Oddland

Adventures in a post-rational world

Chapter 1

Escape

The truck looked like it had been abandoned years ago. John peered into the interior, the door wide open. Dirt and debris covered the seats and floor, the remains of an old bird’s nest scattered in the footwell. A stale odor lingered as if the vehicle had sat for decades, noticeable even through the respirator.

Stepping away from the rusted door he looked down the street into the town. He remembered Boulder from his childhood, although not like this.

Discarded cars littered the street. Tufts of grass sprouted at the edges of the road and sidewalk. It was more than empty. It looked dead. Even the hudspecs registered nothing, the vehicles long since drained of power. Intrastate travel was permitted in most parts of Colorado, yet no one was here.

Boards covered many of the store fronts as they walked down the deserted boulevard. Like the truck everything looked unused for years. Sale signs rustled in the breeze as if some cataclysmic event had frozen the town at a single moment in the past.

Oddjob followed silently behind. Whenever he stopped to peer through the windows into the stores the bot stopped too, never looking inside, his indifference the most inhuman thing about him. The sunlight reflected off the clean white fibroresin of the upper casing, its sterile surface peppered with green medical symbols. The large backpack with the gliderwing and the rest of the supplies caused the bot no problems as he stood perfectly erect in silence, the expressionless eyes never changing.

None of the stores had been looted. Most had merchandise sitting on shelves, clearly untouched for years. A visible layer of dust covered every surface. The hudspecs didn’t pick up any broadcasts from the vacant stores.

The signs had been apparent on the journey here although he had tried to ignore his mounting apprehension. They hadn’t seen another person since leaving the Institute. Now on the third day he no longer expected anyone to challenge them despite his fears before the escape.

He tried to calculate how long it would take to walk to his parents’ house but he couldn’t work it out. They’d taken him when he was fourteen. He remembered a brief journey to Boulder, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes in the car. What would that be? A few miles? The distances were vague in his mind.

There was nothing to see. Whatever had happened here it was dead. He took off down the long boulevard, heading for home.

The gate stood wide open in the distance as they walked past the derelict remains of a car, its tires flat. Reaching the entrance John looked at the weeds emerging from the edge of the thick posts holding the structure in place. Why was the gate open? It had always been closed, only unlocked briefly to admit cars and delivery vans.

They walked in to the estate, down the short road to the junction leading to the houses. The layout was a shamrock shape, the section containing his parents’ house off to the left.

Reaching the junction they traveled the few hundred yards to the area at the end, each of the twenty houses in a loose circle. The monitor cameras at the top of the poles placed between every second property remained motionless, slumped forward in their protective housings.

In most of the houses curtains were drawn shut with several abandoned. In one case the front door was open to the world. Another had been destroyed by fire, the roof collapsed and the windows blackened by smoke.

Reaching his parents’ house he remembered it as bigger and more grand. Now it looked like a toy house, identical to all the others, tired and unkempt. Broken gutters hung from the edge of the roof, the front garden a riot of untended bushes and long grass.

At the sidewalk in front of the house the streetlights juddered into life, so something still worked. Most failed to light up. Oddjob looked up at the flickering light as if not sure what was happening.

It made him wonder how the bot processed all this, the environment far removed from the clinical predictability of a hospital. Oddjob’s adaptive routines aimed to accomplish basic interaction but that was primarily physical lifting and simple medical procedures. What would this much bigger world do to it?

Despite his desperation to get here he couldn’t shake his growing discomfort. The boulevard in town had been disturbing but for some reason he hadn’t really expected it here even though that was irrational. Why would it be any different? Yet the tension increased as he approached the house, the feeling of wrongness difficult to shake off.

Then he realized. The silence. His memory of living here was the noise. Cars, people, kids shouting. His sister especially. She never shut up, even as a baby. But now the whole area was silent. This is what he’d always had at the back of his mind, the memory of how it once was. That’s what he had clung to all these years while he had rehearsed what he’d say to his parents when he finally talked to them again face to face.

