by Vina Nguyen
The shadow sea, awash with blinking towers opaque and sharp as obsidian, greeted me from afar. The earth hummed, electricity filling veins beneath the asphalt. The burning stink was everywhere. I couldn’t decide whether I’d left the dead or found them.
In my bloody hands was the last piece of free technology, and in it was a number. I intended to scour the towers for that number and then release Aeo.
First, I needed to eat. I found an alley guarded by a gate crusted with orange blisters. The alley led to a strip of vending machines, all smashed. An opened tube of corn paste laid half-hidden in a corner shadow. I licked my fingers as I spooned the leftovers.
With no water over the next two days, the heat hovered like a swarm of gnats, sticking to my face and hands. I wanted to peel off everything, including my skin.
The demon came on the fifth day. It ushered me to a dead tree, the wood white as though its blood had been drained. The demon told me of the comfort I’d find in turning back. Or in hanging myself with my shirt. I said, “Maybe later.”
Aeo had told me never to come for them. It’d be a waste of my freedom. I’d be challenging fate or the way things have always been.
But loneliness grows like a keloid scar. I was alone, awake. The alternative to waking them was watching all humanity sleep until I died. I wanted to tell Aeo that fate was a blindfold, invented to soothe fragile human conscience. The truth was, we chose our mistakes.
I believed this, but the trek was impossible; the closer I got, the deeper they hid.
Without ancient charging stations, the technology in my hand was dying. So, I began etching Aeo’s forty-six digits into my skin, working from shoulder to knuckle. The blood glowed as it leaked. It seemed a memory, déjà vu. But this was wrong. I’d never been here, done this, before.
I knew they refused to be found. The system ate its people. The switch would be hard to turn without breaking or killing them. If they survived, they’d witness how long they had disintegrated, sleeping in the tower. I stopped etching at the twenty-third digit, not because of the pain but because I could no longer read numbers. My radiation amnesia persisted.
Our incomplete consciousness kept me seeking. But while I searched for them and myself, they slept and evaded me as they sought immortality. I knew, as I hung my legs over a tower, I’d never find them. The technology finally blinked a farewell against the night’s red heat.
But I knew that tomorrow, I’d feel my way through the labyrinth as a wavelength seeks outer space, waning but never giving up.