SANTIAGO MÁRQUEZ RAMOS
With this story, I was interested in exploring the concept of reality—the reality that we choose to collectively create around us, how we perceive it, and our role within it. It imagines the role of immigrants in a virtual reality, set within a world on fire, and how we understand what is real. And it explores the terrifying possibility of slowly losing what connects us to reality. I hope it’s as fun and provoking to read as it was to write!
A man stood before a tribunal of shadows, surrounded by white.
He wore a white linen button-down and white linen pants, loose-fitting over his wrinkled walnut skin—the traditional formal wear of a country that was once his. He held a straw hat in his knotted hands, frayed with use. His fingers fidgeted with it while he looked down, with respect that was once taught, and then enforced.
The tribunal consisted of three Appraisers, lit from above so they looked like nothing but shadows. They sat on a raised dais, looking down. The wall behind them was white, matching the white ceiling and white floor. It was not a room often used. But then again, the man’s request was uncommon, to say the least.
The Appraiser in the middle leaned forward.
The man gripped his hat tighter.
“So, Mr. Pablo Peralta,” said the Appraiser with a tired voice. “You want to die.”
You are walking through the hallways of your high school, a sea of faded green lockers lining your vision. You’re headed to your first class, math; something the heavy tightness in your gut doesn’t let you forget. The air smells of sweat and cafeteria food—something with gravy—oily and sticky and clogging your nose. You hear sharp squeaks of shoes against tile, rubber against rubber. Chatter fills the air—fast, happy, energetic—words fading in and out as you pass by groups of people sharing stories of their weekends. You remember your own weekend, and the dread of math lifts for a second. You feel a smile spreading across your face and try to quell it, pressing the straps of your bag more tightly against you. Not yet, not yet, keep cool, you say to yourself. Your thoughts distract you from the rhythmic cadence of your steps—you falter and stutter and almost trip, face heating up like the embers of a bonfire. You glance around, nothing happened, you tell yourself, nothing happened, and keep walking.
“Sí,” said Pablo to the looming tribunal. “No,” he corrected himself. He squeezed his hat. “Not die. I want to be unplugged.”
“To be unplugged is to die,” snapped the Appraiser on the left, tone unforgiving. It reminded Pablo of his school teachers, in his other life.
“Lo siento,” said Pablo. “I mean no offense. But—”
His gaze asked for silent permission to continue, but the three figures remained impassive. Pablo swallowed, trying to fill himself with courage. He was already there; he had to make his case.
“But—” he stammered. “There are whispers that we can get out. Y regresar. Go back. People have done it.”
“And you think you people know better than us?”
“No, of course not.” But Pablo’s voice trailed off. The implications of his tone sat in the sterile room.
“But?” asked the Appraiser in the middle.
Pablo looked up, eyes hopeful and fierce, in a way he knew was dangerous. “I read the clauses,” he said, heart in his throat.
You’ve reached the door to your classroom and the person you love, sitting inside.
The cool bite of spearmint gum in your mouth compresses and rolls—bleeding sugary freshness—as your jaw muscles tense and release. Tense and release, tense and release; an action that has always felt violent and feral and good to you. You shake the thought away and fill your lungs with air and courage: You get to see that person again, your person, for the first time since the weekend. You smile, you can’t help it, remembering the first time you talked to them, the kindness behind their eyes, the questions they asked, the way they made you feel understood and safe.
You reach towards the door and
the absence of it is so sudden and subtle and inexplicable that it doesn’t reach your conscious awareness. The negative space of it tastes slightly like copper, salty and metallic, but only for a second, and then it’s gone. You don’t notice, but your gum has no flavor anymore. It’s like gnawing on rubbery, lubricated plastic. You keep chewing automatically and mechanically, you can still feel it in your mouth after all, and your mind is too focused on something else to notice
—you open the door.
The Appraiser to the right leaned forward, looking Pablo up and down. He had been silent until now.
“You read the clauses on the contract,” his voice boomed, “and you want to take your chances.”
Pablo shuffled his feet. Sweat pooled on his mustached lip, even though the room was set to each instance’s ideal temperature.
“I want a chance to see the real world again,” he said, making himself small. “Antes de morir de verdad.” The Appraiser’s language module heard the English to his Spanish: “Before true death.”
