had not been a good one. I had spent the entire day going from business
to business, each time receiving the same answer: No, there were no jobs
to be had; Yes, we’ll let you know if that changes. I sighed before
reaching into my pocket for the key to the flat. I wondered if Cara
had picked our food tickets up.
I put the key into the lock and turned, then climbed the worn and broken stairs to my flat. Into the lock goes the other key, and the door opens. I surveyed our one room apartment, nearly bare, and quite run-down. Cara did her best to keep it clean, but we could not afford any cleaning soaps. Cara was at the wood stove, cooking in the pot. Our only pot.
‘Any luck?’ asked Cara, as she ran over to me.
‘No,’ I admitted. ‘Nothing to-day.’
Cara gave me a kiss, which made me smile for the first time all day. ‘You’ll find something to-morrow,’ she insisted. Then she went back to the stove, as I hung my coat up on the broken rack.
‘What’s for dinner?’ I asked.
‘Your favourite,’ she answered.
I knew what that meant. Beans again. Beans were all we could manage these days. I sighed again.
‘Now, don’t get all negative,’ insisted Cara. ‘Be thankful that we have something to eat. Lots of people don’t get that much.’
I guess I grumbled a response.
Cara was getting our two plates out of the cupboard, and she started portioning beans out onto one. ‘Sit down,’ she said. ‘Dinner’s ready.’
I plopped myself onto the wooden chair at the wobbling, slanted table. Cara brought my plate over to me. There wasn’t enough on it, but I couldn't really tell her that.
Cara then brought her plate over, and sat on the other chair, a metal one. Her plate had only a little more than half the beans mine did.
‘What is this?’ I asked. ‘Take some more food, you’ll starve yourself.’
‘No, keep what you have,’ Cara insisted. ‘You need more food than I. I’m all right with this.’
‘No you’re not,’ I insisted.
‘John,’ Cara said. ‘What I gave you isn’t enough for you. You can’t give me any of it; you need it all.’
I was about to argue further, when Cara leant over and kissed me. It’s pretty remarkable that I can be happy living in misery. Cara does that. I went back to the dinner.
Suddenly, I couldn't see anything. ‘Cara?’ I called out, but the only thing I heard was a high-pitched buzz. ‘Cara?!’ Still, my eyes were open, but nothing was visible.
Then I could see. I saw darkness. While before I had been unable to see anything, I now knew that my eyes were working, there just wasn’t any light. I was lying down on my back. I tried to get up, and banged my head on a ceiling, only a few inches from my face. I spread my arms out, and felt all around me. There were walls, and this ceiling…was this a coffin? That didn’t make much sense, but…
I had a horrible feeling like I was sliding back, but it was accompanied with light. At first I was blinded. I started to try to sit up again, but hands held me down. Gradually, my vision began to clear, and I saw people standing over me, people dressed in dark clothing. I was lying down on something cold and hard. My feet were in a hole in the wall that looked like it was big enough to fit me. I was in a morgue.
‘Where am I?’ I demanded of the people around me, although they didn’t answer. I struggled and fought against them, until I thought I wouldn't be able to keep it up any longer. Then they all let go and stood back. I sat up. As I had thought, I was in a bed that slid into the wall, and it seemed that I was in a corridor lined on both sides with equivalent beds. I got off and stood on the floor.
‘Who are you people?’ I asked.
Without answering, one of these strangers came over to me and went to grab my arm. I pulled it away from him. Then he held his hand out, and motioned for me to walk down the corridor in one direction. I didn’t really know what else I should do, so I hesitantly walked along. He followed behind me, but the others didn’t. I think they began to examine the bed I had been in. I continued walking past too many drawers to count, and then I came to a four-way intersection. The guide motioned I go left, and I passed many more similar corridors before the hall ended in a door. The man led me in, and once we two were inside, he pressed some sort of symbol. The tight room we were in began to descend. This was some sort of lift. We had been going down for a few minutes before the thing stopped, and the door opened again. The new corridor to which the lift opened was much better lit. My guide led me down it.
Eventually, we got to a door with strange symbols thereon. The guide pressed another button, and began to make odd noises. He was answered in kind, and then the door opened. The room inside was an office, with a young woman sitting patiently on the other side of the desk. She motioned for me to take a seat. Then the door slammed shut behind me.
I turned to the door and banged on it, and shook the handle. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ said the woman, and I had to turn to her. These were the first words I’d heard yet.
