An Alternative History

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

The moment the sun set, I found myself shivering. One would think walking one foot in front of the other wouldn’t be a tedious exercise. However, miles had passed, and the sun had assigned itself the role of killer. Even Lilith sweat. But unlike her, I didn’t do in a way that looked warrior-esque. My drenched body appeared more like a wet dog. How long could I blame her being a Child of Nostradamus for the grace in which she endured?

“Here,” she pointed to an empty farmhouse. We had passed dozens up to this point, each of them crumbling as weather beat against their roofs. Lilith had made this trek before, and I wondered if this was the place she stayed each time before.

“Why here?”

“I’ll show you. Follow my exact footsteps.”

She pointed at her tracks as we ventured toward the building. I kept my feet within her prints. The grass had grown tall, but not so tall we couldn’t pass through. Instead, she required me to walk the long way around the farmhouse, until we reached the storm doors leading to the cellar. Like everything else in the wasteland, it speckled them with rust, under-used and barely holding themselves together.

“Doesn’t this violate your one point of egress rule?”

Lilith had many survival rules. Some she kept to herself, but I had started a list of the ones I observed. She kept her back to the wall, made sure she had the ability to see in every direction, and she always made sure there were multiple exits. At some point, I should compile the list. Always the academic, if it was in writing, I could study, memorize, and make use of the information.

Pulling at the doors, it surprised me they didn’t groan in response. We descended into the basement under the mammoth farm house. Lilith pushed at the rickety wooden door, and it opened into a compact room. I strained my eyes, trying to see into the shadows. Then, a red light shone brightly enough I had to squint.

“What the hell?”

The tiny room appeared vacant, except for the hand print authentication pad. Lilith pressed her fingers into the pad. The red light filled the space again, pausing for a moment over her eyes and then proceeding. From the outside, it looked as if the building might fall in upon itself, but whatever lay beyond this door was at least a century newer.

“I told you I had a plan.”

“What is this?”

Hissing filled the air, gears and locks spun, and the far wall opened. I hadn’t even noticed the seams. First sliding back and then to the side, lights flickered to life inside the space under the farm house. Lilith walked in. I shouldn’t be surprised, littered amongst the many secrets, this was just another part of being a rogue Child of Nostradamus.

“We have supply bunkers throughout the area. Most have been deserted for years, but we keep them stocked for just this reason.”

“But no cars?”

“Easier to track a moving vehicle. I don’t particularly care for the trek, but this should at least make it easier for us.”

Lilith ushered me in and then went for the door. “Only runners can open the door. I will go cover our tracks. Give me a couple hours to put a decoy trail in place and I’ll be back. You’ll get an alert, if anybody other than me is standing at that door when it opens, kill them.”

“With my bare hands?”

“Plasma rifles are in the trunk over there.”

It wasn’t the fact we were hiding in a room stockpiled with weapons. No, I expected that from Lilith, but the manner in which she said it. The tone of her voice would be how I’d mention there was an extra beer in the fridge for a guest. Sure, just help yourself to a weapon that can obliterate a human. Would you like a coaster with that?

The door sealed in place. Not locked, but sealed. The seams around the edges vanished, and it was no different than if it were part of the wall. I ran my hand along the surface, nothing. I had never seen technology like this before. Did the Children in Troy have access to equipment light years beyond the rest of society? If that were the case, I can understand why they stood as a nation amongst themselves.

Inventory time.

The room stretched the length of the farm house. One wall held massive industrial sheds with military looking footlockers while the other had cots and tables. I flipped open the first trunk, expecting to find hi-tech weapons, but inside housed rows of cans and plastic packaged meals. Further down were large tanks of half-filled water. There were changes of clothes, jackets ranging from spring to winter and even a section filled with lightly used shoes.

The first section held rational supplies, things any person journeying on foot might need. But after that, in a gap between the shelves, pins on the wall held a variety of knives. I had a sneaking suspicion this is where the weapons started to appear. Peaking into the first footlocker, rows of hand guns sat next to multiple boxes of ammunition. The next held bigger guns, I’m not even sure what to call them. The last box was nothing but grenades.

“What have I gotten myself into?”

