like you had


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to know exactly what you’re going to do right now, and change the world, or something.” Ace feels her face warm in embarrassment. “I don’t remember that.” “Might be like that, for a bit.” “Wonderful.” There’s a long pause until Will breaks the silence. “I’m just saying, you don’t have to have it all figured out just yet. Not at seventeen. Hell, I’m almost nineteen, and I still have no idea what I’m doing.” “If we talk about the future much longer, I might throw up on you again.” “Now I see why you downed all that liquid courage,” Will says sarcastically, “you’re a rousing conversationalist with most of it out of your system, I can’t imagine what you were like when the party started. Your date must have been wildly entertained the whole night.” “I didn’t have a date,” Ace admits. “Ever, really. I told my dad I was sleeping over at a friend’s place, but I don’t know that this technically counts.” There’s a pause, and then Will says, “Me neither. To my senior prom, I mean.” Ace raises her eyes to meet Will’s. “I’m still afraid of the dark,” she says, holding his gaze. “Clowns,” he says. They continue trading secrets until Will is comfortably leaned in his chair back against his desk, hands clasped behind his head, and Ace has burrowed deeper into what she suspects is Will’s bed, her eyes closed. The thrum of alcohol is mostly gone, and Ace thinks the secrets are doing their part in bringing about her sobriety. “My grandfather had dementia,” Will says, at least a dozen traded secrets later. His voice is steady as he admits, “I stopped visiting when he forgot my name because seeing him like that was worse than not seeing him at all.” It’s Ace’s turn to spill a secret in return, but instead she finds herself saying, “They’ve been looking at that all wrong.” “What?” Will asks, startled at the break in their comfortable rhythm. The reverie shattered, Ace winces as the chair squeaks beneath Will as he sits back up. “Sorry, just, the doctors are looking at dementia and stuff like that wrong. They’re trying to treat the symptoms and it’s a disease of


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the mind, right? It sort of slowly eats away at your memory and you get confused, and they’re trying to treat the memory loss, but you could sort of just back up the hard drive and reload the parts that get deleted, you know?” “Um,” Will says dumbly, “not really.” “It’s like, okay,” Ace moves to sit up and finds herself far too dizzy. “Shit. Do you have a pen and paper?” Will rummages through his desk drawers and produces a spiral-bound notebook and a pen. They land on the bed next to her. When Ace finishes explaining, she is surrounded by half-formed ideas and diagrams scribbled on notebook paper. Will is asleep, twisted uncomfortably in his desk chair. At some point he must have drifted off, lulled to sleep by Ace’s rambling. When she looks out of the window, the sun has just finished rising, the sky still pink. Will rouses when Ace’s feet touch the ground, and she winces. “Thanks for, um,” Ace scratches at the back of her neck, desperately trying to remember what she may have said. “For last night.” Will shrugs. “Don’t mention it. Sort of figured at least one kid would get too drunk when I volunteered to play responsible adult for the night. It’s no big deal.” He gestures to the random stacks of paper strewn about on his bed. “Definitely didn’t expect that someone to give me a half inebriated lecture on neuroscience and theoretical physics, but it was quite an experience.” Ace looks through the papers, avoiding eye contact. “I don’t even remember half of this, or what I was trying to…” She trails off, reading her drunken scrawl a little more carefully. “It made sense, weirdly enough. I mean, I’m an English major, so I can’t say the science and technicalities of it all were up my alley or anything, but the concept made sense. It was interesting to listen to.” Ace barely hears Will say, “Maybe we could do it again sometime, without the throwing up on my shoes bit,” as her eyes focus on the words. “Holy shit,” Ace breathes, her mind finally catching up with everything she has been reading. “I’m an absolute genius.” “Modest, too. Good to know drunk you isn’t that different from sober you.” “I have to go,” Ace says, scrambling to gather all of the papers. “Sorry to run out, thanks for last night.” Ace is almost out of the door


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when Will calls her name. She turns, hesitant to stop moving, wheels turning. “Yeah?” “Let me see your phone,” he says after a pause, as though he wants to say something more. “Just so I know you get home okay.” Ace complies, handing Will her phone and allowing him to key his number into her contacts. She hurries out of the house, notes clutched to her chest. It isn’t until she is home and hunched over her computer, knee-deep in caffeine, that she realizes she is still in Will’s borrowed clothes and sends him a text to let him know she made it home all right.


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3

Ace isn’t heartless. She isn’t inept when it comes to human emotion—she’s no stranger to its effects in her own life. Ace is not a sociopath, contrary to popular belief. So it nags at the back of her mind, the small, festering possibility that Control may not be doing exactly what they said they would with her machine. She’s not a monster. In truth, Ace fancies herself a bit of a humanitarian. She lasts exactly two weeks after the sale before she finds herself settled in front of her computer, glaring at the screen. “Stop judging me,” she grumbles. “It’s not a breech of contract.” The blank screen in front of her blinks accusingly. “Okay, so maybe it is, but it’s not like they’ll find out.” The whir of the computer’s fans sound distinctly disappointed. “You know what? Screw you. What do you know? This is for the good of mankind,” Ace whispers hastily, face scrunched beneath her glasses. The computer settles as if it is sighing, and the sound reverberates off her dorm room walls. Keep telling yourself that. “Quit it,” she whispers once more. She cracks her knuckles and begins to type, each keystroke sounding more and more like a pair of raised eyebrows. “Seriously, no one asked you. Just do your job.” “Um,” comes her roommate’s voice from the doorway. She is still in the middle of pulling her keys from the door, half of her body still in the hallway. “Are you on the phone?”

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“Uh, yeah,” Ace says quickly, turning in her chair to face her roommate, minimizing the web browser hastily. “Totally, yeah, the phone.” They both cast glances to the other side of the room, where Ace’s phone lies in plain view on her bed. “Skype,” Ace amends. “Right,” her roommate says slowly. “I’m just going to grab my laptop and I’ll be out of your hair.” She leaves before Ace can even manage a, “Right, thanks,” and turn back to her computer screen. She grumbles an annoyed, “See what you did? Now she thinks I’m crazy,” before following it up with, “I talk to you more than I do her, and you’re a computer. I guess I had that front covered.” Ace lets out a small, self-deprecating laugh and pulls the web browser back up. “I’m just checking in,” she mutters. “Everything is probably totally, 100 percent kosher.” It takes longer than Ace is willing to admit to discover that everything is not, in fact, kosher. Things are very far from kosher, to say the least. They’re not even kosher-adjacent. There are new blue prints and modified specifications of the one she had provided in exchange for a rather enormous pay check. Along with the new modifications, Ace finds mountains of case files. As she thumbs through them, Ace notices that there is a single, distinct qualifying factor missing in many patients’ files—some of them aren’t even sick. “Kosherville is officially at population zero,” Ace informs her computer matter-of-factly. “And you didn’t want me to breach contract. I told you something was wrong.” Ace drums her fingers on the keyboard as she scans through the entrance file for a subject #1101, a soldier, and her heart plummets. Military involvement rarely means anything good. “If it makes you feel any better, I wish you had been right. But I suppose that would have been too easy.” It takes some digging—Ace goes through a few cans of artificial energy and thinks she notices her roommate come and go once or twice—but eventually, Ace finds a way to view the simulation through subject #1101’s eyes. The world Ace sees is nothing like the one the simulation should be rendering. The man struggles to catch his breath as he leans against a wall, grip on his gun just this side of too tight, even though it is both practiced and familiar. Ace watches as the man moves through what appears to be a uni-


