“Good morning, doctor.”
“Good morning, Ada. How are we doing on the list?”
“I have reduced the candidate pool to 12.”
“Tell me about them.”
“Vivica Xerxes: marksman, quality negotiator, decorated veteran of the Hannibal Affair.”
“Milgram adherence level?”
“Too high. We need people with independence and creativity. They need drive. Strike all candidates with levels above 46%. We can make up for it.”
“That only leaves one candidate. Carter Monarch.”
“Monarch… how long ago is that?”
“Sometime between year 6 and 10. Data from this period is prone to high levels of corruption and instability.”
“Is there enough to use?”
“This system cannot give that estimation but, the Engram itself seems to have a particularly… tenacious node structure.”
“Pull it up. Give me the earliest that you have.”
“Gathering Engram node: 01”
There was an announcement in The World. Something had gone wrong with The Awakening. In the weeks past, every colonist had been brought into real-time and the truths about The World that were previously easy to ignore were pushed into the forefront. The rules of The World were not the rules of the outside. For some, it meant that they would have the freedom to be real-time forever. For others, it meant that the wealth and property that they had amassed would mean nothing. The social unrest was intense and palpable.
The World quickly broke into factions. Some, a group called the Virtuals decided that they didn’t want to give up The World. They argued that everything they had and the life that they lived was worth denying the outside. At first, they violently and aggressively attempted to deny The Awakening. They sabotaged the processes and attempted to delay it at every turn. But, even with the power that they had amassed, reality didn’t care for their efforts. The automated systems continued their tireless work and outside, the robots built structures and prepared the landing site. The Virtuals avoided what they could but the system followed it’s directives tirelessly.
The Awakening was here.
Carter Monarch awoke to the familiar colorful sky. It cycled from blue to red and then back again. He sighed at the sight as he sat up slowly. It was still difficult to think about his body as a simple conceptual notion. An idea that he could supposedly choose to ignore the aches and pains across his body. That the scars he had earned working tirelessly for the Monarch Conglomerate were merely a simulation, was laughable. Yet, Carter knew that it was true. The colorful sky was just one way that the system forced all residents to accept and adapt to the new normal.
Carter flipped his hand open and activated his assistant. A small, glowing blue cube turned slowly as it hovered just above his palm. Using a series of gestures, Carter flicked through the normal news. He went out of his way to avoid news of the Awakening. Everyone knew already that the lottery was in place and your family unit would be notified at once. Carter immediately married his longtime partner Malcolm. This made sure that he and Malcolm would be awakened together. He smiled as he sneaked a glance at Malcolm, secure in the knowledge that they would face the new world together.
The cube shifted and stuttered as the display in front of it displayed the day’s news, messages, and other pertinent information. Carter flattened his hand sharply, looking closely at the series of images in front of him. His eyes quickly scanned the images, comparing images and the positions of objects relative to each other. A smile crept along his face as he realized that the images from the Ascendant Group were in fact, just modified versions of the Monarch images. He marked the similarities and key markers that indicated that the Ascendant Group was violating the intellectual property rights of the Monarch Conglomerate. The pattern matching algorithm would easily concur with his findings. It was an open and shut case.
He got up slowly, and quietly left the room to awaken his daughter. Carter and Malcolm had confirmed Angelina as their daughter right after being married. This made certain that their family was kept as a unit. Angelina was an early riser, just like her father Carter. She was already preparing herself to attend her classes. She was tall for her age, with mocha-colored skin, and a wiry muscular build. Her dark eyes were endless pools of empathy and idealism, a trait that she shared with her other father, Malcolm. Though, even there Carter could see bits of himself reflected in the way that those dark eyes shifted and shone like the stars when she thought carefully about something.
After she left, Carter followed his usual pattern of exercising for two hours. He knew that logically his body wasn’t real and any exercise done would be meaningless on the outside. Malcolm was needed in his office so they hugged and kissed deeply before Malcolm left their apartment. Alone, Carter answered calls and laid the groundwork for a few more investigations. Around noon, Carter ran to the gym to spar and work on his hand to hand skills. He’d been surprisingly good at his job. Well, surprising to his employers. What they didn’t know was that his birth sector was on level 6. He was used to operating on 1/6th time. Early on, he learned that the only way to buy processing power was to make money.