Going through them again, I noticed there were rations missing, and the water tanks had been depleted. People had been here since the restock, but the weapons had gone untouched. Did Children rely solely on their own abilities, or were runners less likely to take supplies that might weigh them down? I decided a handgun was as powerful as I could manage.

I took a magazine from the box, a handful of bullets and one of the guns. It took a moment to figure out logically which direction the bullets should go into the magazine. Then only a few more minutes before I got it in the gun. I knew there was another action, something that I needed to do to prep the round. Pulling back the top part, a bullet loaded into the bullet hole.

Mental note, research guns.

Once I was ready to lose a gunfight, it came down to a change of clothes. A shower in the back corner only had a few minutes of water, but it was enough to wash away the soot and grime of the day. More than that, I hoped the shower served its original purpose and washed away the radioactive particles. The media had ensured that the wasteland was deadly to humans. I prayed that Lilith had thought about that before we ventured across the border.

Nourishment. I tore open the plastic of one meal and found inside all the ingredients for a meal. A small tin can with matches suggested I should heat it, but I didn’t dare start a fire in a room I couldn’t escape. I dined on cold meat sludge. It tasted disgusting. I had never experienced a tepid ice cream before. Truth be told, I hardly remembered what it tasted like at all. But as I chomped away the first bite, memories of my childhood came back to me. Father enjoyed his secret treats and now and then, he’d bring one back for me to greedily slurp down. I finished the first pack and decided if this was my only meal for a while, I wouldn’t hesitate on a second.

As I fished around, there were bags of dried vegetables and cans with pictures of animals on it. I didn’t dare check the dates. Had they been there for long? Were they meant to last forever? If they were, what chemicals could they have possibly pumped into the food?

“Finally,” I pulled out bags of sealed hygiene products. Remember when I said tampons were a godsend? A woman must have stocked this safe house. There were soaps and washes, and I almost wished I had found them before showering. I stole a handful of each, shoving them into my bag. I added a few plastic bags of meals and even if we didn’t find another place to rest, I’d be prepared.

Before settling in, I stopped at the knives. Lilith had assured me she’d train me to fight, or at least to be less useless. It only reasoned that I should have something to train with. In a wild land, I imagined military weapons, guns, rockets, maybe some lasers. But so far, her knife had been the most useful tool in her arsenal. I scanned them, looking for something similar. None had the atom thin edge, but several were close. Pulling it from the peg, I inspected the blade, aware of the weight. I didn’t know an excellent knife from a bad one, but the handle fit comfortably in my hand. I slid the holster into my boot and carefully hid the blade.

Sitting on a cot on the far wall, I rummaged through the bottom of my bag, pulling out Pill-R’s data pad. I flipped it and started rummaging through the files. After being a Child of Nostradamus in the phantasm, this two-dimensional searching lacked the same sense of wonder. I reached into the bag and pulled out the goggles, wondering if there was a way to access the data in virtual reality.

“It’s worth a shot.”

I slid them over my eyes. Either because of the basement walls or maybe some hidden security, there was no connection to the outside world. Poking in the air, I navigated the menu until I found an available source of data. I didn’t know if they were compatible. Typically this method accessed downloaded simulations, but it was worth a try. A hacker, I am not.

The goggles attempted to establish a connection. Three dots appeared, the color slowly changing from red to black. It took a moment, but all three blinked green. I disconnected the audio and made sure the pistol was within reach. From here, I could jack into a remote version of the Phantasm and still have access to my senses.

The lobby appeared as a circular room. Transparent screens hung in the air, spinning slowly about, putting files on display. From here I could conjure a variety of small locally stored scenarios, but sitting in an old study with a fire burning as I sorted files felt overkill. There were thousands upon thousands of files. The file structure made little sense. Either the goggles or the creators had been sloppy. I reached out, touching the transparent windows. Newspapers, videos, and photographs filled the screens. Dates, timestamps, the data reconstructionist who cataloged the information was available on every article.

I laughed when I came across one of my own. “Actor Becomes Governor of California.” I laughed at the trivial nature of the information I first recorded when I joined the agency. They gave me trash tabloids, rag magazines, and copious amounts of information unworthy for consumption, and certainly not worthy of recording a second time. But I did my job, and I did it well.

