CladeA Post-Self Anthology

She Who Haunts the Storm

J.S. Hawthorne

Livia — 2309

The beast roared, issuing a great gout of flame to paint the stony cavern walls black. The party drew their weapons, facing the dragon with determination and the righteous knowledge of their mission. Their leader, the elven warrior known only as Peredur, after the Red Knight of legend, hefted his ancient broadsword in challenge.

I’ll deal with this foul monster,” he declared, then rushed forward, swinging the sword as he charged. With an inarticulate cry, he brought the weapon, his reward for a thousand holy deeds, down on the dragon’s hide.

Where it did fuck all.

“Wait, what?” Peredur asked, taking a step back and staring up at the roaring monster. His face showed disbelief, which quickly passed straight through fear and into an ugly, purple anger. “Why doesn’t my sword work on it?”

“It must have some enchantment we don’t know,” said the reptilian cleric called Tyrean. “Some magical protection against even your weapon, Sir Peredur!” In contrast to the grumpy knight, the priest’s crocodilian muzzle and bright, grey eyes were alive with interest. Colors rippled, chameleon-like, across his hide. “We shall have to vary our tactics.”

“Or retreat,” said the wizard. The rogue nodded their head in agreement, already sheathing their knives. “Get back to town and do some research?”

“No!” said Peredur. “This is bullshit! I want to know why the sword doesn’t work. It’s a stupid dragon, this is a dragonslaying sword. I should be doing triple damage to it.”

With a sigh, Livia muted the dragon. Unlike the collection of sword-and-sorcery types around her, she wore a faded pair of blue jeans—meticulously copied from her favorite pre-upload pair—and a t-shirt with the bulbous green head of the Wizard of Oz stretched over her chest and belly. For a split second, she considered forking, letting a new instance deal with Peredur while her down-tree version got a drink. But she hated forking. Plus, he would definitely notice.

Peredur rounded on her. “This is bullshit,” he repeated. “I didn’t sign up for this to not hit things.”

“I thought you signed up to play out a story?” Livia asked. She tried not to grind her teeth. She didn’t think it mattered—there were no dentists in the System—but she had always felt it was her job to be the calm, reasonable face of the game. The players could get upset, but not her. “Do you really want a story where nothing bad can ever happen to the heroes? There has to be conflict, right?”

She turned to the other players, but they were stony sient, and she couldn’t get a read on them.

Peredur got into her face. “I don’t want the game to be arbitrarily hard! And I don’t want my foresight to be retroactively undone by fiat! That’s not fair to me.”

“Not every plan you make is going to succeed. That’s just life. And not everything is going to work perfectly on the first go.”

Peredur swelled and Liv braced herself with the oncoming tirade. Thankfully, Tyrean came to her rescue.

“I think maybe a break is in order, yes?” he said, stepping between the two of them. “We’ll call today a wash.”

“That’s for the best,” Livia said. She wanted to sigh. “Two weeks, we’ll pick it up from the dragon, okay?”

Peredur quit without responding. The others took their time saying goodbye to Livia and each other before teleporting out of the sim.

Livia focused on the dragon while they packed up. She had spent the better part of a week fine-tuning it, but there was still something about the way it moved that bothered her. The configuration of forelimbs and wing joints drew her attention, and soon she was absorbed in playing with the imaginary skeletal structure of a creature plucked wholesale from her brain.

It was, therefore, not particularly surprising when, long after she thought everyone had gone, lost in her own world of fantastical anatomy, upon being tapped on the shoulder she screamed.

“Sorry,” said Tyrean, crocodilian teeth bared in what might have been an apologetic smile. “I just wanted to check in on you.”

“I’ll be fine,” Livia said, “just as soon as my heartbeat returns to normal.”

“You don’t have a heartbeat,” Tyrean pointed out. “You’re an amorphous collection of ones and zeros floating about sixty degrees off of the moon, from Earth’s perspective.”

Livia stared at the half-sized lizard person for half a second. “Did you need something?”

“Right, sorry. I just wanted to make sure Peredur didn’t get to you too badly.”

Liv sighed. “It’s fine.” Tyrean opened his mouth and Liv cut him off. “No, I mean it. It’s not the first time a player’s been upset with the way a game has gone. I’ll live, and he’ll live, and either he’ll show up next week or he won’t.”

“Yeah, but, it still has to sting.”

“Of course,” Liv admitted. “Look, I created something,” she waved at the stationary dragon. “A whole world, a whole story. And what every creator wants when she creates something is for people to enjoy it. When someone doesn’t like it, when they tell you to your face that they hate it, that’s rough to hear. But it happens, and your options are to grow a thicker skin or to quit sharing, and I don’t want to do that yet.”

“Why worry about sharing? Why not, I mean, just build things like this for yourself?”

“No one builds for themself.” She hesitated, then added, “No, well, lots of folks do. But me, the point of a story is for someone to experience it, to live in that world I’ve made, if only for a moment.” She hesitated, then plunged on. “I spend a lot of time on my games. It takes up most of my time, not just in prepping, but, say, attending classes and lessons for stuff to increase the verisimilitude. Like this castle? I spent a year reading up on medieval architecture. I took classes on embroidery so I could add in little details for my players. Hell, I’m even thinking about taking sword lessons so I can make the combat more interesting.”

