I Stand Atop a Spiral Stair
rating: +23+x

It was a soundless stellar morning when I held my audience with my creator. I'd come looking for a resolution, but I'd left my resolve behind, which was why I was smoking in my cabin, half-hearted dregs of nicotine filling the room with wispy doubts burning in the oxygen for a crew long-since gone, along with almost everything else here.

A queasy feeling knotted and curled in my gut at the thought of confronting her — I told myself it wouldn't get better if I didn't do anything, forced myself to eat my words and swallow my lies. Besides, a quieter voice spoke in my head, she knows you're here already. Chances are she knows why you're here. Who knows how long she's been watching?

(I could give a definite answer to that last question, which was how I knew it was wrong.)

After a half-hour that stretched out into an endless back and forth with myself, I decided to do something. Shoving myself out of bed, I let my inertia carry me through the door and into the facility at large. Here I felt like a pawn of my momentum, all agency stripped away by Newton's first, which was just how I preferred it.

Eventually, I came to the entrance for the observation post at the center of the station and it opened, seemingly expectantly. I swallowed. I didn't need to be reminded of her omniscience — I already had enough problems with my existence without wondering if or how she'd pushed and pulled me throughout my time here.

If I didn't know why I was here, I could've lost myself in the soft twinkle of the stars against the steel and Plexiglass manacle around what I assumed was her waist. But I had a goal I knew I'd come up with for the first time in fifteen years, and I was looking for my fellow aberration, not the reassuring fusion glow of normalcy.

The radio equipment clicked on with a muted thud of static. She was definitely here, but she was expecting me to make the first move: the board had been set and I was playing white.

I took a deep breath to steady myself. Adrenaline tends to start pumping when you're confronted with the reason for your existence. After letting it out in a long, protracted sigh, I softly laid my hand against the glass.

Contact.

The radio slowly crackled with life, first with static, then trembling versions of words I'd heard spoken by a voice that was literally a lifetime ago: "We cast. We cast. We cast." Her words were cut off by sharp howls of static that sounded like keening, electronic sobbing through the speakers. "Foundation? You're there." Then after a moment of silence: "Kari?"

My throat tightened with tears and post-mortem reunion fugue. "I-I'm here again. I'm sorry I left you."

"I missed you too. You're… different." She sounded disappointed. I couldn't blame her. "You're not as many as you were, last time we met."

"A lot of things changed while I was gone. I'm sorry."

As if to prop up my rapidly-crumbling composure: "It doesn't matter. You're back."

I took a deep, hiccupping breath. "You didn't forget me?"

"No. I can wait. I can always wait." I could hear her smile through the speakers, eyes twinkling with high-frequency EM beaming down at me — what I could also hear were the unspoken words, I can always wait — but for how much longer?

"Okay." I wiped tears away from my face, watched them glimmer off into the harsh whiteness of the station around me. "I missed you too." And then I feel my lungs — artificial and entirely unnecessary reminders of a life since-incinerated — have the oxygen pulled out of them, absorbed into a giant hand of void which caresses my cheek.

It hurts the most that I can recognise the brush of fingers long-gone in her alien non-warmth, feel visceral tenderness in the negative space, and I can put a name to that person who lies just underneath the cloak of nothingness. But then we've both changed: one after the other, and no matter how much I hate her for doing so, I can't hold that anger when she can't feel anything for me.


"They want me to be part of the crew up there." Alexandra Poole pointed up at the sky, her finger's target obscured by the shadow of the Portland Observatory: somewhere a tiny fraction of a lightyear away stood a brilliant citadel floating in space, a childhood fantasy of spacemen going to faroff planets reified in the brutal construction of a Foundation observation post.

It was cold enough that night that the shock felt like an icy sting to Kari. Even if she hadn't known about it she'd subconsciously picked up something, the uneasy silences over their usual coffee, cracks in the conversation when Alex's tells became just obvious enough to dent her usual direct rapport — still, it hadn't lessened the blow any.

For what it was worth, Kari did her best to smile at her: "I'm so proud." The embrace was held just a little too long, arms too tight, as if clutching the broken pieces of something fragile and irreparable.

