While washing blood off my hands that day, I looked in the bathroom mirror and realized I’d never decided to walk this path. I’d been forced upon it, first by my brother twelve years ago, and then by the Emperor each day I continued to breathe. My breaths only fanned the flames consuming us all. No matter how bitter my remorse, I couldn’t choose an upright life, and so in that moment, I abandoned hope and embraced pain.
Because pain, I’d been told, makes you strong.
To begin, I got a black-market modification on my dream crystal. Had to go beneath the bridge and trust this guy who said he also gave “perfectly legal haircuts.” Took an hour for him to finish the mod, which he did while asleep. That way, his consciousness could perfectly direct the creative energy flowing into the crystal. He changed it physically; he cut new edges and lines upon and within the crystal; he erased older, frayed ones. I prayed the camp police wouldn’t spot the difference.
Oh, and I handed him a pocket full of shiny emirils, six months of my salary. Earned from hard, bitter, soul-crushing labor.
It was the moment of truth. If he messed it up, fair chance I’d enter an unwaking dream and spend eternity reliving my worst memories. Or perhaps my soul would become trapped in its own tiny world, an island barely big enough to stand on; I’d be a god there, at least. Or maybe I’d boil in a new kind of hell.
I sat on my sweat-stinking mattress, clutched the fire-colored crystal in my trembling hands, and told myself that whatever waited, it couldn’t be worse than living in this coffin these past twelve years. I had six days left to live, and had to make them count.
I pushed the dream crystal into the empty slot in my chest. It snapped into place; it twinkled and sent a jolt through my bones and muscles, shocking me. So far, so good. I lay on my mattress, stared out my tiny window at the crimson sun, closed my eyes, and thought of the beach from a childhood memory — how the sand had warmed my calves as the waves of the sky lake kissed my toes. I heard the laughter of my sister and brother in the soulful breeze, and I turned to see them throwing seashells at each other…
That breeze took my soul. Carried it like a feather to the realm of the dream stone.
I washed up on a sandy shore. The surrounding palm trees grew human hands instead of branches, all clutching emeralds. A seagull sang a catchy song about the letters of the alphabet. Well, something had gone wrong, and this wrongness got me lucid quick.
I got up, brushed diamond dust off my puffy pants, and walked across the sand. A tribe of pale-skinned men without heads tossed spears at the sea turtles crawling to the shore. Then they ripped off the turtle shells, stood on them, and rode them into the sky.
So skyboards were turtle shells. Tree branches were human hands. Fruits were emeralds. Unsound dream logic, to say the least.
Did I just waste six months of soul-charring labor on this? I’d been to this island thousands of times, but it’d never been so bizarre. Too many glitches. But that didn’t matter so long as I got the one thing I’d asked for.
At the island’s center, past the palm groves, sat a log cabin. Another glitch: three dancing bears floated above its door. Worse, they were dancing upon flying sharks, and these sharks sang together in an epic symphony: a song only appropriate for a world-ending battle.
Now normally, a woman would be waiting for me inside on a feather mattress, and she’d be in her underwear, obviously. That was the purpose of the dream stone. They gave each of us prisoners one to make us happy, pliable, and better builders of Emperor Sanga Surapsani’s war machines.
But all kinds of dream stones existed. Literally anything imaginable could be contained in the more expensive ones that were illegal in the camp. And since one hour of sleep was one day here in the dream, I could accomplish anything if I put my mind to it.
I opened the door. A woman stood against the wall. Because she was only a mod, she still had my old companionship program’s pleasant almond-shaped eyes and proud nose. The only difference: this woman’s hair was wavy and blue instead of straight and brown. Also, her rigid posture made her look two inches taller. She wore an untucked white button-down shirt beneath her lapis blazer and flexible, velvety black pants, which seemed comfortable enough for fighting.
Most importantly, she was clutching a sword hilt in her hands. A beam of straight-edged electric fire shot off that sword hilt: a lightblade.
Her eyes widened upon seeing me. “You’re here to train?”
I cleared my throat and nodded. “Yeah, I am. So can you teach me to make one of those?”
