Reality Checks In: Part 2

To read Reality Checks In: Part 1, please follow this link.

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On the street outside of Bernadette’s apartment, a purple van pulled in, marked by the emblem of Earth with green binary code serving as decoration for the planet’s landmasses. As they exited the building, the plain clothes stranger switched his grip from Bernadette’s hand to her wrist. He leaned in closely.

“Keep your head close to mine.”

Bernadette instantly read the real meaning behind his words, and practically pushed her nose against his cheek. When the two representatives from Reality exited the van, they paid them no attention, and walked straight into the building they had only just vacated. When she tried to pull back from him, the stranger shook his head minutely. Bernadette resumed the grazing of his slightly sweaty skin. Satellite imagery and city video surveillance; she wouldn’t have thought of it without his jerky neck movement.

The pair walked a few blocks in this close manner. It was awkward. The stranger had the wheeze and translucency of a Net Troll: people who stayed plugged in their upload rooms all day. His receding hairline had begun to glisten one block away from the apartment along with a rapid heartbeat she could feel through his fingers gripping at her own pulse point.

By the time they entered the next borough, the stranger pulled her into a Starbucks. His breathing was similar to her own patterns after running on the treadmill for a few miles. When he gestured to the counter, she nodded and pointed to a pair of barstools by the window ledge. A TV echoed on the background as she purchased two bottles of water. Given that she could read the barista’s worry about making rent this month as she punched in numbers on the register, Bernadette tried to focus on the commercial playing instead on the Starbuck’s television playing on the wall behind her.

[A deep baritone voice smooth as carmel floats through the speakers]

“We live in a world of beautiful possibility.”

[A montage of scenery and people from around the world flashes through the screen. A scarlet macaw flies through the canopy of the Amazon jungle. A group of children in Rwanda dance as clean water sprays in the air. A clear blue sky envelopes the snow capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. A couple in Manhattan clinks glasses in a wine bar.]

“With so much before us, how could we ever choose where to go?”

[A woman with a letter offering a promotion in a different city stands in the kitchen while her children play in the living room. An elderly man strokes a picture of his grandchild as he sits in a nursing home. A high school senior looks at a overseas, university brochure as her mother gives her a hug.]

“With Reality, you don’t have to make a choice.”

[Characters from the previous scenes are shown talking to a Reality Customer Service Representative. The representative is donned in purple shirt with a logo of a white and green binary code earth on his breast pocket.]

“With our home system, you can stay anywhere you desire and connect to any place needed.”

[Business woman, elderly man, and the student are shown happy in their home, nursing home, and new college environment. All three exit into a small upload room and place on a large helmet to plug into Reality.]

“Call today for a free—“

[Image of the Reality Representative freezes then fizzles into static. When the screen clears to black, the sound of a clicking film reel echoes through the image. A countdown similar to that of the old movies appears. When it ends, a scratched and glowing white circle gleams against a black backdrop.]

“Good evening

[The voice is an abrasive change from the commercial announcer. The vocal signature is digitalized, coming in dual octaves: one high and piercing, the other low and rumbling. The effect makes it sound demonic in origin.]

Bernadette walked to the barstools in a trance, her eyes never leaving the strangeness of the TV. When she reached the plain clothes stranger, she gave him his water bottle on auto-pilot. He reacted similarly, grabbing the cold dripping bottle only to place it on the window ledge bar. The two stood together staring at the screen, like all the others inside the Starbucks. Even the barista handling the drive through pulled down her headset to stare at the television in zombie like rapture.

“The signal,” the stranger whispered.

Bernadette shivered almost exactly the same time as the plain clothes stranger. When she looked back up to the television, she did so knowing she was witnessing a presence of power; an online omnipotence; an entity that elicited both fear and adoration from the man beside her.

“The signal,” she whispered back.

“There has been a question on every person’s mind these last twenty four hours. Maybe it’s how. How did all these vastly different catastrophes come to be? Maybe it’s who. Who is still alive and who will be next? Or maybe, it’s when. When will it stop? But the most important question is of the what variety. What is happening? Or better yet— what is happening to me?”

“Millions of you have run to your churches, your synagogues, your holy shrines to seek answers; to shout your questions at your Gods and expect divine solutions. But your Gods do not have the answer. And your Gods did not allow this to happen.”

“You did.”

[The commercial comes back up. The picture of the Reality Representative has been frozen. He is smiling widely and ready to shake hands with an unseen customer. Very slowly, the image began to zoom into the representative’s face.]

“Over one billion people signed away the sanctity of their minds so they might have a life of convenience. The hell that you run to your temples to try to escape is already here. Thus, we have arrived at the end of our humanity. And it died not with explosions and galloping horsemen, but with a smile and a click of the button.”

