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A.R. (pt.1- Inferno Day)

Updated: Mar 28

by A.R. Milton





Chapter One

Inferno Day




“¡Ayuda, tienen humanos en jaulas!”


They said they would create a better world. One that we could only fathom in our dreams. We were given tools that put the technological advancement of the computer to shame but these gifts were only shovels for our graves. Blinded by the sweet satisfaction of instant gratification, we saw what we wanted to see as our own interests boxed us into one large algorithmic sheep pin. In the end, the era became known as ‘The Conversion’ to the resistance. Catalyzed by the vices in our devices, a new form of terrorism — BioCyber warfare, renewed the truth that our bodies themselves are advanced machines and changed reality as we knew it.


“¡Ayuda, tienen humanos en jaul—”

“Inmate 0725632, step forward.” A nasally voice buzzed over the intercom of Alexander Umane’s cell, drawing his attention away from the audio recording blaring from far beyond the prison walls as it crept between the bars of the reinforced window.

“¡Ayuda, tienen humanos en —”

Alex’s eyes shifted from the grey sky pulling itself across the caged view. Past the rust that hid itself in the shadows of his dwelling and down to the numbers stitched across his orange jumpsuit. After five years of being boxed inside four walls like an order of takeout, Alex wished today was the day his brain achieved its supercomputer potential. Crossing the threshold of that uncharted ninety percent to convert the numbers on his chest into the long overwritten letters of his name. Expected disappointment allowed the muscles in his face to hold the same stale pose as his eccentric imagination failed to be rewarded.

Footsteps tattered slowly down the hall outside Alexander’s cell. The pace of the approaching guard warranted enough time for Alex to stand by the door patiently — but only if he choose to play the role of the prisoner, hoping to add unnecessary browny points to his good behavior tally. But that was only if he chose. However, it would be a waste to not finish his daydream in the remaining moments. So he carried his eyes back to the sky.

It’s a bitter privilege being able to see the days pass from sunset to sunset, but it’s a curse to count if you’re stuck with a life sentence. A four-by-four hole cut into the wall, reinforced by steel bars, acted as the only access to the outside world. Which was a double-edged sword that allowed the elements in as well. Three meals a day were spent in the mess hall. The rest of the time the prisoners were left to rot away in solitude. In the summer, the metal space would drip with sweat from the humidity and thunderstorm rain would pour in as an emergency relief. Winter nights were so cold that Alex’s cot would harden to match the chilled over metal his feet would touch in the morning. After day one hundred and twenty-six, Alex gave up and allowed the seasons to keep count for him until ten days ago.

“¡Ayuda, tienen humanos en jaulas!”

That’s how long the presumed recording has been replaying from beyond the prison walls. On day one, the guards shuffled around the prison halls like bees whose hive was under attack. Day two is when a group of prisoners were rounded up and sent out as a search party to stop the broadcast. Day three is when the general population noticed the first group never returned as a new search party was being formed. Each day after repeated like the last; the previous batch of inmates sent out were confirmed M.I.A., while a new group was created and sent out to the woods surrounding the complex—never to return.

Countless ‘what if’ possibilities went through Alex’s head the moment the recording carried itself through the wind. Attempting to curate the most accurate condition that could make this feat a reality passed the hours, as if he was playing a video game. The first level — Identifying the voice. It would be impossible for what sounded like a human child to yell at the top of their lungs for so long and consistent. Even though Alex’s Spanish was rusty, something about the screaming message felt… kindred, so maybe a recording? The silent panic around the facility and the search party sent out the next day all but confirmed that theory. Level two — No way on Earth.

It’s taken eight days for Alex to come up with a few reasonable explanations on how any broadcast could play over the V.T.E. jamming signal. All of them appear impossible because if the opposite were true, there wouldn’t have been a war. Could the use of an amplifier play the recording over the jamming threshold? Hard to believe. Or is the cyberpunk disc jokey using a nullifier to bring the house down on the V.T.E’s jamming towers? Even harder to believe. But lack of belief got Alex here in the first place.

The entrance to Alex’s cell slid open, revealing a guard standing in the threshold. Pale skin clung to the man as he wore the standard V.T.E. uniform; black shoes, black slacks, a black cross button blazer covering a red shirt only visible by its banded collar and cuffs. Ice cold blue eyes and a sharp blonde bowl cut glared at Alex disgusted as if he was the only stain the bleach lotioned against the bulkhead couldn’t clean.

“632, step forward and follow me.” The V.T.E. guard said, stepping out into the hallway with an understanding the order would be followed similar to the way the moon commands the currents. The slender guard was nothing more than a frame of a man but carried no weapon. No baton and no gun either. None of the guards did, but all the prisoners obeyed. Even Alexander.

Alex and the guard’s steps trotted out of sync down the grated floor. The lights above each cell guided the way down the dim corridor. Keeping his head low, Alex studied the many lights from the cells below, seeping through the tiny holes in the floor as if he were God stargazing from above. Searching for some mystical sign that could explain how he got here, but simple accountability revealed to him the actions he chose for himself. The string of dominoes that fell, leading him down this dark hallway for the first time five years ago, started long before he was imprisoned. Sometimes the road to destruction is a winding path full of twist and turns but it’s only once you reach the destination you’re finally able to notice the snake coiled around your body slowly suffocating you.