“Children of Nostradamus.”

The three dots appeared, hovering in the air as the goggles synched with the data pad. I didn’t know how much information was on the device. How much fit had surprised even Pill-R.

All the screens blinked at once. There were still thousands of files, but the ones closest to me contained photographs. I knew the Children of Nostradamus were impressive, but I hadn’t been prepared for this.

“Amazing,” I whispered.

There were photographs of city officials shaking hands with Children and even members of the church listening intently as a Child provided a sermon. Somewhere between the rise of powered people and today, they lost their luster. But housed in these files were bits of information that explained why they had become like deities to modern man.

As I spun through the screens, I’d freeze to admire a photograph. There was only one image I wanted to uncover. The hawk, a circular bird nearly biting its tail. I brushed away all the screens when I saw it appear on the far wall of the lobby. Grabbing at the air and pulling it toward me, the single file filled my screen.

“The Nighthawks.”

Something about this band of Children captivated my attention. They had spawned the inspiration for this journey and now I owed it to the historian in me to learn all I could. Tapping the screen, it opened. Inside were the entries of Sean Carlson, artwork commissioned to show the emotion and power behind each of this group’s members.

I scrolled through the images until I saw the man with his lightning. Bald and without eyebrows, he appeared almost inhuman. He wielded lightning as if it was part of nature. I tapped the screen, recalling the destructive way he tackled the synthetics in the simulation. On some level, I envied the man, the confident way he thrust himself into danger. I needed to know more.

I opened his file and delved into the history of the Nighthawks…

Wearing the Skin of a Child

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

Tampons. I know historians reading this journal will think, “Why does she feel the need to discuss hygiene products?” But let’s be honest, nobody discusses the minutia when on the run. The shower worked, even if the water ran a delightful red color from the rust. But the real score had been tampons. Going on the run might be fighting for survival from killer robots or breaking into uncharted lands, but the actual struggles are in the details.

At no point in my brilliant plan did I think I’d be standing naked in the bathroom, trying to figure out how to clog the sink so I could wash my underwear and bra. I considered it a victory that I washed my hair, but at the rate we were going, my afro would be start getting twisted and turn to dreadlocks before this adventure had ended.

I found myself lucky to see the woman of the house had a full-stocked closet. The fashion wasn’t my taste, but let’s discuss my excitement to find out she must have been a woman insistent on working out. Here I am combing through a woman’s underwear drawer, delighted to find a bra that can manage my chest. Right now, I had to focus on the victories or I might lose my mind. Band t-shirt, sure, pair of musty leggings, I’ll take them. Hell, even century old sneakers were looking good at this point.

When in a wasteland, it’s the minor things that matter. Tampons and bras. It might as well have been my birthday.

Lilith insisted I remain on the ground floor in case we had to run. She refused to let me be one of those women who found themselves trapped upstairs as a killer stalked their prey. I had pulled the cushions off the couch onto the floor. I got comfortable as I pulled the goggles from my backpack.

The moment I tapped the side of the goggles, they did their thing and the real world grew distant. I stood in a room filled with floating menus. I hadn’t expected to be put into the menu selection room. Each time I had used the Phantasm before, it thrust me into a virtual world of its choosing. I wondered if the person behind those screens had vanished.

Each set of goggles came loaded with a custom set of experiences. The more expensive goggles had the ability to contact the server and pull from thousands of experiences. For a headset like this, there should be a couple dozen generic screens to choose from. It impressed me to find there were more than a hundred rotating on the screens.

Right now, I wanted something to distract me. While the Phantasm had the ability to put you somewhere peaceful, new locations a world away, it also came equipped with plenty of games for patrons to play. Right now, I wanted to be the one in charge, the powerful one. Scrolling through the game, I found a simulation of the Corps in battle. I figured why not learn how to fire a gun while saving the day? With a tap of the screen, the room fell alway.

Madison Walker, leader of a Corps special ops unit. The gun materialized in my hands, a standard issue pulse rifle. I reached down to my belt to find various grenades and additional clips of ammunition. My avatar had ocular enhancements, giving me readouts of the enemy in the distance. The scene looked very much like a war zone, buildings collapsing all around us. I couldn’t identify any of them, but I had a suspicion this was one a city within the Outlands.

