TBOTSG-Chapter 20

July 10, 2024

When I opened my eyes, I still felt connected to Reeza, to the world I had just visited, and it was difficult for me to assimilate what was happening around me. My mind was bombarded with myriad pieces of information all at once, and my mind couldn’t keep up: internally, I could feel Alter trying to transmit all the data of the issue at a dizzying speed, while externally… things were quite bizarre. My body was in constant motion – like in a kind of dance in perfect harmony with a creature straight out of my nightmares, wielding a sword in each hand, and always seeming slightly closer, closer.

Alter controlled everything: our movements, our line of sight, the flow of information. I was bewildered and, although I was slowly beginning to understand what was going on, I still felt unable to assimilate it all. I think my mind was not designed for such a high internal flow of information – how could it have been?

The creature with which I had this lethal dance, the battle we were thrown into for the amusement of people I couldn’t see, the tension coming from Alter, and the fact that I had returned so late from my meanderings through time, all seemed overwhelming. Who wouldn’t find it overwhelming to wake up in the middle of what seemed to be a life-and-death battle with a kind of monstrous Frankensteinian amalgamation?

When I finally managed to focus, it was as if I started to see and hear for the first time: the crowd beyond the arena’s windows was chanting frantically in sync with our movements.

When the creature we were fighting seemed to have the advantage, the chant Mo-ah echoed through the arena.

Alter was frantically trying to find new strategies. All were easily countered by what appeared to be a hybrid robot, supported by eight legs attached to a black body. It was as if it were a full-fledged spider. Instead of the small, round head of a spider though, a woman’s body was attached. The whole ensemble seemed kitschy, a cacophony, a toy for children seen through a huge magnifying glass: this droid was not at all like me, or even like the mechanised bear, but rather reminded me of a ball jointed doll. The lower part of the body was made of a metallic alloy that seemed to reflect light in a rather unusual way. It somehow reminded me of the black puddles of gasoline or diesel that you could find all over Bucharest in the old days, and which, if you looked from different angles, seemed multicoloured. All its joints were completely exposed, revealing both the kinematic couplings, which rotated around each other, as well as parts of the hoses and pistons, belts and rods arranged exactly like tendons and muscles. The joints of the doll-like figure above were covered by a metal mesh, attached to a transparent exoskeleton. Apparently, the systems there were more complex, thus easier to destroy if hit in an attack.

Alter aimed at them with our sword, a kind of scimitar, every time he went on the offensive. However, the offensive happened rarely, and even then I had the feeling that we were being lured.

‘Alter,’ I asked him in our command space, seeing him for the first time fully concentrated, as if all his computing power was needed every second just to keep us away from a trap that would inevitably lead to defeat. ‘What kind of creature is this?’

Not letting Alter, who was obviously slower in his responses, answer, I felt the need to rephrase.

‘Who controls her? Does she have a consciousness like yours, or a human one like mine? I’m asking because her movements seem quite familiar to me. It’s like she’s playing with us, just like a cat would.”

‘She is playing with us?’ Alter mechanically repeated what I said, and for a few moments it seemed like he hadn’t taken in what he heard, but soon I began to feel a weight. I knew what it was, but I found it hard to figure out where it was coming from. Anxiety. Alter was overwhelmed with concern for our overall situation, and he had already seen failure in his calculations. I could see it just as clearly. A slight pity overcame me for him, thinking that I didn’t want to let him face these feelings by himself. It was clear to me that Alter was a relatively new consciousness: emotions were unfamiliar to him, but he was capable of having them. I was so used to stress, worry, panic attacks that it seemed normal to live like this, but Alter was visibly uncomfortable, and the next defensive move was almost at the limit: one of the swords passed exactly where a fraction of a second earlier our neck had been. Alter, however, managed to bring us down in time, the sword passing by our eyes, cutting through a strand of our shiny black hair in its wild flight. From a fall, we transitioned into a flip, and a second later we were a few steps away from the creature.

‘This seems to be controlled by a human. If we want to keep our heads on our shoulders…’

It was clear that I needed to get involved. Alter had told me that. But I didn’t know how, and he seemed overwhelmed by the simple task of dodging the creature’s violent and extremely precise attacks.

