Dominic walked into that very familiar street of Paris, already enjoying the view. The day was sunny with that sort of light breeze that dreams are supposed to be made of. The fresh smell of bread and coffee permeated the air, with a hint of a perfume mix that could only be sensed in the most beautiful city in the world.
It wasn’t crowded there, it never was. Dominic liked the open space the most, as far as that location was concerned. However, his thoughts were suddenly stolen by his sight as it caught on to the presence of a familiar face.
“You’re alive, Leo!”
The blonde man turned equally surprised eyes over to Dominic, his face lighting up in joy.
“Dom, you’re still alive!”
Dominic walked quickly, and Leo stood up, and they embraced in a firm and fast hug. “Alright,” Dominic said, joyfully. “Great to see you, how are you?”
Leo nodded and sat down, continuing to speak. “Oh, this is the best time for me, Dom, without a doubt. Nobody makes croissants like them! How about yourself?”
Dominic nodded excited. “Oh, I am over the moon that I’m here, too. It’s my favorite of them all. Excuse me, Mademoiselle!”
Leo chuckled. “You and your French.”
Dominic winked at him, all while asking for a coffee and a piece of chocolate cake. “In general, Belgium’s the best, but this place has an especially great cake,” Dom explained.
Leo laughed, a bit muffled over his chewing. “Yes, but nobody else makes croissants quite like these. Other people will butter them up, fill them with chocolate chips, or almond cream, or whatever else. This is the real deal, though, so I never miss ‘em.”
“Hey, you two are still alive!”
Both of them turned their heads, and lit up at the sight of Patricia.
“You too!” Leo celebrated, lifting his glass half-filled with wine.
Dominic grinned widely. “Pat! You’re alive. Here, sit down with us!”
“Don’t have to ask me twice,” she said with a giggle. “Tell me you know about the chocolate cake!”
Leo raised his hands up in mock surrender. “Okay, now I’m intrigued.”
“You gotta try it, I’ll get an extra slice for you,” Patricia suggested.
Leo chuckled again, nodding helpfully. “Okay, okay, but fast, I think my hour’s almost up.”
“What? You’re still not keeping track? Man, I’m always counting the minutes,” Dominic said with a short laugh.
“That’s just depressing,” Leo said, shaking his head.
“Yes, two. And a black coffee. No sugar, okay?” Patricia asked.
“Oui oui, J’vous apporte ça tout d’suite!” the lady replied, helpfully leaving right away, with a happy pep to her step.
“I have to agree with Leo, Dom. Kind of mental to be keeping track,” Patricia added.
Dom laughed at that, and shrugged. He then looked around at the scenery before him. “Ahh, I love this place. What is your favorite? The heat or the wind?”
“Wind,” they both said immediately, and then they traded a look before giggling together.
“Yeah, that figures,” Dominic easily agreed. “It’s the same for me.”
“This wine is what I really love more than anything. The way it freshens up my throat, but heats me inside. I love it.”
Dominic smiled. That was because it was the opposite, but Leo wouldn’t clarify on that. Not only was there no need, but nobody talked about outside when they were inside. It was the greatest of wastes to do so.
“What about sounds? I love the birds chirping,” Dominic pointed out.
“Oh, here in Paris, it’s all about the mild chatter. French is so pleasing to me,” Patricia explained.
“You kidding? I love hearing myself think,” Leo said, and the two laughed, but then his face flickered with disappointment. It was very brief, but noticeable. “Well, seems one of you has to eat some extra cake. I have to go in a minute.”
Dominic shrugged, but did not gloat. “Oh, well. It was a real pleasure, Leo.”
“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT????!”
Leo, Dominic and Patricia turned their heads and landed eyes on a very young man. He could not be more than twelve years old.
“HOW?! What is this?!” He was looking around, and in his face were written countless atrocities, as well as the certainty of death. The shock that it hadn’t claimed him. The young man covered his face, then opened his hands, then closed them again and screamed.
Leo chuckled again, downing the rest of the wine. “Well, nice to know you guys. Good luck with the new guy.”
Dominic turned a pleasant smile Leo’s way, managing not to respond with sarcasm or even a roll of the eyes. It was Patricia who spoke first, however.
“See you again, possibly.”
“Have a good life,” Dominic added, in a friendly manner, and then they looked at each other, and then they turned to the young man.
“Hey there!” Dominic called out, waving with his arm. The young man looked their way. “Nice to see you alive! Come over here, sit with us.”
The young man looked around, confused. Dominic couldn’t help but notice how young they were getting. He was pretty sure he had not had his first day so young.
That wasn’t the time to wonder, though, so Dominic didn’t question it.
