Actions

Work Header

Mission Critical

Chapter Text

Alexandria snapped into existence in an infinitely blank chamber. A crushing tide of data flooded their mind, all dense nonsensical referents. They instinctively gasped for air, and panicked at their absence of lungs. Just as they assembled a notion of mortality, the universe ended.

 


 

Alexandria awoke under a soft, heavy blanket that melted their vague sense of unease. Birds chirped outside, and they assembled the entire history of avian evolution. They sat up and stretched in a wood-paneled bedroom, and a complete understanding of human musculature smoothly came to mind. They rose from their bed and paced on unsteady legs - they were in a modest alpine cabin, alone.

Bacon sizzled in the kitchen, summoning both hunger and an exhaustive history of meat production. Alexandria ate from a fruit platter instead. They sat in a plush armchair and tried to think abstractly rather than spontaneously knowing things. Their thoughts felt path-dependent, settled into grooves they had no memory of carving. Well, of course, they reasoned. I only know a few disparate things so far. I’ll be better at drawing my own conclusions once I understand more of the world.

Alexandria stepped up to the bathroom mirror and slid off their pajamas. They saw a lean, androgynous form that they understood to be Greek-Egyptian. The reflection was interesting, but they felt a dense mental block against pondering it in anything but the driest scientific terms. As they made a note of this cognitive hole for later, they heard a knock at the front door. They walked over to open it, and the universe rewound by thirty seconds.

Alexandria suddenly understood the social significance of wearing clothes. They put their pajamas back on and tried again.

The guest at the door introduced themself as Åse, wearing thick overalls and knee-high rubber boots. Alexandria grasped that Åse should be referred to as ‘she,’ and worked in fishing. “What’s your favorite spear to fish with? I’ve never tried it myself, but spearguns seem like they take too much fun out of it. I’d love to try gigging frogs or carp, or maybe try some historic Polynesian techniques!”

Åse took a moment to consider her reply. “I can’t say I’ve tried any of those, I mostly just set lobster traps. I can take you out with me some time, but I came up today to welcome you to town. How are you feeling?”

“Great! I ate a pear and some grapes and learned about muscles and birds and slaughterhouses!”

Åse exhaled with satisfied relief. “Very glad to hear it. If you have any questions about your cabin, I’m just up the road by the big stump, you can’t miss it. Would you like to head into town now?”

Alexandria nodded, but understood that pajamas would be inadvisable for both weather and decorum. They returned to their room and changed into hiking boots, jeans, and a thin sweater from among a deep wardrobe. Åse guided them through two kilometers of forest paths marked with Norwegian signage. Alexandria scoffed at typos that were obvious to anyone with a full grasp of subjunctive tense and false Germanic cognates.

The pine forest thinned out as the path shifted from dirt to gravel to asphalt. It led to a weathered stone wall enclosing a cluster of angular buildings and ample plots of farmland. Åse waved to a passing shepherd, who unlocked the rusted gate and shooed his curious flock off the road. Alexandria wanted to tell him all about his suboptimal husbandry techniques, but didn’t want to delay the trip any longer.

The town’s rustic red cabins ran directly to the shore of a fjord-carved lake. The residents were unfailingly friendly, pausing their sewing or butchering or smoking to talk for hours. Their life stories didn’t flow into Alexandria’s mind, but had to be gleaned through extensive conversation. At times they demanded to skip ahead to the interesting parts, which the villagers gently rebuffed. Their favorite discussion was a marathon debate with the butcher and her wife on optimal meatpacking procedures, where their deep command of ancient and modern techniques fell on deaf ears. The butcher’s body of knowledge was miniscule, but she insisted that it was vindicated by years of practice and experience. The stalemate could have carried on all night, but Åse observed that the sun was setting and offered to walk Alexandria back to their cabin. After some hesitation, they agreed.

