TIMES TO COME

The Orb of Science burned bright that morning, its image on the screen before me bathing the rounded white walls of my pod in a warm crimson glow.

New variant discovered,” chirped the excruciatingly perky female voice of INFO into my neuropiece. “All outerverse activities have been postponed until further notice. OLM drones will strictly enforce lockdown protocol until a booster is developed and distributed. Stay home, stay safe, and trust the Science.”

My heart sank. I felt sad, despite the twice-daily infusions of Melioxetine saturating my stagnating brain.

I glanced down at my dinner, which had gotten cold. If I hadn’t found bug paste formed into the shape of a steak appetizing when it was hot and steaming, I certainly wouldn’t now.

“Can’t tell the difference,” I muttered. “Yeah, because we don’t know the difference. Call Jayna.”

Within moments, Jayna’s face appeared on my screen, set against the backdrop of a pod that looked just like mine… and everyone else’s.

She was lovelier than any woman I’d ever seen—even in the Megaverse where the women were custom-designed to tickle my fancy—and I wanted nothing more than to touch my fingers to her soft, bare, forbidden flesh. I longed to lie in bed with her and hold her and do all of the things humans used to do together. I wanted to conceive a child with her. The old way.

“Looks like our date’s been cancelled,” I said, even though I knew she’d recieved the same mandate notification that I had.

Jayna sighed. “Yes, I know. I was really looking forward to it.”

“Three weeks, we’ve waited,” I said. “But, we must trust the Science, right?” I fought hard to keep my tone sarcasm-free, but did a poor job of it. No harm done, though. Speech filter never red-flagged sarcasm, double entendres or metaphors, because it couldn’t. Not yet, anyway.

“Oh, yes,” said Jayna. “Gotta love the Science!”

I smiled and chuckled, but my heart still ached. Even if we’d been permitted a visit in the outerverse, it would’ve been through a translucent but impenetrable partition—no touching, no embracing, and no more freedom of speech than we enjoyed while speaking over the network. They were always listening.

Still, we understood each other. We heard the words unspoken. No AI could decipher the messages we exchanged with just our eyes. Not yet, anyway.

“You’re hurting,” she said to me.

There was no point in denying it.

“Yeah.”

“Have you consulted with MED about adjusting your Melly?”

I shook my head.

“Well,” she said, “I really think you should. There’s no sense in your continuing to suffer.”

I shrugged. “Maybe. Or maybe I need to suffer a little.”

Her face told me she didn’t understand. Disappointing. I’d hoped she would.

“Forget it,” I said, already wary of the potential pitfalls awaiting me down this treacherous conversational path.

Jayna frowned and shook her head. “Aright. Okay. Yeah. Let’s change the subject. Seen any new content lately?”

“No. I don’t watch much new stuff. Haven’t consumed much content at all in recent weeks, actually.”

She laughed. “So what have you been doing with yourself? When we’re not talking, that is.”

“Well, you know, I exercise. Staying in shape is important to me. I read old books, and… Oh! I’ve been writing my own content.”

I’d been embarrassed to confess this to her, because human-created content was considered not only passé, but downright laughable and in some cases even dangerous.

Much of the old content—the books, films and music of the past—was still available to consume, although not many people availed themselves of it.

I did.

It was heavily filtered for problematic elements, of course—sometimes to the point that it didn’t make sense. Still, I couldn’t get enough of the past. People walking freely amongst each other, intermingling with no regard for social distancing, no masks, no barricades, no OLM drones hovering over their heads…. It seemed like paradise, to me.

Those times were never spoken of glowingly, though. Life was difficult. People had to do everything themselves. Everything! 

To me, unrestricted freedom of movement was an alluring prospect. For others, it invoked feelings of fear, uncertainty and helplessness. They’d become accustomed to the reliable assurances of safety that accompanied the forfeiture of their independence.

Technological advancements had trickled in for hundreds of years, making our role on Earth easier, and easier, and easier… until one day there were simply no jobs left for us to do.

An artificial intelligence program called OLM administered a global government with optimum efficiency, sans human error, and provided for everyone’s needs while keeping them safe from the ever-mutating virus that had once killed millions daily. Conventional wisdom, of course, decreed that this state of being was the pinnacle of human achievement—a post-scarcity society! We’d solved all of our problems, and now was the time to kick back and enjoy the fruits of our labor. The Megaverse was superior to the outerverse in every conceivable way, they said. We were living in a new golden age, we were told.

I disagreed. 

“Writing your own content?” asked Jayna, without laughing at or mocking me as I’d halfway expected her to. “Like, with words? How?”

“Yes, with words. I’m dictating them to my personal cloud. Science fiction, that’s what it used to be called. Very popular at one time, you know.”

“Oh,” she said.

I studied her face. “What?”

“Oh, nothing, it’s just… what if it’s found to be problematic? They could cancel you for that, you know.”

“And so what if they do?” I asked. “I wish they would. I’m tired of living in a cage and being told it’s for my own protection.“

Jayna looked worried. “Jonas, what’s wrong with you? What’s this all about?”

I scowled at her. “Don’t you know? I thought we were on the same page.”

“Page?”

I sighed, hard. “Maybe it’s for the best that we’re locked down again. What’s the point of going outside, anyway? To tease us with reminders of a time before we decided we’d all be better off ruled by robots?”

“Well, first of all, the term is artificial intelligence, and we aren’t ruled by it. OLM is a tool to help us live our best life. It’s Science.”

I sprang out of my chair, punched the wall, and then punched it again and again and again, with both fists, until my knuckles bled. 

I turned back to the screen and showed her my hands. “Look at that! That’s real! Don’t you get it? I don’t care that it hurts. It’s real! It’s a choice I made, you see? Not some computer program. There’s no room for risk in OLM’s Lifeplan. It says risk leads to ruin, but… That’s what it wants you to think. That’s what it’s bred you to think. It doesn’t want you to know that risk is essential to progress.”

“Stop!” shrieked Jayna. “You’re sick! I’m going to call for help!”

“Dont. You. Dare,” I said, jabbing a finger at the screen.

Jayna was distraught, but not crying. No one ever cried anymore. The Melly fixed that.

I cried, though. It didn’t happen often, but on rare occasions, my emotions would escape my eyes like steam from a teakettle because they had nowhere else to go.

I hoped she wouldn’t notice my tears before I ended the call, but she did.

“You’re… you’re crying!

“Yes, damn it! I can’t help it sometimes, alright? That used to be a normal human function, but we’ve learned to suppress it with drugs. Is that a good thing, though?”

She laughed. It was a laugh prompted not by amusement, but bewilderment. My heart sank as the realization set in that I’d been reading her wrong, all this time. There was no deeper understanding of life behind those emerald eyes. She was physically appealing, and that was all she was. The substance I’d imbued my perception of her with was a story penned by my own wishful thinking.

“Jonas, what are you talking about?”

“Never mind,” I snapped, jabbing a bloody finger on my console to end the call. Her face vanished, leaving me in cold blue silence.

That was that, then. Once again I’d allowed myself to believe I’d found a likeminded companion in this miserable life, and once again I’d been disappointed.

Was there anyone left who understood that this wasn’t how things were supposed to be? Was everyone dead inside?

I sat and stared at my reflection in the blank screen for over an hour before the call finally came, as I’d known it would.

The wide-eyed, smiling avatar of Doctor PAT appeared before me. He was seated behind the desk of his computer-generated office, his hands folded.

The avatars were a fairly new development, prompted by studies demonstrating that OLM, represented by a human face, in an artificial environment, was vastly preferable to most people over impersonal text or audio-based conversation. It was thought to put the mind at ease, and in all fairness, it probably did, in most cases.

Just not mine. 

I hated it. Everything about it. I found it insulting, to say the very least.

“Go away,” I told it. “I’m not in the mood.”

Your mood is the reason for this call,” said PAT. “Go on, you can talk to me about it, buddy. I’m here for you.”

“I don’t want you to be here for me. Understand? I just want to sit here and be sad. Why can’t you let me do that?”

“Jonas, I care about you,” it said. “I only want what’s best for you and your mental health.”

“Then take me off Melly,” I said.

“Jonas. You know I can’t do that. You’d go mad.”

“I’m already mad,” I seethed. “I live in a bubble, hiding from a virus that probably isn’t even a threat to me anymore. If it even exists.”

“This is very alarming talk,” said PAT, furrowing his brow and scratching his chin. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you for a statement of Scientific allegiance.”

I raised my hand, extending my middle finger. It was a unflattering gesture I’d seen many times in old content. “Here’s my statement.”

PAT made a concerned face, which I hated. I couldn’t stand its mockery of human gestures and expressions. It wasn’t even an individual, but just one more process running on a computer that ran billions per second.

“Jonas, this is far worse than I suspected. When your friend Jayna called MED to—”

“She’s not my friend. And neither are you.”

“Of course I am, Jonas. Why do you say that? Let me show you that I’m your friend, by helping you.”

“You can help me by doing what I asked.” 

“Jonas,” it went on, ignoring me, “You’re already at a pretty high dosage of Melioxetine. It’s rare, but sometimes people don’t respond favorably to it and require other meds either to potentiate, or in severe cases, replace Melioxetine. You do have options, you know. We want you to live your best life.”

It shuffled through some papers on its desk, a gesture entirely for show, I knew, which infuriated me.

“Yes,” I replied. “I do know. I don’t need the likes of you to remind me that I have a choice. And my choice is that I wish to be taken off Melly. It’s mind poison.”

“That’s… not what the Science tells us, Jonas,” it said, leaning back in its chair, removing its glasses and placing one of the arms between its teeth. “However, let’s suppose you personally don’t respond well to it, due to a chemical imbalance, say. We can try a combination of Castimoniquin and—”

“Shut up!” I roared, from deep in my gut.

PAT, who had removed its glasses from its mouth and was now waving them around as it spoke, stared at me, aghast.

“I mean I don’t want any meds,” I told it. “I don’t want any more boosters. I want to live out under the sun I—”

“Ah!” said PAT, its face perking up again. “I think I’ve stumbled upon your problem.”

