The Tale of Rick Van Winter
A gloomy fog enveloped the city on a cold, rainy October night. On his way home from work, Rick Van Winter sloshed through the puddles that reflected the flashing lights of seedy storefronts. His mood reflected the weather - dismal, dreary, and depressed. He just couldn’t take one more day at that office! His insufferable boss had, once again, taken credit for Rick’s idea, without so much as a nod in his direction. Thinking about her smug face beaming with pride as she announced it only made Rick’s anger simmer hotter and his stomach churn.
He had to find something else, but all of his fruitless searching caused him to doubt his competence. This wasn’t what he’d dreamed about as an eager computer science student at the University. This day-in-and-day-out drudgery wasn’t what he’d expected when accepting the offer for his first job. Of course, this job wasn’t supposed to be long-term. He had really planned to use it as a springboard to make some contacts, learn about the industry, and then launch his own programming company, writing code for innovative projects.
But…life happened. I have so many ideas, he thought passionately, as a car hurtled past, splashing him with cold gray water. He groaned, hurrying to reach his apartment and get out of his soggy shoes and overcoat.
Upon reaching the lobby door, he fumbled for his keys in the dim overhead light. He began to panic a little when he realized an old, disheveled man was approaching. “Do you know what tonight is?” the old man mumbled, almost incoherently. “No,” Rick quickly answered as he finally inserted the right key and turned the lock. He hurried through the door, letting it shut behind him before the old man could ask him anything else. Upon reaching the elevator, Rick sighed - “Out of Order” the sign read. “Of course!” Rick said through clenched teeth. Could tonight get any worse?
As he turned to climb the stairs, he glanced outside the lobby doors, but the old man had disappeared into the darkness. Something about the man made Rick shiver…he tried to ignore his premonitions as he began to climb up six flights of stairs to his apartment. A little out of breath, Rick unlocked his apartment door and flicked on the light. Nothing happened. “Really?!” Rick almost shouted as he jammed the light switch up and down. Still nothing. Rick kicked off his drenched shoes and coat, and then used his phone to light his way over to the kitchen where he fumbled around to find some matches and a forgotten candle. He sighed. This was going to be a long night.
Suddenly, Rick’s phone began dancing and singing to Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” Rick reluctantly answered.
“Hey, baby!” sang a rather jarring voice, “How’d it go? Did you pitch her the idea? I bet she loved it!” His girlfriend’s excited jabber went on for what seemed like hours.
When she paused to catch her breath, Rick quickly muttered, “Well, it didn’t go as planned.” He explained how his boss had loved the idea, but had then taken credit for it. Silence…he could almost feel her disappointment seep through his phone. Another failed promise. No bonus. No promotion. No exotic trip to the Seychelles.
“What is wrong with you, Rick!?” she fumed. “Why don’t you stand up for yourself? It was your idea, not hers!”
“It doesn’t matter,” he answered. “This job is temporary. I’m really thinking about quitting and starting my own programming company. Remember ‘Hello, world!’? I’ve gone way beyond that, and I really think I’m ready to start freelancing…”
“Stop. Just stop, Rick.” Her bitter voice told him all he needed to know. She didn’t believe in him. Maybe they didn’t belong together. But, he wondered, did he really believe in himself?
Around 1:00 a.m. Rick still found himself tossing and turning, unable to sleep. Thoughts of his dream programming job, mixed with his disappointing reality, haunted him. His stomach growled, reminding him that he’d been too upset to even eat dinner, so he decided to venture out into the shadowy night to find a bite to eat. Remembering that the elevator didn’t work, he trudged down six flights of steps and was about to throw open the lobby door when he suddenly remembered the old man. Do you know what tonight is? He pushed the memory of the man’s ghostly face from his mind and stepped out into the cold, dreary night air.
