July 27

5 – Media

The second row of keys didn’t work either, and to make matters worse, I got caught again.  The most frustrating thing was that I was prepared this time.  I looked over, made sure Bookie was still occupied, and when I tried to open the door, she noticed me.

That meant I either needed to get back to the door faster, or wait longer before trying.  Something about that particular window of time was hardcoded, and Bookie was going to look at the door no matter what I did.  Tomorrow’s iteration I’d have the right key, and I’d nail the exit.

*     *     *

I had the third row of keys in my hand, and I was just feet from the door, but I needed to wait another minute before trying.  Without knowing the exact moment that Bookie was going to look at the door, I couldn’t move with the precision that I’d become accustomed to in the rest of my school routine.

I also needed to consider that I couldn’t wait too long, because then Deskie might catch me either leaving the library or trying to open the lab with the keys I’d pilfered.  The thought of repeating this sequence of events again was just about the least appealing thing I could think of at that particular moment, so failure wasn’t an option.

Alright, enough time had passed.  It was time to make a move.  Bookie had moved over to another shelf, which wasn’t something I’d seen her do in either of the previous iterations.  This made a ton of sense, as she had probably noticed me before when she was moving around.

Without thinking about it too hard, I bolted for the door.  This time, there was no accusatory voice from behind me.  I’d finally made it.

I closed the door behind me, nodded at Hay, and we scurried across the hall.  There was no time to pat ourselves on the back or think about anything else; I just started shoving keys into the lock as quickly as I could.  Like some kind of cruel joke, the very last key was the right one.  Key 3E, just in case we needed it again.

We went into the computer lab and locked the door behind us, keeping the lights off.  I even dimmed the monitor so no one would notice a glow coming from within the room.  Hay sat beside me and watched as I once again attempted to break into the school’s network, which I suppose could’ve been interesting in some cases, but not particularly in this one.  I’m sure she felt more frustrated than anything since she couldn’t really help.

It took about 30 minutes, but I was finally able to get the access I needed.  The problem now was finding the right computer that housed the video file.  I was once again working in theory, but all I could do was try.  With my new domain admin access, I downloaded and installed some directory software that showed usernames, computer names, and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t care about.

The directory was all hierarchical, so from the top, starting at the name of the school, I clicked on Member Servers.  From there, I could pick from an assortment of categories: Domain Controllers, File Shares, Application Servers, and Multimedia.  Would it be on a file share?  I scanned through the list of server names and descriptions, but none of them struck a chord with me.

Teacher Shares

Staff Shares

Admin Shares

Software

Student Shares

Admin Shares, maybe?

I turned to Hay.  “If you were Principal Groves or Vice Principal Daniels, where would you put the morning announcement video files?”

“Only from that list on the screen?”

I went back up a level.  “It could also be somewhere in one of these folders, I guess.”

“What about multimedia?”

“Hmm.”  I clicked on the Multimedia category, which expanded into a whopping two server names: NHSLibrary and NHSTV.

“Bingo, that’s gotta be it!”

I opened Remote Desktop, typed “NHSTV” into the remote computer name field, then pressed Connect.  The program paused for a moment, then began connecting to the computer named NHSTV.  This had to be the right computer, so now all I had to do was find where the video files were stored.

I poked around the desktop, in the documents folder, the videos folder, and a few other unlikely places without any luck.  I was so close, but I was missing something.  Where were the files hiding?

“On our computer at home, we have separate usernames and all of our files are separate.  Could that be the case here?”

I smacked my forehead with the palm of my hand.  “I’m so dumb.  Thank you.”

“Did that help?”

“Immensely.”

I drilled down into the folder structure from the root of the local drive until I found exactly what I was looking for: user folders for the principal and vice principal.  If the files weren’t there, I was stuck, and the entire plan would have to be changed.

I double-clicked the folder for the principal and then opened his documents.  The folder was unsettlingly empty.  I thought for sure that would be it.

Wait though, I was thinking too much like myself.  In the principal’s shoes…

I opened the folder for his desktop and was met with a list of 20 or so video files.  Hay was right to think about how her family computer worked.  My parents threw everything on their desktop, and my hunch that Principal Groves operated in the same way had proven true.

“Did you find it?”

“Maybe…” I said as I scoured the filenames.  They were all default names from the camera that had taken them, all of which included a date and time.  One of these had to be it.  One of them was certainly-

I froze.

MVC_82718.mov

This was it.  I was staring at something that could hold a clue to our hopeless situation.  It was exciting, and it was terrifying.

I copied the file over the network to the lab computer I was using, then closed the remote connection and copied the file from the computer to my thumb drive so I could take it home.  That was for deeper analysis later today, since after all, it would disappear at midnight.

But for now, I plugged in earbuds and handed Hay the left earpiece, putting the right one in my ear nearest her.  I opened the file, the computer churned over the idea, and then it began playing.

“I will be reading the morning announcements today due to yesterday’s unfortunate events.”

I slammed the space bar down and turned to Hay.  She turned to me and we just shook our heads at each other in disbelief.  I didn’t have ability to put into words how confusing this was.

“I…I don’t understand.”

I think we both expected the file to be as we remembered it – that is, lacking the word “unfortunate.”  Had that been the case, it would imply that the file could’ve been somehow altered today, which absolutely made the most sense.  After all, only August 28th could change.  That was the hard rule of our entire world for the past 40-something years’ worth of iterations.

But with that one word in the morning announcements, all of that came into question.  Something from August 27th had changed.

*     *     *

We sat on my bed playing the video over and over on my laptop.  It had looped four times, and we were sure that there was only the one difference.  Yet, that one difference meant everything to us, and somehow also nothing.

The path to figuring this mystery out started and ended with Principal Groves, and there was no easy way for us to get the information we needed.  We already knew how barging into his office and demanding answers would go, and it’s not like we could take time to befriend him or something to gradually get the answers we needed.

“What if time is actually rewinding to August 27th, but not for us?” I said.

“I guess that’s possible.  Maybe we’re sleeping through it.”  We had no way to wake up earlier since our alarms couldn’t be reset.

“The only way we can know is to ask someone else every day to detail the evening of August 27th.”

“Who could we ask?  Principal Groves?” Hay asked.

“I mean, it has to be, right?  Something changed and it involved him, so he’s our only lead.”

“We have to get him to trust us somehow…”

“…every day, over and over, until we get something valuable out of him.”

Hay frowned.  “That seems impossible.”

“Maybe not.  I think we just need a very specific victory once, and then we can ride it out from there.”

“And that victory is…?”

“A password.  Something that only he knows.  Something that once the day resets, we can go back to him with and he’d have no choice but to believe that we’re telling the truth.”

“You mean like what we did with Mrs. Chen forever ago?”

It was true.  We’d failed with the password strategy before.  The key was in getting our subject to trust us once by providing them some big secret of theirs that we knew, and then the other dominos would fall.  But how did we get an adult to trust us with a major secret?

With Mrs. Chen, we’d tried with smaller secrets.  I pulled her aside before class and told her I knew about the presentation she was going to show us, even giving very detailed descriptions of it and the photos she included.  Her reaction was to accuse me of hacking her, then sending me to the principal’s office.  Of course, I just bailed on school for the rest of that day, but the point is that we’d learned early on that people that have no good reason to believe you will always find reasons not to, despite evidence pointing otherwise.

However, there was one time that the password strategy did work, but it required very specific circumstances.  Early on, Hay and I had a theory that maybe the day had been repeating for much longer than we could remember and that something had snapped both of us out of it at the same time.  We figured that maybe once you somehow became aware of the repetitions and believed they were real, that it could trigger whatever phenomenon it was that made Hay and I able to remember.

We tried the password strategy on my friend David.  He was the easiest possible person to try with, because we’d been best friends for a long time and there were lots of things that only I knew about him, and perhaps just as importantly, lots of things that only he knew about me.

Hay and I got to school early, confronted him before homeroom, and I explained what was going on.  I told him I knew it sounded unbelievable, but I had proof.  I went into detail about how homeroom would go, then the beginning of the class, and the major bullet points of Mrs. Chen’s lecture.

I told him, “For now, be as skeptical as you want, but after class, you’ll believe me.”

He looked me in the eyes and said, “This is crazy, but…I believe you.”

I was shocked.  “Why so quickly?  I gave you proof, you can wait and see before-”

“You’re close with this girl, Hayley?”

“Yeah, we’re dating.”

“Dude, I’ve known you forever.  I’d know if you liked this girl, and I can tell right now that you do.  But yesterday…no, you didn’t like her.  You never mentioned her, you didn’t even know her.”

He believed me because of how unbelievable any other possibility would’ve been.

David believed me.

And then the next day, he didn’t remember a thing.  I could’ve gotten him to believe me again, I could’ve done it every day to have my friend back, but it was too painful.  There was nothing in it for him, as there was nothing he could do.  He’d feel bad for us, then the day would end, and I would feel bad that I lost my friend again.  Sadness followed by pain, over and over.  It was easier to just leave him obliviously happy.

Nothing like that would ever work with Principal Groves, though.  He didn’t know me.  I was just some kid that went to his school.  David believed me because of a preexisting relationship, which I could never have with Principal Groves.  Anything we tried with him would be incredibly difficult, but we had to give it a shot.  There was nothing else to go on, and this was the first real hope we’d had in ages.

“We could try with the announcements,” Hay said, shrugging.

“He’d accuse us of hacking or something, just like Mrs. Chen did.”

“So we don’t even try?”

“No, we try.  We just use a different approach.”

*     *     *

Principal Groves was an intimidating man.  He was tall, burly, and seemed to almost never smile.  Approaching him in a friendly manner would’ve been difficult even if I hadn’t long ago forsaken my social skills.

Yet, there we sat, waiting in the secretary’s office to see him instead of sitting in homeroom.  It wouldn’t be easy, but if he would hear us out, I had an idea that would at least give us a chance.

The door swung open, and he walked out, at first staring at Hay, then at me.  His eyes locked onto mine, like he was annoyed to see me, but he ushered us into his office anyway.

“Come in.  Brendon and Hayley, is it?”

“Yes sir.  Thank you.”

It should’ve been strange being so polite to someone that we’d had a particularly bad confrontation with just a handful of iterations ago.  But it wasn’t.

“This must be pretty important if you’re here instead of in homeroom.  Do you have permission from your teacher?”

“There wasn’t time, sir.”

“I see.  Well, what seems to be the problem?”

“We want to tell you about a situation we’re in.  A situation we’ve been in, actually, for a very long time.  It’s, um…unbelievable, I guess, but we need some information from you desperately enough to be seeking out your help like this.”

“Before Brendon continues, I just want to make sure your expectations for this situation are set appropriately, sir.  Whatever you think this could be about, I can promise you, it’s not about that.  This is about something that will probably make you angry.  You’ll want to tell us to stop kidding around and get back to class, but none of this is a joke.  We are desperate, and we need your help, so please, hear us out.”

Hay made a face I’d seen her make before.  Her eyes were sad.  Her lips quivered just enough to notice.  But unlike the last few times I’d seen her make this face, I could tell that this time, it was for real.  She was pleading with every ounce of her being.

“This sounds serious,” Principal Groves said.

“It’s serious,” I said.  “But it’s going to sound like we’re messing with you.  I don’t know any better way to set it up than that, or than what Hay already told you.”

“Okay, well, I can’t make any promises other than that I’ll hear you out.”  He leaned back in his chair.

I sighed and cleared my throat.  “To you, today is August 28th, 2018, and yesterday was August 27th, 2018.  But…”  I hated this part.  It was so ridiculous, so unbelievable.  He’d kick us out immediately.  “…to us, every day for the past 40-something years has been August 28th, 2018.  We’ve relived this day over and over and over.  It’s been-”

“Around 16,865 times,” Hay interrupted.  “Just over 46 years.”

Principal Groves narrowed his eyes at me, but I continued before he could get a word in edgewise.

“We are the only two people that retain our memories.  Every night at midnight, everything resets.  Everyone else loses their memory, and if we’re awake, we black out until our alarms go off in the morning.”  He didn’t look impressed, but he didn’t look as angry as I thought he would.  “I know it sounds entirely unbelievable, but to be honest, we don’t really need you to believe that we’re telling the truth about that.  At least, not now.  What we do need from you, though, is information.”

“We’ve watched this morning announcement broadcast countless times.”  Hay pointed at the muted TV hanging on the wall to our left.  “Up until a few iterations ago, the broadcast said, ‘I will be reading the morning announcements today due to yesterday’s events.’  But a few days ago, it changed, and you added the word ‘unfortunate’ to the sentence.”

There was no way he believed us, judging from the look on his face.  Yet, he seemed…interested?  Maybe he thought this was some elaborate prank to get out of an assignment or something and he just wanted to see where it went, but whatever the case, we kept explaining.

“We confronted you shortly after, and you told us that the announcements were recorded yesterday evening.  So, to you, that would be the evening of August 27th.”

“To us, that is huge, because we only relive August 28th, but if the video changed, then something changed from August 27th, and that could be a clue for us to find out how to end this nightmare we’ve been stuck in.”

“So, we’d like to ask you some questions about the evening of August 27th, if you don’t mind.”

We looked at him, and he looked back at me, then at Hay.  He leaned forward, put his elbows on his desk, then crossed his arms.  “Look, kids, clearly I can’t believe a story like that, but I’m oddly impressed by the gumption that drove you in here to concoct this tale.  Did someone put you up to this?”

“You don’t have to believe us, sir.  We just need to know the circumstances surrounding your recording of that video.”

“I’d love to keep entertaining this little story, but really, I’m busy, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to send you back to class.”

Hay nodded.  “Yeah, we knew you were going to say that.  See, this isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation.”

The principal arched an eyebrow.

“It’s actually the fourth time we’ve made this appeal to you.  We knew you’d never give us the time of day after hearing such a strange story, so the first time we talked to you about this, we asked you for something that would make you believe us, 100%, without fail.  Something we could observe on this day, if we really were repeating it, and then tell you to make you believe us.”

“And that’s exactly what we did.”

Principal Groves chuckled a bit.  “You kids must get amazing scores in your creative writing courses, but listen, really, I have to-”

“You’re expecting a call from your wife.  She went to the doctor on August 27th, and she’s expecting some test results.”

Groves frowned at me.  “How did you find that out?”

“We stood outside of your office and listened to the call.  You really shouldn’t put your personal calls on speakerphone, but I guess it’s lucky for us that you do.”

