It was the year 2012. No-one knows why they chose that particular year, but it was that year, indeed, when the strange digital race, known as the Encoded, appeared on Earth. Their bodies were shaped like men, but each one of them wore a black, metal suit which hid their faces. They did not arrive on Earth by chance. They had a purpose, and that purpose would soon come to reveal itself, as they approached their first candidate.
In a small town in South Africa, Denicus Boskovic, a twenty-eight-year-old man, was just making an honest attempt at living his life. He was born in South Africa, his family having relocated from former Yugoslavia (now Croatia) in the 1950’s. He could not speak Slavic, and had a normal South African English accent, though he had distinct continental features; a tanned complexion, and a natural ability to withstand warmer temperatures.
He had studied computers but had pulled out of the industry. He had a wife, Kristina, and a daughter, Ania, and in order for him to look after them properly, he chose to forge a new destiny for himself. The high pressure and stressful environment of the computer industry had pushed him to the last limit, and after winding up in ICU, he finally resigned. Kristina’s father had recently died, and naturally, she was still grieving. Ania was now two years old, and Kristina was four months pregnant with a boy.
Denicus was working on his writing; it had been the one thing he had been good at, and the one thing he had always wanted to do. Now, having written off an industry that he felt profited mainly from human error, he felt that he could work hard on his dream of becoming a full-time writer. It was going slowly and writer’s block was gnawing at him, so he’d sometimes go out to buy smokes or groceries; just little errands and things that freed his mind and gave it a break from staring at a computer screen.
In recent weeks, whenever he went out, either with the family or by himself, he noticed a lot of balloons. It wasn’t an unusual sighting, for most people had kids, and kids like balloons. Every time he saw one though, it would pop. This too wasn’t unusual; balloons tend to pop. In fact, it could even be argued that they are destined to pop. There are even people who have an extreme fear of balloons popping.
Denicus thought no more this strange pattern of balloons popping whenever he was in the vicinity, but he had made note of it, even if it was only a tiny note in his head. He liked observing and making his own deductions about his surroundings, the people he saw, or anything that he noticed. He classified himself as an expert observer. He also did not get surprised very easily. In his own words, “An elephant could land in my backyard, and I’d say, oh, look, an elephant, and get back to whatever I was doing.”
One particular Saturday, Ania was at her grandparents for the weekend, and Denicus and Kristina had gone on a date. They had gone out for dinner, and thereafter were walking around the mall, which was built atop a lake. There were plenty of things to see; a duck pond, light displays and even fish, which could be seen if you watched the water for a while. Most people did this, even though Denicus himself felt it was kind of daft. They are fish, after all, and can only offer so much of interest.
They were in the process of watching the ducks preening each other when a balloon flew in their direction. It wasn’t going fast, but it was headed firmly towards them. There was no mistaking it.
“For fuck’s sake, another balloon!” said Denicus, now tired of seeing these plastic air-containing bubbles.
“It’s just a balloon, babe. It won’t hurt you,” said Kristina, poking at his ribs, playfully.
“I keep seeing them, all around me, and then they just pop.”
As he spoke the word ‘pop’, the balloon did just that.
Kristina screamed; she had an unnatural fear of loud noises, and incidentally too the fear of balloons popping.
“It’s okay. The balloon just popped,” said Denicus, holding his pregnant wife tightly, knowing full well why she had screamed so.
Eventually, Kristina calmed down, and they both turned to look at what they expected to be a fallen balloon. But there was no balloon, and in its stead stood a masked figure in a black suit. It appeared that the entire mall had cleared and they were the only ones there, looking at this masked apparition.
Not surprised, but not exactly comfortable either, Denicus said wryly,“Well, popping balloons and strange aliens in suits. What next?”
He prodded at the suit and found that his finger went right through it. It was as if the figure which stood right in front of him, wasn’t really there at all.
Now actually surprised, a look of genuine shock formed on Denicus’ face, before a strange voice emanated from the figure’s mask.
“Denicus Boskovic, please come with us.”
“Us? But there’s only one of you, as far as I can see.” He looked around as if to confirm the words he had just said. He prodded at the suit one more time just to be certain.
“I refer to our race as a whole. I am but one of many. I am merely a representation of one shared personality.”
“Um. Okay... Who are you, then?” said Denicus, folding his arms.
