Dariush Mohammadi jolted awake to a harsh buzzing that reverberated through the room. Three sharp screeches like a strangled goose, then a pause, and then repeating. Instinct led him to slap the area around him until he found a rectangular plastic box. Hitting it again caused the sound to cease.
Rubbing his eyes allowed them to adjust to the dim crimson light from the segment clock and the room came into focus. He was buried in blankets on a soft unfamiliar bed. The numbers on the clock spelled out “5:30” with a red dot next to a white etched “AM”, indicating the meridiem.
Panic invaded his mind. Had he gotten drunk and fallen into bed with a stranger? The scent of the room didn’t suggest a female owner, and even at his drunkest he wouldn’t be interested in some other gender. Still, he peeked over his shoulder to glimpse if a shadow lay in the bed next to him, breathing a sigh of relief to see it empty, the corner of the blanket still tucked under the opposite pillow, indicating he’d arrived alone.
He picked up the clock and examined its plastic buttons and faux wood case; something his parents owned twenty years previous. It offered no clues as to where he was or how he’d gotten there. The last thing he remembered, he was searching for his daughter, but now he couldn’t conjure up where he’d been, or how she was lost.
“Lights?” he said aloud to the room but nothing happened. Whoever owned the clock didn’t have a home with voice control either. He stood up and felt along the wall for an old-fashioned light switch. Finding one he flipped it, filling the space with incandescent light. It was as though he stepped back in time. An old ceiling fan rotated, in slow circles at first, until its blades blurred and churned the air. Dingy walls were crowded with generic art that hung askew next to cracks in the sheetrock.
A paper photograph hanging in an intricate gold frame caught his eye and he detached the fastener to study it in his hand. A relief of vines bordered a faded picture that depicted a happy family, squinting at the noonday sun. A light-skinned man with a mustache and bushy black eyebrows stood in contrast to a beautiful woman in traditional Persian clothing next to him. She wore a green dress and headscarf, printed with sophisticated gold patterns that matched the frame. She rested her hands on the shoulders of a small girl wearing a white t-shirt and light pink shorts. They seemed familiar but he couldn’t quite put his finger on who they might be.
The clock blared again, indicating the end of a snooze function. The numbers now indicated “6:38”. As he retrieved it, the world melted around him before it coalesced into the familiar scene of his office cubicle. Confusion tingled his mind. It didn’t seem like he was dreaming and yet there was little explanation for teleporting across the city.
“Hey-yo, Dariush!” a coworker, Bill, called out in a nasal voice.
He almost dropped the clock in surprise.
Bill’s large body bounced with a laugh as though he was an exuberant marionette whose puppeteer shook his strings. He worked in I.T. and with his stained polo, Big Gulp coffee, and thick glasses, he looked like a caricature of the position. Everything he said ended in an exclamation.
“Whoa there, buddy! Didn’t mean to scare you!”
“Hi Bill, you have an uncanny ability to sneak up on people.”
“That I do, that I do!” Bill chuckled, “How was your weekend?”
Was it Monday? He couldn’t be sure, but he played along.
“Oh you know, the usual stuff,” he said, “Spent some time with the family, did some shopping.”
“That’s great! That’s great!” Bill said. He always repeated his phrases. “I did some D&D myself– the party was trapped by a blood demon. Nothing some well-placed magic missiles couldn’t cure though! Pew! Pew!”
Bill demonstrated casting the spell in the air with his hands.
“Bill, you look exactly like someone who plays D&D,” Dariush mused.
The round man guffawed and playfully punched Dariush’s arm.
“Good one, my friend! Good one!” He said, “You should come play some time. You could be a mysterious Persian mage!”
“I thought the point of D&D was fantasy? I might want to be an out-of-touch American asshole.”
Bill either ignored the veiled insult or failed to understand it.
“Sure thing, be whatever you want! But bring that cute wife of yours,” he winked. “That would liven up the party.”
Visions of the woman in the green dress from the picture flashed through Dariush’s mind along with a feeling of warmth. She was his wife, why couldn’t he remember her clearly? Was he the man in the photo? Was that what he looked like?
He snapped back to the present, folding his arms and frowning at Bill.
“Thanks for the invite, Bill. I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.
The larger man winked and made finger guns in Dariush's direction as he turned to step out.
“Hey, Bill, wait a minute. Did you see who left this clock here?” Dariush said, holding up the device.
Bill’s normal jovial expression faded.
“That’s your clock, my friend. You’ve had it for as long as I remember,” he said.
Dariush stared at the clock. Its red display read “10:30 AM”.
“Hey, man, are you okay?”
Dariush blinked and the clock read “10:33”. How did three minutes pass in an instant?
“Yeah. Of course, it’s mine. The time is acting weird,” he replied.
Bill shrugged and waddled down the row of cubicles.
A distant boom echoed outside the window and rumbled through the city like an unending roll of thunder. The building shook and the lights flashed before dying, leaving the room dark, save for the bloodshot numbers on the clock. The alarm blared again.
Cold rain soaked his hair. Sounds of screaming anguish blended with the clock’s cry. Thick acrid smoke and the smell of death choked his lungs. He coughed and looked around at a gray and ruined world. People crawled over piles of smoldering rubble, searching for lost friends. Others sat with zombie-like expressions, too injured or too shocked to move. They diverged from the ones who already knew their loved one’s fate, weeping in the shattered street over mangled bodies.
