Voices were ringing in my head—
Fragments of conversations; photographs of peoples’ lives.
Small tidbits of information invaded my essence
then became lost in this massive melting pot of humanity.
It has gotten to the point where my own identity is foreign to me.
Do I have an identity, or am I just a receptacle—a shell
within which people throw bits of themselves
that they no longer care to keep?

Chapter I

The yacht floated lazily below me while a warm, gentle wind played with my hair. Seagulls chattered noisily above me using the clear, blue sky as their playground. My eyes lowered to scan the scene in front of me. There I spotted a lone gull floating motionless—alone and away from the others soaring above. He was hanging as if suspended in time, resting on a column of air blowing in from the water being forced upward by the tall, rocky cliff below me. As I watched I could almost envision myself floating there with him—lying on that bed of nothing free from the force of gravity. It was probably a great feeling to be able to relax on the wind. I briefly entertained the notion of opening my jacket to catch the air and try to fly, but reality came quickly as I walked forward and looked down the edge of the cliff to the ground about three hundred feet below me.

The small path I had followed for a quarter of a mile from the garage where I parked my truck disintegrated into a bed of rock and an occasional weed as I had approached the cliff. The directions given to me by the president of Arbornet were extremely helpful for navigating the numerous back roads leading to where the M-Net yacht was docked, but lacked any directions for reaching the dock. I inched my way a little closer to the edge of the cliff trying to distinguish were the wooden walkway leading out to the yacht connected to the shore. Finally, I glimpsed fragments of what looked like stairs to the right of me. I followed the edge of the cliff in that direction and toward a couple of poles in the distance, which I guessed was the top of a staircase.

The closer I got to the stairs the worse they looked. Before long, I was standing at the top of a long flight of rotten-looking wooden planks with the heads of nails sticking out of them. Inspecting the death trap in front of me caused a little voice inside my head to say, “Yeah, right.” I hesitated a moment inhaling the fresh sea breeze, and then, deciding that nothing could possibly go wrong on a day as nice as this, began my decent of the long, wooden staircase.

The dock was made out of the same rickety wood as the stairs contrasting heavily with the ultra-modern exterior of the yacht. The scene of new technology coexisting—blending even—with centuries old nature, was, however, an interesting picture. As I approached the stainless-steel ramp leading to the deck of the ship, an eerie, thick silence descended heavily about me. The seagulls were quiet as a chilly wind blew from the sea into my face. Like a cloud passing over the sun, the silence lifted; the sky brightened and the seagulls began yelling once again. I took a deep breath, chasing away the chills in my spine for the moment, and boarded the yacht.

I have never witnessed such a powerful expression of artistic technology as the interior of the yacht; it was simply awesome. I stepped through a motorized, steel door into the plush belly of the ship and was bathed in a dim, hidden glow from all sides. The air was cool, but smelled like a fresh, summer breeze rather than air conditioning. The door hissed closed behind me and, all of a sudden, the roof began to disintegrate. A shaft of penetrating sunlight hit my eyes and, for a split second, I saw another world open in front of me. A dazzling white light shone all about, blinding me with its brilliance. While I could not utilize my sense of sight, I could feel the presence of numerous beings—good beings trapped against their will by some dark, oppressive force.

As soon as it came, it left. I was left staring up into the crystal-clear sky through a roof which no longer existed. As I watched, the walls dissolved into open fields, and below me, the thick carpet turned into a comforting sea of grass. I took a few tentative steps forward expecting to run headfirst into a wall. When nothing happened, I straitened, put my hands into the pockets of my light jacket, and began to walk.  I was not too sure where I was heading; I could not even figure out what was going on. It felt good to walk, though, so I proceeded forward aimlessly while enjoying the clean air and warm temperature.

In the distance I could see a figure. I paused for a moment, strained my eyes trying to distinguish the shape, and then changed my random course into a predetermined path. As the shape became larger, I could see that it was a human form, and probably a woman judging from the white dress that flapped in the playful breeze. As I grew closer, I noticed that she was busy examining something on the ground next to a small tree. I shuffled my feet a little to announce my approach, and she turned to face me. The look on her face was not one of shock as I expected, but a mysterious smile as if she had been expecting me. It was I who was in shock; from the beauty who was now looking deeply through me.  I had never been the one to come up with a quick, witty saying, so instead I uttered a meek, “Hi.”

“Hello,” she said in a smooth voice. I stood for a second, mulling over my next and equally witty comment when she continued, saving another embarrassing moment for me. “Where would you like to go?”

