“Yes sweetheart, I’m right here. Try not to move too much, you took a nasty fall.”
Did I? I felt too frozen to move, despite how badly I wanted to because that didn’t sound at all like mom. My head was pounding. Every brain cell felt scorched, as if they’d been ripped apart and placed back together, hopefully in the correct order. In other words, it freakin’ hurt.
“There, there,” she said. “You’re going to be perfectly fine. Just dandy. Dandy as candy.”
The voice was too high and way too… I don’t know, nurturing. Definitely not mom. Although she kind of sounded like the mom I always dreamed of, late at night when we’re able to make such dark, unspoken wishes. In practice, however, it just came off as super creepy.
But… What happened? Who is this lady?
I couldn’t see her, my eyes still refused to adjust from that blinding flash. Just what the hell did Uncle Johnny find in that cave? I’m still in the cave right? And that… thing! That monster! Hang on, why does it smell like cookies? I checked myself for signs of stroke, until I realized it hurt too much to move, and that I didn’t know how to check for that.
“Alex, our medibot has synthesized a pain reliever for you. He’s going to place it under your tongue, ok? Just be a good girl and don’t bite down this time. These things aren’t cheap to fix.”
“Where’s my mom?”
“I’m right here, of course. You’re doing good, sweetheart. Open up.”
I don’t know why, but I did. She must had spooned some kind of tablet under my tongue, because within seconds the pain melted away. All of the pains, including that crick in the neck that’d been creeping up on me for years. It was the best I’d ever felt in my entire life! Holy Shit! –my eyes snapped wide, everything turned bright as the sun– if I could feel like this all the time, what the hell, I could take on the world!
Then all of that sort of dulled away, reminding me of how I hit my head and blacked out in Uncle Johnny’s cave. Now some psycho bimbo was pretending to be my mom. And I was pretty sure she had just micro-dosed me with cocaine.
I sat up, in a silky bed, dressed in lavender silk pajamas under silky sheets the same lush pastel color. Good, at least I wasn’t handcuffed to the posts. I’d seen all the movies and that never ends well. But, Where the hell!?
It was like my old college dorm, but much, much more posh. All the walls and and the door were white, with a weird sheen on them, like when you look at bubbles at just the right angle and see little rainbows. The blonde imposter was sorting through a white closet lined with silk clothes, all lavender. She wore the same pastel color too. Weird.
Someone must have found us in that cave… rescued us. But pretending to be my mom? That’s just crazy. The cave was on the edge of Uncle Johnny’s property, maybe she lived the next lot over? Kidnapped me? It was like Silence of the Lambs, except Buffalo Bill was a Stepford wife.
“Alex, dear, get dressed for rehearsal, we’ll be late as it is.”
“Where am I?”
“Oh, not this again. Please stop with those games. They’ll rot your brain. Inside out, they say.” She was pretty, but clearly pretty psycho. Though I had to hand it to her, she sold it– firmly dedicated to this creepy ‘Mommy Dearest’ role.
I expected maybe she would laugh, break character, tell me what’s really going on. Who she is and where mom and Dr. Pepper are. Maybe she knew where Uncle Johnny was, while we’re at it. Or how to get home. Something. Anything that would make sense. Instead, she started humming. (Come on, had she even met my mother!?!?)
Oh God, mom! Where is mom?
The jumper she plucked from the closet and laid across the bed looked comfy but I was sure as hell not putting that on.
“I’m serious,” she said. “You’re scaring me. How many times are you going to wake up from that silly game and forget yourself?” Her hands grabbed my shoulders and shook me. (She shook me! Usually I’d consider that assault, but I’m pretty sure we’re well past assault by now.) “Listen to me: you are the real Alex. My Alex. Your big show is tomorrow and you’re late to the rehearsal you’ve already rescheduled. Twice. Remember?”
“H-how did I get here? From the cave?”
“What cave? Is that where you went in one of your dream game adventures? Was I there too?” She winked.
