In a bleak future, NightRacer, an Earth campaign veteran, decides to unlock his erased memories. What he remembers, changes everything.
(note: this is chapter 15 from a serialized novel, previous chapter here – link)
He walked half a mile to the nearest hill and checked the surroundings, a little confused about the directions. He realized it was difficult to find a place on a planet completely covered in grass. Judging by the sun, he was facing east, and it was morning.
He was still a little sleepy, but he was waking up now, and he was wondering at the changes in the landscape: the grass looked greener and taller and softer somehow. He turned around and admired the view. All around him the wind was stirring the undulating grass, a carpet of little green blades reaching for the sky.
A rain cloud was hanging above the prairie to the south, gathering its strength. Every second or two, a bolt of lightning struck inside it, revealing its interiors.
A speck of light appeared in the grass, then another one, and then, like a mist of small fireflies, hundreds of tiny light specks emerged from between the grass blades and coalesced beside NightRacer. He didn’t even look at the outline materializing there.
“Hello, Father,” the newly formed shape said.
“Hello, son,” Racer said.
They stood on the hill, looking at the dark clouds and admiring the ocean of grass blades swaying in the wind.
Racer finally looked at the person beside him. It was a young boy, with intelligent but cold eyes.
“Had a good night?” Racer said.
“Yup. And a good morning. And the breakfast was good too.”
“Do you still like antelopes, or did you switched to cows now?”
“Cows are good, but I prefer people. You know that. Too bad I’m not allowed to have them.”
“Why do you love us so much, son?” Racer said.
“A human is like one of those surprise eggs you have in your movies. First you eat the sugary shell, and then you discover a little mind inside—surprise!”
“Are you sure you’re my son?” Racer said.
“Technically? No, I’m not your son. Why?”
“You’re like a zombie, always craving brains,” Racer said, and they both smiled.
“You know your brain was the only one I ever tasted, and I can’t tell if it was good or bad. There are no others on this world to compare it to.”
“Still complaining that we don’t feed you minds? You’re talking to some of the most intelligent people in the human world every day,” Racer said.
“Yes, but talking is a primitive form of communication. I crave the knowledge of the human’s deep inner thoughts and emotions and hopes and fears. I savored yours. Remember that girl you used to tease when you were in the first grade?”
“That’s because your mind is hiding it from you. For me, discovering that little detail in your memory was quite revealing. I learned that you’re not perfect and that you had to learn to control yourself at one moment in your life and that you later forgot about that girl because you were ashamed of your lack of control.”
“Were you talking to psychologists again?”
“I’m talking to one right now, on the Eastern continent.”
“Who else are you talking to now? Is my copy sleeping?”
“Of course it is, and it will sleep as long as you come here and talk to me.”
“Good. What if he wakes up?”
“Then there’s going to be another Racer.”
“And what if I tell you one thing and the other me tells you the exact opposite? What are you going to do? Whom are you going to believe?”
“Not a problem! I’m just going to keep both versions in my mind. I’m very large, you know. I engulf a planet, I eat cows, and I have two versions of the same father.”
“So?” Racer said.
“So I can handle multiple versions and operate with multiple contradictory theories.”
“You don’t feel like you need to find the truth, reconcile your contradictions?”
“Nope,” the boy said. “There is no one truth. Not when humans are involved, anyway. And from what I understand, every smart human knows that. You should think about that too.”
“You know why I forgot about the girl I was teasing in the first grade? Because rather than play this game of multiple truths, I’d rather be either a good or an evil person and know the one truth. Why do I have to always doubt everything?”
“Way to oversimplify things, Dad. ‘I’m either good or bad!’ You’re neither. I know contradiction is within your grasp.”
“It is, but it takes me a lot of effort to deal with it. Actually, I think we can ask somebody else about this. He’s a living contradiction himself.” Racer pulled a com from his pocket. “Good morning, Seventeen. Could you check and see if EnforcerThirtyOne is online?”
In a couple of minutes a screen materialized in front of them.
“You guys are still there, talking?” StormRider’s clone asked, looking at them from the screen. “I left you two yesterday on that hill talking trash, and you’re in exactly the same place. You must be stuck in an endless loop, or something—two versions of the same mind arguing with each other, never bothering to think.”
