Seven, in the dark, listened intently. The deep booming knock that had brought her forth from the depths was now silent. She kept ordering herself to stop being a baby and just raise the lid; however, a terrifying thought kept the lid down. Vividly, she remembered the Martians, with their identical faces and athletic bodies, bulging eyes, eyes too large, lacking any real nose, the too sickly white skin. The thought of the Martians up there, in RL, just outside her chamber, well, it was too much. She felt overwhelmed, assaulted, powerless...until she remembered something else. Another thought, another memory.
She had not remembered that punch, the one she delivered, cocking back her fist and letting fly right into that Martian’s face, and how the ugly man flew backward as if kicked by a mule. Seven had done that. Something unlike any previous action in her entire life. She defended herself. And she was not powerless. So, what did that mean?
Seven was powerful.
The chamber lid lifted, and Seven swung her legs out over the edge of the chamber bed to sit. She listened, intently, and it was completely quiet, as always, her ears felt new and unused, and the dim lighting of the cubicle proved very strong to her newly opened eyes. She rarely considered the fact, but within her Inner Sanctum, she did not use her eyes, nor her hands. She lifted her hands before her eyes and formed fists.
You don’t mess with Seven.
She heard a repetitive noise, a stuttering, breathy cry. It sounded like the whimper of an animal, somewhere nearby. Her skin prickled with a wave of gooseflesh.
Whuif. Whuif. Whuif.
The hairs on the back of Seven’s neck lifted and her eyes began to water.
Sifting through the databases of her mind, she could conjure no likely—or at least no realistic image in her mind, of what in the world could be making that noise. Terribly, the image that kept surfacing was something from her childhood, when she watched an old movie. She must have only been seven years of age when she watched The Fly, which was supposed to be the remake of an even older science fiction flick. The mad scientist in the movie sent a baboon through a teleporter, and what had appeared across the room was an animal turned inside-out.
Some things, once you’ve seen them realized, even if only in a movie, an old movie, well, they are almost impossible to remove from the mental view screen. Seven, a little girl, had dreamed of that inside-out baboon.
That quivering mass of baboon organs, twitching, spasming, horribly still alive, that’s the image that came to mind. Whatever made that whuiffing noise, did not sound human, and it did not sound like it issued from an animal. Bizarrely, it sounded like an asthmatic heart, gasping for its severed lungs, and it sounded as if it were here, somewhere close in the long room, beat-gasping amidst the VR chambers.
Whuif. Whuif. Whuif.
Slowly, she pushed herself away from the chamber bed. She wanted nothing more than to lie back down, and lower the lid, and return to her safe Inner Sanctum, but there was no way she could do that while her physical body remained here with whatever made that inhuman noise. Her foot bumped into something warm and wet.
Seven screamed and leaped aside from the hot and moist thing on the floor. As her eyes picked out details she screamed again, because what she saw there, huddled near the base of her chamber, was not preferable to discovering a disassociated human heart, severed and beating upon the floor. She wished for the reversed baboon. Despite herself, she screamed loud, her hands at her face, she wanted to run, and just run, run forever from this thing.
In a tangle of blanket was what appeared to be a human Mr. Potatohead, spongey and shriveled. A human Mr. Potatohead gone soft, and rotten.
Worse than the sight of the shriveled creature, warped and terribly animated, was that she recognized Number Six in the throbbing mass of pink flesh. Backing away, she screamed again, and felt bad about screaming into his face—Toby Winnur, that was his name, he was a person, a human being, not a thing—because it, no—he—was staring at her, with pleading in his distorted, sunken eyes. His attention focused upon her, with terrible pleading emanating from every quivering and distended pore of his being.
“Six?” she breathed, unable to look away from the horror.
Whuif. Whuif. Whuif.
