01 Feb The Portal in the Forest Part 3
I crested the last hill and immediately noticed excited energy among the neighborhood kids crowded around the portal.
“We got a good one today?”
The children parted, and my unofficial second-in-command stepped forward – the eighteen-year-old boy who often corralled the others. “Looks like it.”
Peering beyond him, I found a rather surprising sight.
Each day for the last week, the random destinations had been non-starters. One world had been completely on fire – from the closest flaming ground to the distant smoldering mountains – and there’d been no sign of abatement.
We’d spent another whole day staring in horror out across a vast ocean of what seemed to be thick blood. The smooth and endless crimson surface had been interrupted only by a few massive bone-like protrusions, and a sunless sky of carved ivory presided over the inexplicable sight. Weird ripples had moved in that blood ocean, as if hidden creatures lived beneath. The portal had never shown anywhere but alternate Earths as far as anyone had seen… I’d warned the kids not to think too much about how our Earth had become like that ungodly place. That way lay madness.
It had definitely been a relief to find the portal showing onto an open green pasture the next day, and we’d almost gone in – but my second noticed it at the last moment: an eerie lack of parallax. The green pasture was an illusion, almost like a perfect television screen displayed across the rift, and what truly lay beyond was impossible to know. Such a deception hinted at far worse intentions through that particular portal than in most worlds. Most worlds didn’t seem to know or care about us.
Every Earth we’d glimpsed in the last week had been anathema to human life in some way or another. Every world had been dead or dying. I’d figured that this was all somehow related to the otherworldly book I was trying to get rid of, and its inexplicable penchant for detailing the final stories of the doomed, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t know if it controlled the portal, or whether it was merely connected to it somehow, but the children reported that the destinations were definitely getting worse. The first few weeks they’d observed it, there’d been nothing but pleasant forests, open plains, and innocuous oceans.
But today’s sight changed our data set. Today, the portal opened on a busy street in a city that looked much like New York. We watched people drive past in recognizable cars and trucks. Many passersby were on foot, hurrying with very human impatience.
It didn’t occur to me until I’d already stepped through – nobody on the other side had given the portal any heed.
Suddenly surrounded by the hustle, movement, and engine rhythms of a busy city street, I turned and looked back. Yep, there it sat: a ten-foot-wide jagged oval in space showing a forested path and a crowd of children watching from the other side. None of the suited busy-bodies on the sidewalk gave even the slightest glance at the portal.
Or at me, for that matter. They bumped against me and pushed past in an ongoing series of collisions. None so much as flinched. None apologized. They weren’t completely unaware of me – they just didn’t care.
Given that we’d not yet seen a world where any human being was still alive, I had the distinct concern that these people were nothing more than marionettes. If they were dead… if they were just emulating life… then that meant, in the middle of a busy big city street, I was actually completely alone. I’d seen many things in my life, and almost nothing truly got to me anymore, but I’d never been able to handle p-zombies. Something about that kind of soulless fate just struck me as existentially horrifying in a basic and gripping way.
Placing the book down on the sidewalk, I darted back through the portal.
“What happened?” the kids asked. “What’s wrong?”
I looked down. The book was in my hand again. “Damnit.” I watched their expressions. “Did I put this book down on the sidewalk?”
“No,” they reported in unison.
“So, the book doesn’t teleport back to my possession,” I realized aloud. “It’s a mental diversion. A trick of perception and memory.”
Steeling myself, I went back into the portal a second time, and shoved the book into the large purse of a passing businesswoman.
I pressed myself up against the wall of a building, waited a few seconds, and then closed my eyes. I took a deep breath, analyzed my own thoughts, then looked down… yep, the book was still in my hand. “Son of a bitch.”
The damn thing was intent on preventing any simple method of getting rid of it. I studied the passing oblivious people, and I soon began walking along with the flow. Could there be some device, creature, or power here that might help? Experience told me that, when facing a threat beyond human capability, the best bet was to find an even worse threat and pit them against one another; between the balance of two terrors sat a sliver of hope. It was the same principle as the nuclear standoff between superpowers during the Cold War – the future of the human race had been predicated on the careful opposition of conflicting armageddons far more often than most people would care to know.
A haggard female voice interrupted my growing panic. “Don’t move!”
I’d long ago learned to instantly follow any desperately shouted warnings. Freezing in place, I waited as the shouter continued making noise and approaching me from behind. She might have been coming to attack me, sure, but true human desperation was hard to fake. Not like that.
