Last night, after a short struggle, I went out.
It’s like that most evenings, the slow, silent battle between my desire to stay in, with my thoughts and dreams and memories, and the need to go where other people gathered. Much as I preferred my own company, no one, these days, was paying me to keep it. I lived as frugally as I could on what I’d saved, but the price of electricity had soared recently, and I was in the red again. If I went out, there was at least the chance of making money.
The sky above the closed and dismal city streets was a lurid pink, in places streaked with darker reds and blues, evolving into a deep purple, so like the skies of Eden that it set my heart racing. I soon realized that what I saw was the sunset, masked most evenings by the heavy cloud cover that had been the norm this damp summer, and that it was so exceptionally beautiful only as a side effect of the pollution that was choking the life out of our planet. In other words, there was no reason to find it wonderful, or feel happy. But reason had no impact on my feelings. The unearthly beauty of the sky moved me so profoundly that I couldn’t bear to leave it. So, instead of ducking quickly into one of the many small café-bars in the formerly trendy area where I live, I kept walking, an unusual spring in my step propelling me on, beyond the streets I knew, enraptured, until every last scrap of colour and light had drained away, and I could see no more of the heavens above, nothing but a kind of smoky, smothering darkness that pressed down against the sickly yellow glare of streetlights.
And all at once I felt trapped again. I felt it horrible to be outside in the dark, wandering through unknown, narrow streets, past shuttered shops and blocks of flats where the doors and windows gaped open since the rain had passed, and children ran in and out, shrieking, past sad-looking men out for a smoke, and the sounds of other people’s lives, a cacophony of languages, argument, laughter, music, and hysterical shouting all poured out along with a jumble of cooking smells and the stink of the filthy pavements.
Uncomfortable now, feeling watched, expecting that at any moment I’d be accosted by some beggar or lunatic, I moved more quickly, trying to inject a sense of purpose into my stride, and entered the first pub I saw.
It was a vast barn of a place, originally a Victorian gin-palace, or else designed to give that impression. There was a reek of stale, spilled beer and illegal cigarette smoke, and a background electric buzzing and chiming from some kind of games or gambling booths at one end. I have always preferred more intimate, confined spaces—trying to get my bearings and find the bar in this place gave me a rush of vertigo—but it is actually easier to strike up conversations with strangers in such surroundings, so by chance I’d made a good choice.
I told myself this, trying to counter the rush of sickness that made me want to turn around and run for home. It was only nerves; I’m always a bit nervy before I get going, and I knew the best way to deal with that was to ignore it, concentrating on the job at hand, breaking it down: First, get myself a drink, second, choose my target for tonight.
He, or she, had to be young, and not all young people appreciate an approach from an old fart like me. Although I’m not yet fifty, I know I look older. But expecting to be rejected almost ensures that you will be, so I had to put that possibility out of my mind.
Soon enough I spotted two young men and a woman sitting in a corner near the back. There was room for one more at their table, and something about their body language suggested that a stranger’s arrival might not be unwelcome, so I made my way through the crowds, careful not to spill any of my drink or bump into anyone as I navigated the length of the room.
“Mind if I join you?” I nodded at the empty stool but didn’t put my glass down until, after a quick glance at his colleagues, one man gave me the nod. We exchanged a few, bland pleasantries about the weather and sport, as you do. Football holding too much potential for team rivalry, and Wimbledon being too long over, it was natural enough to talk about the disappointingly damp squib that had been the Space Olympics, and from there it was a natural progression to my raison d’etre, the Colony. Eden.
Sometimes the conversation goes one way, sometimes another, but it’s rare that it takes more than three or four minutes to reach this point, and that’s without me ever doing anything so vulgar and obvious as “steer” the conversation. My targets always believe that they were the ones who wanted to talk about other worlds and emigration, so one of them was the first to bring it up.