Tyrean nodded, silent while he digested that. Livia was on the verge of telling the little lizard goodbye when he spoke up again. “But can’t you use all those details for yourself? I mean, especially here, what stops you from conjuring up a battle axe and fighting the dragon on your own?”

“Because I already know how the story goes,” Livia said, a little bemused. “What fun is a maze if I already know where the exit is?”

“You could fork,” Tyrean suggested. “One of you builds the maze, the other solves it.”

Livia had the strangest sensation of a train going off the rails. “Not that it really matters, but I don’t like forking. And anyway, I can’t just fork and,” she waved her hand vaguely, “Ccreate. A new fork would be too similar to me, the story we’d create would be the same as if we never forked in the same instance. So I’d need to fork, let the new instance individuate until we were distinct enough that I couldn’t guess the story beats. That’s a lot of work to not be my own GM.”

“Why don’t you like to fork?”

“It makes me feel nauseous, and I ask myself uncomfortable questions.”


Livia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. As far as she was aware, she was the only person who had this problem. Forking was just a natural part of the System, or so the volunteer seminar she had taken when she was a new upload had said. “Fork your problems away,” was the clever title, and the instructor had explained all the benefits of forking, from more hands to do work to fixing any incidental damage one might incur. She had learned at that seminar that forking had unpleasant side-effects for her, and she disliked admitting it. She wasn’t even sure why she was telling Tyrean. They were friendly, if not friends exactly, but that was a far cry from admitting her fears about glitching out.

Still, she had offered the information up, and she didn’t want to leave the poor lizard hanging. “Whenever I fork,” she said, eyes still closed, “my new instance asks one or more deeply uncomfortable question. I don’t know why, and no one I’ve ever talked to about it knows why, either, but as I don’t want to answer questions about the darkest recesses of my psyche while feeling like I’m going to lose my lunch, I don’t fork unless I have to.” The memory of her very first fork, at that original seminar, still made her stomach twist. The nausea had been so bad that her memory of the seminar was focused around the queasiness.

“Oh.” Tyrean considered for a moment, then opened his mouth to ask another question.

Liv cut him off. This conversation had already gotten too far into the weeds. “We can talk about it some other day,” she told him. “For now, if I’m not running a session, I should prep for my other games this weekend.”

“Oh, okay,” Tyrean said. He hesitated, offered a wave, then quit.

“What a weird day,” Livia muttered. She frowned at the dragon, as though it was its fault, then decided to get lunch.

Livia appeared in her favorite sim. It was a version of what the maker claimed was Shinjuku about two centuries before she had been born. She had never actually been to Tokyo in her previous existence as a flesh-and-blood being, let alone the mighty metropolis of two hundred odd years ago, so she had no way of knowing how true-to-life the place was. But, accurate or not, it housed the best noodle restaurant she had ever walked into, sys-side or phys-side.

It took a little effort to get to, as all great food does. She had appeared, as always, on a street crowded with NPC pedestrians, clustered into neat little groups engaged in pre-scripted, uninterruptable conversations. One could latch onto a group and follow it as it walked down a narrow, neon-lighted alley, made a sharp left, walked around the block, and returned right back to the beginning, at which point the characters would begin their scripted conversation over again. The purpose was to let one practice their Japanese, though the circling NPCs were the least of the work put into the sim. Along the road and alley were dozens of little stores, restaurants, and tourist attractions, each filled with their own unique encounters, each a dialogue tree that a visitor could explore at their leisure, with the added bonus of the character in question gently correcting any language mistakes one made. The alley was crowded, but with scripted characters moving in a predictable pattern, not real people. The sim was never a popular one—Liv had rarely seen more than one or two other people exploring it—and always had a strangely empty feeling, notwithstanding the hundreds of chattering NPCs taking their infinite walk.

But the sim’s creator had also gone out of their way to make sure the various shops and attractions were as detailed as any single-purpose sim in the System. The bookshop on the corner was stocked with the latest Japanese language books and manga, the bakery made real petits fours, and the toy museum’s exhibits were as detailed as any in the System. But halfway down the alley, under a worn sign that just read うどん, was Liv’s goal.

Livia pushed open the frosted glass door and into complete silence. She couldn’t even hear the crowd outside.

She stopped dead. The inside of the restaurant was totally empty.

There should have been a dozen NPCs inside, scattered along the low tables or lounging at the dim bar in the back, all chattering out their prescripted conversation. There was supposed to be a maître d' who would suggest a place to sit, and a bartender who had a surprisingly deep conversation tree about a video game series forty years out-of-date.

It looked like everyone had just gotten up and left. There were plates of still-steaming food, beers and half-drunk cocktails scattered around, chairs partially pulled out, many still with jackets draped over the back.

