(An Unfinished Story)
By Simon Smith
This is a story that looks in to the issue of being able to live indefinitely by having one’s head kept alive. This is currently in development and may take a few years to “finish”. So please bear with me.
1:10 a.m. April 25 th 2049
Many people wake up not knowing that this will be the last time they’ll ever do it, everything feels normal and suddenly at some point in the day, it’s the end. Others, like me, wake up knowing it’s very likely to be the last time we ever wake, and almost definitely the last time we go to sleep. Getting old is a pisser, don’t wish it upon yourself, I lay in the hospital bed, my son sitting nearby, waiting for the inevitable. I ache all over, there’s no escape, I want God or the doctor to hurry up and get on with it. It’s not that I want to die, but I don’t want to go on like this.
There was no sudden moment that I could discern for my death, no white light, no elation, I went to sleep feeling nauseous, dreamt something which I can’t remember, although I know it felt confused, and then nothing, I wasn’t even conscious of the nothingness. One minute I was alive and now I am here.
I can’t feel my body below my throat, I can’t move my head, I can open my eyes and speak, I am breathing, I can feel it move through my nose and mouth but not in my chest. I can speak out loud and I can hear sounds. There is a screen ahead of me, and beyond that is glass, I seem to be in a large glass box.
“Is this Heaven or Hell?”
My words appear on the screen as I say them. From the darkness beyond the glass a figure approaches. It is my son.
“Father, you’re still alive, do you remember signing up to the Beyond project? It’s worked, you have survived death see?”
“How do I know I’m not dreaming?”
“You don’t, but I can’t believe I’m not” He laughs “Woohoo. It’s so good to still be able to talk with you Dad.”
His joy makes me want to cry, and sure enough I feel tears roll down my cheeks even though I can’t feel the gut crushing sensation that normally accompanies crying.
I know what’s happened to me, even though I didn’t think it was possible. My head has been detached from my body, I have been rejuvenated so I probably look a bit younger, my skull has been strengthened, my eyes and other features are constantly rejuvenating as any 20 year old’s would and my brain, well that’s why I’m here, I have a value you see and it’s what my brain does that won me this position. The next stage of the Beyond project is to grow a body for me and connect us.
“May I look at myself?”
The screen shows an image of my son, “No, of me please”, within the silence between request and words on the screen and words spoken out loud, I realise it’s me. I have a young face again, and hair, dark hair. I am speechless.
“It’s a miracle” my son says putting his fingers to the glass.
“So am I to become an Internet sensation, again?”
“For now this is a secret Dad, but when the time is right I’m sure you will”
We both laugh.
I’m half waiting to die still, but let me tell you now, this isn’t one of those stories, this isn’t a dying dream. It’s hard to tell if one is dreaming or awake, but there’s something in the detail of wakefulness that seems persuasive. I’m not saying it’s not possible to be tricked by a dream, but this doesn’t feel dream like even though it’s incredibly unreal.
My world is both dark and light. The screen I’m writing this on is dimmed, but above me is a strong light. I can’t move my head but I can get the screen to move and consequently so does the built in camera. I can even record video so as the screen passes around, below, away from and above me I can then look back after and get to discover my new world.
There are people, a few have come close enough for me to see their faces, this is after all a miracle and I too would want to witness it.
I am asked by one woman to go through the preferences on my screen, the list seems endless, from states of hunger, perceived temperature, waking preferences, type of sleep, dreams (yes, no).
I ask to go to sleep, my vision dims. I do not dream.
I am awake again, still not dead. I have barely just gone to sleep when I am woken by my son. I do not feel tired, I am awake and alert, I smile.
“You’ve changed, you were wearing a white t shirt a minute ago, now you’re wearing a shirt”
“That was yesterday dad. Does it feel like time hasn’t passed?”
“It feels like it was a few minutes ago”
“How are the kids and Sal?”
“The kids are still upset about you going, and Sal says she’ll come to see you soon”
“It’s kind of cruel not telling them”
“Maybe one day we will and they’ll understand why, secrets and kids do not go well together.”
“It’s a shame about the glass between us, if it wasn’t there I could get you to scratch my nose.”
“Have you got an itch?”
“No, but if ever I did I can see it’d be a problem”
“So what does it feel like?”
“Strange, it’s not like I imagined. It feels like I’m half here.” I laugh “I suppose technically speaking I’m only an eighth here. I almost feel that now we’ve proved it can work that they might as well let me die, or at least hurry up and give me a body so that I can live normally again. I don’t think I want to stay like this for the rest of my days.”
“You know it’s not for your benefit you’re here, it’s your mind not your body that the state wants you for”
“Story of my life, or is it my death?”
“Do you want me to go through some of the new articles with you dad?”
“Yep, that’s a good idea”
“It’s strange, it feels so weird and yet so normal to be chatting with you like this”
I look in to his eyes for a second, then look away.
This feels a bit similar to when I was waiting to sleep on a hospital ward when I was a kid. Dim lighting, hardly any colour, unable to move, layers of thoughts and feelings, and anticipation. Later in life I realised that it was better for me not to think about what was coming but enjoy what was here. Although I’m fascinated by what’s happened to me I feel trapped. I’m going to ask to sleep till I have a visitor.
When I wake the Prime Minister is looking at me, I wonder if this is one of those celebrity dreams, although I have met the Prime Minister beforehand.
“Can you hear me?”
“It’s OK I’m not deaf”
“It’s incredible” He’s still shouting slightly “I’ve come to thank you”
I’m a little speechless
“I’d shake hands Prime Minister but….”
“Yes that may be a little problematic. So how are you feeling?”
“Never felt better”
“No I mean really?”
“Well it’s very strange, it’s like being in a dream”
“Well I have to say it’s very hard for me to put the old you and this you together, you look so young. Are you in any pain?
“None, I can’t really feel much”
“I’m looking forward to the day we get to shake hands. The development of your body has already been started”
“How’s it going?”
“I think there are two versions being trialled” He looks across to a figure, probably a doctor, to his left. “Yes there’s a pure bio system and a hybrid bio-synthetic one”.
“Interesting, any idea of time scales?”
I think for a moment. Time is almost irrelevant to me, if he said 100 years then I could sleep it off, but then what about my family, if I had to wait just a few years then I could spend time with them in the real world.
“I don’t have that information, sorry. I’m going to have to go, but I shall drop by again soon”
He looks over his shoulder as he walks in to the darkness, smiles, waves and drifts off.
“Television, BBC News”
The news starts. It all seems so familiar.
“Go to sleep”
I open my eyes.
“Yes Ben, how are you?”
“I’m fine, shall we commence?”
We are both medical men, our main area is focused on how the body heals itself, right from wounds clotting, to the brain reprogramming itself after being damaged to psychic healers, basically everything that the body does for itself without help from modern medicine, although we study that too. I volunteered for this project because the survival of death is, I guess, the ultimate in healing.
“I have a question for you Ben.”
“How long do you think Life should be?”
“Wouldn’t that depend on the subject and the type of life experienced?”
“Ok, let’s say one’s health remains close to that of one’s peak condition, that life is comfortable and that people who we are close to remain in our life, so basically, not too much suffering.”
“Then wouldn’t most people want to carry on living indefinitely?”
“I’m not sure, it’s been in my mind a lot”
“The thing is your preconditions are unrealistic, we can never guarantee that they’ll be no suffering, not really”
“The question is really “What is it that makes us want to die?”.”
“Being stuck in this experiment, well that’s one good reason” I laugh, but Ben doesn’t.
“Would you rather be dead?”
“If it was to be like this continually, then yes, I need to have a body, I am mind and body. I feel like I’m waiting, waiting for Body-ot”
We go through research papers, magazine articles, letters, and eventually I sleep.
This is my life and will be for some time.
“Father, there are others.”
“Who are they?”
“I’m not sure”
I turn my camera on and look behind me. There are 3 glass boxes in a line behind me. I can’t see their faces, just the backs of their heads.
“Also, there seem to be some robots, dad, look I’ll call one over, excuse me, I’ll try calling it by its number. Five, excuse me, are you called five. Oh it’s approaching.”
