“It’s time, Beauregard, my dear,” said Nancy to no one in particular, announcing that the hour had come to do the deed once more, to take the irreversible step. She tended toward being dramatic when she was alone as a way of coping with trying situations. She pulled down the black woollen hockey mask over her face and took a quick survey of her tools.
She made her way quickly through the sewer tunnels of the city, a maze full of steam pipes and concrete where scum and stench ruled. Swiftness and stealth were of the utmost essence at this junction and, having entered the domain of that fickle bastard Ai, she needed to be on key with her abilities.
Raisonnement and Logique would meet her at the rendezvous point as agreed in prior meditative sessions. She trusted them, leaned on them for balance whenever something came into her life that offset the status quo. This operation was no different than any of the ones before; they had killed one like Ai once.
It had been a years-long guerrilla war in the City of Self, where Nancy started alone but eventually befriended Rais and Loge – brother and sister – who became instrumental in sussing out Liebe – the one like Ai – who claimed so much of Self that it had become unrecognizable to even Nancy, its chief citizen. At first, the purge had been difficult and disorderly, but Rais’ perceptive reasoning and Loge’s methodical analysis yielded a highly efficient system that Nancy adopted for the complete extermination of the invader.
A plague, Liebe had been, but had nevertheless been eradicated, all instances of his existence erased and Self reshaped into an approximation of its former shape but better, improved through the assimilation of the patterns the invader had made evident in Nancy’s Self.
Ai, though formidable and fast, had not had enough time to extend his roots deep into Self’s foundations. Through the improvements made after the original invasion Nancy was able to recognize the threat and quickly made the necessary detachments.
Ai had begun his life in Self as something that appeared benign, but that proved untrue after some time, and despite the ruse he had been unable to influence much in the City.
Nancy arrived at the meet point and waited only a minute or so before Rais and Loge arrived, ready to eviscerate Ai with argumentative weaponry, sharp and incisive. Ruthless.
Something was odd, however. Something was different with Rais, something was troubling him and it showed in his demeanor, in how he greeted her.
“What’s eating you, man?” she asked, with some exasperation.
After a moment’s hesitation Rais replied. “I’m worried about you, Nan. Are we sure Self can withstand another cleanse? Hold on. Hear me out… I know he’s not deep into the City, but some of the things he’s brought about, the influence, has been beneficial. Surely there must be a way to bring him back to our side?”
Nancy pondered this, having had the discussion with herself many times before, especially when there had been tremors in Self, paroxysms of conflict due to certain incompatibilities with Ai. His introduction had not been entirely devoid of trouble, but Nancy had been confident and generously trusting of him and the belief that it was a good thing. Many times she had been close to making the ultimate decision and approving the cleansing, the purge. That many times she had hesitated, doubled back on her own decisions and judgment, and wondered if she was not the one being difficult.
“It is simple,” Loge said, her tone cool and terse. “The changes, those positive, will be assimilated into the Self’s core and be used in the City’s growth, naturally. Removing Ai does not preclude this in any way; it is only his presence and active influence that will be ridden of.”
Loge was right, though it would take a great deal of time to remove the traces of Ai’s influence from Self. Despite the failure of this project, this insertion of the emotional component, Nancy was sure that this was the single most important such installation in the history of Self. Even with the Zen designs incorporated after the Liebe purge Nancy sensed, instinctively, that Ai’s reach resonated far deeper than his tendrils actually showed, like a residual energy that flowed out of the tips and suffused Self in its entirety. Ai really was something else, she admitted without any ego or pride obscuring the observation.
“I’ve thought this over countless times and no argument has countered the way of the purge convincingly,” said Nancy, finally. “The fact of the matter remains that Ai won’t change his patterns, his routines, and is consistently showing far more need for Self’s resources; at this rate, Ai will consume all the means Self uses for self-sustenance and will fall to ruin. This is a hard decision I have taken, much harder than any before, but it must be done for the good of Self.”
Rais looked at her for a moment, searching her face for something, she knew, a sign, perhaps, that she might not be ready and thus suggest calling off the purge? It was too late, in any case; the measure had been initiated and both Rais and Loge had already acted upon her instructions by removing the nodes of Ai’s influence in various strategic points of Self. The peripheral tendrils would wither shortly and fade.
Time would tell how far Ai had truly burrowed into Self’s core, and only by purging him would they truly understand the depth of power the relationship between Ai and Self actually possessed.
“Rais, I know you’ve been finding ways and arguments through which we could justify Ai’s permanence, but it’s time to let go,” she pleaded with him. “You can feel it, I know, Self’s decay. It has been long enough, we cannot maintain this installation any further without bringing even more jeopardy for Self.”
“You’re right, of course,” Rais conceded with a sigh. He’d had many long-term plans drawn out for Ai and had become well enamoured with the ideas and concepts that had potentially opened up after his coming. It was heartbreaking, Nancy knew, because it was also breaking her heart. The Self always suffered damage with the purge, but it was preferable to the ramifications of allowing Ai to stay.
“Ai will be fine once we have extirpated him from Self’s ecosystem, you know that,” she said to close the argument. “He will carry on, elsewhere, in another system, perhaps, or simply go back to his native system, his own City of Self.”
She walked over and hugged him, a gesture seldom shared by any of them. Nancy felt like crying, but gathered strength from the show of support she gave Rais. He hesitated for a second before returning the embrace. Loge simply watched on, detached as always, and awaited the conclusion of the emotional display.
