Tom W. Miller
Late for work, Conner Peterson weaved through heavy traffic on the expressway. When the lane to his left started flowing more freely, he swerved and cut off a white Camry to gain a few seconds. The Camry's driver slammed on the brakes and laid on the horn.
"Screw you, jerk!" yelled Conner as he glared into his rearview mirror. He rode the bumper of the car in front of him and checked the time on the dashboard clock. He might just make it on time to the biggest presentation of his life.
When Conner walked into the conference room with two minutes and twelve seconds to spare, everybody was already there and waiting. Daniel Ellsworth and Paul Martin, co-founders of Marsworth, the company that made Sparkle laundry detergent and a host of other household products, tilted their heads toward each other and conversed softly. Wick Jacobs, president of Jacobs Advertising, checked his watch and tried to mask his annoyance. Further down the table, Gary Sandford smirked with evil delight. He would like nothing better than to see Conner falter so he could take over the prestigious account.
Conner walked around to his audio-visual stand where he had set up a laptop and projector the previous evening. He tapped an icon to open his slideshow presentation. "Morning, everybody. Without further adieu, I'll get right into my modern and exciting vision for the future of Sparkle laundry detergent."
A small disc continued to spin on the blue laptop screen. The silence lengthened. "I'm sure it'll load up here in a few seconds," said Conner, tapping random keys. "Prepare to be amazed."
More spinning. Martin and Ellsworth exchanged looks of concern. Jacobs drummed his fingers on the table. Sandford's smile grew behind the hand on his face. Conner resisted the urge to take the laptop and smash it over his rival's head.
A sudden shift in the floor interrupted these violent thoughts. Conner lost his balance and the walls around him began to ripple and shake. Earthquake, he thought. Got to get out of here before the building collapses.
His audience did not seem to notice the impending disaster. Martin and Ellsworth whispered to each other. An impatient Jacobs pressed his lips together. Sandford looked poised to break out in a gleeful cackle.
Conner stepped toward the exit but lost his footing on the sliding floor. He climbed to his hands and knees, tried to crawl, but the whole room was shaking with rapid seismic waves.
"Conner!" shouted a female voice. He looked up at the room's intercom, but the voice originated from somewhere beyond the ceiling.
Frozen with terror, he felt a hand brush his cheek. In the next instant, the conference room, along with its buckling walls and expectant occupants, vanished.
The tremors stopped. Conner blinked as he tried to process his sudden phase shift. Instead of crawling through a crumbling office, he found himself on a wide, wooden deck, reclining on a chaise lounge, looking out over an expanse of verdant, tree-covered hills. Instead of a three-piece suit, he wore a loose robe, so white it almost hurt to look at it.
Above him, large, worried, ice-blue eyes studied him. Conner took in the plump red lips, the smooth golden skin, the honey blonde hair. Recognition dawned.
In her right hand, his wife held the set of black VR goggles she had just ripped from his face. She checked an LED readout on top of the device. "Sorry to yank you out of there, Conner, but you overdescaped and weren't responding to the emergency warnings."
Conner began to get his bearings, began to distinguish reality from fantasy. He lived in a society of complete peace and tranquility. Robots performed all work so that men and women could spend their time creating art, pondering the universe, and supporting one another. Twice a week, for exactly forty-two minutes and fourteen seconds, each person descaped from this utopia back into a setting of stress, competition and strife. The virtual travelers received the benefits of adrenaline and cortisone--a sharpened mind, hardier genetic material, and improved immune function. The trips also provided an outlet for people's baser instincts, which, if allowed to fester below the surface, could upset their tranquil paradise.
"Maybe you should go to the doctor," said Layla. "I could--"
"No," snapped Conner as he stood up. "I'm not going to the doctor. I'll be fine."
Layla dropped her head, and Conner reached for her hand. "I'm sorry about my tone, darling. Yes, I went over a bit, and apparently I've brought some of those ugly emotions over with me. But I've gone over before, and it's been okay. The sensations dissipate quickly."
Layla wouldn't look him in the eyes. "You'd never gone over by more than a few seconds. "This time, it was almost four minutes."
