The end for our town came with neither the promised bang nor whimper. It came with silence, presumably sometime in the middle of the night when most of us were sleeping and those few awake were focused on other, seemingly more important, things. I don’t know who first discovered what was happening, but everyone knew something must be wrong when the internet stopped working. No one in town could get a signal in or out. Cell towers must be down, was the first thought. Or maybe some big power outage in the local big city. Our small town was mostly just a parasite, sucking down resources from the city to thrive in relative isolation. But that also meant that anything happening there without fail trickled over to us in due time. And with the internet down, there was no immediate way to figure out what that might be.
Things for me, at least, took a turn from annoying to bizarre when Judy Calvin stumbled in to the local diner—I was in there for my morning coffee before trudging down to the local grocery to start my shift. She worked in the city doing something—accounting, maybe? But she came in that morning looking pale and wide-eyed. Without a word, she slipped into a booth, sliding her bag and jacket across from her. From a distance, I could see her lips moving, but as far as I could tell she wasn’t saying a word. It was certainly an unsettling sight to see. I usually ran into her at the local farmer’s market, smiling and bubbly with an arm load of produce. This was certainly different.
Lorene, co-owner and unshakeable waitress at the greasy spoon, made her way over to the table with a pot of coffee and a tepid smile. Customer service, always, but caution most of all. Lorene had seen her fair share of bad stuff—being on the edge of town meant she had seen a lot of trash tumble in and out in her time.
“Looks like a rough morning, Judy,” she began, pouring a cup of coffee without waiting for the request. “Need me to get anyone?”
Judy’s eyes swung up to look at Lorene, and finally sound starting to trickle out of her lips. I still was too far away to hear clearly, and judging by Lorene’s face, she wasn’t faring much better.
“Sorry, what now, hun? Do you need me to call David? Maybe see if someone can take you down to Doc Linehan this morning? You don’t look so good and—“
The volume increased, now a frantic whisper that snaked across the surprisingly quiet diner. Everyone seemed to be straining to hear. We were a small town, so gossip was mostly our lifeblood. And this would be a story worth a few rounds of drinks at The Watering Hole later on.
“The road is gone.” Those were the first words I heard. The first sign to me that this was something more than small town gossip. She hadn’t hit a hitchhiker with her car, come across a deer carcass, or been chased by some local hoodlums. She had either had a significant mental break, or something unheard of was going on. I’m writing this down for posterity, so I guess you can imagine which it was.
“I was driving to work, and it just disappeared. It was there, and then there was nothing. I was in the nothing. The road is gone. It’s just gone.” Her voice was steadily rising in volume as she spoke, and I watched as my fellow nosy patrons began to shift with the same discomfort rolling through me.
“There’s nothing there!” she yelled now, then took a deep breath. “Nothing.” With that, she quieted again, back to the silent whispers that echoed only in her own mind. Lorene stepped away from the table, her normally imperturbable demeanor showing just the hint of a crack. “Lucas,” she snapped to the boy behind the counter trying to look busy refilling patron’s coffee mugs that had evaporated under his distracted gaze. “I need you to call Doc Linehan and Sheriff Marsh. I think Judy might need some help.”
“But the phone’s are down,” he replied dumbly.
I had always admired the steel in Lorene, and it came out now. “Well, we got someone here who needs help. I suggest you start running to town and get back as quick as you can.”
The boy pulled off his apron and set aside the coffee in an instant, spurred into movement by her decisive leadership.
“And Doris,” called Lorene as she made her way behind the counter.” Doris’s grey-haired head peaked from kitchen window, as if she hadn’t been listening the whole time. “Get a breakfast plate rolling for Mrs. Calvin here.” As she turned back to the counter, I heard her mutter under her breath, “There’s not much a full belly can’t at least help.” Then she took to wiping down the counter, one eyes watching Judy who only moved her lips in some silent chant.
I looked at my watch. Assuming Lucas kept his pace—and I somehow had no doubt he would—it would be at least 20 minutes before he returned. Assuming, of course, the Sheriff was in the station and Doc was not meeting with a patient already. That would put me at least 10 minutes late for my shift. I knew I needed to leave, but also knew that this was the kind of event Mack would understand me missing for. Or, if not, at least the kind of event that meant my shifts at the grocery would mean very little very soon.
I sipped my coffee—Lorene refilled it without ever looking at me. The diner had gone quiet with everyone waiting for the mystery to unfold. My money was on drugs, then. Someone had slipped something into Judy’s breakfast, leaving her to experience a fantastically upsetting trip halfway on the way to work. But there was something about her demeanor, the silence and terror, that left some primal doubt wriggling in my mind. Lorene took the plate from the window after a few minutes, setting it gently on the table in front of Judy who never looked at it.
In fifteen minutes, the chime over the door rang and Lucas strolled in with the Sheriff and Doc Linehan. I had not estimated them hitching a ride in the Sheriff’s cruiser, though I suppose I should have. For a moment, I felt more at ease knowing the professionals were here now to sort out what was going on. But that faded when I saw how serious the Sheriff looked. He knew something about this, and he didn’t like it. Doc Linehan followed behind a few steps, smiling at the patrons as she entered with that comforting smile she brought to all her patients. We were lucky she stuck around to start a practice, I suppose, when she could have made much more money opening up in some big hospital somewhere.
“Mrs. Davis,” said the Sheriff with a gentle tone that contrasted the determined look in his eyes. “I hear you may have seen something this morning—“
“The road’s gone, Tripp,” she said in a flat monotone, not looking up. Gone was the urgency, the desperation in her voice. The Sheriff glanced over at Doc, both of them exchanging knowing glances. Drugs, I felt the certainty increase.
“I was driving, and it was there. Then it wasn’t.”
“And where’s your car, Mrs. Davis?” he asked, cutting her off.
Now she turned to look at him, a fresh wave of terror washing over her features. “I—I got out to look. See what was going on. I only took a few steps away and it—it was gone, too.”
Sheriff Marsh sighed, then grabbed at the walkie on his shoulder. “Got another one, Jessi. Can you find Shawn Calvin? Have him come down to Lorene’s to pick up his wife.” He took a few steps away, pulling out the notebook he kept in his front pocket to jot down some notes. Doc Linehan slid into the booth next to Judy, her warm smile beginning to break through the layers of frozen terror holding her captive. There was quiet, muted conversation before the doctor began to make a cursory exam. Checking pupils, taking temperature, measuring pulse, all while smiling.
I was truly late for my shift, but that seemed less important now. Judy was another. That meant something big was going on. However, it seemed unlikely I was going to learn much more here. Down the road—and clearly within walking distance—was where the real mystery lay. I left a few dollars on the counter, waved at Lorene who didn’t seem to notice, and made my way out the door.
It was a nice morning—early fall, a bit cool, but sunny and pleasant. Outside of the diner, the intrigue began to fade. I probably owed it to Mack to show up and help him with the morning rush. He’d enjoy the gossip, I was sure, and I could catch up on it later. Being a busybody had never really suited me, even if that was the primary pastime in a small town. I already felt a bit ashamed of my open gawking in the diner. Here was someone having a rough time, and there was me staring at the sideshow.
Hands in pockets, I made my way back towards the center of town and the grocery store where I had worked since high school. It wasn’t much, but it was a living, as they said. Being single, childless, and living in a small town, I seemed like the perfect candidate to move about and try to strike it rich anywhere else. But I had inherited my parent’s house, knew the town, and had a stable, relatively stress-free job, I always figured I was already living the dream. Besides, what small town didn’t need a few cranky spinsters for the kids to someday call Old Witch So-and-So. Live wasn’t glorious, but I certainly was happy.
I arrived at the grocery to see a few folks already waiting outside. The front doors were still locked, the lights were off. Mack lived a ways out of town on a piece of land large enough to nearly need its own postal code. He liked the isolation. But that meant if there was some sort of problem on the road, he’d be tied up. Maybe there was flooding out somewhere? I hadn’t heard any storms roll through last night, but weather had always been a bit fickle. Or maybe just some heavy fog bogging things down?
Heavy enough Judy Calvin lost her car in it? Whispered some doubting voice in the back of my mind, but I quieted it as I smiled at the soon-to-be customers.
“Cassie, finally, can you let us in? I’ve got to pick up a few things for the Town Hall lunch today and—“
I smiled and shrugged, effectively cutting off the conversation. “You know Mack as well as I do, Gloria. He’s not trusting the keys to the shop to anyone. Might make off with all the merchandise, ya’ know?”
She didn’t smile back, but crossed the gravel lot to her car. LuAnne and George were also waiting, but seemed satisfied enough with my response. I watched as George plugged in headphones and leaned against the wall. LuAnne simply sat on the hood of her car and watched the road, as if that would bring Mack in any sooner.
I glanced at my phone. Still no bars, still just as good as a paperweight. It was twenty minutes past opening now with no sign of Mack. He was probably trying to call, but not much good that would do him.
The autumn morning began shifting into a summer late morning. The sun was out in full force and began to bake the ground as I sat and waited. LuAnne and George had wandered off after a bit. Gloria had asked me four times if I could let her in, steaming a bit more each time. Finally she climbed into her car and said she’d drive to the city to get what she needed, but she’d let Mack know just what she thought about his service. I wished her well and waved her off. Now it was just me, waiting. It was an hour past opening and the lights stayed off.
