The final chapter. An epilogue will be coming along soon (I’ll be finishing it the night I post this, but I’ll space it out a few days as I usually do.)
Also, a little pissed that WordPad doesn’t have a spell checker. Like, what the fuck Microsoft, the spell checker is built in to your operating system, why can’t you enable it in the built-in word processor. So some misspellings may have slipped through (as it probably happened in the past several chapters) since I didn’t have a squiggly red line beneath bringing my attention to it.
When I post the epilogue, I’ll give my official soundtrack to the story. Sure, it’s only five songs long, but I gave each of the main characters a “theme song” of sorts that I thought fit them quite well.
Caroline stepped into my room. I paused mid-rotation in my reveling of the music and stared at her, trying to figure out who she was.
I stopped the music, irritated at the interruption. I had just finished with Diane, and was expecting to have a good amount of time to myself.
“So,” I asked, “who are you?”
“Caroline Carter,” she said firmly. “And I assume you’re Thomas, right? The man in control of Introspect?”
I sat down behind my desk. “Yes, so what do you want?”
She took a deep breath and sat down in front of the desk. “Why?”
“Why would you do this? The world is a far worse place because of you.”
“Which world are you talking about?”
“This world. The real world, you moron.”
“Well, you see, though this ‘real’ world may be worse because of things I have done and allowed to be done, a whole other world exists as a result. People are happy in that world, far happier than people have ever been in this world, even before I existed. Sometimes sacrifices must be made.”
“But they don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” Caroline said. “If you decreased the price from the ludicrous level it stands at now, crime, especially that which occurred earlier on, would’ve been decreased. You can’t deny that.”
“I don’t doubt it. But, you see, this is a company. The point is to make money. I can’t be blamed for what people do.”
“But you can be blamed for creating the situation in which they acted.”
“In part. Not solely. I wasn’t the only founder of this company.”
Caroline pulled back a bit. “Wait, you’re… a founder?”
“One of three, yes.”
I suppose it wasn’t then until she had considered my appearance. I was aware of the fact that I didn’t look particularly good. That’s unavoidable with age; no matter how long you’re able to prolong the life itself, the looks decay.
I was an odd mix of it, since I began the life extension when I was younger than most, so I still had the rough shape of someone in their thirties, but my skin was translucent and sagging, stripped of all elasticity and life long ago.
“So then you’re even more to blame,” she continued after a pause. “You’ve had direct control from the start. Why couldn’t you just think beyond the company, beyond money?”
“I don’t see why that would have been necessary. The situation I had a hand in creating doesn’t excuse the actions of others, certainly, but it doesn’t place the blame upon the creators of the situation either. I think you’re misunderstanding this situation in some ways.”
“But…” she started, then something quite extraordinary happened. I suppose it’s not surprising to you, since I’ve already given you a glimpse of that scene, but you can’t imagine my shock upon seeing the doors open and, in the open doorway, appear Clyde Edison Orville, along with someone I didn’t quite recognize.
The two of them walked into the room and collapsed into two chairs.
Clyde gave me a smirk. “Why hello, Thomas. And I assume this is… Caroline Carter?”
Caroline frowned. “Uh, yeah. How do you…?”
He waved it off. “No matter. I assume I’ve arrived at the correct time?”
I joined Caroline in the frown. “I… suppose. That depends on what the ‘correct time’ is.”
“Well, if this is truly Caroline, then I suppose that answers my question.”
I knew Clyde well enough to know that he wasn’t going to explain further until the right time, so I turned toward the other man who had come in with Clyde.
“Who is this?”
“This,” he said with a smile, “is Stephen Valencourt.”
After a moment to remember where I had heard that name before, my eyes widened. “I suppose it is the ‘correct time’ after all.”
Caroline turned to me. “What’s this all about?”
“Don’t worry about it. For now. Let us continue our conversation for the moment. So, disregarding all past actions of mine that may or may not have been morally right, what do you actually want me to do, now? What would you consider a victory?”