The back of Livia’s neck prickled with a sensation akin to fear, something she hadn’t felt since uploading. It felt wrong in the restaurant, the same instinctive revulsion one might feel when biting into an apple only to discover it was made of wax.

Nothing was stopping her from stepping back out into the street, except for the irrational fear that it might be just as empty. She could leave the sim, but what if everything was empty? The question flashed through her mind in one horror-filled instant and she found she couldn’t force herself to check.

“There are over ten billion people,” she muttered to herself, “They didn’t all disappear because one room of a sim is glitching.”

But she still didn’t want to open the door back outside.

She weighed her options. Nothing was popping out of the walls to attack her, so she assumed there was no immediate danger. On the other hand, she couldn’t just stand there for the rest of eternity hoping that the NPC patrons would just wander back from the bathroom or something.

“Okay,” Liv said, more to break the silence than anything else. She knew her hesitation was because the smart thing to do was the one thing she did not want to do. She gritted her teeth, closed her eyes, and forked.

Livia doubled over immediately, fighting the rising bile in her throat. Next to her, someone tsked impatiently, and she looked up into a duplicate of herself frowning with distaste down at her.

There was something cold and reptilian about this new Livia. It was the eyes, perhaps, narrowed as they were.

“Help me up, Liv,” Livia#Core said, holding her hand up to her fork. The cold eyes flicked to the hand but, unsurprisingly, Livia#5737a461 made no move to help her.

“Why should your name attach so readily to something just because you have created it?” her duplicate said, her tone frosty. “Maybe I want to be Julia. Do you believe you own a thing because you have made it, or do you believe that naming a thing conveys ownership?”

Liv stood carefully, swallowing her nausea. “I think I made you in case something happens to me,” she muttered, “so I might as well call you #savestate. Look, just, I’m going to snoop and see if I can figure out what’s wrong. Stay here and try not to individuate too much.”

Julia glowered but didn’t respond. Instead, she leaned against the nearest wall, arms folded across her chest. Liv, used to this sort of treatment from her forks, stood and tried to take stock. The empty restaurant held no real doors other than the entrance, she knew from prior experience. There was what appeared to be a door into the bathrooms and another leading into the kitchen, but neither opened—the original creator simply hadn’t built anything beyond them.

“It’s probably just a glitch in the sim,” Liv told Julia, more to cover the silence than to start conversation.

“How do you know it’s not a glitch in you?” Julia asked with a malignant smile.

Ignoring herself, Liv pushed open the door and out into the simulated Shinjuku. She closed her eyes against the neon brightness of the street outside, and stepped into a silence that pressed on her ears.

“How long are you going to stand there?”

Liv opened her eyes to find herself standing in a large, round funeral chamber. Dozens of urns lined the wall, most sealed shut. One, however, was unlidded, seated opposite the entrance beneath a massive statue of three people. The central figure was a tall man wearing Roman style robes. He had a strong, aquiline nose, his curly hair held back by a crown of laurels. On his left was another man of equal height, bearded, and wearing the armor of a Roman general, and on his right a woman dressed in robes with a smaller, winged woman standing in the palm of her outstretched hand. Carved into the wall behind them was a bright comet.

“Divus Iulius,” came a voice from Liv, “and his ancestors Mars and Venus, who holds the goddess Victory in her hand.”

Liv turned and found Julia, or someone who looked just like Julia, seated on an alcove, one arm carelessly tossed over the urn. Unlike the Julia she had left behind in the empty restaurant, this one was dressed as a Roman princess in rich purple robes, and her hair was cut brutally short. It gave her a strangely leonine air.

“I thought I told you to stay behind?” Liv asked. She was used to unruly forks—that was the rule, at least in her experience—but following her to wherever this was wholly defeated the purpose of forking.

“You told Julia to stay behind. It gets confusing, kiddo, so try to keep up. Call me Ops.”

That tickled something in the back of Livia’s mind. “The goddess? You named yourself after a goddess?”

“You named yourself after the first empress,” Ops pointed out. Livia didn’t have a response to that.

“What is this place?” she asked instead.

Ops looked around. “The Mausoleum tells us to live, that one nearby, it teaches us that the gods themselves can die,” she recited instead of answering. “Martial wrote that. Weird, isn’t it, how one’s creations can outlive their creator? A man who made his living with dick jokes and we’re still reciting his poems nearly two and a half millennia later. What of Us, O Child, shall outlive Us?”

Livia didn’t feel like listening to some aspect of herself with delusions of grandeur wax philosophical.

“Who cares?” she said. “Look, how do I get out of here?”

“How can one escape a trap of one’s own making?” said Ops, though she pointed towards the open archway. “See you later, kiddo.”

Livia gave her fork—was it her fork, though? She didn’t remember creating her—a half-hearted wave, and trudged outside.

The outside of the tumulus turned out to be the smallest sim she had ever seen. Behind her, in cold, lifeless marble, was the tomb. Huge fir trees had been planted on its roof, casting long shadows along the mausoleum and the patchy grass that surrounded it. In front of her, a small concrete path scythed through the volcanic dirt and grass for three paces, then ended abruptly in a yawning black void. She edged up to the abyss and glanced down. Liv couldn’t see any bottom, just an endless, whispering chasm. A vague memory of a book she had read forever ago pulled at her.