Swallowing hard, suppressing the overwhelming need to vomit, she placed her hands over her mouth and began to move slowly toward him, crouching low, onto her knees. She had to help him, although her mind was empty of anything that anyone could conceivably do for him, short of placing him back in the teleporter, sending him back to his point of origin, and crossing your fingers that things could ever go back to something close to normal. Poor guy, poor poor guy.
This couldn’t be real, could it? It was something like the twisted horror stories people created for themselves in VR. People actually chose to live VR lives as trolls, triffids, and trilobites; mummies, vampires, werewolves, and zombies—every conceivable horror of the imagination. Her head whirled. How could this be real? She desperately wanted to wake up, but it was all too apparent, she was awake, this was real, and something had gone catastrophically...wrong.
“I’m going to call an ambulance,” she said, her shaking voice scaring her almost as much as the sight of Number Six reduced to a raisin shape. He looked like a big pink raisin, bald and fleshy, heaving with agonizing breath. She would call the fire department, anyone.
“No,” came a distinct word from the mass.
“You need help, Toby,” she said, feeling odd calling him by his real name, because there was nothing real about him, other than his agony. What remained of him could barely be called a number, let alone a name.
It said something, another word, but she couldn’t decipher the word. She didn’t want to get any closer, but she tilted her head and concentrated.
“What, Six, what did you say?”
Whuif. Whuif. Whuif.
Through the palpitating gasp-cry, she thought she heard it forming a word.
“Chamber,” she interpreted through the gurgle.
“You want me to get you back into your chamber?” she whispered, her heart slamming in her chest.
“Yes, please,” it croaked, clearly. It must have taken incredible focus for it to say the distinct words, because she could not even make out a mouth in the lumpy mass of flesh.
She did not wish to touch it, the thing, but she forced herself to help Number Six, Toby Winnur. She gathered the wet blanket about the mass and experimented by testing its weight, lifting portions of its bulk through the blanket. It seemed incredibly light, unnaturally light, as if its flesh was made of foam. She gathered what remained of the man into her arms as it whuiffed in agony. As she struggled to her feet she discerned a pile of what could only be his remaining hair clumped about on the floor, and blood, there was lots of blood, and viscous fluid that looked like snot.
The thing in her arms must weigh no more than fifty pounds, but still she struggled, leaning against her chamber, lugging the mass about and around her cubicle into the Number Six alcove. Thankfully, the chamber was open. As gently as she could, she placed her load upon the sponge bed. The chamber must still be able to recognize Number Six, because the lid descended at the command of what must remain of his mental consciousness.
She hurried back around into her own cubicle and climbed into her chamber. The lid descended and she closed her eyes.
She was now in her Inner Sanctum with the red door at her back. She produced a window and saw the blinking light that represented an incoming message. She clicked on the icon.
“It’s okay, Seven, come on over,” the message read. There was a link, but she hesitated to click it, because what if even in his Inner Sanctum, he was yet a deflated Mr. Potatohead?
She called a thick hoodie upon herself, and warm slipper-boots onto her feet, and then she clicked the link.
She stood just before a red door much like her own, and glanced about herself. This was the first time she had ever been in a different Inner Sanctum than her own, and had only time to register that Number Six had gone with an Asian theme, basic and clean, before Number Six himself appeared from deeper within his sanctum, smiling, and whole, wearing a bright red silk kimono.
“Number Six!” she cried, rushing forward, for he appeared completely normal, hale and whole. She threw herself into his arms and he embraced her, chuckling warmly.
“See, see?” he laughed, “it’s okay, everything’s okay!”
She pushed back in his arms and looked at him. This was the good-looking and somewhat beefy version of him she had only seen in a photo.
“Wow,” she said, without thinking, “you’re gorgeous!”
He laughed, putting back his head. The laugh was real, and heartfelt.
“Thanks, you’re not so bad, yourself!” he chuckled, leading her into his sanctum, drawing her to an upright futon couch, beautiful white and immaculate. “Come on, I need to talk to you.”
They seated close to each other on the futon, and Six produced a frosty mug of a dark liquid.
