What you are about to read is an ongoing interactive narrative. At least once a day, a new chapter is posted. Every chapter is written as a response by a command sent by a reader. Once you’ve caught up in the story, you too can help decide what happens.
To see a list of commands that have previously been sent, and jump to various points in the story, take a look at the Command Log. You’re free to use the same commands again, or come up with completely new actions.
I look forward to building this story together with you!
The world is dark. You can make out the rounded curve of a seat in front of you. You feel tattered cloth armrests on your wrists. You are in a dusty theater. As your eyes begin to adjust to the dim light, you see that all the seats are empty.
Adjust? Where were we before? It would be a good question, but it’s not worth thinking on now. Loud footsteps pound toward you from stage right.
“Open your mouth and speak! We must hear you as you hear us; without your voice you are not here!” says the actress dressed in a gold suit as she stomps on stage.
“Wait.” She freezes mid-stomp, and slowly brings her foot down to the ground quietly. “Shit. It’s ‘heard’, isn’t it? The line is ‘you are not heard.’”
“Alright, lets take five everyone,” says a man’s voice from a speaker behind you.
“Or is it ‘here?’ Was I right? I’m really not sure I’m following this script if I’m being completely honest. You not taking the time to explain what the words mean Alexi, it makes things difficult. You know that?”
“Like, is the idea that if the audience doesn’t speak, they don’t exist? That without their interaction, they cannot inhabit the work, and if they cannot inhabit the work, the work is destined to be lost in a tempest of forgotten thoughts, swirling with all the other fanciful ideas and stories we’ve told and for as long as stories have been told? Is that it?
“Or is it really ‘heard’? Are we just conveying our need for acknowledgement? Does it have nothing to do with a need to interact, but just for us to feel acknowledged? That feeling in the pit of ours and every performers souls that we fill with praise and admiration? Are we looking to fill that pit by knowing that we are seen? Is that what you’re getting at?”
“Aliyah, maybe you could do this backstage? Away from the audience?” says the man’s voice
Aliyah raises her hand to block out the stage lights, looks out into the crowd, and sees you. She immediately runs off stage, shouting “Sorry Alexi!”
“I apologize for the poor start to the performance. You’ll have to forgive us. It’s been too long since we’ve had an audience,” says Alexi. “We’ll start from the top in five minutes.”
You stand up and look behind you to see Alexi, but the theater is empty. There’s a mezzanine and a balcony where he could be watching the performance, but you can’t see into them from your seat square in the middle of the orchestra seating. It’s a large, dingy place with peeling wallpaper and shatter glass wall sconces. There are box seats on either side of the stage, with shredded curtains hanging behind them.
“Hello?” you ask quietly.
“Where am I?” you say, attempting to project your voice out into the balcony.
“Yes, now I can truly hear you. And I know that you are here. And that, my friend, is where you are. You are here.”
“Where is here?”
“The theater, of course. The only one in town.”
“The only one in town? How did I get here?” you ask Alexi.
“Well considering the theater is at the end of a dead end road, I’d say you took Northern Lane to get here.”
You pause. That wasn’t what you were getting at.
You did not walk here. You did not drive here. You woke to this theater around you.
“I’m not sure that’s right. I… I think I woke up here.”
“Well isn’t that a shame. We were only two sentences into the performance and you’d already dozed off on us?”
“No, that’s not it…”
“You know, I asked the dramaturge at my local theater growing up what he thought about people sleeping through the productions. ‘Alexi,’ he told me. ‘I don’t give a damn if they sleep in the seats. They’ve paid for them, and if they are so in need of sleep that they will sleep through art, that is their choice. For those people, we perform so that their dreams and their waking moments may meld to form something beautiful.’ That’s what he said, and for a while I believed it.”
“These days”, Alexi continued, “I get rather cross with sleepers. Doubly so when they’re sleeping only a few moments into a production. Why would you come at all?”
