In a bleak future, NightRacer, an Earth campaign veteran, decides to unlock his erased memories. What he remembers, changes everything.
(note: this is chapter 10 from a serialized novel, previous chapter here – link)
NightRacer was in the army again. This was his second enrollment, and he was a little worried. His teammates looked younger than him, and stronger, and his legs hurt, and damned if he had any shoes on.
There were five of them—new recruits—lined up in front of a building, waiting for orders.
An officer came from behind and grabbed Racer by the arm. “Wake up, son,” the officer said and pointed to a door. “And get in there.”
“I’m awake, sir!” Racer answered, and he rushed to the door. Then then realized that he was already inside.
“Did you really wake up, son? Do you know who I am?”
Racer recognized the voice. He looked at the guy talking to him. It was Gardener, a younger Gardener, from Earth. Racer was dreaming. He didn’t bother to answer. He just gave a thumbs-up.
They were in a giant, dark room. In the middle, engulfed in a spot of bright light and humming, was a large piece of equipment that looked something like a computer from the old sci-fi movies. A technician wearing a white lab coat and some large rubber gloves was handling numerous knobs, buttons, and levers on a control board. The lights suddenly blinked and, before Racer even realized it, the lab technician was facing him. For a fraction of a second, it seemed like the guy’s lower body was still facing the computer, and it jerked in place in a blurry twist. The lights blinked again, and Racer realized that the guy’s face was very close to his—a little too close for his comfort—and that the odd fellow was staring into his eyes now. “Pick a number, any number,” the tech said.
“NightRacer, meet John,” Gardener said. “He’s a scientist, and as you can see, he’s also into theatrics. Just ignore that for now, and give him what he’d asking for.”
“Forty-seven,” Racer said after pondering on it for a second.
“You are Guest Forty-Seven now,” the tech said, pointing to a mirror that appeared on Racer’s right. Then he turned around in another blurred motion.
NightRacer didn’t recognize the person looking back at him from the mirror. It was a man with a rather generic face and a glowing 47 on his right sleeve. Is that me? he wondered.
“We changed your appearance, son,” said Gardener. “Everybody who was invited today is going to use one of these avatars. It’s not safe for the guests to know each other’s identities. If anybody asks, you’re Guest Forty-Seven, an officer from the ship. They’ll stop asking questions if you tell them you’re from the ship. The ship name also doesn’t matter, and they have no business asking for it. Just tell them you’re from ‘the ship.’ That will shut them up.”
Why? Racer thought.
“You’re wondering why, aren’t you?” Gardener said.
“How did you know?” Racer asked, and he thought, Can he read my mind?
“I know you too well, Forty-Seven. You’re one of those people who ask questions. They will not ask, because that’s a Phoenix ship, and my people are extremely loyal to me. The captain and the engineers are not ours, and they’re a little sour, but the crew is as loyal as it gets. Asking questions will only get those people in trouble.”
“Understood,” Racer said. The reason was actually quite credible. Gardener’s team was always good at keeping secrets.
“Now let me explain to you what’s going on here. A few congressmen and scientists and a couple of generals are visiting—all from different groups and factions. Some of them may be friendly, some may try to deceive us, and some may try crazy stuff. I’m going to brief them on the Grass and some other…stuff…and, yes, there are going to be surprises. I see you’re taking this well.”
Racer looked in the mirror. His avatar’s face wasn’t showing any emotions.
“My expression is frozen. How do you know what I’m feeling right now?”
“I have a gizmo on your body—your physical body. If your vital signs change, it will tell me.” Young Gardener smiled. “Don’t worry, I didn’t single you out. It’s a standard procedure for all the guests. I have one too. It makes sounds, like beeping and talking. Julie listens to the sounds and tells me when something changes. Now, with KeyStroke’s help, we may be able to automate that and show your vital signs on your sleeve or something.”
“Sounds charming,” Racer said, still examining his new image in the mirror.
“It’s a kind of precaution we have to take. I just can’t trust all my guests here. I need to know when one of them gets angry. Here’s another thing—if one of the visitors does anything crazy, we can separate him and erase the last few seconds of his actions. Everything is digital here and can be recorded. This meeting will have a slight delay. This can be a little awkward, but it’s a good feature. I’m sure you understand.”