“The call hasn’t happened yet, how could you…”  He trailed off.  “Okay, well, even if you know that I’m expecting that call, it doesn’t really mean anything.”

“She’s pregnant,” Hay said flatly.

He cocked his head to the side.  “What?”

“Your wife is pregnant.”

Now, Groves was getting annoyed.  “I’m glad you two think this is some kind of game, but I’m done with it. Get out of here before I get mad enough to suspend you.”

“It doesn’t matter if you suspend us.  When we wake up tomorrow, you won’t remember.”

He stared at me incredulously, like the words I’d uttered were sacrilege.

Hay groaned.  “Brendon, be nice.”

“Ah, sorry Principal Groves.”

“That’s not going to get you off the hook here,” he said.

“I know you think what we just told you isn’t true, but there’s no way we could know, right?”

“Kid, my wife is 46 years old.  There’s no way she’s pregnant.”

“Which is incredibly convenient to us,” I said.  “Because when she calls and tells you that she is pregnant, you’ll believe us, and when that happens, we’ll be outside your door again, waiting to talk.”

July 21

4 – Lab

I was nervous for the first time in what seemed like decades.  There wasn’t a lot that could affect me anymore, but sitting there in class waiting to hear the announcements was indeed inducing a strange amount of fear and anxiety within me.  The weird thing, though, is I liked the feeling.  Being nervous was a normal part of life.  Normalcy was something I was willing to take in any form.

Hay and I glued our eyes and ears to the TV as it came on.  Principal Groves, who’d probably wanted to smack me upside the head in the last iteration, looked like his usual self.  Not that I didn’t expect it, but who really knew anymore.

Then, it came.

“I will be reading the morning announcements today due to yesterday’s unfortunate events.”

“Whoa,” Hay whispered.

“See, I wasn’t crazy.”

“Hayley, Brendon, quiet,” Mrs. Chen scolded.  Of course, we didn’t care about getting reprimanded.  The instant we’d heard the word ‘unfortunate‘, our path for this iteration had been solidified.  We’d proceed with the plan we’d engineered the night before.

When the bell rang for 2nd period, we’d begin.  We couldn’t cause a commotion because we needed absolutely no attention drawn to us.  That meant we had to sit through 1st period for 90 grueling minutes.

And it might sound crazy, but for the first time in probably 15 years of iterations, I actually paid attention to the lesson, raised my hand to answer questions, asked ridiculously difficult questions to try to stump Mrs. Chen.  Literally anything to pass the time.

Hay snickered every time I raised my hand, like she couldn’t believe how into it I was.  I probably deserved it, since I was being unusually difficult to Mrs. Chen, but it didn’t matter.  At least she was getting some sort of entertainment value out of it.  After all, she had to endure this class period as well.

When the bell rang, I practically jumped out of my desk.  Hay would’ve normally laughed at such a spectacle since I was never in a hurry to do anything, but this iteration held significance.  We immediately left Mrs. Chen’s classroom, ignoring Brent entirely.  I didn’t even notice if he tried to talk to me.

We needed to get to the computer lab on the second floor.  That, in and of itself, wasn’t a problem, but the lab was locked, and if anyone found us in there, our plans for the iteration would be shot and we’d have to try again next iteration.

The second floor of the school was, unsurprisingly, mostly classrooms, but the computer lab was nestled at the end of the hallway around a corner, right next to the library.  It would be easy to not draw the attention of students, but it wasn’t like we cared about that anyway.  The more difficult proposition was to not draw the attention of the librarians that oversaw the usage of the lab.

I knew that if we stood at the very end of the hall until the bell rang again, no one would bother us for at least a few minutes.  That was where I sometimes stood while waiting to disperse myself into Hay’s class, since the hallways by the classrooms were all monitored by teachers.

We stood in that spot and waited, and as expected, the bell rang without any unusual fanfare.  The hallway was empty, and the computer lab door was 10 feet away.

Hay’s plan to enter the lab was simple.  We’d check the handle, and if it was locked like it was supposed to be, we’d have to do a little social engineering to get in.  It would be somewhat difficult, but we couldn’t break down the door and we had no idea where the keys were kept.

I walked up to the door and twisted the knob, frowning as it barely gave.  Locked, as it should’ve been.  Crap.  I mean, we expected it, but still, it was frustrating.  Now we’d have to trick the librarians into letting us in, which, quite frankly, wouldn’t be easy.

Hay was better with this kind of stuff, so she led us into the library and up to one of the desks where a librarian sat.  I stood beside her and watched as she smiled the most adorably fake smile I’d seen her express in quite some time.

“Hi there, can I help you?”

“Hello.”  Bright and cheery, always convincing.  Hay was incredible.  “Mr. Randal asked us to come and get the computer lab key for this period.  Is it available?”

“It is, but I will need to see a note from him.”

Of course, we expected something along those lines, so Hay dug into her bag and fished out one of the five different notes we’d written with Mr. Randal’s name forged at the bottom.  It was the first time we’d ever tried something like this with a librarian, so we had literally no expectations on how it would go down.  Despite how desperate we were for the plan to work, it was exciting to do something different where results were unknown.

Hay handed over the note, which the librarian glanced at very briefly.  “Can you please let Mr. Randal know that we really need to be made aware ahead of time for computer lab usage?  I’ll let it slide today, but in the future, it’s very important that we receive a heads up.”

“Yes ma’am, of course.”  God, her smile was perfect.

The librarian fished a key out of one of the desk drawers, then walked over to a small locker behind the desk.  With the key from her pocket, she unlocked the locker, hunted through it for a moment, then produced another key.

“We’ll need this returned when the class leaves the lab, and please remember to observe the rules and cleanup after yourselves.”

“Absolutely, no problem.  Thank you so much!”

We walked as casually as we could out of the library, then rushed as soon as we were out of sight to unlock the lab door.

Hay stood guard by the door as I rushed over to what I knew was the best computer in the room.  Some number of iterations ago, I’d taught myself some computer skills by ripping apart my computer at home dozens of times and breaking into my neighbor’s LAN via their poorly-secured WiFi network and messing with their computers.  For some reason that I couldn’t pinpoint, that type of stuff came naturally to me.  It wasn’t much – I think the Internet referred to as “script-kiddie” stuff – but I had to hope it would suffice for getting this job done.

First, I needed administrator access to the workstation.  From my backpack, I pulled out a thumb drive, stuck it into the computer, and rebooted.  When the POST screen came up, I hit F12 to enter a boot menu, then chose the option to boot from the USB drive.  The NTPasswordReset boot screen appeared, and the application loaded.  I went through the steps, which were crude, but did the job extremely well.  The Administrator account wasn’t disabled, so I used the application to rewrite the password hash with a new one of my choosing.

Bam, admin access.

I rebooted the computer again, but this time to Windows.  When the login screen appeared, I typed in ‘Administrator’ and the password that I’d just chosen.  While the desktop loaded, I swapped out thumb drives.  This one had an application called mimikatz on it, which I’d watched videos on but only knew how to use in theory.

Breaking into a computer that I had physical access to, like the lab computer, was one thing, but breaking into a remote computer that used a domain for authentication was an entirely different thing.  I didn’t have a way to test it at home, so as soon as mimikatz loaded, I was basically winging it.

I fumbled through the instructions and help menus, watched a couple more videos, and finally made a little progress.  I didn’t know a lot of the terminology the application used, which was frustrating.  Some of it was weirdly familiar, like maybe I’d read about it once, but either way, progress was slow.  Dealing with this stuff might’ve come naturally to me, but it was still quite a difficult thing to pull off.

“Crap!  The librarian is coming!”

I froze.  There was no way to salvage today if we were caught.

“Did she see you?”

“Not sure, doesn’t matter anyway.  She’s definitely coming.”

Ugh.  This was immensely frustrating.  I locked the workstation and slid the chair back.  Hay sat down across the table from me and put her head on the desk with a deep sigh.

The door swung open and the librarian glared at me, her eyes narrowing as they met mine.  “Mr. Randal informed me that he didn’t send any students to reserve the computer lab.”

“Oh, yeah.”  I stared at her blankly, my eyes conveying no emotion.  “We lied.”

“You’re going to see Principal Groves about this,” she said sternly.

Hay and I both stood up.  Man, this sucked.

“Nah, we’ll just go home.  Thanks for the offer, though.”

We approached the door, which she attempted to block.

“Excuse me?  I don’t think so.”  Her eyes were ablaze with fury.  Honestly, I’d be furious too, but the librarian could never understand the predicament we were in.  Neither of us had the energy to right the situation in any meaningful way, so we’d just let it reset.

Hay flashed the same smile from earlier, except the fakeness I saw in her eyes was replaced by raw, animal anger.  It was terrifying, even to me.  “Can you please move?  I don’t want to push you.”

The librarian stood there for a second, her expression of anger now wavering.  Hay never would’ve hurt this lady, but she could bluff extraordinarily well.  The uncertainty of the situation finally took over the librarian’s face, and she stepped aside.

“Thank you.”

I nodded as we passed by her.  “See you tomorrow.”

*     *     *

We knew where the key was, so there was no point in alerting a librarian by asking for it.  Now, we could just take it.  The issue was figuring out when.  There was no point in going to first period, so we just flat out skipped it and went straight to the library.

There were two things we could try from here.  The first was to sneak in, hopefully unseen, and try to just steal the key.  Probably easier said than done, but we had no clue if the librarians ever left or always stayed at or around their desks.  The second thing we could try was less attractive, as it was basically a (slightly safer?) variant of what we’d done and failed with yesterday.  Hay could distract the librarians while I stole the key, then I would go do what I needed to do by myself while Hay got reprimanded for skipping class or whatever.

This iteration, we’d try option number one.

We stood outside of the library, crouched below the glass so we could peek inside.  One librarian was arranging books on the far end of the library, nowhere near the desks.  The other librarian – the one we’d had our run in with during the last iteration – was sitting at her desk scribbling on something.  Not exactly ideal.

“How long do we wait before going with Plan B?”

There was no right answer.  “I dunno.  15 minutes?  How patient are you feeling?”

“Absolutely 200% impatient.”

“So, five minutes?”

Hay sighed.  “I guess.  I dunno.  Let’s just see how it goes.”

I didn’t know either of the librarians’ names.  I didn’t bother finding out yesterday, and I probably never would.  But in my head, I’d nicknamed the librarian from yesterday ‘Deskie.’  The other one would be ‘Bookie,’ since she literally had done nothing but touch books for the first five minutes we spied on them.  As you might be able to tell, you probably don’t want to rely on me for coming up with a creative nickname for you.

Just when we were about to give up and reevaluate the plan, Deskie got up and walked over to Bookie.  She said something we couldn’t hear, then turned and began walking toward the door we were standing next to.

“Look, she’s leaving!”

“Yeah, that’s great and all, but she’ll catch us.”

We frantically looked around for a place to hide, but it was just a school hallway.  There wasn’t anything that convenient unless we ran downstairs, at which point someone else would probably catch us.

“Wait, the lockers!”

“Huh?”

Hay crawled away from the window, stood up, and pulled the nearest locker open.

“The tall ones aren’t locked because the janitors sometimes use them.”  She pulled the next closest tall locker open.  “Get in.”

Could this work?  I mean, in high school movies, bullies shoved kids into lockers.  But were they actually big enough to fit an almost-adult body?  Neither of us was fat or anything, but we also weren’t particularly short or rail-thin like the nerdy kids in the movies that usually got stuffed into lockers.

There was really no time to stew over it, though.  It was do or…repeat, I guess.

Hay ducked inside of the first locker and twisted her body enough to fit vertically, then tried to wiggle her lower half into the tiny space.  She was taking too long, so I put my hand on her hip and pushed.  She finally popped completely in, so I closed the door and rushed over to the other tall locker.

Now there was very little time for myself, but I didn’t have to struggle much.  I was taller, so I had to duck more, but I fit in a bit easier since I didn’t have female hips to worry about.  I reached out and closed the door from the inside, contorting my arm in a way that I didn’t know was possible, but I was in.  And very uncomfortable.

But the important part was that we were hidden, and just in the nick of time.  The library door almost immediately creaked open, and Deskie’s footsteps clapped on the linoleum floor outside the lockers.  My mind raced, quickly calculating about how much time we’d have.  The faculty bathrooms were by the teacher’s lounge on the first floor, and if I had to guess, that’s exactly where Deskie was heading.  If I was correct, we had at least a five-minute window, possibly a good bit more.  And if I was wrong, well, we’d find out the hard way.

I pushed the locker door open and quickly stretched my legs and arms.  Having to hide in that locker was definitely a good reason to not have to repeat this process, so we needed to get this correct on the first try.

Hay’s locker door opened, and I watched as she flailed a bit trying to get out.  Curious, I walked over and stared at her, a smile spreading quickly across my face.

“Are you stuck in there?”

“Shut up.”

“You’re stuck in there.”  I snorted.

“Don’t you dare make any jokes about my butt.”

“I don’t really think I have to.”

She glared at me.  “Help me out you jerk.”

In fairness, the lockers weren’t exactly meant to house the human body, but it was still hilarious.

I grabbed her hand and pulled, and she fairly easily popped out of her tiny metal prison.  From the way that her arms were contorted inside the locker, she just couldn’t get the leverage to do it herself.

“You’re awful,” she pouted.

“Yeah, I know.  But we gotta hurry, so come on.”

Bookie was still messing with books, so if we could be quiet and stay ducked behind the numerous tables and shelves between Bookie and the librarians’ desks, it may just be possible to steal the key without ever being noticed.

“Should we both go?”

“No, double the chance to make noise, double the chance to be seen.  This is a one-person job.”

“You want me to-”

“No.  Let me.  If Deskie comes back, distract her.  You’re much better at that than I am.  That way we still have a backup plan.”

“Deskie?”

“The librarian from yesterday.”

“Yeah, I got that from the context clues…”

“Is this really the time to criticize my nicknames?”

“I think you probably deserve it.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Alright, fine.  How’s the plan sound though?”

“Good, let’s do it.”

I crawled below the glass, peeked to make sure Bookie wasn’t looking, then slowly and carefully pulled the library door open.  I winced as it made a slight creak, but Bookie didn’t notice.  Between the door and the first row of tables, there was nothing to hide behind, so I got on my hands and knees and crawled as quickly as I could until I had some cover.

I followed the tables, careful to be light on my feet, then ducked behind a shelf, then more tables, then another shelf.  Bookie still had no idea, and the desks were right in front of me.  I carefully crept around, slid out the drawer that Deskie had pulled the key from, and rummaged through it.

