A lamp drifted listlessly by us. I didn’t bother to watch, so I was caught off-guard when it suddenly reversed direction into my forehead. It hit solidly and rebounded off into the air as quickly as it had attacked.
"Why, lamp? Why!?” I shouted after it, rubbing my aching forehead. “Why am I so unlucky?" I demanded of the tumultuous sky above for perhaps the thousandth time.
"BECAUSE YOU DO NOT LISTEN TO YOUR CAPTAIN!"
Captain answered with an undertone of slight disappointment. I glared at zeer.
"Look, don’t make this about your dumb games. I just got assaulted. By a lamp. Playing along with you wouldn’t have made a difference!" I tamped down the paranoid suspicion that Captain was right. I had to keep a firm grasp on what was real and what was delusion.
"OH, BUT IT WOULD HAVE!” Captain insisted. “CAPTAIN ONLY WANTS WHAT'S BEST FOR ALL OF YOUS!" Captain proclaimed, with an open-arm flourish, as if zee was talking to a whole crowd of me-s.
"Give me an example, then," I snapped, too irritated to acknowledge that my best option was to smile, nod and let it go.
"WELL, FOR EXAMPLE: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH THE SALARY OF CAP-CREDITS THAT I’VE DISPENSED INTO YOUR UNGRATEFUL HANDS EVERY FRIDAY?" [ ▷◉◁ SOURCE LINK ]
I tried not to laugh out loud.
"Uh… the moldy, purple papers and bottle caps with your face drawn on them? I used them to stay warm or threw them away!" Captain reared back as if offended by this admission.
"YOU'VE BURNED YOUR MONIES INSTEAD OF SPENDING THEM ON FIRE-SALES IN SELECT STORES OF CAPTANIA?"
"Sure did. They made for a pretty good kindling when I was freezing to death!" I crossed my arms and shrugged, unrepentant. It had seemed like a good arrangement to me: humor Captain and build fires to keep us all warm.
"WHAT INFINITE BOOBERY! WITH ALL THAT CASH YOU COULD HAVE JUST PURCHASED YOURSELF A MOBILE, POCKET-BASED FIREPLACE!" Captain remonstrated. I snorted, incredulous, and Captain responded by opening one of zeer pockets. Warm wood smoke billowed out and sparks popped merrily from within its depths.
"I didn't know that was a real thing!" I stared with suspicion at Captain's still-sparking pocket.
"… AND WHAT ABOOT THE CREDIT CARDS I GAVE YOU? YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO USE THEMS TO PURCHASE THINGS!"
"Kindling!" I answered. "I mean, come on… they were just pieces of cardboard that you’d labeled as "VISA OF CAPTANIA", "MASTERCARD OF CAPTANIA" and "DEBIT OF CAPTANIA"!" I made air quotes to indicate each made-up title.
"DO TELL ME, HOW HAVE YOU BEEN PURCHASING FOODS THEN?" Captain cocked zeer head, looking genuinely confused.
"Purchasing food?” I echoed. “I've been scavenging from the ruins of Directorate super-stores."
"STEALING!" Captain boomed, jabbing an accusing finger into my chest.
"Scavenging!" I insisted, brushing the finger away.
"STEALING!" Captain repeated thunderously. "STEALING FROM HARD-WORKING EMPLOYEES! EACH THEFT DIRECTLY IMPACTS THE PAYCHEQUES OF THE POOR CASHIERS, YOU KNOW! IT IS NO WONDER THAT YOU ARE PRACTICALLY HEAD TO TOE COVERED WITH PINS!"
"…Pins?" Without meaning to I glanced nervously at my arms.
"VERY NAUGHTY ONES,” Captain confirmed. “VERY MALICIOUS AND DANGEROUS ONES INDEED! THEY TELL THE WORLD WHAT A BAD PERSON YOU'VE BEEN. ‘HERE COMES A MAN WHO DOES NOT PAY FOR THINGS!’ SOME OF THEM ANNOUNCE. ‘HE IS NOT TO BE TRUSTED! DO NOT AID HIM IN ANY WAY! HE ROBBED MY WORKPLACE! HE BROKE INTO MY HOUSE! HE ATE MY PORRIDGE! HE SLEPT ON MY BED!’ SAY OTHERS. THE REST JUST SUMMON BADNESS TOWARDS YOUR PERSON.”