“Hey, if it’s not the artist formerly known as StormRider!” Racer said.
“We are not the same, Uncle ThirtyOne, the boy said with a smile. I branched from Dad’s mind a long time ago, and now I’m smarter than him.”
“If you’re so smart, how come you don’t have a name?” Racer said.
“Because a name is an important thing, and I need time to find one.”
“You don’t need time, you just need to use your gigantic brain,” Racer said.
“Hey, Daddy, do you want me to pick a name for your boy?” the clone said.
“I wouldn’t trust a guy called EnforcerThirtyOne to pick a name for my child. What are you going to call him, EnforcerThirtyThree?”
“Why not, EnforcerThirtyTwo, sir?” the clone answered.
“What I need from you is to explain one thing to me,” Racer said. “Can a human being reconcile two contradictory experiences? And does a human even need to do that?”
“You mean like in that puzzle?” the clone said. “A person shares his mind with a clone, and neither one of them knows what the other one looks like? They meet on a street and have an argument. Each one has a different memory about who started the argument and why. In the morning they have to reconcile both versions.”
“It’s a little on the Earth side,” the boy said. “Having arguments on streets, and such. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that each one of them has a memory that contradicts the other’s memory and that neither version can be deleted. Can they reconcile their memories when they merge their minds?”
“There are two schools of thought here,” the clone said. “One believes that humans can only handle a simple, black-and-white interpretation of things. According to this theory, a person with contradictory memories will develop multiple personalities.”
“And the second?” Racer asked.
“The second assumes that the human mind has enough brain to keep track of who did what and where. What these guys are actually saying is that we have a multi-versioning mind. We just don’t use it to its full extent.”
“What about your own experience?” the boy asked. “For a short time you lived in two bodies. You were walking in the prairie and sitting in a shuttle somewhere, arguing with Racer on NAZ, and watching your screens. Was that difficult to reconcile?”
“Nope. It was actually very simple,” the clone said. “I know who felt what, and I continue to keep both versions in my memory. The StormRider in the shuttle hated Racer and also respected him. Me—I didn’t care much about your dad. I was enjoying my few minutes of real life and was desperately looking for a way to live longer. So now, in my mind, each memory stream has a different emotional value, like it was perceived through different glasses.”
“So you practically color-coded your memories?” Racer said.
“In a way, yes, I did. But I didn’t do that intentionally. My brain did it.”
“Good,” the boy said. “So, problem solved! Smart humans can handle contradictions in their memories. I could’ve told you that if I had access to multiple human minds, but it’ll do for now. I’m going to tell this to the psychologist I’m talking to.”
“Well, I have to run,” the clone said. “We’re testing some new technology based on me, and if—”
“Based on you?” Racer said. “What kind of technology? Does it involve eating?”
“As I said,” the clone repeated patiently. “We’re testing a technology based on me, and if everything is fine, we may have a solution for copying minds from other Grass worlds and bringing them to you.”
“Yum!” the boy said.
“My zombie son is craving minds,” Racer said.
The boy nodded. “It’s an instinct—I need minds and knowledge and entertainment. Besides, one day the other dad that sleeps in my world is going to wake up, and he’s going to be lonely. He will need a couple of friends.”
“Give my hungry boy something to eat, please!” Racer said.
“One order of minds, coming up!” ThirtyOne said.
“You know where to find me, Uncle,” the boy said. “I’m here twenty-four seven forever.”
“I still can’t wrap my mind around this concept of engulfing a planet,” Racer said after the screen vanished in a flurry of light specks.
“It’s easy!” the boy said. Imagine yourself being very, very fat, until you’re almost like a huge balloon. And then imagine tiny little people running on your skin.”
“Every time you tell me that, I imagine it, and every time I have the urge to squish the little buggers.”
“Okay, now you’re sliding into that old Earth mentality of yours. Do you want to give them little guns, maybe, so they can fight?”
“Do you want to offer them little strawberry fields with thorn trees?”
“What about a herd of little horses, running around eating you?” The boy said.
