Sometimes when I’m asleep, I hear a voice calling out to me, soft, barely above a whisper. It always says the same thing. And when I wake in the morning, it’s all I can think about. I’ve heard it all my life. It used to bring me comfort; now I just try to ignore it. I have enough to think about.
Ian had a bad night. The digital hologram floating above his bed read out the time and date: 0538 | Tuesday, 15 February 2214. He covered his eyes with his hand and sighed. Still two hours before he had to get ready. Ian pulled himself out of bed and planted his feet on the ground. He felt a chill run up his legs from the cold floor. Sluggishly, he shuffled his way to the bathroom and relieved himself in the dark. How many nights had he tossed and turned like that? It was going on two months. Ian found that no matter how long he slept, he always felt tired. His whole body felt like it was made out of lead.
Slipping on some sweatpants and a plain t-shirt, Ian stumbled out of the door to his apartment. “Shit,” he grumbled under his breath. Ian reached his arm back through the door and grabbed his phone. Pulling up the holographic display, the bright, colorful text displaying the time: 0714. Outside, the world was dark. The sun hadn’t come out just yet; It wouldn’t for another hour. Ian felt the cold wind scrape against his pale cheeks. He was ahead of schedule, so he could afford to take his time. He walked down the corridor to the elevator and stepped inside.
“Which floor would you like, sir?” A voice asked him. A screen next to the elevator doors displayed a 3D model of a woman in business attire, smiling at him. “Ground floor,” he sighed. “Certainly!” the woman responded as the doors shut. The elevator jostled to life, slowly descending past floor after floor of apartments, each housing some nameless, faceless soul. After a few seconds, the elevator slowed and lurched to a stop. “Have a pleasant day, sir!” The animated woman called after Ian as he stepped through the doors, once again facing the chilly breeze. What miserable weather, he thought to himself.
The streets of Dekoryn went on forever, it seemed. Ian had lived in the city for three years and he hadn’t seen even a fraction of the metropolis. People from all over the planet came here to start a new life, to embrace the future and make their mark on the world. Few ever actually made something of themselves, though. The majority of the city’s inhabitants were poor, often depressed or jaded from years of working a dead-end job or unemployment. Dekoryn was hailed as the city of tomorrow; technology lay within that surpassed that found anywhere else. This was true; the city held marvels one could only dream of. However, nothing is ever as it seems. Even with its technological advances, the city was home to a deadly plague, more than a few dozen murderous gangs, and a corporation war that threatened to bring down the already-fragile economy.
Ian walked for two blocks, then made a right turn on Hessinger Street. Hessinger was a cramped, potholed street that had been blocked off from vehicle traffic for at least five years. Rather than repair the road, the city counsel just placed concrete pillars, effectively turning it into a pedestrian walkway. The area was never very busy; the only attraction of note was Roy’s, a sushi and burger bar, often regarded as the best grub for those on a budget. Ian climbed the steps to the restaurant’s entrance and banged on the door.
“We’re closed!” a gruff voice yelled from inside.
“No shit,” Ian responded, “It’s Ian.”
A large man shoved open the door. “You’re early.”
“Couldn’t sleep. When are you going to give me a key?”
“When I feel like I can trust you.”
“You don’t trust anyone. I’ve been here for three years…” Ian slumped under the counter and tied an apron around his waist, “…And you still can’t trust me? You’ve got issues, old man.”
“Ah, shut up,” Roy grumbled and smirked.
Roy, a man approaching 60, was a broad-shouldered guy who was often mistaken for a drunk. The beer belly, slurring of words and rolling gait certainly didn’t discredit the assumption. Roy swore that he hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol in years, however. The balding man locked the door back and proceeded into the kitchen to finish preparations for the morning.
When the clock hit 5PM, Ian took off his apron and clocked out of work. Both Ian and Roy sat down at a booth and sighed. This was the third day that they hadn’t seen a single customer. Roy hung his head and sighed again.