Alex swallowed audibly, and with Kari's ear at her neck she could hear the discomfort in that motion, subtle cues amplified into an overwhelming burst of something that left her unable to speak. "They wouldn't let me tell you earlier, I— they geased me, dammit, it was just there at the tip of my tongue…"

"It's fine." When Kari finally released her, her eyes looked just the tiniest shade darker even under the soft lights of the Portland starscape. "C'mon, I'm not gonna hold this against you. Your dream, isn't it?"

Mist filled the air as Alex let out an unconscious breath. "I didn't want to have to live it alone. I'm just— sorry. Sorry it turned out this way, sorry I didn't fight harder—"

"Don't be. I'll still miss you too while you're out there, spacegirl."

"Yeah. I'll… miss you too."

Later, Kari would look back on those words and realise how fucking stupid they were: emotional duct-tape designed to smooth over the sharp edge of something neither of them could control, candy coating on the bitter pill.

But by that time it was too late for retrospection.


When I woke up the next day, there was the heavy warmth of something filling the absence next to me. The smell of hazelnuts and floral shampoo with the tinge of sweat after a night's work fending off the dreams, each sleep bringing crushing existential cramps about a star coming to bear down on the human race in a vision of fiery chariots and Russian Morse that she wouldn't see realised in her lifetime.

For a moment there, I wondered if I was dreaming. The next moment, I was wondering if it mattered, and then I was holding her, desperate sobbing breaths into her shoulder, murmured babbling that eventually resolved into "You're not real, you're not real," furious denials spoken to reverse-psychology reality into making it real.

She yawned muzzily and rolled over. "Later… bug me about it later…"

It was real — it was real in my mind, and that was the only real that existed for me, and that was enough. More than enough. My fingers traced tentative lines down her arm, felt the ragged hole of the bullet wound she'd always hated. It was an exacting copy that fit my mental photonegative of her all too well, I realised: calculated in its familiarity, an artificial clone ripped straight out of my mind…

And then the light hit her scar, revealing the sharp gleam of steel and the same falcon brand that lay under my skin, too.

Suddenly my stomach flipped from knowing warmth to chilling uncertainty. This was either a benevolent act of providence or a cruel piece of bait designed to keep me here for as long as possible — in either case, I knew it was her doing.

"Someone's excited to get up and go." Alex rubbed her eyes, cat-like, and fumbled for glasses on the bedside table — bedside table? I realised I hadn't seen anything of the sort when I'd first gone to sleep here and the realisation only made the room feel smaller around me. "You have a bad night too?"

"Yeah."

"Aw." Before I could get up, she dragged me back down onto the hard mattress. "What happened?"

"I'll… tell you later. Still not quite over it."

"Alright." Our subconsciouses used to take it upon themselves to see which one could perturb their owners more: Alex had a fair approximation of what this usually meant for me, so she backed off. Useful to get her doppelganger to also leave me alone for a few minutes.

As soon as I was out of sight of her, I threw myself down the corridors with renewed force, burning curiosity as my fuel down the labyrinth of the station. I didn't remember it being this big and yet that only served to make me even more claustrophobic, remembering Alex's tales of what had happened to the last probe they'd sent. I needed something I could trust, even if it was from the thing that was doing all this in the first place.

So I pushed my way through the still-open doors and snatched the intercom from its resting place on the desk.

"Why are you doing this?"

The radio crackles back. "Are you unhappy about this?"

"I—" I pause for a sudden bout of hysterical laughter that's gripped me. "I would think that I had a fucking good reason to be a little angry at you right about now! You can't just do that like this…" A sudden thought strikes me, that both me and the woman lying there are zombies alike, bought from the dead on the whim of their creator. "Why? Why did you have to bring her back?"

"I thought that was what you wanted, no? To open closed books and to read them to someone like you, in you. Part of us both, yes?"

My hand starts to shake as it grips the microphone and I hate the rogue servo that's making me act like this. "This— I was doing fine. I just wanted to— I just wanted to know. I just wanted to know what happened to you, how I got here… how all of this happened. Why'd you let me go?"

She seemed taken aback by the question, and I knew all the scientists had. "They talked with me. I'd waited for them for so long, and then they talked again. They hadn't spoken experience in so long. The message was the medium: I listened. And part of that message was you."

Spoken experience. I swallowed and parsed that slowly. "You. Alex. You absorbed Alex."

"Listened, yes!"

"And you… let me out. Why?"

"They wanted me to sing to them, so I spoke your verse, improvised around what she'd given me when she spoke to me."

