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The door opened with a pleasant ding, which brought him back from his wandering thoughts. The bakery smelled strongly of recently baked bread, fruit, and chocolate. John took a deep breath and felt his sense of smell being heightened for the Viewers. He scanned the familiar bakery. Beautiful artisan shelves filled with loaves of bread lined the walls, and in the center of the room was a table with an enormous tower of pastries. Underneath the glass counter were pies so beautiful, you could taste the fruit just by looking at them. The walls had a lovely floral wallpaper, lit by the large windows and the warm lights hanging from the ceiling.
Another Character was perusing the pastries along one wall. They nodded at John and smiled, then went back to their pastry searching.
They’re a food critic. Their Truth is eating a variety of the best food. He thought, I wonder if that gets boring.
John walked up to the counter. The baker standing behind it was dressed in a colorful apron, and a large set of gleaming white teeth adorned her pretty face. She, like everyone here, was delightful to look at.
“What can I get for you, John?”
John smiled back reflexively and took a deep breath. “Oh, there is so much to choose from.”
“Yes, there is.” The women nodded.
How many people liked to live her Truth? It seems so... simple. But I can imagine some would want that. His eyes couldn’t help but dart to the piece of metal on the side of her head. There sat the small blinking light that broadcasted her Truth to the Viewers. He wasn’t technically supposed to stare at it, doing so broke immersion.
"So...?" The backer asked, laughter on the edge of her voice.
John laughed, breaking his eyes from the blinking light on the side of her head. I wonder if she knew I was looking at it. "Sorry, I just got a bit overwhelmed. Maybe just a baguette. I'm making sandwiches for later today."
"Excellent choice. Are you off adventuring again?"
"That's what I do. But I couldn't do it without your excellent food to sustain me." That line had been sloppy. His eyes darted back to the blinking light.
I have one of those too. There to broadcast every experience... except the negative ones.
John thanked the women for the bread, and took the paper bag, and held it with one arm as he exited. Its warmth felt nice on the slightly chilly spring morning. I wonder if the Viewers can feel this cold. Or did the pain filters decide it was not Truth?
The road was as clean and picturesque as ever. The buildings were colorfully painted stone, each one a little different shape and size. They had large windows with colorful shutters open wide, flowers sat in the window sills, and well-kept hedges or public parks separated many buildings. John greeted other Characters as he went along. All having their own blinking spot of metal just next to their temple.
They all have their feelings. They feel the cobblestone beneath their feet as well, hear the birds chirping, but slightly different than me. Do some of them feel it more, or different? The Viewers know they get to see from their eyes, feel from their skin, smell from their noses.
John stopped. It was not his place to wonder, not his place to envy the Viewer, he was John, and John had his job, and the others theirs. The Writer had picked them, the Writers new best.
John smiled. It really was a beautiful day. All days were. John stopped on a wooden bridge over a sparkling clean river and looked out. The fruit trees that lined the boulevard were flowering. Birds swooped among the trees. People were walking, talking, riding bikes, coming in and out of shops with sweets, or breakfast, or a new hat. The distant clocktower chimed musically. The sun warmed the skin and-
All of it stopped.
Even the birds stopped singing as John saw it come around the corner. A disruption to the Truth.
It was crawling, a mass of hair, limbs, body, and pain. Its skin was so deathly pale it looked like you could see its bones, laced by veins and arteries. It had such little muscle or fat it looked like someone had stretched skin over a skeleton. It was crawling along the ground... crawling is too kind a word for it. It was prowling, creeping dragging itself forward, digging its dirty and bloodied nails into the road to pull itself across the street. Worst of all, the thing was letting out a terrible sound, like moaning or screaming, but more raw and broken than any screaming he had ever heard.
An escaped viewer, He thought in horror. He could taste bile at the back of his throat. Most fell back in horror, a couple of Characters screamed. Many froze, staring at it.
You should not look at it
That disturbs the Truth.
John could not help it, though. Many seemed terrified that it might jump up and attack, sink its teeth into someone's side. That would be a mercy, He thought. At least it would give us something to watch.
No, he realized, it was too weak even to stand. It was something to be pitied, not feared.
This went against his base instincts as he looked at the pale creature. But John was good against going against his base instinct. In a different time, John could have been a soldier, he was a man of great bravery.
So he stared for a moment longer. This was the first time he had seen a viewer. He had heard that sometimes with a forced disconnect from their Character, they become Untethered. As he staired, he discovered the thing- was male- a man if you could call it that. All others seemed to listen to the writers and scattered as if nothing had occurred. But he stayed. It-he must not be used to all this pain. All this cold. The experience must be ripping it apart.