The only thing keeping me from screaming, from bashing her over the head with the nearest clothes hanger and running, was the fact that everything she was saying made sense. Somehow. Kind of. In the back of my mind, I was already accepting what she was saying, although I still had no idea who she was, or what she was talking about.
Maybe it was the drugs.
Then it happened: a little spark of memory. You know what I mean, right? Like when you wake up from a dream, but can’t recall it, then you see a Doritos ad and suddenly remember eating nachos and sharing margaritas with Patrick Swayze on a hotel balcony overlooking the Mexican Gulf? Or something to that effect; however this memory was a bit different. It felt absolutely real.
These sheets felt familiar. The clothes. The room. The doting mother. All of it, as if it’s supposed to be my life, somehow, and I merely forgot these important details. I know that sounds crazy but it’s true. Let me tell you, to have memories rush in like that, of getting dressed everyday in the same lavender silk jumper, going to bed in the same lavender silk pajamas. The times, the struggles. The free synthetic drugs. It changed everything.
Rehearsal? Rehearse what? How to scream for help?
I felt crazy. Like two versions of myself were crammed into this weary mind, both competing for attention. Two lives, worlds apart. I remembered searching the cave for Uncle Johnny, and how bad a decision that turned out to be, and also a little of my life here, on Babylon, a luxury space station colony orbiting the solar system. Both felt like a bad dream; one was stronger than the other but I couldn’t wake from either. I was Alex, I knew that. I grew up on 7855 Avalon Lane. No, wait, I…
“Alex, sweetie, the cookies are ready.” The blondie pretending to be my mom returned after I had begrudgingly dressed, followed by a little turquoise flying robot shaped like an easy-bake oven with arms –long, thin, chrome appendages–carrying a steaming tray of chocolate chip. (Robot? The hell? But no, that’s right, we do have bots. They serve us and tend to us.) Like I said, crazy. “I told Nettie to make an extra big one for you, go ahead. You deserve it.” Beside the Stepford lady’s head floated another bot, like a giant tic-tac wearing a painted-on tuxedo. It had little chrome arms that retracted back into it’s flying cylindrical body when they entered. Since I was suddenly experiencing memories from two distinct lives, half of me knew this was our butler bot, Gary, while the other half checked my breath.
“Um, I’m not feeling well,” I said. Not a lie. I fell back across the bed. I hoped that looked dramatic enough. I just needed to think, alone. It was really hard to think.
Hang on! That box we found at the cave… I know what that is… It’s um…. It’s a um… Wait, where’s my backpack?
“Oh no!” the blonde woman said, “what’s wrong, sweetie? Should I call the Medibot back in? Don’t worry, I’m right here. I’ll never leave your side, I promise.”
“Look lady, either get the hell out of my room, or I’m calling the police.”
“You mean Authority.” Then she thought about that and gasped. “You’d call Authority? Alex, you know that’s not funny to joke about.” It must have worked though, because she left the room in a hurry, muttering something about “She can be so harsh…”
“Nettie” shoved the tray into her oven-shaped face, and followed the mom-imposter back out, who I heard command “Gary” to come zap me if I wasn’t out in five minutes. Talk about harsh.
Five minutes wasn’t enough to plan some grand escape, but luckily I was an expert at slipping out. After dad died, and it was just me and mom, her protective thumb got a lot heavier, so I had to get creative. Thank God she wasn’t a light sleeper, or I’d probably had never left the house alone. Even in my early twenties it was like Fort Knox during daylight hours. Sometimes she’d get so neurotic we’d only have pizza and chinese delivered for weeks at a time because she didn’t feel safe to leave the house. That came and went. Like I said, I had to get creative. This, by comparison, looked like a piece of cake.
The bedroom door was electric and slid open, revealing what might had been a living room. It was hard to tell, there was no TV or chairs, just a bunch of different sized pillows, some as large as sofas. I didn’t spot a kitchen either, but– Oh, that’s right, Nettie does all the cooking. The story this memory was portraying made it seem like in this life, I wouldn’t have known what a kitchen was at all, save for what I’d seen in Classical Films.