Of course it wasn’t the first time they’d thought about, or talked about, the subject; who, these days, has not? There are some people who refuse to believe it even exists—it’s regularly near the top of the list wherever conspiracy theories are discussed—but I was relieved to find I wouldn’t be having one of those kind of conversations. Perhaps these three didn’t all consider it the dream of a lifetime, but they’d be willing to consider it, they’d been tempted long before meeting me, or at least one of them had.
That was the girl. I picked up her excitement right away—the rise of blood in her cheeks, the sparkle in her eye—and knew she was the one.
She began to talk about Eden, and it was almost as if she’d been there. She knew so much about the landscape, the geology, the flora and fauna, as well as having ideas for creating a better society—nothing that she said was new to me, of course, but listening to her made my heart melt with yearning, and I just about fell in love with her. We shared a dream. If only it were possible to run away with her, to start a new life, together, on Eden . . .
“But those are just games, Blake,” the lad beside her cut in. He emphasized the obsolete word for a format. “No, actually, they’re worse than games, which everybody knows are make-believe, they’re actually advertisements, meant to sell you on the idea, and advertisers are awfully damn clever, don’t you know. So they call it Eden—when in fact, it might in reality be more like Hell.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Harvey,” she said kindly. “At least don’t treat me like one. I do know the difference between fact and fiction. And I’ll bet I know a lot more about the colony on Eden than you do. I haven’t just done the adventures, the ‘games’ as you call them—”
“I wouldn’t have had you pegged as a soap opera addict.”
She made a little grimace of disapproval. “I’m not. If I’m addicted to anything, it’s Eden. I’ve done every format I can find on the subject. Not just the entertainments. I’ve done plenty of research as well, even real-time monitoring.”
I couldn’t stop myself blurting out a question, even though I knew these things should better come from her friends: “Which ones?”
She gave me a measuring look. “Quite a few. Building, landscaping, mining, surveying. Exploration.”
I didn’t have to ask her favourite; her pause made it clear.
“Never knew you had masochistic tendencies, Blake.”
She turned away from me. “I don’t, Tanner.”
“No? I don’t know what else you’d call it. Taking the POV of a construction robot is just about the most boring thing you can do, whether it’s building or terraforming or mining or surveying. Doing it once, just to see, okay. But more than that—I just can’t imagine—”
“And your deficiency in the imagination department means I’m a masochist? Hmm, I guess I do put up with you.” She flashed him a smile to pull the sting. “Only joking. Sorry, Tan, but if you will make flat statements about things you don’t know—
“Actually, I do know,” he objected. “It so happens I’ve spent hours monitoring construction robots—the ones on Eden. We had to do it as part of a unit in college. So I know just how bum-numbingly boring it is, and I think you need to come up with an effen good excuse if you want me to believe it’s a normal thing for anyone to do.”
“Why did you do it?”
“I told you, I had to, it was part of—oh, you mean why the assignment?” He shrugged. “Learning the practicalities of the construction business, something like that.”
“To learn. There you go. That’s my reason, too. I need to learn as much as I possibly can about Eden, before—” She stopped, as both men burst out in protest at the shocking, unthinkable-to-them notion that their friend—this woman they thought of as a friend, but whom they clearly hardly knew—could be planning to chuck it all and emigrate to an unknown new life on a distant world. She sat quietly under the verbal onslaught until it ran down, when she said, “Can you imagine, if everyone thought like you, where we’d be today? Most of this world would never have been settled. Why go over that hill? There might be bears! We’ve got plenty of caves to live in right here, and if it was good enough for your father and mother, it should be good enough for you. Oooh, what do you want to go out to sea for? That little boat will surely sink, and, besides, life anywhere but here is bound to be more boring.”
“Going to Eden is totally different. When people went over the hill, or even across the ocean, they could still come back—plenty of them did, so they could tell their friends what it was like, prove it was a good idea to go. Whereas, anyone who goes to Eden goes knowing they can never, ever come back. Or, at least, if they do come back, thanks to relativity, they’ll arrive at an earth so changed they might as well not bother. They know, if they go, it means giving up everything they’ve ever known, and never seeing their family or their friends ever again.”