He had played around here on his bike as a child, long ago. But only now, looking at the familiar scene, did he remember the anguish and the confusion. At school, the rote learning, the way they wanted you to sit still and never ask questions. The hushed conversations with his parents. And the words, the terminology; disruptive, fidgeting, attention deficit. The boy is difficult, he is too disruptive, he is defiant. Then the diagnosis. His parents had been powerless to stop it happening, but he hadn’t understood back then.

It all came back in a rush as they walked on to the empty drive. His father had always been allowed a car, but it was absent. Weeds broke through the cracks in the concrete where he remembered it being parked.

Ahead of them, at the side of the house, stood a huge yellow tank, eight feet in height. As they came close to it the NutriSource logo was the only clue to its contents. Why did they have a nutrient reservoir?

He looked at the door at the side of the house. His mother always called it the back door even though it was technically at the side of the house. The servant’s entrance as his father called it, the memory of him walking in to the large kitchen years ago vivid and real in his mind.

More real than all this, the neglect evident up close. The roughcast on the outer walls at the back door had all but disappeared, lying in uncleared heaps on the ground. Water stains discolored the exposed brickwork. It reinforced the sense of decay, adding to his nervousness.

A layer of grime partly obscured the panel at the side of the door. He tried to wipe it with his sleeve although it didn’t make much of a dent. Would it even work after all this time? Looking at his palm he wondered how much it changed. Did a palm print change at all?

He touched the panel, his hand trembling slightly. The muted thud of the locking bolts broke the silence of the quiet evening as he pushed open the door.

Dust covered every surface of the kitchen, their entrance causing a swirl of particles to catch the warm light through a gap in the closed blinds. A musty odor pervaded the room.

The emptiness clashed with his memory of living here. He remembered it as noisy and full. All four of them used to sit at the table. It too was clear of clutter, just the dust.

Panic briefly overcame him as he walked further into the kitchen. What if his parents were no longer here? Had they went somewhere else? If they’d left they’d surely have told him.

He quickly walked into the hall past the mirror. He remembered it as huge but it was only about five feet high. He reached up and pulled off the respirator and hudspecs when he caught sight of himself.

It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the dark living room. He immediately sensed the unexpected objects.

Light abruptly appeared, flooding the space. He turned to see Oddjob towering above him, the lamp embedded in his forehead ablaze.

Turning back, three rigs sat facing away from each other in a star formation at the center of the room. In each lay an unrecognizable figure, their faces obscured by full media masks.

He walked closer to the nearest one. A biosuit encased the corpulent body, the fabric stretched taut revealing its grotesque dimensions. Was it one of his parents? The body must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds at least.

The rig looked new, its distant origin as a dentist’s chair apparent in the long sweep of its cushioned surface. A single support stand held it a few feet off the ground as if hovering. Walking around to view the other bodies, both were smaller than the first, which had to be his father. These two must be his mother and sister, Claire. He couldn’t tell them apart. Both were overweight, the material of their suits straining to contain their obese forms. A series of tubes ran into their full masks and others exited their suits, presumably to carry waste. A soft hum emanated from the rigs, the only sound in the dark room.

He stood back, shocked at the sight of all three lying inert and silent. He had talked to them only a few weeks ago, their avatars betraying no hint of their true state.

Most people used avatars online, but he had assumed they’d base them on real life. He realized he hadn’t really given it any thought. His family were one of only a few people he himself used an avatar with. The DeepNet where he’d spent most of his time online shunned them, preferring anonymity.

Walking back around to the first rig the only way he could determine it was probably his father was the relative bulk compared to the other two.

There had never been any hint they had immersed like this. His father occasionally used a rig for work, but the addition of units for everyone was unexpected. That’s why the NutriSource tank outside was so substantial, it had to maintain three adults.

He turned to Oddjob.

“See if you can work out their status.”

The medbot moved closer to his father’s bulky form, looking down at the prone figure. He could just see the tiny indicator on Oddjob’s chest begin to flicker as the bot connected with the chair.

Looking around, they had stripped out everything except one bookcase. No couch or chairs. With the three rigs and now Oddjob towering above, his head close to the ceiling, none of it felt like home despite the fact he’d spent half his life here. The memories triggered felt alien, less like home than the Institute.

