Exit Wounds by Luke Hallam

The feeling of waking up in darkness was one that I had never quite gotten used to. If anything, the real world was even blacker than my dreams. The ‘dreams’ that we all shared. The ‘dreams’ that had become our lives, and which were inhabited by billions of people across the globe.

Dreams are a lie. Most people didn’t even know that they were dreaming, so to them their cities and countries are real. Everyday, people travelled miles and miles around the sprawling metropolis of infinite size without moving an inch. They washed, got dressed, went to work, had a family, all within the confines of a few dingy square meters. But still nobody knew what was really going on. I was still not entirely sure myself. But I had discovered the solution.

The ultimate lie of unparalleled proportions. It was strange, but it boiled down to a single, incomprehensible fact. I was in a coffin. A coffin of metal and wiring, which stank of fumes and rust. I lay there, listening to an almost inaudible humming sound which was the only noise to be heard.

Strangely enough, this was only the third time in the past fortnight that I had mustered enough energy to wake up. The first time it had been a complete accident- a routine brain scan (the proportions of my brain were slightly abnormal, and required a monthly check-up).

”Sit back, close your eyes. Just try and relax”.’ The droning, clinical voice swam in and out of focus.

”Now just concentrate; don’t pay attention to anything around you. Try and look… inside.”’

A measurement was taken. A needle stuck in my arm, re-entering the familiar puncture wound.

”That’s it. You can wake up, Drake, just open your eyes.’”

The syringe was plucked from my arm and I started at the unexpected burst of pain. My eyes were wrenched open… but I was no longer there. I had woken up in darkness, a metallic skeleton pressing in all around me, holding my body down.

I had escaped, but only briefly. From then on, I worked on finding my way back. It was simple really- I needed to clear my head, stay completely still and hold a deep concentrating thought of emptiness. Jerking suddenly back into consciousness I would find myself re-entered into the real world. I could tell it was the real world- the world I had previously called my home seemed so artificial and fraudulent in comparison.

And now, for the fifth time, I reached my palm upwards and slowly pushed. The roof of the coffin swung up on ancient hinges and I clambered out into a room of complete darkness.

This was the scary part. My feet were bare, and I was clothed in what felt like a black boiler suit. My breath was rasping and my eyes made out terrifying shapes amongst the inky blackness. Where was the switch?

Breathe… just breathe normally.

Hands fumbling along the cold, arching wall behind me. Various pipes and wires that were hot to the touch were protruding outwards, and my fingers grasped each and every one of them. Turning to face the wall I crouched down and sidestepped along, feeling up and down like a blind person. Somewhere…

A pause, a click, and a blinding white light. I grunted and threw a hand to my eyes. I had forgotten just how bright this place could be.

But a smile stretched across my face as I saw it. It was real. The doubts that had been running through my head over the past few days were suddenly dispelled.

I was in a massive, cavernous room. An entire cathedral could have easily fit inside, and each tiny crevasse was illuminated from a vast, unknown light source. I blinked, and stroked the wall. It was not made of stone, but dense metal, interwoven with steaming vents and great black wires as thick as a child’s arm. An immense power source. To power what? The coffins.

Hundreds of them, lining the floors in neat rows. Each, I supposed, containing an individual. Living the life of a normal human being, or so they thought. But was it possible that their entire lives could have been man made, wired up inside their heads? Was it possible that everyone I had ever known were at this very moment being pumped full with gigabytes of computer memory, generating their every surrounding? Surely not, technology was not so advanced.

“Fascinating.”

I started. Was that a voice!? There had never been anyone else here before. I stared wildly across at the great plain of coffins housed in this vast dome. There- across the opposite wall, a figure dressed in white was staring at me. From this distance I could not make out his features, but the booming voice had told me it was a man. A man. Here? Someone else had escaped perhaps?

A pause. “I know!” I shouted back uncertainly, slowly zigzagging towards him through the maze of machinery. “What is this place?”

The man’s chuckle was barely audible. “Oh, I wasn’t talking about the building, Drake. I was talking about you.”

