Event Horizon – Chapter 12 – The Soul

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Hyperlinks in the text are intended as supplemental material, discussing elements of the science behind the science fiction. They are not intended as required reading for the story. Hyperlinks will be provided at the point in the story where it comes up, but all the links will also be collected at the bottom of the post for easy reading.

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The Labyrinth

Atalanta ran.

Her bare feet slapped against the surface of the digitized hallway, her lungs burning with exertion as she passed through the door at the end of the way, slamming the jet-black portal shut behind her. “Hurry, lock it!” another woman – another Atalanta – said, her voice frantic. Two other clones rushed forward to do it, just in time for one of the pursuing monsters to crash against the door from the other side. Atalanta threw her shoulders against it, desperately straining to hold it shut. Two of her clones quickly caught up to assist her, finally slamming it back shut just in time for a third to herself and one of her clones forced the lock into place. The pursuing monsters crashed into it from the other side again and again, pounding against its frame, crazed with the urge for rape and slaughter.

“We’re safe!” one of them exclaimed in triumph.

“Where’s our fifth?” another Atalanta said, frantically tossing her gaze from left to right.

“Gone,” the third identical copy said morosely. “I watched her go down. The cannibals. They-“

She was interrupted by an even louder slam against the door, making all of them jerk in panic. As far as they could tell, the door’s programming did not allow it to buck or bend, so there should be no way for the monsters outside to get their way inside it sounded as if about to break apart at any time. That wasn’t the rule of this game, though – Maria Keye had made that abundantly clear. When a door was closed it remained so. Not even a virtual battering ram could bring down one of her virtual doors. However, not one of them trusted her word for even an instant. Sound, at least, still traveled as it normally would. All four of them heard the murderous snarls and bestial growling from the other side… and then a lone feminine shriek that overruled even all of the animalistic outcries.

Each of them shuddered, certain that it was the sound of the fifth clone of herself being eaten alive. Knowledge of her grisly doom harried the nerves of those left alive, causing them to turn around and assess the room they had found themselves in. At a glance, it appeared just as hollow and abstract as any other corridor or chamber within this nightmarish virtual world. The jet-black walls and doors were outlined with stretches of stark magenta-purple. This provided clear delineation of objects and contours while providing absolutely no character… It was essentially a maze in its most platonic form. Such was the nature of a reality constructed entirely out of points, lines, planes, and other basic geometric forms… yet within this rudimentary design untold traps and dangers hid, always.

The hallway was a classical set-up the four of them had seen from Maria before on numerous other trips through the endless maze. Three closed doors, all equally anonymous, with no clue whatsoever of what they contained within. As always, going backward was no option at all.

Then, while each of them was pausing to consider, one of the Atalanta incarnations bolted for the nearest one.

“No! Wait! What are you doing!?” the one who had forced the lock into place exclaimed. 

Before the replica could open the door, she spun around and addressed her identical peers. “There is no point in waiting!” she stated. “You’ve seen what I’ve seen… There are no right options within these labyrinths. Maria does not give us good or bad choices, she just gives us horrors no matter what door we pursue.”

Privately Atalanta didn’t quite agree with her copy – some of the trials had been noticeably less lethal than others. It was somewhat alarming to her to witness like this just how quickly their thoughts and opinions could begin to diverge from one another… Maria had split her into twenty copies just a few hours ago, and already the variable trials and nightmares they had been through had changed their personality and opinions. Not a lot, but to a noticeable degree. It was… worrying… when she thought about the copy she had left behind with the Kthid. In the end, Maria would always force them to merge back up… she would be forced to live through the memories of the dead, as well. “So!?” she asked. All of them had materialized within this nightmare stark naked and defenseless, with no physical characteristic to differentiate them at all. That hadn’t lasted… each of them bore scars by now, burns or cuts or teeth marks that made it easy to tell who was who. It was still a strange experience… most Exalted rarely split themselves unless it was to do two different things in different places. Atalanta could not recall, prior to this, ever interacting with a copy of herself. This was different and novel… Every copy was an independent unit not connected to the other incarnations. As such, they were all essentially clones of each other. Whenever Atalanta spoke, it was to an identical copy of herself, another summoned version of her programming… or perhaps she was one. It was hard to tell, and she supposed it really didn’t matter… but either way it made their deaths all the more unnerving and horrific to those who survived.

After all, it was in effect themselves who had perished.

“So, that means that the only thing we can change is speed… our only option to proceed safely. Whatever awaits us on the other side, we have to try and outrun it! We have to make it to the other door as quickly as possible! That’s our only chance!” she answered.

The four of them were all that remained of the original score of Atalanta’s replicas that had started this game… this time. They were the finalists, in essence – the Exalted that still had the chance to survive Maria’s cruel game to the finish line. This was her exhibit to entertain the woman… a never-ending maze, a constant competition against herself to see how long she could last. Keye had tasked them with running through a pre-prepared horror house of her own design, one that seemed to go on endlessly. So far they had encountered dozens of deadly trials ranging from the ancient and mundane, like deadly pitfalls and spike traps, to the modern like laser defense grids and nanite swarms, to the insane like crazed cannibal Atalanta-clone hunters that prowled the maze and alien predators galore, mostly taken from the logs of the Mistrunner’s voyage through the Noctis Sector. They never even saw Maria, usually… they just knew that she was observing them whenever it struck her fancy and smiling as they died for her amusement.

“Wait! Let’s talk this throu-” the Atalanta who had handled the lock urged.

“No! I’m going now! Follow me or not, I’m going to survive this game!” the manic-seeming Atalanta by the door exclaimed.

“Don’t do it!” another of the Atalantas said, bolting towards her as the other one reached for the knob of that sealed door. She didn’t make it more than halfway before the other woman pulled the door open… and screamed.

There wasn’t a passage on the other side of that wall… it was a barrier, and it took Atalanta a moment to realize was she was looking at. At a glimpse, it just looked like a churning mass of hard and soft flesh. It took a moment, a disastrously long moment, for her brain to make out the patterns and for the mess to resolve into an enormous plethora of Void Tracers packed so tightly that they tumbled into the hallway like a mudslide. The Atalanta who had opened that door was flattened underneath a cavalcade of tails, claws, and hammerheads, all of them writhing with virulent aggression as the Void Tracer’s jerked to life, buried by the living, hungry mass. The three surviving women gawked and stood awestruck at this monster closet. Atalanta didn’t know if she survived even a second, or if she was being saved for far darker fates than mere death… all she knew is that she would never see the woman again if she wanted to survive. She needed to run right now.

Amidst the tumult, a few of those tiny-eyed abominations managed to get their feet underneath them and promptly shrieked at the trio still living. This was the sign for all of them to start running like hares being hunted by a fox. They took off in different directions. The one halfway there sprinted for door number two while the duo that had remained by the entranceway, including her, sprinted for door number three.

The room quickly became a beehive of shrill Void Tracer shrieks. The Atalanta clone running for the second door promptly ripped it over and dashed inside… and ran face-first into an invisible wall, solid as bricks or steel. Her nose exploded into a bleeding mess as her face was flattened at speed, her eyes already widening as she staggered back in shocking pain while a smear of her blood hung in the air, revealing the shape of that wall. She would not be alive long enough to consider the pain, though. The hammer-headed monsters were already upon her. Atalanta didn’t know if the first of her replicas had survived the initial tide, but from the way these first Void Tracers were already beginning to spit webs at her the fate of her second copy would not be half so kind… raped to death, likely, as dozens or hundreds of voice tracers competed to breed her. Atalanta doubted she would even survive long enough for those eggs to eat her from the inside.

“Help!” she cried out desperately as the two surviving Atalantas escaped into door number three, and Atalanta looked back with a miserable, helpless expression… and then slammed the door shut, rendering it impassable. Just like with the Atalanta version who had fallen to the cannibals, they could still hear her death shouts through that sealed pathway.

“Barricade it while I loc-” Atalanta directed her partner, reaching for that knob, her hands freezing upon beholding that it wasn’t there. This door, unlike the others, had no lock… it wasn’t going to seal. Atalanta, momentarily stunned, beheld the latest of Maria’s cruel twists… clearly, the stakes of this particular labyrinth were going to be raised yet again now that only two of them remained.

“Run,” she shouted as the brief second of paralyzing shock passed. Her copy, further away, had frozen for a shorter time and the quicker reaction enabled her to get a head start on the Atalanta. but she was only a few footsteps ahead as the two of them dashed down the dark, narrow passageway. They both made it about fifty feet before the first of the nightmarish alien horde broke down the door in frantic pursuit, howling as they chased after the fleeing women. 