“We are the Encoded, and we require your services.”
“Oh, um. Let me check my diary quick...”
He fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone and swiped the screen to unlock it.
“Well, I don’t seem to have any free time this week. How about next week? I’ll give you my number, and you can get back to me, and we’ll talk.”
“No. This will not suffice,” said the strange, talking black suit. “You will come now.”
There wasn’t even a hint of emotion in the tone of voice, but the individual placed a hand on Denicus, and both he and the suit vanished, leaving Kristina standing alone, frightened and deeply concerned about what had just happened to her husband.
In the space of a single second, Denicus stood in a weird, futuristic-looking city. He had no idea how he had travelled there so quickly. It was as if time and space and all those things that held such dominance over human life had no power anymore. At least not for him, or the place where he was. Logic itself had no place either, apparently.
Denicus looked around and saw gigantic roads in the sky. There were no pillars or structures keeping them up; they were just there, floating. Strange vehicles or spaceships flew here and there, much the same as modern-day traffic, only from what Denicus could see, every last ship was driven with skill.
“I wish we had drivers like that in my city,” he commented.
The suited man had no response for that, and if he did he kept it to himself.
Denicus shrugged and looked at the buildings, which seemed like they were made of very expensive metal; a kind of metal that probably couldn’t be found on Earth or anywhere that humans knew of. Strange blue lights shone from inside each one with an almost ethereal glow.
Outside, similar lights hung in the air. They were almost like street lights but there was nothing supporting them. They were just floating there, positioned meticulously proportionate from one another as if the entire setting had been designed by master architects.
Above these floating lights, where one would expect to see a sky there was something else. A massive dome, concave in shape, covered the entire expanse of what Denicus had concluded to be a city. It seemed to be protecting it from whatever was outside the dome, whether it was the air itself or some terrible alien race. At this point, anything’s possible, thought Denicus.
He was still busy staring at the weird city in the sky when the same figure touched his shoulder again. Immediately they vanished once more.
“Again! Damn it! I can’t stand this. Tell me how you did that?” said Denicus, as they appeared inside a room, full of buttons and switches and digital displays.
He approached the strange ensemble of buttons and switches. He felt a bit like a two-year-old who was told not to fiddle but he wanted to fiddle anyway. His hand almost touched a button when a metallic, digitized voice spoke, “Denicus Boskovic, we have located you, the first of many.”
“One of many, first of many, what is this, a joke? Haha, Universe, very funny!” Denicus threw his hands in the air. Then he clapped.
“I am not amused,” the robotic voice proclaimed, “We are in dire need of your services. Allow me to explain.”
The digital displays suddenly beamed into life, all rendering the same image. For now, the image was a black screen.
The voice continued, “We are a digital race, known as the Encoded. We are stuck in digital form, or code form, at this point in time. We were not always so.”
Denicus felt like he was a guest at a lecture, as the screens produced images of almost human-like individuals. Every last one of them had piercing green eyes and immaculately neat hair. They did not have that zoned-out, bored expression that most humans seem to have. You could almost see, just by looking, that some form of superior intellect resided within their minds. You can look at some humans and just know they lack a brain, or at least the one they have has severe limitations.
The voice proceeded. “We are a race, similar to yours, however, we are slightly more advanced. But it was our evolved nature which led us astray.”
Another image danced onto the screens. This time, itt showed the green-eyed people working tirelessly in what looked like laboratories. They were working with strange technology, like computers, but much smaller. It seemed almost nonsensical to Denicus.
“We surpassed the human race in technology many years ago, and our goal was to create sentient machines. We worked for many years until eventually, we were able to produce the first prototype. We called it Encoded Life.”
The image changed again, this time to the figures wearing the masks and suits. You couldn’t see any eyes or features, just the masks and the suits.
“We arranged to showcase our new invention to our leaders. The entire race gathered to witness our greatness. The prototype had been thoroughly tested, and we were confident in its abilities.”
The image now showed a gathering of the green-eyed people, holding their heads as though they were in crippling agony. The next image showed them all wearing the black suits and masks. It zoomed in, right up to the face of one of the suits, and there was nothing there.
“There’s nobody inside there,” said Denicus, pointing at the image.
“Correct. That is because we are trapped in the digital realm.”
Denicus scratched his head.
