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We Are The Last – Chapter 2 – A Sci-Fi Novel

Happy New Year~ (chapter 1 here: https://cagreyson.com/2018/12/08/we-are-the-last-chapter-1-a-sci-fi-novel/ )

Enjoy chapter two on me. 😀

Chapter 2

I walk back to my computer and sit down. I first need to see how many hours I have left in this semester. I know it isn’t much, considering I graduate in a month. I always thought people that graduated in the winter were weird, but really they were just ahead of the curve. I had busted my ass to get to this point, doing dual credits in high school and then taking five classes a semester. I look over at the empty space in the room. There isn’t much here, just a handmade platform bed, my computer, my state issued VR system and the exercise equipment on days I need to work out. Most people would probably find this place entirely depressing. I have zero art on the walls, with a single shelf for my cups, bowls, and plates.

My clothes can fit in a single drawer and consist mostly of two pairs of jeans, socks, and seven pair of underwear, two pairs of shoes and five shirts. Of the five shirts, two are short sleeved, two are tank tops, and one long-sleeved to go with the single pair of slacks I bought for graduation. To me, it felt a bit ridiculous to even own that many. It annoys me that even in these times you had to dress differently to impress a bunch of strangers. Unfortunately, they still require me to show up to graduation physically. Had I have graduated just a few years later, we would all just be online and I could sit at home and wear whatever the hell I want.
I know changing the timeline will have several repercussions, but I have little choice. My future vessel is completely destroyed right now, on a direct path into the sun for all I know. I knew that I needed to get someone’s attention, but who the hell would listen to a twenty-year-old loser with no money? How did I even begin to get anyone’s attention, let alone the world leaders? The answer is simple, but complicated at the same time. I am going to have to learn how to communicate with myself directly before the first global war. I glance over to the VR. Technology is good right now, but it has no way of being able to do what I need it to. I need time to think, which to be honest was something I had in abundance right now. I cringe thinking about all the wasted time I had spent watching shows and playing video games. I was a devoted student, but not devoted to re-channeling my knowledge to something useful before the age of thirty. I crack up at this revelation. Most people would probably kill to be in my position. I’m a fifty-year-old living in a twenty-year-old’s body, doesn’t get much better than this.

In the future, most of us had started the treatments but to get the permanent one─ the one that kept you twenty-five forever, that was something only the well-off possessed. We lowly peons had to save up several months’ salary to knock off a few years. Most people saved up as much as they could throughout the year and at the beginning of the next, shaved off as many years as they could afford. When I had left the future, I appeared to be the age of thirty which let me tell you, took several years to save up for.
The holidays went back to spending time with your family online because everyone understood that no one wanted to die. And no one especially wanted to age.

It is rare that children are born, and the few that are were normally raised by a colony. Our society was built around adults and it wasn’t socially acceptable to bring children anywhere. Especially to restaurants or movies. You would be told to promptly leave and that you were bothering the other patrons. If you wanted to raise your own offspring, you were what was known as a Breeder. You stayed in the colony until your children were of adult age and then you were allowed to come back out. Living in the colonies, from what I was told isn’t bad. They have their own sub communities with everything they need. The only time any of them venture out is usually when they want to get fresh food. Given that we all were under some sort of strict government salary, however, they didn’t come out often. It used to be an incentive to be a breeder. I remember my mother once talking about a time when people were paid to have children. Now, with the establishment of the world population being a chief concern, you were penalized for having one.
My mind shot back to Harris’s words. That was wrong of him on so many levels. Ash had appeared several years older than us for a damn good reason. She had made the sacrifice for her people to become a Breeder. While most of us had appeared to be in our late twenties to mid-thirties, Ash looked to be in her late forties, which wasn’t too far off from her actual age. Breeders are paid far less than everyone else and you have to have several permits on behalf of your government that your people are dying out. Of course, the majority didn’t use the term Breeders. That was exceptionally derogatory. Especially from my time, when the death rate towered over births. We called them Traditionalists. Ash had to have gone through hell to be able to have just the one child, let alone two. It was a miracle that the state allowed her to keep both at the time she had given birth to them. I still smile thinking about the way she spoke of the twins.

My smile fades as I look over to the outdated equipment and sparse surroundings. That was all before humanity nearly wiped itself out. I don’t like thinking about this, because frankly, it isn’t my favorite subject. I’m hoping that by some miracle the others have found themselves back and are looking for ways to contact me. I can’t count on this, however, and know that I must figure out how the fuck to get started. I need to find out a way to grab people’s attention. As far as I was concerned, the fastest way to grab people’s attention was usually one of two: you had a lot of money, or you made a lot of money. I needed to get to my accounts before the war hit and wiped the entire system effectively getting rid of bitcoins.

Currency, as well as credit cards phased completely out when I had been a baby. I used to laugh at my mother’s stories about how you had to go to a place called a grocery store and sit in line to buy food. She really got me rolling talking about several stories of gas crises and how people would get out of bed early to sit at the pumps until the attendant turned them on. People actually left their homes for things other than social events. It was mind-boggling to me. Of course, eventually, we stopped leaving our homes even for that. Some markets usually existed up north, but they were under strict supervision after what happened back when mom died. Eventually, there was no need to ever leave your home and if you did, it was understood you were either in trouble or causing trouble. I walk over to my VR unit and choose to get into a sitting position. I was too restless to lie down today.
With all the cloud-based systems, technology had changed a fair bit over the years. The year I had gotten my VR, it was at its peak. I, unlike many others, managed to own a server farm. My mother had been smart enough to make several investments in her twenties which meant that I had access to just about limitless space for anything I could ever want. The best part was the privacy act, which allowed me to be able to store whatever the hell I wanted to as long as no one but myself had to access to it. Within certain limitations of course. I mean, I couldn’t go and kill people and then upload the footage. Breaking was still as huge a threat now as it was fifty years ago. It was called something else back then. What had my mother said it was called again? I rubbed my chin. I snapped my fingers at the empty space around me. Hacking, that’s it. It was more of a high-risk factor now. If you managed to get caught, it was instant death─ no questions asked.

