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The Janitors of Terra Mainframe | Kara Dennison

The Janitors of Terra Mainframe | Kara Dennison

“It’s twenty-two hundred hours Eastern Standard Time on Sunday, the 27th of June. Coming to you live from the Bunker of Truth located on the bottom floor of KTYR Studios, as ever, it’s Barry Hanks. Strap in and get comfy, because it’s been one hell of a week here on Earth 170.

“As we discussed last week, Earth 169 was finally destroyed on the 17th of this month. Obviously most of us won’t remember this clearly, but I’ve had a few emails in saying there’s a few hours unaccounted for and… what a surprise… they’re all around pretty much the same time on the morning of the 17th. So we can pinpoint the destruction of Earth 169 at about 4:57 AM GMT, with Earth 170 being phased in around 6:15 AM GMT. So if you were feeling a little woozy in the middle of the night, that was just your consciousness being re-uploaded to the new mainframe.

“On this week’s show, I want to focus primarily on the changes between Earth 169 and Earth 170. I’ve already been seeing a few trickle in on the #TerraMainframe hashtag – good on you guys for keeping up with them – so I’ll be addressing some of those. But if you’ve noticed any inconsistencies between the previous and current versions of Earth, either throw them on the hashtag or drop me a line on my personal Twitter @KTYRBunkerOfTruth. I’ll be checking my feed throughout the show.

“Before we go on, though, I want to play you a piece of last week’s State of the Union Address. Listen carefully to what President Conrad has to say concerning our education system and, uh, see if you can’t spot what I spotted.”

Barry clicked over to the recording and began checking his feed. It was the usual mix of people who took him seriously and people who didn’t: plenty of people dropping hints to their own inconsistencies after the mainframe change, but also a few wiseasses.

Woke up this morning and my wife was no longer Kaytee Madison – thanks for nothing, #TerraMainframe.

If #TerraMainframe is a thing can they please re-up me as a baller thx

Male ego so fragile he makes up #TerraMainframe instead of admitting he forgot how to spell “Oscar Mayer.”

Barry ignored these. He always did. They just wanted to feel clever, these people. It was easier not to look around you, not to acknowledge when you were being manipulated. It was easier to just go along. Even if he couldn’t fathom how people weren’t bothered when things changed around them, right under their very noses, he knew they were free to not be bothered. Sometimes, he almost wished he could be the same.

The recording ended, and Barry unmuted his mic again.

“Did you catch it? An increase in funding to inner-city schools. Which sounds great on the surface. But is it going toward school lunches or building repairs? No. It’s going toward replacing books and evaluating faculty. Now why would that be, Madame President? What is all this money going into? Why, streamlining the educational system, of course. Rooting out anyone who would try to teach along the previous mainframes. They’d have you think it’s to improve education, but we know that’s not happening anytime soon. And when does she announce this? The day before Earth 169 is destroyed. The government was preparing for this. They were covering all their bases because they’ve learned that people like you and me, listeners, find their mistakes and blow them up huge for the world to hear.

“They know we’re onto them.”

Barry looked down at the phone line. A blinking light. “We’ve got someone on the line already. Who’s this?”

“Sandra,” came the voice from the other end. “Great to talk to you, Barry. Long-time listener, first-time caller.”

“Hi, Sandra. Thanks for calling in.”

She giggled, her breath in the receiver distorting the noise. “So, um, ever since you mentioned the reboot last week, I’ve been keeping an eye on things in my own life… you know, looking for little signs and stuff.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Barry, my cat has changed color.”

“Your cat.” Barry raised his eyebrows. “Now, just so our listeners know, things like this actually aren’t all that uncommon during reboots. Things like individual’s pets are considered such small stuff that they may miss something in the code. So inconsistencies like that, slip-ups like that, are our biggest sign not only that they’re doing something, but also of their priorities.”

“Mm.” Sandra sucked in her breath. “Like, he had been black, right? Black and fluffy. But now he’s sort of… brownish? I didn’t really notice it ‘til he was lying down in the sunlight, but he’s brown. I know he wasn’t brown before.”

Barry kept an eye on Twitter. Latest from the Bunker of “Truth”: lady doesn’t know what color her own cat is. #TerraMainframe He ignored it. “Well, that’s your sign right there. Anything else?”

“Not that I’ve seen. But I’m really on the lookout now.”

“I’ll bet. Take care, Sandra. Call us back if you see anything else.” He switched to the next call. “Hello, you’re on the air with Barry Hanks.”

