Peripheral Vision, Epilogue

Well, here it is. The end. I’m kind of sad to see it go, honestly. I have enjoyed writing this story so much.

Just over six months from initial idea to completion. That’s pretty good, I think.

Damn. I don’t really know where I’m going to go from here. Huh. I really haven’t thought about that at all. I’ll keep making the show, obviously, which takes a decent amount of time, but I don’t really know what else I’ll do.

I’d like to edit and prepare for publication Induction of Insanity, Mostly Hidden, Comatose Experiments, and Peripheral Vision, then publish them all in one book. (Which makes sense, since they all take place in the same world and are connected to Mind Pharmaceuticals in some way.)

I’ll also be editing two stories and submitting them to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction before too long, also.

New-story-wise, though, not sure. I’m sure I’ll come up with some new stuff before long.

Oh yeah, the “soundtrack” for Peripheral Vision. Here we go:

Feel Good Inc. – Gorillaz: Clyde’s Theme/Mostly Hidden Overture

Ton-y-botel – Thomas John Williams: Thomas’ Theme

Mr. Self Destruct – Nine Inch Nails: Gerome’s Theme

Little Pistol – Mother Mother: Caroline’s Theme

Clubbed to Death (Kurayamino Mix) – Rob Dougan: Stephen’s Theme

~

I am Michael, and in my final days. I’ve assigned Paul to take control of my money and followers once I’m gone. The world will need him to take my place, soon. Great things are on the rise.
Gerome gave me these pages after finding me in his travels and learning of who I am. He took them from Thomas’ office after he killed him, leaving right before the horde descended upon the building. He didn’t feel like he fit in to the group any more. His personal goal had been reached. It was time for a new start for him, his life would start afresh.
He walked away from the building with a calm determination. He felt washed, in a way. His hands were washed of Thomas’ blood and that of the company at large. He thought back again to that passage from some book he couldn’t remember, a leader washing his hands of another’s symbolic blood. A leader. That’s what he would be, now. He would lead the rebuilding of the world.
Caroline came back to me after she had left Introspect. She returned the money card and apologized that she hadn’t convinced Thomas to do anything major, but she felt proud of what she had done. She felt victorious, though she couldn’t quite understand why.
I knew she had done something. She told me she had made Thomas write her story, and I knew that was a victory in and of itself. That story – this story – would be important.
The world would be rebuilt, before long, with Caroline at the head, and I knew this story would be something important to keep in that world as a view into a time when things went wrong. Perhaps it would hold of humanity’s hubris, for a short time at least. We had all shared a horrible situation in which we lived, and would hold onto that interconnectedness for a few years, perhaps long enough to give some amount of power back to the government and law enforcement. Or just completely recreate them.
I have high hopes for Caroline. She’ll go far in this new world, I’m certain. I’ll be gone soon, but with people like her, the world doesn’t need me any more.

Peripheral Vision, Chapter Fifteen

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 what?”
“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… see.”
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.”
“What?”
“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.”
“Alright.”
“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.

Peripheral Vision, Chapter Fourteen

The third mini-episode of the show is up, and you can find it here, as well as on the show’s site and iTunes.

Oh boy. One more chapter (and an epilogue, probably) of Peripheral Vision and we’re done. Hard to believe it’s getting wrapped up.

~

Well, well. We’re certainly nearing the end, aren’t we. Inching closer and closer to that point when all threads of the narrative cross paths and the fabric of the story is tightened together.
But we’ve had an awful lot of Caroline recently. I think it’s about time we turn back to Stephen. He really hasn’t gotten much time in the spotlight for the past several sections. After that, I might explain Gerome’s side, then wrap up Caroline’s just as everything comes together.
Before that, though, I would like to clarify a bit about how I’m getting all of these parts of the story. For Stephen, it’s easy, since I’m able to monitor him through the virtual world and replay any past section as I please. For Caroline, though; I know what happened to her because she told it all to me in great detail just a few hours ago. Simple, isn’t it?
Oh dear. I realize I may have just given away a little bit of what happens later on. No matter, it’s nothing too major.
Well, let’s return to Stephen, now, and…
Ah, I can almost hear the readers calling out to me. “How do you know Gerome’s side?” they ask.
I’m sorry, but I’ll have to leave that a secret until it gets explained through the natural progression of story. I fear that telling you now might ruin some of the ending.
Anyway, back to Stephen.

