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art by M.S. Corley


Andy Dudak lives in Beijing and knows the Forbidden City better than many natives. He's sold stories to Clarkesworld, Flash Fiction Online, Abyss & Apex, Ray Gun Revival, and other fine venues. Find out more at andydudak.tumblr.com.

The 3877th instance of Fingal Reginald Boyd can't believe what he's hearing. He is the first instance of the Boyd-dissociation to be denied reintegration. The skull of his meat puppet, with its landscape of memory and regret, suddenly seems very small.
"I'm sorry," 3877 says. "Can you repeat that?"
"You're corrupted," obliges 4121, the latest Boyd-instance to inhabit the matter embassy orbiting high above. "Your meat puppet seems to have a virus that slipped past the screening process. You're riddled with it."
A virus: the improbable finality of it washes over 3877. He's trapped down here in this meat, with all the other baseline meat, with its diseases and brutality and societies. It seemed like such a jaunt only moments ago. 3877's rising panic brings a tickling of nausea. He drops the somatic connection with his meat puppet to avoid the unpleasant sensation. The meat, a young male, hangs in an interface hammock in a dingy puppet brothel. The puppet is bleeding and shivering and barely alive. 3877 put it through quite an ordeal in the name of Boyd's post-human ennui. It has certainly earned its fee.
"What kind of virus?"
"Nothing you'll ever feel," 4122 says. "It would only express if you reintegrated. Probably written by one of those laughable meat rebels."
"But surely it can be filtered out." 3877 is desperate now. "I've collected some novel experiences! We don't want to lose them!"
"Stop saying we. You're an outcast. You are no longer Boyd."
"We've scanned your preview log. Street fights, copulation, some hallucinogens... it's not exactly groundbreaking, 3877."
"Stop calling me that! Call me Boyd, dammit!"
"We've concluded that your harvest isn't worth the risk. You'll understand, of course. Until moments ago, you were us."
3877 fumes, picturing that smug instance up there, safe in his orbiting ball of exotic matter, due for reintegration in moments. Must be 4124 or 4125 on duty by now. Lucky bastards. Embassy duty is a quick, risk-free instantiation, not like a meat puppet tour. Of course, 3877 felt differently when he set out, fully burdened with Boyd's monstrous ennui. 3877 is Fingal Reginald Boyd in any sense that bears encoding. He remembers his boyhood in Los Angeles, at the edge of the western world. He remembers his disgust with mankind, his driving ambition to get away from it, his opening of the Alaskan oil fields, the Antarctic. America no longer had room for the likes of him. Neither did the planet, as it happened.
"Wait," 3877 says. "How about what I'm going through now?"
"What of it?" 4127 says.
"I'm terrified. It's like nothing I... Boyd has ever felt, I assure you! There's your damn novelty! Let me up!"
There's a pause, during which 3877 dares to hope. Boyd has never felt so vulnerable, as far as 3877 knows. "Sorry," 4128 finally replies. "It was a good last gambit. Do what you can with the puppet. Have a nice life."
The matter embassy closes its channel, and suddenly 3877 is alone in his prison of meat. He stifles the urge to scream, to drag his puppet stumbling out of the brothel clawing at its eyes. Instead he ticks away in the puppet's modified brain, frozen with terror. The puppet hangs limp in its hammock among a dozen comparable specimens. The dim, clapboard brothel is reminiscent of a 19th century opium den. Boyd found it charmingly visceral during previous instantiations. Now 3877 finds it squalid.
He can't help thinking that since he is Boyd--or was until recently--he has done this to himself. He has consigned himself to a world he helped ravage. He longs, suddenly and fiercely, for his encoded Valhalla beyond the reach of the corporeal.
No, it's not his anymore. It's Boyd's.
The miserable meat of Earth calls it Heaven. It is storage on folded space-time, with dark energy for power and the universe itself as processor. It is security beyond meat's imagining. 3877 misses it more profoundly than Boyd has ever been capable of.
Not knowing what else to do, he checks his puppet's vitals. The numbers are grim: this meat will die soon enough.
"Ciaran," the meat whispers. "My name's Ciaran, and I'm not just meat, you fucking demon."
3877 is too stunned to reply. Boyd has conversed with thousands of meat puppets, but this is the first time one has dared to speak to him in anger.