“You misunderstand. I was awake for the production. But I don’t remember ever arriving. I woke up just before the actress in gold walked on the stage. Did you see me come in?”
“I did not.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Alexi. And I am the director of this performance. I have recently purchased this theater from its previous owners. It’s in a bit of a state, and for that, all I can ask my audience is to be patient as I look into renovating the place.”
“Who am I,” you ask.
“That dramaturge I told you about? He was born in raised in Greece. He liked to quote philosophers a little too much for my taste. He used to like telling me and everyone else ‘I know one thing, I know nothing.’ Plato, I think.”
“Anyways, he loved to claim that he was dumb and naive by quoting philosophers. I think it gave him away to present his ignorance as a positive. Always rubbed me the wrong way.”
Alexi stopped, as if this was any kind of an answer to your question.
“Excuse me?” you ask.
“What does that have to do with who I am?”
“Oh, well you see, I know much more than one thing. I know quite a bit. But all I know is that you’re an audience member, and our five minute break is coming to an end.”
Standing, you begin to walk through the seats to the aisle stage right. Your legs brush against the seats as you walk, and dust coats your gown.
A gown? You’ve spent so much time investigating the director that you’d failed to consider what you’re wearing. And now thick chair dust coats the sides of the black gown’s gently flared trumpet skirt.
No bother, nobody died over a bit of dust. At the aisle, you turn down to walk towards the stage. There’s a few steps onto the stage, and you’ve decided that seems like the easiest way to get backstage.
When you’re a few steps away from the stage, you start to hear loud steps walking towards you from off stage.
Aliyah, wearing her gold suit, walks on stage, turns directly to you, and says “Open your mouth and speak!”
Aliyah looks at you from the stage.
“How do I get out of here?”
Aliyah walks to the center of the stage, and looks out at the empty audience. “We have heard you as you must hear us. With your voice we know you are!”
There’s clapping from behind you. “Brilliant work. Absolutely brilliant.” says Alexi.
“How many times have we performed these lines for a silent audience, Aliyah? How many times have we had to reassure one another that one day you could say those words?” Alexi says.
Aliyah bows center stage, and walks off the way she came.
You walk up the stairs, careful not to trip on your gown, and follow her backstage. You follow her to the crossover, behind the stage and hidden completely from the audience. She turns to you.
More desperate, you ask “How do I get out of here?”
She takes your hands in hers and whispers quickly. “Don’t trust anyone. Not even me. I’m new here. I know I am. But if I’ve been here a day, I’ve been here a decade. The moments all blend into one another. This place, it changes you. It makes you feel like you belong. You develop a pattern. A loop. And once you’re in a loop there’s no way out.”
She points to a door marked ‘Fire Exit’. “Quietly. The director cannot know you’ve left.”
As you move your hands away from hers, and turn towards the door, her hands dart back out and grab you. “There are more of us. More like me. More like you. Stop the loops. Stop whatever creates them. Maybe then we can escape.” She lets go, and walks backwards away from you.
The fire exit leads into the center of a small alleyway. It’s the middle of the night, it’s snowing, and your current attire provides little warmth. As soon as you walk outside, the fire exit from the theater closes shut. The snow melts away as it lands on the paved ground.
To one end of the alley is a well lit street. Snow sparkles as it blows past the yellow glow of a halogen street light.
To the other end of the alley is a dead end. The large sandstone building that blocks off the alley has a door labeled “Employee Use Only.”
There’s no handle to enter the theater from the alley.
You pause, briefly, closing your eyes.
You try to reflect on your breathing. Your breathing feels quick. You are taking short breaths, and the cold air stings as you inhale.
You move through your body, acknowledging it and how it feels. Your shoulders and arms are shivering. Your arms and legs are cold, and covered in goosebumps. The muscles in your feet are starting to strain. Open your eyes, look down, and see that you’re wearing an uncomfortably tall pair of heels.
You focus on your breathing. You take a long breath in, hold it, then slowly let it out. You repeat.