He silenced the alarm again, desperate to decipher a way to mute it for good. Was this devastation an earthquake? A bomb? A sick dread formed in his stomach. He felt as though he’d lived this disaster before, and that the answer was shielded just past the boundary of his memory, protecting him from a horrible knowledge. Whatever it was, some miracle placed him alive and unharmed in the street rather than falling from ten stories up.
“Maryam?” he heard himself call his daughter’s name through the fog. At least he thought that was her name.
“Daddy, I’m here!” a small child’s voice called, it seemed close, but in the murky air, he couldn’t see her.
He clambered over a pile of twisted rebar and concrete, scraping his hands and knees on the sharp stones. Somehow the clock remained in his grasp, banging against the chunks of cement as he climbed.
“I’m coming, sweetheart! Are you trapped? Where are you?”
“I’m here, Daddy!” the voice called. It seemed quieter, moving away from him.
“Stay where you are, Daddy’s coming!” he said, reaching the top of the pile and peering over it.
A deep throbbing hum filled the air, echoing off the buildings and reverberating his chest. With it, the memory of the war flooded his mind. The ever-present fighting that happened to souls far away was here and happening to him. The invaders’ ruined his city and now their malevolent machines would piece it together in their image.
“Daddy, I’m scared!” Maryam’s voice called over the horrible racket.
“I’m coming to get you!”
He slid down the other side of the rubble pile and the gnarled metal snagged his pants. They tore as he ripped them free to run toward the diminishing voice of his child.
“Daddy, where are you?” she called.
“I’m coming,” he sobbed. With each step the sinking realization that he could not reach her in time.
The alarm blared again. The interface said “3:47 PM” as an explosion splintered the smog. Dariush fell, clutching his head.
The ringing in his ears subsided and he was standing again, clenching the clock in a white hospital ward. Doctors and nurses in blue scrubs rushed around him, almost unaware of his presence.
He grabbed a passing nurse by the arm and spun her to face him. Her blue eyes filled with alarm behind a surgical mask.
“Have they brought a little girl here? Have you seen my daughter?” he cried.
She shook herself free and pointed down a hall behind him.
“Check intake,” she said before she spun and disappeared.
Dariush headed in the indicated direction. Rounding a corner a little girl in a white shirt and pink shorts peeked from a room at the far end. She waved at him before disappearing through the doorway.
“Maryam?” he shrieked as he sprinted toward her. The clock said “7:12 PM”
The hall warped and expanded as though it had a boundless length. Hours passed as he ran past countless rooms until he slid through the door.
Maryam lay in a hospital bed. Streaks of blood matted her long black hair. A nurse placed a sheet over her cold, broken body and a doctor with sad eyes shook his head and frowned at him. Dariush collapsed to his knees.
“No! No! Not again, he wept.
The clock read “9:33 PM” and the alarm wailed again. Banshees screaming three times, then a pause, then repeating.
Two researchers entered a dusty storage room. Wooden crates lined gray metal shelves that stretched from the floor to the ceiling.
“Here we are,” the senior researcher said, retrieving a crate from eye level. “Lot number 2399 dash C.”
She placed the crate on a nearby table and slid the lid off. The box contained slender black rectangles, etched with gold contacts on one side. She reached inside and palmed a random specimen.
“Physical media?” the younger tech asked, “I haven’t seen that in a long time.”
“Stored minds. Fragments mostly. It was easier to ship this stuff than try to transmit it over the network. It sucks, but someone’s gotta catalog it and reconnect it all,” she replied.
A beige device with a receptacle that matched the physical media stick, rested on the table. The researcher slid her specimen into it and a small green LED sprang to life, indicating a successful connection. On the opposite wall, a screen lit up and displayed location information and a timestamp in red lettering.
“Welcome to your first day, cadet,” the woman said, “You’ll go through each of the stored memories, enter some notes about what you see, and then submit it all. Eject the memory core and then dispose of it in the recycle bin over there.”
The young researcher gestured at the screen to run the visual record forward. He watched a man fumble around a bedroom before getting dressed and going to work. The cadet sped the sequence forward and watched the man interact with a coworker before leaving his desk for a break. Bombs fell, a faraway city was destroyed, and the cadet watched the poor man search for his lost wife and daughter.
“Holy hell,” the cadet mumbled, “Are they all like this?”
The senior researcher looked up from her electronic notepad and watched for a moment.
“Most of ‘em,” she laughed, “They’re actual minds that the system swept up, usually when they were dying. You’ll get used to the trauma. This seems like one of the tamer ones.”
“You don’t suppose they feel it when I run them do you?”
The woman shrugged, “Don’t know. Does it matter? We bombed them for a reason. No one there was innocent.”
The cadet’s eyes burned but he chose not to retort, instead reaching for the recorder device to eject the memory core.
“Wait,” the senior person said, “Run it a few times. Make sure you have all the details. It helps when central processing takes a look at it. If they don’t have enough notes they’ll send it back to us.”
The young cadet sighed and restarted the video.
Dariush Mohammadi jolted awake to a harsh buzzing that reverberated through the room. Three sharp screeches like a strangled goose, then a pause, and then repeating. Instinct led him to slap the area around him until he found a rectangular plastic box. Hitting it again caused the sound to cease. A heinous feeling of déjà vu ate at his gut.