Just a heads up: a new episode of 108.3 will be coming out this Friday. Keep an eye out for it.
I do realize that I haven’t talked about Stephen in quite some time, and I apologize for that. The simple matter is, there isn’t much notable going on in his world at the time, so any sections about him would be rather boring, and not particularly helpful to the story at large.
This may seem somewhat hypocritical, of course, seeing that the past few sections about Caroline haven’t been particularly enlightening. This is true, I admit, but it is necessary. It all adds up to be fairly important in the long run.
The next section with her will be more immediately important to the story, I promise. In fact, I’ll get on that right now.
The next morning, Caroline tried to join in on some of the exercises. She wasn’t particularly fit, as little athleticism was needed for her job at the information farm. As a result, she was only able to do a small portion of the exercises before collapsing to the side. Once she had caught her breath, she returned to them for a while, then shortly after toon another break.
Mid-morning, the raiding group that they had talked about the previous night came back in. It all happened quite similar to how it had when she came in with the previous group, people laughing and rejoining each other, others beginning the process of cleaning weapons, and so on. She sat in her place against the wall, watching as always.
She was thoroughly divided about what to do. The past few days hadn’t given her any clarity about what to do. She realized that there were plenty of genuinely nice people who had good reasons to be in this group, but at the same time, she couldn’t quite wipe away that dried pool of blood she had seen from her memory.
She wouldn’t be like one of those people, though. She would be someone like Gerome, someone who joined because he had no other recourse of action, someone who hoped he might, someday, find his sister, someone who could never forget the murder of his parents and would avenge them by stopping Introspect, if ever he could.
After sitting and watching for a while, Caroline was joined by Elaine. She had let Caroline join her bed again the previous night, since no other space for her had yet been found.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“All right, I think.”
Elaine looked at her and a half-smile crossed her face. “You know, I like you. I think you’ll do well here, if you do decide to join us. We’ll find some way for you to help in whatever manner you can.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, then Elaine spoke again.
“Want to play a game?”
“Uh, sure,” Caroline said.
“Here, follow me. There should be some cards in the living room.”
Caroline followed her down the hall towards the room the old men had been playing cards in when Elaine first showed her around. Partway down the hall, the door that had been sprayed with blood was ajar. and Caroline stopped in front of it. Elaine continued walking down the hall, unaware Caroline had stopped behind her.
There were people in the room. She heard sounds of violence, again, sounds that made her instinctively wince. It wasn’t her business, she reasoned with herself, she wouldn’t get involved.
She was about to follow Elaine into the living room when she heard a voice she recognized. It was harsher, more filled with spite than usual, so it didn’t click immediately, but when it did, her eyes opened in horror.
Unable to stop herself, she pushed open the door. There were two burly men standing alongside the wall with their arms crossed, watching the spectacle. In the middle of a room, a man with his arms tied behind the chair he was sitting on, hair drenched in sweat and blood. His lip was split in more than one place, it looked like a tooth was missing, and some bruises were already setting in.
Standing in front of the man with his fist reeled back for another strike was Gerome. The man in the chair winced when she opened the door, then immediately widened his eyes in a sudden expression of desperation.
The door didn’t make a sound when she opened it, but Gerome saw his reaction and whipped around.
His hands were slippery with blood, running almost up to his elbows. The look of horror on Caroline’s face was nothing compared to that of his own.
Caroline’s body froze, but her mind was racing. In that moment, her decision was made. In the short time she had known Gerome, she had seen him as a virtuous man with pure motivation. But this… Nothing could justify this, in her mind.
The next moment, her mind and body switched states. She wasn’t aware of any thoughts or actions, but her body backed out of the room and ran through the hallway, through the large room, and back towards the exit of the building.
Gerome was in a state of panic. He quickly washed his hands and told the men standing by the wall to watch the bloodied man, then rushed out of the room after Caroline. As he was in the hall, Elaine passed by. She turned to him and spoke.
“Do you know where Caroline went?” she asked.
He didn’t answer – he didn’t feel capable of it. He just pushed by her and ran into the large room, searching for her. The door to the exit slammed shut and caught his attention. He rushed through that door and up the stairs. He still couldn’t see her, but he kept running in desperation.
He made his way outside and found her frozen to the spot near the exit.
“Caroline,” he said, moving towards her, “please…”
“No,” she said sharply and moved away.
Gerome straightened up and spoke calmly. “I told you I’d do anything to find information about Introspect.”
“That doesn’t mean you can do anything.”
“I… I think I’ve abandoned the part of myself that would stop me. But please, still, don’t leave.”
“I need to. I don’t think I can join your group. I’ve got to find things out for myself, develop my own thoughts.”
“Come on, Caroline, let’s just go back inside and talk about it,” he said, and began to take her arm.
“Fuck no,” she said and yanked her arm away, then punched his nose. “I’m not going back down there.”
