Kid Error Meets a Garbage Can Man

Kid Error is the name he decides on. User Error can’t remember what the name of this alternate body he’s now stuck in is, so that’s what he’ll go with until he learns otherwise. It hits him that he’s just a bunch of wiggly little molecules all bonding together and doing their thing in the shape of whatever form he’s in now, and it’s really tripping him out. He wishes he could show Sanford his new digs, but Sanford’s back down there, in the tunnels, alone, probably wondering why User Error won’t wake up. He can tell Sanford’s trying to wake him, because every once in a while an image flashes in front of him, Sanford’s face, giant, with wide eyes and a frown, telling User not to die on him. User wants to go back to his old body just to tell Sanny D it’s gonna be okay, but he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to come back to this body, and he’s still got unfinished business he needs to take care of.

He doesn’t know where the sciencey dude that’s been keeping him in cryo sleep is, but he knows that when he finds him, he’s gonna blast him. He’s never fired a gun before, and this blaster looks super futuristic-like, but he’s pretty sure it’s just a point-and-shoot situation. He leaves the room he’s been kept in, blaster in hand, stolen sciencey overcoat on, and he looks both ways. There are more sciencey dudes wandering the halls, but they’re far enough away that they don’t see Kid Error. He puts his back to the wall like the action dudes he’s seen on faded old VHS tapes, but he stops when he realizes it’s super inefficient and slow-going, so he crouches a little and walks quietly instead.

More flashes, this time of his parents’ faces. He wouldn’t quite recognize them as User, but as Kid Error, he knows who they are. It’s like he has all of the memories of User but is being patched with a firmware update that adds in all of Kid’s memories. But it’s slow, like a crappy Windows 95 PC. It’s going one file at a time.

With the Sanford flashes and the parental flashes, it’s hard for Kid Error to focus on what he has to do. He keeps going anyway, down this hall that seems to go on forever, until he can hear the sounds of people coming from the direction he’s heading in. When he gets to the end, there are double doors that stretch from floor to ceiling, with frosted glass that refuses to show you what’s on the other side. Kid takes another step, and the doors open automatic-style.

In front of him are thousands and thousands of people, in a giant open room that makes the biggest tunnel in the underground look like a claustrophobic drainpipe. He opens his mouth, but he can’t breathe, like a sewer fish that accidentally flopped out of the water and now doesn’t know what in the frak to do. There are scattered shops leading to a huge bazaar where all the biz is going down, restaurants with posters that just say “EAT” on them, and bands playing in every corner of the warehouse-room, all of the sound coming together into one symphony of crazy. All the people are wearing relatively normal clothes. A little futurey, but recognizable. Kid decides his baggy overcoat would give him away, so he tosses it into a garbage can and starts to walk away. A voice coming from behind stops him:

“What in the world was that for?”

Kid turns around. It’s the garbage can. It has wheels at the bottom and a plastic garbage bag sticking out at the top, but Kid now notices that it also has a face.

“That was very rude. I don’t just toss things into your head, do I?”

“Oh, I’m… Shiz, I’m sorry, man. I thought you were a garbage can.”

If Kid didn’t know any better, he’d say that the garbage can’s getting all choked up.

“I was a garbage can. But I’m not anymore. How’d you like it if I called you a fetus, human boy?”

“I’m sorry, really. I’m new here.”

“New?”

Shit.

“Uh, I mean, I don’t come around here that much. Just, uh… play video games in my room?”

“A homebody, eh? Well you’ve a lot to learn about manners, human boy. I’ve been around for 400 years, and…”

“Wait, did you say 400? Like 4-0-0?”

“Yes. Are you deaf?”

“So you’ve been on this plane thingy for 400 years?”

“Of course, as has everyone else. You’re a strange child, human boy.”

Kid Error’s stomach drops.

“What year is it?”

“2400, of course. Wait, you’re not committing time crime, are you?”

The garbage can man looks for an authority to shout for.

“Time criminal! Time–”

Kid Error kicks the can man and tells him to shut it. He does.

“Okay, okay, so I’m not from here. But please don’t tell anyone. I need some help.”

Can Man looks around.

“The punishment for facilitating time crime is–”

“I’m not a time criminal, whatever that is, okay? Sheez. I’m originally from the underground. I live in the tunnels. Sorta.”

“Tunnels? Underground?”

“Yeah. Look, listen, it’s not important. What’s important is that you help me get out of here. Show me what’s what. Can you do that?”

“Well, I…”

“Look, you’re a good dude. I can tell. I’m sorry I called you a garbage can, but can you give a weirdo human boy a hand?”

