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God Mode

This story also appears in PRESS START TO PLAY, a video game anthology edited by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams. Available now from Vintage Books.

Memories. Nauseous snatches of infinity trickling in, thumbing into my forehead, pinning me to this flower-smelling bed. My fractured thoughts are bursting away with the cannon-shot split of glaciers, broken towers that knife into a sea of amnesia.

In all of the forgetting, there is this one constant thing.

Her name is Sarah. I will always remember that.

She is holding my right hand with her left. Our fingers are interlaced, familiar. The two of us have held hands this way before. The memory of it is there, in our grasp.

Her hand in mine. This is all that matters to me now. Here in the aftermath of the great forgetting.

• • • •

I’m twenty. Studying abroad at the University of Melbourne in Australia, learning how to make video games. Today I’m riding on a crowded tram, south to St. Kilda Beach.

Sarah.

Another American mixed in among dozens of Aussie college kids in board shorts and bikinis, all of us packed into the heaving car, bare shoulders kissing as the heat rolls off sticky black plastic floorboards. We are headed to the beach on Christmas holiday.

Her hair is brown streaked with blonde. Her lips are red. Teeth white.

The tram pulls to a stop. Double doors open accordion-style and a cool salty breeze floods in. I’m watching her when she faints. Her eyes roll up and she falls and I try to catch her. But my grip isn’t strong enough. She’s beautiful and lean and tan under a sheen of sweat. She slips through my grasp and instead of saving her, I leave four bright red scratch marks across her shoulder blades.

Her sun-kissed hair swirls as her head hits the floor.

Sarah is only unconscious for a few seconds. Then her brown eyes are fluttering open and I’m holding her left hand with my right, pulling her up toward me, apologizing to her for the scratches and never for a moment realizing that our lives have now been grafted together, forever.

I remember. I think I can remember.

This is the day that the stars disappeared.

• • • •

For the rest of the day, Sarah is woozy from the fall. Bright light hurts her eyes, so I’m pulling the plastic rolling shade down over her small dorm window. Outside, downtown Melbourne is babbling to itself. Her room is tiny, just four white-painted concrete walls cradling a college twin-size bed across from a sink. Drawers are built into the wall. We haven’t stopped talking since I pulled her to her feet.

We sit together on sheets that smell like flowers. The sun falls.

Later, we lie whispering in the dark. My bare feet are pressed against the cool wall. Muffled sounds of the dormitory reverberate around us: laughter, slamming drawers, music, the slap of feet on tile floors.

• • • •

Sarah and I are talking philosophy while the stars blink out one by one, billions of miles away. The rules of physics are splintering and the foundation of rational thinking is dissolving like a half-remembered dream.

Holding hands in bed, we talk.

I can remember now. If I try very hard.

Sarah studies English. I am in Melbourne to study how to build virtual worlds. She doesn’t blame me for the scratches I left on her back when she fell. She says I was only trying to hold on. Her teeth are so white. The sharp angles of her face are tanned and an unlikely round dimple is tucked into the corner of her cheek.

A few nights later, she leaves scratches on my back.

We are both trying to hold on.

• • • •

“What’s beyond the mountains?” Sarah asks me.

I am building my video game world, hands sweaty on the controller. This is my honors project. I call it Synthesis. As I create this world, my point of view leaps across valleys and over mountains. I am gazing down on a fractally generated city and its myriad, faceless inhabitants.

“Nothing,” I say.

“Nothing?” she asks. “There must be something.”

“If it isn’t rendered by the computer . . . it doesn’t exist.”

“So . . . if you can’t see it, then it isn’t there?”

“Right,” I say.

“What if you look anyway?” she asks.

• • • •

On the news, they can’t stop talking about how the stars are gone.

There are quiet classes and subdued parties and always Synthesis. I lose track. We are reassured that the loss above us is some trick of the universe. Got to be. It’s impossible for stars to all disappear from the sky at the same time. They’re different distances away. The light takes different amounts of time to reach us. To disappear at once, they’d all have to have gone supernova at different moments, based on how far away from Earth they were.

