Spoken-Word Audio - VS
She stared at him a long moment, recognizing him as the old homeless-seeming man from the park, the one discussing her with Mr. Oddjobb. She thought of him as the pigeon man. She wanted to trust him, see him as an ally, and everything about him appealed to her, especially after the things she had just witnessed, experienced. Despite her trembling hands and the cold little feet running up and down her spine, she nodded, calmly, and advanced through her Inner Sanctum and joined him on the couch. She glanced at the coffee table, seeing again the falling of her crystal sandbox, the whole world inside destroyed.
Seven produced her favorite coffee mix in her favorite mug, and she sipped the warm, comforting brew, and glanced briefly at the old man.
“Can I get you anything?” she said, as lightly as possible, as if he had just stopped in to pass pleasantries.
“Oh, yes, but thank you, hmmm,” he said in his kindly, grandfatherly voice, tones gently warm, friendly. “Maybe a spot of, I don’t know, breakfast tea?”
A fragile cup and saucer appeared at the edge of the coffee table, with a full tea set upon a silver tray.
Seven set her cup on the coffee table, picked up the ceramic teapot, and poured for him.
“Cream, sugar, lemon?” she said.
“One sugar, please, and just a touch of cream, thank you,” he said, turning slightly on the couch, drawing up a leg partially, sitting half-facing her, placing a long arm on the back of the couch so that it seemed she was at least somewhat in his circle.
It sounded to Seven as if he had just a whisper of a brogue, slight Scots, or maybe Irish, the accent a little too faint to distinguish.
“I am sorry,” he gently murmured, “about your…troubles; I wish to apologize, although I do understand there is nothing I can really say.”
Nothing I can say about your devastation, loss, tragedy, terror.
“You didn’t do it,” she said, handing him the cup and saucer. “Did you?”
“Oh no,” he said, accepting the tea, sipping at it. “Very good, thank you,” he said, nodding at his cup. “But that? Well, that was far, far above me, but I doubt you need to worry about anything like that happening again, at least not in the foreseeable future. There were, let’s see, complications that no one had foreseen.”
She sipped at her mug, not looking at him, still perching only on the very edge of the couch, leaning above the coffee table. Inadvertently, her free hand strayed to her chest, just at about her heart, her palm reassured by the pressure of the locket beneath.
“How is it...that you are...here?” she asked, glancing at him through the steam of her mug.
“I think you might best understand my presence as, administrative privileges,” he rumbled, his voice going lower, as if he did not wish to be overheard. “Admin privileges that you now have. Going forward I wish you to have every advantage.”
She felt a pinch on her left arm, a little lower than her shoulder, and a burning sensation. She set down her mug and massaged the place on her arm that still throbbed a bit.
“Sorry, there is a little pain involved. Think of it as a vaccination,” he said, his eyes twinkling.
“Vaccination,” she said with a small laugh, “you mean like from the study worlds?”
“Yes, something like that,” he said, nodding, sipping at his tea.
“Am I in trouble?” she asked, huddling down inside herself. She felt like a little girl sent to see the principal.
“No, not in the least,” he said. “In fact, I can assure you somewhat with the hint that you do have some friends in very high places. They were not happy with your treatment. The intrusion.”
Seven almost snorted. Friends? Her? That was almost funny, if it wasn’t so sad. For she had no connections, not in RL, and especially not here at Vestigial Surreality. It was almost a miracle that she had even made it into this program.
He called up a window and turned it so that she could see it fully. It was an outside view of a vast building complex, the large glowing red VS logo prominent.
“You are a very special Voyager, Sandy,” he said. “May I call you Sandy?”
She automatically began to nod but then stopped herself. She set her mug on the coffee table and then pushed deeper into the couch, but backward, away from him, at least fractionally.
“I prefer Seven,” she stated, with conviction.
“Fine,” he nodded. “Seven. We have experimented with a variety of Voyagers at VS. Men, women, even children, and thus far you are our only candidate that has accepted the program, naturally. I believe you have met Toby?”
She shook her head, slowly.
“You would know him as Number Six?”