‘What is happening?’ I asked.
‘I’m sure this must be quite confusing for you,’ the woman soothed. She had a strange accent I couldn't place. ‘Please, take a seat and we can settle this.’
I sat down hesitantly. The woman turned to a box that was sitting on her desk, and began to speak.
‘You believe the year is 1932,’ she said, seemingly speaking to me, but facing this box.
‘It is,’ I answered.
The woman turned to me, now, and took a deep breath. ‘The year is actually 2145,’ she said.
‘That’s impossible,’ I said. ‘Who are you, and what is this place?’
‘You awoke in a sort of bed, didn’t you, Mr. Milton?’ she asked.
‘How did you know my name?’ I demanded. I stood again, but stayed by her desk.
She turned the box so I could see the side she had been looking at. It had strange symbols all over it. ‘It says your name here,’ she said. ‘This screen displays your file.’
‘I can’t read it,’ I said.
‘That’s because English is no longer spoken or written,’ she said. ‘The year is 2145.’
‘That’s…that’s more than two hundred years,’ I said. ‘There’s no way you could bring me so far into the future.’
‘You are quite correct,’ she said. ‘We could not bring you through time.’
‘I don’t understand…’ I said.
‘Mr. Milton,’ the woman said, ‘we did not bring you through time…you have lived in this time all of your life.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense!’
‘You were born in 2113,’ continued the woman. ‘Please sit down so I can explain.’
I didn’t know what else to do. I sat.
‘In 1932,’ she started, ‘there had already begun to be an over-population problem, right?’
‘Some people believe that, at our rate of growth, we’ll have too many people, yes.’
‘This is common knowledge.’
‘Yes, everyone knows the predictions, but it’s such a long time before it would actually become a problem.’
‘Listen to what I have to say. During the twenty-first century, the population—’
‘Please, just listen,’ she pleaded. ‘During the twenty-first century, the population rose to a critical level. About thirty years ago, the government decided to do something about it.’
‘The American government, you mean?’
‘Earth’s government, I mean. By this time, the planet was ruled by a sole power, and they decided to solve the over-population problem.
‘The simplest way, of course, would be to kill a large number of those already living, but that would have been inhumane. It was too late to limit births, we needed a solution immediately. Have you ever heard of Virtual Reality?’
‘No,’ I answered.
‘You know movies?’
‘The pictures? Yeah, I know them.’
‘Late in the twentieth century, a new technology was developed called VR. It was like the pictures, except that one didn’t look at a screen, the screen was wrapped around the person’s head. Every where they looked, they saw the picture.
‘It was also made to look like real life. If someone was using a VR Unit, it could look for them like they were really somewhere else. They could interact with the images and alter their environment.’
‘I don’t understand what you mean.’
‘Let’s look at it this way: with 1932 technology, a person would watch a screen depicting a man riding a bike, okay?’
‘Okay,’ I said.
‘With 2044 technology, a person could be the one on the bike, and see any scene they want go by. It would seem completely real, like you were the one on the bike, when you’d really be in a room somewhere. Do you understand?’
‘In 2086, technology advanced to such a point where we could tap directly into the brain impulses. This made the images even more realistic, and as well, it cut down on space needed. Whereas before one needed to actually pedal to feel like they were on a bike, now they would need only to lie down, and the brain impulses to pedal would be intercepted, and impulses would be sent back, so you feel like you’re pedalling, but you’re actually not. You’re actually lying down in a sort of bed in the wall.’
‘I think I see where you’re going with this,’ I said. ‘You’re telling me that…that place…I found myself a few minutes ago, it was one of these machines.’
‘Exactly,’ answered the woman.
‘So when I thought I was riding a bike, I really wasn’t…but how did I get to the twenty-first century?’
‘It wasn’t just when you rode a bike, Mr. Milton. Everything you did your entire life was a false image sent directly into your brain.’
‘Everything I did…in my entire life…Cara?’
‘Cara is your wife?’ asked the woman.
‘You will be able to see her…although not as you expect. I will be transferring you to another person who will answer all questions you have about the life you experienced. However, I do have a question for you: How much of your early childhood do you remember?’
‘I don’t understand…I thought you said it was false.’
‘You were born in 2113,’ she explained, ‘but you weren’t put into the VR Unit until you were four. You may have early memories of life before you began your programme.’