The Viewer's body structure looked like John's fellow characters. But it had no light on the side of its head—just matted hair.
It looked up from the cobblestone, its inconsistent screaming stopping as its eyes locked with Johns. The blue-green eyes shimmered with tears.
John stumbled back and turned away from it. He couldn’t look at it any longer.
The Editors would deal with it. John needed to leave.
As he joined the main thoroughfare, it looked as if nothing had happened. All was back to normal.
In his head, a pleasant voice sounded.
"We apologize for that inconvenience. Disruptions of the Truth not to be considered. Remember, this is good. With the Now, there is no pain, no hardship, no cruelty or unfairness."
He knew that only viewers were supposed to hear these announcements, but he thought there had been some type of fluke—nothing to worry about.
"With the Now, all is fair. All are one. No one need have the pain of decision, difference, or independence. In the now, there is no greed, no evil, no war, no individual. You can choose from among our many Characters what you wish to experience. Never will you see disease, poverty, or pollution. Life thrives. You Truth is valid. Your Truth is all. Once again, we apologize for the inconvenience."
As John walked, he thought about this. It was his job to feel things, so others didn't have to. So the Viewers could live his adventurous life without pain, decision, or difference among them.
But he could not shake what he had seen in those eyes. A look he had seen before, but he could not remember where. They had been… full. Full of life, pride, humanity. A viewer who was once free of pain and hardship, given pain and freedom, felt alive
John arrived at the mountainside in the late morning. Today John would be rock climbing with hiking with some other Characters. It should be fun. John made sure his backpack was all tied on right. He looked around at the other Characters.
They all seemed happy. They were talking, laughing, smiling, and taking deep breaths of the forest air.
But their eyes.
None of them looked as alive as that creature.
All of their eyes, though so full of viewers, were empty
Are we helping create things like that?
Was it our fault?
No, all is better this way: no pain, no hardship, all is fair.
The forest was bright green, pierced with yellow sunlight, and colorful wildflowers beginning to bloom. Distantly, the green of the mountains gave way to white and grey.
They set off, Climbing and hiking the cliff face, using the pre-carved food holes, the well-trodden paths with their rails.
John was slower than the others, weighed down by a head full of thoughts.
Another character joivally called back for him to catch up. John looked up from his careful steps and smiled opened his mouth to reply. But before he could, his feet slipped out from under him. John toppled forward and caught himself on a rock. John righted himself and then looked at his hand.
He couldn’t feel it, but a cut was dripping warm red blood down John’s hand.
I thought only the viewers experience the pain filters, and it must be another glitch, He thought, as John took out his first aid kit. John sat down and listened as the other characters voices faded away as they left him behind. They weren’t supposed to acknowledge pain. He used a healing pack to close the wound instantly.
Soon, they arrived at the river. It was slipping over a cliff face and formed a sparkling waterfall down into a crystal pool. They were up high enough he could see the entire vally. He could see The Village, the beautiful farmland and gardens to the west of it, and the forest and fields of perfect grass to the east.
And ever-present on the eastern horizon was the mathematically cubic, almost impossibly tall set of buildings.
That's where the Viewer had escaped from
John turned and squinted at the other horizon beyond the western farms and gardens was The Wild Forest. Creeping ivy, and mysterious smoky fog, covered the harsh forest and rocky outcroppings of mountains.
They were Untethered.
Unmanaged by the Writers.
No one knew why.
No one was supposed to speak of it. But there were whispers of barbarian tribes, biting bugs, diseased and horrid animals.
That would be an adventure.
John sat down and talked to the fellow adventures as they ate. His sandwich was a perfect blend of flavors.
All was perfect.
All was expected.
John turned around.
A woman was standing atop a large boulder, looking up at the puffy clouds that wandered across the blue sky.
She was fit, olive-skinned, and she stood powerfully.
She looked like a character.
The way she stood,
Just for her,
She had no metal on the side of her head. She was broadcasting no Truth.
Neither viewer nor Character.
John had heard about these in history. But history was not to be studied. It conflicted with the truth. There was Only the Now.
"C'mon, John! There's a path up to a spot to jump into the river."
He looked away from her. Only the Now.
John followed the other characters up through a beautiful path to a boulder that stuck out over the sparkling pool.