Conner bit back a snarky comment and just breathed. He placed an index finger under his wife's chin, lifted her face and saw the tears welling in her lovely eyes. "Really, honey--I'm all right."
"I just worry about you, Conner. I mean, everybody descapes, but you--you really seem to enjoy it. Sometimes, I feel like you'd prefer it to be your reality."
"Absolutely not," said Conner, taking her face in his hands. "My bliss is wherever you are." He gave her a soft kiss and pulled her into an embrace. Layla put her arms around him and squeezed. After several seconds, she released him and wiped her eyes.
"Better?" asked Conner.
The corners of Layla's mouth turned upwards. "Aren't you meeting Marcus soon?" she asked.
"That's right. But don't worry--I've got control of myself. I'll do some Tai Chi now, and I'll leave a little bit early so I won't feel rushed driving over there."
Conner parked his electric transport vehicle in Marcus Ritter's driveway behind a car of the same make and model. He opened the unlocked front door and made his way through a foyer and living room to the basement stairs. He knew the way because Marcus's house, like every other residence in the area, had the exact same layout as his own abode.
Marcus was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. "Good to see you again, Mr. President," said Conner. The two men chuckled as they shook hands. The title did not have the prestige once attached to it back in the days of political conflict and elections, but a president and legislature were still handy decision-making institutions. Anybody could apply to serve a one-month term, and if nobody volunteered, the offices rotated on an alphabetical basis. As long as Conner could remember, the public had always unanimously supported the government's choices.
"President for three more days," said Marcus, "then Doris Davidson takes over. It's been a quiet month."
"You're lucky. Last time I was president, we had road construction."
"That's right. I remember you cut our descape times by five minutes and thirteen seconds to offset the natural stress arising from traffic delays. Great job."
"Thanks. You know that's always a tricky calculation."
"Indeed," said Marcus, who walked around the green and white table, picked up a paddle, and looked at Conner from across the net. "You ready to play?"
"Maybe a little warm-up first." Conner tossed the ping pong ball in the air and started a rally. After his arms and shoulders started to loosen, he started practicing spins--topspin, slice, and finally, the extreme side spin he had worked on with Layla for three hours yesterday afternoon. When one of his shots ricocheted off Marcus's side of the table, Conner announced he was ready to play points.
Conner kept his first serve low, forcing Marcus to pop the ball up just enough to allow Conner to slam it home.
"Nice combination," said Marcus, crouching for the next point. When Conner tried the same serve again, Marcus replied with a heavy underspin drop shot. Conner dove toward the net but could not get his paddle underneath it in time.
"Good shot," muttered Conner, though he shook his head. Marcus adapted quickly and he should have varied his stroke.
Conner tossed the ball across the net so Marcus could have his two serves. The president didn't announce a score because nobody kept score during ping pong. Everybody played for the exercise, the chance to improve their skills, the companionship, and the sheer love of the game. Players left finished points in the past and focused on the present.
Marcus tried a short angle serve. Conner anticipated it in time to run around the side and return it with heavy topspin. Marcus, however, didn't hesitate. With his opponent out of position, Marcus took the shot on the rise and drove it across the open table for a winner.
"You're on fire so far," said Conner, struggling to keep his tone pleasant.
"I've gotten more consistent with my workouts," said Marcus. "Four hours of hitting a day, usually with another legislator. Weight training, yoga, time on the treadmill."
"It's paying off," said Conner through gritted teeth. You're down two to one, said a voice inside his head.
Conner stepped back from the table and held up a hand.
"You okay?" asked Marcus.
"I went over on my last descape. I'm still feeling the effects."
"Almost four minutes."
"Whoa. Maybe you should spend some time in the serenity tank."
"No, really, I'm okay. Let's play."
They continued to trade points, but Conner never lost track of the score. Down three to six, he went on a four-point run that included a perfect drop shot.
Marcus, oblivious of the growing drama, persisted. At nine all, he hit a sizzling crosscourt forehand just out of Conner's reach.