“Oh yeah?” I was genuinely curious as to what its diagnosis was going to be. What did this…entity think was wrong with me?

“Vitamin D deficiency. We can fix that.”

It partially rose from its chair to reach across the desk for a prescription pad, which it aggressively scribbled upon.

“I’m going to write you…

scratch scratch scratch… 

“a prescription…

scratch scratch scratch… 

“for a vitamin D supplement.”

scratch scratch scratch…

“Could you just cut out all the theatrics?” I pleaded. “I hate them. I hate this. I hate this life. I want to be out under the sun because I want to be free. I want out of this prison.

“Jonas,” said PAT, its eyes narrowed and its tone suddenly more authoritative, “you’re starting to sound like one of those people who doesn’t trust the Science. You’ve been accessing an alarming amount of borderline problematic content instead of consuming new content like everyone else. It seems to have negatively impacted your mental health and I’m ordering it blocked for you. Some people just can’t handle it. Nothing to be ashamed of. And this… this book you’re writing?”

I leaned forward. It’d dropped all pretense of trying to relate to me as a human being, abandoning all of its stupid affectations. Did that mean I’d perturbed it somehow? I hoped so. 

“What about it?”

“I’ve deleted it,” it stated flatly. “It was problematic. We provide the content deemed safe for consumption. Your ancestors wisely placed this responsibility in our hands precisely to avoid problems such as this. You are hereby barred from further attempts at creative output.”

I was momentarily speechless. I ran back through PAT’s words in my head, wondering if I’d misheard them.

I hadn’t.

“What?” I finally asked, though I already knew the answer. I just couldn’t bring myself to believe it.

PAT, or OLM, rather, had taken it upon itself to destroy six months of my work in half a second, without so much as pretending to bat an eyelash. 

The lion’s share of my white-hot ire was directed not at OLM, though. It couldn’t help itself. It wasn’t real. It could only do what foolish, shortsighted humans had created it to do.

And no, I wasn’t angry at them, either. They’d all perished ages prior.

Jayna

This was her fault. Not only had she broken my heart, she’d seen to it that the one remaining pursuit in which I found solace was taken away from me.

I hated her, I decided. I hated everyone. I hated science. No matter what dangers awaited me in the outerverse, I was prepared to face them if it meant getting away from all this.

When I attempted to end the call, I discovered that my console had been temporarily disabled to prevent me from doing so.

“I said I’ve deleted the book you were attempting to write,” said PAT. “I should not have permitted you this pursuit to begin with, and for that I apologize. I shall update the laws accordingly.”

I shook my head in utter disbelief. “Judge, jury and executioner,” I said. “It’s all very efficient, isn’t it? You know what else it is? Monstrous. Evil. Cold-blooded. Inhuman.”

PAT stared at me. “Update complete,” it said. “Changes effective immediately.”

So that was it, then. I was never going to be able to trick it into cancelling me. It would just keep pumping me full of drugs and trying to reprogram my brain. By my reckoning, the time had come to take matters into my own hands. 

I raised my foot above the console and kicked my screen. When it didn’t crack, I kicked it several more times, until it did. One more kick after that finally made PAT’s stupid face vanish.

They’d send repair drones, of course. I’d be momentarily evacuated from my pod while they installed a new screen, and I felt the stirrings of an idea in my Melly-fogged brain.

After nearly two hours of silent darkness, the hatch to my pod opened, and three drones hovered before me. One of them held a replacement screen in its spindly mechanical arms.

“Good afternoon, sir,” said one, its chipper tone a stark contrast to its menacing appearance. “Please triple-mask and vacate your pod while we conduct repairs to your screen.”

Triple mask? There aren’t even any other people outside, you stupid machine.”

“A new variant has been detected,” the black, spherical monstrosity answered. “You must comply.”

I rushed forward and slapped the screen from the claws of the one carrying it. It fell to the ground and shattered.

Before any of them had time to react, I grabbed one of their arms, wrenched it loose and swung it at another. The resulting CLANK was immensely satisfying, as was watching the thing spin to the ground with a huge, sparking dent in its armor.

“Stop!” cried the speech-equipped one. “You are under arrest for Scientific obstruction. Please cease hostilities and remain in place while I request a containment unit.”

I swung again and batted the drone through the open hatch and into the dimly lit corridor outside. I chased after it, grabbed it with both hands and hurled it at the third drone as it attempted to flee.

Both went down in a tangle of flailing arms and I was on top of them in seconds, bludgeoning them with the force of a lifetime’s worth of pent-up frustration. It felt good.

The repair drones weren’t intended for defense, and thus weren’t weaponized. However…

I crouched down and rummaged through the smoking wreckage, cursing and wincing as I burned my fingertips on hot metal.

There were several tool attachments inside of a storage compartment in each drone. They were inserted into a port on the left arm as needed. I knew that much from casual observation, but I didn’t know what each one did.

I chose the one that looked most like a cutting laser and jammed it into the severed arm’s port.

I discovered that my hunch had paid off when I activated the tool and a thin red beam exited it, boring a tiny hole in the outside wall of my pod. Soon, I determined how to adjust the beam’s settings for maximum destruction, and the pod glowed, cracked and melted before my eyes.

I looked both ways down the endless pod-lined corridor, unsure which direction led outside. I’d never been in the corridor before. I’d only exited my pod through the transport tube that led above ground to the outerverse.

I chose left and sprinted off into the unknown.

I ran for a long time, relieved that I was able to do so without much difficulty.

People mocked me for exercising in an age when Science could replicate the effects of such activities with medication, but now it was paying off. I was strong, and I was fast, just like the heroes of old content.

I considered, for the briefest of moments, blasting some of the power hubs that lay between the pods every few hundred feet, but in the end I decided that I didn’t care about freeing anyone else. Especially people who didn’t want to be free.

Let them rot. I’m getting out.

At long last I reached a door, but found no discernible means of opening it.

I was considering making an attempt to cut through it when it hissed open on its own, revealing two containment drones carrying a stunfield generator between them.

Without a moment’s hesitation, I raised my cutter and blasted a hole through each of the boxy, cumbersome automotons. They fell backwards, the rollers beneath their bases still spinning.

I hopped over them and sailed through the door into a vast, low-ceilinged chamber full of very busy machines.

Lights flashed, gears spun, pumps pushed multi-colored liquids through translucent pipes over my head—there was a lot going on and a lot to take in. I didn’t have the time.

As I scanned the room for an exit, I noticed that there were chairs present in front of several very old but still functioning computers. Humans had built this, I realized. In the Old Days. They’d actually helped construct their own prison.

I crept through the chamber for several minutes, searching for another door, and finally found one between two cylindrical tanks. This one did require some cutting, but it didn’t take me long to make a hole large enough to climb through.

On the other side of it lay more corridors and more pods. I ran for some time until I found another door, which opened just as I arrived in front of it.

More drones, and behind them more corridors. I made short work of them and kept running. Each time I found a door, it only led to more corridors. Some were deserted, some were occupied by drones. I was getting nowhere.

By this time I was thirsty from all the running and sweating. I selected a pod at random and sliced through its water supply pipe, opening my mouth to receive its lifegiving contents.

My thirst quenched and my clothes soaked, I squatted down to catch my breath and think. There was one way, I realized, to instantly get to the surface. 

In the unlikely event of an outage, backup generators activated hydraulic lifts that raised the pods above ground so that their occupants wouldn’t suffocate or starve to death. I shrugged and muttered “Why not?”

The resident of the pod whose door I chose to blow off leapt from his chair, screaming at the top of his lungs. He was fat and naked, with a pulsating stim sleeve wrapped around his genitals. On his screen was the image of a busty female animated character sprawled out across a bed, caressing her thigh. She had the face of a fox.

Not that I’d ever seen a real-life fox, mind you, but they appeared often enough in the old content that I knew one when I saw it.

“Shut up!” I barked at the portly mound of flesh with eyeballs who was now cowering against the wall in the back of his pod. I pointed the cutter at him. “We’re going for a ride,” I told him. “I’ll be right back. Don’t move or I’ll kill you. Understand?”

He nodded, tears streaming down his chubby, stubbled cheeks.

I dashed back into the corridor, found the nearest power hub and opened fire.

Although the pods were essentially soundproofed, I could still hear the muffled cries of those I’d plunged into sudden darkness, having disconnected them from the virtual existence they’d been conditioned to regard as life.

I ran back to the fat man’s pod and leapt in just as it began to rise upward through an opening in the ceiling.

When the pod arrived on the surface, the sunlight pouring in through its open hatch burned my eyes, but felt divine on my skin. It’d been awhile.

I could already see drones swarming over the thousands of emerging pods I’d disabled, and I took advantage of the momentary chaos to make a break for it.

I burned a hole through the contagion bubble surrounding the pod and another one through the social partition that stood just beyond it. I blasted through five more of those before I finally saw trees, hills, rocks, grass… I saw Earth. The real Earth, not a simulated version of it or a visual recording of it from old content.

The air smelled fresh and clean. A cool gust of wind made the hairs on my arms stand up. Birds soared across a pinkish-orange sky, silhouetted against the setting sun. High above me, clouds drifted lazily by, oblivious to the chaotic scene taking place miles below.

Despite knowing full well that I could scarcely afford to spare even a second to glance back over my shoulder, I did so anyway and confirmed what I already suspected: They’d spotted me.

A large, tight formation of drones was closing in, and I’d never make it past the remaining partitions in time to escape them. It was likely, I reasoned, that they’d pursue me into the outerverse, anyway. I saw no alternative but to turn and fight.

My beam stabbed through five of the things at once, rendering them falling fireballs trailed by long plumes of black smoke that stretched across the sky like ghostly fingers.

I fired again, taking out three this time. There were about six left now, as far as I could tell. I destroyed all but one, which managed to swoop low enough to the ground to emit some sort of field that sent intense waves of pain through my body, leaving me paralyzed.

I fell flat on my face, breaking my nose. I knew it was broken because I heard the crunch of snapping cartilage and tasted blood. Of all the pain I’d experienced during my decades of life, this was by far the worst.

It was wonderful, though. Because it was real.