TEN YEARS AGO



To: Alexander Umane


From: VTE Operations Management Team


Hello Alex,


We hope this email finds you well. This is a kindly reminder you have until next Friday to redeem your company sponsored V.T.E. Exchange voucher, which is valid for you and any household of your choice. Remember, a connected world is a clean world!


Regards,

V.T.E. Operations Management Team

Ask of the Eye and let the answer Augment your Reality



“Yo, you getting outta here? We’re all about to hit happy hour.” Brian Summit asked Alex on his way out the door, taking time to shoulder surf on his way. “You still haven’t cashed in on your voucher yet?” Brian chirped another question through the server room air, which hummed like cars purring in a street show.

“I’m not rushing to go digital, man. I still use a vinyl player for my music when I’m at home, and I have thirty of my favorite movies on Blueray just for this very reason.”

“C’mon dude, don’t be one of those people. You gotta move with the times. A free fifty-five inch tv, two laptops, with two tablets and all that is for the customers. Plus, they can upgrade their phone if they need to. They’re even giving employees a free smart-fridge on top of it all! Look, let’s at least go get some drinks so you can fuel your bad decision with a couple more in the shape of tequila shots.”

“Joining the V.T.E. Cloud was never a part of my plan—”

“Only getting paid from it was, huh?” Brain said. “If anything, use it or give it to your folks. Even if you're not the one to use it, if the serial number on the voucher is scanned, it may keep you from being branded some sort of eco-terrorist. At least for a couple of days.” Brian finished with a smirk.

“Look who's being one of those people now,” Alex responded in a mocking voice as he logged off the computer. “I doubt V.T.E. will take over the world in the guise of a give-a-way.”

As the two left their place of employment, Alex stomped out any remaining flickers of doomsday skepticism by taking notice how the use to be start-up but now tech giant had already taken over the world as he pulled his V.T.E. 17-Pro phone out of his pocket. V.T.E. had put capitalism in a chokehold for almost a decade before news outlets began considering it as its own political party based on its global influence.

Vessel of The E.I.E. (Eternal Intelligent Entity), known as The Eye to the public, began as a garage-roots A.I. created to be the Operating System for a new type of affordable cell-phones. Designed by twin brothers, Cardinal-Wood natives, Mel and William Akachi. The first generation Nigerian-American sons wanted to give the world back to their parents for the sacrifice they made. Who uprooted their own lives on faith that their kids could create a better future for themselves elsewhere. And that parental love, the kind that transcends time and space, the kind that knows that this younger version of themselves will be better — do better in life than them, was rewarded by the genius instilled in their seed.

Located thirty minutes outside of the Nation’s capital in Virginia, Cardinal-Wood provided the twins with the most lucrative set of eyes available to take interest in their early accomplishments; The Department of Defense. In their teen years, Mel and William were pioneers in advanced robotics. Showcasing their talent around conventions and prize competitions held by government contractors in the area. Grant money won from presenting low-tech robots who cleaned dishes, took out the trash, and made beds, gave them all the funds necessary to advance their designs.

Good Evening Cardinal-Wood with Jessica Stevens and Tyler Rowe played on the TV positioned over the bar. The broadcast showcased the studios’ most recent interview with the tech gurus.

“A double of tequila, please.” Alex asked to the bartender.

“I’ll take a single.” Brian requested as he sat on the stool next to Alex.

“And that’s when we began to focus on artificial intelligence.” Mel responded to the interviewer, Jessica Stevens, with a wide smile. The two brothers sat in the lobby of the company headquarters located in Cardinal-Wood’s rural district, Heathland. The minimalistic interior of the stone structure in the sticks had giant glass bay windows that illuminated the cool concrete of the oval space with natural light. Both brothers could be easily told apart. Mel appeared to be the more nourished sibling as his shoulders eclipsed those of William. He even had deep, flowing black waves on his head compared to William’s bald dome. The keyholes of the soul is where they looked similar. From the gold circled, framed glasses that shielded their eyes. To the brownish grey river known as an iris that circled around their pupils which hid the genuine treasure they shared.

“Listen, there’s so much information out now, we didn’t believe it should only be accessed through a four hundred dollar phone or two thousand dollar laptop. Our Vessel of the Eye, A.I. removed the necessity for any apps. With its access to the internet, we are constantly thinning the lines between the words artificial and intelligence.” William chimed in.

“Before we move on to more about that thin line regarding the new V.T.E. model car supposedly hitting the roads this fall, do you either of you have something you wish to share as we approach the company’s fifteen year anniversary with the upcoming annual Inferno-Day celebration next Friday?” Jessica Stevens asked, candidly with her million dollar prime time voice.

“You ever believe that crap?” Brian asked over to Alex as the bartender slid them their drinks.

They raised their glasses in the air for a silent toast.

“Why would they lie about that?” Alex winced after downing his double dose of weekend motor oil.

“Turns them two into legends who’d never be overshadowed by the billions they generate.” Brian answered with a sour face watered by alcohol as he waved the bartender for another shot.

“The fire was real, man. I remember seeing it reported on the news around the time I was about to graduate high school. I even drove by the neighborhood down in Braenfries. They nearly burned their whole block down. Luckily, no one was hurt.” Alex answered, keeping his eyes on the interview playing on the screen.

