A tech conglomerate has drawn society into an indiscernible labyrinth of virtual realities. Henry Caldwell is determined to bring them down, but at what cost?
The bell above the door rang, barely audible over the howling wind rushing in past Henry. Henry had the collar of his jacket pulled up high enough to graze his earlobes, only in part because of the cold. He breathed hot air into his hands and wrung them as his eyes searched the mostly empty pub. The bartender may have glanced his way when he came in, but other than that, no one paid him any mind.
He was fine with that.
His eyes finally landed on what he was looking for: his brother hunched over the table in the farthest corner. His back was to the door—likely because he knew Henry would want a view of the room—but Henry would recognize the back of that hard head anywhere.
Good old Freddie.
He made his way through the barroom keeping his shoulders up, his face tucked into the collar of his heavy winter jacket. He was just about to give Freddie a big brotherly slap on the shoulder when he suddenly recognized the man’s posture. He stepped quickly to his side and bent over to look Freddie in the face.
“What the hell is this, then,” he demanded in the most forceful whisper he could muster. It was forceful enough to startle Freddie so badly he fumbled the cell phone he’d been using and barely saved it from tumbling to the floor. “Look,” Henry said, standing straight. “I don’t mind ya having one, I don’t even mind if ya bring it with ya. But leave it in the car when yer meetin’ with me. ‘sat too much to ask?”
“I’m sorry, Henry. I’m sorry, I really am,” Freddie pleaded with his hands raised, the cell phone lodged in the crook between his thumb and forefinger. “I’ll take it back, I’ll take it to the car.”
Despite pushing forty, Freddie still had a baby face and a child’s eyes. The rest of him, however, was certainly full grown as he had put on considerable weight over the last decade. His hair was cropped short and hardly ever combed. Rather than make him look messy, though, it added to his bumbling, child-like charm. Henry could never stay mad at him for very long at all.
“No, no,” Henry waved him off as Freddie began to stumble out of his chair. “No, just put it away, will ya?”
“Of course, of course,” Freddie said. “Sorry.” He looked at it for a moment more and flipped to show Henry the screen as it powered down. He slipped it into the inside pocket of his jacket and a great smile broke out across his face, his indiscretion quickly forgotten. His rosy cheeks bunched up and his eyes twinkled. “Gotcha a pint.”
Henry smiled and shook his head as he slid his jacket off. “I see,” he said, glancing at the stout on the table. “Thanks.” He took a glance around the room. Everyone’s eyes seemed to be on their own business and there was no one in earshot. He noted the side exit and the set of stairs to his left. He had the entire lay of the room imprinted in his mind before he reached his seat. “So, what’s the big news?”
“Well,” Freddie started. He fidgeted with the coaster under his half-full beer, his eyes fixed on the brown bubbles circling the inside of the glass. “I’ve met someone.” He bit his lower lip to stifle a smile as he glanced at Henry.
Henry’s eyebrows raised and his own face lit up. “That so?” he asked. “Well, look at that! Cheers, brother!” He hoisted his pint and Freddie, blushing, could no longer contain his smile. He snorted a bit as he raised his glass to meet his brother’s. They each tapped the bottom of their glass on the wooden table and took a long drink. “So, tell me all about her,” Henry said. “Where did you meet?”
“Oh, she’s just wonderful, Henry. And pretty! So pretty. She’s a teacher! You know how I like children, Henry. And a teacher would make a fine mother, don’t you think?”
“I do,” he said raising his glass and taking another drink. “Where’d you meet this pretty teacher?”
“Uh…her name is Sharon. She even likes video games, Freddie. We played video games for hours the other night. And she likes comic books! She really couldn’t be more perfect if I’d have designed her my—” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed the end of his sentence. He stared at Henry, his mouth slightly ajar. His breathing grew rapid. He snapped his mouth shut and his brow furrowed as he turned his attention back to his beer.
Henry turned his head and looked at him sideways. “Freddie,” he said. He pushed his drink to the side with enough force to send beer sloshing over the rim of the glass. He leaned as far onto the table as he could without coming out of his seat. “Freddie.” It was a demand now. “Where did you meet her?”
“I, uh, well…that’s the thing, Henry.” The blush had yet to recede from his cheeks. A nervous chuckle escaped his small mouth. The pitch of it made Freddie seem even more childish than usual. He took a long breath and his features seemed to settle. He turned his glass up and swallowed half its contents in one go. He looked Henry dead in the eyes. He raised his eyebrows in a manner that said he had nothing to be ashamed of—the tone and the quiver in his voice said otherwise. “I met her on weMatch.”