A flood of distasteful comments flooded my brain and I cursed M-Net for causing me to think in this manner. Instead, regaining my composure, I said, “Excuse me?”

“My name is Sarah and I am the captain of this vessel. I have been instructed to take you wherever you want to go for the next 28 days,” she replied as if she had given that speech quite a few times before.

“Well,” I said, wondering where the yacht had disappeared to, “how about we just take her out into the open sea and decide from there?”

“Very well,” she smiled and disappeared behind the tree next to her. I closed my eyes and rubbed them a few times trying to figure out what was going on. As mysteriously as they had melted, the walls, furniture, and roof had reappeared. This was all too much for me, so I headed toward the nearest chair to sit and survey my surroundings.

The living room was vast yet cozy. A thick carpet warmed my feet and a heated, black leather chair eased my back.  The stainless-steel door from where I had entered this amazing room was a solid-looking wooden door when viewed from this side. For the next ten minutes, I played with the various controls available on the desk and computer hybrid before me. Several small monitors hid beneath its smoky glass finish and various other equipment, such as keyboards and disc drives, popped out of nowhere when required.  I was so wrapped up in my explorations that I did not notice the small but distinguished figure enter the room and walk toward me.

Chapter II

The throbbing in my head was agonizing as I noticed, with some annoyance, that my left eye was no longer functioning. I grabbed a bag of pills from my pocket and hastily fumbled for a pain killer.  Blood from my hand smeared across the various drugs making their color and labels impossible to see.

Screaming, I collapsed against a nearby brick wall, frustrated, and in pain.  A stream of profanities spewed from my mouth as I grabbed a handful of the discolored pills and forced them down my dry throat. The taste of my own blood lingered, and refused to dissipate even after repeated swallowing. The nauseating taste was quickly forgotten, however, as the drugs took control.

For a moment, I sat stunned as strange sensations exploded from within my body. A hand reached down from the cloudy heavens and squeezed my head until it burst like a rotten grape. Nails were repeatedly driven into my fingers by blue haired goblins that reminded me of my mother.

“Do you want to die like your brother?” she asked, as a laser lobbed off her head. Her body sagged and fell to the ground sending her head rolling toward me. “Do you?” her disembodied head asked, coming to rest at my feet.

“Mom!”  I yelled staring into her dead eyes—eyes which had been dead long before her physical body ceased to function.

Everyone in the city had dead eyes: Ffloyd the drug dealer, Marigold the prostitute, John Doe the mugger, and Jane Doe the victim. Walking under the shadow of the skyscrapers, in a place called the district, people glanced quickly at each other with their dead eyes, and then lower their head until someone else walked by. The only people left with vibrant eyes were babies and newcomers to the district.

I remembered gazing into a pair of beautiful, blue eyes which were untouched by the harshness of reality at one time. I remembered a face which glowed with innocence and love. I tried to focus on that face as a violent war raged within my head. Walls melted and colors blurred.

Yet, her face remained.

I dropped to the cold, concrete ground, and allowed my conscience to be parted from me.

Yet her face remained.

My heart stopped in sheer exhaustion.

Yet, her face remained.

Chapter III

“Do you require anything, Mr. Stein?  Something to drink, perhaps?”

I whirled around, hastily bringing my gaze from the desk in front of me to the tuxedo clad owner of the voice behind me.

“Wha…?” I croaked.

“Sorry to startle you, Sir. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Randolph. I will be here to assist you in any way during your stay with us.”

“Glad to meet you Randolph,” I said trying to regain composure by rising and shaking the hand of the older gentleman standing slightly shorter than I. “But please, call me Karyl.”

“Of course, Karyl,” Randolph nodded surprising me with a solid grip.

“Quite a ship ya got here,” I said, glancing around the room.

“Yes, it is,” Randolph replied.  I growled to myself at Randolph’s lack of conversational skills and frowned slightly as I thought of what to say next.

“When will we be leaving?” I asked.

“We are already on open sea,” Randolph said.

“Really?” I said.

“Yes, Sir.”

“Wow,” I snorted, “I don’t even feel it.”

“Of course not, Sir,” Randolph said. I imagined I heard a faint sigh of annoyance from him.

“Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll take a tour of the ship,” I stated trying to match Randolph’s curt style.

“Of course, Sir,” Randolph replied and motioned toward the large, wooden door from where I had entered.

Even after Randolph showed me about the yacht for ten minutes, I was no closer to knowing my way around then when I had first set foot on the ship. Randolph’s enlightening descriptions such as, “this is the kitchen,” left me wanting. I decided that it was Randolph’s job to give me the shortest descriptions possible and not volunteer any information other than what was explicitly requested. He left me in the room I had started the tour from—the study, as he called it—at my request and with instructions to call him if I needed anything. Before I could ask how to call him, he had disappeared through some hidden door.

