I was never a intelligent man. Far from it, in fact, but even a dope like me could see that something was off. Weeks had passed since I first felt revulsion and the sensation had steadily consumed me.
It happened over dinner. I was tired having covered Pete's shift at the office and could feel my eyes closing without consent despite the allure of spaghetti and meatballs on the table. The kids were laughing and making a mess and Claire was trying to get them to calm down. For a moment, I let my head drop and I slept. I think I dreamt of blood.
"Dad, wake up! Your dinner's getting cold!"
Chloe's voice brought me back to reality in a snap and I found myself being watched. Claire was smiling, Jake was pointing and chuckling and Chloe looked as worried as always. Warmth enveloped my right hand. In my stupor it had fallen into the tomato sauce so I laughed too, briefly.
As I cleaned myself with a napkin a presence crept up within me. My stomach churned. My forehead started to sweat and I began to feel fear. Their laughter was wrong. Unnatural. I still find it difficult to describe. Imagine listening to a seconds long song over and over again, each time with slight variations as if to disguise it's looping nature. Never the same sound but never entirely different. My discomfort was obvious to Claire, as was everything regarding my state of mind. She placed a hand on my shoulder.
"Are you okay, darling?"
For the first time her touch was chilling.
I couldn't stay in the room. Not with that laughter. Not without my wife's warmth. I told them I needed to sleep and went straight upstairs. I entered our room, locked the door and lay down on the bed under the covers like a child afraid of monsters in the dark. That was the first time I perceived a crack in the world and I didn't want to see another.
Over the following days I tried to convince myself that I had simply been fatigued. The mind can be a strange thing when subjected to a lack of sleep, I thought, but the disturbance was inescapable. Occasionally I would question a mundane event; a neighbour starting his car or a leaf falling from a tree, and each time I wanted to run away and find somewhere safe. I tried to the first time, but all I found was that safety seemed absent from reality. All I could do was wait for the sensation to fade. Sometimes it took longer than others.
I distanced myself from my family and focused on work. The fear was most common at home, though as I spent more time at the office it too transformed into a prison of dread. Familiarity appeared to be the initiator. The longer I spent in a certain place the more my anxiety grew. After a week I was afraid of returning home and feared leaving the house for work. I stopped showing up at the office and used the day to escape. Although the world itself seemed askew it was the people within it that made me uneasy. What is now obvious was then a horrifying mystery I was reluctant to unravel.
Claire made spaghetti and meatballs again. It was my favourite, but now I only associated it with distress. Ten days had gone by and I was falling apart. Everyone was watching me, privy to some global secret, making sure I never found out. I wanted to run as far away as possible, but I couldn't. Despite everything I still saw my children, I still saw my wife. I still saw a family that I loved. The meal was delectable, more so than usual. I probably would have enjoyed it more had I not fallen asleep at the table.
"Dad, wake up! Your dinner's getting cold!"
I had barely been sleeping, kept awake by my thoughts. Claire knew I had changed. She never brought it up but just as she knew me like the back of her hand I knew her like I know myself. She did everything she could to keep me happy. Perhaps she thought I was having affair and was planning to leave. To run away with some young intern from work to a far away country in the sun. Claire didn't want to lose me. She made the nicest food and gave me the best sex of my life. I swear, she had never been so beautiful. It was almost heavenly and it made me sick.
Jacob and Chloe were happier than ever. Their teacher at school came over for dinner to tell us just how much the kids had improved recently. I was proud and so was Claire. So was the teacher. She was young and beautiful and full of charm. Her name was Lilly and she had taken my breath away. Claire, always perceptive, saw instantly. That night, Lilly stayed over and I fulfilled a number of fantasies I don't feel like sharing here. The next morning I got a call from work and was told I had received a promotion. More money and less hours. Despite not appearing for a week. Life was satisfying, but more importantly, it was distracting.
How was I so stupid? So willing to let the world cloud my vision?
I had never been a religious man, however, I had my beliefs. Life had proven again and again that selflessness is rewarded. Magnanimity is an investment. Be good to others and they will be good to you. I remember driving three hours on a Tuesday night to help a friend stuck in the city without the money to get back. There I found a scratch card on the ground and won a sizeable sum of cash. The same with detrimental actions. I made the mistake of drunkenly insulting a man once and now I have a scar on my left side to remember the occasion. Because of this, I considered myself a good man, but had I always been?
Three weeks and I was starting to get my life back together. It was a phase, I thought. A phase I planned to bury and not look back on, but the cracks were growing and no matter how much I tried to cover them up eventually the world would shatter. While I slept I dreamt of blood.
"Dad, wake up! Your dinner's getting cold!"
I opened my eyes and found myself at the dinner table. Jake was laughing and Chloe was worried. Claire was smiling and my hand was warm. I had never felt such a pain in my head or such a will to escape. My body lurched backwards and I stood up, knocking the chair over and pushing the bowl of spaghetti and meatballs away. The children went silent.
