“Another day… Another mass shooting…” Flashed across every digital-screen. It was the current headline from News on Fire. Eddy Slaybock was addicted to the news. There was no avoiding the news after The Man in the High Tower declared a new war (once again). Everyone was addicted. Watching the news was healthier than taking drugs. The news was scripted like a daily soap opera. Artificial Intelligence (AI) was the fiction-writer, creator of Breaking News. It was wildly entertaining. Eddie was on a crusade. He suspected something significant was happening, hidden from the public. Recently he felt Reality beginning to unravel.
Eddy’s disquiet began shortly after he bought a small painting he found at an estate sale. He went to the sale with Anthony, his life partner. Anthony loved to shop and Eddy enjoyed indulging in his partner’s whims.
“You don’t need that,” Anthony complained. “It looks like a stupid scribble.”
“Hey, dear,” Eddy replied, “It’s only three bucks.”
“Oh, that’s all? OK!”
It was an unusual purchase. Anthony was right. It looked like a scribbled line… But it spoke to Eddy. The line drew Eddy into the frame of the painting. Images seemed to emerge.
The couple lived in a condo close to the apartment where Eddy’s mom resided. Ruth Slaybock was ninety-four. She was fairly healthy for her age and fiercely independent. She did not want to live with her son and his partner. She knew the truth although Eddy never came out to her. She was tolerant, but not happy because she always wanted grandchildren from her only son. It was an odd twist of fate when the health-care agency sent Anthony to be her attendant and nurse. Eddy also assisted as an obedient son. He resented it. He always felt abused as a child; but he was never certain if the memories were real or fake. His memory never included his father – the man was always absent.
Everyday Ruth sorted through her memories trying to understand. Ruth was always self-reliant. She owned and managed an old-fashioned haberdashery for twenty years. The shop was part of an amusement complex called “America Great Again.” She was the breadwinner in the family. Once she turned eighty-two, she gave up the business. She saw the writing on the wall: the slow decline in physical and mental health… A winnowing of the spirit. She retired. At first she tried to adjust. She went to the local senior center and made a few friends. She played Bridge. It was never enough… It wasn’t like being a successful business owner with a strong voice in the community. Ruth earned enough income to provide her son with a college education. Thanks to her, Eddy had a decent job as a computer technician. He never seemed grateful. He always wanted something else, something she could never understand.
Now, everyday was the same for Ruth: TV, Solitaire, and Virtual Reality… “Boring, boring, boring,” she thought. Ruth often welcomed the pain that comes with an aging body. It relieved the boredom: Arthritis, Sciatica, and shortness of breath. Often her blood pressure was too low and she felt feint. Her short-term memory seemed shorter and more infuriating. She was pretty certain she wasn’t dealing with Dementia, not yet; but so much of what she used to know alluded her: names, recipes, addresses. She lost things – it never happened before. She was no longer allowed to drive (she couldn’t afford a self-driving car). Her eyesight was deteriorating and surgery was too dangerous. She wanted to scream, but realized it wouldn’t help. Nothing helped any more. Anthony was a dear – he tried so hard to please. Eddy came and went, but his heart was not in it. Ruth could see the truth.
She spent most of her time in VR watching News on Fire… One crazy incident after another: a rollicking roller-coaster of tragedy to make people forget their own insufferable lives. “All lies,” Ruth whispered, “paid for by incessant ads for health-aids that don’t help and fast-foods that make you sick!”
Eddy stared at the painting he recently purchased trying to find some meaning. It looked like a scrawl, a line painted in black that came from nowhere and continued to infinity. It seemed to resonate like a nuclear generator about to explode. He saw dark clouds and fire-storms breaking across the city… Natural forces erupted in pandemonium.
“Honey,” Anthony called from far away. “I’m making pasta for dinner.”
The images from the painting dissolved. Eddy thought, “It was just a line, after all.”
Eddy wanted to know the provenance of the painting. He could make out part of a signature at the bottom. The name looked like Mortimer. He’d heard of a painter named Mortimer Field who mysteriously disappeared. “Could this be the same artist?” He wondered. He learned the last person who owned the painting also disappeared. He was declared dead after ten years; then there was an estate sale where Eddy found the painting.
