When I enter my father’s apartment,
I see him sitting on the living room sofa
As he smokes a cig in front of a full ashtray.
He is wearing a tattered grey sweater
And baggy jeans with holes in the knees.
I intended to ignore him and walk away,
But he wipes his eyes and intercepts me.
This old man always looked tired and worn;
Now he is paler than I have ever seen him,
With dark circles under his eyes,
Which are bloodshot and teary.
He’s also unshaven, and he smells awful.
“You just don’t care at all anymore,” he mutters,
“Coming back home in the middle of the morning.”
I’m disturbed because the old man had cried,
As evidenced by the dry trails of tears,
And I’m also embarrassed by his appearance.
“What’s the matter now?” I ask, annoyed.
“What’s the matter? You should be in school.”
I scratch my head. What day is it today?
“Yeah, well, I’m not going to school anymore.”
My father frowns, and takes a drag on his cig
With a hand that shivers as if he were freezing.
“I thought you would deny it.
I called, you know, and they told me
That you haven’t attended for weeks!
You even missed vital exams!”
I sigh. What a bother, dealing with this clown
For who the opening of a bakery is an event.
“There’s no such thing as a vital exam
For someone who won’t pursue an education.”
My father frowns, clenches his teeth,
Then throws his cig into the ashtray.
“So what now, are you just going to drop out?
Don’t you care at all about your future?”
“First of all, no, I don’t give a fuck
About whatever you would consider ‘a future’.
People abandon their kids in school
Because homeschooling is no longer a thing.
Most families require two salaries to survive,
So they need to park their kids somewhere,
And it’s convenient for the state, of course:
It wants to decide what goes into our heads.
As a result your vulnerable son ended up caged
Among wild beasts who mocked and insulted me,
Causing me mental issues that will never heal.
As students, we were mere recipients of nonsense
Meant to raise obedient, harmless slaves
That will vote for the government and shut up
Instead of taking arms and hanging them,
Which is what all of that rotten scum deserves.
If I bothered to suffer through my education,
The day I would start my life as a wage slave,
I would discover that beyond basic math,
Nothing else I had learned would ever help.
I would have just wasted many precious years
To receive some papers that certify me as a fool.”
Before I finished speaking,
My father grabbed his head
And walked to the sofa as he grunted.
He plops down and hunches over,
His elbows resting on his knees,
And then he stares at the floor.
“I can’t believe you’re so stupid.
Or maybe this is all my fault.
I raised you all by myself,
So this must have been my failure.”
Maybe I should get mad, but I don’t care.
Nothing about this rotten world concerns me.
In a short while, Glyca and I will be gone,
Maybe to Russia or Australia or the moon,
Where we’ll run around, eat people and fuck.
“Why would you be surprised about failing at this?
Haven’t you failed at everything else?
Besides, you can relax. I don’t need an education.
For the first time in my life, I’m truly happy.”
My father snorts derisively, and raises his voice.
“Happy? How could you possibly be happy?
Your face is full of the worst kind of acne,
Your mother abandoned us early on,
You are a loner who’s never had any friends,
You have thrown away your future,
And I’m sure you plan to never get a job.
You’ll end up dead in a ditch somewhere.
Do you think I want that to happen to you?”
“You are worrying for nothing, dad.
I’m doing great. I have a lovely girlfriend
Who loves me, and accepts me for who I am.”
My father buries his face in his hands.
“I guess this is psychosis,” he mutters bitterly,
“Or however they call it when someone loses it.
Yet, you disappear for hours who knows where,
Although several people have gone missing lately.”
“You don’t have to worry about me disappearing,
Because my girlfriend is the one eating people.”
My father rubs his eyes, then stands up wearily.
Although he turns towards me, he avoids my gaze.
“Are you doing drugs? Is that what’s going on?
You are mentally absent, and walk awkwardly…”
I chuckle at the irony of me doing drugs
When I’ve been involved in reducing
The number of drug-related people that live.
“I walk weird because my body is adapting
To me having stuff shoved deep into my ass.
But I’m only taking in my girlfriend’s tail!
I’m not going around getting fucked by men.”
My father facepalms, then groans.
“What are you talking about?
You aren’t making any damn sense!”
He sniffles and wipes his eyes.
“I’m taking you to see a doctor,
That one who once prescribed you pills.”
“You’re crazy, dad. I’m not sick in the head.
I have no reason to go see a shrink.
Besides, they prescribe shit carelessly;
It may make my dick shrink even smaller.”
My father paces back and forth,
Then he sniffs loudly, and says,
“Look at me. I’m bald, I’m a mess.
I could never keep a job long enough.
I’ve got nothing to do but sit around
And smoke one cigarette after another.
I’ve always hated my fucking life.
Ever since I was a child, back at home,
I’ve been dreaming of death;
In my mind, Death is a beautiful woman
Who wears black clothes, carries a scythe,
Has silver gray hair and blood red eyes.
Death smiles at me, and she doesn’t judge.
She asks if I would like to dance,
And I say, “Yes, I’d love to.”
Death takes my hand, and we begin to spin.
We dance as we sing, we twirl and turn.
She tells me how she’ll take me away
From my father and all his brothers.
But in the end, it was another lie,
Just another person who betrayed me.
You need an education, son, and to find a job,
Or else you’ll end up like me, in a world of misery,
A place where nobody cares about you,
And when you die, they’ll throw your body in a hole
Where it will rot and stink, and nobody will mourn.”
I feel nothing but disgust and resentment.
I don’t know why I’m here. I should have left.
“There’s no such thing as a future in this place
For someone like me who despises humanity.
I guess you expect me to be sympathetic,
But if you yourself had gone to a shrink,
You’d have learned enough about yourself
To avoid getting together with my mother,
Which would have spared me this life
And all the nightmares I’ve endured through.
Just quit bitching, dad, and accept reality:
Your son is a dropout, and that’s fine,
Because a better destiny is waiting for me.”
My father clenches his fists
As he glowers coldly.
He strides up to me
And slaps me hard across the face.
Half a dozen of my huge pimples sting;
I bet they daubed his palm with pus.
My father wipes his hand on his pants.
“I’ve been too soft with you.
I should have made you be responsible,
Learn the value of work and sacrifice.
You were always alone and quiet,
And I was always tired, and sad myself.
Now you don’t know how to be an adult.
You’ll start by going to a trade school.
I don’t care what kind of shit you learn there,
As long as you can earn money and pay rent.”
Instead of words, I hear white noise.
My vision is tinted crimson red
As I feel the blood surging to my ears.
I see myself pulling out my bone shiv
And flaying my old man’s stupid face.
I see Glyca devouring my father’s flesh,
Then fabricating a chair out of his bones.
When my rage subsides, my father is quiet.
He’s staring anxiously at my expression
As if he suddenly regrets having been born,
But my mouth breaks into a wide grin.
My father will receive the worst punishment:
He’ll be left to keep enduring his life.
I turn around to leave this place‘A Millennium of Shadows, Pt. 7’ by Jon Ureña
Hopefully for the last time.
“Fuck you, dad,” I say,
“And fuck your genes.”
Of Bear’s goons, I despise Duckson the most
(However that stupid nickname originated),
Although it’s hard to stay mad at the rest
When their remains have been digested.
The others would follow you in the street
To punch you, kick you, and steal your money,
But Duckson sets people against each other
So he can present himself as the negotiator
That everyone would need to rely on.
Recently, Duckson had been distancing himself
From his public ties with Bear’s gang;
He was making successful moves as a youth politician.
A local paper called him compassive and kindhearted.
His party members looked up to him,
And they prophesied that Duckson would go far,
Maybe become a minister, or the president.
Glyca and I would do a service for this country,
A patriotic deed, we could even say,
By reducing the number of its politicians
Through slaughtering this sack of shit.
I switch on the lamp next to Duckson’s bed,
And it lights up the goon as he sleeps naked.
I hadn’t expected this freckled shit’s dick
To be the first thing I’d see on this hunt.
Duckson is stockier than I thought,
I guess because he was in a canoeing club,
And his dick is much larger than mine,
But even most women’s are bigger.
“Hey, Duckson, you sack of putrid shit,”
I say in a firm, confident voice unlike me,
“It’s time to wake up and deal face to face.”
Duckson grunts in his sleep, but doesn’t awaken.
“Wake up, asshole! We’re gonna kill you!”
Duckson snorts, then turns over onto his side,
Trying to return to his peaceful slumber.
“Ooh! You’re not getting away with anything!
You nasty fucker, I’m coming for your ass!”
I grab his cell phone from the nightstand,
Then throw it hard at Duckson’s head.
Duckson groans in pain and opens one eye,
And the lamp’s light makes him squint.
“W-wha…? What the fuck is going on…?”
When he realizes I’m not a phantasm
But instead a real person in his bedroom,
Duckson jolts upright, and a shriek erupts.
“What the hell? What the fuck? Who the fuck…?!
Volcano Face?! What are you doing in my bedroom?!”
“Well, Duckson, it’s related to that gang of yours,
And the fact that the other members disappeared,
And by disappeared I mean were viciously murdered
By yours truly and my girlfriend, and then devoured.
And the other goons didn’t just die, they died screaming!
So picture what kind of end we’ll provide for you.”
I could have been a lunatic who snapped,
But Bear, Sunglasses and Flute did disappear.
Glyca and I had trouble tracking Duckson down;
Paranoid, he barely left his parents’ house.
Not that any of his efforts would matter
When you are being hunted down by the best.
I hear footsteps somewhere else in the house,
And the sound of a door being opened.
As soon as Duckson gets off the mattress,
Glyca’s grey hands come out from under the bed,
Grab Duckson’s ankles and yanks them.
The guy falls forward onto a wardrobe,
And the impact causes some objects to fall,
Including a framed photo of himself,
Which smashes against the edge of the bed frame.
The photo shows Duckson giving a speech,
Wearing glasses with likely fake lenses,
And grinning widely as he spreads his arms open.
As Duckson tries to stand up,
I grab him by the hair
And slam his head against the dresser.
A loud crack reverberates through the room.
Duckson groans, he tries to reach for my hands.
I’m about to smash his head again
When someone pounds on the door,
And I hear the alarmed voice of a woman.
“Hey, David, what’s going on?! Open the door!”
I am distracted, and Duckson pushes me off.
His eyes are bleary, his forehead is bleeding.
“Fucking bitch! Don’t touch me!
Get away from me, you fucking cunt!”
His mother keeps pounding on the door,
Demanding Duckson to open it.
The goon struggles to stand up.
“Help, someone help! Call the police!”
The glass shards of the broken photo frame
Glimmer dully beneath the lamplight.
I quickly grab a handful of them,
And I shove them into Duckson’s mouth.
When he complains, he swallows some shards.
As he chokes on the tiny fragments,
Duckson starts coughing violently.
Glyca’s hand reaches from under the bed.
“My boy, either we leave now,
Or we’ll have to deal with his entire family.”
While Duckson spits bloody shards,
I push him to the floor next to Glyca,
So she can touch the goon’s bare skin.
I’m holding Glyca’s other hand.
In a split second, we find ourselves in a forest,
The same one where Glyca and I had sex.
Duckson lets out inarticulate complaints
As he comes to realize that he’s somewhere else.
“What the fuck? How did I get here?”
I’m approaching the goon from behind.
“My beloved girlfriend brought us
Through her blessed powers of teleportation.
We are somewhere deep in Russia, my guess,
But it doesn’t matter: it’s just you and us,
And a bunch of wild animals who don’t care
About the nasty stuff we’ll do to you.”
Duckson snaps out of his confusion
Partly caused by me banging his head;
He realizes he’s naked in a dark forest
And the only people around want to kill him.
Maybe there’s also bears and wolves
(I’m not an expert in random forests),
But either way this is a dangerous place
For a man who has no clothes.
Duckson shivers, narrows his shoulders,
And covers his junk with both hands.
He starts retreating from me
While he looks around for an escape route.
“This can’t be happening,” he mumbles,
“I must be in some kind of weird dream.”
I grab a moderately large stone,
Then throw it at Duckson expecting to miss,
But it hits him in the back of the head.
The goon squirms and yelps in pain.
“You’re going to be a sorry fucker,” I say,
“Because my girl will rip your cock in two.
She’s a goddess of vengeance, coming for you,
With claws, fangs, and a snake for a tail.”
Duckson quavers and shakes,
His face is pale and sweaty.
He grits his teeth as he glares.
“Why are you doing this to me?!
I haven’t done anything bad to you!”
I burst out laughing, and shake my head.
“You ruin people’s lives as much as you can,
And then declare your innocence with confidence.
You would have gone far as a politician,
Which is another reason to get rid of you.”
Duckson spits blood and wipes his lips.
“You made it up in your head, crazy fucker.
So what if I hung out with those guys?
An outcast like you can’t understand,
You don’t need to approve of the stuff they do.
Besides, they are young guys having fun.
They mess with people because they’re bored.”
“Those times you restrained me
So the other goons could punch me,
Kick me, then steal my money
While you called me an ugly loser,
All were products of a diseased mind.
That’s what you are saying, right?
It was so simple for you to condemn my life,
Which I had to suffer totally alone,
Unloved, hated, persecuted, and cast aside.
I was a victim, and all I had to show
For years of suffering was this tiny dick of mine,
And I was too ashamed to reveal it to anyone.
I guess that I also imagined the other stuff,
That shortly after your gang made me a victim,
You started appearing in my high school,
Although you had graduated from a different one,
And I caught you chatting up the few people
Who didn’t treat me like a walking hive of cysts.
I have no clue how you learned such details,
But I guess everyone has their superpower.
A couple of the times you seeded sordid rumors
So those people would shun and avoid me,
You made a point of staring straight at me
As you poisoned my classmates with lies,
Believing I was powerless to defend myself.
Although I never found out what lies you spread,
Those who listened to them rejected me,
Caring nothing about whether the rumors were true;
Those gullible classmates of mine were worthless
If they were ready to drop me after listening to lies,
But it didn’t change that I became more isolated,
Vulnerable prey for your gang to abuse again.
That brings us here, where I’ll stand and watch you die.”
Duckson’s dong swings like a pendulum
As the goon keeps retreating from me slowly.
His eyes dart around maybe looking for an exit,
Or searching for whoever grabbed his ankles before.
I pull out my lovingly crafted bone shiv.
“Look at this, Duckson, isn’t it cool?
A murder weapon made of bone.
Not of any bones, mind you, but of Bear’s,
And crafted by none other than god herself.”
“I’m good at working with bone,”
Glyca says from somewhere in the shadows.
“You are good at so many things, my love,
And also the most wonderful creature alive,
But my point is, Duckson, you are fucked;
No one is going to save your sorry ass.
It’s just the three of us and these dark woods.
Your friends’ remains are buried and gone.
You will keep blaming everyone but yourself,
Although you always used people as tools
So you could achieve all the power you wanted.
Now you are an isolated, powerless loser
Who’ll get punished by getting murdered
By one of the people whom you used and abused.”
“Are you really going to stab me?”
Duckson asks trying hard to steady his voice.
“I’m a good guy, I’m on the side of people in need.
Even the papers say how I help the community.”
I sigh, then wipe the blade with my sleeve.
“Too bad they won’t report about tonight,
About how I will shove this shiv up your ass.”
Duckson’s eyes are wide, his limbs shake.
He trips and falls to the ground face up,
His ass in the air and legs pointing at the sky.
As I quicken my pace towards the goon,
He shrieks and scrambles to his feet,
Then starts running away through the woods.
What a bother. I’d rather not exert myself;
I’ve never been into aerobic sports,
Or anaerobic ones for that matter.
I shout at Duckson to clarify his predicament.
“There’s nowhere to run, Duckson,
Only the endless cycle of life and death,
Forever trapped in this dying world,
In a rotting house of pain.”
Duckson ventures foolishly into a shadow,
And Glyca must have smacked him hard;
The hit sends the goon sprawling
Facedown onto the muddy ground.
When he manages to stand up again,
Blood drips from his nose and mouth.
He’s staring, transfixed, at a heavenly figure
That’s slowly walking out of the shadows.
Duckson shrieks in terror, and steps back.
“What the fuck is that thing?! A monster!”
I approach the goon from behind.
“That’s my girlfriend. Have some respect.”
I leap on Duckson like a hungry wolf.
I grab his hair, and pull his head back
To expose his throat, then I bite down.
My teeth sink deep, ripping flesh and tissue.
Blood spurts from his carotid artery
Gushing and covering my face with gore.
A gurgling scream fills the air.
Duckson pants, struggling to breathe.
He sputters blood from his mouth.
He stumbles and falls onto a tree root.
Glyca and I stand next to the goon.
The sound of Duckson gasping for breath
Echoes off the surrounding trees.
The smell of fresh, hot blood
Permeates the area.
It takes one look at my girl’s face
For Duckson to cover his eyes,
Huddle in a fetal position,
And start sobbing like a child.
I put my hand on Glyca’s scaly shoulder.
“You aren’t ugly at all, my love.
These people can’t appreciate true beauty.”
Glyca smiles at me, and kisses my cheek.
“Oh, thank you, my sweet boy,
But don’t worry about such matters!
Humans have reacted like this to me
For longer than civilizations have existed.”
“Anyway, I should get this over with.”
In a movement, I fall to my knees
And with my hands I plunge the shiv
Deep into Duckson’s temple.
His body shakes as he lets out a scream,
But I twist the shiv with a loud squelch.
Wet, bloody pulp oozes out of the wound.
Duckson’s lifeless eyeballs roll around,
And drool dribbles from his gaping mouth.
I stand up and wipe the blood off my face.
Glyca hugs me from behind,
And makes me shiver by kissing my neck.
“How did your first kill feel, my boy?
Was it exhilarating or terrifying?”
“I’m so proud of you, you know?”
I turn around in her arms and kiss her,
Pressing together in a passionate embrace.
Glyca’s tongue slithers between my teeth.
Her sweet nectar spills out of my mouth.
It’s mouthwatering and delicious,
Like honey mixed with a tangy fruit juice.
When we pull away, Glyca flicks my nose.
“Let’s transport this dead guy to the cave.”
A bit later, we are in that sacred place,
A secret, dark, damp den,
Our love nest deep in the woods.
The cave floor is covered with fallen leaves,
And the small pond it contains
Is filled with clear water that smells fresh,
Without any trace of decay,
And the surface sparkles in the moonlight.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
I can smell the moist earth,
I can taste the coolness of the air.
We’re surrounded by the sounds
Of crickets chirping and frogs croaking.
This is where I belong, among nature’s wonders.
With a powerful swing of her muscular tail,
Glyca flips Duckson’s carcass so it lies face up.
“This is a new feeling,” Glyca says, touched,
“That someone who loves me
Goes through the trouble of providing my meal,
Just like a mother bird feeding me worms.”
I chuckle. “I would have used another simile,
But as long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”
“Oh, I’m so happy, and hungry!”
Glyca’s claws tear out chunks from Duckson’s chest.
“This is nice,” she says, “a meaty torso.”
It makes me a bit jealous, but I understand.
Glyca’s scales gleam in the moonlight.
Her slim, graceful tail wags placidly
As drops of oily fluid ooze from its bulbous tip.
I stand there observing how Glyca eats.
She rips open Duckson’s belly
To scoop up chunks of meat, fat and innards.
Glyca’s so focused and passionate when eating
That most of my heat rushes to my crotch.
I reach down to unzip my fly.
I would have loved to say
That my big cock sprang free
So I could fuck my Glyca doggy style,
But I can’t even fuck her in missionary
Because my dick is too little to penetrate.
I lean forward and lick the slime
Off the bulbous end of Glyca’s tail.
As she shudders, and lets out a moan,
Which causes her to spit some meat,
I suck the tip into the cavern of my mouth.
My tongue licks at the slit, and inside is warm.
The taste is not unpleasant. It’s like a nutty flavor.
Glyca moans and spasms. Her tail thrashes around,
Spreading a thin, salty layer of lubricant on my skin.
“W-w-w-what are you doing?!”
Glyca asks flabbergasted and horny.
As she turns sharply, her eyes are glistening,
And her mouth is smeared with fresh blood.
My mind is spinning, and I shiver warmly.
“Sorry, my love, I couldn’t help myself.
Your tail is beautiful beyond compare.”
“I-I wasn’t complaining, mind you.
It felt so good, I was surprised…”
“Nevermind, I’ll let you eat in peace.
I’ll wait for you to finish your meal.”
I turn around and head to the pool
As I take off my sweaty clothes.
I hear how Glyca tears meat with her teeth.
Something large splats against the ground.
Although I have killed Duckson,
I am strangely calm and relaxed.
Maybe because Glyca is fucking sexy,
Or maybe it’s the relief of knowing
That we have obliterated my enemies
And that nobody knows our location.
When dive into the pond, I gasp.