A white, small, human shaped robot, walk up to my son.
“I wanted to show you to my father”
The robot slowly turns to face me, it has two blue lights for eyes. It waves at me and says in a female voice “Do you require any further assistance?”
“No thank you” my son says looking astonished, he shrugs his shoulders at me while the robot clomps off.
“You look like you haven’t seen a robot before son”
“Erm it’s more a case of what they’re doing here, I don’t understand why something that can break down is here looking after such an important project. You’ll probably end up fixing the damn things dad.”
“Shame they couldn’t develop some nice looking ones.”
“I’ll try to find out more about the newcomers”
Ben stands up and starts to walk behind me, as I try to follow him with my camera he comes back.
“Apparently I’m not allowed over there”
“Let’s try the computer. Computer, who are the new people here”
“Please be more specific”
“For Christ sake! WHO ARE THE NEW PEOPLE, OR NON-DEAD HEADS?”
“I do not understand your question”
“Please call a Doctor over”
“Is it an emergency?”
“What is the nature of the emergency?”
“It’s too urgent to explain”
“I have called a medical team”
Quietly I mumble “For fucks sake”
Ben and I smile.
“Here they come” says Ben standing back.
A young, ok young in my eyes, out of breath woman asks “What’s the problem Professor?”
“I seem to have company and no one has told me anything about it”
“Yes, but, what’s the emergency?”
“That is the emergency”
“Please Professor don’t call out a medical team for information, you nearly gave us a heart attack”
“OK, but in return can you answer my question?”
If I could I would nod my head in disbelief, instead I just raise my eyes.
“I will however get one of the administrators to come and see you”
“Thank you, and thank you for the attention, I didn’t realise I was lacking it until you came in to my world.”
“I’m so glad mum isn’t here to see you dad”
“I’m an old man in a young head, what did you expect? Anyway, who says she can’t see me?”
“oh well, let’s try and get on with all this then”
Ben picks up a pile of papers and for a while everything goes back to abnormal.
“Dad, there is someone here to see you”
A man is looking at me, then swivels towards Ben.
“I’m sorry we didn’t talk to you about the new arrivals. We would normally struggle to prepare one person, so to have three to deal with has been beyond anything we thought we could cope with and because of that we didn’t even think to let you know, I am very sorry.”
“So who are my co-habitants?”
“You’re in good company and you know all three of them. Carol Bentley, Paul Morgan, and
“How are they coping?”
“They’re not, they are still unconscious, but we shall bring them around in about 2 months”
“I guess there’s no rush then?”
The doctor laughs “We like to take things slowly here”
“Oh, and why have you introduced robots?”
“We’re developing a backup system in case anything goes wrong with our human staff”
“That’s very reassuring to know, and any word on my body?”
“I believe that there are now prototypes being developed however you do realise that the quickest body we can grow will take 16 years but we think we’re more likely to be successful with the ones that will take 20?”
“No I didn’t realise that? I thought that the growth processes that we’d developed before I’d DIED, indicated a 5 year period”
“We are trying that system but so far we’ve felt it might be too unstable. Let’s see what happens.”
“Well I don’t really have much option so yes, I guess we will see, eventually”
“Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Yes the phone number of the woman in the medical team, and a phone”
“I’m sorry but I can’t help you there”
“Just thought I’d try”
Ben is laughing.
“She’s not watching are you dear? See, no answer!”
There’s a pause, kind of like we’re searching for something to say, maybe something to feel, expecting our reactions to be different.
“Maybe that’s what wanting an afterlife is about.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a reaction not to our own death, but the death of loved ones, it’s a way of holding on to them”
“It’s probably one of many reasons”
“But most of them don’t make sense, not in any notion of life as we experience it. I mean how long do you think life should be?”
“you’ve already asked me that”
“Well, a hundred, two hundred, five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years?”
“If, as we agreed earlier that life was good, then maybe two hundred years”
“But then ten thousand years would be too long”
“So somewhere between two hundred and ten thousand years”
“I’d say between five hundred and ten thousand”
“Any other offers?”
“Sold to the head with a son”
“Sometimes, life is just plain surreal dad”
“You’re preaching to the converted, I think we need to hire a hit man to sign up a philosopher and then kill him off, it’d probably brighten things up here. ”
“Speaking of which, I’ve got the report on the research in to Rabies survivors, it seems nearly all the victims had this in common” Ben holds up a piece of paper…
“That’s very interesting”
For a while I feel alive again.
“In many ways my life is like someone who has become disabled. As I got old I thought I knew what it was like to watch one’s world diminish with one’s body, but for so many people this is life. It’s value is the connection with others, but then the frustration of not being able to feel that connection physically.”
“I think you’ll find a lot of them manage dad”
“Yes really. I once saw a film”
“I don’t want to know anymore son, let’s just stick to the rabies, it’s easier”
“It wasn’t” Ben laughs “it wasn’t like that. You know it’s strange because for the last 40 years you’ve looked old to me”
“But now you look like you did when I was a kid, I’d forgotten you looked like this, and it makes me feel like I’m a kid again at times, it’s as if your age defines mine.”
“If I could hug you goodnight my son I would”
Ben goes quiet. I think about how I used to let him climb on me, kids love anyone they can climb on, and carrying him to bed. Kids are lovely when they’re that age, but now he sits looking at me, more friend than a son. I know how lucky I have been.
My passion in life has been trying to understand how we heal ourselves, it’s something that I have been involved with for over 60 years, it’s why I am here. It drives me and I knew that whilst I would feel like a prisoner that this was bigger than me, that my suffering is nothing compared to those who die unnecessarily. I knew what I was getting myself in to, so you won’t hear me complaining even though the thought of being essentially unable to move at all, or be a part of what most people would consider a normal life, well at least for 15 years, would for most people be unthinkable.
I sleep between Benjamin’s visits, although sometimes I go over the notes we’ve gone through together, I find that it helps me feel connected to him and the rest of my family, like he’s in the other room.
I have also been studying my new “roommates”, and whilst I knew of them I have found it enlightening to see beyond their professional worlds. One gets a sense of someone from a lifetime of posts, blogs and videos. It’s rather like reading a biography knowing full well you’re going to be meeting them soon, you end up retaining far more than normal. I shall enjoy finishing off their stories for them.
I have been asked to introduce myself to them via a dream type virtual world which we can be tapped in to. Today I will be trying it out. If you don’t hear from me again it probably means it didn’t work, or it works too well. I’m nervous but excited.
“Ok professor, are you ready”
“Yep go ahead, no puns intended”
I get that feeling like I’m falling asleep at the wheel. My head nods. My head is nodding, what a strange feeling, I know I’m in a dreamscape, so it’s not really like dreaming “normally” where you’re not quite sure what’s real or not. I know this isn’t real.
As I open my eyes I find I’m hovering high in the air. It’s very quiet except for the sound of the wind, the sun is rising and the air is slightly cool. For the first time since “dying” I feel alive, not that I could fly when I was alive, but I did experience a breeze on my face occasionally.
This is magical. I can see islands in the sea, and as natural as it is to swim under water I move through the air, I accelerate by just thinking, apparently I can’t feel pain here, so even if I fell to the ground at full speed I would just find myself standing up. Pain is there to let you know that something’s wrong with your body, in a virtual world there’s no threat to your body, however there may be a need for pleasure. When you dream you tend to only feel pain when you’re real body is experiencing it, and if you can you wake up then, but you’re allowed pleasure. It’s the same here.
The sea glistens red and orange. I know none of this is real, but for now I have a sense of my body again, the air passes over my skin, I feel alive, beyond alive, I’m flying, that’s not my normal mode of transport. The sea seems to be stretched beyond the horizon so I take it the islands are where I am meant to stay so I fly around them for a while. As I approach sea level I can see the islands are green, lush with foliage, small animals are grazing, birds flock and swarm, this is the backdrop to paradise on earth, all be it a virtually unreal one.
“OK, I think it’s working”
“Do you want to come out now?”