“Unless their friends decide to go, too,” said she with a look that made him flush and turn his attention to a beer-mat on the table as if he’d never seen such an object before..
“Some people may love their lives here,” she said. “They talk about ‘giving everything up.’ Not everybody feels like that would be such a sacrifice.” A shadow crossed her face. “What do I have? A share in a flat I can’t afford, a crap job, a crazy, alcoholic mother, a bastard of a father I haven’t even seen in nine years, and frankly, if the best you can come up with as a reason to stay on this crappy, disintegrating old world is that I might miss my friends, well . . .” She rolled her eyes and raised her glass to drink.
The others drank, too. Feeling pretty sure that the next word anyone spoke would change the subject, I leaned in towards Blake and asked her why, if she felt like that, she hadn’t already emigrated?
Of course, I knew. The answer was always the same.
Back in the early nineteenth century it used to take five or six weeks to sail from Britain to America. It would have taken longer to Australia, but the time would still have been measured in weeks, maybe months, but not years.
Harvey (or was it Tanner?) had been quite right to point out that going to our generation’s “new world” was different, by an order of magnitude, from the experience of colonists in the past.
Getting from Earth to Eden took ten years.
That was the minimum; it might take longer. And what that meant was ten or eleven or maybe even twelve years of imprisonment, of solitary confinement, with no time off for good behaviour and absolutely no chance of early release. You’d go in a young man and emerge middle-aged. A whole rich decade of possibilities and experiences would be turned into a single, seemingly endless, long, dark night in confinement. What greater punishment could there be for people who longed to start new lives in a new society on a new world? Lock a group of these folks up together and there was bound to be mutiny, murder, suicide, forbidden pregnancies, infanticide, general disaster. Keep them carefully apart, in an artificial state of coma or half-hibernation, and while they couldn’t harm each other or destroy the mission, there would be other problems. It was the most daunting obstacle to colonization. Most people had to be pretty desperate—or mad—to agree to it, and those weren’t the kinds of people the Eden Colony wanted for their bold venture.
“You’d go mad,” said Tanner. “At least, I know I would.”
And lovely, determined, healthy, sane young Blake nodded slowly, unwillingly accepting this verdict.
“No you wouldn’t,” I said, softly.
“They said on this programme—”
“I saw a documentary, where—”
“I know.” I pitched my voice so it stopped them all. Having their attention, I went on. “Forget what you’ve heard or seen or read. It’s all speculation, and conjecture, and opinion. I’ve got the facts. I can tell you what it’s really like. I’ve been there.”
Harvey nodded his head up and down, his expression carefully neutral, but clearly humouring the madman. “Ah, you’ve been to Eden, have you?”
“If I’d been to Eden, you nimmit, I’d still be there, not sat here talking to you, now, would I?” I gave him a hard stare. “What I’m saying is, I know what it’s like to go there. I know the journey, because I’ve been inside the box. I helped design the system, and then . . . I tested it.”
They were all silent a moment, trying to decide what to make of my claim. Then Blake’s clear voice rang out.
“For how long?”
I looked straight into her eyes. “I lived it. Real time, ten years, without a break. Wouldn’t have been a proper test otherwise, would it?”
In her intent gaze I saw curiosity—more than that, fascination, and a kind of hard determination to know more, to learn the truth. There was no room, with all that, for sympathy, but I didn’t care.
“What was it like?”
“Like? It was like life. Ten years.” I made the noise that was my rusty excuse for a laugh. “What’s your last ten years been like, hmm?”
“They kept you in suspended animation for ten years?” It was one of the men who asked, but I was too absorbed by Blake’s interest to look at him.
“Well, you could call it that. I was on life-support. But it wasn’t like being in a hospital. I was still living, in V-R, and, believe me, that was much more fun than my so-called real life ever had been. Physically, I was in top shape, too, getting optimal nutrients and exercise.”
“Exercise? Lying in a box?”