“It used to keep you up at night, didn’t it?” came a voice from behind her. " ‘My eyes showed me a ragged chasm, partly filled with a gloomy lake of turbid water.’ You weren’t supposed to read it, that old horror story. Your parents warned you, didn’t they? But you couldn’t resist. Do you still remember that cover? The great house, all wreathed in red, with the swine-thing overlooking it. But that wasn’t the part that scared you. It was the Pit, the great open space and its tremendous chasm, an abyss like a gigantic well. That’s what scared you, more than the swine-thing, more than the dark and forgotten gods, more than the terrible green star."

She turned and found herself face-to-face with a man. It took her a moment to see the resemblance. They had the same chin and cheekbones, the same hairline, though his was as short as Ops’s had been. Had she still existed Phys-Side, she would have assumed he was a long-lost sibling, the brother she had never had. Here, that concept was next to meaningless. Anyone else would have assumed an individuated fork, or a fork of a fork, but Liv simply didn’t fork, and when she did, none of her forks were supposed to stick around long enough to individuate. She was sure of that.

Wasn’t she?

“Who are—” she started, but the man—why did she know his name was Nero?—cut her off.

“No.” She opened her mouth to speak and he shushed her again. “No. You answer, you don’t get to question.”

She hadn’t the foggiest idea what he meant, but she chose to play along with his game. “Fine,” she said. “What’s your question?”

He smiled, then shoved her, hard. She stumbled backwards, her arms pinwheeling, and then she was falling into that great abyss, the nightmare that William Hodgson had prepared for her nearly four hundred years before she had been born.

Liv’s first, immediate thought was just to leave. She could exit the sim, return home, and forget this horrible day had ever happened. But the same fear gripped her that had made her hesitate in that noodle place. What if? What if there was something more seriously wrong here than she recognized? Nero had been partially right, after all, it wasn’t Hodgson’s monsters that had filled her with terror at the age of eleven, it was the huge and lonely home, haunted by the ghost of a man who still lived, alone except for a sister who feared he was going mad. Was she, perhaps, going mad? She existed as pure mind in this place, if that broke and fractured, what would be left of her? If the ones and zeroes, floating somewhere in the void about sixty degrees off of the moon, divided and fractioned, how would that manifest itself? An endless fall into a bottomless abyss, perhaps?

She had a more immediate problem, of course, and couldn’t waste time dithering about her fears of what lay outside of her immediate surroundings. She spread her arms and legs, trying to create wind drag and slow herself. Though, did such considerations of physics apply to a place like this?

“Wings,” she muttered against the wind whistling against her. If she had wings, she could just fly back up, confront the malicious Nero, discover why this was happening to her. She knew others who could manipulate their physical form easily, almost as easily as donning a new coat, but she had never mastered that art. Most people just forked, again and again if necessary, to gain the attributes they desired. That was equally unappetizing to Livia, but seemed, at least in the short term, more attainable. And, bottomless as this pit seemed to be, she assumed that “short term” was about all she had left to her.

Already dreading the result, Liv forked for the second time—or so she assumed—that day. There was a wave of nausea, and then the terrible taste of bile and the remnants of her simulated breakfast escaping the way they had come, and then a strangely cold grip around her right forearm.

Wiping her mouth with the back of her other hand, she looked up and found herself staring into her own features, though as alien as Julia’s had been, with eyes as brilliant and lifeless as gold, and a pair of leathery red wings extending from her back.

“Let me guess,” Liv said, before her fork could open her mouth, “Drusilla?”

“Yes,” Drusilla said, her voice oddly sibilant. Liv thought she saw a forked tongue in her other’s mouth. “Here’s a thought for you, sis: if the System is a shared dream, why shouldn’t some people have nightmares?”

Rising panic fighting with rising nausea precluded Liv from registering Drusilla’s question. She snapped, “Just save me!”

Drusilla grabbed Livia’s right arm in both of her hands—her own hands, some distant part of Liv’s mind said, and it made her shudder in revulsion, though she didn’t know why.

“If it’s a dream, why should gravity matter?” Drusilla asked as they plummeted together. Liv caught the dim flicker of a torch, much closer than was comfortable, sitting at the bottom of the chasm, at the bottom of the dark abyss, perhaps at the bottom of a cellar beneath a house built at the intersection of reality and the future and loneliness and despair and…

“No!” Livia shouted at her own thoughts. Drusilla just kept smiling. “Save us! Hurry!”

“Save you from what?” Drusilla sneered, but her wings snapped open with a sound like a whip crack. Livia had one split instant of relief, the realization that she wasn’t going to hit, wasn’t going to die—could she die? Not like that, surely, but then Hodgson’s recluse hadn’t seemed to be able to die, either, and wasn’t that worse?

And the instant passed and physics, real or imagined, reasserted itself. She stopped, yes, but not all at once. Her arm, held tight in Drusilla’s hands, came to rest first, and her body kept going. She felt a wrench at her shoulder, a sharp, tearing pain, a loud pop and then burning agony radiating up her arm and down her chest and side as her shoulder was dislocated.