This life? Really Alex, are you buying this crap?
Somewhere else in the back of my mind said– You know you’re right. Must have been my mom’s side, the real one. Now, there was a loaded subject. No matter how much I was remembering of this other life, that lady picking out clothes in her own bedroom closet was not my mom, and never would be. She was not nearly irritating enough. Plus, my real mom hadn’t called me “sweetheart” since I was six. Just creepy…
The whole place looked like that fancy penthouse we stayed at in New York right before my dad got laid off that one job. Everything was just so white, and shiny. And CLEAN! Definitely not my home. The front door slid open as well and I bolted down the hall to the nearest elevator.
According to the button panel, I was on Lavender Deck, Residential. Every level on this panel was labeled a different pastel color, from red to purple, like the colors of the rainbow. Lavender was seven levels above Main Deck, so I figured I must be on the eighth floor of some eccentric themed hotel, like at Disney World, but– in the backwoods of the Ozark mountains? It didn’t add up, yet… it did, yes. In another life. No, not in Arkansas, not even on Earth. In space.
Yes. Space. If the weird balance in gravity didn’t give it away, it was the endless starfield splashed across the widescreen window when the doors opened on Main deck. Straight out of Star Trek, I swear. And yet, completely familiar. I felt like I’d stepped out of that same elevator and saw that same great expanse every day of my entire life. This was Babylon, my home. I, a professional piano player.
No, it’s not true! Not true. I’m a teller at a bank. In Phoenix. Uncle Johnny is missing… my mom is certified crazy… there was that awful noise in the cave, and then… and then…
I wondered if this place had a bar. A wall sign said ‘shopping’ to the right, so I went that way. Soon the right wall gave way to little shops and restaurants and neon-lit nooks and crannies, as did the left side a bit further down. Everyone I passed was wearing silk loungewear like mine, but in various pastel monochromes from red to yellow to blue and green, and of course this lavender I had on. (Yuck, I don’t even like purple.) Basically, a freakin’ Easter Parade down main street, in other words. It was weird, the clothes matched the different level colors in the elevator, maybe it went by which deck they lived on? I didn’t know, the memories of this other life seemed to have stopped singing.
Someone waved to me, but I wasn’t comfortable approaching, for all I knew they could be a lunatic too. Or maybe I was one, all of that was starting to become unclear. The whole thing felt crazy but familiar, like…. How can I put it? Organically unnatural, if that makes sense.
I had to get home, I knew that. Or at least back to the cave, then I could navigate my way home from there. And mom and Dr Pepper! I had no idea if they were here too, or back at the cave, waiting. Thinking I’m missing. I guess I was missing.
It makes no sense, how could we get from the cave… to outer space? Am I even in my own body? Or like, having one of those future-life experiences? Or vice-versa? Are mom and Dr pepper even real? They are, I know it. Because I am. Right?
That drink was sounding real good.
I saw nothing that said liquor, but lots of ketamine bars, whatever those were, so I picked one that looked the most like an English pub and sauntered in, ready to tell my crazy story to the nearest drunk unlikely to remember it anyway. I had no pockets, and therefore no cash, but the bartender robot scanned this gaudy white plastic bangle I’d been wearing on my left arm, and thanked me for my business. The thin bangle vibrated, must had had some kind of haptic feedback installed, I figured. Neat.
“Hey,” the bartender said. It was the most human looking robot I’d seen yet, not counting the metal skin and godlike cup flipping skills. (Tom Cruise had nothing on this bot.) “Did you hear about that prisoner who got loose? Running amok all over the place, tearing things up?”
“No,” I replied, cheek-on-fist, mesmerized by the way his hands crafted what seemed to be a rather complicated recipe with such flare and expertise, never looking. “But nothing is surprising me right now.”
“News says Authority has it all under control, but who can believe anything the either of them say, ammiright? Why are we keeping prisoners on a colony station anyway?”
