Electricity cracked and coursed through a metal machine attached to the head of a young man. His body writhed and convulsed in pain as the electrical impulses traveled through the sides of his head and tried to force his subconscious into a state of rem. Disturbing visions flashed in the young man's mind as the impulses increased in intensity. He saw flashes of distorted and mangled images that went by too fast for him to see. They must have been the dreams of the others who were deep in the program. When the images stopped, he found himself standing in a pit of seemingly endless darkness. He heard a noise starting in the back of his mind. At first it was nothing more than a subtle whisper, like he was standing outside of a room filled with people, but it gradually grew into a low roar, then into a cacophony of laughing and screaming and crying. Millions of voices rang in his ears, causing him to crumble to the ground in pain. He clutched the sides of his head as he drowned in darkness, begging for the noise to stop.
He wasn't sure how long he had stayed like that. It could have been merely second, or it could have been hours. He was never sure when he was hooked up to the machine. But after what felt like a lifetime, the noise stopped.
Slowly, he opened his eyes and stood up. A few feet away, he saw a circle of people. They looked like they were holding a meeting. But what would they be holding a meeting for? Dream Addiction Anonymous? All of them were wearing baggy clothing with hoods covering their eyes and bandanas tied around their face, covering their most important features. They were dressed all in black, none of their features were discernible, not even their gender. They looked like nothing more than shadows. The only thing distinguishing them from a shadow was the loud pop of color each of them wore on their bandanas. Some colors were solid, and others were morphed into patterns and shapes. They were speaking quietly to each other, none of them noticing him. Except for the one person standing directly across from him. The eyes of the hooded figure were hidden, but it was obvious that the person was looking at him.
The young man didn't know what he was supposed to do. He stood there in silence, staring at the figure opposite him, dumbfounded. He willed his body to move, but his feet were glued to the ground, and his throat had swollen shut. Whenever someone spoke, it was drowned out into white noise. Soon, their images began to blur and break like the screen of an old television experiencing static during a storm. The hooded figure standing across from him lifted its hand and pointed at him before disappearing completely with the rest of the people there.
Lee sat up in a cold sweat, gasping for air. He tore the helmet like machine off of his head and cursed. "I hate it when my therapist tells me to use this thing," he muttered as he threw it down on the nightstand next to his bed, almost shattering his alarm clock in the process. Breaking that would have been a bad idea. There wasn't a single company left that still made alarm clocks. He was lucky that he had found this one in a dumpster. He hated using the Dream NETWORK program. He was never able to connect to it properly. He figured after twenty years of not being able to connect to the NETWORK, his therapist would have given up trying, but she seemed very insistent that he keep torturing himself every night with terrifying images, and mind splitting headaches. He decided that he was going to fire her and give up trying to live like everyone else.
Lee got up carefully and stumbled his way into the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror, closely inspecting his bloodshot eyes and fear paled skin. He ran his fingers through his damp hair, pushing it back out of his face and turned on the shower. The shower was old and only spat out a low pressure stream of water. The temperature still had to be adjusted manually, not that Lee minded. Except when he stepped into the shower and it was ice cold, or burning hot, but this wasn't one of those times, thankfully.
He washed away the disturbance of the night, letting some healthy color return to his skin. He thought about the hooded figures standing in a circle, but he decided that it was nothing more than a fragment of a dream that the NETWORK had invented.
He let the warm water calm his mind. Slowly, he forced himself to forget about the visions from the night. There was no point in lingering on such odd and senseless thoughts. They meant nothing to him.
Lee stepped out of the shower and dried himself off, quickly getting dressed. He walked out of the bathroom, the steam dissipating behind him into the cool air. Exhaustion of untested sleep began to hit him. His eyes felt heavy and his legs were weak. Filling a mug with hot water, Lee popped an extra strength coffee capsule out of a package and dropped it in the water. It turned a deep brown color as the capsule dissolved. He was about to bring the mug to his lips, but placed it back on the counter and dropped in two more capsules. The caffeine in that mug was equal to about nine cups of regular strength coffee. He decided that that was enough to hold him over until at least lunch when he could leave work to get another cup.
