He walked through roads in the middle of the night, in the middle of the city, empty and dark. Neon signs surrounded him, flickering on and off. He wanted nothing they were advertising. He ignored them even as they vied to attract his attention. Some of them sparked and hissed and crackled.
A drug store. The bright sign on the outside went off and on, off and on in complex patterns: Open 24/7! He went inside. Half the lights were out. The rest bathed the store in fake white light that seemed dim even through its artificial brightness.
He went to the desk. Behind the desk was a clerk. The clerk was sleeping.
He tried not to seem nervous. In fact, he was. It was night. The worst of the underbelly of the city came out at night. He was alone.
"I'm looking for a girl," he said.
The clerk awoke. "What girl?"
He shrugged. "Just some girl I heard about. Who's supposed to live here. Or something."
"Nobody lives here," said the clerk. "This is a drug store."
You don't say. "Well, I heard a girl was supposed to live here. Or be around here."
"You're just a kid," the clerk said. "What are you doing out on your own? It's night."
You don't say, times two. "Where's the girl? If you don't know of any girl that hangs around here, then I'm going to go, all right?"
The clerk sighed. "Uh. There are, like, some apartments above the plaza.
"Right, right. And do any girls live there?
"Uh… there is that crazy blonde girl."
He perks up. "What crazy blonde girl? Where?"
"She's crazy. You don't want to fuck with her."
"Just tell me."
"She lives in some apartment above the plaza. There's, like, twelve apartments up there. Make sure you get the right one."
"Thank you." He left. The clerk went back to sleeping.
He went up the stairs outside, onto the long balcony. There was a long row of doors. One, two, three, all the way to twelve.
Seven is a lucky number. He tried seven first. No one answered. The windows were boarded up.
He tried six. Someone yelled at him to go away.
On five, he got lucky. The sign on the door read Psychic For Hire. When he rang the doorbell, there were small soft sounds inside. Then a suspicious eye peeked out from behind the curtains.
"Who is it?" she said.
"Owen. That's all I'm telling you."
The eye disappeared. The light illuminating the curtain from behind shut off.
He waited a while. There were no noises.
"Please," he said. "I've come a long way."
The light reappeared, though the eye didn't. "If you want to come in, you have to tell me who you are."
He said, "There's value in a name. A name gives you power over someone. I don't know you and I don't trust you, so I'm not giving you power over me."
Quiet for a minute. Then: "Wise choice."
The door creaked open.
He went inside. It was sparsely decorated. A sagging couch against one wall. A few small tables on which rested books. Doors which led to other rooms. There was no television. The only light came from the lamp on the table and from the occasional, once-a-minute flickering of a light on the ceiling.
The girl sat on the couch. "Sit with me, please."
She was strange looking. Long, straight, lank hair framed a thin, pale face. Blue circles swept under her tired eyes. Her mouth was thin and pursed and she wore a long shirt that covered her hands, and long jeans, even though it was high summer. She looked sort of otherworldly, like a tired alien. She couldn't have been more than eighteen.
She said, "How did you hear about me?"
He sat beside her. "People talk about you on the internet."
"I don't have much use for the internet," she said.
"They say you're crazy. They say you live in a drug store on Maple Avenue. Only no one will say what city it's in. I've been looking through drugs stores on dozens of Maple Avenues in dozens of cities for a year."
"You found me," she said. "So why are you here? What do they say about me?"
"I've been having dreams," he said.
"Yes." She had expected this.
"About the world coming to an end. They're very, very aggressive. They've been keeping me awake. I haven't slept properly for three years."
She looked sad. "You poor thing. I could have guessed from how you looked. How old are you?"
"Fifteen," he said.
"Just a child."
"Then, these… things started hunting me. Now, I can't sleep not only because of my nightmares but because I have to stay on guard. I thought they might kill my parents, so I left to keep them safe. But not before I heard about you."
"Little old me."
"Leslie," he said. "You're Leslie."