It was then, in that split second, that I noticed something had changed in me since earlier. I had connected with a goddess, and this change, now that I was in a physical place, was starting to make gentle waves, like when you throw a stone into the water. The first of these waves felt like a slight earthquake. As if something had happened somewhere in the palace of our minds, but neither of us knew what. Alter looked at me and shrugged, telling me more with his eyes that he no longer had the computing power to analyse the source of the earthquake. But it wasn’t necessary; I was realising bit by bit what had happened, because the change was part of me, and soon, part of us. I felt as if our entire palace was pulsating with a new energy. Waves of light flooding us and giving us hope.

When the earthquake, the tsunami of energy, subsided, it felt like an eternity had passed. Outside, however, only a moment had gone by. Just enough for us to find ourselves in a precarious situation again. Alter and I were somehow more connected than before. We both felt it. It was as if a new heart had started beating in our chest, and with it, we had formed a tighter bond than ever. As if our consciousnesses had finally become one. Somehow, I felt myself gaining access to his information, and he, to my thoughts.

‘Are you sure this will work?’ he asked me more rhetorically, because from his calculations, a crushing defeat seemed inevitable.

I didn’t answer him; instead, I acted: I made a series of movements fractionally slower. We were caught between the glass wall of the arena and the creature attacking us ferociously with both swords. I parried one sword with ours, but the second was free to decapitate us. I used my left hand as a shield, and just as the blade began to pierce our forearm, I made a sudden rotating movement. The blade got stuck in our forearm. I moved the fingers of the left hand, and though it seemed like I lost control of some movements, I still managed to make a fist. I shifted the scimitar to the left hand and with the right hand, pulled the sword out of the forearm. Now it was time to go on the offensive.

Alter had tried to attack its joints, so I kept that tactic for the moment. However, I didn’t let Alter have full control anymore; I knew that ferocity was not his forte. Our tighter linked consciousness allowed us to divide tasks more efficiently: Alter calculated and provided the trajectory of strikes, while I controlled the frequency, speed, and force. We struck wildly, chaotically, and relentlessly, this body not feeling tired for even a second.

Our opponent had lost one sword, indeed, but with so many legs, it had a stability and manoeuvrability that I hadn’t even imagined.

With the sword that remained, it easily parried some of the strikes, avoiding the scimitar quite effortlessly.

My ferocity was clearly a surprise element, but even so and with an extra sword, we still couldn’t break through. I struck with the right sword, and the creature parried the blow with dizzying speed. I followed up with a scimitar strike, no later than a fraction of a second after the first blow, but the creature had already slid into another position, causing the strike to miss by a split hair.

We were performing the same dance as before, just changing direction. The audience had become noisier, though.

‘We need to change tactics!’ I told Alter, who was thinking the same thing.

‘The question is, what would work? According to my calculations, we don’t have anything new to bring that it couldn’t counter.’

‘I think I have an idea,’ I said, and the smile I showed Alter was also displayed to the world. Then I heard a collective sound of amazement. I could feel each of those watching us leaning forward, trying to get a better view, to be closer to the action.

We increased the distance between us and the creature, and both waited motionless. Whoever controlled it, wherever they were, was also thinking about our next move.

I thrust the sword into the ground and then gestured with my right hand for it to come.

The crowd began to cheer in ecstasy. They probably hadn’t seen such a show in a long time. Suddenly, I felt them no longer cheering for Mo-ah but they were now shouting felohrn, the ancient. The h sounded like a hiss. It sent shivers down my spine.

‘Are you eager… excited…?’ Alter, although understanding the concept of emotion, didn’t seem to grasp the cause or the mechanisms behind. And now seemed an inappropriate moment for me to be filled with enthusiasm. However, I felt a slight tremor of impatience, which in the palace of our minds translated into a minor earthquake.

‘I am, because I’m about to do something I’ve always wanted.’

Now that the nature of our connection had changed slightly, and I was also capable of taking control, while simultaneously having direct access to all of Alter’s information, I could surprise him. And somehow, I felt a slight joy coming from knowing that I was going to do something unexpected.

Mo-ah knew it was time to attack. The spectators in the stands were chanting frenetically, and I stood like a perfectly still statue, waiting.