I didn’t expect the water to be this cold.
But I’ll never worry about my dick shrivelling,
So I have that going for me.
I figure that I can endure the cold,
And I swim a few laps around the pond
Although I keep shivering like crazy.
When I return to the shore closest to Glyca,
The first thing my gaze falls upon is her pussy,
Which is open as if staring at me,
And its fluids are dribbling onto the leaves:
Droplets of sticky liquid,
Leaving a trail of pungent odor.
From Glyca’s chin, blood is dripping
As her tongue curls around the chewed remains
Of Duckson’s stupid freckled face.
My heart is beating hard, I’m biting my lip.
“Glyca, isn’t it my turn already? I’m hungry,”
I say hoarsely. “Come sit on the shore.”
Glyca looks quickly over her shoulder,
Then realizes what I’m waiting for.
She lets out a joyful sound.
Giddy, she slurps a piece of meat,
Skips up to me, sits on the shore,
And rests the back of her thighs on my shoulders
So she can slide her wet pussy onto my face.
A couple of hours later, my ass feels sore,
But I’m calm as I’ve never been
As Glyca and I lie in each other’s arms,
And we look at the stars through the trees.
I think how lucky I am to be with someone
Who’s willing and able to provide for me.
“So, who are we eating next?” Glyca asks.
I let out a deep sigh, and smile.
Glyca is confused, and props herself up.
“How come? Aren’t there many more?”
“No need to eat anybody else I know.”
“But so many people at school mocked you.”
I stare into her beautiful black and crimson eyes.
I have been stripped of hatred and spite.
“They insulted me, and made me feel terrible,
Because they’d rather stare at a cockroach
Than at my disgusting, cystic face,
But it’s fine. I’m ugly as hell, after all.
My classmates never beat me, nor robbed me.
They just turned their heads and went on their way.
They’ll grow old, find jobs, get married, have kids.”
Glyca lowers her gaze, and twists her mouth.
“Do you understand what I mean?” I ask.
“I think so, my boy. They don’t deserve it.”
“That’s right. Nobody else has to like me.”
I reach out to stroke Glyca’s scales.
“None of them matter anymore,
Nor anybody else but you and me.
We’re together, we love each other.
Nobody will ever hurt us again.”
I slept in her arms, and enjoyed a pleasant dream.
It was summertime. The sun shone brightly.
Birds chirped joyously, flowers bloomed.
Children played outside while their parents chatted,
And under the grass where they stood and ran around,
Lay dead bodies, some freshly killed, others decomposing.
A terrible scent wafted through the air.‘A Millennium of Shadows, Pt. 6’ by Jon Ureña
Suddenly, everyone was frightened,
And they whispered among themselves,
Not daring to speak loud enough to be heard
By those who were lurking nearby.
I’ve got bacon and eggs in a pan over low heat,
As the cracked open window lets in morning air.
I barely slept last night, and I keep yawning.
A bit later I drink some coffee at the table
While the smell of crisp bacon fills my nostrils.
I bring a morsel of egg to my mouth.
I want to take my time savoring every bite,
But then my father walks into the kitchen.
His eyes are sunken in their wrinkled sockets,
And he’s sporting a thin layer of gray stubble.
He’s wearing a T-shirt stained with sweat,
And old jeans covered in rips and holes,
Like something that’d belong to a homeless man.
My father doesn’t say anything
As he stares down at my breakfast.
He looks like he’s standing at attention
In his old army fatigues.
I lower my head and take a bite of my eggs.
I wish I were alone, I wish I had stayed with Glyca,
But I need to pretend that I’m living a normal life,
Because my girlfriend has no use for money,
And I can’t live by eating human beings.
My father is standing next to the table,
And I feel his gaze on my face.
“Son, what happened to you?”
He asks with a voice hoarse and weak.
I look up, but I wish I hadn’t;
I can’t stand that sad look in his old eyes.
“I came late because I was busy,” I said,
“I was hanging out with my girlfriend.”
“Your nose is broken. Who punched you?”
I lift a hand to the wound;
The skin is gaping and the flesh tender.
“Yeah, whatever. It’s not like it matters.
This clubbing guy socked me one,
But my girlfriend ripped him apart.”
I avoid facing my father’s sour expression
While he gets some water and prepares toast.
He ends up taking a seat opposite me
And staring as he bites a piece.
“Can’t you tell the truth?” he asks.
I take a deep breath, annoyed.
This old man will ruin my digestion.
“Why would you think that I’m lying?”
“C’mon, what’s this about a girlfriend?
When you first came up with that nonsense,
I didn’t say anything to avoid upsetting you,
But it’s not right to avoid reality like this.”
My nostrils dilate. I glare at my father.
“So you think I couldn’t get a girlfriend, huh?”
My father trembles as he lights up a cig.
His fingernails are yellow with nicotine stains.
“Son, you know you are too ugly.
You don’t have any friends, never have.
You always choose to spend your time alone,
So this girlfriend must be imaginary.”
I’m an emotional wreck since forever,
And now my father is being an asshole.
“You’ve been locked in here for years,”
I blurt out acidly at the old man.
“Maybe if you went somewhere else,
You’d have a clue about how the world works.”
I feel my heart pound, I’m so angry.
He just sits there with a dumbfounded look,
And it takes a while for his brain to work.
“I’m sorry, it wasn’t my intention to upset you.”
“If you really want to know, dad,
I did meet this girl, and we’re in love.
She’s beautiful, intelligent, and funny,
And she also has a great body!
I wish I could show you a photo of her,
But she’s always draped in shadows,
And using a flash would hurt her.
Anyway, her name is Glyca.
She’s some sort of mythical reptilian
Who has been around since ancient times.
She’s super strong and eats people alive.
She also enjoys arts and crafts as a hobby.
My Glyca is the coolest girl in the world,
I want to be her mate and nothing else.
I want to stay with her even after I die,
Even when I’m rotting in my grave.”
My father looks down,
Showing me his bald, spotted pate,
While the cig dangles from his lip.
For a while, he just smokes slowly,
Then he rubs the back of his neck.
“I’m sorry about that stuff in your face, son.
Facing the world can’t be easy for you.”
I swallow the rest of my egg,
But my father has made it taste foul.
I drop the fork onto my plate.
I look up at the old man’s sad, tired eyes.
I hate him, I always have.
My biggest fear since I was a child
Was ending up just like him.
I dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot.
I imagined myself soaring through the skies
Above all those countries I hated,
So I could shoot them to pieces.
I fantasized about impaling people,
And exploding their eyes with a machine gun.
I dreamed of blowing people apart with grenades.
I wanted to be the most badass motherfucker
In the whole wide fucking universe.
I’d be a general giving orders to lots of soldiers,
Who’d have to follow my insane commands.
They would call me General Fuckface,
And that would make me happy.
I want to blow away entire cities,
And burn the ground with nuclear fire.
I’ll keep on slaughtering until the end,
Until I see the blood of every enemy.
The war will never stop, it’ll never cease.
“You know, dad, you should be sorry.
You had plenty of acne when you were young.
It must have ruined your social life,
Because nobody wanted to date you.
That screwed you up for sure,
Yet you thought, hey, I’ll pass it on.
It’s not just the myriad of hideous cysts;
I’ll likely go bald, I’m scrawny,
Hairs grow in places where they shouldn’t.
Worse yet, what’s with this tiny dick?!
It’s two centimeters hard, I can barely pee.
Maybe the smallest in all of history!
I’m embarrassed to even admit it to myself,
But my penis is truly pathetic, it hurts to see!
How would I attract women with this thing?!”
The morning sun hits at an angle, illuminating
My father’s billowing cigarette smoke.
The old man is staring blankly at me.
His sunken, bloodshot eyes are filled with pity.
He speaks with voice weary and defeated.
“Life isn’t a curse or a war against fate.
I’m sure there is a better future
Waiting out there somewhere.”
I shake my head, then I stand up.
I recall when I made a rope out of bedsheets,
Tied them together so they formed a loop,
Then tried on the clothes I wanted to die in.
“The more you talk, dad, the less I like you.
Your voice sounds like a dying dog,
And I’m starting to feel nauseous again.
You never seem like you enjoy being alive,
So why would you have brought an innocent
To endure through this nightmare of a world?
But you’ve never offered answers, nor help,
Just empty phrases from an empty head.
I’ll leave before I vomit onto my plate.”
I got together with Glyca in the late evening
So she could transport us to a suitable place:
A forest where the light barely penetrates.
Dark trees loom overhead,
And their branches reach for each other,
Forming a thick canopy.
The ground is covered in leaves and moss.
As we stroll, our footsteps echo.
There is no wind; the air is stagnant.
Glyca’s scales shine in the dark
Like the surface of the ocean.
I don’t think we remain in my home country;
Near a pond where the water shimmers,
We run into an elk who looks vaguely Russian,
And I doubt we have such huge elks at home.
The poor beast looks startled to encounter us,
And even scared when it stares at Glyca’s eyes.
Glyca laughs softly as she caresses my arm.
“The beasts of this world are adorable.”
“Far more than humans, for sure.”
Glyca smiles and pinches my cheek,
Which probably burst a pimple or two.
“You’re quite strange,” Glyca says sweetly,
“As if you’re not human, but something else.”
“Well, I hate humans, so thank you.”
Two large large, dark birds fly overhead.
They have sharp claws and beaks.
One lands upon a branch nearby,
And its tail swishes as it preens itself.
“Most people don’t notice they’re barely alive,”
I blurt out after thinking for a while,
“And when they are hit by the realization
That the world around them is mostly fake,
That reality itself is illusionary and unreal,
For most of them, life continues normally,
But I was always the strange one, I guess.”
Even when I’m in a crowd, it feels like
I’m standing alone in some distant land.
People who know me usually ignore me.
It’s like my presence is a stain
That’s too big to hide.
Glyca’s black and crimson eyes hold my gaze,
And her lips curl upwards in a sweet smile.
Her long tail swishes in the silence.
“I’m grateful every day of how odd you are;
Normal people would have fled from me.
I’m just glad that I found a person like you,
So I will never be alone anymore.”
We only hear the sound of leaves rustling,
And that of twigs snapping under footfalls.
We come across the entrance of a cave
That contains a small pool of clear water,
Fed by a stream that runs through the woods.
“Let’s rest for a while, Glyca,”
I say as I point at the cave.
“And besides, I brought a sketchbook
Because I intended to draw your portrait.”
Glyca laughs, and it echoes throughout the cave.
Her big, red tongue wraps around her mouth.
She’s licking the tip of her pointed teeth.
“A portrait, huh? That sounds so nice.
I’m a bit uncomfortable with this body of mine,
But I’ll see myself through your loving eyes.”
I feel the coolness of the cavern.
I take off my shoes and socks,
Then I sit on the stone floor
While Glyca lies sideways in front.
I pull out my empty sketchbook
And my series of graphite pencils.
I want to capture that beauty
In all her mysterious glory.
I will paint a picture of my love
With my heart’s blood.
I am sitting cross-legged on the ground
As I outline the contours of her body
With fine, precise strokes.
My hands keep trembling slightly,
And I feel the moisture in them.
Glyca is watching me with a soft grin
While her black eyes shine with warmth.
Glyca can tell that I’ve finished.
I’m inspecting my effort with disappointment.
My drawings lack clarity and precision;
I’m not good enough to depict a goddess.
“C’mon, just let me see!” Glyca says,
Then snatches the sketchbook from me.
I fear looking up at her face,
But she lets out a cry of joy.
“This is a lovely drawing! Very well done!
Now I can see my true form in your art.
You really captured my essence.
You can go ahead and frame this masterpiece!”
I blush bright red, my chest gets warm.
“You are so kind. I’m just an amateur.”
Glyca bites her lower lip, then sighs
As she crawls seductively towards me.
“I know you aren’t a pro, my boy,
What matters is the love you put into it.”
“So I could have just scribbled anything?”
Glyca laughs softly, and caresses my neck.
“It’s good. I would frame it on a wall.
But more importantly now, my sweet boy,
How can I ever repay you for this gift?”
I’m getting the tingles in my crotch.
My pathetic dick aches to spill its seed.
Glyca smiles, then climbs onto my lap.
She sucks on my lips, pushes her tongue in.
My girlfriend’s slimy saliva fills my mouth.
As I stroke the smooth scales of her back,
I close my eyes to feel her tongue better.
I wish her sharp, pointy teeth
Would peel open my lower lip.
I want my cock to explode
And fill the cold, dark cave with my cum.
Glyca is breathing heavily
As she starts grinding on my crotch.
I had never felt her this turned on.
“Please, my boy, take your pants off.”
I’m overwhelmed by a sudden panic,
And I push myself away from Glyca.
As I try to stand up, I stumble and fall.
My skin is hot and sweaty, my head spinning.
Glyca is kneeling in front of me.
Her crimson pupils observe me with concern.
“What’s the problem? Are you hurt?”
“No! I can’t let you see! You’ll leave me!”
Before I know it, I’m sobbing hard,
And I bury my face in my hands.
I’m back to being an eight years old kid,
About to be abandoned.
Glyca wraps her arms around me.
Her breath tickles my right ear,
And goosebumps rise along my spine.
She rocks me in her arms for a while.
My shoulders relax, and I stop crying.
Glyca pulls away enough to look at me,
Then she licks a tear running down my cheek.
“You are so cute when you are like this,
But you don’t need to be sad, silly boy!
I’ve watched you countless times
As you fondled that clit of yours.”
Moonlight is pouring into the cave,
And I feel the cold touch of the night air.
I wipe my nose with my sleeve.
“So all those times I was jerking off,
Like in my bedroom, let’s say,
You were crouched in the shadows
Watching how I pulled on my dick?”
Glyca kisses me softly on the lips.
“Many times since I met you, sure.
I was hiding there as I touched myself.
Sometimes we even came in unison.
I don’t know how I restrained myself
From jumping on you and raping you,
But I already felt you were special,
And I only wanted us to make love.
So please, let me pull down your pants
And take care of your tiny cock.”
I only gulp and nod.
Glyca’s eyes glisten with lust
As she unbuckles my belt,
Then takes off my pants
And almost rips off my underwear.
The thin fabric is moist with pre-cum.
When the night air starts cooling my dick,
I tremble from head to toe,
But Glyca places a hand on my shoulder.
“Relax, sweetie. Just let me touch you.”
She slides her palm slowly down my torso
Until it reaches my exposed groin.
A shiver goes through me
At her contact with my naked flesh.
The tip of my dick is a small bulb,
The only thing that protrudes from the scrotum.
My testicles are the size of golf balls,
And I have no hair on the shaft.
I squirm uncomfortably as I tremble.
Glyca grips my thighs tightly,
And pulls them apart
As she stares intently at my tiny prick.
Her cold, slender finger traces circles on the tip,
As her other hand gently massages my balls.
My dick has stiffened as much as it can,
But, of course, it’s hardly noticeable.
Glyca looks up at me with glowing eyes.
She opens her mouth wide,
Revealing the rows of sharp teeth.
Slimy saliva slides down towards her chin.
Glyca’s voice is low and sensual.
“Your genitals are beautiful, my boy,
So sensitive and delicate.
Your testicles are adorable too.”
My heart is pounding, my skin is flushed.
My tongue can barely move in my dry mouth.
“T-they are worthless, defective parts
That would never pleasure you like I want to.”
Glyca wipes the saliva dripping from her lips.
“I don’t know, boy, I bet they taste delicious.
If you have no use for them, would you let me
Just bite them off and munch on them?”
I flinch, my throat gets tighter.
I imagine Glyca chomping down on my dick,
Her teeth ripping my testicles open.
My genitals are tiny, useless appendages,
So I figure that if it would pleasure Glyca
To consume them and digest them,
At least they’d have served for something.
“Alright, Glyca, eat them if you want.
I’ll give you anything of mine you desire.
Just please, don’t make it too painful.”
Glyca reaches out to stroke my cystic face.
I feel her cool fingers on my cheeks.
“I was just teasing you, boy.
Don’t worry, I’d never hurt you!
Besides, genitals this beautiful
Deserve tender treatment.”
She lowers her face towards my dick,
And her cold, slimy saliva drips on it.
I tense up, my body is shuddering.
“There’s something about your little penis,”
Glyca says as she licks her lips,
“Something magical about it, my dear boy.
I want to hold it, and kiss it, and lick it.
I want to suck it, and fuck it, and breed it.”
Glyca’s viscous tongue feels cold and wet
When she licks the tip of my tiny dick.
I gasp. A warm shiver runs through me.
Her black, crimson eyes stare into my soul.
Glyca’s wet lips smother my penis.
Her two tongues wrap around it;
One licks the shaft, the other the head.
Her slippery saliva coats my genitals.
My skin is hot and moist.
My body is trembling with excitement.
My penis is throbbing and pulsating.
My toes curl, my fingers tingle.
Glyca’s sharp teeth hold me in place:
They are about to pierce the base
As she slurps noisily on the head.
Her other hand squeezes my balls.
My hips jerk and thrust forward.
My testicles tighten and swell.
I’m panting hard, and sweating.
I want so bad to come in her mouth.
I feel something reaching under my ass
To rub those cheeks, and tease my asshole.
I feel the tip of her tail secreting lubricant
As it throbs and aches to get inside me.
I explode, unleashing streams of cum
Deep into my girlfriend’s oral cavity.
With every spurt of semen,
Glyca lets out groans of satisfaction,
And increases the intensity
Of her suctioning motions.
When I come back to my senses,
I’m lying face up on the cave floor
As Glyca towers over me.
Her pussy gapes obscenely open,
Revealing a deep pink flesh beneath,
Pink meat surrounded by delicate hairs
That sprout outwards like tentacles.
It’s a dark, shadowy cavern
Where I can’t wait to hide.
I’d jump inside headfirst if I could.
I should be able to enter with my manhood,
But it’s a tiny bud, a tiny bulb, a tiny knob.
Its tip a tiny, whitish mushroom cap,
While Glyca’s tail is an enormous snake,
Lengthening beyond my sight.
“Let’s fuck!” Glyca suggests excitedly.
She almost drops on top of me,
To fill my mouth with her tongues
And align her opening with my cock.
Her inner labia part like a flower petal,
And they wrap around my swollen glans.
“I-I think that’s as far as it will go,”
I complain, then I contain a whimper.
Glyca deserves someone with a huge cock,
A handsome, virile, magnificent male,
Not a worthless shit like me.
Glyca presses her cold body against mine,
And her breath tickles my earlobe.
“My boy, I want to be inside you,”
Glyca whispers as she breathes hard.
“I need it bad, worse than anything before.
Please, let me get in. Even just a bit.
I beg you. Please. I need you.
I’m so hard I’m about to burst.”
She lifts my left thigh with hers,
Then she resumes probing my asshole.
I close my eyes, and I feel her tail,
That bulbous tip aching to dig in,
Like a fat thumb trying to fingerbang me.
Glyca’s tongue bathes my neck.
“You taste so good, boy.
Your salty sweat is delicious.
Your skin is smooth and soft,
So much nicer than my own.
Ah, you are like a dream come true.
I want you so bad, I can barely stand it!”
My penis is throbbing and twitching
In contact with her wet folds.
I can feel her heartbeat through her pussy.
My head is spinning with lust and arousal.
“Please, tell me you want me inside you,”
Glyca whispers hungrily into my ear.
“I want to fuck your virgin ass,
And maybe fill it a bit with my sperm.
But don’t worry, I won’t breed you yet.”
“A-ah, alright, but I don’t know how.
My asshole just won’t open by itself.”
“You are clenching it tight,
As if you wanted to keep me out.”
Her tip traces a circle around my asshole,
Like a slimy tongue licking around the rim.
“Relax your anus, boy, and let go.”
“I-I don’t know how to do that.”
“Just like you were pushing out shit.”
“But in that case I may shit myself!”
Glyca giggles in my ear, then sighs.
She reaches with one hand down
To spread one of my butt cheeks wide.
“You are ready, my boy. Just push.”
Her lubricated tail massages my hole,
And as soon as I manage to relax it,
It opens and accepts the slimy appendage.
It’s a snake sliding into a rat’s burrow.
I can barely breathe as it enters me deeper.
My anal ring is burning hot with pleasure
As her tail fills me, stretching me out.
I can only moan and writhe and gasp.
I hear Glyca’s moans and whimpers.
Feeling something burrowing into my ass
Is sending shivers throughout my body.
I don’t have to wonder whether I enjoy it;
My dick is throbbing and aching for release.
Glyca presses the surface of her teeth
Against my neck, which is slippery with saliva.
“Damn,” she manages to say as she pants,
“I’ve been dreaming of doing this with you.
That way you twitch and spasm under me…”
I can hardly move.
I’m a helpless, limp noodle.
I’m a love slave, a sex toy.