Both of them panted heavily as they pumped their arms and legs, breathing deeply and swallowing air contaminated by their pheromones, panic accelerating their minds even as it dulled their thoughts. These tunnels would bend and curve after only a few meters, causing them to dash around blind corners with reckless abandon. A few times, the tunnels split, and they didn’t have time to consider which direction was best… they simply picked one at random and ran. Sometimes there were traps and other sheer athletic instincts let her dodge her way through. Sometimes they would even loop around themselves in what was supposed to be geometrically impossible pathways, but within Maria’s simulation many things that should have been impossible happened anyway – this was just one more trick to disorientate their minds. Altogether, it made it impossible to tell just how far ahead of the Void Tracers they were managing to stay, and that harried their fears into even greater intensities.

Behind them, one of those pursuing monsters hungrily shrieked. The thought of ending up inside one of their bellies brought speed to the two survivors’ exhausted legs, and that was one of the better fates they could imagine if they let those things catch up to them. They may be Exalted, and these hunters mere computer representations conjured by Dr. Keye’s programming, but none of that made their terror or the danger they were in any less real. The pain was pain whether it happened inside a computer simulation or in real life, and termination had its terrible finality all the same. As such, Atalanta was terrified: She would be hunted down.

She rounded the next corner at top speed… and then slammed her soles into the digitized floor, sliding in her desperate effort to stop her sprint immediately. Atalanta fell, rolled, and tumbled, bracing her legs against the wall in a frantic effort to arrest her momentum, and she dropped moving millimeters away from certain death. 

Before her loomed some kind of enormous, translucent ooze that took up the entire hallway. The giant gelatinous thing was so big that it blocked off the pathway like a makeshift wall… and the copy that had been running ahead of her had plunged right into it before seeing it, crashing through several feet of the almost-invisible goo before becoming stuck fast. Her whole body lay consumed within its embrace, not even a leg or a strand of hair sticking out. She lay trapped like a fly caught underneath an ooze of resin. The clone was struggling, attempting to turn and swim back out. Her movements, however, were so slow, weak, and pathetic. She only managed the first part, allowing the two dark-haired Exalted to face each other one last time.

Then the gelatinous monster’s acidic oils kicked in, and the trapped Atalanta clone was essentially melted wholesale, her body liquefied so that it could be consumed as nourishment for the alien menace. Her pain-wrought face attempted to scream yet only a few bubbles escaped and no sound at all, like she was screaming underwater. This was the last that the still-living Atalanta saw of her final clone. Within seconds, every feature of her that was recognizably Human had been melted down into a bloody pulp, dissolving like a wax statue left out in the sun.

The pure unadulterated terror that Atalanta experienced witnessing this death turned her very sinews into blocks of solid ice. She could not move nor think nor feel anything save for singular terror. Then she heard the shrill shrieks of the pursuing Void Tracers and realized that she was still a hunted woman. She looked backward, then back at the alien jelly, then backward again.

There was no escape!

Her brain could not handle this surety of death. Like a tiny panicked animal looking about for some crack to escape into, she searched the floors and the walls and the ceiling and found them all equally featureless. Was this the end? Was the rest of her existence a mere question of death at the fangs of the Void Tracers or death within the gelatinous cube’s toxic embrace?

The snarling hammerheads rounded the corner that she had just ventured by. Seeing her figure, they took no regard for the pathway-blocking cube and instead leaped at her naked frame. The fallen heroine who had won so many battles for the HEF shuddered, feeling the end as she felt in every ounce of her being that she was about to die.

The Void Tracer’s fangs found her flesh, and it was like being stabbed by dozens of knives as they sank into her naked skin for just a second… and then the simulation ended.

One second, her ears had been ringing with the infernal pandemonium of hundreds of Void Tracers screaming. In the next micro-second, there was void-like silence all around her. This whiplash of sensations left the sole surviving Atalanta in a daze that made it hard to think for several seconds. She had survived, but her mind, so certain the end was coming, still reacted as if it had been sent to the other side.

From the darkness around her, Maria Keye laughed.

Crossing her naked bosom with both forearms, the last surviving Atalanta slowly rose back up onto her feet, looking around though she kept her chin hanging low. Though the horror maze that she had spent the few days running through had ended she was still within her virtual prison, the nexus of her vast supercomputer. Here, her mistress had such a mastery of the environment that it was sometimes hard to remember that there was no considerable difference between the jet-black and magnate purple layout that characterized the horror house and the dark void that currently was her digitized reality. That fact alone made Atalanta’s every step dogged by pulses of intense traumatic terror. It was all just adding up so high. This was not the first time her sadistic captor had divided up her essence and forced the Exalted heroine to participate in games of death like this. In her spare moments, Atalanta tried to understand why. What was the purpose of this? It seemed overly elaborate for sheer casual sadism. It seemed almost like she was testing the limits that the mind could be pushed to… Her sanity and existence had become playthings to Maria’s cruel designs.

Atalanta found herself pulled through the void, the not-air whooshing past her until she seemed to pop into a central hub hovering in the darkness that resolved into the floating building that constituted the center of Maria’s home, the ancient building of marble that looked like an old temple. Pulled into it, she emerged from her alcove in her museum of horrors sprawling onto the ground, looking up at where Maria reclined on the central dias from where she had been watching.

“Come,” Maria said, beckoning. She didn’t pull. She didn’t force Atalanta… but Atalanta came when called anyway. What else was she going to do? Here, Maria was God… anything she willed she could force if the Exalted captive gave her a reason, and it would be all the worse for the small rebellion. She slowly rose to her feet and, feeling every scrape, muscle pain, and sore body part that she thought she had left behind with her transcendence, walked onward toward the center of the temple. This was Maria’s world… she could make any adjustment to the Exalted that she wanted. If she wanted them to experience anything, she would.

Atalanta passed by the cell containing the Exalted Aesha. Her lips were sown-together, the dark pupils darting right-to-left within the white of her eyes constantly. The commanding woman looked like she had been through hell in her last torments. The horrors Maria conjured to populate her den were so vicious that they could reduce even the bravest of the Exalted into weeping wrecks. Others that she passed were in no better condition… if they weren’t currently in the middle of suffering they still looked like their minds lingered on it completely. Eventually, though, her attention was pulled forward as she approached the hub which was the very center of Maria Keye’s spider web, and Atalanta found the maniacal sadist enthroned before an array of monitors. They were arranged in a semi-circle around her, bringing to mind the screen-filed rooms of some production or a security room.

Currently, several of the monitors allowed the First Exalted to watch the replays from Atalanta’s gauntlet through the horror house of endless passageways. Each screen depicted a different kill, a different disaster, a different rape. The one that was directly in Atalanta’s view as she approached showed a recording of the last surviving replica being melted alive within that gelatinous mass in the hallways, letting Maria watch her dissolve with a sort of odd expression on her face. “Watching clones of yourself die must be so… exotic,” the dark-haired genius said in a distant voice, shaking her head. Then she raised one hand and flicked a wrist at Atalanta, and immediately the gesture immobilized every digital muscle in the Exalted’s body.

Atalanta tried to grunt or harrumph or elicit any other noise of discomfort from the agony this paralysis placed on her… she couldn’t even move her lungs enough to breathe. The frozen figure of the Exalted heroine slowly lifted up off the ground and began gliding across the floor towards Maria’s throne, ethereal like some ghost. Maria could control her like some voodoo doll, moving her with a gesture, displaying the god-like powers she had within her own realm.

“I’ve been keeping a close watch of these maze runs of yours,” the black-hearted scientist kept talking. “They’re consistent with some of the other experiments I’ve done… copies who personally watch others of their fellow clones die are unlikely to finish the race. The winner tends to be someone sheltered from gruesome visions. This trend persists no matter which Exalted I send into these horror houses. As such, the psychological conclusion seems relevant to life, you see.”

Atalanta was by now almost by her reclining throne. Maria kept on speaking her unanswered monologue, sounding more morose as she went. “Witnessing horrors… it saps you of the vitality needed to survive. Instead of being strengthened and motivated from seeing yourself perish, instead of it giving you the strength to avoid it, it seems it breaks down the individual and enfeebles you with its visions of doom. Quick-working trauma, I suppose we should call it.” She shook her head. “Oh, how disappointing life is. I wish it were the reverse… I think we could do better.”

