2298 TRANSCRIPT

the dream


It all starts with that bird – following me everywhere for weeks; in my yard, across the commons, edge of bounds, center city, doesn’t matter, if I’m there, I’ll see it. Now at first, I didn’t really notice. It’s a bird. Birds look alike – most of them anyway. This, though, is not most birds. You might be forgiven in thinking it’s a small blackbird – or a starling – before noticing the ruff of feathers from beak to crest that burst with alternating, highly intricate, white & gold markings. Ordinary birds don’t look like this. It’s like a headdress; a crown, something meant to be distinguished.

Needless to say I’ve become obsessed; not only with making sure I catch sight of the bird, but what I’ll see in the ruff. I have never actually questioned if it was following me but only why it was following me...

I should probably back up a little bit & explain.

 You see, I was conceived during the war & born well after it ended. I’m about to turn twenty-nine & the most excitement I’ve known has been waiting to get my work notification. I imagine it was the same for the rest of them but still. Having never met them, I don’t exactly know what they’d be like. I’ll just say that this Profile has been really, really bored. Not that you’d blame me. If I wasn’t studying to graduate, I was studying protocol, & if there was any time left over, well, lately, I was probably mulling around my room, annoyed about this bird. Honestly, I think that’s why I’m so troubled by it. I know I’m not crazy. Now sure, I live alone. I’m only able to leave when I have an Event. I’m assigned the same diet every day. The only interaction I’ve ever had with a living thing was through the Comments section… It’d be easy to think these sightings were all a figment of my imagination. What convinced me I was different, though, was the realization that the lives of the other 23 must be the same & we couldn’t all be crazy. There were only 24 open positions & I have to think we all wanted the best ones. If you didn’t put in time online, you weren’t going to get them, so they must have been at home just as much as I am. They agree to the same Terms & Conditions I do so either this is some part of Profile training – & it’s happening to everyone – or it’s just me. It can only be one of the two & I’m not sure which I’d rather. 

Could be worse, though – could be war.

If surveyed, I would probably say I’m interested in what life was like before the invasion but to be completely honest, I never give it much thought. On the rare occasion I do, I think what happened was probably a blessing in disguise. Since the beginning – until the early 2100s – the world had been a mess of conflicting morals & tribal warfare, so what was there to look back on? Even if you assume you could’ve ended regional & global conflicts for everyone – which let’s face it, is ridiculous – to what end does freedom really offer? The fact that I can eat whatever I want & destroy my body? That I can choose responsibilities as I please? That I can pick professions when I’m better suited for something else?!

Not seriously regulating human activity is likely why Earth was targeted in the first place. 

Earth, however, is no more. We all still live on planet Earth, if that’s what you’re thinking. Only now the once sprawling two million square miles of habitable surface area has been whittled down to a paltry hundred-&-forty square mile perimeter; roughly the size of what was once Las Vegas. I only know about ‘Las Vegas’ because pre-invasion history is a priority Post, but I didn’t specialize in socials so most of my requireds had been robotics. Just so you know, not only was a required ‘priority,’ I had to engage other Profiles & prove I actually read it. There was no gaming the Network. Not even back then.

The Post system is what life revolves around now, here on Earth, in the Network. 

Everyone has their feed permissions & they determine what you learn. When the invasion came, all of humanity’s conflicts – left unsolved for centuries – doomed the planet. We were too fractured, too primitive. Once it was over, everything was rebuilt around the Network with whoever was left. The class system, each named for a letter of the Greek alphabet, decides your feed & the career path your life will take. Each new class knowingly lives in isolation to avoid any conflict with the other Profiles & afford us the time to truly focus. Prosperity is delicate to create & even easier to destroy, you can imagine. Even as someone admittedly having lost focus time & again, I’ve always understood – I can better serve humanity this way – there was always a larger purpose. One we are made to focus on often through our feed, sure, but one that is true. Not only because it passes basic logical tests, but specifically because it’s not freedom.

Freedom destroyed our planet; freedom killed our ancestors.

***

In fact, that reminds me of a Post about a map that was uncovered, buried, at the edge of bounds – dating back to 2098 – but it was immediately removed from the feed. This set off a firestorm in the Comments, most of which were also quickly taken down by the Network. The idea behind them, though, was that curating our content was controlling us; that without deciding the merit of something for ourselves, it was oppressive. Could you imagine being so selfish? The Network sent out a notification saying: “the removal was done in order to focus Profiles. Any normalizing or nostalgia for a period of deep conflict will not be tolerated. The symbolic lines marked on that paper created an actual divide from which the species would never recover.”

 Freedom is lost focus. I mean, look at what this bird has done to me in only a few weeks! Imagine living two-hundred years ago?! No structure, no guidance, no unity. No way. 

Not everyone agrees, though – as you can imagine – about freedom.

There are others – no one I’ve actually met of course – who aren’t as, let’s say, appreciative of the Network’s guidance. That was quite evident in the alert I received this morning, which wasn’t much different than the last time something like this happened. It was required priority with a picture & a caption. The picture showed someone, their face low & covered, in front of the Working Block, being escorted into a cruiser by Enforcement. The caption read, “An offender is taken into custody after defacing Network property.” Now the big difference between this Post & the other instances is that a picture of the offending image accompanied the article. Whether it was an oversight or what, it was included & shared over a thousand times before being taken down. Immediately, possessing or sharing it became a violation. I still remember it though. It was a cartoon mouth – big, exaggerated lips & teeth – that had been stuffed with a bright red ball gag, almost like a clown’s nose; & right in the center of it – the glorious Network symbol, four diagonal lines with three stars between each, but the tagline read: 

“CONTROL YOUR VOICE, CONTROL YOUR MIND.”

I certainly don’t share the same concerns about the Network’s guiding hand, but I’m still going to keep this record offline in my nightstand. Strangely, it’s the safest place I’ve got. So long as I don’t miss any check ins or log in irregularly, I should avoid being scanned before I figure the whole thing out & delete this. My nightstand, by the way, is this ornate mahogany end table the Assigner told me was the only ‘pre’ period – before the invasion – heirloom left in any suitable condition. Dark & immaculate, I always keep it polished; from the bracket feet, up into the intricate molding, down & around each of the four bronze drawer handles, always careful not to leave any streaks. I actually enjoy doing this. I’m not sure if it’s the process of cleaning being meditative or simply being near something so old that makes me feel connected to this bigger idea. That something so weathered & resilient had been part of a world I’ll never know… & survived. 

It’s incredible to imagine how such beauty could come from such chaos.

I’m sorry, I’m talking about furniture – I haven’t even reached the reason I’m saving this… rambling. Alerts! Logins! Bird. Right, so, logging in every day isn’t even a thought so much a movement; no synapses fire. It’s sort of like going to the bathroom when you’re half asleep. Every movement from memory. Turn on – password – notice check – map check – schedule – done. Don’t get me wrong; compared to the other check-ins, this was a breeze. Probably why it’s my most common. It’s more routine & I’ve got to check-in three times a day anyway. So, it’s just easier to get your first out of the way. Read news – log meals – enter vitals; all important things from your morning check in. Nothing today was different in that way. I grabbed my phone off the nightstand & logged in completely on auto-pilot; totally unaware of how weird the day was about to become.

I wouldn’t have been prepared anyway.

I’ve just completed all my necessary class requirements & been named a Tau. This determined my options for the Residence Block & my Societal Contribution; a Tau was assigned the Squall Block residence; my contribution was the Acre Wood. When I initially logged in & received the alert though, I was kind of disappointed. You have 1 new assignment! Please report to the Tau workman’s building now located under WORK in your AUTO unit’s GPS. Now yes, of course I was relieved I didn’t get stuck in Lambda or some worse, who-knows hell-hole out in the Drylands but still. The Acre Wood? After struggling through certifications & tests & countless hours of robotics & reading endless Posts, I was going to… grow carrots? Not that I’m bitter about it. Do I sound bitter? Anyway, I’m not. I guess I just feel like I could do more; like something in my body’s telling me I should.

I just want the chance to prove it.

***

As far back as I can remember, this restless anxiety has fluttered in my bones, constantly unnerving me. I can think clearly enough. I act in a composed & reasonable manner but that’s just a controlled response. I can’t tell you what it is – what it’s called or why I feel it – but I can tell you it’s as if every fiber, every atom, every cell of my body is on the verge of exploding. The fuse is always lit. A bomb of anticipation is always there. It has never gone off but some days it’s easier to stamp out than others. The best recipe has been to spend any free time Event I have walking the Resident Block aimlessly; staring at the trees or the leaves or the flowers, so intently, like something, anything, will happen. Only nothing ever does. Not unless you count the bird, I suppose. 

Maybe what I️ was waiting for is already here.

