The following is a work in progress thus it has neither been externally edited or proofed.
* The following story is a draft in progress - it has been not been externally edited or proofed.
A sliver of light has an ever so tentative hold on the horizon. Its radiance reveals a scorched Earth laid razed from the wrath of a furious sun scorned. I squint. I don’t think my eyes will ever adjust to non-augmented reality. Real reality. Screens that protect the city from the relentless assault of solar flares descend before me. When they are raised again the scene will be very different; hulls of fluffy white clouds ploughing through the ocean of deep blue sky, lush forests, sparkling streams, strange winged flying creatures called… bergs, no, birds? (I’ve always been bad at history.) I remember my sister trying to tell me that the flares are really an attack from another city and that The Moderators were lying to us. I refused to believe her – not only cause she was probably wrong but because I would’ve lost Social Points – big time. She certainly did for even suggesting it. I must’ve really, truly not believed it because if I had, even if it was really, really deep down in there, Sociopolis would know.
The game. Sociopolis always knows. Sometimes I wonder if my thoughts are even my own. Hang on, they must be - I just lost ten points. Either way, all this thinking is dangerous and costly – I must be less indulgent. I gain back five SP. I just can’t stop them though. The thoughts.
I stand in the bathroom and stare at myself in all my non-augmented glory. As long as I can remember, I’ve been worrying... about food, about water; about longer days with less time. About hiding my thoughts, my feelings. Hiding these things from the biggest worry of all – Damn, another ten points. I’m eight down on net already and I haven’t even put my pants on!
“Help me to hold up the sky, help me to hold up the sky, help me to hold-“ This was the mantra my Mother taught me to quell the bad brain chemicals that lower your score.
I step into the shower and apply some cleaning gel. I don’t normally bother with the “water” – its like outside, an illusion. Every inch of your skin can be fooled by the myriad of sensory delusion created by Ezy-Water - apparently it’s supposed to be relaxing.
I feel my face. It grows harder every day as the stubble heralding manhood demands to stand up and be heard.
Shaving is difficult. The blood beneath the skin is most definitely real. Salty to the tongue, red and soaked with the oxygen that gives me life. One day, they’ll find a way emulate this too. This idea deeply stirs me somewhere ancient, but thankfully, is purged by a knocking at the door before it can become the most dangerous thought of all.
Ava, my “sister”; I often wonder if we even share the same DNA (We do. I checked). I slip on my generic suit without bothering to theme it. Then finally, I face the inevitable – it’s time to go online. Every cell of my brain is instantly bombarded with information – a cognitive tsunami that decimates all hope of a reasoned approach. Information should clarify not confound. I have the issue dealt with for me (as is soooo often the case) by having a particular piece of info shoved right in front of my face.
It’s a message from Tau – I’m late again. There isn’t really anything to be late for its just about timing things to hit the Morality Exchange at the optimum time.
I try to speak to my sister on the way out but I get no response. Typical. In moments I’m out the door.
As I stride down the wide public boulevard I grow anxious yet again. Will I see her? Some days I do, some I don’t but it’s becoming more frequent and its growing increasingly difficult to play this cruel game I’m compelled to partake in.
There she is. Don’t fall for it Marcus, you’ll only get upset. But before I realise it my feet pound along the ground one in front of the other, tearing towards the finishing line determined to claim gold in the disappointment dash. I reach her, and pause. She has her back to me. I reach out and touch her shoulder.
“Mum”. Before the words have parted my lips she has gone – vanished. Nearly every day I see the same illusion. I need to talk about this with Ava – I wonder if she sees it too. Although I doubt that given she barely leaves the unit anymore. Unless...
I resolve myself to intervene with Ava. She’s been withdrawing deeper and deeper into Sociopolis since our Mother left. I think, deep down, she might blame herself for Mother’s death. Wait, I didn’t mean that – Mum isn’t dead; she’s “missing” and in the meantime, I am Ava’s guardian. Her sole parent… sounds kinda heavy when you look at it like that. Anyway, I have to make sure things are kept in order while Mum is gone. I might have to restrict Ava’s Sociopolis… or maybe I could just grow wings and fly out of here, it would be easier. Growing the wings would be easy – I could just download them. Pity I can’t download the laws of physics that would actually make them real. Having said that – there would be nowhere to go. Or would there?
Minus fifty points!!