Did he really think that, or just programmed for small talk? I had no idea, not my problem. I was on the first ticket out of here. Soon as I could figure out how. I just nodded and graciously accepted his bubbling concoction. The bot kept talking,
“There was an announcement earlier by Authority: ‘Prisoner codenamed “Johnny” has escaped. Do not approach. The prisoner is considered highly dangerous.’ You got that announcement, right?” He pointed to my white bangle. “Don’t you ever watch News?”
My ears definitely perked at the word “Johnny.” A coincidence? Not possible. There was no use talking to a robot about this, but things were definitely starting to click. Maybe Uncle Johnny hadn’t got sucked up by aliens, or drowned in the dark stream in his cave. Maybe he came there, same as I. However that was. Mom could be there, too. I’d start my search, immediately. Right after a shot of liquid courage…
Now, I will tell you something: whatever the hell he put in my drink was not alcohol. I thought maybe it was, up until the walls started melting. That was the second time I was served drugs in this place, and I’d be damned if I didn’t speak to someone in charge. Immediately.
At least, that’s what one side of me, somewhere deep within, was saying. Again, probably my mom’s. Don’t ever get me wrong, Karen was a great mom, she really was. She stood up for herself, that was always my big takeaway. I sort of missed her already. Almost. I was so lost in transcendent thought, the hand that grabbed my shoulder felt like my own. I was like one with the universe, or something. But no, my two hands were planted firmly on the table. I hadn’t spontaneously grown another, had I?
“Alex, wake up, sweetie.”
“That’s right. Are you feeling ok? You took a nasty fall.”
Did I? I remembered running wild down the street on Main, drugged out of my mind, believing I was from the 21st century, from Earth. It was like a dream, but I knew it was much worse. A plain ol’ dream would be preferable. And why was Kaivon chasing me? Shit, he saw me at that Ketbar! He must have thought I was insane, running away like that. Oh fuck my Earth! And then I what, blacked out? If this ends up on News, I’m doomed. Effing Doomed.
Damn video games… I mean… I mean, mental games. What the hell, am I still stuck in that character??
The simulated memory of searching that cave for “Uncle Johnny” lingered, clearly I was suffering some kind of bleed-through from the game. Great, I’ll have to get the implant checked. Like I have time for that…
“Sweetie, I know you’re going through some stuff so I haven’t wanted to push, but you missed your last chance at rehearsal yesterday.”
“FUUU—” The show was that evening. No, it’s fine. I’ll be fine, I told myself.
“Language! You know they’re listening! You do, don’t you?” She locked eyes and peered deep into my soul with her steely baby blues. Mother always acted like she could read my mind, or something. When I couldn’t stand it anymore and looked away she said, “just promise me you’ve been practicing in your off time. We need a good performance. You know what I mean, right?”
I did, I nodded. I couldn’t shake the lingering memory of living on Earth: working myself to the bone for a living, never enough money to be comfortable, needing assloads of therapy for my crazy mom, which I could never afford. Just a game, though. A historically accurate game, mind you, but unreal nonetheless. No more real than a strange dream. No, on Babylon–in real life–the higher ups based our wealth on their entertainment value. Or put simply, our lifestyles were funded by glorified talent shows, as it should be.
Mother and I were well-off since I was so good at the piano. I don’t want to brag, but I was kind of a star. A dignified celebrity, (well, a celebrity, at least.) No, don’t be jealous, the pressure is often insurmountable. Too often. I mean, everyone looks at you like it’s supposed to be easy, but they’ll never know. Only those on Lavender deck could understand. Us, who’ve clawed our way up out of poverty, one nail-biting performance after another. Now that I was on Lavender, it’s basically excel at every show to maintain status, or risk being kicked down to a lower deck, while patiently waiting around for someone to die for an opening on Rainbow. When that inevitably happens, it’ll be an all out massacre on Lavender, guaranteed.
