Condemned

They are all around me, my children and their children, all looking properly sad…and I knew none of them cared that I was dying.

Being within a few months of my ninetieth birthday, I wasn’t against the idea of dying. When my wife Mary had passed two decades ago, I’d almost prayed for death. But death had remained elusive until just a month ago. That morning, waking up in the predawn darkness with a pain in my chest like a giant’s fist squeezing my heart, I had known I was in trouble. Part of me wanted to just lie there and wait for the end to come…but for all my desire for death, my fear got the better of me. My cell was next to my bed, and I had managed to call 911 before the pain overwhelmed me.

Waking in the ER was all I needed to tell me that I was not dead. The doctors had delivered the bad news, that my heart muscles were failing, and it hadn’t really been a surprise. Nor was the next step in my life: hospice. My children could easily have taken me in, most of them had the space to spare with their children now gone.

But no, they were unwilling to take in, and take care of, their ‘old man’. Oh, they came to visit me in the hospital, and later in hospice, quite often. But not one of them wanted me around 24/7. Sharon, my youngest daughter, spent much of her day with me, but that was because she’d cleaned her ex-husband out in their divorce.

The rest came, mostly in the evenings and weekends, but rarely more often, and never very many. Even if the doctors hadn’t already told me, them being here told me I didn’t have long to live. It was getting harder and harder to stay awake, and it wasn’t just because my visitors were boring (which they were). No, I often found my mind wandering, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to find myself speaking to one of my grandchildren, then to find them no longer present.

And the time I was not conscious was becoming more and more troubling.

Sometimes, I would remember my wife and our life together…both the good times and, sadly, the bad. Other times, I would remember everything I’d done in my life. The people I had worked with, most of them long dead but now seemingly alive again seemed to constantly remind me of all my failings. How I’d double-dealt my way up the corporate ranks. The way I had oppressed and stifled those who might rise to take my hard-won place.

Worst of all were the times I remembered my interactions with my children. How I had struggled to understand how to be the father I thought I should be. How they had never quite seemed to be what I had hoped they would be. The many, many times they had disagreed with him, often vehemently.

But the worst had begun just today. Just before he had become aware the room was filled with his family, he had been in a gray void, a place unlike anything he had ever seen or imagined. And worst than the strange space had been the voices.

The first voice had been so calm, almost matter-of-fact, as it listed the many defects of his life. He hadn’t wanted to listen, but even though it had seemed barely louder than a normal speaking voice, he could have no more block it out than he could have blocked to roar of a jet engine running next to his ear. It had seemed to come from everywhere, and nowhere, like an echo inside his own head. And it had droned on and on, unrelentingly reminding me what a complete and total bastard I’d been.

Then, silence…and a different voice had addressed him.

“Mr. Sanchez, your manifold failings have been duly noted. Have you anything to say? Any justification to offer?”

The strangeness, the complete and total bizarreness of the moment, stunned me into silence. After a pause, the voice continued.

“Very well. No defense having been offered, you are hereby found guilty of having wasted your life, and worst, of having made the lives of those around you miserable. We therefore condemn you to wander through your lives…all your lives, in all the many different universes you exist in. It is hoped you will learn from how the other versions of you have lived their lives. You will, of course, be allowed a final chance to make amends with your family, and if we find your efforts sufficient, your sentence may be amended. You are free to go, and may the multi-verse have mercy on you.”

The room comes back into focus, and my family around me still They are all keeping their distance, staring at me while they wait for me to die. Not one of them approaches to ask how I am doing, or if I need anything. I think of what the voice had said, that this was my chance to “make amends” with them. Fuck them. They don’t love me, and they wouldn’t care what I said. The thought has barely gone through my head before I find it hard to breath. The room, and everything in it, begins to dim and fade..and in my head, I hear the voice that had pronounced my sentence speaking again.

“Very well, Mr. Sanchez. If you refuse to take advantage of the mercy of this court, your sentence will be carried out immediately.”

With those words, the world goes black and I feel myself falling a fall that seems to continue forever. Then the voice speaks again, one final address to me it seems.

“You, who have spurned human contact and the very concept of helping others, shall learn of the value of volunteering to help…and the price it extracts. The soldier will be a good first example for you….”

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What is life?

I replay that last moment in my mind, over and over again.