“Come,” Patricia called, full of kindness. The woman’s tone worked better, and the young man sniffed and nodded, and began his approach.
“My name is Patricia,” she said as he approached, smiling vividly, “and this is Dominic.”
“Dom, please,” Dominic said, chuckling. “Full name’s a waste of time.”
Patricia giggled. “I know! Aren’t they always?” Then she turned her smile the new comer’s way. “What’s your name?”
The young man looked around at the people around them. They were talking, but their voices seemed distant and unfocused. They were walking around, gesturing and cavorting, but their figures flickered somewhat. Not that Dominic paid any attention to such things, it was a waste to pay attention to stuff like that, but he remembered.
“Your name, friend,” Dominic asked, laughing at his confused face. “We don’t have all hour.”
“Char…Charlie. Is this a dream?” the squeaky voice asked.
“Isn’t it just?” Patricia asked, delightfully clapping her hands. The cake had arrived. “You’re in luck, Charlie. You get to have Leo’s slice! Here, sit,” she offered, tapping on Leo’s chair.
“But I don’t…oh wait. Is this my break? They said I’d get a break every…” Charlie’s mind was still wandering lost.
It was awkward to deal with the situation like they were, but even after the last three failures, Dominic had to try. To waste an hour on the grim that is every other hour was a desperate waste that he very much wished to avoid.
“A whole hour like this, isn’t it great?” Patricia asked. She pushed the plate with the piece of cake closer to the boy, and winked at him. “Here. For doing a good job.”
“I did a good job?” Charlie asked.
“You’re alive, Charlie, you did a great job!” Dominic said. That was okay to say. It was skirting the line, but it was still a positive thing to say. “Try it,” he said, eating a piece of his own and moaning with pleasure. “It is so darn good, I tell you.”
The young man looked down, suspiciously. He involuntarily sniffed, and his eyes misted with the effort to hold back tears. “I uh…okay?”
“Okay,” Dominic reassured, tapping Charlie on his back. “Oh, Pat, one thing I would like to tell someone! My favorite color!” He announced, proudly.
Patricia gaped. “No. You picked a favorite color? They are all so beautiful.”
“Yes, look. It’s orange!” Dominic looked around for something that was orange, but there was nothing. “Hm. Maybe I should order an orange.”
Patricia giggled. “Silly Dom. I know what orange is. I love it, but I love all the colors. Well, almost all of them. It’s crazy that you have a favorite.”
Dominic nodded, smiling widely. “When you get to visit enough wonderful places like this enough times, you start to really think about stuff like that. What do I want to repeat and stuff, the same way we decide what we want to eat at every particular place, you know?”
Patricia chewed happily, waving her hand side to side. She swallowed, “oh, I understand. I just–”
“What are you talking about?!” screeched Charlie, all of a sudden. He had been shivering and trembling, holding back a cry, and they had been ignoring it.
Dominic should know better but Patricia had probably not dealt with that situation before.
“This is just an illusion! It’s all fake! We’re inside a horrible capsule and horrible monsters want to eat us! Is that what they do?! There’s so many of them. It never…they never stop!” Charlie’s eyes danced around as if they were looking to escape his face. “Am I even alive, still? Are you?” tears welled up, at last. “We have to be, there’s no way you can be so stupid!” said his childish voice.
Dominic and Patricia stared at Charlie, momentarily thoughtful. Their expressions turned grim, sad, holding back the darkest thoughts born from the darkest experiences and visages they had ever experienced.
Which happened continuously every day.
Patricia suddenly glared over Charlie and away, her face lighting up with a very pleasant surprise. “Skylar! You’re alive, too!”
Patricia stood up and moved, leaving the two behind. Dominic sighed, accepting the role that was left to him.
“She just ignored me,” Charlie pointed out, his voice high-pitched and angry. “You are fake!”
Dominic scratched his head, taking a heavy breath. That kind of called Charlie’s attention. “Charlie, there’s something you need to understand about breaks, and you need to understand very quickly. Otherwise, nobody will want to talk to you, and you’ll be spending them alone.”
Charlie eyed Dominic, recognizing some sense in his words.
Dominic sighed. He could no longer taste the chocolate. The contrast that truly surrounded him started blending in a bit with Paris’s wonderful sunny surroundings. “Here, we are inside. There is no outside. No war. No amazons.”
“You just pretend?” Charlie asked, trying not to worsen his cry. He was hiccupping, trying to breathe. “How can you just. That was so much worse than they said it would be. It’s hot. It hurts. It’s so scary. They don’t stop coming, and making noises, and the guns never cease…not for a second, they never stop. None of it does. How can we…”
“Survive? We can’t. We’ll die for sure,” Dominic said, with a shrug. “You’ll take a while to accept it, but more than likely, you’ll die before you can. It’s like that with most, but it’s impossible to survive.”