You’d think using my free time this way would make me more anxious. Well, just the opposite. I am both set on fire & washed clean by the calm of the Earth. I know I’m not supposed to lose focus like this – I agreed not to – but I do & it’s really exclusive to nature. Part of me wonders if that’s how I ended up a Tau. I never use free time Events for anything productive – I do what I want to do, which again lends credence back to the actual Network slogan: FREEDOM IS LOST FOCUS. I have to admit, without a schedule like the one I have, I would probably have wandered off a cliff by now chasing some colorful ferret. 

How the Network prevented such distractions, thankfully, was almost iron clad.

What with check-ins, updates, & readings, not to mention everyone knows if you’re looking for points you need to be just as active in reactions, tags, promotions, & anything else that could bolster your Contribution score. Using my free time Event for aimless wandering wasn’t the smartest – & probably why I’m not a higher class – but I always did well in all my studies. I appropriately reacted to every article I read, tagged it for proper categorization, & reposted to my own feed. Like I said, this took up a lot of time & came with its own restrictions, but I still found it preferable. I had accepted the Terms & Conditions. Look, the Network is not the problem. The Network is not why I’m documenting this right now. If I’m going to tell you what happened, I wanted to tell you everything, & now I have. I also had to be honest & make sure you understood that I wasn’t exactly the most level headed Profile out there.

I hope that doesn’t make this harder to believe. 

So after I acknowledged the alert, I got dressed, had some breakfast – toast with peanut butter because I’m out of apples – & made straight for the car. It’s my first day & obviously I didn’t want to be late for work. I locked the door on my way out & turned back around, & there’s the bird again, standing on my control side mirror. Today the pattern was back to the original. One gold curve, two lines, one white, one gold. For a prolonged moment we stared at one another. Mine a look of confusion, probably worry. The bird’s expressionless, a mystery as always. My mouth was dry all of a sudden. I felt a conflicted urge to say something but I couldn’t. The bird then gave a nod of its head & we seemed to share the same emotions: impatience & frustration. I made a slight movement & it hopped on the hood of the car, gave a little flit, & turned as if to say, “could you hurry it up?” I felt a wave of distortion surge through my stomach & I stomped all the way to the door, muttering epithets to myself. “Yeah, no, that makes total sense, you idiot. It’s a bird, it can’t think. I guess you can’t either, you stupid…” I scanned my thumb on the door angrily, knocking my knuckle into the handle, & it slid open. I stepped inside, purposefully ignoring my surroundings. I mapped the GPS to Work Block Tau, set the radio to sleep, crossed my arms comfortably, & began to drive, down Avenue H, over Intersection 6, toward the only remaining acres of farmland & forest. The bird & I remained locked in a staring contest. My eyelids grew heavy.

One blink & I was asleep. 

I can’t say I dream very often. I’ve had a few in my life, here or there, but most of the time everything goes dark & the next thing I know, I’m awake. This was not one of those times. It was the right after fall started to show but just before the leaves fully turned. The trees were a sea of greenish yellow dotted with pockets of deep maroon. Just enough to know Summer was over. I hadn’t moved from the control side seat. I was gazing, duly, through the window & noticed with a renewed jolt of annoyance that the bird was still on my hood. It didn’t look as though it moved at all. I scrunched myself up, leaned over to grab my work bag, that only contained food, & clicked open my safety belt. I pressed my thumb back to the control side door & exhaled, as did the pistons, & I watched the door slowly rise. The bird had found a perch behind the Tau facilities on a stainless steel box, smattered with drops of rain from the night before. It glistened in the dawn’s light & I was immediately blinded by the reflection of the sun. I was a couple of yards or so away from the bird when it seemed to acknowledge this, titling its head back & forth, not moving an inch, as if to say, “seriously, hurry the hell up.” It hopped off the steel box & bounced, with a quickness you wouldn’t expect from a bird this small, toward the massive acre-wood a hundred or so steps away. 

***

It felt like I was moving through molasses.

I tried to follow it & felt my legs push harder through each step. My mind was glossing over. I couldn’t stop myself. I couldn’t think logically, I had to follow it. I wasn’t going to do anything else until I had it. It was like every idea I was having happened at the same time so that none of them could clearly come through. Solve this problem. Figure this out for yourself. It was a dull, pulsing purpose. I stopped for a moment, unsure of what to do next, & just when I when I was about to actively think for the first time in over a hundred paces, I spotted that bird standing near the base of a tree & I bolted into the woods. I could finally move. My legs were suddenly awake; I could take strides. I jumped into the trees purely on instinct. There was no thought of “what am I following?” or “where am I going?” or, probably the most appropriate, “what am I doing?” No, there was only moving toward that bird. I pushed through the trees another ten or so feet & emerged into a clearing. I had never seen such a vast space of open earth before & was startled. 

I stood rooted to the spot, just another tree in a sea of them. 

After what felt like several minutes, & the bird nowhere in sight, I began walking slowly down an unmistakable trail. Years had caused it to become roughshod with tall-grass & weeds but it was clearly carved out from the mess around it, just unkempt for some time. I stood searching for the bird, ready to jump at the next sign of movement. For a fleeting moment I felt the fear of wondering whether or not I should be where I was. Clearly this wasn’t a sanctioned route. I knew for sure it wasn’t on the Network map at all because that ended at the border of facilities. The odd part though was I never saw anything past that on the map at all. No land, no water, nothing. Technically, I was nowhere. My body was moving me toward something my brain couldn’t calculate & my body wouldn’t stop. Whether it was curiosity or will, something had taken full control for the first time & wouldn’t allow anything to even turn on. Each step lit a match as I crunched through dead leaves & twigs. I watched as a perfectly unblemished white butterfly flit up & down, settling silently on a wild flower for the briefest of seconds. Up, up, up… down, up, down, down; another flower. 

I always wondered if you would notice yourself losing your mind.

Suddenly, I ignored the butterfly & finally caught sight of the bird again. I locked my eyes to it & watched the unmistakable headdress shoot out from the tall-grass & further down the path. For a moment, I was unable to move. I noticed briefly the blanket of ruby red leaves that hung above, branching out from several massive trunks. These trees must have been a thousands years old. My chest felt tight & I noticed my breath turn heavy. I turned my head back, hoping not lose the bird & scanned my line of sight. Almost as if it were expecting me, there it was, right at my feet. It couldn’t have been more than a foot away. I had never seen it this close before. It really was magical. It was regal, standing there, chest puffed, not a feather ruffled, gold glistening in the light. I really could stare at it forever. Just then, I remembered myself & immediately reached down toward it. I don’t know if I was trying to grab it or what, but I moved toward it. At that very same moment, I felt an incredible jolt course though my body from head to foot. 

I shook so forcibly & wildly that I felt myself lift off the ground

I hung suspended, arms pressed to my sides, toes grazing the dirt, convulsing. The bird didn’t move. I felt my muscles lock. I could hear my slack jawbone rattle as I shook, hung in the air, seizing. It felt like I was being held in a giant, electric fist. Solid & unbreakable. I couldn’t move. I could barely think. A current vacillated back & forth, coursing from my chest through the ends of my body, so quickly it felt like it was happening at the same time. The bird just stood there. It looked like it was waiting for something to happen. We locked eyes & I tried to plead for help. I knew I couldn’t stay conscious much longer. As if that were the moment it waited for, the bird shot directly at me with the speed of a bullet, landing roughly on my lips. I could feel its talon like toes steady itself & latch on like I were a new nest. As it pressed its beak into my mouth, unable to react or move, I only knew terror. I could smell the dirt. I could taste it now too. I felt the rough feathers grate along my tongue & cheeks. I heard its beak crackle on my teeth. I felt my mouth slowly fill. I choked & seized as first it’s head, then it’s shoulders, & finally its full, winged torso pushed its way down my throat. Shaking & retching, my body exhausted, I woke up screaming.


the journal


It was sudden & forceful. I heaved, drew in breath, & reared my head back like a wolf. I howled & coughed & slowly, my senses started coming back. I was on my knees. I was at the edge of the bed; safe in my own room. I’d had the dream again. There were tears in my eyes. I’d hung there – suspended – longer this time. The pain was greater. I wiped spit from my mouth. My sleepwear was soaked with sweat. I hastily grabbed at the journal in my nightstand. The glow of the moon set the mahogany on fire. It was the only light source in the room. I pulled the dresser open, frantically looking for a pen. The bruises on my knees were huge & incredible. Purple & brown & green & red. They looked like satellite pictures of distant galaxies & they hurt like hell. During the frenzy of waking up though, I barely noticed. I found a pen, activated the journal, & set the style to script. 

I had to record the marking.

