Just like that, the entire world froze, every single person on Earth, all except for Matthew Harris, a brilliant, young software engineer student in enemy occupied Colorado. At first, it's all fun and games as he takes advantage of what appears to be an incredible opportunity to act without consequence, but as the weeks wear on, he begins to wonder if this is going to be his new reality. There's something off about all of this, though...He just has to figure out what it is.
“She’s right in here through this room,” Kim’s mother says, directing me into a bedroom just off the main living area.
The apartment is simple and worn, like a shirt that’s tripled its life expectancy, but the atmosphere is warm and inviting, a refuge from the dreary grey landscape of destruction outside. I walk through the chipped and peeling bedroom doorway, and there she is, lying in a hospital bed, tangled up in nearly twice the amount of tubes that I had attached to me back in the recovery ward. She looks frailer and older in person, closer to my age and probably half the weight, but she still has the same peaceful aura about her, like she’s merely taking a midday nap. The monitor beside her beeps despondently, as if it knows the condition she’s in and how much time she has left.
“I don’t know how much you can help,” her mother says with a tone that exposes her broken spirit. “We’re pulling the last plug on Friday, and they say she’ll only have a week or so after that.”
“The Euros fined me for being out past eleven a few nights ago. I was coming back from the store, and I lost track of time,” she says indifferently. She looks empty, like her body has long since been abandoned by her spirit. It makes me want to cry just looking at her. She takes a deep breath in and continues. “Anyways, they took all the money that I’ve been saving for her treatment, and the hospital is too backlogged with relief requests to care for her anymore. And by the time I save up enough money again, it’ll be too late.”
I take a seat next to Kim and grab her hand, and I’m about to respond to her mother when I hear the front door shut and someone appears at the entrance to Kim’s room.
I turn around to see who it is and can hardly believe my eyes when I do; it’s the man, the one I saw in the alleyway back in the Pause, back when I was in a coma. He seems much shorter in person, though he’s still probably an inch taller than me, and his head is completely bald. His face is rigid, his goatee practically trembling with how uptight he looks.
“He says he’s a friend of Kim’s,” her mother responds.
“I thought I said no visitors. Especially ones we don’t know. You know how careful we need to be right now.”
“Excuse me, brother,” the woman says, her eyes alight with the first real emotion I’ve seen since meeting her. “In case you’ve forgotten, this is still my home, and I’m allowing you to use it, for now.”
He looks at me for just a little longer, his expression pensive.
“You were there,” I say. “You could see me.”
“You were there too,” he says, a hint of venom in his voice. “Who are you? Who do you work for?”
I see his hand drift near a lump on the right side of his coat. My heart races, guessing what might be concealed underneath.
“James, sit down! Matt, was it? I apologize for my brother’s rude behavior.”
“Elle, don’t apologize to him. You’re not the one that needs to explain yourself.”
“James, what is this all—”
I gulp but turn and face him confidently with my back straightened. “I was in a coma. That’s all I know. Were you injured too?”
The man, James, relaxes his hand, but maintains his immobile expression.
“No. I wasn’t.”
“Then how? Why?”
Kim’s mother, Elle, stands up with her hands held out in surrender, then exits the room and moves into the kitchen. “I’ll bring coffee.”
James takes her seat and looks at me defiantly, though I can tell his demeanor is beginning to change. “I design VR,” he says. “Or at least I used to, before the invasion. I was already researching biological interfaces, so when the neighborhood got bombed and I heard about Kim, I figured I could put my research to good use.”
“So that was actually you in there?”
He nods and leans forward in his seat. Elle brings in two cups of coffee and hands one to me, which I gratefully accept. James looks expectantly at her, but she just stares at him persistently.
“Do I get one?” he says.
“You can get your own damn coffee, you animal. And take your shoes off.”
