Positive

Written for Advanced Creative Fiction at Rutgers University. April 10, 2019

It’s a hot August day on Rikers Island. Of course, I can only tell that it’s daytime from the rays of light shining between the bars of this cell’s tiny window. No one’s been around to enforce bedtime in days, nor let anyone out for a meal, shower, or recreation in the yard. That fucker down the hall is moaning again. Does he think anyone hears him? Nobody’s coming to help you, buddy! Can’t you smell the death stinking up this shithole, begging for the sweet escape of an open window, a door, anything​? The stench of the diarrhea and vomit that soaks the clothes of my criminal neighbors had gone from an infuriating olfactory presence to my new normal.

My name’s Eric Porter, and I guess I’m a survivor. Oops, that sounded like a hokey line from an NA meeting. Well, it’s true. Every night last week, the whole block would huddle around the big wall-mounted CRT TV over in the rec room to get the latest updates on the superflu. It popped up in Montana and spread hundreds of miles in a flash. Nearly 100% lethality and seemingly airborne transmission. Of course there was a riot in here when the news came that it was in New York, but what could we do when they brought out the tear gas and tasers? Into your cell you go and into your cell you die.

Except me. And that other guy. That was 5 days ago so I’m starting to get hungry in spite of the stench. All I’ve had to eat is some of the skin above my fingernails, but I’ve been doing that since I had to kick meth on account of my imprisonment. I’m not too far above moany guy, I just express myself differently. Right after the cell block got real quiet, my favorite pasttime was to poke my nose through my cell door and shake the thick white bars hoping that someone would come rescue us. Now I’ve given up and await impending doom. I lay in my hard, white cot and stare at the hard, gritty ceiling to conserve energy, only getting up to relieve myself in the stainless steel toilet or drink water from the tap above it.

Aside from moany guy, the prison has been deathly quiet. Even the outside has been silent since the flu killed off the birds. That’s why I easily hear a door open at the beginning of the block. Then a voice calls out.

“ERIC!”

I think I know that voice; rugged and deep but with a little squeal in the upper register.

“Right here!” I shout back.

Heavy footsteps approach me in a frenzy and I’m face-to-bar-to-face with Tyrell Spencer, a muscular 6′ 3″ black guy who I’ve been rolling with for a decade. He’s two years my senior at 28, but his imposing frame and weathered features make him look old enough to be my step-dad. He’s wearing the small black backpack he’s had for years, with only one zipper fully intact.

“Eric, you look like shit, man. What the hell happened to your face?”

“I got in a fight at the gym when someone wouldn’t let me work in on the squat rack,” I brush a weak hand against the stitches of a 2-inch scar on my cheek. “He slashed me with a shard of glass.”

“Ouch. Well, you look hungry. I found this set of keys in an office back there.”

“Let me see that,” I rifle through. “Should be… this one”.

He twists the hefty key in the lock and slides the door open.

“Freedom…” I step into the corridor. “Man, did you bring any ice? I could use a little boost.”

“Fuck no, are you crazy? I stopped messing with that shit after you got busted.”

“Wow, we’re both 6 months sober?”

“Yessir. Well, I got some bud in my bag but that’s a little different,” he says with a grin that shows the gap where his left lateral incisor used to be before I met him. “Now eat this, you look pretty pale.”

He grabs a protein bar from his bag; it’s out of the wrapper and in my belly before I can taste its nuttiness.

“You’re looking pretty swole for someone who’s starving.”

“Not much else to do in here than get your pump on.”

“Well it’s a good thing you haven’t wasted away because you’re probably gonna have to use this. The city is a madhouse right now.” Tyrell pulls a Glock 19 pistol out, jams a pre-loaded mag into the well, and racks the slide in a blur of muscle memory. He hands me the grip and I admire the weight of this lethal machine, feigning a shot at my window.

“Didn’t think I’d get to use one of these again.”