“Oh, yes, briefly, we met in the common area,” she said, thinking of the stringy young man who was almost terminally cold. He had barely managed to speak through chattering teeth.
“Until you, he was our most promising candidate, in fact he is the most veteran in the program, but in less than a year of immersion he has almost completely rejected RL in favor of VR.”
The acronyms RL and VR were so prevalent in society as to not even require definition, as people thought of RL—Real Life—as the other place. VR, Virtual Reality was the common ground of society. Almost all aspects of RL occurred in VR. Nearly all retail workers accessed RL from home. Office workers, all levels of students in the educational system, even tourism, everyone experienced RL through the portal of VR.
“Number Six has maintained a certain level of personality integrity. True, he has a certain predilection for the Mermaid Cove add-on, but he has wonderful focus, far beyond the average person’s ability to concentrate. In some ways he is very much like you.”
In the window a smiling young man appeared, with lots of blond hair.
Seven barely recognized crewcut Number Six. It took her a moment, because the handsome college guy in the window was beefy, filled out. He was whole. The guy she met in the kitchenette was a boiled-down version of the smiling, healthy guy. The guy on the screen was flush, whereas Number Six was all gristle.
“But the chamber is supposed to improve us, isn’t it? It’s supposed to align us, in every way, right?” she queried, folding her arms, clutching herself.
“Yes,” the old man said, closing the window. “It is. It does. Not only does the system filter every molecule of your being, but it also straightens out and configures every neuron, strengthening every neural pathway, and creates new and compressed connections, so that the human brain functions at a speed of perfection that previous technologies could only guess, or hint, even distantly hope. It works, it functions. Number Six has no disease, no neurological flaws, he can think and reason at a level no human previously has managed, far beyond Tesla or Einstein or Hawking.”
“But,” she prompted.
He smiled at her. “Yes, but. You would think that would be enough, wouldn’t you?”
“If I could improve my IQ even a little bit, I’d be delighted,” she replied.
“Yes, that’s what you would think. I would even imagine that Number Six was happy enough prior to becoming a Voyager. He had no great yearning for self-improvement. In his wildest dreams he probably never imagined desiring to become something else, to abandon RL for a dream,” he said, eyebrows lowering. Then he sighed, and leaned back into the couch.
“So what is happening to Number Six?” she said, almost wishing he would ignore the question.
“It is not exactly clear,” he said, contemplating, staring into space. “But it would appear he is attempting to transfer himself; perhaps not something he is contemplating consciously, but to me it seems he is attempting to…escape.”
“Escape? Escape from what?”
“I can’t say, precisely, but I think he is doing his best to escape…reality.”
Jack opened one eye. First, he stared at the sky. It was the most beautifully deep sky he had ever seen. Too deep. Too blue. Cerulean, was that it? Or indigo? No, it was a blue he had never seen in his life. The color filled him with emotion, but what exactly he…felt…he could not imagine, or even begin to express, but it was a deep and drowsy feeling, contentment. He was staring at peace; was blue the color of peace? Wasn’t that supposed to be green?
He opened his other eye and allowed himself to glance about. He was in soft grass, grass stalks taller than his reclining body. He was lying upon his back, in grass, staring up at the blue sky. And he felt good, he felt relaxed, and at peace.
Then he remembered, the tolling bell of the apocalypse, the darkness, the undulations of the ground tearing apart beneath him, the sky shattering into crystal shards above and about him.
Jack sat up. He was in tall grass, in what appeared to be a meadow, he could see rolling pastureland below him in a valley, and a tall forest of dark trees not too far away in the opposite direction. He looked down at himself and perceived that he was naked, just lying out here in the grass, without a stitch of clothing on his body.
I died, he thought, and felt horrible. What in the world, it all meant nothing, it was over, he was dead, and now here he was in heaven, naked in paradise.
What happened to Stacey? Looking about he saw that he was alone, in a too perfect meadow of tall grasses waving in a slight breeze. Where was Stacey? And Michael, and Joshua?
The air was pure, clean, and taking deep breaths he acknowledged it was the best air he had ever breathed, he could feel it inflating his lungs, coursing through his blood. This had to be heaven!
