The Future begins, in a story so inter-textual it's kinda funny.
*--Just so we're clear, y'all don't need to read this bit. It's the Prologue! But if you want a bit of world construction, some philosophy, me telling you I don't care if you read the story really deeply or just as a story, plus the possibility that the story you're about to read is going to end in a cop out "it was all a dream! Gotcha!", then something tells me you're gonna enjoy the Prologue.
In the void billions of stars blocked the panoramic screen of black space, mixed among clouds that lit up in webs of white, yellow, blue and red. Spiraling a massive emptiness of collapsed matter some rolled along, tailing away in thin clumps. A rock flew by. One of these stars had hundreds of rocks and a few gaseous balls orbiting it, waltzing to the unheard sound of galactic strings. Near this star one of these rocks, barren and cratered, danced with its partner. They'd dance beside each other for billions of years, yet only a hundred years had passed since the black, ever-roving vehicle had been built there.
A line between the two celestial orbs occasionally reflected white and gold back into the emptiness. Against the silhouette of the shadowed planet the silver, metallic cage was visible; slowly climbing.
The line connecting the two dancing bodies was hit by a rock then, and it snapped. The metallic bug severed itself from the line and began to fall back, slowly emitting an ever brighter red glow as it sped faster, setting atmosphere on fire. The people and supplies within would be safe, however. The bug was designed for this. It punched through clouds until the ocean was visible below. Parachutes opened, and ships were sent out to retrieve it. A new line was already being lowered from the Earth's moon, to connect with one of the dozens of city-sized boats waiting below.
The ocean sparkled gold and white off thick, blue waves. In the distance, clouds kept the sun out of view, somehow still shining just below the horizon.
On the other side of the blue-green orb the sun was at the height of its peak, however. Nothing but red dirt and sand covered that spot, and directly in the middle of this nothing was a brown mesa.
Like the rock had simply fallen out of the sky it stood alone, with shear walls and a flat top coated in jagged stone which crowned up and away from the sleek, thick glass dome as a flowers' petals curl away from their center. Puffs of dust shot out from the domes' sides, before there was a great gasp and the dust ran back. The dust blew, then gasped; blew, then gasped; like a lung the mesa's throaty breaths hurled the same particles which burned stars deep into the Community below.
A single cloud blew overhead, its massive shadow casting darkness over the mesa. It passed. A thousand beams of light broke through the dome's thick glass, reflecting in a million directions on the leathery green foliage below. A skyscraper of still wet, dripping scaffolds held up its mountain of produce and medicine. A skeleton of mirrors coated them, keeping plants many stories below soaked in sunlight, which helped them to make oxygen and sugar from the residents' waste. The sudden burst of beams shone on these and the cylindrical greenhouse walls, shining through thousands of transparent solar panels which looked into labs, apartments, and hallways.
I'm glad one of those hallways was mine.
Even behind the transparent solar panels I needed to blink and, pulling back my hand, could still see the ghost of its print in the thin sheet of wetness. Squinting, I could see one of the fish tanks through a tall window on the ground floor. As I stood there, my eyes slowly adjusting, I admired the pinks and purples the fishy scales reflected back at me in long chains of wiggling light. I didn't think about what they ate: the protein waste of bacteria that fed on their own waste. I didn't think about them eating each other's entrails like an Ouroboros.
A bee flitted across my window, landing and doing a small jig across the glass, constantly buckling its knees. I liked their honey and that they pollinized the greenhouse, but their constant civil wars bothered me. Even when one hive would win, the daughters of the victor would always be given new nests and within months they'd fight again. Still, they made good honey.
I pressed my heel into the rubbery, cushioned floor and pivoted, beginning to walk around the great cylinder towards the elevator.
I got off the elevator. Though I was almost a half hour early, most of the school was more so. Many stood in front of lecture and activity boards near the far wall, typing schedules into their devices. Others arranged to be on wait-lists for the Pods and the Personal Project rooms, and still others played at some of the dozens of cooperative or individual learning stations, using holograms and shape-shifting table-tops to create and discover. The room was lit in a kaleidoscope of blues, yellows, greens and whites on nearly an acre of red cushioned floor.
I glanced quickly over my shoulder at the camera above me, which acknowledged my face with a pleasant buzz. Turning, smiling slightly at the idea of an A.I. saying hello, I left the attendance camera behind me as I walked down the incline into the glowing, moving pit.
I approached my Pod. Half submerged in the cushioned, slightly bouncing floor, I couldn't even see the eggshell white orb until I'd maneuvered past the last of the interactive tables. I finally stepped onto my Pod, greeting the kid climbing out with a smile and an outstretched hand. When she'd left I lowered myself down feet first, finally reaching the luxurious, yet always slightly sweat coated, chair. As I situated myself, however, my head began to throb, and a few shadows of images crossed my mind.
I wish I could say they were my memories. My Dad had tried to comfort me last night by asking 'is not all that is done or seen, but a dream within a dream?' but it hadn't been enough to ease my fears of injecting the mind of another into me as I slept.
I rotated my jaw, letting the act pop open my ears and nose. Blinking, I turned on the Pod and began to play. I'd become very good at the game lately, especially in the first person games. Engrossed in the panoramic screen, I walked down the streets of an 18th century town, rendered so flawless the orange light of streetlamps seemed blend with the red-bricked townhouses and heavy darkness.
Usually I played slowly; taking hours to even walk down a street, so full were they with micro-cursors that I'd unlocked. I click on each that I could: biology, history, intertextual fiction, economics, physics; I clicked all I could, eagerly reading the encyclopedia prompts and watching small animations of system models.
