So I’ve posted this particular short story in places before – it’s one of the first short stories I wrote, and I’m very fond of it, – but I’m delighted that I now have a cover for this, courtesy of the very talented Jon MacCaull, so I’m sharing it here, too. Thanks Jon, if we ever meet, the beer is on me.
Once there was a city of steel and glass.
In the city, lived a man called Cog. Cog was not a happy man, nor was he unhappy. He was not remarkable, or especially clever. Neither was he handsome, ugly, or unfortunate.
He just was.
Cog’s life was not interesting. In fact, it was dull enough that he lived his life in a perpetual daze. When he forgot to pay attention, strange things happened. He would pause for no reason on the threshold when he moved from one room to another; he would walk into walls without either realising it, or feeling pain. And for reasons that totally escaped him, when his toaster released the bread, it did so with a ‘pinging’ noise he could not explain.
Cog would often dream, but his dreams were as mundane as his life. They gave him a feeling that he had repeated them a thousand times over. Sometimes, but not often, he would do things that did not make any sense; he would run into a lamppost and keep running, not getting anywhere. Sometimes he would dream of falling. These dreams gave him headaches, and he tried not to think about them.
Every day, Cog got up, left his little apartment, and went to work. He took the same route, on the same train with the same faceless commuters, and always arrived at work at the same time.
Cog’s job was dull. His office comprised of row upon row of cubicles with ‘head top’ inhabitants. Although there was no noticeable smell, Cog imagined the air was stale and stagnant. It was so dull that in all honesty he was not sure exactly what he did. He knew no one at work, nor had any desire to. He did not care for his boss. While he did not dislike him, neither was his mind filled with fond memories when he thought of him. Like Cog, he just was.
For this reason, neither Cog, nor his boss had any friends, nor did they seek them out, having never considered having any in the first place.
If he had to name one, Cog’s best friend at work would be the man who sat in the booth next to his. He couldn’t remember his name, let alone assign it to a face, but once he asked him a question, only to be answered by a pale, bony arm reaching around the divider to point at a sign on Cog’s wall that read: Do not disturb your colleagues. Log a call.
Cog’s routine was rarely interrupted, least of all by himself. A rogue thought of barely noticeable mention concerned a door near his desk. He had never seen anyone use it, and his desire to leave through it was certainly new to him. Trying the handle, he was surprised when the words “The door is locked” materialised in his mind. For a moment he could’ve sworn they were written in the air in front of him.
One day, on a day like any other, Cog came home from work. He arrived at precisely 5:43, two minutes earlier than usual and therefore a cause for a celebration he would never indulge in, and set about his usual routine. He showered, ate, and watched TV.
Then, for the first time he could remember, something unusual happened.
He saw the glint of a reflection on his television screen. Perhaps human in form, perhaps walking, but certainly – behind him. Cog sank into his chair not knowing what to do; he had no experience of this. He got up, and warily moved towards the kitchen. He peeked round the door, expecting the worst.
In the kitchen, busy rearranging and organising items was another man. He looked just like Cog. He was, in fact, another Cog, for all intents and purposes. Slightly better dressed, a little more composed, but the same man nonetheless. He looked up from his rearranging.
“Hello,” said Cog, unsure what the correct protocol was in these situations.
“Hello,” replied the other Cog, with a smile.
Cog was quite taken aback, but did not want to seem impolite. “What are you doing?” he asked the other Cog, whom he decided to refer to as Cog 2 for the sake of simplicity.
“I’m moving things,” said Cog 2, lifting a microwave from the counter and stacking it near the door.
“Oh,” replied Cog, feeling quite unsatisfied with the answer. “Why?”
“Well,” said Cog 2, lifting a box and stacking it on top of the microwave, “There’s a key on top of that cupboard, and I need to get it.”
“Is there?” asked Cog, unaware there ever had been. He had lived in his apartment for as long as he could remember and never knew this. “Why do you need the key?”
“So I can get to Level 2,” replied Cog 2, looking a little confused at the question.
Cog shared his confusion, although for a totally different reason. He felt a little unnerved by this other Cog, and wondered whether he should ask him what he was doing in his house. It seemed the thing to do. However, another question came to his lips instead.
