The cityscape was slurried with an onslaught of black rain. David pulled his wool coat tight around himself as his shiny dress shoes slapped against the pavement. The Netscape Gaming headquarters was as dark as the night air that hung in a shroud around David’s ears. Pursing his lips, he hurried towards the blackness behind the doors.
The lobby was quiet and dark. Dust and the peculiar scent of neglect sighed their boredom like lethargic receptionists. Seven days. David had been gone seven days. He’d thought it’d be okay, after all nothing too terrible could happen in just seven days. Surely seven days on his honeymoon wasn’t such an obscene request. Apparently, David had been wrong. The elevator button glowed blood red in the gloom.
He’d spent all day trying to calm the investors. “Well, yes, Lenore did shut down the building… Yes, all the programmers and researchers… Yes marketing too… Well, I only just got back from my honeymoon, I don’t know why you didn’t just talk to her… Look, I know communication isn’t her strong point but… Yes sir, I’ll deal with it.”
Lenore had been his best friend growing up. Her mother and his mother had been best friends since before time itself, and David and Lenore had been pushed together since birth. She was like a sister, and he loved her, but Lenore was…
She was a whiz with electronics even as a kid, always obsessed with computers and robots and technology. She loved to take things apart, to get inside them in order to figure out how they worked.
But she couldn’t deal with people. She wouldn’t talk to them unless she had to. She hated parties and social events. She even refused to shake hands with people. Officially she was ‘on the spectrum’, but lately David had started to wonder if there wasn’t something more. Something darker... Often it seemed that Lenore could behave properly but she just thought it beneath her.
When they were kids they’d always said that they’d build a Video Game empire and get rich together: Lenore would look after the technology and David would handle the business side. Netscape Gaming had been a success from the beginning.
The elevator dinged happily as it reached the top floor, apparently immune to the drowsy decay in the once thriving building. It was the smell that hit David first, like a blow to the guts. The reek of old Chinese food, spilt energy drink and mouldy half-eaten pizza slashed the air with its stink. The manic grin of ‘Murder-face’ from ‘Chainsaw Slaughter IV’, a previous bestseller, slammed into his back as he stomped towards Lenore’s main office.
The room was alight with the heavy blue glow of Lenore’s computers. As David’s eyes grew accustomed to the dim, he saw that Lenore was hunched over the desk, hypnotised by the computer monitors light. The room was littered with fast food containers, papers and junk. Lenore still wore the outfit she’d been in from his wedding- a flowing black dress. Her makeup was smudged, her eyes dark staring holes and her mouth smeared with a slash of red.
“Jesus! Have you been up here all week?”
Lenore’s head jerked up, hair wild and eyes feral. “Oh! David! How was the honeymoon? Elizabeth’s doing well? Great! Sit down! I have something to show you-“
“You shut down the building.”
Lenore’s face sagged for a moment, and then stretched grotesquely. “Oh yes… So many people…. I couldn’t concentrate. They had to go.”
David blinked. “Are you kidding? I’ve had investors on my tail all day! The media’s gone into a frenzy! What were you thinking? Do you not care about the business at all?” David shook his head.
Lenore’s projects always seemed to consume her. She’d go down the rabbit hole, drink the Hatters tea and go a little bit crazy. But David had never seen her this bad.
“That doesn’t matter…” Lenore flipped a hand dismissively, “I have something to show you!” She ducked away into the dark outside the halo of harsh light. Then, she came back with an armful of wires and chords, all knitted into a bizarre looking beanie. Lenore blinked like an owl. “Well, you were gone, and I was thinking about all those bad things on TV, like racism and sexism and… other stuff, and how really all we need is more empathy- to walk in other people’s shoes, yeah? So I think to myself… What if there was a computer program that would let you do that? Wouldn’t that be cool?”
David frowned, unsure what Lenore was getting at.
“But the problem was it needed to be real to work! Like, computer games don’t make you violent so why should they make you nice? It’d have to be real. It’d have to be real!”
“Uh, okay Lenore…”
“But then I read the research from the people downstairs and about how they were looking into neurological interaction. Stimulating the neurons in the brain so they perceive the virtual world as if it was real.”
