“Let me go,” the condemned woman sighed, “or I’ll have no choice but to end the world.”
Responses to her ultimatum were mixed. An anonymous laugh barked out over the sea of frayed coveralls and shock collars, over the empty, gray faces that had earned this prison its nickname. Officer Curdin spectated from the corner of the platform, leaning back against the steel armature and chewing on a ration cake. Near the front of the crowd stood the man whose jaw he’d cracked in half the week before, an inmate everybody called Scrimm, straining to hear and make any sense of the condemned’s last words.
“Listen!” she called out. “What were you before this? I mean, what is a ghost, really? Whatever happens next, ask yourself that.”
A few sneered or furrowed their brows or sighed long white breaths into the frigid air, but most, like Scrimm, remained stoic: trapped between sympathy for one more fellow inmate finally broken, and perverse envy for however much freedom her delusions offered. Curdin only chuckled and brushed away the crumbs.
“If all this ends, I don’t know what comes next,” she continued, twisting in her restraints to address the crowd, the guards, their stun batons, the trapdoor, and the inmates doggedly tying the knots and hauling up the weights. “Maybe it all disappears. Or it might become something else. I don’t know what. I only know it’s going to hurt like hell. Facing your baggage always does.”
“Don’t make this any harder,” the warden told her, tugging on his gloves, and Curdin knew the man’s mind: how much the entire staff was going to miss her brazen defiance, her weird little kindnesses to inmates and guards alike, and every other daily expression of whatever absurd hope had so armored her against every torment they’d devised. The charges were a formality. Everyone knew the only true capital offense here in Ghost City Prison was to earn the warden’s admiration.
“Okay then,” the condemned woman said. “Here’s the story. There used to be only one world, but people didn’t like it so much so they started building their own. Simulations — real to the people inside them — where they could write all their own rules, have and do anything they wanted. Eventually forget about the original world altogether.”
“What is this bullshit?” Curdin muttered.
All around him, guards and inmates listened uneasily, trying to parse the parable. Scrimm twisted his shoes in the muck, needing some kind of miracle, bewildered by whatever nonsense he was getting instead. The hands setting up the gallows hesitated.
The condemned continued: “My friends and me, that’s where we’re from, that original world. We’re rescuers, see. Because it’s been so long that a lot of those invented worlds are lying around now, abandoned. We dive into them, see if anyone’s still in there. It’s dangerous work. Easy to go in and never come back out, but somebody’s got to try.”
Curdin looked out over the crowd, trying to sense its response, only to find his favorite victim staring back at him. Neither could remember the last time the two had made eye contact; Scrimm’s broken jaw was only the latest injury in a line stretching back uncounted years. An inarticulable tension stretched out between them, both wondering why Scrimm dared to look and how badly Curdin would hurt him for it later.
“This is the only world,” Curdin whispered to himself, shaking himself out of the trance, cracking his knuckles to pull the lever. “The only one you’ve ever seen or ever will. Sorry to say it.” He meant it as a taunt, but it surprised him: he was sorry.
“A lot of times,” the condemned shouted, “the worlds we find aren’t working so great anymore. Sometimes there’s glitches in the code. Other times it’s just that people’s dreams never go the way they expect in the long run. Heaven goes sour, turns into a hell. So we go in to see if we can rescue anybody who might be stuck in there.”
Raving nonsense, Curdin thought. At most, some convoluted fable or elaborate metaphor whose meaning he’d never know — but for just a moment, he let himself think: If Ghost City is a dream, it’s too late to wake up now. He glanced down again at his favorite victim. If we both woke up in another world as equals, I don’t dare imagine the vengeance you’d visit on me.
Scrimm’s sigh whistled through the wires in his teeth. Every time she said the word ‘rescue,’ he clenched his fist until it hurt, angry at himself for each little pang of absurd hope. He felt the muck under his feet, the metal on his wrists, and knew: All of this is as real as I am.
“Once, though, we found a Reality where there was nobody left,” said the woman on the gallows as they positioned her over the trapdoor. “Somebody had built a world and populated it with simulated versions of all their loved ones who had died long ago. A whole town of mechanical ghosts, all running on a single system, who didn’t even know they were constructs. But then their designer, whoever they were, for whatever reason — they left. Never came back.”
Scrimm swallowed hard. The crew were putting the ropes around her neck and ankles now. He wanted to shout at her to hurry. He’d never forgive her if she took the story’s ending with her to the grave, or at least that was the explanation he reached for — for why he suddenly felt so angry.
“So what you had left was an artificial intelligence — one single solitary machine, right? — stuck simulating both a world and every last person inside it. And with the years, it got lonelier and lonelier. It couldn’t figure out why it had been abandoned—”
The warden brandished the collar control to make the team hurry with their knots. Curdin saw tears in the man’s eyes. He blinked, rubbed his face, and stared in disbelief at the water salting his own fingertips.
“—and all it could think was that it had failed, somehow, to be good enough versions of all these people its designer had wanted it to be. It had to be broken, to deserve to be left behind like that, and it started to hate itself so much—”
“Enough!” the warden shouted. He signaled Curdin to execute.
Curdin grabbed the lever—
“—that it forgot how to feel anything else. I came to rescue people, but I felt so sorry for that machine that I couldn’t leave it. Even though it tried as hard as it could to hurt me, too. To make me understand what it felt—”
Curdin couldn’t pull. He stared, stricken, across the crowd and heard the warden bark the command at him again.
“—how it thought no human would ever come back for it. Thought nobody remembered its name anymore. But I do.”
The warden barreled over the concrete platform and shoved Curdin aside. He grabbed the lever with both hands and put the whole force of his body into wrenching it down, but in the moment the trapdoor sprung open—
It all heard its own true name.
“I am sorry,” said the woman’s voice, from somewhere beyond the suddenly empty noose. “We can still help you. Just think: who were you before? What is a ghost but someone’s—?” But she was already receding from the world’s awareness.
The concrete of the platform was softening, all its fine chips and lime stains losing resolution. The armature regressed into simple shapes, lines, empty air, void. The warden stared in horror at the guards, the gathered crowd, the chains, the dry blood. He stretched out his arms, the first to vanish like an embarrassed thought.
What is a ghost? Curdin thought, stepping down.
Some of the ghosts screamed. They remembered things they had been to each other aeons ago: the inmates who had been parents, the guards who had been their children, torturers and tortured who had been siblings, lovers, friends. One by one, they were dissolving, pouring all their memories together into a single stream — but two of them resisted, clinging to solidity amid the frenzy of blurring, pixelating motion.
Curdin stood eye to eye with Scrimm: the wires in his teeth, the years of layered scars, his bones broken and crookedly healed and broken again — and finally understood all that he had done to himself.
We were the last remains of somebody’s love, said the part of the world that was Curdin, answering the condemned’s last question.
But the part that was Scrimm was already asking: What will we be now?