The machine. And the ghost within.

"Do you see it?" Spiral asks him.

He just stares. At the stacks of servers, the networks of wires. Times like these, Spiral almost seems part of them. Curled up on his seat, surrounded by a million bug eyes of screens.

Andrei tilts his head upward. "What is it?"

The faint blue light plays over his face, the numbers.

"A network." Spiral spreads his fingers. "A connection to—another world. Millions of voices, far away."

He nods, as if understanding. As if feeling a strange synergy with the computers before him.


The Reapers. They draw me like magnets—and yet—we have to stay away, don't we? We have to get away. We dodge from the group coming toward us just in time. We have to go…Aaron looking at me in alarm. There's more of them here, aren't there? Where have we wandered off to…where…but there's a block. I can't think back. I won't.

Somebody standing at the mouth of the alley—he turns—a ghost is standing there.

I try to close the gap, but it rips deeper, deeper through my entire psyche

deeper

when he tears through him with that knife.


When I close my eyes, they're still there. No matter how fast I walk, they're still there.

Do you remember?

Numbers. Numbers. Numbers.

Do you remember what you have to do?

The memories. The—Fuck off, you belong in dreams—nightmares—I shake my head angrily.

My brain fills with rain. Rain. Rain. It's always raining.

"…nothing personal, you know. Just a roll of the die…"

In this room. A drumbeat in my head. I hate this room, because you can hear it—outside. The rain falling, the rain falling…

"…all, our most vivid impressions are associated with…"

And I'm trapped. Chained to this damn chair, huddled, huddled into pinprick of myself, into a pinprick of consciousness. The words come and go in waves, an ocean of…

"…pain. It may not be pleasant but…" He watches me. Makes sure I never go over the edge. Always stay on the edge. The thin line, wire-sharp. Cutting. The Abyss, he calls it. A form of fucking art, he calls it. "…these moments will live on forever in your mind…engrained…"

With a horrifying wrench, I drag myself out.

I stand over, looking down at that poor, huddled figure. That pathetic creature. Twitching. That worm.

I look up at him.

"…think of it as a form of training, if you will."

Lieutenant. Jules. Eis. The Watchmaker.

Who the fuck gave you the right to invade day?

He moves forward, and the guy in the chair shudders. Between us. He's attuned to his every step, his every movement…knowing what comes after…

"Fuck off. You're not real."

His pale-blue eyes stare through mine, unseeing.

"You don't exist. You're in my head."

They move suddenly. Pin me.

"Then why am I still here?"

They pin us to the Wall…like butterflies…our wings…our spirit…the Wheel that broke the butterfly…

I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die I don't want to die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die die and it'll be over

"Please…just make it stop…anybody…just stop…"
"…save me…save me…Alex…"


"Do you remember, 42?"

It's not there. I don't remember. And if it's not the right answer then…then…

"Do you remember what you have to do?"

I begin to tremble. Hang my head, unable to hide it.

"…please…"

I'm so far gone I don't even remember my own name.


"Andrei."

"Will the ghost break out? Or will the machine win."


They've finally stopped. Aaron and Andrei. The two of them are sitting on the curb, Andrei staring straight into space—Aaron looking around. There's a lot of people out here. Thrown out, burned out. Families wandering around. Waiting to be collected. Aaron tilts his head back—just the sky, clear blue. All the buildings around them have been incinerated.

"Andrei?"

No answer. Aaron brings his gaze to the ground. There are small sounds around them—people poking around in the ashes, kids whining—the concrete below him helps him feel grounded.

"Shouldn't we keep moving?"

His words fade.

And where would we go, anyway? Aaron miserably traces a circle on the ground—a habit. A trick his dad showed him to calm down. You can only fit so many circles in the same circle...of the same size...

Maybe it was better they got away from that Church. Better for him, at least. Aaron's always felt uncomfortable in those places.

As is only fitting. But they wouldn't care, right? Aaron traces a larger circle around them. They're all dead. They don't need that place anymore...