“And you’re willing to take the chance to die by unplugging, instead of living out the remainder of your life here.” Something in the Appraiser’s tone, then, airy and charged. Perhaps impressed, perhaps baffled. The other two Appraisers simply bore down on Pablo.
Pablo nodded, the only thing he could do without breaking into tears.
“Sí. Yes. I have worked hard here. I have fulfilled my contract. And I want to go back home.”
You hear your name being shouted—hurled—across the classroom of noise. You turn and see your friend waving you towards an empty spot, and—your stomach drops, your heart pounds—your person is sitting right next to it. You walk towards them—casually, indifferently—the sound of chairs against tile and loud chittering hiding the pounding of your heart.
You sit down and smile and your heart pounds but you smile and—goddamn your heart is about to jump out of your chest—you say, “Hola.”
They smile at you—shyly, secretly, mischievously—and in a voice that melts and burns you, they say, “Hey.”
A waft of your person’s fragrance dances inside your nose. You bask in the aroma, consuming it and letting it consume you, bringing images of the weekend—invisible fingers grazing in a crowded room, dancing and blushed laughter, starry silence followed by those three words uttered, a promise for the future—and
it’s gone. There is no smell anymore. Not even your person’s aroma, that earthy, clean fragrance of theirs, reminding you of the bonfire you sat around when they first told you about their dreams to travel. No smell at all.
You stop yourself from frowning, laughing scatteredly instead. Your hands are damp and hot as you grip the edges of the seat, the sharp plastic pressing against your palms. You try breathing. In, hold, out. You are breathing like you always do, you feel the draft of air flow through your nose. But it doesn’t have that
that quality to it—the shape, the texture, the fullness—that smell provides.
You stop yourself from pulling your shirt up to your nose and smelling it. You are too self-conscious for that, and you have someone to impress. Leaning slightly back, you shrug it off and continue chatting.
“Speaking of your work here,” said the center Appraiser. “We have your records with us.”
Pablo tried to smile but bowed his head instead. If his hat were real fabric, he’d have completely destroyed it with his nervous wringing by now.
“You arrived here with your husband after the collapse, seeking refuge,” said the right Appraiser, monotone. “Both of you signed a contract of work in exchange for a home and safety.”
Pablo nodded, feeling apologetic for no other reason than who he was. He craved the chance to explain himself. He remained quiet.
“You indeed worked hard, as you stated.” The voice’s timbre remained constant, yet seemed harsher somehow. “And fulfilled your contract hours three years ago, yet you remained here, working. You had a family too, with your husband. A hybrid one.”
Pablo took a deep breath in—helpful, even though he knew it was not real air he breathed —knowing what was coming.
“Your family—husband, son, and daughter-in-law—was corrupted in the Lower Section data bank fire a year ago. They could not be restored.”
Pablo bit his lip, and grief broke his heart all over again, even though his heart was not real either. He managed to remain motionless. He didn’t want them to try to use this against him.
The Appraisers didn’t notice, or didn’t care. They continued reading.
“You live alone, with your grandson now. He’s young, fully digital, so I’m assuming he would stay behind.”
The left one smirked. Even though Pablo could only see his shadow under the light, he knew he smirked.
“Sí,” said Pablo, cautiously. “This is all correct.”
“So you would leave them behind? Your grandson.”
The person you love is telling you about the rest of their weekend, and telling their friends about you, talking with energetic hands and animated expressions. You enjoy their voice, the rhythm, the steady warmth it gives, and then their words take shape and meaning, and you blush.
“You told your friends about me?” you ask.
They laugh, blushing, nodding, and you know in that moment you want to listen to that laughter forever, you know there’s a life with them. You think of a question to ask, wanting to impress them. You open your mouth and
sound turns off like a candle flickering out in the wind, the sudden absence of it pressing, deafening, like a thousand mouths with teeth surrounding you, shouting all at once. Like a night terror, it freezes you to the core. The illusion lasts a split second and gives away to
nothing. You see the mouth of the person you love continue moving, eyes twinkling and smiling, silent shapes flowing. You notice the door closing in the background, chairs moving and books dropping, all on mute. No music, no noise, no shapes of air coiling in your ears. Your brain tries to fill the gaps but fails.