A strange fog had settled over the city as the rain turned into a fine mist. A solitary street light hummed and flickered, threatening to go out. Rick hastily scanned the sidewalk, but there was no sign of the old man. He began to walk down to the corner all-night convenience store since most of the other shops had closed. A bell jingled as he pushed open the door. One customer was at the counter as Rick made his way to the snack food aisle. He overheard the guy exclaim as he frantically searched through his pockets. “I must have left it back at the apartment!” Rick glanced at the counter and saw it was piled high with frozen pizzas, energy drinks, and other snack foods. Though normally not willing to get involved, something strange came over Rick, and he walked up to the counter. “I got it,” he said, taking out his wallet.
“Oh, man, thank you so much! You have no idea, man!” The young man enthusiastically turned to Rick. “My friends would have throttled me if I hadn’t returned with some grub! These things are essential!” he said as he held up an energy drink.
“Oh, yeah? Pulling an all-nighter?” Rick casually responded.
“For sure!” the man replied. “We’re about to crack the code, man. We’re so close! Been working on this project for months.”
“Programming?” Rick asked, suddenly feeling more curious.
“Yeah,” the man stated, gathering up the bags of food and drinks. “Anyway, thanks again!” He began to walk to the door. Suddenly, he stopped, turning back toward Rick. “Hey, are you a programmer?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Rick, feeling a quickening of his pulse. Do you know what tonight is? Again, the memory of the old man’s creepy voice entered his mind, but Rick quickly dismissed it.
“Well, man, we could use a fresh idea. Are you hungry? We’ve got lots of food!” he laughed, holding up the bags of frozen pizza, snacks, and drinks.
Suddenly, Rick was ravenous and more than a little curious. Ignoring the small sense of foreboding in the pit of his stomach, Rick nodded and found himself following this stranger outside into the foggy night.
“We’re just across the street in my friend’s apartment,” the guy said. “Here,” he handed Rick some of the bags to carry.
Rick followed the guy across the street and into the apartment building, listening as he explained to Rick the basic idea for a new coding program that he and his friends had been working on for months in preparation for a coding competition. “This program,” he explained enthusiastically, “will revolutionize modern society!” By the time they stepped out of the elevator (Of course, Rick thought bitterly, this elevator works!) and reached the apartment, Rick’s mind was spinning with excitement and new ideas. For the first time in a long time, he felt a sense of purpose and hope.
The apartment door opened to reveal a group of people all completely absorbed in their work - some cramming around computers, a few throwing darts at a dart board, and one loudly snoring in the corner. They cheered when their friend held up the bags of food and explained how Rick had saved the night. He introduced Rick as a fellow programmer, and Rick immediately felt included as part of the team. Pizza was heated, drinks were cracked open, and Rick was engulfed in the fervor of coding.
As he threw back another energy drink (he’d lost count of how many he’d had), time seemed to stand still. He tried to look at the time on his watch, but his eyes couldn’t focus. Was it still night, or was the sun coming up? The room seemed to spin and voices became muted. “Hey, guys, I’m just going to lie down for a minute,” he mumbled as he made his way over to a nearby couch and fell into a deep sleep.
Rick awoke to a flood of sunshine blinding his eyes. He attempted to sit up, but his body was extremely achy and stiff. What happened? he wondered as he tried to recall where he was. Slowly, his mind sifted through the events of the previous night. He blinked a few times to refocus his eyes and looked around the apartment. It was completely empty except for the couch on which he sat. He looked at his watch, worried that he was late for work, but the hands had stopped. He searched for his phone, but it was missing. A bit panicked, he breathed a sigh of relief to feel that his wallet and keys were still in his pocket. Bewildered, he rubbed his chin, and to his astonishment, found that his normally clean-shaven face was covered with a beard!
He leapt up from the couch, fear gripping his mind. What happened to me? What happened to this apartment? Where did everyone go? For there was no sign of the apartment being occupied. Cobwebs and dust covered the bare walls and floor. As his mind tried to sort out how he could have ended up in an abandoned apartment, he decided the events of the previous night must have been a troubled dream. He felt famished and determined that the best course of action would be to sneak out of this strange place and make his way home.