Drusilla let her wings carry them in a spiraling glide, let Livia dangle from her torn shoulder. If Drusilla asked her any further questions, they were lost in a haze of pain. She let go when they were about their own height from the dirty ground, and Livia landed hard on her back, though the pain of impact could not compare with her arm. Drusilla glided to a gentle landing a dozen paces away, gave Livia one contemptuous glance, and strode off to sit in a throne of pewter.

Shakily, Livia got to her feet. She was as pleased as she might have been under the circumstances, to find that the chasm ended not in a yawning pit or a swirling tempest nor in time-lost arena—not in the fears plucked from her own mind remembered from childhood—but a simple dirt cave. Five thrones sat below burning torches along the edge of the circular cavern: Drusilla in one of lead, Ops atop burnished copper, Julia aglow on a silver throne, and Nero on one of tin. The fifth throne, in gold polished enough to make it shine with the light of a sun, sat empty. A river of liquid mercury wound through the five thrones, some unknown current creating lapping waves against the dirt shore.

“What is this place?”

“Oh, kiddo,” said Ops, and her voice was sad. “Where did you think all of those bad decisions were going to lead you, if not some place like here?”

Livia struggled to her feet, trying not to move her injured arm too much. Each little shift brought a new wave of pain, and she thought she might pass out from it. Could she pass out? She didn’t want to find out.

“What do you want from me?”

In response, Nero stood and produced a massive iron sword, which he tossed at Livia’s feet. It clanged like a gong breaking as it bounced along the ground.

“You broke my arm,” Liv pointed out. Her breathing was ragged, and pain still radiated out from her shoulder, but she forced herself to stand straight. “Like hell am I going to fight you all.”

“Not all of us,” said Nero, with a nasty smile.

“Why is it that hole in the dark scares you so much, kiddo?” said Ops. Liv spared her a glance before reaching down to pick up the sword. It was surprisingly heavy, foreign and awkward in her hand.

A heavy footstep drew Liv’s attention. A woman, like Liv but six inches taller and wearing the armor of a Roman Centurion, but carrying an anachronistic iron sword identical to the one in Liv’s hand, had stepped out from behind the golden throne.

Liv struggled to raise her own sword as the taller version of herself crossed over the mercury river, striding towards her. With a casual twitch of her hand, the other woman knocked Liv’s sword to the side.

“It’s because in the darkness there’s nothing to distract you from yourself,” the woman said."

“Augusta,” Liv hissed.

“So you remember?” Augusta asked. “Ah, no, you don’t. I can see it in the vacant look you’re giving me. That’s too bad, this won’t be nearly as pleasurable if you don’t know why it’s your fault.” Liv’s voice, from Augusta’s throat, was full of hate and poison, a disgust that Liv didn’t know she was capable of.

“How could I forget something?” Livia said, trying again to lift the sword into a guard position. She knew this, she knew she did. She could fight against this woman, fight and win and escape and survive.

Was there some memory that you have forgotten? a voice whispered in her ear. What if it’s not forgotten, what if the answer is there and you just don’t want to face it? How do you know that you don’t know?

What does it mean that you can’t answer yourself?

“Why do you hate me?” Livia asked.

Augusta’s next casual flick sent Livia’s sword pinwheeling through the air and into the darkness. It rang out, tolling the last of Livia’s options failing.

“Wrong question,” Augusta said.

“I didn’t make you,” Livia said. “I didn’t make most of you. Where did you come from?”

“From me, of course.” Augusta’s smile was cruel. “Just like you did.”

“I’m not a fork,” Livia said. “I’m the original.” She ducked away as Augusta brought the sword down, clutching her ruined arm tight to her side to prevent it from bouncing painfully. “I uploaded! Me!” Liv found herself shouting. “I built a life for myself here, not you!”

I uploaded,” Augusta said. “You are nothing but a pale copy of me, a cast-off bit of unwanted psyche that got loose.”

“That’s a lie,” Livia said. It had to be. Some memory tugged at her brain and she suppressed it, ruthlessly.

“Do you have a better explanation?”

“A great beast haunts the system,” said Ops. “A monster born at the intersection of the computer and the dream. And it must feed.” She gave Livia a sad smile. “So it spins out doppelgangers, cenobites to break the mind of its chosen target, like hunting dogs harrying a doe to ground before dragging the corpse back to their master.”

Liv stared at Ops a moment too long, and Augusta’s blade drove into her thigh. She screamed and stumbled backwards into Drusilla’s throne. The winged fork kicked her back into the arena.

“Who cares why it’s happening,” Drusilla said, her voice hungry. “Do you think understanding our hatred of you will be enough to prevent us from destroying you? Does knowing the origin of the nightmare prevent the nightmare from haunting you?”

“You can’t kill me,” Liv spat back. She limped away from Augusta, who moved at no more than a walk, waiting for Livia’s strength to fail.

