It Slips Away

 

To lose what you never had, is there anything more pointless and tragic?

The cynical cycle: desire, hope, failure, despair, desire, hope, failure…

Years of grasping at invisible straws; neither the years nor the straws are recoverable.

But the future is just as murky when it’s founded on an intangible, fleeting past.

That leaves the present, unknowable and unrelenting in its harrowing habituation of helplessness.

So as you go about your day blissfully unaware of your own suffering, let alone your neighbour’s, at least spare a thought for lost time.

It’ll slip away before you have the chance to catch it. Even then, when you finally taste some success it’s already time to move on…

 

The man who never tried

Neither lived nor died

Who was left to honour him?

Just the wind.

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The Day I Came Home

 

I was married once, not so long ago actually. It’s been… four and a half years maybe? Who can really know? I’m sure this sounds cliché but those first colorful years we eloped together were honestly the best years I spent on planet Earth. Sometimes I think the only reason I’m still trucking through life is to keep her memory alive somewhere, anywhere before the Universe swallows it whole, then nonchalantly spits it out into oblivion. I’ve almost arrived at oblivion too, but I actually deserve to be there.

Let’s skip right to the meat of my tale, shall we? I know you don’t care about my personal life. I know you don’t care about my missing wife or my kid. You’re only reading this because you heard the reason they disappeared, my extraterrestrial adventure, and you don’t believe an ounce of it. You’re right I can’t prove it. All I have is anecdotal evidence. One crackpot versus the entire population of Earth: 12.2 billion people. That’s the problem with democracy by the way. Twelve billion people disagree with you but you are the one in the right. I’m even starting to doubt myself now…

But before I’m declared clinically insane I’ll let you in on my little secret. A slice of reality gone wrong, if you will. Of course that was my final shift working for the United Earthen Aeronautic Federation (UEAF) as a cosmonaut. I wasn’t fired, per say. Let’s just say I was let go.

 

This is where my mania began.

 


 

 

Part I

 

 

“….10! …9! …8! …7! …6! …5! …4! …3! …2! …1!”

 

 

“Congratulations!”

The party had achieved liftoff. Up, up, up and away; ascending through each successive layer of the atmosphere in a spectacular display of human ingenuity. Although it was a bit of a letdown that this time ‘ingenuity’ entailed shots of alcohol and horrendous middle-aged dancing. My inhibitions had reached critical levels but I made it through the rest of the night.

I had just arrived back on Earth following a successful three year trip to Neptune. It was no more than a cheap scouting mission (well cheap by space travel standards). We all thought the Chief Director of the UEAF was going to send an unmanned probe but he claimed he needed someone on the ship in case of ‘unplanned and extraordinary contingencies’. I’m pretty sure that clause wasn’t in my contract.

So there I was. A cosmonaut in all his resplendent glory. For anyone else that would have been a perfect night. A fantastic night of eating, dancing, fraternizing; all activities I wasn’t usually a fan of in excess. But that night was different in more than one way.

 

“So Charles, where’s your wife at anyway? I kind of assumed she’d be the first person you would have wanted to be here.”

I had been idly chatting with… that guy (I think his name was Steve?), Head of Bioengineering, for the past twenty minutes. We had already covered a range of exciting topics, from pneumatic hardware systems modelling to the mechanical extraction of biodegradable materials (okay those weren’t the real subjects we talked about but they were classified, technical, and just as boring). Now Steve and I were starting to get personal. He was right of course. Michelle should have been there at least an hour ago. Usually she would have been at my side already, practically jumping up and down on the launch pad to greet me. But as I said that night was different. I had been thrown a surprise party almost immediately after landing but no one had bothered to tell my wife? That was odd, and somewhat suspicious.

“Actually, I have no idea where she is right now. She could be in an emergency or something. I better go and give her a call.”

“No worries Charles. Just let me know if there’s trouble.”

I stepped outside onto the balcony of Mount Apollo Observatory. The view was exquisite. No matter how many years you dedicate to space travel the Milky Way always paints a marvelous picture. Instinctively I looked to where Neptune should have been, then immediately chastised myself. Obviously Neptune was much too far away to be perceived by the human eye. It’s not like simply being in the proximity of an observatory gives you superhuman eyesight!

It was time to give my wife a call on the old cellphone. I noticed my wallpaper was the same one from three years ago. A picture of a smiling Michelle with Daniel, our son (two years old at the time), when we visited New York together for the first time. I thought the picture made her look even prettier than usual, the way Daniel’s azure irises met the hazel hues of her own. I could recall the photo was taken on top of the Empire State Building. Strange, I could have sworn we had agreed to stay in the hotel that day because of bad weather. Whatever, maybe I was beginning to develop a bout of Spaaacccce Madnessss! like you see in those old space horror flicks.

Opening my contacts, I promptly swiped to where Michelle’s information would be. The motor neurons from prior to my adventure were still active apparently. But neither her name nor any of her contact details were listed. Had someone from the party tampered with my phone as a joke? It was possible but laughably unlikely.

I then experienced an inescapable leap in thought to the worst possible outcome. Had something happened to Michelle in the time I was away? No. Someone at the party would have said something. She had visited the main headquarters of the UEAF once before and met a few people now at the party. Did she no longer care about me? Maybe. Had she found another man in the meantime? Possibly. Three years without physical intimacy is a long time. Did our six year marriage, and our son for that matter, mean nothing to her?

All stupid, stupid thoughts. I knew her better than she knew herself. Even her subconscious would in no circumstance allow her to abandon me, or miss our reunion.

But still, she wasn’t there.

 

When I returned to the fiesta just five minutes later my buddy was chatting up a pretty young lady from Biosecurity. I imagined the two biology nerds were a perfect match. I could have joined their illuminating conversation on the dire implications of residual waste mismanagement… but no, enough dawdling. I had been dawdling quite effectively for the past three years. Now was the time for action.

