We were meant to be children of the stars now, Richard thought to himself as he buttoned up his coat. Humans were meant to have escaped this lonely planet and headed out into the void. We were meant to be interplanetary trans dimensional demi-gods by now. Or so the stories and films promised us. Instead, we are all trapped on this dark planet, watching the chaos get worse. Every day, another headline about a corrupt politician or science gone wrong or children roaming the streets causing violence and destruction. It was getting worse by the day.
Richard left his tiny one bed flat, not bothering to lock it, not bothering to turn off the music and TV. A wave of his hand and all was secure. A familiar hum started.. His orb detached itself from the charging unit on the outside wall and started following him. It floated just above Richard’s head, spreading a soft white light all around. It provided some comfort to the unceasing night. The stupid thing flickered occasionally though and he couldn’t afford to get it fixed. Plus, he had to wait at least half a minute for it to power up and follow him. The newer models were near instantaneous. A couple of his neighbours had them, probably bought on credit. Richard dimly remembered when the skies first went dark, years ago, people were spending because they thought there was no tomorrow. Then tomorrow rolled round and realised the world hadn’t ended, not yet. It just continued as before.
Not entirely sure where he was going, Richard chose a random direction. The streets were empty. It had been weeks since he had gone outside. All his food was auto-delivered, all his rubbish went down a hatch and was never seen again. His office was virtual and he worked from home. When he wasn’t working there were endless entertainments on the stim. So there was no reason to go anywhere, not really. Home was safe. Home had everything he needed. Home sometimes felt like a prison.
Richard did not look up at the constant darkness.
If he was honest, he didn’t know why he had felt like leaving the flat. He had been pacing around for days. The stimcasts held little interest for him any more. There was only so many times you could explore infinite fantasy worlds before their wonders started to seem cheap. They were probably auto generated by some super clever algorithm that Richard had no hope of understanding. Besides, he used the stim to plug into the office every day, he didn’t want to use in to relax as well. Sure, he could load up a language lesson and it would be like he was in the classroom, or he could practice guitar with endless experts providing him virtual tuition. But he didn’t have the attention span any more. It took hours of dedicated focus and Richard could barely sit through five minutes.
That was another thing about the stims. Why couldn’t they just upload skills directly to the brain, rather than playing endless distracting crap? Richard was sure he saw that in a film years ago, before the sky.
For weeks now, he had felt a gnawing in his stomach, an emptiness. He had reported it to the Med Bot, but all the tests it ran came up inconclusive. It suggested meditation stims, but their cheesy settings of mountains and rivers just made Richard more irritated.
The final straw was the news. The presenter smiled and said people on the other side of the planet were celebrating new year. A deep sadness had welled up inside Richard, stronger than anything he had felt before. Where had the time gone? He hadn’t even realised it was the end of the year. He tried to breathe deep, tried to control the panic, but it was welling up inside him now, it was overflowing. Something had broken inside him and he didn’t know what. So he had headed outside.
He wasn’t sure what he was hoping to find out here. Everyone was in their own little cube, safely locked away from everyone else. Enjoying the new year by themselves, or on some private stim channel. With friends in far off places. Richard never much cared for the outside world. It was like a stimcast that you could never turn off. He stopped in the middle of the street. It was utterly quiet and abandoned. He watched small crystals of snow enter the light around the orb and gently drift down to land around him. Richard shivered, despite the heating fibres in his coat. He had never felt so alone.
Still, it was better than being inside. He couldn’t explain it. Here, he felt like his mind had space to expand and roam. It reminded him of long walks in the countryside when he was a kid, wasting hours exploring the world around him. He had big hopes for the future as a kid. More fool him for listening to all those utopian writers and film makers. They had such hope, that humans would become peaceful. All disagreements solved, no arbitrary distinctions between people. Humans would transcend their small planet and roam among the stars. It wasn’t a question of how or why. It was a question of when.
