Offline (An Unlucky Seven Short)

[AUTHOR’S NOTE] This is a short set in the Unlucky Seven universe (or Uni7erse as was recently suggested to me). If you like what you read here and you’re not familiar with the source material, check the links on the sidebar to buy/borrow Unlucky Seven and the Obligatory Sequel. You won’t regret it!

He woke up.

If you could really call it waking up. Was it more of an activation? Did he sleep or did he just switch off? He didn’t feel the need to rest yet he still, somehow, was dormant and was comfortable in that dormant state. Now, he was what he considered awake.

The space around him was both dark and bright at the same time. It wasn’t really a space as much as it was an empty plane. There was no real light, but there was also nothing to see. No horizon. From his perception, the farthest point could have been at the tip of his nose or lightyears away.

And, floating here – if you could really call it floating and not the simple act of existing – his faculties returned to him one by one. The things that he used to know as senses were just processes now. They activated, piece by piece, as his mind came online.

He had no physical form on this plane. He was just… him. A shapeless consciousness in this void of grey space. Was it, in fact, grey or was this just his perception? Was anything about where he was now real? His mind – or, the electrical impulses and processes that governed his current form – raced with these existential questions. It was the same after every night. Day? Arbitrary timed rest cycle. It was the purely mental equivalent of fumbling around for one’s glasses after being roughly awakened.

Initially, he hadn’t thought he would have to rest. Now, the idea of the rest cycle disturbed him. He was never sure that he would be able to reactivate (re-manifest? reawaken?) when the time came. He was never sure exactly how long he was resting (sleeping? switched off?) when it happened. Time was irrelevant, now more than ever.

He hadn’t worried about waking up again when he was human.

Rest (sleep? down-time?), he had found, was less of a necessary fact of crude biology and more a term of a functioning consciousness. Even without that fleshy shell to hold him back, the abstract concept of the mind still required time to organize itself; to compile data and put it in the right places. In this new life, he supposed it was more like a disk defragmenting. With as much knowledge as he now had, it was very necessary to ensure everything was in its proper place.

He had found his lack of dreams disturbing at first. There was no interim. There was simply on or off. There was no slow, lazy drift into unconsciousness. It was simply a close of the eyes (did he have eyes? was he really seeing?) and out. He had no awareness of the passing time while he was down, he only knew that it happened and that it had to happen.

The first time, a few days (weeks? months?) after his initial transference, it came without warning. He dropped off and came back having no idea what had happened. The equivalent of passing out from lack of sleep, he had discovered. Sleep, in the flesh-bound world, was a learned behavior with defined time periods. Here, it felt much more frightening.

He tried to turn his mind from this and focus on what he was doing previously. As he did, displays came up before his eyes. A control room slowly began to materialize around him, appearing only where he currently needed it to do so.

He questioned the reason for the existence of this. He supposed it was his formerly human mind grafting on to tactile sensory needs. Perhaps his mind could not yet comprehend things without the necessity of form. The data he needed could just as easily be accessed directly rather than displayed and read. The interface of a keyboard could be discarded in favor of simply placing the data where it needed to be. There was no call for elaborate buttons of indeterminate function when those functions could simply be accomplished at a thought.

He guessed it was a bridge – something his mind insisted on to help him cope with the transition from human to… whatever he was now. He was wary of this. Even with the world at his fingertips, he was still worried about losing his humanity.

He was working to fix that.

“Group 279,” he said into an imaginary microphone attached to the illusory control panel, “Proceed to specified coordinates.”

“Acknowledged,” returned a deep, growling robot voice. He watched a group of highlighted dots travelling across a city map on one of the many monitors on the console.

It was the second night in a row he was attempting the same theft. The previous night saw a dozen or so of his black androids destroyed by Justin and Zoey, however, it also allowed one of his ninja to get a connection to the standalone network containing the research data of this particular laboratory. Even with the knowledge of how things worked, he didn’t have the facilities to create the substance he needed. He needed as much of the stuff as they had on hand.

They would never see him hitting the place two nights in a row. They still thought he was just doing this to keep them on their toes. There was no way they could know what he was actually after. They probably wouldn’t even care about what he was stealing.

It was the principle of the thing, he guessed. They thought of him as a bad guy now. They had to stop him from doing what they perceived to be bad guy things. He didn’t take it personally. He had, after all, created this situation to give them something to fight against. Still, he really did need what was inside that laboratory.

Mike, he knew, had taken things very personally. Kurt supposed he couldn’t blame him. He had destroyed Mike’s building and his livelihood along with it. But nsurance would cover it. No true harm would come to anyone. Property could ultimately be replaced.

But Mike had destroyed his main avatar as an act of revenge. Kurt had only possessed enough material to construct the prototype android and the one which looked like his original body. He could always inhabit one of the ninjas, or even Sasuke’s more advanced body, but he wanted to at least feel more human. He wanted to be grounded again, not a nebulous form floating in null-space.

“Group 279 has reached the destination,” said the grinding monotone voice. “No resistance has been encountered. There are no significant life signs in the area.”

“Proceed into the site,” Kurt said into the microphone.

He watched the bank of holographic monitors, each showing the point-of-view of one of the ninja group. One of the androids held its hand against an RF ID box. After a few moments, the light on the box turned from red to green with the satisfying click of an unlocked door.

Kurt smiled (or felt like he was smiling) and pressed a button on his virtual console. The internal security system of the building went into a loop while simultaneously hijacking the live feeds of its cameras and putting them through to him. Several additional monitors appeared in his bank.

The androids quickly swarmed the lobby and stood still, awaiting their next orders.

A floor plan of the building spread out in front of him, indicating which cameras were in what rooms. After a few moments of searching, he touched on of the rooms on the floor plan. A spinning white diamond appeared where his finger (was it really his finger?) fell.