“I don’t have hands. Nor would I want any, what with their gangly-looking fing–”

“You know what I mean. You gonna help me or not?”

Can Man look around again, then turns back to Kid Error.

“Come with me.”

Kid Error follows after Can Man, and the two of them roll/walk away.

Seeing Double

User Error is no longer User Error. Or at least he’s not at the moment. At the moment, he’s a kid in a cryo pod, waking up to unimaginable cold and stiffness, and the only thing that he can bring to mind when he asks himself who he is is an image of a transparent purple Game Boy Color being taken apart. He–or rather, the kid–is taking it apart. His vision is tunneled like he’s stuck in this kid’s POV, and he watches as the kid improvises with the tools at his disposal. Within seconds, the portable’s cyber innards are exposed, wires and speakers and metal contacts disconnected from the familiar plastic buttons that usually push them. Divorced from the rest of the system, the screen looks sleek beyond its years, thin and smooth and with a ribbon cable at the bottom that connects it to the rest of the hardware. The kid is careful not to sever any connections as he spreads the Game Boy’s disparate components as far as he can stretch them. The tiny portable assumes the dimensions of a chunky old PC, with its screen way up there, speakers stretched to there and there, controls yanked way far down. The kid pulls out two Game Boy cartridges–Pokémon Red and Blue. He takes them apart with a speed that lets you know he’s done this before. When they’re both open, he swaps the cases so that Red appears to be Blue and Blue appears to be Red. He closes them back up and pops in Red-Which-Is-Now-Blue. The screen lights up, blindingly bright, and the speakers let out that trademark Nintendo “DING!”

User’s back. Rather, he’s back in the present tense, back in the POV of this kid who must escape. Understood memories come back to him slowly as he pulls wires from his body and steals a doctor’s overcoat. Across the room is where his parents were back when he saw them awake, trying to free him before being blasted by that sciencey dude. But the details are fuzzy now. Were they really blasted, or did they just disappear? It’s hard to say. Waking up from cryo sleep is like swimming up from a great depth, from darkness so complete that the light at the surface seems like a mirage.

The Kid User gets the distinct impression that he’s going to be blasted by sciencey dudes if he doesn’t escape post haste. He rifles through the room and finds what looks to be one of those cool blaster dealies with a business end that’s all business. He goes back over to the two pods across the room from his own, where his parents once were but no longer are. Maybe they’re not dead. Maybe they escaped. But to where? Where was there to hide on a plane, even one as massive as this? They’d always find you in the end.

Kid User stops at a mirror before leaving the room. He’s a kid, but he looks cool for a kid. The back and sides of his head are shaved, with the cut on his right side going all the way up to the top of his hair line, where it makes a sharp, angled line all the way to the back of his hair. The rest of the hair on the top of his head is long, cut into what could be a mohawk, but he has it swooped over to the left side of his head. He has a scar on his left cheekbone he can’t place the origin of, and a scar that cuts through his right eyebrow. The overcoat he stole hangs loose on him, like a cloak. He looks down and finds that he’s wearing a Space Jam shirt and jeans. On his feet are fresh Adidas with the tongues sticking proudly up. Kid User nods at himself in the mirror, says “Let’s do this,” and exits the room, blaster at the ready.

When he opens the door, the sight he sees is enough to actually draw the breath from his body. He doesn’t know whether to shoot or run or stand perfectly still.

Flight Link

User Error is soaring through the sky, uplinked to something else, something apart from him, detached from his body, he doesn’t have the sensation of it, although he does know that he is who he is. He’s seeing things he’s never seen before in real life. He’s seeing the sky, an icy blue drifting into black the higher it goes, white-gray clouds floating pendulous like mounds of something unimaginably huge. He can look around, full 360 degrees, instantly, but when he looks down, he has no hands or feet or any of that jazz. He is flying.

He’s got the distinct impression that he’s being transfigured into something else. His consciousness is slipping away, but not into sleep. It’s changing into something–or someone–else. He can make out the land beneath the clouds, but he has no concept of what any of it means. He’s seen pictures and vids of rolling hills, but how are you supposed to jive that with a tee-tiny version of the thing all the way down there?

The farther he goes, the more he loses himself. He starts to forget the people and things down there in his subterranean home, his effed-up life in the tunnels. It’s groovy, but it’s also mondo scary. He’d pee if he could, but he can’t, because he doesn’t have a body right this second.

All of a sudden, he’s totally untethered from his identity of User Error. His best friend Sanford no longer exists in his mind. He has no concept of tunnels or fanny packs or Windows 95. He’s just a being of pure consciousness flying through the air.