Improvised.

I was a variation on a half-remembered theme, a poor photocopy of someone who'd died in an apocalypse she'd tried to prevent: yet all she'd achieved was ensuring I was around to know she'd failed.


She'd been a test subject in the first rounds of testing for the Anderson equipment: leftover BCIs collecting neural images of the men and women they wouldn't been able to save from the star, now blistering towards Earth at superluminal velocities.

Kari was the first image broadcast to the Neptune station, a test of whether or not they could dump minds into Saker bodies fast enough over long enough distances to ensure they at least got evacuated in spirit. Unfortunately, the station didn't remember they had a radio receiver located smack bang in the middle of the station, and when the vacuum began to sing it began to seek out more melodies.

After half the site had been disintegrated in a five minute rush of chaos, the Foundation immediately began prepping the total evacuation of the remaining inhabitants of the site — and the barely-functional image of Kari received through the distortion of the Vacuum. They'd later dump it into the Saker body of just another man five years after the incineration of Earth.

She was hailed as a hero for a month, a proof of concept for a year, and then abandoned at a Site somewhere out on Proxima once all the other, proper Foundationites had their bodies back (or at least got made available as neatly formatted Nankeen substitutes). Then she was told what happened to Alex, and after they'd made sure to emphasise her fault in the matter she cut ties with them right then and there.

It took another decade after that: exchanging information with the spallated remains of the GOC, a tipoff to Prometheus' grandchildren here and there, but eventually she found her way back to the base where she was born. To mourn and to find answers.


"I overheard you."

I'd frozen, I'd begged for her to ignore it, but she was inconsolable — she reminded me of myself not two weeks after my birth on that satellite and I hated myself for it, for dragging anyone through that, by accident or not. "I overheard you" — I'd betrayed her, plain and simple, and that was that.

"I can make it better."

The inside was shifting violently now, rooms growing and shrinking in sharp bouts of topological birthing pains, furniture and drinks and post-its teasing and flirting and reminding, forming themselves out of nothingness as they slid into position. The windows, the little there were, shuddered and flickered with the light of a million different sunsets as they heaved to show a present pregnant with possibilities.

"Shut up."

I was heading to the airlock. I knew my ship wouldn't be there.

"I'm sorry."

Sparse white benches and plumbing extruded themselves out of the air around me, a laboratory sealing my path off. I screamed unconsciously and threw myself at the door to burst through into the other side.

"I can make you happy again."

Sheisn'tmesheisn'thersheisn'tmesheisn'thersheisn'tmesheisn'ther—

A lanky blonde man with a sample tube full of something glistening and black walked out from a corridor to nowhere, neck slit to expose the titanium framework underneath. He cocked his head at me and I watched something in his eyeball flicker.

"We can fix this."

A few more meters to the airlock, straight shot down a hallway that screamed as it burst into a million different antichambers and sublevels. And then I was there, clutching onto the door's handles and tugging and screaming, "Stop it—"

Then hands, pulling me gently away from the airlock — am I so incompetent as to fail even in this? — and then I'm floating, staring wide-eyed at the cast of some sick play starring Site-64: Merlo, with her arm juddering uncontrollably, Holman, legs torn open at the calves to reveal serial numbers, and Shaw, face frozen to stare at me with wild, trembling eyes.

Alex leads the troupe. She's crying. In unison, they declare:

"Go back to bed and I promise I can make it better."

I sob, muffled, into Alex's shoulder as she holds me and begins leading me down the corridors of the Site — this isn't a station anymore, there's too much gravity, too much carpet and mundanity to be the station I left — towards my apartment. Towards something right.

"I can keep singing for you if you'd just let me," Alex stammers in that two-voice that is and isn't hers. "I know the day and I can play it. Just go back to bed."

I see a man taking up his station at his desk, a woman burying her head in paperwork, a man who'd lost his friends and his family at the demand of a greater good, all staring at me as they take their roles for the show. The last performance of a million damned homunculi.

Finally I reach my home and with a small prompting from Alex I obtain the keys from my pocket and unlock the apartment. I stumble numbly through the living room as the coffee and the apple and the television reassert their place as props on the stage, and then I reach the bedroom.

"It's over now. You can sleep. You don't have to live if you don't want to."

I fall onto the bed with her.

Someone else holds her tight.

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