“Um. Hi. I’m Joe.” The voice was male, adult, but oddly shy. “So, um, I just started listening recently, and I’m not sure what all this ‘Terra Mainframe’ stuff is. It sounds like you think the planet is a big computer?”

There was always a first-timer every few weeks. Barry didn’t mind; he was happy people wanted to know more. Made a nice change from those who dismissed him out of hand. He smiled.

“Okay, Joe. Here’s how the Terra Mainframe Theory works. As far as anyone will tell us, we’re the only known populated planet in the universe. Right?”

A shuffle on the other end as Joe changed hands. “R-Right.”

“Now, that makes no logical sense. Why is that? Why, in this vast universe, would we be the only populated world? Why would we be the only world that supports life?”

“Hmm.”

“Stick with me, Joe. Now, this planet is ridiculously perfect for supporting life. It has everything we need. And other planets don’t even come close. It’s pretty much practically engineered to be right, if you think about it.

“And yet, once in a while something just isn’t right. Something seems to have changed overnight. Maybe it’s how something insignificant was spelled. Maybe your wife’s eyes are green instead of blue. Or maybe someone you clearly remember dying years ago just died last night.”

Joe cleared his throat. “So glitches in the Matrix.”

They always drew that comparison. Inaccurate, but on the right track. “Yes and no. The point, the whole point, of the Terra Mainframe Theory is that all of what we’re experiencing now – this planet that’s perfect for housing life, these technological advances – all of that is a computer simulation. Including us. We’re not humans being held prisoner, no. We. Do not. Exist.”

There was a long silence on the other end of the line. “Um.”

“You and I, and all the other people in the world, are artificial intelligences populating an artificial planet that is carefully controlled to run a certain way. When something goes against how they want it to go, they tweak the issue and ‘reboot’ us. And during that reboot is when those changes come. That’s how we know.”

“Who are… ‘they’?”

Barry exhaled slowly. “Well, if you’d like more information on that, check out the Bunker of Truth website. I’ve got a whole section on the Janitors you can read up on. But short version, the Janitors are the people who make those changes. They walk among us, observing us, noting when something doesn’t suit them. And then they report back, and a few days later… zap, new Earth.”

Joe was silent again. “Okay, but who are they?”

“No one’s really sure. I can’t even tell. I only know that they seem to have some sort of sway over our government, and they can walk among us without being detected. Again, I have more observations on the website.”

“Mmm… ah. Thank you.”

Barry smiled, and made sure the smile was audible in his response. “Thank you. Hope that helps.” He paused; Joe had hung up. “All right, we’re gonna take a short break for some commercials, but when we come back, we’re going to revisit a topic that was very popular last month: was the Book of Revelation actually predicting Pokémon? I’ll be comparing the latest game leaks to the Bible… when we return.”

 

Barry was sure there were a few people who believed he really did operate from a bunker or a basement. The recording studios of KTYR were actually on the second floor of an office building, just above a plastic surgeon’s. His apartment – which was also not a bunker – was a quick walk around the corner from the studio.

His parents always asked how he could bear to walk home at 3 in the morning in the worst part of town. He laughed. “Knowing what I know, getting mugged or knifed is the least of my worries.”

Most nights, he had a routine: check all the doors and windows, feed the fish, run the dishwasher, check the doors and windows a second time, brush his teeth, shuffle off everything but his boxers, fall asleep. It wasn’t much of a routine, but it was something. On show nights, though, everything but those last two steps went pretty much out the window.

He felt run-down at the end of the show night, like a wind-up toy at the end of its spring. It was all he could do to get to his bed some nights – like this night. But he stumbled out of his jeans, pulled the old sheets aside, and collapsed against his mattress. His eyes closed, and a moment later he was standing in front of his bathroom mirror, the morning sunlight shining through the window behind him.

“Ya ever do that?” he asked one of the engineers at the studio once. “You ever wake up in the middle of your morning routine?”

“Oh, yeah,” the answer had come unsarcastically. “All the time. You’re awake, but you’re so used to the routine that you just kind of don’t remember doing it.”

Barry shrugged and nodded at this, but the engineer had pressed on: “What, you’re not going to tell me it’s because of some sort of alien mind control?”

He’d bristled at this, but laughed it off. The guy just wanted to get a rise out of him. It had worked, but he wasn’t about to say so. He wasn’t just a mad conspiracy theorist, he’d wanted to say: knowing the truth didn’t mean that absolutely everything that happened was a conspiracy. Just because you knew that cheese had mold in it didn’t mean you suspected that everything had mold in it. But explaining that to people was pointless.