The painting of a line from nowhere was fascinating – it reminded Eddy of a loose thread from an antique tapestry. Once, Eddy saw a different world while staring at the painting. It was like a postcard from another dimension. He saw lights, colors that dissolved, melting together like wax to become one color that looked like twilight. From far away he heard music, an old refrain, “I’ll take you there…” Whenever Eddy followed the line he heard music. Once he heard a soft voice. He could only make out one word, “No.”
After dinner Anthony was upset. He didn’t like the way Eddy treated his mother. “I’m more of a son than you,” He shouted, “she doesn’t even know we’re married. Are you embarrassed?” He accused. Eddy was tongue-tied. It was partly true.
“I didn’t want to confuse her. She’s ninety-four,” he countered. It was a lie. In truth Eddy just wanted to keep his life separate from his mother. He wanted something of his own that he didn’t have to share; but he didn’t tell Anthony. The argument got worse. Anthony resented Eddy’s obsession with the painting. He was feeling abandoned and thought the painting was simply crazy. That night they slept in separate rooms. Eddy was trying to convince himself everything was all right and the argument would blow over. He told himself he loved Anthony, but he was no longer certain it was true.
One event often triggers another unrelated event. Quantum Mechanics describes an Entanglement where particles smaller than atoms influence one another even though they are not connected.
Eddy was working on his computer at home when the Internet was suddenly interrupted. It was an impossible event that only occurred in the distant, primitive past. The primary wireless connection failed. All services stopped. All information short-circuited. No TV. No VR. Nothing. People were cast into the void of non-existence. Everything ceased. Ruth thought she was having a stroke. She was paralyzed. Even if she could move, she could not call for help because all services were connected to the Internet. Eddy was unable to breathe for several minutes and almost expired. Anthony did slightly better because he practiced survival skills in the only National Park that still existed. He knew how to move efficiently without virtual enhancements. The black-out covered all the remaining States in the Union. It lasted exactly three minutes and fifteen seconds. Those minutes almost destroyed the world. Luckily the glitch was corrected by AI-Minders. Some people died in the lapse, but most survived. An Emergency was declared and AI proceeded with the Amnesia Protocols. Survival depended on memory erasure. No one was allowed to remember the event that triggered the emergency.
At first Ruth didn’t want to go. Mr. D’Angelo was obviously a con man. She surmised there were already too many con-men running things in the world; but Eddie and Anthony were insistent. “A night out will be good for you,” they asserted. They were more curious than anything. No one knew very much about D’Angelo. Rumors persisted. Supposedly he was a faith healer who raised the dead.
The amazing Mr. D’Angelo presents Miracles, Healings, and Revelations! One night only. The Veil will be lifted and you will SEE. Be among the chosen few. Refreshments will be served.
Not everyone was given an invitation and that made the event especially intriguing to Eddy and Anthony. Ruth reluctantly agreed to go. She hadn’t been out of the house for ages. She thought stepping out would be an interesting change.
There were only twenty people in the audience. The theater was virtually enhanced to appear like a Gothic Cathedral. Organ music swelled and synthetic angels glided just below the vaulted ceiling. Neo-Pop Hymns were sung by an invisible choir. Ginger-ale and crackers were served from floating drones. Ruth, Eddy and Anthony sat together on a luxury pew near the front of the auditorium. Ruth was beginning to feel excited. This was something different from News on Fire. This was interesting.
The stage lights dimmed. A skinny, bedraggled man stepped out of the shadows and onto the stage. He looked like a homeless derelict. Murmurs rumbled through the audience, “could this be D’Angelo?”
Ruth smiled… the man on the stage was certainly a con man just as she suspected. People were offended and got up from their pews to leave the theater. Suddenly the auditorium was filled with blazing light. Everyone was momentarily stunned like birds caught in the draft of a giant wind-turbine.