He walked over to the other rigs. He guessed the one on the right was his sister, although it was impossible to be sure with the mask covering the whole face.

Kneeling down next to her he noticed a tiny screen only a few inches wide embedded in the side of the head rest. Looking closer he fumbled with the controls and it came to life.

Expecting a bio readout it instead showed a confusing jumble of content. Much of it looked like moving images, difficult to make sense of with the small screen. Peering closer, the chaotic content flashed briefly onscreen, quickly replaced. The images lacked audio making it all the more difficult to understand. Was this the content she was consuming via the rig?

Standing up, the tiny screen still flickering, it struck him. Hypercomping, it had to be. Hyper comprehension, the technique used to layer multiple strands of information for a kind of accelerated method of consuming material. Hadn’t it been developed for military use, in intelligence? It was sometimes used in academia, but was she using it for normal consumption?

Critics called the technique enthrallment, claiming people struggled to cope with such obvious information overload. He had read somewhere the real danger was in the longer term changes it likely made to neural pathways. Normal information consumption became unbearably tedious and attention spans fractured over time. Why was she using it?

It had been banned at the Institute. No one was allowed to hypercomp and the equipment had been absent even for staff. He knew it would be absolutely lethal for someone with his own disorder so he’d never been tempted.

Looking down at the prone body it had to be Claire, her obesity disturbing to see. He couldn’t easily associate her bloated form with his most recent view of her, the avatar she used, and it was nothing like she was as a kid. He remembered her running around out the back years ago. She was three years younger than him. Looking over at his mother’s form he struggled to tell them apart.

How had things declined so much? Thinking of the three-day journey here he hadn’t been aware Colorado would be this bad. California and New York were famously lost decades ago. Whole sections of the country fully immersed. But he hadn’t realized things had degenerated here, and with his own family.

“Patient within expected parameters.”

Oddjob’s report broke the spell as he looked over at the medbot, still in the exact same position.

“Early indicators of metabolic syndrome,” said Oddjob. “But prognosis within expected parameters.”

He looked down at his mother and sister. Was there any point getting Oddjob to check them? What could he do? Short of shutting down their rigs he couldn’t even contact them. The hacked medscreen only worked to communicate with Oddjob and basic online content. He’d have to go back to the Institute.

Did it matter? He generally only talked to them every few months so they probably wouldn’t notice his absence for a while. He had expected to stay a few days to reassure them about his escape. But what now?

A flash of blue light caught his attention. He looked over at the far wall, everything in darkness. He’d need to get Oddjob’s light to see what it was.

“Look over there.”

Oddjob turned to where he pointed. The headlamp illuminated a connector near the floor. Moving around the rigs he made his way over. Oddjob followed without prompting.

Crouching down to inspect the section of wall, his body blocked the light. Before he could say anything Oddjob shifted position, aiming the light at the white box, a mid-capacity connecter attached to the wall just above the skirting board. The tiny blue light flickered at high speed.

They must have upgraded it at some point. They used to have one of the simpler gigabit connections, enough to run basic content. But the bulky unit suggested a more powerful connection needed for full-spectrum immersion. Probably a fifty terabit line.

Inspecting the unit he could not see any way to deactivate it. They must have plumbed it in when they installed the rigs. A thin film of dust covered the box. It must have been installed some time ago. Perhaps years.

Standing, he couldn’t decide what to do. He told Oddjob to check his mother and sister and then wait for him as he made his way through to his old bedroom.

It too was empty except for a single bed. A vacuum bot sat in the corner. He kicked it but it didn’t respond. It looked as if it had sat there for years. The room had the same musty smell as the rest of the house, the curtains shut tight.

He sat down on the bed and took off his backpack. Opening it he rummaged inside and retrieved a nutribar, spotting his meds. He’d need to remember to take them before too long. It made him realize how much he relied on routine. He should get Oddjob to remind him. Something to sort tomorrow.

Eating the nutribar he couldn’t help but wonder how things had declined here. Was he so cut off he had missed it? Or was everywhere the same now? He had been warned what to expect but hadn’t really believed it. Despite being online for years nothing had prepared him for this, not here in his own home.

