By Mark Witmer
Name’s Ny-Lon, though I ain’t wearin’ none. I’m a cultural sanitation worker, hunting the Glitch Goddess who claims absolute truth. That’s for the Empiricists to decide, not a data-noise-maker. I’ve got three more miles of snow to plow through in ice-block shoes stamping through the sludge, soaked. It’s freezing, damn jacket’s got too many rips, leather strips no more flush than window blinds, but I ain’t opening for no one today. Leaving that life behind in a total reversal. Today my body belongs to me.
Snowflakes irritating me, it’s not ‘cause of their narcissistic uniqueness in a world where nothing is novel, it’s my vHUD, that’s virtual heads up display, that won’t synchronize my frame refresh rate with their falling rhythm. Cheap knockoff implants. Now I’ve gotta reduce the sky to a blanketspace outline just to conserve enough processing power to zoom my eyes. vHUD’s shooting me a warning: Overclocked. Fuck it, got a job to do. The Enforcers don’t care how, just want it now.
Glitch Goddess was last sighted in The Cathedral of Disillusion. Doesn’t sound like a cult base, more like a theme park or a movie, not that I’ve ever been to any of that. Dossier says she’s ‘spose to be surrounded by a bunch of Circuitry Christs, administering shocks to empathize with human suffering or somethin’. Problem is, during the briefing my chief couldn’t even tell me if this goddess was human, or just another dancer on the datastreams. One of the withdrawn cultists got the Enforcers’ attention when he thought a toaster had consciousness and killed a man for tossing it into a compactor, gained a lot of attention from Lacuna hunters like me, contracted to silence those ripping holes in society. That’s where glitchin’ gets ya.
There’s a slit of horizon drawn between the majestic snow-capped mountains, an underscore to some absent cosmic deity. I’m ‘spose to slip through it, perform ASCOPE reconnaissance from the peaks, and report back. Not happenin’, I’m goin’ in.
The Cathedral of Disillusionment rises from the valley wearing a necklace of graves. I approach the perimeter, altitude decreasing. Snow turns to grasses in a bruised array of colors rising to my knees. The tombstones are white slates with asymmetrical curves at the top etched with a name and the number of days until resurrection. In front of each, a clear container contains a cryogenically-frozen body—ugly mothers.
I head to the side of the building. Oil barrels spill rainbow promises in blackened swirls of chaos beside a steel cellar door. Both the cellar and the side entrance are locked. I resort to returning to the main entrance. Cathedral door’s got gunmetal molding ‘round it, frayed wiring dangling down discharging sparks. Sip on them sparks enough they’ll have you believing just about anything. They’re downing that crap inside, just wait.
Door opens with a croak. The vaulted ceiling yawns at the sky whose light seeps in through a circular dome where geodesics carry wiring to the steepled antenna. It’s like an erection, but less sharp and nowhere to plunge. Oval stained-glass windows are overlaid with circuit-boards, blinking LEDs forming an indistinct image of a woman.
Here I am walking the aisle, but ain’t no flowers being thrown, no bells tolling save those for the goddess’ death. Server lights emit a bloody glow beneath the glass floor. That’s where they work their magic, delude the masses. But there’s something else, something not quite right about the thick purple wires. Bending to examine the floor, rubbing my hand along the cold glass to clear my exhales, the wires vanish.
The first three rows of pews are ridged like a heat sink, the remaining ones offering actual seating. Above each pew wires dangle from the ceiling waiting for the worshiper to plug in, receive their shocks, receive their glitches, and then spend an hour interpreting them in so-called ecstasy. Ecstasyoriginally meant for the ego to part from the body—when you glitch in VR it’s anything but.
A dozen cultists sit in the pews, eighteen to twenty-five years old, fresh out of the womb still and with the same slime running down their misshapen faces. Their drool gathers in pools, their eyes and heads rolled back, the wires penetrating the small cognigraf computers in the backs of their skulls. They wear threadbare clothes with glowing neon patches. None of them notice me, or their lack of noticing, or anything at all.
The pul-pit is a computer chassis topped with analog knobs and gauges. It stores the archives of recent cognigraf uploads shared between members. A blatantly red button calls out to me. Don’t mind if I do. I pound my hand. The wires glow azure. The archive readouts display across the windows and travel along the arched ceiling until they’re projected around the entire cathedral. The data files contain their thoughts while glitching. They overlap, slide, whimper, vanish, combine, clone, breed, and clash with one another, reflecting the emotions of their keeper during the upload. Preacher’s ‘spose to deliver a sermon, ask for them to upload relevant experiences to the topic, and then assist the masses in interpreting the dataset thereafter.
