Lee was home.
His little flat in Trine had never felt particularly warm, but in the oily thunder of his dream, it was almost pleasant. He sat at the table by the window where he would often sit alone on a night eating what little food he had, and he looked out on the bright hues of his city as it fractured.
People walking in the street below disappeared and reappeared. The building’s lights all turned on and off, slow pulses that were gradually speeding up. A manta shot by the window, flying far too low. Another, on the exact same trajectory. Another. Another.
Lee’s augments were malfunctioning. He had overtaxed them, the link with the marauder’s vehicle simply too much for his hardware. They were quite literally falling apart. He was safe here though, in this self-contained fortress. He had built it so that his consciousness could be preserved even if his body suffered massive trauma. But it would not last forever, and there were already signs that this augment was glitching too.
For one thing, he was not alone in his little flat.
“How was work today?” Seb asked, taking a sip of synth from his favourite metal cup.
Lee looked over at his husband of five years, and he smiled. “I’m not at work, love,” he said. “I’m out in the wilds.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right. You’re dying.” Seb’s bright blonde hair flurried, his green eyes turning electric. All his colours started to bleed out of him, twisting the reality of the flat and tingeing it. Then a flicker, and the picture resolved. “And I’m dead,” he said.
“How long has it been for you?” Seb, in a staggered, skipping walk, came to stand next to Lee, letting his hand slide up Lee’s neck. Lee closed his eyes.
“Two years, eight months and fourteen days.”
Seb kissed Lee on the top of his head. Then he was sat opposite Lee. He reached for Lee’s hand, but Lee did not give it. “Things are falling apart,” Seb said with a vague finger pointing outside. The glitches were forming so frequently now that it was hard to make out any detail. “Remember when you thought it snowed, and you cried? I don’t know why I said that.”
“Because I was thinking it,” Lee said. “You…”
“Lee, come on. Fight it.” He could hear Jack, was vaguely aware of an unfamiliar woman stood over him, but then the dream took hold again.
“They’re trying to save me,” Lee said.
“So why aren’t you trying?” Seb’s words weren’t unkind. In fact, when he said them they came with a deep sorrow in his eyes.
“I got Jack here. I did my part. He can help Vardy do the rest. Hopefully they can stop the Einz.”
“So that’s it? You’re surrendering to it then?” Now Seb looked cross. “You can’t do that Lee. Too many people need you.”
“No. You’re only saying that because my brain thinks that you would. It’s just as empty now as if Seb had said it himself. I am small. I’m nothing.”
“No. No one is small. No one is nothing. And especially not you. You save people, Lee. That’s what you’ve always done.”
“I couldn’t save you, though, could I?”
The glitch was fierce and fast, a flash of Seb at the hospital, hooked up to so many machines and computer terminals as Lee tried every single augment he could think of to spare him from his own mutating, cancerous flesh.
Then back, back in his little flat, in the safety of the firewalls he had made.
“I was terminal a long time before I met you, Lee. The Einz made sure of that. You kept me alive though, and we had some good years–”
“You should have had more. Everyone in Trine should have more. But they take, and they take, and they take from us. And I’m tired, Seb. I’m tired of being…this.” A ghost of Lee appeared, walking through his flat, pulling on his rucksack, going out the door. The door opened as soon as it closed, and Lee came back in, his clothes bloodstained, his face darker. Straight to bed. Then rising, walking through his flat, putting on his rucksack, the pattern repeating again, and again. “You made it bearable.”
“Maybe Jack could make it that again?” Seb said.
Lee hung his head. “I betrayed you.”
“I did. I knew he was interested and I let it keep going. I shouldn’t have. We were forever–”
“Forever is longer than I had, Lee.” Seb did take Lee’s hands then. “And you’ve been so alone. Day after day, this crushing weight. Is that when you started building this place? Hacking your own augments? Risking so much to, what? Protect yourself from the truth?”
Lee took back his hands. “Diagnostics off.”
“I’m not your diagnostics programme,” Seb said. “In fact, I think if you check, yeah, that’s gone now. Whoever’s helping you is systematically shutting down your safeguards. They’re trying a full system recovery.”
“It won’t work,” Lee looked outside. Trine was gone. Now there were scenes that Lee had never lived. Shots from the data files he had extracted: tanks rolling across blooded ground, planes crashing, people screaming. “It’s gone too far.”
“Not if you try. If you try, Lee, you know you can save yourself. I see it in you. I always saw it in you.”
Lee sat quiet.
“Lee, you’re all I have left,” Seb said, and his eyes were pleading, and his lips trembled. “The pieces of me you kept, they’re all that’s left now. If you die, then I’m truly gone too. And for what? To preserve our love? Well it doesn’t, does it? Lee? Lee!”
The quiet built on itself until Lee looked up. Seb was gone. Lee looked around his flat. The walls were leeching their colour. The ceiling above was cracking, but instead of falling down it was falling upward as if being sucked into the sky. And the sky was white. A terrible, blank space.
“We’re losing him!” Lee heard someone say.
The walls began to crumble, all colour drained from his surroundings, and piece by piece the black husks of his half remembered life floated up into the never-ending void, disappearing into the vastness of hell.
The world was gone. Only he was left, the entire slate now clean. He saw Jack stood above him, the man’s heavily lined eyes pleading in the same way that Seb’s had.
“I’m not ready.”