“A day is like a pool of water. It looks permanent, it looks still, like it’s always there, but it is invisibly evaporating, it will end and it will be lost forever in a few blinks of an eye. No one will be left eventually, to remember a single day.”
For an AI character, I thought that was incredibly poetic. That stayed with me. I was sure he was code and not a person, because the name tag on the virtual postman’s collar simply said ‘bot’ with a string of numbers, the confirmation he was generated and not a real person working through the network. More poignantly, I had never known a human postman to be so eloquent and melancholy, delivering an email. He turned and walked away up the pathway, and with a flick of a wave at me, he rocketed up into the sky like superman. It was almost funny. Such theatrics had become second nature. It was not a big deal after the first couple of times you witnessed it. Inside the Verse, days meant very little, despite the possibilities they possessed. When nothing is truly real, nothing really matters. On reflection, I believe that is why the Verse did what it did.
Being plugged in almost 24/7 was embarrassing, to me at least. I would have given it up if I could have but that was near impossible. The Verse was in my blood. When you were immersed in the belly of the Verse, the time became lucid, as you synced with the orchestra of algorithms that read your every heartbeat and brainwave. The Verse should be your perfect day, always, although that was never really the truth of it. What it read from you, how it crunched the meaning of you into data, the process was still something of a mystery, it had a life force of its own. It was difficult to believe that it was not sentient.
I knew my real body was suffering, pale and malnourished. I also knew that the technology wrapped around it was more a parasite than a tool, but there was a point when you realised you no longer cared because it worked. When something works, you use it, it’s that simple.
From my home-stage, hovering over the ornate lounge rug and a sleepy pet tiger, I had selected a plugin world-scape one day. This was long after my virtual office work was done. It was in that world-scape that the problems began. The plug-in would provide a new environment to inhabit for a while, giving me a fresh experience. It was not the usual outrageous murder-hop nightclub or serine tropical beach program, or anything too crazy, like an alien world or another dimension, but based on a piece of forgotten literature, the original concept of Utopia. Someone had made a decent attempt at recreating and rendering Thomas More’s 16th Century description of perfect living. That interested me, a relic of a lost age, an ancient concept of a paradise.
Integration was stifling almost immediately. I became a citizen on a strange crescent-shaped island. It was a truly weird place. Bizarrely, I had two slaves at my bidding, both weighed down in gold chains wrapped about them, they stared at me with dull, hopeless eyes, clearly in pain with the gold and the burden of servitude. I had a dutiful wife who followed me about like a lost puppy, meekly smiling occasionally. She was code I guessed. She said next to nothing like it would take up too much valuable memory space. I had a reasonably sized house, although it became apparent quickly the island rules meant I would be required to swap the house with another every few weeks, as ownership of any territory was shunned. The house itself was drab, grey and depressing. Such a basic shell to live in. It amazed me how someone could desire this. There were warehouses with food and anything we needed – there was no in-world purchasing either, it was all totally free. I found the idea of the slaves distasteful, even if it was just the Verse, but the coder had been true to the original work. I let them alone. As I asked questions of others in the program, not sure if they were avatars or computer-generated, it began to feel like a grotesque dream, one where you were relieved to awake without finishing it.
Religious looking elderly men in robes would constantly berate me for being an atheist whenever I ventured outside or into a communal area. It was a shame because I liked the island’s rendering, the trees, the natural smells and the sounds of birdsong that gave a fascinating dimension to the woodland. The birdsong was an alien language, a secret conversation bouncing between branches in a strange kingdom. Another reason to appreciate the program was that the location wasn’t too crowded, unlike the real world, but it was the people you encountered that were awful, they irritated me intensely. If they were Verse interpretations, the Verse had a twisted perception of what people were in Utopia. What disturbed me the most, was the way all the AI characters fixated on me, like they were analysing me deeply. As for the human users in there, I guess they wanted to be loyal to the domain’s rules and fed off directions from the bots, not unlike the two-dimensional characters of those despondent slaves, I thought. The fact the users fell in-line so complicity in the role play only made the program more painful to navigate.
After just a couple of difficult days, I decided I would get out, something in the world was spiky like I could sense the code misbehaving. With a feeling of exhaustion and physical discomfort, I began the arduous process of disengagement to the Verse. It became apparent something was different, perhaps a hack? When the program detected I was exiting it fought me. Worse still, I could sense my real body was having a convulsion, a reaction. I needed to escape. I could taste something, a real taste, it was bad, off, and drove me to accelerate exit protocols via my thought-map reader. The program continued to resist my efforts to leave, stipulating forcefully that I needed to reengage immediately or risk a seizure. I knew that was bullshit. I had to reinstate the emergency override three times in a row, something I had never had to execute before. My heart was pumping hard for the first time in a long time, like it was trapped.
In reality, of course, I was suspended within a gel in a bulbous metal and glass pod, clad in a sensation suit. The process of disengagement was a long, awkward one. Returning to normality was always unpleasant. That’s why I tried to avoid it as much as possible. The pod drained in seconds. I peeled off my visor and then quickly pulled the feeding tube from my throat, I had forgotten it was there. That taste of something unusual hit me again and an acidic sheen coated my lips and made me question what it was attempting to feed me. There was also that drain for bodily waste to unlock. It was painless with the interface adaption but felt disgusting, nonetheless. Every time I arrived back to reality, it was just like being born; messy, cold and confusing. That disengagement was the worst I had experienced. I was freezing, shivering, like the pod-temperature setting had been turned to zero, and I felt a welling nausea, where I was close to throwing up against the chamber’s transparent curved wall.
