Sorry again for the delay. Also, here’s a pretty good version of the song Thomas is talking about in this chapter.
About a week before the bombs started, there was an announcement made world-wide promoting the opening of our company. Broadcast onto every television, radio, phone, and electronic billboard was the advertisement.
“Want to live in a better world? Contact us, Introspect Inc., for pricing and details.”
That was the first. Every hour there was another, each similar in gist but slightly different.
“Join us and live the life of your dreams for eternity!”
Which was quite true, in a way, given the life preserving qualities of the machines. Eternity, as long as you could pay. Additionally, the virtual world doesn’t take place at quite the same timescale as our own. It’s adjustable depending on how well the servers are running. A minute of real-time could last upwards of a day in the virtual world, which just served further actualize the promise of “eternity”.
The influx of calls and new customers we got in that first week was incredible.
“Live your days with us and avoid all future tragedy!” was another. Quite prophetic, really, given that that one was released a day before the bombings started.
It wasn’t known who or what started the bombings. It still isn’t, actually. People have made theories, but only I know. Well, I suppose, there are two other living people who know, now. But I’ll get on to that at a later point.
Around the time that all this was taking place with Caroline and Gerome, I was sitting at my desk as usual. A record was playing, Ebenezer by Thomas John Williams, and I was leaning back in my chair with my eyes closed, soaking it in. The record was worn and it had been played countless times, as it was my favorite piece. It was a song from my childhood. Some place I went with my parents weekly played it sometimes, and as a congregation we would sing along. I don’t remember what those meetings were about. I feel like it was supposed to be of some grand significance, but I suppose it couldn’t have been too grand if I’ve forgotten it. It has been a good hundred and twenty years since then, so it’s not surprising that I can’t remember.
I took inspiration from what I could remember of it in my creation of the virtual world. The congregations that meet weekly there. A bit of an inside joke with myself, perhaps, or just egotism for its own sake.
As worn as the record was, I couldn’t make out what words were being sung. I could just feel, though, that they were singing about me. They had to be, for some reason. It has just been so many years. My memory on some subjects fades. But they’re singing about me or for me, I’m certain.
I sat in a mixture of relaxation and euphoria, the music floating through my body and mind.
The record ended but I didn’t change my position. I soaked in the reverberations.
This was interrupted by a knock at my door.
“Yes?” I said.
“Mr. Hendrick, Diane is here.”
Diane was my favorite, easily. Wild. Dangerous, even, if I caught her at the right time and in the right mood.
I sprang out of my chair. “Good, send her in.”
There’s no point in trying to judge me. I couldn’t be bothered with courting or marrying anyone while in my work position, of course, so I had to make due. Diane was just who I needed at that moment, I thought.
Interestingly enough, Gerome came to a very similar decision as Caroline, at the same moment that she did.
The rejection from Caroline had broken him, for the time. It surprised him, actually. He had spent a relatively small amount of time with her, and hadn’t actually realized what he felt about her until shortly before, but it stung worse than he anticipated.
But as he walked back into the building, still emotionally torn, a weight was suddenly lifted from his mind, freedom replacing it. He no longer was morally compromised. In that moment his resolve was set. He would find Introspect and the man behind it.
He strode back into the room with the tied up man. “Let’s try this again,” he said, rolling up his sleeves. “Tell me what you know. That is, if you’ll be able to once this is over.” He wound up his arm for the first strike, a heated sensation filling his body and settling behind his eyes.
“Are you doing all right, sir?” Bartholomew asked of Stephen.
“Yeah, sure, why?” he responded.
“You’ve seemed preoccupied recently. Distant. Like you might be having a problem of some sort…?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“You’re sure there isn’t anything I can help you with?”
Bartholomew nodded his assent then left the room. The two of them had shared several similar exchanges over the past few days, and Stephen had noticed Bartholomew giving him suspicious looks in the meantime. He didn’t know what Bartholomew was concerned about. He had something of his own to be concerned about, though. He had been feeling strange for several days now, and had a growing sense of something being wrong with the world, like there was some layer underneath that had been there all along, controlling everything, but no one had ever seen or felt it before. No one before Stephen.
The problem with this was that he had nothing more than a sense of it. He was sure there truly was something going on, but he had nothing to point to specifically for it. He had no proof, as it were, and had no way of gaining it.
He had tried to pass it off as all being in his head before. Plenty of times, he had. But that didn’t change anything, the feeling was inescapable.
So maybe he did know what Bartholomew was wondering about. But he couldn’t talk with Bartholomew about it all. For one, Bartholomew might just think he was going insane and contact a psychiatrist or something behind his back, but secondly Stephen just wasn’t sure he could bring himself to put spoken words to everything he was thinking. It would give it some sense of reality that it didn’t already have, a sense of reality to it that he wished to avoid.
And so he remained silent, denying any questions that Bartholomew put out about it all. He had no idea how he would get over this, if he could get over this, or what that would entail. He just wished it would end. He loved his life, it was perfection. Why couldn’t he just go back to that?
“I paid for a paradise,” he muttered to himself. Then, upon hearing those words, he retracted from himself. Why had he said that? It didn’t make any sense. All of this was inherited, he hadn’t paid for any of it. What could that have meant?
It couldn’t have meant anything, of course. He tried to brush it aside, but it still lingered with him, somewhere in the back of his mind. Along with all of the other things that had been slowly building up back there.
Caroline needed to find a place to sleep. The problem was, that took money. She didn’t feel hunger pangs right then, she was too anxious about other things to pay attention to that, but she knew they’d be coming eventually. Another thing that took money. So many goddamn things that took money in this world.
She found a narrow alley and sat down against one of the walls. She’d been walking steadily for several hours. Now that her legs stopped aching momentarily, she began to feel the hunger. She had only had breakfast with the group before she left, and now it was suppertime.
A group of three men passed by the face of the alley. They looked reasonable enough, so Caroline stood up and spoke.
“Excuse me, but would any of you be willing to give me some money? I don’t have any, and I need a meal.”
The previously kind-looking faces twisted with malice as they turned on her.
“Money, huh? Yeah, we’ve got it. You’ll have to earn it, though.”
At that moment, a group of three women passing by stopped behind the men.
“Is there a problem here?” one of them, a tall redhead, asked of both Caroline and the man who had spoken.
“Nothing for you to be concerned with, bitch,” the man snapped at her. The other two men turned to face the women.
They stared coldly at each other for a moment, but the woman was taller than the man and quickly seemed to take control. One of the other women pulled Caroline up by her arm, then dusted her off.
“It’s all fine, hun,” she said to Caroline.
“I recognize you three,” the tall woman said to the men. “I’ve seen you around. If you don’t get the fuck out of my face right now, I’ll make sure you are banned.”
The man in front had already seemed to be more nervous in the presence of the woman, and as soon as she said those words and made their meaning and sincerity clear to him, he stalked away, gesturing for his men to follow him without a word.
Caroline was getting weak with hunger and unsure of who the women were. As they walked away, the two other women supported Caroline, one on each side.
“Thank you so much for helping me,” she said a minute later. “Could you possibly spare some money for a meal?”
The tall woman looked down at her. “I may have helped you away from those men, but what they said was true. You’ll have to earn it. They’re just leeches who prey off newcomers and people who aren’t fully accustomed to our ‘fine city’ yet.”
Caroline’s mind was foggy and tired. She still wasn’t sure what the woman was talking about, but decided she’d worry about that later. She just needed to eat and sleep.