Henry bolted upright, but managed to stay in his chair. “we—” he caught himself as he belted it out. He leaned back over the table and returned to the whisper with which he’d shown up. “weMatch? Are you kidding me, Freddie?”
“I know, Henry. I know, but—”
“’But’ nothing,” Henry snapped through gritted teeth. He sat back up and looked around the bar. He leaned on the table and stared at the ground, his brain obviously working through some things. A sharp puff of air escaped his nose. He sat back up and drummed his fingers on the table as he checked the exits, front and side. He cut glances at the faces around the room. Why was the fellow in the corner sitting at that odd angle? Was that lady actually applying makeup or using her little mirror for more suspicious reasons?
He turned back to Freddie, chewing the inside of his lips until a sudden realization rendered the muscles in his face slack. He pointed at Freddie’s chest where he’d slipped his phone. “You…you’re in their system and you brought that thing in here? Jesus,” Henry muttered, slamming his head into the palms of his hands.
“Henry,” Freddie pleaded.
“Don’t Henry me, Fred. Hell, how do you even know I’m here? How do you know you’re here? This could all be fake, Fred. One of their virtual reality simulations.”
“Because it needn’t be, now need it? I’ve already met her—”
Henry slouched back in his chair. “So you’ve already been under,” He said, his head slowly shaking back and forth.
“Well that is how they do it, ya know.”
“Oh, I know, Freddie; and you know I know!”
“Yes, I know you know, Henry.” His tone was sharper than usual for Freddie and it struck a nerve in Henry, something that Freddie rarely did. But, of course, that’s what a virtual reality matchmaking service will do for you. It will create the most ideal circumstances under which to meet your most ideal mate. Anyone would fight tooth-and-nail for something like that, and they’d defend it like hell once they had it.
Henry softened his features. He leaned forward, his palms up, pleading. “Freddie, you know I’m just worried about you, don’tcha?”
Freddie’s features relaxed, too. He took a drink of his beer. “Yeah, I know,” he said into the glass. But, I’m paying attention, Henry. I know how easy it is to slip down the rabbit hole. I watched you do it; I don’t want to do it myself. I certainly don’t want to put you through what you put me through.”
Another zinger. Henry recoiled and crossed his arms.
“Look, I’m sorry, Henry,” Freddie relented. “But, I’m really happy. Really. For once,” he chuckled. Henry could help but chuckle along with him. It was good that his brother was happy. He deserved to be.
Henry tried to breath away his tension. At the very least, he needed to rid the air of the tension between he and his brother. Freddie was right: Henry had put him through the ringer as he lost himself in his own virtual reality after the death of his wife. It wasn’t until Freddie dragged him to a VR detox center that Henry was extracted from seven levels of false reality. The doctors said they’d never seen anything like it. It took Henry eight months to get his mind straight.
“Alright’cha knucklehead,” Henry said, smiling. “Go on, then. Tell me more.”
After watching Freddie ramble on like a school girl through three pints of stout and a celebratory shot of whisky, they headed for the door. They wrapped each other in a brusque hug, the way men do, and Freddie headed off. Henry pulled his collar up a little further, surveilled the street corners and shop fronts for cameras, and headed in the opposite direction with his hands stuffed deep in his pockets.
So, now they’d gotten to his brother. No matter, Henry thought as he watched his breath materialize and dissipate in the air above his head. If there had been any doubt in his mind up until this point, his brother had erased it at that table in the pub. Henry had allowed weAre, the soulless conglomerate of every major industry in the world, to take control of his life for too long. He’d watched people lose themselves in simulated realities.
And now they had his brother.
Henry couldn’t even be sure that Freddie’s girlfriend was real. If she was, there was always a chance that she was some marketing agent. What better way to seduce a naïve, cherub-faced simpleton like Freddie into the void?
No matter at all, he thought. He’d just have to act on his plan to destroy them sooner than he’d expected.
Henry had already done the legwork. Getting access to weAre Headquarters would likely be a piece of cake. He was a relatively personable fellow, it would just take a bit of social engineering. The fact that weAre’s corporations would be responsible for providing all the information he needed was a sweet bit of serendipity.
He’d begun his homework in an internet café on a popular networking site, weWork. weAre’s employees were not immune to the siren’s song of social media. These days, it was all about being a part of the conversation, building a relationship with your consumers. That required transparency. And each corporation within weAre’s conglomerate had a weWork page that was as transparent as the emperor’s new clothes.
Using a fake account, Henry had scrolled through the thumbnails of weAre employees. Henry had always felt more comfortable in the company of men, so he’d focused his attention on the male employees. Women were too skeptical; it could take months or even years to gain one’s trust. The right man, on the other hand, would simply need his ego stroked a bit. Bump into a guy at a bar, adapt the beta-demeanor and you’re in.