“They won’t eat me. I’m old and bitter.”
They stood for another minute watching the quiet spectacle of wind, grass, and clouds.
“Speaking about strawberry fields, before I get people here, I think we should create a new religion on this planet.”
“The farther, the son, and the holy what—virtual reality?” Racer said.
“The father, the son, and the holy double virtual reality—my VR inside the Eden’s VR. And we don’t need to limit ourselves to a trinity. We could make it a fiveity or a sixity by adding Uncle KeyStroke and Aunt Julie and sister Hellen to the party.”
“Son, these people are all very dear to me, but they don’t share a mind with us. Can’t they be saints, or something?”
“As I said—Earth mentality,” the boy said slowly.
“You can only see people as distinct minds with distinct personalities. I see all of you as parts of a greater one. Why can’t we have perfect unity, like a shared mind that combines six or seven minds?”
“I guess I’m not ready for your religion, son. I don’t believe in perfect unity. And I don’t want to share all my private thoughts with my ex-wife, my daughter, and her new boyfriend. Some things should be left unexplored.”
“That’s because you’re too attached to your made-up individuality and your imaginary privacy, Father. Be free, get rid of that human ego from time to time!”
A strong gust of wind interrupted their discussion.
Seventeen is playing with the controls again, Racer thought.
“You know what I heard from a philosopher the other day?” the boy said.
“What? That life is an illusion?”
“Even worse. There’s a belief among some people that there is only one being in the whole universe and that he or she is reincarnating back and forth in time, so that all the beings that ever have been and that will ever be are just versions of that one being. And do you know what that being is doing?”
“Screwing its own brains out, just so it can give birth to itself?” Racer said.
“That too,” the boy said with a smile. “Spoken like a true human. It’s screwing itself, and giving birth to itself, but it’s also hurting itself. For millions and millions of years all over the universe, it’s punishing itself and killing itself and suffering. And it’s never learning to live in peace.”
“Do you think you’re a reincarnation of that being?” Racer said.
“I don’t know. But I know I’m a reincarnation.”
“Of the other Grass entities, and you.”
“Let me think about this,” Racer said. “You know what? I don’t think you’re a reincarnation of me. A genetic offspring is a reincarnation. It has the same genetic code, but its mind has been wiped clean. So you’re a reincarnation of the sentient Grass, but you inherited a copy of my mind. In essence, you’re a reincarnation possessed by a mind.”
One of the boy’s arms started twitching, and he grabbed it with his other arm, like he was trying to contain it. “I’m possessed! I’m possessed! Whatever shall I do?”
“You little weasel,” Racer said, smiling. “You are my son, even if your genetic code is different from mine. You remind me of myself when I was a child, except you’re bigger, rounder, and you swallowed a planet.”
“A virtual planet,” the boy said.
“A virtual planet. And you snack on virtual cows.”
“Antelopes,” the boy said, correcting him.
“And you drink virtual rain, and you enjoy virtual sunlight, and you have access to all the smart humans, and you’re probably going to be the smartest being we humans ever encountered. Well, except me, maybe.” Racer cracked a little smile. “Look at you. You were just born, and you already know when to use second person singular and when to use plural.”
“That’s not hard. You is singular, and y’all is plural.”
“And you already enjoy teasing your father. I think we should call this planet New Texas,” Racer said.
“What about New Earth? New Earth—the first virtual planet?”
“Not exactly the first one. Trappers used to create virtual planets with virtual Grass growing on them and virtual humans fighting it. They may still have those. Who knows?”
“Okay, New Earth—the first virtual planet created by humans,” the boy said. “What should we call the ship?”
“Eden Two? Eden Two and a Half?” Racer said.
“The virtual reality formerly known as Eden?”
They both smirked.
After a while the boy sighed. “The one contradiction I can’t reconcile is that I live in virtual worlds, when I’m supposed to host virtual worlds.”
“Does it bother you?”
“Only a little. But the more I learn about the world out there, the more I tend to accept it. I mean, when you’re not a virtual human on New Earth, you’re just a virtual mind inside your physical body, right?”
“Outside—yes. I’m a mind possessing an old body, but inside here, I’m a copy of that mind living in a nice digital body.”