Suddenly the street goes silent. Only for a moment; then fills with different noises. Aaron lifts his head. People are scurrying, being shoved to the sides—by Reapers. They seem to have appeared out of nowhere, barking, herding. Maybe merging from the shadows themselves.

"Move, you worms!"

Andrei raises his eyes.

In a minute, they've pushed everybody out of the street. The crowd stands apprehensively, waiting for a dreadful moment.

And here they come.

Right down the center of the road, strolling like they own the place. Not even caring to glance at the crowd around them. More Reapers, in a tighter group, gathered around their leader.

"Who's that tall guy?" Andrei whispers.

"Lieutenant Ivanov," Aaron tells him. "The overseer of this District."

"Yes, I can see." Andrei slowly gets to his feet. "By his uniform."

As they pass, Andrei picks up a piece of rubble by his foot. A sizeable chunk of rock.

"It really is a shame." Andrei tosses it up and down in his hand. "He really should be wearing a helmet."

He pulls back his arm. Aaron's eyes widen.

"Andrei—" he reaches out.

Too late. The rock goes sailing through the air, a perfect line.

Perfect aim. Ivanov staggers as it hits him; the impact's violent enough to knock his hat off. But he soon regains his balance. And stops.

For a long moment he doesn't do anything. Just stands there like he's frozen. Just stares at the ground, his back to them.

His fist clenches.

One of the Reapers picks up his hat, hands it back to him. Ivanov grabs it, walks deliberately back to the curb.

His face is expressionless as he looks at the people huddled there.

"All right. I've had just about enough of you worms."

Anger flickers over his face; he stills it with a deep breath. His face is stone again.

"Get them up against wall!"

The Reapers gladly comply. Some people try to run—but they're dragged back. Soon enough they're all standing with their backs to that ruined building. No. Aaron feels himself beginning to shake. No. Andrei's face remains devoid—like he's been through all this before.

Some expression gleams in Ivanov's face now. Disgust, maybe. He still stands with the hat in one hand, looking more closely at the crowd.

"Which one of you threw that rock?" he asks softly, dangerously.

Silence. Ivanov makes a signal to the Reapers.

"You have five seconds."

They raise their rifles.

"My patience is nearly up."

Silence.

"Five."


No. No.

The ground falls out from under me. Like I'm a million miles away from my body, watching…watching...Aaron's shaking, shaking so much. Almost a fit; any second now, and he'll collapse.

Could they really—could I really—? Could it—?

No, it's impossible.

"Four."

A voice whispers to me. That this is impossible. That this cannot happen.

"Three."

It cannot.

I still have so much. To do.

And suddenly the moment seems to expand—into a thousand years—numbers, numbers—like it would make sense—everything—if only I could concentrate...if only I could...

(Beside me, Aaron suddenly goes still. Straightens up, head high.)

"Two."


Silence.

"It was me."

Aaron steps forward.

"It was me. I threw the rock."

His words are beautiful, unhurried. The look on his face is serene. It brings out something that was never there before—an inner light. Only for a moment. He seems to shine in the shadow of this wall.

(Beside him, Andrei starts. Like he's snapping out of a trance.)

Ivanov smiles strangely.

"You see now? Was that so difficult?"

Ivanov slowly draws out his pistol. Suddenly aims and fires it.

Aaron falls.

"Now for the rest of them..."


The shot echoes. Something snaps.


There's a scuffle. One of the worms throws himself forward, right into the line of Reapers. Shouting something incoherent. Ivanov gives them a cursory look.

"This one too, sir?"

"Yeah—" Something catches his eye. "—no. Wait."

He settles his hat carefully over his head, and walks closer. The worm is silent, watching him too.

Blue. His eyes glare back at Ivanov, a hint of madness in them. Faintly familiar...

Suddenly it falls into place.

"Keep this one."

The Reaper sighs. Ivanov turns away.

There's another scuffle. "You sure, sir? This one's—" sounds of fighting; they restrain him again, "—a live one."

"Just beat him until he shuts up."

Ivanov continues walking.

"Make sure he can still walk."