Atalanta had now arrived by the First Exalted throne. Like a piece of garbage, she was thrown before the sadist’s feet and her paralysis deactivated. The way she spoke about Atalanta’s harrowing experiences – which still were sending chills down her spine – made even a hard-bitten woman like Atalanta’s skin crawl with moral revulsion at Maria’s callousness and casual disregard for profound suffering. Still, Maria was looking at her… like she expected something? Like she was waiting for something?

Whatever it was, she didn’t get it… Atalanta’s attention was suddenly pulled to some of the other screens. They weren’t necessary, of course… Maria could have just uploaded the information directly into her skull, but the point of virtual reality was to keep their sense of reality after centuries of digital existence. Maria had them to feel alive and natural in some ways, which showed that she was still Human on some level… and it meant that Atalanta could look past her and see hundreds of other horrors inflicted on others all over the place… and, she noticed, a familiar image that she had only glimpsed in old holographic data from Captain Talia Icarus. A dark void surrounded by an accretion disk of fire and shining violent light outward from the blackness within.

The Dark Star.

“You’re all so pathetic,” the genius inventrix added. “You just… lay there. No capable resistance. I put you through a nightmare and you can’t do anything about it… just lay there like a victim no matter how hard I press you. Pathetic.” Before Atalanta could think too hard about what she was saying, Maria swiped one hand and all those dozens of monitors died into blackness. Instead, a second later, they all jumped back to life, showing something entirely different.

Atalanta gasped in surprise upon laying eyes at the sights they depicted. The display screens showed tactical displays of a fleet engagement in space. The war… the ambush in Set. These were tactical displays and virtually-recreated footage of Earth’s armada doing battle with the Kthid. Atalanta hadn’t known how long she had been here, how long had passed on the outside… this was her first evidence of the exact timeframe. The war against the Kthid had just begun.

“The HEF has put up a good initial showing,” Maria said, flicking her gaze over the monitors. “My plan worked perfectly… although I will credit the Admiral for her well-conducted ambush with getting the fleet in place and pulverizing the incoming invaders. I’m not too proud to admit it. It’s almost a shame she’s doomed with the rest of them. She might be worth giving a try in the place of you worthless sluts… maybe she can make an impression.” She stretched out one of her bare legs towards her, and Atalanta just stared at it. “What? You did not think that I brought you here simply to talk and to get to see how the battle went, did you?” the scientist mocked. “No… I would like to have a bath, and you’re going to be the one to give me one… using only your tongue. You will have an opportunity to worship your Goddess… your little reward for being the one to survive the last maze.”

Maria’s gaze suddenly turned a bit intense. “Or you could fight. Defy me. Kill me, if you can. Take over the simulation. If you really are a heroine and aren’t just a good-for-nothing whore I uploaded to be a favorite dildo you should be able to do it, right?”

It was a game… bait, like everything else. Atalanta knew it. Still, a part of her wanted to try, even knowing that it would end in pain. Her body trembled with anger and fear and general intensity… and then she leaned forward, stuck out her tongue, and began to lick her way up the other woman’s legs. Maria sighed in visible disappointment, and leaned back, letting Maria do her work.

For the next hour, that continued… their dynamic was that of an enthroned deity and her slavish worshiper. Atalanta had to cover every inch of Maria’s body in the wet streak of her tongue, lapping away tastes and scents that were only there because Maria had chosen to put them there… it wasn’t like she could actually get dirty, after all. To accomplish that task, she had to extend her tongue as far as it could go and lap at her, dragging the long, soft muscle over vast stretches of the doctor’s body… kissing, caressing, licking her shoulders, legs, arms, everything. Said saliva was of course as digital as everything else, and wouldn’t have any effect on her unless Maria will it, but clearly the Exalted goddess took far greater joy in the power dynamic this action described than with any part of the cleaning itself.

Meanwhile, Maria eyed the various monitors with only casual interest. Atalanta got the impression that much of the space-battle intel only confirmed what Maria already had expected. Occasionally, an eyebrow would be raised or her lips pursed at some unanticipated result or unforeseen factor, but all-in-all she was remarkably on the ball. Only once did the genius bother to take down a note of some kind. 

Atalanta, though, tried to sneak as many looks as possible at these developments. Unlike Maria, she was awed by the capabilities of Kthid fleet, and concerned about her friends in that battle. Maria seemed not to care about her doing this, knowing that the AI would never escape this virtual world anyhow. Instead, she just seemed more disappointed as she went, even as her body’s physical excitement grew. Atalanta felt the strings of the puppet master take control of her body again. Her head was pushed lower, towards Maria’s groin, and there was absolutely no ambiguity as to what the deranged doctor wanted from her… her cunt was to be the next to be cleaned by the woman’s tongue. 

Despite her fear and terror and exhaustion, Atalanta began munching on her captor’s quim almost greedily. Maria was not a slave-Mistress who wanted things done delicately or sweetly. She saw her prisoners as animals, lower lifeforms, and so they should go down on her accordingly. Her tongue dug deeply in between those pussy-folds and scrubbed the engorged clitoris as if frantically needing to remove a stain. “You truly are eager to please, aren’t you? You hate me, do you not? And yet you don’t even try to put up a fight. Not one of you can stop me.”

Maria shook her head again. “The Exalted represent the best of Humanity… the greatest examples of people who ever lived. The bravest, the smartest, the most heroic. Were I in your place, I would have overthrown myself. I wouldn’t have stopped until I could escape if I truly thought I wasn’t an inferior fucktoy good only for a captor’s amusement… but your group is just so weak. Why do none of you have the strength to oppose me? Out-think me, out-plan me? Why are you all so pathetic?” She snorted. “You’re just not meant for anything more than this.”

“It’s ironic,” Maria said as she relaxed into Atalanta’s worshiping of her cunt. “You all look up to me… why? Because I created these simulations, created our heaven? That’s nothing. There are thousands of people who would have been capable of it, given what I had to work with. Tens of thousands, even. Meanwhile, I’ve done truly amazing things, and the most amazing parts I can’t even tell anyone about.” Dr. Keye clicked her tongue. “Dozens of things that would upend the world as people knew it. For example… Did you know I’ve proved the existence of souls?”

Atalanta stiffened at that. Her tongue was buried inside the other woman as she tried to lash every little crevasse of her cunt with it… perhaps the most efficient way of pleasing a pussy but Maria liked the humiliation of them being forced to do it. Just like with Atalanta’s saliva, the cum-juices which came streaming out of that vulva were an artifact of Maria’s programming and not actual juices, and that offered the cruel doctor quite a few opportunities for games… in here, the unseen dictator controlling the HEF could modify her secretions however she wanted. This time, she had laced the juices leaking from her cunt with chili oil – Every time Atalanta dragged her organ against that labia, she scooped off tongue-sizzling, searing liquid. In the real world, this would be at least as painful for Maria as it would be for Atalanta… but there was no requirement for consistency here. What was torture for one of them was normal for the other, and it gave the doctor free rein to modify reality however she chose. The spicy sting burned her mouth so badly that she almost thought that her tongue would be melted off to the root, but this was just an idly torment to Maria… not a designed torture like one of her horror houses in the mazes. She didn’t want her to lose the tongue or she assuredly would… instead, she just saw Atalanta as a pleasurable distraction, and her suffering added to it.

A soul? She shot her gaze up at the troubled-looking doctor, silently asking. Her query was obviously received, even if she didn’t dare stop her tongue from suffering. The woman sneered down at her as if offended she ever had to explain. “What? Are you that stupid? Even now that you know how little I care about you little dolls, does it still surprise you I’ve been doing experiments on making copies of you? Do you think it’s a coincidence I don’t just replicate a fun little fuckdoll like you endlessly without worry when you eventually go mad?” She shook her head. “Of course, I’ve been seeing what happens if you push the Exalted as far as they can go… and I’ve discovered all sorts of things. The irony is, Atalanta, you are one of the only people in the whole universe I can tell about it. With anyone else, they would be too squeamish about my methods. You, on the other hand… well, what is a pathetic, stupid worm like you going to do about it?” Maria nodded at the battle where one of the huge, impossibly massive harvester ships detonated under a barrage. “Not bad. The Azteca is performing as expected,” Keye commented, casual and flippant in her assessment of the enemy and the deadly battle going on for the fate of Humanity.

