I awaken with a headache, and fall off my bed. It's not until I'm lying face first on the ground that I realize this is not my bedroom, and I was not my bed, but instead an operating table.
Instead of being in my pajamas I have been changed into hospital scrubs. Like anyone else, I start panicking. After a good few solid minutes of freaking out, I look around in the windowless room. Lit up by the artificial light is a scalpel. I grab it and go to the door.
It's a shock when the door opens easily. Who leaves a weapon and an unlocked door with a kidnapped victim?
The halls are emptied, but seems like it was just recently vacated. I count myself lucky and search for some type of exit. I wander similar and endless walls, until I stab the scalpel into the dry wall out of frustration.
Underneath my stab mark, I notice a piece of paper on the wall, and pick it up.
Memo: 4/18/2333. Attention all workers. Surgery for Subject2O23 must be postponed, for there was an irregularity found. Please make a swift exit ASAP.
I throw the paper down and groan.
The crying child
The distant sound of a child crying awakes me from my slumber. When I open my eyes, I find myself in an unfamiliar white room. I stand up and walk towards the door in front of me. My head is dizzy and my body feels weak. What the hell is going on? The more I keep on walking, the further the door becomes. I try running, but that doesn't change anything. I'm still stuck in the same place. "Hello? Is there anybody out there?" I try to scream but all I hear is the sound of my own voice echoing in the distance. "Welcome Mkhitha, congratulations on making it to year 2333." I turn around and see a tall blonde man dressed in a black suit. "Where the hell am I? Am I dead?" He chuckles at my question. "Oh no, you're far from dead sir. As a matter of fact, you're the only one in this room who's alive."
BANG! The bullet drew straight through me. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe. All I could do was lay there and bleed. The room around me became digital and started to twitch like a hologram. No one else was in the room with me; then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see Jo and suddenly I had the strength to stand up and hug him.
“Welcome to the Afterlife.” he presented a new world to me. A new world that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy for very long.
EARLIER THAT DAY
“Your brother is dead.” Those were the exact words that I was dreading to hear. I hugged my mom and cried in her arms. Jo was my idol, my mentor, and my best friend. He was coming over the day he got into the accident and when I heard that crash outside my apartment, I prayed to God that it wasn’t him. I guess I didn’t pray hard enough. A head-on collision cost him his life. The doctors and investigators assumed it was a drunk driver, although they didn’t know for sure since it was a hit and run and no one saw the car again. I opened the door to my apartment, turned on the lights, tossed my keys on the table and walked to the kitchen. I rummaged through the liquor cabinet to find the whiskey. Once I did, I grabbed a glass and slumped on the couch.
How could this be? I thought and took a swing of the whiskey. I heard a light crash and peered to my left to see a frame face down on the ground. I put the bottle and glass on the coffee table and lifted my body to go clean up the mess. When I picked up the frame, I turned it over to see the picture of Jo and me at the beach a couple of years ago.
“Oh, Jo. I’m so sorry this happened to you.” Tears streamed down my face. I gently put the picture back on the shelf taking a good look at the beauty that was our friendship. I walked back over to the couch and took another shot of the whiskey. I laid down and slowly closed my eyes to hopefully dream of something better than this reality I was living in now.
“Come on, Jo!” My brunette pigtails sprung with joy as I signaled for Jo to follow me.
“Let’s go!” I climbed up the old rickety tree house like we did every day and once I stepped to the top, I pointed at Jo and started to laugh.
“Haha, I beat you!” Jo started to climb up.
“I’m going to get you, Claire Bear! Don’t you move!” Jo said playfully. I screamed and laughed while Jo threw his arms around me and tickled me, making me laugh even harder.
“Claire.” An older and quite familiar voice entered my head. I still saw the small scene play out as I heard this voice appear in my dreams.
“Claire!” It screamed and the dream of my childhood memory stopped. Everything around me turned black and I heard it again.
“Claire, you’re in danger. Please, listen to me. It’s Jo.” I sat up breathing heavily. My sweat poured down my face. My eyes quickly jumped around my living room analyzing everything they came across. Everything was normal.
It couldn’t have been Jo. I thought. I grabbed the phone to call my mom.
Surely if Jo was around he would come back to talk to mom too, right? The phone rang and rang.
“Mom! Where are you?”
“At home. Why?” My mom sounded concerned.
“Did you have any dreams or nightmares last night?” I quickly asked.
“Well, no not particularly. How come?”
It took me a moment to ask. How was she going to respond? I didn’t know whether to tell her or to just say goodbye.
“It was Jo, Mom. He came to my dream last night.”
“Honey, were you drinking last night?”
“Yes, but that’s beside the point. He was here, and a picture fell last night. It was the one at the beach two years ago!” I leaped up and headed for the kitchen.
“Claire, it is too soon to be telling me these things I can’t -”
“No!” I snapped.
“I’m not kidding! He came to my dream. First, it was an old memory of him and me in the woods but then it got dark and he said something to me. Like I’m in danger or something. I think he’s here with me.”
“Claire! Whether we like it or not, Jo is gone.” She said sternly.
“You need to accept it as I have. Now go and get some rest. You have class tomorrow.” She hung up and I slammed my phone on my kitchen table. I needed a way to prove it all and convince my mom that this phenomenon actually happened. I figured he could come back to me in my sleep, so I laid back on the couch and closed my eyes in hopes I could sleep again. I started to drift off into a deep slumber. My breath slowed down and I saw nothing but darkness. Then I heard it again; Jo’s voice.
“Claire!” The same voice as before called out so I decided to call back to him.
“Jo! Where are you?” Suddenly he appeared in front of me, smiling. I held back tears and smiled back at him.