I had sold a small portion of it a few years ago to pay off my school tuition, but that had been entirely worth it. Many people had theorized that school would be free, and they were right, but to get a real education, you had to have money. That much hasn’t changed. Because knowledge was free and all you needed was the drive. That meant that degrees were suddenly highly specialized. My mother once told me that a passing grade in most colleges could go as low as sixty-nine percent if a professor felt that you gathered as much as you needed for your degree. Honestly, it was no surprise that that generation fucked us all over. The millennials were a shit ton of self-entitled douchebags that apparently handed out these things called ‘participation ribbons’ at all of their events.

She also told me that anything you wrote online could effectively ruin your life. Unless you were famous or had money, then you would just formally apologize to everyone and be done with it. Mom definitely had some colorful things to say about her generation, but I’m honestly glad that I’m away from all of that nonsense. In this era, if you didn’t like what someone had to say, you just blocked them. If you agreed with them, you followed them. Opinions were accepted as opinions and nothing else was made of it.

Our government was currently run by a three-party system. The two-party system had long been phased out after the 2020 election disaster. I’m pretty rusty on my U.S. president history, but my government history class had glossed over it, explaining that it was a dark time period in our politics. The years before that hadn’t been much better, but that very president had taken it upon himself to outlaw the voting system and turn our country into a dictatorship. Effectively shitting on what our forefathers had taken the time out to build. After that, humans weren’t entirely trusted to run a balanced system and candidates were chosen at random by a computer system. A billion times more logical than the radicalism of their time. I could sit and think about how much our politics had changed for the better all day, but what I needed to focus on was something far more important. The survival of the human race. Besides, if our way is so much better, I suppose we wouldn’t have died off.
I had the whole shebang and had invested in a fully immersive VR kit, complete with sound dampening headgear. These machines could do just about damn near anything except read your thoughts. And honestly, with as many well-placed ads as I saw in a day, I’m fairly certain they were beginning to do that. I say that, but I’m pretty sure it was just recording what my eyes chose to read more of, or if something caught my attention for longer than ten seconds. I looked over to my mother’s account, linked on my home screen and it opened instantly. A familiar jingle sounded as it recognized my microchip. My mother’s voice sounded in my earphones and my eyes closed listening to the soft lilt. I’d forgotten how much I’d missed hearing it. For the first time in over thirty years, I got to hear what my mother sounded like again.
“Morning, tough stuff. What can I do for you?” My eyes teared up and my voice came out a little shakier than I’d like. “Morning, mom. Just checking into the accounts, see where I’m at.” There is a brief pause and then I listen as she drones on for a bit. “Last week’s spending habits went above usual, putting a fairly large dent in your monthly stipend. However, if you return back to your normal spending habits, you can recover this debt in sixty days.” I nod. “I will need to pull all of my available funds by the end of this year. Is there a penalty for this?” Several seconds pass before she answers. “Yes. Though you are legally entitled to all funds from your guardian, the United States government is entitled to treat this as a breach of contract and a forty percent tax will be removed from your funds immediately.” I thought as much. I thank her and close my account screen.

It will be a large chunk of funds that go missing, but at this point, it is better than the alternative. In less than a year’s time, there won’t be a government. I won’t be able to take my funds physically, but I can upload them to my cloud storage and then on my wristwatch I’ll purchase in December. That way, I’ll be able to carry it on me at all times. Since it will be uploaded from a private server, no one will know it exists until after I’ve managed to pull all of it off. I log into the university’s website and glance over my class schedule, then pull up the syllabus for this semester.

Most people’s degrees past bachelors didn’t really mean much unless you were getting a S.T.E.M. degree or going to med school. All universities made four-year degrees free unless you were going for one of these other types of degrees in which longer school was needed. You were taxed based off of what type of practice you would be going into and it was calculated before you graduated how much you would be able to make. A medical degree usually took five years to seven years to pay off, whereas a degree in the science, technology, engineering, math or S.T.E.M took up to ten years to pay off. Especially since it was switched over to everything becoming privatized in that field. It meant that a company could choose how much it felt you were worth. Most scientists and engineers pulled in the realm of several million dollars their first year in the field. But there was a handful that everyone wanted to be. The ones in bioengineering. That was where the money was now.

If you could solve the problem of aging, or world hunger─ you would be set for life. You would be more powerful than any man could imagine. After the great science movement in the twenty-first century, people changed forever how things were taught. Most religions of the world were found to be detrimental to progression and thereby outlawed by most countries. Religion remained, but only the ones found to be peaceful and progressive. Most religion now moved toward coinciding with science. At least, it did after what happens in the coming year. It’s so hard to know what is going to happen, but not being able to tell others. If I do, they would lock me away as a terrorist. I would be seen as someone that disturbs the peace, therefore a threat to any functioning society.

I’m thinking about this when my screen lights up. I recognize the avatar instantly and break into a huge smile. That mop of platinum blonde hair, blue eyes, and all ego is none other than my buddy Eric. At least, that was his name online.
His avatar reminded me of the old school paladins in MMORPG’s. Which back then, was pretty much like playing Dungeons and Dragons online, only not nearly as in-depth or sophisticated. There was a huge movement nearly sixty years ago that would have made the entire system lame as hell, but that shit got turned right around after the fifth through the seventh edition which made them like 3rd edition without all of the obvious loopholes that made players OP (or, overpowered) as fuck.

We often had arguments over which editions were the best, but we both could agree on 3.5. And when I say 3.5, I mean the superior version called Pathfinder, which was the edition that fixed many of the oversights in the 3rd edition. Eric was always either lawful good, or good. Which bored me to tears, but the guy went absolutely ape-shit on being Mr. goody two shoes. Me on the other hand? I loved sitting in the grey. He was one of those sorts that always felt like good and bad were black and white.

I was in favor of chaotic neutral, chaotic good, or neutral. Which meant that I’m not bound by all of those dumb, boring rules that make my character always do good things or get penalized for it. We would often bust out the Dungeon and Dragons digital world builder and try and to out-DM each other. Since we both enjoyed being the Dungeon Master, we took turns each week telling our stories. Being a Dungeon Master was like being a god. But it took skills to do it. You couldn’t just make something so hard that all of your characters died online, but you couldn’t make battles in which your creatures just fell over in less than two rounds. It was one part story building, and almost always faking it until you made it.

