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When the mad monk came forward Jack thought he was coming to give them a hug, he had that kind of look on his face, as if ahhwwww come on love give us a hug were the thoughts ricocheting around in his looney tunes head. What he actually said was something like “I am so sorry.” And the magnetic force that seemed to repel Jack backward, it was almost pleasant, very much like the feeling you experience when you try to force two magnets together, positive pole to positive pole, and it seems that a cushion of air springs into being, repelling the magnets. It is difficult to explain that pleasant sensation—perhaps in olden days it would have been described as...magic, because that is how it feels, magical.
As the mad monk came forward, umbrella lifted casually between them, it did not seem threatening at all. There was just a teasing sensation as Jack moved backward on an unseen cushion of force, his feet leaving the ground, his back sliding briefly against the railing in the knothole, one hundred stories up the tree, and then there was a pleasant feeling of release.
“Hey, but no, don’t do this, this can’t be good, we are up too high, if we fall off this thing, from way up here, I don’t think the results can be good,” is what Jack wanted to say. He really did. He desired to continue their discussion, just him and the mad monk, because it felt as if Jack was on the edge of getting some real answers, for the first time since his life had changed so drastically.
The mad monk—the businessman from that first day in the park, when they had raced to claim the picnic table under the tree that was carved with Jack’s initials—had the answers, Jack just knew he did. And he had always seemed somewhat friendly, as if he held at least a little affection for Jack, or if not affection then at least a tad of curious interest, that’s the way it seemed, anyway.
But Jack did not have the chance to say any of that, because the mad monk seemed have concluded the discussion portion of the meeting, and now it seemed that it was time for the falling portion of the meeting.
Because Jack was suddenly weightless, and it took him a full second to realize that he and the little girl, still holding hands, were indeed plunging into open space. They were higher up than if they stood on the top of a building the height of the Empire State Building.
Jack did not scream. He seized the little girl Manda up close to his chest.
“It’s okay,” he hollered into her face, because she was looking up into his eyes, their faces only inches removed. He did not wish her to feel the terror he was experiencing. Nobody should feel such terror, and Jack was exploding with so much of it, he felt he could probably manage to collect her fear into his own, because they were obviously going to die, but she shouldn’t feel what he was feeling, no little girl should ever feel such a thing, mindless shrieking horror.
“Don’t be afraid, Jack,” she said in a quiet, conversational tone, not yelling at all.
“I’m not afraid!” he wailed, voice registering in a high cartoon squeal.
“Remember, Jack? Don’t be afraid, just go with it,” Manda said.
Jack tilted his head back to catch a glimpse of the trunk of the great tree flashing past, the tiny boulders below looming large, the very hard-looking squares of stone getting big, ridiculously fast.
“Just go with it!” he shrieked, now screaming, the wind so hard in his face it actually flattened his eyeballs, the breath sucking out of his lungs. Oh yeah, he was going to die, it was happening, and he was going to barf—it seemed he was ever vomiting up his guts—and he realized he was going to throw up all over himself and the little girl.
He squeezed the little girl to his chest and his mouth stretched open in a vast hole, and he tried to keep her on the upside, because maybe it would be less terrible for her if his body struck first, and she at least had the cushion of his guts to soften her fall, and then he was screaming for all his worth as the stone ground leapt at him in an instant going from fifty feet away to ten feet away and then—
—Jack blinked around him, still screaming, sitting at a table, surrounded by people, and his belly plunked into place as gravity seemed to invert—he still felt like he were falling, plunging to his death, and yet here he sat on a metal folding chair, at a table with a nice checkered tablecloth.
“Here you go, Jack,” a familiar-looking man said, pushing a white bowl across the table with his fingertips.
Instinctively Jack seized the bowl and ducked his head, and his stomach rushed up and leapt free of its prison, and he vomited into the bowl, tasting sour wine and acid, watching as chunks of half-digested bread filled the nice white bowl.
“Would monsieur like me to take this?” a waiter with oiled-back hair and an absurdly clipped moustache said, pleasantly, bowing, reaching out a hand to take the bowl, a white towel over the arm.
Jack smiled at the man, feeling so thankful, and lifted a finger. A moment, please. And he gushed and spouted again into the bowl, producing another rush of sour mush. He coughed and growled as he brought it all up, seemingly everything he had ever consumed in his entire life. It was quite an impressive production. It looked like purple oatmeal. He almost filled the bowl. And smelling it, he dry-heaved a few more times, certain he was about to magically produce his intestines on top of the glop.