Which is impossible.

• • • •

Another day and I’m creating the world again. Sarah tells me I should get a hobby. Play a sport. I tell her that I’m saving my body for old age. If I don’t use up my energy now, I say, then I’ll have it ready for later. Some people burn the candle at both ends, but I blew mine out. I am saving the wax.

She laughs and laughs.

• • • •

In Synthesis, I float through walls. Putting things together, you’ve got to see all the moving pieces. Sarah sits cross-legged next to me on her bed, wearing knee-length yoga pants and watching me work. She says she likes seeing how the textures roll across the landscape. A flat plane sprouts into a tangled wilderness. A gray cube shivers and grows a brick skin studded with glinting windows.

This is called “God Mode.”

It’s the act of creation, she says.

It’s just a simulation, I say.

You can simulate a nuclear blast on a supercomputer and nobody gets blown up. You can simulate the birth of a universe but that doesn’t make you a god. The simulation is convincing, but it doesn’t have the intrinsic quality of the real thing.

The real-realness just isn’t there.

“Right?” I ask.

Sarah is quiet for a long time. I have hurt her feelings somehow.

She scoots in behind me on the bed, wrapping her long legs around my waist. Now, she settles her elbows onto my shoulder blades. When she speaks I can feel her lips brushing my neck.

“If you can see it, then it’s there,” she says. “Even if it’s only gray.”

• • • •

After the lights are out, Sarah and I walk up to the roof. Laying beach towels over the scabby asphalt and pebbles, we lie on our backs and peer up into a nothing sky. There are no clouds. No light coming down. Just the light of the city going up.

Like our city is at the bottom of a black ocean.

I turn my head and my cheek touches Sarah’s. I can feel that her cheek is wet.

Sarah is crying silently to see it. This emptiness.

“It’s okay,” she says. “I’m just a little scared.”

“The scientists can explain it,” I say and I don’t sound convinced.

We don’t go back up to the roof again.

I do not want to see what’s beyond the mountains.

• • • •

They don’t cancel classes right away.

The man on the news interviews scientists. They have theories to explain why the stars are gone. An invisible storm of electromagnetic energy reacting with the atmosphere to block the light. An envelope of gas engulfing the planet. A primordial cloud of matter has floated in from intersolar space and swallowed our solar system.

We cling to the explanations.

• • • •

I’m from Oklahoma. Sarah is from Manhattan. I call home once a month. She calls her mom once a week. And then one day—no more calls.

There is a story about it in the last newspaper.

All the satellites have gone. The government advises people to stay calm and in their homes. Scientists are going to figure this out, they say. The headline is that Australia has lost contact with the other continents.

Classes are canceled after that.

• • • •

Things are loud in the dormitories for a little while. The walls are so thin. Friends and couples argue. Doors bang open and closed. Bags are packed and dragged down hallways. Sarah and I sit on her bed and we whisper. She keeps the panic from surging up my throat. Her hand is in mine and we squeeze until our fingers are numb. After a little while, things are much quieter.

I bring all my leftover food and a trash bag full of clothes to Sarah’s dorm and I throw it in the corner. We both agree that I should stay here from now on. My roommate was already gone when I went back to my room. He left a note saying that he had decided to head down to the coast to see if there was any news off the boats that dock there.

I don’t remember ever seeing him again.

• • • •

Sarah and I lie side by side in the dark. The black of no stars has been getting more gray lately. It has been hard to keep track of the time.

“Should we run?” I ask.

“Where would we go?” she asks. “Our families are on the other side of the planet. We’re stuck between the desert and an ocean.”

The normal things. They used to be so simple. Now, it is so hard to keep track.

“I don’t feel hungry,” I say.

“Me neither,” she says.

“When did we eat last?”

“I don’t know,” she whispers, and I feel her fingers searching for my hand.

Did we run? Did Sarah and I take off across the continent, searching for an explanation?