"…Badness?" I reached up to touch the swelling bruise from where the lamp had clocked me.
"VIRUSES, MOSTLY... WHY, HERE COMES ONE NOW! SHOO! AWAY WITH YOU!" Captain swatted at empty air over my head. I sat upright with surprise when I heard a whack! as some unseen thing loudly connected with Captain's glove. I shivered, made uneasy by the sudden connection between Captain’s fantasy and my reality.
"AND TELL YOUR FRIENDS TO STAY AWAY! HE IS MINE!"
Captain shouted at the sky, shaking zeer fist at the storm clouds.
I stared at my hands, looking for pins. Was it my imagination? I could feel their prickles. Thousands of invisible dots that clung to me like leeches, cursing everything I’d ever done.
"Couldn't you do something about these?" I whispered hoarsely, worried that the pins might hear my plotting against them. This was paranoid thinking, I distantly realized. Dangerous thinking.
"PILOT AND I DID DO SOMETHING - WE DRESSED YOU UP AS A DIFFERENT PERSON EACH MORNING!” [ ▷◉◁ SOURCE LINK ]
“There was… a reason for the forced cosplays?” I asked. “There was a reason you dressed me up, put makeup and wigs on me, set me on fire and glued things to me?! To help me?!”
“ABSOLU-TIV-ELY! THE MAKE-OVERS AND CHANGES OF OUTFIT/LOCATION CONFUSED THE PINS. UNFORTUNATELY, YOU BOOBISHLY MANAGED TO ACCUMULATE NEW PINS AND REFRESH THE OLD ONES THROUGH CONTINUED LAW-BREAKING!”
Captain pointed at my left shoulder. “THIS ONE IS FOR CONSTANT JAYWALKING!” Zee told me. Confused as I was, I couldn’t help but feel a surge of righteous indignation.
“Come on!” I protested. “Jaywalking? That’s ridiculous. How—how do I—would I even know where to cross?”
“I GAVE YOU MAPS, GUIDEBOOKS AND DAILY NOTICES!” Captain replied sternly.
Captain had indeed often furnished me with ornate pamphlets with silly drawings on them. The “INTRODUCTION TO CAPTANIA” pamphlet had all sorts of “MOST IMPORTANT FACTOIDS” written in crayon, offering advice about sticking to sidewalks, being polite to strangers, obeying traffic signs, respecting privacy, paying entry fees, always using cap-credits and so on.
Dripping with glitter and sequins, they’d seemed like the dregs of a twelve-year-old girl’s subconscious. It had been hard to take sparkly arts and crafts projects seriously when scavenging (stealing?) supplies and trying not to freeze to death each night. I’d burned or lost most of them.
Captain pointed at my right kneecap. “THIS ONE IS FOR BEING A LITTERBUG!” Unthinkingly I scratched at the spot zee’d pointed to.
“BECAUSE OF YOUR FOOLISHNESS YOUR CRIMINAL RECORD STUCK, NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES WE REPAINTED AND REBRANDED YOU! WE HAD TO MOVE FROM DISTRICT TO DISTRICT TO SWITCH UP JURISDICTIONS! THE LIST OF THINGS I GAVE YOU, HAD YOU ACTUALLY BOTHERED TO LOOK FOR THEM, WOULD LEAD YOU ON QUESTS TO CLEAR YOUR NAME OF YOUR WRONG-DOINGS!” Captain crossed zeer arms reproachfully, white plumes of condensation billowing from zeer mask filters.
“Could you not have… told me any of this?” I asked.
“...I HAVE! AND SO HAVE PILOT! PILOT TOLD YOU TO LISTEN UP! HE TOLD YOU TO BELIEVE IN ME, TO ALWAYS TRUST IN WHAT I AM SAYING!” [ ▷◉◁ SOURCE LINK ]
Well, that much was definitely true. Pious, annoying Pilot…
I stared at Captain with wide eyes, reluctantly taking all of this in.
“Though this be madness, yet there’s method in it,” I murmured. Captain wasn’t insane. The Universe was insane. The laws of Eureka were to be upheld even after its destruction. The virtual consumer infrastructure lived and breathed even now, a vengeful ghost of our civilization. I finally understood why I could not help anyone or fix the universe with the Biomatrix. I had broken the rules, and like a tomb desecrator I’d been cursed. I could not even die.