“I’m not questioning the fire, man. Those things are so common, they even rain down from heaven. I’m talking about do you think they built everything from scratch after the so-called inferno like they claim? Imagine losing your life’s work. Gone. Up in smoke in a matter of minutes. Or hours from how its reported. The day before the two of you are about to make a presentation to the DoD and you miraculously were able to produce a working A.I. build that gave you your big break? Sounds like a Saturday morning rags to riches story to me.”

“And the rest was history!” Mel cut in on cue with laughter from the interview, as if he was part of his unknown employee’s gossip.

Alex never thought to consider the twin’s authenticity of the self proclaimed (and self imposed on all accounts) Inferno-Day. The myth behind their big break was spoken as legend to some and inspected through the lens of skepticism by others, but one fact trumped all — they broke the world. Once the V.T.E. phones hit the market for a hundred dollars each, the Vessel of The E.I.E. software was also loaded into various robotics the brothers released into society as well. Drones the size of forty-five pound plates and shaped like blackened steel butterflies with two wings on each side buzzed through the skies that governed both public and private sectors. The spectrum of tasks included simple delivery services for your local shops like sending granny her favorite sunflowers each Sunday from the florist across town to working reconnaissance missions with the military overseas or areal coverage during a stakeout with the Cardinal-Wood PD.

Unlike what most feared, the A.I. boom brought on by the brothers added more jobs for humans. This vast network of wide-ranging devices needed administrators to maintain the information passed through the V.T.E. data-centers around the world as well as technicians to service the machines. So every person with two thumbs and two eyes rushed to get certifications as if that were the golden ticket to a new life.

“As you know, the annual Inferno-Day is this company’s keynote address and this year we have something big planned. The closing of the voucher exchange program next week will usher in a new era for V.T.E. and the world!” William finished, looking into the camera with an electric smile.

After two hours filled with a few more rounds of tequila, Alex found himself on the road home. The extra time at the bar also doubled as dodging Cardinal-Wood weekend traffic, but he still decided to cruise the back roads. He lit a cigarette to celebrate the wheels of his car freely rotating towards the sunset. Smoke swayed and danced its way out the window and up into the purple atmosphere. With each puff, Alex watched the cancer cloud move according to the laws of physics that governed it—same as he watched his car bend with the curve of the road displaying similar obedience. His mind scratched the surface of a question that would’ve let him zone out until he got home ‘What conditions govern the soul?’ but he was abruptly reminded why he chose the back roads even though traffic was nonexistent.

A halo-board, V.T.E.’s answer to advertising on the road, rotated algorithmic interests from drivers in the area across the wide display. The graphic switched from a movie poster of Michael B. Jordan featuring A.I./CGI Michael B. Jordan in a remake of the old classic, “Face-Off”, to a giant notification in red letters telling the few travelers on the road (mainly Alex) to: Participate in the V.T.E. voucher exchange program before it ends next Friday!

The little worlds that connected society, the V.T.E. cell phone, acted as a digital thumbprint to its carriers. The phones recorded every like, comment, post, purchase, prejudice, sneeze or cough. One minute, you’re in the mirror clipping your nose hairs with a pair of T-Liners and by the time you're out of the shower checking your favorite social platform of the day — there will be an ad to buy the new Nose Trimmer 3000! All because of the device heard the buzz pattern of the clippers and found a better tool for the job. Or if you were an avid reader or an avid bigot, the V.T.E. phone would guide you towards like minds wherever you clicked.

No one batted an eye as we maneuvered through the boundaries of our cyber comfort zones. Reading posts and articles that fit within our borders of understanding rather than searching for information that could expand it. As long as nothing disturbed the bottom line, our pockets or pleasure, technology becoming the new golden calf was a seamless transition. Money gurus made videos featuring the latest stock tips, which the financially illiterate and financially focused binged for the next eight hours until it was time to repeat the next day. Comic nerds could type on their computers all day arguing over the casting of the seventh movie in a prolonged saga.

Once upon a time, gun enthusiasts could meet up to sell and exchange firearms until the F.B.I and C.I.A. teamed up with V.T.E. to form a alphabet soup of justice. The government agencies were granted access to V.T.E. user profiles and able to reference who owned an automatic firearm while displaying degraded mental behaviors observed by the advanced A.I. Eventually V.T.E. received credit for getting the Second Amendment revamped by their role in helping ban automatic weapons off of American streets. They were the first corporation to openly have one foot on the side of capitalism and the other in politics. Despite that, no one batted an eye as the suffocating web of the Vessel of The Eternal-Intelligent-Entity grew.

Home could be a patch of grass, a bench in a park, or your childhood bedroom for a season, but Alex found a small apartment complex housing thirty tenants to be his haven. He parked his car just as the sun tucked itself beyond the tree line. Two stumbles instead of steps towards the entrance clarified he was more drunk than previously evaluated and decided the elevator would be the best path of least resistance to his bed.

The elevator buzzed as it reached its destination on the third floor, but it sounded more like a bout of mechanical laughter once the doors parted. As if the machine knew the irony of the final hurdle Alex had to jump before he could enter that inebriated sleep — a V.T.E. inspector stood down the hallway next to his unit completing the last steps of the voucher exchange program with one of Alex’s neighbors.