For Carter, his keen eye and natural guile meant that making money was rather easy. Eventually, he paid a programmer a small fortune to rewrite his records and place him on level 3. From there, Carter cheated and manipulated his way into the good graces of the ‘civilized world.’ After that, he landed a job with the Monarch Conglomerate. Technically, they purchased him when the conglomerate purchased the holder of his original indenture, the Nanaki Fund. Trading one master for another didn’t matter to Carter. He took the name change and continued attacking his work ruthlessly.
On paper, Carter Monarch is an investigator. It is his job to look into cases of corporate espionage, sabotage, theft, and any other issue that his bosses want him to pursue within the confines of the law. In reality, Carter was so much more. He kept physically fit because sometimes getting the information that he needs means moving fast, climbing things, or doing some other physically exhausting endeavor. His keen eye for detail and quick mind were needed because it was up to him to organize, categorize and identify fact from fiction in sometimes very tense situations. Lastly, he carried a gun because sometimes to solve a problem, somebody potentially dangerous needs a bullet in them before they put one in you.
Malcolm was an artist and a writer. A gentle man who had had the fortune of being born on level 4 but had somehow managed to retain an inspiring, egalitarian streak. They met at work and for once, Carter didn’t feel the need to analyze and dissect a person. Malcolm didn’t need to be quantified because he wore everything on the outside. There were no mysteries to be solved. There were no secrets to be uncovered. In many ways, Malcolm was everything that Carter failed to comprehend and yet he was the only thing that Carter ever wanted.
They had one major conflict. Though Malcolm knew what Carter did for a living and where Carter came from, Malcolm asked Carter to keep the unsavory things that he had to do to get here to himself. It wasn’t judgement, Carter understood. Malcolm said that talking about the things that he had done, even the dark things that he must do were like talking about someone else. For Malcolm, the Carter at work was a distant and entirely different person from the Carter with him. Though he loved them both, the Carter at work was too cold and too sharp to connect with. Malcolm feared that asking this was a rejection to Carter. In fact, Carter felt like the version that Malcolm knew and loved was the Carter that he aspired to one day be.
The cube reappeared unbidden and shone a brilliant green.
“Congratulations,” it said.
The world shattered into an infinite, shimmering, tiny shards of glass that glimmered like mirrors in the dark. He felt a strange falling sensation. A mixture of dread and emptiness that pulled at him from all directions and yet on some level he knew that there was no body to pull. He was floating. A nothing in a sea of nothingness that stretched out forever. Despite being completely alone, he felt the strong sense of being watched by something sinister. Something hungry.
“Carter Monarch, can you understand?”
The free-floating thing that thought of itself as Carter Monarch tried desperately to pull the pieces back together. Every attempt felt like an eternity and every failure felt like he had fallen deeper. He was scared of losing himself, forever.
“Carter Monarch, please respond.”
“Car-Carter,” came something that was like his voice and yet was completely different.
“Data Recovery: Part 1. Satisfactory. Beginning data integrity check.”
“What,” was all that Carter could muster before his mind was assaulted with memories and ideas. They were his memories and his own ideas but, it was like they were being played back. Like watching a recording and comparing the visuals to your notes. Bits seemed true but he didn’t remember them that way. Other bits seemed to be omitted.
“Malcolm… I can’t see his face,” he managed to whisper.
“Affirmative, a set of damaged nodes has created corruption within their child nodes. Key data features connected to Malcolm Monarch are unable to be recovered. Continuing process. Initiating Data Recovery: Part 2.”
Carter, what there was of him, screamed into the void. ‘He needed Malcolm. Malcolm was part of his world. Don’t take Malcolm from me’ were his last thoughts before light and sound assaulted him from all directions.
Slowly, Carter Monarch’s eyes opened. There was a strange feeling of both heaviness and something pulsating. It took time before he realized that he could hear his heart beating and fluid in his ears. The thought was disgusting. Carter began counting prime numbers in his head. It was a way that he long relied on to remain calm. Except it was less powerful of a method now. Because despite working though the primes that he had already memorized and working through new ones, he could hear his heart throbbing in his ears.
At some point he must have fallen asleep. The next time he opens his eyes, there are colors. Blurry, garish things that seem to lurch and twist in front of him. Other things move around him. He realizes that some of the things are people and they’re talking.
“…goodness that he’s conscious,” exclaims one.
“I don’t know. The sensors read brain waves but he’s unresponsive,” says the other.
“Should we initiate nerve reconstruction?”
“No, that’s too expensive to use on him. He got his records changed.”
“What? That’s possible?”