“You need to stop them from acquiring central processing. It could be the last uncorrupted data storage unit in the world.”

I patted my chest, surprised I wasn’t wearing a standard issue uniform. More than that, my lower arms were encased in large metal bracelets. I found it surprising that in a generic simulation, I was anything but generic. After my last jaunt into the Phantasm, I had a suspicion that something about this was unusual.

“I’m on it.”

I charged through the street of broken rubble. The map in my left eye had a path laid out, taking me down the street. Once I reached the intersection, I found myself behind two synthetics with weapons in hand. This is what I wanted. Blowing apart metal robots was the experience I wanted.

I inspected the weapon in my hand. The implant displayed the weapon, standard issue, explosive rounds, short rapid bursts. I had never used a gun like this before, but I looked forward to learning how to wield the weapon.

I raised the gun, bracing it against my shoulder. The simulation helped course correct, making sure I tucked it tight and leaning my head in for me. The program’s suggestions almost felt like a somebody stood behind me, correcting my bad posture. Ocular enhancements locked in on the synthetics, displaying their model numbers and showing me the weapons at their disposal. I always believed the robots had a lengthy list of supplies, lasers, cannons, and who knows what else. The fact they only had guns, shoulder mounted lasers and forearm weapons struck me as odd.

I eased my finger back on the trigger. Three shots fired. The first struck the robot in the shoulder, tearing away the metal. The second struck its neck, obliterating the structure holding its head. My last shot flew off, missing the mark. The weapon shook my entire body.

Its companion turned, lifting its gun. I pulled the trigger again, trying to beat it to the punch. All three shots struck its torso. Tiny explosions erupted as the bullets penetrated the metal, striking the power core. The ocular enhancement marked them both off with x’s, letting me know I had defeated them.

Something slammed into my back, throwing me against a smashed car. I hit the passenger door, surprised that the Phantasm tapped into the pain receptors. It hurt. Not as much as if it really happened, but enough that I knew there were consequences in this virtual space.

Metal scraped against the pavement, and I knew another one of the synthetics had snuck up behind me. I rolled over, raising the gun and firing before my enhancements locked on. Two synthetics, and my spray and pray only landed a shot on one of their arms. Three arms from synthetics were just as terrifying as four.

“We’re taking heavy fire. Be careful out there.”

“I’m almost there,” I shouted.

I steadied my weapon, holding my breath as I eased my finger over the trigger. Three bursts, then three more. They were only twenty feet away and I couldn’t land a shot without the air of my enhancement. Slow to lock on, I finally acquired the target. Pressing down on the trigger again, no vibration, no triple bursts.

“Dammit,” I said. I threw the gun to the side, inspecting my belt. I pulled one grenade. Pulled the pin, threw and prayed.

The grenade hit the ground just in front of the machines. I ducked down, plugging my ears as the asphalt erupted in a shower of rock. The two machines were scattered along the road. One continued crawling, dragging itself by its remaining arm. It wasn’t going to do any harm in its current state.

I pulled the pistol from my shoulder holster and continued running down the street. I had nine bullets, explosive rounds. It wasn’t much, but I hoped it’d be enough. I wondered if the simulation pulled the idea of the data storage from my mind, using that as the end game as it had been on my mind for days.

“You’re the closest to the target.”

“I’m on it.”

Synthetics crawled from behind cars, hiding, waiting for their prey. I ran close, skidding to a stop to raise my gun. Three shots and I downed another synthetic. If they had linked me to other people, if I’d have more members of the Corp with me or if there’d be more enemies. I could see a band of teenagers cleaning up in this simulation.

Riffle in hand, I gunned down three more synthetics before I reached the next intersection. I had a single bullet remaining and between me and the building containing the rally flag sat a large mech. I wasn’t military, and even I knew that a single bullet would do nothing to slow the machine.

Sitting on inverted legs, its arms were replaced with enormous guns with multiple barrels. It already detected me, pivoting to fire. I panicked, looking for cover to regroup and consider which grenade might do the most damage.

