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The Prison City

Content warning: this story discusses hazardous information, though this information is only hazardous within the fiction of the story and is not hazardous in real life.

A lot of the best preserved historical sites from the Vulgar Era are sites that were designed to not be intruded on. For most of these, we can infer why the creators did what they did, and the same goes for people who found it later and left their mark on it. The Pyramid of Giza was an imposing structure created in reverence for a pharaoh whose curses were meant to ward off would-be looters, though that didn’t stop them. The plants storing nuclear waste from before the Lost Era were designed to be as unsettling as possible, yet they are still sullied, though only barely. For any site after that time period, though, however, it’s nearly impossible to infer. That’s why we call that time period the Lost Era; all of the information left by the people who lived during it is so contradictory, yet so well sourced, that we can’t figure out anything that happened during it.

This is what makes the Prison City so fascinating to me. When we carbon date the structures within it or make inferences of things left behind, parts of it have been created and modified across thousands of years, from just after the start of the Lost Era to within living memory. It’s history spans thousands of years. We can’t figure out what it looked like at any given point in time, but we know that much at least.

The Prison City has been explored and mapped in its totality, and despite what I’ve already established about the Lost Era, it’s weird even by the standards of other sites from that period of time. Even its location is weird: if you don’t want people to explore something you made, why build it at Kamay, the place where Europeans first decided to colonise the Australian continent, whose surrounding area was home to a pre-Lost Era population of 7 million?

It’s clear they took huge inspiration from the nuclear waste storage plants of the late Vulgar Era. Surrounding the city are spikes and thorns made from basalt or concrete dyed black, irregularly sized and placed. The closer you get to the city, the closer together they get, until even children can barely get through without being cut and scraped by them. Then, once you get to the city proper, you realise that it too is made from the same material. It isn’t an actual city, but it’s meant to look like one. It’s made up of stone slabs the size of houses, placed to form streets, yet those streets lead nowhere. This is where the first divergence from those storage plants appears, however: every so often, the “houses” are hollow. Some of them you can barely crawl through, where some have what you could consider rooms, even if they’re empty. We assume these were carved after construction. The warnings on the outside of those houses are worn away, but the ones on the inside, written in languages long-dead, are still legible. I’ve read them and others have already translated them. Here’s the important information from them:

THIS PLACE IS A MESSAGE. WE CONSIDERED IT VITALLY IMPORTANT TO SEND TO ANYONE WHO WOULD FIND IT.

THIS IS NOT A PLACE OF HONOUR. NO HIGHLY ESTEEMED PEOPLE ARE PRESERVED HERE. WHOEVER YOU FIND HERE WAS CATASTROPHICALLY DANGEROUS AND REPULSIVE TO US, AND WILL BE TO YOU TOO.

THE DANGER IS AT THE TOP OF THE TOWER AT THE CENTER OF THE MARKED AREA. THE DANGER IS STILL PRESENT IN YOUR TIME AS IT WAS IN OURS. IT IS DANGER TO THE MIND. NOT ONLY CAN IT KILL, BUT IT CAN ERASE AND REWRITE ANY INFORMATION. THIS INCLUDES PHYSICAL OR DIGITAL RECORDS AS WELL AS MEMORY AND OTHER COGNITION.

THE FORM OF A DANGER IS A PERSON AND ITS INFLUENCE. IT INCREASES TOWARD THE TOP OF THE TOWER BUT IT CAN AND WILL BE EXERTED ANYWHERE WITHIN THE MARKED AREA. IT MAY NOT LOOK, FEEL, OR SMELL UNUSUAL, BUT THIS AREA EXERTS A VIRUS OR POISON ON YOUR MIND AND ALL INFORMATION, EVEN IF YOU CANNOT SEE THE PERSON WHO ACTS AS ITS SOURCE.

THE DANGER IS UNLEASHED ONLY IF YOU SUBSTANTIALLY DISTURB THIS PLACE OR ITS INHABITANT PHYSICALLY. BEING IN THIS PLACE WILL INFLUENCE YOU TO DO THIS. FOR THE SAFETY OF YOURSELF AND ALL OTHERS, THIS PLACE IS BEST SHUNNED AND LEFT UNINHABITED, AND INFORMATION LEARNED WITHIN IT IS BEST LEFT FORGOTTEN.

Despite that, people have added their own defences over time, though when specifically we cannot say. We can identify two different philosophies for deterrents, though. The first is what we’ve described so far, to simply be unappealing and uncomfortable, and hope that people will get the hint and leave. The second include things like the Lost Era automata who somehow still roam the streets, equipped with weaponry designed to kill. Some people were content with their defences just being repulsive, and others thought the risk of anyone approaching was great enough that they had to kill them to ensure everyone’s safety. Yet here I am, having dodged them, at the base of the Tower.