The rest of that day and the following few went by without any other bizarre “visions”, as Stephen had deemed best to call them. He wouldn’t allow them to become a problem. It was all in his head. He just had to focus on ignoring it – as much of an oxymoron as that was – and everything would be fine. He was sure of it.
He decided to take a drive through the countryside. He had to do something he enjoyed. Recently he derived no pleasure from any of the activities that he normally liked. Riding his horse was a chore, playing games with friends was irritating, he could barely focus his attention enough to read, and even sleep had become something to dread. It was no longer relaxation and a pleasant drift through wonderous worlds and even more wonderous feelings, it triggered anxiety and unease. He had begun to remember more and more dreams, each of them as horrible or more so as the first.
He got in his car and turned the keys in the ignition, hands shaking. He felt an almost nauseating amount of anxiety trigger inside him just as he pulled out of the drive.
It had been getting harder and harder to leave his house. There, he was still miserable, but at least felt relatively safe and, well, at home.
As he drove past the idyllic countryside, rolling hills edged by rustic wood fences, the occasional cow, horse, or sheep beyond, his iron grip on the steering wheel began to slacken and his rigid posture relax. He pressed a little harder on the gas pedal, speeding across the straight road and feeling the rollercoasterlike sensation of gravity weaken and strengthen in turn as he went over the hills. For the first time in a while, he smiled.
But as he drove on, the ill feeling returned, stronger than ever. A deep-seated anxiety with a sense of foreboding, a sense that something bad was happening and there was no way that he could avoid it.
The road ahead of him seemed faded, in a way; as though he could only see a set distance ahead at any given time. It was almost like it was a foggy day, but there wasn’t any fog that he could see. Suddenly the car stopped completely. No, it wasn’t just the car; everything stopped. He couldn’t move his body, though he was aware of everything going on. He couldn’t look around, his entire body was frozen in place and there wasn’t any way to change it.
The next moment, everything was back to normal, he could move, the car was going down the road at the same speed as before. But both he and the car had jumped several hundred yards down the road right after they were unfrozen. It was almost like the entire world was “skipping” around him, though his mind remained free to percieve all of it.
He pulled the car over to the side of the road and jumped out, crouching by the pavement. He vomited onto the grass. His entire body was clammy with cold sweat and he felt lightheaded. He closed his eyes and ran his hands through his hair, trying to get a hold on himself.
A few minutes later he felt somewhat recovered and got back in the car, turned it around, and headed back towards home. He couldn’t put up with this any more.
After a grueling drive back to his house, he fell into bed. It was several hours before his usual bedtime, but he felt mentally exhausted and went to sleep almost immediately. He had one thought before he drifted off; tomorrow was the day that the congregation would meet. This one small thought brought back a wave of that anxiety and foreboding that he had experienced earlier on the drive.
The next morning he slept in late. It wasn’t comfortable, refreshing sleep, though, he woke up groggy in mind and body. A fog cluttered his thoughts and all his limbs felt twice as heavy.
He got dressed, dreading the meeting that was closing in by the minute. He tried to eat a little food before leaving, but the taste disgusted him.
He drove to the building where it took place. The sky was beautiful, the air warm and inviting, but it all felt irritating to him. It was too perfect. It was like the world was trying to be patronizing to him, sarcastically giving him everything he wanted. He hated it.
The meeting began with its normal pattern, songs of praise and recitations of honor, but Stephen felt like he was just going through the motions. Other people around him had beaming faces and were singing and intoning with passion, but he felt dead inside. He glared at the front where a massive golden statue of “The Creator” sat, and he had to shut his eyes and clench his fists to keep from vomiting. It wasn’t a statue. It was a depraved, disgusting abomination of flesh, stone, and metal. Heaving slightly as though breathing, as though alive.
Everyone around him stared at it in reverence and awe, but Stephen couldn’t look back towards it. He knew he would puke.
He had to get out of there. It had never been done, it could never be done, no one had ever left a meeting prematurely. It simply wasn’t done. There weren’t any rules about it or anything, it was just understood that you couldn’t leave. That wasn’t a problem anyway, since no one wanted to leave, ever. It was a time of joy and emotion, more than the rest of their lives. But it was no longer such for Stephen.
He pushed his way out through the pew until he was in the center aisle. People shot him surprisingly poisonous looks as he made his way out of the building.
He just had to get home. He couldn’t leave home again. This was unbearable. Everything, now, was infected with this horror and dread. It was inescapable. At home only existed some small amount of comfort; but that was diminishing daily.
He drove home, pulled into the drive without bothering to park in a proper spot, and ran through the front door. He rushed into the bathroom attached to his room and gripped the rim of the toilet bowl, expecting to vomit. There wasn’t much of anything in his stomach to vomit, though, and he just crouched there dry-heaving for a few minutes until the nausea began to fade.
He took a small sip of water, then went to his bed and sat on one side. He couldn’t enjoy anything. There was no happiness for him any more. He considered suicide. It seemed like the only option at that point.
The door to his room opened, but there was no one behind it. Slowly, coming in small patches and polygons at a time, the form of Bartholomew emerged from the thin air. It would’ve been his form, though, had there been any skin. All that was in front of Stephen was a rusted metal android. Wires and coils of tubing stretched across every bit of its body and there was a cable running from the top of its head through the ceiling into heights unseen to Stephen.
His initial reaction was, as he had chosen to think in the past, “it’s all in your head”, or “this isn’t real”, or “it doesn’t matter”. But this, this was beyond all else he had yet seen.
“Why are you home so early?” the android asked in Bartholomew’s voice.
Stephen could only utter out a muffled “uh”. He chose to no longer dismiss what he was seeing. He would accept it. It wasn’t all in his head. He was the only one seeing what was really going on. Peter disappearing. The physical world falling apart and putting itself together incorrectly. This wasn’t in his head.
He realized his eyes were closed. He opened them, deciding to take in everything he saw as fact.
The edge of Bartholomew’s robotic form began to fade away, dissolving into lines of ones and zeros. The floated away through the air. It wasn’t air, though; it wasn’t anything. Stephen was floating in the middle of his room, surrounded by lines of numbers. The walls of his room folded outward, revealing a complete blackness of void beyond. The edges of the two-dimensional, paper-like walls began to scatter apart into the same random strings of code.
Soon, Stephen was left floating in the void, surrounded only by a maelstorm of numbers. They spun around him at a mind-numbing rate, slowly tightening around him into a ball, pulling all lines together into a tight ball. Stephen’s vision was obscured, only a bright white swirling madness. It tightened and tightened, crushing his body into oblivion, until it reached the infinite density of the singularity of a black hole. Everything was mixed in with everything else. Stephen was no longer just himself, he was all.
The pinprick of information that had once been called “Stephen” in impossible density imploded upon itself. Stephen’s consciousness snapped and immediately reconfigured itself.
It was over. He was himself. He was aware of his body, immovable. It was held in place by something he couldn’t see. He struggled in vain for a moment before he felt he restraints release. There was something above him blocking his way out. He writhed in place, trying to change position enough to find some way to get out, but whatever it was that had been above him slid back with a hiss.
Stephen’s eyes were closed and he tried to open them. They felt weak, as did every other part of his body, but after some work he finally managed to open them. His surroundings were completely blurry and he had double vision for a moment before his sight corrected itself.
He slumped out of the thing that had been holding his body in place, still thoroughly incapable of non-blurry sight. He tried to stand up, but his legs shook and he had to lean on something beside him to keep standing.
There was a doorway somewhere in front of him. He could see a rectangle of light shining through into the darkened room he was in. He struggled to make his way towards the light, leaning on anything he could find for support. Before he got to the doorway his legs gave out and he had to make the rest of the trip laying on his stomach and dragging himself along the floor.
Once he was partially through the doorway and in the light, his vision began to clarify. He could see the tiled floor he was laying on. That and a pair of legs that were slowly making their way towards him.
Through no small amount of effort, he managed to hold up his head enough to look at whoever it was. It looked like a stooped elderly man. A very elderly man, old enough that it looked as though the skin was about ready to drip off of his bones. The skin under his eyes drooped revealing the tender red flesh beneath.
“Hello, Stephen,” the man said in a voice that sounded like it hadn’t been used in decades. The man was struggling to walk, but he pulled Stephen up and supported him as they walked through the hallway.
Stephen’s head swung and bobbed, his neck muscles no more use to him than taffy. They walked, supporting each other, for a length of time that Stephen couldn’t begin to comprehend. It could’ve been five minutes, possibly, but it felt like hours to him.
Up an elevator for another few hours, then walking through another hallway and up a staircase that he was sure lasted at least a day or two. Then they stopped in front of a door that was marked with a sign saying “Thomas Hendrick”.
The old man turned to speak to Stephen as he opened the door, revealing a man and woman beyond. “I’m afraid I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Clyde.”

Oh dear, I think I got a little too far ahead in the story there. Ah, no matter, things are coming together quick enough now that one piece of the story being a little ahead of schedule won’t be a problem.
Now for part of Gerome’s side. I won’t be able to pull his section quite as close to the conclusion right now, since there’s a little more that has to happen before then, but it’s necessary for me to give this portion now.

It wasn’t easy, finding a way to get to Gerome’s target. It was somewhere around the North Pole, and for obvious reasons, very few people ever went there.
After running from one source to the next, he finally found a smallish cargo ship that was going there the following day.
He paid his way on board and, seeing some of the other people that were getting on at the same time, felt that his suspicions had been confirmed. A number of incredibly wealthy people boarding an old cargo ship at the same time would be hard to explain otherwise.
Despite the ship being in a fairly filthy condition, it was clear that the crew had made quite the living off their business. Perhaps it was kept filthy on purpose, to disguise its true nature, or perhaps they just didn’t care. In either case, it would’ve have been Gerome’s first pick as to the mode of transportation for people going to Introspect.
He tried to keep to himself on the ride. These were specifically the kind of people that he hated, the people he wouldn’t mind seeing sink for all eternity into the chill ocean depths.
It was a long trip. At least, it felt incredibly long. It could’ve just been a few days, but it felt like weeks to Gerome. The terrible quality of food and the lack of anything to do just prolonged the torture until seeing a faint blue-and-white outcropping on the horizon was all that could bring him joy.
And it did, once it finally came around the bend. A few hours later, they docked in a strange little ice-port and disembarked.
Conveniently enough, a small tram swung by a few minutes later and everyone embarked. There was one woman on the tram wearing a hood that concealed her face, which Gerome found odd given that the others on the tram were quite open about their opulence and personalities.
The tram stopped off in front of a massive light-grey building, with the words “Introspect, Incorporated” plastered on the front. He imagined the coloring was to prevent detection in case anyone found aerial imagery.
He stepped inside with the others, staying towards the middle of the group. He knew what he had to do now. He had planned it all out for a long time.

It almost brings a tear to my eye, seeing our four plotlines all begin to come together. Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll set my record of Ton-y-botel playing and, without further adieu, give Caroline’s last section before the conclusion.

