The sky grasped at a shade of blue that it seemed to have no right to possess. A pure luster, clear of clouds and sitting atop the world like a heavenly diadem, that somehow was available to all.
I was at the park again, the grass without any hint of decay, without any stains from the weathering of tracks or time.
Children played in the foreground of this living painting. I watched them negotiate the rules of play without any fuss. Not a single siren stirred in the distance. I thought back to my own childhood and how idyllic it had been.
Idyllic. The word rang true and false at the same time. My mother had been kind and my father had been attentive. They were still married. It had seemed as if they had always been married, and try as I might I could not remember a single time they argued with each other. As for my sister, she was a famous actress, just as she had always wanted to be. I was a renowned academic at Stanford teaching Roman history to undergraduates and doctorate students. Just as I had always wanted to do. My wife was kind, like my mother. Beautiful and with flowing red hair and nearly luminescent white skin; we had met in high school on the track team. She wasn’t with me at the park, I forget why.
Poker night was held at my friend Scott’s house. We played with all of the guys, eight intellectually engaged and funny guys. I can’t remember what they said, I never seem able to, but I know how they make me feel. I got along with all of them, and none of us ever missed a game. I had made a fortune off of these poker games over the years.
My friends would joke that I was the most handsome guy in the group, and it was true. My jaw was powerful without being overwhelming and the dimensions of my face fit perfectly with my body, which was also impeccable. I would workout perhaps once a week, when I felt like it, but the perfect amount of muscle mass remained, nonetheless. I had nearly perfect facial symmetry, and could not remember when it was otherwise.
But something was off. When I looked in the mirror, if I really stared into my reflection, there was some presence other than my own. Something discordant. It is my face. It is my body. But it does not seem to be my own. I tap the mirror every now and again, as if some bubble will pop and a new image will appear. I tap repeatedly, and not convinced of the image I begin to guess that my finger is defective in some way as well. That it is deceiving me. This picture of a perfect digit, large and well formed. And a thought alien to all my experience came into my head.
I should cut my finger off.
I had never cut myself before, not even unintentionally. I had deft hands and constant coordination – perfect awareness. Looking at my kitchen knives the next morning, I decided to ignore the impulse. I thought that had been all it was, an intrusive notion. But why? My mind did not wander on its own. I always thought with clean and clear deliberation, instantaneously. Why was this different?
I sat at the park once again. Classes had been canceled. Men and women held hands as they walked through the park, a soft breeze greeting them under the careful glow of sunlight. But there, again, in the stillness lurked something imperceptible yet felt. Something omnipresent. It was in the blades of grass, within the trees, even within the sunlight itself. I touched the grass, it felt crisp, well-watered, and healthy. In another sense it felt plastic. All objects lost their sense of heft.
Looking at the cars soar by on the open road, there was no real weight to these things. The wheels glided across smooth hard rock without real friction. In that moment I felt I could lift a car without exerting any effort. I picked up my satchel to make sure that objects still had weight. It was exactly as heavy as it had been before, but the sensation would not abate, even after I walked over to a parked car and tried to lift it by placing my hands under the front of the vehicle and straining myself until red in the face. The handsome and beautiful people around me started to seem rubberized, as if I could slice into them and spill no blood. Only an endless expanse of skin would greet me, a false and monochrome skin.
Days passed as I sat in this feeling. “What is it that doesn’t satisfy me? What am I looking for?” I developed an obsession for finding something which I could not name, could not articulate even to myself in the pre-language of inchoate thought. I was looking for something inside of things that appeared to be missing.
I pulled up a chair and sat in front of the bathroom mirror, with a kitchen knife resting on the counter. My heart was strangely calm, no sensation stirred me to panic as I lifted the blade. I cut into my finger and a trickle of blood spurted out. I tried to keep cutting. The blade would not dig in deeper. A light wound and nothing more. Using all of my force, I pushed the blade against my finger, but the cut remained as a minor imperfection on otherwise unblemished skin. But how? That knife had sliced apart chicken bone just a few days ago. What maternal shield was I ensorcelled in? Am I one of the rubber people?
“How am I real if I cannot be harmed?”
I took my index finger and placed it inside of my mouth, sitting on the bottom row of my teeth at the front of my mouth. I bit down as hard as I possibly could. An impossible pain shook me, and a heartbeat thundered underneath reality with the force of cannon-fire. A bloody fire took root in my finger as I tore through gristle and grinded down to bone, an all consuming red shot out like a signal flare across my field of vision. To say I had never felt this kind of agony would be such an understatement that it would be tantamount to a lie. This was the sensation of a different reality, one completely removed from the blue skies and green grasses of my favorite park, a reality unknown to my gorgeous, kind wife. This was the wrath of God. My world burned and I bit down more. I chewed and crunched until I heard a snap, and what remained of my finger broke off into my mouth. I would never see this world again.
