Evolution - Chapter 1

Think of the devil and the devil appears.

Please, God, let this not happen, Rusty begged silently.

Up ahead, waiting for the intersection lights to turn in his favor, Jerome glanced over his shoulder, somehow spotting Rusty in the crowd. Jerome whispered something to Malania, who then continued across the road with the throng. Seeing no point in sticking around, Rusty left the main walkway and proceeded across the campus lawns that would allow him to retreat back to his dorm.

Halfway across, he heard a call. “Wait up! Rusty!”

Damn … Dreading the inevitable, Rusty turned to see the tall, dark figure of Jerome glide his way. He could see how Malania could be swept up by Jerome. While Rusty wasn’t much shorter and certainly was broader, he didn’t have that glamorous look, best captured by Jerome’s multi-jeweled earrings. At best, Rusty’s simple jeans and farmer’s shirts spoke of his modest Wisconsin upbringing and the fact that he’d be most comfortable with a pick or shovel in his hands.

His self-esteem spiraled downward with each step Jerome took to close the gap.

“Hey, let’s talk,” Jerome said.

“Not happening.”

“Look, you know she wasn’t for you.”

“Yeah, I guess you showed me that.” Rusty couldn’t help let the bitterness seep out. He didn’t want to be a victim. He wanted to move on. Only, betrayal can cling tight, especially when his freshman roommate was the one turning the knife. And they weren’t just co-habitants. They had grown close quickly, both opening up about what they missed at home and helping each other adapt to the alien college life. And they had many good times together, with each finding a girl, and all four spending the rest of the year hanging together.

When the summer came, Rusty had to head home to do his share on the farm. He didn’t have the time or money to jet set out to Boston to visit Malania. But apparently Jerome did. Not long before their sophomore year started, Malania abruptly called things off. Then Jerome texted him, letting him know it would be best if they found separate housing arrangements. All the dots connected when Rusty stepped foot on campus, only to be tracked down by half a dozen friends to see how he was holding up. Of course, once they told him why he shouldn’t be holding up so well, he agreed and basically went into hiding.

Looking now at Jerome’s barely contained smile, Rusty knew this wasn’t an attempt to put their differences aside. This was an opportunity for Jerome to gloat.

“Come on, Rusty. You weren’t going to hold onto her with your rustic charm. Mal wants a guy who has his eye on the future … one that can make a future.”

That punch landed. Rusty had plans to make something of himself, but without a well-off family behind him he knew it was going to be a long, grinding trek to reach his goals. Malania, like Jerome, came from wealth. Most did at this prestigious college. And with the freshman year coming to a close, his insecurities had told him to let Malania find someone better, someone who could help her avoid that bumpy road ahead. Feeling defeated, Rusty had turned to the person he could trust. And Jerome had offered to feel her out. Inviting Malania to lunch a few times, he reported feeling “good vibes.”

Rusty felt like an idiot for not catching the true meaning behind Jerome’s words.

Feeling angry … and stupid, Rusty now faced a choice between pummeling and leaving Jerome in the field or discarding him at the intersection. He sighed and began plodding back to the intersection. As he walked, Jerome pulled up alongside him, matching him stride for stride, making the right choice even harder.

Then another bit of bling caught his eye. Jerome was wearing the all-too-infamous red/gold wristband that could only mean one thing.

“Sold out, did ya,” Rusty commented.

A scattering of the red/gold bands could be found on the campus their freshman year, but this year the bands showed up in force, finding their way onto every other student. Eye contacts and ear buds rounded out the accessories. Collectively, the equipment could hear, see, and feel whatever the wearer was experiencing. It even cataloged all experiences, creating a database of life’s moments. Best of all, many claimed, was how the system could feed the wearer audio or visual responses to any interaction, allowing the wearer to let their minds simply “coast” while still engaging.

Jerome and Rusty had sworn they’d never let some strange AI program form their thoughts. The days of Fox, CNN and other outlets programming their parents’ generation was not to be their downfall.

“It’s not selling out; it’s capturing the future!” Jerome’s defensive voice brought Rusty’s thoughts back to the moment. “It’s a chance to expand my mind. It’s actually a great exercise in mental control to let one’s thoughts drift away … Kind of like meditation.”

Jerome must have noticed Rusty wasn’t sold and decided to plow forward. “The eVOLVE package also has great networking benefits. In any situation, you know others are approaching it the same way as you. Gives you confidence … like, you’re never at a loss for words in front of a girl.”

Rusty’s mind stumbled over that thought. Could that really be the case? You’d always have things to say to someone?

He quickly discarded this temptation and increased his strides towards the intersection.

Aware his time was almost up, Jerome threw in one last dig. “You know, this system really helped Mal and I draw closer. Man, we’ve spent entire days together without worries, able to speak without a thought.”

Rusty stopped abruptly. Was Jerome hearing himself? He was proud of spending mindless time with Malania? Rusty could easily laugh off these brainless attempts to get under his skin—were it not for Jerome’s taunting smile that begged to be filled with his fist. With the crowds long gone, no one was there to stop him. Except he remembered something his dad often told him about picking a fight: “Choose wisely, or you may find your future is forever tied to that person you hate.”

Rusty turned his back, muttering, “Got to go.” As he walked away, he realized his old friend’s boasting could be brushed off easily enough. What stuck, however, was an eerie realization he couldn’t be certain who or what had he been taking with. Had it been Jerome or the AI that had latched on to him?

His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the unmistakable sound of screeching brakes. Rusty turned in time to witness Jerome sauntering across the road against a red light, never breaking stride, while a semi skidded through the intersection, smashing him like a bug on a windshield.