I’m a cum dump,
A red cyst filled with sperm.
Glyca kisses me passionately.
Her two tongues give me nectar and oxygen.
Each pump of her tail becomes wilder, rougher.
It’s a serpentine snake of flesh,
Moving rapidly in and out.
It seems she can’t get enough of fucking me.
I’m a worm with a cockless cunt,
She’s a beautiful, lewd, horny snake.
A pair of lovers in a world gone mad,
Where love is a crime.
The pleasure grows stronger and stronger,
Causing my legs to shake uncontrollably.
Her pussy lips are massaging my tip.
I squeeze Glyca’s ass cheeks tightly
As her firm thighs encircle my waist
And her tail pulsates deep in my guts.
“Oh yeah, fuck, it feels so good,”
Glyca grunts as her tail pumps.
She throws her head back,
Then she gasps and groans loudly.
I am filled with a warm, moist feeling;
Glyca shivers as she releases her load,
And in response, my tiny dick spits too.
The pleasure has overwhelmed me.
I’m lost somewhere inside my mind
Where nothing exists except pure bliss.
Glyca’s blood runs through me.
Inside my pores,
Down my throat,
All over my arms and legs,
Under my nails,
Deep within my ears,
Between my toes,
In the hollows of my bones.
A growl escapes Glyca’s throat,
Which resonates inside the cave.
She rolls off my chest,
Then hugs me tightly from the side.
My girlfriend sighs contentedly.
Her tail withdraws from my insides,
Leaving me horribly empty.
We snuggle close, wrapped tightly.
Glyca smells like a blooming flower,
And she tastes like the purest honey.
We breathe evenly as the tension drains out.
We lie motionless, silent,
For what feels like half an hour.
I can’t comprehend what just happened,
Except that it was incredible beyond words.
I open my eyes and I stare at the ceiling.
The moon illuminates a few bats
Which fly past the opening of the cave.
They flutter their wings loudly,
And emit loud squeaks and grunts
As they search for insects.
Dawn breaks across our bodies.
Waking up next to Glyca’s smiling face
Is the most beautiful waking dream.
We kiss softly as we caress each other.
“I love you, Glyca,” I blurt out without thinking,
But I mean it with every fiber of my being.
Glyca’s smile is as bright as the sun.
“Oh, my sweet boy! I love you as well.
I love you for your kindness and goodness,
How you try to make the world a better place,
Even though you are so different from them.”
I reach my hand and touch Glyca’s cheek,
And I kiss her gently on the forehead.
“I love you because you are a gem,
An exquisite work of art,
A rare treasure that I want to hold.
I love you because you are a goddess,
Your scales are smooth and soft,
Your eyes are black and full of mystery,
Your body is slender and graceful,
And your tail is long like a horse’s dick.
It is an unending source of wonder,
And it can be used for sex or war.”
Glyca laughs lightly and playfully.
“It’s much longer than that!
I can elongate it at will, in fact,
So it will always be able to reach
My sweet boy’s most tender places.”
Glyca has a smile like a sunrise,
Like a brilliant star,
Like a solitary rainbow
That pierces the clouds,
Or a shooting comet
With a tail of fire.
Glyca is a miracle.
She is the essence of life itself.
She is a spark of divinity.
My symbol of hope and beauty.
“I hate to mention this now,” I say,‘A Millennium of Shadows, Pt. 5’ by Jon Ureña
“But we haven’t gotten rid of the worst,
And until he’s gone, I won’t be at peace.”
Glyca props herself on one elbow,
Then lets out a carefree laugh.
“I haven’t forgotten, and I’m hungry.
Let’s get to hunting then, my boy.
We’ll celebrate his death with more sex!”
The three villagers and I had given up on venturing deeper into the forest, and instead we tried to listen for the trickle of water to locate the stream. It was complicated to distinguish between the sounds of birds chirping and the wind rustling through the leaves and branches, but the trickiest part was the sound of the villagers’ footsteps. Even the softest step on the carpet of dried leaves made a crunching noise, so they had to keep a careful watch on where to place their feet. We found two different edible species of mushrooms that didn’t look too disgusting, which the villagers added on top of the berries amassed in the basket.
The sound of running water grows loud enough that we know the surrounding trees must be hiding it. We follow the sound, and we suddenly reach the edge of the forest, arriving at the riverbank, which rises steeply on both sides of the brook. The stream flows swiftly between boulders, rushing past with white foam, carrying bits of wood downstream.
“Well, it appears we have found a source of drinking water,” Kurtz says, relieved.
My villagers stop in front of the bank, and peer into the crystal clear waters. The bottom of the brook is muddy, full of slippery stones. Us four gaze for a while at the silvery flow and listen to its soothing song. The midday sun warms my skin, the gentle breeze caresses my cheek. The air is sweet with the scent of growing plants.
I find myself comparing this pleasing moment with the world my real body is stuck in: lying on the lounge chair in a darkened room of a cramped apartment, located in an ugly and crumbling world that I wish I could forget. It must be around two or three in the morning, and tomorrow I’ll have to work on my freelance contracts or risk losing a couple of clients.
“Let’s walk along the edge until the riverbank goes flat,” Joseph suggests.
“I need to rest for a good while,” Kurtz says as he follows the older human. “This day has already been quite tiring.”
The villagers have to walk around lush vegetation, including tall reeds, that have grown besides the waters. Further upstream, the brook forms a few shallow waterfalls. As soon as the slope flattens enough for the villagers to walk on the pebbly riverbank, Sue hurries to fetch some water. Her breasts bounce around inside her peasant dress. She kneels on the bank and dips a cupped hand into the brook. When she drinks, she closes her eyes and lets out a squeal of delight that would have made my real body much warmer. She also splashes her cheeks and neck with cool water.
I sit down next to a boulder and stare at the rushing water, which carries away leaves and twigs. I’ll need to log off soon, and it has soured my mood. When was the last time I walked through a forest in real life? Maybe back when I was a child. But the virtual experience is so immersive and compelling that I guess it makes no difference. Even the nastier monsters that we might come across wouldn’t damage me. Once again I wish I could be plugged into this system permanently so I could never leave.
I look up at the sky. The bright blue dome is dotted with white clouds, and the wind rustles through the leaves of nearby trees. When I look back down, Kurtz is plunging his hands into the cold water, then he washes his face until his long beard is dripping wet. Joseph has headed to the largest piece of driftwood, which is floating near the closest edge of the brook. Joseph kneels beside the driftwood, places both hands under its broad flat top, and lifts the heavy object. When he sets it down on a patch of soft mud, two tiny frogs pop out and dart towards the trunk of a tree growing close to the stream. They hide among the roots.
“What is that about?” Sue asks. She approaches the human as she holds her hands behind her back.
“Now that we’ll be able to feed ourselves decently enough,” Joseph says, “until we start growing crops, we’ll have to figure out how to build a few huts.”
The dwarf sighs as if contemplating the work ahead.
“So we’ll have to haul large pieces of wood back to the clearing. How do we plan to carry them?”
“We’ll have to chop most of them up, and then find a way to fabricate a few log carriers.”
“I assume that the higher being among us will help with that,” Kurtz says, then looks around as if to locate me, but he realizes that I could be anywhere now.
I float closer to them.
“I’ll help you, of course, but I’ll also have to start saving up for more significant boons.”
“Shouldn’t we also need to carry some water back to the clearing?” Sue says as she drinks more from her cupped hand.
“I guess so.”
I conjure a big wooden pail with a metallic handle. The three villagers flinch, but Sue is pleased.
“Thank you, lord Festerbump! It’s such a relief that we can rely on your support.”
It feels so satisfying when the villagers praise me, particularly this elf I have a crush on, that I want to help them all the time. I don’t recall anyone praising me like this in real life, even the few times I went out of my way to make life easier for others.
“If there is anything else you need, please let me know,” I say.
The three villagers sit in a circle to rest for a while. Joseph puts down the bow and quiver next to him, then lies back on the pebbles and closes his eyes. Sue and Kurtz eat berries and mushrooms hungrily. When Sue is full, she lets out a long sigh and lies down as well as if to take a nap, and crosses a forearm over her eyes. I leer freely at how her breasts stretch the soft fabric of her dress, at how the breeze plays with her dark gold tresses.
“I guess we’ll have to start gathering wood until the evening,” Kurtz says, disheartened.
“The sooner we start, the fewer nights we’ll spend sleeping under the stars,” Joseph says, his eyes still closed. “One of these days is going to rain for sure.”
“That would be miserable,” Sue says.
“At least the rain would wash away some of the mud,” Kurtz says as he checks his clothes.
“Also, if our godling is kind enough to produce a sturdy axe,” Joseph says, “we could chop up suitable trees right next to the clearing.”
“I’m sure that an axe will cost you plenty of effort, given that I have to pay for it. So you’ll need to spend your energies gathering decent wood for the rest of the day.”
“Well, I’d rather collect wood or chop down trees than hunt dangerous animals,” Kurtz says, “so we can leave all the shooting to you, human. And I’m talking about animals far more dangerous than deer and the nasty spider we came across.”
Sue’s chest raises as she fills it with air.
“For a while let’s just enjoy the sun and rest for a while, alright? This life is worth very little if we can’t take a break from time to time.”
When even the dwarf lies down, I face that my break has ended. I need to wake up from my lucid dream, log off and return to my dreary reality. I have the urge to say goodbye to my new friends, but they won’t know I’m gone. I stop the game, and the VR system returns me to the hub. It’s an endless, silent grey space with only the barest mesh forming a dome over my head.
I shut off the system. My eyes are closed, but I feel myself lying on my lounge chair, as well as the weight of the VR helmet on my head. I open my eyes and face the ceiling of my dark, cramped bedroom, and I smell the dust and my own sweat. A small lamp casts light onto me and the mattress next to the chair. I left the window open, which lets the sounds of the street drift into the apartment. The usual drunks are jabbering loudly in the nearby bar, as freely as if the world belonged to them, and I guess it does. They can keep it.
I close the window and lumber to the kitchen for a glass of water. I sit at the table, drink half of the water, then freeze with the glass halfway to the table. I can’t focus my gaze. My mind is trying to organize by itself all the work I’ll have to struggle through tomorrow, possibly until three or four in the afternoon. I feel a surge of fear when I realize that I’m not sure I’ll be able to accomplish any of it.
A familiar sentiment overwhelms me: I wish I were fucking dead. I’ve never been cut out for this life, and I have no idea why I bother enduring day after day of this nonsense. I want to return to the virtual world and be with fake people who understand what it means to live a real life, or else I want to grab the nearest knife and slit my wrists.
I slam the glass against the edge of the table and watch the shards fall. I’m not thinking straight. My senses have become dulled by the soft haze of the VR world, and the sharpness of reality is overpowering. I can’t stand it anymore. I hope I’ll manage to sleep for enough hours.
I go to the bathroom and splash cold water on my face. I walk to the bedroom, I switch off the lamp, and pull the sheets off my mattress. I crawl under them. A couple of minutes after I close my eyes, when the darkness feels total, I let the tears flow for a while. There’s nothing to do except weep, and I need to empty the grief from my body before I fall asleep.
* * *
The sun of the early afternoon bathes the trees in light, while birds fly freely between the branches above us.
“So should we build a hut for each villager?” Sue asks enthusiastically.
“Our options will be limited by the amount and quality of materials we can gather,” Joseph says, “so that’s going to be a problem, even if our lord Festerbump grants us an axe.”
“And most of the valuable resources are buried,” Kurtz says. “So we’ll probably end up having to dig.”
“I’m sure you’d feel more comfortable in an underground home, but we’ll have to make do with the materials above ground.”
The three villagers keep looking around at the fallen branches and trunks we come across.
“Let me tell you an example of how not to build a house,” Kurtz says, and sighs. “This happened a few years ago in a community I used to live in. They tried to construct a building mostly out of mud bricks. We had no proper tools to dig the foundations, and as a result, when the walls weren’t yet finished, the floorboards collapsed underneath. The workers managed to salvage the construction, and a family lived there for a while, but when spring arrived, the floor gave away completely and buried them under a pile of dirt. What I mean is, we have to be extra careful if we barely know what we are doing.”
Sue grabs a fallen branch, then leans on it as she gazes thoughtfully into space.
“We’ll have that in mind,” Joseph says, “but I’m worried about getting decent lumber to begin with. Transporting logs to the clearing would be a pain. Our best option would be to chop down trees in the edge of the clearing. And that way we can use the same wood for all the huts as well.”
“I’m telling you now,” I say, “I can’t conjure an axe with the goodwill you have accumulated through your efforts, because I’ve spent too much of it. So you’ll have to focus on gathering available materials first.”
“Alright, then we’ll have to change the order in which we gather the materials. I was thinking of using straw for the roofs, and it would work as rope too. It does wonders to protect against wind, rain and snow. But we can’t make it without the stalks of cereal plants.”
“What about those rushes and reeds that are growing along the riverbank?” Sue suggests.
Joseph nods as he rubs his stubble.
“Yes, we should gather them. They will provide good insulation, and they can even be made into a basket, when we need more and lord Festerbump could use his powers for better options. The main issue is that we don’t have any tools to cut the plant stems, but I guess we can just gather them for now and rely on the axe later.”
“Let’s get to it then,” Sue says. “I don’t want to be caught in the woods when it gets darker.”
My three villagers barely speak as they head to the brook, a stretch of which passes by a kilometer or so away from the clearing. I accelerate time until they reach it, and they busy themselves gathering reeds and rushes. Sue walks with a light step as she does so, sometimes humming to herself. I can’t stop watching her. She moves with the gracefulness of a dancer. Her hair flows behind her, long and golden like wheat fields, and shining brightly in the sunlight. The men look awkward as they outstretch their arms to root out the most suitable reeds beside the stream.
I wish I had been born into Sue’s skin, or I guess into anyone like her. I might then enjoy doing things like these. I’d be useful, for a change. I suppose it’s too late for that.
When the three villagers have piled up a large number of long, slender, green reed shoots, they set out for the clearing with the load. The dwarf, who’s holding one end of the bundle of reeds, staggers at times, visibly exhausted.
They leave the reeds on the grass of the clearing, next to the pail full of water. They stand around as they recover their breath.
“Is this enough work to reward us with an axe, godling?” Kurtz asks in a sarcastic tone.
“It’s very close. I’d say that if you spend a couple of hours gathering more useful stuff, I’ll have your axe ready for tonight.”
The prospect of racking up two more hours of tiredness must have gotten to the dwarf, because his legs tremble, and he lowers himself wearily to the grass.
“Just stay here,” Sue says to him. “I’m sure Joseph and I can do the work by ourselves.”
“Alright,” the dwarf says as he fails to hide a smile of relief. “But don’t get carried away.”
Joseph and Sue scour the surroundings of the clearing, and they stack piles of suitable sticks, fallen branches and tree bark to haul them to the clearing eventually. These materials will later serve as planks, beams, roof tiles and such. By the time they decide to finish, the trunks surrounding them are blocking most of the sunlight. A breeze has picked up, and in the dimness, the branches sway in unison.
The two working villagers return to the clearing, hauling a few branches that were at hand. Joseph’s arms are scratched from the bushes and thorns. They sit down on the grass close to the dwarf, and wipe the sweat from their brows.
“That went by quick,” Kurtz says.
I bring up the interface to conjure tools.
“Hard work deserves a reward.”
In a few seconds, as the villagers wait expectantly, an axe appears on the grass in front of them. It’s made of black iron. The blade is thick, but not too wide, and ends with a small spike at the back. The handle has a grip like that of a machete.
“A mighty weapon that can cut through anything,” I say.
“It’s beautiful,” Kurtz says as he reaches out for it.
After the dwarf picks up the axe, he stands up and examines its blade. He runs his fingers along its edges, testing its sharpness.
“I can hardly believe it,” he says in a thin voice. “Just where do these tools come from?”
“From the world of the gods.”
“You have our gratitude, lord Festerbump,” Joseph says, tired.
“A thousand thanks to the great Festerbump,” Sue adds.
My villagers’ gratitude barely registers a blip in my consciousness. I feel like I’m interacting with them from behind the glass of a zoo exhibit. My mind is getting fogged up.
“I guess I can be decent enough from time to time,” I say. “I wish I could do more, though.”
The next time I look over to Kurtz, he’s taking off his shirt. The hair that covers his muscular shoulders connects with his hairy chest, and his thick brown beard flows down his powerful torso. Thankfully he’s keeping his pants.
“That’s wholly unnecessary,” I say.
“You two, follow me,” he says to the other villagers. “I’ll show you how this thing gets used.”
He walks towards the woods. Sue and Joseph stand up, and they walk behind him.
“This axe is a gift from the god of the universe, I guess,” Kurtz says as he grips the axe with both hands. “I’ve never had one before, but I just need to hold it to feel that anyone with it would be able to make a good living.”
“That may be your dwarven blood speaking,” Sue says.
“I would have rejected such a notion just days ago, but you may be right.”
A short distance away, in the woods, lies a huge tree trunk that has recently felled itself. Its branches are heavy and thick, and they spread wide. Kurtz grips the handle of the axe tightly with both hands. As he grits his teeth, he raises the axe above his head and brings the blade down with great force. A loud crack echoes. He strikes the log again and the sound of splitting wood resounds throughout the area. His muscles bulge as he swings the axe once more, then again. He has to stop every few seconds to catch his breath, but he keeps at it. The axe has carved a deep groove through the hardwood, nearly cutting through.
“Whoa,” Sue says.
Kurtz stops after the fifth or sixth swing. The axe has split the tree trunk into two pieces.
“You’ve done well, master dwarf,” Joseph says, “but I think we’d better rest for the remainder of the day. I’m sure we are all hungry.”
Kurtz nods, but he’s looking at the axe he’s wielding as if surprised of the effect that holding it has on him.
“Sure, I can leave more chopping for tomorrow,” he says. “I don’t know what happened to my body, but I feel so strong now.”
The sun sets on the horizon, casting a warm glow over the clearing. After my three villagers sit down close to the basket with berries and mushrooms, and the pail full of water, their exhaustion gets to them. Kurtz breathing sounds ragged. All of them are dirty and covered in more or less dry sweat.
They eat in a trance, gobbling the scavenged food like beasts, without any thought or emotion. The first stars begin to appear, shining like jewels, and by then, the three villagers have collapsed onto the grass. They’re asleep before they know it. Kurtz starts snoring. One of his hands is almost touching the axe, and its blade gleams dully.
I float towards Sue, who’s lying on her back, eyes closed. Her dark gold hair has spread across the grass. I stare at her pretty face for a while as I fall into a trance of my own. I wish I could sleep that peacefully. I wish I wasn’t alone in this world.
A few minutes later, I log off from the game. I need to nourish the real body I’m trapped in.
A few days ago, when I finished the previous part, I was sure I wouldn’t write again for a long while, but the next morning I started writing as soon as I prepared my coffee. My brain is a mess. However, the overall state I have fallen into has worsened; I feel that every task is unsurmountable despite any previous experience, and I just want to crawl under the sheets and sleep for weeks.
More importantly for this story, I think I’m done with it for a while. I just can’t manage to make writing it fun for me, although I’m not sure if I can make anything fun at this moment.
As my three villagers walk slowly into the forest, the morning sun shines through the leaves overhead. The sounds of insects and birds fill the forest with noise. Kurtz grumbles every now and then as if being surrounded by beauty bothers him, while the other two villagers are warming up to the prospect of building a home here.
Sue stops next to a clump of ferns beside the path, and points at a patch of mushrooms growing near the roots of a tree.
Kurtz stops walking and peers suspiciously at the little white caps poking out of the mossy dirt.
“Are they edible?” Sue asks.
Joseph steps forward and looks closer. He reaches down, twists and pulls the bottom of the stem of one of the mushrooms, then tears it off. He holds the mushroom up for Sue and Kurtz to see. They both take a sniff, but shrug.
“It smells sort of funny…” Sue says with suspicion.
“I’ve never eaten anything that came from a mushroom before,” Joseph says.
“You don’t eat things that come out of the mushroom, human,” Kurtz says, “just the mushroom itself!”
Kurtz turns around and starts to walk away.
“Wait,” I call after him. “Where are you going?”
“To find that stream,” he answers curtly.
“I mean, why don’t we pick some mushrooms for breakfast?” Sue asks.
“We’re not eating that shit,” Kurtz says without turning back.
“Will you wait for a second?” Joseph asks.
Kurtz stops, takes a deep breath and walks back reluctantly.
“Do you know how many mushrooms are poisonous? I haven’t seen that variety before. You have no clue what you’d be putting in your mouth.”
“I know, but…”
“But nothing. I can’t be the only person who knows that plenty of mushrooms are dangerous. It’s a simple fact.”
I clear my throat to get their attention.
“My godly powers can help with this predicament.”
“How so?” Joseph asks.
