A spread of a zine depicting a golden rectangle surrounded by bands of red and cornflower on the left hand page and a circle of red figures surrounding a golden figure lying on the ground on the right hand page. Above the group is a cornflower, crescent moon and another, smaller golden figure flying into the sky.

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Now that a semblance of peace had settled around Agatha, a subtle disquiet lingered in the air, manifesting quite literally in the form of the Santa Ana wind. It billowed her long-sleeved medical scrub, its gourd-like shape outlined against the gusts as she approached the automatic glass door, marked by the stylized “A” etched upon its surface. Nearby, a poster displayed a highly detailed microscopic image of the Spore, a reminder of the prevailing menace. “Hay, I hate wearing this mask,” she muttered to herself, adjusting the uncomfortable gear. The protective ensemble felt as cumbersome as the adornments on her neck and ears, which tangled upon donning it before stepping out of her electric vehicle. “Another damn Spore wave.”

The desertified landscape had endured a prolonged drought following an unprecedented period of moisture, and the flooding had been so terrible that it was as if the ocean itself had fallen from the sky. These erratic climate shifts encouraged the proliferation of unseen fungi in sandy soils, carried by increasingly fierce dust storms. The very air had turned hostile. The freezing draft from the recessed entrance carried strands of her hair, which covered her disgruntled face.

With the cautiousness of her slender hands tipped with digitally painted nails, she shuffled through the depths of her handbag, only to realize she had left behind the tie that matched the hue of her raven hair. Upon unzipping her bag, a silvery glint among the paraphernalia caught her eye—a thumb-sized oblong medallion depicting Saint Agatha clutching a pair of tongs in one hand, and holding a tray of her severed breasts in the other. As her fingers traced the contours of the pendant, memories flooded back, shrouded by a penumbra of regret. Despite Agatha's protests, she recalled her mother's insistence on wearing the necklace.

“Hindi ako Katoliko, Ma! Hindi ako naniniwala sa mga santo at milagro! I’m not Catholic, Ma! I don’t believe in saints and miracles!” she exclaimed.

Yet her mother was stubborn, deadnaming her. “Augusto Salvador, wag kang ganyan, binendisyonan yan ni Father. Augusto Salvador, don’t be silly, it was blessed by the priest,” she retorted.

Agatha tried to recall the last time she saw her family. How many years had it been? Six? Seven?

“I worked so hard for this,” she thought, remembering the sacrifices she and her family had made to send her to the Institute of Cybersickness in Manila — a center for the research of cybernetic psychopathology and a medical school for cybernurses established by the Zandro Marcos government. As the boundaries between human consciousness and digital realms blurred, a wave of cybersickness swept the United States, leaving a trail of cognitive impairments that sometimes led to cybernetic hypersomnia. In response, Neuralink established specialized assisted-care facilities to cater to afflicted consumers. Recognizing the growing demand for outsourced skilled caregivers, Agatha remembered the sense of purpose that stirred within her, spurred on by her mother's encouragement, as she decided to embark on the burgeoning field.

The delicate staccato of her heels, accompanied by the howling of the dry wind, were abruptly interrupted by a gentle sound of forest critters and soothing electronic drones. As the cyborg sound reverberated through and around the ouroboros hallway, the chatter of other cybernurses donning the same designer scrub in varying colors swelled as she moved toward the nurse station.

“Zeph’s condition is deteriorating,” one voice lamented, its timbre heavy with concern. “The doctor’s prognosis is bleak.”

“Will he ever awaken from his coma?” another voice pondered, its uncertainty casting a shadow over the conversation. “I've heard such cases can be irreversible—a never-ending dream.”

Another voice chimed in. “Grace mentioned he was deeply immersed in an online game when he lost consciousness,” they began, their words tinged with curiosity. “But there’s more to it. Zeph had a medical history,” they continued, revealing that he had dementia and had sought Neuralink as a solution. “It's not just him. We saw a rise in admissions of patients with microchip implants at the beginning of winter last year,” the same nurse added.

The morning tsismis faded into the background as Agatha approached the nurse station, her gaze fixed on the optical clock-in device affixed to the wall. With practiced precision, she bent her knees to align her eye with the scanner, a ritualistic gesture that marked the beginning of her shift. Yet, beneath her professional facade, a storm of emotions raged within. Distressing memories of past patients afflicted by Neuralink’s cybersickness flooded Agatha’s mind, fueling her growing suspicion that a surveillance AI embedded in Neuralink’s software may have played a role in corrupting the minds of these “borgs.” As she greeted her colleagues with a customary smile, Agatha felt the weight of time bearing down upon her. Every passing moment brought Zeph closer to the precipice of oblivion, and she knew that her window of opportunity was rapidly closing.

“Good morning,” she murmured, her words a mantra of normalcy amidst the chaos of her thoughts.