Caroline paused, thinking. “I guess… Dissolve the company?”
I laughed. “That’s a little extreme, don’t you think?”
“Is it really, though?”
“What do you think that would accomplish in the present day? We get fewer and fewer people, nowadays.”
“But most people still scramble for whatever money they can grab, still, though they have no chance of ever joining you. Despite that fact, they still kill and steal and sell themselves, just to increase their chances. If you dissolved the company, they would stop.”
“Caroline, you’re still blaming the actions of others on me. Some people do all that just to buy food or lodging. Am I to blame for that as well? Or would that blame go to the grocers and owners of apartments? You can’t just keep blaming misfortune onto each level going up. Sometimes, it’s that people just want to do bad things. I can’t change that.”
“Well, then… why not use some of your – the company’s – money to improve the world?”
“I suppose that would be an option. And, honestly, I don’t have much of an excuse as to why I wouldn’t do that. Perhaps I will. But don’t you think people might find it a bit hypocritical that the person who destroyed the planet would suddenly be trying to help?”
“I suppose, but… Wait, what? What do you mean by ‘destroyed the planet’?”
I paused. I hadn’t quite meant to let that slip. I may have just assumed, for some reason, that she already knew about that. I didn’t see much reason holding back the truth at this point, so I continued.
“I and two – or three,” I added, with a look to Clyde, “were behind the dirty bombing of Earth.”
Caroline stepped back in shock. With a thought to how the rest of this scenario might play out, I pulled a gun out of my desk and set it on the table. “Yes, that’s right. Does that make you hate me more?”
She grabbed the gun and pointed it at me. “In fact, it does.”
“What will you do, then? Use that gun. Take me out. The company will continue, even without me at the head.”
“If I may interrupt,” Clyde said, standing up from his chair with shaking, weak knees, “I believe I may have a bit of information that might turn your hatred toward something a bit more… personal.”
Caroline lowered the gun and turned to face him. “And what would that be?”
He gestured toward Stephen. “Let me introduce you to your father.”
Caroline looked in disgust toward him. “What? That’s impossible. My father died before I was born.”
“Your father by relation, yes. But Stephen here is your biological father.”
“You see, Stephen here was pretty well endowed. However, he didn’t have quite enough to join Introspect. He was forced, then, to find another way of gaining some money. As a result, he chose your family to be his target. He broke in, killed your father, stole all valubles he could find and decided, just as the icing on the cake, to rape your mother.”
Caroline turned her glare to Stephen. He raised his hands in defense. “No, no, that’s… I would never do something like that.”
“Would you now?” I asked. “You see, the process of putting you into the virtual world erases your memories. Resets your personality, in a way.”
“Well, it would,” Clyde said. “Removing him from the virtual world should’ve killed him, as well. So it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if he retained some memories.”
I looked back toward Clyde. “Speaking of which, how did he get out?”
Clyde waved a hand in dismissal. “No matter, for now. I’ll get into that later. The point is, I think he might be remembering a few things right about now.”
Stephen’s eyes widened in what I now assume to be him remembering one of his recent dreams. Caroline saw his change of expression and pointed the gun at him.
“It’s true?” she yelled.
“It… I’m not…” he winced as it looked like wave after wave of memory came back to him. He lowered his hands and gulped. “It is.”
“Was it worth it?” she continued yelling. “Was your twenty-five or so years in a fake universe worth the demolition of my family? Was it worth making all my memories of my mother tinged with an intangible sadness? Was it worth making me grow up without a father?”
“No, of course not,” Stephen said. Knowing what I did of the process of putting someone into the virtual world, I had a feeling that he was going through an internal turmoil, two distinct personalities in a war for control. Everyone in the virtual world was loaded with a fairly mellow temperament, but I knew that before then he had been anything but. We did a background check on all people joining our company, and Stephen had been one of the more notable members.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so…” Stephen started, then let out a hoarse cough, spattering blood onto the floor, then fell out of the chair onto his hands and knees. Clyde looked at me. “I didn’t think he would last very long,” he said.