That was this morning. Ever since the first incident – from which I woke up screaming, in a crumpled heap, still strapped to the control seat – I’ve started to keep a record of whatever I see scrawled on that awful bird. The only problem is ever since the dream where it, I don’t know… did whatever it did, I only ever saw it when I slept. Which is also to say, I saw it every time I slept. You can imagine how I’m sleeping. I almost miss seeing it in real life if subconscious torture is the alternative. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to figure out whatever the hell’s going on, but now I’m afraid. When it’s happening – when it’s hurting me, holding me, choking me, invading me – it feels real. It is real. That first dream, on the way to work, was five days ago. I didn’t sleep at all after that or on my way to work the next day. That night though, I couldn’t make it through. It happened again, & then again, & again, & again. I have five different markings saved now. I don’t even know what I’m looking to find in these markings but when I do, at least now I’ll have something to look at. 

What I’ve recorded so far though, I don’t know. 

What I do know though is my job hasn’t exactly helped distract me. I don’t know what I expected work to be, but I figured it would at least provide me some focus. Right now, I really need it. Give me something to concentrate on other than my slowly fraying sanity! What work actually is though, I have found out, isn’t so much work at all. I sit there all day, just overseeing a system that was already programmed & put in place way before I got there. My instructions explicitly forbid me from changing anything or even running tests. I am to collect the data output & assign it’s record a name using the convention given. Nothing more. The data shows things like the bacteria levels of the remaining natural waters, the amount of oxygen being released by the forest lands, & other information I was to do absolutely nothing with. My job, very clearly, was to sit there & make sure the system didn’t break. A little over a week ago – or what now feels like a lifetime ago – this would’ve infuriated me. I would have been consumed with rage that every Post I read, every Comment, every Event – everything – was for nothing. That may all still be true but I just don’t have the energy to care anymore. 

I’ve been putting all I can summon into figuring this out.

I’m not sure if that is a good thing though. Anyway, if you remember, the first set of markings was: one gold curve, two lines, one white, one gold. That changed when I next saw it, that second night, after I finally passed out. It was probably 23:00 – midnight maybe – & I physically couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I rocked myself awake maybe a hundred times that night before the final swing asleep. The dreams were nearly identical to the first, only now I came to in the forest already. I found the trail, clearly carved out but well overgrown, & followed it through the trees again. There were tiny brick-like rocks that lined the way. They were so eroded – by time or something else – that I don’t know if they’re just stones or the remains of an intended path. They were sparse enough that it all could’ve been my imagination. Whatever the truth is, I followed them again into the clearing & under the red shade of several massive oaks. Now these trees were no less startling the second time around, I mean they were humongous. So large they felt God-like. This time I went up to touch one – placing my entire palm against it’s side – & I haven’t the slightest idea why. I just had to. I am dreaming after all. I’m not in complete control. What followed next is what happened before. The bird. The suspension. The seizing. The current. The choking. Everything was the same. I woke up screaming again. 

***

I don’t know what made me record the pattern this time too, though, in the journal.

Something just told me I should be. It was only slightly different: one gold curve, two lines, both white. The third night was the first I didn’t wake up screaming. Not that anything happened differently, I just think I was more prepared. I fell asleep knowing I was going back. I don’t know how I knew it. I don’t know anything right now, but that I knew. That night the markings were much different though: two gold lines, one white curve, two lines, one white, one gold. I wrote it in my journal as I had the two before that, did my morning check-in earlier than usual, & lumbered off to work, not even bothering to wonder if the bird was on my car or not. The fourth night I tried to go farther than before. I’m not sure if it was a subconscious drive or what pushed me, but I was able to only go a few extra feet before the bird found me this time. It looked at me as if to say, “not yet”, & well, it flew at my face & you know the rest. I barely caught the full markings that night – & still can’t be sure I’m correct – but I have it noted as: one gold curve, one white curve, three gold lines. So with tonight’s pattern – oh that’s right I hadn’t told you that yet, it was four white lines – that makes lengths of three, three, four, five, & four; respectively. I have to use my journal for this because I can’t afford for the Network to know I’m losing focus yet. Not before I can figure it out myself.

My journal tablet is the only device I’m allowed to take offline. 

It was intended so I could take notes – pictures, recordings, drawings, equations, what have you – whenever I had Events in areas where connection is spotty, like out in the Drylands. I knew it could still be scanned for abnormalities once it was brought back online – something I would be alerted to do should it remain offline for another forty-eight hours –& I can’t think of many things less normal than two ramblings & a bunch of weird symbols from a bird. No, I already have the most meaningless job ever as a Tau, could you imagine if they found out I’d lost focus this badly? I don’t even want to think about it. I’ve only ever read of one instance where someone was class reassigned. It was not a good Post. Apparently, this person, an Epsilon, had been logging some unusual Net searches & naturally they were flagged. SCAN – or Strange Comments & Negativity – rarely miss a trick. The Post concluded by noting he would be reassigned, not that I ever remember it saying where or seeing a follow-up. Which is another reason my journal is so important to me right now. I have no idea what I’m dealing with. Whether we’re talking about the markings on the bird or what’ll happen should the Network get wind of my distractions, one thing is pretty clear: I need to be very, very careful. If my activity dips or they scan my tablet, it’s over for me.

I need to act as though nothing is irregular, everything is fine.

So far, this wasn’t really an issue. I’ve been keeping all my notes on the tablet, which I’ve kept offline since Monday. I haven’t missed any check-ins & aside from one early morning, have logged no irregularities. Lucky for me, since I’ve just graduated, I have a grace period for my Contribution, which is supposed to let me better acclimate to my new job without worrying about Network interactions. Also lucky that a dead squirrel could do my job but I digress. To my knowledge, I have done nothing so far that would flag me. In order to keep it this way though, I need to figure this out & fast. Once I bring the journal tablet back online two days from now unless I can somehow wipe its history, which we both know is impossible without destroying it – & I may as well just walk into HQ & admit I’ve lost focus now if I’m going to do that – it’s going to sync my notes & then I’m toast. Unless I can somehow prove what’s happening, what I’m seeing. 

Which is exactly what I intend to do. 

***

As you are already painfully aware, I’ve always used my free time Event for wandering but today I’m going to wander a little more specifically than usual. As we speak, it is 18:05 & I am en route to Working Block Tau where hopefully I can try to find out where I’m going in this dream, if it actually exists. I know, I know, why am I just trying this now? Well, for starters, fear; I’m human after all. Second, really ask yourself – truly – what you would be feeling in my situation. You could be hallucinating. You could be sick. It could be a test by the Network. It could be part of an enemy invasion. At best, something very weird is happening & so far up until this point, that’s how you’ve been able to keep it. Everything has been kept to a dream or imagination. It hasn’t been real yet. I haven’t really lost focus; I’ve only been distracted. But once I start walking into those trees, I’ve accepted it, officially. You’re telling me you wouldn’t have waited a little bit to think it over? I have firmly decided though. I won’t fight it. I won’t try to alert Help & Support. I’m going to figure this out on my own, no matter the cost. I would rather regret doing this than do nothing. I can’t lie, it feels kind of… good. It’s the most potent power I’ve ever felt. I can’t remember any other time I’ve tried to satisfy something selfish like I am now but this has to be it. Once it’s over, I’m done. 

I can’t let myself become another casualty of lost focus.

That is how everything unraveled in the first place after all. A free society allowed the world to become a horde of thoughtless, arrogant, entitled ideologues who lived for nothing but themselves. Even if your intention was pure, even if your logic was sound, even if most of the world agreed with you, the result was division. The result was separatism & loss. The result was resentment & fractures. I had gone back to some of my earlier pre-invasion history Post assignments – this was safer than actively searching on the subject since it had nothing to do with my role & I was trying not to raise any flags - & read with clearer purpose. The more I found myself losing focus, yearning to explore & discover, the more I wanted to know about what happened. If only I could find something I thought, maybe I’ll be able to gain control; stop this obsession once & for all. To my dismay there wasn’t really much for me to learn from. Everyone had been taught then – almost conditioned – to make their own decisions, figure out their own skill sets; never teaching regard for the whole. Hell, in school you studied every subject… imagine? What a brilliant idea, let’s take a math genius & force them to work on grammar! The stupidity of it all almost hurts. Though certainly enlightening, that information didn't really do much to explain what’s happening to me. None of the factors that contributed at that time can be applied to me now.

I’ve known no other culture, no other purpose, but serving the collective; the Network.

I don’t remember much about my young, formative years; a few glimpses here & there. I can recall a Caregivers face or the smell of their fragrance but most clearly I remember my first Assigner. I was thirteen years old & my final Caregiver – who smelled of lilacs – informed me that today I was to transition to Selfcare & that an Assigner would be arriving shortly. I’d already logged on the Network that morning so I’d seen the alert but wasn’t too sure what it meant. That became clear though once the Assigner arrived. I can remember looking out the window – of what I guess was my room – & seeing boxes upon boxes stacked up neatly next to a Network town car. The Assigner gave no name but simply said, “Hello.” I was asked to sit in the car & was immediately taken to my first residence in the Alpha Block. It was a single level on the corner of Avenue D. It had white siding & a red door. I was brought inside, the whole time not exchanging words or even eye contact with this person. I was shown where my workstation was & what my login would be. My fridge was full of rations & I was told a new set would be air dropped every third Monday of the month. I had a bed & a nightstand – yes, that nightstand - & that was that. 

