The psychedelic haze of the push is my favourite part of the game. The cycling hues, the patterns that wash over everything, as if all of reality is draped in an iridescent fabric with a sparkling paisley print. It moves, slowly flowing with the tide of everything around me as it comes into focus. There'sdisplacement at first as I'm settled into the genetic memories of when and where I aimed for, fractions―sometimes just notions―of other times, other people, other places. I'm my grandfather playing backgammon with my grandmother. I'm my mother washing dishes, I'm my great-grandfather tying his shoelaces.
Always such a rush, all of it so real and intense, and even though I've done this God knows how many times, it's still crazy to think that my mind is off surfing the temporal waves whilst my body is just sitting cross-legged in front of the board and cards,
It comes to a standstill.
But where? When?
I'm in a street. Everything is moving so fast. But it's not moving. It's still for the most part: gridlock traffic, horns honking, the scent of diesel in the air. It's not everything that's moving, it's me that moving. I've gota strut on. In a hurry to get somewhere―or a hurry to get away from wherever I've just been. There's no context in these first moments, no idea of what the hell is going on, not until―
This can't go on, not like this. . .
Finally, the voice. The ever-present narrator, the stream of consciousness running-commentary that returns like an old friend back from a long journey, embracing me with his words.
It's all my fault. . . but there's nothing I can do, nothing I can say, not now. Nobody will believe me. . . what's the point. . .
They're not my thoughts, but they feel like my thoughts. Just as the tears in his eyes feel as though they're tears in my eyes, the lump in his throat is the lump in my throat. His feet are pounding the pavement to the point that it literally hurts to walk. I've never been this upset, or angry, or aghast.. . whatever this emotion is―or melange of emotions―there's nothing from my own life that can even begin to compare. . . ButI know for sure that I wouldn't be walking so damn quickly, thudding every damn footstep down like I'm trying to shift tectonic plates through sheer force of will.
I can't deal with it, the pressure. . . it's not my fault, I'm not responsible, I just pointed it out. . . but they're going to blame me, they're going to say it was me, that I was behind it all. They're going to use me as a scapegoat, make the world believe that. . . make the world hate me. . . Jesus, I already hate myself for having any part in it. . . how the hell did I end up here? Why couldn't I just be happy with my old life, with my family. . . why did I have to want more, give in to the selfish desires that tore everything to shreds. . . there's nobody else to blame, I have to take responsibility, for once in my god-damn life I have to admit what I've done and deal with the consequences!
It's overwhelming. . . I'venever felt this awful, like the world was crashing down around me―and I've got genuine reasons to feel this damn awful. What the hell could he have done to feel so screwed up?
That'ssomething they don't put on the box. . . A warning label would be nice, as would a way to redirect course when the player ends up in a situation like this. Jeez, what would happen if I took these bad vibes back with me? If I picked up my life after the pull and felt like everything was falling apart in my perfectly mundane life?
I can't go on like this, can't let them do that to me. . . I'll never be able to get through it. . . I've seen what they do to people like this, the press will hound me, they'll never let it go. . . and why should they? I'llbe vilified, tarred with a brush of demons that have come before me: Hitler, Stalin. . . I'll be compared to them all―and I won't have a bloody witty retort, or a stoic soundbyte―certainly don't have a catchy 'I am death, destroyer of worlds' in me, I'll have nothing but apologies. . . and what the hell can words do in a situation like this?
What could he have possibly done to become this distraught? It sounds like it's the end of the world. . . but it's not the end of the world―that comes later, as I know all too well.
He's literally giving me no context clues, and with the damn game, context is everything. As much as I can garner things from his thought-stream, there's only so much he's giving me right now. Have to work it out for myself. . . It's not personal, he's not just cheated on my mum or anything. It sounds like it's something huge, but there's no way to know. Damn the game for not letting me be more choosy about when I want to go and what I can feel while I'm there.
There's nothing I can say. Words don't mean a thing, not any more. . . there's no point to anything, no point to life, to love, not with that damn ticking clock over our heads. . .
Jesus, this is a buzz-kill. I just wanted to relax, to chill out in somewhen than wasn't as sterile as the now. . . And of all the times and places, I en up in the one where there's literally no ray of sunshine to be relished. Can't he just stop and smell the flowers? Take a moment to enjoy life, to reflect. . . What I'd give to just have a cappuccino, or to watch a movie, or eat fast food. The old man really doesn't appreciate the little luxuries of his life.