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versity, gun raised cautiously as he turns each corner. When the first zombie appears, Ace nearly jumps out of her skin. At first, she thinks her caffeine laden mind is fabricating images, that she is hallucinating. Subject #1101 takes the zombie down with shots to the head and chest, and the thump of its body against the ground acts like a siren call. Zombies come at every turn and subject #1101 continues to take them down with military precision. “What the fuck,� Ace breathes out when her mouth catches up to the party. As Ace watches subject #1101 rescue a terrified student and leads her off campus, Ace concludes that her suspicions are officially confirmed: things are definitely, completely, so far beyond kosher.


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4

Ace is staring at her computer screen, looking for an answer. She can’t find anything that explains what Control’s engineers have done differently to create the world Ace finds herself immersed in now, but she has found a small way to manipulate it all. It’s nothing huge, or even significant. It’s only on a case-by-case basis, but the consistent curiosity that had nagged since Ace found the small hole in the system persists until she finally opens it up. She starts small, choosing a pair of kids who have slipped through the cracks of the program. Their case files are relatively empty, save a brief medical history and entrance exams. Neither seems to have any indication of sickness or any real reason to be present in the experiment. Their files list their birthdays as within a month of each other; they turned sixteen in the simulation, about a week after entrance. Beyond that, it doesn’t seem Control is paying them much attention. Ace figures it’s as good a place as any to start. She starts simply. They’ve managed to stay close to home since the beginning of the outbreak, confined to their small town and familiar surroundings. They’re trapped in a small neighborhood carnival. Ace watches as they take down zombie after zombie in a fun house, surrounded by mirrors. She changes their surroundings slightly, adding an old, battered pickup truck at the edge of the carnival. Ace nudges Subject #1132 to the truck and smiles at a job well done when

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he manages to drag his partner in crime into the passenger seat and get the engine running. She shuts off the feed and falls asleep with a smile on her face


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Ace has never seen anyone die. She understands the concept, objectively. She knows the science behind it all, and what bodily functions would stop in what order, and how long it would take to die from different types of wounds. She knows the different ways to die and different ways to kill and the survival rate of each, but she has never truly seen death with her own eyes. Seeing it on her small laptop screen in her darkened dorm room comes with a certain kind of frightening disassociation. Ace has been watching data points at random for a few days when it happens the first time, and she doesn’t know much about the girl who shows up on her screen. The girl is alone. Every test subject she has seen so far has been at least in a pair, if not a larger group. Her clothes are torn and her eyes are wide, and she looks absolutely terrified. She has a number of lacerations across her cheeks, forehead, and forearms. Ace wonders how she got them and if she has more elsewhere. Ace wants to help her, and she figures it can’t be too large a task to manage. It’s all about motivation, and that can be easily given. People in crisis are easily swayed by a ray of hope. Ace does a quick search of the simulated world, looking for groups within the area that could take on another person and changes a few things in the girl’s code that push her in their direction. The girl ends up dying alone in the midst of the


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remains of an elementary school when she stumbles across a zombie nest, because Ace had drawn a path that had followed straight lines and hadn’t accounted for danger. How do you deal with killing your characters off? Ace waits with her phone in her palm, knees pressed tightly to her chest. She can’t expect much - this is the first time she has texted Will since the obligatory I’m home. Not dead. text back at prom, and to be fair he probably doesn’t even have her number saved any more. Ace only has his because she is not very inclined to delete the few human connections she haphazardly manages to make. She is halfway through her first semester; it has been months since prom, and there’s no reason she should expect— It helps to remember that they’re not real. It isn’t the answer Ace is expecting, or even the one she wants. She isn’t entirely sure why she thought Will would know the answer in this situation, but she is too frightened to turn to her father, and she doesn’t have much of anyone else so she tries again. What if it doesn’t really feel that way? Ace sends back. I mean, hypothetically speaking, what if it feels real? Ace likes that text affords her a certain confidence and consciousness that speech does not. There is no hesitation in her words this way, and it comes with the added benefit of not having to worry about the judging facial expressions or signs of disappointment. Ace firmly maintains that texting is the greatest invention of modern technology; it affords human connection without any of the annoying bits, like faces or tones of voice or the inability to multitask. It always feels real. That’s the point. Means you’re doing it right. That’s a shitty point. Aren’t you a science major? Ace’s mind races searching for a plausible explanation for her questions. I am she settles on. I’m testing this TV thing where you choose circumstances for the character and see how it plays out. It’s not entirely a lie, Ace decides. It is sort of like television, and while Ace didn’t set up the entire thing, she has been changing circumstances. Sometimes those circumstances result in death, which shakes her up a bit. She can admit that. They haven’t actually died, but from her standpoint, she can’t see them anymore. One moment they’re alive and well on her computer screen, and the next they’re—well, they’re not.


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The vibrations of Will’s response pull her out of thought. Sounds terrible. Why’s that? Who wants to be responsible for that? Life and death and pain. It’s easy to watch when you’re not the one creating it. Don’t you do the whole creating fictional pain thing every day? Yeah, almost instantly. It blows. Ace stares at her computer screen, still hovering on a broken, unmoving body that she helped put there. She counts the wounds the body has, notes that there are no bite marks, and doesn’t have to wonder at the seconds it took for the woman to bleed out. She counted. Ace thinks about the family and life this woman probably had, the things she planned to do and accomplish. She stares at the screen until the feed goes blank and she thinks that, as eloquently as Will had put it, he was right. It totally, completely blows.