My train of thought is (thankfully) derailed by the sight of Tau and Sol trying their best not to “loiter” as they wait for me by the gate to the Lower City. I don’t know what they’re worried about – its only going to become a problem once I join them and even then only if we are deemed to be “assembling”. But we most certainly won’t be doing that because points don't earn themselves.
Since I was made a citizen I’ve been playing as hard as I can to level-up Ava and myself into the Upper City. But for every good deed I do and for all the social initiative I take, Ava just thwarts my efforts with her equally anti-social behaviour. If we don’t get out soon we’ll start slipping backwards; The Middle City is becoming more and more like the Lower City with every new version. That’s one of the confounding things about augmented cities – they constantly change with very new "version".
Not only does Ava lose points, she wastes the points I gain on augmenting her own appearance with limited edition “content”. If only we really could eat content… then we’d all be as corpulent as we pleased. I’ve heard the world was kind of like that before The Great Collapse.
I've been co-oping with Tau and Sol since Mum disappeared. Someone's gotta put food on the table. Tau has been good to me. She kind of just came into my life at the right time. The distraction of our nascent friendship has been helpful in dealing with things. Given I'm increasingly having to be the one that takes the lead its nice to have something that just sorts itself out. No rules, no points, no procedures. May it long continue.
We’re a clan that brings in Zombs from the Lower City. I swear I will never get sick of seeing their faces as they realise they’ve been done over by sixteen year olds.
Zombs are content addicts. Some people lose their ability to separate augmented from real; the ability to socially function. They don't engage in tasks and thus don't earn points. Eventually they end up in the Lower City. From there its just a matter of time till finally they are wandering the streets, wither away and die.
See why I'm worried about my sister?
Zombs are unpredictable - extreme fantasy has led to paranoia that often consumes real reality in its gaping maw of delusion. This can lead to some dangerously psychotic behaviour - or in other cases, Zombs just become dribbling messes of humanity - all too happy to have someone come along and make their final decision for them. I don't want that to sound like we kill them but I wouldn't want to be in their shoes when we hand them over to The Mods. I've heard rumours they are banished to the outside.
I don’t like to big up myself but I’m a gun reality hacker. Normally, that would be highly anti-social but the warranted Zombs are fair game. The points are like, coo-coo ka-ka crazy good. Sol is the tracker – finding a specific individual amongst the networked noise of millions of connections is harder than you think. Even more so when you're trying to find people that have become lost inside themselves. Tau analyses the Social Exchange and looks for the best tasks and trades. You see, the Social Exchange sets the value of “deeds” against the ever fluctuating Morality Index, which is administered by The Moderators. I’ve heard that in the past there used to be whole groups of people in fancy costume that did nothing but exert authority. But we’re better now that we maintain authority over one another, I think.
Minus one hundred points!! This is just getting silly. I can’t afford to keep making these mental… connections.
The three of us peer down from the roof of a three story building overlooking the Lower City square. The square writhes with people. Sol stares hard - for a second I even see a vein bulge across his forehead.
"Don't give yourself an aneurism." I find myself advising.
Sol holds up his hand to shut me out. What Sol would be seeing now is all the neural traffic flowing beneath us. He sees this as colour. What he's looking for is the particular hue of severe delusion (Sol says its a kind of jaundiced yellow). Sol's tongue curls in the corner of his mouth - a good sign. His arm shoots over to mine and he grabs me by the shoulder.
"There. You see it?" Sol's voice is detached but clear. He places a marker over a young woman on the far side of the square - not much older than Ava.
"Sonja Mau. Jeez she's an Upper." Sol notes.
"Not anymore." I see what Sol means though. There's more and more citizens ending up here that were born into the Upper City. Maybe they don't appreciate what they have till it's too late. Maybe its something else. Maybe its just another ten thousand points for us on the road to the same ultimate fate. Although if anyone is hardened to delusion it's me. Delusion is my stock in trade.
Even though we are all augmented that doesn't make us equal. Gifts are still gifts even when augmented - mine is an "over-active imagination". I can project my mental constructs onto others to varying degrees depending on their neurological circuitry. Zombs are particularly susceptible given the extent to which Sociopolis has plasticised their brains. As I said before doing this to just anyone is considered highly anti-social and would see me heavily moderated. Only once they become socially bankrupt is it acceptable. The only other thing I can do with my skill is produce content. But I don't want to produce content as content has no substance. I want to use my skill for something better than that. Once the Zombs are too far gone I'm one of the only ones that can reach them at all.