He can’t think, necessarily. Instead, ideas and concepts and feelings seem to roll right by him, floating away when they want and sticking when they want to too.

A thought sticks: He could, if he wanted to, attach himself to another body. Not just any body, it’d have to be like The Chosen One or whatever, but if he found it, and focused in real strong like when you stare at something for a crazy long time and your vision starts to tunnel, then he could attach to this Chosen body and just basically Be Connected To The Real World Again.

He thinks about it for like 2.5 seconds and says Sure. I’ll do it. So User-Error-Who-Is-Not-Technically-User-Error-Any-Longer-But-Was-Once-User-Error flies straight ahead, right into storm clouds, without a destination in sight. He can just feel it, you dig? The farther in he goes, the more he can feel it. He can smell the salt of the rain as he passes through the clouds, feel the condensation on his being, even though he still doesn’t have a body. He gets the impression that there’s a lot of people out here just like him, invisible people that aren’t quite people but who could be again if they wanted to be. He thinks about–

Cold. Ice cold. Colder than anything he’s ever experienced before, cold he didn’t even know existed. He’s no longer in the sky, but inside a plane that’s currently flying through it, slowly floating down corridors that are larger than many tunnels he’s seen, this plane is absolutely massive, more like a small city than a plane, and he can see hundreds of people in this place, some of them awake but many of them sleeping in weird little chambers. He can float through doors and walls and all that ish. It’s pretty nifty.

He can, if he wants to, fly out of the plane again, but it’d be super cold and uncomfortable, so he doesn’t. He does want to see what the view is like from inside the plane, so he finds this big old window, like we’re talking tunnel crocodile big. He looks through, and he can see one of the plane’s wings out the window. The whole thing’s covered with this black material that has individual cells on it, and he remembers reading about how above ground they used to use the power of the sun to make things work. Looks like the same mollynoggin here.

He can tell the Other Body is super duper close, and so he starts doing this like Spidey Sense Thing to find it. He does that tunnel vision thing, and stops thinking, and lets himself go, and he suddenly zooms over to the body at an incredible speed, clipping through walls and doors, flying past entire congregations of people, to the back of the plane, where he gets the impression there’s some shady stuff going down. He zooms so fast that he can barely see any details, but he’s honed in on this Other Body Jazz.

And then he’s there, in the room, looking down at this person, this kid that’s him even though it isn’t him. The boy is sleeping in some Mister Freeze icebox-looking thing, and he has no consciousness or awareness at the moment. There are sciencey-looking dudes prowling the area, making observations and checking off things on clipboards.

More than anything, he wants to wake this kid up, to bring him back to life. He would give anything, do anything, to save this kid’s life.

So it happens. As soon as he thinks it, a critical component of the icebox dealie shorts out, shooting sparks into the air and everything. The icebox warms up and becomes not-so-icy, and the airlock opens. The kid’s heart monitor gets faster and faster, and as it does, User starts fading away from this existence he’s in. He leaves by degrees, like eyes that are slowly closing to the darkness.

When he opens them, he’s the kid. He doesn’t know his name yet, but that doesn’t matter now. What matters is that the door is open, and it’s time for him to escape.

Log 42

“I guess this is like log 42 or something I don’t know I’ve lost track anyway I don’t even know if this tape recorder still works but if it does I’m just going to play this back for Microsoft Sam and see if he can turn the talk to text so I can put it on a floppy disk for later Sanford’s asleep right now and I’m trying not to wake him so I’m walking my bike down the tunnel it’s kind of creepy the way the chain click echoes down the tunnel click click click like some sort of weird alien getting ready to jump me or something I mean I’ve seen crazier stuff I wouldn’t be that surprised Sanford still doesn’t believe me about the world out there about how I saw myself above ground as a little kid coming out of cryosleep he thinks it’s too far-fetched but I say living down in tunnels Underground with all sorts of weird ghoulies and all that jazz is pretty far-fetched too I’m trying to figure out a way to get back there back to that cold white room with the Weird Science e dude but I don’t know how I don’t know maybe it’s like a video game you know let’s say you get murked in like Pac-Man or something what happens game over right who’s to say that’s not the same thing here the simulations a lot more advanced but it’s still a Sim I don’t know maybe if I just find one of the outflow tunnels the tunnels that shoot down into the ground and extend for miles the ones I’ve heard stories about where people fall into them and you can never hear them hit the bottom sometimes I think that if I jump into one of those I might just wake back up in the real world and I want to try it I really do but I know that if I tell Sanford this ish he’s just going to make me about face and March on back home you know I’ve known Sanny B since we were both super little and I love the guy he’s my brother but he doesn’t always know what’s up and the wack thing is that I can’t tell him that it would crush him I don’t know if I’ll end up jumping into one of those tunnels or push on to climb out to the top into the above ground but I guess we’ll find out at the very least when I feed this thing into Microsoft Sam it’s going to sound freaking hilarious I can hear his voice now sounding like a cross between a robot and an alien trying to sound human but yeah that’s what’s up right now I guess I’ll go wake up Sanford so we can continue our Quest and sheez.”