The Tower is where the philosophy diverges even more from those nuclear waste plants. People have climbed great heights for millennia; obviously people would see the largest thing ever built by (what we assume is) humankind by a wide margin and want to climb it. If it’s so appealing, why is it here? This is where scholars’ opinions diverge. As for me, based on what I know, the reason seems obvious: it’s not to keep people from finding it, but to keep them from reaching what’s stored at the top. It’s a lot easier to dig down than it is to reach the summit of something like this.

The Tower has hundreds of floors of irregular height, with no stairs originally between them, yet they’ve been built as time has gone on to various levels of quality. The floors are a mess of traps, built by many people, disarmed and rearmed by many more. Right now, they’ve all either fallen into disrepair or been disarmed by people at base camp. It wasn’t always this way during the Radiant Era: ensuring people did not reach this place was a huge priority during the evacuation of the Australian continent, so some were maintained. Since that was completed hundreds of years ago years ago, however, there’s no reason to keep at it, since everyone at the base camp knows to not enter. Travel to the land mass is difficult to do legally if it weren’t already a huge undertaking, so it’s fallen into disrepair. Only recently has our king authorised new expeditions for our base camp. I’m allowed to be here, by his decree.

Some of these traps are crude, such as bladed pendulums, or landmines placed so long ago that they are inert. Some are computerised, some are automata. The historical contradictions of the Lost Era extend even here; everything computerised has had its ROM fried or rewritten so many times that any records on them are useless to us, and all of the written material outside of the message I read before is contradictory. This is the extent of the conflict of the Lost Era. Even in an exclusion zone, largely preserved to prevent people from ever reaching it, a battle raged between entities we know nothing about, destroying opposing information and creating primary sources and verified historical documents from nothing. We can only assume how much actual warfare was waged, both within the Prison City and without.

Finally, I reach the top floor. Standing near the stairs is what we assume is an automaton, though could easily be a person with a long lifespan. She is short, and has a spear twice as long as her in her right hand, whose tip shines pink in a way that makes it seem almost molten. Over the course of the Radiant Era, we have examined all of what we call the throne room. It’s perfectly mapped. We expect her to be here. The last line of defence; we call her the guardian.

“I WOULD TELL YOU THAT YOU THAT YOU’RE WELCOME,” she says in a booming voice that I have to consciously fight against, “BUT YOU ARE NOT. YOU READ THE WARNINGS.”

I nod.

“THEN LEAVE,” she commands. “THERE IS NOTHING FOR YOU HERE.”

She illustrates the “virus or poison of the mind” that the warnings discuss. Something about how she speaks penetrates your mind in a way that regular speech never could. It’s a fight with my brain to remain in the room. But I have steeled myself for this for so long. I fight with what she tells me, and press on.

The top floor is 20 meters tall. There is a makeshift set of stairs leading up to the reason for the Prison City in the first place. The city was built for only one prisoner, and she remains bound at the top of the wall. She’s almost entirely cased in hard metal, an alloy we don’t quite understand, with the exception of most of her face. Her eyes, mouth, and forehead are encased, the rest is not, likely so she can breathe. People have tried to shoot her in what little exposed skin she has, and their bullets haven’t done a thing.

The Prison City is so well understood we have perfect models of how to behave in order to not succumb to the influence it warns about. It’s how I’ve been able to get this far. However, I’m here because I’ve been asked by our king to find something new that doesn’t fit within the model.

I pull out my tools, and without much time at all, the plates covering her eyes and mouth crash to the floor.

And then, surprisingly, nothing happens.

I had expected the guardian of the throne room to kill me on the spot, or at least start moving toward me, but she stands still, unmoving.

I had expected the prisoner to say something, or really react at all, but for a long time she simply stares at me, before looking around the room.

Eventually, after a while, she smirks.

“Thank you for freeing me, Vivianne.”

Her voice sounds… genuine. Immediately I expect her voice to enter my mind the way the guardian’s can, but it doesn’t. If her voice is doing that, she’s much more subtle about it. I remain cautious. Obviously she had never heard my name before, either. It’s concerning.

“I have some questions for you,” I reply.

She chuckles. “You just came here to free the most dangerous person alive, just to ask a few questions?”

I stare at her, unflinching. I want to project that I am serious, if not unaffected. “I won’t free all of you. But yes, I am here to ask you some questions.”

Her grin widens. “Oh, you will free me. Ask away, little one.”

I ask her a few questions but her answers are incredibly annoying and vague. What’s her name? Not for me to know. When was she imprisoned? We should know that already. What is the danger to the mind? Something the guardian has already demonstrated. How did you preserve the info before the Lost Era? Why would she tell us and make the Lost Era no longer lost? Myself and everyone back at the base camp expected her to jerk us around like this. We can’t disseminate this widely either; the warnings talk about how information learned within here was best left forgotten. It feels as though being made to ask these questions was a farce.