“You don’t know how glad I am to see you,” I said, choking down my tears.
“I’m glad you’re here. I’m not surprised you figured it out.”
“Figured what out?”
“Claire, this is real. This is not a dream. But deep down you knew that otherwise, you wouldn’t have called Mom. Claire,” he moved closer to me.
“I’m not dead,” he stated. I was shocked. Surely I was dreaming and he wasn’t really here. I saw his body and the doctor literally said the words, ‘your brother is dead’ to both me and my mom. This dream was messing with me and I had to wake up.
“Jo, I’ve gotta go this is really getting to my head and-”
“Claire, wait! I’m not kidding. The afterlife, when you ‘die,’ you don’t die. You travel to another dimension.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense. Dimensions aren’t real.”
“That’s what you think and what you’ve been told. You really don’t know what’s on the other side of the hill until you get there. Trust me, all of this is real. But I’m not here to tell you what’s completely on the other side, that’s for you to find out when you get here. I’m here to tell you that you’re in danger.” This was too much information. I am going to school to be a Private Investigator and nothing has ever stumped me like this, literally ever.
“What do you mean danger?”
“You’re smart, Claire. You can find who it is.”
“Jo, what do you mean? Why are you being so vague?”
“Just go and figure it out, but be cautious. The person who killed me in the accident wasn’t a drunk driver. It was a setup.”
“Seriously, Jo I don’t know-” I sat up, again sweat pouring and breathing heavier. I thought about what Jo said. I decided I needed to do some research. The only other person I thought of getting help from was my best friend, Kelly, who also was a PI. I traveled to her apartment and knocked on her door. When she opened it she smiled.
“Claire, I’m so glad you’re here. How are you?”
“I need your help.” I snapped. I walked past her into her apartment. She looked very confused.
“Is this about Jo and your dreams?”
“How did you know that?” I was stunned. Was she having them too?
“Your mom called. She’s worried about you. I am as well.”
“The dreams are real! Jo appeared to me! I can promise you, he told me that I am in danger and that his death was a setup!” I blew up in Kelly’s face.
“Please, you have to believe me. You’re the only other person I trust.” I pleaded. Kelly smiled.
“Claire, I do believe you. I’m sorry about everything that has happened to you. Jo must be back otherwise you wouldn’t know the truth.” She slowly walked to her desk.
“What are you talking about? The truth about what?” Kelly opened her drawer and pulled out a gun and aimed it on me.
BANG! The bullet drew straight through me. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe. All I could do was lay there and bleed. The room around me became digital and started to twitch like a hologram. No one else was in the room with me; then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see Jo and suddenly I had the strength to stand up and hug him.
“Welcome to the Afterlife.” The room disappeared and a whole new digital world drew before us. I stood in awe at the beauty around us. It was like one big video game but real. Flying cars sped past us, big cyber buildings grew with every step we took, and there were people everywhere. They were just like humans but moved even more swiftly.
“This is it? This is what happens when you die?” I held his hand tighter.
“Not death entirely, but a trip to another world.”
“Then how were you able to contact me in the human world?”
“Dreams are like phone calls. A day there is like a year here so I had a ton of time to look around and find you. I also knew this would happen before it did, which is why I had to tell you that you were in danger.” The cars around me looked like gold and silver eggs just flying past our heads. Jo looked at me in sorrow.
“Claire, I’m so sorry you had to move on from Earth. Mom must be frantic. Losing both her children within 36 hours I just-”
“Jo,” I stopped him. “We can visit her. Everything will be okay with mom. Leaving Earth wasn’t such a bad thing either. I mean look at this place. This is crazy. I honestly love it here.” As I said that, a bright light shone through a crack in Afterlife’s sky.
“What is that?” I pointed and we both stared at it.
“I think someone is trying to bring you back.”
“But Jo, I don’t want to leave you!” I sat up again breathing heavily. This time in a hospital bed with doctors all around me and wires suffocating me.
“She’s back!” a doctor holding a defibrillator yelled to the other doctors.
“Hey sweetie calm down. Everything is going to be okay.” another doctor tried to calm me down.
“I can’t stay here!” I said through my breathing tubes.
“Please. Jo can’t do this without me. I need to go back!” I pleaded.
“Back where honey?” the nurse asked.
A Great Fall HD-3.0
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The Road Not Taken. Ch 7-8
With a grunt, he jerked awake and looked around in shock. It was dark, the TV was off, the only light, a faint glow through the window from a distant street light and the red dot of the TV standby light.
“I fell asleep watching the TV? Good God, I’ve not done that in years!”
He sighed and started fumbling for the light switch. The moment it was on, he turned the TV on again to get the time. 22:14.
“Six hours?” He did feel better, though. It had been a very tiring day. “Right then. Let’s see just how much of a mess you have made of your life. Judging by the house, it’s not looking good.”
He grabbed the file from the carrier bag.
Up until the age of fourteen, their lives had matched. That’s when the split had occurred, this version having left the army cadets. It didn’t say why. After that, exam results, tanked, periods of unemployment, crap temporary job after crap temporary job… Then it got to ten years ago when he seemed to have a period of good fortune.
“Two books published?” He went to the bookshelf and studied it, his hand shooting out when he spotted his name… Twice. They were hefty tomes. “A fantasy epic? I wrote a fantasy epic? How could I be so crap, now?”
Something small and black fell to the floor as he took the books. Absently, he swept it up and put it into his pocket before placing the books on top of the pile of paper on the coffee table and wandered into the kitchen. “Might as well see what he’s done with the rest of the house.”
Stacks of plates in the sink, stacks of unopened boxes, scattered all over the place. He sighed and went upstairs to find similar untidiness in the bedroom, clothes scattered all over the floor. He opened the wardrobe to find it crammed full of clothing, much of it still had the tags on.