Amongst the numerous office supplies, a bag of potato chips, and a neck pillow, I managed to produce two keys.  One of them had to be the right key, so at most, I’d have to try twice without being seen.  Not the worst odds, I suppose, but the key locker was in plain sight, so I would be in plain sight while attempting to unlock it.

I peeked above the desk, confirmed that Bookie was still absorbed in her task, then popped up and tried the first key.  It inserted, but didn’t turn, because of course I wouldn’t pick the right key on the first try.

Without hesitating, I ducked back behind the desk just to wait for what felt like the right time to try the second key.  As soon as Bookie picked up another stack of books off the cart, I went for it.  The second key slid into the keyhole just as easily as the first, but this one turned, which made me breathe a sigh of relief even though I was pretty sure it was the right key.

Opening the key locker was another issue entirely, though.  There were three rows, each with five columns, each with a set of keys hanging there, practically mocking me.

Crap.

Should I just try to grab them all?  There’s no way I could hold that many, and they’d jingle in my pocket, which was the last thing I wanted.  Of course this couldn’t have gone smoothly.

The keys were each labeled with a letter and a number, so at the very least, once I found the right key, I would know which one unlocked the lab from there on out, but finding the right one in the first place was the challenge.

I’d have to just grab as many as I could and try with those.  I didn’t see another option, and I couldn’t just crouch there all day.  Bookie was still engrossed in organizing books, so I popped up, grabbed the first row of keys, and stealthily snuck back to the door.

I grabbed the handle to exit, when suddenly I heard a voice from behind me.  “Hey, what are you doing in here?”

Bookie had seen me.  There was no time to think.

I opened the door, grabbed Hay and showed her the handful of keys.  “She saw me, I have five keys to try.  Just keep her away from me, and when I give the signal, run.”

Hay nodded and propped herself up against the library door.  I was very glad at that moment that Hay was quick on her feet.

I ran across the hall and immediately began jamming keys in the door.  The first one didn’t go in at all.  The second one inserted but didn’t turn, as did the third.  The fourth one didn’t go in, and the fifth didn’t turn.

“Hey, I can’t hold this for much longer.”  I looked over and saw that Hay was losing ground.  Bookie was taller and bigger than Hay, so it made sense that she’d be winning their contest.

I began inserting the keys again, just to make sure.  They definitely didn’t work.  I quickly noted the number and letter combination on each.  1A through 1E.  Of course librarians would be well-organized. Tomorrow’s iteration, we’d have to try 2A through 2E, and if none of those worked, we’d have narrowed it down to the correct row – 3A through 3E.  But for now, we’d lost.  The rest of the iteration was shot.

I threw the keys down and ran over to Hay.  The door was open a few inches, so I reared back and pushed myself into it.  Bookie got knocked back a few steps, and while she was disoriented, I grabbed Hay.

“Let’s get out of here.”

July 17

3 – Events

I awoke from a dreamless sleep and knocked my phone off the nightstand trying to turn the alarm off.  What a fine start to the day.

My phone buzzed shortly after landing on the floor.  I picked it up almost mindlessly and stared at the screen.

“Morning sunshine.”

We hadn’t been to school in around six or seven iterations, I think.

“Morning.  School or no?”

“Up to you.”

“I guess we can go today.”

I sighed and began getting dressed.  For some reason, I felt a little more carefree this morning, like it didn’t matter what I wore or if I was a tad more reckless than usual.  By this point, being carefree was a foreign feeling, and I struggled to think of what could be the cause.

Regardless, I had to get to school to meet Hay, so I continued my morning routine and wound up pulling into the parking lot just after her.

“You’re later than me.”  She paused and cocked her head a little.  “That’s…weird.”

“Yeah, I guess I dragged out getting dressed a little.”

Hay pulled out an oatmeal bar and began chewing her way through it.  There was a 50/50 chance she’d have that oatmeal bar for breakfast while walking with me.  She told me once that her hunger never varied, but her attitude toward when she got around to eating breakfast did.  Translated, she didn’t want to do the same thing every day.

We walked toward the school building, past the crossing guard, and headed through the front doors.  Right on time.

Mrs. Chen stood at the front of the room as usual, shooting us a quick glance as we stoically took our seats.  The 7:45 tardy bell rang right on cue, and Mrs. Chen began taking attendance.  Shockingly, no one was tardy or absent, and attendance went by quickly.

It was the first time I’d been to class in a while, but it was like I’d never skipped.  I didn’t have to turn in a note from my parents, didn’t have to make excuses, and certainly didn’t care either way.

Seeing Mrs. Chen made me sad.  Like, not in the way that death makes one sad, or in the way that a breakup can devastate a person.  Rather, it was like her very existence angered me.  She shouldn’t be there every day.  She shouldn’t be there unchanging, unknowing every single day.  I knew it wasn’t Mrs. Chen’s fault, but I wanted to yell at her and ask her why she couldn’t tell me what was going on.  I wanted her to tell us why she didn’t believe us the first 30 times we told her what was happening to us, trying desperately to get advice from the only authority on science that we knew.

It made me sad that even if I expressed that anger to her, she’d just forget it all the next day and I’d be angry all over again.  I couldn’t do anything about it.  I had no outlet to channel that anger, so it just made me sad.  And it drove me closer to breaking.  Lately, it seemed that things like this would stack one on top of the other.  A couple weeks of iterations would pass, and something that didn’t bother me before would slowly start to bother me.  I was running out of options on what to do about it.

I instinctively stood up without any warning.

“Hey, are you-” Hay started.

“We have to go.  Hay, I’m-”

“Excuse me, Brendon, is there a problem?”  Mrs. Chen probably looked annoyed, but I didn’t even glance at her.

“Yeah, I have to go.  Hay, can we please?”

The class started murmuring, but I barely paid attention to the looks of confusion and chatter that always happened when one of us did weird stuff like this.

Hay instinctively grabbed her bag and stood up.

“Brendon, Hayley, please sit down, this isn’t-”

“Sorry Mrs. Chen, we gotta go,” Hay said flatly.  There was no point in sugar-coating it.  If we had to leave, we had to leave.

It was yet another morning that I felt like I was going to break.  These little things setting me off was dangerous.  I’d have to stay home for a month’s worth of iterations to fix this, maybe even two.  A week wasn’t nearly enough, clearly.  It felt like my brain was melting in my head.

“Good morning students and faculty.”  The morning announcements had started, but they were the least of my concerns.  I grabbed Hay’s hand as gently as I could, in spite of my mental state, and rushed to the door.

“I will be reading the morning announcements today due to yesterday’s unfortunate events.”

I stopped cold in the doorway of the classroom.

“Brendon, Hayley, I will write you up for this if you don’t sit down right now!”

“I will be reading the morning announcements today due to yesterday’s unfortunate events.”

Principal Groves’ words echoed in my head.  Was I going crazy?  Did I hear him correctly?

I immediately started walking again, but this time, with a different conviction.  The exit that would take us back to the student parking lot was to the right when leaving the classroom, but I went left.

The line that Groves repeated every morning was referring to the fact that Mrs. Daniels, the vice principal, had gotten into a wreck.  She was fine, but she was out for a while and couldn’t do the morning announcements.  We didn’t remember anything about the wreck from August 27th, but over the course of around 16,000 iterations of the same day, we’d had plenty of time to learn what the principal was talking about.

The wreck, however, wasn’t my concern at that particular moment.

“Where are you going?  The lot is-”

“The announcement.  You didn’t hear it?”

“I wasn’t paying attention, Mrs. Chen was talking to us and you were in such a rush.”

The office at the end of the hall was closed, but I pushed the door open without knocking.  The secretary stared at us, a bit confused at first.  Barging in wasn’t exactly normal.

“Can I help you?”

“No,” I said, walking past her.  It was rude, but I didn’t care.  Not right now.

“Excuse me!  You can’t just go in there!”

I turned the knob to the office beyond her desk and pushed the door open.  Principal Groves looked up from his desk, possibly a bit startled, but still displaying the dry, unamused look he always seemed to have on his face.

“When did you record the morning announcements?” My voice was unusually stern.  I’m sure the principal wasn’t used to demands from students.

“What do you think you’re doing busting into my office like this?” he demanded in return.  Groves was obviously angry, but the confusion that was mixed in seemed to be tempering what would otherwise probably be furor.

“Please, just answer me.  It’s more important than you could possibly begin to imagine.”

“Yesterday evening.”  He paused, looking almost shocked that he’d answered me.  “Now can you please tell me what this is all about?”

“Can I see your notes from the recording?  Where are they?”

He looked down at his desk, then back up at me.  “Son, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you’re going to be in a heck of a lot more trouble than you’re already in if you don’t explain yourself.”

I walked over and grabbed the stack of papers on the corner of his desk that he’d briefly glanced at.

He yelled something at me.  I didn’t care.

“Brendon, what are you looking for?” Hay asked.

The top paper was useless.  Nope, not the next one either.

But then, I hit the jackpot.  The third collection of stapled papers in the pile were his notes.  They were messy, but they were what I needed: his script for the morning announcements, line by line.  I’d always figured he had one, but it had never been worth looking into before that exact moment.

Right there at the top of the page were the words I was looking for: “I will be reading the morning announcements today due to yesterday’s events.”

“Yesterday’s events!” I shouted.  “Why did you change it?”

“Young man, I don’t think you understand the seriousness-”

“Why didn’t you read the script word for word?”

The color drained from Hay’s face.

“What?” she said, her eyes wide in disbelief.

“In the announcements this morning, you added a word.  You said ‘unfortunate events.’  That’s not what your script says.”

Principal Groves got up from his desk and gave me a death stare.  “I don’t care what the script says!  I’ve had it with you!”

“Something changed?” Hay said.

I stood there in as much disbelief as Hay was in, despite having heard the words myself.

“Something changed.”  I muttered the words almost emotionlessly.

I didn’t have a clue what it meant, but I’d heard those announcements literally thousands of times.

Principal Groves began walking towards us, and suddenly I found myself being pulled out of the office by Hay.  We ran side by side out of the building, possibly the first time we’d ever run in those hallways.  I couldn’t remember for sure, but it was kind of weird to think about if true; two firsts in one day was far beyond unusual.

We didn’t talk, we just moved as fast as we could to our cars.

“They’re going to call our parents, we can’t stay at your house,” Hay said.

“I know.”  This was too important, we needed to talk about this.  We couldn’t get grounded.  It just wasn’t an option.  “Meet at the motel?”

“Yeah, see you there.”

It was only 10 minutes away, but the drive felt much longer.  I was incredibly impatient; my head wouldn’t stop racing with questions.  But, finally, I pulled into the parking lot with Hay just behind me.

“The motel” wasn’t code for anything.  It was literally just some locally owned motel.  A little nicer than some, but still a motel.  I couldn’t remember why we were drawn to that particular motel of three that would let 18-year-olds check in, but it wasn’t like it mattered.  We’d used it on a handful of other occasions that we just couldn’t be home, as much as we hated to worry our parents.

Hay and I rushed through the check-in process, and I paid in cash with the same bills that just reappeared in my wallet every morning; the very bills I’d used to buy literally thousands of other things.  I guess it’s pretty fortunate I wasn’t flat broke on August 27th, otherwise we’d have to ‘steal’ money from our parents to do this kind of stuff, and that was one of those moral lines that was kind of hard to cross barring absolute necessity.

Much to the surprise of neither of us, we got room 105.  It didn’t matter what time of day, it was like they saved room 105 just for us.  I suppose it wasn’t a huge shock that they didn’t have a lot of customers that day.  Not that there was anything wrong with room 105.  Actually, it was close to the vending machines, and we didn’t have to climb up the stairs to the second floor, so it was pretty convenient that we always got it.

As soon as I’d closed the door behind us, all of the anticipation and anxiousness began pouring out.

“How the heck could the recording change?”

“I don’t know.  Everything we know about how this system works is screaming at me that it’s not possible.”

“Everyone and everything resets at midnight, so if Principal Groves made the recording in the evening of August 27th, the recording wouldn’t reset – it’s totally unaffected.”

I sat down in one of the two chairs arranged around a small table by the window.  Hay took the other chair, pushed her flats off with her feet, and sat cross-legged.

“We don’t know enough about the recording.  Have we ever looked at it before?”

“I don’t think so.”  I paused, resting my chin on my hand for a moment.  “What format is it even in?”

“I always figured it was a DVD.”

“No, I think they just record the announcements with a basic point-and-shoot, so it’s gotta be a video file.”

“Could someone have altered the file?”

“Even if that were the case, we’d still be looking at an unprecedented situation.”

“If that video file changed, then other things can change.  We have to figure out the cause.”

“I don’t even know where to start.”

“We start by finding and taking the video file.”

Hay arched an eyebrow at me.  “How do you propose we do that?”

“I can do it.  I just need some time to prepare, and a little help.”

“Anything.  Name it.”

We spent the rest of the evening and night planning out our next iteration in the loop.  We’d have to be late for school, and I’d need a distraction, but it could work.  Maybe.  And if it didn’t, we had an endless number of retries.

My parents had called earlier wanting to know where I was.  I told them I was at David’s house working on a school project.

David, my best friend before all of this.  David, now a complete stranger.  To him, we didn’t hang out today at recess.  To me, I hadn’t talked to him in a lifetime.

As it got later, we laid down on the bed and continued planning, but by that time, we were both exhausted.  I fell asleep with Hay on my shoulder.  It was the last thing I remember seeing before waking up again to my stupid phone alarm screeching in my ear.

If I could have one small wish granted in this hell of a world, it would be that if I fell asleep next to her, she’d be there when I woke up.  It may seem small in the big picture, but I could never share a morning with the girl I’d loved for 40-something years.  It was cruel to always wake up alone.

July 13

2 – Memories

When you recall a memory, you’re actually recalling the last time you made that recollection.  It’s how memories can change over time.  When every day is the same, those memories become tangled up in ways that it is nearly impossible to describe.  We’d skipped school and driven to the beach many times, but when was the last time?  Without the concept of days of the week and unique events occurring on those days, everything just melted together into a giant pool of inseparable recollections.

Sometimes I didn’t know if a memory I had was before the iterations began or after.  I knew that Hay had just moved to town – not because I remembered it, but because she did.  Before August 28th started repeating, we didn’t know each other, but she was apparently in my class. I knew for certain that on iteration number two, we figured out that it was only the two of us that retained our memories iteration to iteration.  It was within the first week that we started calling them “iterations” rather than “repetitions,” but I couldn’t remember why.