“ANYWAYS, THE PINS AREN'T THAT BIG A DEAL IN COMPARISON WITH YOUR CLOUD-BRAIN. IT IS ALREADY JAM-PACKED WITH AN INFINITE NUMBER OF VIRUSES."
"My brain is full… of viruses?" I asked. At this point I was more scared than surprised.
"INDEED. THEY'RE SLEEPING NOW, BECAUSE SECTOR NINE OVER-LORD SHUT DOWN YOUR CLOUD-SERVER!"
"What going to happen when they wake up?!" I demanded. Gripped by inarticulate terror, I shook Captain by zeer shoulders when zee didn’t answer quickly enough.
"THE STORM OF ERRORS..." Captain waved a hand over my head in circles. "...IT SHALL ESCAPE YOUR BRAIN-NOODLES ONCE MORE!"
I felt a little sick. I didn’t know what was real.
"A STORM ENDLESSLY SPIRALS OVER YOUR HAPLESS HEAD!” Captain continued. “DISRUPTING THE INTER-WEBZ WHEREVER YOU GO! MAKING IT HARD FOR THINGS TO TALK TO YOU AND TO EACH OTHER!"
“If nothing can talk to me, how did that stupid no-trespassing sign hack my brain and make me into a G-Bux employee?" I demanded, hoping I’d exposed a flaw in Captain’s theory.
"IMAGINE YOUR BRAIN IS A COMPUTER."
I pinched the bridge of my nose, sighing.
"Alright. My brain’s a computer. Got it."
"NOW CRAM IT FULL OF VIRUSES, BECAUSE YOU GO TO QUESTIONABLE SITES!"
"I don't go to questionable websites!" I protested.
"YOU GO TO QUESTIONABLE PLACES AND DO QUESTIONABLE THINGS!" Captain insisted, prodding me with zeer finger.
"Let’s move on," I sighed. I had made a rather questionable deal with a me-scarf made of viruses at one point, which probably in turn made me into an Unconnectable. [ ▷◉◁ SOURCE LINK ]
"DO YOU EXPECT YOUR COMPUTER TO FUNCTION AMAZINGLY WHEN IT'S CRAMMED FULL OF VIRUSES?” Captain asked. I shrugged. “NAY! IT CAN BARELY OPEN A WEBSITE WITHOUT CRASHING. ALL IT CAN DO IS DOWNLOAD MORE HORRIBLE VIRUSES! IT'S NO WONDER THAT SIGN AND MANY OTHERS LIKE IT VIOLATED YOUR MIND WITH EASE! YOU DRAW VIRUSES TO YOUR NAUGHTINESS LIKE MOTHS TO A FLAME!"
"What can I do?" I asked, trying to keep my voice even.
"NOT MUCH, I'M AFRAID. LIVE WITH YOUR LIFE CHOICES. USE WHAT CARDS YOU’VE GOT ON HAND. PERHAPS YOU'LL DO BETTER IN THE NEXT CYCLE OF THE UNIVERSE. THIS ONE'S ENDING PRETTY SOON, BY THE LOOK OF THINGS."
Captain looked down at the planet beneath us. I followed zeer gaze. Far below us, the Earth groaned as tectonic plates ground against each other like massive gears. It was a sound of violence that resonated deep in my chest. An immense fissure spread across the crust of the planet, opening a chasm that spanned continents.
Massive dark mountains rose from the chasm, crashing into each other as gravity across the world failed. Clouds contorted into strange patterns. Rivers rose from their banks and bled out into space, the water crystallizing into the twisting clouds.
I watched the death throes of my world with detached fascination, wondering how I should feel about it. The world had never done much for me, after all.
Still, I remembered walking alone on quiet mornings when the worst of the ruins were blanketed in snow. On morning like those, the cold would reach its tendrils down through my respirator into my lungs, sharp and dry and clean. I’d watch the sun come up, casting brilliant colors over the ugly remains of Eureka, and listen to the crunch of clean, fresh snow under my boots.
"Is the door ready?" I muttered, looking away from the chaos below.
"LET'S FIND OUT!" Captain got up and floated towards the door.
There was a click of the lock and then a mad howl of pressured air. Before I could react, I was ripped from the bed and into the gaping blackness beyond the doorway.