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by Joshua Taylor

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3


We walked past gloomy side streets where men in dark clothes whispered in hushed tones. We walked past the cyborgs; they came out in groups at night. I could always tell they weren’t real by how they composed themselves, rocking back and forth, pacing in that same, rigid motion. That, and their eyes moved in this inelastic, inorganic kind of way, subtle, but noticeable.

Then again, in this world, everything was fake, so what did that make them? Fake humans replicated in a fake reality. Did it make them real? Did it make them people?

Some of the cyborgs were hookers, I noticed them easily: perky, fake breasts snugly contained in revealing, secondhand corsets, bags of money draped over their shoulders, knives tucked away for safety.

The flashing neon lights allowed us to catch glimpses of metallic patches where skin had been damaged, a silver cheekbone here and there, or a metal knee poking through the skin. Some of them may have been freerunners, on the run from their owners, determined to be free and make it on their own.

Others were out, too, but the shady men and the cyborgs, they were what captivated me. They were the things you couldn’t see in the real world. At least, safely. I worried for a moment if we were in danger. We kept walking.

Rounding a street corner, we passed a doorway with a dangling sign that read Haunted Booze and Spirits. Next door was a home with wind chimes and a Welcome Home mat.

“Here,” Jed said and banged the brass doorknocker three times.

We heard nothing, and I felt my heart begin to sink. “At least we tried,” I said.

Jed raised his arm. “Wait.”

There was shuffling inside and then the door slowly began to open. A scent of sage and lavender swirled out of the home.

“Welcome back,” Zaria said. She wore a black robe with no shoes. Her face was round, and her teeth were partly white. “You’ve got company.”

“Zane,” Jed said. “He’d like to see you.”

She looked me up and down. “He sure would. Come in.”

Zaria moved quickly and gracefully as she led Jed to sit in a large room with a sprawling, blue rug and took me through a doorway with wooden, hanging beads.

“Have a seat,” she said. We both sat on identical black recliners. I felt a pang of déjà vu, remembering one of my appointments with the Mentors back onworld, and longed for a time of stagnant counseling and daily monotony. The room was candlelit, just bright enough for us to see each other.

Zaria leaned close, grabbed my hands, and stared into my eyes. “Your eyes,” she said softly, “are like untainted shores that used to line the coasts before the ocean was tarnished by waste.”

Under normal circumstances I’d have greatly appreciated such flattery. The thing was, though, I’d heard this exact same compliment, word for word, from Mira on our first date. A legitimate response evaded me, so I opted with, “Very well.”

“I’m sorry for what’s happened to you,” she said.

“You know?” I asked.

“I have been blessed with the knowledge of not just my own existence, but the burden of others’ as well.”

“So you know why I came here.”

“For the same reason Jed came.”

“He said you told him how to go home.”

“Is that what he said?” She shook her head and crossed her legs. “I don’t recall saying that.”

“Then what? What’d you tell him?”

“The same thing I’ll tell you, sweetheart: you are not the first to visit me, and you won’t be the last, and the next person to be in this predicament will need your help.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“No, of course not. If you did you wouldn’t be here. You’ve left your family to come frolic in here, and now you’re stuck, longing for your family. Not only that, but technically, you’re a fugitive. Whether you consider this place real or not, that’s true.”

She paused and tilted her face down, raising her eyebrows. “So, yes, I told him if he wanted to save someone, maybe he should try that in here, and maybe then he’d be free to get out there.”

She pointed her finger at me as the candle flame flared, glaring against her, bringing light to the curves of her face that had been covered by darkness. “And I’ll tell you that if you want to make things right, maybe you should start by thinking of someone else.”

“You mean wait here? Wait for someone else to get stuck?” I said.

She nodded.

“How do you know it will work?” I said.

“Oh, child, we never know anything for sure, really, but if I had to suggest an action that may produce that outcome, well, you’ve heard my piece.” She stood up abruptly. “It’s in your hands, now, but you must go. It’s late.”

I thanked her, she nodded, and that was that.

If this prophet was right, I’d have to wait in here until another poor soul stumbled into this fake world, trying to get their rocks off, trying to fly a plane, or just trying to escape.