I waved goodbye to the UEAF staff and former astronauts I had been closest to before my expedition to Neptune. Now I was about to embark on a much more frightening journey: to face the alarming prospect I could arrive home and find no one waiting for me. I gave my friend Steve (yes that was his name) a troubled look on the way out. He returned it with an even more concerned look of his own, as if the real Charles had been abducted outside and I was his evil clone replacement. But a tender rub on the arm from his new female acquaintance and he was back under the mesmerizing pull of Venus. I checked my phone again. 11:47PM, time to leave. Have a good one Steve.

 

The drive home was bizarre, but not only because I hadn’t been ‘home’ in years. Making my way through the insufferably dry but somehow cool Arizona desert, with its worn and jarring landscape used to give me all sorts of chills when I did my training runs at the Academy. Now it resembled no more than what it really was: a barren desert. In place of a dreamer’s paradise, where an endless expanse of dunes interspersed with the occasional phenomenal cacti formation made an ideal backdrop for the science fiction screenplays I was going to write while I was up in space (three years of solitude and somehow I didn’t manage to finish even one), was this intolerable wasteland. I guess that’s what happens to you when you disembark planet Earth, everything slowly loses its luster until your only remaining desire is to revisit the stars. It’s similar to the feeling you have when returning to America after a long holiday to one of those exotic Italian islands; everything you used to love can seem bland and unappealing. Let’s hope that wasn’t how Michelle had begun to feel about me…

 

I approached the area where my town, the outwardly charming but inwardly struggling Byzantine Ridge, should have been. Usually I would have been salivating at the prospect of attending yet another unnecessary but fully appreciated welcoming party, but something was up with Michelle and now… now… the entire town had vanished.

No, seriously. It may have seemed as though the worst and most generic horror plot ever conceived had come to life, but the stark reality of being able to perceive nothing more than a ginormous empty plateau in front of me, not even a hole where the town should have been, was daunting enough to convince me it had completely disappeared from the map. This was the right area too. A left turn off Interstate 26, straight through the following three intersections, then a left turn onto Constantine Road. I had made this exact trip hundreds of times but not once had I witnessed an anomaly this odd and this soul destroying. Even worse, as I was still in the middle of unforgiving desert every point of the horizon ended either in sand dunes or unassailably large granite cliffs. Thus if my town was hidden somewhere nearby I would have caught a glimpse of it. But there was nothing much except sand in sight for miles. Three years…

Three years of what? That was the big question. Maybe I did know Michelle better than she knew herself but that was always with me in the picture. And what about Daniel? The last time I’d seen him he was still a blank slate, a cute bald baby. “Just like his father!” was Michelle’s favorite joke. It wasn’t my kind of humor but I always laughed anyway. I’d figured Daniel was too young for three years without a dad to have a serious impact on him. Plus in a world of butchers, bankers and businessmen how many children have the awesome opportunity to remind their friends their own father was a cosmonaut? I really hoped he had friends.

A soft breeze then began brewing at the base of the plateau (just like those old space horror flicks again, before the aliens land in their ‘UFOs’ and abduct the unfortunate victim with no reasonable explanation). I considered attacking the small graveled bank up to the plateau but quickly thought better of it when I heard something like a wolf howl in the exact direction I would be heading. So instead I stepped back into the car to check my GPS coordinates, as most fearless adult men would do in that situation of course. Helpfully or unhelpfully the GPS confirmed there was no sign of my town in the immediate vicinity. Although, there was a BYZANTINE RIDGE, POPULATION 3060 (APPROX.) fourteen miles east of there! Perfect.

 

 

Part II

 

 


I arrived at the site of my hometown, the ‘real’ one, at 2:01AM on the 18th of April, 2097. I want you to remember that date, because that’s when everything I thought I knew about our universe began to turn on its head. People I used to be on kind terms with would label me a variety of condescending terms in the years to come: “weirdo”, “ludicrous”, a “freak”; all because of that experience in a comparatively infinitesimal portion of my lifespan. Oh, and if ever you happen to hear that Michelle or Daniel are somehow still breathing, please let them know it wasn’t their fault. I claim full responsibility for what happened there.


 

I made it to Byzantine Ridge just as the Moon had begun its descent from the zenith. Just like me the Moon was starting to get tired and just a little bit loony; but neither of us had finished our shifts for the night. Dawn would put us both to shame soon enough.

 

This time there was no plateau. The closer I approached the coordinates the more certain I became that my imagination hadn’t run wild, there was my town! I could instantly spot the characteristic peach-colored roofs of my neighborhood in Byzantine Ridge. Those were the suburbs on the outskirts of the town, while the majority of industrial and retail buildings were scattered about the center. The second landmark in sight was a glamorous velvet and gold chapel spire I could recall was only three blocks away from my street. On any other occasion I would have immediately sensed that something was off (and not just the insane fact that my entire town had moved!) but the optimist in me couldn’t see past the idea of reuniting with my two angels, no matter the extenuating supernatural circumstances.

Thankfully I hadn’t spotted much else out of the ordinary on my drive into the suburbs. I had perceived no foreboding fog, no werewolf tracks, no strangled cries for help in the distance. Actually the ordinariness was itself disturbing considering it seemed that next to nothing had changed in the past three years I had been gone.

Now, as I surveyed the surrounding neighborhood from the safety of my front porch, petrified with trepidation over what I was going to say to Michelle after the longest period of time we had ever spent separated from each other, I was reacquainted with the area I had cherished so fondly when we first moved in. Directly across the road from us was the convivial residence of Brian and Abbey, an older couple who we turned to for baby advice over and over again. Even the unbroken baby blue hue of their walls was untarnished. On our right hand side skulked an abandoned lot, now filled with an assortment of wild flowers (yet still abandoned) while to our left stood a slightly grander house than our own but as far as I knew had always been unoccupied. Michelle and I had always seen ourselves financially as essentially ‘the best of the worst’ in the neighborhood and it still looked that way. Exactly that way.

