This is the seventh chapter of a fanfiction adaptation of Christine Love's visual novel Analogue: A Hate Story. You do not need to have played the game to understand what is going on. This story is designed to be accessible to newcomers as transhumanist dystopian sci-fi, and many liberties were taken with the setting and certain events.
Content note: Sexism, and descriptions of people burning alive.
I've had to see a lot of tragedy in my line of work. Greed, corruption, infidelity. Thanks to *Hyun-ae, I could add "mass murder" to the list.
I hadn't seen anyone burn to death since before I got started investigating, though.
I still remembered the smell of melting hair, the screams of the dying, and the helplessness that clawed deep in my heart and made everything I had done amount to nothing. I was worse than worthless. I was awful.
And as I started to lose control of my breathing, I thought of silks setting on fire, hair melting on quick-thawed corpses, red lights and sparks flying in computer rooms. Terminal gibberish, then static, as a person was turned into a corrupt file and her entire world ceased to exist.
I thought of the Mugunghwa's plaza, and imagined the bodies belonging to living people, running and screaming and setting ablaze. The signs charring, the buildings burning, the flowers becoming ash under the stars.
Beneath the huge, glass dome. With the wide passageways leading to it.
The White Princess was not armed. But it did not need to be. "No," I told *Mute, "there is something we can do."
"Huh?" Her voice was slurred, and she was pouring sweat from her face.
I cleared the desk, tossing everything into the wall slot for trash, then took hold of the flight yokes and pushed my ship towards the Mugunghwa at high speed. I was never an expert pilot, though, and I misjudged my direction and had to pull back once I got up close, narrowly dodging around fins and antennae. By the time I got up to the dome I just bounced off of it, and barely felt the bump under my feet.
"Wait, wait." *Mute seemed to snap out of it, and swiped through glowing windows that flickered and phased in and out. "How the Hell did you get there so fast!?"
"Magic," I said through clenched teeth, pulling the White Princess up for a few seconds before bringing it back down on the dome.
This time I was jolted enough to remember my harness wasn't fastened. I held on tight to the flight yokes, twisting and turning the ship every which way as it spun away from an impact that made its floating hexagonal Barrier visible for a split-second, and left cracks in the glass dome beneath.
"What are you DOING?" *Mute shouted.
I just buckled myself in and tried again, too tense to let out my breath.
The electronics were the first to go. After the next impact my whole cockpit flickered, as the AR display glitched and had to reboot. Instead of the retro design flair of a physical screen and bolts pounded into metal, I saw white grid lines on a black surface, flashing in past my windows before taking over and blinding me.
The screen, now a glowing rectangle floating in front of me, flashed a red error message.
I took a deep breath, counted to three, then put both hands flat on the virtual keyboard to signal a reboot.
When the computer came back online, I was surrounded by stars. The screen and flight yokes floated next to me, and the cupholder seemed far away. I pulled the ship back around, and looked down at the vast sparkling landscape of the Mugunghwa, many of its lights flickering and going out forever.
The plaza looked like a jewel, in the centre.
I traced a circle around it with my finger. A glowing outline appeared alongside it, as the ship locked on course for the dome. Then I grabbed hold of the flight yokes again, and pushed them both forward as hard as I could. I leaned into them, feeling tiny as the wall of metal and glass filled my vision, and knew that even this might not work. Because the White Princess was cheap, mass-produced modern crap, and the Mugunghwa had been built to last thousands of years.
At the last second, I braced myself.
As soon as my ship breached the dome, the air inside exploded outward and carried me with it. I was thrown back as the world spun around me, huge panes of glass flying everywhere along with quick-frozen trees, bodies, and whole buildings. I covered my arms instinctively as a carriage bounced off my ship's hull, the red outline onscreen flashing "BARRIER RECHARGING" at me, and it was followed up by what sounded like hail pounding on a tin roof.
That's as much as I noticed before I realized that my legs and neck both hurt. I couldn't even stabilize the ship's drifting; I had to try to massage them all, moving gently to keep from pulling or breaking anything, remembering running full-tilt through the hallways and wishing I'd calmed the Hell down.
But the knots in my legs wouldn't undo, and I couldn't twist around to relieve them or even look down without my neck stinging, and I let out a scream just as the terminal session automatically reconnected.
"Holy crap," *Mute's voice said. "Are you okay?"
My back was arched over the chair, my feet were planted on the edge, and I was frantically rubbing the knots from my legs and gritting my teeth from the pain. "No, I am not okay," I said through them. And it was only after I'd worked through the worst of the pain, and reached up to rub at my neck, that I was able to glance down far enough to see the light showing my webcam was on.
I yelped, and fell over backwards behind the chair.
I couldn't hear *Mute's response, because I was a ball of pain and embarrassment and was rocking back and forth, clinging to my sweatshirt and trying to rub the knots out of my muscles. But I finally managed to crawl back up and peer around the edge of the screen, trying to discreetly find the shortcut for "disable webcam."
"Are you okay?" *Mute repeated. She had put her robes back on and tied them, and looked as impressive as ever, save for the sheen of sweat and disheveled hair. But she also looked, and sounded, concerned.
"Are you okay?" I whispered, still barely peeking up over the edge.
"Yeah, I think so. I just ... like ... "
I held my breath.
" ... I can't believe that a woman just saved the Mugunghwa."
I couldn't hold back a smirk. "Two women did," I corrected her.
"Yeah ... I guess you're right." *Mute took a deep breath, then began talking fast. "Uh, hey. Is it alright if I ask to see the other one who did it? You, I mean. Your face. Because we've been talking all this time, and you, like, saw me in compromising positions and stuff, and I didn't even know you had a camera over there. I just want to remember who saved me, is all."
Was she blushing?
Nervous, and careful not to hurt my legs or my neck, I climbed back into my seat and tried to straighten my hair and my clothes out for her. My hands and feet were shaking, but I tried to hide it.
"Wow, uh, don't take this the wrong way. But like, I take back what I said earlier. Okay? Like, you look really ... young." *Mute was looking away now, and was definitely blushing. "Really young," she repeated. "Any man would be proud to have you as his first wife."
It was the most bizarre compliment I had ever received. But I'd never expected to get one from her, and wasn't ready for the feelings it caused. I could only mumble my thanks, and squirm uncomfortably, and try not to think of what my contortions a minute ago had looked like to her.
"So, uh," *Mute coughed. "I guess you're done talking to her, then."
I didn't have to ask who she meant. I just nodded.
"What do you have left to do? For your investigation, I mean."
I took a deep breath, and tried to clear the fog from my brain. "I have to look at the logs until I can write a report about what happened here, and then I have to download them for my client."
"Okay. Do you want me to show you those logs that I mentioned earlier, then? That we were waiting on, because, like, she would've noticed you accessing them."
I nodded, then winced and put a hand to the back of my neck. "Let me get cleaned up first."
"Okay. Um, Miss investigator?"
I looked up.
"I, uh, saw how fast your ship traveled just now. And, like, you were never in any danger from the explosion."
I looked away.
"But I think you knew that. So, thank you."
I bowed to *Mute, carefully, pressing my hands together, before climbing out of the cockpit and closing the hatch.