Chapter Seven is well on its way, just to let you all know. I’m finally getting into a pretty good rhythm with this story.
I should probably take this time to make clear a few things that you, my readers, have no doubt been wondering about. One, Caroline’s persistent nausea; the dirty bombings that destroyed much of the world back then seeded everything with enough radioactive material to seriously mess up almost everyone’s genetic structure in some way. One side effect of this was that periods for women became far worse than they already were. Additionally, the reproductive systems of both sexes were considerably faulty, and about three-quarters of pregnancies failed. About half of children that were born were so mutated that it was customary to euthanize them immediately. So customary, in fact, that most times hospitals performed the procedure without even asking the parents beforehand. It was for the well being of society, most people agreed – we needed to build civilization back up on “good stock”. But sometimes parents couldn’t bring themselves to agree to it, and their children grew up shunned and ostracized from most society.
The continual radiation actually imparted severe nausea and pain to everyone, though a medical company – Mind Pharmaceuticals – developed a partial treatment for it. That’s what the pills were that Gerome brought to Caroline’s bunkhouse, a mass-produced drug that covered up a majority of the common side effects.
Now that I’ve explained these things, I think we can continue to hear Caroline’s story. Stephen is still busy being confused by nearly everything he encounters. I suppose Caroline isn’t any different, really, but they’re going towards quite different places.
The Anti-Introspect group was quite literally an underground group. They made their way into a large building, the outside of which was guarded by a few men and women, and down several flights of stairs until they were several dozen feet under ground. They opened a door and were suddenly in a massive complex that already had innumerable people inside.
A section of their group split off and joined others at a table that was piled with weapons. They laid theirs alongside the others and began cleaning, quietly laughing at some unheard joke. Another section joined some other people behind a door, carrying boxes filled with electronic equipment inside. The rest of the people Caroline was with dispersed to other smaller groups gradually. Eventually she was left standing mostly alone in the room, looking around at her new surroundings. She hadn’t seen such a large group, or such a large building, in her life, and it was a sudden contrast from where she had spent most of her life.
She made her way towards one of the walls and slumped down in front of it until she was sitting on the floor, still looking around and absorbing everything she saw. And from what she had heard, this was only one part of the Anti-Introspect society. It hadn’t sunk in to her before then just how powerful their reach was. If Gerome spoke the truth and they would, truly, not stop until they had achieved their goals, she feared for anyone who got in their way.
A while later, Tanayoki came up to her.
“To register with our company, you should come with me,” he said.
“I think… I’d like some time to better understand your group before then, if that’s all right,” she responded, standing up.
He nodded. “That’s all right. And expected, too. Take as much time as you need.”
He walked away and joined a few people who all appeared to be in some commanding position in the society. Caroline sat down against the wall again, watching as he seemed to give some sort of report about their attack on her information farm. Her eyelids slowly slid down until shut and her head slumped to the side. Her legs felt like there were waves flowing through them, endorphins being released from the long walk.
She slept for almost an hour before she was awakened by a woman standing in front of her, tapping her shoulder.
She blinked her eyes as they adjusted to the light, and the woman spoke.
“Hi there, um, what’s your name?”
“Uh,” Caroline said, straightening against the wall, “Caroline. Sorry, I didn’t realize I had fallen asleep.”
“Yeah, don’t worry. You’re new here, right? Someone from the party that just came in and pointed you out.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” Caroline said, standing up. The woman was a few inches shorter than her, but solidly built. Shoulder-length dark hair and glasses framed her face.
“I’m Elaine,” she said. “I can show you around our facility, if you want.”
“Oh, sure, that would be great.”
“Here, follow me,” she said, walking along the wall towards a door to the left. She led Caroline into the hallway beyond it. “This building houses around a thousand people. Elsewhere in the world there are other sections of our group with even more. It’s astounding, really, what a far reach Introspect has had, and what a terrible one it has been.”
She turned into a door on the right and gestured inside. “Here we keep and reuse the electrical components that we salvage from the farms. Over there on the left is the main computer for our section.”
The machine was massive, floor to ceiling and almost covering the entire wall. Exposed wires and cables were strewn everywhere, weaving in and out of the computer, and there were several dozen of the small monitors like Caroline used attached to it.
“We use it to try to find Introspect’s headquarters and finding other information farms, as well as keeping in touch with the other groups.”
She brought Caroline back into the hallway and proceeded further down. A minute later she turned and opened a door on the left. It opened into a massive kitchen filled with thirty or so cooks. “This is our main kitchen for this building. There are a few other, smaller ones, but they mostly work with specific subgroups who need different kinds of food, or food that will be good for traveling with.”
It boggled Caroline’s mind the amount of food they must need for all the people, but what took most of her attention were noises coming from a door behind them. Grunting, sounds of violence, screaming, and crying. Elaine noticed her looks and turned to explain. “They’re questioning some of the managers of information farms that we’ve taken with us. Trying to squeeze every bit of info out that they have on Introspect.”
