Having been put out to virtual pasture, Mr Singman gets a rare opportunity to return to reality – if he can prove his worth; by David Henson.
|Image generated with OpenAI|
Life in NewWorld – we call it that as a nervous joke – is neither good nor bad. We retain our personalities. We have our memories. We get news reports from OldWorld (another joke and a bit spiteful, I must admit). In fact, most everything in NewWorld is similar to life in OldWorld, just… less. Colors are less vibrant, more pastel. The sun isn’t quite as warm on your face. You can sit in the third row at the symphony, and it will sound like one of those transistor radios in an ancient history museum. Even water – it’s hard to explain – doesn’t feel as wet. All this so our simulated world takes less energy to maintain. And data errors slip through. For example, in NewWorld my toes are webbed. So while life here isn’t bad, most of us would love to get back to physical reality.
Like everyone else in NewWorld, I’m here because the resources and technologies required to create a simulated reality and populate it with human consciousness are less than those required for interstellar travel. If your number comes up in the Been Nice Knowing You Lottery (another nervous joke), you go before one of the Councils of the Wise. If you can’t convince the COW that your value to the human race is high enough, your consciousness is streamed to NewWorld; your body is put in the library – more formally known as the cryogenic storage stacks; and the solar system becomes a little less overcrowded. My value quotient was deemed insufficient so off I went. Now I have a chance to return.
Birth and death rates are low and balanced in OldWorld. But a trickle of colonizers leaving, never to return, for the stars, frees up living space, most of which is reserved for the breathing room project. The rest allows a lucky few a chance to return from NewWorld. The process is similar to the one that got us here. There’s a NewWorld lottery. This time you want your number to come up. If it does, you go before a COW and try to convince them you’ve acquired skills, knowledge, talents – something – in NewWorld that has raised your value quotient enough to win your return to physical reality. My number came up; I’ve filed my petition; and I’m ready to plead my case.
So here I am, sitting at a hover table in the interface chamber waiting to face my COW. After a few minutes, a man, woman and a third who looks androgynous, enter and sit at a hover table in OldWorld. Though I’m still in NewWorld, we appear to be sitting across from each other. The androgynous one, who has taken the middle chair, must be an Artificial-Sentient. Arti-Ss look almost human, but are off just enough so that they can’t be mistaken for a real person. This one appears to be the head of the COW, so reports about the Arti-S equal rights movement must be accurate. The Arti-S introduces me to Councilwoman Perez and Councilman Wyx, then presses a blinking light in tabletop. Text appears in the air at eye level in front of the trio. It’s my petition.
“Mr. Singman, I see you’re requesting that this council approve your return to physical reality,” Arti-S says. “You claim you now have a higher VQ – higher because you have… a story?”
“Not just any story,” I say. “An original story.”
There hasn’t been an original story, in OldWorld or NewWorld since… well since I don’t know when. Statisticians believe every story that can be written, read, spoken, heard, staged, seen, virtualized, digitized, or quantumized – has been. Ever since the great fractal obsession, so-called writers have used random word generators to create stories. Program a word generator to spit out three words, say, blue, monkey, and midnight. There’s already been a story about blue monkeys at midnight. And also about blue midnight in the jungle of monkeys. And midnight monkeys with the blues. Generate three more words or five or 5,000. Doesn’t matter. The sequence is a repeat. There just aren’t any original stories left. At least, that’s what the experts think. But I’m promising the COW something different. “An original story,” I say again.
“Mr. Singman,” Councilwoman Perez says, “Do you know how long it’s been since the last original story.”
“I’ll tell you,” Arti-S says before I can answer. He closes his eyes briefly. “Mid 25th Century… and that wasn’t unanimous. Some contend it was derivative.”
“Nevertheless,” I say. “I have a story, and it’s original.”
“Not credible,” Councilman Wyx says and starts to stand.
“Wait,” Arti-S says. The man sits back down.
I know this is a long shot, but I have three things going for me. First, the what-can-it-hurt dynamic. Second, these three would be heroes if they could claim credit for finding an original story; even though most people won’t admit it, everyone in OldWorld is sick of working math problems for entertainment. And third: simple curiosity.
“We’re all here,” Arti-S continues. “What can it hurt to listen to it?” Check.
“I agree,” Councilwoman Perez says. Do you realize what it would mean if we could give people a new story?” Check again.
“OK, Mr. Singman,” Arti-S says. “Let’s hear your story.”
“No,” I say.
“What do you mean ‘No’?” Councilman Wyx says.
I continue looking at Arti-S. “I won’t tell you the story from here. You have to bring me back to physical reality if you want to hear it. And you have to agree to let me stay there no matter what.” I’m glad emotions are dulled in NewWorld. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have the nerve to try this.
“That is an unheard-of demand for someone in your position, Mr. Singman,” Arti-S says.