Discovering the DeepNet had changed his life. Despite all the restrictions at the Institute they didn’t have a clue how easy it was to circumvent their crude blocks. Every chalet had access, but only the occupied ones were actively monitored. It had been as simple as breaking into one of the many abandoned units and just going online.

When he had been approached by Kainzow when he found the DeepNet he learned how to properly circumvent every restriction. And he hadn’t stopped there. Kainzow had taught him the world didn’t work the way he’d been told. He knew now the government didn’t really run anything. It was all controlled by global corporations behind the scenes.

Although Kainzow had warned him against visiting home the infamous hacker was responsible for him being here in a way. Kainzow’s abrupt disappearance almost a year before had prompted him to finally leave the Institute for good to seek him out in California, the corporations finally silencing him as he said they would.

It had taken almost six months of planning and accumulating everything he needed. Despite the warnings he had always known he’d come here first.

Thinking about his parents and Claire next door just made him more determined to go through with it, to get to the Orchard. Kainzow would have the answers.

“Charge one hundred percent.”

Oddjob stood in the back garden, the grass reaching almost to his knees. The gliderwing lay sprawled out, its thirty-foot wingspan reaching to each edge of the lawn. The tiny hexpanels glistened in the bright morning sun, their repeating pattern just visible. He had been unable to find a power connector back at the Institute he could use with a domestic supply so he was dependent on the gliderwing to recharge the bot for now.

He looked at its triangular form, the saddle and controls folded away underneath. Building it had been key. He knew he had no way to secure interstate travel even if he’d been able to steal a car. He had found the glider schematics online and he knew people used to make gliders all the time because of the travel restrictions. It had been difficult to test back at the Institute despite the extent of the grounds, most of it abandoned and never visited by the staff. But he had only really flown it ten or fifteen feet off the ground and had yet to take it up high. But he’d need it to get as far as California.

“Fold it away.”

Oddjob immediately responded, walking over to the gliderwing resting on the ground and began folding the shape back from the apex, the clicks from hidden switches audible in the still air. In less than a minute the triangular shape was folded down from the top to form a rough rectangle. The bot moved to the far side and began rolling the wing towards the center, carefully separating the telescopic rods that made up the frame. He marveled at Oddjob’s dextrous hands moving fast with no hesitation, the movements human-like.

He had worked extensively with the bot so he knew the mechanics worked. It was the bot’s sensors he needed since he didn’t know what was out there especially beyond Colorado. Kainzow himself had given him the firmware updates to access the array embedded within the skull.

The torso looked too short now he had lengthened the bot’s legs, the thick aluminum bones exposed along with the powerful knee joints. The replacement lower leg supports joined to the feet, which made the bot look as if it wore ankle boots. But it had worked, the extra eighteen inches to lengthen the gait ensuring the bot could keep up.

Oddjob soon rolled up the far side wing, attaching the now cylindrical shape to the slim power unit containing the batteries and driving the propeller. A telescopic rod was removed and attached flush to the rectangular power unit using straps.

It took less than a minute to complete the other side. The final form consisted of two cylinders about eight inches in diameter attached to the power unit, the folded assembly about three feet in height.

Oddjob retrieved a large green backpack lying nearby and in a series of fluent movements put the full gliderwing inside.

He reentered the house through the back door and took out the water canister from his own backpack and filled it at the sink. He spotted an array of knives held on the wall by a magnet. He took a small serrated one, blowing dust off its dull surface. It might come in handy and he had been unable to find any at the Institute.

That morning he had looked around the house for any method to interrupt the connection to the internet although found nothing. Maybe in the basement he could have unplugged the whole connection, but it seemed drastic, especially since they had all been fully immersed. Plus his sister was probably hypercomping. Was that even safe to do?

He put the knife and canister in his backpack. With one last look at the dusty kitchen he left, the door clamping shut behind him as he emerged into the sunlight. He had to go west and talk to Kainzow. Everything here at home would come as no surprise to him. The decline, the immersion, the capture of his family’s minds, all of them in the thrall of an inhuman force. The corporations everyone worked for and relied on.

