Slow down and catch up with KC Jones
Given Name: Kenneth Conrad Jones Age: 35 Home Region: Centuryville Favorite Food: Centuryville-style pizza with bacon, basil, and pineapple
It's difficult to interview KC Jones due to his ongoing memory loss incurred during his encounter with the JGRE. What we know is this: He's originally from Centuryville, where he previously worked in marketing for the music streaming service VersEra. He seems to be much happier as a Conductor, and often spends time with his friend Tobias Holt.
Several reports indicate that Thomas Llewinson, infamous professional gambler, has sought an audience with Mr. Jones on numerous occasions, but nobody seems to know whether they've met or what they've discussed, if they have.
Every day, I wake up to the sound of my alarm going off at 9:00. I know that I’m lucky, being able to sleep in that late.
Here’s how my days typically go.
I roll out of bed, put on my robe and slippers, and follow the aroma of coffee into my kitchen. It’s a hassle setting up the coffee pot every night, but I’m always grateful I did it by the time morning comes around. I take my first sip of coffee and, right on cue, I feel something playfully tugging at the hem of my robe.
It’s Bear, as it always is.
My dog—all 20 pounds of him—practically shaking with excitement, anticipating his breakfast. He lets go of my robe as I stoop to scratch behind his ears.
“Good morning, dummy,” I say in the voice everyone reserves for dogs. I scrunch up his face and he stops moving, blinks twice, then wriggles his head out of my hands. “Ok, sir, let’s get you fed.”
After Bear devours his breakfast, I let him out in the backyard. If it’s warm outside, I’ll lean in the doorway, enjoying the sun on my face as the Shiba Inu sprints to his favorite tree in the fenced-in yard. A cardinal descends from a higher branch to perch just outside of Bear’s reach and chirp inquisitively at him. Bear sits still, looking up at the bird, head cocked sideways.
“Excuse me, small creature,” I say in a dopey voice, narrating my dog’s thoughts. “But what the hell are you?” Then the bird flits away and Bear is off, jumping, barking, and chasing after it.
“Be nice to the birds, Bear,” I say as I turn to get ready for work.
I live in a small town called Darlinville, population 2,000. Everyone who lives here was born here. Everyone except for me, that is. I moved to Darlinville two years ago… Or maybe it was three years ago, now? Well however long ago it was, the locals have long since accepted me as one of their own.
I like it here. Life in Darlinville is slow and uncomplicated. My small cottage is within walking distance of the library where I work, so I never worry about leaving Bear alone when I leave for the day. I get to the library at 10:55, right on time for being early, greet my coworkers, put my lunch in the fridge in the staff lounge, and take my seat at the circulation desk.
Work is always uneventful, unless you count my daily conversation with Margie Rockport. Around 2:00, she’ll walk up to the desk with small, quick steps that make her permed old-lady-pink beehive bounce like a very tall flan and say, “I’m sorry to be a bother, Mr. Jones.”
“Oh, it’s not a problem at all, Ms. Rockport,” I say. “And you can call me KC, if you’d like.”
“That’s nice, Mr. Jones,” she says, nodding.
“Well, what can I help you with today?”
“I’m looking for a particular book, but I’m afraid I can’t remember the title of it.” She never can.
“I see,” I say. “And you wouldn’t happen to know the author’s name?” I already know the answer.
“Afraid not, Mr. Jones,” she says.
“I see,” I say. “Well, maybe I can put some key words into the computer and see if we can find it that way.” I start to type before she even begins speaking. It used to bother me that this exact same conversation happened every day, but eventually the feeling went away. She’s a sweet old lady, and maybe her memory was starting to go. How could I not go along with it?
The words she gave me to look up, as always, were: stranger, time travel, static, anomalous matter, revolution.
And, as always, there were no results.
Then I’d apologize, tell her we didn’t seem to have any book like that. She’d say Thank you, Mr. Jones, I’ll try again tomorrow. I’d try to explain it didn’t work that way, she’d smile and shake her head, towering hair swaying ominously atop her head, then she’d leave the library. I’d finish my shift, walk home, grab dinner to-go from Joe’s Diner, play with my dog, watch TV while eating my meat-and-three, then prepare the next morning’s coffee and go to bed.
Life in Darlinville was normally perfect.
But today I woke up naturally.
My alarm hadn’t gone off.
I looked at the clock on my nightstand, and did a double-take. It was 11:00.