I also knew that it took about half a year’s worth of iterations for us to start dating.  At least it was easy to remember our anniversary.

Sorry, that’s a little of my hopelessly depressing humor for you.  I have to find comedy in our tragedy sometimes to keep sane.

Other than important things like that, it was very difficult to keep track of what happened when.  Notebooks reset at 12AM.  Computers, phones, whatever – it all reset at 12AM every day, asleep or awake.  Anything we recorded onto any medium during the day was wiped out of existence.

If events were unique enough, which was rare, they usually stuck better.  Some didn’t involve Hay, but most did.  For those, I could usually at least put a descriptor on them.  Like, our first kiss was a very, very long time ago.  That talk we had about us never being able to have kids…at least 10 years’ worth of iterations ago.  Maybe 20.

Okay, so maybe I couldn’t be that descriptive.  But anyway, perhaps it’s best to say that if it was something about Hay, I’d probably remember.  If it was something I did with Hay, well, those were the tricky ones.

The point I’m trying to make is that our memories are patchworks of events grafted together from various iterations of August 28th, and then a smattering of important things from before that.  I knew my parents, of course, and I remembered things that I’ve always known, like their birthdays and favorite meals, but I have no idea what happened on August 27th, or August 26th, or really any other recent date leading up to the 28th.

What’s perhaps even wilder is that when we tried to jog our memories and figure out what happened on the 27th by looking on social media and various news sites, we found that posts and news stories from today were the only ones that existed.  On Twitter, when you reached 12:00AM in your timeline and kept going back, it just started all over again from August 28th at 11:59PM.  All news articles on mainstream news sites were from the 28th.  Sections containing yesterday’s headlines were either blank or repeats of headlines from the 28th.

Really, my only memory of the day before this all began was that it was just another mundane school day.  Hay remembered it the same way, but honestly, neither of us were sure that we weren’t misremembering.  We could patch together a few things about August 27th based on the many iterations of August 28th and the thousands and thousands of chances we’d had to ask people about the day before, but we had no way to record any of it.  Important details we could commit to memory if we really tried, but only by rote memorization.  Any memories of less importance that we didn’t at least occasionally recall were doomed to get lost in the ether.

The frustrating thing about trying to remember August 27th was that we didn’t know if there was even anything important about it.  The one thing we did have was time, so we tried for many years’ worth of iterations to figure out what could’ve triggered the repetition of this day.  The fact that I was sitting there in Hay’s second period class should tell you just how successful we were.

I hadn’t even bothered going to my second period to fake sick or ask to go to the bathroom.  I just walked into Hay’s classroom and announced that my teacher had to abruptly leave, and I was being dispersed to this class.

Voilà.

“Hey, Hay,” I said as I sat behind her.  Rodney Tillerman snickered at my greeting – just like he’d done thousands of times.  I barely even heard him anymore, as I’d trained myself to just ignore it.

“Hey Brendon.”

Our greetings had gradually become very concise.  We used to make more small talk; tried the standard goofy greetings, made jokes like “long time no see,” even though I just saw her three minutes ago and spent almost every waking hour of my life with her.  But in an abnormal situation like ours, those societal norms just sort of faded into the background.

Mr. Dolman taught Hay’s civics class.  He was really awkward, or at least, he seemed that way to me.  I’d lived more days than he had for sure, but his days were real days that he could spend learning and growing in the ways that people are supposed to.  I didn’t have that luxury, despite my mind’s age being somewhere around 60 years old.

One of the things that repeating days teaches you is that you can do anything you want.  There were no consequences to skipping school, cursing at a teacher, stealing a car, burning a pile of money.  Absolutely none of it mattered as soon as the next iteration came.  In one iteration, I even broke an arm to basically no fanfare but a few hours of pain.  No matter where I was, no matter what I was doing, when the clock struck 12AM I blacked out, and upon waking, I was in my bed, and it was August 28th again.  And the stupid alarm on my phone was going off.

Having no consequences to my actions had made me more confrontational.  I mean, I certainly wasn’t worried about appearances, so there was no reason not to do and say exactly as I wanted, except that Hay would hear it.  Having her kept me in check.  If I did something awful, she’d always remember it, so I tried not to do awful things.

It may sound terrible, but being stuck in this God-forsaken loop did a number to my senses.  There were iterations where it wasn’t easy to hold back from raging at people all day long.  But even if other people didn’t remember it, we would, and if we ever escaped from this loop, we’d have to live with whatever we did while we were in it.

We may have been barely hanging on to our sanity, but our humanity was firmly in place.

However, confrontation wasn’t necessarily an evil or even bad thing.  Argumentative, maybe, but it could just be a squaring off of the minds.  Or so I told myself.

There were some iterations where I argued with various teachers.  For a while, I passed most of my time by reading books.  It was one of the few things I could do that wasn’t affected by the repetitions.  Sure, bookmarks were useless at the end of the day, but it was easy enough to remember a page number.  I read all of the books in my house, including my school text books.  Weirdly enough, when I had no reason to learn, I actually started to find them quite interesting, so I read most of them a few times.  I didn’t remember everything from them, which would’ve been true with or without the iterations, but I definitely remembered the parts that I found the most interesting.

Having read those books over and over, it made me more cognizant of the fact that teachers would misrepresent some concepts on purpose.  Or, well, I assumed that most teachers did it, because Mr. Dolman was about to do it, and it would drive me nuts.

“So, wait, the money isn’t backed by anything?”

“It’s not backed by any physical thing, no,” Mr. Dolman explained.  “Instead, it’s backed by the trust our citizens have in it.  The US dollar is what is referred to as ‘fiat money.'”

“And the Federal Reserve just prints it?”

“They do.  They control the money supply this way as well.”

Here it comes.

“If the Federal Reserve can print money, why don’t they just print money to pay off the federal debt?”

“Well if they did that, it would devalue the rest of the money supply due to the influx of new money into the market.”

Could I bite my tongue today?

“What, not going to say anything?” Hay whispered.

“What’s the point?” I sighed.

“That’s never stopped you before.”

But I didn’t feel like saying anything today, so I kept my mouth shut, and Mr. Dolman’s class took route B.  Route C was when I corrected Mr. Dolman, and he had to explain to the class that what he’d just said was technically not true, but wasn’t important to the context of the lesson.  Route A was when I stayed in my own class, Tracy Morris didn’t sneeze, and Justin Clements didn’t ask to go to the bathroom.  Maybe there were other small differences, but those were the ones that Hay pointed out to me.

Like I said, we were the only ones that could affect change in this world.  Even the smallest, seemingly harmless act changed just enough to make the day different in comparison to doing nothing at all.  I couldn’t really explain why, though I had my theories.

There were many, many different routes Mr. Dolman’s class took, but B and C were the most common.  A almost never happened anymore.  A was too lonely.

It probably sounds incredibly silly to say that being in a class full of people is lonely, but it’s absolutely and horrifyingly undeniable to me.  Imagine playing a video game where every person you meet always does the same thing, every path is linear and only branches off based on choices you make.  That’s our entire existence.  The only escape I have from that is interacting with Hay.

I didn’t feel like expending any effort, so I continued down route B all the way until third period.  It may sound dull – and trust me, it was – but it was more entertaining sitting through class than staying at home and doing nothing since we had no better plans for the day.  Either way, I was with Hay, so what did it matter?

Marty – Mr. Randal, as we were supposed to call him – had eaten something that didn’t agree with his stomach that morning.  It wasn’t that he announced it to the class, it’s just that I figured it out one iteration by following him…to the bathroom, and I’ll stop there, because the rest of the story is about how you’d expect it to go, and ended with me quickly exiting the bathroom.

Anyway, as soon as Marty left the room, Hay pulled out her laptop and started playing the puzzle game.  Now, you might imagine the other students snickering or going a little nuts trying to figure out why Hay was playing a video game in the middle of class when we were supposed to be reviewing a chapter in our textbook.  In that case, you’d be just as surprised as we were the first time she did it.  It drew attention, sure, but then our classmates just pulled out their phones and started playing mobile games and texting their friends.  So really, what was the difference other than the size of the device they were screwing around on?

Hay’s record was a level that was about halfway through the game.  That may seem impressive, but there were people on the Internet that did speed-runs of the entire game in around 20 minutes, so Hay wasn’t quite at their level yet.  If she really wanted to, she could certainly do it.  After all, she had all of the time in the world.

At exactly the right moment, Hay picked up her laptop (having not beaten her record yet again), and like clockwork, Marty reentered the room, looking a bit relieving.  A couple of kids got in trouble for having their phones out, as usual, but Hayley never did, and no one said anything since they were all just as guilty.

It was truly a standard iteration of August 28th.  All routes we’d been down before, nothing even remotely new.  Not that I expected differently, but even after 40-something years’ worth of reliving this day, I still had this weird hope that one day, something would surprise me.  Even just the smallest thing.

Anything to escape the monotony.

The rest of third period I spaced out thinking about what we could possibly do tomorrow that would be more exciting than sitting through classes again.  Urban exploration?  We’d been to a closed-down theme park a couple (few?) dozen or so times.  That was pretty cool as long as we spaced out our visits enough.  But hadn’t we just gone a couple months of iterations ago?  Or was it a couple years?  Ugh.

I could feel that part of my mind start to activate – the part that gnawed at every thought that kept me sane.  Luckily, we’d learned to notice the signs, and it was a slow creep that we could kind of control.

“Hay, do you wanna just skip fourth period and go home?  This iteration is far too monotonous.  I’m kinda feeling it.”

Feeling it.  Hay understood what that meant.  It may sound quite innocuous, but we’d both had bouts of…well, I don’t know what to call it.  Tantrums bordering insanity?  Releasing bottled up frustration?  Whatever descriptors you wanted to give it, the symptoms were the same:  hysterical crying, probably some screaming, pounding our fists into a beanbag chair.  Occasionally we’d lash out at others, but never one another.  She could bring me back, and I could bring her back, but it took time.  Fortunately, or I guess unfortunately, that was something we had plenty of.

To spend our lives here meant to constantly be on the edge of our sanity.  It was a daily struggle.  I could never explore the world.  I could never finish a video game that I hadn’t already mostly completed.  I could never order things from the Internet because we didn’t have any same day delivery services.  Even if we acquired some new thing, it would be gone in a matter of hours and we’d have to acquire it again.

Everything compounded and compounded until it was unbearable.  I shuddered to think of living in this world alone.  If I didn’t have Hay, I don’t know what I’d have done.

When the bell rang to switch classes, we ditched and went back to my house in our separate cars.  No one guarded the school outside of recess to make sure students didn’t leave, so we didn’t even have to fake being sick or whatever.  We just left.  It was almost upsettingly easy.

My parents were at work for a few more hours, and we got off of school before they got off work anyway, so my house was the easiest to go back to at times like these.  Hay’s mom had a weird schedule that meant she usually ended up home pretty early, but she was locked away in her office doing work.  Either way, we couldn’t go to her house or we’d get caught.  Sure, she’d wake up the next day and have no consequences, but the rest of the day was shot if her mom found out we’d ditched school.  Hay would get grounded, and then she’d be stuck in her house without her phone for the rest of the day.  She could just walk out of the house, but then her mom would be worried until the day reset.  It’s just one of those things that was easier to avoid.

As soon as we got home, I went to my room and sprawled out on the bed.  Hay sat down beside me and stared at the wall opposite the bed.

“How many times can this happen before it breaks us?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I muttered.

“There’s a limit.  One of these days, we’ll exceed it, and we won’t come back from it.”

These reactions had only started a few years of iterations ago.  You’d think the monotony would’ve driven us insane earlier, but I suppose our aging minds couldn’t recover quickly enough anymore.

“I don’t know what we can do about it.”

“We could try looking for a way out again…”

I laughed, but there was no joy in it.  It was the only possible reaction.  Hay didn’t respond because she knew it too.  She sighed and laid back, resting her head on my stomach.

“We’ll die here,” she said, now staring at the ceiling.  “We’ll die in this screwed up world, and no one will even know what we’ve been through.”

“I know.”  We’d talked about it many times, and that was the conclusion we always came to.

“One way or another, we’ll die here.”

“I know.”

It was times like these that latching desperately onto hope seemed so futile.

June 30

1 – Repeat

I slammed my hand into my phone, groggily trying to silence the obnoxious alarm that was ringing in my ear.  My mornings were a continuous loop of dreaming about smashing my phone to bits, but not actually doing anything other than lying there, glad that I could at least make it shut up.  The first two or three hundred times this had happened, I schemed up ways to turn the alarm off, but I’d long since given up.  I still thought about it often, but it seemed like I was doomed to wake up at 7AM for all of eternity.

After I spent a few moments of staring at the ceiling, my phone buzzed with a notification.  My hatred for the device’s very existence immediately ceased.

“You up?”

“Yeah.  Going to school today?”

“Unless you have a better idea.”

“I don’t.  See you there.”

Hayley was my only real friend.  I had other people I called friends, but it was an act.  Every time I talked to them, I broke out the same tired lines that they expected.  I pretended nothing was wrong – like I was the same old Brendon they’d always known.

I threw on a pair of clothes that I hoped I hadn’t worn yesterday.  Khaki shorts, a bright blue t-shirt, black Vans.  I doubted anyone would say anything if this was the combination from the day before, since no one ever had.

There were days that I cared about school, and there were days I didn’t.  A completed homework assignment was in my bag, just like every morning.  I knew what it was because it was always the same, but I couldn’t remember the teacher assigning it.  Today, I wasn’t in the mood for school.  I was hoping Hay would tell me to meet her at her house, but after a while of doing that, a bit in my brain flipped, and going to school became the more interesting thing to do.

My car had a quarter tank of gas.  Sometimes I needed to fill it if Hay and I decided to take a trip, but usually the quarter tank was enough.  School was a mile away, and traffic wasn’t bad.  I guess I was lucky in that regard.  If traffic were bad today, it would be bad every day, and going to school would be a 20-minute affair instead of a five-minute casual drive.

I took my usual spot in the student parking lot, then leaned against the trunk of my car to wait the normal minute and 30 seconds for Hay to show up.  She was always on time, despite her being the only variable in my life.  Funny how that worked, but it was for the best.  If Hay wasn’t dependable, I’d have gone mad long ago.

“Hey, Brendon.”