Then, the spare room. This seemed to have been turned into an office. A typewriter sat on the desk, but it was clear from all the cobwebs hanging off it that he hadn’t written a word in years. This was the only room that wasn’t a bomb site.
“What the hell happened to me? How could I forget everything I learned in the cadets? Allow myself to get into this state?!” He sighed and returned to the file, but after the books, it was just more of the same, crap job after crap job and even those dried up after the death of his parents three years ago.
The file ended with no more information about any other aspects of his life. No details about other interests, friends, not even favourite pubs.
He tossed the file away in disgust and was just about to return to the kitchen to check on the boxes when…
Mork calling Orson, come in Orson. Mork calling Orson, come in, your fattitude.
You’ve got a fucking nerve, calling me that!
Well, you are. I know from personal experience!
Yes. You’re the fat one! I can’t believe the disrespect!
What do you mean, disrespect?
The house? Mum and Dad’s house? Well, if I can’t reverse this, my house? They kept it in perfect shape! I don’t remember a single day when I’ve visited them when there was even a cup out of place, but you! Look at it! What is all this crap?
Just stuff I bought. Stuff I thought might come in useful one day.
I know exactly what it is.
What about you? You don’t own anything! Where’s all your stuff?
I have no need for stuff! The army provides! Anything I need, I buy. My laptop, my spare watch and techwatch, my phone, what more do I need!?
One set of civilian clothing?
That’s a point, my other suit’s at the dry cleaners, I don’t need more than two. I suppose that’s one job you’ll have to do, tomorrow. Collect it. The ticket’s in the top drawer in my office. It has the address on it, before you ask.
But… But what about the rest?
I said, I only buy what I need. You’ve never been deployed. Moved from camp to camp. You soon learn to travel light. The spartan lifestyle is the right lifestyle. I don’t subscribe to the consumer economy. The only reason people buy all the latest and greatest gadgets they barely even use is to fill a bloody void in their lives. I don’t have a void in mine. Seems to me, yours is nothing but void!
I’m a published author!
And where’s that got you? How much do you even make from those two books, now? Yes, I’ve seen them, no I haven’t read them yet. I may.
So, do! They’re pretty good.
And yet, you haven’t written anything in years! Why don’t you own a computer to write with? Just a typewriter? You can’t even edit!
I can’t afford
“Can’t afford? How much have you wasted on all those boxes in the bloody kitchen? How much on clothing you’ll never wear? How much of that crap even fits… well… me, now? I’ll tell you this for starters, I am going to sort your life out! When you get back here, the house will be just as tidy as when Mum was alive. When you get back, every single one of those boxes will be sold on Auctionweb. Your life will be just as spartan here as mine is there. Where’s your fitness gear?
Fitness gear? I don’t have any fitness gear!
Well, that’s another reason I’ll have to sell all this crap!
No. You stole my life! I know it wasn’t intentional but things are not looking good in finding my way to that place to undo it. I need resources. I need cash. That cash comes from your hoarding. It’ll take a military operation to get back there and thankfully, that’s what I’m good at! Now, what happened there? What have you been doing?
Being clever! OK! I sorted out Ashford and at the same time, I’m sorting myself out! I start basic training on Monday.
How the fuck does a sergeant start basic training?
I said I was being clever, didn’t I? Ashford’s been shat on from a great height on multiple occasions, first with the fight, then his broken ankle, which wasn’t an accident, by the way, then he spent the entire second attempt second guessing himself, freezing, panicking, terrified he’d make a mistake, which, of course, led to him fail! I’m putting things right one bit at a time.
So, you contacted them, then?
Yes. Well, I contacted about half, the major contacted the rest. Every single one of them reported the same story Ashford initially told. Well, everyone apart from Prichard, who still maintained his lies and accused Ashford of being a mentally unstable coward. He’s the one who broke Ashford’s ankle on that assault course. Ashford landed, he kicked, then bolted.
Fuck! Really? That’s what Ashford claimed?
There’s some very grainy CCTV footage that does match Ashford’s side of the story and the medical report corroborates it The footage is incomplete, doesn’t show the kick, but it does show a soldier lurking by that wall and the next soldier to drop down it curled into a ball a few frames later.
I can’t believe you’re actually doing a good job of it, so far. Well done!
I like this! I.. I hope it doesn’t end!
But it has to! How can you continue to fake thirty years of army experience? How can you even do basic training!?
I’m losing my stripes for the month. Ashford’s gaining one, acting lance-corporal. He is going to train me. They’ll all think I’m faking being incompetent, I already told them I’d make all the same mistakes they make, but at the same time, I’ll be learning the basics.
Yes, the basics! There’s a hell of a lot more than that involved in commanding twenty-three men, which is the usual number in a section during basic training. Where are you?
In my room.
My room! Open the wardrobe. Third shelf down. PT kit. Put it on! Run around the camp five times. Now!
How far is that?
About five kilometres.
I couldn’t even walk five k!
Oh, I know exactly what your capable of. It’s me who can’t walk five k, right now! Even the walk from the bloody bus stop knocked it out of me! I am not letting you turn my body into another version of this… this blob!
But I don’t want to run around the camp!
Do you want to draw attention to yourself?
Of course not!
Do you want them to see you’re acting strangely?
Open the wardrobe! Look at the PT kit! Now!
But if I turn the light on…
Do it, you can just as easily turn it off again.
*sigh* OK! OK!
There was a pause.
Canvas? Shorts made out of canvas?
The army provides! I refuse to waste money on overpriced crap when I’m issued with something that’s perfectly functional. I’m a career soldier. I’ve seen action.