I am driving, far too fast as usual. My wife is beside me, not happy with my driving, but having been through the experience enough times that she’s almost inured to it.

The moment of realization that the pickup coming to the intersection in front of us is not slowing down, and will run the stop sign in front of us.

Then the crash, the scream of the tires as I try to stop almost drowning out my wife’s screams for me to stop. The side of the truck and the front of my car crumpling together. The airbag a white wall in front of my face.

Then….nothing.

No sound.

No smell.

No touch.

No sight.

Nothing.

I wonder if I am dead, if this is some sort of purgatory, some sort of punishment for my arrogance for thinking I could speed without consequences.

But I am not dead.

I feel nothing…most of the time. Sometimes, I feel a pain in my neck, like a blunt knife being driven through my skin. But what these fleeting feelings mean I do not know.

Then the day came when all that changed.

There was a sudden burst of light, light so intense my head felt as though it would explode from the sensory overload. Then darkness again, and my mind screamed for the light, no matter how painful. Then sound, someone breathing deeply, almost as if they were next to my ear. The breathing was replaced by a voice, loud enough to seem as though God were shouting in my ear.

“Can you hear me, Mr. Sanchez?”

I try to speak, to nod, but nothing happens. After a pause, the voice speaks again, now little more than a mere mortal shouting.

“No, that’s not working…let’s try this.”

A moment of silence, then….

I am surrounded by light. A diffuse light that I seem to float in. But I feel nothing, it is as if my mind is suspended in the light. Then I see a white plain that stretches away forever, but still I have no sense but sight. The voice returns, the disembodied speaker continuing it’s disconnected and nonsensical monologue.

“That seems to be working. He should be getting input now, but…the mic’s open? I thought I told you to…oh, never mind, I’ll need it active to address him and see if any of this is working. Mr. Sanchez…can you hear me? Are you seeing anything?”

I try, but no matter how hard I try, I am silent. The voice speaks again, but it still makes no sense.

“I’m seeing a response… He hears me! Why can’t he respond? Check the vocal codec…yes, of course I want you to activate it. How else do you expect him to respond?”

I feel something, like there is something caught in my windpipe. My reflexes take over, and I hear myself cough. I try to cough again and do. The voice is silent, so I try to form words of my own.

“Hello, can you hear me?”

I hear a voice, but it is not mine, it sounds like a little girl’s voice.

“Why do I sound like this? What’s wrong with my voice? What’s happening to…”

“He’s right, why does he sound like that? ‘Default profile setting’? Why did you pick a young girl as the default for a grown man?”

There is a moment of silence, then the voice returns, now sounding like a teacher addressing a slow student. The change grates at my nerves, but I remain silent to listen to what it has to say to me.

“Mr Sanchez, I’m Doctor Allen, head of the research department at the Sloan Institute for Advanced Neural Trauma Treatment, and, well, you were in a traffic accident. Do you remember that?”

How can I tell this fool that I have relieved that accident for what seems like forever?

“Yes, I remember that. But you didn’t answer my question. What’s going on?”

Another silent pause. Perhaps this Doctor Allen had remembered to mute his mic. Then…

“Mr. Sanchez, your body barely survived, but your brain…suffered extensive damage. Your medulla oblongata almost detached from the rest of your brain because of the g-forces your head was subjected to. It kept your body alive, but with the rest of your brain is effectively disconnected from your body. The damage has shut you off from the world. That happened five years ago, but we…I have come up with a way to connect you to the outside world.”

Five years? How was it even possible that I could have survived like that? The very concept stunned me, but as I struggled to come to terms with what I’d just heard, the voice kept talking.

“Game designers have become far more sophisticated in their ability to generate realistic virtual environments. I had the idea to connect your brain to a VR system that would allow you to exist in a virtual environment, one where you could interact with people. Now if you’ll give me just a moment more…yes, I want you to use profile X3. Just get it up and running! Good. Now, let’s see if I can initiate the rest of the connection…”

The white plain disappears, and I am standing in what looks like a ruined city…I am standing! I feel the pavement under my feet, a slight breeze blowing past me. I feel my body! I raise my hand…and it looks odd. The fingers move as I command them to, but the skin looks as if it were made of plastic. Then I notice the color of the skin on the hand. It is not the slightly-brown skin I inherited from my Argentinian grandfather, but an almost comical pinkish tone, like a caricature of an Anglo’s skin. I hear a crunching sound, like someone walking on gravel, the first sound I have heard since I became aware of this body. It is behind me, and old caution makes me spin around.

