Finally, here it is. Still working hard on **unnamed project**, but I’m going to make sure I keep writing this.
It’s necessary for me to live for a long time. Thankfully, we have means of extending youth far beyond what would be thought possible. I was the one chosen to take that place, the place of the one who would continue to keep watch over the company through the years. Part of that includes seeing people like those who attacked the information farm Caroline worked at do so all across the country. There were security measures in place, though, in the world as it is now, it is difficult to make them the best they could be. The quality also varied depending upon who set up the information farm. You see, about half of the information farms weren’t just a conduit of data for the company. They also paid “the way” for the people who set them up, which was a major part of why the workers’ salaries were so small, and why the farms were set up to be as cost-efficient as possible, at the cost of difficulty for the workers.
What’s “the way” that they’re paying for? Ah, that’s where things get interesting. I’ve been stalling against explaining it until now, but..
No, I think perhaps it will be best to continue telling our characters’ stories for a little longer before I give that away. Next time I give my side of things I’ll explain it all, I promise. But for now, I’d like to show what I consider an interesting part of Stephen and many other people’s lives. Perhaps it’s a bit egotistical, but… Well, I suppose you won’t understand why until next time when I explain things.
Stephen pulled on the reigns, issuing a halt to the horse. David, Stephen’s stableman, took the reigns from him and looped them around a hook on the nearby gate, then Stephen dismounted the horse.
“Give him a good wash before putting him away for the day,” Stephen said to David, walking away.
It was time for the weekly gathering. Everyone Stephen knew went to it, and he assumed everyone else did too. A massive congregation of people, coming together to praise their leader. That was how Stephen viewed him, anyway, “their leader”. Others viewed it in other ways, but all paid reverence to him no matter their opinion.
Stephen drove into town – it was called a town, though in size it was nearing a city – with the hood down, feeling the warm breeze brush through his hair. He smiled as he thought how fortunate he was to be in his situation; then he felt a cold shock jolt through him as a dim remembrance of the previous night’s dream drifted through his mind. Not only that, but a vague sense of other dreams like it that he had in the past, dreams that had been forgotten but never truly forgotten, merely tucked away into inaccessible recesses of his mind. Stephen’s body felt cold as he thought of them, colder still as he tried in vain to remember details. He knew it was important, but the need to remember just made it harder. His body felt so cold, the warmth of the outside air nothing but teasing of the world.
He realized he had arrived, and as soon as he saw the three steeples of the massive building, all of the coldness faded away without a trace or memory; a memory he could remember then, at least.
He parked his car and headed inside, checking his wristwatch to make sure he had plenty of time. He was a few minutes early.
He stepped inside and looked around to see if he knew anyone nearby well. A distance away was a friend of his, Peter, talking with a few other men. Stephen waved to him and walked over to the group. The four of them chatted about small things for a bit, then split up as the service began and they took their seats.
A song was played on an organ and piano as the prologue, then Stephen rose with the others when the leader at the front raised his hands.
“Who is our god?” asked the leader.
“We have no god. We have the creator. His is not our god. There is no god. We honor the creator,” the uncountable congregation said in unison.
The leader lowered his hands and everyone took their seats. The service began, mostly centering around honoring the creator, declaring the complexity of the world he had created for them, and so on. Stephen didn’t know why, but going to the services always just made him feel good. He truly felt awe when thinking of the creator and what power he must have. Everyone respected him, though for what reason varied.
After the service, Stephen left the huge building and walked on the path through a landscaped yard – so skillfully landscaped and tended to, it was nearly a garden – to where his car waited. The sleek convertible was beautiful, with a silver-plated grill and chrome spoked hubcaps. The hood could be removed to show the beautiful six-cylinder engine beneath. Cars had been common for twenty or so years at that point, so enough time had passed for there to be more focus on making powerful vehicles that managed to be art at the same time.
Stephen drove home, the warm afterglow of the service meshing with the perfect temperature air. The sun was beginning to set, casting a awe inspiring orange-purple glow to his left.
When he arrived home, he was greeted outside the house by Bartholomew, who took the keys and parked the car in the garage.
Stephen went into his house. Night was getting closer, and the house was dark. Bartholomew returned and began lighting the gas lamps in the house. Electricity had been available for a while now, but Stephen just preferred gas. Perhaps it was nostalgia from his youth, or perhaps it was just that he liked how “natural” the gas was. The flame moved continually, it was alive. But electricity was dead; static, if he was permitted the pun.