Stephen coughed again and fell onto his side. “I don’t know how to make you forgive me,” he said. “I’m so…” He froze for a second, then his face broke into a smile, exposing his blood-covered teeth. “Happy that I did it. I’ve had quite an enjoyable time here.”
The corner of my mouth quirked up in a smile. It seemed that one side of his personality had won out in the end.
Caroline glared at him and tightened her grip on the pistol. “What did you say?”
He broke into a fit of mixed coughing and laughing and pushed himself up onto one arm. “Yeah, you heard me. I’m glad I did it. I don’t give a shit about your family. I don’t give a shit about you.” He closed his eyes. “Ah, I can hear it now, your mother’s screams. Screams for many reasons. I believe the corpse of your ‘father’ was nearby.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Caroline screamed, and pushed the gun against his head.
“Why not kill him?” I suggested. “He won’t be living for much longer anyway.”
“I should,” Caroline said, and began to pull the trigger. She grimaced, threw the gun down, and spat on Stephen. “No. I won’t. Wouldn’t that… just reduce me to his level?” she asked, looking at me.
I shrugged. “Either way. It might get loud pretty soon, though.”
She frowned questioningly and looked as though she was about to ask me a question, but it was answered for her before she could even get it out. Stephen began writhing on the ground, groaning louder and louder until they turned into screams. His body contorted in pain and his skin dried and cracked, blood and puss leaking out onto the floor and creating a slick puddle of mess that he tossed and turned in. I smiled and stared at Caroline as it all went on.
“You sure you don’t want to kill him now?”
She looked at him, her eyes hate-filled slits. “No. Let him die in pain.”
The three of us waited as he slowly died on the floor, the screams growing weaker and weaker, his useless flailing growing more and more desperate until it stopped altogether.
I noticed that Clyde was looking paler, but didn’t want to bring it up right then. “Are you happy, now?” I asked Caroline.
“Yeah, I think so,” she said, picking up the pistol. “But I don’t quite know what I should do at this point.” She pointed the gun at me.
I raised my hands and grinned. “I think we’ve already been over this. Killing me wouldn’t accomplish anything. The company will continue.”
“It will, sure,” she said, “but it will be weakened.”
“Do it, then,” I dared her. “If you couldn’t bring yourself to kill the man who raped your mother – the man who made you, though, I doubt you’ll be able to bring yourself to kill me.”
She lowered the gun. “I suppose you’re right. Moreover, I don’t think you’re worth it.”
She tucked the gun into the waist of her pants. “You’re pretty pathetic, now that I’ve met you. You really just do this for your own glory, don’t you?”
“You could say that.”
“Of course you do. You’re weak. I feel like you’d take me killing you as a victory, you being able to make me do something I wouldn’t otherwise. But also, I doubt you – or the company – will survive much longer. If it’s all based on your own ego, it won’t last. You disgust me.”
“Well, then, are you finished?” I asked her. She nodded, and I turned to Clyde. “So, would you like to explain yourself to me? What are you doing here? What was Stephen doing here?”
He had his head in his hands. His body was shaking slightly and his jaw was clenched. He raised his head to look at me, wincing in pain as he did so.
He wasn’t going to last much longer. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt a wave of sadness. I had tried to keep him alive for long as possible. Once the life-extension treatments wouldn’t work any longer, I put him into a completely separate copy of the virtual world, to let the anti-aging properties of the machines take over. But he had gotten out, somehow, and I knew he would be dead within minutes.
“I’ve always enjoyed my little games, you know, Thomas. You shouldn’t be surprised.”
“And what does that mean?” I asked in partial indignation.
“Stephen entered the world shortly before I did. I got… a sense, from him, you know. A strong feeling that he would play some importance in something, an even stronger urge to do something about it.”
“So I messed a little bit with his addition to the world. Loosened the connection some, you could say. Gave him just a hint of self-awareness in the world, that something deeper was going on. I knew that, eventually, he would be able to come out of it.”