When I first started being the Dungeon Master, my creatures just about always fell prey to the players, because I hadn’t taken the time to actually read through the guides and get to know each player’s abilities first hand. Because it’s so time intensive, D&D came up with cheat sheets for DM’s that allowed us to know our player’s base attacks, abilities, health points, and many other things. Then there was also weapons, and armor that added to that number. Once all that was worked out, you had to figure out what to give as loot and the appropriate time allotted for your characters to level. It is one of those things you have to plan months in advance for. Especially if you are new to it. Needless to say, the world builder took all of that into account and made hours of headaches into a streamlined experience for the DM and the players.
It was our virtual playground, and far more customization than many games out there. It was a sandbox adventure on steroids and the only limit to it was our imagination. We didn’t just play a silly game, this was our haven. Eric was bigger into character development than myself. I was the sort to place all the focus on the players experiencing the world. He liked to gear the story toward focusing on a few key individuals, and I loved for people to become lost and have their own unique experience with not too much focus on the main story arc. Also known as battle porn.

I loved creating bigger and badder assholes to take down the group or create crazy in-depth puzzles that could set back the team by an entire day if they didn’t get it. It drove Eric crazy, but he always went along for the ride. It was refreshing to play each other’s minds and we had made just about any kind of world that you could imagine. The major difference between the two of us was that Eric preferred more classic settings, or Fantasy, whereas I liked to try something new each time. It was extremely rare that he created one with modern day setting. But one thing he did enjoy was adding in modern weaponry and gadgets.

I often worry that he won’t enjoy mine since I prefer changing it up all the time, but he says it is the experience in mine that makes it worthwhile and that he is just set in his ways. Since he knows those high fantasy world’s best, he likes to live in them. Any DM will tell you that the most rewarding, and yet challenging aspect of the craft is your player’s interaction with your story-line. Always be prepared to adjust to situations that your players will throw your way. I once created an adventure that would take my adventurers on a fully thought out mini-game side quest, complete with a wizard’s tower, a bodacious babe, and dueling amongst themselves. It had taken me the better part of two weeks to plot out worst-case scenarios just in case my players found some sort of loophole.

I knew better than to railroad them because that was a DM no-no. Railroading was a trick that DM’s used to force players to go toward their story-line, but it limited the player’s experience. Sometimes it was necessary, but I always enjoyed going with the flow. Until that day. In a matter of two hours, my players had managed to warp all the way to the main bad guy without going through any of my puzzles, or my carefully planned battles, and beat him on a weird technicality that I had to honor on a perfectly rolled D-20. The player actually managed to change themselves into a super virus that the dragon snorted, and then died. I say ‘roll the dice’ but no one actually uses real dice anymore. The dice system usually determined what a player does base off of his stats and his abilities. The dice were rolled to determine how much damage they would inflict, or if they were able to get out of traps, or persuade the non-player characters (or the characters that I created or placed in an area) to not fight, get out of a bad situation, you name it─ there was a dice roll for it. Ultimately, the DM decided what was or wasn’t going to go down in the story, but it was important to take your players into account. That is kind of glossing over the whole thing, but you get the idea.
Since we never saw any of our classmates until we went up to school on lab days, neither of us actually knew what we looked like. On those days, we were sent to assigned sections for testing and no one chanced looking at the other classmates. Not when your degree was riding on these few hours to complete everything you read every six weeks or so. I had no more of an idea of who he was than he did of me. But with all the hours we spent shooting the shit online, I was pretty sure he knew more about me than anyone else. Possibly even my mother.
“What’s up, mi amigo?” I answered smoothly. “Not much, superstar. You get this weekend’s assignment?” I panic. Uh oh. I still haven’t had a chance to research everything I needed to get done today. I relax a degree as Eric erupts in laughter on the other end. “Yeah, me either.” We both laugh. “I don’t know how you manage to score higher than everyone in this entire unit. You must be one of those hyper intellectuals or something. Not fair to the rest of us, who you know, actually have to study for our grades.” He mutters the last part and I know he’s only half joking when he says it. “Hey,” I say, “I study. Once a week or so.” He chuckles on the other end. “Modest as ever I see. You going to share some of those secrets with your buddy anytime soon?” This was something we did. It was a way for us to ease the tension between us. We had been friendly rivals for as long as I could remember. I wasn’t number one in the school system. That honor had been given to the first and only valedictorian for the last decade.

R.A. Cromwell or Robert Cromwell had set the bar on how many extra points were given to students. There wasn’t even a grade that had come close to his and he was a special case. He was the first one to earn several Nobel prizes in his adult life and be imprisoned for treason. There was my clue if there ever was one. If I was going to get anywhere with this, I would need to try and find a way to get into contact with a dead man. No pressure there.

“You wish, shithead.” I countered. He clucked his tongue on the other end and let out a low whistle. “I am appalled at your choice in language today, fuckwad.” I haven’t had this much fun since being aboard the Leviathan. Most people you meet in life take themselves entirely too seriously. Eric was the right amount of both worlds. “At least I have a decent vocabulary, redneck.” Eric has muted his mic which means he’s either cussing me out or laughing his head off. My vote’s on the latter. His somewhat breathy response supports my theory, “Oh yeah? Least I can actually score worth a shit on Phantom.” I bristle slightly but manage to laugh it off. “You mean when I kick your ass tonight and knock you off as top dog?” He snorts on the other end. “Yeah. Fat chance of that. Good luck toppling my score. Have you even logged on today at all?” The color drains from my face. He was already several thousand points ahead of me the last time I checked. “You didn’t,” I say. “See for yourself, friend. You may always get higher scores than me, but you’ll never beat Night Queen.” My jaw drops. “You have got to be kidding me. I just got to her lair last night. How in the hell did you manage to beat her without me? Unless…” I trail off.