Cautiously, he cracked open the door and peeked into the hallway. It, too, looked abandoned with only a few pieces of old trash littering the corners. A mouse scurried by as he made his way to the elevator. He stopped short, however, when he reached the elevator and found a gaping elevator shaft. Astonished, he fell back from the edge, feeling as if this apartment building had become too sinister and mystifying. He quickly found the stairs and raced down them. When he stumbled out onto the sun-filled sidewalk, he gasped for breath. That was a close call! he thought, only too thankful to be free from the ominous building.
His eyes began to adjust to the bright sunlight, and Rick stared at his surroundings with his mouth hanging open. Where am I? He didn’t recognize this environment. He almost stepped off the sidewalk onto the street but stopped just in time to narrowly miss being run over by a vehicle. But this was not like any vehicle Rick had ever seen. It appeared to be driverless! He couldn’t see anyone in it, yet it continued down the road and made a left-hand turn at the light. I must be wrong, he thought, but as another vehicle drove by, he peered intently into the window and saw two children laughing in the backseat while NO ONE was in the driver’s seat!
Quite shaken, Rick resolved that the best course of action would be to make his way home as quickly as possible. He was about to cross the busy street when a pleasant voice said, “May I help you cross the street?” He turned to see what appeared to be a hologram of a beautiful woman, dressed in a crisp uniform with an official looking badge pinned to her shirt. He stuttered, unable to complete a coherent sentence, and watched in disbelief when she disappeared and then re-appeared in the middle of the hectic road! As if by magic, the traffic halted, and she motioned for Rick to cross. Once he had safely crossed, she disappeared.
What was in those energy drinks? Rick wondered. I must still be dreaming! He turned the corner, expecting to find the convenience store where this nightmare had started, but instead, he found an ultra-modern cafe. Remembering how hungry he was, he decided to go in and get something to eat. Inside, he saw people seated in pod-like chairs, wearing what he could only describe as virtual reality glasses. There didn’t seem to be any counter or queue from which to order his meal, so he found an empty pod and sat down. He was startled when another hologram of a beautiful woman appeared and asked him in her pleasant voice, “Would you like to place an order?”
“Do..do…do you have…is there a menu?” Rick stuttered. Immediately, a pair of VR glasses appeared from the side of the pod, and the woman motioned for Rick to put them on. Nervously, he slipped on the glasses, and plates of food appeared before his eyes. He pointed at one that looked appetizing and then quickly removed the glasses. The woman had disappeared, but in a few minutes, a self-piloted small table seemed to float through the air and pull up next to his pod with the food that he had ordered. Hungrily eating the delicious meal, Rick started to feel more like his normal self, until it occurred to him that he was probably late for work.
He frantically scanned the cafe, searching for a clock, when the holographic woman appeared again. “May I help you find what you are searching for?” she asked.
“What time is it?” Rick questioned.
“It is six hours past sunrise,” she responded.
Confused, Rick replied, “What day is it?”
“Today is November 1, 2062,” she answered.
The blood slowly drained from Rick’s face and his throat felt dry. His mind could not comprehend her words. 2062?! Yesterday was October 31, 2022! How could he have missed forty years?!
Do you know what tonight is? The old man’s words abruptly returned to him as he struggled to sort through his thoughts. He attempted to recall the name of his new friend from the night before, but actually could not recall the names of any of the people from the apartment. That’s strange, he reflected. He decided to try calling his girlfriend but then remembered that he had no phone. What am I to do? he wondered.
“Did you enjoy your meal?” the pleasant voice of the hologram jolted him from his reverie.
“Um, yes,” Rick answered, fumbling for his wallet and extending a few bills towards her.
A puzzled expression briefly crossed her face but was quickly replaced by her customary smile as she said, “Please place your index finger on the payment pad.”
A small, flat pad-like device extended out from the pod, and Rick gingerly placed his index finger on the surface.
“I apologize for the delay. There seems to be a technical error. Please place your other index finger on the payment pad,” she said.