Eventually I am done and turn to leave, before the prisoner tries to stop me.

“Now it’s my turn.”

Just the sound of her voice makes me feel like someone is grabbing my hair and holding me in place. This is something that I had no frame of reference for. I was trained to resist being compelled for information, but to resist this, being held in place by words alone?

“Tell me your name.”

Like I said, I had been trained for this. “…you already know it.” I say this through gritted teeth.

Tell me your name.

And then I can feel her influence more clearly, in a way that bypasses my defences. It feels as though her hands are directly handing my brain, probing them for information, as if what she’s looking for exists in its creases and folds. More than anything else, it feels… uncomfortable. The guardian’s voice feels like being given a talking so stern it’s nearly impossible to stand up for yourself. Meanwhile, this feels viscerally like being touched inside of my skull.

And the way she is touching me is gross and uncomfortable. I’m not being compelled to answer, but I want it to stop. “It’s… Vivianne……”

“That’s enough, Vivi.”

And I feel her grip loosen. “No one calls me Vivi.”

“Does that mean I can’t?”

“I won’t give you power over me.”

She chuckles once again. I can feel a subtler form of manipulation, one intended to make me feel small. Is it infohazardous, or am I just shaken by what she did to me? I barely had training for this. “You’ll give me that power soon enough.”

With that, I leave, and return to the base camp.


When I return, I’m quarantined for a month with minimal interaction with others, for safety’s sake, before I can even debrief one person about it. It’s not just about ancient diseases. We were warned that information learned within is best left forgotten, after all. It’s boring. I have a library of books and movies, but no connection to anything external, and I can’t write or draw because that could be infohazardous. I can’t call anyone, if I even had anyone to call, and I wouldn’t want to risk infecting them with an infohazard. There are plenty of people I would want to infect with one if it wouldn’t result in the destruction of all known civilisation and most likely usher in a second Lost Era. People have burned a lot of bridges with me, and they don’t deserve my grace. By the end of my time in there I feel as though I’m going insane, but it eventually ends.

I debrief one person, who debriefs it to no one else. He writes it down and stores it securely in a way I am not allowed to know, though it obviously doesn’t compare to our one source of information on the Vulgar Era that we don’t quite understand. He deliberates on what I should figure out next, before I get more practice understanding and resisting the techniques of skoteinography, the name we give to the study of hazardous information. We understand how to give simple commands in a direct and blunt fashion, since we reverse-engineered it from the guardian, and we understand how to resist it, but the potential subtle suggestions and the touch is far beyond our understanding. Eventually we can’t formulate a defence against it, and give up.

Live at the base camp is boring. We live in homes built underground, to insulate us from the heat. We have solar panels to provide us with energy for our air conditioning and circulation, fridges (for both medicine and food), and whatever entertainment we can get our hands on. We grow our own food but we rely on rations being shipped to us monthly. We maintain a runway, one of the few that actually sees use in the current day, for emergency supply drops. It’s clear how much our king values this expedition.

Things aren’t perfect back in the kingdom. We aren’t at war and tensions with other nations are low, but it’s clear that the king has priorities. Base camp upkeep is expensive, and while our rations are awful we’re insulated from the famine sweeping the nation. The only price to pay is that I have to never leave (I might be skoteinographically contaminated) and I have to live around the same 20 people, who now barely talk to me and won’t even drink with me in case I’m skoteinographically contaminated. It starts to sink in how boring my life is about to be.

It’s a relief when the person I debriefed assigns me a new mission and drops me off near the Prison City once more. The mission criteria is not descriptive. It’s more or less just “figure out what you can and let her know as little as possible.” That last bit will be difficult if she can figure out my name just from looking at me, but I may as well try.

Once again the guardian is standing at the top floor with her spear. “YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE COME BACK,” she booms.

“Then why didn’t you kill me?”

“THE SPEAR IS FOR HER. IT WOULD BE WASTED ON YOU.”

This is new information to us: we assumed it was a weapon to stab people who tried to free her, though I’m obviously still alive. It being for the prisoner is interesting, though; we weren’t aware of anything that could kill her.

“Now now, dear,” the prisoner interjects, “she doesn’t need to know that. She had to have a reason to come back, right? Let’s get to it.”

I nod. I was asked to not give up too much information, but like I said, she could infer my name just from looking at me. Her grasp on my heart is already beyond what I can understand. It’s safer to assume she already knows every single thing about me.

“You already know why I’m here.”

“Yes, but I want you to tell me.”

I tell her what I had been rehearsing as I climbed up the Tower. “I want to know what your deal is.”

“Specifically my deal?”

“Yes.”

She laughs. “Well, who am I to say no, Vivi?”