I sighed, perplexed about how people kept vanishing without me noticing where they went. I sat in the large black leather chair to enjoy a cigarette before my next explorations. As I lit the hand-rolled delicacy, however, a small metal arm emerged from the ceiling. Before I had a chance to finish my first hit it grabbed my cigarette and retracted back into its hiding place. I sat stunned for a moment before yelling, “RANDOLPH!” I heard a hiss to my right and glanced over quickly to notice Randolph emerging from a door that, when closed, blended amazingly well with the wall. I made a quick note of the location of the door before speaking.

“What was that?” I asked.

“What was what, Karyl?” Randolph replied.

“That…that thing that took my cigarette,” I said flustered.

“That would be the Robotic Ubiquitous Smoking Squelcher,” Randolph said in a monotone.

“Where would be the best place to avoiding this robotic squelcher?” I asked.

“The RUSS is ubiquitous, Karyl.”

“Well,” I growled, “can you turn RUSS off?”

“I am sure it is possible.”

“How?” I replied trying to refrain from shouting.

“You would have to ask the cook,” Randolph said after a brief pause. I smiled and chortled to myself while making a mental note not to ask Randolph anything else in order to keep my sanity.

“Thanks,” I said.  Randolph nodded and walked back through the hidden door he had emerged from.  I got up with a determined look on my face trying to remember were Randolph had told me the kitchen was.

Chapter IV

“Nerun!  Yo!  Nerun!  Get your ass up!”

“My head hurts.”

“It’s amazing that you even have a head to hurt.”

“Where am I?”

“You’re dead.”  I snapped my eyes open and instantly closed them again.

“Turn off the damn lights!” I yelled. “It sure doesn’t feel like I’m dead. And by the way, who the hell are you?”

There was a chuckle above me and I could feel something moving on the side of my head. “I’m hurt you don’t recognize me!  Your best friend!  By the way, your eye should be adjusted correctly now.”

I slowly opened my eyes from behind the protective shield of my left hand and soon realized that the precaution was unnecessary.  I looked around the small shabby room quickly, until my gaze rested on the large burly man standing next to the stainless-steel table I lay upon.  His wrinkled face grinned down at me and even though his body was unrecognizable to me, I knew who he was.

“Jomby!”  I cried, shocked at his transformation.  The man uttered a deep laugh and rested a large hairy arm on my shoulder.

“Took you long enough, you fucker.”

“Wh…What happened,” I stammered searching for a memory. Jomby frowned and shone a small light into my eyes. He sighed and scratched his chin, like he did when he was perplexed.

“Does the name Hitathi mean anything to you?” he finally asked.

Suddenly, a flow of memories burst into my mind and pounded against my skull in a hysterical fit of chaotic energy. I gasped for air, as the process of remembering consumed me. I felt a sharp pain in my head, choked then exhaled as I slipped into unconsciousness.

I dreamed about Hitathi. No one has been able to gain illicit access to the Hitathi computers since they installed Adam 1.3. He was the most advanced AI around and no one could figure him out. Lots of hackers had died trying to break into the secret recesses of the Hitathi memory banks, and not one of them made a dent in the system. Adam 1.3 was everywhere; you could not breathe without “him” knowing about it. Adam 1.3, with the aid of Hitathi’s vast sensor network, was able to block anything you tried before you even thought about it. He was impenetrable, or so they thought.

Jomby had broken into the Hitathi computers years ago before Adam 1.3 was installed and put a himself on the payroll. He had been just showing off and trying to pilfer a few extra dollars for himself. For all practical purposes, however, Jomby was an employee at Hitathi with a small security clearance and a closet for an office. It was quite a solid hack and went unnoticed by the vigorous searching of the numerous Hitathi system monitors. It was also the key for our attempted break into Adam 1.3. Five years after the fake account was created, and two months after Adam 1.3 was installed, Jomby showed up at Hitachi for his first day of work.

It took us almost a year, but we finally got a map of the Hitathi system and found a possible weakness in Adam 1.3. Jomby hired six people to help us out. Together, we coordinated a carefully planned sequence of distractions for Adam 1.3 while I jacked into Hitathi from inside Jomby’s closet office.