I was presented the Terms & Conditions & I accepted.

I’m passing through the Industrial Zone now so it shouldn’t be much longer until we’re there. This area is nothing but huge warehouses I’ve never been inside of. From what I’ve seen on my feed, they’re where all the engineering is done. The robotics necessary for maintaining what’s left of the Earth, but also the infrastructure for the Network, environmental control, medical devices, anything really. It’s kind of hard to pin down any one thing. Computers, technology, it’s all we have left. It was all we had left & all we could trust anymore. It felt safe; controlled. I miss that feeling lately. I’d had my moments, sure, but for the most part, there was no serious anxiety before this. A bubbling of nervousness, like I told you, but true stress didn’t exist; these were concepts only even known to me because my forbearers suffered them & so I’d read of their accounts. I don’t know, I just want everything to go back to normal. But I won’t contact Help & Support. This is mine to figure out. With every part of me, I know it is. Almost there… why do I feel like I’m about to do something really, really stupid? 

***

Well, nothing I can do about it now, I suppose.

Arriving at your destination on the right. Okay, here we go. Event time remaining: thirty-five minutes. Please allow for: fifteen minutes – return time. Thank you. This car was definitely built for someone a half foot shorter because I’ve always got to duck & crouch to get out. It’s a pain. It’s just like in my dream: Work Block to my left, gate behind me, & I’m standing near the woods – about a hundred acres worth – really the only forest land left on Earth, where almost all the consumed oxygen is produced, so these trees are pretty important. The soil is tested daily, automated reflectors guide the proper amounts of sunlight each hour, rotating & turning as necessary, a timed irrigation system & – best of all – you have the privilege of listening the overseer of that glorious data, please hold the applause. 

I need to find the stainless steel box, that’s how I’ll know I’m at the beginning.

That’s what I saw initially the first time I had the dream. It should be right over here. Got it. Not as glowing & impressive as it was in the dream but here it is. Maybe because it’s much darker now than it was then. It’s already – crap – it’s already 20:08. So that means I’ve got to be back to the car by about 20:25, 20:30. I need to hurry the hell up. Just then I heard my watch: You have: thirty-two minutes – remaining. Please return to your AUTO in: twenty-three minutes. Thank you. Crap, I’ve gotta move. So if the box is here, that would mean I entered the woods over there. There’s a small break between the trees, not so much a clearing as a divot. This is it. This is the spot. I can remember how easily I slipped in right here. 

It’s all adding up so far, just a little farther now.

I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe I’m doing this. What the hell was I thinking? It’s already dark. I shouldn’t be here. Stepping over who knows what; could be poison ivy or some other chem weed. This is pointless, I should be in the clearing already by now. It’s always five hundred yards – a thousand max! – past the forest threshold. Where the hell is it? I’m telling you, it’ll be here. It’ll be here. Just a little further. Come on, you’ve gotta find this. You have: Twenty minutes – remaining. Please return to your AUTO in: eleven minutes. Thank you. No, no, no. Damn it. I can’t. Okay, okay. Breathe. Think… I have to go back. If I don’t go back, I’m completely exposed. They’ll definitely know something is up. They’ll do an immediate scan & then I’ll have to explain what’s been going & whatever the hell I’ve been drawing & – alright, think you idiot, what should you do? – I can’t go back yet. Where the hell is it?! I know time & distance – space & reality – is all distorted in dreams but still, the path should be here. 

I’ve easily gone over a thousand feet into these woods & there’s nothing; it’s gone. 

I’ll have to think of another plan. If I don’t hurry back now, I’ll be flagged for irregular activity. I’m never home late. If anything I’m usually early so I could still end up being flagged. Great. Just great, genius. You had to go out & do something so stupid. Right after graduation too, real smooth. You have: ten minutes – remaining. Please return to your AUTO in: one minute. I really need to exercise more. If I make it home, I’m changing my settings to active. Wait, there’s the clearing! Hurry up you worthless legs. Alert: you are not inside your AUTO with – ten seconds – remaining. Yeah, yeah… Please return to your AUTO… I’m in, I’m in… if it will recognize my print… come on… five seconds – remaining don’t do this to me!... violation in three, two… come on! …Welcome back. Please adjust your settings for the trip. Thank you. 

…well that was close. 

But where was it? The path. The bird. Everything else was there, except the – ya know – important, weird stuff. Thank you for your destination. Your estimated time of arrival is... Maybe there’s something I’m missing. Something I haven’t seen yet. I need to go back to the dream, see it again. Please select a control setting & secure your safety belt. In two days everything will back up to main server & it’s over. So long Tau – & who knows what else? Even if I delete everything now, the journal backs up internally every hour & they can recall all saves, so I’m going back. You have selected: sleep. I have to go back. I don’t know how long I’ll be out – or what I’ll accomplish – but if I can’t figure this out, if I can’t submit proof, if I can’t defend my inquiry, I’ll have no chance at all. It’s my only hope now. I’ve gone too far.

I’m going to shut the audio off to conserve battery. Hopefully, I’ll be right back. 

 


THE CLUE


I’ve thrown up so much blood, I think I might die. I’m watching it pool – a murky burgundy, slowly covering this pale carpet – but I can’t move. I’m just going to hang my head here… bile dripping. Let it drip. I’m never moving again. I just had the worst dream of my life – & these days that’s saying something – so excuse me while I slowly, grudgingly, remember it. Hold on. 

I’ve got it – I’m just not exactly in a hurry to re-live it.

To say it was different from all the others would be an understatement so I’ll just start at the beginning. I was in the car on the way home, falling asleep, & I woke up as though I’d just nodded off. In fact, it took me a while to even realize I was dreaming. Only when I looked up & saw our fine, feathered friend staring back at me did I know for sure. This time though, it didn’t stick around; once it saw me, see it – it took off – & from where I was sitting in the control hub, I couldn’t see it anymore. I threw my head around to try & find it but it was gone. I thought – in that slow drip of thoughts that plague you in dreams, especially when you’re trying to do something, get somewhere – I thought, “well this is pretty strange. I have to sit here in the car – strapped in – waiting – watching the horizon go by. What kind of dream is that?” What was the point of showing me this? So I concentrated. As much you can in a semi-conscious state, I guess. But nothing. Just the same Avenues & Intersections. Not a single difference – no distortions, no weirdness – nothing out of the ordinary from what a real drive through is like & that’s probably normal. Driving anywhere around here is always the same.

We’re not altogether sure what’s habitable or not.

From what I know – which is whatever I’ve read on my feed – there’s not many of us left anyway. So we can’t exactly go testing anything out. We can’t risk losing anyone. We know we’re not in any immediate danger because we can spend small amounts of time outside with no visible side effects. Like I said, we don’t really test it – & there’s nothing more on the feeds –  so there’s nothing more known. The Network sends out notifications when the Air & Toxicology group receives any “distressing data” & we’re to stay inside. Even though I have never seen a Post where someone’s died out there, it’s always better to be safe. You can also Food Request any additional supplements if you’re afraid of contamination – so I wasn’t too worried. Besides, I go from the Residence to the Work Block & back to the Residence. Free time Events are only ever an hour & so that’s how long I’ve ever been outside. 

When you’re out there though, it’s pretty easy to get around.

The class system was a nod to the Greek alphabet; the transportation system a nod to the Latin alphabet. Consistency is a thing with the Network. For example, I’m only allowed in Section H, therefore I’m only ever on Avenue H. There are different Intersections through every Avenue – nine in all – on which each corner sits a block. My Residence block is on Intersection 5. So you could say I live at Residence block, Avenue H, Intersection 5, Section H, The Network; if you wanted to spell it all out. There are two Factory blocks – one for clothing, one for rations & supplements – plus three Water Well purification systems & Energy Centers, respectively which make up the other nine Avenue Intersections. If you’re perceptive, you remember I was picked up by my Assigner on Avenue D, which you’d then be correct in guessing means that I was in Section D. Everyone – as I learned a few years ago in Classroom – is born in Section B & raised in Section D. No one lives there. No one goes back there. You’re only ever born or developed there. Hey, B & D! Born & Developed. Look at that.

You see – this is why I use you – you calm me down.

