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Rated: E · Fiction · Cultural · #2095653
The Divine Comedy meets contemporary science, culture and science fiction.
Neuroplastopia

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

Chapter 1

I didn't spend time with them because they were my friends--I didn't even know what a 'friend' was 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 internalize sunlight. Over them all was the dome, the only piece of Community-42 poking above ground. I sat in the greenhouse, a deep, cylindrical chamber thrust into the earth. It contained a skyscraper of reflective scaffolding coated in plants growing food and medicine. My circle of 'friends' and I were sitting on that tower, on a grid of metal wires one tier above the bottom floor. I felt a cool breeze and heard bees humming.
         "Larry, why are we always waiting for you?"
         Jack was the tallest of us, a token symbol of leadership; of my membership to a group. She was the most extraverted, and realized it only a few weeks after the storm forced our parents' martyrdom.
We'd been walking down a hall, all together and laughing, when she asked "why am I always in the middle when we go places?" I remember she'd said it with hints of a smile, like she wanted us to say what she already knew. "Am I the, what, leader?" I'd tucked my chin to my neck, afraid to say anything that might make her mad. She 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. It caused the boards' lights to change drastically, and the four of them leaned over, noting my strategy.
         I looked at their faces then, lit from below by the ghosts of blue and green and white neon.
The other girl, Noam Chomsky, had short blonde hair in a ponytail. I made sure she didn't notice my gaze: otherwise she'd know I liked her. If she tried to talk to me I always made sure to be neither rude nor funny.
         The others were Carl and Peter, both Jack's age. I'd seen them a few times in the Commons 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 screeches vibrated throughout the greenhouse, and we immediately grabbed our game 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 again.
         The greenhouse was armored in a panorama of transparent solar panels. Like windows, they stole light for the hundreds of rooms and hallways beyond them.
There was a boy with dreadlocks up there, one hand on his panel. He was one of the refugees our parents died to make room for. He looked me in the eyes, popped up his brows and quickly turned, moving back into the rooms the A.I. allowed for them.

***

I slept on the cushioned ground in a cold sweat, listening to the quiet humming of drones, way up in the cool, blue darkness. I rolled, careful not to touch Jack or Peter or Carl or Noam.
         I feel my alarm vibrate then, and like a sun igniting my lungs fill with buzzing, humming sensations, compelling me to sit up. Because I know the drones are already leaving, I quickly tip-toe past the hundreds of sleeping kids, winning my secret race 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 neurogenesis. I'd learned that lesson two weeks ago, as white light flooded my Pods' opening door and a drone buzzed noise which 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 my mission was to hack a tyrannical A.I., thus giving freedom to the galaxy.
Of course it's obvious to me now why the game appealed to me, but at the time it was unconscious, like noticing attractive girl's hair, but not guys.
         If I'd designed the game, I'd have let the player see over the hackers' shoulder, thinking 'wow, he's skilled,' and moved them along. This game was educational, however, and designed to teach. "Hacking" was really arguing, and I couldn't shut down the A.I.'s systems. Luckily the computer was greedy; I could activate new systems, recombine psychological, moral, and cultural ideas in novel ways, and create insight circuits that would lead it to realize the mistake of tyranny.

***

Bottle-green light shined throughout the noisy greenhouse.
"Hey Noam, where's everyone else?" A spurt of suspicion, like juice squeezed hard from a melon, told me they'd ditched.
Noam looked up at me, twirling a grapes' vine in her hands.
"No, they're being taken somewhere. Larry..." the younger girl's brows joined together as she whispered, "They're being forced to download Narratives again."

Chapter 2

We stored memory, like any dense clump of data, in synthetic DNA cylinders. I'd downloaded them all the time when my parents were alive, but the A.I., confused and scared, shut everyone out until it knew how to act.
         Looking at nothing, I remembered when the enormous storm was about to hit the nearby Pseudo-Communities. Billions, who never had the opportunity, or the qualifications, to move to the survival shelters called 'Communities,' had still been living in the desert above. Those Pseudo-Communities still needed governments and markets to mimic the sustainable ecosystem I lived in.
         The storm was about to wipe out the town just outside. While the military and some government officials had bunkers, the civilians didn't. Without options or a future, those walking corpses threatened to blow open our dome.
         My parents compromised: our population needs an exact equilibrium to remain self-sustaining, but the children could have new life is the refugees let their children replace my parents!
         I tore a grape off the vine and swallowed it whole. No one's supposed to eat them until the A.I. says so, but suddenly I didn't care.
I talked with Noam for a half hour or so, and she told me that the A.I. was starting to control language to persuade us into obedience. "They've simplified to commands like, 'You. Do this.' I'm telling you Larry; we're, like, a thread from 1984." She guessed it never mixed us with the refugees so we'd be scared of each other. I nodded, noticing for the first time that she talked a lot, and wondering if she'd ever stop.
Back then I was rude: a jerk.