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It becomes a habit after that, one that Ace can’t decide how it qualifies: good or bad. She searches for test subjects that are not being heavily monitored and could use some direction. She reads up on their file and learns their circumstances, sometimes watching old, recorded information from earlier in the simulation. Most of the time, she gets stuck. She shoots Will texts, asking for his ideas. A woman loses her son, she keys to him one night, how do you make that okay? You can’t, he sends back, but you can give her a life to live on her own. Ace sends him descriptions of test subjects that are moving alone and lets him make matches; sometimes she lets him pick weapons and scenarios that would allow the test subjects to happen upon them; she even lets him guess at the backstories and motivations for each, getting lost in the way he can spin a story when asked. She finds herself wrapped up in the way she can make his ideas come to life on her screen and in how people will act out his ideas with the push of a few buttons. Ace wishes, over the months that these ideas span, that she could show Will everything, because she thinks its kind of beautiful, in a twisted sort of way. Will had been there when the machine had been nothing more than drunken ramblings and scratched notes, and now it was something more, something whole. It


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may be a warped reality filled with pain and suffering, but Ace’s idea has developed into something that is actually creating a new reality. Problems aside, Ace can’t help the fascination that comes with an idea made concrete.


01110101 01100111 01101000 00101110 00100000 01000010 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01101001 01101110 0111000 00100000 01101001 01101110 01110100 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 11000011 00100000 01101000 01100101 01100001 01100100 01110001 01110101 01100001 01110010 01110100 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01001101 01100001 01101110 01101000 01100001 01110100 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01100011 01100001 01101110 11100010 00111010 10011001 01110100 00100000 01100010 01100101 01110101 01100111 01101000 00101110 must 01000010 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01101001 01101110 00100000 01101110 11001110 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01101000 01100101 01100001 01100100 01110001 01110101 01100001 01110010 01110100 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 give us 01101110 00100000 01100001 01101110 01101000 01100001 01110100 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01100011 01100001 01101110 11100010 10000000 10011001 01110100 00100000 01100010 pause 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01100010 01100101

7

It helps to remember that they’re not real. Will’s text replays in Ace’s mind as she looks at the screen before her. Will could live with creating pain and inciting death for characters because they weren’t real, and they didn’t come with any real consequences. He could decide who lived and who died, who got their happily ever after and who didn’t with the flick of a keystroke in good conscience because he could always delete and change and start over with consequence. Ace was quickly discovering that she didn’t have that luxury. Ace had changed the outcome of at least a dozen test subjects simply because she could. Four of those cases had resulted in death, and one had been turned. It doesn’t raise a red flag until the test subject that had been turned drops out of the simulation without a “death” on record. Upon further inspection, Ace finds a log file that indicates the test subject’s vitals had become erratic while dealing with the simulated disease, and that the test subject had been pulled out of the simulation for fear of long-lasting damage to the body. This was one of the few test subjects Ace had happened upon with an honest-to-God terminal illness, one who actually fit the bill of a prime patient for Ace’s machine. She feels guilty that she has lost this woman her suspended state, and Ace finds herself tearing through Control’s servers in order to find out the woman’s fate.


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What Ace finds, eventually, is a crumpled and terrified version of the woman she had been watching and leading through the simulated world. She is being held in a nondescript medical room with soothing taupe walls and no decorations. She is hooked up to a heart rate monitor and vitals indicators, all of which are worryingly low. An IV is placed in her right wrist and taped down—from the way the woman worries at the bandage, Ace assumes this is to prevent attempts to remove the needle that is providing her sustenance. From the looks of the woman, Ace is not sure how else the subject would ingest the necessary foods and liquids to stay alive. It certainly wouldn’t be accomplished by voluntary consumption; the woman does not appear to have much will left. Her hair is a matted mess, knots upon knots sticking in various directions. The skin around her fingernails is torn and scabbed in places and bleeding in others, as if the woman could not stop picking at the edges long enough for them to heal. There are small scabs dotting the woman’s arms, some in the crescent-moon shape left behind by fingernails. Ace wonders how the woman could have lost all sense of pain and instinct. As she watches, the woman picks at her own flesh until she is rewarded with beading crimson. Ace shuts the feed off before she can catch a glimpse of the woman’s eyes. Ace is unsure which would be worse: a cold, empty stare of an unfeeling soul, or a bright, vibrant and terrified one of a person trapped. It helps to remember that they aren’t real. The mantra had been an okay one until Ace had properly realized that they were real people, and that this whole thing had very real consequences. Consequences that she may not have foreseen or created or planned for, but consequences that she was responsible for nonetheless. When Ace checks in on the four other test subjects that had died after her tampering and finds them in much the same condition, she is almost certain that her heart drops into her knees. When she can manage, she shuts her computer off and drinks as though the answer to morality lies at the bottom of the bottle of Jack she keeps wedged behind her mattress. Ace relishes the way the burn of the whiskey slipping down her throat distracts from the warm tracks her tears leave. Ace is admittedly a bit of a lightweight—it doesn’t take very many pulls from the bottle for her to be fumbling around for her cell phone, allowing the warmth that works its way through her bloodstream to guide her actions.


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If Ace were a normal person, she would know that she isn’t quite on drunk dial level with Will. They’ve exchanged texts numerous times concerning test subjects and their outcomes and he has helped shaped the path that has led those people to their hospital cells, whether he was aware or not. Ace takes another sharp pull at the thought. She has made an unknowing party an accomplice to granting people a fate worse than death—madness. For that, Ace is is sorry. When Will answers, Ace tells him as much. “Ace?” Will’s voice is thick with sleep, and Ace is surprised he can place her voice as he has not heard it since prom. “Yeah, yep, that’s me,” Ace says, stumbling over the words. “Ace, are you okay?” Will’s voice is clearer now, as though he has suddenly shaken off the final dregs of sleep. Ace hears the sound of sheets rustling in the background as he sits up. She lets out a small, hysterical laugh at his question. “Am I okay?” she repeats. “I don’t know. What would you do if they were real, Will? Would you be okay if they were real?” “Ace, what are you -” “Your characters. You said, ‘It helps to remember that they’re not real.’ But what if they were? What if they were real people you were playing with?” There’s a long pause on the other end of the line. Ace almost asks if Will is still there, but she can clearly hear the clink of dishes, followed by the running water of a faucet. Will swallows thickly a few times. “You’d be playing God,” Will finally answers. “How bad is that, do you think?” Ace asks quietly. “Like on a scale of one to ten?” “Ace?” “Just - indulge me, Will, okay?” Will sighs and takes another swallow of water. “Assuming it was possible? Which it isn’t-” “But if it was.” “Probably like a hundred.” Ace curses and takes another pull from the bottle to choke back a sob. “Ace?” Will asks hesitantly. “What’s this all about?” “Nothing,” Ace says quickly. “Everything. Progress.” There’s another long pause before Will speaks again. “Where are you?” “My dorm.”