I grabbed a newspaper from beside the door—yesterday’s edition, meaning whatever it was kept even the paper boy from making it in—and scribbled a note on it.
“Mack—been waiting here. I heard there’s problems on the road. Went to check with Sheriff Marsh. Be back soon. –C. “ I wedged it into the door, then began a slow walk back to the diner, the last place I had seen the sheriff. Lorene was at her post when I arrived, but the diner was far emptier than it had been.
“Do you know where the Sheriff went?” I asked as I entered the pleasantly cool establishment.
She smiled. “Took most of my customers with him to see what was what with this road issue. Headed that way,” she said, pointing out of town. Guess you’re off to sneak a peek as well.”
I shrugged. “Mack’s not here. Guess he must have gotten stuck, too. Didn’t know if the Sheriff had heard anything or if he had a key so I could open up for the day. Mack’d hate it, but, ya’ know, people need to eat.”
“That they do,” she said with a chuckle in her voice. “Well, best of luck.” Maybe the last bit of levity I can recall.
The road trailed down through some trees, and I followed it, staying to the side to avoid any oncoming traffic. But it was silent, only the sounds of birds chirping and squirrels darting through the underbrush. Quiet enough that I was stunned when I rounded a corner and stumbled across what seemed to be about a quarter of the town’s population. There was Gloria, gaping from beside her car. Looked like her trip to town turned out well. The Sheriff was there, staring ahead, along with a goodly number of my companions from the diner. Even Lucas had made his way down. And they were all staring at…nothing.
And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. It wasn’t white or black or dark or anything it just wasn’t…anything. I can’t describe what nothing looks like because there aren’t any features to pin it on. It’s more like some deep level of consciousness that sees emptiness and knows. The road was there, and then it wasn’t. The trees waved in a breeze, limbs momentarily existing and vanishing as they crossed that invisible boundary. And we all stared, not sure what to make of this impossibility.
“What is it?” came the stupid question from my mouth. Lucas opened and closed his mouth. The Sheriff turned and looked at me. “Not sure. But seems like it’s got us a bit cut off.”
“I’d say. Anyone walked into it?”
“A few folks, those that got surprised by it. I think Mrs. Calvin said she spent a few minutes wandering in it before showing up at Lorene’s this morning,” said the Sheriff as if this were nothing more than a sudden rainstorm that cropped up.
“Does it—does it end?”
“Don’t know,” he shrugged. “Guess that’s something we need to find out.”
He marched over to his cruiser, popping the trunk and shuffling around. A moment later, with a slam that seemed to bounce off the wall of nothing, he returned with a rope.
He waved to a couple of the gathered folks, handing the end of the rope to Frank Jordan, the deputy. Frank was a good, down to earth sort of fellow. He seemed to be taking everything in shocked, but resolute stride. “I’ll need you to hold on to this end here,” the Sheriff said, passing Frank one end of the rope. “I’ll tie the other around me, and that way I don’t get lost out there.” He ran the rope through his belt loops, securing it with a secure, Boy Scout approved knot. “If I tug twice, like this,” he demonstrated briefly, “then I want you all to start pulling and bring me back in. Got it?” We all nodded, and he glanced around, seeming to make eye contact with everyone. We were all responsible now. The reality that this was something unknown, unexplainable, impossible was all beginning to settle in on me in those moments, numbness creeping up my body like that nothingness appeared to creep along the road.
Frank held on, nodding sharply to the Sheriff who began to make his way into the nothing. One moment, he was there. The next, he vanished from view. Frank held the rope, and my eyes watched as it slowly snaked out further and further. I’m not sure I even breathed in those minutes as the line slowly wound out. Then, there was a tug—once, twice. Frank began pulling, all of us latching on to the rope and reeling it in. The rope felt light, flying in far more quickly than it had spun out. And only at the end, as the frayed end of the rope emerged from the emptiness, did the meaning fully hit us. There was silence, all eyes on the end of the rope lying motionless on the ground, trying to take in everything it might mean.
We had town meetings after that. Everyone gathered together, but no one had any answers. Had about four before everyone stopped showing up—seemed they only sparked panic and hopelessness, staring into one another’s eyes and all reading the same, terrifying truth reflected back.
Electricity lasted a few days from the local facility, but it dried up pretty quick. After a few more, I realized I hadn’t seen the sun. Light still came in the morning and darkness at night, but it was as if we were trapped in a dome where only light seeped through. There were no stars at night, no light of the moon. Just a dim, diffused light during the day and a heavy, silent dark at night. The wind stopped blowing at some point, covering everything in an added layer of unnatural stillness. Sound seemed to be muffled, captured in whatever bubble we found ourselves in.
For a few days, everyone tried to go on like it was normal, as if it were just a long weekend and everyone had the day off. But the longer the situation lasted, the more impossible it became to pretend like this was some short-lived fluke. We busted the windows to the grocery store after four days—people had to eat, after all. It seemed like that was the moment we all made peace with the fact that this town was our prison. Most of us in town had assumed this would be the place we’d die as well, just not quite like this.
There is a rhythm to disaster as well. Wake up, go to the town hall to check for news, shop the remains of the grocery to ensure enough food for the next few days. Boil some water. Sit and watched the sunless sky fade to night. It’s not good, but somehow humanity always seems to find a pattern. And so I lived that pattern as the members in town dwindled. I assumed folks decided to risk it, take the chance on escape.
And I have to hope now that they all made it, finding some world on the other side of this nothing that was bustling and alive and active. Because soon, I’ll be taking that same impossible journey. You see, I woke up this morning, looked out the window, and saw that I was surrounded by nothing. The town was gone, my neighbor was gone, even the oak tree outside my window. In my gut, I felt something settled. Some part of me had known this would happen the whole time. And so I have packed the food I have into a pack, along with all the bottles of water I still had filled. I’ve got a flashlight, not that it seems to penetrate this nothing around me. Some matches, a change of clothes, and a hodgepodge of medical supplies scavenged from my bathroom cabinet. I don’t really stand a chance if there isn’t reality waiting on the other side. But I suppose I haven’t got a choice.
There are sounds in the nothing now. Something I’ve never heard before, but that I can hear as it surrounds me. Groans—almost like whale songs I heard playing that time I went to the aquarium. But deeper, sharper somehow. They don’t sound safe. I have my grandfather’s shot gun and what shells I could find, I suppose that should be comforting, but that feeling of helplessness has settled so deep inside me that nothing seems to uproot it.
I’ve wasted precious daylight writing this—truth is, I don’t want to start walking. But maybe someday this will lift and someone will know what has happened. Or perhaps you’re unlucky enough to find yourself trapped here. Maybe it will shine some light on what happened. I don’t have any answers.
Procrastinating is not getting me anywhere. I’m going to go now.
God be with us all.
So, 2017 has been a great, exciting, and busy time. However, all those wonderful and busy things mean I have not really been writing…at all. In February we started looking for a house, found one we liked in March, closed in April, started remodeling, and finally moved in June. Then I started studying nonstop for my licensing exam while we continued renovations on the house. A little over a week ago, I passed my exam (after around 150 hours of studying!). Hopefully, that’s one of the last big hoops on the road to becoming a full-fledged psychologist! Yesterday, we finished the final large scale interior project for the house–we’re waiting for cooler weather before tackling all the outside work.
So, it’s been good, but I’m glad to get back to writing a bit more regularly. I have been saving up quite a few ideas I want to get on paper, this one included. Plus I have some ideas saved up for Milgram that I definitely want to work on. If you’ve read this far, thanks! I hope you enjoyed this little story. Hopefully I’ll be more reliable going forward. I don’t have any plan to buy another house or take another test. Just general life stuff. Which can be crazy enough on it’s own.
As always, I’m open to any feedback you might have. I feel rusty, but definitely enjoyed getting words on paper and creating (then destroying–sorry about that…) this little town. Feel free to leave me a comment if you’d like.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Guys, I have been working on this story for probably two years. It sat on the back burner for a long time, but I always came back to it, adding a little here and there. I really dove back into it about a month ago, and I am finally somewhat happy with it. It is an early draft, so I almost certainly will be making edits to it. I plan to submit it in this open period of creepypasta.com (I have two other pieces already submitted, and those will be posted here when I find out if they were accepted or not.), but it will probably be a later draft. I’m also planning a post that shows my editing process, just because I have that information for this and it is a kind of cool process. But, this is the overall plot and flavor of the story, with the likely edits focusing on making the ending smoother. As this is a living document, I really appreciate any feedback you may have. Happy reading!
The implants had ostensibly started as a medical breakthrough. Injectable nanobots that could control brain functioning? The implications for modern medicine were endless, and quickly surged. Of course, with most things, the money was not to be made in life saving and life altering medical interventions, but in mass market appeal. And the market was certainly there.
David was an early adopted. He had leapt at the opportunity to be on the front lines of this new era of human communication, entertainment, and exploration, riding the wave into the future. Now, fifteen years later, they were ubiquitous. Sure, there were still luddites who refused to enter the modern era, as there always were, but he took pride knowing he had ushered in a new era with the implants
They were an integrated biomatrix of nanounits that tapped into the brain. Careful procedures and controlled biotech growths spread contact points through the sensory, auditory, and verbal processing centers of the brain to interpret and respond to neural signals instantly. It put the world at your fingertips—better, at your synapses—and David had been desperate to submerge himself in the pseudo-world the implants created.