At least he's stopped walking. . . Of course, given how screwed up he's feeling, as soon as the light at the cross-walk goes green, he'll start pounding the damn pavement all over again. Not sure I can deal with another five to eight hours in his memories. If there was any part of me that had a suicidal streak―which I'm not sure there is, and God knows I've had more than enough reasons to give it a go―this would totally light the fuse.
I need to end it before it begins. . . before I'm turned into a demon, before the bricks are thrown through my window, before Alice gets caught up in this. . . she's so young, she won't understand, Jesus, she'll be so afraid. . .
Well, it's nice to be thought of, I guess.
Although, when is this? It was meant to be 1990-ish. . . Must have screwed up on the dose. . . hybrid and electric vehicles everywhere. . . must be later, 2020ish? I was at least ten, if not fifteen. Screw you dad, for thinking I wouldn'tunderstand whatever the hell you're blathering on about. Then again, it seems like such a mess in your head, how the hell would you even put that into words―maybe with an actualexplanation of what the hell is going on, instead of being so damn vague and focussing on the consequences of your actions.And, y'know, while we're at criticism―not that you can hear me, but damn, do I feel like I need to give you a talking to. . . Youcould have given mum a shout-out in your pity party, she stood by you all those years, what about herreaction to whatever the hell you've done.
I can't let it get to that stage. . . I can't let her suffer because of me. . . she's already suffered too much for her age. . .
Really don't remember that much suffering before everything went to hell. . . pretty standard childhood, notwithstanding. Can't believe he had these thoughts, he always seemed so happy. . .
So much suffering, she doesn't deserve it, none of them do. . . There's only one way to make sure the pressure is taken off them, to focus it all on me. . .
Why's he crossing? The light is still red, he's not even looking to his right. . .
Because he doesn't need to look. . . He's seen the bus in his periphery.
Oh God. This is the day he―
The pain is indescribable.
A few seconds of torment that feel as though they're stretched out for hours. This is the drugs, distorting physical sensations, it has to be. . .The impact was momentary, on a step with the left foot forward, pounding directly into his―my―ribs. There's a cacophony of cracks and crunches, as each one tears into his chest, bony fingers digging firmly into the meat. The bus doesn't stop, not at first, and his back foot is taken under the wheel. A ton of metal rolls over it, feels like hellfire, a monolithic, blazing pestle that's clumsily attempting to grind the bones down to dust, but not having the weight or heft to turn them to powder, resulting in shards, tens of them―perhaps hundreds―that cut me up from the inside. It takes the ankle next, cracking it again and again. The bone feels as though it's more resilient, but that doesn't stop shards bursting out through the flesh, the skin ripping like paper from the inside out as the wheel pulls him down, taking his thigh, kneading the flesh to mush.
For. . . Alice. . .
He's still alive?
Barely. The pain is shooting through his body, he can't think straight. He's lost so much blood, he's losing so much more, and his last thought is of me. . .
I never pictured this moment like that. I mean, I've imagined it, been over it again and again, I was only fifteen and my father killed himself, how could you not think about it? How could you not hate him for doing something so appalling. . .
But this reframes everything. He wasn't mentally ill, I know that, I remember him clearly, I've been in his memories at other times, it was never like this.
He's fading now.
Everything is getting dark. . .
And yet somehow, I'm not afraid.
It's calm. The pain is still there, but he can't feel it. Can't feel anything. Like he's floating, drifting off across a sea of lonely shadows.
What happens to me?
Am I trapped here?
In a mind that no longer thinks?
Living in a life that has come to an end?
Alice. . .
Does he know I'm here? Can he feel me inside his head, a passenger as the darkness takes him away from all the fear, all the pain, all the worry and anxiety.
And more to the point. . . why aren't I afraid?
The darkness embraces me.
It's so silent. Lonely. And I know it should be terrifying, yet it's not―I'm not afraid.