Lucky for me, my current memories are integrating with my past. I’m not honestly sure how this was all going to work, but hopefully, I retain all of my prior knowledge. “You sneaky sonovabitch,” I state. “You didn’t sleep last night, did you?” I can hear him snickering on the other side. “Hey, I have to get ahead where I can with you.” We both are quiet for a few moments as I look up his score. My eyes widen as I stare at all the zeros. “H-o-l-y shit,” I blurt out.

His score the following night was at eight hundred and sixty-nine thousand. Today, he topped the charts at a mind-numbing two million points. Two million. My eyes scanned across his name and then over to his avatar. There was something else different about it. “Haven’t noticed it yet, have you?” He asks, practically reading my mind. I zoom in on his avatar and freeze. “No. Way.” I say staring at the colorful marker on the bottom right. There were a few things that Eric was able to do better than me, but this was one. Considering how much time he spent gaming, I’m honestly wondering if he couldn’t actually beat my ass academically but he’s just chosen to channel his efforts elsewhere. This pretty much promoted him to god tier status on campus. Even I was having a hard time believing it. But there it was, the multicolored double moon badge awarded to gaming legends. The double moon was the insignia of the founders of the VR technology, Lunar Lander.
Each color you earned represented your place on the board. They were based on the representation of the color spectrum the human eye could see. Otherwise known as the rainbow. Eric had every single one of them except for one: red. He earned indigo just last night. That meant if he managed to actually gain that last color he would be awarded something far more valuable than school. I started, realizing something. This was something I’d never realized before. While I busted my ass in classes, he channeled his efforts to something that actually worked for him. I’d entirely misjudged him this whole time. So I had great grades, what would that earn me? Notoriety? Fame? The only way I was going to make a dent was if I actually did get US valedictorian and I was down to the last six weeks to do it. He was going to earn all of that and then some.

Suddenly I felt jealous. Something that was making me increasingly uncomfortable. I’ve never experienced this. Mostly because I was always the kid that everyone else envied. I was the one that other kids tried to cheat off of or copy. It was a weird sense of pride I managed to keep up with all these years, until now. Eric needed one more color and then he was gained automatic entry into the United States Special Forces Gaming Division. No one, including myself, could even dream what that was like. It was relatively new and short-lived with the war to come.

War is considered a thing of the past in this time, but competition is still in full force. With just about every aspect of society taken over by machines, roughly eighty percent, we have little to actually look forward to. But gaming? Gaming is worldwide, and the only competition that buys you instant fame.
The most popular games were, of course, sports games. But the next in line were shooters, known as FPS or first-person shooter. They were the most spectated competition online. Traditional sports games were slowly fading as the shooter had evolved to encompass not only the pro-military crowd but puzzle enthusiasts. You could compete in the base game, but the people that obtained top-level scores played the main quest and all of the side quests. Phantom just came out a week ago and it was famous for how many hours it took to solve the puzzles. Night Queen was notoriously hard. An entire team of forty plus people hadn’t even managed to get through the first half of it. Eric had managed to beat it by himself in just over twenty-four hours. I open the game and take a look at the time stamp. It was dated to just over an hour ago, which meant he had beat it in less than twenty-four hours. “Daaamn. Mad respect, man.” I mutter, looking over it all. Maybe he is on to something. “You know it.” He says on the other end.

Suddenly, I need to do some thinking on my own. “Hey man, I need to jet. But, seriously that is fucking amazing. Color me jealous.” I say. He pauses, before adding, “Yeah dude, thanks. You want to try tonight with me?” I look over to my own score and then switch over to my academic scores. I feel a little better, but not much. “Yeah. I need to get to it. Someone’s inspired me to kick my own ass and actually try.” He laughs, “Hey, don’t make the rest of us look too bad, alright?” The right side of my face twitches up, “Cram it out your ass.” I say before logging out.

I don’t have to worry too much about him taking what I say to heart. It was our code for saying ‘take care’ in the only way we knew how. I’m not much of a touchy-feely person, when things get too heavy or I’ve got emotions I need to work out, I find ways to put myself to work so that I can distract myself. After some hard labor, or working out I’m usually good. There are a few times that I can’t get past it with physical activity. Those are days that I pour myself into as much studying as possible or listen to books.
I rarely watch shows and when I do, I get angry. Most of the people on the show are complete morons that make decisions any rational human being would not. I once watched less than one episode of a show, skipped to the end of the season and knew exactly what had transpired. It usually went something like this: Sexy main star is a hard worker, struggles in relationships, and has some dark, broody past that they are ashamed of. They push everyone away until they need help and except it only after some dire situation arises. Enter something that comes in and murders off or seriously maims sidekick, and end season one. It was getting so ridiculously predictable it did nothing but agitate me. Shows that aren’t like real life annoy the shit out of me. I mean, I get it─ if someone just shot the other person in the head instead of chat with them for five minutes about their clever plan that would make for a really boring show.

Drama makes viewers, I suppose and I’m just an asshole that hates things that aren’t real. Don’t even get me started on fantasy shows. Since I can’t imagine anything that isn’t real, fiction has always made me entirely uncomfortable. It’s not to say that I don’t believe in the possibility. Shit, a few hours ago I was on a one-way trip to death and with me the entire population of Earth. And I somehow managed to cheat it by mind traveling to my past self? Yeah, that’s one for the history books.
I had something no one even knew existed and I had no fucking clue how to explain how it worked. I thought back to the ship, then I thought on the position everyone was in before I came back. I have a strong feeling that line of thought is a dead end. It has nothing to do with the crew, and yet we all share something in common that could get us to travel back in town. Then a horrible thought crosses my mind and I don’t want to think about it. What if, I am the only one that made it back? That means that everyone, including Ash, is floating toward the sun at this very moment in the future. Then I have another terrifying thought, what if I am actually dead and these are memories that my mind has managed to conjure before I myself, bite the big one. This one freaks me out the most because if that were true my mind is currently just running rampant and I would have no way of knowing it.

Suddenly my psychology and sociology classes didn’t sound like nonsense. Perhaps my brain was creating my existence in an attempt to protect me from knowing that I was dead. I begin to feel very tired. If that is true, that would mean that I would never know if anything is actually real. God damn it, science, you fuck everything up with your wonky logic. I chuckle, despite my growing apprehension and find myself relaxing. I might as well enjoy my final moments if that’s all that it is. Starting with something I’ve been dying to try since I got here. If I remember correctly, I can still order food and have it delivered within the hour. It would cost me a bit, but it’s been so long since I’ve had it, I can’t help myself. I search online until I find it and stare at all the different possibilities of flavors. Without meaning to, my mouth waters.