Now, standing in front of his mirror as he did every morning, he scrubbed sullenly at his teeth as that memory crossed his mind.

No one seemed to understand that having a weekly radio show didn’t mean you only worked one night a week. On the contrary – it meant you worked even harder the other six. Writing, mostly. Keeping the website updated, doing guest blog posts for news sites. Today, his writing spot of choice was the coffee shop two blocks down. He ordered an espresso, popped a keyboard onto his tablet, and began pecking away at a guest piece for an occult blog on the prophetic nature of nightmares.

“How do you do it?”

“Huh?”

Barry looked up. A young woman was watching him. She was dark-skinned, blonde, attractive from what he could tell, but her eyes were masked by wide sunglasses.

“You. Knowing what kind of world you live in, but still just going about your day like there’s a reason for it. How do you do it?”

“I… oh.” Barry blinked, smiling awkwardly. He wasn’t used to being recognized in public, especially by someone who wasn’t actively ready to mock him. Although there was a chance she was underhandedly having a go at him. He couldn’t really tell.

“Well… I guess you just… do, you know?” He hadn’t really thought that through himself, to be honest. Why did he just keep at it day after day? “For the sake of others. So they can learn and understand. You know?”

The woman looked slightly impressed. “That’s… very sweet of you.”

“I don’t know about sweet,” Barry scoffed. “And too… It would look a bit suspicious to people if I acted the way I wanted to act, knowing what I know.”

“I suppose that’s true.” She fished in her handbag and pulled out a small camera. “May I?”

This was definitely new. “Sure.” He smiled, holding up his espresso, trying to look casually friendly in front of his tablet. The woman snapped the picture, grinning.

“I can’t wait to show this to my daughter,” she said excitedly. “She’s always been very interested in all this.”

“Well, she’s welcome to tune in to my show any time, provided she’s up that late.”

“Your show?” The woman looked confused for a moment, then the grin returned quickly. “Oh, of course. Of course. I’ll tell her. Thank you!” And she took off, shuffling the camera back into her purse.

She hadn’t even ordered a coffee.

 

“Thanks as always for sticking around to the bitter end.” Barry rubbed his eyes as he looked at the clock on the wall; just a few minutes ‘til he wrapped this week’s show. Then he could go home and fall into bed. But he kept the exhaustion out of his voice for the home stretch. “We’ve got time for one last called tonight. Hello, you’re in the Bunker of Truth with Barry Hanks.”

“Heyyyy, Barry.” The voice on the other end was male, nasal, carrying the sort of tone he always dreaded even after years at his job. That college student sound, the one that told him the caller had read a few books and was in the mood for some intellectual ass-kicking. “Been listening for a few weeks now, and I must say, your theories are very interesting.”

Barry flattened his mouth into a grim smile. “Glad you think so, caller. And I hope you’re learning something.”

“Yeah, I just have one little question is all.”

Here it came. They were going to come out with some sort of proof against the theory, probably something very individual that could be shot down easily. “Shoot.”

“If only the Janitors know what’s really going on… how come you know about the Janitors?”

“Ah,” Barry said easily. “Well, honestly, I’m not the only person who knows what’s going on. Lots of people out there have caught on, and—“

There was a laugh. An almost condescending one. “No, no. I mean, you seem to be the subject matter expert on these guys. How did you find out about them?”

“I did my research,” Barry answered smoothly.

“If you did your research,” the caller pressed, “then surely it’s research someone else could do, and there would be someone else out there who got this information via some other method than hearing it from you. Is there anyone else?”

Goosebumps prickled on the back of Barry’s neck, but he wasn’t entirely sure why. “I’m sure… there must be.”

“Mm-hmm. I’ve done my research, too, Mr. Barry Hanks. And you’re the origin of all information on these so-called ‘Janitors.’ Now as far as I can see, that tells us one of two things. Either you’re making them up, or…”

“Or?”

A long, almost smug pause. “You’re one of them.”

Rather unprofessionally, Barry sputtered out a laugh.

“Well?” the caller asked, unperturbed. “How else would you explain it? You just happen to have all this information about this super-secret society that’s allegedly controlling the world. You just happen to be the main source of information on them.”

All things considered, Barry was still too amused to take his theory even remotely seriously. “Listeners, I’ve heard some rather impressive take-down attempts, but never has anyone suggested—“

“Ah, yes. Since we’re talking to the listeners. Think about that, ladies and gentlemen. Your friend here seems to have all the info on an organization whose main job is not being discovered. So ask yourselves: is he one of them, deliberately spreading misinformation to keep you complacent? Or is he just a great big liar and there’s absolutely no conspiracy?”

