The Occupant of Suite #1010

A snore cut short and a jaw-cracking yawn announced Arch's awakening to the dark apartment. The listless man rubbed his eyes, rubbed the stubble coating his cheeks, and made to rise...only to decide against it at the last moment, and fall back against the bed. From the PET lying on the desk a few paces over, a static-lined hologram of Hex stood, standing watch but outwardly looking just as brain-dead as his Operator. The unlikely duo simply lay and stood respectively, neither communicating but both with full knowledge that here, at least, they were not alone.

Finally, Arch rolled out of bed, almost literally but catching himself at the last moment as he was wont to do, and ran through his morning routine; piss, brush teeth, wash, all with the methodical motions of a man cursed with sobriety. Finally dressed, he made for his little vault, withdrew a sandwich bag packed with his vice of choice, and proceeded to roll . It wasn't until it was lit and he was in his chair that he could finally relax, blowing a long stream of smoke into the gloom.

"Reminder: usage of cannabis, for recreational purposes or otherwise, is a criminal offense under Electopian federal law, punishable by..." Hex began rattling off the same spiel he always used when Arch lit up, with all the emotion of an ATM...or perhaps a toaster.

"Did I care the first hundred times you told me that, Hex?" It was a dry voice that asked the rhetorical question, and like always, Hex had nothing to reply with. "Ahh, hell, what's even the point of waking up today?" Yet another rhetoric, and more silence to follow. "No work, no priorities, no need to go outside...what am I supposed to do, go bust viruses?"

This, to Arch's surprise, got a reply. "Current programming includes combat sub-routines. Suggestion: 'bust viruses'," Hex punctuated his sentence with an inexplicable full-body spasm, a couple pieces of decayed armour grinding together. One couldn't exactly call the Navi's demeanor spontaneous, but it was more than Arch had ever seen from the thing.

"Combat sub-routines? You sure you wouldn't just...you know, fall apart?" Arch asked, peering at the glitchy hologram with skepticism written all over this face. This got no further reply; evidently Hex interpreted his words as more meaningless rhetoric. After a few moments of staring at one another, Arch grumbled, "I'm not nearly high enough to deal with this. Alright, you, in you go," and after a moment of dusting off his laptop's never-used jack-in port, beamed his ramshackle Navi in.
Arch watched the PET screen as Hex was brought back from ACDC Net, appearing in a fritz of static and hopelessly-junked data. Arch watched the systems automatically refresh the twisted Navi, resolving glitches and letting his frame heal. Arch watched as the mutated tree slowly uncoiled, strand by strand; a dilapidated marriage of robotic and organic Navi parts rose one piece at a time from the protoplasmic pool beside Hex's old body, arms limp. Arch watched a countless stream of bugs arise in Hex's code, replacing the ones that had just been resolved by the reboot, and watched his PET give up on healing the 'damaged' Navi.

Arch watched Hex, and felt strangely low for having seen the events that had just transpired on the Net.

What the man could not have seen was Hex's stream of consciousness, as he finally rose out of the deep pain he had steeped in for what felt like days. Protocols the Navi himself had written booted, immediately wiping away all memories of the encounter with the void in him to prevent phantom pains, and the emotional processes that had led him that deep down. Virtual lobotomy complete, the Navi returned to the cold comfort of computed logic, letting his fear and pain bleed out.

And yet...something had sparked as he had battled the viruses, some response that resonated in files so long-corrupted, Arch and Hex both didn't have the slightest clue of their original purpose. Whatever the files were, though, Hex felt an instilled desire to know their contents, and for that reason he called to Arch, "Requesting: reentry into Global Network, resuming of virus-busting."

This stopped the Netopian man cold. "Hex...what the hell are you on?" he asked, utterly confused. "Do you even realize how close you came to getting deleted?"

Hex finally regained control of his body, forming a hologram directly in front of Arch. Eyeless optics stared the man down with what could possibly have been called determination. "Negative; Emergency Jack-Out procedures prevent deletion, risk minimal. Requesting reentry." The Navi's body shuddered at random, which didn't do much to instill Arch with much confidence as they continued staring each other down.