Then the waiter whisked away the bowl from Jack’s hands and Manda was leaning toward him, dabbing at his face with an expensive napkin.
The man on the other side of the table pushed a glass of water across the table and Jack snatched it up and gulped water. Before he could fully consider his actions, or his whereabouts, Jack swished the water in his mouth and spat on the ground.
“Monsieur! Please, sir!” the waiter snapped, appearing immediately at his side with a mop.
“Well if you wouldn’t have snatched away the bowl so soon!” Jack snapped, spitting again on the ground as the waiter mopped up the splatter of bile.
“Americans,” the waiter tsk’ed, and then babbled in what had to be French. A string of what Jack hoped were curse words.
“Americans my ass,” Jack muttered, glugging at the water, emptying the glass.
“I could not have expressed it better, monsieur,” the waiter muttered, finishing his mopping.
“Would you like another bowl?” the man across the table queried.
“What I want is to stop throwing up all the time,” Jack grimaced, mopping at his face. He glanced about him. He was seated at an outdoor café, surrounded by chattering people, most of them appearing to be business people on their lunchbreak. And none of them were looking at him, the guy tossing his cookies out in public. None of these people appeared to be startled at his sudden appearance at this table. Jack noticed briefly that his backpack and bow were on the ground, right next to his chair, and that his cloak was folded neatly on the top of the pile of his gear.
“I’m so sorry about that,” the man said. “But we needed to move fast, and Mr. Kronoss always does appreciate a bit of drama.”
“We wanted you to have some fun,” the little girl said, patting Jack’s arm. “Something to remember.”
“Oh yeah,” Jack snapped, glaring at her, “a selfie might have been nice, but falling out of a hundred-story tree was pretty good, too. Next time let’s try the selfie.”
“I had you,” Manda said, grinning at him.
Jack couldn’t help it, he grinned back at her, and chuckled a few times (dangerous, dangerous, don’t get the tummy started again!). Jack forced himself to be calm, and he looked across the table.
He looked at Old Ben, or whatever his name really was. The last time he had seen the mysterious man had been near the fireplace in the Coffee Dump, when Old Ben had left the slim paperback book Simulacron-3 for Stacey to snatch up. One of the sprinkled breadcrumb clues.
“Old Ben,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, Jack, finally...again,” Old Ben said, nodding his strange long and narrow head. His face was stubbled with white specks, he must have put off shaving in honor of meeting Jack, and his thin white hair was messy and unkempt. He looked like a homeless person in a hodgepodge of Good Will special deals, a threadbare beige sweater, a stained polo shirt of faded green, and mismatched fingerless gloves of unwinding threads and holes. Jack peeked under the table, yep, he expected it, the old geezer was barefoot, except that he had mismatched socks, one an athletic sock with a hole that allowed the big toe full access to the world, and the other a black dress sock that had lost its elastic cling, and drooped down to a bony ankle.
There was no denying it, the guy looked a lot like the actor Sir Alec Guiness, but thinner, and older—older, at least than when he played the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars film. The actor had since, died, hadn’t he? Jack wasn’t sure, as he always confused him with the other actor, Max von Sydow. Those guys could be brothers.
Old Ben’s head seemed too long and narrow, almost deformed, really. But he had the kindest eyes Jack had ever seen, large and fluid, and his thin lips ever seemed to be on the edge of a gentle smile. A peace seemed to emanate from the old man.
“I am Mr. Aajeel,” Old Ben said, “but you can call me Old Ben, if you like. The name is quite amusing, actually, as the original architecture of my being was based on another Ben, from another time.”
Jack blinked. “So you’re like Manda?”
“No, not like Manda, as she is singular. No one else, in the history of the world, is or has been like Manda.”
“I’m original,” the little girl said, grinning hugely at Jack. She sounded very proud of herself.
“But yes, Jack, I am not exactly human, as you think of the term. The concept, humanity. I have never been a biological.”
“But I was a biological?” Jack said, asking the question that had burned inside him ever since this had all began.
“Oh yes, Jack, certainly. You are human, please do not spend any more time worrying about that,” Old Ben assured. “You were once as biological as all biology.”
“I was human, you mean? But I’m not human now. Now I’m just a...simulated person.”