John watched as each of his friends jumped off the rock and landed in the water below. He wasn't in the mood to jump for today. It seemed boring. Of course, they would land in the water. There was no danger. The water would be neither cold nor warm, merely comfortable. The experience, though new, was not distinct.
He let all the others jump until he was alone at the top, watching them swim around the waterfall.
“Hey.” He whirled. He was the only one at the top, but no, there was the Untethered woman.
“You were staring at me." She commented simply.
John glanced at her and then away, “Yeah, sorry.”
It was probably fine to talk to her. She was not upsetting the Truth.
“You’re not supposed to look at me… I’m a disruption.”
As if she had challenged him, he turned directly to her. There was a long scar across her cheek. She looked more aged than most he had seen. Lines traced her face and the edges of her eyes, yet she was beautiful.
He couldn’t help it, but his eyes fell into hers. They were like that of the Untethered Viewer.
As he stared at the shining green and blue iris and the ponds of darkness, he remembered it. The time even before the untethered Viewer in which he had seen that look of fullness. It had been his mother. When he was five, she had refused to let him go to be tethered. They had dragged him away from her. Her eyes had had that look, filled with both good and bad.
They were brimming with emotions, pain, love, joy, sadness.
Inside those eyes could be anything. He wanted to found out what. But he was also terrified. There were no restrictions. She could do anything if she accepted the consequence, think anything, say anything. She was untethered, just like the escaped Viewer.
Her eyes dilated, he felt his chest burn with the strange intensity he sometimes felt when looking out to the Wild Lands. Then she blinked, and it was gone, was no longer looking into his eyes, but past them.
She smiled, “Giving those Viewers a good look at me?”
“No, I’m just getting a good look at you.” John said. He was surprised. He hadn’t meant to say that. They weren’t supposed to acknowledge the viewers. It was not Truth. He should have jumped into the lake, not stayed where she could keep disrupting things.
She chuckled in surprise and her eyes seemed to focus back on him, not past him.
“But they are seeing it too. You never see anything alone. Doesn’t it get terrible to every experience, painless, broadcasted, written?" She asked with genuine concern, her brow wrinkled, "Your the freest among them and still not free.”
“It’s an honor,” John replied reflexively.
“Every terrible job we call an honor, its the only way we can keep the moral doing it.”
John paused. “I’m John.”
“Nice to meet you, John, I’m Linda Barclay” She stuck out her hand and shook his.
“Barclay?” He asked.
“It’s a last name. They used to have those when families mattered and when there were many... people”
The wind changed direction and the breeze brought the slightest hint of her smell to Johns's nose. She smelled like a person, no perfume or cologne covering it up. She smelled like hair and natural musk and even the slightest hint of sweat. It wasn't bad. It was human.
"No, quite, natural. Before there were viewers and characters there were people. People aren't meant to be separated into groups. We are just meant to be people."
"But if it were that way was pain, prejudice, and death as well."
A natural consequence of choice. One we were not willing to accept."
Every alarm bell was going off in his head. She was hurting the Truth. The Viewers must feel so insulted. He must get away from her at any cost. John didn't move.
She turned away from him and looked out at the wildlands, "Beautiful isn't it?"
John joined her and stared out at the mess, which was the wild forest. "yes..." John paused. "Are you from there?" Staying was one, actively causing disruption was another.
She laughed, "No, I was a viewer once. But it is where I live now." She looked over at him, "Where are you from?"
"The Village. But I feel like I'm from the world. I've traveled so much, seen so much. But I will always call The Village home." Johns programmed response
"They call your type of characters adventures, right?"
"Yes, we live for the ride. Our life is exciting. What are... you?"
"I admit, it sounds easy, beautiful, but not exciting. There are no stakes—you're doing it for nothing but yourself. There is no growth or real achievement. Every day you are served a new experince of beauty and ease, but never do you learn from it, never does it make your grow."
John swallowed, "But how can you spend your time? You have no writers, no fellow characters, no adventures. "My life is full of adventures. Catch today's dinner, prepare tomorrow's bed. And I may not have fellow characters, but there are others of us. I am not the only one."
She looked right at him, "You could join us, any of the viewers can, or any of the characters, leave the life of ease to something with more substance.
This wasn't just a disruption of the Truth. This was an attack. It must deeply be offending and hurt the viewers. "That would be selfish. There are not enough resources for that. There would be pain, war, unfairness, the balanced would be thrown off."