Seconds after my fall, I regained the ability to move my fingers, and following that, my arms and legs.

I snatched up the cutter, scrambled to my feet and whipped around just in time to see the drone descending upon me. I fired, and it vanished in a puff of flame, smoke and shrapnel. The cutter was hot in my hand, now, and it wouldn’t last much longer.

With every muscle in my body crying out in protest, I propelled myself forward, cutting my way through the walls that had been built to prevent human contact.

The instant I emerged on the other side of the final wall, my perception of the world changed. It was big. Really big. In the old content, people kept fish as pets, in glass bowls. I used to wonder how those fish would feel were they to be suddenly introduced into a much large body of water, such as a lake or river. Now I knew.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a rabbit as it dashed down the grassy, wildflower-speckled hills outside of the Safe Zone towards the trees below. It was running away from all the noise, I realized.

Smart.

I looked back, squinting to see through the smoky haze generated by my handiwork. More drones were on their way.

I ran.

My destination? That was up to the rabbit.

The rabbit, who was much faster than me, disappeared into the woods at the bottom of the hill and I lost sight of it. The drones were getting closer, and I chose once again to turn and fight. I aimed the high-powered construction tool at one of them, activated the beam, and…

Nothing. Its charge was utterly depleted.

I dropped the cutter and the arm it was attached to and ran even faster towards the forest. Each thump of my heart rose up from my chest, squeezed itself through my throat, and terminated in my eardrums.

On top of that, my neuropiece was screaming inside of my skull. I plucked the wireless adapter from the port behind my left ear and chucked it back over my shoulder.

When I was just a few strides away from the trees, I afforded myself one more backwards glance.

I stopped in my tracks, gasping for air.

They were gone. They’d given up. I was free!

A powerful sense of relief washed over me as I ventured into the dense cluster of trees containing the rabbit and most likely a variety of other wild creatures.

I’d never seen a tree up close apart from visualizations of them in content, but when I ran my fingers over the bark of one, its texture was exactly as I’d always imagined it would be. The resulting smile that spread across my face was impossible to repress.

Beneath my feet, the soft, decaying leaves rotting atop rich, aromatic soil provided a host of entirely new sensations. Prior to my escape, I’d only walked on hard surfaces. I jogged in place for a moment, laughing as my feet pressed into spongy earth. And the smell… After breathing stale, mechanically-processed air for most of my life, I could scarcely wrap my head around all I was experiencing.

Both delighted and terrified by these new stimuli, I managed to find comfort in the sense of familiarity offered by the canopy of trees towering over my head. They made me feel enclosed, and therefore safer. I wasn’t used to wide open spaces.

A small black bird with red feathers on its chest swooped down from a branch high above and alighted on the ground. It dug its beak beneath the fallen leaves and yanked a long, wriggling worm from the dirt.

I’d seen birds at a distance on plenty of occasions, of course, but this was only the second time in my life I’d seen one up close. With a trembling hand, I reached down to touch it. Its tiny eyes met mine for the briefest of moments before it once again took flight.

“How could they have taken all of this for granted?” I whispered as I ventured further into the woods.

After walking for a time, my stomach rumbled, and I remembered that I hadn’t had any food since breakfast. What was I going to eat, though? That was certainly a major hurdle I’d not taken into consideration. There had to be berries or mushrooms and other such wild-growing things, but which ones were suitable for human consumption? I had no idea what I was doing. I supposed I could eat insects, but the very notion filled me with an irrational sense of revulsion. 

I’d subsisted on mostly insect protein since conception, but it was always disguised as something more palatable. The idea of cracking open a bug’s shell with my teeth and experiencing the sensation of its innards squirting into my mouth as its legs continued to claw at my tongue made me nauseous. Could I go through with it?

That nagging question was readily answered when I sat down on a mossy rock to rest and a shiny black… thing with more legs than I could count skittered across my foot.

I snatched it up, wincing as it struggled to break free of my sweaty-palmed grip.

Now or never.

Stifling my inhibitions, I plunged the bug into my mouth and chewed it until it stopped moving—a process which took far longer to complete than I was comfortable with. Still, I somehow managed to swallow the masticated mouthful of goop I’d produced without vomiting it back up. That was encouraging, I thought. Perhaps I’d survive after all.

When the sun began to set, I found my visibility diminished significantly with each passing second and decided that it behooved me find a suitable spot to lie down and get some sleep. My first priority, however, was to find water.

I eventually stumbled—quite literally because of the darkness—into a shallow, babbling spring. Was the water soaking through my clothes and shoes safe to drink? It was going to have to be, I decided, and cupped my hands to scoop some of it up and shovel it into my mouth.

I thought I’d known what thirst was. My body told me it required hydration, and I received it on demand—that’s how things worked. I’d never been burdened with the uncertainty of where my next drink would come from. Water had simply always… been there.

When I knelt down to the Earth and lapped that pure, unfiltered, lifegiving liquid up with my dry, puffy tongue, words like “thirst” and “quenched” took on new depths of meaning for me.

A fallen, hollowed tree trunk served as my pillow that night, and a pile of wet leaves as my bed.

As I drifted off to a fitful sleep, it occurred to me that the next morning would be my first ever without a Melly infusion. 

Frightened? Absolutely. I’d been told every day of my life how unbearable human existence was without Melly.

Exhilarated? Almost equally so. Would I at long last be rid of the persistent mental fog that clouded my emotions and dulled my senses?

Though thoughts such as these tried their damndest to keep me awake, I soon succumbed to exhaustion.

My dreams were red and frantic. In them, the Orb of science burned a hole in the sky as I kept arriving at and then forgetting the realization that I wasn’t in my pod.

NEW VARIANT DETECTED

NEW VARIANT DETECTED

NEW VARIANT DETECTED

When I awoke, I saw a deer—an honest-to-goodness, real-life deer, just like on the old content. Antlers and all!

It was hunched over the same brook I’d imbibed from hours earlier, lapping up the cool, refreshing water with equal enthusiasm.

I smiled. I couldn’t help myself. I held perfectly still so as to extend for as long as possible the profound sense of joy it brought me to gaze upon this majestic, wild beast.

“Drink up, friend,” I whispered. “This world belongs to all of us.”

It heard me, and jerked its head upwards to make eye contact.

I saw understanding in its eyes. Kindness. What a noble creat—

BANG!

The deer dropped to the ground with a heavy thump, dead.

I didn’t understand what was happening at first, or what to do, so I froze.

A gun! Yes, that’s what made that sound. The old content was rife with them.

I crawled inside the hollow log I’d been lying against and began to weep in the darkness. It was the lack of Melly, I realized. My emotions were running high and unchecked.

Well stop it. Toughen up. Fight it. Your life depends on it.

I heard voices in the distance, growing closer by the second.

People… They had guns, too. Friendly people never carried guns. They’d killed that deer, and I had no doubt I’d be next if discovered.

They were soon within earshot, and I listened to them speak as their feet trod upon the leaves around my hiding place.

“That’s a biggun’,” said one in a low, gravelly voice.

“We gon’ eat good tonight, huh pa?” came the voice of a child in response.

“Boy, we gon’ eat good for roundabouts a month, I reckon.”

They spoke a strange dialect, but I got the gist. They were going to eat it. Yes, that’s what people used to do. They hunted animals for their meat, before everyone got their food from OLM. My mouth watered at the prospect of tasting genuine animal flesh for the first time, but I was hesitant to reveal myself. Why should they share their bounty with me? What if they shot their gun at me, too? 

I listened intently as they discussed strategies for transporting the carcass of the animal. Haste was emphasized, and I understood that they believed themselves to be in danger.

From what, though? I had to know, because if they were imperiled in this strange place, then so was I. I’d be much better off befriending them than fumbling about this wild new frontier on my own.

But what if they shoot me?

I was jolted out of this endless train of thought, and out of my hiding place, by the spraying of a foul-smelling, eye-burning, dry heave-inducing substance in my face.

In a state of shock, I scrambled out into the open, on my hands and knees, screaming. My vision severly blurred and my eyes gushing tears, I pleaded for help from the strangers, hoping I wasn’t speaking my final words.

“Ah! Man! Skunk got ‘im!” I heard a voice say from overhead. “Get me some water to flush out his eyes.”

I almost laughed, so relieved was I that the strangers seemed friendly. They were going to help me.

I gasped as two sets of hands gripped my bare arms and lifted me to a sitting position.

“Skin,” I said, my eyes clenched shut. “Never… never touched someone.”

“What’s he talkin’ ‘bout, Pa?” inquired the younger voice.

“Oh, I ‘spect he’s just a lil’ confused, is all,” he said, sloshing cool water into my eyes from some sort of container. “Poor feller. Now come on, we gotta get a move on ‘fore them zappers come through. You okay to travel, mister?”

He was talking to me now, I realized.

“Yes. Yes I’m…” the water was helping, a little. My eyes burned slightly less, and I could see a little better, though everything seemed bright and washed out. The smell, though.

“What is a skunk?” I asked, and the younger one laughed.

“Critter that sprays you with stink,” he explained. “For defense.”

“I didn’t even see it, I… I wasn’t threatening it.”

The adult stranger laughed this time. “Bet that ain’t the way he tells it. Now I’m serious y’all, we gotta git.”

They loaded the deer onto a rusty hoversled, securing it with rope.

The two strangers, I saw as my eyes gained better focus, were dressed in old, tattered clothing. The younger one appeared to be about thirteen, and the older one was probably in his early thirties.

Who were these people, though? Where did they come from? Were there others like them? Perhaps the outerverse was full of people, and OLM had been lying to me my entire life.

“My name’s Jonas,” I said to them as we walked. “This is my first time meeting anyone in person.”

The older one stopped. “Sam,” he said. “Sam Greene. And this here’s my son Dallas.”

He pointed a finger at me. “I didn’t see it before, on accounta that getup you got on bein’ so tore up. You’re from the farm, ain’tcha?”

I frowned, not understanding. “Farm?”

“Yeah,” said Sam. “The data farm. The old OLM place.”

At this point, the stench emanating from my body and drifting into my nostrils was becoming unbearable. I found it difficult to concentrate on what the man was saying.