“What’s Level 2?” he asked, thinking maybe it was a club of some kind, although why he would go to a club was beyond him.
“Level 2’s next,” Cog 2 replied. “It’s where I need to go. Don’t you need to go there too?”
Cog considered. He didn’t know what Level 2 was, but somewhere in the depths of his memory, it seemed to ring a bell. A small bell, muted and rang underwater, but a bell nonetheless.
“You can come with me if you want,” offered Cog 2. “They’ll just assume you’re another player.”
Cog thanked him for the offer, but politely declined. Cog 2 frowned slightly, clearly not expecting this answer, but shrugged and smiled once again.
“Are you going to be long?” asked Cog.
“Just ‘til I get the key, then I have to find a door for it,” replied Cog 2.
Cog pondered, something he seldom did as his routine was always set out for him. He considered asking Cog 2 to leave, but had a feeling he wasn’t going to do any harm. In truth, he had always wanted to rearrange the kitchen, watching him do it felt right, but had never got round to it.
Instead, Cog told him it was okay to stay the night if he wanted, and went back to watching TV. He watched his programmes as he always did, but couldn’t help but feel troubled. He went to sleep with the sound of Cog 2 moving boxes in the kitchen.
The next morning, Cog went about his regular routine. He showered, shaved (ten perfect strokes with a razor, as usual) and grabbed some breakfast. He approached the kitchen to find Cog 2 making toast, stopping on the threshold as he always did and pausing for a moment. His brow furrowed. He did not like doing that in front of others, not that he knew anyone else. Cog 2 offered him a slice of toast, which he accepted wordlessly.
“That bugs me too,” Cog 2 said.
“What’s that?” Cog asked, mouth full of toast.
“The loading time between rooms,” he answered. “Guess it’s one of those things.”
“What’s a loading time?”
“You know, the time it takes for a room to generate when you enter it. So the frames don’t overlap.”
Cog stared at him blankly.
“What,” Cog 2 scoffed, playfully, “You didn’t think it was just you?”
“I dunno,” replied Cog, not really sure what was going on. “I thought it was some kinda condition.”
“Yeah it’s a condition,” Cog 2 smiled, “A condition of this world.”
“So you have it too?”
“Everyone does,” Cog 2 paused, looking concerned. “Well, every character. Your lack of knowledge is quite worrying.”
Cog found himself becoming uncomfortable, and changed the subject. “Did you find the key?”
“Bring on Level 2,” Cog 2 said, holding up a particularly unremarkable key and grinning. “I’ll be looking for the door today.”
“Where is it?”
“I dunno. I’ll just try doors around ‘til it fits. There’ll be clues.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to do that,” said Cog, warily.
“Nah,” said Cog 2, dismissively, “There’s no one to bother. No one lives in Level 1.” He paused. “Well, except you. Which is weird, to be quite honest.”
Cog was, as what was becoming usual for him, quite bemused. This was ridiculous. He had neighbours. This was the city. It’s not like every house here was empty. He decided to tell Cog 2 this.
“This is the city, it’s not like every house here is empty.”
“Actually, it’s exactly that,” Cog 2 corrected. “Or not even hollow in the first place. Facades, like a movie lot.”
Cog pondered. The truth was, he had never been into any other place except work or his home in a long time. He suddenly wondered where he got his food from. It didn’t seem too much of a stretch to warrant that this was true.
“Consider this,” Cog 2 added, taking the concept one step further, “What if everyone out there, all the other flat, faceless people you’ve never spoken to and don’t seem real to you, are just that. Not real.”
Cog didn’t know what to say. He expressed this by blinking and looking gormless.
“Come on,” said Cog 2, “Involuntary movements you can’t control. A perfect routine. Menu screens that appear before your eyes when you select a train ticket? Loading times between rooms?”
The final slice of toast popped out the toaster with its customary cartoon ‘ping.’
“That?” he finished, his voice rising a little.
“I’m going to work,” Cog said, and went to work.
Cog did as he said. He went to work.