“See? Originality is nothing new to me.”
Arti-S squints for a full two seconds, then turns toward the woman and touches fingertips with her so that they can communicate via galvanic techpathy. Then he does the same with the man. Then leans back so the man and woman can fingertip. Then back to the woman.
Just hit mute and talk for Pluto’s sake!
Councilwoman Perez looks up at me. Did I say that out loud? I thought I thought it. You can’t always tell in NewWorld. Am I talking now? I look down at my shoes and wiggle my webbed toes.
“Mr. Singman, your attention please,” Arti-S says a minute later. I look up. “You’ve piqued our curiosity.” Check and mate. “But -” Uh oh. “- here’s what we’re going to do. We’ll bring you back to these chambers. Tell us your story. We’ll decide if you can stay.”
Not what I was hoping for. Should I refuse? Do Arti-Ss bluff? “I have a counter proposal.”
“This isn’t a negotiation,” the Councilman says. “You have two seconds.”
“I accept your offer.” A few minutes in physical reality is better than nothing.
“Stay where you are while we have your body pulled and refreshed,” Arti-S says, and they disappear.
A good thing about NewWorld: That old saying about a watched pot never boils? Well, here it does. By that I mean there is no mental time distortion. Two hours feels like two hours even if you’re counting the minutes. The COW returns in 126.
“Ready?” Mr. Singman, Councilman Wyx says.
A bright light envelops me. “Remain still and close your eyes,” the man says. After a short time, the man tells me to open my eyes. When I do, I find myself sitting across from the COW. At the real hover table. In my real body. Brrr. Not fully warmed yet. Did they rush things because they’re anxious to hear my story? “Do you mind if I walk around the room a bit… stretch and warm up… before we get started?” I ask.
“Be quick,” Arti-S says.
I stand and hesitate, feeling my full weight for the first time in years. After I get my balance, I walk slowly to the window. Big sun. We must be on earth. Not home, but close enough. I soak in the warmth of the rays on my face, breathe in the air, real air, till my nostrils burn. I lace my fingers and crack my knuckles. I try to memorize the brightness of the colors. I wonder how far I’d get if I jumped out and made a run for it?
“Mr. Singman,” Arti-S says, “time for your song.”
“Song? I have a story.”
“A little humor, Mr. Singman.”
Humor? From an Arti-S? If he jokes, maybe he bluffs, too. Maybe I should’ve stood my ground. Maybe – thoughts begin to spin in my mind. My heart feels like it’s going to pound through my chest. Not used to this. No adrenalin in NewWorld. I head back to the COW. As I take my seat, I feel sweat bead across my forehead. I think the Councilwoman Perez notices.
“Take a sip of that. It’ll help.” She nods at a glass of glowing, milky liquid on the table at my place.
“Thank you CowWoman,” I say. No! “Sorry! I mean ‘Councilwoman.’ I’m still a bit disoriented. Sorry.” I’ve got to relax, slow down. I lower my head and look at my shoes. I’d love to see my toes. Focus! I take a deep breath and look back up.
“Let’s hear your story,” the Councilwoman says. Arti-S nods.
This is it. “Members of the Council,” I say, gulp air and swallow hard. “Members of the Council,” I repeat, then take another sip of the liquid and start my story.
I begin years ago with the day I learned my value quotient was too low to remain in our overcrowded solar system. I describe how frightened I was as I waited for my consciousness to be yanked out of my body and streamed to NewWorld. Then I tell them I was relieved when I got there. It wasn’t home, but wasn’t horrible. It’s peaceful. There’s art from the masters and classical music, although the paintings are a bit washed out and the symphony a little tinny.
I describe how I learned to play the clarinet, my articulation so-so. I tell them about my dog, Lilly. She loved to play magic / split / chase, a game we made up. I talk about the time I fractured my tibia in a freak accident when my light board flickered. I talk about Jennifer. We might’ve fallen in love, but feelings in NewWorld are too pastel. I admit my irrational fear of birds.
I don’t say anything that profound because there’s nothing that profound about me. I just tell them things that come to mind from my years in NewWorld… right up to the recent moment I sat waiting for the COW in the interface chamber. I even tell them how I refer to the Council of the Wise as the COW – why hold back? – but mean no disrespect. I don’t know how long I speak. My mind distorts the passage of time, and it’s wonderful.
When Arti-S tells me I can stop, I keep talking. I tell them I know I’ve been rambling, but, I remind them, I promised an original story not a good one. And I feel I’ve delivered. My story isn’t just a sequence of words. It’s my life. An individual life. Unique. Original.
Arti-S fingertips with Councilwoman Perez and Councilman Wyx. I look at the transfer button…
And the first thing I do after Arti-S tells me I can stay? I pull off my shoes and socks and wiggle my toes.