Neo Cosmos

 

“In other news, the number of reported Warp incidences in the United States are

increasing. Forty-eight separate accounts were confirmed by authorities to have taken place in

the last twenty-four hours. With these latest numbers, the Warp count for the week has reached

an all-time high of two-hundred and eighty-seven reported incidences ...”

“Will you just listen to me!” The young, angry voice cut through the professional tones of

the news reporter, blocking the professor’s view of the projection. “I am not making this up, and

I most certainly am not over stressed!”

The seventeen year old threw his many notes, along with the glass tablet, onto the dark

wooden desk. His dirty blonde hair was disheveled, practically defying gravity, and the shadows

stretching across his face from his bangs as he leaned towards the professor was not helping his

appearance.

“There is something in the code! I’m telling you, there is something there! It doesn’t

matter what type of software it is. At the heart of every base code of every damn program I have

examined is the same string of code, and I can’t decrypt it! The same damn string! I’ve even

found it in a processor that’s over a hundred and fifty years old!”

The teen’s brown eyes were wide, bloodshot, and heavily shadowed. His movements

were twitchy, and his voice hoarse. Professor Kalister simply shook his head, the light from the

news projection illuminating his thin white hair.

“Jason, look at me,” his calm but deep voice demanded, as his withered hand reached out

and clasped the teen’s. With a shuddering breath, the boy met the professor’s faded grey orbs.

There was a moment of peace, of silence. There was a moment of understanding between the

two. The tension began to fade from Jason’s shoulders and his eyes began to calm.

 

“There is nothing in the code.”

Jason ripped his hand away with a snarl. He spun on his heel, until his back was to the

older man. His shoulders vibrated as he attempted to contain his fury.

“You’re just tired,” the professor continued, echoing his words from their conversation

earlier. “Overworked.”

He paused for a moment, looking towards the young programmer to see if Jason was

going to reply. But the boy simply continued to shake, his heavy breathing echoing heavily

beneath the news report.

“… Included in yesterday’s report is the account of a seventy-nine- year-old man, who

returned home to find his house, which had been heavily damaged in Hurricane Eric’s violent

landfall last Thursday, completely restored. Witness reports from Mr. Tellin’s neighbors claim

that the house begun rebuilding itself around two p.m. yesterday, while the gentleman was at the

hospital for a sprained ankle …”

Sliding to his feet, the professor stepped around his desk and came to rest behind the

furious teenager.

“I want you to take some time off.” He spoke softly, barely more than a sigh. “Don’t

worry about your projects from me, or about your classes. I’ll give your principal a call; you can

afford to miss school for a week or two.”

The professor was sharp, and noticed immediately how Jason had stiffened at his words.

The man shook his head, and laid a hand on the tall teenager’s shoulder.

“Our deal will not be broken, Jason, if I am the one telling you to ditch class.” Kalister

chuckled softly, weakly. But his attempt at lighting the mood did nothing. For Jason spun around

and glared at his mentor.

“I’m not overworked, and I’m not imagining things! There is something in the code,

Professor, and you might not care, but I’m not just going to walk away! There is something

there, something that’s been there maybe hundreds of years. And if you don’t think that that’s

something worth investigating, then maybe our deal isn’t worth keeping.”

Jason’s scathing words slammed into the elderly professor and he stumbled backwards,

hurt blossoming in his chest and worry tangling his gut. He had never seen the lad in such a state.

It was incredibly concerning, but what he was saying just wasn’t possible!

With a scoff, the young programmer picked up his scattered belongings off the desk.

“Jason,” the professor called, horror creeping up his spine as his protégé stormed out of

his office. He reached out towards the boy, as if he could physically reach the child and drag him

back. “Jason!”

The slamming of the door echoed behind the teen, and Kalister’s arm dropped to his side.

Shaking his head slowly, a weary sigh escaped the computer engineer’s lips. He was left in

silence, with nothing but the projected, blonde news reporter as company and worry heavy in his

heart.

 

~*~

 

“… scientists are still unable to explain why these phenomena are happening, and what

exactly is causing these Reality Warps to occur. Many are theorizing that these Warps are the

result of a new evolution to the human genome. However, as of yet there is little scientific data to

support this hypothesis …”

Jason was barely listening to the news, he rarely did these days; most of the time he

wasn’t even sure why he bothered turning it on. But then a report on the Reality Warps would

appear, and it would drag his attention away from the never-ending code long enough to breathe,

to exist, to remember that there was something else outside of his mystery. Before he was sucked

right back in.

He knew he was a mess, and he knew his mother was worried. The young programmer

had not left his room in over two weeks. Ever since his disastrous meeting with Professor

Kalister, ever since he had been given time off school, he’d been locked in here, with the code.

That damn code. It was everywhere, and yet no one ever noticed it. He couldn’t believe

no one else had seen it. It was there, hidden in the base code for every program, every megabyte

of data. It was hidden in the Wi-Fi, the holograms, the cars, the tablets, even in the television

broadcasts. It was everywhere. It was in everything.

And he was the only one who could see it, the only one who noticed that there was

something hidden beneath. The only one who saw the string of code connecting everything in

their world.

Now if only he knew what on earth it meant, if only he could decipher it. It was just a

string, not a program or extensive algorithm. But it was strange, tangled, and defensive. He

wouldn’t give up. He would discover its secrets.

Then he would prove Kalister wrong.

 

~*~

 

“Jason?” His mother knocked on his bedroom door. “Jason dear, dinner’s ready.”

But her son did not reply. She could see the bright light of his many computer screens

glowing faintly beneath the door, and hear the soft voice of news reporter Fiona Gills echoing

through the wood.