Perhaps that's a side-effect of being high as all hell on a concoction of psychedelics and nootropics, keeping me on an even keel. Never freaked out whenever I play the game, not even when I jumped into my grandfather whilst he and my grandmother were. . . being intimate. . . they were in their sixties, there was a lot of sagging flesh flapping about, wrinkles on wrinkles, each slotting into one another, like a myriad penetrations all at once going both ways. . .
Okay, based on that reflection, maybe I might need therapy. Of course, that's not a concern for now, can work on that when I get back. . . Not that there are exactly therapists any more, but I;m sure I can find a therapy text book and learn some exercises or something.
If I get back.
Never been playing whilst somebody died. Never experienced a death first-hand. You know what, if there was still a postal service, I would write a letter to France, because they're totally wrong, an orgasm is not 'a little death', it's nothing like death, not in the damn slightest. they are wrong about that, so very wrong. Although. . . from what we know, there aren't any French people left. . . so, I guess they all know that for themselves, and if anyone still spoke French, I imagine they would correct 'la petite mort' to whatever 'just a nice feeling' is.
Glad to discover that even in death I can retain a sense of humour.
Of course, this isn't my death.
But that calm. . . the serenity that encompasses every iota of my being. . . filling me from the inside out with the most happy and joyous of feelings.
Maybe that is the deceased aspect of the little death, post-orgasmic chill as the supremely relaxing denouement from a crescendo of the most stressful point in a life.
Wonder how long I've been here. How long in actual time. This feels as though it's been an eternity, and yet it might have just been minutes, or seconds. The way the pain was stretched out when he. . . Jesus, I never thought about that, about how much it must have hurt. Never understood why he did it, everything was so good, we were so happy, and he just. . . he ruined everything. Knowing he thought about me when he did it, that doesn't make it better. Hell, thinking about me should have been enough to make him turn back, to stop, to stay on the pavement and not jump in front of the damn bus.
What a selfish prick.
I wonder if anyone else has played the game and ended up. . . here. They must have. It's so vague with the time-frame, there must have been people who accidentally experienced a death―or intentionally experienced one. Maybe that was why it was really discontinued, for the sheer morbidity of people that wanted to see what lies beyond that final threshold. Given how chilled this is, the aftermath of the end of a life, wouldn't be surprised if there was an up-tick in suicides after this was discovered. . .
But I would have heard something about it, it'd be on the news, it would have changed everything people know about life and death. . . not in terms of an afterlife, but more that there is genuine peace in passing.
I'm almost envious.
Not that I'm suicidal, and not that this experience will make me desire a swift demise. But it's nice to know that when things do eventually end, for whatever reason, however it happens, in whatever hilariously tragic fashion it comes for me, it will lead to this.
The weirdest thing is the complete lack of fear. I'm trapped here, literally trapped. That's how the damn game works, locks you in place until the pull. . . but I'm not just a consciousness displaced in genetic memories of my ancestors. . . I'm in oblivion.
This should be terrifying.
But it's not.
Not in the slightest.
As if somehow, I know that there is nothing to fear in this place, in this state of post-life.
That's not entirely true, I can feel fear trying to edge in, but it's being abated, and not of my own volition. As if all negativity is being washed away by the very spirit of this place.
There's a tingle, coming from somewhere beyond where the fear is being kept at bay. A familiar feeling that's welcomed.
It's the pull.
The game is coming to an end.
I'm being broken out of this prison of serenity.
And as much as I'm relieved. . . a part of me doesn't want to leave. The idea of returning to a world so desolate, so lonely. I can't even begin to imagine living that life again.
But I will. I have to.
Can't let the side down for what's left of humanity. After all, there's work to be done.
The doomed generation
The pull is followed by the weirdest memories. They're almost always my own, rarely borrowed moments from the lives of my ancestors. And they're completely at random, just as with the displacement of the push.
When I was a child, before everything went to hell, there would be people―adults specifically―thatwould constantly tell me that I didn't know how good I had it. They meant it as a critique, that my generation was spoilt or something, because of the natural progression of technology, or society, of the economy, and so on.
We didn't know how good we had it.
And yet, those same people would look back on the past with a rose tint, they would extol the beauty and wonder and infinite possibilities of the time in which they grew up, whether it was a swinging sixties, or whatever the seventies and eighties and nineties were subtitled, or the awfully-named 'noughties', or the turbulent tens. They grew up in a perfect moment, a picture of civility, and when they were my age, they appreciated absolutely everything they had. That's what they were trying to tell me.