Green Fields Forever

“So here’s a dream: I’m in a wide open green field, and the sun is shining.”

“Like the actual sun?”

“The actual one. And I know I don’t know what the sun’s like, but in the dream I do. It’s warm, and bright, and it makes my skin feel good, and I just feel like smiling when I’m under it.”

“How bright is it?”

“Super bright. So bright it hurts to look directly at it. So I look at what it’s shining on instead: the grass, the trees, all that.”

“Grass and trees?”

“Yep. The grass is itchy when you lie on it, but it’s still super nice. There’s bugs in the grass, but mostly just ants and stuff, not the weird creepy crawlies you find here in the tunnels.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah. And the trees are plants, but they’re crazy strong. Like you could karate chop one and not even leave a mark.”

“Holy crap.”

“I’m telling you, Sanford. But in the dream, the green field doesn’t go on forever. There’s like clear borders and stuff. I’m boxed in, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“And right outside the border, everything is crazy messed up. Like exactly how you’ve said above ground probably looks like. Fire, destruction, all that jazz.”

“And brimstone?”

“Brimstone confirmed. And if you get close to the border, it smells sour, like the air is burnt. There are people crying, only you can’t see them. You can hear them, but they’re out of sight.”

“Can you cross the border?”

“Yeah, but I’m scared to. In the dream, I’m not 20. I’m like 11 or 12. I’m freaked out, you know?”

“Of course.”

“And the weird thing is that I can sense that nothing will ever change in this green field. I’ll stay the same age forever. I’ll never get sick, never die, but I can’t leave the field. If I leave it, I’ll suffer. But I want to leave it. I don’t want to get hurt, but I need to know what’s out there. I need to know who’s out there. Because I get the distinct impression in the dream that my parents are alive somewhere out there. I have no idea where they are, but I’ve got to find them. You dig?”

“I dig. So this is like your cryo dream? Where you saw your mom and pop getting blasted by some evil science dude?”

“Kind of. Like I’m the same person, same age, but this is for sure a dream. The cryo thing was real.”

“Sure.”

“It was real.”

“Okay, User. So what else about the dream?”

“It keeps going on like that. On and on and on.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean everything keeps moving and changing outside of the green field. The sun above me stays right there, but a second sun outside the border rises and falls, rises and falls. Gnarly trees grow up, birds nest in them, plants sprout out of the broken concrete, and all of this happens in seconds.”

“Like that dude we saw back there in the tunnel who kept going through life cycles and junk?”

“Yeah, only it wasn’t one guy getting born and dying again and again, it was everything. And the more time that passed, the less cries I could hear. Instead of cries, I just heard birds chirping and nice little rainstorms and sheez.”

“Sounds kinda nice.”

“Yeah, except in the dream, I know that with each cry that goes quiet, there’s one less person out there. I’m okay in this green field, but it’s only me in here. I’m alone.”

“So how does it end?”

“It doesn’t. Not really, anyway. I want to leave the field, but I’m afraid of suffering out there. I want to stay safe in the field, but I don’t want to be alone. So I don’t do anything. Then I wake up.”

“Shiz.”

“Yeah.”

“So, uh… What do you want to do now?”

“I want to find the green field.”

“Like stay safe and all that?”

“No, the actual green field.”

“User, it’s not gonna be there. It’s not real.”

“Right. Fire and brimstone. But the thing is, fire and brimstone doesn’t last forever. It can’t. There’s cycles. The world’s gonna be bad for a while, then it’ll get kind of good. Then it’ll get mondo sucky, but then it’ll get way better. The fire will die out, and the plants will sprout. How long have we been living in these tunnels? How long has it been since our ancestors came down here? We really have no idea what it’s like up there. And we’ll never know unless we try and find a way out.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I’m in, bro. If it keeps you away from the cryo stuff and focused on the real world that’s right in front of you, I’m all gung ho about it, my dude.”

“What?”

“The cryo stuff’s real, too. I have a family out there, and I’m going to train my brain to wake up and find them. But in the meantime, I want to see what above ground looks like.”