Where were all the dead relatives? Where was his father? Weren’t they supposed to meet him? He didn’t see any angels winging through the beautiful sky. He couldn’t hear any harp music.
Jack pushed himself into a kneeling posture. He moved his hands through the grass. This was grass as he had never seen or touched. He could smell it, and it felt like velvet, and without thinking he grasped a handful of stalks and pulled it up toward his face. The grass came away with hardly a tug, and he lifted the grass to his face and buried his nose in it, smelling the clean, minty…fragrance…yes, fragrance, it reminded him of incense, but not cloying, a green taste but with a touch of lemon, like expensive tea, but not at all refined or processed. Without even considering, he bit some of the grass in his hand and chewed it into his mouth. It tasted good, not exactly like mint, and not really like lemongrass, but it tasted good, and he found himself chewing the grass, eating the whole handful, swallowing it, and it was like eating salad, and the truth was he didn’t like salad, not really, but this stuff, this grass, he could eat it. He seized another handful and proceeded to chew on this as well.
He heard birds singing, but not the bird songs he had ever heard before. Still chewing the grass stalks, he half stood, rising above the field of grass. He glanced nervously about, not wanting to stand up naked in some farmer’s field. But it was a vast valley with no sign of human disturbance of any kind.
His body seemed different, tight and well-muscled, not big muscles, true, but certainly more musculature than he had ever developed—when he was alive. He had always been more of a runner, lean, with no muscle definition, but now he flexed his calves and they felt strong, good, and he actually had some visible biceps!
Was he really in heaven? Was he actually dead? He did not feel dead. He felt vibrantly alive, bursting, he was half ready to start running in circles, screaming and laughing and yelling, and perhaps even crying, but he did not feel sad, not at all, he just felt—glowing, electric, shining with light and sparks of energy.
He noticed a lone tree standing a short distance away and he walked toward it, taking huge intakes of breath, expanding his chest until it was huge. What a thing to get excited about, air, but it felt wonderful to take deep breaths of this clean air, making him almost dizzy with its fullness. It was almost as if all his life he had never noticed air before, because it had been set to only half, whereas what he breathed now was on full, and it was remarkable. As he moved toward the tree he noticed big lumps hanging off the branches, some kind of fruit; the tree was full of the things, great lumpy things like pears, or maybe mangoes, but really, not much like either.
If he were dead, then this certainly was not a bad place to find himself, feeling good, healthy, stronger than he had ever felt in his life.
Just at the edge of the reach of the tree branches he paused, noticing the leaves, they were a darker green than the grasses, which were almost a lime color, and these leaves were dark green, with halo patterns of deepest blue radiating from the slender limbs. You couldn’t call the leaves turquoise, but there was a certain turquoise glow to the leaves, almost if you could just perceive an aura about them.
He took a piece of fruit in his hand and tugged. The fruit came away from the tree easily. It was hefty in his hand. He poked the skin with a finger, he squeezed it beneath his fingers, and it definitely felt ripe. But what if it was poisonous? Come on, poisonous fruit in heaven? He sniffed it, and it distinctly smelled green, but more than that it smelled alive. He held it to his mouth and extended his teeth upon it, nipping off just a bit of the skin, and chewed it. Immediately, even the slight taste of the skin, and he knew it was good, clean fruit, the skin was a tad sour, but tangy, kind of like a pear, but more like an apple, at least in texture. He took a bite, and oh, but it was good, it filled his mouth with sensation, rich, sour, but very sweet, it made him wince a bit like when biting into a dill pickle, but it was more full than that, swirls of sugariness but a hint of bitter, it reminded him somewhat of coffee, it reminded him of mango, but more than any of these other impressions was that it was good, so good, as unique a taste as banana. He liked it, a lot. He could probably live off the grass and fruit, if he needed to!