Enough of the mindfulness practice for now. You’ve got to figure out where you are, how you got here, and whatever it was Aliyah was talking about.
You walk through the alley. Scraps of stained cloths litter the sides of the alley. As you approach the well lit street, you begin to hear a child’s voice: “Papers! Get your newspapers here! Find out what’s going right and what’s going wrong. A buck’s all it costs, they’ll be gone before long!”
As you get to the street, you see the news boy standing on a wooden box, holding a paper up as he calls out. The street is empty, but for the boy. It looks to be a main street of a small American town. There’s a hardware store, a small diner, a barber, and a series of little shops running down both sides of the street. All the stores are unlit at this hour. Except for the streetlamps, the only light on is an illuminated barber’s pole that’s rotating outside the barber’s shop.
The paper boy looks at you. “You, miss, I can see it in your eyes. My news will save you from a terrible surprise! Wherever you go you’ll be out of the loop. This headline, you see, it’s a heck of a scoop.”
“So what do you say, will you take a peek? You best decide soon, I won’t be here all week.”
You look at the boy, “Sure, I’ll take a paper.”
“A buck it is, not to much, it’s quite cheap. You’ll be glad you met me, my rival’s prices are steep.”
You paw at your gown, and you slowly come to the realization that you don’t have any money. Not a single dollar. You look at the boy sadly.
“I’ve seen that performance more than I’d care to admit. And with all due respect, you’re not good at it. We’ve all gotta eat, and the paper’s my way. But that doesn’t work if folks don’t pay. And really, from you, all dressed up in your gown. I thought I’d score a dollar, but all I got is this frown. I guess I should admire your gall: Trying to swindle a newsy alone in the sprawl.”
You look at the boy, and you consider what you have to offer.
Are you really in a position to negotiate? You’re in an unknown land, with no money, and no idea who you are or what is happening.
Still, maybe there’s something you can do for the boy.
“You must be awful cold out here in the snow. Maybe if I brought you something warm to eat and drink, maybe then you could consider giving me a paper?”
He looks at you, brow furrowed. “If you have money for food you have money for me. You’re clearly well off, it’s plain as can be. I don’t take credit, and I don’t take grub. But if you keep pushing me, well here’s the rub: Now on, if you come to me without some cash, the prices’ll double 1, 2, 4, 8 bucks in a flash.”
He seems angry, and you step away.
He turns back from you, and looks out at the empty street. “Newspaper! Get your newspapers here!”
You walk down the street. As you leave the boy continues to shout out to the empty street the same lines, trying to sell the newspaper.
You walk by a pharmacy and look inside. It’s a small shop. At the front of the store, there’s your usual fare of pain killers, medical devices, diapers, snacks, and the like. At the end of the store, there’s a locked counter, behind which are two narrow aisles of pills, ointments, and syrups.
You pass by and take a look into a store with a large sign “Darleen’s Boutique” in bold letters. The shop’s filled with scarves, shirts, and dresses overflowing from the racks.
Many of the other stores you pass by are vacant or look like they haven’t seen anyone in years. Most are boarded up, but others have shattered glass windows.
Perhaps realizing that you’re beginning to shiver furiously, you decide to walk back into the alley to get away from some of the snow.
As you walk through the alleyway, you stop and look at the stained cloths. They’ve piled up on the edges of the alley, at the corner of the alley and the street. They’ve been pushed aside at the theater exit and the “Employees Only” door.
Looking closer, they appear to still be wet with a reflective liquid that shimmers as you move your head. It’s like looking at an oil slick, shifting between bright and fluorescent colors as you move your head. You pick up a piece of cloth, and you get the viscus, oily substance on your hands. The substance is tacky and warm. Not hot, but it’s certainly warmer than you are in the cold. Close up, it smells sharp and chemical, like a paint or varnish. You wipe your hands on the walls, trying to get the sticky stuff off your hands, but hardly any of it comes off.