Barry hissed in a breath. He should hang up on the caller, but he couldn’t seem to move his hand. The things he was saying… how he said them…

“So? Which is it? If you’re telling the truth, you have to admit to being in league with the people controlling our lives. But if you’re not… you have to admit to lying. What’s it gonna be?”

Finally, he managed to move his hand and disconnect the call. “As always, there’s someone out there who’s so afraid of the truth that he’ll make excuses rather than see for himself.

“Listeners, this isn’t as clean-cut an either/or argument as our nameless caller would like to make it out to be. Yes, I get on the airwaves once a week to talk to you about the strange things going on in our world. Yes, I am more informed than most on that topic. Does that make me a secret conspirator? No. It just makes me observant and skeptical. Two things we should all strive to be in this life. I hope the rest of my listeners are making that effort themselves.”

Barry muted the microphone for a moment to take a deep, shaky breath, then clicked it back on. “And that’s all for this week. I’ll be back in the Bunker of Truth at the same time next Sunday. Keep your eyes open.”

The walk home felt oddly long tonight. The voice of the nameless caller still weighed on him. Despite how ridiculous the whole call had been, he couldn’t shake one thing…

How was he so aware of what was going on?

He wasn’t lying. He knew he wasn’t lying. He’d seen the signs, the discrepancies between versions of the Mainframe. Sure, other people could write them off as faulty memory, but he knew. He knew it wasn’t a lie.

Shuffle off his clothes.

It wasn’t a lie.

Bed.

It wasn’t.

Fall asleep.

 

Someone had their fingers in his brain.

He snapped awake-

And he was standing in front of the sink again. As he was every morning.

He spun around to look behind him, but he was alone. He felt the back of his head. His hair was a bit rumpled from the pillow, but otherwise nothing was out of order.

Usually Barry didn’t dream at all. Just passed out, then woke up. But…

He felt the back of his head again.

Weird.

Whatever the dream was specifically, he couldn’t remember it clearly. He just knew someone had been standing behind him, tinkering, working, their hands inside his head. Changing things. Fixing things. Or unfixing them.

“Metaphor,” he said under his breath. That caller the night before. Messing with his mind. That’s all it was. An elaborate metaphor.

He finished getting ready for the day and went out to the park.

Days out at the park were mostly for brainstorming and sketching out notes. For observing. For wondering. People seemed to be under the impression that his view of the world was inflexible, but he was always watching. Always trying to figure out.

Deep down, honestly, he didn’t want to be right. He knew he was. But he didn’t want to be. He’d love to believe the world was as real and innocent and straightforward as everyone else seemed to. And on his quiet days out at the park, he’d think. And look. And, rather quietly, hope. Hope that he was wrong.

“Does everything look the same to you as it does to me?”

Barry looked up with a start. A teenage boy in thick sunglasses stood by the bench, watching him curiously.

“Sorry?”

The kid laughed. “I mean, like… Does everything look real to you, or does it look all computer programmy?”

“Oh.” Barry looked down at his notepad. So far he’d managed to draw a flower, a dog he’d seen walking by earlier, and a few random shapes like jagged rock formations. “Yeah. I mean yes, it does all look real.”

“Really? I’d think you’d sort of…” The kid made a “nyoom” motion out from his face. “… see through the fake stuff and see the reality of everything.”

Barry shrugged. “Some days I wish I could. Some days I’m glad I can’t.”

“You… can’t?”

“Mm.”

“Huh.” The kid scratched his cheek. “Well, I guess they programmed ya that way to make it easier, huh?”

“I guess.” Barry gave a mirthless chuckle. He couldn’t tell if he was being mocked or not, but he found he was beyond caring.

The kid waved his phone. “Can I…”

Again? “Um, sure.” Barry leaned in for a selfie, and the kid smiled and moved along.

He’d have to consider bringing this up with the station. Apparently he was starting to get a bit more popular than they’d accounted for.

 

The dream again. Fingers in his brain. Switching things on and off. Tinkering. Changing.

Barry shook himself awake, spun himself around, and shot a hand out.

He caught a wrist.

“Um, Janitor to base, we’ve got a waker. Repeat, we’ve got a waker. How do I proceed?”

Barry squeezed the wrist, staring into the blackness of his bathroom in the middle of the night. “You get out of my bathroom is how you proceed.”

