Blood. Lots of blood, smeared on the walls, smeared on her face and arms. It was thick, and it smelled sweet. She inhaled a deep breath and fell in love with the scent. She would wear it as a perfume if she could.
The blood wasn’t hers, of course. This fact alone would have supplied some level of relief for X88 if she cared. But she didn’t care. She didn’t have the time nor the strength to care about those she had to mow through to get to Level 3.
The day had rewound like it always did. At 11:59:59 the night before, the day – the program – restarted, re-digitizing her back to Level 1, to the beginning of the sequence, to the start of the ‘game’. It was an endless loop, a digital hell that she had been trapped in for days, weeks, years, and probably even decades. She lost the desire to count somewhere along the way. All she wanted to do was get out. And Level 3 was her ticket.
X88 strolled down the white hallway at a brisk pace, katana in hand. The sections of blade that weren’t encrusted in dried blood shimmered under the fluorescent lights, proof that there was something clean and untouched underneath all of the death and destruction.
The hallway seemed to go on forever. The walls to her left and right glitched frequently, and she knew the program was resisting her trek to Level 3. Only two others had ever made it into Level 3, and they were never heard from again. One had been her father, Cory. The other, her beloved sister, Kis.
It was said Level 3 contained an exit, a doorway out of the digital prison known as Seagate. X88 was determined to find that exit, even if she had to destroy the program – and her mind – in the process.
She reached the end of the white hallway. A door stood in front of her, a placard with the symbol of a set of stairs stuck on the front of it. She tied her long blue hair back into a ponytail, pulling specks of dried blood out of the strands while she did so. The sweet smell of blood was beginning to make her nauseous.
She held the katana firm in her right hand. It felt strange for her right hand to be dominate. She recalled a memory, a fragment of her life before Seagate, when she held her mother’s hand to help her out of the car. X88’s left was the dominate hand in reality, but here…
She struggled against the tears.
Here was different. Here was Wonderland. Everything was right-side up and upside down.
She didn’t really have blue hair…did she? No…
She recalled another memory, another fragment, fleeting past her mind like San Francisco fog. She captured it, embraced it. Her hair was black, because she would watch her mother comb it in the mirror in her old – real – bedroom.
X88 smiled. The memory fragments filled her like morsels of food.
She opened the door. A whitewashed stairwell greeted her. She climbed, her legs feeling heavy like sacks of stones. She tapped the tip of her katana on each stepped she climbed, her mind keeping track of the number of stairs she had to climb to get from Level 2 to Level 3.
Soon, she thought, I will face the end of this horror.
She climbed and climbed. Days passed by her, decades. She continued to count the steps, each one marked off by the click of her katana blade, her only weapon in this fantasy.
She glanced at the yellow square watch upon her wrist. The black numerals on the digital display told her she had five minutes before the day would rewind, before the digital prison would engulf its prisoners once again and restart everything.
X88 reached the landing and collapsed onto the cold concrete. Her lungs burned, her side pained. The katana suddenly felt heavy in her non-dominate hand. She dropped the blade, rested her face against the cold concrete.
Another memory flitted across her mind. She struggled toward it, grasping at it much like a kitten grasps at a butterfly. She caught it and engulfed it.
A cold winter’s day. Snowfall. Flakes against her left cheek. The smell of frost. The day her mother died…
Using her arms, she pushed herself up off the concrete. Her bare knees ached against the hard surface, but she managed to push herself to standing. She took hold of the katana, grabbed the handle of the door with the large ‘3’ on the front.
She took a deep breath and felt the fire in her lungs.
X88 opened the door. As had happened the multitude of times before, she fell to her knees, buried her face in her hands, and wept.
The coffin stood on the other side of the doorway. Unmoving. Unchanging. It was the same each time she opened the door to Level 3: black coffin, snow-covered graveyard, pain.
She stood to her wobbly feet and braced herself with the door frame. She thought to pick up her katana, but it would do her no good on the other side. She knew that. She had known that all along, and yet the coffin…the coffin always defeated her, always kept her from completing her journey through Level 3.
She stepped across the threshold, into the cemetery, the misery of the snow blanketing her in agony. The shadows appeared, those who inhabited Seagate, those who tortured her endlessly. X88 took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and moved forward towards the coffin.
Nails clawed at her skin. Hot breath fell on her neck, and the sweet scent of blood was replaced with the sour stench of decay. She longed for her katana, for the protection it offered. But the katana would not save her here. She had tried many times before, but the blade only made things worse here. It always restarted the day prematurely, either by making time go faster or forcing the digital environment to reboot.
A gust of wind beat against her face, icing her cheeks. More fire filled her lungs, but she pressed forward though everything pressed against. She shoved her way further into Level 3, further than she had ever come before, pushing aside her longing for the blade, recalling the memories she had gained on her way up here.
Then, abruptly, everything stopped pressing. The wind stopped. The clawing stopped. Even the cold stopped.
She opened her eyes, one at a time, and found the coffin no more than two feet in front of her. The shadows were gone. The coffin’s lid stood open. Trembling, she cautiously peered inside at the face of her mother…