“Right,” said Nancy after disengaging. “Let’s see about this pest we have, shall we?”
Nancy drew ragged breaths that burned her lungs as she leaned with her back against a thick concrete column. The fight had already taken too long. Ai was winning and making things very difficult for the three of them.
Rais had taken a few shots and was bleeding somewhere near Ai’s nest. He was currently being tempted by the abomination’s rhetoric, a kind of mental control and hijacking of the senses. Ai was quite adept at manipulating the reasoning capabilities of Self and was using that on Nancy’s wounded comrade. He was trying to turn him against Nancy and Loge, against Self itself.
Loge was catching her breath behind a column parallel to Nancy’s, looking at her for instructions. Nancy wasn’t sure, herself, about what was needed. Every single argumentative weapon had been used and all but one had yielded any effect. I had been a sizable wound to Ai’s logiform, a gash in Ai’s bloated belly that was still bleeding, but it hadn’t been enough to even slow him down a little.
They had grossly underestimated his power. In the time he had been installed in Self he had grown exponentially, becoming so much more than the emotional addition originally introduced; he had become a focal point for the City’s very resources, drawing deeper from the proverbial well as it got fatter. Nancy wondered how long it would take to truly cleanse the influence from Self’s core, but that was a fleeting thought as, at this point, Self might not even make it if they didn’t cut Ai away.
There was only one path to follow, one move to make, Nancy decided after a bit more deliberation. The same argumentative weapon Loge had used, it couldn’t be overcharged or amplified, but it could be inserted into Ai himself and activated remotely. Nancy could have Loge attempt the plant but thought it better if she did it herself. She was scared, but knew she had to muster the courage.
She signaled with her hands at Loge indicating her plan, conveying the order that Loge was to throw her argumentative pulse rifle over to her and then run interference to distract Ai. On the count of three, she signaled.
The rifle flew in a smooth arc and was easily caught by Nancy. The three-count depleted and they both rounded their respective column in the opposite direction, with Nancy running at a crouch while Loge used her two argumentative pistols to draw the abomination’s attention.
Nancy had a clear way to the gargantuan Ai’s belly, the gash already smaller, closing, healing up since they had first caused it. Dried blood and viscera protruding still, Nancy held her breath at the overpowering scent of offal and shoved the rifle into the wound, shoulder-deep, and then pivoted, looking to retrace her steps back to the safety of the column.
Her progress was interrupted by Rais who tripped her and began attacking her, punching her twice as she was still falling to the ground. Despite the surprise she managed to use her momentum to roll, grimacing at the pain of the blows. She realized she had dropped the remote detonator and looked back in time to see Rais pick it up from the ground where she’d originally been tripped. Shit.
“Rais, what are you doing?” the urgency in her voice made it shrill. A few feet away Loge was still firing and moving, keeping Ai busy. She would run out of ammo shortly, Nancy knew, and she would also be tired. Their adrenal reactions had exhausted their reserves and they were running on fumes already. It was this last ditch effort or all would be lost.
Rais looked at the detonator, the black cube sitting snugly in the crook of his palm, fingers open. His expression was absent, as if he were dazed or drugged. Ai had manged to work some influence into him. Rais had always had that particular downfall; he would always debate with himself, always find ways to doubt and find holes in every logical posit, even – or especially – his own. Where Loge could easily arrive to a conclusion and sit on it with immaculate defense, he instead would jab and test the walls and find holes if not create them. He was the one most easily swayed, if one knew how to play his game.
“Look at me, Rais. Look at me!” she said the last line through gritted teeth, her jaw clenched in both anger and tension. She was fed up. “Give me that, Rais. Don’t do it, don’t give it to him, don’t sacrifice us all, Self is your home…”
The firing stopped, leaving a vacuum of sound, and Rais’ eyes darted from Nancy to Ai, who had now taken her over with his tendrils, black and gnarled, and was suffocating her.
Nancy ran through the possibilities quickly in her mind, stopping at that of firing upon Rais himself, and then he turned to her, with tears welling up in his eyes. He was fighting it, trying to arrive at a reasonable conclusion that would free him from Ai’s control.
“Please, Rais, we have all the same attachments, we are all one, you know this, but it’s time…” she was crying, she realized, salty saliva building up in her mouth, tears streaming warm down her grimy cheeks, sobs racking her body. “It’s time…”
Tears silently rolled down Rais’ face as he looked into Nancy’s eyes, his expression unreadable. He looked down at the detonator and, after agonizingly long seconds, swiftly activated it. At that point Ai’s hold on him relented and he collapsed into a heap, sobbing loudly as he was finally allowed to cry.
Nancy looked over to Ai and saw his enormous, bloated corpus convulse. Loge was crawling slowly away from him on the floor, her face still a little bluish.
As the monstrosity shriveled and finally imploded inaudibly Nancy couldn’t help but wonder how long – how long? – it would take to rebuild and remove the negative traces of what Ai had become.
She was so tired, but she was stern and determined in her resolve never to allow another installation of this sort without implementing better protocols and processes. Sure, they might turn out to be terribly difficult on soliciting emotional immigrants seeking to make their home in the City of Self where Nancy ran things, but it was a necessity. It was needed so that Self could endure and continue to be.
It would be a long process, the next step. She, and Self, had all the time in the world to carry it out.