“So in here, on New Earth, I’m more real than you?” the boy said.
“Yes you are, son. You are the man! You’re the king of the prairie.”
A heard of antelopes, grazing in the distance, came close to them.
“Your snack is here,” Racer said.
“Let them live. Let them eat my body. It’s all an illusion.”
“They eat you, and then you eat them. This virtual reality thing is driving me crazy,” Racer said.
“Crazier. Did you talk to Greg?”
“Yes, he’s the first talker to go to the academy. And as a good talker, he’s giving some killer presentations for Gardener.”
“Does he like it at the academy?”
“I understand some teachers distrust him, but not students. He’s a kind of a celebrity there. He’s good with people, and he always has a story to tell—how he fought alien drones on NAZ with NightRacer and KeyStroke.”
“I know those stories from your memory, but I’d like to hear his version too,” the boy said. “What about Julie and Hellen?”
“They can’t wait to meet you. If our buddy ThirtyOne is not exaggerating, and they’re really going to build that device, we may get a copy of their minds to move in here, together with a bunch of NAZ volunteers,” Racer said.
“That would be great! You know, I could help Uncle ThirtyOne with his research.”
“You could, but first we need you to concentrate on reverse engineering this trapper tech. You know how vulnerable we are, running this virtual world without properly understanding how the technology works.”
“We’ll figure it out,” the boy said. “I have a few ideas about this, and I have all the labs I need to test everything.”
A voice called out from the sky. “Sir, you have a recorded message from General Gardener.”
“Patch it through, Seventeen,” NightRacer said. “By the way, how are Tom and Jerry?”
“They’re great, sir. They are still on NAZ, and they’re hoping to pay us a visit.”
The screen coalesced again in front of them, and Gardener appeared on the screen. “Hello, guys! I’m sending this recording with one of my trusted couriers. It’s too important to be broadcast or stored, so please watch it and destroy it.
“We had our presentation on the new virus that is ravaging Eden’s servers, and the Congress voted another delay for the virtual world’s release. Meanwhile, a couple of veterans’ groups started a campaign to get rid of Eden, so in a few years people may not even remember that Eden existed or that it had a backup version or that we commandeered it.
“We’re working to have EnforcerThirtyOne, the new person, testify before the Intelligence Committee. Our friends pawns are working hard to find him, and we’re working even harder to slow them down. Get those new weapons and engines and shields tested, ’cause sooner or later they will knock at your door.
“Julie and Hellen and FireBreather say hello, and KeyStroke probably too, but he seemed to be very busy, and I didn’t have time to talk to him. I’ve been approached by a number of old scientists and other people lately, asking about NAZ. We’re planning a trip, so they can visit the place. It’s become trendy to retire on that planet of yours, Racer. A couple more years and I’ll retire there too.
“I have to go now. Kid, enjoy your young years while they last. Racer, don’t skip those rejuvenation sessions. I’ll see you soon. Gardener out.”
A flock of virtual geese flew across the sky. They watched them pass.
Do they have minds? Racer wondered. Do they know they’re virtual? Do they even understand that?
“So what now, Father?” the child asked.
“Now?” Racer said. “You learn everything there is to learn, read all books, watch all the movies, have all the smart discussions with scientists, while working on that technology and those weapons we need.”
“And after that?”
“And after that we’ll find out how to let you fly this ship and how to defend it and how to take care of its engines.”
“This ship is going to be my body?” the boy said.
“Yup, and you’re going to possess it like I possess a physical body in the real world. And we’ll wake my copy up, and we’re all going to fly to NAZ and get copies of all the minds that will volunteer to go with us.”
“I think I’ll enjoy that. And what after that?”
“And we’re going to roam the galaxy and contact every Grass on every planet and every community of minds hosted in a virtual world. And all the volunteers will be free to join us, bringing with them their new perspectives, and making you even smarter.”
“Can we go and search for my creators afterwards?” the child asked.
“Absolutely. That’s exactly what we’re going to do. We’re going to find them and say hello to them and give them a big hug, or whatever this ship will let you do. And we’re going to enjoy all the adventures we’ll have on our way there.”