Alex let out a sigh as the elevator doors closed behind him and proceeded forward. All V.T.E. Inspectors were the blueprint of the perfect employee. From the hair to the smile to the smoothest skin, no matter the hue. Their knowledge of all vessels of the E.I.E. systems was just as immaculate as their looks. Alex’s disdain for them was equally pristine.

Vomit bubbled up at the base of Alex’s throat as he moved down the hall. The dull yellow paint plastered against the wall shrank closer and closer with each step as if it were about to fold onto Alex like origami. The V.T.E. Inspector stood down the hall in the company standard uniform; where Alex had a purple shirt accent under the black suit to signify he was an Administrator, Inspectors wore red.

A few paces from his front door, Alex received a quick grin from the Inspector as a sign of acknowledgment before he returned focus back on the customer. The loaded tater tots Alex ate a couple hours ago was about to eject out of the hole it came in if it weren’t for a few swallows to keep the puke down. Which made him eat the same food for a second time, but laced with stomach acid.

These Inspectors were the worst. Running into the equivalent of “Plain ol Jerry from Human Resources” who typically had nothing better to do besides hassle employees concerning the latest training, was not ideal for this moment. Alex’s stomach churned just like this on a sober day before reentering the data center after lunch. Alex walked past one of the red collars as he proclaimed, “On my way to change a family’s life forever. A new voucher has been redeemed!” While sun rays reflected off his face from the threshold of the exit. Alex figured it was the cheesy jalapeño poppers instead of the cheesy pitch in the nameless employee’s voice that almost had him hurl. He threw water on his face in the bathroom and went about his day without dwelling on the minor coincidence. But it would be ten years from now until Alex realized that a script full of coincidences is written on lines of providence. And how the water circulating in his body reacted inversely to the joyful pitch of everyone who wore a red shirt. Around anyone who took pride in the company and its technology with robotic fashion.

“Oh my, you’re throwing in an extra tablet, too?” Mr. Reech, Alex’s neighbor, asked to the Inspector. The seasoned man stood with a slouched back, distorted from years of blue collar work as a trash man while carrying the complaints from his wife on his shoulders, but his elation inflated him to the height of the towering Inspector.

“Of course, sir. V.T.E. would like to show our appreciation for you and your household taking part in the voucher program. That’s one more device to connect us all.”

“Yea, well, at least Cheryl will be able to watch her cooking shows on the tablet. That should help for somethin.” Mr. Reech finished, slandering his wife’s cooking under his breath. God and Alex were possibly the only ones who heard the continuous pleas to the heavens from Lyle Reech for Cheryl to add more seasoning to the meatloaf.

“Splendid. Don’t forget, sir, we have over 1,000 meatloaf recipes available in our audio media players. Which we are providing three for the home.”

Lyle Reech couldn’t contain the curiosity on his face. A grin coated in confusion formed across his mouth, similar to the awe etched onto the features of a spectator at a magic show. He was at the crossroads of believing himself to be a victim of telepathy — the type that many salesmen seem to posses or the final pitch being nothing more than a simple coincidence. Both Lyle and Alex, who couldn’t help but hear the Inspector’s advertisement while unlocking the door to his own home, chose the comfort of coincidence.

“Hopefully, she finds one with flavor.” Mr. Reech said, extending his hand as the other held a pamphlet.

The Inspector stood still, holding his hands behind his back. “If you will sir, please keep your hand ready. The drone will be right on out of your unit. The inventory of your analog items and legacy tech is complete. All we need is your thumbprint to complete the transaction.”

A moment later, a sound of fluttering wind buzzed near Mr. Reech’s doorway, causing him to step aside. One of the patented V.T.E. butterfly drones flew into the hall, turned back to face Mr. Reach and scanned the palm of his hand from a laser emitting from the lense of its face. The wings of the drone hummed next to the Inspector as if he was a zookeeper demonstrating a trick with a bird of prey.

“Once I’m done with Mr. Reech, could I have a word with you, Mr. Umane?”

Alex paused as his door swung open. First, he checked if he left his badge hanging around his neck while drinking his way into the weekend. But he felt the card sporting his happily employed grin in the pocket that held his keys. Then he turned his attention toward the Inspector. His head spun around slowly, eyes wide and curious like an owl studying the night.

This inspector didn’t look familiar. Aside from the copy and paste mushroom haircut matching every pop star from the early 2000’s, Alex had not seen him a day in his life.

The drone finished its scan with an audible blip, “Well Mr. Reech, if you check your email, you will see a scan code you can get redeemed at any of our stores or online before Friday to schedule your V.T.E. Exchange.” The Inspector said, heading towards Alex, neglecting to shake Mr. Reech’s hand a final time.

“Th-Thanks sir.” Mr. Reech said, pausing to look at his hand before shutting the door.

“Can we be expecting you to redeem your V.T.E. voucher before next Friday, Mr. Umane? You are one of the last few in the building.”

We — are on the same team, Inspector Gadget.” Alex said, pointing to his uniform. “We just don’t play the same position, so please cut me a break. Will ya? I can imagine you’re just trying to survive day to day just like me but I’m too drunk to go into all the reasons I’m not giving up my record player for a TV, tablet and a couple media players.” Alex answered, taking a step into his unit.