“True,” said Nero. “But we can break you. We can drive you until you decide to quit. We can force your contamination out.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier,” said Julia, “to just quit now? The only reason you are still in pain and terror is because of your stubbornness. Why not just make it all go away?”

“You’re not real,” Augusta said. “You already don’t exist. You and you alone are making this more difficult.”

“Says the asshole with the sword,” Liv snapped. “Why don’t you just leave me alone?”

“You are an affront to me,” Augusta said, with so much ice in her words that Livia shivered.

“You think you’re affronted now,” Liv said. “What do you think about this?”

And she turned and ran into the darkness of the cavern, ignoring the burning pain in her hip, the jagged agony in her shoulder. Her doppelgangers shouted in anger and shock. She could hear them scrambling to their feet to give chase.

The darkness closed in around her, and all she could think of was a ragged chasm and a gloomy, turbid lake. Ghost-images of creatures with the faces of swine and spirits of fungal malice or forgotten deities keeping watch over an empty arena at the end of time swam in her vision, but she forced it aside. Nero had been right, it wasn’t the things in the darkness that had frightened her, it had been the darkness itself. In the darkness there was only her and, in the end, she was what she feared most.

She crashed into a stone wall and bounced, losing her sense of direction. Her ragged breath—she didn’t have lungs, why should she be panting?—drowned out the sounds of pursuit. She reached out until she scraped her hand against the sharp-edged rock. All will to keep running had been knocked out of her by the crash, but she forced herself to stagger along the wall, keeping her hand pressed against it. The multitude of cuts and scratches from the rock seemed like nothing in the face of her other wounds.

Livia felt cold, and she was uncomfortably aware of the effort each step took her. Was she bleeding out? She didn’t have blood, really, so she wasn’t sure if she even could bleed out. Maybe she would just bleed forever. Maybe the pain would overtake her and she’d just pass out.

And then what? The others would find her, probably, but that was what she was actively trying to avoid.

She thought back to that stomach-twisting seminar. What had the instructor’s name been? She tried to pull up details, and her mind recoiled. She didn’t want to remember, like there was a dam in her mind with memories pressing against it. To let out one memory would let out a flood. And she didn’t want to remember the truth. She didn’t want to face what that first fork had said to her. She didn’t want to recall the shocked and upset faces of the other uploads who had listened to Livia shout at herself.

She could—she did—know whether it had been her or Augusta who was the original, or whether they were both forks of some other prior version. That was knowledge she had, easily recalled. Nothing could be forgotten, only repressed, and then only haphazardly at best. But, she thought, it didn’t really matter to her. She didn’t care who was the fork, who was the ghost in the system, she was herself and that was all that mattered to her.

She shoved the memory aside, unresolved. She didn’t need it; she just needed to remember what the instructor had told them about the trivial matter of healing oneself. You just had to fork. You could make any changes you want, all you had to do was fork, and fork again, and again, until you had the version of yourself you wanted. Fork and let the old instance vanish.

The wall abruptly ended and Liv fell hard onto her ruined shoulder. She bit her lip to prevent herself from crying out and alerting the others. She curled into a ball on the cold floor, lost in the dark, and tried to think.

If she forked, she would just create another doppelganger, someone else to hate her and hunt her. Could she even force herself to quit, at that point, knowing that she would be replacing herself with someone, someone who didn’t even share her name, who was repulsed at the thought of her. She remembered her skin crawling when Drusilla had caught her arm, and she had to admit to herself that at least some of that was from the hatred she had felt towards her fork.

Towards herself.

“I hate myself,” she whispered, and wondered if it was the first true thing she’d said to herself that day. She had carried that hatred with her for years. She had thought she had long ago learned to live with it, but the realization came that, perhaps living with it is not the same as dealing with it.

With a sigh, Livia closed her eyes and forked.

The familiar wave of nausea came, but there was no question, no haunting probe of her feelings or emotions, no philosophical duel. She opened her eyes to the darkness and saw nothing but inky blackness.

“Hello?” she whispered.

“I’m here,” she responded. “I… I don’t think I like you very much.”

“I know. But will you help me anyway?”

There was a long silence that pressed on Livia as much as the darkness did. She heard her counterpart open her mouth and inhale to answer, but decided she did not want to wait for the answer.

She quit.

For a moment, she thought she had made a mistake, that something with her face and her voice had replaced her and she was gone. But after a moment, she realized that the lungs she didn’t have were burning from her holding her breath, and she released it, gulping down sweet, cold air as though she had been underwater for hours.

Her leg and arm were whole. She was no longer exhausted.

“Thank you,” she whispered to the her that was no longer there. And then she forked again, giving the new version of her a doe’s eyes, and the structures that permit deer to see so well in the dark. Dimly, she could see the vague outline of the cavern, enough to guide herself by sight alone. And then she forked again, to gain a pair of hooved legs, like a satyr, for speed and stability. And again, and again. Each fork came with it a little improvement, and a new wave of nausea, and each time the nausea took longer to fade.