***

Eventually I went back to the Commons. The cushioned recreation center was empty, except for a crowd gathering like ants around monitors near its center. Jack Ayn Ryan was in that swarm. I jogged to her, shoulders hunched and bobbing, before asking what was happening.
She snorted, looking down at me from the corner of her mouth. Then she grinned, showing teeth. "Didn't ya hear? I guess some of us are 'mature' enough to be in charge, so the A.I. turned the Geth Consensus back on.
"Oh my God!" The Geth Consensus was the closest thing to a government our parents had had: a massive computer program of journals, data and nexus points connected by predictive theories. Everyone contributed to it, battling in anonymous debates like mini-games. My parents sacrificial decision had been made on the Geth Consensus, and they'd trusted it enough that they followed without hesitation.
That's not true, actually. They were barely controlling their tears as they put me on an elevator down here.
No one was allowed onto it unless they participated in the Eywa Narrative, of course, and I realized where Jack had been earlier that day.
"Oh my God! So, you and Carl and Peter, you shared each other's..."
She waved a hand. "We only did one days' worth of memories, but it was plenty." She glared at me a second, then looked past me at someone. I turned, and saw Peter glaring too, before his eyes met mine and he turned. I looked back at Jack, who told me, "It's gotta happen every day, though, and with the dozen other kids it trusts."
"Well... how was it? How do you feel?"
She snorted. "A big friggin mess. I decided about five minutes ago--do you know what 'dope' is?"
"A drug?"
"No--yes, but no--it's the chemical that makes ya wanna to do stuff, and I'm gonna let mine work with the drop of freedom I was able to squeeze outta that friggin A.I. " Jack had clenched one hand into a fist. "I'm gonna follow my dope system--and I hope you do too, man--but right now my dope system is telling me to do stuff that, frankly, doesn't include you."
"What?"
"Come on man, if you're anything like Carl or Peter, your dope system doesn't wanna be here either." She began walking backward, away from me, into the continuously growing crowd. I noticed how high and strong her cheekbones were. "But hey, maybe someday our dope systems will match up again. See ya."
She turned completely, walking with heavy steps. I spent a while trying to find something to do, and even asked someone I barely knew.
"Hey Bartleby, wanna play cards or something?"
"Sorry, but I'd prefer not to."
It seemed that everyone was just doing what they wanted, so I decided to go along. I didn't feel like eating a ton of grapes, but the only thing stopping me before had been the A.I., and now the only reason I'd had for saying 'no' was gone.

***

A month went by as I did the things I wanted to, like eating alone and programming games. My favorite had lots of betrayals and shootings and explosions and fast moving vehicles and even magic. Others often beat me to the Pods, however, and I'd spend the day walking in the greenhouse. Aside from Jonathan Trent, who still liked harvesting oil from the algae tanks, that chamber was nearly empty.
The A.I. tried to fulfill its programming by keeping us organized and social, but every day our parents' code gave more kids rights to the Consensus. The more power they were given, the more power they took, and soon its only power was preventing murder.

***

Walking along a scaffold, I saw someone I recognized. Colors had been looking like shades of grey lately, but the foliage seemed bright green again. A drone hummed over my head, however, making a beeline for Peter.
"Peter. Follow me."
He raised his brows, but did so. The drone buzzed in front of my face too, before growling, "Lawrence."
"Yes?"
"Follow me."
I followed the drone into a room below the Commons, where people sat under massive black helmets. Their arms were taut, occasionally shaking, and I saw enormous paragraphs of code flying down screens behind them. I'd followed the drone not because I was afraid, but because I wanted to know what the Eywa Narrative would be like.

Chapter 3

Most of the Narratives I'd experienced as a kid, Episodic Memories connected by themes and plot like grapes by a vine, were of a single person; usually someone famously intelligent or brave. The Eywa Narrative spliced hundreds of minds together, however.
It felt like crouching in a room where people's thoughts, emotions, and shiny, smelly, itchy senses were the shrill, echoing conversation of a party in my basement. I pressed one ear to that metaphorical floor.
At first shocked by how little any of my friends thought about me, I found refuge in the realization that we all grieved over our parents. They grieved in different ways, even in their own minds, but that commonality was enough for me.
         We got together for another game of cards one day.