Reaching out to Sonja is precisely what I'm doing now as I try to literally wrap my head around her constructed reality. The citizens moving through the square slowly become a blur; a sea of smeared pixels with Sonja as an island of her own refuge in amongst it all. I dive headfirst into its choppy tumult and begin to wade across to her. Sonja immediately senses me as an interloper in her world. A rope ladder drops from above and Sonja scurries up the rungs. She's gone by the time I reach the bottom - which now begins to rise away from me. I leap and grab the last rung, haul myself up higher and start to climb. As I look up I see the ladder stretching off into the sky, seemingly tethered to nothing.
Sonja has reached the top rung so I pause momentarily to observe her next move. But she has nowhere else to go. She just teeters up there, balancing on the precipice of nothing. For a moment I am overwhelmed by a very distinct sense of eternal loss - or rather than loss perhaps it is a sense of what has never been found. It feels like I'm tasting blood in my mind - something ancient has become untethered from us both. This has never happened to me before...
"Sonja?" I find myself meekly reaching out to her - as if I'm the one now in need of help. Sonja doesn't respond - instead she just lets go. She tumbles towards me, taking me down with her. A maelstrom; every shade of light ever hued swirls resplendent beneath us - and at the eye of this storm? A white so pure, so bright and so intense I can't even bear to consider looking at it. Is this what Sonja has been gazing into? I look over to her as we spin end over end; down, down, down and that's when I see that Sonja is gone. Yet I am not alone in this.
Mother is with me.
I crash against the ground back in real reality. I see feet everywhere - look up to see a thousand eyes gazing down at me. Eyes can be like fingerprints - unique, and I immediately spot Tau's upon me. She reaches down, drags me up and that's when I see Sonja roll away from on top of me - It's funny how a body seems to become heavier when deprived of life - dead weight.
Sol steps up and draws our attention to a corridor that parts amongst the crowd. Through the centre of this emerges a tall and looming figure draped in a white hooded robe. The Moderator stops before us and slowly passes his hand over Sonja's torso, up across her face, before finally closing her eyes.
He then looks up at me and silently nods.
I gain ten thousand points.
Later that day Tau comes to see if I'm alright. Her timing, as always, is impeccable. As I've been resting I've had to face a niggling sensation I'd been avoiding and now I can finally nudge that niggle into words.
"It's happening. I can see it ending" I opine ruefully.
"Don't be scared?" Tau sits down on the end of the bed. "It's not your fault. She was gone anyway."
"I need more time. Just another month." The incident with Sonja is a symptom. My imagination is waning - beginning to be informed more and more by what's outside than what's within. I'm losing control over it. My void of wonderment is evolving into a vacuum of angst.
"It was like... a white storm. I couldn't control it."
"It happens to everyone in different ways. Me too."
"But you're more... analytical. You'll change for the better."
A brief pang of pain flashes across Tau's eyes that is quickly drowned out by the very logic I referred to.
"You don't think I have dreams?"
"I didn't say tha-
I stop as Tau leans in towards me. She keeps leaning in, further and further. Before I know it Tau is kissing me. I'm awash with a becalming flush which is suddenly undermined by a nauseating prick in my arm.
Immediately I gasp and pull back. Looking down I see Tau has injected me with something.
"What the hell are you doing?! Are you mad?" I feel angry... yet overcome with a warm fuzzy heat at the same time - and I don't think it's the injection.
"What I am about to tell you is very important. You have to trust me. Can you do that?"
"Would've been easier if you'd asked me that before you drugged me."
"Have you heard of Organica?"
Yay! This just keeps getting betterer and betterer. Not only do I have who-knows-what coursing through my veins, now I'm being drawn into a conversation about a subject so taboo I don't think even The Mods would broach it. The incredulous cock of my brow must convey this as Tau places her finger on my lips.
"They can't get inside us right now. But we only have a short time before they'll notice the lull" Tau taps my forehead to reinforce her point. I listen. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. "There's no way I can explain it all now so I've prepared a little surprise for you."
A small globule of blood appears where the needle has punctured my skin. Tau dabs at it with some cotton.
"Tonight. When you fall asleep - prepare to be awoken."
"Right. Well, that clears things up then."
"Trust me. Can you do that?"
Suddenly I realise that yes, yes I can - possibly more than anyone right now.