by Joshua Taylor
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“Quick, inside, dumbass.” The words rang in my head, jumped around and tried to form meaning. I eventually interpreted them to mean that I should go to this strange voice. So I went.
The door shut loudly behind me and I felt a cold, piercing pain in my head. Something stiff and metallic forced itself against my temple. I imagined blood would run down my head, that I’d been shot and I was dying. But the pain dissipated as quickly as it began.
“Easy, kid, be easy,” the man said. “Had to reset your chip or those things would never stop chasin’ ya. C’mon, let’s get you some rest.”
There were several rooms on opposite sides of the building marked by numbers. A large elevator shaft ran up the middle. The stranger called for the elevator, extended his hand towards mine.
“Jed,” he said. He was nearly my height but with matted dark hair and pointy cheekbones, caved in and gaunt. His massive beard, tinged with grey, nearly sprawled out to the top of his chest.
“Zane.” I gripped his hand tightly. Heard a pop. I thought he was hurt, but he was fine.
“You’re real, aren’t you,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Me too,” he said.
The elevator rocked and trembled its way to the base of the tall apartment building and opened with a ding. We stepped inside and Jed pressed button 27.
“That’s impossible,” I told him. “I’m synced in. This is my sim.”
Jed laughed as the elevator shot up. A window in the shaft overlooked the city and it flew by slowly as we rose upwards.
“Yeah, mine too,” he replied.
“Prove it,” I said. I’d met programs in Playworld that acted as though they were real, some longing so badly to be human that they’d pretend. Some of them maybe even believed it themselves, but never, not once, were they real.
Jed just laughed off my request, snorting and shaking his head. “Yeah, right, kid. I saved your ass. You think one of the bots would do that for ya? You know how it works. It’s all scripted.”
“There’s interaction. Each one’s unique.” I stared at him, waiting for him to glitch out and prove his artificiality.
“Well, whatever, I’m not here to convince you.” We reached Jed’s floor and he stepped out of the elevator. “C’mon.”
Apartment “243” was on the left side. Jed entered and went to wash his face at the sink. “Make yourself at home.”
I imagined this to be a difficult task; however, the apartment was barely big enough to house a couple of dogs, let alone two men. It was stuffy, hot, and crammed. There was a desk against the far wall, pressed up below an open window. The wooden desk was covered with a checkered fabric and housed a frayed picture of a younger couple, arm in arm. I examined the aged photo before placing it back and turning to look outside.
From this height the clouds looked like they were just a leap away. There were repair bots working on buildings, billboards flying around the city, and I could even see the greyish tint that consumed the ocean as the water approached the shoreline, tarnished by waste and debris. For a moment I was worried the Restrainers would fly all the way up there, smash the glass, and do what they did best.
“Quite the view up here,” Jed said. “My personal cloudview. That’s what I call it.”
I turned to him and looked at his eyes. They were dark brown with golden speckles scattered around. “If you’re real, then how’d you get here?”
Jed shook his head and laughed. “I don’t know, kid. One day I synced in, come in here to fly planes. Always wanted to be a pilot, but in the real world, I’ve got a bad retina.” He pointed to his right eye. “Failed the final health screen to get my pilot license.” He wiped his eyes like rubbing them feverishly would cleanse him. “But this time, I just never got out.”
“How long ago?” I asked.
“God, it feels like years. I kept track, for a while.” Jed nodded at his desk. He pulled the fabric up, though it clung to the wood like it yearned to remain, seemingly forged to the surface by weeks of sticky heat and stillness. Slowly, however, it came off. The noise reminded me of skin peeling from vinyl furniture in the summertime, and with each inch of uncovered wood, bundles of tallies appeared until all that remained were hundreds of marks, etched rigidly into the wood. I tried to count them but could not.
“Jesus,” I said.
“There’s no god in here,” Jed said. He covered the desk back up. “Don’t forget though, kid. Time goes faster in here than out there. Still some chance we can get our bodies back, our lives back.”
