Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Short story by Jared Levenson

 Ash’s World

Everything, eventually, turns to ash.
In black sky oil clouds loom and no birds fly. Nobody knew why the birds went extinct. Some thought it was because of rising global temperatures or changing underwater currents in the ocean; others thought it was because of the destruction of the natural environment. Yet everyone agreed the soot in the air was a major contributing factor. The soot originated in the super-cities and spread across the globe, dimmed the sun in the day, blotted out the stars at night, and made people cough and cough and cough and cough. I’ll tell you why the birds died off – they could neither migrate nor breathe. Even humans now wear protective oxygen masks outside. The soot caused skyrocketing rates of asthma and depression. It was the reason humans kept spending more and more time in virtual reality. For it was only in virtual reality could people forget about the soot, about their problems, about their lives. All of this because the soot, the black fucking soot.
Time - 17:00: Workers leaving the various city-centers, dressed in drab. Each mouth covered by a black oxygen mask to protect against the soot. The color was black to begin with because white oxygen masks turned black anyways. Straps of the masks partially cover small tattoos on the back of each person’s neck. Each tattoo is a series of numbers. The workers walk fixatedly to the edge of the curb, their eyes locked ahead of them to where scores of self-driving cars await. The cars had arrived there precisely ten minutes beforehand. They had driven themselves out of underground storage vaults, through underground tunnels, and parked perpendicular to the smart-concrete edges of the curb. The workers identify the car with the same number as their tattoo. The car waits silently until their worker enters. Then both drive off.

Time - 17:30: Schools release their prisoners. Electric force fields shut-off and children slowly amble out. They also have masks and tattoos. Smart buses line the curb. The children enter. The buses leave.

Time - 17:45: One last student leaves the school. Gait is slow; direction aimless. He walks along side streets, stops at intersections, meanders through artificial parks. He eventually finds himself at smart bench and sits down. He closes his eyes and breathes. He remains still, silent, aware. He listens to his heart, his thoughts, his stomach, himself. He experiences a measure of peace. Hardly anyone notices him. The pedestrians hurrying by glance at him and glance away. It is like he is invisible when he is quiet and unmoving. In a few moments only a handful will remember that there was even a boy there. During this time the city makes itself known to him: people scurry by, self-driving cars glide, occasionally there are shouts, and sometimes there are smells. After awhile, the boy’s belly informs him it is almost meal time. He gets up and walks to the orphanage.

Time - 19:00: The boy stares at his plate. There are three pills on it, shielded by a shimmering forcefield. They contain the essential vitamins, minerals, calories, and proteins humans need to survive. 9 tasteless pills a day. The other children at the orphanage stare grimly at their plates. There isn’t much talking.
An AI voice announces ‘After consuming your pills you may go to your rooms.’ The forcefields around the plates switch off.

‘This is the worst part of the orphanage,’ the boy thinks, ‘The pills. It’s OK I don’t have many friends or family or money but the pills. 9 tasteless pills a day and that voice. That droning, banal voice. All of it is Absolutely fucking terrible.’

The orphanage could not afford the pills that expanded into meals. The State didn’t care much for orphans - it never has and never will. After swallowing the pills, the boy and all the other children head to their rooms near the elepator. The boy enters his room and leans against the wall and stares. He stares at a chair. Every child in the orphanage has a chair in their room. Everyone in society has a chair in their room. Most do not even hesitate to sit down. In fact, most are practically drooling to sit down. This boy hesitates though. He feels divinity and the devil made love and this chair is the result of their coupling. There is something miraculous and evil about this chair: it is the epitome of technology and civilization. By now, everyone else in the orphanage has sat on the black liquid-solid cushions and sank deeply into the chair, so deep that only their head remains exposed. The chair, similar to old-fashioned chairs, kicks its legs up while the back goes down. The legs of this chair straighten and the back lowers so there is a 180 degree platform formed by the once chair. Within the folds of the chair comes a biological-machine. It connects to the skin of the child’s face. The connection between face and biological machine is symbiotic - user and machine bind together. There is no clear distinction between face and metal, between man and machine. Likewise, the cushions of the chair bind to the body of the child. Man and machine become unified. Done staring, the boy sits down. The chair engulfs him and leans back. The living machine comes out and gently synthesizes itself to his face. Virtual reality begins.

