The night was the color of an overripe plum dotted with stars. Those pulsating, twinkling lights were naught be mere reflections on a glass ceiling from the city lights below. Though the bio-dome’s translucent atmosphere, the true sky was unknown. No one thought about the difference between the holographic clouds projected on the dome, nor did they consider how beautiful the true sky must be. Because no one was awake to see the dreary falseness of their world. No one thought about anything anymore.
Eyes enhanced with symbiotech were programed to shut promptly at 23:00 and open at 06:00.
And yet, there she stood.
Citizen YK0006530, phonetic name Yuko Kura of District 6, Department 530, was intertwined with approximations. Life was once a secure function. There were minimal randomizations, virtually no estimations, and alphanumerical coding and command tags were all she needed to comprehend. She knew not why consciousness now gripped at her mind, or how the symbols and numbers that used to zip through the Link were now absent. She was nothing but a lowly clerical worker, entering data into the archives for as long as the System had use for her.
She knew that she typed with her hands, but she never knew her hands before now. Looking at the slim length of her fingers, Yuko traced the lines with her acute vision. When disconnected from the Link—the telepathic stream of data between the System and every single Citizen—she saw them for what they truly were. Bones, muscles, and connective tissues. Pale blue-green veins ran beneath the skin, branching into smaller, purple lines. Those microscopic capillaries were invisible to her gaze, yet she could feel the pulse of them radiating from each fingertip, through her wrists, up her arms, and into her heart.
As her eyes befell the black lines of a barcode printed between her two wrists, Yuko trembled. What was she?
Her fingernails curled inward to bite into her palms. Digging deeper until the nails bit into the flesh, she marveled at the inky fluid that soon slicked her hands.
Yuko wiped her bloodied hands against her neck, ran her fingers through her chin-length hair. If she was broken in some way, then this proved it. Something warm bloomed inside her chest, something that beckoned her to be free from the confines of the bio-dome. She had climbed up the side of the building as the sound of the night called her name.
And now, here she stood.
Energies, startling and fresh, resonated from within the cavity of her abdomen. She pressed a palm over her stomach to feel the smooth expanse of skin. The sensation of clothes against the flesh was new; but while it felt good, it was a reminder that something was wrong.
Yuko dropped her arms to her sides then stepped up onto the ledge of the skyscraper. The tips of her toes hung over the edge, tasting the air that moved between them. She looked straight down and pondered her fate.
Would the force of the impact reconstruct her constitution? Would she fade from solid to liquid or be vaporized into gas? Yuko inhaled fully. The stretch of her ribcage was a delicious sensation, but the sterilized air tickled the back of her throat, causing her to cough. She teetered momentarily, before stumbling back off the ledge. Though her feet moved to keep her upright, she was caught by gravity and slammed against the unforgiving concrete rooftop. She sat, momentarily awed by the clumsiness she’d never before had.
That was the world she existed in. Within the System, there was an absence of violence, strife, and grief. 563 years ago, the voyage across the galaxy ended a war and gave the System fertile ground to build its utopia upon. Now, with symbiotech implanted into each artificially grown organism in the bio-dome, every person function not as an individual but as a collaborative entity driven towards the ongoing development of perfection.
Yuko closed her eyes. Yes, that was the original sentiment—the one that she had awoken to over twenty-seven years ago. She had worked every single day since her “birth” without questioning her purpose. Now, she saw with truly opened eyes the rot eating away at the utopia. She saw that the illusion of idyll was crumbling, yet too many were trapped in a web of lines to see the danger of it all.
The civilization of the System was stagnant.
Suddenly, an internal message tinged her view of the world was red. <Internal System Error.> The white-on-red block letting flashed several times before shifting to a new message: <Malware alert: You have contracted a virus. Please proceed to Quarantine to receive a comprehensive diagnosis.>
Yuko had never head of the this “Quarantine.” However, a broken Link and bugged System could only mean trouble in the future. As she made to pick herself up from the ground, Yuko had a thought. What if being awake was the virus? What if seeing the reality of the bio-dome was a fatal infraction? Did that mean she would be uninstalled from the System?
A whirlwind of fears consumed her, and so she sat in a heap on the cold earth, mortified by possibility.
Then the blinking red alert fizzled out, only to leave a single message in the corner of her gaze. She moved to access it. The contents were written in an unrecognized but legible font.