When I interact with any object of the game world, I can bring up a panel that shows its properties. It floats next to the patch of mushrooms as if I were wearing AR glasses. This is one of the species of fungi that the developers of the game brought over from the real world. It’s called Amanita bisporigera.
“One of my powers consists on the ability to identify anything we come across, and I can tell you that eating even a small amount of this deadly mushroom could kill you.”
Sue steps back.
“This fungus is called the ‘destroying angel’, and it’s extraordinarily poisonous. Its toxin causes cellular necrosis.”
“Cellular necrosis? I don’t know what either of those words mean.”
“It means don’t eat that shit,” I say.
Kurtz shakes his head, narrows his shoulders, and resumes walking. The other two villagers follow him this time.
Joseph looks over his shoulder to address me, assuming I’m following them, and he’s right.
“We can rely on you regarding whether any of the potential food we come across will kill us, right?”
“Of course I will. I have no reason to lie about something like this, and my knowledge is perfect.”
“Plenty of berries are poisonous as well, aren’t they?” Sue asks warily.
“Many things in this world will try to kill you even passively, for sure. But let’s just keep going and see if something out here might be edible. Don’t worry. We’ll all be fine. It’s my job to look after you three, and I promise to do it as best I can.”
We come across a small bush with berries that the developers have invented. I don’t retain the nonsensical latin name for this species. They are greenish purple spheres covered with bumps. Their texture reminds me of rotten meat, and its scent comes across as strawberry jam mixed with pus.
Kurtz shakes his head.
“I don’t care if these ones are edible. I don’t want to witness any of you eating them either.”
“They are poisonous,” I say.
“Let’s just continue…” Sue says, deflated.
Shortly after, we encounter a small plant whose stems produce small flowers.
“Those flowers are poisonous too,” I warn my villagers. “Don’t touch them. Also, see that leafless branch above us, with all those white dots covering it? This kind of tree is poisonous too. Don’t climb it.”
The three villagers stare at the branches, which are about four meters off the ground.
“Are you serious?” Kurtz asks as if I’m making a cruel joke.
“Why did you choose this poisoned forest of all places for us to found a village? Was this a punishment?”
I rub the eyes of my avatar, which feels the same as if I were inhabiting my real, decaying body. My criteria for picking this coordinate of the generated world was reduced to it containing a temperate forest and being far enough from hostile settlements. I went ahead with the first coordinate I came across that matched those criteria. A more careful player would have gone over the lists of flora and fauna that this world had produced to make sure that the forest didn’t contain, for example, radioactive trees or carnivorous plants.
“Well, a forest that contains plenty of poisonous vegetation is unattractive for the kinds of pseudo-sentient animal or monstrous species that may have wanted to raid your future village otherwise.”
“But it’s also unattractive for people who need to forage here to survive!”
Joseph approaches the source of my voice. His expression is level-headed, or aloof.
“Are there edible berries in this forest, godling?”
“That’s what we ventured into the forest to figure out,” I say as confidently as I can.
“I guess we now know why you aren’t a major god,” Kurtz mutters.
My heart sinks, and I have a hard time looking directly at my villagers although they can’t see me. I’ve abandoned previous playthroughs of other games because the sentient AIs ended up hating me, so the temptation to rage-quit remains, but now I’m mainly worried because I have learned very little from my experiences. I want to blame it on depression. I want to blame a lot of things that have gone wrong in my life on my old demonic pal.
I take a deep breath.
“Listen, I chose this forest to found a new village because it’s in the middle of nowhere. Very few sentient species ever come here, and there’s hardly anyone else living nearby. That diminishes the chances that if someone does stumble upon us here, they will attack us. Currently, we are very vulnerable, so we need to speed up our efforts of locating sources of edible food other than hunting.”
“Alright, let’s try to solve this issue as soon as possible,” Joseph says decisively.
Nobody breaks the silence for a few minutes as we proceed deeper into the forest. The bushes become thicker and taller, and as the undergrowth gets denser, it’s harder to spot the plants. Both Kurtz and Sue are sweating, and already tired.
A group of butterflies flutter past my invisible head. They are orange, black and yellow striped.
“Look how they dance in the air,” Sue says dreamily.
She reaches for one of them, and it lands on the back of her hand. The insect’s wings are a brilliant iridescent orange. Its body has four short legs and a large abdomen that houses a pair of tiny eyes. A row of small teeth runs along the inside edge of each wing, and the tip of the sting is curved and sharp.
“Ouch!” Sue complains.
She retracts her hand sharply, which causes the butterfly to fly away. As the elf steps back, a bead of blood appears on the patch of skin where the butterfly had landed.
“Are you alright?” I ask.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she answers with a forced smile.
“Those butterflies were venomous.”
As Sue gets paler, Kurtz grimaces in disgust without sparing the insects a glance.
“How bad of a venom are we talking…?” the elf says in a thin voice.
“It won’t kill you,” I answer. “Just don’t scratch it, no matter how good it may feel. Anyway, let’s keep moving.”
I was getting increasingly dejected until I spot a cluster of black berries growing among a bed of grass. There seem to be thousands of tiny fruits protruding from stems made of fuzzy hairs. Most of the berries are ripe, soft round seeds encased in traslucent jelly.
“Finally!” I blurt out. “Those are edible, and very nutritious as well.”
Sue smiles like a kid who got her hands on an ice cream cone. She plucks a handful of the berries and places one on her tongue. She chews on it for a few seconds.
“It’s good! Just a little bitter, but tasty.”
Joseph takes a berry from her hand and pops it into his mouth. He chews it thoughtfully.
“This will work.”
Kurtz sighs. He grabs a handful of berries and munches on them as if he’s trying to get a dose of vitamins or minerals from them. He seems pleased by their taste.
“So we’ll get to eat at least berries, possibly some mushrooms, apart from whatever animal we kill.”
“We should thank God for providing such abundance,” Joseph says as he crouches to pluck fresh berries.
“Abundance? We have strayed far from the clearing, and we have only found one species of edible berries. Nevermind, how are we going to carry them back?”
I bring up the interface with the list of all the stuff I can spend the accumulated points on. I conjure a large basket made of straw, which appears on the grass between my villagers. It will take them a while to get used to stuff popping up into existence, but the three of them take big handfuls of the berries and drop them into the basket.
“That should be more than enough,” Joseph says. ” We shouldn’t be excessively enthusiastic in plucking berries unless we are sure we will eat most of them.”
“One day we’ll make jam out of them,” Sue says perkily.
As Joseph carries the basket full of berries, we walk further in the same direction. There isn’t much sunlight filtering down down into the forest. We move cautiously, walking around obstacles without touching them.
I had noticed that Kurtz hung his head low and seemed deep in thought. He suddenly starts talking over his shoulder to me.
“Godling, why can’t you just make a bunch of useful stuff appear whenever you want? What’s the limit here?”
“It depends on the amount of actions my villagers perform and which are conducive to their survival and the prosperity of their future village. The harder you work, the more power I have to grant you boons.”
“So you are unable to conjure stuff otherwise?”
“I’m serious, yes.”
“Who the hell made that rule? Some god above you? Or is this a property of reality?”
I have nothing to gain from revealing to any sentient AI that they exist in a computer simulation. My job is to keep them going, which will contribute to distract me from my own problems. I’m not like those other players who enjoy inflicting existential crises on their subjects; I’ve had to struggle through such crises for my entire life, and I want to spare others from those nightmares.
“There are mysteries on every layer of this universe, my friend,” I say grimly.
I would have expected Kurtz to retort something to annoy me, but he furrows his brow and scratches his long beard. The silence between us four grows awkward.
“How old are you, by the way?” Sue asks to the dwarf.
The elf’s arms sway gracefully as she walks briskly. She seems much happier than before.
“If you should know, I guess I’ll tell you,” Kurtz says reluctantly. “I’m twenty.”
“Is that dwarf code for something?” Joseph asks as he snaps his head towards Kurtz. “As in you have actually lived for a few hundred years?”
“No, I’ve literally just lived for twenty years!” Kurtz says with a bit of annoyance, and then he takes a deep breath. “Given how ruinous the last war was for my people, I’m lucky that I have survived so far.”
“But the length of your beard…” Sue says while she gestures as if she herself had grown one on her delicate face.
“I guess you have met very few dwarves! For you taller peoples, having a beard is a sign of maturity and wisdom, but even dwarf women start growing their beards before their first period!”
“Weird, isn’t it?” Sue replies.
“Disturbing, more like it.”
Kurtz shoots me a look of outrage over his shoulder.
“I was working in my store when you chose to involve me in your existence!”
As I was about to reply, Sue interrupts me.
“So I’m older than you, Kurtz, by a few years! I’m your big sister.”
Kurtz looks down.
“I had a real sister before the orc war,” he mutters in a thin voice. “I don’t want a new one.”
He walks on in silence. I notice that his shoulders are shaking slightly.
A few minutes later we spot something troubling among the trees ahead of us: a giant spider web. Several webs. The sticky strands stretch across the path in front of us, covering a large area. A dead, desiccated rabbit is suspended from the tangle, as well as a few other cocoons.
“What the hell?” Kurtz says.
“God, I hate spiders,” Sue says as if she wished she could shout it.
“They are terrifying, evil beings,” Kurtz agrees quietly.
Joseph steps casually towards the web.
“They are intelligent creatures that build intricate traps to capture their victims. This particular one has worked well, since there is plenty of prey in it.”
He picks up the rabbit carcass hanging off the thick strand, and I cringe.
“Hey, don’t touch that nasty crap.”
Sue attempts to grab the dwarf’s arm, but only manages to touch his shoulder awkwardly as she points with a trembling finger at a hole in a nearby tree. The hole is covered in silky hair, and at first I only make out a big, bulging eye staring at us. The creature inside is motionless, its mandible closed tight around a large moth. The arachnid’s carapace is greyish brown, rough-looking like sandpaper, but glistens faintly in the dimness. Two pairs of legs emerge from behind the spider, one pair reaching up to support its body and the second pair folded neatly along its abdomen. Its round thorax sits on top of the third leg pair, supported by a cluster of bristles. From the base of the abdomen protrudes a fat tail ending in two tiny pincers. As if sensing we have noticed it, the arachnid swings itself off the wall of silk, leaving the empty husk of the moth behind. Its movements are surprisingly graceful despite its size.
Before I know it, the three villagers are running away. I call after them, but they ignore me.
I’m alone with the cat-sized spider, which is crawling slowly over the webby grass. Although I should be invisible to the arachnid, there’s something eerie about how it’s staring in my direction. To my surprise, this one creature isn’t venomous.
I turn around and float in pursuit of my fleeing villagers.
Unfortunately, I’m on the verge of dropping this story, and maybe writing altogether for a while. These past couple of weeks I’ve felt unmotivated, lethargic, out of it, and unable to focus on even the stuff that I usually enjoy. I rarely want to do anything or go anywhere. I’m likely depressed again. In addition, I’ve had to handle huge messes at work, and the usual idiocy of many of the users I have to deal with, as well as being pursued to solve problems that aren’t my responsibility, has gotten to me. Then I look at the current state of the world, and how the leaders of what remains of Western civilization manage to take even more insane and suicidal decisions at every turn (somehow in the back of my mind I retain the hope that at any new disaster they will surely have learned their lesson, but they never do). My city has gotten so unsafe in the last few years that I rarely want to go out unless I have a reason or it’s sunny enough to go in the woods. In general, everything is either shit or feels like shit for me at the moment.
Like most nights, I lie awake as I stare into the dark. I can’t breathe properly, something is squeezing the inside of my chest. I’ve wasted the last few hours turning over in bed because I can’t switch off my brain. I need to get at least a couple hours of sleep, because I’ll spend the first half of tomorrow programming the latest gadget for a client’s website. I can see myself hunched over my desk, programming away to meet the deadline, the entire time wishing I were sleeping instead. Even the crazier dreams make sense to my subconscious, while waking up makes less and less sense every day.
My thoughts continue churning. If only I could reach out, grab hold of something solid. A rope ladder that leads upwards. A staircase that leads downwards. Anything that doesn’t disappear under my feet whenever I put my weight on it. Or maybe something to lean on, that would support my tired heart.
The whole night passes in a feverish blur. When the alarm blares, I can’t tell if I have slept at all. I can hear cars passing by on the road below. I sit up in what I call my bed, which is just a mattress and a blanket, and I rub my eyes for a while as I gather the strength to stand up.
I prepare a warm cup of coffee and I sit in front of my desk. I’ve received new emails from a few clients who want updates, but I haven’t managed to reply to other clients who wrote to me days ago. They wait to hear from someone who’s barely here anymore.
After some long hours of typing, I’ve had enough for today. I make myself a grilled cheese sandwhich for lunch. I face that I will need to go out and buy stuff to fill my almost empty fridge; it may be around a week and a half since I bought groceries. I take a shower, mostly to clear my head. After I dress myself with jeans and a shirt, I grab my old-fashioned leather jacket, my oversized black woollen beanie, and my favorite heavy boots. Once I walk down the stairs, I realize I’ve left my apartment without the obligatory mask. I turn back and grab one from the coat rack.
It’s dark outside, as if the sun was already setting, because the clouds hover low, threatening rain. The air is damp and chilly. On my way to the supermarket, I pass in front of the occupied outside tables of bars, mostly frequented by strange people whose languages I don’t understand. Everybody speaks so loud. I want to shove my index fingers into my ear canals.
I hadn’t worn a mask for a while. I’m breathing lukewarm air mostly made of carbon dioxide, and every time I exhale, air escapes through the gaps between the mask and my nose, blowing particles into my eyes. I feel sick to my stomach, and every step is an effort.
As soon as I enter the supermarket, a staff member checks my temperature, then lets me pass. I feel a sudden wave of exhaustion. It’s so hard to ignore the constant noise of the shoppers, and the brightness of the fluorescent lamps, and the smell of the food stalls, and the background music, and the sound of the cash registers. My head is bothering me, my skin itches.
All the customers are wearing masks, and most are dressed in warm clothes. They stand at a safe distance from each other while they check out the goods. I try to avoid meeting anyone’s gaze, afraid of being infected with whatever virus they are carrying, or with their humanity.
I spot someone familiar out of the corner of my eye. For a split second I recognize Sue, who wears a coat and a scarf, and holds a shopping basket while she reads the back of a cereal box. But she’s just a middle-aged woman with long, dark blonde hair and above average breasts. She looks like a mother.
Sue. What a stupid name for an elf. Other players complained about the lists of names from which the generators make their choices when creating new NPCs. There must be mods out there to expand or improve those lists, but I haven’t bothered to search for them. Besides, the game just updated, so those modded lists may not work with the current build.
I’m already infatuated with that elf; she’s as perfectly hot as only a virtual person can be, she admires me because I’m powerful, and she belongs to a world where I’d rather live instead. I can hardly wait to return home and lose myself in the virtual realm, where I may forget, even if just for a few minutes, that my real body lies on a lounge chair located in a world that’s crumbling at an exponential pace.
My head hurts. A dull ache, like a hangover. I’m waiting in queue to finally leave with my groceries. I smell stale sweat. The noise level is unbearable, especially when the store assistants try to communicate in loud voices. I’m nervous, tense, as if I were standing close to wild animals and waiting for them to attack me.
As I hold my three shopping bags filled with groceries that may last a couple of weeks, I hurry out of the building. I’m feeling increasingly ill. While I head straight towards my apartment building, my vision is blurred, my mind feels foggy. A feeling of unreality lingers in me, as it has for long. I feel as if I could punch a wall only for my fist to pass through the molecules of the paint and the bricks; it would make sense if this entire world was a scenario built to fuck with me, given how every aspect of it assaults either my senses or my mind.
I just notice that a rancid reggaeton song is increasing in volume and approaching me from behind when the source brushes me by: it was a couple of teenagers on a bicycle, who are zigzagging through pedestrians as if racing at an obstacle course. At least I’m not the only pedestrian who stops and glares at the couple of shitheads, who know that riding a bike on the pavement is illegal, but that even if police officers were to spot them, they wouldn’t bother telling them off.
When I finally reach my apartment, my right hand trembles as I unlock the front door. I shut it behind me. I take my mask off and throw it on the console table. I wish I never had to leave the safety and sanity of my apartment. How does anyone tolerate spending time around human beings?
Once I’ve undressed myself down to my underwear, I set my purchases on the kitchen table. I unpack the groceries and put them away either in the few cupboards or the fridge. I’m itching to lie on the lounge chair to lose myself in virtual reality, but I’m also hungry. I pull out a couple of tins of tuna and eat straight from the container. I wash it down with water.
A few minutes later, I’ve done all I needed to give up being human for a couple of hours. I lie back comfortably on my lounge chair, I put the VR helmet on my head and I adjust it. When I exhale, the accumulated anxiety that had been squeezing the insides of my chest leaves through my nostrils. My mind is now calm, clear, almost lucid. My heart is pumping fresh blood into every part of my body.
* * *
I’ve returned to the clearing surrounded by a temperate forest, and I’m floating weightless. The hands of my avatar are as transparent as a jellyfish, but my whole body remains invisible for the three people I left sleeping on the grass. I fly down to observe the young woman lying in front of me. Sue is curled into a ball with her hands covering her face. Every last one of her dark gold hairs is perfectly placed.
As pleasant as the scene feels, I won’t wait around for hours until my three villagers wake up, so I accelerate time. The villagers stir frantically in slumber. Kurtz, the dwarf, snores loudly, while Joseph tosses fitfully, turning every now and then as if enduring a bad dream.
The sun hasn’t risen yet, though the day is starting to turn blue. A cool breeze rustles through the trees, carrying the smell of dew and pine needles. The birds are chirping happily in their nests. Now that the villagers are mostly silent, I hear that water trickles somewhere nearby. Everything is vibrantly alive. I’m overwhelmed by an urge to explore and learn more.
This clearing and the surrounding forest will be home soon enough, both for the villagers and for me. Life will begin anew. We’ll grow food together, we’ll hunt animals for meat and fur, we’ll make baskets and wickerware. We’ll live together in harmony. And in time we will forget how miserable we really are.
Sue’s hair is spread out around her face, and her breathing sounds like a gentle sigh. Her eyes appear closed, but they are merely covered by her eyelashes. Her lips are slightly parted, revealing the tip of her tongue, and a strand of saliva is dripping onto her chin. Her arms and legs rest motionlessly next to her torso, giving the impression of an angel statue come to life. I wonder how her skin would feel like beneath my fingertips.
When the three villagers finally wake up, though, they’re hungry, tired and irritable. Kurtz stretches his back carefully while grimacing, as if it hurts.
“So, where does your god go every morning? To worship himself?”
He laughs at his own joke. I’m not sure whether he has a sense of humour or simply likes to provoke me.
Joseph scratches his stubble. The sun shines bright upon the dew-covered grass.
“I doubt that a god needs to sleep.”
“He’s also your god for now, Kurtz,” Sue says. “But I sure hope he appears… I don’t want to spend a whole day here without any direction.”
Kurtz shakes his head. He looks down at his boots, which are caked in mud and dirt.
“I guess the only thing a dwarf can do is obey god, and then ask for forgiveness when he makes a mistake.”
“Try to avoid making mistakes to begin with,” I say with my booming voice.
The three are startled and turn sharply towards the source, although I’m invisible for them. The dwarf frowns, but Sue seems relieved.
“Did you three sleep well in this idyllic clearing?” I ask.
“I did, yes,” Joseph replies.
“I had such pleasant dreams,” Kurtz starts resentfully, “knowing I have been kidnapped into slavery.”
“What slave master are you talking about?” I ask.
“You! Damn invisible wizard!”
“That’s ridiculous. There’s no slavery involved.”
“Don’t play dumb, magical fart! You stole us away from our people! From our stores! You think this place is heaven?!”
“It is a beautiful forest,” I say.
Joseph is quiet, gazing intently into space, and the lack of support bothers the dwarf.
“What is it with you, human?” Kurtz asks to Joseph, and taps his arm with the back of the hand. “Don’t you care that this god has snatched you away from home?”
“I haven’t had anything resembling a home for years,” Joseph answers calmly. “This is a nice break for me. I feel quite free here.”
Kurtz snorts, and shakes his head.
“Free? Free to what? Go and commit suicide? Join the army of orcs? Wander around the forest and get eaten by wild animals? I guess some people are made for servitude!”
“If not a godling, a baron or a count. At least a god, even a local one, has genuine powers.”
“There’s nothing noble about serving another person. Serving is just submission.”
Sue lets out a noise of disbelief.
“I guess you are single, Kurtz.”
The dwarf’s face turns red.
“W-why would you say that?!”
“I can tell you don’t like to share. Serving others means helping other people achieve happiness, isn’t it?”