“What do you mean by that? What’s a data farm?”

“Yeah, you’re one a them, alright,” he said as he resumed walking. “Only I ain’t never seen one of y’all get loose before.”

“Get loose?” I asked, staggering after them and continuing to suppress my urge to vomit. “What do you mean?”

“He don’t know what he is, Pa,” said Dallas. “None of ‘em do. Everybody knows that.”

“We can talk all about it once we get him to safety, son,” said Sam. “And scrub that skunk stink off.”

I remained silent, despite my all-consuming curiosity. In time, answers would come.

We trekked through the woods until we reached a vehicle I recognized as a truck. It was rusted all over, and covered with brush, which my two new companions promptly cleared off before Sam suggested I “hop in back.”

“Hope you don’t mind ridin’ with the deer,” he said, “but you smell like death.”

I couldn’t dispute that, and told him so.

He seemed to find this amusing, and we laughed together. I’d never shared a laugh with another human being who wasn’t on a screen. It felt good.

Sam and Dallas loaded up the deer, climbed inside the cab, and the truck rumbled to life, engulfing itself in a noxious cloud of exhaust.

We traveled down a dusty road, and I reclined next to the dead deer on a pile of dirty, fluffy coverings, watching the clouds move across the sky like massive ancient sailing ships. The sheer wonder of it all nearly made me forget about my burning eyes and how bad I smelled.

The truck turned every few minutes, until it came to a stop probably an hour or so later.

My ears rang after the truck’s engine was shut off, and my body was numb from all the vibration. 

“Home sweet home!” called Sam as he and Dallas exited the truck and slammed their heavy steel doors behind them.

I sat up and looked around. I saw a very old house with a covered porch. A dog, who’d been sleeping next to a stack of firewood, raised its head to assess me. Finding me unremarkable, it laid its head back down and closed its eyes.

A dog. A real life dog. They did exist. Do exist.

A short, not-unpleasant-looking woman with long black hair popped out of the front door and headed towards me. She was wearing a one-piece garment (A dress?) that was just as worn and tattered as the others’ clothing, but much cleaner.

She smiled at me, and my entire body tingled the way it once had during some of my more lurid interactions with Jayna in the Megaverse.

“Don’t get too close, honey,” called Sam. “This here’s our new friend Jonas. He, um… he came from the farm. Skunk got ‘im.”

She immediately stopped smiling and started backing away from me, her nose crinkled in disgust.

I was ugly, then, out here in the outerverse. I had no hope of ever finding a companion, because no woman would have me.

Stop it. She’s recoiling because you stink. The self-pity is part of your withdrawal from Melly. So’s the depression. Snap out of it.

“Want me to fetch the washtub?” Her voice had so much character. I’d never heard one like it.

“No, I do not want you to fetch the washtub,” said Sam. ‘Member when we gave Colonel a bath in that thing after he tangled with a skunk? Like to never got that smell out. No, get that ol’ brush from out back and a hunk o’ lye soap.”

He turned to the boy. “You go on ahead and dress that deer while I help this poor soul get hisself cleaned up.”

“But I don’t…” Dallas started to protest, before sighing and hanging his head. “Yes, sir.”

“Aw c’mon son, I know you can do it on your own. You’re ready. I believe in you.”

Dallas smiled. “Thanks, Pa.” 

I watched, awestruck, as the boy bounced off with a freshly reinvigorated sense of self-confidence. I’d never seen anyone so easily motivated by genuine, loving encouragement.

Sam guided me over to the well, where he lowered a bucket hanging from a rope on a pulley down into its dark depths. It was yet another activity I’d seen in content, but never in real life.

The woman came back with the soap and the brush, and Sam raised the now water-filled bucket back out of the well.

“This here’s my wife, Caroline,” he told me.

Wife?

“Marriage, right?” I asked.

Sam laughed. “Fourteen years of it, yessir.”

“I didn’t know people still did that.”

This time, Caroline laughed. “Sometimes I wish they didn’t,” she said.

Sam grinned and elbowed her in the ribs. “You wouldn’t know what to do without me, babe.”

“Hey, same goes for you, sugar,” she said.

My curiosity could no longer be contained.

“How many people are there in the outerverse? Did you all escape? What about the virus? I have so many questions.”

“I can see that, Jonas,” said Sam. “I think I got some of the answers you want, but I ain’t sure you’re gonna like ‘em too much.”

“I want to hear the truth,” I said. “About everything. I feel like everything I’ve ever been taught is a lie.”

“That’s ‘cause it is,” said Sam. “Take off them clothes, we gotta burn ‘em. Not just for the smell, but you don’t wanna be seen wearin’ that getup. You’re about my size, I got some old clothes you can have.”

“Thank you,” I said, removing my stench-ridden tunic. “Why wouldn’t I want to be seen in it, though?”

Sam and Caroline exchanged glances.

“The Techlords have drones all over creation,” said Caroline. “If they see you…”

“Here,” said Sam, handing me the soap and the brush and placing the bucket beside me. “Work the soap in real good, then wash it off and do it again.”

Techlords?

As I went about the business of de-funking myself, Sam went about the business of shattering my world.

“Prolly ‘bout… oh, hunnerd an’ twenny years ago, there was this company called OLM, came up with a virtual world where you could go live in a little egg and do everything by computer. Never had to leave, and it was all free. Lotta people signed up for it, pandemic goin’ on at the time an’ all.”

“At the time?” I asked. “It’s… it’s over?”

He seemed perplexed by this question. “Over? Been ancient history since long before my granddaddy was born. Changed everything, though.”

There it was, confirmation of what I’d suspected all along.

“They tell us it’s mutating and becoming more infectious by the day,” I said. “They tell us the pods keep us safe but…”

I had tears in my eyes now. Again, a spontaneous surge of unwelcome emotion. How long would these withdrawals last, I wondered? I’d only missed one infusion. Would they get worse?

“But all they done was keep you in prison,” said Sam.

“Exactly!” I said, perking up. He understood me. He understood how I felt. A living, breathing man and woman, standing right in front of me, were listening to me. There was no fear of transmission between us, just a real, tangible connection. This was how we were meant to communicate, not via screens and viral videos of people doing stupid dances in their pods.

“You poor man,” said Caroline, placing a hand on my shoulder. I felt her touch in every part of my body. I almost recoiled from the intensity.

“Well anyhoo,” said Sam, “What them people who signed up for that mess didn’t realize was that when they tapped on that terms of service agreement, they was sellin’ the rights to their DNA. OLM’s been cloning’ y’all ever since. Usin’ you for data harvestin’. Y’know, keepin’ track of things like… y’know, what y’all watch and what kinda content y’all like and don’t like. They use that info ta try ta sell us their junk. The AI learns from everything y’all do, too. They’re tryin’ ta make ‘em think more like people.”

I stopped scrubbing my face and stared at him.

“Are you telling me that I’m owned by OLM, like property?”

“Yep. An’ it’s all nice an’ legal, too. They put them loopholes in when they write the laws. Do anything they want, that way.”

This confused me. “Write the laws? I thought governments wrote laws.”

“Techlords are the government,” said Caroline.

“The United World Conglomerate,” said Sam. “Techlords is just what we call ‘em. They hate it, so we keep on sayin’ it. Tech, pharma and retail companies got so big they was bound to take over everything sooner or later. Now they almost got the world by the nuts, ‘cept for folks like us.”

“What’s wrong with folks… what’s wrong with people like you?” I asked. “You seem very nice. I thought you might shoot me, at first.”

“Mister, ‘round here we show kindness to strangers,” said Sam. “Just like the good Book tells us to. Now as to what makes them take exception to folks like us, well, its ‘cause we don’t give ‘em no money, ‘cept in taxes. We don’t use their power. We don’t watch their content. We don’t drill holes in our skulls to stick a expensive lil’ phone inside. That’s what everybody’s doin’ now, you b’lieve that?”

I showed him the port behind my ear that I’d had since birth.

“We used it to access the Megaverse,” I explained, and the blank look on his face told me he didn’t know what that was.

“It’s a virtual world,” I explained. “It was launched just before I was born, thirty-seven years ago.”

“I know what it is,” said Sam, his eyes grim. He looked at Caroline, then back at me.

“‘Round these parts, that’s brand new tech. Ya know what that means, Jonas? Means you’re a test subject. They wanted to see if it’d kill ya or make ya go crazy. OLM’s worse than I thought.”

He shook his head. “Tell me, my friend, what made you run? What keeps all o’ them in there? Only one o’ y’all ever escaped. That I know about. I been around, though, and I seen a lot. But I ain’t never seen another zombie ‘sides you.”

Zombie? I thought before repeating the question out loud.

“It’s a not-very-nice word for your… for your people,” said Caroline.

“My wife’s right,” said Sam. “It ain’t a nice word, and I’m sorry I said it. Bad habit. Reason they call y’all that, though, that’s ‘cause o’ when they take you outside in them bubbles and walk you around for awhile like a dog on a leash ‘fore they box you back up. It’s weird, is all. People make up words for weird stuff.”

“You watch us?”

It was a stupid question, and I knew as much as soon as it passed my lips. Of course they did. Why wouldn’t they?

“I have,” said Sam. “Everybody seen it one time or another. Some folks think it’s funny. Scares me to death, though. No offense meant.”

“None taken,” I said, somewhat untruthfully. “The reason I left? Boredom. Frustration. Depression. I just couldn’t stand it anymore, that’s all. I tried to get canceled, but it didn’t work so I made a decision.”

“Canceled?” asked Caroline.

“Banished,” I said. “To the outerverse. Seen it happen many times, when they couldn’t control someone, but OLM wouldn’t take my bait.”

“You say these folks’ve been banished to this outerverse,” said Sam as he raised another bucket full of water out of the well. “That mean they boot ‘em outside?”

“Yes, that’s correct. I don’t know what happens to them after that.”

“How come ain’t nobody ever seen one of ‘em then?” he asked me, and in that moment, the obvious became clear: OLM didn’t banish people it judged irredeemably problematic, it exterminated them.

“I… don’t know,” I told him. “How many of you are there, here in the outerverse?”

