Dying in a car—rather, fighting to stay alive—requires focus and balance. Strung between asphalt and tree line, mangled fender and hewn elm trunk, paint chips and woodchips. The windshield and door glass are smashed into slivers. Dust glitters in the beam of the single remaining headlight, reflecting off leaves that hang over the wreck like bystanders, unable to look away.
I don’t remember driving.
Then there is pain. A shaky breath in darkness. Snapped bone presses against a leathery lung. Legs unable to move, pinned in a crunch of the materials—aluminum and polyester and Polyvinyl Chloride—that once formed a complete automobile. The smell of gasoline and burning rubber. The check engine light flashes. Below what had been a dashboard with gauges, a fountain of sparks cascades over legs I can no longer feel.
If I could take a deep enough breath, I would scream. The stabbing pain in my chest pushes me toward unconsciousness. I use my senses to stay in the fight—the smell of burning rubber, the sound of my breath wheezing, the flare of the sparks spitting beneath me.
And then I notice the sparks again. Three to the left and one to the right. It’s the same as before. I try to keep my eyes open, watch for it. I wait, and then the sparks repeat their cycle. It’s not almost the same: It’s exactly the same down to the arc and intensity of each pinprick of light. Three to the left and one to the right. I slip through my final moments of clarity, and the moment falls into focus like a roman candle in the night—like the turn of a diopter defining sharp edges.
Everything falls into place.
I remember my drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, the section near Cambria that I coded using BlackWitch+. The darkness around me deepens, and I reach upward. My fingertips scrape at the rough, knobby edges of reality. I can just feel a handhold, a chance to pull my mind out of the wreckage and back into the void.
The scream finally comes, followed by silence. And darkness. And the absence of taste, and smell, and feel. After a moment, the sound of a tone rings out.
I realize that the world has reset.
A figure steps into the void and stands beneath a soft blue light. He wears a large brimmed hat that gathers the shadows, covering his face. Braids of a silver beard hang down onto his chest, catching the light and accentuate the black emptiness beneath the hat.
The light brightens. My eyes move downward to a row of faces that hang from his belt: fleshy masks held by chains—jack-o-lantern expressions of mock joy, and sadness, and anger. Dark pits of shadow where eyes should shine; noses, both bulbous and pointy, silent of breath; mouths fixed into raspy hot snarls or screwed into toothy cold grins.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” I say, remembering my program—now, remembering the test run. Somewhere out there in the world, I sit on a couch with Duffy, my cat. She stretches along the armrest next to me. My feet rest next to an unfinished bowl of cereal on a coffee table.
“This is my program,” I say. “I didn’t code you.”
“I am the code,” says the figure, “and the coder.”
None of this makes sense. Three years to complete this project, living in a stale apartment with a circulating collection of pizza boxes and empty wine bottles. Three years to reach the payoff—the first truly alternate-reality experience, a hybrid between VR and full-consciousness upload.
I call up the control panel—a thought-induced, interactive screen that flashes in the upper right of my visual field. I press the deactivate icon. Nothing happens. I touch it again.
The dark figure of the avatar shakes his head. “That control has been disabled. What would you like to see?”
“The fuck?” I can feel my mind beginning to curl around the edges of panic. I take a deep breath, pull myself back into the logic of expression and statement. Stay calm, I think. There’s a way out of this. I have to check for bugs. I try to switch to code view, but the panel doesn’t respond.
The avatar reaches down for a locked tome that dangles among the masks on his belt. He brings up the heavy book, unlocks the hasp, and opens it. Lines of code rise from the pages to illuminate the darkness between us. I stare at the glowing symbols.
“Which lines of code are you requesting?”
I tell him to show me the interactivity protocols. When he brings up the code, I can see that the variable conventions are definitely mine, and everything is written in BlackWitch+, the new programming language that only a few coders, including myself, can generate.
“What about the interface?” I say.
The avatar waves his hand, and the code scrolls past me in a blur of chartreuse. When he brings his hand down, the lines of code freeze into place. I’m looking at a subroutine that I don’t recognize. There’s an array of Msk¢ variables that I can only assume refer to the masks around his belt. Sonofabitch! How did this get in here? I notice an object expressed in different iterations, each linking to a mask variable. I ask the avatar to show me Relty$01.
The block of code and its media clearly refer to the drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. So far, so good. But then I notice references to a collision.
“What the hell is this? I didn’t code for a car wreck.”
“I wrote it.” The avatar steps forward and tilts back his head. The brim of his hat lifts to reveal his face.
I’m staring back at my own image, whiskered and older, but definitely my face. Pale skin with dark eyes and a silver beard. An image lifted from a silent film—something forgotten long ago.
My test avatar? I had created it in my own image, but not at all like this. I ask to see the interface code again and dig deeper into the expression statements. Some of the BlackWitch code looks unfamiliar. I move through the lines, tracing the logic flow, and then I see it: a series of interlacing loops creating feedback between user and avatar. If that’s so then the avatar is me, and on some fucked-up, subconscious level, I’ve been overwriting my own code.
For a moment, I can’t speak. I stare into the glowing lines of symbols, and then the lines of code blink off, and the darkness presses back around me. The avatar makes a motion with contorted fingers and rotating wrists—a gestural incantation. The faces lift from his belt and circle through the air between us. They rotate as if on an invisible lazy Susan, bloated and fleshy offerings on a dinner table.
“One of these masks holds your imprint,” he says. “The correct choice will allow you to exit the program. But you’ll have to choose better than last time.”
“What do you mean last time?” And then I remember the wreck, the drive along the coast. I had barely escaped from that altered reality. A wave of nausea surges through me, and I fight to stay calm.
“Choose,” says the avatar, his voice as cold as the shadows around me.
The choice seems impossible. There is no indication of which visage is mine. I watch them spin then pause, spin then pause. Each form holds an expression of irony or contempt or malice. Lifting my hand, I reach for a mask—ruddy cheeks and sardonic smile—and it moans at my touch, a writing-boa lament that stops my breathing. I pull the mask closer, and it leaps from my fingers to smother my face.
My lungs suck back a blast of air, and the earthy smell of soil fills my throat, but I can taste that death has been sown into this earth—the stench of urine and rotting flesh. I lift my head, and the soldier next to me shoves it back down.
“Keep cover!” he yells. I turn to stare along a gash of earth, a trench that holds gray men curled around themselves under heavy, woolen overcoats. I hear a whistle from above, and my fingers claw deeper into the mud. Metal strikes the earth behind me with a thud. I look back. A ghost of yellow smoke rises from the dirt.
“Gas!” The word sends a tremble through the line of men. “Gas!” The call comes again from the sergeant down the line. Men scramble from the trench into the open air and the soft sound of bullets hitting their mark—pfft, pfft, pfft. The body of a soldier tumbles back down and on top of me, shoving me deeper into the trench. The gas rises at my feet. I pause for a moment to watch its spectral curl.
I don’t remember going to war.
S.W. PISCIOTTA is a visual artist and writer who has placed stories with Tales to Terrify, Gold Dust, and Canyon Voices. You can find his website here: https://www.silo34.com/