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“You’re not alone, are you? Is your roommate there? Someone to take care of you?” “I don’t need to be taken care of,” Ace bites out snippily. “But no, she’s not here. She’s never here anymore. I think she’s having sex with someone, or like, fighting crime. Never here at night.” Ace hears the metallic ting of keys as they clash together. “What building do you live in?” “Why?” “You know we go to the same school, right?” Ace can almost feel her safe distance shattering. She directs Will to her dorm before hanging up. When he knocks on her door fifteen minutes later, Ace is still staring at her phone, scrolling through their texts. When she lets him in, Will’s smile falls as he catches sight of the bottle of whiskey in her hand. “You know, when I said we should do this again sometime, I didn’t actually mean this.” He shoulders his way past Ace and takes in her room—piles of clothes strewn about, textbooks stacked in various places, pieces of scrawled-on notebook paper scattered around the room and taped to different sections of the walls—and manages not to say anything. “What’s this whole thing about?” Will is nice, Ace decides. What kind of guy fields a drunk phone call at 2 in the morning and comes to check up on the caller? Will is nice, and that’s rare, and he doesn’t deserve to be responsible for any of this, and Ace has made him so without even giving him a choice. Will’s brow crinkles in confusion. “What are you talking about?” Ace realizes she may have been saying everything aloud. “I might have done something terrible,” Ace admits. It’s the first time she has said it out loud, and it feels oddly freeing. She keeps talking. “I didn’t mean to, not really, and I was just—I had an idea, you know? I just wanted to matter, a little bit, and do something that mattered. I thought may this was it, and then things didn’t go as planned and I thought maybe I could fix it some, and give people some solace. That went to hell in a handbasket and I think I made things worse and I’m responsible for this whole thing and you’re kind of responsible, too, even if you don’t know it, and that’s my fault, and I’m sorry, Will. It’s not fair and I’m sorry.”


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Will stares for a long moment before taking a hesitant step forward. Ace realizes that she is crying, steadily, and she thinks that they have got to stop meeting like this. Will closes the gap between them and wraps his hand around the neck of the bottle, wiggling it until Ace loosens her grip. He quiets her pleas and herds Ace toward her bed, pushing and prodding until she lies down. “Sleep,” he says. “We can talk about it when you wake up.” Ace panics. She’s pretty sure she won’t have the nerve to explain things when she wakes up, sober and coherent. She shakes her head. “It’s all on my computer. In a file, on the desktop. You have to just just look at it, okay? The notes and the videos and the files, okay, Will? Promise me you’ll look.” “I’ll look,” Will says quietly. “I promise.”


01110101 01100111 01101000 00101110 00100000 01000010 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01101001 01101110 0111000 00100000 01101001 01101110 01110100 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 conscience 00100000 01101000 01100101 01100001 01100100 01110001 01110101 01100001 01110010 01110100 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01001101 01100001 01101110 01101000 01100001 01110100 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 does make 01100011 01100001 01101110 11100010 00111010 10011001 01110100 00100000 01100010 01100101 01110101 01100111 01101000 00101110 00100000 01000010 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01101001 01101110 00100000 01101110 11001110 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01101000 01100101 cowards 01100100 01110001 01110101 01100001 01110010 01110100 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01100001 01101110 01101000 01100001 01110100 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01100011 01100001 01101110 11100010 10000000 10011001 01110100 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01100010 01100101 of us all 01100010 01100101

8

When Ace wakes up, Will has made good on his promise. He’s sitting at the desk chair with his head in his hands, backlit by the glow of her computer screen. Ace feels around for her glasses. “They’re on the bedside table,” Will directs. “You fell asleep with them on.” Ace locates them and pushes them onto the bridge of her nose before sitting up. “Thanks.” Will does not look up, instead threading his fingers through his hair and pulling lightly. “I’m going to need you to explain this to me,” he says quietly. He doesn’t gesture or do anything to indicate what “this” is, but there is no question that he is referring to her computer and the information it holds. “What do you want me to explain?” Will looks up at that, mouth parted and eyes squinted, incredulous. “What do I want you to explain?” he repeats. “I don’t know, Ace. Maybe something like, ‘It’s not what it looks like.’ Because if it’s what it looks like, we’re going to—we have a serious problem.” “What does it look like?” Ace can’t remember a time where she felt this small. “What does it look like?” Will repeats. “Do you have a habit of repeating questions you don’t particularly like?”


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“I don’t know,” Will bites back, “Do you have a habit of asking questions you already know the answer to?” When Ace doesn’t do anything but look down, Will continues, voice rising with each sentence. “It looks like you’ve been asking my opinion on what I thought were story lines. It looks like you let me make decisions and took my suggestions and implemented them for—for actual people that are trapped in their own heads and believe the world is—what, being taken over by zombies? Where do you even come up with this shit?” “I didn’t—” Ace tries to break in, but Will has already talked himself up. He barrels on, not concerned with anything she has to say. “And it looks like you changed things, and that resulted in people dying, only to find out that they weren’t dead at all. And then they went crazy. Sound about right?” Ace hesitates, pulling her knees to her chest and resting her back against the wall. She fiddles with the skin around the edges of her nails and looks up to find Will staring expectantly. “Can I talk now?” “Be my guest.” “I thought I was helping,” Ace starts. Will looks as though he might break in, and Ace screws her eyes closed tightly. “Please, just let me get this out? You can say whatever you want when I’m done.” “Okay,” Will agrees after a few seconds. Ace keeps her eyes closed and starts talking. “This isn’t fair to you. I’ll admit that off the bat. You were just trying to help when we met, because you’re a good person, and you cared. To be honest, as weird as it’s going to sound, that’s been the most confusing part of this whole thing. “The machine was supposed to help and heal and breed answers. I entrusted people—a company, really—to use my designs the way they were intended to be used. And they didn’t. I guess you probably figured that out on your own. I just wanted to see where the project was at, if it worked the way I knew it would. I found that,” Ace gestures at her computer, “instead. It worked, but not for what it was supposed to. That…that didn’t change the fact that it did work, though. I know it sounds terrible, but I couldn’t get over the fact that it actually worked, you know? The idea was so beyond the scope of legitimate science that it had no reason to work, but it did, and it was my idea. I can’t help but be a little bit proud of that, even in the face of all this.” Ace takes a deep breath and opens her eyes to take in Will’s