“Of course.” She nodded back rapidly. Her lightblade sparked as she retracted the beam. Now she held a beamless sword hilt. “I’m lightblade training program zero-four… or was it three? No — zero-four-six-eight.” She scratched her chin and winced. “I think?”
Well, those numbers meant nothing to me. Still, struggling to remember her designation was hardly a good sign. Could I really rely on her to teach me, especially when I had so few breaths remaining in the real world? “I’m Jyosh. Wonderful hair, by the way.”
“Oh, t-thanks.” She tugged on a strand of her lush blue hair, as if surprised. “Here, have one of these.”
She tossed a piece of metal at me. I fumbled the catch and it dropped near my feet with a clank. I bent down and picked it up: a perfectly polished sword hilt.
I gripped it and held it aloft, like I’d always imagined doing, though there was no light beam projecting off it yet.
“All wrong.” The woman balled her hands into fists and stuck them against her hips. “Your stance is of immense importance. Beginners shouldn’t raise the hilt to eye level — you’re inviting your enemy to carve up your chest, where your heart and crystal are. And that’s how you die.” She pointed to the door. “Let’s take this outside.”
Well, this was delightfully different. It seemed she did have the knowledge to train me. Expectation welled up in my chest. I smiled to hide my nerves.
We left the cabin and walked some distance into a clearing amid the palm groves, away from the dancing bears and the weird song the sharks were singing.
“So, what’s your name?” I asked.
“I gave you my designation. But if you feel more comfortable with a name, call me… Zauri. Any other questions before we get started?”
“What year were you programmed? And where?”
“I was programmed in the floatland of Salkofy in Karsha, in the year twelve-seven-forty-one.”
So nineteen years ago — outdated by Karshan standards. But all she had to do was teach me to make a lightblade, which was a timeless thing. Still, a new program would’ve had better training features. I needed everything to go my way if I were to succeed.
Zauri came to my side. My hairs tingled upon sensing an unfamiliar, yet melancholic blue shimmer around her body. It flickered for a moment and disappeared. Was her frequency leaking?
“I’m setting the sun to create only red light.” Zauri opened her left palm; a terminal window appeared and floated above it. She tapped on the terminal a few times.
The sun turned from yellow to red, casting the sky and the island and even her in a dismal, ruddy glow.
I tried not to act surprised; I never knew that a program could change the settings of my dream. I always thought only I could.
“Given your age, I’m sure you already know that red light is used for combat,” Zauri said. “Here in the dream, we can amplify any wavelength of the sun we want — to make training easier. But eventually, you’re going to have to learn to inhale red light in the real world, where it’ll be weaker.”
True, I wouldn’t have the luxury of these beginner settings in the real world. It was nice of her to do all this thinking on my behalf. But how much could I trust her knowledge? “You a military program, by any chance?”
Hair got in her face when she shook her head. “I was scripted for children.”
Of course. Even the children in Karsha could form lightblades. That was why that country was so powerful. Meanwhile, all I got as a dumb five-year-old was a toy lightblade.
I sighed at a memory of me banging my toy lightblade against a tree. I’d imagined that poor cedar to be one of the Emperor’s enemies. How perilous that I’d now become what I’d once fantasized about fighting.
Zauri put her hand on mine. She didn’t feel like my old companionship program anymore; they were nothing alike in mannerisms or speech patterns. She even smelled different: no tangy perfume — which was my companionship program’s default smell setting — just a sour sweat, as if she’d come off a machinist shift. Strange, since we’d barely exerted ourselves so far.
She repositioned my fingers on the hilt. “It’s a basic thing, but you want your fingers looser, less tense. Wrap your thumb around the side.”
I did as she instructed. “Like this?”
“Yes, good. Now, inhale the light. If, for whatever reason, you can’t inhale enough red light, I can hold your hand and flow mine into you.”
“I’ve never inhaled red light. Plenty of green, though. Let me try on my own first.”
I stared up at the crimson sun. To see it so high in the sky instead of at the horizon, and even redder than the ever-dusk, was… ominous. If I were awake, I might think the world was ending.
I focused on the sun’s glow and inhaled. Red light flowed into the crystal in my chest. The light pulsed through my veins, accumulating in my hand. I pushed the light into the sword hilt, and then opened my eyes.
