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For creatures living in a virtual world, what would be the point of venturing into reality? It's dangerous and frightening ... but it might just also be exciting.

Liza King
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Different worlds

I drift weightlessly in the sky, enjoying the sense of warmth from the dialled-down sun while I feel my way round an enlarged gas molecule. A touch startles me: I scheduled no contact for at least the next hour. It comes again, firm and distinctly unpleasant, and I realise that someone is actually touching my body. The shock ripples through me, and then I hear a voice.

“Come out, would you? I want to talk to you.”

I’m annoyed, but also curious. Why is there someone in my home?

With reluctance I come out, and feel immediately disorientated. It must be at least a hundred days since I last was here and it’s strange to be back, strange to be aware of the gel surrounding me, strange to have only infra-red vision again. I pull myself up, the gel slipping away. The world is hard-edged and somehow two-dimensional, and the sense of deep dissatisfaction reminds me why I so rarely bother with it.

“Who is it?” I say, making sure that my irritation is clear.

“Me,” says the fiery shape standing next to me, and I recognise the voice this time: an astrobiologist who was in the same clutch as me.

“Two,” I say coldly. “What do you want?”

She doesn’t rise to my use of the childish diminutive. “To show you something.”

“Why pull me out?”

“It’s ready,” she says proudly.

I am perplexed, but then she sends through a summary of a discussion we had some time ago. The articles upload instantly and I remember: we were arguing about ways of studying history.

“You wanted proof,” she says. “It’s waiting.”

“Why not just upload it –”

“I need to show you. Come with me.”

“Come?” I repeat, and then I realise. She means me to experience this, to prove her point that we will never understand our ancestors by simply recreating their lives in the Nexus.

“Yes,” she says, and reaches forward to drain my tank. “Come. I think you’ll be interested.”

I doubt it. But if I decline she’ll crow, and say that I lose. This is unthinkable, even if it means having to play in the dirt with her for an hour or two, and I begin to slide my nutrition and waste tubes out. “This had better be worth it.”

She remains silent as I flex my limbs experimentally. The link works my body for me while I’m in, so I am still capable of movement, but being a prisoner of flesh again is unpleasantly claustrophobic. Once I’m sure my body is recalibrated, I climb gingerly from the tank and begin to feel about my home.

“If you’re after your gloves,” she says, “don’t bother. You won’t need them.”

I turn to her in absolute astonishment. “Don’t need them? But how else will I link to –”

“Where we’re going, you won’t need them,” she says. “Or your mask. Just come as you are … but turn off your link.”

She really is determined to follow her arguments through to the last detail. Stubborn. She must be a genetic mutation of some sort; the rest of our clutch is like me. Entirely reasonable.

I follow her out of the house and on to the sliding pathway outside. Smooth and quiet, it glides us past other homes, most of them visible to me only as soft yellow hollows within the rock, the slowly writhing inhabitants in their tanks as bright as living jewels. We go past the water park, the pools empty and the fountains and cascades silenced now that nobody comes here anymore. Machinery hums through the ground surrounding us, but this and the rush of moving air is all I can hear.

We arrive at a station, and Two leads the way. I follow her into a waiting carriage, still finding coordinating my limbs an odd experience. The soft seats fold themselves about us, nearly as comfortable as being linked in, and the carriage begins a quiet countdown. I brace myself, and then it shoots into the tunnel.

When we emerge from the carriage, I realise that we are in a place I don’t recognise. The sounds and smells are all subtly different, and touching the tunnel walls tells me only that this is an older part of the settlement. There are no pathways here, and we have to move along the tunnel ourselves. Without the constant flow of information from my link I feel defenceless and isolated. What if something were to happen? How would I call for help? I’m quickly growing tired – both physically and mentally – and then I see something lighter ahead. For a second I fail to recognise it. Realisation comes as I inhale the waft of different air, and I stop.

Two ignores me, opens the screen, and steps out into the hot night air. The dunes roll away into the distance, still thrumming red from the scorching of the day, and fear squeezes me as I feel the enormity of the space in front of me. It’s real, it’s endless, and it’s dangerous. Here I could be cut, or broken, or breathe in squirming pathogens. I could feel pain. I could even die. I begin to shuffle backwards, expecting Two to argue with me.