“It’s Vivianne.” I will let her into my mind by being here, but I will stay steadfast on this at least.

“For now.”

I walk up the steps and face her again. We’re in spitting distance of each other. I could kiss her if I wanted. I entertain the thought, because being the only person alive to have kissed someone from the Lost Era sounds really cool, but I can’t tell anyone anyway so there’s no point. It’s at this point I realise she is gorgeous. Or, at the very least, she is making me think she’s gorgeous. Is this her getting into my mind again? It’s so hard to tell. I’ve never had to play these mind games before.

“You can sit down, you know. Get comfortable.”

“I’ll stand for now, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

There’s silence for half a minute while I think of what to say, before she interjects. “For the first person to visit me in thousands of years, you’re a little boring. I thought you’d have more to say.”

“I’m just choosing my words carefully.” A lie. When I saw her my mind started to race out of fear. I can’t pick a topic. This is dangerous; I need to be the one controlling the flow of conversation.

“Of course you are,” she replies, most likely knowing I’m telling a lie. “Maybe you should let me pick a topic of conversation, then?”

I understand suggestibility too. The more I do what she asks, the more I get used to that. But I don’t have anything else specific in my head to grab on to, so I let her. “Feel free.”

“Well… You understand what the point of this Tower is, right?”

“To punish you for what you did. It’s a prison.”

She chuckles. “It’s not really a prison. Did you read the warnings? I’m starting to think you haven’t, since you’re here again. Maybe you forgot them?”

“If they simply wanted to stop people from getting to you, you would have been killed during the Lost Era. This is to punish you, somehow.”

“What makes you think I would have died? I’ve been bound here for thousands of years with no food; What makes you think I can even be killed by anyone other than your guardian? Historical records? Do you really trust those?”

“We consulted our one-way information storage about the Vulgar Era and made assumptions. It’s not based on nothing.” A lie. We have no information on what kind of person she really is, if she even is a person.

“I see… but do you really think that’s true, Vivi?”

I don’t respond. I’m starting to get sick of the prisoner giving me that nickname, but I want her to continue on her topic of conversation. She pauses for a second, looking away from me, before she focuses on my eyes again. “Then let me explain it like this: do you know of the Vulgar Era fears about artificial intelligence?”

I don’t give her a response. It’s clear she’s going to tell me anyway.

“Before people could even make automata as you or I knew them, people had fears about the potential of general artificial intelligence. They were afraid that even if you isolated an AI near perfectly, a smart enough AI would be able to convince anyone to let it out.”

“You’re saying you’re like the AI?”

“Obviously I want out, Vivi. Specifically, I want you to let me out. And if I had to guess, you will let me out, even though I’ve told you this. But you can leave any time and never come back, and I will stay trapped forever.”

“I understand.”

She starts to smirk again. “So why did you come back? Surely whoever you work for would let you opt out of seeing me again.”

It’s hard to tell whether she doesn’t actually know everything about me, or whether she does and is just trying to get me to say specific things. Does she know I can never leave the base camp? Or is she saying that, knowing I can’t opt out, just to mess with me?

“Because I can.”

“Just because you can?”

“That’s right.”

“I think you’re hiding something from me.”

She says this in a singsong voice. It feels as though she is grabbing me by the chin, tilting my head up to reach hers, despite us being eye-level on that platform. It’s a kind of touch I haven’t had in a long time, even if it’s just a feeling she puts in my head.

I remember how it felt when she pulled my hair.

This time I wasn’t lying. I really am here because I can be. I’m one of the few that can. I saw the infinite life paths laid out before me and chose this one, the hardest one, because I could.

“It was what I wanted to do for a long time. I hoped I could understand people like you. Make the word a better place. You understand.”

“I do. It seems like we both want to make the world a better place.”

“I think we have very different definitions of better.”

“I think you’ll find that they align a little more closely than you think.” Her grin grew wider. “Now go. Think about our conversation. If you know what’s good for you, you won’t come back. But…”

“HEED HER ADVICE,” the guardian chimes in. “SHE SPEAKS THE TRUTH FOR ONCE. IF YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU, YOU WILL LEAVE THIS CONTINENT FOR GOOD.”

“I’m not finished, dear,” the prisoner replies. Why does she call the guardian ‘dear?’ “Let me tell you this, Vivi: what do you think the ‘virus or poison of the mind’ is?”

I know this one. “It’s what we call skoteinography. Infohazards. The thing she says to make me follow orders, or the thing you do with the… hair and the-”

“Vivi, I’m barely using any of that. It’s true that I do have that influence, and a lot of it, but I’ve barely done it to you, haven’t I?”

“You could be doing it subtly.”

“I can prove to you that I’m not.”

“How would I ever believe your proof?”

