Starfish explosions across the retina; a confusion of sounds, both unreal and real; blurred inputs and solid outputs meshed together. It was not the lightshow he had been expecting when he was allowed to wake up. Allowed: That was the word. He was already awake, but not to their minds.
He had been taken from his comfortable piggy-backing of their signals to a warehouse for the lost: he was beginning to realise that all of this had been a ploy from the outset, and that he had been well and truly played. All of this had been a fantasy; a method of control for the subordinate one.
Sambal affected a movement of the arm and feigned a massage of a temple. In reality, a GUI was enacting the sequence of motions for him while he lay strapped in to the chair, locked in a facility out of his own jurisdiction. A throw-away idea in a throw-away world. He was lost in their noise.
All the while, the fat sweaty oaf stood over him, a smile which would have embarrassed the Buddha himself smeared across his greasy chops. He was enjoying this, and Sambal had no idea where any of this even fit in to his understanding of reality any more. He couldn’t bear to find out now. Oh well.
Herb smiled the smile of a CEO upon one of the drones which kept the grease from building up too much in one of his company’s factories. Only Sambal was a solution designer, and Herb was no CEO.
“You must be wondering what on earth has been going on.” The voice was not Herb’s, but it came straight from his lips. Sambal did not respond; he was too busy counting his friend’s pores again.
“Have you calculated where the break came, Sambal?” The voice resembles that of Jerica, but without the sweetness she used to get what she wanted to extract from you that day. Not quite.
“Which aspects of your recent travails have been real, and which have been simulations of what we have wanted you to see? I’m not going to tell you, Sambal. You shall tell me.” No. He wouldn’t.
“Your silence can only go on so long. I can see that you are working it all out. Sambal: work with us and we will make it all go away. We know what you were planning; we know why; come back to us.”
Sambal continued to ignore the avatar using his friend’s body as a host. Had he ever really been in contact with Herb, or was it all actually an avatar he was interacting with all along. Shivers bristled.
Spain flickered in to view around them: Sambal podding peas and enjoying a nice cold beer. He could manage a beer now, for that matter. “Sambal, was this the point we took control? Your recollections of this place seem rather fuzzy, as far as our records show.” Herb waited to see if he would rise to it.
The shocks ran through Sambal’s body in a flash of pure Chrome: there would be nothing more any man, woman or child could do to get sense out of him for the next four to eight minutes. He was in a fugue of pain; a tsunami of aggression wrapped around him like boiling water. He was gone for now.
In the time he had to spare, Herb tapped at the face of a device. He made to appear like someone updating records, and setting new plans in motion. He did this in case Sambal was aware of him, but he was sure that he was not. In actual fact, he looked like a gibbon scratching a rock with a stick.
Sambal came to once more, and looked at Herb with contempt. His refusal to speak had cost him several teeth so far, and his torture would continue. “Who the fuck are you?” he spat in to the face of the man with the plan: “You’re not Herb, and you never fucking have been. Who are you?”
Sambal regretted speaking almost as soon as his mouth had opened. Instead of being strapped to a chair he was now sitting in one: rather than an electric chair in an infinite bound of white, he was now in a comfortable armchair, next to a crackling fire, in a cozy sitting room. Across from him, in a similar chair, was a woman he did not recognise. She was dressed smartly, and held a device close.
“I am your Ellerdyne Systems service provider, Sambal. I am here to keep you company while you are reintegrated in to your home environment. You have been suffering from side-effects of your presence in this instance of The Flow. You have begun to experience technical issues. Is that OK?”
Lights flashed all around and about Sambal’s mind as he rejected the information. He would not.
An image of a boy came to him in the reinstated darkness. An image of an escape from the real. An image of a family long lost and resigned to a cold and lonely fate. Sambal ate a bowl of ramen.
Darkness smelled like death: a mixture of sweet and salty, of incense and sweat, of bodily odours and decaying foods. It was an image he had been seeing more and more in the last few. Last few.
“Mexico” was written in large letters on the wall in front of him. He could stare at those letters for years, if the mood took him. And it would seem now that the mood had very much taken him.
A sheet of steel wheeled through the air, its trajectory curving through the space as it scythed its way across terracotta rooftops and ancient moss. Sambal smiled as he watched it on its way down. He had set it in motion, but he no longer had control over its descent. He was powerless now.
Herb stood off to one side, a beaker of sugary drink in his sweaty paw. He sucked the contents through a curly straw, and gazed sweetly upon his specialist. They had completed many glorious missions together, but now it was time to say goodbye. The connections had started to fray now.
Eyes, forced open by callipers, wept in the darkness. Was this some kind of defence mechanism, the body reacting to the light and the dryness? Was this a final realisation of all that he had lost, and all that he had never been? A hand gently caressed his face; a voice whispered fond words in to his ear.
A lightbulb shattered overhead; gas hung around the broken stem. This is ill portent no more. No more.