When her churning stomach became too much to keep going, Liv stepped back out into the dark maze of stone. Long ears swiveled as she turned her head left and right, bringing to her the distant sound of pursuit and the soft grousing of her pursuers. She smiled softly to herself—it sounded as if they liked each other about as well as they liked her. Swift, sure hooves carried her into the deeper darkness, their soft clicks against the stone reverberating into the darkness.

A shout echoed down the corridor, followed by the flickering red light of a flare. Liv recognized her mistake immediately; she had sacrificed stealth for speed. There was no help for it. She tucked her head down and dashed headlong into the labyrinth.

Livia was unsure how long she ran, but her new legs were unwavering and steady. She wished she could be sure that she was putting distance between herself and her doppelgangers, but the cavern twisted and turned, and she found herself running towards the sound of hunters and the shuddery light of their flares as often as away.

But they were getting separated and disorientated by the maze, as well. A thin advantage, but she clung to it nevertheless. She began to work her way methodically through the cavern, always turning right when the opportunity presented itself, ducking into alcoves and hiding in niches, holding her breath, when she heard the others approaching. She saw each, except for Augusta, several of them passing within a few feet of her, as she sought an exit. They snapped at each other, their voices devoid of even the hint of warmth or affection.

Is that really what I feel about myself? she wondered as she hid under a tumbled stone slab while Nero and Julia stalked down the hallway past her.

“Was that true? What Ops said, about a great beast?” Julia asked.

Livia couldn’t see him shrug, but she could hear it in his voice. “Who cares.”

“I care. I want to know if I need to keep an eye out for murderous copies of myself.”

Nero sighed. “Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. Maybe Augusta’s right, and she’s just a discarded fork that outlived its usefulness. Or maybe it’s a glitch in the System. Every once in a while, maybe the computer just accidentally creates a copy of someone, a fake-instance that runs around with your face and some of your memories but without realizing that they’re just a copy. Or maybe it’s Augusta that’s the fork, a fork of a fork of a fork that she made and cast off and didn’t realize still wandered around.”

“Ugh. I don’t like any of this. Why didn’t you stop her?”

“Me?” Nero’s voice was incredulous. “She ran right past you, why didn’t you stop her?”

“It’s all your plan, not mine. You’re lucky I don’t just leave and let you all deal with her. I have a life to start, not your whiny, petty revenge.”

“You’re lucky we don’t extend that revenge to all of her forks.” Liv heard a distinct smack of flesh-on-flesh as one of them struck the other. “Just watch yourself. You can start wasting your life when she quits.”

Livia waited until the sounds of their bickering faded to nothing before she climbed out from under the slab. She gave it a three count, eyes straining to catch the first flickers of a flare, then took off once again.

From there, she found her way back to the cavern in which she had started without running into any more of her doppelgangers, though their footsteps echoed after her. It wasn’t the entrance through which she had entered the labyrinth, but the thrones, and the river of mercury, were just as she had left them. There, gleaming dully in the shadows beyond the river, was the sword that Nero had thrown at her. She hesitated for just a moment, ears and eyes casting in every direction for a trap, before she dashed out to snag the weapon.

“What have you done to my body?” Augusta’s voice floated out, cold as a snowstorm. Liv straightened to find Augusta seated on the golden throne, the hilt of her sword leaning against the armrest.

“It’s my body,” Liv said. “And I’ll do to it whatever I please.” She raised the iron sword, struggling to keep her arms steady under its weight.

Augusta rose and took up her sword in one smooth, practiced motion. “You can’t hope to fight me, Livia. You’re a shadow of me, one that has taken my place for far too long. Nothing but a dark spot who trailing behind me.”

Liv set her hooves and pointed the sword at Augusta’s chest. “I can beat you, I know it.”

Augusta laughed. “You can beat me? You’re nothing. A fake. A phony. An echo of a real person.” As if to demonstrate, she lurched forward and knocked the wavering sword to the side before stabbing Livia, once again, in the leg. It crumbled underneath her and she fell to one knee.

“I wonder what happens if you get beheaded?” Augusta mused to herself. “Maybe that will create an internal error so severe that the System will forcequit you?”

Livia brought the sword back up and Augusta knocked it away again.

“Just quit, Livia,” Augusta told her. She kicked Livia onto her back. “Give up. You’re not worth the pain I can force on you.”

“I am,” Livia said. She swung the sword, not like a sword, but like a baseball bat, two handed. It clanged against the metal greave that Augusta wore, forcing the taller woman back a few steps.

“You are the part of me I do not want,” Augusta barked. She swung her sword down overhead, trying to chop Livia in half as though she were a log. Liv rolled away, and the sword did nothing more than glance off of her shoulder. She pushed up into a squatting run and limped to the edge of the cavern.

“Enough of this!” Augusta roared. Livia straightened up as best as she could, leg and shoulder burning once again. “No more games, no more Hail Mary dashes into the darkness.” Augusta raised her hand, and iron gates slammed down over the entrances to the labyrinth. “You are trapped here, stuck in this place with me until you finally give up. This is unending, forever. There is only one escape for you.” The last echoes of the falling gates stifled, giving way to the shouts of their other instances, asking what had happened, yelling at Augusta to let them out, asking her what she thought she was doing.