I didn'tknow how good I had it―and they knew exactly how good they had it. They had been better and more worldly children than me and my generation, that was the not-so-subtle subtext, and so they grew up into better adults than I ever could be. They wanted me to know that, for some reason, they saw fit to attempt to make a child understand that my best would never be good enough, it could never match their best. At least that's how I read it. Perhaps none of that subtext was there, perhaps it was all the imagination of a precocious little girl.
But when it comes to my parents―who only said it a handful of times in my adolescence―I know exactly what they meant. They were in New York on September 11th, at a conference, barely a few blocks from the towers.
And because they had been there, I've been there.
I wasn't even born yet, and I could feel the sheer, unadulterated terror that shook through their bodies as they watched everything change. For them, for my mother in particular, that was the day the world ended, some thirty years before it actually ended for her generation. Their parents called themselves “Generation X”, it had a hint of rebellion to it. . . but that “X” would be taken literally by fate, one by one their lives were crossed out before their time. Leaving us, their children, to inherit their mess. Generation X was replaced by the millennials, Generation Y, as in “Y the hell did the previous generation screw us so badly?” And they were to be replaced by us. . . the doomed generation, the last generation. There aren't enough of us to be replaced. When we're done, we're done. That's it for the human race.
But when we were born there was still society, our progenitors hadn't kicked the bucket yet. There was still a power grid, there were real jobs, there were schools and summer holidays and television and movies and music. . . Dammit, in a twisted sort of way, they were right.
I totally get their point.
We didn't know how good we had it.
Home is where the heart is
As the pull fades, the psychedelic haze remains for a short while. Everything is sparkling, every static object moving slightly, as if they're all being rocked by a gently tide. They grow and they shrink, they drift to the left and the right. The lines of everything glimmer, as if an artist has been drawing over what few items in here with a silver sharpie. There's a rhythm that accompanies them, a pulse pumping through each of the glittering lines. It turns the mundane into the magical. And this, my real life, my actual home, is nothing short of mundane.
To call it a home is an exaggeration.
I remember my mother had a pillow, weird little thing, served no actual function, barely big enough to rest your head on. It had “home is where the heart is” stitched into it, the letters splayed out in an arc above a wood cabin with orange lights in the window and smoke pouring from the chimney.
My great-grandmother made it, that's why she kept it, a beacon for a past she never experienced herself. As far as I know, none of my relatives ever lived in a cabin. I guess it was a representation, the fire inside an analogy for the warmth a home provides.
If that's the case, then this is not a home. Hell, it's not even a house, let alone a cabin. This is a facility, a bunker. It was never intended to be a place for anyone to actually live in unless it was the end of the world. . . which, I guess means it's fulfilling its purpose. But it wasn't kitted out properly, not well, not to the standards of those that were intended to live here―doesn't quite have the creature comforts that politicians and the like would have been used to. None of the facilities were completely built, and so they're totally bare-bones and lacking anything that would make it feel like a 'home'. The walls and floors and ceilings of my 12x12 cell are bare concrete, with a foot-deep counter jutting out of the far wall and cabinets beneath it. The bed is a rusting metal contraption that used to be able to fold up to be stowed away. It's drilled into the floor, the mattress is so thin you can literally feel the springs digging into your spine as you sleep. Despite it being uncomfortable, there's technology in it, and the sheets and the duvet, they're all self-cleaning, have nano-somethings in the fibres eat up stains and odours. Don't understand how that level of technology matches up with how uncomfortable it is―I never met anyone who was properly in the army, but I'm pretty sure they must have had a patchwork of scars across their backs from all the springs that had torn through their thin single mattresses over the years.
The light fixtures are set into the ceiling, some kind of self-fixing LED thing that never runs out of power and never breaks. There are sensors hidden somewhere in the room, that I've never been able to find, that monitor when there's motion in the room. The light flicks on whenever there's the lightest notion of movement. Not great for when you're trying to read, even worse if you roll around in your sleep.
Part of me wonders if this was actually intended to be some kind of torture hub. I've read about them, black sites, hidden in places, where suspects were taken and denied sleep and food, had music played at top volume, the same song over and over until they gave in.