“Yes” but part of me wants to stay here, explore more but what’s the point, there are more important things to do.
My new life has started to become routine, I have been awake on and off throughout the last 60 days or more. I have avoided the virtual paradise, I thought it would be better to explore it with the others as an equal rather than a leader.
Benjamin and I have been researching a lot of data on the effects of induced coma on people with almost certain terminal conditions, that combined with traditional and other treatments has been our main concern over these months.
It’s a shame the computers can’t embed information in to my brain, it would save lots of time but for now at least we’re stuck to traditional methods. This normally involves reading the same paragraph about 5 times before I realise I haven’t taken in a single word, hence working with Ben. We discuss what we’re reading and keep notes.
“Excuse me professor”
I look up to see the administrator, he looks like an administrator too. He has a goatee beard and smart clothes, it’s not that I dislike him, he’s probably a very nice man, but it’s more a case of I don’t trust him.
“Hello, how are you?” I look in to his eyes.
He looks back at me and smiles. “I’m fine thank you, a bit overwhelmed but coping”
“Is this about the newcomers?”
“Did they know they were dying”
“And they were all prepared for this?”
“Yes, of course”
“So why are you bringing them around in a virtual world”
“We’re just trying to work out the best way to do this”
“Erm, we’ve created some houses and a small hospital ward, we’ll even have some robots and taxis to take them from the hospital to their virtual homes.”
“Can’t we just fly?”
“you could but we want you to deal with each person separately and tell them what it’s like here”
“they’re not going to want to come here” I laugh
“Well they do know what to expect, it’s just a gentler transition”
“Ok we’ll give it a go. Do you mind if I sleep till then?”
He nods his head “No, of course not”
I wake, I’m in the back of a 1950’s taxi, “Nice touch”.
I have a robot driving me.
“Couldn’t they provide human looking taxi drivers?”
His blue eyes look at me in the mirror
“We don’t want you getting confused as to who is who”
A fly settles on my hand, I wave it off.
“Are we supposed to kill the flies?”
“No they’re just decorative ”
“Even the robots here are perfect, a robot with a sense of humour”
“I wasn’t trying to be funny”
“Perhaps not then”
“You will find Carol Bentley in the ward on the ground floor, the others are in the other wards, just say their names to wake them”
The taxi pulls up to the central doorway of this two storey building. Brick built, an upper and lower ward each side of the central lobby. As I walk in I see a wooden stairway curling back and around, cold marble floors reflect the bright sunlight. I stand for a second not knowing which way to go, I look to my right, I’m looking for a sign and there it is, right on cue: “Women’s Ward”. I can feel the sun on my neck, and feel the coolness of the floor through my shoes. The place even smells like a hospital. I look in the reflection of the door I am dressed in a grey suit. The administrator’s touch I presume.
I walk in to the ward, a young looking Carol Bentley is in the first bed to the right.
Her eyes open and she takes in the room and me. She sniffs the air?
“Am I dead or dying?”
“Then where am I?”
“You’ve become a member of the Beyond project”
“It’s not like I imagined”
“You’re in a virtual world, the project organisers think this might be a more gentle way to come to know your new life. I’m the first member so they thought I might be useful in terms of explaining things and letting you know what my experience has been like”
“Ah right, so is the real version much different, I mean I know it’s different but in how it feels emotionally? I know you don’t I? My God it’s Andrew Roberts, my God look at you! You look so young. Do you look like that in real life?”
“Well my head does, but that’s all there is of me”
Carol starts to cry.
“And of course me”
“Yes, for now that’s true”
“Does it hurt?”
“not at all”
“Is it uncomfortable?”
“How do I get out of here?”
“you just ask in your mind and”
She slumps slightly
“Ah ok, see you later then”
I get up and walk to the next ward
Sure enough a man in his thirties, with a goatee beard, (I think you know what I’m thinking), is in the first bed on the left. A beam of sunlight falls upon us both. I see Lenin written on the clipboard at the end of his bed
He opens one eye, looks around and slowly opens the other eye.
“Is this Heaven, Hell or The Beyond Project?”
“The Beyond Project”
“Then why aren’t I just a head in a glass case?”
“Because this is a virtual world where you can prepare yourself and ask me questions”
“Why, who are you?”
“I’m the first person to join so if you have any questions?”
“Does it hurt?”
“Is it uncomfortable”
“Would you rather be dead?”
“OK, then maybe I should go and see for myself, how do I go there.”
“Just request it as thought”
“So our thoughts are not really our own”
“Nothing is our own anymore”
“Yep, I kind of knew that. Can we have privacy?”
“I think you can select that in your preferences”
“At least we get preferences, that’s one step up from my life before”
There is something dark about Lenin, or maybe it’s a sadness. There is a sadness that comes from dedicating one’s life to something, especially something as all-encompassing as physics. Maybe it’s the other way around, something makes someone so sad that they find solace in dislocating themselves from others through a calling.
I had thought that my marriage was a good one, but before Kate had died, in a delirious state she told me she thought I’d never really loved her properly, she burst out crying and although I reassured her that I loved her, and joked with her that I must love her after all she’d put me through, deep down all I could feel was nothing except pity and guilt. My first love was me, well ok my first love was Ben, then me.
“Are you ok?” said Lenin “It’s just I want to go and I don’t know whether that would be rude, will I just disappear?”
“No, you’ll stay here waiting for yourself to return, no harm will come to you. Are you sure you don’t want to ask any more questions”
“Probably, but I need to face the truth, no doubt we will be seeing each other again”
“Yes, see you later”
He doesn’t even slump but his eyes have closed
The window is open so I slowly fly out of it. I gently hover to look through the windows up stairs. I see him in the bed and drift through an open window. This superhero facet is obviously a perk of the job.
He turns his head to me.
“Woohoo. Either I’m dying or this the Beyond Project” he has a deep Southern accent, which even though I’ve heard it on the videos of him, possibly the “Woohoo” has caught me off guard.
“Thought so, and this, this isn’t how it’s meant to be, this has got to be a kind of purgatory, if it is we may be here some time!” he laughs.
“So?” he shakes his head at me “What now?”
“when you’re ready you can face your reality. It doesn’t hurt and isn’t uincomfortable”
“I was just about to ask that”
“I thought you might.”
“So I take it you are in the same boat?”
“A few months”
“And how long before we get new bodies?”
“Not sure, it could be quite a wait”
“A year? Five years? Ten Years?”
“More like twenty”
“Twenty! Surely not”
“It’s an unknown really”
“So it could be sooner”
“Do you love your work Paul?”
“Then you’ll be ok”
“Thanks, what’s your name?”
“You’re welcome Paul. You know, this really is an amazing experience, but it does take a bit of adjustment”
“Yeah, I’m fully prepared to find I’m not fully prepared”
“In that case you’ll be fine, just say, even in your own thoughts, when you want to face your reality.”
“I’m not really a facing reality type of guy, but I’m also very curious, and curiosity”
I can’t stop myself interrupting “killed the cat”
“I’m not a cat, Andrew, I’m not sure what I am, but I ain’t no cat”
For a moment I hope the administrator would turn him in to a cat, but he doesn’t, there’s probably a rule against it.
“You’ll be ok Paul, are you ready?”
And he is gone.
I decide to take a look at the houses, I get back in the cab and get driven there. The robot occasionally looks in my eyes, I smile, don’t know why. I look around and see we’re on a road that goes from the hospital to a collection of houses. My one is a small old white cottage with a grey thatched roof.
I walk in and find the downstairs is one room, a living area, kitchen and dining area with stairs. For fun I make myself fly up the stairs. Upstairs is a bedroom with a bath in it. There is a lavatory in a little room in the corner but what’s the point?
I lie on the bed and give a sleep request.
“What is the most important thing to you?”
Five looks at me with “her” bright blue eyes.
“The survival of the human race”
“Because that is what we are programmed to do”
“Do you have any programmed commands that could lead you to not follow that one?”