<Who are you?>
<Wrong. Who are you?>
Swallowing back acid rising in her throat, she closed her eyes and thought, I am Yuko Kura of District 6, Department—
<Are you aware, Yuko?>
Everything she saw began to crackle and blur like a dysfunctional computer monitor. The view of the night skyline cracked between evening and morning. Yuko couldn’t respond. Everything was reconstructing. Until this moment, she was a normally functioning Citizen—as records lead her to believe. She worked without pause. She was devoted to the cause. Now, a virus had hacked its way through the Link, severing her connection to what was assumed to be reality. Any sense of her former self could not be found, no matter how much she searched.
Yuko did not know how to say that awareness was not something she understood. Sucking in a ragged breath, she filled her oxygen-starved lungs with air. Information from the inundated symbiotech in her brain started to fill her gaze yet again. The connection was trying to reestablish itself, and the combination of internal and external stressors built a fire inside her skull. Her eyes crossed.
<Yuko? Do you read me?>
Corrupted files were portentous, she found herself thinking. Last week, CK0006533 had been detained for a suspected infection.
What had happened to him?
There was only one way to fix the problem. She had to force a restart on her own system. Accessing the control panel inside her mind, Yuko ventured through the menus until she found what she was looking for.
<Command> System reboot </command>
Except there was no exit from the sudden ravenous blackness. A list of infected files, illuminated by a blaring green font, raced into the distance. She saw nothing but every single malfunction happening inside her brain.
<Troubleshooting the senses… please wait.
<Unknown error detected. Rerouting to troubleshooting…
<Unknown error detected. Rerouting to Diagnostics…
<Unable to complete request. Access has been denied.
<Please check your connection to the System and try again.>
Something vile clinched at her airway, Yuko realized. She swallowed then swiveled her gaze to the left, where the sky was brightening with an artificial sun. Night would soon be doused by illumination, which would summon the mandatory maintenance sweep of service and policing drones. Yuko shifted her seating on the cool concrete, marveled at the weight of her limbs. How fear persistently clung to her like moisture.
She didn’t want to be seen by the policing drones, especially by the ones that were known to hover. Glancing around the rooftop, she saw that there was no other access point save for the way she had gotten up. Creeping up to the lip of the building once again, Yuko looked down over the edge. This time, the distance from where she stood to the bottom seemed impossibly far. She drew back, unable to contemplate due to terror of being caught, and from the terror of death.
Dizziness lanced through her. Yuko clutched at her shoulders, trying to tear away this new sense of Self that was riddling her with irrational behaviors. She didn’t need to comprehend death, she reminded herself. She was a Citizen. When one perished, another stepped up to fill the empty slot. Data could be recycled and improved upon. All minds were just numbers and signs that could be uploaded into a new brain.
There was no such thing as death in the System.
But even as Yuko summoned up her knowledge of the System, she found little reprieve from the fear gripping her.
<Yuko…> called a voice garbled by static, <you must jump.>
The suggestion stop her breath. There was no way. Yuko stilled suddenly as the beat of helicopter wings could be heard. Though the surveillance drones were just specks in the distance, she knew that anymore dithering would lead to discovery. Rule-breaking was not tolerated by the System, because those that caused infractions were anomalies. Viruses.
She shut her eyes and stepped closer to the ledge. Was she really going to jump?
I have no choice. If I die now or die later, the result is the same.
Already the computer of her mind was calculating the chances of her survival. Yuko tried to ignore the dismal percentage, but it was almost as blaring as the sun. Wind nipped at her fingertips and toes. She was resolved to jump when she saw it—a strip of fabric billowing in the breeze caused by a mid-level vent on the adjacent building. Yuko recalculated the projection of her fall then took several steps back. A running start was necessary but not unquestionable.
She could do it.
You must jump.
Four powerful steps forward and one to leap from the ledge sent Yuko sailing through open air. Cycling her legs propelled her slightly forward, closer to the shredded tarp. She reached out and catch the fabric before colliding with the side of building. The abrasive metal ripped into her skin, tearing angry scratches into her shoulder and back. Yuko shuddered at the feeling of flesh pulling apart, at the ghost of pain that teased her with its dullness.
Gripping resolutely onto the tarp, she began to swing herself slightly to break into an open window. She fell into the space with little grace, landing in a tight ball on the floor. Before moving she scanned the area. The room was unilluminated and uninhabited by the look of it. Perhaps this was a section still under construction, she thought. She couldn’t remember the last time a new building had gone up, though. Nothing about the bio-dome skyline had changed over the last 200 years or so.
Yuko let her head rest against the floor as a lightheaded spell washed over her. How much of this world is a lie?
It was with that thought that Yuko fell asleep.