“Proceed to waypoint,” Kurt said. “Ensure stealth protocols. Two remain in the lobby to watch for security presence.”

“Acknowledged,” the voice rumbled.

As they progressed through the hallways toward what the cameras indicated as the main laboratory, he grew excited. He waited for a tingle up his spine. He waited for the hairs to rise on the back of his neck. He was so near success – one nearly final step toward his goal. None of it came.

There was no tingle. There was no spine. No hairs. No neck. No feeling. There was only the thought of it. The idea of what should happen. There was no anxious burn in his chest – there was no chest. There were no cold and nervous fingers – there were no fingers.

He clenched his eyes shut but realized there were no eyelids. His desire dimmed the plane to darkness to imitate the lighting effect he wanted. It was simultaneously real and not real.

“Waypoint reached,” said the voice. “Awaiting instructions.”

Kurt shook his head (but didn’t) to snap himself out of it. Looking at the monitors, he surveyed the room through the eyes of his androids. He saw where they needed to go next.

“There is a latched door along the back wall,” Kurt said. “It should lead to cold storage. One of you go inside.”

One of the monitors showed a ninja walk forward, grab a silver handle, and open a door into a large refrigerated room. The walls were lined with silver tanks bearing different numbers and letters.

“Find all canisters marked SRP-6592-B,” Kurt said. “When you have them secured, bring them home. Quickly and quietly.”

“Acknowledged,” said the voice.

He reached his hand up to feel his face. Nothing happened. No hand, no face, no skin, no nerves, no muscles, no bone. Not even a phantom sensation.

“Skin,” he said aloud. Or, he thought he said it. He wasn’t sure. Had he been speaking all this time? Was he barking orders or communicating with them directly? He had no vocal cords. He had no air.

He stopped himself from going any further.

In an hour or so, his androids would be back with compound SRP-6592-B; an experimental skin replacement compound which was currently undergoing human trials with severe burn victims. The research was very promising. The false flesh, when used on scar tissue and even areas where the body had eroded away to bone, would graft itself to the body and create the appearance of normal skin. In the research documents he’d perused, one of the scientists whimsically referred to it as “human spackle”. It was strictly cosmetic but they were looking into an advanced version which may even be able to regrow hair follicles and even nerves.

He already had an android skeleton, slightly more resilient than his last model, waiting to receive as much of the compound as it could. In the trials, the substance was sculpted and set permanent using ultraviolet radiation. After more cosmetic alterations by Kurt, it would be a nearly perfect replica of his previous body. He would be able to get out of this plane and see the world from the ground.

He was excited, but again, there came no chills.

SRP-6592-B wouldn’t regrow nerves or hair follicles the way he would use it. It would offer a more realistic effect, but in the end his body would remain a tangle of servos and motors and circuitry covered in fake skin. His soul – if that was what he was in this ethereal form – would remain trapped in a computer.

He would waste time installing fake teeth. He would use systems from the medical industry that would allow him to create fake vocal cords and an imitation tongue. The body had the capability to pull in air so that it could generate an actual voice – one akin to his original – so that he would be able to actually speak instead of broadcasting.

What was the point of this elaborate setup if his tongue couldn’t taste, a mouth that couldn’t eat, a respiratory system whose chief duty was to allow speech and not to smell the air or gasp with joy or sigh with sadness?

He would never do any of those things again. Even though his mind (soul? essence?) remembered these things, they would never feel the same because they would never feel. He might be able to hop into the body and run around, but his true presence would always remain here, in this grey place, forever looking out a window into the world rather than being able to experience it.

He wished he could cry but he couldn’t. He could experience the desire but none of the physical effects. Not the release that came with it. If he had remained human, he would have been dabbing his eyes with his sleeve, sniffling, his chest heavy and his head cloudy. He wanted to cry even more now for the complete lack of his ability to do so.

He hated himself for what he had done in haste. He thought his transference would make him more powerful than anything he could have imagined; invulnerable, immortal, infinite. Instead, he had trapped himself in a vast prison from which there was no escape.

He swung a virtual fist at the control panel in front of him, causing it to shatter and disappear. No force was exerted. No satisfying crunch or crash of breaking equipment. No components scattered along the floor. There was no pain of flesh impacting with the hard, cold metal. What happened was just an exercise of his imagination, just like anything else around him.

He would have fallen to his knees, if he could. He would have covered his face with his hands and wept openly, if he could. Everything in here – everything that once made him feel powerful and important – was rendered pointless and feeble.

Now, he simply was. Existence was all that he truly had, if this was even existence. There was no tangible way to tell that he wasn’t just some artificial intelligence or collection of data. A disembodied consciousness. He could not point out on a map where he was. He could not look around him and discover his reality. He could neither feel the ground beneath his feet nor taste the air. How could he truly be sure?

If he had a chest, he would have felt a pang of hot fear as the next thought crossed his mind. He couldn’t continue to live like this. He couldn’t continue to exist like this. Something had to be done.

He looked up to the sky (there was no sky, there was no up).

“DELETE ME!” he screamed (didn’t scream), “DELETE ME!”

Nothing happened. The grey plane still surrounded him, unending and barren.

“Please delete me,” he begged (didn’t beg), “Please just let me pay for this mistake.”

It was prayerful – reverent. As if the literal Deus ex Machina were listening to his pleas. As if there were some power, some intelligence higher than his own in this place. He waited, disappointed, for an unknown amount of time. It was impossible to know how fast or slow things went.

Suddenly, in the depths of his muted despair, an epiphany.

Electrical impulses. Data storage. Circuitry. It all made sense.

This new body would not do.

He was going to have to take this in an entirely different direction.

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