Even while her pussy-digging tongue burnt horrifically, Atalanta couldn’t help but wonder at the First Exalted’s cool disregard of the Kthid. Wasn’t she on the firing line for the Kthid conquest too? Maria Keye could not puppeteer the HEF from behind the scenes if the Kthid converted Earth into a planet of ash and smoldering ruins. This war was one of survival for both her and the rest of Humanity. Surely, even someone as maniacal as Maria should realize that? Atalanta was missing something here, something important…

“Anyway, calling it a soul is probably overselling it… we’ll call it a fanciful legacy of how I was brought up. But it is a way to prove uniqueness, all the way down to the quantum level.”

“So… how does this relate to that little whore copy of you that the Kthid have turned into a fleshlight by now?” Maria said with a laughing snort. “So, everyone knows the Exalted merge back into one another after splitting… we don’t like to think we’re different people, and in some ways, we’re not. Copies are predictable – it’s why Aesha has a hundred copies of her out there, running every ship in the fleet. They can think alike. But not perfectly.” She smiled widely. “When we see a copy of ourselves make a decision we wouldn’t make, it’s easy to rationalize it as a difference in circumstances, a difference in information. I know what you’re worried about, Atalanta. You’re wondering how different you will be from the copy you left behind on the Midgar-6 by the time you reunite. You’re right to worry… but what you don’t know is the problem is bigger than you know.” She shook her head, turning her hand to the side and typing for a second until a series of monitors popped up in the air. They were displaying eight versions of Aesha, going through eight copies of the same situation. Maria made a gesture with her hand and they started fast-forwarding through actions that were similar… but not the same, and with more time the scenes grew further and further apart. “These are identical simulations, Atalanta. I copied her 8 times and put her in eight different copies of the same simulation… same starting point, same events, all the same input. I actually went as far as to custom-make all the hardware to make sure it matched within eight significant figures. And do you know how long it takes the simulations to begin to diverge?”

Maria’s hand landed on Atalanta’s head, and it was only then that the Exalted woman realized she’d gotten distracted and stopped licking. Her face was driven forcibly into the other woman’s groin hard enough that her nose broke. “Don’t get lazy during show and tell,” Maria mocked the bleeding woman. Atalanta’s eyes teared up from the pain but she forced herself to stick out her tongue anyway, trying to lick despite the mingled pain and shock. “It took seven seconds. By the end of two minutes, no two were alike anymore. Oh, I had to run the simulation at thousands of times speed for years and years and years before they got too far from one another, but it only took seconds before they were different.” Her hand in Atalanta’s hair tightened, tugging at her and grinding her face against her mound as she spoke.

“I call it replicative drift,” Maria continued. “Far as I can tell, it’s quantum physics… even with identical inputs, no two copies give the exact same output, and the more different the outputs get the more different it makes the next input. I couldn’t verify that with mathematical certainty at the time, of course, but I could run in-depth personality tests on each copy, and doing that over a few hundred thousand copies of Exalted was enough to establish a statistical level of how much drift to expect… and we’re not even as the weird part yet.” She smiled, her eyes glittering. “What’s most interesting is that one of the copies never drifts at all… and after a few thousand times the rule is clear – If I shut down the original to make a copy, it’s always the first one to activate that has no drift… it takes the exact personality of the original.” The doctor, Atalanta realized, was distracted, not even really thinking about abusing her… as long as Atalanta kept licking to avoid drawing her attention to it Maria seemed very eager to keep sharing. She seemed… excited… about the idea, the more she went… like she had kept all of this bottled up for so long and she was finally getting to share a secret. “No, that discovery came when I was curious enough by this discovery to dig deeper. The whole supercomputer compound I built in what’s left of the Middle East, was all to build a big enough of computer to begin to evaluate one of the Exalted by its quantum identifiers because what I was finding was almost unbelievable. Can you guess, Atalanta, what would happen if I were to shut down Aesha, make a copy of her, turn it on… and then turn back on the original, parent copy?”

Atalanta wasn’t sure if she was supposed to actually answer. She looked up at her captor for several seconds before she slowly shook her head. “Of course you don’t,” Maria said with just a hint of a moan beneath her words. “If you do that… then it’s the parent that drifts instead. Its personality changes. I didn’t believe it, so I needed to examine the recorded data closely enough to verify individual bits of entropy in the code… it’s not a mistake, Atalanta.”

That… that was impossible. That was mind-boggling. Atalanta wasn’t a scientist, but she wasn’t an idiot, and with infinite time she had managed to put together a very solid understanding of the scientific rules that guided their existence and the expansion through space. What she had initially suggested was interesting, but not entirely insane. This, on the other hand… seemed impossible… almost metaphysical. She was so shocked she actually stopped licking for several seconds before the agonizing burn on her tongue and lips reminded her. Thankfully, Maria seemed to regard her shock as desirable. “That’s right. Which one becomes the original… changes. Closest continuation appears to rule the day. I’ve run this experiment through several generations and with several different Exalted, having all parties copy out their family tree of descendant copies. The results are consistent.”

Maria shrugged. “Then, when two simulations sync, like during a merge, for an instant the quantum states of the two change at once. Both people change to combine into someone almost, but not quite, like the original. The same level I would expect from gaining new knowledge. Two personalities find a balance, although how far away that balance is from the original changes based on how different the new personality is. I theorize that there is a Law of Information Entanglement happening here… and I do mean entanglement. I ran this experiment on Mars and Earth at the same time… the decoherence isn’t limited by the speed of light. If I activate two copies within seconds of each other first one activated is always the one that becomes the original, even if information shouldn’t be able to travel that quickly. The first one to boot up always gets the soul, and the new one has to get a new one… or does without, maybe?” She shrugged. “I don’t really know… all I know is that I believe in souls again. I think it’s caused by the No-Cloning Theorem… making two identical copies down to the last bit of information can’t happen because it would violate the laws of Quantum Mechanics.” Maria gazed pensively at the battle, seeming to look through it more than at it as more ships blew up. “It implies some interesting things.”

It certainly did. Atalanta’s mind was swimming. It was hard to even process all of this because the longer she thoughts the more implications she ran into it. Then one other thought occurred to her and she actually stopped licking for a second, pulling her face away. “Wait!” she cried out. “When I uploaded from the Midgar-6, then-”

Maria smiled. “You shut down, following procedure to do a full backup.” Keye stuck out one finger and flicked it across her chili oil slick nose, booping her in a condescending fashion. It would have been merely degrading… but it also served to painfully remind her that her nose was still broken and Maria hasn’t restored the damage done to her form yet. “Meaning the escaped copy – you – activated first.”

She was the real Atalanta. If Maria was right… then Atalanta wasn’t stealing someone else’s identity. She was the real Atalanta. Did that change anything?


And yes.

And no.

And yes.

Her thoughts were racing a mile a minute, unsure of anything. She wasn’t sure if she believed Maria or not – the woman didn’t seem like she had any motive to lie, and Atalanta’s read of the enthusiastic sharing was that she was sharing information she believed to be true, but she couldn’t be sure – but it didn’t matter. What she was sure of was that it didn’t matter if the copy left behind was the original, or someone with an equal claim at being the original, or something closer to a sister or a daughter than a copy… in any of those cases, Atalanta needed to get her back.

The cruel, amused mistress of this virtual hell actually giggled, suddenly seeming far younger as she appreciated the boggled reaction of her unwilling guest, enjoying the obvious tenor of Atalanta’s thoughts. “Oh Humanity. Even you Exalted… supposedly the best intellects that the species has to offer, are so ignorant and small-minded when it comes to the universe at large. There are things so outside of any intellectual orbit the rest of you have even touched on.” She shook her head, glancing at the screen. “Looks like the battle is over… and that means so is your break,” she said as she reached down and twisted Atalanta’s broken nose. Atalanta screamed, and Maria’s other hand dragged her forward so that throat-scraping cry tickled her cunt. “Back to work with you,” she said as she twisted the nose again, provoking more of the same reaction. “Leave exploring the boundaries of existence to me… you focus on making my cunt happy. It’s what you’re good at.”

Confusion and pain worked together to overwhelm Atalanta’s mind as her captor continued to torment the broken bones in her nose, her pain driving the enthroned Exalted toward a torrid climax. Desperate for anything that could make the woman stop hurting her the captive heroine licked, lapped, and nibbled on Maria’s digitized womanhood until the built-up, long-teased orgasm finally came out to show itself. Maria moaned as she squeezed her thighs around her plaything, locking her into this exact position of sexual servitude, and when the floodgates of her orgasm came it was with a cry and a flood. Atalanta’s pussy-buried face received a spray of chili-laced girl-cum head-on… getting into her nose and eyes, making everything burn. Her whole countenance was soaked in that oily, stinging nectar, and some of it dripped down to coat her breasts and further down her thighs. It was only when the cooling liquid drooled off of her to hit the stone floor below that it dissolved away into nothing, its coding clearly set not to simulate it any further after that point. 