“… report came in. Damian Jules survived what could have been a fatal collision with a

semi-truck in Northern Michigan when a Warp turned him, his three-year- old daughter, named

Lily, and their car intangible for almost thirty seconds …”

Silently, she leaned her forehead against her son’s door. It had been almost two months.

Two months since he had spoken more than a few words with anyone, two months since he had been to school. At this rate, he was going to have to repeat senior year and Kalister would be

forced to give Jason’s position to someone else. There would also be the possibility of Jason

losing his scholarship to the Institute.

Despite all of this, no one had been able to get through to the boy. He was obsessed, and

she had absolutely no idea what to do. It worried her, worried her far more than she let show.

“I’ll have your sister bring you up a plate, alright?”

Her words bounced uselessly off of the door, and it was with a heavy sigh that Mrs.

Garrent turned and walked back down the stairs.

~*~

“… Damian and Lily Jules are still missing. If you have any information regarding their

whereabouts please contact your local authorities …”

“Jason, please. Talk to me.” Professor Kalister begged as he stared at the stubborn,

deteriorating teen.

Plastic wrappers and empty bottles littered the floor, dust coated almost everything. The

only light came from Jason’s many monitors, and the thinnest rays of sunlight that managed to

squeeze through the heavy drapes. The air smelled heavily of sweat and old food.

The boy looked even worse than his room, hair limp and greasy, eyes bloodshot and

unfocused. He was thinner than the last time the Professor had seen him, almost three months

ago. But it was the manic glint, the obsessive sheen in his eyes that really worried the man.

“You can’t keep doing this to yourself,” the professor continued, “or your family. Do you

know how worried your mother is? Your sister?”

The older man sighed as the teenager didn’t even glance away from the screen, though

there was nothing displayed. Kalister had believed his protégé was smarter than this, to let this

obsession control his life. He was so close to losing everything.

“Not to mention what this is doing to yourself,” the older man continued, the bed

creaking beneath him as he shifted his weight. “Jason, do you understand what this is obsession

is doing to your future? You no longer have enough credits to graduate; you’ve been dropped

from all your dual enrollment and Institute courses. The department is seriously reconsidering

your position with us, and the Institute is about a hairsbreadth away from revoking your

scholarships.”

Silence echoed between the two as Kalister ran a hand through his thinning hair.

Suddenly standing, the elderly professor grasped Jason by his shoulders and spun the boy

around, kneeling down so that they were at the same height.

 

He peered worriedly into the distant eyes, and pretended that Jason was actually returning

the gaze.

“What can I do, Jason? How can I help you? You have to see that this isn’t healthy! You

had such a bright future, is this obsession with the impossible worth throwing all of that away!?”

But still, the teenager didn’t respond, and moments stretched into minutes. Eventually

Kalister sighed, and released the boy. Shaking his head he strode towards the door. He had

promised Mrs. Garrent that he would try to get through to the boy; he had just wished that he had

been more successful.

Hand on the nob, Kalister froze as Jason spoke for the first time.

“Nothing else matters, Professor,” his voice was raspy from disuse and hardly more than

a whisper, but Kalister had no problem hearing him.

The man turned around to see a determined glint in Jason’s eyes, the manic gleam

glistening underneath. For the first time in month’s Jason looked alive, even if it was only in the

throes of his obsession.

“Nothing else matters,” He repeated. “I don’t care if no one else believes me. But I am

right. The code exists, and I am going to discover its secrets, if it’s the last thing I do.”

Kalister nodded slowly, realizing that nothing he would say would dissuade the teen. As

he exited the room and Jason returned to his computers, he just hoped that this obsession wasn’t

the last thing the poor lad ever did.

 

~*~

 

“Doctors Rebeka Tulling, James Harrold, William Yule and fourteen others were

arrested on seventeen accounts of kidnapping, illegal human experimenting, and five accounts of

murder. All of their victims are reported to have some connection to a Warp incident, including

Damian and Lily Jules, Robert Gourdan, and Sara Tarison, who were missing for two months

and are believed to be some of their first victims …”

He couldn’t believe it. He simply couldn’t believe it.

Jason stared at the screens in disbelief as the code grew, the binary morphed, and the

single string became an entire intricate web. It was becoming an entirely different program, with

such complex coding that he was impressed with it instantly, despite the fact it was scrolling

faster than he could read.

After all of this time, he had finally figured out the mystery behind the string of code. It

hadn’t been a command, an encryption, or even a process. It had been a puzzle.

 

How had he not seen it before!? Jason had no idea. He had never seen that type of puzzle

before, a string of code that you had to rewrite into the most efficient order possible, then

execute backwards. It was almost like a firewall, but a firewall to what, he had no idea.

Coding continued to scroll drown his screens faster than he could process, and with every

new line the pit-like sensation in his stomach grew. With every beat of his heart, Jason’s head

throbbed and he was forced to swallow thickly, his organs threatening to crawl up his throat. He

didn’t understand what was happening. Once he had unlocked the single string, all of the

different programs and algorithms he had been examining vanished. The code had exploded,

taking over everything as it grew and evolved.

His eyes flew back and forth so fast an observer was sure to get dizzy. The speed of the

coding slowed enough for Jason to be able to pick out a few familiar commands, but the

magnitude was astounding. He leaned forward, until his nose was close enough to touch the

glass.

Finally, the code settled and the programmer jumped in. There was something… different

about this code, about the speed at which it processed. There wasn’t a computer that could

operate this quickly, much less such extreme amounts of data!

Jason froze, and leaned as far away from the screens as he could.