Sadly, though, this pooling blood is hard to ignore, so – back to my story – I arrived home, & everything was normal. Nothing was out of place. Nothing was different in any noticeable way. I walked back inside as quickly as I could – despite having “dream legs” – & stood in the doorway like I was waiting for something to happen. My home has a tiny landing immediately beyond the threshold with nowhere to go but up a moderate staircase – wood, poorly polished – & into a cramped living space. I have a gray sofa, a gray rug, & a small black table positioned to face my monitor. Nothing crazy, standard six-foot display. Behind the living space to my left is the kitchen & down a small hallway to the right of that – my bedroom & the bathroom. I’m standing at the top of the stairs – waiting – when I see it hop from the kitchen into the small hallway leading to my bedroom. I meant to jolt after it but lurched – like walking through thick batter – & when I finally reached the opening to my bedroom, nothing was there. It was quiet. Unnaturally quiet. All of a sudden I heard a slight rapping coming from somewhere in the room. I stepped forward, thinking the bird had gone into my closet or under my bed. I got to my knees. I reached forward to grab the bed sheet. Just when I was inches away, I heard the crack of a beak on wood as loud & purposeful as ever. A single, horrible crack. It was in the nightstand. I stood up & made a movement to open the drawer & that’s when it happened. Hundreds. Thousands. What felt like millions of birds – all of them, the same bird that’s been following me, haunting me, every symbol – they all came at me at once. I couldn’t react, there was no force holding me this time; nothing was keeping me there. I had come willingly. This was my home; I wasn’t in the woods anymore. I was looking for them & they found me. 

I don’t know how I know this, but that was the last dream I’ll have.

***

This one was different. I felt my insides being ripped apart. Destroyed. I can still feel it. It was like they were trying to hollow me out. Clean me like a Jack-O-Lantern. Scraping down & around all the curves of the shell. Next thing I know I’m coming to, nearly choking to death on my own blood. I keep thinking this won’t get worse. I keep thinking I’m going to figure this out soon. Nothing will disrupt my progress, not even distractions. I was going to use this as a shining example for why I deserved better rank. I’d be the one who lost focus, regained it, & solved a mystery of the Network in the process. A hero. 

No doubt this is a nefarious plot against the Network that I’d be rewarded for stopping, right? Now I’ll be lucky if I’m not deleted. Profile removed. See ya, no. 24… okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet, but yes, now I’m sitting here – control side seat – covered in blood, my car covered in blood – but it’s about time I get out. I’m almost scared to go inside though. I’m pretty sure the bird isn’t in my Res – let alone millions of them hiding in my nightstand – but lately you have to wonder! It’s going to sound stupid but I wanted you – the “you” who’s not actually there – to be with me when I did. When I go inside & whatever happens, I’ll feel …safer. I told you it was stupid. Are you ready? I imagine it’s not hard to get ready when you don’t exist.

Oh, what the hell… let’s get this over with…

Walking inside now… Please submit login, please submit login, please submit login… Welcome home, no. 24. – yeah, the welcome is warmly received… Please, come inside, no. 24. Alright, well so far everything seems normal – but then again so did the dream – although, luckily, now my legs seem to be working just fine. Living space is the way I remember leaving it. Cozy. Tidy but not in a scary way. That perfect balance of creative & organized – if I may say so. Balance, focus – that’s probably easiest for me though, if I do say so. The easiest Network trait to adopt that is. “Everything in it’s right place.” I really believe that. There’s actually a song in the Music feed called that too – “Everything in it’s right place.” It’s very hypnotic & meditative, which does tell you all you need to know about how you’ll feel to live that way. “Everything in Its Right Place.” You should listen to it if you haven’t. Great song.

Anyway, this is ridiculous, nothing is here. It’s just normal old Res.

Might as well eat something. Brain fuel, right? Let’s see, what’s on today’s menu. Your menu for ...today, August 13, 2298, is… for breakfast… rhubarb muffin… for lunch… baked potato & broccoli… for dinner… roasted vegetables, quinoa, & chickpeas. Don’t forget your supplements. Don’t forget your supplements. Don’t forget your supplements... Do I ever? Well considering the hour… 21:48… I should be having dinner. Dinner please. Certainly. Plate will be ready in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… Your food is ready. Your food is ready. Ow, dang, it’s really hot. Your food ready. Plate may be hot. Now you tell me. Plate may be hot. Plate may be hot. Alright, I got it, I’m fine, thank you Assistant… I had it the first two times. This is one of my favorite meals though – of my three dinner choices. Usually it’s a sugar & carb for breakfast to provide energy with a combination of carbs, starches, & vegetables for lunch & dinner. We’re not even sure how long we can survive outside so livestock – meat – anything like that is out. Not that I necessarily mind having to not kill something else to live. The Terrariums were modest, mainly root vegetables, things that can grow in low shade because sunlight is much more sporadic now. Lots of potatoes, turnips, beans, cabbage, things like that. There’s still salt, so there’s still taste.

It’s incredible how much you savor dinner when you’ve waited for it.

***

I hope that my slight irregularities lately are going largely unnoticed. I mean my having dinner later than normal – arriving home just on time – this is not what would be considered normal behavior for me. The Network notices patterns as it is itself the best pattern – the best algorithm. It can prepare you for what you want, what you need, before you know you want it, before you know how much you need it. If these things are being noticed, they certainly aren’t violations but any other signs of strange behavior, breaking of norms – I could be in trouble. Slight deviations may as well be massive in the context of things. So I hope they are going unnoticed but I can’t say I’m completely confident about it. Don’t get me confused either, I’m not complaining about being monitored. I understand the necessity. I remind myself every day what the alternative is – or was. It’s worth being bound to a set of rules & guidelines if you can be sure you won’t get hurt – that no one will ever get hurt again. Freedom can’t promise you that. The price of freedom is death. I need to remember that sometimes. Everyone does, I’m sure. My real frustration is with myself & with my behavior lately. It’s not the Network, it’s me.

I’ve been taking things for granted & lost sight of the goal.

“The goal is We, the goal is Us, the goal is peace & global Trust.” The Network Anthem isn’t performed by one person, but recited in unison by all. A chant, not a song. Separatism – even just the optics – begets separatism – which begets fear – which begets hatred – & we know where everything goes from there; have a look two hundred years ago! You’re to recite the Anthem at the end of each day & first thing in the morning during your breathing poses. Stretching & holding your limbs in place – inhaling, exhaling – feeling the calm purpose of a unified goal. I should probably be doing those more than just once a day lately – but here we are. I used to stretch & chant three, four times a day. Re-aligning my mind & my purpose. It’s crazy to think back on that now. I’m more off balance than ever. I let myself become overtaken more & more. I knew I needed to get up & stretch but I’d sit there, re-playing the bird I knew was following me. Immobilized. Why couldn’t my brain force my body to move anymore? It’s like that fist has never let me go. I used to be great at handling distractions too – believe it or not.

You didn’t think the Network wasn’t testing for that, did you?

There’s tons of exciting commercials, over 1,000 approved songs, – & my personal favorite – an infinite amount of puzzles & riddles for these art & logic Events. These were meant to be used, meant to be enjoyed – even meant to be mastered – but there was a catch. You didn’t want to be logged listening for too long, playing too many hours – or you’d lose focus – care only about that… & they would notice. You didn’t want to go to the other extreme either & never enjoy yourself. They felt that, at worst, it showed character defects or, at best, that person was just unhappy. Neither of which you’d really aim for. I’d say a healthy breakdown is 80-20%. I haven’t used distractions more than three a week, ever, but I became pretty good at the puzzles & enjoyed plenty of music. 

The puzzles were largely based on patterns or differences. Pick the differences between this document or decode a set of numbers to spell out a phrase. Things like that. Lately though, I go to start one & - boom – I’m spaced out again, almost in a state of suspension. No reason, no warning. Let’s consider why, shall we? I guess subconsciously I’m hoping it will show up… & for what? I know I think I’m going to catch the bird & be this hero but that’s just plain delusional. That would require this to be a test or an unknown evil. Both of which have very low probabilities of being true. So that’s highly unlikely. The Network hates heroism! “A real hero joins the rest.” A real hero doesn’t act alone, reckless, without Help & Support – hell, not even a quick live chat with Assistance… I’ve said nothing! It’s possible you’ve heard the phrase, “reluctant hero?” I’m starting to understand why none of them are very eager. I’ve done nothing but make things worse. 

***

I’m not myself – I’m not no. 24 – I’m different… I’m polluted or …something.

I know I’m not making any sense but then again I’m not talking to anyone so I can’t be judged, can I? Shame free – well, I suppose until you’re uploaded & well, never mind. You’ll know I’m out of the woods when you stop hearing me, how about that? When I stop recording these, I mean. Until then, I need you just as much as you’re not there. Which is completely & totally. I’m glad that’s settled… I have to say, now that I’ve graduated & always at Work Block, time has slowed to a crawl. Everything is just upkeep, maintenance. I’m only required three hours of online time that can be logged in any combination throughout the week. The rest of the day, well, let’s just say the rest of the day is becoming even more artificial than that. 

