The carmine sky was tinged with somber clouds. Smoke billowed in many places–the lightning strikes every night had become increasingly devastating. Most high-rise buildings were reduced to dust and ashes. The remaining few were in a dilapidated state. The skeletal trees, owing to the scorching drought stood silhouetted across the barren landscape. A stray dandelion that had surprisingly sprouted from the parched ground shriveled and drooped helplessly, squashing hope to all forms of lives that still thrived. The stench from the piling carcasses was unbearable.
The reckless behavior of mankind in the past decades was not taken kindly by Nature. Global warming, climatic change–one thing led to another making all places inhospitable.
The population of mankind had dwindled to dangerously low figures. The future was bleak but instead of trying to find plausible solutions, the tyrant totalitarian government made matters unimaginable and worse.
The remaining humans were segregated into groups and imprisoned in bunkers in different territories. All forms of communication amongst groups were cut off. The one solution that the government had come up with to keep up with the limited resources available was cryogenic sleep. Slowly in phases, people were put in cryogenic sleeping pods with a promise that they would be revived in the future when the world became a more hospitable place. People could no longer get married or have children. Only a privileged few including the top office bearers in the government dwelt in an oasis that had all the luxuries. The buildings where they lived were designed with state-of-the-art technologies that could withstand any catastrophe.
In the name of scientific advancement, man was replaced by machines in all spheres. A new age of hybrid robots that could be enslaved was under mass production but AI was slowly gaining the upper hand.
The starlit firmament adorned with a full moon seemed ethereal. Willows whispered songs of symphony as the gentle zephyr pirouetted across the lush boughs. The petrichor arising from a few stray drizzles that hit the earthy mud was intoxicating.
Max held Jane’s hand and gazed at her eyes.
Their lips did not utter a single word but their eyes weaved a thousand stories endearingly.
“Jane! Don’t you feel our connection is eternal?” whispered Max, breaking the silence. He could not stop staring at her emerald green eyes.
“Yes, Max! I too feel the same. The instant I met you, I felt a strange sense of connection,” replied Jane, resting her head on his chest.
As they both conversed, a swarm of fireflies hovered at a distance. The swarm grew in leaps and bounds. And soon a gateway lit by the fireflies emerged magically.
Max and Jane were quite puzzled by what just happened. As they stared at the gateway in disbelief, a voice echoed in their ears.
“It’s time for you both to lead. You must guide all the group members through this gateway into a different world—a utopian world, for a fresh start. It’s the only way to survive–survive the nearing doomsday when the AI would completely take over your world by wiping out every last human.”
“Why us? And how do we bring everyone here?” asked Max, feeling perplexed.
“Just follow the orders. Your time is running out. Everything will make sense soon. Do it.”
As the siren blared across all the cells Max woke up with a start. He wiped beads of sweat trickling down his forehead and pinched himself hard enough to make sure he was awake.
Was that just a dream? The same dream that had been haunting me for over a month. It seemed too real. And every scene is etched in my mind. Jane. The voice. The gateway. But who is Jane? And could there be a gateway?
The siren once again resounded. It was the last and final call for everyone to change into their uniforms and get ready to assemble.
Max quickly changed into his uniform overalls and stared at his reflection. Z108 –his code was tattooed on his shaven head. All members had their codes tattooed.
Dark rings encircled his dimly lit eyes and his skin had turned a shade paler as the quantity and the nutritive value of meals provided to them was greatly compromised.
The guard tapped the door to get out quickly, and Max obeyed. As he exited, Max heard a faint sound of a bouncing ball. He turned around and stared in disbelief at a basketball lying on the floor.
A ball?! Here? How come?!
With several thoughts brewing in his mind, he walked towards the main hall, their assembly point. It was Sunday. All updates regarding their duty schedules for the week were given to the members on Sunday.
The group members had assembled in the main hall. Everyone had a glum expression on their faces. Most often it was difficult to differentiate men and women–the identical overalls and shaven heads with imprinted codes made it hard to tell them apart.
Little commotion, if any, came to a halt once the chief ascended the stage.
Everyone waited anxiously to hear him speak.
