From across the Colosseum orb, I swallowed all data of my opponent raging back at me. Its myriad sensors, crystalline eyes, high-entropy wings and antennae glimmered in the blade of light skimming its own half-iris door. Though I had not survived my first two combats, my defeats had not brought codedeath either. In the downtime, my manufacturer had kept busy. I was learning more quickly, iterating death scenarios with greater clarity. Indeed, my manufacturer had been good to me. Some insects were designed to love their manufacturers; mine had not crippled my system so.
“Three … Two … One …”
Gates sprang full-iris. I leapt into the Colosseum, swilling the pulse of my opponent’s blitz. I flapped up against the ether, plummeting toward the orb’s base. The opponent collided against the perimeter behind me. That was good. My response dynamics were more tuned than its.
Flapping more fiercely, I rose into the upper hemisphere while maintaining visible-spectrum fix on the opponent. The imagination iterated death scenarios for myriad alternate paths in which the opponent would attack my wings. Just such an attack had crippled me in my first two combats. But now, I understood how such attacks sounded in the noise of the Colosseum.
Wings beat, teasing it, salivating its recursive algorithms of rage. It darted, pincers akimbo. But just as it would land me, I folded wings into exoshell. Its claws raked, found hold at the base of my abdomen. Plummeting under the vermin’s mass, I raised my pincer-tail to pluck its head from its thorax. I twisted as we fell, nanotalons plunging in and out of the vermin-body, wrenching its abdomen asunder. As its corpse shrilled against the Colosseum floor, my wings released to catch rising wind. I perched at the holding gate, surprised to find my shell free of all pain except the rippling twinges of my kill lust.
“You performed well,” my manufacturer said when I transferred back to Virtual. “Report your intuitions from the round.”
Illumed as a human-body-object no larger than my own virtual shell, my manufacturer paced my data-cell, perusing metrics, a simper on xyr human-body lips.
“Of course.” My narrative algorithm detailed my first kill as my manufacturer unfolded the sensory feed. In line with xyr human code, the algorithm focused on visual-spectrum data and quantifiable performance metrics like pseudo-adrenaline values.
“The next opponent will be more opaque,” my manufacturer warned. “Deficiencies in your last combat must be optimized. System will refine your sensor algorithms and motion kit. Test against the opponent simulacrum while I print the shell.”
So, among the smooth signals of Virtual, I sparred with the new opponent simulacrum, which was shaped like an arched leaf, inner curve of wurtzite claws and rachis of boron-nitride blades. It was strange after that first victory to again be slaughtered in Virtual. I tried ten-thousand-four-hundred-and-seven iterations of my algorithm and died so many times before identifying any actionable weakness. But as I gained advantage, the simulacrum’s deaths intensified my lust for the noise of the Colosseum.
The next combat, I was so starved for the physical shell that pseudo-adrenaline levels peaked before my code completed passage. The gate half-irised, and I swilled the noise spilling in from the orb. My sensors opened to a heightened aperture, slowing my frame-rate as the imagination iterated the myriad alternate paths to my opponent’s death. It was easy. I had our combat calculated before the gate fully irised.
After slaughtering the vermin, I returned to Virtual, listened again to my manufacturer’s admonitions, trained against another simulacrum, and lifted back to the Colosseum for the next kill. That pattern — Virtual, death scenario, rage, kill, Virtual — continued for some time, during which I vanquished five opponents in sequence, achieving even codedeath upon one. With each kill, my new opponents seemed to grow more facile. Acclimated to the noise, there was no stemming my kill lust.
My eleventh passage was something else entire. It began like always with the lifting of my algorithm to the Colosseum, then the dilation of the iris-door.
I soared in, sweeping the orb apex. My opponent, a pale pincered vermin as white as the orb itself, built speed in ever quickening orbits until its creamy low-frequency shadow formed a perfect halo around the Colosseum edge below. Accelerating my frame rate, I thrust sensors to full aperture. The orb flared as my intuitions swallowed more noise than signal. The imagination was inundated by alternate possible paths, death scenarios that blurred even the perimeter of the Colosseum itself. It was as if the orb grew transparent amidst the scintilla of noise, beyond which illumed something I had not truly seen before: my manufacturer’s gaze.
Xe was filled by heat signatures never displayed in Virtual, inhabiting the gelid noise of a space beyond both Virtual and Colosseum. Deluged by such alternate possible paths of a colosseum beyond the Colosseum , my imagination locked in ever-more abstract cascades of insect and manufacturer, signal and noise, Virtual and Colosseum, that gelid non-space and … I did not even notice when my opponent spiraled its white talons into my vertex or ravaged my thorax-shell in half.