“Base?” the voice asked, a little more nervously this time. There was a click, followed by a tinny, garbled voice, as though over a headset. “Uh,” the voice in the room said in response, “Hanks Unit Alpha-001. It’s got a hand on me. How do I proceed?”

Barry felt his hand loosening as he tried to process what he’d just heard. Hanks Unit? “It”?

The tinny voice came back, apparently shouting. The voice in the room stammered. “S-Sorry, ma’am. I wasn’t aware…” More of the tinny voice. “Ma’am, I… no, I didn’t know… All right. Will do.” A click.

“What the hell is going on?” Barry spat.

“Lights.”

“Don’t you order me around-” But the bathroom lights came on at the word. Barry found himself staring into the fact of a tall, bald man. He wore a white jumpsuit and thick sunglasses… the latter weirdly similar to the sunglasses he’d seen on his two fans in recent weeks.

“Janitor to base. Hanks Unit appears to have calmed down. Will remain on guard. Delay sending backup.” He tapped his ear, and Barry heard a tiny electrical whizzing sound.

“What… the hell is going on?”

“Barry Hanks.”

Barry stared, blinked… then laughed. “Oh, I get it. This is a prank, isn’t it? This is one of those hidden camera stunts. Seeing how a conspiracy theorist reacts when everything comes true.” His laugh faded. “You’re sick.”

“I’m going to need you to turn around,” the man said calmly.

“Like hell.”

A moment later, Barry found himself pressed face-first against the wall, his hands restrained behind him. “This will only take a moment.”

“Janitor!” A new voice, a woman’s, called out from the hallway.

“Oh!” Barry snapped. “It’s just a party at Barry’s place tonight, huh? Who’s this?”

The man restraining Barry let him go suddenly, offering the sharp-suited woman – petite, young, and stony-faced behind her sunglasses – a complicated salute. “Ma’am.”

“You do not restrain the Hanks Unit. Do you understand? We went over this in our most recent session.”

“Ma’am, he was being-“

The woman shoved past him with surprising ease. “He was being himself, I think you’ll find.” She bit her lip, looking suddenly concerned. Almost parental. “How are you, Barry?” Her voice was unexpectedly gentle.

“Not so pleased about strangers in my home, ‘ma’am’.”

She gave an uncomfortable, almost self-aware smile. “I can imagine. This really isn’t how things are done, and I apologize. Usually our Janitors aren’t quite so aggressive.”

“Janitors, huh.” Barry stared at the two of them.

“Interesting,” the woman said quietly, looking up at Barry. “What a time to be skeptical.”

Barry frowned. “Surely you can understand why.”

The woman stared in silence, then turned to the alleged Janitor. “You can report back to base. I’ll take it from here.”

“Ma’am?”

“You heard me.”

The Janitor shrugged, nodded, and tapped his earpiece, looking up. A moment later, something Barry couldn’t see scooped the Janitor up, and he disappeared through the ceiling.

Barry gaped.

“This really isn’t an eventuality I was looking forward to dealing with,” the woman sighed, removing her sunglasses. Her eyes looked perfectly normal underneath, but she seemed somehow more detached once she was looking at him straight-on.

“I-I’d like an explanation,” Barry stammered.

“I’m sure you would.”

Barry shook his head. “No, I mean.” He took a deep breath. “I will have an explanation.”

The woman quirked a half-smile, but did not respond.

“Look. I… I knew about the Janitors for a long time. I knew you were out there. I knew that things weren’t as they seemed. I did my research, I took note of things. And now here’s… well, proof.” Why did he feel so desperate now? So near tears?

“I just need to know… if this is true or an elaborate prank. Please.”

“Well, I can assure you of one thing: it’s not a prank.” The woman frowned. “But you’re wrong on a few points.”

Barry shrugged. “I mean… I’m sure I must be. A lot was assumption. Not that I’d tell anyone that, but a lot of it was me just filling in the blanks for things I had no way of knowing.”

The woman nodded slowly. “Well… A lot of it is patently ridiculous. Living inside a computer? Government involvement? Typical earmarks of an overblown conspiracy theory, and not at all true, I’m afraid.”

“Then… what is?”

“Well.” She blinked, looked down thoughtfully, then slipped her sunglasses back on. “Follow me.”

She led Barry outside into the street, then removed her sunglasses again. “Do you want to see the truth?”

“Yes.” Barry’s heart was pounding. “Yes, yes, I do! Please…”

The woman reached up, brushing the back of his head with her fingers. “Easy enough.”

Something snapped in his mind.

And the world was dead.