Caroline awoke, unsure of where she was. Ironically, though, she had gotten used to that feeling, sleeping in so many assorted places recently.
She got out of bed and returned to the main room she had been in the previous day. Michael was already at the table, slowly eating his breakfast. Another plate was set out on the table in front of another chair, and she sat down and began eating.
He had already been eating for a while, so they finished their breakfasts at about the same time.
After the meal, one of the mutated people came in to the room and stood by the door. Caroline checked that the money card was still in her pocket, then turned to Michael. “Thank you so much, again. If I’m lucky, this could be a momentous event for the world. Perhaps it could even signal the beginning of rebuilding.”
She hugged him. “There needs to be more people like you, Michael.”
“There are,” he said. “There are always more people like me. But they are probably in hiding. The current world is no place for us. If you succeed, they will emerge. Just give them, us, a chance, and we’ll do all we can to resurrect society.”
She turned and walked towards the man who was waiting by the door.
“Oh, before you go,” Michael said. “Take these.” He gestured to the man, who handed a small bag of clothes to Caroline. “I’m guessing you haven’t had a change of clothes in a while.”
Caroline was suddenly self-conscious about how filthy and odorous her clothes were. “Oh, thank you very much. Yeah. It’s… been a long time. Could I…?” she said, tilting her head back towards the room where she had slept.
“Certainly.”
She returned to the room, closed the door, and removed her clothes, taking out the money card. There was a sink in the room and a few towels which she used to somewhat clean her skin before dressing into the new outfit and slipping the money card into one of the new pockets.
It was very similar to outfits she saw many of Michael’s followers wearing. The shirt was large, almost like a poncho, but flowed nicely. As with the others, it had a hood, which she thought would be convenient later on.
She put her dirty clothes into the bag, and left the room. There was a trashcan in the main room, and she put the bag in there. She didn’t realize until then how dirty she had been. It was refreshing to be mostly clean and wearing fresh clothes.
“Be wary of the drug users in that city,” Michael said to Caroline. “It can suck anyone in. I’ve lost several to it already. And good luck. I wish you the best.”
She thanked Michael again, then left the building with the man. He had a small bag, which Caroline assumed held some food for later on the walk.
They walked for the first few hours without speaking a word. Shortly after midday, the man stopped and sat down beside the road, opening the bag. He pulled out a small amount of food and water for them each.
“We’re about halfway there,” he said.
“Okay.” Caroline ate for a little while, then ventured a conversation. “What’s your name?”
“John.”
He said nothing more, so Caroline waited a bit before trying again. “How long ago did you meet Michael?”
“Six years.”
Both times he spoke, he did so without looking up from his food. After the second reply, Caroline decided to give up.
After finishing their meal, they began walking, again in silence. A few hours later, as the sun was nearing the horizon, they came up to a city.
The man stopped at the outskirts of the city. Caroline looked at him, hoping that he was going to continue into the city with her, but he handed her a small bundle of food from the bag, along with a slip of paper.
On the paper was an address. “Go there and contact Introspect,” he said and, without a further word, turned around and began walking back the way they had came.
Caroline wandered through the city for a little until she found the building indicated by the address. Thankfully, it was quite close to where John had dropped her off.
The building itself was at the corner of one block, and was looking in bad condition. The inside lights were off, every window was broken or just completely nonexistent, and sections of the building itself looked as though they had been burnt.
Across the top of the building was the sign “Newhaven 4 Introspect Inc. Offices”.
She went through the front door. No one was inside, and it didn’t look like anyone had been for decades. She wandered through the building a bit, looking for something that could help her.
In one small room there was a large metal box affixed to the wall, with a telephone receiver hanging from it and a slit in the side.
Stenciled into the top of the metal box was a phone number. She picked up the receiver with doubts as to if it would still be connected. It was. She punched in the phone number and waited.
“Hello, you have reached Introspect Incorporporated,” began the automated message. It listed off a few choices, the first of which was “To sign up with our company, press ‘1’.”
She pressed the “1” key and waited again. This time, she spoke with a live person.
She told the person that she wanted to join, told them her name and more information, then was asked to insert her money card into the slit on the side of the metal box to check her finances.
She did so, heart beating quickly. She had a sudden irrational fear that Michael hadn’t actually given her any money. A few stressful seconds later, the woman confirmed that she had enough and told her that she was very lucky, as a ship heading to Introspect headquarters was leaving from Newhaven 4 that very night. She gave Caroline information on which ship it was and where to find it, then said goodbye.
Caroline began heading toward where the ship was docked, eating food from her package on the walk.
In almost every alleyway she passed on the way, she saw people sprawled out on the grimy ground, leaning against the walls, or smoking from strange little pipes and looking from side to side.
She faced forward down the street. She felt no desire to join them, certainly, though she had enjoyed that pill of tripencorquine she had a few days ago. What she felt most was a strengthened determination for her goal. If she could succeed in some way, perhaps fewer people would feel the need to live in their own slaveries of virtual worlds.
She found the ship before long, and boarded. She put her hood up, thinking it would be best to be careful. She laid low during the three days the trip took.
Sometime on the second day, she realized with a shock that Gerome was aboard. She kept away from him, not sure what he was doing there or how he had gotten there.
Once the ship docked a small tram took the passengers through the icy landscape, stopping in front of the massive building that was the Introspect Headquarters.
Once she and the others disembarked, she completely lost track of where Gerome was. She looked around, as much as she could without being noticed, but couldn’t find him anywhere.
She followed the group of disgustingly opulent people that she had traveled with, suddenly at a loss of what to do, how to find whoever was in charge.
They passed by a small office, the door of which was slightly ajar. A scantily clad woman walked in, and the owner of the office addressed her as “Diane”.
Caroline felt like she knew the name, but couldn’t remember. She stopped walking, though the rest of the group continued on, thinking.
She remembered where she had heard it, and knew that, somehow, this was that very Diane. “Thomas is done with you for the day?” the person in the office asked Diane.
“Yeah,” she responded.
Caroline readied herself, then stepped in through the door. “He asked for me to come over from the mainland,” she said.
Diane raised her eyebrow at Caroline. “And you are?”
“Caroline. I recently joined your… company, Diane, and Irene said that Thomas wanted me to come over as well.”
Diane glared at Caroline. “Did she, now? I’ll make sure she knows who belongs here next time I return.”
The person at the desk, whose nameplate labeled them as “Joanne”, looked between them, seeming to be somewhat confused about what to do.
“Well,” Joanne said, “I guess you should go up there and meet him, at least. Go out through the hallway, take a left, then type ‘8342’ into the keypad. It will take you to his office.”
Caroline thanked her, then left the room with Diane still glaring at her. She followed the woman’s instructions and rode the elevator up thirty-three floors. The doors opened, revealing a short hallway that stopped at a pair of double doors, from behind which a deep, flowing, powerful composition was playing. She walked forward, took a deep breath, turned the handle, and opened the door.

Peripheral Vision, Chapter Thirteen

Get ready for a lot of Caroline.