 

The customary three hearty knocks were produced from a trembling hand half mine and half someone else’s, until I found myself waiting patiently for my beloved to arrive at the front door. But too rapidly for me to counteract, for the second time that night I found myself thrust into an unwanted and uncontrollable vortex of wretched thoughts.

First came every husband’s worst nightmare: instead of Michelle I saw another man open the door, holding Daniel in his arms. He was tall, friendly, and of course he was buff. He told me Michelle had loved me almost as much as she loved him and had subsequently chosen to forget about me. In this scenario I collapsed to the floor in anguish.

The second vision was much more realistic. It concerned the eccentricity of the town’s mysterious relocation fourteen miles east of its former position, yet somehow entirely intact. In my mind the only possible (but rather unlikely) explanation would have been that some sort of national emergency had occurred which had provoked the national authorities to move my town and evacuate the residents. But in this scenario there was no Michelle soon to greet me.

The third scenario was in fact the real one, but most of all I wished this had been just another daydream…

 

There she was! And Daniel too! Michelle’s golden gaze was just as welcoming, her thin smile just as radiant, her long black hair just as luscious as she had looked on our wedding day. But equally as special was the little man in her arms. Daniel would have been six years old now. His stare was slightly more penetrating than Michelle’s and he seemed equally curious to meet me. However it didn’t look like he had grown much, if at all, in the past few years and he was as bald as when I had last seen him. All of this was probably explainable yet still slightly offputting from a father’s perspective. But I wouldn’t let that information ruin the precious moment: our perfect reunion.

Now that I thought about it Michelle also appeared puzzled. Happy, but not the same kind of happy I knew her for. Perhaps some kind of tragedy had befallen them in the time I was away. Yes, that vision a few minutes ago of a national emergency was looking more and more likely.

Each of us; me, the triumphant cosmonaut and her, the loving housewife; had been standing there frozen in time and space as if neither of us represented anything close to the people we claimed to be. Sadly this was all too close to reality. The moment Michelle spoke those first words I knew this wasn’t the same Michelle I had married. The two people in front of me were startlingly similar, but not the two angels I loved…

“Hi there stranger. What can I do for you?”

 

It wasn’t a joke unfortunately. Sitting on our couch five minutes later with a cup of tea (while she sat beside me with a coffee, I thought she was a tea-drinker?) I found myself in the midst of explaining to her with increasing futility who I was and who she was supposed to be. Eventually we were both so baffled and exhausted considered for a moment the absurd conclusion I wasn’t the only one who had returned from outer space that night. My usually functional device calibrated to read Michelle’s mind appeared to be out of order for the moment.

“…So you’re sure you can’t remember me at all? We first met in Lucky 7 Casino in California, the year was 2083. We were wedded four years later and have been married ever since. Your favorite color is a tie between fuchsia and emerald green. You like sport, mostly tennis, but don’t have a favorite player. Most importantly, the only person you do, and quite rightfully have ever loved more than me is Daniel, our six year old son. Are any of these statements true? Please say you can remember something about me.”

The person supposed to be my wife inspected me with an uncharacteristically glum expression, presumably searching me for the answer to our dastardly predicament. I, on the other hand, for the first time in years found the memories gushing from my sockets in the form of human tears.

There was a slight glimmer in her eye but I couldn’t tell if it was confirmation or a tear, nor whether the reaction was genuine. “Yes, the ones about me are true but no, I don’t have any of memory of being with you.”

Just as my heart crash landed to the floor a deafening screech went off in the distance. Whatever the sound was, I would have guessed it originated from somewhere near the center of town. Michelle and I bolted to the front porch to check out the disturbance. The sky above us was ablaze in a magnificent but intimidating spiral of red and purple splayed in all directions. There were horrifying screams in the distance however it appeared that none of our other neighbors were brave (or stupid) enough to investigate. This was no nuclear holocaust, or at least no human holocaust to my knowledge. Otherwise we would have been incinerated already. Plus the screech, what was that? There was something mysterious going on here I hadn’t been informed of on my descent back to Earth.

 

“What the heck is going on Charles?” Her voice had an authentic eerie quality to it. If Michelle did turn out to be a psychotic space android at least she feigned her ignorance well.

“You tell me. Look, you’ll probably think I’m an absolute idiot but I need to go and check out what’s causing all of this, for my own sanity.”

In a world with no trace of the real Michelle (and what about Daniel, was he real?!) I wasn’t sure I could bear the possibility of spending another ten years reaccustoming myself with ‘timeless’ Michelle, if she would even accept me. Thus risking my life to investigate the screech seemed justified at the time. That was the first of many mistakes I would make that night. Little did I know I wouldn’t see Daniel or Michelle ever again.

So I ran off into the abyss before she had the chance to lecture me with the inevitable “There’s no way you’re leaving me and Daniel alone like this!”. I zigzagged my way through the seemingly deserted streets of Byzantine Ridge with only the slightest idea of the destination I was heading to: the marble clocktower on Gemistus Boulevard (assuming it was still standing). From there I would be able to survey the ongoing chaos then work out my next move from the relative safety of a high vantage point. The disturbing cries in the distance hadn’t ceased yet and periodic meteor showers had commenced on the outskirts of the city. Worst of all were the occasional earthquakes which flung me to the ground every couple of minutes. It was almost as if Byzantine Ridge was being assaulted from two angles, one invasion from the air (natural or otherwise) and one from beneath the surface.