“What can I get you?” he asked, eyebrows raised, as he sipped at his brew.
She experimented, not sure if she was breaking any VR protocol, but she easily produced a crystal wine glass of port.
“I am so sorry you had to witness that,” Six said. He glanced into his frosted mug. “I should have just contacted you via text, but I guess I didn’t realize it had progressed so far. But enough of that. Oh, stout is good, I’m glad that I won’t be leaving this. Where I’m going now, there is stout. Plenty of stout!”
Whuif. Whuif. Whuif. Unbidden, the memory swirled in her mind, that terrible noise. And yet, here he was, Six, handsome, and healthy.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I’ve been setting it up for some time, you can actually come and visit me. I’m sending you a gold pass, right now. You can retrieve it in your mail. Whenever you need a vacation, or someone to talk to, just come to High Vale.”
“High Vale—the online game?” she said, blinking, still not registering what all this meant, what was going on.
“It’s much more than a game, it’s a whole world, as real as this world; oh, well, you know what I mean, the outside world. I’ve been setting up my own firewalled land for some time. It’s expensive, but I have my account paid for the next ten years, and when I’m there I have it running at ten speed, so in ten years I will have lived a hundred full, happy years, there, in my own version of heaven.”
“Wait,” she said, clasping her wineglass in two hands, holding it to her heart. “You’re planning on living inside a virtual world?”
“That’s what I’ve wanted to do, it’s like I’m fully me, there. Plus, Seven, you see what I’ve become in RL. I doubt I have even minutes left there,” he said, and he didn’t sound sad about the fact that he was dying, was perhaps on the very door of death at this moment.
“But what went wrong? Has this happened before, I mean in the chamber, does this happen to all of us?” she said, feeling her heart slamming. She knew there was quite a turnaround in the program, but she figured that was because most men became addicted to the sexual potential of the program.
“As far as I know, nothing went wrong,” Six said. “I think this has all been my choice. The more I am there, the less I am here. Don’t worry, I don’t think anything terrible is going to happen to you, Seven. Don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with the program, or the chambers. Remember, what Old Ben said, don’t be afraid?”
“But Six! You can’t just leave RL, I mean, that’s not possible. When you die, you’re going to be gone, don’t you realize that? Maybe we can get help for you? Maybe we can get you back to normal?” She was pleading with him, and she couldn’t believe she was having this conversation, trying to explain reality to someone. She doubted she even understood what the concept—reality—meant, any longer. She had been fighting with herself over the concept.
A gong sounded from somewhere off in the sanctum. It was a beautiful, rich tone, with a very long reverberation.
“Don’t worry about me, Seven,” he said, and took a long pull at his mug of stout. He smacked his lips and belched, then grinned at her and excused himself. “It’s about that time, Sweetheart”
“You’re going, now?” she said, her eyes huge.
“I made the decision a long time ago. Remember, this isn’t something that happened to me. I wanted this. I chose it. I did run into a hitch in my plans, but Old Ben is helping me solve the problem, otherwise my heaven might have become my hell,” he said, looking happy, and young.
“But what about after the ten years?” she said, attempting to think of something, anything that might make him wait a while longer, and think about his choice. She knew he wasn’t going to get any kind of magical ten years, not in this world, nor any other. She fully realized, even if he couldn’t—or wouldn’t allow himself to realize—that in perhaps moments, Toby Winnur, Number Six, would be gone, forever.
“Don’t worry, I don’t plan on living forever, or anything like that. If I’m still alive in ten years, the worst that will happen is that my firewall will come down and my slice of High Vale will just become a portion of the larger property. It’s a full and rich land, and quite dangerous, but beautiful beyond belief. A hundred years in High Vale, well, that’s a better dream than I’ve ever dreamed. Don’t worry, Seven. They won’t cancel my account, or anything like that. Come and see me. You’ll love it there. You can spend some time in our chateau. You can meet Lady Varra, my wife, you’ll love her, and she’ll love you!”