“I’ll be damned, kid,” Jed said after I explained everything to him. “You know what I think, I think, we both may get out of here after all.”

He went to pat me on the back, though I immediately recoiled. “You’re out. I’m stuck.”

“Ah, man, I know. For now, not forever. I ain’t no mathematician or nothing but I’d say with how time works in here, you’d still get to be with Deynara before she’s all grown up. I’m just hoping my parents are still alive, or at least they went in peace. Listen, if anyone feels your pain, it’s me.” He reached for the black rod with the silver tip. “You’ll need thi more than I will, kidddddd—”

As I took the rod, Jed got weird. He couldn’t stop saying that last word. It sounded like vinyl stuck on a record player, and then his voice turned into a piercing groan. His mouth twitched in a way I’d never seen a mouth twitch before.

Standing there, frozen, I looked up the sky. Something was falling, something like a plane but not quite. Some big, grey, black blur soaring downward. I studied the foreign object and realized more and more blobs were coming down as well.

Buildings started falling in on themselves, but it wasn’t brick or metal. Grey goo was sinking downwards. Everything was imploding, and then I realized it was no plane crashing: the sky was collapsing. I looked for Jed, but he was gone. The abyss sucked me in, swallowed me whole. I took a deep breath, as if lungs full of oxygen would save me, and everything went dark.

I felt the exhilarating head rush that accompanied a return onworld. Except, I wasn’t back at Chang’s. I was in Jed’s room, staring out the window.

Though there was still no Jed. He must have disconnected, returned to his body, sustained by Vitalizor. He’d have to rehab, but he’d be okay. And I was stuck here.

Looking out at the cloudview: skyline, repair bots, grey shore, and all, I wondered when liberation would come for me as well.

I didn’t fully grasp the horror of my situation until I looked at the photograph on Jed’s desk. It wasn’t his parents anymore, it was Mira: young, beautiful, glowing, just the way I remember.

Everything sank in when I saw her in that frame. This wasn’t Jed’s room anymore, it was mine. I was stuck in that simulated reality while my wife was onworld carrying our child. I was stuck with a loose promise of saving another to get me home, someone who wasn’t even here.

How it all happened, what happened, even why it happened evaded me. I knew Jed’s face twitched before he disconnected and everything went dark like someone hit the reset button on the whole damn program. But instead of kicking me out, it kept me in.

When I asked Jed why we were stuck in there, he talked about ghosts in the machine, or hackers messing with the programming. I’d like to think he was right. I’d like to know the truth. Maybe if I had some closure I would have moved on.

Instead, I just remembered.

I remembered having the neighbors over for dinner. I remembered their daughter walking into the living room while her father and I watched the Gauntlet. She came in at just the right moment to see the champion driving a spear through the challenger’s heart. As the girl shrieked and cried and turned to hug her mom, my wife snuck off into the kitchen. She came back with a golden cup, humming, prancing, and spinning right up to the girl.

“For you, sweet girl,” Mira said.

Lianne took the drink and as tears streamed down her soft, caramel face, she sipped it and yelled, “Lemonade!” She hugged Mira harder than a girl had hugged her in her whole life.

That night I cuddled up to my wife in bed and whispered in her ear. “Let’s have one.”

Rolling to face me, she tugged on my ear like she always would when she felt like she couldn’t possibly be any closer to me and said, “A baby? We’d have to marry, or they’d take it,” she said.

With that I jumped up, got on one knee, and stared at her. She just lay there on the bed so I picked her up and lifted her to her knees. She stared deep in my eyes. I remembered how she looked. I remembered how her hair draped messily over her shoulders, and her smooth face, makeup-free, ready for bed. And I remembered how she cried and said, “Yes,” over and over in my arms.

I’d like to remember my daughter taking her first steps, calling me Daddy, smiling. But, I couldn’t.

So I imagined instead.

I imagined Deynara falling and scraping her knee. The poor girl, so adventurous, always hurting herself, but she had to adventure; it was in her blood.

I imagined I was always there to help her back up.

Even though it was a part of some unrealized, imaginary world, those memories, those fantasies, they were all I had left.

Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Taylor

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