What were once cleanly paved roads swirled with brown dust. The buildings around him were little more than skeletal infrastructures, inside which stood rigid, deactivated metal mannequins. It was a post-apocalyptic wasteland straight out of a movie.

And then Barry looked down at his hands.

“No…”

His hands were gleaming, articulated metal.

“The first thing you got wrong,” the woman said placidly, “was that you’ve been researching us for a long time. I’m afraid you haven’t. You’ve been here for a little over two weeks at best.”

Barry whipped his head around to the woman – whom he could see now was dressed in khaki shorts and a green shirt with “Terra Mainframe” embroidered tastefully on the left front pocket. She also seemed to have a small, near-transparent oxygen mask covering her nose, which hadn’t been visible before.

“What is this?” Barry’s voice sounded warped and mechanical to his own ears.

“It’s Terra Mainframe. As you already knew. But it’s not inside a computer. Well, not really. The images are computerized within these Interaction Glasses and the units’ visual processors, but you’re standing on Earth. The real Earth.”

“When did this happen?”

“Gosh, thousands of years ago. There haven’t been Earth-born humans in millennia. The planet won’t support it anymore.” She pointed to the little mask. “Organics need breathing apparatus to even be here.”

“But I’m-”

The woman nodded to him gently, and he looked down at his hands again.

“What am I?”

“You’re an AI unit. Specifically, a Hanks Unit – the first one of about six. There’s eventually going to be about five hundred of you scattered all over the world. With variations, of course, or it would get strange.”

Barry looked around. “Yeah… wouldn’t want it to… get strange.” He paused. “Can you…”

“Hm?”

“… I don’t want to see this.”

Wordlessly, the woman reached around to the back of his head again. His vision blurred, and it was all back: the living Earth, the woman in her sharp suit minus her breathing apparatus, his human hands.

“Thank you.” Barry’s voice was shaky, but it sounded normal to him again. “But… why?”

“Why what?”

He motioned around himself. “All of this? You said I was wrong. So what’s right?”

The woman pressed her lips together, seeming deep in thought. Then she nodded, though it was more to herself than Barry. “The truth, then. The unadulterated truth.”

“Yes,” Barry pressed. “We’re not inside a computer. There’s no government control. But we’re… robots on the remains of Earth? Why?”

“It’s a heritage planet.”

“A what?”

“Think like a national park. Or a rebuilt historic area. We don’t know everything about pre-nuclear human society-“

Barry blinked. “Pre-what?”

“But,” the woman went on, as if she hadn’t heard, “we have the capabilities to learn. Terra Mainframe is part interactive study, part educational destination.”

“So what, aliens bring their kids here on summer vacation and then hit the water park on Mars while they’re in town?” Barry spat.

The woman sighed. “I know this is hard for you. That’s why we… prefer the units not know about what’s going on. We want you to live as much like 21st-century humans as possible.”

“But I did know.” Barry flashed back to the caller from before. You just happen to have all this information about this super-secret society that’s allegedly controlling the world. “How come I knew about Terra Mainframe?”

“Because that’s your purpose here. To know.”

Barry shook his head, not even having the energy to say aloud that he didn’t understand.

“The Hanks Units are fairly new,” the woman went on calmly, as if the whole world hadn’t actually just blinked out of and into existence a few moments before. “We didn’t really see a need for them at first. But once in a while, a Janitor would slip.” She shrugged back towards his apartment – what he knew now to be a pointless skeletal placeholder. “They’re not infallible, as you saw. And sometimes when we do an info upgrade based on our research, they don’t hit every databank, so you get mismatched memories.

“So we needed a way to cover for the inevitable slip-ups. One of our scholars specializes in late-period conspiracy theories – yeah, that’s a thing you can specialize in.” She laughed quietly. “Anyway, there was this radio host back in the day. Barry Hanks. He’d go on the air once a week and talk about how lizard aliens were living in the sewers and movie stars were making deals with the devil. No one ever believed him. I mean, some did. But the world at large just laughed him off.”

But that’s me, Barry thought desperately. That’s me she’s talking about! Right?

The woman fell silent for a moment, as though she could see Barry’s internal struggle. “We modeled all the Hanks Units after him.”

“No.”

“And then implanted selectively altered information into your memory. But we made sure Terra Mainframe and the Janitors were foremost. Because the more you go on about it… the less anyone’s actually going to believe it.”

Barry clenched his fists. “So you’re saying…”

The woman shrugged. “Technically, you work for us.”

It was true. The caller had been right.