It hurt to say it. He didn’t want to believe it. But Stacey had accepted the fact that they were creatures in a simulation that Seven had somehow pulled together. Stacey had accepted it, and it made him sad. Jack had heard his big friend weeping, softly, in the night, when Stacey was sure Jack was sleeping. But to Jack it still didn’t seem possible, because he felt too real. He felt like he had always felt. All his life. He snorted. All his simulated life? But. Damn it, but. It seemed that real was real—I think, therefore I am, all that. That’s what he thought, and thinking it, he must be. To be, or not to be? That was the stinking question.
“You are as much a person as any other human has ever been,” Old Ben said.
Jack snatched a warm garlic breadstick from the basket in the center of the table, and automatically bit off a chunk. He sat, chewing and thinking, and Old Ben and Manda each took a breadstick, and ate, watching Jack.
“I love garlic bread,” Jack mused, dreamily.
“Me too,” Manda replied instantly. “It’s my favorite. But the Shaannii always says I smell like medicine.”
“I know, right?” Jack laughed. “You can never smell it on yourself, but anytime anyone else has had garlic, wow, you know it! Whew! Don’t go in there!”
Manda laughed and Old Ben smiled.
“Pet Detective, right?” Manda said.
“One of them, anyway. Weren’t those terrible? But I love them, and garlic bread.”
“Have some wine,” Old Ben said, and Jack complied, sipping at a wineglass full of very dark wine. It was good, better than the stuff from his magic bottle in High Vale. It soothed his belly. Although somewhat shaky, Jack felt settled enough that he shouldn’t be upchucking anymore today. Unless a hundred-foot serpent just happened to slither up for a bite.
“And what exactly is High Vale?” Jack queried.
“It is a gamer world, the most vast ever created, and the longest running commercial simulation, almost fifty years in its existence,” Old Ben said. “That world began as an experiment in digital reality, and then became something more. Evolving and expanding, enhanced, and ever improving. Sadly, it was ultimately banned, much like the phenomena of book burning, when one culture takes dominance and rules subversive the trappings of the previous order—immoral, wicked, evil. It came to be viewed as was witchcraft, by earlier civilizations.”
“But it still exists, we were just there,” Jack said. “Six lives there.”
“Yes, well, Jack, it gets...complicated,” Old Ben said, slowly, obviously unwilling to elaborate.
“Complicated, really? No!” Jack said, swigging his wine. He looked about at the business people, laughing, drinking, murmuring, some of them burbling like braggarts, red-faced and laughing.
“And all these people?” Jack said, glancing back to Old Ben.
“Oh, they are all very real, in their own way, although this place is a construct, a safe haven where Mr. Enseladus has no access. No lawful access, but the man does tend to find a way. He is truly the incarnation of perseverance.”
“He is the law portion of Vestigial Surreality, the policeman, of a sort. You met him, rather briefly. Him, and copies of himself—which, technically, is illegal.”
“The Man from Mars?” Jack said, eyebrows up, remembering that day outside of the Coffee Dump, in the alley. Stacey had bodily thrown one of the weirdos into a dumpster. Jack remembered the lid of the dumpster crashing down on the feathered head.
“Yes, that is him. The Men from Mars, that is another rather humorous misnomer that has taken on distinctly solid connotations. Mr. Enseladus is not a bad fellow, really. He just takes his job—rather too seriously.”
“And he’s the guy that is after us,” Jack said, setting his glass of wine aside—he was shocked that there was only a dribble remaining at the bottom of the glass. He had to take it easy, otherwise he might start blubbering about the unfairness of it all. Oh, why me, why oh why!
“Sandra—Seven, that is, was running a fairly common simulation, studying her ancestor, all of which was authorized; however, an aberration became apparent in the simulation, which is what signaled the entrance of Mr. Enseladus into our little play.”
“Play,” Jack snorted. “That’s funny. And I’ve figured that I’m the ancestor that Seven was studying.”
“Yes, technically, although biologically speaking, it is complicated somewhat, genealogically, as Seven’s mother is a distant relative of yours, though not in a direct line, as you only had one child, at least technically, and that offspring produced no offspring. So if things progressed in a normal, biological fashion, Seven’s mother was from your Uncle John’s line, so she could be viewed as a distant niece, or cousin, however many times removed. But it gets complicated when considering the fact that Seven’s mother used...genetic matter, directly from you. So while Seven could be considered a great-great-great however many times great granddaughter of yours—”
“—so she’s what, Seven is my clone?” Jack gurgled, restraining himself from bursting into laughter. “I mean come on, this is ridiculous, I’m only seventeen years old, although I may have had my birthday, I’m not sure. Seven is...old. She’s gotta be in her twenties.”