Far away he noticed the grasses moving. Something was coming this way. He could see a path forming, like an invisible finger drawing an undulating line toward him. Something very small was coming through the grass, going back and forth, something was searching, coming forward at a relaxed pace, and Jack inhaled, his face breaking into a full smile, because he often thought that when he found himself in heaven, the first thing to greet him would be his dog, Lady, from when he was a little boy, the border collie had been his best friend, his confidant, his protector, his constant companion, and when he was seven years of age the dog had died, and Jack had always remembered Lady, and whenever the dog crossed his mind his eyes would mist with tears, and his throat would thicken, and of course at seventeen years of age he would not weep for Lady, not any longer, as were the bitter tears of boyhood, but it was always close, the sadness, Lady’s absence in his life, and now, he was certain of it, Lady was coming to meet him, Lady was searching for him.
“Lady!” Jack called, taking several steps away from the tree, dropping his half-eaten fruit, forgetting it, “Lady! Come here, Lady, it’s me! It’s me!”
The progress of the thing making its way through the grass paused as Jack called out to it, and he clapped his hands, calling louder, and then it was coming much quicker, streaking through the grasses as Jack imagined his beloved little Lady breaking into a run, charging toward him, and soon she would be up in his arms, licking him, and Jack was laughing, taking big strides toward the edge of the taller grasses where Lady would emerge.
Jack’s eyes filled with tears, yes, this was it, this was good, this was heaven, and Lady was his first greeter.
And Lady burst from the tall grasses, dark and long, but she strangely kept emerging, and kept emerging, it was not a dog, but the head and quickly appearing body of a vast serpent, an impossibly huge snake, and it slithered directly toward Jack, its monstrous triangular head twice the dimensions of his beloved dog’s entire body.
Jack’s happy laughter gargled in his throat and immediately transformed into a scream as naked Jack turned and ran, screaming, the snake moving way, way too fast, and Jack knew with grave certainty he could not run as fast as that thing of horror moved.
Jack ran in an all-out pelt toward the treeline of the forest, it looked to be about two hundred yards away, and he ran with all his runner’s knowledge and experience, he knew how to run, and he headed into that two-hundred-yard race as if he were going all-out in a fifty-yard dash, there was absolutely no way he could keep this pace for long, but glancing back over his shoulder he witnessed the snake slithering about the fruit tree at which Jack had just stood five seconds before and it was coming on impossibly fast.
Jack grimaced and ran, his new muscles responding perfectly, and he dashed through his new-found heaven with a snake behind him that would make an anaconda look wimpy.
Stacey came to his knees, breathing hard, staring about himself wildly. What the hell, was his first thought, as he half stood, immediately noticing his nakedness. He crouched in the grass, his hands up, ready for defense. Okay, I know this isn’t heaven, was his second thought as he studied the forest above, the meadow below. He stood and strode to the tree with the low-hanging fruit. He snatched one of the ponderous teardrop shaped fruits and bit into it, oh wow, good stuff, Maynard.
He chewed on the fruit and half-closed his eyes with pleasure, yes, that was good, and so was the air. He glanced down at himself and spat out the fruit, coughing.
Because he was in perfect shape, jutting with muscles, and good night, he even had abs, jutting muscles like turtles poking through the skin of his belly. Come on, that’s just absurd, he thought, feeling his muscles. He felt powerful and alive and strong.
He felt his left eye. The eye was perfectly whole and healthy. There was absolutely no soreness in his body. He flexed his hands into fists. Yes, they were his hands, as he always remembered them, but now it felt as if he clenched atom bombs in his fists. Even in his best shape, when he trained every day and took a serious fight once a month, he had never been this strong, this hale. He felt the energy bubbling through his body.
Forget mortal men, bring me giants!
Stacey threw back his head and roared. Ah, but he was alive. He was fully alive, and powerful. He shook his head and blinked his eyes rapidly, he just had to calm down. He remembered the world crashing down about his body, and diving toward the portal, the world ending, the terrible crashing and smashing of the apocalypse…
They went through the door, from one world into another.
“Jack!” Stacey boomed. “Michael! Joshua!”
His eyes caught movement in the taller grasses, something was coming this way, and coming fast. Possibly a jack rabbit, but more likely a very large dog, something attracted by his hollering. Stacey began jogging toward the line of grasses where the shorter grass ended and the taller stalks began, it was about right there, that’s where, whatever it was, would emerge.