When they had first talked online he had complained about his incarceration at the Institute. How he’d felt trapped. But it was Kainzow who taught him it was a blessing in disguise. His isolation had saved him from mental slavery. Now, having seen his own family fully immersed in a world he had been forcibly kept out of, he realized he was probably the lucky one.

As he looked up at the house, the signs of deterioration unavoidable, there had to be more than this quiet death. A more vibrant world had to be somewhere. Surely not everywhere could be as dead as here.

He lifted his own backpack and turned to Oddjob.

“Let’s go.”

They walked for several hours, eventually leaving the houses and suburban world behind and into open countryside. John spotted a hill from half a mile away that would have been a perfect candidate to test the gliderwing properly but decided to press on. He knew it was probably nerves at putting the gliderwing through its paces. Although he’d have to try it at some point.

As they continued walking Oddjob suddenly stopped and turned around, scanning the landscape behind them.

“What is it?”

“I have detected a signal.”

“What kind of signal?”

“I am not sure,” said Oddjob, turning back to him. “I received only a fragment but it is now gone.”

He looked back but he could see nothing except grass and trees with Boulder just visible in the far distance. Everything was as desolate as it had been since leaving the Institute.

They resumed walking. He’d become less anxious over the last few days now that he knew there were few people around. It made him wonder how many families were like his own, immersed online, losing their link to real life. Even though he had been reading about it for years the reality still shocked him.

Oddjob stopped again. He turned around but this time he took a few steps, looking back along the route they had walked.

John turned and walked towards the bot.

“More signals?”

There was nothing here except trees and grass. As he looked around himself he wondered if hidden in among the foliage lurked an old cell tower. Back in the day they’d been everywhere from what he had read online. He was just about to suggest Oddjob check when the bot turned to face him.

“The signal is emanating from a semi-autonomous law enforcement K9 unit.”

He froze. For a moment he thought he had misheard.

“What? Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

A rogue salek? Here in Colorado? He frantically scanned the area but could see nothing.

“Where is it?”

“I am unable to establish its current location but no further than five hundred meters.”

He turned and looked over at the hill he had spotted earlier. That would be their best chance. He frantically tried to remember everything he’d heard about saleks. Didn’t running provoke them? Their vision was excellent and his bright yellow jacket would be easy to spot. Should he casually walk to the hill? He looked again trying to calculate the distance. They could probably run it in ten minutes. Maybe a half hour walk.

“Let’s aim for the hill.”

He started walking and Oddjob followed.

He set a brisk pace as his nerves began to rise. How could there be a salek this far south?

After twenty minutes Oddjob remained silent. Maybe they had lost it and he wouldn’t have to use the gliderwing just yet.

“Any sign?”

Oddjob’s expressionless face looked down at him.

“We are being actively scanned.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“The semi-autonomous law enforcement K9 unit is scanning us.”

“You mean just now?”

“It has been scanning us since we began walking to this position.”

“Why didn’t you say?”

“Do you wish me to provide an update each minute?”

“No. It doesn’t matter. How far away is it?”

“It is maintaining a distance of one hundred and fifty meters.”

“It’s following us?”

“Yes. We are being tracked.”

They reached the hill, the route ahead a steep incline from this angle. That might help. Off to the left the hill sloped more gently over a few hundred yards. He could use that to launch the gliderwing if they could get to the flat area at the crest of the small hill.

They scrambled up the hill, Oddjob adapting well, almost on all fours as he used his hands and feet. Reaching the top he instructed Oddjob to make up the gliderwing.

As the bot took off the backpack and began methodically unfurling the wings he looked out over the landscape at the path they had just taken. They must have been fifty or sixty feet up, but nothing was visible except the grass and clusters of trees. Where was it?

Once the triangular form of the gliderwing was locked in place, Oddjob lifted it up to rest on the rear edge, the apex several feet above his head. The bot leaned down to the rear of the spine and released a grid of supports made from the thin rods supporting the whole structure. It locked in to place with an audible click, the seat similar to a wide bike saddle. He then hinged down a shorter rod near the center with a straight handlebar perpendicular to the spine, a rubber grip on each end. It too clicked into place. Resting it on the ground two thick straps hung down from the frame with carabiners dangling at the end.