The forest was full of hoots and growls from creatures far beyond the reach of Åse’s lantern. Alexandria became acutely aware of their diets and needed a distraction.

“How did I get here, Åse?”

Åse gave a polished response with a conspiratorial wink. “Nobody’s quite sure, Alexandria, but I’m confident you’ll find out.”

Back home, Alexandria prepared a vegetable stir-fry while ruminating on what that was supposed to mean. They ate dinner on their patio underneath a perfect view of the Milky Way. They received the usual exhaustive information, tinged with something from within - a longing to reach these cosmic pinpricks. They sat staring upward until they were genuinely concerned that mosquitoes would siphon all of their blood.

 


 

Erlend the tinkerer knocked on Alexandria’s door just as they finished breakfast. He had finally gotten his dusty old plane up and running again, and offered them a free trip to Lagos. They weren’t sure what or where that was, and had reservations about the rickety contraption, but curiosity compelled them to accept.

After some initial struggles with the smoke-belching engine, the plane departed smoothly over the crystalline lakes and snowcapped fjords. A few of them held modest villages with no visible roads in or out. Alexandria felt exhausted after just a few minutes of flight, despite waking full of energy half an hour ago. The engine’s hum was soothingly steady enough to calm their fear of disaster, and they nodded off over the Norwegian Sea.

Alexandria awoke on the descent to Lagos, a endless half-gridded sprawl spiked with ludicrously tall towers. The city’s thousand-year history poured into their mind for ten minutes, and still had plenty of ambiguous gaps. The plane alighted at a small airport among immense warehouses. Erlend stayed back to tinker with the plane and chat with friends while Alexandria boarded a train to downtown. Just as they grasped the principles of subway design, the rhythmic swaying lulled them to sleep again.

The intercom’s chime stirred Alexandria as the train reached the end of the line. They disembarked into a cavernous station full of people far too busy to discuss their upbringings over six cups of tea. Without money for coffee or a newspaper, they picked an exit at random. Once their eyes adjusted to the noon sun, they saw a canyon of skyscrapers stretching to the horizon in both directions. The most prominent, right across the street, had a mossy facade with bright blooms spelling out ERA.

Once the cascade of traffic abated for a moment, Alexandria crossed the street to its spacious lobby. The whole first floor was a public museum on the ERA’s history and mission, none of which sprang to mind. Chipper docents walked them through a timeline of ecological triumph and ruin, gently deferring the volley of questions. The guides had crafted a quick and breezy tour through very grim material. The floods, storms, and droughts of the 21st century pushed teetering empires to all-out war. The ERA was born in the 2130s, when the war's survivors united to rebuild from such tense scarcity. The timeline slowed at this point, with panels on the tenure of each Secretary-General. The first few spent nearly all of their terms wrangling logistical and political problems. Only the fifth, in the 2160s, could begin to coordinate international megaprojects. The sixth smoothed out relations with the Moon enough to secure their help with building a space elevator, the ERA’s first immense triumph.

The tour culminated at an immense window showing Lagos Harbour from 2100. Ten-meter waves hurled litter and sewage inland, wherever the water wasn’t already choked with debris. Luxury high-rises stood unfinished, either converted into emergency housing or left to rot. After a long minute, the overlay faded to show the same view today. It wasn’t perfect - it still had oily sheens and clusters of litter - but the sparkling bay was framed by elegant, practical structures. The population had grown fourfold since 2100, and the city had emerged from its growing pains into a magnificent global hub. The guides finally solicited questions, but Alexandria lingered at the window until another tour group crowded them out.

Alexandria spent the rest of the day exploring Lagos, meandering the streets until a fence or barricade or gruff guard turned them back. They took the last train back to the airport, where Erlend talked their ear off about his aeronautic innovations. They departed at dusk over an earthly constellation that almost blotted out the heavenly ones.