You look around the alley in search of a clue or pattern. Maybe the scraps are more in one part of the alley than another? They start a few feet from the main street and seem to be more concentrated at the far end of the alley near the “Employees Only” door.
You walk up to the Employee’s Only door at the end of the alley. It’s a metal door. A few small icicles have begun to form above the door frame.
You knock on the door. Three knocks with your knuckles. The sound echos.
You wait for a moment, and nothing happens. You knock once more. One single knock.
You sigh. Another dead end. You rub your hands together for warmth. You watch your frozen breath as you breathe into your hands.
“You got the code?” You’re not sure where the voice came from. It sounds like it came from the door itself.
The door is dark and metallic. It looks industrial. There are few details or aesthetic flourishes to the door. Just a flat sheet of metal without a handle, or any kind of mechanism to open it from the outside.
It’s cold to the touch, and has icicles forming above it.
It feel’s like it’s gotten colder since you walked out of the theater exit. Your shivering is getting more frantic.
Shivering, you just want to be let inside.
“I don’t know the code,” you say honestly.
“I see,” says the voice. You’re looking straight at the door, and it seems like it’s coming from the door itself. “I don’t recognize your voice. New here?”
“I came in through the theater.”
A whirring sound begins from behind the door. A robotic voice comes from behind the door. “Authentication successful. Code ‘I came in through the theater’ used successfully. Access Granted.”
You hear the sound of a latch opening, and the door opens just enough for you to get your fingers around it and open the door completely.
You take hold of the door. It’s as thick as your palm. The metal door is heavy, and you have to pull hard to get it to move.
As it begins to open, a vibrant blue light begins to fill the alley around you.
The door passes in front of your body. You start to peer into the room beyond the threshold. It looks like an aquarium. There is vibrant blue water filling the room. ‘Room,’ you think, doesn’t completely convey what lies beyond. The door is still mostly closed, but the ground’s covered in sand. The water seems to stretch back infinitely, into a blue-black darkness. You see a school of small fish swimming by.
The door seems to get heavier as you continue to pull it open. It begins to feel like it’s actively fighting against you, trying to keep itself closed.
You get the door open enough to see one half of a stone statue in the water. The statue is of a woman screaming. She’s covered in algae, and the statue is wrapped in chains, and anchored to the ground. The woman wears rusted, cracked metal armor, much of which has fallen down to the sea floor.
You feel your body drawn towards the statue. You want to reach your hand out and touch it. Does that make any sense? There must be some clear material between you and the water. Something keeping the water from spilling out into the alley. Right?
You maneuver your body so you stand facing the water. your back is pressing against the door, keeping it from closing.
You reach your hand out, to touch the theoretical glass that should form a barrier between the water and air. Your finger is wet. You pull your finger back quickly. The water feels warm. At least warmer than it is out in the alley.
You push your finger in again. Then your hand. You’re maybe ten feet away from the statue. Too far to reach out and touch it. But you feel a longing to get closer. You move forward, the door closing behind you.
Your foot enters the water. It’s so much warmer, and you imagine the relief you’ll feel in the water.
You put most of your body, inside the water, with just your head and shoulders still outside, pressing against the door. Your feet slip in the sand, and the door pushes the rest of you into the warm water.
As soon as your ears are inside the water, all they can hear is a long, wailing scream coming from the statue in front of you. You look at the stone statue, screaming and covered in algae. You hear her scream, and it is unending. It comes from the chest. A heavy wail, filled with grief.
The wailing is unbearable. You cannot move. You cannot breath. You cannot think. Every muscle in your body contracts from the painful cries. Your brain is firing jolts of anxious empathy into your body.
You try and take hold. All you need is one moment. All you want is to move your hands to your ears. With a scream, and a pain that feels like your body is being shoulders are being ripped apart, you raise your arms.
You cover your ears, and the statue’s screams become muffled. You can still hear the heartbreaking cries, but they no longer freeze your body in pain.
This is all too much.