He couldn’t select anyone at too high a level; he couldn’t relate to those blokes. He needed someone with more access than a janitor or mail boy. He’d limited his search to executive or administrative assistants. His sister had spent some time as an executive assistant. Thanks to a few of her alcohol-fueled venting sessions, he knew that most executives left to their assistants those tasks that they considered mundane. He’d come across a few quite viable candidates.
He’d gone on to search each of them on the social networking site weLive. Two of them were married with children. There were photos of football and recitals, birthday parties and family vacations. Not a lot of common ground there. The third, Michael, was the executive assistant to the marketing director. Single, late thirties, self-proclaimed “#1 Game of Thrones fan.” He’d been moved to the marketing department only a week ago, according to the employment history on his timeline. There were a few photos of solo hiking trips and group photos from late nights at pubs and night clubs. There were a lot of photos of his dog, a collie named Lucy.
Henry had walked around with this information for about a week, now. He knew he was stalling, but this was no small task. There was a possibility of failure, and very real consequences. The thought of other people getting pulled into the same black hole that he had—losing his grip on reality, and almost losing his family along with it—made what he had to do more palatable. But now that his brother had finally succumbed, Henry was practically salivating. He’d made his mind up for certain. Tomorrow morning he would waltz in and topple the most destructive conglomerate on the planet.
“Good morning, weAre marketing department, Mr. Geoffrey James’ office. This is Michael speaking. How may I help you?”
Henry had picked up a disposable cell phone at the corner store that morning. He’d taken the bus to the front of the monstrosity that was the weAre headquarters building, where he now stood. Looking up at it, Henry thought it would have to be measured in acres or megatons rather than square footage. He couldn’t help but feel badly for anyone who actually carried the obligation of managing an interior renovation project for any department in this building.
“Hello, Michael, this is Gregory from the project management team at Team Spaces?”
“I’m sorry, who?” He responded after a slight hesitation.
“Team Spaces, we were hired to renovate the marketing department offices. I’m here to take a preliminary look before our assessment team comes in.”
“Um,” Henry could hear the shuffling of papers and tapping on the keyboard. “I’m sorry…I don’t see anything on the calendar. I wasn’t told of any such appointment.”
Henry sighed heavily into the phone. “Okay, the truth is that I booked the appointment with the other bloke. I forget his name…um…”
“Andrew! That’s the one. I’m afraid it was originally scheduled for a couple of weeks ago, but the thing is…well, I lost my dog, Buddy, the night before the appointment.” Henry listened; he could hear Michael stop whatever he was doing. Maybe even the creak of an office chair as Michael slunk back into it with the weight of his own empathy. “I was just…my mind was all over the place, I completely forgot and now I’m afraid I’m at risk of losing my job.”
Michael signed on the other end. “I’m very sorry for your loss…what did you say your name was?”
“Gregory?” Henry replied. “Please, call me Greg.”
“Greg,” the tapping continued. “I don’t see anything on the calendar for the last few weeks either…”
“But,” Michael continued, “there’s a reason Andrew is no longer at this desk.”
Contempt was clear in Michael’s voice. Henry had to stifle a celebratory cheer. “Well,” Henry chuckled. “I didn’t want to say anything, but…well, let’s just say I’m not surprised based on my few interactions with him.”
“Oh, you have no idea,” Michael responded. He sounded relaxed, ready to gossip, but he quickly recovered himself. “Did you say you were here now?”
“Yes,” Michael said with a bit of regret in his voice. “If I’m being honest, I’d planned on trying to convince poor Andrew that we’d had a meeting set up for today. A little cheeky of me, I know, but my neck is really on the line here.”
“No, no. I understand. Tell you what, if you can give me fifteen minutes I can put in a visitor request at the front desk. I’ll just need your full name and social security number.”
Henry fought the urge to release a sigh of relief just yet. “Not a problem.”
Twenty minutes later Henry was standing in the largest lobby he’d ever seen, his arm extended to greet Michael with a firm handshake. Michael looked a lot like he’d sounded. A slim build—not skinny, but lean. Athletic. His long black hair swept back in waves from a hairline so low it caused a twinge of something Henry interpreted as jealousy. He wore plain blue button-down shirt with a solid navy blue skinny tie. His handshake was firm and he pulled Henry towards him as he greeted him with a smile.
“I’m so sorry about the mix up,” Michael said, lips pulled back in a smile revealing glistening white teeth.
“Oh, no,” Henry said, waving him off. “Completely my fault. I’m just glad you were willing to work with me. You really saved my bacon.”