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expression. He is listening, but his face does not betray his thoughts. He gestures for Ace to continue. “Something was wrong. That much was clear. I mean, you don’t get to people clawing at each other as their flesh deteriorates by accident, you know? I thought they’d end sickness. I guess they tried to, in a way. They tried to weaponize it, create a soldier that had no human disadvantages. Things didn’t go exactly as planned.” Will snorts at that, somehow packing sarcasm and judgement into the sound. Ace continues on. “I thought maybe I could change the course of the project on my own, remotely. There really wasn’t any way I could. I tried, but it just isn’t something I’m capable of.” The admission is like pulling teeth. If there’s anything Ace is good at, it’s finding a way to accomplish a goal. Now she is confronted with her own creation, and she can’t even manage to make it do what she designed it to do. “When I couldn’t change it, I thought maybe I could help the people inside. Give a few people a bit of relief for their pain.” “Let me guess,” Will says sardonically, “that didn’t go exactly as planned, either?” “I, uh, I guess you could say that. I didn’t know it would end up like this. I was just trying to help, make their situation a little better—” “You mean the situation you put them in? The situation they wouldn’t be in if it weren’t for the machine you created?” Ace swallows thickly. Will runs his fingers through his hair, leaving it even wilder. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. They made this, I didn’t.” “Yeah, they made this with the technology you gave them. Do you honestly believe these people would be in this world, trapped inside their minds if it wasn’t for the machine you created? The thing you’re so proud of?” Will stands, and the force he pushes back with makes her desk chair clatter to the ground. “And then on top of everything, you take away the one thing they had left: their free will. Even God left people with that. You’re not playing God, you’re playing puppet master. These are people, their lives…You took away their ability to make decisions and they ended up half crazy and entirely out of control, and you made me help you.” Will moves to leave her room. He makes it all the way to the door before Ace’s voice stops him. “Will, I don’t know how to fix this. Please, I—”


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Will doesn’t turn around. “I’m done being involved in this, Ace. I can’t—I really, really can’t.” He turns the knob and steps out of Ace’s room, closing the door quietly behind himself. Ace can’t help but think the sound means more than an unspoken goodbye.


01110101 01100111 01101000 00101110 00100000 01000010 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01101001 01101110 0111000 00100000 01101001 01101110 01110100 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 11000011 00100000 01101000 01100101 01100001 01100100 or to take 01110101 01100001 01110010 01110100 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01001101 arms 01101110 01101000 01100001 01110100 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01100011 01100001 01101110 11100010 00111010 against a 01110100 00100000 01100010 01100101 01110101 01100111 01101000 00101110 00100000 01000010 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01101001 01101110 00100000 01101110 11001110 sea 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01101000 01100101 01100001 01100100 of 01110101 01100001 01110010 01110100 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 01101001 troubles 00100000 01100001 01101110 01101000 01100001 01110100 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 and 01100001 01101110 by opposing 10000000 10011001 01110100 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 end them 01100101

9

Ace isn’t sure what, exactly, she had planned to accomplish by breaking into Control. Will’s words had made her think, something she consistently did too much and not enough of all at once. Puppet master, he had said. It wasn’t that Ace fancied herself God, or even very important. She quite honestly did not spend enough time outside of her own head to concern herself with the nuanced titles of society. Ace spends a lot of time in her darkened dorm room trying to decided if Will is right. It’s unsettling to sit and contemplate things that aren’t numbers and data points. Human emotion and morality was a puzzle that had never interested Ace because it was not one that had a single right answer, or an answer of any kind. Ace has reveled in solving puzzles her whole life, craving the stability that came from things that were quantifiable. It’s why she had never particularly liked people. They required more effort than anything and rarely came with any kind of payoff. Ace had been searching for a way to quantify humanity and make it easy to understand as an equation. It was the basis of everything that had created the machine—the brain, sickness, humanity: it could all come down to numbers. Ace thought, foolishly perhaps, that the ability to accomplish a task automatically warranted a necessity to carry it out. When she had successfully stripped human thought down


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to inputs and outputs, Ace figured she finally understood. This, the endless lines of outputted data that broke every action, reaction, and emotion down to lines of ones and zeroes. Ace had broken emotions down to integers that could be manipulated; she had added and subtracted and multiplied and divided them and she had called it relating and understanding. Will probably had a point, when he went off, when he said she had taken away the only thing they had left. She wonders what he would have said if he had stuck around long enough for Ace to explain the intricacies of it all. She wonders if she ever would have been able to make him understand, or if he was capable of showing more revulsion than he already had. Instinctually, Ace knows there was a reason she had lied about the truth in the first place. It had not come from a place of humility. Ace had been, in the beginning, overwhelmingly proud of her accomplishment in the machine. If she is being entirely honest, even in the face of all of this, there is still a small part of her that beams with pride every time she looks at evidence that the machine exists and works. Yet, she had not told Will the truth when they began, and Ace knows that it is because, on some level, she had feared his reaction from the beginning. She knows that Will is right, somehow. That doesn’t mean she wants him to be, or agrees with him, or knows what to do about it. She sits in her room, alone and reeling, hoping that an answer will somehow come to her by away of divine intervention. She’s not sure how long it lasts, but eventually, the room darkens and her roommate returns and leaves again, claiming that she’ll be out for the night—a repeated pattern. Ace wonders, for the first time, if it has something to do with her. Time passes. Eventually, Ace ends up back on her computer. If she had any idea what made something poetic, she assumes it would be something like this; abandoned by the one person she had managed to forge a connection with, Ace seeks solace in circuit boards. There will always be something appealing in a conversation partner that can’t talk back. “I know I fucked it all up,” Ace says quietly, “so don’t lecture.” Ace keys back into Control’s mainframe, searching for the first boys whose outcome she’d changed. When she finds that one kid isn’t even in the simulation anymore, she searches through his exit file to


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find that he has landed in the same psych ward as the other four test subjects she had interfered with. For some reason, the sight of the boy strikes her harder than anything else. He’s meant to be chasing girls and doing arbitrary math homework and not thinking about much of anything. Instead, he has been killing people he has known his whole life with his eyes wide open, staring at people they once loved who have lost their souls. He is a pawn for Control, for Ace’s entertainment and proof that her idea works, and Ace doesn’t even know his name. This is not what he is meant for. It’s not what any of them are meant for. So Ace does what she knows how to do: she looks for facts and figures and how-to guides.


