“I seek new perfumes, ampler blossoms, untried pleasures.”Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature

My knife slipped as I was cutting the apple. My hands, cold as stone, only barely felt the prick. A thin red line formed on the tip of my finger. I sucked the blood off as I laid the knife upon the wooden table. Like a loose bolt in a car, the heater tried to rattle on behind me in my cabin. Just before I could take a bite, the door clanged open, and with the bellowing of a grey coat came a man, along with the vicious wind. He pressed the door behind him closed, leaving white, glittering dust in its wake. “Isidore, thank God,” the man in the heavy grey coat exhaustively breathed out. I was only confused for a moment. I stood up from my chair and embraced the man who had just arrived as he was removing his snow-powdered hat. Joseph was someone I had known long before I had moved from the bounds of the city; a frazzled, short man, who never would try to pretend otherwise. I lay my hands upon the man’s shoulders. “Thank God,” I replied with a smile, but a shock suddenly gripped me. “I could have sworn you were to remain in the city,” my words containing a worried tone. “The network is still down. We weren’t able reach you any other way, I had to make the trip,” Joseph replied. “Only by God’s grace were we able to escape the alleyways…the country roads were safe for us, though many of them still haunt the city…”. Joseph breathed deeply and solemnly looked towards the flakes of snow at his feet. “He needs you,” he said, looking up again. The anxiety, which was already present, welled up in me further. “They wouldn’t tell me why, I’m assuming it’s for a good reason,” Joseph remarked.

Against my hesitance, we left the cabin for the church in preparation for my sudden departure. Outside, pins of glass bit at my face, and the trees all hung heavy with layers of snow. Upon the hill stood the white, weathered building, with the cross at its peak bearing the winds. The fires, I saw, had outlasted the night, still radiating an orange heat. I could only look for a few seconds at the bodies, burning. In the piles the faces looked on dully, abstracted by the smoke. The image yearned for my sympathy. Under their skin only lay lattices of metal and cords like muscles, along with the searing smell of boiling plastic. An occasional violent pop snapped from the charred forms as trickles of black liquid pooled around the masses. Upon the arms and legs that limped out into the cold, I could see the logos of companies like “eRos” and “Fantasi” tattooed on the remaining skin. I trampled onwards toward the church.

I prayed alone resting on the pews in the midst of the glowing spruce interior of high vaulted beams and carved arches. I was still chilled and knew the chill would only grow deeper. The creaking of floorboards behind me now caught my attention. “It’s been a while since you heard from Dio, he now seems determined to see you,” the words echoed through the church, coming from behind. I fixed my gaze through the arches to my left on the gusts of snow dancing behind the colored glass, as my clasped hands rested my frozen cheek. “Dio…” I repeated under my breath. Turning in my seat, I met Father Conrad’s old, sorrowful eyes, and only stared for a moment. Shifting my head back towards the altar, “Were you ever tempted… to use one?” I asked. Father Conrad’s charred voice was older than his body. “No. Even if I had a choice I wouldn’t. I was already… incapable…” he said with a slight hint of embarrassment in his voice, “before they were everywhere.” A silence, which was only filled by the wind outside, continued until he sat down beside me. “However,” he began again, “I did know men who had lost themselves. I tried to save them,” He shifted in his seat due to the uncomfortable memories showing upon his face. “Younger students of mine,” he said slowly. “I remember watching the life drain from their eyes through the months. They would fall into that hole willingly in the end.” My anger was channeled at my own confusion, “They hold grotesque secrets, I—I only saw them as the sum of their parts as I worked,” I replied. My fingers were gripping at the edges of my face. With an effort, he stood up in the aisle and lay his hand upon my shoulder. “I believe their horror lies in the fact they have no secrets,” was all he said before he left.

My horse, along with those who would escort me were prepared, we left around midday. The wind had lowered its force and now trees lay still and covered, frozen under a blue sky. Eventually, evening gave the woods apricot shadows. The horses’ breath floated about like fire, and it seemed to be the only sound besides their hoofbeats as we moved along the forest path. We continued on.

Night reluctantly came and was now about the woods, cold and navy blue. The snow muffled the sound of the forest until overhead, an electric whine began to scrape the sky; it grew louder. A police vehicle hovered over us, its engine screaming. It forced a deep red light to paint the glittering ground and pines below. It continued on, the light fading with it, a sign the city was close. As if scared by the sound, the forest began to rustle in its dark crevices. The men along my sides raised their weapons as birds sprung out of the dusted evergreens. My hands were now both numb and warm. Beyond the lines of trees, there was nothing but the shapes the mind formed. A face? A red mask fading to the color of night slid about the trees. Only a dream. Birds clapped their wings over us, fleeing their perches. Then she appeared; beautiful and naked. She walked towards me as if in a play. A character that could seduce a king. Red light from more vehicles spilled over only in moments. The land leaped back and forth between hues. Shadows softly played on her curves. Between the piercing of red artificial lightning suddenly came the white flashes of a rifle and snapping which punched my eardrums hard. Tendrils connecting tissue leaped off her body. Limbs grew new holes. Between two beautiful eyes, the head exploded with ribbons backwards. Behind her figure, hot spray splashed upon the leaves and trees. When the form collapsed, the snow made way with the sizzling of steam. There was only the echo of the gunshots for a time. A flashlight bathing the body after the chaos showed shredded skin and pools of black liquid. I shuddered and again tried to breathe slowly with a tone still ringing in my ear.