“Yeah yeah, the pigs all shit themselves to death so you’re good. Speaking of which, can we continue this conversation anywhere other than here? I’m not a fan of the smell of hot shit,” Tyrell fans in front of his nose which has always leaned a little to the left from one of many childhood scuffles in the Bronx.

“Hey, guys? Don’t forget about me.”

“Who’s that?” Tyrell asks as we both walk towards moany guy.

“Beats me.”

Clinging to the cell door with knuckles white around the bars is an incredibly bony white kid who couldn’t be older than 20. On his right pectoral is a hyper-realistic tattoo of a onion with a tear falling from its humanoid face.

“What’s your name again? And what are you in here for?” I ask him.

“Luke,” he twitches slightly. “I’m here for larceny, supposedly awaiting trial. I got caught stealing computer parts from Micro Center.”

“Well,” Tyrell thinks for a moment. “I can’t let this kid die here, so I guess he’ll be coming with us.”

He pops the key in and opens the cell before handing Luke a bar from his bag.

“Thank you,” Luke says as he steps out. “Just one issue, I have HIV and I haven’t had my medication in days.”

“Shit, you too? What are the chances that all three of us have it?” I ask.

“About that,” Tyrell pipes in. “It seems like the only people still around have HIV. It must have given us an immunity to the flu.”

“Did anyone figure that out before it was too late?”

“Maybe,” he says. “But I didn’t see anything about it on the news.”

What a turn of fate. The stigmatized now rule the country—and maybe the world. Who knows how far the flu spread? But we’re all doomed if we run out of antiretrovirals.

“Let’s go to the medical ward,” I suggest. “Hopefully we’re the first ones there and the drugs haven’t been looted already.”

We head back the way that Tyrell came in, then take a left after the double metal doors. Our steps reverberate from the linoleum floor of the rec room to its white popcorn ceiling. It’s eerily quiet except for the static of the TV. We go through another identical set of doors and enter a room with a hard beige floor and white walls with countless scuffs. After easily vaulting over the waist-high counter directly ahead of the entrance, I motion for the others to follow.

“They always take the meds out of this closet,” I say while pointing to the thick steel door in front of us. I wiggle the handle expecting it to be locked, but it moves freely. Bad sign.

The door’s open, and…

“Fuck.”

“They took everything!” Luke laments.

The dozens of bins lining the secure closet’s shelves which are normally filled with bags of various prescriptions now lay empty.

“I think we should get out of here while we can. I have meds in the bag which I’ll be happy to share,” Tyrell explains, “but I’d rather not run into any stragglers here. We need to get off this fucking island and figure out a game plan.”

We get to the parking lot and I’m surprised when Tyrell keeps walking towards the bridge.

“You didn’t bring a car or anything?”

“Hell no. Everyone tried to get out of the city and died in their cars, so all the streets are full,” Tyrell says.

“Sounds like we need to commandeer some bikes,” Luke muses.

We all nod in agreement. Thankfully the jail isn’t too remote. The bridge is under a mile, then we’ll be in Queens. It gives me some time to think about the good old days. Or at least, they felt good at the time. I remember the first time Tyrell and I copped some ice. It blew away everything else I ever tried. Then one day, a friend showed me how to slam it. Mix it, filter it, tie off, and shoot that shit right in a vein. Vaping it was child’s play after that, I couldn’t go back. Of course, Tyrell got into it just as deep. Then it became hard to justify the cost of clean needles when I was stealing batteries just to afford half a g. One of us must have shared with some sketchy fuck out of desperation, then that’s it. HIV positive. Who knew that it would someday save us?

Golf

Written for Advanced Creative Fiction at Rutgers University. February 4, 2019.

I am walking down a dirty city street at night when I see a neon green golf ball in the gutter beside a crumpled newspaper. It looks unmarred, like someone had stolen it from a mini golf place earlier today and it fell from their pocket. I must be the first person to notice this ball since it ended up here, since there’s no way that anyone could leave it alone. Without thinking and without choice, I pick it up. I look for markings but there are none besides the normal concave patterning on its surface. The ball fits easily in my right pants pocket.