He commenced his address;
“Greetings, Group Z! The work assigned to you for the previous week has been completed without any hitches. You have been very cooperative. You will get a piece of cake during your meal today as a token of appreciation.
However, you will not be assigned any duties henceforth. Good News! You may socialize, and have your meals in the cafeteria this week. That’s because this is your last week here. The humans in the other groups have been successfully put to sleep. Group Z is the final batch for which the process is still pending.”
Just then one of the members started shouting.
“Fuckers! Who are you to decide? We don’t wish to sleep endlessly. We aren’t your slaves. Wait until I shoot you bastards.”
The chief signaled the guards and they immediately gunned down the errant member with a volley of bullets.
Everyone froze and stared at the dead group member with fear.
“Group Z! I hope the message is clear. That bastard is gone forever. His was a painful death. Follow the orders without any questions. Otherwise, you know the consequences. I guarantee if you all cooperate, the entire process will be smooth. It is the best escape from pain, hunger, and many other problems prevalent in this world of limited resources.”
The hall was filled with a haunting silence. No one dared to utter a word. They seemed pretty shaken by what they had witnessed.
Soon they were escorted to the cafeteria. They rarely got the opportunity to have their lunch there. Usually, they were required to eat in their cells.
Everyone stood in a queue to have their plates filled.
Max sat with a few known faces though they didn’t have much to converse. It was difficult to have a light-hearted conversation considering the course of events.
He gulped the tasteless porridge and the stale sourdough bread. A small piece of cake was given as promised. He relished it as long as he could before swallowing it. As he walked towards the restroom, someone’s eyes—emerald green eyes, caught his attention.
Max walked towards the group member, Z109, and asked, “Are you Jane?”
“Yes. And are you Max??!” asked Z109.
They both stared at each other for quite some time with a puzzled look on their faces.
Max then held her hand and hurriedly entered the janitor’s room as he heard the footsteps of a guard.
“Jane, you appeared in my dream. Nothing makes sense to me. And how do you know my name?” asked Max.
“Max, you appeared in my dream too. And there was this voice that asked me to lead everyone through a gateway. Seems so surreal to me. I have a feeling I have known you for a long time,” replied Jane.
“Yes, Jane! It was the same dream. And you looked so different in my dream with your long tresses and smoky eyes. I too feel deeply connected to you,” said Max as he gently kissed her forehead.
“Max! So, the dream, though I find it hard to wrap my head around the whole thing, are we supposed to do what was said?”
“Yes, that’s what we have to conclude. We must give it a shot. That could probably be the best and only way out from this hellhole.”
The siren blared alerting all members to return to their cells.
“Jane! We need to go now. Let’s meet tomorrow and discuss more about this. Meanwhile, I will try to come up with a plan. We both have to do it though nothing is clear as of now,” said Max.
“Yes, see you, Max!” said Jane. Their eyes were steeped with so much love for each other. They both hugged before exiting the room stealthily. Before anyone noticed they joined the queue and walked towards their cells.
Waves ebbed and flowed across the ocean shore. Ripples danced with the reflection of the glistening moonlight. Resting on Jane’s lap seemed heavenly.
“Promise me you will never leave me, my love,” said Max.
“I’ll always be by your side. Always and forever. Without a doubt,” said Jane lovingly.
The tranquility of the surroundings was interrupted by the jarring sound of a ticking clock.
As Max and Jane cluelessly looked around, a swarm of fireflies lit a long narrow path ahead and soon lit up a gateway at a distance.
Then an echoing voice along with the sound of a ticking clock alerted them.
“Max! Jane! Are you ready and prepared? To lead.”
“We are ready but we still don’t understand how to bring everyone here. The gateway seems to be present only in this realm. And only Jane and I share the dream. How do ‘they’ enter our dream?” said Max.
“This is a parallel realm—dreamscape. It is possible to bring everyone only when their subconscious mind is awakened. You can then guide them through a portal that opens up to this realm,” instructed the voice.
“I see! But how do we achieve that?”
“In a way, by astral projection…When they have a near-death experience.”
“Near-death experience? We still don’t get it,” said Jane.
“You will figure it out,” said the voice after which a complete darkness enveloped the surroundings.
Max coughed profusely before waking up with a jolt.