“What the hell is going on?” Roy asked absently.
“Who can say? Nobody has the money to eat out anymore. If I didn’t work here, I couldn’t afford it either,” Ian replied, looking out the store’s front window.
“I guess that’s true. Heard that the kebab shop over on Marshall went out of business…” Roy dropped the subject. Ian breathed deep and stood up, stretching his arms above his head.
“I’m gonna head out,” Ian said.
“Sounds good. Thanks for sticking with the old joint.”
Ian waved over his shoulder as he pulled open the door.
“Ian, wait! Your check!” The old man called to him. Roy hurried over and slipped Ian an envelope with greasy fingerprints soaked into the paper. Ian folded and pocketed the envelope and stepped out into the rain.
The sky was a muddy red, the sun setting ablaze the overcast clouds. The wind howling down the streets blew the rain sideways, directly into Ian’s face. Ian was not a fan of being rained on, so he hurried down the steps and walked quickly around the corner towards his apartment. Ian’s finger grazed the elevator button just as another hand shoved his out of the way, mashing the button repeatedly.
“Come on, hurry up, hurry up,” a girl murmured, her eyes fixed on the floor indicator above the elevator doors. She apparently didn’t even notice Ian’s presence, so when he spoke to her, she jumped back.
“What was that for?” He asked irritantly.
“What? Holy shit, have you been here the whole time?”
“Did you really not see me at all?”
“Sorry, I’m in a hurry.” Just then, the elevator doors opened and she darted inside, closing the doors in Ian’s face.
Ian sighed. The overhang of the floor above wasn’t sufficient in protecting Ian from the spray of rain drifting in sideways. The bottoms of his sweatpants were drenched, and his shoes were full of water. Ian pressed the elevator button again. Slowly, the number on the floor indicator counted back: 4,3,2. The elevator stopped. Ian could hear the shuffling of feet and the creak of the elevator adjusting to the weight. Then the elevator continued down to the ground floor. Ian stepped off to the side to let the occupants pass. Once the group has shuffled by, Ian stepped into the elevator.
“Which floor would you like, sir?” Ian looked at the 3D woman on the display, noting the detail in her facial features. “…Sir?”
“Sorry. 11th Floor, please.” Ian shook his head. The elevator began to climb the shaft upwards, creaking occasionally.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” Ian looked at the display.
“Certainly sir!” The woman replied, “I am happy to assist you!”
“Stop that,” He said, shaking his head, “I want to know if you ever get tired of being in there.”
If only for a split second, the smile on the animated woman faltered, a error in an otherwise flawless code.
“I am not programmed to feel emotions, sorry!” The woman answered. She closed her eyes and smiled, but Ian knew that it was only a facade.
“If you say so,” Ian murmured. He couldn’t be certain, but when Ian stepped off the elevator, he thought he caught a glimpse of the 3D woman casting her glance downward, her eyes dripping with that peculiar longing for something one has never known.
The key slid easily into the lock, and he felt the bolt slide back into the door. He opened the door to find his room swelting hot. Ian ran to the thermostat and pulled up the digital display. ’92’ flashed repeatedly on the screen. The power must’ve gone out. Ian swore under his breath and reset the thermostat to 72 degrees. Then he plopped down on his bed and breathed deep, feeling the cold air conditioning wafe over his body. It wasn’t more than 10 minutes before Ian’s eyes grew heavy, and he drifted off into a deep sleep.
Ian woke with a jolt. His head felt like it was going to split open at any moment, and his heart was beating rapidly, thumping hard against his ribcage. in the dim light from the holographic clock, Ian slowly scanned the room, searching for anything out of place. To his relief, nothing was amiss. He laid his head back down on the pillow and stared at the ceiling. The whisper he often heard in his dreams turned into a scream, desparate and distraught. As he relived the nightmare, he began to cough, his mouth dry.