I keep moving, and my house is now only 3 blocks away. The nearest streetlight is busted but my eyes are adapted to the dark at this point. Another green thing in the gutter catches my eye, but this time it’s a $5 bill. I think that this is just a weirdly lucky day, and stuff it into my left pocket.

“Hey!” I spin around and a man out of a bush to my right. In his right hand is a gun, pointed right at me.

“It’s your lucky day, pal. Empty your pockets.”

He must have planted the bill as a honeypot. I had left my phone and wallet at home for this brief walk, so all I can offer him is the golf ball and his $5 bill.

“What the hell is…” he mutters as I hand him the ball. He seems entranced by it, and I take the opportunity to run away. I steal a glance back once I’m a full block away and he’s still standing in the same place, staring at the ball.

The next day, I go on the internet and read a news article about a man that was struck and killed by a car the night before in my neighborhood. He was carrying no identification and had an illegal handgun in his pocket. The driver claims that he ran in front of the car out of nowhere.

I hear a knock at my front door and go to answer it. I open the door and only see a thick yellow packing envelope addressed to me. I bring it inside and open it. Inside of it is that wondrous, glowing, neon green golf ball.

Dreamscapes

Written for Advanced Creative Fiction at Rutgers University. April 29, 2019.

Hovering hundreds of feet above a vast and desolate ocean, I summon two gigantic monsters. Two reptilian bipedal beasts—magnitudes larger than any creature to ever roam the Earth—slowly rise from the sea. Foamy tidal waves ripple outward as their emergence displaces water. Their top halves now above the surface, the monsters begin fighting. Each blow from their massive arms sends seismic waves that bend space. I pull the boundaries of the sea up around us until we are in a giant air pocket within a sphere of water. The space between the two monsters gets more corrupted as each exchange of attacks deflects pixels off their scaly, now oozing torsos. I turn a single speck of these showering colors pitch black. The black hole expands to absorb the monsters within seconds. The walls of water spiral upwards and condense into the hole as the scene turns abruptly to black.

I wake up and gently pull the cord from the Cerebral Interface (CI) port on the back of my head. Excitedly, I hurry over to the DreamCatcher and output it to the wall monitor. A holographic display appears in front of me, allowing control of the “camera”. The video starts playing and it appears exactly as it did in my head. I spend a few minutes fiddling with the camera angles then save the result.

Everyone’s gonna fucking love this.

I upload it to oTube (the Omnis video-sharing service) with the title “Sea battle dream” and get back in bed for some real sleep.

I awaken the following morning, greeted by the pale light of the sun’s rays penetrating the smoggy sky into the slits between the blinds of my only window. Rolling over to check the time on my cubic bedside dock, I notice that the yellow indicator is flashing.

I wonder how many people saw my video.

I tap the only button on the plastic cube and my dashboard is projected into the air. Here I can see notifications from all of my online accounts in addition to news relevant to my interests.

“Analytics for last oTube upload.”

Statistics are displayed on the green holographic dashboard. The video already has 42,336 views and 1,288 devices are watching it at this moment.

“Show me referral data.”

The data shows that there was a huge spike in views 2 hours ago, with almost all of them originating from a link posted on oNiT—Omnis’s aggregator site for user-generated links and content. The post title: “Insane DreamCatcher video – fake or not?”. People in the comments section are baffled. Many are skeptical of the true origin of the video, with some thinking that it would turn out to be a surprise marketing campaign for a movie. Amused, I press the button again and the display disappears.

I fold up my bed and walk a few feet to the other side of the micro-apartment to take a bottle of NutriLent from the fridge. The dense beverage tastes like… well I have no basis of comparison since it’s all I’ve ever eaten. At least it’s free. Since society replaced almost all jobs with automation, scarcity has become a thing of the past. The government provides all of the jobless with a fixed income, housing, and NutriLent. Of course, there’s a catch. We have to provide a certain service to keep living off the government teet. At night, all of us peons must connect our CI ports to a wall feeder outlet. The intelligence of our robotic workforce is powered by the parallel processing of our brains, nothing artificial about it.