My arms were on fire, and I wanted to pull off the bracelets to itch at the skin. Seemless, neither bond had the ability to be pulled off. The skin underneath burned, and the pain reached my brain as if it were really happening. I tried to summon the exit menu to escape, but the goggles refused to initiate the termination protocols.

The mech’s guns spun, and at any moment, it’d begin firing. If I could feel the burning on my arm, I feared that I’d be capable of feeling the bullets as they tore through my flesh.

The pain spread along my skin, and I fell to my knees screaming. It consumed my entire body. My skin felt as if it were rippling, growing faster than my body could handle. I buckled over, too heavy to even stay upright on my knees. My limbs were sluggish, unable to move. My entire body felt like it were encased in concrete and I struggled to fight free.

The mech fired. The bullets spit up bits of road, growing closer and closer. I closed my eyes, prepared to scream. The bullets struck my shoulder, and the top of my head. I expected pain to scream as I found myself slaughtered in the simulation.

The bullets ricocheted off my body, striking a nearby car. They were no different from somebody poking me with their pointer finger. The bullets were a mild inconvenience, almost void of any pain. However, inside my body, I could feel something moving, growing. The weight of my limbs eased, and I found myself able to stand.

“What the hell?”

The bullets struck my chest, and I watched as the uniform tore apart. Had the simulation initiated some sort of safe mode? I jumped as two synthetics jumped from a nearby window. They struck the ground, not missing a beat as they powered toward me.

I couldn’t explain the sensation. Somewhere in the simulation, it provided me a sense of confidence, an almost uncanny power. I leaned forward and charged toward the two machines. The mech halted firing, waiting for its tiny breathren to terminate me.

They fired. The bullets did nothing. I grabbed the first one by the arm, spinning around, whipping it into its companion. The machines flew through the air as if they were rag dolls. Slamming into the building, they regrouped. The lasers on their shoulders flipped into action. Red beams struck my chest, and I hissed out loud. It didn’t hurt as much as it stung.

“I’m invulnerable.” I assumed the easy mode had been enacted. For those not capable of playing the game, it allowed them the ability to storm through the streets without consequence.

“Incoming,” a voice barked in my ear.

The light nearly blinded me. Something beat against the building behind the robots, breaking enormous chunks of concrete free. It was like watching lightning strike. It pounded against the building until rubble fell below, crushing the two synthetics. I looked for the source, still squinting.

“I’m tapped,” said the man, “it’s up to you.”

Steam rose off a shirtless man. Glancing back at the building, I expected him to have some sort of large weapon strapped to his shoulder. I stared, trying to make sense of what was happening. Then it dawned on me. He didn’t need a weapon.

He was the weapon.

I raised my hands, suddenly aware of why the pain had been distant at the start of the simulation. I wasn’t a member of the Corps, my avatar was a Child of Nostradamus. Naturally strong, I assumed the role of my avatar.

I had read the file. I knew the woman, the member of the Corps, with the ability to make her skin so dense she couldn’t be hurt. This wasn’t a random gaming simulation, I was reliving a piece of history. I owned the body of the legendary Child who worked for the government.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“It’s up to you,” he shouted.

I turned to the large mech, aware that there was nothing stopping me from reaching my goal. I ran into danger. The mech continued firing, the bullets doing nothing to slow my approach. As I reached it, I thrust my arms out, striking the leg. The mech stumbled backward, trying to get its footing. I no longer fought with human strength, I had been granted the limitations of a Child.

I reached for the foot and lifted. The mech was heavy, forcing a growl from my lips as I pulled up. It tried to shake me, but my fingers pressed into the metal, refusing to let go. It groaned as it lost its balance, falling onto its back.

I stepped between its flailing legs, reaching the undercarriage. Punching at the metal, it dented, then tore open. I peeled back its skin as if it were a ripped sheet of paper. Reaching in, I started pulling at its interior. Wires broke, and fluid sprayed across my face. With one last thrust, I disconnected something important, and the robot stopped moving.

“You’re almost there,” said the voice.

I climbed on top of the machine, turning around to see the man joined by two smaller women. I jumped down and ran into the building. The lone synthetic at the door tried to punch me in the face. I let it. Almost nothing, no pain, no reaction.