“But how did you do that? You weren’t involved in the process…”
“Your workers can be quite easy to manipulate at times, I’m sure you’re aware. As for why I am here, the world you created for me wasn’t quite as ‘closed-circuit’ as you thought. I created a small switch connected between the two worlds that was activated by Stephen’s departure from the main world. It would release me from my own. I wanted to be here to see what happened.”
He turned to face Caroline. His voice was weakening as he spoke, and was now almost a whisper. “You’re a special woman,” he said to her. “I can feel something about you. Something that bodes poorly for Thomas, I’m afraid. And to think, all of this coming together just from my idea for boosting the company by destroying the world.”
“But… why? Why all of this?” I demanded. “Why would you aid something that could’ve, for all you knew, destroy the company? Moreover, why would you have done something that would kill you, no matter what happened?”
He smiled at me, his body slumped over in the chair and his face showing a great deal of pain. “‘As for myself, I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester — and this is my last jest.'” he quoted breathlessly.
His body fell out of the chair and onto the floor. The only sounds he could make, now, were groans of internal torture, and his body began decomposing as it lay there. I couldn’t watch. I generally consider myself fairly detached from “feelings”, but I couldn’t take it any more. I leapt forward and grabbed the gun from Caroline, aimed, and put two bullets in Clyde’s head. I dropped the gun, slumped to the floor, and sighed. This was becoming a rather exhausting day.
Caroline looked between the two bodies and me, clearly unsure of what to do. She sat down and gave me a hard look.
“I think I know what I want you to do,” she said.
“And what would that be?”
“I want you to write this story. All of it. From the start. About you, me, and Stephen. I’ll tell you everything that happened to me, then you’ll write it. Perhaps, upon finishing it, you’ll see why you’re in the wrong.”
“Sure,” I said, too tired to deny her. I got up and sat in my chair, pulled out some paper and a pen, and looked up to face her. “Begin your story.”
And she did. It took hours, but she finished her story and I was left with a quite detailed outline.
She left, saying that she couldn’t bear to be around me any more, and I began writing. I wrote late into the night, after reviewing Stephen’s records on the system of what he had done and thought during his entire stay in the virtual world. It was cathartic, I thought, recovering from all that had happened.
But unfortunately, the night wasn’t quite over for me at that point. Another person walked into my room without me even noticing and crept around me. While writing the section of the story with Caroline in the Anti-Introspect building, I felt a gun press up against the back of my head.
“I assume I’ve found you, Thomas Hendrick.”
I lifted my hands from the keyboard and raised them above my head. “Yes, and who are you?”
“My name is Gerome Tenetin,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“Writing a story, obviously. About a man named Stephen and a woman named Caroline.”
His voice softened for a moment. “Wait, Caroline? Caroline who?”
“I believe her name is Caroline Carter.”
The gun was pulled away from my head. “There’s no way…”
He walked around the desk and took a seat across from me. “I’m Gerome, from her story.”
“What a coincidence,” I said with a grin. It was obvious he was going to kill me, but for some reason that didn’t bother me.
He put his hand, holding the gun pointed at me, on the table. “I want you to add me in to the story. I’ll tell you my side.”
“Uh, all right, I guess,” I said.
And he told me his story. He had spent the past few hours or so finding a way up here with a weapon without anyone noticing, and I found it fairly amusing that now that gun was being pointed at me, just to write his story.
And I’ve finished, now. I’m not entirely sure what Caroline intended me to “learn” or whatever. I didn’t do this to ruin the world. I didn’t even do it for the money, really, that was more Rick’s side of it. I just did it to rule a world.
But I suppose I’m done ruling that world. As I pen – or type – these final words, Gerome stands behind me with the gun pressed against my skull. I face a window and, in the opening light of dawn, I can see a horde closing in on the building, the complete amalgamation of the Anti-Introspect group along with anyone else who wished to join in. The company won’t survive for much longer.
Gerome is telling me to finish. I write this sentence, and can hear the faint creak of the trigger pulling back.