I was born shortly after this plan came into place and have constantly wondered why we continue this charade. We destroy the environment to sustain our meaningless lives. Without struggle, mankind has grown complacent and lazy, seeking only entertainment. The creative minds are dwindling under the idiosyncratic oppression of utter leisure, and there’s nothing I can do about it. The only time I feel truly free is when I dream.

I sit in my chair intending to play Metronomicon (a rhythm game with RPG elements), but after I power up the computer, a message pops up from a user with the nonsense name “nk6u7t6xkp”.

Vis, I’ve been watching you. I know about your talent, and I know that you are tired of this world. If you want to get answers, meet me at the attached coordinates at 1PM.

How does this person know my name?! How are they “watching” me? I briefly try to convince myself that this is just some prank, but then I look up the coordinates and see that they point to the hyperloop station right around the corner from my building.

It’s 12:45. With some hesitation, I get dressed and leave.

I exit the door of my apartment complex and I’m greeted by the bleak cityscape that has enveloped me my whole life. Each building on the block towers to the same height, their brutalist architecture dividing the apartments with vertical and horizontal slats protruding off the gray concrete exterior. Dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers that house the city’s inhabitants, I’m just another ant. Except I’ve never been in tune with the hive mind, and now I feel that I may be leaving the colony altogether as I venture down the sidewalk towards the station. Passing dozens of sleepy faces, I hear not a single conversation. I’m soon at my destination. A big ugly white dome, smooth on top, standing in abrasive contrast to the straight lines of every adjacent structure. The electronic screen above it reassures passersby that Omnis has your back.

Entering the familiar building, I find myself surrounded by crowds of people hundreds of feet below a ceiling marred only by long parallel strips of LED light. A dozen pods—each big enough for 200 people—are down the stairs at the opposite end of the room, ready to zoom under the city at supersonic speeds. I feel a hand tap my shoulder and turn around as my heart rate soars. It’s a lady with a face only a few years older than mine, flowing black hair, and piercing eyes with mismatched irises: one green and one blue.

“We can’t talk safely here, so I need you to plug this communicator into your CI port,” she says.

“What?! I don’t even know you.”

“Yes, but I know you,” she replies, “and if you want to be more than just another digital zombie, you need to do this.” She brandishes a black, rectangular dongle, no thicker than a millimeter and attached to a male CI interface.

“Prove that you’re not just some scammer. What do you know about me?”

“You never knew your parents. You were raised by your uncle Rufus until he disappeared mysteriously 10 years ago. You started toying around with a music production program a couple months ago but got lazy the few weeks, choosing instead to spend your time playing Metronomicon and browsing oNiT.”

“Alright, alright.”

I reluctantly plug the dongle into the port, where it’s hidden behind my hair.

“My name is Sanja, by the way.”

I’m visibly startled as those words come from inside my own head.

“We can communicate telepathically through an encrypted channel now,” Sanja explains. “Just talk to me like you normally would. Minus the vocalization,” she says with a grin.

“Will do,” I respond. “Now can you explain what’s going on?”

She starts walking towards the pods and I follow.

“So, Vis, you can control your dreams?”

“Yeah, how did you know?” I respond.

“I’m an Omnis intelligence agent. I was given orders to oversee you several months ago when you posted on oNiT about your dreams. What you experience is referred to as ‘lucid dreaming’, since you’re aware that you’re in a dream. This has always been a rare skill. However, almost no one born since universal automation is capable of it, and as far as we know, no one else can actually control their dreams as well as you.”

“Why?” I ask.

After descending the stairs, Sanja steps into the leftmost pod (TO NICETOWN, the screen above its door reads) and I follow. It’s white and shaped like the head of a sperm for minimum drag. We sit down in the two seats closest to the door facing sideways in one of the two opposing rows.