“So if somebody suddenly disappears…” Racer said.
“If everybody freezes, it means somebody is acting crazy, and things are happening in the background.”
“What kind of things?”
“Better ask your friend, KeyStroke. He’s changing a lot of rules here. Julie had one trick—doors. But this guy is coming with all kinds of weird stuff—customized perspectives, metaphors, silly environments. Kids love it, but for old guys like me, it could be a little too much.”
A sphere flew in from somewhere in the darkness. Inside it was a tiny and very skinny KeyStroke. “I heard you!” he said, pointing at his ears, and the sphere flew back into the darkness.
John, the scientist, contorted again and laughed, pointing at his ears. “He can hear everything you say!”
“Dude, don’t do this contortion thing in front of the guests,” Gardener said. “Please! It’s creepy.”
The scientist turned around, this time in a normal way, and continued his pushing and pulling routine. “You got it, dude!” he said. The word dude was ancient and used only by old eccentrics like Gardener.
“A door for our guest, please!” Gardener said, not waiting for a response. “Thank you.”
This time, expecting a door in space felt almost normal to Racer. He turned around and found a door there waiting for him, only this time the door was translucent.
“Go enjoy the city, Forty-Seven. We still have a couple of minutes remaining,” Gardener said.
The door opened and Hellen stuck her head in. “Guest Forty-Seven?” she said.
“Who’s asking?” Racer replied.
“Hi, Dad! You look…well…great. So young! Let’s go see the city!” Hellen said, grabbing his hand and tugging him through the door into a stadium arena. Thousands of people were pouring in through similar doors. Still, the arena seemed to have enough space for all of them. Most of the guests were arriving in groups, talking and laughing. Some of them were dancing to some music only they can hear.
In the middle of the arena was an old fashioned boxing ring full of people. A large black microphone was lowered into the ring from somewhere too high to see, and the people in the middle of the ring parted, letting a young woman get to in the microphone. She sang. The music was flowing on top of the noise, clear and unrestricted, even if the volume never got too high. Everything was weird in this place, like some of the rules didn’t quite apply.
“What is this?” Racer asked, and he was surprised that his voice wasn’t drowned out by the noise.
“Just a party,” Hellen said. “A regular party. There’s one every day here.”
“Is anybody working?”
“Producing what? Machines? The food is free, and a house can be built in a day. Some people are learning how to use the system, and some have gardens. That’s pretty much it. During the first few years in the City, everybody is partying. Mom said they’ll find other occupations later. Some of them are already busy. Come on, let me show you!”
Hellen dragged him to the entrance of a tunnel, and they reached the end of a corridor immediately after stepping through the door. Down under the stadium was a labyrinth of dark passages, and the whole area was surrounded by a wall of Greek columns, standing close to each other, some of them old and broken and some new. From the outside, people on horses were storming the wall, galloping madly and trying to pass between the columns. The horses were too large to pass, and the whole thing looked like a futile exercise, but the equestrians went back and tried again and again.
“Horses? Walls?” Racer said. “What’s going on?”
“That’s our perspective of the people who don’t like to party,” Hellen said. “They’re probably seeing it in a totally different way, like gossiping, or article writing, you know—like a disagreement or a trial or who knows what. Like we’re all lazy bums and they’re criticizing us or something.
“When Mom was the only one changing things here, everything was very simple—one reality for all, all the rules of physics applied, and so on. But now KeyStroke showed the designers some new tricks, and everything is changing. Isn’t that amazing! Now everybody has a different perspective on the same event.”
“So there are no horses?”
“Not from the grumpy people’s perspective. Or, if they want, they can ride horses, it’s all customizable now.”
“I’m guessing I’m too old for this. When a worker turned around and turned into you, I thought that was nuts, but customizable perspectives? What’s next?”
“That’s actually a good question, Dad. Mom said that in a couple hundred years, we’ll get so bored of this reality that some people will prefer to sleep all the time and awaken only if something new is happening.”
“A couple hundred years? What’s the lifespan of a community like this?”