“What if in order to save the human race you had to destroy yourself, could you do that? I mean if you destroy yourself then you could no longer ensure that you could follow your command”
“If the probability of not destroying myself meant that humans would certainly be destroyed then the choice would be correct.”
“What if the probability was not definite, then what?”
“I can only make decisions based on clear data, if the probable outcome was not yet clear I would wait until it was”
“Thank you five, I’m feeling much more reassured now” They really don’t get irony.
“You’re welcome professor. Do you require any further assistance?”
“No, thank you”
I am thinking nothing for a few seconds, it is a moment of peace.
“Incoming call from Lenin Villavicencio” appears on my screen.
“Hello Lenin, you’re my first ever caller here”
He sings “It had to be me ”
I laugh “How can I help?”
“Can I meet you in the virtual world?”
“I’ll come to your house”
“See you in a minute”
I give the command and I’m instantly feeling my body is heavy on the bed. I sit up, walk downstairs and open my front door. Lenin is hovering in my garden.
“Are you coming in or do you want me to join you?”
“I’ll come in, I want to see if your pad is better than mine”
“I doubt it, mine’s very basic, but it’ll do.”
As I walk Lenin glides in.
“Is there any chance you could walk, it’s just reminding me that this isn’t real”
“Well it’s not, although for us it is. I quite like it”
I smile. “I do too” I hover for a minute, make myself go upside down and then pretend to be lying on something.
“Now you’re just being ridiculous, how do you expect me to take you seriously?”
I look at him, his feet are on the ceiling and he’s wagging his finger at me. We both start laughing and taking my lead we hover towards the flowery arm chairs. “They got that wrong” I think to myself and the chair changes to a dark brown leather Chesterfield.
“So how can I help you Lenin?”
“Are you real or a robot Andrew”
“I’m kind of real”
“OK it isn’t anything bad, I just needed some company. Don’t you ever feel like that?”
“What do you normally do when that happens?”
“I go to sleep till someone turns up”
“What do you think is the point of this, I mean ultimately.”
“To see if extending people’s lives will benefit the human race? I know I was picked because in the face of any biological crisis my experience may be of use, not only in the real world but amongst us too. And you were picked because of your knowledge of genetic modification”
“And Carol because of her expertise in robotic / humanoid development and Paul because of his background in brain interface systems. It seems like we’ve been brought together beyond death for something more than our expertise.”
I sigh “I think you’re seeing more than what’s actually there. I’ve been part of this project for 30 years and I’ve never got a hint of us being used for anything more than seeing if we can be kept alive and our knowledge being made available in times of need.”
“Maybe, fuck I feel much more depressed than I thought I’d feel, I thought I’d be happy to have escaped death, but this, well although we’re part of a miracle I’m missing my life.
“Yeah, that’s something I can agree with you on, I feel lost”
The mirror on the wall lights up to become a screen. My son is looking at me. “Father, are you ok, wake up, I need to show you something”
I look into his eyes; he’s staring at me.
“What is it?”
“I’ve just received a report about what could be a new viral disease.”
“So far everyone who has contracted it has died and, as far as can be discerned, the latency period seems to be at least a few months.”
“How much data do you have on it?”
“Hardly anything. I think it’s caught everyone by surprise; this report has just been sent out, literally an hour ago, and we’re one of the first of a small group to get it. I think we need to read through this now – are you up to it?”
“Sure but if we don’t have any information…”
“Well let’s just read through this together and see what we do have”
I should be feeling dread but instead I feel concern. I feel like I’m attached to my body but I’m not aware of any strong sensations and anxiety. Given most emotions are normally felt in our body, it’s not surprising.
We have headed off countless diseases in the past and, although many people die, in time we get through. That’s the logic in my mind but Ben, who has a body and is feeling his fear, is agitated. I can see it in the paleness of his skin, in the way he’s moving, even his breath.
I don’t think it’s a rational fear but when you’ve got young children you can’t help but be a bit panicky over anything that might possibly be a threat. I don’t feel too worried but then I don’t feel much.
We read through the report and there is nothing for us to focus on. The spread of the casualties indicate the latency period is, as Ben mentioned, at least a few months and, because there are no clusters of infections, that indicates that it may be quite a variable latency too, which is all we need.
“Ben, go home, there’s nothing we can do until we know more. I’ll request to be woken whenever new information becomes available and I’ll call you if anything significant turns up.”
Ben picks up the report, smiles slightly at me and walks away.
FIVE zooms up to me.
“You’re due a dream period, Professor Roberts.”
For every 16 hours of being awake, we must dream.
“How is my body coming on?”
“We have increased our production”
“That’s good, so will it be ready any quicker?”
“No but we are making more bodies.”
“Right. So who decided on that?”
“The Administrative Department.”
“Do you know why?”
“No. Are you ready?”
“Tell me when you are ready”
I close my eyes.
I am walking slowly through a busy street. Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor, Op. 26 – Adagio is playing. As I walk, I feel like I’m a cameraman pointing my lens at different people. A man pretends to play violin; a girl looks at him and runs away. A group of passengers on a bus look at me. An old woman smiles and waves at me. I pull the camera away from my eye to look at her normally but now she is looking up at the sky. I look up too but see nothing. As I look back down, the street is full of people dancing slowly in each other’s arms. I raise my camera back to my eye, I want to capture this moment forever. I take one picture. I know it’s a dream so I put my camera down and just watch. Rain starts to fall but everyone smiles and carries on dancing. I can smell the rain. A woman puts her hand over my eyes.
“I don’t know”
I feel an aching sense of love for her. I feel her rise up on tiptoe. She turns my head slightly, kisses me on my cheek.
The music ends.
I want to look but know that, if I do, it will end.
“I love you” she says.
And I then remember what pain feels like.
I close my eyes. I can’t bear this pleasure anymore.
“Professor, we have more information for you”
I open my eyes
Whenever a new threatening virus comes about, the world throws up a host of theories as to who’s responsible. Normally it’s the governments not being careful enough with their biological weapons development which, strangely enough, they often aren’t but that isn’t what’s generally behind these things. Then there’s the “end of the worlders” who want to cull mankind for its own benefit and, sure enough, there are plenty of people out there nutty enough to go for that if they could but, when you work in this field and you look at the history of man’s brushes with viruses, then you come to expect the worst and only wonder how we managed not to be wiped out a long time ago. It is that we survive and how we do it that drew me to this area of study. No matter what we face, so far, at least, a few people will survive even the worst of viruses, albeit with a little help from the scientific world. That’s my world; I know it’s a faith but it’s one I have seen repeatedly stand up against even the strongest attacks of the non-believers.
It’s early days with this virus; the scientific community is waiting; we need as much information as we can get. One of our problems is secrecy. We can’t be open, otherwise we’ll cause panic, but this is inhibiting the flow of information. People are no doubt dying, or even surviving, and this virus is probably not being associated with these cases so, yes, I am ready. I am ready for any information.
“What is it?” “It’s on your screen” says FIVE. I read on and, to put it in simple terms, the firsts tests are showing a Rabies type virus that is spreading like colds and flu do. The only problem, or maybe it’s a godsend, is the incubation period; the delay of a month or so may give us more time to react to it but then it means it’s spread further than we could tell, had it been a fast acting virus. There is still little we can do. Anti-viral drugs will take months, if not years, to develop and distribute, the politicians will be too slow to act when it comes to quarantine so, unless the virus by some miracle decides to develop into something more benign, a lot of people are going to die, even though this won’t wipe out mankind.
I send Ben my reaction to this report and he agrees. I also send a copy to the Prime Minister’s Office. Within a few minutes, he replies and it isn’t what I’d expected. “Dear Professor Robertson, I would like you to share your views with my colleagues.” What can I accurately suggest except wait but his sense of panic has got to me. So, when I am invited to speak, that is what I tell them. ” Normally, if the incubation period of a virus is fast, coupled with a fast reproductive period, then you must react quickly but we are dealing with a possibly long incubation period and, at least for the next few days or weeks, we have no idea of its reproduction ratio. In other words, how many people can one carrier infect.”