How long has it been? An hour? You woke up in that theater, with Alexi and Aliyah. Then you were out in the cold with the rhyming news boy. And now, after stepping through an ‘Employees Only’ door, you’re stuck in the ocean with a screaming statue?
This is all too much.
Ears still covered, you let out a scream of your own, and you watch as the air bubbles of your scream float up through the water.
The air pouring out of you, you realize you don’t have much air left, and you’ve spent it all on that scream.
You begin to kick your legs, swimming upwards, following your air bubbles towards the surface.
You think about taking your hands off your ears, but you aren’t sure. Do you want to risk hearing the statue’s scream to improve your speed?
You kick frantically as you make your way up.
As you kick, you realize the surface is not in view. You begin to panic. It’s too late to go back and try to get out through the door now.
You breath in deep. The warm water fills your lungs. It feels like you’re drowning in the water. What were you thinking? Was this really going to work? Did you really expect to be able to breath the water in through your lungs? Questions race through your head.
You’re panicking. You calm yourself. You kick less furiously. You start to calm your mind.
The water doesn’t seem so foreign to your lungs anymore.
You cannot hear the wailing scream of the chained woman from below.
Everything feels in its place.
The pain of the wailing woman’s screams lifted, you take your hands from your ears and begin to swim back down through the water towards the statue.
On your ascent, you hadn’t taken in the beauty of the water. Fish swim around you, and there is a universe of colorful rocks, algae, and life among the water. The sea is breathtaking.
As you get near to the woman, you can hear her voice in song. She sings in a language you have never heard before. Without knowing the words, you can hear sadness and longing in the song.
Looking at the statue, you no longer see a screaming woman, but a woman singing a song of loss and mourning.
You swim closer to the woman, and look at her mouth as she sings. Her mouth seems to move with the song. You wonder if this is some sort of optical illusion. The mouth only seeming to move because of the way light bends through the flowing water. But the woman does appear to sing.
As you get closer, you notice how full of life her algae encrusted skin is. There are small fish living in between her armor and her skin. As you get closer, one darts out away from you, and that one fish seems to set off a chain reaction. Fish appear from under her helmet, her gauntlets, her breastplate, and rush off in all different directions away from you.
Looking down at the ground, you can more closely see the tops of the anchors that tie down the chains wrapped around her body. You can make out four large anchors, mostly covered in sand.
You swim up to the woman, close enough to touch. She continues to sing her sad song.
You slowly whisper “It’s okay. I hear you.”
You get even closer, such that your face is less than a foot from hers. You touch one of her chained hands. The hand is on fire. You pull back your hand, and shake it in the water.
When you touched her hand, you must have brushed away some of the algae, and in its place a bright light glows out of the woman. The light’s like a spotlight on a stage, and it’s bright enough to blind you unless you look away.
The light blinds you, and you are infatuated with the way it is all-encompassing. You turn towards it, in awe of how it overwhelms your vision. You are just looking at bright white, with just the briefest glimpses of the sea in your peripheral vision. The feeling of warm water against your skin provides no context for where you are. The melodic chanting of the chained woman in stone is all you can hear.
Slowly, little by little, each of the senses fade. First, the white consumes the final fringes of your vision. Then the feeling of the currents in the water subside, leaving you feeling like you’re laying in stillness. Then, finally, the song of the woman in the water quiets into a distant whisper.
You’re somewhere else.
“I don’t think she can handle much more of this”, says a feminine voice in the distance. “We need to give her something more concrete, or she’s just going to be lost in this sea of metaphors. We need to ground her.”
“I agree. If we’re going to make her a permanent part of the sprawl, we’re going to have to reach a quorum with the Observers. Have you checked the portal?” asks a deep, masculine voice.
“The whole site’s been jacked since the last one thrashed the whole system. I don’t even know if they’re back in yet.”
“What’s the temporary url?”
“Cognizance dot observer slash observers slash portal.”