He steadied himself before picking up the jug of water in the corner of the cell. He emptied half the jug and splashed the remaining water on his face. Once again he heard the faint sound of a bouncing ball. A basketball appeared before him and then it magically disappeared the next moment. Though it intrigued him he was preoccupied with more important questions.
Astral Projection? Near-death experience? How are we to lead them? Time is running out. If Jane and I don’t act soon, we will lose the opportunity to escape from this hellhole. Maybe Jane has come up with some plan. I’ll have to wait until lunchtime to find out.
All the group members had assembled in the cafeteria for lunch. Though a decent meal was provided, most hardly touched their plates.
“Do you think they will revive us once we are put in those cryogenic sleeping pods? If so, when? And, how long will they be able to afford it? What if the world is wiped out before that?” asked one of the group members to Max.
“Don’t worry. Keep calm,” comforted Max though deep down in his heart he knew the government could not be trusted. He felt they wouldn’t want to waste their resources in keeping the cryogenic pods running for an extended period.
Meanwhile, Max frantically searched for Jane. He wanted to find out if she had come up with any ideas.
Jane finally came. Her eyes were twinkling.
Max felt his heart skip a beat as he saw her. Despite the dull overall and shaven head, she looked very attractive.
“Jane, your twinkling eyes tell me you have figured out everything already. Is that right?” asked Max.
“I’ve been racking my brain ever since I woke up. To lead everyone through a portal into our dreamscape, we need to first gather everyone in one place,” said Jane.
“And where? Well! We gather here in the cafeteria too. But the guards are here too. And how do we achieve near-death experience?”
“Think! We just wait and let them do whatever they plan on doing to us.”
“Hmm! You mean to put us into cryogenic sleeping pods?”
“Bingo! That is when everyone will lose their conscious state. And it is most likely that their subconscious state is awakened…”
“And once astral projection is achieved we can lead them out through the portal into our dream and following that, the gateway,” interjected Max.
“But there is just one thing that’s nagging me. What happens to our bodies? Will we lose it once we go through the gateway?”
“Good question! I hope we will be provided new bodies by whatever voice has been guiding us. We will have to forget our current bodies. Let’s stop overthinking.”
“True that! This is our best shot. I’ll inform a few group members about this. You should too. Let the message be communicated to everyone. So that we will be all set to implement our mission without any glitches.”
Max wished to talk more to Jane. Something romantic. But considering the timing, place, and situation, he had to wait. He just hoped the gateway would lead them into a utopian world where they could have a happily ever after.
Finally, it was the much-awaited D-day. Max, Jane, and the other group members were ready. Nobody breathed a word about their plan to the guards.
The group members wore somber expressions on their faces and hardly spoke with each other to avoid arousing any suspicion among the officials. Though they found it a little hard to comprehend what Max and Jane had communicated, most were willing to give it a shot because it seemed to be the only ray of hope left. A few who were hesitant in the beginning also agreed since they did not wish to be left out.
The guards directed them inside a huge waiting room. After checking all their vitals and key parameters they were asked to shower and get dressed in a suit that was provided.
Max and Jane communicated silently through their eyes while in the waiting room. They seemed anxious about the mission that had to be fulfilled.
Soon, members were led into a temperature-controlled room and asked to lie down in the sleeping pod marked with their identification code.
Luckily, Max and Jane’s sleeping pods were next to each other. They gazed at each other lovingly one last time before entering their pods.
The lights were switched off and after a while, there was an absolute silence haunting the room. The guards supervised for some time and then left.
Jane shivered as the cold blast of wind brushed against her skin.
“Here, take my jacket!” said Max and held her tight.
“We are in the dreamscape,” said Jane.
“Where are the others? I don’t see them.”
“We’ll have to wait. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
A tiny firefly appeared the next moment. Within seconds thousands of fireflies encircled them.
“They are here to guide us, Max,” said Jane, enchanted by the ethereal dance that they were performing.
A portal opened up. A faint human form seemed to float at a distance.
“Look, Jane! Do you see? It’s one of our group members. Their subconscious mind seems to be active now.”
“That’s a great sign that our plan is working.”
Max and Jane stood at the entrance of the portal to guide everyone into their dreamscape.