He was cross. Being cross was a strange emotion for him, as he couldn’t remember feeling it before. Who was this guy to come and tell him what was what? He didn’t even know who Cog 2 was; even his name was made up. That annoyed Cog as well. As it turns out, most things on that journey annoyed Cog.
He was irritated at how the train was exactly on time, which made Cog 2 right. He was vexed at how no other commuters would even look at each other, but would be fully aware of where they were. Again, he saw Cog 2’s smug, but admittedly handsome face grinning. He walked into one, who neither flinched, nor reacted, nor apologised, nor got angry. It was as if Cog had simply walked into a wall made of human.
That was it. Cog did something he had never done before: he pushed the man he bumped into, hard.
He was thunderstruck. The poor man had never done anything to deserve being treated like that. Cog had become the epitome of everything he hated. He started to apologise, expecting people to stare and condemn him.
Except they didn’t. Even the man he pushed just carried on with his day, completely unawares. Cog followed after him.
“Excuse me,” he asked, nervously.
The man said nothing, he didn’t even acknowledge he was there.
Cog overtook him, blocking his way. The man stepped round him without seeing him.
“I wanted to apologise for my behaviour…”
The man continued walking. Again Cog ran up to him.
“Lovely weather we’re having,” the man said, with all the conviction of a telephone queuing system. He walked off.
“Huh,” said Cog, to nobody in particular.
Soon after, Cog sat on the train and stared out the window at the streets below. He was afraid to even look at anyone, as he was starting to suspect that they were all living cardboard cut outs.
He watched a man running past others in the street, slam into a lamppost at full speed, then, without apparently feeling a thing, continue to run down the road. He blinked. This was a little odd.
A few minutes later he saw a car drive down the road and stop suddenly. The car appeared to sink a foot or so into the road as if the tarmac was quicksand. The cars behind honked at the inconvenience.
Cog didn’t know what was weirder; what was happening, the fact that no one seemed to react to it, or that he was only noticing these things now.
Needless to say, Cog’s day at work was far from productive. From his booth, he kept staring over at the locked door, until finally he wandered over. No one paid him any attention. They wouldn’t, he was only Cog.
Cog tried the door, only this time it was different. He could clearly see the words “The door is locked” written in the air.
He gasped. The other things he had witnessed were weird, but this was amazing! This could very well prove Cog 2 right, and it didn’t annoy Cog one bit.
He ran over to his colleague in the booth next to him to show him what he saw. As he started to speak, his colleagues’ arm wrapped round the booth and pointed to the sign that read, “Log a call.”
“It’s nothing to do with work,” Cog said, a pleased look plastered over his face.
His colleague didn’t reply, just stayed hunched over his desk, his face and body obscured by the cubicle.
“Get up, I want to show you something cool.”
His colleague’s arm again wrapped round the wall and pointed to the sign, with no more insistence than last time.
“Come on,” Cog said, his patience starting to wear thin. He stepped into the booth.
Cog stopped. While he had always been able to see the arm and his back, the rest of the man was just… hollow. He stepped round him to get a better look at his face, and recoiled in horror when he realised he did not have one. There was only a blank space where a face should have been.
Cog 2’s words came back to him: that no one else was real, that he was living in a façade. That no one else was real. Suddenly, Cog felt very lonely, and very frightened. He had that feeling when you realise you’re alone when you thought you had others with you, which was well justified. He ran out the office and headed for the only other person he knew was real.
Cog threw the door to his apartment open with a bang, scaring what can only be described as the crap out of Cog 2. He looked rather distressed, and Cog 2 decided to tell him so.
“You look rather distressed,” he said.
“They’re not real,” gasped Cog, quite clearly out of breath. “None of them!”
“Well that’s true, but –”
“No, you don’t understand, they’re really not real!”
Cog 2 could see how exasperated Cog was, so he humoured him.
“How do you –”
“I punched three businessmen, pushed a pensioner and stole a kids’ skateboard!” Cog blurted, “And it doesn’t matter, because not one of them was a real person!”
“Well, that’s –”
“I uppercutted my boss!” Cog finished.
“Are you quite done?” Cog 2 asked.