Real chocolate. Not that shit made from dates, or artificially flavored protein powder, but real. Purchasing something of this caliber was usually reserved for something like a birthday or graduation day. I rationalized that surviving the apocalypse more than justified a candy bar─ or two. The combinations are insane, but my favorite is always the sweet and salty combinations. I’m torn between two choices, but finally just choose both. This will probably raise my current debt up to four months instead of two, but it’s not like I don’t have the money, it’s just not readily available. So I was doing the typical college thing of spending what I don’t have, who cares? At least I’ll have chocolate. Maturity bonus +1.

I stare longingly at the soda but decide against it. That would set me back for half a year, and I just wasn’t willing to do that. Even if I planned on taking all of my funds out by the end of this year. I could splurge a little, but I needed to be mostly smart about this. True to their word, Alexa notifies me that my package has arrived and I charge over to the front door.
I’m practically skipping as I scoop it up and walk over to the living area. I pull out my portable table and prop up the side so that I can wheel it over my legs. I can hardly wait to tear open the wrapper but try my best to keep it cool. This needed to be done right. I padded over to the mini fridge and propped it open. Everything was stacked neatly. On the right, several packages of mushroom noodles, flavorless protein bricks in the middle and the filtered water pitcher. My glass was still inside, but I knew that I had a little time before I needed to toss it outside. I stare nervously at it. Maybe I should go ahead and do it now before nightfall.

This was a relatively safe area, but crime still happened and it happened after dark. If you were out past sundown, you were pretty much free game. I grasp it and pause at what I see behind it. It is a small bottle of wine, one that I had been saving for graduation day. It wasn’t top of the line but I knew that it had been bourbon barrel aged. It was something I was sent as a gift from Eric to commemorate our special day. It also is probably an unspoken promise to not drink it without him. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to drink something so special. I’d wait for him. I was becoming a huge softy in this time. It probably had something to do with my mind adjusting to everything. Whether you were actually supposed to keep that in the fridge or not, I had no idea. I stare down at the black label. It looked like a darker wine, and over the years I remember that red wines were something that you kept at room temperature. I pull it out and set it on the counter and then frown, noticing something else lodged in the back of the fridge. Is that… I pull it out and my eyes grow wide. It is. I stare at it for several seconds, not believing my luck. It’s a real sugar soda.

I glance over the red can and flip it to the back, it reads made in Mexico. It may sound completely weird, but after the day I’ve had I start tearing up. I’m not entirely sure if it’s my current consciousness meeting up with my future but the collision floods my mind with emotion. I’m bawling like an idiot clutching a soda can on the floor of my one-room loft. I give the can a longing squeeze and then place it back in the cool air, reassuring it that I’ll be right back. And I mean it.
I snatch the water up and walk toward the front door, then pause. If someone sees me dumping mystery liquid outside, I’ll be reported. I need to check and see if there is some watertight container I can use to take outside, or possibly─ I glance around and then walk over to my shelf. Yes! There it is, I still had the bottle. I pull it from the shelf and unscrew the top. The material is incredibly soft and I run my fingers along the outside. The material was velvety, yet durable with holes for straps on each side. The container itself was shaped to be strapped against your waist and leg while you were running.

There were a few attachments that you could use to get the straw up to your mouth. My mother loved staying in shape and was an avid climber in her days. It was another one of the items I have kept of hers over the years. I’m grateful that not only does it allow tubes, much like a saline pack, but it also had a canteen adapter which could be unscrewed. That meant I wouldn’t have to stand outside for several minutes looking like a jackass as I essentially peed out an ounce of fluid. Then I cocked my head to the side. You know, that might not be a bad idea. It wouldn’t look sanitary, and I would get a lot of weird looks, but it would do the job. I’m laughing at my own private joke as I jog down the first three flights of stairs.
Everyone knows that you don’t want to wait on the elevator from our floor. You would be waiting for at least ten minutes. Since there wasn’t really a need for fast moving elevators with the need for travel minimalized, you had to compete with all of the service men and bots that delivered packages to your place. Most buildings had adapted to this in some way with a tube system that funneled from the top, but our building was quite old. And packages literally arrives every few minutes as people ordered everything from home. The building took priority with maintenance users, so naturally, if you needed to get outside, you either took the stairs or you did the smart thing and walked down to the maintenance man’s main office and pressed the button like I’m doing now.

The elevator is here in less than a minute and I hop on and call out to take me to street level. It opens directly onto Cadiz and I turn left toward the small patch of grass and trees. The streets are eerily quiet and my steps come out far too loud but I press forward. The building was maybe fifty feet across the front before I would have to cross a short alley and then reach my destination. My palms are sweating, but I ignore it, placing one foot in front of the other. You got this, I tell myself, passing the first of the six small trees to the right. The sidewalk feels like its sand as I pass the second tree.

Jesus, how the fuck did I get anywhere like this? Was I having a god damned panic attack? I take in several breaths and focus on gripping the water bottle. Somehow, this gets me past tree three and four. My breath comes out more ragged as I get closer to the edge of the building. I grip the container, my knuckles going white. Breathe in, step, grip the bottle, I order myself. I sigh in relief, this seems to be working. I repeat the mantra in my head and do this odd ritual as I finally pass tree six. Ten feet more and then I would be able to cross the small opening near the alley. I halt at the entrance and steady my breathing as my heart screams in my chest. It’s pumping so hard that I can literally hear it drumming in my ears. Keep it together, I spat inwardly.

Despite no one being on the road, I still shoot a glance down the alley and then back to the street. I’m leaning against the building and every fabric of my being is screaming at me to turn around and walk back to safety. My flight system was in full force and it was damn hard to fight.
I let out a huge sigh as the trees are suddenly just several feet away. There’s a loud buzzing noise and I nearly dive under the canopy, hiding from what seems like it may be a potential threat. I’ve somehow made it, but now there could potentially be something worse than my own anxiety. I peer through the multicolored leaves at the increasing buzzing sound and freeze as the object comes into view. Drone. And not just a normal one, it belongs to the local police force. I curse under my breath as it circles our building.