I did pass through a couple of roads I recognized on the way into town: Heraclius Avenue, Damascus Road, Isidore Alley; but mostly I was relying on my poor geography skills and a largely defunct mental map of the suburbs to guide me to a destination I wasn’t sure still existed. So of course it wasn’t long before I had the painful realization I had been running in circles, at which point it was time for a new plan.

Though I had done the best I could to preserve my ego from the absurd and extraordinary nature of the events of the past few hours there was one thought I couldn’t keep away: how was everything connected? (1) There was the surprise party immediately following my landing, practically unprecedented for the UEAF. (2) The mysterious migration of Byzantine Ridge to where it was now. (3) The Michelle I loved was missing. Her replacement, ‘Timeless’ Michelle, appeared to be the same person but without any memory of me (I still had plenty of questions for her). (4) The disaster going on I had zero grasp of.

Somewhere in those four events was an answer I had a hankering for but probably didn’t really want to know. If I was to speculate I would guess I had entered some sort of apocalyptic parallel universe. Despite the improbability it was possible this was the same Earth but transferred to a point in time before Michelle had met me. Yet that wasn’t consistent either considering Michelle and I had moved here together. To be honest all of this reality defying logic was a bit too much for me to handle. It was time to crack on.

 

 

Part III

 

 

Emerging from my contemplative bubble, the escalating chaos around me accentuated the abominable nature of my situation. According to the sullied street sign in front of me I had found my way back to Damascus Road. Now there was a ghoulish plume of beige colored smoke arising from somewhere near the dead center of Byzantine Ridge, quite close to the clocktower actually…

As any distinguished cosmonaut knows ‘A captain without a ship is stranded, a captain without a crew is foolish, a captain with neither ship nor crew is as useless as cosmic dust.‘ Yes I was stranded. Yes I was foolish. But I was not going to be compared to cosmic dust. Once again I weaved my way through the suburbs (nearing the retail section of town), this time using the smoke as a waypoint. But as always seemed to be the case before I could get there I encountered more drama. There was a sound emanating from my back pocket I didn’t recognize at first, until I realized it was a phone call!

But the screen conveyed very little useful information:

DATE: 04/18/97   TIME: 03:41AM   CALLER ID: ????

The voice I heard had alternating shades of panic and tranquility in it, as if the caller was in a dire situation but was forcing themself to accept a tragic fate.

“Hey Charles? Charles! Something’s gone awfully wrong. Don’t worry about me, I think I’m safe. The other version of me you met is actually the real me, well a clone of me, but with altered memories. Same with Daniel. The real Daniel has been separated from me but they’ve assured me he’s also safe. Just worry about yourself. You need to find out what has happened on your own. I can’t help you there. But stay safe. Please stay safe!”

Before I could interject the call ended with three sustained, agonizing beeps. I could have called the number back but I had the feeling whoever or whatever was in charge of this madness would have cut me off with zero hesitation.

But that was my Michelle alright! She and Daniel were alive! Although I bet she was coerced into telling me that they were safe. Shit. At least I had someone, well two someones, to live for again. Neptune was another world away from what was happening to me now.

 

In an inexorable existential crisis of question on top of question on top of question, that simple answer, my family, was the only one I needed to continue. If my life had become a space horror film this was the point where the protagonist fights against the odds– just to get eaten by a mutated mantis from Venus. But seriously, if I had already reached my lowest point there was nowhere lower for me to go, things could only improve from here. Well that was the logic of a naive optimist anyway…

Joining Gemistus Boulevard was the road I was on now, Divitiae Avenue. This was a unique connecting road which ran through every major set of suburbs, the retail sector, and ended in the industrial sector. It also happened to be the wealthiest street in Byzantine Ridge. This was the first place Michelle and I considered when looking for a home but even the average property here was well out of our price range. Although the present Divitiae Avenue looked more like a hellhole than a haven. There were abandoned vehicles scattered in strange patterns all over the place. Brilliantly designed abstract houses had been reduced to trailer park status hovels. A repugnant inky mold (with a stench not unlike vomit) filled every square inch it could get to. Imagine the standard wreckage following a tornado, then magnify it by ten. That was the fallout. But there were no bodies; human, animal or otherwise.

My best move was to get out of here as fast as possible and head towards the cause. That brought to mind another popular saying at the UEAF: ‘The closer a man approaches death and survives, the closer he approaches the truth.‘ Short and simple, but it resonated with many of us, and we held it dear every time we attempted the daring escape from Earth’s atmosphere.

As soon as I caught sight of the clocktower I raced ahead to take cover inside. What used to be polished marble was covered in a mixture of flaky embers and that inky mold which had become increasingly common now. There were large cracks in its exterior but altogether the tower had survived the elements remarkably well for a structure composed of archaic materials. I was half expecting to meet a band of starving townspeople inside, huddled around a campfire whispering in hushed tones to one another, but it seems that was only a product of a rowdy imagination. For now I was alone.

 

As I stepped into the vestibule chamber I was really greeted with a ravishing view of the most flamboyant, almost sickeningly grandiose entrance hall I had ever seen. Diamond studded this, ruby encrusted that; priceless piece of art here, priceless antique there (and they were all authentic!). Wave after wave of meaningless opulence really, and not what one expected from a simple clock tower. There was a good reason I felt sickened rather than excited by the collection I saw here. While modern day Arizona was known for its gem manufacturing there was a significant wealth disparity between the residents of Byzantine Ridge which none of us talked about but always lay dormant in the back of our minds. Seeing this selection of abundant and rare 100% real extravagances discharged several pangs of guilt through my conscience, as if I was the owner who at any time could sell every one of them to out-of-state buyers, donate the money to the city council, and help to cure the town’s lasting impoverishment.