He laughed, and lightly slapped her thigh.
“Really,” he said, “this is like any version of reality. There are no guarantees. Everything can be over, in a heartbeat, for any of us, at any time. I’m okay with this. I will even be in touch with my family, over there. I can bring them to visit, even communicate with them on a daily basis, via text, e-mail, even video chat.”
She was about to speak, argue, but the gong sounded again. She shuddered, remembering her grandfather clock tolling the midnight hour, and her crystal sandbox crashing down. She clutched at the locket beneath her hoodie.
Six stood and drew Seven up from the futon.
“I really have to go now, thanks so much, for everything,” he said, and hugged her before she could protest. “I have to go before the gong sounds again. Plus I have to say farewell to a few very nice mermaid friends of mine.”
She nodded, her eyes filling with tears.
He smiled and turned from her and waved his hand at the tatami floor. A pool opened in the floor. Without another word, he stripped off his red kimono and dove naked into the shallow pool. She watched as his form became fainter and then vanished into shadow. She stood and watched the ripples and waves in the water, as if he might come back for one last word.
The gong sounded again and before its reverberations had stilled she was back in her own Inner Sanctum, standing before her red door. She hugged her arms tightly about herself and was surprised to find she still held the wineglass from Six’s sanctum. Wine was sloshed about her feet, which she cleaned with hardly a thought. She looked at the wineglass.
Seven was not a packrat, and hardly sentimental, but she couldn’t do away with this glass. It was her token of Six. She strode to her desk and placed the glass, still wet with red wine, on the top shelf.
She produced the locket she wore on a chain and studied the heart. She could do something similar to Six, make some of the same choices. She could go to a world, scrolling back to where Stacey and Jack compared coincidences in the park, beneath Jack’s tree. She could come strolling across the park and greet them, introduce herself, get to know them, Jack and Stacey. She smiled, wistfully. They could stroll away from the park, in the opposite direction of the Coffee Dump, and she could walk between them, holding each of their arms.
Her smile vanished as she thought of her mother and father, called to identify a pink raisin.
Jack woke and yawned. He stretched out of his fetal ball. He had no idea how long he had slept, and only slowly remembered his recent ordeal, the great snake lifted up and hooded fifty feet in the air, the twinkling lights glittering in its bat-like wings. He hugged himself, realizing he was still naked. He looked and found that he had kicked the pile of clothes onto the floor. He peeked about the room and was happy to see that he was still alone. Quickly, Jack clothed himself in the garments, hoping that whoever lived in this tiny one-room cottage wouldn’t come back suddenly and catch him here, and consider him a thief. The clothes seemed to be some sort of renaissance fair garb, dark green breeches and shapeless underwear, short and soft boots that rose to his calves, a baggy shirt with drawstrings at the neck, a short jacket made of dark green leather, and a peaked cap with a red feather, it reminded him of the old Robin Hood cartoons.
He felt better clothed, even though the temperature of the room was nice. Running naked from a man-eating snake had to be about the most uncomfortable thing in the world. He intended to do nothing of the kind, ever again.
Jack noticed a small table under the glassed window—had that been there before? He didn’t remember. But now he noticed a rounded loaf of bread with a wedge of white cheese, a bottle of wine, a clump of yellow grapes, and strips of what could only be beef jerky, all arranged pleasantly on a broad wooden platter. He attacked the fare, ravenous. After vomiting up his guts, mostly onto the snake’s head, he was famished beyond belief. How long had it been since he’d had water? He uncorked the wine bottle and took a swig. He had never had wine before, but this stuff didn’t seem all that alcoholic, it just tasted like lukewarm grape juice. And it was good. He gulped the wine, and then ripped into the bread, alternating bites of the crumbly cheese, and the jerky; he found the jerky thick and tough, but very juicy, and tasting much gamier than beef. It was probably elk, or moose, or whatever game was prevalent in this world.