Now those years people had dreamed of had come and gone and there was no seismic shift. No laser beams or jet packs. Just the dull monotony of everyday life. Worse, all those authors had been discredited as predators or alcoholics or abusers. Their stories were barely read now. They were archaic in Richard’s childhood, but somehow the spark of them, the idea that humans could be better than they were still burned inside Richard’s heart. Every day he looked up at the permanently dark sky and the spark grew a little fainter. Humans were trapped, earthbound and sick, never to expand onto other planets.
Where was the dream he had been promised all those years before? It had vanished into the cold air. Another bloody year, hip hip hooray.
As he walked down the street to nowhere in particular, his orb floated along above him, making the darkness beyond its reach flicker like an old film. Why had he wanted to come outside? It was a stupid idea. This was the real world and it was cold and dark and empty. Better to lose yourself in cheap thrills and empty stimcasts.
He checked the time on his stim quickly. 00:02. So that was that. Another one of those mythical, far off years had passed quickly into memory. Nothing sorted. Everything getting worse. There was still work, still misery.
So goodbye to the year and good riddance, Richard thought. Take those utopian dreams with you.
Around him, the snow fell, turning down the volume of the world a notch or two.
Each way around him was equally dark. He didn’t recognise this street. While walking, he had taken a couple of turns at random, following roads without realising. He didn’t know the way back and that was alright by him. Of course, he could just pull up a map on his stim. But Richard felt that defeated the point.
There had been no cheers at midnight. No fireworks or celebrations. Everyone was wrapped up in their own virtual perceptions. He had seen adverts for the largest fireworks display ever on a lot of the stimcasts. A barrage of bright lights so huge and overwhelming it would feel like the heavens themselves were falling. A wonder of design. Limited tickets only. Richard had debated it for a while. He had been before, a couple of times. There was joy there sometimes. This year it had left a sour taste in his mouth. They could program anything. It took the wonder from it.
Richard set off in a random direction, hoping it would carry him home.
It appeared small at first. In the distance was a tiny square of light, just above the ground. Everyone had their lights off, because why did you need light if you had a stimplant? This looked like the light of an orb, but as Richard drew closer he realised it was a window. It wasn’t sterile or white. It was warm and orange.
He walked on, drawing close to the window. It was full of candles of all different sizes, all burning bright. Inside the small room, there were four or maybe five people. Each had a glass in their hand and everyone was talking. The couple nearest him were laughing at some joke, easy and free with each other. Richard couldn’t hear the conversation, but he could see their gleaming eyes and the stories being exchanged. He watched from outside the street, could almost feel the warmth of the candles.
Richard hadn’t meant to be there long. He had only wanted to see what was going on. A man pouring a drink to someone sat by the window caught his eye. Rumbled, Richard thought. He froze. He didn’t want to be seen as a peeping tom or invading people’s privacy. Already, Richard was thinking of endless excuses that ran through his head. ‘I was only passing;. or ‘I’d better be going…’’
The man had a grey hair and bright red cheeks. He didn’t waver from Richard’s gaze. For a long moment, Richard felt his heartbeat in his ears. Then the man smiled and waved, beckoning Richard inside.
Obviously, he couldn’t just enter a stranger’s house. Even if he was asked, it wasn’t right. He’d already lingered too long. So Richard shook his head and started to walk down the street, back into the snow and dark, back into the general direction of his own flat. He had only taken a couple of steps when he hear ‘Oi!’ What now? Were they going to shout at him for looking? Call the police on him? Richard didn’t want to acknowledge the shout but he didn’t want to run either. Not knowing what else to do, he turned round.
The grey haired man was leaning out of the window, somehow avoiding the person sat near him and the countless candles.
‘Don’t be a lemon. Come inside and have a drink mate.’
Richard opened his mouth and shut it again. He stood still. He didn’t know whether to run for the hills or try to pretend he hadn’t heard. He couldn’t do it. The man was probably going to rob him.