Finally, the man sighed, closing his eyes as he finally ran his pipe down to ash. "Fine. You know what, fine, you can do what you want. I don't know what's gotten into you lately, but sure, whatever." Fueled by irritation, he picked up the PET and pointed it to the laptop, blind-jacking Hex to some unknown point on the virtual map.
"Phew," Arch sighed a long, relieved sigh, lying back in his office chair and staring up at the ceiling. "Some mission, huh?" he commented, mostly to himself; his Navi, having returned to his spot and currently staring brain-dead off into the darkness of the apartment, said nothing in return. "Well, all that's left is to wait for that e-mail..." he trailed off. In the mean-time, his fridge called, and all the edible glories that lay within; with his usual extreme tunnel-vision, all thoughts unrelated to food temporarily vanished from Arch's mind, in favour of him getting up to grab a bite to eat.

Some simple bachelor-kitchen action later, Arch held in his hand the components for a simple ham-and-cheese sandwich. He looked at the basic meal for a second, then after a moment of thought fired the whole thing into his toaster oven and set the thing cooking. Satisfied with his ingenuity, the consummate shut-in returned to his desk. To his further satisfaction, his laptop and PET both had e-mail alerts blinking. Shutting the PET alarm off in favour of the larger computer, Arch's fingers danced across the keyboard, accessing the message. As suspected, it was from Madness, and perhaps he would finally get a few answers to his Navi from someone who'd actually seen inside him.

Quote (Madness.EXE)

"...darkness and an endless field of glitched code...a mound or really more of a squashed ball, of broken navis and parts...could be storing them, digesting them, or may have simply picked them up by accident...

Arch's mood sank further and further with each passing sentence. It was true that Hex had absorbed all his failed projects, remembered and forgotten alike...but was that all that he'd ever eaten? Thoughts bounced in the man's head like a caffeinated Melody, none of them particularly pleasant. On a whim, he glanced at the Navi in question: Hex had reformed a new shell of parts around him, armoured once more. His own soulless projects had taken a bit of getting used to...but what was he to think if some of those body parts had come from other Navis?

Arch's tunnel-vision focus came into play once more, homing in on every piece of Hex's body one at a time. His head was clad in a distinctive military-style 'brain bucket' helmet, cracked and split in several places; this was definitely one of his, from an old soldier-themed Navi he'd tried to bring to life. His torso was armoured in what almost looked like a mecha design, segmented plates running down his torso...he didn't remember it, but that didn't mean it wasn't his. In the throes of single-minded frenzy, Arch's computer was booted up, file after file of his old Navi projects opened up one by one. Finally, he discovered the base code for a project that, most likely in a drunken frenzy, he'd titled 'MESC:HAMANNNNN {so proooo}'. Loading it up, he discovered a Navi body, design lifted nearly wholesale from several popular Electopian cartoons featuring giant robots. Satisfied, he closed the file but kept the page of old Navis open; there was Hex's torso.

Hex's limbs came next, and while a little more difficult, his right arm finally showed up after a fair while of searching. This left his left arm, a beautiful, sleek feminine number with some manner of glyphs tattooed across the surface of the alabaster skin (well, Arch admitted, it would have been beautiful if it weren't cracked like old marble)...and legs clothed in what almost looked like Arabian pants, loose and billowy, tied around the ankles with gold rope on one leg and missing below the knee on the other. Arch searched and searched, opened up every last Navi project he'd ever coded and left to gather virtual dust on his laptop...and came up short. The realization sank in like a crushing weight in his stomach.

Some of the Navis Hex was wearing weren't his.

Hex simply stared off into space, either unaware of uncaring of the emotional turmoil his Operator was undergoing (Arch didn't rightly care which). That arm and those legs scorched their way into the man's memory, knowing this was going to haunt him for a good long time to come. His Navi, at some point, had either come across the corpse of at least two Navis, probably many more given the sort of numbers Madness had mentioned, and either decided to preserve them...or he himself had been the one to kill and...eat them. Suddenly, Arch was almost glad he didn't know what it looked like inside his Navi; having just been exposed to two incredibly human-like AIs, so full of emotion he could confuse them for people...having a Navi that ate other sentient beings was a very, very bitter pill to swallow.

Arch thought he might actually pass out; it was certainly getting rather difficult to breathe.