~

Caroline had been walking with the mutated people for several hours. They were almost entirely quiet throughout the entire walk, and she didn’t want to break the silence to ask how far away they were. Her legs were aching, still partially sore from her long run and walk a few hours before,  but she felt sure that it couldn’t be too much further that they would go.
It was.
An hour later, she tried speaking with one of the people. “How much further before we get there?”
“I dunno,” he responded, “We’ll just get there when we get there.”
“Like, ten minutes, or like two hours?”
“We’ll get there when we get there.”
Caroline faced forward again and continued in silence once more. She wasn’t sure if they were being curt with her, or simply didn’t know or care how far away it was. Paul was in front, and it was more than possible that they were all just following him blindly, as it were, without a thought to when or how they would arrive.
Caroline made her way up to him and they walked alongside each other for a few minutes before she broke the silence once again.
“So, uh, who are you all? What do you do?”
“We’re Michael’s messengers, you could say,” he responded. “Messengers or… disciples. We go out and do what he cannot any more.”
“But, I mean… who…”
“Why are we like this?” he said, turning to face her. “Why do I look unlike any man you’ve ever seen? Because our parents didn’t let the hospitals euthanize us. Because they loved us no matter what we looked or sounded like. But then… Then they found out how hard that can be. People began to shun them, merely because of us. Some of them abandoned us. Some of them didn’t, but when we became adults we found nowhere to go, no one who would help us. No one but Michael. And so we followed him.”
“I see,” Caroline said, unsure of what else she could say. She felt, for a moment, as though she understood their perspective, but was almost taken aback at that, comparing herself to them and all that they had gone through.
They stopped a while later and ate a quick meal, from a small basket that seemed to be brought along solely for that purpose, then continued on again. Caroline’s legs, chest, lungs, and heart were burning. She would’ve begged them to stop and take a break, but knew how pathetic that would be.
They were walking through a desert. That was the best thing to describe it as, at least. It seemed to have once been something more, something far more, with fertile ground and lush foliage, large, half-destroyed houses scattered throughout, but now it was only desert. Close to the path on which they walked was a twisted heap of metal that Caroline realized must have been a child’s tricycle. Something in this image triggered an emotional response within her, and she suddenly found herself struggling to hold back tears. It was almost as though the tricycle was familiar to her. She hung back a moment behind the group and picked it up.
A beginning of a word was scraped into the metal of the body of the tricycle, “Ca”. Caroline’s eyes widened and she threw it down, backing away. It… it didn’t mean anything. No, it didn’t mean anything. She shook her head and caught up with the group again.
Later in the day, they rounded over a hill and Caroline saw what must be their destination; a large, squat house sitting on a flat area a distance away. Half an hour later and they had arrived.
Paul led her in through one door while the others of the group went into another area.
“Michael should be just in here,” he said to her. He scanned the room quickly, then pointed to a chair with its back to them. “There.”
He turned and left the room, leaving Caroline alone with the man. She took a step forward and, without turning the chair around, Michael spoke.
“You aren’t one of them. What brings you here? And what is your name?”
Caroline stopped. “I’m Caroline. I need your money. A lot of it.”
The chair slowly rotated until the man was facing Caroline. He was old, older than anyone Caroline had seen before. She almost would’ve thought he was a corpse, had it not been for the fact that the voice was coming from him. That, and a spark behind his eyes, a verve that outlasted his body. “Why, exactly, would you need that?”
She stepped towards him confidently. “To go to Introspect.”
He raised an eyebrow, seeming to understand there was more to what she was saying than just that. She paused, partially for effect and partially because she wasn’t sure what to say next.
“…And?”
“Not to join it, of course. I want to get there to talk to whoever is in charge. Stop them, if possible, but at least to talk with them, tell them my story, hear their own. See if there’s any possible way that they can defend themselves. And if not, stop them however I can. I believe the world can’t begin to fix itself until the company is gone.”
He sat silently for a minute after she had finished, his fingertips pressed against each other in thought. “That’s true. I believe there may even be more to it, more that they’ve done to the world, than you know. But I won’t get into that. Perhaps you will hear it from the owner if it is true.”
“So, does that mean that you’ll help me?”
He paused a moment before speaking again. “Maybe. I’d like, first, to talk with you a bit. To gauge you, I suppose. Please, take a seat,” he said, gesturing to a nearby chair.
Caroline sat in it and looked at him, unsure of what to say. He unrolled his fingers towards her. “So, what do you want to talk about?” he asked.
“I… don’t know.”
“Anything. Really doesn’t matter.”
Caroline looked down and gathered her thoughts, then decided to go for the obvious question. “Why haven’t you joined Introspect? You certainly seem to have enough money for it, after all. Paul told me you didn’t want to help them, but I think most people feel the same yet would still join if given the chance.”
“I’ve lived a long time, Caroline. I’ve come in contact with certain people and companies like Introspect and the people in charge there. I, in fact, came in direct contact with someone who was an unofficial… advisor, there, you could say. But from what I have learned throughout my life, I know that to join them in any way becomes an enslavement to them. They are people filled with malice, people with cold hearts – no, not just cold, but hearts that long ago stopped working altogether. They care nothing for the world’s population, so long as they can stay in control of them. That is why I refuse to work with them.”
Caroline cracked her knuckles, chewing at the inside of her mouth. She felt the gravity of this conversation; the fact that it would be the sole deciding factor in whether or not he would help her.
Michael, seeing that she wasn’t sure how to respond, spoke again. “Is there anything else?”
She looked up at him. “Who are… they?” she said, tilting her head towards the door and indicating the group she had traveled with. “I mean, how did they come to you, and all?”
“They are people whose parents refused to have them euthanized merely because of their defects, people who were able to escape with the newborns before it could be done. As you can imagine, raising people like that is very difficult, and must be kept more or less secret. Some abandoned them, and some didn’t, but their children were left without a place once they died. For a long time they lived in caves, forests, and abandoned cities and towns as best they could, but at one point several years ago I met one named Saul. He was dejected, living without place or reason to live in the world. He was about to commit suicide. But I found him, stopped him, and talked with him. I learned of what he and others had gone through. Moved by this, I took him in, with others who lived in the same small community. I renamed him Paul, a symbolic rebirth, you could say. I made him the leader. He had a place, now, and a reason to live. Over time, we brought in other communities of them, and began helping others; communities like the one I assume you came with them from.”
“That’s…” Caroline felt a sudden heat behind her eyes and forced it down. “That’s unimaginable, in this world. I doubt there are many other people like you here. But, if you’re against Introspect, then why haven’t you taken any action towards that? I’m sure your money would go a long way in helping certain… groups. Or, why wouldn’t you go about it yourself?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I can hardly move, at my age. I should’ve died decades ago, but I managed to buy a life-preservation system to string me along for a little longer. I don’t know why, but… I have always felt like I couldn’t allow myself to die until I had seen the downfall of Introspect. As for helping other groups with my money, I’m guessing you meant the Anti-Introspect group. I’m also guessing you didn’t say them by name because you’ve run into them before. And becaues of that, I’m guessing you know exactly why I wouldn’t do that.”
“You don’t work like they do.”
“I certainly don’t. A long time ago, maybe. I probably would have, in fact. But through the years I’ve seen groups like them come and go, and I see their self-destruction over time. I’ve focused, then, on trying to improve the world as I can.”
“I understand that. I was with them for a few days a little while ago. I was thinking of joining them fully, for a bit. But something happened. Someone I had placed my trust in fell out of that trust, and I left. Since then, I’ve just been wandering. But my one goal throughout that wandering has been to meet with the man in charge. It was an implausible, impossible goal for a while, but once I learned about you, I had my one glimpse of hope. So, do you think I’m… worthy?”
Michael shut his eyes. “I’m tired. I’ll think about it and rest for a minute. There’s a pitcher of water on the counter, there, and a bit of food. Help yourself.”
Caroline got up and walked to the counter. She was hungry and thirsty, would’ve eaten and drank it all if she could, but she wasn’t sure if he was still testing her in some way. She poured a glass of water, and took a slice of bread, then returned to her chair and ate it in silence, the man in front of her appearing to be asleep.
A moment later, he spoke without opening his eyes. “You’re very self aware. That’s good. That’s one thing the Anti-Introspect group lacks.” He returned to his motionless position. Caroline took a sip of water.
They stayed like that for close to five minutes, at the end of which Caroline was certain he had fallen asleep. His eyes snapped open, though, and he worked himself out of the chair to standing.
“I’ll help you,” he said. Caroline stood up and followed him as he walked into another section of the house. “I’ll give you enough for the entry fee, and that’s all. If I’ve misjudged you, and you are trying to trick me into paying for your stay there, then you’ll be sorely out of luck for the monthly payments. But it will be enough to get you there, don’t worry.”
He put two cards into opposing slots in a small machine, punched a few buttons, then handed one of the cards to Caroline. “This is it. They’ll accept it, don’t worry. Most other places and people won’t, though. Keep it safe.”
Caroline took the card and put it into one of her pockets, one that zipped shut at the top. “Thank you, so much. I can’t even explain to you how much this means to me…”
He held up a hand. “No need to explain. I think I understand already. You’ll need to go to a specific city, Newhaven 4. That’s the closest one I know of that Introspect has a center at. And just as a word of caution; be wary of some people there. There are drugs prevalent there that people take to live in their own virtual world, as it were. They think they do this in rebellion of Introspect, thinking they can get out of this world without joining them, but it becomes just as much of a slavery and dependance. There’s another degree of irony to it, too, considering that… Well, I won’t get into that. Anyway, I trust you, Caroline. Go and do what you can. I’ll send one of my people with you as a guide.”
She smiled, still in shock that this was all coming together for her. After he had finished speaking, she nervously asked “Would you mind if I… rested for a little bit before that? I’ve spent a large portion of the past two days continually walking.”
He glanced towards a clock. “Oh, for sure. In fact, it might be better if you set out in the morning anyway. Arriving in the city at night probably wouldn’t be the best, and we’ll be eating supper soon. Until then, feel free to pick out a book from the shelves over there.”
Caroline hadn’t noticed until then that an entire wall to the right was made out of bookshelves, all of them completely full. Caroline hadn’t read much in her life. When she was young, living with her mother, they only had a couple books, from which Caroline learned how to read. She read those books over and over, but had rarely come across any others. She stood, awestruck, in front of the shelves. She ran a hand across them, reading the titles with her head cocked to one side.
She pulled two of the books out and returned to her chair. She flipped one open and began reading. It seemed to be a nonfiction book about biochemistry, and the other a story called The Odyssey. The latter immediately interested her and she became immersed in the book, unaware of the passing time until a few people, two of which were from the group she had traveled with, came into the room. They set two plates of food, two glasses, and a pitcher of water on a nearby table, and left without a word.
He stood up to go over to the table, and Caroline went over to support him as he walked. His legs were thin, skin sagging in the absence of muscle. He smiled. “You know, it’s funny. Initially, I brought them in so that I could help them. Now, I must depend upon them to help me.” He sighed and sat down in front of one of the plates.
Caroline sat in front of the other, and they began eating. Michael ate slowly, taking small bites and chewing each for a while before swallowing and starting again. Caroline finished eating long before he did, and felt slightly ashamed at it. He looked up from his food at one point, though, and saw her expression.
“Don’t worry. I know I eat slowly. You can go back to your book while I finish, if you want.”
She did so. She continued reading through the saga, and became so absorbed in the story that she didn’t even notice that she fell asleep, right there in the chair with the book open in front of her.
A while later she was awoken by Michael tapping her shoulder. Outside it was now dark, pitch black, so she must have been asleep for several hours already.
“Sorry, Caroline,” he said,”but I can show you where you can sleep now.”
With Caroline supporting him on one side, he showed her to a room empty other than a bed and small bedside table. Her body felt sleep-lagged, like she had only partially woken up before getting up. She thanked him for everything, then fell into the bed and passed out within seconds.