"Are you okay, darling?" Claire asked.
I began to shout. I screamed. I retreated to the corner of the room and watched my family huddle in fear as their father gave in to madness.
"You're not real!" I shrieked without a sliver of manliness. My voice was that of a boy, powerless against the forces of the world, unable to act.
It was the third time my hand had fallen into sauce. The third time I had fallen asleep at the table and the third time I had fallen into despair. The laughter was the same as before, identical in every sense, as was everything about the three things sharing the room with me. I locked my eyes shut and hid from the world. I clasped my hands over my ears and blocked out the tears and cries trying to be bring out the father in me. The creatures weren't afraid. Whatever was behind them just wanted me to stop and go back to being whatever I was before.
Nothing was natural, I knew. The world orbited around me, it's centre. Nothing occurred without careful consideration regarding the effect on me. The orchestration was global and absolute. I wanted out.
I thrashed around and howled, hoping to break the cracks and bring down the facade. All I heard was the shattering of plates, the clatter of cutlery on the floor and my family begging me to stop.
My breaths were heavy and my cheeks were wet with tears that had broken through. I looked upon through distorted vision and saw their disbelief, their horror. Had time passed I might have regretted my outburst and I may have returned to the life I once knew, but that wasn't likely and the world knew it.
"Are you okay, darling?" Claire said, so obviously afraid. It was painful to see them terrified of me. I took a step forwards and reached out to them. I wanted to apologise and to tell them that everything would be alright. That I loved them.
Chloe was worried.
And Claire smiled.
And they were gone.
The world I had grown to hate began to vanish around me, dissolving into nothing, almost as if accepting my rejection. I called out for my family as the sky was wiped from above and looked around frantically while the room evaporated. As my house abandoned reality I saw all around me be cut out from existence. The people I knew so well going about their business as normal while everything became nothing. They disappeared too, one by one, and the rest continued with their lives until they were gone also. I was silent and I was full of sorrow. Then I dreamt of blood.
I was in an alley unlike an alley of my world. The smells were pungent and the air tasted like fumes. I was cold and my skin was dirty. Before me was a dead man, his eyes staring at nothing as his chest and stomach leaked red onto the ground. In each hand I held an object. In the left, a wallet with enough cash inside to pay for a cheap meal. In the right was a knife, blood-tinged and heavy. The hand was coated in crimson and warm.
Then it was cold.
I couldn't breathe and I was floating in water. Never had I felt so disoriented and claustrophobic. I tried to open my eyes but was blinded by shaking, refracted light. All around me were snaking tubes and wires restraining my naked body. With all the strength I could muster I tried to shake them off but to no avail. I was weak and trapped.
Then came the sound of mechanical movement. Locks unclasping and pipes opening. The water began to drain and finally I could open my mouth. The air that penetrated my lungs was sharp and agonising but I couldn't get enough. It tasted sterile.
I descended with the water and my feet touched freezing steel. Hairs stood up on my arms and legs and I began to shake uncontrollably. The cold was everywhere. Again I attempted to open my eyes but they were forced shut. They weren't ready yet.
I reached out with one hand and touched glass. It was all around me, cylindrical in form. I was in a capsule of some kind, with metal above and below me and glass all around. Unable to push open any doors I focused on the tubes. Thrashing had done no good but I found that I could pull them individually from my arms and torso. The pain was bearable and with each removed tube I felt a trickle of blood. They were thick syringes and were eight in total. Whether they were administering or extracting I was unsure.
After, I touched my head. I felt plastic pads connected to rubber wires. They were more comfortable to take off. Upon doing so, I was free from coils yet still locked in. I slammed my fist into the glass in front of me and discovered just how weak I was. My strength was minimal, pathetic.
Once again I let my eyelids rise. I could barely see a thing but this time managed to keep them open for a few seconds. It was an improvement.
I am unaware of how long I spent in the capsule but eventually I opened my eyes completely and observed the world around me. I was in the centre of a room filled with inactive computers and panels, not a person in sight. The light source that had caused my so much trouble was a flickering bulb on the ceiling that appeared to be dying.
Now gifted with sight I saw above me an emergency red handle. Without a second thought I turned it to the left and watched as a segment of the capsule slid around to the back. The exterior was just as cold as inside. I stepped out and realised that I was barely able to walk. My legs trembled under my own malnourished weight, forcing me to lean on the first panel I could reach. I didn't know where I was, but it was far from home.
I'll skip over my exploration of the facility and sum up what I discovered. I was in an undisclosed location designed to be a prototype prison. However, I had been unable to find prisoners or anyone, in fact. It appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry some time ago, judging by the rotten food left on plates in the cafeteria. There were no other capsules like my own, or cells. Much of the facility was inaccessible. Doors were reinforced and required electronic access, but a lack of power made opening them impossible, so I explored what I could. I quickly found clothes in the locker room and tinned food in a reserve, enough to last for months, perhaps even years if well rationed.