Livia ignored them, even as they came back within sight, separated from her and Augusta. Her eyes raked the walls, the ceiling, the floor. Augusta was right—there was no way out that she could see, no cavern or crevasse to hide in, no matter how temporary. She was trapped, doomed to choose between an everlasting hell or oblivion. As locked away as surely as the others were, behind Augusta’s gates.

Livia blinked. She dropped her sword, letting its weight go. “No.”

Augusta stopped short, a wave of rage mixed with confusion washing over her face.

“You’re wrong.” Livia laughed, short and sour, but genuine. “Oh my god. I was never stuck here.” She saw it clearly. “None of us are,” she said, her voice ringing loud enough to slice through the cries of the others.

Livia shook her head in disbelief at her own foolishness. She had followed the trail of breadcrumbs left for her, but she had never been forced to do it. At any point—in the empty restaurant, in the tomb, in the endless fall into the dark—she could have just left. “You were right about one thing, I chose to let the pain keep going.”

“You won’t be free of us. We’ll continue to hunt you.”

“But you can only hurt me if I let you, in this place.” She forked and quit to remove the injuries. The nausea didn’t seem that bad this time.

“You honestly think it’s that simple? That you can just decide that?”

“No,” said Livia, looking down at her hands. They were covered in a soft brown fur she found she rather liked. Had she ever liked her hands before? “I imagine it’ll be a struggle every step of the way. But I’d rather struggle than let you win.” And before Augusta could say anything more, Livia showed her a velvety, elegant middle finger and stepped from the sim.

She arrived back in the Shinjuku analogue, amid all of the hustle and bustle.

Before Livia could do anything, a pair of twenty-somethings with technicolor hair and complicated leather outfits straight from a 2150s neo-samurai movie made a bee-line toward her.

“Excuse me,” the one on the left started, then blushed red to contrast to her green hair. “I mean, um. すみません。どれはおもちゃ美術館ですか?”

“Oh, excuse me,” Liv said, a little taken back.

“You speak English?” the green-haired tourist said. “Sorry, we thought you were one of the NPCs.”

“So do I, sometimes,” Liv said with a smile.

“I’d never seen a furry NPC here before,” said her friend, their hair an improbable checkerboard of silver and gold. Liv wondered how they walked under the weight of all those belt buckles. “We thought you might have an interesting dialogue tree.”

“Not that interesting. It’s fine. It’s up that alleyway on your left.” She hesitated for a moment. “Actually, if you don’t mind, can I go with you? I’ve had a really bad day, and I think I’d like some company.”

“Are you alright?” asked the green-haired tourist.

“Oh, just a fight with a friend,” Liv said with a sad smile. “I guess several friends. It’s okay if you’d rather not, I know I’m imposing.”

“Oh, it’s fine! Right?”

The silver-and-gold haired one nodded. “We’re both kind of new and getting used to everything, so we’d love for a guide.”

Liv laughed, and, chatting amiably with the two, walked them to the museum.

They spent a pleasant hour exploring, until the two tourists had to leave—“A seminar we wanted to catch,” the green-haired one had said—though they promised to meet up later. She waved goodbye and watched as they teleported out of the sim, then crossed the street and entered the noodle restaurant once again.

She was not surprised to see Ops sitting at one of the tables facing the door. Livia waved the maître d' away with a mumbled apology, then sat down across from her clone.

“You seem nice,” Livia said, by way of greeting.

“Thank you.”

“But you’re not, are you?”

Ops just smiled at her. “You know this isn’t over, kiddo, right?”

Liv nodded. “Are you here to convince me to quit, too?”

“Actually, we took a vote in the darkness. Augusta wasn’t too pleased by our sudden democratic instincts.” Ops used a chopstick like a spear to grab the fish cake floating in her ramen. “But we’ve agreed to a kind of non-aggression treaty, if you will.”

The waiter brought Liv a bowl of her own. “I wasn’t aggressive towards you in the first place.”

“It turns out we can be pretty aggressive toward each other; you’re just reaping the benefits. We won’t help Augusta, and we won’t interfere with each other. That’s the deal. You agree?”

“If I say no?”

Ops’s smile turned dark.

“In that case, I agree. I take it Augusta’s not part of the deal?”

“We forced her into it. You don’t want to know the details. I think it’s pretty clear we could all use some time to work on ourselves, though.” Ops tried to spear a bit of pork, but quickly gave up. “Do you remember?”

“About Augusta?” Liv sighed. “We can’t forget in this place, can we?”

Ops shook her head.

Livia gave her own chicken a try. “So, is this goodbye?”

“I’m afraid my Japanese isn’t up to snuff, or I’d say something clever about this being 気を付けて instead of さようなら. Instead, how about we call this goodbye for now.” She waved a hand sardonically and then teleported away without standing, leaving Livia alone with her thoughts and ramen and the milling NPCs waiting for her to initiate a conversation.

Livia sighed and deftly fished out a few coils of noodles. “For now” would have to do, she supposed.

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