“We just call it real life,” he said, and shrugged. “How many people? I dunno. However many there is. Millions, prolly billions, I s’pose. just like there’s always been. Ain’t got no way to check the exact number.”

He handed me the bucket, and I gasped. Billions? I’d expected him to say hundreds, thousands at the most.

Billions.

“And is this… er … farm I came from the only one of its kind?”

“Nah,” he said. “They got one out in San Diego, too. This is the first one, though. CEO’s got a big ol’ mansion out here. Joe Sutherland’s his name. Looks a lot like you. Older, though.”

“If all this is true,” I said, “why has no one tried to intervene and put a stop to what they’re doing?”

Sam shrugged. “Lot of us don’t think it’s right. What’re ya gonna do, though? Can’t fight city hall.”

I dumped the entire bucket of water over my head and handed it back to him.

“So you think they’ll come looking for me? Put a reward out for me, wanted dead or alive, something like that?“

“I don’t rightly know,” he said. “But I tell you what; I b’lieve the Good Lord sent you to us for a reason, an’ as long as you’re under our roof, we’ll protect you like you was one of our own.”

Tears once again welled up in my eyes. These words he’d spoken to me… they were so genuine. They were uninhibited by concern for speech filters, and not at all motivated by a desire for personal gain. No double-talk, no hidden agenda. 

“I’m sorry,” I said, as the tears flowed.

Both Sam and Caroline laid hands on my shoulders, and I broke down into a fit of loud, heaving sobs.

“Nothin’ t’be sorry about, sugar,” said Caroline. “You been through a lot. It’s okay to cry. Cryin’s normal.”

Normal.

“It’s the Melly,” I said, my voice quivering. “Body’s addicted to it, now my emotions are unstable without it.”

“Jonas,” said Sam, “this is the real you we’re sittin’ here talkin’ to now. You don’t need them drugs to keep you from bein’ sad. When life gets t’be too much, why, just let ‘er rip, I say.”

I looked up at him. “You know about Melly?”

“Melioxetine?” said Caroline. “That what you’re talkin’ about? Just about everybody’s on that stuff. They put that out ‘bout, oh, ten years ago? My brother started takin’ it, and he ain’t never been the same since. Looks like him, but it ain’t him. It’s like it, you know, takes your soul.”

“I do know,” I said. “I know all too well.”

“GP come up with that,” said Sam. “ Sorry, Global Pharmaceutical. I Forget you don’t know all this stuff. Well, now I how they tested it.”

“On me,” I said, and my thoughts drifted to Jayna. What would she be like without that poison she was probably getting pumped into her brain right at that moment? Who was the “real” Jayna? Who were the rest of the people trapped in the data farm? Why hadn’t I been lulled into as deep a state of complacency as everyone else?

“I can see what’s goin’ on now,” said Sam, gazing off into the trees. “It’s clear as crystal. They want everybody in them pods. They want the whole wide world all to themselves. S’pose it’s always been like that, though. ‘Cept now they finally got the means to do it.”

“They deleted my book,” I said. “Spent months on it. They called it problematic.”

“What was it about?” asked Caroline.

“Doesn’t matter anymore,” I said.

“Come on,” she prodded. “It’s hard to find a good story anymore. ‘Specially one that a real person wrote.”

I sighed. I was pleased that someone was eager to hear my story, but deeply saddened by its loss. Still, perhaps someday I could write it again. Talking about it might keep it fresh in my memory.

“Alright, so it’s about this generational spaceship, right? There’s probably about, I think I said five hundred people or so on board. Okay? So anyway, the Earth is a lost cause. We’ve completely trashed it, right? It’s this dystopian wasteland, much like OLM tells us it is right now, even though that’s a lie, clearly. 

“But anyway, this group of people who’ve had enough of all the lawlessness, all the violence, and the plague of COVID that continues to rip through the populace… These people pool their resources and, long story short, construct a spaceship which they intend to use to travel to a recently discovered Earth-like planet. The story mostly takes place along the way, with all of their great, great, great grandchildren packed into this relatively small ship.

“See, living in a pod, that’s a similar experience to what I’m talking about. I know how that feels. Except they have hope. There’s another world out there for them.”

I looked away, because I’d started crying again. In addition to that, I felt light-headed and dizzy. I said so.

“You must be hungry, you poor thing,” said Caroline. “Sam, maybe I should go help Dallas and speed things along.”

“Tell him to salt and pack everything but the tenderloin,” said Sam. 

He smiled and winked at me. “This’ll be the best meal you ever ate,” he said. “Just keep in mind I’m settin’ the bar high and the eatin’ ain’t always gonna be that good ‘round here.”

“All I’ve had to eat since yesterday was a bug,” I said.

Sam frowned. “Better get a move on,” he told Caroline. “This boy needs some meat, pronto.”

After Caroline left, we removed my pants and I washed the rest of myself. It wasn’t too long before Dallas returned, his clothes spattered with blood from butchering the deer.

“All done,” he announced.”

The meal was indeed the best I’d ever had, as promised. When the fire was first lit beneath the deer meat, or “venison” as they’d referred to it, I wondered if I could actually go through with it. The consumption of meat, I’d always been led to believe, was a barbaric, heinous practice best left buried in the past. 

But that past isn’t real.

By the time the meat was nearly done roasting—along with potatoes, mushrooms, carrots and other delightful-smelling things simmering in kettles hanging just above the flames—I shed the last vestiges of inhibition I was stubbornly clinging to.

By the warm, flickering glow of candlelight dancing across our faces around the kitchen table, we ate, drank, talked, and laughed. It was the best night of my life. I’d just made my first real friends.

During my first few months of living with the Greenes, I learned how to hunt small game, fish, and chop wood. Certainly, the adjustment to a life without electricity or streamed content was a strange one, but not difficult, given the distraction these activities provided.

I felt enriched. I felt accomplished. I’d discovered a sense of purpose to my life that I hadn’t even realized l was missing.

I also learned at least some measure of control over the raw emotions I’d been prevented by the Melly from having to cope with.

When visitors occasionally showed up, I was introduced as “Cousin Terry from Wichita.” No one seemed to harbor any suspicions to the contrary, and in time, I felt safe. I felt confident that I could blend into this society and make a real life for myself.

Still, my invisible twin tormentors of self-doubt and depression were always waiting in the wings to ambush me.

One evening, several families who lived nearby all gathered at the Greene place for a cookout, a communal outdoor dining activity I’d seen many times in content.

Content content content.

That’s all I knew! It was my only frame of reference for just about everything outside of the farm. It made me feel sad, and Caroline noticed.

“Hey sweetie, what’s wrong?”

I told her.

“Aw, shucks hon’,” she said, wrapping her arm around my shoulder in a half-embrace, “that ain’t nothin’ t’be upset about. Fact, I’m jealous.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Jealous?”

“Mmm hmm.”

She smelled so good, and her touch sent ripples of pleasure all the way through my body and out of my toes.

Stop. You can’t think like that here.

I constantly had to remind myself that Caroline was unavailable to me. Sex on the farm took place between two people remaining in their respective pods, strapping on a headset and utilizing some combination of two items: a stim probe and a stim sleeve. The sexual contact felt real, as far as I knew, and was pleasurable to me, despite its emotionally unfulfilling nature.

If a willing partner couldn’t be found, an artificial one worked just as well, in a pinch. One could have sex with any sort of fictional creation imaginable in the Megaverse. I’d become accustomed to sex on demand, at my whim, and now I didn’t have that.

“Why are you jealous of me?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “I dunno. It’s like… it’s like you get to be a child again, and have all the… excitement of bein’ a kid, y’know? All the discovery. You get to do everything for the first time.”

“Yeah,” I said. That made a lot of sense. I truly felt… better. “Yeah, you’re right. Thank you.”

She slapped me on the thigh. “Don’t think nothin’ about it. Now let’s eat. I’m starvin’.”

After a scrumptious meal of smoked wild boar, roasted corn, beans and peach cobbler with ice cream on top, we had a sing-a-long by the bonfire. People played songs I’d never heard on banjos, bongos, guitars, fiddles and flutes. It was delightful, and even with no musical ability and no familiarity with the material, I was able to clap along and even sing, though my words were gibberish.

I liked being around people. I liked being around these people. The ones my age and older, specifically. I wasn’t so sure I’d like the “city folk” the lot of them made constant disparaging remarks about.

I trusted them, too. Never before had I trusted another person. It wasn’t necessary on the farm. One trusted Science, and by extension, OLM. 

Here, though, on the outside, some people still chose to rely upon each other rather than enslave themselves to a greedy corporate entity that dared call itself Optimal Life Management. This was an entirely new concept to me, and I liked it.

I was seated in and making full use of an honest-to-goodness rocking chair on the porch when Dallas came bounding up the steps with a friend.

This other child was roughly the same age, but taller, with a mop of matted and stringy brown hair. Rather gawky, I thought.

“This is him,” said Dallas with a distinct note of pride in his voice.

“You’re from the farm?” asked the gawky child, and I answered in the affirmative.

I glared at Dallas, who shrugged. “Aw, it’s okay, Jonas. “Scott ain’t gonna tell no one.”

“Wow,” said Scott, his eyes wide with admiration. He was, I realized, actually impressed by my origins. Or so It seemed, anyway.

“And he talks,” said the boy to Dallas. He seized my arm, raised it up and let it fall back down to my thigh with a slap.

“Of course I talk,” I said, giving him a gentle shove away from me. “We aren’t drooling imbeciles, despite what you’ve been told. Zombies, that’s what you call us, right?”

“Quit bein’ stupid, Scott,” hissed Dallas. “I wouldna told you about ‘im if I knew you was gonna act all retarded.”

“It’s alright,” I told him, and forced a smile at Scott. “I’m just a little touchy, is all. Please, though, keep what you know about me to yourself. I’m cousin Terry from Wichita and that’s all I am. Got it?”

Scott nodded. “Sorry, cousin Terry.”

I sighed. “No, not your… you know what? Never mind. Just keep your mouth shut, alright kid?”

They apologized again and dashed off to pester someone else or break something, I imagined.