Everything had happened at the exact millisecond it was supposed to, but Adam 1.3 was faster than we expected at cleaning up the system. While I navigated Hitachi’s computers from my hiding place, Adam 1.3 had locked onto my presence and sent a massive energy burst to the port I was jacked into. If it was not for a specialized shield Jomby had designed just for this purpose, I would have died instantly.

Working quickly, I had rerouted my connection and sneaked around Adam 1.3 following one of the numerous back-up plans we had made. I smelled burning electronics, and knew I could not sustain another attack from Adam 1.3.

I snapped awake to find Jomby pulling a needle from my arm.  “I remember,” I gasped.

Chapter V

It only took me fifteen minutes of wandering around the surprisingly numerous corridors of the yacht to decide that I was totally lost. The boat had looked big from the outside, but seemed enormous from the inside. Every time I went through a door, it seemed as if the passages behind me rearranged themselves, so that retracing my steps only served to increase my feelings of helplessness.

As soon as Randolph had departed, I approached the section of wall he had emerged from expecting nothing to happen. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when a portion of the wall slid smoothly into a hidden recess, and a drab hallway opened before me. The walls as well as the floor and ceiling were made of smooth concrete and as I stepped into the hallway, the door behind me closed and blended seamlessly in with the surroundings.  I wondered how I was supposed to locate doors if they kept camouflaging themselves with the wall and decided to walk close to the wall hoping that my presence would cause any other doors to reveal themselves.  I am not sure if this idea worked, since the next door I came to was clearly a door.

I emerged from the hallway into a bar. Next to me lied a long counter behind which an enormous number of bottles were displayed. I looked around. Seeing no one I slipped behind the counter, grabbed a bottle of rum, and proceeded to fix myself a rather large drink. After a few sips, I resolved to renew my search for the cook.  A few more sips, and ten minutes later, I found myself exactly where I was before; lost, desperately wanting a cigarette, and rather tipsy.

An unknown period of time had passed when I found myself standing outside watching the waves roll by. Everywhere I looked there was water and even though I had not even felt the yacht moving before, I began to get quite seasick.  My head started to spin and reality seemed to shift out of focus. The now empty glass of rum that I was still clutching fell out of my hand and disappeared before it hit the deck.  The sky turned green and holes appeared in the water. I grabbed my head with one hand and groped for something solid to hold on to with the other. I ended up falling through the wall I was grasping for and landed on my back looking up at the floor. I rubbed my eyes, and, when I opened them, there was a rather tall man standing over me wearing a white jacket.  A large white hat was perched on his head, and I deduced that he must be the cook.

“Are you O.K.?” he asked, offering a hand to help pull me up.

“Yes, thank you,” I said, grasping his hand and trying not to sound too drunk. He pulled me to my feet and I stood swaying back and forth for a minute. The cook looked at me strangely and then turned around and motioned for me to follow him.

“Come on back here,” he said.  I followed him as best as I could around the various racks of cooking supplies to a small room which he called his office, but which looked suspiciously like a closet.

He introduced himself as Carl, the cook, and invited me to sit in his office while he finished preparing dinner. I warmly accepted his offer and managed to place myself firmly on the floor after completely missing the metal chair Carl had motioned to. Carl looked at me, frowned, and went off to find some coffee.  I decided to wait for the coffee before trying to sit in the chair again.

“So, when’s dinner?” I asked the empty room.

“In about fifteen minutes,” Carl replied from somewhere in the kitchen.

“What’s for dinner?” I asked.

“Lamb stew at the Captain’s request,” Carl said, entering the office with a large plastic cup with a lid on it. “You will have the pleasure of dining with the Captain this evening, so I suggest you drink this quickly.”

“Uh,” I stammered, taking the cup and remembering my earlier meeting of the Captain, “you mean Sarah?”

“That’s her,” Carl said, walking out of the office after making sure I had a firm grasp on the cup.

“Great,” I murmured to myself, thinking about the impression I would undoubtedly make in my current state.

“Just drink that,” Carl called out.

Chapter VI

Jomby and I sat at a small wooden table next to the stainless-steel table that had recently been my bed. We drank coffee while Jomby filled me in on the events after my almost deadly escape from Hitathi security.

“We did it, Nerun,” he said again as if trying to convince himself. “We broke Hitachi. The small-time hackers have been running around on the system for the past few days coming up with some ingenious programs.”

I took another sip of the warm liquid and thought about my encounter with Adam 1.3 while Jomby droned on. I remembered scrambling through an obscure switch on the Hitatha network, trying to escape detection and reach my goal.  I traced my route in my mind remembering every corridor I followed and every memory bank I passed.