[By this time, the zoom is so focused that the representative’s pupil is all that is visible. When the screen is completely engulfed in black, a tiny dot appears in the center: a fire, no bigger than a spark.]

“For so long, you have rejected the true reality for it’s fake counterpart. You have not only given up the key to your mind, but you have thrown away your identity. This could be with a fake image, a fake voice, or even a fake quality. And the more you change, the more you desire. So yesterday afternoon, when 123 million of you were logged into Reality, I gave you exactly what you wanted.”

“To put it simply, I gave you a Boost.”

Bernadette’s water bottle dropped to the ground. No one paid her any attention, not even the plain clothes stranger who had gripped his hand against her arm at the sudden statement. He licked his lips, and she could feel his excitement without even reading it. Her own trembles were of a far different source and she wondered if this was how inmates on death row felt at their last meal.

She leaned down to pick her bottle back up. A person walked through the Starbucks front entrance talking on his cellphone. Everyone shushed him simultaneously. He tried to get angry. Then someone pointed at the screen. The new customer shut up pretty quickly after that.

[The image of the fire is closer now, but instead of seeing orange flames, the screen begins to crackle like paper being burned around the edges.]

“Women who claimed to be younger in Reality suddenly could age in reverse in the real world. A man lying about being a champion weightlifter could haul a truck over his head. A child falsely emailing her mother that class was cancelled had powers to close down a school. It should have been everything you ever wanted. But now, you have seen the costs of rejecting your true reality.”

[The screen has burned away to images that have been playing on the news all night. A woman babbling like a baby, sitting in soiled pants in a supermarket. A man lifting a car over his head only to have his bones crushed and muscles tear. A school stands in smoldering ruins with reporters baffled as to why.]

“Those of you who have survived the first twenty-four hours may think of this Boost as a gift. A superpower. But instead of powerful, you have become vulnerable. How long can your body, your mind, handle what has been given to you? How long will it be before you wish you had never logged into Reality?

[Screen fades back to the black screen with ominous white circle.]

“This is not your Gods granting you a gift. This is Wormwood, granting your destruction.”

[The commercial comes back up. The purple shirted representative finishes the transaction with a family happily fitted with their new Reality helmets. The carmel voice comes on to finish it’s last statement.]

“—consultation, and let Reality create a better world for you.”

The silence in the coffee house, underscored by the humming of the espresso machine and the honking horns of the drive thru customers, was so delicate no one seemed to want to speak much less breathe. The plain clothes stranger beside Bernadette was the first to move. It started a chain reaction of people talking, which graduated to frantic shouting, which evolved to people running to phones and demanding the channel be changed to the news.

The stranger grabbed his bottle of water off the counter and drank it in one gulp. “We should get moving.”

Bernadette couldn’t even nod. When the stranger began pulling her out the door, she stumbled on her feet and grabbed on to a nearby barstool. He asked if she were okay and she tried to wave him off. But all she could think of was what she had just heard and what she had just heard. She knew all the words he had spoken were truth, or at least, a personal truth to this entity, this Wormwood. But what was incomprehensible to her was the prevailing emotion that saturated the entire broadcast. It wasn’t megalomania, which anyone listening to the broadcast would guess. It was depression. Paralyzing desolation that threatened to make her choke.

“The safe-house isn’t far,” the stranger said, trying to encourage her to move.

She swallowed hard and stood up to follow him. But before she stepped forward, she stopped. She wanted to ask him so many questions revolving around the signal, Wormwood, and his message. But knowing that this was not the time for such discussions, she settled for something simple.

“What’s your name?” Bernadette asked.

The stranger shifted his eyes to the chaotic scene around them. In an undertone, he said, “It’s Chad.”

She nodded. She grabbed her own bottle of water and finished it, but in several swallows instead of one gulp. When they threw their bottles in the recycling bin, she opened the door for the plain clothes stranger.

“Thanks,” he said automatically.

You’re welcome, Jerry, Bernadette thought as she followed him back outside.

Reality Checks In: Part 1

The flash fiction challenge this week from Chuck Wendig over at terribleminds.com was to write a superhero story and roll for a sub-genre. I got Cyberpunk and created the following superhero origin story:

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When Bernadette accepted Reality’s terms and conditions without reading it, she hadn’t realized how dangerously she was living. She wasn’t alone. The average user view time on this 16,000 word legal document was under six seconds. So when Bernadette and the other 123 million users who were logged in at 11:03 AM (ET) were infected by the hack later to be known as the Boost Upload, she had no legal recourse. Section 16.7 clearly stated Reality would not be held liable for any cerebral damaging caused by outside operators. But it wasn’t section 16.7 that Bernadette came to fear. It was 16.8.