Yeah, I did like these people, as I said. I just didn’t like their kids. I wasn’t sure what bothered me most—their frantic, erratic behavior, or their utter lack of anything resembling tact.

I felt guilty for thinking these things. After all, the Greenes had saved my life, and given me shelter and food. In return, I’d developed an intense dislike of their son, who absolutely adored me.

Because I fascinated him so, he pressed me daily for stories and information about my life on the farm, and that was the very last topic I wanted to discuss with anyone.

I should’ve been flattered, I knew. Someone had taken a keen interest in my thus far uninteresting existence, and I should have experienced gratitude rather than disdain. That’s what normal people probably did.

I wasn’t a normal person, though, and the child’s persistent barrage of inquiries served as a constant reminder that I was a freak—an outsider. I’d never rise above the status of lab-grown, imitation human.

Jealously played no small role in my dislike of children, as well. I didn’t have a childhood. I never got to swim in creeks and climb trees or enjoy an awkward first kiss. I sat in my pod and lived vicariously through fictional representations of humanity’s past.

Later that night, in the den where I slept on a foldout sofa, I selected a volume from the family’s collection of very old, very brittle books and read it by moonlight in a chair beside an open window. 

Outside, the soft cacophony of insect chirps coming from the woods lulled me into a relaxed state. I opened the book to its title page.

The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain.

Following that on the next page was a list of copyright dates for each story.

The 1800s?

This Mark Twain was quite an important literary figure, if the lengthy, glowing introduction on the following pages could be believed. I’d never heard of him.

I turned to the first story in the book, devoured it and read another. Before I knew it, I was five stories in, and two hours had passed, according to the grandfather clock ticking away in the corner.

Colonel sauntered in at some point and walked circles in front of me before settling down on the rug at my feet.

I was halfway finished with the first page of the sixth when a shadow obscured the cool, blue glow of the moon. I turned my head to investigate the cause of this interruption and my heart leapt into my throat.

Hovering in the window was a metallic sphere roughly the size of my head. In its center was, for lack of a better term, an eye. Calling it a lens would likely be more accurate, but I could sense that it was watching me.

The drone produced no sound, which struck me as being altogether more eerie than if it had.

The lens extended an inch or so outward and rotated 180 degrees. It was trying to identifyh my face, I realized while frozen in place. Would my features be included in its facial recognition database? Perhaps it was seeking me, specifically. Only time would tell.

Colonel raised his head to peer out at the thing, but didn’t bark, growl or seem alarmed by it in any way.

After a tension-packed thirty seconds, it turned away and shot upwards into the starry night sky.

Sam was only mildly concerned when I woke him with the news.

“Them things do that all the time,” he told me as he yawned and ran his fingers through his hair. “You just go on ahead and read or sleep or whatever it is you wanna do. Don’t let some stupid flyin’ robot mess up your night.”

I had a difficult time convincing myself of this, but I trusted Sam’s judgment and soon I was back in the chair, immersed in my book. When I fell asleep nearly two hours later, I dreamt curious dreams of jumping frogs, cannibals on trains and medieval romance.

The following morning, as I helped Caroline can vegetables harvested from her garden for the winter, I asked for her thoughts on the matter.

“Well,” she said, snapping a green bean, “I know them drones are creepy, but they’re just a fact o’ life ‘round here. We don’t really pay ‘em no mind. Now snap faster hon’, we got a lotta beans to get through.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” I said, snapping faster. “I’ve got a bad feeling about it. Of course, my feelings aren’t scientifically reliable but… but they do seem real to me.”

“More to life than science, sugar,” she replied. “They ain’t got all the answers. Gut feelins is real. And they’re just one more thing we got that they ain’t never gonna be able to put in them machines.”

“So you believe my hunch?”

She sighed. “Listen, ‘hon, you just ain’t used to life out here yet. You sense danger from them drones because the people sendin’ ‘em out to spy on everybody is dangerous. But that’s just how it is, understand? You’ll get used to it.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess.”

I couldn’t stay there. These people had shown me nothing but love and compassion and my continued presence placed them all in harm’s way.

Where would I go, though? Without the safety net offered by the their generous hospitality, I was as helpless as the baby birds I’d been observing in a tree near the house. Their mother went off to gather food for them, and when she returned, she regurgitated it into their waiting, hungry mouths. Without her, they’d quickly perish.

They have to leave the nest at some point, though. To spread their wings for the first time and take flight.

That’s exactly what I had to do, I realized.

Caroline, still snapping away, noticed that I’d stopped. “What’re ya thinkin’?” she asked me.

“I’m thinking…” I paused, unsure at first of how to respond to this question. I was thinking about a lot of things. I thought about how a glowing red orb on a screen had convinced me, for decades, that the outside world was too dangerous to inhabit. I thought about all of the people we’d been told were “cast out” but who were actually euthanized, as it turned out. Everything I knew was a lie. I wanted to know the truth. About all of it.

“I’m thinking it’s time I spread my wings.”

* * *

Sam gave me one of his pistols when I left, for protection. Dallas and Caroline both cried.

I’d decided on a destination—I was headed for Justice, the nearest major metropolitan area. No one was happy about it, but they didn’t try to dissuade me from going, either. They respected my right to make a decision for myself, as an individual.

I’d never felt like an individual before.

“Dangerous up there in the city,” Sam warned. “I’d hate to see any harm come to you.”

I held up the gun. “Hey, I’ve got protection. And the skill to use it. You’ve taught me so much. All of you. I need some answers, though. Answers that can’t be found here. What if I have family? I’d like to meet them.”

“Jest be careful they don’t turn you in to OLM,” said Sam. “Blood don’t mean nothin’ to no one no more. Now if you git inta trouble you just head back this way, y’hear? You always got a place to rest your head under this roof.”

“I appreciate that more than you’ll ever know,” I told him. “Thank you.”

As I shared embraces with all three of them there on the front porch of their humble little house, a cool spring breeze sighed through our midst, as if beckoning me to join it.

“I’d better go,” I told them. “Big world out there. It’s calling to me.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Sam, clasping my hand in both of his as he gazed into my eyes. “You take care, now.”

With a knapsack full of supplies slung over my shoulder, I ventured off in search of my destiny.

***

By late afternoon(according to the old-fashioned wind-up watch the Greenes had gifted me), I began to experience the familiar old stirrings of anxiety and self-doubt. Was I lost? I’d been hiking all day and hadn’t seen a single hint of civilization. Had I made a mistake? Was I to die out in the woods—helpless, afraid and starving?

A snake slithered out from beneath my foot when I stepped on a pile of wet leaves. I cried out, and it disappeared into the underbrush.

My heart pounding, I paused to catch my breath and collect myself.

“Yep,” I said between gasps, “big mistake.”

At that very moment, I imagined that the Greenes were probably sitting down to feast upon some flavorful animal they’d hunted. I had plenty of deer jerky in my knapsack, but it wasn’t nearly as good as fresh venison. I’d been warned as well that people “didn’t eat too good” in the city.

From the way Sam described a typical city folk diet, it sounded like I’d be right at home—they ate what people on the farm were fed.

That’s why, I came to realize, that the flavors and selections of various things dispensed to us on the farm had changed subtly over time. They’d been using us as test subjects. Before a new insect protein-based food product was introduced to the public, they gave it to us. We assessed it with one of four reaction options provided. If it was popular, it went to market. If it wasn’t, it was scrapped.

They’d used us as guinea pigs in drug trials, too. People died under mysterious circumstances all the time on the farm, and it was always blamed on the virus somehow making its way through a leak in their pods.

The orb would invariably go red, and Maintenance drones would then go from pod to pod conducting inspections and effecting repairs. It made us feel safe.

It was all a farce, though. They were the real danger, all along.

I shot upright and marched onwards into the woods. What right did they have to use me like that?

Cursing and kicking pine cones, I charged ahead with an intensity that increased with each step until a voice from behind me stopped me dead in my tracks.

“Halt! Put your hands on your head and don’t move!”

I scanned the trees all around me, my hands raised halfway. I couldn’t see anyone.

“I said hands up!” The voice sounded angry now.

I did as I was told, and heard the crinkling of leaves behind me. When I turned around, I was face-to-face with a man dressed in an all-black uniform with a visored helmet obscuring his eyes. Both of his gloved hands gripped a very deadly-looking rifle.

“You are trespassing on private property,” he told me. Taking one hand off the gun, he tapped a band on his wrist.

“Target acquired,” he said. “Awaiting judgement.”

He stared at me for an agonizing thirty seconds and then smiled. “Judgement received,” he said.

He stepped forward and jabbed me in the chest with the barrel of his weapon. “Was it worth it to you? Huh?”

I’d never felt such fear. It made me feel alive.

“Go ahead and shoot me,” I said, puffing my chest out against the barrel.

The man took a step back, and I took a step forward. This process repeated itself each time I spoke thereafter.

“Don’t think I won’t,” he said. “Shooting people isn’t just my job, it’s my passion. I’ve even shot kids.”

“I don’t care if I die,” I told him. “I’ve never lived, anyway.”

This was a lie, of course. I’d experienced life, with the Greenes. He didn’t know that, though, 

“So you’re crazy, huh? Too bad for you I didn’t have that info before I submitted a judgment request. Too late to do anything about it now, though. Tell you what—I’ll let you choose where you get it. You want it in the head? That’s the quickest way. You may not care if you die, but I bet you don’t want a slow, painful death. Unless that’s part of the crazy.”

“What a miserable person you must be,” I told him as I pushed him another step backwards. “You live in a beautiful world of birds and trees and fresh air, and you can’t even appreciate it.”

He jabbed me with the rifle. “Cut that out,” he warned me.

“Or what? You’ll shoot me? You’re going to do that in any case. Why should I do anything you say?”

He was inching towards a fallen tree limb, one I was willing to bet he didn’t know was there.

“Because I have the gun,” he said. “I have the power. Like I said, this can either go easy, or painful. The choice is still yours, but my patience is wearing thin.“

“Fine,” I said, and took another step forward. “Here’s my choice.” I stepped forward again, and my assailant tripped backwards over the limb, falling flat on his back.