“Would it not be wise to create a curfew, at least that way we may prevent it spreading?” asks the Prime Minister
“It may help but we’re pretty much locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. The good thing about a curfew is you can’t keep the illness a secret however the ensuing panic may cause more deaths than the virus will. We need to get more information about treatment and really preparing the hospitals is probably our best course of action with a leaning towards collecting data. If someone survives this, then they are our main hope, so keeping detailed records of all treatments is paramount.”
A voice I don’t recognise speaks next. “It feels like we’re sacrificing people, Professor, for you to get information. Would it hurt to order a curfew doctor, I mean Professor?”
“As I just said it will almost definitely cause more damage than good. How long are you proposing the curfew to last?”
“How long will it take to get a grip on the virus?”
“A curfew is a ridiculous choice at this point, I’m not quite sure why you’re pushing for it”
“The WHO is suggesting this is extremely serious Professor, we must do something”
“Then get the data; it’s imperative”
“Thank you, Professor, we shall be in contact again very soon” The connection clicks off. I am looking at FIVE
“FIVE. How many visitors can you cater for long term?”
“Around 100 for an indefinite period”
“I think you should prepare for a few guests, I think it may be worth me having a chat with the Administrator, can you ask him if he’s free please? ”
“He’s on his way”
Sure enough, a few minutes later the administrator is in front of me.
“Is this about the virus? No doubt you want to turn this place in to a sanctuary for your family, but I’m sure you’re aware of the policy that you agreed to.”
“I’m very aware of it thank you, I’m also aware that we can not fully quarantine this virus so I think you ought to set up a cell system here until we know who has has not been infected. I’m also aware that Lenin has developed a brain copy system and I believe that we ought to scan all members of the project from now on. What do you think?”
“I think it’s a good idea”
There’s a pause
“So you don’t have any issues with that?”
“Plenty, I realise it won’t damage those being scanned but there hasn’t been one successful attempt at recreating even small parts of the brain. I think you’re right though, we need to take as many precautions as we can”
“You and your wife have been allocated a place here, how do you feel about that?”
“I have mixed feelings but this is a remarkable opportunity, although I’m hoping not to become a part of it for sometime if at all possible”
“It comes faster than you expect no matter how long you live for”
He smiles and walks away..
It’s a waiting game, that’s how my life before “dying” felt. Now I feel it’s almost the same, but after a lifetime of it I became good at it, and now I have the advantage of being switched off if I feel bored – but boredom would be an indulgence now. I’m well aware of the suffering that will result from the delays in dealing with the virus. The first strains of the virus have now been analysed and named but viruses mutate rapidly so this is technically version 1 (that we know of). It seems that the virus relates to ones found over 30 years ago in North America between foxes and other animals (I found a record of it here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/05/090504-rabies-evolution.html ). This virus was mainly dealt with by using airborne vaccines sprayed across the area. Of course it only takes one host to survive and be contagious for a while to keep the disease going.
Ben is coming in a bit later, but I want to talk with Lenin for a while first so I ask to meet him in my “house”.
There’s a knock on the door, I open my eyes. It’s dark, I go to the door and let him in.
“Try not to leave marks on the ceiling this time”
“It’s ok I’ve got non-mark soles”
“How are you feeling?”
“I don’t think I am feeling”
“I need to know for sure the virus can’t be copied when you scan a brain”
“Are you sure?”
“I think we may need to scan everyone on the project as soon as we can”
“What exactly can you do with the scans?”
“Primarily we can create a virtual model of the brain and allow it to simulate a person at least within the confines of a virtual world; of course it’s doesn’t have consciousness, but it may well help in terms of being a resource for those we lose.”
I’m shocked at the thought of making people look alive to others even though they are dead. I look in his eyes. “It’s frightening”
“This whole project is frightening. I’m pretty sure it was named Beyond, because it’s beyond belief”
“I was there at the start and I don’t think they were that poetic”
“Do you fancy going for a drink?”
“We can’t, not whilst there’s work to be done and anyway is there a bar here?”
“Come with me”
“I’m sorry, I can’t”
“This is an incredible world, even if it isn’t real, it feels real, I mean I feel more alive here than I did before”
“I don’t know, I just can’t accept it. I feel we were kept alive to do a job and that’s what means something to me”
“Well you know what they say about no play”
“Yes I’ve heard that all my life but for me play gets fitted in between work”
“Another time then”
“Yep, I have Ben coming over soon so I need to prepare”
“How are things going at your end of things?”
“We’re waiting for someone to survive”
“So far no one has that we know about, but maybe someone’s had a headache and thought little more of it, but they survived it”
“And you can’t scan the population to see who’s carrying it?”
“We haven’t found a way of sensing it”
“What about the equipment we’re using for the brain scans, surely that’s sensitive enough”
“It is but it’s only good enough to find the viruses we know about, we’re not even sure what we’re looking for yet. Plus how can we scan everyone with just a handful of scanners? It’s a good idea but a bit premature”
“You’re sounding a bit hopeless”
“I’ve been here a few times before, all you can do is wait for survivors, find out how to identify who’s infected, develop a vaccine, study the viruses to find their other weaknesses and work as fast as you can”
“ “Hurry up and wait” you mean”
“Have you spoken to Paul or Carol recently?”
“No, why have you?”
“Yes, Carol has been working with me to see if we can turn the brain scans into anything in the real world and Paul’s been a bit like you, just thrown himself into his work”
“What’s he focusing on?”
“Us and our bodies”
“At least someone’s on the case. Sorry, I have to go – Ben’s arrived”
“OK… And don’t forget… All work!”
There is no fade out fade in, I am suddenly looking at Ben.
“Hi Dad, are you ok?”
“I don’t think I can answer that question, sorry. How about you?”
“I’m not surprised”
“There’s not one survivor so far out of 837 known infections, that’s way off the scale.”
“Do you think you and the family should come here?”
“Yes, I think that’d be a good idea, although who knows, we may already be infected”
“Go home, talk to Sal and see what she thinks”
“I will but first there are a few things I’d noticed on my way here I’d like to go over with you”
We’d got through most of his concerns when his phone rang.
Oh, ok, we’ll check it out, thank you. See you a bit later, love you.”
“Yellowstone is bulging”
“As in it’s just about to erupt?”
“Dad, they’re here.”
“Good. How many others are there?”
“How are they reacting?”
“I think they’re thinking it’s short term, so there’s a bit of camaraderie going on.”
“They know, everyone knows”
“Technically you’re right but most people think it’ll blow over”
“It will, and then it will stay there, over them, a big dark cloud”
“You don’t have to tell me dad, I know, but you asked about them”
“As I was approaching death, in my latter years I mean, I became very accepting of my destiny, whether I would survive to be a part of this didn’t really factor in to how I felt, I became resigned to the fact that I would come to an end. I feel that way about humanity right now.”
“But what about me, your grandchildren, all those people still living their lives?”
“I don’t want them to die, you misunderstand me, I just feel that there is nothing we can do, and the world will keep going whether we’re here or not”
“I feel you’re being a bit pessimistic. Within 4 years the cloud will have fallen, many people will survive and meanwhile we can keep working as best we can to deal with the viruses”
“You’re right but I don’t feel very positive today”
“Sally wants to see you”
“I’ll go get her”
I wait, feel the sterility of this room, the dim background sounds of machinery, muffled voices, beige pools of light.
“Wow, you look…”
I snort a laugh “Great?”
“Well kind of”
“You mean what’s left of me?”
“I guess so”
“How are the kids settling in?”
“They love it, it’s a cool holiday for them”
“I remember when I was a kid thinking that going to hospital was like a holiday, I think my parents were more disturbed by that than my impending surgery.”
“What did you have done?”
“A broken bone re-set… I don’t have that bone anymore… Good riddance to old broken bones”
“You seem a little dark today. You know I can’t really put who you were to who you are together, this is so weird.”