‘I don’t think so…’
‘If anything comes back, please feel free to mention it to Dr. Rinheer or myself. I’m Dr. Chonkrossy. I’ll send for Dr. Rinheer now…’
‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Why did you do this to me? I was only four years old, I hadn’t even begun to acknowledge my surroundings, and you put me into a machine of false images. Why?’
‘It was at your parents’ behest, I’m afraid.’
‘When the VR facilities first came about, it was an optional thing. Every person got to choose whether they wanted to live the rest of their life out in the time period of their choice, or to give their life over to helping, feeding, and making sure nothing goes wrong with those who were in VR. You will, eventually, have to make a similar choice.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Dr. Rinheer will show you a bit around—explain your options, but you will have to decide whether you wish to return to the VR fantasy, or to live here and now as a servant to the millions in VR.’
‘I don’t know what to choose.’
‘Don’t worry about it now,’ the woman said, and she pushed a button on her desk. Shortly thereafter, a youngish negro man entered from a door behind the desk. The woman introduced him as Dr. Rinheer.
‘You were in the depression-era programme?’ he said, with an accent similar to the woman’s.
‘I guess so,’ I said.
The negro smiled. ‘That’s one of my favourites,’ he said. ‘Come, let me show you a bit behind the scenes.’
‘Show you how we do this,’ he said, leading me out the door through which I’d originally come. I waved good-bye to Dr. Chonkrossy as we left, but I hadn’t a hat to tip.
We walked down the corridor in the opposite direction to the one I’d used. He said, ‘yes, the Depression-era is so exciting.’
‘Not when you’re living in it,’ I said.
‘That may be true now,’ he said, ‘but we have big plans for that programme. We have this character we’re going to introduce named Franklin Roosevelt. He’s going to lift America out of the depression into an era of prosperity.
‘Roosevelt? I think I’ve heard of him.’
‘Of course you have. It’s called foreshadowing.’
‘He wasn’t real?’
‘Oh lord, no. In real life, it took Russia’s prosperity under Lenin to lift the world out of depression. But to counter the honourable Roosevelt figure, we’ve created a German counterpart, the nefarious Adolf Hitler.’
‘Even the name sounds menacing.’
‘He’s going to lead Germany into another confrontation with America, France, Russia, and Britain. The working title is World War 2, but we’ll come up with something better later on.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘The control room. From there we can give you the best example of twenty-second century lifestyle.’
‘Having trouble walking?’
‘That’s because you’ve spent the last twenty-eight years lying down in a unit.’
‘A coffin,’ I corrected.
‘I’m sorry you feel that way. The control room is just in here.’
The man opened a door and the two entered a long room lined with pictures of people’s faces in sleep. Many real people watched these pictures and ran from face to face.
‘What is with all those pictures?’
‘They’re examples of people in VR,’ said Dr. Rinheer. ‘We can look at anyone in the complex.’
‘Is Cara in the complex?’ I asked.
‘Cara…that’s your wife, right?’
I nodded. Dr. Rinheer walked over to one face and shooed the others away from it. He pushed some buttons and the face changed to Cara’s. Her mouth was open just a crack, just like it always is when she sleeps.
‘Her name isn’t actually Cara,’ said Dr. Rinheer. ‘She was born Ute. We just used her as a template for the Cara character.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said, unable to take my eyes off the love of my life.
‘She’s currently in another VR programme…Feudal Japan, I believe. We just took her physical appearance and with it created the fictional character Cara.’
‘Cara doesn’t really exist?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘Did you put me in her programme?’ I asked.
Dr. Rinheer sighed. ‘We did,’ he said, ‘but only in a cameo role. You played a farmer she met at a market.’
‘Did she fall in love with me?’
I just started shaking my head. ‘This is horrible,’ I muttered, ‘this is horrible.’
‘What was that?’ asked Dr. Rinheer.
‘You’ve ruined my LIFE!’ I yelled at him.
‘Please calm down, Mr. Milton,’ he said. ‘I know that this is hard for you to take, but you must face the truth before you—’
‘You know nothing!’ I yelled. ‘You’re too proud about your World War 2 to give a damn about me and my life!’
‘I do give a damn, Mr. Milton. I care very much. I think I know something that will cheer you up a bit.’
‘What’s that,’ I spat.
‘My parents are dead.’
‘No,’ said Dr. Rinheer. ‘They were only killed in your VR programme. They are, in actuality, both alive.’ He pushed some more buttons, and the faces of my parents appeared instead of Cara’s. They looked so old.