“Oh God!” she said again, grabbing the end of my jacket and pulling me directly backward. “I thought there was nobody left…”
“Can I move now?” I asked her. “What’s the danger?”
“Yeah, yeah, just don’t go that way,” she said quickly. “How’ve you made it this long?”
Looking ahead surreptitiously as I slowly turned to face her, I saw nothing ahead on the street except a few office entrances, a coffee shop, and a sandwich place with a bright red light out front that shone down on passersby. What unseen threat lay ahead that needed such warning? The stream of business men and women seemed to face no threat.
I froze. For a moment, a shadow passed over my soul.
The girl before me was as haggard as she’d sounded. Dressed in a tattered suit that had once been grey and clean, but which now bore dirt and rips in visible testament to homelessness, she seemed every bit the sole survivor I’d instantly envisioned upon hearing her desperate voice. Her wild shock of dirt-smeared hair hadn’t been cleaned or combed in some time. “Christ, Christ almighty, I prayed, but I thought… I thought I’d never see another person again…”
Wary, I kept my eyes on her. “Are these not people?”
Underneath a furrowed brow, she narrowed her gaze. “Do they seem like people to you?”
I said nothing.
“They’re all in there, still,” she stated after a moment. “I stabbed one or two out of frustration a few years back. They come out of it just as they die. They’re all thinking the same thing in there.”
“In their heads.” She looked around with compassion and fear. “They’re screaming. All of them.”
So, another apocalypse… this world wasn’t safe and normal after all.
While I hesitated, she looked to her right. “The hell is that?“
Silently, but quickly, I ran a cold-hearted evaluation of this unknown girl and her situation. The consideration was thus: how likely was it that a species-ending threat would remain active and wary long after it’d dominated the planet? No matter how fantastical, extradimensional, or incomprehensible a threat, one rule of logic had to remain. Time was a resource, motivation was a resource, and the combination had to be right for a threat to remain dangerous. If almost all humans were dead or controlled, there was no longer any point in maintaining active surveillance or traps. I’d already recently blundered through two such worlds where living humans had not been expected. I’d even read a book for several minutes in a room filled with invisible animated corpses – and gotten away with it. They’d been completely caught off guard.
But this girl represented a Catch-22. She was alive, therefore traps and surveillance might remain. If she was a trap, though, that meant that there were probably no free humans, and no need for traps.
“It’s a portal to another universe,” I told her, gently holding her back as she eagerly moved toward it. I decided to only tell half of the truth. “It’ll kill you if you try to cross without me.”
She seemed on the verge of tears as she gauged my unreadable expression. “Please…”
“Quickly help me understand this world, and leave behind this book if I can,” I told her, hefting the tome. “Then we’ll go.”
She pulled me into a nearby alley that I found to be disturbingly like the one I’d run through in the rain the week before. “It’s -” she began, but she opened and closed her mouth in frustration without making any further sounds. “It won’t let me talk about it.”
I nodded slowly. It was never quite that easy, was it? I lifted the book. “This will tell me, then. I’m pretty sure it recounts, somehow, the final tales of those who’ve died nearby.”
She watched with wide eyes as I began reading aloud. The tale of this unknown person might shed some light on the situation.
I remember the day the first one came out. People were lined up around the block to be the first to get it. It was just like any phone or tablet craze, except bigger. Who wouldn’t want to erase the monotony of work from life?
I was never one for the latest trends. I decided to wait, and maybe save up some money for it.
You could tell the coworkers that were using it. They had slight half-smiles on their faces as they labeled, folded, typed, swept, and mopped. Any simple menial task became a time for lazy daydreaming as the iWorker took over basic motor functions. All you had to do was program it for the task by performing it yourself a couple times, and then, you could tune out, listen to a book on tape, or even sleep while your limbs worked.
It was a bit off-putting in a way I couldn’t quite explain. Coworkers using the iWorker were zoned out or asleep, and the work floor got awful quiet awful fast. It was my job to direct the flow of boxes from our shipping warehouse, but I couldn’t keep up with my unaware coworkers who worked on and on without getting tired, without smoke breaks, and without pauses for conversation or mental focus.