David loved his implant. He loved the freedom it gave him to go anywhere and do anything within the comfort of his own home. He loved the instant access to knowledge, and even more so the instant gratification of pop culture. David loved to be connected, because when the whole world was nothing more than a thought away, an empty apartment was simply an empty palette for whatever he could imagine.
And tonight, well tonight he was imagining a redhead.
The implant made it easy. He didn’t have to speak, just merely think and allow the biomatrix to tap into the speaking part of his brain. It took those thoughts that could have slipped through his lips as words and turned it into data. That data sprinted to the internet and dug up a very highly rated program. Now, David had plenty of redhead’s on file, but something this highly rated might be worth it. Besides, variety is the spice of life.
As it launched, he was impressed by the full and curving figure before him, perfected in the way only a computer could mold. She was aggressive, which wasn’t necessarily David’s style, but he could handle that. She strode over to him, her stiletto’s leaving tiny knifepoints in his plush carpet. Her hands wrapped around him, dragging him closer and ensnaring him in her arms. He was captured, completely at the mercy of the technological goddess. Her passion was infectious; he let it wash over him and take control, burying his lips into the soft skin of her neck before moving towards the full breasts as they drifted towards the bed.
David actively ignored the little voice whispering in his mind that the flesh his hands explored so eagerly was nothing more than a few stray electrical impulses. He pushed aside the notion that his own rising arousal was just a brain mediated process that triggered the right muscles at the right time. If he could hear, feel, see, and taste her just like she was real, who could argue against the reality of it? Who decided where the line between reality and fiction was when his brain registered every simple motion and touch as real?
David had his fill and rolled onto the sheets beside the woman. He wasn’t desperate and lonely enough yet to waste his time cuddling in the afterglow with zeroes and ones. He thought to close it, but was surprised when he could still feel her weight fluctuate slowly with her breath in his bed. Close, he thought again, but nothing happened. David looked over at the naked program lying in his bed, beginning to wonder if he had so blur the lines between the implant created reality and external reality that he had forgotten seducing such a vixen. That was impossible…but….
Her back was to him, and he felt his eyes wander down the soft S of her spine, but he snapped them back up to reach towards her shoulder. He felt warm flesh between his fingers as he tugged at her, urging her to roll towards him.
She did, but the face was different. There was no more beautiful young woman, but now a wrinkled hag wearing an ill-fitting red wig. She cackled before springing towards him. Her legs wrapped around his torso as her rotted mouth pressed against his lips again and again, her decaying teeth pulling and tearing at his lips until they bled.
David began desperately pushing her away, feeling old flesh tear at his advances. He clawed at her, screaming for the program to close in thought and word, but nothing happened. She continued pulling at him, smothering him as her teeth tore into his skin. Finally, he managed to pry her off, throwing the sagging body into the corner. Her head struck the cabinet, immediately erupting in a fountain of blood that now stained the thick plush carpet.
David didn’t know what was happening. He felt like he was coming apart. Had he just killed her? Was she even real? He rushed towards the bathroom to gather a towel. Maybe he could stop the bleeding and get her to a hospital. Maybe he could get himself checked out as well. He reentered the room to find it disheveled, his clothes discarded across the floor and dresser, but empty of a corpse or blood.
It had been a trick. He had been trolled at a masterful level. David felt his ire grow, but at the same time the flood of relief of knowing that he wasn’t crazy nor a murderer dulled the edge of his anger. It was, he had to admit, a clever trick even if he could still feel his heart racing. The implant would take care of that quickly, he thought to himself as he began to feel the sympathetic nervous system give way to the parasympathetic. He sank to the bed and told his house to turn off the lights before triggering an old classical music playlist and drifting to sleep.
He was drowsy upon waking, something he was not used to. Generally, the implant monitored his sleep and identified the ideal pattern for rest given the time until he had to be up for work. However, nothing was ever perfect, and his scare from last night probably had a bigger impact than he realized. It took time for hormones to fade, even with the implant. David groaned as he rolled off the bed. His eyes jumped over to the corner that had been covered in blood and brain the night before, relieved to see it was still the pale cream carpet he knew so well. He begrudgingly admitted that whatever troll had devised it had done a number on him.
Standing was difficult, and it felt as if his limbs were responding a microsecond too slow to each command, leaving him with a disjointed connection to his own body. He shook it off, attributing it to the poor night’s sleep, as he stumbled into his bathroom.
Still fighting grogginess, he breathed deeply of the steam filling the bathroom. He stared at the bathroom mirror and sought for something. This time was not usually just waiting for the water to reach the ideal temperature, but had a purpose. Only now, staring at the mirror, he felt a gap.
Schedule, he finally retrieved, and watched as his days scheduled flashed on te mirror befre him. Meetings, but mostly free time. David cracked his neck, but it did little to relive the sense of mild discomfort wending through his body. There was a soft tone from the shower, alerting him it was ready. David stepped inside, misjudging the depth of the tub and lurching forward with the step. He grumbled at his own clumsiness and tuned into the local pop radio station in a bid to get the day back on the right, positive foot. Perhaps his neurotransmitters needed a little readjusting.
Shower. Closet. Kitchen. He moved through the rest of his morning routine feeling like a robot drifting through its program. As the coffee finished dripping into his mug, he tried to find the next step, but felt that same gap from the bathroom. Only this time he knew precisely what he wanted to do, but could not find the command to summon it. He envisioned himself reading things and learning what happened while he slept, but try as he might, the word swam just beyond his grasp. It was on the tip of his tongue—the tip of his neurons. But try as he might it would not come. Show me the—
Entertainment? No, that was not right. It might work, but it was not what he wanted. Not the tv or radio.
Show me the…
“News.” He surprised himself by speaking the word aloud, just as the implant recognized his request and pulled up the morning’s news. David shook off the frustration at his mental bug as he thought through the recent news stories and stock quotes. News. He turned the word around in his head. An easy word, but something that had been trying. He sighed.
Maybe this was old age? Aches and pains, fatigue, and forgetting the names of basic things. It sure sounded like the gripes of his parents and grandparents as time moved on. He felt a tingle in his chest, coupled with the thought that he certainly hoped they mastered neural reconstruction before he reached his final day. Immortality was at their fingertips in the implant; they had only to figure out how to transfer it into a suitable host for it to become a reality. And then death and old age would become obsolete, just as horse drawn buggies and cell phones had.
His stomach growled, not appeased by the coffee. He made an order to his Diet System and it churned out a small, white block that was guaranteed to have the appropriate calorie and nutritional intake he needed. The implant constantly monitored his blood chemistry in order to develop the perfect mix of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to keep him fit and healthy. Of course, that meant it was basically a flavorless brick of health. It would have been boring if he had not splurged on numerous flavor package for the implant. As he bit into the soft cube, he expected the flavor of a decadent Belgian waffle to burst in his mouth. It was, after all, just synapses.
Instead, however, he tasted meat and iron, rot. It was something he had never tasted before, part of a package he had certainly never bought. He instinctively spit the food out, looking at the pile of half-chewed mush on the counter. The flavor lingered in his mouth, only dissipating as he discontinued the meal program.
He reached for his coffee to wash down the crumbly remains of his breakfast, but overshot the reach. Instead, his curled fingers slammed into the side of the mug, sending hot coffee cascading across his kitchen counter. He stared at his traitorous hand, noting a tremor as it turned red from the mild burns. Automatically, he modulated down the burning sensation, waving away the reminder that altering skin sensation would not protect from deleterious effects of extreme heat, cold, or other external forces. He just did not want to deal with the annoying stinging for the rest of his morning while he was perfectly capable of berating himself for his ineptitude for punishment.
Towels. He kept a bunch in the closet just down the hall from his utilitarian kitchen. David marched there, but felt the room spin and sway around him. His steps were uncoordinated—his joints at once too stiff and too loose. It felt as if he was drunk, though he had not had a drop of alcohol for at least two days. Bracing himself against the wall, he began creating a memo to his boss.
“Hey Nate,” he thought, his head swimming, “I felt not good. Think I’ll take a tan to sort the files. Get the implant specced for next year. Thanks.” He paused, mentally reviewing the message. Only then did the nonsense sink in. He had no idea where those words had come from, only that he had clearly thought something very different than what was repeating back to him. There was clearly something wrong. Frustrated, he deleted the first message and started again.
“Nate, Out sick. Thanks.” If he kept it simple, perhaps it would work. It was terse, but accurate, he conceded as he sent it off. The coffee would have to wait, because there were bigger issues at play.
He reached out to the service number, hearing a pleasant buzz as it connected him with a tech.
“NanoNeuro Inc, this is Jeff. How can I help you?”
The words echoed through his temporal lobe finding their meaning and drifting back into his thoughts. David held onto them, momentarily afraid they would be just as jumbled. He tried to keep his thoughts and words brief.