“So…What, you spent seven days creating a… virtual earth?” David raised his eyebrows.
“Well think about it. An earth where people can learn how to act nicely, and appreciate how their actions make other people feel. Let me explain…” Lenore cleared her throat.
“On the first day I did the initial research and began programming. The basic rules for the universe, the physics generator, how matter worked, the formation of the stars and planets and Earth, that type of thing.
“And then on the second day, I worked more on earth, figuring out the temperature, the right chemical compositions for the atmosphere and all that.
“And so on the third day, I added the seas, mountains- the topography of the earth. Oh, and because I had a little extra time, I began the research on creating life, plants and such…”
David’s frown deepened. He didn’t like this. Lenore was acting kind of… crazy.
“So on the fourth day I realised I hadn’t paid enough attention to the stars. It was how all the old civilisations told the time you know, stars are very important! They say fate is written in the stars, you know…” Lenore said sadly.
Then she returned to her previous flippant facade. “And so by now I had a near perfect virtual replica of our universe. But I had no things in it. So I think to myself, where did life begin? In the ocean! Life begins in the sea!
“So on the sixth day I was well on my way to finishing. You see, I don’t need to render everything, I just need to program how the things evolve, a synthetic version of natural selection. I needed to program the ways in which things came about, not create them the way they are. And it worked! Except for people. People weren’t right. I had to help a bit with people… But then it was done!” Lenore’s eyes shone with feverish fervour.
“Oh,” She giggled girlishly, “And on the seventh day I tested.”
David’s mouth was dry. He didn’t know what to say. What could he say? He shifted uneasily in his seat.
“Oh David! You have to try it! I only tested it on myself because I sent all the people away. They wouldn’t understand it anyway. It’s meant for you.”
“I don’t think this is a good-“ Before David could protest, the net of cables was clinging to his head.
“You might feel a small pinch, don’t worry that’s perfectly normal.” Lenore flitted around to the back of the computers.
Pain jabbed at David’s skull and spider webs of grey began to criss-cross his vision.
The sweet swish of sorghum stalks swaying and sweeping like a rippling school of red and green fish. From inside the farmhouse, mama hums the hearty hymns of home. She was baking again, an aura of apple and rhubarb pie haunting the lazy Summer air.
They tunnelled like terriers in and out of the huge leaves, the world tinted green under the plants protection. Cathy Davidson, carrot hair and opal eyes, laughing like a lunatic, unseen, lost in a field of childhood play.
Orange locks spilling over the back of the school bus seat. Giggling about the Principal, joking about the Maths teacher and complaining about younger siblings, all with a smile smeared across his face.
His mama’s recipe. Flour and sugar and the hot steady heat of the oven. Then the slip of blue satin ribbon as he won first place, pride prickling his eyes.
Cathy, eating his pastries, not as a childhood friend but as a high-school sweetheart. Coppery curls, slender swaying hips and wide eyes, expansive as the great blue sky that stretched above them as they married.
His bakery. Built with his own hands, he toiled and broiled, making pies and cakes and tarts. The sweet scent of success. Four little children with pumpkin hair and their mothers sky-blue eyes, growing like the sorghum in the fields.
Retirement. The ache of age. Brittle bones bellowing inside his body. The soft grey curls and warm tender hands of his wife.
Then the funeral. The groaning of grief. Only him, his farm and the great blue sky above him.
The soft embrace of his bed. The heavy weight of sleep on his chest. Wondering if he’d ever wake up…
With a small scream, David lurched forwards. The room spun in a sickening swirl of uncertainty. His mind was terrifyingly blank. He couldn’t remember anything. Who was he? Where was he? What was he doing there?
A gaunt face, big black bug eyes and crazy brown hair. “Don’t worry David. A bit of confusion upon waking is normal.”
“Wha-what? Who’s David?”
“You are! But please, tell me, how was it? Who were you? The computer randomly assigns people their family and culture and things…”
David’s brow scrunched. He was David. He remembered now. He was David, and the woman was Lenore and the machine…
“And then the algorithm assigns you another role, one which complements your own experiences… Like this!”