Peripheral Vision, Chapter Twelve

Still not sure when the next episode of 108.3 will be coming out, sorry. I may have to split this episode into two parts, since I’m missing someone’s lines for the second section but have everything else I need. We’ll see.

Getting ever closer to the end of Peripheral Vision. Seems bizarre to me, in a way; I’ve been working on this story in some way or another since last New Year’s, and it’s weird to be coming to a close. I think after this chapter there might be two more, and possibly an epilogue of some sort. I’m kind of hoping to have it all wrapped up by the end of next week.

~

A group of people slowly made their way into the settlement. People came out of their shelters and watched, smiled, laughed, talked, or ran up to meet the procession. Bethany had turned to watch as did Caroline.
“Who are…?” Caroline started.
“Our saviors, you could say. You’ll see.”
A few people hurriedly set up some tables and things to sit on surrounding them. A few took seats.
The group walked closer and closer until they finally arrived at the center of the settlement. They all wore hoods, so Caroline had trouble seeing what they looked like until one of them, in the process of setting down a box he had been carrying, accidentally pushed back his hood.
Beneath it was a horribly mutated man – or Caroline assumed he was a man, it was nigh impossible to tell. His bone structure was warped into an almost irrecognizeable shape, tumors further distorted it, and one eye was far from where it should’ve been.
Others set down boxes onto the tables, and some of them pulled back their own hoods, revealing similarly twisted features. The people from the settlement seemed to not notice or care, greeted some of them with hugs or talking.
One of the mutated people, who seemed to be in some position of leadership, addressed everyone there.
“Food!” he or she proclaimed, “We have apples, bread, cheese, corn, eggs, and some chicken.” The person’s voice was muffled as though their mouth was full of cotton, drawled with a heavy lisp, and had a strange accent otherwise.
“That’s Paul,” Bethany said to Caroline. “He’s usually in charge of bringing us supplies.”
Caroline looked at Bethany with a confused expression, unsure of what to say. Bethany got up and took a seat at the table, where food was beginning to be passed around.
Caroline followed her and took a seat and some food when it came around her way. She didn’t even know what to ask at the moment, so she didn’t say anything. Soon that wasn’t even on her mind, as her hunger came back full force upon smelling the chicken.
One of the mutated people came over to Bethany and handed her a small pouch. “We could only get twelve pills,” she said through thick speech, “I’m sorry.”
“No problem,” Bethany responded with a look at Caroline. “I think we’ll have enough. By the way, this is Caroline. She’s… passing through, I guess.”
“Hi,” Caroline said and extended her arm to shake hands.
The woman took her hand and shook it with what Caroline assumed was a smile. “Nice to meet you,” she said. Her hand was coarse and lumpy, with patches of thick hairs covering it. She returned to where she had come from at another table.
“So, uh, what… are they?” Caroline said. “Sorry, that was a bad way to say it. I mean, what are they doing here?”
“They come by weekly and give us food and sometimes a few pills if they can get them.”
“Where do they come from, though?”
“There’s a man named Michael. I don’t know if you’ve heard his name. He’s relatively famous, I think, at least among people like us.”
“Who is he?”
“He’s a very rich hermit, I guess you could say.”
Caroline frowned. “Why doesn’t he join Introspect, then?”
“He refuses to. I’m not sure why, but he’s decided to use his money to help people like us. And people like them,” she said, gesturing towards the mutated people.
“That’s… oddly nice. For this world, anyway. I’ve never heard of someone like that; I don’t think I’ve even ever thought someone like that could exist.”
“Yes, he’s an abnormality, for sure. But life for us wouldn’t be possible if not for him. We have so much to thank him for.”
Caroline nodded. She returned to her food, and a minute later the young man from earlier returned and handed Caroline a glass of water. He looked to Bethany, who gave him a knowing smile, and he turned and reflected it back towards Caroline.
“He saw you give me the pills earlier and wanted to thank you,” Bethany explained. Caroline looked to the man in confusion, and Bethany continued. “He’s mute, you see.”
“Ah,” said Caroline. “Thank you very much,” she said to the man.
He nodded and walked away. Caroline took a bite of her apple, having finished the rest of her food.
“Who are you?” Bethany asked. “I mean, what are you… doing?”
Caroline gave a mirthless laugh. “I’m trying to stop Introspect.”
“Join the club.”
“I guess I should clarify. I just want to find the owner of Introspect and talk with him. Find out how he justifies doing this to the world, and so on.”
“I see. That seems kind of…”
“Impossible? Yeah. I honestly doubt it will happen. But I have nowhere to live, nowhere to work, no money, no friends, nothing. I guess that is just my thinly veiled excuse to keep living. Some inaccessible goal that I can try to work towards until either it happens or I die.”
Bethany nodded and turned back to her food. She frowned slightly, seeming to be thinking. A moment later she faced Caroline again.
“You know… You could probably talk with Michael about it, actually. I’m sure he could help in you in some way. Maybe if…”
A sudden idea struck Caroline. “You said he’s rich, right?”
“Yeah.”
“How… much?”
“A lot. Enough to help probably a hundred or so people weekly, I’d guess.”
“Do you think…” Caroline paused. “What if I posed as someone trying to join Introspect? They’d have to get me there, somehow, right? I mean, how do people who are actually joining them get there, after all?”
“That might work. You’re thinking that Michael might be able to give you enough money that your guise would work?”
“Yeah. Maybe. I mean, I don’t know if he’d trust me. I could just be someone who was just trying to trick him into it.”
Bethany cocked her head to one side as she looked at Caroline. “I’m not sure. You seem like a very genuine person. I could send along a good word, in any case.”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“I owe it to you for what you’ve done.”
A smile crept onto Caroline’s face, the first real smile in as long as she could remember. She felt a surge of energy and determination, a sudden surety that this would work. “Thank you so much.”
After lunch was finished and the tables were cleaned and set away, the group of people who had brought it stayed around for about an hour, talking with the people of the settlement, playing games, and so on. At one point, Caroline saw Bethany go up to Paul and talk to him quietly. He looked over at Caroline at one point, nodded, and they finished talking. A few minutes later, they got ready to head out and Caroline nervously joined them. They all said their goodbyes, then began walking away from the junkyard village.
This was her one chance, Caroline was certain. She just had to hope that Michael would be understanding.

As luck would have it, about the same time Caroline had come upon her way of  accessing Introspect’s headquarters, so had Gerome.