***

Jack was getting angry again.
"No, that's against the rules, Peter. You aren't allowed to play that card until my turn is over!"
Peter had raised eyebrows and a finger on his chin. "You put your card down. It was over."
Jack snorted, looking us all in the eyes. No one said a word, and the others looked away. She said, "I hope you don't just hear me getting loud and think 'there she goes again.'"
Water, in a thin sheet, clung to my neck. The fan at this level had broken, and everyone playing on the third tier was sweating. I frowned and thought to myself, "Look, it's not that I think that of you, it's just... this is a misunderstanding, and I can't add to the conversation."
It didn't occur to me to say it, though. The one thing that did, however, was that tonight Eywa would be incredibly interesting; that Jack would soon see why she shouldn't get angry; that Peter would soon know not to laugh.
Peter laughed. Jack looked at him with a tear forming in her eye, before standing. I saw her shoulders flex, strong and broad.
"Peter, you're a friggin jerk. Larry, thank you for at least making eye contact with me, it's good to know there's something that resembles respect around here."
I was glad she complimented me, and smiled.
"Carl, get some personality, you're friggin boring. Noam, thanks for waiting until later to cry." Jack's shoulder twitched, reacting to her own words. She twisted and shuffled down the scaffolds, scratching one ear.
I looked at Noam, who was expressionless and looking up at the panorama of windows above and around us. I remembered learning--through Eywa--that she'd been dealing with depression for years, and that losing her parents had made it much worse.

***

Memory isn't like data on a computer, but like wet clay our surroundings and internal experiences mold: without taking the time to shape and bake that clay, it collapses into mud. I hadn't discovered an oven in which to cook my memories, so soon that quagmire of slimy sand was growing so fast that I could only keep sane by actively erasing things too complicated to fix. Noam's depression was one of those things.
I still liked spending time with her and Carl, though.
I loved listening to them think about me; every compliment was a treat, and every insult a depressant. Unfortunately, my name was usually connected to the word "fine." Noam knew I liked her, for example, but liked Carl better. She'd consoled my mind by calling my crush "fine."
"Fine?" I roll my neck. "I want to be important to her: to them."

***

"Peter lied!"
         "What?"
         "Listen Larry," Jack was grinning and looking me directly in the eyes. "I paid attention last night, and he knew I was right!"
         I leaned against one of the windows we were near, arms crossed, before I looked about the greenhouse. Dozens of kids were huddled in groups, playing cards or just talking. There had been a lot more smiling lately, and they didn't seem to mind sweating. I looked back at Jack and said, "Are you going to talk to him about it, or..."
         "No, listen." she took a step closer to me. "It's not just that I shouldn't have lost, it's what I found while finding it. Peter's doing what that superspy, Atton Rand, did to hide government secrets: he's constantly doing math and memorizing patterns; he's making a firewall of emotionless gibberish to keep people from going deep. He's planning something!"
         I smiled. I was glad Jack came to me to conspire, but her suspiciousness was nearly identical to her father Andrew's. "It wouldn't surprise me. Peter's rude: a jerk. But how you gonna hack the 'firewall?'
         Jack smiled. She gathered a group of four or five other kids together and found Peter Wiggin using one of the restrooms. His dry flush toilet sucked urine, now a liquid fertilizer, and dripped it with water from our aquifer or the rain up into plants' pots.
Peter turns around, eyes springing wide. Jack moves toward him fast, and I join her with the others. Andrew's daughter punches Peter in the gut, who sputters out, "you bugger, what do you," before she punches him again and she screams "I know you're a liar! Who do you think you are? What crippled world are you trying to suck me into?" Peter's on the ground now, and she kicks him. I just stand behind them, watching.
         She'd been so fast that I would've laughed, had Peter not been tearing up, looking cross eyed at his nose. Jack's neck was twitching, trying to move her face away from the grunting mess in front of her.

***

It was several hours until Eywa finally began.
I found Peter's mind and followed it through the cloud of clear, softly whispering noise. I'd never done that before; I'd normally let everyone's minds flow in and out of my awareness like mist through my fingers. That mist was growing easier to understand, however, like its gases were condensing into snowflakes I could actually touch.
Jack had been right: Peter's flakes were gibberish, numbers and patterns running on and on; until he flushed the toilet and turned.

I turn around and see Jack and Larry with others. ["I knew she was suspicious. I hope she doesn't think she'll intimidate me, the A.I. will--"] <<Whoa!>> I'm doubled over, gagging.
Jack's glaring down at me. {I remember that everything I think, especially while experiencing interesting, emotional situations, will be easy for them to find.} ["Don't think about trying to sabotage to the Eywa Narra--"] <<Shit! Shut up!>>
I croak, "You bugger, what do you--"
Jack's fist is flying towards me. [I foresee its impact] <<<Run!>>> An enormous pressure thrusts me several feet back.
I'm sprawled and being kicked.
{I remember walking along the greenhouse scaffolds late at night, under the blue-white moonlight, planning to hack a small piece of code in Eywa's compiling program. I'll make them believe that my imagination is one of their own memories. I leap and laugh as I imagine, from their perspective, that I'm a gorgeous leader. I imagine myself in their shoes, wanting to kiss the floor I walk in humble loyalty to my power.}
<<<Damn it!>>>
I look up at Jack, whose shoulders and neck are twitching neurotically. I see Larry, whose hair, midnight-black, is ruffled. He's looking over Jack's shoulder with wide eyes and bouncing brows.
I'm coughing and staring at my nose. ["5 and 5 make 25, 6 and 6 make 36, but 5 and 6 only..."]


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