When Marcus and Sidonie met, neither one could have imagined falling for the other. Especially not since one of them is nothing more than a misplaced consciousness living inside a computer.
Genre: Drama, Science-Fiction
• • • • •
This is the beginning of a story that’s been in the back of my mind for years. When Her came out some years ago – you know, the movie with Joaquin Phoenix in love with a Siri-like operation system – I almost scrapped the idea altogether. Until I actually saw the thing and realized my story didn’t have all that much in common with it.
And then Transcendence (with Johnny Depp) came out some years later… again, I figuratively flipped my desk until I saw the movie. I’m safe again. I think. I mean, I certainly haven’t seen them all now, did I? Guess I’m gonna have to take a chance!
• • • • •
The people were the first to disappear. At least, that’s what it took for Marcus to realize something had gone wrong. After hanging up with a client, he noticed how quiet the office had become: It was never quiet.
He rose to his feet, looking beyond his cubicle to find the large room devoid of life. Even the closed offices lined up against the back wall were empty. Marcus couldn’t stop spinning around, utterly confused. Had the fire alarm go off and he didn’t hear it?
He shook his head, knowing it couldn’t be the case. And even if it had, certainly someone would have made sure everyone made it out safely.
Disheartened, Marcus sat back down, swiveling the chair to face his computer. Maybe he had missed an email that would explain where everyone had gone. He didn’t have time to check that the computer screen went black, the low mechanical hum that always inhabited the space dying at the same moment.
Alarmed, Marcus got back to his feet. The room, still where it should be with the tall windows overlooking the city, had lost most of its furniture and electronic equipment. Even the walls had lost their color, now stark white instead of the dirty tan he had grown to despise.
“What the hell?”
Sitting back down had been a necessity more than a choice. Shivering, he pushed the heels of his palms into his eyes, hoping to kill the hallucination. All it did was make things far worse: When he opened them again, all he could see was his desk, computer, and chair, set in a white limitless space.
Cold fear invaded Marcus’s veins while white noise filled his ears, his eyes drawn to the only thing that could mean time hadn’t stopped or that he hadn’t died: The cursor’s ominous blinking in the upper left corner of the black screen.
Sidonie woke to the alarm blaring from her computer, meaning a tenant was in distress. Putting on her glasses, she ran to her office without bothering to put anything else on. She had to shut off the alarm before the neighbors started banging on the walls again.
She winced at the kaleidoscopic lights on the screen and half blinded, she fumbled around on the keyboard to find the appropriate key. The light show stopped, and a chat window popped open on the left. She glanced at the tenant’s chart, then bent forward to type, leaning back up to stretch her arms over her head once done.
Sidonie: Hello, Marcus. My name is Sidonie. How can I assist you today?
Sidonie yawned loudly as the words Ms28055M is typing started blinking underneath her own message. She checked the time on top of the screen and huffed, then yawned again. 5:26 AM… she could have easily slept another hour.
Marcus: What is this? Who are you?
With a muted curse, Sidonie sat at her desk, hesitating between the keyboard or microphone to interact with her tenant. According to Marcus’s chart, he had never once fallen out of the program. Certainly, a booming voice coming from nowhere wouldn’t help him settle down. She didn’t have time to type her response when a second message came in.
Marcus: Where the hell am I? Did you kidnap me?
Sidonie: It’s okay, Marcus. I’m your techno-therapist. Now, tell me… what do you see?
Marcus: I was in the office a second ago, and now all that’s left is a desk, a chair, and a computer. Let me out. Don’t need a damn shrink.
Sidonie: Not a shrink. Give me a moment, Marcus, I’ll find out what’s going on.
Marcus: How do you know my name?
Marcus: What did you do to me?
Marcus: Let me the fuck out!
It took fifteen minutes and a quick phone call to the main server unit to find out Marcus’s problem. When Sidonie prompted the conversation window again, she counted another dozen of increasingly enraged messages.
Sidonie: It’ll all be over soon, Marcus. I’m working on it.
Marcus: How come I can’t do anything but talk to you on this piece of crap machine?
Sidonie: This is just until I can send you back. It shouldn’t be too long now. Everything will be back to normal.
Marcus: Send me back? Back where? What did you do to me?
Sidonie: It’s just a tiny glitch. Please try and stay calm.
Going back to the program file, Sidonie opened the scenario’s source page. How Marcus had even fallen out of it would forever remain a mystery, most probably. It was known to happen from time to time and that it hadn’t happened to Marcus in the eighty years since his death had to be some kind of record.
“Suspension of living,” Sidonie corrected herself out loud. The tenants weren’t dead, only their bodies were. Their consciousness had merely been displaced.
After another thirty minutes of analyzing and correcting code, Sidonie sent Marcus back into the appropriate scenario. She let out a relieved breath when a couple of seconds later, he signed out of the conversation.
She looked out the window, disappointed to see the sun already peeking over the horizon. There was no point in going back to bed now. Yawning and stretching some more, Sidonie walked back to her bedroom to reach the en suite.
Another hour later, she had showered and put on some clothes, then come back to her desk with some coffee and two peanut butter toasts. Going over her case files, Sidonie was relieved to see nobody else had fallen out of scenario. She had just opened Marcus’s file to start writing her report when the alarm went off again.
She turned it off instantly, and this time, a message appeared in the chat window before she could start typing.
Marcus: What the hell is going on?
Sidonie: Are you back in the room?
Marcus: I never left the room. All I know is that you disconnected and left me here to rot.
