The food was not warm but it was many times more acceptable than chewing through frozen chunks and frost over his mouth and gullet. At least now the nerves in his teeth weren’t sending signals of shock through his jaw and his belly could feel satisfied with the steady stream of nutrients being offered to it.
The insidious scratching had continued, finding the perfect moments when his nerves had grown accustomed to the silence in order to disrupt them once again. It was as if the creature was terrorizing him, letting him know it was out there, right outside the meat locker, and it would get in, or wait for him to come out. They came faint at times, barely audible enough to catch Jimmy’s attention and others so loud that he was sure it had finally found a way to break through and would now be keeping him company.
He had always relished being alone. The lack of commitment to other people. Knowing he had accomplished everything he had by himself gave him pleasure. He was special, things just fell into place for him. His grandfather had always made sure to remind him of it as a child but it wasn’t until he hit his teens that Jimmy started to notice.
The way his peers looked at him. Looks of awe and admiration, even jealousy. He was athletic, smart, charming, attractive. A true natural at everything he touched. Alice had been the first to see it after his grandfather. She had reminded Jimmy of the old man’s words and had pushed him to try it all. To excel at anything and everything he could.
All he had wanted was to spend more time with her.
“James,” came Alice’s voice, startling Jimmy.
“Yes Nee?” he said.
“You’ve been in the same spot for four hours,” she said, “it would be good for you to get up and move around for a few minutes.”
Jimmy laughed. The first girl he had dated out of college had constantly nagged at him to take her out in a similar fashion. “You’ve been sitting around for hours! Don’t you want to take me out?” No. “Jimmy, why don’t you take me on a date for a change instead of staying here all the time?” Because I fucking hate you.
He had lived in her place for just under three months. The entire time there he had only ever went out for training at Lumis, the gym, groceries, or to get the hell away from her. How she hadn’t realized she meant nothing but a temporary fuck to him, he couldn’t say.
“For you Nee, I’d move around forever,” said Jimmy in a flirtatious tone.
“That would be impossible,” came Nee’s dry response.
“Not if you helped me find a way,” he continued. He knew she was limited in her realm of flirtatious responses. After the first few generations of personal AI’s had been released, there had been a massive community of people who had declared themselves ‘romantically involved’ with their AI. Not surprising. The good majority of them had been males.
Women made it impossible for the average man to win with them. They expected the world with nothing but judgement to give back. Even when the poor blokes mustered up the courage to speak up, they were ridiculed if they didn’t meet the level of someone perfect like Jimmy. To top it all off, if they did, they would just nag, nag, nag about how things should be instead of listen. Men need someone to listen to them when they feel weak.
He envied those generations.
“The human body is incapable of lasting forever without artificial aid,” said Nee, “and we have not discovered how to stop the gradual decay of the brain as of yet. I would be unable to assist you much. I am, limited, as you may see.”
Jimmy smiled. He knew the more he continued to flirt with her, the more he risked resetting her to her factory settings and preventing him from customization. It was a way to remind the user that the AI were not ‘real.’
“Well that’s too bad,” said Jimmy, “another promise I won’t be keeping.”
He shuffled around through the fog. He still felt the crawling over his skin as the darkness morphed into obscured nightmares. At least he had some piece of mind knowing that he had been here for some time without any episodes.
He began to wish he hadn’t accepted this assignment. That he had stayed above surface and taken another city. Even if it meant being forced a few more months with Zoe at his back. At least then he would still be able to get away.
Why had he left his bag behind?
“Nee,” he said.
“Talk to me please,” he said. Normally he loved silence, but here things felt different. He wasn’t sure if it was the circumstances or if boredom was starting to take hold. Either way, he wanted something to distract his thoughts.
“What would you like me to talk about?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said softly, “I just want to hear your voice.”
“In that case, I will read one of the books in your read list.”
“Take your pick.”
“Sunshine, by Patrick Malto,” she said without hesitation.
He closed his eyes and let out a chuckle. Just like Nee to constantly remind him to contact his parents. He wouldn’t, no matter how many times she reminded him to. They were just a constant reminder that people would exploit your weaknesses the moment they were given an opportunity if it benefited them. A reminder that he never needed to be accepted by anyone but himself.
Nee’s voice created a drone in the background as she voiced his father’s book. He thought about asking her to pick another title but decided against it. He had given her the reigns after all. It wouldn’t be fair to her if he stripped them away.
He stubbed his foot and nearly tripped over a container jutting at the end of the aisle he had been scooting through. He cursed under his breath as the sharp pain tore waves through his pinky toe. As soon as the pain subsided, he focused on the out-of-place container.
Fudge Claws. Judging by the packets piled by the container, Jimmy guessed he wouldn’t be finding any inside. He opened the lid and flashed the light in. He was glad now how frozen things got in here, but looking at something you consider unpleasant is still unpleasant. At least he had found the place he would be unloading himself in.
He placed the lid back and adjusted the container so it would not jut out. He looked down at the fudge claw packets with disgust. They could very well have been delicious, but once ruined, they’ll always look like shit.
“…darkness gripped him, turning his thoughts to ice. The realization that he had taken the life of the person he had loved most tore at his heart. She shouldn’t have been there. She had been upstairs where it was supposed to be safe,” continued Nee’s voice. He had always thought of his father’s work to be overly dramatic. Forced situations that his father knew nothing about with unrealistic outcomes. Yet somehow, the rest of the world seemed to disagree.
His father’s work was considered literary art that had appealed to the masses. His mother’s work was auditory orgasms captured in music. He was the only one that could see through the bullshit. He and his grandfather.
Jimmy had been pushed to the arts from when he could remember. Unlike his parents, however, he seemed to lack the gift of creativity. The one thing he had not been born a genius at was the very thing everyone expected of him. He had attempted to write, but the words did not flow. He had attempted still photography, even motion, but he could not capture the beauty like others did. He couldn’t play, he couldn’t sing, he couldn’t even hear music. All the forms he attempted had led nowhere.
But he had loved to paint, even if he knew what he made was terrible.
He knew they judged him for it. He was a disappointment in their eyes. They put on their fake smiles when he was around in hopes that he wouldn’t read through them, but he could see through it all. He knew that in their eyes he would never be a success if he did not have some sort of artistic achievement.
He didn’t need their approval, same as he didn’t need them. He had achieved more than they could have ever hoped for.
He felt the sting on the edges of his eyelids, reminding him that he had been up for too long already. He did not want to sleep yet. At all, if he was honest with himself. He was scared his eyes would close and never open back up. Or even worse, open back up and still be stuck here, in this nightmare.