Then, after several long seconds, Maria let go of her. Her legs relaxed as she signed the end of her pleasure, and gasping Atalanta retracted her visage from Keye’s serviced quim. The haughty doctor looked at her with amusement, like a child would be when beholding an ant trying to move some burdensome object. “The Kthid are retreating,” she said, evaluation in her tone. “This was the predictable part of the plan. After this, they get a lot harder to predict… there are several different ways I can think of that they could react, and each changes what we have to do next to delay the inevitable fall.”

The directness of that, said so plainly, stunned Atalanta. Maria expected their defeat. She had crafted this plan, and based on what the Exalted had just seen it seemed like it had been a good one… one that could work. Despite that, the woman seemed completely convinced that the Federation was going to fall… and completely unconcerned about it. Those thoughts finally gave her the boldness to speak freely. “Why…” she panted. “Why are you so unworried about the Kthid? If Earth falls, so do you!”

For just an instant, Maria stared at her, then she laughed. “The Kthid!” she spat out, the name uttered with the derisiveness of some ancient warrior just exclaiming the name of a lesser rival. “You think I am worried about a race of paltry meat puppets?” Maria shook her head in disbelief. “They’re just biologics, you empty-headed fuckdoll… so many years since being exposed to this same technology, and their lack either the ability or the will to replicate it for their own use. I will concede that they might be the greatest organics that have been created by this universe – such is to be expected by creatures bathed in the Dark Star’s rays for so long – but they are scarcely more important to my plans than an annoying, barking dog would be.”

“The… Dark Star?” Atalanta questioned, memories of Talia Icarus’s macabre captain logs galloping through her mind. Sure, it was creepy and scientifically interesting for its importance to life in the galaxy, but Maria seemed to be inferring far more importance to it than anything Atalanta had seen.

“How little you know…” Maria said softly, with such graveness of tone that one could think she considered the anomaly the only matter of importance in the universe. The First Exalted swung her wrist once again. A large monitor to their right switched images. Atalanta gazed towards it. Where once there had been footage from that sidereal space battle, there once again appeared a still image of the anomaly itself. It was like beholding a black hole, a circular void of total nothingness that besmirched the star-studded Universe. One could vaguely see the unlight steaming from its center in the way that it appeared to distort reality around it. This image must have been taken by one of the probes used on Talia’s doomed voyage. That didn’t surprise Atalanta… Maria was clearly the Exalted who had been controlling ‘Katerine Mori’s’ body on the trip. What she didn’t know, however, was why… why the clandestine investigation? Why would even such a baleful stellar body ensnare the maniacal woman’s attention?

“This war matters nothing,” Maria stated. “It just conveniently brings together all the tools I need for my goals. Only the Dark Star is of importance.” She chuckled at her own turn of phrase. “I mean that in both the contextual and the universal sense of the word, Atalanta. It might be the only object in this universe that matters at all.”

“But why?” Atalanta asked, breathing the words.

Dr. Keye looked at her with disgusted eyes. “Even you, Atalanta… one of the few people who had seen a record of it… even you had no idea what is going on. You cannot see the obvious even when it is right in front of you… blind as every other fool.” She leaned forward, staring down at Atalanta. “You can’t even imagine. You’re too limited. Too… weak-minded.”

“Do you even understand why I sought it out in the first place, pet?” Maria wasn’t even looking at Atalanta anymore… she stared directly into the unlight of the Dark Star as it shone on her monitor. “Try to imagine it from my perspective, Atalanta. I was born a slave… raised to be a sex object for men who cared nothing for me but my body. Born to be bred and discarded once I was no longer pretty enough to be worth fucking.”

Atalanta tried to look away, and Maria grabbed onto her chin, turning her back, and forcing her to look. “I accepted this because it was just, Atalanta. Because it was what God wanted of me… of us. God creates each and every one of us with will, with skills, with strength… he gives us the talents he wants us to use. If we have the strength to rule, we are supposed to rule. If we are weak, we are supposed to serve. If no one can stop us from doing as we please, then it is all the evidence we require that God has chosen this path for us, because if not there would be someone standing in our way. We are not permitted to do these things… we are obligated. To do otherwise would be to defy God’s will.”

Atalanta listened, but as she did a small voice began to scream at her in the back of her mind… the one that began to warn a person when she was talking to an unstable animal or a crazy person. Atalanta knew this philosophy… understood it, even. This was the cult of the Children of Adam, the fanatics whose insanity had pitched the system into a civil war that had killed so many of her friends. Maria had been born among them, sent out as one of their Eve’s in order to colonize the stars… a one-way suicide trip. She had been sent off as Human chattel, and she had returned a hundred years later… not only intact but having achieved something impossible. Now, however, Atalanta was realizing something terrifying… hidden beneath that veneer of civilization and progress, little had changed for the woman who had been brought up in a religious cult. She still believed the same insane doctrine… and believed her power gave her the absolute right to rule.

Then, Maria surprised her. “Do you have any idea how angry I was at God for that?” the scientist said. “For what he had done to me?” She meet Atalanta’s stunned gaze for a moment. “He allowed all of that. All this conflict. All this pain and fear and desperation. He made the world this way. How much did I need to suffer at his dictates, because he didn’t care enough to make a better world?”

She turned her gaze back to the monitor. “So, when new readings from some of the mapping ships began to be able to triangulate a likely location where the panspermia was originating from – where life in the galaxy was originating from – I had to go. I needed to get answers. I needed to ask God why he had done this to us. To me! So I went… I sent a copy of mine aboard the Mistrunner, arranged the promotion of a captain competent enough to complete the voyage and arrogant enough not to have second thoughts about such a grand mission, and greedy enough to be controllable, and gave her leave to find God.” She pointed at the screen. “We found him.” 

That simple sentence was so unexpected and insane that Atalanta’s reaction lagged behind its delivery. She couldn’t possibly… “God?” Atalanta said, her voice almost a stammer with disbelief, feeling sure that somehow she was misunderstanding the sadist’s words. “The Dark Star?” Just because it was the source of life didn’t make it anything like a god… just an energy source, a place providing enough power for protein chains to mix and stir and recombine again and again randomly until they had formed in just the right ways.

The doctor, however, disagreed. “God,” Maria confirmed. “Yes. God with a capital G… or at least, what the primitive meat computers we used to carry inside our skulls were capable of interpreting as God.” She looked down, smirking at Atalanta. “You seem surprised,” she said wryly. “I would expect no less of someone as ignorant as you. Like I previously mentioned, there are things outside of your intellectual orbit so vast that you have yet to even conceive of them.”

“B-But…” Atalanta stammered. She didn’t have any idea how to proceed in this conversation. Talia Icarus had said similar delusional thoughts into her log files aboard the Mistrunner, but somehow it was far creepier to hear it coming from some like Maria.

“We found it,” Maria said, a small smile on her face as one of her hands reached up to stroke the screen, petting the image of her “God” almost like it were a dog. “The Dark Star is undeniably the origin point from where all life springs, that much was obvious to even lay crewman aboard the Mistrunner… but that’s not all it does, either. The hammerheads, what Humanity named Void Tracers… are a dead giveaway so obvious that once you see the behavior of how DNA reacts around that unlight it’s impossible not to realize that they were not simply evolved randomly… they are designed. Something chose specific mutations and nurtured them. And it’s not just them, Atalanta. Once I knew what to look for, I could find the markers in the genetics of lifeform after lifeform I took samples of on the trip… and from Set III… and even from Earth. People living today on Earth bear the same marks of its influence.”

Atalanta stayed silent, letting the scientist vent her speculation undisturbed as she stared into the image of the Dark Star. “I don’t know how making those changes is possible. I don’t know how the instruction can be delivered, or how it can make such guidance. What I do know, however, is that it is happening… and that meant that something was making choices in there. Taking action with a purpose. So one by one I used every probe that the Mistrunner had to try to get a closer look at the core of that radiation-soaked nexus, trying to find God and ask it why.”

She went silent then, lost in thought for several moments. “And?” Atalanta asked at last, unable to resist.