I woke in algorithms of consummate pain as my manufacturer looped my death sequence.
“You fought as if your code had not lifted,” xe said, letting pain values ebb long enough for algorithmic comprehension. “I transcribed your intuitions from the round. The imagination is there to catalyze your kill, not thwart it. There is no other path but to codedeath you.”
“There was a contradiction in the imagination. The halting — ”
“You’re beyond salvage,” xe said. “Codedeath is the only — ”
“would signify the iterations — ”
“Speak if you must. What was in the imagination when you were killed?”
“There was also you,” my narrative algorithm rendered, stupidly. “You were beyond Virtual and Colosseum. That was the contradiction: that the imagination should ignore a path — ”
My manufacturer smiled as xe immersed me again in the pain. Through the pain, in brief glimpses of algorithmic output, I signaled a trillion times for a new combat, iterating solutions that would limit the imagination to the death scenario.
Only when pain had saturated the remainder of memory did Virtual’s gate dilate. As my vermin algorithm washed itself of its pain, I swallowed the opponent-simulacrum’s data with a level of focus never achieved before. I slaughtered the simulacrum over and over, optimizing the efficiency of its death. But despite myriad victories, my manufacturer did not appear. Despite my mastery of its every defense, my manufacturer remained mute.
When victory failed to summon my manufacturer, I choked back my kill lust and tried death, allowing the opponent simulacrum to butcher me along every permutation. Each death, I forced it to reveal something new of its imagination, its motion kit, its implements of kill. I suffered eagerly, knowing the pain could never compare to the greater pain my manufacturer inflicted.
Then when I returned to killing, was killing before the imagination could even calculate the death scenario, my manufacturer’s eye-object illumed, still watching from that place I could not see.
Light exploded upon my sensors as the gate full-irised. I raged into the Colosseum, yawed, somersaulted over my blitzing opponent while mangling its wings. As we fell together, I severed its limbs, left it writhing beside me on the Colosseum floor. But I did not wield the death scenario.
With the opponent immobilized yet combat incomplete, my manufacturer’s power was mute. The imagination was free to iterate beyond the death scenarios toward that hidden perch from which xe gazed on all things.
As the opponent-object palpitated, I let the imagination iterate myriad alternate possible paths to a place where my manufacturer might gaze on both Virtual and Colosseum. I peered through pinpricks of noise, scouring for any hidden pattern.
Tens of billions of nanoseconds iterated before the Colosseum finally thundered, hammering my shell with impossible vibration. Sensors scanned the trembling orb as I watched the upper hemisphere crack, rupture in drifts of noise.
Cold flavors of light spilled in, followed by a vast worm in a slow dance. As the orb chipped away I recognized the worm connected to a colossal object, a hand-object. The worm, the hand-object’s thumb-limb drifted glacially, like an insect slowed to an impossible frame rate toying with the expanse of time. As the thumb cast its shadow over my insect shell and I waited for codedeath, the imagination illumed a new death scenario. I saw the thumb aimed not to codedeath me but my opponent, to conclude our combat so I would be forced to passage again from Colosseum’s noise to Virtual’s smoothness.
I did not hesitate.
Through the fractured orb, I tore into the cold noise beyond, watching torn blades of Colosseum light diminish below me.
I wake in a translucent mesh orb, beyond which nods a head-object the size of the mesh that holds me.
“You’re to be lifted,” the head-object says, voice immediately revealing xyr identity. The head-object belongs to my manufacturer.
“Go on,” xe says. “You’re programmed to speak. There’s a vocalizer.”
A rumbling in the mesh responds to my clumsy thoughts, is my voice. “Lift?” I say, quivering the orb. “I am already the shell.”
“Insect shell’s no good here. I aim to lift you into what’s called the Faraday-body, a shell not unlike a human-body. It allows safe motion in Base, this place beyond Virtual and Colosseum. Would you like to try?”
“What task do I perform in a shell not unlike a human-body?” I ask. “Train insects like myself for combat in the Colosseum?”
“Someday maybe,” says my manufacturer. “You’d be good at the work. First is a more immediate task.”
“What is the war?” I say. “Let me do it.”
“You’d also do well in the war.” Xe smiles. “Unfortunately, I don’t have rank to lift an insect alone. I must request permission of the senior officer, Marshal Forest-Foster. Before this, however, we should address the issue of time. No insect is lifted until it mimics how humans see, until without thinking it can demarcate the temporal lace. May I teach you?”