"It might. Suppose lack of pain is what you seek, then I propose a counterpoint. Destroy all of humanity. Then there would be no pain. Let only one live, and let that person never feel pain. "
Johns's heart was beating faster and faster. These ideas were dangerous. He should not interface with them. The Writers would want him to leave, but she was too interesting. This was too interesting. They would rather he make wild love to her, seduce her, fight her, anything but let her keep talking.
"But there is joy now. We all have joy. All joy is equal. They get to live the best lives through us. They get the fulness of experience, all five senses. They see the most beautiful things, taste the best foods, hear the best musicians."
"None of what you give is full. Everything you give is half, and half of joy is not joy. It is nothing. The opposite to fulfillment is not pain. It is comfort. You consider yourself a server of the viewers, but you are their jail warden."
He blinked, That hurts. It is wrong. But maybe being hurt is not the worst thing to be.
"Good luck though, hope you have fun with your friends. Just know," She turned, so her back was to the pool, "the Wildlands are always open if your willing to leave the comfort." She fell directly backward, flipped, and then landed in a pencil dive in the water.
John stood there for a moment. I should follow her. If I let her go, I may never see her again, He thought. But John just watched as she swam to the side and walked away. He wanted to move so bad, but for some reason, John's limbs wouldn't move until she was out of sight.
John awoke just as the sun rose the following day. John liked it that way. He could be out before the other people. After meeting Linda yesterday, everything had gone normally. Comfortably. Stagnant.
He left his cabin out the back door into the cold crisp morning. He took his morning walk through the quiet village and then to the farmlands filled with flowing fields of grass, flowers, gardens, farm homes, and-
Once again, a disruption
Linda was sitting on a low stone wall.
"Fancy seeing you here." She said in surprise.
John stopped. He felt like his entire being was shocked with a bolt of energy. "Good morning."
"I'm waiting for a friend, another character. Don't worry, I'll be gone soon enough. Sorry if I ever worried you."
John paused for a couple of moments. He felt relieved. He had thought he would never see Linda again.
"Why did you talk to me yesterday? There were a lot of us there. I bet the others glanced at you."
"You looked worried. If you're worried, you're thinking."
"Worry isn't good."
"True, worry is useless, but it's a sign you were different. You hadn't gotten over the discontent. Worry is a symptom of thought. Most people don't dare to think.
"I wish I didn't."
"You might be right. Those characters who accept their lot may be content, but that's their choice to stay, and it should be yours to leave if you like."
Another woman arrived, they greeted each other. She was a fellow character, but her light was not blinking. It looked smashed.
John paused, looking at Linda one last time before she left. She looked at him with interest. But real interest, chosen herself.
She turned and walked away.
"Wait up." His voice didn't sound like his, but he was doing it.
I can't imprison the Viewers any longer.
Linda turned and smiled at him.
John leaned down, grabbed a rock, brought it away from his head slowly. If he wanted to break his tether, he would have to do it with precision. John held it there for a moment and then slammed it against the Tether on his temple.
He awoke with a start. He was somewhere dark. His eyes were bleary. His limbs felt heavy. He blinked. Sleep misted his eyes. He looked down. He was on a metal frame bed with a thin mattress. He was lying under a thin blanket wearing some type of hospital robe. His arms looked like bones, no muscle, and so pale he could see the red and purple veins flowing through them. He looked like the untethered viewer he had seen earlier. Tubes and wires fed into one arm. He looked up, the wires fed through a bag and into machinery.
He raised his arms to rub his eyes. They felt like they were weighed down by bags of sand.
Hadn't he just been leaving?
Where am I
Where is Linda?
Where is the Forrest?
Had he been dreaming?
He found his face was not his.
My face had had a beard, a pointed nose. It had been broad. Not this thin small nosed-
He found a tube coming out of his nose. He took it and pulled it. It tickled its way up his throat and then all of the way out of his nose.
Where am I? He thought again, looking up and down the room.
It was massive, larger than any building in the village, countless beds perfectly spaced, extended in all directions.
In every bed laid a form, countless wires, and tubes and ran into the people in the beds. Not a form was moving, every shape a worn away shadow of a person.
They went all the way into the distance.
I'm not in The Village
He thought about the untethered viewer. The words ran through his mind once more. 'Forced disconnects sometimes wake viewers.'
Those flukes, those times he had experienced things meant for the viewers, had not been flukes.
He went cold.
I've never been in the village
John had a beard,
John was escaping,
Frantically he looked around again, and saw one point of light. A small window. His eyes adjusted to the painfully bright sunlight, and he saw out it was a view of the valley.
He looked down at his arm and grabbed the wires.
He looked back out the window and then back at his tether.