Considering I wasn’t the owner of much more than the clothes on my back at the moment all I could do was admire the lengths this peculiar individual had gone to in order to create a spectacular entrance hall, then move on. I proceeded to the marble staircase (this time untarnished by ash or mold) winding presumably to the very top of the tower. And so I began to climb.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

Life Control

 

A house becomes a home

The home, a prison

And for many, there’s no difference between a prison and a grave.

 

Once Banality has dulled the senses, Apathy erodes them.

 

Day by day the sick cycle continues.

Through all manner of non-experience users finds themselves trapped in a world they despise.

[A WORLD THEY CREATED]

 

Unable to escape the limitations brought on by their inanimate lifestyle, swathes of users take the plunge into a meta-reality which feeds on every unmet desire.

[UNSPENT ENERGY IS SINFUL]

 

The result: a swarm of souls who never really lived, but were always afraid to die.

[THIS IS OUR AWAKENING]

 

 


 

…that’s the thing about madness. There’s no way to tell whether it’s you or them. And if it’s you… well, you just have to live like you are the genius while they are the sheep who just don’t understand. That’s one good reason pretty much every revolutionary ends up in jail from time to time.

 

Putting on his best game face, the detective studied the slunken figure before him with increasing perplexity.

Here stood a glaring example of everything wrong with the Ministry’s current social agenda. Unkempt and probably unfed, this bizarre looking character had the slender frame of a teenage boy; but wore a sober expression intensified by the bloodied irises of a full-grown man. He donned dorky broad-rimmed spectacles; but they were offset by a menacing jagged brow. He had chosen to wear a plain buttoned shirt with a jet black tie (as if he fully respected the sanctity of law enforcement); but the anti-nationalist tattoo ingrained on his left forearm claimed otherwise. Everything about the man was a bit off. It was as if he was two entirely different characters amalgamated into one bewildered body. It would probably not be presumptuous to suggest his detainee had recently suffered some horrifying personal tragedy. Although, even the dimmest policemen knows it would be a mistake to assume a shaken demeanour betrays no sign of anti-social behaviour.

 

All the while his captive had done nothing more than stare despondently into the hallway outside, as if that short interlude was ample time to devise an elaborate means of escape. But he wasn’t really a prisoner. So he just stood there like a moose disgruntled by fulgid headlights, unblinking and unafraid. Not even a whisper had escaped from his mouth to express a fiercely indifferent reaction to whatever mental games the detective had in store for him.

He’s not a suspect, but I better cuff him. Just in case…

But before the detective had even thought about securing the handcuffs placed carelessly between the two of them, his opponent had already struck. Just not in the way you would expect from a person with such cold, cold eyes…

The stranger had swiftly cuffed himself with open palms, and as if he’d done so a hundred times before. Then he seated himself in the sole chair in the room.

This fellow sure has a rich history.

What followed was a story unlike anything the detective had heard throughout his eleven long years on the force…

 

“We’re facing an endemic of unfathomable proportions. Yes, I may be the oldest and most mature victim (he fastened his tie for emphasis), but I’m a victim all the same. Sick people, desperate people, are being taken advantage of without even one of you having an inkling of it!”

There was a strained but fleeting silence before he finally managed to calm himself down. The detective did a quick mental calculation and concluded this man was probably bipolic.

“Anyhow, let me get to specifics. There is a certain well known technology company out there which has been secretly producing a new virtual reality video game. Free alpha release on several gaming platforms and even some social media sites has seen its popularity increase exponentially the past couple of months. Masquerading as Life Control: The Tool to Transform Your Wasted Energy Into a Productive Life, this ‘game’ has really the opposite effect on a person. Rather than making you a more productive person, your few remaining ambitions are ruthlessly turned against you until you’re a pawn of the game. But of course you wouldn’t know that without a sound understanding of the way the game has been designed. The ploy all relies on one naive assumption: that life is preferable to death, no matter the penalty. This is the all too horrific, all too real future of gaming. Let me ask you one question, Mister–”

“Detective, Detective Cooper”. The interruption to his steady stream of thought was untimely but fully warranted.

“De-tec-tive Cooper (he placed unnecessary drawn out emphasis on each syllable of the word in jest) what is the greatest cause of death in today’s society?”

There was something incredibly funny about playing the one being interrogated. But the detective didn’t mind. All he needed was information; the way he acquired it was of no real importance. Feigning his own ignorance was the first and easiest step.

“That would be… injuries sustained by car accidents. No? Assault?

“Not too shoddy Mr. Cooper (they both ignored the deliberate omission of title) but the real answer is suicide. Digest that for a moment. There are more people who decide to take their own life than the life of another. Sounds promising doesn’t it?”

The man with the policeman’s cap nodded dumbly.

Have I already taken the ruse a step too far?

Any pretensions of deceit were ignored for the moment.

 

“Well obviously it’s not. Society must be a truly fucked up state of affairs if people are voluntarily opting out of it by the masses. But the really puzzling thing is that nothing has changed! Employment rates are stable. Housing prices are stable. Even the birth rate is stable. It’s as if living in anything close to a utopia drives people insane!”

Well that much is obvious. His brief experience as a psychoanalyst had taught him that stagnation always leads to a revolution of character.

I wonder if this guy’s insanity will rub off on me.

“So here’s what I’m really getting at. Please bear with me. It will all make sense in the end.”

The detective thought not much of what had been said so far made any sense whatsoever, but he didn’t care to interrupt again.

“Imagine if you could harness a positive emotion and be able to stimulate it indirectly. The person would experience something close to true happiness. So what they’ve done with Life Control is convince people they can do exactly that, create spontaneous happiness. But of course even if they could achieve that it would be a sorry substitute for reality. The real story is that they are exploiting a deadly onset of apathy in our society. As our knowledge base has increased we have become more and more objective, but also increasingly dull and unable to form and express our own opinions. Thus people are becoming gradually fed up with reality and more and more willing to enter schemes like this one.”