Without thinking, Richard nodded, opened the front door and went through to a small room. It was fairly dim, despite all the candles distributed on every surface. Tall ones, short fat ones and tea lights all lit the room with a warm flickering glow. His orb had deactivated as soon as he stepped through the front door and was probably saving power in the snow. As his eyes struggled to adjust to the changing light, he saw people sat around the room. One of them, a middle aged woman wearing glasses, actual plain glasses with no overlay in them, looked up at him and smiled.
‘Welcome. What’s your poison?’
‘Umm…’ Richard murmured, unsure of what was being asked of him.
‘Oh Josie, just get the boy some mulled wine!’ The man with red cheeks boomed.
‘I’ll get it!’ another voice from another room called out. The middle aged woman gestured towards a worn armchair next to her. Richard practically sunk into it.
A younger woman with a nose ring and green hair brought him a glass mug filled with something warm, that smelt of holidays past. He put both hands around it. Breathed in the comforting sweetness.
‘Don’t just look at it. have some!’ The young woman smiled.
Richard tried a gulp of the dark liquid. It was sweet with a hint of bitterness, with a slight kick that hit you soon after. It tasted of cake made with forgotten fruits. It crossed his mind that it might be poisoned, that this was some kind of cult, but he ignored it and took another sip. It sent a warmth spreading through his body, starting at his throat and stomach, then seeming to flow through his veins, to his whole chest, his arms and legs, all of his fingers and toes and finally filling his head. There was nothing but warmth. No worries or care. Just a contented feeling that softened the edges of the world like a blanket. Richard smiled to himself.
‘Think he approves Josie!’ called out the old man who had welcomed him in. There was laughter all around, not cruel or mocking, but with him. On his side. Richard just nodded, lost in the bliss of the drink. He took another swig and felt the warmth echo through him, opening rooms inside him that had been long closed, rooms that he didn’t know were there.
A hand was shoved into Richard’s face. ‘Simon’s the name!’
‘Richard,’ He replied and shook the man’s hand.
‘Welcome! Make yourself at home!’
Everyone else cheered around him and took a swig of their glasses. Richard looked from face to face in a daze. There was no-one he recognised. Not a single person he had met before.
‘I…’ He said, not sure where the sentence was going or why he had even started it. The whole situation felt like a dream, or a particularly lurid stimcast. Maybe that was it. Maybe he was still in his small apartment, trapped in between the plain walls, having somehow loaded in a random stimcast. It was a very detailed program if so. The flickering candles must have taken hours to animate. The human characters looked particularly realistic. The only problem was the smell and taste of the wine. It was beyond anything he had ever tried in a stimcast. He could still feel the heat of it on his tongue. The warmth reaching every part of his body.
Simon was talking to the middle aged woman, loudly and about something Richard could not follow. He thought maybe it was flirting but he couldn’t tell.
‘Excuse me?’ Richard mumbled.
Simon did not turn round. Richard tried again.
This time it worked, the man turned around with a stupid grin on his face that stretched from ear to ear.
‘Yes mate?’ he said
‘Just…’ The words vanished up inside Richard. He chest felt tight and heavy. It took a concentrated effort to bring the words back up to the surface. ‘Why are you doing this? I don’t know you?’
Would the man be offended? Would he realise he had made a mistake? Throw Richard back out into the cold?
No. He simply smiled wider.
‘Saw you standing out there look miserable. Shame to be alone, especially on a night like this.’
‘You’re pissed Simon!’ A voice cried out from the shadows, further down the room.
‘And why not? New Year’s isn’t it?’ Come on Rich mate, join us round the joanna.’
Another man sat at an upright piano plucked a few slightly flat bars of Auld Lang Syne and the room erupted in song. People stood Richard up, put his wine on the side and grabbed his arms, crossing them over his body. The middle aged woman in glasses was on his left. She squeezed his hand tight and was singing at the top of her voice. The younger woman- Josie?- was on his right. She smiled at him.
What the hell. Richard started singing, not knowing the words and not caring. A lump rose in his throat. This was where he was meant to be.
Maybe the future wasn’t going to be so bad after all.