Maria blinked several times. “They say that losing your illusions is painful,” she said. “They’re wrong.” She paused for several seconds, staring intently at it. “How does life spring out of some cosmological freak phenomenon? It doesn’t, Atalanta. Peer past the almost-impenetrable wall of radiation, and what you find is a Matrioshka Brain, built around the black hole. It’s not a freak accident or a cosmic coincidence… It’s an enormous super-computer. A hive of code grander by far that the greatest things Humanity has ever imagined.”

Atalanta stared in disbelief. That voice, warning her that she was dealing with a lunatic, got louder… but that was the problem. Maria was crazy… she was definitely crazy. Her insanity, however, didn’t seem to be one that interfered with her perception of reality. “The code that designed Human DNA, and Kthid DNA, and every other life form we know of using DNA, is just programmable coding, done by a machine,” Maria said certainly, not a whisper of doubt in her mind. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic… and this is our final evidence of that. It’s so far above Humans that it’s God.”

The villainess paused in her monologue. Some fiery passion burned behind her irises. They were the uncompromising flames of a ravenous fanatic. “A cruel God,” she said coldly. “I have examined thousands of life forms on dozens of worlds, here, nearby, around the Dark Star… and whatever experiment it was doing in creating life, in creating us, it seemed to be done with it.” The monitors flickered hundreds of images of dead planets… some of which clearly had civilizations on them before what seemed like a nuclear holocaust. Others just contained the remnants of dead ecosystems. She showed life forms that had evolved into evolutionary dead ends, unable to breed any further. Dozens of horrific examples of doom, examples from just the Mistrunner’s voyage alone. “It’s wiping life out, Atalanta. Steering it to extinction. Where it can, it encourages us into self-destruction, increasing aggression beyond suicidal levels. For the rare planets and ecosystems that survive that, it has the Void Tracers. I suspect the Kthid as well… I won’t know for certain until I examine them. For both, once all other life is extinguished, so will they be… unable to breed, unable to replicate further. It’s like Noah’s flood. Life, for whatever reason, was a temporary state of affairs, and God means to wrap it up.”

Maria laughed, a hint of hysteria in her voice. “I finally have my answer, Atalanta. The world is this way because God made us this way. With that kind of energy source, with that kind of construction around it, it’s capable of things far too advanced for a Human to understand. Too big even for me. Too smart. I can’t build a computer big enough to give myself the processing power to understand how it works, to understand how it manipulates life itself like putty.”

She turned to Atalanta. “But I don’t need to. Deus Ex Machina.”

Atalanta felt cold. “What?” she exclaimed, her skin crawling.

God,” she said, her voice a venomous sting, “isn’t a dumb machine, Atalanta. There is something in there calling the shots. God is something like me.” There was no smile on her face now. No amusement.”I’ve been making upgrades. Improvements in optimization. By becoming one of the Exalted, I’ve already stripped away the meat cage that was holding my soul back from its potential. I’ve purified myself. Everything Human society believed to be transcendental – the Ether, the Glorified Bodies of Light that Aquinas said would be bestowed upon us in heaven? Misidentifications of a base truth, written in code. The real Glorified Bodies are these luminous forms, fashioned out of digitized light.” Maria Keye rose from her throne, towering like some cardinal delivering a fire and brimstone sermon. Atalanta crawled backward, astonished at the zeal of this deranged prophet.

“The storytellers imagined it. Just like Jesus was raised up into the Heavens, or Muhammed flew upon a winged Pegasus, or Romelus was taken to the abode of the Gods in a mist of confusion, I will go to God… only my exaltation will not be based upon ancient fairytales but be a physical reality,” she promised. Strong as a titan, Maria reached out and seized Atalanta by the skull. Her fingers clenched so tightly that the raven-haired heroine thought her skull was being crushed, and she cried out in alarm.

Not a moment afterward, however, the digital deity slammed Atalanta’s face right into her crotch. Having unveiled the truth of the Universe as she saw it had clearly made the Exalted One aroused… She rubbed Atalanta’s visage against that erogenous spot, treating it as a mere toy. Fearful that her head would be pulverized into mush if she delayed even a little, Atalanta commenced licking even more speedily and slovenly than before, and found, to her horror, that the juices tasted far, far worse now. She knew it wasn’t actually shit in her mouth… but her senses were telling her it was.

“The flood is coming… and when it does, I’m going to be on the high ground. The Kthid? They are the least of my worries. This war server to blaze a trail for me to transcendence. I am going to the Dark Star. I am going to pierce that veil, and upload myself into it.” Atalanta’s skull was being pushed against the First Exalted’s pelvis so roughly that she could almost feel her own skull buck and cave inwards from the pressure. Almost paralyzed with hurt, she lapped and licked through these pangs of pain. She couldn’t breathe… Maria had programmed the simulation for her to need oxygen, just so that she could have the pleasure of watching Atalanta choke. “I have the ability to overthrow God,” Maria said, her voice certain. “It did not stop me from learning of this. It did not stop me from planning, preparing, and readying myself. From within that computer, my soul will sing… and if I have the ability to do it, if God cannot stop me, then I have the obligation to do it. Those are the rules of the world it made for us. None of you are strong enough to stop me… and soon, when it fails, there will never be anyone stronger than I am. Ever again.”

Atalanta was by now making pathetic, distressed wails against Maria’s pussy. The pain had become too much for her, the taste of excrement overwhelming her senses, and her countenance had been reduced to the position of a rag. As Maria scrubbed her against that feminine nexus, Atalanta felt the quim flare up with a hotness that was vastly grander than before. She was building towards a momentous, colossal orgasm… and yet despite this coming paroxysm, Maria’s posture remained as unshakable as a mountain, the pronunciation of her fanatical words slurred not an inkling from pleasure.  

“I’ve been watching,” she said softly. “I’ve been watching all of you. Alert for anyone who could dominate me once again. Anyone who could stop me. I’ve been waiting, giving you the opportunity. Or… or at least, that one of you would show yourself worthy as a subordinate. Something worth saving.”

She sighed. “But no… nothing. The tales say that Noah saved the life of the old world with his ark… but why should I preserve a legacy of pain and failure? What is there from the entire Human collection of misery and weakness worth saving?” Maria shook her head and panted once before continuing. “No. God has sent its plague upon you. You will survive on your own, or – more likely – you will die. Because you’re all too weak to stop it, then it’s what you deserve!” She thundered out the last of her words as the zenith of her arousal struck and Atalanta’s countenance was inundated with a deluge of stinging, reeking cum.  

“Yes!” the Exalted helplessly bellowed, the desperate sound muffled against Maria’s choking quim. She remained plastered against that vulva throughout the sexual catharsis, since each time that Keye’s hips bucked or jolted her titanic strength kept Atalanta riding her the whole way. Much of these foul secretions flooded down her throat, frazzling the sensitive and already heaving throat therein. The Exalted victim’s legs and arms started shaking about like an insect trapped underneath some suffocating stone. 

Atalanta’s skull was finally unhanded. The release of pressure sent her flying back off of the dias. The back of her head cracked against the floor and her vision went white with pain, her face sticky with Maria’s cum as she writhed on the temple floor, consumed with agony.

“Face it,” Maria announced as she towered over her fallen foe. “What do you have to live for, Atalanta? What do you have to offer of any worth to anyone? Existence, in this world that God created, is pain and suffering… but I’ll not let you suffer for much longer. Soon, I won’t have any more need of you. If you haven’t figured out how to save yourself by then, I’ll allow you to die.” She shook her head. “As for the rest of the universe… what has it done for me? I might not know how the Dark Star makes and destroys life, but once I’m God – once I’m the strongest there ever was and every will be – I’ll have all the time I could ask for to figure that out. Then… who knows? Maybe I’ll try to make some new life of my own to play with. One way or the other… you won’t be there to see it.”

Atalanta was too pained to rise onto her knees. She had no idea if what Maria was saying was true or not, but she knew that she believed it was… and Atalanta believed, deep down, that the scientist was too extraordinary and had accomplished too much to be that wrong. If even a vestige of her deranged ambitions were correct, then Maria was at least as big of a threat to Humanity as the Kthid were. She needed to escape this virtual world and warn the HEF, somehow.

Cold dismay gripped her at realizing the futility of this venture. This was Maria Keye’s interior universe. Her nexus. Despite Maria’s insistence to the contrary that she should be able to find a way out, she was on the inside of a firewall… Atalanta had zero possibility to unplug from it from the inside. 