“Because humanity is being coddled into a primitive state. The struggle used to be an integral part of the human experience; it was only through pain and hardship that people learned to channel their creativity and bring meaning to the world around them,” she explains. “The disappearance of lucid dreaming is just a byproduct of the atrophy of our brains. This whole thing was Omnis’s plan all along; a dumb, sedated populace is ripe for control.”

The pod lurches forward. The g-force of the hyperloop combined with the confirmation of my worst fear makes me dizzy. Our conversation pauses for a few moments.

“So why did you contact me?” I hesitantly resume.

“I guess you could say I’m a double agent,” she says. “I’ve been collecting intel from inside Omnis with the hope that I could figure out how to save us. If everything continues this way, creativity and critical thinking will completely die out. I could sense your discontent since I started monitoring you.”

“I’m not completely sure how to fix all of this,” Sanja continues, “but I know that lucid dreaming has something to do with it since Omnis puts such a high priority on monitoring anyone who experiences it.”

The pod comes to a stop. We get out of our seats and exit into the station. It looks identical to the last one, but everything seems more sinister since Sanja told me the truth. How could Omnis knowingly destroy the most wondrous element of the human mind? I’m so impassioned that I accidentally blurt out loud.

“I’ll do it.”

My face reddens and Sanja laughs before she responds in my head.

“Then let’s go to my place. We have a lot of work to do.”

Unshod

I’ve been a runner for 2 years now. It started out as a casual thing to get in shape for drum corps but over the past few months, it has progressed to 25-30 miles a week. Last Spring, I made a breakthrough that forever changed my approach to running.

I had been doing 2-mile runs several times a week, and something would usually happen around the 1.5 mile mark. My Achilles tendon would tighten up and start to hurt. I did some research online in an effort to circumvent this roadblock and discovered minimalist running. People claimed that our bodies are designed to run barefoot and that mainstream running shoes over-stabilize and force us to run with an unhealthy, high-impact gait. As someone who wore a thickly-padded pair of Asics Gel Nimbus sneakers, this opposed everything that I thought I knew about running.

I looked up videos of people running barefoot and noticed that their form was completely different from my own. Where I lifted my feet up in great strides, they gently glided on the ground with small but frequent strides. As I further researched running’s biomechanics, I realized that the padding and “stability” offered by running shoes is redundant to the function of our ankles and feet. I’m convinced at this point, but running barefoot on the hard, littered streets of New Brunswick is still an unnerving proposition.

I quickly find the Vibram shoe and am intrigued. They would enable running with good ground-feel and full use of one’s toes while offering protection from potential hazards. I bought a pair of V-run’s and fell in love with them as soon as I broke them in. It took several weeks to get my feet strengthened enough to run solely with them but it was worth it.

A year later, I have stopped using the V-runs as they are now too padded for my taste—they are a great introductory minimalist shoe, however. After thoroughly toughening up the soles of my feet through walking barefoot around Cook/Douglass campus, I now manage to go unshod (completely barefoot) for around 50% of my mileage. I wear Xero Z-Trek sandals for daily wear and most runs; Skinners for when it’s cold out.

I would recommend minimalist running to anyone, it’s the healthiest way to go. And I cannot discount the pure zen in the aspect of physically connecting yourself to the Earth as you run.

Dreamscapes (first draft)

(The final draft of this is posted here.)

I close my eyes and soon appear on the other side as my projected self. This is just a test run; I need to see if my new DreamCatcher can produce a satisfactory result.

Hovering hundreds of feet above a vast and desolate ocean, I summon two gigantic monsters. Two reptilian bipedal beasts—magnitudes larger than any creature to ever roam the Earth—slowly rise from the sea. Foamy tidal waves ripple outward as their emergence displaces water. The top halves now above the surface, the monsters begin fighting. Each blow from their massive arms sends seismic waves that bend space. I pull the boundaries of the sea up around us until we are in a giant air pocket within a sphere of water. The space between the two monsters gets more corrupted with each exchange of attacks until a pitch black hole appears amidst the distorted space. The walls of water rapidly condense inwards, disintegrating the monsters and propelling me into the hole. Continue reading “Dreamscapes (first draft)”