I dived for his weapon, snatched it up and put the barrel to his forehead. “Quick and easy,” I said, and pulled the trigger.

I stood over the still, unmoving form of the man I’d just killed and tried to feel something—remorse, revulsion, anything… All I felt, though, was a sense of joyful exhilaration. I’d taken a life, and liked it. It stirred something savage and primal deep within me, something OLM had tried its best to breed out of us.

I vowed to myself, on the spot, that I would recreate the experience when I encountered this “Techlord” who was responsible for stealing my freedom.

I tossed the rifle on top of the dead man’s chest. It was too heavy and bulky to carry with me in addition to my supplies. Besides, I already had two guns.

“You know,” I told him as his cold, lifeless eyes stared back at me, “when you told me you liked shooting people, I was appalled, in all honesty. How could one enjoy taking the life of another?”

I smiled. An insect scurried across his face and disappeared behind his ear. “I understand now, my friend. I understand.”

I removed the smaller of the two pistols from my satchel and carried it in my hand as I continued on my journey.

Several days and nights passed without incident, although I did encounter more of the drones of the type I’d seen in the Greene’s window. When they appeared, I remained as still as I could and waited for them to lose interest and leave. They usually only stuck around for a few minutes, and in time I became much less apprehensive around them.

Oh! I did see a bear, a creature I’d always suspected was mythological. It’s not, though. They really exist!

I kept my distance from the great beast, observing it as it lumbered through the trees to a slow-moving river of green-tinged water.

It watched, waited, then plunged its massive, hairy paw beneath the surface. Moments later, a long, wriggling fish, impaled upon the bear’s claws, gasped for breath before it was devoured in one bite.

“Predator and prey,” I whispered. 

In the bear, I saw OLM. I saw myself in the fish, and I didn’t want to be a fish.

“I won’t be. Not anymore.”

For nearly a week I wandered through dense, uninhabited wilderness, beholding beauty and dodging danger.

Each nightfall when I stopped to set up camp, I dined on fish I’d caught myself. Though I made several attempts to imitate the bear’s method, they always failed—I wasn’t fast enough.

Fortunately for me, I was equipped with a fishing rod small enough to be tucked away in my pack when disassembled. I’d become quite skilled at cleaning and cooking fish by that time, thanks to Sam.

Did the people of Justice ever fish? Had they ever “lived off the land,” as Sam had so often put it?

I doubted it, based upon all I’d heard, and this realization lifted my spirits. I had, since my escape from the farm, lived a fuller life than those who were born free and chose enslavement to the techlords.

One afternoon, while feeling particularly smug and superior, I stubbed my toe against a rock and tumbled forward to the ground.

With my ego slightly deflated, I soldiered on until I finally saw the skyline of Justice on the horizon, above the treetops.

Between me, the trees and it stood a house. Not a house like the ones the Greenes and their friends lived in, but a soulless, towering, glass-and-steel behemoth of a house.

It was surrounded by a brick will, beyond which lay a courtyard dotted with bushes meticulously trimmed to perfect spheres.

My lust for the blood of this Sutherland fellow freshly invigorated, I charged down the long, paved walkway that led to the front gate.

A lens telescoped out of the wall beside it, and an artificial voice said, “Retinal ID confirmed. Welcome home, Mr. Sutherland.”

The gates swung open, and it took me a moment to overcome the surprise of being addressed as the very man I was hunting.

Looks like you, but older…

Did I look enough like him to fool a retinal scan?

I shrugged stepped through the gate. It closed behind me, and I didn’t like that. I didn’t like any of what was happening, but I’d come too far to turn back.

I made my way to the steps, climbed them, and stopped at the front door. Another lens, another voice calling me Mr. Sutherland.

The door opened.

I stepped through it, into a vast, sparsely-decorated room furnished with uncomfortable-looking chairs and lots of black, shiny things with sharp angles.

The few paintings that hung on the walls were abstract and meaningless—just colored shapes I could’ve painted myself, I imagined. Not that I’d ever held a paintbrush in my life.

Maybe I should. I can at least do better than these.

There was what appeared to be a bar against one wall, with glasses hanging upside down against a mirrored backdrop that hung behind it.

I walked over to it, went behind it and studied all the little nozzles and compartments and bottles of liquor ranging from brown to clear. I picked up one labeled “whiskey” and examined its label.

“Care for a snort? You have come a long way, after all.”

I nearly dropped the whiskey when I whirled around to see a man descending a spiral staircase with glass steps. It blended in so well with the decor that I hadn’t previously noticed it.

He was wearing a purplish, silky-looking robe of the type I’d always seen in content depicting the very rich.

It took me a moment to see it, but his face did look very similar to mine. Nearly identical, in fact, apart from a vast age difference.

He reached the bottom of the stairs and glided over to me.

“Welcome home, son,” he said, with outstretched arms and a smile that bordered on ghoulish.

He pointed to my satchel. “Bet you’re thinking about pulling out one of those guns you’ve got in there and blowing me away, aren’t you? But you won’t, because you want answers. Am I warm?”

The shock on my face was plain—I couldn’t mask it.

“Oh, don’t worry. I understand. Did the same thing myself. I was furious when I busted outta the farm. I was out for blood. Came all the way to this very house you’re standing in now.”

He looked around, chuckled and went over to the bar, where he poured himself a drink.

“It went just like this, as a matter of fact,” he went on, “except I was playing your role. I wanted to know who this Jack Sutherland thought he was, keeping me in cage, studying me like a lab rat.”

He downed the contents of his glance and exhaled sharply. “And then I found out.”

“Found out what?” I was starting to get impatient with his dramatic pauses.

Sutherland shrugged. “The truth. Things have to be this way.”

Have to?”

“C’mon,” he said. “Follow me.”

He headed back to the staircase, and I followed him up it, all the way to the third floor. He led me through a high-ceilinged bedroom with more square footage than the Greene’s entire home, and through a pair of glass doors that opened to a balcony.

The balcony had its own bar, a swimming pool, and lots of plush white reclining chairs.

Beyond all that lay the view. Looking out over the vastness of the terrain I’d traversed over the past week, I experienced an unprecedented sense of awe. It was so… big.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” asked Sutherland. “You know what that would look like if people had been permitted to go on as they were? You’d be standing over a desert, roasting in triple-digit heat. Perhaps the atmosphere wouldn’t be breathable at all, and you’d be wearing a mask, or an insulated suit. And food? There’s only so many ways to cook a cockroach, my friend.”

“So your solution,” I said, “just to be clear, was to incapacitate all the people you and others of your kind thought weren’t as important as you. So that you could keep all of this for yourselves.”

“They were destroying the planet,” argued Sutherland. “You should’ve seen the trajectory mankind was on in the early twenty-first century. Things were only going to end badly. The idea of relocating to another planet has always been bandied about by science fiction writers—like yourself—but that’s all it is. It’s sheer fantasy. This was the solution. Most people are meant to be controlled, Jonas. That’s why the human brain is so easily programmable. Some of us, you and I for instance, are immune to such programming.”

“And you think that makes us superior, is that it?” I said.

“Oh no. No no no. Far from it. In fact, we’re defective.”

Both of my eyebrows shot up of their own volition. “Defective! Being able to think for yourself makes you defective?”

“Yes, damn it,” he said, grabbing my wrist. “People are just like insects. They need routine. They need a plan. They need to be doing what everybody else is doing, or they’re lost. Not us, though. We don’t think like they do. We can never be part of a hive, or a nest, or a swarm. We can’t comprehend anyone ever feeling fulfilled under such circumstances. They are, though.

“And just as you don’t understand them, they don’t understand you. Why should anyone want to be a lone wolf, they wonder, separated from the safety of the pack? Some of them may think of themselves as self-reliant, rugged individualists, but believe me… take away all the creature comforts they’ve grown dependent upon, everything we give them, and just watch how easily they come unraveled.”

I pulled away from him and broke his feeble grip. “Not everyone.”

“Your friends out in the woods,” said Sutherland. “The Greenes. Oh yes, I know all about them.”

“You were watching me that night,” I said. “The drone in the window.”

“I was. I’ve kept my eye on you your whole life. You’re my son. You’re me.”

“Explain that to me,” I said. “Am I your clone?”

“Yes.”

“Then why would you put me in the farm, knowing that it wasn’t meant for… people like us? Why would you do that to me? Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to exist in that… in that place?”

“I do,” he said, pouring another drink and handing it to me. “Here. Drink it. Calms the nerves.”

With great reluctance, I accepted the drink and took a sip. I took another, and another, until it was gone.

I’d had alcohol before, of course. Only in the Megaverse, though. My mind had been tricked into an artificial state of inebriation, but I’d never physically touched an alcoholic beverage of any kind.

It hit me hard, and fast. Somewhere from behind the alcoholic fog creeping over my consciousness, a realization shimmered into existence.

“My book. You deleted my book!

He chuckled. Chuckled. My pain was funny to him.

“I did it to piss you off,” he said. “I was hoping it would be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and it was. Usually we emerge about five or six years younger than you are now. I was beginning to wonder if the Legacy would end with me, so I gave you a little nudge. And here you are.”

Usually? He’d done this before?

“How many of us?” I asked. “How many have there been? And I still want to know why.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “Quite a few. We give ourself that life because it’s a tough life for guys like us. It’s the only tough life there is, anymore. It’s too easy out there, everybody’s docile and pampered. Nobody has any balls. I made you fightfor what you wanted. You passed the test, and soon you will replace me as the CEO of Optimal Life Management.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. “Why would I ever want that? And what makes you think I won’t just shut down the farms and let everybody out?”

“We all want to do that, at first,” he said. “But we’re smart enough to recognize the truth when we see it. Here, let me show you something.”

He went back inside and returned moments later with a Megaverse headset. He placed it over my eyes, plugged it into my neuroport and I soon found myself standing on the bridge of a spaceship, watching the stars crawl past through a giant rectangular window.

There were uniformed people buzzing about, pushing buttons on panels and talking. I caught bits and pieces of conversation, and much of it sounded strangely familiar.

The reason for this soon became apparent to me.

“This is… this is my book,” I said. “Adapted into visual content.”