The punch sent Gerome reeling, both from physical and emotional pain. He held it in, though, and pinched his nose to stop any bleeding.
Regret instantly filled Caroline’s face. “I… I’m sorry, Gerome, I just…”
“I think I like you, Caroline,” Gerome blurted out.
Caroline was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry, Gerome. I don’t really… That wouldn’t work out. Even if it would, I don’t think I could be with someone like… you. Sorry.”
Gerome’s jaw clenched. “All right,” he said.
“Sorry about your nose, again,” she said, subdued.
“It’s fine. I probably deserved it.”
They stood in an awkward silence for a moment before Gerome spoke again.
“Go out and… make your own opinions, I guess.”
Caroline turned and began to walk away, then Gerome spoke again.
“You’ll want to be careful in this city, by the way.”
“Got it,” she said, and walked away.
Gerome was telling the truth. Newhaven 7, along with all other cities and, honestly, pretty much everywhere else on earth, was quite a dangerous place to live. The Anti-Introspect group bases were one of the few comparatively safe places, since most people feared to mess with them.
There were many sorts of people in the world. A surprisingly large portion had become bounty hunters of various sorts, others had become prostitutes, others became thieves, and so on. All had the unrealistic goal of someday earning enough to enter my virtual world.
A pity, really. So many lives lost, destroyed, and wasted, all for an unattainable goal. I suppose I should say I feel bad for playing my part in causing it all, but, well that just wouldn’t be honest now, would it. Their choices are their own, right? Just because I had a hand in creating this situation doesn’t mean I’m to blame for the actions others have taken in it.
Back to Caroline now, I think. We can begin to get a better grasp of the world through her perspective.
Caroline continued walking away from the building determinately, but a growing sense of unease and regret filled her. She didn’t think she had chosen the wrong path, of course, and she didn’t think she could ever face returning to the Anti-Introspect group. Not after all she had seen.
Despite that, though, she had nowhere to go, and had no knowledge of the world she was now in. Her family had lived in a fairly rural section of the country even before she went to work at the information farm, so she had no experience of what lay before her.
A sudden panic overtook her as she realized she wouldn’t have any way of getting the pills to counteract radiation. By some form of luck, though, she found that she had a full bottle of them in one of her jacket pockets. She didn’t remember putting them in there, but was relieved that she had.
She didn’t like the looks she was getting from most people she passed. For that matter, she didn’t like the look of most people she saw. Things were quite different, here, and she realized why Gerome had given her that word of warning.
She was aimless and had no idea what to do or where to go. Or where she could go, even. The regret of leaving the building, no matter how bad the group was inside, continued to rise within her. But she knew she couldn’t return. Most people wouldn’t know what happened, but she had burnt her bridge with Gerome and that was the strongest link she had with the group.
She remembered Elaine and wished she could’ve thanked her for what she had done for her – reached out a helping hand to someone who had little else to turn to – and say goodbye. She wondered what Elaine was thinking at that moment, where she thought Caroline had gone. She hoped she didn’t think Caroline had abandoned her of all people.
She tried to stop those thoughts. They wouldn’t help her in her current situation. She tried to quiet her thoughts as she walked. She didn’t need to worry about a plan at this exact moment, she told herself. Just focus on learning about where you’re at.
A moment after that, though, a thought, a decision, attached itself to her mind. She was going to find Introspect. She was going to find the man who was in control of this all, and…
Not kill him. She wouldn’t kill him, she couldn’t kill him. She wasn’t going to let herself become like the Anti-Introspect group. But she would stop him, or… something. But she needed to see him, she needed to put a face to the creator of this devastation of the world and the degradation of humanity. She’d talk to him. Anything more than that, she didn’t know.
Problem was, she had absolutely no idea how she’d do that. The Anti-Introspect group had been searching for the headquarters for a longer time than she could know, but hadn’t yet done it.
The urge to return to the building came back again. That was her best bet to find him, she knew, but she refused to do it.
As she was walking, she looked up and saw a battered, burnt, and largely unreadable billboard for Introspect towering above one of the rooves of a nearby tall building.
“Join us and live in harmony!” the billboard said.
She kept walking. “Harmony” indeed. She’d be lying if she said she wouldn’t join them if she could. Everyone on earth would. The chance to not live in this absolute shithole was a temptation that couldn’t be overcome, no matter how negative an influence on the world the company had.
She had to stop them, all the same. She knew it was stupid and impossible that she, alone, could somehow find them and stop them, but it was the only goal she had at that moment and, as a result, had no other choice.
She pulled the bottle out of her pocket, remembering that she hadn’t taken a pill yet today. She dry-swallowed one, then poured out the rest into her palm and counted them. Twenty-nine pills left. She had no idea how long it would take to accomplish her goal, if she ever did, but she was sure those wouldn’t be enough pills.