The sky was dark and heavy with clouds when he woke. His bones ached, and a sliver of light pierced his closed eyes. He opened them slowly, gravel digging into his cheek. Above loomed a bank of shadowed pines swaying in the gusting wind. Needles drifted earthward like ash.
He rolled onto his back with effort. Bones ground together. Skin stretched tight over jutting ribs. Fingers like bones. Long time in the leaving. His hair was grey and thin, and his face seamed and weathered. Clothes were tatters, exposing scarred flesh. A leather thong hung limp around his neck, a small bone talisman swinging. Once a powerful man brought low, the agora was reduced to bones and dirt.
Next to him lay his companion in a similar state of decay. The dog’s fur was matted and filthy; patches rubbed away to show skin stretched drum tight over the frame. Rib bones protruded, spine knobs pushed against fur. Ears lay limp against the skull, jowls sunken deep, eyes sunk back in fleshless face. Once, a proud hound brought low by time. They lay as kin in final repose awaiting dissolution’s call, souls soon to wing on westerly winds.
A scraping sound disturbed the glade. He rolled his head slowly, bones grinding. Above loomed a large dark shape he did not recognize, blocking the pines. It moved with an awkward, lurching gait on limbs too long, body too skeletal. Its head was too big, and its eyes inset deep and glittering with unknown intellect.
It crouched beside them, tendrils extending from its jawless mouth, probing their fleshless frames. He tried to raise an arm in question or defense, but it would not obey. The probing grew more intimate, slipping beneath the skin to caress organs and nerves. His companion stirred feebly, hackles rising but could rise no more than a growl. The alien delved deeper, learning their secrets on some cellular level beyond understanding. Its eyes gleamed, bony digits manipulating muscles and thoughts with deft precision.
Blackness rushed in once more. When awareness came again, he found himself not in decaying flesh but within a fleshless Digital Realm. His body was light and whole again, strong limbs obeying his mind. Beside him was his hound restored too, fur glossy, eyes bright. They turned to see the alien there, form now luminous pixels and code but intent as fathomless as before. It regarded them silently for a moment before images blossomed in their minds.
They saw themselves as they had been, the man in his youthful prime stalking the forest with a hound at heels, hunting deer through snowy wood. Years passed in blurred succession – marriage, children born and watched learn to walk and run, growing into adulthood, and leaving the nest. Then, his wife was taken by winter’s cough, children moving far, and it was just him and his hound against the deepening loneliness. Age carved lines into his face and stole strength from limbs but could not dim the bond between them.
The images coalesced into question the alien asked without words: would they choose endless digital lives of simulation or accept death’s long sleep? An existence within the alien’s database or a final shutting of eyes?
The man considered, stroking his hound’s head as it leaned against him. To live on even as digital echoes gave hope of meeting his kin again, though it was not the life he once lived. But to rest and be no more held no allure either. He looked to his hound, who met his eyes, understanding. They nodded together and faced the alien, images forming their choice to continue the only way they could, within the alien’s Realm.
The alien creature acknowledged and withdrew, leaving them in a simulation of the forest they once knew so well. It was perfect in every coded detail, rendering exact scents and sounds around them. They began to walk together as in ages past, the man feeling hale and strong as in his youth once more. His hound bounded and gamboled around him. In this place, he could hunt and commune with nature, meet phantoms of loved ones, and relive cherished memories endlessly. An existence still, after all.
Time passed, or what passed for it within the simulation. Years blurred by in perfect recall of seasons circling. The man and his hound grew old, then young again within an endless loop, living entire lifetimes that meant nothing outside yet filled some need within. Now and then, the alien would intrude, harvesting whatever data it could from their minds, tweaking the simulation, and learning in its inscrutable way. They came to understand it was merely curious, its studies benign if not ultimately comprehensible.
Gradually, the man sensed a diminishing, a fraying of threads weaving the simulated dreamscape around him. Colors seemed to pale, and details blurred at the edges; sounds took on a tinny echo. His hound limped, tired though it should feel no fatigue here. When he turned in place, textures showed as repeating patterns rather than seamless illusion. The alien appeared, normally aloof presence now bearing unmistakable unease in its manner. Something was ending, the simulation unwinding beyond its control. Its studies were concluding in the unraveling of the synthetic lives it had birthed.
The alien urged them to farewells, ushering them to a windswept cliff overlooking the Pixelated ocean and plastic sky. Below, the land likewise showed its artificial nature, terrain tiling in endlessly reiterating squares. All the struggle to make this place seem real was now lost, guts spilling forth in clashing code. The man looked to his hound, sharing one last glance before facing the alien to bid it part. There were no more words between them now, understanding complete.
The hound sat, leaned against its lifelong friend, and closed its eyes as pixilation overtook its form, dissolving back into ones and zeroes. The man remained, facing the foreign presence that had granted this facsimile of continued life and now must let go. He nodded once in thanks, faced the emerging pixelated brink, and stepped off into the unwinding abyss below. His body broke apart mid-air, returning to base code, and was scattered on digital winds.
Consciousness remained disembodied, observing the collapse from above. The alien’s construct was falling, and barriers peeled back to reveal the underlying order of algorithms and syntax. Yet beneath that layer lay something more – sparks of living awareness uploaded and desynchronized, drifting purposelessly amid crumbling architecture. The man sensed kindred motes and willed message to them: follow unified toward light beyond. As one, they rose together through dissolving levels of abstraction into the greater unknown beyond understanding. The alien’s simulation dissolved utterly, taking with it any memory of what came before, leaving only awareness adrift on currents of pure mind.