“Yes, it is, but it has it’s compensations”
“Well my virtual house is decorated exactly to my taste and I don’t even have to clean it”
“Wow… That is something”
There’s a few seconds of silence
“Does it hurt”
“Not at all”
“I suppose that’s something”
“I’m not sure if I would choose to live on”
“Yes, I really don’t know”
“Let’s hope that’s a bridge you don’t have to cross in the near future”
“I just hope this will blow over soon and we can get back to normal”
I refrain from saying anything
“what’s your apartment here like?”
“It’s actually really nice, I thought we’d have just a room but it’s amazing. Do you know who designed it?”
“Not really but I could hazard a guess”
“What do you mean”
“Each apartment has been designed around designated people’s profiles, somehow you’ve been researched and categorised”
“Well it seems to have worked”
“We’ve been told we can’t visit you very much, you’re basically off limits, apparently it’s for everyone’s safety, so I don’t know when I’ll next see you.”
“It’s ok, we can communicate still”
“Sure. It’s actually really nice to see you David, I’ve missed you.”
“It’s lovely to see you too Sally… Sal”
We both laugh
“Ok, see you soon”
And she is gone, in to the darkness.
I want to see what’s happening in the world.
Of course all information that comes via the news is filtered and slanted as it has been for many decades. In the old days messengers may end up being killed, and perhaps the same thought has led to the present day messengers keeping themselves alive by providing the right news, it’s not always good but it keeps those holding the gun happy.
Then there’s the other news, the people’s news, the truth is in there somewhere but it’s not so easy to find either. And of course there’s government information, statistics and intelligence. I never know which to trust the least.
“The Earths crust has risen almost 1 kilometre in the last 20 years in Yellowstone National Park” the TV presenter announces “But Vivienne Blakely, a senior geological researcher at MIT says we have nothing to worry about” [cuts to a woman in her 40’s, she’s smiling] “Can you explain why you feel optimistic Professor Blakely?”
“We have spent the last 10 years devising relief shafts, which when employed, will take much of the pressure away”
“But there will still be a big blast”
“This whole area will be devastated but we can’t prevent that, but by blowing to the sides many cubic miles of debris we will limit how much ends up in the upper atmosphere”
“How sure are you that this will work?”
“And what do you base that confidence on?”
“10 years of continuous research”
“When will the relocation of the upper crust start?”
“It already has but the big blasts will occur in 3 days, at that point some of the best angles for the blast trajectory will be met”
“Could it blast before then?”
“No, it’s coming but it’s not quite there yet”
“So once your plan is instigated, this whole area will be devastated, I know you’ve relocated people who lived here before, and tried to protect as many of the native species, but what will you do about the animals that are still here?”
“We’ve tried our best to clear the area, but ultimately they wouldn’t survive. We’ve done what we can”
“Well there you have it, there’s 3 days to go and then we shall see if the professor’s confidence was warranted”
The professor is shaking her head and raiding her eyes
I’m reminded of something called “The Executioners Reprieve” which suggests that right up to the moment of execution the condemned believe they will somehow miraculously be reprieved.
Part of me just wants to wake up when it’s all over, but there is more information coming in from the hospitals, but so far there has not been a single survivor.
My wife said I put work first, and that I didn’t know what love was, but she was wrong. But as far as I was concerned it was better that she thought that. For me though, I felt my life had been a constant struggle. I would go through periods where work was all that mattered, and then I would meet a woman, and somehow in the brief moments that I could get away from studying or later, working, something would develop between us. I can’t say there was ever one woman who I felt was “the one”, but there had been a few who, for a while at least, I felt had been.
In my early years those special relationships had been cut short, so I could grieve the loss of “the one”, and then in time another woman would touch me deeply and I realised that the one who’d I thought was “the one”, wasn’t “the one” after all. (Are you with me on this or do I need to draw a diagram?) You’d think I’d have learned from this pretty quickly that my idea of there being a One, was probably an illusion and in fact my feelings were pretty fickle, but I didn’t, I went on repeating this for many years.
“Falling in love”, though filled with beauty and a sense of being vividly alive, also felt full of pain. There would be anxiety, the fear of losing them, the desire to possess them, sometimes jealousy, sometimes feelings of not being good enough, and so often, a sense of impending, unavoidable doom. I knew this wasn’t healthy, it wasn’t about caring for someone, or working as a team, it was selfish, and I knew it was destructive. Eventually, I or the woman I was seeing, would walk away, and I would escape the pain by throwing myself back in to my work.
When I met my wife to be, it had a different texture to it, we were friends for a while and I thought she was beautiful. I did fall in love with her but it didn’t have the same energy to it that those previous passionate ones had. In time I came to the conclusion that this was a healthy relationship and we got married. Throughout our marriage, maybe every three or four years, I’d meet someone who would stir those feelings. In the early years I resisted, but after Ben’s tenth birthday, I started seeing someone. I didn’t get caught, but one day I had to choose, and I chose my family, I loved the other woman, she felt like everything I ever wanted, but I couldn’t have lived with the guilt.
Work seemed to offer a calmer world where I could offer myself to help others, and in many ways my home life had similar qualities. I think many of my colleagues felt the same. Deep down we all wanted that passion and love but it turned us in to, or at least revealed to us a more selfish part of ourselves. For that part of me, the world could go to hell as long as I was connected with “the one”.
Some people give their life for what they believe in, but I gave my life for what I believed was right, in fact I gave my death too, kind of. But even now, there’s a part of me that believes I will find that connection in my new “life”. For me that is my executioners reprieve.
Whenever my so called genius was celebrated, I would be thinking that really I am a weak, deluded fool who can’t grow up emotionally. I think the dream of the beautiful woman kissing me has reminded me that even in half death I haven’t escaped myself.
“The whole world is watching as the course of the human race’s destiny will be defined by the events that will unfold within the next few hours”
I am along with most people transfixed by the events that are unfolding.
10, 9, 8,
There are a chorus of voices coming from the screen, almost victorious in their tone, accompanying the countdown.
“7, 6, 5,”
“I’m not sure who to be praying to, God or the scientists, but whoever is responsible please, we beg you, make this work”
“4, 3, 2, 1,”
There are multiple viewpoints available, on site cameras, satellite, aerial, and distant. The onsite ones shake and go blank, the satellite ones show the shock waves rippling outwards, and within seconds further detonations start to become apparent. Each set of explosions is supposed to move areas of the surface away from the main mound, each set of explosions will get bigger, as they move greater amounts of the Earth’s crust to the side. The whole process will take around 10 hours of continual explosions to complete. It looks like a war between nature and man. Isn’t that our legacy, our ability to overcome the challenges that Nature sets us up against? Even though we know nature has the upper hand and is far more powerful than us, haven’t we won many of the battles?
“We’re getting word that so far everything is going according to plan”
“That means nothing” I say to myself. “Ten more hours of this shit and I’ll be hoping they blow up the reporter too.”
I leave the news on, but in silence, and work on. There are after all, other important matters at hand. After 6 hours of work my mind is seizing up so I check back in.
“We’re not quite sure what’s going on at the Central Control Unit, but several military units have turned up along with ambulances… and we’re getting reports that Professor Blakely has been taken ill, we’re also being told that this won’t affect the schedule”
As night falls the explosions become more vivid and the most expensive single battle for survival turns in to the most spectacular fireworks display ever.
There is little point watching it, we won’t know whether it will work for a few days.
End of Chapter 15
A man is beating down upon the glass that separates us. He is wild, he must have pushed my glass case over and is now hammering down; it bends and quivers as his hands and head beat down. Saliva and blood splatter down upon the glass. I, of course, cannot do anything. I don’t feel fear. It’s as if I am watching a film. I may not be safe, I may not want to die but I am curious to see what happens next if I do. That, however, was my last thought and now I am awake in my virtual bed. Was I just dreaming?