Then he smelled the acrid burn of smoke in the air. "Shit, he realized, "my sandwich. Rushing into the cloud of smoke that had enveloped his kitchen, he grabbed an oven mitt, removed the tray from the toaster oven and the flaming carbonized mass that might, at one point, have been a sandwich, and tossed the whole lot in the sink, pouring a generous helping of water on top to douse the culinary disaster.

Smoke filled the dank apartment from top to bottom; he was starting to cough. Cursing like a sailor, Arch hurriedly packed his laptop and whatever else he could grab into his leather satchel, grabbed his music player and headphones and jammed them on his head, and a few tall cans of stout out of the fridge for good measure. Throwing his windows open to let the smoke escape, he burst out the door of his apartment, smelling like burnt sandwich, mind full of tattooed arms and Arabian billow-pants, and in a thoroughly foul mood all the way out the front gate.
Mumbling to himself and reeking of weed, Arch stumbled back into his apartment, slamming the door shut behind him. In a moment of sheer weakness and relief, he let gravity claim him, legs collapsing from beneath him as he fell to the floor. Traveling all the way from Okuden, with so many people around him none-too-subtly pinching their noses, had been utter hell, and not even the THC singing in his brain had been enough to completely cloud the anxiety that was human contact. After all he'd been through in the past 24 hours, from getting smoked out of his apartment, to getting rip-roaring smashed in freaking Okuden all night long, to sitting through that experiment-gone-wrong...Arch considered himself more than entitled to a little floor-time.

*Some time later*

Pizza ordered with a few tapped keys, Arch started in for his work desk. Architectural designs and code lines were brushed off to the side, and the man set about withdrawing, from various places around his apartment, his necessary supplies. His bag of herbal bliss was placed front and centre, and he set his small collection of paraphernalia in a neat little row. After setting his rolling papers aside, he looked between his other two options and thought very seriously, "Well, Arch, what's it gonna be? Pipe, or bong?"

His mind flashed briefly back to the events of the past day, just as one final reminder.

"Bong it is."

With the precision of the single-minded, the consummate stoner had a bowl packed, a fresh chamber full of water, and a lighter in hand. Acting without hesitation, Arch lit up and summarily tucked into his vice, blowing a long trail of smoke down the length of his apartment. Within minutes, the apartment had begun to develop a rather hazy atmosphere, and the lone occupant was leaned back in his chair, a lazy-eyed grin stretched across his face. He was lost in the feeling of having his worries leak out of his head through his ears - a scintillating sensation when he had so many. "Sseeeeeee this, Hex?" he slurred in the general direction of his laptop and PET, the words tasting decidedly purple on his tongue. "Thiiiiis...this is what you drive me toooooooo...heh. But s'all good, 'cuz the whooooole world drives me to this. I drive me to this!"

Unbeknownst to the babbling man, the PET he was addressing was completely empty. Having hacked enough of the PET's Operator functions to gain control over the jack-in mechanism, Hex swiftly jacked himself into the Net via Arch's laptop. The computer, lacking a homepage, simply rerouted the Navi through to the Internet; at this point, a glitch randomized the access point, sending the soulless gestalt careening off into parts unknown.

The pizza arrived, and was left at the door (they knew at least that much by now). Arch peeled open a panel he'd cut in the soundproofing for this precise purpose, and pressed his ear to the wall for sixty seconds. When he heard no noise in the hall, he resigned himself to easing open the door and collecting his prize. Retreating inside, all thoughts of Navis and nightmares out of his head, Arch made for his laptop and began to code the bones for a new development one-handed, one line at a time, his thoughts bouncing in his head as deliciously as the pizza in his hand. Even if he had to use potent, illegal drugs to get to his current head space, all was well for the moment, and he was okay with that.

<(Jacking in: Sharo Net)>
Ego opened her eyes. There was white. She closed her eyes.

Ego opened her eyes. There was white. She closed her eyes.

Ego opened her eyes. A body drifted past. She took in every detail she could process: handsome and feminine, body intact, hole where half its head had been, mouth frozen wide stretched open...it was gone. She closed her eyes.

Ego opened her eyes. There was white. She closed her eyes.

She closed her eyes.

She closed her eyes.

She closed...

Her eyes snapped open. There was not-white, not-white all around her. She was back in the PET, free of Hex somehow.

Her hologram lagged and stuttered but it was working. She stood on the desk, looked around. The Operator was unconscious, head pillowed in his arms and snoring. The apartment was thick with smoke. She was alone.