Lee sipped the low quality, bitter liquid and grimaced. This needed a lot of cream and sugar to mask it as at least half decent, but he had run out of those rations for the month, and there was no way for him to get more until he was paid. Even then he wouldn't be able to buy much. Despite the lack of pleasant flavor, he was glad that coffee capsules were free, even if this low quality, chemically engineered beverage tasted like someone had boiled cat shit. Which, depending on what country it was from, could have been true.
Lee downed the coffee in disgust, swallowing the not dissolved granules at the bottom, and ran his fingers through his still damp hair, slicking it back out of his face. He checked that he looked presentable when he passed by a mirror. He wasn't as put together as other working men in his old, 21st century fashion jeans and a rather plain t-shirt, but it was acceptable. His look matched his rather plain job.
Grabbing his jacket on the way out of his small apartment, Lee stepped outside into the world run by the NETWORK. Cars running on magnetic roads flashed by in a silent hover. Few people chose to walk here in the middle of the city. They would rather be transported by a machine run by the NETWORK than walk. What a lazy bunch of people this generation has produced. They're lucky that the NETWORK regulates the strength and endurance of their body to ensure they stayed alive and healthy until the scheduled expiration age of 75. On a few rare occasions some individuals expired before their due date, but no one ever lived past it. A peculiar occurrence, but no one ever questioned it.
Lee stepped onto the sidewalk designated to those who couldn't drive, which was pretty much no one except himself, which is why they were so small and in terrible condition. There were a few holes in the concrete that Lee did his best to avoid. He didn't want to fall through and accidentally land on the lower levels. The people below wouldn't appreciate a man splattering on the hood of their car. Small bits of sidewalk crumbled away as his weight met the weakest spots. At one point he had to jump over a hole.
At this point he wished they would install a new fence, or railing, or something for him to hold onto so he didn't slip off the side. He had to walk at least half an hour before arriving to an area of the city where walking was more common. He would have taken a bus, but barely anyone used them anymore and they were the least safe means of transportation.
Lee did his best to avoid the others walking around him. All of them were going to work like him, but he had to make an extra effort to not be trampled by them. They looked like they were all in a magnetic sleep. Awake and walking around, but in some form of a trance. They were all connected to the NETWORK. Some were surfing the ever expanding internet, others were video chatting with their friends, and some of them were even working before they even arrived at the place at which they worked. Even though all of their minds were occupied with other tasks, they still knew exactly where to go. Everyone had installed a new app about a year ago that allowed the NETWORK to control their bodies. The user would enter in a location, then the NETWORK mapped out a safe route to their destination, avoiding anyone else who was connected to the NETWORK. This is why Lee was constantly being trampled by mobs of distracted men and women too lazy or too busy to walk for themselves. It was times like this that Lee wasn't sure if he wanted to be connected, or if he wanted to keep his mind to himself. On one hand, he would avoid unnecessary injuries, but he never liked the idea of his body being controlled.
Lee turned a corner and weaved through the sea of people until he stopped before a large building residing in the center of the city. This was the Great Archives, home to all of the information ever stored in the NETWORK. This was the most important place
in all of the City, both topside and on the lower level, and the only place Lee would ever be able to work at.
He had to go through a variety of tests before entering the building including optical scans, vocal recognition, and DNA matching. The first two tests could be passed with ease, but it took a long time for Lee to get past the third, mostly because he was a squeamish wuss who hated the sight of his own blood.
Approaching the gate, Lee aligned his eyes with the scanners, his retinas burning when the green light flashed, reading the print of his iris. He blinked away pained tears and wondered briefly if these lasers were doing any real damage to his vision. Not that it mattered much to him at the moment. Maybe it would sometime in the future when he had to go through the trouble of seeing a doctor to correct his vision, but he decided to worry about that bridge when he had to cross it. Next, a genderless, monotone voice asked him to confirm his full name. Lee leaned forward, checking to see if anyone else was around, and spoke his full name into the microphone. There was nothing particularly wrong with his name, (at least… his mother didn't think there was) but he always avoided reciting his full name when there was a coeworker nearby. It would just cause more trouble for him than he needed. The mechanical voice confirmed his identity, then asked him to provide a DNA sample. He reached forward and pricked his finger on the provided pin, reopening the wound from every other prick he'd gone through since starting this job.