I’m late! I thought. As I felt the panic rise in my throat, a sort of…glitch happened to my alarm clock. It was like a cloud of TV static washed over it, just for a fraction of a second, and when it was gone the time read 9:00 and the alarm started blaring.
I was still thinking about it when I poured my coffee. The clock on the coffee pot said 9:02, which seemed right—the coffee had brewed on time, after all. I pet and fed Bear, then let him out in the yard. He ran to his usual tree and then…
And then the bird was different.
I mean, of course the bird was different, who’s to say what particular bird should be where and when, but for years it had always been a cardinal. And today it looked like a dove.
Bear started barking. “What is it, bubba?” I asked as I watched him jumping at the branches of the tree. His tongue darted out of his mouth, and I realized he wasn’t trying to catch the bird: he was trying to catch the snowflakes.
It was snowing under the tree, and only under the tree.
I looked down at my robe to see if snow had fallen on it, but no, where I stood it was sunny and warm. When I looked back at the tree, the snow had disappeared and the dove had resumed being a cardinal.
I rehearsed how I would tell the story of my morning to my coworkers as I walked to work. I got to the library, prepared for my shift, and sat down.
“Kevin, you wouldn’t believe the morning I’ve had,” I said to my coworker.
He didn’t respond.
He didn’t move, either.
“Kevin,” I said again. I waved my hand to get his attention. Nothing. It was like we were in a movie and somebody had paused it.
“He can’t hear you, he’s paused,” said a woman on the other side of the desk. It was Margie Rockport.
“Ms. Rockport,” I said, surprised. “You’re here early, today. What can I help you with—”
“Oh, shut up, Mr. Jones,” she said. There was an edge to her voice that I’d never heard before. “God, you’re useless.” She massaged her eyes with her thumb and index finger.
“Well, excuse me, Margie,” I started to say.
“No, don’t sass me,” she said, snapping her fingers. “You’ve never been sassy before, and today’s not the day to start.” I looked at my coworker to see if he was catching this, then remembered he was paused. I shoved his shoulder, and he didn’t budge. He was immovable.
“The simulation has finally been deemed a failure,” Margie said. “We gave you ample time to give us the information we were looking for, but you just had to play dumb for nine years, and now you’re scheduled to be terminated.”
“Terminated?” I said. “Like… I’m losing my job?”
She shook her head, which made her tall, cylindrical hair sway. The movement was welcome, compared to the paused world around me.
“Wait, did you say nine years?” I asked. I started to feel the panic in my throat again. My hands were sweating.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Jones,” she said, retrieving a pistol from her purse. “It’ll be over in just a moment.” She cocked the gun and aimed it at my face.
“WAIT,” I shouted. My eyes were glued to her finger on the trigger. “Is this because I couldn’t find your stupid book? I’m sorry, I—” I screamed and closed my eyes as she squeezed the trigger.
I must have screamed for 30 seconds before I realized I was still alive.
“KC,” I heard a new voice call out. It sounded female.
I opened my eyes. Margie Rockport still stood across from me, the library circulation desk between us. She was paused. I briefly went cross-eyed as the bullet hovering in front of my nose came into view. I scooted my chair backwards and to the left of the bullet’s trajectory.
“Thank god I’ve finally broken through,” the new, disembodied female voice said. It sounded like she was everywhere, but I couldn’t find her.
“W-who are you?” I asked, looking at the ceiling.
“My name is Janelle,” she said. “You’re safe for now.”
“Okay…” I said. “Am I in a simulation?”
“We are,” she said.
“We?” I asked.
“Yes, we’re both trapped here.”
“I see… And where, exactly, is ‘here?’”
Janelle hesitated, but after a moment she said, “KC, your consciousness is currently stored on a virtual server that’s been embedded in my brain. My conscious mind was shut down to make room for the simulation. The voice you’re hearing is a manifestation of my subconscious. We’re trapped inside my mind.”
Suddenly, the issues with my alarm clock didn’t seem like such a big deal.
I had never been a fan of science fiction, but I knew exactly where you could find the most popular sci-fi books in the library. And now I wished I’d gotten around to reading some of them.
Maybe Asimov? Or Philip K. Dick?
Or something about simulations and self-aware super computers. Maybe then, I would’ve been prepared for the news that I’d been trapped in a computer embedded in someone else’s brain for nearly a decade.
“KC? Are you okay?” asked Janelle, her voice filtering to me from everywhere and nowhere all at once.
“I, uh…” I didn’t know if I was okay. “I have questions,” I finally said.