“Jomby!” I yelled, interrupting his story about someone who configured the toilets in the Hitathi building to spit out everything that was put into them. “Jomby, I saw something strange in there.”

“Huh?” Jomby asked, obviously annoyed at the interruption.

“While slipping through the back switches to get by Adam, I saw something strange. I didn’t pay any attention at the time because I was busy trying to get Adam from behind, but now I remember it clear as day!  It was some sort of vast data cache…”

“Probably one of those new data holding boxes,” Jomby shrugged, “I don’t see…”

“No!” I yelled. “There was something alive in there!” Chills ran up and down my back as I reconstructed the memory.  “I could hear it screaming,” I whispered.

Jomby looked at me and frowned. “Hitathi rigged up some sort of energy barrier around that general area after Adam 1.3 crashed.” He paused and looked at me, obviously disturbed about something.

“And?” I asked. Jomby looked down at the table, stroking his chin. “And?” I repeated forcefully.

“Rach tried to get in there, and, well, she was fried,” Jomby sighed.  “I’m sorry.”

I leaned back in my chair, and closed my eyes as a tear rolled down my cheek.  I loved Rachael, but had never told her how I felt.  Whenever I was with her, I felt happy to be alive, but I had never had the nerve to speak my mind to her.  Now, I would never have that chance.  I felt a strong grip on my shoulder and I opened my eyes to find Jomby standing next to me.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “Come on, let’s go look around the Hitathi net. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it,” he said, managing a confident smile.

“Tomorrow,” I said. “I need sleep now.”

It was a chilly night in the district. A thin blanket of slush covered the ground and small piles of dirty snow were cruelly shoved onto the edges of the road overlapping onto the sidewalk. It had begun snowing the night of the Hitathi break-in and has not stopped since.  For some reason, however, the snow quickly melted after touching the earth making the ground soft and muddy.  A lone snowflake caught my attention and I stopped to watch it float lazily downward laughing at gravity. It danced gayly upon the wind while teasing the earth with its charm. The sidewalk growled, and a powerful invisible hand grabbed the frightened snowflake. The snowflake struggled frantically, but the force pulling upon it was too great, and the snowflake plummeted to its death. With a cry of agony, it disappeared into the sidewalk. I continued walking—stepping on the spot where the unfortunate snowflake had landed hearing the slush groan under the strain of my weight. My footprint remained engraved on the sidewalk; the only testimony to the millions of snowflakes that had fallen there.

I found myself on a street with a familiar name and quickened my pace. I had never used my room in this building before, but was now glad that I kept up with the rent since I could not go home anymore.  The handful of seconds it took me to reach the door to the apartment building stretched into an eternity, and I found myself running the last few steps. After entering the building and letting the old, rusty door squeak close behind me, I expected the bone-chilling cold of the outside world to be diminished somewhat, but it was not so. A small radiator hissed sleepily in the corner of the scantly furnished, bare wood foyer providing little, if any, heat. Shivering, I hurried through a decaying door next to the radiator to where the sleeping pods were located.

The building—a converted meat packing plant—now houses thirty, one-person sleeping units.  Stacked three high their slippery, plastic doors contrast heavily with the old and dirty concrete walls and floor. Walking slowly toward my pod located on the top row of the far wall, I felt those thirty shiny eyes glaring at me under the bare 75 watt lightbulbs which swung lazily from the ceiling. Pulling my coat tighter, I quickened my pace toward the cold-hearted stare of my own pod. I finally reached the wall and climbed up a shiny ladder to get to my sleeping unit. I fumbled for my key card while hanging onto the ladder and was finally able to slip it into the small slot which opened the door to my quarters with an angry hiss.

I had to crawl into my pod since they were only about three feet tall.  A light hidden in the walls clicked on as I entered and I noticed with some annoyance that there was a small leak somewhere that sent a small but persistant stream of water down my right wall. I crawled fully into my chambers letting the indignant door hiss close behind me, turned off the light, and rolled onto my back, hoping that the oncoming sleep would cure the headache which had been growing progressively worse during the past few hours since my revival.

Lying in bed, I saw her face swimming in the smooth plastic ceiling only a couple feet above me.  She was smiling in a mysterious sort of way that I had seen many times before; a friendly yet deadly serious smile that drove me crazy whenever she displayed it. I lay there for a while watching her face and studying its soft curves and smooth features. I imagined the sweet smell of her body when close to mine filling my nostrils. I reached out with my mind and touched her hair, caressed her face, and pressed her warm lips to mine.