His heart throbbed painfully in his chest as his vision swam and his stomach churned.

This wasn’t possible, it simply wasn’t.

“It can’t be…” The words that escaped his lips were little more than a breath, quieter than

a whisper and filled with more disbelief than should’ve been possible. He couldn’t be seeing

this!

No, that was it. He was simply reading the code wrong. That was it. There was no way

that the code was actually what it looked like. There was no way that the code he had broken it to

was … was …

Jason collapsed onto the floor with a hysterical sob, head clutched between his hands and

knees drawn up to his chest.

No, no. It simply wasn’t possible! He had to be wrong; the code had to be wrong.

But he wasn’t and there, on the computer screen, was his entire world reduced to nothing

but strings of binary as reality was generated around him.

 

~*~

 

Mrs. Garrent found her son on the floor of his room, nearly catatonic, four hours later. By

then his computer was off and the boy was entirely unresponsive. Fearing the worse, she

immediately took him to the hospital. But in the end, there was little the doctors could do. It was

a state of shock, they said. They could give him fluids, monitor his condition and schedule an

appointment with the in-house psychologist, but there was nothing else that they could do.

 

~*~

“… first elected official connected to a Warp incident. The Governor has of yet refused to

comment, but his office has announced that he will be giving a statement in the morning …”

The television’s soft report was the only sound in the darkened hospital room. With no

observation, it was easy to slip his mother’s phone out of her pocket. She had collapsed, asleep,

into an armchair beside her son two hours ago, and hadn’t moved since.

Professor Kalister had only left a few minutes ago, and although Jason was pretty sure the

man knew he had been faking sleep, he hadn’t said anything. In fact, besides a few soft words of

comfort for his mother and sister, Kalister had said nothing the three hours he was there.

But he couldn’t shake the strange, knowing look in the man’s eyes the one time he had

dared squint through his lashes.

Jason didn’t make a sound as he moved slowly about his hospital room. He didn’t care

what the doctors said, or what his mother thought. He wasn’t addled. He wasn’t weak.

He just had to figure out if it was true, if what he saw was real.

After four months of study, it was easy to locate the simple string of code within his

mother’s device, and it was almost as easy to repeat the process to unlock it. Like a firewall

breaking down, the code fell away to reveal the world of impossible code beneath.

Fingers numb, and with an icy sensation creeping up his spine, Jason examined the code.

Finding what he was looking for, the teenager hesitated and then with two simple taps, he

changed it.

Faster than a human could blink the blue hospital blanket on his bed turned a bright red.

Jason swallowed, as his lungs struggled for enough air. His eyes burned and he didn’t realize he

was shaking until he changed the code back.

Just as quickly, the bright red faded back into the dull coral blue that decorated the

hospital.

Not wanting to believe the proof before his own eyes, he scrolled through the code until

he came to another, similar strip. A tap later, the lamp besides his bed turned black. With

another, it turned green. Then orange, pink, neon yellow, purple, blue, white.

Slowly falling into a frenzy, Jason kept changing the colors of the lamp with a simple tap.

Once the lamp was back to its original color, Jason scrambled over to the window. He

scrolled through the code, deeper and deeper into the program until he found the right command.

 

He glanced out the window, the sixth-floor view giving him a fantastic view of Chicago

at night. The numerous twinkling lights shining against the dark, clouded skyline, like something

out of a movie.

With a deep, shaking breath, Jason typed in a command. Turning his head away, he

closed his eyes and pressed enter.

It took a moment for the boy to find the nerve to open his eyes, and when he did, he was

met with a sight that shattered his entire world.

Not a single light greeted him as he looked out the window, the moon and stars hidden

behind the clouds and Chicago nothing more than the barest of outlines against the night sky.

The phone clattered to the ground as the burning in his eyes increased. Something cool

and wet trailed down his cheek. But he didn’t care, didn’t even notice, because it was real. His

nightmare was reality, and horror had settled in his bones.

“It’s not real,” he whispered in hollow fear, the words almost catching in his throat as he

finally accepted the life altering revelation. “Nothing is real. It’s all just code.”

 

~*~

“… everything is exactly how you left it. Well, I did your laundry, and vacuumed, and

the professor cleaned up your computer, but we didn’t touch anything else. I didn’t even let

Holly in. I know how much you hate your sister going in there …”

“Mom,” Jason interrupted, glancing over at the babbling woman fondly from his position

in the passenger seat. “I’m sure everything’s great, yeah?”

A choked laugh escaped her lips as she smiled at her son. She was happy, truly happy for

the first time in months, and it showed. She was practically glowing.

“Oh, Jason, I’m just so glad you’re coming home!”

Jason gave her one last smile, “Me too, Mom. Me too.”

He glanced down at his new phone in his lap, and his smile faded as his watched his

mother’s code dance across the screen.

Was anything real?

~*~

“... with this new information, everyone is asking. Is this evolution? Proof of psychic

abilities? Or something more sinister? Only the future will tell …”

The earbud in his ear played the nightly news softly. He wasn’t sure why he found the

Warp reports soothing. He simply did. Jason supposed that before, it was proof that there was

more to life, and now … it was reassurance that this world wasn’t perfect, that not every action

was dictated by the code.

Jason closed the door softly as the news anchor signed off for the night. It was after his

welcome home dinner, complete with ice cream, chocolate cake, a movie marathon, and a

surprise visit from a relieved looking Professor Kalister. His mother and Holly were already

sound asleep, but he had other plans in mind, besides sleeping.