I stumbled backwards and fell into Jed’s wicker rocking chair with a loud creak. “How is this possible?”
He stared out the window, wouldn’t even look me in the eye. He just chuckled and said, “I don’t know, kid. Ghost in the machine, bad code, or maybe just some terrible nightmare. Your guess is as good as mine.”
I stood up and started pacing. “I’ve got to get out, I’ve got to get home.”
Jed stroked his beard and turned to face me. “Huh, what’s at home?”
“My wife. She’s pregnant. Due next month.”
“Pregnant wife’s at home, I’ll be damned,” he said. “What’s her name?”
“Mira.” Saying her name felt like my entire body was submerged in an icy lake, stuck beneath the surface and unable to get out.
“So, what the hell you doing in here if you got all that out there?” Jed asked, but I didn’t reply. “Well, whatever,” he said. “You’re not the only one who’s lost people you care about.”
“What are you going to do about it?” I moved closer to him. “Are you just going to sit around and wait to die?”
“Don’t get all in my face. You don’t know what I’ve done.”
“Well? What then? What’d you do?”
“I tried to wait it out, sitting here, hoping, praying something would change. I looked for some sort of technical support. You think they’d have programmed something like that in, but nothing.
“So I figured, what the hell, went out to the streets. Asked around, talked to people. And there ain’t no pleasure talking to bots, but what’s worse is when they remember you. When Jimmy the mechanic looks you in the eye and asks how you’re doing. It’s almost like they really care.”
I clung to his every word, hoping something would give me a clue, a way out. “Do they?”
With a gut-wrenching holler, Jed yelled, “Ha!” Then he said, “Unlikely, bub, unlikely. Sometimes I think they straight up mess with your head, just to see you squirm. There was one, though, one who mighta cared. A woman. Called herself Zaria. Called herself a prophet.”
“What’d she say?”
“Did she say how to get out?”
“Yeah, actually, she did.”
Jed reached into the back of his jeans and pulled out a small, black rod with a silver tip. “She gave me this, and she said there’d come a time when I’d need it. When I’d have to save someone. Reset their neurochip, some kid on the run, in way over his head.” He chewed his lip and nodded, staring at me.
“Wait, she told you if you saved me, you’d be able to get out?”
“Well?” I said.
“I’m still here, ain’t I? And you’re not rotting away in no jail cell or paralyzed from those robobeasts are ya?”
“Take me to her,” I said. “Maybe that will help.”
Jed thought about it for a minute, scoffed, and nodded. “All right, kid, let’s go.”
The sun had set and the streetlights were dim. Some were completely dead, some barely lit, but flashing neon billboards illuminated the streets. Light wasn’t consistent: as each second passed, vision came and went. The spastic flashing was disturbing.
It wasn’t a far walk, but even a short journey needed conversation. “Who was that old couple, on your desk?” I asked, desperate to connect with my bitter companion. He seemed interested in saving me, even if it was only because some gypsy told him it might be his way out. Instead of responding, he grunted.
“Was that you?” I asked, refusing to give up.
“I’m not much for photographs. My parents,” he said. “It’s an old picture, bring it with me every time I sim.”
“Are they all right?”
Jed shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m in here, they’re out there.”
“I mean, before, were they okay?”
“My dad’s sick, and I was taking care of them.” He grimaced and spit on the sidewalk.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I get it.”
“Well, it is what it is, and it ain’t what it ain’t.”
“Listen, man, I was wondering. This place was designed for sex, drugs, and all that, but you came here for something different. I never knew anyone who simmed and didn’t do it for the illegal stuff.”
Jed sighed. “The thing is, everyone’s got their own way of escaping. Don’t forget that.” He looked at me hard and I thought he might look right through my soul straight into my body out there somewhere at Chang’s. “Say, you and your old lady, you having a boy or a girl?”
“A girl,” I said.
“What you gonna call her?”
“Deynara,” Jed said, trying the word out, seeing how it felt when spoken. “Sure is a pretty name, kid.”
Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Taylor