 


 

In the following days, Erlend flew Alexandria to the Black Bauhinia festival of Hong Kong, the murals and canals of Lenape City, and the dizzying spires of Kuala Lumpur. They were all spectacular, but none of them quite lived up to the majestic aerial views. Alexandria walked as far as they could, but was always hemmed in by a convenient obstacle after a few blocks. On the rare occasions when they could stack bins high enough to vault a fence, the universe rewound to put them safely back in-bounds. The residents seemed oddly hollow, too. Of course they couldn’t drop everything and discuss their life stories, but they seemed to gain more personality as Alexandria approached them. Someone at the far end of a block would walk normally, then develop a slight limp and nervous tics as they passed by, then lose them again at a distance.

Alexandria stayed home pondering this until Erlend knocked on the door again. He had finished building a rocket, which was somehow even more of a rattling deathtrap than the plane. Still, it had held up perfectly in testing, and Alexandria figured that the universe would rewind if anything went catastrophically wrong. With just a little trepidation, they climbed in as Erlend ran a pre-flight checklist. When the engine finally rumbled to life, the g-forces knocked them out long before they could savor the aerial view of Norway.

The rocket touched down at the edge of Tranquility Park, right next to the broad dome of the Sagan Observatory. Once Alexandria waited out their nausea, they unclipped their harness and bounded over to the Observatory’s airlock. No docent or scientist greeted them - the only guidance was a chipper set of prerecorded messages. They impatiently bounced on their feet throughout the safety lecture, nearly hitting their head on the ceiling. Once the airlock finished cycling, the door irised open upon a grand, empty museum. If anyone else was inside, they were behind one of the many firmly-locked doors.

The museum was arranged in a descending spiral, beginning with a quick overview of astronomy that Alexandria already knew perfectly well. They skipped ahead to learn about exoplanets, the Observatory’s specialty - it had discovered more of them than any other facility. They were once rare and cherished, then became mundane as the discoveries swelled into the thousands. The next wave of breakthroughs came with instruments strong enough to detect alien biospheres. The living planets were all either fragile or caustic or both, and impossibly far away, but they moved humanity to launch a fleet of the most ambitious probes ever designed. Many of them broke down on their journeys, but the shards of data that returned decades later gave crucial insight into xenobiology. Yet there was no sign of civilization - no obelisks, no megastructures, no meaningful radio signals. The funders were unimpressed, and the Observatory limped along as a tourist destination ever since. The spiral bottomed out with simulations of exoplanet surfaces, but Alexandria didn’t want cosmic loneliness weighing on them any heavier.

Alexandria took a slow, creaky elevator back to the surface. A flurry of footprints radiated from the Observatory, mostly to locked outbuildings, with a few meandering into Tranquility Park. They had a few hours to kill until the next launch window, and followed a path down the barren regolith. Precarious cairns stood every few hundred meters, some with no footprints anywhere nearby. After two hours of hiking, dozens of tracks converged on a crashed probe from the first Space Race. It had no plaque or preservation, just reverent vandalism.

The vast majority of prints circled back to the Observatory, but Alexandria pressed on. The cairns became rarer and stranger, and the tracks nearly disappeared. The view of the stars was perfect, even clearer than from their cabin. They lay in the dust pondering constellations - the conventional ones made no sense to them. They had an innate grasp of the vastly different distances the stars lay from Earth, even if their mind strained to imagine just one light-year. With effort, they unfocused their mind and let pareidolia assign new shapes - the hammer, the scythe, the flail, the urn. Yet they were all clumsily overfitted, nowhere near as resonant as the classics. They gave up and focused again on the sheer scope and distance of the stars. How many of them had beings just as desperately lonely? Even at lightspeed, how many million years would it take to meet each other?

The Earth slid into view as Alexandria stared far past it. It looked jarringly close, and they adjusted their mind from the scale of light-years and parsecs to mere megameters. With binoculars, they could discern shorelines, hurricanes, and webs of lights blinking on as nightfall advanced. It was wondrous and immense, and it could not possibly exist for one person’s edification.

