WARNING: Spoilers for I, the One.
My social media buddy Dominika Lein’s short story I, the One has a very simple premise: a soul named Niman is commanded by an ethereal creature to train a younger soul named Meelik. Unlike most of the stories I’ve covered here so far, though, this one largely takes place in an incorporeal realm, divorced from physical existence.
Transferring the action to an incorporeal realm gives the story an unsettling quality. So much of what makes us human, from our emotions to our wants and our lusts, is rooted in physical processes such as hormone release and neuron firing, among many other things. But in a world where none of those things matter, the reader is as helpless as Niman himself, grasping for something, anything, to understand.
On the other hand, the physical limits that constrain us no longer matter; as if to illustrate this point, there is a line that mentions how “25 Gaian years came and went” as if only a few minutes had passed. In a realm where no one requires food or sleep and aging happens very slowly, the passing of 25 years might as well be the blink of an eye. Perhaps this is why the physical and ethereal realms have to remain separated; such qualities would utterly destabiluze the physical world.
The ethereal quality even heightens the impact of the ending. A dead physical body can leave traces of its existence in the form of a skeleton, but a soul cannot leave any trace of itself at all, for it does not exist in physical space. An erased soul is not only gone, no one could prove that it ever existed to begin with. The final line of the story, “error: user consciousness does not exist” is not an epitaph for Niman, nor even a mark of his disappearance. It implies that he never existed to begin with, for an entirely fictitious name would give the same response. The theme of disembodiment extends even into death, and it is a death so complete that no one may mourn it.
I, the One delivers on the foreboding promise of its cover, showing the reader just how precious physical existence truly is.