“Okay… but how then do you argue that the production of this game is immoral if ordinary citizens are ‘willingly’ supporting them?”

“Not a bad question. The answer is that these people aren’t exactly ordinary, like myself I might add (despite their differences the men shared a snigger). Most of them are addicts of one kind or another, or they’re mentally ill. The designers in charge of Life Control are convincing these people not to commit suicide but they’re also convincing them to dedicate their entire lives to the game. If you were to start a new account on the game the overwhelming majority of players you encountered, approximately four out of every five players, would be suicidal in the real world. Their bodies are safe at home but the part of them which really matters, their minds, are trapped in the depths of the game. As of now the moral implications of this scheme are unknown, but I’m certain the Ministry would like to hear about this.”

At that moment something clicked for Detective Cooper.

“So you’re part of the minority who entered the game but found a way to get out of it?”

A lightening bolt of panic shot across the man’s face. But in a flash it was gone.

“You are correct.”

“But you don’t seem like a person who’s quite finished with their share of life. No offence intended of course.”

“None taken. But we all have our demons, don’t we Detective Cooper?”

That sounded like something straight out of a horror movie. This guy is probably more involved with the game than he wants me to believe.

 

There were four loud knocks on the chamber door. Four knocks… that means we have a new visitor.

A sweaty cop halfway opened the door and cautiously peered through. Then he sidled through the gap as though there was someone or something he didn’t want to let in.

“Sorry to interrupt Mr. Cooper.” The handcuffed man stifled a laugh when he heard the name without the official title. It sounded even better when someone else was the one to undermine the detective’s authority.

“I have a young woman outside who’s deeply agitated with your buddy here (he pointed to the figure, then frowned at the cuffs). She’s saying he’s a maniac who broke into her apartment, destroyed her phone, took her wallet, then tied her to the bed.”

They both looked at the potential felon. He gave no obvious reaction.

Detective Cooper let loose a thunderous sigh. More riddles, just wonderful.

“I’m going to need a moment. Attend to the woman and on no account let her in the proximity of this man.”

 

As soon as his subordinate had left the room (he couldn’t even hesitate a guess at his name) it was the detective’s turn to do something completely unexpected. Rather than immediately begin the questioning process as any regular law enforcer would do, he sat down on the linoleum floor, cross-legged, and did no more than stare glumly at the cause of all his concern.

His gaze bore deep. He was the disgruntled moose now.

I know everything about this man relative to the case. On the other hand I hardly know him at all. He claims to be a victim of the game. If so there is no doubt in my mind he is capable of the crime. But why? There’s no clear correlation between the two cases. I need more information!

His adversary scratched his nose sheepishly. There was no malice there.

No matter how hard I try I always seem to be one step behind. Well not any longer.

Three minutes had passed since the door had closed. Neither of them had any clue what time it was.

“It’s time to fess up, pal.” He always saved the mock accent for grave predicaments such as this one.

“But seriously, please give me one good explanation for why that woman, whatever wicked part of your story she has applied for, would insist on you being the perpetrator of this serious crime.”

 

The mystery man looked as calm as anyone had ever seen him. His irises were no longer bloodshot. He would no longer shake at random intervals. Instead of being a mesh of erratic characters he was finally one composed, cohesive personality.

“This is the game.”

“What?!”

“This is the game.”

“You’re joking me. You’re some sort of omnipotent artificial intelligence now? Are you telling me we’re in virtual reality right now?”

“No, no! We’re not actually in the game. That would eclipse even my definition of insanity. What I mean is that those people who came in before, both of them are representatives for the company I was telling you about. They want to keep me here, or in jail; anywhere where I’m not in a position to shut down their subhuman operation. But as long as you alert the Ministry everything will turn out okay.”

“I’m sorry but I can’t do that right now. We need to focus on your connection to the ga–”

 

There was a resounding commotion before the door burst open. But instead of the ‘policeman’ and the young woman, a flurry of agents from the Ministry burst in.

They seized… Detective Cooper. He slouched for a moment, immobilized in body and mind as he desperately tried but failed to put the pieces together.

His newfound adversary, upon removing the fake anti-nationalist tattoo to reveal a nationalist tattoo, unleashed an earsplitting cackle while an agent uncuffed him.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh. It all began to make sense.

His detainee, really the anonymous head of the Ministry, had played him from the start.

The strange man with the geeky spectacles and ragged exterior was really his superior.

This was a test to see whether he was the ideal candidate to implement the Ministry’s upcoming public service project  –  Life Control: The Tool to Transform Your Wasted Energy Into a Productive Life.

Detective Cooper, now just Mr. Cooper, had comprehensively failed.

He had failed to contact the Ministry, revealing his incapacity to work with those above him in the chain of command.

He had failed to rigorously question the necessity of Life Control, revealing his poor critical thinking skills in the face of widespread adversity.

Worst of all he had failed to identify the head of the Ministry, a figure Mr. Cooper should have recognised from his exceptional personality alone. In an aimless society only the most twisted can make it to the top.

 

Game Over

A Call to Arms

 

Message Received:                                      4:38AM, TUESDAY 07/11/2023

Time Encrypted:                                          4:39AM, TUESDAY 07/11/2023

Intended Recipient:                                 PRESIDENT ANDREW GONZALEZ JR.                                                                                                       (UNITED STATES OF AMERICA)

Source:                                     UNKNOWN ENTITY [UNABLE TO IDENTIFY SOURCE CODE]

Time Sent:                                7:47PM, FRIDAY 01/25/2414 {REPORT: TEMPORAL ERROR!}

Subject:                                                                          CLASSIFIED

Urgency:                                        CRITICAL   —  “TO BE RESPONDED TO IMMEDIATELY”

 


START OF TRANSMISSION

 

 

Greetings Mr. Gonzalez,

 

My name is Edwin Roberts, Head of the Earthen Security Commission (ESC). My role in this state-owned protective organisation is somewhat similar to that of your National Defense or Intelligence personnel. I am officially required to: “…by any means necessary protect Earth and her inhabitants from various threats to her welfare, no matter the spatial nor the temporal limitations involved.”