I grabbed it by the neck and chest. Stretching my arms apart, the synthetic tried to jab at me and then reach for its weapon. Its head pulled loose, flying onto the tile. The husk stopped moving, dead. I threw it toward the door and waited for my enhancement to tell me where to go.

A red flag blinked into existence, standing in the middle of the room. I sauntered closer, almost hoping there were more synthetics to tear apart. I took the flag, raising it high into the air.

“Simulation over.”

The game melted away, and I stood inside the Phantasm lobby. I inspected my hands, hoping I had the bracelets gripping my arms. Only my hands remained. I had stepped out of the Child’s avatar and returned to my own.

“What does it mean?” I asked.

Chicago’s Chronicle of Blood

I once asked my father where babies come from. It’s a question every kid asks, and for some reason, every parent lies. He responded with, “The stork of course.” Most kids would have accepted the answer and moved along, but I had more questions. How much weight could a stork carry? What if the child was large? Where was the magical land of pre-diapered babies that these birds stole? And how did the storks know which people wanted babies from? The response didn’t make sense, and I’ve never been one to accept the easy answer.

The Outlands.

I’ve been digging for more than a week, and so far my effort have been fruitless. How can this place only several hundred miles away exist but almost no documentation. The University has records about the Battle of Chicago, even about President Cecilia Joyce’s assassination, but nothing on this radioactive waste land. I’ve been given enough information that I should stop. But I need to know, where do storks get their babies from?

If the university library doesn’t have any answers, I only have a handful of options left. I can go back to the church and hope that the Valentine will speak with me. But knowing I will only ever see him once more, I don’t want to waste the encounter, not yet. I work at a data center, and there is a chance that we have something stored digitally, but but the files I want are beyond my clearance level. Seducing my boss isn’t exactly on my to do list, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it. He’s gross.

That leaves me with my father’s journals, hundreds of them. I appreciated that the image the Valentine conjured revealed some clues as to which. I knew the binding, and the color. My father had a weird habit of color coding his journals. I’m sure he had a reason, some sort of secret code I’ve yet to decipher, but I’ll take a small victory.

I did indeed find the correct journal, even the exact page shown in the vision. Was it a vision? Once this all gets sorted out, once I finish my thesis, I need to go back to visionary school for a refresher course. The entry spoke of the Outlands. My father’s searches weren’t a whole lot better than mine. He believed the government was redacting files to keep information about the Children and the Outlands from reaching the public. He had no idea why, especially with the church more than happy to spread gospel about the Children. In the margins he asked himself if he was missing something, some big picture mysteriousness. 

Only a few pages later, I found the spot where he vowed to enter the Outlands. That hurt more than I expected. He decided to pursue something, something he didn’t quite understand, and leave me behind. There’s some trauma that never truly heals, the wounds linger below the surface, ready to rear their ugly head. Apparently abandonment is mine.

I feel like a sheep admitting it, but I decided to have another go in the Phantasm. The idea of sitting by the lake and listening to the wind blow through the trees sounded majestic. People are starving, and here I am spending money on virtual reality like I’m made of money. I’m not sure if I could confess to Michael that I had a genuine desire to detach from the real world. He’d say good for me, but in that way that says he’s really judging you.

I didn’t know what I wanted to experience, so I asked the tech if I could browse the catalog of options. Here I am, prepared to dip my feet in a babbling brook and feel the sun beat down on my shoulders and I discover they have historical archives. There weren’t many options, and I could tell that many of them were liberal interpretations of historical events. As I scrolled through, I found myself faced with a conundrum, relax, or be the uptight workaholic Michael claimed. 

Battle of Chicago it was.

I had the option of being integrated into the scene as a civilian, a soldier, even a Child. I didn’t want to partake in the madness, I wanted to watch. A sniper was the best they could do. I was positioned in a building nearby with the ability to watch the conflict. The history books don’t speak of the specifics, instead falling back on general stats of soldiers lost and the damage to the synthetic army. Seeing the numbers gathered in the park, it was hard to believe a conflict this large had unfolded only blocks from my apartment.

