A screech tears through the air and wakes me. The sound echoes and feels almost an echo of the noise in my head. Someone is screaming.
Scrambling to my feet sets my head spinning. I stagger on shaky legs. My stomach gives a heave, and I almost fall to the cracked ground. I want to laugh—I’m as cracked as the ground. I stagger and then walk. Then I run. I don’t know where I’m going except toward that scream—toward the other voice. The world around me seems wrong—it’s all bright and brown. To one side of me, a wall towers into the sky, impossibly tall, dull and gray, leaving me wanting to beat on it with my fists. The screaming is getting louder. I’m close.
The need to get there fast beats in me, pumping blood and burning in my lungs. Rocks trip my bare feet, cutting sharp and hot, leaving me limping, skipping. Ignore it—the words come easy to mind, but I’m stumbling like I haven’t used my legs in a long, long time. But something else pops up as well—it’s all my fault.
I don’t know why those thoughts come to me. But I do know I’ve reached the sound of whoever else is in trouble. In front of me is a building—but what is that really? It is round—a semi-circle, with one end open and a railing and what looks like a wide-viewing screen. The flashing green of the lights seems out of place in this dry world.
Just like me.
The thought leaves my head aching, but I have no time for that. The building has a metal platform. A girl is slumped there. Her screams have gone to whimpers now. She looks younger than me, small and fragile. She has one hand on the railing in front of her. The lights glow and sparks jump out, so white they dazzle. The air stinks as if something is burning. I fear the something is the girl’s skin on the hand that seems stuck to the metal railing.
Moving forward, I put my hands next to the girl’s on the railing. I’m moving on instinct, not thought. I don’t know why, but words leap into my head without my asking—motherboard… electronic connection…access to mainframe AI. My stomach gives another sickening lurch. I’m shaking all over. I know what to do—and I don’t know why I know this.
I plant one hand on the railing next to the girl’s.
Tiny pinpricks jab my palm. A dozen of them. Connections spark within me—I can feel the power slip over my skin and into my mind. With a blink, everything in the dry, brown world around me is no longer anything I can see. Instead, I’m not standing inside a room, dark and blue that is soothing in a way the other dry, dusty place was not. Next to me, the girl stands, her image wavering—and I know we are here in this other place, but we are not really here.
This is the artificial world—it is a construct I see with my mind. But the question comes up—how do I know this? A certainty swells in my chest. I do know this place—it is where I am from. But…that makes no sense to me. How can I be from an artificial world—a computer construct?
Glancing around me, I search for answers—and for a way to save this girl.
A round, black machine sits on her back. Its black arms and legs make it look like it is meant to simulate a small person. But it has no face. No skin. Firewall. The word pops into my head.
Reaching out, I ghost a touch over the plate on the firewall’s chest. Power tingles on my fingertips, but I don’t know if that is coming from me or the firewall. I do know it is attacking the girl—it is a security measure and the girl triggered it. But I don’t like that it’s hurting her.
I find a button and press it—something clicks and code appears, scrolling over the black surface of the firewall’s body. A thousand tiny messages appear in binary—ones and zeros. It’s clumsy code. Why do I know that? Unease shivers through me, but in the other world—the dry and dusty one—I can still hear the girl’s whimpers. Turning to the firewall, I pick out the lines of code that will end this. With a touch, the lines are wiped out.
We can go now, so I put a hand on the girl’s wrists and think those words to her.
The world snaps and breaks. For an instant, everything seems to be blackness. The soothing room of blue and cool vanishes—but then I stand again on the metal platform. I no longer hold the railing, but the girl is with me. She is no longer screaming. She glances at me, parts her lips as if to say something, but then slumps down to sprawl on the platform.
The two words leave me frowning—which is it? I changed the code to make the firewall nonfunctional. Did that in turn leave the girl unconscious—nonfunctional?
It’s all my fault.
Is it my fault this girl is hurt? I don’t know.
Frowning, I rub at the ache deep in the center of my chest. That’s new. I don’t know if it’s good or not. I also don’t know how I got out here in this dry and brown world. Glancing around, it seems to me that even the sky is a pale color—almost blue but not quite. It is so different from the cool, blue room—the artificial place—that it frightens me. I want to go back, but if I do will the firewalls attack me?
Reaching up, I put cold fingers to my cheeks. They are wet and I don’t know why, but the wetness is leaking from my eyes. My throat now seems too tight, too dry. What happened to me that I am in the big, open, frightening place?
Maybe the girl will know.
Squatting down next to her, I touch her arm and shake her shoulder. She moves but only when I push her.
“Why can’t I remember?” The words come out rough and my voice sounds as if I have not used it in a long time. The girl doesn’t answer.
Sitting down next to her, I decide she is longer than I am. Taller—that’s the word. But her face is darker than mine. My skin shows pale white and angry red as if it has been burned. Her skin is not as smooth as mine. Tiny golden hairs cover her arms. Those hairs match the bright ones on her head, but that hair is pulled up and back and I don’t know why. I lean closer. Do I know her? Her face seems angled and sharp. Her eyes are closed but the lashes look feathery soft. I sit back and tug my hair around so I can see it.
Dark, dark brown and thick. It is much shorter than that of the nonfunctional girl.
And that is because…?
No answer swims up to me from within my mind. Closing my hands into fists, I stare down at them. Did someone wipe my code clean? But…no. I am a person not a firewall—not a machine within an artificial construct. I should have memories—I know this. I pound one fist into metal and that leaves my hand sore. That’s a good thing—that means this world is real.
It’s all my fault.
With a frustrated growl, I sit back on my heels until my back rests against the metal wall. A rock presses into my butt. I’m tired. I want to close my eyes and wake remembering. I want the girl to wake because maybe she can tell me something. I hope she can.
“Who are you?” The words come out of my mouth mumbled. I have to wet my lips and try again. “Who am I?”
The word appears in my head like someone said it. I glance around us. There is no one here but the nonfunctional girl and me. It seems I’m not very functional either—which leaves me dysfunctional. I almost let out a laugh, but I don’t know why that word is funny.
Lifting a hand, I open and close my fingers. I let out a breath. I know I’m alive. And in a barren world that seems to be empty except for the girl with me, this platform—which is no longer glowing or sparking—and the wall and the sun burning over us.
I am a glitch? That word feels wrong—the firewall was glitching, wasn’t it when it attacked the girl? Firewalls should guard—they’re not supposed to attack those who enter. Just as I knew how to shut down the firewall and free the girl from its hold, I know this. And I don’t know why I do. The knowledge sits in my stomach like I’ve swallowed a rock.
I must find the Glitches.
The thought is like the other fragments lying around in my head—out of order, lost in mist, and has no contest for why I must do this. But it’s something.
Find the Glitches.
I don’t know what it means. Glancing around, I want to be back in the cool room. I touch the railing. Nothing happens. It seems to have become even more nonfunctional than the girl. I let out a whoosh of air. If I can get one tiny piece of myself back, I should be able to get more. Right now, I have no thought for what my name is, or how I know about the artificial world, but I seem to know nothing about this…this outside world.
It’s all my fault.
“Find the Glitches,” I say to the dry, dusty air and to the girl. Maybe the Glitches will know why it’s my fault. And is that a bad thing or a good one?
The girl moves—just a flutter of her pale lashes, a flicker of a finger moving in the dust. My heart seems to skip a beat. Eagerness floods me along with the chill of fear, and I lean close and ask her, “Do you know who I am?”