I saw the medal. What’s it for?
Our detachment was attacked when I was setting up a communication network. I not only took out the attackers, single handed, I might add, I saved the life of my det commander who was trapped in the burning vehicle. The shorts aren’t the only bit of PT kit on that shelf, the vest?
Neatly folded, white, so what?
Open it out. And strip. Put them on! Now!
I… Oh, fuck! Red trim? Crossed swords?
And you know what that means, don’t you?
Physical training instructor? I’m a PTI?
And not only any PTI, but a PTI class one and a sergeant! You will run around the camp! And in the morning at 5AM, before breakfast, you will hit the gym and push yourself to the limit in there! A sergeant has to set an example for the ranks below him. You start lazing about like you have been here and it’ll be seven shades of shit hitting the fan! Another reason this has to end. PTIs come in three levels, three grades. Grade three, they can train regular soldiers, grade two, you get let loose on the recruits, men who don’t know how to exercise. You’re clueless, you’re a danger! One bad command from you during physical training could injure a recruit out of the bloody army!
And grade one?
We’re trained in physiotherapy. Rehabilitation to get injured soldiers back into good, battle worthy shape. Who do you think got Ashford back on his feet? Now do as I say. Put that kit on and run!
But I was loving this! Now you expect me to put myself through hell?
You’ll love it, trust me.
How do you know?
Because I do? You won’t even hurt, running that far. You’ll experience something you never have before, an adult body at the peak of physical fitness, running further than you ever could before. I know, remember, it’s mine! You didn’t hate it when you were a cadet, did you? And don’t lie, I was you until you were fourteen!
*sigh* I suppose you have a point.
One thing that dossier didn’t go into… Well, a few things… Why did you quit? I would’ve never considered leaving the cadets under any circumstances!
It wasn’t exactly my choice, y’know.
Matt? OK, he broke his legs jumping off a roof, so what? OK, he was a friend, but I hardly think that’s reason to
Broke his neck, more like! And I was there! I’d never seen a dead body before and he was my best friend! I was a wreck for weeks! I couldn’t continue!
But I wasn’t there! I was on holiday with Mum and Dad at the time. Blackpool!
Dad had to cancel. An emergency at work! That’s why we diverged? Because of that?
Seems so, but that still doesn’t explain the rest. You tanked all your exams? You’ve been a failure all your life, apart from that brief success with the books, and even that, you couldn’t be bothered to continue!
I said it left me a wreck, didn’t I?
For a few weeks, you said. The exams were over a year later!
Well, obviously, if you passed them all with flying colours, then it affected me more than I thought!
Did you seek help?
What? What kind of help?
Of course not!
Well, if you do get back, I suggest you do. Obviously, there, you can’t, because mine and yours are totally different circumstances. Yes, I’ve suffered from PTSD, myself. It helps to talk it out. Seriously helps.
PTSD? You think that’s what it is?
As a kid, it’s much more nasty. You’ve seen yourself how much it’s damaged your life. It’s not just soldiers who suffer from it.
But I feel fine!
Your life’s pathetic. You apologised for the state of it, the very first thing you said to me. Nothing to be done about it now, but when you do get back here, that’s one of the things you need to see to. Lose the apathy. Fill the void in a useful way, not by hoarding crap. Now light on, kit on, out for that run.
But I don’t know where to run!
Easily solved, I close the curtains, unplug the TV, the room should be dark enough for me to take over the comms. I can guide you around the route I take.
* * *
As he sat there with his eyes closed, it was almost as if he was doing it himself. It wasn’t just the five senses, he could feel it. All of it. Of course, the first time around the roads on camp, he’d had to constantly push his other self. Faster, harder, stop slowing down, breathe, but after the second, he could sense he was putting the effort in. He could even sense the exhilaration, the fact his counterpart was beginning to enjoy it. He continued to experience the run without the need for constant cajoling after that, and when he’d finally finished the final lap…
Feels good, doesn’t it?
I’ve never felt so alive! I… I’m back to not wanting this to end!
And I’m back to reminding you it has to. Don’t worry, by the time this is over, I’ll make sure this pile of blubber’s a hell of a lot fitter. You can continue here and I expect you to! Now, get back to my room, grab a towel and hit the shower before bed. You’ve got to be up at five. Don’t worry, the alarm on my phone’s set for that time, anyway.
Yes sarnt! Err… Where is the shower?
*sigh* Army barrack blocks are the same across the nation. You’ve been in one before.
Ablutions at the other end of the corridor?
You’ll get used to it. Who cares about privacy in the army? You lose all that in the billets, anyway, living with twenty other men. Tbis time of night, though, you should be alone. I would’ve normally had my run hours ago.
Time for me to ask some questions.
What kind of questions this time? You know everything about me, now?
Not just about you this time, though, one thing that file they left me didn’t go into was friends. Who are they? How do I recognise them? Be a bit of a giveaway if I didn’t know who the fuck they were, me being you right now, but before that, internet equivalents.
You’re the one who mentioned them. What was it? Googol or something? Amazon? Ebay? We’ll both need this information rather than fumble around searching for them.
I suppose you have a point. What’s your equivalent of google, that G L E, not G O L, by the way.
You’ll have to tell me what it is, first.
Started as a search engine. Then they started an email service, I mentioned gmail.
Ah, so, Pagerank? They did that, too, along with maps.
They… They do seem to be an equivalent, don’t they? Maybe it’s the same people, just a different name? Anyway, Google does offer more than just the maps, now. Online word processor, spreadsheet, stuff like that. I’ve used that as well as the typewriter. Comes in useful.
If you’d got yourself a computer, even an outdated one, surely there must be word processors you can get for it?