Rolling his neck, Jason settled down at his desk and fired up his computer. If he didn’t

trust the professor so much, he would’ve suspected him of tampering. But he knew the man too

well, so as the many glass screens lit up, he simply narrowed his eyes. He had thought about it a

lot, and while the obsessive need had faded, it had been replaced by a cold determination.

 

He had questions, so many questions; and unless he wanted to spend his whole life

trapped in his room, there was only one way to find the answers.

“Alright then,” he said to himself as he once again dived into the code. “Let’s find out

where you’re coming from, eh?”

~*~

It had taken him weeks; weeks of pretending nothing was wrong. Almost a month of

listening to his tutor, hugging his mom, laughing with the professor, and taunting his sister while

pretending that all of them weren’t just strings of code within a program. At times he wished that

he had never found the code, that he had never discovered this awful secret. But then he would

remember the way Professor Kalister had dismissed him, how his mother had thought he was

having a mental breakdown, and he would remember why this was important.

Finally, he had found the base code and traced it back to its main server. The base code of

the world, who would’ve thought such a thing existed?

 

It was with trepidation that Jason followed the coordinates. He didn’t say goodbye to his mother,

or to his sister. What was the point, if they were nothing more than programs?

Or at least, that was what he told himself when his heart ached and his mother’s tearstained face

flashed before his eyes. He knew that they would worry, but was that worry real? That was the

problem, he didn’t know. He didn’t know anything anymore. He didn’t even know what was

real, and what was just code. He couldn’t differentiate.

Which is why he had to leave.

He had gotten a few strange looks when he got on the bus, but didn’t care. They were programs.

Everyone was just a program.

 

~*~

 

“… becoming more and more severe. Last night a Warp incident left two people dead

and four more injured, with no one able to recall what had happened …”

It was late by the time he made it to the source.

Jason had barely paid attention to the name of the little speck on the map. The town was

tiny and in the armpit of a middle-of- nowhere dustbowl. Frankly though, he didn’t care that it’d

taken two days on a bus to get there. He ignored the fact it had also taken most of his savings to

get here, or that his mother was probably beside herself with worry. The only thing that mattered

was the way the code converged on this location, this little, random, mechanics shop.

A faded blue sign sat above the porch, reading Genesis Mechanics. More than a few

shingles were loose and the sparse shrubs that littered the landscape seemed healthier near the

wooden structure.

It was a simple two-story house, wooden and shingled, with faded white paint and pale

grey shutters. The wraparound porch had been expanded, and the garage gutted, creating a large

overhang with two walls that was almost larger than the house itself.

The air was still and Jason could just barely hear the buzzing of the generated insects. He

stood on the curb and wondered what made this place so special.

“Ah, Jason you’ve made excellent time. Do come in, we’ve been expecting you.”

Jason spun around to see a man standing on the curb beside him, whom he swore was not

there a moment ago. A small but amused smile danced across the man’s thin lips as he gestured

towards the home-turned- auto-shop, his dark blue eyes glistening with mirth.

 

The teen swallowed slowly, trying to dislodge the lump in his throat. A shiver crawled up

his spine as he tentatively took a step forward, wonder how the man had known his name.

“You knew I was coming.”

It wasn’t a question, but a statement of fact and Jason was surprised the words had passed

his lips at all with the way with stomach was churning.

The man chuckled, “Of course. We pay attention to everyone who manages to discover

the truth.”

A chill worked its way up his spine, and Jason’s fists clenched. He hadn’t thought very

much about who he would find here, so focused he was on finding answers. It was an oversight,

one he was beginning to regret. Who knew what he was walking into? Who these people were?

The rest of their short journey was in an uneasy silence. The brunette man said nothing

more, and Jason couldn’t find the courage to say anything else. Instead of continuing onto the

porch, the programmer’s eyes widened as the man directed him under the overhang and into the

expanded garage.

The air was cooler beneath the overhang and Jason felt compelled to relax, but he refused

to allow himself to do so. Unease still bubbled in his gut as he glanced about. There were tools

scattered about everywhere, and many large machines. An old car sat parked in the middle of the

workspace, its hood popped open. Jason didn’t know anything about mechanics, but even he

could tell that the engine was a mess.

“I see our young guest has arrived.”

Jason spun towards the amused voice, to see a thin man with grease stained jeans and a

faded t-shirt roll out from under the car.

Jason swallowed nervously, berating himself for not realizing that finding the source of

the code would involve a confrontation. That’d been blind and naïve of him. Now he was at the

mercy of two men who were most likely connected to the populace’s ignorance of the reality in

which they lived in some form or another.

“If you knew I found the code, why did you wait until I came to you? Why not say

anything? Or stop me? I assume that this is supposed to be a secret, yet you let me find out about

it.” The words poured from his lips before Jason could stop them. He froze in fear, eyes flicking

between the two older men, but the hazel eyed man simply chuckled and the brunette’s lips

twitched.

The man who greeted him moved deeper into the shop, vanishing behind the various

machinery and equipment. Some of the tension in the air faded as the man left, but Jason didn’t

feel much safer solely in the presence of the mechanic, if anything, the knot in his stomach grew.

 

He had been such a fool. Who knew what they were going to do to him?

“It’s not every day that someone finds the access code, much less bypasses it to the

system’s source code. We’ve been keeping an eye on you, Jason, ever since you first found the

access code. True, we could’ve stopped you, could’ve kept you away from finding the source

code, but that isn’t what we do. We protect and maintain the program. We don’t control it,” the

man explained, wiping his hands on a rag, his black bangs casting shadows over his eyes.

Jason blinked rapidly as his mind whirled. His suspicions were practically proved correct.