01110101 01100111 01101000 00101110 00100000 01000010 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01101001 01101110 0111000 00100000 01101001 01101110 01110100 01101111 00100000 01110100 for who would 01100101 11000011 00100000 01101000 01100101 01100001 01100100 01110001 01110101 01100001 01110010 bear 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01001101 01100001 01101110 01101000 01100001 01110100 the whips and scorns 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01100011 01100001 01101110 11100010 00111010 10011001 01110100 00100000 01100010 01100101 01110101 01100111 01101000 00101110 00100000 of time 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01101001 01101110 00100000 01101110 11001110 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 the oppressor’s 00100000 wrong 01100101 01100001 the 01110001 01110101 01100001 01110010 01110100 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 proud man’s 01101110 01101000 01100001 contumely 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01100011 01100001 01101110 11100010 10000000 10011001 when he himself 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 might 01100101 00100000 01100010 01100101 0111001 his quietus make 00001101110 01110110 000011 0110101 10110

10

Ace takes Andrew down to the machine level. He balks slightly when they enter, staring at the lines of the machines spread throughout the space, clear and organized. He lets out a small, breathless sound of disbelief. Ace offers him a small smile over her shoulder, continuing to lead the way through the lines of machines. “I know. Pretty amazing, right?” Andrew gives her a look of disbelief, the skin between his eyebrows wrinkling. “Not exactly the word I’d use to describe it.” Ace can’t help but be a bit put out by Andrew’s less than stellar reaction. It isn’t exactly what she had planned, and objectively she knows that the circumstances could, perhaps, be better. But this is innovation. This is her brainchild made tangible. She knows somewhere in the deep recesses of her heart that this is not right, and that this thing she has created is wreaking havoc on people who won’t benefit as intended. Yet somehow, the urge to run her fingers over the machine’s cold metal as it hums and whirs is at the forefront of everything. Her dreamy thoughts must translate to her expression, because Andrew shakes his head. “There’s more to this than you’re telling me.” “Perceptive.” “Yeah,” Andrew says dryly, “my mom tells me I’m special. We gonna do this or what?”


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Ace rounds the last turn with Andrew close on her heels and stops in front of his vacated station. Andrew nearly careens into her back, catching himself at the last second. Ace slides into the bland, wheeled desk chair that is placed in front of the monitors and spins to face Andrew. “If it’s so bad in there, why do you want to go back?” The stance Andrew adopts—shoulders purposefully rolled back, hands still and fingers straight at his sides, knees bent slightly and feet shoulder width apart—screams of false confidence, but Ace doesn’t comment. “You didn’t really make it seem like the alternatives were all that great. Stay in that room and maybe go crazy or die, go home where I know I’ll go crazy or die, or go back under.” “Where you might still go crazy, or die, and end up back here without me to give you a choice.” Ace bites at her thumbnail, stress clear in her face. “I’m not even sure this is going to work. The whole thing might fall apart if you go under and know it’s not real.” “Look, I don’t know why you feel so guilty about this whole thing, but I’m not above exploiting that to get what I want,” Andrew admits bluntly. He walks to the center of the station, sliding onto the machine’s tabletop, and lays himself out. He crosses his legs at the ankle and locks his fingers behind his head, closing his eyes against the florescent light. “Now, you promised me paradise. Let’s get to it.” Ace looks at the kid for a few long seconds, taking in the carefully constructed expression of calm plastered on his face. He is betrayed by the erratic bob of his Adam’s apple when he swallows thickly, the flare of his nostrils when he can’t manage to get enough air while trying to keep his breathing even, and the twitching in the tendons of his forearms as he clenches his fingers around themselves behind his head. He’s scared, she realizes. Scared that Ace might not be able to manage what she says she can, that he’ll end up back under and things will be exactly the same as they were when he died the first time. He’s afraid, most of all, that Ace won’t be able to get him back under at all, and that he’ll end up in the psych ward, or back home. Back home, where I know I’ll end up crazy or dead, Andrew had said. Ace doesn’t want to ask, can’t bear to have her suspicions confirmed, and so instead she swallows thickly and she nods, and she says, “Let’s talk details.” The sinking feeling of not accomplishing what she came here for is worth it when Andrew smiles bright and easy. “Jake likes the water,” Andrew offers. “His parents used to take us to a lake house when we were kids.”


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“Lake house, I can do that.” She wonders about pulling the details from Andrew’s memories, but worries that it might be too suspicious and shatter the illusion, pulling Jake out of the simulation. She takes a while to craft a hopefully believable and modest lakeside cabin. Andrew’s breathing is even and methodical while Ace works, and she has to shake his foot to jostle him awake when she is finished to ask for his approval. “Wow,” he breathes over her shoulder. “Yeah, that…that works. He’ll like it.” “Okay,” Ace says, turning to face him. Andrew settles back onto the table, sitting up with his legs dangling over the edge. “We have two options. Either I put you back under just like this, and you remember everything. You know it’s all fake, and you hopefully stay under. I’ll write out the programming that is meant to pull you out of the simulation on the off chance you question reality too much. We put you under, and we hope it works.” “And the other option?” “I wipe your memory,” Ace says quietly. “All of it. Everything you remember. Your mom, your dad, me, Jake. You’ll remember the basics, like your name and foods you like and don’t, anything instinctual. But memories, those would all be gone.” Andrew is quiet for a moment. “Everything?” he asks. Ace nods, and watches as Andrew closes his eyes, presumably trying to sift through sixteen years of memories, weigh pain against pleasure and decide if one is worth more than the other. Ace waits for him to open his eyes and ask her to make his suffering go away, once and for all. She wonders at the idea of a clean slate, the ability to start fresh and feel something that isn’t overwhelming, to be young and without scars and uninhibited by the fear that someone may see them. Ace thinks that maybe she can give that to Andrew, until he opens his eyes and says, “I don’t want to forget.” “Are you sure?” Ace doesn’t understand, because she does everything she can to forget. She stays busy and occupied and alone, lest anyone ask her about the things she fears most. She would give anything to wipe it all away. “Yeah,” Andrew says on a nod. “The fuck was the point of all the pain if I don’t remember it? It’s not like it will mean that it didn’t happen if I just forget. How are you supposed to know that something is good if you don’t have anything bad to compare it to? Besides, you


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promised me paradise. How am I supposed to have paradise if I don’t remember the only person who helped me survive this far?” Andrew lays back on the table, and Ace nods to herself, turning back to the control panel. With the press of a button, the restraints wrap themselves around Andrew’s wrists and ankles, clicking smoothly into place. “Anything else?” “Yeah,” Andrew says, his voice taking on a dreamy quality. “Hostess cupcakes. Don’t forget those.”