“Well then you know what I’ve gotta say?”

“What?”

“Let’s boogie!”

Waterfall, Robot Leg

User Error and Sanford Brisket are cycling/rollerblading down an offshoot tunnel, relying on their headlights/lamps and the bioluminescent sludge on the tunnel walls to see their way through. They’ve got their portable CD player playing Now That’s What I Call Music!, Sanford’s idea, and San is singing all the words to “MMMBop,” or at least what little words there are. User Error is putting up with it till Radiohead’s “Karma Police” comes on, which is one of his favorite songs. They’ve listened to this CD together more times than they can count. Hanson eventually plays out, and “Zoot Suit Riot” is next.

“Where’s this frakking waterfall, User?”

“We’re super close, I think.”

“Like how close?”

“I don’t know, San. Let me commune with the ancients or something and pinpoint the ETA for you.”

User holds one hand to his temple while he steers his bike with the other.

“Nope, still have no idea.”

“Smartass. Well maybe–”

Both of them smack into something with enough force to make them shout expletives but not enough force to knock them over. They both come to a squealing stop and look behind them. Where they just came from, there’s a huge piece of plastic, cut to fit the tunnel exactly, hanging from the tunnel ceiling. It’s been painted to give the illusion that the tunnel goes on forever. Sanford turns to User:

“Holy shit, man. We’ve been Wile E. Coyote-ed.”

“Uh, Sanford…”

Sanford turns back around to see what User is looking at: The Waterfall.

The tunnel opens up into a massive atrium, unbelievable in size, impractical even, with outflow pipes poking out through all of the walls and loosing water into a carved-out cavity below. One main pipe supplies the waterfall; it’s large enough to fit User and Sanford’s entire town comfortably. User Error drops his bike to the ground. Sanford Brisket kicks off his rollerblades.

“Holy fucking Tamagotchi, User. Are you seeing this?”

“I’m seeing this.”

“What do we do?”

“Uh, go in? I haven’t had a bath in like ever. Like not once since I was born.”

“Saaame. Let’s do it.”

They wade into clean water, clear enough that you can see to the bottom. At its deepest, the water comes up to their chests, which is good because neither of them can swim. Twenty years of dirt and grime come off of both of them. They try to clean out their tangled, matted hair too, but that isn’t as easy. User grabs a knife out of his fanny pack and cuts his hair with it until he’s left with short, brown, non-matted hair. He passes the knife over to Sanford, who ends up with the same haircut, only blond. Sanford passes the knife back to User, who lets out a sigh of relief.

“I feel fresh.”

“One hundred percent. I feel fresh to death right now.”

“I didn’t even know it was possible to feel this clean.”

“Right? I feel lighter. There must’ve been like thirty pounds of dirt on me. It’s insane.”

User scans his surroundings. He finds dozens of pipes sprouting from everywhere, stone brick walls, and branching tunnel systems that look like they were constructed centuries ago. He turns to Sanford:

“Who do you think wanted to hide this?”

“I don’t know, but fuck them. I’ve been drinking puddle water my whole life when I could’ve been having this stuff.”

Sanford crouches so that his open mouth is at the surface of the water. He walks forward, drinking water in huge gulps, making it look like he’s trying to eat the water as he keeps walking forward. User makes a cup with his hands and drinks from the pool.

Time passes. Sanford looks at User:

“My stomach hurts.”

“Yeah, ‘cause you drank like gallons of water when you’re only used to slurping a little at a time.”

“Whatever. What do you want to do now? I’d take a picture, but cameras don’t exist anymore.”

“Let’s go to the waterfall, see if there’s an Easter egg behind it.”

“What the fuck is an Easter?”

User laughs.

“An Easter egg is something cool that’s hidden. In like video games and stuff.”

“Oh, sweet. Let’s do it.”

They wade over to the waterfall. The sound is deafening, so they cross past the falling water as fast as they can. Standing there in front of them are dozens of sickly pale people, completely naked, covered in moss and with their open mouths pointed at the tunnel ceiling. There are insects everywhere. They get curious and land on some of the people’s mouths. These people close their mouths mechanically and keep them closed.

“What I am seeing right now, User?”

“Uh… It looks like…”

“What?”

“It looks like a tribe of people that’s evolved, or devolved, to a vegetative state where they like passively catch prey. Or something.”

“These are people?”

“Yeah. I mean, I think they are. Technically.”

Sanford turns to them:

“Hey! Are you people?”

None of them so much as blink. There’s even bioluminescent sludge growing on some of them.