“Nostalgia is nothing more than the feces left behind by Entropy Mr. Umane. You don’t want to be on the outskirts of progress.” The Inspector said, pausing Alex in the threshold.

Alex responded in the only way he could as his stomach and head twirled from the alcohol or the persistence of the Inspector? — by shutting the door behind him.

Inside of his home, relief came with solitude. His dizziness subsided down into a hum and roaring stomach eased into a growl as he emptied his pockets on the kitchen table. He pushed the remaining urge to vomit down with a cold bottle of water from the fridge, looking past the past due bills clamped between a firetruck magnet on the freezer’s door as he claimed his prize.

He walked over to his couch to let the weight of the day sit him down. Alex studied the black screen of his V.T.E. TV hanging on the wall and the marred reflection of himself staring back at him. His record player with a crate of his collection was displayed on the entertainment center underneath. A part of him wanted to break the silence with some Miles Davis, possibly “Flamenco Sketches” before bed, but tonight, the quietness played its own symphony.

Alex’s eyes drifted towards sleep in between the whistles of echoed thoughts from throughout the day. He considered if his parents would be interested in his voucher like Brian suggested earlier. But they were just bragging about a new V.T.E. refrigerator that provided its own meal plans on the door a month ago, so Alex took comfort in assuming they already applied for one themselves. He wondered if he should’ve gotten that Inspector’s employee number, heck, even his name, so he could write an email to corporate on Monday. But as quickly as words meant for an argument sprouted up after the fact almost driving Alex’s blood hot enough to put him on his feet — he found himself laying his head down on a small couch pillow for the rest he rushed home for.

Anything that mattered now could wait until tomorrow.






Procrastination can tug the hours of the day across unmotivated eyes. Setting the sun faster on hands that never touch the plow. Days leading up to the end, everything else always seems more important. That new celebrity couple or their kids on a pedestal higher than their own, that arguable top five player missing the go-ahead basket on prime time, or that new episode of the most watched show that can’t be missed because who would you talk to online that night? The divisive hills that people die on seem to get the most chatter, but those are filled with fragile foundations that crumble and rebuild with each post. One will argue for science against religion using regurgitated opinions of those who chose not to connect the dots between words that govern the soul and universe. Then some will fight religiously to govern man with interpretations and convictions, all while disregarding one basic scientific truth; love conquers all. Others will neglect both science and spirituality for the sake of upholding their worldview in the form of a color. Red, blue, or whatever Party’s banner that suits you.

Procrastination at its bare bones is neglect. Alex bit down on this juicy steak of disregard from day to day. Getting full from the confusion pumped into the media and social networks alike. So much so, in the blink of an eye, he found himself….



ONE WEEK LATER



AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

Alex’s eyes opened to a faint scream coming beyond the wall separating his bedroom from Mr. and Mrs. Reech’s unit. Sunlight cut through the slit of his curtains as a sign of a new day. Disorientation instead of thanksgiving was on Alex’s mind while an electric hum buzzed in the canals of his ears, as if white noise from a distant T.V. was leaking through the halls of the apartment.

AHHHHHH-HHHHHAAAAA! Another scream jolted Alexander upright in his bed. The speed at which he shifted caused waves of brain juices to crash against the inner part of his skull. He placed a hand on his forehead to stop the banging. His thoughts were jumbled like the innards of a house settling after an earthquake. Despite not drinking since last week, it felt like he woke up with a hangover. Possibly a virus—

Without warning, Alex hunched over the bed to vomit, releasing a puddle of stomach acid onto the hardwood floor. What the heck is going on? He asked, looking over at the V-HOME phone docking station that doubled as a clock on his nightstand. The little silver pad had the duty of charging his V.T.E. phone overnight and the pleasure of providing the time through a small holographic projector lense.

The stability Alex hoped to find on the digital throne eluded him in the form of four blinking numbers in blue LED lights. His head swirled, confused by the sight of the black screen on his phone while the charging dock was plugged into the outlet. Maybe there was a short in the building’s power which a few of the appliances never came back up properly through the night. Each flash of the unset clock made his stomach pop, readying itself to eject fluids again. Alex tried to make sense of this horrible morning beyond the simple conclusion of feeling attacked by some outside force. But that convenient thread of coincidence that held anxiety together was nowhere near.


12:00 am

YOU B—

12:00 am

THE SALT—

12:00 am

YOU ALWAYS—

12:00 am

PUT TOO MUCH—

12:00 am

DAMN SALT—

12:00 am

IN MY EGGS!—

12:00 am


The next sounds Alex heard was similar to someone driving a hammer into the floor multiple times.

THUD! THUD! THUD! Then silence enveloped the lingering static hum.

Alex threw up once more amidst the strange quiet, adding to the pile from moments ago.

“Mrs. Reech?… Mr. Reech?” Alex whispered out into the wind. To him, from this contorted position at the edge of his bed, it sounded like Mr. Reech finally lost his mind.

Without power to his phone, Alex couldn’t call for a welfare check, the ambulance to pick himself up because he felt like shit, or call into the Datacenter to let the front desk know he’d be late if he were to gather enough energy.