A short, pudgy man dressed comically in a scientist’s long white lab coat stands in front of me. His bald head shines as if he finds the surroundings hot, and the smile on his face looks more forced than real. Unlike me, he seems much more textured, more real, and I wonder about this until he speaks.

“I guess the scanning room is working, you can clearly see me. Mr. Sanchez, I’m Doctor Allen, and I’m glad to finally meet you. How does your virtual body feel?”

“Fake. I can feel everything just fine…but I can’t smell anything, and my mouth has no sense in it, none of the lingering taste you get in your mouth. It’s like it’s there to do nothing more than let me speak. Are you going to deal with those next?”

Allen shook his head. “I’m afraid simulating the senses of smell and taste are beyond our abilities for the moment. Maybe in another few years…”

“You expect me to wander around this…what is it? Recycled scenery from some ‘shoot-em-up’ game? You want me to stay here, doing what? Being your lab rat? You didn’t tell me what happened to my wife…did she die in the crash?” Allen’s eyes shifted away from mine, and I knew without thinking that he was going to lie to me. I stopped him. “She did, didn’t she? Then who do I have to ‘see’? We had no children, my parents died years ago, so why should I be a part of your experiment? Go find someone else to play your games with.”

Allen met my eyes now, and he no longer had the look of a man trying to be friendly. “I can’t do that. You are the ideal test subject, and I need you to help me perfect the interface.”

“I refuse. Now, if I remember correctly, you can only use a person in a medical experiment with their consent, and seeing as how I’ve just indicated I do not want to be part of this experiment, you can’t legally experiment on me. So disconnect me, now!”

Allen’s smile came back, but now it wasn’t friendly at all. No, it was the smile of a man who knew they held all the cards. “And who heard you deny me permission to experiment on you? Look around. We’re alone, and there’s no connection from here to the rest of the lab, so none of my assistants heard you. Besides, they work for me, not you! They’ll do as they’re told, because they know they won’t have their positions if they interfere with my work. Face, it, Mr. Sanchez, I own you! Now, let’s start finding out what you’re capable of….”

And that was the start of my life in hell.

A drive worth making

If you look at a map, Illinois Route 18 west of I-39 is a bland, straight strip of pavement carrying the driver into rural western Illinois. It looks like the type of road you have to work hard to stay awake on if you were driving it.

But roads like everything else must bow to the real world, and in the real world, the landscape this road runs through goes from flat to a series of low hills and shallow valleys. The further west you go, the more pronounced those folds in the Earth become until you reach the edge of the watershed of the Illinois River.

Like every major river, the Illinois has carved out a broad valley over time, a valley with steep walls, steep enough that taking a road straight down it would have resulted in an exceptionally steep drop/rise. So instead of taking the straight route, the builders found a side valley carved by one of the small creeks that feed into the Illinois.

But like any creek in a situation like this, its path is far from straight. From a road like a ruled line, 18 suddenly becomes a snake-like ribbon wending it’s way down a wooded valley surrounded by steep hillsides. The posted speed limit is 40, and even I, a man who loves to ‘push’ through a tight turn, find it hard to get through any of those twisting turns much faster than that.

The creek still runs down the valley, and as it drops towards the floor of the Illinois valley, 18 crosses paths with it several times. On either hand, as you go further and further down the valley, the creeks flow continues to widen the valley. In several spots, freshly-exposed earth can be seen, evidence of small landslides as the creek undermines its banks and the hills above it constantly press downwards trying to fill the gash water has made in it. There are even a few spot where the valley widens enough, or people are stubborn enough, that houses can be seen. To live in a place like this is a thing I cannot imagine, constantly worrying about sudden floods of water cutting access off, or worse yet, washing a house away.

I’ve been down this path in summer, and it gives the impression of a green-shaded tunnel. In winter, on a day of fog and misty rain, the bare trees make you feel like you’re on a passage through an otherworldly landscape. It is a drive worth making if you have a reason, or even just for the pleasure of a challenging drive through some interesting scenery.