Rainbow is everyone’s goal, though sometimes I think Mother wanted it more than I. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted it bad. Not only would I be an elite celebrity, I would no longer be expected to compete. It’s the end of the road, after a very long and treacherous journey. You can’t come back down from Rainbow, unless you choose to. I have zero idea why anyone would. Rainbow would be it for me, I’m so done. It hurts, keeping everything up as I do. Rainbow was where I could finally rest. Good Earth, I needed to rest.
In the meantime, I settled for little breaks when I could take them. A good break was to forget about it all, and the only way to forget about it all was to dive deep in the mental games. Get a little lost. Maybe I went too deep, the last time. Lost more than I bargained for…
“And lay off the games, Alex. They’ll rot your brain.” She got up and called for Nettie to bake some pies, one apple and one blueberry, my favorites. Always buttering me up. (Of course she was, I was the breadwinner. Mother’s warbled vocalizing never drew enough attention.)
“Yes, ma’am,” I heard Nettie respond after some compliant chirps. “Would you like me to search for recipes by the decade, or pick at random?”
“Oh,” mother replied, “I think one from the 1990’s will do just fine! She loves that period, can’t imagine why! Alex, are you getting up yet? We have a party to plan!”
Mother wanted an ancient Egyptian theme, but with techno-cosmia flare; I was thinking more “Y2K bash-meets-Michael Jackson.”
“You are obsessed with that era! Let it go, sweetie.”
I don’t know why she asks me things. Gary calculated for Egyptian-meets-neo techno and generated a projection of the massive party venue dressed in that decor. Good Earth, that woman always went overboard on these events. What was she compensating for? Huh? That’s the question. If she wanted more love, she could just back off a little. Give me some breathing space, you know? Mother’s nose crinkled.
“Oh, but don’t you think there should be less fog? We won’t be able to see all the hieroglyphs. And pyramids! Where are the pyramids? What do you think, Alex?”
“Less fog,” I answered, paying no more attention than I had to. She was going to do it however she wanted, anyway. I was starting to freak about the performance that evening, just praying I wasn’t getting rusty. Yes, OK, the mental games were a crutch. Fine, I got that. I had to stop, or at least take a good long hiatus.
Tomorrow. I’ll be lucky to afford gaming anymore, depending on how tonight goes.
Two nights before, I had plugged into the latest mental game, Treasure Hunters Sim, and fell asleep as usual, ready to dream about a “whole ‘nother life.” With those games I just programmed my settings from my bangle, (typically set sometime in the 1990’s, my go-to time period when I’m feeling extra trapped), then off to sleep and the implant does the rest. I always kept my name as Alex in sims like that, it was just a thing I did.
This build was top notch, for sure, but buggy as hell. Revolutionary in it’s execution, but with some nasty side effects like complete lack of lucid awakening hacks, (that should be standard in every mind game if you ask me,) and of course the nasty hangovers where you get stuck in their playable character’s memories, basically stuck as that character. Usually it was a minor thing and only lasted minutes.
Something definitely went wrong this time. Mother said I had fell out of bed and she had to call a few bots in to put me back. Apparently, I was unresponsive. And then to be stuck in character for so long, and then I guess I blacked out again down on Main…
So on top of everything else, I now had to get my brain implant diagnosed because it was clearly malfunctioning and warranty was coming to an end. Tonight’s performance had to go well. It had to.
I called in our medibot, just needed something to calm the nerves. That shiny little black box was my best friend sometimes, only those on Green deck and above are afforded one; it had a whole world inside, a complete chemical lab to create anything we wanted. Anything we needed. And for now, I needed comfort. It flew up into my face, glowing lavender around all it’s edges which signified it was listening. Within five seconds it had synthesized some Calm-eez and flew away. I placed the tablet under my tongue and relaxed.
“Mother?” I asked. I tapped the little ruby adorning my left wrist bangle. A hologram screen projected up from it, and I pulled my top picks for cake design.
“Do you know anyone named Johnny?”
“Hmm, no. I don’t believe so. Why?”
To be continued…