Microsoft word’s expensive, but I’ve heard of a few free ones.
Microsoft? Don’t tell me people are still stuck with windows 95?
Of course not, they did update, release new versions every few years! Think the current one’s windows 11 but I’ve read the hardware requirements are way out of my price range.
What? Just for the base operating system? How can that have hardware requirements? It’s just a platform for running other stuff! My God, I’m glad they went bust.
Microsoft? How the hell could they go bust? They’re worth billions! Bill Gates was one of the richest men in the world until Musk took the top spot!
*chuckle* Windows 95 was bad, but 98 was even worse. At the same time those came out, something else was on the horizon. Something free. A bloke called Linus replicated the functionality of Unix and made it useful for home users. No-one uses Microsoft, anymore… Well, only a few who were locked in by software, anyway.
What about Apple?
Oh, they still make their Macs. But even those run that same OS now. Linux.
I’ve heard of that! Isn’t it more difficult?
Not here. It comes with every computer. I suppose if Microsoft still dominates here, I might need to install it myself. Not exactly difficult.
What about the iPhone? The iPod? iPad?
Never heard of them.
But Apple made the first smartphone!
What’s a smartphone? You mentioned that word before.
What do you mean? You have one!
It’s not called that. It’s called a screenphone, it has a touch sensitive screen and it was Nokia who came up with the first. A dozen other companies make them, now, of course. OK… Back to the… Please tell me it’s called the web.
World wide web, yes. They’re called websites.
At least that’s the same, then. Now… Auctionweb…
Online auctions? That’d be eBay.
Never heard of it.
Started out selling books online. Now? Sells just about anything.
That’ll be Amazon, then.
Errr… What does it do?
Communication network. Hell of a lot of people on it. It’s not the only one, a lot of people still use the old text only format’s because it’s more efficient. Usenet and IRC, but if they want to chat and post photos, other graphics, music, stuff like that, people tend to gravitate towards Chatter.
Hmm, suppose it sounds a bit like Twitter. What about Facebook?
Another one I’ve never heard of.
Bit like Twitter, I suppose, but for more lengthy discussions. Twitter has a length limit on messages. It started out as the same limits as SMS.
I didn’t invent it! But it is very popular.
I think I’ve got enough to be getting on with. Anything more, I’ll ask this Google thing. Now, friends?
Ah, come on, there must be someone.
OK, we’re… I’d say pally. Wouldn’t go full friend for either of them, though, just a friendly acquaintanceship.
I’ve got dozens I’d consider to be friends!
I prefer to be alone! OK?
OK… Who are they?
Simon and Barry, but don’t call them that. Sime and Bazza.
And how do you… associate with them?
Horse and hound. It’s
I know it. And are they trustworthy?
Well, I’ve never had any trouble with ’em.
Could I confide in either of them about… Well… This?
Bazza… I think Sime’s a little bit too… blabbermouthy.
They’re in there. In the on phone address book thingy.
And does this Bazza have a computer? Internet at home?
Live’s near here?
Just down the street, but don’t bother trying to contact him, now. He works nights.
Typical. Suppose it’ll have to be the library in the morning, then. Please tell me they’re open. Same place as it’s always been?
Same place it was when I was you, yes. What about your friends?
I’d need to give you a rundown of the entire camp personnel. You’ll just have to wing it. Sorry. But, as you begin basic training, that should bypass that issue. Obviously, you mix more with the other sergeants than the lower ranks but you’re mates with a few of them, too.
Hang on… Something you said earlier…
Didn’t you say you’ve got a laptop?
Where? I didn’t see it.
Not given the place a thorough going over yet, I take it? Bottom drawer, under the ledger. You’ve got the password to get into it. Don’t embarrass me online.
Wouldn’t dream of it. I doubt I’ll use it much, anyway. Oh, one last thing, online video streaming?
You have YouTube. People constantly upload videos on almost every subject. Like, subscribe, follow them. You might even like some of them. Pretty obvious we’ll have different tastes, but… I suppose if you still like scifi, there’s a few Americans reacting to Doctor Who, right now.
But… Taking the piss out of the paper mache and bad rubber monsters, are they?
There was no revival here?
Revival? It died in the 80s!
And came back in the 2000s. Much better production values. Much bigger budget. Some of them are fucking good. We’ve had six doctors since McCoy, another two on the way. Doctor number fourteen is the same actor as ten, though. Thirteen was a disaster. Terrible writer, she wasn’t that good either, in my opinion.
Yes. She. Don’t worry, he’s back to being male again. Before you say it, regenerations are a bit… Well, the master’s also been a woman. Mistress in that one’s case… Or Missy as she preferred.
What the hell have I been missing?
You’ve got a month to find out, if you at least let me have that much.
We’ll see. It might take me that long to work out where they’re hidden and that’s assuming they don’t move. God, I hope that’s not the case, cos if it is, then I’m well and truly screwed. Anyway, I’ll sign off, got a lot of sorting to do.
He got up and turned on the light, then returned to the kitchen to open all the boxes.
For the next few hours, he sorted through all the boxes in the kitchen, setting them into three distinct piles. Things he may decide were useful enough to keep, things to sell and things he wasn’t too sure about, were they even worth selling? He’d need to do a little research online to find out in the morning, for everything, of course.
At three in the morning, he stumbled upstairs and collapsed onto the bed, exhausted again. Even that had been draining. Even that? God, he had a lot of work to do to get himself into shape.
* * *
The clothes on the floor, into the washing machine. The scruffy sweats he wore, in, too. He dug around for clean clothing that had been worn before, avoiding the tagged stuff in the wardrobe, for now… Most of that, he’d sell.