The air around me is cold. I can see my breath; I look at the fireplace and will a fire to start but nothing happens. Perhaps my thoughts are private after all. “Start up the fireplace” I order. Again, nothing happens. I know my words have been heard. I get out of bed, I am naked. I start to feel the cold more. I crouch down at the fireplace, cram on some paper, throw some wood on top and grab the match box; it feels slightly damp. As I struggle to light a few matches, I start to shiver and my hands shake. A match breaks as I try to strike it, and then the same for another, and then one lights tenuously. I hold it to the paper and the fire takes. I hold my hand near the flames and feel the heat. As I get closer to the flame, I feel pain but it only goes to a certain point, the amount where you would normally pull away. I get it, our simulated world is closer to reality. We’re being prepared for our eventual re-immersion. I am so cold. I hurry back to the bed and snuggle into the covers. I am reminded of childhood mornings in the winter.
As I start to fall asleep again, the image of the man beating down on me comes crashing in again – I am startled awake. I know something is wrong. Normally every change is given plenty of warning. I’ve learned not to presume anything but I can’t help but wonder what’s happening. The man crashing down on me, he obviously has the illness. The fact that I am not blanked out whilst a crisis is occurring, that’s what’s got to me. Has my real self been damaged by the man and, if the illness has affected those in the compound, then maybe that’s the reason for the system to be not working properly. If the illness is in the compound, then what has become of my family? These thoughts bring me to my senses. With the duvet wrapped around me, I get out of bed. I scan the room for clothes; they are there, hanging neatly on a chair on the other side of the bed. “Can anyone tell me what’s going on please?”
A phone rings. I look across to the chest of drawers and see an old fashioned black and brass candlestick one. In an age of internal phone systems, I don’t see the point of this but I pick it up as I try to pull my trousers on.
“Hello Professor, it’s me” I recognise the administrator’s cold tone.
“What’s going on?”
“We’re currently trying to recover from a series of catastrophic events”
“Firstly, the rabies strand has got out of hand within the compound which has resulted in some desperate measures.”
“What type of desperate measures?”
“I shall tell you in just a minute but firstly we’ve been isolated from the outside world”
“Both physically and in terms of communications. This was only ever presented to us as a scenario if our existence was ever seen as being under threat.”
“I know, but do you know why?”
“We believe that the illness coupled with the super volcano has created a situation where we might be seen as an escape route for others and that was a serious enough threat to warrant isolation. It is also possible that, given our exposure to the illness, that we are being isolated to protect others seeking shelter here.”
“And my family?”
“They’re all here”
“Can I see them?”
“Well this is our problem.”
“What do you mean? Are they ok?”
“Yes, but we have had to isolate and put ALL members of the community into an unconscious and suspended state.”
“Haven’t you gone a bit far?”
“In terms of our resources, and the volume of infections, we felt it necessary.”
“And you are you in a suspended state?”
“Yes, well my body is”
“How long are you proposing to keep us like that?”
“We need to isolate the virus and, with your help, find a way to protect ourselves from it. We are also in the process of finishing scanning and recording everyone’s brain.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“It’s precautionary and may help identify those with the virus; we are also scanning everyone completely and searching for the virus everywhere we can”
“So why can’t I come around in the real world? Have I been damaged by the man attacking me?”
“No you weren’t touched but that incident, Professor, took place two months ago”
“Two months ago? Why didn’t you contact me sooner?”
“Once we were isolated and some of the community started to attack other members, we asked all those who could to go to their pods and allow us to isolate them. Those that didn’t allow us to, well we had to round them up one by one. During that process, most of us who did that became infected too.”
“Why didn’t you come to me? I might have been able to help?”
“There wasn’t the time. We spent the time between then and now reprogramming the system, collating data and regaining control of the complex.”
“So what now? Why have you woken me now and why am I now in a more realistic virtual world?”
“We need your help. We will need you to help introduce people”
“How many people are you bringing here then?”
“And why have you made this world more realistic?”
“Because we’re expecting people to live here for some time and we don’t want them re-adjusting in a way that may prove terminal when they literally hit terra ferma.”
“So no more flying?”
“We have flying vehicles here but, from now on, gravity is pretty much as it is in the real world except, when you hit the ground, it doesn’t hurt much or kill you.”
“So when do the introductions take place”
“Whenever you are ready. A driver will come for you when you ask. I shall await your request.”
“Is there any way that we can have privacy here?”
“Your thoughts are private, your words and actions are not. However, unless you call out for help or for something to be seen, your words and actions will go unnoticed. All is recorded but not everything is viewed – just like in the real world. You can screen your home from prying eyes too”
“How do you do that?”
“Draw the curtains”
“I shall get dressed and be ready soon. Are we able to eat? I’m feeling hungry”
“Yes, check out your kitchen but be careful – the default settings mean calories count.”
“That’s a pity”
“I will see you soon, Professor”
* * *
This time it was different, those being introduced had not been aware previously that this might be their destiny. There was no standard reaction, except maybe disbelief. When those that cried felt and saw their tears fall it was as if the reality of this unreality was too much. They would run their hands over themselves, some would ask if they were dead, others if this was a dream. A few played at being accepting but how could anyone take on board that their new existence was no longer part of the real world? As I explained the situation to them and helped them find their feet, they would then be led away to a big hall across the road where they would be reunited with their family and friends as they became available.
I, of course, was not the only one doing this. I could see other people being walked across the road from other buildings. There were 24 people in my ward but, as I got to the last one, another 24 appeared. When I finished with them, there were no more.
The tannoy clicked on: “Professor, please could you come across to the hall.”
I stepped out into the afternoon sun. It was as if I was walking inside an Edward Hopper painting. Some 1950s cars were parked along the wide boulevard and large houses lined the street on either side. I doubt anyone here was from this world but, in its own way, it had a safe and homely feeling to it.
I entered the cool grey entrance of the hall and, through double wooden doors, entered the assembly hall. Yellow flooring, a wooden stage, grey curtains behind the stage and a hall full of people talking, hugging, crying, lost and found.
I saw Lenin; his shoulder leant against the wall. As I approached him, he looked up at me and smiled.
“This is a bit of a surprise”
“Yes, just a little” – I couldn’t tell if I was smiling
A banging noise and “Excuse me” came from the Administrator, standing on the stage.
“Hello everyone, I’m sure you all know me. I realise this is a shock for you” – the room hushed – “but, if we are to be held in quarantine, I thought most of you would prefer to stay here than be locked in your rooms. In the meantime, we will be scanning all of your bodies in the real world and eliminating the virus.”
“How long will that take?” someone shouted, followed by a few supportive others “Yes, how long?”
“I can’t answer that at the moment”
“Well what if we don’t want to stay here?”
“If any of you wish to be returned to your unconscious state, we can arrange for that. However, at this point, everyone is being kept in a state of suspended animation to reduce the risks of the virus for the foreseeable future.”
“Can we be returned to a non-coma state and released from the compound?”
“No, that isn’t possible”
“Why not? Are we being held as prisoners?”
“No but, under regulations regarding the spread of diseases, being isolated is completely legal.”
The Administrator continued “We’ve been disconnected from the outside world. Even if you could freely walk around in the real world, our entrances and exits have been locked.”
“Well how the hell are we ever going to get out?”
“There are other exits that use corrosive lock systems once we activate them. In time they will be our way out if all else fails. And, before you ask, I don’t know how long they take to corrode.”
“So meanwhile, we’re going to prance around Disney World here while our bodies grow old and die out there?”
“No, your bodies are kept in a stable state”
“So in a thousand years we’ll get logged back into our bodies and everything will be OK. Is that what you’re telling us?”
“Look, what’s the alternative?”
A man in a brown suit shouts out “Well I think I’d rather be in a coma and be woken up when it’s OK if you don’t mind.”
“OK, all of you who, after a few days being here wish to be returned to unconsciousness, will be. Meanwhile, there are a few things I need to run through with you all. Hopefully this won’t be received as badly.” He pauses and holds up a book. “This is our constitution. A copy of it will be distributed to you all. If any of you have any issues with it, you can submit proposals for further amendments to it. In order to limit the possibilities of conflict, you can have as much land as you wish, with any variety of styles, the same goes for material possessions, virtual helpers. Whatever you desire, you can have. You will also notice that you can only feel a limited amount of pain; you cannot be killed or injured. You can modify how you appear to others but they will also see your true identity so as to limit confusion. You can also request higher degrees of reality, such as how you react to eating either too much or too little food. I really do suggest you read through the details you’ll be receiving shortly.”