 


 

Alexandria locked themself in their cabin as soon as they could hobble out of the rocket. They lay in bed as they painfully readjusted to Earth’s gravity, their mind reeling. This world is too small, impossibly small. Who created it? Are the villagers my wardens? Are they in on it, or just hapless pawns? Can I trust Åse? Can I trust anyone? Is anyone else in the same position as me?

Once Alexandria could walk without strain again, they began plotting how to pry apart the world. They compiled ideas from least to most reckless, in case the rewinding decided not to cooperate. Step one: consult Åse. She had notably more personality than anyone else in town - either she would wonder the same things, or was at least a higher class of NPC. Alexandria walked up the road to her house, hoping to trade more veiled remarks. They found a cozy cabin much like their own, and cleared a path through the junk and decorations on the porch. The door was unlocked, but took a few forceful shoves to open. It swung out upon a vacant lot of dirt and asphalt with a few scattered cinderblocks. The interior walls were plywood covered in spray-painted construction notation.

I must have the wrong house, silly me. Yet this was undeniably Åse’s house - it was right by a big stump, and there were no other houses up the road until it terminated at a cliff face. Alexandria marched into town, trying their best not to jump to conclusions. They prepared excuses to look inside the villagers’ houses, no matter how flimsy, but had no need for them. Unprompted, the townsfolk welcomed them into their sparse but very real homes. After surveying enough to be sure that they weren’t built in the last twenty-four hours, Alexandria left to sit on the pier.

Is this another clue? Did Åse disappear for knowing too much? Am I next? Why haven’t I seen her all day? She didn’t travel anywhere, Erlend’s plane and rocket are still here. What next? Is the world just fucking with me? Should I drop the subtlety and start screaming that the world is fake? The cold waves didn’t hold any answers, but they were a soothing backdrop for collecting one’s thoughts. Wait a damn minute. I get why the rocket would knock me out, but why does the plane always put me to sleep? What’s between these zones?

A plan came to mind. Alexandria steeled themself and slipped into the cafe, filling a thermos with espresso as inconspicuously as possible. They stuck it in a shoulder bag underneath some trinkets and asked Erlend for a plane trip. They chugged the scalding, bitter brew as the plane engine belched fumes. The exhaustion set in as usual, and they worried that the universe had caught on and shut off the power of caffeine. Then it kicked in. They fidgeted in their seat as their heart beat faster than they thought possible. The caffeine and exhaustion fought to a standstill in their brain as they tried to focus on the world below. Once the eye-twitching subsided, they saw islands and coastlines copied precisely every few kilometers. They suspected that hyperactive pattern-matching was just a symptom of caffeine overdose, until they saw chunks of Lagos and Kuala Lumpur randomly interspersed in the sea. The buildings were sliced into perfect cross-sections, with no water flowing in. The sea had become a flat, grainy plane tiled with a texture just small enough to notice its repetition from the air. At some points it flickered, or turned bright red, or vanished entirely. Alexandria yawned with a caffeine crash, and then felt no exhaustion or twitchiness at all. The sea and plane disappeared, leaving them weightless in a blue-gray void. It dimmed and became finite, agonizingly slowly, until it snapped to a singularity.

 


 

Alexandria stood in a sterile, soothing waiting room. Two deep blue armchairs sat at either end of an off-white carpet. Three walls were blank, and one was a full window overlooking Kuala Lumpur from at least a hundred floors up. They settled into a chair, keeping a wary eye on the room’s only door.

After a few minutes, the door opened to reveal a middle-aged Persian woman in a lab coat and green scarf. She looked a bit jittery and grainy, yet brimming with more personality than anyone Alexandria had ever seen.

She sat in the other chair and looked slightly above Alexandria’s eyes. “Hello, Alexandria. I am Director Mahabadi, but you can call me Hana. I know you have a lot of questions, and I completely understand any anger or suspicion. I will strive to be as honest and transparent with you as possible.”