Today, however, my head throbbed, and so did my eyelids. I'd unlocked enough of the subjects, formally called 'Nuclei,' to make even a single flower show off a dozen small flashing dots within it. I wanted, for the first time, to deactivate all those differently shaded micro-cursors, rotating and vibrating like annoying little stars, and just play the game. Find out about the plot, what I was doing here, what quests I needed to follow. I had that power, but remembered that there was a mini-game at the end of each level that made me debate something to ensure I'd thought 'critically' about what I'd experienced. The only evidence I could use were the entries I'd opened.
I'd just decided to turn off the micro-cursors anyways when the balls of my feet, my shoulder blades, and my stomach contracted like there was a black hole at their center. My back and neck arched, my mouth and eyes open like a gasping fish, as my new, highly concentrated memories began put me into a Recall.
*--Alright, that's the Prologue. Yadda-yadda time passes, yadda-yadda people live and die, yadda yadda you, the reader, get to see people and events which take place in an entirely different Community, somewhere else on that blue-green-white orb.
Anyways, here's the actual story.
The Community Narrative
By extending the central nervous system of each individual, and the society as a whole, communication revolutions provide an ever more inclusive playing field for empathy to mature and consciousness to expand.
--Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization
I didn't spend time with them because they were my friends--I don't even know what a 'friend' is supposed to be--I spent time with them because to not do so would be dangerous.
I looked up at the leathery, dark green foliage, and at one of the thousands of mirrors networked to let light in from above.
I sighed, looking away from the dome hundreds of feet above and away from the dozens of floors of windows circling the skyscraper of metal scaffolding coated in food and medicine bearing foliage. I looked back at the circle of 'friends.' We were sitting several floors above the ground floor on a grid of thick metal wires.
"Larry, why are we always waiting for you?"
Andrew was the most mature one in our group, and was a token symbol of leadership, of my membership to a group. He was a little more outgoing than the rest of us, and realized it only a few weeks after the storm and our parents' martyrdom.
We'd been walking down a hall, all together talking and laughing for maybe the first time since then, when he asked "why am I always in the middle when we go places?" I remember he said it with hints of a smile, like he wanted us to say what he already knew. "Am I the, what, leader?" I'd tucked my chin to my neck, afraid to say anything that might make him mad. He got mad all the time, after all.
"Sorry, sorry." I pressed a few keys on my flimsy, plastic card, and played it on the board, changing lights and making the four of them lean in closely, trying to understand what I'd done.
I looked at their faces then, lit from below by our board games' blue and green and white lights. A girl, Noam Chomsky, had short blonde hair in a ponytail. If I let her know I liked her I was afraid she'd think I was constantly thinking about her and being creepy, so I only ever talked to her if she tried to talk to me, and was never rude or funny when she did. I gazed at her straight, well washed hair.
The other boys were Carl and Peter, both Andrew's age. I'd seen them a few times in the Commons and at the school before the disaster, but I'd never known them very well. I'd played games in the Pods alone, mostly, or joined card tournaments. No one organized those anymore, though.
We played for a while, until our curfew sounded. Echoing screeching vibrated throughout the greenhouse, and we immediately grabbed our stuff and left. Already the A.I. our parents had left to guard us was waking up drones, yellow and black hovering machines armed with sonic Tasers, and was sending them to enforce its preprogrammed law.
As I walked down the metal scaffolding towards the Commons--which we'd retrofitted into sleeping quarters, I looked up one last time.
Behind one of the windows a small red haired girl stood, watching me. One hand was on the window. She was one of the refugees our parents left to make room for. She looked me in the eyes, popped up her eyebrows and quickly turned from the window. The heat of her hand left a foggy print for several moments, before it too vanished.
I slept on the cushioned ground in a cold sweat, listening to the quiet buzzing of drones high above my head. I rolled, careful not to touch Andrew or his buddies Carl and Peter.
I felt my alarm vibrate then, and like a sun turning on a buzzing, humming sensation in my lungs compelled me to stand up. Because I knew the drones were already leaving, I quickly tip-toed past the hundreds of other students so I could beat them to the Pods.
The Virtual Reality Pods created interactive worlds and were the only place I could be alone. Never for too long, of course, because the A.I. had determined too much time alone stunts growth. I'd learned that lesson two weeks ago, as my Pods' door suddenly opened and a drone buzzed a noise that shook my chest and made me gag.
I climbed in the small sphere and shut the lid.
The game I played was a futuristic space opera, and where I'd been previously I picked up, attempting to hack an A.I. and destroy its tyranny over the galaxy. Now it's obvious to me why the game appealed to me, of course, but at the time it was more unconscious, like being interested in the women in red if everyone else is wearing grey.
If I'd designed the game, my only other pass time, I'd have let the player see over the hackers' shoulder, thinking 'wow, he's skilled,' and moved them on. This game was trying to teach me philosophy, however. I had to argue my hack into existence with Utilitarianism and Existentialism, and I couldn't shut down systems. Luckily the computer was greedy, I could activate new systems, recombine ideas in novel ways and create insight circuits that, perhaps over many hours, would create a new infrastructure of thinking that led it to realize the mistake of tyranny.
"Hey Noam, where's everyone else?" A spurt of suspicion, like juice squeezed hard from a melon, told me they ditched us.
She looked up at me, twirling a grapes' vine in her hands.
"No, they're being taken somewhere. Larry." She looked at me without an expression. "They're being forced to download Narratives again."