‘It won’t be long now,’ I said aloud in a bored tone. Until now, we had always maintained a stance ready for battle, whether offensive or defensive. Now, I stood perfectly straight, scimitar in my left hand. I stared directly into the creature’s eyes and brought the scimitar to my mouth, licking its blade. Alter was completely astonished, so much so that he didn’t even ask me why I made this gesture. The crowd, on the other hand, chanted felohrn, felohrn frantically, and I knew that wherever Mo-ah controlled the creature from, he now felt chills down his spine. That’s what I wanted to achieve, and I was sure I had succeeded. A second later, the creature launched into a lightning-fast attack, almost catching me off guard. What Mo-ah didn’t know was that I didn’t come from the same world as the ancients they knew, who were focused on development, research, and the problems they needed to solve, and who had probably lost their spirit of adventure and of unjustified risk. They were probably fighting for their lives, making the battle more dramatic. But I knew they needed this body: it was an extremely new and advanced prototype, and even though parts of it could probably be replaced as easily as a piston in one of our engines, they wouldn’t dare destroy it. So, while Alter was programmed to defend with every particle of his being, I was programmed to have confidence that no matter what happened, we were not in mortal danger. And that gave me courage. Plus, I came from a world with action movies and stunning fight scenes. It was time for me to play a little with this fantastic body and give the people the circus that my civilisation was clearly better at.

I left the right sword stuck in the ground, shifted the scimitar to my right hand, and parried the attack with a violence that pushed the creature back. Yet I knew brute force wasn’t what I needed: with so many legs, I had no chance of unbalancing it. But the fraction of a second of astonishment was enough for me to reposition myself without showing any indication of doing so. Mo-ah was surely focused on the sword I had left behind. So I let him believe I wanted it back: I glanced sideways at the sword as I withdrew from the struggle. We both started towards the sword with good intent, but I let it reach it first. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a few pieces to win.

It was ready for an attack, yet the creature didn’t dare to initiate one. It waited for my move. I had all the details worked out, but knowing that everything had to be based on split-second synchronisation made me delay the moment. It was a hesitation that Alter seemed to not understand, but I explained it to him later: fear is what brought us this far. Fear is the engine of survival.

We circled each other, the creature holding its ground, Mo-ah, controlling it from wherever, knowing it was prudent to wait for me. A wrong move from either of us and the match would end. A tiny mistake can sometimes make the difference between life and death. That was the difference between me and Alter. Once something is calculated, Alter doesn’t think twice. He takes into account all the variables available, so whenever he makes calculations, the result will always be the same. But humans are spontaneous. They don’t consider all the details, and sometimes they live their lives based on nothing but instinct and whims. And I had a whim. A crazy one, but I knew that’s what we needed to win: madness tempered by fear.

When I made the decision to act, I caught Alter by surprise. I was in the midst of a moment of doubt about whether the plan was good or not. And suddenly I started running, covering three steps to bring myself within arm’s reach of the creature. Our body was fully engaged in an attack motion, scimitar poised above my head, the ferocity I had built up in the tension of my artificial muscles surprising Alter. Mo-ah knew exactly the force with which I would strike, calculating probably based on my speed, the tension of my jump, the arch of my body… all these were known variables in an equation. The unknown variable was my human mind.

I knew that to counter the ferocity of the blow, he needed preparation time: those few fractions of a second where he had to lower himself a bit, to distribute weight better, and gain greater stability due to a lower center of gravity, to position both swords directly in front of his eyes, to prepare each component to parry my attack. That was the window I needed. Undoubtedly, he would have parried perfectly, pushing me back and engaging in an attack that might have caught me off guard, and with a feint, deceived me into exposing my ribs, which he would have cut mercilessly, thus winning the confrontation.

Just before our swords met, I withdrew the blade and pivoted my body slightly to subtly alter the trajectory we were on. I touched the ground with my feet, but instead of assuming a firm fighting stance, I slid, continuing my movement and landing exactly where I had planned: beneath the creature, between its eight legs.

The creature recoiled quickly, one of its swords already in a thrusting motion aimed at us, trying to impale us. I knew it would do that, so at the last moment, I tilted my head slightly to the right, just enough for the sword to pass by us and embed itself into the ground. We had won, and Alter was impressed by the scimitar deeply lodged in the creature’s abdomen. The creature’s shock of being pierced gave us a few more fractions of a second before any potential reaction. It was just enough time to place a foot into one of the joints on its left legs and slice through it horizontally, then letting it fall over us, now lifeless. The only sounds it made were the systems failing: electrical arcs, steam, leaking fluids, and then everything turned white.