“I thought you said you’d seen a documentary?” I gave the guy a slightly contemptuous look. “Do a little research; check it out for yourself. The whole time I got the perfect workout every day. State of the art stuff—this was a few years ago, so it might be even better now, although I can’t imagine how.”
“And mentally?” Blake commanded my attention. “What was going on with you—the you inside—while your skeleto-muscular system was being put through its paces? You were conscious?”
“Except for the normal sleep cycle, yeah. Like I said, like they say in all the publicity, it was just like life.”
“Formats? The very best, state-of-the-art V-R.”
“That’s right. Much better than anything you can buy on the open market. Realer than real.” I saw she was uneasy with this, which was understandable. Anyone who’d ever lost a weekend, totally immersed in some exciting new format, would remember the consequences, struggling to readjust to real real life, in the office or at school, on Monday. An alcohol-induced hangover was as nothing compared to the horrifying struggle any binge-gamer had gone through, desperately trying to reconnect to the rest of the world, his non-virtual life, even his own physical body.
I worked to reassure her. “You have to bear in mind that it’s not like putting on a format at home. For one thing, there’s nothing to conflict with the experience—you don’t get hungry or cold or uncomfortable as the hours roll by, because everything is integrated; the life inside your head is the same as what you’re feeling, it really is what’s happening to you. When you eat in the format the pod gives you nourishment; when you’re running or building a wall or getting hit in the head, or making love, your body has those experiences—except that you can’t ever really get injured, and you can’t die. The machines won’t let you. And it’s so much better, so much more exciting, to live in V-R, because you can have all sorts of special abilities—you can really fly, or go deep beneath the sea, exploring for hours . . .”
“Like being in a robot POV.”
“Only much, much better.”
We’d clicked; the hunger in her meeting my own passion, and nourished by it. But she was still cautious.
“But the after-effects? I mean, just because they’re postponed for ten years . . . wouldn’t they be much, much worse?”
Tanner cut in here: “Obviously. Ten years of thinking you could fly and breathe underwater and then, boom, you’re ordinary again! Talk about crashing down to earth.”
“Except you don’t,” I said quickly. “That’s the thing—you’re not on earth, when you get out at the end, are you? You’ve spent ten years in V-R not because you have a problem with real life (and, believe me, they won’t take you if you’re that sort of at-risk personality) but because you’re travelling to another planet. And on top of that, you get weaned off slowly, no cold turkey, so the last year, maybe two, you’re gradually spending more and more time in the real . . . well, I mean it’s still V-R, obviously, but it’s more like real life, normal life, ordinary stuff you’d really spend your time doing.”
“Sitting behind a desk in a windowless office, filing data,” suggested Harvey. “Frying burgers and wrapping them to go. Trying to sell insurance to twenty hostile strangers every hour. Cleaning toilets. Yeah, I imagine after a solid year of that you’d weep with joy just to be let out of the box.”
“They also monitor your blood and brain chemistry, to make sure you’re at your best and don’t get depressed or stressed-out.”
“Nothing so crude. A microchip monitor . . . your body does it itself. Occasionally you might need a little help, and then medication is available.” I felt uneasy, recalling my own first year out of the box. I’d been content, a happy idiot. In retrospect that state seemed worse to me than the depression that followed. The happiness was artificial, my misery at least was honest.
But I forced those thoughts down to reassure Blake. “Most people don’t need much help to adjust. They’re pretty careful who they accept for the colony. Young and fit isn’t enough if you’re not mentally and psychologically stable enough to survive the journey.”
As I was speaking, a line floated into my head: The journey, not the arrival, matters.
I don’t know where it comes from—I think it’s an old saying. I don’t even really know what it means. I knew I would have to think about it later, but I didn’t have time for it then, so put it out of my mind.
Blake was watching me so closely she must have seen I was repressing something, even if she couldn’t have known what it was. It was like she was the perfect fantasy girlfriend, able to read a volume of desire in each tiny twitch and shudder in my skin. As if we weren’t strangers, she reached over and touched my hand. It was only a light touch, but for me, solitary and isolated as I am, it was incredibly powerful, more erotic than the hottest porno. I couldn’t even remember the last time anyone had touched me in real life—it was probably my dentist.