I haven’t been outside more than possibly a handful of minutes and they were already alerted. I know it won’t be long before they actually spot me. I pull at the latch and get the strap from around my leg as I watch the small camera rotate to face the front of the building. Now’s my chance. I dump the entire contents next to the nearest tree and then hastily strap it back to where it was. My eye catches movement and I just manage to pull the second strap in place when the camera spins around toward me. I walk from under the trees and back toward the sidewalk, careful to keep my pace casual as I cross the small alleyway. It pauses and then the camera twists, zooming on my face. It is no doubt reading my chip to see if I am a resident in the building or homeless.

Homeless individuals are not allowed to wander outside of registered citizen’s domiciles. This means that if you are found near one, and not living there, you would be fined and then given cleanup duty. The good news is, if you are actually homeless that means that you are able to have food for your time, and a proper day’s salary. There aren’t many homeless now since most of the lower income people stick together and live in a halfway house. This way, they have the security they need to survive. There are a few actual homeless people that manage to escape microchipping, but those people are stuck to well outside of the city. I’ve honestly never seen a real-live homeless person. My mom told me that there was a lot of them when she was a girl. The bot jingles and then raises back toward the top of the building. It must have cleared me for a resident. This still makes me uneasy. Even though I didn’t technically do anything wrong, it is going to put notes on my record. That is added attention that I don’t need.

Hopefully, I am just written off as some idiot kid and they go on about their business. I am practically running when I reach the elevator. The door jingles and silently slides open. I step in and the door slides shut behind me. I punch the button and lean against the wall, knowing that this will probably take some time. “Welcome, tenant 10127, please do not lean on company property and stand in the center of the circle.” My eyebrows go up at the disembodied female voice, but I quickly comply and stand in the center.

“Thank you. Please place your arms on the side and then raise them slightly to continue.” I again do as I’m told. I’m met with a blast of cool air mixed with a cloud of something pleasant. I’m about to inhale the curious scent more when the voice comes back on. “Please wait to inhale for ten seconds. Never directly inhale the antibacterial liquid, as doing so may be detrimental to your health. Please be sure to remove your clothing upon your immediate arrival and discard them in our biohazardous waste bin located on your left as you walk through the front door. Have a wonderful day, goodbye.” I count out the ten seconds, immediately alarmed that I had already inhaled a bit. Thanks for letting me know sooner, jackasses.
The elevator finally gets to the first floor and slides open. A glance at the display tells me that I have been gone a total of twenty-five minutes. Which meant, I have been waiting on the elevator for at least fifteen minutes of that. I’m glad I won’t need to come out again for another month, this seemed like a total ordeal. Even though over twenty minutes have passed, I realize that my heart rate has just not returned to normal. This is extremely problematic if I need to change the world. I make a mental note to look into anxiety disorders and how to treat them. But first, I was going to sit down, do some studying and heartily enjoy two full candy bars, and a soda.

I carefully pull the delicate chocolate out of the wrappers and place them next to each other. One is split into two, 2-inch bars and contains peanut butter, pretzel, caramel drizzled in one layer of peanut butter and one layer of chocolate. The other is nearly four inches and it has hazelnut spread, caramel, nougat, peanuts and covered in chocolate. The soda is labeled as cola, which means it is a brown caramel flavored liquid with fizzy little bubbles. The twelve ounce can of soda was deemed a health hazard by the year 2020 and heavily taxed. Once it was placed on a warning list, companies were required to list that it was linked to both cancer and heart disease, effectively placing it on the same table as cigarettes. This guy probably ran a cool hundred bucks online.

My mom once said that when she was a kid they were served at birthday parties to all the kids along with cake. I found that completely ridiculous given that a single can of soda contained thirty-nine grams of sugar and a whole slice of cake typically had fifteen. Given the choice between the two, I’d take the cake. Liquid calories have always been strange to me. If I’m going to have something awful for my body, I want it to feel as if I’ve eaten it. Liquid calories were a tricky sort of thing, you could have several cans of soda and still be hungry, but a cupcake or a candy bar especially, filled you up because you’ve typically had some sort of protein with it.

I look at my haul and giggle to myself. In total, I was about to consume 77 grams of sugar totaling out to 590 calories. Which is nearly half of my daily caloric intake, and 52 grams of sugar more than I should have. That would mean that at my height, age, and weight, I would need to perform approximately forty minutes of low impact cardio or thirty minutes of high impact cardio. I stare at the three glistening objects of my desire and shrug, totally worth it.
The sun has just about set for the day, but I walk over to the large industrial windows staring at the iconic skyline. It’s one of the most famous, next to Seattle’s, and I’ll never forget all of its soft curves that blended seamlessly with the pointed ones. Reunion tower and all of the tops of the skyline pulsates a soft orange and yellow to commemorate the coming holidays. I stare for quite some time. So much in fact, that the sky is pitch black and the roads look as though they are swallowing the buildings. It is a strange thing, eerie in fact to stare across a vast sea of concrete that is lit by nothing. Streetlights had been removed some time ago when I was just a baby. Mom explained that it was due to light pollution and wasting energy. Especially since travel was kept to a minimum and during the day.

The lighted buildings were kept on until a certain hour, much like what people did with tiny lights they placed on their homes for Christmas. I did not know what that strange tradition was about, but according to mother it was something people did as part of the festivities and people would drive around in their cars, or even go to parks to see them. This confused the utter hell out of me. What sane individual would cram into a death trap and stare at the same three or four colors that were patterned differently according to the property lines? Complete bullshit and an extremely unnecessary rise in the cost of electricity, not to mention the amount of energy it must have taken to do this every year.

It must have been a nightmare for energy companies. Then I looked outside again at my own glowing orb of fascination and promptly laughed out loud. Ok, maybe there was something to it. But, for hours and to do it more than once? No thank you. I brought both arms over my chest and motioned them together in a prayer-like motion. The curtains drew shut and I padded softly to my meal. The soda now had little beads of condensation but was still cool to the touch.

