He awoke the same way he did every morning.
A sudden jolt sent him from the numb black void that was his unconscious life to the sputtering choked anxiety of his conscious one. Sitting up in bed, he spat out a trail of the mostly liquid phlegm that greeted him this way every morning. His head hurt and his heart rate was already on the edge of maxed. Another great day to be alive, he thought, as his bare feet hit the floor.
Scrounging through the pile of trash that was also his only worldly possessions, he found the cleanest of his filth covered clothes and hurriedly put them on.
He then walked out of his door-less apartment to the trash and crackhead strewn hallway of his complex. Echoes of the same liquid coughs rang up and down the building as he passed mostly open doors to the street below. A cold rain greeted him and he looked up to see the billowing greenish cloud that produced it.
This world was fucked, and so was he.
“The world is fucked! And so am I!” He chuckled to the acidic rain, and a manic laugh escaped his cracked and blood stained lips. The world was a dying enterprise and without access to the proper meds and clean air, he was going to die before it did. He often wondered about the pompous arrogance of his parents. Well not his parents specifically, but their generation and the ones before them. A whole world built on borrowed time… just not theirs. It was their kids and grandkids that had to foot this bill, and he just happened to swim into the wrong egg to be here and see it first hand.
The rich and lucky had decided it was all too much. Fortunately for them that wack billionaire was creating an enclave for the chosen called Neo-Miami before whisking them all away to live on a new planet.
He hoped their spaceship fucking explodes.
Spaceships, other worlds, billionaires. These aren't things he spent a lot of time worrying on. His job… Well, he, like most everyone else, didn't have a job per se, but the thing he spent a lot of his time doing was digging through random abandoned buildings for scraps. Either to sell for food, or to keep for himself and add to his... projects.
Today he would make his way to the old arts district. It was a place in town where guys named Steve in their little button downs, rolled up blue jeans, and electric scooters used to code the games that rotted the brains of his parents generation. They spent so much time in the virtual world they missed the boat to save the real one.
Games now, well... they were life. You could literally live in any simulation you wanted if you had the cash. But hell who did? Probably those Neo-Miami twerps.
He crossed a run down street that was blocked on both ends by abandoned cars, fairly typical for this part of town. No one drove. He was looking for a particular building, one with a big X on it.
His dad had called it the box and it was one of the few good memories he had of his father. He and his dad would play games and enjoy a few good hours together before his pop had to sit down and do the treatments. The whole short life he had witnessed of his pop was plugged into that machine or the other. At least one had made him happy.
Up the street he saw the cracked black paint that marked the building he was looking for. Like everywhere else it had been picked through 100 times, but not everyone was looking for the same thing. The front door had a burned out van blocking the entrance but the top of it looked like it was nestled right up to the bottom of the second story window. That would have to do, he told himself as he scurried on top of the old wreck, hacking and wheezing his way through all of it.
Lifting himself through an old window, he landed in what appeared to be an old corner office. There was no nostalgic feeling here, he had never seen a nice room in his life, and if this one had been anything impressive that was many moons ago. He scraped the cracked glass and general waste he had picked up from his climb and followed his feet out into the large open hall. Posters advertising the triumphs and failures of one company's attempt at success rolled down the hall in both directions as far as his eyes could see. Some he recognized, others he didn't. All were from a time that was no longer present.
A time of waste, and hope.
Dreams and destruction.
So far his search had been rather fruitless until he rounded a bend and came into what he guessed was an old reception area. Somewhere employees were welcomed, could hang out, and get something to eat. His stomach groaned at the thought of food.
But what really caught his eye was the smearing of blood on the floor. It was fresh and in the pattern of a star.
“What the fuck?” he said to what he hoped was an empty room.
II. The Not Empty Room
A scream came down a half-soaked mold-filled hall that sent him leaping over the desk near the bloodied mass. He heard a muffled, “Mother…fucka,” and a pair of sprinting feet, presumably fleeing at the sight of the... sacrifice?
Yes, sacrifice felt like the right word.
Though he could not say why, sitting in the dark, the only sound he heard was the banging of flesh against bone as his heart did its very best to bore through his ribcage and erupt out onto the stained tiled flooring.
After what seemed like hours, but was probably only half of one, he moved out from his hidey hole and took the first proper look at the mess that lay before him.
It was a body... well, bodies.
Only one appeared human, not that anyone of his generation shirked at the sight of a dead body. Big Pharma had failed big time, impossible medical costs and a failing supply chain saw millions die from what would have been common ailments twenty years ago.