The homeless man laughed, loud and boisterous. He seemed to grow taller in the light. His clothes no longer looked like rags – they were faded, but still stylish, raiments from a bygone era. He jumped from the stage onto the floor among the stunned audience members who were still standing. He called for calm, “please take your seats. Relax.” His voice resonated with warmth and sincerity. No one wanted to leave. Ruth was confused by the changes, but her suspicions were allayed. Eddy and Anthony were eager to see what would happen next.
Mr. D’Angelo spoke, “folks, welcome. I’m not here to judge or proselytize. I’m here to help. People are suffering silently. Everyone here feels pain (whether it is physical pain like Sciatica or mental pain like Depression; people are in pain). I can tell you that drugs don’t help. TV and Virtual Reality are distractions, but the pain lingers. There is only one cure for the pain. I have that cure and I’m willing to give it to you free of charge. I have to tell you something we all know but refuse to recognize. It is a simple truth: life is not easy. Expectations make it hard. Everyday we are sold images and lies. We are told to buy homes, cars, and the newest gadgets. But, those things cannot stop the pain of life. That is the simple truth and that is Also the simple solution. If you want to stop pain you have to give it away… give it up.
“I can take you to a place… a place without pain and suffering. I’ll take you there, but only if you are ready to go. We are all children and I am a child as well… but I can take you there. Hold hands, one and all… and, I will take you there.”
Everyone felt elated as if a miracle was taking place. It felt as if all pain was lifted… all cares and worries dissolved. People began to hold one another, hand in hand, amidst the sounds of ethereal music and the flutter of angel wings.
The one word spoke in Eddy’s mind, “no.” He held Anthony’s hand. He wrapped his arms around Anthony. It was an affirmation of their love. They were together, but everyone else was gone. Ruth was gone. The world continued, but nothing was the same. Reality was unraveling. The sun was beginning to dim. Night and day melted together like wax crayons… Twilight engulfed the world.
Allison Fornay was a slim, more attractive version of herself. She used to weigh four-hundred pounds and she was unable to move off her bed. She had a caretaker and received a living wage from disability insurance. She subsidized her income by letting news-cams into her bedroom to expose her obesity on national VR.
Everything changed when Allison met Fonderoy Thomas. He was a lifestyle guru who owned a virtual reality network. Fonderoy heard about Allison from a fake-news outlet. He wanted to help.
At this time, everyone had a Neural Net that covered the cerebellum. The net increased intelligence and enabled instant communication. Every Neural Net was stamped with an expiration code and date. The code was unique and worked like an old fashioned cell-phone number. Fonderoy connected with Allison.
“I love you, Allison,” Fonderoy gushed, “with love you can do anything!”
“Who the hell are you?” Allison replied. She didn’t know because she never tuned into the Guru channel.
After a stimulating conversation Allison submitted to Fonderoy’s life changing regimen. She submitted to mental massage and invasive chemical therapy.
Fonderoy seeded Allison’s brain with Neuro-linguistic cues and Virtual Reality Instagrams.
Allison was fucked; but, she did lose the excess weight. The process opened a Pandora’s Box. In the end Allison had no idea who she was or what she wanted.
Guru Thomas called upon Shambala, Bannon, and Mumbo-jumbo to steer Allison in the right direction. The process was trial-and-error. Allison slipped from one lifestyle to another, trying-on personalities that were injected into her brain.
She remembered munching on fruit, sitting in a Banyan Tree. She felt pleasantly stoned living like an ape. She lurched into another memory of rampaging male energy that comes with being a teenage boy. The ride continued as she became a drug addicted super model. She slammed into a tsunami of facts-and-figures as a highly regarded astrophysicist. Allison was a banker and real-estate mogul. She saw herself as a wife and mother. The experiences were overwhelming and she shattered like a glass vase.
Guru Thomas flipped through his commodified fact-sheets and randomly picked a code to permanently insert into Allison’s Neural Net.