Sidonie knew full well she hadn’t been the one to disconnect, and the thought that Marcus had been stuck alone and out of scenario for a whole hour made her shiver. That was exactly the kind of thing that could bring a tenant’s mind to break, no matter how healthy their mind had been before.
Sidonie: I’m so sorry about that, Marcus. Let me try this again.
She knew better than to start arguing with a tenant, and a stressed one at that. She opened Marcus’s program file again to try and find out why he couldn’t get back on track, reading every line of code carefully.
This time, she couldn’t ignore the sounds of the incoming messages for very long. Every thirty seconds or so, a chime would resonate into the otherwise silent room. Unnerved, Sidonie grabbed the microphone and turned it on.
“Please stop writing me, Marcus. I’m working on finding out what’s wrong. I’ll get back to you in a second.”
From the computer’s speaker, she could hear him cursing as he typed.
“I can hear you, Marcus. Just talk to me.”
“What the hell is this crap? Show yourself!”
That was something she had hoped would have been possible for a long time; interact with the tenants face to face. So to speak, anyway.
“I can’t. But tell me, Marcus, what do you remember? Before being in this room, I mean.”
“I was at work, minding my own business… people just left, then the furniture disappeared and then… was roofied, wasn’t I? Did you kidnap me or something? Where’s everyone?”
Before answering Marcus’s interrogations, Sidonie had to make sure he could understand and believe her. “Do you know about the Eternalife Program? Do you remember signing up?”
“The what now? Oh, you mean that shit on TV? Nah… too expensive, and I’m sure they’re full of shit anyway. Sending people inside computers? That’s just nuts!”
“All right, at least you know about it.”
Sidonie swallowed, knowing it would be hard to convince him. It was the case for most of the ones who had joined it in the first years of the program, especially those who hadn’t been able to afford the ‘Conscious Slumber’ and ‘Infinite Upgrades’ add-ons.
She took a deep breath before speaking again, making sure she would sound calm and even enough. “So that’s what this is, Marcus. You are inside Eternalife. You’ve been kept into your chosen scenario for a while now and, for some unknown reason, you fell out of it. I believe that the levels of stress you’re experimenting right now are what’s keeping you from going back under.”
“You’re full of crap. That would mean I’m dead and, well, I think I’d know if I was, lady! I’m only twenty-eight years old. I can’t be dead!” The more he spoke, the less assured he sounded.
“Indeed, you’re not dead,” Sidonie confirmed. “We prefer the term suspension of life.”
“Whatever! When do I get to go back to not being suspended, then? I got a job to go to. Got a girlfriend…”
Sidonie chewed on her lower lip, once more worried about Marcus’s mental health. That was why the ‘Conscious Slumber’ add-on should have been part of the basic package, in her opinion. Not only would it make her job much easier, but it would also better ensure the tenant’s sanity.
She tried not to think of those horror stories about tenants going crazy once confronted with the truth. Most of those who went through that never came back from it and had to be purged from the system.
Marcus’s voice echoed in the room again. “Sydney? Are you still there?”
“Yes, I am. Just so you know, my name is See-Doe-Knee, but you can also call me Sid if you prefer. Most of my friends do.”
“Wasn’t sure how to pronounce your name, sorry about that. Can I go back home now?”
“What is home?”
“What do you mean, what is home? Need my address or something? It’s—”
“No, I mean, what is home for you? I just need you to confirm the information I already have in my file and that there was no inherent problem with the scenario you signed up for.”
Actually, Sidonie knew Marcus was about halfway into his ‘Reboot’, since he had said he was twenty-eight years old. Like most that signed up around the time he did, he had gone with the ‘Real Life’ Package, choosing to relive a somewhat idyllic version of his own life over and over. A quick look at his file told her that he was in his fifty-seventh reboot already.
“I didn’t sign up for nothing. What do you want? Money? You got the wrong guy, sister. Maybe you’d have more luck with one of the CEOs upstairs. They got way more cash than I do.”
“This has nothing to do about money, Marcus. What I need is for you to listen to me carefully, all right? The life you know, everything you’ve done until this very day, it’s not your true life. It’s a representation of it. You’ve been d—suspended and in our care for a little over eighty years now. I’m so very sorry.”
“You’re fucking with me!”
“I wish I could prove it to you.”
For a second, Sidonie toyed with the idea of amending Marcus’s account with the ‘Contemporary’ add-on and maybe adding the ‘Conscious Slumber’ one too. Except both were pretty expensive and, according to Marcus’s file, there was nobody left to bill for package updates.
“I think the best thing for you would be to let your scenario run its course until a more permanent solution can be found.”
Not that there would. He would just go back under and would forget all about this little hiccup. It would be as if he’d never jumped out.
“The hell with your damn scenario. Now stop trying to mess with my mind and let me go. I’ve never signed up for any of that crap, which means I did not consent. I’ll sue your ass, I swear I will.”
“You did sign up, you just don’t remember it, Marcus. Not yet, anyway. And anyway, it’s not like we have a body to send you back into…”
To be continued…
• • • • •
That’s all there is to this story for now. In a written form that I can let you read, anyway. I have plans to make this a book. What do you think? Would you like to know where the story goes?
Oh… and don’t mind the title so much, would you? It’s not JUST a love story! Or maybe it is. But, as usual, nothing I write can ever be simple.
Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts, I’d love to read you! And, well, if you haven’t already, you can also subscribe to this website to make sure you never miss anything. Blog posts. Short stories. News about me and my writings.
I hope to see you again next Wednesday. Take care and be happy!