When that was all over, Lee entered the building, sucking on his scarred finger. Inside the archives building, people shuffled about, walking to their work stations. One girl shut off her autopilot to stop and greet him. "Good morning, Lee," she said with a sweet smile. Her eyes were wide and sparkling green, and her copper colored hair was pulled back into a low ponytail. Today she'd decided not to wear any makeup, and she looked just as beautiful now as she did with her face completely done up.
Lee smiled back at her. "Morning, Allia." She was one of the only people Lee looked forward to seeing every morning. She was the only one who didn't completely ignore him. He was sure that people would talk to him, but only if they could instantly message his brain with a NETWORK chat app. No one wanted to talk in person anymore. No one except Allia.
"Have you eaten this morning?" she asked. Lee mumbled an answer and she sighed. "Of course you didn't. You never do. All you survive on is coffee and food pills." Allia reached into a paper bag she was holding and pulled out a bagel, handing it to him. "You should take better care of yourself. You'll lose all of your good looks before you turn thirty."
Lee smiled and took the bagel. "You're an angel, Allia. Thank you for caring about my only positive features. It's too bad there aren't more women like you. Ones that disconnect long enough to actually get a good look at me," he replied as he walked to his closet, otherwise known as his office. Most of the people here hooked themselves up to the NETWORK's mainframe, making sure the flow of information stayed regular. Because he had no way of hooking himself up to the NETWORK, Lee had to sit alone in a small, dark room where he stared at a computer screen all day, watching security tapes, and looking for any blips in the security system.
Lee sat down at his desk and pressed the power button, watching as the ancient monitors sparked to life. On a few screens was the footage from the security cameras. These things didn't really have a use since it was pretty much impossible for anyone to get in unless they had special clearance. Still, Lee was grateful for the job. His uncle had taken pity on him and had given him the job here. No other place was willing to take him because of his inability to connect to the NETWORK.
Lee watched the screens absentmindedly as he ate the bagel. It was rare that he didn't have to eat something coming from a pill or something from a vacuum package that had to be rehydrated to be eaten. It was safe to say that this bagel tasted much better than anything else he got. On the screens, Lee watched as everyone went about their daily business. When he first started this job, he would always feel like he was spying on everyone, and it always made him feel a bit dirty when he saw a worker doing something that probably shouldn't be seen, but now he only sees it as a form of entertainment. It was like a really bad soap opera, except nobody went into a coma when the show wanted to see the reaction of the audience before deciding whether to kill them off.
On the screen, Allia was heading for her work station. On the way, she stopped to chat with a man whose appearance was so plain that he didn't even deserve a proper description. That was Mark, her boyfriend. Lee sank into his chair as Allia kissed Mark's cheek. Why does she have to be with him, he wondered. He is by far the most boring human in the City. Even his name is boring. Who has the name Mark anymore? It sounds so old fashion. Lee's jealous monologue continued for another minute before he switched his attention to a different screen, trying to find interest in someone else's affairs. Of course, there was nothing going on that was worth watching. Except that lady who wasn't paying attention to where she was going and ran into a glass door, spilling her coffee all over her overpriced, ugly shirt. Lee wondered if her autopilot had malfunctioned, or if she was trying to walk around without using it.
Hours passed without Lee accomplishing anything useful besides staring at a monitor until his eyes burned. He looked over at the old clock ticking on his desk. It read ten minutes past noon. He decided that now was a good time to get some more coffee, and maybe some lunch if he could find something cheap enough to be bought with his ration cards.
Just as Lee rose to his feet, the monitors flickered and shut off, plunging the small room into total darkness.