Moments later, Alex slid out of bed, narrowly missing the puke puddle of his own making as he went towards the kitchen. Instincts told him no decision would be made until he rehydrated himself. After a glass of water, he figured that the neighbors across the hall, the Wilts, would have heard the commotion coming from the Reech’s too and hopefully had a phone with power to it.

Water wasn’t the complete cure-all, but it provided Alex with enough relief to push forward through the day. He checked the power around the apartment to find the only devices failing had the V.T.E. acronym in a triangular pattern on it. His stove and fridge were safe, but his fifty-five inch V.T.E. T.V. wouldn’t power on either. The T.V. itself was advertised to act as a phone in case of an emergency. “Call on Command” is how they packaged it. No phone, No problem, let your voice do the dialing on the V.T.E. 55 ULTRA HD PRO. Alex recalled the advertisement and how he told himself he’d never use the feature then just to find himself standing in front of the black screen now in his boxers while seeing a dribble of vomit on the side of his face.

I’ll throw on my uniform fast and head to Mrs. Wilts, Alex thought. She was one of the few not operating by capitalistic peer pressure who still used a legacy Apple phone. Mrs. Wilts came over just last Tuesday looking for a charger. Said her precious Raindrop ate through her spare and didn’t feel like walking to her car for her last one. Instead of giving her a spare he didn’t have, Alex walked to the car for his elderly neighbor that day, so hopefully the favor would be returned now. Call for a welfare check, then rush over to the Datacenter to see what was going on with V.T.E. products. Today was scheduled to be another landmark in the company’s history. Today was Inferno Day. A keynote full of new products was to be revealed on this final day of the V.T.E. Voucher program. But it felt like a zero-day attack of some sort was eclipsing the affair.

Faint sirens trailed off in the distance as Alex gathered paper towels and lemon scented cleaner to soak up his vomit. Before Alex made it into his room, an aggressive pounding at the door froze him in place.

KNOCK

KNOCK

KNOCK

“Excuse me? Who is it?” Alex asked aloud, attempting to tame the quiver in his voice. Each knock reverberated with a ting similar to an aluminum bat.

KNOCK!

KNOCK!

KNOCK!

The claps against the door rose an octave similar to a rising church choir’s trying to burst through the hearts of worshipers. Alex looked out towards the fire escape and back down at his boxers while the banging continued.

“Yo! If you don’t stop, I’m calling the cops.” Alex yelled, without a phone to call his own bluff.

A brief pause in the knocking held air in Alex’s throat as terror slowly wrapped its fingers around his neck. The mysterious visitor kicked the front door with enough force to jam it off its hinges and damage the frame. One more kick is all it took to send the door flying across the living room, destroying the bookcase Alex had stationed against the wall.

Lyle Reech took one step into Alex’s unit wearing pinstriped pajamas clutching a hammer with blood dripping from the reflective steel. Madness was etched across the wrinkles on his face. Bloodshot eyes locked on Alex. Mr. Reech grit his teeth like a rabid dog or a feral beast ready to attack once it’s prey moved.

“Mr. Reech, what are you—”

Before Alex finished his protest, Mr. Reech lunged forward with the speed matching an Olympic sprinter’s first step off the block. He was fast. Faster than any man pushing seventy while suffering from high cholesterol should move.

Alex dropped the cleaning supplies, using both hands to stop Lyle Reech’s arm from crashing the hammer down on his head.

Lyle roared, spraying warm saliva onto Alex’s face. A drop of blood fell onto his nose from the hammer and for a brief moment through the lens of his mind’s eye, Alex saw himself getting lowered into his own grave. Mr. Reech was stronger than he should’ve been as well. If the front door being kicked across the room wasn’t enough evidence, holding back the force of what felt like ten men behind Mr. Reech’s arm was confirmation that something was terribly wrong. Rage fueled Lyle Reech to new heights as if a switch was flipped in his brain.

Alex slowly pushed the hammer back towards Mr. Reech until he jerked the blood-soaked weapon to the side, which forced both of Alex’s hands to sway in the same direction. Eye to eye, Mr. Reech head butted Alex and sent him stumbling back into his room until his feet gave in from under. Losing composure and consciousness, it felt like a brick had been smashed across his face. He collapsed to the floor, bouncing his head in the leftover puddle of vomit.

In a flash, before his blurred vision closed, he saw his end. Alex remembered the thuds from earlier and thought how his brains were going to look bashed in on the floor. Lyle Reech entered the room and stood over Alex with a raised hand, ready to deal the final blow.

The static hum pinging through the unit rose octave by octave as if an opera were playing a classic tune to Alex’s impending doom. Until, suddenly, a thunderclap of feedback noise screeched through both men’s ears. The hammer dropped to the floor as Lyle Reech covered his ears in agony, splashing puke onto Alex’s face. A grateful mercy.

The feedback bomb was a minor discomfort to Alex compared to the drumming going on in his skull, but he heard it none the least. Maybe it was the oncoming concussion that used the sound as a lullaby as Alex’s eyes drifted closed. Before he went into the unscheduled slumber, Alex saw tears of blood running out of Lyle Reech’s eyes. The elderly man wailed like a traumatized dog before his body crumbled face first into the vomit.

As Alex passed out, his V-HOME charging dock and phone cut on. It was 7:30am.