Detective Allison Fornay was called whenever a case turned into a sticky wicket. Music swelled as she stared down at the body of a man who was vaguely familiar. The music was out of place and Allison wondered why there was music at the scene of the crime. The crime was ordinary… the music was not. The dead man was a TV personality known for his bombastic rhetoric. The man was in his seventies and he looked as if he was in terrible anguish at the time of his demise. Allison donned the obligatory rubber gloves and did the appropriate touching on the dead man’s body. She already surmised he died of a heart attack brought on by too much stress, but she had to be professional. The body would be left for the coroner who would confirm the detective’s conclusion. So much for the dead man, but the music was the real mystery. Did the other officers hear it or was she the only one? The music was vaguely familiar like the soundtrack from a TV show. It was bright and tinkly like game show music. Did the music have something to do with the corpse? “Perhaps,” Fornay whispered to herself, “I need to reassess the situation. If the man on the floor was not a victim of foul play; then who was the victim and why the sticky wicket?”
The music was counting down. A memory suddenly lurched into Allison Fornay’s brain — the memory of a man who wielded great power. He was guru Fonderoy Thomas and he infected her mind.
When lurch comes to shove, Allison was very good at hiding the facts of the murder. She concealed it from herself. The guru with his empire of zombie followers deserved to die. He tinkered with people’s souls. His pop psychology was an excuse to rewire brains and perform sadistic experiments. She smiled as the music continued to count down. Allison knew what to expect, what the music meant. The guru inserted a unique code and date in her Neural Net… and she was about to expire.
They named him Thorax because they were hippies and the word sounded unique. He preferred Thor, but that seemed a bit grandiose so he settled for Ted. He was raised on “magic mushrooms” and organic food in a commune. On weekends, his parents played music in a local bar. His parents were part of the first major shift in consciousness in the late Twentieth Century, but Ted never felt right with his parents lifestyle.
His bohemian upbringing only made him long for more conventional values: McDonald’s, television, fast cars, and conspicuous consumption. Ted settled for a standardized life and he was relatively happy. His laissez-faire parents supported his decisions even though they felt momentary pangs of pain and rejection. They even supported Ted’s lifestyle with money they inherited from wealthy relatives. Ted became a computer jockey in the customer service department at a high tech firm, Global Triad. Ted’s contract partner was named Desmond. They had two “In Vitro” children conceived to meet the requirements of their very high standards for beauty and intelligence. Ted’s life was entwined in the second greatest shift in human consciousness.
At work, Ted was given a surprise party when he turned forty — that’s when he realized how much he enjoyed his life. Soon he would be eligible for retirement. He had more free time now that Desmond and the kids were enrolled in “Family Care,” the new application that re-engineered relationships and supported several time-saving sub-routines. Ted’s surprise party was held in the Cornucopia. He was enjoying drinks and canopies with several friends from work. He missed Desmond and the children, but they would see him when he returned home that evening. The cake was extraordinary and everyone sang “happy birthday” in fake falsetto. Ted sat at table # 9 in Cloud Mode where most activities were archived and saved. Manager One (named D’vid), made a working toast to Ted, “On this most auspicious occasion you are noticed and remembered. Happy Birthday, Ted, may you never grow older than you are today.”
All day at work, Filtered Music purred in the recesses of Ted’s mind. There was always music. Occasionally avatars appeared. They offered ideas and apps to make life more enjoyable. Often, Ted felt displaced as the screen suddenly changed or a new layer appeared, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable sensation — it was more like a dream than anything else. His work shifted from customer relations to customer appropriations. He had to gain information on the people who used the company’s products. Information was the most valuable commodity. Privacy no longer existed; but, everyone agreed, privacy only isolated people from one another and restricted choices. Information could only be comprehensive if people were totally open. Private lives were now public and that helped the economy. When Ted shifted to his home module, he immersed himself in virtual environments. If he felt like an adventure, he could step into another person’s head-space and become that person. On every screen he was given options to purchase enhancement applications. The apps could be expensive, but leasing arrangements made them easier to acquire. He had purchased Desmond with a lease and that turned out to be a great investment. Some sacrifices had to be made to acquire the children, but now he could never give them up for all the joy they brought into his life.