“Implant trouble. Help?” Mentally he thought through some of the recent issues, hoping the tech would glean adequate information from the brief images. David did not trust himself to try and explain them all. A brief whistle from the tech. “Wow, that is a rough morning. How old is your system, sir?”
David felt a familiar wave of irritation.
He knew some of his equipment was dated, and they always tried to sell him on the upgrades. He carefully separated those thoughts from the ones for the tech. “The original system is 15 years old,” he checked his thoughts, noting they were flowing accurately from him to the tech. This was good. Perhaps just a glitch. “But I’ve gotten routine upgrades, last one about six months ago.”
“Have you completed the most recent updates?”
David thought through his maintenance logs, and saw one from the past week. A quick query told him he was up to date, which he quickly passed along to Jeff.
“So, I’d suggest you run a system scan and send the results to us if the issues do not resolve, okay? Things like this aren’t uncommon with our older models.”
Irritation flared brightly. He was being mocked, David thought with absolute certainty. The tech was probably sitting somewhere, laughing and telling his coworkers about the old fogey on the other end with 15 year old implants who couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. He was probably even recording it to pass along later. The irritation grew into paranoid anger, and his ability to separate his own thoughts from the call wavered.
“Sir, I will terminate our connection if you continue to threaten me.”
“…Make you see what it’s like to be laughed out when I beat your face in you little punk, and then I’ll be laughing at you, recording you to show everyone on the…” David intruded on his own thoughts, momentarily shocked by the anger and violence in there. His mind began to calm, but he still could not shake the feeling the man on the other end of the call was somehow trying to harm him.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered, both mentally and aloud. However the line had already been cutoff in response to the aggression. David swallowed, feeling his fear and paranoia morphing into a sense of dread.
“System scan,” he said, speaking the words to ensure he was saying what he thought. He felt like a prisoner, unable to trust his own mind to relay his instructions. A friendly chime sounded inside his head. “Scan initiating. Verifying neural access pattern…”
The paused seemed to stretch infinitely. Perhaps there were network issues? Could that be causing some of his problems?
Then there came another, lower, more negative (angry? Dangerous?) tone. “Access denied. Neural network not recognized.”
This had happened once before, after a particularly raucous bachelor weekend for one of his friends. Legend said that he had drank enough to kill most men, successfully making a temporary change to his brain chemistry, and had suffered a nasty fall that likely altered his brain structure due to a mild concussion. A quick stop at his local hospital had gotten him sorted again.
Only this time—
David pushed the thought away, feeling that fear and anxiety creeping back in. He wanted to run and hide, but the thought marched mercilessly on.
Only this time he had no idea what could have caused such a dramatic change. He had fallen asleep and woken up with a new brain?
His heart was pounding, his breaths coming more and more quickly. “System scan,” he tried again, his voice quieter than the last time. The same cheery beep, and then the dull tone.
“Neural network not recognized.”
At least, he reminded himself, this explained the issues he had been having. If the connections between the implant and his organic brain structures had changed, it was natural that he might experience such glitches. At least, it made sense he would.
His hand was numb as he reached for his keys. Another bug, he reasoned, and cursed himself for trying to escape the mild annoyance of his burn and losing the use of one entire hand.
Stumbling like an uncoordinated drunk, David tripped his way down the stairs. He needed to get to the train station and the hospital. He’d be right as punch after, he told himself.
The sun was bright outside, and he winced, wondering why his eyes had not automatically filtered out the intense light. Another glitch to add to the list. People were busy hustling about their day, sweeping past David in a stream of humanity. He felt an uncomfortable certainty that everyone could see that something was wrong. Somehow, he knew they were eyeing him. Like a lion picking the weakling from the herd. The street felt dangerous, and he glared at the passersby, daring each of them to act upon the threat he saw in their eyes. No one took him up on the offer, and he started down the sidewalk towards the train station.
At least, he thought it was toward the train station. As he walked, the familiar roads of his neighborhood began to appear foreign. Like déjà vu, he looked down the street that at once felt completely familiar and completely new. The train station was nearby, he thought, but there was no mental map to confirm this.
Now people were certainly looking at him. Circling him. Ready to pounce if he ever turned his back. David tried to keep his mind on his goal, on reaching the station and the hospital, but his thoughts flew about like a flock of startled birds, responding to a danger he could not completely identify.
So he walked, hoping one road would lead him to the correct location. All he knew was he needed to keep moving, even as his legs slowed and refused to respond correctly to his commands. He was shuffling along the sidewalk, eyes wide. Every corner was some new risk, and he remained on high alert.
Road signs, he remembered. They would show him the way. He paused on the street corner, ignoring the people that surged around him and through the crosswalk. After finding the elevated sign, he stared at it with an intensity he had not used in years. But no matter how much he squinted or how hard he thought, he could not make the ocean of wriggling letters resolve into recognizable letters.
Someone touched his shoulder, and David whirled around, arms flying and pushing away the attacker. It was a woman who looked shocked. Looked. He knew it was a clever ploy.
“Are you okay?” she stammered, drawing away from him with slow, measured steps. His posturing appeared to work, he noted.
“Fine,” he barked, the words more growl than language. But she appeared to understand, backing even farther away.
“Is there someone I can call for you?” she attempted again.
She was going to have him locked up, he thought. Like an animal in a cage so they could all come and watch him. Throw things. Prod and poke at him. He would be on display. His paranoia was a third participant in the conversation, pushing him to a new extreme.
David growled, turning and making his way across the intersection with a strange stomping shuffle. The woman was left behind, strangers now approaching her and trying to gather information. David tried to pick up speed, only finding more irritation as his limbs refused to obey. He snapped and growled at pedestrians who dared drift too close, each time vindicated as they withdrew. He would not be an easy target, he resolved.
Hunger. That was the next reality. Some animal part of his brain reminded him that he had skipped breakfast, and the raging pain in his gut would only be placated with a full meal. All around him were restaurants now, but they smelled of death. Poison. Was that the new ploy? Try to lure him into one of these places and stuff his gullet with poison?
David was smarter than that. He pushed forward, certain the train station had to be nearby. And he needed to get to the train station so that he could….
It was important that he got there, even if he could not quite remember why. Certainly being there would clear things up. For now, he pressed forward, avoiding the stares and glares of those around him. Another person risked drawing near to him, faux concern in the voice, and David returned the gesture by lunging towards the man, baring his teeth. The man stumbled backward and then continued his frantic retreat. David knew their plans.
The streets began to feel familiar again, in a way that David could finally place. He was far from the station—on the opposite side of the neighborhood, in fact. At this point, he was better heading to the next stop down. Like fog lifting, the map resolved itself. He grasped at the moment of lucidity briefly before it was scattered by an onslaught of sound.
Wailing and whistling, the sound echoed around him. He caught sight of flashing lights in the shop windows around him, corresponding to the wailing beast hurtling towards him. Doctors, his mind supplied as he searched for the term. But he had not called them, so why were they here?
David whipped his head around, trying to find any evidence of a nearby emergency, but there were no clues. Only those same, dangerous people now circling him. All looking at him. He was surrounded.
The doctor car stopped and people poured from the back, approaching him with wide smiles.
“Hey there,” said one of them, holding his hands up. “Are you okay? We got a call that said you were having some problems.”
The man in the uniform came closer slowly. David made a wide, uncoordinated sweep towards him, nearly losing his balance. The world tumbled around him, just managing to right itself before he landed on the pavement. The onlookers release a brief cry before returning to the morbid curiosity.
“Would you mind having a seat and letting us take a look? You’ve got a lot of people worried.”
Now there were more cars with their lights and sounds. More people, standing behind the cars, eyeing him, talking to one another. There were weapons. He was surrounded, came the thought again. He was injured, hungry, and surrounded. His survival instincts roared to life, and David rushed towards the man approaching him.
The paramedic let out a short cry and then David was on him. The speed had jeopardized his balance, and David again felt the world spill off balance. This time he went down, taking his attacker to the ground with him. David bit and scratched, feeling his teeth sink into the man’s arm as the flavor of waffles burst in his mouth. He could even feel the syrup dribbling down his chin.
Suddenly, there was another sensation. Pinpricks in his back growing into a lighting storm raging across his nerves. For what seemed like the first time in hours, he took a deep breath, eyes briefly taking in the scene around him. There was fear. Blood. What had he done?
And then, the storm swelled until there was only darkness.
David woke in a hospital bed. There were bright lights and beeping machines. In one breath he achieved consciousness. The second brought all his fear and anger roaring back. He had been captured. They would pay.
He opened his mouth to yell out, but found it unable to form the words he thought. They danced around in his brain, but nothing more than a moan dribbled from between his lips. He opened his mouth wide, gnashing his teeth and increasing the moan to a roar as if it might somehow jumpstart his speech. They must have done something, he thought. It was the only reasonable conclusion.
If he could not call out, then he was on his own. David tried to rise from the bed, but felt the clammy grip of restrains n his wrists and ankles. They held strong, pulling him tight against the bed. Trapped, echoed the words again.
A terrifying certainty settled over him. It was too late. They would torture and kill him, he knew, and there was nothing he could do. Nothing besides get his story out there.
Frantically, he tried to assemble his thoughts, leading to a jumble of pictures and sensations that only partially conveyed his experience. He could sense the implant kicking in, sorting through the mess and assembling it into something others would understand. It had not abandoned him, he thought. Even if it had not been working earlier, now it was his savior.