A grandfather clock chimes six times, an hour off, the pendulum bob a labrys ax like an upside-down cross swaying in wide, sweeping arcs. The preacher enters wearing a trench coat shining like a Japanese Beetle’s carapace. He sees the azure glow, the thoughts splayed across the room, and then me. He darts out the side entrance. If anyone knows about the goddess it’s him. I move like calligraphy strokes, fluidly winding ‘round the pews, running across one just for kicks, then darting out the main entrance in a sudden change of direction to cut him off. The congregation finally stirs behind me, mumbles and groans. Rounding the corner outside, the steel cellar door crashes with a clang. I pull up on it, tendons almost ripping, and slide my thin body underneath.
Pulsating amber glow. The stairway is lit only by jars of fireflies lining the shelves along the stairwell. No sign of the preacher, just the smell of decay like dozens of rotting eggs and stale flesh. I descend to the lower chambers, arriving at a flat platform. Stepping on a tumbleweed glyph, the ground vibrates through my boots and I catch my balance. The platform moves over a nest of wires twisted like roots over a pit. The ceiling is the cathedral’s glass floor. Shoe after shoe plods across it. Cultists must be pursuing me—time’s running out!
Stepping off the platform, a conveyor belt carries me forward through an elongating corridor. Server lights like bloodshot stars get brighter, closer. They shine off the hungry eyes of scurrying, scuttling rats. I wave my arms in a hard swimming motion to part the thick smog of flies.
Purple tentacles flow out between the rows of servers like an anemone, but rising from an ochre organic mat. Tentacle tips touch the racks, plugging into ports with a snail trail residue. What the hell?
In the distance a figure moves, stepping over the carcasses of a dozen dead sheep, electrified by the looks of it. I dash forward, use vHUD to zoom my vision and confirm the sight. He turns around and pulls a lever to lower a metal gate between us. I glare at the preacher with my good eye closed and dive to grab the bottom of the slat before it seals shut, pulling up, propping my foot beneath me for leverage, but the slat falls with a whoosh, interlocking into the floor. I still grip with under-turned fingers, two nails flying off, trying to gain a handhold, but it’s locked solid.
A hot gush of air across the back of my neck. I turn and there’s four of ‘em, barefoot, silently tailing me. “Back off!” I order.
“We are the Forever Glitched,” they speak in monotonic unison.
“I know your cult. Unable to land a job or avoid accidents, desynchronized from the real world.”
“Relinquish sister watch.” The closest one reaches out with an open, calloused palm, two fingers beckoning. “The watch perceives time; it is sentient and must be retrieved.”
“What, you mean this old digital ticker? Go hack yourself!” I reply, clutching the only thing I have left of my father’s possessions, already having been forced to auction off the rest.
“Final command. You’ll hand it over or glitch with us. Then you’ll know the truth as to why it must be rescued.”
“A digital enlightenment I’m guessing?”
“A reboot,” they all four reply. “You shall witness the full glory while it’s still in its Alpha and Omega testing phase.”
“Then shut up and data feed it down my throat already! I’ll face this glitch goddess directly! I didn’t come for you anyway.” I slowly draw my Pulser, but then stop. Much as I hate ‘em, the bloodshed’s unjustified, and I’m eager to meet this goddess for myself.
They lead me through the corridor, across the moving platform, up the stairwell and into the cathedral. On the way, I pass one man leading a younger one out. “You’re off to confessional, downstairs where you belong.”
I sit at a pew. A man with a clenched fist, a broken nose, and chapped lips digs his yellow nails into my shoulder, beard scratching my face, and yanks my hair up in the back, holding it there, exposing my cognigraf connection.
“A bit weak for foreplay, don’tcha think?”
“This is how the Diviiinecommunicates. Ghosts in the glitches,” he says, grabbing a wire hanging from the ceiling with the slow mindfulness of a ritual.
“Glitches aren’t ghosts, they’re just organized noise. But I’m ready to see this Organizer of Glitches for myself. Been causin’ quite a stir, she.”
He spits on the plug to get the grime off, shoves it in my coghole, makes a good solid connection. “The diviiiine,” he whispers in crescendo with growing intensity that begins to echo.
Vision pixelates in RGB colors, patterns shifting to form the vague outline of a woman’s face. The pixels suddenly dart apart into groups and reform like a school of fish, displaying the face again in surges. As each wave materializes upon the shore of my consciousness it merges with my own life experiences, gathering in a foamy crest before dying down to rejoin the collective. Must break the trance, the hypnotic undulating rhythm of the waves. I run a trace on the source, reach ten percent, pressure, twenty percent, pounding headache, thirty percent, fingers clenched, fifty percent, teeth grinding from the pain, seventy percent, muscles bulging, eighty percent, and I’m thrown back against the pew with a shockwave of biofeedback. Purple and ochre sunspots blot my vision as I blink. Lifting my back in an arc, daring to stretch, nothing’s broken. Bringing my shaking hand to my head, I grasp the cord, give it a wiggle and a twist, and I’m unjacked.