Hours later, Alex opened his eyes to the sight of his neighbor, Mr. Reech, facedown and

motionless in a dried up patch of puke.

“Ahhhh!” He screamed, remembering the threat from earlier as he jumped up from the hardwood floor. He brushed off what sticky pieces of vomit he could that glued itself to the back of his head before taking notice that power had returned to his V-HOME and phone.

11:42am.

Alex lunged for the phone, matching the vigor of the once living Mr. Reech. Without the murderous intent attached, questions shackled with worry weighed his fingers down to a static pace.

He himself had no missed calls from his job, which increased the rhythm of panic in his heart. The phone itself acted as his timecard, equipped with its own special alarm if the device hadn’t crossed the threshold into the data center lobby by 9:00am. He didn’t know who to dial first; his job, parents or 911 as he looked down at Mr. Reech.

What in the world is going on? Alex asked himself in between the echoing heartbeats ringing ear to ear. No one else heard Mr. Reech rampaging either?

A muffled round of applause clattered from the living room tv, causing Alex’s shoulders to bounce. Still in only his boxers, cold, and now afraid he wasn’t alone; he crept slowly towards the cheers emitting from the tv. As Alex neared, he heard the same sounds reverberating down the hall outside of his unit. The eerie similarity between cheers of joy and screams of pain brought a chill across beads of sweat on his forehead as the shouts bounced off the unhinged door.

Mayhem was on the screen. An aerial view of the V.T.E. headquarters located fifteen miles away displayed hundreds of people standing outside in angered protest, courtesy of Good Evening Cardinal-Wood. Fists, bats, sticks, signs and slander were thrusted through the air. More than a dozen V.T.E. military grade Butterfly drones blocked the entrance, ready to stun or incapacitate any encroaching threat.

“Whatchu do to my kid?!” a man cried out in the news footage.

“You killed them! You killed a whole retirement home!” A woman cried with an infant pressed into her bosom.

“As you can see, angry protesters have found themselves posted at V.T.E. headquarters demanding answers.” Tyler Rowe said from inside the GMCW studio. His voice was soft and docile, empty of any bias or even passion for the matter. “Now, we are going to take you to Jessica Stevens, who is alongside the Akachi twins inside V.T.E. headquarters for insight into this recent terrorist attack.”

The screen transitioned to inside the V.T.E. headquarter’s lobby. The three were positioned in the same area Jessica Stevens held her interview with the twins a week before. Bright lights illuminated the cold stone minimalist interior. Mel and William sat next to a lukewarm Jessica with the confidence of out of favor politicians.

“We thought it be best to address the world ourselves, so thank you, Jessica, and our friends at Good Morning Cardinal-Wood for giving us this platform.” Mel said, opening his large hands from resting on his lap, expressing gratitude.

“The scope of this attack is unprecedented. We have a responsibility to tell the world we will be a part of the healing process.” William finished, pushing his glasses up the slope of his nose.

“Please…tell us what happened?” Jessica asked, leaning forward.

Alex turned up the volume. Before the brothers gave their answer, a banner rolled across the bottom of the screen like a score tracker on a Sunday afternoon. Instead of showing the local team up in D.C. getting crushed by three touchdowns, estimated death tolls from around the world scrolled by. United Kingdom - 2 million, Spain- 3 million, Germany- 3 million, France- 4 million, United States- 20 million —

“At approximately 7:08 am…” Mel began, “Our infrastructure was hacked by an unknown group in order to conduct a zero-day attack on the day of the company’s annual keynote, Inferno-Day. We have concluded that the ending of the V.T.E. Voucher exchange program today marked the beginning of V.T.E. being accessible in every household around the world which gave leeway to this nefarious act.”

“They infiltrated our Customer Support division. This database has records and access to all of our active and inactive devices in the public and private sectors. This is in order to remote into each device and fix any problem in the field. However, this function was compromised, which gave these terrorists access to our entire inventory. They used this opportunity to emit a frequency from these devices through their respective Wi-Fi connections that caused a disruption in the water of the human body. The side effects—” William continued.

Alex looked over to Mr. Reech’s lifeless body as it laid face down. Assuming a few of the side effects did not take too much imagination. Rage, death, and nausea, if Alex considered his own symptoms.

“Nausea followed by migraine-like headaches due to the water in the brain being manipulated along with the body caused bouts of rage. This went on until the heightened frequency range between the devices and their wireless access points returned to normal after a full system reboot around 7:30 am.”

“How does that explain the millions of reported dead from your technology? How can V.T.E. bear the burden of the destruction it has caused?” Jessica Stevens prompted.

“Sadly, Jessica, as far as we know, violent acts made up a small percentage of the casualties. Most of those who passed are reported to be age sixty-five or higher. This is an early assumption, but we believe that some senior citizens were not able to handle the BioCyber attack. The Conversion that was taking place.”

“The Conversion?” Jessica Stevens asked, tilting her head to the side.

“Well —” Mel cut in, “The nature of the attack was attempting to establish a constant connection between V.T.E. products and human host. This would have made humans nothing more than nodes passing information through a hypothetical world-unified network.”

“Some would argue that was humanity’s purpose in the first place.” Jessica joked with a chuckle.