I stared at the tab on the top. “Alexa, how do I open a can of soda?” “Searching,” came her smooth reply. “I found this. Place your index finger underneath the ring and your thumb on the tab in the center. The ring is the part that is above the opening section. When you lift the ring with your index finger, it will simultaneously apply pressure to the opening section leaving an opening that you will be able to drink through. There is a video, would you like to watch it?” “Yes,” I respond and walk over to the VR headset. I pull it on and look at the video. I watch as the person places their thumb on the tab in the middle and their pointer finger on the ring. Reaching over, I grab the can and mimic the video. Then they get the small part of their finger and push down with their thumb and pull up with their index finger. I do this and nearly leap from the chair at the loud crack and then whoosh that’s let out.

I replay the video and realize there is no sound. I’m completely annoyed by this, but let it slide. The video was put online in 2016. I let out a low whistle, jesus this was ancient. I can’t believe someone hadn’t put up a newer version. Now confident that my can isn’t going to explode in my face, I turn the opening toward my mouth. I hesitate for a few seconds, listening to the small fizzles in the can. Up until this moment, I couldn’t wait to try my first real soda ever. Now, I’m not so sure. I mean, these things were later outlawed for a reason, right? The smell that wafts up is delicious and despite it all, I tip the can into my mouth.
My eyes widen at the liquid sugar as it enters my mouth. I’m not even sure what to make of this. Until I take another sip, and then another. The sheer amount of caffeine and sugar in this one can probably keep me awake for three days. I’m guzzling it down and I’m only down to a quarter of a can before I realize that I still have candy bars. I should probably save this until after I eat them, especially the salty one. I take one of the two-inch squares and bite into heaven. They’ve gotten the golden ratio perfect from every bite and in seconds, the second two-inch bar of chocolate is gone.

I’m greedily eyeing the nougat bar when a notification pops up on my headset. I whine, but open it anyway in case it’s important. It’s a reminder that I need to study for next week’s midterm on Thursday. I frown, looking at the subject. It’s global history and this week’s study guide was covering ancient practices on forgotten religions and how it shaped history or some other such nonsense. I sighed and stared longingly the glass that used to contain my way out. Maybe I should have just gone with my first instinct. I sigh and shake my head, “None of that, Bonham. You’ve got a world to save.” I lift up the second chocolate bar and moan softly. My god, it’s no wonder obesity was an epidemic nearly forty years ago.
“Welcome player 10127” the voice announced. It was one of those cheesy announcer voices that got you pumped, and made you roll your eyes at the same time. It was that over-the-top action flick announcer voice. The kind they used way back in the day when fighting was still a legal sport. God, I remember all the greats and I’d sat through just about every single one of them. Boxing was brutal, kickboxing even more so. Then there was MMA, UFC, and thousands of martial arts and action flicks. Those were my favorite.

If there ever was a way for me to lose days of my life to something that would never benefit me in any way, it was action flicks. We’re talking legendary, bonafide badasses. Bruce Lee, Keanu Reeves, Charles Bronson, Bruce Willis, Jet Li, Clint Eastwood, Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Liam Neeson, Vin Diesel, Harrison Ford, Yun-Fat Chow, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donnie Yen, Sean Connery, Jason Statham, Tony freaking Jaa─ I could go on all day. Fight scenes were something to be revered.

There was some otherworldly element to a person that could take something as quick and dirty as shoving your fists in another dudes face and turn it into fantasy land. Matrix? Classic and revolutionary. I only list the one movie though, the rest were just garbage. Then there was Ong Bak─ each movie as amazing as the last and Tony Jaa was a martial arts genius. There was something to a man that did everything himself with no stuntman. That was virtually unheard of during that era of film. But what was more amazing was the trendsetter for the next action flicks to copy.

I’m talking about John Wick. Not only, had Keanu Reeves done all of his own stunts, he learned how to properly fire a weapon and do action scenes in one take while somehow still possessing all the grace of a panther. His level of cool went from that memorable one-liner cool to walking away from an explosion without looking cool. He wasn’t just a cool guy, he was a fucking to scale model of Mt. Everest─ can I get a hell yeah? To quote Samuel Jackson, he was a badass motherfucker.
I glance down at the time and groan. Man, I should get some sleep but seeing Eric’s score has lit a fire under my ass. I couldn’t believe that he was that far ahead of me after just one day. Then I realize something. Wasn’t he supposed to jump on with me later today? I shake my head at the clock, it was after one in the morning. Guess he forgot, or finally ended up hooking up with that one chick he was obsessing over. Eric, like most healthy college boys, had two interests: games and boobs. He liked them both equally, and talked about it so often that I would hit the mute button when he got particularly…uncomfortable.

It’s not like I don’t have thoughts from time to time of my own but they are extremely rare. I just don’t understand the motivation for getting involved in all of that nonsense. Some of the brightest people I met in college compromised their GPA because of other people. It was just strange to me. Why bother with something temporary if your career is everything? There were far more valuable things in my mind than hookups and relationships. Namely, how to work toward some sort of scholarship or dethrone Cromwell.

Or─ I look over the scoreboard one last time and it reads as follows:
ERA – 2,000,000 points
JMB – 475,000 points
ARJ ─ 263,000 points
It was so new that only the top three scores were displayed on the boards. The developers wanted to create an old-school feeling with the top scores listed like an old arcade game. They even had the multicolored letters that flashed and rotated on a pixelated screen. As a matter of fact, the whole opening title was nothing like the gameplay. Curiously enough, the graphics looked like something out of the late eighties or early nineties and were completely pixelated. But that’s where the similarities end. It is something that has been debated over on all of the online forums. Some people think it’s an homage to when video games became popularized and arcades were still a thing. Others suggested that it is an easter egg and a clue on how to beat the game. Eric must have been using his time to study to barely get by school and then really excel at the game. What does he know that I don’t? I pull up a browser and type in Phantom. In seconds there are several stories that have popped up yesterday and today. I click on the first link and scroll through the highlights.