“You have convened with the goddessss,” the man whispers in a half question.
“There is no source of the glitches, no goddess, no organizer. They’re meaningless. They just mix with your own life experiences, your suffering, and you draw meaning out of them, identify them as your own.”
“You saw the woman? The Organizer of Glitchesss?”
“It’s not a goddess, and nothing worthy of worship, just organized noise preying on people. You cower in these disorganized pixel arrays to avoid reality. I want to meet the preacher, sort this out once and for all.”
I’ll regret this, putting myself at risk, but remembering the man that was led out earlier I state, “I have sinned against the Organizer of Glitches by doubting her presence. I need to attend confessional downstairs, where I belong.”
A pause, then the man grabs my wrist and replies, “Right this way.”
I’m led below the cathedral, chained only by my curiosity. We pass through the server room. I pinch my nose from the stench and avoid the tentacles, their motions ranging from slow and precise to careless flicking like a mass of tongues. The door’s open in a room to my left, an electronics storehouse where phones and other pieces of tech are piled haphazardly. I’m taken to an alcove off from the main server room. My escort shoves me in and leaves. Something heavy scrapes across the floor in the hall. I test the door but it’s not budging.
The booth is slightly larger than a coffin, the only light shining through a trellis separating the two sides, casting black diamond shadows across my face. The preacher enters in the opposite booth, black hood drawn over his face, but vHUD verifies it’s him and displays his exact age, the square root of 987: 31.417 truncated—an irrational number. How fitting.
“I’ve come for an explanation to all of this. A man was killed over a toaster! Your lackeys tried to pilfer my watch, saying it’s conscious, and I just passed a room of electronic devices that appear to have been confiscated from your members.” I wait for it to sink in, but he says nothing. My words are just hot breath, steam, finding no surface to coalesce upon. Without a reaction my confidence wanes. The walls are closer, the preacher’s stare more lifeless from under the hood. Maybe I’m all talk? I straighten my back and cry out,“Enough! I’ll call this in immediately if you don’t answer.” A bluff. No sense in me advertising to my superiors that I charged in against orders.
The preacher leans close to the trellis and says, “You must be cleansssed of your disbelief.”
Slide panels snap open, holes emerging around my head. A tangle of wires gushes out of each hole like snakes, sniffing and feeling around my face for my coghole. I swipe them away, but they strike me with three-pronged tongues, the ends of their wires tasting for my entry point. One wraps halfway around my neck, another runs across my lips, and two collide behind my head, striving to connect with each strike and send me to the datadump. I draw my Pulser, set it to charge a shot, but a wire snaps up to constrict it until it’s shorted out and useless, a fountain of sparks that burns my hand. I bang the gun handle across the wires’ heads, but they’re unfazed. Finally, I aim for the small wire prongs, hitting them until they’re bent out of shape. This sharpens their blows, the strikes coming faster, cutting through the gaps in my leather armor, hot blood running down my chest. But as the wires flay the back of my head, they’re unable to make a connection with my cognigraf. Swinging the Pulser, I break through the wooden trellis separating the confessional booth. The preacher rushes out of the narrow door as I climb into his booth and follow suit.
He dashes down the hallway, not waiting for the moving platform, just springing over the mess of wires in a leap of faith. Skeptical, my legs shorter than his, I step on the glyph and wait for the platform. Beyond the gap, the preacher shoves a pole into a small cylinder to gas the fireflies on the shelves. Their strobing glow dies and it’s pitch dark. The platform moves, but I only know this from the sound it makes bumping against the landing. It abruptly reverses, then moves forth again. I time getting on it, stepping blindly, and exit just as the platform reverses, reaching the opposite landing near the stairwell.
Climbing the stairs, I push hard against the cellar door, lifting it enough to place two firefly jars beneath it, holding it open enough to let in the moonlight. No sign of the preacher, yet I would have seen the light if he escaped via the cellar door. Returning downstairs, I rub my hands along the concrete walls and they slip into a recess. Yes! A lever. I pull it and a door slides open. Glass shatters behind me, the weight of the cellar door breaking the glass jars, darkness resuming.
The door slams shut behind me as I enter, and I question if there’s another hidden access panel inside, but I’m immediately distracted. Thousands of stings penetrate my leather pants, shocking my legs. They burn, go numb, then burn again. The undulating waves of tentacles reach mid-leg, parting in an unseen current as I walk forth, kicking them aside. The room is lit by their pinpoint tips, glowing with bile tints that streak across the darkness in languishing sways.
The preacher stands behind a bulbous mass, a giant muscle like an anemone’s base. A hole the size of my torso opens in its side, lined with pink frills like solar flares. With no wires connected, somehow the creature feeds communication directly into my cognigraf, “I am Nescio. In our language this means most-honored. I have been here for millennia, feeding glitches into human cognition in various guises, making use of how readily the human mind remembers those things that violate physical intuition.”