‘Why were they dead in my programme?’ I demanded.
‘We felt you were becoming too dependent upon them,’ said Dr. Rinheer. ‘We wanted you to gain a little independence before the depression hit.’
I guess I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t impressed with his answer.
‘Are they in the same programme I was in?’
‘No. Your father is in Victorian England, and your mother is in Star Trek.’
‘What’s Star Trek?’
‘It’s a fictional universe created about thirty years after the depression. It involves travel through space.’
‘If you were to decide to remain here, in the living world, you would most likely begin in Housekeeping. You’d have to keep all the rooms in the complex clean. If you’d like I can show you what I mean…’
I looked up at him. ‘Cara and I…we couldn't have kids. Now if she never existed…then, why no kids?’
‘Yes, well, I’m afraid that’s but one example of enforcing twenty-second morality onto the past. Since any child you would've had would be fictional, there was really no reason for you to not conceive, but we, the writers, felt that bringing a child into the world with your financial condition was reckless and selfish. We wrote it in that you couldn't have kids—’
‘You “wrote it in” that we couldn't have kids? You created my wife, denied me children, and killed my parents. You’re monsters!’
‘You’re being overly harsh. We were merely trying to emulate real life. Could you imagine how your life would be if everything was good and easy?’
‘I don’t want to stay here, be a part of you. Take me outside this building.’
‘That won’t be easy…’
‘I DON’T CARE!! TAKE ME AWAY FROM THIS!!’
The man sighed. ‘Come with me,’ he said. With that, he turned and walked through the long room with all the faces. We exited through the far door, and then went into another lift.
‘We’re going up,’ I said.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘We’re underground.’
After a while, the doors opened and we were on a level wrapped around completely with glass. I looked out the side. ‘We’re not on ground level,’ I said.
‘There is no exit to ground level,’ said Dr. Rinheer. ‘There is no exit to the exterior world.’
I looked down, we were only thirty feet or so up. The ground below was nearly bare. Yellow sand was everywhere, with pockets of scraggy grass occasionally. Off in the distance, I saw young trees growing, but they looked only a few years old.
‘Even if you were to go outside, where would you go?’ asked Dr. Rinheer. ‘The land all around is barren, only slowly returning to a somewhat natural state. You might get as far as the nearest ruins…Bogota, I think it was called, but the cities are dangerous…all the animals hide there.’
‘This building cannot be the only civilisation in the world…’
‘There are a couple others, but we have no way of travel between them. We don’t even keep in communication with them.’
I shook my head.
‘So you see, you have only two choices: live in the real world as a servant within the complex, or go back to your VR Unit and continue to live out the rest of your days in a fictional world.’
‘I can’t go back to the depression.’
‘You don’t have to,’ said Dr. Rinheer. ‘We can put you in the programme of your choice.’
‘It wouldn't be the same. I would know it wasn’t real.’
‘Not necessarily. We have technology now which erases memories. You can return to the VR programme of your choice, not remembering any of 2135, or 1932.’
‘Erases…memories? I would be happy and ignorant of the fact I would not be happy were I less ignorant.’ I sighed. ‘I can either be a servant to unconscious people, or live subject to the whim of people like you. My family lives or dies…it’s up to you and your sense of drama. But I would be happy. Wouldn't I?’
‘I can’t really answer that for you.’
‘So you’re not God? You don’t have all the answers, just all the power, eh?’ I saw he was flustered, so I raised my hand to ease him. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘I’m not really upset with you. I’m just thinking things through. I think I’ve made a decision.’
then what happened, Daddy?’ asked the little girl, sitting anxiously on
John Milton’s left knee.
‘Wha happen?’ added John’s younger daughter, sitting calmly on the other knee.
‘Then I told Dr. Rinheer I’d stay in the future. I worked as a cleaner for a few months before your mother woke up, too.’
Just then, Ute walked into the living room. ‘You’re not telling them that story again, are you?’ she asked.
‘We want to hear it,’ said the elder daughter.
‘Wanna hear,’ added her sister.
‘Go on, Daddy.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘your mother and I married and had you little girls. Dr. Hancock, the administrator, then declared that there were too many people working in the building, so he built this lovely house for us in the country.’
‘And the rest is history,’ said one daughter.
‘Hissy!’ repeated the other.
‘Yes,’ their father said. ‘Now, we’ll live happily forever.’
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