“Listen, do you mind if I smoke?”
“We do not understand this strange habit, but if you must.”
Without any hesitation, Denicus reached into his pocket, pulled out a Marlboro Red, and lit it up. Breathing out a plume of smoke, and suddenly feeling much better, he said,“Okay, trapped in the digital realm? I’m going to need a bit more than that.”
“Yes, our personalities, our individuality, it has all been transformed into code. We are no longer biological beings. We are....machines, empty vessels. Our limbs and appendages work much better and faster than our biological forms and as a result, there is no need to for us to exercise. There is no need for sustenance either. But we cannot think for ourselves. What one thinks, we all think. We long to be unique once more.”
Denicus didn’t know what to make of it. He did not doubt the sincerity of the united voice that he heard, even though there wasn’t much to go by with regards to the tone it carried. After a brief pause, he asked, “What do you need me for then?”
“We require a human of sound mind and body. We will attempt to inject your essence into one of our modified suits, in order to enter the digital realm and investigate. You will, of course, require a team to achieve this.”
The word ‘attempt’ stood out in Denicus’ mind. “Attempt? Does that mean there’s basically a rat’s ball hair’s chance of success?”
“No. We use the word ‘attempt’ because it will depend largely upon your willingness.”
There was another pause, as Denicus tried to think.
“Why me? I’ve got a wife and kids? You’ve just forcibly removed me from my wife’s company, and she’s probably worried to death about me.”
“No, she is unaware of this meeting. She has also forgotten about when Unit 748210 arrived.”
“Unit what? What does that mean?”
“The unit, one of our numbers, that you encountered, which brought you here.”
“Oh, so she’s safely at home now, and all’s forgiven?”
“We hope. You will not decide right now. We will give you one night, and one day, to decide.”
As the digital voice finished its sentence, Denicus reappeared in front of the lake, his arms still around Kristina. The onslaught of information hit him as he re-entered reality, and he buckled over and passed out.
Moments later he awoke to the sound of Kristina’s voice, “Baby, baby, wake up please!”
His eyes fluttered and he looked up. Immediately she grabbed him in her arms.“Oh my God! I’m so glad you’re okay!”
He rose, letting her help him up. He noticed that time had actually re-winded after his return to reality. It was as if the strange meeting did not even happen at all. The popped balloon wasn’t even there. He lit himself a cigarette.
“We need to get out of here,” he muttered, “ I need to tell you what happened.”
“No, no. We’re going to the hospital right now,” Kristina argued, “You don’t just fall down. That’s not you. Something must be wrong.”
“I’m okay, babe. It’s not my health. Something happened. I’ll tell you when we get home.”
Kristina bit her tongue, but she was pregnant and tired and didn’t really feel like arguing and she wasn’t actually in a state to wait around at a hospital. They walked to the car, got in and started their journey back home. The traffic was quiet as they drove and so was the atmosphere in the car as Denicus tried to piece together how he would explain the situation to his wife. He wondered if she’d even believe him. At any rate, she would know soon enough what happened.
Denicus took out his phone and punched in ‘Mom’ in his list of contacts. Immediately, his mother’s phone number showed up on the screen. He pressed the dial button and listened to the ringer. It clicked.
“Hi, Denicus, ready to pick Ania up?” his mother answered.
“Hey, Ma, do you mind if she stays over another night?”
“Of course, my angel, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Kristina and I just need to discuss something. That’s all.”
They arrived home, pulled into the driveway, and got out the car. Neither one spoke; Kristina knew that if Denicus said, “We’ll talk at home”, he meant it, and he would not utter a word until they were safe in the confines of their living room. That was just the way he was and how he’d always been. She’d gotten used to it.
Pretty soon, they were inside. Denicus made coffee while Kristina waited on the couch. He brought the coffee through, placed both mugs on the table, and sat down.
“Okay, my love, what happened now?” said Kristina, hardly able to contain herself any longer.
He dug in a drawer, where he kept his home-grown marijuana and bong. Taking both items from the drawer with him to the kitchen, he poured some water into the bong and went to sit again. Removing some of the pre-mauled marijuana and tobacco mixture from a little bag, he placed a pinch of it into the bowl and took a long bubbly draw.
He breathed out.
“It’s a long story, babe, just bear with me on this one.”