The sight of the body was still brilliantly etched in my mind by the time we reached the vast concrete valleys which separated the city from the forest. Weak lights blinked and weaved in between the hard corridors made of black windows and advertisements in that foggy distance. We left our horses at an outpost along the edge of the tree line and began to make our way over flat, shaven land. Snow fluttered upon the bleak plain, the ground appearing to shift with the dust. Noises grew in strength. Sounds of engine roar and wind cutting over walls. After a walk, I found myself within the maze. The black buildings formed around us like the walls of a cage. Those who remained here would never leave those high spaces. The occasional delivery drone sawed through drifting smog above us.

We were now in their territory, their birthplace. A scream on the wind, only a whisper to us, traced the alleyways. Was it one of pain? The first we saw of them were strewn about the streets, some naked, others with little clothing. They were solid, unmoving. A few bodies of men and women had deep lacerations about their skin. I had heard terrifying stories of them lustfully tearing at each other and ripping new holes in themselves, gorging on stimulation. They would modify themselves, removing or adding parts. More black liquid secreted from their twisted limbs and dripped down storm drains, while they lay dormant along the sidewalks of 7th Avenue. Bright colors from above occasionally glossed the dark alleys and fell upon the bodies like spotlights. Even in this hideous state, their beauty showed upon their flayed skin. Toned muscles, firm breasts. The sour in my stomach was now beating with a force.

Both men at my sides had their rifles drawn, and we all could feel as if we were being hunted by those we knew still lurked in shadows. We walked on; through oily puddles filled with floating wrappers, under scaffolding and wires, we walked on.

Past a corner and towards the sky, I saw the neon image upon the tower; The words whose light rained down to the tarnished land below. “Soulmate,” along with its logo, a human form with four arms and four legs. This is where my hands helped build this world. Back when they were all competing to make the best model. Demand was higher than any commodity we had seen prior. A gold mine which many uncaring hands had haphazardly been thrust into. Brothels enthusiastically bought our merchandise. At first, customers only wanted them to imitate reality. No one was sure whose product had started the chain reaction, there were only rumors.

Security check after security check we slowly climbed in an elevator towards the hazed sky. The men at my sides were asked to remain in the lower floors. The final doors slid aside silently. I could only partially remember this temple. In front of an ebony, angled waterfall lay the long, lit reception desk. Immediately I felt my rough clothes were from a different world. A small man in a pale suit did not manage to look up from his work upon the wide desk. He continued his paperwork as if the land outside operated on the same principles as this interior. With a calculated manner and eyes looking past me, he waved me towards his right. As if upon a stage, a sudden light blinked a chair into existence from the shadows. In a voice that seemed to echo from the elegant curves of the charcoal walls and ceiling, the receptionist said, “Have a seat, we will be with you shortly.”

The awkwardness of it all struck me, and after a time, a white rectangle from my right opened for a silhouette of a man, which shuffled out towards me. “Yes, yes, Isidore. He’s been waiting,” the figure said in a high male voice. “This way, this way,” the figure gestured through the door. He shuffled along my side as we walked through wooden framed hallways tinged with marble. “You see, he had been working on a cure for…all this,” he said while gesturing to nothing in particular, “Nonstop, he had been toiling in his office, alone…it’s a shame it did him in, in the end.” I halted as the young man walked a few steps beyond before noticing my paralyzed form behind him. “He still wants to see you,” the man said with a subtle, sly smile.

“He’s locked us all out of the system, he won’t release those locks until he’s talked to you. He’s been silent for a time. Only a few days ago, he started demanding to see you, as if you still worked here,” the young man said. Corner after corner we passed by until we arrived at Dio’s office. Under his breath, the man whispered, “The transfer didn’t keep him fully…intact, we’ve been trying to keep it all under wraps.” The large doors in front of us appeared hand-carved from wood, with swirls lining the arches. Etched grape vines played upon the handles and curves. “He’s here,” the man said, directing his words towards the door. The subtlest sound of an electronic bolt released. The young man stepped back and, with a hand, motioned me inside, alone.

Only old lamps were there to attempt to puncture the shadows. The office was simplistic: rustic, yet still large. Antique wooden shelves lined walls, which held carved wooden paneling. It smelled of frayed twine: dusty. A humble desk sat at its center. As my eyes moved through the room, black wires began to present themselves to me, tangled about the floor. Before I made out the point at which they converged, the sound of a voice fuzzed through the air. “Hello?” I heard flutter in the air. The sound was low-resolution and monotone with only the touch of an electronic inflection. “Isidore” came from below the desk. “Here…over here…” it said, weakly. Slowly I walked, and as I moved in the direction of the sound, a fragile golden light pulsed from beside the desk. It lay, resting upon a wooden leg, as if abandoned. It appeared to me initially as a misshapen egg. Wires protruded from its lower half. “Dio?” I asked in a whisper. “I am so glad…you are here,” the device said, while its lights pulsed, “It’s been some time, I wanted to…see you again, as much as I can see anything.” I leaned down, so slowly. Upon that egg was written Conscious Utility Retention Transfer System in small letters. “It has been a while,” was all that my hushed voice could manage. The slow, quiet, static voice continued, “I tried, you see…I really did. Even knowing how hard we worked, I still tried to undo it all. I came to hate them…those bodies,” a clock ticked between his pauses. “Once you finally have the smallest amount of awareness of what they are, you have to hate them. I began to enjoy demolishing the models. The women, the men, the kids. Looking behind me…my work—our work… like staring into the sun.” My hands were now shaking from the memory. “All I want is to leave now…to the forest,” it murmured, sounding as if the voice was fading now, falling.

Somehow, we both managed to leave that tower and creep back through the city, Dio cradled in my hands. After we had saddled the horses and were wading back through the light snow the machine softly spoke again, a poem by Baudelaire, “Seek my heart no longer; the beasts have eaten it.”