A frosted glass panel in the door showed movement beyond. A shadow crossed across the pane, raised an arm, and let loose. A bit of blood splattered against the glass and began to run down, leaving a dark red trail behind it.
“Here, come on,” Elaine said, pulling Caroline further down the hall and through a door at the end. This led into a medium-sized room that split off into four directions, one door on three of the walls and two on the last. A few tables and plenty of chairs sat in the middle, and a group of people were sitting at one of them and playing a card came.
“This is a meeting and recreation area. A lot of our older members laze around here most of the time.”
“Ey, shut up, Elaine,” said an old man who was drawing cards into his hand. “We’ve done our time, now it’s our chance to relax. Scoot off with your friend there and leave us be.”
Elaine let out a brief snort of a laugh and turned back to Caroline. “That’s my dad, Eric. He brought me here when I was a baby. He needed someone to take care of me after my mother passed, but most of all he wanted to fight.”
She gestured to three of the pathways leading out of the room. “Those go to about half of our lodgings in this building. You’ll be sleeping somewhere in there,” she said, pointing to the leftmost hall.
She brought Caroline through one of the doors on the wall that housed two, which led back to the main area they had been in shortly before, where Caroline fell asleep. The table that was holding weapons that were being cleaned had been cleared off.
“There’s plenty more in this facility, but those are probably the more notable places. I can show you around further another time, but I think it’s about time for dinner.”
A few minutes later a loud bell rang throughout the building and people streamed into the room. In no time, innumerable low-lying folding tables had been set up, and a steady line of people came from the kitchen carrying out a seemingly endless supply of massive pots, platters, and bowls, in addition to stack after stack of plates.
“Not everyone in this section of our group is here right now,” she said, “some people eat separate in another part of the building. But the size is still staggering, isn’t it.”
People had taken places sitting on the floor in front of the tables. Plates were passed around and people began serving themselves and eating. Elaine brought Caroline to a place she could join them, then went off and joined a group of her own.
Food appeared on her plate. She wasn’t aware if she had served herself or if it had just materialized there, but it was there and she was hungry. She began eating. In retrospect she couldn’t remember what kind of food it was or how it tasted. Her mind was dwelling on the man she had seen and heard being beaten in the other room. She didn’t get the feeling that he was the only one, either.
The Anti-Introspect group was always a bit of a thorn in my side. I couldn’t control how people got their money to join us, after all. We’re a company. It’s no different than blaming a drug company because someone stole your money to buy pills.
Thankfully, though, they didn’t pose much actual threat to Introspect. Destruction of information farms is equivalent to someone picking out your hairs one at a time; it might hurt a little bit for a moment, but won’t make much difference in the long run. Across the world, there are thousands upon thousands of the farms in operation, so a few dozen being destroyed barely affects operations.
There’s little chance they’d be able to track down our base through the computer systems, either. I worked together with Christopher to minimize risk in that department.
I suppose I should elaborate on something that I’ve touched on a bit already, but haven’t actually explained. You may be wondering why Peter died, why his body was tossed down into that pit. The second part is easy; we’re near one of the Earth’s poles, and it’s the easiest and cleanest way to dispose of bodies.
But the first part is where things get more interesting. The three narratives in this story all tie together at that one part – the first place they all tie together, I should say.
To gain access to our virtual world, you must both pay the initial cost and something like a subscription-service. You must make monthly payments of some sort (you’ll see what I mean in a moment) to continue living in our paradise. Otherwise, you’ll be ejected from the system. The ejection system is the one part that I think we never quite perfected; it often causes irreparable harm and can put the ejectee into a state of psychosis. They have no memory of their “real” life, and being thrown out into this world causes an intense state of shock. Therefore, there’s a system built into the machine that kills them before ejection.
Users can pay their monthly dues with money if they have enough. The problem with that, though, is that no one really knows how long they’ll be in the virtual world, and in all likelihood their money would run out before then. Instead of that, then, most people prefer to pay by means of an information farm. They can set one up on their property, and as long as it remains in operation, they’ll be cared for.
You may be putting the pieces together at this point. Caroline’s information farm was destroyed, rendering it useless to us. That information farm was started by Peter, rendering him useless to us as well, simple as that.
When someone is removed from the virtual world, every trace of them in the database is instantaneously erased or, if erasure would cause some sort of error, substituted with someone else. The memories of the previous user pertaining to that event would be transferred to the person who took their place. It’s completely seamless, and no one notices anything.
No one except Stephen. As I’m sure you’re figuring out by now, Stephen is rather unique in the virtual world. He doesn’t know nearly how unique yet, though. And neither did I. Bartholomew “the antivirus” had begun noticing problems, but nothing was notable yet.
As you see, these three lines of story connect and weave together in a strangely coincidental way. Trust me, though, that the coincidences don’t stop here.