“Code 777, I repeat, Code 777, we have another one!”
The sound of boots bearing heavy men came barreling toward me, clapping against echoic metal flooring at a swift clip. Even before noticing the total darkness that I was enveloped in my finger stole my attention. It burned with a needle-sharp ache that burrowed into my hand and through my body. The finger was gone. I felt around for it with my tongue, sticking it out into the black but found nothing. I turned my head and felt a cold metallic barrier. I could hardly move my head in either direction, and my body was unresponsive. My heart was beating furiously. It was a familiar rhythm but its closeness felt almost unnatural. I was convinced I was dying, or perhaps that I had already died.
“Unit 39 is out of Zone. Take him to the ward. Be careful not to remove the Plug until Dr. Kiro says so.”
“What is going on? What’s ha–“
I stopped at the sound of my voice. Was this my voice? It was thin, nasally and at least an octave higher than it should have been. I got no response from whoever was outside of the dark. How could they see?
Strong arms picked me up, a limp and fragile thing. The frailty of my body was apparent in that grip, I thought that I must be a child. He, that force moving me from beyond the nothing I was trapped in, dumped me off onto a metal platform covered by a thin sheet of cheap cotton. I lay there, afraid to speak and rolling off into another place unknown to me.
Hours passed, or possibly minutes. I felt I couldn’t trust my perception of time in that utter lack. My limbs were unresponsive, but present. Someone had voicelessly bandaged what remained of my finger, which was not present. I tried to picture my wife’s face, or even the sound of her voice, but nothing registered. I knew that I had a wife but each time I searched for her face nothing came to me. I focused on recalling her until a faded, rippled image stared at me. She was imprecise and clouded as if brought out of a dream. I had to concentrate to make her hair red. The image seemed to default to a dark brown color. How do I know she had red hair?
Footsteps approached, the steps were soft and measured. A slight man’s voice arose.
“Hello Hank. I’m Dr. Kiro. You probably have many questions,” he said with a comforting kindness. “I do as well.”
I didn’t speak.
“I need you to answer if you can. Can you hear me, Hank?”
“Y-yes,” I croaked, clearing my throat.
“Do you know where you are?”
“No. Where am I?”
“Do you remember where you were?”
“I was in my…in my bathroom. Where am I, please-”
“Just a moment, please.” Dr. Kiro smiled. “And what were you doing in your bathroom?”
What came next at once felt new and distantly familiar. I believe the feeling was shame.
“I…” looking down at my frail hands, “I took my finger off. I bit it off.”
“I can see that. Why did you bite off your finger?”
“Because I couldn’t cut it off.”
A chuckle came from Kiro.“And why were you trying to cut it off?”
I paused and thought. Kiro seemed more patient this time.
“I’m not sure.”
“You people always say that. Try again,” Dr. Kiro said, curtly.
“I wanted something else.”
“Go on. What else.”
“I wanted…I wanted the thing behind the plastic. To get…that something that is behind things. I don’t know. I can’t really explain it.”
The doctor’s demeanor lost all kindness. “You threw away the perfect life for something you can’t even describe. You don’t even know why you did it, do you? You don’t even know where you are. A child fumbling in blackness.” With pressed lips, Dr. Kiro once more spat “Try again.”
“Am I dead?”
“You might as well be.”
Dr. Kiro turned to walk away. Footsteps receded at a hurried pace. A door closed.
I was alone.
Dr. Kiro was the CEO and founder of KryoDynamics, a successful Comprehensive Reality Generator provider that allowed customers to enter idealized realities crafted to eliminate all suffering from all external factors. War, crime, pestilence, boredom, depression, jealousy, feelings of inadequacy; all the roots of misery were stripped from the reality generated by Dr. Kiro’s proprietary software. The customer can pay exorbitant fees to remain in the CRG for as long as he desires, and the greater the time requested the greater the cost.
A popular trend is to spend one’s golden years in the CRG, living a stable life of permanent youth. KyroDynamic’s two largest customer pools are middle-class consumers who unwisely spend what little money they have in the CRG for a day or two at a time, and retirement clientele who spend upwards of 15 years in the CRG, often contracting to remain in KyroSleep until death for a discounted yearly rate paid in a lump sum.
Customers have a helmet, called a Plug, placed over their heads which emits a patented slew of electrical waves to induce a state of total coma. Once in this state, the body cannot be piloted in any way, and the brain is kept from decay thanks to targeted electrical stimulation designed to fire neurons without removing the customer from KyroSleep.