“Okay, logging in now… My password’s not working.”
“Didn’t you read the email? The whole thing’s fucked. We all have to start from scratch. They’ve literally got the code monkeys rewriting the thing from the ground up.”
Your head throbs as they speak.
“Nobody’s logged in yet. We need to wait to see what the Observers think before we can call it, one way or another.”
The man continues speaking. “I checked, and while we have a majority of Observers with a strong, positive opinion of the subject, pretty much none of the observers have created an account yet.”
“Well, couldn’t we just take that as a majority and move on? The rules are just that we need to obey the votes.”
“Technically, I think you’re right, but I’m sure some of the observers are going to have opinions if we start making decisions that rightfully belong to them. Maybe we could just send out a mass text quickly to everyone letting them know they need to sign up again?”
“That makes sense. How about something like this:
“Observer, due to the incident with the previous subject, our systems have been taken down temporarily. As I’m sure you’re aware, there is a new subject being observed. To make any decisions about her fate, and the fate of the Sprawl, we need your input. We’ve opened up applications to a new portal. You’ll need to sign up again. Go to https://www.cognizance.observer/observers/portal to get your credentials setup. You’ll only be able to vote on the current subject, but we’re working on bringing back additional functionality. Thank you for your Patience during this rebuilding phase.”
“Sounds good to me. We can’t give them forever, but at least now everyone has some time to make a call on this one. You just know one of them’ll be pissed if we let a subject into the Sprawl permanently after less than a dozen…”
You close your eyes. The world goes quiet, and the conversation gets quiet. You’re colder than you were in the sea. A light draft breezes across your arms, and you can feel them go to goosebumps.
The world comes back as slowly as it left. The voices come back as you adjust to your surroundings.
You’re on a bus, just waking up after falling asleep with your head against the glass.
“We need to make a decision!” says the feminine voice. “She’s fucking waking up on her own.”
You feel like you’ve been on this bus before.
“There are less than two dozen observers voting.”
Or this type of bus at least.
“That’s going to have to be enough. What’s the vote?”
It was an 8-hour trip to Montreal, and you slept most of the way there, waking up at dawn, limbs aching.
“A majority love her. A strong contingent is indifferent. One hates her.”
You’d felt bad that day, but where are you now?
“The majority wins. Alright, let me turn the mic on so we can introduce her to the Sprawl.
And who are these voices?
“Shit, the button’s not working.”
There’s nobody else on the bus.
“Well, can she hear us?”
And the bus just stopped.
“We can’t just ask if she can hear us. We have to read the script. It’s our duty.”
The door opens, and the driver steps outside.
“Good Morning. We are the technicians. You are waking up from a dream in a world all your own. The Sprawl can be anything you make it. We’d like to first learn a bit about you, if that’s okay with you. Let’s start with the basics. What’s your name?”
You’re not sure who to address, or where to look. Your head aches where you’ve slept on it, and you just look down at your feet in your seat.
You speak quietly, out of some concern that someone might hear you talking to yourself. “My name is Simone. What is the Sprawl? Why am I here?”
“The Sprawl is your new home. It can be whatever you want it to be. Once you leave the bus, you’ll be entering a world that you can shape and mold as you wish. You can do anything. You can be anything. Being granted life in the Sprawl is a gift from the observers. You’re here because they have chosen you,” says the voice in your head.
You imagine a bright shining city above the clouds. You hold the image of it in your mind, and try with all your might to bring it to life. You look out the window of the bus, and into the sky.
Out the window are fluffy clouds in front of a blue sky. It’s a pretty nice day. No city in the clouds, though.
“I guess you oversold it a little,” you mutter under your breath.
You stand up and walk out of the bus.
Everyone else is off the bus, even the driver. Once you step off the bus you see a small town. The main street is the same main street from your dream, but in the day it looks alive and vibrant. There are people walking the streets, none of the shops are closed or shuttered. It’s early fall, and small trees with brilliant orange and red leaves line the street.