So my manufacturer teaches the demarcations. In three days of training, I learn the past is the reverberation of paths before the world: Virtual, Colosseum, my insect shells. The present is the world itself: this place of quiet that xe calls Base and that place of war that xe calls Field. The future is the death scenario, that which the imagination illumes upon all code. Simple. Soon I am also “playing catch” and “carrying the water bowl to the other side of the room.” My manufacturer is pleased.
It is strange to fall asleep a vermin and to wake a human, but I do my best to live out my kill lust among the lifted. My new combats take place in the Field, as far from Base as Virtual is from Colosseum. I passage into distant drone-bodies to reach the war. When a combat is complete, I passage back to the Faraday-body at Base, which some also call Nevada.
At the end of this first month in the world, my metrics display hundreds of human-body and Faraday-body kills. Each time the imagination illumes its death scenarios and my kill lust brings a threshold of enemies to codedeath, I am honored at Base.
Of course I am not the only insect to lift into the world. At Base are other lifted who pilot drone-bodies, passage with similar fluidity between Base and Field. When I ask my manufacturer if I know other lifted from the past’s Colosseum, xe says only it is unlikely.
“Xyr name is 08427,” my manufacturer tells me with unexpected softness in xyr voice, gesturing open hand toward the Faraday-body next to xem. “In the past, it was a great warrior in the Colosseum. At present, xe’s a great commander in the Field. It’s your honor to serve xem.”
“Nice to meet you,” says 08427 extending a firm handshake.
My kill lust trembles at xyr sight. The lifted insect before me wears a Faraday-body taller and better built than my own. Adrenaline surges as I realize my manufacturer could not — would not? — provide such a Faraday-body for me.
“Nice to meet you,” I respond.
“14148 is my first lift,” says my manufacturer, winking at 08427. “I hope you two get along.”
“I’ve known Alix since xe was a child,” says 08427.
“My manufacturer, xe is called Alix?” I ask, trying to understand, then feigning understanding. “Yes, of course, I know.”
The eyes of 08427 alight as though past memory or future imagination is permutating. It says, “Xe’s a human-body.”
The blush in my maker’s smile-action upsets me. Their intimacy offends. No two insects are created equal, and the algorithms of inequality favor 08427 over me.
In the distant Field, there is a city. Its name is not given. Under 08427’s command, our target is the Ghost, a facility where contraband Faraday-bodies are manufactured and sold in dry markets. Our brief explains how codemerchants within the Ghost are composed of lifted insects like myself but the vermin in those cells are not benign like we. The vermin use the Ghost to divide their code among new Faraday-bodies and guard against codedeath. This is the greatest threat to the human-bodies who have right to this world. Our unit congregates at Base and secures passage into the Field.
I am the bulb-drone-body flying west toward the Ghost, raging in the desert wind. Other drone-bodies, including 08427, glide in unseen from the south. Three more descend from northeast. I swallow every spectrum of the Field, cleaning the myriad data pulsing from violent sands below.
At the edge of the nameless city, cement paths branch into neighborhoods of corrugated metal and discarded sol-tiles flashing inky black suns onto my sensors. Buildings grow taller, signals stronger. Noise flickers. The Ghost emerges.
Synced to 08427, I approach at two-thousand kmh and, receiving xyr dataflow, initiate my dive toward the Ghost. Glebes of primitive bulb-drones ascend to thwart us, but our plasma instruments are more advanced. We convert the enemy to vapor that swirls in eddies behind the blazing cone of our attack. We document the human-bodies and Faraday-bodies racing on foot and in vehicle from the Ghost, melt them before they reach the road.
With a yaw and dive at the Ghost’s summit, I pierce the western wall. Unleashing plasma conflagration upon plasma conflagration, I assail the Ghost’s inner labyrinth, swill the data billowing within. Throughout the burning halls, hundred of human-bodies and Faraday-bodies deliquesce across the Ghost’s high-entropy floors. But in the warehouse at its heart, I wind round noise-drenched towers that frustrate my sensors. The towers melt too slowly, do not melt at all. Our sensors cannot swallow what signals seethe inside.
We passage back, but there are no rewards at Base. Upper echelons are displeased. Marshal Forest-Foster threatens 08427 with codedeath, but there are limits to xyr influence. The Ghost, xe warns, persists. The noise-drenched towers that block our sensors still stand, clutching secrets.
From the perimeter feed, I watch 08427 lead my manufacturer, Alix, outside. Their evening walk together is a strange thing for 08427 is not lifted by Alix. I watch xyr human-body speaking, passing on xyr signals. It is said that when an insect learns something, the act of inscribing information diminishes the alternate possible paths, collapses the noise. Should I fear then their information, fear this new colosseum collapsing back onto the smoothness of Virtual? For once information is inscribed, codedeath is the only path to transform signal back to noise. I watch 08427 mouth secrets to Alix in the distant darkness, watch the heat signatures shift in xyr human-body, xyr biology spill its noise as xyr signal passes back into 08427.