His grandson. Pablo had been expecting that question, yet still felt terrified. He cleared his throat in a way he hoped would be sincere and apologetic, if such a thing were possible.
“I have—” he paused, hands cold and clammy. He cleared his throat again. “I have made arrangements,” he said. “For my grandson to be okay, and safe, and loved.”
The three figures stared at him in silence, waiting, judging.
“I spent all my savings,” said Pablo. He didn’t want to explain further.
The three figures waited.
Pablo sighed, hands twisting the hat. “I made a digital version of myself,” he said. “One that will stay here. It will continue to work with you, harvesting data fields, like I have. And it will care for my grandson, raise him, teach him our culture and traditions, better than I can, at my age. I still don’t understand how the technology works, how it can be me and not me, but at least it can make mole for my grandson, his favorite food, when he turns fourteen next year.”
The middle Appraiser nodded, slowly.
“It seems like you have thought of everything, Pablo Peralta,” he said.
The figure looked left and right, at his companions, and stood.
“But if you read the clauses correctly,” he said, “you know you must request release from a tribunal, and you must be granted that release.” He put special emphasis on the word granted, and Pablo swore the figure smiled.
“Now, convince us,” the Appraiser said.
You still feel the vibrations of sound through your skin and bones. But without sound, they feel wrong, wicked. The vibrations loom loud and violent and incoherent, and you want them to stop.
You shake your head, trying to undo whatever was done to you without alerting others.
The person you love frowns. Their mouth moves to say something—maybe to ask if you’re okay, maybe not—and you try to answer. The person flinches back, and you realize you’re shouting. You probably look crazy. But this is crazy, isn’t it?
You point your hand to your ear, trembling, weak, and you shake your head, trying to communicate what has happened, and
in that shake
the world goes dark.
Pablo pulled at his hat with enough force to tear it in half.
“Esteemed tribunal of the United States of New Reality,” said Pablo, fueling his body with courage that was only pretend at the moment, in this world within a world where everything was both real and pretend. “What we do here isn’t living.”
The figures leaned toward him, and he felt the energy of the air change. Tension, viscous and sinister, like a static charge.
Pablo gulped, but continued. “Yes, the air in this room feels real. My clothes feel real. My heart. My emotions. Everything we sense, everything we feel, feels real. But it is all created in our heads. There is still a world out there, one that is actually real.”
The left one snapped. “Wasn’t everything in that world also modulated by our senses? Who’s to say that isn’t just another type of reality?”
“It’s not,” whispered Pablo, “It can’t be. What’s out there is real.”
“And look how your real world turned out. Wars, famine, pollution. You had to seek refuge here, in our perfect world.” His words were a venomous spit.
The center Appraiser held up a hand. The left stepped back, glaring.
Pablo bit his lip, trying to stop his hands from shaking. He hated how real it all felt, despite, despite—
“Yes, I came here because my country was torn apart by violence,” continued Pablo, “And I worked hard plowing the data fields for your citizens. I built a family here, and found something else to live for. But my mind is fading and my body is dying. And I want to feel the sun on my face one last time. I want to see my country again. To listen to its song. La canción de mi gente.”
He said all of this in Spanish, the language where his emotions lived, knowing it would get translated for them.
He sighed, in defeat and in hope. “I did not come here to offend you, or to argue, and I am sorry if I did that,” he said, looking down. “I came here to humbly request to be allowed out, even if it kills me. Por favor.”
You yelp. You yelp again because you cannot hear yourself, cannot hear anything. You stand up, your heart pounding, bumping into something or someone, you can’t tell, overwhelmed by what you can’t see or hear or smell or taste. Your mind spirals, panicking, screaming internally. Your neck tightens and your throat flaps and your ears vibrate, and you realize you’re shouting.
You try taking a step back and stumble to the ground. You don’t understand why this is happening. Your hands begin looking for—something—anything to feel, savagely groping the ground around you, trying to understand. You find the metal leg of a desk, cold and grounding in your hand. You bring your other hand to your face, feel your nose and mouth. You force yourself to breathe. Okay, you think. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go, but maybe you can figure it out.