“Hey, Hay.”  The first handful of times I’d greeted her in this way, she rolled her eyes at the corniness, but it had been forever since she’d so much as batted an eye at it.  Other people in our class always had the same reaction, though.  Laughs, giggles, eye rolls, surprise.  I was used to it.

She took her bag out of the back seat and handed it to me.  “Hold this for a sec?”

“Sure.”  I took the bag and watched as she reached back in her car and pulled out another bag.

“You brought your laptop?”

“Marty’s class.”  Ah, Mr. Martin Randal, our 3rd period English class.  He always leaves the room ten minutes after class starts and comes back 15 minutes later.

“Oh, that puzzle game again?”

Hay had done this before, but it had been a while.  Marty would leave class, she would pull out her laptop and start a new game.  Her objective was to progress as far as she could before Marty returned.  Having that particular game already on the laptop was a blessing and a curse.  The game consisted of solving various puzzles in a 3D space, and if you played the levels enough times, you could complete them almost robot-like.

In turn, Hay got faster and faster at completing the levels, but the game had little to no variance in the beginning, so after playing it a certain amount of times, it became less fun.  For that reason, Hay had come up with this meta-game of trying to complete as much as possible before Marty returned.  It was less about playing the game itself and more about the concept of beating her own record.

I carried Hay’s regular bag since she had the laptop.  She offered to take it back, but I refused.  This situation had probably played out before, but in the context of a regular day, many situations often repeated themselves.  It was only natural.

She glanced at me.  “You gonna do a bathroom break for 2nd period today, or should I?”

“I will.”

It was the only class we didn’t have together.  Not being with Hay during second period was lonely – a feeling she reciprocated – so we took turns coming up with excuses to leave our own class, then go and sit in on the other’s class.  Usually we took bathroom breaks or said we were sick.  Either excuse always worked without fail.  There was no real reason to switch them up other than that we wanted to.

We walked past the crossing guard that guided us safely across the street every morning.  He smiled and nodded at us, and I flashed a quick smile in return.  My interactions with most people had become like this, except the times I was particularly frustrated.

The bell rang right as we walked into the school yard, which signaled students to head to homeroom.  We timed it like this on purpose.  There was no point in arriving early, and there was no way we’d be late.  We had things like that down to a science.

Homeroom was with Mrs. Chen – a fact I’d be forever thankful for.  Mrs. Chen had been married exactly three weeks ago by looking at the calendar.  She’d gotten back from her honeymoon exactly two days ago, a fact I only knew because in about 15 minutes, she’d show us a slide show of herself and her husband, and then tell us about Hawaii, how wonderful it was, and how she’s still floating even though she’s back to reality.

In short, her mood was as good as it would ever be, and she was already a nice person to begin with.  It was the most opportune time to get away with anything I wanted to do, which was, namely, sleep.

We took our time walking across the school yard.  The line to get through the doors and into the building was long, so there was no point in rushing.  We’d make it inside in time.  Our school didn’t use lockers since all of our books were digital.  Strolling down the hall brought us right through the middle of the Locker Graveyard, as we called it.  Walls and walls of the things, a staple in high school movies, completely unused.  It was strange in a way – or at least, it used to be – but I’d certainly rather carry an eReader or tablet that weighs less than a pound over 10 or more pounds of heavy books.  My mom blames her scoliosis on that very thing.

My desk was next to the wall when you walked into the classroom.  Hay’s was behind mine.  Brendon Walker, Hayley Wilson – it was like that in every class since they all had assigned seating in alphabetical order.  It was a stroke of the most fortunate luck we could have, I guess.

We took our seats, a few seconds passed, the clock struck 7:45, and the final bell rang.

Homeroom was 10 minutes long – five for attendance and settling in, and the other five for morning announcements.  Mrs. Chen quickly went through attendance since every seat was filled except for the two behind Corey Yates, which were extra, and thus always empty.

“You plan on having any fun today?” Hay whispered.

I shrugged.  “Haven’t decided yet.  Later, maybe.”

“Gonna try to sleep again, huh?”

“After the slideshow.”

“I don’t know how you manage to sleep like that.”

“I don’t know how you manage to have so much energy.”

The TV in the front of the classroom turned from black to the school logo, and Principal Groves appeared on screen.  I forgot who did the announcements before, but judging by his body language and general temperament on camera, it didn’t see like something he wanted to do.

“Good morning students and faculty.  I will be reading the morning announcements today due to yesterday’s events.”  He shuffled some papers on the desk in front of him, then continued in his usual overly-rehearsed tone.  “The PTA meeting next week has been postponed until the end of September.  Though emails have been sent out, please let your parents know if they’re in the PTA.”  More paper shuffling.  “Lunch in the cafeteria today will be chicken tenders, tater tots, fruit salad, and choice of milk, juice, or water.”

Hay poked me, and when I turned around, she pointed her finger at her tongue and made a barfing sound.  I’d taken to skipping lunch, although sometimes I brought something to eat or at least pick on.  Hay usually never made anything more complicated than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so when she grew tired of that, she’d try the cafeteria lunch for a while.  She’d gone back and forth like that for as long as I could remember, and she was currently on the PB&J half of the cycle.

“Eventually you’re going to start skipping lunch too.”

“No way,” she practically snorted.  “Food is life.”

“If you weren’t rotating between chicken nuggets and peanut butter, I’d be less tempted to argue with you.”

“They’re tenders, not nuggets.”

“Brendon, Hayley, pay attention to the announcements,” Mrs. Chen said.  I think at one point in my life, getting scolded like that would’ve made us both turn beet red, but we were long past that.

“Sorry Mrs. Chen,” we replied in deadpan unison.

The announcements we’d talked over were about homecoming and a parking lot rule reminder.  Nothing important.

“…stay between the lines and hang your parking tag from your rearview mirror where it is easily visible.”  Mr. Groves did one final shuffling of papers.  “Lastly, please remember to silence all portable electronics while in class, and remember that no personal devices are allowed out except during breaks or when otherwise permitted by teachers.  Now, everyone get ready to focus on learning, and have a great day.”

The broadcast ended, and Mrs. Chen grabbed the remote for the TV, switching it to the input that was connected to her computer.

“Alright class, this morning we’re going to start off with a little personal show and tell.  I wanted to share a few pictures from my honeymoon in Hawaii.”

Right on schedule.

The first picture appeared on the TV.  It was Mrs. Chen and her husband standing atop a cliff, the backdrop painted sky-blue, slowly melting into ocean.

“Mrs. Chen, he’s so handsome!” Hay whispered mockingly, just loud enough for only me to hear.

“Mrs. Chen, he’s so handsome!” Emily exclaimed.

“Thank you, Emily!  I most certainly agree.”  Mrs. Chen was beaming.  She had a connection with the class that a lot of teachers failed to make, I think mostly because she was 26 years old.  I guess eight or nine years is a long time to everyone else, but my intuition said Mrs. Chen still related to the students because she still could easily look back on her high school days.

The presentation continued with a few more cliff side pictures, some of the couple hiking, two near a waterfall, and a beach picture that I swear Mrs. Chen only included because of how proud she was of how she looked in that two-piece bikini.  Some of the other guys in class would make comments about it later.

“Alright, now, let’s go ahead and pick up where we left off on our discussion of the eukaryotic cellular structure.”  She switched the presentation from her bikini picture over to a PowerPoint that was actually relevant to class, then grabbed a dry erase marker.  “Yesterday, we covered the energy center of the cell, an organelle known as the…?”

A few hands shot up.

“Jason?”

“Mitochondria.”

“Correct, excellent.”  She drew a very poor sketch of a cell and added the mitochondria, then added some squiggles, pointed to it, and said, “Today we’ll be looking at the endoplasmic reticulum.”

Because the next slide had a cell cross-section on it that was much more detailed than she could’ve possibly drawn, there was absolutely no point in her drawing the cell.  Mrs. Chen did unnecessary stuff like that, and like showing us her honeymoon pictures.

However, “endoplasmic reticulum” was my cue to try and get some sleep.  I rested my head against the wall to my right, rubber-banded my pen to my thumb and forefinger, and deliberately let some of long-ish hair fall into my eyes.  It was a completely dumb plan.  Sometimes it worked for a whopping two minutes, sometimes it worked for the rest of the period.  It depended entirely on when I fell asleep and how I shifted while sleeping.

“Why do you even come to school if you’re just gonna go to sleep?” Hay whispered.

I didn’t answer.  She already knew the answer anyway.  I’d tried skipping first period before to sleep in late, but once the alarm goes off, I just can’t go back to sleep.  Ironically enough, listening to this boring lecture on endoplasmic reticulum was the only way I could get some shut-eye.

Plus, even if I was asleep, it was nice knowing Hay was around.

I jolted awake as the bell for second period crashed and clanged in my ears.

“Whoa,” I muttered.

“Did you sleep through the whole class?” Hay asked.

I nodded and rubbed my eyes.  Honestly, I’d found it to be about 20:1 odds that Mrs. Chen would wake me up within 15 minutes.  I’d gotten really lucky today.  This meant I’d finally have a day with a bit more energy than usual.

“Huh, well, glad it worked out.”  She stood up and pressed her skirt down where the edge had flipped up.  “See you in Mr. Dolman’s class, right?”

“Yeah.  See ya.”

She bent down and kissed me on the cheek, which was at least one thing that didn’t get old.

She smiled.  “Later.”

I watched Hay walk out of the classroom and sighed, mentally preparing for the conversation Brent had with me at the end of every class.  He sat right in front of me, so he often overheard our conversations.

“Whoa, are you dating Hayley?” he exclaimed.

“Yeah,” I said, picking up my bag off the floor.

“No way, I’ve never even heard you talking with her before today.”

“We’ve been dating for a while.”

“It couldn’t be longer than a few weeks, could it?  Didn’t she just-”

“We’ve known each other for a long time.”

I began walking toward the door, ignoring Brent in the way that I typically did when people inquired about Hayley and me.  No one could understand the situation we were in.  They wouldn’t even believe me even I told them – which, trust me, I’ve tried – so there was no point in repeating myself even more than I already did.

“Dude, I am so jealous.”

I kept walking.  “Yeah, I gotta go though, later Brent.”

“You better give me more details tomorrow!” he shouted.

The words stung in my ears, just like they always did.  No matter how I steered the conversation, it always led back to him finding out that Hay and I were dating, and he always asked for more details tomorrow.  I’d had the conversation with him how many times – tens of thousands?  I tried to keep count at one point, and I know it reached at least 2,000 before I gave up.  Last I asked, Hay said it was 15,457, but it had been a while.

Every day I woke up to August 28, 2018, and no one but Hay remembered.  To my classmates, to my family, to my friends, it was just another day.  Tomorrow was a day away rather than a foreign concept.  My tomorrow was today, over and over and over again, for what was at least 42 years.  Probably 43 or 44 by now, since I didn’t ask Hay that often what the count was.  We’d spent a lifetime as 18 year olds, surrounded by clueless peers, in a situation we’d long given up escaping from.

Brent couldn’t possibly understand how those words stung, yet I was subjected to them every single time I went to school.  My only option was to grin and bear it, so just like every day, I turned and smiled through my despair as I faced him from the doorway.

“Yeah, Brent.  I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

 

January 21

SASPER (Chapter 1, cyberpunk novel)

Chapter 1

Nathaniel Droyer raps his thumb against the bottom of the leather-clad steering wheel of his three-year old SASPER sedan as it carries him down I-10 east just outside of New Orleans.  The electric blue gauges cast a dim illumination into the car, but it is drowned out by the conglomerate glow of headlights and taillights leaking from outside.  Nate normally drives himself, but he’s exhausted from a long day in Baton Rouge, and he can barely keep himself awake.  He has to do at least that much, as he doesn’t trust autocruise quite as much as others seem to.  He needs to keep an eye on the car, just in case.

This is undoubtedly more boring than actually driving, but if he does fail to control his fatigue and drift off into some state of slumber, the consequences will be far less dire this way.  After all, Nate is very familiar with the statistics: last year there were just over 5 million traffic accidents caused by drivers of traditional cars, and only about 600 accidents total with a SASPER self-driving car at fault.  Considering their 22% market penetration, 600 accidents was a drop in the barrel.

Nate knows that statistics don’t lie, but he doesn’t want to become one of the marginal 600.  Paranoia is a major problem of his, but understanding, and consequently not trusting technology had gotten him this far.  He is on year 31 of his miraculous streak of not succumbing to death, after all.

Paranoia and willpower can only do so much to keep Nate awake, though.  He is almost back to the hotel, he knows if he can just hold out another 10 minutes, he’ll be able to rest safely in the bed he’d slept in for the past few days.  But the weight of his eyelids seems impossible to overcome.

What could go wrong in 10 minutes anyway?” he reassures himself.

Nate is abruptly awakened by the nightmarish sound of metal scraping, crunching, and compacting.  His car is stopped, and the display shows a string of notifications he’d not been awake to see.

“Impending collision detected.”

“Collision avoided.”

“External collision detected.”

“Rerouting; halting.”

Nate looks out the windshield and tries to discern what had happened.  He reaches out to the display and slides his finger across each notification.

“This city and its motherfucking drivers,” he groans.  For as much as he didn’t trust his SASPER car, he was glad to have it in this place.  He fumbles for the door release and clicks the slider back.  The door pushes itself outward with a whir, then slides forward.  Nate exits the car, casually muttering, “headlights on.”

He makes his way closer to the accident.  Other cars are whizzing by, seemingly unfazed by the wrinkled up transportation cans.  Nate wonders what he would’ve done had he been driving; if he would’ve stopped had his SASPER car not automatically done so to avoid being involved in this very wreck.  Probably not, he thinks.  He doesn’t particularly care for blood.  Or death.

His eyes are drawn to movement in one of the vehicles – an old car with sharp lines that belie subtle curves.  Nate studies it for a moment, decides it has – or had – a certain boring charm, but is now sporting thousands of dollars of front end damage.

The driver door swings open, and a pale man steps out, clutching onto the roof of the car for support.  He’s dizzy, maybe.  Or just too shaken to stand on his own.  His clothes are ill-fitting; the shoulders of his shirt much too big, his pants drowned his legs.

“Are you okay?” Nate calls out.  The man doesn’t respond.  Nate decides that if the man can stand, he’ll probably be alright sooner or later, so he diverts his attention to the other car.  This one has no lines, no flat surfaces, nothing sharp.  It is glossy, it has curves that beget curves, endlessly.  It is compact, a coupe, and makes no excuses for its lightweight design.  Despite the damage to the rear driver’s side panel, it is beautiful.  A throwback to yesteryear, reminiscent – however ironically so – to sports cars that were meant to be driven.