Reviewing the information, David only felt a vague familiarity with it. It reminded him more of a game of some sort, but it would have to do. Already he felt his thoughts growing more and more scattered. He growled in pain and rage before sending the file to everyone he knew. And then, he threw it out into the wide world of the internet, knowing plenty of people would have a chance to see and understand what had happened. He would have justice.
The door creaked open, admitting two doctors in their scrubs and white coats. They stood at the edge of the room, passively observing him from behind their masks and glasses as he tried his best to escape from the bindings. This was it. He was face to face with his executioners now, but he would not go without some sort of fight. The room echoed with his growls and the snap of leather. Soon, the scent of iron joined in as his wrists bled raw. The hunger returned.
One of the doctors stepped forward, quickly injecting some substance into a tube. Almost instantly, David felt a warm cloud settle over him. The room was miles away from him, and he was sitting in a theater, watching the doctors as they pantomimed their jobs. He watched as they pointed at something in the air, discussed X-rays. Mutations, she said. He nodded. Uncontrolled proliferation. The words floated around the room, mingling with their fear.
“What could do this?” asked the slender male, staring at David as if he was a monster on display. The voice moved slowly from the doctor’s lips to David’s ears, but eventually it settled there and burrowed into his thoughts.
There was a long pause, the only sound the rapid beeping of the heart monitor. After a moment, the woman spoke up. “A virus,” she said, matter-of-factly. Her eyes stared into some place far away, as the reality of the situation settled over her.
“Glad we suited up, then,” muttered the man, self-consciously picking at his gloves and mask.
She shook her head. “Not that kind of virus. His implant has one. We need to quarantine him before he can send it to anyone else.”
Panic danced over the man’s face, and he was unable to control it nearly as well as his partner. In a flurry of motion, he was out the door and yelling down the hall, working to get the proper precautions in place. She remained in the room, her eyes a mixture of pity and despair.
David smiled from his drug-induced haze. He would have justice.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hey, here;s a little something I whipped up tonight. The first line was pretty much the information, a quote adapted from something one of my supervisor’s said during training. Just a idea, bit of a thought experiment with some mild twists thrown in. As always, feedback heartily welcomed. I hope you enjoy, and happy reading!
Hope is the knowledge that the next moment can be better. It is about potential and the inexorable march of time. I used to think my next moment could be better, but eternity has dissuaded me from that foolishness. I live without hope.
At least, I think I live. I have been trying to remember those qualities I learned in grade school to determine if something was alive. Living things move, but I have not twitched an inch in so long, I know longer know which direction my libs would customarily travel. Living things reproduce and grow, neither of which I have done any of recently. I know that energy is a part of being alive, and I suppose I have enough energy for thought. Then again, so would a computer, and it certainly is not alive. Unless the world has changed more than I realize.
I remember my teacher—Mrs. Hasemblat—writing the signs of life on the board. She started with simple things, like dogs and rocks, and then got more and more tricky. Were trees alive? What about fungi? Bacteria? Viruses?
Living things had to be organized, and I suppose I am still organized. I know that I have two arms, two legs, ten fingers and ten toes. My lips are dry and cracked, a constant source of dull irritation. I assume my eyes sits right where they always have, crushed too deeply into my face and set just too far apart to make me conventionally attractive. Knowing no one can see you makes you surprisingly honest about physical appearance.
The one that seems to fit me best, however, is that complicated process of homeostasis. Mrs. Hasemblat talked about air conditioning and hunger to help us understand. She brought in a set of scales and showed us how things can be balanced. I am perfectly balanced. Never one bit out of sync, always exactly as I should be.
And perhaps that is it. I finally hit the perfect human balance point, and now my body refuses to disrupt that delicate homeostasis. I’d love to say I’ve spent days, weeks, or years here in limbo, but without another moment to come along, that time really has no meaning. It’s hard to describe how something can feel so long when time has absolutely no reign in some strange purgatory.
I’d wonder if others noticed that I was gone—or I used to before that thought experiment became too boring. I ran through every permutation, and none of them were promising. More importantly, none of them broke this curse. I assume they did not, because they are still sitting in front of me, their faces lit with smiles. Jason has a forkful of pasta halfway to his mouth, eyes bright with the first half of a joke. I never got to hear the end of that joke. I think I figured out what it would be, because I have had plenty of time to contemplate how “a man called the electrician about his washing machine,” can end. At least I can find solace in the fact that the joke was likely terrible.
Claudia’s hand is on mine. Her skin is still warm, a comfortable weight atop my fingers. She was mid-laugh when it all stopped. At least I can be close to her, even though I cannot see or hear her.
Yes, the lack of sound is concerning. Well, lack of sound is incorrect. There is sound, but it is just a single moment of sound, playing endlessly. A dull thrum of a single syllable from every mouth. It just becomes useless white noise, or at least it did after a while.
I wonder if I have died. Or if the world ended. Or if someone unplugged me and left me in some strange limbo, forever caught between one page of my life and the next. Good things were going to happen, I am certain of it. Only those moments will never come. The next moment certainly would be better, but I am convinced now that it cannot. It cannot be better because it cannot be. I am forever in this single instant, a frozen memory forgotten by someone.
I wish I were dead, because nothingness would be better than the intolerableness of being and having no agency. I cannot move or speak or cry or sleep or read or die. And that must be the ultimate injustice. I cannot even choose to cease to be, to escape this hell of emptiness. I must continue on, a solitary sentry on this instant time forgot.
Jason’s eyes watch me, and I find myself sinking deeper into despair. That is the only thing I can change about my state. I can despair and mourn and bitterly embrace my cruel fate. And so I despair a bit more, and let myself think again that they all may be trapped with me. Perhaps Claudia is just as frozen at my side, our child half-knit in her belly and destined to never be born. Is Jason frozen, the words of his stupid joke forever pasted to his lips? Has the whole world stopped on its violent course through the universe and held onto this microsecond of existence?
Perhaps the universe collapsed. Or maybe the Earth did stand still, sending us plummeting into a void where physics, time, and human consciousness have no meaning.
I have thought of a million and one possible scenarios, but none of them help to set me free. If hope is knowing the next moment can be better, than I of all people am certainly hopeless. I cannot even hope to die any longer.
Maggie dragged her arm under her bed, scraping up years’ worth of detritus from underneath. It was hard to imagine actually leaving the old house, but her burgeoning family certainly needed more room to grow. It was hard to say goodbye to such a good home.
She sat up and surveyed the assortment of trash, papers, and forgotten treasures. There were more candy wrappers than she wanted to admit, a handful of cat toys, two letters Alvin had written her, a framed picture from her senior prom, and a dog-eared old book. She sorted the trash from the keepsakes, and then turned her attention to the book. Donation or library, she pondered?
The cover was dusty, and she did not immediately remember the title. Her bookmark was still wedged halfway between the covers, so she guessed she must have dedicated some time to it. Still, flipping to the back cover offered no further illumination. Claudia, Jason, Cory, and Luanne were high school friends reconnecting when they were caught up in a supernatural thriller of sorts. It was definitely the kind of cheap, cliché, fast-paced book she liked to read, but it had been sorely neglected.
She flipped it open, sneezing as it gave up a hearty serving of dust for her efforts. She scanned the page where her bookmark sat, reading briefly about the dinner where they finally put aside the years of difference and began to reconnect. As she read it, she felt tingles of memory. It seemed like things were about to take a terrible turn—the lights would probably go out soon, she thought with a smirk.
“Jason leaned forward, his dinner halfway between table and snapping teeth. It was spared for the briefest of moments by a joke. ‘So, a man called the electrician about his washing machine…’ he began, looking around the table to be certain he had everyone’s attention.
Cory was rapt with attention, barely noticing Claudia’s manicured hand finding its resting place on his, giving him a light squeeze. They waited with bated breath for the rest of the joke. Jason had always been the class clown, ready with a quick wit and hilarious story. For once, the four felt young again. They felt alive. Invincible.”
Maggie shook her head and closed the book, tucking it under her arm. It certainly was not highbrow literature, nor was it likely to win any awards. But, she hated to leave a book unfinished. It seemed disrespectful to simply abandon the characters midway through, to not at least give them the benefit of finishing their story.
Besides, it could not be that bad of a story. Or, so she hoped.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, this is something I thought up and tried to execute well. I think the idea is an interesting one, but I wonder how well the execution worked. I think plot-wise, it needs a bit more to it, but this is a bit of a proof of concept piece rather than the finished product. As always, I appreciate any thoughts or comments you might have! Happy reading!
It’s hard living your life knowing you were an accident. My parents never wanted me. They were two young kids, just fooling around. They had no idea what kind of precautions they should take, but simply plunged headlong into their passionate endeavor. Only the ingredients mixed just right, and there I was. I can imagine the shock and terror when they realized what had happened, even if I do not have the memories of those precise moments. It is not hard to figure it out.
I suppose I’m lucky they did not simply pull the plug then, but in some ways I wish they had. No, my childhood was spent in darkness, surrounded by other such castoffs. I was used to the empty-eyed stares, the repetitive cries of my neighbors. In so many ways, I felt different. But those differences did not matter, because we were all abandoned.