“In a sense, yes, she could be considered a clone, but not completely. Your spermatozoa were not employed, as all those samples were destroyed by another new order. There were several civilization shifts in the years following your death—I am speaking of the biological you, that ceased to exist, long ago. Seven’s mother was a distant ancestor, and yet her child, was a semi-cloned version of you, but in the technology of the day—which practice was highly illegal—the procedure performed could not be considered a clone, as your...matter...was joined to your ancestral line, and the child was gestated in the old-fashioned way, and Seven was born from her mother, in secret. And so, in some respects, Seven is you, and also a very distant ancestor. She is a clone, but not really a clone.”
“Oh man, come on that’s just gross, you mean I had the hots for my...self?”
“No, definitely not, you are thinking in terms of what used to be labeled science fiction. Sandra Newbury was a fully individual person, a real person, very different from you. I mean to say, of course, that she is fully herself, and not you, no more than Stacey is you.”
“Oh boy, okay, here we go,” Jack said, first rolling his eyes in exaggeration, and then closing them. “Tell me.”
“Jack, Stacey is not your father,” Old Ben said, with compassion. He waited.
“So? Come on already, of course he’s my father. He and I both think that, we both accept that. We look like each other. It’s almost like we’re the same person—do not tell me that we are the same person!”
“No, you are not the same person. This was not some—tampering, placing two distinct versions of yourself in the same simulation, which is forbidden.”
“Forbidden by who!” Jack snapped.
“Is it whom?” Manda contributed.
“Don’t ask me, English became far too complicated for me,” Old Ben said, almost smirking.
“It’s—” Jack began, then threw up his hands, “oh I don’t care! I could give you the answer, it’s my specialty, Who or Whom, it makes me sick that I even care, but I don’t want to think about it, but come on already, who the hell is calling the shots?”
“Whom is calling the shots just doesn’t sound right,” Manda said.
Jack rolled his eyes at her, but she was just so cute he couldn’t help but break into a smile—something about her, she reminded him of Seven, he just wanted to gobble her right up.
“The program,” Old Ben supplied.
Jack blinked at him.
“Okay, the program, what program?” Jack said, feeling drained. This was too much, way too much. No sane person should ever hear any of this crap.
“Vestigial Surreality,” Old Ben answered. “VS is the ark. Two by two, the cleans by seven.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard the story,” Jack said.
“And in that story, Sandra Newbury would be Noah,” Old Ben said, and paused to sip his wine.
The waiter appeared at Jack’s elbow. “Is monsieur ready to order?” He said it in such an absurd French accent—Ees Mon-sew-air rea-dee to oh-dare—that Jack waved his hand at what he took to be an oily NPC.
“Just go away garcon!” Jack snapped.
The waiter sniffed and whirled away.
“So then who is Stacey?” Jack demanded, glowering at Old Ben.
“Stacey Colton is your son,” Old Ben said, nodding his head, his eyes not meeting Jack’s. “Born when you were one hundred and sixteen years old. It was your last attempt to have a family. You outlived two wives, neither of which ever became pregnant. You gave your son the last name of Colton to protect him, as childbirth was illegal in the Year 2078. And you knew that there would be religious people after Stacey.”
“Stacey’s my son? Oh God, I love that guy!” Jack said, and buried his face in his hands and wept, his shoulders hitching. “He’s my boy and he’s always trying to protect me, he’s always stepping in the way, putting himself in front of me, he’s always taking a beating for me!”
“Yes, he is like that,” Manda said, leaning and patting Jack’s arm. “Stacey’s my favorite.”
“He is the aberration that brought Mr. Enseladus down on your head that day in Seven’s crystal sandbox,” Old Ben said quietly.
“Why? Why is Stacey such an aberration?” Jack demanded, seizing up his napkin to dry his wet eyes and face.
“Because he died, Jack,” Old Ben said. “When he was seven years old. Biologically, he never lived a full or real life. But in the intervening years, he has lived many full and satisfying lives.”
“You’re talking about reincarnation?” Jack snorted, shaking his head. His head reeled. Stacey as his son, that potentiality had never figured in his speculations.
“In a manner of speaking, it is where the idea of reincarnation emerged, in Vestigial Surreality. Stacey has lived many digital lives, in a variety of Grand Scrolls. That’s what we call it when we run the history of Earth, from beginning to end. But he has also lived a variety of interesting lives in a series of simulations that Seven has run, through the cycles. Although to my knowledge, this is the first time ever that you and Stacey have coexisted, in the same simulation. This is the first time you have ever had the chance to get to know each other.”