I stood as a lone figure in my Corps uniform. Through the rifle’s scope, I could see a woman with her enhanced arm lifted in the air. My walkie talkie roared. She called for the soldiers to advance. It was a like waves of water barreling into one another. I have seen mechs up close and personal patrolling the streets, but seeing them in action, I couldn’t imagine how human soldiers could possibly stand against these juggernauts. 

I had to pull away from the scope as something on the battlefield flashed white. I thought it might be an explosive, but then one of the mechs fell backward. I had to squint, but the bursts of white came from a person on the front line of the Corps. It was a Child of Nostradamus, somebody who could wield lightning. He hurled it like a god. He was a god. I should have been firing, assisting in the battle, but the historian in me wanted to observe the display. I couldn’t tell who else might be a Child, only this one man showed power beyond my averageness.

The warning chime had signaled and I almost considered telling the operator to give me another hour in the Phantasm. I hadn’t brought enough money for more. It’s a good choice, if I had more, I’d have spent it. I started to understand how this virtual world could become addictive. I had no desire to speak to a man in France looking for me to take off my shirt, but this? Being part of one of the greatest moments in history? I would give up a day’s rations for this.

Then the man was there again. It was like before, he appeared just in the corner of my eye. I wasn’t sure I saw him. When I turned, he didn’t vanish like they do in the horror movies. The man’s avatar wasn’t one of those high quality custom jobs you can buy, a simple digitized human male. He didn’t come at me, or acknowledge my existence. He focused on the fighting down below with the same curiosity I had. This time I’d ask the operator how somebody was hijacking my feed, maybe if I was lucky they’d discount my visit. Had it been once, I could over look the intrusion, but for a second time, this man violated my space. I was about to question him when the simulation ended. I wanted answers, but the operator was convinced it was my mind being overwhelmed by the stimuli. 

Nope, no refund.

Peace & Quiet in the Phantasm

I have spent years scoffing at the idea of the Phantasm. Mankind is struggling to put food on their tables. People are being murdered in ghettos while gangs divide cities. Chicago police are renowned around the globe for not tolerating injustice within their borders. I’m lucky to live here, but the rest of the country doesn’t have that luxury. So while all of this is going wrong, Genesis Division, the largest conglomerate in the states spends their time investing in escapism instead of addressing real issues.

My thesis adviser caught me at school burning the midnight oil. He dropped a credit on my phone for the local Phantasm cafe. I argued with him and all I got was, “You need to get away from it for a bit. Go for a walk in the country.” I might have taken him too literally when I selected the Canadian wilderness.

There have been numerous studies regarding how the Phantasm pods circumvent the body’s senses. There are many places where people can congregate and interact with avatars from around the world. Home units are so common that the cafe pods are seen as a decadent item. I’m not a prude, but stripping down in a room with a technician watching left me uneasy. I laid down in the pod and the technician walked through the process and then initiated the simulation.

How do I describe it? I could taste a richness in the air, a mix of fresh air and moisture so thick each breath is like a drink of water. The tiny pebbles along the water are smoothed and massage the feet. Caribou are snacking just beyond the tree line, watching me with curiosity as I calibrate my virtual body. I want to touch the water, but the chill in the air assures me it would be even colder. An eagle dives along the lake catching a fish, and for a moment my brain tricks me into thinking I’m as free as the winged predator.

My brain knew I was in a metal coffin. Logic told me all of it was fake, a construct by a talented coder. However, my body didn’t care. Once I stopped trying to dissect the experience, I found myself surrounded by a beautiful landscape. I spent the hour walking along the lake, contemplating life. It might have been the first time in my life I didn’t feel the stress of success crushing me. I didn’t think about my dissertation once. Chicago was a world away.

A doorway appeared signaling my departure, and I’ll admit, my animosity toward the Phantasm was replaced with bit of empathy with the people seeking to escape. I paused to take one last glimpse of nature’s beauty. I could swear, a man stood at the water’s edge watching me. I asked the technician and he assured me as the mind detached from the simulation echoes of our memories could surface. He babbled something about neural something. It was only an hour, but I feel energized. I have some research to do, but I think I might have a grasp on this thesis. Now, back to work.