Shocking announcements today as Phantom, a genre-bending first-person shooter and puzzle game, announced its planned prizes for the end of the holiday season. Lunar Lander, Phantom’s creator best known for their adventure puzzle games and first-person shooters, announced that they will be selecting the top three competitors from the game to compete against one another at their private location at the end of the year. Just for being in one of the top three meant that you were awarded─
My eyes nearly pop out of their skull as I read through. Holy shit.

I re-read them again and then pull up another tab bringing up Lunar Lander’s Wikipedia. There it is, I can’t believe it. I knew there was something bothering me about why I was so enthralled by the game. Granted, I also love shooters and especially puzzle games but this─ this explained so much. Was my past self somehow aware that I needed to not only beat him, but get into contact with him as well? This opens up so many questions, my mind is nearly dizzy thinking on them. The founder of Lunar Lander is none other than Robert Cromwell. The prize is to be employed by Cromwell’s company and compete in government-funded competitions around the world. For just competing, you got to sit and talk with the owner and CEO of Cromwell Industries and win a five year supply of food, clothing, and have your rent paid in full. This was insanity. Nothing like this has come along in the history of well…ever. And here it was, play a few games and have it handed to you on a silver platter. I can’t believe it. Fuck school.

If I devote any more than I have to it only buys me a slim chance of some crazy rich dude noticing that I scored higher than Cromwell. To which, I may get a personalized video, maybe a scholarship, but nothing like what this is offering. But this? This is how I’m going to prove that not only is Cromwell alive, but that he is the one behind all of this. I know that I cannot be wrong because if I am that’s it. I would need to definitely jump on the forums and read over several of the popular theories that suggest he is alive. Yes, but the real question is why he is. What did he have to gain by collecting the top three players of a notoriously difficult video game? I have a lot of work ahead of me, but this proves that even if he isn’t alive, his company is and that makes it worth pursuing. Politics were kept to an online vote in this era which meant the key to my success and notoriety is going to be climbing to the top and getting in the spotlight. Now I know why Eric has spent the entire night playing and ultimately beating the first major boss battle. It would also explain why he has decided not to play online with me. This article I’m reading is time-stamped at four hours ago, which would have been the time Eric had called me to hop on with him.

This was how I contacted him. This was how I was going to start changing the world. A concept that would have been laughable some twenty years ago, now it’s a way of life. I subscribe to the popular game feed and then switch back to the whimsical scoreboard. I was still in second place by quite a bit. If I just kept at this pace, I could possibly reach up to half of his points and be ok. The problem is, not only am I behind on how many hours he devoted to this but by badges as well. A thought occurs to me and I re-open the tab that had the story on it. I scroll past the other things and then notice at the end of the contest rules, there’s an asterisk. I’m not sure, but I roll my mouse over the tiny symbol and smile when I see it is a hyperlink. I click on it and smile as it re-directs me to Lunar Lander’s official Phantom page. It’s the second part of the rules that aren’t listed on the gaming page.
Participating players will not only be judged on scores, but also on their in-game conduct and trophies earned. This means that the top three players listed, may not be the contest winners and are up to the owner’s discretion on who the official winners will be. This will be made public the day before the contest wins to anyone that did not bother to follow the link provided to see all of the contest rules. Congratulations, player 10127, you have taken the first step to getting ahead of the curve. Please enter the contest with this link provided. The game page this was linked with was set with a dummy form that will not officially enter any applicants that did not take the time out to read all of the official rules. Best of luck to you.
I’m nearly shouting in my chair with excitement as I click on the link, feeling proud of myself for doing what probably no one else had bothered to do─ pay attention. I scan the entire page before clicking on the link, making sure that there were no other tricks or possibly any rules I’d missed. Satisfied that there aren’t, I click the link and a dark grey screen pops up. It looks like most forms, asking for real name, address, phone, etc. but there is one difference after skimming over the first part with all of the personal information. There’s a disclaimer and not just any disclaimer, several pages worth. Since I know that the possibility is high that there is something tucked away here as well, I click on the link that will bring up the readable file. The first four pages are the typical participation jargon that saves the company from getting sued in case you weren’t happy about the rules of the contest and if you lost. But it’s when I get to the last half of the pages that things start to get… interesting.

Not only have half of the participants probably missed the asterisk section, I was willing to bet that just about everyone that got to the asterisk section also hadn’t read the fine print and had hit ‘agree.’ This guy is good. He is counting on the fact that no one will pay attention and he is right. That got me wondering how many people actually are in the running. Not only are the people that are participating in going to get a job at Cromwell Industries, they are going to hold a share in it. That is expected of most industries once you became management or higher up in the food chain, but to be a shareholder based off of being a guy that comes from the streets and plays video games well? The next section also states that there are more prizes than listed publicly and that they will be announced to the winner of the big competition. There has to be much more to this than any of us ever could imagine. I skim a few more lines and then freeze on the following one,

‘…by checking agree in this section, you are agreeing to also waive your family or friends right to sue Cromwell Industries should your life end while competing in the Phantom world.’ My jaw drops as I read that section a second time.

This isn’t just a game competition, it goes well beyond that. What are these assholes hiding from the rest of the world? This reeks of politics masked as a friendly competition. The last half goes on to say that all participants must live in the United States and that only the winner will go on to compete globally for ‘prizes beyond your wildest imagination.’ What that meant, was for them to determine what they would do with you once you proved worthy to their cause. I’m not sure how all of this ties together, or how I knew to come back to this exact point in time, but I know that ‘prizes beyond your wildest imagination’ meant something big. The fact that the stakes are our lives says enough. I click ‘agree’ and then scroll back up to the top of the form. I’m shocked to find that it has filled out all of my personal information except for one: username.
The corner of my mouth draws up into a sly smile as I know instantly what it is going to be. I hit enter and the screen goes completely black. Words start surfacing as I continue to watch the screen─ ‘Cromwell Industries extends you a warm invitation to attend the official contest ball online on Saturday, November 26th, 2067 at precisely 7:00 p.m. CST. Participants are expected to wear formal attire for the event and to the interview after the event. Failure to do so will result in immediate termination of your application. Thank you for your application. Welcome to Phantom Official, Hull.’

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