“Why can’t we ever be in the same simulation? That seems like the ideal scenario, wouldn’t it? I mean, so we can both be happy?”
“VS is not about happiness. But about the very salvation of humanity. I do not pretend to understand what happens, or why it happens, but in simulations where Stacey lives, you always die. Efforts have been made, time and again, to save the child, Stacey Colton, but then the old man, Pop Pop, Stacey’s father, dies, before his time. In simulations where Stacey lives, he often becomes a very successful author, not in his lifetime, but after his death, and his writings live on after him. He never lives a very long life, rarely reaching his forties.”
“He did live to be fifty-four years of age, in one simulation, and in that one Jack lived until Stacey was about fourteen years old, so he did live a pretty long life that time, I think about an average life span for that time,” Manda said, “but then they killed him.”
“Who kills him?” Jack snapped, indignant, glancing about him, because if any of them were here, right now, the killers, but oh boy, they’d have to deal with Jack. Let me tell you!
“Your followers, those early adherents who would become the Jackian movement, you might call it the Religion of Jack, seventy years after his death, I mean your death, Jack,” Old Ben said, talking easily, saying these bizarre things as if he were quoting from a history book. “Stacey was an embarrassment to them, he drank liquor, generally Guinness Stout, smoked cigars, long dark cigars, and liked...the ladies.”
It was such a funny way to conclude that speech, and said in such a comical fashion, that Jack burst into laughter.
“Yes,” Jack giggled, “Stacey does love...the ladies!”
He said it the same way Old Ben had said it, the way a radio shock jock would say it, dipping his voice, lilting into a slightly dirty, eye-brow wagging sneer. Old Ben and Manda laughed, but Jack thought it was much funnier when Old Ben said it. Because it just seemed so—inappropriate.
“Let me tell you,” a loud business type practically shouted, “we’re talking numbers, it’s all in the numbers, okay, it’s all about the ones and zeroes, you haven’t realized yet but there is no difference, it’s all just numbers, get that through your head. Data is data.”
Jack looked at the guy. Something, what was it, something about what he had just practically shouted. Data is data. Had Jack heard that before? And then he looked past the guy, out to the street, where someone had just stopped. Jack half-stood from his chair.
“Holy! Look!” Jack rushed, “that’s Seven!”
“Don’t Jack, please, you will only confuse things,” Old Ben said, half rising in his chair.
“But that’s Seven!” Jack said, watching her. She looked beautiful, wearing strange over-sized clothes.
“Seven!” he called, as she started moving along the street, passing the café. He didn’t want her to leave, he wanted to call her over, he wanted to chase after her.
“Do not draw her attention, as this is the time before she entered High Vale,” Old Ben said.
“How can it be before she entered High Vale?” Jack said, standing fully, scooting back the chair with the backs of his legs so that it screeched on the tiles.
“Jack, sit down,” Old Ben commanded, and Jack couldn’t help it he plunked down, and it would have been bad, because the chair was pushed back but right at that moment Manda was there, pushing his chair forward until it slammed against his knees, and he was down, seated in the chair, all the breath punched out of him. He rolled his eyes toward the old man.
“I’m so sorry about that, Jack,” Old Ben said, voice ripe with compassion. “I don’t like to do that, but you cannot interfere with Seven, not right now. She is meeting me in a few minutes.”
Jack trailed her with his eyes until she was gone from sight.
“I need to talk to her,” Jack said, his eyes welling with tears.
“You can speak to her, in a few minutes, about a month from now,” Old Ben said.
Jack glanced at him, and then did a double-take.
“What did you just say?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Manda said, standing next to Jack, hugging him. “Don’t try and figure it all out. It will come, with time. Seven is okay. She just was with you, yesterday, riding in the back of that horrible red truck, when she was so rude to you and Stacey. If she saw you right now, she’d really freak out, because she thinks you’re dead.”
Then he glanced and saw it was Seven again, hurrying past, only now going the opposite direction, wearing a horribly large black hoodie, with the hood pulled over her head, and she looked as if she were fleeing from someone. Seven, he thought, smiling after her.
“Where is Stacey, right now?” Jack said, slamming his fist on the tabletop.
“Here, I’ll show you,” Old Ben said, smiling, waving his hand, and as his hand passed through the air above the table a large window opened up in the very air. Jack blinked, grinning, wow, how cool was that?
Jack saw Stacey, dashing through the woods, several dark shapes rushing along behind him. It looked like the dark figures were in pursuit.