“NO!”  I yelled.  My eyes snapped open, and she was gone.  My hands, clenched tightly by my sides, were shaking uncontrollably.  Slowly, I relaxed my body; my neck, my shoulders, my legs, and finally my arms.  A wave of warmth swept downward from my head and I sunk further into the hard mattress below me. I breathed deeply, and tried to analyze the sudden outburst of emotion which had just consumed me. It was apparent that it would be difficult to forget her or the emotions she had stirred within me. I searched my pockets for some drugs that might aid me sleep, but found none. My head began to spin, and I closed my eyes, feeling the beating of my heart echo within my skull. An enormous pressure squeezed my body and I could almost hear my bones shattering under its unrelenting force. I felt like I needed to throw up, and yet my body resisted and refused to believe the urgent signals my stomach was sending it. Tears rolled out of my eyes as I desperately wished for everything to go away. I wanted to slip into the comforting darkness of sleep, but a war was being fought within my hollow body, refusing me that simple pleasure.

In a fit of anger, I crawled out of my cramped sleeping quarters and managed to grab the ladder as the building did cartwheels and backflips around me. For a moment, I was secure, clutching a rung of the ladder, but as I began to climb down, I slipped. For a second, I was in free fall. I could see the room spinning wildly around me as vicious pulses or bright, irritating light. I shielded my eyes and hit the hard, dusty concrete floor temporarily giving me the release from reality I desired as well as sending me reeling into another stream of consciousness.

I was falling through space and spinning out of control. A grid of muted, blue lights rotated below me, getting closer and closer.  Some force was pulling me extremely fast toward the lights and I closed my eyes and braced for impact. The impact never came, however. After clenching my eyes for what seemed like hours, I opened them to find myself standing on air. A blue haze poked out from under the fog which engulfed my feet.  in the distance, I saw a familiar shadow gliding across the mist. I was not cold, but I pulled my arms close to my body and hunched over as if protecting myself from an icy wind. I watched the shadow drift closer and finally stop a foot in front of me. Her familiar features were bathed in an eerie blue light. A wave of emotions engulfed me as I stood staring at her. There was so much I wanted to say, but all I managed was a meek, “Hello?”

She smiled, but did not speak and I felt my face flush. Slowly, I reached out and touched her face expecting my fingers to pass through her, but she was warm and smooth to the touch. I lightly rubbed her face, brushed her lips, and caressed her neck. They were all solid, but she still did not respond. I let my hand drift to hers and she passively clasped it.  We began to walk aimlessly through the mist in silence; I, searching for the right words to say while she said nothing. I wanted to pour my heart out to her and tell her how much I needed her, wanted her, and loved her, but I just walked, mute. A strange, evil force prohibited such speech whenever I was near her even after her death. I hated the feeling of frustration I felt at times like this and I blamed her for not speaking—not taking my own inability to do so into account.

Her grip began to fade and I looked over at her alarmed. She was starting to disappear, and I desperately searched for something to say to keep her from vanishing. I knew that some mysterious force had brought me here giving me one last chance to tell her all I wanted to while she was alive and if I did not say something—anything—now I may never have another chance.

“Wait!” I cried. Her hand became solid again and she looked at me expectantly. My mind was racing and my heart was pounding in my chest.  It was now or never. I threw all shame, all doubts, and all apprehensions behind.  My hands sweated and my head pounded as I leaned forward, closed my eyes, and kissed her.

“I love you Rachael,” I whispered.

“I know,” she said, and vanished.

Chapter VII

Whatever the cook had given me was definitely not coffee, but I was feeling quite a bit better, so did not bother to question him. I had managed to hoist myself up and sit on the metal chair without too much difficulty, and was actually looking forward to dining with the Captain tonight. The kitchen was filled with enticing aromas, and Carl was singing something in French as I slipped out of his office to find my room.

“Right, through the door, left, up the stairs, and your cabin will be the third door on the right,” Carl yelled to me without taking his eyes off the steaming stove in front of him.

“Thanks,” I murmured, following the directions he gave me.

I hurried out of the kitchen and almost slammed into Randolph as I started sprinting up the steps Carl had told me to take.

“This way, please,” Randolph intoned.

“I was just…”

“The Captain is expecting you,” he said, passing by me. I decided I had better follow or risk getting lost again.

After a few minutes we emerged in a spacious dining area. Large windows lined the entire room and offered a breathtaking view of the sun setting over the water. There were probably twenty tables scattered around and Randolph motioned toward one next to a window. “The Captain will be down shortly,” he said and disappeared. A mint had been placed on the table and I quickly grabbed it as I sat down to wait and watch the sun set.