“No…” Barry shook his head. “No, I’m going to tell them. I’m going to make sure everyone knows the truth. I’m going to-“

“Go right ahead,” the woman said. “If that’s how you want to approach it. Or you could keep in contact with us.”

“What?”

“As in actually work for us. Knowingly. Not just because you’re programmed to. You could have all your answers day by day, week by week. You could know everything.” She paused thoughtfully. “That might be interesting, you know. Having someone knowingly on the inside. The psychological data would be invaluable.”

“I’ll just bet.”

“And you could go on telling people whatever you wanted. Not the whole truth, obviously.”

Barry frowned. “You know what? I think I will.”

“Ah.” The woman smiled.

And so did Barry. “By which I mean… I’ll tell them whatever I want. And what I want to tell them… is the truth.”

The woman’s smile faded. “You’ve seen the reality of the world and that’s your choice?”

“Same as it’s always been. Spread the truth.” Barry turned to walk back to his apartment.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.” She shrugged. “It’s how you’re programmed, isn’t it? You’ve never chosen any differently.”

Barry stopped in his tracks. “What?”

“Twice now. In as many weeks. This makes three.” The woman nodded up toward what, to Barry’s reprogrammed eyes, looked like the night sky. “Told you. They’re clumsy.”

“Ah.” Barry sniffed. “So what happens now? Tinker a bit and make me forget again?”

The woman shook her head, sighing. “Three times in two weeks? Doesn’t seem to be much of a point. I can’t do this every single time a Janitor mucks you up. I made the offer three times, you rejected it three times. Do what you like.” Then, a slight upturn of the lips.

“It’s not as though anyone will believe you.”

 

Barry awoke suddenly, finding himself at his bathroom sink as usual.

A dream?

He brushed his hands over the back of his head. Just hair. No knobs, no switches, no polished metal. All as normal-seeming as usual.

He peered up at his ceiling. It all looked solid; no sign of someone being able to rappel down into his apartment. But even so…

Even so.

It was a show day. He stayed in. Writing. Reading. Searching. Whatever he needed to.

There were no leads to anything he’d seen last night. Nothing about “heritage planets,” nothing about any Barry Hanks other than himself, and nothing about Terra Mainframe being anything other than what he’d said it was. That was the down side of being the leading expert on something: no one to fact-check yourself against.

Then again… why would he be able to search up anything about the “real” Terra Mainframe if Their whole purpose was to make them all believe they were people? That would muck up Their anthropological experiments. Of course.

He needed a walk. Once around the block, just to clear his head.

When he was nearly home, he was stopped by a middle-aged lady in sunglasses. Those sunglasses. She waved her phone, smiling.

“Oh, picture time? Sure, mess me up.” He stood by her in selfie stance, managing a thin smile.

“Hey,” he ventured as she put her phone away.

“Hm?”

“Could I… see the picture?”

The lady reached for her phone again. “I suppose?”

From what he was told last night, the illusion (if it was an illusion) was maintained in the units’ eyes and those sunglasses. There was no way it would show up in a photo.

“Here you go.” The lady showed him the photo.

It looked normal.

“That looks… better than I was expecting.”

The lady laughed. “Oh, they have all sorts of filters you can download these days.” She shoved her phone back in her purse, thanked him for his time, and clipped off down the street.

Was that his proof? Or his lack of proof? It could go either way. But of course there would be filters. Why would people take photos of faceless robots?

Unless it was all just a dream…

Damn.

Damn.

He went back to his apartment to collect his notes.

 

“It’s twenty-two hundred hours Eastern Standard Time on Sunday, the 11th of July. Coming to you live from the Bunker of Truth located on the bottom floor of KTYR Studios… this is Barry Hanks with a game-changer for all of you.”

Barry took a deep breath.

“It takes a big man to admit he’s wrong, and… well, I like to think I’m a big man. I was wrong. I was wrong about the nature of Terra Mainframe, I was wrong about the government’s involvement, I was wrong about several things.”

His Twitter feed sprang to life.

Wtf is this? Losing the conspiracy theories? Ure no fun anymore Barry #TerraMainframe

Guess #TerraMainframe wasn’t selling ads anymore.

#TerraMainframe is fake, but are the alien lizard kings still real? 😮

Barry took a deep breath. “Let me reiterate that something called Terra Mainframe still very much exists… and we are still very much a part of it. But my theories were incorrect. I have all the pieces now, thanks to an unexpected meeting with one of the Janitors last night.”

The hashtag was on fire now, but he didn’t look.