The past few days had been busy for Gerome. Filled with running from one place to another, talking with people, and contacting others over through various networks; working to find all information possible on Introspect that he could. He went through sources that the Anti-Introspect group generally tried to avoid; but that wasn’t a problem, since he didn’t concern himself with their rules any longer.
He was still officially part of the group, for sure, but he had decided that that wouldn’t limit him in how far he’d go.
The last few prisoners they had brought in from the information farms left as unrecognizable piles of flesh and blood.
Most people in the group didn’t speak to Gerome any more. Tanayoki tried, occasionally, to reconnect with him, talk some “sense” into him, but it always failed. Gerome was determined beyond mere determination; he felt a drive as though his life depended on it. Almost as if his body and soul would fall apart if he failed. And thus he must go on, must find Introspect’s headquarters and go there, must confront the man in charge, whoever that would be. And he would stop him.
He wrote down what he found, he connected the dots, talked with and “interviewed” more people, until he thought he had it. He thought he knew where Introspect was located. He couldn’t be sure until he went there, of course, but that wouldn’t hold him back from fully preparing before heading out.
He wanted to notify various leaders of the Anti-Introspect group where the headquarters were, but he wanted to confront the leader beforehand. He had no idea what would happen to the company once the others arrived.
So he prepared a time-released message, something that wouldn’t be sent out until he was already well on his way. He needed a good head start, that was all. Anything that happened after that wasn’t his concern.

I spun slowly with arms outstretched, the music taking over every part of my being. My eyes were closed, my ears hearing nothing but the flowing organ and choir. Even after the record had finished turning, the needle-holding arm returning to its dormant position, I continued, the last phantom notes thrumming through my body.
I had a sense that something would happen. I wasn’t sure what it was or when it would be, but I knew it was coming, that it was unavoidable.
But I reveled in that feeling.

Peripheral Vision, Chapter Eleven

Probably going to be a bit of a delay on the next episode of 108.3, again. Sorry, something out of my control. Shouldn’t be too long before it’s out, though.

Also, we’re definitely getting into the “third act” of Peripheral Vision, now. Not too much longer before it’ll all be wrapped up, I think.

~

Caroline had never had tripencorquine before, and had no idea what it was supposed to do. She figured it out pretty quickly, however, and was walking down a road singing at the top of her voice – something she couldn’t recall having done ever before. It felt good, letting emotion pour out and relaxation pour in through the song.
She wasn’t sure where the words were coming from. She hadn’t heard many songs in her life, at least not since her childhood. She thought it might’ve been something her mother sang to her on late nights when neither of them could sleep. She had a memory of seeing, through her eyelids drooping with sleep, a tear running down her mother’s cheek as she hummed the music.
A shiver ran down her spine as she walked and sang. She didn’t feel hunger, she didn’t feel pain, she didn’t even feel her legs as she walked for hour upon hour.
She sat down a while later beside the road, realizing suddenly she had no idea where she was going. She laid down on the pavement and found that waves of physical euphoria were running up and down her entire body. Her eyes started to get tired and her mind fuzzy, so she decided to rest for a little while there on the ground.
When she woke up, the sky had darkened. Or the sky was darker, but there was something else shielding her from the light. She sat up and blinked her eyes a few times and found that a boy and girl, each seeming to be about fifteen, were standing above her. Neither of them seemed aware that she had sat up, and were talking to each other.
“What do you think we should do with her?”
“I dunno. Is she dead?”
“She’s not dead, you dumbass.”
“How do you know?”
They both looked at her.
“See?”
Caroline struggled to her feet, and almost fell down immediately after from a sudden head-spin. Neither of the kids seemed to notice or pay attention to her and were talking again as if she was still asleep.
“Well, what should we do with her, still?”
“I dunno. Just bring her back, I guess.”
“Uh, hey, who are you two?” Caroline asked.
“Why do you want to know?” the girl responded, shifting her hips to one side.
“Well, I assume you probably want to know who I am.”
The girl and boy looked at each other, then turned back to Caroline. “Not really,” the boy said with a smirk.
“Listen, okay, whatever,” Caroline said, “But do either of you know where I could find some food? I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”
“Join the club,” the girl said.
They stood in silence for a while, Caroline unsure of what to say in response.
“Bring me back where?” she said.
“To camp,” the boy responded.
“Okay, sure, bring me back there, I guess.”
“Should we?” the girl asked the boy.
He shrugged and started walking away.
“Guess that’s a yes,” she said, and followed him, with Caroline trailing behind.
They walked a distance away from the road until they crossed upon another, smaller, strip of pavement. They continued down this until they walked through a gate and into what seemed to Caroline to be a junkyard. Mountains of trash lay in a timeworn topography. Once they had made it partway into the area, Caroline began to see a few oddly-constructed buildings – hardly buildings, even, more just ramshackle structures that seemed ready to collapse.
In a cleared-out section a campfire was burning, with a few people sitting around it. They, just as the boy and girl, were clothed in either extremely worn clothing or stitched-together pieces of fabric of an unclear former use.
“Jenna, Oliver, I was wondering where you two were. And who’s this you’ve brought back with you?”
“She’s, uh,” Oliver looked up at Caroline. “Tell mom your name.”
“Hi, I’m Caroline,” she said, extending her arm to shake the woman’s hand. “And you…?”
“I’m Bethany, mother of these two as you might’ve guessed.”
Caroline nodded, looking around. “So, what is this place?”
“This is our home,” Bethany said. “All three dozen of us have made this our place for the past thirty years.”
“How can you live here, though? No offense, of course,” she said, drawing back, “but it doesn’t seem like the most ideal location.”
“That’s true. It isn’t. But it gives us access to an almost unlimited supply of materials to work with, and is set apart from the city far enough that we aren’t bothered, for the most part. It’s quite rare anyone wanders out here as you did.”
“I see,” said Caroline. “Um. I don’t want to impose or anything, but… You’re sure you don’t have any food? Your children said there wasn’t.”
“No, I’m sorry. There isn’t any. We may be getting some soon, though, and you’re welcome to share with us.”
“Alright. Do you at least have some water, though?” Caroline asked. “I haven’t had anything to drink since yesterday.”
“Sure, we still have some,” Bethany said and, turning to a young man siting next to her and sewing, talked to him. “Could you go get Caroline a glass of water?”
He nodded without speaking, set his sewing aside, and got up and walked away. Caroline found an upturned bucket nearby which she sat upon while waiting, looking around the settlement. She saw mothers and fathers sitting outside of what was presumably their family’s shelter, children running around with mud-stained feet and ankles, and several people hunched over tables working on something. She gestured to one of them and spoke to Bethany.
“What are they doing?” she asked.
“Building things. I think Uruthai there is building a defense weapon right now, in particular.”
Caroline faced the woman and squinted, trying to see the object.
“As I said earlier,” Bethany continued, “this junkyard provides us with almost unlimited resources. We’ve found ways to repurpose almost everything, whether into shelters, weapons, technology, tools, or nearly anything else. Sometimes a few people will travel to the city to sell some things and buy food.”
Caroline realized then what a box-like metallic object she had previously assumed was a heap of scrap metal was; a computer. A single cable led off of it and up a pole and was attched to both an antenna and round, slightly concave, shiny metal object. Bethany noticed Caroline looking at it.
“I see you’ve found one of our computers. Easy enough for some of our engineers to build. The disc at the top of that pole is a device which converts thermal energy into electricity. The antenna is for keeping in touch with a few other groups.”
“There are other settlements like this?” Caroline asked, turning back to Bethany.
“Ah, yes, there are a couple. But we need to keep an eye on a few… other things as well.”
At that moment, the young man returned with a rusted metal cup, which he handed to Caroline. She started to bring it to her lips, but noticed the muddy color of the liquid.
“Water?” she asked.
“Oh, yes, sorry,” Bethany said. “Hard to get it purified around here.” She patted down her pockets until she found what she was looking for, a glass and metal tube about five inches long and an inch in diameter. She handed it to Caroline.
“Drink through that,” she said. “It filters the water and takes out most of the impurities.”
Caroline turned it over in her hand, unsure of how much she trusted that it would clean the water, but her thirst overcame her and she began sucking the water through it. Cool water, remoisturizing her parched mouth and throat. It had a slightly earthy flavor, almost like a stronger tasting version of well water, but it wasn’t offputting. She took a breath when the glass was half-empty, and remembered she hadn’t taken an anti-radiation pill yet. She took the bottle out of her pocket and shook out a pill into her hand, popped it into her mouth, and resumed drinking. She hadn’t noticed it earlier, or perhaps passed it off as aftereffects of the tripencorquine, but a shallow, underlying nausea had begun building up in her again.
When she finished the glass, she found that Bethany and the young man were staring intently at her.
“Are those… the pills?” Bethany asked.
“Uh, yeah. I hadn’t taken one yet today.”
The woman continued staring at her, wide-eyed. “Could… could I have one?”
“I… guess so,” Caroline said. “Why?”
“One of the downsides in living here. Our supply of the pills is limited. When we sell things in town we try to get what we can, but it’s rarely enough to go around. How many do you have?”
“About twenty-five,” she said.
The woman nodded without a word, then hesitantly looked up at Caroline. “I know this will sound rather presumptive, but… Would you mind giving us maybe twenty of them?”
Caroline took a sharp breath. “I… I understand why you need them, but I’m not exactly in a situation where I can easily get them myself. So,” she trailed off without completing the sentence.
The young man beside Bethany stood up with a stone-like face and walked away.
Bethany leaned in closer and spoke pleadingly. “Please, Caroline, you can’t imagine how in need of it some of us are right now. Some haven’t had a pill in weeks. Most people here die before fifty.”
Caroline looked down at the bottle and sighed, thinking. She needed them badly and had no idea where she’d get more, but she if she understood the least bit of what it was like here, she wouldn’t be able to forgive herself for not helping these people.
She emptied the bottle into her hands and looked at the pills. Five? She was sure that wouldn’t last her until she achieved her goal. But she had no idea if she would, or could complete that goal, and these people were struggling just to survive day to day.
She counted out five pills and put them in one of her pockets, then poured the rest back into the bottle and handed it back to Bethany. When she looked up at her, tears were beginning to form in her eyes.
“Thank you. So much. You have no idea what you’ve done for us.”
A person standing at the computer turned to face the center of the settlement and spoke in a loud voice. “They’re coming!”
Bethany smiled at Caroline. “Looks like we’ll be able to give you some food after all.”