Twenty minutes later I was still waiting and watching the reflection of the lights on the ship in the water.  Carl appeared wearing a tuxedo, bearing coffee and an apology for the delay from the Captain.  A few minutes later, Sarah appeared in a simple but elegant black dress, sat down across from me, and apologized again.

Dinner was excellent, the company was charming, and I had forgotten everything that gone wrong today as Sarah and I walked along the deck of the yacht.

She was quite an amazing woman, and I was looking forward spending the next 27 days drifting aimlessly forward. The wind was still warm, even though it was dark out, and the cloudless sky was offering an amazing view of the stars. As I stared up at the sky listening to Sarah talk about navigation I saw two bright specks streaking across the sky. I thought it must be a plane passing overhead, but they were moving much too fast and seemed to be heading straight toward us. I froze and watched them as they fell gracefully from the heavens. I managed only a short gasp as they slammed into me.

Chapter VIII

I awoke on the cold concrete. My muscles were cramped, but my mind felt refreshed and invigorated. I got up, stretched, and went to see Jomby.  Jomby was excited to see me and ushered me to a seat.

“You’ve got to see this program someone put on Hitathi,” he said, handing me a Communit to access the network with. I stuck the electrodes to my head and turned on the power, experiencing the familiar feeling of disorientation as I entered the net.

It was good to see the grid open up before me once again. I darted around to get my bearings and then shot toward Hitathi. It was easy to get in. The security that had recently scared people away or killed them was nonexistent, and entering the system was as easy as opening a door. I felt Jomby’s presence as he guided me to what used to be the personal database. The sight that greeted me was breathtaking.  Before me stretched a picturesque landscape complete with bubbling brooks and a hundred foot waterfall.

“Wow,” I whispered letting my eyes wander upward into the blue, cloudless sky.  That’s when I saw it—a shimmering glimmer of light zipping by in the distance. I looked around for Jomby, but he was out of sight, so I darted after the pinpoints of light before they disappeared.

I followed the specks through the back passages of the Hitathi, trying to keep them in sight. Suddenly, they jumped onto a hidden circuit, and I barged headlong after them, almost crashing into a powerful energy shield. The bright yellow light given off by the barrier almost blinded me, but I could still trace the pricks of light beyond it. Then I remembered where I was. The massive shadow of the mysterious holding tank was barely perceivable in the distance.

“Well, well, well, you’re interested in that, are you?” came a raspy voice behind me. I whirled around to face Jomby.

“Geezus, you scared me,” I said relaxing.

“Good,” Jomby cackled revealing a set of rotted teeth.  I stood there speechless. This looked like Jomby, but something was chillingly wrong about him. I stared into his eyes and shuddered at what I saw: nothing; not even the dull brown of death, but an empty void. I found myself pulled by some powerful force into those black, hypnotic eyes and realized that I was loosing consciousness. I willed myself back awake and with all the strength I could muster, tore my gaze from Jomby. He just laughed.

“Adam 1.3 is active,” Jomby whispered as his head exploded. All I heard was a small pop and the warm, wet sensation of Jomby’s blood staining my body. I smelled singed flesh and knew what had happened.  Before I could react, an energy bolt slammed into my Communit’s shield. I whirled around and saw Adam 1.3 standing between me and the energy shield. He smiled and shot another energy bolt at me which cracked my protective layer. I was dead and he knew it.

“Goodbye, hacker,” he said laughing a low, grumbling laugh that sent chills down my spine.

“Noooo!”  I yelled, throwing myself at Adam 1.3. When I hit him, it felt like I collided with a brick wall. My shield exploded sending bits of shrapnel burrowing hotly into my body and the wall. I flew across the room, slammed into the steel table behind me, and crumpled to the floor stunned. Adam 1.3 was performing a weird dance, trying to regain his balance. He was unsuccessful, however, and fell, screaming, into the yellow force field.  His body started to convulse as he touched the energy shield, and sparks flew in all directions. Adam 1.3 omitted a loud, guttural sound of pure anguish as his body and the shield exploded.

My breath was ragged and a persistent pain filled my chest, but I stayed online to see what would happen next. I stared at the huge data cache which was now completely visible. What was once so distinguishable and solid, now looked flimsy as bright objects from within pushed against the yielding walls.

A small tear appeared in the side of the box which quickly grew to a gaping hole as a million points of light poured forth. I smiled and raised my hands to the sky as the starlight flooded the heavens full of energy and excitement. Two by two the left. I watched them like a mother watches her child enter the world on their own for the first time. Soon, only two remained. Two eyes remained. Two glowing spheres darted around above me, and then quickly flew toward me. I did not even flinch as they zoomed into my eyes, and disappeared. How beautiful the world looked now that I could see past the deception once again. Smiling, I took a deep breath, and closed my new eyes forever.