“A SASPER 7?  No way…” Nate says.  He rushes over to it, ignoring the man from the other car.  He forces his sight through the darkly tinted windows for signs of life inside, but the body he makes out is still.  Nate backs up, reaches under the door to the rocker panel, and finds one of the emergency door release buttons that’s recessed into the underside.  If the SASPER 7’s computer was still working properly, it should’ve registered a collision and unlocked the doors automatically.  That doesn’t mean the door will still work, though.

The door reluctantly releases and begins sliding forward, but the damage is apparently more serious than just the outer panel, and the door sticks halfway open.  Nate briefly considers how much force it must’ve taken to bend the frame of a SASPER car, but it’s a fleeting thought.

He reaches into the car’s luxurious interior, noting the smell of clean leather and the spicy base note of a cologne he almost recognizes.  The man inside looks to be unconscious, but Nate isn’t qualified to make any judgements of human health.

“Hey, wake up,” Nate says.  He reaches a hand out to shake the man, but realizes that he may serve to agitate a sustained injury by doing so.  Frustrated, Nate mutters, “Crap,” and looks up at the SASPER’s console display.  Across a shadowed gray background in clean, blue typeface were the words “EMERGENCY SERVICES CALLED” and directly below that, “EMERGENCY SERVICES DISPATCHED.”

There’s nothing more Nate can do about this man’s well-being, but…

He circles the car, slides the passenger door open, and enters.  “SASPER emergency mode,” Nate commands.  “Accident replay.”  The display in the center console cleanly transitions to a video, with a wireframe overview being rendered on-the-fly in the top right corner.  He watches as the old car puts on a turn signal and legally changes lanes in front of the SASPER 7.  The SASPER speeds up, swerves in front of the other car, and hard brakes.  The wireframe shows a side impact to the SASPER 7 and a front impact to the other car, noting that autocruise was on the entire time, without any human intervention.

“What the hell?”  Nate says, replaying the last few seconds of the video.  “It was the SASPER’s fault?”  It’s a statistical outlier within a statistical outlier, for more than one reason.

“SASPER emergency override,” Nate commands.  “Operator code 744809.  Show event logs.”  The screen transitions from video to text display.  It is crude; a terminal not meant for consumer eyes.  Nate filters the logs, collapsing everything that wasn’t in the 60 seconds prior to the accident.

The event codes don’t make any sense.  Nate furrows his brow, flicks his finger across the screen, pinches and zooms to examine what he’s seeing.

His eyes hadn’t deceived him.

Of the 600 recorded traffic accidents last year with a SASPER car at fault, and of all recorded traffic accidents in history involving an at-fault SASPER car, there has never been a case where a SASPER hit another car.  That is to say, every at-fault SASPER accident was a single-car accident.  Last year, 600 SASPER cars in autocruise mode had detected an impending accident, and had flung itself off of the road in the safest way possible – as it was programmed to do – to minimize possible causalities.  All 600 accident cases involved the SASPER car, and the SASPER car alone.

This was the first time in their 9-year history outside of factory testing that a SASPER car has hit another car.  The SASPER clearly made a decision based on its very complicated accident-avoidance algorithms to involve another car.  As much as Nate couldn’t believe it, the event logs show it as plain as a cloudless, sunny spring afternoon.

Nate didn’t trust SASPER cars, but he knew the accident-avoidance algorithm’s logic was sound.  He’d sat through so many conferences, board meetings, compliance hearings…God, too many to think about.  Every engineer in the company had pored through the code with a fine-toothed comb, analyzed every bit that had a potential to cause an issue.  The head engineers wrote line-by-line documentation of the code.  Change control was strict; those meetings were a nightmare.

But just as Nate’s paranoia defies his own logic, here it has seemingly been justified.  Did the SASPER purposely cause a wreck?  There are no alerts in the logs, nothing to indicate that this wreck had been caused due to avoidance of some other possible collision event.

Nate steps out of the car and cranes his neck in search of the driver of the other car.  He’s still standing there, pale as paper is white, just staring into space.

“Hey!  This car hit you, right?” Nate voice is more commanding than he intends.

The pale man pivots his head like an oscillating fan.

“Wha…what?”

“This car caused the accident?”

“Y…yeah.  It swerved…in front of me.”

“Any idea why?”

“No.  It…it was really random.  Like, for no reason.”

Nate knows computers don’t do anything without a reason.

“Thanks.”

He pulls out his PerCom, surveys the SASPER with suspicious eyes as he speaks.  “Iris, is Kat busy?”

“Kat is available,” the PerCom says.  “Should I contact her?”

“Yes, by phone please.”

“Calling Kat now.”

Nate anxiously waits for Kat’s voice.

“Hello?”

“Kat, I need a favor.”

“Jesus, Nate, can’t you say hi first?”

“Sorry, I uh…it’s important.”

“What’s up?”

“I’m standing five feet away from a SASPER 7.  I need you to pull its SASPERnet logs as soon as you possibly can.”

“You know I can’t do that without an authorization from the owner.”

“I have access to the computer.  I’ll override the authorization request.”

“You know I’m not a fan of ethically murky requests.”  Kat pauses.  “How do you have access to a SASPER 7 anyway?  There are only 49 of those in the country.”

Nate bites his lip.  “You won’t believe me until you see the logs.”  The PerCom vibrates lightly in his hand as a notification for a location request pops up.  He approves the request, allowing Iris to send Nate’s GPS coordinates to Kat.

“You’re freaking me out a little.”

“It’s warranted.  Trust me.”

Silence creeps into the conversation for several seconds.

“You’re in Metairie, Louisiana?”

“Yep.”

“Well, there are no other SASPER 7’s in the state, so this ought to be easy to pinpoint.”

Nate hears a siren in the distance.  He glances over at the pale guy that’s drowning in his own clothes, then slides back into the passenger seat of the SASPER.  The man in the driver’s seat – if you can even call it a “driver’s” seat anymore – is still out cold.  “Ready when you are.”

“It’s pinging SASPERnet.  The authorization request has been sent.”

Nate sees the notification pop up onto the screen.  It pulses blue and white, trying to get the driver’s attention.  For whatever reason, this guy had turned off the SASPER’s voice assistant.

“SASPER emergency override.  Operator code 744809.”  The screen flashes to a console, then back to the authorization notification.  Nate does not hesitate.  “Authorization approved, send logs now.  Grant root access, wipe 10 minutes’ previous access records on completion.  Confirm operator code 744809.”  The display transitions to a progress bar, completes transmitting the logs, flashes once to indicate root access, and then goes back to emergency notification mode:  “EMERGENCY SERVICES CALLED, EMERGENCY SERVICES DISPATCHED.”

“Got the logs,” Kat says.

“Thanks, I owe you one.”

“Now, are you going to tell me what this is all about?”

Nate exits the wrecked SASPER and begins walking to his own.  “This SASPER 7 caused a wreck involving another car.”

Kat is silent for a moment.  “How is that possible?”

“You tell me.  You’ve got the full autocruise logs.”

“Holy shit Nate, this is bad.”

“No Kat, this isn’t bad,” Nate says, looking back at the victim of the wreck, who has slightly regained some color.  “This is way fucking worse than that.”

July 5

Original: Prologue – Narrator: ????? – Add ‘Em Up and Knock ‘Em Down

This is the original version of the prologue to my first novel, “We Put the ‘Dual’ in ‘Individual.'”  I am posting this to showcase how bad my writing was, as compared to how it had progressed as of  April 2012, when I rewrote this prologue.


 

“Hey!  Be quiet back there!”

I was scared to make the man mad, but at the same time, I knew that there really wasn’t much he could do to shut me up from the front seat of his crappy old van.  Though I was bound and gagged, I was still doing my best to try to get it through the guy’s head that he was kidnapping the wrong person.

I tried many times to communicate with the man, but in the end, all that got me was a gag in my mouth and revoked my shotgun privileges.  I probably should have accepted just being bound and sitting quietly in the front, but I wasn’t exactly known for keeping my mouth shut.

Don’t get me wrong, though – I was terrified, even as I tried my best to talk through the gag.

“Don’t worry, girl.  You’ll be fine as long as your parents pay the ransom,” he said.  My abductor didn’t even sound like a stereotypical criminal.  He didn’t have a deep voice, and he wasn’t big, burly, or unkempt.  He just looked and sounded like a normal guy.

“Mmhfmm afama raaah pahpu!”  Try as I might, the gag made my words completely incoherent.  My frustration was off the chart, but that was nothing compared to my fear.

He’d demanded two million dollars in exchange for my life, but if I had to guess, my parents had maybe forty thousand dollars of savings in their bank account.  We were just a normal, middle-class family.  If this guy was really planning to kill me if he didn’t get two million dollars, then I was going to die.

I rolled across the floor of the van every time my captor took a turn.  I didn’t think I was bleeding, but I was definitely bruised from smashing into the crap that lined the walls.  It hurt so much that I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t.  Every time I felt the tears coming, they immediately froze in place because I had much, much worse things to worry about, and that somehow dampened the pain.

“Well, here we are.  Home sweet home!” the man said.  He climbed out of the van and slammed the driver’s side door closed.  A few second later, he opened the back doors and climbed inside, hovering over me and grinning like an animal that was about to feast on its prey.

He grabbed my arm and lifted me up on his right side.  I couldn’t walk because my feet were bound, so he just dragged me like that out of the back of the van.  When we were out, he closed the van doors, and, much to my surprise, picked me up, and tossed me over his shoulder.  It was so quick and so casual that I didn’t even get a chance to protest it.

I realized that I should probably get a good look around so that if I escaped, I would be able to give the police a good description of my captor’s house.  However, there wasn’t much to see.  We were inside of a garage.  It was dark and hot and it smelled like paint.

“When we get inside, if you promise not to annoy the shit out of me, I’ll take your gag off,” he said.  His shoulder was jabbing into the side of my stomach, and I wanted to yell at him about it, but having the gag off would be nice.

He carried me through the kitchen and down a flight of stairs into a basement room.  The bannister at the bottom of the staircase was broken and splintered, and though there was an old, red couch against the back wall, he dropped me in the middle of the room onto the nasty-looking shag carpet.

“Don’t bother screaming.  There’s no one around,” he said, removing the gag from my mouth in the least gentle way possible.  Much to my surprise, he also removed the ropes from around my arms and legs.  I didn’t say a word out of fear that he would bind and gag me again.

“You better hope your parents pay the ransom by tomorrow night,” he said as he reached the top of the staircase.  “You won’t see Saturday morning if they don’t.”  He turned and climbed the stairs out of the basement, closing and locking the door behind him.

I didn’t know the man’s name, and heck, he didn’t even know mine, though he probably thought he did.  He’d just been calling me ‘girl’ the whole time.  I wondered for a second who he thought I was, but it didn’t matter.  He wouldn’t believe me, and I didn’t have my purse, so I didn’t have my driver’s license to prove my identity.

I walked in circles around the room, tried to think up ways to escape, and sat in a corner and cried for a while just to pass the time.  I couldn’t see outside and there were no clocks in the room, so I didn’t even know what time it was.  It could’ve been 6 PM or 10 PM, and neither would’ve surprised me.

Suddenly, I heard the door at the top of the stairs close, though I hadn’t heard it open.  I waited for my captor to appear, but he didn’t.  I cautiously walked over and looked up the stairs, and rather than a person, I saw a plate.

Food?  I hadn’t even thought about food.

I climbed up and stared at the plate.  In it, there was half of a ham sandwich and a few potato chips.  It looked like it might have been the man’s leftovers, but no matter what it was, I had absolutely no appetite despite having not eaten almost all day, so I didn’t care.  I left the plate there and went back downstairs to sit in the corner and cry.

At some point, I ended up crying myself to sleep.  Had I tried to fall asleep, it would’ve been impossible, but somehow, I just dozed right off without even wanting to.  Maybe I was exhausted from sobbing and pacing around the room, but I think there was another reason that I fell asleep so suddenly.  It may sound strange, but I think it was because there was a dream that I needed to see.

I met a boy in the dream.  I was aware that it was a dream, and though I was lucid, I couldn’t control anything about the boy.  I could fly, I could change the color of the sky, and I could shoot rainbows out of the tips of my fingers, but the boy was completely out of my control.

He seemed to already know me and about the situation I was in, but I didn’t know him.  He spent a while talking to me about my life before finally asking me if I had any questions for him.  I started off with the most obvious one that I could think of.

“Why is this happening to me?” I asked.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.

“But what’s the reason?”

“It’s unfortunate that fate has chosen you, but it is fate that has brought you here,” he said.

“What do you mean?  I was destined to be kidnapped?”

“You should already know that your situation is much worse than that,” he said.

“So, what, I’m going to die in some lunatic’s basement because he thinks I’m someone else?”

“It’s not that simple.  The girl that you are being mistaken for is very important.  Without her, I wouldn’t exist, and neither would my sisters.”

“And what makes you so important?” I asked.

“Don’t misunderstand,” he said.  “My life is no more valuable than yours.  However, as you can see, I am standing here before you.  That means that I exist, and because I exist, my mother must not die before she conceives me.  Therefore, she’s important to the future.”

“It sounds like you’re saying that I have to die so that you can be born,” I said.

“I am only saying that it is fate that my mother is going to live, and the proof of that is that I exist.”

“This is really confusing and pretty unfair, if you ask me.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “Truly, I am sorry.  However, there is something that I’d like you to do for me that I think you will enjoy, and I hope that it will make up for this at least a little.”

“A dream favor?” I asked.

“No, this is a real favor,” he said.  “I’ll tell you about it when we next meet.”

“But when will I see you again if I’m about to die?”  I asked.  The boy looked at me with a wide smirk on his face, then turned and started walking away.

“Soon.”

“Wake up!”

I awoke lying on the floor with my captor’s boot in my face.  I immediately sat up straight, as if he were a drill sergeant or something.

“Guess what?” he said.

“W-What?” I asked, immediately longing to be back in the dream world.

“Your parents didn’t meet the deadline,” he said.

“It’s already that time?” I asked.  It seemed impossible.  How had the hours passed by so quickly?  Was it much later than I thought it was when I fell asleep, or had I just slept for an absurd amount of time?

“Unfortunately for you.”

“Look, my parents aren’t wealthy.  You have the wrong girl. My name is-“

“Shut up!” he yelled.  “That’s not going to work.  I know who you are, and you’re not getting out of this.”  I didn’t think it would work, but what else could I do?  I had to try one last time, right?