Sometimes I wish the old portrayals of the future had been accurate. There’s always some big difference that really deflates any fun from the scenario. Like yes, I work with robots. Real, thinking, moving, bipedal robots – along with some that exist only behind a monitor – but none of them have social abilities. The can’t empathize. It’s math or science or nothing. There’s absolutely no nuance whatsoever. I don’t wish that on them of course – because the awareness of being a slave, feeling it, that’s unconscionable – but I wouldn’t mind a a partner; synthetic or otherwise. Selfish desires aside, the easy fix is to just keep them as unthinking, unfeeling, but highly useful pieces of machinery. Sometimes though, I have to remind myself they’re not capable of ‘behaving’ in any way.

Alright, I’m just going to be honest… I need to check the drawer.

I know it’s stupid – trust me, I know – but I have to! I can’t stop thinking about it, I thought I could be normal, have some food, relax, but I can’t. Just to get it over with now, I’m going to look. The last thing I need is to be up all night unable to sleep. Miss my alarm or something? No way, that’s a dead give away & I’m not ready to be found out. I’d have nothing to show for myself. Nothing to say. It’s not like anything is going to be in there anyway. The same outdated adapters I normally shove in there, never to be seen again. It’s decided, I’m going to look… there’s nothing to fear, nothing to fear, nothing to fear… one firm pull, nothing will be in there, & you’ll laugh, feel stupid & be done with it. Just like the last time, remember? Walking through the woods like a crazy person? Exactly. Nothing was there. Deep breaths &… GO! …well... 

There it is. Your normal drawer – just a drawer. 

Some adapters, all my old SIM cards from growing up, more adapters. There’s has to be something in here. Some hollopacks, batteries – damn it, damn it, damn it! …look, not that a swarm of birds tearing me apart is welcome by any means, but can I get something? Anything? Some sign that there’s any tangible events at play here? So far everything – EVERYTHING – has been internal; mental. Real as all hell – as real as anything ever can be! – that’s not being contested, but nothing I could show anyone! “Proof is positive, hope is empty.” Wait… what is that?... there’s marks here in the wood… no that’s… wait, there’s an opening in the lining at the back here – hold on… let me get something to wedge it – holy crap, holy crap, it’s popping right out! – ho-ly crap. So – alright sorry, you can’t see this – but wait nothing is here… what…

Okay, so the bottom of this drawer wasn’t actually the bottom. It was a trick, like a trap door almost – a second space that I have to believe was meant for hiding something – but there’s nothing in it so… I’m not sure where it is or what it was, but it wasn’t very large. But there is something. So faint I almost missed it! It’s a word or s phrase, I can barely read it, hold on, I need more light… it says: ANTIQUE PROP #2584.

















THE Puzzle


I can see no doors – only walls. Four bright, unblemished white walls of some texture I’m not familiar with. I’m huddled in a corner not sure what to do next. Based on the amount of meals I’ve received I’d say it’s been about three days since I last made an entry. I feel no distress; I feel no anxiety. Only calm. Only purpose. I do feel shame though, but the kind you yearn to rectify. The kind that defines your future. I’ve read about how that happens though, when your Profile’s been suspended by Help & Support. Not much is known but it’s pretty heavily suggested when you’re learning about violating Terms & Conditions in classroom. Oh I guess I should have told you – I’m not at my Residence, I’m at Help & Support – well, Enforcement came & brought me to Help & Support, to be more accurate. 

Everything happened so fast that night.

After I saw what was written in the drawer, a bang louder than I’ve ever heard rang out along with my door flying across the floor, taking out my desk chair & nearly both my legs. Enforcement stormed in, five, maybe six of them. I could see only their masks because with the shock of everything making my vision go shaky & the smoke from the explosion that took my door of it’s hinge, it’s all I could get a clear sight of. They’d be hard to miss anyway. Black rounded helmets with a filtered grill for a mouth & a tinted eye band. Four white stripes diagonal in a smear; like blood. Before I could speak I felt a vibration that turned me off. I don’t know any better way to say it, I just – shut down. It wasn’t like fainting – where you can feel yourself if even for a millisecond go unsteady – this was the same as if I shut off this device. Instant & complete. 

You’re probably wondering how I’m even recording this.

I figured they’d find the journal too but right when I had heard the bang I reflexively grabbed the journal & shoved it into my shoe. To think once I was actually mad when I saw that I had to take the Journal mini out instead of a full scale tablet. When I woke up in the room, it was still there. I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t being watched so I haven’t used it until now. I wanted to study my surroundings first. I’d never been to Help & Support after all. Meals just appear. When I need to use the bathroom, one reveals itself, generally right in the middle of the room, which is admittedly a bit weird. Once I turn my back or drift off to sleep or blink for a prolonged moment & it’s gone. 

The Network always provides basic civil rights, even to a suspended Profile.

Under Network law all Profiles are granted the same right to food, clothing, shelter, & internet, which is a lot more than I could say for the old days; life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness – why not just say, “we’re giving you nothing, good luck”? I’m sure it all sounded so dignified, even righteous, back then but let’s be real: I drop you on an island with rations to last you years, clothes for the environment, & a hut to sleep or I leave you there with “life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness” … who would you rather set you up? I thought so. Now don’t get me wrong, the Network & I aren’t on the best of terms right now – you know, with the whole Profile suspension & all – but there’s always that silver lining:

At least I’m not in the 21st century.

If I were, I’d be in jail – I suppose that’d be the most accurate parallel for the state I find myself in; if you so wanted to do that. The idea of a jail today honestly is hard for the mind to comprehend. Help & Support is a place of care, a place of rejuvenation, not some desolate cell with all your civility stripped from you. When reading about the rehabilitation methods of past centuries, I found it quite hysterical. I don’t mean to be pretentious because obviously with evolution our brains are so much more advanced but still!  How the idea of treating offenders worse would somehow make them better is illogical simply on the face of it. You want to fix something? You nurture it. You value it. You teach it. The idea is the same with a person. 

That’s what the Network is doing to me right now after all; fixing me.

***

Have you ever felt there’s more to your life than what there was?

I don’t mean position or rewards or anything like that, I’m talking about parts of your knowing or your consciousness that you just can’t tap into? Like a past life or a parallel one that you can sense but can’t touch. A file on your hard drive that you know is there but can’t access. Password protected. But why? & by whom? Those are questions that have to wait for now though because I’m about to be released. That’s right! Your favorite Profile has been cleared! The odd part though is I don’t really remember being checked. So I told you what I remembered after I saw the inscription on the dresser & how I found myself at Help & Support – which I only knew because I’d seen the rooms during protocol training. I received my meals & my supplements for two days & this morning I woke up with my profile reinstated & a notification stating I was to return to my Residence at 7:00, resuming all standard activities, following all alerts; no irregularities. You’d be surprised to hear I’m not worried about that at all! When I told you I felt like that last dream was the final one I’d have, turns out I was right… or have been so far anyway. Since being at Help & Support I haven’t dreamt of the bird at all. Perfect, still slumber. 

That’s not to say I haven’t had any dreams, of course.

In fact, there’s only been one dream: I’m in a machine traveling up a very steep hill. Now this vehicle in particular vaguely resembles an AUTO – it’s on four wheels, has an interior hub with controls – only this car is clearly ancient. There’s no central computer for one – it is a dashboard of some kind but a jumble of analog & digital technologies I’ve never seen before, but am somehow controlling. I’m seated as normal, but I’m holding a large plastic wheel with both hands & my right leg is extended tightly, foot pressed hard to the floor. To say it’s an awkward, uncomfortable, & frankly, frightening position is an understatement because this machine is hurtling upward incredibly quickly & I have to guess the safety features aren’t the best. It’s going faster & faster & I just want it to end as I get higher & higher up this hill. I know that I’m making it go & I don’t know how to make it stop when all of a sudden I just… let go. I take my hands off the wheel… I relax my leg, sink back into my seat & feel the car slow… slide backward… & for the briefest of moments I feel relief in a way that makes me feel like I’ve never felt it before that. I know I’m going to fall down that hill. I know I’m going to die. I just don’t care. I’m going to enjoy the ride.

That was last night, actually.

That’s the signal! DO you hear it? The alert said I would hear chimes followed by the gate opening. I’m to follow the sound of the chimes only & it will lead to the exit. Under no circumstances am I to go in any other direction than toward the chiming. I guess that means I should be ready to leave any second now. There’s the door. It’s so bright white in here it looks so dark, I can’t tell if it leads straight outside or if I’m in a larger building. Alright, I’m walking out now. I’m not sure if I’m nervous or excited. The room outside is black. I mean pitch black, blacker than black. & there’s only one thing in it. Another door. Modest size but antique in it’s carving & frame. It is …gold. Oh wow, purely gold. This is incredible. Where am I exactly?

