(originally published April 26, 2015)
Who can resist the X meets Y challenge? Though this week has been absolutely bananatown on the work and home front, I had to make time for Chuck Wendig’s latest writing challenge. It was my only solace of the week. Herewith, a mash-up between Twin Peaks and The Matrix.
After the walls melted away, Ryland stood alone in a forest. A dense fog settled among the tall pines. A soft lapping of water came from the right, but the body of water wasn’t visible. A crow cawed in the distance, ahead of her on the wide path.
Gone was the labyrinth of skyscrapers she had known all her life. The absence of sirens disoriented her. Ryland turned slowly in a circle. The portal was gone as well. So jarring was the sensation that she wasn’t sure which world was real—the one she believed she was a resident of, or this one, rich in earthy smells with soft ground beneath her feet.
The lone call of a crow came again, this time more urgent than before. Though she couldn’t see it, Ryland was certain it was aware of her presence.
“Damn her for talking me into this,” she said.
Only minutes ago, she was meeting Wren, an old friend, in a bodega near the theater district. She wanted to go clubbing. Wren had other plans.
“You need to help me,” she implored. “I’m trapped between two worlds. I don’t know how much time I have here. Everything flickers—then I’m suddenly elsewhere.”
Ryland reacted calmly. The virtual reality business was a 3-trillion-dollar industry, consuming all forms of media, and all too many impressionable people were overly susceptible to its lures.
Despite safety measures to alert those unable—or reluctant—to come out of a virtual world, many people disabled the alarms on their own devices, preferring to neglect their own needs, often resulting in death. Regulators shrugged off the reports of disturbing trends in starvation and neglect. The benefits were too great—a pacified population and enormous profits. “People should be free to make their own decisions,” they said. “We aren’t in the business of being a nanny state.”
“It’s a portal to the multiverse,” Wren said, sliding the device across the table where they unwrapped their sandwiches.
Ryland rolled her eyes. “So says the ad campaign.”
And yet here she was. It was unlike any VR experience she ever had.
When the crow called again, she began to walk down the path. The fog enhanced the scent of pine needles and moist earth. The scant park in the city was nothing like this. Those trees are fake anyway. Pollution had long since choked plant life into extinction.
The path rounded a corner. Long benches made of split logs stood to the side of the path. A crow swooped down and landed on a nearby tree stump. It regarded her with its head tilted to one side.
When she blinked, the crow had transformed into a tall man wearing a silver suit. His black hair was combed to the side. His grin was wolfish, and his eyes seemed to reveal a cosmos that lay beyond this world. “It’s about time you arrived,” he said in a mellifluous voice.
Ryland cast a skeptical eye over the handsome man’s figure. “Who are you?”
“Your host,” he said. He bowed deeply, sweeping one arm out as if to hold a top hat.
“What’s your name?”
“Ah, well…people find it easier to name what they don’t know on their own terms. Being presented with a title puts many people off.” He paused mid-bow. “I am at your service, however you choose to name me.”
Ryland stopped short of using her favorite swear words. She bit her lip, the unease of this world sinking into her skin and to her very marrow. The beauty of the forest darkened with a creeping fear. The man staring at her didn’t waver.
Unwilling to come up with a name for the crow who apparently transformed into a man, she decided to change the subject. “What am I supposed to be doing here?”
“Didn’t the little bird tell you?”
“Little bird? Oh. Wren.” Ryland smiled in spite of herself.
The man nodded.
“What is happening to her?”
“The answers cannot be revealed outside of the cabin.”
When Ryland next blinked, the man was gone. The crow paused on the tree stump next to the bench and flapped its wings. It cawed once and flew down the path. She had no choice but to follow.
The disorienting feeling of being in such a remote place was amplified by the fog. Movies never had the sounds of the forest. There was always dialogue and music. Things rustling in the distance and branches clicking together high above rattled her nerves. Her mysterious shape-shifting host had disappeared, but she was certain he observed her every move. He’s probably in my head, too.
The path wound down to the right, bringing her closer to the water. A crescent of mirror-gray water appeared. Most of the lake was obscured by trees and fog. A low cabin, shaded by trees, rested next to the lake. The cabin was weathered and sagging slightly. Its shuttered windows revealed nothing within.
Ryland approached, stepping onto the porch with trepidation. She put her ear to the door. Strange sounds from behind the door were faint.
The door swung inward. A young boy wearing dark sunglasses held it open, waving her inside with a sense of urgency. “Don’t let the light in,” he said. “And don’t let the truth out.” His sandy blond hair was combed to the side, and he wore an outfit that reminded Ryland of films from the early twentieth century.
As Ryland entered the one-room cabin, she saw Wren, who was dressed in the fashions popular in the city where they grew up—clothes for clubbing—black boots and a purple-blue dress with a black vest. Wren sat in a leather chair, arms straight along the armrests. Her eyes were closed.
The cabin door closed behind her. The room darkened. A bare lightbulb danged from the center of the ceiling. When Ryland came to stand in the center of the room, it began to flicker erratically.
The shape-shifting host in the silver suit leaned in the corner of the room, picking his teeth. “Ah, she’s here. Very good. You see that, son? Have a little faith in the ways of chaos.”
“The ways of chaos?” Ryland asked.
The boy put his finger to his lips. “Shh. Learn your place.”
She scowled at him and went to kneel by her friend. “Are you okay?”
The horror sank in. Wren’s wrists and ankles were bound by iron shackles. Ryland shook her by the shoulders. “Wren!” There was no response.
The lightbulb continued to flicker—maddeningly, incessantly.
Obscured by an increasing volume of static, jazz from a bygone era filled the air. Shadows danced along the walls.
“Why are you doing this?” shouted Ryland. “What are you doing to her?”
“Time for the truth?” asked her enigmatic host with a wry smile. “Life is energy.” Shadows flickered over his silver suit. “Energy must be directed to secure the portals. You see, my dear, no reality is real…and yet, all realities are real.”
“So she was right about the multiverse.”
“Indeed. You see so few universes with your technology, but we’re working to change that.”
The host stood and straightened his lapels. “The virtual reality industry, of course! Silly girl. Try to keep up. Some realities are more predatory than others, but all entities must sustain themselves and their worlds. We reach in, we take what we need.”
Ryland shook her friend by the shoulders again. “Wren, wake up. We have to leave.”
Wren’s eyes snapped open. Her mouth opened in a silent scream. Her eyes were windows into an endless cosmos. Wren’s voice blended in with the jazz. The static cleared momentarily to let the lyrics though. Let your heart go and let it drift/Clear the shoals or your soul falls in a rift/The void takes all and each precious moment is a gift…
The static rose and devoured the words. Wren’s mouth closed and the jazz continued without lyrics. Her eyes stared sightlessly ahead.
“The little bird is gone,” the boy said in a lilting tone.
Ryland sank to the floor and cowered at her friend’s feet. Rough planks shifted beneath her. Grit coated the palms of her hands. “I want to leave.” Tears crept down her face.
The host swept down and his face hovered in front of her. A smattering of galaxies swirled within his inky-black eyes. “You want to leave?” He sighed, planting his elbows on his thighs as he crouched. “Oh, but where to go? Where, where, where? If you’re trying to hide, understand there is nowhere to go. I’ll let you fly for a while, just like the little bird. But we will always find you. When time runs out…” his mouth made a clicking sound and he snapped his fingers.
The boy behind him chuckled. “Through time, at any distance. We know every place to hide. No one is better at hide and seek.”
The host extended a silver arm and held out an onyx orb to her. “Choose your world, but choose wisely.