Dressed, he returned to the kitchen, grabbed a bite to eat, picked up his keys, phone and wallet and headed towards the library.
“No buses from now on, unless it’s a non-local journey. Walk. Then jog. Then run.” He sighed.
Finally, an hour later, he staggered through the doors, over to the first chair he could see and collapsed onto it.
“Good God, Des! Are you OK?”
His gaze shot to the woman being the counter. “Err.”
“I’ve never seen you look so ill! Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
“No… Thanks for the concern, but, I’m just tired, that’s all. It’s a long walk.”
“Don’t tell me your so strapped for cash you couldn’t even get the bus!”
He shook his head and smiled. “I decided I was more tired of being… Well…” His hand swept over his body. “This. Baby steps, got to walk before I can run.”
“You? On a fitness binge? What brought this on?”
He shrugged. “Struggling up the hill from the bus stop, for one. Looking at myself in the mirror’s not too pleasant, either.”
“Good on you. Hope you keep it up.” She sighed. “I’ve been nagging Brian for months he needs to do something similar. His excuse, I’m too busy. Always the same with him. Just hope he doesn’t leave me a widow.”
“Do you have a dog?”
“Might be an idea. It’d get him out of the house. A nice walk around the park’s a start and with a dog, that’s pretty much compulsory.”
“I know him too well, I’d end up being the one to do it. Thanks for the idea, though.” She nodded towards the back of the library. “Computers?”
“How long, today?”
“When do you close again?”
“Research. A lot of it.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve finally started on book three?”
Don’t tell me he didn’t even complete the story! “It’s a possibility. Don’t hold your breath, though,”
She chuckled. “I know. Write the first draft, then edit edit edit edit, edit some more, then rewrite huge chunks and delete others, then edit again, then submit to an editor for more edits, then to an agent only for it to get sent back with more changes, blah blah. You’re not the only author to come in here. Heard it all before. I’ll print you your day pass. Come to the desk when you can force yourself out of that chair. We close at four on a Saturday.”
Ten minutes later, he sat at the computer and glanced down at the sheet of paper he’d been handed. Username and password, and beneath that. “For your safety and security, please remember to log out when you’ve finished. All user files are deleted at logout and refreshed on login by the next customer. If you wish to save anything, save it to the cloud before logging off or all work will be lost.”
“Hmm, thanks for the warning, I think. What the hell is the cloud?”
A man at a computer a little further down looked up with a smile. “It just means save it to an online storage. They call it the cloud because you can access it anywhere, I think, like you can see a cloud in the sky while moving about. Think that’s why, anyway.”
“Thanks. What’s the point? Why not just say save it to online storage?”
He shrugged. “Don’t ask me, mate. I just use it. All this online stuff’s been called the cloud for years.”
Derek nodded. “I… What would… Err…” He looked at the desktop. It had a few icons with things written beneath them, but… “Damn… How do you start Netscape?”
“Good God! If it’s been that long since you used a computer, no wonder you’ve never heard of the cloud. Netscape vanished from the world twenty years ago. They branched off with Firefox. They don’t have that here, though. I recommend Chrome rather then Edge.”
“Aha! Chrome! Someone mentioned that, thanks. Err… Where?”
“Bottom left, used to be called the start menu. These days, it’s just the Windows logo. All the programs should be accessible from that.”
“Thank you.” He clicked, selected and entered gmail,com.
Thankfully, one thing he did remember, username and password. Before he knew it, he was greeted by a long list of unread emails. Most seemed to just be adverts, but, it looked a hell of a lot like the one on Pagerank. Finally, one that had been read caught his eye. He clicked it.
“Congratulations. You’re one step closer to a new life. Click the link below to register for your prize.”
This one, he didn’t click. Instead, he examined gmail again more closely, clicking several things until he found what he wanted. Open the raw email, show all the header information. He got out a notepad he’d taken from his office room and jotteddown everything in it he could make any sense of… There wasn’t much, just long lists of unfathomable numbers. One thing that did leap out was one of the URLs. Quantronix PLC.
“It’s a start I suppose. Now let’s see how many before me… I wonder…”
The actual website associated with this lottery was useless. Buzzwords and techobabble aplenty that didn’t say anything of use. It certainly, on any page he could find, didn’t mention the exchange, just a transfer. It didn’t even list the names of other winners. Only that so far, there had been six successful transfers and the next would occur, for the next winner, in the middle of July.
“About as useful as a chocolate fireguard.” He sighed. “Right then”
He glanced at the man who’d helped. “That bloody real life lottery website.”
“You’ve not fallen for that bullshit, have you? You know they go in but never come out, right? There’ve been a few news reporters hovering around the entrance when a winner goes in.”
He stiffened. “Entrance? Where? Do you know?”
He glanced around shiftily. “Somewhere in Merseyside, that’s all I know. I don’t think they’re sending them anywhere. I think they’re just killing them, personally. Population control.”
“Six people? One person a month? Population control? No, it works. I know that for a fact.”
“What? You’re expecting me to believe that someone’s found a way to send someone to a… a what? A parallel universe? Seriously? If they’re not killing them for population control, maybe it’s just to keep the lie alive so they can keep running the lottery. Ten quid a ticket. Millions buy them. One winner a month… They’re rolling in it.”
“Trust me, it works.”
“How do you know?”
“You might want to spread this around any conspiracy theory sites you know… Cos this one’s a biggy. I know because it happened to me. In reverse.”
“What do you mean, reverse?”
“One day ago, well… 9am yesterday… I wasn’t in Manchester. I was in Pirbright. Then, poof, white room with two absolute cunts behind a window looking at me.”
“I’m not sure what you’re saying.”
