Orphic Phantasia

6: Voices from the Aether

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Dante made to activate his sleeping visor, then recalled the forest’s curse. Technology wasn’t going to help him this time.

The Sciurux hopped forward a step, two, peered up at him as if he were some obscure museum exhibit. “Not much of a talker, are ya? Here, ya ain’t one of those kids who spend all their time locked in their bedroom, are ya?”

Dante took a deep breath and purged his mind of anxiety. He knew this was a part of the test — though whether Seelie’s or the City’s he could not say — and he was determined to give the right answer; he still had to make up for his previous failures.

“You’re some kind of automaton, right?” Manufactured machines modelled after real creatures were nothing new: Katrina had her turquoise cat and John Smith his mechanical dog. Dante had never known one to speak, however.

“I’ll have ya know I’m as human as you are!” it replied, its tiny face almost looking offended. “Or, at least, I were ‘til they yanked me soul out and stuck it in this thing. Born a rat, ended up as one. Poetry, right?”

Dante raised an eyebrow. First fairy princesses, now people turned into squirrels — if the City were testing him, they were going to some pretty extreme lengths to do so.

But then some people did go to extreme lengths…

The rodent waddled through the leaves on its hind legs. “The name’s Ty,” he said, holding out a paw. “Short for Tycho.”

Dante knelt. There was something about this thing, a gleam in the eyes that disturbed him, as if there were some unseen energy behind them, an invisible consciousness, a—

He shook his head, stood up. He couldn’t let it fool him. The moment he let his resolve waiver was the moment the lies seeped through the cracks and consumed him. Simple logic was all he required. You couldn’t transfer a human consciousness to another body — the Tablet told some horrific tales of the attempts — so the idea of transferring it to something like a squirrel? Even if the thing before him was a synthetic beast, it was beyond the bounds of plausibility. It was like a plot from one of Shelley Eoghan’s stories, or the set-up for those fantasy games Joel raved about.

But, if sufficiently advanced technology were indistinguishable from magic, then perhaps sufficiently advanced programming was indistinguishable from a soul.

“You think you were once human,” he said, “but it’s all a lie.”

The Sciurux screwed up its face in confusion. “Ya what, kid?”

“You’re just a program,” he said, turning his back on the creature. Maybe, like the girl, it was proof the Cities had finally cracked the barrier of synthetic sentience — or maybe it was just a powerful illusion to seduce the ignorant. Either way, Dante knew better than to play its game. He wouldn’t be fooled.

“Hey, kid! Wait up!” the Sciurux called as he walked away, “I came out here to help ya! I heard what ya said back—bleedin’ ‘el, kid, don’t go that—”

Dante looked back at the strange silver creature. It had its face in its paw. “Let me guess,” he said, “it’s hexed, right?”

Dante doesn’t (want to) know what sort of story he’s a character in.