I think it’s time I returned for Stephen, for a short time at least. His upcoming section may not align perfectly with the timeline here, but it’s hard to tell given the time fluctuation within the virtual world. As it would happen, this section of his story ties in nicely with upcoming sections for Caroline and Gerome. In any case, I think it’s time we took a break from Caroline’s mamby-pamby, wishy-washy, “self sacrifice out of kindness” story.

Stephen woke up, and for the first time in forever, he thought, he remembered his dream in perfect detail. He was living in a world very unlike his own. It was not happy. It was not bright, sunny, perfectly temperatured. It was dark, cold, rainy, sickening, and depraved. It was a world he did not want to live in.
He was walking along a road, carrying a bag of money and valuables, with a dark glee. He had just done something he may have regretted, yes, but he was still glad he did it. It would help him, in the long run. Besides, those people didn’t matter anyway.
He felt a sudden urge to run. He had everything he needed, now. He could finally get out of this horrible world.
He ran to his house. It was large, compared to many others that he saw, but in disrepair, paint peeling and cracking, walls battered, and some windows cracked or shattered.
Just one phone call and he would be gone. It was a dark glee, for sure, but he reveled in it.
Yes, it was just a dream, but he had a horrid sense of remembrance and deja vu surrounding it. Deja vu wasn’t real, he assured himself. It’s just a little trick of the mind, often surrounding dreams. But he thought it usually worked the other way around, that in real life he’d feel like something had happened before in a dream. Those were just technicalities, though. It couldn’t be something real. All he had ever known was peace and happiness, even through his childhood.
He thought these things with his eyes closed in the moment of awakening. But just as he wished to get away from the land of sleep and thus opened his eyes, he saw his house building itself.
Not brick by brick, wood plank by wood plank, sheetrock by sheetrock, but a network of polygons that slowly filled in with textures, paused for a moment, then snapped into high definition and was instantly “real” again.
Stephen blinked. He didn’t know what had just happened, nor did he want to know. No, he assured himself, he was just seeing things. Too distracted with his dream that his mind decided to play a trick on him.
He sat up and was instantly dizzy. His bedside table was not there. He set his hand where it should have been and there was definitely a solid object there, but nothing to be seen. He ran his hand along it and in the process of that, knocked over what seemed to be the glass of water he kept there.
Water appeared, dripping onto the floor. A moment later, the glass and shortly afterward the table itself re-materialized, in much the same way his house had a few seconds earlier.
He took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his hair. A trick of the mind, or eyes, or something, that was all. That was all it could be. It had to be. There was no other explanation.
Through his mind ran a stream of images and memories of his past few weeks. Odd things that seemed to have no explanation. Peter’s disappearance, Bartholomew’s odd behavior, his increasingly strange dreams, and so on.
Maybe he should talk with Bartholomew. Anyone. No, he should see a psychiatrist. That had to be the only thing to do right now.

Peripheral Vision, Chapter Ten

Buckle up, folks, next few chapters are going to focus pretty heavily on Caroline.

~

I suppose it’s time for me to admit something. I haven’t been fully honest with you, the reader. I do not think I have ever lied, exactly, but I have withheld some information that is fairly pertinent in this situation.
Four people – well, more technically, but they didn’t last long afterwards – knew about the bombings before they happened. Christopher Penn, Rick Foley, and myself.
Actually no, that isn’t true, now that I think of it. None of us came up with the idea initially. That came from Clyde Edison, who was somewhat in the role of “mentor” for me at the time.
The three of us had an immediate reaction against it, but slowly became accustomed to the plan.
In a world filled to overflowing with death, sickness, crime, violence, and stagnation of growth, they would have no choice but to join us.
Having it planned out beforehand, we were able to make available a safe haven before the bombings for a certain few people, mostly those deemed important or wealthy enough that they would serve some later purpose to us.
I suppose this does place a bit more of the blame for the world’s current state upon Introspect’s shoulders. If that fact were publicly known, I’m certain that the numbers in the Anti-Introspect group would skyrocket. It is primarily for that reason that it has remained a secret for so long.
The thing is, it was necessary. Both for our company’s success and for the world as a whole. We certainly would’ve had plenty of customers even without the bombings, but the virtual world would be much more empty as a result. Above that, we would have had far less control over both our customers and the citizens of the real world. The government, too, would’ve been more bothersome had we not taken action before fully releasing our services to the public.
The world and population it held was getting too useless anyway. With so many people, each one only needed to do so much, you see, and a pattern of laziness and complacency appeared. The bombings created a need for work and, since there were far less people, each one needed to do more.
So it was necessary in several aspects as you can see. It didn’t bother me that much anyway; it was only business.
I should probably apologize for revealing this information to you. I have been… instructed to tell you the full truth, give you the full story. As such, I needed to disclose this information. I do realize that that information may somewhat skew your perception of me as a character and your narrator. It may turn you against me to some degree, in fact. Let me assure you, though, I don’t give two shits about what you think about me.
I will also assure you that I did choose, objectively speaking, the best possible option in that situation. If you disagree, well, I will also assure you that you are incorrect. Only I know the full picture here, and can judge accurately.
All that being said, I think it’s time we turn back to Caroline.