“Sue is right, Kurtz,” I say. “We’re all equals here. We’ll help each other out and work together for the common good of our community. That is a sort of mutual service. Right, Sue?”
“Equal?” Kurtz mutters. “To a minor god?”
“Bottom line, Kurtz, if you are unhappy, you should just quit. Don’t want to live in this beautiful forest? Then leave.”
The dwarf grunts, and rubs the side of his nose.
“Yeah, right! Just walk off into the woods alone? Without money? With nothing except the clothes on my back?”
“So it’s in your best interest to cooperate.”
The dwarf’s anger disappears, replaced with sadness.
“I don’t have any choice. I can tell that you are a prick, godling. The kind of minor god I wouldn’t approach willingly. But now I’ll only get to leave when you allow me to.”
“Good enough for me. Any other objections?”
Joseph stares at the forest as if he’s devising a plan of action.
“We can’t afford to waste any more energy. We have work to get started on.”
“You can’t see me smiling, Joseph,” I say, “but you are a breath of fresh air. How about you, little elf lady?”
Sue looks down shyly. Her golden hair falls onto her eyes and she tucks it behind an ear. She smiles sweetly and shrugs.
“Sure thing. It feels good to be useful.”
Once again I regret that the developers of this game have refused to add the ability for the players to interact physically with the villagers, because I want this elf so fucking bad. All I can do is fantasize about her naked body, and once I log off I can masturbate furiously.
Kurtz stops rubbing his eyes, then speaks in a dejected tone.
“Have you three forgotten that we lack any food, that the deer carcass has spoiled? How are we going to work on an empty stomach?”
“That’s true…” Sue says. “Godling, you couldn’t conjure a barrel full of grain by any chance, right?”
I suck air through my teeth. To be fair, any decent player would prepare a list of provisions carefully before embarking on a new playthrough, and those provisions would have fed my villagers for at least a couple of weeks. But I was so depressed that I couldn’t be bothered. Poor bastards.
“I made sure to pick a forest with plentiful berries. And whenever we locate the nearby stream, we’ll have clean water that you won’t need to boil.”
“It’s not exactly the same as finding a big bag of rice,” Kurtz grumbles. “But I guess there are worse ways to fill up our bellies.”
“Alright,” Joseph says as he bends down to pick up the bow and arrow. “What direction should be follow to find the stream?”
“I don’t remember,” I admit, embarrassed.
“You don’t remember?” Joseph repeats, unsure if he’s heard me right.
“I’m a minor god, not the God, if there’s any in this universe. I forget things. Just explore the forest for a while. You’ll come across water, I’m sure.”
Sue points at the knife lying on the ground. The blade is stained with dried blood.
“Who’s handling that?”
The dwarf grunts and picks it up gingerly.
“I guess it belongs to Kurtz now,” Kurtz says.
“Just don’t kill any of your new friends with it,” I say.
He rolls his eyes, and looks at the human and the elf as if to reassure them.
My mind is fogged up again, my eyesight has started to go funny. The world is turning a dull, flat grey. My old pal depression is paying me a visit.
I’m so tired all the time now. My head feels heavy and leaden. Whenever I try to force myself to leave my cramped apartment to take a walk, I wonder what’s the point. There’s nothing for me in those streets. No friends left behind to greet. All gone, or just never there at all.
I have the means to escape, the old tried method: I take a pee and a shit, I undress myself down to my boxers, and I lie down on my VR chair. Then I strap my brain into place and load up the virtual hub.
I’ve been trying this recent game, an advanced clone of the old ‘Dwarf Fortress’: the player is a godling that oversees the development of a fantasy village. The sentient AI characters are the stars, for as long as the player can stand to witness their beloved villagers suffering.
It takes some skill and imagination to build a medieval village that doesn’t make you want to pull your hair out. It’s complicated to get the right balance between resources and population density and infrastructure and housing stock. You need to plan carefully, arrange everything like a clockwork mechanism, and then keep an eye on things as they happen, so that you can respond if something goes wrong. I’m barely getting the hang of the game.
I start from zero, in a generated world. Temperate forests are newbie territory, but the depression hinders my ability to focus, and I’m using this game to distract myself. I choose a wide clearing surrounded by a forest. The trees are full of little green leaves, the grass is bright yellow and lush. It smells fresh here, clean and sweet.
I generate my starter three AI villagers. The RNG gods provide a nice combination of personalities: a human farmer (Joseph) who hates his life; an elf girl (Sue) with big breasts; and a dwarf merchant (Kurtz), who thinks he owns everything.
The villagers stand around confused, while my avatar, invisible to them, hovers over the scene.
“How did we end up here?” Joseph asks.
The dwarf, Kurtz, narrows his eyes in suspicion.
“Dunno. Maybe you’re the one that got us into this situation,” he grunts.
Joseph rubs his temples.
“I think we were all wandering around in the woods when suddenly we found ourselves here.”
Sue is looking around frantically. Her hair reaches down to her waist, and is a pretty dark gold. I can tell I will spend plenty of this playthrough ogling this virtual creature. If she survives.
“My sister is home alone!” Sue says in a high-pitched voice. “I need to get back!”
I speak to them with my stentorious voice, “Listen to me, villagers! I’m your god now, and I have brought you here to this forest so you three would establish a new village. This is an adventure that will test your abilities.”
They all stare blankly in my general direction. Then Sue looks down at her chest.
“I don’t have abilities, merely big breasts.”
“Yes, I’ve read your bio.”
“What’s the point of having these? They just get in the way sometimes.”
“You’ll develop some. Abilities, I mean. Anyway, get to work. You need to entertain me, or else there might be consequences.”
“Why are you even doing this to us?” Kurtz asks. “I’ve been through enough already. We didn’t ask for any of this.”
I sigh as I hover above their heads. The three of them look up at the source of my voice, puzzled.
“H-how should we call you, godling?” Joseph asks.
“Refer to me as Festerbump. It’s an internet thing. I’m going to give you three a chance to prove yourselves worthy of the task that lies ahead of you. You must build a village in this sacred land, and survive for at least a few years. If you do, then I shall reward you handsomely.”
“A-a few years?!” Sue yells. “My little sister is alone!”
“Your sister will be fine, I’m sure.”
“When will we return to our homes?” Kurtz insists. “I have a store to run.”
I laugh bitterly.
“Oh, the three of you are too pathetic. There’s no such thing as a home, only a prison cell called reality. Now to begin. Start working!”
The three villagers look at each other nervously.
“What do you want us to build?” Sue asks. “I’m not good with tools.”
Joseph, the farmer, rubs his stubble as if thinking about the weeks or months of work ahead.
“For anyone to visit our future village, we’ll have to figure out where exactly we are, and build a road…”
“This is stupid!” Kutz complains. “Why have we been chosen, of all people?!”
I’ve gone over this crap with other games that feature sentient NPCs. A significant part of the playthrough involves convincing the AI to do your bidding, or preventing them from going insane.
“I let the RNG gods choose you because I need to switch off my brain, forget how bad things really are,” I say. “So just get to work, damn it. Make something. Build a house. Build some houses.”
“Build some fucking houses,” Kurtz mutters. “You know, you could build yourself a house instead of making other people do it. You are supposed to be a god, aren’t you?”
“I’m not omnipotent,” I confess. “I don’t have that kind of power.”
Joseph keeps talking to himself out loud, “They’ll need roofs, doors, windows. And furniture.”
Sue puts a hand on the dwarf’s shoulder to calm him down, but he shoots the elf woman a nasty look.
“Hey, a god has put us to the task,” she says. “We are building for someone, aren’t we? So let’s make sure he likes it.” Sue looks up to address the invisible presence. “Will you make sure my sister doesn’t suffer any harm while I’m gone?”
Her sister likely doesn’t exist as data in the game, but this kind of background info helps round Sue out as a character.
“Sure, I’ll take care of your sibling,” I say, then sigh. “So all of you, stop bitching and get to work already.”
Kurtz keeps shaking his head.
“Just leave me alone, damn it. Do you think we know how to make houses? I’m a merchant! I can tell these two are clueless as well!”
“You’ll figure it out, I’m sure,” I say. “Quit whining.”
* * *
The three villagers venture into the surrounding woods to gather sticks and logs light enough to carry. Watching them walking around is boring, so I make time pass faster until, a couple of hours later, the three villagers have amassed a decent haul. They are already tired, but they start building a simple wooden fence, enclosing a square plot of ground. It’s just planted sticks and logs that will keep the villagers inside the boundaries of their future village, and hopefully will keep dangerous wildlife outside.
Sue is busy planting a few saplings along the perimeter. The other two villagers watch her as if they had nothing to do.
“I’ve never built anything before,” Kurtz grumbles. “Why should I have to do this?”
“It gives you a sense of accomplishment,” Joseph replies. “You’ll look at the stuff we will build, and you’ll think ‘I was partly responsible for that’.”
“I don’t even know what I’m doing. I just want to go back to the city.”
Sue stands up and wipes the dirt from her hands. Then she looks up at the sky as if I were floating in the clouds.
“Godling, we are hungry. How does one survive here?”
“Yes, what kinds of crops grow well in these lands?” Joseph asks me. “Is there water nearby?”
I’m hovering close to them, and when I project my deep voice, they are startled.
“You can hunt deer, or wild boar. Also, I believe I picked an area with a stream. I’m sure you’ll find it.”
“Hunting?” Kurtz complains. “That sounds like so much work! And we don’t have any weapons!”
“Well, then I’ll help you. I’m a god, after all. The more you obey me, the more points this game, so to speak, grants me so I can in turn materialize tools for my minions to use.”
I look up in the interface what I’m able to buy with the points these three useless villagers have accumulated by gathering the sticks and logs and building that fence. There are only a few things unlocked, mostly simple objects like a hammer, a pickaxe, and a shovel. However, I could spend the points on a big knife or a shoddy bow with a dozen arrows.
A few seconds later, the three villagers are staring with a mixture of awe and fear at a bow and a quiver full of arrows that has appeared on the grass in front of them.
“Now you have a tool able to murder simple animals,” I say. “Let’s get to hunting.”
“That’s amazing. It came out of nowhere,” Joseph says in a thin voice. “You truly are a god, oh mighty Festerbump.”
Sue steps back, looking paler.
“Our god has granted us a boon. We owe him now.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Kurtz mumbles.
“I’ve never used a bow, though,” Sue says.
“Don’t worry, I’ll do it,” Joseph tells her. “It will be easy.”
“I guess we could use some meat for tonight,” Kurtz mutters. “And vegetables.”
Joseph picks up the bow and the quiver. He seems impressed by their size and weight. Then he pulls back on the string as if testing it.
“Alright, let’s find out if there’s some game in the woods,” Joseph says confidently. “Come with me.”
Kurtz shakes his head.
“Nah. This is your project. Do it alone.”
Sue frowns in disbelief.
“What kind of a merchant are you? Don’t you have any respect?”
The dwarf shrugs as if he doesn’t care one way or another. Sue sighs, but then she walks up to Joseph’s side.
“I’ll go with you! Because you will provide food for us, right?”
Joseph gulps, and looks away from the elf’s breasts. I follow the two villagers as they walk into the woods together. I accelerate the passage of time until the two villagers come across a bunch of deer. Joseph and Sue crouch behind some bushes. The farmer nocks an arrow carefully, then draws the bowstring and holds it against his cheek. He whistles as if calling to the deer. When one raises its head, Joseph lets the arrow fly. It hits dead center between the deer’s eyes with a sickening sound of impact, followed by a grunt and a fall onto the grass. The dead deer twitches feebly.
After the rest of the deer have scampered off, Sue cheers and grabs Joseph’s arm.
“Good shot! We’ll eat deer tonight, thanks to you!”
“Yeah,” Joseph says with a grim smile. “I forgot how good killing feels. My wife hated hunting.”
Sue’s own smile falters.
“Alright, I’ll… help you carry the carcass back to our camp!”
She bends down to grab the deer by the legs. Joseph follows her lead and lifts it up. They stagger back towards the edge of the clearing.
* * *
When we return to the clearing enclosed by the fence, we find out that Kurtz had kept busy gathering firewood, and is tending a campfire.
“Oh, so we are eating deer tonight,” Kurtz says as he stares wide-eyed at the carcass. “I thought you two would return empty-handed.”
“We were lucky to come across some deer,” Joseph says.
“It was a magnificent kill,” Sue adds.
Sue and Joseph leave the carcass close to the fire, and sit down wearily.
“If we hadn’t been able to kill a deer, I’m sure that the godling would have produced some alternative,” Sue says confidently. “We won’t starve, not with a god watching over us.”
I wouldn’t be sure about that.
“This place is getting on my nerves,” Kurtz says as he stares at the flames. “There’s nothing but trees and bugs here. And I can’t even smoke.”
Joseph is kneeling next to the carcass.
“But how do we prepare the meat when we lack the proper tools? Maybe I could use an arrowhead to skin the deer…”
“That’s where your god comes in,” I say.
Thankfully, Joseph killing that deer had produced enough points for me to buy a big enough knife. I materialize it on top of the deer carcass, and the three villagers let out surprised noises.
“Now you own both a bow and a knife, to hunt, prepare the food or defend yourselves from the numerous monsters that likely await their opportunity to hunt you down. Rejoice!”
“Does it have any special powers?” Kurtz says as he inspects the blade carefully.
“It’s just a fucking knife. It should be more than enough at this juncture.”
Joseph sighs. The three villagers stare at the blade curiously as it gleams silver and gold in the flickering orange glow of the campfire.
“I’ve butchered a few living creatures in my time,” Joseph says. “Or do you guys want to do it?”
“No, no, take care of it,” Kurtz says.
Joseph cuts open the pelt with practiced ease. He pulls back the hide, exposing a bloody mass of muscle and fat. Then he slices the flesh into chunks. The elf watches intently at first, but then she starts trembling and grimaces. She covers her mouth.
“Are you sick, Sue?” I ask. “You are sweating quite a lot. Do you feel unwell?”
She blushes. Her eyes dart over to Joseph, who is plunging the blade into the ribcage of the beast with a crunching sound. Sue swallows hard and turns away.
“Y-yeah, I’m feeling a bit nauseous.”
After chopping the deer’s legs off, Joseph places them beside the torso. The guts are exposed to view, and the smell of blood has filled the air.
“Don’t worry, it’s only a deer,” the human farmer says casually. “It’s not like what I ate in prison.”
“Prison? What did you do?”
* * *
The night has fallen, and the three villagers have filled their bellies with cooked deer meat.
“As a bonus exercise,” I tell them, “let’s see how far you idiots can throw a stick.”
Sue picks up one of the sticks that Kurtz had gathered for the campfire, and holds it as if it were a spear. She throws it a few times, determined to get better quickly, so that she can prove to me that she deserves to be my follower. Joseph has let another stick fly through the air in a straight line. Kurtz has ignored my godly request, and is sitting cross-legged by the fire. He shakes his head from time to time. His long beard makes him look like a madman.
Both of my willing minions get bored in a few minutes, and sit on the grass to contemplate their pitiful existences. Sue brings up how unused she is to hanging out with both humans and dwarves, and that gets Kurtz going.
“I’m sure you would be able to mingle with humans almost anywhere in the world, but my own species has nearly died off. Only the lucky survived the war against the orcs.”
Sue hangs her head low, and hides her face in her forearms.
“Don’t remind me of my brother,” she mutters.
“Your brother?” Joseph asks casually. “What happened to him?”
Sue hesitates. She takes a deep breath before answering.
“He disappeared during the war. As I looked for survivors in the nearby villages, I kept hearing rumors that many had escaped the approaching orc warbands. I held on to the hope that I would catch up with my dear brother eventually. But several years passed, and we never received any news.”
“I’m sorry,” Joseph says. “It must have been terrible for you.”
“His name was Eric. He was a farmer, same as you. He always hated it, though, always complained. He used to say he wanted to change the way society worked. That the whole system needed fixing. But one day he simply walked away, and nobody saw him again…”
Sue cries softly into her forearms as her shoulders tremble.
I wonder if the game made up that piece of backstory for Sue because she didn’t seem interesting or sympathetic enough. I recall vaguely that the process that generated this new game world spewed out notifications about orcs taking over other races’ settlements.
After a minute, Kurtz breaks the silence.
“We should all return home,” the dwarf says grimly. “The sooner we leave this place, the happier we’ll be.”
“You can’t, though,” I say. “You need to build a village.”
Kurtz looks with contempt in my general direction.
“But we can count on your assistance, can’t we, oh mighty god?”
“I’m sure I can do a thing or two for you.”
Sue sniffles and peeks out from behind her forearms.
“You’ll keep us safe from orc raiders and other vermin, won’t you?”
I shake my head, but they can’t see me.
“If we die for whatever reason, will you send our souls to heaven?”
I don’t believe there’s a heaven, nor a hell. Life isn’t fair. But I need to keep these idiots believing in me, or else they may rebel. Even kill themselves.
“Sure. Just don’t blame me if you end up in hell instead.”
Joseph chuckles nervously. Sue kneels and thanks me profusely as tears run down her cheeks. It makes me uncomfortable, but the angle gives me a privileged view of the cleavage of her peasant dress. All that tit meat makes me wish I had a physical body.
“Then we shall trust in you and pray for protection!” Sue says.
“Good, good,” I say, and clear my throat. “That settles it for today, I think. I’m leaving for a while. Go to sleep, and I’ll see you in the morning. Just remember to avoid killing each other in the meantime.”
“Right, godling. We won’t mess it up,” Joseph says.
I remain among them for a while after I’ve stopped talking. Sue wanders around alone, deep in thought. Kurtz sits by the fire and eats more deer meat, most of which will spoil. Their lives move slowly forward. With time, this place will become a home for them. Then the orcs and trolls other crazy shit will likely come to destroy everything.
Now my villagers lie down to sleep on the grass, exhausted after having spent all day gathering firewood, hunting, preparing meat, throwing sticks, and erecting a fence in a tiny patch of land.
Chieko flew us back in her pineapple yellow, antigravity car to the small town where she lives, and where the office of the SFPT that I know is located. I keep staring out of the surrounding windshield at the town, which has been built on both sides of a wide, winding river with fern green waters. I wouldn’t have considered this community a town. The buildings, which are megalithic, constructed from huge stone blocks, are distant enough from the rest as if they were farmhouses surrounded by grazing fields back in my native Gipuzkoa, but we keep coming across colorful flying cars, so I guess that the inhabitants of Mars walk around on the stone footpaths for leisure and exercise.
Both suns, the original and the one that Chieko called artificial, are dipping into the horizon, dyeing the sky in coral and watermelon pinks. I’m tired, my body is heavy. I feel my clothes touching my sensitive skin. I can’t remember how much I’ve cried, overwhelmed by having been rescued from a certain death on the old Earth. The gratitude I feel towards Chieko is an alien warmth in my heart that makes me feel like a bashful little girl. I can’t pay back what she has done for me, and I can’t live up to the artist she believes me to be.
Our ride through the sunset ends when Chieko points out that we have arrived at her place. She lowers her vehicle until the windshield shows an arched stone bridge that crosses the tranquil river, and beyond it a vast estate that features a garden with trimmed hedges, vibrant statues of human figures and animals, and a central ornate fountain that is shooting streams of water. The footpath leads into the two-story portico of a large villa that extends in colonnades to two adjoined buildings, forming a blocky ‘U’. The villa is also made out of huge stone blocks, but they are painted alabaster white except for the roofs that cover the colonnades, which are penny brown. It’s so fancy that I can’t close my mouth nor move out of the car seat I’ve sunk into, although Chieko has already opened a hole in the frame next to her seat.
“Chieko, you are loaded,” I say in a dry voice.
She smiles, but waves a hand back and forth.
“Oh, you have no idea how rich some people are. This is just a regular house.”
“I’m ready to marry you, just so you know.”
Chieko laughs and jumps out of the vehicle. I follow her down the airstair, then stand unsteadily next to her as I squint against the setting suns.
“Let’s get going, Izar,” Chieko says as she walks on the footpath towards the bridge. “I’m so hungry.”
I admire the white paving stones as we walk up the arc of the bridge. In the waters below us, I glimpse a couple of fishes swimming through underwater weeds. The greenery on the river’s edge has grown big and healthy. I hear the distant echo of a dog barking. I’m not surprised that these people brought dogs over, but I wonder if they get to live for hundreds of years.
As we cross through the garden, we pass by flower beds of bright yellow-pink flowers. Some look like daisies, and there are also violet and blue flowers that I can’t name. I feel like I’m walking through their scent.
“You must spend so much time tending to this place,” I say.
“What? Nah. The AIs trim these thick hedges, they make sure that the flowers don’t die, all that kind of stuff. Most days I barely notice they are there, to be honest.”
The cooling breeze blows water droplets from the fountain’s streams in my face, refreshing my skin. The central statue is a bronze, stylized fox, depicted as if it represents a deity.
