15. The trap

The walls are closing in. Or they seem to be. I don’t know if it’s real, or if my theory about my perception of the corridor being warped by my lens is even true. The feeling of not knowing if I’m able to trust my perceptions is more unsettling than the sensation of standing in the rapidly-constricting room.

I don’t understand why this is happening. I need to figure it out if we’re going to escape. It’s possible, I suppose, that the copter had this address in its saved destinations because it knew we were going to visit it; it’s also possible that the trap was set for us when we arrived; it’s plausible that this is always present as a kind of internal protection, and we missed some way to override it.

I don’t know.

The message on the wall has gone away, like it never existed, and Sal and I are simply surrounded by whiteness again. The seams between walls, floor, and ceiling are hard to see.

And then the lights go off again, and we’re surrounded by darkness.

There is no sound but our breathing and the rapidly increasing tempo of blood pumping.

“What,” Sal says, “is going on.”

I find them in the darkness and hold on for dear life.

Let had friends. I didn’t understand or appreciate them at the time - I was mostly interested in was survival; getting through each day with enough food in my belly and heat to live - but as I look back, in the light of what I know now, I’ve learned to appreciate them.

None of them had names. I mean, they must have, but they didn’t have names that they shared and used with each other. To me, there was just the Tall One, the Quiet One, and the One With the Smile. They all dressed more or less like Let, and like all of us - whatever they could get their hands on, in other words - and had similar, hand-cut hair. So those were their characteristics: tall, quiet, and a genuinely kind smile. I liked the last one the best.

They took care never to show me what they were doing, and I came to understand that it was for my safety. I didn’t like it. Mostly I was worried about losing Let. From the bits and pieces I managed to overhear, I understood that they were working on lenses somehow; trying to figure out how they worked.

As part of this, he’d actually managed to break his lens. It didn’t work for him at all; it was still there, grafted to his nervous system, but it was completely non-functional. He worried sometimes that because the self-cleaning function that all lenses have was also compromised, one day it would just rust into his head and poison him, like he’d been embedded with a time bomb. But he didn’t try very hard to fix it.

Let had been a small part of building the decentralized lens network, so that was strange to me. He, of all people, should have already known how it worked. Nonetheless, he and his friends were trying hard to reverse engineer something. I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t understand the need.

These days, I have a better idea.

By now, I’ve realized that the walls aren’t closing in. They just feel like they are. It’s a psychological trap, designed to freak us out. The darkness, which I’m now coming to think of as redacted light, is meant to heighten the fear. But if I know this, if I understand that the fear is the point, I can overcome it.

Sal and I have been embracing each other for dear life, and we begin to loosen our grip.

I open my eyes, which have been tightly closed, and find that the scenery has changed once again. This version, I’m more certain, is real.

Infuriating, but real.

I suppose I had one friend. In some ways, she was more than a friend, although I don’t think she ever knew it. If she did know, she never told me.

Mod was one of those people who makes your life better just by setting foot in it. Even despite the sheer horror of what was happening in the world, she found a way to look at it through a different angle to everyone else, and then she helped you to do that, too. She had all the same fears and vulnerabilities as everybody else, but she found a way to be passionate and to approach the world with an inner creativity that was, against all odds, driven by joy. Her eyes were alive with mischief and wonder. I can recall her laugh with crystal clarity. I was deeply in love with her, and deeply afraid she’d find out. I didn’t really understand what being in love meant in practice, but I sure as hell knew what being out of my league was, even if I didn’t have a name for it.

It was enough to be her friend, I told myself, even if I often wanted more.

She was a magnificent curator, who could use the lens network to its full potential. She found outsider artists - all artists were outsiders at this point - who were making amazing work with the objects they had to hand, in all media. Stop motion animation; weaving; illustration; music. She would save them into what she called her catalog: a lens node that was hers alone, designed for her rather than any kind of audience, that tagged and filed away each of these sparks of inspiration.