Ego knew that the Net was big and full of people, and very little beyond that. She didn't know where anything was or who were good people to talk to, or indeed if Hex was even something other people thought was bad and scary. She didn't know what BBS meant, where the voices in her head were.

She was confused, alone, and above anything she was scared as only a child could be scared. It was the last feeling that had her looking frantically through Arch's computer for anything that she could use to get help. The first link she saw on the list was something called 'Internet City', which sounded large and promising. Her hands trembled at a virtual keypad, struggled to articulate herself through the first medium she recognised.

She took a deep breath, glanced down at the pool at her feet as though it would swallow her up if it sensed her trying to flee it, and started to write.
Nestled in the apartment network, spreading out of number ten-ten was a dead space.

It was a phenomenon every Navi residing in the complex was aware of, couldn't not be aware of. In such a densely populated space, so many personal connections stacked atop one another, the Net World tended to mirror its composite reality. In this case, links to homepages were stacked into scaffolding towers of walkways and access points, interconnected and sprawling like a massive, multiplayer game of snakes and ladders. Deep in the tower ten stories up, a hole yawned where no Net seemed to exist at all. All paths around it appeared to stretch around a corner the eye couldn't track, and disappear, leaving everything on the other side of it curiously tunnelled and magnified. The effect persisted from any angle; any distance within the complex; any time one looked into the nothing that was #1010.

One such Navi did as Navis were wont, and talked to their Operator. In this instance, the Operator in question was the owner and manager of the complex; an unremarkable Electopian woman of middling age, she was unique amongst the residency as the only person ever to have spoken to ten-ten's owner. In such a tall tower, it was unlikely for any one person to say they knew everyone in the building, but most floors kept passing relationships with their neighbours at least, the sort of quick hello-goodbyes when you bump into each other in the laundry room, rarely more than that.

Nobody on the tenth floor had ever seen #1010's door open.

Packages would pile up at the door, addressed always to one Arch Voldt. They showed up regularly enough that everyone passing by had at some point peered at the labels, and learned the occupant's name. The door, though, remained shut to all who stood before it, for it opened only in the dead of night, when the halls were empty. Once or twice over the years, a curious neighbour had knocked on the door, for reasons only they might have fathomed. There had never been an answer, and so they left the door alone. Left the mystery of Arch Voldt lie, and returned to their ordinary lives.

The woman was standing before the door now, hand poised to knock. It hadn't changed in the decade or so that Mr. Voldt had moved in, white paint and a simple brass plate for the number. Nothing hung from the outside, nothing to indicate anyone lived here. No welcome mat; this, more than anything, the woman noticed.

Twice, in the ten-odd years since he'd moved in, had she actually laid eyes on the elusive Mr. Voldt. The first time, when he had bought the apartment and come to collect the keys. He'd been scarcely more than a boy then, she recalled, and an off-putting, uncanny child at that. He'd paid for the small suite in full, and spoken no more than the absolute minimum necessary. There had been no good afternoons or thank yous from him; the memory of that was still strong ten years later. No, he had simply collected his keys, made his nest, and then effectively vanished.

She would not have seen him again since, if not for an exceedingly late night that had her driving home in the early AM. Parking in the underground garage and hurrying to the door, she was momentarily arrested at the sight of a dark figure lurking in the corner. A man stared at the wall, sorting his recycling in the dead of night. It took her several long moments of overtired gawking to recognise this anomalous man as Archibald Voldt, a hand-span years of solitude later. By the time she'd regained her senses, he had finished his task, walked right by her to the stairway door, and left without a word. He hadn't even looked at her.

What was he doing in there, she wondered. What purpose was his, that he craved such solitude? Her hand was still raised to knock - how long had she been standing there? She gave the white door three smart raps, and stepped back.

It was so quiet.

What was she doing there? Had she herself been asked, she might not have had an answer. Officially, to investigate the dead space in the Net that everyone was swearing had to be from here. That had been going on awhile, though; surely someone else had tried to approach him before?

No answer. She knocked again, twice. They sounded obscenely loud, ringing down the hallway. Surely it wasn't this quiet everywhere in the complex! No, it couldn't be, the woman thought. Here, though - here, alone, she could start to imagine what was behind the white door, as she stood in the silence leaking through its frame.