This, however, was a death of some violence he imagined. Not that the body, or parts of the body... would be able to attest to much else except for the dismemberment that happened post mortem.
People of his streets were also not strangers to deaths by violent means, but this, this was something like in a storybook about cannibals or flesh eating zombies. Not normal human shit.
He looked more closely to try and identify some of the other meat in the pile before him. Definitely part of a dog, maybe a couple opossums. As he nudged an ear from the conglomerate, he heard a small squeak in the pile of meat and saw something move.
God help him, as he screamed a shrill wail of terror and launched himself backwards over the small desk divider and landed with a clatter on the cold floor. The screeching continued, though now he couldn't see what moved in the dark.
What was born of the abomination he had seen on the floor of this abandoned building was so far from anyone and anything he knew or had loved.
Whatever it was, evil has a way of taking you from any comfort before it snuffs you out. 'Seasoning the meat,' is what he had heard it called somewhere in his distant childhood.
His abuela had told him stories of the skinwalkers of the southwestern United States. They were seen as witches or monsters that could change from man to beast and sometimes something in between. She had said they loved to play with their prey and would slowly pick someone off of a group and drive them mad.
Once they broke, they would eat their physical body as well as their everlasting soul.
He didn't believe in souls. Or God. But he did believe in evil, and for the first time in his life, he honestly felt like it was there in that room with him and that it was circling him. His whole life he had been nothing but a piece of shit spinning for the drain, and now the drain was going to be a bigger bitch than the spin.
A sloshing gurgle sound emanated from where the meat pile should be and all he could do was close his eyes and wait.
He heard the click of nail and bone and knew that a beast had been born. A beast born of blood and ritual on the floor of this old video game studio. Who would believe it? He clenched his eyes shut, not wanting to see what cruel joke the world was going to throw at him. He only hoped it would end quickly. Tears began to soak his cheeks as he coughed out muffled sobs mixed with sick, blood, and bile.
Then he felt...
He felt something tickling his face?
III. The Beast
A minute or three passed, and still, he only felt the light eskimo kiss of a small creature's whiskers on his cheek. He imagined every animal known to creation, but when he opened his eyes he found one that he hadn't expected.
A pure white chinchilla.
“Jiminy... fucking cricket,” he stammered as he clawed himself away from the little black eyed creature and made his way to nearest corner.
“Where in the fu-” before he could finish his thought a small voice in his mind answered.
“From the blood. You saw.” the little creature said and looked directly into his eyes.
To say he wasn't himself when he woke up the next morning was a bit of an understatement. He opened his eyes at.. half past ten?
“What the hell,” he stammered as he shot up in bed. He hadn't slept that late in years, and as he stretched out his limbs, he found that his muscles didn't hurt quite as much as they usually did. He also noticed he had not woken up in a panic or coughed up any blood.
“Weird goddamn day,” he said to himself as he pissed out a surprisingly clear stream of urine.
The wonders never cease apparently, returning back to the one room that served as every room in his apartment. If he was rich, and this was in some desirable neighborhood, he would call it a studio; but to the downtrodden, it was a one room apartment. Without even a fucking door. As he turned to look, he found there was, in fact, a door. What in the living fuck.
He came back and sat on the bed and began to retrace his steps through the day before. Had he gotten drunk? High? Yes to both earlier in the week but yesterday his memory barely made it into the afternoon. He had gone to the box where he picked up some scraps, and then… a chinchilla?
He laughed at the memory, or was it a fever dream? A chinchilla in that place coming out of a pile of blood and bone? That was way past even schizophrenic crazy, maybe the hallucinogens he had done earlier in the week had kicked in when he crawled through that window and hit his head? That made some sense at least.
He was rubbing his head that thankfully did not ache when a small voice said, “Over here.”
Without hesitation he raised his head and looked over at the little breakfast table he forgot was even in this house, and on it sat a small cage and a pure white chinchilla.
He paced around its cage pulling his hair and feeling like he was rending a square path in the faded hardwood surrounding the breakfast table.
He was screaming, “Shut up, shut up, shut up,” over and over, and each refrain was answered ‘don't be afraid’ by the small white beast.
Oh but he was.
The beast's eyes slowly turned a glowing red as he lost his will to the darkness again.
IV. A New Day
The next morning he awoke again, and the fear of the white creature had lulled in his sleep. As he cleaned and dressed himself, he noticed in the mirror that his skin seemed healthier than it had before. Was it possible? Did he actually have smooth tanned skin?