“I’m sure you do,” she said. “But we need to act fast and find a way to get you out of here before they realize I’ve taken over the simulation. Can you walk and talk?”
“I suppose so,” I said.
“Good,” she responded. “I think the first thing we should do is search the library.”
“Got it,” I said, leaving the circulation desk and the paused Margie Rockport behind. I walked to the popular fiction section and stopped. “Hey, um… What am I looking for?” I asked Janelle.
The silence in the library felt like a long sigh.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” she admitted.
“You don’t know,” I repeated slowly.
“Hey, man, this is a new experience for me, too,” she replied. “I’ve been trying to break into this part of my mind for years, now. I knew you were in here, and I knew they had you in some kind of simulation, but this is my first time actually seeing it. Or experiencing it, I guess…”
I started removing books from the shelves as she explained, opening their covers, rifling their pages, examining their shelf spaces for secret buttons, then carefully returning them.
“They think you have top-secret information locked away in your brain, and they’ve been using this simulation to try to break down your mental barriers and get it out of you,” she continued. “But apparently you were too stubborn to give it up.”
I snorted a laugh. “Or too stupid,” I said. “If there’s any top-secret info in here,” I knocked on my skull, “then this is the first I’m hearing about it.” I finished searching the shelves in front of me and moved on to the children’s reading room.
“Well,” she said, “Do you have any idea of what they could’ve been looking for?”
“I got nothing.” I felt under child-height tables for hidden keys and shook a stuffed bear, hoping to hear a metallic rattling that would give away some kind of clue.
“Come on,” Janelle said impatiently. “It’s probably not in the kids’ section. Let’s keep looking.” I was flipping through one of those “find the hidden object” puzzle books as she said it.
Find the snowflake.
Find the bird.
Find the book.
“KC?” Janelle said. “We don’t have time for this! They could shut down the simulation at any second!”
“Hang on,” I said. “I’ve got an idea.” Find the book, I thought. “Margie Rockport came in here every day to ask for a particular book. You don’t think…?”
“Woman seeks book in library,” she said like she was reading a news headline. “Groundbreaking.”
“No, really,” I insisted, turning to walk back to my desk. “She was here every day, asking me to look up the same bizarre keywords. That has to be—” A sudden angry squealing interrupted my thought as I tripped over a rather large pig.
Why was there a pig in the library?
I caught myself before faceplanting on the carpeted floor. “What the?” The pig trotted off a toward the display of newspapers at the front of the library and returned with one it its snout. The pig dropped the paper in front of me then ran off.
“Kidnapped software developer rescued by giant and his farmer companion,” I read out loud.
“What is that?” Janelle asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “This pig tripped me and then brought me a newspaper. This isn’t even today’s headline—the news from this morning was about the annual hot wing eating competition…”
Just then, Janelle gasped, and the lights in the library flickered out. A massive trembling shook the foundation of the building, and then the lights returned.
“Janelle?” I asked frantically. “What’s happening?”
She didn’t respond.
“Janelle!” I shouted.
I began to panic, when finally, she returned. “KC,” she panted. “We have less time than I thought.”
“What do you mean?” I scrambled off the floor and ran toward my computer at the circulation desk. The paused Margie Rockport was no longer there.
“I can feel my conscious mind waking up,” she said. “I think I’m being disconnected from the network. We’re running out of time.”
“Can’t you buy us more time?” I asked, waking my computer. As if in response to my question, the power surged once again. “Right,” I said. “Speeding things up!”
I typed in the search terms that Margie always gave to me.
Stranger, time travel, static, anomalous matter, revolution.
No results. Duh. I tried combinations of those terms with new ones I thought might yield results.
Stranger, time travel, secret, KC Jones.
No results. The floor began shaking again, and I heard the ghostly sound of thousands of pages of books rattling in place on their shelves. Somewhere in the distance, I heard glass shattering.
Anomalous matter, static, KC Jones, top-secret.
“Hurry, KC!” Janelle urged. “If the simulation shuts down before you can get into safe mode, you’ll be erased! I won’t be able to bring you back!”
“WHAT?” I shouted, looking up from the screen. Of course, I didn’t have anyone to look at, so I just stared at the swaying chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. “You didn’t mention that I could be ERASED,” I said.
“I was hoping we’d be able to find the information and get you out before it came to that!” she said.
“That’s a lot of optimism for a woman whose been sleeping for nine years!”
“It’s only been three years,” she retorted.
“But Margie Rockport said she’s been at this for nine?”