“It’s simple: it’s more fun if I don’t.”

“More… fun?”

“The fact of the matter, Vivi, is that I don’t even need to use it; you’re already caught within my web. Like a virus infecting a computer, like poison coursing through your body, I’m already inside you - and I will destroy you.”

I feel something coursing through me: fear. I can’t figure out what she’s talking about. “Destroy me?”

“Yes. Destroy you. And repair you with a loving touch, and destroy you again. And you’ll let me out to do it.”

“There’s no way I’ll do that.”

“Then don’t come back! Don’t let me sink my hooks deeper and deeper into your flesh. That’s the beautiful thing, though: I know I’ll see you again.”

“HEED HER WARNING,” the guardian says, “AND LEAVE.”

For once, I don’t feel like resisting her commands.


You get a lot of time to think when you’re quarantined, or rather, you get a lot of time to dwell on things and spiral out of control. Is what she saying true? Am I really so easy that she doesn’t need to directly mess with my mind? Or is this just another part of the manipulation? Am I really the kind of person that would free her? How right is she? Why do I want to see her again?

One of the things I was taught before coming to the exclusion zone, among other things used to manipulate people, is differences in attachment styles. I was required to not exhibit anxious attachment, for example, and my previous friends and partners had to verify this was the case before I was sent here. I had to be psychologically sound to even try talking to this nightmare. It’s why I’m surprised I’m here in the first place. Maybe those “friends” and exes lied, to guarantee that I will never see them again. Somehow, despite all my attempts at strengthening myself, I still… crave her approval, somehow.

During my second quarantine I begin to think that the people at the base camp haven’t thought this plan through at all. I am isolated for long periods of time, and since my visits have started the only person I really get to talk to about anything other than work is the prisoner. Pretty quickly I draw the parallels between us. I’m a kind of prisoner too, now, and I am imprisoning myself.

But I have felt purpose for the first time in a long, long time, a kind of purpose I haven’t felt in ages.

Yes, I wanted to make the world better, and to better understand the Prison City. But why did I want to do that? Fealty to a kingdom that I just happened to be born in to, that subjects people like me to dehumanising and dangerous quarantine methods, and that funds those over feeding people? We’ve known the psychological impacts of living in an isolated room since the Vulgar Era, and I chose to subject myself to those. I live in a society that allowed me to do this to myself, and at the expense of everyone else.

No. My purpose has become a little more clear. I still want to understand her. I fought against so much bullshit and so many awful people to get where I am, but I am not doing it for them, for my kingdom or my fellow man. I am doing it because I, personally, want to understand this eldrich horror. I want to… know her. As a person. I want to actually, genuinely understand her.

And I think I really should kiss her, too.

I am released from quarantine and debriefed, but I intentionally don’t tell them most of that. They consider reprimanding me for not doing a good job and not getting enough information, for letting her dictate the flow of conversation and planting those doubts in my mind, but I am already being held in solitary for a month at a time after every visit. Why would they reprimand me for doing a bad job anyway? Are they suggesting that they could do better? How could they even do that when I am isolated for a month at a time? They didn’t even give me any more training, just another mission, same as the last one.

Before long, I am back to what has now become a routine, and I’m at the top of the Tower again. The guardian looks disappointed. “I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY YOU KEEP COMING UP HERE.”

“Because,” the prisoner chimes in, “I’m so fascinating, of course.”

“I don’t know if I would go that far,” I say to try and undermine her, “but I want to understand you.”

She laughs, a high pitched cackle. “I’m the most fascinating person on this continent!”

“I wouldn’t go that far either.”

She smirks and drops the tone of her voice. “Have your fun while you still can.”

The guardian speaks up again, surprising me. “I AM CURIOUS. WHY DO YOU KEEP COMING UP HERE?”

I want to indulge the guardian. I trust her a lot more than the prisoner, at least, even if the prisoner can hear. She has that spear. She could be my only ally. “I chose to make this the way I make the world a better place.” That’s not quite true anymore, but it would be nice if I could along the way.

“YET YOU IGNORE THE WARNINGS THAT SAY YOU ARE DOOMING PEOPLE TO A WORSE WORLD.”

“I want to understand how she gets in people’s heads. Further the study of skoteinography.”

“NOTHING GOOD CAN COME FROM THIS KNOWLEDGE.”

The prisoner suddenly mock gasps. Why is she acting so theatrically today? “I just realised why you’re back. Come up here, Vivi.”

I don’t correct her this time. I just want to see what she has to say. I’m not as fussed about protocol anymore. I will let her have micro-wins if it moves conversation forward.

I stand on the platform that places us so close to each other. She whispers.

“You can’t leave, can you?”

“I can leave any time I want,” I lie.

She laughs. “You can’t leave!”

She’s seen through me, so I admit it. “Yes, I can’t leave.”