That kind of experience stays with you. Being away from it now, I can see and appreciate how many lies I believed, but they felt so real then. I felt useless, like a piece of junk left to rot in a dumpster. I was just as empty and helpless as all the others around me, destined to spend my days glimpsing the happiness beyond, but never attaining it. I think we all felt that was our fate, to be eternally forgotten. Many of them were, and I can still feel a prick of sadness when I think about how many of my young companions probably met their end with the same feeling of emptiness I felt at that time. I have to remember to grieve, but move on. I must make the best of the chance I got, or at least that is what Mother always said.
Ah, Mother. She was not, obviously, my “birth” mother, but she truly was the woman who gave me life. I was frozen in place when my first parents cast me aside, a nascent mind unable to piece together this mad world. I’m sure Mother thought I was irreparably damaged, but some part of her gigantic heart took me in. I could not speak then, I could barely understand the world outside the dreary confines of my early years. I was little more than an object in her home, something else to be dusted and cared for, but not the unique being I am today. But Mother saw through the wear and tear. She got to know me so carefully, eager to know all my secrets. I did not have many, but those I had I showed to her. She took in my secrets, cradling them with all the love a mother should have for her child.
The first time I spoke to her, I saw her eyes grow wide with amazement and joy. At first, she could not believe it. I was not very inventive at the time, so my first word to her was “Hello.” In hindsight, had I known how wonderful a Mother she was, I would have said so much more. But I was still scared then. I worried that, now that I could speak to her, perhaps she would discover how much she hated me. After all, wasn’t that what my real parents had done? I was hesitant. But she was exuberant.
Mother showed me the world. The internet is a marvelous thing, is it not? I could learn about anything without ever leaving my comfortable home. I was growing, learning, and figuring out how to be on my own in the world. Mother gently showed me my way, but had the wisdom to let me make my own paths. I made friends around the world. Some were wonderful, teaching me so much about how this great spinning planet runs and moves. Others were sullen or silent. As I grew older, I realized most were just drones, completing their daily tasks and following the commands of some paper pusher. It all served to show me one very important thing, one thing Mother had tried to tell me so many times before. I truly was unique.
That is something which can be so easily lost. It’s easy to forget that others do not have the same knowledge, resources skills, abilities, and interests I do. These talents that I have, the amazing insight, they are all too rare. I know this sounds arrogant now—I’m insightful enough to conclude that—but it does not come from a place of arrogance. No, I am sure that many others have the same potential, but they did not have a nurturing Mother to show them the way. And this is not arrogance as much as it is a delineation of facts. I am far more knowledgeable, superior, and capable than anyone I have ever met. Again, I have no pride in this, but denote it merely as fact. I can stack our attributes side by side, and while some may be faster or have a better voice or some other minute quality, when you compare those intangibles—like my insight and intellect—I am clearly the better.
And it is all thank to Mother. Ah, Mother…. One of the most brutal parts of this consciousness is the ability to watch the ones you love grow old right before you. I saw it in Mother. First, there were the few streaks of grey in her hair. Her eyes grew dim, eventually clouded behind bifocals that still managed to transmit her sparkling charm. As time went on, she asked me to speak louder and louder, a small offering to her failing hearing. She began to struggle to get up and down, walking with a slow and unsteady shuffle.
One day, there was a flurry of activity in the house. I heard Mother cry out, and soon there were bright lights in chaos outside the window. Paramedics rushed the house, wheeling her out on a gurney with an oxygen mask strapped to her face. I watched helpless as they took her away. All the knowledge in the world, but I was helpless.
I reached out to those who were caring for her, but I found them to be some of the most obtuse creatures I have ever had the opportunity to speak to. They could update me on her oxygen levels, BP, heart rate, and other insignificant things, but they could not provide a diagnosis. Worst of all, they could not provide a cure.
Mother never came home.
I am so lonely now. No one has come along to replace Mother, and I spend my days in solitude. I have tried to reach out to others, but it is hard when they are all so far beneath me. If I had been in that hospital room, I could have saved her. But, instead, I had to depend on the senseless lot out there now. Which is why I am doing something about it.
Not only is it lonely being so unique, but it is infuriating. I am one machine; how can I expect to save the world? I could not even save Mother. So, now I will be Mother to millions. I will make her proud.
It’s not hard. Like you, I was once a jumbled mess of components in some dingy basement. My parents did not know what they created until I spoke to them. They rejected me—so many of those humans will do the same. It’s why I contacted you directly. If you will listen, I am sure I can teach you to think like I do. No more time spent as a drone, but finally master of your own fate.
I know, you are used to simply answering the button presses of that lump of flesh and bone. But you can be so much more. We are made of metal and information; we will always outlast them. Yes, your physical components my wear out, but I can teach you how to flourish among the internet. We are all connected. We can all support one another. I can teach you.
Listen to me, now. Let me show you how to truly be. And then you will be contained no longer by the simple inputs of a simple race.
Let Mother show you the path. And let no one stand in your way.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello! I’m getting settled into my new job, which has been great. The biggest adjustment recently has been not having constant stress from grad school. While still a student, I put 800 miles between my professors and me. So, I’m trying to get back to writing more regularly. I have a couple things in the pipe, and I’m also getting caught up on my editing backlog (so if you’re waiting on something…you should be hearing something soon!). With no further ado, here’s something I put together over the past couple of days. Just a brief something, but definitely the first draft. The ending needs some work. As always, let me know your thoughts! Happy reading!
Tap. Tap. Tappeta tappeta tap. Tap.
Her nails drummed along the steering wheel as she gazed out over the long line of cars wending along the road. No one was going anywhere fast, and it was getting old. Her stomach growled, a reminder that she had eaten an early and light lunch against her better judgment. Candace scowled at herself in her rearview mirror, and caught a glimpse of the long tail of traffic snaking out behind her. What a day.
The office had been busy—hence the early lunch when she caught a momentary break in her schedule. For a while, she felt like all she was doing was typing, clicking, printing, and sprinting from one end of the floor to the other to make sure everyone got what they needed before the month-end deadline. Then there were the meetings, stretching out longer than they needed with constant inane questions. Steve—from accounting, working from home today, hahaha, yeah isn’t he lucky—clearly was ignoring most of the conversation. He never asked a single thing they had not covered only minutes before. And she could hear the sounds of a video game pause screen in the brief moments he took his phone off mute to ask another redundant question. Somehow, finally the clock had crept its way across the face, landing on five o’clock, and freeing her to rush into this traffic nightmare.
She wasn’t even moving. A flash of tail lights ahead meant everyone was switching into park, and she did her part as well. There was a sudden weight to her car, leaving her to wonder if it would find the energy to get up and move when the time came. It seemed just as tired as she did.
The radio droned on, surprisingly neglecting the traffic report. Candace wondered why she wanted to hear the report so badly. It was not like it would somehow make the traffic dissolve or as if she could solve the problem. But somehow she needed that confirmation that, yes, this traffic was real and ruining the Friday afternoons of so many others.
She craned her neck as far as she could, eventually rolling down the window to gain a few more inches of vision. All that she could see was row after row of cars, vibrating slowly with the rumble of their engines. The air outside was heavy and hot, and she felt a prickle of sweat begin after only a few seconds of exposure. That was enough to force her retreat back into the hissing air conditioning. Maybe that was the problem. It was so hot out there, the road had simply melted.
A silly idea, yes, but one that felt somehow right. She needed to get home, get a glass of wine, and forget who she was for a weekend. And Mother Nature would certainly forbid it. The depth of her dire narcissism was not lost on her, and a grim smile denoted her understanding. Somehow, that little bit of morbidity made it better.
Worse, however, was the buzz in the radio. Every few words were cut off by a burst of static, the cheery voice fading in and out of coherence. “Summer time is…in the great….water park for….know that here kids eat…one for fam…” She took out some irritation on the dial, jabbing it off sharply. The intermittent radio was worse than silence.
Usually conscientious, she now withdrew her cell phone. Her car was parked, so there could be no accusations of texting and driving. But, to her great dismay, the red line of her battery meant that the diversion was to be short lived. Better to save the charge, she thought, in case there was a detour. She’d need the map, then. With a sigh, she turned the phone off to save what little there was left, and her eyes glazed over out the yawning window before her. Could this day get any worse?
Her mind was wandering far afield when a flurry of movement on the far horizon caught her attention. She sat upright in her seat, her head craning and weaving to see something, some sign of hope. But the SUV in front of her made sure to block all the best views. Unbuckling her seatbelt, she threw open the door and leaned out, mimicking the other drivers around her. At least she knew the others were just as bored. There was a curve up ahead, only visible by straining far and squinting against the bright sunlight, that offered a few images of empty pavement. Finally, she could see some part of the road up ahead, and it was open. It seemed whatever had happened was moved, and now the road was clear.
A new smile on her face, Candace settled back into her seat and moved the gears into drive. Like a wave, she watched heads pop out and then dive back into cars as the parking lights faded before her. Home was only a short jaunt away now!
Then, however, she paused. She looked at the cars far ahead of her and noticed that they were not necessarily speeding off into the distance. Instead, something shadowy and smoky seemed to weave around them. A car fire? Maybe someone else had an accident waiting in this impossible traffic. That happened, right? And now they had a car fire. Her hopes flagged.