Internal Memo – COPYING OR DISTRIBUTING THIS DOCUMENT WITHOUT AUTHORIZATION FOR ANY REASON IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN AND WILL RESULT IN IMMEDIATE TERMINATION
To: Dr. Greene, Dr. Salis, Dr. Lao, Dr. Strauss, Mr. Burkowski, Mr. Caldwell
From: David Dolbrooke, CFO
Preliminary research on the phenomenon of self-termination of KyroSleep has yet to be performed in any rigorous manner. Frequency of self-termination has increased dramatically in end-of-life patients in particular. A lack of adequate bookkeeping prevents more precise data from being attained at the time being, but this issue is being amended currently by the Technologies Division.
Needless to say, self-termination jeopardizes the continued existence of KyroDynamics if left unchecked. Clients need to be able to trust in the service we provide and that means being given what has been contracted for.
What we know so far is that self-termination is accomplished, somehow, through an overriding of the Plug’s KyroSleep inducement waves and the onset of acute physical pain via self-harm. Often, self-termination is caused by severe bodily damage such as self-mutilation. Several self-terminating clients have bitten off fingers, and one even bit off his tongue. Given intravenous feeding, perhaps look into more complete forms of restraint for the jaw. I don’t see why it is necessary for a client to move his mouth while in KyroSleep. Post-termination interviews are seemingly ineffective and yield vague or entirely unintelligible answers to basic questions. Thus far we have no explanation for self-termination, why certain clients are moved to it, or how they accomplish this task. We must understand how the Plug is being overridden and what cognitive processes are at play.
The first few days in this world were the most upsetting. My body was not as I had dreamed it. My skin deflated and lecherous and crawling with liver spots. Several of my teeth were missing, and of course I had a missing finger. I had no hair. My nose enormous and shriveled. Nothing about my body was the same. I was not merely 40 years older than I had believed I was, but I was probably ugly to begin with. I remembered almost nothing of my life before entering KyroSleep, and all the memories of my life in the CRG were faded and diaphanous.
The light was overwhelming. The sun broke through my closed eyelids and scorched orange. Preparing my body and senses using any technological aid I could, I was able to walk outside without cybernetic assistance within a week.
I found myself at the park. Old plastic bottles plastered with grime and sludge from the oil sodden streets littered the walkways. The grass was a sickly shade of green, patched with yellow and dead spots from dehydration. Homeless beggars slept and sat hunched over staring into the ground with vacant intensity. A new sensation gripped me, or perhaps it was very old. I wanted to look away, a rushing pressure built itself ever higher in my abdomen. Was this disgust?
My attention was taken by the occasional passerby, often a young man walking alone in the cold light of day. It made me sad to look at them. They reminded me of myself, shuffling through the hours and haunted by absence. I wondered if they had anyone worth caring for in their lives, and I felt my utter lack more profoundly. I had no wife, my parents were certainly dead given my advanced age, and as far as I knew I had no children. A leaf, rotted brown and punctured with holes made by gnawing insects, fell without ceremony from a nearby tree and landed by my feet as I sat on a small hill, cut off of its branch by the wind. I let it rest.
Tears welled up in my eyes and fell slantways as the breeze pushed them. I questioned if I had made a mistake in leaving KyroSleep. A dog ran at me, a pug slobbering with excitement on clumsy legs. A small girl, who must have been around six years old, walked over to the dog at my feet. I waved and grinned at the girl’s mother watching from the walkway down the hill. Then we looked at each other, the girl and I, locking eyes. The girl’s face remained still. I looked down, suddenly conscious of myself as an old man and not wanting to concern her mother. The girl’s feet left my view. Moments later she returned with one arm outstretched, holding out a white daisy. Its stock was a lively green, and the petals shone pure white around a bright core. She held out the flower without a single word, waiting for me to take it. Her face had a determined and sympathetic look, a stoic kindness that expected nothing. I reached out and took the flower.
She nodded once and trotted down the hill to her mother with her dog in tow. I waved once more and the mother smiled, patting her daughter on the back and leaning down to kiss her on the top of her head. I began to cry once more. But this time the tears felt warm on my face, and a pleasant glow was in my chest. I could feel my heart pump with a steady and clear rhythm, and I knew I was filled with blood and connective tissue and organs and bone. I felt an expanding of my being, a possession of my body by something underneath my insides. As I looked out over the people in the park I sensed a kinship between myself and them. Something in me wanted the best for them. I sat there until the sun departed over the horizon, grateful that it would rise again.