These people had been watching him for a very long time, which meant that they had direct

access to the source code. Not only that, but the man had practically admitted that they ran the

program, meaning that they had admin access to the source code; and if they had admin access to

the coding that the entire world was built out of… well. They could basically do anything, and

no one could stop them.

He felt ill at the thought. Who were these people to have that access, to have ability to

play god? Who gave them that right?

“Why, why let me find out the truth?” Jason asked slowly as his fear grew. The man

hadn’t answered that part of his question, and he was determined to know. Was it a game or

some kind of twisted test? His mind whirled through possible motivations.

What were they going to do now that he was here?

He didn’t realize that he had started hyperventilating until the man was crouching directly

in front of him, a hand on his shoulder, hazel eyes peering into his own.

“Relax kid; we’re not going to hurt you.” The man grinned briefly before standing and

rolled his eyes, running a hand through his inky hair. “Maybe we should’ve reached out to you

sooner, instead of letting you come to us. But no one’s been able to access the system’s source

code in almost a century, and we thought it best not to freak you out too much.”

“I believe you are freaking out the boy quite a bit at the moment, Al.” the first man said

as he reappeared with a bowl of chips in one hand and a platter of sandwiches in another. “In

response to your other question, why wouldn’t we let you discover the code? We’re not keeping

it a secret from the world, just… keeping it safe until the world is ready.”

Jason didn’t see a difference between the two, but didn’t say anything.

The hazel eyed man, also known as Al, nodded in agreement at the other man’s answer

and slipped away from Jason. With a flourish, he snatched up a sandwich, and after taking a bite,

gestured towards the platter with his head. Placing the food on a nearby workbench, the first man

pulled out the two stools from beneath the bench. Al plopped down on one, still munching away

as if Jason wasn’t even there.

“Do help yourself,” the first man continued. “I doubt you’ve eaten much since you left

Chicago.”

The blue-eyed man picked up a sandwich himself before moving back and leaning

against a large machine. He and Al glanced at each other periodically as Jason’s gaze moved

back and forth between the empty stool, the food, and the two men. His unease was obvious and

the two were trying their best to not make it worse.

Jason on the other hand was now just confused. If it wasn’t bad that he discovered the

code then why was it a secret? Why were they watching him? And why were they now offering

him food? Was he missing something, or was he just being paranoid?

After almost fifteen minutes, Al got fed up with Jason’s hesitation and rolled his eyes

once more.

“Kid,” he said after shoving the last bit of sandwich in his mouth. “If we really wanted to

hurt you, or keep you from finding out about the system, or even keep you from coming here, we

could’ve done that when you were still in Chicago. We aren’t going to hurt you. How many

times am I going to have to say that?”

He raised an eyebrow at Jason who just blushed and looked away. Ok, so maybe he was

being rather paranoid but he had just discovered a legitimate conspiracy. Who wouldn’t be

paranoid?

“Now, Neo was kind enough to make us food, so why don’t you pop down on that stool,

get something in your stomach, and then ask us all the questions you want. We’ll do our best to

answer them.”

Al finished, wandering over and grabbing another sandwich. It was this simple gesture

that seemed to ease most of Jason’s tension and with a deep breath and something squirming

uncomfortably in his gut, he stepped forward. Moments later he found himself seated across

from Al on the stool, a sandwich in hand and less strain on his spine.

Neo gave the two an approving nod before vanishing once more into the midst of the

shop.

“What do you mean; you could’ve kept me from finding the source code program, or

from coming here?”

Jason asked his question tentatively as he nibbled on the crust of his sandwich. The bread

turned to mush in his mouth and it wasn’t until his stomach growled loudly that he realized just

how hungry he was. Bodily urge overcame caution, and Jason took a large bite just as Al shook

his head.

 

“You’re not that dumb kid, so don’t ask stupid questions. You know exactly what I

mean.”

Swallowing the bite and taking another deep breath, Jason found his thoughts clearer as

more of his panic faded. Cringing a bit, Jason brought to light one of the many fears that had

manifested since he found the code. One of the few that he had begged and prayed weren’t true.

The one that he still prayed wasn’t true.

“You mean you could’ve hacked me.”

Al shrugged, finishing off his second sandwich. “Glad you aren’t in denial.”

Jason almost snorted. Not in denial? Sure, he had totally accepted the fact that you could

manipulate people as easily as a vase’s color, which is why he had asked.

“Yeah, we could’ve if we wanted to. There are programs in place that prevent that kind of

thing of course, but there are ways around them if the need is strong enough.”

Jason did snort there, if only to hide his relief. Sure, he was very aware that he was

nothing more than strings of code, just like his mother, his sister, the professor, this sandwich,

and everything else around him. He was young, not stupid. He knew none of this was real.

He was just glad to know that his thoughts and actions were still his own. But still, Jason

couldn’t help but point out the obvious.

“And you know how to get around those protocols.”

Was that right? Jason wondered again. Should one person—or two, in this case—have

that kind of power? In a world built from code, if you knew the right keys to press you could

change anything, control anyone, do whatever you wanted. The world would literally be at your

fingertips.

“Of course we do,” Jason jumped as Neo wandered back in, three cans of soda in his grip.

He hadn’t heard the man approach. “Tell me, Mr. Garrent. After you have built a program, even

one secured behind even the most formidable firewalls and protocols, can you still maneuver

through it as you wish? Can you still change the code and access the files years, even decades

later?”

“Of course,” Jason said, eyes widening almost painfully as he realized what they were

implying. Al had said that they protected and maintained the code, was it really that much of

stretch…?

“You mean…”

Neo and Al both nodded.