Turning forty was a major mile-stone for Ted. Events from his life appeared like a flash animation in high contrast. He wondered what happened to his parents and the commune they struggled to maintain after the economy tanked. Ted never stayed in contact — he used email and his parents never owned a computer. He couldn’t remember if they ever owned a phone. In fact he never wanted to stay in touch — they had nothing in common except some lingering physical characteristics. Ted wanted to become his own person, separate from his family. His memories were making him depressed so he decided to disconnect and leave the house. People rarely wandered the streets anymore. They stayed home, immersed in the entertainment matrix.
He saw a large, yellow box out of the corner of his eye. It didn’t fit so Ted avoided looking at the object. He found himself inside a dark bar sitting at a small, round table. He was talking to himself. He sat across from himself staring into his own face. People were singing happy birthday. the song was mixed with static, broadcast from an ancient radio. “Who are you,” he heard himself ask. The other Ted asked the same question. When he returned home, Desmond and the children were nowhere to be found; instead, a large arthropod sat at the dinner table. Ted could feel the edges of his mind start to slip and unravel. The large insect was eating leftovers: pieces left over from Desmond and the children. The computer screen went blank. Ted was compromised. His life was turned into an application, bought and sold. “I’m no one,” he heard himself answer, “Just code, computer code and nothing more.”
Milton Farbin dreamt he was “the Fast-moving Man.” It was a recurring dream, part of a campaign to promote particular products and services. The Fast-moving Man and the Alluring Woman were cultural icons, pop stars with the highest appeal-rating according to the new, Trump Index. They were loved and adored. They slipped into people’s dreams by means of a new phone app given out for free. The glorious couple demonstrated new, American-made merchandise that was on sale for bargain prices.
In the dream, Milton was a charismatic leader with blistering eyes and orange hair, a man of wealth and power. When he awoke he was penniless and depressed having spent all his money on goods and services he did not need or want. Once he left the Virtual Dream, Milton was a rag man, no longer capable of keeping a regular job. In the past he was a beautician. He was in high demand and he loved his work, but everything changed once he fell in love with the Alluring Woman. Milton wanted to please her so he bought whatever she sold. He became desperate and sought the services of surgeons and therapists to gain the looks and appeal of the Fast-moving Man.
Corporations invested in the business of “Addictive Proprieties” whereby individuals were subliminally seduced to become the Pop Icons they worshiped. Lots of people desired to be the Fast-moving Man. Other consumer apps were developed to hound consumers with ads targeting individuals based on their past choices and personal histories (privacy no longer existed). The Hounds-of-consumption were let loose regularly and continually. There were Hounds for cosmetics, fashion, and real estate — emulating the lifestyle of the Fast-moving Man and the Alluring Woman who lived together in perfect bliss. Face creams and fast-food promised the consumer a better life. New cars and luxury apartments were the ingredients for true happiness.
Milton Farbin lived in an abandoned bookstore. He couldn’t break the cycle of desire. He was tormented by dreams. The Hounds were relentless, barking like banshees, wailing like sirens. The Fast-moving Man and the Alluring Woman lived with Milton in the bookstore. They were everywhere, wrapped in each other’s arms, trying out the newest deodorant or the best hair depilatory. They had sex in front of Milton just to torment him with their obvious bliss.
He tried everything to escape. He starved himself hoping the Hounds would die from lack of sustenance, but they were invincible. Milton went on long hikes, trudging through the worst areas of the city where drug addicts and murderers hid from spying eyes. He was hoping he might be murdered… hoping the Fast-moving Man and the Alluring Woman would not follow him, but they never left his side.
Milton was driven to distraction. He knew the drugs he collected for the last five years were deadly. He sat down against the moldy wall at the back of the abandoned store. Looters found his body and proceeded to dismantle the corpse and recycle the parts.
Milton was dead. It was very dark. He could sense icy fingers caress his body. He felt peaceful and began to drift away like a cloud of dust. But, before the dust could disappear, Milton heard the shrill barking of the Hounds. He saw the neon glow of the Alluring Woman and the Fast-moving Man. They followed Milton Farbin into death and they would never leave.