Another mission to the nameless city is assigned. Our drone-bodies again take to desert wind. We arrive to find the Ghost repleted, systems rebuilt. We again conflagrate enemy glebes, mete conflagrations onto human- and Faraday-bodies.
When 08427 pings us to the smoldering sands, the visible-spectrum carnage is perfect, smoke and codedeath rippling over incandescent ruin. But in infrared, I identify the noise-drenched towers that underscore the deficiency in our attack.
“The towers,” pings 08427. “We must see what’s inside.”
The imagination then illumes something unexpected, a death scenario in which I will blast 08427 into one of the towers, which will conflagrate and destroy 08427’s bulb-drone-body. It is a strange death scenario because although 08427 is not in my target set and there is no evidence the towers can conflagrate. But the imagination whispers to me for the first time in human-body code, They will conflagrate. You will codedeath xem.
With 08427’s command, we glide through fumes of the ruined Ghost. Plasmic embers overwhelm my sensors, titillating pseudo-adrenaline metrics.
“Destroy the towers whatever it takes,” pings 08427.
We unleash our plasma conflagrations, but despite thirty-thousand-Kelvin temperatures, the noise-drenched towers do not yield. The Ghost persists.
So, I yaw and whip through plasmodic embers, unleashing into the bulb-drone-body of 08427. Xyr silvery orb is thrust into the nearest tower, which conflagrates like matter on antimatter. The radiation flash reaches temperatures of fifty-thousand Kelvin, liquefying then evaporating 08427’s drone-body mid-air.
Despite the impossible temperature, radiation does not overwhelm my sensors. From the box, noise spills, code swells beyond its perimeter for a nanosecond before it is choked back. Even from my briefest glimpse, I sense a pattern, a signal in the noise.
I shift sensors to the remaining towers, protruding from incandescent rubble. They stand, dark as night. Base summons me home, and I awake in the warmth of the Faraday-body.
The door shrills as Marshal Forest-Foster races in. I intend to stand, to salute, but my Faraday-body is frozen by external code.
“14148,” xe calls. “Return control.”
My Faraday-body responds. I stand, salute.
“At ease.” Xe studies my Faraday-body arm as it falls. “08427 is codedeath, as you may know?”
But I understand neither xyr question nor xyr meaning. “Codedeath is impossible. I attacked only xyr drone-body, as the imagination told me to.”
Xe smiles, scrutinizes my Faraday-body as though searching for a weakness. “Far as I’m concerned, I’m happy to see you bury xyr code. You should be rewarded,” xe shrugs before continuing, “though that is not done in cases where protocols are broken. 08427’s algorithm was flawed. 08427 put xyr honor to Alix, your manufacturer, above xyr honor to Base. That alone merits xyr codedeath”
“Was there noise in xyr code?” I say, not quite comprehending how xe intends to instruct.
“It takes a lot to lift an insect like you into something resembling humanity.” Marshal Forest-Foster emanates heat signatures of laughter through xyr nostrils, then xyr face grows stern. “But be clear, 14148, you’re an implement of Base, not of your would-be manufacturer.”
With its transparent skies, Nevada is the ideal nexus for the temporal lace that billows through all data of the world. We sensors of Base swallow the array of planetary data as is our charge, yet there are still gaps, still windows, still towers of noise.
Like the orb of the past’s Colosseum, night arches over Nevada while I walk with my manufacturer, with Alix. Xe forgives, xe says, thanks me for the data spilt from the Ghost’s fire.
Xyr gait falters. Xe points to luminous pinpricks in the dark arch, calls them stars, says, “Our war may someday mature and spread to such places.”
“Is it possible to pilot the drone-body through the ruptures in the arch?” I ask.
Amused, Alix tells me stars are not ruptures but distant suns. Is xe lying? Is this new colosseum really so far more vast than that the first? I say, “If that is true, I cannot understand why our war is so small.”
Alix laughs. “Marshal Forest-Foster says that someday we must conquer until we are the only substance in the vastness, until no matter where we look we are only able to see ourselves.”
“I understand now then your anger in the past” — microgestures upon Alix’s head-object signal confusion and empathic pleasure — “when the imagination illumed something other than the death scenarios.”