“You followed the code here because this is the heart of the program, the central hub; and

we are the creators and caretakers of this system.” Al explained, gesturing around at everything.

“But why!?” Jason exclaimed loudly, finally getting to one of his biggest questions.

Why? His hands clenching into fists as he forced himself to stay on the stool. “Why would you

do this? Why create a virtual world to this extent? Why let us believe that it is real?”

Neo and Al’s eyes darkened as one, but Neo simply shook his head as Al sighed. Then a

new voice cut in, one that Jason was very, very familiar with.

“What do you know about the Never-Ending Plague, Jason?”

Jason stiffened, eyes widening as he twisted around to see Professor Kalister standing

behind him. The professor looked tired, but he nodded in greeting to the two mechanics. Jason’s

mouth opened and closed quite a few times as he tried to find the right words.

“Professor Kalister?!”

What? How? Why was the professor here!?

Kalister smiled at the boy softly, before gesturing him to continue. “Just answer the

question, Jason. What do you know about the Never-Ending Plague?”

With a deep breath, he buried all of his shock and forced himself to relax. If the professor

was involved, then he would be fine. He had to be.

“Over three hundred years ago, in the year 2072, a plague like nothing seen before swept

across the globe. No one is sure how it started, or where it began but it was swift, agonizing, and

deadly. Attacking the central nervous system, it was something never seen before. It didn’t act

like a virus, and it wasn’t bacteria. It spread even in the most sterile environments.”

Jason paused, trying to remember all of the details from history and biology class when

he was a child.

“The Plague attacked the system swiftly and was almost undetectable for the majority of

its life. Those who contracted the Plague fell into a coma within a week, and died twelve hours

later when the disease ate through the brainstem. Despite the best efforts of the most brilliant

doctors on the planet, and the most advanced technology available, people died by the millions

every day.

“By the end of ’72, a third of Earth’s population was dead. By the time a cure was

created in 2074 only about 1.3 billion people were still alive, about a tenth of original

population.”

 

Jason trailed off, not recalling much more about the Plague or how the cure was created.

The three men nodded anyway as Neo pulled out another stool for Kalister. He joined the little

circle, but Jason didn’t see the point of the topic.

“But what does that have to do with the program?”

“Do you know why they named it the Never-Ending Plague?” Al asked slowly, eyes on

the ground and tone far darker than Jason expected.

Jason just shook his head.

“No one does,” he explained. “We used to come up with theories in history class, as to

why the name would be such a contradiction. It’s one of the many mysteries of that time period.”

 

Neo patted Al on the shoulder as the man sighed.

“No, the reason why it was called the Never-Ending Plague is because, despite what the

history books say, we never found a cure.”

Jason’s eyes widened. What? That couldn’t possibly be true. If they never found a cure

then how were they here …

Oh.

Neo nodded as Al grimaced.

“In 2072, when millions were being killed off by the Plague, the greatest minds of the

time came together to attempt to find a way for humanity to survive. There was no cure, nowhere

to run, no quarantine that held the disease at bay. Sometimes you didn’t even know you were

sick until you fell into a coma and never woke up,” Al explained slowly, quietly. “It was hell,

Armageddon, and humanity was falling in face first as the world collapsed around us.”

He took a deep breath, shaking his head softly, eyes dark with memories. Neo took up the

mantle of story-teller, and continued.

“Alistair and I were approached at the end of ‘72. We were asked that, since there was no

way to save humanity from this disaster, if there was a way to at least save their minds.”

A shiver crawled up his spine; surely Neo didn’t mean what Jason thought he meant.

“So we constructed a world, a world identical to our own. It took time, unimaginable

power, the largest workforce that could be mustered, and the biggest hard drive ever constructed,

but we built humanity’s salvation,” Al explained as he ran a hand through his hair, and his

shoulders slouched, showing the responsibility had had been forced for bear. The responsibility

they still bore.

 

Jason suddenly believed that the two were much older than the thirty year olds they

appeared to be.

Kalister gave the two a sympathetic look and both programmers allowed the man time to

compose himself.

“But by the time we were finished … the losses were high,” Al eventually continued.

“In the beginning of the year 2072, Earth’s population was 10,387,646,023, give or take a

couple hundred people,” Neo elaborated, folding his hands behind his back as if he were

commenting on the weather and not the death of humanity. “By the time the Cosmos project was

complete in the year 2074, there were only 1,879,485,296 people left on Earth.”

Jason blinked, that was more people than history said survived. He shook his head

slowly. Even though it was a given part of history, he could hardly imagine 9 billion people

dying within two years.

“And only about 3.7 million of them weren’t infected with the Plague.”

“That’s impossible,” Jason protested as the numbers changed and he tried to wrap his

head around the new information. His history classes had always claimed that little over a

billion people had survived the disease.

“No, it’s reality.” Alistair rejoined the conversation. “But it also doesn’t really matter.

Someone could still be uploaded into the system even if they were infected.”

“It simply mattered how far the Plague had progressed,” Neo explained. “As long as their

mental functions hadn’t deteriorated they were still eligible for upload. Alistair is the perfect

example. He was the first to complete the consciousness transfer, as the disease had progressed

faster than usual in his system. It was his success that convinced the majority of human kind to

follow.”

Al rolled his eyes but didn’t deny Neo’s words. Jason could do nothing but stare in shock

once more. He had actually been infected with the Plague?!

“Of the 1.9 billion remaining humans, only about 1.6 billion were well enough to be

approached regarding humanity’s last hope. In the end, only 1.3 billion allowed their

consciousness to be uploaded to the mainframe.” Alistair continued the story as if nothing had

happened, but Neo jumped in once again. They seemed to know exactly what the other was

going to say, and when to step in. It was a dynamic literally built from centuries of

companionship.

