Endless verdant fields stretched out before Joe like an ocean of grain. Above him, two warm suns hung in the air and invigorated everything around him. He felt their calming rays, saw the gleaming horizon in the distance, heard the chirping of birdsong, smelled the sweet, syrupy scent of flowers and nectar.
He walked up a hill and crested its rocky summit, the light wind rustling through his hair. Three large islands floated in the sky, water falling from them directly into placid lakes on the ground. Below him was a small meadow with a wooden table and one seat. A picnic cloth had been thrown over the table, and atop it sat bowls of strawberries, honey, and cream.
Joe walked towards the table and sat down. He reached for a strawberry, and then opened his mouth to take a bite.
Suddenly, a klaxon-sounding ring shattered from above and everything went sideways. Static erupted in his vision and he lurched back into another dimension.
“Time’s up!” shouted a voice from outside the pod. “It’s been two hours! Time’s up!”
Joe felt himself almost catapulted out of the pod as the two employees pulled him out.
“But I was right at the good part!” Joe pleaded.
“We don’t make the rules,” said one of the employees. “We check on the users every two hours—no if’s, and’s, or but’s.”
“Well, I’m going back in. Dock my credit. Put me back where I was.”
One of the employees pulled up his BOSy and went over the numbers. “Uh,” he started. “I’m sorry, it appears your credit line has been declined.”
“Yes,” said the employee. “Payment not authorized”
“That’s wrong. Try another line.”
“Sorry,” said the employee, “that’s against company policy. Come back when you get your allowance, kid.”
“But I—” started Joe, but the two workers left without speaking again. He looked at the pod from which he emerged, smooth like an ocean pebble. It was closed. He struck his fist on the top of the plexiglass and then went outside.
He was hungry and irritated. His stomach growled in protest, angry at being so cruelly denied the berries and cream owed him. He determined to find food, but without any money it would be difficult to procure any.
He took a circuitous route through the CORE’s Upper Well, leading past an nano-tech goods store. He stopped in front of the window, letting his eyes wander over a PantoDynamic hacking tool that displayed prominently in the window. He stood still for a moment, considered the time of day, and the crowd of people inside. He took a deep breath and went in.
Joe lingered around the window for a few minutes, pretending to look at the stocked shelves, and waited until no one was looking. When he was in the clear, he reached his hand towards the shelf and grabbed whatever he could fit in his palm. He stuffed his haul into his coat pocket and ducked towards the exit.
Before he could get there, someone grabbed his arm. The grip clamped down and yanked him back from the exit.
“Hey!” said Joe. “Let me go!”
“I’ll let you go after you pay for that,” said the man who grabbed him.
“Pay for what? I’m just on my way out.”
“Let me go!”
“All right, punk kid, how would you like to deal with the CORE police?”
Joe instead tried to make a run for it, but couldn’t get away.
“Fine,” said the man, “get over here and sit down. I’m calling the police.”
An older man with a wrinkled face approached the two of them. “Now, now,” he started, “there’s no need for that.”
He looked over to Joe, who was now sitting in a chair, face turned away. “My name is Henry,” he said. “And you?”
Joe eyed him suspiciously.
“Joe,” he said.
“Joe,” repeated Henry. “Nice to meet you.”
The man who had stopped Joe from escaping shook his head and huffed, then left to go help another customer.
Henry pulled up another chair and sat across from Joe. “What were you going to do with that hacking tool?” he asked.
Joe didn’t say anything.
“Hack into someone’s files?”
Joe looked away.
“Or…pawn it off?”
Joe looked down.
“Ah, I see. You needed some money. You were going to sell this for a quick buck.”
Joe sighed, said, “That’s right.”
“What do you need money for? Food? Clothes? You look like you could use both. Do you have a home?”
“Yes,” said Joe.
“Then do you need food?”
Joe shrugged. His stomach, preternaturally sensing the question, rumbled loudly enough that Henry could hear it.
Henry leaned back and put his hand on his jaw, said, “Huh.” He smiled, “Well, that answers that. Let me buy you some food. Let’s go.”
Henry stood up and motioned for Joe to follow him, but as soon as he did, the assistant from earlier stopped him.
“Henry,” he asked, “where are you going?”
“I’m taking Joe here to buy some food.”
“Wait, you can’t go. I have to go take my daughter to the doctor in a few minutes. You have to keep the shop open.”
“Ah, damn,” said Henry. “I forgot.” The assistant departed and Henry looked back to Joe. “Well,” he said, “I’m not going to go back on a promise.”
Joe eyed him.
“If I give you the money, will you make me a promise in return? Will you only use this money to buy yourself some food?”
“Yes,” Joe said quickly. “Yes.”
Henry pulled up his BOSy and then contacted Joe’s. “I’m moving over one hundred, ear-marked for grocery expenses.” He then put his hand on Joe’s knee said, “Look, kid. I know life can be hard out here. But people will help you out if you ask. There’s a lot of good in the world. If you ever need food again, let me know.”
Joe nodded and made a move to leave.
“The Eclipse will come soon,” said Henry. “And when it does, you won’t have to worry about stuff like this anymore. But you have to take care of yourself until it does.”
Joe nodded, said thank you, and turned to made his way towards the exit. He slipped outside and made a quick line for the nearest eater.
He found his way in a few minutes and stood outside the window, facing an array of Caio’s Cubes--each one with bright colored images hanging above them. His mouth felt watery and sore, but the sight of the cubes did nothing to satiate him. He could not afford a good memory glom to go with the cubes, and so would either have to eat them straight and enjoy their spongy tang or simply not buy enough to satisfy his hunger.
He tried to step inside but found he could not do it. The back of his mind itched, his face felt flush.
He turned and went back the other direction.
Moments later, he was in front of the VR pod. One of the two VRcade employees from earlier came back towards him, said, “Back already?
“Two hours, please.”
“You don’t have any money.”
“Yes I do.”
The employee ran his credit line again and then smirked and shrugged. “All right,” he said, “we’ll pull you out in two hours.”
Joe sank back into the pod and the plexiglass cockpit clicked closed around him.
The rolling hills of grain appeared before him again, and the table decorated with berries and
Cream manifested itself just as he remembered from earlier. He sat down and straightened up.
He picked up a strawberry and ate it.
By Chris Howell, Illustration by Lauren Walsh