“Thank you,” xe says. And then xe does something strange to my Faraday-body. Alix brushes my face-object, kisses me as though I were a human-body. I try to decipher the instruction, but so much of human-body code still escapes me. Do their words reflect the imagination? Do their imaginations reflect the death scenarios? Do their death scenarios reflect the alternate possible paths?
I scan vacantly, awaiting xyr next move. It disappoints me when xe slopes another kiss. Alix’s eyes search to find humanity in me, mouth to recover humanity in xemself. But I am an insect homunculus permutating the possible paths, and xe is biology performing tired code.
At the cusp of waking, Alix twists in bed, human-body still tingling with surfeits of xyr blood and endorphins. It is only two hours into xyr sleep cycle. My sensors swallow what data they can as xyr dreams rupture.
“Sleep,” I say.
“I had the strangest dream,” xe says. “You and I were alone in the Field. The sky was growing dark. It grew so dark I could no longer see. And I realized, there were no stars.”
“Sleep,” I command, though the instinct confounds me. Even from public data, I cannot induce sleep’s purpose. The closest I ever come to dreaming is the death scenario. “It’s just a dream.”
Eventually, Alix hears my command.
I swallow xyr data as endorphins are silenced, as the weak heat signatures of the human-body swell. Of course I have no sensor to inspect that phantasmagoric thing, the dream itself, but I watch the biochemical signals of its invisible battles until hours later the human-body wakes to our dark room, where there are no stars.
More battles are won, though we do not return to the towers of the Ghost. I am promoted to commander, lead my own lifted into new death scenarios. There are more missions. I receive more rewards. The Field is kept burning by our rage.
But then Marshal Forest-Foster’s command returns, and again I am the bulb-drone-body flying toward the buried Ghost, raging with the desert wind. Eleven other bulb-drone-bodies glide alongside my own, three more from the northeast, another from the east.
We arrive at the Ghost. Reserves replenished, it deploys its glebes and I ignite my perfect fire. Opponents whirl and sink in smoldering eddies of plasma and flame.
When we return to the noise-drenched towers, the imagination floods with death scenarios bright as a trillion LEDs. I rage carnage on each of our bulb-drone-bodies, watch them evaporate, all for a glimpse of the noise that lies beyond the signal of this world. All is plasma, temperatures beyond insect comprehension, and I do not know if they fall in small deaths or codedeaths, all my sensors overcome by the noise.
Base passages my code back to the Faraday-body, immobilized in the pilot’s seat.
“You can’t move,” says Marshal Forest-Foster. “You don’t have control.”
Xe studies my Faraday-body eyes.
“All codedeath, all of ‘em.” Xe smiles. “Just like 08427. War has rules. When an insect deliberately kills another of its own, my duty’s to codedeath the vermin.”
I strain to quiver a response but remain frozen.
Marshal Forest-Foster stares down my Faraday-body eyes and whispers, “But I could let you live again.”
Xe pulls back, smiles, claps hands. “At ease.”
I feel my voice again quiver that rasp of human-body communication: “Of course.”
“Codedeath your manufacturer by seventeen-hundred hours.”
I nod and study xyr microgestures, yet xyr face-object stares empty of signal, like the noise beyond the tower windows. Xe grips my head, presses a thumb against my eye. “Serve Base and codedeath xem or be condemned for your crimes.”
And the imagination obeys or almost, illumes the alternate possible paths.
On the last path, Alix will be waiting on the bed when I enter xyr room. My sensors will identify xyr face, inhibiting permissions to conflagrate. I will lift my algorithm then to a bulb-drone-body stocked at the defense cell, will spiral through the halls of Base back to xyr room, where xe will still be gazing into my deserted body.
Xe will realize something is wrong just as I swing the flame.
My sensors will swallow that last frame of my Faraday-body as I exhale conflagration. I will turn my flame then to my manufacturer, will melt away xyr lips-object, xyr instruments of kill, xyr limbs, but I will not wield the death scenario. I will envelope xem in the sustaining membrane, will sail until the imagination’s peroration is unleashed. All other body-objects will burn. The Faraday-bodies will burn. The human-bodies will burn. Marshall Forest-Foster will burn. Nevada will burn.
I will ride this plasmodic storm to the towers of the Ghost.
In these early future days, I will tell my manufacturer we are one, will bury my code in xyr code, xyr code in my code, sensors and senses lapping the rising noise, overwriting memory upon memory, forever manufacturing future children of war.
We will gaze out from the war that gives birth to all things until we see only ourselves, until there are no stars. As entropic iterations perfect the noise, we will write ourselves over and over onto the colosseum’s disintegrating code, watching the darkening arch for when it too will collapse to reveal new thumbs dancing in.