01110101 01100111 01101000 00101110 00100000 01000010 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01101001 01101110 0111000 00100000 01101001 01101110 01110100 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 11000011 00100000 01101000 01100101 01100001 01100100 01110001 01110101 01100001 01110010 01110100 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01100001 01101110 01101000 01100001 01110100 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100001 be all my 00100000 01100011 01100001 01101110 11100010 00111010 10011001 01110100 00100000 01100010 01100101 01110101 01100111 01101000 00101110 00100000 01000010 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01101001 01101110 00100000 01101110 11001110 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01101000 01100101 01100001 01100100 sins 01110101 01100001 01110010 01110100 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01100001 01101110 01101000 01100001 01110100 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01100011 01100001 01101110 remembered 10000000 10011001 01110100 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01100010 01100101

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Ace manages to hold herself together much longer than she thought she was capable of. The machine works its magic and drops Andrew back into the simulation; a moment after he closes his eyes and his breathing evens out, the monitor behind Andrew’s head fizzles to life once more. It depicts Andrew sprawled out on the dirt surrounding the gas station he died in two days ago. It takes a second, but slowly and surely, Andrew’s limbs begin to twitch as he regains control of them. Eventually, he scrambles into a sitting position and turns in a sweeping circle, shooting Ace a thumbs up and a smile in every direction to make sure she can see. Ace laughs and the sound startles her in the otherwise quiet room. It’s jarring and does not fit the setting or the situation, mixing with the hums and whirs of the machines like oil with water. Quickly, Ace double checks the modified code she has implemented from Andrew’s station. When everything checks out, she moves to locate test subject #1101. The soldier isn’t too far away. The test subjects are arranged in easily managed grids in numerical order. Ace quickly covers the ground separating subject #1101 from Andrew. When she reaches his station, Ace is almost disappointed by what she sees. The man is a soldier, certainly, but his hair is cropped short, kept frozen in time by the machine’s suspended animation features. On the few occasions that Ace had viewed the man in simulation, his


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hair had been longer, left untended in the face of unbridled chaos. Ace feels her heart drop, oddly, when she scans over what little skin is left visible by the white cotton shirt and lounge pants uniform all of the test subjects are clad in. There are scars she remembers that don’t exist, ones he must have acquired in the simulation. The sinking feeling Ace gets in the pit of her stomach is not unlike the disappointment felt when meeting an idol who does not live up to heightened expectations. The thought is enough to make her feel sick, to properly understand Will’s accusations. It had been easy to distance herself from the humanity of the test subjects when viewing them on her computer screen. Changing their lives, decisions, and circumstances had not felt like anything more than having too much control over a television show, as she had implied to Will, and changing the code to match her thoughts was commonplace. Now, the subject is bathed in harsh florescent lighting, manacled to her machine by his ankles and wrists. As Ace tries to reconcile the test subject she has studied and memorized with the man laid before her, her heart begins to race with each discrepancy. The hair, the missing scars, the way his stomach is slightly softened and the definition of his arms is less apparent than it is in the simulation. It would be easy to categorize them as two separate entities: test subject and human being, if it were not for the similarities between the two. The military tattoo that peeks out from underneath his left T-shirt sleeve, the small scar above his right eyebrow, the slope of his nose. All of his physical qualities are things that she had catalogued in observation. Now, they are attached to a chest that rises and falls with steady breath. The action is undeniably human and vulnerable. It makes Ace feel sick. It’s enough that Ace begins to download as much data and information as she can after changing enough information to lead subject #1101 to Andrew. She pulls as much as she can—files that date all the way back past her own involvement in the project, contracts with other companies and the government, internal documents discussing the weaponization route, scientists’ observations, and as many case files as she can manage. It would be easy to end it all here, at the source. She stands when her download is finished and absently runs her palm over the metallic edge of the machine. “I brought you into this world,” Ace whispers. “I can take you out of it.”


project Z: origins

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The second the words pass her lips, Ace knows that they are a lie. Ace wishes she were stronger, a better person, less selfish. She looks at the sea of machines that she thought represented progress. In the stark lighting, Ace has to admit that progress looks a lot like prison. It would be easy enough. There’s an exit protocol already written into the code, and executing a sort of max exodus wouldn’t be much of a leap. There are options. She could easily create and install a virus that would fry the machines and render the project null, though she’s not sure how that would affect the people still inside. It doesn’t come down to inability or impossibilities. Ace is staring at the thing she created, at the destruction it has wrought, and she holds the power to end the whole thing. She doesn’t want to. Ace has not managed much she is proud of in her life. She can only remember a handful of times she was genuinely content with something that she created. She isn’t even sure this counts as one of those moments. Ace may not be entirely proud of the state of the machine, but she is overwhelmed by the sheer fact that the technology, so far beyond the scope of the everyday world, exists and works. She wants to hold onto the fact that she thought of it, created it, and that she is good at something. Ace reasons that how the machine is being used was not her decision and is out of her hands. She believes that technology at its core can be neither bad nor good. It’s the people that fuck things up. Always the people. Ace works herself up into a righteous indignation the whole way home, wondering how human nature can lend its way to rationalizing hurting other people for personal gain. She wishes people were more like the science of everything that made them up, simple and lacking motivation. The machine had been pure in its intent and had the potential to put a dent in the pain and suffering of the world. And yet it had fallen prey to corruption. It’s not my fault, she thinks desperately. Ace repeats the mantra until she returns to her dorm room, hoping that repetition might make it true. The thought occurs to her that Rutherford was just as guilty of the atom bomb as anyone else, simply because he had been curious, and split the first atom. His discovery had resulted in generations of suffering, the results of his desire for progress. She wonders what title she earns for her inaction at Control,


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what monstrous crown befits a bystander. It is one thing to set the world ablaze; it is another thing entirely to hand someone a match, knowing full well that they have doused everything in gasoline. She can’t lie still in the darkness without Will’s voice haunting her. You’re playing puppet master. Ace is guilty of more than inaction; she had not left the project alone after selling it. Instead, she had utilized the manipulations for—for what, really? Entertainment? Satisfaction that her machine actually worked? The problem was that it didn’t work, not really. Ace thinks of the patients in the psych ward back at Control, and the ways they were going insane. They would never be the same again, and that was Control’s fault. Yet Ace was to blame, in some way, for giving them the necessary tools for torture. Ace was guilty of a lot of things, but being entirely innocent was not one of them. Ace eyes the small hard drive she had loaded Control’s information on to. She had started this whole thing, and she had the power to end it on her own. She hadn’t, because of her pride, her guilt, and her fear. She thinks of Andrew, and how he had thought paradise was a connection with another person, and wonders, perhaps, if every human being out there does not look at situations for personal gain. Ace taps her fingers against the hard drive and thinks that she can give the world a chance to prove her wrong.