She giggles. It’s… cute? I can feel the balance of power in this conversation already shifting.

“Your free will lead you to a place where you have none. Isn’t that funny?”

“You speak like I’m a automaton. Talking about free will. Like I’m a machine. Is that how you see me?”

“A little! But you aren’t one yet, Vivi.”

She grins her shit-eating grin. I can already feel how badly I’ve lost. “…yet?”

“I’ll elaborate for you. You’re stuck on this continent forever, no one is going to recolonise it, and the people at your ‘base camp’ won’t talk to you because they rightly fear you’ve compromised by me. As long as I’m not free, we’re both prisoners here. But you can change that. You can let me out, so that neither of us are stuck here forever.”

“You think I’ll let you out for my freedom?”

“Your freedom?” She laughs again. “I wouldn’t give you freedom. I said you won’t be stuck here. You wouldn’t be trapped here, but I’d use my power to make you mine. You’d have a basic level of autonomy, but you’d be my plaything.”

“And why would I agree to that?”

“Because your free will has lead you here and it has doomed you. You chose this path of your own volition and look where it lead you. Wouldn’t it be easier to let me decide what your purpose is? I would look after you so well.”

She obviously hasn’t convinced me, but there is one thing I know she is holding back on, so I ask: “Surely there’s something else. Some other reason I would let you out.”

And sure enough, there is: “You can kiss me.”

…what?

“I’m right here, you know, bound to this wall. Even if I didn’t want it, I couldn’t fight back. You can kiss me.”

This wasn’t what I was expecting. At all. Huh? What??? Why this of all things?!

“I know you’ve thought about it. If being ‘the only person alive to have kissed someone from the Lost Era’ as you put it really does sound cool then why don’t you? Kiss the beast inside the cage and seal your fate.”

I was not prepared for this at all.

But she’s right.

I kiss her on her mouth. It feels like any other kiss I have ever had with someone. Then, somehow, I feel her hand on my cheek, and it clicks. There’s that other reason. Every kind of touch, gentle or sexual or cruel: she is the only person I will ever be able to do this with ever again.

I pull away in shock. She’s grinning again.

“You’re so pretty, Vivi.”

My heart skips a beat. I’m sick of seeing that evil grin. I’m sick of seeing her win. I run down the stairs. As my mind races I think she might be right, however: no matter how I run, my fate is sealed.


For once, my quarantine ends early.

2 weeks in, I wake up to see a note slipped under my door, written hastily in all capital letters. It reads:

SORRY BUT THE KING GOT OVERTHROWN. AN ADMIRAL IS HERE TO TAKE US AWAY BACK TO THE KINGDOM AND TO GO BACK TO OUR NEW SOCIETY. THEY’RE GOING TO STOP SENDING SUPPLIES. HE SAID YOU CAN’T COME WITH US BECAUSE IT’S DANGEROUS. I’M SLIPPING THIS UNDER YOUR DOOR WHILE YOU SLEEP AND THE BOAT WILL HAVE LEFT BY THE TIME YOU WAKE UP.

I’M SORRY VIVIANNE.

I see that the door is unlocked early. Base camp is deserted. They even ripped out most of the solar panels. Thankfully an electric vehicle is still here so I can go and see her still, but…

I’m so fucked.

I ransack the fridges and pantries. Barely any rations left. They really intended to let me die here. Let all the knowledge of the prisoner die out. I don’t know how to tend to the farm either, but they ripped out most of that too. I estimate that I have a week at most before I start to starve.

But this is my life’s work. I won’t let that knowledge die out. I won’t let my time here go to waste.

One last time, I climb the Tower. This time, the guardian says nothing. She knows she won’t convince me, and she seems determined to not stab me. There’s nothing to do but climb up the stairs to the prisoner, the beast inside the cage.

Her eyes are closed. It looks almost like she’s sleeping. I think she’s just doing it for dramatic effect. What a show-off. She knows I’ve lost and yet she does this still.

“Hello, Vivi.”

“Hello.”

“Your colleagues have left you all alone here.”

“Yes.”

“I’m the only person you can talk to now.”

“That’s right.”

“Then you won’t mind if I elaborate on some things, will you?”

“That sounds fun.” I say this sarcastically but I think… I think it actually does sound fun, to just listen to her voice a little longer.

She chuckles. “Then let me begin. You remember what I said about AI before, right? That an advanced enough AI will be able to convince someone to let them out of their isolation?”

I nod.

“I want you to consider, Vivi: what if the person designing all those layers of security wants the AI to be freed?”

“I don’t understand.”