In the event of any outside errors, Reality will exercise all options necessary to reestablish program normality.

Bernadette wasn’t one of those who noticed her Boost immediately after logging out. It seemed like any other normal work day. She had plugged into Reality at 8:00 AM sharp for her secretary position for a transport conglomerate, specializing in hard data transfers. Her construct (which was not the petite, white brunette she was in real life, but rather an overweight, elderly asian) had greeted the few people who had scheduled online meetings with her supervisor. She spent the rest of the day sifting through the instant chat room. Originally, her construct was identical to her actual looks. But after dealing with users who would pop into her work’s chat room and then try to private message her later, she had gone with a stock image instead.

Like the other 123 million users, she had blacked out in the chat room when the hack had occurred. But as her boss refused to upgrade their data package, she had simply assumed that they were experiencing connectivity issues. When she logged out for her lunch a few minutes after the black out, she stretched her unused muscles, got out of the lumbar support seat she had splurged on last month, and removed the helmet that encased her head completely. Once she smoothed the static out of her split ends, she opened the door to her apartment and walked to the town square for lunch. When she reached her sandwich shop, the one she visited every Tuesday, she made her usual order. She sat in the back corner booth, watching people walk in with helmet hair and the same clothes she had seen on them last week. One man came stumbling in with a beet red face; she uncomfortably wondered what kind of program he had been hooked into. Still, everything seemed normal, until the cook called out her order.

“Corn beef on pumpernickel with two large pickles and a glass of milk.”

She made it halfway to the counter before she stopped. “Excuse me?”

The well-known angry cook, a Spaniard named Javier, shoved the plate further toward her, causing it to teeter at the counter edge. “Don’t make me say it again.”

Bernadette stared at his mouth. In her mind, she heard his words as English. But his lips and voice were still speaking Spanish.

She tried to reason it. Maybe she had come here so often she could just understand Spanish as easily as she could English. But as she tried to recall certain words, all she could think of was corned beef (Carne en conserva) and hurry up (Ándale). She touched her lips, then her ears; frozen. Javier grumbled, grabbed the plate, and appeared ready to dump it either on her head or in the garbage. But all movement came to a stand still when the red faced man standing at the register exploded into flames. Only seconds after that, the woman behind the register started screaming so loud, it caused her own head to explode. Bernadette sat down on a chair while everyone else ran away. Javier extinguished the remains and called the police. The line was busy for over an hour.

That night, when Bernadette was beneath her favorite purple blanket and curled into her dipped suede couch, she finally gained the courage to turn on the news. Every channel was reporting the end of the world. Plants strangling a busload of children. Meteors falling from the sky, all hitting the same spot on an apartment building. Teenagers rapidly aging from pimples to dust in a matter of seconds. A gravitational anomaly sucking a nursing home into itself.

It was a nightmare.

But for Bernadette, the horror was in the words of the newscasters in China, Japan, Russia, Italy, and every other country she had on her channel network. She understood them all. And not just their words, but their body language. Their speech, carefully crafted to not exhibit panic, was betrayed by their shoulders, their eye movements, their smallest finger twitches. She knew which ones were hiding secrets like her own. Which ones had seen a death before their eyes. Which ones were certain the world would end tomorrow.

The next morning when Bernadette logged into Reality, she was notified of a system update. As always, she skipped over the terms and conditions. She leaned back in her chair as her helmet turned on. A low hum sounded and she realized they were running a diagnostic on her neural pathways—normally reserved for those creating new user accounts. When it ended, it didn’t log her in. Instead, a message popped up in front of her eyes.

A representative will be contacting you shortly.

That is what she read. What her brain registered, was this:

You have been infected. We are coming for you. 

Slowly, Bernadette took off her helmet. She set it on it’s padded post next to her chair she had yet to pay off. She stood up, exited the upload room, and grabbed the purple blanket she had left on the couch, placing it over her shoulders like a cape. When the buzzer rang only a few minutes later, she opened the door to find a plain clothes stranger. Not a police offer or representative from Reality like she had expected. But he nodded seriously, which read to her that he was here for a specific mission. She folded the blanket tighter around her shoulders.

“Ma’am, you’ll have to come with me.”

Is what he said. But what she heard was this:

“Come with me before they find us.”

He held out his hand, his eyes wide with knowing and knowing her. And for no other reason then that, she dropped the blanket, grabbed his hand firmly, and followed him out the door.

To read part 2, follow this link.