I suppose there’s nothing to do but open it.

***

The light is so startling & my eyes so unprepared for it, I nearly fall right back into my cell… I can’t make out where I am or what’s around me for several minutes. I dropped the journal & was terrified it broke but thankfully these things can take a beating. Alright… wherever I am, I can finally see… sort of… I’m standing at the beginning of a pathway… I’m inside still – the walls are white & there’s some antique molding along the floor & the ceiling… the floor is black… an encompassing, solid black… Wait… okay the door to my room is gone… I guess there’s no turning back now… where the hell am I anyway? It seems there’s no choice but to walk down this hallway – it’s a very long hallway & at the end it splits. I wouldn’t exactly call it a fork because it’s not at a very even angle. One is a hard right & the other is toward the left but rather straight. It’s almost geometrical in here… The walls leading left continue in white while the other is painted gold. Where the hell am I? Alert. You have received your directions. Please continue to Maps on your tablet & follow the route to find your AUTO. Once inside you will be taken to your residence. Ask & you shall receive then! Thanks Network, okay so let’s see here… 

Please follow the gold curve – Please follow the gold curve – Please follow the gold curve – Okay, so I guess we’re going down the gold path to the right here – Please take the white line – Please take the white line – Please take the white line – which I assume refers to the fork up here at the end of this golden hallway because it splits again but this time pretty evenly down the middle, both different colors again – again white or gold – this time we go white I guess! This is strange… there’s only a faint light lining the walls to see by, there’s no signs, I don’t even hear anyone or see any other doors… this can’t all be just for me… can it? 

Making all of this even stranger – as if that’s even possible – is that this seems familiar in way. Not that I think I’ve been here before, in fact I know I haven’t but something just feels… off. Please continue down the next… two… white… hallways. Please continue down the next… two… white… hallways. This is the longest exit ever, I mean why not just wake me up back at my Residence? Or at least outside? There’s got to be a reason for it to be done like this. No purpose, no profile. There’s logic in everything the Network does; logic in the housing systems, transportation, classroom & working assignments – there must be purpose in this too.  Please continue down the next… two… gold… hallways. Please continue down the next… two… gold… hallways. Naturally though, purpose would be my biggest problem wouldn’t it? I could organize with the best of them, pay the closest attention & remember every sequence & pattern I saw… details are not an issue. I didn’t need help possessing the necessary skills to contribute to the Network, I lacked the focus. I always made excuses for it, you could even say I was in denial but I was so good at the minutia of it, the check ins, the consistency, the organization, that I shouldn’t be surprised I ended up a Tao. What reason did I ever give, what proof did I ever show the Network that I could also serve a purpose. Maybe this has been the test all along. Just like the games & puzzles & music. You couldn’t be too consistent, too predictable or you would be labeled as distracted. Maybe focus isn’t singular… focus is dimensional… balanced.

Could the bird have been from… The Network?

***

Signs come in all shapes & sizes. Some are tiny, shy – sneaking in & out of sight just long enough for you to catch a glimpse, but not long enough to know it was real – others are massive, lumbering – fixtures of your vision you can never escape, but too intimidating to confront.  Rarely ever are they clear, modest – reasonable, achievable. That’s what makes them recognizing them so important. This is all starting to make sense. The markings weren’t random feathers on a bird, they were directions! The ultimate game – the ultimate pattern to solve – to prove your worth to the Network! I wasn’t brought to Help & Support because I’d done something wrong – I was brought here because I had solved the puzzle – they knew when I saw what that drawer was that there was no point delaying any longer – the rest of us weren’t here to monitor the oxygen levels or the rest of life on Earth… it was to see who could focus best – see through the repetition -- & somehow, I was able to do that…

I can’t have been the only one though – I fought the bird sightings for awhile, how soon did No. 12 or No. 8? With so many Profiles having beaten me out for better Societal Contributions, how can I possibly believe I was the first to come here? To have figured out, what I can only imagine is called, the bird puzzle? They had the same opportunities I have had no doubt – how could I have been so myopic!? Freedom wasn’t dangerous because people were allowed to choose their dinner or where they lived but because they were free to make any choice – even those that hurt the world, hurt themselves. It’s like you earn freedom when you know the right reasons to exercise it. 

I never was good at that kind of thing after all; making choices.

It’s much easier when everything is decided for you. Just tell me what to do. The anxiety of choosing, let alone the anxiety of making the wrong choice – & nothing helps compound that for you like constantly making the wrong choices. After a certain point I think it’s just trajectory – acceleration – physics really – too many wrong choices & the inertia has you lunging in a direction so far it will take an equal & opposite force to push you back. That’s why free will can be so dangerous – nothing is tethering you – nothing is holding you accountable to yourself & to the impact you have on the lives of others around you. Unlimited free will allows you or me to harm the world we all experience. How can the Network understand this like I do & still present me with this puzzle? 

Please continue left down the …white… hallway. Wait… my notes say that the next marking was one gold line, so it should be telling me to go down the gold hallway. I know I have it right too. Is this part of the test? What are these walls made of anyway? They have a distinct color, bright & brilliant – & they’re solid to the touch – but they almost… hum... Please continue left down the …white… hallway… like have you ever seen a blurry photo? Where the shape & outline of a person is solid but there’s this almost ghostly vibration? Imagine that on everything but yourself – Please continue left down the …white… hallway… I’m going to trust myself, I’m going to follow my instincts. You are not following the specified directions. Please turn around. Please turn around. Please turn around. 

No, I won’t. 


THE test

The soles of my feet are sore & bruised. My knees ache & my mind is dull. It’s been five days. There were 20 individual markings in those six days where I had dreams & navigating them would vary from feet to miles. Walking wasn’t so much the problem – though yes, it did hurt incredibly badly & my knees gave out several times – it was the humming. The pulsing, vibrations that never end in here. It seems to do nothing but grow, which seems to me to be part of the test – endurance & focus go hand & hand. I haven’t been recording because I wanted to be sure I had enough battery for when I reached the end of… wherever I’m going. I just didn’t realize it was going to take this long! Also, the alerts were starting to really get on my nerves. I never ignored them before so it was very new to be bothered by them. Please turn around, please turn around.

I hope that wasn’t cheating. 

It was also difficult because the directions started really diverging from what my notes were so it was distracting too. I also had to back track to the beginning to make sure I had followed my notes properly all along so needless to say I am exhausted. Now I have good news & I have bad news. The good news is I’ve finally reached the end – I am talking to you right? – but the bad news that it’s a dead end. I mean that figuratively & literally as the wall is covered in a bed of rotting plants, like a wall garden that hasn’t been tended to in millennia. The corridor narrows & arches toward the center creating a point at the top – imagine the door to a large cathedral, very much shaped in that way – only the wall is solid & covered in dead flowers. The strange part – would it be me if there wasn’t a strange part? – is that when you go to touch these plants, they don’t crumble, the don’t even budge, it’s like they’re carved, porcelain even.

I’ve always been fascinated by the quality of such things as you know… The way a human’s hand could ever create something so marvelous always astounded me. It’s fairly easy to imagine a robot or auto being so accurate & precise, I mean… math & everything. Take the fabled Sphynx’s face – now while it was destroyed during the invasion, the history has remained that tells of a geometrical symmetry seemingly impossible to be achieved without the help of computers – something that man wouldn’t pioneer for a couple thousand more years… so how exactly could they have done that? It almost makes you wonder how primitive they actually were & considering how few – if anyone – could do that now in the same way, how can we call ourselves advanced?

I think way too much.

I can’t help myself either, it’s like I condition myself to my environment so quickly that all I have left to do is think about the particulars of it – the why or the where from – which I’m starting to think is more of a burden than anything else. A healthy patience, reluctance even, might do me some good. The Network has always graciously, dutifully, provided me with all the information necessary & I am forever grateful but is that why it never stops? It’s never quiet. I can never just – exist. Breathe & enjoy you are. Always consuming, always processing, it’s like what difference is there, really, now between the computer & I? 

Hold on, hold on, something’s happening…

The carving is rumbling, something is moving, the walls are – about to explode – what the hell is going on – my ears almost popped out of my head, that was terrible & it better not happen again…   

***

“A flower’s name holds the truth. Speak it now & move on through” – it’s carved there clean as day, like it’s been there all along but I swear on everything it wasn’t. There’s debris everywhere, mainly stones of varying sizes – some boulders, some pebbles, luckily nothing on my head or well, that’d have been a pretty anticlimactic ending for us don’t ya think? So that door? The large as a cathedral door with an angled, pointed center? It’s still covered in these porcelain, clearly wilted, flowers but now below it in the smoothest of carvings this… riddle? Puzzles & riddles, I swear the Network is getting predictable – either that or I’m just always lucky because this is another of my strengths! The real shame is having no floral knowledge of any kind. I haven’t been able to get internet where I’m at which marks the first time in my entire memory that’s happened but I’m also not sure I’m anywhere near above ground, given the whole, like, earthquake thing. 