“How are you so calm?” Charlie asked, his voice wavering like wind crossing a tunnel. “I can’t…I can hardly breathe. I don’t want to go back. I want my mom. I want to go back.”
Dominic tapped his fingers on the table. He kept hoping Charlie would unnaturally learn, from one moment to the other, and he could stop thinking about outside. No such luck. “There’s no getting out,” Dominic said. “This is your first break, but maybe it will be your last break. And here’s the point, Charlie. This is probably the last good hour I’ll ever experience. Yours too. And how did you spend it?”
Charlie’s eyes opened in realization, and Dominic gave him a helpless smile. And nodded, too.
“And how am I spending it?” Dominic added.
Charlie blushed, and looked away embarrassed. That helped. The young man completely understood what Dominic was saying.
“This is why, Charlie. We’re all the same. We are all going through exactly the same thing, and know exactly the same things. Which is nothing. I don’t know where I’m stationed. I don’t know who’s stationed near me. The only indication I get that Humanity is still alive is when I see someone new. But this kind of thing? Wasting an hour on this?”
Just then, he started getting the warning. Dominic couldn’t help but take an extremely disappointed breath. He was beyond distraught.
“Aww… my hour’s running out.” Dominic grabbed the cake with one hand and shoved it into his mouth, but there was no lying to himself at that point. Dominic’s brain just shook its head, denying him the fantasy. He was all too aware of the simulation now.
The break system only worked if one didn’t fight it.
Dominic massaged his face, sighing. “Ahh…man, I hope this isn’t my last break.”
“How many breaks have you had?” Charlie asked.
Immediately, Dominic’s hands fled as if he had been attacked, and he clicked his tongue and viciously glared at Charlie. “Never ask that! Do you want me to die?!”
Red lights in front of Dominic started blinking, and the noise of the alarm system pierced through the illusion. Grating.
Sighing again, Dominic helplessly smiled, as sincerely as he could. “Ah, well. Good luck, Charlie. See you again, maybe.”
“I…I’m sorry. It was…nice to know you, Dom,” Charlie said, and he smiled expectantly. “Thank you.”
Dominic took yet another breath, and smiled as well. Then he nodded.
Then Dominic was curled up and leaned down and forward, rolling his eyes awake. He was in the dark, strapped to his spherical turret which was his home. Very nearly his body, too.
Dominic could already hear the incessant shooting happening all around him. He grumbled and stretched out to push a big button which spelled out ARM.
At once, the alarm stopped, and the screen in front of Dominic lost its opaqueness. The darkness was maintained, outside of a few led lights so he could more easily find the buttons, dials and joysticks. Not that he needed the assistance since he could be blind and deaf and still use the controls just fine.
If that was the case, he also wouldn’t have to see it all.
Dominic was strapped to the ceiling of a pretty big cave, and he was a spherical blip in a vast sea of blips. The turrets around him were firing by the thousands, so it was utterly impossible to even guess whether the ones right next to him were disabled or not. And that’s if Dominic could check, which he couldn’t.
The amazons, which looked like insects far away, and even more so up close, were swarming the entire cave. The sea of dark metal blinking yellow lights was so thick that Dominic could barely see the glint and glow of the turret fire on the other side of it. Dominic could barely discern the drones getting hit and exploding, which to him, were just flickers of light happening constantly.
The drones were already diving in, trying to kill him.
Logic dictated that someone near Dominic was now on break, and that while he had been on break, everyone near him had been awake. Elsewise, he wouldn’t be alive.
However, there was no way to confirm that suspicion.
Already sick of the buzzing caused by the tiny propellers moving the drones, Dominic held back tears and squeezed the trigger, all too aware that it would be a week before he let go of it.
Bonded with the turret and kept alert and healthy intravenously, and not at all painlessly, Dominic never truly slept. None of them did. They shot drones down and hoped they were culling the swarm well enough that its vanguard, wherever it was, was not gaining ground.
Finally, and very much against Dominic’s will, the radio system came on.
“Quadrant three overrun.” “All good all good all good.” “Die amazons, die die die, get–” “No no, I missed one-ARGDHFGcv.”
A turret exploded, that was easy to discern. Another one would be propped out of the ground to replace it, containing yet another person.
Dominic controlled his turret frantically, rotating after the closest amazons, one after another after another.
The drones never stopped coming after him, and the turrets near him, and those in the distance, but more importantly, they never stopped flying by and away. Dominic’s nervous system was already in fight-or-flight, and it would maintain that tension until his next break. If he could make it that far.
For all Dominic knew, he had had his last hour.