James scrunches his face in an unimpressed look of disapproval, then turns back to me. “Anyways, while she’s in her coma, she lives in a world exactly like ours, but it’s her own. Just for her. I built a neural interface that allows me and my sister to become immersed in her mind, in her universe.”
“You built that whole world, just for her?” I ask, incredulous that such a thing is even possible.
“Oh no, not at all. That would have taken a team years to do, decades even. What you saw is entirely her mind’s design. I had nothing to do with it. I just figured out how to tap into it.”
“But it’s all real time, at least from what she told me before I showed up. The events that happened in her world actually happened in real life,” I mention, thoroughly confused.
James nods, a significant look on his face. “And that’s where my explanations end. That’s the mystery. The miracle. We don’t understand it. I have a theory that there’s some sort of network deeper than anything we can comprehend, a network that runs through all biological matter, connecting us all. You said you were in a coma yourself; It might explain part of why you got tied up in her world, though I’m not sure why you were specifically singled out. You sure seemed to mess things up when you went in, though.”
I lean back in my seat, dumbfounded. Everything he’s saying is so incredible that I have a hard time keeping up with it all. Biological networks. VR interfaces. Real-time neurological design. It sounds like some sort of far-future science fiction. Though, I admit, I’m having trouble differentiating between fiction and fact, nowadays.
“If what you’re saying is true, this is something unprecedented. It’s a discovery that could change a lot of lives. It could change the world.”
“It’s already changing the world!” James says excitedly. “We’ve been using it for months now. With a little more time, who knows what we could accomplish. We could prevent crime before it happens, test weapons without destroying anything, penetrate defenses without the enemy knowing…we could win a war with it.”
I suddenly realize what he’s getting at, and I remember the conversation I had with the E.A. officer back in the convention center. I remember the attacks he mentioned, the insurrectionists that always seem to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time, the intelligence leaked from unknown sources, and then I piece it all together.
“So, you exploit this all? You exploit your own niece?”
James looks at me, offense splashed across his demeanor.
“I don’t have to explain myself to you. Kim is dying, and the Euros are the ones who took her from us. It’s because of them she’s like this in the first place. All we’re doing is using the situation against them. They need to atone for their crimes, and now because of you, whatever you did in there, you broke it all, and her death will be for nothing.”
“James!” Elle pleads.
“No Elle! You listen,” he says pointing a finger at me. “I don’t know who you are, but I’m beginning to think that this is all too coincidental for my taste.”
“You’ve had this power for months, and all you’ve done with it is take lives, and you accuse me like that? You never even tried to be there for your own niece? You never tried to be there with her? She’s been alone for a whole damn year, thinking she’s nothing more than a ghost!”
He scoffs and folds his arms. “You sound ignorant kid,” he grumbles. “We tried to contact her, but she’s never been able to see us before. Once we found out she could see things in real life, in real time, we tried leaving clues for her, but by the time we figured all that out, I think she’d already lost faith in what was reality and what wasn’t. Not to mention the fact that it’s kind of difficult to track down where she is inside her mind and then make it there quick enough for her to see our clues.”
“If she can’t see you, how could I see you?”
James shakes his head again and gives me a shrug. “Like I said, you threw everything upside down. Look, this is none of your business anyways.”
“Like hell it isn’t!” I counter. “Kim means something to me, too. You’re not the only one who’s lost something because of the Europeans.”
He looks down, defeated, but just as stubborn as ever.
“If you’d lower your pride for half a moment, you’d realize I’m here to help,” I say, pushing my advantage before he can speak again. He looks up, confused.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m here to help. I’m here to pay for her treatment.”
Elle drops her cup of coffee on the linoleum floor and stares at me with wide eyes.
“What?” James growls, though it’s out of shock, now, rather than anger.
“I’ll pay for all of it.”
Elle comes up beside me and drops to her knees. “But that’s almost five hundred thousand dollars,” she says, almost in a whisper.
I shrug and take Kim’s hand again. “She was there for me when I needed help the most. I can never repay her for that.”