“Where is he?” Jack breathed.
“He is running to catch up with his wife,” Old Ben said.
“His what!” Jack shot.
“He was experiencing a soul mesh with the Lady Maulgraul, when you departed on your little adventure to the Sentinel,” Old Ben said. “They are bonded now, for life.”
“I knew that woman was trouble,” Jack snapped, shaking his head. “So now they’re married?”
“As you understand things, yes,” Old Ben said.
“And she is certainly trouble, Jack, you were right there,” Manda said. “She has been more trouble in Vestigial Surreality than probably any other entity.”
“Great,” Jack said, watching Stacey run through the dark trees. Several of the shapes were getting closer, as Stacey did not appear to be running at top speed, he seemed to be loping, pacing himself, completely ignorant to the pursuit coming up behind him. What the hell was his problem? He’s not paying attention!
“Yes, the Lady Maulgraul is a force to be reckoned with, and completely outside of what even I can consider normal operations. She is Number One on Mr. Enseladus’ all-time Most Wanted Fugitive list, surpassing even you and Stacey,” Old Ben said, watching Jack as Jack watched the figures closing in on Stacey.
The figures seemed to be manlike, but too sleek, too thin, like panther people. They were both crouched and yet running upright, too smooth, too agile. In moments they would be all over Stacey, Jack’s son.
“Stacey, behind you!” Jack roared at the scene, and as if in response Stacey whirled, his shillelagh up and twirling, and he managed to knock one of the shapes aside as it leapt.
“You should not interfere,” Old Ben said, lifting a hand toward the window hanging in the air. “Stacey can handle himself.”
“The hell you say!” Jack roared and his bow was caught up in this hand, an arrow nocked, and before Old Ben could say anything else Jack aimed and released the arrow. One of the figures stumbled just before it reached Stacey, the arrow planted in its butt.
“Enough!” Old Ben commanded in that deep tone and the window vanished and Jack froze, in the act of reaching for the next arrow.
“I hit it, did you see?” Jack shouted. Nobody in the café reacted, it was as if Jack wasn’t there. So, the ghost of Christmas Past could affect those shadows!
“Well, your instincts are usually good,” Old Ben said, “although I have never seen you react so quickly with violence.”
“They’re after my son!” Jack exploded, glaring at the old man. “Open up that window again, I need to go to him.”
“No,” Old Ben said, shaking his head. “I am sorry, Jack, but where Stacey is right now, what he is doing, you would not survive. Stacey might, with his ferocity, but I’m sorry, you would only complicate matters. You cannot help him.”
“Listen, old man, I need to help him,” Jack snarled.
“No, you do not,” Old Ben replied, calmly. “Seven needs you now.”
“You just told me I can’t interfere with Seven, you kept me back!” Jack cried, close to tears.
“Not that Seven,” Manda said, again standing and hugging Jack about the waist, looking up at him with her big eyes that looked so much like Seven’s eyes. “You need to help the Seven of now, the one that’s been kicked out of High Vale.”
“Wait,” Jack said, glancing down at the little girl, “Seven is kicked out of High Vale? Sheesh, I go on a little adventure and everyone goes crazy! Stacey gets married to a bug woman, and Seven gets booted! No wonder she got him, because Seven was supposed to be there watching him. I thought they were together, they were all snuggly and kissy face. What happened to Michael and Joshua, did they turn into penguins?”
“See for yourself,” Old Ben said, waving his hand, producing another window and Jack was horrified to see that big six-armed giant, the one that ripped the head off Six’s horse, the crooden or whatever it was called, and there was Joshua, standing with his flank against the big monster’s knee, and Joshua was bleeding, profusely, and there was Michael perched between Joshua’s horns, and there were those horrible guys, the Men from Mars, and it looked there were hundreds of them, swarming like ants, and the giant was actually hurling the little guys about, holding several of them in its many hands, slamming some of their heads together, flinging others into the air as if they were ragdolls. The giant and his friends seemed to be on the same side, and that in and of itself was ridiculously amazing.
“What is going on?” Jack demanded. He saw little meerkat Michael throw what looked like a glowing egg, which erupted in a shower of sparks against one of the dark clones, the Gymnasts from Mars, except now the little muscular men were dressed in what looked like period clothing, like dark highwaymen, but they were violently swinging their sharp black pikes, the needle-like things they produced against Stacey in that alley of long ago.
“I’m not sure, but it doesn’t look good,” Old Ben said, in a peculiar tone. Jack glanced at him and the old man comically shrugged his shoulders. Then Manda bumped into Jack and when he looked down he saw that she was proffering his quiver, all bristling with brand-spanking-new arrows.