 

Sir, I apologise for the early wake-up call, however an issue has come to my attention which will directly interfere with the sanctity of planet Earth. You may be curious as to why your primitive (by our standards) computer system has identified our signal as arriving from a future date in the timeline. Let me assure you this is no hoax. In my present location the date is the 25th of January, 2414. President Gonzalez, you have been selected to assist in this operation because our Department of Postmodern History has identified you as the most capable and powerful leader we can ask for in a soon approaching state of global crisis. Please keep this information confidential, or at least until the full nature of the threat becomes real. Before I proceed I will need to prepare you with some details from the future which you may find astonishing, so please get comfortable…

 

  • Time Travel: Perhaps man’s greatest achievement, the secret to time travel was discovered by the Department of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics at the dawn of the 24th century. It was discovered that space and time are actually components of a larger metric (we refer to as ‘spatial depth’) which governs the way objects and organisms interact with reality. We can send an unlimited number of messages through short to medium time spans however our technology is still rather limited. We are presently only able to send one person through a short time period every 2 or so years.

 

  • Land Divisions: While we still have very similar economic and political systems to those of your time, official sovereign states no longer exist. A common view prevails that physical borders between people give way to conflict; whether for want of resources, the assertion of perceived technological dominance over another or even as a product of paranoia. Thus nation-states and their governments were effectively outlawed in 2164. The few nations who refused to accept the changes were boycotted (the majority of nations in Southern Africa; now conjoined and called the African Free State; several Pacific Islands and a few small European countries). Landmasses were divided by continent and then governed by a Provisional Planetary Government. This was then replaced in 2168 by our permanent Earthen Administration for the Rights and Tribulations of Humanity (EARTH). The administration remains popular and cohesive in every facet of democratic rule, and does not look to be disintegrating any time soon.

 

  • Communication: The official language of Earth is Polysheeban. It is an offshoot of English and as such translates almost word-for-word. Polysheeban is the first language of every continent and is spoken by approximately 93.5% of the population.

 

  • Coinage: The official currency of Earth is the Massa. Named after Cristiano Massa the astronaut who discovered Rubigium (a metal harder than diamond found in Mars’ crust), a 1 Massa coin is typically composed of 89% Rubigium, 6% Silver, 4% Gold and 1% Palladium metal. The Doner (used by gangs for the trade of black market goods) is the only other popular currency in circulation.

 

  • Overpopulation: The total population (of the solar system) has been estimated at 25 billion. Stringent birth control methods were enforced but are presently unnecessary with the commencement of interplanetary migration.

 

  • War: For the first time in history the probability of an outbreak of global warfare has been estimated at less than 0.3%. World War III began just over two centuries after the end of World War II, on May 7th, 2155. The dispute was not economically or territorially entrenched. Rather, leaders differed over who would have priority over a limited supply of vaccines we had for the most deadly virus in recorded history (in terms of the total number of victims; it eliminated one of out every 7 citizens of the global population). Northern America and the European Union were the two major participants in the conflict. The two-year war was put to an end with the realisation that the number of casualties had exceeded the number of disease victims.

 

  • Resource Assessment: A foreseen lack of natural resources is probably the greatest problem of the modern day. Reserves of oil, coal and various minerals have entirely depleted in the last few decades. However, economists remain optimistic with the promise of a range of synthetic replacements as soon as 2449.

 

  • Climatic Threat: The effects of global warming have ceased to be a problem. This is thanks largely to Division Gamma of the Department of Atmospheric Regulation who found a clever way to reduce the global temperature through the application of quasichemical reduction methods (a process too complicated to explain in full). The climate is now temperate in most major cities and their surrounding areas.

 

Now that you have been properly briefed, I am under the proper authority to alert you of the real threat at hand. Two weeks ago we detected our very first recognisable transmission from a source outside our galaxy. The transmission was, quite astonishingly, in near fluent English as follows:

[1.0035.852]: “…fear him who awakens ravenous, the dormant master of spheresappease him only in death…{???}”

The source of the transmission has been approximated at a distance of 1.79×1015 light years from Earth. This would mean your Earth is scheduled to come into contact with this threat within the next two years.

 

There is no need to fret just yet, however. We on the upper level of the ESC have spent the last six months outlining an Affirmative Action Plan (you will receive this in our next communication) which aims to deal with the threat in a resource effective, risk averse manner. The plan has yet to be cleared by my associate advisors but what I can tell you is that we are currently planning to:

 

  1. Send your Aeronautics Department, NASA, blueprints of our largest capacity transport ships.
  2. They send the blueprints to engineers worldwide. Steady construction begins.
  3. Within a year, over half of these ships are boarded and ready to leave our solar system.
  4. A force of all presently conscripted military members, volunteers and 10% of the remaining population (men and women aged 20-35, conscripted by a random international lottery) are left behind to defend our homeland.
  5. Again, we provide you with blueprints for the optimal weapons constructed with the materials of your era.
  6. Once 14 months have passed every ship should be ready to leave. The majority of humankind says goodbye to planet Earth, fleeing our solar system in search of a new home.

 

Please, this information must remain confidential at all costs. If some sort of invasion were to occur it is imperative your people remain calm and orderly. You have the discretion to alert your allies however it is strongly advised this is not taken to the United Nations at the current stage for fear of arousing a global panic. You may, however, do so in the event of dangerous and unforeseen contingencies I have neglected to discuss here.