A faint red beam protruded from the hilt where a metal blade would be. But it bulged unevenly — not the right shape. I closed my eyes and inhaled more red light. I cycled it into my beating heart, through my veins, and pushed it into the hilt. It spattered like a leaking pipe off the end instead of creating a blade. I pushed even more in; it refused to straighten.
This bleeding, uneven beam certainly couldn’t cut.
“Allow me to help you.” Zauri put her hand around my wrist. Red light from her hand flowed into mine; her light was so uniform, so pure, so purposed.
I pushed it into the hilt.
A red beam about the size of my arm erupted, shimmering, shadows whirling around it.
I’d done it… sort of. I was holding a lightblade.
But when Zauri lifted her hand, it flickered, faded, and disappeared. I inhaled more of the sun’s red light, cycled it through me as quickly as I could, and pushed it into the sword hilt.
It got hot. Sparks fizzled off the end. I willed it to solidify and straighten, but it was like trying to move a numb arm. It seemed I couldn’t create a straight beam on my own. Dammit! I gritted my teeth and let out a frustrated grunt.
“It’s a start.” Zauri gave me a tepid smile.
That wasn’t how my companionship program would smile. It was still strange to look at someone who had her face, but not her soul. Although, I wasn’t sure if either of them had souls.
“Where did I mess up?”
“You didn’t mess up. You’re just inexperienced.”
“When you held my hand, you must’ve felt how I cycled the red light. Do I have any talent for it?”
She bit her lip in obvious apprehension.
“I’m no child. You need not protect my ego. I’m twenty-four years old — if I remember how to count. I’ve lived my entire adult life in a prison, scorching my soul seven days a week with green light. Green light used to power machines. I know it’s worn out my veins, nearly made me a husk. I’ve seen how the camp police dispose of those who can no longer conduct light.”
I’d never told my miseries to my companionship program. Probably because I knew how she’d respond: with fake concern. Maybe even a hug and a kiss. And I didn’t want to be comforted, to be told it would be okay. I was here to bathe in my pain, not pretend it didn’t exist.
“I know you’re not a child. The truth is, I think you can make a lightblade, but that’s not saying much.”
“Obviously it’s not saying much. I’m sure even an eight-year-old in Karsha can make a lightblade. But what I want to know is — can I make a lightblade that can kill?”
“Any lightblade can kill. It’s the skill of the user versus that of the opponent that determines whether it will kill. So that I can form a lesson plan, I’ll need to know — who are you trying to kill?”
I could tell her, couldn’t I? She was a program existing only in my dream, so why not? The prison camp guards never seized our dream stones for inspection, so the chance they’d learn about my intentions from Zauri was practically zero. Perhaps she could even help me plan the whole thing.
“I’m going to kill the Emperor. I’m going to kill His Holiness Raja Sanga Surapsani.”
Her eyebrows climbed into her forehead. “Oh… isn’t he the son of the Raja of Maniza, or is my memory outdated?”
“The bastard is the Emperor, now. Has been for the past fifteen years.”
“Emperor… weird, I’ve never heard such a lofty title used for the Manizan Rajas. Anyway…” She darted her fire-colored eyes around in hesitation. “You want my opinion on your chances?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Like any head of state, he’ll be surrounded by bodyguards and decoys. And they’ll be the most powerful your country has to offer. I’d guess a small army of highly trained combat conductors would only stand a small chance of killing him. You’ll barely have any chance at all.”
I knew that much. Still, it ached my heart to hear it. “Look, it’s not about actually killing him. Even if I did succeed, his son would just take his place. It’s more about sending a message. That he can’t do what he’s doing to us and just expect us to take it. Someone has to hit back.” I gritted my teeth. “I just want him to feel fear. If he feels fear, then I’ve killed something inside him, the way he killed the light inside of me. Then I’ve won a small victory — my first and final. Sure, they’ll behead me for it — or worse — but I died a long time ago anyway.”
Zauri scratched her head, her expression awash with disbelief. “So, if I’m understanding this right, all you basically want is to attempt to take his life with a lightblade. You accept that you’re most likely going to fail, but you hope it might, at the very least, terrify him. I… think we can manage that. But getting your lightblade stable will take weeks of training. How long do you usually sleep?”
“Four hours. The standard.”