“Like ghosts, I get it,” I say, or think—I don’t know which.
“In the digital age things are simple. I have no need for lengthy bibles or temple building. I directly connect and mold cyberspace to my will.”
“For what purpose?” I ask, folding my arms.
“Purpose, the all-enduring question.” It mocks me with silence.
I rub my head and think, The attempt to take my father’s watch, the electronics storehouse, what’s the connection to all this? Why separate people from technology by having them gather it in a useless heap? Wait! Useless! That’s the key, thousands of years of human progress, the products of our science, all collected and discarded. Everything needed for communication, sustenance, protection.
I raise my chin, wrinkle my nose, and say, “So you feed them false information in the form of a religion, discourage them from seeking science, separate them from any piece of technology that isn’t needed for your control over them by telling them its conscious, and have them upload their thoughts so you can monitor their motives and dissent. Well, I’ve got my own thoughts on that! Oh, and in the language of the Empiricists, your name means ignorance!”
A thick tentacle snaps through the air like a whip, latching onto my face. Its suckers pull at my skin, deforming it into mountains and craters. I jerk back, but it curls around me, tightens against my stomach, and forces the air out of my lungs. I kick with all my might, but the cylindrical base of the creature barely budges, its suction on the floor too tight. Out of breath, but the pressure on my chest won’t let me inhale. This is it. The room compresses and dims.
“Perceptive one,” it addresses me, its voice like raw vocal cords scraping across a grater, its words oozing into my ears. “I keep humans from pursuing science and inventing tools that would hinder future conquest.” The tentacle tightens, my rib-cage about to blow open. “Everything is meaningless!” it shrieks.
The shrieking ricochets through my head, makes me want to give up the struggle. I move my lips to repeat the mantra, “Everything is meaningless,” but no air produces the sound. Then I touch my father’s watch and my life flashes before my eyes: my dad showing me an octopus in an aquarium, the day I was embarrassed ‘cause he had to bring a plunger to the bathroom, vacuuming spilled cereal, and my first time with a guy. All these meaningless events. Then my eyes alight, the solution hidden in such simple moments, each one educating me. The strongest suction can be broken by…
Held in place, I stretch my foot out as far as I can and point my toes, digging them under the creature’s base. I kick up, letting just enough air under the base to break the suction with a hiss. The mass of flesh loses its balance, writhes its tentacles back and forth to regain it, releasing its grip on me. I inhale sharply, fight my urge to run, and grab its tentacle, yanking it back. I pull as hard as I can, veins throbbing in my neck, but for every step I take the elastic tentacle pulls me two steps back.
The bile light falls differently upon an area of the wall. The recess! But the door’s access panel is not flush. There’s a small gap between the panel and the inner wall’s wiring. One last try. I charge with the tentacle across the room. Stings along my ankles, stings across my calves, biting shocks on the back of my knees. It resists, but I wrestle with the tentacle and shove the three-pronged end into the gap. It penetrates the wires within the walls, electrocuting it as it vibrates, but I let go just in time. Sulfur fills the air as the preacher, gripping onto the giant muscular base in fear, is electrocuted with it, hair on end.
“Quite done here,” I remark, rubbing my hands together. “No ghosts, just social alienation, so to speak. Cut people off from society long enough and they’ll believe just about anything, ‘cause in the end they’ve become separated from themselves. We thrive in large groups—we’re social creatures.”
I leave the room, unopposed, sludging through the entrails of the fallen flock of sheep, trashing the servers. The tentacles shrivel, recede, lie limp. I enter the cathedral hall upstairs, yank the wires from the ceiling, and wonder, If there had been no creature, would I still have shut it down, or would I have allowed them the right to practice their beliefs?The question nags at me, frustration referencing itself, expanding like a fractal. But I’ve been judged by cultists and zealots too many times for lifestyle choices made in response to poverty, and I don’t regret crashing their little party.
My clenched fist busts through the glass of the grandfather clock. The new millennium paves space for new ideas, new ways of thinking. Time will no longer be dominated by the traditions of the past, not now that I know the creature who was behind them. Ripping the wide swinging pendulum from twisted gears, my fresh wounds open, blood dripping ‘pon the turned cross. The man who led me down to confessional fills a shot-glass with it, prays, throws it back as if acknowledging my status. Turning to exit, the Forever Glitched compulsively follow at my heels, no questions asked, chanting, “All hail the new Glitch Goddess!”
Outside, I climb the snowy hill for a better view and scan across the graves below. So many asleep. My followers flutter between them like bees on a hive, poking at the stones with a renewed curiosity. I vow to wake the dead, both the buried, and those who walk among the graves.
Mark Witmer holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology that informs and inspires his writing. He lives with his wife and four children in Florida, where he works as an I.T. manager for the state.