 

Now, and here is the most important part of all, at the core of this operation is your duty to ensure communication is sustained between the Earthen Security Commission and the United States Government. You can communicate to us using one very simple technique (I am pleased to say this was my own proposal). Write missives, in code, directed to us and place them in the ‘secret’ lower compartment of your desk in the Oval Office. Assuming you survive the incoming alien threat, anything you write will automatically become a part of Earth’s rich history. Without our assistance this unknown terror could destroy absolutely everything humankind has ever lived for. Do not forget: If you die, we also die. Good luck Mr. Gonzalez.

 

 


END OF TRANSMISSION

 

Musings from a Jaded Soul

 

As the days, months, years drift idly by; I am finally beginning to feel my life force accelerating towards a brighter future. The few ambitions I once had have been long forgotten, swept under an undulating tide of trivial obsessions familiar only to those unacquainted with their true identity. Only now do I begin to understand the unimaginable horror of the life that was never worth living, the life which exists only to perpetuate its own existence without once having questioned its role in the fabric of reality. I encounter these lost souls daily. Like me, they hoped only for trivialities to save them from the horrors of a banal existence. An existence where both the start point and end goal are one and the same: preservation through procreation. Does that not suppose nihilism to you? No matter. Just like the newborn caterpillar, the magnificent corpse flower, the ravishing maple tree… all of this is transitory. Each dark obsession I begin to cast off pushes me further and further away into the welcoming abyss…

 


 

Want to know that primary trait which distinguishes a great man from an average man? Knowingly or unknowingly he commits to the process of isolating his desires, then acting upon them. No matter the conflicting circumstances. Lack of money, ability, even time has no bearing on his will, for he has realised the greatest universal pain: unfulfilled desire. He will do anything to rid himself of the agony of non-experience.

 


 

I perceive a dark humanity, a flawed humanity, a deformed humanity. I see one vast series of fragmented cogs, each of them doomed to operate in total isolation. An unchained cog strives to separate itself from the unoiled system of impressions which comprise our society, yet on its way out invariably fails to appreciate the value of the other cogs. This is the essence of human experience. Each person remains locked within their singular perspective, rusted by their inability to intimately empathise with others and thus becomes stuck living the same life over and over again. The real tragedy, which is unspoken for good reason, is when two cogs do come together 99% of the time they don’t coalesce, they collide in catastrophic fashion. The fractured teeth we are born with, minute differences in our characters and temperaments (which will eventually become rusted), may never be overcome for as long as we neglect to correct our false impressions of the twisted self-perpetuating circuit we call society.

 


 

Each of us plays a hand in creating an inevitable future. Both malleable and unchanging, it is up to the bold, unreasonable man to decide which aspects of our future must be changed.

 


 

Every day I look upon these ordinary people with a strange fascination and an unshakable contempt. They go about their lives in a blind stupor, day after day of mindless blather eclipsed by meaningless waste. After a fine day misspent at the office, they latch on to whatever takes their fancy; people, places, ideas; promptly proceeding to devour the entire thing whole before moving on to their next target. The process may appear pointless but it keeps the masses content. I regularly fantasize about the day one of them stops whatever self-serving nonsense they are doing, just for a moment, and realises the frank absurdity of their role in the universe. If this were to happen there would perhaps be some salvation for these poor people. However, in the face of thoughtless practices like pseudoscience, warfare and materialism this looks increasingly less likely to happen. The vicious cycle continues…

 


 

Everything, even a wealth of experience, is fleeting when compared to the totality of durable achievement. Personal attributes and individual experiences mean next to nothing when viewed from a cosmic perspective. Under the unfathomable infinitude of time the individual’s identity can be distilled into a simple name, date and occupation. Thus, the only true way to live on is through successors or achievements which extend beyond one person’s lifetime.

 


 

Take a look outside. Do you live in a crowded city, the tranquil suburbs, the deathly quiet countryside? Do you dream of living somewhere more exotic like on your own beautiful Pacific island? It would make little difference. If experience is no more than the interaction between the subjective self and the objective world around it, why cause yourself unnecessary suffering by focusing on the infinitely larger, infinitely less comprehensible objective world? It would make much more sense to live like a cosmopolitan (a ‘citizen of the world’) and treat every square inch of land you step on as your own home.

I never did, or countenanced, in public life, a single act inconsistent with the strictest good faith; having never believed there was one code of morality for a public, and another for a private man.

—  Thomas Jefferson, ‘Letter to Valentín de Foronda (October 4th, 1809)’

Allowing our imaginary (but necessary) civil laws to dominate your actions is an honest mistake. Rectify it by maintaining Kant’s categorical imperative: Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” Working on yourself will pay much larger dividends than furnishing any one piece of land. For as long as your soul survives you are the sum of every stimuli you interact with.

 


 

The one force which never fails to drive a man forward is the disparity between his present and desired circumstances. However, a paradox lurks here. To manufacture this sort of disparity the individual first has to be exposed to the stimulus which brings that disparity about! In other words, the only way to realise you are missing something is to be exposed to a situation which leads you to realise you are not at the level you should be. Thus, to resolve the paradox, the individual must involve themself in as many varying experiences as possible until a group of enjoyable experiences are discovered. Eventually they will lose their newness and become autonomous habits.

 


 

If there is one thing I have learned through all my trials, it is this: to succeed in life you must have mastery of two unspoken forces. One is will and the other direction. With only the will you have power but no desired object or goal to focus it on. That power will quickly dissipate. With direction but no will you have may have all sorts of wild dreams… but they remain just that, glimpses into a greater realm. Unfortunately, the nature of sensory perception does not allow for one’s imagination to act as an adequate substitute for reality. So really, what is a life without attainable dreams but an empty shell?