Henry hadn’t worried about the visitor request. Anyone could buy a new identity for a reasonable price these days. Henry had done just that when he’d begun plotting his little act of sabotage. So far, everything was going according to plan.
Henry asked to take the “scenic route,” so he could get a better “feel for the building” to try to “match the flow” with his interior design plans. He hadn’t only done his research on weAre; he’d done some research on interior decorating as well. Michael led him through a maze of cubicle cities, a full-size food court and past the gym.
“Do you work out?” He’d asked Henry.
Henry may have blushed. “Not as much as I should, I’m afraid,” he said patting his considerable stomach.
“It’s a great stress reliever,” Michael suggested.
By the time they made it to the second floor where there were open spaces, a children’s play area, even a merry-go-round, Henry realized he hadn’t been paying much attention at all to the ambiance or the flow of the building. Nor had he been paying attention to security cameras or access points. He’d been paying much more attention to Michael. And Michael had been paying a lot of attention to him. Michael was much more relaxed than he’d sounded on the phone, and Henry felt much more relaxed as well. So much so that he’d had to continuously remind himself of the role he was playing as Michael asked him more and more questions. At first, Henry feared Michael was suspicious. Then he realized that he was just genuinely interested.
The third floor appeared to be entirely made of glass. You could see through the walls, the floors, even the cubicles. Some of the cubicles were a cloudy shade of grey and Michael explained that it was privacy glass, allowing a more open feel unless someone needed their privacy as they were working, at which point they could flip a switch and the glass would turn opaque.
“I’m afraid everything from here up is pretty much office spaces. Not much to see. We might as well jump on the elevator, especially since we’re going to the forty-second.” Michael smirked and Henry noticed for the first time his dimples.
“Well, you’ve convinced me that I’m ready to get back into shape; but, a forty-two story climb doesn’t sound like a good way to start.” They both laughed.
On the ride up, they broached the subject of families. Henry, completely forgetting himself, revealed his displeasure with his brother having met a girl on weMatch in not so uncertain terms. He desperately wanted to recall the words as he felt them leave his mouth, but it was too late.
“I’m sorry,” Henry admitted. “I shouldn’t be speaking that way of your company.”
“Well,” Michael said, his hands crossing in front of him. He bounced a little on his toes and leaned towards Henry. “If I’m being honest,” he said, “I’m not a huge fan of this place either.”
“Yeah.” He looked guilty. For admitting how he felt? For working for an immoral conglomerate that went against his principles? “It isn’t what I thought it would be.”
“It’s just…” Michael winced as he searched for the right word. Henry didn’t even intend to speak his mind outwardly, the word just leapt from his lips as Michael discovered the word at the same time and they spoke in unison:
Their eyes met for a moment and Henry felt a sense of weightlessness. Had the elevator not rattled to a halt and dinged as the doors slid open, he would have sworn they were plummeting the forty-two floors they’d just ascended.
“We, uh…we’re here,” Michael said with a grin. He motioned for Henry to go ahead of him. An old adage raced through Henry’s mind—age before beauty—and he chided himself as he recentered his focus. They stepped out into the lobby of the marketing department. “Where would you like to start?”
“Um…what’s that, then?”
“The assessment? Where would you like to start?”
Henry shook his head, placed his fingers on his forehead. “Ah! Yes,” he chuckled. “Yes, of course. Um…” Henry looked around but he wasn’t seeing anything. There were shapes and colors all around but nothing registered. Nothing but the buzz vibrating between he and the man standing far closer to him than professionally necessary. What was happening?
“I don’t…” Before he knew what he was saying he turned to Michael and shrugged. “I think I’ve seen enough.”
“Oh,” Michael said. Was that disappointment in his face? “Are you sure? I mean, you haven’t seen any of the marketing department.”
“Well,” Henry said before casting a quick glance past the front desk into the rows of cubicles. “It looks pretty…pretty basic. You know. Your basic…layout…scheme.” His hands were waving in nonsensical motions, he shrugged to further communicate how simple of a job this clearly is for an interior decorator of his falsified caliber. “And, you know, I got a great sense of the tone of the building thanks to your tour, so…you know…”
“Yeah, yeah. Okay, well…I guess I could…escort you back to the front then?”
“Yeah, yeah…no…that’s…that’s fine. I mean, unless…”
Michael turned his head to the side and raised his eyebrows, prodding Henry to continue.
“Unless…do you get a…lunch? Maybe we could discuss some of my ideas?”
“Yes!” Michael responded, and then recoiled a bit as his excitement echoed off the cold stone floor and walls of the lobby. “I mean, yes,” he said with more composure. “I’d be delighted.”