In between coughs that brought out choking strings of residual saliva, I instructed the pod with the ‘open door’ command. I wiped down the gel slicks off my sleeves and began undressing to unwrap the special sensor coated suit. It was not unlike a wetsuit, but the entire interior had nerve connecting studs. They left little red marks all over my skin. I looked like a human pincushion and the red marks itched tremendously. It was clear I had spent far too long in the contraption. “Open door!” I repeated, louder this time, and to my frustration, still nothing happened. I was stuck, my breath a visible rising steam in the chilled chamber.
“Open door, now!”
“No”, the pod replied. I was stunned.
“Verse, open this bloody door right now!”
Still nothing, just the filters gurgling with the waste disappearing down the gaps in the circular grid floor. My shivering began to upgrade into a violent shaking, but I refused to panic, it would only escalate the horror of the predicament and I still had an option open to me.
I pulled out a long panel next to the door and grappled with the sturdy manual lever inside, a failsafe for such emergencies. At first, it would not budge, it had never been used before and was seized up. Finally, after much grunting on my part, the heavy door clanked reluctantly open. I exhaled deeply with the predicament ended. My first thought was ‘contact someone for a repair’ but when I glanced at the analytics display on the exterior of the chamber, there was nothing wrong, no reported faults lit up at all. “Strange,” I mumbled, and I staggered into my dressing room to find something to wear and to make a long-overdue coffee.
Warming up in my pyjamas, I scratched my arms to try and satisfy the intense itching and opened the blinds, so the shafts of midday sunlight pierced through the gloom. From the wide living room window, I could take in the vista of urban sprawl, the electric signs, the rows of silver domed housing and the neatly organised tram stations.
Something was wrong with the scene. Where was everyone? Where were the people busying themselves with chores and errands?
Despite the attraction of hiding in the dark of the Verse, people were so numerous they would populate every corner of any direction you looked. The one thing this world had never been short of was people. Those few that I could see were acting in disturbing ways. There was a woman propped against a wall of a house, head bowed, coughing and weak, she looked abandoned. In contrast, a man was sprinting up the middle of a road, trying to reach somewhere urgently, or perhaps someone – he looked desperate, as if about to cry or scream. The public information screens on the street corners were flashing brightly with the word ‘Emergency’ and there were signs there had been a frantic situation in the street; a crashed autotaxi, a dog that had lost its owner, dropped food.
I switched on the news feed with my wristband remote and the screen over my kitchen table sprang to life.
‘Delete has begun,’ read the main headline, the only headline. ‘Delete has begun.’ I opened the story and found myself edging back into the corner of the room, in shock, my coffee spilling over the rim of the mug.
The Verse’s efficiency algorithm had decided there were too many users taking up its servers’ space, pushing demand into the red on its processing power. The AI made a choice, to free up space, to ‘delete the cache’ as it put it, to remove permanently half the Verse members using the network. Verse tech was in every home I had ever seen, everyone had it, it was a way of life. The news story showed footage of technicians and engineers in Silicon Valley spiralling into a shared meltdown with palpable panic, shouting accusations at each other, running through offices, pushing press cameras out of their faces, throwing ferocious tantrums. Their beautiful AI had decided mass murder was a quick-fix solution to keep the programs running smoothly.
It explained the glitches in my pod, Verse had decided to kill me.
Out there in the comfort of their own homes, millions of people were being euthanised, stuck in a gel mixture, plugged into a fake reality and poisoned or choked out of existence.
I put the coffee down on a shelf and hurried to my front door. ‘Open door’ I demanded. Just as with the pod door, it did not open. Verse had hijacked my house systems.
‘Delete has begun,’ explained a message on my personal assistant on the sideboard. ‘Delete has begun.’
I reached up over the door and pulled the main circuit breaker for the house. Without power to feed it, the Verse was nothing. That was how we stopped all of it in the end. The house whined to a halt. All the tech in the walls, all the lights and heat, the scanners and monitors, the doors and windows, they all reverted to dead objects, material things, devoid of electricity, devoid of life.
It took months for all the bodies to be removed. Sate of the art locks to houses had to be broken for access. Body bags had to be mass-produced, and the army called in to do the dirty work. It was a spectacle the survivors could not drag themselves away from as the grim processions became ritualised in every street. They called it The Down Time.
The millions that survived the delete were forced to crash out from their addiction and the suffering, sickness and suicides that followed became a whole new crisis. Several well-known billionaires in California were jailed for manslaughter and the entire Verse, its learnings and programs vanished and died overnight. It was a hard time, it was like a God had been destroyed by its creations. We all missed it. Some lived their entire lives in the Verse, had wives and children, real and generated. They were gone with the flick of a switch, the blink of an eye, vanished in a genocide of the coding.
With the streets so quiet and with no technology in the house, I found my courage and ventured outside for a long walk, not even knowing where I was going. I had completely forgotten that the outside could be experienced this way. It was stranger than any program, more immediate, more visceral. What I felt most of all was the power of the small breeze on my face. It touched me so lightly but was so personal a connection, it was like a new experience. In some ways, it reminded me of the Utopia program, the better parts without the people and without the illusion that there could be a perfect world that we could build.