More group members joined slowly. Men stood next to Max and the women, next to Jane. They followed the protocols that were communicated.
Thankfully, all the group members were present. The first step of bringing everyone into their dreamscape was accomplished. The next step was to guide them to the gateway.
“Now what?” asked one of the group members.
“Just wait,” instructed Jane.
Suddenly the sound of the ticking clock punctuated the prevailing silence.
“Your time is running out. Hurry up. Enter the gateway.” A resounding voice warned everyone.
A gateway illuminated by the fireflies appeared before them.
This time it had a board that read “WELCOME TO UTOPIA”.
Everyone was very excited.
Max and Jane led everyone to the gateway. They decided to go last.
The ticking clock was now visible at a distance. It seemed more like a stopwatch. Only sixty seconds remained. And there still were a few members more to go.
Jane urged them to enter the gateway quickly. They followed her instructions.
At last only Jane and Max were left out.
“Enter quickly Jane. Only five more seconds are left,” said Max. His heart was pounding.
“Max, I love you. Only one of us can make it through the gateway. I can’t just leave you in the dreamscape. Let me stay back here with you,” said Jane with tears rolling down her cheeks.
“I love you too, Jane. But don’t stay back. You have to go,” said Max and pushed her through the gateway.
And when it was Max’s turn the clock showed zero.
Jane yelled hysterically from the other side of the gateway. It was closing. “Max! Why did you push me in? I wished to stay with you.”
Max could not hold back his tears. Soon the gateway disappeared and Max was left stranded in darkness.
Max gasped for breath. His head was reeling and all the recent events flashed one after the other.
A faint voice whispered “Max! Max! It’s over.”
A blinding light shook him awake. He had a bewildered look. His head was wired in several places and so was his body. To his astonishment, Jane was lying next to him. She too was wired but she was awake and more stable.
“Where am I? Who are you?”
“Max, Relax! Take a couple of deep breaths. You will remember,” said a man standing next to him.
“Max, try to remember? You both had registered for this out-of-the-box multisensory simulation experience,” said another man who entered the room.
“We explained everything to Jane a few moments before you woke up.”
Max stayed still for some time. Slowly everything seemed to make sense.
“Gosh, it was mind-blowing! It seemed like I was in the simulation experience for several days though it was supposed to last only for an hour. And how did it seem so real? I could not remember anything from the real world. All I felt was a deep connection and love for Jane,” said Max.
“That’s because time spans differently when your subconscious mind is activated. Moreover, you traveled two levels deep—a dream within a simulated experience. You could not remember the real world because the simulation suppresses most memories associated with the real world. But the connection you have with Jane could not be suppressed since you both love each other deeply,” said the man in charge.
“The dreams, the people who appeared, how the events unfolded… It didn’t seem like a premade simulation.”
“Unlike other simulations, here we just feed the parameters, settings, the mission, and so on. How the events unfold is purely determined by the players. You both chose the genres and the parameters to be included. You also named it ‘Gateway to Utopia’. This highly advanced simulated experience has been designed by a team of experts from various fields. ”
“Wow! Interesting indeed. Now I get it. That was why the clock/timer kept warning us.”
“But what about the basketball? What was the significance? They kept reappearing randomly.”
“Ha ha! A stray parameter was included accidentally when we programmed the simulation. That was just a glitch that we could not fix. But we hope you enjoyed this adventurous experience.”
“Absolutely. Total adrenaline rush,” remarked Max.
“I second that,” chuckled Jane.
Max and Jane were allowed to go once all their vitals returned to normal.
They stopped at a café to have a quick bite.
As Jane sipped her coffee she said “Max, don’t you dare leave me alone as in the simulation. I always need you by my side. I can’t even imagine being apart.”
“Of course, my love! Now I get the answer to my biggest question–why we were chosen to lead everyone?”
“Because…we were the main players,” said Jane and burst out laughing.
“Ha ha! Ok, where do we head next, my dear?”
“To our home—utopia,” exclaimed Max and he gently kissed Jane. As they drove home, they could not stop talking about their unforgettable experience.
This story was written for the prompt” Fusion” by Penmancy. The story had to include two different genres and end with a twist.
It was first published here;
Picture Credit: Pixabay