“1,327,859,208 people to be exact.” Neo reported, causing Al to sigh overdramatically

and shove his friend fondly.

 

18Kalister smiled at them warmly, and Jason suddenly wondered if the professor was

friends with them. How long had he known the two? How long had he known about the code?

Why had he tried to keep Jason away from it?

Neo shot Al an amused look while Jason tried to reconcile what he knew of history with

what he was just told.

“If all those people consented and were uploaded, why doesn’t anyone know that this is a

virtual world?” Jason asked slowly, and was rather proud of the fact that his voice barely shook.

The professor’s presence had really helped Jason relax, but he was still glad he sounded remotely

intelligent. He was in the presence of geniuses and men much older than he.

At this, the two looked guilty, a dark look in Alistair’s eyes as Neo put a hand on his

shoulder. Kalister winced and Jason braced himself. It obviously wasn’t going to be pretty.

His voice was flat, detached, as the black-haired man spoke. “It was decided amongst the

remaining world powers, and ourselves, to erase that information from every during the upload

process. As I had been uploaded beforehand and someone was needed to monitor the system –

even after everything, they couldn’t entrust the job solely to an Artificial Intelligence – I was the

exception. It was the one time we tampered with someone’s code, and it will be the only time.”

“It was believed that humanity would shift their behavior and way of life if they retained

the knowledge of their new states and world.” Neo elaborated with his hand still on Al’s

shoulder even as his eyes darkened. Jason kept quiet, even as he shifted in his seat. Why had that

upset him so? “We took these steps to keep humanity preserved, so that they would be allowed to

grow in their own time, without the situation altering their natural evolution and progression.”

“That reasoning doesn’t make sense,” Jason pointed out, focusing on something he was

familiar with. “How does computer code evolve and progress without someone else interfering

with it? It’s not alive.”

This time, it was Kalister who answered.

“Jason, how does something evolve?”

The boy shrugged, “Doesn’t DNA adapt to different environments over a long period of

time?”

“Yes,” Kalister said slowly, “it could even be said that it learns, and changes in

accordance with what it learned.”

Jason wasn’t sure he followed.

“But code doesn’t learn; it can’t do that.”

 

19At this, Neo burst out laughing and Al had to cover his mouth to muffle his chuckles.

Kalister’s lips twitched as he glanced at the three in confusion. Ok, he was definitely missing

something.

“But it is doing that, Jason.” Kalister explained kindly. “Al and Neo have created a type

of code that grows and learns. It simulates the natural process of evolution as closely as it can.

Think about what has changed in the past three hundred years and you’ll see the truth. If the

coding was stagnant, humanity would be exactly as it was when the original minds were

uploaded centuries ago.”

“But you’re not,” Neo cut in, a sly grin on his face. Al chuckled, a wide smile spreading

across his lips, and Jason flinched as he recognized that look. It was the same look his mother

had any time he did something she was especially proud of.

“Humanity has evolved, perhaps not as much as some would like, but the world’s

changed. You’ve lessened your tendency towards violence. Wars are less common; people have

become more accepting on a global level. The world has changed, Jason, in the last three

centuries, more than you can really comprehend.”

Neo smiled the entire time he spoke, and the way he referred to humanity stood out to

him. Why would Neo refer to humans like he wasn’t one?

“But how? How can something like that exist? It’s science fiction!”

Kalister and the others laughed.

“You found out that you live in a virtual reality and you yourself are a program and

you’re asking how they created a system that can learn and evolve?” Kalister asked teasingly,

causing Jason to blush.

“But how?” Jason stressed and Al shrugged.

“We simply based the system off of my own programing.” Neo said, causing Jason to

freeze and look at the man.

“What?”

Al sighed and explained.

“The two of us were approached by those in power because of who we are, who we

were.”

“He means what.” Neo jumped in, rolling his eyes. “Before the upload, I was considered

by humanity –”

“The few that knew, you mean,” Al snorted.

 

20“– to be an Artificial Intelligence, and Alistair here, is the one who created me.”

Jason looked between the two in disbelief. His eyes flickered over to Kalister for

confirmation, and the man nodded. “You have got to be joking.”

Neo raised an eyebrow as Al got up to grab another sandwich. “I assure you, everything

we’ve told you is the truth.”

“Made him when I was eight,” Alistair explained around a mouthful of food. “Was

lonely, wanted a friend, so I wrote a program. Eventually he gained sentience and I got my

friend. Quickly learned that genius and isolation don’t mix too well, though.”

This time it was Neo’s turn to roll his eyes, but he didn’t correct the man. Kalister simply

chuckled at their antics. Jason’s mind was finally beginning to overload, though at least now he

knew why Neo had looked so upset at the fact that Artificial Intelligences weren’t trusted. Even

if his mind felt like it was imploding, he had that one piece of clarity to hold on to.

“Yes, as the fair amount of trouble we got into during our younger days can attest to.”

Jason stared in a perpetual state of disbelief, finding harder and harder to think and blink

at the same time, as Alistair chuckled. He wondered if everything he knew he was fake, and not

just the world around him, and if he was going to pass out. It seemed rather likely at the moment.

“Hey, you caused just as much trouble as I did, as you well know …”

“But why? What was the point?” Jason interjected as his brain truly began short

circuiting.

He wanted to understand, he needed to understand. Why? Why, oh why?

“What do you mean, Jason?” Kalister asked, seeing the signs for what they were, a near

mental breakdown.

The two creators turned to him together and opposite eyebrows rose in question. Jason

tried not to think about how creepy that was or how they obviously thought he was an idiot.