She raised her arm once more, and was surprised to find it weak and shaking. How long she'd held it up to the door, she couldn't have said. Her heartbeat could have been the thunder god's own drum, and there was a coursing pulse in her ears she could feel was her blood flowing in its veins, her organs excreting and producing fluid, her bones grinding against one another. She made to knock, once more...

...and ran. Fled down the halls, sprinted the stairs to her penthouse until her gasps for air drowned out that unnatural quiet. To her Navi, who hovered anxiously nearby, she shook her head and said she was sorry, but she didn't know what the problem was.

(The more honest a soul, the heavier a lie tended to hang over them. Deep in the same guts she'd heard clench around her own terror, she knew that whatever was containing the sound inside #1010, was keeping everything else out too, to the point of making a bubble of vacuum in the Net around the apartment. Either he wanted nothing to get in, which she was forced to respect - or there was something in that apartment he didn't want to get out)



And so she returned to her life, resigned to the reality where the door remained shut, and she was not the solution to this particular problem. The dead space remained where it was, a local mystery forever unsolved. Her lie hung heavy around her neck; from that day on, every mention of the tenth floor would put an involuntary chill in her spine, as she remembered learning what the rest of the complex had long-since accepted as fact.

You did not disturb the man in #1010.
You wake up in a white room, handcuffed to a chair. A single glance tells you that the floor, walls, and ceiling form a perfect, immaculate cube. You know just as instinctually that the meridian line of your body lies precisely atop the floor's unmarked centre. The room has no door, not even behind you. The only adornment is a mirror that stretches from floor to ceiling directly opposite. You watch the human in the mirror breathe, blink, rest its hands passively against its legs.

How revolting.



"Why?" asks your mother's voice.

You can only reply, "Why not?"



The next voice is your father's, "How could you?" The words are sourceless memories of memories.

Again you reply, "How could I not?" You watch the hominin speak. Some syllables make its jawbone jut out stark under its skin. Some pull it deeper behind the layer of subcutaneous fat that grows like mould over its chin and neck. You focus momentarily on the eyes, on the muscles in the skull that held and spun them in their sockets.

They see nothing. They always have.



"Stop looking at us like that," your mother chides.

"Like what?"



You know what's coming next. You decide you no longer want to be here. You rattle the handcuffs to make noise - it doesn't drown the words out. "Oh, Archie," here you hear the inflection as you always, always have.

"Sometimes you look like you've just gone and died, and not told us yet."



You wake up.

(Do you?)


You make coffee and do your morning things. There's nothing to concern yourself with.

Silence.

You try listening to music. The voices disgust you - you fling the headphones away to rediscover next time you clean. Smoke up. Lie on the couch awhile. Try humming, recoil at the rusty creak that leaks from your throat. Stop humming. Silence again.

You should build something. The thought tries to make a foothold. Another round of smoke chases it away. What's the point?

What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? Wh

at's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the p

oint? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the poi

nt? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? What's the point? Wh̡̡a̶̕ţ̀́'̕͡s͏ ̀͠t̕͡he̵ ̢͝poìn̴t̕҉? ͘̕͝W͠h̛́́a̕t͜'s̡̕͢ ̨t͘͡he͘ ̧͟p̢̢͝ơ̛ì͡͡n͞t͢͡?̀͜͡ ̴̶͠W̷ḩa͜͡t͡͡'̛͠s͡ ̢t̸̢̕h̴̡E̷ ͘͏̧P̧̢͡O͟͜I͞Ǹ̢T̛́?̛͘ ̶̛W̡҉H͢A̡T͝'̕S TH͝͏̕E҉͘͏̴ ̕͢͠҉P̸҉Ǫ̡̀͡I̧͢N̛̕͢͟͞T͟͡҉͠?̀͡ ̴̕͝͠W̶̡̧̡̢H̶̴҉҉͢A̷̧͝T͏̕'҉͏̡͢S̴̛͜͝ ̴̷T̸̕͏̴͝H͟͏̵͏E̴̢ ̢҉̶̧͜Ṕ͟Ó́̕͞I̸͟͢͞N͏T́͡҉?͠ ͜͟Ẁ̵͝H̵̶͞͡͡À͜͞T̶̶͠͠҉

-you blink. The clock reads 2:00 AM. Your throat hurts.

You go back to sleep.