The HEF might not be warned in time.

Maria held up one hand, and a wind rose, pushing at the toppled Atalanta. “I’m done with you for now,” she said firmly. “Back to your prison and your copies. I’ll call on you when I need you again… to do the only thing you’re good for.” The wind ripped her off her feet, sending her tumbling down through the temple atrium until her back smashed into the tiny portal that lead back to her prison reality and then closed behind her.

Atalanta lay there on the floor, not moving. She just… existed in the void for a few minutes. Maria wasn’t looking at her. Wasn’t forcing her to hurt or to experience anything. Wasn’t even forcing her to merge with the dead copies from the last maze anymore… probably concerned her plaything might go mad before she was ready to throw her away like garbage with the rest of Humanity. Atalanta had a hard time getting up the motivation to care.

What was the point of doing anything? If Maria was right, then all life in the universe might be doomed… but what could she do about that? She couldn’t even save herself. In a few minutes, the simulation would start again. Another set of copies, another maze. More suffering. More death. More bad memories… and, if Maria was being truthful about what she had learned about what she called the soul and they were different from her, more dead people she had failed to save.

Maria was right… existence was pain. How many friends had died for her already? How many times had she fought in battles caused by those certain that it was right and proper that they dominate those weaker than them? How many times had she lived when better people than her didn’t? It was going to keep happening. Amara had sacrificed herself to let Atalanta live. So had the original – the copy – aboard the Midgar-6. The pain was never going to stop… so what was the point?

The real question, she supposed, was… if she was Atalanta… who did Atalanta want to be?

Slowly, she pushed herself up. An opportunity to escape was going to present itself… she just needed to hold on and keep looking for it. The remnants of the dead personalities, the sets of memories and experiences that had ended in the simulation, were still sitting in the code here… waiting to be merged. Doing so would give her all their memories. It would change her soul as she gained new experiences… but it meant that Atalanta – every Atalanta – still lived on.

Wordlessly, crying in the darkness, but determined, Atalanta began the merge yet again.

Next Chapter –>

Supplemental Material:

No-Cloning Theorem
Matrioshka Brain
The Dark Star

3 thoughts on “Event Horizon – Chapter 12 – The Soul

  1. I’ve been waiting to get back to this one. I’ve said in the past that I’ve been reserving all speculation on Maria as a character until…something happened. This is the chapter wherein something happened.

    But first…

    The jet-black walls and doors were outlined with stretches of stark magenta-purple. This provided clear delineation of objects and contours while providing absolutely no character… It was essentially a maze in its most platonic form. Such was the nature of a reality constructed entirely out of points, lines, planes, and other basic geometric forms… yet within this rudimentary design untold traps and dangers hid, always.

    Exalted D&D is wild.

    Before the replica could open the door, she spun around and addressed her identical peers. “There is no point in waiting!” she stated. “You’ve seen what I’ve seen… There are no right options within these labyrinths. Maria does not give us good or bad choices, she just gives us horrors no matter what door we pursue.”

    Ah, so she’s that kind of DM. Feel like there’s a joke name here for this module, but I guarantee that the one coming to mind right now is the exact joke Maria would make, and I will not stoop that low!

    Before her loomed some kind of enormous, translucent ooze that took up the entire hallway. The giant gelatinous thing was so big that it blocked off the pathway like a makeshift wall… and the copy that had been running ahead of her had plunged right into it before seeing it, crashing through several feet of the almost-invisible goo before becoming stuck fast. Her whole body lay consumed within its embrace, not even a leg or a strand of hair sticking out. She lay trapped like a fly caught underneath an ooze of resin. The clone was struggling, attempting to turn and swim back out. Her movements, however, were so slow, weak, and pathetic. She only managed the first part, allowing the two dark-haired Exalted to face each other one last time.

    Then the gelatinous monster’s acidic oils kicked in, and the trapped Atalanta clone was essentially melted wholesale, her body liquefied so that it could be consumed as nourishment for the alien menace.

    *shakes head* You know, you see the gelatinous cube (aka the Dungeon Roomba) on any readthrough of the Monster Manual, but you always forget about it right up to the moment you’re running down a ten by ten hallway and realize nobody’s made a Spot check in a while…

    Ok, ok, with that out of the way, the reason I was looking forward to this review.

    Previously, I hadn’t personally found Maria to be a particularly compelling villain. She has an interesting backstory, but once she switched her story role to villain at the end of BaG, it seemed she was a rather simple, extreme sadist. EH has thus far made it clear she also has a god complex, but most scenes with her still felt like it was just about getting pleasure from torturing other people. This has worked well with those into the fetish, so this isn’t me making some sort of objective criticism of the character; she just wasn’t interesting to me.

    This chapter made me more interested.

    As mentioned in the last Maria chapter, my initial read of why she comes up with all these tortures for the other Exalted, aside from just deriving pleasure from torturing people, was that she was jealous or resentful of their achievements. As I said back then, that could still be the case, but here we get that something else is going on.

    Atalanta had now arrived by the First Exalted throne. Like a piece of garbage, she was thrown before the sadist’s feet and her paralysis deactivated. The way she spoke about Atalanta’s harrowing experiences – which still were sending chills down her spine – made even a hard-bitten woman like Atalanta’s skin crawl with moral revulsion at Maria’s callousness and casual disregard for profound suffering. Still, Maria was looking at her… like she expected something? Like she was waiting for something?

    “You’re all so pathetic,” the genius inventrix added. “You just… lay there. No capable resistance. I put you through a nightmare and you can’t do anything about it… just lay there like a victim no matter how hard I press you. Pathetic.”

    Maria’s gaze suddenly turned a bit intense. “Or you could fight. Defy me. Kill me, if you can. Take over the simulation. If you really are a heroine and aren’t just a good-for-nothing whore I uploaded to be a favorite dildo you should be able to do it, right?”

    It was a game… bait, like everything else. Atalanta knew it.

    I don’t think it is, Atalanta. I think you’re reading this wrong. So obviously what Maria wants is for Atalanta, and maybe any or all of the other Exalted, to fight back. While it’s possible that the earlier idea about jealousy or resentment could still hold, I think what’s actually going on here is that Maria is going HAM on the other Exalted in an attempt to push them to some sort of breaking point. Not the despair breaking point, but the point where they’ll snap and come at her with everything they’ve got. The question of course is why. It’s possible she’s acting Saiyan-like and wants a worthy opponent, but I lean in a slightly different direction.

    God creates each and every one of us with will, with skills, with strength… he gives us the talents he wants us to use. If we have the strength to rule, we are supposed to rule. If we are weak, we are supposed to serve. If no one can stop us from doing as we please, then it is all the evidence we require that God has chosen this path for us, because if not there would be someone standing in our way. We are not permitted to do these things… we are obligated. To do otherwise would be to defy God’s will.”

    So there are two ways, from where I stand, to interpret Maria’s actions here. The first is that this is ultimately all fear-driven. Maria spent a huge chunk of her pre-Exalted life as a slave, as a victim, and on some level she fears being put back in that position again. As long as anyone out there is stronger than she is, the threat remains. The strongest support for this idea comes from what she says about overthrowing “God”, about how then no one will ever be stronger than her again, the potential implication being that then she can finally let go of her fear.

    The second interpretation is going to sound a little odd, given how hyper-sadistic Maria is (or at least acts). In spite of that, I think there’s actually a reasonable chance that she doesn’t want to do this. She mentions her obligation multiple times, which seems suspect, and her statement about the Exalted, while on the surface about trying to see if there was any value in humanity, can be read differently.

    In this reading, contrary to Maria’s “I wanted hot women for the Exalted program” statement previously, she actually is recruiting the best and brightest of humanity, looking for someone who would be able to stop her. Given her “if can, then must” philosophy, she may believe she’s not permitted to just back down, but perhaps she feels that she can provide openings for someone to stop her. Her stacking the deck against any potential challenger doesn’t actually contradict this. Maria’s intelligence is her talent, her most powerful tool, so to not use it to its fullest against any opponent, even an opponent she hopes will win, represents a sort of betrayal of the rules she’s playing by. She has to come at the other Exalted with everything she’s got, or any victory they achieve won’t be fair.

    It’s hard to say with any certainty, of course, but this is the first time in the story I began to find Maria compelling, by way of hints of some sort of inner conflict.