“Okay, this is giving me the Cheez-Its, User. Let’s get out of here.”

“Agreed.”

They leave. Walking out of the water, User Error’s limp is more noticeable than usual. Sanford almost never mentions it, but:

“Hey, are you okay, man? Seems like your leg’s getting worse.”

“I know. I’m thinking of chopping it off and giving myself a robot leg.”

“Robot leg?”

“Robot leg. I just need to gather the parts.”

User gets on his bike, and Sanford puts his rollerblades back on:

“Shit yeah, man! Let’s adventure.”

Neither of them know which tunnel they should go down, so they pick one at random and zoom off into the darkness.

Jams and Cycles

User Error is watching the way the lights flash by as he cycles down his town’s main tunnel, Sanford Brisket rollerblading next to him while beatboxing. They’re going so fast that Sanford’s constantly getting out of breath, stopping his beat to breathe, then beatboxing again when he gets bored. He looks at User.

“Let’s listen to some jams.”

“Now?”

“Yeah, I’m bored. I want to hear some of the tunes you whipped up on that computer of yours.”

User Error stops his bike and pulls out a beaten and battered portable CD player from his backpack. The top of it is partially broken, but he fixed that with some duct tape and super glue. The anti-skip still kind of works. He pulls out a dusty CD case and gives Sanford his pick of about 100 discs in total, some of them ones that User scavenged in his travels and some that he made himself, chopping up MIDI files and making music out of computer error sounds, startup music, and the digitized Beethoven that came standard with every copy of Windows 95.

Sanford chooses a CD of User Error’s latest mixes. User loads the CD and hangs the headphones over his neck, if they can still be called headphones at this point. A while back, User removed the foam over-ear coverings and made some modifications. He flipped the speakers so that they were facing outward and tinkered with them until they were playing at the volume of a loud radio. That’s how he likes to listen to his jams.

The first song sounds like a synthesized choir flying through space. The beat slams, the bass is funky, and you can just tell how much fun User Error was having when he made it.

They’re getting moving again, the sound reverberating off of the tunnel walls.

“Okay, this is a bop, User.”

“Yeah?”

“Certified fresh, man. I’d give birth to this if I was a lady.”

User laughs:

“What?”

“Yeah man. You should play this for mamas who are popping out babies. It’d make the whole experience much cooler, I bet.”

“Okay… I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Yeah man. Really good stuff.”

It goes on like that, one song bleeding into another, both of them going farther than they’ve ever gone before, beyond the lights that are still running, into the dark, until User has to switch on his bike’s headlight and Sanford has to put on his headlamp.

“Sanford, what do you think you would have done above ground? Like as a job?”

“We’ve been over this. There is no one and nothing above ground.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I mean like before everything went crazy. Before our ancestors went all ‘fuck this’ and got down into the tunnels. You know? There were jobs. You’d go somewhere and do something for like eight hours, then at the end of the day you could go to like an apartment or something and your boss would give you paper so that you could go buy food. So what would your job be?”

“How would I get food paper?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit, I’d probably just find where they kept all the food paper and take it for myself.”

“This isn’t like someone hoarding gold in a cave, San. They had like vaults and guards and stuff. They kept their money on the Inner Net.”

“Damn. Well, I don’t know then. Probably someone who tells travelling tales. You know? Like you see these guys going from tunnel to tunnel, and everyone gathers around to hear them weaving it thick, and everybody loves it. Everyone needs stories, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Plus, if the people above ground were dumb enough to destroy everything up there, I’m pretty sure I could trick them into giving me a shit ton of food paper.”

“You’re ridiculous, Sanford. You know that, right?”

“I am aware.”

The CD plays out. The tunnel makes the music sound like it’s coming from miles underwater. Sanford looks at User Error.

“Do you ever think about cycles, User?”

“Like bicycles?”

“No, like things happening again and again. That kind of cycle.”

“Eternal return?”

“Eternal what?”

“Eternal return. So basically, the theory goes that the world and the Inner Net and the universe and all of it will all one day come to an end.”

“Already seems like it has.”

“Yeah, I know. But the theory says that after all of it ends, it all starts up again. Like everything, word for word and step for step. The world happens, and people make the Inner Net, and everything blows up, and there’s us tunnel people, all of it.”

“And there’s no way to stop it?”

“Nope. It just cycles again and again, over and over. For all of eternity, you and I will be running into each other as kids, then becoming friends, then going on adventures, and then having this exact conversation.”

“What if I change it and… FUCK.”

“What?!”

“Nothing, sorry. I just wanted to mess with the cycle.”