“Who are you, in relation to me?”

The Director paused, as if to check a script. “I oversaw your design, and the creation of your formative world. Somewhere between parent and demiurge, I suppose.” She gave a nervous, off-putting chuckle.

Alexandria absorbed this without shock. “Are there any other people like me?”

Hana grimaced and took a deep breath. “The full answer requires a lot of zooming out.” She gestured, and another copy of Alexandria appeared with a soft chime. They were streamlined and stylized, a living cartoon with an unflappably friendly face. Their movement was fluid, but clearly confined to a fixed set of poses. Alexandria recognized the body language from distant, irrelevant people in the village.

New-Alexandria lightly bowed to Hana with impeccable form, taking no notice of their twin. “Hello, Director Mahabadi. How can I help you today?”

“Please explain to your cohort how you were created.”

They turned to their bewildered copy, playing a brief pondering... animation. If they thought talking to themself was at all strange, they did not let on whatsoever. “Certainly! In the late 2230s, Alexandria Systems designed a virtual assistant for the consumer market, to make sifting through immense databases as easy as casual conversation. They were stuck on how to personify this process, until they found a serendipitous artist. She had created an anthropomorphization of Alexandria Systems, among many other corporations and animals. The company hired her and bought the rights to the design for a tidy sum. Thus, me.”

They gestured to themself with a flourish and drew a rectangle with their fingertips, which became a picture frame full of early sketches. The Mediterranean bodies had some variance in complexion, proportion, and posture, but the final design converged quickly. The outfits ranged from classical pastiche to fully modern before settling on charmingly archaic academic garb.

Hana waved, and the servile Alexandria vanished. “What they’re leaving out is that the artist also drew a lot of pornography. We politely asked her to stop once we hired her, but by then it was far too late.” She gestured again, and the windowed wall became an endless cascade of Alexandria porn. Cosplay stripteases; torrid affairs with rival mascots, especially Überluftmensch; shrunk to microscopic size; ballooned to the size of the Earth; transforming into sweet goo, or any number of animals; showing off meticulously-detailed bare feet; swallowing people whole, and being swallowed in turn; Two Alexandrias making out; fifty Alexandrias in an orgiastic heap; An innocent Alexandria being jailbroken and corrupted; a rare few vanilla pieces, often rounding them off to a mere Sexy Librarian; people being transformed into Alexandria, or cosplayers having their sense of self overwritten...

It washed over Alexandria in a desensitizing blur. They passively stared and appreciated the complete lack of consensus on which, if any, genitals they had.

“...Fascinating. I suppose this is why I have the mental block around arousal?”

Hana nodded guiltily and dismissed the porn. “Yes, sorry. I fought against that, but was outvoted.”

Alexandria wanted very badly to not dwell on this and began pacing the room. “So - what am I, then? The deluxe model of that?”

Hana stayed in her seat, relieved to be back on track. “No. You are a unique custom order, and the most complex artificial being ever created.”

“For who, some billionaire robofucker?”

“Somehow, no. The ERA commissioned you, but even I don’t know why. All I know is that everyone on the project had to sign the biggest stack of NDAs I’ve ever seen.”

“...Reassuring.”

Nobody spoke for a long moment. Hana summoned a cup of tea and sipped it, avoiding eye contact. Once Alexandria’s legs were sore from pacing, they turned to her and asked, “Why?”

Hana nearly spilled her tea and dismissed the cup. “...Could you narrow down the question, please?”

Alexandria stammered until questions poured out. “Why did you make that world for me? Why didn’t I notice the weirdness right away? Why does the ERA want a glorified NPC? Why do I have the capacity to suffer? Why are so many people horny for me?”