“Here’s the truth, bunkmates: we are on the real Earth. But the real Earth has been dead for quite some time. We’re talking a few thousand years. And we… well… to be fair, this probably won’t be the strangest thing you’ve ever heard me say: we’re artificially intelligent robots put here as part of a program to study early 21st century society, doubling as an educational vacation destination.”

Barry laughed. “Okay, you know what? I’ve talked a lot of crazy things on this program, but I’ll admit to this one sounding pretty damn weird. But I saw it. I saw it with my own eyes, listeners. I saw the ravaged Earth. The burnt-out sky. The skeletal buildings. I saw my own metal hands in front of my artificial eyes. I’ve seen what we are.

“And the worst part is… I was complicit. I was in on it all along. I was programmed to keep you in the dark by feeding you conspiracy theories so that if the truth ever slipped out, you wouldn’t believe it.”

His timeline had slowed.

“So… there we are, listeners. Our topic for the next hour: the truth behind Terra Mainframe, behind me, and what we’re going to do from here on out. Will we continue to live as test subjects for our creators? For the education and amusement of others? Or will we claim a true life for ourselves, millennia after our real selves went extinct?”

The phone lines were silent. Barry swallowed.

“I know it’s… a lot to take in, friends. A lot to take in. But I think- Ah! It looks like someone has something to say.” He clicked over to the call, his heart at once easing and fluttering. “Hello, caller. You’re here in the Bunker.”

“Yeah, uh… hey. Long-time listener, first-time caller.”

Barry laughed to himself. “Long-time,” they said. Had that been a reset? Had everyone been made to believe he’d been around forever? When more of him were sprinkled all over the world to keep the truth hidden, would they have “long-time listeners,” too?

“Go ahead, caller.”

The caller cleared her throat. “Yeah, uh… no offense, but I think this is a bit of a stretch.”

“Oh, yeah?” Barry bristled. “So you believed the government deliberately cutting school funding and… and… living inside a computer… but this is your limit?”

“I’m just saying, dude. There’s, like, a line, I guess.”

Barry didn’t bother to keep this laugh internal. “See? This is just what they said you’d do. This was the point of the whole thing! Don’t you see? They made me tell you all that other stuff so that if anyone ever told you what was really going on, you’d be predisposed to disbelieve!”

“Well…” The listener chuckled. “I guess it worked.”

And the line went dead.

 

Eight time zones away, Hanks Unit Beta-001 booted up for the first time, preparing to address his fans.

 

 

Kara Dennison is a writer, editor, illustrator, and presenter from Newport News, Virginia. She works as community manager for Onezumi Events, where she interviews celebrity guests and performs outreach for fans and attendees. Her work can be seen in Associates of Sherlock Holmes from Titan Books, various Doctor Who spinoffs from Obverse Books, and the light novel series Owl’s Flower, which she co-created with illustrator Ginger Hoesly. She works from a converted NASA lab, which she shares with four guinea pigs and a bass guitar.

Kara’s Writing Spot with Writing Buddy Latke

5 Questions with Kara Dennison:

TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
KD: I don’t buy into conspiracy theories myself, but I’m absolutely a junkie for reading about them simply because they become these complex, convoluted stories. I loved Weekly World News and Coast to Coast AM growing up because they were so off the wall with stuff like that. This particular story combines two of my current favorite conspiracies –the Mandela Effect and the simulation hypothesis. It’s also my attempt to answer my oldest question: if these are all big secrets that only the Illuminati or the government know, why do the theorists themselves know so much?
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
KD: I grew up on a lot of Douglas Adams in high school, and (as a lot of people did, I think) I tried to copy his style for a while. I developed my own style in time, fortunately, but reading Adams’s work did teach me a lot about combining humor with genre writing. I really enjoy writing very creepy, unsettling stuff. But day-to-day I tend to crack jokes off the cuff. It was reading Adams—and other people like Terry Pratchett—that taught me that humor and genre writing can go together, as well as how to mingle them without ruining the tone.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
KD: My space-shed. It’s a garage out back of my family home that my grandfather converted into a lab when he worked for NASA. Now it’s me, my computer, four guinea pigs, and a bass guitar. Oh, and some tea. Always tea.
TD: Do you hand write your work or go directly to the keyboard?
KD: I write by hand so slowly that I have to type when I write—otherwise I’ll fall behind my own thoughts! I do doodle sometimes, though, to help get ideas out.
TD: What book would you want with you on a desert island?
KD: Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled–a sort of poetry text/workbook. I’m not much of a poet, but I love the exercises in it and just working on those could last me ages. I might miss the rescue team, though!


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