He looked over at the chinchilla. It seemed to be asleep, swollen from whatever he must have fed it last night. It looked peaceful.
Maybe it was silly to have ever been afraid of it. He needed to go back out today, back into the abandoned world of entertainment's lost past. Maybe today he would find something that would allow him to eat? It was worth a try. He felt hopeful.
Getting dressed he found everything seemed to fit a bit better, and without consciously making the decision he pulled out a large backpack that he didn't even know he had and gently placed the chinchilla into it, along with an old shirt for it to sit on.
“There you go, Mary,” he said and zipped up the bag most of the way shut.
Mary? Had he given the thing a name? Hmm.. guess he had.
Mary was an odd name for a chinchilla, but then again he had grown up with a dog named Pig and what fucking sense did that make. Shrugging, he threw on the bag and walked out of his new door to the hallway.
There were slightly less crackheads out this morning, he thought to himself, as he quickly strode through the familiar dank and depressing halls of his home. He emerged into the street and took in the Mad-Maxian dystopia that had become his city.
At one point, this place had been called the Silicon Peach; a hub for international businesses, the names of which were known the world over, no matter where you went.
Now the peach was rotten; he thought to himself as he took an overgrown two lane road deeper into the concrete jungle.
As he crossed by long abandoned neighborhoods and houses, he imagined the tidy families who used to live in them; putting on fresh coats of paint and taking pride in their yards and the promise of their very own American automobile.
What a fucking joke.
Henry Ford had been championed as a genius in the American industrial revolution by bringing affordable cars to the average American family. As well as being credited with creating the assembly line; the bane of poor underpaid and underfed workers the entire world over.
Now these abandoned homes were each blessed with half a dozen rusting hulks of once mobile vehicles; just a rotten testament to the continuing dilapidation of the world around him.
“Should have gone the public transit route,” he said out loud, “ like Europe,” he added, thinking that addition was important for some reason.
He heard a quiet “Europe” mumbled in his head.
He was about to say something to Mary directly when he saw a few guys that he didn't want to mess with. Looking around, he searched for an alternate egress that said “Hey, I don't want to fuck with you.”
As his eyes nervously darted from path to path, he accepted this was an encounter he would not be able to avoid, as the predators had made sure their prey had no easy way out.
The next thought that came hurtling out of his conscious mind was, “Where am I?”
The thought seemed to shriek at him as he looked down to see himself naked and filthy; the dim afternoon light being filtered through dust and a single tear in the garbage bag shade of a long broken window.
He was covered in blood.
A lump began to grow in the back of his throat and he could feel the nauseating tendrils of it reaching down into his guts.
He shambled over to the window to remove the black trash bag and allow some more of the sick golden hue into the room. His first step nearly caused him to collapse onto the dust covered tile.
His feet were torn and still bleeding.
Though it hurt, seeing the blood was something of a relief. As he mixed a hop and tip-toe over to the window, he saw in the setting sun that he also had a few scrapes on his arms. Maybe he had cut himself running away? He couldn't remember what happened after leaving the apartment. Maybe fight or flight had just completely taken over? He honestly didn't know.
His clothes were gone, and so was Mary.
The clothes were something he could replace easily, but the thought of never seeing that beady eyed rodent again filled him with relief.
“That wasn't very nice,“ the voice said in his head. The dread inside him instantly returned, but it was muted, more distant than how it had felt before.
The voice did not say anything else, but he felt pulled out of the small office where he had awoken and found himself retracing his own bloody footprints deeper into the dark building.
It must have been a trick of the light working with the thick dust piled on the floor, but it almost looked as if his footsteps were becoming less human with every step he followed. Looking back, they were perfectly normal with spots of blood still clinging to ancient dust on the floor. But the other tracks had started to morph, and here they were longer?
At the end, it almost looked like claws…
Memories, or maybe they were just intrusive thoughts, shook his being as he saw flesh being rent from bone, and it was with his own hands. Hands with knife-like claws on the end doing the butcher's work.
The vision ended with him seeing his own glowing red eyes looking directly at him.
The vision had caused him to nearly stumble through the entryway. He had still been following the breadcrumbs of his own bloody prints, and now as he sat shaken on the floor of a small closet. The sight before him was the strangest of the day.
VI. A Positive Turn
The room was clean. Very clean.
Even the place where he lost one of his kidneys hadn’t been this clean.
In the room was a folding metal table and a single chair. In it sat the backpack that he didn't remember owning, and Mary the now red-mouthed Chinchilla, happily chirping away as it ate the last of its meal.