“You’re right, Jessica, even though tragedy should not be the catalyst of change, but often is. We have learned of people around the world who experienced nothing more than extreme nausea and tinnitus, bypassing the bouts of rage that led towards full conversion. We consider these humans to be incompatible to the BioCyber attack and they could be the keys to civilization progressing once we learn more.”

“Sounds like we need to bring those incompatibles in ASAP for the safety of the species.” Jessica smiled like that of a game-show host and not a reporter.

“We have a plan, Jessica. We will find those who don’t come in voluntarily if we need to. Our emergency meeting with the U.N. ensured us full cooperation with governments around the world to make this effort a unified process.”

Even in times of chaos, it was hard to find news on the news. The truth always threatened the bottom line, and these days was only used subjectively against those individuals who themselves threaten that bottom line. Alex's heart sunk as he watched the emergency broadcast devolve from a space of journalistic integrity into a daytime talk show. Who were the attackers? All signs inside of a critical thinking mind pointed to his employer, V.T.E. conducting the largest experiment in humanity’s existence. No way the rest of the world would settle for a blanket statement of “terrorist” but if the reporter herself didn’t ask the big questions, who was he to complain?

An Incompatible

By all accounts (as far as Alex knew) he displayed the symptoms described. Nausea and ringing in the ears without bouts of rage that led towards full conversion. He looked over towards Mr. Reech again. Sometimes, half a truth is only perfume to cover up half a lie. What if The Conversation completed successfully, leaving victims like Mr. Reech as collateral damage? The brazenness of the interview came off like a keynote address where everything went according to plan. The only people who would complain or take notice of this new distorted V.T.E. world would be Incompatibles.

After making himself halfway decent with a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, Alex went into the hallway outside of his unit in search of which of his neighbors was watching the broadcast at max volume. A few steps towards the Reech’s unit supplied him with an answer. The door had been pulled open with so much force from the inside; the knob was stuck into the wall. In direct view of the door was a rusted red couch with a V.T.E. 55 inch smart TV mounted on a stand a few feet ahead. Alex couldn’t convince himself to investigate any further. His imagination did the rest of the exploring. It wondered around, expecting to find Mrs. Reech with her skull bashed in, in-between the sofa and T.V. or maybe she didn’t even make it into the living room. Maybe Mr. Reech got her in the kitchen right as she put down his breakfast for the morning. Making her final meal being one she prepared for someone else rather than one she could enjoy for herself. Never mind the caliber of the meal. Two biscuits, flavorless eggs and bacon as her final offering.

A door suddenly shut behind him with an immediate latch of the lock from the inside. It was Mrs. Wilts’ unit across the hall. Alex walked over slowly.

“Ms. Wilts, it’s me Alex. Are you ok?”

Silence.

“Ms. Wilts, Hello-”

“You shouldn’t be out of your unit, Alex. It’s dangerous out there, ya know?” She answered with an old voice muffled by the metal door.

“Did you hear Mr. Reech this morning? He murdered his wife and attacked me. If the ‘out here’ you’re referring too is this building, then yea, you’re right. I just want to know if you’re alright.”

A shadow blotted out the tiny speck of light shining through the peephole for a moment before the light poked through again. The bolted locked twisted free with a click and Ms. Wilts cracked the door open, hiding part of her face. Her grey hair was frazzled as if she ran her hands through it for thirty minutes straight. Alex thought he noticed a baled spot on her scalp that wasn’t there yesterday.

“You know—” she whispered, “You shouldn’t be out of your unit. The Eye says anyone outside of their homes has to be reported to V.T.E.”

“The Who?” Alex blurted out. But from the glossy reflection of her own eye, Alex knew the answer to his own question before his lips pressed back together. The Eye she was referring to was the E.I.E. The Eternal Intelligent Entity.

Alex backpedaled into his unit as Ms. Wilts shut her door, locking her gaze onto him until the door closed. Now in the discomfort of his exposed apartment with a decaying body, Alex’s attention went back to the TV, which was cycling through aerial footage of the V.T.E. headquarters. At the bottom of the screen was a telephone number painted red urging citizens to report any suggested Incompatibles. 555-INC-MPAT.

The newscast’s cinematography matched that of a dystopian blockbuster with the scenes that followed. Military-grade V.T.E. drones opened fire on the protesters, converting their chants for justice into howling fear. Bodies fell on top of each other, but Alex couldn’t see blood from the screen. Maybe they were using tranquilizers? It didn’t matter though because those who could run used the fallen’s heads as stepping stools.

The shifting viewpoints on the TV flashed in-front of Alex, quickly pushing him through time as well. As if the perspectives that flashed before him were the years between The Conversion and imprisonment, he saw it all like reruns. First, on the run from the V.T.E.. Then, finding out his parents didn’t survive The Conversion and learning that his peers succumbed to it. The hot days and frosty nights off the grid in the woods. The emergence of the Followers of the E.I.E. and the Five Commandments. The five years in hiding until his small encampment of twenty was raided by V.T.E. Inspectors and drones.



“¡Ayuda, tienen humanos en jaulas!”


Five years later, Alex found himself imprisoned within the reality augmented in V.T.E.’s image.




To be continued...



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2 Comments


Best read of the year thus far ! Looking forward to part 2 right now!!!!!!

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A.R. Milton
A.R. Milton
Aug 05, 2023
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Thank you for taking the time to read!

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