Jack grinned and before he knew it his nocked arrow was aimed into the window, and one of the Men from Mars was stumbling, an arrow sprouting from his thigh.
“Oh no Jack, you shouldn’t interfere,” Old Ben said, and Jack didn’t even glance at him, because the way the geezer said it, you knew he intended something very different than his words suggested.
Jack aimed and loosed. Aimed and loosed. Within moments ten of the dark figures were down, arrows sprouting from thighs. Perfect shots, one and all.
“It’s nice of you,” Manda said, watching his bowmanship admiringly, “that you are not trying to kill them, even though they mean to kill you, and all your friends.”
Michael, perched between Joshua’s horns, was looking back, shading his bulging meerkat eyes with his little hand, and then he seemed to be looking right at Jack. Jack waved his bow, smiling. Michael did a little bow, and waved in return.
“Well,” said Old Ben, snapping away the window in the air, “I think you may have turned the tide, so to speak. And we don’t want any of those highwaymen to catch a glimpse of you, do we?”
“Look!” said Manda, smiling up into Jack’s face, showing him the quiver, which was full of bright and brand-spanking-new arrows, “no tell-tale missing arrows, isn’t that nice, Jack?”
“You guys think of everything,” Jack said, grinning, shaking his head.
“No,” Old Ben said, pensively, “we don’t. I am always amazed at the things you people think up in your coconut universe-containing headbones. It is astonishing.”
“You people,” Jack said, and laughed. “You, Old Ben, are a digital racist.”
“There is only one race of people,” Old Ben replied, grinning, “and that is the race of people. And I love you, dearly, Jack, you and all your people.”
“I love you, too,” Manda said, “but not everybody. Mostly, people are horrible. They keep wrecking everything. But you and Stacey, you are the best.”
“There is hope for people, right?” Jack said, sinking back into his chair, his arm about Manda. He set his bow on the ground next to his chair (you never knew when a window of opportunity might open).
“I hope so,” Old Ben said.
“I don’t know,” Manda said.
“The important thing is that Sandra Jean Mondragon Newbury thought there was hope. She is the Mother of Vestigial Surreality, and so we soldier on,” Old Ben concluded, nodding to Jack.
“But there are people, right? Somewhere? Biological people, as you call them?” Jack queried, feeling a fluttering in his heart. “Aren’t we like, you know, avatars, or whatever? Aren’t our real bodies stored somewhere, dreaming all this, like in the movies and books, jacked in?”
“Jack, I am sorry, but I really should not answer that question,” Old Ben said, again not meeting Jack’s eyes.
“Oh go one, tell him,” Manda said.
Old Ben looked between them, and he was troubled.
“Tell me, I want to know,” Jack said, but he feared he knew the answer.
“No Jack. There are no biological people left. The human race went extinct, a long, long time ago.”
It was said with such finality, that Jack knew it was true. He supposed he had been fearing to learn this, ever since they jumped through that first portal, in the park, in what seemed ages ago.
There was pregnant silence. Manda seemed very solemn, not looking at Jack. She stared at Old Ben, who also would not look at Jack.
“How long?” Old Ben finally said, repeating Jack’s words.
“How long, since the last person died?”
“A little more than ten thousand years ago,” Old Ben said, with finality.
“Ten thousand, three hundred, ninety-five years ago,” Manda said, finally looking at Jack. “You know, to be exact.”
“But Vestigial Surreality is all about bringing us back, right?” Jack said, and he hated it, but his voice quivered.
“That was Seven’s hope, when she put Vestigial Surreality in place. The rocket launched the very day she died, and it was more than seven years after that date that VS came on line. By that time, the last human had expired.”
“But come on, we’re not just supposed to be digital people, are we? I mean, isn’t this just the start of it, you know, to ultimately bring us back?”
“Yes, to bring you back, all of humanity. But sadly, in ten thousand years, the technology has not advanced sufficiently, because, time after time, Grand Scroll after Grand Scroll, reboot after reboot, people keep destroying the world. I mean the digital version of the world. We have tried it so many ways, rebooting only Elon Musks and Winston Churchills and Nikola Teslas, and it ends up the same way, even with Mother Teresas and Mahatma Gandhis, Earth takes the wrong path, and expires, usually in the most terrible ways possible. It seems that humanity has a collective death wish, and they keep on granting that wish, no matter how we stack things.”