I stopped, heart pounding. “Why?”

“Well,” the man continued, stepping slowly forward. His long garments brushed against the floor. “How the hell did you get out?”

Perhaps I had been expecting this, sooner or later.

“I’m sorry but how the hell are you here? You have absolutely no idea where you are, and yet you have succeeded where whole organisations have tried and failed.”

“This… this is the real world?” The question sounded stupid, childish. But I had to know. By the look on the man’s face, I knew that he had his eyebrows raised as I edged steadily closer. ? “Yes. This is, as you put it, ‘the real world’. Would you like to know what happened?”

I did. More than anything. I wanted answers. My mind felt blank, strangely empty. After having previously spent many hours alone in the darkness, nothing about this place continued to scare me. Not even the appearance of a previously unseen individual.

I had reached the man now. He was old, with a face visibly creased by all his years. Pale wisps of curly hair sat upon his head, and he wore a face which seemed permanently set in a half frowned, half quizzical expression.

The man started to stroll back across the room, and I followed him, listening as he spoke.

“People have always been used to a certain way of life. This has been true through all ages of humanity. What would you say the year is?”

“..503?”

“Wrong. The year is 8714. You may have speculated as to the lives of everyone you have ever know, everyone you have heard about, and everyone that you know must exist. They are all here, somewhere. The chambers extend much further than this hall. All across the world, billions, upon billions of people. Every human being on the planet earth at this time lives their entire lives from the confines of a few meters of metal and concrete, and that is how it has been for 500 years. That is how it will remain.”? “But… why?”

“Why? For change. In a world such as ours, where human technology continues to advance exponentially, such an occurrence was always inevitable. Ancient scholars called it the singularity. For us, it is reality.”

There was a lengthy silence, and I was aware of the sound that my feet were making on the cold floor as we meandered between coffins.? “But… why don’t we know?”? The man stared straight ahead. “People can never know. Half a millennium ago, when the final processes were undertaken to live entirely digital lives, the general consensus was that people would change their minds. It is human nature. We may have solved the planets problems, but in 500 years time will people still want to live in a world generated by a machine? The people said yes, but they knew that in the future it would be otherwise. Nobody could be held accountable for this. It is the way of the world. It is your fault as a species that this is how human beings live their lives.”

“It was our choice?”

“Yes.”

It occurred to me that we had been walking for an awfully long time, without actually going anywhere.

“Who are you?”

The man stopped. I followed suit.

“Someone has to protect the ‘coffins’. Someone has to be their to iron out the glitches. It’s taken me over a day to get here, once the scanners first picked up that someone had made it outside. The planet is so big…”

There was a ringing in my ears. Suddenly, something was wrong. Something was horribly, horribly wrong…

“What’s the matter?” The man sounded concerned. “Drake, talk to me?”

I fell to the floor, ears ringing, an alarm blaring in my head while bright lights glared all around. Something was going into shutdown, my entire body was dying from the inside.

Suddenly I was no longer amongst the coffins. I was in a hospital bed, lasers boring straight through my skin and what felt like every bone in my body hooked up to an immense mainframe. Somewhere in the distance, a woman was crying.

“He’s going. Say your goodbyes. Every cell in his body if dying…”

A blinding explosion of colour, the blood coursing through my veins… I thrashed in anguish, trying to break loose, trying to be free…

… and then, nothing. Something flat-lined.

The proportions of my brain were abnormal, they said. Pressing against my skull…

“How?” One of the nurses sobbed. “We have cured every form of cancer under the sun, and now this happens!”

Robotic arms gently lift me up, and the electronic implants slip gradually out of my mouth.

“It always finds a way, in the end.” Someone else whispered.

“What do you think his thoughts were in his final moments?”? “God knows.”

Now I am back in my coffin. But not the same one. Not of metal and wires. But of wood, slowly hovering down on a pearly cushion of air into the perfectly hollowed ground. Several shapes whirred impossibly fast above my head, soaring deep into space.

And I was alone.