You feel vibrations around you, like uneven stomps. You realize that the people in the classroom must have backed away from you, forming a circle, looking at you. You imagine your person looking at you, scared, no, horrified at the whimpering, useless thing you have become. This more than anything breaks you. You feel a sharp wail coming from your mouth and something damp on your face. You let go of the desk and crawl forward, trying to get away. You move toward where you hope the door is. You feel someone touch your shoulder, you tense and shudder and yelp away from them, every touch violence on your skin. Your hands and knees throb, pulsating with the pain of being on the floor, palms tender and fleshy, ripe pulp ready to burst.
Steady, slow, shamefully you inch forward. You have no idea how that will help you, but you feel an animal need to escape. You need to get away. You wipe your face again, realizing the hot dampness is tears and mucus and saliva, and
you slip. You bite down on your useless tongue, teeth digging into flesh and breaking it, drawing blood you can’t taste. Thick, syrupy, hot, it drools down your mouth during the scream that you can’t hear.
You try getting up but hit your head against unyielding concrete. You wonder why no one stopped you. You wonder if there is anyone there anymore. You can only feel what is touching you. You crave touch now, however intrusive. It is the only thing left of you. You want warm, strong hands—your person’s hands—to grab and hold and guide you. You feel warm dampness atop your head, from the soft crack that the concrete created. You stumble, exhausted, panicked, lost. Something pushes against you, breaking your skin, peeling it off without a sound. You feel cold and wetness, something moist and slimy dragging against your face.
And then it stops. Your sense of touch is gone now, too. Now there is nothing, nothing at all.
You panic. True, feral, blubbering panic. You are a single shout in the void that is your senseless mind, pure fear and rabid frustration, endless and roaring, shaking you to your very core in that infinite darkness of your mind that unfurls and extends and lasts forever.
After what could’ve been a second or a lifetime, you notice a faint silvery glow outlined around the edges of your mind, an afterimage of what you once knew. Your thoughts move towards it, but the closer you get, the farther it seems. You don’t know if you can reach it, that elusive light, but you know you need to. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is real.
The three Appraisers sat back down, their faces shadow under the light.
They murmured in hushed whispers between themselves as Pablo rubbed clammy hands against each other.
They turn to face Pablo in unison.
An eternity or a moment passed between beats of Pablo’s heart.
“Thank you for your time,” said the left Appraiser. “You have given us much to discuss. We will review your case and your request, and unplug you, if granted.”
Pablo looked at them, eyes wide in disbelief. “Gracias, en verdad. Thank you,” he said. He put on his hat, turning to leave, even though there was no door and he would just vanish and reappear where he was going.
“One last thing, Mr. Peralta,” said a voice behind him.
Pablo turned, hope held softly in his open palms.
“We’ve found that subjects—” started the Appraiser on the right, “that subjects unplug better while in a cached moment containing strong emotion. It helps the subject want to be unplugged. Something about connecting to the real us, as you put it. So—
“What memory holds the strongest emotion for you, Mr. Peralta?”
Pablo smiled, despite himself. Despite the fear and desperation and anger and sadness. He smiled because the memory still brought him joy, even now.
“When I knew I would marry my husband,” he said. “When I was a teen, in class with him, after our first party together. When I made him laugh. I knew, then.”
He smiled, giving his everything and his all. Even though they had already taken it.
“Very well,” said the Appraiser. “And good luck.”
Pablo nodded, tipping his hat. A thought occurred to him, then. “How will I know? If you grant my appeal?”
“Oh, you will know,” said the Appraiser on the left, and his words sneered with cruelty.
A shiver ran through Pablo, but he nodded. There was nothing else to say.
The room around Pablo vanished as he was sent back to work, a flutter of hope stirring in his heart.
Santiago Márquez Ramos is a mental health therapist working with Latinx immigrants in New York City. Originally from Mexico, he’s passionate about weaving culture, mental health, queerness, and social justice into all his stories; as well as Spanish, his native language. He’s been published in Litro Magazine USA, Occulum Journal, and Latin@Literatures, and won second place in Flash Fiction Magazine’s 2023 contest. He’s been rejected by many other magazines, but sometimes nicely. He is a graduate of Taos Toolbox 2023, where he won George R. R. Martin’s 2023 Terran Prize.