“Oh, okay. Then, great. I’ll, uh…give you a call? Or…no, you have to escort me out, don’t you,” he chuckled. “So…”
Michael put his hands up, palms facing Henry. Henry took at as a sign to slow down. He took a breath and they exchanged a knowing glance.
“I know a great place. I’ll walk you out and give you the address.”
Henry let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. “Great. That sounds great.”
What the hell had just happened? Henry kept moving away from the main doors of weAre, moments after having been given the address to a small bistro only a short walk away with an agreement to meet at noon. Was this a…a date? He hadn’t come here for a date! He’d come here to gain access and shut this place down. To rid the world of this soul-sucking monstrosity.
But…to be fair, he was really doing it for his brother. And his brother was not only happy having found someone through weMatch, but he wouldn’t want Henry to pass up an opportunity to be happy also, would he? No, of course not. Besides, the conglomerate wasn’t to blame, was it? Weren’t people responsible for their own actions? That’s what he’d been taught in rehab after plummeting through so many levels into the breech that he had no idea which way was up anymore. He’d accepted responsibility, everyone else should, too. Also, how many people depended on this service? People who could use it responsibly. If he destroyed it, what would happen to them? Why should they suffer?
No, it did not have to be destroyed. He would allow it to go on—the very idea that he could actually bring down a global conglomerate made him laugh out loud. Better he use his experiences to make sure that no one would ever spiral out of control the way he did. He would become an advocate for safe use of the technology rather than a staunch opponent.
Right after his lunch with Michael.
Henry looked up into the bright light of the sun. He was beaming brighter than the warm rays on his face. He reached up, and pulled off his glasses. The light from behind his eyelids shifted. The warm, dry air was replaced by a cool staleness that smelled of antibacterial and stainless steel. He no longer felt his legs underneath him. He was weightless. He was floating.
He pried his eyes open. The light wasn’t brilliant like the sun, it was florescent. He could hear the buzz. He could hear the murmur and shuffle of people, throngs of people.
“Mr. Caldwell,” he heard. A woman’s voice. “Just give it a moment. It can be a bit disorienting. It will pass.”
Henry’s senses came back to him. He wiggled his fingers and his toes. Opened his eyes wide and blinked as they adjusted.
“Much,” he replied. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” she said with a smile. A blonde woman with bright red lipstick and remarkably white teeth. “Whenever you’re ready, they’ll take care of you at the front.”
Henry nodded as he eased himself off the table.
“Ah, Mr. Caldwell,” an Asian girl with a short bob cut at an angle behind the front desk greeted him. “How was your session today?”
“It was wonderful, Maya,” he said. “Everything was perfect.”
She smiled at him as she handed him his receipt. “We aim to please. Thank you for using weMatch, Mr. Caldwell. We’ll see you again soon?”
“Of course,” he said with a shy smile. “I have a lunch date.” He tapped on the desk and turn to leave.
Outside the store front, people moved in in waves, shoulder to shoulder, heads bobbing. Henry pulled a small case from his jacket pocket, pried it open and dabbed his finger into it. He tilted his head back and placed the augmented reality contact into his eye. He blinked a few times and the HUD sprang to life. Weather forecast, date, time. It was almost time for lunch here in the real world as well.
He fell in with the crowd and rambled along with the flow towards the food court. A red box blinked in the left corner of his HUD. New product alert. VR 5.0.
Five-point-oh! Henry didn’t even know it had been released! The smart contact read the dilated pupil and interpreted his response as desire. It laid a translucent yellow line over the heads of the crowd to the nearest store with availability. Henry followed it and ejected himself from the crowd at his destination.
“Hello, sir,” said an older gentleman in a suit at the door. “Can I help you find anything?”
“I hear you’ve got five-point-oh?”
“Why, yes. We certainly do.” The man’s hair was jet black with a high sheen. His teeth were immaculate and on display in the center of tanned, flawless skin. He placed his hand on Henry’s shoulder and ushered him in, extending his arm out in front of him, showing the way. “Are you familiar with our current line of products?”
Henry stopped and looked around at the colors. He listened to the sounds. They were so bright; so crisp. His every sense felt fine-tuned to pick up the slightest stimulus. He could practically see the scent of the man’s cologne drifting towards his nostrils. He could feel the waves of his voice tickling the coarse grey hairs in his ear.
Henry smiled. Just imagine how much sharper 5.0 must be.
“Yes,” he answered. “Yes, I’m quite familiar."
About the author
Born and raised in Southeastern Kentucky, I traveled the world in the Air Force until I retired. I now reside in Delaware with my wife Lyndi, where I flail around on my keyboard and try to focus on crafting something interesting to read.