She says nothing. She just waits, and I realise that if I leave she’ll claim to have won.

The fear recedes a little, and I stay where I am.

Silently, Two passes me covers for feet and hands so that I don’t burn myself on the pulsing ground. I slip them on, and she leads me between the radiance of scattered pebbles to a waiting mobile. It’s a model I’ve never seen before, and when we climb in I am surprised by how uncomfortable the seats are.

“Nearly there,” Two says before long. She takes the mobile around a glowing outcrop of rock, and there it is: the old city. The vast square structures look oddly vulnerable and naked despite their bulk, rising against the expanse of sky with ludicrous hubris. They are no comfort against the ocean of eddying air; in fact all they do is draw my attention to how exposed we are out here.

“Here,” Two says, stopping and handing me some kind of visor. I feel it carefully and then put it on my head. It’s much like wearing a mask – instead of appearing in the blurred and vibrant colours of heat, my companion is now silver and crystal-sharp – but there is still no link, no constant stream of information fluctuating in a comforting rhythm under my fingertips.

With it on, I can see that Two is regarding me steadily. “There are some people I want you to meet,” she says.


Actually meeting people is a strange idea. “What is it you want to show me?” I ask, following her. I am too hot, my body aches from the unaccustomed exercise and pressure, and the real world is a flat disappointment. Here I can’t fly, or talk to others all around the world, or change my surroundings at a single touch, or shrink planets to the size of a grain of sand. I lack my extra neural capacity, and must rely purely on my own brain. What’s the point of being here?

“This,” she says.

“The city?”

“What it represents.”

“Explain,” I say curtly, tiring of her games.

“This was the greatest time in our civilisation.”

Momentarily distracted from my woes, I rise to the challenge. “Greatest? Hardly. How does building up here constitute development? We soon learned it was pointless, and returned underground.”

“It’s the time period I mean, not the city. The time when we first decided we were better alone.”

It’s certainly true that using alternative methods for reproduction improved our society immeasurably, even if it didn’t totally eradicate all the problems. “But we had no Nexus, no interstellar travel ...”

There is a distinct sharpness in her tone. “No dubious alliances with savage so-called sentient beings. No masks to pander to their obsession with appearance. No endless war.”

I hesitate. Again, she makes an irritatingly good point. “And you really think that all of … this … is necessary to understand?”

“Yes. Our lives are so different that we risk misinterpreting their actions. We need to do it, to feel it. A sim can never reproduce those experiences. Come and see.”

Two turns and leads the way into one of the old buildings. It is hot inside, much hotter than our homes underground, and smells of dust.

There are four of them waiting, all wearing the old sight-visors. Their heads look unfamiliar and almost too smooth, and I realise with a start that I’ve become so used to the false eyes of biomasks that my own people look odd to me.

Nobody speaks at first, and I suppose that without my link to send my resumé, I’ll have to introduce myself.

“I’m –” I begin, but one of them interrupts me.

“We know who you are.”

I look around me carefully for the first time, seeing the odd objects that the room contains. The tallest one puts her hand on one of the pieces of equipment, her touch almost reverent. “We are historians. We seek to understand history better, by truly experiencing it.”

“Re-enactment?” I say disdainfully. “I thought our allies were barbaric enough ...”

Two dislikes this. “True intelligence includes being prepared to learn from a variety of sources.”

“Even if that source is flawed?” I gesture around me, at all this crumbling reality.

“The driest earth can hide a gem,” she says, and I suppose she’s right.

I still hate proverbs though. Such lazy thinking.

They introduce themselves – slowly, verbally – and I learn that they are a mixture of backgrounds and occupations, but all Primus or Secundus intelligence rankings. This gives me more of an incentive to stay, even though I’m still unconvinced. Recreating times gone by seems pointless, but I intend to keep Two’s respect. And – if I’m strictly honest – I’m intrigued. What do they get out of being here?

At first I’m bored. They give me one of the cooling suits we used to use for surface life, but it just feels bulky and restrictive. I also feel oddly out of sync with everything, almost as though I’ve lost a sense. Every so often I reach to touch something, and am irritated when it doesn’t alter under my hands.