I can’t really be sure about anything that’s going on anymore & I’m kind of having anxiety about it. I DISOBEYED THE NETWORK! – even though it was for the Network – I know my intention is to pass the test, I only mean to serve the Network with pride – & I know I recorded the patterns correctly – I trusted myself… I hope I don’t live to regret it. Honestly, I just hope I live! To come this far & be deleted or find out I’ve completely ruined my life because of a bird & some dreams, I’m going to be pretty upset. 

I suppose I wouldn’t BE anything…

While we’re on the subject I guess I can confess to you… I always wanted to be uploaded to the cloud when I died. I know some people prefer to simply dispose of their body & be done with it but I want to continue on. I want to exist – even as consciousness – within the system. When that advancement was first achieved it was abused to such a point that the interfaces became wastelands of debauchery & filth. After the invasion though, most of those servers were destroyed so they did a hard reset of everything & – as you well know – your contributions to the Network determine that now. I was already facing a setback becoming a Tao, this would be the final nail in my coffin – pun intended. There’s just something about existing in thought that I can’t allow myself to let go of. Maybe because I’m thinking while I …think it?

Maybe one of those rocks did fall on my head after all…

Clearly, because in case you forgot No. 24, you forgot, I don’t know, the mysterious stone riddle that’s appeared before you after the roof almost came in & your head nearly exploded. You ever think your brain is purposefully trying to distract you from something? Like it’s actually an independent, conscious being trying to steer you away from your own thoughts or memories? …I need to get out of here. Okay, okay, focus… focus. “A flower’s name holds the truth. Speak it now & move on through.” A flower’s name holds the truth. The truth. What’s the truth? Honesty? Truthfulness? As much as it sounds like a flower, I’m not sure there’s a Truthfulness. Think. What is the truth? Not… a lie? Wait, that’s it! A lie! The truth is what a lie lacks! Lilacs! 

Oh yeah, I’m definitely on to something now…

***

Every single porcelain flower has fallen & the door now lays ajar – only slightly – there’s this hum and a faint off-white glow is permeating at strict angles out every crevice of the frame – I’m terrified – I am absolutely terrified. Do I have to tell you that part or can you just sense it? Looking behind me I see nothing but the faint glow of the last hallway & MUCH debris. I can’t be sure anyone has ever been where I am right now. I also have this faint sense that I’m being listened to – or like this place is reacting to me – I know it sounds crazy. But how else did it register my ‘answer”? & if this place is listening, did it cause that earthquake on purpose? & was it because of something I said? If this is how deletion begins, the Network certainly brings out the bells & whistles, that’s for sure. 

I suppose there’s nothing left to do but – walk through the door… it feels normal so far, only so bright I can’t see anything – wait a minute, it’s Center City, the Network capital! – how’d we get here & why’s it so empty. I mean EMPTY. Not a single AUTO in sight. They should all be here. The last time I visited I couldn’t even move without almost knocking into someone’s AUTO. I only ever travelled here for Graduation but in every picture online too it’s wall to wall with them. Wait a minute, I don’t have my suit on either! I’m not in an AUTO! How am I not… dead? I can’t breathe out here… but now, I can… where am I? 

I can’t tell you how thrilling this feels. There’s this tingle coursing over my entire body. Like someone is whipping the air back & through, knocking against me – is this wind? The warmth of the sun – words can not do this justice – I can feel my skin almost for what feels like the first time – It’s so – weird – breathing in Earth’s oxygen – the only oxygen consumer I knew were the trees back in the Acre Wood. What’s all this for though? 

It’s the bird! I’m going after it… 

WHOA! – Ow… that hurt… Sorry, the entire world just…rotated… & I fell out of the sky so I may need a second… Oh, my back -- Okay maybe a lot more than a second & maybe I really am being deleted because… I can’t get up – considering I have no body to move at all… – the world didn’t shift, I did – what is this? What’s going on? Where’s my body, okay this is so beyond strange, how am I still thinking? I’ve been deleted. That’s it, I’m about to be erased completely. Maybe the body is easy to scrap. Well, this sucks, I can’t even close my eyes or hold my breath or anything else you would want to do when you’re trying to prepare for your demise. 

No. 24. I am here to ask you questions. Your answers will be truthful. You can answer in no other way. Your answers will be required. You can not stop yourself from replying. We shall begin… now. 

Okay, well, charmed to meet you too I’m sure – but I’m not sure I can really think at the moment, considering I have no head… 

There will only be one question. Everything you have learned on your journey has lead you to this point. Remember, there is only one answer. There is only one answer. There is only one answer.

Which is more valuable, trust or loyalty?

…Trust.

Congratulations. You have passed the test.

***

Wallace Messenger – 33 – Wallace Messenger – 33 – Wallace Messenger – 33… 

OFF! I’m out, I’m out.

Welcome back. Welcome back. Welcome back.

If it’s so welcome, why does my head hurt this much? They never said it would hurt this much. A slight dullness they said; nothing crazy. This feels like my entire body has been broken apart at an atomic level & put back together… badly. I hope they’re recording this too, because I want that on record. Wil told me it was a breeze & barely even hurt. Remind me to never trust her again. What day is it anyway? It is January 9, 2299 – wait, WHAT?! I can’t believe I spent the last twenty weeks in there! It only felt like a couple of days! I wonder if that’s how it is for everyone. But I guess if you’re going to live under their umbrella, you’re going to follow the rules. 

Where’s my suit anyway? Am I supposed to stand here naked? Anyone? The plasma has started to …coalesce in places… I’d really like to just know if I were accepted or not – Lily & I need this or we’ll starve this year, there’s no way around that. This is our last opportunity. I mean, it’s everyone’s last opportunity because after the first Nuclear War obliterated our planet, the super rich left for the Mars compounds, everyone of course, except for Caldwell. Unless you can prove you’re worthy of freedom through an uploaded reality test he called, “The Network” – which, now I get it – you had to fend for yourself out with the hordes & purgers. Still not sure I’m a fan of the test but if it gets us in, it’ll be worth it. 

There’s pretty few choices for anyone anymore. Once everything collapsed & the old powers that be just… left… it was a mad scramble for what remained. But that void was too powerful, it kept collapsing in on itself until everything was either destroyed, or had no value left anyway. Some went looking for land that could be farmed – & are no doubt dead by now – others joined up here – & the families like Lily & I have until our stock pile runs out – or is stolen to figure something out – there’s rumors of ships capable of reaching the Moon Colony but hell if I could find them. This was the only option I had – I just thought it’d be a little more straight-forward.

I should’ve known though when they asked to access my memories – the adoption, the car crash, even my fear of clowns. I do remember hearing Congratulations. You have passed the test – so what’s the hold up? Still just, standing here, starting to get a little cold. Holy crap – holy crap, it’s not just me in here – there’s another… person. I can’t really see them clearly because the lens of the test pod is this weird blue green prism looking thing. That’s the scientific term for it too by the way. I wonder what they applied for – oh wow – Space! That’s exciting. I’m pretty sure there’s no way I could’ve handled that one. 

Congratulations – you narrowly passed – You trusted the Network, you trusted yourself. Here are your clothes. A message with further details has been sent to your phone. You may go… & join the Greater Good.

I did it… I can’t believe I actually did it! – wait what was that? Did you hear that thud? It came from space… person’s pod – it looks like they’re in trouble – okay, okay where are the files – here they are! Should probably start with this one Profile 24 – wait I was 24 – Audio Journal – Entry Zero – Play now? Play now? Play now?

Yes.

“I’m still not sure I should be doing this.”  














epilogue


“Thanks for, um… saving me back there…”
“It was nothing, really… I couldn’t leave you there, not like that…”

“…sorry about your wife…”

“Oh, yeah, that’s… also nothing, actually. We were never the same. Not after losing everything. I thought maybe she’d have missed me – Sorry, I’m probably boring you…”

“It’s okay – I kind of owe you…”

“Let’s just get out of this alive & we’ll call it even – deal?”

“Deal.”

“So, um… you didn’t happen to learn how to pilot a ship – in your pod?”

“I did, actually – what else would a girl in space do? …why do you ask?”

“Well, you weren’t the only thing they’ll find is missing – I may have, possibly synced my phone with their internal servers – their mainframe security is surprisingly lazy…” 

“You hacked Caldwell!?”

“Maybe…”

“You take an awful long time getting to the point, has anyone ever told you that?”

“…I haven’t been around anyone in awhile…”

“Sorry…”

“You don’t ever have to apologize. Not to me… so… …you want to steal a ship? “
“Wait… what?!”

“Files here say it’s called The Cavatica – & let me tell you… it sure is something…”