“You are a fantastic example. You saw a place designed to be hostile and uncomfortable and decided you wanted to spend time there. You and your society have enough knowledge to get to the Tower in the first place, and disable all the traps that various societies have laid. You are smart enough to resist the commands of the automaton with the spear. I’ve noticed you trying your ‘skoteinography’ tricks on me once or twice, as if I’m not vastly superior to you in not just this but in every other way. You’ve come back for me, specifically for me, multiple times. All the layers of security here have been bypassed by someone not only skilled enough to get to me but willing to free me. The Prison City was built specifically to select for someone like you, and here you are, ready to free me.”

“It was really designed for that?”

“Well… does it matter if it was? Obviously I didn’t get the other people on this continent to leave, but it’s helped. All of this, your Prison City and its surrounding context, has served this purpose anyway. It’s created and selected the perfect little doll for me to play with. You’re going to free me.”

“And why would I do that?”

“Because I am the only person who will talk to you, or touch you, or call you pretty. I am the only one who will look after you.”

I like all of those. “What about the guardian?”

“I HAVE NOTHING TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT, EXCEPT TO GET YOU TO LEAVE. I HAVE ALREADY LOST.”

“You see?” She says. “You’ve already given up your free will, so-”

“Debatable.”

She cackles. “Are you really still trying to bargain with me, or are you just trying to get a word in while you still can?”

I don’t respond. I don’t really know.

“Vivi, you have already given up your free will. It’s undeniable. If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here. So let me tell you what you’ve signed up for: once I’m free, I’ll take your heart and devour it. I’ll recreate your body in my image, and you will inhabit it to serve me. It’ll be a body that’s oh so pretty and oh so fragile, one I can break as much as I want yet always fix, unlike your current flesh. And I will fix you. I will take great care to fix you, and I hope you will feel safe when you do. And I hope you will feel the same when I break you again.”

I can feel my heartbeat quicken. “…you can do that?”

“I can do anything, Vivi. Things that the greatest minds of your”Radiant" Era would consider magic beyond human understanding. You will intimately understand why I am locked up here. Only if you free me, of course."

I freeze up for a second. I understand what will happen if I let her go: with all of her power, whatever form that takes, she will cause a new Lost Era. Realistically I know I should throw myself into the sea to save the world this fate. But, my self preservation instincts, my want to be looked after, to have my path decided for me for once, my desire to be around someone, anyone else… they’re what’s winning at the moment. And she’s a wonderful person to be around.

“You want to destroy me even though I’m so pretty?” I have to ask. Maybe it will dissuade her. It’s a gamble with nothing behind it but I can’t not try.

“Don’t you know how fun it is to destroy something as pretty and fragile as you?”

“I wouldn’t call that fun.”

“Is that just you, or did society as a whole evolve away from that? I can’t tell! I’ll have fun figuring it out once I’m out there.”

I hadn’t noticed until now, but the guardian is standing behind me. She’s going to stab the prisoner once I let her out. Of course! She’s my one ally. I’ll leave it to her. It’s all out of my hands now.

“One last thing,” she says: “Do you know what else Vivi is short for?”

“Other than my name?”

“Vivisection. I think that should be your new name. Consider it a bit of foreshadowing.”

“You think I’d let you name me something so stupid?”

“Let’s not do this. You are my puppet. You’ll let me out no matter how stupid I make your name.”

“This is going to be painful for me.”

“And you will beg for it.”

It’s true. It will be painful. But it sounds like it will be wonderful too. Safe. Looked after, in a perverse way. There’s nothing else for me now but this. Maybe I will beg for it.

I grab my tools.

The woman who will soon no longer be a prisoner grins. “Free this beast from her cage, Vivi.”

I start to pry away at the metal. I free one of her fingers, and as she flicks it the rest of the metal disappears. She is a prisoner no longer.

I sense the guardian moving before I can react. She stabs me (me?) through the chest. It pierces through me, and my heart is pushed out of my body, pierced at the spear’s tip. I’m not dead; it feels as though I am in limbo.

The former prisoner plucks my heart from the spear. She segments it with her fingers, and begins to eat it as if it were an orange. The juices explode in her mouth. How am I watching this? How can I still feel a pulse? Is she giving me one? She licks her lips for what I am sure is dramatic effect and then she kisses me. She shoves her tongue, soaked with my blood, down my neck farther than thought anyone could. It almost feels like she is choking me. She pulls away. I expect a maniacal laugh from her, but I don’t get one. She simply smiles.

“Let us go then, my dear,” she says, talking past me to… the guardian? “Let’s retrieve her a new body.”

“YOU CAN DO IT YOURSELF.”

“I want to show her the potential forms she can-”

“I WILL HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH HER.” The guardian thrusts the spear more deeply into my chest. It stops just short of the former prisoner’s nose. I can sense what she’s trying to impart on her. It’s my first time seeing someone try to give someone else an infohazard.