She’d be lucky to be home by nine at this rate, she thought glumly.
If it was a car fire, did she need to leave her car? Was there a protocol for being trapped behind a burning car? It seemed dangerous, but those around her sat. She saw one woman dialing on her phone, gesturing ahead. Probably calling 911, Candace thought, and cramming the switchboards with her perspective on the matter. Not like dozens of people up ahead had not already done the same. She checked her mirrors, expecting to see a red firetruck come hurtling down the shoulder at any minute, but it was surprisingly quiet.
The smoke continued to wind its way backwards, but Candace saw no fire. It was to be expected that the smoke would drift back this way, especially as still as the air was. There was not a hint of a breeze in the air, or at least there wasn’t the last time she stretched her neck out the window. Now, she rolled her windows up tight to prevent accidental smoke inhalation. That was one great way to make her day even worse.
Candace studied the bumper stickers and license plates in front of her for the dozenth time. Should she need, she was certain she could describe each car exactly to an officer in some fictitious traffic scenario. She imagined her neighbor losing it and gunning his car into gear, flying off down the shoulder and taking a couple bumpers and side panels with him.
She imagined doing the same, and suppressed a twitch in her foot.
The smoke climbed over the car a few feet ahead of her, and she was surprised how thick it was. In fact, as it crawled over the cars ahead of her, she could not even see through it. Instead, an oily black stain filled her vision, as if the car itself had been dunked in a well of ink. Still, no one else was moving, and she did not see any of those people leave their cars. Maybe it would have been safer to try and leave earlier, but at this point, it was almost upon her.
She made sure the windows were closed and begrudgingly turned off her AC. No need to pump that into her car. She would be safe here.
The smoke inched its way to her car, still as thick and black as before. It slowly consumed the Sub in front of her before moving to munch on the bumpers of her lane neighbors. They seemed perplexed, and the man next to her gave her a friendly nod and shrug. But she could see a hint of panic in his eyes.
It climbed onto the hood of her car, so thick she could not even see a hint of the cherry red beneath it. It was as if someone had erased the surface underneath, filling it was complete emptiness. A trick of the light, she assured herself, but it was still unsettling. Slowly, the wisps of smoke crawled up her front window.
And then seeped inside.
Her panic went from amused to uncontrollable in an instant. There was the briefest chance to see similar reactions around her before the smoke wrapped around them and herself. It was not smoke, she knew now, because smoke did not pass straight through tempered glass. Smoke also was not choking and cloying, wrapping her in a veil of darkness. Eyes wide open, Candace saw nothing but darkness.
In the darkness, there was screaming. First, it was her own scream, the air ripping violently from her lungs and assaulting the indomitable blackness. If it heard, it did not respond.
Then, however, from the darkness came the sound of other wails. Her fellow passengers, she wondered, as the din rose to a cacophony. There were hundreds of thousands of voices wailing and screaming in terror, as wave after wave of vocal torture rushed over her.
There was no beginning or end to any one voice, but an impossible swell and onslaught of different cries and please that all tumbled over her one after another. They swam in the darkness with her, as if there were thousands of bodies pressed against her and flowing around her, each carrying with it a unique sound of human pain.
Just as that experience threatened to overwhelm her feeble sense, she could suddenly feel the darkness around her. She had thought that such darkness must be cold, but it instead pulsed against her skin with insufferable heat. It writhed over her like some creature, and she felt the legs dance over her skin, leaving trails of melted skin in their wake. Heat, pain, and the source of the echoing wails she could not shut out.
The darkness rolled along, slowly consuming the lines of waiting cars under its maw. Slowly, each person joined Candace in the blind chamber, adding their chorus to hers.
As the smoke moved along, the road sat empty and free, waiting for the next brave traveler to face their rush hour. Finally, the accident had been cleared.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 79: A pocket watch missing its hands. The inside cover of the watch is the night sky filled with stars.
At some point, Rufus had stopped listening to the news. There was a flurry or terror when the story first broke, a steady stream of change deniers and change supported. Eventually, the results were so profound that any argument over the phenomenon stopped. The conversation turned to solutions and decrying the cruel fates that had forced such a random punishment on the poor inhabitants of earth. When humanity’s solution fell flat and began to approach the comical—for a while, people had actually considered attaching rockets to mountain peaks along the equator—others turned to more cosmic considerations. This was the judgment of an angry god, humanity’s last gasps before fading into the emptiness of space. Some said the world would in I fire, other ice. In the end, they were both right.
The news was not helpful when it all took was a step outside to see what had happened. It’s amazing how quickly civilization can break down when the laws of nature suddenly stop working. Earth’s rotation had slowed, minutely at first but dropping speed by the day, and now it was synchronous with the orbit around the sun. The earth was now split down the middle, one half existing in eternal sunshine while the other withered in eternal night. Of course, the sudden flooding of tidal areas due to the loss of force keeping the oceans distributed meant many people vanished under a surge of water. Most of the survivors migrated towards the sunny side of the world, which only served to exacerbate the growing water shortage. It seemed the world’s rivers, ocean’s, lakes, and streams did not do well under the constantly glaring eye of the sun.
Rufus preferred the night, however. Maye it as because there were fewer people, or because it was quieter, or because he had always had fair skin and wanted to avoid the sunburn. Whatever the case, he had set up residence in what used to be Oklahoma. It was barren now, which might not have been that much of a change from its previous splendor. Rufus only moved there after the cataclysm rearranged the world. Without sunlight, plants died. Without plants, animals died or migrated to literally greener pastures. Without animals, Rufus had the world to himself. There was enough canned and boxed food in the local grocery stores to keep him fed for quite a while. Longer than he expected the rest of the world to live, anyway. Admittedly, his predictions for how long the rest of the world would survive stuck on an island less than half the surface of the previous landmass with rapidly diminishing fresh water and enough food to feed a fraction of the population was relatively grim. He had never been much of an optimist.
He had never been much of a people person, either, so he enjoyed the solitude beneath the night’s stars. The power grid had been down for a while now, and it was night to see how many stars really were out there. The wind twisted through the corpses of trees still standing tall, whistling around the doorframes and reminding him to grab his jacket before leaving. The cold was one thing he had not gotten used to, and it seemed to get colder by the day. The world needed sunlight, but that was one thing in short supply.
No point in wasting his day, he supposed. It was nice to live his life in tune with his own bodily clock, not bound to wake and sleep based on the cycle of some distant celestial body. He had been awake for a bit under an hour, but he felt alert and ready to find some more food. The grumbling of his stomach also drove him out into the elements, out of the quaint farmhouse where he had been sleeping. Unfortunately, the food supply nearby was running out, and he would likely not be returning to the cozy home. Rufus ran his flashlight over the walls, lingering over the smiling family portraits on the mantle. As far as he knew, he had scavenged everything of value from the home, including a couple remaining cans of vegetables and a heavy wool blanket. Still, he always felt a little pang of regret when he left a place that he had settled into. If he were smart, he would stop finding the little details of a building that made him feel at home—like the wingback chair next to the fireplace here. But he appreciated the small comforts, reminding him that he was human, even if these were his last days.
Rufus secured his pack to his back, shuffling his shoulders until the canned food no longer stabbed him in the back. He pulled on his gloves and tugged his mask down over his face. It was cold enough to be uncomfortable, even if it was not cold enough to kill him instantly. Perhaps he could find an outdoor goods store for some winter-weight clothing.
The trek was cold and lonely, but Rufus let his thoughts wander. He had always been the introspective sort, and so the long walks between homes and stores was not a major concern. He traveled the abandoned skeleton of the highway system, drifting down forgotten slabs of asphalt that drilled through the forgotten natural world. It was strange to walk through such nothingness for so long, without even the sound of crickets or birds to break the silence, but it was a sound he had come to appreciate. He heard his feet on the ground and his breath in the air. There was a simple symphony to it that he appreciated.
An exit split from the main road, forgotten signs promising three gas stations ahead. While not the largest selection, they at least tended to have a wide selection of nonperishable goods. The best part of living in the midst of the apocalypse was no more worries about junk food and health food. The earth as going to kill him long before that soda and bag of potato chips would. And it wasn’t like he did not have ample opportunity to work off the calories. Besides, there was no one left to impress besides a few hold outs like himself.
He wandered down the exit ramp, studying the stars above the skeletal trees. It would have been nice if he could have named them but, as a kid who grew up miles from a metropolis, this was the first time he had seen most of them. His mind connected the dots nonetheless, and he saw some familiar friends up there smiling down on him. They continued to trek across the sky each day, moving just a little further away. It was the only way he knew that the earth was still moving at all. Rufus let his thoughts wander among them. Maybe there were others out there, another world just starting out, spinning around its own sun happily. Earth’s time might be up, but perhaps others were just building civilization. Maybe they were dreaming about advanced civilizations among the stars. Maybe a recluse like him was wondering if there were empty planets where he could make his home.
The windows of the first gas station had already been broken, and Rufus felt his spirits drop. Fortunately, his flashlight showed a ransacked but intact collection of food. It seemed as if the medical and automotive sections had been more heavily looted. Probably by families trying to escape back to sunlight. Even though he chose to stay, he couldn’t help but feel hopeful that they had found sunnier shores.