“The lifespan is much longer, but humans need action and novelty. This is what KeyStroke told us. He thinks a couple hundred years is enough to try all kinds of hobbies, to learn everything there is to learn about sciences and art, and then all that’s left is a lot of boring echoes of the same. It seems like in here we don’t have the same kind of motivation as up there in the ‘real world.’ Out there, you have a body that releases chemicals to keep you motivated. Here, the motivation is digital, and it has its limitations. The Grass could keep us happy for some time, but after everything has been said and tried, this world will come to an end.”
“We all die, Hellen. And up there, people die even faster. I know a lot of old people who would love to retire in a place like this and spend a couple hundred extra years learning arts and sciences.”
“That’s good, Dad,” Hellen said, and there was excitement in her voice. “Don’t let those people die. Send them to NAZ. They could bring us novelty and keep us busy teaching new stuff.”
Someone spoke in Racer’s ear. “Guest Forty-Seven, we’re ready for you.”
“They’re bringing you in,” Hellen said. She was listening to the same voice but was probably getting a different message. She moved a few steps away from Racer. “Stay still. You’re going to fly. I’ll talk to you soon, Dad!”
The air around Racer started thickening, and then he was enclosed in a gelatinous cube that blasted off, rising above the crowd and the City and then above the darkness beyond.
After piercing the solid sky above, the cube reached a large room full of light. The gelatinous walls dissipated into streams of light specks and flowed away.
“Nice transportation, isn’t it?” a skinny Asian kid said in KeyStroke’s voice. “Welcome to the conference room, Forty-Seven! Did you enjoy the party?”
“This is a very strange dream I’m having,” Racer said.
“I like your attitude, old man. How did it go down there?”
“People on horses attacking a building. What’s all that about?” Racer said.
“Those are the party poopers. They don’t like to party and hate to see others having fun.”
“Speaking of fun, the feeling down there was different. More euphoric or something. Did you drug those people?”
“Not me. The whole space here is organized in a number of levels. Up here, we’re calculated and logical. Down in the ring, people are having fun. Rebels are in the tunnels, getting frustrated, and if you’d like to experience a little horror, you can go deeper into the dark.”
“Sounds charming. Can they move freely among the levels?”
“No restrictions. Do whatever you want. The horsemen can dismount and walk to any level they like, but as long as they’re combative, they’re destined to fight the columns. Many of them are not that angry anyway. Some switch teams on a daily basis.”
“Does the Grass ever help them switch teams?” Racer asked.
“You mean like manipulate them? No, they’re free to do whatever they want. And the more opposed they are to the majority, the more interesting they are to the grass. Or at least, that’s what we suspect.” KeyStroke leaned closer to Racer, like he was going to share a secret. “I haven’t had a chance to meet the host yet, but somebody told me he may pay us a visit today. Pretty exciting, eh, Forty-Seven?”
“Visit how, in a flower pot?” Racer said.
“As a human avatar. Would you rather interact with a talking lawn?”
“I don’t know,” Racer said. “Can it use a Devil avatar? I hated this creature for so many years, I can’t get excited too much about thinking of it as a human.”
“Well, I don’t want to sound too much like an asshole, man, but isn’t this Devil your wife’s son?”
“You sound like an asshole anytime you speak, son. It comes naturally to you,” Racer said.
“Thanks for the kind words!” Stroke said with an impish smile. “See you around, Seventy-Four.”
“That’s Forty-Seven, you dimwit!” Racer smiled.
A group of people was observing what looked like a 3D replica of the lower level projected in the air on a large pedestal. It was a live model of the stadium, with people moving around. Julie poked her finger into the crowd and touched one of the people—someone with a 7 hovering above his head. A cube solidified around the person and shot up into the sky. In a couple of seconds the real cube soared through the floor and stopped. Bright light pierced the cube’s walls and they melted.
“Wow, what a rush!” the newly arrived guest said.
“Welcome, Guest Seven!” Julie said. “Join us. We’re almost ready for the meeting.”
Another guest was picked from the crowd, and then another, and then Gardener himself arrived in a flying cube. As the old general started greeting the nearby guests, KeyStroke approached him and whispered something into his ear.
After listening for a moment, Gardener said, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome. Let’s begin our meeting.”
Immediately, the 3-D model in the middle of the room dissipated into tiny sparks of light, making everybody murmur with excitement. Half the light sparkles solidified into chairs. The other half created a large transparent screen, floating in space.
