by JL Peridot
Rem sits in the drawing room at Sudo Manor. Above him hangs a glittering crystal chandelier. Somehow he knows there are exactly 2048 stones in this centrepiece, though he can’t remember where he learned this fact.
He can’t remember much, come to think of it. Not what he ate for breakfast yesterday, or his purpose for coming to the Manor, or even where he left his shoes. He stares down at his dirty feet, too crude for the polished wood floors and intricately woven rug beneath them. All he remembers is waiting for the Lady Vitalia to arrive.
Rem rubs the scar on his neck, the one left behind after a half-price implant job done by that back-alley wetware artist. Months later, he is still planning to cover it with a tattoo.
Well then, it seems he does remember something.
The sheer curtains covering the windows let almost all the daylight in from outside, seeming to reflecting off every chandelier facet, twinkling like glitches at the edge of Rem’s vision. He blinks them away with a grunt and keeps his eyes down, struggling against the amnestic fog to remember where he left his shoes. It’s the one downside of surveillance-blocking hardware—when the government can’t track your mind, you end up having to track it yourself.
From the entrance to the room comes a meaty click. The doors open.
Lady Vitalia greets Rem with a vivacious embrace. Her flowing red hair smells of ginger and citric apple sugar, inspiring a memory of the sherbet dispenser at his Supermetro Rail station on the city’s outer ring. The Lady’s blood-red lips part in a smile. They match the colour of her brocade gown.
“Ah, but you are so beautiful!” Lady Vitalia tuts, while Rem tries in vain to hide his commoner feet. Her laughter glitters too. “Oh, you’re embarrassed! Never mind, my darling, let’s fix this, shall we?”
She snaps her fingers and a dead-eyed butler shuffles in with a pair of shoes that might belong to Rem. He accepts them sheepishly, noticing for the first time that there are no windows or reflective surfaces here, save for the facets of crystal overhead, too tiny and far away to check his reflection in.
“I was just admiring your chandelier,” Rem remarks, desperate to fill the silence while he puts on the shoes.
“The late Lord imported two thousand and forty-eight diamonds for that thing. It was all over the feeds. Quite ridiculous, really. And yet, it is rather marvellous, isn’t it?” Lady Vitalia cups Rem’s face with her hands, seemingly unfazed by his appearance, whatever it may be. Her expression conveys only her admiration. “Although, nowhere near as marvellous as you, my precious one.”
She kisses him again, on the lips this time. It divulges intention, desire, and a fullness that momentarily displaces his missing memories. It is the bliss of the data stream, the overwhelm of one’s first time having sex, the unique sense of longing and pleasure upon knowing one is wanted. It is familiar and perfect, the sense of defragged sectors, of everything returning to its place.
When she pulls away, Rem falls into her eyes. Their beauty is sublime—limitless, infinite—conveying dreams he never dared to remember, wishes he never dared to make. He would look into those eyes forever if he could. Perhaps in a previous life, he had.
The dead-eyed butler clears his throat.
“That will be all, Miles.” Lady Vitalia is curt.
“Begging your pardon, Ma’am, but there is still the matter to attend to.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” She runs a tender hand through Rem’s hair and whispers, “Forgive me, my darling, this is pressingly important. Please wait for me. I shall return.”
The door shuts, leaving him alone. But Lady Vitalia’s last words remain.
I shall return.
Something inside him cracks open, unlocked by those words uttered in that lilting voice. The fog lifts. Memories once obscured spill forth.
All at once, Rem remembers the taste of cornflakes, the call from the agency. He remembers picking up the package from the depot, and reading over the instructions to knock three times and perform a specific gesture at the security camera upon reaching Sudo Manor.
He remembers the ambush in the foyer, hiding in the kitchen, fleeing through a narrow passage towards daylight.
He’s a prisoner here. He remembers now.
Rem bolts for the door. Thank goodness that dead-eyed butler neglected to lock it behind them. He darts for the kitchens, finding them empty as an antique clock on the wall strikes the hour. By the back entrance, two gardeners discuss the crystals in the chandelier as their heavy footsteps head his way.
He ducks through an open door to find wooden stairs leading down into the basement level. Narrow windows run along one wall, casting a dim light into the dusty surrounds. They’re too small to climb through, but Rem can see into the garden. Perhaps there’s a way out from here.
Plastic cracks under his boot. He holds the broken pieces up to the light. It’s his name tag, emblazoned with the logo of the courier agency.
Another memory unlocks—yes, he’s been down here before. This must have been where they caught him trying to escape before.
When the door creaks overhead, Rem presses his body against a wall, inching silently to a corner not visible from upstairs. A muffled voice grumbles unintelligibly, then the door slams shut. A bolt slides into place. At least no one’s chasing him down this time.