He chuckled. He had thought this place heaven. But there wouldn’t be rampaging serpents in heaven, would there? And jerky? You wouldn’t kill the animals in heaven and dry their meat for food, would you?
At the moment, Jack had no philosophical cares. In the real world, he was a vegetarian, but here, at least for now, bring on the slaughtered animals and jerky! He didn’t really mean that, but he was starving. And he had to admit it, he did enjoy the taste of blood, just like any other human carnivore.
Chewing on jerky and sipping at the wine, he looked out the window onto a beautiful grassy meadow. The first thing he checked on was that there were no giant snakes slithering around out there. For all he knew, giant snakes might be the people here, and he might just be another mouse. He immediately went to the hearth and retrieved the long dagger hanging on a belt beneath the bow, and this he strapped around his waist. The dagger, about eighteen inches long, jostled at his hip. He drew it from its sheath and examined its mirrored surface. The pointy thing was beautiful, made out of some white metal, sharp and double-edged, and the handle seemed to be carved bone, slightly yellowed like ivory. Awesome!
Clothed, armed, and with food and wine in his belly, he felt much more secure. He belched, and his head swam. Oh boy, it was real wine, and he felt half-drunk, but this thought just made him giggle, and snort.
What did he care, he was Jack the Meateater! Jack the Wino!
These thoughts should shame him, but he just sniggered some more. Then he started laughing, and he knew he was probably half hysterical, but that knowledge only made him laugh harder. It was hilarious, everything was hilarious! Here he thought God had been sending him messages, and all along the great big fat secret was that he was just a video game character, and now here he was dressed like Robin Hood after all the world had crashed down about him and his new friends. And he laughed harder.
So what, was this his home now? This little one-room cottage?
And why was he alone? Where was Stacey? Where was Michael, and Joshua? Where was Sandy? He had thought they were all in this thing together, and now here he was alone.
Yes, stupid, stupid boy, here he was, at some point his uproarious laughter had transformed into tears, and heart-wrenching hiccups. Poor Jack, oh poor, poor Jack! He would be eighteen years old in just a month or so, and here he was weeping like a baby, a big ole blubbering baby, Jack.
Waaaa, waaaa, WAAAAAAA!
Jack burst into laughter. What did he care? He had a whole bottle of wine. Everything was just too funny. He drank some more and finally calmed down, wow, that was like riding on a rollercoaster. Insane emotions. Wine. Meat. He might have to kick this terrible hobbit. He giggled. He pictured himself kicking a terrible hobbit. No, that would be horrible, no matter how terrible the hobblible, wobblible, and bobblible. He closed his eyes and shrieked laughter. Oh what a drunk, he thought, I’ve become an alcoholic. Hello, my name is Jack, and I’m a video game character, an NPC. He sipped some more wine and realized the bottle was just about empty. Ah well, it had been a good run. Game over.
He sighed and went to the door. Should he open it? Was he ready for this? Well, he certainly wasn’t ready for racing another snake. He was done with snake wrangling. No more snakes, and no more terrible hobbits. He lifted the rough log from the brackets at the front door and set it alongside the door. He seized the iron ring set in the door and lifted, and slowly pulled the door toward him. He stuck his head out.
Oh what a world. Yes, as he remembered, it was all a thing of beauty. Too beautiful. Too many colors. Too bright. Too vivid. Too many notes, he thought, and giggled half-heartedly.
He tucked his head back into the cottage, feeling like a turtle. He closed the door and barred it. He sighed. Then he remembered the bow above the hearth.
Jack turned about and put his back to the door. He stared at the bow. It looked complicated, and more like a snow ski than a weapon. He realized it looked somewhat odd because it was unstrung. And then he realized that he knew how to string a bow. He knew how to nock an arrow.
He strode to the hearth, snatched the bow, strung it with hardly trying, seized an arrow, whirled and found himself aiming at the door, the bow pulled taught, an arrow ready to fly. What in the world? He must have done that all in one second. He smiled.