Time – Unknown: There is no weight or matter in virtual reality. But neither is there weightlessness or empty space. The synthesis of man and machine creates an experience that simply cannot be fully described. The closest thing to virtual reality would be lucid dreaming – a dream in which the dreamer is aware they are dreaming. Experienced lucid dreamers claim they can manipulate their dreams with training. But lucid dreaming pales in comparison to virtual reality. For starters, the chair bonds with the body and stimulates the whole entire nervous system with electrical signals. One actually feels like they are on the battlefield or in an orgy with ten gorgeous mind-dancers. And in a sense, this is actually happening to them. Whether on the battlefield or in the bedroom, the body-mind experiences stimuli from the external environment - sound waves enter through the ears and are converted into electrical signals, visual information enters through the eyes and is also converted into electrical signals. The brain interprets these signals and this is what we know as ‘reality’. Virtual reality simply provides the electronic stimuli associated with an experience so that the user actually experiences what the electronic stimuli represent.  Another component of virtual reality which separates it from lucid dreaming is the vast data bank of memories, scenarios, and historical events the user may access. Many people simply use these pre-programmed settings to live out their fantasies over and over and over. Yet some creative users create their own virtual reality and interact with the avatars of other people through the virtual network. Indeed, there are entire virtual communities, some of them holding as many as a billion avatars. A person’s avatar is a virtual representation of themselves. Most people choose to experience virtual reality through an avatar which is beautiful and healthy. However, despite being able to change one’s appearance, a person cannot change their intelligence. If a person chooses to live in virtual reality by themselves, and a great deal do, they are free to do whatever they want. Their imagination is the limits. They can be incredibly smart and athletic, rich and powerful, famous and glorified. Yet there is something inherently fake about living virtual reality solo and many people invariably form groups, hence the virtual communities. In order for there to be some cohesion in the virtual world these groups abide by certain laws. These laws are designed by the person who created the virtual community. Some designers spend years creating virtual worlds which then populate with users who like the rules of the world and the company of the virtual community. As the designer creates these world’s laws just like an artist creates a painting, there is much left up to the subconscious. In effect, the rules of the world are more like ‘guidelines’. In a virtual community world, in comparison to solo virtual reality, skill in manipulation of the virtual reality guidelines is of utmost importance. No one knows exactly why some users are skilled in manipulating the virtual environment. However, almost everyone agrees that being able to control one’s mind is essential to the process. That and being totally in tune with the body-machine-mind as the body-machine-mind is the vehicle by which virtual reality is experienced.
Every virtual reality session comes to an end after 24 hours. In virtual reality times is condensed 400%. So the 24 hours in virtual reality takes place in 6 hours of reality. In the beginning of a virtual reality session one starts off solo but may choose to join a virtual reality community at anytime. Once one switches over to a virtual reality community the user must remain in that community for the duration of their session. When the 24th hour has passed the avatar disconnects or dies. Some choose to go to sleep in virtual reality when the disconnect or death is about to occur. That way they do not experience the actual event. But regardless, their avatar dies and people wake up again the next morning. Many secretly fear the end of their virtual reality session. They crave another session. Virtual reality is the most addictive experience on the planet.

The boy awakens. White sand stretches off into the distance to the left and right. Palm trees flutter in the breeze behind. The sky is blue, free of soot. In front, there is a vast ocean with perfect waves. The boy spots a surfboard leaning against a tree. He runs over, picks up the surfboard and carrying beneath his left arm runs into the ocean, the sand is warm between his toes. The water is cool and refreshing, a perfect complement to the hot sun. Big waves crest and crash a hundred feet out, the boy lays on his surfboard and begins paddling. The water is crystal clear. Soon enough, a monster of a wave is approaching, at least 40 feet high! The boy quickly finds himself near the peak of the wave where it begins to curl. The boy clambers on top of the board, his legs are bent and he is balanced. The angle of the wave changes as it crests, the boy is now surfing down the face of the wave while the top of the wave crashes behind him. A barrel is created with the sides being the crashing wave. Surfer’s call it the green room.  

The boy is bored. He has surfed many times. He thumps his chest and conjures up the image of a virtual community world he would like to join.

There is a never-ending stream of shooting stars, each star incredibly vibrant with different colors and patterns. There are so many shooting stars the mountainous landscape is never dark. The boy looks around and sees other peaks in the distance. He knows these peaks. He’s been in this world before. Of the entire array of worlds, this was one of his favorites - there weren’t that many people and the ones that were there were quiet and kind. He sees a fire burning on a far peak, gathers himself, and jumps. The two mile gap is covered in roughly 30 seconds. Even though the gravity of this realm is less than in others, he still had to account for it. When he jumped the effect of gravity would be great, especially because the gap he was jumping was so large. To compensate the boy jumps up at a 45 degree angle, soars through the air upwards, peaks, and glides downwards. He lands deftly.

There on the mountaintop sits a monk, cross-legged, facing him.

The boy bows from his waist. He looks up, places his hands together, and bows again.

The monk smiles and says quietly ‘Hello. It’s good to see you again. Come sit down.’

The boy sits on a cushion across from the monk. He crosses his legs and straightens his back. He fixes his mind to what is directly in front of him.

The monk says ‘If you wish to know who you are, pay attention.’

The boy questions ‘What is attention?’

‘The monk replies ‘Attention is awareness’

The boy further inquires ‘What is awareness’

The monk smiles and says quietly ‘Awareness is awareness.’

Then they sat on the mountaintop and allowed meditation to occur.

This interaction was not out of the ordinary. The boy and the monk had been friends for several years, in virtual reality time. They would often converse in this manner. They would talk normally too though; about the animals the monk had befriended or about the boy’s victories in the arena. They would talk about meditation, happiness, and ancient ways of living. There was a reason they talked on the peak of an isolated mountain: people might overhear. There were certain topics that were unofficially forbidden and ancient lifestyles were one such topic. If overheard there would be unofficial consequences.

The meditation sitting, after an indeterminate amount of time, is suddenly interrupted. The boy’s eyes flick up. The monk is gone. The mountain is gone. The sky is gone. The wind is gone. There is only emptiness. And he hears a faraway voice, a voice strangely akin to his own:

Your name is Ash.

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