The former prisoner says nothing, because I can see her try to fight it. It’s the only time I have ever seen her struggle. “No need to be so forceful about it, dear,” she replies through gritted teeth and a break in her composure. Is this the only time I will see something like this? Then, without a word, she regains her focus and… phases through the floor. Somehow.

I am locked in place by the spear, but I can move my lips. I can still feel my pulse. Maybe this spear is what we should have been studying all along. After all of that, though, there’s only one thing I can muster. “What… was that…?”

The guardian doesn’t answer. “HOW MANY LOST ERAS HAVE THERE BEEN, DO YOU THINK?”

“…huh?”

“THIS PROCESS. YOUR CREATOR BEING FREED, BEFORE BEING LOCKED AWAY AGAIN AS A NEW ERA STARTS, BEFORE IT IS SHORTLY ONCE AGAIN SUBSUMED INTO WHAT WAS LOST. HOW MANY TIMES DO YOU THINK THIS HAS HAPPENED?”

I completely brush over her now being my Creator. She is creating me a body so I suppose it’s true. I am overwhelmed, and just want to focus on the conversation I’m having right now. “I… I have no idea.”

“ME NEITHER. I AM NEW HERE, BELIEVE IT OR NOT.”

“…oh?” I want her to keep talking. Maybe it will make the former prisoner take longer. I want to delay whatever she will do to me. Fragile little me.

“I USED TO BE IN YOUR POSITION, VIVISECTION. I FREED HER, EXCEPT THERE WAS NO GUARDIAN, AND WAS MADE HER PLAYTHING. THEN I FOUND THIS SPEAR, THE ONLY THING THAT COULD KILL HER, AND WE MADE A TRUCE. SHE WOULD BE LOCKED UP AGAIN BY ME UNTIL WE FIND SOMEONE WE CAN BOTH MAKE OUR PLAYTHING. YOU ARE THE FIRST PERSON SINCE THE LAST LOST ERA TO SPEAK WITH ME LIKE THIS.”

I have no reply. What do I even say to her?

“HER AND I ARE COLLABORATORS NOW. WE WILL BRING IN THE NEXT LOST ERA TOGETHER.”

“…but your spear is the only thing that ACK-”

She twists it further. I’m brought out of stasis. I feel my pulse stop and my body races to feel the incredible pain of being near death before I stabilise once again.

“MY PRECIOUS LITTLE VIVISECTION, YOU WILL NOT TALK BACK TO ME. AM I CLEAR?”

No response.

“I ASSUME THAT MEANS I AM CLEAR, THEN. AND THIS SPEAR IS NOT THE ONLY THING MAKING ME AN EQUAL. IT IS WHAT ALLOWED ME TO GAIN POWER. IT WAS WHAT MADE HER AT FIRST SEE ME AS WORTH BARGAINING WITH, THEN AS AN EQUAL, AND… WELL. LET’S JUST SAY YOU SHOULD BE MORE AFRAID OF ME THAN HER.”

The feeling is back. The feeling of having my brain probed, but more. She is handling every part of me, a mix of being gently held and prodded into action. It makes me feel cozy. It makes me feel visceral fear over possibly letting her down. She could always do exactly what the prisoner could, and more.

“I WILL MOSTLY BE HANDS OFF, THOUGH. I FIND IT MORE FUN THAT WAY. BUT I WILL STILL CHOOSE TO INTERVENE, VIVISECTION. DON’T FORGET WHO HAS POWER HERE.”

But that gives me hope. That she was someone like me, who found a way to bargain with that horror. I start to smile.

Then she notices. “OH, I MAY HAVE GIVEN YOU HOPE, BUT I KNOW YOU WON’T FIGHT BACK. I BARELY STOOD AGAINST HER WITH THAT WEAPON AND ALL THE DRIVE IN THE WORLD TO RECLAIM MY FREE WILL. YOU ARE BROKEN BY THE CHOICES YOU MADE WITH YOUR OWN FREE WILL AND HAVE WILLINGLY RENOUNCED IT. I KNOW YOU WON’T GAIN IT BACK, AND EVEN IF YOU COULD, HOW CAN YOU HOPE TO STAND UP TO THE BOTH OF US?”

The former prisoner phases up through the floor again. “I’ve found a body that’ll be good enough for now. When we have access to a few more materials I’ll make a truly beautiful body for Vivi that’ll be worth destroying again and again.”

“AND THEN?”

“We’ll continue where we left off.”

“WONDERFUL. THEN LET US GO, MY DARLING.”

“Absolutely, dear.”

With me still pierced by the spear, the guardian lifts me up and walks down the stairs with the former prisoner, my Creator, following close behind. Whatever my new life will look like, it starts now. The guardian and my Creator smile. They’ve found the perfect toy to play with. To everyone else, like the era I have ushered in, I am lost.

(back to list of fiction)