"Can you help me?"
"I can't help you. Not in the way you're hoping."
"I can only tell you the truth," she said. "I can't help you get rid of your nightmares. I can't get those things off your back."
"I heard you were a psychic," he said. "I heard you could go into my mind and—"
"Then," she said, "someone's been spreading false rumors. I can't do that."
He could have collapsed from the sheer defeat of it.
"Are you ready to hear the truth?"
He didn't say anything, didn't move. She took it as a yes.
"You ever seen the movie The Matrix?"
"A long time ago, I guess." He didn't look at her. He was looking far away.
"Well, it's all true."
He was about to get up and leave, but she grabbed his arm.
"If you value your life," she said, "you'll stay and listen to what I have to say tonight. You may have protected yourself from those creatures for a while, but it won't last forever."
He sat back down.
She said, "We're enslaved in a prison of the mind. All of us. Everyone you meet. In fact, I have a theory that only 10% of the people we meet are actual people. The rest are 'filler'. Holograms. Fake programs. The rest are immersed in this world as deeply as anything can be. They go home at night to fake program wives and fake program children. In their fake program houses. Interacting with fake program people. Eating fake program food. Just like you."
"Please stop my nightmares. I don't care about any of this nonsense. Please just help me."
"Wait and listen," she said. "Sometimes, some of us wake up. I woke up when I was only ten. It nearly destroyed me."
"Yes. You've guessed, then. You're awoken, too. Your nightmares are your brain reacting to the unnaturalness of being imprisoned. You're aware, on some level. You can become aware on all levels, and then you'll be like me. Seeing all possible outcomes of everything at the same time."
"I," she said, "am not psychic. I've just learned how to manipulate the system, to see what outcome will most likely come true. That's how I make my money, now that my parents are dead. The creatures killed them."
"What are the creatures? How can I get rid of them?"
"You can't. They're manifestations. They'll follow you everywhere."
"Manifestations of what?"
"Your brain. You see, when you're awakened, on any level, you can control the system. But your brain is bringing your nightmares into reality, because you're not fully awakened yet. You can't control how you control the system. You're only awakened on a very basic level. Your most primitive subconscious is aware that it's trapped, and it doesn't like it. So it fucks with the system. Whether you're waking, or sleeping. When you're sleeping, the manifestations of your brain's resistance to the program are the nightmares. When you're awake, they're the creatures. They won't hurt you—can't hurt you. But they'll hurt people around you. You did very well to leave your parents when you did."
She was talking animatedly now, moving her hands back and forth to illustrate her points. The lamp flickered.
He begged, "Give me something to get rid of this. I beg of you."
"I'm sorry. I don't have anything."
"Is that what you tell everyone else who comes to you?" Bitter now.
She said, "People come to me because of rumors. Friend of a friend stories. When they find out that I can't get rid of their manifestations, they lash out."
"Were you the first to be awakened, then? Is that why everyone comes to you?"
"Yes," she said. "I think I am."
"But you don't know what's going on. That means nobody knows what's going on. I've searched for you two years, for nothing." He banged his fist on the wall. It hurt, and felt good.
She said, "I'm sorry. I really am. I don't even know who put us in this prison. I've figured out only everything I've told you—nothing more."
"Then if you can't help me, at least can you tell me what will happen to me?"
She said, "I won't tell you."
He stood up.
"I can't," she said. "It won't change anything."
"Futures are infinite," he said. "Aren't they?"
"Not always. Not all the time."
He almost left, but she stopped him with words. "The world is coming to an end. That much is certain," she said. "A couple years ago, it was fifty percent human, fifty percent filler holograms. Now, it's ten percent real humans. They're losing us. We're dying."
He walked down the flickering neon streets, wandering. There were no cars. For the first time in his life, he wondered why no one ever went out at night.
He found some train tracks and waited for a long time. When the train hit him, it was just before the monsters did. He was glad, but not for long.