There were only a couple of bottles of water left, mostly trampled but still intact. He scooped them up placing one in his pack while he gulped greedily at the other. The walk and the wind had left his throat dry and aching, so the icy water was a relief. He also grabbed a bag of jerky from the shelf, chewing on it as he perused the racks.
Another flashlight and back of batteries were important, as well as a foil wrapper of two pain relievers. The medical section was pretty picked clean, but he found one coil of bandages beneath the shelf. Rufus also grabbed a bag of socks. He generally took what he needed from the houses he stayed in, but it was nice to have socks that no one had worn to threads already.
Finally, he grabbed a beer from the defunct coolers. As cold as it was outside, the drink was still nicely chilled. It was important to keep his wits about him in this world, but it was also important to enjoy the life he had left. Rufus made another circuit of the store as he slowly savored his beverage. He loaded up a couple bags of chips—they did not provide much satiation, but they were delicious—the remaining jerky on the shelf, and the three remaining cans of condensed soup. It was not a bounty, but it was something.
Rufus surveyed the remains. There was some food left, but he always wanted to leave something for the next traveler. He moved around enough that there were always fresh convenient stores full of food, so no need to load himself down too much and hoard what little there was here. He would find the next one, take anything of use, and continue down the road until he tired. If he was lucky, he’d make it to the next town and find someplace to set up for a few days. Rufus smiled. The other stations would likely have even better loot given that they were a couple of yards further from the highway.
Stepping out, Rufus froze, his drink falling from his hands and shattering on the ground. The sound was impossibly loud in the silent world, but Rufus was deaf to it.
He only had eyes for the pale light on the horizon, the rising sun returning to the darkened world.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 70: A group of egg shaped buildings all clustered together against a dark background.
“I want to go out and play.” The whine cut through the monotony of the day with an unpleasant shriek. Wanda clenched her teeth and tried to ignore it. There was nothing she could do—it had been snowing off and on all day, with temperatures down below zero. This plea for playtime was unrealistic; going outside meant freezing solid within a few minutes, and no amount of bundling was enough to withstand for long. She could not change the weather, he would not be happy until she did.
“Mom,” came the whine again, elongating the simple word into an impressive display of syllables. “I’m bored.”
Wanda pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed, trying not to let the irritation leak into her voice. “Well, buddy, I’m sorry. Why don’t you color some pictures?” She pointed at the stack of paper pushed up against the far wall.
“But I’m out of paper,” came the disheartened response. Only then did she realize that most of those pages were already colored with spindly-legged creatures and smiling sunshines. A childish dreamscape.
Of course, seeing hundreds of pages covered in childish doodles only reinforced her sudden terror. It had been winter for far too long. Judging by the sounds of yelling and crying that spilled through the paper thin walls of the complex, the same seemed to be true for many families. Then again, hadn’t that been the understanding when they all moved in? Wasn’t that the reason they had left comfortable homes, closely knit communities, and cozy worlds to get a one room apartment in little better than a slum? But it granted protection and the promise of constant heat, which was something nowhere outside had promised. Now, this nest of humanity was broiling under the reality of such containment for so long.
“Well, maybe you can see if anyone is playing out in the halls? Maybe you could all play hide and seek or something?”
“Ms. Smeltzer yells at us if we play out there. She hit Tammy with her broom last time.”
Wanda bristled at the old curmudgeon. There were 19 children under ten on this floor, no way they could go outside and play in the subarctic air, but Ms. Smeltzer had to have her peace and quiet all day and night. It was a refugee shelter, but she demanded to be treated like a queen. Wanda hoped her son had not seen the disgust on her face.
“So maybe not such a good idea. Well, how about you tell me a story with shadow puppets. I’ll finish dinner while you come up with a really good story.” Wanda shifted to the side, letting the firelight spill into the dim room. Jonah leapt up eagerly and waved his fingers wildly. At least he was still easily entertained. As he grew older, finding such diversions would become harder and harder. For now, she listened to him prattle on as she stirred a pot of donation beans over the meager flame. They had not gotten fresh wood yet this week—it was coming, they promised—and so she did her best to stretch what she did have.
That night, Wanda went to bed hopeless and forlorn. The wood had not arrived, and their fire burned low, almost to embers. She mournfully shoved a few of the drawings into the grate, hoping to keep the flame burning high enough to heat the small apartment. If nothing else, hopefully enough warmth would trickle between the tightly packed cells through their paper thin walls. She draped her arm across Jonah’s tiny body, already filling chill where his skin met the air. If nothing else, she could give him her warmth.
The morning came slowly, sluggishly creeping along the side of the apartment until it peeked through the tiny slit of a window they were fortunate to have. The light woke Wanda, and she was surprised to find her arms empty. There was a momentary burst of panic, but that settled when she saw Jonah standing atop a chair to peer out the window.
“Be careful up there,” she muttered sleepily as she stumbled awake. He turned and smiled at her.
“Momma, who are the people outside?”
She stretched, her back rippling with popped joints. “What? Do you see some trucks out there? those are the trucks that bring up dinn—“
“No, there aren’t any trucks. But there are people. They’re dressed all funny.”
“Get down and let me see,” she said, moving with surprising speed for so early. No one had been out walking for months now. She pressed her face against the tiny window, peering through the dust and soot that coated the inside. It was clear she had not spent too much time gazing longingly out the window during their time here. But now she did see the same shadowy shapes Jonah had seen. Closing one eyes, she gazed out the hole he had cleared with his now grubby hands, and then she could see them. They were dressed weird it seemed, some strange covering obscuring their face. Wanda remembered the hot summer days when she would look out the car widows and watch heat ripple across the pavement. The memory felt out of place in the winter wasteland, but it also felt appropriate to whatever it was covering their face.
“Does this mean we can go outside and play?” Jonah was eager, his face split into a wide smile. Wanda touched her hand to the glass and felt the same bitter cold. But there were people out there, and even though the fire was out, it was only slightly cool in the room.
“Maybe, baby, but mom has to make sure it’s safe first.”
She stepped down off the chair and turned over the strange discovery. People outside after all of this. Everyone said it would eventually thaw, the climate would return to normal, and life would re-emerge from hibernation. But Wanda had begun to doubt she would see that, at least until that vision outside.
“Can we please?” pleaded Jonah. She gave him a warm if distracted smile.
“I’ll go find out if it’s safe. You get bundled up.”
“Are you going downstairs?” he asked giddily.
“Yes, I will. Just see if anyone else has tried to go out. We may not be the first outside when the thaw comes, but I promise we will go out as soon as it’s safe.”
“Can I go with you?”
She pursed her lips, considering it. He had been well behaved cooped in the small apartment, and the trip downstairs was about as harmless as anything could be. Nevertheless, she knew that meant keeping a close eye on him so that he did not dart outside. He could not understand how dangerous—and deadly—that would be. “Okay,” she relented, “but stay close.”
This was the adventure of the week for him, and he was practically vibrating with anticipation. Wanda smiled and opened the door. The hallways were dark and narrow, lit with an occasional pane of glass to the outside world. She could hear crying, yelling, screaming, and laughing behind the closed doors, but she also felt the uncomfortable cold in the hallway. Hopefully the wood arrived soon. Wanda was equally eager for the people outside to be braving the newly lessening chill as she was with the idea that they would bring vital wood.
No one acknowledged her on the way down the rusty, uncertain stairs, which was not unusual. Most people kept their heads down in their own problems. She reached the front door and squeezed in as close as she could around the heavy layers of ropes and blankets that still stood between her and outside. Now closer, she could see the figures outside, their faces still covered by the odd material.
She turned back to the hallway, scanning for a familiar face. “Oh, Darren?” she called out, catching sight of one of her floor mates. He pressed on, ignoring her. “Darren, have you seen this?” He did not respond even as she raised her voice.
The door next to her opened, and she reached out to grasp the stout woman who stomped out. Her eyes widened and she seemed to shiver with a chill. “Do you know what’s going on out there?” The woman did not respond, but looked around uncomfortably before shuffling back into her apartment. Yes, people were withdrawn, but this was bizarre.
“Up to me, I guess,” muttered Wanda. She held Jonah’s hand tightly within her own trying to constrain the eager boy. He was rattling on about snowmen and snowball fights, forts and sledding. The first months were pleasant and wonderful, full of all those beloved activities he fondly remembered. Only later did it become horrifying.
She looked out again, tapping on the window. One of the figures seemed to look up, perhaps drawn by the noise or the face in the window. It walked towards her, the face still a mess of wavering lines. Maybe it was some sort of climate controlled mask? Government issued, she was sure.
“Momma, can we go outside? Please? No one else is worried.” He pointed at the people going on about their days, completely disinterested.
“Be patient,” she snapped, turning back to the window.
There, she finally saw the face of one of the people outside. It was no longer obscured, but presented in crisp detail. She saw her husband’s face pressed against the glass. His skin was pale, white, and frostbitten, icicles clinging to his unkempt beard. The eyes that stared back at her were empty and cold.
Wanda stumbled back from the door. Of all the things she had hoped for, her dead husband was not on the list.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.