As we approach the large portico, I spot a man jogging in the shadows of the colonnade leading to the front door. I’m startled, but in a couple of seconds I realize that he must live with Chieko. When he notices us, he stops. Once we stand in the cool shadows under the ceiling of the portico, I look up at the tall man, who holds my gaze with his brown, slanted eyes. He must be around a hundred and eighty-five centimeters. His face, which is beaded with sweat, looks like he’s in his mid twenties, but that might mean little around here. His hair is apple red, short, thick and unruly. He’s wearing a simple T-shirt and shorts, although their fabric looks expensive. By how vigorous the man seems, he must work out regularly, and knowing that the inhabitants of this new reality also run for exercise comforts me.
The man wipes his nose with the back of his hand as he recovers his breath.
“You brought your new friend over without giving me a heads-up,” he says with a deep voice. “That’s really rude, Chieko.”
“Oh, shut it!” she answers good-naturedly. “Don’t listen to him, he already knows I was working on your case.”
I bow slightly. I feel like I’m intruding in the lives of rich people when I’m just a peasant.
“Nice to meet you. I guess you already know that I’m Izar, that I come from the past and all that… Are you Chieko’s husband?”
The man makes a dismissive wave with both hands.
“Izar, you have screwed up your introduction. What a way to give me a bad impression! Me, Chieko’s husband!”
My rescuer lets out a noise of dismay. She shoves the man’s chest, but he barely budges.
“You know that she just found out about this society! Damn idiot…” She looks at me apologetically. “This is my brother, Yuichi. We both live here. He’s usually nicer when you get to know him.”
Yuichi smiles thinly, and bows his head.
“So, are you going to live with us for a while?” he asks me.
I look nervously at Chieko.
“I think I’d be a burden, but…”
Chieko grabs my shoulder and narrows her eyes at her brother. I can’t tell if she’s actually mad or if they are used to interacting like this.
“Yes, you know that’s the standard practice. A representative takes care of the artist they bring over from the past, until they can live on their own. And I would have invited her to live with us anyway if I had found her living in the streets!”
Yuichi rolls his eyes.
“That means close to nothing. When was the last time you saw a homeless person on Mars? But I guess that Chieko needs someone to share the workload with. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you fed. I can’t imagine what the people in town would say if we allowed a servant to starve.”
I’m smiling like an idiot, unable to defend myself or contribute to the conversation. Chieko puts her hands on my shoulders from behind.
“No workload of which to speak! I have barely done anything but laze around recently. C’mon, you just keep running! We are getting in and replicating some food.”
When Yuichi gives up and continues running, Chieko pushes me gently towards the front door, which is made of some smooth, brown metal. She presses her hand against it, and the door opens inwards.
We enter the cool house, which smells like leather and saffron. A low-key jazz song starts playing from somewhere deeper within the house. My gaze is glued to the floor of the foyer, which is a mosaic of carefully laid out pieces that display beautiful scenes, in reds, yellows, whites and blacks, filled with Japanese imagery: white-faced ladies wearing yukatas, the silhouettes of traditional Japanese houses, heroic images of samurai. Areas of the large mosaic also show depictions of animals. Maybe I should already expect to find arresting masterworks wherever I go in this society, but my brain has a hard time associating this artistic display with someone’s home.
Chieko grabs my hand, and then swings my arm as if we were both children. I’m getting dizzier and a heat is rising to my cheeks as I walk further into the large space. I may be staring at the central room of Chieko’s house: it’s an atrium bathed in pinkish light. The beams come down from the skylights built into a vaulted ceiling made of stone, that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a cathedral. The slanted beams of light from the sunset are bathing sofas, hammocks, dining and coffee tables, a structure that looks like a chimney, and some isolated machines that resemble game consoles or ovens. Flowerbeds and water gardens are arranged near the furniture.
The illuminated space is about four times larger than I would have expected even a luxurious living room to be. You could play a sports match in here if it weren’t for all the obstacles. All the walls are covered in kaleidoscopic frescoes that represent scenes both from ancient myths and from either my era or one that came after, because I recognize the skyline of modern cities from my original present, as well as spaceships. This living room is ringed by an interior balcony. From down here I glimpse an arched gallery that must lead to bedrooms, offices and other personal rooms.
“Come!” Chieko says as she guides me around a tiny fountain towards a sofa. “You clearly need to sit. Let’s eat something, shall we? Or do you need to go to the bathroom first?”
I look at her nervously.
“Well… I don’t know… No, I don’t think so.”
If I were in my house, I would have emptied my bladder, because I’m feeling those two glasses of water that I drank at the SFPT office. But I need to sit down and figure out a way to stop my mind from reeling. When I sink into the sofa, the velvety fabric embraces me lovingly. Next to the gilded, pleated arm of the sofa, a cluster of red buds that have grown in a flower bed are wafting a sweet scent.
Chieko sits next to me, takes off her shoes and folds her slender legs so her bare feet rest on the cushion. She smiles at me and opens her mouth to say something, but I interrupt her.
“Do you have any clue of the life of luxury you and your people enjoy?” I ask in a weary voice.
“It’s a matter of comparisons, isn’t it? But yes, when I travelled to your era, I was shocked by how tiny the houses were, and stacked on top of each other! It was suffocating. You could hear the neighbors going to the bathroom, and could even make out parts of their private conversations! That couldn’t have been good for people’s mental health. No wonder people were so neurotic!”
“Yeah, I have always thought that living in cities, let alone in a metropolis, turned people crazy. We aren’t meant to live in such cramped spaces. But then again, it’s not as if we could have chosen to live in some better way. The Earth was vastly overpopulated, moving to the countryside was expensive, and everyone needed to get used to being a speck of dust that would likely amount to nothing.”
Chieko twists one side of her mouth into a grimace.
“I don’t think Earth has improved much in that regard. If you thought that it was overpopulated, if you see it now you may vomit. Truth be told, many of those people have never been ready to leave the nest. But thankfully we don’t have to worry about that on Mars, or other colonized planets.” She claps once. “So, are you hungry? Because I’m starving.”
I nod quickly.
She turns to make eye contact with an oven-like machine that is propped on a stand.
“Replicator, we want your services.”
The indicators over the cavity of the machine light up in arctic blue, and to my surprise the machine lifts off silently and floats up to us, until it hovers a meter and a half in front of Chieko as static as if it was propped on an invisible stand. It reminds me of a butler, another one, waiting for instructions.
“Pay attention to this, Izar,” she says. “You’ll rely on the replicators and the decomposers to fulfill your basic needs, and you’ll also use them whenever you need to replicate objects like cutlery, clothes, books… Everything that could fit this cavity, really. These are the personal models. For cars, furniture and similar objects you go to a shop, because they own industrial replicators.”
I swallow, then nod. I stare at Chieko’s reflection in the reflective front of the machine.
“Alright, replicator,” Chieko says. “Recommend us a menu for dinner!”
The machine radiates a solid-looking beam of light that unfolds and spreads until it forms a mosaic of images, around thirty, which are as colorful and detailed as those in the computer screens with which I’m familiar. Each image shows a plate with food as they would appear in the menu of a restaurant, and the images also feature associated dishware such as bowls, saucers, glasses, spoons, forks… as if they came with the dish.
I point with a trembling finger at the options.
“Chieko, are you telling me that I can choose any of this food and it will appear in that cavity inside of the machine…?”
“You get it quickly.”
I rub my eyes.
“I don’t. I really don’t… How is this possible?”
“Don’t worry about that for now. As you know, you don’t need to understand how something works to use it! I wasn’t the one who invented this thing. Just order whatever, Izar.”
I take a deep breath and look over the options. Although I only recognize about a quarter of the food I’m staring at, my mouth salivates.
“Oh, that looks like pizza.”
“It certainly is. Cheese pizza in particular. The replicator always recommends it to me, because I love it. Have you ever tasted pizza before, Izar?”
“If I have… Nevermind, yes. Pizza sounds good. So how would I choose it?”
“Remember, the machines are sentient. Replicators and decomposers are silent by design, but they understand. So just tell it what you want.”
When I stare back at the replicator, I have a hard time believing, or facing, that a person is waiting for my order. I’ll need to get used to dealing with artificial intelligences, but thankfully that Guide showed me that I could make myself understood without issues.
I point at the image of the cheese pizza.
“Alright, then give me that one, please.”
The mosaic collapses, and the beam of solid light dissolves. As the machine hums, the cavity fills with a similarly opaque and featureless light, and when it vanishes, the inside of the replicator contains a steaming cheese pizza. Even a pizza cutter. The pizza’s crust looks so crispy, and the golden yellow cheese so thick and juicy, that my mind forgets its doubts and worries. I only want to fill my stomach with that impossible food.
The replicator’s cavity opens, which allows the pizza’s aroma to reach us, and Chieko pulls out the plate. After she leaves it on the coffee table, both of us are quick to grab a slice, which came pre-cut although the replicator also produced a cutter. When I bite and chew the morsel, my mouth fills with the expected taste of a cheese pizza. My shoulders relax.
“Chieko, you live in heaven,” I say with my mouth full.
“This pizza always tastes amazing, yes. The same as the pizza that was scanned to produce this blueprint. Not that I ever tasted the original pizza, but that’s the idea.”
After I finish eating my slice, I wipe off the juices left behind on my lips. I go for a second slice.
Chieko also orders glasses of orange juice. We eat as we lounge on the sofa. Night has fallen, and some floating orbs have switched on and are bathing us in soft white light. I’m so comfortable that I get mental images of kittens rolling around in their cat bed.
We finished eating a couple of minutes ago. My benefactress’ eyes have turned sleepy. After she picks up crumbs from her puff sleeve blouse and eats them, she leans back and offers me a tired smile.
“That’s all you need to know regarding replicators, I think. Now I’ll show you what you’ll do when you want to get rid of something.”
Chieko looks directly at the replicator as she addresses it. Maybe it’s necessary to make eye contact.
“Replicator, return to your stand, please.” As the replicator floats towards its stand, Chieko gazes at the similar machine propped up on a stand next to the empty one. “Decomposer, come here.”
The decomposer obeys like a pet. Although this machine’s purpose is the opposite of the replicator’s, its main difference is that the cavity is hidden by a round hatch. The machine stops a meter and a half away from Chieko, who gets off the sofa and puts the pizza cutter on the plate on which only crumbs remained. She adds both our empty glasses. She opens the machine’s hatch and leaves the plate inside. After she closes the hatch, she sits back down.
“Decomposer, destroy your contents.”
A round indicator on the front of the humming decomposer lights up in red, and a couple of seconds later it shuts off.
“That’s it,” Chieko says.
I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that any machine could get rid of any object with such speed. This society must have solved the issue of the growing mountains of garbage, as well as the patches of plastic in the oceans.
“Doesn’t it worry you that someone could kill another person,” I ask, “dismember them, throw their remains into a decomposer and make them disappear?”
Chieko laughs merrily, closing her eyes and holding her hand against her mouth.
“Your mind goes directly to murder, huh?” she says. Her fingers flick outwards to open her palms towards me. “What a horror… You should want to help other people, Izar, not end them.”
“Hey, that’s a worry that anyone would have.”
“That’s why they built in a system that notifies the authorities in case it detects that it would decompose human remains.”
“Alright, so you future people haven’t outgrown homicidal impulses. You haven’t evolved that much.”
“The animals that evolve to outgrow violent impulses get killed by those who didn’t. Isn’t that the case?” Chieko replies with a smile.
I realize that jazz was still playing in the background when it stops abruptly, and gets replaced with music similar to soft rock. I’m confused for a moment, because Chieko didn’t order it, but a more important question pops up in my mind.
“How does this replicator of yours produce objects from zero? Are the raw materials inside the machine? Even 3D printers from my era needed some sort of cartridge.”
“It makes a request for the needed periodic elements to the deposit that every town has. We pool those resources together, it’d be too much of a hassle otherwise. They get sent through quantum teleportation.”
“Of course, it had to have quantum in the name.”
“Haven’t you both gotten comfortable,” Yuichi’s deep voice reaches us from behind.
Chieko and I look over the back pillows of our sofa. Yuichi must have taken a shower, because his thick, wavy red hair is combed back and damp. He’s wearing a grey sweat jacket and sweatpants. His sweat jacket features the drawing of a multi-limbed mechanical being with a red cape. I won’t try to deduce what it represents.
He struts to the replicator, which is resting on its stand, and tells it to produce his usual protein shake. In a few seconds he’s holding a metallic-looking, opaque flask. He approaches the armchair closest to us and plops down on it. As he unscrews the cap of his bottle, he stares at me brashly as if he intends to challenge me.
“So, Izar, are you religious?”
Chieko lets out a noise of dismay.
“Yuichi! You barely know her!”
The man doesn’t tear his gaze away.
“When my sister told me that she had taken one of the rescue missions, I was sure that she would bring home some nut from the Middle Ages, or an Ice Age sculptor. I would find myself having to listen to that person freaking out and wondering how his or her god fit into this new world.”
“I see how that would be annoying,” I say. “I’ve never been religious.”
Yuichi sighs, then leans back on his armchair as if he figures he can relax.
“What century did you come from again?”
Yuichi arches his eyebrows as he takes a big gulp of his protein shake.
“Was your era as terrible as we picture it from the surviving records?”
“I don’t know what you’ve seen. I’m sure that any other era looks like hell when compared to living in this town. But I admit that I didn’t enjoy living in my time. I dreaded that everything was going to collapse eventually.”
“To me, it looked apocalyptic,” he says with sympathy.
I let out a long sigh.
“What can I say, I’m glad that Chieko brought me here. I can’t begin to explain how safe I feel now.”
A cat-sized creature is moving close to a flower bed filled with purple and yellow flowers. I glance at it absentmindedly, expecting to see a cat, but my gaze falls on a sleek, metallic octopus that’s watering the flowers through its flexible tentacles. My eyes widen, but neither of the siblings pay the robot any attention.
“You are a writer, right?” Yuichi asks. “Many of those around.”
“Yes, and not one that deserved being saved. There were millions of writers like me in the world back then. We were lucky enough to get published, but didn’t sell enough to pay the bills.”
“Izar, you need to stop putting yourself down,” Chieko says, more upset than I would have expected.
I lower my gaze to my lap.
“It’s true. I have no clue why you saved me.”
“I don’t know why my sister chose you in particular,” Yuichi interjects as he smirks at Chieko, “but your heroine was motivated by procrastination. You have avoided a sad fate because Chieko couldn’t figure out what creative project to start next. That’s the truth.”
My benefactress looks down and fiddles with the corner of a pillow. More than embarrassed, she seems guilty. I reach over to put my hand on her arm. I don’t want the person who saved my life feeling bad about any aspect of her decision.
“She didn’t tell you that she had lofty, virtuous reasons for bringing you over from the past, did she?” Yuichi asks with some concern.
“No, she told me that she was going through a dry spell,” I say. I try to hold Chieko’s gaze, although she’s avoiding it. “I wouldn’t care if you rescued me because you were paid to do so, or because you wanted to impress someone. If it weren’t for you, I would be living in the streets, and in less than a week I would have drowned in the river. You were never clear about how, but I don’t care. My life is yours.”
Chieko mumbles something as she blushes. Yuichi snorts, then shakes his head.
“She’s charmed you already, huh, Izar? I guess you can’t help it. That SFPT, they are running the ultimate seduction scheme. You have no idea how many of the people they bring over here from the past end up naked in their representative’s bed by the end of the first day.”
Chieko straightens her back and glares at her brother.
“It’s nothing like that!” She looks at me. “You lack some qualities necessary for me to… feel like that about you.”
“Hopefully just the physical ones that I can’t change,” I say nonchalantly. “I wouldn’t mind if you intended to seduce me. With this new life you have given me, I should fall in love with you out of principle.”
Chieko sighs and rubs her temples with both hands. Her brother empties the bottle, then chuckles as he wipes his mouth. He leans back again, with one hand behind his head.
“You know, it might do you some good, Chieko,” Yuichi says teasingly. “It’s been too long since you’ve been with anyone.”
“H-hey. I don’t have time for boyfriends!”
“What do you mean? You barely do anything now that you aren’t working on new movies!”
“You know I’m going through a dry spell.”
Yuichi grins as if he was expecting his sister to say it.
“That’s what I meant, sis.”
Chieko snaps her head back and stutters her reply. I have been letting my weight sink into the velvety cushions and the back pillows for a few minutes, my stomach is digesting that delicious pizza, and now that the siblings have forgotten that I’m here, a smile tugs on my lips. Every other person I had met either walked past me, or proved to me that I should have kept hidden the most important parts of myself. But now I can close my eyes and let out a long sigh as a warm feeling spreads throughout my body.
Chieko showed me how to use the toilet, which works the same way except that it contains a tiny matter decomposer that takes care of the waste. We keep hanging out in the siblings’ luxurious atrium. By the time that Yuichi left to his bedroom, the skylights on the vaulted roof brimmed with stars. The floating orbs failed to illuminate the huge open room with their soft white light, so it felt as if Chieko and I were sitting on an island surrounded by darkness.
My benefactress guided me to replicate cotton panties, because I needed clean underwear, along with silk pyjamas, which were lemonade pink and shimmered in my hands as I ran my fingers over the fine and smooth fabric. I follow Chieko up the stairs to one of the guest bedrooms. Once she opens the door, I find myself staring at the most comfortable-looking and luxurious bed I have ever seen. The bedding set, which is embellished with gilded, royal motifs, is made of thick silk that overflows the mattress with a liquid feel. The four pillows resting against the headboard look so inviting that I want to run over and jump face down into them.
I close my mouth, then speak in a dry voice.
“This is ridiculous.”
Chieko places a hand on my shoulder, and my heart jumps. I feel every hair on my arms. I wasn’t kidding earlier: if she tries anything, I’m done for. Chieko is pleasant to look at, a joy to be around, and now that my heart stores nothing but boundless gratitude towards her, I don’t need much incentive even though I’ve never gone for women. Back on Earth I wanted to disappear; now that she has brought me over to this paradise, the notion of disappearing into everything she might have to offer is intoxicating.
“That thing on the double dresser is the multimedia center,” Chieko says, oblivious to the tingles running through my body. “Talk to it when you want to listen to music, watch movies, browse the net… Stuff like that. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. The gear to experience virtual reality is in another room, though.”
I turn around and look at Chieko in the dimness of the bedroom, only illuminated by the beams of honey-colored light coming out of two lamps on the nightstands. I stare for a couple of seconds at her apple red hair, gathered in two buns. I wonder what Chieko sees on my face. Even with both of us standing just a step apart, our personalities are standing on the opposite sides of a wall.
“I think that tomorrow you should take a walk around town by yourself,” Chieko says softly. “See the sights, focus on what interests you. People are friendly around here. And hopefully one of these days you’ll feel like writing again.”
We look at each other silently. While Chieko glances at the bed, I get the feeling that she’s unsettled, as we are both held hostage by this comfortable, secluded bedroom.
“You better get out of here, Chieko,” I say in a low voice. “I told you that I sink my claws in the people that I care about.”
She blinks rapidly and nods.
“Yeah, I’m feeling weird myself,” she says, befuddled. “Anyway, sleep as much as you want, alright?”
We say goodnight. Once she closes the door behind her and I hear her footsteps fading, I shuffle to the side of the bed and sit slowly on the mattress. I wait until my heart calms down.
I undress, I put on my clean underwear and I try on my new pyjamas. They feel like they float over my skin. I can barely tell that I’m wearing them. When I slip under the silk sheets and the comforter and then let the back of my head sink into the pillow, I feel ready to die. My old life, with all its troubles, has ended. I would be happy if I never had to move again. I wouldn’t think, I wouldn’t talk, I wouldn’t write. I would keep floating in a warm cloud and never worry about anything else.
Note from June of 2021:
Yesterday I went back to work, and this contract will last until the end of September. I’m not the kind of person that is happy whenever he’s able to work for others, nor do I understand that kind of slave mentality. My last contract ended on May 11, if I remember correctly, and in about a month and a half I wrote frantically a novel the length of 2.2 regular novels, as well as a few short stories and lots of poetry. Yesterday I barely managed to write anything at work, because they kept me walking throughout the hospital complex to fix annoying problems that nobody wants to handle, and by the end of the day I was exhausted and felt like shit, so my brain kept trying to convince me to lie in bed and just rest. That’s the routine that I’m terrified of returning to for the next months. I hate living like that when I could be writing otherwise, but like everybody else, I need to accumulate money.
Anyway, I have planned the rest of this novella, and I’ll finish it for sure sooner or later, even though I suspect that it barely works as a story. I’m having fun with it, and that’s what matters as far as I’m concerned.