Conner stifled a frustrated growl and prepared to serve, down game point. Marcus's return popped up a little and Conner unleashed a powerful drive. Instead of blocking it back, Marcus replied with a full swing and initiated a high-speed, topspin rally. After several exchanges, Conner forced Marcus around the side of the table. Sensing the opening, Conner decided the time was right to use his side shot. He executed the stroke he had worked on tirelessly with Layla.
The ball drifted off the right side of the table without making contact.
"Shoot!" yelled Conner, the rage finally boiling over. He turned and fired his paddle into the wall behind him. The paddle clattered to the floor and left a gaping hole in the drywall.
Eyebrows raised and mouth agape, Marcus stood in total shock. Conner wished he had the ability to time travel a minute into the past.
"Marcus," said Conner, "I am so sorry. I don't know what got into me. I'll fix the damage to your walls."
"It's that descape. As president, I'm advising you to spend two hours in the serenity tank. It's for your own good and for the good of our society. Don't worry about the wall--just go."
A wave of shame washed over Conner. Layla was right--he had enjoyed his descapes more than he should have. He savored the satisfying thrill of a time-saving traffic maneuver. He relished the accomplishment when his advertising campaign increased a client's sales. The world of his descapes was stressful but challenging in a way his real life would never be. He had wanted to keep score, destroy his opponent, and reinforce his own sense of self-worth at his friend's expense.
Conner picked up the paddle and set it on the table. "You're right, Marcus--and again, I'm sorry." He turned and started climbing back up the basement stairs.
The pure tenor voices of the Gregorian monks filtered through the ninety-nine degree salt water in which Conner was suspended. He breathed purified air through a mask that covered his mouth and nose. As he practiced the ancient meditative techniques, all boundaries between his naked flesh and the surrounding liquid disappeared. As his floated, his aggression, his need for conflict and competition, leached from his pores.
Conner was moments away from achieving perfect equilibrium when a burst of light and sound invaded his tranquility. Through the chanting, he heard Marcus's voice: "You need to get out of there, Conner. Something's come up."
A platform slid beneath Conner's feet and lifted him out of the water. Warm, flowing air dried him and robotic arms draped a white robe over him. He descended a staircase and glanced at a screen on the side of the tank. He had achieved 94.7 percent serenity before his session was cut short.
Marcus put a hand on his shoulder. Conner remembered the ping pong game and the hole in the wall only as fleeting moments of a fading dream.
"Sorry to disturb you, Conner, but we've got a situation."
Adrenaline coursed back into Conner's system. "What's going on? Is Layla okay?"
"It's not Layla. Our satellites have detected a large fleet of ships moving toward us."
"Not visitors--an attacking armada. Our sensors have detected guns, cannon, and armed soldiers. They've come to conquer us."
"But why? We're not a threat to anybody. We only want to--"
The sting of Marcus's slap across his cheek finally cleared Conner's mind of ethereal Gregorian harmonies. "Snap out of it, Conner! Because they can! We've offered our technology and way of life to anybody who wants it but plenty have refused. There are societies who enjoy war, people who would rather exert power over one another than live in harmony."
Conner rubbed the reddened skin of his cheek. "What are we going to do?"
"The only thing we can do," said Marcus. "I've ordered our weapons to be brought up from underground storage. I've also mandated a four-hour descape for all citizens. Hopefully, we'll be ready for the armada when it gets here tomorrow."
"Wow--four hours. After all that and a war, will we ever be able to get back to the way we were?"
I don't know, but it's our only chance. I needed to get you out of that tank. The time for serenity is over."
When Marcus left, Conner's heart quickened as he cycled between horror and excitement. He imagined the suffering he would experience and the lives that would be lost, but he also looked forward to the extended descape. He might finally get an opportunity to brain Gary Sandford with that laptop.
Tom W. Miller earned a Masterís degree at the University of Texas at Austin and now lives in Virginiaís Shenandoah Valley. His work has appeared in various magazines including The First Line, Dark Moon Digest and more. To learn more about Tom and find links to his published stories, visit his website at tomwmiller.wordpress.com.