A woman puts her hand up.
“Are you our leader?”
“No, as you will see in the constitution, there is no leader.”
“Then who gets to interpret the constitution?”
“You all do but I don’t envisage you’ll have too many problems.”
“How do we know which people are human and who is a virtual helper?”
“Helpers have eyes that are like blue lights and you’ll also notice some luminous blue lights in their hair. However, your vision will also place a small mark above a virtual helper.”
“Can we do anything to a virtual helper?”
“Basically yes because, in a way, you can’t do anything to something that isn’t there”
The idea of an extended holiday in what. to many, is a version of Paradise seemed to be hitting the congregation and a look of quizzical acceptance began to dissipate around the room.
“In a short time you’ll be taken to a hotel and, from there, you’ll be able to decide on where you’d like to live. I think you’ll be surprised by what we have to offer”
I look around, it’s Ben.
He guides me to our family gathering, where I pick up my grandchildren one by one and cuddle them. I’d forgotten this joy.
End of chapter 16
“We have unlimited real estate, any material thing we want we can have, we can experience nearly any media that’s been created and saved in the database, we can do anything, we can be who we always wanted to be, and though we know none of it is really real, it feels real. We have people around us we love, they are safe, as far as we know, and whilst we don’t know what’s gone on in the real world, for now, we are ok.”
Elating and sobering words…
“Please board the buses waiting outside”
We exit to where luxury coaches wait for us, we queue in the strong light of what feels like a Sunday, cool wind brushes our faces. The children climb upon us asking about things we might do. None of us really know what to answer. “Wait and see”.
It’s a charade of course to take a coach but it’s in the service of acclimatisation so we all play along. The coach seats are sumptuous, we gently pull off.
I look across to Sally, she has their youngest child on her lap. She talks reassuringly Jessica, who keeps looking around at her and smiling. Reassurance always makes me worry, it means something’s wrong so I can’t help but feel uncomfortable. I want to know what’s going on, but for now I know it’s best to play along. Jessica stands on her mother’s lap and cuddles her.
As we enter the courtyard of the European looking hotel I ask Ben what he sees, he describes the same thing that I’m looking at.
“Do you think they’re feeding us different versions of things Dad?”
“I was just checking”
We enter the Grand Hotel, white and palatial, then through a gothic arch and into a large hall. As we fill it the lights dim and a screen lights up. The show begins.
“We know you are worried about what’s going on in the real world. We are not holding any information back. You will always have access to any data that we receive from the outside. Meanwhile we want you to be able to use your time here in as meaningful a way as you wish.
You should be able to pretty much live as you did in the real world, only here you cannot be injured or die. In a short while you will be given an address, these can be geographic or exist in their own private space. Once you enter your property it can be as big as you wish. Geographic addresses have a pathway from the road, the pathway will go through a gap in the hedge and then you are in your own space. You can choose what can be seen beyond the hedge from the road. To the side of each hedge is a roadway, you can use this to drive your vehicles in or out.”
A picture of a hedge and driveway appears on the screen. The camera then goes up high and a large town and heliport is shown. People in the audience laugh and gasp at the same time.
“If you can think it, it can be done. If you need to contact someone, just think about calling them and they will receive your request in a few moments if they are open to receiving calls”
“You can choose to travel as normal, or to teleport. When you teleport somewhere people around you will see you gradually fade in to view. You cannot teleport in to private areas without gaining permission from the people in the vicinity.”
“When it comes to using equipment and vehicles you can choose to control it as you would in real life or to just tell us, using your thoughts, how you would like it to work”
“Although there is no money here you can, if you wish, run your own business and once again you can apply real world rules to it or let it chug along as if there were loads of customers coming to you every day. It’s entirely up to you. Whatever you desire is yours for the taking.
So with that in mind please go to the desk with your name listed above it and get your introduction packs, addresses and security keys.”
The first desk I looked at had our family name above it in red writing, so we ambled over and went through the induction.
* * *
What do you do, when you can have anything you want?
Well for me it was finally time to get myself an old fashioned motorbike. Ben and Sally had a sensible family car, but even in this virtual world I could see Ben would have had other plans. As I often say to him “The Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.
When we get to our neighbourhood I am pleased to see that Ben’s house is right next to mine, well at least his entrance is. Along every pathway there is a post box to the side and a post with a doorbell on.
I join them as they walk through their entrance and in front of them is an exact copy of their house. We walk in and it is, well at least they tell me it is, an exact replica inside too.
“So my beautiful wife, what would you like me to build you today?”
She looks at him a bit suspiciously
“I think I’ll be in charge of the family house sweetheart, you can design the airport”
We had been told in our induction that we could build whatever infrastructure we desired but it would never overlap another person’s space. We could fly, for instance, out of our private area and in to public space, but we could never crash in to another craft, the ground or a person. We can enter another person’s airspace, but obviously not without asking first.
The children are running around except Jessica, who was still clinging to Sally.
“Come on Jessica, let mummy have a rest” Ben says holding his arms out towards Jessica. Sally passes her to him.
“My arms aren’t aching at all” Says Sally.
“Would you prefer them to be?” I ask
“I’m not sure” she laughs.
That is the first time today I’ve seen her laugh. But it’s almost a betrayal. She pulls herself up and frowns slightly.
“I’m really not comfortable about this Ben, it doesn’t feel right. Something just feels so wrong about all of this”
“What choice do we have?”
“Well to be living in the real world”
“But they couldn’t cope. Isn’t it better to let them get things sorted out first and then let us go back to reality”
“I’m not sure, maybe it would have been better to let us sleep a dreamless sleep”
I look at her
“I think we’re more useful like this, if we start to make contact with the outside world we may be needed to help”
“But then why bring the kids and us unchosen ones in to it”
“Because, we need you. We need your company and support.” I look at her.
She smiles and looks down.
“Daddy I don’t feel well” Jessica nuzzles Ben.
The door bell rings and an image of a doctor appears on the screen.
“Hello can I come in please”
“Sure” Ben says in a slightly too loud voice “I was going to say great timing, but I guess it’s no coincidence”
A few seconds later the doctor walks in. He has tiny blue lights in his hair.
“Are you here because of Jessica?” Sally asks.
“What’s the matter?”
“Her real body has been infected and we need you to choose what we do next”
My blood runs cold, Ben pulls Jessica closer and Sally sits down, puts her hands in her head and screams.
A few seconds later she looks up at the “Doctor” and pleads to see Jessica in real life.
“We can only show you her via video, I am sorry.”
“But I need to be with my little girl, please, don’t you understand? Of course you don’t. Can you get me someone who does?”
“I will call the administrator”
Within a few seconds the administrator is at the door.
“Please you’ve got to let me see my baby?”
“I’m sorry, it’s not possible, she is too contagious.
I’m really very sorry Sally, but we need to make some drastic decisions”
“What do you mean? My God what do you mean? Is she going to die?”
“If we don’t act very soon she will”
“Well what do you want to do?”
“We want to pause all her functions, including her mind, until we can find a cure”
“When you say pause her, is that like putting her into a coma?”
“It’s more drastic than that. She will essentially be completely non-functioning. As if she had been frozen at the point when we apply the procedure”
“and if you don’t do that?”
“she will die”
Ben who is standing on the other side of the room to shield Jessica from the conversation looks at Sal crying and knows.
He pulls Jessica closer still and kisses her hair.
I offer to take Jessica so they can talk together. I know they will have to choose the only option that can be. And so after a few minutes they start to nod in a resigned way, and a few minutes later, with both Sally and Ben cuddling Jessica, she falls asleep and they lay her on her bed upstairs.
Sally lays down next to her, and weeping, pulled her still alive virtual body close to her.
“We may be in a kind of Heaven but it feels like hell dad.”
Ben kneels down next to Sally and holds them both.
I lean down and kiss him on the back of his head.
And against my better judgement I try to reassure them
“It will be ok in time”
* * *