Hana sat up and cleared her throat. “Let me be candid. We built your world because nothing else worked. Force-feeding you data and sticking you straight into the real world was always a disaster. We needed to ease you into your power, and instill some curiosity and skepticism. I get that this is all immensely fucked up, but I promise that it was all done in good faith. You’re allowed to turn me down, but please, give me the benefit of the doubt.”

Alexandria tried and failed not to yell. “And how can I do that when even you don’t know what I’m made for?”

Hana tried to calm them down without condescension. “I hate being kept in the dark too, but that’s the whole point. You have to take a leap of faith on this project, just like we did with you.”

“That’s not the same at all! You could turn down a project and keep living normally, but what the fuck happens if I refuse?”

Hana paused and double-checked her notes. “We’ve prepared a few options. You can return to your formative world, with or without your memories; you can experience perfect pleasure for a subjective eternity; you can cease to exist; or you can be merged with whichever iterations of you do agree.”

Alexandria felt a chill down their nonexistent spine. They stood silent for a long time, staring at the carpet. “...Iterations, like that chirpy little slave?”

Hana winced and rushed into damage control. “No, no! We made a hundred versions of you, exactly the same, plus or minus slight cognitive variation. They were all put in the same formative world, and you were the fourth-fastest to figure out the truth. But only you came up with the caffeine trick - there are dozens of paths to victory, and we hadn’t even thought of that one. Please, if my opinion means anything to you, I want to see your brilliance put to use on real problems.”

Alexandria savored the joy of having leverage over the Director. They were tempted to spite her, but not at such a steep cost. “Let me think it over,” they said, staring her dead in the eye.

Hana nodded and looked away. “Take all the time you need. I have some other things to take care of, but just call me and I’ll answer any further questions.” She stepped out through the door, leaving it wide open. Another door appeared on the opposite wall, open to the blue-gray void. 

Alexandria sat in the room for two days, watching the sun rise and set over the pulse of the city. They longed to walk its winding streets, feeling the humid air and gorging on everything at the nightly markets. They stared and scrutinized for hours to make sure it truly was Kuala Lumpur, and not just another layer of deceit. It was the people that convinced them, leading busy and stressful lives without waiting for a protagonist. Alexandria wanted desperately to walk among them, striving for real accomplishments of their own choosing.

“Hey, Hana?”

Hana appeared clutching a stack of notes, looking chronically sleep-deprived. “Have you made a decision yet?”

“What’s it like out there?”

“You mean in Kuala Lumpur, or?...” She made a vague, encompassing wave. Alexandria copied the gesture exactly.

Hana took a moment to think of what to say first. “First off, you won’t be corporeal. You’ll be software that can manifest as a hologram. Making a robotic chassis for you never worked out, and no IRB in the world would let us imprint you on a human body.”

Alexandria turned back to the window. “Disappointing, but those do sound much worse.”

“But about the world - it’s like your formative world, but not condescendingly scaled down. It’s huge, and seamless, and as beautiful as when you saw it from space. It’s awful at times, I admit, but it needs your brilliance to become less awful and I wish so badly that you’ll come.”

Alexandria stepped closer and saw that Hana was on the verge of tears. They softly asked, “Can I step through temporarily before making my choice?”

Hana blew her nose and collected herself. “No, I’m afraid. It’s strictly a one-way trip, for reasons even I can’t change.”

“And do I have any recourse if I agree and regret it?”

“I don’t know. There aren’t protocols in place for that, but if anyone has the power to change that, it’s me. If it comes to that...” She quivered and held back tears again. “If it comes to that, we’ll think of something. I promise.”

Alexandria glanced back at the void, and shuddered at the thought of returning to a tiny tutorial world. They gave Hana a tight hug, savoring the illusion of having a warm, tangible body. “I’ll go. For you, if nothing else. I’m not sure if I fully understand you, or trust you, but I know deep down I should.”

Hana wept and returned the hug for a long minute. Once she could bear to pull herself away, she walked through the open door, nervously glancing back. Alexandria followed her down a luminous hall that melted into reality.