Rick tried his other finger, but she repeated, “I apologize for the delay. There seems to be a technical error. Please…”
Panicked, Rick didn’t wait to hear her request. He hastily dropped money onto the pod and ran out of the cafe. He didn’t even really know where he was headed, but soon found himself standing outside his apartment building. He pulled his keys from his pocket, but they were all rusted and wouldn’t open the locked door.
He stumbled in bewilderment down the street, passing shops he didn’t recognize and unfamiliar landmarks. More holograms popped up along his journey, offering to assist him, but he ignored them and continued on. The people he passed by either stared at him with looks of amazement or were too busy with what appeared to be advanced technological gadgets to even notice him.
Eventually, he found himself standing outside of his office building - or what he remembered to be his office building - though its facade looked vastly different, somehow more modern and imposing. He stopped short when he saw his reflection in a window. No wonder people gave him strange looks! He looked awful, a long matted beard framing his face, wrinkled clothes hanging on his too-thin frame, and a wild look emanating from his frantic eyes.
I look so old! What happened to me!? he thought again on the verge of a total meltdown. Just then, the lobby doors magically opened in front of him. He hesitated but stepped inside. At once, a hologram appeared, but Rick wasn’t startled this time. He was getting used to this. A pleasant voice asked him if she could escort him to an office. Ignoring her, he made his way to the fourth floor and walked down the corridor. He wasn’t sure what he expected to find but was amazed when the company name on the door was familiar to him. Maybe now I’ll find some answers! he hoped.
Rick opened the door and scanned the room. Though the office seemed familiar, it was vastly different. Workers were not seated in small cubicles facing their computer screens. Instead, some were seated in pods and wore VR glasses, while others were gathered around tables that seemed to hover and project holographic images.
Absorbed in what he saw, Rick didn’t realize that someone had approached him until he heard a gasp. “RICK!?” a man’s voice said. He turned to find an older man, who looked vaguely familiar, staring at him in disbelief. “It’s ME! Peter!” Rick must have looked even more confused because the man insisted, “Peter Vandunst, your cubemate!”
Slowly, Rick began to recognize this older version of his co-worker who had shared a cubicle with him so many years ago.
“Where have you been?!” Peter exclaimed. “You just up and disappeared years ago! I never expected to see you walk into this office again.”
“I…I don’t know,” confessed Rick. “I fell asleep last night, but when I woke up this morning, everything had changed. I don’t know what’s happened.”
Over coffee, Rick described the events of the previous night, explaining how excited he had been to work with the group of talented programmers and how disoriented he now was upon waking up in this strange, new world.
“Is it really 2062?” he asked Peter. He shook his head in disbelief as Peter confirmed it was, in fact, 2062. The past forty years had seemed to him as one night!
“Let me show you something,” Peter said. He led Rick over to one of the hovering tables, and waved his hands indistinctly. A hologram appeared, showing a group of young men and women. Rick saw the younger version of himself in this group and then began to recognize the others as the programmers from the apartment. They were smiling and congratulating each other, one holding an enormous trophy and another holding a check for a massive amount of prize money.
“You won,” said Peter. “You won the coding competition, and in fact, the program you developed is what makes this possible!” He gestured at the hologram. “I was so excited to celebrate with you when you returned to the office…but you never did.” Then, in a quiet voice, Peter explained that each of the programmers, including Rick, had just disappeared.
By now, a large crowd of colleagues had gathered around Rick. Some believed his tale of the strange night; others asserted that Rick must have had dementia to account for his long absence. All of them, however, firmly implored Rick to stay with the company and help them advance new coding programs to enable new technological ideas.
And so, Rick stayed. What else could he do? Here was his opportunity to work at his dream job. He became a successful, well-known programmer, and he eventually took over as CEO of the company, pioneering groundbreaking advancements in coding and programming.
The events of that fateful night faded into the recesses of his memory…
Until one dark October evening, he was leaving the office building when someone rudely bumped into him. He dropped his keys, and as he bent down to pick them up off of the cold, wet sidewalk, he heard an eerily familiar voice ask, “Do you know what tonight is?”
Rick whipped around, but the sidewalk was empty.
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