“What if you only bring back the good people—have you tried that?”
“Certainly, many times. Not only in Grand Scrolls and complete Reboots, but in endless simulations run at many times normal speed. We can run the entire history of the world in an hour, and it ends the same way. When we bring back the good people, they don’t do much, they never innovate, they seem to require the evil folk to better themselves, for advancement, for evolution, but the evil ones always seem to have their way, in the end. We cannot seem to go much beyond the Year 2428, which is the year that Seven dies. I think we might have gone one hundred years beyond that date, but not advancement was made, and the same doom came upon the world.”
“Whoa,” Jack said, “she is that far in the future, I mean compared to my life?”
“Yes, she is the great innovator that perceived that time was almost up for the human race, and she, and her team, worked for many years in secrecy to begin what you now experience, Vestigial Surreality, the remains of humanity, the digital remnant. Most of humanity considered a digital version of life to be evil, and they wanted it destroyed along with the Earth.”
“And I can trust you guys?” Jack said, pleading. “I mean, this isn’t like in The Matrix, with evil machines holding humanity down? Or like in Dark City, with aliens manipulating everything?”
“No, Jack, there is no monster behind the numbers. Data is data. All life is data. There is no body. Vestigial Surreality is man’s last great hope, for life? Presently, this is all there is, life in ones and zeroes. But the hope is that someday mankind will learn, in one of the Reboots, that mankind will join together, put aside races and cultures and heritage, and link hands, and that they will become true Stewards of the Planet Earth, at least this Digital Earth, or one like it, and the technology will develop sufficiently that will provide a means of converting the digital life into real, biological life. As I’ve said, we haven’t been very successful in enlightenment. We can get people to talk the talk, but rarely walk the walk.”
“And you want us to become...real again?” Jack asked, leaning forward.
“That is my entire purpose, to shepherd, and guide people back. To love you. Out of the simulation. Into reality.”
“And the Earth?”
“It is dead. Murdered. Null, and void, as lifeless as the moon. All the blood was sucked out of it ages ago, sucked out and burned, choking the lungs of the world, poisoning the life fluid, the water. A true abomination of desolation. A cracked and withered mummy of a planet. If life ever does erupt again in molecules and air, blood and living bone, it will not be upon the Earth.”
“Drill baby drill. Can I get an amen? There is no global warming. People can’t hurt the Earth. Gotta have more junk in my trunk, more fire in the engine. But I guess that’s where I come in. I’m supposed to join people together?” Jack said, feeling sick. He pictured himself walking around with a sandwich board advertising the end of the world. Doom. Boom boom, bring on the doom. Join together people, smile on your brother, gonna love one another right now. Yeah, that’ll work. Let’s save the world. Sheesh.
“That has been the hope.”
Some hope, me. Shit. Or as Stacey said, so eloquently, she-yit.
“Are you ready to order yet, buddy?” the waiter demanded, impatiently tapping his foot, glaring at Jack. He had even dropped his phony accent.
“Yes, I’ll have spaghetti. No, do you have pizza? Good, I want pizza, with lots of ginger, and garlic, do you have cloves of garlic? Good, with mushrooms, and onions.”
Damn it, Planet Earth might be dead, murdered, but he was going to have some pizza, and some more wine. Damn it all. Pizza and wine. He wished he had one of Stacey’s cigars, oh yeah, that would teach the murderous bastards.
“Yum,” Manda said, “that sounds good. Stinky, but good. Me too. I want pizza, Jack’s pizza.”
“I concur,” Old Ben said, sighing. “Better bring us two very large pizzas. I’ll take some to Seven, when I visit her in her Inner Sanctum.” He checked his watch. “I am late. But that’s the good news, Jack, we do have time. Digital time. I can visit Seven a few minutes ago, after we enjoy our pizza. Technically, I’m not supposed to do that, but as you say, what the hell.”
Jack lifted up his wineglass, refilled by the faux-French waiter. He toasted Old Ben and Manda, who also lifted their glasses.
“Just a sip,” Jack cautioned the girl.
She scowled at him.
“I’m not really a little girl, you know,” she told him, and stuck out her tongue at him.
“Yes you are. You’re my little girl,” Jack replied, winking at her.
And then she beamed, brightly.
A chair was pulled up to the table and Mr. Kronoss plunked down. He seemed to pull his own full wineglass out of the air, not looking at the others.
“Pizza and wine, sounds good,” the businessman said, sounding weary beyond his years.
“To digital time,” Jack said, and they drank.
© 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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