“They send them alright. But the life they find themselves in… It already had an occupant. They don’t gain any memories, they don’t become that person. It’s an exchange. A swap. I was a bloody sergeant. A PTI! Now I’m a blob of blubber! I had a good life and I’ve had it stolen out from under me. I suppose I should count myself lucky they left a bag with his things in it and a file on how his life transpired. This version of me…” He swept his hand over himself. “became a different person when he quit the army cadets when he was fourteen. I didn’t quit.”
“Oh, God, that’s a good one. Way better than the population control. Why aren’t they seen coming out. Why weren’t you?”
“In one way, out another would be my guess. I had to find my way out of a bloody maze of pitch dark tunnels before I emerged into daylight. No idea where they’ve hidden themselves.”
“Hmmm… Might not be too helpful, looking for those news stories, then. The reporters only noted the cars going down into an underground car park. God knows where that leads, but none of them’ve gone beyond that, yet.”
“I suppose any clues right now would be helpful.”
“Of course. You don’t expect me to accept what they’ve done to me, do you? Besides, the longer I’m here, the longer that other me has to ruin the life I have, there. 30 years of army experience? With this blob in control of my body. I dread to think…”
“Wby conspiracy theory websites, though?”
“That’s simple. No-one takes them seriously.”
“But don’t you want what’s… I’d be screaming from the bloody rooftop’s, mate! National news! Major public outcry!”
“And if I did that, they’d go to ground, wouldn’t they? Hide themselves away even more. Probably even move operations, possibly even to a different country. I’d never find them, then.”
“So, what are you looking for?”
“I need a few things. Maps of the area I came out. Maybe try to find the others this happened to. Bet none of them are pleased with their situation.”
“Maybe make a callout on Twitter or Facebook? You on them?”
“Until today, I’d never even seen a Windows… what version is this?”
“That, then. Last time I saw a machine running Windows was in around ’97. Something better came along that wiped the floor with Microsoft back home, they went bust in 2001.”
He nodded. “Seems I got dumped in a much worse timeline. Tories for 40 years from what I can gather, so far. Country on its knees? Everything’s fine back home. Better than fine, we’ve never had it so good. How do I find out if I’m on this Facebook thing, or Twitter?”
“I suppose there’s a couple of ways, if you’re using google to store your passwords.”
“Easiest, go to the website, click login and if the username/password’s already filled in, Google stored it for you.”
“And the other?”
“Takes a bit of digging, but I know it’s in there somewhere. Your account on Google should have an option to view your password manager. That should show every site you ever registered with.”
“Thank you, so much. I would’ve been fumbling around with this thing for hours before I got anywhere. Derek, by the way. Derek Brown.”
“That name rings a bell. Bet that gets annoying… Or will do?”
“Getting constantly asked when the next one’s coming out.”
“Yes… Well… I’m going to leave a sternly worded letter on his coffee table before I leave, if I ever do manage to reverse this. Might kick him up the arse enough to finish it, assuming he even bothered to start.”
“You mean you… You’re that Derek Brown?”
“No, I just look like him.”
He chuckled. “Point taken. Here’s an idea if you do end up stuck here. You finish it!”
“But I’ve never written anything but military reports in my life before! I wouldn’t know where to start. I’ve not even read the first two, yet.”
“Something to think about. Oh, sorry. Adrian. Adrian Manson. Maybe I can help spread the word, once you’ve decided what word you want spread to get in contact with these other ones.”
“Social media tends to work on how many followers you’ve got. How many people follow what you say. I’ve got some, you’ll likely have loads, but there might not be much crossover. More people means a wider net. Even more if you ask them to share or retweet.”
Derek nodded. “Thanks, again.” and proceeded to login to Facebook. The layout looked fairly straightforward, he scrolled a little to see what people were saying, shrugged when little of it meant anything and tapped his pen on his teeth in thought.
“I don’t want to be too blatant about it. How about… Please share this message… An empty white room, an observation window at one end with men in lab coats at the controls. How did you get here? What happens next? If you know the answer, err… Reply?”
“Direct Message would be better. It’s private, then. Only you see it rather than your entire audience. DM for short. What’s your username on Facebook? I’ll post the same but ask them to DM you. You might need to poke around in the settings to make sure you can receive from everyone. Otherwise, they might not be able to unless they’re a friend.”
“Hmm.” He searched the screen… “Does DBrown423 sound right?”
“Sending you a message, now. You should see the number change on one of those icons at the top. Click the one that looks like speech bubbles, that’s the messenger. Do you have it on your phone?”
“My phone’s so old I’m lucky to have a phone on my phone.”
“Worth a thought.”
He clicked, a side bar sprang up, and at the top. “Can you see this?” from someone calling themselves AdeHeadManson.
“Is… That’s a weird name. It’s not real is it?”
“Course not. Manson is, but adding the head if you say it quick, it does sound a bit like…”
“Ade Edmondson? But he died years ago! Thank God Rick Mayall’s still going strong.”
“You got it the wrong way ’round, mate. It’s Mayall who snuffed it.”
“Few years ago.”
“So, things are better back home, but not perfect. I’ll have a dig around in the news archives later to see what other differences there are… King Arthur, here?”
“Arthur? What, Lancelot, Guinevere? Seriously?”
“So, who is, then?”
“Who’s this Arthur bloke?”
“Son of Charles and Diana?”
“Used to be William, went for Arthur when he got”
“What about Charles? He’d been waiting ages? That’s who we’ve got!”
“But he died before his mother! She died three years ago.”
“She died last year, mate. And Charles is still alive, so he got a third after his name. Harry’s gone completely off the rails, though… Why Arthur?”