Caroline woke up on an uncomfortable, lumpy cot. Her hunger and thirst was gone. She didn’t remember eating, but was sure she must have at some point before she fell asleep.
She opened her eyes and looked around, and for a moment thought she was back in her bunker at the information farm.
The room she was in was filled with cots, all stacked three or four high. A woman, sometimes two, filled each cot. The room as a whole was filled with an inhuman amount of occupants. Caroline estimated it to be about ten feet by twelve feet and housing  thirty or so women. There was one window, and the area outside it was pitch black. Caroline guessed from this that it was still in the middle of the night, but found that her sense of time was otherwise warped.
She wanted to get up and walk around for a bit, but was still tired and drawn back to sleep. As she lay contemplating that, she realized she was sharing a bed with someone. She recognized the woman as a small brunette who had supported her on one side as they walked through the streets.
The woman looked haggard, more worn and tired than mere sleep could amend. Caroline watched her, thinking, for a moment. She recalled the scene in the street but couldn’t remember anything past that, and still was unsure of where she was.
Her eyelids sank and she tried to resist, but the tiredness overwhelmed her and she laid back down and fell asleep again.
When she awoke next, about half of the room had been emptied. She sat up, the space next to her now vacant. The woman who had been laying there before was now sitting on a cot across from her, looking at her.
“You’re awake,” the woman stated.
“Uh, yeah.”
“Took a while.”
Caroline nodded absentmindedly until the woman spoke again.
“Alright, let’s go. Breakfast has already finished, in case you were wondering.”
“Nah, it’s fine,” Caroline responded. “I’m not really hungry anyway.”
She said this despite a hunger she already felt growing in her stomach.
The woman stood up and walked towards the door. Once she was at it, she turned back to Caroline. “You coming?”
Caroline stood up and followed her hesitantly. She had an unease about this place. She wasn’t sure why she did, but had a vague sense that it originated from a portion of the previous night that she couldn’t remember.
They walked down a staircase towards a room in which about a dozen women sat, lounged, stood, and talked in. As she was coming down, she heard some of one of the conversations.
“Hey, have any of you heard from Diane recently?”
“Nah, she’s been gone for a while.”
“Where, though?”
“All I heard was some bigwig wanted her over for a while.”
“Any idea when she’ll be back?”
Another voice broke in sharply. “Dumbass, do you think Triss is psychic? Of course we don’t.”
A pause, then the first woman spoke again. “Whatever, I just miss her I guess.”
Caroline had paused midway down the stairway unconsciously while listening, but continued down once she noticed. One woman by the doorway reached out and brushed Caroline’s arm with her fingers. “Hey cutie,” she said, and Caroline kept walking, facing forward and trying to conceal her internal recoiling.
“Don’t mind her,” the woman who was leading her whispered. “She’s just trying to rile you up.”
They took seats at the table. A woman to Caroline’s left, who had been laying her head and upper chest on the table with her eyes shut, opened her eyes and grinned. “You want some?” she asked, opening her hand in front of Caroline and revealing a couple pills within.
“Uh, no, I don’t think…” she looked helplessly to the woman who had brought her downstairs.
“You might want some,” the woman said with a smile Caroline wasn’t sure was completely friendly. “We’re going to be having a little chat about what your place here will be.”
“Uh…” Caroline said uncertainly, then took one of the pills from the woman. She didn’t swallow it yet, not sure what she should do or what they were talking about.
A few minutes later the redheaded woman from the previous night came into the room and took a seat across from Caroline.
“I think it’s time we introduce ourselves,” she said. “My name is Irene, the brunette next to you is Orphelia, and the one passed out on your other side is Veronica.”
“Hi,” Caroline said to them all.
“Alright, enough with introductions, now I’d like to ask how experienced you are.”
Caroline frowned. “In what?”
Irene spread her hands, gesturing around the room. “What do you think?”
At that moment Caroline understood where she was and who the women were. She pushed back from the table a bit. “No, no, no. Not experienced. This isn’t what I… do.”
Irene smirked at her. “Well, it’s what you do now.”
“This is… a mistake,” Caroline said, standing up. “Thank you all very much for the food and rest, but I need to go.”
“Nothing’s free in this world, hun,” said Orphelia, who had stood up and put a hand on Caroline’s shoulder.
Caroline pushed the hand off. “I don’t…”
A wave of nausea hit her and she realized she hadn’t taken an radiation pill yet that day. She plunged her hand into the pocket she had kept the bottle, but it wasn’t there. She went through every one of her pockets, but the bottle was nowhere to be found.
“Where are…?”
“Your radiation pills? Don’t worry, I have them. I figured you may need some encouragement,” said Irene.
Caroline collapsed into her chair. “Okay, we can talk, just… give me the bottle.”
Irene pulled the bottle out of her pocket, held it in the air for a moment, then popped off the lid and shook out a pill. She tossed it to Caroline, who put it in her mouth and looked around for a glass of water. She couldn’t find one, so she dry-swallowed it.
She looked at Irene with a steely glare. “Is this how you always treat guests?”
“Female ones like yourself, anyway,” Irene said with a smile. “I’m afraid the ‘friendly guest’ doesn’t exist much anymore. So you’ll have to work for what we’ve already given you.”
A bell rang and Irene stood up. “Speaking of guests, looks like we have one right now. A good chance for you to start paying off your dues.”
Irene stood up and walked out of the room. Veronica, to Caroline’ s left, mumbled something. Caroline ignored it the first time, but then Veronica did it again and she realized she was talking to her. She leaned over to where Veronica’s head lay facing her on the table.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to Caroline. “I’m so sorry. Take the pill I gave you, though. A little tripencorquine will help you out right now.”
When Caroline sat up straight again, she saw Orphelia looking at her with a mix of compassion and regret. A moment later, Orphelia turned away from her.
Irene returned to the room, pointed at Caroline, then curled her pointer finger back towards herself, indicating for Caroline to come over to her.
Caroline stood up slowly and began walking towards Irene. Irene turned away for a moment, and Caroline took that chance to swallow the tripencorquine pill Veronica had given her. Her jaw was clenched and her gaze was steely as she walked behind Irene.
A man stood, stance wide enough to show confidence that edged on arrogance, on one side of the room they went into. “You asked for room four, right, Trenton?” Irene asked.
“Yeah, but who’s this little freshling? I haven’t seen her around before.”
“Oh no,” Irene said, giving a cruel smile to Caroline, “This is actually her first time.”
A gleam came into the man’s eye. “Is it, now? Well, I’ll start her training off right.”
The three of them walked down a hallway until stopping at a doorway, Caroline only realizing then how large the building must be. Irene opened the door and gestured inside.
“Half an hour, right?” she asked.
“Yep. And, uh,” he said, eyeing Caroline and winking at Irene, “don’t interrupt me, no matter how loud it gets.”
Irene winked back. “Sure thing. Have fun.”
Caroline and the man walked into the room and Irene shut the door behind them. A moment later, Caroline heard footsteps as Irene walked away.
“Well, well,” the man said, “let’s see what you’ve got.”
Not fully knowing what she was doing, she gave a coy smile. “You show me yours first,” she said with a suave tone, and gave a quick glance to the window behind her, the shades down.
The man grinned and began taking off his clothes. At the precise moment he was pulling his shirt over his head and partially incapacitated, without even thinking of what to do, she grabbed a pillow off the nearby bed and threw her body into the man, pushing him against the wall. She held the pillow in front of his face with all the strength she could summon until he began to go limp. She eased him to the floor as best she could – he being about twice her weight – and slapped him a few times to make sure that he was out.
She looked at the pillow in her hands and tossed it to the bed. A sudden concern filled her and she went back over to the man and touched a finger to the side of his neck. She waited a horrifying few moments before she finally felt a pulse.
She hopped up and walked over to the window. The window was able to open a few inches, but it wouldn’t go any further due to locks holding it in place.
She grabbed the pillow again, thinking to smash the glass, but knew that wouldn’t muffle the sound enough. She swallowed. She didn’t have much choice at this point. She grabbed part of the pillow into her fist and smashed it against the glass, using the main portion to shield her hand. Two, three times she hit it before it finally shattered.
Despite the man’s orders to Irene not to disturb them, she was pretty sure the sound would draw attention. She tossed the pillow back onto the bed and hopped out the window. Remains of glass on the window sliced a line through her calf and hand, but she didn’t let it stop her. She landed on the ground a few feet below and began running.
When she was a few dozen yards away, the front door of the building opened and Irene stepped out. “Get her!” she barked to others inside, and a few women came running out after Caroline.
She was suddenly glad she had taken the tripencorquine pill. She would’ve tired easily, especially after not having eaten anything that morning, but the drug began to take effect and gave her a sudden boost of energy, along with relieving her muscles that began to ache.
She ran, kept running for longer than she ever had before, until only one woman remained behind her. She recognized the woman as Orphelia.
The two of them were running along an abandoned stretch of worn-out pavement, and Orphelia began waving her arms. Caroline stopped, unsure of what the woman meant. She walked up to Caroline.
“Damn, you can run,” she said, gripping her knees and panting. “Listen. I’m not going to bring you back. Irene is a tyrannical bitch, honestly. You never asked for it all. You were helpless.
“Here,” she said, and handed Caroline the bottle of radiation pills. “I got them from Irene. I don’t know who the hell you are, or what you’re doing, but I wish you the best.”
“Thank you so much,” Caroline said, and put the bottle in her pocket. “But what will you tell Irene when you return?”
“I’ll just tell her what a good runner you are, hun,” Orphelia said with a laugh, and began walking away.