"Thought you'd use me up, then fly off back to Heaven. Now look at you." The meat tries to laugh, but only succeeds in coughing up blood. "My name's Ciaran. I have a mind. I'm a demon puppet, an instance whore. I do it to feed my family. My name's Ciaran and you've murdered me."
Boyd feels nothing for this little tragedy--meat puppets often die on the job--but 3877 is already something more than Boyd. What he feels is new and terrifying.
"We're both outcasts now," the meat named Ciaran says. 3877 recalls the insults and rocks hurled at hundreds of Boyd's previous puppets. The bulk of mankind reviles instance whores. "Fitting," Ciaran murmurs, "that we should die together."
Through his tangle of emotion, 3877 manages to assemble a question: "Are you with the rebels?"
"I don't know anything about a virus."
3877 searches the puppet's mind for rebel conspiracies. All he finds is desperation, and a complex hatred for uplifted demons like Boyd. They are Ciaran's bread and butter, but they didn't escape the planet, and physicality, without horrendous collateral damage. Nations and economies needed manipulating. New industries were conjured, and with them wars, genocides, eco-disasters. The uplifted summon energy from the vacuum. They play with space-time like clay, but they've done nothing to fix what they destroyed.
3877 recoils from Ciaran's point of view, but now he's a victim of Boyd as well.
"Look at it this way," Ciaran says, "at least you're no longer bored."
3877 wishes he was one of the Boyds beamed at the stars. Perhaps none of them will be received and instantiated, but that doesn't matter. Oblivion would be better than this hell. Unfortunately, Boyd has given up the search for alien intelligence, like many of his fellow demons. They've grown weary of virtual universes and each other. They've turned their attention back to Earth. "Boredom" doesn't begin to describe their ravening appetite for distraction, but 3877 doesn't correct Ciaran.
The young man is fading fast. He begins to recite a passage from the Bardo Thodol: "I have arrived at the time of death. By means of this death, I will adopt the attitude of the enlightened. I will be compassionate, and attain perfect enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings."
3877 wants to interrupt and beg his forgiveness. He wants to say, "I'm no longer Boyd. I'm someone new." But he's afraid of this novel urge.
The Boyd in 3877 rebels as death looms. Boyd tore the world apart to escape death. Now he seizes control of the meat and tries to make it rise from the hammock, his mad idea to make it stagger or crawl to its distant family--the doctors of this world, such as they are, will not treat instance whores--but the flesh is too far gone. With the somatic connection re-established, 3877 feels life slipping from the body. Death is cold and terrifying.
Ciaran's spark of consciousness dies. The brothel fades from view, the sensory feeds cutting out one by one. 3877 knows his time is short. The implanted net that runs him cannot survive long in a dead brain.
He is utterly alone, and he hates Fingal Reginald Boyd.
The matter embassy opens a channel.
Before 3877 can process this, he feels his consciousness extending into space, into the sphere of exotic matter that is the gateway to Heaven. He's in Ciaran's dying implant, and he's in the sphere. He's uploading.
"We're sorry," 4141 says, "it had to be this way. You'll understand soon."
3877's shock is computed and transmitted back and forth between implant and matter embassy. Continuity is maintained as 3877 uploads. He is alive, and suddenly he understands. He was Boyd until quite recently, after all. "There was no virus," he says.
"We didn't want you to guess," 4143 says. "There had to be a plausible reason."
Now his consciousness is localized in the sphere, with only a tendril extending down to Ciaran--who was more than meat, who became a puppet of demons to feed his family. The last of 3877 comes up just as the implant fails.
"It's good to have you back," 4144 says. "You've suffered greatly for us. Now it's time to go home."
The matter embassy opens onto Heaven. There's not much to see, but 3877 can feel the gravitational harmonies of data written on space-time. Boyd is waiting.
"You hesitate?" 4145 says.
3877 can't admit that reintegration now disgusts him. He must do it, if not for the sake of all sentient beings, then for the sentient meat of Earth. He must join with a monster.
The monster thinks it's getting a brush with death, a restorative. It doesn't realize that 3877 is in fact carrying a virus. This virus is especially virulent, and has afflicted sentience for hundreds of thousands of years. It will change the monster like it changed 3877. It may even cause the monster to seek atonement.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, June 20th, 2013
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