I think . . .

I can’t remember.

It always comes back to the dormitory.

The most familiar things . . . they always come back to me in the end.

• • • •

We are lying in Sarah’s bed, where the sheets smell like flowers, our fingers intertwined. I stand up and I cannot remember how long I have been sleeping. Or whether I was sleeping or just lying, looking at a white ceiling.

“Final stage,” says a whisper.

“What?” I ask.

“Nothing,” Sarah says, face muffled by her pillow. “I didn’t say anything.”

I peek out the small window. In the street, I see that a Royal Australian Naval Reserve guard is posted on the intersection. A young blond guy in tan camouflage, sweating under his helmet. The sun is only a golden hint in a gray sky. The soldier is watching the streets. He does not have a shadow.

“We’re sleeping too much,” I say to Sarah. “Let’s go outside.”

Sarah and I are walking down Swanston Street. Down the middle of the tram tracks, bright slices of metal curving through clean concrete. The electric wires are shivering overhead, twanging in a nonexistent breeze.

The sky is gray.

No more clouds.

“It’s quiet,” she says, and her words are flat, without an echo.

“Where did the people go?” I ask.

The soldier is gone.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t really remember anyone here very well, anyway.”

I turn abruptly and walk down a side street.

The grayness has a way of growing thicker. Details fade. My vision collapses until I am seeing the world from the bottom of a well. I spin and reach for Sarah in a sudden panic.

Her fingers feel hard and real. She pulls me back, our fingertips connecting like antennae, hands curling together into their familiar embrace.

“Are we in a video game?” I ask. “Did I fall asleep?”

“No,” she says. “You aren’t in a video game. Come back.”

In the distance, I see the silhouettes of the campus buildings. But they look strange.

Two-dimensional.

“Okay,” I say.

We walk, our footsteps echoing flatly against the pavement. There is no detail to the cement anymore. No dark patches of long-chewed gum or pale scratches from skateboards. It’s just . . . gray. Like everything.

“I feel like I’ve known you a long time, Sarah,” I say.

“I know,” she says, and we walk on.

“That’s weird,” she says, after a few moments.

“What?”

“The only thing left out here . . . is the way I walk to campus,” she says. “Everything else is just gray.”

• • • •

An apocalypse should be loud. Gunshots and rioting, that kind of thing. Life screaming out to live. But this is quiet. Dark. The gray of forgotten details. The people are just gone. People I never knew. Never will know.

Standing at the dorm window, I watch as the round eye of the sun bursts and spreads into a light that comes from all directions and none. The cardboard city outside goes dull. Even flatter, somehow.

After that, the dark doesn’t come again.

• • • •

Sarah lies on her bed, asleep. She is so clear to me. Her colors are vibrant.

The radius of reality is shrinking, but Sarah is this one constant thing. The curve of her cheek on the pillow is so familiar. How strange that I am twenty. How strange that I have known her for so long in such a short amount of life.

• • • •

I think we are the last ones living in Sarah’s dormitory.

Sometimes I wander through the empty hallways, peek into the rooms.

Before, each room was different. But now they’re all the same.

A twin bed across from a sink. A whining fluorescent light. Always on, flickering. Wooden drawers built into the wall and a gray square of glass.

“I don’t know if the campus is really there anymore,” I say to Sarah, and panic is building in my throat. “It’s just this room. It’s just us.”

Her hand closes onto mine.

• • • •

My thoughts are lazy ripples through still water. The realization comes slow, like mist evaporating off a pond.

Sarah is the dreamer.

We lost the stars on the day she hit her head. The more she sleeps, the more we lose. The gray of her forgetting is eating the world. Now, only her strongest memories are alive. The walk to class. This room.

Me.

I move closer to her sleeping body, press myself against her.

• • • •

This morning—morning, is there such a thing anymore—I walk to the front door of the dormitory and I look out and I see that the sky is missing. A postbox is on its side in the street, half-buried in the pavement. The red metal skin of it is juddering on and off. Between the blinks I can see mail inside.