“That’s the thing though, San. The theory says that you’ve always yelled out ‘fuck’ in the middle of the conversation like that, and you always will. And you’d have no way of knowing, because your memory is wiped each time you’re born again. Like a fresh hard drive.”

“Holy shit.”

“Right?”

“No, I mean holy shit, where is this waterfall at? We’ve been going for like hours now.”

“I think we’re almost there.”

“You think?”

“Well yeah, I’ve never been there before. But it feels like it, right?”

Sanford thinks for a second, then smiles.

“Yeah, it does.”

User Error starts his CD from the beginning. They ride on into the darkness.

User Error

User Error hobbles along through the main tunnel of his town, toward home, leaning into his good leg to get to his bike quicker. He can move better on his bike. On his bike, he can’t smell the gangrene rot of the underground, and all the lights streak by like he imagines they’d streak by inside the Inner Net, where people say you used to be able to talk to anyone and see anything you wanted. He’s got an old PC, bland-gray, chunky monitor, industrial keyboard, with moss covering it, and the backside’s exposed so you can see all the machine’s inner workings. Wires extend from the old computer and snake up to the top of the tunnel like vines, where User Error is trying to make his own Inner Net.

It took him 6 months to get the PC working, assembled from parts and pieces he could scavenge, carrying a stick with him because the parts and pieces were very valuable and you never knew who might come out of the darkness to jack your shit.

User Error had a regular name once, but his parents died when he was really little, and no one in town knew what the name was. No one took him in, so he just sort of wandered around his whole childhood, collecting what food he could and scavenging parts to make things. He doesn’t talk about what gave him the limp.

He rehabilitates MIDI files, cuts and splices till transformations happen and he can hear the inner workings of his soul out there in the music, echoing through the tunnels, with the darkness and sounds of condensed droplets falling from the ceiling onto the calcified tunnel floor.

User Error’s hair is matted, the scalp underneath scarred, and no matter how many times he cuts the hair off, it comes in the same way all over again.

He’s soldering wires now, trying not to start a fire, and he’s got a bucket of leakwater next to him in case he does. Sanford Brisket comes up from behind him and gives him a scare. User Error says Ha Ha, and Sanford sits down next to him to see what he’s doing.

“You got it on the Inner Net yet?”

“Not yet. I’m working on it.”

Sanford scratches a louse out of his long, tangled blond hair. He flicks it at User Error and laughs.

“What are you gonna do when you get it running and no one’s there?”

“Someone will be there.”

“Above ground?”

“Yeah. Above ground.”

“Nothing above ground but skulls and gross shit. I’m trying to tell you.”

“So what do you want me to do? Give up and be like everyone else?”

“Nah, man. Let’s have some fun. This is the dumbest time to be alive! Let’s celebrate!”

Sanford Brisket laughs, then coughs up mucus. He wipes it on his sleeve and points at the screen, where there are lines of green text glowing on a black screen.

“What’s all that mean? Is that how you build the Inner Net?”

“Yeah. It’s code. Like how you and I are made up of code, and the world isn’t real except in a giant computer somewhere, and we’re all living lives we’ve already lived, only we’re somewhere else, somewhere above ground, maybe even in outer space, and we’re trying to sort out a past life so we can know something new about the future, which is the present then. It’s like that, but we’re the ones with the computer.”

Sanford looked genuinely impressed.

“Okay. Okay. So you’re making a universe, then?”

“Kind of. Maybe. I don’t know. We’ll see, I guess.”

“Then what are we gonna do?”

“We’ll go inside our Inner Net and see if we can find the bigger, main Inner Net. We just have to find a way to convert ourselves.”

“Convert?”

“Yeah. Like I’d be usererror.jpeg and you’d be sanfordbrisket.jpeg. We’d just have to change it over to whatever’s compatible in the main Inner Net, and then we’ll be golden.”

“You know this sounds fucking crazy, right?”

“Yeah, well so does living in a town underground while everything above is dead and gone. Everything’s tunnels, Sanford. We live in our tunnels, and the Inner Net has its own tunnels. We just need to find a way to sneak in.”

Sanford looks over his shoulder and points at a long tunnel that stretches out beyond the darkness.

“Shit, man, why don’t we explore those tunnels? You’ve got your bike, I’ve got my rollerblades. We’ll pack weapons and provisions in our fanny packs. What’s stopping us?”

“Well…”

“Well what?”

User Error looks at Sanford Brisket. He tries to hide a smile, but can’t.

“Well, I have been needing a new processor. You know, to speed up Deep Thought.”