“It must have been so awful for you, to go through, like, the whole journey, always dreaming of the colony and a life there, and then, at the end . . .” she took her hand away, gesturing, “You’re back here, like you never left.”
This was so true as to require no comment, but I gave her a short nod, to acknowledge her concern.
“Ten years in a box, for nothing,” said one of the men. “Who’d do it?”
“Hardly nothing. I was paid.”
“You did it for the money?”
I felt my skin prickle, and thought how satisfying it would be to chuck the last of my beer at his smug grin. So easy in V-R, but so complicated in the real. I didn’t want to fight. So I counted to five and shrugged. “That was part of it, sure. It was well paid.”
“Still.” He shook his head, his lip curling. “However much you were paid, to let yourself be locked up in a coffin for ten years is pretty—”
“A life-pod is not a coffin.”
He went on like I hadn’t said anything. “There must have been other work you could do; there must have been something.”
I wanted to smash his face. Of course there was work I could do, work I was good at—but who was paying then? I counted to five again. “You’re obviously far too young to remember the last recession.”
Blake began to say something—trying to defuse the tension, I think—but I cut across, determined to make my point. “Anyway, why should I have done anything else? You’ve missed the point if you think I regret a minute of it. You don’t know what it was like. You can only imagine it from the outside. From that point of view, I was stuck in a box. But that’s not how it felt to me, on the inside. For me, those ten years were an adventure, a wonderful journey. For me, the time I spent exploring Eden, helping to settle it, being involved in the town-planning, feeling the thrill of growing my own crops, exploring the wilderness—” I shook my head, amazed at his lack of insight. “They were the most wonderful years of my life, the richest time, full of the best, and the strangest, experiences. I saw things in the Ringing Mountains and on the shores of the Quiet Sea—and deep down below that sea, too—that you cannot possibly imagine.”
I spoke in generalities at first but then, as I got warmed up, I got into the flow, and began to describe some of my adventures. I threw in all sorts of quirky little details about Eden, watching and feeling triumphant whenever something lit an answering spark in Blake’s eyes, as she recognized things from her own virtual experiences.
I probably went on for a little too long. Finally, the shifting, restless movements and bored expressions of the other two began to filter through. Even Blake, while still drinking in my every word, was starting to feel a little uncomfortable at the way I was dominating the conversation, and boring her friends. Maybe she was embarrassed for me, thinking I was revealing too much personal emotion before strangers.
So I gave another of my awkward, rusty laughs and said, “I’ll shut up now. But I’ll tell you this: If I was twenty years younger—no, scratch that. If it weren’t for the bloody Eden Corporation’s effen age restrictions, I’d sign up right this minute. I’d leave tonight. And I’d gladly spend my next ten or eleven years in a box, knowing I’d climb out on Eden at the end of it, even if I knew I’d drop down dead at the end of my first week there. I’d take that chance, just to have that one week. That’s how much I loved it. That should tell you I don’t feel even one single day of those ten years was wasted, especially not if it helps somebody else go there.”
I drained the last of my beer in a gulp, slammed the glass down on the table and stood up. “Time to go.”
Before I walked away, I had to take one last, searching look at Blake. She looked back, and, as she met my eyes, I saw that I’d achieved my aim. She would seize the dream I’d just given her, and go to Eden. My camera-implant captured her image and forwarded it to my employers, so they’d know, when she went to sign up for the Colony, that I was the one due the bonus.
How I envied her innocence and faith.
And how I despised myself as I took the long, lonely walk back to my room, wishing I really could live in the V-R format called Eden, that I’d designed for the Corporation nearly fifteen years ago. I wished I could plug myself into it and never come out again.
© 2009 by Lisa Tuttle.
Originally published in Postscripts: Edison’s Frankenstein.
Reprinted by permission of the author.