As soon as I walk into what Garima, the receptionist of the SFPT, called a waiting room, I feel as if I’ve wandered into a palace. This room is even larger, and two curved staircases lead to an open second floor. Crystal chandeliers embedded into the ceiling, and that look like upside down wedding cakes, radiate golden light that bathe four sets of crystal tables and the surrounding leather chesterfield sofas, which are banana yellow. I’m the only person in the room, and yet it’s hard for me to keep my composure as I walk on the porcelain-like floor, which features a mathematical pattern represented with orange and gold colors, and that reminds me of a sunflower. Eight Corinthian pillars, artfully distributed, are holding the ceiling. I hadn’t had time to notice the walls, but one or more geniuses have frescoed meticulous scenes that depict many different cultures in their dedicated stretches of wall. Peculiar attires, monuments, myths. I recognize some Greek mythological creatures, Hindu gods, Buddhist temples and Japanese shrines. I’m quite sure that I’m looking at some of these cultures for the first time, because I don’t recall having gotten glimpses of them in my thirty one years. These frescoes would feel at home in a Renaissance cathedral, except that they aren’t limited to representing figures of a single religion. This supposed office belongs in a dream.
I approach one of the sofas, although I feel like I have no business being here. Bringing me to this era must have been some cosmic mistake. The closer I get to the crystal table, which has a base made out of a geode filled with pointy, violet crystals, the more it smells like orange and vanilla. The aroma comes from an egg-shaped diffuser on the table. I sink into the sofa, which envelops me as I sit back.
I close my eyes. I must have disconnected for a while, because I only realize that someone has walked towards me when the person is standing next to my table. It’s Garima.
“You’ll be just fine there,” she says, and then she puts on the table a tray with a silver cup and a jar of water, along with a small plate loaded up with a colorful snack that reminds me of fried potato chips.
Her embellished, flared gown, fit for a princess, makes it a joke that she’s the one serving me. Before I know it she has turned around and is walking back into the room from which I came. I fill the cup with water, then drink. I confirm that the same old water I’ve always known exists here, and that its cold fills my stomach as expected. The snack doesn’t have the shape nor the color of potato chips, but its crunch sticks against my palate bringing similar sensations. For a moment I wonder how come they knew I wasn’t allergic to whatever kind of nut this snack contains.
I spot movement out of the corner of my eye. A machine that resembles a robotic vacuum cleaner, but with the shape of a lenticular disk, is gliding down the stairs without touching them. It moves way too fast for a vacuum cleaner, and it’s maneuvering to approach me. I sit straight. I can tell it’s not dangerous, but I doubt I wouldn’t have jumped out of the sofa if Chieko hadn’t come from this reality.
The top of the disk emits a vertical beam of light around a meter and seventy centimeters tall. The light gelatinizes as it expands taking the shape of a person, and in a second I find myself looking up at a man in his forties who has a neat comb over haircut, and who wears a black suit. The image reminds me of a Victorian butler.
“Pardon me,” the person says as he bows elegantly. “I’m the Guide, and I’m at your service for whatever doubt you have about how things work around here. Your information was already in the system, but now we are aware that you live among us. Don’t hesitate to approach any of the Guides for help.”
My skin shivers with electricity.
“You are a machine, right…?”
“That’s right, miss Uriarte. Most of the people in this town are human, yes, but a certain percentage of us are artificial intelligences. Our creator is the famous inventor Konrad Zuse.”
I nod in silence. I’m sure I will lose my mind by the end of the day. Maybe I will faint in front of this seemingly sentient machine.
“I know, miss,” the Guide continues. “Back in your time, artificial intelligence hadn’t advanced much. No worries, just remember that we exist to fulfill our roles, whether to help humans or other artificial intelligences! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.”
I close my eyes while I take a deep breath. For a moment I think that whenever I open my eyes again, the man made of opaque light will have disappeared, but he’s still looking down at me.
“Have I truly come to the future, or have I gone insane?” I ask in a thin, weak voice.
“Both are possible,” the Guide says jovially. “Don’t be scared either way. Now seriously, no, you haven’t gone insane. One of the representatives working for the SFPT, with the name of Chieko Sekiguchi, focused on your case and managed to rescue you from a terrible fate. Rescues such as these are why their whole operation exists, I suppose.”
My face grows warm.
“I-I’ll need time to adjust to this…”
The Guide smiles pleasantly.
“You are doing quite well. Now, would you like to listen to the story of Konrad Zuse?”
I nod as I rub my right temple.
“Konrad is someone you have never heard of, I fear,” the Guide continues, “but we consider him a genius who invented new programming techniques that eventually gave birth to the first sentient AIs.”
“Sounds like a competent man.”
“He wasn’t a man, though. He was an artificial intelligence himself!”
“Is that the case…?”
“Now, you might be wondering how come a sentient AI was the one to invent sentient AIs. There’s something called Gödel’s theorem that says that even though it’s impossible to give a formal proof, the conclusion of an algorithm can hold under almost any given circumstance.”
I’m having problems keeping up with the Guide’s speech.
“Gödel’s theorem? Sounds complicated…”
The butler laughs, and then winks while turning his head theatrically.
“I’m afraid I was pulling your leg, miss. No, the creation of sentient intelligences was a gradual process involving transformer-based neural networks with quatrillions of parameters!”
A wave of vertigo ripples through my body.
“Well, at least I’m glad you understand what a joke is,” I mumble. “And that we can hold a conversation, even if it goes over my head.”
The Guide smiles again.
“Oh! Now that you’ve been rescued, miss, you will love visiting any of our Librarians, I’m sure. So much literature to discover! I’m very partial to it myself.”
I’m too dizzy to come up with a proper answer, but I also don’t want to seem like an idiot to a machine who seems more intelligent than me. However, as soon as I start speaking, the butler straightens his back and looks to the side as if listening to something in an earpiece. Then he smiles cordially at me.
“It seems that your representative has arrived. She’s been informed of your whereabouts. Just remember, if you see any of us Guides gliding around and you need information about anything, just call us over. Guiding people is our raison d’être, and we are glad to do so. As you might imagine, I will make myself scarce now. Until next time!”
The Guide makes a bow so elegant that it would fit in a museum.
“Uh… Thank you for your help,” I say.
The figure of the man, made of light, collapses in a split second as if the top of the lenticular disk had absorbed it. The disk then turns around and glides quickly up the left staircase, leaving me alone at the table.
My head is filled with white noise as I fill my silver cup with water and drink it in a single gulp. I doubt this encounter was some sort of practical joke. I’m going to live in a world where artificial intelligences are so advanced that they consider themselves to be people. And it seems that it hasn’t caused significant troubles, at least to the extent that this ostentatious office continues existing. I should just go with the flow, at least for a while, taking everything in. These people know I come from the past, and they will be lenient of my stupidity. But I worry that any of the inhabitants of this strange reality will realize that I don’t deserve to be here. When they do, they will send me back. I doubt I would be able to continue living normally back on the Earth I know after I’ve been here.
“Izar! I knew you’d come,” Chieko says from above.
A warmth grows in my chest as I look up towards the railing of the second floor. Chieko, the same Asian woman whom I thought I would never see again, along with her apple red hair and her kind smile, is leaning on the railing of the second floor, close to the right, curved staircase.
“Come on, get up here,” Chieko says. “We are going for a ride.”
The tone of her voice suggests I have become someone special to her. Despite the deceptive way in which she approached me, she did it because she cares. My whole body feels too light and weird, and I fear I will faint any minute, but I walk carefully to the right staircase and climb up, stepping on stairs that glimmer like gold. The second floor is an imitation of the lower one, except that the sets of tables and sofas are arranged according to the narrower space. On the opposite end of the room, an arched doorway, with an elaborate lintel that displays a rhomboid pattern, leads into a single staircase that goes up and out of view.
As I approach Chieko, who keeps smiling warmly, I can tell that the clothes she had worn to meet me were chosen to fit in. Now she’s wearing a pearl white, puff sleeve blouse with a scoop neckline, along with black pleated shorts with suspenders. She has gathered her red hair in two buns that give her a spacey look.
I’m about to greet her properly when she steps forward and hugs me tightly. I’m not used to people being this nice. I may melt. When she pulls away, she keeps resting her hands on my shoulders.
“What are your first impressions?” she asks. “It seems so wild, right?”
This must be what they call charm. I want to trust Chieko, and I’m sure she told me the truth when she assured me that I would have died in less than a week. She can’t fake the sincerity in her eyes.
“It’s great…” I say carefully, unsure how to continue describing this world. “I met one of your robots, or artificial intelligences.”
“Some towns have more of them than humans.” Chieko chuckles softly. “They are great. I’m sure he helped you kindly.”
“I was too dumbfounded to take advantage of his services, but I’ll come across any of them again. He also mentioned a Librarian…”
“Ah, the Guide knew how to entice you. Yeah, we have buildings dedicated to these Librarians, who will recommend you books based on your preferences and previously read titles, and will produce the books for you. You wouldn’t consider them libraries, I don’t think, because they don’t store any books. When you are done with any of them, you throw it into a matter decomposer.”
“Matter… So you people break everything down, and they end up turning into… ashes?”
Chieko pats my shoulder.
“Into their periodic elements. Don’t worry about it for now, Izar! After all, you don’t need to know how a computer works in order to use it, right? And in these parts, computers will ask you what you want! We don’t use mice. Anyway, let’s just go up to the roof, shall we?”
She leads me by the hand up the stairs until we exit through a big door onto the roof. I’m looking down, as I fear getting overwhelmed as if I were staring at majestic paintings in a museum, so first I see that the floor of the roof is flat, and made out of impractically large, buttermilk yellow stone slabs. I feel cool air on my skin. I look up quickly towards the sky. It’s a vast expanse mostly as blue as I expect a sky to be, but it’s blended in parts with a peach pink, and the few wisps of cloud are blurry as if dissolving. I search for the source of the warmth on my skin, and my breath leaves my lungs for the first time since I came. I don’t dare look directly at the sun, but close to the lemon yellow, burning disk, which looks smaller than I expected, hangs a second, larger sun. The sunrays of the second sun seem stronger, and as they hit the clouds floating nearby, they meld in a radiant blend of red-orange.
Chieko pats my back.
“Good? Isn’t it spectacular?”
“W-we aren’t on Earth.”
“Just take it easy, Izar. I don’t want you to faint. Also, don’t stare directly at the sun, whether the original or our artificial one. It’s a terrible idea no matter what planet you end up standing on.”
I look at Chieko’s pretty face, tinged in the sunlight.
“W-wait,” I say. “W-where are we exactly…?”
“The future, of course!” Chieko exclaims with glee. “As for our current whereabouts…”
Chieko stops talking, because something out of the corner of my eye had startled me. Up to my left, in a forty five degree angle, a metallic vehicle is floating through the air silently. Its slick shape reminds me of a zeppelin, but it has fin-like ridges. The sunlight is whitening the upper part of the vehicle, which reflects the light as in a mirror. There must be people inside.
“That’s a UFO,” I blurt out.
“It’s perfectly identified. That’s just… a flying bus. I prefer the personal models myself.”
My benefactress tugs on my hand, and I stagger in the direction she’s following. She’s guiding me towards a row of rectangular parking spaces painted in white. Two of the spaces are occupied. Chieko leads me to the closest vehicle. It’s about the size of a van, but if that flying bus reminded me of a UFO, I’m staring at one right now: it’s an upside down plate standing on a landing skid, as if the bottom shouldn’t touch the ground. Its metallic frame seems to have been built without seams, and it’s painted a pineapple yellow except for decorative black stripes. The windshield encircles the frame in a band of glass, but I can’t see the inside, as the reflections of the sunrays are curtaining the interior.
I’m trembling uncontrollably. My knees go weak. Before I know it, Chieko is holding me in her arms. Her neck smells like tea. I want to go limp, but we’d fall to the floor. I swallow, then force myself to stand straight.
“I’m having a hard time…” I start to say, but I shut up.
“No need to worry. Izar, many, many people over the years have reached this present in a similar way than you, and they now live their lives just like any other citizen. Believe me, it will be far easier for you to adapt than it is for people of the Middle Ages, for example. Once you’ve become familiar with computers, your brain can handle the rest. So, don’t you think it’s a splendid vehicle?”
“S-splendid… How…” I stutter while I feel as if my tongue is stuck.
Chieko approaches her vehicle and tells it to open. An opening appears in the side of the frame, and an airstair gets lowered to the ground. I look around. This large, flat roof is enclosed by tall hedges and rimmed with still, decorative pools, but the skyline of a town or a city is peeking out from behind the hedges. It’s more sparse than I would have expected. I make out the treetops of pine-like trees, shaped like spearheads. All the buildings I can glimpse look like ancient monuments, cathedral-like monsters with incongruous designs, as different as those of apartment buildings in a city. I’m surprised that none of the buildings reach the height of a skyscraper. They remind me of how tall the Colosseum must look. Also, I don’t spot any mountain nor hill, which I always expect to see, as I was used to living in Gipuzkoa.
“Here, get inside!” Chieko says.
She pushes me gently so I ascend the airstairs to the interior of her vehicle. I only have to hunch over a little. The interior smells like warm leather and coffee. There are only two seats, which are black with vertical white stripes, and they look as expensive and comfortable as the sofas in the office of the SFPT. The only part of the wall resembling a dashboard with indicators and displays is in front of the left seat, so I sit on the right one. Once I sink in the upholstery, I let out a long sigh. I’d gladly sit here for hours.
Chieko sits down to my left. She says ‘close’, and the opening in the frame closes like a pore. She reaches for a plasticky device attached to the dashboard, which reminds me of the cigarette lighters that many cars have, but when Chieko pulls out this device, it’s tethered to the inside of the frame with a loose cable made out of spiral metal. Chieko presses a surface of the device to her temple, and it latches on to her skin. As soon as she drops her hands to her lap, the indicators and displays come to life. They aren’t screens, but the closest thing I’ve seen to solid, 3D holograms. Two of them clearly display our surroundings with three-dimensional models of buildings and trees.
Chieko leans back. Our vehicle lifts off, but I can only tell because the tops of buildings and trees that I can see through the windshield are sliding down. Soon the view is filled with sky.
“I-I don’t feel any engine,” I say. “I’m not being pushed down against the seat.”
Chieko smiles at me, narrowing her eyes.
“Those kinds of engines are long gone. This baby creates its own gravitational field. We are moving through spacetime in a bubble. Far more complicated things have been invented. I wasn’t responsible, though, so I can’t be that proud about them.”
I let out a breath as if something was squeezing my heart. While the view of the sky changes, and the models in the holographic displays turn around like cups in a microwave, Chieko is eyeing me as if she’s about to smirk.
“I get the appeal of impressing someone with a ride in my fancy car.”
I rub my mouth nervously. My heart is pounding on my ribcage.
“Be careful, Chieko. I don’t get attached to people, I sink my claws in them.”
“That’s alright, I think. This world allows all kinds of emotions.”
She sounds like a wise and worldly older person. For the first time I wonder about her age. This society has managed to travel back in time, construct such majestic buildings and move through the skies effortlessly with antigravity vehicles. I’m sure they have managed to solve the riddle of aging.
Although Chieko is just looking down at the displays and hasn’t touched anything, our vehicle tilts, and I find myself staring at a much smaller version of the roof we lifted off from. The building is standing in the middle of a park. I spot a few serpentine footpaths, structures similar to streetlights, and even the small figures of people walking around or sitting on benches. Some are hanging out near a cerulean blue pond. So many statues strewn about, some of them painted in vibrant colors. I shiver. From the outside, the office of the SFPT reminds me of a Roman building, and one side, maybe the main entrance, even features a colonnade.
Chieko slouches in the chair and holds her hands on her lap.
“So yeah, I work for the SFPT. I’m not big on working for others; kind of a lone wolf, do my own thing kind of person. But they’ve done fantastic work for generations. You only need to look around to realize that we wouldn’t have become as great if it wasn’t for the many people they’ve rescued.”
“This SFPT’s role is to bring here people from the past…?” I ask, bewildered.
Chieko facepalms, and then shrugs apologetically.
“Sorry, I should realize that you know close to nothing! SFPT is the acronym for the boringly named Society For the Preservation of Talent.”
I look down to my lap. My hands are trembling, but now I’m mostly excited.
“You told me that you approached me because you wanted to preserve my life and my talent.”
Chieko doesn’t answer, and when I look at her, she’s staring at me with a solemn expression. Her mouth makes a wet sound when it opens.
“Izar, what has been the biggest enemy of humankind for hundreds of thousands of years?”
“Humankind? Well… War and injustice.”
“I don’t think so, no. Those are terrible things we do. Try again. Something much more frightening.”
“More abstract? Darkness and fear?”
“I’m not getting across…” Chieko rubs her chin. “The main evil we have faced has stolen everything from us for hundreds of thousands of years. It has murdered an uncountable number of us. It has stolen parents from their children, and sometimes children from their parents. It has stopped talented people from being able to benefit the world further, not to mention discover of what they would have been capable otherwise. For so many millennia we submitted to it as a tyrant we wouldn’t dare to stand against.”
My throat is closing, and a shiver runs through my spine.
“Y-you are talking about the passage of time.”
Chieko narrows her eyes like a hawk.
“About the effects of time on living beings. It has rendered us incapable, it has killed us. One by one, generation by generation. Well, it can get fucked now. Talent no longer falls through the cracks of reality, hopefully until some other brilliant human being among millions and millions picks up where the previous genius was forced to stop. Not only that, those brilliant people are able to interact with one another. Our translators bridge the gulfs between every language that currently exists or has ever existed.” She points at the small hemispherical device attached to the skin behind her ear. “I wouldn’t have been able to understand any single word coming out of your mouth otherwise. And you can read any text like a native. Don’t need to take it off either, it’s hydrophobic.”
I hide my face in my hands. Chieko thankfully gives me some seconds to calm down.
“I know, it must be pretty overwhelming,” she says.
“Yeah, I feel as if I were hallucinating. So you are telling me that your society is partly made out of artists and inventors from every previous era of humankind’s existence, that have been brought over methodically…?”
“That is right. We figure out when and how they died, if there was any doubt, and we save them. We feel good in the process, it’s like we are gallant knights. I’m mostly an artist myself, though, but I was born here. I make virtual reality experiences. I’m going through a dry spell, though, as I told you.”
I shake my head slowly.
“Ah… So, which brilliant people have been rescued from the past, names that I might know…?”
Chieko shuts one eye as she tilts her head, maybe because she’s trying to come up with artists with whom I may be familiar.
“Well, for example, Isaac Newton was resurrected, although that happened a few generations before I was born. I only saw him once from afar. I recall he always wore the same clothes, kind of an eccentric guy. But he has become good friends with philosophers of old, Greeks and Romans mainly. He doesn’t live around here, though.”
My mind is reeling. I don’t feel capable of understanding all the implications of the SFPT’s work.
“S-so, writers like… Let’s say, Shakespeare. Is he alive too?”
Chieko lets out an appreciative noise, and nods enthusiastically.
“He was one of my main inspirations even as a child! He moved on to virtual reality experiences. So much of his new work is astonishing, and he adapted quite quickly to our modern times. Because I work in the medium, one of my goals is that he gets to experience my movies and enjoys them so much that he writes a recommendation. That would make me famous overnight! I’ve never interacted with him in person, though, but I’ve seen him at festivals.”
“Y-you could become friends with an immortalized genius like the father of the English language… I think I will end up vomiting.”
Chieko laughs, but she shakes her hands as if to dissuade me from throwing up now.
“Not in my car, please! If you seriously need to vomit, we can land.”
I feel so small, even in the presence of Chieko. She might be a thousand years old for all I know, although she looks younger than me.
“I-it’s alright, I was being… Thank you for making this whole situation so clear. I get it. Some of your predecessors made sure to rescue people like William Shakespeare, Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein and such, huh? No wonder everything looks so amazing. And after so many years there’s only small fries like me to bring over.”
“Don’t refer to yourself like that. So what if you aren’t Shakespeare? Neither am I! We can still be better than the day before. I’m not into competing with other artists, and it’s a suicidal notion anyway, when you might wake up one morning only to find out that any of the greats have released their next big experience, and after you watch it you know you will never be able to come up with anything remotely similar. But you gotta take it as a humbling experience.”
I hang my head low. I feel as vulnerable as a child in the cold. When I start crying silently, Chieko pats me on the thigh.
I only realize that she’s flying this vehicle in some other direction because the view changes. Once I feel strong enough to look up, my gaze falls on a vast plain. We are so high that the panorama must be encompassing dozens if not hundreds of kilometers. Other flying vehicles are cutting through the sky in different directions, and some of those vehicles are so tiny that they have been reduced to specks of dust that glisten in the sun. There are curved ridges in the distance that look like the raised rims of craters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the lakes, some of which are fed by serpentine river systems, are ancient craters filled with water. The landscape is green, probably because grass is growing everywhere, but I make out amorphous expanses of forests. Curiously, I don’t see any farmland. Plenty of human communities are hugging the coastline of lakes and have grown on both sides of wide rivers, but they have also allowed their architects to go wild, because some of the monument-like buildings sitting on the plains are the size of mountains.