I really need some lighter reading material. . .
The pulsating rhythm is still there, but the glimmers are starting to fade. Take a breath―and dear God does it feel good to breathe! Realise how empty my lungs are, my pulse is racing. . . that must be the rhythm I'm seeing in the glimmers, no idea how long it's been since I last breathed, but it feels incredible, like I'm reclaiming life after experiencing death.
Wonder if I'm ready to start walking around yet. . . The pull has a weird effect on mobility, makes every step feel as though you're wading through water, pushing against a tide that isn't there―the result of which is that you try to push back. . . Except you're pushing back against nothing but air, and inevitably walk too hard and fast, falling over yourself or leaping into a wall.
That disclaimer was not on the box.
There are many disclaimers that were not on the box. . .
Slowly, I force myself into a crouching position, testing out whether I'm ambulatory yet. Seems that I am. . . But not going to rush things. I crawl towards the bathroom, getting to my knees, then hobbling around in a low position. Reach for the sink, the metal is cold, sterile. It's attached to the wall, the surface self-cleaning like the bed, some kind of intelligent alloy that scientists decided to waste their time working on, rather than curing the damn virus. . . There's a lot of that, like with the lights. So many revolutions in useless science that makes our lives easier―and lazier―as the world ended around us.
Tugging on the sink, I wrench myself up from the crouched position and stare at the woman in the mirror. She's slightly distorted, and looks exhausted. The exhaustion is real―the distortion is not.
When Karen's father set this place up for us―Karen's father was military, some kind of science division. . . When the grid failed and people got angry, he ushered as many of us, the last generation, into the bunkers he had access to around London―when he set the facilities up, he made sure that we wouldn't be able to harm ourselves when left unattended in our rooms. The LED light fixtures were his doing, so we couldn't hang ourselves. The beds were attached to the floors to make sure we couldn't. . . I don't know, collapse them on ourselves and die as metal-and-man sandwiches. . . the mirrors were pulled out and replaced with metal trays that were drilled into the wall―but of course, by using a drill, the metal was distorted, so we've got used to just assuming we all have concave faces with a massive screw at the tip of our noses, like some kind of monochrome Rudolph-human hybrid. . .
Got to have a sense of humour at the end of the world. That's rule one. It's the only rule. There are no real rules these days.
The psychedelic visuals are fading, but that rhythm is persisting, like some obnoxious fly buzzing around my skull.
Makes me appreciate the void, the taste of death. I mean, I know it's morbid to have enjoyed it. . . but it was so peaceful there. So quiet. So calm. No fears, no worries, no responsibilities.
Responsibilities. . . That was my last thought in the abyss: there's work to be done.
God-dammit. The buzzing isn't in my head.
Take a moment to make sure I'm steady on my feet, then turn back to the room and hit the alarm by the bed. Late for bloody work. . .
Too much effort
'Work' is an exaggeration to the Nth degree, and fifteen minutes in, and my legs are already aching. My arms already gave up the ghost after the first five minutes, as they do every damn day. I don't understand how they did this intentionally in the past, why anyone would want to put their body through this much agony on a regular basis of their own volition. I'm relatively fit―or at least look relatively fit―but I can't stand it, the idea of exerting oneself to any degree is just way to much effort. And it doesn't seem to work like the whole gym lifestyle of the previous generation. . . we do this for four hours every day, essentially the best part of a full body work out, and yet none of us have bulked up to freakish hulks. We're not even that crazily toned.
Might be something to do with protein intake. . . The shelter only had enough food for five years, and we've been savaging ever since. None of us are hunters―hell, none of us could harm a fly. There's a woman over at the Westminster shelter that's good at that, cutting off her emotions and murdering something adorable. . . we've exchanged meat with them in the past, already skinned and cut up into portions that make its origin unidentifiable―all the better really, because I'm pretty sure it's not beef or lamb, probably something cuter, like a puppy or kitten.
Scratch that. It was probably cat or dog, Not much meat on a puppy. . .