Awesome. He was awesome.
Jack was an awesome archer.
“Beware, villains,” Jack grated, in his best Clint Eastwood sneer, “of Agile Arrowboy!”
Jack heard what could only be the clop of hooves, just outside. Hardly thinking, he lowered the bow and popped the arrow back into its quiver. Maybe he should keep the bow armed, you know, just in case? What if this was some new threat?
More likely, it was the owner of the cottage, and Jack was just so...busted. He was like Goldilocks, sleeping in the bed, consuming the food, and dressing in the owner’s clothing. Oh, but he was just so busted!
Well, best to face it, head-on. He returned the bow to above the hearth, but maintained his dagger, and strode to the door and kicked the log up and out of its bed, then snatched open the door and stepped forward, into the bright sunlight.
Squinting, Jack watched as the extremely large white horse, covered in black spots like a Dalmatian dog, approached at a canter, clopping forward, still a hundred paces away. That was a big horse. It must be bigger than a Clydesdale, and now that Jack could see him better, that was some huge man riding the horse, with a blowing fur cape, massive, and a gloved hand held high.
“Hail, and well met!” the big man thundered.
“Hail!” Jack returned, raising his own gloved hand, and then he snatched his hand back, because it called to mind saluting Caesar, or worse, Hitler.
The man slung himself off the majestic horse, slapped the animal’s neck, and then just walked away from it, leaving the reigns to drag on the ground, and came stomping forward in huge boots. The horse, looking ten feet tall, stood and stared at Jack.
“I am Lord Meren Dulance of High Vale, from the Lonely Chateau,” the big man said, towering over Jack, extending a meaty hand.
Jack shook the proffered hand and felt as if the bones of his own hand were crushed into fragments.
“Well, you’re not what I was expecting,” Lord Meren Dulance, said, with obvious disappointment, measuring Jack with his eyes.
“I’m not?” Jack said, feeling a little slow. At least he had ceased giggling. And crying.
“Well, don’t worry about it, Jack me fine lad!” Lord Meren Dulance boomed, slapping Jack on the shoulder. The blow, meant as a friendly gesture, nearly knocked Jack off his feet. “We are alive, and all is well in High Vale! Well met, lad, well met!”
“Yeah, well met,” Jack said, rubbing his shoulder. “And you said your name is Lord—”
“Never mind that,” the big man said, his face ruddy and weathered. “Just call me Number Six. Yeah, I like that. Seven would, too. Just call me Six!”
© 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).
Douglas Christian Larsen FREE Short Fiction
Read FREE Sample Chapters of the Douglas Christian Larsen Novel:
Read FREE Sample Chapters of the Rodolphus Novels:
Elon Musk, Tesla, VR
related terms, ideas, works:
ancestor simulation, digital ark, salvation of humanity,
vestigial surreality, manda project, rocket to saturn,
the singularity, the butterfly effect, simulated reality, matrix,
virtual reality, otherland, the matrix, 1q84, haruki murakami,
hard-boiled wonderland and the end of the world, dreaming,
the dream place, waking from a dream, ready player one,
hologram, holodeck, saturn, saturnalia, cycles of time,
simulacron-3, daniel f. galouye, counterfeit world,
tad williams, science fantasy, science fiction,
Victor Frankenstein, Nikola Tesla, genius
do we live in a computer simulation?
Victor Frankenstein, Nikola Tesla, genius
do we live in a computer simulation?
mystery, thriller, horror, techno thriller,
signs and wonders, vestigial surreality,
william gibson, neal stephenson, serial,
cyberpunk, dystopian future, apocalypse,
scifi, mmorpg, online video game world,
end times, apocalypse, armageddon,
digital universe, hologram universe,
sunday sci-fi fantasy serial fiction,
virtual reality, augmented reality
the unknown writer blog
the unknown writer blog
are we living in a simulation?
puppets, puppetry, punch