“Well, he is called William Arthur Philip Windsor. Maybe he though William had too many negative connotations, William the Conqueror being the first. And he didn’t want to name himself after his granddad. Besides, there is something romantic about Arthur.”
Adrian shrugged. “Negative connotations certainly didn’t seem to bother his dad. Charles the first being the complete moron that he was, so much so he lost his head.”
Derek shrugged and typed out the message. “I just hope this works.”
“What if they contact you about this?”
He chuckled. “Maybe I can fool them into helping. Send them my way the moment they’re grabbed, or at least, the moment they get to the exit and pick up their file and possessions. I’ll tell them I’m setting up a support group. I imagine it’s a traumatic experience for most of them. Being wrenched from everything they know and just dumped here.”
“And it wasn’t for you?”
“It was a shock, admittedly, but by the time I was out of those tunnels… I’m a career soldier. I’ve been trained to handle unexpected situations. To fight against the odds and my GOD am I going to fight. This is nothing close to as bad as hostage training.” He shuddered. “That… That was hell.”
“I thought only special forces did that.”
“Look, when you’re in enemy territory, alone, with a detachment and only one man for backup, there’s a risk of capture. I’m in the signals. Setting up secure communication networks is what we do and we do it alone. A truck with all the equipment in it and two men, one stays with the vehicle, one goes out to set up the dishes.”
“So, you’ve seen action?”
“Thirty years in the army, what do you think?”
“Good God, no. I was still in the cadets when desert storm happened!”
“I was thinking about the second one.”
“Second?” He sighed. “Another black mark against this timeline. Here, we had a bloody good man go and do something fucking amazing in the middle east. He spoke to the mujaheddeen and managed to broker a peace with Israel.”
“Who? Must be a bloody miracle worker.”
“Corbyn’s a national treasure. They even withdrew from Palestinian territory. Allowed them to self govern, which was all they’d wanted for decades, anyway. That deal kicked the whole middle east up the arse. If those two could agree to meet at the negotiation table… Well… Iraq’s not been a problem for ages.”
“Still there. Seems to have mellowed with age. Anyway, after Smith snuffed it, Corbyn took the reins. He’s been prime minister ever since. Ten years and counting.”
“Smith? What… John Smith?”
“But… But he died before”
Derek sighed. “Lemme guess. Before he got the chance to stand. And… What was it… Tony Blair?”
“He caused… Well… He didn’t exactly cause it, but he participated in the second gulf war. They toppled Sadam, but left Iraq in chaos.”
“Still bombing the fuck out of the Palestinians, yes. And vice versa.”
“I’m beginning to think I’ve died and gone to hell! Everything’s wrong here! Enough chitchat, I’ve got work to do. Thanks for filling me in on a few details. And thanks for the help.”
“Need any more, just ask, while I’m here. It’s been an… interesting conversation. Almost tempted to get one of those lottery tickets myself, now, if I could end up there.”
“I suppose that depends on what your regrets are from what I understand about it, so far. Could end up anywhere. Maybe even a world worse than this one, not that I can imagine one, right now.”
Screen in my Face
When I wake, I’m cold. I’m sat on a metal moving chair that glides along, unsuspended from the ground, carrying me somewhere. I cannot see the floor. The chair is leaned so that my face is buried in a screen in front of me. This is what I watched as a kid in “Wall-E”. Where am I any way?
Suddenly, my chair stops. I am annoyed, I had gone back to being relaxed and so very abruptly it was ruined. I curse and I try to look down at my belt, but my stomach hurts. My neck hurts. I can’t. My head aught to go back looking into the screen. The colors and images move so fast I cannot process the vulgarities they’re shoving in my brain. But it is entertainment. So, I watch. When will I get out of this chair?
A Brave Neutered World
Woman #1 (dictating into recorder): Specimen is coming to. Specimen’s UGLY but vital signs look good.
Shallowgenepool (sitting up): Where am I?
Woman #2 (Smiling): Welcome to the year 2333!
Woman #1 (dictating): Our initial hypothesis is incorrect. Males CAN communicate in more than grunts and gestures. However, drooling IS present.
Shallowgenepool (dazed): Year 2333? What the fuck!
Woman #1 (annoyed): Hypothesis is incorrect, but specimen’s language is crude.
Woman #2 (speaking slowly): Man-sleep-awake-now. Understand?
Shallowgenepool (annoyed): I understand. Who are you and why am I here?
Woman #1 (dictating): Specimen shows curiosity. Intelligence MIGHT exceed estimates.
Woman #2: You can use words! My name is Dr. Dixon and my colleague is Dr. Knowles and you’re a miracle! The last man alive!
Shallowgenepool (Shocked): LAST MAN ALIVE!
Woman #2 (Smiling): YES! The inferior, male, or NASCAR gene underwent natural deselection centuries ago, but with you we can determine who’s smarter, the human male or inbred chimpanzee!
Woman #1 (muttering): My money’s on the chimp.
Shallowgenepool (now afraid): What?
Woman #1 (smiling): Neutering procedure was successful.
Woman #2: Of course! We can’t have another male going around how would a male put it? Fucking things up again?
Notes written in temporal braille—2333
A new Life form, root is the “human experience”
Calm effervescence kneels amongst energy shared
Colorful forces with no needs, and communal consciousness
What was is forgotten and born again are those suspended by time
Awareness hovers without pain or judgment: existing
Serene oneness and belonging without attachment is bright and fresh
Humanity in drag, painted petals and coriander flesh rising and falling with every breath
Consumption, ownership, authority are obsolete—
They never existed in the minds’ eye hung above for all to experience
There was a marriage between day and night, and begotten is the sun and moon
Peace, at last. They feel.
But without contrast, is it?