Fortunately, Cog was. There were only so many pointless expressions a person could provide at one time to prove the same point, and it turned out five was his limit. They sat in silence for a short while. Finally, Cog spoke.
“Am I real?” he asked.
Cog 2 didn’t really look sure how to answer, then smiled, and said, “As real as I am.”
“And how real is that?”
“I dunno, as real as you I guess.”
It was now Cog’s turn to smile, although he did not know why. “So, none of this is.”
“Well, that sucks.”
Cog 2 agreed. It did suck.
Cog’s smile seemed to sink into his throat as if swallowed by accident. He needed some air. Reeling out of the flat, Cog 2 in tow, Cog tumbled up the stairs to the roof. They stood on the rooftop and watched the fake sun set over the fake city.
Cog looked at the sky. It was a mix of blues, pinks and gold as the sun descended towards the horizon. He saw faults in the sky, as if it was split somehow. The colours rippled and surged unnaturally, as if two images were overlapping and fighting for dominance. “We’re not meant to spend too much time here,” Cog 2 warned.
Although no tears came, Cog felt like crying. “There’s a crack in the sky,” he said, his voice hardly a whisper.
“It’s out of synch with the refresh rate,” Cog 2 explained. “It creates screen tearing.”
“It’s like the apocalypse.”
“Only today,” Cog 2 said, reassuringly. “Tomorrow it’ll be fine.”
“Tomorrow, it’ll be as flawed as it always was,” Cog managed. “Only they’ll have covered it up.”
He stepped forwards, closer to the edge. Cog 2 swallowed, looking noticeably more worried. They were at least thirty storeys high.
“Is it just the one life?” Cog asked.
“Well, if we’re not hollow, and we’re meant to do things here, then I’m guessing there are rules to this sort of thing.”
“It’s in every creature’s instincts to preserve its own life,” Cog 2 warned.
“Every living creature,” corrected Cog. “Is that us?”
Cog 2 mulled the question over, then, “I don’t know how many and you don’t want to test it, but we respawn.”
“What’s that even mean, respawn?” Cog laughed, a little hysterically. “I’m not a goddamn tadpole!”
“Why don’t you come down from there,” suggested Cog 2, “And we can go find Level 2.”
Cog smiled at his double. Then he stepped onto the edge of the rooftop and jumped off.
Cog awoke. Well, awoke was inaccurate. He had not been sleeping. Nor was he lying in his bed, or anywhere else for that matter. He was standing in the middle of his apartment without a scratch on him.
“How was that?” he heard. He turned. Cog 2 was with him.
“That was weird.”
“You’re telling me. After you jumped I came down here. I figured this is where you would respawn. You just kinda… faded in. Creepy.”
Cog shuddered. Although he felt fine physically, he knew, somehow, in the darkest recesses of his mind, that somewhere another Cog was still falling, and would never hit the ground. It was like he had died, and a part of him was not coming back.
“I didn’t forget anything,” he told Cog 2. “The glitches, the menu screens, the whole lot. I thought I would forget, but I didn’t. Is that how you knew? Did you die and remember it too?”
“Yeah,” the other man said. “I think we should’ve played to the end but were forgotten somehow. Maybe this is what happens when people lose interest before they complete it.”
Cog nodded, realising something. “Well, there’s nothing to stop us from completing it ourselves. It’d be more fun than staying around here.”
“That’s why I was looking for the key,” Cog 2 admitted. “I figure I may as well enjoy my unreality. We just have to find a lock.”
“Way ahead of you,” grinned Cog, remembering the locked door in his office. “So what’s at Level 2?”
“No idea,” admitted Cog 2. “Although if you reach Level 7 I’ve heard you can get a flying car.”
“A flying car? What the hell kind of genre is this anyway?”
“I’m going with… neo noir. That’s a genre, isn’t it?”
Soon after, the two Cogs left the apartment. They reached Cog’s work in no time and tried the key. Naturally, it fit, and the door to Level 2 swung open, opening a world of possibility they could not begin to comprehend.
And for all they knew, the world behind them stopped existing the second they stepped through, ready to manifest again when it was needed.