My gym, too, got weirdly quiet. People programmed their iWorkers for workouts, even they weren’t supposed to, and happily got in the best shape of their lives without even being mentally present for the effort. Of course, a spate of people up and died who’d set theirs too ambitiously, but… it was their own fault, or so the television said. The next iWorker would hook a little deeper and automatically sense when the body was being pushed too far.
I’d just save up for that one, I decided. I didn’t want to die on the job because some idiot device didn’t know not to carry boxes for eighteen hours straight without rest.
The third generation came out before I even got halfway to my savings goal. This one integrated wirelessly with our relatively new driverless cars, and so you could fit your car into your routines. There were people automating the whole drive to work and their entire shift while they slept, so they could wake up and have the evening and entire night to actually live.
Now that tempted me. I could have sold some stuff to join in on the trend. I wanted to sleep through work and have sixteen hours a day to hang out! Sounded damn pleasing, it did.
It was so pleasing, in fact, that it really started going global. They made ’em cheaper, and smaller, and less invasive to your neck and nerves. I would have gotten one then, but I hurt my back at work, and the medical bill wiped me out and put me in so much debt I still couldn’t afford it. Worse, I’d damaged my spine, so there was a chance I’d never be able to use one, at least not any of the current models.
It was about then that the shifts started getting longer. Sixteen hours a day was quite a lot to hang out and party and relax, so people started signing on for longer shifts. More money, more leisure, right?
When I came back from medical leave, I lasted maybe two hours before my boss came around with that kind of shit-sorry look. I knew immediately. Everyone else in the warehouse was iWorking, moving around all silently with half-smiles on their faces, and they were all working sixteen-hour shifts. Here I was with a hurt back, moving slowly, working inefficiently, and I wanted the same pay as these diligent types?
I told him he could screw right off, even though I regretted my rudeness instantly. Still, I was out of a job, and I would soon have nowhere to go.
I spent the next few months at a shelter, along with many other injured types in my situation. The divide between those who could iWork and those who couldn’t was huge – we were useless for modern jobs anymore. Those daydreaming types could work almost all day long without a word of complaint, and for lower and lower wages. What did you need money for when you were working almost all day long? What did you care what you got paid when you weren’t even mentally present for the work? You just woke up for a few hours each night once you got home, watched a few TV shows, then clicked out again.
I’d been homeless for maybe a year when we heard the news: they’d invented an iWorker that anybody could use, regardless of injury. A lot of us saw that as salvation come to town.
By then, I hated the whole concept. Passion, that was me. Passion. I was the one standing on the corner shouting at sleepwalkers about their idiocies and inadequacies and iniquities.
Well, their ears heard, but there was nobody at the wheel.
Funny thing, though, this new model. It worked through the eyes. It was just light. You’d walk by one of these nodes on the street, or in a hallway, or at home, and it would program you the way you wanted. Visually stimulated neurons or some such science bullshit.
Well there’s the thing. All the previous models needed to be recharged eventually. They were devices, just like a phone or a tablet, and they couldn’t just go forever. These could. Suddenly, you’ve got these religious types advocating going on autonomous mode full-time – that’s what they called it, then, because a bunch of other brands had come out by then, not just iWorker.
It was virtuous, they claimed, to work twenty-four hours a day. If you weren’t present for the work, you avoided suffering, and if you were working, you were contributing. It’s free contribution, you see? Perfect virtue. A world without suffering, but with endless productivity.
One by one, our little homeless community dwindled. I’d run into Jeff, or Sarah, or Jorge, or Yuya, and they’d suddenly turned into clean-cut model workers. They didn’t recognize me. Of course not. They were asleep.
At some point, watching these light-programmers getting installed all over, it occurred to me: the companies that produced these things were all full of labor using the devices. Everyone at these goddamn hypno-crafters was asleep, walking around in bodies that were endlessly toiling away putting up more light-programmers, marketing light-programmers, building better light-programmers… it was a thing in itself. The thing would just keep going and going, and maybe it had been that way since the start, and we’d all just bought into it like fools.
Street by street, this city got quiet. I imagine they’re all like that. Nobody talking, nobody interacting, nobody living – they’re all just working. You got to work twenty-four hours a day to survive on a dollar an hour… and you can’t work twenty-four hours a day without being on the Autonomous Mode.
I learned to avoid the lights. I don’t want that shit in my brain. I steal whatever I need, because nobody cares. Nobody’s watching. There are no police anymore, because there’s no crime anymore. Other than me, that is. The whole world’s running around with more hustle and bustle than ever before, but the whole world’s asleep and deader than I’ve ever seen.