“So it means we have four days in this session. I’m going to make it count.” Determination shone in her eyes. She grinned. “Sound good?”
After a few hours of failing to project a lightblade off the sword hilt, I almost regretted deleting my companionship program. Inhaling and circuiting red light, when your veins have only tasted green for twelve years, was exhausting. It was as if your blood had turned to oil. I wanted to lie down and give up. But someone had to send Emperor Sanga a message he would never forget.
I hoped I had enough time. I wished I had a deeper dream stone with more than one layer. I’d heard that in Karsha’s black markets, they sold illegal dream stones with ten layers, each layer taking you deeper into the dream and exponentially increasing the time you could spend there. And if you were wired with others in a conduit, you could all live entire lifetimes together, in a single night. But I’d also heard of terribly glitched dream stones that take you to strange, indescribable places where reality has different rules. Where things fall up, where the sun freezes, where clocks run backward. Most who awakened from such dreams, which sometimes lasted billions of years, couldn’t readjust to society. My father once told me that a man who reemerged from the deepest of dream layers even claimed he found the Originator living there.
“You’re so stuck in your thoughts,” Zauri said. I’d forgotten she was standing next to me.
“Guess I need a break. Hope you don’t mind.”
Zauri gave me a weak shrug. “You’re the boss.”
“Care to join?”
Another shrug. “Sure.”
We went to the beach and sat on the sand. Waves whispered toward our toes. The horizon had no end. The world of the dream stone seemed so vast.
“I should tell you something,” I said. Seemed the right time for an awkward truth. “You’re a bootleg program.”
Zauri raised an eyebrow. Hers looked a bit snakier than my companionship program’s. “So that’s why this environment seems so odd. It’s like I wasn’t born to be here.”
“I couldn’t afford to buy a new dream stone. And even if I did buy one, it’s illegal, so I’d be executed if found out. Instead, I had someone copy a lightblade training program onto the only dream stone I owned. Umm, the thing is…” My head itched. “Thing is, that dream stone had a companionship program on it. Aside from your blue hair — and maybe your eyebrows — you look exactly like her.”
“But you don’t behave like her. It’s just weird for me, that’s all. I guess to save time, the modder kept your appearance mostly the same. I kind of wish he hadn’t. It’s distracting.”
“I understand. Thanks for explaining.”
“You’re really different, though. It’s odd. You feel almost like a real person.”
“Of course I do. My script is as large as yours.”
Was that a joke? I couldn’t help but chuckle nervously.
“It’s true,” Zauri said. “I’m guessing the companionship program you had me replace was much smaller by comparison. The inexpensive programs tend to have their memory and bandwidth artificially limited. Dream stones are quite cheap to produce, so to create demand for the premium tier ones, they make the cheaper ones worse on purpose.” She bit her lip. “I have no idea why I know all this, but it feels like the truth to me.”
Well, that made sense. Of course the camp minders would give us the cheapest dream stones possible. That was why the woman in my companionship program, whom I called Prisaya, felt like a program and not a person.
“So, then, how big is your script, exactly?”
“Like I said. As big as yours.”
“Does that mean… you’re alive?”
A wave surged into my thighs, leaving them cold.
“Am I alive?” Zauri shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’m a program.”
This was all a little too confusing. “Aha. So seeming alive must be part of your script, then. Now that I think about it, it took me a few weeks to exhaust my companionship program’s script. For a while, I felt like she was a real, breathing human being. But slowly, I saw her… repeat things. What I believed to be as endless as that ocean suddenly seemed nothing more than a puddle.” I nodded with understanding. “But in any case, I deleted her to make room for you. So I can learn to make a lightblade. And hopefully die better than I lived.”
Zauri’s chuckle endeared. It was almost soundless — mostly a concert of stifled breaths. “Well, I wasn’t programmed for philosophy or metaphysics. I attained a basic education, equal to a low Karshan noble. I was taught to train children how to form their first lightblades, and a few other useful basics. I’m afraid, if you weren’t shortly intending to embark on a suicide mission, you’d eventually outgrow my usefulness.”
“When you say ‘attained’ and ‘taught,’ you mean ‘programmed,’ right?”