Way too morbid today―and the clock's saying it's not even twenty minutes into the damn shift. . . still the best part of four hours to go. The problem with so much time to oneself is that thoughts are allowed to stray and dwell. I know I could be more sociable, that I could spend time with the others, or go to the meet-ups with the residents of the other facilities. . . but there's a certain tranquillity that comes from rarely speaking. I can totally see why monks do vows of silence. Did. Why they did vows of silence. There are probably no monks any more. No religion at all for the most part. Contrary to popular logic, 99.999% of the global populace being unable to procreate and then dying before their time didn't do great for sign-ups at churches, synagogues, mosques and what have you.
When I play the game I don't have to talk, don't have to even listen if I don't want to. The thoughts are there―mine and theirs―but I don't have to be a part of it if I don't want to, I can drift off into oblivion, concentrate on the patterns and distortions that the drugs imbue, rather than when and where I am. Reminds me of an old meditation thing, mindfulness, throwing all your attention on the moment, on your breath as it flows in and out of your chest and so on. The game gives me the opposite of that, mindlessness. I don't have to think of anything, I can lose myself in a sea of other peoples' memories, and drift away on a blissful cloud of ignorance.
Twenty-two minutes. Slowest shift ever, and the drugs are to blame. They distort time, that's their job, that's the reason people bought the game, but the residual effects after the trip is over stick around for hours, spreading the experience of the present moment to a crawl. . .
If this was just a regular exercise bike, it would be a hell of a lot easier, and probably less painful. Karen's dad hooked it up, like he did at the other facilities when it was clear that they weren't plugged in directly to solar or wind power. One set of pedals for the legs, another for the feet instead of normal handlebars. Worst thing is, we shouldn't have to do a damn thing to have power, all that stuff was there and ready, panels on all the bloody roofs, windmill-things all over the coast, generating enough power to run the entire country almost twice over. They even had the batteries set up here―but not the foresight to link the damn thing to the actual power supply, it all went through the grid, and the grid went down, and that just proves yet again that our progenitors were morons.
I don't understand how it works, not properly. The basics are obvious: cycling charges the battery, the battery keeps the lights on and the water purifiers working, that's all I really need to know―don't even dare to question it or try to fill my head up with that junk. One of the other facilities has an engineer, over in Oval I think, and they come by monthly for a check-up of our system to make sure it's all running okay. That's his 'job'. Others have learned to sew and knit, to cook, to build furniture. . . but I can't be bothered with any of that.
Instead, I've followed in my parents' footsteps, and it's not at all useful to anyone but me. . . I got obsessed with pharmacology and genetics―more through the game than their efforts to propel me into any kind of career. And through the game, I've got to be in their memories, in their heads whilst they're doing or thinking science-things, and learned those science things vicariously, absorbed their memories.
They would probably not approve of me referring to their studies and work as 'science-things', but they don't exactly get a say. . . They're long gone.
Jesus, I'm almost jealous of their deaths.
They never appreciated how amazing the 20th and early 21st century was. The internet, the food, the entertainment. The drudgery and repetition of the world they left us is hell. And not once have I heard them think about how great it was to be alive in that time. You know what, I hate to say it. . .
But they didn't know how good they had it.
Four hours passes in what feels like four days―or weeks―or months―or years. Pick the hyperbole of your choice. It felt like forever, an aeon in and of itself. But it's over now, and yet my aching limbs are still cycling round and round until Karen comes by for the next shift. She's taking her damn time―intentionally I reckon. Must have heard that I was late and is making me suffer for being so inconsiderate.
That's not true. . . I'm projecting, it's how I would act in that situation. Makes me a bit of a dick, having that edge of malignant vitriol, the desire for vengeance just stewing away in the background. It's never aimed at anyone in particular, it's anger at the situation we're in. The situation I'm in. It's personal, all of my discontent is innately selfish. I don't give a damn about what was done to us, it's about me, it's always about me. Just a selfish prick descended from a myriad selfish pricks before me.
This is the come-down.
It's not real, I'm not that much of an arsehole. It's the drugs, again. Another disclaimer they decided to leave off the box: “side-effects may induce feelings of ennui, venom and bitterness, self-flagellation, hostility and mountains upon mountains of sarcasm”
With a ka-klunk, the door opens, swinging with a soft whistle as it arcs around to reveal Karen. She looks happy―she always looks happy―her obsessively straightened pitch black mane hanging to her waist, making her look all the more pale, like one of those ghost-girls from a Japanese horror movie.