Stacey braced himself. He remembered pondering heaven, when he was a boy, and thinking that when he got to heaven the first person he met would not be a person, so to speak, but his childhood dog, Lady, the beautiful tricolor collie that had been his best friend and boon companion. What if it was Lady, rushing through the grass to meet him?
Somehow, he didn’t think it was Lady. More like a big, ugly boar with razor tusks erupting from its cartoon face.
He tensed his muscles, half-crouching, leaving about fifty feet between him and the place it would emerge. His eyebrows came down low over his eyes and he put up his hands in the classic boxer’s stance. He was ready, he was ready for anything that appeared.
When the snake’s monstrous snout erupted from the grasses, Stacey woofed a gulp of air and turned and ran, dashing for the fruit tree, which was the only close obstacle to put between himself and the monster serpent.
He threw himself at the tree, his hands clutching its trunk, and he spun himself about, placing the tree between him and the snake. The nightmare thing came skimming across the grass, surreal and blazingly fast. Stacey danced at the tree, going from one foot to the other as the snake came on.
“Don’t let it bite you, and don’t let it squeeze you,” he told himself, peering around one side of the tree, then shooting his head to the other side as the snake came on. “Oh, this is gonna hurt.”
Stacey put out his body from the left side of the tree trunk. The trunk was about as thick as his own body, and the lowest branches were only inches from his head. He could climb it, easily, but he doubted that a serpent of this side would have much trouble getting him no matter how high he climbed. He jumped over to the right side of the tree and saw the rushing snake react to his change of position. It distinctly came right at him.
In moments the snake was there and it struck at Stacey but he spun about the tree trunk, allowing the snake’s strike to just miss him, and he seized its speeding body around the other side of the tree and heaved it up, but found its body so heavy that even with all his newly tuned and large muscles he could only manage to lift it a couple of inches from the ground, and he dropped it as its head came about the tree to take a second strike at him. Stacey shouted as he felt the wind of its passing, and he leaped over its body and ran around the tree, and the snake pursued him, moving faster than he could move, but due to its great length it kept overshooting him as he maintained his hold upon the tree trunk and spun himself away from the mouth of the great serpent.
In real terror Stacey sped his body away from the snake’s mouth, and it kept striking at him, hissing, and its hiss was so loud it hurt his ears.
“Stupid snake!” he screamed, continuing his clockwise race about the tree trunk, jumping and leaping as it repeatedly struck at him. He had no illusions about getting it tangled or knotted in the tree by any means, at this point he was a mouse fleeing a boa constrictor, and he concentrated on leaping its ever moving body and dodging the wicked fangs he saw as a flash every time it attempted to bite him. It had pursued him four times around the tree and although its body ever undulated forward he had not caught sight of the end of the snake, its tail was still back in the tall grasses, its body ever moving forward, flexing and breathing and heaving. How long could a snake be, anyway? He dodged again and the snake’s head clipped him on the shoulder as it passed. Yes, he had eluded the fangs again, but the head, much larger than a bull’s head, knocked him to the ground.
Stacey tumbled, end over end, and though he was knocked a little senseless, he still had the presence of mind to roll away from the next strike, which plowed the ground at the base of the tree. Then Stacey roared and rolled back toward the snake and seized its huge body just beneath its head, and as it reared up and back, it drew him from the ground, snatched him from the ground, lifting him into the air and then they tangled back down, into the ground, Stacey never relinquishing his hold. The snake thrashed in his embrace. He wrapped his legs about the snake and gripped just under its jaws just the way he had seen on television programs, except he had never seen a snake even imagined this large, such a thing was beyond comprehension.
His hands were big but even together his fingers couldn’t go all the way around its neck.
He only knew, no matter how the monster thrashed and writhed, that he had better not let go.
© Copyright 2016 Douglas Christian Larsen. Vestigial Surreality. All Rights Reserved by the Author, Douglas Christian Larsen. No part of this serial fiction may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited, but please feel free to share the story with anyone, only not for sale or resale. This work is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental (wink, wink).
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