“I mean, why would anyone want to live in a world that’s not real?” He elaborated, as he

tried to focus through the rocking. Why was the room rocking?

Neo shook his head as Alistair leaned forward to lean on his knees, sandwich dangling

from his hand.

“Why isn’t this world real?”

Kalister nodded from his place in the circle. The professor wondered how his student still

couldn’t get it.

This time it was Jason’s turn to roll his eyes, his brain refocusing as he was given

something solid and logical to work with.

“How can it be? It’s a program! Made up of strings of code! It can be altered, changed,

twisted, if you know how! We’re not physically here, nothing is! None of this is real, so why

would anyone want to live here?”

“We just explained how the world evolves, how humanity evolved. How can something

evolve if it’s not real?” Kalister asked, but Jason just shook his head.

Code that could be taught to learn was still just code!

Kalister opened his mouth to say something more, but Al raised a hand and silenced him.

“Tell me, Jason. Are you breathing?”

The boy blinked. “Well, yeah.” Now, breathing calmly was the hard part.

“Do you get hungry?” Al asked, and Jason nodded as he looked at the man oddly. “Can

you feel your mother’s pulse and warm breath on your neck when you hug her or the cool wind

on your cheek? Does your stomach churn when you’re sick and do your fingers hurt when you

slam them in a door? Can you construct your own individual thought and opinion based on

personal experience and available knowledge? Do you care about other people and have people

care about you, or get scared when your sister doesn’t answer her phone or come home? Do you

have hopes and dreams, and things you want to see in this world?”

Jason nodded again as his sense of reality was slowly stripped away. His perception of

reality had already been altered too many times to count in the past month. How much more

could he take?

Jason was pretty sure that he was actually shaking now, and was that his heart echoing in

his ears or was someone banging a drum?

Alistair smiled kindly, looking very far away as darkness crept in along the edges of

Jason’s vision.

“Then why isn’t this world real? People live, struggle, fall in love, and even die here. You

learn, grow, evolve …”

“But we aren’t real!” Jason interrupted, and it was Kalister who responded.

“If code can be taught to evolve like DNA, why can’t it be taught to replicate like it? The

people living around us—ignoring Alistair and Neo—aren’t the same ones who were uploaded

Jason. This isn’t just a program; this is life, life built from code. The very core of everyone’s

base code may be the same, but then again, DNA is nearly the same for everyone. It’s the little variations and our environment that make us who we are, whether it’s with DNA in the physical

world or with code here in our virtual one.”

At Jason’s wide eyed ‘you are insane’ expression, Kalister shook his head, Neo

snickered, and Alistair laughed.

“If you need more proof …” Al’s lips twitched. “If human’s had continued in the

physical world, maybe we would’ve eventually developed the ability to manipulate matter

around us. Here people are learning how to subconsciously alter the code around them. What?

You think all those Reality Warps were errors?”

Kalister looked over at the duo so quickly Jason was surprised he didn’t suffer from

whiplash. Apparently he wasn’t the only one who hadn’t known about that. Neo chuckled at

Jason’s dazed look, but Alistair didn’t care and forged ahead.

“Sure, it’s not exactly the same. In this world we’re all made up of strings of code and

kept alive by a hard drive. But is that so different from being made up of molecules and being

kept alive by the laws of physics? Before, if you knew how to manipulate atoms and molecules,

you could alter the world around you. It’s the same here, except it’s not atoms, its code.

“What makes something real, Jason?” Al asked the boy. “I once stood in front of a

federal judge and challenged the scientific community to reevaluate the definition of ‘alive’ and

‘sentient’ just to keep Neo from being destroyed.”

Neo’s lips twitched, but he didn’t say anything as Kalister chuckled.

“They ruled in our favor, legally declaring Neo, the first ever sentient Artificial

Intelligence, a living being.” He smiled again. “If an A.I. was determined to be alive, to be real,

then why is this world any different? Why are you, your family, and all the other Artificial

Intelligence decedents of uploaded humanity any less real? Does that make your existence matter

any less? Because I really don’t think it does.”

“This reality was built to save humanity, we decided to protect it. That means keeping it

running in both worlds, until humanity is ready to understand. We didn’t keep you from finding

the code, Jason, because it is the people like you, who learn the truth, who will eventually tell us

when the world is ready,” Neo explained after a moment, his blue eyes searching, questioning, as

he locked gazes with Jason. He was looking for an answer, one that Jason wasn’t sure he had.

Silence fell in the shop, as Al straightened up and Neo collected the platter and bowl as

Kalister stretched. Jason just sat there, his brain unable to process. He felt numb, disconnected,

disjointed, frozen…like he had just been dumped head first into an icy ocean and couldn’t tell

which direction was the surface.

 

“Come back when you have a better definition of what makes something real; then we’ll

talk.”

The genius stretched as he slid to his feet, and wandered out of the shop, Neo following

in his footsteps. Kalister came over and placed one hand on Jason’s shoulder in comfort. The

teen grounded himself through the physical contact, allowing his thoughts to slow down long

enough to make a bit more sense.

“Don’t worry, it’ll make sense eventually.” Kalister reassured the boy, but he didn’t

listen. Jason twisted around and called out just as the duo turned the corner,

“Wait! What am I supposed to do now?”

Kalister rolled his eyes as Alistair just laughed and strolled away.

But it was the original A.I. that turned and smiled benevolently, if strangely smugly, at

the boy.

“Why, you live of course! You’re only human.” And then he too faded from sight.

And that’s what they did.

 

~*~

Victoria Pomeroy

 
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