Zeph’s room lay equidistant from both the left and right hallways branching off the south station, while Agatha’s customary path followed a clockwise route, favoring the left corridor. Her footsteps, usually echoing a familiar cadence through the corridors, deviated from their usual path today, and the patients who still retained a degree of reality awareness took notice. Instead of turning left towards the west arc of the facility, she veered right, opposite her usual route, a sense of urgency propelling her forward. The perfectly symmetrical layout of the building, so meticulously designed for efficiency and order, grated against her sensibilities — a stark contrast to the informal chaos of her childhood memories. She recalled the rugged beauty of her hometown, nestled amidst sinewy mountains and lush vegetation as she navigated the hospital's sterile corridors. Her mother's voice echoed in her mind, a poignant reminder of the land they had lost to the insatiable greed of progress. Before their lands turned into an open-pit mine whose veins of precious metals flowed through the funnel of the global technology market, her mother would lead Agatha and her siblings to a serene patch of agricultural land nestled beside a clearing near an alluvial fan. There, amidst the gentle rustle of bamboo and the murmur of a nearby stream, they would harvest coconuts and gather vegetables.

“Those godless microchips,” she muttered, cursing under her breath.

The shape and layout of Arkana is geometrically perfect — unnervingly so for Agatha — yet it brings a quiet calm to both staff and patients in a world ravaged by unpredictable weather. Each of the twenty private rooms offers a boundless view of the city and the horizon from a frameless window through which the ochre glow of the sand creates a specular mirage of nature indoors. Despite her unease with the workplace, she finds solace in caring for her ailing patients, a sentiment she rarely admits even to herself, as profound as her love for Zeph. Crepuscular rays outline the shapes between leaves and branches spilling through the patient's doorway, marking her arrival. Yet, despite her usual strength, her limbs now betrayed a weakness, and a chill gripped her solar plexus.

Making choices has never been Agatha’s forte, and her indecision has led her to unsatisfying paths, but today, a person’s life hinges on her actions. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” she muses, fully aware of the stakes, not only to herself but also to those around her. Yet, in a place where every interaction is mediated by datacoins, Agatha clings to the belief that her sacrifice is but a small oasis amidst the wilderness. The sound of her steps weighed heavily on her as she approached Zeph’s room. She felt her eyes widen upon gazing at the light bouncing off his face, filtered through a haze of dust and fungi. The sun’s rays stretched across Zeph’s handsome features, drawing a golden outline of his androgynous beauty. Amidst the serenity of the interior, Agatha knew that Zeph was trapped under a dark digital spell, a prisoner of his mind.

“I remember that one,” Agatha thought, her gaze lingering on a picture of herself and Zeph, captured on a hillside overlooking the path to the Hollywood sign. “You always enjoyed my teasing about your Hollywood persona.” Despite the abrupt end of his acting career, Zeph remained mobile, a testament to his resilience. “Wake up so I can tease you again!” With a steady hand, Agatha reached for the biotechno interface, an uncanny device engineered by cyborg care specialists to explore and penetrate the depths of the unconscious, its intermittent ping breaking the silence.

Taking a deep breath, she connected her headset, preparing to delve into Zeph’s consciousness. Clutching the pendant with her namesake, Agatha braced herself as the world around her faded into darkness.

Agatha found herself trapped in an elevator, descending into the depths with an unsettling sense that the shaft was not contained within any building. The creaking of gears and the tremors of the car filled the air, each screech and shudder echoing like a deep cry. As the elevator reached the lowest floor, the doors slid open noiselessly, revealing a scene bathed in an eerie silver light. Before her stretched a vast expanse of rice fields flanked by two identical mountains that loomed ominously on the horizon. Nestled between them was a gloomy phosphorescent orb, its presence casting a pale shadow over the landscape. Standing guard before the orb were two colossal Nagas, their skin gleaming with a patina of Burmese jade. From the depths of the orb emerged a grotesque figure, its form slowly taking shape amidst the swirling milky plasma. Limbs extended, a nose, a mouth, a pair of ears, of lips formed, yet there were no eyes to meet Agatha's gaze. As she watched in horror, seven wings unfurled in a macabre dance around the figure, rotating in opposition to the orb's movement. Agatha realized with a sinking feeling that the grotesque spectacle before her was none other than Zeph, transformed into a biblical apparition. Serpents slithered from Agatha’s feet toward Zeph as flood water from the river edged closer, drawing her inexorably to him. With a sense of dread tightening around her heart, she reached out to him only to feel herself begin to melt away, swirling and swirling closer to his orbit. As the synthesis closed, an egg dropped from the whorl of the discorporate slime. A murder of crows gathered around it carrying with them offerings of electronic waste that crafted a black nest beneath the mysterious ovum.