The world swirled again.
He lived where the sun met the sea. The pier peered out into the sapphire sea where tiny bait fish zipped, and jellyfish bobbed. The planks rough beneath his small feet, and the smell of salt and fish guts dancing a tango in his nose.
Then one day, dad goes away. People on the TV always seem to be angry. Mum seems worried. And for some reason she never buys enough food anymore. His town is full of men who speak from their noses. They came in humungous grey ships that skulk about the harbour. Planes rip the sky, leaving white wisps of smoke in their wake.
Sinister yellow men claw at him in his dreams. Buck teeth, beady eyes and evil intent. He learns about the Japs in school. Apparently, they eat children.
Mum is crying. Her tears tear his heart up. Mum says dad’s not coming back. He wonders why.
After so much death, he devotes himself to life. Hours milling in medical school and then off into the world. He sees fevers and blood and vomit. But he also sees life and wonder and miracles.
And then another war. His number comes up and he ships out. Hot heavy air and the viridescent vegetation of Vietnam. A medic, now he sees gaping wounds, splattered scarlet guts and death. His life is full of anguished cries and silent sobbing.
And then one night, from the darkness, they come. Creeping in like the fog used to over his home waters, the Viet-Cong slithered into the camp. Someone sees. Cries sing into the air, a chorus of outrage and anger. Bullets fly and men die. He plunges into the jungle to help the wounded.
Scrambling through the scrub. A flash. Twisted torture. His life seeps out the bullet hole.
He dies in agony…
David woke with a scream. The world sloshed around him as he clawed at the wire cap.
The woman, Lenore, smiled happily. “It feels so real doesn’t it? It’s a perfect replication of our world!”
“Get it off! Destroy it.” David was almost in tears now.
“What?” Lenore blinked and chuckled.
“It’s evil. Destroy it! Now!” David’s voice broke.
Lenore’s face darkened. Her eyes seem to sink into her face and eerie shadows danced across her pale complexion. “No, David. I don’t think I will. I don’t think you truly understand just yet.”
The office faded into foggy darkness.
The musky scent of twilight oozing through her bedroom window, soaking into the carpet beneath her. Laughing with her best friend, his black tumbling curls, thin pink lips and soft mossy eyes hypnotising her as he lounged on her floral bedspread.
She and her best friend, on the hill above the school, talking about their future. They’d go into business. Get rich. Live happily ever after. The clouds masked the sky with their gentle rubbing of white.
The school dance. The hall thumped and people jumped to the whump of the pop beats. She’d planned her outfit to the smallest detail- her hair braided elegantly, heels, makeup and a pretty dress. She was so sure that this would be the night. The night he’d ask, and the night she’d say yes. Bubbles blasted her belly as she waited in anticipation. But he didn’t ask. They spent the night just as friends.
Her angel of light, her curly haired prince in the arms of another girl. Some slutty whore. Elizabeth. The devil in disguise. She ran home, rivers running down her cheeks. She’d thrown herself into her work- it was all she was good at anyway. Computers made so much more sense than people. They were easier to control too.
They grew up, together but distant. She worked with her tainted angel, so sure he would see the error of his ways and repent. They built their childhood dreams from the ground up. They got rich, but she felt homeless.
His wedding. Married to his High School sweetheart. The bride wore white. She wore black. The sky wept scarlet. She threw herself into her work once more.
Her lost love, flaunting his happiness in her face. Tearing at her heart. When there was nothing but tatters left, she made her decision. There was nothing else to do. She bought the gun.
And then, she wore black for the rest of her life.
Lenore died alone, in agony.
David woke, screaming. He ripped off the cap with shaking hands. “Lenore-“
For a moment David stood still swaying like the sorghum, unsure of what had just happened. Lenore stepped forwards, a small black gun like they had back in Vietnam, clutched tightly in her hand. Pain rippled through his body and he felt himself falling, crumpling on the floor. He looked into Lenore’s teary eyes, clutching the blossoming poppy that’d begun to grow from his chest as his body shuddered on the grey carpet.
He died in agony…
And then he woke with a scream.