Eventually, I found a journal. It documented everything regarding me can my capsule from a researchers' perspective. His name was Joseph Warrick and he described how I was captured by the police and sentenced to death for murder. Apparently, I was quite the serial killer and sociopath, though I didn't feel like either of those things. With a plate of cold beans and a bottle of water I continued to read. Much of the documented information was technical and beyond my comprehension but every now and then there was a gold nugget of revelatory exposition. Mr. Warrick had a flare for philosophy and often jotted down musings regarding the ethics of the project.
Project Samsara, it was called, whatever that means.
It was a prototype mind prison , meant to rehabilitate criminals. The objective was too prepare especially deranged individuals for reintegration into society. The process was simple; said individual is placed in a fictitious reality created to condition the subject. Good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour, punished, employing both positive and negative reinforcement. Due to the dreamlike nature of the reality the subject would not question his current state.
I laughed, and then I cried for a while before continuing.
The entire process was automated, without the necessity of human intervention, governed by a program named, also, Samsara. The body, submerged in water to deprive the subject of exterior stimuli, would be nourished automatically, washed and taken care of in full.
I wondered where all the piss and shit went.
Considering I knew enough, I stopped reading and decided I would try to escape from the facility and return to the real world. This proved difficult. As a prison, it was built to be inescapable. I hated the place, and over days I found myself returning to the journal to learn more. Luckily, there were also plenty of instruction manuals and textbooks to help understand the technicalities. With nothing to do but wander and read I absorbed all the information I could under that flickering light.
Both my capsule and the light were running on an emergency generator. Had the facility not been abandoned I never would have discovered the truth about my false reality. With electricity running out, Samsara had activated low power mode, and therefore, it's processes had become much more basic. This had allowed me to see the cracks in the world and reject it. My escape had simply been due to the power finally drying up completely. Samsara died and released me.
I can't say I was grateful.
I missed my family. I missed Claire and her delicious food. I missed playful Jake and I missed Chloe, always so inquisitive. Perhaps only computer generations, but there were real to me. More real that the concrete prison I found myself in.
I went through a period of paranoia. I wondered whether the facility was real or just another simulation, created to punish me for wanting to escape. To ease my mind, I read, and encountered my psychological profile.
I was horrible in my previous life. A killer of children who found sexual pleasure in the bleeding out of a screaming body. I was sickened to hear it and refused to believe this monster and I were one and the same.
Either that, or Samsara actually worked.
Samsara had improved me. It had made me a better man and had given me a loving family and a life of joy. I missed it more than I had ever missed anything.
My plan took months. Using me newly acquired knowledge regarding the facility and Samsara I did everything I could to return power. I bled from the knees and broke a finger trying to carry spare parts. Eventually the electricity ended absolutely and the light went out, but I found my eyes had adapted quite well to the dark. It took a week to open one of the reinforced doors, but when I did I wept tears of joy upon finding a spare generator. That night I celebrated with an extra tin of beans.
I was bearded and weary when I finally managed to connect the second generator. It was like being a father again when I gave life to the facility. The lights returned and the panels and computers lit up. Not only that but the doors opened and for the first time I saw the outside world.
It was disappointing.
I was in a snowy mountain range, somewhere, with no civilization as far as the eye could see. For hours I sat in the doorway staring out at the world that had locked me away, wondering if anyone had ever bothered to check in on me. Memories of my previous life were becoming clearer and I recalled a deep hatred. The world was cruel and the good were crushed by the strong. It wasn't a world I wanted to live in.
Samsara had created a world with inhabiting.
So, I returned to the depths of the underground prison and set about preparing for reimmersion. It was surprisingly simple. With Samsara back online my interaction was barely necessary.
I trembled with excitement as I stood back in the capsule that had retained me for so long. I smiled to myself as I closed the door and I winced as I pushed the tubes back into my healed skin. It would be worth it.
And then there were doubts. What if I returned and remembered everything? Forever knowing that my family was nothing but code. Could I live with that knowledge? Would I be able to escape if I had to? How long would the second generator last? How long would the nourishment I set up last?
The doubts dissipated as I recalled their faces.
As I placed the patches on the sides my head with precision and turned the lock into place the capsule began to fill with water. It was cold, almost painful, but I knew that any suffering would be worth it. A brown liquid flowed through the tubes and into my veins and as the water reached my waist I felt dizzy. My vision began to fade and with a faint smile I said my last goodbyes to the world. The unreal world.
I dreamt of Claire. I dreamt of Jake and Chloe.
I opened my eyes. Slowly. Hesitating, but there was no pain or dread. Warmth enveloped my right hand.
"Are you okay, darling?"