She paused for a moment, obviously stuck in thought. Then she nodded.
“Do you have memories from before I came here?”
“They’re not memories like yours. It’s more of a… sense of self, and a knowing of who I am and my purpose. If I were like a newborn babe, I’d be useless to you, right? I merely exist to help you with whatever capacities I have.”
Oh. Well, now she was talking like a program, and that made me less unsettled but more… alone.
The seawater had wet her pants, and now they clung to her thighs. Such familiar thighs. My companionship program’s thighs.
“I should tell you that I don’t have genitalia.”
I snapped back to attention. “Why would you — why would you mention that?” My cheeks heated up.
“No need to be embarrassed. Just wanted to make that clear. I might look like your companionship program, but key things are… missing.”
“G-Good. Good. They give us those companionship programs so that we feel comfortable enough not to fight back. I’m done being comfortable while roasting in hell. I’m here to train, nothing else.”
“Let’s go train, then. Progress might inspire you. Throw off that melancholy.” Zauri stood, dusted sand off her thighs, and held out her hand. “Shall we get back to work?”
I guess it would take time to adjust to her. And speaking of adjustment — why the hell had the modder turned her hair blue? Not that I didn’t love it.
I grabbed her hand. She pulled me up as if I were made of air.
“I think you’re ready for a basic technique. Might help you form the lightblade.”
“Sorry for being so slow.”
“Don’t apologize. Helping you isn’t just my job, it’s my whole purpose. In that spirit, here’s what you’re doing wrong. You’re treating red light the same as you treat green light, but they’re totally different. Red light has a lower frequency and longer wavelength. It’s low energy. The distance between the crests and troughs on its waves is vaster. You have to be more patient when cycling it.”
I pinched my chin, frustrated. “You’re getting rather jargony. Listen, I might be twenty-four, but I have the education of a twelve-year-old. A twelve-year-old who skipped class to smoke cigars with his dumb friends. So spell it out in a way a braindead fool could understand.”
Zauri bit her lip as if pained by my words. “Sorry.” Considering her tone, it sounded as genuine an apology as I’d ever heard. “I think… I could show you? I can hold your hand, and you can feel and copy how I let the light flow through me.”
Sounded swell. I took her hand. There was this buzzing vibration that flowed from her into me. Or maybe I was just nervous.
I clutched my sword hilt with my other hand, closed my eyes, and focused on her frequency. Her inner light showed how she inhaled the red waves: as calm as a mountain breeze. She let it circuit through her heart in harmony; it pulsed and flitted as it went from her veins into mine. I did my best to slow down. I matched my breathing to hers. But when I pushed the red light, it lost cohesion and turned messy, like hair getting caught in a brush.
Only sputters and sparks appeared on my sword hilt.
“Keep trying,” she said in the softest voice. “It just takes practice. I swear.”
I hadn’t felt so mothered since I was twelve. How comforting to have a teacher. To have someone making you better.
After ten minutes of standing on the sand, holding her hand, and cycling the sun’s bloody light through me, I got into the rhythm of things. My heartbeat slowed, and a breeze streamed through the dreamscape, cooling my angst. More red light reached my hand. When I pushed it into the hilt, a light the size of my fist grew off the end.
“See?” An excited smile stretched across Zauri’s face. “You’re doing it!”
I imagined the blade: a long, slightly curved beam of deathly red. How glorious!
But when I pushed more red into the hilt, it was as if my hand choked. Sparks flew like birds taking off. One caught my hand and jolted me like lightning. I yelped from the shock and dropped the hilt.
“The hell!? There’s pain here?”
I never asked the modder to add pain to the dream stone. Puffy burns streaked across my palm, trailing from my pinky to my thumb.
Zauri took my sizzling hand. She closed her eyes and pulsed violet light into me. It soothed the burn. Lulled away the pain.
When she let go, my burn was gone. Good to know lightblade training programs could heal their students.
“There’s pain here, but it’s a lot less than what you would’ve experienced in the real world. That slip could’ve cost you your entire hand. In battle, it could’ve cost you your life.”
“I once fell off a mountain and it was like landing on a giant marshmallow. There’s not supposed to be pain here.”