She loved the art and culture from the before times, too. She loved the old serials: particularly the genre stuff that sat outside mainstream norms even then. She saw straight through the veneer into the creative core beneath, and was as much a follower of the artists involved as the stories and characters. She found the fan fiction, created by people who loved the serials so much that they continued them in their own minds and shares their re-imaginings with each other. She was unafraid of sex and attraction - topics that terrified me - and saw them, if anything, as an adventure.

We held hands a few times, and I felt electricity shooting through me. But nothing more.

I wished I could have touched her forever.

We met in one of the most interesting squats I passed through: full of tattooed artists and musicians, people who created their own culture and recorded the stories of their lives in a way that could be repeated and passed down. Our own post-apocalyptic Homers, telling stories through song and verse to keep it for posterity. She was very much one of them. I was not, but I admired them all. They were all so beautiful, and she was by far the most.

I don’t know where she is now. I haven’t known for a very long time.

Sal, though, was her friend. I don’t feel all the same electricity, but I do feel something of the same connection.

We’re back at the base of the building, by the outside wall, where the door had been. There’s no sign of it now.

Sal is just looking bewildered at its shiny veneer. Tentatively, she starts to reach out to touch it again, flattening her hand, and I slap her arm away. She looks at me inquisitively and I shake my head. We’re not doing that again.

“I don’t think we ever went inside,” I say.

“That’s a hell of a defense mechanism,” Sal says.

We’re none the wiser for the experience, except in the sense that we know what’s possible with our lenses. The experience of exploration - and of entrapment - can be entirely simulated for us. I still don’t get why, or what that even was. Still, it happened, and I don’t want to repeat it.

“Or …” Sal starts to say. They trail off and look around. Then I see them deep in concentration, making the same face they make when they dive into the developer tools on their lens.

“We’ve been gone for three hours,” Sal says, finally, “and there’s new software on my lens. I’m sure there is on yours too.”

“So we were inside?” I ask.

“Not necessarily. But they somehow adjusted our perception of time. And that was enough to download new firmware onto the lens and install it. I don’t know how that works so seamlessly, but it turns out there’s a lot I don’t know.”

“What now?”

“That’s the thing I don’t know most of all.”

First Mod was in love with Sal, and then Mod was in love with another girl, and that was the person who took her away from me.

I’d lost my parents, and by that time I’d lost Let, but this loss felt different to the others. It was a loss of possibility; of the potential of a life that was never allowed to exist.

The new girl’s name was Xor, and I didn’t understand why she was interesting. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t into her, of course, but I endlessly self-questioned: what did this person have that I didn’t? How could I be a better person; the kind of person that Mod would be able to see herself with?

Xor was also not one of the artists or musicians. She was quiet and businesslike: I would go so far as to say boring. Instead of the life and magic that Mod possessed, she was the essence of stability. Perhaps that was enough, but it seemed to me like it squandered some part of being alive. Choosing to spend a life with this person was to put adventure back on the shelf and choose predictability.

I was moving from squat to squat and had lost everything. I couldn’t be predictable or safe, and I didn’t have the inner fire to be one of the artists. I was just other, and I began to feel like that simply could never be enough.

When it became clear that Mod and Xor were going to be a serious thing, I politely accepted it, rather than telling Mod how I felt. Anything else felt disrespectful. But it also felt like she was making a choice between her life as it was - the artists, her friendship with me, her continued platonic relationship with Sal - and something more conventional.

When Xor began to tell Mod that she didn’t want her to hang out with me anymore, and to sever herself from the artists, it was too late.

One day she moved out of the building, and neither Sal nor I ever saw her again.

Sal and I turn to walk back to the copter. It’s not clear what we’re going to do next, but it’s clear that we need to regroup. The copter is new to us, but feels like a safer space. The building is nothing less than a weapon.

As we leave, I look back at the building one more time, back up to the faint outline of a window above where we’d seen the marching soldiers.

And there, in front of the marching figures, looking down at us, is the unmistakable outline of Mod.