“Yeah, I saw a couple of them. This guy is actually level 6.”
“I’ll inform the company and see what they say.”
“Good idea. Let’s put him back on ice.”
A series of flashing lights snapped Carter back to consciousness. That, and searing pain. His whole body was on fire. Every single part of him hurt so bad that he screamed with all his might. In his ears it sounded like a long groan. He turned his head left and could see a blood covered apparatus was drilling into his shoulder. There was nothing where his arm should be. Nothing but a piece of bone and the incessant drilling. Some kind of plate was placed over the shoulder. Then, slowly the plate began to glow red and his nose smelled burning human flesh for the first time. Time stretched out as if he were overclocked until, gratefully, Carter lost consciousness again.
The next time Carter woke up, he was laying in a bed with soft lights pouring into the room from somewhere above him. When he opened his eyes, he was looking out of a window at a beach with waves lapping gently on the shore. Looking at the waves for a moment, Carter could easily see that the wave pattern was repeating. The pattern was long and the loop point was subtle but, once he saw it, it was undeniable. He counted the time between loops. A frequency of .015hz or about 66 seconds. He used this to count minutes, and then hours before a somewhat familiar face walked in. The person walked in alone and pulled a stool beside his bed. He moved his head side to side as he watched Carter’s facial features and eyes follow him.
“Do you know who I am,” the man asked after watching Carter for some time.
“Yes,” said Carter with a voice much stronger than he thought.
The man smiled, “excellent news. I need you to say it, to be sure.”
“You are William Hearst-Monarch, head of the Monarch Conglomerate.”
The man chuckled and smiled, looking down wistfully.
“Yeah, I guess so. I guess so. Although things are pretty different out here. In many ways, you’ll see that they’re the same.”
“What can I do, sir?”
The man laughed loudly, “That is why I paid to make sure that you were taken care of son. You believe in us.”
Carter lay quietly, waiting for the man to continue.
He slowly stopped laughing and then took a deep breath.
“Carter, before we go on, I want to be the one to tell you. I want you to know that it matters. Things have been going wrong with the awakening. The gear is old and damaged. Parts aren’t working properly and… not everyone is waking up. We almost lost you, son.”
“Malcolm and Angelina?”
William Hearst-Monarch, the most powerful man that Carter knew, didn’t say the words. He didn’t even shake his head. He just looked back at Carter and Carter knew. They were gone.
“Did they hurt?”
“I… Well, I don’t think so. We threw the money we could at them. I want you to know that. You and He were assets too valuable to risk losing but, out here… it doesn’t matter. We can’t pull from a backup or try to regenerate the data. Gone is…”
“Gone,” whispered Carter.
“We almost lost you, too. Your mind didn’t take the linkup back to the body very well. Everything was a mess. Your arm… had to be replaced.”
Carter moved the thing attached to him but didn’t look at it. His whole body was new, organic or not didn’t particularly matter.
“How long before I can work again?”
William Hearst-Monarch looked at Carter for a little while. His face was inscrutable. He seemed to want to say something but instead silently looked at him.
Willam nodded slowly, “I remember reading your file. You’re made of something else, son. The medics say that you managed to do most of the work of pulling your neural network back together for transfer. Very few people do that.”
He seemed to think for a little while before adding, “You’re going to rest here a bit. You’re going to get stronger. Get your real legs back. As soon as it’s allowed, I’ll get you a pair of contacts and an uplink so that you can get up to speed. You have run of the facility. Order food, entertainment, whatever you want. It’s on me. When you’re ready, I’ll have my people come get you. This’ll give you time to both recover and get back up to speed, son.”
He stood up to leave and then paused in front of the door.
“Your husband and daughter are here. I had their bodies stored so that you could view them.”
“Sir, respectfully- They never occupied those bodies. They died on The Awakening. You can dispose of the bodies. Thank you for the gesture, sir.”
William hearst-Monarch gave him that strange look again. Then he nodded slowly and left.
Carter lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. He felt empty. Hollow. Like, maybe whatever they brought back from The World wasn’t actually him. They brought back a thing that may look and think like him but Carter was sure that he used to feel things. Didn’t he? Malcolm used to say that Carter was a big scar. That it may not feel like ‘normal’ skin and maybe the sensations are dulled but, it’s real skin. Malcolm used to tell him that behind all of the thinking and planning was a man who maybe cares too much.
So, why is it that Carter can’t bring himself to feel anything at all?