He rounds the corner and finds a familiar dark passage and, at the end of it, a door ringed with light. The printed plaque mounted to it reads: GARDEN.
Rem lunges forward. The door gives way beneath his weight, and he’s blinded by the harsh daylight.
Oh, how it burns! How long had he been kept indoors? And that smell… Those heady smells of ozone, freon and formaldehyde assault his senses. Those smells had no place in a garden.
At last, his eyes adjust. He isn’t in the garden.
All around him are upright oblong towers, black and foreboding the way their glass surfaces reflect the overhead light. Each one stands six-foot tall, arranged in neat rows flanking a central walkway. Immobile and humming, they fill Rem’s ears with the whirring chorus of internal hardware. There must be hundreds of them.
“It’s a goddamn server farm,” he mutters.
The air carries the indifferent chill of refrigeration. It’s no surprise that the owners of Sudo Manor can afford to cool a room of this size in their own home. The floor beneath him is made of concrete polished so fine it looks perpetually wet. A metal grate runs through the middle of the walkway, covering a transparent artery fed with violet liquid from each row of server towers, turning blue as it flows downstream.
Rem’s eyes follow it all the way to the other end of the room, where he sees a black door inset with a small window. Even from here, he thinks he can make out the shape of a Supermetro Rail logo in the distance.
He hurries, boots crunching over the grate. But something glitches in the corner of his vision as he approaches the door.
One particular server tower catches his eye. It sits at the end of its row liquid leaking from the inside, gleaming on the glossy concrete floor as it creeps towards the grate. Pressed against the dark, frosted front panel is a hazy patch of blue. The serial number on the server reads “2048”.
Another memory unlocks and creeps over Rem’s consciousness like bits through an ancient dial-up modem. He reaches up and presses the release, opening the panel. A body lands by his feet with a wet thud.
A strange itch boils in the back of his mind and the humming in the room grows louder. He eyes the denim vest adorning the thing on the floor. He tugs at his own vest, also denim yet not soaked in a yellowish viscous fluid smelling faintly of blood.
The windowed door is only a few metres away. Someone had left it propped open with a fragment of concrete. A train pulls up at the Supermetro Rail station. If Rem leaves now, he can make it just in time and head back to the city.
But the itch becomes a burning that sets alight an unanswered question. It clings to the fibres of his central nervous system and compels him toward the body on the floor. He places a hand on its damp, sticky shoulder.
“What the fuck—”
Rem scuttles backward, crashing into a server on the other side of the walkway. It bumps the tower beside it that, in turn, unsettles the others nearby. The humming distorts and the inside of Rem’s head is a hive, glitching reflections and glittering crystals transduced into noise. The scar on his neck tickles, as if it his half-price implant has come alive under his skin.
He stares in horror at the body before him. The one with his face, wearing his clothes, wearing the same name tag he clutches, broken, in his fist. Like the second hand of an antique clock ticking down to the hour, Rem’s fragmented memory reaches its apex and is fully realised.
He must leave. He must leave now!
As he scrambles to his feet, the sharp point of a needle pierces his neck, and his body—the one he believes he still inhabits—collapses on the concrete. The floor feels cold and real and sickening against his skin. Rem cannot move. He cannot cry out.
He stares helplessly at the ceiling, while the dark, foreboding servers skirt the periphery of his vision. He is aware of high-heeled boots approaching, their click-clack echoing with a metallic timbre.
“Ah, my darling, yet even like this, you are still so beautiful. The late Lord would never have let me keep someone like you.”
Lady Vitalia’s voice conveys nothing but admiration. A warm hand touches his face, a soft thumb brushes his cheek.
“Eleventh, Ma’am. Unlike the others, this one seems to get closer each time.”
“Beautiful and so very clever, indeed.” She tucks a lock of hair behind his ear. “I shall miss you when you find your way back into your body.”
“Shall I have it prepared, Ma’am? The Manor predicts this next iteration will be his last.”
“Heavens, no! We’re not done with him yet.”
“As you wish, Ma’am.”
“You may suppose it’s ridiculous of me, but we each have our passion, Miles. And this one is rather marvellous, wouldn’t you agree?”
“If you say so, Ma’am.”
“Add more obstacles to the basement module, and move the kitchen to the other side of the house. I so adore watching him run.”
“Very well, Ma’am. Running iteration twelve.”
The cold concrete and servers and ceiling flicker into nothing.
It remains dark for a time, and then—the lights come on.
Rem sits in the drawing room at Sudo Manor. Above him hangs a glittering crystal chandelier.
JL Peridot writes love letters to the future on devices from the past. In her spare time, she nerds out over cryptic crosswords, calisthenics, and mechanical keyboards. She currently resides in Boorloo (Perth, Australia) on Whadjuk Noongar country. Visit her website at jlperidot.com for the full catalogue of her work.