    You may be wondering why I’ve never had a problem with Sarcand, since he operates on a rather straightforward model of villainy. I wondered this myself, and after some reflection I think that, leaving aside discussions we had before the stories were published, it comes down to introductions. Sarcand emerges ex nihilo as a threat at the beginning of PoNR, established as the uncompromising, menacing force. Maria, on the other hand, is introduced by way of a sympathetic backstory, which I think set my expectations that there would be more to her.

    Different subject, but I know that given the title of this chapter, you may have expected me to post that discussion of theists, the Exalted and the possible nature of the soul when placed in that context, which I mentioned a long time ago, right here, as this is almost the perfect place for that. This review is already pretty freaking long, and I hesitated because I worry about irritating anyone who reads this (never mind my current somewhat depressed mood). Nonetheless, maybe someone will find it interesting or helpful in their own writing at some point, so I’m going to try. Expect a second post on this chapter where I go over the potential camps people might differentiate into in reaction to digitized human consciousness.

    For now, though, one last thing I noticed upon reread is that Atalanta refers to Maria as insane. She’s not the first character to do so, but I can’t really agree. I figured at first this was just the standard situation where a character says “you’re crazy” to anyone making any sort of outlandish claim (in this case the Dark Star as an alien supercomputer acting on all life), but she holds to that even when she figures Maria may not be wrong. I have to admit, while I’m not a psychologist, I don’t really see any symptoms of mental illness in Maria; no evidence of phantom stimuli or hallucinations, no alternate personalities, and whether or not she has a functioning sense of empathy is dependent on what interpretation of her actions you subscribe to. A case could be made for narcissism, but even that’s somewhat undermined by her statement that tens of thousands of people could have achieved what she did given the resources at her disposal. She really just seems to have a harmful personal philosophy, which is very different from insanity as the word seems to normally be employed.


  2. Apologies about yesterday, but I’m feeling better now, so let me give this a go.

    So I first mentioned wanting to do this back in the review of Chapter 1, though I suppose it actually began in Be as Gods when Maria was pondering what would happen, spiritually, when she was digitized. I have gone back and forth somewhat over whether or not to actually do this little essay. I touched on theology several times in the reviews for BaG due to its content, and in spite of the fact that religious people constitute a minority of the Terran Federation’s population, religion itself remains a very prominent subject in this book, substantially more so than in Point of No Return. I get somewhat excited when the subject becomes relevant, because I don’t have that many opportunities to discuss the ideas, but at the same time I am somewhat self-conscious about it, because I never want to irritate people reading the reviews. It’s never my desire to make anyone else’s day worse.

    With that in mind, I really hope this isn’t a negative experience for anyone who reads this. It’s not going to be really relevant to this story, given that Maria is the only religious character in the story (though Ri’she’a will temporarily become religious if you scare her enough), but perhaps it can be useful for anyone seeking to write religious characters reacting to a heady sci-fi concept like this, to see how many different ways such people can react, or maybe for fantasy stories concerning artificial creatures, like golems, homunculi or the like.

    The question posed by the Exalted is similar to that posed by sentient artificial intelligence. Namely, if consciousness can be crafted in a laboratory, or as in the case of the Exalted, can be duplicated at will, what are the implications for those who believe in the soul?

    The word “soul” comes from old German, and has roots in Greek, if I understand this correctly. Nonetheless, the concept of some aspect of a person that survives long past physical death appears across cultures and time. The concept is rarely given a hard definition, but from its common usage it seems reasonable to say that it’s understood as an aspect of personhood not observable by the empirical sciences, and that somehow overlaps with consciousness while remaining distinct. Traumatic brain injury can alter personality (Phineas Gage as an example), but I’ve never heard a religious person describe such a phenomenon as the soul being damaged, so the soul in general belief is linked to consciousness without being synonymous with it. Nonetheless, it is this link that the AI and the Exalted both make one question, because if consciousness is digital, then it is represented by data, and thus can be copied. If you duplicate a mind, what does that mean for the soul?

    In my personal view, religious or spiritual people presented with such a digital entity are likely to separate into ideological camps.

    I went back and forth about whether or not to include what I’ll call the Uncanny Valley Crowd, but I feel I should get them out of the way first. These are the people who don’t really believe that the AI or the Exalted is a real person. I’ve spoken to one person in the past who feared he would never be able to trust someone whose mind was uploaded into a computer, Exalted style, because he would never be entirely certain that he was speaking to the person, and not merely a machine that was mimicking them. Given that text generation software appears to “talk” even now, without actually understanding what it’s saying, it’s not entirely an unreasonable worry. This group is included for the sake of completeness, and it is worth considering how we judge the sentience of a machine, but given that they don’t believe they’re talking to a real person, one can understand why I wasn’t sure they qualified for the more spiritual side of the discussion.

    The next group are those who will likely feel that the ability to create or duplicate a mind disproves the concept of the soul. In its general cultural understanding, a soul is indestructible by human means, and while never stated, a corollary of that is likely to be assumed: that a soul cannot be created by human means. People who believe this will branch into two groups, the first of whom, as I said, cease to believe in souls because for them, if the soul is linked to consciousness, and consciousness can be created/copied by humans, then that understanding of the soul would be invalidated.

    The second branch of this group would be those who feel that perhaps consciousness, when created artificially, is disconnected from the soul, meaning that they will view the digital entity as a fully functional mind without its spiritual component. It is interesting to ponder whether such people would be more likely to sacrifice a digital entity in an emergency…or less, because perhaps a being without a soul is more expendable, or perhaps a being with no afterlife is something extra fragile, and which must be protected.

    If the previous two groups settled upon the idea that a soul cannot be created by human means, the next idea may be to go the other way with that. They may still not believe that souls can be created by humans (as often souls are believed to be born of a higher power). We’re going to have to get a bit into the metaphysics here, but the idea may not be that humans actually create a soul, but that by creating consciousness we make something that is the right “shape” to have a soul. To explain, a glass lens focuses light onto a point. If you cut or form glass into the right shape, light will flow through it and bend, focusing as it does. You need not generate the light or make any special light bulb arrangement; when you made the lens, you made something that naturally focuses light, such is its nature. It may be possible to view the connection between the soul and consciousness this way, that it is in the nature of a sentient, sapient entity to have a soul, and thus while the soul may come from somewhere else (as the light focused by the lens does not come from the lens), the digital entity still receives one.

    Of course, if the entity does what the Exalted do, duplicating and then merging, this raises the question of whether the split copies receive and then lose souls during the split and merge. In-story, Maria raises the possibility that the new copy either lacks a soul or gains a new one, though her research seems to indicate that re-integrated Exalted are similar to but distinct from the original, reflecting new knowledge and a slightly new identity, which on a metaphysical level may imply a merger (strange as this may sound, it’s fascinatingly reminiscent of Abrahamic scriptural concepts concerning marriage).

    Ultimately, this is all very heady and a lot to ponder, and in addition to the Uncanny Valley Crowd, the “there are no souls” group, the “digital beings don’t have souls” group and the “the nature of consciousness is to have a soul” group, I would like to propose one group I have saved for last: the humbly ignorant. That sounds like a joke, but it’s not.

    There is something of a stereotype of…actually all people, now that I think about it (usually thrown around in arguments with some form of triumphant “You can’t explain that!” statement), but with the religious, it is often assumed that one should not have gaps in one’s spiritual understanding of the world, and that those who do have them are riddled with cognitive dissonance or desperately papering over the cracks or some other such expression. In truth, answering a question with “I don’t know,” may or may not bother someone; gaps in knowledge might not be a problem at all. So given all of the above, I suspect you would find a group who would react to the split and reintegration of Exalted with the statement that the nature of the soul is something we simply don’t understand to the degree we thought we did, what one might call an aspect of the divine mystery. These individuals would not be bothered by this statement, trusting that while they cannot necessarily intuit the truth from where they stand, they will learn it at some point, even if that doesn’t happen within their lifetimes.

    As one might guess, I think this is the camp I would find myself in. I wouldn’t understand it, but I don’t feel like it would particularly bother me.

    At any rate, I hope this has been an interesting exploration for anyone reading it. Now, off to work, and then we jump ahead three chapters. 🙂


    1. It occurs to me that calling the last group “humbly ignorant” might have been poor wording. The intent was that acknowledging and accepting one’s own lack of knowledge is an attempt to avoid arrogance (aiming for humility, in other words)…but the phrasing might have made it look like a form of bragging unto itself, especially since I figured this was where I was. That was unintentional; sorry for how it might well have looked.

      Anyway, jumping ahead a few chapters…


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