Chapter IX

I opened my eyes and saw everything for what it was. The image of the yacht was gone and all that remained was a small room in which I sat. In a single burst of knowledge, I realized that all I had just experienced was a figment of someone’s imagination. I stood up angry; angry at being tricked; angry that my reality had been altered without my knowing. A small door stood on the opposite wall and I strode over to it and flung it open. My truck sat as I had parked it only moments ago. I quickly got in and tore away from that cursed place vowing to sue Arbornet for its deception. As I drove, however, my thoughts changed. Why should I be angry when the illusion I had just lived had given me pleasure? People spend billions of dollars every year to be deceived. This allows companies in the business of putting a facade on reality to develop new and more advanced products. It was what people wanted and expected.

All of a sudden, I realized what a nice day it was out. I rolled my windows down allowing the fresh air to dance gaily within. Above me, a lone seagull floated and suddenly, I was up there with him. I could see myself driving below, small and insignificant from my current perspective, but my interest of the ground waned as I turned to catch an updraft. The world in its vastness stretched out below me desperately trying to grab my attention with its splashes of color and twinkling lights, but I did not bother to look. Instead, I stretched my wings and climbed higher. Within moments, I was higher than I had thought possible. The atmosphere was thinning and unable to support my weight and gravity tugged greedily on my tailfeathers. I stretched my wings out to their full extent, and, with one massive push, broke free of my earthly chains.

For a moment, I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the cosmos filling my eyes. A million specks of light shone brightly and clearly in a multitude of colors. Wisps of red, blue, and green floated by, propelled by powerful currents radiating outward from the stars. Heavenly bodies exploded in violent bursts sending brilliant flashes of light shooting outward creating a breathtaking strobe effect. Smiling, I stretched out on a bed of nothing and let it carry me away.

Behind me, a small forgotten planet floated by. Somewhere on that insignificant blue pebble, a man tossed away his new eyes and drove back into the comforting frog from which he had emerged. It was all insignificant.

Chapter X

Away from the city, you can see the sun clearly.  It shimmers freely above the world in a sky devoid from the poisonous clouds of waste which grip every street, every building, and every person within its iron claw. A hold so impenetrable that many believe there is no escape; that there is no relief from the constricting fumes pouring upon the district at a frightening rate. These toxic chemicals, produced by some evil and unknown source, grasp your mind, direct your ambition, and suppress your will. You could see defeat in everyone’s eyes as they choked on this tainted air – until yesterday, that is.

I remembered watching the spectacle from my window yesterday afternoon. Fire burned brightly on the horizon.  People were confused as they filed out into the street. Some were crying, some ran naked through the throngs, and some just stared. Explosions rattled buildings and large sections of the earth were destroyed by shiny tentacles of wire snaking to the surface from their underground home. Windows shattered sending shards of glass raining down from the heavens. Blood was smeared generously across the pavement as bodies were ripped apart by the metal wires and pummeled by glass and chunks of concrete. It was not destruction, however, but rebirth. Rebirth of a city—a civilization—that had no choice other than total annihilation. A stray fragment of glass had lodged itself in my forehead sending streams of blood into my eyes, but for the first time in my life, I could see clearly.

I opened my eyes fully to take in the penetrating desert sun. The hard, simulated leather car seat which I had used as my bed last night left tender red imprints scarring my face and back. The temperature inside the car was rapidly rising from the comfortable cool of the night to a scorching heat. My lips were chapped and my mouth was screaming for water as I climbed out of the small and ancient two-door car to stretch my legs.

I had previously thought that the city, seemingly vast, never ended; that it stretched across the entire earth invading the ground with its metal roots. This idea of eternity made me feel secure when living in the city. Operations were under their own control and a lone individual had no say in what happened. Now, as I stand in the desert surrounding the city, I realize that the city is not all powerful, but mortal like me. It too has an ending. It is a traumatizing time when the control of a higher power is no more, but no more so than making the decision to leave my lifetime home of the district.

In the distance, I could still make out the city. Flames licked the sky, settled back down, and then jumped higher a few moments later. I turned my back on the distasteful sight, and instead, stared down the road which I was headed. It was a bare, desolate road covered with potholes and tumbleweeds, but down that road I saw life, love, and freedom. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen: that road. Just looking at it made me forget all remorse and instill confidence on what lay ahead. The sun truly shines clearly away from the city.

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