He couldn’t lay there anymore. Ian pulled himself to his feet and shuffled into the bathroom. The water from the bathroom faucet was cold and biting, but it woke him up as he splashed it on his face. In the mirror, Ian could see that he looked as bad as he felt. There were dark bags under his eyes. His mouth was slack, and his cheeks were drawn, almost gaunt. He pulled his phone’s display up and checked the time: 0228. He squeezed the porcelain edges of the sink, his knuckles turning white from the strain. Why did this keep happening? Why couldn’t he sleep peacefully?
The wind was icy as Ian stepped outside. His body involuntarily shivered, and he shakily reached his hands into his pants pockets. The denim felt warm against his skin, and his shivering slowed a bit. Hesitantly, he pulled his hands back out of his pockets, revealing a cigarette pack and lighter. Ian pulled a cigarette from the pack and glanced over it briefly.
Tornbul Cigar Co., one of the largest tobacco product manufacturers in the country, was hounded by users complaining that, despite the cold weather in the winters of Dekoryn, they still needed to smoke. Some genius had suggested that they find a way to warm the body sufficiently while smoking. The solution was simple; paint a thin layer of glycene on the inside of the cigarette paper. This caused the body to produce more heat whenever the user pulled in the smoke from the cigarette. So when Ian put the cigarette to his lips and drew in the smoke, his shivering began to stop. Ian personally hated smoking, but he hated being cold more. He instantly thought back to his days growing up next to the ocean and he felt himself regretting his decision to move.
Ian pressed the button to the elevator and the door opened up instantly. Nobody was inside, so he stepped inside. “Which floor would you like, sir?” A voice asked him. Ian looked up and saw the 3D animated woman standing on-screen. Something was different about her, Ian noted. He looked at her more closely. She was beautiful; most likely designed by a studio team to be appealing. Her hair was a rich brown, cascading in waves past her shoulders, her bangs falling around her face, framing it perfectly. Her eyes were a deep purple, a designer’s choice to make her character more intriguing. Purple eyes weren’t unique to the virtual world; some egghead the 2100’s discovered how to change eye colors with a varying degree of success. The process was refined over the years, and now it wasn’t uncommon to see all sorts of weird colors, even patterns. As Ian thought over this, he realized the difference; the woman was wearing a blue suit and medium-length skirt, instead of the gray dress she was wearing before.
“You changed your clothes,” Ian noted. The woman blushed slightly and shook her head.
“You must be mistaken. I am unable to change my clothes,” The animated woman replied. Ian stared into her small eyes for a second, then turned away and shrugged.
“If you say so.”
The door to the elevator opened, and the wind rushed through the doors from outside, tearing at Ian’s clothes. He pulled his coat tighter around him and pushed his way outside. Once he got outside of the overhang, he looked up to the sky, hoping to see stars. Sadly, the glow from the innumerable lights of the city blotted out any trace of objects in space. Even the moon, which should’ve been bathing Ian in its glow, was absent. It was another dreary night.
Even at 3AM, the streets were busy. People rushed here and there, in a hurry to be anywhere but where they were currently at. Cars and motorcycles sped by, oblivious to the people narrowly dodging them. Dying by vehicular homocide was a pointless way to die; no investigation was ever done, because the police was far too busy being bought off by corrupt government officials or syndicate royalty. Ian made it a personal rule to never cross a street unless absolutely necessary. Thankfully, some engineer had the same thought; there were pedestrian overpasses everywhere, meaning that with a little more time spent walking, Ian never had to cross into the path of traffic.
It was on one such overpass that Ian caught a glimpse of the Ice Dynasty Tower; an enormous skyscraper with light-blue neon lights traced over its surface, giving viewers the impression of an icey spire. The colors flashed and danced, catching the eye of anyone in its shadow. Inside, one could find any number of activities to waste the day away, or so Ian had been told; he had never visited the tower before. And it was because of that fact that Ian decided to go.