Well, I guess it’s time for me to explain things. Not everything, no no. But I’ll fulfill my promise to you and explain the company – my company, Introspect Inc. We provide an escape from reality, very literally. For an initial price, followed by yearly or monthly payments, we will let anyone leave their real life and live instead in a completely virtual reality that all users share. They have no memories of their past life, and instead have “memories” of the “past” in their new reality. Depending upon what plan they purchase, they get different abilities, belongings, and so on in the virtual reality. It’s an incredible system, and likely the greatest leap in science seen in the past century or more. I am one of the three original creators. The others, Christopher Penn and Rick Foley, created the hardware of it and handled the business side of it, respectively. I created the “software” that builds and controls the world.
The desire to escape from reality and live in a perfect paradise is not by any means new in human history, but the need for it became much more acute before it was released to the public. A series of dirty bombings – bombs laced with radioactive material – wreaked devastation across multiple countries. Life became difficult for some and nearly impossible for most. And as such, an easy getaway was very easily marketable.
Introspect Inc. has garnered a good deal of hatred over the years as well, though. Steep prices denied the entry of nearly ninety-nine percent of the population, and the stagnation of the economy after the bombings required most people to work for the pittance that information farms provided. It didn’t help that many of the top one or two percent scrambled to reach the entrance fee in any way they could, including becoming a thief or murderer to take that which belonged to anyone below them. It was amusing, actually, to see those who had been the crème de la crème become those who they despised.
I am the only one of the three who started the company who is still alive. We decided early on that one of us would need to live far longer than the others to manage the company. We each were of equal importance in the company, so the decision wasn’t simple, but eventually I was chosen. Once the hardware was set in place it could be easily replicated, and one the business was strongly established it would be easy to keep it running, but it was more important to have someone very familiar with the software and world to remain and monitor it. As a result, once Christopher and Rick died, I had to handle all three factors of the company. It may have seemed overwhelming to others, but I enjoyed the challenge of it and the unprecedented power it afforded me.
I trust that the explanation I just gave will suffice for now, until I may need to fill out some of the details later on when they become important. For now, I think I’ll continue Caroline’s story and the journey she begins.
A man with dark, wavy hair stepped into the doorway, a sling over his shoulder holding an assault rifle. In his hands he held a plastic crate.
“Sorry for the intrusion, ladies, but this farm won’t be in operation any more, so you’ll be wanting to move along soon. This crate holds enough pills to keep you each for a few months, more if you ration them out.”
He set the crate on the ground and pried off the lid. Inside were stacks of pill bottles. He nodded to them, then started to leave the building.
“What are we supposed to do?” Caroline asked him. “Where are we supposed to go?”
He turned to face her. “Sorry, miss, but helping all the workers afterward isn’t part of what we do. Just walk down the road, the town isn’t too far away. From there, I’m sure you all will find something.”
With that, he turned and continued walking away. Caroline pushed herself off the top bunk she was sitting on. She couldn’t explain why, but she felt a sudden urge to follow him. “Wait,” she said, walking out of the building to catch up with him. “Can I… join you?”
“As I said, miss, we don’t help the workers after we finish the job.”
“No, not that. I want to join your group.”
He stopped walking and looked at her, a faint smile on his lips. “Yeah… I don’t think so.”
She grabbed him by his shirt collar and pulled his head down to be in front of her own. “Listen. I haven’t been outside this farm in fifteen years. That’s over half my age. I don’t have a fucking clue what the world is like out there, unlike most of these men and women who came in later on.” The words were flowing out of her in a stream so quick they surprised her, surprised her what they were meaning, what they were leading up to. She had feared, even hated these people from what she had heard about them before now, but she hadn’t expected them to be merciful to her and the other workers, even if they were a bit cold. She didn’t know what she was doing, but reconciled that with herself because she didn’t know what else she would do. “I want to join you, I want to do what you do. I want you to bring me with you.”
She let go of him and he straightened up, a smirk appearing on his face. “You’ve certainly got the attitude for it, if nothing else.” He sighed and looked towards the farm center, thinking. “I’ll see what I can do. I’m not promising anything, but I’ll see. Follow me.”
The two of them walked back towards the farm center, where Caroline now saw a dozen or so men and women standing around, some leaning against the wall of the building and lighting cigarettes. They walked inside, and Caroline took in a breath at the carnage. Dozens of people lay dead on the floor and slumped against the walls. Many were covered in bullet holes, but a number were in pieces, blood and viscera splattered and spread across all surfaces. She felt her insides sink at what must’ve happened, and sink further when she realized she was going to join them. The man was looking around, then found who he was searching for and led Caroline to him. The man in front of them was carrying a clipboard and writing down notes.