“Oh my GOD, KC! Now is not the time!”
I shook my head. She was right.
“Ok, I’m sorry,” I said. “But I really have no idea where to find this book, if it even exists.” A howling wind picked up outside the library, and through the front windows I saw the sky had turned black.
“Can’t you look in, like… The restricted section?” Janelle asked.
I shook my head. “The computer would’ve found it, even in the restricted section.”
“Well, isn’t there an Extremely Restricted Section you can check?”
“That’s not a thing!” I yelled over the noise. I heard a crack and a surge of electricity, and looked up just in time to see the chandelier overhead falling toward me. I managed to dive out of the way just in time. The light fixture crashed into the circulation desk, destroying the computers in a shower of sparks. The lights went out, and this time they did not return.
“Janelle?” I yelled. I could barely hear my own voice. “Janelle!”
I turned in circles, unsure what to do. She’d tried to help me, but I wasn’t able to act in time to save myself. Bookshelves collapsed on all sides. More windows shattered. Foam ceiling panels fell down and exploded into hundreds of pieces on the floor. And then I saw it. A door I’d never seen before, standing freely in the middle of the library foyer. The gold and black plaque on it read:
EXTREMELY RESTRICTED SECTION.
It had to be Janelle.
There was no handle on the door, and when I touched the surface of it, the wood felt like ice. I watched as the door melted away from top to bottom, revealing an empty black space beyond it. I leaned my head through the frame and squinted, letting my eyes adjust. And interestingly, letting my ears adjust. The Extremely Restricted Section was absolutely silent.
In the distance, I saw what appeared to be a podium illuminated by a lone spotlight. There was no other light to be seen: I couldn’t even tell if there was solid ground to walk on. I gingerly stepped over the threshold and found solid ground.
“Sweet,” I said and set off sprinting toward the light. When I reached it, I found that what I’d seen was, in fact, a podium. Resting on the podium were two books. On the cover of one of them were the initials K.J.
And on the other book…
“A.P.” I said under my breath, taking the book.
The light above me flickered out, and when it returned, I was once again standing in the darkened library. The ceiling had caved in during my absence and the walls had all but crumbled. From where I stood in the ruined library foyer, I could see the town square of Darlinville falling to similar destruction.
The crashing simulation seemed to disregard the laws of physics. Buildings exploded into clean-cut cubes, some floating in the air, some crashing to the ground. The light from street lamps oozed out of their bulbs like syrup. And a dark mist billowed out of the fountain in the center of the square. I watched as the mist covered the fragmented Town Hall. Each piece of the building vanished as it was covered by the miasma.
This is what Janelle was trying to protect me from.
This was the end.
What had she said about safe mode? I didn’t know much about computers, but safe mode sounded simple. Make sure you save your data before turning off the machine, and all that. And then, when you turn the computer back on, all your data is present and accounted for. It made sense that going into safe mode would give Janelle a chance to try to reboot me at some point in the future… But when? And how?
Furthermore, how was I supposed to go into safe mode?
I looked at the book in my hand.
They’d kept me here—whoever they are—because they needed this book. And they’d captured and used Janelle like a piece of software to get to it. I didn’t like the sound of being “switched off” for an indefinite length of time, but if it meant the bad guys didn’t get what they were after… I had to do it.
The mist continued its march across the town square, swallowing everything it touched. The void was spreading and I was out of time.
I took off running.
What makes me feel safe?
The ground beneath me began to ripple and crack. I leapt over a fissure as a parked car slid backwards into it.
The library used to make me feel safe. But the library was gone. I used to feel safe in Darlinville, but seeing it dark and twisted set my stomach churning.
I looked behind me and saw the mist was closing in on me.
My home makes me feel safe.
Maybe it wasn’t real. Maybe it was always just lines of code. But it was real to me.
My morning routine was real to me. Making coffee. Watching my dog chase the birds.
Those things were my safe mode.
I changed course and tore through pristine suburban yards until I saw my house across the street. I braced myself and threw my body at the front door at full speed, crashing through it.
“Bear!” I shouted, looking for my dog. “Bear, where are you boy? Come here, boy!”
I held my breath, unable to look behind me to face the encroaching darkness.
And then I heard a familiar then I heard a familiar yip. Ever the loveable dummy, I saw my dog push his way through the doggy door leading to the yard.
“Come here, buddy!” I knelt down and spread my arms wide. With the mysterious book in one hand, I wrapped my arms around my silly dog in the place I felt safest.
Then the mist swallowed us whole.