Though I was 18, I’d never had a boyfriend.  My dad got a job when I was 14 that forced us to move around a lot.  We’d only been in our current city for 4 months.  As a result, I never really had a whole lot of time to meet people.

That was what was running through my mind as I watched my captor pull out a small handgun.  I’d never found love in my short life, and I suddenly understood what people meant when they said that they didn’t want to regret anything when they were staring death in the face.

“This ought to teach your parents not to ignore me,” he said, pointing his gun right at my forehead.  “Goodbye, Debbie Kirkman.”

The man pulled the trigger of the gun he was holding, and I fell lifelessly to the floor.

Whoever Debbie Kirkman was, she’d live to see another day.

But I wouldn’t.

December 27

Chapter 1 – Transfer Student

Waking up at 5:45 AM was a slap in the face, and had been every weekday since Ben had started high school.  He thought it would get easier with time, but every single day when his alarm went off, he moaned and tried to think of any reason he could to skip school.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like school; in fact, you could say that he liked it more than most of his peers, it was just the waking up at 5:45 in the morning that was so brutal.  His parents weren’t even awake when he left the house on most days, and they had work at 8.

Ben sauntered to his car, hopped in, and sleepily stared at the dashboard, just like he did every morning.  He was certain that he was fortunate for a 17-year old.  He had loving parents, great friends, and the car he was sitting in, but he would’ve felt so much more grateful for all of these things if he could just sleep until 10 AM.  Was that really so much to ask?

This was somewhat of a morning routine for Ben that some may have found bizarre.  He’d just sit in his car for a least a few minutes assuring himself that his life was great even though he wished he could be asleep for the next three and a half hours – all of this before even putting the key into the ignition.  Sometimes he’d imagine driving to school and being told that today was “nap day,” and that everyone could sleep until lunch time.

Ben’s phone buzzed in his pocket, breaking him away from his morning daydream.

“hey man, can you pick me up?  my car won’t start.”  It was Chuck, his best friend of at least seven years.

This was an odd departure from Ben’s normal morning routine.  He still hadn’t started the car, nor had he gotten to school and daydreamed about going back to sleep all over again while sitting in the parking lot.  But of course, Chuck was his friend, and he could spare the second round of daydreaming this one morning.

“caught me just in time.  headed to your house now.”  Ben put his phone back in his pocket and started the car.  It came to life without a fuss, and Ben mentally added this to his list of things to be grateful for.

Chuck lived a few streets over, and though carpooling every day would’ve been incredibly easy to coordinate, they both wanted to drive to school.  Their parents figured it was part of being a teenager, and if you’d asked either Ben or Chuck why they didn’t carpool, they would’ve hated to admit that it was for appearances, but there is no doubt that this was the real, true reason that two friends with the same schedule that lived just a few minutes apart did not carpool to school.  They were teenagers in high school, and appearances were everything if you cared about that kind of stuff.

In fact, Ben and Chuck went to a school that had a somewhat small student body, and most people that drove to school even knew other people by their cars.  Everyone knew that Heather drove a red sedan with a big dent in the rear passenger door.  Most knew that Jack had the brand new Scion tC, and that Kyle had that weird wagon with the rust on the hood.  This knowledge was accumulated merely by being another student that drove to school.  The already small school had an even smaller parking lot, so you could almost bet on which cars you’d see when you arrived, assuming you arrived at the same time most days.

“Morning dude.  Thanks so much for this,” Chuck said as he climbed into Ben’s car.

Ben shifted to reverse, and, without really thinking too much of this incredibly small favor, replied, “No problem.”

On this particular day, Ben had already deviated from his usual routine, which wasn’t a big deal and certainly wasn’t weird to any normal person, but it was out of the ordinary.  This made it slightly more strange when both Ben and Chuck immediately noticed a different car in the parking lot.

“Whoa, whose car is that?!” Chuck said.

Ben had already seen it before Chuck had said anything, and he was making every effort he could to not crash his own car while also staring at the brand-spanking-new C7 Corvette Stingray sitting in the student parking lot at his high school.

“Who the heck has enough money to buy one of those, much less drive it to school?” Ben said.

Chuck ignored the question.  “Holy crap dude, that car is beautiful.”

Chuck and Ben didn’t know anything about cars, and though they had heard of this car before and seen pictures on the Internet, they didn’t really know what they were looking at other than something that was aesthetically pleasing and certainly very fast.

Ben parked his car and Chuck practically jumped out, making a sprint straight toward the new Corvette.

“Be careful man,” Ben said as Chuck bent over to peer inside the passenger window.  “That thing probably costs more than your both of our families’ cars put together.”  It didn’t, but Ben wasn’t far off.

“Does someone at school have rich parents?”

“I think Jake does,” Ben pondered, “but his car is over there.”  Ben’s finger directed Chuck’s attention to a small, silver sports car with a Nissan logo on the front.

A few others had stopped to stare at the Corvette by this point, and Ben wasted no time asking them if they knew who it was for.  This proved fruitless, though, because this was undoubtedly the first time the car had shown up in the school parking lot, and no one had even seen it in town before.  Eventually, the small group of students had to give up and walk to school, despite their inner protests and curiosity.

“We have to figure out whose car that is,” Chuck stated.

Ben turned back to look at the car one more time.  It was the most interesting morning he’d had in a while, because nothing interesting ever happened at Peak Point High.

“We will.  There’s no way someone would try to keep that a secret.  Hell, I’d be boasting about it.”

Homeroom began at 6:45 AM.  The early start time had something to do with the schools in the district sharing buses to save money, but Ben didn’t particularly care about the reason so much as the consequence – that his alarm was set to 5:45 every weekday.  His favorite subject – biology – was right after homeroom, though, so at least he had that to look forward to.

Students didn’t get to pick their schedules; rather, they picked a few elective classes and were automatically assigned to core classes.  This meant that Ben and Chuck could only try to coordinate their schedules so much.  Last year, they’d been pretty unlucky, only having 2 of their 7 classes together, but this year, they shared every class except for one – 1st period.

The kids all filed into homeroom and took their respective seats, most of them looking equally as tired as Ben.  Mr. Jackson was normally up in front of the class by now writing an inspirational quote on the dry erase board, but as if following in step of everything else that hadn’t been ordinary this morning, both the quote and Mr. Jackson were nowhere to be seen.  Ben rested his head on his hand and read the morning announcements as they scrolled by on the TV above the board in the front of the room.  Bake sale, who cares.  Club activities, not in any clubs.  Football pep rally, didn’t really care about football.

Just before the final homeroom bell was about to ring, Mr. Jackson walked in with a girl in tow behind him.  Ben had never seen her before, but he was instantly drawn to her fiery red hair and soft facial features.  He took note that she appeared to have no freckles, which he found odd for a person with red hair, but he was sure she was just wearing enough makeup to cover them.

The teacher stood in front of the class moving his mouth and gesturing around the room, but the murmur of the students settling into their desks and getting one last round of chitchat in before homeroom drowned out whatever he was saying.

BBBRRRRRRRRRRRRNNNNNNNNNNGGGG

Ben hated the sound of the bell.  It was a digital audio recording of an actual school bell from yesteryear, and it bothered him that they didn’t make up a new, less annoying sound to signal the change of class since they weren’t confined by technology anymore.

“Alright class, let’s settle down and get to business,” Mr. Jackson said.  The red-haired girl was still standing to his side, and as focus shifted to her, she started glancing nervously around the room, as if desperately trying to find something to focus on that wasn’t focused back on her.

“First, I’d like to introduce you all to Aubrey.  Her family just moved here from up north, and she’ll be joining us from now on.”  He turned and smiled at her.

“Hi everyone.  Nice to meet you all,” she stated.

Ben was surprised when she spoke.  He was expecting nervousness in her voice, a stammer, a stutter, something.  Instead, she spoke with clarity and even a hint of confidence.  But why did she convey such a different tone through her eyes?

“Aubrey, would you like to tell us a little about yourself before sitting down?”

“Sure,” she said.  “My name is Aubrey Renee Wyatt.  I’m 17 years old, and I’m from Massachusetts.  My family moved here to South Carolina because my mom has a health issue that makes it hard for her to bear the frigid northern winters.”

Ben was listening intently, trying to figure out why he was so impressed with the way she talked.  She spoke well for a teenager, no doubt, but it wasn’t just that.  There was a calming nature to her voice, and Ben felt immediately as if she was probably an excellent singer.

“Alright Aubrey, thank you for sharing that with us,” Mr. Jackson said, turning to the class.  “I hope you all will make her feel welcome.”  He turned back to Aubrey and gestured over in my direction, saying, “You can have a seat right over in one of the empty desks near the window.”

There were only two empty desks in the class.  One was behind Ben, and one was on the side of him.  No matter which she picked, she’d be sitting by him.  This had the effect of making Ben feel as if it were his personal duty to extend a warm welcome to her, or perhaps that was what he convinced himself of since he really just wanted to talk to the beautiful, red-haired new girl.

Aubrey walked over and eyed both empty desks for a moment, then chose the one behind Ben.  It was a good choice, also the one he would’ve chosen.

Ben turned around and smiled.  “Hi Aubrey, I’m Ben.  If you need help finding anything or have any questions about anything, let me know.”  Aubrey had been casually smiling ever since she’d introduced herself, but as the words escaped Ben’s mouth, her smile morphed into a bigger one, lighting up her whole face.  Ben would’ve stared – captivated by this simple emotional display – but he didn’t want to freak the girl out or anything.

“Thank you, Ben!” she gleamed.  “I actually would really appreciate if you could show me where my second class is after this, if it’s not too far out of your way.”

Ben hadn’t expected her to actually ask anything of him.  He was really only thinking he’d get a “hello” and a nod.  Not that this upset him.

“Sure, what  do you have next period?” he asked.

“Algebra II.”  Her voice was soft up close, yet it still felt confident somehow.

“Cool, me too,” Ben whispered back.

Mr. Jackson had started writing on the board by this point, so Ben smiled and turned back around so as to not get himself or Aubrey in trouble.

Class was interesting, as Ben usually thought it was. He found the biological sciences to be fascinating, as well as earth science. Physics, not so much, but he wouldn’t have to deal with that as much until next year. This class period though, Ben was kind of absentmindedly daydreaming about the car he’d seen outside, and wondering what Aubrey was like.

When the bell rang, Ben quickly collected his things and turned to face Aubrey. She smiled at him and continued putting her things into her bag.

“Sorry, I’m unusually disorganized today,” she said.

“No problem,” Ben replied. “Take your time. It’s not a far walk.”

Externally, Ben was cool and collected. He had to look confident in front of the new girl, after all, but internally, he was struggling for the right thing to say. Here was a girl he knew nothing about other than her age and her name, what could he say? What could he talk about?

“So Ben, what kinds of things do you do in your spare time? Have any hobbies?” Aubrey asked.

Such an obvious talking point. How had Ben overlooked it?

“Yeah, I guess. Video games for sure. I like trying to to build things, too.”

“What kind of things?”

Ben mentally raced through the list of things he’d both successfully and unsuccessfully created as Aubrey packed the last of her things.

“I built a house for my dog a few years ago,” Ben said. “I also helped my dad rebuild an outboard motor once, but I was mostly just handing him tools and watching. I had no idea what he was doing most of the time. It was fun, though.”

“Oh, is your dad into engines?”

Ben was surprised she’d commented on the engine and not the fact that he had a dog.

“Yeah, he used to rebuild them for work.”

“Cool, my dad is into cars. I guess that means he’s into engines too? I’m not exactly sure.” Aubrey laughed as she slung her bag over her shoulder.

“He’d probably really like that new Corvette out in the parking lot.”

“The Stingray?”

“Yeah.”

“That…um…” Aubrey paused. There was an obvious uncertainty in her voice. “That’s actually my dad’s.”

At this point, they were in the hallway walking toward Algebra class, but that did not stop Ben from halting in his tracks.

“Holy crap, really?”

Aubrey looked a little embarrassed. “It’s his, but I promise I’m not bragging or anything.”

Ben smiled reassuringly. “Of course, I’m just surprised. What’s it doing here at school?” It was the best he could do to contain his excitement over finding out who the car belonged to, and on top of that finding out that it belonged to Aubrey’s dad.

“We sold my car before moving because it was old, and my dad didn’t trust it for the drive. Everything has been so hectic with the move since we just got here a couple days ago; I haven’t had a chance to find out how the buses work, much less get my dad to help me find another car.”

“Wait a minute. Are you saying that your dad let you drive his brand new Corvette to school?” Ben was having trouble hiding the incredulous undertone in his voice. “Oh my God, no way. That’s so cool. I know you’re not bragging and all, but I can’t help but be a little jealous.”

“I can let you look inside of it after school if you want,” Aubrey said. “No rides, though. Dad’s rules.”

“That would be awesome!” Ben replied. He’d never been inside of a sports car, and though the mechanics of it were lost on him, he was still excited to check it out.

“What’s your-” Aubrey began, but the sound of her voice was suddenly swallowed by a very uncomfortable, high-pitched noise over the intercom. Everyone in the hallway immediately covered their ears, and after a few moments, some even ran for the doors. Aubrey shot Ben a look, as if to say, “what the heck is going on?”, and all Ben could do was shrug and continue to cover his ears, just as clueless as the next person.

The noise abruptly stopped, and cautiously, the students and faculty in the hallway began uncovering their ears.

“What the heck was that?” Ben said. Both his and Aubrey’s ears were still ringing as the noise enveloped them again. This time, though, it seemed louder. More people began rushing for the exits. Some fell to their knees. No doubt, it was painfully loud.

“I…can’t…” Aubrey winced.

“What?” Ben said. He heard what she said, but he didn’t understand what she was talking about, or why she was trying to talk over the noise.

And that’s when Ben noticed that Aubrey’s bag was levitating. She was trying to hold it down as nonchalantly as she could, and while others may not have noticed, Ben was right there, and he did notice. He might’ve said something right then, even with the noise still assaulting their ears, but all of a sudden, every classroom door, every locker, every object with a hinge slammed shut.

Aubrey grabbed Ben by the wrist, and for a brief moment, she stared into his eyes. He’d seen her eyes earlier very closely, and they were warm, clear. Now, they were bloodshot and intense.

“Come on!” she yelled. “Take me outside!”