“Yes, Lieutenant Winston?”
“This woman wishes to join us.”
The man looked at her scrutinizingly, his eyes seeming to take in every tiny detail about her. “Does she, now?”
Caroline nodded her assent, though her mind began to recoil at what she was doing. It was insane to just join them out of the blue. She couldn’t do this, could she? She’d be better off finding her own way, wouldn’t she? What on earth had prompted her to say that to the man? She felt nausea rising again and steeled her stomach against it. She refused to puke in front of everyone.
“Stomach bothering you, eh?” the higher-up man asked.
She took a shaky breath, then answered. “A bit, yes. Sir.” The “sir” was an afterthought, something she thought she should say in case she needed to get used to addressing him as.
His eyes un-squinted and he turned to the man who had brought her. “We’ll see about her. The two of you, follow me.”
Caroline and the man followed the other, slightly behind him as he led the way.
“What’s your name?” she asked the man next to her.
“Winston, as he said,” the man responded.
“No, I meant your first name.”
“Oh,” he said, laughing. “We don’t really go by last names, so I’m not used to it. Gerome.”
“Gerome. Okay. I’m Caroline Carter.”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Carter.” He leaned closer to her and gestured to the man in front of them. “That’s Captain Tanayoki. As for his first name, no one knows it but him.”
“If I haven’t forgotten it yet,” Tanayoki said from ahead without turning to look at them.
Gerome straightened, obviously ashamed the man had heard what he said. “I’m sorry sir, I didn’t mean to imply…”
Tanayoki laughed. “No problem, Lieutenant.”
The captain led the two of them into an area of the farm Caroline had never been to before, a room that contained four metal boxes that reached almost to the ceiling. Lights and buttons covered them, and wires traced lines across the floor.
“This is the main computing room, Mrs. Carter,” Gerome said. “All of the input you and the other workers provide gets routed through here and is broadcast to Introspect’s main servers.”
A man was sitting on the floor next to one of the computers, a laptop resting next to him. He was absorbed in it, typing away and looking up occasionally at the lights on the large computer.
“A bit of information this time,” he said hen he saw the captain approach. “Although I won’t be sure if it’s just a redirect from another information farm for a while.”
“That’s fine, Benedict,” Tanayoki said. He turned to Caroline. “We’re always searching for intel on where Introspect Inc. is centered.”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“No one does. No one except the people who got to go there, but they wouldn’t remember anyway.”
Tanayoki looked like he was going to explain further, but a woman came running up to him. “We were able to salvage a good amount of food, twenty cases of the pills, and a large amount of computer and other electrical equipment, sir.”
While he responded to her, Caroline turned to Gerome. “Why didn’t the man on the computer call the captain ‘sir’?”
“Benedict isn’t part of the more militaristic side of our group. He just comes with us to strip any information he can get off of the computers before they’re salvaged and destroyed. Also, that woman who is talking with him now is in charge of recovering any resources we can from the farm. We end up either using them or selling them. That’s how we keep going.”
Hearing this, along with everything else she had learned since she met Gerome, surprised her. She had never imagined that the groups of people she feared had any sort of organization. She always pictured them as being ragtag teams of people who had nothing better to do than kill and destroy. And while the gruesome spectacle the carnage created was shocking to her, the overall order and precision, contrasted against her own lack of direction, drew her in to join them. She still couldn’t justify it to herself, exactly, but she felt the desire all the same. She was wholly divided, yet for some reason could not fight back against the half that pushed her to go.
She let go of her resistance and finalized her decision. She would go with them, if only for a short time.
Caroline stayed with Gerome and Tanayoki and watched as various people came up and gave reports to the latter until it was finished and the group began to leave the facility. It wasn’t until they were all together and heading down the path to exit the area that she realized what a large number of people were there. She walked alongside Gerome, neither of them speaking. She caught one last glance of the barracks she had spent so long in and saw one of her friends looking at her, eyes wide. The woman’s hand lifted up, as though to wave, but never moved; just stayed aloft and open. Caroline turned her eyes back towards the direction they were heading, her mind continually spinning with thoughts.
I’ve just remembered something. There’s actually a thread of connection between this point in Caroline’s story, Stephen’s story, and my own. As such, I’ll stop telling her story now to elaborate on the other two. Remember that friend of Stephen’s, Peter, that he saw when with the congregation? Keep him in mind.