Funny. Didn't remember feeding it, he thought again.
What he found even more curious, however, were the items sitting out on the table. A new pair of clothes, and what looked to be a pristine VR rig with all of the pieces.
What the hell? Maybe a chinchilla was like having a lucky rabbit's foot except he had the whole animal!
In his excitement he didn't even bother getting dressed, and instead began to look over the headset, controllers, and portable power source for the gaming beauty. It was real, real and in his hands, and it looked good.
Thank the gods! He thought to himself, so happy he hugged the helmet to his chest.
“No, thank me,” Mary said in his mind, “...though, you have done your part.”
This was one of the few times he had honestly felt sober and sane, and the creature had addressed him. He put down the headset and looked over at the rodent that was sitting on its haunches and staring at him with unfeeling black eyes, like a shark. Circling.
“Do I have a tumor?” He asked and sat down in the other chair, which he was sure hadn't been there a moment before.
“You did, several in fact.” Mary answered in a sickly sing-song verse.
“Did?” he asked, dropping eye contact with Mary and instead watching the blood at his feet.
“I cured you,” she answered happily, and even though the communication was telepathic, he could hear her happily smacking her gums in delight for the meal that she continued to eat as they chatted.
“How?” he asked and looked again at the bottom of his feet that were now completely healed and smooth.
“You aren't ready yet,” she said, “but soon will be,” it added and crawled back inside the bag.
No more was spoken.
He didn't have to be told. Their interview was over and he had to get dressed and head back home.
At least he could put the chinchilla back in her cage and test out the VR. Any escape would be better than this. Though he had to admit today had been better than most of the ones that had come before it.
Clean clothes, only one black out, and a VR rig. Oh, and a talking marsupial.
VII. A New Game
The walk back was uneventful, he took a wide berth around the streets he had used earlier and encountered no trouble on the way home.
Mary was still speaking to him, and he found what she had to say fairly interesting.
As soon as he made eye contact with each person they passed on the street, Mary would whisper into his mind a secret about them. She said one man was a murderer, another a child molester, one had lied to his mother about his sexuality.
All trivial in the lawless mess that the world now was. But knowing what kind of fucked a stranger was when he passed, made him feel... safer.
Arriving outside the apartment, he saw that the street out front of the apartment had been cleaned and swept, and the building looked like it had received a fresh coat of paint. That was a nearly startling turn of events. He hadn't even known the building was being managed by anyone, it was more of a squatter's apartment. He had never paid rent and now he began to worry that he would lose his home. What if the owner had come back and was kicking everyone out? Where would he go?
His anxiety increased as he saw that many of the familiar clouded faces of drug users and prostitutes weren’t out in the halls playing their usual business in the usual places. Whole world’s going wrong, he thought.
Arriving at the apartment, he stuck his hand into his new pants and pulled out a key for the lock on his door. Something he never remembered having, or doing. But once again he didn't mind. After all, he had a new VR set, and this building was not exactly safe.
He went inside and placed Mary into her enclosure, which he also noticed seemed to be quite a bit bigger than he previously remembered.
He picked her up from the bag and also noticed that she was quite a bit bigger than the small hamster sized creature he had first found. She was now about twice as big or maybe even three times.
Well, he did feed her well.
As he left Mary to her own ministries, he sat on the couch and began checking all the individual pieces of the VR set. He had a similar model when he was a kid, though that one had come with external sensors, but this one appeared to have them built into the helmet itself. All the connections seemed good, and the controllers still had a charge somehow. Lastly, he checked the charge on the helm itself and found it reading full in green LED.
Well, there was nothing left to do but to see if it worked. He placed the helmet over his head and gripped the controllers in each of his hands.
A static ‘hello’ appeared in front of him, and caused him to jump.
“Would you like to see what gaming opportunities are available?” a familiar sounding voice said.
He nodded yes and then felt foolish at the gesture.
He was about to say yes, when the menu seemingly understood his nod, and changed to show a list of available games and apps.
It was a ‘who's who’ of video gaming for the last thirty years.
With a gulp he asked, “Are all of these titles accessible... umm VR?”
“My name is Mary,” the headset said, “and yes. These titles, and more, are currently available. Though some titles may need to be updated. Would you like me to show you which titles are ready to play now?”
He again nodded yes. The screen which had been filled with dozens of titles slowly whittled down to one.
“Garden of the Aztecs.”
“Play.” He said.
End of Part 1.