Ben didn’t know what was going on between the noise and the levitating bag and the slamming doors, but for some reason, it seemed like Aubrey did. He reversed the grip she had on him, and ran for the emergency exit instead of the normal doors that everyone else was using. Ben wasn’t particularly concerned about the emergency alarm going off at that point.

The emergency exit doors creaked and, despite some initial resistance, opened, finally allowing Ben and Aubrey to emerge into the back schoolyard. They weren’t free of the sound, but outside, it was much, much lower.

Aubrey, however, was breathing heavily, her eyes still bloodshot, seemingly freaking out even more than she was inside.

“Aubrey, are you okay? What’s wrong?”

She looked up, absolute terror in her eyes. “You…should run…” she panted.

“What?”

“Just get out of here!” she screamed.

“I can’t just leave you here when something is obviously wrong!”

“You don’t understand,” she said, her eyes still bugging out. “I might hurt you if you don’t!”

Ben was slightly taken aback. “Why would you do that?”

“It’s not on purpose!” Aubrey was growing frustrated, but what could Ben do? Just run away.

“I must outweigh you by 30 or 40 pounds, you probably couldn’t hurt me if you tried.”

“You don’t know what I’m capable…” Aubrey began, but as she looked up, the words froze in her mouth and transformed into, “BEN! MOVE!”

Behind Ben, the flagpole had slowly begun falling, and if Ben didn’t relocate himself within about 5 seconds, it would be falling on his head.

But 5 seconds wasn’t enough time to react. Ben turned around, 4 seconds left. Ben took notice of what was happening and began processing it, 2 seconds left. Ben started the muscle movements required to move his body out of harm’s way, no time left. He shut his eyes, braced for impact, prepared for what was surely death. 17 years old wasn’t long enough, what about his mom, his dad, his sister, his friends? His entire life should’ve been ahead of him, not behind him. It wasn’t fair, it couldn’t be happening.

And, in fact, it wasn’t happening. Ben realized it had been too long. The pole should’ve fallen by now, and if it had missed him, he should’ve at least heard it slam into the ground. He slowly opened his eyes, but he might as well have kept them closed, as he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“What…what is happening?” he said, bewilderment practically written across his face. The pole was less than a foot from his head, defying gravity at an angle to the ground that shouldn’t have been physically possible. He turned around to find Aubrey crouched down, one hand on the ground with the other in front of her, glaring fiercely at the pole.

Ben stammered, “W…what’s…going on?”

Aubrey moved her hand slowly to the side, then brought it down. The pole fell to the ground beside Ben with a thud.

“I’m back in control, that’s what.”

May 4

The Day He Saw the Helicopter

The view out of the seventh floor meeting room window was of skyscrapers against a backdrop of sky so cerulean that it looked like the ocean had changed places with the heavens.  It would’ve been so much better to be out there in the beautiful spring weather.  Perhaps riding around with the windows down, his favorite song pumping out of the speakers.

His phone suddenly buzzed on the table.  He looked down and read the notification.

“I’m downstairs.  Can you take a break?”

“You mind if I get out of here for a few minutes?”

“Sure thing.  I’ll just keep working on this part while you’re gone,” the man said, not looking up from the laptop screen.

Be there in a sec.”  he texted.

The stairs were more effort to go down, but the elevator was a big risk.  Two of them were broken, leaving only one to serve seven floors of employees.  The last couple of times he’d taken it, the car had stopped on every floor up and every floor down.  Completely unacceptable.

He took the stairs, bounding down at a faster than usual pace.  Between the stuffy meeting room and talking to his sister outside under that magnificently blue, clear sky, he’d take the latter any day.

The air outside hit him like the smell of a fresh pie baking in the oven.  He savored it, almost able to taste how much sweeter it was.

“Hey Zane.”

“Hi Analyn.”

“What are you doing here in the middle of a weekday?”

“I called in sick this morning.”

“You’re so bad.”

Analyn chuckled.  “Just a little bit.  I mean, come on.  It’s too beautiful outside to work today.”

Zane gazed up at the sky almost emotionlessly.  “Yeah, you’re right about that.”  Without looking down, he continued, “So what brings you to visit me at work?”

She held up a plastic container.  “I was bored and made lunch.  Spaghetti and meatballs.  Thought I’d be nice and bring you some.”

“From scratch?”

“That’s the only way I make it.”

“Wow, awesome.  Thank you!” Zane said, accepting the proffered container.

“Were you busy?”

“Nah.  Just in some stupid meeting with a guy from another department.  He doesn’t really need me.”

“Wanna go take a walk then?”

Zane glanced over his shoulder.  “Sure, but I might have to duck into the bushes or something if my boss suddenly appears.”

“You don’t have to if you’re gonna get in trouble.”

He laughed.  “Nah, it’ll be fine.  I need a break anyway.”

They headed down the sidewalk toward the garden.  There was an archway, and above it a sign lettered in Gothic font on a wooden base, painted black and forest green with gold filigree adorning the border of each character.  It read “Towncenter Park,” the name of the business complex in which Zane’s employer rented its office space.

“You have any plans tonight?” Analyn asked.

“Nah, I’ll probably just be hanging around the house.  You?”

“Same here.”

Zane laughed.  “We really need to make some friends.”

“We’d probably have more incentive to do that if we didn’t have built-in friends in each other.”

“Well if you wouldn’t have followed me here…”

“Oh, don’t start that again.”

Three years ago, Zane landed a new job – his current job – while at the same time, Analyn graduated from college and happened, only by coincidence, to get a job in the same city.  It was the second closest major city to where they grew up, but still a good three hour drive.  It worked out well though, in that they had the ability to pool their resources and rent a nice house in a good, safe neighborhood that was not close, but not particularly far from where either of them worked.

“We should try going out to a club or something instead of sitting around tonight,” Zane said as they passed under the floral arch.

“It’s so hard to make friends in a club, though.  Too much noise.”

“True.”

“Haven’t you made any friends at work yet?”

“No, they still haven’t replaced Dan.”

“After two years?”

“Yeah.  I’m still the entire department.”  Zane brushed his hand against the velvelty petal of an amaryllis.

“Oh, that sucks.  I thought I’d heard you mention another person you worked with.”

“Shannon?”

“Yeah,” Analyn said.

“She’s just a lady from accounting that has a bit of a crush on me.  I don’t work closely with her, though.”  Zane paused, then continued, “What’s your excuse for not having made any friends at work?”

“Still no one my age,” she said.  “I mean, I like my coworkers, but they’re all in their mid-40s and married with kids and responsibility and stuff.  They don’t have time to hang out.”

“Guess it’s just me and you then.”

Without looking at Zane, Analyn nodded.  “It’s not so bad though.  Either of us could be alone in this city.”

“Yeah.  I guess it’s also lucky that we get along pretty well.”

Analyn laughed and took an extra long step to avoid a crack in the sidewalk.  Overhead, they could hear the sound of a helicopter’s rotors fluttering as it raced across the sky like a supercharged ant – black silhouette against blue sky, all details hidden by the intensity of the sun.

“I guess I probably need to head back to work,” Zane said.

“Sure.”

They circled around the garden and back down the Towncenter Park sidewalk.  The helicopter was almost out of view, but Zane could still just barely make out the deceivingly small dot in the sky that represented something like two tons of metal and plastic.

“Thanks again for the food,” Zane said, holding up the container.

“No problem.”

“See you tonight.”  He hugged her.

“Later.”

Zane took one last breath of the fresh, sweet air and headed back inside.  He exhaled, then inhaled some of the stale air in the lobby of the building.

“Hey Zane.”

He looked up and saw Wendy from human resources.

“Hey.”

“She was beautiful.  Girlfriend?” Wendy said.

“No.  My sister.”

“Oh, that’s Analyn?”

“Yeah.  She came to bring me some food.”  Zane held up the container.

“How nice of her,” Wendy smiled.  “You should’ve brought her in and let us meet her.”

“Sorry, maybe another time.  It completely slipped my mind.”  Zane flashed a smile and continued to the stairs.  It was a long climb back up to the seventh floor, so he took it easy.  No point in getting all tired or out of breath just to get back to a boring meeting.

His conversation with Analyn lingered in his mind as he climbed.  It was true that neither of them had made friends.  In high school, they’d each had plenty of friends.  They were pleasant people to be around, or so he thought, but the problem seemed to be more in meeting the right people.

Zane had usually been pretty good at being able to figure people out, too.  He could tell when his sister was annoyed, and furthermore, he knew better than to do anything to exacerbate the condition.  People used to come to him in high school when they had problems, when they just needed someone to talk to.  Not necessarily for advice, just when they needed a friendly set of ears and a warm pair of eyes.  There were lots of times when he wanted to offer advice because he empathized or sympathized so well with whatever issue the person had, but he held his tongue.

His entire world had almost been defined by that trait.  It’s how people knew him, and it was all lost when he moved.  Without that reputation, he was just another normal guy trying to fit in with the world around him.

When he reached the fifth floor, the muscles in his legs were starting to complain.  Zane considered this and silently wished the elevators would be fixed soon.

By the seventh floor, he was breathing heavily but knew he’d recover quickly.  He stared at the door that would lead him back into the hall that ended at the meeting room.  Being able to see the beautiful view again would be nice, but it would only serve to make him envious of his sister.  She got to be out there under that sky, and he had to be inside, behind glass and metal and concrete and plaster.

Zane pulled out his phone and started writing a text to Analyn.  “We’re going out somewhere tonight.  No complaints,” it said.  He reread it and pressed ‘send.’

Satisfied, he took a step toward the door, smiled, and said, “We’ll make friends somehow.  I promise, Analyn.”

April 20

Creation

Morgan’s hair was streaked pink and blue and blonde that morning.  It looked like cotton candy or bubble gum or birthday party streamers.  Cal had seen her the day before when her hair had been all one color –  bright red, but still one color.  He would’ve been more surprised if her hair stayed the same color for longer than a week than he was at seeing this new cacophony of color.

He could have the same conversation he’d had with her back when they’d met in college – that she was too old to be doing things like that; that she wasn’t a skater punk.  Nine years later, he’d long given up on that and gotten used to her eccentric hair.  Maybe he’d even grown to like it.

“How’s the research going?” Cal asked.  He flipped through a notebook with hand-written diagrams and symbols and scribbles of things he only barely or partially understood.

“Decent,” she said.  “I was up until three trying to make sense of Martin’s notes, but I just don’t get this neuroscience stuff.”

“What’s decent about that?”

“I don’t think we have to understand it to get Kytara to function at a basic level.”

“Martin’s research was pivotal to understanding any of this,” Cal said, gesticulating at the server cluster behind her.  “Kytara is dead in the water without him.”

“Not necessarily,” Morgan said, shuffling through another notebook that she’d seemingly pulled out of nowhere.  She stopped on a page and her face lit up.  “Ah, here it is.”  She handed the notebook to him.

“Kytara…revision…99…”   Cal looked up from the page.  “What does this say?  Martin’s handwriting looks like chickenshit.”

“Neuralware unnecessary for Kytara project.  Revision three of Kytara OS software with standard neuralware has 99.5% probability of compatibility.”

Cal froze.  “You’re kidding me.”

Morgan shrugged and pointed at the words in the notebook.  “Martin said it, not me.”

“How could standard neuralware possibly handle that much throughput?  The synapse translation algorithm would burn a hole in your head.”

“I don’t know, but Martin’s notes from the few days preceding his death show that he definitely thought he was on to something.”  Morgan grabbed a datacard off of the desk and handed it to Cal.  “Check out the one that smells like coffee.”

“All of Martin’s files smell like coffee.”

“Not on that card,” she said, making a face.

Cal took the card and held it flat against his fingers.  The data instantly transmitted to Cal’s neuralware and assigned the proper receptors to each file.  Some were named like traditional computer files, such as “March 12th research data.”  Other bits of data only had smells or colors or warmth.

“Fuck, everything on this card smells like pot,” Cal said.  “Was he doing all of his work stoned?”

Morgan shrugged.  “Probably.”

Cal continued sifting through the data until he finally found the only one that smelled like coffee.  It was lukewarm and held no identifiable data other than the standard timestamps from its inception and modification.

He opened it up and took a look at its contents.

“Whoa.”

“Found it?”

“Yeah.”

“Saw the part about data streamlining?”

Cal flipped the datacard around in his hand and held it out to Morgan.  “The entire thing was about data streamlining.”

“I mean the part that’s relevant to Kytara.”

Cal grinned.  “I know.”

“So what’d you think?”

“If we can seriously solve this with code rather than beefier hardware in our heads, we’d be 100 years ahead of anyone else on the planet.”

“They already have functioning AI in a few of the western European states,” Morgan said.

“Yeah, but have you ever tried one of those?  They are artificial, and they are intelligent, but they’re intelligent on the level of an orangutan or a dolphin.  If the Kytara project bears fruit, we’ll have an AI that’s intelligent at or beyond a human-like level.”

Cal pulled a datacard out of his pocket and bent the corner, simultaneously activating a fingerprint encryption algorithm.

“Hold this.”

“Got something on there you don’t want me to see?”

Cal grinned.  “Maybe.”

Morgan reached out and flattened her fingers on the half of the card that Cal wasn’t touching.  There was only one file she could access.  Cal had turned the rest of them into gibberish – smells and colors and letters that had no meaning whatsoever until they were decrypted.

“What is this?  An awkward proof of the Sullivan Construct Theorem?”

Cal laughed.  “Look closer.”

Morgan arched an eyebrow and further examined the data.  This file was mostly text, a few pictures, and a poorly recorded video in measly 4k resolution.  Normally, this data would’ve taken hours to sift through, but with the neuralware reading the datacard and dumping it directly into her brain, it took only a few seconds.  The only thing that really took time was analyzing the data.

“No, no way.  You wrote this?” Morgan asked.

Cal nodded.  “Martin suggested that I do some research on some data of his – the video and pictures that you just saw – and that’s what I came up with.”

Morgan stared awestruck and dumbfounded.  “You reproved the Sullivan Construct Theorem using Calloway computational standards after adding a feature shell and removing a complexity layer?”

“I did,” Cal said, flattening the corner of the card by pressing his finger against it, simultaneously decrypting the entirety of the data on the card.  “Check the rest of the data.”  Cal let go of the card.  She took it out of his hand and analyzed it for a few moments.

“That magnificent son of a bitch…” Morgan gasped.  “He had us each working on complementary halves of the same puzzle.”

“It appears that way.”

“How did he know?  And why didn’t he tell us?”

“I don’t know,” Cal said, “But if we’re right…if Martin was right…this is the beginning of a new software age.”