“Hello, my friends,” Gardener said, stepping in front of the screen. “You all know who I am. Please have a sit. Or you can stand if you want. I assure you, nobody is going to get tired.
“Before we begin, I’d like to explain a few things to you. We are in a virtual reality, as you already know. For security reasons, while we’re here, your identities are private. If you try to disclose your identities, we’ll stop you.
“Today I want to discuss with you three things. One—what is the Devil’s Grass, or as people call it here ‘the host,’ where is it coming from, and what can it do? Two—who are our enemies? Yes, we humans have some enemies out there, and they are way ahead of us technologically, and we need to work on our defenses. Three—how can you get involved, and what can you do to help?”
There was a noise, like a murmur, somewhere in the back. KeyStroke came running to Gardener and whispered something in the general’s ear.
“All right, this will take only a couple of minutes,” said Gardener. “Something interesting is going on at the lower level, and we believe you need to see that.”
“What is it?” a guest asked.
“It’s a kind of a…a parade. You’ll like it!” KeyStroke said.
The screen moved lower and grew thicker. Soon it had transformed into a cube. Inside was the same 3-D replica of the stadium form the other level. Flying above the cheering crowd was a giant dragon. The image zoomed in on the dragon until it filled almost the whole cube. It was a very realistic beast, with large wings, a long tail, four legs, and two heads. One of the heads was spewing what looked like colorful soap bubbles.
“What is that thing?” somebody said.
“Let’s watch it fly, and then we’ll answer your questions,” Gardener said.
The dragon was flying in circles, sometimes descending rapidly and spewing bubbles on the spectators. People on the ground were cheering. They would pretend they were scared and run away every time the dragon swooped down from the sky. After a minute or two, the beast stopped and hovered in the air without even flapping its wings. One of the heads roared, “Thank you! You are wonderful digital people!” The other one regurgitated a huge stream of colorful bubbles of different shapes and sizes. The crowd applauded wildly and the dragon flapped its wings and flew away.
“Questions?” Gardener said, while the cube folded and reverted to the shape of a screen.
“What was that? What the hell was that?” a number of guests asked.
“A dragon, of course!” Gardener said and laughed. “It’s a creature created by two artists in a lab they recently discovered here. What they did was combine their minds and create the body of a creature that can be controlled by a combined mind. Because the dragon has two wings, four legs, and one tail, it requires more than one quadruped mind to control seven appendages. We humans are born with specialized brain parts to control two legs and two arms. When we are transferred to this environment, all our brain functions are mapped and transferred to a virtual mind. So if one of the people in this environments would try to impersonate, let’s say, a six legged creature, this person will lack interfaces for two legs. So what’s the solution?” Gardener said.
“Add interfaces for two more legs?” one of the guests said.
“Yes, that would be a great solution, and I’m sure the locals will learn how to do that too, but right now they don’t know how to add new interfaces to a mind. Recently, two curious artists found a lab that lets you merge two or more brains. They played with that, and they learned how to combine their minds and how to create that dragon. One of them is controlling the wings and the back legs. The other is controlling the front legs and the tail. And each one controls one head. It’s a very ingenious solution.”
“Can they screw up and not merge properly, or delete something?” another guest asked.
“They always have backup options in case they screw up,” Stroke said, intervening without asking for permission. “Actually everybody has a backup mind stored somewhere, just like we have backup versions of an AI on a computer.”
“We delete old backup copies, when we create new ones” the same guest said. “Deleting a mind here is like killing a person. Are they killing digital people when they are deleting old backups?”
“Good question,” Gardener said, trying to contain this conversation. “These backed up minds are dormant, like turned off AIs. When you delete them, they don’t have the awareness of being deleted, so it’s up to you to decide if that’s a good thing.”
“Well, I don’t think that’s very ethical,” the guest said, looking around and expecting some kind of support from other guests.
“If you believe it’s not ethical, stop deleting backup copies of your AI,” Stroke said. “AIs have feelings too.”
“What my friend here is trying to say,” Gardener said, “is that this is a completely new world—one with its own rules and ethical dilemmas. We can’t solve all the problems now, but I’m sure this would be a great subject for a future discussion. Right now, let’s return to our agenda.”