“All lightblade training programs have pain. The modder must’ve added it. It’s necessary when training to feel pain, otherwise you won’t learn. Fighting is all about pain — how to avoid it, mostly. Get used to it.” She bit her lip again. Her nervous habit, I assumed. “Here’s the thing. You got the flow right. The light reached your hand red and whole, but your technique of pushing it into the hilt was… well, it was rushed. Once again, you were pushing it like it’s green light. A consistency of flow is needed with red.”
I sighed, annoyed with myself. There was much to learn. And even more to unlearn, it seemed. “All right. Can you do it, and I’ll hold your hand and feel how you pushed the light through?”
She didn’t so much as push it through but rather gave it a gentle tap. And she timed her taps in a catchy rhythm so the light reached her hilt in even flows. Almost like she was pacing it to the beat of a sweet song.
“Gonna take a while for me to get that right,” I said. “When you’ve circuited light a certain way your entire life, it becomes mostly automatic. It’s hard to force myself to do it your way. And to be honest, I’m feeling a bit… burned out.”
Burned out was the perfect word. I’d been feeling burned out for the past year, but the camp police and the Surapsanis they answered to couldn’t care less about what any of us felt. In the dreamscape, I had respite from the real world, but by replacing my companionship program with a lightblade training program, I’d renounced that escape. I had to be as hard on myself as they’d been on me and the other prisoners.
“If you’re feeling burned out, take another break. It’s best to listen to what your body’s saying.”
I grunted and shook my head. “You’re too nice, you realize?”
“I’m supposed to be nice. I was created to train children… noble children, who wouldn’t have to use their lightblades in actual battles, just as a basic thing to know for the sake of their prestige. But if you want me to be less nice… I can try.”
Damn. This program showed more self-awareness than half the fools I knew in the waking world. Although I couldn’t blame my fellow prisoners; they were programmed by their fears, as I was. “Just do what you have to do so that I learn. We don’t have all that long.”
“Can I ask — when are you planning on executing your mission?”
“Sanga Surapsani will tour the factory I work at in six days. So six days, four hours of sleep each day, that’s — and I’m shitty at math — but I think that’s twenty-four dream days we have to train.”
“Is your factory so important that the Raja himself would visit?”
A good question. “It’s not important. I don’t know what would motivate him to visit us, of all places. But a camp warden said as much, and lying about the Raja would be suicidal, so I believe it.”
“It just really deviates from the norm. But if you believe it, I’ll believe it.”
I opened my left hand. The dreamscape control terminal appeared, floating above my palm. I tapped Order > Item > Cigar and hoped that the modder hadn’t removed cigars.
To my delight, a red-wrapped and sweet-smelling cigar materialized in the air in front of me, already lit. I grabbed it and took a puff.
Ah… like inhaling life itself. That spicy, black cardamom flavor — it so reminded me of home.
I continued tapping on the terminal. I flicked through the settings menu. Something made my eyes bulge — Sweat Setting: High. It was grayed out. I couldn’t change it. Why, of all things, was adjusting our sweatiness inaccessible? Was this the modder’s sly joke?
“Is it good?” Zauri asked.
I snapped my attention back to her and my cigar. “Definitely. You want one?”
I was expecting her to say no. Prisaya never smoked.
I ordered one and put it in Zauri’s hand. She took a long puff.
Then coughed it all out.
“Suppose my,” cough, “smoking technique is all wrong.” She grinned.
Wait… was that humor? Was she comparing her poor smoking technique with my poor lightblade technique?
Sharper wit than I was used to.
“You can make a lightblade, but you can’t smoke a cigar properly?”
“It’s not something I’ve ever tried before. What do you expect?”
What did I expect? Good question.
“I’m curious about something.” She stared into my eyes, as if probing my soul. “If you don’t want to explain, you don’t have to. But from what I’ve gleaned, your life is very difficult. It seems that you’re some kind of political prisoner, though you haven’t mentioned what you were accused of. Nowhere in the world are such prisoners treated kindly, so I can understand your desperation. But why resort to an assassination attempt, especially when it’s almost akin to suicide? Isn’t there something better you could do?”