I spend some time examining artefacts, and although they have some curiosity value my abiding impression is still the futility of all of this. Why anchor yourself in flesh unnecessarily?

Eventually I notice an unfamiliar sensation, and realise that I’m hungry. Of course there are no feeding tubes here, so I ask Two for some paste.

“No,” she says patiently. “It wouldn’t be authentic.”

She leads me into a different room, and begins taking small damp parcels out of a container.

I’m genuinely shocked. “You don’t seriously expect me to make a … meal?

She looks at me. “Yes. There is no point in doing this if we don’t do it properly. We will learn nothing if we take shortcuts.”

“I can’t see we can learn anything anyway,” I grumble. “How does getting sticky and messing about with this stuff help?”

She says nothing, and I touch the moist food with some distaste. We work in silence, and when the meal is ready I look at it warily. We carry it out into the other room and all of us squat to eat. The sensation of food in my mouth is very odd – in fact, more than odd; it is an uncomfortable intrusion. I have never been off-planet; I have never had to eat to fit in.

When the meal is over, I feel swollen and unwell. I am annoyed with Two for bringing me here, and annoyed with myself for coming at all. I get to all fours and go out of the doorway pointedly, expecting her to follow. Perhaps even expecting some kind of apology. In my irritation, I forget what’s out here, and the booming space nearly overwhelms me. I crouch just outside the door for a moment, fighting down the fear, and then something odd happens: a shivery sensation rushes through me which is not unpleasant. In fact it feels quite stimulating.

Two appears behind me. “You don’t like it here,” she says defensively.

“No,” I say, surprising myself. “I do.”

By my third trip, I’m making the transition from the virtual world to the real one with ease. Although – real? Is it? They’re recreating something that isn’t really here – does that constitute reality? I find I’m unwilling to explore this idea too deeply; I like going out. There’s an unexpected satisfaction in knowing that I have only my body to help me, and I’m more aware of being alive than I ever am in the Nexus. With the loss of the godlike sense of power comes something else, a knowledge that I’m challenging myself in ways I never have before.

It is true that I’m learning, too – I’m beginning to understand and appreciate our ancestors. Astonishing to think that they had the time to make discoveries whilst also working so hard simply to stay alive. They were on the cusp of greatness, so close to being freed from these daily concerns, and yet still they were inventive and imaginative.

But it discomforts me to realise that even these discoveries are not enough; I’m bored again. That odd pleasurable shiver is gone, and on my third trip I wait until Two and the others are busy with their artefacts and I go out. This time, I go further. I move across the waves of hard-baked sand, finding that the vulnerable feeling – as though I might fall from the planet’s surface and go flying into the echoing spaces above – has gone. Most dissatisfying.

I keep moving, the cool suit cumbersome and heavy, my body starting to ache. What am I looking for, exactly?

A sheer rocky outcrop gives me the answer. It looms over the dunes, stark and forbidding and imperfectly shaped, and yet I want to touch it. I run my hands over it, the sensation blunted by my suit, and I find that there are little crevices and cracks within it. Before I know what I’m doing or why, my feet have left the ground and I’m climbing.

Climbing! What am I doing? I could fall, I could crunch my body into the ground, dragged down by relentless gravity and broken into pieces. And yet … the shivers are back in a pleasurable rush, leaving me almost giddy.

This is what I need.

On my fourth trip, I climb up further still. I stop on a small ledge, looking out across the enormous space unrolling before me, and I feel more powerful than I would ever have believed possible. I did this. Me.

Two asks me why I keep going outside, and I tell her that I seek to understand our ancestors better. Of course she believes me; people always believe what they want to hear.

On my next trip, I get right up to the top of the cliff. Up there the currents of hot air are much fiercer, gritted with fine sand and scraping against my exposed face with rough passion. I am part of the sky and the air, soaring over a land reduced to dusty ripples far below.

When I return home, I’m already thinking over when I will go back. I slip into my tank and reconnect. My chosen entrance appears in front of me, and I glide underneath the beautiful archway into the crossways. It’s set up as I like it, but today the sound and feel of rippling water make me uncomfortable. I watch it dripping between my fingers, but I know it isn’t really there. I play with the settings a little, even trying a desert scene, but nothing works and I clear it away. It’s all too … easy.