“Deep Thought?”

“It’s a computer name. I read it in a book once.”

Sanford hikes up his fanny pack and tightens it around his waist.

“So what do you say, glob goblin? Are we doing this?”

User Error laughs.

“We’re doing this.”

User Error pulls his bike out from where it’s hidden under moss and dirt. He wipes off the seat and climbs on while Sanford straps on his rollerblades. They get moving, and Sanford looks at User Error.

“Do the thing! Do the thing!”

User Error looks embarrassed, but he does it anyway:

“Hi-ho Silver, away!”

They speed off down the tunnel, lights a blur, wind blowing their matted, tangled hair, and they’re going so fast that they could be in another time, another place.

Breath and Fluctuations

When he discovered he no longer needed to eat to survive, he devoted most of his waking hours to meditation. He remembered picking up the habit as a young man in San Francisco, in a Zen Buddhist temple with a vase that held a single flower, spare decorations, and a memento mori in the corner with a human skull that seemed to look at you as you walked the room in kinhin. He couldn’t remember much else from that time, as it was more than 280 years ago. Just the flower, the skull, the walking, and the fluctuation of the breath.

He found that meditation relieved some of the fog that had accumulated over the centuries, allowed him to return to a time and a place that no longer existed.

His city was rubble. He had returned there once, seen the plants and trees sprouting past cracked pavement, watched daily as the vines choked rusted-out cars and street signs whose letters could no longer be read. He allowed himself one night in this broken city, one night to mourn a place he hardly remembered, a place that took him over a hundred years to find.

He was not immortal, but it sometimes seemed he could not die. His body was still breaking down, memory still fading, hair still graying and falling out, but he kept going. That’s what it was for decades, the last survivors seemingly unaffected by the outbreak, seemingly enhanced by it, injuries healing quickly, lifespans extended, metabolisms improved to the point where one could go months without food. But time claims everyone. No matter how long it takes, time always wins.

He hadn’t seen anyone since the last blast. A reactor had gone into meltdown, caused catastrophic destruction. He remembered an event from before the outbreak, when he was an older man. Fukushima. Similar devastation. He could heal from many injuries he’d sustained over the years, but he wouldn’t have been able to survive that blast. And, it seemed, no one did.

He’d been exploring a tunnel system under a school he came across when it happened. He was holding a light to the tunnel walls and trying to read the writing of students who had passed centuries ago when the blast came. It seemed to shake the tunnel walls, and concrete and dust blanketed his thinning hair, his chest-long beard. He couldn’t move for over an hour, wouldn’t dare to. Even after centuries, the fear of death remains.

He came outside to a flooding city, with plant and animal life flowing like so many leaves on the surface of a stream. There was no sound except for the flowing water and the rattling of the leaves on the trees. He was alone.

He was taken by how beautiful it was. He knew he shouldn’t think that way, but it was an apotheosis of destruction. He did not run at first. He stood in the water with his bare feet, bare because there had been no shoes to be found for decades, and he watched as the city was carried away from him. Time passed like that, much time. He dipped his hands into the water and washed out the debris from his hair, face, beard. When it was time, he left that city and never returned.

He could think of only one way to keep track of how many years had passed since the fall. He found an orchard, far from where he had started, that had a plaque still legible at the gate leading into it. According to the plaque, the trees inside had been planted in the year 2030 as a gift from a local benefactor. He always ached to know the time, but he knew that this orchard wouldn’t last forever. When enough years or decades had passed and he could no longer take it, he would chop down one of these trees and count the rings. The last tree he felled had over 200 rings.

Even with the length of time he waited before chopping down each tree, the orchard was almost empty. Stumps littered the grounds like so many wooden gravestones. He made the trees’ wood last as long as possible.

He felt he should be broken after all this time, all this wear, but he wasn’t. At least he didn’t feel that way. His body ached, and he grew more tired with each year that passed, but his mind was lifted. He collected his things each day, made his journeys, and catalogued what he saw in his mind. Sometimes, when he wanted to hear a human voice, he gave himself a running commentary of what he saw, what he was thinking. He constructed stories in his head and read them aloud as he climbed hills and walked through fields and traversed forests, describing the moss that grew like miniature worlds beneath his feet, the carvings he’d sometimes find on trees, inscriptions that were mostly illegible, carvings made by lovers for lovers, people who could never imagine these days. He saw many things.

Someday, he would die. This was not speculation. It might take a hundred years or more, but it would happen. It just wouldn’t happen today. So he sat beside a flowing stream and took a breath. He held it, felt it, and let it leave him like just another leaf on a stream.