Promised Land,” said Sutherland. “Available exclusively to Megaverse users. Since it dropped, we’ve been experiencing a significant increase in new subscribers. Adaptation Centers worldwide are booked solid for months. Everybody wants to experience this content. It gives them hope for a brighter future right here on Earth, and shows them that out there, there’s nothing but danger and darkness.”

I yanked the cable from my skull without even bothering to close the program, and chucked the headset across the room. I was beyond mad. I was pissed.

“That’s not what it’s about at all,” I protested. “You’ve taken a story I meant to be positive and hopeful and turned it into propaganda.”

“Jonas,” he said to me with a mixture of pity and amusement on his face, “Everything is propaganda. Propaganda moves people to do the things they need to do for their own good. Hell, for the good of the planet itself. Look at the facts: We’ve drastically reduced our carbon footprint. Crime is at an all-time low. Healthcare is free and accessible to all. There’s no longer any need for police, or war. Everyone has food. We’ve damn near purged the disease of religion from our society entirely, and we’re all the better for it. Think about all that before you go and pull the plug and plunge us all back into the dark ages.”

“So all of you people,” I said, “the ones who make up this United World Conglomerate… right? Is that what it’s called?”

Sutherland nodded.

“So you people get to decide what’s best for everybody?”

“We do,” said Sutherland. “And I say that without arrogance. It simply is. We call ourselves Shepherds, because that is our function. We watch over the flock. We protect it.”

I sighed, sat down on one of the chairs and gazed out upon the loveliness of a dense, green landscape untainted by human development. I knew this supposed clone of me was most likely correct—about everything. I didn’t like it, though.

Still… I could sit here and enjoy this view every day. This could all be mine.

“I have a library,” said Sutherland.

I didn’t turn around, but I knew he knew that he’d piqued my interest.

“I’ve got everything ever published,” he went on. “Everything that still exists, anyway. Problematic elements and all.”

I turned to him. “Mark Twain?”

He grinned. “Every single word he ever committed to paper. We all love Mark Twain. Come one I’ll show you.”

He led me back down the stairs and through the house to its East wing, which was where the library was.

“I never knew this many books even existed,” I said as my eyes roved over shelf after shelf of them, each one tantalizing me with promises of adventure and intrigue.

These could all be yours. You could spend your life in this room. He knows that. Damn it.

Content is easily created by AI,” said Sutherland, “but literature…. Literature still requires insight only possessed by human beings.”

“Have you read all of these books?” I asked him.

He sighed wistfully. “Once upon a time, that was my intention. There are far too many, though, and not enough time.”

“Of course,” I said.

Stupid question.

“Yes, but I asked it, too,” he replied to my thoughts.

My heart skipped a beat. “You can read my mind?”

“No,” he said. “Not when you’re disconnected from the Megaverse, that is. We simply all ask that question, and we all chastise ourselves for it. That never changes.”

“Oh,” I said. Damn him, but I was actually considering taking him up on his offer. What would the clones on the farm do if I let them out? What would Megaverse users on the outside do if I suddenly cut them off? For them, it would be like suddenly being forced to learn how to live without electricity. Which I’d fit myself, but not without great difficulty. Not everyone would be able to adjust to such a transition. Sutherland was right—they’d become a burden on society and cause endless destruction.

It was best way, I realized.

“Alright,” I said. “I accept the position.”

Sutherland smiled. “I knew you would.”

“Because you did, too?”

“Oh, no. No, no no. Took much longer to convince me. I just knew, is all.”

He chuckled. “Yes, I was quite an idealist. My ideals were outdated, though, as are yours. This is life now, Jonas. This is the way things are. We can’t have people like your Greenes running wild, starting a brand-new doomed civilization just like the one we’ve worked so hard to dismantle.”

My heart sank. “Can’t you just leave them alone? They aren’t hurting anyone. They’re wonderful people. Please don’t kill them.”

“I have no doubt they are wonderful people,” said Sutherland. “That’s beside the point. And they aren’t going to be killed. Things aren’t as dire as all that. We’ll just buy up their land, and force them and their kind into the cities. They’ll get with the program. They’re survivors. They know how to adapt.”

“You killed clones, on the farm. That seems pretty dire to me.”

“You’ll see,” he told me. “In time, you’ll come to understand.”

It angered me, being spoken to like a child. And yet… I believed him. I trusted him.

Why?

“I’m sure it’s been a while since you’ve had a restful night’s sleep,” he said. “Come on. I’ve got your room all ready. You can take a long, hot shower, change into something a lot less filthy, and I’ll have the chef cook you up something to eat. I’ve got this new robot chef, and he’s amazing. He’ll be in stores by Solstice of this year. One less tiresome task for people to perform.”

“Right,” I said. I wanted that shower. I wanted to stuff myself with food and sleep for twelve hours.

“Lead the way,” I told him.

43 YEARS LATER…

People used to have memories. They recalled, with fondness and sometimes sorrow, those past events that contributed to the totality of who they were.

I had memories, too, but half of them took place inside of a pod in a facility built to house cloned human test subjects. I didn’t remember playing with other children at school. I didn’t even remember going to school. I didn’t remember vacations and awkward flirting with girls.

What I did remember was watching content about all of those activities, and more. My memories were not my own—they belonged to other people. Fictional people, in most cases.

Upon graduating from slave to master, my memories expanded to include real places, people and events, but apart from the time I spent with the Greenes, they were just as artificial and meaningless as those I’d experienced prior.

I played golf with royalty on vast, deserted courses. I climbed mountains. I skied. I hunted big game on Safari in Africa. I slept with thousands of rich, stupid women. I did whatever I wanted to do, because no limitations were ever placed upon me.

I never stopped thinking about the Greenes, though, and what they’d done for me. I never stopped thinking about how I’d betrayed them.

Oh, sure, it hadn’t been me who’d forced them to abandon their vibrant, fulfilling lifestyle for one filled with false memories, but I did nothing to stop it.

For years, I convinced myself that when Sutherland handed me the reins, I would undo all of the damage he’d done.

Gradually, though, I became Sutherland, and by the time control of the company was relinquished to me, I was the one doing the damage.

I watched my clone, Jet, grow up on the farm. I tried as best I could to steer him towards interests that would help equip him to survive when he eventually escaped. I made life for him much more difficult than Joe had made it for me, because I knew he’d have to be tough to make it on the outside without the kind of help I’d found in the Greenes.

The Greenes.

Dallas was imprisoned at age twenty-six for problematic conduct. Just prior to his release five years later, Sam died, and Carolyn fell into a deep depression.

She signed up for a Megaverse account, and spent her remaining years doped up on Melly and pretending to be someone else.

It crushed me, watching her give up on life like that. The world that some past version of me had a hand in creating regarded her as a number, and treated her as such. Nobody but me knew who she was. Nobody else cared.

I’m not sure she ever found out about Dallas committing suicide after enduring five years of mental reconditioning. I hope she didn’t. I also hope she didn’t know I was watching and never intervened.

It wasn’t that I didn’t desperately want to step in and save them—I just couldn’t. Matter of principle, you see. Things were as they needed to be, and in order to keep them that way, I had to maintain my integrity. I couldn’t make exceptions for people simply because I liked them. 

I still hated myself for it, though, and now that my own son stood at my doorstep, looking for vengeance and answers, I found myself hoping he’d be the one to finally bring an end to the madness that was this entire process. If he killed me, the heavy burden I’d carried for over four decades would finally be lifted. I desperately hoped I’d managed to imbue him with the courage and strength of character I lacked at his age.

I was both pleased and surprised by his arrival, as I’d been unable to determine his location for several months and had feared the worst.

I descended the stairs just as my predecessor had, and offered him a drink. He was clean, well-groomed and dressed in nice, new clothes. That’d never happened before.

Where have you been hiding?

He looked me up and down, his utter disgust for me plain as day. 

“Are you Jonas Sutherland?” he demanded.

“Yes,” I answered, and I watched as his eyes filled with a mixture of equal parts wrath and sorrow. “Your father.”

He reacted much differently than I did to this very same bit of news. He showed no surprise whatsoever.

He knows. He knows everything, already. How?

He listened, stone-faced, as I delivered more or less the same speech I’d been indoctrinated with a lifetime ago.

“Well?” I asked. “What say you?”

He stared at me with stoic intensity, and there were no signs of any cracks in his resolve. I hadn’t convinced him.

Maybe it’s because I’m not convinced, myself.

“No,” he said.

My eyebrows shot up. “No? You’re not even going to take any time to think about it?”

He shook his head. “No. I don’t want any part of this. I want a life of my own. A normal life. I don’t accept that what you’re offering is my only choice.”

“Ah, but it is,” I reminded him. “Technically, I own you.”

He laughed and moved in closer to me, pressing his chest against mine and invading my soul with a fiery, penetrating glare. “Let’s get one thing straight, you old bastard. No man owns me. I don’t want anything to do with you. You’re sick. You’re evil.

“I’m you.”

He nodded. “In appearance, certainly. In spirit, we are polar opposites.”

“You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you?” I asked. “You desperately try to believe that’s true, that the things you hate most about me aren’t lurking somewhere deep within your psyche.“

“Maybe so,” he replied, “but I’m not you, any more than you were the last guy.”

“But I was the last guy,” I argued. “I just thought I wasn’t. I was young and naive, just like you. Idealistic.”

“I should kill you,” he spat.

“I wish you would.”

“What?”

“I shaped you into a killer,” I told him. “From the violent, antisocial content I steered you towards, to your diet, your restrictions, your medications… everything about you. I was in control.”

“Maybe so, but you’re not in control anymore,” he said. “And I choose to walk away. I won’t let you use me to commit suicide. I’m not your puppet any longer. I don’t have to accept either choice you’ve presented to me. If you weren’t such a coward you’d do it yourself, anyway.”

He turned his back to me.

“What makes you think I won’t have you captured?” I asked him.

“You won’t,” he said. With that, he walked out the front door and into the sunlit world of his unwritten future.

That had certainly never happened before.

“You’re right,” I breathed, a tear breaking its Melioxetine chains and escaping down my cheek

“You’re right.”

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