Oddjob stood back and put the backpack on.

He inspected the glider and lifted it up, marveling again at its lightness. Thankfully the salek was nowhere to be seen. Once aloft he could get away from here.

“I don’t see it anywhere.”

Oddjob stood at one side, ready.

“The semi-autonomous law enforcement K9 unit is at the foot of the hill. It has likely acquired you as a target.”

The bot turned and looked down the shallow slope of the hill. Ten or fifteen yards from the bottom stood the salek.

He’d seen them online. Thousands of hours of footage existed. They’d never been popular, even before they’d been hacked. He remembered they based them on dobermans. It stood looking up at them on all fours, perfectly still, it’s dark solarskin damaged and missing in places. It couldn’t possibly have any projectiles left after years in the wild but that would just make it more dangerous. He could see the vicious snout and understood what it could do. Even with only some of its solarskin intact the charge could be enough to kill him.

The other parts of the hill were too steep to launch from. He would have to run towards the salek to launch at all. Did it know that? He knew they weren’t intelligent but the reprogramming had famously altered their focus to physically attack and maim random people once they locked on.

Fifty-five miles an hour. For some reason that factoid came back to him. On flat, perfectly level ground they could get up to fifty-five miles an hour. The gangs in Chicago had programmed them to rush the cops whenever they ran out of ammo. They weighed more than twice the weight of a real doberman. At that speed they could kill just about anyone. He remembered seeing videos of them inadvertently wrecking police cars.

He slowly lifted the gliderwing, holding the handlebar with one hand and the saddle with the other. Then he remembered the straps. He slowly lowered the rear and used one hand to clip them onto the backpack straps then picked the gliderwing back up, all the time watching the salek.

“I’ll have to run down the hill. It should catch the wind quickly.”

“Understood,” said Oddjob.

“Will you be able to avoid the salek?”

“Semi-autonomous law enforcement K9 units are designed to attack humans only.”

“Well get moving once I’m up.”

He turned and looked down. The salek hadn’t moved, it just stood there looking at them. It was now or never. He knew he’d never outrun it anyway.

Gripping the gliderwing he started walking forward. The light breeze pushed against the wing, lifting it slightly higher as he walked down the shallow incline. When clambering up the side of the hill he had wondered if it was too slight an angle and maybe lacked enough height. But now, looking back down, holding the gliderwing aloft, the uneven ground seemed recklessly steep. The sight of the salek didn’t help.

As he walked a little faster the salek abruptly began running. There was no warning. From a perfectly still position it began sprinting straight towards him, thick tufts of grass and dirt erupting behind it. It looked unnervingly powerful, it’s gait fast and strong, coming straight for him.

Despite his instinct to turn and run he forced himself to run towards it. He took his hand off the rear support and grabbed the handlebars with both hands, running harder, the wing now supported by the growing rush of air.

The increasing lift raised the gliderwing off the slope. He felt the support straps tighten and his feet came off the ground, the harness easily supporting his weight. The salek was close now, hammering up the hill straight towards him.

The sloping ground fell away as he took one hand off the handlebars and struggled himself into the small saddle, his heart racing. The salek was almost upon him. As he drifted higher it was at full speed and jumped. The sharp jaws snapped shut only a few feet below his dangling legs as he shot past it, the crack of the electrified maw discharging in the air. It must have jumped over ten feet only just missing him.

The wind picked up, rushing in his ears as the wind lifted him higher and higher, the whine of the propeller straining behind him. Looking down he estimated he must be over fifty feet up.

Behind his position he could see Oddjob running. The salek stood on the hill seemingly confused, ignoring the medbot. As Oddjob neared the bottom of the hill the bot began to pick up speed, his head looking up every ten seconds or so to track the gliderwing.

The ease of flying was helped by an unaccustomed sense of elation as he surveyed the clear, empty vista before him, soaring higher and forward to California.

☉ ☉ ☉

©2021 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.

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