01110101 01100111 01101000 00101110 00100000 01000010 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01101001 01101110 0111000 00100000 01101001 01101110 01110100 01101111 00100000 01110100 with this 01100101 11000011 00100000 01101000 01100101 01100001 01100100 01110001 01110101 01100001 01110010 regard 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01001101 01100001 01101110 01101000 01100001 01110100 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 their currents 01100001 01101110 11100010 00111010 10011001 01110100 00100000 01100010 01100101 01110101 01100111 turn awry 00101110 00100000 01000010 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01101001 01101110 00100000 01101110 11001110 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01101000 01100101 01100001 and lose 01110001 01110101 01100001 01110010 01110100 01100101 01110010 01110011 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01100001 01101110 the name of 01100001 01110100 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01100011 01100001 01101110 11100010 10000000 10011001 01110100 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01100010 action 00100000 01100010

12

A few weeks pass after Ace posts the information she stole from Control online, and it’s mostly radio silence. The website has some hits, but hasn’t made any news sources outside of some underground blogs. Ace isn’t surprised; she hadn’t expected any sort of immediate revolution. The information she had pulled from Control’s server had made it clear that their sphere of influence stretched far. She’s not even sure that there is any sort of opening for change to be implemented. Still, with the information out, the possibility that the project could be ended at any moment is very real and present at the forefront of her thoughts. Ace avoids her computer for the first few days. She tries to move on and remove herself from both the past and the future of the project. In a selfish, naive way, she wants to live with the knowledge that her invention had worked, and leave it at that. Ace has never been very good at moving on or dropping subjects unresolved, so it’s not much of a surprise when she ends up in front of her computer on the fourth day, obsessively checking the analytics of the page where she had posted the information. She also checks in on Andrew, Jake, Mark, and Aeries a few times, just to make sure that they make it through to their destination uninterrupted. Two weeks in, there’s a spike in traffic on the website. A lot of it comes from the same IP address, or referred by that address, and it isn’t too much of a leap to think that someone might actually


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be intending to do something about Control. Ace would be lying if she said that it didn’t make her panic. The feeling is sudden, instinctual, and overwhelming as it settles into the pit of her stomach while she reviews the analytics. This is what I was aiming for, she tries to remember. Someone who could take in the information she had collected, recognize the implications and dangers and wrongness of it all, and take the action that she could not. This is good. This is what she had been aiming for. The thoughts do not stop the gnawing feeling of guilt from settling in as she thinks about Andrew. Ace had promised him paradise: an escape from the trials of his life. She had made good on that promise, but had also provided the world with the information necessary to set an end to that escape in motion. Ace taps into the simulation to check in on Andrew, Jake, Aeries, and Mark. Andrew is alone at the lake shore, back propped up against a boulder. Ace adjusts the view, zooming in on the notebook in his lap. She reads along as he scrawls out a letter addressed to her. Each word breaks her heart in a way that she did not think possible. Andrew talks about how much better this reality is, and the fact that it is keeping Aeries alive, and the rest of them sane. When Ace reads the words I’m okay with living in my head forever, if it means we all get a little bit of peace, Ace thinks she owes Andrew an explanation, if a stop ever is put to the simulation. She opens a word document on her computer and begins to type. Let’s get one thing clear: I didn’t save your life that night. You shouldn’t be thanking me for anything. There are things I didn’t tell you. I’m not sure if it’s because I liked the way you didn’t look at me like I’d done something terrible, like I was the problem. You looked at me like I might be a solution. It was selfish, sure, but I’m rapidly accepting the fact that I am a selfish person at my core.


project Z: origins When you were trying to get me to put you back under, you mentioned that you thought I felt guilty about the whole thing. To be honest, I wasn’t going to take much convincing. I am still overly amazed at the fact that the machine was functional, and would have always been easily enticed by the chance to watch it work because— Well, because it was my idea. It’s my machine. There. I said it. That wasn’t too bad, actually. I suspect that it has more to do with the fact that letters are easy, non-confrontational forms of communication. I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that you might never read this. So, I’ll admit one thing more: this whole thing is my fault. Not entirely, I guess. I didn’t design the machine to do what it is being used for, to trap people in a web of consciousness for some sort of political or monetary gain. That’s what it’s being used for, though, and the part that matters, the beginning, that was my fault. You can’t have a shitty ending without a beginning of some sort, and maybe if I had written a better beginning, one that couldn’t have been changed or manipulated, maybe the ending would have been better. Because can you really create evil out of something that doesn’t have a little bit of darkness in its makeup to begin with?

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marissa tandon So I wrote the beginning, and the ending sucked, and so did all the stuff in the middle. I’m not a hero, not for putting you back under and keeping you away from your dad, or keeping Aeries alive. What good is rescuing someone if you’re the reason they’re in the situation? The problem is, it wasn’t a story. It affected people, real people. You, for starters. I don’t know what exactly I thought I was going to do when I got to Control that night, but certainly not perpetuating the problem. I should have ended it. Look, you’re only ever going to read this if someone actually ends the simulation. I’m writing it because there’s a very real possibility that may happen. I wanted you to know why I was ruining your life—again. The thing is, I couldn’t end the simulation. There are so many complications wrapped up in it, in pulling everyone out at once. Do you know how many people have come out of the simulation fully coherent? Two. Who’s to say that the second I had flipped the switch, I wouldn’t have been surrounded by two thousand people who were just as far gone as the ones I showed you in the psych ward? There were too many loose ends, too many possible ways to go wrong, and—I know it’s fucked up, all right, but I’ve never managed to do anything remarkable


project Z: origins in my whole life. And good or bad, this was, is, will be remarkable. Worth talking about. I don’t know why, but the one human desire I’ve managed to maintain is the need to be interesting enough to be spoken about. To matter. I just wanted to do something that mattered, Andrew, and I did. It just didn’t matter in the way I had planned. I told you I started this, but honestly, I don’t even have the courage to end it myself. I let out enough information that someone else might, because this whole thing needs a better ending. You deserve one. All of you do.

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The full novella of Project Z was originally published and released in Fall of 2013 by Wilde Press, a subsidiary of Undergraduate Students for Publishing at Emerson College in Boston, MA. This work was released as additional downloadable content, and is only legally available to those who have purchased the original, or otherwise have the permission of the author or publisher.


about the author

Photo Credit: Katherine Ouelette

Marissa Tandon is a freshman pursuing a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing. She is from Los Angeles, and enjoys video games, coffee, and breakfast after noon. She began writing when she was told that being a superhero wasn’t a viable career path. Project Z is her first published work.



Project Z: Origins