A man's reality falls apart as he returns to his life.
The streets of the French Quarter were empty, the hint of lazy jazz drifting on a winter’s gale. It was cold and Natasha squeezed my hand, wrapping her scarf tightly.
“Another one closed,” I realized, arriving at Central Grocery, home of the ‘World’s First Muffaletta,’ though it was little good now, locked up tight. “Where is everyone?” The quiet sidewalks were particularly odd because, rain or shine, the streets of New Orleans never rested, even at night.
“I’m freezing,” Natasha pulled me closer. “Let’s just head back home.”
“C’mon, we gotta eat,” I said, fighting the wind. “We’ll follow the music. Something has to be open.”
A whining saxophone drew us deeper into the Quarter, past countless shuttered restaurants and shops, though our haunting melody eluded us.
Then ahead, a hulking shadow crossed our path – an elephant trudging its reluctant owner quietly along by a leash – a sad clown with faded paint. “Hey!” I called, but neither acknowledged me. I kissed Natasha’s forehead, “Wait here,” then bolted after them. But as I reached their mysterious corner, I discovered them gone without a trace. “Weird.”
My skull ached, so I headed back, not realizing I’d become lost, my surroundings distorted and unfamiliar. “Natasha!” I shouted desperately.
“End of the world’s comin’.” A grandfatherly gentleman on a tall porch eased back into his rocking chair, puffing a cob pipe though a toothless grin. “Best get ready,” he said.
“Please, have you seen my girlfriend?” I pleaded, struggling against my throbbing brain. “About this tall, dark hair, long overcoat.”
“Never you mind,” he laughed, then suddenly disappeared, his crooked pipe hitting his seat.
Bolting away down the street, I shouted her name, but only the breeze responded, teased by a fading sax, now falling silent. Then in a flash, the sky became black as pitch. “The hell?” I staggered backward, struck by intensifying migraine. My stomach churned and skin crawled. Dropping to all fours, I rolled onto my back. The heavens flickered then fizzled, replaced by a tremendous message impossible to miss – ‘SYSTEM ERROR. EJECTING.’ Everything melted around me and I died…or thought I did.
I blinked awake into pitch blackness. Trembling fingers reached for chapped lips around a feeding tube. I lurched and gagged, falling to the floor, franticly drawing out the line from deep inside before vomiting. Wiping the last bit of spittle away, I removed the headset that had long covered my eyes and ears. Blinded at first, I focused on the room.
Memories flooded back: my last day – I’d bought the Prestige Package, though the Virtuatech guys were late. The feeding intubation wasn’t so bad, a continuous supply, but the catheterization and colostomy pump…oh Jesus…
Free of my lines and hoses, I lurched from the bathroom, now barely washed. My beard itched and I rubbed my eyes, rediscovering my old house, tattered and covered in thick dust. “This wasn’t a two week trip.”
I recalled Natasha and my heart sank. She was never real. “Alexa, what day is it?”
“Alexa, today’s date?”
Again, nothing – no power. So, I found the front door, easing it open but sliding down the jam, too weak to even move.
The empty street echoed the simulation I’d just left, when a woman in uniform approached from up the block. “Hey!” I said weakly.
“Shit. Here’s another one!” she shouted, and within minutes a team of medics was there.
“What…what happened?” I asked, confused.
“What’s your name?”
“Larry, do you know what year this is?”
“Damn rigs,” she cursed. “Larry, it’s 2043. You’ve been tripping for over a decade.”
“How…how is that possible?”
Gazing past me, she identified my rig, Virtuatech’s clown-faced logo imprinted on the side. “Virtuatech went under in 2032, bought out by Unreality Inc. A couple of acquisitions later and…well, you got lost in the shuffle.” She helped me onto a gurney. “Miracle we were nearby when this block’s power failed, or we might never have found you. Honestly, we’ve been up to our eyeballs in random ejects for years. A lot of ‘em just up and die.”
“So, what now?”
“First, a full medical workup and defrag for the withdrawal – bet you had some delirium toward the end there. Some real food, rehab, and the HHS postejection re-orientation. Of course there’s the attorneys with the routine class-action paperwork…”
“Shit…put me back in.”
Inside the ambulance I joined another neighbor, frail and emaciated. “Hi,” I said, “What’s your name?”