I think I’ll join in a debate instead, and I choose a door into a public forum. The scene in front of me folds back and I see hundreds of other sims. Their talk is not new. Some of the public forums discuss these issues endlessly: in embracing the virtual world so thoroughly, where is our society heading? Are we about to prevent the birth of lower intelligences altogether now that work is all virtual, and in fact becoming less necessary with the growth of AI? Will we stop producing young entirely, and focus on allowing us to live forever?

My attention wanders. The articles popping into my feed start to irritate me; they are distracting and dull. All those hours of study for ideas as dry as dust.

Dust makes me think of outside. I’m a little worried, because now that I’ve climbed my cliff the excitement seems to have drained away. The idea of climbing it again is leaving me hollow. I want to squirm, to wriggle, to be back in my own body and to pace around while I think. Then I remember a crevasse I saw on my way up, and I am buzzing with anticipation once more.

Two confronts me a few days later. She is so earnest and keen, still focused on her little toys and her slimy food, and I am keen to be done and to get out there. My crevasse-jumping has started to pale a little, and I need to find something new.

She passes me a tool with the ridiculous reverence they all share, and I take it with impatience.

“Careful!” she says. “It’s sharp.”

I glance down with little interest, seeing that the tool is a blade. “What do you want me to do with it?”

“Cut those pieces up,” she instructs me stiffly. “Unless, of course, you’re too busy playing outside.”

Her words seem deliberately weighted. “Is there something you want to say?”

She turns to face me. “It’s not … seemly.”

I’m almost amused. “What? Going outside?”

“You’re not just going outside. You’re climbing. We’ve seen you.”

I hesitate. “Our ancestors would have –”

“Oh, please. Do you really think I believe that? You’re not going out there for study. Don’t you think we’ve noticed you coming in dirty and tired? You’ve become nothing more than … a slave to the physical.”

Her disgusted tone silences me. I leave the building and go out, but I stay away from my cliff. I wander into the desert instead, my resentment growing with every step. She will seek to shame me with this. How can she understand how I feel? She stays locked into her little games, never daring to venture further. I’m an explorer, a pioneer. But I know that not everyone will understand that. They are too narrow in their thinking, too limited. Perhaps I can find a way to show them that –

A clattering sound sends me spinning round to look behind me. I’m expecting some kind of dangerous creature, and I am – of course – both frightened and excited.

The creature is in fact a probe, and it stops me immediately. What could a probe be doing all the way out here? It scuttles right towards me, scattering pebbles, and halts at my feet.

“You’re a long way from home,” it remarks. “Are you quite well?”

I wonder if it is the voice of a real person, or just a security AI. “I’m perfectly well,” I say cautiously. “There’s no reason I shouldn’t be out here, is there?”

The probe’s sensors twitch back and forwards, glittering in the light. “It could be unsafe.”

Did Two call them? Anger rises unexpectedly, hot and strong. “I’ll be careful,” I say woodenly. An impolite display of emotion now would really make them think there’s something wrong with me.

“You might,” the probe says, “want to put that blade down.”

Blade? I am surprised to find it is still in my hand, as comfortably nestled there as though it’s a part of me. I look down at its sharp gleam, thinking that it’s oddly beautiful. “Oh. Yes, of course.” I toss it lightly away from me, as though I couldn’t care less, and it thuds into the sand. “If you’ll excuse me,” I say, “I’d better get back to the others. We’re taking part in a history project, you know. Trying to experience life like our ancestors did.”

The probe twitches again. “Admirable,” it says. “Although you might do well to remember that our ancestors sought to create a better world for good reasons.”

I bow my head, but inside the anger is churning again, seeking a release. “Of course.”

“People were hurt,” it adds unnecessarily. “Sometimes even by others.”

“I know. It must have been …” I think for a moment, then I say slowly, “… frightening.”

The probe seems satisfied. “Take care on your way back,” it says, then reverses and departs.

I begin to walk back to the building. After a few steps, I stop and look round behind me, noting where the blade fell.

I’m not quite sure why yet.

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