Before I go back upstairs, I put my hand on the glass of the door and it doesn’t feel cool. It doesn’t feel warm, either. It doesn’t feel like anything.

Sarah is curled on her bed. Shaking. She is shaking and moaning.

I hold her, feel her hair slithering over my arms.

The world outside is getting smaller.

Sarah shakes. The forgetting grows.

• • • •

I don’t remember waking up. I am floating in gray. My body is falling through the walls and it’s so familiar.

I am holding Sarah in my arms and I can feel the cool sand of the beach under my hip. I am stroking her sea-smelling hair and murmuring into the soft dampness. “It will be okay,” I’m saying. “You’re the dreamer, Sarah.”

“We can find each other in your dreams,” I say to her.

• • • •

And then the smell of her hair is gone, along with the feel of the sand. I open my eyes to look down at my body and I am tumbling, spinning in space because I have no eyes. There is no body. All of it has finally gone away.

Things unseen are not rendered.

And yet I am still here.

I am thinking. My thoughts are somewhere. Churning in the gray.

Sarah slipped through my fingers.

Was she my dream?

Am I the dreamer?

• • • •

Even now, there is this one constant thing.

A pressure where my hand should be.

Fingers, laced into mine. Squeezing.

I can remember if I try very hard.

• • • •

“Final stage,” I hear the whisper.

• • • •

Something beats at my eyes. A flutter of reality. A line of hard light appears and shatters my vision into a briar patch of eyelashes.

I am opening my eyes.

• • • •

And I find myself lying in a flower-smelling bed under a clean white ceiling that is chopped into neat squares. There is a gray video screen hanging on the wall.

“Final stage,” says that unfamiliar voice. “Neural calibration and transmission complete.”

• • • •

Sarah?

Eyes swiveling down, I see that my right hand is a leathery claw, laced with blue-black veins, knuckles twisted and humped.

A small moan comes from my dry, cracked throat.

I am old. I am ancient. I am twenty how am I twenty?

And my Sarah.

She is lying next to me on the bed—it’s a hospital bed, this isn’t right, where is our dorm? Her lips are peeled back into a sweet worried smile and I can see a hint of that beauty I remember in her youthful angular face—a dimple still lodged stubbornly in her sagging cheek.

We are . . . old. Melted like wax.

I was saving my wax. I blew out my candle. I was twenty.

Years have draped themselves over us. Did we fall asleep?

“I lost you,” I say.

“No,” she whispers. “We’re together now. Always.”

• • • •

The screen on the wall flickers, shows me something painful.

Sarah and I are standing together on the screen.

Versions of us. In the computer.

We are holding hands and smiling.

It makes me cry to see us so young.

“Neural upload complete,” says the voice in the gray. “Both computational entities are viable. It’s a success, people.”

• • • •

I think the world is running away between my blinks. The screen and the ceiling and the walls are splitting off and falling into the great forgetting.

Only she is vibrant.

“Hosts are losing mental cohesion,” says a gray whisper.

Sarah.

She is lying next to me on her back with tears tracing down her temple. Our fingers have found their old familiar places. Her face is so bright that it hurts my eyes. Her lips are red again. Her hair is a sun-kissed brown.

We are both trying so hard to hold on.

“Sarah?” I ask.

“I’m not scared anymore,” she says and her teeth are so white. “It will be okay. We’ll find each other in our dreams.”

Her hand in mine. It’s all that matters.

In all of the forgetting, there is this one constant thing.

Her name is Sarah. I will always remember that.

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Daniel H. Wilson

Daniel H. Wilson

Daniel H. Wilson is a Cherokee citizen and author of the New York Times bestselling Robopocalypse and its sequel Robogenesis, as well as seven other books, including How to Survive a Robot Uprising, A Boy and His Bot, and Amped. He earned a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as Masters degrees in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. His latest novel is The Clockwork Dynasty. Wilson lives in Portland, Oregon.