Two years. Three? It didn’t snow last winter… global warming? I can’t be sure what day it is anymore. They don’t run on clocks and such anymore. All their Autonomous shit is wireless now. They sit near computers that don’t even have monitors and just type on keyboards without even seeing.
Another year after that… wandering around in a zombie city… I must have lost it for a bit.
I saw one die.
He came out of it just toward the end. All he could do was scream. He just screamed, and screamed, and screamed, at the top of his lungs…
But it was what he was screaming that terrified me so: thank you.
He was screaming thank you.
I saw another one die. Soul-chilling shit. They’re all in there, still, and they can’t stop anymore. I don’t even know when that happened, exactly.
But the system, see, it’d gotten self… perpetuating, that’s the word. The cycle I’d recognized had been true, and growing stronger. And it didn’t like people like me lurking around its edges, stealing things, stabbing people, and mucking up efficiency.
They grabbed me maybe a week after the second stabbing. Forced me into one of those bright red programmer lights on the street. By then it wasn’t a choice anymore, and it could just straight tell you what to do in the name of efficiency.
I’ve been wandering the streets ever since. I’ve got a job I do twenty-four hours a day now. I do what I’m good at; what I did before. I’m just me, I’m just homeless, and I find other loose minds like my own and NO!
It didn’t work. Not entirely. The old spinal injury kept me half-immune, and they don’t know I know. I’m a horrible liar half the time, and a free mind the other half. Never listen to anything I say. My thoughts aren’t my own. I sense it out there, a gigantic mind behind the control, with a plan beyond insidious and evil, and I can use its eloquent words sometimes. But that’s not true, and the sad thing is, it’s just humans who did this to ourselves. Efficiency, efficiency…
I wandered the streets for five years like that, so alone, so alone… so alone… I met someone who seemed free on the street today, and I was free for just a little bit, and I shouted –
I looked up at her.
Her jaw trembled, and her eyes ran misty.
This wasn’t the tale of someone dead at all. I listened to the noises of the busy city street outside our alley, and, for the first time, I noted the complete lack of human voices. There was only the sound of machines and walking… a rhythm I now found to be completely lifeless and hollow. I stared at her for a long moment, unsure what to do. “Can I trust you?”
She tilted her head down a few degrees, screwed up her face, and let a few tears run free. “No.”
“So it’s probably not a good idea if I let you come with me.”
She clenched her fists, and I saw a single drop of blood eke out from her excessive grip. “I’d try to build one,” she gasped. “Eventually. The plans are… in my head… it wants me to…”
There was nothing else I could say… unless… “You can still help me,” I said quietly, noting her intense strain to hold onto her own will. “I need a first generation iWorker device. The absolute most basic, no mind control, no networking.”
She nodded, eager to be helpful in any way possible to any entity that was not the It that controlled everyone else. She ran to a nearby dumpster and pulled at a rusty panel. “Here, here …” She pulled out several circular devices and picked at them until the least damaged remained. “You stick it behind your ear, right here, and just… do… and it’ll pick up on it.”
“Thank you,” I told her, studying the device. If this thing could control a body without the mind interfering, perhaps it could help us leave the perception-altering book in another universe. I pocketed it, and then faced her. Never make promises, I knew. Never make promises. I couldn’t tell her she would be alright. “I’m sorry…”
Blood poured from her clenched fists as she squeezed her long nails harder and harder into her palms, momentarily clearing her thoughts. “It’s alright. I’m glad there are still free people.”
I nodded, and then departed.
“Come back,” she called, just as I rounded the corner. “I was lying. There’s nothing weird about the lights at all.”
“You still have the book?” my second asked as I stepped back into the forest. “Damn.”
“Watch your language,” I told him. I drew the iWorker out of my pocket and brought it up for the kids to see. “I couldn’t leave the book, but – this just might be our ticket.” I looked back and saw the homeless girl lurking at the other side of the portal, watching us with a neutral half-smile. I wished that I’d had the courage to kill her and free her from her invisible prison. If it had been anyone else, maybe…
Thomas, the younger boy who’d once followed me into another world, was also present. He was old enough to pick up on my momentarily visible sadness. “Who’s that girl?”
I turned away, unable to watch her any longer. “Nobody…”