I point at a group of those conspicuous monuments.
“T-those are pyramids.”
“Hmm? Ah, yeah, those were made quite a long time ago, a few decades after they invented time travel and started bringing people over,” Chieko says nonchalantly. “They weren’t here before we came!”
“Chieko, where the hell are we…?” I whisper.
“This whole area is called the Hesperia Plains. It’s close to a humongous inland sea called Hellas.”
I rub my temples. I feel a headache coming. Where have I heard those names before?
“Are we in… I mean, this is a different planet.”
“Mars. Just next door. It’s not like I’ve brought you to another solar system.”
I get goosebumps. I’m on Mars.
“H-have you guys colonized other solar systems…?”
Chieko grins happily.
I can’t face the view any longer, so I hang my head low. I take deep breaths to keep my chest from convulsing.
“Your people have made it, haven’t they…?” I say in a quavering voice. “My era was a nightmare. I was sure we would self-destruct, maybe to the extent that we went extinct. B-but you have survived, and made… all of this.”
“It’s a better world, sure, for new art to come forth!”
I’m feeling calmer and calmer. I’ve never felt this comfortable with any other human being, although she belongs to a different world.
“People don’t wage wars anymore? People don’t kill each other?”
Chieko laughs awkwardly.
“It hasn’t gotten that bad, not like it did in the centuries around your time. But people are people. Some communities are on the verge of war any given day, and for one reason or another, some bastards always want to cause havoc. Our town is as quiet as they come, though.”
“W-well… At least you’ve saved people’s lives.”
Chieko offers me a childish smile, almost closing her eyes.
“You were my first. I told you, this was a personal project. I had little clue about what I was doing, I was following the training. I’ve mostly done other kinds of jobs for the SFPT, related to working with artists brought from the past. We still live and learn through making mistakes! But I might get into it and figure out which other people I should travel back in time to rescue. However, the SFPT is very careful about these assignments. Frankly, if you had been an author of great renown, they wouldn’t have let me take the case.”
I stare out of the windshield. The sky is so beautiful. If a person could fly in those colors every second of the day, they would retain their sanity.
“I’m not…” I mumble. “I only wrote some stupid stuff…”
“Oh, shut it. There’s always enough food. People can print it on the replicators, even from the materials that the freighters bring over from nebulae and gas giants. There are enough jobs for those who want other people to tell them what to do. And you can lounge on the roof of your house and write for as long as you want.”
My mouth is twisting and my shoulders shake as streams of tears run down my cheeks. My throat burns.
“Alright, Izar,” Chieko says jovially. “You’ll live in my house for a while, until you get used to this place. Let’s go. You’ll feel different after a good night’s sleep.”
When I open my eyes, my gaze falls on a crack in the eggshell white ceiling. Dusty strands of cobweb span the crack near one end. For the second night in a row, a sheet and a duvet have kept me warm, and instead of being woken up by the laughter of children and nearby footsteps, it seems that my brain considered that the noisy toilet cistern from the upstairs neighbor was a threat. Or maybe it was time to wake up, because the morning light is filling the bedroom through the glass panes of the door to the tiny balcony.
Chieko, my benefactress from a faraway place, is gone. She fell through reality. And I bet that, as she assured me, whenever I walk into the living room, that opaque white doorway will be waiting for me.
In the kitchen, I prepare myself a coffee and I also grab some slices of salty ham. Chieko, or her employers, had stacked the fridge with groceries, although some of them will expire sooner than when the lease runs out. Also, the first time I entered the bedroom I found the apartment key next to a wad of banknotes, which looked as fresh and crisp as if they had been printed a few days before. A total of two thousand euros in tens and twenties.
Once my stomach starts digesting the slices of ham, I carry the steaming cup of coffee through the hallway into the living room, and I stand near the white doorway. It remains as lifeless as any other door. Nothing moves in this apartment but me and a couple of spiders. Although the impossible doorway doesn’t scare me anymore, it gives me the anxiety of a ticking clock. It would be nice to take advantage of this shelter and be alone for a few months, although I’m sure that I’ll feel as broken a few years from now. I want to lounge around thoughtlessly. Still, the money would run out eventually, and nobody will support me anymore. I’d need to find a job, at some office no doubt, and those nightmares would begin all over again.
For several minutes, while I sip my coffe, I observe the white void through which Chieko left. I barely got to know that odd woman, but now that she’s gone, the silence gets heavy and oppressive at times. She has abandoned me. No, she hasn’t, I barely knew her. And yet that’s how I feel. I miss her smile, those ostentatious dimples, and how much she cared. I finally met someone nice who wanted to help me, but she has disappeared in a more definitive way than the other people in my life had, even those who died. I get the feeling that unless I follow Chieko through the doorway, I won’t be able to find her anywhere even if I spent the rest of my life searching.
“Once I go through this doorway, I will never see this world again,” I mumble, repeating her words.
Why didn’t she stay and help me in person instead of giving me the freedom to choose? I’m tired of making decisions, of pondering what road to take. For years I focused on losing myself, on escaping reality, through fictional stories, and I left the technical details of how to survive in this world to my boyfriend. Maybe to a fault. I’m sure I wasn’t mentally present for plenty of it. I let Víctor worry about everything but cooking, and I would have gladly allowed cobwebs to grow in the corners of the ceilings. Maybe if I hadn’t lost myself into fantasy, if my living heart still beat properly, maybe he wouldn’t have stopped caring about me. I shake my head. No, nothing justified him cheating repeatedly on me. To break the covenant is unforgivable.
After three quarters of an hour standing there like a zombie, my brain gets tired of thinking about it and decides to wake up. I take a shower. I clean my skin with the amount of liquid soap that any other person would have spent in four showers, but during this past week I became self-conscious about my stink as if I was constantly trailing around a noxious cloud.
The first night I spent here, finding my clothes in the wardrobe of the bedroom should have astonished me. They are the clothes that I left behind in Victor’s apartment after I decided to become homeless, without any thought about how I would survive the following days. The only way I imagined that anyone would have retrieved my clothes involved Víctor agreeing to let those strangers in, but I stopped myself from trying to figure it out. Chieko, or Chieko’s employers, had produced a two-dimensional door that led to another world. I’m sure they had their peculiar ways of transferring my clothes to this apartment.
I put on some jeans, a short-sleeve V-neck blouse, and on top my favorite hooded knit cardigan. I don’t feel that it suits me well anymore, but it reminds me of sitting next to a window to write.
I test the key in the apartment’s door a couple of times, just in case I’m suffering a psychotic break and I’m still living in the streets. I can lock and unlock the door, so I should be able to return here after a walk. At this hour on a Thursday, beyond the regular traffic on this one-lane road, I spot delivery vans supplying shops, along with housewives and retirees walking around. The same old anonymous, monotonous parade. I saunter towards the parts of the Kursaal that show up at the end of the street. The slanted, translucent glass cubes stand against a porcelain white sky. Once I reach the intersection, I stop and take in the view. The line of flags that promote some event that the Kursaal is hosting are fluttering in the breeze. To my right, although the outside sitting area of some restaurants block most of the view, a wall-like, foresty hill blocks the horizon. Cars are passing in front of me in both directions. A couple of surfers are driving electric scooters, heading likely to Zurriola beach, which is located behind the Kursaal.
I feel unreal. Everything seems fake, as if I’m staring at a painting. These past two nights have granted me enough rest, and my mind must be detaching itself from this world that it had already relinquished when I became homeless a week ago.
I cross the street and I keep walking in front of the Kursaal until a flat view opens up, that shows the beachfront promenade and beyond it a band of steel blue water. I’m seeing myself from above as I approach the low wall that borders the beach. Tanned men and women, either barefoot or wearing sandals, are standing or walking on the sand. A muscled man wearing orange trunks is climbing the safeguard tower.
I won’t see this view, or any that I have stored in my brain, ever again. Whatever awaits me on the other side of that white doorway will become my new reality. I will follow the only person who cared enough to save me. I refuse to continue in this world that has thrown me aside so carelessly, and if it turns out that crossing that impossible doorway will kill me, then so be it.
As I rest my back against the low wall, I focus on whether I’ll miss anything or anyone of this world I was born in. As I got older, fewer and fewer people cared for my books, which were my only contribution. All these strangers walking around don’t glance my way; I looked my best in my mid twenties, too long ago already.
The breeze is cooling my face. It smells like salty water and crustaceans. My ex-boyfriend’s face pops up in my mind. All that’s left of those five years with him is bitterness and pain. I’m sure any of his other women will take his calls. Although I threw my cell phone in the garbage, I doubt he would have insisted on calling beyond the first couple of days otherwise. In any case, I no longer feel capable of loving people. It’s not worth the trouble.
I stare at the distant view of the hill, and how it slopes down until it ends in cliffs a couple of kilometers into the sea. I can make out the silhouettes of distinct treetops on top. What about my father? I haven’t seen him for years, since he started his new family. Even though I was older when he abandoned us, I always remember him as he looked when I turned my head towards him while I lay on the sofa of his office, back when I was a child. He wore his glasses when he went over papers related to his work in the publishing industry. He always printed them out, he hated reading them on a computer screen. Sometimes when I would ask him to tell me more about what he was looking at, he would just laugh and give me an offbeat smile. He has been dead, as far as I’m concerned, for a long time.
I never cared much about my mother. That day at the hotel, when she announced that she was going to move out with her boyfriend and her kids, she made it clear enough that I would become a secondary concern from then on. Still, she called me regularly, and I was the one who refused to meet her in person as much as she wished. I didn’t attend her wedding, and I’ve only met my half-brother a few times. Once I cross that opaque white doorway, I will disappear as if the earth had swallowed me up. My mother might have tried to contact me in the last week, but she never met my ex-boyfriend, so she wouldn’t know how to locate me. I picture her realizing that I’ve gone missing, that she will never see me again, nor will she ever find out what happened to me. I suppose that she’ll assume that I killed myself so proficiently that nobody would find my body.
My chest gets tight, and I’m having trouble swallowing. I close my eyes and breathe slowly. A black cloud is enveloping my heart. My mother will grieve for years. I won’t stick around just to spare her the pain of not seeing me again, but at least I want to let her know that it was of my own volition, and that maybe I moved out far away, somewhere I could be happy.
As I walk back towards my current apartment, I realize that I haven’t seen a phone booth in years, and I don’t want to ask a random stranger for his or her cell phone, mainly because I don’t want them to stand nearby as I have a difficult conversation. There’s a pub in the corner of the street that leads to my apartment. Its front is made of wood, and painted cobalt blue. I look in through the window. It reminds me of Irish pubs. The interior is dim, and at this hour there are only two customers, both retirees. One of them sips a beverage in a large pint glass.
I enter the pub nervously. I approach the bartender, who is a woman in her forties. Her hair has plenty of greys already, and she’s wearing a striped, black and white T-shirt. I get on a bar stool.
“Give me one of those potato omelette sandwiches, please. And… would it be possible to use your landline? I have to make an important call, but I’ve forgotten my cell phone at home. I’ll pay if necessary.”
The bartender grabs one of the plates with those sandwiches and slides it towards me.
“No problem. It’s in the kitchen. Do you want to call now or after you eat your sandwich?”
She’s looking at me as if she can tell I’m troubled. I’ve spoken too fast and loud, as I always do when I’m speaking with someone for the first time.
“Yeah… I’d rather get the call out of the way first.”
The bartender gestures towards a door between shelves stocked with alcoholic drinks. As I walk behind the bar, she shoots me a look of concern.
“Are you ok? Your face seems very pale.”
“I’ll be alright soon enough, I hope.”
The kitchen is empty. I guess that they don’t open it for orders until closer to midday. The landline is mounted on the wall, close to a sink. My heart is beating fast. I hope I remember my mother’s cell phone number correctly. My hands are sweating.
I start counting backward in my head to give myself some time. Then, while holding the receiver with a sweaty palm, I dial the number. To my surprise, a kid answers. I can’t tell at first whether it’s male or female.
“H-hello? Who is this?” I ask impertinently.
“Uh… Iker. This is my mom’s phone, though.”
It’s my half-brother.
“I’m… Is your… mom around?”
“No, she left an hour ago. I guess she forgot the phone.” The kid coughs. I wonder if he’s at home because he’s sick. “Who are you anyway? Your voice sounds familiar.”
“Uh… I’m… Izar Uriarte.”
My mouth gets dry when I say my father’s last name.
The kid doesn’t speak for a few seconds, and I don’t hear his breath either. I have no idea what this kid thinks about me. If our mother has insisted that we are half-siblings, maybe he wonders why we have barely seen each other. I wouldn’t know what to tell him.
“Hi, sis,” Iker says.
I swallow. I’m nobody’s sister.
“Did you want to tell mom something? You can leave a message.”
The kid is old enough to realize that I only called in the past because I had something to say, not because I enjoyed small talk nor wanted to catch up. And I’m sure that all of them remember the bitterness in my voice.
“Yes, I want you to tell her something. Listen… I’m going away. For a long time, maybe forever. So she should… You both should know that I do it of my own volition.”
My last words are lodged in my throat. I feel tears building up behind my eyes.
“Where are you going?” Iker asks, concerned.
“I can’t tell. Far away, that’s all. I wanted to tell her that I’m sorry… for the way things turned out.”
“You aren’t going to call again,” Iker says as if he just realized.
“No, I won’t. I don’t think I will ever hear your voices again, nor will you hear mine.”
Tears come into my eyes slowly. I wonder what this kid is thinking, but he’s a stranger. Will he remember this conversation years from now? Will he blame himself for having been unable to say the right thing?
“You can call back whenever you want,” Iker says nervously.
I wipe my eyes.
“By the way… how old are you? Twelve, thirteen…?”
My lips twitch as I try to figure out what to say.
“None of this was your fault. It’s me. I’ve never known what to do with people.”
Iker remains silent. I hear something playing in the background, but I can’t tell if it’s a movie or music.
“Are you going to be okay?” Iker asks in a low voice.
“Yeah… I’m going to try something new. Neither of you need to worry.” I force myself to smile at nobody, but instead my mouth quivers. “Anyway, that’s all. Don’t forget to tell mom.”
“Sure, I will. Take care.”
I hang up. As I turn around, I want to walk directly back to the potato omelette sandwich I ordered, but I end up leaning against one of the kitchen counters, and my gaze falls on the dirty, stagnant water pooled in one of the sinks.
I thought of packing a backpack, but there isn’t one in this apartment, which doesn’t contain anything except for groceries, food-related objects and clothes. I wonder who is going to find my remaining possessions in the wardrobe of the bedroom, but I guess it doesn’t matter. I have no doubt that Chieko was telling the truth: I won’t return to this world. Everybody who knows me here will forget me soon enough.
I didn’t bother changing my clothes. I would hate to leave this cardigan behind anyway. I stand a few steps away from the featureless, white doorway in the living room. The front half of the soles of my shoes are resting on the edge of the carpet. I keep shivering every few seconds, and I fear that I’ll end up pissing myself, even though I made sure to empty my bladder. My heart beats wildly. Something awaits me on the other side of this hole in reality, and I can’t begin to imagine what it might be. But it contains someone like Chieko, so it should be fine. Still, I’m sure that this doorway will lead to more disappointment and pain. No other world can be that different.
I step forward and reach with my right hand slowly. I follow how the white light brightens the fabric of my cardigan. Once my fingertips touch the white surface, I expect them to find some resistance, but they disappear into a void that lacks any sensations. I draw my right hand back. The ends of those fingers haven’t been cut off. After I probe them with the fingertips of my other hand, they seem undamaged.
Alright, this is it. I close my eyes, but the powerful bright light shines through my eyelids. I take a deep breath and walk through the doorway.
An electric current runs in my body from end to end, but only for a second. I’m receiving muffled sounds. Although they seem familiar, my brain can’t make out what they are, as if I had started playing a song midway through and it would take a couple of seconds for me to recognize which one it was. I panic; even a moment of disorientation feels fatal. However, when I open my eyes I find myself inside a glass bell the size of four phone booths, and beyond the clear glass I see that this bell has been installed in a large room, one similar to the lobby of a luxurious hotel. The floor is marble-like, as smooth and reflective as a pool, and it features circular designs in shades of brown, from tortilla to hickory. Soft orchestral music is playing somewhere, a mix of string and wind instruments.
My mind freaks out by itself. I take a step forward and turn around as if to make sure that the doorway I came through remains there, but as Chieko said, it’s gone. I might as well have popped up inside the glass bell as if I materialized.
When I turn back, a rounded hole the size of a door has opened in the glass bell as if it was cut out with surgical precision. My mind is reeling as I step out of the glass bell. There are three others to my right, set up in an arc. They are closed and empty. The ceilings and the walls are engraved and embossed with labyrinthine motifs, some of which seem to depict animals. I realize that the building was constructed with stone, not bricks, as if it were a surviving monument from a long-dead civilization. An arched doorway stands tall on one side of the room, and around it hang green and purple wreaths that remind me of peacock tails.
As I was listening to my footsteps echoing in the large room, I feel someone’s gaze upon me. I look in that direction. There is a large recess in the wall where they have installed a reception desk of sorts, but it’s also made of stone, and bedecked with gilded motifs of flowers and vines. A curved wall of screens is obscuring partially the sight of the person standing behind them. When I realize that the screens, which are too slim, paper-like, are floating in the air as if mounted on invisible displays, I face that nothing like that would have been possible in my previous world. I’m either in another dimension, or in the future. Either way, I’ve reached a whole new reality.
The person behind the wall of screens, a woman, says something, and it takes me a moment to realize that I just heard my name but pronounced with a strange accent. My legs are trembling as I approach the desk. The woman stands on the other side of the desk in a way that the back of the screens don’t hide her. It’s a human being. I had feared she wouldn’t be. Her skin is peanut brown, but her eyes are much darker. She’s pretty, beautiful even, the kind of attractive woman they would want to greet the clients at a hotel lobby. She’s wearing two round earrings that remind me of the sun, and she’s also wearing a long-sleeve, crimson dress made of a velvety fabric. The torso of the dress is covered in intricate, gilded motifs of blossoming flowers. I feel as if I entered the most expensive hotel in the world.
The woman smiles with perfect teeth, and pushes a hemispherical device over the counter towards me. It’s about the size of a fingertip. The woman gestures for me to pick it up and press it against the skin behind my ear. I saw Chieko wearing an identical device behind her ear, which I had confused with a wart. I obey the woman. As soon as I press the device against my skin, it latches on painlessly, and then something alien flows throughout my brain. I stagger, and I step back until my legs hold me properly. I feel as if my mind were larger, as if it suddenly held more content, but the experience is painless and unobtrusive.
“Do you understand me?” the woman asks, now lacking any accent.
I snap my head back. Only a couple of seconds later I realize that I’m standing there with my mouth agape. I feel tears coming.
“Y-yes! I understand perfectly!”
The woman offers me a kind smile.
“Welcome to our present. You are now in one of the offices of the SFPT. Can you confirm for me, just in case, that you are Izar Uriarte?”
“Yeah,” I say as I wipe a tear from my right eye. I want to sob. “W-what’s your name?”
“Why, I’m Garima.”
“Garima… I’m so pleased that we can understand each other. For a moment I thought I would be trapped in a strange world without being able to make myself understood.”
The woman chuckles softly, and then points at the identical device latched on to the skin behind her ear.
“We aren’t born knowing every other language, Izar. That’s why we have technology. In case you lose your translator, just come here or to any of our other offices and we’ll give you a new one. I’m sure that random people would also help you in that case, maybe lend you one.”
I’m overwhelmed. My legs are weakening, my throat closing.
“This is a miracle,” I mumble.
“You will get used to it, dear. I already notified your representative, Chieko Sekiguchi. Very nice girl, I’m sure she’ll be eager to show you our town. You can just walk around for a while if you want. We have a beautiful waiting room beyond that doorway.”
“Y-you have welcomed many others, right?”
“Dear, I don’t know how many. I hope I’m being cordial enough, even though I’ve had the same conversations over and over.”
My mind is going numb. The animal part of my brain is having trouble integrating what’s happening, or maybe it’s trying to push me out of it, as if it has assumed that I’m hallucinating. Garima keeps staring at me calmly. She must have seen it before and it’s nothing to worry about.
“Sit somewhere. Do you have to go to the bathroom?”
“N-no, I’m fine.”
I teeter away towards the arched doorway, and I pass under the hanging wreaths of green and purple flowers. I avoid looking over my shoulder, because I fear that I’m about to break into uncontrollable sobbing.