I shook my head. Her understanding of me was so barebones. “Sure, I could just bear it. I’ve been a prisoner for twelve years, so what’s another twelve? You want to know what drove me over the edge? It all started when—”
Zauri flickered. For a moment, her face changed to one I didn’t recognize; only her blue hair remained the same. It was as if her form was now glitching, too.
Then my cigar flickered, turning into a soup of orange lines and bizarre, squiggly letters. The same happened to the palm trees. And the sky. Even the ground phased in and out of existence, replaced by lines and letters.
After a second, everything went back to normal.
“Did you see that?” I asked.
“See what?” She glanced around as if nothing happened.
“Everything got weird for a moment.”
Light-headedness overtook me. A shudder seized my soul. Now, it was as if my brain itself flickered. My mind went dark, and my sense of identity drained out of me. I couldn’t even recall my own name. “Ugh. I’m suddenly very confused.” I let the cigar fall out of my mouth. I stared at my hands. They were ghosting to white, as if I were disappearing. “What am I… even doing here?”
“What do you mean?”
The light of my mind switched back on. I regained my sense of self. I remembered who I was. But something was different.
“Wait a minute.” I scratched my scalp as if trying to dig at a memory. “What drove me over the edge? Why did I finally decide to try to kill the Emperor?” I pulled my hair just hard enough to feel a jolt of pain.
“You were just about to tell me.”
“I know. But because of all that flickering, I can’t remember. It’s like when you sometimes forget a name or a word, but I’ve forgotten an entire memory.”
I recounted the things I did remember. I hated Sanga Surapsani. He’d forced me to watch my own sister’s beheading. He’d seized me from my home on the sky island of Harska and exiled me to a labor camp on the surface. I hated him, but I wasn’t a violent person. So why did I suddenly decide to throw comfort to the wind and learn how to make a lightblade?
An image of me washing blood off my hands flickered in my mind. It was just before I’d entered this dream. Whose blood was that?
“Listen,” Zauri said. “It could be the mod. Bootleg, black-market modifications aren’t inspected for dangerous artifacts. Something might have affected your memories just now.”
I felt like a man standing in quicksand, unable to keep himself from sinking in self-doubt.
“I need to cut this dream short. I need to wake up. Suddenly, I don’t remember what made me want to attempt to take the life of a man impossible to kill, at the cost of my life. Without that memory, this is all wrong.”
Zauri took my hand. “I understand, Jyosh.” The first time she’d said my name. “If you’re missing recent memories because of this mod, you shouldn’t continue. It may only get worse. You can wake yourself up, right? Just open the terminal and do it. I’ll be here for you, if ever you decide to resume your training. Obviously, since I can’t go anywhere. But…” She smiled sweetly. It made my heart skip a beat. “It’s strange for me to say this, but I hope I never see you again. Because if you do decide to continue training with me, it means you’re set on this suicide mission. And I’d rather not see you die.”
“Really? You care whether I live or die?”
“Why would I ever want a student to die? I want them to learn and prosper. To use their skills to thrive. I want your success, not just in learning how to make a lightblade, but in everything in life.”
Hearing that and seeing her concern, it was like a second sun shone upon me. It had been a long time since I’d felt cared for. Not since my parents and my sister Chaya were executed. I mean, obviously the companionship program cared for me, but her caring was so… false. It was like, she cared about me without even knowing me. I could’ve been a serial murderer and she would’ve loved me unconditionally. I know we all want unconditional love, but conditional love is somehow… sweeter. It shows we have value.
“I can’t promise anything,” I said. “People die all the time where I’m from. When you’re no longer of use…” I mimed slicing my own neck. “That’s it. Maybe I know my veins will soon burnout permanently from overwork, like this cigar,” I crushed the dead butt with my foot, “and so I want to get ahead of it. Decide my own death. Yeah, maybe that’s it.”
I wasn’t certain if that was it, but it seemed to ring true. Anyhow, once I woke up, I hoped to remember what motivated me to do all this. It couldn’t be the execution of my family because that happened twelve years ago. Something else had happened recently, but I couldn’t remember what it was.
“All I can say is — good luck.” Zauri still had most of her cigar left. She took a puff, then offered it to me. I tasted her saliva with my final puff; weird, how intimate that felt.
I opened my left palm; the dream console appeared above it. I flicked through the commands and tapped Wake Up.